Saturday, 30 April 2011

Marvel Europa

Here's another one of my famous One Penny Purchases (plus £2.80 p&p) from the Amazon Marketplace. It's a book I've had my eye on for a while as a curio, but couldn't really bring myself to pay full price for as I feared it wouldn't really be my thing. I enjoyed it more than I expected, but I'm not sure I'd have been quite as pleased if I'd paid the Panini UK cover price of £12.99.

The book collects three "feature length" graphic novels starring four of Marvel's most famous characters, written and drawn by top European comics creators. I'd never heard of any of the writers or artists involved, but that's partly because they normally work in comics that don't often get translated into English and partly because I'm an insular yankee-comics reading xenophobe.

The first story, Wolverine: Saudade is by French creators Jean-David Morvan (writer) and Phillipe Bouchet (artist). Surprisingly, it doesn't feature Logan carving up the Eiffel Tower with his claws, but instead sends the shortarse muttonchop-wearer to Brazil in a search for two powerful mutants - a young street kid with hallucinatory powers and a crooked healer. It's quite a good read, particularly for the artwork which often crams 9+ panels to a page yet never looked crowded. The only complaint I had was with the translation (not the fault of the original writer) which is a little clumsy at times and features rather more adult language than you'd normally expect from an all-ages X-Men comic.

Then we have Dead On Arrival, starring Daredevil and Captain America, by Italian creators Tito Faraci and Claudio Villa. Set in the US, this features the return of Daredevil's old foe The Death Stalker through a time travel accident that threatens to have paradoxical consequences for the rest of the world. Plotwise it reads like a classic old Marvel Team-Up adventure, forcing DD and Cap into battle before they eventually work together to stop Death Stalker. There's a big slab of exposition early on that's a little hard to swallow in one go, but once that's out of the way Faraci shows a strong - if old-school - understanding of his cast. Villa's art is beautiful, reminiscent of Steve Eptig's better work, but also drawing atmospheric influence from classic Gene Colan Death Stalker appearances. Lovely stuff.

Finally, the one I was waiting for, Spider-Man In Venice, also written by Faraci, with art by native Venetian Giorgio Cavazzano. Stylistically this is the most traditionally European-looking strip of the three (though Cavazzano's cartoony style also reminds me of Sergio Aragones in places). Plotwise it's a little bit Scooby Doo, but Faraci is obviously having loads of fun writing Peter Parker. It's by far the shortest of the three stories, yet it's also the one I enjoyed the most... though that might be because I'm such a big Spidey fan. Made me long for a reprint of Mike Collins' old Spidey In Britain story that Marvel UK ran when I was a kid, and to the best of my knowledge has never been collected in the US.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Jonah Hex Vol.9: Counting Corpses TPB

‘Counting Corpses’ collects Jonah Hex issues 43, 50, 51, 52, 53 and 54, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by Paul Gulacy, Darwyn Cooke, Dick Giordano, Billy Tucci and Jordi Bernet.  Jonah Hex is one of several series – most of them published by DC or one of its subsidiary companies – that I quite enjoy reading but am usually content to get out of my local library, rather than buying them.  The only volume in this particular series that I own is the first one – which is the only volume I haven’t read yet – and every other volume, including this one, I got out of the library.  However, I do kind of wish that I had been buying them.  It’s not necessarily a brilliant series.  It’s not even a particularly memorable series.  But these fairly standard Western tales are always very readable, each individual issue usually contains a done-in-one story, and they often employ the talents of some great veteran artists.  DC also don’t fanny around releasing these books as ‘deluxe’ hardcovers – they just come straight out as no-nonsense, relatively affordable softcovers – which can only be a good thing.  In fact – sod it – I think I will start buying this series with the next volume, as this sort of book needs to be encouraged, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy of this volume, too, as it contains one issue that is so good it would be worth the price of the book on its own.
That issue is the double-sized Jonah Hex #50, illustrated by Darwyn Cooke.  In that issue, Hex agrees to take the bounty on fifty men, which leads to some great visual gags and a bloody final shootout / massacre in the town where Hex’s occasional lover, the scar-faced female bounty hunter Tallulah Black, has decided to settle down.  It’s a surprisingly powerful, touching story, and Cooke’s art here is really, really good.  He makes Tallulah Black look both mean and beautiful, he manages to switch from humour to horror to heartbreak, all in the space of a single issue, and there’s a great double-page spread of Hex engaged in a shootout while jumping a ravine on his horse.  He also inks this issue using a fine pen, rather than employing his usual bold brushwork, and it suits the book perfectly.  There’s some other good stuff in this volume – especially the issue drawn by Paul Gulacy and the two issues drawn by Spanish artist Jordi Bernet, who is a regular on the series – but the combination of a powerful, self-contained story and Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant artwork made Jonah Hex #50 one of the best single issues of any comic I have read in quite some time, and certainly the best Jonah Hex comic I have ever read. 

The Titan Books edition of this book has a cover price of £10.99, but the Book Depository have it for £6.92 at the moment – nearly a quid less than the Amazon price.  I wish I’d bought a copy, and I still might.              

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Essential Captain America Vol.2 TPB

This second Essential Captain America book collects Captain America issues 103 to 126, by (according to the cover) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko & Friends.  One of those ‘friends’ is John Romita, who draws one issue, another of those friends is John Buscema, who also draws one issue, and another is Gene Colan, who draws more than half the book and was probably more deserving of a cover credit than Jim Steranko, who only drew four issues.  Still, while those Gene Colan issues are the highlight of the book for me – like most people I know, I didn’t like Colan’s art at all as a kid but love it now that I’m older – those Steranko issues look great, as do the Kirby issues, and the great art throughout this book almost makes up for the quality of the stories.

Honestly, the stories in this book were not Stan Lee’s finest work.  They seem hopelessly dated now and are almost entirely humourless, with Cap spending most of his time moping about his relationship with Sharon Carter, who won’t give up her job at SHIELD to marry him, and way too much time fighting the Red Skull, who wastes numerous opportunities to destroy Captain America once and for all.  Story wise, the highlights of this book for me are the Kirby-drawn issues where Cap takes on the Red Skull’s ‘Exiles’, the crappiest group of villains ever created – the Exiles include Cadavus, Monarch of the Murder Chair, who is basically an old man in a wheelchair that fires laser blasts, and Baldini, who uses his scarf as a weapon (yes, his scarf – I’m not making this crap up) – and the first few appearances of Cap’s future sidekick, the Falcon.  At this point, the Falcon could not fly, and was just an athletic black man with a predilection for birds of prey, but he was an immediately endearing character.  And while Stan’s attempts to inject some social awareness into these comics, which were originally published between 1968 and 1970, seem incredibly corny and heavy-handed now (Falcon to Cap: ‘Go in peace, my friend!  Your skin may be a different colour... but there’s no man alive I’m prouder to call... brother!’), at least he was trying.
This book has a recommended retail price of £9.99 / $14.95 but it’s usually available a bit cheaper online.  I got my copy (along with copies of Essential Captain America Volumes 1, 3 and 4) as part of a collection of 28 graphic novels I bought on eBay a couple of years ago for £80.  I sold off all the stuff I didn’t want for a little over £80, so this effectively cost me nothing.  While I didn’t particularly enjoy this volume, or the previous volume, I am looking forward to reading subsequent volumes, as Vol.3 finally moves on to Cap stories written by writers other than Stan Lee and contains a whole bunch of issues drawn by Bronze Age legend Sal Buscema.  Yay!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Planetary Vol.4: Spacetime Archaeology HC

