Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Review - Ex Machina Vol.10: Term Limits TPB

Like writer Brian K. Vaughan’s other big series, Y The Last Man, this final volume of Ex Machina has a pretty downbeat ending. After tackling a super-villainess intent on unleashing hellish creatures from another dimension upon the Earth – creatures that look as out of place as they should do in this series – New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred, formerly a super-hero known as the Big Machine, takes drastic, shocking steps in order to further his political ambitions and protect the world from further other-dimensional attacks.

I only own one volume in this series – volume eight, which I bought in a charity shop for £2.99 – but I’ve read them all and I wish I did own them all. The basic idea behind the series is great – a super-hero gets elected mayor of New York after stopping that second plane from hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11 – and it’s been a consistently witty and intelligent read, with great art by Tony Harris. It’s not a series I’ve always found that exciting or even memorable – one of the reasons I wish I owned all the other volumes in this series is so that I could remind myself what happened in some of the earlier volumes – but it has always been a very good series. It’s definitely something I would like to re-read at some point, and it’s something I like to think I might buy in some fancy format if I ever find myself with some spare cash.

This particular volume collects Ex Machina issues 45-50 and has a (Titan Books) cover price of £10.99, but you can get it for under £8.00 from the likes of Amazon and the Book Depository. Alternatively, you could do what I did – with this volume and most of the other volumes in the series – and get a copy out of your local library, while there are still a few libraries left open.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Review - Scalped Volumes 3 & 4

It took me a while, but I am now officially hooked on Scalped. It is not the most exciting series ever made - in fact, it is quite slow-moving and if I were reading this in the monthly comic format, I think I would be finding it rather boring - but by the time I’d finished the third volume, I knew I would probably be sticking with the series until the end. I know who all the characters are now – thanks partly to the handy character guide at the beginning of Vol.3 – and I really want to know what happens to them. (Warning: the rest of this review will contain spoilers!)

In Vol.3, ‘Dead Mothers’, which reprints Scalped issues 12 to 18, our flawed hero, Dashiell ‘Dash’ Bad Horse, a Native-American FBI agent, working undercover on the Prairie Rose Reservation in South Dakota, finally discovers that his mother, Gina, was killed (and scalped) at the end of Vol.1. However, he is more concerned with helping a young boy whose junkie mother was strangled by another undercover FBI agent, Indian-wannabe Diesel Engine, to avenge her death. This doesn’t go at all well. Meanwhile, reservation chief / crime lord Lincoln Red Crow, the main suspect in the Gina Bad Horse murder, wants to know who really killed his lover-turned-enemy. He also experiences some trouble with his Asian-American business partners, whose representative makes Chief Red Crow look like a saint. Most of the art is by series regular R.M. Guéra and his work is still very good but a bit too murky and occasionally unclear for my tastes. I preferred the art in #12, by John Paul Leon, but that was hardly less murky, and I particularly liked newcomer Davide Furnò’s simple-but-stylish art in #18, which introduced a new character, Officer Franklin Falls Down. Officer Falls Down is the one good cop on the Prairie Rose Tribal Police Force, and is also investigating the Gina Bad Horse murder.

Vol.4, ‘The Gravel in Your Guts’, reprints Scalped issues 19 to 24, and the first two issues in this volume are also illustrated by Davide Furnò. This two-part story focuses on Dash’s destructive relationship with Chief Red Crow’s estranged daughter, Carol. We find out what drove her to drugs, and at the end of the story, Dash makes a bad decision that he will no doubt come to regret. The rest of the volume, illustrated by R.M. Guéra, focuses on Chief Red Crow’s efforts to become a better person, so that Gina Bad Horse’s spirit can find peace, and on a teenage father called Dino, who finds himself sucked into dealing drugs and eventually ends up on the wrong side of Chief Red Crow’s Asian-American business partners.

This is not a series I feel any great desire to own – I got all four of the volumes I have read so far out of my local library – but it is a pretty good series. I do at least want to read it, which is more than I can say for most of the titles currently published (directly or indirectly) by DC Comics, and I have already reserved the next two volumes in the series. Writer Jason Aaron has created some interesting characters, who aren't just good guys and bad guys - Chief Red Crow is not a nice man but he cares deeply about the fate of his people - and while it is not a particularly fast-moving series, if you are prepared to stick with it, you could do a lot worse than checking out Scalped.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Review - Northlanders Vol.2: The Cross + The Hammer TPB

This book collects Northlanders issues 11 to 16 by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly. The story is set in Viking-occupied Ireland in 1014 A.D., where one of the natives, a man called Magnus, is on a one-man mission to drive out the occupiers. Magnus is a brute of a man, who kills almost everyone he meets, ostensibly driven by a desire to protect his daughter, Brigid. Hot on his trail is Viking forensics expert Lord Ragnar Ragnarsson, whose unusual methods are mocked by others but tend to get results.

