Thursday, 31 October 2013

Judge Dredd: Year One by Matt Smith and Simon Coleby Review

When you do a Year One story – that is, the first year in that character’s life, often related to superheroes being superheroes for the first time – you need to show that character struggling a bit because they’re not who they will become yet. Let’s take Batman: Year One for an example, as this is clearly the book the publisher is hoping readers will associate this with because of the title. Bruce returns to Gotham for the first time in years – he’s been away training, preparing physically and mentally for his war on crime. On his first outing, he tries stopping some street violence in the red light district and fails miserably. He has a crude facsimile of the Batsuit and has yet to develop any effective gadgets. He takes his lumps, he triumphs, the book ends with Bruce not fully formed as Batman but definitely on his way to eventually becoming the World’s Greatest Detective. Great Year One story.

Now let’s take Judge Dredd Year One. We pick up Dredd’s story nearly a year since he left the Academy – so already this Year One is almost over! Dredd rides his Lawmaster (supercool bike), fires his Lawgiver (even cooler gun), arrests perps – in other words, Dredd is Dredd. So this Year One is pointless because the character is already formed. We don’t see Dredd fail, pick himself up, and learn from his mistakes – the dude is already supercop! The one thing different is that he doesn’t say is “I Am The Law!” (not we’re not even given the story behind the phrase anyway). 

So the story is fairly dreary – psychic kids causing crimes. It’s Carrie x 1000. Interesting, you think? Not really. Psychics, telekinesis, and so on are pretty de rigueur in Dredd’s world – there’s even a department of judges who specifically deal with psychic crimes called PSI Division. In fact this is the only aspect of Dredd’s world where the Year One label truly applies as we see PSI Division set up for the first time with Dredd, among others, sceptical of its usefulness. This book should really be called PSI Division: Year One (with Judge Dredd!). 

You know what villains would be better for Dredd Year One instead of nondescript psychic kids who we never see again? The Angel Gang. The Dark Judges. Even Dredd’s evil twin, Rico. Dredd has a number of excellent adversaries but none of them are used and we’re given a bunch of nobodies instead. I suppose it’s a thematic choice, Dredd is young, representing justice, and the perps are kids, representing crime, and this is the beginning of the conflict between justice and crime blah blah blah. But really, Mean Machine would’ve been better – even showing Mean before he got all cyborg-ed out – from a story standpoint. It’d at least make for a more interesting read. 

I won’t give away the ending but it’s exactly like a Scooby-Doo cartoon ending. Seriously. You see the resolution and won’t believe it’s that easy. 

There’s a very brief flashback at the start of the final chapter to when Dredd and Rico were cadets, on their own, against an angry mob that was excellent – it showed two young men, against the odds, inexperienced, somehow doing their duty. This is what the entire book should’ve been. It also very briefly mentioned the Nuclear Wars that led to the Cursed Earth, the Mega Cities, and the rise of the Judges – literally half a page – when really, this too should’ve been a big part of the book. 

Judge Dredd Year One should’ve been much better than this. We should see how Dredd learns to deal with the insanity of crime in Mega City One. We should see the fascinatingly weird history of his world leading to this point in time. We should see some of the defining characters make an appearance. More importantly, we should see Dredd’s character being formed. Instead we got Dredd already Dredd, and one forgettable story thrown into the mix. 

I think the publishers would like to think Judge Dredd Year One is a good jumping on point for new readers but it isn’t. If anything, it’s uninspired and dull storytelling would turn anyone off of the character. What you should do is pick up the Wagner/Ezquerra stories from the 70s – which were completely barmy and utterly brilliant – instead of this poor effort. Dredd is a great character who deserves better – there’s a great Year One story to be told but this one isn’t it.

Judge Dredd: Year One

Young Avengers, Volume 1: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton Review

You know how certain stories feature kids or teens in them because the storyteller somehow thinks that kids/teens won’t identify with the grown-up heroes and need someone relatable? That’s generally bogus – nobody wants to be Tom Cruise’s whiny kids in War of the Worlds, they want to be Tom Cruise. Nobody wants to be Jar Jar Binks or kid Anakin, they want to be Obi-Wan! Young Avengers somehow subverts that rule by making their teen characters the characters teens – and adults! - would want to be. Part of this success is how well Kieron Gillen’s captured what it feels like to be a teenager – turbulent mood swings both up and down, along with the exciting potential of the future, and the screw-it-all attitude that powers you through anything. 

The Young Avengers are: Wiccan and his boyfriend Hulkling, Kate Bishop/Hawkeye and her boyfriend Marvel Boy, Kid Loki, and Ms America. Hulkling (and I love the character but what a stupid name!) doesn’t have parents and is living with his boyfriend Wiccan and his family who’re super-cool with the setup and their kid’s sexuality. But he misses his mum, so in an ill-advised scheme, Wiccan conjures up Hulkling’s mother from a parallel dimension only for Kid Loki to interfere and the Mother that steps out turns out to be some kind of shape-shifting/Agent Smith-like replicating crazy monster! Young Avengers Assemble!

