Saturday, 30 October 2010

Review - Spider-Man / Red Sonja TPB

This book collects the five issue ‘Spider-Man / Red Sonja’ mini-series from 2007 / 2008, written by Michael Avon Oeming – better known as an artist – and drawn by Mel Rubi – better known as a painter and decorator (Note: I made that bit up). The story here is very similar to the story in Marvel Team-Up #79, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, in which Spider-Man and Red Sonja team up to battle Kulan Gath in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I know this because Marvel Team-Up was one of my favourite Marvel comics as a kid and John Byrne was my favourite artist. I also know this because Marvel Team-Up #79 is reprinted in this book after Spider-Man / Red Sonja #5 – the first time it has ever been reprinted, apparently – and it is not only very similar, it is also better and makes a bit more sense. At the very least, MTU #79 didn’t have Venom in it, which is one big plus point in its favour.

In MTU #79, a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tries an old necklace that calls to him and he is transformed into Kulan Gath (who I guess must be some old Red Sonja villain – I’m not sure because the only Red Sonja comics I have ever read have been old issues of Conan and I don’t think he was in any of those). Without leaving the museum, Gath then seeks to take over the world but is thwarted by Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson, who is transformed into Red Sonja by an old sword which calls to her. It’s not a great comic by any means, and there is little in the way of explanation, but it’s a perfectly good Bronze Age Marvel comic which has the benefit of containing art by John Byrne, then at the peak of his powers, inked by his X-Men cohort Terry Austin.

In Spider-Man / Red Sonja, a crooked politician tries on the same necklace during a visit to the same museum – which is odd because Spider-Man threw the necklace into the sea at the end of MTU #79, but I suppose some idiot could have found it and brought it back to the museum – and is also transformed into Kulan Gath. An expanding section of New York is also transformed into something resembling a set from the Lord of the Rings, with some of its inhabitants transformed into ogres, etc., and the rest just transformed into peasants who speak in Olde English.

This time, that genius Kulan Gath actually calls Mary Jane to the sword that transforms her (again) into Red Sonja, his logic being that he can pit Spider-Man and Sonja against each other, thus leaving him free to complete his plans for world domination, which seems like a flawed plan if ever there was one. From here, Spider-Man and Red Sonja briefly battle each other before teaming up to battle some of Spider-Man’s slightly transformed foes (Hobgoblin, the Lizard, Vermin, the Scorpion, and Venom), before battling Kulan Gath, who steals Venom’s costume and becomes Kulan Venom (yes, this comic really is that bad). The comic then ends in much the same way as the superior MTU #79.

Other than ‘Kulan Venom’, which was an unforgivably shit idea, and the idiocy of Kulan Gath bringing Red Sonja into the fray, there were a couple more things that really pissed me off about this largely forgettable series. Firstly, I didn’t understand why Spider-Man wasn’t transformed into an ogre or some Olde English-speaking peasant, with no memory of who he really was, like everyone else in New York. Secondly, I didn’t understand why everyone was speaking Olde English when they were supposed to have been transformed into characters from the Hyborian age. MTU #79 was probably hacked out by Chris Claremont in his lunch break, in between writing issues of the X-Men, Iron Fist, and whatever else he was writing at the time, but even then it occurred to him that Spider-Man and Red Sonja might not be able to speak the same language. In MTU #79, Spider-Man and Red Sonja are unable to understand each other. Here, in Spider-Man / Red Sonja, everyone speaks the same language, it’s just that some say ‘ye’, ‘thee’, and ‘thy’ a lot, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

This was very lazily written and I’m really not sure what I thought of Mel Rubi’s art. Some pages were good but a lot weren’t, although I can’t quite put my finger on what it is I didn’t like. I initially thought that it might be the fact that the art appears to have been shot directly from the pencils, which meant that the strong colours overpowered the art a bit, but the Michael Turner covers reprinted inside also appear to have been shot straight from pencils and I quite like them, so maybe it’s just not my sort of thing?

I’m not sure why I bought this really. I think it was just because I was bored and I saw it cheap on eBay. I can’t remember exactly how much it was, but I seem to remember paying something like £2.99 including postage. Whatever I paid, it must have been cheap because I didn’t complain when it turned up with the front cover folded in half. In retrospect, though, I kind of wish I had complained.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Objects of Desire; Batman and Robin 4 - 16

I find Grant Morrison to be a writer whose work is always worth reading, even when he’s working on a character from who I feel I’ve seen all there is to see, like Batman. Unfortunately, a lot of other people feel similarly as I’ve found it near impossible to get copies of Batman and Robin within the strict budgetary limits of On The Ration. I have the first three issues, unread and bought from Rob when he was feeling vulnerable last year, but since then I’ve hit a wall. As a result, I’m considering alternatives which are as follows.

1. Buy the hardback collections. These are nice looking books that retail at £18.99 at a time. Even from discounted place like
Amazon (£10.49) and Forbidden Planet UK (£13.10), this is still a bit pricey. Also, I’m only really interested in the stories written by Morrison and I suspect for volume three, half of it will be scripted by his successor.

2. Buy the upcoming soft cover collections. Obviously, this retails for less but, ultimately, the same problem in regards to Grant Morrison writing volume three applies as above.

3. Buy the monthly Batman Legends comic published by Titan. You get three recent Batman comics collected in a single issue, one of which currently includes Morrison’s Batman and Robin, for a very reasonable £2.99. However, it’s not great value for money if, like me, you’re only interested in one of the stories. Besides, at any point, Titan editorial could change their minds as to what they reprint in it, or cancel the comic altogether.

So, these are my options and, thanks to a to-read pile that is larger than I am comfortable with, I don’t feel under pressure to make a decision just yet.

Review - JLA: Deluxe Edition Vol.1 HC

This ‘deluxe’ hardcover collects JLA issues 1-9 and JLA Secret Files #1, written by Grant Morrison (JLA Secret Files #1 was co-written with Mark Millar) and drawn by Howard Porter and Oscar Jimenez. I had read most of these comics before – a friend lent me most of Morrison’s JLA run around the time it ended – but it was a long time ago now and I remembered very little about them, so when I went on a Grant Morrison spending spree recently (don’t tell my wife!), after discovering that he was actually rather good, and not incomprehensible, as I had always insisted, I made sure I picked up the three available volumes in this series, too. And this one was okay, I suppose.

Really, any problems I have with this book are not due to Morrison’s writing. The stories here are all perfectly good. I didn’t really read any superhero comics in the ‘90s, which is when the comics collected in this volume were originally released, but I imagine that these stories were much better than anything else coming out at the time and they are probably better than most modern superhero comics, too. The first two story arcs are reasonable – the first is about a Martian invasion and the second about fallen angels (I can’t help thinking that the certain knowledge that angels – and therefore God and an afterlife – really do exist would have a profound effect on the Earth’s populace, but such matters are not addressed here) – but the third story arc, in which most of the JLA are bested by a villain called ‘the Key’ and trapped in imaginary worlds, leaving only Green Arrow to save the day, is really good.

Of course, being comics from the late 1990s, the real Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, is dead, and the Green Arrow here is Connor Hawke. Also, Superman has a mullet in the first half of the book and in the second half of the book he is wearing a blue and silver uniform and has electricity crackling around his head (I am pleased to announce that I have never read any of the Death of Superman comics so I have no idea what this is all about), Green Lantern is some bloke called Kyle Rayner, and Aquaman has long hair, a beard, and a hook / harpoon instead of a left hand (which must be really awkward in the toilet). Under the circumstances, Morrison does an admirable job, and shows early signs of his talent for writing Batman. The character does not feature that prominently in this book, but when he does show up he proves himself more resourceful and more driven than any of the other members of the JLA, making them look like the muscle-bound idiots they are, despite his lack of powers (unless having billions of dollars counts as a power, which it probably should).

When I first read these comics, I remember finding them quite hard to read but that was not the case at all this time. Over the last nine or ten years, I have become more used to reading modern superhero comics (which is not necessarily a good thing) and more used to Morrison’s style of writing, and compared to something like the Invisibles, which I recently struggled my way through, reading this was child’s play.

Unfortunately, the art here is really bad. Not in JLA issues 8 and 9, drawn by Oscar Jimenez. The art in those issues is great, and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the story. Howard Porter’s art in the rest of the book, though, is U.G.L.Y. – just not the sort of thing I am into at all. I tend not to be a big fan of the art in most modern DC comics, but the art here is worse. There are good panels, and even good pages, but mostly this looks amateurish and the distorted characters – particularly Green Lantern – look like they are straining for a poo, rather than preparing for battle or even having a simple conversation, most of the time. I can only imagine that Porter got the job because he was fast, not because he was good, but I suppose someone must have liked this sort of thing at the time.

