Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939

by Shigeru Mizuki

I really don't know a lot about Japanese history, and since I liked Shigeru Mizuki's Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, his account of his own involvement in the Second World War, I thought it would be interesting to read his broader take on the country's history.

Showa is a multi-volume look into the era that began when Emperor Hirohito took the throne.  This also coincided, roughly, with Mizuki's birth.  The first volume of this series covers the start of the era through to the Second World War, and this was a time of great turmoil throughout Japan.

A devastating earthquake created economic instability, which was made worse by the Great Depression.  Following that, a number of 'incidents' in China, and a shocking level of independence in the military, plunged Japan into many years of militaristic expansion into other countries, notably Korea and China.

The larger history of the country is told a variety of ways.  We get straight narration, we sit in on discussions among regular men on the street, and are directly told what's going on by Nezumi Otoko, a magical character from Mizuki's other work.  These sections of the book are interesting, but often became a string of names and faces to me.

Of more interest were the sections that juxtaposed Mizuki's own life with the events of the time.  We see young Shigeru move from being a small child through to his early adulthood.  This provides some context to the larger events, and remind us that at every point of history where major events have happened, there have been people just going about their day.

This is a hugely ambitious project from a much-loved cartoonist who sadly passed away this year.  I look forward to reading the rest of this.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ciudad

Written by Ande Parks
From a story by Ande Parks, Joe Russo, and Anthony Russo
Art by Fernando León González

Oni Press consistently puts out some very beautifully-designed and well-written hardcover graphic novels.  Seeing that this was published by them (and was clearly not a kids or YA-oriented book) was enough to get me to want to glance through it.  Recognizing Ande Park's name on the cover, the writer of the excellent Capote in Kansas, was enough to make me want to buy it.

Ciudad is a story about an American mercenary who is hired to rescue a Brazilian drug lord's daughter from kidnappers.  They have taken her to Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan border town known for its open border and access to just about any kind of trade you can imagine.  The American, who goes by many names, gets her out of captivity in the first few pages of the book (the backstory is filled in as we go), and together they find themselves running a gauntlet of shady people, from police, the drug lord's people, and others who want them dead or at their disposal.

The Russo brothers, who came up with the story alongside Parks, are filmmakers, and that blockbuster energy is clear on just about every page of this book.  Like many comics, I feel like this might have been made as a prelude to trying to make a movie, and so things rarely slow down for more than a page at a time.  Parks paces the story well.

The art, by Fernando León González, is nice but a little stiff.  Too many of the action sequences became confusing, when González had to fit multiple vehicles or people into panels that are a little too small.  His work is fine, but something more dynamic might have helped propel the story better.

Still, if you're looking for a solid adventure read, you will be happy with this fine graphic novel.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo

There is often a paint-by-numbers quality to Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics.  In recent years, he's tried to stretch the character into new territory by killing him and dumping him in Hell, but the stories are much the same as they were before.  He's also started exploring Hellboy's earlier years a little more, and to me, that's been a more interesting and successful endeavour.

The Midnight Circus is a one-off hardcover graphic novel that came out in 2013 and features art by the amazing Duncan Fegredo.  The story is pretty straight-forward - young Hellboy sneaks out of the BPRD offices one night to try smoking, and ends up visiting a strange circus.

Mignola does not push this into any new directions.  The person running the circus is a demon or something, and is interested in testing the lad, while the woman with him wants to try to kill Hellboy, fearing his prophesied future.

While the story is nothing special, the art is very nice.  Fegredo is always good, and colourist Dave Stewart really knows how to bring out his better qualities.  I like the way the colours help separate the circus-world scenes from the rest of the book.

This is a very quick read, but it's still a decent comic.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fairest In All The Land

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Chrissie Zullo, Karl Kerschl, Renae De Liz, Ray Dillon, Fiona Meng, Mark Buckingham, Phil Noto, Meghan Hetrick, Russ Braun, Tony Akins, Gene Ha, Tula Lotay, Marley Zarcone, Ming Doyle, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Nimit Malavia, Dean Ormston, Kurt Huggins, Adam Hughes, Al Davison, Shawn McManus, Inaki Miranda, and Kevin Maguire

I'd gotten pretty bored of Fables and its related properties, but with this hardcover, featuring work by a number of fantastic artists, but telling one complete story from beginning to end, my appreciation of Bill Willingham's work with these characters was restored.

Fairest: In All the Land is a terrific murder mystery that begins in the lost Business Office, and is narrated by the Magic Mirror.  Our narrator is also a participant in the story, as he realizes that a visitor has come into the office, a space that has been set dimensionally adrift, and has been cut off from the other Fables for a long time.  Shortly after this, beautiful Fables, starting with Rose Red, are being murdered.  A list of intended victims is found, and Cinderella is pressed into solving the murders.

Cindy's skills lean more towards espionage than detective work, and so it takes her a while to figure things out.  The Mirror has an idea of what's going on, but isn't able to communicate with anyone, trapped as he is.

This story ranges across the history of Fabletown, and involves a number of supporting characters showing up for a bit to play their part.  I'm not sure that someone new to Fables would get a lot out of this, but for a long-time, lapsed, reader, it was a treat.

Willingham was assisted by a remarkable list of artists.  I'm not sure what I found more exciting - to see up and comers like Tula Lotay, Ming Doyle, and Marley Zarcone represented, or to see actual interiors by Adam Hughes.  There are a few artists here who are unfamiliar to me, which is also pretty exciting, as the art is consistently great throughout this book.

Having finished this, the only Fables left for me to read is the last volume; I'm going to have to get around to that some time soon.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

We Can Never Go Home

Written by Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlow
Art by Josh Hood and Brian Level

Black Mask has done it again with this excellent collection of We Can Never Go Home, a miniseries that was sold out long before it found its way onto my radar.

Madison is a very unique high school student.  In addition to being a straight-A student and the only Asian girl in her community, she has various abilities that kick in when she is stressed out.  Duncan is a typical misfit who likes to play with guns and doesn't have any friends.  He claims that he also has abilities - he killed his mother with his mind, but has not used these powers since.

The two teenagers get to know each other after Duncan interrupts Madison's boyfriend from getting a little too grabby at a popular makeout spot.  They sort of become friends, and when Madison rescues Duncan from a beat-down by his father, they have no choice but to go on the run together.

As the story unfolds, they attempt to rob a local drug dealer, and end up committing a murder.  Now, they are being pursued by the FBI (who already appear to know about Maddie's powers) and by the drug lord they robbed, who also has powered individuals in his employ.

The story, as written by Rosenberg and Kindlow, is very strong in terms of character development and their relationship with one another.  Both characters feel real, as do their reactions to things.  It's interesting to watch them get closer to each other.  The art, by Hood and Level, is pretty good, in a standard indie kind of way.  It definitely told the story well, and sometimes used some very interesting layout designs.  The general design of this book is phenomenal.

I've decided that it's past time to pay a lot more attention to everything that Black Mask puts out; they've definitely come out of nowhere to be a major company to keep an eye on.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Space Riders Vol. 1

Written by Fabian Rangel Jr.
Art by Alexis Ziritt

Basically, Space Riders is everything I'd hoped that the recent Dynamite version of Jack Kirby's Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers was going to be.  Fabian Rangel Jr. and Alexis Ziritt have channelled Kirby during a particularly productive ayahuasca session, and have come up with this wonderful comic.

