Monday, March 28, 2016

Finder: Third World

by Carla Speed McNeil

I am a huge fan of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, having come late to the title after Dark Horse published a couple of very handsome omnibus editions.  She's described her masterpiece as "indigenous science fiction", and that's very much on display in this graphic novel.

Third World follows her main character, Jaeger, through three loosely structured segments of story.  In the first, he's in Anvard, a gigantic domed city, working as a courier for a delivery company.  We follow him through a few of his odder jobs, including his helping an old woman find her way to her family.  The stories work well together to give us an idea of the depth of planning McNeil has put into this world.

The second story has Jaeger lost, for the first time, in an open environment town called Third World, among many other names.  In this place, he meets a few other Ascians (the nomadic people who adopted him), although they are not of his tribe.  This section addresses issues of indigenous land rights, artistic representation, and respect for burial rights.  It also gives us a dramatic look into Jaeger's role as a Sin-Eater among his people.

The final, shortest, section, has Jaeger turn up in Javecek, another domed city that is known for the sheer number of infectious diseases that inhabit it.  Here, Jaeger is exposed, and infected with a citizen's cancer, as a way of healing her.  The story ends with him being put in a difficult position by his employers.

McNeil's work is brilliant.  Her art is fantastic, and with this book being in colour (a Finder first), she is able to really expand on the depth of her world.  The copious explanatory notes at the back of the book really enhance the reading experience, as there is so much about this world that cannot be explained through the comics pages alone.

I did first read these stories in Dark Horse Presents when they were serialized, but reading them together in this format puts things in a different light.  First, I was a little surprised to see that there wasn't really a clear narrative through this whole book.  I also felt the ending was more unsettled than I would have liked, but knowing that there are new stories coming out in DHP right now helps rectify that.  The truth is that Finder is all about journeys, so in many ways, it makes sense that Jaeger's tale doesn't wrap up in easy segments.

I was going to wait for the next trade, but reading this makes me want to track down the new DHP issues (and reread the Omnibuses).

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Futurians

by Dave Cockrum

I find as I get older, my appreciation for some of the giants of the comics industry changes and becomes more welcoming.  As a kid, I did not like Dave Cockrum's work.  That said, my X-Men belonged to John Romita Jr, Marc Silvestri, and through back issues, John Byrne.  Cockrum's work did not stand up in comparison, and I was not aware of how much design work he did for the characters.  Likewise, I loved the Legion of Super-Heroes, but found Keith Giffen and Steve Lightle's work with them to be infinitely superior to Cockrum's.

Now, though, I can see how instrumental he was in making both of those franchises (not to mention the Shi'ar Imperial Guard) what they are.  I feel the same way about Jim Aparo - I didn't like his work on Batman when people like Norm Breyfogle, Todd McFarlane or Alan Davis were also working on the character, but now I can appreciate it.

In that spirit, I thought it might finally be time to read The Futurians, his graphic novel from 1983.  It begins five million years in the future, where two warring groups have destroyed the Earth.  The bad guys, who call themselves The Inheritors, wreck the sun as they us its energy to move their entire city back in time.  The remaining city figures out a way to also send some stuff to the past, and their leader's consciousness travels to the 1960s.

By the present day, by which I mean 1983, he's created a huge science company, which has gathered a group of people and turned them into superheroes, so they can stop the Inheritors.  They spend the rest of the issue doing this.

It's clear that Cockrum was working to set up a team that could sustain an ongoing series, but it fell victim to the comics industry when he published through a little known independent company.  The characters feel very much like the X-Men, and there are plenty of rivalries and conflicts between the characters that could have worked well to sustain a series for a while.

This graphic novel is pretty much exactly what you would expect from Cockrum at this stage in his career.  If you like his art, you will like this, but nothing about it will surprise you.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Dry Spell

by Ken Krekeler

I really enjoyed Ken Krekeler's series Westward, so was more than happy to find his earlier graphic novel, Dry Spell, in a pile of trade paperbacks.

Dry Spell opens with Tom, an apparently quiet guy who has a boring job, a girlfriend he mostly gets along with, and trouble sleeping.  As the book progresses, one of Tom's co-workers figures out that he used to have a costumed identity, as does he, and tries to convince him to come out of retirement.

