Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy Volume 1: 1931-1933 HC

These IDW Dick Tracy collections are very similar in format to Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts books, only bigger.  I’m not sure that these books contain any more comic strips, as they only reprint two dailies (or one Sunday strip) to a page, while the Peanuts books reprint three dailies (or one Sunday strip) to a page, but they are certainly thicker, the dimensions are larger, and it took me a lot longer to read this book than it would take me to read a Complete Peanuts book, mainly because Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy strips are more wordy and detailed.
Dick Tracy, according to Max Allan Collins’ introduction to this volume, was the first police procedural drama, pre-dating television dramas like CSI, etc., by many decades and published at a time when pulp fiction authors were more interested in private eyes and crooks.  Dick Tracy was a tough cop, but he solved crimes using his smarts, employing forensics techniques, dusting for fingerprints, running ballistics tests, and so on.  In the 1930s, then, this was ground-breaking stuff, but unfortunately it all seems a bit dull by today’s standards, and even Collins admits that these early strips are not the best of Dick Tracy.  Gould’s cartooning is superb, but the surprisingly violent stories – in one strip, Tracy is tortured by gangsters who burn his feet with a blowtorch – are only mildly interesting, and the gallery of grotesque villains usually associated with Dick Tracy – Pruneface, Mumbles, etc. – are entirely absent from this volume.  Here, Tracy tackles a variety of cardboard cut-out gangsters, while the recurring foe that gives him the most trouble is a child-snatching vagrant called ‘Steve the Tramp’.  Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart, is portrayed as a fickle idiot, and there are some outrageous depictions of black people, but such depictions were commonplace at the time – I doubt that Gould was being deliberately sexist or racist – and it is just about possible to laugh at them now, although images of black people looking like a black-faced, white-lipped clowns, more than happy to enjoy a status similar to a family dog, still shock.

I found this book more interesting than enjoyable.  I’m glad I read it but I won’t be carrying on with the series, mainly because there are going to be more than twenty volumes in all, eleven of which have been published so far, and these books are rather expensive.  More recent volumes have a recommended retail price of £29.99, while this first volume has an RRP of £22.50.  It’s available from all the usual online retailers for nearer £15.00, and I got my copy on eBay for £10.00, but I doubt I would manage to find any future volumes for a similar price, and even if I did, I’m not sure that I’d want to spend the money.  However, I am keen to pick up a copy of IDW’s recently-published Best of Dick Tracy book, for an overview of the character from 1931 to 1971, and I am particularly keen to pick up a copy of The Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol.1, also published by IDW, for a look at the early days of another classic American comic strip character.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Stray Bullets: A West Anthology

Last year’s hardcover collection of writer Andrew Cheverton and artist Tim Keable’s ‘West’ comics was one of my favourite books of the year, so I ordered a copy of this new West comic as soon as it came out - no rationing - and I wasn’t disappointed.  Unlike previous issues, this contains art by various artists, including both Cheverton and Keable.  Cheverton provides the Simon Gane-like art for the framing strip, in which ‘fabled gunman’ Jerusalem West’s great grandson recalls some of his great grandfather’s adventures, which may or may not be true, while the adventures themselves are illustrated by Tim Keable, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Jenika Ioffreda, Paul Rainey, and Emma Price.
I was particularly excited to see Paul ‘There’s No Time Like The Present’ Rainey drawing a (funny) Western strip but all of the artists here – most of whom I was unfamiliar with – do a great job.  I was very impressed by the creepy, Guy Davis-like art of Warwick Johnson Cadwell, and Jenika Ioffreda’s manga-influenced art was very professional looking.  I must admit, though, that it didn’t seem like West until I arrived at the story illustrated by Tim Keable, who also provided a very nice cover for this issue.

The stories were all good – Badwater Lake and Bad Dollars, my favourite stories, were both more light-hearted than usual, Midsummer Ball was touching, and Fort Eyrie was touching and, err, eerie – and I can’t wait for the next West comic, ‘Confederate Dead’

Stray Bullets: A West Anthology is available for £3.50, including postage, from Angry Candy.  