This final volume of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s superior super-hero / sci-fi series collects Planetary issues 19 to 27, which wrap things up rather nicely.  Here, head of the Planetary organisation, Elijah Snow, ramps up his efforts to take down The Four – who are basically an evil version  of the Fantastic Four – and eventually discovers a greater purpose to his life than mere revenge.  Along the way, Snow indulges in torture and drug use and we get to find out the origin of the Drummer and the origin of The Four, before the inevitable first meeting / final showdown between the Planetary crew (Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and the Drummer) and Randall Dowling and Kim Süskind from The Four.
I am not always a fan of writer Warren Ellis’s work – admittedly, I have only read a small selection of his output, but I was never that keen on The Authority and I disliked the few volumes of Transmetropolitan I read – but Planetary was great from start to finish.  A lot of the dodgy science stuff went over my head and I probably missed a lot of sci-fi references, too, but I thoroughly enjoyed this trawl through the remains of 20th century super-hero comics, pulp-fiction, monster movies, etc.  John Cassaday’s beautiful art no-doubt helped to lift the whole thing to another level, but Ellis’s scripts were generally very clever and full of nerd-perfect references.  My favourite thing about Planetary is probably The Four, and what I particularly like about them is that, even though they are evil, they are really not so different from their Marvel counterparts, the Fantastic Four.  I mean, although The Four commit mass murder and are ultimately revealed to have sold-out the world, their greatest crime throughout most of the series is that they have withheld information and technology from the rest of the world and instead stored it in their headquarters, which is pretty much what the real FF have been doing for years.  Yes, Reed Richards and his gang save the world from destruction on a regular basis, but just think what they could do for the world if Reed Richards put some of that technology he’s got stored away in his attic to work.  Obviously, this could never happen, because then the Earth portrayed in most Marvel comics would quickly diverge from our own, and the fact that most Marvel characters exist in a world similar to our own is a large part of their appeal.  Still, Ellis’s idea that Reed Richards is basically a selfish bastard was a very good one.

The nine comics collected in this volume were originally released over quite a long period of time, between 2004 and 2009, but they work very well in this collection and flow quite naturally towards the series’ climax and epilogue.  It has been a good few years now since Planetary Vol.3 was released, Planetary #1 was originally released in 1999, and if I had any sense at all, I probably would have read the first three volumes again before reading this, so that I could fully appreciate all the references to previous issues.  But there’s plenty of time for that later.  This series is a keeper, and something I will no doubt want to read over and over again (I have already read the first three volumes several times, just not for a while).  It’s not entirely self-contained, there are occasional references to the wider Wildstorm universe – such as ‘the bleed’ from the Authority – and the more you know about super-hero comics and pulp characters (Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc.), the better, but I doubt that anyone with even a passing interest in comics and / or science fiction would regret investing in all four volumes.       

This hardcover edition of Vol.4 only came out last year but it seems to be out of print and hard to find already, and I seem to remember it not being that widely available when I bought my copy last year (I bought it from the Book Depository, for £16.13, and then passed it on to my wife to give me for Christmas).  However, it is now out in a cheaper softcover edition, and the whole series is available collected in two oversized hardcovers (the ‘Absolute’ editions) if you’ve got plenty of money.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

World War Hulk: Gamma Corps

Around the time of the World War Hulk crossover, Marvel released a number of spin-off mini-series to capitalise on the Hulk's return to Earth. Gamma Corps was one such book, and though I enjoyed the main storyline I had little interest in the spin-offs... until I saw this one on offer for a true On The Ration price.

Gamma Corps is a 4 part storyline written by Frank Tieri and drawn by Carlos Ferreira and Sandu Florea. Although it does take place during the World War Hulk crossover, it tells a self-contained tale that can be appreciated on its own. Like the old Hulkbusters, Gamma Corps is a group of army-recruited, gamma-empowered people who each hold a green-skinned grudge. One woman lost her son in a tragic road accident caused by a massive scrap between the Hulk and the Abomination. Another is a child who was born when his mother was scared into early labour by encountering the Hulk in a shopping mall. There's a soldier who tried to cure his cancer-ridden wife by injecting her with Hulk blood, former Circus of Crime baddy the Clown, who risks gamma-infusion for revenge, and the estranged father of the Hulk's 60s sidekick Jim Wilson. They're led by the younger brother of Major Glenn Talbot, another character long time Hulk readers will remember, a soldier with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

Tieri takes time to flesh out each of his cast before pitting them against their nemesis and throws in a couple of plot twists along the way. The character work is solid, if a little obvious at times, and although the script avoids cliche it doesn't have a great deal of flair. The artwork is at times quite exciting but other times less so - Carlos Ferreira is not a name I recognise, but he's obviously starting out and still in thrall to his influences - among which he'd obviously include former Hulk artists like Todd McFarlane and Gary Frank. His work is actually much better than a lot of these tie-in books usually give us, but there's still a sense that he hasn't fully developed his own style. (I wonder what happened to him - this book was drawn four years ago and I've not seen his name anywhere since.)

Hulk: WWH - Gamma Corpsis an enjoyable if unspectacular read. I might have been less generous towards it had it not cost me 1p (plus £2.80 p&p) from a seller on the Amazon Marketplace. Now that's what I call Comics On The Ration!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Review - The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire

This book collects Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy of graphic novels (Tales From The Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse), as well as a couple of shorter stories (The Essex County Boxing Club and The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant Ears), in one 500+ page volume. Lemire is probably best known as the creator of Sweet Tooth, the story of a young boy with antlers trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, which he is currently writing and drawing at Vertigo. He also writes Superboy for DC. But the Complete Essex County, published by Top Shelf, is altogether more down to earth.

In Tales From The Farm, a young boy goes to live with his uncle after the death of his mother and finds some degree of comfort in super-hero comics and his friendship with a brain-damaged ex-hockey player. In Ghost Stories – probably the best story in the book – two hockey-playing brothers fall out over a woman and are eventually reunited in old age. And the lonely Country Nurse looks out for all the residents of Essex County and links their stories together.

