Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Review; The Rainbow Orchid 2

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 November 2010

Review - The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Review; The Savage World of Sakaar

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 November 2010

Review; Spleenal

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Review; The Most Natural Thing in the World

I have a great idea I call Small Press Amnesty. If, like me, you attend small press events and know many of the creators, you might find yourself in the strange position where you feel unable to buy a copy of the comic that you’ve decided that you want to buy. Before, when the comic was new, you didn’t buy it for whatever reason, but now that it’s been out for a while, you find yourself in a stuck state where buying a copy gives away to the creator that you didn’t earlier. You find yourself in the ridiculous position of trying to give the impression of already owning a copy by getting over excited about work they’ve released since or about to publish. Or is it just me? My idea enables you to approach the creator, say the words “I’m invoking Small Press Amnesty” and buy a copy of whatever it is you’re being stupid about without any hard feelings.

This is exactly what happened with Francesca Cassavetti’s The Most Natural Thing in the World. The book collects together a series of comic strips that map the journey of a couple deciding to have a baby to living with that child after she is eventually born. Each strip runs from a single page to a handful but they all fit together into a cohesive and compelling narrative. Even the book’s extra, Shadow of the Curriculum, a story about a mum trying to persuade her son to do his homework, fits in suitably at the end as, at least, an observation that parenthood doesn’t finish once the initial intensity eases.

I can’t say for certain how autobiographical the anecdotes Francesca tells in the book are but every one of them feels absolutely truthful. Her drawing style is loose and expressive which helps make the stories and characters relatable but she cleverly maintains certain ambiguities. For example, I don’t remember the character names being clarified, which is an ingenious way of broadening their accessibility. It means that I, a man who has no children (well none that I know of. Eh? Eh? No what I mean?), totally connects to the characters and their predicament from the very first panel.

Most importantly, The Most Natural Thing in the World is laugh-out-loud funny. Francesca compares her pregnant and naked self unfavourably to the classic pregnant and naked Demi Moore photograph on the front of Vanity Fair; She draws herself experiencing morning sickness just as her husband is vomiting at the realisation that he is to be a father; When eventually the baby gets to sleep, mum worries that she’s too quiet and wakes her up just to make sure that everything is okay. Francesca doesn’t avoid the physical and emotional difficulties that come with having children but she deals with the subject matter with honesty and good humour. It’s a book that says to aspiring or new parents, to every human being, “everything you’re going through is perfectly normal. It’ll all work out fine in the end.”

Stats! The Most Natural Thing in the World costs £8 and is worth every penny. Don’t be a big idiot like I was. Contact Francesca via her
website and tell her I sent you.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Review; VerityFair 2

Everything Verity does is a performance and why not? She works as an actress, like in Extras, except she seems to enjoy her low key roles. (I say “seems” because we’re yet to see her actually at work). If you need an entertaining evening out at the pub but don’t fancy putting the effort in then she’s the person you need to call. You’ll be guaranteed a good laugh. Verity, real name Tracy Perkins, and her friends stride through central London, as large as life, a sight to behold, swinging around lampposts and pirouetting through the crowds; a simple walk with them between pubs turns somehow into a celebration.

VerityFair is the creation of Terry Wiley, or, more accurately, Terry Wiley is the conduit through which VerityFair speaks. The biggest surprise to me, as somebody who has seen much of Terry’s previous work but with other creators, is how strong his writing is. He has a fabulous ear for dialogue and his characterisation is absolutely top notch. When Verity’s vulnerability starts to bubble to the surface, Terry’s portrayal of her remains unshakably authentic; she wobbles momentarily, shakes the doubts to the back of her mind and then gets on with the show.

Terry draws everybody beautifully but to give the strip an all new level of realism he uses actual photographs of locations as the backdrops. I’m fascinated to learn the practicalities of how this combination of the real and the drawn works, particularly as I suspect this method is harder to work with than simply drawing the backgrounds. Weirdly, the result is fascinating mainly because the characters, drawn, feel more real than the environments, photographed.

If Verity Fair were to wander into a TV drama, she would render all other characters flat, she seems that great a creation to me. A perfectly rendered, British icon of the highest order you absolutely should seek out.

Details; There are two versions of VerityFair available; a colour and a black and white. The colour version, which I have, cost £3 while the black and white, which looks great just the same, costs, well, I don’t know, but less. This is Terry’s website. Contact him there and say I sent you.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Review; Spandex 3

In the third issue of Spandex, the world is being turned into a grey, colourless place by Nadir, an eerie villain if ever there was one. The population are now nothing but work drones and all that remains of the old world are four, untouched members of the colourful superhero team, Spandex. Can they save us all from joyless conformity or is it already too late?

Spandex is the full colour, all gay superhero comic written and drawn by Martin Eden. At first glance, Martin’s art looks deceptively simple but actually, he often draws fulfilling crowd scenes and complex environments. He also makes good use of the colour, in this issue’s case, taking advantage of one of the story’s themes to grey-tone his world so that the flashes of colour gain power representing individuality, happiness, defiance and life.

In many ways Spandex takes guidance from mainstream American superhero comics from the early eighties where the super powered narrative starts and finishes in the same issue but the relationships between the characters form the soap operatic thread. This means that we’re just as likely to return for issue four to see what happens next as we are because previous issues were satisfying in their own right. Even if it’s not the first time an all gay cast has appeared in a superhero comic, Spandex still feels liberating. Its Martin’s determination to provide a satisfying experience in a single issue when most mainstream entertainments are prolonging their ideas over years is what makes this book so refreshing.

Budgetary stats; At £3 for 36, full colour pages, each filled with content not puff, why even bother trying to find it cheaper elsewhere when at retail, it’s great value for money anyway. Visit Martin's
website for how to buy this and the previous issues.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Review; Kick-Ass The Graphic Novel

In case you’ve not seen the film or read one of the versions of the comic, Kick Ass tells the story of young comic fan, Dave Lizewski who, on a whim one day, decides to give being a superhero a try. However, this is the ‘real world’ and Kick Ass, Dave’s alter-ego, hasn’t any superpowers and often has trouble finding any crimes to foil. When eventually he encounters some thugs, he receives the beating of his life from which he barely survives, but this doesn’t stop him from continuing his hobby. Eventually, his crazy antics capture the imagination of the internet, expose him to other, less stable, ‘superheroes’, and get him into real life-threatening situations.

As you may know from my reviews of CLiNT and 2000 AD, I have had a soft spot for Mark Millar’s work since he wrote Saviour for small, independent publisher Trident in 1990. Currently, he’s going through a phase few, if any, comic creators get, or want, to experience. After years of writing corporate characters he now seems to be focusing on creator owned superhero -themed projects with an eye on selling them onto the Hollywood movie machine as quick as possible. One of Millar’s strengths has always been coming up with a strong spin on a genre he’s familiar with and then turning that into a series that’s both contemporary and mythic. Superheroes are now so established to the movie going public that anyone who can, at least superficially, subvert the expectations of the genre and yet maintain its dynamics is going to be in demand.