Monday, 23 May 2011

Thing Classic Vol.1 TPB

I was unaware of this existence of this book, which collects the Thing issues 1 to 10 from 1983 / 1984, until a few weeks ago, but once a certain Mr Rol told me about it, I was simply unable to resist ordering a copy.  I’m not sure why, really.  I mean, yes, it’s a book full of Thing comics written by John Byrne, who at that point was also in the middle of his classic run as writer / artist of the Fantastic Four – sounds pretty good so far, doesn’t it? – but it’s also a book full of Thing comics drawn by Ron Wilson, an artist whose work I hated when I was younger, and I didn’t even buy more than two or three issues of this series when I was a Marvel-addicted teenager – I was 14 / 15 years old when these comics were originally released – even though I was most certainly buying the Fantastic Four at the time.  I suppose I bought it mostly because of the John Byrne factor, but also because I am starting to get a bit nostalgic about the 1980s, which is crazy because I hated the 1980s at the time, and particularly the early-1980s, when I was still at school (man, I hated school!).  I guess now that I am older, I am able to mentally sift the good from the bad, and appreciate the things that did make me happy in the 1980s – comics, pop music, etc. – without associating them with a time when I was essentially miserable.  Or something like that.  Whatever it was that compelled me to buy this book, I wanted it bad and I got it.  And it’s okay.  I suppose.  In places.
The first few issues reprinted in this volume are actually not that bad at all, and the first two issues are even pretty good.  In issue one, the thing returns to Yancy Street to try and talk some sense into a street gang by telling them about his own involvement with gangs as a kid.  The only thing that marred this issue was the fact that it contained yet another retelling of the FF’s origin (there’s another retelling in #10) and Ron Wilson’s art, which is not necessarily bad but is rather boring.  Wilson draws the least threatening-looking street gang I have ever seen – I swear the Happy Days gang were scarier looking than this lot!  But the downbeat story was decent, even if Byrne does tend to over-write a bit (as it was the 1980s, I’m prepared to overlook that sort of thing).  Issue two contains another downbeat story, with the Thing again thinking back to his younger, pre-Thing days, after he receives a letter from an old flame and begins to worry what she will think of him when she sees his rocky face for the first time.  This issue is inked by Byrne, in the scruffy style he was using in the FF at the time, which transforms Wilson’s art and makes it look like Byrne drew the whole thing (perhaps in a hurry, but it’s a big improvement).  After a reasonable start, though, the quality of the stories starts to go downhill, and apart from a few pages drawn entirely by Byrne in #7, the rest of the art is by Wilson, inked by Hilary Barta and Joe Sinnott.

Issue three, in which the Thing, with the help of Lockjaw and Crystal, fights the rest of the Inhumans to stop them turning Crystal and Quicksilver’s human baby into an Inhuman, is alright.  In this issue, we discover that Lockjaw is not a dog at all, but a particularly ugly Inhuman – which is what puts Quicksilver off the idea of changing his kid into an Inhuman – and he even speaks for the first time. (Did Marvel ever bring that up again or did Lockjaw just go back to being a dog after this?)  It’s not as good as the first couple of issues, though.  The two part story from issues five and six, in which the Thing destroys half of New York after being possessed by the Puppet Master, is pretty bad, and the story from #7 isn’t much better (remember assistant editors’ month?), while the two part story in issues eight and nine, in which the Thing again destroys half of New York, this time possessed by the spirit of a murdered Egyptian slave – who dresses like a Roman centurion, for some reason – is really bad.  Which only leaves five decent issues in the book.

The better issues are the more subdued issues, in which the Thing dwells on his past or his relationship with Alicia, or some other emotional dilemma, while the bad issues mostly contain action-orientated stories.  These issues are bad partly because Ron Wilson’s art isn’t exciting enough to carry the action and partly because the stories are just plain bad.  I guess Byrne was saving his better adventure stories for the FF.        

Cost: This has a very high recommended retail price of £18.99 / $24.99.  I bought my copy from the Book Depository for a more reasonable £11.91 but I probably could have picked up all the comics contained in this book for less than that on eBay and I probably could have picked up all the good issues for a couple of quid.  On the ration indeed. 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Spandex #4

This fourth issue of Martin Eden’s Spandex – which is about a team of gay, Brighton-based super-heroes – is titled O.M.F.G., which seemed like a pretty good choice of title to me.  It starts with the return of the 50-foot lesbian from #1, who attacks Diva – my favourite Spandex member – in her own home, and from there most of the rest of the team are taken down one-by-one by the various members of Les Girlz, a team of lesbian super-villains who have been lingering in the background since this series began.  The attack on Spandex member Indigo, and the revelation about her pregnancy, was particularly shocking, but most of the attacks on our heroes were a bit of a surprise, and it seems likely that one or two of them may not live to see the next issue.
This is a really good series, with great characters, nice art and very high production values – full-colour, glossy paper – for a self-published comic.  Although it’s rather rude in places, and definitely not for kids, it reminds me a lot of the super-team comics we used to get in the late-seventies / early eighties: Claremont / Byrne-era X-Men, Wolfman / Perez-era Teen Titans, etc.  It’s a lot of fun but also full of action and drama, and every issue has been a hell of a lot more entertaining than any single issue – or any single story arc – of the New Avengers.  Super-hero fans everywhere should check out this series – gay or not – and Bendis et al should take note: this is how you put together a good team book.  I generally feel like a bit of a fool any time I crack and pick up a copy of a Bendis Avengers comic – I quite like Bendis and I quite like the Avengers, so how bad can a Bendis-written Avengers comic be?  Oh.  That bad. – but I can’t wait to read the next issue of this comic.

Spandex #4 is available for £3.20 (including postage) from Martin Eden.  I assume it’s available from selected comic shops, too.          

