Thursday, 30 September 2010

Objects of Desire; Hellblazer 250 to present

Limiting yourself to paying no more than £1.20 a comic often means playing the long game, searching on eBay and waiting for your desired objects to appear in auctions. I’ve been keeping to a budget of this type for a couple of years now and I’ve been surprised by the swiftness some popular comics have appeared on eBay at. However, sometimes there is a run that you never get to see, and Pete Milligan’s current Hellblazer comic looks to be one of them.

I don’t long for this run in the same way that I do the Marvel Omnibus books that I’ve listed so far, but a comic written by Pete Milligan, published by DC’s Vertigo imprint and featuring John Constantine has a strong likelihood of overlapping in all the right areas. Besides, I’m interested to see the return of Shade the Changing Man, the character Milligan made his US name on and who apparently returns in the series.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Review - Eerie Archives Volume 1 HC

This first volume of the Eerie Archives collects Eerie issues 1 to 5, originally published by Warren Publishing between 1964 and 1965. The first issue of Eerie is much thinner than the others reprinted here, only featuring three short stories, and was originally published with a black and white cover. It resembles an underground / self-published effort, rather than the younger cousin of the already-well-established, well-respected Creepy magazine. It was apparently rushed out just to establish copyright over the name Eerie and utilised material from Creepy’s ‘back-log’ (i.e. stories previously rejected by Creepy). I know all this because it says so in the reprinted letters page to Eerie #3, but it was obvious while reading this issue that these (un-credited) stories were mere cast-offs, because they weren’t really that good. Thankfully, though, subsequent issues are up to the high standards set by Creepy.

The stories here, mostly written by the late Archie Goodwin, are all perfectly good twist-in-the-tail horror yarns. I read this shortly after reading Creepy Archives volume 1, and would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read it so soon after reading a whole volume of very similar tales, also largely penned by Goodwin. Still, they were all decent – even if they did mostly follow a predictable formula – and didn’t seem half as dated as many superhero comics from the same period do now. To be honest, I read this a couple of weeks ago now and might have had more to say about these stories if I had just finished reading them, but as it is most of these tales have already faded from my memory and I mainly remember thinking that the stories in Creepy were a bit better. The main draw of this book, however, like the Creepy book, is the art.

The Warren horror titles featured art by some of the true greats of the industry – Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, Angelo Torres (better known for his Mad movie parodies), Al Williamson, John Severin, Alex Toth and more. These guys were (and some still are) proper artists, all working at the top of their game. And the real draw of this volume of Eerie Archives – as opposed to the first Creepy Archives – is that it features art by two of my favourite artists: Gene Colan (here credited as Eugene Colan) and Steve Ditko. Ditko famously produced 16 strips for Eerie and Creepy between leaving Marvel and moving to DC and they are often cited as some of his very best work. It’s easy to see why, based on the three Ditko strips reprinted in this volume. The first, ‘Room With A View’, is drawn in the traditional Ditko style, but the other two, ‘Shrieking Man’ and ‘Black Magic’, are done in a ‘wash’ style that gives his art an eye-popping, almost 3-D look, that is really quite something – still recognisably Ditko but lifted to another level.

Based purely on the stories, I doubt I would feel the need to own any other Eerie or Creepy Archives. However, if I suddenly found myself wealthy, I would certainly try and track down the rest of the volumes reprinting Ditko’s work from this period. As far as I am aware, the rest of Ditko’s Warren strips appear in Eerie Archives Volume 2 (five Ditko strips) and Creepy Archives Volumes 2 (two Ditko strips), 3 (five Ditko strips), and 4 (one Ditko strip). Alternatively, ten of these strips are reprinted in Eerie #135, an all-Ditko issue from 1982, which is hard to find but would be considerably cheaper than buying these Dark Horse hardcover reprints. I’ve been looking out for a copy on eBay for months now and haven’t seen any in the UK, but I could get one from the USA for around £20 (including postage), if I was inclined to spend £20 on one magazine.

As for the price of this book, well, the recommended retail price for Eerie Archives Volume 1 is about £37.99 / $49.95, which is pretty expensive for a 250-page book collecting just five magazines, but you can currently get this from the Book Depository for a more reasonable £21.79. I bought my copy for a bit less than that, about a year ago, but only because I was emailed a 10% discount code.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Review; Greek Street 1 - 5

In Greek Street, classical Greek myths are retold, set in a street in Soho, London. I imagine if you know a bit about Greek mythology, you could get a lot out of the story. However, I know next to nothing, although I did pick up on the Oedipus thing in issue one (please don’t read anything into that). The real appeal to me is writer Peter Milligan mythologizing a real area of London that I may have walked through on one of my occasional visits to the city.

Greek Street isn’t an immediate hook like Skreemer or The Enigma was. It feels more of a grower to me, like Shade The Changing Man. The knowledge that by the time I get to read the opening issues the series has already been cancelled hangs over the experience a little. I’m half waiting for the plotting to accelerate and for the threads to be tied up hurriedly. Furthermore, Milligan hasn’t always been consistent in recent years. X-Force/Static is one of the best superhero comics published over the last decade; however his runs on X-Men and Infinity Inc were forgettable. But Greek Street is his return to Vertigo, one of his more natural habitats, and it shows. The dialogue is tight, astute, natural and witty, the characterisation astounding. This is a definite retreat to form followed by an advancement.

Greek Street has a large cast and I spent most of the first issue consciously trying to memorise who they all are. So it’s a credit to artist Davide Goinfelice that by issue two I wasn’t thinking about who was who at all. In his On The Ledge column, Milligan lets slip that he’s been taking reference photos of the area for Goinfelica which makes me think that he might not actually be a UK resident. I think even if I hadn’t have read this I would still have experienced these issues imagining them drawn by John Ridgeway or Sean Philips. But I think this says just as much about my fondness for early comics published by Vertigo than about Goinfelica’s appropriateness for this job. Here, his work is strong and flexible and character driven, if a little too sunny. For me, the real achievement of these first five issues is that both creators manage to make me sympathetic towards Eddie, a character who fucks and kills his mum in the first episode.

