Friday, 29 July 2011

Ultimate Doomsday

I bought this book on Amazonfor £14.99. I didn't consider that a bad price considering it's the oversized hardcover version and the softcover is currently listed at £19.49 (!), plus it features three 4-issue mini-series, meaning it worked out at just over a quid a comic. Sounds like a good On The Ration deal, right? Well, yes... until you realise the story that's told over these 12 issues could easily have been told in ONE 4-issue mini series.

I'm tired of defending Brian Michael Bendis. For a while there, he was my favourite Marvel writer. Back when Ultimate Spider-Man began, and during his lengthy run on Daredevil, he could do no wrong. His critics always carped that he was the king of decompressed storytelling and that his dialogue was rambling and all the characters spoke with the same voice... and I defended him because his scripts often made me laugh and for a while I felt like he was pushing the Marvel (and Ultimate) Universe in interesting directions. But lately, he's just annoying me. And this book is a perfect example of why...

Let's start with the decompression. As I said earlier, this story could easily have been told in 4 issues... or less. The basic plot involves a mysterious villain attacking the big brains of the Ultimate Universe - Reed Richards and Sue Storm, Peter Parker, the brain trust at Roxxon (including Dr. Octopus) and Nick Fury (more for his cunning than his book-smarts). The good guys join together to find out who's responsible... and they're shocked to discover it's Reed Richards himself, gone rogue / mental. There's a big fight, Reed is lost in space, Ben Grimm proposes to Sue... and that's pretty much it. There's a subplot involving Spider-Man's ultimate clone, Spider-Girl, who calls herself Jessica Drew and Julia Carpenter for no other reason than that's what the Spiderwomen in the regular Marvel Universe are called. But that subplot doesn't really go anywhere beyond a few dodgy jokes about Peter Parker being cloned as a girl.

So... if that's the story... how does Bendis stretch it to 12 issues? Well, he has two major tools in his arsenal. Firstly, splash pages. I've never read any comic with more one and two page splashes. It's all part of this "comics as widescreen event movie entertainment" idea that's clogging the u-bend at the moment, but it makes for a very quick read - I'd have been mad as hell if I'd bought this book as individual issues: three quid for a 5 minute read!? Yes, Rafa Sandoval's art is quite spectacular in places - this comic does look like a big Hollywood blockbuster. But pound for pound, the entertainment value just doesn't measure up.

And then there's the dialogue. I used to consider Bendis's dialogue hip and funny. I even compared him to screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet... and I still believe that in his early work, that comparison was valid. But he's got too big and too lazy and his scripts are getting extremely repetitive now...

Repetitive how?

Repetitive like lots of characters asking themselves questions that have already been answered in the previous panel...

Already been answered in the previous panel?

Yes, and repeating information that's already been given three times.

Three times?

Yes, three times.

That must get annoying.

It gets very annoying.

How annoying?


As annoying as me asking you "how annoying?" again?

Even more annoying than that.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

The final problem I have with this book is the Ultimate Universe itself. I used to find it quite a fun place: a contemporary, ever-so-slightly more realistic version of the Silver Age Marvel Universe. But lately it's just become one big What If? story, with shock tactic after shock tactic after shock tactic... usually big character deaths (Wolverine, Spider-Man, Magneto, Dr. Doom)... although for some reason I find the idea of turning Reed Richards into the new Dr. Doom the most unsettling shock tactic yet. It goes against everything we know about this character, even the Ultimate version, and it's obviously only been done to make headlines. It's cheap... unlike this book. £14.99 turned out to be a bloody high price.