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret

Fans of Michael Kupperman’s ‘Tales Designed to Thrizzle’ will no doubt enjoy this earlier collection of his work, published by Harper Collins in 2000, as it is pretty much the same sort of thing, and just as funny.  It contains lots of short, surreal humour strips, starring many of the same characters who went on to appear in ‘Thrizzle’ – Snake ‘n’ Bacon (of course), the Scaredy Kids,  Underpants-On-His-Head-Man, Cousin Grampa (AKA Robot Grampa, AKA Tumblin’ Grampa, AKA Stinkin’ Grampa, etc.) – lots of covers for non-existent comics – ‘Two-Tailed Fists’, ‘Doctor Terror’s House of Errors’, ‘Criminal District Attorney’ (‘You’ll never get me, copper!  And if you do I’ll prosecute myself!’) – and some brilliant bogus ads – ‘Make big $$$$, teach your cat electric appliance repairing at home in your spare time’ (‘Aren’t you tired of your cat just lying there doing nothing?’).  As in ‘Thrizzle’, the art is an odd mix of simply drawn characters and detailed linework, which adds to the surreal feel of the book, and the only major difference between this book and Kupperman’s more recent collection is that this book was published as a black and white softcover, rather than a colour hardcover, which means it’s a few quid cheaper and actually even more attractive to a price-sensitive / tight-fisted reader like myself.
I bought my copy of this book from the Book Depository, a couple of months ago, for £8.06 (including postage) but it has since gone down in price slightly, to £8.02.  (Note: enter the code MAY11 at the checkout, before the end of the May, and get a 10% discount on any items available at the Book Depository!)     

Monday, 16 May 2011

Dark Horse Noir

I do like a good crime comic. Criminal, Sin City, Stray Bullets, 100 Bullets, Harker, Gotham Central - all favourites. Some of the biggest names in comics do their best work when dabbling in the murky underworld. Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Brian Azzarello, David Lapham... they're always slumming it when writing superheroes. Their hearts belong in the gutter.

Short story anthologies are usually a much harder sell though. For every gem you usually have to wade through two or three dullards. I can't remember the last time I picked up an anthology book like this where every story was a winner... this one comes closer than most.

The book kicks off with a black-hearted Stray Bullets adventure, written and drawn by Dave Lapham, in which Virginia Applejack gets kidnapped and locked in a trunk by former schoolmates with a grudge... and seedy intentions. No previous knowledge of the Stray Bullets world is required, but this is still a great taster for that book... as well as setting the nasty tone for what's to come.

Other familiar creator-owned strips in this collection include Dean Motter's Mister X, Paul Grist's Kane, and an excellent Criminal short by Brubaker and Sean Phillips. All are worthy stand-alone stories that may well entice readers to check out the regular books. But good as they are, there's even better to be found here...

Highlights for me included Jeff Lemire's The Old Silo in which a destitute farmer stumbles across one last chance to save his land from the bank. The New Me by Gary Phillips and Eduardo Barreto (possibly the best artist here - though competition is fierce) sends a gigolo gym instructor to a revolting fate. Then Alex De Campi and Hugo Petrus give us Fracture, a dark twin to Sliding Doors which carries a sting in the tale for anyone stuck in the 9-5 drudgery of commuting to and from a thankless office job.

OK, not every story's a classic. A couple are pretty forgettable - including, surprisingly, Brian Azzarello's The Bad Night which leads to a cheap comic geek gag conclusion, though it's mitigated by excellent art from Gabriel Ba. Ken Lizzi's prose story Trustworthy doesn't really fit either - nothing wrong with it, I just always find it harder to read prose when its sandwiched in the middle of comic strips. And Lady's Choice, by Matthew and Shawn Fillbach is decidedly average. In such esteemed company, that proves its undoing.

I bought a new copy of Dark Horse Noir on the Amazon Marketplace for £4.04 (p&p included). It's since got even cheaper - as I write this, you could pick up a copy for £3.41. At that price, it'd be a crime not to!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Fear Itself #2

Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law!  Yes, I’m breaking blog rules again to bring you a review of Fear Itself #2, which I bought on eBay, from seller Trusevich, for £2.50.  That’s more than twice the maximum price (£1.20) I am allowed to pay for any comic published by a publisher with a Diamond-exclusive distribution deal, but as that £2.50 included postage and this $3.99 comic would have cost me over £3.00 if I’d bought it in my local comic shop, I don’t think that price was that unreasonable (it was certainly the cheapest copy available on eBay when I bought it).  So, if you don’t tell anyone I broke the rules, I won’t, and once Fear Itself is over and done with, we can go back to business as usual.  Deal?
Anyway, in the last issue of Fear Itself, the Asgardian gods, led by Odin, withdrew from their home on Earth and returned to Asgard after the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, was transformed into someone called Skadi by a mystical hammer and released her ‘father’ – not the Red Skull but someone calling himself 'the Serpent' – from his tomb at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  From there, the Serpent sent out several more hammers to summon ‘the Worthy’, and this issue deals mostly with the summoning of some of the Worthy.  Basically, several major Marvel characters – one of them one of Marvel’s biggest heroes, another one of the X-Men’s greatest foes – pick up hammers and are transformed into heralds of the Serpent. 

