Friday, 31 December 2010

Rob's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2010

Well, it’s that time of year when people on the internet start putting together ordered lists of the things they liked during the year that was, and as I am now a person on the internet, I thought I should probably do the same. This list is limited by the fact that I only read a dozen or so books in 2010 that were actually published in 2010, so stuff that I liked but didn’t necessarily love has made the list and stuff that I have bought, am sure I will love but haven’t actually read yet hasn’t made the list (apart from one book which I have sort of read). Whatever. Here’s the list anyway:

10. Ex Machina Vol.9: Ring Out the Old TPB

This penultimate volume in the Ex Machina series is something that probably wouldn’t have troubled my top ten if I had read more new graphic novels this year but I do like this series and am looking forward to seeing what happens in the final volume.

9. Wilson HC

Daniel Clowes’ first original graphic novel (i.e. his first graphic novel that had not previously been serialised elsewhere) didn’t exactly blow me away but it was still good stuff.

8. Planetary Vol.4: Spacetime Archaeology HC

This final volume in the Planetary series probably would have placed higher if I had actually read it (I only got it last week) but I did read the comics contained in this volume as they came out (over a very long period of time) and am sure that I will enjoy reading them again in one volume. Planetary is the best thing I have ever read by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday’s art is fantastic, and it’s one of my favourite series of recent years.

7. West: Justice HC

I like comics and I like westerns, so I liked this self-published collection of well-written western comics by Andrew Cheverton and Tim Keable a lot.

6. The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects HC

An enjoyable non-Hellboy book by Mike Mignola.

5. The Sword Vol.4 TPB

Another series by the talented Luna brothers comes to a (surprisingly downbeat) close. The fantasy-based story wasn’t exactly brilliant but this series was full of over-the-top action and was a lot of fun while it lasted. I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing in one go now that it’s done, and seeing what the Luna brothers come up with next.

4. Locke & Key Vol.3: Crown of Shadows HC

This third Locke & Key collection was my least favourite of the three volumes released so far, but it was still good stuff and I’m glad I finally got into this series this year.

3. The Wild Kingdom HC

This mini-comic-expanded-to-graphic-novel isn’t cartoonist Kevin Huizenga’s best work by a long way but it’s very clever and worth reading if you are already familiar with his better works. Huizenga is one of the best cartoonists around at the moment, if not the very best.

2. Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites HC

Great concept, great writing, great art. Beasts of Burden could be the next Hellboy, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson should be showered with money so that they can produce more great comics like this one. This series actually has an even bigger potential audience than Hellboy, what with the ‘beasts’ being a bunch of dogs and a cat who investigate the paranormal. I mean, who doesn’t love dogs? Cats I can take or leave.

1. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3

A clear winner, thanks mainly to Jaime’s touching story ‘Browntown’, which was the best comic story I read all year, but the rest of the book was pretty good, too.
Next time: My top comic-related bargains of 2010. Probably.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Review - Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites HC

This 180-page (approx.) hardcover, published by Dark Horse, collects Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s four-issue ‘Beasts of Burden' mini-series from 2009, plus four earlier Beasts of Burden strips the pair produced for various Dark Horse horror anthologies (‘The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings’, etc.). Beasts of Burden is a horror comic with a sense of humour and a twist – that twist being that the heroes of these stories are a bunch of dogs and a cat. These animals live in a neighbourhood called Burden Hill, hence the title of the series, which even Evan Dorkin, in his afterword to this book, admits is quite corny.

The book kicks off with the four strips that led to the ‘beasts’ getting their own mini-series. In these strips, which range from eight to twenty pages in length, our heroes deal with a haunted kennel, a coven of witches (and their cats), zombie dogs, and, in ‘A Dog and his Boy’, one of the dogs, Ace, befriends a boy who turns out to be a werewolf. These stories lead directly into the ‘Beasts of Burden’ mini-series, in which our heroes are declared ‘watchdogs’ (and ‘watch-cat’) of Burden Hill, junior apprentices in a society of (mostly) canine paranormal investigators, by the ‘wise dog’. From there, they tackle a giant, dog-eating frog in ‘The Gathering Storm’; solve the mystery of some missing puppies in ‘Lost’; Orphan, the sole cat member of the ‘Beasts of Burden’, and his cat pal ‘The Getaway Kid’, go into the sewers to search for a witch’s cat that Orphan has a soft spot for in ‘Something Whiskered This Way Comes’; and, in ‘Grave Happenings’, the ‘beasts’ tackle some mud monsters and a man who has risen from the dead in a graveyard. Throughout these stories, there is a bigger mystery building, which is not resolved at the end of the book, so hopefully there will be a lot more comics to come featuring these characters. There was a Hellboy / Beasts of Burden one-shot published recently and I am very tempted to break the first rule of ‘On The Ration’ – ‘Thou shall not pay more than £1.20, including postage, for any comic published by a company with a Diamond exclusive distribution deal’ – and pay full price for a copy, as I really liked this book.

Dorkin has managed to give all of these animals distinct personalities and his scripts are witty, touching, and occasionally disturbing (the last page of the story ‘Lost’ was particularly unsettling), while Jill Thompson’s painted art is pretty much perfect. This the sort of book that could have a very wide appeal, and if I were a richer, more generous man, I would rush out and buy copies for all my non-comic reading friends and relatives, confident that most of them would love it. In an ideal world, this book would be a best-seller and would kick all those Twilight / True Blood books off the top of the book charts. I mean, it’s a great-looking horror comic with dogs and cats in it – who wouldn’t want to read a book like this?

This has a cover price of $19.99 / £14.99. Amazon and the Book Depository both have it for around £12.50 at the moment but the cheapest place online right now seems to be Forbidden Planet International, who have it for £10.34 (plus £1.00 for postage). I got my copy from Amazon when it first came out in June (I pre-ordered it) and it was only £10.92. I then gave it to my wife to give to me for Christmas, which is why I have only just read it, so all it cost me in the end was the small piece of my soul that dies every time I have to persuade someone else to buy me a book that I can’t afford because I’m unemployed. Result!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Review - Love and Rockets: New Stories #3

Now this is more like it. After two slightly disappointing issues, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez deliver a great third issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories. Once again, Gilbert provides two connected strips. The first, ‘Scarlet By Starlight’, is a sci-fi tale in which three humans take advantage of some aliens on another planet. One of these aliens is a big-titted cat-woman, whose relationship with one of the humans has disastrous consequences for her family. It’s a sexy / disturbing tale and I liked it quite a lot. And like Gilbert’s strips in L&R:NS #2, it is linked to his other strip in this issue, ‘Killer * Sad Girl * Star’, by Killer, a teenage actress who seems doomed to star in remakes and sequels. Killer has been offered the chance to star in a remake of ‘Scarlet By Starlight’, as well as the sequel to a superhero film she starred in as a child, and her parents are worried that she might be exploited. In my review of L&R:NS #2, I complained that that issue’s Killer strip seemed a bit pointless, but now I am somewhat intrigued by this cold character, who appears to leave a female police officer for dead after seeing her attacked, and I really like the way that Gilbert linked his two (seemingly unrelated) strips in this issue and the last by having one of the strips turn out to be the comic strip version of an old film that Killer may or may not remake. I also now realise that Killer looks a lot like a young Luba because she is the daughter of Luba’s daughter, Guadalupe, which I probably should have known already (note to self: make sure you read / re-read all of L&R Vol.2 before you pass judgement on L&R:NS #4).

As good as Gilbert’s strips in this issue are, though, Jaime’s two strips are even better. The first, ‘The Love Bunglers’, is about an adult Maggie’s sort-of date with her ex-boyfriend, Ray, who is still in love with her. We also discover that Maggie has a stalker, whose identity is not revealed until the last page of the strip. The highlight of this issue, though, is Jaime’s other strip, ‘Browntown’, starring a ten-to-thirteen-year-old Maggie, her kid sister Esther, and her little brother Calvin. I don’t remember seeing Calvin in L&R before (note to self: make sure you read / re-read all of L&R Vol.2 and L&R Vol.1 before you even think about passing judgement on L&R:NS #4) but his fate in this story, the lengths he goes to protect his mother and his sisters, while his father fools around with a female work colleague and his parents’ marriage falls apart, is really upsetting. This great little story also serves as an origin tale of sorts for Maggie the mechanic and Maggie the punk and would have been worth the price of the book on its own.