There are obvious parallels between the events in this story and the more recent political situation in Ireland. Magnus initially appears to be a passionate man whose desire to rid his country of its occupiers and protect his daughter has turned him into a monster, but is eventually revealed as a bad man who is just using his country’s occupation as an excuse to do bad things. There is a big twist in the final chapter, which veered towards being corny and obvious, but I think it just about worked.

I enjoyed this volume a lot more than the first one. It wasn’t brilliant and there were bits I didn’t quite understand – mainly battle scenes that didn’t obviously relate to the main story – but I was gripped from the very first chapter and read the whole book quite quickly. I like the way that the characters in this series talk and swear using modern terms – something that I think could annoy some other readers – and I particularly liked seeing a Viking using the sort of blood-splatter analysis techniques that you would normally only see in an episode of CSI. The art was good, too, although it was quite different to the art in the previous volume – more Darick Robertson than Eduardo Risso, this time.

This isn’t a series I’d want to collect and this is not a book I can ever see myself wanting to read again, but it was a perfectly enjoyable read while it lasted. It has a (Titan Books) cover price of £10.99 but both Amazon and the Book Depository have it for under £7.50 at the moment. I got the copy I read out of my local library, and all I paid was a 25p reservation fee.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Review - Popeye Vol.1: I Yam What I Yam HC

If you are anything like me, you probably know Popeye best as an animated cartoon character, rather than as a comic strip character. Popeye cartoons seemed to be on TV all the time when I was a kid in the ‘70s, but it wasn’t until the late-1980s, while working in a comic shop, that I realised Popeye started life as a comic strip character. And even then, I (foolishly) didn’t bother reading any of the collections I had access to! In America, the country of his birth, I imagine that Popeye’s origins are more widely known, but here in the UK, I reckon most people just know Popeye as an animated character with a funny voice and a penchant for spinach – if they know him at all.

Popeye actually made his debut on the 17th of January 1929 in Elzie Crisler (E.C.) Segar’s newspaper strip, 'Thimble Theatre'. The strip had already been running for ten years when Popeye made his debut, and mainly revolved around the exploits of the Oyl family – Olive (and her then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy), Castor, Cole, Cylinda, Lubry Kent (has there ever been a more brilliantly contrived name than Lubry Kent Oyl?), etc. – but after he appeared, Popeye quickly became the star of the show, dominated the strip even beyond Segar’s death in 1938, and went on to star in numerous cartoons and even a movie starring Robin Williams (which I’ve never seen). He seems to have dropped off the pop-cultural radar in recent years, but he was a hugely popular comics character!

This book, then, is the first of six volumes (five published so far) collecting all of E.C. Segar’s Popeye strips – dailies and Sundays – and it’s really, really good. The daily strips in this volume actually start four and a half months before Popeye makes his debut – Popeye doesn’t appear until page 27 – because the dailies (and, to a lesser extent, the Sundays) tended to feature continuing stories that went on for months on end and this book needed to start four and a half months early to get something resembling the beginning of the storyline in which Popeye first appeared. Really, though, these stories rarely had proper endings and the end of one adventure generally flowed into the next.

The book begins with Castor Oyl inheriting an African whiffle hen called Bernice from his uncle (Lubry Kent). Bernice has three feathers on her head that provide whoever rubs them with good luck, and after spending several weeks’ worth of strips trying to kill her, Castor eventually becomes quite attached to Bernice and decides to head to Dice Island – home of a big casino – to win his fortune, with Bernice’s help. To get to Dice Island, Castor buys a boat and employs the services a certain one-eyed sailor, and from there the pair win at least one fortune, lose at least one fortune, end up in jail at least once, escape from jail at least once, meet and defeat the Sea Hag, rescue a professor trapped in suspended animation (in someone else’s body!), and so on. Olive Oyl makes few appearances in these daily strips, there is no Bluto, no Wimpy, and not even any spinach. Instead, these strips revolve around the mystery-solving double act of Popeye and Castor Oyl. The stories move at a snail’s pace – as I said, they drag on for what would have been months when they were originally published – and the first panel or two of most strips recaps what happened in the previous day’s strip, which makes the stories seem even slower. However, the cartooning is brilliant – Segar was clearly a big influence on future generations of cartoonists and Castor Oyl and Hamgravy, in particular, look like they stepped out of a Robert Crumb comic – and the gags are often very funny.