Overall, I am not sure that I needed to own this book. I would have been perfectly happy just to read these comics again and I certainly didn’t need to own them in an oversized hardcover (I am actually quite embarrassed to own something this ugly at all, never mind in a hardcover format). I may sell this on eBay, but I guess that depends on how much I enjoy the next two volumes. On the plus side, this wasn’t that expensive. It has a recommended retail price of £19.99 / $29.99, which does seem expensive, but I got my copy for £12.23 on Amazon (currently £12.29), which I thought was quite reasonable for a hardcover book collecting ten comics.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review; Dandy 3508

Here’s another comic I never liked much when I was a kid. To me, The Dandy and its sister comic, The Beano, hung over British comics like the grey establishment. Even today, if I encounter copies published during the seventies, it’s a wonder to me that The Dandy has survived given how altogether more exciting and colourful comics published my Marvel UK and IPC seemed at the time.

However, the newsagent comic shelves have since become depressing, racked mainly with cheaply produced magazines with spine breaking gifts taped to the front. While The Beano continued, The Dandy dropped to a fortnightly frequency and got re-branded as Dandy Extreme (Christ, almighty). Things are pretty grim in UK comics if we’re all made depressed by this when, thirty years earlier, I would have been happy for both comics to disappear altogether.

Now, in a surprising bold move, The Dandy has been re-launched again, this time as a 100 % pure breed comic. I can’t believe my jaded eyes! This is probably the best The Dandy has looked to me… well, ever! And not a shitty free gift in sight!

First thing to note is that it’s using comic strip versions of celebrities as a lure. Harry Hill appears on the front and he strikes me as the perfect front man to a children’s comic. Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before? And although Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson and Noel Edmonds might not have a similarly warm place in the hearts of British children, it’s perfectly right for them to appear as characters also, continuing a tradition of celebrity referencing in UK comics enjoyed by the likes of early Viz and 2000 AD.

Inside, without exception, the art is great. There’s an exuberance and energy which I don’t remember seeing in The Dandy when I was a boy. Everyone seems to give it their all from Nigel Parkinson to Lew Stringer to the rest who don’t sign their work and whose names I don’t know but would love to credit. There’s an indy tone to the art that I find appealing and I hope the kids do too. All of the brand new strips, they’re mostly brand new to me anyway, have a contemporary feel without appearing condescending or embarrassing. Most interesting of all is the best known Dandy character, Desperate Dan, being pushed to the back. I respect this move. Out with the old, in with the new; that’s what I say.

As a whole it works well, being strung together by funny, boggle eyed creatures and page numbers in the form of cup cakes. The fun even spills out onto an ad for Ben 10. Tonally, it seems to be more Oink than traditional DC Thompson publications. The production makes the comic feel like a proper product; it’s the right balance between quality and value for money (£1.50). Design wise, I’m not so sure about the strips appearing inside a colour border, but this is the closest to a criticism I can come up with. Even the name ‘The Dandy’ doesn’t bother me now. When us comic bores get together and talk about the ideal British children’s weekly, in my mind’s eye, this is what it looks like.

As to whether it will be a success or not, I have no idea. Already, because it’s The Dandy and it, like The Beano, has always been able to get real-world press attention, much to my annoyance in the past but not now, this re-launch has received a lot of coverage. I guess the comic will go through tweaks and adjustments as the editors receive reader feedback. Very young readers, the target audience remember, might be put off by the lack of a free gift, for example. I just hope they give the all-comic format long enough to bed in. Just imagine the fall out to comic publishing in this country if it’s successful. Shit, even I might get some work.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Review - Showcase Presents Bat Lash Vol.1 TPB

This book collects Showcase #76 and Bat Lash issues 1-7 from 1968 / 1969, DC Special Series #16 from 1978 and a few short Bat Lash strips that originally appeared as back-ups in Jonah Hex in 1981. The majority of the stories here are co-written by Sergio Aragon├ęs and Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Nick Cardy, but the shorter strips from Jonah Hex are written by Len Wein and drawn by Dan Spiegle, while DC Special Series #16 is drawn by George Moliterni.

Bat Lash is basically a hippie cowboy who stumbles from town to town, with a flower in his hat, claiming to deplore violence but killing a hell of a lot of people anyway. At one point he thinks to himself: ‘I hate violence! I hate it so bad... I feel like killin’ anyone who pushes me to it!’ Up until around Bat lash #5, the emphasis is on slapstick humour and these comics are a lot of fun. However, for the last couple of issues of the series proper, humour takes a back seat and we get a rather dull tale about Bat Lash avenging the death of his family – the sort of thing you’ve seen in dozens of westerns before. Thankfully, the more mischievous side of the character is on display again in later strips but without Aragon├ęs these stories aren’t quite as entertaining as earlier stories.

The art here is great throughout. Nick Cardy was a fantastic artist and I was particularly impressed by the Alex Toth-like art of George Moliterni, who I had never heard of before, on DC Special Series #16. I found myself wondering if Moliterni was an alias for a better known artist, but can’t find any evidence to support this theory. He seems to have drawn a few issues of Weird Western Tales, too, and I’m looking forward to reading some of them in Showcase Presents Jonah Hex Vol.1.

This is much thinner than most other DC Showcase books, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I often find that these Showcase books, like Marvel’s Essential books, are a bit too long and outlive their welcome long before they end. The length of this book, though, was about right and I enjoyed reading it. Showcase #76 and Batlash 1-5, at least, are well worth reading and there isn’t a bad page of art in the whole book. It is inexpensive, too. I got my copy from Amazon for a mere £4.96 (now £5.68, which still isn’t bad) including postage, which I don’t regret spending at all. This one’s a keeper!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Review - Roy of the Rovers - The 1980s

Promising 208 pages of scorching soccer action, this collection from Titan is a nostalgic flashback to my childhood, when my parents were okay with me reading comics just as long as they didn't feature those silly American superheroes.

This collection collects a year or so of strips from our titular character, and his team, Melchester Rovers. Although the title might suggest that it features strips from across the decade, it's actually all from around 1982. I'm sure you can probably all remember, but nothing went right that year for Melchester. Despite Racey's best efforts, they were relegated from the First Division, and in an attempt to ape Dallas, Roy was shot and the story didn't reveal the shooter for several months.

I enjoyed reading this. Sure, the art chops and changes a bit, but stylistically its of a kind, and the reproduction is nice. There are some nice period touches, such as Alf Ramsey covering for Roy when he is in hospital post-shooting.

If I'd fault the collection, I'd note that the information about the individual strips isn't particularly comprehensive - I still have no idea who drew any of the strips in this collection.

But this isn't a deal-breaker. The clincher is that my copy of the book turned up in a local branch of The Works, for the bargain price of £2.99. How else can you recapture your youth for the price of a pint?

Several Irrational Objects of Desire

I tend not to buy many comics in the periodical format anymore – I’m a waiting-for-the-trade kind of guy these days – so I had no problem vowing not to spend more than £1.20 on any comic from a publisher with a Diamond-exclusive distribution deal when I joined this blog. However, over the last few weeks, there have been several new releases that have aroused my interest and my resolve is starting to give. I currently have five new comics on my eBay watch list that I am VERY tempted to pay full price for, so I thought I should talk about these particular ‘objects of desire’ this week, in order to get my desires into perspective and to talk myself down. Here goes:

G.I. Combat #1
This is perhaps the least rational desire on my eBay watch list. I mainly want this because I like the Geoff Darrow cover, but I think it’s also because the title G.I. Combat reminds me of the ‘70s, when life was easier, comics were cheaper, Charlie’s Angels was on the telly, and Grease was the best film in the world (it still is!) – even though I never bought a single issue of G.I. Combat in the ‘70s. I have also never read a Haunted Tank comic before – the Haunted Tank being the focus of this particular one-shot – and I really want to, if only because the concept of a World War II tank haunted by the ghost of a Confederate soldier (and his horse) sounds so bizarre.

Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom issues 1 and 2
Having recently read and enjoyed the first three Locke & Key hardcovers, I really want to know what happens next, but only two issues of this latest series are out so far, so it will no doubt be some time before the next book is out. As I said, I am a ‘waiting for the trade’ kind of guy and I would really prefer to read this in trade form. In fact, if I did buy these comics, I would probably just sell them (at a loss) and buy the book when it comes out anyway, so my desire for these comics is really just down to impatience. Realistically, I should just pull myself together and wait for the next hardcover. It’s not as if I haven’t got loads of other books to read at the moment.