Kick Ass isn’t what it’s sold to you as, though, but then anything Millar writes rarely is. It’s not a superhero comic set in the ‘real world’, Hit Girl’s fighting style is one example that discounts that claim, and even if it was it wouldn’t be the first, see Dan Clowes’ Death Ray as a good earlier example of one that is. I’m not even sure that it rewrites the rules of the genre; after all it does what Stan Lee did with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in the sixties but with adult language and sexual references. The secret to enjoying a comic written by Millar, I have learned, is to ignore all of the hyperbole he brings to the project.

Kick Ass is helped significantly by artist John Romita Jnr whose fast style gives the story a kinetic energy and brutality that other artists Millar tends to work with might have slowed down and cleaned up. There’s a real sense of getting down and dirty with these street level superheroes while Kick Ass’ brawls reek of desperation. It’s great to me that this long time comic artist’s work is potentially being seen by a new audience flocking here because of the film’s success.

I love Kick Ass but mainly for this reason: Around eighteen months ago, I picked up the first six issues of the original series from a comic fair, all first prints, for 50p each. Then, around about a month before the movie’s release, I sold those comics on eBay for nearly £50. Then, six weeks ago, I picked up this copy of The Graphic Novel from The Works for £3.99, it having an original retail price of £9.99. As any financially astute comic reader will tell you, this sort of profiteering from the medium is very rare these days.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Objects of Desire; Barefoot Gen 1 - 10

This is Keiji Nakazawa’s all-ages but still powerful account of the bombing of Hiroshima and the aftermath. I encountered the first two volumes of this over twenty years ago when Penguin planned to translate the entire series but stopped after only two volumes, much to my frustration. In recent years, Last Gasp has re-translated the books and, this time, published them all, thank the Lord.

Barefoot Gen is made all the more powerful due to Nakazawa having been in Hiroshima during the bombing at the end of the war. The book recounts his own experiences as well as those of others through the characters of Gen and his friends. The stories are devastating, when I re-read the opening volumes three years ago I was crying within twenty pages and the Americans hadn’t even dropped the bomb at this point, but also life affirming thanks to the exuberance and determination of the young cast. It’s a series of books that absolutely should be read by everyone.

Budgetary stats: All of the volumes seem to be available from
Amazon, averaging at about £10 each. Forbidden Planet UK don’t currently have them all but those they do have retail for £7.58 each plus post and packing.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Review; Market Day

Set in Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth centaury, Market Day tells the story of Mendleman, a weaver of rugs, who makes the long journey into town to sell his wares. Rug weaving is his vocation, his form of expression, and Mendleman works hard to continue expressing himself through his art. But his life is different now to when he first went independent ten years earlier. He’s married and his wife is about to give birth to their first child.

The frequency of James Sturm’s comics isn’t often enough as far as I’m concerned, but when they arrive they’re as fully formed and as pure as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fall from the future in the first Terminator film. Every line, every panel and every page seem perfectly considered. Everyone and everything looks beautiful, even the supposedly deformed. Sturm creates comics that always look as if they’ve been made with complete assurance by a master of the craft.

Market Day is perhaps about Sturm’s own relationship with his art, or at least about my relationship with mine. When Mendleman arrives in town to sell his rugs, the shop he can normally rely upon to buy his wares is now run by somebody else who doesn’t appreciate the quality of his craft. After traipsing all over he eventually settles on an impersonal out-of-town emporium that sells everything. (Tesco’s?) As he walks home, he realises he has no choice but to sell his loom now, and is visited by dark desires of his wife and baby dieing during child-birth freeing him to continue his life’s work.

Everybody who is devoted to a creative art should be able to identify with Market Day, particularly as we’re in the midst of a period of austerity. Mendleman experiences the contentment of creation, the drudgery of the market, the joy of appreciation, the frustration of rejection and the bleakness of conformity.

Budgetary stats: This was another purchase made using birthday money. £11.69 from
Amazon, retail £12.99. Either way, a beautiful book worth everyone penny.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Review; John Constantine Hellblazer The Red Right Hand

About eighteen months ago, my local branch of The Works, a chain of book shops in the UK that sell returns more cheaply, had a graphic novel section. It was a golden era where I picked up many comics and graphic novels that I either wanted, was curious about or thought I could resell on ebay for a profit. It was at this time that I bought a copy of Hellblazer collection The Red Right Hand for £2.99, original retail price being £8.99.

This was a curiosity for me. Like Locas and Daniel Clowes, John Constantine is a comics-thread that reminds me of my adolescence. From the moment he first appeared in Swamp Thing blowing smoke into the poor mud-bastard’s face, I loved him. I liked the character so much that Constantine getting his own comic wasn’t a consideration, until it actually happened. In fact, I liked the character so much that for years I smoked Silk Cut cigarettes and wore a trench coat (until that time I went to see Basic Instinct in the cinema. I didn’t realise how pervy I must have looked walking into the screening on my own until after I sat down in the front seat and saw Sharon Stone flash her knickerless womanly under-area at Newman from Seinfeld.) For me however, the longer his comic ran for, the softer the character became so that, by the time Garth Ennis started writing the book, I felt a lot of his mystique had been lost. I enjoyed Ennis’ run as it happens but I pretty much bailed out of Hellblazer after that, only returning for occasional stories by Warren Ellis and Jamie Delano. It was pretty much over for us and I haven’t read a John Constantine comic for over a decade. However, I made a mental note a while ago to give Denise Mina’s run on the comic a go. Mina is a British author of proper books whose interpretation I was intrigued by, and besides, I was missing the provocative old sod.

The Red Right Hand doesn’t start so good. It opens with a short, standard comic book long tale called The Season of the Zealot which I had trouble getting into. I’m not sure if this was the fault of the creators or me having difficulty adjusting to the author’s rhythms. When the Red Right Hand starts after, the story already seems to be well under way and I started to worry that I had somehow missed a major chunk of it. (This book collects the second half of Mina’s run). The story opens with Constantine in a Glasgow devastated by the aftermath of mass suicides and violence. He’s with a man called Evans who has supposedly built an Empathy Engine; a creation of some sort that forces people to empathise with others. The result is the carnage that the story opens with and, further more, a worldwide vulnerability to The Master of the Third Place and his emotion eating demons.