Jonah Hex Vol.1: Face Full of Violence TPB

This collects issues 1 to 6 of the current DC Jonah Hex series, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.  Nothing ground breaking here, just some solid, very readable, done-in-one Western tales, with nice art by Luke Ross (issues 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6), who clearly modelled his version of Hex on Clint Eastwood, and okay (but maybe too scruffy for my liking) art by Hex’s co-creator  Tony DeZuñiga (issue 5 only).  I have already reviewed at least two later volumes in this series and I find myself with little new to say about this first volume.  I do like this series a lot, though.  Probably the most notable thing about it is the fact that the individual issues in the series are nearly always self-contained, and could probably be read and enjoyed even by someone who has never read a DC comic before (although some familiarity with the character Bat Lash, who pops up in JH #2, might aid your enjoyment of that particular issue).  This is depressingly rare in modern mainstream comics, where even most trade paperbacks are not self-contained anymore, and it’s a real shame that this series is going to be cancelled as part of DC’s upcoming reboot and replaced with a new Western series, All-Star Western.  I am looking forward to that new series a bit, as at least it is still written by Palmiotti and Gray, and I will almost certainly pick up the first trade paperback, but the fact that the Jonah Hex story that kicks off the series is set in Gotham City and that that story does not appear to be self-contained is worrying. As this reboot is presumably supposed to make DC’s comics more accessible to new readers, taking what is already one of their most accessible titles – a title featuring largely self-contained stories that don’t end up disappearing up their own arses, unlike the stories  in pretty much every other DC comic – and introducing it into a convoluted new continuity just seems stupid.

Cost: This has a cover price of $12.99 (about £10.00?).  It appears to be out of print at the moment but there are plenty of new and used copies available on Amazon.  I bought my copy on eBay at least two years ago and really can’t remember how much I paid for it now.  Not sure why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it, either, as until recently it was the only volume in the series I actually owned and I have already read and enjoyed volumes 2 to 9, which I got out of my local library.  I also recently picked up a cheap collection of Jonah Hex stuff on eBay, which contained, among other things, the first six books in this series, so I now find myself with two copies of this book, if anyone wants one.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Fear Itself #4

I am starting to feel like a bit of a prick for breaking blog rules to buy this series now, as most of the action really does seem to be taking place in other comics and this main series seems like little more than a well-drawn teaser for the tie-in comics.  Under normal circumstances, I would just stop buying this now, but I went and asked the bloke in my local comic shop – the Grinning Demon in Maidstone – to reserve the remaining three issues of the series for me, and he is so bloody friendly that I just can’t bring myself to cancel the order.  The last time I went in there, intending to just pick up this and have a look through the 50p boxes, I ended up paying £20 for the latest Locke & Key HC, which has a recommended retail price of £18.99 and is currently only £11.93 on Amazon.  Yes, that’s right: I actually paid £1.01 more than the RRP, and £8.07 more than the current Amazon price, just because I saw a book I really wanted sitting on a shelf in front of me and, after chatting to a friendly bloke about comics for half an hour or so, felt like supporting my LCS for a change.  On the ration, indeed. 

I should point out that I haven’t completely lost it.  I still can’t seem to walk past a charity shop without popping inside for a look, the 50p boxes and reduced GNs are still the first thing I look at in any comic shop, and I still occasionally go to extraordinary lengths to get stuff cheap.  A couple of months ago, I spent £400 on a collection of 110 Marvel graphic novels, kept back 29 for myself, and have been slowly flogging off all the stuff I didn’t want since then, in an effort to make my money back (so far, I have made back £388.97, which means that the 29 books I kept for myself only cost me £11.03 – unless you put a price on all the time I wasted selling off the stuff I didn’t want, which you probably should – and I still have a few books left to sell), and this coming weekend I am going to view a large comic collection my sister tipped me off about after meeting someone at a car boot sale (Top Tip: Buy in bulk and save £££!).  I am still a stingy bastard, and still have an eye for a bargain, but from time to time I still do stupid things like paying full cover price for a Marvel event comic, or paying more than the RRP for a book I could have got a lot cheaper online – which seems especially stupid when you consider that I am currently unemployed.  I really must try harder.   

I will honour my commitment to my local comic shop and will buy the copies of the last three issues of this series that I reserved.  I may even buy other stuff while I’m in there, but I will try my best to stick to the bargain boxes from now on.  I probably won’t be reviewing the rest of Fear Itself, partly because I’m not getting it on the ration, but also because I don't think I am going to have much more to say about it.  I think I paid £3.30 for #4, and like I said, I feel like a prick for buying it.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Neil Gaiman's The Eternals

I have problems with Neil Gaiman. It's no secret. I thought Sandman was an interesting comic that it rapidly disappeared up its own cūlus aēnī. And if you think it's pretentious of me to use the Latin for "bronze anus" in that sentence... well, quite. Et tu, Brutus.

I also rapidly grew tired of the rock star cult that surrounded the writer. In my mind, I always picture him in a leather jacket riding a Harley. Though I can't ever find the photo that spawned this mental image, I know I saw it somewhere. I don't ever believe a writer should overshadow his writing in the way that singers can, and often do, overshadow their songs. But for a long time Neil Gaiman seemed to get off more on being Neil Gaiman... than actually writing any new comics.