While the dailies focused on continuing, increasingly convoluted adventure strips, the Sundays focused instead on Popeye’s romance with Olive Oyl and Popeye’s boxing career (note: he loses nearly every match because he keeps knocking out his opponents before the matches start, or else knocking out the ref, or both) and these are even funnier than the dailies. Most of the laughs are based on Popeye’s inability to refrain from punching people, usually seconds after promising to abandon violence. In one strip – so good they reprinted on the back cover of the book – Popeye assures Olive Oyl that he won’t beat up her two other suitors, knocks them both unconscious as soon as she leaves the room, and then rearranges their unconscious bodies to make it look as if they knocked each other out fighting while Popeye was reading a newspaper. When Olive expresses surprise that Popeye wasn’t involved in the scrap, he innocently replies: ‘Surprised, eh? Well blow me down, I’m a gentleman!’ It’s a brilliantly timed, brilliantly illustrated strip – like most of these Sunday strips – and the panel where Popeye knocks both of his rivals unconscious (with a single punch!) is just perfect.

As well as being a very good book, this is also a very big (hardcover) book. It only contains 182 pages – which isn’t bad at all – but each of these pages is nearly 15 inches high and contains either six daily strips – most of which are six panels long and contain a fair amount of dialogue – or else one big Sunday strip. The actual dimensions of the book, and the fact that some pages contain up to 36 dialogue-packed panels, mean that this is no easy read – I could only read the daily strips in small doses but I breezed through the Sundays – but it is a great read, and its 182 pages contain probably as much material as any Marvel Omnibus edition but at a fraction of the price.

This has a recommended retail price £21.99 / $29.95. I got my copy (and a copy of volume 2) for my birthday but the person who bought it for me got it from Amazon, where it is currently just £14.89. Subsequent volumes are similarly priced and I intend to buy them all. My only complaint about this book is that it has made me want to seek out even more collections of classic American comic strips – Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, etc. – and despite its relatively low cover price, it may (indirectly) end up costing me a fortune.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Review - Namor Visionaries: John Byrne Volume 1

When I was a kid, I was John Byrne's biggest fan. His groundbreaking run on Fantastic Four remains my favourite comic of the 80s, while shorter runs on Alpha Flight and Incredible Hulk were equally well-received. I faithfully followed him to DC and he actually made Superman readable to me for the first time in my life, though I was more excited to see him returning to Marvel in the early 90s. But somewhere along the way, he started to lose some of that old Byrne magic, and gradually he went from being my favourite creator... to the man responsible for some of the worst, most insulting Spider-Man comics I'd ever read. What happened? That's a question for smarter minds than mine to ponder... but despite my disappointment at most everything he's done since, I still have a lot of time for his older work and will shamelessly throw money at anything Marvel collects pre-Spider-Man Chapter One.

The series Namor was originally released in 1990, shortly after Byrne jumped ship from Superman and swam home to Marvel. He was always better suited to the Marvel Universe and for the most part his work on this book demonstrates why. It doesn't begin well though - the first issue is full of clumsy exposition, with little in the way of action or drama, and amounts to nothing more than a half-arsed explanation of Namor's moodswings - why, after 50 years in comics, he's sometimes portrayed as a haughty yet heroic prince of the seas and at other times a psychotic nutjob intent on world domination. Turns out it's all down to the deep sea equivalent of midichlorians - George Lucas would be proud.

Thankfully, things rapidly improve with a series of exciting adventures that reposition Namor as business mogul cum eco-warrior. As with Aquaman, it's often a struggle to think up new angles for sea-based superheroes, but here Byrne effectively tackles oil spills, toxic waste and corporate greed in as intelligent a fashion as you'll find in a 90s superhero comic. While there's nothing quite as Fantastic as his work on the Four, it's still a damn sight more entertaining than most mainstream Marvel books from the decade taste forgot.