If this is a continuation of earlier stories then it didn’t matter to me because I got into the flow of it quickly this time. Mina has a number of strong ideas and narratives here that she brings together in a natural and seemingly easy way. She also seems to have a good grasp of Constantine and his almost stubborn speech inflections. (Constantine has always struck me as someone who knows he’s a character in an American comic and speaks that way as an act of defiance against those he imagines his readers to be. Just as cockney’s invented rhyming slang to remain misunderstood by their middle and upper class employers). For a story set in Glasgow, however, there’s a surprising lack of Scottish accents, although (spoiler alert!) a plot development later works more effectively because of this.

Leonardo Manco’s artwork is fairly atmospheric although there are two sets of characters I had difficulty telling apart. I’m not sure that the rough paper stock publishers DC/Titan chose to use does any favours to it, muting the colours and creating a sense of the blacks being blotted. But like the story, the more I stayed with it the more I got into it.

Actually, The Red Right Hand was a good place for me to encounter John Constantine again and, as one of my earlier Objects of Desire entries demonstrates, my attraction to the provocative old bastard is far from over. I’m just not going to start wearing macs and smoking this time.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Review; Wilson

Like Ray from Locas II, reviewed at On The Ration over the weekend, Wilson is in his forties and seems reticent to be an adult, and like Ray, Wilson is the star of his own story, interacting with the world around him in an almost distancing manner. Ray seems self aware enough to know that he’s trying to retell the world to fit a narrative that suits him whereas Wilson, more plausibly perhaps, isn’t self aware at all. When somebody says to him about his terminally ill father “At least he’s lived a long life” Wilson responds, “Yeah, who gives a shit if some old man drops dead?” You might think that he’s upset for his dad but really, he’s probably talking about himself.

Wilson is Daniel Clowes first original graphic novel but it doesn’t necessarily read this way. Each page works like a single episode ending with a progressively bleak punch line with the start of the next striding forward in the narrative. It means that we don’t get exposed too much to the thoughts and reactions of people that interact with the character. Instead, we are sold Wilson’s world view completely. At first he’s amusing, I even agreed with his point of view sometimes, but what seem to be the actions of a non-threatening misanthrope turn out to be those of a dangerous sociopath. When others do respond to him, whether it’s to chastise him for something self-absorbed that he’s said or update him of their own lives, it’s a surprise. Wilson never lets these intrusions distract him from his internal dialogue for long, though.

Clowes draws Wilson in a verity of styles. Loose and cartoony on one page, tight and realistic on the next. I’m not really sure why he does this but it seems to create a sense of the character’s undulating moods. Perhaps if Clowes decided to draw in the same style throughout, Wilson the man might have come across as too relentless and less plausible. Also, the artwork, whatever the style, seems less technically accomplished than his previous work. Whether this is because the book is reproduced nearer to the size of the original artwork or a deliberate creative decision on the part of Clowes, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because the book remains a great looking object nonetheless.

I find everything Clowes does to be worthwhile (I’ve been following his work since issue one of Lloyd Llewellyn, ladies. Ladies? Oh, suit yourselves). Wilson is as compelling, enjoyable and as challenging as anything the artist has done before. I’m delighted to see him back doing comics again after what seems to be such a long time away, just as you should be too.

Budgetary stats; I used birthday money to buy this from
Amazon for £9.09 during the summer. To be fair though, even at the £12.99 retail price, Wilson is surprising value for money.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Objects of Desire : Walt & Skeezix

When, as a kid, I discovered comic shops and independent comics, the newspaper strip collection was still unknown territory to me. As far as I could tell from reading the press, it was all about Alex Raymond or George Herriman, and any reprints were expensive softback books that were a long way in with little jumping on point. To wit, they were likely to stay as unknown territory.

20 years later, I'm a little wiser (only a little), and the quality and breadth of newspaper strip collections is on a whole different level. My wallet has sadly failed to expand at the same speed as this market, so I've had to lose some of my favourite collections along the way. Krazy & Ignatz is marvellous, but I let myself fall a couple of books behind, and I've no idea how many I've missed now.

One of the others that I stumbled upon was Walt & Skeezix by Frank King. Its from a newspaper strip called 'Gasoline Alley', that I don't believe I've ever seen in a British newspaper. Originally based around a group of mechanics, the strip got going when a baby, Skeezix, was left on the doorstep of one of the mechanics, Walt, and he decided to bring him up.

There have now been four collections from Drawn & Quarterly, covering something like 1922-1928. Yes, its an old strip. It's whimsical, its funny, its gorgeous, and the relationships between the characters are beautifully observed.

Its famous for letting the characters age in real time, so I imagine by the end of Book 4, Skeezix must be about 7 years old. But I haven't got that far, which is why it remains an object of desire. I have Book 1, loving designed by Chris Ware, but the subsequent books, even on amazon, are £16 a pop. Unless my national lottery ship comes in, that's something I can't justify springing for.

I know there is probably a comic shop, at this very moment, selling them off cheap to make the shelf space. But I don't know where that shop is, and until I fortuitously wander in on the off-chance, these books will remain, for me, objects of desire.

Review; Locas II

Locas II is a collection of stories starring Jamie Hernandez’s characters Maggie, Hopey and Ray from after the end of Love and Rockets volume one. I much prefer encountering the Locas stories in this format. When I got the original individual comics, in this case short run mini serials and, later, Love and Rockets Volume Two, I would forget important details between the quarterly issues. In this, and the previous volume, subtly delivered plot, character and relationship points, many of which are left hanging for years in real time, are much easier to appreciate.

Locas II collects ten years worth of stories. When the previous volume did this, the improvement in Hernandez’s writing, characterisation and drawing was noticeable, but in this volume, it’s amazing how perfectly formed his work is from the start. Hernandez knows every character so completely and draws them so exquisitely and tells their stories so perfectly it’s like he’s God channelling the utterly real into my own, shallow, two dimensional, grubby little world. It’s the benefit of encountering Locas in this 400 paged, hardback manner; it enables the reader to appreciate more fully what a stunning body of work Hernandez has produced.

I bought the first issue of Love and Rockets when it came out. Not one of the many reprints that appeared throughout the eighties, I mean the first issue proper. It’s a comic fact about myself that I’m surprised has never got me laid. (There’s still time, I suppose). During the first volume, I felt I knew girls just like Maggie and Hopey, they were so convincing. Now, encountering these characters again years later, it’s like an old school reunion. It’s great to know although they’ve been through some pain over the years that they’re fundamentally all right and that time has been kind to them physically. Ray, a character who I don’t remember particularly from my most susceptible exposure to the original comic but do from the previous Locas book, is the character most like me. It’s great for Hernandez to deliver a character I can identify with who hovers on the outskirts of Maggie and Hopey’s lives wanting to find a way in, just like I do. Hernandez makes me want to move to LA and hang out with these people… Or at least watch them from a safe distance. The new characters are great too. I developed a soft spot for the modestly used Guy Goforth but it’s ‘Frogmouth’, the Amazonian beauty with a foul mouth, who rules this volume as far as I’m concerned. Her narrative is funny, scary and heartbreaking.