But my biggest peeve was always Gaiman's obsession with "the power of stories". From Sandman onwards, a recurring theme of his work became "the mythical power of stories", "the healing power of stories", "the cultural power of stories" et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... I can't remember the last time I read a Neil Gaiman comic that didn't have this theme at its centre, and it often seemed he was so insistent on pressing home his love of stories... he forgot to actually write one in the process.

As a result, I rarely jump to read a new Neil Gaiman comic. However, three things persuaded me to give The Eternals a shot...

One: his recent script for Doctor Who was one of the highlights of the latest series. There's no doubt Gaiman is a clever, imaginative writer when he puts his mind to it and his dialogue often sparkles. That's certainly the case in The Eternals, particularly the early chapters which exile Jack Kirby's New (Marvel) Gods in mainstream America, unable to remember their divine providence. This is a book where the talking heads scenes shine even more than the superheroey stuff... from a writing point of view at least. Which leads me on to...

Two: John Romita Jr. Until Marcos Martin arrived on the scene, JRJR was my favourite mainstream comic artist - though one who causes controversy with many of my arty friends who are constantly telling me he's grown lazy in his old(er) age and his work's not a patch on what it was 20+ years ago. What do I know? I can't draw more than a stick figure. And, perhaps just as controversially, I was never a Jack Kirby fan either. Ditko, Romita Sr., Colan, Kane, the Buscemas... love 'em all. But while I can appreciate everything Kirby gave us, I always found his art blocky, chunked up... a little too larger than life. That said, there's no contemporary artist better suited to updating the HUGENESS of Kirby's Eternals than JRJR - and I fully accept the contradiction that the very things I enjoy most about Romita Jr.'s work are the exact same things I disliked about Kirby's. What can I say? I'm a comic fan - don't expect logic.

And Three, because this is Comics - On The Ration, after all: the price. This was the Panini / Marvel UK edition, but I picked it up on eBay for the bargain price of £2.49 - including p&p.

So... was it worth it? Well, yes. It'd be churlish to say otherwise, especially at that price. Still, much as I enjoyed JRJR's art and Gaiman's script (at least in the beginning), The Eternalsstill hasn't won me over to the Cult of Neil. Because, as a story, it makes for a great first act. The book is all about re-establishing the characters, giving them a slice more humanity and personality (injecting some of the Stan that was always missing from Jack's solo work), and setting them a distinct role and purpose within the 21st Century Marvel universe. And if this was the first graphic novel in an ongoing series, that'd be all fine and good. Yet it seems clear from reading the afterword (and from the fact that this book was published 5+ years ago) that Gaiman never intended for it to be any more than that. Which seems like a bit of a cheat to me. From reading Sandman, I remember Neil often did great work on the set-up... but ultimately fluffed the resolution. Here, he doesn't even attempt one. It's like he's done all the fun stuff then thrown his hands in the air and said "let someone else take it from here!" I know there's an argument that in mainstream superhero comics there's no such thing as "The End" - but someone tell that to Grant Morrison, whose climaxes are often so good nobody dares follow them. When it comes to the "power of stories", Neil, there's nothing more satisfying than a really good final page. Throw me one of those next time and you might just have a fan.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Spider-Man: Red-Headed Stranger & Spider-Man: Return of the Black Cat TPBs