We learn that when Tom was operating as part of the super-community (which centres around Apollo, a Superman analogue), he had to make use of psychedelics to motivate himself.  His co-worker spikes his drink, and soon enough, Tom is sleeping with a woman from his former life, and contemplating returning to that world.  He's also finally able to paint, something he's been trying to do for ages.

Krekeler's story is about people being true to themselves, even when that means embracing aspects of their personality that they don't particularly like.  He includes a great deal of character development in a short space, and has a couple of twists in the book that I didn't see coming.

Krekeler is a talented artist, and as a writer, has a very strong ear for dialogue.  I think he comes at superhero stories from an interesting perspective, and look forward to seeing some of his future work.  This book was recently re-released, and is worth tracking down.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Black Widow: The Coldest War

Written by Gerry Conway
Art by George Freeman, Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, Mike Harris, Val Mayerick, Joe Rubenstein

Once again, I find myself wondering about the decision process that went into approving these Marvel graphic novels.  The Black Widow: The Coldest War was published in 1990, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but tells a story from three years prior.

Natasha is contacted by a pair of KGB agents, who convince her that her former husband, the first Red Guardian, is still alive.  The promise to reunite them so long as Natasha does a job for them, and steals a microchip that runs SHIELD's Life Model Decoys.

This book shows us a very capable Natasha, who is working her own angle the entire time she is dealing with the Russians.  The story is steeped in Avengers history, and has a good Daredevil cameo, but in the short space that Conway has, never really becomes all that gripping.

George Freeman's art is very nice, although with so many inkers on this book, it often looks very different from one chapter to the next.  I feel like Klaus Janson would have been perfect for this book, as the art often reminds me of his work.

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin

Written by Alan Moore
Art by Kevin O'Neil

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin is the second of the Nemo graphic novels, building on the world Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil created in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Compared to the previous book, Nemo: Heart of Ice, I enjoyed this one more, but still had some problems with it.

Janni Nemo and her consort, Jack, discover that their teenage daughter Hira has been captured by the Germans (it's roughly World War II), and they head to Berlin to rescue her.  Like with Heart of Ice, we got tossed very quickly into the story, without taking any time to care about the characters at all.

Berlin has become a dystopian nightmare out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and we quickly learn that Maria, the robot from the movie, is as much in charge of things as Herr Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin's stand-in for Hitler).

There is a brothel, a rescue, sleeping soldiers, and a fight with the woman from the last volume.  It's all handled well, but it also feels like Moore and O'Neil are going through the motions, as if the clever references to literature and film are sufficient replacements for compelling story.

I liked it, and as always, enjoyed puzzling out some of the references (while knowing that way more of them went over my head), but never felt invested in the story at all.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace

Written by Jason Hall
Art by Matt Kindt

I enjoyed the first Pistolwhip book, and was a little surprised to see that Matt Kindt was not credited with any of the writing on the second one, The Yellow Menace, despite the fact that the story feels very much like a Matt Kindt story.

Like the first book, this one is steeped in radio dramas, but also incorporates film, comic books, and pulp novels.  Our private detective, Pistolwhip, becomes embroiled in a weird plot involving a "Yellow Menace", basically a serial killer going around murdering people in manners influenced by baser popular culture.

At the same time that this is going on, a travelling lecturer, Roderick Loom, is warning of the dangers of this type of entertainment, especially on children.  He is clearly based on Frederick Wertham, the guy who wrote Seduction of the Innocent and became ultimately responsible for the introduction of the Comics Code Authority.

Opposing the Yellow Menace is Jack Peril, a character popular in the pulps, movie serials, radio dramas, and comics, who seems to be real.  He first appears after an explosion at the radio station where his adventures are broadcast.

Pistolwhip is usually a pretty clueless character, and Hall builds on that with this volume.  The story can be hard to follow in places, but is ultimately entertaining.  Kindt works on some cool transitions between scenes.  I particularly like the way he moves the camera into a character's ear, and then shifts to something else.  In one place, suggesting that a character is not mentally stable, we see a loose screw inside that character's ear, which then becomes part of a moving vehicle, establishing the next scene.