Cost; my copies were an eBay win totalling £5.74 including postage. That works out at nearly £1.15 an issue, just within budget.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Review - Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Volume 01 TPB

Unlike Paul (Rainey, my blog co-conspirator), I have never been a big fan of 2000AD. I bought the odd issue as a kid, but mostly I didn’t like it. I tend to think that this was because I was a loyal Marvel junkie and felt that I was somehow betraying Stan Lee if I bought comics published by anyone else. Also, 2000AD was printed on crappy paper and it was in black and white! I suppose it must have been more than that, though, because I did buy British humour comics and black and white Marvel UK reprints, printed on similarly crappy paper, and it was really just British adventure / action comics that never really appealed to me. Partly, it may be that I have never really been a big sci-fi fan. I know that superheroes are technically sci-fi, but I have never been a big fan of ‘proper’ sci-fi, if you know what I mean (I can take or leave Doctor Who, have never particularly liked Star Trek, and have never bothered with the X-Files). Although even that doesn’t make complete sense, because I was into Star Wars as a kid, and 2000AD started the same year Star Wars came out, when I was most definitely buying comics and should have got hooked on a weekly dose of ‘thrill power’. Looking at this book, though, I think I know why I didn’t like 2000AD. I was into John Byrne and George Perez – artists with a clean style – and the art in here, like a lot of British adventure comics of that era, is quite dark and scruffy.

I’m not saying I don’t like the art in this book now, just that I can see now why I didn’t like 2000AD as a kid. Some of the art isn’t so great, even art by artists I know got a lot better, like Carlos Ezquerra, who hadn’t quite perfected his inked-with-a-potato style at this point (I don’t mean this as an insult to Ezquerra, as I really like his art, I just tent to think that those blocky outlines he puts around his characters look like they were done with a potato – but in a good way!), but most of it is okay and some of it is really good (especially the stuff by Brian Bolland, which stands out a mile – I guess I’m still a sucker for a clean line!). It just wasn’t really the sort of thing I was into back then. I bought some of the Eagle Judge Dredd reprints in the early-‘80s, mainly just the Bolland issues, and even some of the Nemesis the Warlock reprints (Nemesis was the one strip in 2000AD that I did like quite a bit but obviously not enough to get me to buy the comic on a regular basis). I also bought some of the issues of 2000AD that Alan Moore’s work appeared in, but mainly just the ones featuring DR & Quinch. I still haven’t read Halo Jones or Skizz, even though I was / am a big Moore fan (and have had a tatty copy of Halo Jones sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for several years now). The basic point is that, unlike many other British comic readers, I have never really been into 2000AD, for whatever reason. Thanks largely to Paul, though, I now feel like I may have missed out on quite a lot of good stuff over the years, hence my recent purchase of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Volume 01 (and Volume 02 and Nemesis the Warlock Volume 1, but I’ll get to them another time).

This book reprints all the Dredd strips from 2000AD issues 2 to 60, most of which I had never read before. I must say that it starts off a bit dull, and I was quite bored for the first half of the book at least. A lot of the time I was just looking forward to finishing it and moving on to something else, although I was fully aware going in that the early issues might not be so great. Had I read and enjoyed these comics as a kid, I may have enjoyed them again regardless – God knows the glow of nostalgia blinds me to the many faults of Marvel comics from the same period – but mostly they just didn’t seem that great. Still, things did begin to pick up a bit by the middle of the book, at around the time Dredd becomes marshal of Luna 1, a colony on the moon, where he remains until near the end of the book. Once based on the moon, the stories become more witty and imaginative, the art slowly improves, and we even get the odd issue drawn by Brian Bolland. It is not until towards the very end of the book that Dredd shows signs of becoming the fascist bastard that everyone knows and loves, though. Mostly, he is just better and more resourceful than the other Judges. He has a cuddly robot called Walter and a ridiculous Italian maid called Maria. He is tough, just not a bastard. By the end of the book, though, he is a complete bastard, obsessed with sticking rigidly to the letter of the law. Just before he leaves the moon, he arrests a man who tries to commit suicide by jumping off a building for attempted littering, and once back on Earth he is a changed character. Did something happen to him on the moon in-between issues? Was he molested? Did hanging out with cultural stereotypes like Judge Tex and Judge Mex drive him insane? More importantly, why are comic readers so obsessed with right wing anti-heroes (see: Batman, Wolverine, the Punisher, and nearly every comic ever written by Mark Millar for further details)?

Interestingly, at the back of the book, along with some Walter the Wobot one-pagers (most of which are drawn by Brian Bolland), we get to see the very first Dredd strip, by Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra. In this previously unpublished tale, Dredd is an even bigger bastard than he would later become, cold-bloodedly executing ‘perps’ in the street, so some conscious decision to soften the character must have been made before his first appearance in 2000AD. Even more interestingly, Ezquerra’s art in this strip is done in the inked-with-a-potato style I later came to appreciate, so I’m not sure why his art didn’t look like that in the rest of the book. Did Tharg confiscate his potato? Actually, I think Mike McMahon may have stolen it, as I was initially convinced that the last couple of strips in the book, drawn by McMahon, were the work of Ezquerra. I guess the two must just have very similar styles – blocky outlines and all.