I don’t feel I have the faculties as a reviewer to express how delightfully perfect Jamie Hernandez’s Locas is. I sincerely didn’t want this volume to end. Now that it has, I want to re-read the first volume, then volume two, then volume one again, and keep doing this until volume three appears, no doubt years from now. I keep thinking that Locas should have a more general appreciation and respect from the world that gushes about TV shows like The Wire. It’s as good as that show, in fact it’s probably better, and I say this as somebody who loves The Wire. I keep thinking of it a being as perfectly rendered and as monumental as Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Every line drawn and spoken is perfectly placed. Perfect. That’s the word I keep using for Locas; perfect.

Cost; I used the credit I got for the returned soft cover version of Alec The Years Have Pants to order this from the Waterstone’s website. It only cost me a pound more. But even at its retail price of £29.99, it’s fantastic value for money.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Objects of Desire; Prison Pit 2

It might have been a fleeting read but I definitely want the continuation of the book I reviewed yesterday. Yes, it’s for sickos and yes, I should probably think twice before reading it in a public place, but nothing is going to stop me buying a copy in the near future, unless it drifts out of print of course. Prison Pit 2 retails for £9.99 but can be bought from Amazon for £6.99, the Book Depository for £6.98 and Forbidden Planet UK for £6.89 plus postage and packing.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Review; Prison Pit Book One

There are a couple of problems with reading Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit on an hour long train journey. The first is; you want to ensure that nobody is sitting around you because it’s grotesque. Creatively grotesque but grotesque none the less. Odds are if somebody cops a glance at any of the content then they may contact the police and tell them that you are reading a snuff comic in a public place.

The second is that it probably doesn’t take much longer than a quarter of an hour to read. Ryan, whose previous work includes a full issue of Angry Youth Comics guaranteeing at least one sick gag a panel, goes in the opposite direction with Prison Pit, pacing the action in his own sweet time so we can savour every gory move. For this, Ryan’s tone reminds me of Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown, only more sick and cruel.

Ryan is a connoisseur of horror, gore and violence and in this book, it really shows. In Angry Youth Comics, he drew in an uncomplicated style, for Prison Pit, he seems to relish drawing the bruises and the entrails and the gloomy atmosphere of the prison planet interior. I can imagine Ryan chuckling to himself and he draws one character pulling the innards of another out through the red stump where his head used to be.

Prison Pit tells the story of a pointy toothed character that is dropped from a height into a strange pit on in a dead planet. I say story but really it’s an excuse to draw/read violent arseholes punching, kicking, slicing and decapitating each other. Ryan’s pacing is masterful and his comic timing perfect. The opening scene where the prison ship lowers a tunnel into the opening on the planet’s surface is far more effective at expressing size and grandeur than the opening shot of a space ship passing overhead in Star Wars. And the opening brawl between ‘Fuckface’ and his guard, apart from being disgusting and brutal, is also very funny.

The best way I can think to describe Prison Pit is as WWE wrestling pushed to its logical limit and yet, with its beheadings, drug taking and barbed erections, it still manages to be infinitely less offensive to me.

Cost; I bought this with some birthday money so I got it for free (if you don’t include the obligation I felt to return the gesture when it was their birthday). Prison Pit retails for £9.99 but I got mine for £6.99 from Amazon but I’m sure if you shop around you might be able to find it for cheaper.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Review - Ex Machina Vol.8: Dirty Tricks TPB

Earlier this year, I struck comic book gold when, over a period of several weeks, I managed to find rather a lot of comics and graphic novels in charity shops in one particular high street in Kent. I can never resist looking in charity shops when I walk past them but very rarely find any comics or graphic novels. If I do ever find any comics or graphic novels in charity shops, they are usually either very tatty copies or else overpriced (like most of the non-comic-buying public, even the people who run charity shops seem to think that all comics are worth a fortune, based on one or two news stories about comics like Action Comics #1 selling for thousands of pounds). This time, though, I got lucky, and found loads of (mostly) reasonably priced comics and graphic novels spread over a few charity shops. One particular charity shop looked like it had been reopened as a comic shop, with a window display full of graphic novels and boxed action figures. I nearly pushed over an old man as I rushed to get inside and spent over £100 in that shop alone.

I kept back some stuff for myself and flogged off most of the rest of it on eBay for a small profit, making this one of the best finds of my comic buying career (the very best find I ever had was when I managed to pick up copies of Amazing Spider-Man issues 2 and 3, X-Men #2, and a whole bunch of other Silver Age comics for £5.00 each, but that’s another story). I shall henceforth refer to this find as ‘the great charity shop haul of 2010’, unless I get really lucky and find even more stuff in charity shops before the end of the year, but this seems unlikely.

One item from this ‘haul’ was this eighth volume in the Ex Machina series, ‘Dirty Tricks’, which cost me £2.99. I have read all of the previous volumes in this series but don’t own any of them – I borrowed all the earlier volumes from my local library – although I suspect that this is something I would buy, possibly in some fancy format, if I were rich. It’s quite a good series, even if I can’t quite remember what happened in the previous volume now, and it’s probably something I’d like to re-read at some point. Ex Machina tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, formally a superhero known as ‘the Great Machine’, who is elected mayor of New York after preventing the second jet from flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11 (in this New York, the south tower is still standing). It’s a great concept, well written by the always reliable Brian K. Vaughan and very nicely illustrated by Tony Harris, who does an amazing job of keeping the art interesting considering how many panels of people just talking he is asked to draw. It is not the most exciting series ever made – as I said, I can’t remember what happened in the previous volume now and I suspect that this volume will fade from my memory pretty quickly, too – but it is a good series.

This particular volume collects Ex Machina issues 35-39, by the usual creative team, and Ex Machina Special #3, illustrated by John Paul Leon. In Ex Machina #35, Mitchell encourages his black deputy, Mr. Wylie, to run for mayor after he steps down to run for President, and gives peace to the ghost of one of the many black slaves who helped construct New York. Then, in a four part story that runs through Ex Machina issues 36-39, one of the Great Machine’s biggest fans starts causing trouble just as George W. Bush is due to visit the city and Mitchell’s old pal Kremlin, who wants him to go back to being a superhero, digs up some dirt that could cost Mitchell the Presidency in future volumes. It’s a good story with some funny moments but I think I preferred Ex Machina #35, which was more interesting (prior to reading that issue, I had no idea that slaves had been used in the construction of New York). I also preferred the last comic collected here, Ex Machina Special #3, a Halloween tale all about masks and those who choose to hide behind them, which is mainly set just after Mitchell got his powers (he can communicate with machines), and also had a few interesting facts in it (I like facts!). I liked John Paul Leon’s art – which I always get confused with the art of Tommy lee Edwards – a lot, too, even if it is quite different in style to Tony Harris’s art.

