Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Review - The Nobody GN

This graphic novel, by Jeff Lemire, is a modern take on The Invisible Man. Here, John Griffen stumbles into a small town called Large Mouth wearing dark glasses and covered in bandages after a ‘lab accident’ killed his wife and turned him invisible. He quickly befriends a young girl called Vickie and becomes the subject of a lot of town gossip. Slowly descending into madness, he resorts to desperate measures to protect his invisibility formula, and his freedom, and eventually finds himself being chased through Large Mouth by its angry residents.

There wasn’t a huge amount to this book – the small town mentality has been explored in many an indie movie and the Invisible Man and the angry mob chasing a misunderstood monster out of town will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an old horror film – but I liked it a lot. It was quite a quick read but it read very well, thanks to Lemire’s cinematic pacing, and I really liked the messy / inky art.

The only other book I have read by Jeff Lemire was the first volume of Sweet Tooth. I wasn’t sure whether or not to carry on with that particular series but I now think I will and I am looking forward to reading the copy of Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy that I got recently.

The Nobody has a cover price of £10.99 but Forbidden Planet International currently have it for £8.58 (including postage), which seems to be the cheapest price online at the moment. I got the copy I read out of my local library.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Review - Northlanders Book One: Sven The Returned TPB

This book collects Northlanders issues 1 to 8 by writer Brian Wood and illustrator Davide Gianfelice. Northlanders is a Vertigo-published series about Vikings. The quote on the cover of this book, from Entertainment Weekly, says ‘Vikings finally done right!’, as if there have been dozens of bad Viking comics over the years, but with the possible exception of Thor, which probably doesn’t really count, I can’t think of many (if any) Viking comics at all. More importantly, I have never had any great desire to read a Viking comic, and therefore this series has never really appealed to me that much. However, I’ve heard lots of good things about it and when I saw a copy of this book in my local library last week, I thought I’d check it out.

And it was okay, I suppose. The artwork was very good – it was a bit like Eduardo ‘100 Bullets’ Risso’s art – and Dave McCaig’s vivid colours were really nice, too. The story was not really for me, though. It was about a Viking called Sven who returns (which you probably figured out after reading the book’s title) to his birthplace in the Orkney Islands to reclaim his birthright, after being sold into slavery by his uncle as a child, which leads to lots of violence and some sex. I liked the fact that the characters spoke and swore using modern language, and the fact that Sven didn’t believe in the gods like the other Vikings. I also suspect that a lot of historical research / knowledge went into this book and that Wood has a bigger picture in mind, but this first book was pretty much one, seemingly self-contained adventure, that was perfectly readable and reasonably enjoyable but it seemed a bit dragged out at eight issues and it didn’t leave me desperate to rush out and buy the next volume. I have reserved a copy of the next volume in my local library, though, and will probably do the same with subsequent volumes, if only because British artist Simon Gane has drawn some recent issues and I am keen to see his work on the series.

This volume has a cover price of £8.99, which seems pretty good for a book collecting eight modern comics, and especially so when you consider that £8.99 is the inflated Titan Books price. However, it has either gone up in price since it came out or else the price sticker on the back of the copy I borrowed was wrong, as the cheapest place for it online at the moment seems to be the Book Depository, who have it for £9.88.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Review - Superman / Batman: Saga of the Super Sons TPB

This trade paperback collects stories from World’s Finest issues 215, 216, 221, 222, 224, 228, 230, 231, 233, 238, 242 and 263, and a story from Elseworlds 80-Page Giant #1. Most of these comics were originally published between 1972 and 1976 but WF #263 came out in 1980 and the Elseworlds 80-Page Giant was published in 1999 (with most copies famously pulped before it ever reached comic shops, because of a controversial scene in another story).

The ‘Super Sons’ were Clark Kent Jr. and Bruce Wayne Jr., the sons of Superman and Batman, who together fought crime as Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. and complained about their stuffy parents a lot. Indeed, Clark Jr. and Bruce Jr. spent more time complaining about ‘the generation gap’ – in language that must have seemed outdated even at the time – than they did fighting crime.

With the exception of WF #263, which was written by Denny O’Neil, these stories were all written by the great Bob Haney, who is best known – at least to me – as the writer of many Silver and Bronze Age issues of The Brave and the Bold, but he also co-created the original Teen Titans, Metamorpho and Cain from the House of Mystery. The Brave and the Bold was my very favourite DC comic back in the ‘70s – it was the only DC comic I really liked as a kid – and when I bought and read the first three Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold books last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Haney famously had little time for continuity, or even logic, in his stories, and Haney’s Batman was not the same character who appeared in the other Batman books. In Haney’s Brave and the Bold, Batman’s personality (and even age) would change from issue to issue, but he was usually more of a James Bond type than the Dark Knight Detective we know today. This was a Batman who fought alongside Sgt. Rock in WWII but somehow managed to remain the same age in the 1970s as he was in the 1940s, even though Sgt. Rock did age. This was a Batman who was once declared brain dead but got better after the Atom went inside his head and kicked stuff around a bit. This was a Batman who once got possessed by the ghost of a one-legged pirate, rescued the tormented spirits of his parents from limbo, and then declared that he had finally come to terms with being orphaned as a child (thus rendering any subsequent Batman stories quite unnecessary). In short: Haney’s Batman was the best Batman ever, particularly as most of his adventures were drawn by the likes of Neal Adams and Jim Aparo (my favourite Batman artist)!

In The Saga of the Super Sons, Batman is a middle-aged square, and Haney’s wilful disregard for continuity and logic is on full display, but these stories are nowhere near as enjoyable as his Brave and the Bold comics. In fact, they are pretty bad. The book starts with our troubled teenaged heroes arguing with their parents, which leads to this fantastic exchange between Bruce Waynes Jr. and Sr.:

Bruce Wayne Sr.: ‘Well, well. At last! Where were you all night, Bruce?’

Bruce Wayne Jr.: ‘Swinging, dad! Before I knew it, rosy-fingered dawn was gilding Gotham’s skyline!’

Bruce Wayne Sr.: ‘You’re wasting your year off from college! When I was your age...’