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #5
This series is something that I now wish I had waited for in trade format, but I bought the first four issues (of six) and I now feel almost obliged to buy this (very late) fifth issue. I really enjoyed the first couple of issues, and they led to me buying many more comics by Grant Morrison – a writer whose work I had always dismissed as incomprehensible – but I don’t remember much about issues 3 and 4 now and can’t help thinking that this, like most of Morrison’s work, will read better in trade form anyway. I think I should probably just sell the four issues I do have, while there is still some interest in the series, and wait for the trade... but it is very tempting to just buy the last two issues new to complete the set.

First Wave #4
I have a real soft spot for pulp heroes like Doc Savage, based on nothing at all really, except perhaps a fondness for that Doc Savage movie starring Ron ‘Tarzan’ Ely (I haven’t seen it for years but I liked it a lot when I was a kid). I bought the first four issues of the new DC Doc Savage series and they were really bad (a boring story and rotten art). The first three issues of this six-issue mini-series, however, were okay. This attempt to revive the pulp-era heroes that DC still owns the rights too – Doc Savage, The Spirit, The Avenger, Rima The Jungle Girl (I guess Dark Horse must still own the rights to Tarzan), the Blackhawks, and even Batman (I’m not sure what’s happened to The Shadow) – is written by Brian Azzarello in his usual pulpy style and rather well drawn by Rags Morales. Of all the individual comics on my eBay watch list, this is the one that I am most tempted to buy, partly because I want to read it but also because I know that it’s not something I will ever want to buy in trade form – it’s not that good. Really, this is just something I want to read once and then sell, and having to try and track down the remaining three issues for £1.20 or less each just seems like too much of a pain in the arse. I also think the chances of me being able to get the last three issues for £1.20 or less without buying a complete set are probably quite slim.

Of course, had we already started this blog when this series (and the Bruce Wayne series) first started, I would have just waited until I saw a cheap set or waited for a cheap copy of the eventual trade, but as I have already bought the first few issues of each series I am now presented with something of a dilemma: do I just quit buying these mid-series or do I keep buying them anyway and risk a punishment beating from Paul? Comic collecting can be so hard sometimes.

In summary: I am a very impatient and very indecisive person but I’m trying to work on it.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Review; Tall Tales

Although Mad Magazine was widely available when I was a kid, it wasn’t a comic I liked particularly. It seemed to be made up mainly of movie parodies and as I never got to go to the cinema (I didn’t see Star Wars until it was on TV years later. Cry for poor old Paul) they didn’t work for me. Plus, I hated those square speech balloons. (What can I say? I was a child.) However, I have very fond memories of Al Jaffee after being given a copy of his Snappy Answers To Stupid Question collection one Christmas. I thought it was great. So great in fact that I’ve waited my whole life since for someone to ask me if I’ve been in a car accident after being in a car accident just so I can say, “No, I’ve just always wanted a convertible”.

Tall Tales is a collection of tall cartoons drawn by Jaffee during the late fifties and early sixties. They follow the standard newspaper comic strip shape except instead of being horizontal, as they normally are, they’re vertical. The effect is surprising because, although these are wordless single panelled gag cartoons, you find that they have a narrative of sorts that can read in a variety of ways. From top to bottom, bottom to top, from the middle outwards. Jaffee has great fun with the format he’s devised by supernaturally controlling the ways our eyes track his gags.

This is a collection of the best of the Tall Tales cartoons but I still remain impressed at Jaffee’s gag rate. I often daydream about producing a newspaper cartoon but I’m never sure that I could last longer than a week before repeating myself or drying up altogether. He kept this up for six years in Tall Tales and for decades if you include his Mad cartoons. What’s most impressive to me is his ability to distil a strong joke down to the most effective way of telling it. One extra or one less piece of information could render the gag useless.

Anyway, I bought Tall Tales from The Works, the book returns shop where customers run the risk of injury due to the precarious way that staff stack their stock. It retails for £7.99 but I got it for a super value £2.99. Amazingly, The Works still has copies for sale, now discounted further to £1.99, so if you want me to pick you up a copy then let me know. Or, I might buy them all and give them to friends and family this Christmas.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Review - The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects HC

This slim hardcover collects Mike Mignola’s ‘the Amazing Screw-On Head’ one-shot from 2002 plus five other short, non-Hellboy, strips by the artist, only one of which has seen print before (another is a completely redrawn, expanded version of a previously published strip and the others were drawn for this volume).

‘The Amazing Screw-On Head’ is about a 19th century robot called Screw-On Head who is asked by Abraham Lincoln to recover ‘the Kalakistan Fragment’, a piece of untranslatable parchment that has been stolen from ‘the Museum of Dangerous Books and Paper’ by the villainous Emperor Zombie. The Kalakistan Fragment supposedly reveals the location of a ‘melon-sized jewel’ that may or may not allow the possessor to conquer the world, and although the fragment is supposedly untranslatable, Emperor Zombie is a master of ancient languages. With the aid of his two assistants, Mr Groin and Mr Dog (who is a dog), Screw-On Head sets off in pursuit of the ancient parchment and along the way we encounter a turnip that contains a parallel universe, a demon / monster of some kind, three horrible old women and a monkey. While this isn’t a Hellboy tale, it is very much on the same lines – complete with a punch-up between Screw-On Head and the demon / monster – but with a greater emphasis on humour. It is an odd, amusing, and beautifully drawn tale that reads very quickly but is no less enjoyable for that.

The other stories here – all loosely connected – are similarly light-hearted and enjoyable. ‘Abu Gung and the Beanstalk’ is a ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ type of thing, as the title suggests, and features a demon that looks very much like Hellboy (but with long, droopy ears and a pot belly); ‘The Magician and the Snake’ is an Eisner Award-winning story written by Mignola’s daughter (when she was 7 years old); ‘The Witch and Her Soul’ is about a witch’s deal with the Devil and some evil puppets; ‘The Prisoner of Mars’, probably my favourite of these ‘curious objects’, is a Victorian gentleman’s recollection of his execution for murder, his spirit’s subsequent adventures on Mars, and his return to life; and ‘In the Chapel of Curious Objects’, as Mignola himself admits in the afterword, isn’t really a story at all, just three pages of creepy panels that help to tie the stories in the book together.

At a mere 104 pages, including a sketchbook section and quite a lot of single page illustrations between stories, this was an extremely quick read. I must have read the whole book in an hour or so, and I am usually quite a slow reader. Still, I’m not really complaining, as I liked it a lot, Mignola’s art was fantastic throughout – there is little point in going into any great detail about the art, as if you have ever read a Hellboy comic before you will know exactly the sort of standard of work to expect – and it was quite cheap, too.

This has a recommended retail price of £13.50 / $17.99 but I bought my copy on Amazon for £8.78 including postage (it has since gone down in price to £7.78). And as I also used a £5.00 Amazon gift voucher that I got for agreeing to receive emails from some evil marketing company (all of which go straight into my junk folder – hee hee!), it only ended up costing me £3.78, which isn’t bad at all for a hardcover book. Once again, in the war on overpriced comics and graphic novels, victory is mine!

Friday, 22 October 2010

Review - Doctor Strange: The Oath TPB

This book collects the five-issue ‘Doctor Strange: The Oath’ mini-series from 2006 / 2007, plus a short strip that had previously only appeared in a comic that came with a Doctor Strange animated DVD. It is written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y The Last Man, Ex Machina), who is rather good, and drawn by Marcos Martin (Amazing Spider-Man, Batgirl Year One), who is great.

I have not read that many Doctor Strange comics before – not even the Lee / Ditko issues, which is a mistake I intend to rectify as soon as I manage to find a cheap copy of the forthcoming Marvel Masterworks Doctor Strange Vol.1 softcover – but the ones I have read have generally been pretty dull. I have a low tolerance for magic – although I do tend to like supernatural horror, which doesn’t make sense at all – and endless panels of some dreary git floating around in another dimension battling demons just doesn’t appeal to me at all. I prefer my superheroes to be a bit more down to earth and have a sense of humour. Thankfully, though, Vaughan’s Strange spends very little time battling demons in magical realms and does have a sense of humour.

The story starts in the clinic of the Night Nurse, physician of choice for New York’s superhero community, where Doctor Strange arrives, supported by Wong, his faithful manservant, having been shot with a silver bullet fired from Hitler’s handgun. This assassination attempt was carried out by a villain named Brigand, who has been hired by a pharmaceutical company to steal a magical cure for cancer (and all other diseases) that Doctor Strange has found while seeking a cure for Wong, who has a terminal brain tumour. I won’t be giving anything away if I say that Strange recovers from his gunshot wound quickly, as it would be a rather short and/or dull series if he didn’t. He then teams up with the Night Nurse – I love the way that Martin draws the Night Nurse! – to recover the magical elixir, which leads to a fist fight with someone from his pre-occult past and romance, among other things.