I find myself with very little to say about this issue, as apart from a small segment at the beginning of the comic set on Asgard – which has seen better days – and a small segment at the end of the comic where Sin launches a Nazi-themed assault on Washington DC, the summoning of the Worthy was about all that happened in this issue and the whole thing read very quickly.  We only got to witness three actual transformations, it looks like another transformation may have already taken place in another comic – unless writer Matt Fraction thought that one panel dedicated to that character in this comic was enough – and two of the more interesting transformations look like they will be taking place in Iron Man comics.  This is rather annoying but I guess this sort of thing is to be expected in a crossover event, and apart from that, I don’t really have any major complaints.  The writing seems strong and Stuart Immonen’s art, as usual, is very, very good.  I may not have enjoyed this issue as much as I enjoyed the first issue but I’m still quite intrigued by the story and, as a long-term Thing fan, the fact that the next issue is titled ‘The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street’ guarantees that I will be back for more next month.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up

The original Marvel Team-Up was one of my favourite comics growing up, but I missed out on its dark companion, partly because the book only lasted 17 issues, but also because it wasn't particularly well distributed in the UK, so back issues were hard to come by. The only comics here I'd read previously were issues 8 and 9 which were probably made available to UK audiences because they tied into a big crossover storyline in Avengers... which is also included in this book, along with a few other related comics.

The collection begins with a short run of Dr. Doom solo stories that appeared as one half of the Astonishing Tales comic back in the very early 70s. These are most notable for some excellent Wally Wood artwork in the first few issues that made me realise I need to check out more of Wood's work pronto. The 10-page stories begin well, as written by Roy Thomas, but when Larry Lieber takes over you know they're going to go downhill fast. He may be Stan Lee's brother, but creative genius doesn't appear to run in the family.

Following this, Super-Villain Team-Up kicks off properly... sort of. Curiously, before the regular comic began, two Giant Sized issues were published featuring Dr. Doom and the Submariner, continuing storylines from Namor's own just-cancelled solo title as well as explaining Doom's fate following his most recent encounter with the Fantastic Four. That's one of the biggest problems with this book - people complain nowadays about all the crossovers that make you read a bunch of different comics to understand exactly what's going on... well, Super-Villain Team-Up appears to be the 70s equivalent. Equally frustrating, the book can't ever seem to settle on a regular creative team, with no writer or artist working on the title for more than about 3 consecutive issues. As a result, while there are some very enjoyable moments here from writers such as Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart, nobody's given much time to develop their own plots with a definite beginning, middle and end. It says something about a collection like this when its best stories by far actually come from the Avengers tie-in comics by Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter and George Perez.

That said, Super-Villain Team-Up is not without its enjoyable moments - most notably Englehart's surreal spot of political satire that has US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger show up to broker a non-interference deal with Dr. Doom that effectively bans American superheroes from messing with his plans. I've no idea whether this caused controversy back in the 70s, but imagine Donald Rumsfeld or Hilary Clinton making a similar pact in the 21st century - that'd surely hit the headlines. There's also the debut and origin of the Shroud, a character who becomes slightly more interesting in later years, but is little more than a blind Batman here.

The book was originally cancelled with issue #14 (1977), but returned the following year with a reprint issue (#15) before a final two-part story was released in '79 and '80. These last two issues make for the best (non-Avengers) story here, and ironically neither Dr. Doom nor the Submariner stars. Instead it's a team-up between the Red Skrull and the Hate Monger (who turns out to be Adolf Hitler resurrected) in a quest to recreate the Cosmic Cube. Peter B. Gillis delivers a couple of interesting twists with solid, if unspectacular, artwork from Carmine Infantino and Arvell Jones.

I bought Essential Super-Villain Team-Up a year or so back on eBay for just under a fiver (including p&p). My copy has a creased cover, so I wouldn't have wanted to pay any more. It's still available on Amazonfor under a tenner, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it unless you're either a complete Marvel zombie or a glutton for punishment. I'm obviously both! That said, it kept me reading, I found it fun in short bursts, and I had no desire to bung my copy on eBay having got to the end... so it can't be all bad.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Wolverine 1 to 6 and Wolverine: Road to Hell

I bought these comics on eBay a month or so ago because they are written by Jason ‘Scalped’ Aaron.  ‘Road to Hell’ and Wolverine 1 to 5 contain the ‘Wolverine Goes to Hell’ storyline and #6 contains the first part of ‘Wolverine vs. the X-Men’, which is pretty much a continuation of ‘Wolverine Goes to Hell’ but with a new artist and a different story title.  I wasn’t expecting too much from these comics, I don’t think, but I thought they might be fun, at least.  In the end, though, I didn’t really enjoy them at all.  Part of this was probably down to my fundamental dislike of the Wolverine character, who always seems like a bit of a prick to me, and part of this was probably down to my lack of familiarity with what is going on in the X-Men titles these days – I started to lose interest in the X-Men the day Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on the title ended in the early 1980s, finally stopped buying the Uncanny X-Men in about 1988, and have read very few X-Men comics since then – but mainly I didn’t enjoy these because they were pretty bad comics.
In ‘Wolverine Goes to Hell’, Wolverine’s soul is literally sent to Hell while his body, possessed by a demon, wanders around the Earth killing lots of people.  The bits of the story set on Earth, where two Ghost Riders, the Son of Satan and Mystique fight the possessed Wolverine and try and exorcise the demon controlling his body, were okay, I suppose (although if I hadn’t read Rol’s recent review of the Ghost Rider by Jason Aaron Omnibus, I wouldn’t even know that there was more than one Ghost Rider and would have been even more confused, plus it didn’t really make sense that Mystique was helping them when it turned out that she had helped send Wolverine to hell in the first place), but the bits set in hell were laughably bad.  Basically, the Hell portrayed in this comic is just one more death trap for Wolverine to escape from and not particularly scary, either.  Worst of all, the Devil is an unimaginative idiot and I have no idea how he ever became so successful / feared by religious types, particularly with Hell so easy to escape from.  In these comics, Wolverine literally beats up the Devil, and most of his old enemies / murder victims, with the help of Puck (yes, that midget from Alpha Flight), and then climbs out of hell (apparently, there is an exit, so if you have been a bad boy or girl, you may want to pick up a copy of Wolverine #5 and plan your escape from Hell now)!