Bruce Wayne Jr.: ‘I know, you were living like a monk and training like a demon to battle the underworld on which you’d sworn revenge! In short, an obsessed, no-fun freak!’

You have to admit, the kid had a point! Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the book for me – the only point where I laughed out loud. Everything else was fairly tedious and the stories were just ridiculous. In one story, the Super Sons stumbled upon a town in which most residents had been tricked into putting themselves into suspended animation so that they could get their hands on some alien treasure. In another story, Batman faked his own death in order to expose one of Bruce Wayne’s crooked business partners and Bruce Wayne Jr. and Robin competed to find his Eskimo ‘killer’ and become the next Batman. And in another story, the Super Sons were tricked into freeing Lex Luthor from jail by Lex’s alien daughter, Ardora, and soon found themselves on another planet seeking a cure for ‘giantism’. And all of those stories were worse than I just made them sound!

Clark Jr. and Bruce Jr. were two of the lamest comic characters ever created. Bruce Wayne Jr. was just a spoilt little rich kid, who exhibited all the worst characteristics of Bruce Sr.’s public persona, while Clark Jr. was a library-loving, unconfident nerd, much like Clark Sr.’s public persona, even though he had the ability to leap a hundred miles, was invulnerable to all but atomic weapons, and could go for up to three days without air. Bizarrely, these two teen rebels decided to rebel by dressing up as their dads, calling themselves Superman Jr. and Batman Jr., and fighting crime, which – err – wasn’t actually very rebellious at all, was it?

Haney’s insistence that these were not imaginary tales, that Superman and Batman really did have wives (whose faces we never see) and sons that never got mentioned in other comics, obviously presented any writers more concerned with continuity than him – i.e. every other writer – with something of a minefield. The issue written by Denny O’Neil, then, attempts to clear this minefield by explaining the Super Sons’ existence. In this story, we find out that Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. were actually just computer simulations, created by Superman and Batman to see how their sons would cope in certain situations, if they actually had sons – which obviously made no more sense than most of Haney’s stories. The Super Sons eventually escaped from Superman’s computer, got into trouble, and Superman and Batman then had to convince their ‘sons’ that they weren’t actually real. The Super Sons then willingly jumped into a ‘disintegration pit’, and weren’t seen again until they appeared in the Elseworlds 80-Page Giant in 1999, in a Bob Haney-written story – which I believe was the last comic story he wrote before his death in 2004 – which completely ignored the fact that the Super Sons never existed. Here, Superman faked his own death to make an unconfident Clark Jr. realise that the world does need him, which only made me think that Superman and Batman would make really lousy parents. This story was given a bit of a boost by the stylish art of Kieron Dwyer, while most of the rest of the book was drawn by Dick Dillin, whose art was okay but far from amazing.

I honestly wouldn’t advise anyone to rush out and buy a copy of this book – particularly not at the full cover price of £12.99 – but if you see a copy in your local library, like I did, you might want to check it out and read one or two of the stories reprinted here, just for a bit of a giggle. Personally, if I ever see a copy of this really cheap somewhere, I will probably buy it, but only because it was written by Bob Haney and because it’s so bad it is almost worth preserving a copy as a reminder of how bad comics can be.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Review - Essential Hulk Volume 6

Having grown up reading black and white Marvel UK reprints, I love the Marvel Essential collection. It's great to read a series through in big chunks, filling in the gaps from stories I've read only partly before. Among my favourites in the series is Incredible Hulk. While other Essentials sit on the shelf for months if not years waiting for me to get round to reading them, I generally have to crack on with the next Hulk volume as soon as it arrives. As much as I enjoyed Peter David's psychologically challenging run on the character in later years... or the big dumb joyfest that is Jeph Loeb's current run... my favourite Hulk will always be the "Hulk smash!" one. I love everything about this character, despite the fact that his adventures follow a very predictable pattern. I'll let him explain...

"Hulk just wants to be left alone. If puny humans leave Hulk alone, Hulk will be happy."

"No, now puny humans are attacking Hulk - puny soldiers or stupid villains..." (who Hulk always gives a funny name to such as "Little Man", "Big Head", "Clock Man", "Stupid Magician", "Bug Man", "One Eye" etc. etc.) "...leave Hulk alone, puny humans or Hulk will smash!"

"Now Hulk is angry - puny humans think they are stronger than Hulk... but Hulk is strongest one there is - now Hulk will SMASH!"

In essence then, on completing Essential Hulk Volume 6, I have just read 26 variations on the plot above. And I love it. It's curiously cathartic. These are usually the last things I read at night after I'm too tired to keep reading a book or devote my attention to contemporary comics. I usually manage one issue before I'm nodding off and I find they not only relax me but also fill me with warm feelings of nostalgia. Remembering the first time I encountered these stories, back when I was a little kid spending all my pocket money and Marvel US and UK comics (nothing's changed there) often puts me in a calmer frame of mind and spurs on a good night's sleep. Who needs Horlicks?

Having said all that, I don't think I've read any of the strips in this particular volume before, except possibly the last few issues. Having made my way through the previous five volumes in years gone by, those contained a lot more stories I remembered from my youth, particularly the Stan Lee and Roy Thomas years, largely drawn by Herb Trimpe, many of which cropped up in Spider-Man & Hulk Weekly, Mighty World of Marvel, and Hulk Pocketbook when I was a kid. I'd been looking forward to this volume though because it collects issues #201 - 225, largely featuring art by one of my favourite classic Marvel artists Sal Buscema, along with solid storytelling from Len Wein and, towards the end, Roger Stern. Buscema works with three top inkers for the majority of the stories here: Joe Staton, who gives his art a nicely cartoony look; Joe Rubinstein, who gives it a slick, Byrne-esque quality; and best of all, Ernie Chan, whose embellishment is vivid, detailed and dramatic. Though it does make you think you're reading Conan at times.

I didn't start collecting the US Incredible Hulk until after #250, and the title wasn't well distributed in the UK before that so back issues were always hard to come by and expensive when I was growing up. I'm looking forward to the next volume and beyond which should take us well into the Bill Mantlo years and stories I'm more familiar with. As long as Hulk keeps smashing, I'll keep buying.