This is certainly not the best comic I have ever read and it’s not even the best Brian K. Vaughan comic I have ever read. Introducing a magical cure for all diseases into the Marvel Universe and then only using it to cure one person – of course Wong gets cured! – raises all sorts of moral questions which the ending of the book fails to answer satisfactorily. However, Vaughan’s witty script and Martin’s fantastic art combined do make this the best Doctor Strange story I have read.

Martin is probably my favourite modern superhero artist – as I have said before, think Steve Ditko meets Darwyn Cooke meets Tim Sale. I must admit that I think I prefer his more recent work on the Amazing Spider-Man and his earlier work on Batgirl Year One to his work on this series, but his work here is still really bloody good. A few more stand-out pages and this could easily have fallen into the friggin’ awesome category, and it’s still better than the work of most other artists working for Marvel or DC at the moment.

Overall, this was a quick but enjoyable read with great art. It also wasn’t that expensive. I bought this new from the Book Depository for £6.73 (it’s gone up to £7.14 since then but that still isn’t too bad) including postage. I tend to favour the Book Depository over Amazon these days as they are usually a bit cheaper (this is £9.45 on Amazon right now) and let you pay by PayPal, which means that any money I get from selling stuff on eBay can now be used to buy graphic novels right away, instead of getting used to pay bills, etc.

Review; West Distance Part 2

Underneath West’s most beautiful cover yet, the two part story Distance comes to its conclusion. During a battle in the American Civil War, Jerusalem West has in the sights of his sniper riffle an old enemy but killing him from a distance isn’t enough for him. He wants to be looking into his eyes when he fires the final shot. While this story unfolds, the reason for his hatred of him is revealed in reverse in flashback.

West is one of the best comics being published today, which is surprising coming from me as I’m not inclined towards Westerns. Andrew Cheverton’s writing is so tight that I have to remind myself to breath and Tim Keable’s art is decisive and fresh. Distance ends earlier than the comic has space for so there’s a tidy short accompanying the main by Chev and Tim called Mrs Earnshaw’s Telegram. Here Tim demonstrates his range again by altering the page design and using what looks like a grey wash.

West Distance Part 2 costs £2.50, which is what I paid for it, and can be bought from the
Angry Candy website.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review; Twelve Hour Shift

Steve Jones, the protagonist in Twelve Hour Shift and not the T4 presenter trying desperately to break into mainstream BBC TV, is an artist, but to fund his muse he works as a concierge in an apartment block for rich old people. It’s not a job he enjoys. Apart from his colleagues being unreliable and untrusting and his clients often being rude and hostile the position requires Jones to leave for work when it’s dark in the morning and return home when it’s dark at night.

Twelve Hour Shift works a little like Curb Your Enthusiasm in that I don’t know how much of the book is true. I know Sean Azzopardi the artist but I couldn’t tell you for certain if the anecdotes he shares are disguised truths or authentic fabrications. I might ask Sean next time I see him but I might not as I think that the ambiguity here is one of the story’s many great strengths.

Sean’s character Steve, who might be Sean himself, lives in a London that is barely awake or just going to sleep or behind a desk in the building foyer where he tries hard to look busy because the boss has a CCTV camera trained on him. Steve seems to be a conscientious worker despite his desire to be sitting at the drawing board but his motivation faces erosion from alcoholic colleagues and demanding customers. Everyone he encounters in his job seems elderly and Steve, not a young man himself, is conscious of life’s opportunities ticking away.

Sean’s artwork on Twelve Hour Shift looks breezy and is clearly drawn by a natural. The line-work is fresh and the grey toning he’s applied make the book feel colourful. Frustrating to me is that Sean is one of those artists that seem able to draw anything. Draw a new character? No problem. A building? Here you are. A car, a bus, a train, a dead bird or a tree? Here you go. He’s an artist who wouldn’t look out of place drawing a Vertigo comic.

In the book’s out-troduction (this is a word I’ve invented. Watch for it in the English Dictionary soon), Sean claims to struggle when it comes to story narrative but it doesn’t show to me. Twelve Hour Shift is a tale about unlikely people that takes place in a ghost London. Just because the story unravels in an untraditional way doesn’t mean that its narrative isn’t strong. There’s a moment in the tale where Steve has an opportunity for romance and he side steps it because, he claims, he finds her talk of wanting children off putting. But it’s thanks to Sean’s subtle story telling skills that I know the real reason Steve avoids romance is because of the demands it would have on his time. I found it to be a heart breaking moment.

Cost; I can’t remember. I think Sean and I did an exchange of goods at Caption. Anyway, the retail is £6.95, which is fantastic value for money, and copies can be purchased directly from the artist

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Review - Essential Captain America Vol.1 TPB

This book collects the Captain America strips from Tales of Suspense issues 59 to 99, Captain America issues 100-102, and a Golden Age Captain America strip from Captain America Comics #10. All of the stories in this book are written by Stan Lee and the vast majority are drawn by Jack Kirby, although we also get art by ‘Jazzy’ John Romita, Gil Kane, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, Jack Sparling, and Joe Simon.

I had never read most of the stories in this book before, which always seemed like a bit of an oversight, as I have read most of Lee and Kirby’s other silver age output – either in Marvel Masterworks, other Essentials books, or Marvel UK reprints from the ‘70s / ‘80s – and Captain America is one of my favourite Marvel characters. My favourite Stan Lee-penned comics are the Amazing Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, particularly the first dozen or so issues of each title, as these comics displayed a great sense of humour, as well as a sense of drama. That sense of humour seemed to be somewhat lacking in other Marvel comics from that era, which makes books like the Avengers and the X-Men seem a bit dull by comparison, and unfortunately the same thing is true of most of the stories in this book. The first couple of strips are quite playful, with Cap having fun taking on legions of hired goons, but then we get a whole load of stories set in World War II, which are a bit dull. Things pick up a bit once the stories return to the present day (well, the 1960s) around the middle of the book but it wasn’t really until near the end of the book that I actually started to enjoy this, and I’m not sure if that’s because the stories got better or because I knew I’d nearly finished it. A bit of both, I think. Mostly, considering they were so ridiculous, these stories took themselves a bit too seriously, were way too wordy, and the book as a whole was quite a struggle to get through. Still, I got to read the first appearances of Batroc the Leaper (I love Batroc!), Agent 13 / Sharon Carter, Modok, and the Cosmic Cube (which I still don’t really understand) and most of the art was great – some of Kirby’s best work, I think, especially once Joe Sinnott takes over the inking chores for TOS issues 87 and 90-98.

Indeed, the most notable thing about this particular volume, for me, is that it contains what is perhaps my single favourite Jack Kirby image – the splash page to the Captain America strip from Tales of Suspense #93 (above). I’m not quite sure what it is I like so much about this page, but the first time I saw it my eyes nearly popped out of my head (a slight exaggeration, perhaps) and I have still got a copy of TOS #93 that I kept back from a collection I bought to sell about 10 years ago – the only issue of that particular title I own. Like most of the art in this volume, this page even looks great printed on crappy paper in black and white.

Despite struggling a bit with this book, I am looking forward to reading future volumes in this series, particularly those reprinting issues drawn by Gene Colan, Frank Robbins and Sal Buscema, and written by writers other than Stan Lee. I love Stan Lee, but these days I can only take ‘the man’ in small doses and 500+ pages was a bit much for me.

As for the cost, well, I got this, along with Essential Captain America volumes 2, 3 and 4 and a couple of other books I wanted, in a set of 28 graphic novels I bought on eBay a year or so for £80. I sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for a little over £80, which means that this effectively cost me nothing. Yay!

Rules Update

Both Marvel and DC recently announced that they will be dropping the price of their standard sized comics from $3.99 to $2.99. As one of the reasons for this blog’s existence is because of what we see as poor value for money, you might be wondering what our policy here at On The Ration is now in light of these announcements. Well, as much as we welcome this change in price policy from the big two, the rules of this blog remain the same; no comics with Diamond Comic Distributors exclusivity can be purchased for more than £1.20 including post and packing. For full rules to On The Ration, please read this entry.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Review; Psychiatric Tales

Artist Darryl Cunningham originally, and with great modesty, released these Psychiatric Tales on his blog. It’s probably a reflection of his ability and the sheer strength of these strips that very quickly he found a real-world publisher in the form of UK based Blank Slate who released a hard back collection earlier this year. You might think that the rules of this blog mean that I just read the strips online and not progress on to the physical copy but you’re wrong. The physical thing is the point, as far as I’m concerned.