Overall, I’m glad I read this but I certainly didn’t love it. I am, however, prepared to believe that the best of Dredd is yet to come and am looking forward to reading volume 2, which contains the popular Cursed Earth storyline. In fact, I am prepared to stick with this series until at least volume 3, which contains all the Bolland Judge Death stuff, and maybe even beyond, to give the character time to really get going. I may not actually buy volumes 3 and beyond, but if not I know my local library has a lot of them and will make sure I check them out at some point. Like the Marvel Essentials books, these volumes offer an easy, affordable way to catch up with a large chunk of comics’ history. And unlike the Marvel volumes, these have the advantage of containing stories that were originally intended to be published in black and white, so you don’t feel like you are missing out on anything by reading them. This particular volume has a cover price of £13.99 but I picked it up on Amazon for around £8.00, which is very good value for a book containing this many comics, and other volumes are similarly priced.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Objects of Desire; Amazing Fantasy Omnibus

I’m sure that during the late seventies, by the time Marvel UK had seemingly reprinted all of Jack Kirby’s and Steve Ditko’s Silver Age superhero work, short monster and paranoid supernatural strips from the start of that era began to appear. I’m not entirely sure where. Maybe they popped up as Tales of The Watcher shorts in Star Wars Weekly or as fillers, although the word ‘fillers’ seems insulting, in anthologies such as Forces In Combat, Future Tense or Marvel Comics. I saw one drawn by Ditko recently in an issue of the Mighty World of Marvel from the seventies. It looked amazing.

The thing is, despite barely remembering these strips or where they appeared, I’ve got it into my head that they originally featured in Amazing Fantasy, which is why I covert the Omnibus edition. I know what you’re thinking; all I seem to covert are Marvel Omnibus books, but believe me, this isn’t true, it just looks that way. It felt appropriate to include the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus in my list of desires now after mentioning it during my recent review of X-Men and Spider-Man.

The book is still available to buy from Amazon for £41.99, Forbidden Planet UK for £41.99 again and Forbidden Planet dot com for £32.99 (book ordered on request and price not including postage) but it’s difficult to justify this purchase given the current environment and the vagaries of its contents.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Object Of Desire - Wednesday Comics HC

I got quite excited when Wednesday Comics was first announced – the first time I have been excited about a new periodical comic in some time – and bought a copy of the first issue as soon as it came out. I didn’t really understand when Mr Rainey said that he didn’t like it, because I really enjoyed it. However, my interest quickly waned as the weeks went by, to the point where I only ever read the first five or six issues and sold the completed set on eBay without ever reading the final issues (there were twelve in all). The stories were a bit hit and miss but the art was great on pretty much every strip, even though it wasn’t all quite to my taste, and looked really good in a large format. I seem to remember particularly liking the Kamandi strip (Ryan Sook is a great artist), the Paul Pope Adam Strange strip and the Kyle Baker Hawkman strip, while not particularly liking the Teen Titans and Wonder Woman strips. Still, you can’t really expect to like everything in an anthology and there was enough good stuff in here to make it a worthwhile purchase, even if $3.99 per issue was a bit much (I’m afraid I paid full price for these, folks, but it was before we started this value-based blog). My eventual problem with Wednesday Comics, however, was the fact that all the strips were continuing strips. In the first issue, that didn’t bother me so much, because I didn’t have to try and remember what happened in the previous instalment of each one-page strip. After a couple of issues, though, reading this became a real chore, particularly because of the large format, which was a pain in the arse to unfold and re-fold neatly, and it put me off of looking at previous issues again. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only some of the strips were continuing strips, but having all of them continued was a bit much. You would think that the editors would have thought to have put at least one self-contained strip per issue in a comic of this format, wouldn’t you?

So, like I said, I sold my copies of Wednesday Comics on eBay (for less than I paid for them) without reading all of them, but when I saw a copy of the hardcover in a branch of Waterstone’s last week, I started to regret this and have since tentatively added the book to my wants list. Even sealed in plastic, which the copy I saw was, this looked like a lovely book and the strips will no doubt be easier to read in this format. However, it was also £49.99, which is taking the piss (note: I can’t seem to walk past a branch of Waterstone’s without popping in and looking at the graphic novels section but I don’t think I have ever actually bought a graphic novel in a branch of Waterstone’s). Even online, the cheapest copy I have seen was about £27.00, which still seems pricey to me. To be honest, this is something I don’t really need to own, I just want to read it, but it seems unlikely that my local library will get a copy in any time soon. I also think it’s unlikely that I will manage to get a copy on eBay for a bargain price, so I think for now this will have to remain an un-purchased ‘object of desire’.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Review; X-Men and Spider-Man

A couple of months ago, a few websites listed the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus for sale at £7.99, or thereabouts. There was a possibility that this was a mistake but this being an object of desire for me I ordered a copy. A few days later, a copy of the X-Men and Spider-Man graphic novel arrived. Rob did a bit of web-fu, and, despite the listings and the images used, found that the ISBN number referred to the X-Men and Spider-Man book. I contacted the Book Depository who refunded my money and told me I could keep the book which was a shame because I really, really want a copy of the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus.

X-Men and Spider-Man follows the characters encounters with each other through four different eras as if they are kids who were once in the same year at school but hung around in different gangs. The stories centre on an early encounter with Kraven the Hunter who is hired by Sinister to gather DNA samples from the young X-Men and the repercussions of this that ripple down the years. It’s an opportunity to revisit classic periods for each set of characters from Peter Parker’s collage days right up the present where Mutant-kind is an endangered species.

This is where the book falters. At the beginning, where the characters spend time together during a period I am more familiar with, (the sixties, although no longer represented as the sixties), I find myself reminded of the preoccupation with Marvel’s past it’s contributors often seem to have. Once the chapters enter eras I am less knowledgeable of, such as Spider-Man’s black costume, Wolverine without a metal skeleton and so on, it reminds me of how lacking in charm corporate wide character decisions often are and how depressing it is to see them being compared fondly to the more honest Silver Age. Further more, Sinister seems to be a perverted and seedy adversary who darkens the whole story and whose influence I don’t want to see extending backwards to Marvel comics I like.