In a book starring teen heroes, Gillen’s choice to make the antagonist an authoritarian figure literally called Mother is pure genius because who do kids rebel against? Their parents! This is my first Young Avengers book so I have no idea how or why Loki is suddenly a 14 year old but he’s definitely the best character in the group. Besides his good taste in breakfast food (bacon roll with ketchup – yummers!) he has a great scene where he tries to explain to the sceptical group that he’s a bad guy-ish but he’s also kinda good: “You guys read/watch Game of Thrones? Who’s your favourite character?” Everyone: “Tyrion” Loki: “I’m Tyrion!”. 

Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton’s art is damn near perfect. The lines are clear and smooth (which is the one thing that I felt was uncharacteristic of our teenage heroes – none of them had spots!) and the presentation is awesome. Teenagers – especially teen superheroes – are bound to swagger a bit and this book reflects that, opening with a cinematic title/scene switching opening sequence showing Hawkeye and Marvel Boy fighting Skrulls in space after boning. You can almost hear the power pop melodies of Green Day’s American Idiot playing as they launch into the Skrulls, smiling, as Kate says, with the kind of arrogant bluster teenagers tend to possess, that “being a superhero is amazing – everyone should try it!”. It even ends the same way with that self-important “you have been reading – Young Avengers!” title card sequence which is terrific, perfectly presenting the way teenagers see their lives, as the most interesting movie ever made. The flipside is, if you’re not enjoying the book it could come off as supremely annoying. 

There’s also an amazing splash page where Marvel Boy explodes into a nightclub to save the rest of the Young Avengers from Mother and her brainwashed cohorts where we see the whole layout of the club, following his actions with numbers and close ups outside the layout drawing for details – I’m not doing it justice describing it, but it’s really something to see. They even go abstract in this book as Wiccan finds himself trapped within the panels of the comic, acting as a jail cell, as Loki and Hulkling bust open the panels to break him free, and skip over the panels like it’s a platform game to get back into their story. Again, the best Marvel books out there right now are incorporating elements you’d see in indie comics rather than superhero comics (Hawkeye is doing this the best) and it works so damn well – this sequence was unexpected and brilliant. 

I don’t know any teenagers but I think if you gave them both Young Avengers and Teen Titans to read, they would go with Young Avengers – it’s a better book on every level and seems more appealing and convincing to a younger audience by being more identifiable, especially as Teen Titans is currently written by a guy in his 50s wearing a Hawaiian shirt! I’m not making this a Marvel/DC thing because I enjoy (and dislike) books from both, but I feel like Marvel have achieved audience range with this book while DC’s New 52 titles remain aimed at a certain kind of person in their 30s who only want to read “dark and gritty” tales. 

This book is called Style>Substance which describes the attitudes of the characters but definitely not the characters or the book itself which has plenty of both. Young Avengers - what an unexpectedly great book! Gillen and co. capture the spirit of youth in Young Avengers, when all you needed was your favourite song and your best friend and you were unstoppable. The characters are balanced really well, at times confident and clear-sighted, other times vulnerable and suddenly realising their limitations, and they also seem like real teenagers – there’s even a scene where they get carded at a club! Young Avengers is a really fun superhero book that’s easily one of the most impressive Marvel NOW! titles out there.

Young Avengers - Volume 1: Style>Substance

The Sandman: Overture #1 by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III (Vertigo) Review

My review of The Sandman: Overture #1 went up today - read the full piece here:

The Superior Spider-Man #20 by Dan Slott and Giuseppe Camuncoli (Marvel) Review

My review of Superior Spider-Man #20 went up today - read the full piece here:

Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven and The Red Death by Richard Corben Review

My review of Richard Corben's adaptations of Poe's The Raven and The Red Death went up today - read the full piece here:

Captain America: Living Legend #2 by Andy Diggle and Agustin Alessio (Marvel) Review

My review of Captain America: Living Legend #2 went up today - read the full piece here:

The Trial of the Punisher #2 by Marc Guggenheim and Mico Suayan (Marvel) Review

My review of The Trial of the Punisher #2 went up today - read the full piece here:

5 Awesome Comics You Must Read This Week - 30 October 2013

Read my comics of the week picks here:

Monday, 28 October 2013

Saga of the Swamp Thing, Volume 1 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben Review