Darryl recounts his experiences working as a psychiatric nurse telling us about the people he’s helped, being careful to protect their identities, and carefully explaining that most of the assumptions we generally have about mental illnesses are wrong. It’s a worthy and interesting thing to do in any media but Darryl’s ability as both an artist and story teller elevate this beyond what many other creators would do with his inclination.

Darryl has what looks like a disarmingly simple art style but there are complicated ideas and emotions being expressed. The townscapes turn negative during intense mental difficulty. (Darryl’s drawings of towns and cities are always amazing, incidentally). Characters’ hairstyles are often elaborate as if to hint at the turmoil going on underneath them. Occasionally Darryl samples photographs, bleeding the tone out of them, to appropriate affect within the narratives, or zooms in and out of earlier images for perspective. Importantly, the book never forgets that as disabling and as bleak as mental illness can be that sufferers can be diagnosed and helped.

Darryl is a considered story teller, every word carefully chosen and every sentence meticulously paced. But then he combines these words with the images, as you do in comics, taking full advantage of the language this art form provides. The dialogue never loses logical perspective but very quickly, thanks to its combination with the art, I find myself making emotional connections. I can’t tell if Darryl has made these effective combinations deliberately or instinctively but either way, it’s very powerful.

Cost: The book retails for £11.99 but I’m pretty sure that I picked up my copy for £10 from Caption over the summer, although I don’t consider this an achievement as I would happily have paid full price. Caption is a small press comic event held every year in Oxford. It, and events like it, are the best places to find the most interesting comics being produced right now. Often books by guests will be on sale for a little less than in the shops because, I imagine, the cut paid to the organisers is less. Whatever, all you need to know is, small press comic events are great and you should own a copy of Psychiatric Tales.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Review - The Bulletproof Coffin issues 1-3

‘The Bulletproof Coffin’ is a 6-issue mini-series written by David Hine, drawn by Shaky Kane, and published by Image. Prior to reading these three issues, I was not familiar with the work of David Hine but I know that Paul (Rainey) is a fan and I remember the work of Shaky Kane from Deadline, back in the 1980s / 1990s. I only ever bought a few issues of Deadline at the time, for some reason. I seem to remember not liking Tank Girl and thinking that the magazine as a whole was a bit too cool. I suspect that I would like Deadline if it was being published today, but one thing I do remember liking a lot about Deadline even then was the Kirby-esque art of Shaky Kane, which stood out a mile, even if I don’t remember a thing about the stories he drew.

Kane’s art here reminds me more of the work of Bob ‘Flaming Carrot’ Burden than it does Jack Kirby – although there are certainly many illustrations here that do call to mind Kirby – but I still really like his style. Indeed, I bought these comics because of Kane’s art, but the story is pretty good, too.

This tells the tale of Steve Neuman, who clears the houses of dead people for a living and is allowed to keep stuff with ‘no verifiable auction house value’. During one particular house clearance he finds some comics that shouldn’t really exist, as the titles in question – ‘The Unforgiving Eye’, ‘Shield of Justice’, ‘Red Wraith Comics’, ‘Romana Queen of the Stone Age’ and ‘The Coffin Fly’ – ceased publication in the 1960s and these are more recent issues. The creators of these comics – an alternate Hine and Kane, clearly inspired by Lee / Kirby / Ditko – parted on less than friendly terms when their company, ‘Golden Nuggets Comics’, was bought out by ‘Big 2 Publishing’. The 1960s Hine then ‘sold out’ and spent years churning out sub-standard superhero fare while the 1960s Kane reputedly moved into producing ‘adult’ comics for the Russian market using the pseudonym ‘Destroyovski’. These more recent issues of the various Golden Nuggets titles, however, do appear to be the work of Hine and Kane.

Returning to the house where he found these comics, Neuman finds and dons a ‘Coffin Fly’ costume. Soon after, he receives a visit from some other people wearing the costumes of Golden Nuggets characters who tell him that his life is now in danger – threatened by the ‘Shadow Men’ who killed the comics’ original owner. He also discovers a hatch in the roof of his attic that leads to the eponymous ‘Bulletproof Coffin’ and a post-apocalyptic future landscape full of dinosaurs and zombie Vietnam vets.

As you have probably already gathered, this is quite a surreal tale. It makes little sense and I have no idea where it might be going. However, it was intriguing and enjoyable and I will certainly be downloading the remaining three issues when they are available.

Yes, that’s right, I DOWNLOADED these – legally, of course – from Comixology. This was the first time I have ever paid to download a comic and I think I could get used to it. I struggle to read large amounts of text on a computer screen – I certainly wouldn’t want to read a novel on my laptop and maybe not even a graphic novel – but I think most 20-page periodical comics work quite well on a computer screen and I had no problems reading this at all once I got used to the various controls. I paid $1.99 per issue, which is half the price of the paper comics and less than half price for British readers, since we have freight costs to take into account in the prices we pay for comics. The only downside to this experience is that $1.99 works out to fractionally under £1.24 at today’s exchange rate, which means that I have broken the first ‘rule of the ration’ (i.e. ‘thou shall not pay more than £1.20 for any comic published by a company with a Diamond-exclusive distribution deal’). It’s only 4p over, though, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Review - The Amazing Spider-Man 275

As my first contribution to Paul and Rob's Austerity Comics blog, it may seem a bit strange that I'm choosing to review a 25 year old comic. The reason for this is because I don't buy an awful lot of comics nowadays, so I'm going to review comics that I get on the cheap, however old they may be. I realise this may mean I'm robbing the blog of its topicality, but we'll see how it goes.

So, The Amazing Spider-Man 275. This is one of those anniversary issues, proclaiming that its a 37 page epic, and the return of the Hobgoblin. At the time, the identity of this imitation Green Goblin was the subject of fevered speculation, as can be witnessed from the letters page. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that this fevered speculation was also taking place in the Editorial Department. Roger Stern, the original creator of the character, had left, and nobody had thought to ask him how the storyline was going to play out.

In the hands of Tom DeFalcol and Ron Frenz, this issue is a fine traditional Marvel comic. It's got the mystery of the Goblin, it's got the soap opera. It's filled with supporting characters from Spidey's past. It's even got one of those cliffhangers where Spidey is done for, the villain is gloating, and the 'Next Issue' caption is titled 'Unmasked At Last!'. Who could they possibly mean? Oh, and they find a way to shoehorn in the original Lee / Ditko origin story as well.

The more sophisticated comics reader spots the hints and misdirections that are littered throughout the issue, but at 15 years old, I thought it was a all a marvellous puzzle. With hindsight, it's solid Marvel superheroics, but nothing more. If it wasn't for is part in the Hobgoblin puzzle, this could be just any old issue from the mid eighties.

However, the comic was essentially a freebie. An old schoolfriend has upped sticks, and passed on his comics collection to me. There's a couple of boxes of comics, mostly Marvel, from the 2 years that he read them. This issue is one of them, and I have to say, it's well worth the nothing that I paid for it.

Review - Ultimate Spider-Man Vol.21: War of the Symbiotes TPB

‘War of the Symbiotes’ collects Ultimate Spider-Man issues 123-128 by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen. I don’t own any of the previous volumes in this series but I have read them all. The stories are not always that great but Bendis writes a good Peter Parker and they are usually fairly enjoyable reads, at least, even if they aren’t exactly the sort of thing that I want to keep on my bookshelves forever.

Unfortunately, this is one of those Ultimate Spider-man books where the story is not that great at all. This usually doesn’t matter because Bendis’ witty dialogue and strong characterisation often make up for what the story lacks. However, this volume is big on action and low on witty dialogue, which meant that the weaknesses in Bendis’ writing seemed more prominent. A lot of the time in this book, Bendis’ dialogue was just a bit annoying, which is what I often find when I try to read one of his Avengers titles these days. My main problem with this volume, though, is that the villain is Ultimate Venom. I was not reading many superhero comics at the time the original Venom first arrived on the scene (the late-1980s) and have read very few comics featuring the character since, so I have no interest in the Ultimate version at all. The same goes for Silver Sable (actually, I don’t think I have ever read a comic with her in it before) whose Ultimate version also appears in this book.

We also get the return of the Ultimate Gwen Stacy, who was killed by Ultimate Carnage a few books back and has now returned from the dead as the new Ultimate Carnage. I remember thinking that it was a shame when they killed her off, so I’m not that bothered that they brought Gwen back, but the fact that they brought her back as Carnage, a character I know less about and care less about than I do Venom, just compounded the lack of excitement I felt reading this book. We do get a guest appearance by the Ultimates, which is fine, but most of this book is just action, featuring some characters I care little about, and it makes for a very quick, forgettable read.