I pre-ordered Essential Hulk #6 from Ace Comics which got me a 25% discount, plus postage included with my regular comics parcel from those guys. Taking that into account, it cost me £10.87, which isn't bad for 26 comics. The cheapest I can find it online at the moment is from The Book Depository at £10.61, including postage.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Review - The Walking Dead Vol.13 TPB

This volume, which collects the Walking Dead issues 73 to 78, is the least exciting volume of the series so far, with barely a zombie in sight. Instead, the focus is on Rick and the gang as they struggle to adjust to life in the gated community they moved to in the previous volume and talk a lot (of course).

At one point, Rick, who is becoming more and more self-righteous with each passing volume, takes it upon himself to deal with a community member called Pete who has been beating his wife and kid, but does so in such a manner that he just ends up making things worse. Pete goes crazy with a knife, ends up killing someone, and Rick then shoots him. Later, Rick and co. have to deal with a gang of armed survivors who try and take over the community, and Douglas, the community’s leader, concludes that Rick would probably be a more suitable leader.

It didn’t make sense to me that Douglas would want Rick to take over, as the person Pete killed was someone close to Douglas and you’d think that Douglas would be pissed off that Rick had provoked Pete. But no, Douglas thinks that Rick showed uncanny insight in spotting that Pete was a bit of a nutter – even though his kid’s black eye was a big giveaway – and that he dealt with the survivors who tried to take over the camp really well. However, what Douglas doesn’t know is that all the shooting that took place between Rick and co. and the gang that tried to take over the community has attracted a zombie ‘herd’, which hopefully means that the community will get demolished at some point in the next volume and something more interesting will happen in future volumes. I’m not optimistic, and I suspect that the gang will just find another place to live and talk (and talk and talk and talk) and that I will eventually lose interest in the series altogether. For now, though, I’m just about interested enough to check in again when the next volume comes out.

This volume has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99. My niece bought me my copy for Christmas and I don’t know how much she paid but I know she got it from Amazon, where it is currently just £6.27.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Review - The Walking Dead Vol.12 TPB

At the beginning of this volume, which collects the Walking Dead issues 67 to 72, we find out that ‘scientist’ Eugene, who was leading the rest of the Walking Dead gang to Washington to help the authorities solve the zombie problem, isn’t quite who he said he is. Unfortunately, that means that the chances of us readers finding out what caused the zombie outbreak any time in the next century are now approximately zero.

Soon after Eugene’s revelation, the gang are approached by a stranger who invites them to come and live in a gated community of survivors just outside Washington. This gated community is run by a talkative (like everyone in the Walking Dead) former politician called Douglas, who doles out jobs to new group members and makes Rick a police constable. Life in the gated community is relatively idyllic – with plenty of food, electricity, running water (???), and children able to play out in the streets – but the gang struggle to adjust to normal life, or at least the illusion of a normal life, after so long spent struggling to survive on their own. So far, Douglas and the other community members seem to be fairly normal – although Douglas and his son both fancy Andrea, which could lead to trouble, and one of the other community members seems to be beating his kid – and it is Rick and co. who are now the troublemakers, as they begin to make plans to retain their weapons and seize control, if necessary.

This was another volume that was fairly light on zombie action. At one point, Rick and Abraham went into Washington – which was overrun with zombies – to rescue a couple of community members who’d run into trouble, but there wasn’t a single zombie in the second half of the book, and instead the focus was on talky soap opera. While making Rick and co. the bad guys was an interesting twist, it wasn’t really what I wanted to see from this book. I was particularly disappointed to find out that Eugene didn’t really know what had caused the zombie outbreak and that the gang were going to settle down in yet another enclosure, where they look set to remain for quite some time. Really, this was quite a boring story development – one which seemed like another step back for the series – and I’m already looking forward to the inevitable destruction of the gated community so that things can move on. However, I’m fairly sure that they will just settle down again somewhere else. It will probably be years before we find out what caused the zombie outbreak – if indeed we ever find out – and I’m starting to get a bit bored now.

This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99. My niece bought me my copy for Christmas and I don’t know how much she paid but I know she got it from Amazon, where it is currently just £6.29.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Review: The Unwritten Vol. 2 Inside Man

I read the first volume of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's new Vertigo series The Unwritten a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it enough to order the recently released second volume... but I knew this would be the decider. Sometimes it takes a second drink before you can tell whether you've really got a taste for the liquor... and it seems I'm now officially an addict. Barring a massive drop in quality further down the line, I'm with this title till the end.

Unwritten tells the story of Tom Taylor, the son of legendary author Wilson Taylor and inspiration for the character Tommy Taylor, Boy Wizard, in a bestselling series of Harry Potteresque fantasies. Tom has made a career out of touring geek conventions and posing for photographs with fans until a series of mysterious and deadly events begin to suggest the fictional world of the Tommy Taylor adventures is starting to bleed across into the real world of his day-to-day life. At the end of volume 1, Tom was the only survivor of a massacre at a writers' gathering in Geneva, and with nobody believing his stories of monstrous killers (he kept mention of winged cats to himself) he's now been extradited to a French prison to await trial.

Everyone wants a piece of Tom Taylor - from the shadowy authoritarian thugs who plan to torch the prison to ensure he can't interfere with their schemes to the spooky witch-girl who knows more than she's telling about where reality ends and fiction begins. Then there's the governor of the prison whose children are huge Tommy Taylor fans. And the journalist who's disguised himself as Tommy's cellmate to get the inside story. And Tommy Taylor's "fictional" arch-nemesis Count Ambrosio who's looking for a way across into our world. And Frankenstein's monster. And a mass-murderer who famously bit off the ear of his own defence lawyer. And the soldiers of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (circa 778 AD) who may also haunt the prison. And a flying cat. Don't forget the flying cat.

Carey is telling his story on a huge canvas here, and even two books in it feels like we're still very much in the opening chapter. It draws you in though, and there's a lot to read. Pages are given over to website discussions and news feeds, while prominent supporting characters are given whole issues of back story. And every now and then Carey goes off on a complete tangent, such as the final story in this volume which tells of an angry man who finds himself trapped as a rabbit in a cute Beatrix Potter-style world, desperate to escape and have his revenge on the storyteller who put him there.