These touching stories show Lemire to be a very talented cartoonist and storyteller. I just love his artwork, especially his messy / inky inking style, and his cinematic pacing dragged me through this large book very quickly (I read the whole thing in three sittings). (Note: although I often complain about paying a lot for books and comics that I manage to read in no time at all, I do actually like books that read quickly, I just don’t like paying money for them) I find myself struggling a bit for things to say about this book now that I've finished it, and I felt the same way after I read the first volume of Sweet Tooth and The Nobody (Lemire's first Vertigo graphic novel), so I guess I wasn’t completely blown away by it. However, this was a very good book, I am full of admiration for Lemire’s storytelling skills, and I’m pretty sure it will reward further readings. I will certainly be buying volumes 2+ of Sweet Tooth at some point.

This has a recommended retail price of £22.50 / $29.95. I got my copy as a Christmas present and the person who bought it for me bought it new from eBay for about £20 (including postage), which was the best deal available online at the time. However, both Amazon and the Book Depository have it for around £15.25 at the moment - the Book Depository is a penny cheaper - which seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Review - Ka-Zar by Waid & Kubert

I don't know why I have such affection for Ka-Zar. He's basically just Marvel's version of Tarzan, slightly more eloquent, with added dinosaurs. And yet I do get absurdly excited whenever he shows up in one of my favourite comics... and I'm more willing to buy his sporadic solo adventures that I am a lot of second stringers.

I suppose it all stems from the Bruce Jones / Brent Anderson Ka-Zar book published in the 80s which was one of my favourite comics of that era, particularly the lengthy 'Ka-Zar in New York / Ka-Zar dies' story that guest-starred Spider-Man. I've sold thousands of comics over the years (and eventually rebought many of them as trade paperbacks) but this is one of the few I actually regret getting rid of, particularly as the chances of Marvel ever reprinting it - even in an Essential volume - appear slight.

That said, I've never read the comics collected here. They were originally published in the early 90s when I'd fallen out of love with Marvel for giving prominence to flash artists over solid writers, promoting the speculator boom with stupid cover gimmicks, and deciding the Clone Saga was a good idea. Not even Ka-Zar could tempt me back into the fold, which is a shame because this series turns out to quite a fun read. I've long considered Mark Waid one of the better writers working in contemporary comics and though I'm not a huge fan of either of the Kubert siblings, their work is certainly head and shoulders above the majority of style-over-substance merchants Marvel was throwing money at in the decade of doom.

The story begins with Ka-Zar and his wife, Shanna The She-Devil, suffering domestic discord over the fact that Ka-Zar is polluting their idyllic jungle home with tacky Western technology. He's got a secret gameboy / portable CD player addiction which Shanna doesn't think is too appropriate for a paradise-dwelling hunk who often uses "The Savage" as his second name. (By the same criteria, I reckon Ka-Zar is entirely to blame for the earache he's suffering - what did he expect, marrying a woman whose second name is "The She Devil"?) Further unhappiness comes when Ka-Zar's brother (previously known as The Plunderer - because Plunder is their surname - yet not referred to as such here) sends some bloke who claims to have trained Kraven The Hunter (ooh - he must be even more dangerous than Kraven!) to kidnap Ka-Zar and Shanna's young son Matt (there's an amusing suggestion that Shanna chose the name in tribute to her old boyfriend Matt Murdoch, which adds to Ka-Zar's grievances). Ka-Zar and Shanna then head off to New York for a confrontation with the evil Plunder brother (and the Rhino) in the concrete jungle. Although the main plot concerning just what the Plunderer is up to (something involving Thanos - sigh) isn't resolved in this collection, the strife between Ka-Zar and Shanna does reach a satisfactory conclusion. Waid's script, while not up there with the best of his work, is fun, giving us likable heroes and dastardly villains, while Andy Kubert draws some very nice dinosaurs, elephants and sabre tooth tigers (yay, Zabu, another reason why Ka-Zar is much better than Tarzan). There's also a largely pointless flashback story tacked on the end which Waid has very little to do with - and you can tell - but does at least benefit from early John Cassady artwork.

KaZar by Mark Waid & Andy Kubert - Volume 1is available on Amazon for £8.21, which is less than half the £19-99 cover price and not bad for a book collecting 8 and a half comics. While it's not quite as essential a Ka-Zar book as the aforementioned Jones / Anderson one, I'd still recommend it if you're at all fond of the character.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Review - Popeye Vol.2: Well, Blow Me Down! HC

This second collection of E.C. Segar’s Popeye-era Thimble Theatre strips is just as good as the first and possibly even better, as this volume has a bigger Sundays section (only about a quarter of the first volume was made up of colour Sunday strips, as Popeye appeared in the Sunday strips later than he appeared in the dailies, but this volume is divided pretty much evenly between dailies and Sundays). It’s another huge hardcover – only 175 pages but each of those pages is nearly 15 inches high and contains up to 36 panels – and no quick read at all. It’s taken me about three weeks to get through this book – admittedly, I read it in small doses – which makes the £21.99 / $29.95 cover price seem like quite a bargain compared to, say, Marvel’s Omnibus editions, most of which I could read much more quickly than this and all of which are more expensive.

The daily strips in Popeye Vol.1, which introduced Popeye into a strip that had previously revolved around the exploits of the Oyl family, mainly focused on the mystery-solving double act of Popeye and Olive’s brother Castor Oyl, while the Sunday strips focused on Popeye’s boxing career and the romance between Popeye and Olive Oyl. In this volume, though, Castor Oyl quickly fades into the background and the daily strips mainly focus on the adventures of Popeye and Olive, while the Sundays carry on much as they were. During the course of this book, Popeye and Olive have two separate Western adventures, Popeye becomes king of a country called Nazilia (in an adventure which reminded me a lot of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, which actually wasn’t released until two years after Popeye’s adventures in Nazilia ended), and even opens a bank that gives away money to the poor (this was a depression-era newspaper strip). There is still no sign of Bluto (yet) but in the Sunday strips we get to meet hamburger obsessive J. Wellington Wimpy for the first time, and Popeye makes several references to spinach. At one point, Popeye even eats an allotment full of spinach to boost his strength during a fight, but at no point does he glug down any cans of spinach, like he used to in the animated cartoons, and Segar’s Popeye hardly needed spinach to make him tougher. Segar’s Popeye could beat anyone in a fight – and boy does Popeye love to fight! – and was virtually bulletproof! In one strip, after getting shot by a firing squad, Popeye just walks away complaining that there’s a bullet tickling his heart. Segar’s Popeye was tough 24/7, and spinach merely made him tougher still. In one particularly good strip – possibly my favourite in this volume - Popeye gets lost in the desert and has to resort to drinking water from a poisoned pool. We see the skeletons of thousands of cows that have died after drinking from the pool, the skeletons of desert wolves that have died after eating the poisoned cows, the skeletons of buzzards that have died after eating the wolves, and even the skeletons of ants that have died after eating the buzzards. However, after drinking from the pool, Popeye merely says: ‘I’ve drunk worse stuff’n this an paid money for it.’ A couple of strips later, a cowboy tells Popeye that his brother died within two minutes of taking a drink from the pool, to which Popeye replies: ‘Four hours ago I drunk a gallon of that water an’ all I got is a stumick ache. Ya see, mister – I got exter swell, healthy insides – they has to be healthy to stan’ all the arful stuff which I’ve throwed into ‘em in me day.’ I laughed out loud when I read both of those strips, and they certainly weren’t the only strips in this brilliant collection which made me laugh out loud.