Some familiarity with both Jaime and Gilbert’s characters may be necessary in order to fully appreciate their strips in this issue, which unfortunately means that this issue is unlikely to hook in many new readers, but I guess that is always going to be a problem as long as they continue to produce stories about these well-established characters. For readers already familiar with them, though, or for those with time and money available to invest in getting to know the Hernandez brothers’ back catalogue, this is a pretty essential purchase.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99 but I got my copy from the Book Depository for £8.22 including postage (it has since gone down in price to £8.08). It was worth every penny.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Review - Love and Rockets: New Stories #2

This second issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories was more disappointing than the first issue, mainly because I found the second half of Jaime’s superhero story, ‘Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34’, a bit of a struggle to get through. This might have been a fun story at twenty or thirty pages, but a hundred pages spread over two issues was a bit much for me. It looked great, of course, and had its moments – I really liked the bit where Angel’s mum told her that all women are born with super-powers, which most of them lose as they get older, but that guys have ‘gotta go out an’ have lab accidents and other stuff to get their cajones’ – but mostly it dragged and I really hope Jaime gets back to some more down to earth stories soon.

Gilbert provided two (connected) stories for this issue. The first, ‘Sad Girl’, was about a girl called Killer who had starred in the remake of an old art house movie – which her friends think was a porn movie – but didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. It may have been connected to other stories that I can’t remember from earlier issues of L&R – Killer has massive tits and looks a lot like a young Luba – but on its own it seemed to serve little purpose, other than to lead into the next (longer) strip, ‘Hypnotwist’, which was the comic strip version of the old film Killer remade. It’s a silent, surreal strip. It made no sense (to me) but it looked good and I quite liked it. It was hardly essential reading, though.

I really like the new graphic novel format for Love and Rockets but I’m not sure that either of the issues released so far will have attracted many new readers, which was presumably the point of the relaunch. Hopefully, the Hernandez brothers can produce some stories for future issues that take better advantage of the format – more self-contained stories – and seem more essential.

Cost: I paid $14.99 – about £10.00 – for this in Isotope Comics in San Francisco, on a recent holiday in California. I don’t regret buying it but I probably should have waited until I got home, as the Book Depository have it for just £7.88.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Review - Love and Rockets: New Stories #1

I bought this when it came out back in 2008 but I’m embarrassed to admit that I have only just read it and only recently bought last year’s Love and Rockets New Stories #2 and this year’s #3. I guess the main reason that I put off reading this for so long is that I got a bit confused about where I was in the lives of Maggie, Hopey, Luba, etc. I mean, I bought every issue of Love and Rockets Vol.2 and have all (or most) of the books collecting that material but I really can’t remember whether or not I read the last half a dozen issues or not – because a lot of the stories were continuing and the comic was published quite infrequently, I usually saved them up until I had a few issues to read in one go – and I may also not have read the last couple of Love and Rockets books I bought. In short, I didn’t read this because I felt like I needed to re-read a lot of Volume 2 in order to catch up and didn’t know where to start. In the end, though, I figured Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 should be a good jumping on point for new readers and a good place for long-time fans like me to get back onboard, so I started here anyway.

The decision to re-launch Love and Rockets was probably a good one. As I said, it was just getting too hard to keep up with all those continuing stories when we were only getting about 15 pages each from Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (with some input from their brother Mario) three times a year (or less). Love and Rockets: New Stories – Love and Rockets Vol.3 – is now published annually, as a 100-page graphic novel, giving Jaime and Gilbert approximately 50 pages each to play with per issue. However, I’m not sure that either of these great graphic-novelists really took full advantage of the new format in this issue. Jaime used his 50 pages to tell one long story, but it was only the first half of the story, which is concluded in #2. I think I would have found this extremely frustrating if I had read this when it came out and had to wait a whole year to read the second half of the story, and I am already worried that I may end up having the same problem with this incarnation of Love and Rockets that I had with the previous volume, and will be saving issues up until I have completed stories to read. Meanwhile, Gilbert produced seven short strips for this volume, two of which were loosely connected (and apparently also connected to ‘Julio’s Day’, a story from L&R Vol.2 that I haven’t read properly yet), one of which was written by Mario Hernandez (I have never managed to get into any of Mario’s stories, I’m afraid), and none of which made much sense (to me, at least).

Gilbert was once my favourite Hernandez brother – Heartbreak Soup and Human Diastrophism are two of my favourite comic stories and that massive Palomar hardcover is one of my favourite books – but I seem to have slowly lost interest in his work over the years. These days, I tend to enjoy his more surreal, throwaway strips (the sort of strips he did in that New Love comic a few years ago) more than I enjoy his Luba comics, which seem to have way too much sex in them now. It may be that there is no more sex in them now than there was back in the days of L&R Vol.1, and the problem may be that I am just more prudish these days, but ever since Birdland I have found that sex tends to overpower a lot of his stories and I just wish he’d calm it down a bit. But I have even lost interest in the tamer projects he does for the likes of Vertigo, etc., for some reason. His strips in Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 fall into the throwaway / surreal category, rather than the ‘adult’ category, but they are not his best work. ‘Papa’, which is about an old man who suffers a series of misfortunes as he attempts to make a delivery, was my favourite of Gilbert’s strips in this issue but even that was a bit too weird. ‘The New Adventures of Duke and Sammy’, about two old-style entertainers who end up fighting aliens on another planet, was also weird but fun, at least, while the other Gilbert stories here didn’t do much for me at all. I still love the way he draws, though.

Surprisingly, Jaime’s story, ‘Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34’, was an old-fashioned superhero strip which only contained a brief appearance by his most famous character, Maggie. Instead, Maggie’s friend Angel teamed up with a superhero called Alarma, from snooty super-team the Fenomenoms, and then the various members of B-list super-team the Ti-Girls, to take down Penny Century, who had finally achieved her dream of acquiring super-powers and was on the rampage. It was a fun story and Jaime’s artwork was perfect, as usual, but I’m not sure that I needed to see the words ‘to be continued next issue’ on the last page, as I was getting slightly bored well before the end of this instalment and would rather read some of his more down to earth stories.

Really, neither brother delivered the best stories they are capable of in this issue. I’m confident that Jaime, at least, will produce other comics that I fall in love with in future, and I really hope that Gilbert can do the same. I’m glad I finally read this and am glad I bought the next two issues, too, but I am genuinely worried that I might lose interest and fall behind with the series again sometime. I’m a waiting-for-the-trade kind of person these days anyway and much prefer graphic novels to periodical comics. Under normal circumstances, I would just stop buying this series and wait for the trades, but this is perhaps the only comic that I still buy in periodical format – as well as in graphic novel format – mainly out of a sense of loyalty to two truly great creators whose comics have given me so much enjoyment over the years. I will probably continue to buy this series, even if it is just a periodical disguised as a graphic novel, but it would be nice if at least some future issues were self-contained.

Cost: I honestly don’t remember how much I paid for this, or even where I bought it. The cover price is $14.99, which is about £10.00, but both Amazon and the Book Depository have it for under £8.00 at the moment.

Review; Live Static

The first thing I notice about Live Static is how good the production is. It’s a neat, perfect bound book that looks at if it’s been sent to me fresh from the printer’s press. It feels as if it will stay in mint condition no matter how many times I handle it and presuming I don’t run over it in the car or drop it into the bath.

Live Static is story of a couple who seem to be drifting apart. He is increasingly distant while she is growing more frustrated with him. All he wants to do is watch TV while she wants to go to the beach. All he ever seems to be happy watching on TV is Channel 8 and all Channel 8 ever seems to show is the same film about a dead woman’s mutilated body being found in the woods. Is the film just a release for him or is it directing him in how to finish his relationship with his partner or is it a record of how it actually ended?

This is another creepy story by Douglas Noble (see my review of Sightings of Wallace Sendek), this time drawn by him as well. Douglas’s art style is deadpan, drawn with distinct contrasts between strong blacks and whites. The effect of this art combined with his dialogue is very atmospheric, sending dark tendrils into the little parts of the imagination.

Live Static costs £7, price includes postage to the UK, and copies can be ordered from Douglas’s website
Strip For Me.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Review - Ex Machina Vol.9: Ring Out The Old TPB

In this penultimate volume in the Ex Machina series, which collects Ex Machina issues 40 to 44 and Ex Machina Special #4, creators Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris make an appearance in their own comic as they audition to produce the comic book autobiography of New York mayor Mitchell Hundred, formerly the superhero known as ‘The Great Machine’. Also, Mitchell realises that comic collecting isn’t that great for the environment (all that non-recycled paper preserved in plastic bags for all eternity) and, in the main story, a plague of man-eating rats leads him to discover why he really got his powers (he can talk to / control machines) and we find out how he really managed to win the election.

It’s another good book in a good series. Brian K. Vaughan’s script is witty and intelligent, like most of his scripts, and Tony Harris’s art is clean and realistic. John Paul Leon’s art on Ex Machina Special #4, while completely different in style, is very good, too. Ex Machina is something I always enjoy reading but, for some reason, I usually struggle to get excited about it. Still, the ending of this volume left me keen to move on to the final volume and I’m pretty sure that I will want to re-read this series at some point in the future, possibly in some fancy format.