The Space Riders are a strange trio who fly around the galaxy in their skull-shaped space ship, looking to dispense justice as it's needed.  The leader of the trio, Capitan Peligro has just returned to the service, and has to prove himself after a disgrace a year before.  He's joined by Mono, an alien mandrill, and Yara, a robot.

As they go about their psychedelic adventures, they rescue a space whale, fight a large group of robots, and end up squaring off against Hammerhead, the Capitan's former best friend who betrayed him and plucked out his eye.

On one level, this is pretty standard space comics stuff, with more than a little flavouring from Joe Casey's Gødland, but Ziritt's fantastically crazy art really elevates the material.  Many of these cosmic style books get boring quickly, but that's not an issue here at all.  This is another example of how Black Mask Comics are sometimes hitting it out of the park with their more unconventional titles.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sullivan's Sluggers

Written by Mark Andrew Smith
Art by James Stokoe

Sullivan's Sluggers is a very enjoyable oversized graphic novel, with amazing artwork by James Stokoe.  I'd like to focus on that in writing about it, but it's important to point out that this book became the poster child for caution when dealing with Kickstarter, and that writer and owner Mark Andrew Smith really did not make himself a lot of friends while preparing this book.  I don't want to go into it here - you can google it and learn the whole thing, I'm sure.

The book, read outside of the context of its production woes, is very good.  The Sluggers are a team of washed-up baseball players (and one plucky rookie) who travel from town to town to play in exhibition games.  They are  a rough bunch.  Their coach has rage issues, and most of them drink or do drugs.

They accept a job in the town of Malice, and all is going well until the sun sets, and we learn that everyone in town turns into gigantic monsters that like to eat people.  From there, we fall pretty quickly into Walking Dead territory, only with massive monsters.  There is a backstory to the town, and that keeps the story interesting.

What makes this book so great is Stokoe's art.  That would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work, but there are still many pages that impressed me (to say nothing of the fold-out page).  He's the reason why I wanted to read this book, although I did like the story, and really enjoyed the high-quality production values.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meteor Men

Written by Jeff Parker
Art by Sandy Jarrell

I assumed that it was very likely that I would enjoy a graphic novel written by Jeff Parker, but I still came away from Meteor Men pleasantly surprised.

This OGN, beautifully illlustrated by Sandy Jarrell and coloured by Kevin Volo, is mostly set on a farm outside of a fair-sized town.  Alden Baylor is the teenage owner of the farm, inheriting it after his parents died.  He lives there with his uncle, and sometimes his uncle's friend (I like how Parker never quite nailed down the specifics of the relationship there), who is also an astronomer.

The book opens on the night that a comet is set to pass over the town, and Alden has invited anyone who wants to to sit out on his property to watch the show.  Everyone is a little surprised to see larger meteors crossing the night sky, and are even more surprised when one lands on the property.  It looks like a hollow shell that has split open.

Soon, Alden starts to see a strange-looking humanoid figure on his property, at the same time that we learn that hundreds of these meteors made it to Earth.  Eventually, as things get weirder, Alden, the adults around him, and the entire world realize that they have been visited by creatures from another world, although Alden sees their intent differently from the military or world leaders.

Parker has created an interesting character in Alden.  He's wise beyond his years, and a very capable teenager, but also very much a regular kid.  As things get stranger around him, his vision might be the only thing that can save people.

I liked this book a lot.  Jarrell's art, mixed with Volo's colours, looks terrific.  This book feels very much like a collaboration between people who have been working together for a long time, and much like Parker's series Underground, the story keeps you enchanted throughout.  This book didn't get a lot of press when it came out, but it deserves more recognition.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Richard Stark's Parker Book Four: Slayground

Written by Donald Westlake
Adapted by Darwyn Cooke

The latest of Darwyn Cooke's Parker books, Slayground, is immediately gripping, but is also the slightest entry in the series so far.

Parker, the master criminal, has participated in the heist of an armoured car in Buffalo in winter, but things went bad when his driver ended up flipping their getaway car.  Hurt, Parker runs with the loot, and takes shelter in Fun Island, an amusement park that has been closed for the winter.

He hasn't gotten into the place unobserved though, as a pair of crooked cops and their criminal accomplices see him get into grounds of the park, and more importantly, see him with a large bag of cash.  Once they learn about the heist, they decide to go in to Funland and help themselves to Parker's score.

Parker has some time to prepare for them though, and we sit back and watch him go about his business.

This set-up gives Cooke a lot of opportunity to do some cool things with the visuals in this book.  There is a fold-out map of Funland, and Cooke uses a number of interesting layouts, as Parker runs around setting up traps.

Cooke's retro-stylings always make his Parker books a treat.  We really don't know Parker as a character (and I have no reason to believe you learn more about him from reading Westlake's original novels), but he works well as a cipher in these kinds of situations.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Two Brothers

by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, based on the work of Milton Hatoum

Brazilian cartoonists Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are two of my favourite people working in comics.  Their work with writers like Matt Fraction, Joss Whedon, Gerard Way, and Mike Mignola has always impressed me, and their Daytripper is one of my favourite series of all time.  I was very excited to get my hands on this new graphic novel, Two Brothers, based on a novel by the Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum.

This book tells the story of a Lebanese family that lived in Manaus, Brazil, after the Second World War.  Halim and Zana have three children: their daughter Rânia, and twin sons, Omar and Yakub.  They live with Domingas, an indigenous orphan they took in to work as a servant, and eventually, with her son Nael, who is the narrator of this book.

The two sons started fighting at an early age, and when Yakub made a move on a girl that both boys were interested in, Omar slashed his face, scarring him forever.  After this, Halim contrived to send Yakub to live and attend school in Lebanon.  It was supposed to be both boys who left, but Zana always favoured Omar, and kept him at home.

This made the rifts in the family unbridgeable, and after he returned to Brazil, Yakub stayed distant, and the conflict between the brothers continued to grow.  We follow this family over decades, as everyone except Omar, who remained a perpetual and unrepentant adolescent, grows older and settles into the lives that their choices have afforded them.

Moon and Bá do an amazing job of capturing the drama within this family, as well as the group's shifting fortunes.  We see a grand family decay much as the house around them does, just as the country goes through a series of repressive coups and militaristic crackdowns.  Floating slums are demolished, as are Zana's dreams for her children, especially her beloved caçula (youngest son).

Having not read Hatoum's novel, I have no idea how closely the brothers chose to stick to his plot, or if they restructured the story.  I am, as always, impressed by the way they seamlessly work together to craft a deeply affecting and moving story.

It's hard, when reading this book, to not wonder at the conversations the twin creators must have had, as twin brothers telling a story about twin brothers.  Where Bá and Moon collaborate constantly, Omar and Yakub cannot even be in the same room without resorting to violence, and that makes me wonder how many old arguments were dredged up in the crafting of this book.

I'm tempted to seek out a copy of Hatoum's novel, just to see how much of themselves Bá and Moon put into their adaptation.  It would also give me a good excuse to reread this book, which I'm tempted to do even though I just finished it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Escapo

by Paul Pope

Paul Pope is not a very prolific cartoonist, and I find that there are often more older pieces by him that I wasn't aware of that keep resurfacing or showing up almost at random.  Escapo, the 2014 book published by Z2, collects two short stories from the 90s, and gives them the deluxe treatment, with colours by Shay Plummer, in a nice hardcover volume.