Segar was a great cartoonist, Popeye is a great character, and I fully intend to buy all six volumes (five published so far) in this excellent series from Fantagraphics Books. Not that I’ve paid money for any of them yet! My wife bought me the first volume for Christmas and the third volume as an anniversary present, and my sister bought me this second volume for my birthday. However, unless the quality of these strips drops off a lot in the third volume – which seems very unlikely – I don’t think I’ll be able to wait until the next special occasion (Christmas?) for the fourth and fifth volumes and I may have to break the habit of a lifetime, put my hand in my pocket and buy them for myself. Luckily, they aren’t too expensive. As I said, this has a recommended retail price of £21.99 / $29.95 but most volumes are available for nearer £15.00 from the likes of Amazon and the Book Depository. I doubt anyone would regret buying at least one volume, and I doubt many people would be able to resist coming back for more.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Review - Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson Volume 1

There are three stand-out runs from combined writer/artist creators in the 80s Marvel Universe. Frank Miller's Daredevil, John Byrne's Fantastic Four, and Walt Simonson's Thor. Of the three, Thor was always my least favourite. Then again, Thor is also my least favourite character of the original 60s Marvel headliners. I admire what Stan did, bringing Norse mythology and cod Shakespearian dialogue into a universe largely populated by science heroes, but as a kid I'd have found myself hard-pressed to find any character I was less likely to relate to. (Apart from Superman.)

That said, Simonson's Thor was revolutionary for a number of reasons, and not just his highly stylised art which looked like nothing else Marvel was publishing at the time. He was also allowed to take a number of exciting risks with the character that hadn't been done before and probably wouldn't have been allowed had the book's sales not been in the dumper. Replacing the title character with a cow-faced alien (Beta Ray Bill) was just the first, and it's a trick that's been used hundreds of times since with everybody from Captain America to Green Lantern to Batman, Superman and Spider-Man getting booted out of their own books in favour of some short-lived imposter... though never one who looked quite so much like Ermintrude from the Magic Roundabout. In later issues, Simonson would even turn Thor into a frog... but that'll be covered in later volumes. For now, let's look at how it all began...

The most memorable storyline featured here - beyond Thor's replacement by Beta Ray Bill (which seemed to go on much longer when I was a kid but is actually wrapped up in a couple of issues) is the subplot featuring the creation of a mighty sword to be wielded by the fire demon Surtur. Every issue features at least a page of a mysterious blacksmith hammering this all-powerful weapon into shape, accompanied by the ominous, universe-echoing sound effect "DOOM!" (Great work from letterer John Workman, whose style compliments Simonson's extremely well.) Contrary to the speed of the Beta Ray Bill wrap-up, I was surprised by just how long this subplot continued - there are 12 issues collected here, the first few pages open with the weapon being forged... and the book closes with Surtur finally wielding his sword, ready to take action. A whole year in preparation... the fight that followed must have been epic... but again, I'll have to wait for volume 2 to discuss that.

The other major change Simonson made to the legend of Thor was in ditching his lame (pun intended) alter ego Donald Blake, setting up a new "Clark Kent" secret identity called Sigurd Jarlson instead. This leads to some amusing situations with Thor having to live in the world of men rather than just switching back to Blake whenever he needs to do the washing. I kind of feel Simonson could have made more of this, but maybe I'm looking back with a 21st century perspective. There's also an affecting subplot involving Balder The Brave... who's not so brave anymore.

I appreciated these stories much more reading them as an adult than I did as a kid. And Simonson's art is just as spectacular as I remembered it. While I still didn't enjoy it as much as Miller's DD or Byrne's FF, that's more the fault of the character than the creator. Making me care about Thor is always going to be a hard sell... I'll be interested to see how Kenneth Branagh gets on.

Because I wasn't as desperate to own these collections as I was FF & DD, I bought them properly On The Ration. Volume 1 I picked up some time ago on eBay for about a fiver, including p&p. I've sinced acquired 2 & 3 for similar markdowns, though it looks like 4 and 5 might be harder to come by.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Review - Umbrella Academy: Dallas

I think the first review I ever wrote for Comics On The Ration was Umbrella Academy Volume 1 and now I've finally managed to track down an affordable copy of the follow-up. I bought this for £4.40 (plus two quid postage) on eBay which is pretty much half the price Amazon are selling it for... so Paul at least should be happy.

I think I enjoyed this even more than the first volume. I've always been a sucker for JFK stories, and if you told me Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba had found an ingenious time travel twist on that infamous assassination, this is exactly the sort of plot I'd have imagined. Not to say it's predictable - I'm just surprised nobody's ever written this particular story before. Basically, in Umbrella Academy world, JFK survived that fateful journey through Dallas... but as a result, the whole world is about to die in a nuclear explosion. Which it does, at the end of issue #4. Fortunately, the UA are already on the case, heading back in time to prevent this eradication event ever happening... by ensuring a more familiar outcome to November 22nd 1963.

Of course, there's much more going on than just that. Along the way we meet some genuinely frightened cartoon-headed hitmen, a villain who takes Mysterio's goldfish bowl helmet to its illogical conclusion (there's a fish swimming round in there), God (an aged cowboy), and a bunch of other memorably freaky characters. It's extremely fast-paced and though there isn't much space for quiet character moments, the creators still manage to give their creations both individuality and depth. The tone is sometimes comic, sometimes frightening, occasionally mind-boggling. Once again I'm reminded of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, and I don't compliment much higher than that.

Umbrella Academy is a book that rewards repeated reading - there's so much going on, it'd be impossible to catch it all first time. Fortunately Gabriel Ba's art is so easy on the eye you don't mind revisiting it. Volume 3 was announced back in 2009 but sadly there's still no sign of it - Way's obviously too busy with his rock star day job. Which is a shame. I might even be persuaded to pay full price for the next one...