Reading this, you can see the growing talent in Kindt (this came out in 2002), and it's cool to compare to his more polished work of today. These stories have recently been collected as The Complete Pistolwhip, and that is probably the best way to interact with them, although I do like the oversized format of this book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Dreamwalker

Written by Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer
Art by Gray Morrow

I really don't know who at Marvel would have greenlit a project like this, which could not exist today, but any opportunity to get a full book of Gray Morrow artwork is not something to turn down, when discovered in a group of low-priced graphic novels.

The Dreamwalker tells the story of Joshua McGann, an American secret agent who went rogue after the death of his girlfriend.  He continued to work his own missions, but this put him in the crosshairs of the Chairman of the organization he worked for.  They attempt to kill him, but it goes awry.  After this, he blackmails the Chairman into leaving him alone.

Reconnecting with his family, McGann finds his father very ill.  His stepmother, a prominent DA, is working to take down a mobster, when a hitman executes her in her own home.  The shock kills his father.

Later, McGann discovers that his father was once the masked adventurer known as the Dreamwalker.  He adopts this guise to ensure that the mobster faces justice, but quickly learns that there are even more complications in the case.  He continues to seek justice, putting his spy training to good use.

The book ends with a very strange connection between the mobster and McGann's family, which is pretty hard to believe, and leaves the door open to followup stories, which I don't believe ever happened.

The book is very straightforward in its approach and deliver, doing nothing new with a character like this (even though McGann's background could have been mined in more interesting ways).  There's really nothing to set this character apart from many 40s masked adventurers like the Crimson Avenger or Phantom Reporter, making me wonder why the writers didn't just use a character like that for this story.

Morrow's work is excellent, if a bit stiff in places.  This feels like a real throw-back of a comic today, but I doubt that it would have felt less so in 1989 when it was published.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ka-Zar: Guns of the Savage Land

Written by Chuck Dixon and Tim Truman
Art by Gary Kwapisz and Ricardo Villagran

I've recently come into a small pile of Marvel OGNs from the late 80s and early 90s that I got for a very low price.  I can't resist something like this, but I was a little disappointed to learn that Tim Truman was a co-writer on this and not the artist.

I was pleased to see that the real star of Ka-zar: Guns of the Savage Land is Wyatt Wingfoot, the Fantastic Four supporting character who never really got enough space to call his own.  He's summoned to Nevada when a First Nations person turns up in a remote stretch of desert, showing signs of having had not prior interaction with the modern world.

After talking with the man, Wingfoot believes that he has come from an ancient underground land that may or may not be the source of the Hopi people, and may or may not be connected to the Savage Land.  He heads to England to recruit the Plunders - Ka-Zar and Shanna - to his cause.

We learn that Ka-Zar's gone a little nuts after being exiled from the Savage Land by its united people.  Shanna hopes that this job for Wyatt might help him, so they join up.  They eventually arrive in this place, finding the pre-Hopi people they were looking for, but also finding evidence that they have been in contact with the modern world, in the form of Pluto Fuel, an energy company that Ka-Zar actually owns.

It's not really clear if they are under the ground (there is light in the sky, but no sign of a sun, nor discussion of how the place is illuminated) or in a distant corner of the Savage Land that the Plunders hadn't traveled to.  There are dinosaurs, but absolutely no one finds that weird at all.

In no time, Ka-Zar gets the natives mobilized against the oil people, and the ex-French mercenary who runs their paramilitary.  Wingfoot does not like the way that Ka-Zar acts like a colonial power unto himself, and Shanna doesn't like the way Ka-Zar bosses her around.  I hope that this type of thing wasn't considered very progressive in 1990, because it feels a little forced and pandering today.

I also don't know where this OGN fits with the character's continuity.  At the end of the book, he's staying put in this land, and I don't remember much about the only other time Ka-Zar got any real play in the 90s, which was in Mark Waid's run with him, which I remember as being actually good.

While I didn't love the writing in this book, the art is very nice.  Gary Kwapisz is a talented artist who does not get enough recognition (I was recently reminded of his talent while rereading the Hawkworld ongoing series a little while ago).  Ricardo Villagran painted this book, and that makes it quite lovely, if a little bright.