‘Red-Headed Stranger’ collects Amazing Spider-Man issues 602 to 605.  Marvel seem to be publishing quite a lot of trade paperbacks that only collect four comics these days, and this doesn’t seem like nearly enough comics to justify a trade-paperback collection to me, but I seem to be getting used to it, because I didn’t even notice that this was a pretty slender collection until after I finished it.  I guess this is partly because #605 was an extra-large issue and partly because I enjoyed reading it enough that I didn’t really care.
In issues 602 to 604, written by Fred Van Lente and illustrated by Barry Kitson and Robert Atkins, Spider-Man faces the Chameleon, who, for the first time I remember, is genuinely scary.  This Chameleon doesn’t just put on a rubber mask and pretend to be his victims, he makes a real effort to become them, before dissolving their bodies in acid.  Then, once he has replaced his victims, he spends a bit of time living their lives.  Here, the Chameleon captures and replaces Peter Parker, and while he somehow doesn’t discover that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, he does find out pretty much everything else about him and even sleeps with his roommate, Michele Gonzales.  The way that Peter Parker survived getting dipped in acid was a bit corny but overall this was a good three-issue story arc and Van Lente seemed to have a good feel for Spidey. 
ASM #605 is split into three chapters, the first two of which are also written by Fred Van Lente (with the third chapter written by Brian Reed).  The first chapter is a perfectly decent story about Mary Jane Watson, which benefits from great art by Javier Pulido (very much like the work of the great Marcos Martin).  The rest of the issue, about Peter Parker’s troubles with women, is okay too.  I can just about handle the fact that Peter Parker, who was once married to super-model Mary Jane Watson, still has women troubles.  What always does annoy me is Peter Parker’s money woes.  I mean, if you can invent your own web fluid, have super-powers, are in the Avengers and a personal friend of the FF and you still ain’t making any money, then there is something seriously wrong with you.
‘Return of the Black Cat’ collects ASM issues 606 to 611 and a story from Web of Spider-Man #1.  More comics collected but the book itself is a bit crap.  Issues 606 and 607, written by Joe Kelly, in which Spidey teams up with the Black Cat against Diablo, are okay, but it’s mainly Mike McKone’s excellent artwork that makes them okay (for some reason, though, the last few pages of #607 are drawn by another – lesser – artist). 
Most of the rest of the book features a story that ties into the universally reviled Clone Saga, which I have never read, so I had no idea who most of the characters in this story – Kaine, Raptor, etc. – were, but I’m pretty sure that, even if I did know who they all were, I would still think this storyline, mostly written by Marc Guggenheim, was rubbish.  And the very dated looking artwork – unfortunately dated the 1990s – was pretty bad too.  Eric Canete’s art in the final issue collected here, #611, in which Spidey fights Deadpool, is very nice / very stylish but the story, by Joe Kelly, was just annoying. (Note: I don’t like Deadpool, so I am biased).  In summary, then: One of these books was pretty good and the other was pretty bad.
Cost: Red-Headed Stranger has a recommended retail price of £10.99 and Return of the Black Cat has a recommended retail price of £14.99.  I got my copies on eBay and paid £5.47 (including postage) for RHS and £6.68 (including postage) for ROTBC.  I only regret buying one of these books.  Can you guess which one?    

Monday, 18 July 2011

Ganges #3

I recently read a collection of old Chester Gould Dick Tracy strips which had a great quote from Art Spiegelman on the back cover, and part of that quote read: ‘Gould understood better than anyone that comic strip drawing isn’t really drawing at all, but rather a kind of diagramming.’  I was reminded of that quote while reading this, the third issue of cartoonist Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges, part of Fantagraphics’ Ignatz line, and the same quote wouldn’t be out of place on the back of any of Huizenga’s often brilliant comics.  Here, Huizenga attempts to diagram the trouble his everyman character Glenn Ganges has sleeping after drinking too much coffee and the many things going on in his head.  While the physical Glenn lies still in bed, the mental Glenn goes for a stroll up the side of a tree, contemplates the back and forth relationship between thinking and doing, wonders whether or not women burgle, and eventually manages to fall asleep (briefly) after trying some relaxation exercises (note to Glenn: it’s called ‘progressive muscle relaxation’).  The best part of the strip, for me, was the part where the mental Glenn wandered around shooting at various thought balloons in attempt to clear his mind, which was very clever stuff and not something that could easily be achieved with computer lettering.  In Huizenga’s comics / diagrams, the word and thought balloons are an essential part of the artwork.     
The comic is divided into two stories but the second (shorter) story is really just a more humorous continuation of the first.  After failing to remain asleep, Glenn eventually decides to get up and try and get some letter writing done.  However, he can’t focus on writing without music playing so he puts some noise cancelling headphones on his sleeping wife, puts some music on, pushes the volume levels he can get away with to their limit, and eventually receives a visit from the police.  Result: funny.     
I didn’t enjoy this issue quite as much as I enjoyed Ganges #1, but then Ganges #1 was one of the best comics I have ever read.  This was still very enjoyable, also very clever, and well worth the £4.75 I paid for it on eBay.  All three issues of Ganges seem to be available from Amazon (etc.) for a similar price.  I would also strongly recommend the Curses hardcover, published by Drawn & Quarterly, which collects a whole bunch of Kevin Huizenga strips, most of which first appeared in various anthologies.  I believe that book is now out of print but there seem to be plenty of used copies available on Amazon, some of them at very reasonable prices.  