This collection also showcases another curious change that happened to Byrne's work in the 90s - the evolution / devolution of his artwork. The first couple of issues collected here are pretty similar to the work he'd been delivering throughout the 80s when he was arguably the best artist in comics. Bob Wiacek isn't necessarily the best choice of inker, and perhaps Byrne realised this as with issue 4 he starts inking himself, using a computer-shading technique he pioneered in his creator-owned title Next Men. It works well, though he doesn't stick with it for long, ditching it in favour of a clunkier, scruffier inking style that would dominate his art from then on. Worse still, he begins lettering his own work, and the effects are dire. Still, at least he finally addresses the issue of how to pronounce Namor's superhero name - and the fact that many people mistakenly call him (as I did when I was a kid) "Submareener" rather than "Submarriner".

I always feel bad criticising John Byrne. His good work far outweighs his bad, and though he's developed something of a curmudgeonly reputation in recent years, I still remember the time he sent me an autographed copy of his novel Whipping Boy as a thank you for all the positive fanmail I wrote back in my letterhacking days. As Jack Black puts it during his big Stevie Wonder / I Just Called To Say I Love You rant in the movie High Fidelity, "is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins... is it better to burn out or fade away?"

I didn't really buy Namor: Visionaries on much of a ration. I pre-ordered it from Ace Comics and got their standard 25% pre-order discount. It still cost me about £14 or so which isn't that cheap for a collection of 9 comics. Cheaper than Amazon though who are currently selling it for £15.99. Marvel only released one collection of Byrne's excellent Alpha Flight run, claiming it didn't sell enough to warrant a second volume. Maybe if the price wasn't so high, more people would have checked it out...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Review - Chew: Taster's Choice

When Image Comics launched in the early 90s, they represented everything I hated about the industry at that time. Flashy and anatomically impossible art, zero characterisation, characters with verbs instead of names, scripts that would have been laughed out of a first year English class. Horrible, horrible, horrible. After struggling through a few issues of Todd McFarlane's Spawn (partly because I'd been a fan of his Spider-Man art and partly because he at least tried to get proper writers involved - including Alan Moore, Dave Sim and Grant Morrison) I gave up on the company altogether.

In recent years though, Image has reinvented itself. While it is still home to Liefeld and McFarlane, it's also become one of the more pioneering publishers in the market, breaking away from the superhero formula to bring back proper horror comics (The Walking Dead), grim detective drama (Fell), political espionage and satire (The Nightly News) - even indie music books (Phonogram). It's taken over from Vertigo and Dark Horse as the place to go to discover pioneering creator-owned books, and it finally seems to be gaining a decent reputation for publishing "hot" comics that aren't just hot because the artist was paid obscene amounts for doing bob-all in the 90s.

Chew, one of the company's latest success stories, tells the tale of police detective Tony Chu, a cibopath who is able to get psychic impressions from any food he eats. If he eats an apple he'll get flashes of orchards and pesticide. If he eats a burger, he'll relive the terror of a slaughterhouse. And if he gnaws on the flesh of a recently murdered corpse...

It's a pretty high-concept pitch, but when you strip away the ick-factor it's no less credible than certain "super-powered" US TV detectives on shows like Monk, The Mentalist or Lie To Me. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory aren't pitching for 100% realism either: more a quirky, fun cartoon realism that stops the horror of Tony Chu's ability becoming too wince-inducing. They've also set up a strong supporting cast and intriguing back story that appears to be driving the book beyond just a case-by-case format. Tony's adventures take place in a world where chicken has been criminalised following a massive bird flu epidemic and a black market in illegal chicken farming has developed. He has a sadistic boss and a partner who knows more than he's letting on, a brother who's a disgraced TV chef, and his potential love interest is a restaurant critic with special powers of her own - she's a saboscrivner, someone who writes about food so vividly that you can taste it while reading her work.

Chew offers a smorgasbord of imagination, humour, horror, intrigue and excitement, and the creators obviously have big plans for their cast. Add to this the fact that the first volume is available for £4.82 on Amazon (containing 5 issues, that's just over 96p a comic - when was the last time you bought a new comic for 96p?) and volumes 2 and 3 aren't much more expensive... I'll definitely be adding this book to my regular menu.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Review - BPRD Vol.14: King Of Fear TPB

This book sees the end of the long-running ‘War on Frogs’ storyline that began way back in the first Hellboy series and has bothered this series since the very first volume. Unfortunately, it is quite a vague, disappointing ending, which I didn’t really understand, mainly because the Hellboy universe is now so bogged down in continuity that I think I needed to go back and re-read all the previous volumes, and all the Hellboy books, before I started this one. Even then, I doubt I would have followed everything, because a lot of what happened was not shown, and will no doubt be slowly revealed in future volumes, so this wasn’t really the end of the story at all.