Peter Gross has developed into one of comics' best storytellers. He has a very European art style, so I was surprised to discover he's actually an American. He's being given free reign to show off his skills on this book, tailoring (no pun intended) his art to suit specific sequences and showing great skill at making busy pages clean and uncomplicated (Carey often writes 6+ panels with lots of dialogue, but they never seem crowded).

Unwritten: Inside Man has an rrp of £9.99 though I bought my copy on Amazon for £6.23 (it's since gone down to £6.15, so I'm asking Amazon for my 8p back). That's less than a quid an issue for a 7-part storyline that'll take you longer than most equivalently sized graphic novels to read because of the depth of the storytelling. Unwritten it may be... but if you buy this book, I doubt it'll stay unread.

Review - The Walking Dead Vol.11 TPB

I’m starting to think that Robert Kirkman may have run out of ideas for this series. Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if he ever had any ideas for this series. I mean, he has obviously given a lot of thought to the practicalities of day to day survival in a world overrun with zombies – I know this because the characters do pretty much nothing but talk about the practicalities of day to day survival in a world overrun with zombies – but the actual story hasn’t really moved on that much at all, and the goings on this volume seemed quite familiar and a little bit desperate.

Towards the end of WD Vol.10, one of the kids Dale and Andrea adopted (I can’t remember whose kids they were now) was seen killing a cat and playing with its innards. As any nerd / weirdo knows, killing animals as a child is a classic sign that someone will grow up to be a serial killer, and sure enough, this kid grows up really quickly and kills someone in the first few pages of this volume. This means that our heroes get a chance to do what they like doing best – talking – as they debate the morality of whether or not they should kill the kid before he kills again. Eventually, someone does kill him, but our heroes then miss an opportunity to stand around debating the morality of whether or not they should kill the person who killed the kid before they kill again (and so on).

The rest of the book is about a group of talkative cannibals who have been stalking our heroes. At one point, they capture one of the WD gang, cut off his leg, eat it, and then try and bore him to death by talking to him a lot. Eventually, the rest of the WD gang catch up with the cannibals and get their bloody revenge and Rick then spends a couple of pages talking to himself about the morality of what they did to the cannibals. That man just can’t seem to stop talking!

This volume was not my favourite volume in the series by a long way, mainly because I found the serial killer kid and cannibal stories a bit unoriginal and overwrought and they both stopped the overall story from moving forward. I just want to know what caused the zombie outbreak so that they can sort it out once and for all and everything can get back to normal! Is that too much to ask? I’m also starting to think that our ‘heroes’ are arseholes, as Rick in particular has brutally murdered rather a lot of people by now but is the first one to judge anyone else who does anything bad. And for a zombie book, this volume was very light on zombie action, although a major character did get bitten by a zombie and die, which I forgot to mention before now because I was too distracted by all that other stuff. Sorry.

I still read this quickly and moved straight on to the next volume, so I guess it couldn’t have been that bad. I just think it could have been better.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99. I bought my copy from Amazon last year for £9.39 (why did I pay that much for it when I didn’t even own all the previous volumes?) but it has since gone down in price to £6.34 (I should have waited) and the Book Depository have it a penny cheaper (I should have waited and got it from there, but I guess a penny is nothing these days).

Friday, 11 February 2011

Review - The Walking Dead Vol.10 TPB

This volume collects the Walking Dead issues 55 to 60. At the beginning of the book, we see that Rick is still carrying around a disconnected telephone and imagining that he is talking to his dead wife, Lori, which still seems more amusing than moving to me. En route to Washington, the WD gang discover a new type of zombie – a lazy zombie that can’t be bothered to bite anyone – and Glenn’s wife Maggie, still depressed about the death of her dad and the fact that she can’t get pregnant, hangs herself. Don’t worry, though, because she doesn’t die or turn into a zombie, although she does later seem to turn into Stan from South Park when she says to Glenn, ‘When I was hanging from that rope, I learned something...’

Rick and new WD gang member Abraham fall out while Maggie is lying on the floor apparently dead – Abraham wants to shoot her before she turns into a zombie, Rick doesn’t, no one thinks to check her pulse – but they bond after killing some rapists on a road trip to visit Rick’s old home. Rick wants to pick up some more weapons from his old police station and see how Morgan and Duane, the black father and son last seen in the Walking Dead Vol.1 and that short WD story from the Image Comics Holiday Special 2005, are doing. The short answer is: not so good. Morgan heads back to camp with Rick, Abraham and Carl (who tagged along for the ride), but Duane doesn’t, and on the way back they are chased by a ‘herd’ of zombies, who force them to abandon yet another refuge.

This was another volume full of melodrama. In fact, I’m starting to think that writer Robert Kirkman is the new Chris Claremont. Remember that Claremont / Byrne issue of the X-Men where Cyclops drops to the floor, apparently dead, after a mind battle with a member of the Hellfire Club, and on the last page Nightcrawler screams something like, ‘Oh my God, Cyclops is dead!’, and then on the first page of the next issue Cyclops is getting up and Nightcrawler says something like, ‘Oh, my mistake, he’s still alive.’? Well, Kirkman does things a bit like that in the Walking Dead all the time. It’s hard to tell exactly where the issue breaks are in these trade paperbacks, but I’m pretty sure the end of #55 was the full page image that showed Maggie hanging from a tree, and only a few pages into the next issue she was fine. Claremont’s characters used to talk too much, too, and this volume of the Walking Dead, once again, is full of largely unnecessary jibber jabber, where characters tell us things we already know or didn’t need to know, or else talk like rejects from a daytime soap opera. I mean, that bit where Maggie said, ‘when I was hanging from that rope, I learned something...’ nearly made me laugh and puke at the same time.

Having said all that, though, there was a lot of good stuff in here, too. In the last volume, the gang were joined by a scientist with a mullet haircut. I remember thinking while reading that volume that he didn’t look much like a scientist but Michonne asks him about his hair in this volume and his explanation makes perfect sense (basically, looking clever was attracting too much trouble). I thought Morgan and Duane’s fate was genuinely disturbing, and the section of the book in which we met them again was probably the best bit. Seeing a herd of zombies was pretty cool / scary, too, but I don’t quite understand why we had never seen a zombie herd before, if gunshots (etc.) tend to attract them. Oh, and Charlie Adlard’s art was great, as usual.