I spent quite a lot of the time I was reading these comics wondering if I had missed something, as we never got to find out who had sent Wolverine to Hell, or why, until Wolverine #5, and I thought maybe that part of the story had happened in another comic – which is the sort of thing that happens in Marvel comics these days – but I don’t think that was the case.  I still don’t know who the organisation that sent Wolverine to Hell are, although I have a feeling that they will be troubling this title for many months / years to come, but the revelation that the whole plan had been orchestrated by Wolverine’s dead dad was just the icing on the shit cake.  Wolverine’s dad was the first person he ever killed (you know you are a prick when you are able to refer to someone as the first person you ever killed), was apparently not a very nice man, and he brought Wolverine to hell not to punish him, but to tell him how proud he was of the (bad) way he had turned out and to propose that the pair of them took over Hell and ran it together as a family business, which has got to be one of the stupidest plans any villain has ever cooked up.  I mean, did Wolverine’s dad really think that his son would be grateful to him for dragging him to hell and giving all his old enemies a chance to fight him again?

The art here, by Renato Guedes and Jose Wilson Magalhaes, wasn’t that great either.  It was okay in places and not completely terrible but there was something a bit amateurish about it, the women all had massive tits, and some of Mystique’s poses, in particular, looked like they had been copied from an issue of Playboy, even when she was riding a bike!  (Note: the Jae Lee covers were all lovely!) 

The art in Wolverine #6, by Daniel Acuña, was a lot nicer and the story marginally better, as at least Wolverine was no longer in Hell, but as I said earlier, it’s really just a continuation of the Hell story.  Wolverine was back in his body, but the demon that had possessed him hadn’t quite left yet, so Wolverine spent most of the issue fighting the X-Men.  I am mildly interested in finding out what happens next – although I doubt the X-Men will make the world a safer place and put Wolverine to sleep once and for all, which is what I really want to see happen – but not enough to spend money on any more Wolverine comics, particularly as this story will probably drag on and on and on.  I am slightly more interested in catching up with what is going on in the X-Men titles at the moment, as I had no idea that Namor was now an X-Man until I read this comic and would like to see what Matt Fraction is doing with the characters, now that they are based in San Francisco, but I doubt I’ll ever do that, either, as there are probably too many damn comics for me to catch up with, I can’t afford to buy them all, and I would probably find them too confusing to follow even if I could afford them.  (Note to Marvel: publish fewer damn comics and make them less confusing for me, please!)

Cost: These comics have a cover price of $3.99 each but I got them on eBay for £5.95, which wasn’t that bad at all for seven very recent comics (Wolverine #6 is the April 2011 issue), and hopefully I will be able to flog them on eBay for at least that and buy something a bit better instead.              

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Black Widow: Deadly Origin

I've long been a fan of Natalia / Natasha Romanova / Romanoff, the Black Widow. She's a sexy Russian spy who would clearly have given James Bond a run for his money, complete with a chequered history AND a black leather catsuit. She's been an effective - and, at times, provocative - guest star, team-player and co-star in a wide range of books, yet rarely has she dazzled in a solo capacity. I'm not sure why that is, there would appear to be bags of untapped potential here... she's obviously just been waiting for the right writer.

Step forward Paul Cornell, who in just four issues gives us the best Black Widow story I've ever read, deconstructing the slinky, stinging sexpot as both a character and a concept without resorting to unnecessary reinvention. The story opens with an amusing spy spoof featuring cross, double cross and triple cross aboard a stolen space shuttle. Natasha escapes and returns home to a panicked phone call from her former partner Ivan who reveals "the Icepick Protocol has been activated!" (Frederick Forsyth would be proud) before being gunned down in the street.

What follows is a race against time in which Natasha must save the lives of her former partners (including Hawkeye, Daredevil and Hercules) who have been infected by deadly nanite technology as a direct result of their previous dalliances with the Widow. (It's almost as though their brains are being post-coitally eaten alive... in case you missed the metaphor.) Meanwhile the story flashes back to reveal key events in Natasha's history, contextualising them against the fall of the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th Century. Cornell demonstrates masterfully tight plotting here, compressing years of storytelling into four issues, while also leaving plenty of room for action (including a big showdown with the unsurprising enemy behind the plot to destroy all Natasha's former boyfriends). Put it this way - if Brian Bendis had written this story, it would have taken three years to tell.

Cornell's script is witty and exciting - it's the best comic I've read from him yet (shame on Marvel for letting him slip through their fingers to the Distinguished Competition). He's helped along by strong work from artists Tom Raney (on the present day adventure) and John Paul Leon (who brings rich atmosphere and smart design to the flashbacks).