The collection is back-ended by an early X-Men and Spider-Man encounter by Roy Thomas and Werner Roth from the actual sixties. Padding out their collections with reprints from this period is something Marvel is doing increasingly these days. It must be annoying to younger readers who wanted just the more modern comics in one volume to find themselves paying more than necessary for work they might consider superfluous. What must be even more annoying, and demonstrates a lack of editorial consideration, is this being a mid story episode, in the event that the reader enjoys it, there’s no direction as to where to go to learn the story’s outcome.

Christos Cage writes some strong character dynamics, Mario Alberi’s art is elegant and classical, although the colouring could do with brightening in places, and it is nice to see X-Men # 35 again. So, not bad for a freebie, I suppose.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Review - The Thing: Idol of Millions TPB

The Thing is one of my favourite Marvel characters. As a child, one of my favourite comics was Marvel Two-In-One and what I have always liked most about those early Lee / Kirby issues of the Fantastic Four is Lee’s wisecracking Thing. So, when I saw this on eBay a few weeks ago I snapped it up for £5.99 (including postage). I suppose £5.99 isn’t such an amazing bargain but it is a perfectly reasonable price for a TPB and it’s certainly less than it would have cost me to buy the comics collected in this volume when they first came out, so it’s a purchase that falls well within the rules of this blog.

Idol of Millions collects all eight issues of the 2005 Thing series by Dan ‘I write Spider-Man now’ Slott, Andrea ‘who?’ DiVito and Kieron ‘the name rings a bell but I can’t think what else he’s done’ Dwyer. As far as I remember, it was not intended to be an eight issue mini-series but was cancelled after eight issues due to poor sales. I had an account with Diamond at the time this was coming out, and this was a long way from being my biggest selling Marvel title, but I don’t remember it selling that badly. There were certainly a lot of Marvel titles that sold fewer copies and there were probably a hell of a lot of Marvel titles more deserving of cancellation. I mean, at least you don’t need to buy a load of other comics to understand what’s going on, even if some basic familiarity with the Marvel universe is necessary. It’s not that bad. Unfortunately, it’s not that great either.

At the start of the book, we find out that Ben Grimm is a billionaire, thanks to some wise investments, and his riches have gone to his head. He now dates a famous actress, hangs out with other rich people, lives in a penthouse apartment, and spends money freely. Personally, I found the idea that success would go to Ben’s head a little hard to swallow, as he had already been a celebrity for years, already lived at a pretty exclusive address (i.e. the Baxter Building), and probably got paid fairly well as a member of the FF, but maybe that’s just me? I found it harder to believe, after seeing his movie star girlfriend walking around their apartment in her underwear, that it would be possible for the Thing to have a sexual relationship with a normal woman without killing her. But I guess it would be naïve of me to expect such matters to be explored in a Marvel comic that is (hypothetically) aimed at children (but more realistically aimed at nerds in their 40s – like me – who have fond memories of Marvel Two-In-One).

This idea that success has gone to Ben’s head runs through all eight issues, but we don’t really see much evidence to support the idea. He seems a little over-impressed by the rich people he meets in the first few issues but mostly he just seems unhappy. In fact, the comic gets a bit preachy and really lays on this idea that money doesn’t buy you happiness with a trowel. I hate rich people as much as the next guy, but if I was a billionaire I would be really bloody happy and can’t help thinking that this whole ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ lark is just something the rich want us to believe so that we don’t revolt. Even if money really doesn’t buy you happiness (it does!) the concept has already been done to death elsewhere and here it just gets a bit tiresome.

Slott also heavy-handedly reminds us, on several occasions, that the Fantastic Four are a ‘family’, which is something that writers of the FF seem to feel the need to do constantly these days and it really irks me. I mean, I get the idea that the FF have this family dynamic going on – three of them are related, after all – but why does every modern FF writer feel the need to ram the idea down the reader’s throat? I don’t remember Stan Lee ever beating us over the head with this idea that the FF are one big family and all this ‘family’ crap annoys me almost as much as the whole ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ nonsense that every modern Spider-Man writer seems to feel obliged to mention over and over again, even though Stan Lee probably only ever said that in a Spider-Man comic once. Even then, as far as I am aware, no character in the comic actually said it, it was said ‘off camera’ by Lee, the narrator, where it didn’t sound quite so corny. Actually, Slott does mention the whole ‘with great power…’ thing in an issue of the Thing where Spider-Man shows up, but he does at least try and make a joke out of it.

Slott tries to make a joke out of many situations in this book and I understand that he has a reputation as a funny writer. Sadly, though, his attempts at humour fall a bit flat here. There were moments that were mildly amusing but there was nothing here that was laugh-out-loud funny, nothing much that even made me smile, and that was probably the most disappointing thing about the book. I could probably pick up any random issue of the Fantastic Four written by Stan Lee and find a laugh-your-arse-off-funny Thing one-liner, but few writers have managed to recapture that. Still, at least Slott appeared to be trying, even if his efforts were a bit tiresome.

The first story arc (issues 1-3) involves a Paris Hilton type hiring Arcade to kill the Thing and his movie star girlfriend because she wasn’t invited to their party. Other guests captured at the party include Nighthawk, the Constrictor (now a good guy, it seems), and Tony ‘I’m Iron Man me’ Stark, so Ben has some help trying to get out of Arcade’s newly constructed ‘Murderland’, which isn’t half as good as his old ‘Murderworld’. ‘Murderworld’, I seem to remember, was full of all sorts of inventive death traps, but ‘Murderland’ is just full of murderous robots based on Marvel characters, which doesn’t seem like half as much fun. Personally, if I were Arcade, I would have killed everyone while they were unconscious and in transit to ‘Murderland’, as this would have been much easier and cheaper, and as it is Arcade gets his arse roundly kicked. Mind you, if I were Arcade, I would spend all day constructing erotic robots based on Ms Marvel and would have very little time for murder. In fact, I can’t help wondering why Arcade bothers working as an assassin at all. If he just saved all the money he spent constructing and maintaining Murderland, he could live off the interest. I guess he must be some kind of homicidal maniac, but he’s not a very good one, because I don’t remember him ever managing to kill anyone, despite spending a fortune trying.