On the plus side, the art is very nice. Stuart Immonen is a much better artist than previous USM artist Mark Bagley. Bagley’s art did grow on me after a while, but I didn’t like it at all when I started reading the title and it was always a bit too 1990s for my tastes. Immonen, though, has a nice modern style and does some really good work here. I thought the scenes of Spidey swinging through the city in #127 were particularly good.

Under normal circumstances, I would come back for the next book anyway, as, based on past experience with this title, the next book could quite easily turn out to be a good one. However, the volume after this is the one that tied in to the Ultimatum event, in which Jeph Loeb ruined the Ultimate universe forever, so I think I might give that one a miss.

Cost: This didn’t cost me a penny – Paul gave it to me (although I did give him some stuff, too, so I suppose it did end up costing a few quid but don’t ask me how much).

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review; Johnny Cash I See A Darkness

Reinhard Kleist, a graphic story teller I’m unfamiliar with, writes and draws Johnny Cash I See A Darkness, about a singer I previously had little knowledge off. Okay, that last bit isn’t entirely true but during the eighties, when I began to develop my musical interests, Johnny Cash was out of fashion and it was only when I heard his version of Personal Jesus a few years ago, that I eventually bought some of his music. I say “some” but actually it was just the Hurt single because it also featured said version of Personal Jesus, who one critic said about, “how do you improve upon perfection? Get Johnny Cash to cover it.” I went for the Depeche Mode cover, but I stayed for the Hurt.

Kleist’s graphic novel tells Cash’s life story, working towards the singer’s notorious performance in Folsom Prison, and beyond. First thing to say about this book is I have always been attracted to the cover. They say that you should never judge a book by the cover but if you can’t make an informed decision about a graphic novel based partly on the front then something’s wrong. Kleist draws Cash with a sneer and sad eyes. This continues throughout the book but he also, once Cash becomes a man, draws him looking older than his actual age. It all adds to the sense that Cash knows more about loss and pain than I do. At first glance of the book’s interior, Kleist’s artwork looked solid but unexceptional. It isn’t until I read it that I realised how good it actually is. His characters are subtle and human, his environments dense and evocative. This guy really is a strong comic strip artist.

From reading the story, I was surprised at how much I already knew about Johnny Cash. I haven’t seen Walk The Line and only caught the tail-end of a documentary about the singer last year. I can’t imagine how I knew all of this stuff except through osmosis. His music’s been around all of my life and perhaps I simply made lucky assumptions. Kleist’s telling of Cash’s familiar story, however, is powerful and valid. He adapts songs into strips and draws their words floating through rooms and landscapes like spirits. Kleist also tells the story of Glen Sherly, the prisoner Cash is photographed reaching out to at the Folson concert. The artist’s version of Sherly places too much reliance on his idol and his fate, like Cash’s, like all of ours, is sad.

By the end of the book I was a little choked up but I wasn’t sure if this was the story doing this to me or the memory of the video to hurt that I started thinking about. You might think that these connections that Kleists graphic novel evokes takes away from its validity but I think this is what I See A Darkness’s real achievement is. The artist made me feel that the story is familiar and made me make the connections. That is a special and enviable skill

Cost: I bought this for ten pounds, retail price is £14.99, from OK Comics in Leeds a couple of months back when the business was experiencing problems due to building work taking place outside. OK Comics is a big supporter of good comics and if I lived in the area I would be in there buying stuff all the time. (Thanks to my income, it is probably a good job that I don’t live nearby). If you do live in or close to Leeds then I strongly suggest that you visit the shop. If like me, you don’t but you like good comics, then follow their
twitter feed, join their Facebook group and visit their website.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Review - Creepy #3

As well as reprinting classic issues of Creepy (and Eerie) in fancy hardcovers, Dark Horse is also publishing a new, quarterly, Creepy comic. I have bought copies of all three issues released so far, lured in by the promise of the Creepy brand. However, I’m really not sure why I’ve stuck it out for so long, because I was disappointed with the first issue and it hasn’t improved since.

This particular issue contains five new strips and one ‘classic’ Creepy tale. Two of the five new strips here are continuing stories – one (‘The Curse’) is the third part of a three part story and one (‘X-Change’) is the first part of a story of unspecified length – which is my first major beef with this comic. I mean, dragging a 24-page story out over three issues of a quarterly comic just seems dumb. I certainly can’t remember what happened in the first two parts of ‘The Curse’ now and I can’t quite be bothered to go back and re-read them as I don’t remember them being that great anyway. What I mostly remember is being quite surprised when I got to the end of the first part (six months ago!) and realised that a quarterly anthology, which I had bought on a whim with no real intention of coming back for the second issue, was printing ‘to be continued’ stories. I’m also pretty sure that this story could have been told just as effectively – perhaps even more effectively – in eight pages. ‘X-Change’, which is about Hitler escaping Germany at the end of WWII by having a sex change, or something like that, also seems like a story that didn’t need more than eight pages. Admittedly, I don’t know exactly what is going to happen in future instalments but at the moment it seems fairly obvious where this is headed and it, too, is nothing special. Which leads me to my second major beef with this comic: the stories just aren’t that good, which has been the case with all three issues. I guess the stories in the old Creepy weren’t exactly great works of literature, but they were better than this. In fact, the classic tale in this issue – ‘The Disintegrator’ by Nicola Cuti and Ken Barr – is probably the best story in it, and even that isn’t particularly good.

I’m not quite sure what the selection criteria for these classic tales is, as they are certainly not picking the best tales the Creepy back-catalogue has to offer. The classic tale in the first issue was at least drawn by Alex Toth but was a sci-fi tale, not a horror story, and seemed a bit out of place in the first issue of a horror anthology, while the classic tale in the last issue was most notable for being written by Dave Sim (wrongly credited as Dave Sims). This issue’s classic tale is just a bit dated, but then it was first published in the 1960s, so I suppose it has every right to be dated. I’m not entirely sure why they need to print a classic tale at all, really, when they are already doing so in the Creepy and Eerie Archives – and I can’t imagine that these stories are going to boost sales of those (pricey) volumes. My best guess is that Dark Horse just don’t have enough talent available to fill a whole horror comic every quarter, or else are trying to save money.

Lending a much-needed touch of class to the art in all three issues has been Angelo Torres, a Creepy veteran, now better known for his Mad movie parodies, whose instantly recognisable style is the best thing in this particular issue, even if his style is perhaps better suited to humour comics these days. We also get a nice frontispiece by Gene Colan, but alas no strips by ‘the dean’. The rest of the art here is reasonably good, even if it is a bit unclear exactly what is going on in most stories, just nowhere near as good as the art in the original Creepy comics. Not by a long way.

Unfortunately for Dark Horse, it takes more than buying the rights to a property to recapture what made that property special in the first place, and what made the original Creepy comics special, as with most comics, was its creators, most of whom – Archie Goodwin, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, etc. – are now dead. I suppose I would sound like a miserable old sod if I said that they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. I’m sure there are plenty of great modern writers and artists out there who could have put together a horror anthology as good as (or better than) an old issue of Creepy or Eerie. The crucial difference between this incarnation of Creepy and the old Creepy, I think, is that the old Creepy was put together by some of the finest creators around at the time, while this just isn’t. I had never heard of most of these creators before. In short: It says Creepy on the cover but this ain’t Creepy. I won’t make the mistake of buying issue four and the issues I have bought will be going on eBay sometime soon.

Note: I paid full price for this (whatever $4.99 works out to in pounds these days) but I bought it before I joined this blog and swore a solemn oath not to pay more than £1.20 for a single comic published by any company with a Diamond exclusivity deal. No rules have been broken.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review; The Best of Battle

When I was nine years old, I had a discussion with a boy called Richard about which is better; Marvel Superhero or war comics. I was a slavish Marvel reader at the time. Richard’s joker card was the heroes in war comics didn’t always win. In fact, they rarely did. I might not have had a wide vocabulary back then, but I understood this to be a good thing, although I should have pointed out that, although Marvel Superheroes nearly always defeated the villain there was usually a price for them to pay in private.

In The Best of Battle from Titan Books, a selection of the most memorable strips from the weekly are collected. To me, never having been a reader of Battle, apart from Charley’s War, this is like a glimpse into an alternative world. So this is what creators like Gerry Finley-Day, Alan Hebden and Cam Kennedy did when they weren’t working for 2000 AD. I always suspected that Richard was right and The Best of Battle nearly proves it.