Guy Davis’ art looks fantastic, as usual, and this series is almost worth buying for the art alone. But I’m afraid I need a story that I can follow, too, and I’ve now given up all hope of ever getting back into this series, which is a shame because I like the BPRD concept and characters more than I like Hellboy. If I thought that future volumes would be more self-contained, I would probably stick with this series, but Mike Mignola’s afterword to this book, and the last chapter of the story, both make it clear that an even bigger sequence of stories is about to begin, so I think I will probably use this volume as a jumping-off point. Life is too short, and my finances are too tight, for me to go committing myself to another few years’ worth of stories that don’t pay off.

This volume has a recommended retail price of £13.50 / $17.99 but I got my copy from Amazon, where it is currently £8.74. (Note: If anyone wants to buy fourteen BPRD books, I’ll be listing all mine on eBay in the next couple of days.)

Friday, 11 March 2011

Review - Tales Designed To Thrizzle Volume One HC

This book collects the first four issues of Michael Kupperman’s surreal humour comic, Tales Designed To Thrizzle. I’m sure I read somewhere recently that ‘Thrizzle’ is Grant Morrison’s favourite comic, and based on the four issues collected here, it’s fairly obvious why. Like most of Morrison’s comics – which I’m not always a fan of – this is very clever but also largely nonsensical. Fortunately, it’s rather funny, too, which goes a long way in my book.

Tales Designed To Thrizzle is a mix of short comic strips, mock ads and mock comic covers. I didn’t cry with laughter at any point while reading this, unlike some of the famous people who provided quotes for the back cover, but I did giggle quite a lot, laughed out loud several times, and am pretty sure that I will want to read some of the material in here again and again. I particularly liked the Cousin Grandpa strips (Cousin Grandpa on Noah’s Ark: ‘Well, at least I’ll not want for food.’), the ad for Mickey Rourke’s Pubic Stencils (‘This one started as a novel, then I realized the story would work better within the medium of pubic hair’) and the mock comic covers (who wouldn’t want to read comics like ‘Mentally Ill Gangsters’ and ‘Modern Chimp-Barbering Romance’?), although my very favourite thing, the thing that made me laugh most, was Feisty Grandpa’s Movie Review Corner, which was just a short text piece that took up less than a third of a page, but was also quite brilliant. I was less keen on the Snake ‘N’ Bacon strips – Snake ‘N’ Bacon are a snake and a piece of bacon who investigate crimes and travel through time – but I’m still tempted to order a copy of Kupperman’s previous graphic novel, Snake ‘N’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret, because it looks like that also contains strips featuring other characters who went on to appear in Tales Designed To Thrizzle, like the aforementioned Cousin Grandpa, and The Mannister (a man who can turn into a banister).

This is a very nice-looking, well-designed book, as well as a funny one. Kupperman’s figures are quite stiff and quite simply drawn, but his art is also highly detailed, with lots of fine line work, and most of the material here has been coloured for this collection.

This has a recommended retail price of £17.99 / $24.99. I got bought my copy as a birthday present, but the person who bought it for me got it from Amazon, where it is currently £12.59.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Review - The Complete Peanuts Vol.1: 1950 to 1952 HC

This book collects the first two-and-a-bit years’ worth of Charles Schulz’s long-running, world-famous Peanuts strips. And of course it’s great. Not every strip works but most of them do, that sense of melancholy was there from the very start (first strip: ‘Well! Here comes ‘ol Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown... Yes, sir! Good ‘ol Charlie Brown... How I hate him!’) and the Peanuts characters just looked so cute in the ‘50s. In these pages, we get to meet Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Schroeder, etc., for the first time (no Woodstock yet, Linus is still a baby and Schroeder and Lucy started out as babies but quickly grew up to be more or less the same age as Charlie Brown) and this is pretty much an essential purchase for anyone who likes comics and the perfect gift for people who think they don’t like comics. The book is rounded out with a (slightly pretentious) article about Charles Schultz and a much more interesting interview with Schultz, conducted in 1987, in which he comes across as surprisingly unconfident for a man who, at the peak of his success, apparently made $30 to $40 million a year from his creations. I don’t have much more to add to that, so here’s the dialogue from my favourite strip in the book (Note: Charlie Brown overhears every word):

Patty: ‘Charlie Brown is an easy going sort of fellow, isn’t he?’

Violet: ‘I’ll say he is... Good ol’ Charlie Brown...’

Patty: ‘He seems to get along with everybody.’

Violet: ‘Nobody hates him...’

Patty: ‘Everybody likes him... What a wishy-washy character!’