This was an interesting artifact of a time when Marvel put out OGNs regularly, and gave them to C-list characters for no apparent reason.

The Interman

by Jeff Parker

Jeff Parker has had an impressive comics career, with his run on the Thunderbolts being a highpoint for me, and I suspect that The Interman is one of his first published comics.  Until I picked it up, I didn't know that Parker drew as well as wrote.

The Interman is Van Meach, a young man who was created as part of the Interman project, a Cold War era attempt at creating a super soldier.  Funding for the project came from five Western nations, but Van was the only successful product of the experiment.

The project was sabotaged at an early stage, and Van was raised secretly by his adopted parents.  As he grew, he demonstrated an ability to adapt to his situation or circumstances, in a manner similar to Darwin of the X-Men.  Now an adult, Van is trying to live off the grid, working jobs that make good use of his abilities, but avoiding attention at the same time.  When the book opens, he is trying to retrieve a satellite from the bottom of the ocean.

This job has a higher profile than he is used to, and now 'messengers', assassins from the various countries involved in his birth, are coming after him.  He has no choice but to try to research his past and figure out what is going on.

Parker blends superhuman activity with espionage very well, giving this a Jason Bourne feel to it, while keeping Van a likeable and believable person.  There are places where the writing is not as clear as it could be, but the charm of this book wins out.  Parker's art is nice; his lines are a little thick, but it works well here.

I'd like to see more from Parker.  His talents have been wasted at DC lately, and I think I'd be happier to see him return to independent comics, especially since his series Underground was brilliant.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Prince of Cats

by Ron Wimberly

I'll admit that I haven't read or really even thought about Romeo and Juliet since I was in Grade 10, so I'm sure that much of the innovation and coolness of this book was lost on me.  Even still, The Prince of Cats, Ron Wimberly's adaptation of Shakespeare's famous play, set in Brooklyn and featuring rival sword-wielding gangs, is pretty amazing.

The titular prince is Tybalt, of the Capulets, who spends his days and nights roaming his neighbourhood, trying to raise his status in the Duel List, a ranking of neighbourhood sword fighters.  He's interested in Juliet, but is also happy to spend time with Rosalyn.

Wimberly's characters spill blood on the dance floor, and chase each other through and atop moving subway trains.  His kinetic art propels the story along, often evoking Kyle Baker and Dark Knight-era Frank Miller.

Wimberly does some very cool things with language here, blending Shakespearian English with hiphop slang in a way that ends up sounding natural and not as affected as you might expect.

This entire project feels very organic and cool.  I've heard that Wimberly, who also drew rapper MF Grimm's biographical book Sentences, is currently working on adapting Saul Williams's brilliant MartyrLoserKing album into a graphic novel with him.  I cannot wait to see how that project turns out.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

How Loathsome

Written by Tristan Crane and Ted Naifeh
Art by Ted Naifeh

The comics shop that I've been buying from for close to twenty years is having to move by the end of 2016, since a developer has bought up two city blocks, and it looks like they are either going to be taking down the beautiful Victorian-era street that it operates out of, or the rent is going to be ridiculous.  Because of this, they've been blowing out backstock like mad, and I found this handsome hardcover in their discount annex for only a dollar.  Knowing nothing about it beyond the fact that it looks nice, I picked it up.

How Loathsome is a very good comic.  It was published in 2004 (presumably it was a four-issue miniseries first), and is set in San Francisco's seedy underbelly.  The main character is Catherine Gore, a writer, who runs with a group of genderfluid drug users.

Each of the four chapters tell a complete story featuring Catherine and some of her circle, as they fall for someone new, party, use, and talk about it.  Nothing major ever happens, but when the book ended, I was wishing there were more stories about these characters.

On two occasions, we read stories of Catherine's.  One features a monk who enters a suicide pact with his young lover, but then doesn't follow through after the boy kills himself.  The other is a ghost story.  They stand out a little, and disrupt the story, but give more insight into Catherine's character.

There is a definite early Vertigo feeling to this book, and Ted Naifeh's art matches that aesthetic well too.  I'm pleased I picked this up, and would recommend it to people who enjoy Ross (now Sophie) Campbell's Wet Moon.