I know this is a beloved book and so, so many people adore this and everything else Alan Moore wrote, especially in the 80s, and that all kinds of superlatives are thrown around when discussing Swamp Thing – and I’m not being contrarian when I say this isn’t all that and a bag of chips, either. Paul O’Brien from the House to Astonish podcast nailed it when he said that “if Alan Moore’s books were as good as everyone said they were, they’d cure cancer”. Which is to say, I think this isn’t a bad book but suffers somewhat from the enormous praise that’s built it up to an impossibly high standard, and when I finally read it, I found that it’s actually just an ok book.  
First off, the numbering – “Volume 1”. Readers unfamiliar with Swamp Thing – and let’s face it, there are a lot! – might think this would be the best place to start but it in fact isn’t. At least, not if you want to see Alec Holland’s death/rebirth as Swamp Thing, or his relationship with Abby Cable née Arcane/Matt Cable, or his initial struggles with his new appearance. This book collects Moore’s first few issues writing the series but he started after nearly 20 issues had been out which means the book starts with issue #20 and goes through to #27, so you’re going to not quite get the characters/storyline from the get-go – and there’s no attempt to explain it later either.
You could argue that this is the first time the “real” Swamp Thing emerges as Moore’s take on the character is the first time Swamp Thing became more than a hacky monster tale and turned into a deeper, richer story. The second issue – The Anatomy Lesson – is the highlight of the book as Swamp Thing is captured and examined in a lab only to discover that Alec Holland isn’t Swamp Thing but that Swamp Thing is a mutated plant that thinks it’s Alec Holland (that might seem like a spoiler but it’s not as it happens really early on so it’s not like giving away the ending to the Sixth Sense - plus the book is 30 years old at this point!). It’s also a really well written story that starts off mysteriously, then goes back and circles back on itself in a neat one-issue story arc. I also really liked that Moore immediately defines that character his way with his vision of it on his second issue.  
However, Moore only manages to create this kind of engrossing narrative magic a couple of times in this book – oddly in the issues that have very little going on in them – while the more action-packed stories are less artistic, less thoughtful, less involving, and it’s why I didn’t think this book is so amazing. There’s an extended story featuring one of the least threatening villains ever, the Floronic Man, aka Jason Woodrue, who should be renamed the Moronic Man. Why moronic? He attempts to wipe out humanity by upping the oxygen rate, not quite getting that this would also affect the plant life he believes he represents and is fighting for! Plus if your ace in the hole is a chainsaw, you’re done. You’re not Ash, this ain’t Evil Dead, I get the connection between chainsaws and trees, but seriously - a chainsaw against Swamp Thing? Come on.
The JLA get a cameo in this story despite not really doing anything – Superman and Green Lantern show up at the end to take away the Floronic Man after Swamp Thing defeats him and old Woodrue (wood – rue, get it? Not very subtle, Alan!) looks even more idiotic. He’s attempting to talk his way out of it and just looks like such a feeble old man next to Superman and Green Lantern - it’s pitiful. Superman puts his cape around Woodrue and takes him to Arkham. This guy was the big villain of the book!
Jason Blood/Etrigan close out the book as a demon shapeshifter emerges in the home for mentally disabled kids that Abby works in. Again, not a terrific villain and I felt Moore was pressing the horror angle a bit too hard. What I dislike about Etrigan – and for those who don’t know, Jason Blood made a deal with a demon, Etrigan, centuries ago, and the two are now bonded in one body forever – is the constant rhyming which I know is a big part of his character but it lends itself to soooo many bad rhyming couplets. That said, Moore does an admirable job with his rhymes and none of them stood out as too embarrassing.
Then there’s the 80s art… it’s ok in parts but pretty terrible in others. Stephen Bissette and John Totleben just can’t do action. The first issue opens with the military hunting down Swamp Thing and those helicopter attacks looked awful! The motion doesn’t look real and the explosions looked ridiculously phony. Also, towards the end of the book when Etrigan leaves and Jason Blood re-emerges, Blood’s character model up until then has been red hair with a streak of white but in this scene his hair’s gone dark blue and facially he looks identical to the character model of Matt Cable, Abby’s alcoholic husband. So Bissette and Totleben literally swapped out Jason Blood for Matt Cable in a scene featuring Jason Blood! That’s pretty damning. On the subject of faces, neither artist is particularly good at drawing them and frequently they look rushed and/or badly rendered.
But other times where there isn’t much movement or humans that just feature Swamp Thing? Beautiful. Not only that but the page layouts are really imaginative with plot elements framing a page and things like plant roots dividing up the panels. Or panels arrayed cleverly across two pages in a style that JH Williams III has made popular with his work on Batwoman. Before this, the only Swamp Thing I’d read was Scott Snyder/Yanick Paquette’s New 52 Swamp Thing and the most striking thing about that book was Paquette’s wonderful art and page layouts which I thought were original. Reading this book, it’s clear Paquette took his cue from Bissette and Totleben with their pioneering use of art and style in presenting their version of the character. So I’m split with the art – sometimes it’s hard to look at, badly rendered, or flat out too dated to be convincing, and other times I love what I’m seeing.
Swamp Thing is an interesting character and kudos for Moore for elevating the tone of the stories to a higher level. This first book has some nice narrative moments and does a major revamp of the way readers would see the character, but generally the stories, like the art, that comprise it are uneven at best. The book features some odd villains that are difficult to take seriously, and there’s no real direction for the character - I’m not sure what Swamp Thing’s purpose is - both things I’d like to see done better in later books. Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 1 is a bit slow at times, a bit lugubrious like a lot of Moore’s writing, but otherwise it’s an ok read - just don’t get carried away by the hype. 

Saga Of The Swamp Thing Book 1

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Conan the Barbarian, Volume 14: The Death by Brian Wood et al. Review

Conan and his girlfriend Belit, the Pirate Queen from the last book, visit his mother but his mum doesn’t approve of her; Conan fights a childhood friend who was heartbroken when, as kids, Conan hooked up with the girl he fancied; Belit gets sick while Conan gets drunk in a pub: these are the stories in this book but feel like they’re more suited for a cheap TV soap opera like Eastenders, rather than a book about a barbarian!