There are some revelations to me in this book. The first is the quantity of strips written and created by Gerry Finley-Day. During my 2000 AD Prog Slog, I wondered if he was underrated in comparison with his peers of the time and his work here makes me wonder again. All of his strips, D Day Dawson, Panzer G-Man, Hellman of Hammer Force (three examples selected at random), are great. I suspect he’s had a greater influence on today’s creators than we might otherwise think.

The other revelation is the quality of the artwork. Many of the artists go on to produce work for 2000 AD, but here their art often looks even stronger. For example, Eric Bradbury isn’t an artist whose 2000 AD work I always liked particularly but his war art is dirty and inky and filled with emotion and momentum. The same is true of Mike Western, John Cooper and even Carlos Ezquerra. It’s as if some comic creators are more disposed to producing work inspired by the real world rather than the comfort of fantasy.

Titan has done a good job on the production of this book. It’s a soft-back, but it looks to me like they have attempted to recreate the production values used by those door step sized Commando collections, so the book has a hardback sturdiness to it just the same. The artwork is reproduced smaller than originally. It means, unfortunately, because of the type-lettering used by many of the strips that they are occasionally difficult to read. Perhaps Titan would consider re-lettering them in future collections. It should also be noted that only the opening episodes of the strips are printed and stories are rarely concluded so this book is best viewed as a taster.

Unlike in 2000 AD, episodes in Battle rarely run for more than three pages and never more than four. Pages are divided up into four tiers meaning that it’s not uncommon for there to be twelve frames. It means that a single episode of Johnny Red feels as if it contains more story and action and character development than a single twenty-two paged issue of Green Lantern. Every story in Battle is relentlessly brutal and working class. Even those starring privileged German protagonists feel shaped by cruel circumstances beyond the characters’ control.

It seems to me that the relationship between Battle and its young readers was an honest one. While I was reading rolling superhero soap operas, Richard was investing himself in situations he knew already by when they would be over. Richard was interested in his Granddad whereas I was only interested in myself. It strikes me that if Battle were around today it would be racked on the top shelf next to Clint and not on the bottom with The Beano as it used to be. Are today’s kids so mollycoddled that they can’t take a glimpse at what their great grandfathers experienced or do they get their war exposure these days from characterless and clean Xbox games?

Cost: I bought The Best of Battle for £3.99 (original retail price being £9.99) from The Works, a chain of discount book shops. The Works can be a great source of affordable graphic novels and I always visit my local branch every time I go to the city centre as sometimes books can have a fleeting availability. In my local shop, this book was only there for one visit, so I was very lucky to get a copy.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Review - Locke & Key Vol.3: Crown of Shadows HC

Locke & Key is written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. As I have said in my reviews of the previous two volumes, Hill is the son of Stephen King and Rodriguez is not (as far as I am aware). I suspect that Hill is really sick of everyone mentioning that he is the son of Stephen King all the time, as he is rather talented himself, but he’s got the King family fortune to comfort himself with so I don’t feel too sorry for him.

‘Crown of Shadows’ continues from where the last book left off, with the Locke kids still unaware that they are in a certain amount of danger from someone they believe to be a friend. And, like the last book, it ends that way, too. Except it doesn’t quite, because stuff does happen, it’s just that nothing gets resolved. This is an ongoing series, after all, so mostly it’s all character development and teases of things to come. Actually, my least favourite part of this volume was all the action with the ‘shadow key’ in the middle, and my favourite part was the character stuff, particularly the character stuff in the last issue reprinted here, which focuses on the mother of the Locke family, her inability to cope since the loss of her husband and the assault she experienced, and her descent into alcoholism.

I must admit that this was probably my least favourite of the three volumes released so far but only because I wasn’t so keen on the ‘shadow key’. Don’t worry, though, because we get to see the ‘ghost key’ in action again and also get introduced to two more keys, the ‘giant key’ and the ‘mending key’. We also begin to see some consequences from the kids playing with the ‘head key’ in the previous volume, as middle Locke sibling Kinsey is now virtually fearless after (literally) tampering with the contents of her head and needlessly puts herself and several friends in danger in the second chapter reprinted here.

This is a good series. I’m looking forward to reading Volume 4 but I suspect that won’t be out for quite a while, as I believe only one of the comics to be reprinted in that volume has been released so far. I’m very tempted to buy it (as cheap as possible, of course) so that I don’t have to wait.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £18.99 / $24.99 and is currently selling for £13.08 on Amazon. I got mine for £5.27 (including postage) on eBay. Result!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Objects of Desire; Charley's War, all of 'em.

As a child, I wasn’t interested in war comics although, during the early eighties, I picked up the two volumes of Charley’s War published by Titan. I was a big fan of 2000 AD at this time and I had read in the comic press that Charley’s War, which appeared in Battle, was very good. How could it not be, I reasoned, as it’s written by Pat Mills. Unfortunately, it’s only been in recent years that Titan Books have picked up and extended their run of collections beyond the initial two. The new prints are impressive looking hardbacks packed with strips and associated articles; true objects of desire. I managed to pick up volume three for a very reasonable price last year but I’ve been holding off reading it until I get the other six. However, at £14.95 a pop, it looks like I’ve a long wait.

Review - Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student TPB

One of my motives for contributing to this blog is that I want to ‘name and shame’ myself into buying better comics. Believe it or not, I did once used to have pretty good taste. I don’t think I bought a single Marvel, DC (not including Vertigo), or Image comic in the 1990s – back then, if it wasn’t published by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, or some other indie / small press publisher, I didn’t really want to know – but that all changed with the advent of widespread, affordable internet access and online comics ‘journalism’ that steered me in the wrong direction. Gradually, I got sucked back in and now I find myself in a situation where ‘Wilson’ by Dan Clowes (once my favourite cartoonist) has been out for weeks (or maybe even months for all I know) and I have only just added it to my Amazon wish list, have certainly not rushed out and bought it, and barely glanced at it when I saw a copy in my local branch of Waterstone’s last week. Almost as bad, I have not yet bought ‘Love and Rockets New Stories’ issues 2 and 3, or even read the copy of issue 1 that’s been sitting on my shelves for the last couple of years, even though I love the Hernandez brothers and 'Palomar' is one of my all time favourite books. And yet I have bought five Birds of Prey trade paperbacks on eBay in the last couple of months, even though I didn’t really like the first one I read that much, and I’m thinking of buying more. Something has gone badly wrong with my life, and if the only way I can turn things around is by confessing to buying bad comics online, I’m willing to give it a try. So here goes:

‘Sensei & Student’ is the second of several TPBs collecting issues of the ongoing Birds of Prey series written by Gail Simone, and it was the fact that this is written by Simone that made me buy it. I am not that familiar with her work but I hear a lot of good things about her and, as I was desperate to read some good modern superhero comics a month or so ago, I thought I’d check some of her stuff out. I’m not sure why I found it necessary to buy quite so much of her stuff (I bought five B.O.P. trades and also bought a couple of Secret Six books that I’ve yet to read) but I tend to get a bit obsessive about these things (comics) sometimes and often find myself regretting it later, which is pretty much the case again this time.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad book but I was a bit bored reading it and have forgotten most of it already, even though I only finished reading it last night. As far as I can remember, the story involved Black Canary travelling to Hong Kong to visit her former sensei, only to find that he’d been murdered, and then teaming up with two bad girls – Shiva and Cheshire (nope, I’ve never heard of them either) – to track down his killer. This tied into a subplot in which Oracle (A.K.A. Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl) was abducted buy some bad guys and also seemed to tie in to another story involving a serial killer Black Canary’s mum once fought (prior to reading this, I had no idea that Black Canary’s mum was also a superhero called Black Canary), although I was a bit confused by this particular subplot. Like I said, this wasn’t actually bad but I was a bit bored the whole time I was reading it and I also felt like maybe I’d missed something somewhere along the line, and maybe I had, as I very rarely read DC comics and wasn’t even a big DC fan as a kid. I certainly had no idea who the villains in this comic were.

Despite being slightly bored and slightly confused, though, I didn’t really see anything here that made me doubt Simone’s reputation as a good writer. I’ve certainly read worse comics and my lack of enjoyment was probably down to me being too old for this sort of thing, not really being interested in martial arts, and being largely unfamiliar with the finer details of the DC universe. Simone’s characterisation was certainly strong. She made me care about Black Canary, a character I have always been largely indifferent to, and I particularly like the character of Oracle. The Huntress is also a character I have a soft spot for, based purely on my memories of the character from one or two issues of the Brave and the Bold in the ‘70s. Confusingly, though, she is no longer the daughter of the Earth 2 Batman and Catwoman, which she was when I was a kid (I think). I understand that Simone also has a reputation as a funny writer but I can’t say that this book was all that funny. There were a couple of amusing moments in the last issue reprinted here but the rest of the book probably took itself a bit too seriously, if anything. Based on the writing alone, though, I would say this was just about okay. The art, however, was awful.