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Spider-Man: Died In Your Arms Tonight TPB

This book collects Amazing Spider-Man issues 600 and 601, a story from Amazing Spider-Man Family #7, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #36.  Which doesn’t sound like a huge amount of content for a trade paperback but ASM #600 was a triple-sized issue (maybe more than triple-sized) and ASM Annual #36 was double-sized and this book ended up being a much more substantial read than I was expecting it to be.
The highlight of the book is the lead story from ASM #600, written by Dan Slott and illustrated by John Romita Jr (inked by Klaus Janson), in which a severely brain-damaged Doctor Octopus (brain-damaged because of all the blows to the head he has taken over the years) tries to take over New York and ruin Aunt May’s wedding to J. Jonah Jameson’s dad.  I read this story when ASM #600 first came out and didn’t really like it then but I think I must have just been in a bad mood that day, because I enjoyed it quite a lot this time.  The art is great and the script is witty, action packed and even quite touching in places.  There is one line Aunt May utters that I liked so much I wrote it down to impress girls with at a later date: ‘All the good things that happen in life, they happen in an instant too.’  But then I am a bit of a sap (also a married sap, so don’t tell my wife about that impressing girls bit).  Lots of guest stars, too, including the New Avengers, Daredevil and the FF, which helped to make it feel like a big-deal issue.  Then, in ASM #601, Peter Parker has women troubles to deal with after he gets intimate with his female roommate, Michele Gonzales, and is stood up by a returning Mary Jane Watson.  This issue, by Mark Waid and Mario Alberti, isn’t as good as #600 but I still enjoyed it.
There are lots of short Spider-Man strips in here, too, most of them from ASM #600, including a nice one by Stan Lee and Marcos Martin (a strong contender for the title 'best Spider-Man artist ever').  The rest of the strips were unmemorable but still decent reads, although the art was variable.
This has a recommended retail price of £14.99 / $19.99.  You can get it for just over £10.00 from Amazon, etc., but I got my copy off of eBay for £7.12, including postage.  I don’t regret buying it.                   

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Legion Of Monsters

I'm a sucker for buying collections of old 70s Marvel horror comics - which is strange, because when I get round to reading them, they often prove a huge disappointment. I grew up watching the old Universal monster movies on late night TV, so have a curious affection for Frankenstein's monster, Dracula and the Wolfman - I desperately want the Marvel versions to live up to my memories of those old films. Chances are the films would prove just as disappointing if I watched them again today... but nostalgia's funny that way.

Anyway, when I saw a reasonably cheap copy of this collection - in which contemporary creators bring modern storytelling styles to characters like the Monster of Frankenstein, Dracula and his daughter Lilith, the Man-Thing, Satana and Werewolf By Night (along with some "classic" reprints), I had to give it a go. It's not a complete success, but there was enough here to make it worth the £7.50 I shelled out.

Both new and old offer a mixed bag of delights and disappointments, but that's usually the case with anthologies. Of the new, the best strip is Ted McKeever's zombie love story starring Simon Garth. It's the least Marvel / most indie story here. Former Moon Knight writer Charlie Huston provides a creepy Poe-ish Man-Thing tale that shines thanks to Klaus Janson artwork (looking even more lush in the large hardback format). There's also stunning David Finch art on the Dracula & Lilith face-off, making CB Cebulski's script stand out more than it might otherwise. Mike Carey tries to inject a little depth into his Werewolf By Night adventure, but he's hampered by the shiny-porn-star art of Greg Land. Jonathan Hickman's Living Mummy strip is the weirdest thing here - written and drawn in the style of Hickman's Nightly News, it didn't quite work for me. The weakest offerings are a rather too superhero-y take on Satana by Robin Furth and Kalman Andrasofszky (eat that, spellcheck!) and Brendan Cahill's Morbius strip which feels a little like a watered down Buffy plot with gaudy painted art by Michael Gaydos. Skottie Young also provides an atmospheric ode to Frankenstein's monster, though this is overshadowed by the first of the 70s reprints by Doug Moench and Val Mayerik (doing his best Bernie Wrightson impression) in which Frankenstein finds acceptance and then betrayal at a costume party. It's by far the most affecting story in the book.