Overall, this was a good book in a good series, which I always enjoy reading but can never get that excited about. There are only two volumes left to go in the series, they are not that expensive and I want to read them, but for some reason I haven’t bought them. I guess I will get them at some point, though, and if I ever see them in a charity shop for £2.99, you’d better get out of my way, because I’m like a bull when I see a bargain in front of me.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Review - Girls Volumes 1, 2, 3 & 4

I love the Luna brothers. Their comics are not quite perfect, but they also kind of are. I mean, all three of the series they have released so far – ‘Ultra’, ‘Girls’, and ‘The Sword’ – have been entirely self-contained and can be read and enjoyed by anyone. To people who don’t usually read comics, this may sound like a bizarre thing to say. Aren’t all comics self-contained and able to be read and enjoyed by anyone? Well, no. They aren’t. You see, most comics these days require a PhD in nerdology, an advanced understanding of the minutiae of 70 years’ worth of comics’ history. It’s got so that even life-long nerds like myself don’t understand (or particularly care) what is going on anymore. And even if you are capable of understanding what’s going on, even if you do still care, you still need to be a higher rate taxpayer in order to be able to afford all the many crossovers you will need to buy just to keep up with the latest (never-ending) event. Sigh.

Against this backdrop, those naive young fools the Luna brothers had the crazy idea of releasing three enjoyable, entirely self contained series, over a period of several years. Not only was it possible to understand them, it was even possible to afford them, as they never released more than one comic in any given month, and didn’t think it necessary to bother with crossovers. They were enjoyable as single issues – most issues ended on a cliff-hanger of some kind – and in trades. And I hope they have done very well out of them, because in an ideal world, every comic would be at least as good as a Luna brothers comic.

I doubt that they are selling anywhere near as many comics as they would have done if they’d gone to Marvel and worked on an Avengers title. They did do a Spider-Woman mini-series with Brian Michael Bendis a few years ago but thankfully didn’t get lost in the world of corporate comics and went on to release ‘The Sword’ through Image (who also published ‘Ultra’ and ‘Girls’). As far as I am aware, at least one of their projects (this one, I think) has been optioned for a film or TV show, so hopefully they will indirectly enjoy success from their comics, but it would be nice to think that they were doing well just producing quality comics.

‘Girls’, which ran for 24 issues, available collected in four trade paperbacks or one large hardcover, is the story of the residents of Pennystown (population 65 – at least at the beginning of the book), a small American town which finds itself trapped under an invisible, indestructible dome with a bunch of identical, rapidly breeding, naked girls, who want to kill all the women and mate with the men (woo-hoo!). It’s nowhere near as rude as it might sound and even all the naked girls are tastefully drawn most of the time. This is very much a horror / sci-fi tale, not an ‘adult’ comic – even if sex is its major theme. It’s just as good as many current sci-fi / fantasy TV shows (Lost, etc.) and would no doubt appeal to a similar audience, if that audience was only aware of its existence. This actually reads a lot like a Stephen King novel in comic form, which is fine by me as I quite like Stephen King novels. In fact, if you are a Stephen King fan, you will no doubt be familiar with the ‘dome’ device used in Girls, as King used the exact same idea in his recent novel ‘Under The Dome’ (I’m not accusing anyone of ripping anyone else off – Girls came out first but King supposedly started to write his book 25 years ago and the basic idea has been used elsewhere, even in the Simpsons Movie, and King didn’t have any homicidal naked girls running around in his novel). ‘Girls’ is actually better than ‘Under The Dome’, and if there were any justice in the world this would have been an international best-seller, too.

Like the characters in King’s novel, the residents of Pennystown (Penis Town?) quickly disintegrate under pressure and break into factions – men and women – who essentially distrust each other. Some of the men, unable to resist temptation, do mate with the girls, while some of the women get a bit carried away by their distrust of the men and even resort to castration in one case. The story is ultimately about the battle of the sexes, more than the external threat of the girls, who merely provide the fulcrum that helps push civil relations over the edge.

Joshua Luna’s script is witty and well thought out. There were some typos and a few things that didn’t quite make sense – how did papa hillbilly manage to free his son from his handcuffs with an axe when his own hands were handcuffed behind his back? – but I can overlook those moments because everything else was so good. In monthly comic form, I thought this series dragged a bit towards the end, after an exciting start, and could have done with being a at least half a dozen issues shorter, but in collected form it worked better. It was perhaps a bit too wordy, but then I tend to think the same thing about ‘The Walking Dead’, and that comic’s wordiness hasn’t affected its popularity. I love Jonathan Luna’s art, too. I am sure it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I only say that because I am aware that there are some odd people out there who don’t like the art of Mike Allred – another artist with a deceptively simple style – and it is very much to my taste. It reminds me in many ways of the work of Jaime Hernandez – not quite that good (what is?) but still very good indeed.

I read these comics at the time they were coming out but never actually owned them, which I regretted, so when I saw a set of all four trade paperbacks on eBay for £25.00 (including postage) a few weeks ago, I snapped them up. I suppose £25.00 wasn’t that cheap really, but it was a lot less than it would have cost me to buy the original comics, a lot less than it would have cost me to buy the four books new from a comic shop, a bit less than it would have cost me to buy them new from Amazon, and less than it would have cost me to buy the Girls: The Complete Collection HC, which I had been getting very tempted by (well, it was on my Amazon wish list). I don’t regret buying these at all but I don’t think I would have regretted buying the hardcover, either, as I like this series a lot.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Object of Desire - Batman and Robin Deluxe HC Vol.2: Batman Vs Robin

This ‘deluxe’ hardcover collecting Batman and Robin issues 7-12 by Grant Morrison and co. was released last week, and with a recommended retail price of £15.75, it seems quite expensive for a book that only collects six comics. Still, I imagine that it will be even more expensive by the time Titan Books get their evil mitts on it, as the Titan Books edition of Vol.1 had a recommended price of £18.99, so it might be wise to snap up a copy now, while Amazon are selling the DC edition for £11.87.

Personally, I will be waiting until I see a cheaper copy on eBay, as I did with Vol.1, eventually managing to bag myself a copy for around £6.00. If I buy it new I may only encourage DC to produce even more of these ‘deluxe’ hardcovers, and I really don’t want to do that. I am not someone who needs to own hardcovers at all and most of the time I actually prefer to own softcover editions of books and graphic novels. However, the long gap between DC’s hardcover and softcover editions these days tends to make me quite impatient when there is something like this coming out that I really want (thankfully, it doesn’t happen very often) and I occasionally crack.