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Review - Wolverine and Deadpool issues 17 & 18

Wolverine and Deadpool is a monthly comic published here in the UK by Panini. Each issue has a cover price of £2.95 and reprints three US Marvel comics – although #17 is a 100 page special and reprints four comics at no extra cost – and these two issues are the first I have ever bought. In fact, these are probably the first new Wolverine comics I have bought since the 1980s, they are definitely the first Deadpool comics I ever bought, and they are probably the first Deadpool comics I have ever read.

I bought these because I saw W&D #17 in my local branch of WHSmith and noticed that the two Wolverine comics reprinted in that issue – #17 reprints Wolverine: Weapon X issues 1 & 2 and Deadpool issues 11 & 12 – were the first two parts of a multi-part story written by Jason ‘Scalped’ Aaron (with art by Ron Garney), and thought it might be worth checking it out. W&D #18 reprints Wolverine: Weapon X issues 3 & 4 and Deadpool #13 and I bought that issue because I still hadn’t read #17 by the time it came out and hadn’t had a chance to remind myself that I don’t really like characters like Wolverine and Deadpool anymore.

I haven’t read that many comics written by Jason Aaron, but I have read enough to know that he is usually a pretty good writer, but the four issues of Wolverine collected in these two comics weren’t really that great. One problem is that not enough really happened over the course of these four issues, but what did happen didn’t seem all that original either. An organisation called Blackguard, a subsidiary of the Roxxon oil company, had restarted the Weapon X programme and created an army of super soldiers, who all had the same abilities as Wolverine and laser claws, and apart from a lot of fighting, that was about it. My main problem reading this, though, is that I took an almost immediate dislike to Wolverine as a character, which isn’t something I can blame on Jason Aaron alone. I mean, is it just me being a stick-in-the-mud, or is Wolverine just a bit of a dick who should be locked up in a prison somewhere? In W&D #17, he cuts off a mugger’s hand with his claws, which seems a bit harsh – has Wolverine converted to Islam? – and he repeatedly tells us how many people he has killed, as in this little monologue: ‘These fellas ain’t no joke. Lucky for me, I got decades of experience on ‘em. I’ve killed more people than they’ve even met in their lives.’ Now maybe all those people Wolverine killed deserved it, and maybe they didn’t, but even if they did deserve it, shouldn’t Wolverine have at least stood trial for all those killings? Is this really a character who should be appearing – as one of the good guys – in nearly every Marvel comic? Or am I just taking all this too seriously?

I also took a real dislike to Deadpool, the so-called ‘merc with a mouth’, which basically means that he’s a mercenary who makes lots of smart-arse comments while he’s killing people. If he was just an ordinary mercenary, I suppose he’d be one of the bad guys, but the fact that he cracks jokes while he’s on the rampage seems to make him one of the good guys in the modern Marvel Universe. What's next? The serial killer with a smile? The rapist with the rapier wit? I know, I know – I am taking this crap way too seriously, but I do find it very depressing that two of the most popular heroes in comics are basically just glorified murderers. I know that cinema is also full of right-wing characters who go more-than-a-little-bit over the top in their pursuit of justice – if any real-world cops killed as many criminals as ‘Dirty’ Harry Callaghan, they would quite rightly be locked away for life – but in a Marvel comic that is ostensibly aimed at youngish readers, it seems even more dodgy. In the two Deadpool comics reprinted in W&D #17, both written by Daniel Way and pencilled by Paco Medina, Deadpool fights Bullseye (who at this point in time was dressed as Hawkeye and working for Norman Osborn) and some big bald bloke who wears a butcher’s apron and carries a meat cleaver. Annoyingly, Bullseye escapes with his life – remember when Bullseye used to be a cool character? – but Deadpool kills the big butcher bloke by chopping him in the head with his own meat cleaver, which I personally thought was quite a shocking thing to see in a mainstream Marvel comic. The Deadpool story in W&D #18, in which Deadpool becomes a pirate, wasn’t much better, but at least DP didn’t kill anyone here (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he started holding people hostage off the coast of Somalia in the second part of the story, all the while making smart-arse comments to make it okay).

Anyway, in case you haven’t already figured it out, I didn’t really enjoy these comics, I wish I hadn’t bought them, and I won’t be buying the next issue. I could quite happily go the rest of my life without reading another Deadpool comic, but I already have some more recent Jason Aaron Wolverine comics sitting in my read pile – ‘Wolverine Goes to Hell’ – and I’ll be reading them soon to see if his run on the title ever got any more interesting.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Review - Fear Itself Prologue: Book of the Skull & Fear Itself #1

Fear Itself is Marvel’s latest big crossover event. I was naive enough to think that Marvel was going to take a break from doing this sort of thing for a while, after several years of non-stop crossovers – House of M, DeciMation, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, etc. – but here they are again, and here I am again, falling for it like a big sucker. I should point out that I didn’t actually buy any of the above events, but I did read most of them, did get quite excited about a couple of them before they started, and was left disappointed by all of them. So why have I gone and broken blog rules by paying £2.55 each for these comics – comics that I wasn’t even aware existed until last week because I lost interest in the modern Marvel Universe altogether after Siege and haven’t even been reading their online solicitations recently? Err, I dunno. I just missed reading new Marvel comics and wanted to catch up, I suppose. But don’t worry, I have no intention of buying all the crossovers – I’m not counting ‘Book of the Skull’ as a crossover, but I wish I had because was quite boring – or getting back into buying any other new Marvel comics, I am just going to buy all seven issues of Fear Itself – so that you don’t have to – and then I will go back to abiding by blog rules and will never speak of this again...

So, as I said, Fear Itself Prologue: Book of the Skull, written by Ed Brubaker and pencilled by Scot Eaton, was quite boring and I wish I hadn’t bought it. I thought it might be essential to my understanding of the main series, but it really wasn’t. Like nearly every issue of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run that I ever read, it flashes between the present day and World War II. In the present day, the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin – who was quite pretty the last time I saw her in a comic but now looks like someone boiled her head in chip fat – and Baron Zemo – hasn’t Captain America beaten him yet? – break into one of the Red Skull’s old hideouts to recover an old spell-book that is bound in the blue skin of sacrificed Atlanteans. In WWII, the Red Skull used this spell-book to conjure up a magical weapon but didn’t quite get what he was expecting – he wanted an army or a god and instead got an unmovable hammer. He also got interrupted by the US army and the Invaders. Basically, the portion of this comic set in WWII read like a poor man’s version of the first issue of Hellboy, with a hammer playing the part of Hellboy, and the whole comic seemed rather dragged out, which reminded me why I eventually gave up on Brubaker’s good-but-boring Captain America run. The dialogue was surprisingly bad, too, and Scot Eaton’s art, while okay, was lacking in style and not really good enough for such a high profile book. Luckily, Fear Itself #1, written by Matt Fraction and pencilled by Stuart Immonen, was much better.

