Friday, July 25, 2014


by Bryan Lee O'Malley (with assistance by Jason Fischer)

One of the most highly anticipated new graphic novels of the last few years, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, has finally arrived, four years after he finished his classic Scott Pilgrim series.  As with many writers, recording artists, or directors who have a giant hit on their hands, I'm sure O'Malley felt a lot of pressure to satisfy his fans and meet or exceed expectations.

Seconds is definitely an interesting book, and while reading it, I was most curious to see how much O'Malley switched up his approach to story-telling.

The book is about Katie, a successful chef who, at twenty-nine, is beginning to worry about where she is in life, in terms of controlling her own career, finding love, and living a life that really gives her what she wants.  She's reached a certain degree of fame in her city for her cooking at Seconds, a lovely restaurant situated on a hill overlooking the town, with exposed rafters and a warm fireplace.  She lives above the restaurant in an attic apartment, but she does not own the business, and at the point where the book opens, doesn't even actually work there anymore, despite the fact that she spends most of her nights in the dining room or in the kitchen.

Instead, Katie has taken a big gamble, and has, with a very positive business partner, purchased a run-down building on the wrong side of a river that runs through her town, which she is slowly having renovated so she can open Katie's, her own place where she does things her way.

You would think that she'd be happy, but Katie is a lonely wreck.  The appearance of Max, her ex, at the restaurant one night sends her into a spin, and she ends up making out with Andrew, her replacement chef, in the walk-in.  While they are off doing their thing, Hazel, a waifish young waitress, gets injured in the kitchen, and Katie feels terribly responsible.

Later that night, Katie has a strange dream where a spectral young woman comes to her and gives her a box that contains a notebook and a strange red-capped mushroom.  There is an instruction card the explains that if Katie writes down what she regrets, then eats the mushroom and goes to sleep, things will be better in the morning.  The next day, Hazel is not injured, and Andrew has no memory of anything special happening between he and Katie.  Basically, the day had been re-written, and only Katie had any memory of what had happened.

From there, Katie discovers a stash of these special mushrooms growing under a floorboard, and goes on a bit of a spree, rewriting days to try to fit with how she wishes they'd gone, and eventually graduating to using the mushrooms to revive her relationship with Max, and to correct errors she made in choosing the site of her new restaurant.  As the story unfolds, Katie begins to regret fixing her regrets more than she does the original mistakes.

O'Malley plays with the concept of 'house spirits' here, and as Hazel and Katie become closer, they work out just who the woman that Katie keeps seeing on her dresser really is.  These aspects of the story reminded me of Latin American magical realism, as concepts like house spirits and magic mushrooms are just a readily-accepted part of O'Malley's otherwise very normal comic book world.  I'd say that the conceit works very well, although as the book reached its climax, which involves a second house spirit, I found myself wanting to get back to the more everyday aspects of the story.

I think that this book is a worthy successor to Scott Pilgrim.  Katie is older than Scott's crew, although to be honest, reading about the midlife-like crisis of somebody who is not yet thirty is kind of irritating for someone who crossed that divide a ways back.  The waitresses, who are invariably pretty and are identified by their proximity to being twenty-one, could probably have hung out with Scott, but with the exception of Hazel, they aren't all that important to the book.

O'Malley's style of cartooning has not changed very much, although the colours of Nathan Fairbairn do add a necessary dimension that makes the book feel more mature than the Pilgrim books.  While embracing magical realism, and still using some classic manga tropes (like the teardrops that appear on the side or back of characters' heads when they feel stressed), O'Malley has abandoned the video game in-jokes that filled the visuals of Scott Pilgrim, again making this feel like a much more mature piece of work.