Black Widow: Deadly Origin was part of Rob's Big Graphic Novels Haul of 2011 (which I'm sure he'll explain in more detail when he gets around to reviewing some of the books he netted). As a result it cost me just £3.00, which is an absolute bargain for such an entertaining read - it'd be well worth the £6.91 it's currently selling for at The Book Depository.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Scalped Vol.5: High Lonesome TPB

Scalped Vol.5: High Lonesome introduces a new scumbag to the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, down-on-his-luck conman of a thousand faces, Wesley Willeford.  Wesley rumbles our ‘hero’, Dashiell ‘Dash’ Bad Horse, who is currently hooked on drugs and involved in a destructive relationship with the daughter of reservation chief / crime lord Lincoln Red Crow, as an undercover FBI agent and uses him to try and rob the Crazy Horse Casino, which leads to a bloody final chapter.  In this volume, we also discover the origin of Indian-wannabe / FBI agent / murderer Diesel Engine, what happened to turn Dash’s FBI supervisor, Nitz, into such a mean bastard, exactly who killed those two FBI agents back in 1975, and who killed Gina Bad Horse back in Scalped Vol.1.
This series gets better with each passing volume and I have gone from being fairly indifferent about the first two volumes I read to being completely hooked, to the point where I now want to track down and buy (cheap) copies of all the previous volumes – which, like this volume, I originally got out of my local library – and buy this and all the subsequent volumes, too.  I may have to buy a copy of vol.6, at the very least, as the copy I reserved at the library weeks ago appears to have been stolen, and it may be some time before they get vol.7, if they get it at all.  That’s okay, though, as these books are released as relatively inexpensive softcovers, not fancy-pants hardcovers, and while it may not turn out to be a series that I want to keep forever, I’m pretty sure that it is something I will want to reread at least once or twice (if only to remind myself what is going on as new volumes come out).
Writer Jason Aaron has created an intriguing story here, and some sleazy but sympathetic characters, while regular artist RM Guéra’s murky, Eduardo Risso-like  art is very well suited to the book.  This volume also features work by guest artists Davide Furnò (who drew a few issues in previous volumes) and Francesco Francavilla, and I particularly like Furnò’s art, which always looks to me like someone inked some John Buscema pencils with a marker pen (but in a good way).
This has a Titan Books cover price of £10.99, but the Vertigo edition (the same book but without an impossible-to-remove sticker on the back cover) is almost certainly available cheaper online (I hope so because I might end up buying a copy).  They may even have a copy in your local library, if some thieving bugger hasn’t stolen it.   

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Herbie Archives Vol.1 HC

Herbie Popnecker, A.K.A. the Fat Fury, was the creation of writer Richard E. Hughes (here using the pseudonym Shane O’Shea) and artist Ogden Whitney.  He first appeared in Unknown Worlds #20, published by the American Comics Group, Inc. in 1958, and this book reprints that first appearance, along with his appearances in ACG’s Forbidden Worlds issues 73, 94, 110, 114 and 116, and then the first five issues of his very own comic, Herbie.
Herbie is a kid whose dad thinks he is just a ‘little fat nothing’, and calls him this on an alarmingly regular basis, but when his dad isn’t looking, Herbie displays the powers of a god.  He can talk to animals, walk in the air (and in space), time travel, enter fictional worlds (children’s story books, films, etc.), best any foe by whacking them with one of his beloved lollypops, and even the devil is scared of him.  He may be a fat kid with glasses, who speaks in stunted sentences, a bit like Rorschach from the Watchmen (Note: I saw an interview with Alan Moore once where Moore said that Herbie was his favourite superhero!) but (most) women love him, and in this volume he is pursued by women such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II, among others.  He also encounters many other important / famous people of the day, like JFK, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, as well as historical figures / fictional characters such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Antoinette, Wyatt Earp, King Arthur, Cinderella, etc.  I imagine that Herbie must have been enormous fun to read if you were a kid in the late-fifties / early-sixties – particularly if you were a fat kid with glasses and had a verbally abusive dad – but I must admit I found his adventures a bit dated, rather repetitive, and found this book a bit of a chore to get through.  I liked the Herbie character a lot and I am glad I got to read this, but I think just one issue of his adventures would have been enough for me.  I enjoyed Ogden Whitney’s excellent artwork a lot more than I enjoyed the stories, and I found the biographies of Hughes and Whitney at the back of the book particularly interesting – I love reading the biographies of old cartoonists – even though they made grim reading.      
Hughes and Whitney were apparently ACG’s answer to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as Hughes was the company’s editor and wrote most of the stories that appeared in its many (nearly forty) titles, under a variety of pseudonyms, and Whitney, who began his career drawing the Sandman in Adventure Comics in 1939, was ACG’s most prominent artist.  However, Hughes ended his career answering letters of complaint for a New York department store and Whitney, an alcoholic, died in obscurity at some point in the 1970s (you know you died in obscurity when your biographers can’t even figure out exactly what year you died).  Comics – don’t you just love ‘em?
This book has a very high recommended retail price of £37.99 / $49.95 but the Book Depository currently have it for a more reasonable £24.09 (compared to the Amazon price of £32.29).  I bought my copy in a charity shop, last year, for £7.99.        