You do get the obligatory fight scenes of Conan chopping up "bad" guys, but they're par for the course. Maybe Brian Wood thought this was a good thing? Wood knows that when readers think of Conan they think of magical creatures, evil armies of monsters, enchanted weapons, etc. and wanted to subvert that image by writing very ordinary stories that happen to star a barbarian. If so, bad idea, Brian! If not, try harder, Brian!

To be fair, the Conan’s mother thing is barely a subplot and the real story is Conan and Belit traversing the unforgiving Cimmerian countryside in search of a man calling himself Conan who’s razing every village and encampment he comes across. Though the imposter does turn out to be a childhood friend of Conan’s, who was humiliated when he hit on a girl he liked only to find out Conan’s been hooking up with her behind his back. But this happened when they were 12 and they’re both now grown men - someone really needed to tell this guy to let it go! Nothing that happens to you at 12 is important, at least not in hindsight.

I suppose this story was supposed to be about Conan and Belit’s relationship which becomes strained once Conan realises how unsuited she is to the treacherous landscape - but it’s ok, they get through it. See what I mean about this book being so ordinary? Barbarians and pirate queens argue just like regular couples!

Then we get to the title story where Belit and her crew get sick after finding a small boat with a diseased man aboard. Conan doesn’t get sick for whatever reason and heads to port to get help. Healers help them get better while Conan drinks and fights in pubs - riveting!

I kept reading this thinking - that’s it? This is the whole story?! - especially when this was a book written by Brian Wood, the guy who created the epic barbarian series Northlanders (which I would recommend you read over his Conan books). The Death also felt like a book I’d read before. The only other Conan book I’ve read is also by Wood, Queen of the Black Coast, but I felt like The Death echoed some of the stories from that book, like when Belit gets confined to the Tigress (their ship) and Conan fights off enemies on the dock. I’m not about to look it up but I’m sure an exact scene like this appeared in that book too, to the point where I was guessing the plot points before I turned the page only to find them play out exactly as I’d thought. Wood’s either repeating himself or he’s become incredibly predictable.

The wonderful Becky Cloonan returns - only to draw one issue, unfortunately. Her issue looks amazing, as always, and then the art goes downhill. Vasilis Lolos draws two issues that look utterly awful, somehow making Conan look more feminine than Belit, and Declan Shalvey draws the remaining three issues. Shalvey’s art isn’t bad actually it’s just fairly unremarkable, not helped by the tedious script and story for The Death.

Conan the Barbarian, Vol 14: The Death is Brian Wood on autopilot, sending in some of his most uninspired stuff, hoping it’ll pass muster - and it doesn’t. Wood can write really exciting, imaginative, and engrossing comics featuring barbarians, as evidenced by Northlanders, but his Conan books have been very plain stories. It might be Conan’s fault - the character might simply not be a very interesting one, despite somehow sustaining an audience all these years - but Wood isn’t a flawless writer, he’s written some stinkers in his time. Either way, The Death is definitely not a must-read for anyone. 

Conan Volume 14: The Death

I Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton Review

Apparently Pusheen the Cat is a super-popular blog by writer/artist Claire Belton, about a fat cat called Pusheen who eats and sleeps all day long - like every other cat on the planet! I was expecting a book in the style of How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting To Kill You but really this is just a series of repetitive “jokes” that are one-pagers, if not one-imagers, that don’t really add up to much.

For example, there’s a series of images of Pusheen reimagined as colourful dinosaurs that’s exactly what it is and nothing more, or a series on Cat Etiquette which are just observations every cat owner ever will already know like their cat messing up the litter tray for no reason or standing on your lap with their butt toward you. Yeah…?

If that’s your bag, then you’ll love this - fans of Hello Kitty/kawaii are probably the target audience. Me, not so much. I was bored reading most of this - though you do fly through it, it’s like reading a series of greeting cards - and kept trying to figure out how this blog has a millions-strong audience when all it seemingly offers are the most banal scenes of a cat doing practically nothing!

I am Pusheen the Cat

Friday, 25 October 2013

A Meeting By The River by Christopher Isherwood Review

Christopher Isherwood is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for a while and when my Pa gave me a copy of A Meeting by the River as a gift - a book he read while a young man though today has completely forgotten - I thought now was the time. I wouldn’t have picked this Isherwood if it’d been up to me, I was more interested in A Single Man, which was made into a film a few years ago starring Colin Firth, or the even more famous Berlin Stories which became Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret, but A Meeting by the River it was to be. And it’s not a long book either at under 200 pages. But boy, what a chore it became… 

Like a lot of 60s novels, this one is fascinated with Eastern spiritualism. Two estranged brothers meet up in India where the younger, Oliver, is about to take his vows and become a Hindu monk which makes his older brother Patrick, a well-to-do English publisher now working in Hollywood, dismayed. Patrick has gone to India to try to change Oliver’s mind before it’s too late. 

I’ve read many literary books I hated all the way through before - it’s how you get a literature degree - so I thought I could get through this; but then I remembered I’m not longer in uni and can read purely for fun now, so I gave this up. Objective literary criticism - if such a thing can exist - says that if a character or characters seem real, whether you like them or not, then it is true art, and Patrick and Oliver did seem realistic. 