Anyway, this review is getting a bit long now so I won’t describe the rest of the book in any great detail. I’ll just say that, by the end of the book, Ben realises that he has been a bit of a dick (which he hasn’t), that money can’t buy you happiness (which, as we’ve already established, it can), and that all you really need is friends (which is debatable). He also gets back together with Alicia Masters and rediscovers his Jewish faith. The fact that Ben Grimm is Jewish is something that is rarely explored in comics and this is a potentially interesting source of material. In fact, Ben Grimm ‘getting’ religion is probably something that should have been explored in a mini-series, as it could have had major ramifications for the FF. Here, though, it gets just a few pages – just to illustrate that it’s the simple things in life that matter, which is plainly untrue – and was probably never mentioned again.

The first five issues are drawn by Andrea DiVito, who draws like a cross between the late Mike Wieringo and Mark Bagley, while the last three issues are drawn by Kieron Dwyer. Dwyer is probably the better artist – he is certainly more stylish – but I think I preferred DiVito’s art here as it seemed better suited to this type of book. It wasn’t great art but it was certainly good enough for a book like this and I’ve seen much worse (for example, the art in most modern DC comics).

All in all, I was a bit disappointed with this but I still feel strangely attached to it because it’s the Thing. I don’t think I will sell it just yet but I can’t help thinking that I could have spent £5.99 on something much better.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Review; The Complete Peanuts Box Set 1971 - 1974

The problem with reviewing Peanuts is that I might as well be reviewing a mountain or the sky. It’s such a perfectly formed comic strip, a wonder in its own right, that’s it’s hard to imagine many people other than professors being fit enough to analyse it. I suppose all I can do is write about it from a personal view point.

What’s great about encountering Peanuts again is that I never realised what a big part of my comic reading life it had been when I was growing up. In the UK, Peanuts appeared in The Daily Mail, the only newspaper constant in our house. Everyday, I would go through the paper baffled by its criticism of things and people I liked, it’s obsession with the middle classes and Nigel Dempster’s celebrity free gossip column. Balancing all of this negativity out was Charles Schulz’s humanist and often profound comic strip. Now that Charles Schulz has died and Peanuts no longer appears, it’s not hard to envisage the paper going top heavy and disappearing into the fiery abyss. (Please go top heavy and disappear into the fiery abyss.)

What’s surprising about Peanuts is realising what an influence on my own comic work it has had. All those tiny movements and expressions of disbelieve at the reader. When I had to draw the same objects over and over again for There’s No Time Like The Present, I often cheated and did a bit of Photoshop duplication. I wonder how Schulz felt drawing Snoopy’s kennel hundreds of times for fifty years. In one panel in these books, Snoopy rests his head on the edge of Sally’s desk that she’s writing at. Such a simple image but so affecting and, I imagine, very satisfying to draw. That’s another one for me to steal for my repertoire.

I’ve been collecting the Fantagraphics box sets of Peanuts since they begun. For a start, they’re beautifully designed by Seth. Each book’s opening and closing is very affecting. It’s like walking around the abandoned house and surrounding area I grew up in. I just long to be back there again and, suddenly, thanks to the comic strips, I am.

These are a particularly strong pair of volumes collecting together every Peanuts strip from 1971 to 1974. There are lots of Peppermint Patty and Marcie stories, two of my favourite characters. In fact, the normally sympathetic Charley Brown comes across as almost unlikeable once or twice thanks to his indifference to Patty’s feelings for him. There is lots of Woodstock, who is a character I never liked as a kid but have grown fond of since re-encountering him. I mean, just look at the way Schulz draws him flying; Genius. Also, I always used to think that the boy on the back of his mother’s bike was Linus but it turns out that it’s his little brother, Rerun, born during these years.

Anyway, you want to know how much this box set cost me, don’t you? Well, there’s a bit of a story to that. A few months ago, many comic book blogs ran items on how Amazon dot com were offering many of Marvel’s Omnibus books for just $15 each. Being a greedy opportunist, I placed a big order for lots of books just as many other people did. Obviously, Amazon realised their mistake and cancelled them all but because I contacted them to complain, I was given a $25 credit. So I used the credit to order the Peanuts Box Set. Add the shipping and handling but take away the credit means I bought this box set for just $14.47 which translates to an amazing £9.79. This is embarrassing value for money and I would like to say for the record that The Complete Peanuts Box Set 1971 – 1974 is worth every cent of its retail price.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Review - The Invisibles

I have only recently started to ‘get’ Grant Morrison. Up until a couple of months ago, I had only read a few Grant Morrison comics that I had enjoyed – most notably All Star Superman – and I mostly tended dismiss his work as incomprehensible. I would occasionally start to read some new series by Morrison – New X-Men, for example – and really enjoy the first couple of issues but I would soon lose the plot and give up. However, I recently bought and enjoyed all the TPBs from his recent Batman run, which led me on to a major Grant Morrison spending spree. In recent weeks, I have read and enjoyed all three of his Animal Man TPBs, all six of his Doom Patrol TPBs, the entire run of Seven Soldiers, and have more stuff lined up to read soon (all his New X-Men stuff, most of his JLA run, The Filth, Marvel Boy, Final Crisis, We3 and Seaguy). I haven’t understood everything I have read but I enjoyed it all nonetheless, and feel that I will get even more out of these works if I read them again, which I fully intend to do some day. However, for the last couple of weeks I have been reading The Invisibles – all seven volumes – and I’m afraid it’s exactly the sort of thing that turned me off of Morrison’s work in the first place.