The Walking Dead is definitely not a perfect series, but it is gripping. Despite my many complaints, I did enjoy reading this book, I read it pretty quickly, and I can’t wait to find out what happens in the next volume.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99. I bought my copy quite a while ago now and can’t remember where I got it from, how much I paid, or even why I bought it, as the only other volume I owned at the time was Vol.9. However, the cheapest place for this online right now seems to be the Book Depository, who have it for £6.30 (including postage).

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Review - The Walking Dead Vol.9 TPB

This book, which collects the Walking Dead issues 49 to 54, marks a bit of a turning point for this popular series, although for a while it also feels like a bit of a step back. After the tragic events of the previous volume (Warning: If you haven’t read the previous volume, this review will contain some spoilers), Rick and Carl are out on their own, searching for somewhere safe to live now that life in the prison is no longer an option.

Rick got shot in the stomach at some point during the previous volume and, at the beginning of this volume, that wound becomes infected and Carl has to take care of him. When Rick recovers, he is not quite the man he was and starts to imagine that he is talking to his dead wife, Lori, on the telephone. Eventually, Rick and Carl get reunited with samurai-sword-wielding tough girl Michonne (Yay! She’s alive!) and soon after they bump into Glenn and his wife Maggie and we find out that the rest of the gang (well, Andrea, Dale and a few kids) are now living back on the farm they lived on way back in The Walking Dead Vol.2. I got a bit confused about why Maggie was unaware that her dad, Hershel, had died during the final showdown with ‘the Governor’ at the prison. Andrea was at that battle and, even if she didn’t actually see Hershel die, she was aware that there was a big battle going on at the prison but either she didn’t tell anyone about it or else I missed something (which is more likely).

With our diminished cast back on the farm, the series seems to be more or less back where it started, not heading off in a new direction at all, even if these characters aren’t quite the same people they were back in Vol.2. However, they soon encounter another group of survivors: Abraham Ford, a sweary former soldier with anger management issues; Rosita Espinosa, who I guess is his girlfriend; and Doctor Eugene Porter, who claims to know what caused the zombie problem and is heading to Washington to tell the powers that be – if they still be – so that they can put things right (as if that’s going to happen any time soon). After some persuasion, Rick and co. decide to head to Washington with these strangers and the book ends with the promise that the story will finally move on.

The bits in this book where Rick was talking on the phone to Lori (or at least thought he was) were supposed to be emotional but I just found them a bit corny and slightly amusing. The rest of the book was pretty good, though, and Abraham seems like an interesting new character. I read the whole thing in one sitting and am looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £10.99 / $14.99. I bought my copy from Amazon two years ago – I’m not sure why, as I didn’t own any of the previous volumes at the time and was unable to read it until now – and paid £7.25. It has since gone down in price to £6.66 but it’s a penny cheaper at the Book Depository.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Review - The Walking Dead Compendium Vol.1 TPB

This hefty book collects the Walking Dead issues 1 to 48, plus a short Walking Dead story from the Image Comics Holiday Special 2005, in one softcover edition. Or, to put that another way, it collects the first eight regular Walking Dead trade paperbacks as one very large trade paperback that could quite easily be used to smash a zombie’s brains (braaaaaaiiiiinnnssss) in.

The Walking Dead, in case you don’t already know, is a hugely popular comics series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore (who co-created the series with Kirkman and drew the first six issues), Charlie Adlard (who has drawn the series since issue seven), and Cliff Rathburn (who provides some rather effective grey tones). The series follows a bunch of flawed characters struggling to survive (often unsuccessfully) in a world overrun with zombies, and it is so popular that American TV channel AMC – the people who make Mad Men – have even turned it into a hit TV show (which I still haven’t seen).

I must admit that I was never a huge fan of the Walking Dead graphic novels before – until last week, I had only ever read the first six volumes and had never actually owned them – but I did quite like them and always kind of regretted not buying them and carrying on with the series after volume six. So, when I saw this book available at quite a reasonable price last year, I saw it as an opportunity to get reacquainted with the series, get caught up, and remind myself what it was I liked – and what it was I didn’t like – about it.

The first issue of the Walking Dead starts with small town cop Rick Grimes (our hero) getting shot in the chest during a shoot-out with an escaped convict. Several weeks later, he wakes up from a coma to find himself in a hospital bed, in a hospital that has been more or less abandoned. He gets dressed, wanders around and eventually finds a load of flesh-eating zombies locked in the hospital cafeteria. Outside the hospital, the situation is more or less the same, with the corpse-littered streets more or less deserted apart from some wandering zombies. Rick heads home, finds his home deserted, too, and then goes off in search of his wife Lori and his son Carl.

Rick soon finds Lori and Carl hiding out just outside Atlanta – which is full of zombies – with his cop buddy Shane and some other survivors. After a bit of trouble with Shane – who has been carrying a torch for Lori – and lots of trouble with zombies, the group move on to a small farm, where they meet up with another group of survivors. Things quickly go tits up – thanks to some zombies locked in the farm’s barn – and the group then move on to a mostly-abandoned prison, where most of them remain until issue forty-eight (i.e. until the end of this book). While living in the prison, they encounter trouble from some prisoners who were left behind and from another bunch of survivors living in a nearby town, quite a few members of the group are bitten by zombies, they generally struggle to survive, and they argue and talk a lot.

There are things I like about the Walking Dead and things I don’t like. I will start by listing a few things I don’t like about the series before I get to the things I do like:

1) When I first read it, the Walking Dead nearly lost me a few pages into the first issue. Rick is not just shot in the chest on the first page of the first issue, he actually has a hole blown in him and – thanks to Tony Moore’s cartoonish art – appears to lose quite a large chunk of his upper torso. Even so, on the very next page, he wakes up from a coma, gets up, gets dressed, heads off to fight zombies and never once complains of any chest pains. In reality, someone who had been shot in the chest would probably need months of physical therapy and pain medication (at the very least) and may never fully recover, but here Rick practically gets one of his lungs blasted out and then wakes up a few weeks later as fit as a fiddle. I know it’s a bit pedantic of me to complain about things like this in a book which also features lots of reanimated, flesh-eating corpses, but stuff like this – when characters in fiction suffer serious injury and then bounce back really quickly – just bothers me. And not only does Rick recover from his gunshot wound remarkably quickly – a gunshot wound that was serious enough to leave him in a coma for several weeks – but he also recovers from being in a coma really quickly, too. I mean, would someone who had been in a coma for a month or more really be able to get out of bed right away? Wouldn’t it take them a while to get used to walking again? Also, why hadn’t Rick been eaten? How long had he been in the hospital alone? Who was feeding him? I am just being pedantic, aren’t I?