One thing that I loved about Pilgrim that is missing here is the clear sense of place.  We don't know what town Katie lives in, and the city feels like it's not a part of the story at all.  When we see outside shots of Seconds, it looks like it's in the countryside, and we barely see cars parked outside, even when the dining room is packed.  Perhaps its just because Scott Pilgrim was set in Toronto, and made such great use of iconic locations that have meant something to me personally (the Reference Library, Honest Ed's, and Lee's Palace in particular) that I identified so much more strongly with it, but I missed that aspect of this story.

I think that with this book, O'Malley has proven that he is not a 'one-hit wonder' creator, but is instead a strong cartoonist, with a knack for creating endearing characters and situations.  We've all wished we could go back and undo mistakes we've made or things we've said, and in this book, he taps into that feeling very well, while showing us why an easy fix is never the right answer. Sure there are times when I started to feel that the book was a little too precious, but overall, I really enjoyed reading this book.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Crossed Vol. 1

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Jacen Burrows

I'm always wary of Garth Ennis's Avatar work, as when he works for that company, he tends to indulge the aspects of his writing that I like the least, but at the same time, it was well past time that I checked out his Crossed, as it's become that company's tent-pole title.

The concept behind Crossed is a pretty simple riff on the usual zombie apocalypse scenario, only in this book, the infected don't become mindless, instead they become incredibly depraved and simplistic, indulging in their most base instincts and desires.  The book begins in a small-town diner, when the first of the infected show up causing mayhem.  A small group of people make their way out of town, meet up with some other folk, and lose many along the way, as they decide to try to make their way to Alaska, where the low population density should provide them with some safety (although, really, Montana would have been a lot closer).

Stan is our narrator.  He's a nice guy who had lived a pretty quiet life before everything fell apart, and he only survived because of Cindy, a waitress and single mother who has the Rick Grimes role in this story.  She's a very tough woman, determined to keep her son safe and to raise him properly, and it is her steely determination that keeps everyone alive.  As the group moves north, they come across a group of Crossed (the name for the infected) that have evolved a little, capable of organizing, and following the group through the Rocky Mountains.

Ennis fills the book with enough gross-out scenes of mass rape, dismemberment, and bludgeoning with a certain large part of a horse's anatomy to remind me of why I don't often read his non-war comics (artist Jacen Burrows seems more than up for the task), and often his characterizations feel a little too simplistic.  We keep being told that Cindy's son is a terrific kid, but he barely has any dialogue, and there is only one scene in the ten issues collected here where he does something nice for another person.  In another scene that almost becomes touching, an old man reveals some secrets about himself that go way over the top.

In all, I did enjoy this book, and it has some very good moments.  I especially liked the scenes in a downed military helicopter (furthering the argument that Ennis can really only write soldiers convincingly), but the book is pretty nasty a lot of the time.  Burrows is the artist that all other Avatar artists are expected emulate, and that makes things look pretty standard.

I'm wondering which of the other Crossed books are worth checking out.  I know that David Lapham and Jamie Delano have written for the franchise, and that interests me.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Old City Blues

by Giannis Milonogiannis

I've liked Giannis Milonogiannis's work on Brandon Graham's Prophet, so I thought it might be time to check out his web-comic turned graphic novel Old City Blues.

This book is set in New Athens in 2048, after a flood wiped out much of Greece, and the country (except for the walled off Old City) was rebuilt with the help of the Japanese Hayashi Corporation.  This is a police comic, centred on Detective Solano, who has been investigating a string of strange and seemingly connected murders.  They escalate to the point where Mr. Hayashi himself is the target, although a string of clues suggest that it was Hayashi's own company that did him in.

This book is a love letter to manga, and so cops use 'mobile guns', which are armoured suits that can fly above the city tracking criminals.  We also have cybernetically enhanced humans, and advanced cars and things like that.  I can see why Milonogiannis was tapped to work on Prophet, as there is a similar visual aesthetic, although his work is rougher here than it appears these days.