I will admit that a large part of the problem is me. I have a low tolerance for this sort of writing – I struggle with most poetry and have not enjoyed what I have read of the work of William Burroughs. The contents of my head are already a mess and I prefer fiction that helps me make sense of the world, not fiction that confuses me further. I also have a low tolerance for conspiracy theorists (I am inclined to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald really did shoot JFK, that 9/11 was not a conspiracy by the US government, and that nobody has ever met an alien) and a low tolerance for magic (I thought a little bit less of Alan Moore after finding out that he was some kind of wizard and lost interest in Promethea long before the end). At the risk of seeming like a bit of a prude, I also have a low tolerance for work ‘inspired’ by LSD (I love the work of Robert Crumb but think his Weirdo-era stuff is far superior to any of his drug-inspired ‘60s work). I mean, I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to get off your tits on drugs and write comics, but that doesn’t mean it is fun to read. The drug references in Morrison’s Doom Patrol actually worked well, and the Magic Bus storyline was a particular favourite of mine, but here it just gets a bit tedious. I mean, if you cut out all the scenes in The Invisibles where some character is either on acid or talking about acid, the whole thing wouldn’t even fill two books. If you also cut out all the scenes where characters are taking drugs other than acid (including some blue mould that grows on the walls of an abandoned tube station) it probably wouldn’t stretch to one volume. And cut out all the stuff that seems to have been written on acid and you would most likely end up with no books (for all I know, Morrison wrote this on nothing stronger than tea and crumpets, but I think it’s more likely that industrial quantities of acid were consumed during the making of this series).

There were moments during The Invisibles that I almost enjoyed and moments where I even threatened to suddenly ‘get’ it. Mostly, though, I didn’t enjoy it and didn’t ‘get’ it. A lot of the time, I was just reading the words and looking at the pictures and not taking much in at all. I have only just finished reading the seventh volume and I would really struggle to explain what the whole thing was about, which isn’t a good sign. In fact, I don’t think I will try and explain the plot in any detail as attempting to do so will probably make me feel even stupider than I already do for not getting it. It was something to do with the end of the world and time travel and a conspiracy to do with aliens, except they were aliens from another dimension or time aliens, rather than space aliens, and our heroes spent a hell of a lot of time on drugs but still managed to shoot straight and function more-or-less normally. I really liked some of the characters, particularly Lord Fanny (a transvestite), Boy (a girl) and Ragged Robin (a girl from the future), but also disliked others – Dane (a Liverpudlian teenager) was annoying in the first book and didn’t get any less annoying as the series went on, while King Mob (a compulsive drug user with multiple piercings) was a bit too ‘cool’ for my liking. The series suffered slightly from multiple artists but all of the artists were very good. Phil Jiminez (not an artist I usually have much time for) and Chris Weston (an artist I like a lot) worked particularly well on this series, I think.

Like most of Morrison’s other work, I think I would get a lot more out of this if I read it again. However, this is the first of my recent Morrison purchases that I don’t think I ever will want to read again and these will probably end up on eBay sometime in the near future. In the unlikely event that I do decide read them again, I will probably want to drink a nice cold pint of acid first (that is how they serve acid, isn’t it?) to enhance the experience. As for the cost, well, I bought the first four books on eBay for about a fiver each, which I guess counts as a moderate bargain, but the last three books I paid full price for (full Amazon price, that is, not the full Titan Books price – I’m not a complete idiot!).

Monday, 20 September 2010

Objects of Desire: The Mighty Thor Volume 1 Omnibus

Considering my fondness for silver age Marvel comics drawn by Jack Kirby, I was never a fan of Thor when I was a boy. I think I found all of that fake Shakespearian language written by Stan Lee off putting. Also, I never liked the way Wasp made lusty comments about him during early Avengers stories. I mean, for God’s sake, Wasp; Ant Man’s standing right next to you and you’re going on about how fit Thor is supposed to be! However, I want this collection of Thor’s earliest Marvel comics badly. So very, very badly.

Unfortunately, there’s even more to this Omnibus edition than to the Captain America one I also crave. It retails for a hefty one hundred dollars which means Amazon UK has it for a massive £63.75. Further more, they’re running what I assume to be the incorrect cover with the listing. Why would anyone who is prepared to spend that much money on this type of thing want a modern interpretation of the character on the dust jacket when inside there’s nothing but cool, old style artwork? More encouraging is Forbidden Planet dot com that has the preferable cover listed along with the book at a cheaper price of £51.74. Even better is Forbidden Planet dot co dot UK who lists it at £50.25. Unlike the Captain America Omnibus, buying the original comics is much more expensive than the book. However, despite this, it’s still a purchase that’s difficult to justify in these tough economic times.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Review - The Astonishing Spider-Man #20 (Panini UK)

I like these Panini comics. For those not familiar with them, they are British reprints of US Marvel comics which usually reprint three comics per issue (although you occasionally get a 100-page issue with more comics in it) for a mere £2.95. I don’t see them everywhere, but WHSmith stock them, and I currently get my friendly local newsagent to order me Astonishing Spider-Man and Mighty World of Marvel and will probably ask him to start getting me Fantastic Four Adventures, too, once they start reprinting the Jonathan Hickman stuff. I should probably be embarrassed to walk into my local shop and ask for a Spider-Man comic at my age, but I am way past caring about such things.