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

What If? Classic Volume 7

Nostalgic devotion has led me to buy each volume of Marvel's What If? Classic collection, though reading them has - occasionally - been a bit of a slog. There have been some real gems along the way though, from the original What If Spider-Man Joined The Fantastic Four? (one of the first Marvel stories - "imaginary" or otherwise - I ever remember reading, from a UK reprint) to What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Became The Fantastic Four (enjoyable for its self-referential kitsch value). The misses were more frequent than the hits in the book's early days though, but What If? proves one of those rare examples of a high concept pitch that gets better as time goes by. Recent volumes have included an FF What If? written and drawn by John Byrne and a couple of alternate universe Daredevils by Frank Miller. But I've been looking forward to the final book more than any other as it features my all time favourite, What If Spider-Man's Uncle Ben Had Lived?, from issue #46.

Peter B. Gillis's story is as heartwarming as I remembered it. In short, it's Aunt May who gets killed by the burglar, but though her death has a similar effect on young Peter, the boy is less worried about his uncle's health and so feels more able to confide his secret. Ben becomes Spider-Man's greatest champion, even taking on J. Jonah Jameson in a memorable showdown with leaves the cigar-chomping publisher speechless. Gillis even manages a happy ending, something that's quite a rarity on What If? world.

The issue is also notable for being the first time Ron Frenz draws Spider-Man - and his lush, Ditko-flavoured visuals probably landed him a job on the main book. Frenz is something of a chameleon, changing his style to match whichever classic artist is most appropriate to the characters he's currently drawing. He also illustrates an FF What If? here in pseudo-Kirby style, helped along considerably by Joe Sinnott inks. I'm a much bigger Ditko fan than Kirby though, so I'm far more fond of Frenz's Spidey.

Gillis is responsible for the majority of the What Ifs collected here, and proves a most versatile writer, whether tackling machiavellian Asgardians (What If Loki Found the Hammer of Thor?), crooked magicians (What If Dr. Strange Had Never Become Master of the Mystic Arts?) or over-zealous patriots (What If Captain America Were Revived Today?) There's not a bad story here - except, possibly, for a short Mark Gruenwald penned back-up, the sequel to an earlier adventure that ended with the Marvel Universe pretty much destroyed. It doesn't help that Gruenwald inexplicably chooses to draw this himself - an artist he's not (still, at least he doesn't have to bother with backgrounds... since they've all been obliterated). The main story from that issue, What If Conan the Barbarian was stranded in the 20th Century?, is not collected here due to Marvel no longer owning the publishing rights to Conan.

Artistically, this is also the most satisfying What If? collection, partly because Gillis is given a full, double-sized, 40-plus pages to tell the majority of his stories. Previous volumes included 2 or more stories per issue, resulting in some very over-crowded visuals. As well as Frenz, there's strong work here from Kelly Jones, Sal Buscema & Dave Simons, Jackson 'Butch' Guice and a young Marc Silvestri.

In short, if you're only going to buy one What If? Classic collection, this is the volume I'd recommend. They're not cheap though. This one cost me £16.16 (inc. p&p) from eBay, which is more than I've paid for any of the other volumes... but I had some money in my Paypal account and I really, really wanted it. It's currently available at The Book Depository for a slightly more affordable £13.95, which is more than a fiver cheaper than Amazon, so start your search there. Good luck finding it any cheaper (unless you're Rob!)

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Spider-Woman Agent of S.W.O.R.D. TPB

Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. collects Spider-Woman issues 1 to 7, written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated Alex Maleev.  This story was also released as a series of semi-animated ‘motion comics’ and the paper comics were adapted from the motion comics, rather than the other way around.  It looks really good, though, and not at all like it was cobbled together as an afterthought.  I’m sure Alex Maleev’s digitally produced, heavily photo-referenced, garishly coloured art won’t be to everyone’s tastes – particularly the garish computer colouring – but I love it.  I also used to really like Brian Michael Bendis’ writing – Bendis and Maleev’s run on Daredevil was what got me back into superhero comics again, after a very long break – but these days I tend to find a lot of his work quite tiresome, and his work on this book was no exception.
This actually reads a lot like someone parodying Bendis’ work on titles like Alias – but without the sense of humour – rather than the work of the man himself, and I took against it in the very first chapter for that reason.  The book starts with Jessica Drew / Spider-Woman flying over the streets of London – we can tell it’s London because it’s raining and foggy, we see the silhouette of Big Ben, the London Eye is right next to Jessica’s hotel, and she eventually ends up on an open-backed London bus (you know, the sort that they phased out years ago).  She’s feeling rather sorry for herself and her internal monologue tells us that she thinks she has overtaken Wolverine as ‘the most screwed-over person in the history of the universe’, which seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me.  I mean, Jessica did not have a great childhood and this book takes place shortly after the events seen in Secret Invasion, where she was temporarily replaced by the Skrull Queen, so she thinks everyone hates her because she looks like the Skrull Queen did when she tried to take over the world, but ‘the most screwed-over person in the history in the universe’?  Really?  I mean, she’s attractive, she’s in good health, she’s got super-powers, and she’s in the friggin’ Avengers!  That sounds to me like the lot of someone who has been a lot less screwed-over than your average homeless person, for example, and from the point on the third page of the book where Jessica decided that she was the most ‘screwed over person in the history of the universe’ onwards, this book had an uphill struggle to get me to take it seriously.