This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 (well, that’s the rip-off Titan Books price on the back cover) but the Book Depository have it for just £7.43 at the moment (it’s £9.89 on Amazon!). I got the copy I read out of my local library, who ordered it in especially for me, and all I had to pay was a 25p reservation fee. It’s no wonder the country is in such a mess, when the local council is helping to fund my comic reading habit, but I really hope they can get me a copy of Ex Machina Vol. 10, too.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review; Steve Rogers Super Soldier 1 – 4

The former and, let’s face it, future Captain America, Steve Rogers, is now known as Super Soldier and just like Norman Osborn and Iron Man before him, seems to be in charge of the Marvel Universe. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bullshit position but Marvel insist that it should exist and so, I suppose, in the circumstances, Rogers is the best man for the job.

In this mini series, Rogers is tipped off by Wisdom from the Captain Britain comics that the grandson of Professor Erskine has cracked the super soldier serum code and intends to sell it to dodgy foreign governments. Actually, it’s all part of some trap by Machinesmith, a super villain I remember from John Byrne’s excellent but short lived run on the comic when I was a kid. He needs Rogers for the final bit of the formula and, while he’s at it, de-super-soldiers him, making him just some skinny Joe again.

It’s written by long time Captain America writer Ed Brubaker and, I suppose, serves as a spin-off from the main title. It’s a fun yarn with some cool moments such as Steve Rogers defying the assumption that just because he’s skinny now doesn’t mean he’s forgotten all of his special fighting moves. However, the story isn’t entirely free from flaws. Why, for example, if Machinesmith is so good at robotics, so good in fact that he can, for example, download his own consciousness to any electronic device, would it be so important to him to make a fortune by illegal means outside of his speciality? Why doesn’t he just sell his robot patents? I would be okay with this sort of muddled super villain logic if Marvel wasn’t in the midst of an age of plausibility, where character’s motives are being over rationalised to tedium. Also, Brubaker’s story telling is becoming increasingly spacious. I know this is the modern way but this really could have been told just as well at half the length.

Steve Rogers Super Soldier is a four part series I won in an eBay auction for £4.70, which is 10p under budget. Yay me!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Review - Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Vol.1 TPB

Sweet Christmas! It’s the Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Vol.1, collecting Luke Cage, Hero For Hire issues 1 to 16 and Luke Cage, Power Man issues 17 to 27 (same comic, different title) in glorious black and white.

As a kid, Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my favourite comics – not quite up there with Marvel Team-Up, the X-Men and Daredevil, but still near the top of my reading pile every month – but these early, pre-Iron Fist issues predate my relationship with Marvel Comics by a few years (I was only three years old when Hero For Hire #1 came out in 1972). I have always fancied reading these comics, even though I suspected that they wouldn’t be very good. But you know what? I quite enjoyed reading this. I mean, it’s not great literature by any means, but it was good fun, for the most part. At the very least, I got to find out that Cage isn’t Luke’s real surname (although we don’t get to find out what his real surname is), I got to find out that he weighs 300lbs (I know this because it gets mentioned at least once in every single issue), and I got to read that legendary (well, legendary on the internet) two-parter from Hero For Hire issues 8 and 9 where Luke chases Doctor Doom all the way to Latveria because Doom owes him $200, confronting him with the classic line: ‘Where’s my money, honey?’ Best of all, after quite a bit of fighting, Doom pays up!

At the beginning of Hero For Hire #1, Luke is in an Alcatraz-like island-prison, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. The guards don’t like him much and beat him regularly, so when he gets offered a shot at parole if he agrees to take part in a dodgy medical experiment that has already killed several other prisoners, he accepts. Naturally, things go wrong and Luke ends up with super-strength and bullet-proof skin. He then uses his super-strength to bust out of jail and heads to New York, where he adopts the identity of Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, and vows revenge on the man who put him in prison and got his fiancee killed – his former friend, Willis Stryker, A.K.A. Diamond Back.

Diamond Back is a pretty crappy villain, who thankfully gets killed in HFH #2, but compared to some of the other losers Luke faces in this book – Mace, Chemistro, Lionfang, Stiletto, Cottonmouth, etc. – he is pretty bloody good. Luckily, though, Luke Cage is a strong enough character to carry this book on his own. Not that he needed to carry the book on his own, as Marvel gave him a cast of crappy supporting characters: D.W., the personality-free hippy kid who manages the building Luke rents an office in, Dr Claire Temple, who is Luke’s love interest, and Dr Noah Burstein, the same doctor who performed that life-changing experiment on Luke in prison, but he now runs a Harlem clinic with Claire Temple (perhaps to atone for all those experiments he conducted on black prisoners, although Luke doesn’t seem that bothered about this aspect of Doc Burstein’s past and considers him a friend). Still, Luke could have easily carried this book without any supporting characters, as he is good enough on his own and, like The Thing, lends himself to lots of one-liners. I particularly like the fact that Cage is a superhero for hire. I mean, he still has a heart of gold and does lots of jobs for free, but he usually expects to get paid for his work, unlike part-timers like Spider-Man, which seems quite sensible to me.

The first few issues here are written by Archie Goodwin, with art by George Tuska – an artist I have never given much thought to before but he seemed very well suited to this series. Then we get a bunch of issues written by Steve Englehart, most of which are still pencilled by George Tuska but some of which are pencilled by inker Billy Graham – who isn’t bad but isn’t as good as Tuska. When the title first changes its name to Luke Cage, Power Man, we get a couple of issues written by Len Wein – I liked the way that Luke decided on the name Power Man after saying ‘black power, man’ and liking the sound of it – but then Tony Isabella takes over as regular writer, Ron Wilson takes over as penciller, and the stories and the art become more and more simple, with lots of crudely drawn, unnecessary splash pages. Some issues in the second half of the book are still pencilled by George Tuska but many of these are inked by Vince Colletta and don’t look as good as the earlier Tuska issues.

I got a bit bored towards the end of the book – partly because the issues by Tony Isabella and Ron Wilson were pretty bad and partly because I always tend to lose enthusiasm towards the end of these Essential books, as there is only so much Silver / Bronze Age Marvel a man can take in one sitting – but things picked up a bit in the very last issue, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by George Perez, so I shouldn’t think it will be too long before I move on to the next volume in this series, which I also own.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £12.99 / $16.99 but you can usually get it cheaper. It seems to be out of print at the moment but I got my copy on eBay a few months ago for £5.00. I bought it from a local seller so I was able to collect it in person and save on postage costs and I was also able to buy several more Essential / Showcase books from him for a fiver each, so it ended up being a pretty good deal.

P.S. Luke Cage didn’t say ‘Sweet Christmas!’ once in this book, even though it’s something that I always associate with the character. He did say ‘Christmas!’ a lot, though.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review; Spider-Man Noir 1-4

A couple of years ago, Marvel published a series of short run comics where a number of their characters are reinvented in the Noir genre. I’m not really sure what this means. Noir conjures up thoughts of stark black and white imagery but Spider-Man Noir is published in colour. Of the titles available, I have only ever been curious about this one, it being co-written by David Hine, a modern mainstream writer I normally enjoy and feel is underrated.

In this, the basic Spider-Man conceit is transposed onto prohibition New York. Peter Parker comes from a family of passionate socialists whose Uncle Ben has recently been killed by the lackeys of crime boss Norman Osborn AKA The Goblin. Jaded Daily Bugle journalist Ben Urich takes the angry Parker under his wing but is soon shamed by the young man into taking action against the corrupt system that allows Osborn to maintain his power. Around this time, Parker gains his super-powers via supernatural rather than scientific means as befitting the era and uses his new abilities to fight crime.

The term Noir also conjures up thoughts of characters of dubious morality and there are several here. Urich is a drug user, The Black Cat a nightclub madam, while the Parkers are angry socialists. Portraying Spider-Man as being politically influenced this way is perhaps the most subversive thing about this story and must have annoyed some readers. However, I think this is perfectly acceptable as this sort of hero motivation wasn’t uncommon at this time. I mean, look at the first Superman comic strips from the end of the thirties, for example. Often the all American hero is seen fighting for workers rights against corrupt businessmen.

Artist Carmine Di Giandomenico has a spiky style which is completely suited to this creepy and off-centre portrayal of Spider-Man. His colour work, however, seems a little muted, as if he is trying to maintain some of the remit as suggested by the title on this occasion. Spider-Man Noir is an enjoyable mash-up of property and genre but I kept thinking as I was reading it, with some adjustment, this could make a great Night Raven story. Or a nourish comic free from established properties in its own right.