2) In the second or third issue of the series, Rick gets to Atlanta, finds the city overrun with zombies, but then meets up with a small group of survivors which just happens to contain his wife, his son, and his best friend. It’s not the fact that they all survived that bothers me so much as the fact that Rick managed to meet up with them at all. I mean, it’s not like they were all camped out at Rick’s house – they were living out in the woods outside Atlanta. Rick is led to the group by a young survivor called Glenn, who he meets in Atlanta – it’s not like he just bumped into his family in the woods – but even so, what are the odds of Rick’s family surviving and Rick bumping into them weeks after they left town in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? Pretty slim, I reckon.

3) The series then progressed without me getting too annoyed about any implausible bits for quite a while. Then, around chapter six (Vol.6 in the regular softcover editions), something happened that annoyed me so much I nearly threw the book across the room. 'The Governor', the evil boss of a nearby town of rival survivors, has Rick, Glenn, and a tough female character called Michonne held captive and wants to know the location of the prison they are all living in. Eventually, Rick escapes and sets Glenn and Michonne free, too. Before heading back to the prison, though, Michonne pays the Governor a little visit, and what follows is one of the most brutal single issues of any comic I have ever read. Honestly, the Governor deserved everything he got, and probably more, as he had been raping and torturing Michonne for days. However, the reason he really deserved what he got was because he was a total fucking idiot, as it turned out a few issues later that he had let Rick and co. escape so that they would lead him to the prison. If the Governor wanted to find the location of the prison so badly, why didn’t he just torture the information out of Glenn, who he just left crying in his cell the whole time he had him captive, instead of setting a woman who wanted him dead (and knew how to use a samurai sword) free? The dick head!

4) All of the above points were really just complaints about particular story developments that I found a bit implausible. The thing that really annoys me about the Walking Dead, though, is that the dialogue is rather melodramatic and often full of needless exposition. I mean, the characters just talk and talk and talk, and at least half of what most of them say is really quite unnecessary. A character will be building a fence (or something) and then will explain to someone else that they are building a fence to keep zombies out because zombies attack people and that they have had quite a lot of trouble with zombies and then they will explain where they got the wood and how to build a fence, etc. You would think that Kirkman was being paid by the word, or that he doesn’t trust Adlard to just show us what is going on, or that he just doesn’t credit us readers with enough intelligence to figure out that so and so is building a fence to keep out zombies because it’s a zombie comic and zombies attack people. I just made all that stuff about the fence up, but honestly, flick open this book to pretty much any page and you will see rather a lot of unnecessary dialogue that any editor worth his or her salt would have cut down a bit and rather a lot of melodramatic dialogue that even the producers of most soap operas would reject as too corny.

Having said all that, though, I was utterly gripped by this book and read the whole thing rather quickly, considering just how many comics it collects. I literally did not want to put it down once I started reading, and as I said, I had already read three-quarters of the material in it before. Partly, that’s down to the classic situation, rather than the quality of the writing. I mean, this is a comic about the survivors of a zombie incident – hardly an original scenario – and zombies are cool. It would almost be difficult to go wrong with a setup like this, particularly when illustrated by talented artists like Tony Moore (who is very good but was perhaps a bit too cartoony for the series) and Charlie Adlard (whose shadowy art is perfect for the book). However, Kirkman deserves a lot of credit for creating a cast of characters that you really find yourselves routing for. I don’t like Rick very much – actually, I think he comes across as a bit of a self-righteous prick – but I like most of the other characters and really cared about what happened to them, particularly Michonne, Tyreese, Glenn, Carol, Dale, and my favourite character, Andrea. A lot of writers probably could have written a more exciting zombie comic than this, and a lot of writers probably could have written better dialogue, but not a lot of writers could have come up with a large cast of characters that you genuinely care about, even if they do talk too much.

Despite my complaints, I enjoyed reading this a lot. The book ended on a turning point for the series, with several major characters dying and the prison being rendered more or less uninhabitable during the final showdown with The Governor. It was probably about time the story moved on anyway, as things were starting to get a bit repetitive in the prison, and I really want to know what happens next. Luckily, I already own the next five volumes in the regular trade paperback series, so I will soon find out.

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £45.00 / $59.99. I got my copy from Forbidden Planet International for £27.00 (plus £1.00 for postage), which was the cheapest price available when I bought it last summer (I have only just read it because I then convinced my wife to get it for me for Christmas). Last month, Amazon had it for only £26.00 (or thereabouts) but it’s since gone up to £32.84 and FPI is once again the cheapest place for this, with a current price of £30.15 (plus £1.00 P&P). Not a bad price at all for a book that collects 48+ comics.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Review - Punisher: Dark Reign / Dead End / Frankencastle

I can go either way with the Punisher. It depends on how seriously the writer takes him. If he's played straight - as an unstoppable, vengeance-driven vigilante, I soon get bored. Played too silly, as in Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon's early Punisher Max work, the goofiness annoys me. What I like is a balance between the two, a writer who doesn't treat the character as a hero - just slightly better than the villains he's going up against - yet also recognises the faintly absurd side to Frank Castle. This is not a character the reader should aspire to emulate... but that doesn't mean we can't have fun reading his stories.

Prior to the books featured in this review, writer Matt Fraction had been getting that balance just right. He'd placed the Punisher firmly back in the Marvel Universe, pitting him against an assortment of ridiculous bad guys and over-the-top scenarios, never once taking Castle's blinkered, semi-fascist crusade too seriously. It was a lot of fun, but Fraction obviously felt he'd said everything he had to say, so he handed the reins over to Rick Remender just in time for the character's crossover with the Dark Reign saga.