Anyway, in the first chapter, on an open-backed London bus, the sort they don’t really make anymore, Jessica meets up with Abigail Brand from S.W.O.R.D., who offers her a job Skrull-hunting – yes, the ‘most screwed-over person in the history of the universe’ gets offered a well-paying job with S.W.O.R.D., to help her top up the meagre income she receives from the Avengers, the poor cow – which she accepts.  From there, she heads off to the fictional south-east Asian island of Madripoor, fights a Skrull, gets arrested, spends quite a lot of time talking to Madame Hydra / the Viper, fights another Skrull, fights Hydra, gets arrested again, fights the Thunderbolts, and then fights another Skrull, this time with the help of the Avengers – Captain America, Luke Cage, Spider-Man, Ronin, Mockingbird, Ms Marvel, and the second most screwed-over person in the history of the universe, Wolverine (who is over 100 years old but only looks about 40, is pretty much indestructible, can drink and smoke without any ill effects, and has at least seven jobs). 

To be honest, although some of the dialogue was surprisingly bad, this wasn’t a terrible book, but like most issues of Bendis’ Avengers run, there was way too much talking, not enough really happened, and the whole thing seemed a bit dragged out to me.  I mean, if some of the repetitive dialogue and Jessica’s self-pitying internal monologue had been cut down a bit, this story could have quite easily been told in two or three issues, rather than seven.  It looked great and it was perfectly readable, but I didn’t feel like this was an essential read in any way.

This has a recommended retail price of £14.99 / $19.99 but Amazon have it for £9.91 at the moment.  I got my copy on eBay for £7.32 (including postage), which wasn’t bad, I suppose, but I wish I’d bought something else instead.   

Monday, 2 May 2011

Avengers: The Serpent Crown

Back when I was collecting back issues (as opposed to collections, which 95% of my comic budget goes on these day), I had a pretty sizable run of Avengers, stretching back to the late 60s. There were plenty of gaps in that collection though, most notably the early George Perez issues which had never been distributed in the UK so were much harder to come by. Consequently, though I had read the second half of the story collected in this book, when I was much younger, I'd never read the first few issues and Perez's artistic debut.

For those who believe the multi-threat superteam adventure was a creation of Grant Morrison in JLA, it's fun to see writer Steve Englehart doing exactly the same a quarter of a century earlier. Here the Avengers are divided into two teams for two separate yet concurrent storylines. Firstly, Thor and Moondragon travel back to the 19th Century Wild West to rescue a time-lost Hawkeye and team up with various old Marvel Western heroes like Rawhide Kid, Two Gun Kid and Kid Colt (everyone was a kid in them days) to defeat Kang The Conqueror. You have to wonder whether a young Grant Morrison might have read this book, not only for the split-team dangers, but also a mind-melting explanation of the link between Kang, Immortus and the pharaoh Rama Tut that shows Englehart at his big idea-ed best.

While all this is going on, a second team of Avengers is taking on the evil corporation Roxxon Oil who are using the other-dimensional Squadron Supreme and a pan-dimensional Serpent Crown to wreak all kinds of havoc. Included on this team are Iron Man, Cap, the Vision and Scarlet Witch, a newly recruited Beast and Patsy Walker, who adopts her Hellcat identity for the first time here - though exactly how she does so (pretty much tripping over the Cat's pre-Tigra costume in a warehouse and saying "I know, I'll become Hellcat") is probably the weakest bit of plotting here. The best thing here is the Avengers versus an expanded Squadron Supreme - originally devised as Marvel's alterniverse versions of Superman, Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern, Englehart now introduces spoofs of Hawkman, Aquaman, the Atom, Black Canary and Green Arrow (who for some reason has the worst Dick Van Dyke cod-British accent you'll ever read). They even have their own equivalent of the JLA satellite - Rocket Central. The story climaxes with a giant battle against Orka the human killer whale which also features one of those classic Perez shots of the whole team strapped into some funky machine designed to drain their powers before that hoary "we need to have a big line-up change" cliffhanger leads us into the following month's 150th anniversary issue... sadly not collected here.

Englehart's writing is stronger than I remembered. There's an interesting theme about the evils of big business / corporate sleaze that shows people were worried about globalisation even back in the 70s, but the writer also takes time for plenty of the bickering, resentment, romance and camaraderie that made the Avengers what it was. Perez, at the dawn of his career, takes a while to warm up - though this is largely due to the fact that he's teamed with Vince Colletta early on, possibly my least favourite inker in the entire history of comics. It's a welcome relief when Sam Grainger takes over. Even in his first Avengers work though, Perez shows how to handle large casts and large panel counts (up to 12 on a page) with ease - no wonder he's rightly hailed as the definitive team-book artist.

I bought Avengers: The Serpent Crown on eBay some time ago for about £7.50. It's currently available at The Book Depository for £9.26, which is about £1.50 cheaper than Amazon. It collects 7 issues in total - but 7 issues of George Perez storytelling is the equivalent of about 10 for most modern artists (or about 14 for someone like Ed McGuinness, who struggles to draw more than 3 panels per page most days).

Good, solid, Avengering action. Glad I finally got to read it.