Budgetary stats; The comics cost me £2 for the set plus an additional £2 for the postage as part of an eBay win. That’s £1 each. That’s within budget!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Review; Fall of the Hulks and World War Hulks

Fall of the Hulks Alpha/Gamma
Hulk 18 – 23
Incredible Hulk 606 – 611
Red Hulk 1 – 4
Savage She-Hulks 1 – 3
World War Hulks 1
Hulked Out Heroes 1 - 2

Two ongoing titles featuring two separate leads running two separate story threads by two separate creative teams get tied together in two cross overs, Fall of the Hulks and World War Hulks. I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that when Jeff Loeb’s Hulk and Greg Pak’s Skaar Son of Hulk comics started, apart from the obvious overlap in the titles names, they were separate in every other sense. Reading eighteen months worth of these comics inside a short space of time it feels as if somebody, maybe editorial, continually adjusted the parameters everyone was working to so that they had no choice but to acknowledge each others existence and find a way of living together.

The two big stories lead into each other and are essentially one. In it, we learn that Hulk’s number one enemy, The Leader, is part of a society of Marvel’s brainiest super villains called The Intelligentsia whose members include Doctor Doom, MODOK and The Mad Thinker. They plan to ‘save’ the world (take over the world) by abducting the eight smartest superheroes (not ‘people’, as they claim, otherwise they would have gone after Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky) and steal their brain processing powers. Part of their plan involves them taking over The White House by attacking it with two hundred Hulkified soldiers which, thanks to the testing process leading up to the big day, is what led to the creation of the Red Hulk and She-Hulk. It’s a totally crazy, larger than life, super monster story that, at least, should be admired for its willingness to embrace complete lunacy.

Firstly, trying to read the individual comics and experience the narrative as intended was very difficult. Each issue features a checklist at the back indicating what comics were published when and suggesting which order they should be read in but the iconography used on the story-so-far openings implies a different order. The result was that whatever way I read the story, and I adjusted my method two or three times throughout, the impact of a revelation was constantly being undermined by it being referred to before elsewhere. I have often found cross-overs to be unsatisfying but I am surprised that one that runs over just two regular titles, the occasional one-off and mini-serial couldn’t be coordinated better. On the plus side, everyone involved seemed to do a good job of retro-rationalising events from when they worked independently of each other. Admittedly, the rationale is often daft but it at least keeps within its own internal logics.

The disconcerted effect of reading the story, it reminded me of being four years old and sliding around the kitchen in my father’s giant shoes, is added to further by the adhoc spin-off specials and serials. Jeff Parker writes a couple of these, Red Hulk and Savage She-Hulks, both of which fit as well into Loeb and Pak’s narratives as their comics do. Parker’s stories work like DVD extras, virtually inaccessible without the main event, which is a shame because of the three writers, he’s normally the more preferable. His two-part Hulked Out Heroes was very disappointing. In it, a Hulk version of Deadpool flits around the timelines in search of an earlier version of himself to murder. Instead of encountering real historical figures he instead involves himself in earlier Marvel mythologies. It’s a Marvel Comics contrivance these days that every science fiction idea has to be shoe-horned into its own chronology instead of the raw premise being explored to its satisfaction.

Pak’s stories feature all of the power that I’ve grown to expect from his Hulk adventures but seemed to lack some of the intensity of his Planet Hulk. Ironically, Loeb’s issues seemed brighter, as if Pak was the giver and Loeb the taker away. Fundamentally, though, the dumb remains with the dead Betty Ross revealed as the Red She-Hulk, General Ross as the Red Hulk and all plot contradictions dismissed as being down to LMDs (Life Model Decoys or robots). At least the General Ross revelation answers the lifelong question, what happens if you grow a moustache before turning into the Hulk?

The art ranged from the downbeat to the special-effects driven but all of it looked impressive to me. Paul Pelletier’s fight scenes on The Incredible Hulk issues has the impact of a motorway collision while Ed McGuiness on Hulk benefits from not having to reference Marvel comics from decades earlier too much. I want to give a special mention to Salvador Espin whose more cartoony work on Savage She-Hulks looks energetic and fresh amongst all of the mayhem.

As for the budgetary stats; Well, I’ve lost track a little. The bulk of them I got for 50p or less. There were literally only four holes I had to plug at full price, £2.60 each. These comics are good pop-fun and, for what I paid for them over all, good value for money.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Review - Shade The Changing Man Book 3

On a recent visit to London, I was idly browsing through the section of reduced graphic novels in FP and I came across two books that I was very interested in. I didn't buy the reduced HC of Gotham Central Book 3, because £18 seemed a bit steep for a scuffed book, and I had a feeling that Book 1 might be out of print.

However, I could see nothing wrong with the £9.99 copy of Shade Book 3 when I compared it to the £14.99 copies of the book at the other end of the store, so I eagerly exchanged said funds for a copy of this marvellous book.

I think I first fell upon Shade when DC launched the Vertigo line, so somewhere in the thirties. Although I've subsequently bought a lot of the individual issues, I've never had a full run, so I've never read 'The American Scream' from start to finish. This book, collecting issues 14-19, includes the final 5 issues of that epic story.

The first issue is drawn by Bryan Talbot, and although it's rare to be underwhelmed by his artwork, I find it completely overshadowed by the first page of issue 15, and the first sighting in this book of Chris Bachalo's wonderfully playful panel design.

The culmination of 'The American Scream' is completely madcap and more or less impossible to describe. It's a heckuva ride.

But more pertinently, the final issue in this collection is issue 19, a Christmas story called 'Bethlehem USA'. In this story, Shade is held captive by a lunatic who thinks Shade is the New Messiah and who plans to stage a Christmas Day massacre because he hates Christmas. It all turns out okay in the end, and the artwork, as ever is marvellous.

It takes the form of a letter from Shade to Kathy, and in this letter, he mentions how they celebrate on Meta.

"In older days folk would dig up the actual bones of their relatives and hang them in their parlors, festooned with garlands of flowers and tinsel. Nowadays, the skeletons are plastic, usually filled with a special liquid that glows with bright colours. Sometimes the plastic skeletons play tunes. Some people think the day of bones is becoming too commercial. We're forgetting the real meaning of digging up our ancestor's skeletons."

It's a perfect introduction to the series, a relaxing interlude after the madness of 'The American Scream', and for £9.99 it's a steal. (Of course, it's even cheaper online)

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Object of Desire - Daredevil: The Devil's Hand TPB

I would like to take a moment here to congratulate Marvel Comics on ruining Daredevil, which had been, for quite a few years, their very best title. It was certainly one of my favourite comics. I loved Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s run on the title (I really must re-read that sometime) and Ed Brubaker’s run was pretty good, too. Best of all, both runs were free from the taint of Marvel’s many crossovers. I mean, there was a ‘Nuff Said issue early on in Bendis’s run, but that hardly counts as a crossover event, and stuff like House of M, Civil War and Secret Invasion didn’t make so much as a dent in the title, even though two of those events were written by Bendis. I guess it couldn’t last, though, and recently DD was hit by the ‘Shadowland’ event, which has almost killed my interest in the title.

‘Shadowland’ was a five issue, Daredevil-led mini-series which crossed over with various Marvel comics, including Daredevil. I haven’t read it and don’t really know what happens in it, but I do know that it isn’t supposed to be very good. It also brought major changes to Daredevil’s life, and pretty soon the monthly Daredevil title will be changing its name to ‘Black Panther: The Man Without Fear’, which doesn’t sound very promising at all.

Under normal circumstances, I would just call it a day, be grateful for the good issues I did get to read and move on to something else. The thing is, though, I’m a big Daredevil fan, and I’m tempted to buy this volume – the first volume by new writer Andy Diggle – just to see what it is like. Part of the problem, I think, is that both Bendis and Brubaker are incapable of ending a story (see pretty much everything Bendis has ever written and Brubaker’s Captain America run for further details), so this book follows on from Brubaker’s run, which itself followed on from the end of Bendis’s run, and I feel almost obliged to check this out and see what happens next, even if it does lead into ‘Shadowland’. I own rather a lot of Daredevil graphic novels and have a long run of Daredevil comics, so this would have to be really bad for me not to want to own it at all.