Subjective literary criticism - or simply literary criticism - sways me the other way. Is this entertaining? No. Does it reveal anything particularly interesting about different cultures, sibling relationships, or religion? No. So what does it do? Nothing much of anything. We learn about the pettiness of both brothers via Oliver’s diary and Patrick’s letters, the mediums through which the story is told, but are spiteful characters difficult to write? I don’t think so - likeable characters, though, characters you care about are extremely hard to write and are the acid test of a truly great writer. 

And while Isherwood is a decent writer, the trope of having Patrick write his letters to three people - his mother, his wife, and his gay lover - to show his differing writing styles (prim and decent to his mother, gossipy with his wife, dark and sexual towards his boyfriend), revealing different sides to the story, was very on the nose and not nearly as clever as I’m sure he thought it was. 

Isherwood writes well which is different from both writing well and telling a compelling story, the latter of which I value and prefer more. I can appreciate the artfulness of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed a single page of it. Two thirds of the way through I dropped it in my bag of books headed to the charity shop and immediately felt better. Isherwood has probably written better books, and maybe the others I mentioned are better starting places, but A Meeting by the River is definitely not one of them.

A Meeting by the River

Thursday, 24 October 2013

X-O Manowar, Volume 4: Homecoming by Robert Venditti and Lee Garbett Review

Four books in and I would’ve expected – and understood – a dip in quality but it seems Robert Venditti is a long way from done with his epic tale of a barbarian from the stars. Aric has freed his surviving Visigoths from the alien Vine, commandeering one of their spacecrafts, and returned everyone to Earth. Except he’s landed the ship on the site of his former home of Dacia - modern day Romania –just outside Bucharest, and the move looks distinctly troublesome. Alien spacecraft invading, annexing land, led by a warrior wearing one of the most powerful weapons in the universe? Aric has attracted a lot of unwanted attention – and the Eternal Warrior needs to do something about it before things escalate further. 

Valiant’s XO Manowar series continues to impress, mostly because I see the covers – often of Aric fighting - and I’m reminded of the story – of a fighter wearing an Iron Man suit fighting people – and I underestimate the intelligence behind the books. Venditti gives XO Manowar an intelligence it could easily get away with not having, like focusing on details like Aric’s people and how 5th century folk respond to 21st century society, or the impressions of the rest of the world on Aric’s sudden appearance on the world stage. You’ll see what I mean when you read it and these might be small scenes but are essential in making this a richer, more enjoyable story overall.

The main thrust of the book is Aric’s response to the modern world, our world. Gilad, the Eternal Warrior (whose own solo title recently launched), turns out to be a former mentor of Aric’s and Venditti masterfully uses flashback scenes at pivotal moments to build up the history and dramatic tension between the characters. There’s great action as the two face off, though there’s also excellent dialogue surrounding the scene too so it’s not merely a big dumb superhero fight. Then there’s the climactic battle between NATO Forces and Aric’s people in what I thought was to be a sure-fire massacre but Venditti managed to surpass my expectations again in a brilliant finale. 

If you’ve been enjoying the series so far, XO Manowar, Volume 4: Homecoming is another hit you’re going to enjoy. Venditti has shifted Aric’s attentions away from alien slavemasters to humanity and ratcheted up the stakes as a result. With great art as ever from Lee Garbett, Homecoming is an excellent continuation of the hit series that sets up Valiant’s big event series, Unity, as Aric and his people take on Valiant’s first super-powered team! Even though Venditti’s not writing Unity, if it’s only half as good as this series, it’ll be one hell of an event!

X-O Manowar Volume 4: Homecoming

Sex Criminals #2 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky Review

My review of Sex Criminals #2 went up today - read the full review here:

Pretty Deadly #1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios Review

My review of Pretty Deadly #1 went up today - read the full piece here:

Velvet #1 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting Review

My review of Velvet #1 went up today - read the full review here:

Marvel Now What?! #1 by Skottie Young et al. Review

My review of Marvel What Now?! #1 went up today - read the full review here:

Samurai Jack #1 by Jim Zub and Andy Suriano Review

My review of Samurai Jack #1 went up today - read the full piece here:

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Rocket Girl #1 by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder Review

My review of Rocket Girl #1 went up today - read the full review here:

Batman and the Monster Men by Matt Wagner Review

Set in the early days of Batman’s career, Monster Men follows the epic Year One storyline with a less than stellar volume that shares none of the preceding book’s quality. Monster Men has more in common with other early-Batman books that suck like Year Two, The Long Halloween, and Prey, the latter of which this book is a prequel to. It’s also a remake of a classic Batman story from 1940, so in theory, this book should be fun – except it’s not. 

Matt Wagner tells the story no-one wanted to read of how Dr Hugo Strange became so obsessed with Batman in Prey. In this book – and in line with the campy b-movie horror tone of the book’s title and original story – Strange is a mad scientist trying to cure genetic defects inherited at birth, in order to create perfect humans. Except his experiments go horribly wrong and wind up giant, brain-dead cannibals. Because he’s broke and being hounded by creditors, Strange decides to harness these Monster Men’s strength to kill the gangsters he’s borrowed money from to get them off his back – enter Batman. 