The main problem I have with these ‘deluxe’ hardcovers is the fact that DC call them ‘deluxe’, a move that was no doubt inspired by Marvel’s decision to call all their hardcovers ‘premiere’ hardcovers. If this escalates, we could soon end up with ‘super deluxe’ and ‘ultra premiere’ hardcovers – books that sound more like feminine hygiene products than collections of comic books – and maybe even worse. What was wrong with just calling them hardcovers? There should probably be some kind of law against releasing hardcover books that only collect six comics anyway, but calling any book that only collects six comics ‘deluxe’ is just taking the piss.

DC have at least made their ‘deluxe’ hardcovers slightly larger than their trade paperback editions, but with this slightly larger size comes a slightly larger price. As far as I am aware, Marvel have kept their ‘premiere’ hardcovers at the £12.99 price point – which is still too much for my liking – but seem to be reducing the number of comics reprinted in each volume. Last year I made the mistake of buying a Thor ‘premiere’ HC that only collected four comics, which is about as far from ‘premiere’ as it gets, as far as I am concerned.

I would rather see Marvel and DC releasing their books as softcovers only – perhaps releasing hardcover editions of the odd truly deserving series at a later date – or at least see them releasing their softcovers and hardcovers simultaneously. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there with more money than sense who would buy the hardcover edition anyway, but I am not one of those people. Spending upwards of £12.99 on a book it takes me less than an hour to read tends to make me feel like a fool, so until the day they start releasing some ‘value’ or ‘no frills’ hardcovers – fat chance! – my preference will remain the humble softcover.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Objects of Desire; Alec The Years Have Pants

When I first encountered Eddie Campbell’s Alec strips in Escape Magazine, it was a revelation to me. Campbell told tales inspired by his real life portraying himself as an artist that worked, by day, as a sheet metal worker and by night as a comic creator… and drinker. He was an inspiration to me and as soon as I left school I got a shit job and went out with my mates down the pub every night. Unfortunately, I didn’t go on to have any work I managed to produce appear in any highly regarded art comic magazines like Escape, published by Dark Horse or to work with Alan Moore on one of the best graphic novels ever. Instead I worked for the same organisation for nearly two decades and developed a drink problem.

Originally, I picked up the three slim Alec collections when they were published by Escape during the eighties. Later, Eclipse Books published The Complete Alec which featured the three books I already had and the previously unpublished fourth. I bought this and sold my Escape books. Later still, this turned out not to be the ‘complete’ Alec after all as new stories started to appear published mainly by Fantagraphics. Later still, Top Shelf published a collection called Alec The King Canute Crowd which featured all the stories up until then and made my copy of the so called ‘Complete Alec’ look stupid. When this was published, Campbell attended the Bristol Comics Convention to promote it and I approached him to explain how disappointed I was that there was now a more affordable version that supersedes the book I own from a few years before. Campbell laughed but I’ve never been sure if he laughed because he thought I was joking or a sincere but crazy person who might cause a scene if not placated.

Last year, Top Shelf published Alec “The Years Have Pants”, an Omnibus collection of everything Alec up to that point including stories like After The Snooter and How To Be An Artist that have appeared since The King Canute Crowd. It’s a mighty looking book that I must own, even though I probably have most of the stories contained within in other forms somewhere. The very thought that there might be a story, strip or drawing in there that I don’t own already makes me pine for it. In fact, I nearly owned a copy as I was bought the soft cover edition for my birthday during the summer. It was a surprisingly astute buy, however, I want the hardback edition and, besides, the copy I was bought was heavily shop-thumbed. (It was heavily shop-thumbed, incidentally, because every time I went into town I would pop into the Waterstones my present was bought from and look through it.) So I returned my copy and used the credit to buy another Object of Desire (more about that in a later entry) instead.

Alec “The Years Have Pants” hard back edition retails for £37.99 but copies are available elsewhere for less including
Amazon (£32.29), the Book Depository (£30.06), Forbidden Planet UK (£25.45) and lots of other places. I would say that the book is well worth paying the full retail for, though.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Review - DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore TPB

With the exception of his brilliant run on Swamp Thing, this book collects all of Alan Moore’s DC Universe stories from the 1980s. I’ll get the price bit out of the way early this time and say that this didn’t cost me anything. I got it as a Christmas present about two years ago but have only just read it. I suppose one reason that I may have put off reading it for so long is because I had read a lot of the stories in this book many times before, but I was surprised to find that there were still quite a few stories in here that I had never read.

The first story collected here is ‘For The Man Who Has Everything’ from Superman Annual #11 – a story I have read many, many times now. This takes place on February 29th, Superman’s birthday, and Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude bearing gifts for the man of steel. They soon find Superman incapacitated by a flower that has attached itself to his chest, trapping him in a dream in which his heart’s desire – that Krypton was never destroyed – is a reality. Wonder Woman then finds herself fighting Superman’s old enemy Mongul, while Batman and Robin try and remove the flower from Superman’s chest. I still don’t understand how Robin managed to fit his small hands into Mongul’s massive gloves, or why Superman’s dream world was so miserable – in his dream, Krypton is troubled by political unrest and his father, Jor-El, is hated – but I suppose it was the 1980s. It’s still a good story, probably my favourite in this book, and it’s nicely drawn by Dave Gibbons.

Next up, we get five stories in a row that I had never read before: ‘Night Olympics’, a two part Green Arrow strip that appeared as a back up in Detective Comics issues 549 and 550, drawn by Klaus Janson, is okay but not great. In his narration, Moore uses Olympic events as metaphors for a crime wave taking place in Star City, which is a nice touch but it’s not really recognisable as the work of Alan Moore. ‘Mogo Doesn’t Socialize’, a short strip from Green lantern #188, another strip drawn by Dave Gibbons, is also okay but not great. Here, we meet the ‘most feared and mysterious’ Green Lantern of them all, Mogo, in a twist-in-the-tail story not unlike one of Tharg’s Future Shocks. I didn’t like ‘Father’s Day’, a two-part story from Vigilante issues 17 and 18, drawn by Jim Baikie, that much at all. It’s an unsubtle tale in which our right-wing hero teams up with a liberal, drug using, lesbian prostitute to rescue a child from her abusive father. I’m afraid not even Alan Moore could make a naff character like the Vigilante interesting and this story seemed really dated, but it was probably the best story that ever appeared in that particular title. ‘Brief Lives’, a short strip from Omega Men #18, illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, is about a race of impossible to conquer, slow-moving giants and I liked this story a lot. ‘A Man’s World’, a short strip from Omega Men #18, illustrated by Paris Cullins, about the mating habits of a race of Aborigine-like aliens, was not so good, though.

The next story is ‘The Jungle Line’, a Superman / Swamp Thing team-up from DC Comics Presents #85, a story I had read a few times before. Here, Superman gets infected by a fungus from Krypton and only Swamp Thing can save him. This is not the most exciting story ever told but it is pretty good and it’s well drawn by Rick Veitch.