Escapo is an escape artist who works in a travelling circus.  He has feelings for an acrobat, has a bit of a facial deformity or wound, and some self-doubt.

In one story, he tries to get with the acrobat, and in the other, he ends up making a deal with the devil when it looks like he might not be able to escape from a water-filled deathtrap.

There's not a lot of story here, but there is a great deal of big, exciting Paul Pope pages, and that's what I bought this book for.  Pope is a dynamic and exciting cartoonist, and this is a very cool looking book.  I'm not sure it would be worth the cover price of $25, but I paid less than half of that, so it's all good.

I do wish we would see more work from this amazing artist.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Doomsday.1

by John Byrne

Like any comics reader about my age, I have been a big fan of John Bryne's work over the years, although that has not always translated into my enjoying his more current work.

Doomsday.1 was a four-issue miniseries published by IDW a few years ago.  It stars a group who were on the International Space Station when a massive solar flare erupted, sending a ball of plasma larger than the Earth crashing into our home, burning and destroying much of the planet.  Our main characters managed to avoid the destruction, and make their way to the planet, where they spend the rest of the series trying to put together a new life.

The concept is a good one, and Byrne has taken some pains to try to keep his story within the confines of what would have most likely happened, but he's chosen to structure the story rather strangely.  Each issue after the first one features the dwindling group of survivors through some episodic adventures.

In Texas, they come across some prisoners who have taken over a penitentiary.  In New York, they find rats and badly burned people.  In Brazil, they find a wild tribe of indigenous people, who are being led by an English-speaking Dutchman.  This issue is pretty unfortunate on a whole lot of levels, the most egregious being the overly stereotypical portrayal of the tribe.

I wonder if Byrne had perhaps intended for this to be a much longer-running series, and then just decided to focus on a few chapters, but the jumping forward in time, and the way in which characters are introduced and then abandoned (like the Cuban kid the group rescued in Miami and took with them to New York, who was never seen again).  There is little in the way of sustained character development, although I did like the fact that Richard Branson was used as a model for one character.

This is not Byrne at his best.  His Cold War series at IDW was a better read, but there is something that I will always find comforting about reading pages of his art.  He still draws the most recognizable rubble in comics.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Grendel: Devil's Legacy

Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Arnold Pander, Jacob Pander, Jay Geldhof, and Rich Rankin

I really wish I'd taken the time to track down issues of Grendel and read the classic series in order years ago.  Instead, my approach has always been piecemeal - an issue here, an issue there, and I extended that into my reading of the trades.  At this point, I know I've read way more than I haven't, so I don't see the need to invest in the omnibi that Dark Horse has released, although it would be nice to revisit the series in chronological order.

Devil's Legacy first ran in the first twelve issues of the Grendel series at Comico starting in 1986, and followed up on the first Grendel story, featuring Hunter Rose, that appeared in Mage before that.

Legacy is the story of Christine Spar, the daughter of Hunter Rose's adopted daughter, Stacy Palumbo.  When this book opens, Christine is a reporter, living with her young son Anson in Manhattan.  They, with Spar's friend Regina, attend a kabuki theatre presentation, and meet the show's star, Tujiro, who comes off as kind of creepy.  We see him snatch a hair off of Anson's head.  Later, the boy gets up in the night and walks off, meeting one of Tujiro's associates, and he's never seen again.

Spar, of course, reacts badly to this, but begins to piece together that this kind of thing often happens in the wake of Tujiro's appearances.  She steals Hunter Rose's mask and fork, and flies off to San Francisco to try to track down the killer.  We get to watch as she takes on the guise of Grendel, and it begins to affect her sense of self.  We also learn that Tujiro is not human.

There's a lot more going on with this story though, as the old conflict between Grendel and Argent, the werewolf figure that runs the police in New York, rears its head again.

Wagner's always been a great writer, and I feel like this is where he began to hit his stride.  He fills this book with strong character work, as we get to know Christine, her friend Regina, and meet Brian Li Sung, a stage manager who falls into Christine's orbit.  The depth of their emotions for one another, considering the rather short timeframe of this story, do ring false from time to time, but I like how Wagner uses their relationship to set up the next chapter in Grendel's history.

This series was drawn by the Pander Brothers, and mostly inked by Jay Geldhof.  The Panders are a bit of an acquired taste, especially since I can't think of another book that is more visually tied to the 80s than this one.  All the characters, men and women alike, have massive shoulders that could only be caused by excessive padding, and the general design of the clothing just screams out that this is what people in the 80s thought that the future would look like.

It works for this series, bringing to mind the fashion drawings of that timeframe, but it does not always make for pretty comics, especially when the Panders are inking their own work.  Still, this is a solid comic, and I'm a bit surprised that I'd never read such a seminal chapter of the Grendel chronicles.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Troop 142

by Mike Dawson

Troop 142, Mike Dawson's graphic novel about a week at Scout camp in 1995, brought back some serious memories.

This book, which was originally published as a webcomic I believe, takes us through the entire week at camp, and while it is narrated by one of the fathers accompanying the boys, we get inside many of their heads and see the experience in a multi-faceted way.

I had my own experiences with the Boy Scouts through the 80s and early 90s, and while there are some differences, there was a lot of stuff in this book that I could relate to, and memories came flooding back as I read it.  The terrible campfire songs, and the endlessly corny skits; the smell of the canvas-covered wooden platforms that we slept in, and the senior leader (in this case, an old white man who goes by Big Bear) whose sense of privilege and morality gives him permission to drone on about character at every opportunity.

More at the heart of this book is the casual cruelty of the boys towards one another.  They jockey endlessly for position, turning on friends, and making life miserable for the boys that they have decided they don't like, such as Chuck, the son of one of the leaders and the camp pariah.  Dawson also captures the weird line between homoeroticism and homophobia that is rampant at these gatherings.  Some of these scenes get pretty awkward, especially when Dawson hints at a relationship growing between two of the youngest boys, but never makes it clear what happened between them.  And, of course, at the end of the week, Big Bear turns one of his morality speeches into a rant against gay Scoutmasters, but no one sees a problem with the troop playing with a carved wooden dildo the next morning.

Even more subtle is the way that Dawson manages to show that no one is enjoying themselves at camp.  This matches a lot of my memories, where the fun is only to be had in retrospect; too much of the time, you are focused on feeling dirty, uncomfortable, exhausted, and frequently unsafe.

The whole Boy Scout thing is a unique experience for boys (and now girls, although that would necessitate some big changes in terms of the shared latrines and showers) and one which I think is on the wane, at least where I live.  Dawson manages to tell a good story and preserve a unique North American experience.  This is a very good book.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Young Terrorists #1

Written by Matt Pizzolo
Art by Amancay Nahuelpan

Black Mask Comics have been getting a lot of attention in the last year, as they've seen a number of their new series become very desirable, and enjoy sustained attention on the after-market.  I feel like I've been sleeping on their stuff for too long, having missed a few titles that I would have been interested in, had I been paying more attention to their solicitations in Previews.

I don't know how Young Terrorists slipped past me, as it looked very much like the type of book I'd be interested in reading.  I guess a lot of people felt the same way, because the store where I shop was sold out of a decent number of orders in a couple of hours.  Luckily, I was travelling this week, and found a copy.