Monster Men could be a fun story – could – but this one isn’t because Wagner’s treatment of the story is so very unimaginative. The familiar gangsters – Maroni, Falcone, etc. – are still stereotypes, “talkin’ like dat, bawss – hey it’s da bat!”, toothpicks or cigars sticking out of their mouths, flipping coins, while Strange feels like he stepped out of a Hammer horror movie, making long mad-scientist-y speeches from his first appearance and even having a be-turbaned assistant called Rajan! I know this latter point is intentional as this book is supposed to echo cheesy horror movies and the 1940 Batman story, but it just doesn’t work here as the tone is far too serious. The Monster Men are exactly what you’d expect – caveman types with large, irregular teeth, low brows, and frequently near-naked to showcase their hairiness. How wrong can you go when trying to create a perfect human? Strange is the worst geneticist ever! 

There’s a pointless attempt at a romance story between Bruce and Julie Madison, possibly the least memorable of Bruce’s girlfriends, which ties into the boring gangster storyline, and Bruce gets his first Batmobile. This book isn’t amazingly written or drawn especially well but neither are terrible - they’re just kinda average. I did like that Wagner referenced that panel in Year One where Bruce kicks a tree while training and Wagner replicates that movement exactly when Bruce is fighting the Monster Men. Also like a lot of other early Batman books, this one shows the decline of traditional crime figures like gangsters and the rise of the new criminals, the colourful villains like Strange, alongside the rise of the costumed vigilante. But inspired moments are unfortunately few in this book.

Strange sees Batman beating up his Monster Men and realises Batman is the perfect human specimen, instantly becoming obsessed with him leading in to the events of Prey –an awful and contrived reason, especially as the whole geneticist thing isn’t touched on in Prey where Strange has somehow reinvented himself instead as a prominent psychologist and master hypnotist! 

Monster Men isn’t as awful as Prey but it’s still not good. Hugo Strange remains a crappy character whose presence in a book is a clear sign that what’s about to follow will be garbage. Wagner’s not a bad artist/writer but Monster Men is definitely not one of his better efforts. Books like Monster Men show why Batman’s best foes aren’t physically powerful, because guys who just hit things really hard tend not to produce imaginative stories while guys like Joker and Riddler become icons. Conceptually this is a good story, but the finished book is very poor.

Batman And The Monster Men

Sunday, 20 October 2013

9 Reasons Why Grant Morrison’s Batman RIP Is A Masterpiece

Why is Grant Morrison's Batman RIP a masterpiece? Read the full article here:

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger Review

Best known for her novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book I’ve never, nor ever will, read, I’m familiar with Audrey Niffenegger’s “illustrated novels”, all of which I’ve read. The latest, Raven Girl, is a modern fairy tale conceived for a dance production, and is also the least interesting of the four illustrated novels. 

A postman and a giant raven produce a human girl who wishes she was a raven. When she grows up and enters university, she meets a visiting biology professor who reluctantly agrees to graft wings onto her and does. Raven Girl flies - the end. It’s Hans Christian Anderson meets Dr Moreau! 

This is a fairy tale so I’m not going to critique the setup, but I will say that it’s not a very imaginative fairy tale. It basically follows the archetypical metamorphosis trope found in nearly every fairy tale - frogs turning into princes, princesses turning into swans, and so on and so forth. In this book, a girl turns into a raven. Yeah - and? 

Art-wise, Niffenegger paints and draws in the same style as she did in her last couple of books but with much less visual flair - The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress both had much more eye-catching and memorable art than the few drab illustrations in Raven Girl. The book is really well produced though - glossy, high quality pages are used and the book feels and looks well-made.

I can’t pan the book entirely because it’s designed for a dance production and there’s only so much you can put into a story that would work within a dance show, so it needs to be necessarily simplistic. That said, reading it isn’t much fun and it’s story is all too forgettable. Maybe as a dance it’s great - I’ll probably never see it - but as an “illustrated novel”? Nope.

Raven Girl

Friday, 18 October 2013

BPRD: Vampire by Mike Mignola, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon Review

Set in 1948 in the early days of the BPRD when Hellboy was still a child, one of Professor Bruttenholm’s (pronounced “Broom”) colleagues, the troubled sailor Simon Anders, is having waking nightmares of the two demonic sisters trapped within him, thanks to the Professor from a previous adventure. He decides this can’t go on – he must vanquish their spirits once and for all and restore his sanity, by going back to their earthly home and killing all of the witches and vampires there. Game on, Agent Anders! 

Look at these credits: Mike Mignola. Gabriel Ba. Fabio Moon. Dave Stewart. This is a dream team of comics creators. So how could this book be anything less than a masterpiece with such an array of talent? 

I think the reason I wasn’t as enamoured with this book as I usually am with other BPRD titles is because this is a fairly generic Mignola spooky story. Simon – or any protagonist really as Simon isn’t a very interesting character – goes to Europe, encounters some odd people, wanders through romantic scenery of moonlit forests, ruined castles and so on, some witches and vampires show up, fighting ensues, the end. If you’ve read as much Mignola as I have, you’ll know the guy is capable of far more complex and compelling storylines than this – if anything, BPRD: Vampire is Mignola on autopilot. 

Which isn’t to say it’s that bad – it’s a decent story, just not very surprising. Mignola on autopilot is still head and shoulders above other writers’ best efforts, I think I’ve just been spoiled having enjoyed so much quality Mignola fare before that my expectations for everything he does is now unreasonably high. 

Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s artwork though is what really stands out. There are so many wordless scenes that are just wonderful to behold: Simon taking an old-fashioned train – empty – at night across mainland Europe, quaint lit cottages dotted amidst imposing trees alongside the rails; the amazing town of Cesky Krumlov in South Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia) with its stone narrow roads, market stalls and haunted, head-shawled women, and the old, menacing, empty castle, not to mention the dark forests, ruined buildings and the underground throne-room… Ba and Moon’s artwork is really something. It always is, but I particularly liked it here, taking their dark and gothic cues from Mignola’s style. 

It was great seeing Bruttenholm out in the field. He’s one of my favourite characters partly because he’s one of the few non-supernatural BPRD members and yet is also their leader, plus he’s just a good dude. If you like Bruttenholm as much as me, check out BPRD: 1946 and BPRD: 1947 for some outstanding stories starring this underused character. 

I also appreciate Mignola’s by now highly sophisticated storytelling style. The ending is intentionally ambiguous with Simon’s fate unknown, as well as numerous other characters’ – “deceased” characters have a habit of cropping up in other Mignola books at any time. Events unfold without intrusive explanation as Mignola allows the story to breathe, using dialogue when necessary but also understanding silent images are sometimes more effective in comics, and nothing is signposted – some story points just are. You get just enough story to understand the book but not enough so that you know for sure how everything went down, and I love that about Mignola’s recent work. 

As a long-time Mignola reader and big fan of the BPRD, I can’t say that this is one of the better volumes in the series (try BPRD: The Universal Machine instead for an amazing read) but it’s not bad, and for more casual readers, it’s perfectly fine. BPRD: Vampire is a solid vampire/witch/supernatural story and is also accessible to non-series readers who can just pick up this book and enjoy the atmospheric horror of it all – and hey, it’s Halloween, the perfect time to experience Mignola’s dark world! Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon are also amazing talents – check out their work like De:Tales and Daytripper for some phenomenal comics. They’re a good fit for these books, I hope they collaborate again with Mignola. And in a world where the most famous vampire story right now is the abysmal Twilight, it’s good to see Mignola and co. give vampires their balls back by making them terrifying bloody monsters again.

B.P.R.D.: Vampire

Plants Vs Zombies: Lawnmageddon by Paul Tobin and Ron Chan Review

Plants Vs Zombies is one of the most addictive, entertaining games I’ve ever played. I played the first game to death, doing the challenges long after I’d completed the game (several times) and not a day goes by since Plants Vs Zombies 2 has been released where I don’t play at least one game of it (that damn Treasure Yeti’s lunchbox!). I love this gaming series, it’s so much fun. 

The flip side is that the popularity of the game spawns further iterations of the franchise in other media, in this case a comic book version of Plants Vs Zombies written by Paul “Bandette” Tobin, the go-to guy for writing kid-friendly comics. It might be because this comic is clearly aimed at younger readers, but I could not get through it despite it being a short book of not even 100 pages. 

The story – and I use the term loosely – is about a small town suddenly being invaded by zombies. A boy and a girl – because everyone else has disappeared, maybe they’re the zombies? I don’t know, I didn’t read far enough ahead but I doubt it – are the last line of defence against the hilariously dressed horde. Or are they? The girl’s uncle turns out to be Crazy Dave, the guy wearing a saucepan, who has been experimenting on plants and created a ton of mutant plants, all of which are scattered about town and are taking down the zombies. It’s up to the kids to marshal the plants in an epic showdown against the zombies. 

The story, as far as I read it, was the kids running about town, encountering a type of zombie – and all of the plants and zombies used are from the first game, not the second – and then a plant showing up to kill it. This was repeated again, and again, and again, until I couldn’t go on any more. The novelty of seeing the plants and zombies that I know so well in a comic wore off a few pages in and after that I was left with the no-plot story and weak jokes. After struggling to keep my interest for nearly half the book I put it down and down it shall remain. 

This isn’t entirely Tobin’s fault – Plants Vs Zombies is a tower defence game, it’s all about the gameplay and it doesn’t require a story. But transfer the game into a medium that requires a narrative and you can only do so much with what you’ve got. Plants Vs Zombies – the title is the story, like Snakes on a Plane, but it’s also not an interesting story. Fun to play, boring to read. 

The Devil May Cry and Assassin’s Creed comics are awful, the Street Fighter comics are pretty poor, and added to the bunch is Plants Vs Zombies. Great games do not make great comics.

Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon

Uncanny X-Men #13 (Battle Of The Atom #8) by Brian Michael Bendis and Chris Bachalo Review

My review of Uncanny X-Men #13 went up today - read the full review here:

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Double Life is Twice as Good by Jonathan Ames Review

Jonathan Ames is a writer whose work is very up and down in terms of quality – on the one hand you’ve got fine, fun fiction like Bored to Death and on the other you have an overlong, uninteresting comic like The Alcoholic. The Double Life is very representative of Ames’ work with the essays and short stories collected here proving this dichotomy. 