Milonogiannis uses a lot of speed lines and rough figures to add excitement and kinetic energy to his story.  There is minimal character development, and the plot rolls out along somewhat predictable lines.  At the same time, there is a level of enthusiasm about this work that is pretty infectious.  I see that Archaia has recently released a second volume; I definitely enjoyed this one enough to want to read the new one.  I'd be curious to see how Milonogiannis has grown as a writer after working with Graham and his crew for the last couple of years.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama

Written by Eric Hobbs
Art by Noel Tuazon

We all know that as the boomer population ages, senility and dementia are going to be a growing problem, involving a lot more health care, and putting a lot of stress on families.  I suppose it also makes sense that more and more popular fiction will also explore the phenomenon, and it looks like Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon are working to get ahead of the pack with Family Ties, their mobster story that deals with the issue.

Jackie Giovanni and his associates made the trek up to Anchorage Alaska at a time when the entire state was ripe for the organized crime picking.  They built an empire for themselves, but now Jackie is starting to lose his grip on reality.  When the book opens, one of his two daughters, who have been taking on a bigger slice of the family business, has to deal with a drug dealer who used Jackie's senility against him in negotiating very favourable terms for himself and his dealers.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Jackie's two daughters have their eyes on a lot more than the slow transference of power from their father.  Their younger brother, Cain, has no interest in taking on any of the business, and is more interested in getting their father medical help.  Toss into this volatile mix a recently found bastard son of one of Jackie's closest associates, who has his own designs on how to achieve power, and we get a pretty big mess.

Hobbs's writing is pretty intelligent.  He leaves a lot for the reader to deduce, and that works (even if I sometimes had to flip back a few pages to remind myself how some characters were related to each other).  Tuazon is a very interesting artist.  I've enjoyed his work for a while now, but can see that he would not be for everyone.  He is a very minimalist artist, reducing faces and scenes to a high degree of abstraction, but then also covering the page with a lot of messy lines or blocks of shading that don't exactly fit within the shapes they are tinting.  It can make reading one of his pages a bit of a challenge, especially since some characters aren't as unique as others in their appearance, but at the same time, I enjoy the individuality of his work.

This graphic novel is a very solid read, and worth checking out.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Avengers: Endless Wartime

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Mike McKone

It's a shame that this original graphic novel, Avengers: Endless Wartime, wasn't published when the Avengers movie was released, as I think it's exactly the type of book that the Marvel bigwigs would like to be able to put into the hands of the supposed droves of new readers who come into comic stores when a comic movie comes out.

Basically, Warren Ellis takes the hundred-odd pages in this book to distill the Avengers into a hybrid of the film and comics versions.  He works with a larger cast than the movie, including Captain Marvel and Wolverine, but keeps the Whedon-esque kidding, especially where Hawkeye and Iron Man are concerned.

The plot for this book is pretty basic.  A new mildly intelligent drone is being used by military contractors in a civil war taking place in a small fictionalized country bordering Afghanistan and Iran.  These drones are connected to a mission that Captain America ran in the Second World War, but also have a connection to Thor.  When Cap learns of these new weapons, he goes to investigate, and essentially gets his team involved in American foreign policy and puts them at odds with SHIELD, although that isn't really treated as a big deal.

Ellis gets superhero comics on a level that few writers do.  He has a knack for getting right to the central concepts of characters and power sets, and then tries to make them fit in our real world.  His Cap is still having trouble adjusting to living in the modern world, just as his Bruce Banner is still wracked by the guilt caused by his other self's actions.

Most of this book is given over to getting the team ready for action, as Ellis approaches this like he would a blockbuster movie, portioning out the big screen action scenes so as not to over-excite the reader.

Mike McKone is a very good choice for the art here.  He's always been a very strong character artist, expressing a variety of emotions easily and effectively, but also able to really throw down in the action scenes.  I never really understood the design of the creatures the Avengers are fighting, but otherwise this is a very nice looking book, and a great gateway into the confusing world of 15+ Avengers titles that Marvel currently publishes.