The rest of the reprints don't quite live up to that one, and the selection seems a little random. There's the origin of Manphibian, notably only for the corny name and overcrowded Dave Cockrum art. There's a rare 70s horror team-up which gives this anthology its Legion of Monsters title, from Marvel Premiere 28. It's by Bill Mantlo and Frank Robbins and it's a wasted opportunity. Finally there's three appearance from Scott Edelman's Scarecrow, including a bizarre team-up with the Thing. You have to wonder what Edelman was smoking when he wrote these strips... but the scripts do contain flashes of esoteric wit.

I bought the Legion Of Monsters HChardcover (no trade paperback appears to have been released) from an Amazon Marketplace seller for £4.70, plus £2.80 p&p. The copy I received looks like it was been chewed by the seller's dog (or perhaps his werewolf) but as it's no longer in print, new copies are going for around £30, and even the cheapest second hand ones are currently £12.49, I think I got a semi-bargain.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Sickness In The Family

Another book I discovered on my first visit to the surprisingly well-stocked graphic novel section in our local village library was this original Vertigo book by Denise Mina and Antonio Fuso. Mina is a Scottish crime novelist who occasionally dips her toe in the comics world, most notably with a short run on Hellblazer a few years back, between Mike Carey and Andy Diggle.

A Sickness In The Family is published as part of the Vertigo Crime imprint which also included Ian Rankin's debut comics work, Dark Entries, starring John Constantine. (By the way, if you're interested in checking out an On The Ration copy of that, I'd try your local branch of The Works as I've seen it on sale there for just a couple of quid.) A Sickness... is an original concept which doesn't feature John Conjob, though he would fit in pretty well here with the book's mix of jealousy, bitterness, insanity, betrayal... and hints of the supernatural.

The story tells of a family, the Ushers (work out the pun yourself) whose house and home is slowly falling apart. Ted, the father, is trying to keep his family together despite his wife's constant affairs and the various misdemeanours that are threatening the future prospects of his children, William, Amy and Sam. Like many modern households, each member of the family is wrapped up with their own selfish concerns, and have little time for each other, or for their elderly grandma who's recently come to stay. And then people start dying...

This was a curious book. It's immensely readable, due in large part to the smooth artwork of Antonio Fuso and the small format (A5) pages which are kept turning with pacy, natural dialogue. The plot kept me guessing throughout, threw in a few juicy red herrings, before unveiling a killer who was both a huge surprise and entirely predictable (the more I thought about it afterwards). I did think it might have worked better as a novel, allowing for deeper character insight, or as a film, giving the right cast the opportunity to spark off each other. I wouldn't particularly recommend it as a fine example of what can be achieved in the graphic novel form (except for the artwork), but it's a damn sight more readable than much of the garbage filling the shelves of your local comic shop this weekend. I guess you'll have to find a nice cheap copy (or pick it up from your local library) and make up your own mind...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger Vol.1 TPB