Astonishing Spider-Man (which is fortnightly) tends to reprint two modern Spider-Man comics per issue and an older story. I could live without the older reprints because they are usually pretty rotten issues from the 1980s but they offer an affordable way to keep up with modern Marvel comics (if that is your sort of thing). This particular issue reprints Amazing Spider-Man issues 578 and 579, first published by Marvel about two years ago, and Amazing Spider-Man #304, from the late-1980s. In ASM 578 and 579 we get both parts of a two-part story, written by Mark Waid, in which the Shocker causes a subway tunnel to cave in and Spidey has to lead some trapped train passengers to safety as the tunnel slowly fills with water. The story, in many ways a tribute to that classic Ditko issue (#33) where Spidey has to free himself from under rubble after Doc Ock’s underwater hideout collapses, is perfectly okay. However, the fantastic artwork of Marcos Martin elevates it to another level. I don’t know much about Martin – I have a Batgirl Year One TPB drawn by him that I bought (cheap on eBay, of course) purely because of his art and I know he drew Doctor Strange The Oath (which I don’t own) and that’s it – but the few issues of Spider-Man that I have seen by him have been beautiful and well worth the cover price for the art alone. As far as I am concerned, Martin is one of the very best modern superhero artists (think Steve Ditko meets Darwyn Cooke meets Tim Sale) and I fully intend to track down more of his work. Unfortunately, Martin was only an occasional artist on Amazing Spider-man (these issues are from the Brand New Day period, when the creative teams rotated every two or three issues) but I believe there are quite a few more issues by him still to come.

The 1980s reprint here is one of the issues from Todd McFarlane’s first run on the title. I was working in a comic shop at the time these came out and remember thinking that the art looked okay back then but never bothered reading them (I was much cooler back then, you see, and if it wasn’t published by Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly, I didn’t want to know). I didn’t really miss much. The art is still a lot better than what came before it (some of the ‘80s reprints in earlier issues of Astonishing Spider-Man have been really badly drawn) but now looks quite dated and certainly isn’t anywhere near as good as the art in the modern reprints in this issue. I must admit that I lost interest in the story less than halfway through and skim-read the rest of it. If Panini would only drop these ‘80s reprints and reprint three modern comics per issue (like they do in Mighty World of Marvel) then this would be really good value for money. However, two reprints per issue that I actually want to read for £2.95 still makes this a worthwhile regular purchase.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Objects of Desire: Captain America By Jack Kirby Omnibus

Ohh, I want the Captain America Omnibus so badly. I love Marvel’s Omnibus books even if their size does make them hard to read anywhere other than on a lectern. I especially like those editions that collect silver age Marvel work by Steve Ditko or, as in this case, Jack Kirby. But the current exchange rate means that Amazon UK is listing this $75 book at £47.59 which is more than $100 Omnibus editions have been listed at in the past. The cheapest I’ve found it for so far is on Forbidden Planet’s website for £38.63 which is quite a difference but still a lot of money. It’s like Rob said to me, I can probably get the original comics for less. He’s right and in fact, I even have some of them. So, at the moment, I’m hoping Amazon UK reappraise their price of this book, as both quotes are outside of my range at the moment.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Review - Conan The Barbarian issues 80 and 81

Conan the Barbarian #80 is the second part of a three-part story, loosely based on a (non-Conan) story by Robert E. Howard. Like every issue of Marvel’s Conan before it, and most of the issues that followed it, it is written by Roy Thomas. Here, Conan takes a break from his adventures with Bëlit, the current love of his life, who he has been hanging around with for quite a few issues now, to do some courier work. You see, Conan has agreed to deliver a jewel called ‘The Eye of Set’, which actually looks like an eye, to the king of Attalan, an isolated city apparently founded by Alexander the Great when he travelled back in time 10,000 years (???). On his way to this city, in the previous issue, Conan was ambushed by (and promptly defeated) some mercenaries, working for someone else who wants ‘The Eye...’, and met a girl, Bardylis, who wears metal cups on her breasts and not much else. In this issue, having been led to Attalan by the comely Bardylis, Conan meets the king but decides not to give ‘The Eye...’ to him right away, or even mention it, but to wait until the following morning. During the night, he is attacked and tied up by some more people looking for ‘The Eye...’ (luckily, Conan has hidden the jewel). Conan breaks free and kills all but one of them, who gets away and runs to the king to tell him that Conan is a wizard who has bewitched Bardylis and needs to be killed. Conan FINALLY reveals to the king why he is really there, but they have a row and end up wrestling. Just as Conan knocks the (very large) king unconscious, someone bursts in to announce that the city has been invaded, and then drops dead. Bardylis tells Conan that, by the laws of her city, he is now king (at least until the real king wakes up) and has to deal with the situation.

If all that sounds like nonsense, well, that’s because it is. Personally, I can’t help thinking that this whole mess could have been avoided if Conan had just given the jewel to the king as soon as he arrived, but what do I know about being a barbarian? The art is okay but unrecognisable as the work of Howard Chaykin, who also drew the previous issue and is drawing the next issue, too. Instead, it looks like the work of John Buscema on an off day. Then again, Chaykin is just filling in for John Buscema, who is either on holiday or (more likely) busy drawing several other comics, so I suspect he was asked to draw like this.