Kevin O’Neill again provides the art on ‘Tygers’, a short strip from Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2, another story that I had not read before. Here, Abin Sur, the Green Lantern whose death led to Hal Jordan becoming a Green Lantern, has his confidence fatally undermined by a race of creepy-looking aliens. I am not a Green Lantern fan at all but I liked this one quite a lot – especially O’Neill’s art.

Next we get the two-part story ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ from Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 – an ‘imaginary’ tale of the last days of Superman. I had read this only once or twice before and it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being. It’s an uneasy mix of Silver Age nostalgia and 1980s’ misery. Superman’s greatest foes are being manoeuvred against him by Mr Mxyzptlk, who is now evil, rather than merely mischievous, and after many years in which nothing really bad ever happened in a Superman comic, everything goes wrong at once. Bizarro destroys Bizarro World, goes on the rampage in Metropolis and then kills himself; Clark Kent is exposed as Superman on live television by the Toyman and the Prankster; Lana Lang kills Lex Luthor, who is being controlled by Braniac and actually begs to be killed; the Legion of Super-Villains kill Lana Lang and Jimmy Olsen; the Kryptonite Man and Krypto the Super Dog kill each other; Braniac dies; and Superman breaks his vow not to kill by killing Mr Mxyzptlk and then retires. On the plus side, Perry White and his wife Alice, who have been having marital difficulties, kiss and make up, so it’s not all doom and gloom (unless you count the marital difficulties). It’s nicely drawn by Curt Swan (assisted by George PĂ©rez and Kurt Schaffenberger) but it’s hard to take all the death and destruction seriously when it’s drawn in a Silver Age style.

Next are two more short stories that I had never read: ‘Footsteps’, a decent but forgettable origin story for the Phantom Stranger, drawn by Joe Orlando, from Secret Origins #10, and ‘In Blackest Night’ a clever but not brilliant Green Lantern story, drawn by Bill Willingham, from Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3. The book then concludes with two Batman stories: ‘Mortal Clay’, from Batman Annual #11 and ‘The Killing Joke’.

‘Mortal Clay’, about Clayface’s mad love for a shop window dummy, is a story I liked a lot at the time and still like a lot now (the art by George Freeman is very good, too, although I still have no idea who George Freeman is). But I am inclined to agree with Brian Bolland, in his introduction to ‘the Killing Joke’, that it isn’t one of the highlights of Alan Moore’s career. It’s a decent Joker story, I guess, but there is something quite contrived about the writing style, and it’s really brutal and grim. The shooting of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl seems more shocking to me now than it did back in 1988 – and quite unnecessary, too. And the idea that Batman would be reduced to fits of laughter by a quite unfunny joke shortly after this shooting takes place just seems unbelievable. Bolland’s art is very good, of course, but some of the line work is very thin and hasn’t reproduced well, while John Higgins’ garish colours now just look ugly and drown out the art in places.

I loved most of these comics in the 1980s but reading them again now I thought that Moore’s writing style, while technically very good, seemed a bit stiff. I’m also not sure that ‘Alan Moore’ and ‘DC super heroes’ are two things that should have ever been put together. Moore soon evolved beyond this sort of thing but other, less thoughtful, less technically proficient creators took the ‘grim and gritty’ from these comics (and the comics of Frank Miller) and ran with it, eventually opening the door for crap like ‘Blackest Night’. Even other, more thoughtful, creators – talented but hardly genius level creators like J. Michael Straczynski, for example – have stolen many tricks from Moore, like the way he tends to have the last line spoken in one scene link to the first line spoken in the next scene in some way, and as a result the sort of writing on display in this book will seem quite familiar to modern readers. It’s hard to remember now just how sophisticated these stories – not Moore’s best work at all – seemed at the time. Still, it was good to read them again and no doubt I will return to this book again at some point in the distant future, possibly skimming a few strips along the way.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Review - West: Justice HC

This nice little hardcover collects West issues 1-5, written and lettered by Andrew Cheverton and drawn by Tim Keable. I had never heard of these comics until a few weeks ago and only bought this book after reading Paul’s review of the latest West comic – West: Distance #2 – but I’m really glad I did.

The five tales collected here follow Jerusalem West – lawman, soldier, bounty hunter, killer – as he travels the American west, ultimately seeking to avenge the murder of his wife. These are mostly standard western tales – although one is a ghost story and another features werewolves – but they are very well written and well researched (that research may have just involved watching a lot of Sergio Leone films but I suspect there was more to it than that). These comics are at least as well written as the current (rather good) Jonah Hex series and deserve more attention.

The art is quite good, too. The page and panel designs are superb, as are most of the series’ covers and promo illustrations reprinted inside, and Keable doesn’t shy away from drawing anything.

For a self-published book, the production values here are extremely high. As well as the series’ covers and promo art, we also get to see the evolution of a few pages from script to finished art in a ‘script-to-page’ section, all of which combines with the actual stories to make this a very attractive package that I will be proud to keep on my bookshelves.

'West: Justice' is available from the Angry Candy website for £10.00, which is what I paid.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review; A Drifting Life

I often believe I have an almost instinctive sense of what a good English language comic is just by flicking through a copy but I need guidance when it comes to manga. In reality, my instinct for English language comics isn’t as astute as I fancy it to be while I could probably do with relaxing and relying on my manga-sense a lot more. The reason I say this is that manga has provided me with some of my most enjoyable comic reading experiences in recent years including the opening volumes of Barefoot Gen and Vertical’s translations of Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novels. Having said this, I was faintly disappointed by Drawn and Quarterly’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi first two short story collections, Abandon The Old In Tokyo and The Push Man. High quality produced hardback collections of short stories isn’t always the best way to encounter your first work by a manga artist, especially if you’re frugal like me.

Thank god then for A Drifting Life, an 856 paged, door step sized graphic novel collection of Yoshihor Tatsumi’s memoirs. Just from a format point of view, this already fits with what my idea of manga should be. (I got my copy as birthday present but it retails for £17.99 in the UK, although my clever gifter snapped it up from my Amazon Wish List for just £12.73, or thereabouts.) From the first moment I flicked through this book in a shop eighteen months ago, I just new I had to have it.

Tatsumi tells the story of Hiroshi Katsumi and his rise to fame as a manga artist during the fledgling days of the Japanese industry. Inspired by Osamu Tezuka, who he meets early in his career, Hiroshi, a pseudonym for the artist, has aspirations to tell long form stories using new and previously unused techniques. Hiroshi is a success but his art-focused headspace often gets disrupted by real life, relationship dynamics and desire.