Fear Itself could easily be dismissed as a cynical event. I mean, both Captain America and Thor have big-budget movies coming out soon, and here we have an event that revolves around the daughter of Captain America’s greatest villain – no, not Batroc the Leaper! – and the Asgardian gods. However, it seems to flow on quite naturally from what I remember happening in Siege – apart from Sin getting a serious case of sunburn, has anything happened in the Marvel Universe since the end of Siege? – and so far it looks like it could be quite an enjoyable event. It starts in New York, with Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter caught up in a riot. The cause of this riot is most likely the building of a mosque near to ‘Ground Zero’ (something that was in the news a lot recently). At no point in the comic are the mosque or 9/11 mentioned, but it is implied, and the message (later summed up by Tony Stark) is simple: ordinary Americans are pissed off and frightened, and when ordinary Americans get pissed off and frightened, ‘all hell kinda breaks loose’.

The action then cuts to Antarctica, where the Nazis built a base around the hammer the Red Skull conjured up in ‘Book of the Skull’. Sin has dreamt that she is meant to wield the hammer and become queen of the world, and sure enough, she manages to pick it up and turns into someone called Skadi, in much the same way that Donald Blake turns into Thor.

My favourite part of this comic is the bit where the Avengers all go to Broxton, Oklahoma, home of the Asgardian gods ever since J. Michael Straczynski got his hands on Thor a few years ago, to launch Tony Stark’s new plan to stimulate the American economy. Basically, Stark Resilient intends to put nearly 5,000 people to work in Broxton – the first of many public works projects – rebuilding Asgard, which still lies in ruins following the end of Siege (honestly, nothing much at all seems to have happened in the Marvel Universe since the end of Siege – the ruins of Asgard are still smoking! – so I have probably chosen a pretty good jumping-back-on point). Being quite a dull fellow, I could quite happily read an entire series in which Tony Stark and the Avengers do nothing but apply Keynesian economics to the American economy, and would really like to see how this pans out – would Marvel dare show the economy in the MU prospering, thanks to Tony Stark, while the real-world economy continues to decline? – but this being a Marvel comic, it had to have some conflict in it, too. And being a Marvel comic published very near to the release date of the Thor movie, it had to have some Thor-related conflict!

Odin – isn’t he dead? – is not at all happy that humans are going to be allowed to have a hand in rebuilding Asgard and thinks that Thor has gone soft. After a brief battle, in which Thor gets his arse kicked, Odin robs Thor of his strength and leads the Asgardian gods – including a defeated Thor – away from Broxton, and indeed the Earthly realm (so much for those 5,000 jobs!). Unfortunately, this happens shortly after Sin / Skadi kicks some serpent arse and releases her father – not the Red Skull – from his prison at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The pair then head off to summon ‘The worthy’, who I presume we will get to meet in #2.

So far, Fear Itself seems like it could be a decent event, and while I have no intention of buying any of the various crossovers, and really wish I hadn’t bought ‘Book of the Skull’, I think I’ll stick with it. I could have done with less action and more economics – now that I’m in my 40s, people hitting each other doesn’t seem half as exciting as it used to – but hopefully Marvel will address this in future issues, and even if they don’t, at least I’ll get to look at some pretty pictures, as Stuart Immonen’s art here, as usual, is very good indeed.

As I said at the top of this review, I paid £2.55 each for these comics, which have a cover price of $3.99 each. I bought them on eBay, from A-Place-In-Space, and while £2.55 is more than twice the price I am allowed to pay for a comic published by any company with a Diamond-exclusive distribution deal, and I have well and truly broken blog rules on this occasion, I don’t think £2.55 was that unreasonable, considering that price included postage.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Review - Mo-Bot High: Book One

I am not the target market for this book. I wouldn't have bought it if I didn't know the creator Neill Cameron - not personally, I just remember fondly his work from the UK small press scene in the 90s and was pleased to see him make the leap to the professional leagues.

So if the target market isn't 39 year-old losers who've been reading comics all their lives... that in itself marks it out from most comics being published these days. Every now and then you'll hear some old comics fogey bemoaning the fact that "nobody makes comics for kids anymore"... and next time you do, point them towards Mo-Bot High.

Because if I had a 10 year old son or daughter and I wanted to show them how cool comics can be... this is the book I'd give them. Its premise - a school where the kids take part in giant robot battles controlled by their mobile phones while their teachers remain blusteringly ignorant - speaks to the inner 10 year in us all without once talking down to them. For adults who grew up watching Grange Hill, you'll warm to the scenes of flying bananas in the cafeteria, but there's also enough giant robot smashing action to keep even the most attention-deficient pre-teens interested. As if creating a comic for kids wasn't enough of a challenge, Neill has pitched Mo-Bot High at girls, making them the heroes of his adventure (he wittily explains that the unimaginative boys spend all their time playing Mo-Bot football). That's not to say lads won't enjoy the book - I wasn't put off by stories with girls as the central characters when I was a kid... as long as there was plenty of action and excitement and they didn't spend all their time talking about ponies.

Mo-Bot High is tons of colourful fun for readers of all ages, but I'd recommend it particularly if you're looking for a comic to interest your own kids, young nephews, nieces etc. We do need to encourage the next generation of comic readers if the medium is going to survive beyond ourselves... and Neill Cameron's book is surely at the forefront of this worthy campaign.

The Book Depository are selling Mo-Bot High for a very reasonable £7.94, which is a quid cheaper than Amazon. Buy a copy for a young person you know.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Review - The Other Side TPB

Poor old Jason Aaron. This is another one of his Vertigo-published, creator-owned books that I’ve read without paying for it. Like Scalped, I got this out of my local library, and this time I didn’t even have to pay a 25p reservation fee, as I picked it straight off the shelves. Still, I hope someone out there is paying to read his books, as he seems like a pretty good writer.

The Other Side is a Vietnam War story, told from the point of view of two different soldiers – one American and one Vietnamese. The American soldier, Billy Everette, just doesn’t want to be in Vietnam at all, goes insane pretty quickly, and spends most of the book seeing the ghosts of dead soldiers and listening his gun speak. The Vietnamese soldier, Vo Binh Dai, starts off full of enthusiasm, keen to fight for his county, but is also driven somewhat crazy by the horrors of war on the long march down from North- to South-Vietnam. Eventually, these two soldiers face each other on the battlefield and one of them doesn’t get to go home.