I think the thing I like most about the amount of attention that Black Mask is getting is the way in which it pushed this series (which is, I think, an on-going) and this issue (which will be released in second print soon) into the hands of a lot of people who would otherwise not buy something with this kind of material.  I do hope that most of these people decide to read it though, and not just keep it as an investment, as this is a very good comic.

This first issue is 80 pages long, which is always welcome, and it takes it time to introduce the main characters.  We meet Serah, the daughter of an extremely wealthy businessman, who controls one of three groups that more or less control the world, or at least its finances.  He is killed in a suicide bombing at the beginning of the book, and his daughter is framed as a terrorist.  She ends up escaping the CIA black site where she's been interrogated, and has been the star of an illegal fight scene.

She continues that work, broadcasting her fights on the Internet, and gathering an interesting group of misfits around her.  The comic is split between Serah's story and that of Cesar, a young man who is on the run after an act of resistance against industrial farming goes wrong.  Cesar is brutally abused throughout this book, beaten and left naked in a truckstop parking lot, before he is found by Baby, one of Serah's people.

As much as writer Matt Pizzolo takes this issue to set up his world, he also leaves a lot to be explained later.  We know that there is some intrigue surrounding Serah's brother, and we see that she has effectively taken over a section of Detroit that had been abandoned, and is now providing the residents with food and electricity.

Artist Amancay Nahuelpan is new to me, and I'm impressed by what I see.  He has a way with the characters that sometimes reminds me of Tony Harris, and which works well with a book that is so tied into the motives of the people that populate it.

This book is rough and unapologetic, and very open about its political and economic beliefs.  I see antecedents in Jonathan Hickman's phenomenal The Nightly News, and wonder if this is perhaps the book that Gail Simone set out to write when she started The Movement at DC.  It makes sense that Black Mask is publishing this book, since they launched their business with Occupy Comics.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Boxers

by Gene Luen Yang

I've been a fan of Gene Luen Yang's work since I read American Born Chinese a few years ago.  He has a simplistic approach that gives way to intelligent storytelling with great depth.  Boxers is one half of a two-book set (with Saints, which is on my to-read pile) that examines the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th Century.

Boxers focuses on Little Bao, an illiterate youth growing up in a small village in a remote province of China.  His area is isolated, and while the people are poor, they are able to eke out a decent living.  One day, during a spring festival, they are visited by a boorish lout who rightly gets his ass handed to him by Bao's father.  It turns out that this man is a Christian convert, and like good Christians everywhere, returns to exact revenge, bringing a white man with him.  This man smashes the statue of a much-loved god, and steals food from the village that he believes is rightful restitution.

As time goes on, we see how the influence of the missionaries and European governments are damaging traditional Chinese social structures.  When Bao's father goes to complain to a local government leader about how the village is being treated, he is set upon by foreign soldiers and beaten so badly he never recovers his faculties.

Into this tense setting comes Red Lantern Chu, a brother of the Big Sword Society.  He begins to help the locals to resist the foreigners and the secondary devils (what they call the converts).  He does not allow Bao to participate in his kung fu training, but then begins to teach the youth in secret.

Eventually, Red Lantern is killed, and Bao continues training under a different master.  Here the story veers towards magical realism, as Bao begins to channel a Chinese god when he fights, rescuing his older brothers from certain death.  From here, Bao begins to gather supporters for his fight against the foreigners, leading an ever-growing army towards Peking.

Along the way, Bao meets Mei-Wen, who herself begins to lead a group of female warriors.  We follow Bao and his people through the end of the Boxer Rebellion.

This is a very interesting book.  I don't know very much about this time period, and so don't know where Yang has diverted from established fact (somewhere before all the Gods show up, I imagine).  I do get the feeling that this book has been meticulously researched and is more accurate, in it's unique way, than it isn't.  I know that Saints tells a similar story, but from the perspective of a 'secondary devil', and I'm curious to know that interpretation, especially since my own inclinations lean towards seeing things through Bao's eyes, in a post-colonial perspective.

Yang builds his story very nicely.  He invests a lot of time in developing Bao, who is bullied by his older brothers and then ends up leading them.  He makes Bao's relationship with Mei-Wen believable, as are the internal conflicts Bao needs to resolve to be a strong leader.

There is a sense of misogyny in this work that doesn't sit well with me, as male characters discuss how contact with females can dilute their concentration and power.  There is an attempt to balance this through Mei-Wen, but it's often not enough.  At the same time, this is a work of historical fiction, and I imagine that Yang is being accurate in his portrayal of how women were treated.

Yang's artwork is straight-forward, but very effective in portraying emotion and thought.  He uses a slightly drab colour palette throughout most scenes, but when the gods enter the story, things become brighter and a little garish.

This book is a remarkable piece of work, and I look forward to reading its companion.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Jim Fern, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder, and Mark Farmer

As Fables came closer and closer to its conclusion, I began to get interested in the series again (although, interested does not always mean invested in or entertained by), and picked up Werewolves of the Heartland, the standalone OGN that spotlights Bigby Wolf that came out in 2012.

Bigby is out searching for a new possible location for Fabletown (this is in the era when Mister Dark had taken their home from them), and stumbles across Story City.  The name intrigues him, but he is even more interested to learn that the entire town is populated by werewolves that view him as their god (although that doesn't put them above wanting to kill him).  Even more surprising is the appearance of an old war companion of Bigby's, and an ex-Nazi villainess.

There is a lengthy flashback to Bigby's WWII days, and his mission in Castle Frankenstein, which actually takes me back to the earliest issues of Fables that I read, around about the mid-thirties.

As the story progresses, Bigby comes to realize that there is a lot going wrong in Story City.  A cabal has been plotting to overthrow their leaders (who happen to also be their parents, for most of them) and see Bigby's arrival as a good chance to do that.  This leads to a big battle, and lots of killing, as none of these werewolves have any clue just how powerful Bigby really is.

This book really eschewed the 'Fables' aspect of Fables, not taking any cues from folklore.  It also read as more mature than the parent Fables series has for years, although that is mostly due to copious amounts of non-sexual nudity (and a bit of sexual nudity, as a young woman tries to seduce Bigby).

The art in this book is nice, but the combination of Craig Hamilton and Jim Fern is an odd one.  They are both fine artists, but they have very different styles (even though Fern handled layouts for the whole book).  Hamilton's pencils, especially when he is the one inking them, are very detailed and realistic, while Fern tends towards the slightly more abstract.  I found the switch from one to the other to be jarring at times.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Disappearance of Charley Butters

by Zach Worton

Zach Worton's The Klondike was an excellent collection of stories and vignettes about the famous gold rush that impressed me a great deal.  When I saw that he had a new book out at TCAF this year, I couldn't resist grabbing it, although at the time, I did not know that it was the beginning of a series of graphic novels, and not a self-contained story.

The Disappearance of Charley Butters starts with a death metal trio heading into some remote woods with a camera man to film a video.  We quickly see that the band doesn't really get along with one another, mostly because the band's leader, Mike, and his contrary nature.

While filming, the band stumbles across a long-abandoned cabin, filled with hundreds of paintings all showing the same image, and a collection of diaries.  All of this belongs to Charley Butters, an artist who ran away from the world to this cabin back in the late 50s, and was apparently never heard from again.