Where Barefoot Gen that tells heart wrenching stories from post nuclear attack Hiroshima, A Drifting Life begins in 1945 and takes us to the end of the 1950s, through an era of post-war positivity for Japan. Tatsumi does a successful job of taking us out of Hiroshi’s immediate concerns and reminding us of what is happening culturally in Japan at the time. Every new creative idea and publishing move is contextualised by this technique. This is why the book works as an education; whereas English language comics were mainly short form and for children at this time, manga artists were working hard on obliterating the boundaries and expectations, usually successfully (although Hiroshi doesn’t always feel this way). The most alarming lesson learned from A Drifting Life is the rate at which Hiroshi and his peers produced artwork. They seemed to write and draw well over fifty pages a month. It’s a rate of work that makes western artists look like the fat, spoiled, lazy bastards that they are. (Only joking, western artists.)

Tatsumi’s artwork for A Drifting Life is terrific through out. Everything you need to be good at to be a strong comic artist is here. His characterisation and acting is strong, his momentum involving, his single panels engaging, his scene setting perfect, his draughtsmanship flawless. A Drifting Life took Tatsumi ten years to complete, which isn’t surprising given the quality of the book. What is surprising is that I understand he was working on other projects at the same time and this is something he did out of hours. Out of hours?! You’re joking! This is what he did to wind down at the end of the day? All of you pale imitators in the west should snap your pens and get proper jobs right now! (Only joking, pale imitators.)

I imagine if you’re Japanese and familiar with manga history, A Drifting Life could provide you with all sorts of interesting gossip and intrigues. For me, a navel gazing Englishman fundamentally ignorant about manga, I found I read A Drifting Life as if it where set in an alternative universe where comics are widely read and respected. Tatsumi’s decision to change his own name for the book and the references to manga I haven’t heard of before had me engaging with it as if it were fiction set during real events. But this manga does exist; it’s out there and it’s waiting for me to read it all up. Real or fiction, it doesn’t matter, I found A Drifting Life inspiring just the same. I’m beginning to suspect my doubts about Abandon The Old In Tokyo and The Push Man were the doubts of a fool and I’ve decided to re-read them as soon as I can.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Review; CLiNT 3

It must say something about CLiNT that I now know, three issues in, when to expect a new issue released and where to buy it from (£3.99 from some good and some bad newsagents). It might not always be on the same shelf but I know in which shop to make a start looking for it.

Given the verbosity of Jonathan Ross’s Turf in issue one, it’s a surprise to read an episode with barely any dialogue in it at all. It reads a bit like over compensation. Of the two celebrities, Frankie Boyle is the better comic writer at this stage, I would say. Rex Royd is becoming less impenetrable with each episode although it feels far from that tipping point where I sense that it might actually be good and I should go back and re-read the previous instalments. I’m enjoying watching the both of them improve.

Once again, Space Oddities (the venue for previously unpublished writers and artists) is tucked away at the back. I might not be quite so tempted to perceive this strip as a tokenistic filler if it appeared earlier in the comic without that irritating title banner.

All of the best strips are written by Mark Millar, the highly paid professional. The impact of Kick Ass 2 continues to be dampened by it being a 24 paged US comic split into three for CLiNT. Millar could easily write this as actual eight paged episodes but has chosen not to. I’m not that bothered by American Jesus as I’ve read it before when it was called The Chosen. I now know what the (spoiler alert!) twist is going to be and the journey there isn’t nearly as much fun second time around. Nemesis remains the best strip and the biggest surprise this issue for appearing at its intended 24 paged length. Like most of Millar’s comics, it’s great looking pop-trash. Millar isn’t interested in explaining how Nemesis (spoiler alert!) arranged for hundreds of fast cars to be delivered to the escaped convicts or how the prison (spoiler alert!) blew up. Just as long as it feels good, that’s all that matters.

In the features, Millar embarks on a three sentence long interview with Robert Kirkman and it made me realise how the article editors are missing a trick by not running pieces on The Walking Dead (started out as a comic and is now a TV show) and Red (started out as a comic and is now a film). I would much rather read this than 12 Actors Who Were Fired and Whatever Happened To The Star Wars Kid? Little pop pieces on the upcoming Nemesis movie or what comic Jonathan Ross is writing next seem more appropriate than Millar’s space filling bad jokes.

I’m trying to avoid being one of those cynical comic reader types that plays CLiNT bingo by guessing with which issue it will be cancelled. (The earliest I’ve heard so far is 6). I really want it to succeed. However, it’s interesting that issue three came out the same week of The Dandy re-launch which is, as far as I can see, more successfully what CLiNT claims to be than CLiNT is itself.

Review - Maakies With The Wrinkled Knees HC

Maakies, by Tony Millionaire, is a newspaper strip that has been running in the US ‘alternative’ press since 1994. It is about an alcoholic monkey (Uncle Gabby) and an alcoholic crow (Drinky Crow) who work as ship hands, have various surreal, alcohol fuelled adventures and kill themselves a lot. I own copies of the four previous volumes in this series, and I even have a Drinky Crow toy on my bookshelves, but for some reason this volume had been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile, unread, for a couple of years, so I figured it was well past time I got caught up.

The strips in ‘Maakies with the Wrinkled Knees’ are occasionally very funny, occasionally mildly amusing, occasionally not funny at all, occasionally obscene, and occasionally nonsensical – which is pretty much par for the course with this series. Even when it isn’t that funny or I just don’t get it, Maakies is always beautifully drawn, with lots of nice pen and ink drawings of ships, whales, and creepy children’s toys (etc.). However, as much as I like this series, I don’t think I will be buying any future volumes unless I see them very cheap.

I think perhaps the reason I was in no rush to read this book – even though it was quite a quick read – is because these books tend to be more or less the same sort of thing over and over again. Indeed, the first few strips in this volume were also in the last volume. I really like the Ramones but I have never felt the need to own more than one of their albums (admittedly it’s a compilation with 57 tracks on it) and I am starting to feel the same way about Maakies. I think that the five books I now own are probably enough and, if I’m being honest, I probably could have stopped after two or three books.

I do recommend reading at least one Maakies book, if you haven’t read the series before, and fortunately there are a couple of longer compilations available – ‘Premillennial Maakies’ and ‘Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury’ – each collecting five years’ worth of strips. ‘Premillennial Maakies’ seems to be out of print and is now quite expensive but ‘Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury’, which has a recommended retail price of £22.99, is currently available from the Book Depository for just £15.13 (it’s £19.54 on Amazon).

‘Maakies with the Wrinkled Knees’, which collects about two years’ worth of strips, has an RRP of £13.99 but is available from the Book Depository for £9.88 (Amazon price £12.59). I bought my copy when I had a mail order business and an account with Diamond, so I only paid ‘cost’ price, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that I got this cheap. Most of the time, I would have been better off buying my graphic novels from Amazon rather than getting them through Diamond (the useless mother f**kers). Still, although I don’t intend to carry on with this series, I don’t regret buying this book and I think I read it in the manner intended – i.e. drunk!