There are many who bemoan the current crossover-obsessed state of the Big Two comic companies, but while DC's line-wide coupling effectively killed any interest I had in their comics (Grant Morrison's books aside), many of Marvel's universe-affecting ideas have kept me intrigued, especially when they lead characters down interesting pathways they wouldn't otherwise have followed. The worst kind of crossover are the ones that attempt to tie directly into events or occurrences in the central book. Secret Invasion and Siege both led to a number of pointless tie-ins which took place in the shadows of the main title's events and refused to allow any actual story development. They amounted to little more than characters standing round and staring off camera, saying "look at what's happening over there!" Dark Reign, by contrast (and perhaps because there is no central storyline), bred far more interesting scenarios. All you really need to know is the bad guys (led by ex-Green Goblin Norman Osborn) won - and now they're running the show. After that. it's up to the individual creators to tell us exactly how their characters deal with such a situation.

The Punisher, naturally, comes up with the most simplistic and straightforward solution of all - kill Norman Osborn with the biggest gun he can find - and that's where Remender's book kicks off. Norman responds by siccing Marvel's psychotic Superman analogue, Sentry, on Frank... and then hires The Hood to make Castle go away. Being magically powered, the Hood resurrects a bunch of old Marvel villains including Frank's former sidekick Microchip and a load of characters who were slaughtered in the 80s by the Scourge Of The Underworld. For those of us who were reading comics back then, it's great to see this old storyline referenced, and Remender has loads of fun playing around with these demoniacally revived baddies, proving there's no such thing as a bad character, and making villains like the Human Fly, Basilisk, Megatak, and Letha & Lascivious more interesting than they ever were.

The art in these first two volumes is by Jerome Opena and Tang Eng Huat, both of whom draw in a similar style to the currently hot Lenil Yu, but without the annoying bloodshot eyes Yu tends to give all his characters. The final story in volume 2, guest starring Spider-Man and played largely for laughs, features art by Jason Pearson who has a big, cartoony style - kind of like Rob Liefeld, if Rob Liefeld could actually draw. None of these artists strive for grittiness or photo-realism as some Punisher artists have in the past, and their efforts perfectly suit Remender's none-too-serious scripts.

There seemed to be a lot more potential in the Punisher's war against the Hood and his army of revived villains (particularly when the Hood offers to use his powers to resurrect Frank's wife and kids), but Remender instead chooses to set that aside and take the character in his most outrageous direction yet. Realising that the Hood has failed, Osborn hires Wolverine's son Daken to take Frank down. Daken succeeds, not just killing the Punisher but carving him up into chunks. As the hardcore Punisher fanbase scream, "You can't do that!", Remender screams back, "It's comics - we can do anything!" then proceeds to prove this by having Frank stitched back together by the Legion of Monsters (Morbius, Werewolf By Night, Man Thing, The Living Mummy, Manphibian et al.) Now he's become a true monster: Frankencastle. If that sounds utterly ridiculous to you, well, yes, it is. But really, what's so wrong with that? We need more utter ridiculousness in mainstream comics, if you ask me. That's the other reason I lost interest in DC - they take themselves so damned seriously! Comics should be fun.

Anyway, the League want Frankencastle to help him stop former monster-hunter Robert Hellgaard from killing off all their ugly-wugly friends. Reluctant at first, Frankencastle eventually agrees and what follows draws upon Remender's obvious love of horror comics, Universal monster films and old-time Marvel history. At times it feels more like Hellboy than the Punisher, but it's definitely more interesting than watching Frank Castle take down another drug cartel or other "real life" crime syndicate. If you read superhero comics primarily for escapism, this delivers exactly what you're looking for. It's only a shame it all falls apart so spectacularly at the end of the book, beginning with an unnecessarily padded rematch with Daken (a crossover with that character's own book, the non-Remender issues being particularly weak). Then it's as though Marvel wanted to press the reset button as soon as possible, without developing the idea any further, and Remender is given one issue to hurriedly tie up all Frankencastle's loose ends and restore the status quo.

The art in Frankencastle is mostly good, especially the issues drawn by Tony Moore, Roland Boschi and Dan Brereton (good to see him back in mainstream comics) who relish every moment of their monster mayhem. Though I'm normally a huge fan of the John Romita Jr. / Klaus Janson team, the opening episode seems a little rushed, and the art for the Daken rematch is awful, particularly the issues drawn by Stephen Segovia, whose work reminded me of the worst of the 90s.

Pricewise, I paid about a fiver each (plus p&p) for the first two volumes (they're listed as £12.99 reduced to £9.09 on Amazon, but a number of sellers are offering them cheaper). I enjoyed them enough to pay a whopping £17 for the oversized hardback of the Frankencastle issues from Amazon (reduced from £29-99 - not bad for a collection of fourteen comics, even if the last few issues are a bit rubbish). That price has now gone up to £20, though other sellers are offering it for less.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Review - WE3 TPB

This slender graphic novel, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, is about three domestic animals – a dog, a cat, and a rabbit – that escape from a US Air Force research facility after getting turned into cybernetic killing machines. Our heroes are really just prototypes and are due to be destroyed when their keeper sets them free. On the run and slowly falling apart without their medication, they find themselves pursued by the military, cyborg rats, and Weapon 4: a huge, cyborg mastiff.

This book manages to be both ultra-violent – the WE3 kill dozens of soldiers – and rather touching at the same time. The action is occasionally hard to follow but Frank Quitely’s detailed art is amazing (as usual) and this is one of Grant Morrison’s more accessible works – it’s entirely self-contained and could probably be read and enjoyed by anyone (animal lovers and ultra-violence lovers alike).

Despite their bionic parts and their capacity for limited speech, these domestic animals behave like domestic animals: the dog is loyal and loving, the cat is a bit of a vicious bastard, and the rabbit shits a lot – only here the rabbit shits little pellet bombs, which was perhaps my favourite thing about the book. This was a very quick read, easily readable in one sitting – and you will want to read it in one sitting – but no less powerful for that.