As the book progresses, Travis, the main character, can't stop thinking about Butters.  He returns to the cabin to pick up the journals, and begins obsessing over the artist, who was clearly mentally ill (he claimed to hear voices).

Travis ends up quitting the band over Mike's behaviour, and he and Stuart, the filmmaker, decide to collaborate on a documentary about Butters's life and disappearance.

This book was really gathering steam when it ended kind of abruptly, with notification that 'The Search For Charley Butters' will be coming along soon.  This was a disappointment, as I was enjoying the story, especially the way that Butters's influence was changing Travis, who cuts his hair and begins to behave more like an adult.

Worton does a great job of developing these characters in a short amount of space, and he provides just enough information to make Butters's story intriguing.  His art is nice and clear, and he's guaranteed himself a sale whenever the next book comes out.  I hope it doesn't take too long...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Okko: The Cycle of Water

by Hub

I'd read the second and third Okko miniseries when they were published by Archaia in the 00's, but never saw the first volume, The Cycle Of Water until recently, and was happy to get the chance to read it.

Okko is a French comic set in an imagined Medieval Japan, where magic, spirits, demons, and combat puppet suits are common.  Okko the character is a ronin and demon-hunter for hire.  He travels with a large, demon-masked man and a drunken monk.  At the beginning of this series, they are hired by the younger brother of a geisha who has been abducted by strange people, in exchange for his service.

Their journey to rescue the young woman is fraught with danger, and when they find the floating fortress to which she has been taken, they discover some very disturbing things.

Hub's art is fantastically detailed and impressive.  The smaller scale of the North American comics page does not fully do it justice, as it feels a little cramped and hard to read at times.  Still, this is a very good read, and now I need to try to track down the fourth volume, The Cycle of Fire.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Black Hand Comics

by Wes Craig

I've been a big fan of Wes Craig's work on Rick Remender's excellent series Deadly Class, and first saw the potential in his art when he drew a few issues of the good Guardians of the Galaxy run, but had never read anything he had completed on his own before walking past his table at TCAF this year.  I thought it wasn't much of a risk to take a chance with Black Hand Comics, his collection of three stories that were originally released online.  The book is a wide, narrow hardcover, and each story shows off a very different approach by Craig.

The first, The Gravedigger's Union is a fun story about the real work of cemetery maintenance crews, which is mostly done after dark, when the dead get up.  It's told in black and white.

The second story, Circus Day, is a bit of a coming of age story about a boy who visits a travelling circus with his sister, after being forbidden to do so by his father.  The kid wants to see the freakshow, despite not having enough money to enter.  When his sister goes off with one of the acrobats, he gets up to some mischief.  Visually, this story is closest to Craig's work on Deadly Class, although he uses more painterly effects, and has some fun with sound effects.

The final story, The Seed, is the creepiest, and best shows off just how good Craig can be.  The story is slight; it's about a man who is fleeing from some people who took him in and helped him, but who seem to be a part of a cult.  There's a darker aspect to this, but I don't want to spoil it.  Here, Craig tells the story in a mix of flashback and present, and it's easy to envision these pages being spread in a straight line around a gallery wall.

This is a very impressive book, although it is frustratingly finished too soon.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Memetic #1-3

Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Eryk Donovan

James Tynion IV is probably best known for his Batman work, supporting Scott Snyder since the New 52 relaunch in a number of ways, but he is also building a name and following for himself with his excellent body of work being published by Boom!  His The Woods is one of my favourite ongoing comics, and I've been enjoying UFOlogy lately.

This is why I decided to give Memetic a shot.  It's a three-issue mini-series, but each issue is oversized, and therefore Tynion has a lot of space to play with his themes.

In this story, a picture has gone viral on the Internet.  It's an image of a happy little sloth, with a background of concentric circles.  It looks exactly like the type of thing that people put funny sayings on.  What makes this particular image different, though, is the way it makes people feel.  It induces a sense of elation, and creates in people a form of mania that encourages them to pass it on to others, and to spend hours looking at it.

Our point-of-view character for most of the series is Aaron, a young college student with a number of issues.  To begin with, Aaron is completely colourblind, and wears a hearing aid (which becomes instrumental to the plot later on).  When he looks at the picture, he feels nothing, and is having a hard time understanding why people are so obsessed with it.  He'd rather worry about the fact that his boyfriend is not returning his calls.

Anyway, it doesn't take long before we realize that there is a lot more going on with this picture, and that it is rewriting the human brain somehow.  Another person who has figured this out is a retired officer in the Army, who used to specialize in information-based attacks.  He suffers from macular degeneration, and is therefore also unable to see the image properly.  He attempts to rally some of his old contacts, but is hard-pressed to find anyone in charge who hasn't seen the image.

And then things start to change.  The people who have looked at the picture begin to change into 'screamers', and things get very weird.

Tynion does a very good job of setting up this plot, and extrapolates nicely from our current obsession with social media.  He lifts some ideas from zombie and Apocalyptic stories, and then gives us a big finish that will leave the reader looking for more information.

Eryk Donovan is not an artist I'm familiar with, but he's very talented.  His work reminds me a little of Sean Murphy (it's the noses, which I've always thought of as Chris Bachalo noses), but is a freer artist in a lot of ways.

This series is thought-provoking and very effective.  I recommend it, and anything else that Tynion is doing at Boom!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lunarbaboon Vol. 1

I picked up the first volume of Lunarbaboon as a bit of an impulse buy at TCAF this year.  It's a collection of webcomics that focus on the joys and tribulations of fatherhood.

The father has a young son, Moishe, and, one presumes, a very patient wife.  Many of the strips, which never run more than two pages, fall into the standard structure for this type of thing, showcasing the funny things that kids say, or describing humorous observations that occur to the cartoonist.  These are often pretty amusing.

Even better, though, are the strips that really make use of the freedom comics allow.  The cartoonist often shows great imagination in layout or in portraying the world through either the child's, or the very creative dad's, eyes.

There is a poignancy to this book, and it is often very sweet, while also often very truthful, and occasionally, even harsh.  Not knowing if the payoff for each strip is going to be a punch to the gut or a laugh is a big part of the fun of reading this book.

Once again, proof that just about anything you buy at TCAF is going to be good...

Monday, July 6, 2015

Wild Blue Yonder #1-6

Written by Mike Raicht, Zach Howard, and Austin Harrison
Art by Zach Howard

I'd heard some good things about Wild Blue Yonder, a science fiction series from IDW, and jumped at the chance to pick up a full set recently.

This is a very good sci-fi adventure comic for fans of Mad Max.  In the future, most of the Earth is uninhabitable, due to radiation and other environmental factors, and the luckiest people are the ones who live in the sky, on flying fortresses.  Cola and her people live on the Dawn, which apparently is able to keep flying without fuel (this is never explained), which makes them a target for pirates and others who want to break themselves of dependency on fossil fuels (which are squeezed out of the Earth by a frequently mis-treated servant class).

Because of the violence inherent in this world, mixed with the lack of resources, especially ammunition, the fortresses have developed an interesting method of defence.  Pilots like Cola fly their planes, and transport 'bullets', jetpack-wearing warriors who often go into battle with axes.