Still, I’m not prepared to pay the full £14.99 cover price for this – it only collects six comics! – or even the current Amazon price of £9.50. Instead, I will be looking out for a cheap copy on eBay and will let you know how much it sucks when I get a copy.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Review - Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper

Speaking of Kevin Huizenga, which I was the other day, I found this a few days ago, buried under a pile of books, still unread even though I bought it when it came out back in 2008. According to the back cover, ‘Fight or Run’ is an open source comics game, and this mostly silent comic reads just like a game. In ‘Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper’ a cast of unusual characters – ‘Chopper’, ‘Kid Cocktail’, ‘Seven Seas’, ‘Kid President’, ‘#1 Song’, ‘Bride To Be’, ‘Taxpayer’, ‘Pronouncement’, ‘Make A Wish’, ‘McSkulls’, and more – square off against each other and have to decide whether to fight or run, with the winner of each increasingly bizarre confrontation declared on the last panel of each strip. It’s very simply drawn but also quite complex and difficult to follow in places. It’s far from essential reading – and I say this as a Kevin Huizenga fan – but it does reward repeated readings, it is fun and I suspect that Huizenga had even more fun drawing it.

Cost: This has a cover price of $3.95, so I guess I paid something like £3.00 for it, but I can’t remember now because, like I said, I bought it in 2008.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Review - The Wild Kingdom HC

I am not really up to speed with what is going on in the world of ‘alternative’ comics these days, although I wish I was and I fully intend to catch up with anthologies like Mome and Kramers Ergot at some point (i.e. if and when I ever get a job). In the 1990s, pretty much all I bought was alternative comics, but when I almost gave up on comics entirely for a couple of years in the late-1990s, it was superhero comics that eventually dragged me back in. I still kept up with Love and Rockets, bought Cerebus right up to the (very) bitter end (although I still haven’t managed to work up the enthusiasm to read the last 100 or so issues), still bought Eightball, kept up with new works by Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, Chester Brown, etc., but my exposure to works by new alt. cartoonists was limited while I spent several years trying to recapture my childhood by filling gaps in my Daredevil collection. In retrospect, I did not choose wisely.

One relatively new alternative cartoonist I have managed to get in to, however, is Kevin Huizenga. I first saw his work in Ganges #1, part of Fantagraphics’ Ignatz series. The stories in Ganges are about Huizenga’s everyman character Glenn Ganges – who reminds me of Robert Crumb’s Flakey Foont – and his wife Wendy, and #1 (it’s now up to #3) is one of my favourite comics ever. It was certainly my favourite comic of 2006. In it, Glenn pondered time travel, the private lives of litterbugs, the meaning behind some Beatles songs, and what goes on in the minds of other people as they struggle to get to sleep, and it’s a great piece of work. I quickly tracked down most of Huizenga’s other comics, which include the Drawn & Quarterly series ‘Or Else’ (also featuring Glenn Ganges) and the excellent 2006 hardcover ‘Curses’, which collects some of Huizenga’s strips for various anthologies and magazines. I haven’t liked all of his comics, but I admire even the stuff I don’t like that much and some of his stuff is brilliant.

‘The Wild Kingdom’ is a new (2010) hardcover, published by Drawn & Quarterly (as was ‘Curses’), but it is really just an expanded reprint of Or Else #4 from 2006, which was itself an expanded reprint of a story from a self-published comic (Super-Monster #12) that Huizenga put together in 1999 / 2000. It’s not my favourite work by the cartoonist by a long way, but it’s an interesting book, presented in the style of a biology textbook but really nothing of the sort. It contains a whole bunch of weird, mixed-up parodies of TV ads, some apple reviews, and a bizarre-looking guide to fancy pigeons, but the main story running through the book concerns Glenn Ganges’ interactions with nature. He squashes a bug; he eats an apple; he observes a squirrel; he watches a pigeon get run over by a car after it eats too much discarded junk food to fly away; he puts a beetle he finds in his laundry room in a jar and places it in his garden, only for the beetle to be attacked by Glenn’s pet cat. It’s an odd, seemingly inconsequential story – and a quick read, as most of it is silent – that has major consequences when the hawk that eats the squashed pigeon lands on a telephone wire. The ad parodies are more unusual, reading more like a bad dream about adverts than actual adverts, and feature ads for products such as ‘Sliced Balls’ and the ‘Famous Ghost’ TV show. My favourite thing in here, I think, was the guide to some of the animals featured in the book, and I particularly liked this description of the grey squirrel: ‘Moving gracefully, their fluffy tails undulating elegantly, they sting only to paralyze their victims. Enemies: chipmunks, red squirrels. Friends: a few in high school’.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to readers unfamiliar with Huizenga’s better works. Really, you should probably check out Ganges issues 1 to 3 and the Curses HC first, and then move on to this later. It is a good book, though. I don’t regret buying it but I do slightly regret paying $19.95 (the full cover price) for it in Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles on a recent trip to America. It’s currently only £8.78 at the Book Depository and I already own a copy of Or Else #4, which only cost $5.95 when it came out, and I really can’t see much difference between that and this, apart from the addition of some colour and a few additional pages near the end. I think I’ll forgive myself for my moment of fiscal recklessness, though, as I rarely go in any good comic shops anymore and found myself a bit overwhelmed when confronted by a shop as good as Meltdown Comics. Plus I am happy to own any book by Kevin Huizenga, even if it is just a slightly different version of something I already have.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Review; The Incredible Hulk 601 – 605 & Dark Reign The List

Continuing my reading of The Hulk in Bulk: In this run of comics, Bruce Banner, thanks to the Red Hulk and Jeff Loeb, no longer transforms into his green alter-ego but instead is attempting to provide some fatherly guidance to his ‘I’ve-grown-quickly-but-now-stopped’ son, Skaar. This means manoeuvring him into conflicts with more endearing Marvel characters such as The Juggernaut, The Mole Man and The Fantastic Four. I know I’ve said before that one of the things I admire about writer Greg Pak is his contribution of new concepts to this world but it’s greatly satisfying to see a new character I’ve grown to like sparing with others I’ve known since childhood.

Pak portrays Banner as dynamic which is at odds with how I feel the character should behave although not necessarily with how he’s appeared in the past. Often, he appears as heroic although burdened by his uncontrollable physical change. In these issues he no longer has this problem, although he doesn’t believe it himself, which is refreshing. It’s like Pak is winking at the reader and saying, ‘we all know Banner being cured has been forced upon us by somebody else and isn’t permanent, but trust me; we’re going to have fun in the meantime.’ The dynamic between Banner and Skaar, super smart guy and slow witted strong man, is similar to the one Pak utilises in Hercules and so, I suppose, couldn’t stay here for long anyway.

Ariel Olivetti is the main artist. He looks like, for these issues, to have produced fully painted characters dropped onto a computer generated backgrounds or actual photographs. Although his use of photography isn’t as strong as Terry Wiley’s in Verity Fair, the result feels fresh and bold just the same. Other artists such as Giuseppe Camuncoli and Paul Pelletier provide more traditionally produced sequences which, at first, are jarring but still look great.

These comics retailed for a shocking $3.99 each, although I got them from a dealer at a comic event for 50p each, and so come with a compensatory All New Savage She-Hulk backup story. This is a third She-Hulk character currently in existence along with the original and the red one, although this one looks like the missing link between the two of them with her green skin and bright red hair. As it happens, creators Fred Van Lente, Michael Ryan and Sergio Arino sell this latest version to me quite well thanks to their story featuring all of the drama and action a superhero comic strip should have.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Review - Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller TPB

It’s hard to believe it now, but back in the late-1970s / early-1980s, even though he was one of Marvel’s most popular characters and was certainly the most popular character in the then-best-selling Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine didn’t even have his own comic. These days, he has at least two monthly solo titles, also features in the odd mini-series, and is in at least one of the current X-Men teams and the New Avengers. He may even appear in other Marvel titles on a regular basis, too, for all I know. But back then, he had to make do with a co-staring role in the Uncanny X-Men and the odd guest appearance in titles like Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One. He didn’t even have his own movie franchise! In 1982, however, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller took pity on the little fella and gave him his own four-issue mini-series, opening the door for the glut of Wolverine crap that followed and giving the world the classic / corny catchphrase: ‘I’m Wolverine. I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.’

In 1982, I liked Wolverine a lot and I loved Frank Miller for what had done with Daredevil, so naturally I loved the Wolverine mini-series. These days, I can’t stand Wolverine and I am no longer that keen on Frank Miller – although I still have a lot of time for his Daredevil comics and the Dark Knight Returns – and I sold my ‘Wolverine’ comics many years ago now. However, I couldn’t resist keeping back this book, which collects that mini-series, from a collection of graphic novels I bought on eBay a year or so ago, just so I could read it one more time.