This book contains black and white reprints of Showcase #80 and the Phantom Stranger issues 1 to 21, which were originally published between 1969 and 1972.  I bought this last year and had been looking forward to reading it for a while, as I quite like horror comics and know very little about the Phantom Stranger, but unfortunately I found this a real struggle to get through.
I did quite enjoy the first few comics reprinted here, including Showcase #80.  These issues seemed a lot more old-fashioned than the rest of the book and I found out after I finished reading it that this is because these issues mostly consisted of reprints from the fifties, with newer framing sequences added.  These stories usually involved the Phantom Stranger and his foil, Dr Terrence Thirteen: The Ghost Breaker, encountering some mystery and trying to explain it away by referring to some of their earlier adventures (cue fifties reprints).  In these issues, the Phantom Stranger is more mysterious than in later stories, clearly a supernatural character but not explicitly so – there is more of an ‘is he magic or isn’t he?’ thing going on – while Dr. Thirteen is a one man Scooby-Doo gang, an arch-cynic who has dedicated his life to proving that there is no such thing as magic, so most of his stories involve him uncovering elaborate plots in which someone pretends to be a ghost in order to gain an inheritance, etc. 
Once the newer (1960s) stories begin, the Phantom Stranger’s powers become more obvious – we never really find out much about him, but I suppose that’s fair enough with a character called the Phantom Stranger – and his adventures become more entangled with those of Dr Thirteen, who I liked a lot in the fifties reprints but here he quickly became very annoying.  I mean, I am as cynical as it gets – I don’t believe in God, the supernatural, or even Santa Claus – but if I saw some of the shit Dr Thirteen was witness to in this book, I would be down on my knees praying to the baby Jesus every day of my frigging life.  But not Dr Thirteen.  He attempts to explain everything away as a trick of the light or hypnosis (in one particularly lame later issue, he reveals that one particular haunting is not the work of spirits at all, but merely the work of aliens, which wouldn’t make me sleep any sounder at night) and it gets boring very quickly.
Worse still, in a bunch of early issues written by Robert Kanigher, not only do the Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen keep bumping in to each other, they also keep bumping in to a bunch of annoying teenagers called Spartacus, Attila, Wild Rose, and Mister Square, whose names alone should give you a pretty good idea how hopelessly dated their ‘hip’ lingo seems now (and probably even seemed then).  I wanted them all to die horribly, and thankfully they disappeared when another writer took over.  This book is the work of multiple writers and artists, but most issues are either written by Robert Kanigher or Len Wein, who writes most of the later issues.  Those aforementioned Robert Kanigher issues were probably the worst issues in the book, but the Len Wein issues were pretty tedious, too.  Wein wisely separated the Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen in to their own stories again but his issues were horribly overwritten and as I got nearer the end of the book I found myself skim-reading most of the captions, and even some of the dialogue, and the adventures themselves were pretty repetitive.  I might have enjoyed Wein’s issues more if they had been nearer the beginning of the book, but under the circumstances I just found them boring and couldn’t wait to finish this and move on to something else.
On the plus side, this book does contain some great art.  At least half of the book is drawn by Jim Aparo – one of my all-time favourite comic artists – at his Silver / Bronze Age best, but there are also a few issues drawn by Neal Adams and I really liked Bill Draut’s art in the early issues.  Had I just read those early issues, and then made do with enjoying the art only on the later issues, I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more.
This has a recommended retail price of £10.49 / $16.99.  You can get it for a bit less than that from all the usual online retailers but I bought my copy from a bloke I met through eBay for £5.00.  No postage because he lives near me and I collected it in person and I also bought a whole load of other Showcase and Essential books from him for the same price.  Kind of wish I hadn’t bought Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger Vol.2 now, though, as the art in that seems a bit more variable – not much Jim Aparo – and I can’t ever see myself managing to work up the enthusiasm that will probably be required to slog my way through it.            

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

All Star Batman & Robin

This comic made me feel grubby.

But that isn't always a bad thing...

Having written two of the all-time best Batman stories in Year One and Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller now attempts to bridge the gap between them with a spectacularly over-the-top, ludicrously macho train-wreck of a comic that presents us with a Batman we've never seen before and retells the origin of Dick Grayson, the Boy Wonder, with outrageous nerve. It's like the Jim Steinman album of comic books - everything's louder than everything else, every cop is crooked, every woman is an impossibly long-legged underwear model, and every other superhero is either a jerk or lives in wide-eyed admiration of the goddamned Batman.

Oh yes, the goddamned Batman. Everyone calls him that. He even calls himself that.

"What, are you dense?" he asks a confused Grayson on their first meeting. "Are you retarded? Who the hell do you think I am? I'm the goddamned Batman."

Yep, it doesn't sound like any Batman you've ever read before... and it isn't. Miller tries half-heartedly to explain away the Batman's dialogue as his obsessive attempt to help Dick stay focused, keep him angry, not allow him to wallow in grief over his parent's death... make him into a soldier. But that explanation only goes so far and soon psycho-Batman is saying goddamned-this and goddamned-that even when he's talking to himself (which he does a lot).

Yes, Frank Miller has long since become a parody of himself. Yet it's impossible not to be entertained by that parody. There are some huge plot holes and gaping logic chasms in this book (let's not even mention Dick hearing Alfred's voice for the first time and pinpointing his accent as "South Kensington, I think") yet still Miller tries to come up with a plausible reason for why a violent vigilante would ever bring himself to take on board a 12 year old side-kick. His explanation? Batman is nuts. This whole world's nuts, so he has to be nuts to deal with it.