WE3 has a recommended retail price of £9.99. I bought my copy from Amazon (last year) for £5.87 but the Book Depository currently have it for just £4.99 (including postage). There is a fancy hardcover version, which apparently contains new pages, coming out later in the year but that has an RRP of £15.75 (£5.25 per comic collected!) so it would have to be really fancy to get me to buy it.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Review - Top 10: The Forty-Niners HC

Top 10 was my favourite of Alan Moore’s ABC titles (not including the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I must admit that I wasn’t really that keen on most of the other ABC titles – I only read one or two issues of Tomorrow Stories, I lost interest in Tom Strong after six or seven issues, and all that magic stuff in Promethea just did my head in and I gave up on that title a dozen or so issues in (I hope I don’t get turned into a frog for saying that!) – but even so, Top 10 was a pretty good series. It was illustrated by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon and was about the police department in a city called Neopolis, where everyone was a super-hero. This original graphic novel, this time illustrated by Gene Ha on his lonesome, was released in 2005, after the original, twelve-issue Top 10 series finished, and it’s a prequel to that series. It’s set in 1949, hence the title, and it’s about the early days of Neopolis, which was built after World War Two to house all the super-heroes (and villains), who ordinary people didn’t want living next door to them once the war was over.

I actually bought this when it came out in 2005 but for reasons I can’t figure out I have only just read it. I now feel foolish for putting off reading it for so long, though, because it was actually really good and I read the whole thing in one sitting. Its main protagonists are sixteen-year-old Steven Traynor (AKA WWII flying ace Jetlad) and Leni Muller (AKA German super-heroine Sky-Witch, who switched sides during the war), who arrive in Neopolis together at the beginning of the book and decide to share an apartment. As vigilantism is outlawed in Neopolis (and presumably doesn’t pay anyway), the pair begin seeking work. Steve quickly gets a job as a mechanic with the Skysharks – a bunch of Blackhawk-style pilots who have yet to be decommissioned – and Leni gets a job with the police department, after meeting some police officers dealing with some trouble in a bar.

During the course of the book, Steve and Leni encounter time-travelling Nazi scientists, vampires (or Hungarian-Americans with an inherited medical condition, as they prefer to be known), anti-robot racism, and Steve slowly comes to terms with his homosexuality. Like the original Top 10 series, this is packed with background detail and would no doubt reward multiple readings. Steve and Leni are good, well thought-out characters, but so are most of the supporting cast, like the Maid, who has religious super-powers, and Rocket Ryan, a robot who pretends to be human to avoid persecution. There are lots of references to (and appearances by) other fictional characters (Popeye, etc.), many of which I probably missed or just didn’t get, and links to Moore’s other Top 10 stories, most of which I also missed because it’s been some time since I read the original Top 10 series (it wasn’t until after I finished this book that I was reminded that Steve Traynor was captain of Police Precinct 10 in that series), but as a prequel this book can be enjoyed in its own right. Gene Ha’s detailed art looks great here and is really brought to life by Art Lyon’s beautiful colours, which give the whole book an old fashioned, silver glow. I now want to go back and read Moore’s other Top 10 stories – which I don’t remember being quite this good – and will no doubt want to read ‘the Forty-Niners’ again, too.

Cost: This hardcover edition has a cover price of $24.99. I’m not completely sure what that worked out to in pounds in 2005 (about £15.00, I should think) but I had an account with Diamond back then so I only paid 60% of that price. I bet it wouldn’t have been much more (or any more) than that on Amazon (etc.) at the time, though, as most of the time I would have been better off getting my graphic novel stock through Amazon than getting it from Diamond. Both the softcover and hardcover editions of this book seem to be out of print at the moment – although there are plenty of used copies listed on Amazon – but Forbidden Planet International still seem to have the softover edition listed as available on their site for £10.13 (plus £1.00 P&P) and I have seen this in libraries, so you may not even need to buy a copy if you just want to read it.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Review - Seaguy TPB

This is an odd thing: a deliberately surreal, Vertigo-published graphic novel, written by Grant Morrison, that made more sense to me than most of Morrison’s mainstream super-hero comics do. As I have said before on this blog, I have only recently started to get Grant Morrison, whose work I always used to dismiss as incomprehensible. I still think a lot of his stuff is incomprehensible but I discovered last year that some of his stuff is actually rather good, too, and went on a bit of a Grant Morrison spending spree after reading and enjoying most of his Batman run. I bought and enjoyed all of his Animal Man and Doom Patrol stuff, although I’d be lying if I said that I understood it all, but then I read the Invisibles and didn’t enjoy or understand it much at all and it has taken me months to pluck up the courage try and read a few more Grant Morrison books, like Seaguy.

This book is about a super-hero called Seaguy (of course) who lives in a dreamlike world where super-heroes are quite unnecessary because there is no crime since all the heroes defeated the ‘Anti-Dad’. Seaguy hangs out with his pal Chubby Da Choona (a talking tuna who doesn’t like water), watches a lot of TV, and plays chess with a colour-blind Death. He craves adventure and wants to win the heart of She-Beard, a Red Sonja-type (with a beard) who will only give herself utterly to a man who shows her courage. On a visit to the Mickey Eye adventure park – Mickey Eye being a Mickey Mouse-like cartoon character who looks like a giant eyeball with arms and legs – he finally gets to experience the adventure he craves after eating and regurgitating a sentient foodstuff called Xoo, which begs for his protection. After fleeing the staff at the Mickey Eye adventure park, Seaguy’s adventures take him to Easter Island, the chocolate-coated Arctic, and Atlantis (where Chubby has an encounter with some mechanical wasps). Finally, he discovers the secret origin of the Moon and we discover that Seaguy’s world (and the Mickey Eye corporation) isn’t quite as innocent as it seems.

This has great art by Cameron Stewart – whose work here reminds me a lot of the work of Darick Robertson, only much slicker – and for the most part it’s a lot of fun (with sinister undertones). I didn’t completely get the ending but there is a second Seaguy series in which things will hopefully be made clearer, although that doesn’t appear to be out in TPB form yet, even though the series finished in 2009, and the individual comics look to be pretty scarce. This particular book, which collects three comics, has a cover price of $9.95. It seems to be out of print at the moment but I managed to get my copy on eBay last summer for £7.70 (including postage) and I enjoyed it quite a lot.