The book starts off with Wolverine killing a crazed grizzly bear that has killed some people and then tracking down the hunter whose poison dart drove the bear insane. That part of the story done with, he heads to Japan, where he discovers that his sweetheart, Mariko, has been forced into a marriage of convenience by her gangster / ninja father. Wolverine gets into a swordfight with Mariko’s dad, gets his arse kicked and is left for dead. He is found by Yukio, a female assassin who works for Mariko’s dad but also loves Wolverine, and the pair team up. There are lots of fights with ninjas and the book ends with Wolverine killing Mariko’s dad and getting engaged to Mariko after Yukio kills her husband (luckily, Mariko’s husband was evil).

Did I enjoy reading this again? Well, no. Actually, I found it a bit tedious. But it did remind me what it is I used to love so much about Frank Miller. In recent years, I have started to think that Miller is actually quite a bad writer, and his dialogue often makes me cringe. It works sometimes, and when I first read the first (and best) Sin City book – recently re-titled ‘The Hard Goodbye’ – I thought it was a parody of pulp fiction (not the film), full of tough guys and ‘dames’, and really liked it. However, I’ve since started to think that’s just the way Miller writes. As bad his dialogue can be, though, Miller is a great visual storyteller.

I loved Miller’s run on Daredevil at the time and I still like it a lot now, but I like the first nine issues from that run, written by Roger McKenzie, just as much as I like the issues that Miller wrote and drew. Thanks to the old Marvel method of producing comics, in which the artist was given a rough plot to work from and the dialogue was scripted once the art was completed, Miller did effectively write the action scenes in those comics, and exciting (occasionally brutal) action scenes is what he is best at. Chris Claremont’s script for ‘Wolverine’ is not that bad but is a bit dull and wordy, full of waffle about honour and nobility because it’s set in Japan. And as this is a Marvel comic that predates this great age of graphic novels, it was necessary for Claremont to recap the story at the beginning of each chapter. The fact that Wolverine is scripted by Chris Claremont doesn’t really matter, though, as this is really a Daredevil-era Frank Miller comic, full of well-drawn, well-timed fight scenes. In fact, the ninjas in this book are ‘The Hand’ from Miller’s Daredevil run, so drawing this probably wasn’t too much of a challenge for him. And Yukio is really just a Japanese version of Elektra.

One thing that really stood out to me about this book was how tame the punishment Wolverine had to endure seemed, relative to what he has to endure in modern Wolverine comics. In 1982, seeing Wolverine get beaten up, hacked with swords and shot with arrows, only to just about pull through thanks to his healing ability, was quite exciting. In the first chapter of ‘Wolverine’, he is nearly beaten to death by Mariko’s father – an old man – with a wooden sword. However, in modern Wolverine comics – and I haven’t looked inside a Wolverine comic for a couple of years now – Wolverine seems to get incinerated on a fairly regular basis, stripped right down to his adamantium bones, only to regenerate soon after. It’s like his healing ability has made him careless. I mean, you (probably) don’t see Cyclops getting his face shot off, or getting blown up, on a regular basis, do you? The modern Wolverine is as indestructible as Superman, and it’s made him just as hard to care about. Still, this old adventure, featuring the pre-indestructible Wolverine, didn’t seem anywhere near as exciting as it did back in 1982.

I doubt I will ever read this book again but I will probably keep it, just for the Frank Miller art, along with all my Daredevil graphic novels. It didn’t really cost me anything anyway. I bought it on eBay as part of a collection of about 28 graphic novels that cost me around £80, but I sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for a little over £80, so this was effectively free. A couple of years ago, Marvel re-released this as a ‘premiere’ hardcover (RRP £14.99) and then released a new softcover edition last year (RRP £12.99). Both editions are cheaper on Amazon (etc.) but this early version of the book (published in 1987) is the sort of thing that pops up cheap on eBay all the time, so if you do fancy checking it out, you may want to look there first.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Review; Skaar Son of Hulk 7 - 17

Before you can begin reading Skaar Son of Hulk you have to be able to accept the somewhat challenging premise that the Hulk has a one year old son who is already an emotional and physical adolescent. You have to accept that that he has grown to this in a tiny space of time and is likely to stay there for the duration for reasons more to do with accommodating the story restrictions of an editorially driven, single line of superhero comics. You have to be able to accept all of this along with the stuff like preposterous feats of strength, planet eaters and controllable earthquakes. Once you do, it’s all quite engaging.

Greg Pak writes the first half of these issues which see Skaar encounter the Silver Surfer before being sent to Earth to meet his father for the first time. For me, Pak is the definitive Hulk voice at present, riding the waves created by intruders, mainly Jeff Loeb, who seem determined to dumb the whole thing down with their approach. At this time, Pak looks to be trying to reinterpret the broader Hulk world as a Sword and Sorcery saga although he ends his first story arc of these issues with the destruction of the planet Sakaar, where all of his ideas are based. As I’ve said before, I admire him for introducing new concepts and myths but, truthfully, I was somewhat delighted by the appearance of Marvel mainstays The Silver Surfer and, in the Planet Skaar story, Hulk and the Fantastic Four.

Pak’s stories spread over several issues benefit from being read in one go. He does deliver strong developments in a single issue but typically of modern Marvel comics, they’re constructed for collection in a graphic novel later on. Paul Jenkins, who replaces Pak as writer with issue thirteen where the comic is renamed just Son of Hulk, provides an experience that takes longer to read but delivers just as much plot or even a little less. Now Skaarless, Jenkins version follows ex-slave Hiro-Kala and a group of Sakaar refugees as they travel through space. Confusingly to me, Hiro-Kala is also another Son of Hulk. I’m not sure if this is biologically or spiritually (I think I might have lost track somewhere), but despite his small size, he has access to vast amounts of power and rage. In Jenkins’ story, Hiro-Kala leads an invasion of another planet where he brutalises the population and environment in an attempt to ultimately teach Galactus a lesson.

The problem with tales about relentless brutality and male posturing is it’s difficult for me to empathise with any of the characters. Pak is much better at engaging me in tales like this than Jenkins is with his one here. Pak manages to sell to me the idea that his son of Hulk is sympathetic despite his destructive actions. Jenkins’ son of Hulk seems ferrety and spoiled and in need of a smacked bottom and sending to his room.

Stats! These were part of an eBay win which valued each issue, including postage, at 64p each. Result!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Objects of Desire; Trains Are... Mint

I have a copy of the first issue of Trains Are… Mint from back when creator Oliver East serialised his walks as actual reality comics. It’s a lovely object. Lavishly produced and yet, still clearly from the small press collective. It was impossible to imagine then that he would go on to design the sleeve to Elbow’s Mercury award winning album The Seldom Seen Kid or have collections released to critical applause. This wasn’t because I underestimated how good Oliver’s comic was, it was more due to there being so many strong small press creators out there. He felt like one more great artist working in an isolated area inside an under estimated art form to me.

This book has been out and on my list for a couple of years now along with his more recent Proper Go Well High and Berlin And That. Amazon has copies available for £11.69 but even at retail, £12.99, it seems reasonable even on my tiny income. In fact, the only reason I don’t have a copy is I’m waiting for my to-read pile to drop down to a manageable level before ordering more books from my List of Desires which, now that I’ve said it, sounds pathetic. I really need to get my arse in gear, especially when I consider that everything I’ve read from the book’s publisher Blank Slate so far has been of great value.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Review; Sightings of Wallace Sendek

Sightings of Wallace Sendek is about a rock star who disappears in 1976. What occurs over the following years is a series of supposed sightings, many of them eerie and unnerving, and hints at what really happened to the popular musician; did he walk away from success to live a quiet life or was he killed… or worse?

Written by Douglas Noble and drawn by Sean Azzopardi, Sightings of Wallace Sendek is a one-off comic, a short. I don’t know if this is the first time that they’ve worked together but the result is effective. The spooky atmosphere of Douglas’ compelling story is presented beautifully by Sean’s artwork. The result of this creative combination feels like something delivered from a third, new creator. They certainly make beautiful comics together.

I bought Sightings of Wallace Sendek for £2 directly from the writer at Thought Bubble. You can probably buy a copy for a similar price by contacting Douglas for details via his

Friday, 3 December 2010

Review - Wally Gropius HC

This is yet another item that I picked up in Isotope Comics in San Francisco on my recent holiday in California, just because I liked the look of it (note: I promise I will stop going on about my recent visit to California as soon as I have finished reading and reviewing all the stuff I bought out there, but I’m afraid there are still quite a few items left to go). I had never heard of cartoonist Tim Hensley and his creation Wally Gropius before but the stories in this book (most of them, at least) apparently first appeared in Fantagraphics’ Mome anthology series, a series I really wish I’d been buying because it always looks very good but will probably never catch up with now as it is up to at least volume 20. Wally Gropius is basically a teenage version of Richie Rich, an ‘umpteen millionaire’ who literally wipes his arse with money. I don’t think I have ever read a Richie Rich comic before – they were never that widely available here in the UK – but I appreciate where Hensley is coming from with this collection.