Well, maybe awful is a bit unfair. There were a couple of issues in here drawn by guest artists, and one issue in particular was very well drawn. The majority of the art in this book, however, was by Ed Benes, whose art is not very good at all. I have certainly seen worse art in a comic but, like the art in a lot of modern DC comics, Benes’ art looks more like the work of a talented amateur than a professional artist. It certainly doesn’t look like the work of someone who has ever studied life drawing – not at a life drawing class that used female models, anyway. It also seems to sit badly at odds with the story. I mean, Simone seems well aware that most superhero comics are inherently sexist and tries to redress the balance somewhat by writing strong female characters who aren’t just there as love interests for the male characters. Meanwhile, Benes insists on drawing every character with huge, gravity- and logic-defying tits, and often draws them in the most ridiculously cheesy poses he can manage. I swear the characters’ crotches feature almost as prominently in this book as their faces. Wasn’t this sort of thing outlawed in the ‘90s? I was genuinely embarrassed to leave this book lying around the house in case my wife saw it, and it is certainly not something I would ever read in public, even though I am usually not embarrassed to be seen reading comics in pubic and this is supposed to be an all-ages, female-friendly book. Benes’ art is so cheesy that it actually made the Greg Land covers reprinted inside look quite classy by comparison, even though Land, as usual, appears to have copied all his character poses from an old issue of ‘Men Only’.

To be honest, if this was well drawn, it would probably be a perfectly decent superhero comic for younger readers (younger than me, that is – not necessarily kids) but the art just ruined it. I will read the other Birds of Prey books I have only because the rules of this blog say that I have to read everything I buy before I sell it, but the prospect of doing so doesn’t completely horrify me. I do like these characters a lot, and it’s not just because they all have really big tits. Honest.

As for the cost, well, I bought this on eBay along with another Birds of Prey TPB for a price that worked out to around £4.60 per book, including postage. I suppose that isn’t such a bad price for a trade paperback, and I suspect that I will be able to sell this on for at least that, as it seems to be out of print at the moment. However, I do feel like a bit of a pillock for buying it and can’t help thinking that I should have put the money towards a copy of ‘Wilson’ instead.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Object Of Desire - Invaders Classic Vol.4 TPB

This fourth volume of Invaders Classic reprints the last seven issues (#35 to #41) of Marvel’s classic 1970s series The Invaders, plus four issues of some Invaders series from the 1990s, about which I know nothing and care little. I have the first three volumes of Invaders Classic, so I now feel kind of obliged to pick up a copy of this fourth volume. However, I have a strong feeling that this isn’t going to be that great.

The first two Invaders Classic volumes were actually pretty good. I have fond memories of this series from my childhood but I didn’t really expect it to stand the test of time. They were decent comics, though. It’s obvious that Roy Thomas – who wrote every issue in the first two books – had a lot of affection for the characters and an interest in World War II, and that really shone through. I mean, they weren’t brilliant comics – far from it – but I was at least pleasantly surprised. Most issues in those first two books also had the benefit of being drawn by Frank Robbins, who had a really great style (I somehow can’t imagine Robbins drawing comics in any era other than the ‘70s, although I understand that he was a golden age comics veteran). Plus a lot of those early issues had great Jack Kirby covers – how could you possibly go wrong?

Still, the third volume in this series wasn’t so good. The first few issues in it were still written by Thomas and drawn by Robbins but then we started to get issues written by Don Glut (who?) and art by Alan Kupperberg (yawn!) and things went badly downhill. I suspect that this final volume of the series will be much the same but I still want it, just to complete the set and say I have read every issue of the Invaders. Pathetic really, isn’t it? You never know, though, there might be some good stuff in here. There might even be more Frank Robbins art, but I’m not hopeful. The Amazon listing doesn’t mention his name but does mention Glut, Kupperberg and someone called Dave Hoover (???), which doesn’t make this book a particularly exciting prospect. Worst of all, it has a recommended retail price of £22.50, which seems really expensive for something like this, and even the Amazon price of £16.99 seems like too much. This, I can safely say, is one I will be looking out for ‘on the ration’.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Review; Avengers Classic 1 - 12

If, like me, you’re in the midst of a craving for Silver Age Marvel comics drawn by Jack Kirby and you’re perfectly happy with the modern repackaging of that material (which, however you look at it, is far cheaper to buy than the originals) then you’ll know that for the last few years we’ve been going through a golden age of sorts. Marvel’s Masterworks and Omnibus editions have been a god send. High quality repackaging that is still a bit pricey but affordable if the desire is strong in you and you’re prepared to do a bit of saving. In the case of the early Avengers comics, the inevitable Omnibus edition (thanks to the upcoming movie) will only feature a tiny minority of stories drawn by The King, as he only seems to have a drawn the first few issues, before being replaced by the less popular Don Heck. Thank the Lord then for Avengers Classic, a monthly comic published by Marvel a couple of years ago, that enables the reader, me, to accumulate these brilliantly drawn stories at a very affordable price. (In my case, £3.35 for the set from eBay; that’s less than 30p each!)

Like most Marvel comics published during the sixties, Avengers is great fun. But rather than feel like a team book featuring all of the publisher’s most popular characters, it feels a little like the place where the leftovers go. The main team are pretty cool, but I did find myself wondering why Stan Lee and Kirby didn’t stick Spider-Man in there too. There’s a bit of a disproportionate focus on Thor villains too, especially the Enchantress and Executioner. It doesn’t quite feel like a book in its own right at this stage.

I found myself fascinated by the gender dynamics. Early on, as I mentioned in a previous post, Wasp makes lusty remarks about Thor in front of Ant Man, so is it any wonder that in the next issue, Ant Man has changed his identity to the bigger, stronger and broader Giant Man. One time, during a team meeting, Iron Man refers to the Avengers having four members, presumably excluding the Wasp who is sitting right there. Another time, someone talks about inviting powerless and annoying Rick Jones to join the team, in the same way that The Wasp is a member. The Avengers often seem like a boy’s club who go off and have brawls with other gangs where nobody really gets hurt (most stories end with the villains escaping) and The Wasp, quite rightly, has difficulty taking it seriously. She’s like the girlfriend Ant/Giant Man takes along to every monthly meeting and everyone else is uncomfortable about confronting him about her.

I also got slightly irritated by Captain America. As a kid, I thought his regrets over Bucky’s death seemed really cool, but now I find his whining a bit tedious. In fact, his obsession with his late sidekick and all that time he spends with The Teen Brigade, particularly his favourite Rick Jones, comes across as more than a little creepy. I’m surprised nobody’s contacted social services.

My favourite member of the Avengers is the Hulk who, as all Marvel readers should know, never sticks around for long. (In fact, every Avengers comic published since is a disappointment to me). Is it any wonder when, during a team meeting in issue two, Thor turns to him and says, “Is it necessary for you to attend our meetings clothed in that repulsive manner?” He’s lucky that Hulk doesn’t grab a nearby cactus and spray him with its needles, like he does with iron Man later, or just punch him square in the face, like he does with everyone else.

Each issue of Avengers Classic is backed up by a new strip that elaborates on a moment in the original stories. All of the modern artists have the sense not to try and compete with Kirby at his own game. For example, Michael Avon Oeming provides fully painted art while Juan Doe uses a cartoony/photoshop style. All of them are written in the modern, spacious style which highlights how weighted with dialogue and exposition Stan Lee’s writing is in contrast; so weighted, in fact, that I often found the stories as wearying as I did fun. (I was surprised at how often Lee gets the names of his own characters wrong in the Avengers. In one issue, Bruce Banner is referred to as Bob Banner. In another, Rick Jones is Rick Brown. I love the idea that Lee is so non-precious about his creations, unlike his fans). Art Adams provides the artwork for all of the covers. I like the way he draws classic marvel characters but that’s not going to stop me filing these comics away backwards because the original Kirby covers are reprinted on the rear.

The revelation of Avengers Classic is how wrong I was about Don Heck’s art. Thanks perhaps to modern reproduction it now looks fresh, inky and energetic. In fact, I was so wrong that I’m saddened that the comic ended with issue twelve and didn’t continue to reprint more of his work. There’s a part of me now that thinks Marvel would be better off reprinting old comics on a continuous cycle than commissioning new work featuring their old characters. Just imagine if Avengers Classic had continued into the John Buscema, Neal Adams and early Geroge Perez eras and how great it all would have looked on modern paper.