The nonsense continues in #81. The most notable thing about this issue, to me at least, is the fact that it is one of the few Conan comics that I remember buying as a child (I was 8 years old when this came out in 1977). I did briefly get into Conan comics in my teens, around the time the first Arnold Schwarzenegger film came out, and even read one or two Robert E. Howard Conan novels, but mostly I was never a massive fan. My friend ’s dad, however, owned every issue of Conan, Savage Sword and all, and when he asked me to sell them for him about 10 years ago, I kind of regretted not reading them first (same goes for his Jonah Hex collection), which is what prompted me to buy the first 16 Chronicles of Conan books, published by Dark Horse, when I saw them as a reasonably priced set (£75 including postage) on eBay last year (note: I do not actually own any Conan comics and am reviewing both of these issues from Chronicles of Conan Vol.10). To be honest, I remembered very little from the interior of this comic, but the cover (not reprinted in this volume) is one that has always stuck with me. I don’t know why, as, like the story it contained, it is not particularly great. Continuing from where we left off last time, Conan has been made de facto king of the hidden city of Attalan, after knocking the actual king unconscious, and is faced with the task of repelling an invasion. It’s mainly action this issue, and lots of big panels, still drawn by Howard Chaykin doing a fairly good impression of John Buscema on an off day. The leader of the invasion of Attalan is a one-eyed nutter called Hun-Ya-Di, who is after the ‘The Eye of Set’, currently in the possession of Conan, which he plans to place in his empty eye-socket, thereby gaining great power (or something like that). Eventually, Conan and Hun-Ya-Di meet in one-on-one combat, and after a few pages of fighting, Conan runs his opponent through with his sword. It’s a fairly dull battle, but Roy Thomas does an admirable job of talking it up, of making it sound as if Conan is in danger of losing, before the tide turns in his favour. The invasion thwarted and Hun-Ya-Di dead, ‘The Eye of Set’ bleeds (ooh, spooky)and Conan finally hands the bloody thing over to the real king of Attalan, who is now fully conscious, much more humble than he was last issue, and offers Conan the severed head of a bloke who betrayed him last issue. ‘Blonde beauty’ Bardylis, she who wears metal cups on her breasts and little else, then offers herself to Conan. To his credit, Conan at least makes some effort to tell her that he already has a girlfriend (Bëlit, Queen of the Black Coast, who is waiting elsewhere for our hero to finish this fill-in adventure) but he soon cracks when she hurls herself at him and the issue ends with the couple kissing. Get a room!

And that also brings me to the end of Chronicles of Conan Vol.10. Christ, buying sixteen consecutive volumes of this series seemed like such a good idea at the time, and I fully intended to read them all, even though I only really wanted the read the Barry Smith issues contained in the first four volumes, but I am really struggling now. The rules of this blog say that I have to read and review everything that I buy, no matter how much I regret it, so I guess I will read the final six volumes at some point (although this will be difficult, as I sold vol.14 a few weeks ago) but I think I will put them aside for a few months (at least) and read something else for now.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Review - Secret Avengers 1-4

To me, Marvel Comics recent re-launch of the Avengers line looks commercially needy, especially when you consider that they are still being overseen by writer Brian Michael Bendis. Of all the new Avengers books, and there are many, the only one I had an interest in was this, Secret Avengers, but only because I see it as a spin off from Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, a run that I’ve enjoyed in recent years.

Steve Rogers, now known as Super Soldier, recently back from the dead and in charge of all superheroes, puts together another team of Avengers, only this time they’re made up of B listers. Moon Knight’s in there, Nova and The Beast. Movie stars War Machine and Black Widow are also members. There’s even a couple of characters without their own books and films, such as Valkyrie and the fake Ant Man. The team’s purpose is to be more proactive when dealing with threats rather than reactive like all the other teams of Avengers.

Brubaker jumps straight into the story. There’s some sort of shenanigans involving The Serpent Crown that, by the end of the first issue, has the team on their way to Mars of all places. In Brubaker’s Captain America, Mars seems out of bounds to Steve Rogers, but here he is in a spaceship heading there with his superhero pals.

Mike Deodato’s art has that clean, smooth finish to it that I’ve come to expect from his work these days. His work here reminds me of half remembered Avengers stories from my childhood drawn by Neil Adams. Or could that be the Serpent Crown forcing me to make that connection? I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, this opening story is a little underwhelming. Apart from a couple of moments featuring War Machine and Ant Man, there’s little banter or fission between team members. There are no hints or explanation as to how this team came together. (I was hoping for scenes paying homage to Giant Size X-Men 1 like Valkyrie walking into her living room and finding a mysterious blonde stranger sitting in the shadows and saying, “I have a job for you”). There’s a sense that the characters are only in the Secret Avengers during their spare time, which of course they are. I’m hoping for Brubaker, that this isn’t also the case.

Cost: I won issues 1 to 4 of Secret Avengers in an eBay auction for £2.70. The price of postage was £2.25, making a total of (thinks for a bit) £4.95! With blog rules placing a price maximum of £1.20 an issue, this falls just within budget.

Rules of On The Ration

I don’t know about you but as much as I enjoy reading comics I find that, these days, they are poor value for money. What’s the average price of a Marvel or DC comic? $3.99? For twenty two pages, that seems like a lot of money. For those of us based in the UK, thanks to the current exchange rate, that works out at nearly three pounds a pop. Hardly affordable during these times of austerity, is it? (Did you know according to a recent survey carried out by some people that the soon to be announced government cuts in public spending place a disproportionate burden on the comic reader?)

Which is why Comics – On The Ration has come into being. On The Ration is a system designed for readers to extract the maximum amount of joy from their pastime/hobby/vocation devised by scientists, artists and free thinkers. We will endeavour to post on this blog our reviews of comics and graphic novels purchased according to the following rules and to share our methods of keeping to them.

The Rules

1. No more than £1.20 can be spent on a single periodical comic with an exclusive deal with Diamond Comic Distributors. (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse etc). This price includes P&P.

2. All other comics and GNs must be bought at a price considered reasonable by the reviewer. Obviously, the cheaper the item, the greater the achievement. (Examples include comics distributed to UK news agents, small press, indy etc).

3. Everything bought must be used for purpose before selling on. In other words, if you buy a comic that you regret then you still have to read and review it before placing it on eBay.

4. Every comic must be accessed legally. In other words, no illegal downloading or stealing from your local comic shop.

These are our rules. Let the rationing commence!