The main gist of the story running through this book is that Wally’s father, a petroleum magnate, has ordered him to marry ‘the saddest girl in the world’ on his 18th birthday. You see, rather a lot of people commit suicide using petrol and by marrying ‘the saddest girl in the world’ Wally can offset some of the negative press that his father is getting, but Wally is not happy about this at all. He is more interested in playing with his band, the Dropouts, listening to Huey Lewis and the News records, and money (of course). The news that Wally has to marry the saddest girl in the world leads most of the girls at Iacocca High to pretend to be suicidal and/or ill, but Wally instead falls for the seemingly disinterested Jillian Banks, who impresses him with her knowledge of national anthems.

This is an odd book. It’s frequently funny but also quite surreal and occasionally a bit too clever for its own good. Art wise, it reminds me a lot of the short humour strips that Daniel Clowes used to draw for Eightball – ‘Needledick’, ‘Pogeybait’, etc. – and the Harvey and Archie comics that Hensley is parodying. It is presented as an oversized-but-slim hardcover and looks more like a European comics album than an American comic book, but it’s an attractive package.

I liked this quite a bit and will certainly reread it at some point but, at $18.99 for just over 60 pages, it was a bit pricey. Maybe if it was half the size and half the price, I’d be more enthusiastic about recommending it. However, if you are an umpteen millionaire like Wally and don’t mind spending $18.99 on a book it only takes half an hour or so to read, get yourself a copy. You probably won’t regret it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Review; Hulk 14 - 17

I get it now. When Jeff Loeb’s Hulk started a couple of years ago, I thought it was the writer lazily inventing a ‘new’ character by having the old one coloured-in red instead of green. Actually, that is partly true. However, I’ve since realised, thanks to an almost irrational desire for Hulk comics I’ve been experiencing recently, that it’s also meant to be dumb. This is a comic for readers who sometimes just want to see a violent brawl for the flimsiest of reasons.

Each issue of this run starts with a recap page that is refreshingly monosyllabic. It’s called “previously ON Hulk”, not “previously IN Hulk” as you would expect from a comic book. It’s like Loeb is telling us, “I write for TV, don’t you know?” I almost respect him for implying the medium he would rather be writing for. Unfortunately, this brevity is missing from the main story where the lead character’s internal dialogue bogs down the reading experience. Why have your character reveal some of their inner workings via an off hand remark or an unconscious gesture when it can be layered over the entire length of your story with a trowel.

These four issues feature the story, if you can call it that, titled Code Red. Red Hulk has learned that his transformation from his secret human identity has been witnessed by X-Men character, Domino. For some bizarre reason, he enlists the aid of variety of idiotic Marvel characters including The Punisher, Elektra and Deadpool, to find her. But when they do, surprisingly easily I might add, she’s got back-up from the equally idiotic mutant black ops team, X-Force. They all have a big fight that is prolonged unnecessarily thanks to the appearance of an ‘all-new’ character, the irritating Red She-Hulk.

Of course, Loeb seems to be an artist’s writer, which explains why this series has been drawn by a strong list of creators so far. Ian Churchill, the artist on Code Red, draws the story with appropriate thick-headedness and entertaining energy. In fact, his work here looks almost satirical.

Jeff Loeb’s Hulk comics remind me of old WWE soap opera plots and wrestling matches, only more preposterous and larger than life. Even the cast behave out of character, see Doc Sampson for example, to fan the feud that leads to the next big bout. They are great fun, great, shame-filled fun, but only because I bought these as part of an eBay lot that means these four comics cost me, altogether, only £2.80. Had I paid more for the set it would be impossible for me to identify the fun in them.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Review - The Complete Ouija Interviews

This nice little book collects several mini-comics by Sarah Becan which purport to illustrate ‘real’ Ouija interviews conducted by her brother, Jeff, who also writes the introduction to this volume. It’s simply drawn – there is just one panel per page and the illustrations for each interview are all very similar, with the characters only moving slightly between pages – but also well drawn. I have never read an issue of Lenore, by Roman Dirge, but the art style reminds me of what I have seen of those comics (mainly just the covers) and no doubt this would appeal to a similar audience. It is, by turns, sweet, creepy, and amusing. It is also a very quick read. I didn’t love this but I did quite like it and I probably would have liked it more if I believed in this sort of thing, which I don’t.

I picked this up in Isotope Comics in San Francisco – signed and sketched in by the artist, which I didn’t realise until after I had bought it – on a recent holiday in California, just because I liked the look of it. It cost $10.00. I don’t regret buying it but I’m not sure that I would buy it over again. I might, however, buy a copy as a gift for a non-comic-reading friend or relative, as I think the sort of people who are into the Twilight books or those Tim Burton books would like this a lot and I am confident that this is the sort of thing that could sell a lot of books, if given the chance.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Review; The Rainbow Orchid 2

When I talk about The Rainbow Orchid to people, I describe it as being in a similar vein to Herge’s Tintin. The books are a similar format, large and square-shaped. The comic pages follow the four tier method while the story itself is an all-ages adventure set between the two World Wars. One of my problems with my own description is that it seems obvious. Another is I feel my familiarity with Tintin is lacking. I’ve only read one or two volumes, and I can barely remember those because I was a child at the time. The fact is, it may be nothing like Tintin at all; I’m not really in a position to say either way. What I can tell you is that The Rainbow Orchid is an extraordinary example of the craft of comics. Everything Garen Ewing draws looks amazing from beautiful buildings, to classic cars, intricate objects and vital people, while his story telling is utterly assured.

Volume One of The Rainbow Orchid sets the premise up, albeit in an entertaining way. The large cast of distinctive characters are introduced and their motives made clear, or at least alluded to in a compelling manner. The story sets Julius Chancer, a handsome historical research assistant, leading an exhibition in search of the mythological Rainbow Orchid. The father of Lily Lawrence, famous Hollywood actress and part of the exhibition, has made a drunken bet with Urkaz Grope. If he doesn’t beat him in The Orchid Competition then The Trembling Sword of Tybalt Stone along with the family estate will become his. But Grope is a powerful man eager to own The Rainbow Orchid for himself, or to at least sabotage Chancer’s search for it.

While Volume One did the groundwork for the story, Volume Two makes it all the more compelling. Now Chancer’s group are searching for the orchid while Grope’s men are seeking to derail their mission. By now, the characters feel fully fleshed out, the narrative involving and the bad guys convincingly nasty. There is a real sense of peril in this volume thanks to Garen’s knack for choreographing scenes and his story telling skills. In this age of the spectacular and preposterous action sequence, it’s refreshing and more involving to see fallible characters rolling on the ground with each other over a pistol. In fact, I was so involved in the story that a couple of times I had to stop myself shouting at the page “don’t trust him!” or “behind you!”

As somebody who loves comics I often find myself looking for good examples of an ‘in’ for people curious about what the art form has to offer but put off by the hundreds of ugly superhero titles they see in their local shop. The Rainbow Orchid is exactly that; an all-ages, all-people adventure classic happening right now before our very eyes. Get onboard immediately before everybody else is talking about it.

The stats! The Rainbow Orchid Volume Two retails for £6.99. Of course, having an eye for a good deal, I bought my copy directly from the
artist at the Thought Bubble Comic Con in Leeds recently for just £5. Since then, I’ve learned that Amazon are selling it for just £3.85 but, do you know what, I don’t regret a thing.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Review - The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City

This comic, by Brendan Leach, is something that I picked up in Isotope Comics in San Francisco (a great comic shop!) on my recent holiday in California, just because I liked the look of it. It is presented in the style of a tabloid newspaper from the early part of the twentieth century and was apparently produced as the thesis for a masters degree.

It tells the story of a family of Irish-American pterodactyl hunters as they track the last few surviving pterodactyls through the skies above New York (why there are still pterodactyls in New York in 1904 is never explained). Declan and Eamon are brothers and rivals. Eamon is the chief pterodactyl hunter and gets all the glory while Declan is relegated to watchtower duties. Declan wants the opportunity to hunt pterodactyls and get some of the glory for himself but also feels some sympathy for the beasts, who may kill children but are probably only doing so in self-defence. Also, if they do kill the last of the pterodactyls, the brothers will have to find a new line of work. Therefore, when Declan does finally get his shot at glory, he hesitates.

I do hope Leach passed his masters degree, as this is a beautiful looking item with high production values. Leach’s art reminds me of the sort of fancy illustrators you might find drawing strips for the Guardian newspaper – the sort of people who have actually studied illustration at university, rather than teaching themselves to draw by copying Rob Liefeld comics – or even the art of David Mazzucchelli, who was apparently Leach’s thesis adviser. The sudden ending left me a bit disappointed when I first read this – nothing is really resolved and I found myself wondering if perhaps this was a continuing series, which I don’t think it is – but in retrospect it was a good ending, that left the reader to decide what happens next.