When the series opens, Cola is looking to recruit a new bullet after her previous one died on a mission.  She finds Tug, the son of a miner, and we see the Dawn and its systems through his eyes.  We quickly learn that things are not good between Cola and her mother, who runs the place, and that Cola's independence and flying skills are a problem between them.  Worst of all, they both blame Cola for the previous bullet's death.

As the series progresses, we learn that the Judge, the commander of a large fleet, has his hopes set on taking the Dawn, and he has a variety of plans in place to make that happen.

This series is gorgeous.  Zach Howard's art reminds me a lot of Sean Murphy's (in fact, comparisons to The Wake wouldn't be inaccurate), and his air battles are pretty incredible.  Nelson Daniel's colours work very well; you can almost feel the heat off the various fires that fill the last two issues.

There's a fair amount of sticking to genre tropes in this story, but at the same time, in just six issues the writers had me caring about the characters and their world, and the art really made this book stand out.  Recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2015

West Coast Blues

by Jacques Tardi, adapting a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I am always up for a Jacques Tardi graphic novel, and got a lot of enjoyment out of reading West Coast Blues, the translation of his book adapting the novel Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest, which was originally released in 1976.

The story is about George Gerfaut, a salesman who one night, while driving around Paris aimlessly and a little drunkenly, sees two cars speed past him, as if they are chasing one another.  He follows, and soon finds one of the cars wrapped around a tree.  The driver is injured, so Gerfaut takes him to the hospital, and then leaves him there.

Later, when Gerfaut and his family go to the coast for a holiday, two men try to kill Gerfaut in the water.  He manages to escape them, but his nerves are shot, and he begins to believe that someone is looking to kill him because he helped that injured driver.

It's not paranoia, though, when you're right.  Gerfaut leaves his family and returns to Paris, trying to decide what to do.  The two men, Carlo and Bastien are hired killers, employed by Emerich.  They begin following Gerfaut, who becomes more and more desperate to escape them, even going so far as to get a gun for protection.

An encounter between the men at a gas station on a lonely stretch of road leads to some killing, and Gerfaut's being completely lost in the wilderness.  He decides to abandon his former life and begin living as a hermit, but it's not all that long before he's back in Paris seeking his own personal freedom from Emerich's attention.

This is a well-written noir story, and Tardi does a great job of pacing it, and showing difficult things in beautiful settings.  I like the way Tardi (or Manchette) constantly let us know what music the protagonist is listening to, providing a bit of a soundtrack to the book throughout.

The pacing of this story is very different from what one would find in an American thriller, but that's a big part of what makes it work, since it's harder to predict.  In all, another very solid (and well-designed) Tardi comic from Fantagraphics.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Russian Olive to Red King

by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen

Of all the books I bought at TCAF this year, I think that this is the one that I will treasure the most, mostly because Kathryn and Stuart Immonen really take their time when signing a book.  Kathryn copied a number of words out of a Chekov novel to run perpendicular to the book's title on the title page, beneath which Stuart drew a lovely sketch of Olive, one of the book's protagonists.  It took a little while, but made this a unique purchase.

Russian Olive to Red King is a lovely, lovely book.  It's about a couple, Olive and Red, who live in a large city.  Red is an art writer, while Olive is a researcher.  We are given very few details of their life together, beyond meeting their dog, and learning that Red is not the most communicative of people outside of their relationship.

Olive leaves town for a while, to do some field work, but when flying into (I assume) Northern Ontario, the two-engine plane she is in goes down, and the pilot is killed.  While she is all alone in a wintry environment, Red is left all alone in their apartment, and the rest of the book charts the emotional journeys they take separately, but together.

This is a very poetic book (it was reminding me of The English Patient long before the scene with the cave), and Stuart reveals the story slowly through large, open panels showing landscape and sunset.  Towards the end of the book, the story switches into a section of prose, or prose poetry, more accurately, with sequences of abstracted drawings below them.  The connection between image and words, and how this whole section relates to the rest of the book, is not revealed until the very end.

I feel like I might have appreciated a little more clear resolution at the end, but by saying that, I also think I'm just being a little simple-minded.  This is a powerful and beautiful book.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Pitiful Human-Lizard #1

by Jason Loo

I love my hometown, Toronto, which is a serious comics town.  I am often surprised by the high calibre of local talent in the comics industry, from big-name Big Two stars to quality independent writers, artists, and cartoonists.  For a city that is well-represented behind the scenes in comics, it's not often a a comic showcases the city itself.

Sure, Alpha Flight comes to mind, but even when John Byrne was drawing it, Toronto was never a character.  It was in Scott Pilgrim, though, but now, Toronto has its own superhero, the Human-Lizard (apparently he's a little pitiful).  At TCAF, creator Jason Loo compared this hero to the city's sports teams - lots of good intentions, not very impressive results.

Anyway, this is a very solid debut for this series.  We get to know our hero, who is a Kick-Ass style superhero wannabe with access to his father's excellent glue and gimmicks from his own hero days.  Lucas Barrett has a boring office job, and generally sucks at jiu-jitsu, but really wants to be a hero.  After signing up for a drug company experiment, he gains the ability to recover from any injury, and realizes that perhaps his time to be a hero has come around.

Loo makes Lucas a likeable character, and does a terrific job of incorporating the city into his story.  You don't have to be from Toronto to enjoy this book, but there are lots of Easter Eggs and nods to Torontonians that make reading this even more fun.

My biggest TCAF regret of this year (I always have some) was in not buying the other three issues of this series that are available.  I'm going to have to go look for them, because I want more.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pocket Full of Coffee and There's No Bath in This Bathroom

by Joe Decie

I didn't know Joe Decie's work before this year's TCAF, but he was kind enough to give copies of his newest book, There's No Bath in This Bathroom away for free.  Flipping through it, I liked what I saw, and felt compelled (and perhaps a little obligated) to pick up the other book he had on offer, Pocket Full of Coffee.

Both of these books are slice-of-life books, where Decie takes the everyday and turns it into a book.  There may be some greater profundity hidden within the story, but it seems like he's really just keeping a bit of a journal, and elevating the mundane into art.

Pocket covers a very ordinary Wednesday for Decie.  He worries about marks on his arm, gets his young son ready for the day, hangs out with him for a bit, has dinner with his wife, and paints for a bit before going to bed.

No Bath is a story about last year's TCAF, and hanging out with comics folks after the show.  Decie and his friends end up at a fictional pizza shop with a dirty bathroom.  That's about it.

These books reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker's writing, with the focus on minutiae becoming the point of the story.  I like stuff like that, so it works very well for me.

Decie's art is very nice.  It looks like he uses watercolours to shade his black-and-white art, and sticks to a pretty realistic style.

Both of these books are very straight-foward, but deceptively so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Potter's Pet

by Braden D. Lamb and Shelli Paroline

I liked Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline's work on the excellent Boom series The Midas Flesh, so when I saw that Lamb had this mini-comic on offer at TCAF, I thought it would make a good purchase.

Set in a typical storybook souk, The Potter's Pet is about what happens when you set out to please everybody.  The titular potter is having a bad month, not selling any of his wares.  One day he discovers some plans on a piece of parchment, and builds himself a little robot that dances to amuse him.

Another merchant sees it, and asks if he can build her one that will sort scrolls for her.  Reluctant, the potter agrees to build this for her (he has to smash his own robot to do it) once she offers a price he can't refuse.  When he goes to take the finished product to her, another merchant waylays him and offers more money if he instead constructs a device that will fetch juice.  And then we're off, as each person in succession expects a device that does more, but also pays better.