Cost: This has a recommended retail price of £15.00 (but the US editions of these books are usually nearer £22.00 in comic shops). I bought the first four volumes in this series when they first came out a few years ago – I am just re-reading them before I attempt to catch up with the series, which is now up to Vol.14 – and honestly can’t remember how much I paid for them or even where I got them, but both Amazon and the Book Depository have most of the earlier volumes for around £9.00 each at the moment, which seems like a really good deal to me.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Review - Hawkeye & Mockingbird: Ghosts

Hawkeye the archer has always been one of my favourite Marvel characters. I like the fact that he can be a hotheaded jerk, that he's got a chip on his shoulder which comes from being the "bow and arrow guy" in a team comprising thunder gods, armoured millionaires and WWII super soldiers, and that despite all this, he always tries his best to be a hero. I even like his names - both superhero (which always makes me think of Alan Alda in M*A*S*H*) and alter ego... Clint Eastwood meets Dick Barton.

The character has been treated somewhat shabbily in recent years, killed off for shock value during the Avengers Disassembled storyline, clumsily resurrected in House of M, handing over his Hawkeye identity to a teenage girl while he slums it as Ronin, even forced to watch as a psycho like Bullseye sullies his name and costume in the Dark Avengers.

His sometime partner, in crime-fighting and love, Bobbi Morse aka Mockingbird has been treated even worse. Captured, held prisoner and raped by an 19th Century ghost in the old West Coast Avengers book, murdered, then retroactively replaced by a Skrull, before being returned to a world she hardly even recognises.

The road to their reunion has been a long and clumsy one, but as Hawkeye is one of those crazy characters who keep me reading superhero books long after I should have grown out of them, I've been long awaiting this new collection. It was preceded by another book, New Avengers: The Reunion, by the same creative team, which was hampered by having to sort out all the convoluted continuity that had come before. With that out of the way, writer Jim McCann and artist David Lopez are finally able to kick loose and start forging ahead, and they do this with style now, reinventing the duo as Marvel's answer to "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (a movie I haven't seen, so I prefer to think of them as a more kick-ass Jonathan & Jennifer Hart - or Nick & Nora Charles from The Thin Man). Dramatic tension is added to their relationship by the fact that Mockingbird is a SHIELD-trained License To Kill type while Hawkeye still espouses that rather old fashioned superhero virtue of "nobody dies on my watch".

Given Hawkeye's chequered history of being unable to support his own title for long and the fact that this is McCann's first ongoing Marvel assignment, the writer appears to know that the odds are stacked against him from the outset. That said, he's obviously a huge Hawkeye fan, and determined to have as much fun with the characters as he can before the axe falls. There's a lot of story packed into this book - twists and turns, cliffhangers, shock character revelations, a solid supporting cast (including Marvel's old mercenary hero Dominic Fortune) and two strong arch(er)-nemeses in Crossfire and Night Rider. Rarely does a page feature less than 6 panels and often McCann goes for the full 9, though the art never seems crowded thanks to the smooth and kinetic artwork of David Lopez, whose style is both modern and classic. There are times he reminds me of Carmine Infantino at his best, though I couldn't quite put my finger on why. He's certainly more exciting than a lot of the manga-influenced artists working in contemporary comics, and if there's any justice he's on his way to greatness.

Sadly, it doesn't seem that greatness will come with further Hawkeye and Mockingbird adventures since this book has already been cancelled due to low sales. Another case of one of Marvel's better books not getting the attention it deserves, I'd still recommend catching this while you can if you enjoy your superhero blancmange mixed with spy-flavoured intrigue and a sprinkling of sexy, sparky banter.

Hawkeye & Mockingbird: Ghosts has an rrp of £12.99. I pre-ordered my copy from Ace Comics and got a 25% discount. It's currently available on The Book Depository for £8.34, though you might be able to find it cheaper.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Review - Ghost Rider Omnibus

While Rob is reviewing Jason Aaron's Scalped, I thought I'd chip in with my thoughts on the same writer's recently-concluded Ghost Rider book from Marvel.

Ghost Rider is one of those characters who never quite reached his true potential in my mind. A couple of writers have come close, most notably the always-excellent J.M. DeMatteis in the mid-80s, but most have found themselves hampered by the damned motorcycle, since high speed chases (even when they feature flaming-skulled stunt riders) are never quite as exciting on the comics page as they would be on the big screen. (Ironically, in a true tribute to the comics, Nicolas Cage and co. went out of their way to reflect this lack of excitement in their lamentable movie adaptation.)