Aaron is the cousin of Gustav Hasford, the Vietnam veteran and novelist who wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, and Hasford’s life and work were the inspiration for this intense graphic novel. Anyone who has seen Full Metal Jacket will find some scenes in this book extremely familiar – particularly the scenes where Billy is bullied by his drill instructor – as will anyone who has read Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s Punisher: Born graphic novel, as the American soldiers in The Other Side eventually find themselves hopelessly outnumbered by Vietnamese soldiers as they attempt to defend a US army base, much like Frank Castle’s unit in the Punisher book. However, this is a powerful read in its own right, a relentless look at the madness of war, full of vivid, violent imagery.

Artist Cameron Stewart’s work always reminds me of the work of Darick Robertson – another reason why I kept thinking of Punisher: Born while reading this – but I think Stewart is a better artist. His work here is some of the best I’ve seen from him and the extracts from his Vietnam Diary at the back of the book make it clear just how much effort he put into researching this mini-series.

I’m not sure that I would want to read this again, but I was impressed by it and I would recommend it. It has a (Titan Books) cover price of £8.99 – which seems reasonable for a book that collects five comics – but you can get it a bit cheaper than that from all the usual online retailers and they may even have a copy in your local library.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Review - Captain America: Scourge Of The Underworld

At risk of Rob throwing me off this site for reviewing new books that I almost paid full price for... I pre-ordered this from Ace Comics and got it for 25% off cover price (plus a bit more discount for being a nice guy). I still paid over £15 for it, but considering it's got a scandalous rrp of £25-99 and even Amazon are selling it for £22.09, that's not bad, I suppose.

Was it worth it?

Probably not. But I had to buy it anyway. Here's why...

Back in the mid-80s, something very exciting began happening in the pages of my favourite Marvel comics. A duff old villain would suddenly spring up out of nowhere, often completely unconnected to the main plot, and start spouting about their latest nefarious scheme... and then, suddenly, from nowhere, they would be assassinated by a heavily disguised vigilante, firing a gun that always made the same sound effect ('Pum-Spak!'), followed by the catchphrase cry of "Justice is served!"

We never knew when this mysterious killer would strike again - or in which book. This was in the days before we all started being given every single detail of every single comic three months before they were actually published, so the deaths would usually come as a big surprise.

After a while, the plot behind these random murders began to take shape, and it did so in Mark Gruenwald's Captain America book. The killer had by this time been dubbed The Scourge of The Underworld and Cap, being the sort of do-gooder who cares as much for the welfare of his enemies as his friends, dedicated himself to tracking down the Scourge and putting an end to his reign of terror. Gruenwald bucked expectations in the showdown - both in the revelation of Scourge's mysterious identity... and in his fate. And that's really where the story should have ended, except that - as is often the case in comics - it'd proved quite a successful stunt, so Marvel decided to return to it later with unnecessary complications. I'd pretty much given up on the Captain America book by this time so I never read the rest of the story... but I was drawn to this collection both as an exercise in nostalgia for the early part of the storyline... and to finally see what happened next.

The book collects all of Scourge's early appearances - often just one or two page excerpts from books like Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers and The Thing (plus a full reprint of John Byrne's all-splash-pages Hulk story from Marvel Fanfare which has already been collected in a Hulk Visionaries volume)... though they do edit together quite well. Then there's the showdown from Captain America 318 - 320. What follows is a variety of bits and pieces from books I hadn't read, culminating in a four issue USAgent mini series that attempts to tie it all together and reveal the full Scourge back story. I think I got out at the right time.

The interesting thing about this book is that it can be seen as an encapsulation of just how much Marvel went downhill from the 80s into the company's creative nadir of the 90s. Even once-reliable writers like the late Mark Gruenwald were churning out unreadable tat with lacklustre art by the mid-90s - so it's no wonder the company was skirting bankruptcy. Thank god they turned it around.

If, like me, you have fond memories of the original Scourge saga, you might want to pick this book up and relive them. I wouldn't recommend reading beyond the reprint of Captain America #320 though... and if you see somebody selling a cheap copy of the first half only, I'd snap their hand off.

There are a large number of Captain America collections coming out in preparation for the film. Many are culled from Gruenwald's run which started strong but lost the plot as the 90s wore on. Unfortunately there haven't been any collections of the JM DeMatteis / Mike Zeck run that preceded Gruenwald... which is an absolute crime - those were classics.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Review - Hellblazer: Pandemonium

After Spider-Man, John Constantine is probably my favourite character in comics. I have a theory about this. (Bear with me, we'll get to the review.) Whereas Peter Parker is the character I aspire to be - the one who selflessly sacrifices himself for others and is forever striving to do his best and live up to his responsibilities... John Constantine is the character I'd be if I gave up trying. The character who says - "hey, the human race is a bunch of selfish bastards, so I'm gonna be a selfish bastard too. I'll help out if I can... but I'm gonna put myself first and not worry too much about breaking a few eggs as long as there's an edible omlette at the end of it". Or something. Along the way I'd get to smoke and drink and shag whatever I wanted and tell anybody who didn't like it exactly where to go. I'd get to thumb my nose at authority and even stick two fingers up at the devil himself. I'd still get to be a hero - I just wouldn't give a toss about what anyone else thought about it. Hmm... when you put it like that... Peter Parker looks like a lot of hard work for not much reward.

Most people consider John Constantine to be an Alan Moore creation, but though Moore did conceive the character and give him his first few outings in Swamp Thing, it was Jamie Delano who made him into a lead man. Although Delano hasn't written the regular book for about 20 years, but he does return to the character every now and then for a new mini-series or original graphic novel, and the latest of those, Pandemonium, has just been released in softcover.

This time Delano takes Conjob somewhere he's never been before - to wartorn Iraq, where he ends up facing off against one of his oldest enemies in a bizarre poker game for his life. The most interesting part of this story is the set up, a honey trap involving a mysterious Muslim woman that breaks taboos revealing John's weakness for women wearing burkas. It's witty and irreverent and reminds me of a 21st Century take on Raymond Chandler.

Then it's off to Iraq where Constantine gets to make snide remarks at the soldiers protecting him while undergoing a Heart of Darkness style journey that leads to a dramatic climax... at which point things gets metaphysical. Which is always the area I enjoy least in any Hellblazer adventure, though for the most part Delano aquits himself well. It feels a slight cop out that a story dealing with war and terrorism ends up getting resolved by a card game in Hell, but that's just the nature of the beast. This is a horror comic, and there always has to be a monster.

Art is provided by Jock, who demonstrated in The Losers that he's good at drawing tanks and machine guns and blowy-up stuff. His work here is reminscent of former Hellblazer artist Sean Phillips, though the bleached colouring doesn't do him many favours. I kept wanting to turn up the contrast on my set, but that probably comes from reading too many brightly-coloured superhero books.