There is a storybook simplicity to this comic, which is aided by the clean art from Lamb and Paroline.  I can see why the pair's comfort with historically impossible art made them obvious choices for The Midas Flesh, which is about the science fiction implications of the legend of King Midas, and which features a dinosaur in a space suit.

This was a fun little read.

Junior Citizens

Written by Ian Herring and Daniel MacIntyre
Art by Ian Herring

One thing I love about TCAF is the way in which it brings exposure to artists and cartoonists I might not hear about, and I'm always willing to take a chance on lower-priced items that look interesting.  One book that jumped out at me is Junior Citizens, by Ian Herring and Daniel MacIntyre.

Apparently this is a digital comic that can be read on its tumblr page.  This twenty-page comic is the extent of what is available there right now, but I'll be sure to check back for more later, as I enjoyed this comic.

In the world that Herring and MacIntyre have created, it seems that there is a clear caste system in place, with 'junior' citizens having to complete their annual work quota in able to qualify for the benefits of society.  We follow one such junior citizen, sent on her first work assignment, to an agricultural platform which is experiencing an equipment malfunction.

We quickly learn, through a helpful and loquacious robot, that the platform should have been decommissioned, but is being kept in operation by its single chief custodian.  The woman's attempts to fix things do not go well.

This is a simple enough story, but it has a certain retro charm to it.  Herring's art is blocky, but with a deco style to it, and his use of colour and texture is phenomenal.  As a first issue, this sets up the situation nicely, and has me interested enough to come back for more.  It's worth checking out.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pope Hats #4

by Ethan Rilly

One of the most thrilling releases at TCAF this year is the new issue of Pope Hats, Ethan Rilly's exceptional series.  I think I've bought every issue of this series at TCAF over the years, and it's a book I relate closely to the phenomenal event.

This issue, which is magazine-sized, does not return to its regular main characters, Frances and Vickie, but instead shares a number of short stories, many only a page or two in length.

At the centre of the book is a long story, 'The Nest', about a pair of aging parents who have to deal with the fact that their daughter has returned home from university unexpectedly, and suffering from a mental illness.  The parents do their best to adapt their lives around having to look after their child - the father takes an early retirement - and they never let their optimism wane.  This is a touching story, and Rilly handles it very well, with sensitivity and humour.

The rest of this book is equally perceptive and enjoyable.  An aging drummer feels ambivalent about having his band reunite for an Asian tour, and then can't complete the tour anyway.  In a science fiction series, a forager continually alienates everyone around him, for no good reason.  The people in Rilly's stories make decisions that are bad for them - they move into basement apartments with difficult people while abandoning their youthful ideals, they play poker on their phone way too late into the night, they destroy their own artwork, and they use time travel irresponsibly.

Pope Hats is a terrific series; I only wish that Rilly worked a little quicker at producing it.

Optic Nerve #14

by Adrian Tomine

It's always exciting when Adrian Tomine releases a new issue of his very occasional anthology series Optic Nerve, but it's even more exciting when that issue is available at TCAF before it's released in comics shops.  This issue is made up of two stories, 'Killing and Dying', and 'Intruders'.

'Killing and Dying' is a story about fatherhood, comedy, and loss.  Jessica is an odd fourteen year old with a stutter who has developed an interest in stand-up comedy.  Her mother encourages her to take a course at the Learning Annex (for $500), while her father's disapproval is palpable.  Her first performance goes well, but her father figures out that her teacher has written all of her material for her.  Later, Jessica decides to try out her own material at an open-mic night that her father sneaks into, and what follows is one of the most awkward scenes I've read in comics.

An undercurrent that is never discussed in this story, but is made clear through Tomine's art, is the mother's illness.  I love the way this story becomes more about what is not being discussed, and how that affects everyone.  Tomine uses a twenty-four panel grid for most of this story, which gives it a tight and claustrophobic feeling, much as the father must feel, trapped in his own head.

The second story, 'Intruders', is about an aging guy who has found himself alone and unhappy in life.  When a chance encounter with a young woman who once apartment-sat for him leads to him having the keys to the apartment he once shared with his ex, he begins a disturbing habit of breaking into his former home on a daily basis.

The guy's actions seem more or less reasonable at first, even though they are deeply transgressive, but as is the way of such things, events escalate.  This story is told with a larger nine-panel grid, and is drawn with thicker lines.

Tomine's work is always impressive.  He creates complete realities in very short amounts of space, and his stories stick with you long after you've finished reading them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wayward Volume 1: String Theory

Written by Jim Zub
Art by Steve Cummings

When Wayward, the new series from writer Jim Zub(kavich), whose Skullkickers is a riot of a book, first debuted, I wasn't sure if I was interested in it or not.  I like Zub's writing on the other title, but that is a more comedic comic, and is something I never thought I'd want to read (it's a really special comic).  This looked more serious, but I wasn't sure if it was going to grab me.  Luckily, Image keeps the price low on first volumes of new series when they are published in trade, and since I was standing in front of Zub at a convention, I felt like I had no reason not to buy this.

This series is centred on Rori Lane, a mixed heritage Japanese-Irish teenage girl, who has moved to Tokyo to live with her mother, who she has not seen in a year.  Almost immediately upon landing in Japan, Rori starts to notice reddish lines that connect her to her destinations, that no one else can notice.

On her first night, she is attacked by a trio of kappa, folkloric turtle-creatures that appear much more dangerous than how they are usually depicted.  A strange girl, Ayane, appears to help her out.  As the story progresses, Rori meets two other kids who have abilities, and stumbles across a plot by some other characters from Japanese folklore, who have evil deeds in mind.  It seems that Rori is a weaver, and this has something to do with her mother.

The easiest comparison to make here is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  We have the inherited abilities, the idiosyncratic group of peers, and a winking acknowledgement of the story's debt to its genre forebears.

This is an engaging read, with nice art, and a strong sense of place.  I think, had I read these issues individually with a month between them, I would not have made it to issue five.  In the trade, there's a better sense of the larger story, but I'm not sure that there is still enough here to really keep me interested for the long haul.  I would think that this book would appeal to teens, but the level of profanity would keep it from be shelved in a lot of libraries where it would be most welcome.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Sculptor

by Scott McCloud

I knew going in that The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud, was going to be an impressive piece of work, but I was still surprised by the depth of emotion that McCloud imbued his story with.

David Smith is a young artist who has always dreamed of being a successful, famous sculptor.  An early brush with art world fame fell apart because of the prickly nature of David's personality, and since then, his life has been very difficult.  He can't get proper gallery representation, is about to lose his apartment, and is down to his last friend in New York.  His family is all dead, and he has set himself a rigid set of rules to live by (no handouts or charity, ever, for example).

On his birthday, while quietly getting drunk by himself in a touristy diner, David is surprised to run into his great uncle Harry, who has been dead for many years.  As it turns out, Harry is Death, in a rare human guise.  He asks David what he'd be willing to trade for artistic success, and David quickly offers up his life.  They enter into a Faustian bargain where David is given unparalleled artistic ability for two hundred days, at which point he is going to die.  He readily agrees to this, because he is at a point where he values his artistic legacy more than his existence.