The character was revived in the 90s as part of the grim 'n' gritty nadir of mainstream comics, steered to oblivion by Howard Mackie, the man responsible for some of the worst excesses of superhero dross in that woeful, must-be-forgotten decade.

There have been a couple of attempts to revive the title since, but nothing that particularly stuck until writer Daniel Way was given the character to relaunch a few years back. Way's approach brought a couple of intriguing hooks, most notably (and controversially) that Zadkiel, the demon behind Johnny Blaze's powers, was actually a renegade angel, making Ghost Rider a servant of heaven, not hell. However, though Way's book was fun in places, it was also quite a light and fast read. I never felt he nailed it. Enter Jason Aaron... and let the madness begin.

Using Way's renegade angel concept as a springboard, Aaron let's his imagination run wild, throwing in sexy kung fu nuns, demonic truck drivers, serial killers, chain gang thugs and a whole host of alternate religion Ghost Riders (since Blaze works for the Christian version of the deity, wouldn't it be cool if there was also be a Hindu Ghost Rider and a Buddhist Ghost Rider etc.?) He re-introduces a clutch of "classic" GR villains too, giving them an amusing, irreverent spin - most notably The Orb, who I always loved as a kid because his head is one giant eyeball, and who, under Aaron's watch, becomes a hyperactive chatterbox heading towards for a painful splinter...

The writer also brings back the 90s Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch, and makes him an interesting character for perhaps the first time ever. Aaron isn't afraid to cherry pick characters and situations from throughout the title's long and convoluted history, and to make them his own. The tone is OTT B-movie fun, reminiscent of Tarantino or Rodriguez - even Raimi - at their most playful and fanboyish. And Aaron goes to town on the whole Ghost Rider concept too, introducing alternate GRs who ride horses, trucks, elephants and even sharks.

The art is split between three pencillers with appropriately cartoony styles: Roland Boschi, Tony Moore and Tang Eng Huat, who all worked together on Punisher: Frankencastle. This comic has a similar no-holds-barred approach to storytelling and likewise refuses to become tangled up in current Marvel continuity, telling a completely self-contained story. Unlike the Punisher book though, the story doesn't all fall apart at the end, building instead to a satisfying conclusion involving Damian Hellstrom, Master Pandemonium, the Big Wheel, Madcap, more nuns with guns, and the anti-christ (one chapter is even amusingly titled "Save The Antichrist, Save The World").

I love Marvel's oversized omnibus editions, but they're usually too expensive for my wallet. Despite costing me £22.59 from Amazon (it's since gone up to £25.09), I still considered this something of a bargain as it collects a total of 22 comics - meaning I paid just over a quid an issue. The omnibus has an rrp of 37-99 and if you were to try buying the 4 trade paperback collections that comprise this run, they'd set you back £39.76 at current Amazon prices.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Review - Scalped Volumes 1 & 2

These two volumes collect Scalped issues 1 to 11 by writer Jason Aaron and artist R.M. Guéra. Scalped is a Vertigo-published series that I have been hearing good things about for a while but I’d always been reluctant to pick up a volume in case I got hooked and had to keep buying it. However, when I noticed that my local library was able to get copies of all six of the volumes currently available, I thought it was time to check it out.

Scalped is set on the (fictional) Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota and our hero is Dashiell Bad Horse. ‘Dash’ is a Native American FBI agent who returns to the reservation he grew up on, after fifteen years away, to bring down tribal leader / crime boss Lincoln Red Crow, who is in the process of opening a casino. Undercover, Dash earns himself a job enforcing the law on the reservation and becomes obsessed with Red Crow’s estranged daughter, who is more than a little bit wild. Unbeknown to him, Dash is being manipulated by his FBI boss, who has a score to settle with Red Crow, and there is another agent working undercover on the reservation, too.

This seems like a decent series but I don’t think I needed to worry about getting hooked into buying all of the volumes. The story raises some interesting issues – like the high rates of alcoholism and unemployment suffered by Native Americans – and some of the characters were pretty interesting, too. By the end of the second volume, it was clear that Red Crow cared about the fate of his people just as much as the other Native Americans protesting his casino, and I particularly liked Diesel Engine, a white wannabe Indian, proud to be one-sixteenth Kickapoo. However, I found the story a bit too slow-moving for my liking, and sometimes difficult to follow, thanks mainly to the good-but-murky art. The big reveal at the end of the first issue made me want to read the second issue, and the final page of the first volume made me want to read the second volume, but the second volume ended in more or less the same place as the first volume. I was actually slightly bored while reading these books and keen to finish them and move on to something else. I’ll probably still get the next couple of volumes out of the library and give the series more of a chance to get going, but maybe not for a few weeks.