It's good to read Delano's Hellblazer again. For all the talented writers who have worked on this character over the years, it was Delano who really defined his his voice, and that voice rings out loud and clear through the pages of Pandemonium. Intelligent, acerbic, depraved, spiteful and funny - this is classic Constantine.

Hellblazer: Pandemonium has a cover price of £14.99 but I pre-ordered my copy from Ace Comics and got a 25% discount. There's a similar discount available on Amazon, but the cheapest place I can find it online at the moment is The Book Depository where it's currently selling for £8.91 - not bad for a 126 page graphic novel.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Object Of Desire - Fear Itself #1

This week sees the release of the first issue of ‘Fear Itself’, Marvel’s latest big crossover event. I hadn’t even heard of this event until last week, as Marvel publish so many bloody comics these days that I gave up even looking through their online solicitations about a year ago because it was becoming too much of an effort, but now that I have heard of it, I’m tempted to check it out. I haven’t bought a new Marvel comic for quite some time – I think the first issues of the Heroic Age versions of the Avengers and the New Avengers may have been the last new Marvel comics I bought, and I regretted buying those – and I don’t even really know what this is about, but I’m a glutton for punishment so I think I might give it a whirl – just the main series, not all the tie-ins – even though I spend about 90% of my time moaning about how crossover events have killed comics.

A couple of years ago, I got very excited about the prospect of Civil War, which eventually turned out to be a big letdown (nice art, weak script). Then, the following year, I got even more excited about the prospect of Secret Invasion, which also turned out to be a big letdown (great build-up but the actual series was very disappointing and I’m not sure that Leniel Yu was the right artist for the job). Then I kind of lost interest in Marvel comics altogether, because some genius thought that making Norman Osborn / the Green Goblin head of national security in the Marvel Universe was a good idea – this made about as much sense as making the Yorkshire Ripper head of MI5 – and I don’t particularly like Norman Obsborn, plus I was getting really sick of all those storylines that just never seemed to end, even in otherwise good comics like Captain America. I did read Siege, and remember it being okay, but I didn’t buy it, and like I said, the last new Marvel comics I actually bought were (I think) the first issues of the current Avengers and New Avengers titles, both of which I regretted buying. I kind of thought my relationship with Marvel Comics was over for good, and was pretty certain that my days of buying new periodical comics were over, too.

However, I have recently started to see a positive side to buying these big crossover events. I mean, if nearly every Marvel comic published since Siege has been leading up to Fear Itself, and if nearly every Marvel comic being published at the moment ties in to Fear Itself, then I should be able to catch up on everything that’s happened in the Marvel Universe since I last bought a new Marvel comic, and everything that is currently going on, just by buying Fear Itself, right?

Fear Itself has the benefit of not being written by Mark Millar – who is over-rated, in my opinion – or Brian Michael Bendis – who is a talented writer but out of his element writing stuff like this – and is instead written by Matt Fraction, who I understand is rather good, even though I have never read any of his comics. It is drawn by Stuart Immonen, who I know is rather good, so this should at least look nice. The biggest downside to buying this that I can see right now is that I will be breaking blog rules if I pay any more than £1.20 for it, but I’m beginning to think that blog rules are a bit stupid anyway, and may need to be re-thought, or even abandoned altogether.

I am a price-sensitive consumer and nearly always try and get my comics and graphic novels as cheaply as possible. Most of the books I get I buy from either Amazon, the Book Depository or eBay, as these tend to be the cheapest places to get stuff, but everyone online already knows this, and I am starting to feel a bit stupid telling everyone how much I paid for stuff at the end of every review. I have really enjoyed writing all the reviews I’ve written over the last six or seven months, and fully intend to continue writing about comics, but I’m starting to think that the ‘ration’ format is holding me back, and possibly even alienating readers who aren’t such stingy bastards and may want to support their local comic shop. I am happy to say when I think that something is good value for money, or even poor value for money, and I am even happy to boast about books I’ve managed to pick up really cheap in charity shops, but I have no great desire to promote Amazon (which everyone already knows about) over comic shops and think it may be time for a change of format - possibly even a whole new blog or website. Any thoughts?

Coming soon (probably): Fear Itself #1 reviewed by a 42-year-old man who hasn’t read a new Marvel comic in about a year.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Review - Showcase Presents The House of Mystery Vol.1 TPB

The House of Mystery is one of the few DC comics that I have fond memories of from my childhood in the ‘70s. I probably only ever bought a handful of issues, as I was more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan, and more of a super-hero fan than a horror fan – I became a horror fan in my teens, in the 1980s, but by then the House of Mystery had passed its best before date – but I certainly remember seeing it, and I remember being drawn to it.

The series actually began publication in 1951. It started out as a horror title but switched to sci-fi stories following the backlash against horror comics in the mid-1950s. In the 1960s, it became a super-hero title, and regularly featured the adventures of the Martian Manhunter and Dial H For Hero, but in 1968, under the stewardship of editor Joe Orlando, it reverted to a horror anthology, and this book collects the first 21 issues from the Orlando era - #174 to #194 – in one large, black and white volume.

From 1968 until its cancellation in 1983, The House of Mystery, and its companion title The House of Secrets, were DC’s answer to the Warren horror titles, Creepy and Eerie, with Cain (landlord of the House of Mystery, who made his debut in HOM #175) and Abel (landlord of the House of Secrets) standing in for Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, who introduced most of the stories in their own magazines. DC’s horror titles were probably aimed at younger readers but, like Creepy and Eerie, each issue contained several short horror strips and employed some of the best artistic talent around.

Most of the stories in this book – many of which were written by writers unknown, some of which were written by writers I’ve never heard of before, and some of which were written by the likes of Robert Kanigher, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Bob Haney, Joe Orlando, etc. – are actually pretty weak. I only finished reading this yesterday but only a handful of stories stick in my mind, and most of them linger for the wrong reasons (If ‘The Man Who Hated Good Luck’ hated good luck so much, why did he keep buying lottery tickets and checking the results?). However, they were written to be read and enjoyed by children in 1968, not 42-year-old men in 2011, and they probably did the job at the time.

The stories may be rather weak, but this book is packed full of enough great art to still make this volume a worthwhile endeavour. Most notably, there are several great-looking strips drawn by Alex Toth, quite a few strips drawn by Bernie Wrightson, and nearly every issue reprinted here features at least one or two pages by Sergio Aragonés. There are also strips drawn by Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Al Williamson, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Gray Morrow, and more. Not all of the stories in this book are drawn by such great artists, but many of them are, and if subsequent volumes look as good as this one – which I suspect they do – then I would happily read another couple of volumes of this stuff.

This particular volume has a recommended retail price of £12.99 / $16.99. It seems to be out of print at the moment but there are plenty used copies for sale on Amazon (mostly overpriced) and I managed to get my copy on eBay last year for a fiver (including postage).