At 44 tabloid-sized pages (including covers), this is the sort of thing some higher-minded publisher might have put out as a slim hardcover and charged upwards of $10.00 for. The first edition of this comic, however, was apparently given away for free and this second edition was only $2.00 – half the price of your average Marvel comic. I liked this a lot, loved the newspaper format, and you can’t really complain about a 44 page comic that only costs two dollars. I will definitely keep an eye out for more work by Brendan Leach.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Review; The Savage World of Sakaar

Due to the strict rules governing this blog, there have been certain runs on comics I desire but have been unable to buy, so readers of On The Ration will be unaware of my secret Hulk shame. I won’t go into full detail about it today except to say that I have successfully plugged the gaps in my recent runs of Hulk comics according to blog rules (ish) and will commence reading, and therefore reviewing, soon.

As a forerunner, I recently read The Savage World of Sakaar, written by Greg Pak and drawn by various artists including Carlo Pagulayan, Timothy Truman and Timothy Green. Set on the planet Sakaar, the place Hulk was exiled to during the recent Planet Hulk saga, a group of refugees share stories about their own mythological characters while Skaar, the bastard son of Hulk, potters about in the background.

The first thing that’s slightly irksome about this comic is that it’s a special published between issues 3 and 4 of Skaar Son of Hulk which I have already read. Why Marvel saw it necessary to separate this tale from the main run I have no idea but, as a result, I feel I’ve experienced this issue out of order. On its own though, it works as a good scene setter for those who may have fallen behind on this Hulk saga guided, principally, by Greg Pak through various comics including The Incredible Hulk, Skaar Son of Hulk and Hercules. There’s even a special 8 paged recap of the story so far.

I respect Pak greatly for contributing new myths to Hulk’s world, especially when most other writers would have happily referred to the original Silver Age stories written by Stan Lee for ideas as they do with all other marvel characters. However, the big thrill in this story is when Skaar beats the living sap out of a cactus-monster in the climax, Hulk-style. Although not quite as satisfying as a full Hulk-out, where a timid scientist transforms into a big, muscley, green monster before breaking everything, seeing Skarr smash the place up is exhilarating nonetheless.

Budgetary stats! This came as part of an eBay win which, technically, prices it as 61p including postage. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that as I’ll explain in the future. Technically, it comes in under budget, though.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Review - Dork Volume 1: Who's Laughing Now? TPB

This book collects most strips from the first five issues of ‘Dork’ by Evan Dorkin. It does not collect the Eltingville Club stories from those issues – which is a shame because I seem to remember those being the best strips in Dork – but most of the stuff that is here is still very good. We get three episodes of ‘The Murder Family’, a parody of US sitcoms featuring a family of serial killers, three episodes of the ‘Fisher Price Theatre’, in which some Fisher Price toys act out classic novels (‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘The Lottery’, and ‘Of Mice and Men’), the Devil Puppet tells us a few unlikely stories that never made the press (like the story of the riots that took place in Japan when actor Dick York was replaced by Dick Sargent as Darren in the TV show ‘Bewitched’) in ‘The Invisible College of Secret Knowledge’, there’s a bunch of strips sending up the Generation X / Slacker era (‘Generation Echh!’), nineteen pages of four-panel gag strips (seven strips per page), and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Dork itself was an irregularly published collection of short strips that had originally been published elsewhere and these strips come from the period 1988 to 1996, in which Dorkin’s art quickly went from being scruffy and slightly amateurish to neat and stylish. Nearly every page in this book is packed with content – reading an Evan Dorkin comic can be quite a daunting prospect to a lazy reader like me, as there is just so much to read on every page – and this slim volume is therefore no quick read. I must admit that there was very little here that made me laugh out loud, but then I had read all of this material before. I still found most of it amusing and was full of admiration for Dorkin’s obvious wit and talent while reading it.

My favourite thing in here was all those pages of four-panel gag strips but I also really liked one of the ‘Generation Echh!’ strips in which the audience at a Lollapalooza festival consumes smart drinks and suddenly wises up (‘Alternative? My whole friggin’ high school is here!’) as it pretty much sums up my feelings on teen rebellion and festivals. Meanwhile, ‘The Murder Family’ is a good idea that doesn’t quite work for me, for some reason.

There is a second Dork collection available – ‘Circling the Drain’ – and I will certainly be looking out for a copy, as I think the strips in Dork got better and better as the series went on. Unfortunately, the Eltingville Club strips – which were about a bunch of obnoxious comic nerds – are not collected in that volume either, and as far as I am aware the proposed collection of those strips that Dorkin mentions in his downbeat introduction to this volume – and a promised animated series – never appeared. Still, even without those strips, these books are well worth checking out if you haven’t read Dork before.

Cost: This book has a cover price of $11.95 but I got my copy for just $6.00 (about four quid) from the bargain bin in Brian Hibbs’ Comix Experience store in San Francisco on a recent visit to that fine city. Yes, even when I am on holiday, I am on the look-out for comic-related bargains. I am the bargain master!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Review; Spleenal

Normally, I find something worrying about a book that advertises itself as being ‘non-PC’ as Spleenal does at the start. It’s a pet hate of mine. ‘Non-PC’ is usually shorthand for all standards of decency, good manners and human rights being thrown out of the window as if it’s no naughtier than eating two helpings of ice cream or ignoring somebody knocking at the front door. If Hitler were around today, he would probably try and get elected appealing to the ‘non-PC’ vote. I would rather creative types forgot all about political correctness and just got on with whatever their ‘thing’ is. In fact, Spleenal is only ‘non-PC’ in regards to sexual activity. None of the characters, for example, make tiny minded observations based on somebody’s race, for example. If you’re buying this book for a true, all rounded, ‘non-PC’ experience, then you might be disappointed.

As it happens, Nigel Auchterloune seems to get on with doing his ‘thing’ in Spleenal exactly as I had hoped, as if the opening blurb was written after the actual hard work of drawing the strips was finished. (Who would have thought that such a thing could happen?) Spleenal is the name of Auchterloune’s male lead. Pushing middle age, married with two kids, stuck in a job he despises, desperate for some free time to devote to his passion for cartooning (sounds familiar) and as horny as hell, Spleenal is the cathartic parody of the everyman (if everyman is pushing middle age). In Spleenal’s Spanky Comic, he is contacted by a female admirer of his work who lists her interests as “boys and girls, porn, sex toys, comics, anal, bondage, submission and spanking”. His first thought is “wow, she likes comics”. Spleenal goes through a battle of the heart, mind and genitals and, of course, the genitals win but it’s never as simple as that. He’s unconvincing in the master and submissive role play he finds himself taking part in, while his wife, who learns about the fling, goes through her own heart/mind/genitals turmoil on a par with her husband’s.

Auchterloune’s cartooning is zany but stylish. Characters’ heads take up half the size of their bodies while some don’t have any arms at all, their hands operating seemingly independently from their torsos. The pacing is crazy and kinetic. In The Day After The End Of Time, Future Spleenal gives a time machine to Present-day Spleenal who then travels to the past to tell Past Spleendal not to have sex with his Future/Present wife so that he’s free to draw comics all day. Before long, all the Spleenals are travelling up and down time, having sex with women and sex-bots and then trying to warn their other selves not to have sex with these women and sex-bots. It isn’t until the end of this great time travel sex farce that somebody asks Present Spleenal why he didn’t just use the time machine to get next weekend’s lottery results so he could then give up his miserable job and focus on his vacation. It had never occurred to him to do this just as I was so caught up in the story that it never occurred to me. Auchterloune understands that the idea of travelling back in time and having sex with your wife twenty years ago is more compelling than fiddling the lottery results to a middle aged man, which is what makes this book so funny.

Spleenal is bookended by two shorts featuring a horny adolescent Spleenal and a horny child Spleenal. The pacing in both of these tales feels slower, as if they work as a warming up and down to and from the main stories. They also offer unexpected insights into how the character became the wretched, sex obsessed middle aged fool he is today. In the book’s afterword, Auchterloune claims that Spleenal isn’t based on himself or true incidences. Although technically true I’m not sure this is entirely truthful given how the narratives in his stories follow what seem to be such compelling flights of fancy. What is true is Auchterloune also draws for The Dandy and it makes sense, I suppose, for somebody who draws strips for pre-school kids all day to crave an outlet in the other, more entertaining and liberating extreme.

Stats! Spleenal is published by Blank Slate and retails for £10.99 soft cover, or £16.99 limited edition hard cover.