Of course, almost immediately, things begin to change for David.  He has the ability to mold rock or steel with his bare hands, allowing him complete freedom in creating shapes and figures.  That same day, though, he becomes the unwitting centre of a street theatre piece, and meets a girl who is going to change his life.

As the book progresses, a few things take place.  First, we begin to suspect that David's artistic problems are more from a lack of having something to say with his art compared to ability; once he create anything he can imagine, he relies on creating representational pieces from his memory that only have meaning for him.  When he holds a show in his apartment, it is likened to a Polynesian gift shop.  Later, he is barred from returning to his apartment after his works crash through the floor, and homeless and in despair, he is taken in by the girl from the performance piece, Meg, who likes to make projects of helping people.

David pretty quickly falls for Meg, although it takes a lot longer for her to begin to reciprocate those feelings for him.  As the book progresses, David becomes more and more aware of his deadline looming, as he searches for artistic and emotional fulfillment.

McCloud plays with a of stuff in this hefty graphic novel.  The magical realism that allows the plot to take place doesn't feel very forced, although at the end I felt things became a little too comic-book.  The base elements of this story - deals with the devil, finding love just before dying, the frustration of the creator who is unable to create - are not new, but McCloud mixes them very nicely.

His characters feel very real.  David has always been a difficult person, especially after losing his parents and sister at a young age, and having to rely on himself in a very hostile world.  His blind adherence to rules he's set out for himself, and his penchant for speaking plainly to people in positions of influence have put him where he is, and he does not have the tools to get himself out of his situation on his own.  Meg is equally complex - endlessly generous, she suffers from depression and refuses to take medication for it.

McCloud literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling, so it's no surprise that this book is beautifully laid out and illustrated.  He makes interesting use of panel borders, keeping a traditional page structure for most of the book, but bleeding to the edges of the page during scenes of great emotion or stress.

In all, this is a very powerful piece of work.  McCloud really twists the knife towards the end, and while I don't love everything about the conclusion (which, again, gets a little too super-powers/comic bookish), I did feel a genuine ache for these characters upon closing the book.  Read this.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Rachel Rising Vol. 2: Malus

by Terry Moore

With this second volume of his latest series, about a young woman who doesn't seem able to stay dead (despite giving it a couple of very good goes, unintentionally, in the first volume), Moore gives a much clearer picture of what is going on in the town of Manson.

It seems that the town once had a witch problem, and now Lilith, the first woman (remember her from Sandman?) is working to exact her revenge on the town for something that happened three hundred years before.  Malus, a demon, has been working with her, but also working towards his own ends.

As for Rachel, the undead hero of this book?  I don't want to spoil what her deal is.

As is always the case with Moore's work, character development is front and centre, and he's done a great job with characters like Rachel, her friend Jet (who now also can't die), and Rachel's Uncle Johnny, who is laid up in the hospital.  Also, as is often the case, Moore's male characters are a little less nuanced, but I like the way people like Earl, the assistant mortician who is in love with Jet, and Dr. Siemen, the kindly doctor who keeps the body of his long-dead wife in his kitchen, round out the cast of this book.

Moore's art and draftsmanship are always very nice, and it's interesting to see him take what is, on the surface, a story about pretty ordinary-looking people, and twist it around to the point where demons are believable on the page.

My only complaint is with how quickly each of these trades read.  I probably should have waited until the series was finished, and collected into a nice chunky omnibus...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross, Kurt Huggins, Al Davison, Russ Braun, Shawn McManus, Dean Ormston, and Gary Erskine

I've had a complicated relationship with The Unwritten, the long-running Vertigo series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.  The first arc or so didn't do much for me, but I stuck with the title out of faith in the creators, and it soon became one of my favourite Vertigo titles.  Somewhere, along the way though, I lost interest in the comic, as it became a little too lost under its own weight.  A disastrous cross-over with Fables (that wasn't actually a cross-over, since it only happened in the one series) followed by a relaunch with a price increase was enough to get me to stop reading the book.

Somewhere in there, this graphic novel was published, but I guess I didn't even notice.  This is an interesting book, clarifying one aspect of the series, and diving into another aspect which has been largely ignored.

This book is split between two stories.  Wilson Taylor, author of the Tommy Taylor books, and father to Tom Taylor, writes in his journal about the first couple of years, when he managed to have his first novel published on the same day as his son's birth.  We learn about how he managed to manipulate his mother into leaving Tom's life, and how he arranged to keep his real son tied in the public consciousness with his fictional son.

The majority of this book tells that story that is in that first Tommy Taylor novel.  We learn about his parents' death, and how he ended up being raised in the kitchen of a school for wizards.  We learn that he doesn't have the 'Spark', the precursor to a magical education, and we meet his close friends.  Eventually, the Conclave, a group of powerful wizards, decide to raise the ship that his parents died on, as they tried to transport wild magic to the school.  Bringing the vessel also brings with it Count Ambrosio, an immortal vampire.  It goes without saying that it's up to Tommy and his friends to save the day.

The dual nature of this story is interesting, but I'm not sure that a reader new to these characters would have much of a clue as to what's going on in the Wilson Taylor sections.  Although there are passing nods to Leviathan, the whale-spirit that lives off fiction in the regular series, no mention is made of the Cabal, or why Wilson is immersing young Tom in a sensory deprivation tank.  Long-time readers are rewarded with this fleshed-out timeline, but I think the Wilson sections of this book would feel inconsequential to anyone else.

The Tommy story is enjoyable, in a YA kind of way.  It does help to understand the bigger picture of this whole series to know Tommy's story, and see how it parallels and differs from the Harry Potter stories that it was clearly roughly based upon.

I found the approach to art in this book pretty interesting.  Peter Gross provided layouts for the whole book, and gave it a consistent look, but the various finishers added their own voices to the mix.  The only pages I found I could identify were Dean Ormston's, as his work is always pretty individual.  This approach worked well to distinguish the Wilson pages from the Tommy ones, and to set apart different sections of Tommy's story.

I'm glad I read this book, and it does have me interested in picking up the last half-dozen or so issues of the second volume of Unwritten.  Carey and Gross do great work together; I just wish this series hadn't gotten so bogged down that it lost me.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Spectral Engine

by Ray Fawkes

Ray Fawkes can be a challenging writer and artist.  His One Soul is a difficult but rewarding read, while his new Image series, Intersect, lost me after two issues.  I wasn't sure what to expect with The Spectral Engine, but I think it is easily my favourite work from him to date.

This book strings together a number of ghost stories from across Canada with the linking theme of the Spectral Engine, a ghost train that endless criss-crosses the country, picking up lost souls.  Fawkes moves roughly from east to west in this book, but often doubles-back, both geographically and chronologically.

We work through a number of vignettes, encompassing a couple of disasters at sea (including during the War of 1812), stories of people becoming lost in the winter woods, a nun who falls through ice while trying to stop a murder, and a disastrous attempt at peace between two warring tribes.  We also get a Wendigo story, which is always welcome.

I think my favourite vignette involves a despairing young woman during the short span of time that Toronto's subway system tried to run three separate lines across two sets of train tracks, an experiment which ultimately led to the closing of the lower Bay Station.

Fawkes's art is often very minimalist, and that works very well here, as we are given only the smallest amount of information that we need in order to understand the stories.  I love the sense of both familiarity and strangeness that Fawkes evokes throughout this work, giving a different sense of the history of my country.