Scalped Vol.1: Indian Country collects Scalped issues 1-5 and has a cover price of £8.99. Scalped Vol.2: Casino Boogie collects Scalped issues 6-11 and has a cover price of £9.99. As I said, I got both volumes out of my local library and all I paid was a 50p reservation (no Indian pun intended) fee.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Review - Amazing Fantasy Omnibus HC

This book collects all fifteen issues of the comic that eventually gave birth to Spider-Man. The first six issues of that comic were actually titled Amazing Adventures, and these issues contained strips that were mainly drawn by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Steve Ditko, all written by Stan Lee, who also wrote a short prose story in each issue. With issue seven, the title became Amazing Adult Fantasy and these issues were produced entirely by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who was apparently Lee’s favourite artist to work with (at that point, at least). Then, when sales on that title proved to be disappointing, partly because the ‘Adult’ part of the title was putting some readers off, the fifteenth and most famous issue of the series became Amazing Fantasy. Sales of that issue went through the roof, thanks to the debut appearance of everybody’s favourite wall-crawler, and Amazing Fantasy was cancelled and replaced with an ongoing Spider-Man title (which I believe did rather well).

I had wanted to read this book for a while, mainly because it contains lots of pre-Spider-Man Ditko art, but I had a feeling that the stories would be a bit of a struggle to get through. They weren’t at all, though. Most of them were utterly ridiculous but they were actually pretty enjoyable and very readable. The strips in the first six issues – especially the strips drawn by the team of Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers – were mainly about big monsters with stupid names like Sserpo, Torr, and (best of all) Monsteroso, but we also got to meet Doctor Droom, a character with an origin very similar to that of Doctor Strange, who eventually became known as Doctor Druid. Unlike Doctor Strange, Doctor Droom did not believe in the existence real magic and instead relied on hypnosis, meditation techniques and various other tricks to uncover alien plots, etc., which perhaps explains why he never became as popular as Doctor Strange.

The Lee / Ditko strips from Amazing Adult Fantasy are the best thing about this collection. Each of these strips is about three to five pages long and these sci-fi / fantasy stories make about as much sense as the stories in the preceding issues. The art, though, is great. I particularly liked the deceptively simple splash pages that started every strip – even the three page strips – before Ditko went on to render the rest of each story in more detail, often using a nine-panel grid.

The majority of these strips involve aliens, but we also encounter ghosts, the abominable snowman, lots of nagging wives, and even mutants. In AAF #14’s ‘The Man In The Sky’ we meet a young man called Tad Carter, who looks just like Peter Parker. Tad is a mutant with telekinetic powers, who is hated by his peers, and towards the end of this short strip he is mentally contacted by another mutant, an old man, who tells him that he is not alone, that mutants are ‘the next great stage in the development of man’, and invites him to wait with the other mutants until mankind is ready to embrace them. I’m sure I’ve heard of a concept a bit like this before, but I can’t for the life of me think where!

Amazing Fantasy #15 is reprinted here in its entirety, and while most of us will have read the 11-page Spider-Man story from that issue many, many times, the other Lee / Ditko strips from that issue have rarely – if ever – been reprinted and it was nice to see the entire comic for the first time. While the debut of Spider-Man may have marked a bit change of format for Amazing (Adult) Fantasy, the other three stories, also by Lee and Ditko, followed the usual AAF formula of Martians, ghosts and – err – mummies.

I really enjoyed reading this. The stories were dated but fun and the Ditko art, in particular, was stunning. As a snapshot of Marvel Comics in the days just before the super-heroes took over – and before the company became Marvel Comics – it was particularly interesting. I was kind of hoping that owning this book would stop me wanting that Steve Ditko Archives series, published by Fantagraphics, which reprints even earlier work by the artist, but now I am more tempted than ever.

This particular book has a recommended retail price of £55.99 / $75.00, which seems very expensive for a book that only collects fifteen comics, even if it is an oversized hardcover and even if these comics are all extremely rare. You can usually get this online for between £40 and £50 but, a couple of months ago, Forbidden Planet International had copies of the variant edition – the same book but with a painted cover by Dan Brereton – on sale for just £17.50 (plus £1.00 for P&P), which I thought was an incredible bargain, and that’s where I got my copy.