After all, this is a world where every costumed heroine is ogled as a sex object by every man she meets... and relishes in busting balls to prove she's not just that. It's a world in which Wonder Woman says things like, "Out of my way, sperm bank!" It's a world in which Batman saves Black Canary from a violent gang and she thanks him with a quick shag on the docks. It's a world in which the Joker has an assistant with swastikas on her boobs. Is it sexist? In a world (our own) of Anti-Feminism and Slut Walks, that's debatable.

It's also a world in which everyone keeps telling Batman his Batmobile is "queer". So it is homophobic? Or is it actually (like Miller's infamous 300) homoerotic?

"His hand lands on my shoulder," Dick narrates, "weightless as a falling leaf. Those bigass fingers of his squeeze like a gentle caress."

I've never been a Jim Lee fan, but he's the perfect artist to illustrate Miller's gaudy, ridiculous excesses. The art here literally leaps off the page - just check out the SIX page splash of the Batcave the first time Dick enters that dark, frigid hole. (Goddamn it, Frank, you've got me doing it now.) It's as grossly unnecessary as everything else in this book... yet you can't help but admire it. (Or maybe that's just me.)

Best of all is Batman's humiliation of Green Lantern in the final chapter, describing Hal Jordan as "a moron with the imagination of a potato" before letting Robin beat this "retarded demigod" half to death in a yellow-painted room. Hell, that was worth the price of the book all by itself.

I bought All Star Batman & Robin Vol 1on eBay for the bargain price of £2.49 + £2.49 p&p. It collects 9 issues (there are supposed to be more to come, but both Miller and Lee appear to have lost interest) and I fully intended to read it once and sell it on for a profit. The truth is... I just enjoyed it too much. And I feel goddamned grubby for admitting that.

Monday, 4 July 2011

American Vampire

Vertigo made a big hoo-ha about the fact they'd persuaded Stephen King to write his first ever original comics series (as opposed to the Dark Tower adaptations Marvel has been producing for years now), so I was intrigued to check this out when I saw it in my local library. Yep, now that I'm unemployed I'm really going to stick to the letter of the law round these parts - this book cost me nothing but the shoe leather it took to walk into the centre of our village.

American Vampire sets out with a pretty bold aim - to chronicle an alternate history of America in which vampires are as much a part of the culture as overpaid actors and crooked politicians. But these aren't cutesy twinkling Twilight vampires though: these guys are putting the blood back into bloodsucking.

It begins, as many of the best American legends do, in the latter days of the Wild West when an outlaw, murderer and bank robber called Skinner Sweet falls prey to an old, wealthy European vamp. Though Skinner himself is turned, the circumstances of his death prevent his resurrection for a number of years, and when he does eventually waken he's become a very different kind of vampire - one who can walk in the daylight.

Skinner's story continues in the book's alternating thread, set in 1920s Hollywood, wherein an ambitious young actress called Pearl Jones finds herself at the mercy of the fanged fiends who rule the casting couch. Like Skinner, Pearl is transformed into a new breed of vampire, and takes the necessary revenge on those who created her.

At the end of book one, American Vampire looks set to be an exciting and ambitious project, though Stephen King's involvement is secondary. The real guiding force is Scott Snyder, who scripts the Pearl Jones segments and appears to have provided much of the plot for the Skinner Sweet origin that's written by King. Both writers being overly modest in their introductions, it's difficult to tell just who came up with what, but it's clear that American Vampire is Snyder's brainchild, with King dragged along for the ride (and the extra sales his name will obviously bring). There's little stylistic difference between the two, and if credits were stripped from this book I'd easily believe it all the work of one writer. Likewise I doubt I'd recognise King's voice from his sections, despite being a huge fan of his work. Comics and novels are very different beasts, and the in-depth characterisation you'd expect from King's prose isn't particularly noticeable here; it's telling that in his introduction, King mentions his surprise at discovering thought balloons were considered old-hat in contemporary comics... for a writer who loves to get inside his character's heads, you can't help but feel this was a loss. The only truly typical King trait here is that Skinner Sweet's origin is told from the perspective of a grumpy pulp novelist.

Despite all this, American Vampire is both thrilling and engrossing, and I'll happily pop down the library to catch volume 2 when the book arrives in August. It's particularly worth a look for Rafael Albuquerque's dramatic and expressive artwork.

If you're slightly more flush than I am right now, you can pick up the hardcover of American Vampire: Volume. 1from Amazon for £10.36 (almost half rrp). Not sure when the trade paperback comes out, but I'm sure that'll be even cheaper.