The opening selection, Bored to Death, is really good. A bored novelist called Jonathan Ames posts an ad on Craigslist pretending to be an amateur, unlicensed private investigator and begins getting cases. Originally appearing in the literary journal McSweeney’s, this short story is also the basis for the HBO TV series Bored to Death starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson, which is a supergreat show, though this original fiction is a lot darker than the TV series – which I thought was a nice surprise actually. Generally though the fiction in this book is pretty poor stuff. His Diary of a Book Tour isn’t bad but the others tend to be just a couple of pages long and felt like it took as long to write as it did to read, they’re just so insubstantial. 

His non-fiction takes up most of this book and is definitely the highlight of this collection. His interview with Marilyn Manson was pretty great and once more showed MM to be a decent, down-to-earth chap who leads a pretty amazing life. Ames caught him in the aftermath of his divorce from Dita Von Teese and having just met Rachel Evan Wood with MM swooning over her – MM in love! Lovely. Ames even manages to drink MM under the table! His interview with Lenny Kravitz was similarly interesting – Kravitz seems like less of an interesting person but also seems like someone you could have a normal conversation with. And who knew he was celibate?! Another highlight included a trip to a Goth music festival as Ames tries to find out why people are drawn to Goth as a lifestyle choice. 

Unfortunately not all of the non-fiction stuff hits home. His review of the recently gentrified Meatpacking District in New York is ok for a few pages – but 27 pages? It’s too long. It also features his adult-adolescent friend Mangina (obviously not his real name) who wears a mangina and does improv theatrics. This isn’t the only essay where Mangina shows up and it’s clear Ames has a colourful social life, taking part in avant garde theatrics with his eccentric friends. I don’t have a problem with people like this but when you’re middle-aged and still acting like you’re 12, you can come across as somewhat tedious and twee rather than charming, which is how Mangina and Ames come across in these essays. 

Ames is an interesting fellow though. He talks about literally boxing fellow authors in PR stunts to promote their books. Ames does amateur boxing under the name The Herring Wonder, which is definitely interesting and follows Hemingway’s footsteps, who also boxed for a while, but Ames’ essay on his fighting career isn’t particularly compelling. He also includes lengthy excerpts of his diary from when he was in his early 20s which are extraordinarily self-indulgent and dull. He waffles on about how he’s in love with this woman and how she broke his heart and so on, and it’s such a worthless addition that it feels like it was included as padding to lengthen this rather slim volume to a more reasonable size instead of its quality or insight. 

Ames is a little too eager to reveal details of his sex life which can be a bit off-putting – the piece on going down on a woman in the dark whom he didn’t realise was a virgin, feeling moisture around his mouth and not realising until later that it was blood, is both a bit disgusting and funny. Then the numerous other essays that feature Ames going down on various other women just felt repetitive and that he was trying a little too hard to be shocking and hilarious, never really accomplishing either. 

I quite liked The Double Life because Ames is a talented writer so that even if the essay or piece you’re reading isn’t as engaging as others, it’s at least well written. And despite the misfires, when he’s on, he’s really great and the good parts make reading this worth it. Ames is kind of like David Sedaris’ deviant cousin whose books aren’t quite as good as Sedaris’ but contain some entertaining gems nonetheless. The Double Life is by no means essential reading but good for dipping in and out of while reading other books.

The Double Life Is Twice as Good

Hunger by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Leonard Kirk Review

See the Galactus cover? See the title? Think it’s about Galactus and his hunger? Wrong! It’s about Rick Jones! Who? Ultimate Captain Marvel. Yeah, me neither. 

So the end of Age of Ultron saw time and space tear apart and somehow, for some reason, Marvel 616 Galactus made it over into the Ultimates Universe where he bonded with Ultimate Gah-Lak-Tus – a swarm of planet-devouring bots – to become some ultra-powerful Galactus hybrid. All to the good – except it disappointingly becomes your standard Galactus story thereafter. Galactus threatens a planet, cosmic heroes – in this case, Captain Marvel, Silver Surfer, Ro-Nan, and Mahr-Vehl – team-up to stop him. Guess how it ends? Yup! 

I was hoping this book would focus more on Galactus and give us a new spin on the character, or look into another aspect of the character – something, anything about Galactus, a character who rarely gets more than a cameo these days. But nope, not even in a mini-series marketed to be about him does he get more than a background b-plot role. Instead we’ve got Rick Jones, a whiny teenager who didn’t ask to be Captain Marvel but is and won’t stop complaining about it. 

Hunger sees Rick rise up and become the hero he’s destined to be - it’s that cheesy. A hero falls, a hero rises, blah blah blah, the end. This is why I don’t read Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line – they suck! Fialkov isn’t talented enough to write an interesting Ultimate Galactus book like Warren Ellis did a few years ago and churns out predictable scenes in a paper-thin plot with flat, irritating dialogue for the increasingly annoying Rick Jones to spout. Leonard Kirk’s artwork is pretty good – his cosmic space battles were very eye-catching, imaginative and colourful, but it’s not enough to save this one. 

The kicker is that this isn’t even the full story – you’ve got to read Cataclysm to find out what happens next. That is if you care, which, if you’re anything like me after reading this trash, you definitely won’t. That “to be continued in Cataclysm” tag at the end is such cynical storytelling. You think you’re getting a full story in this mini-series but it’s more of an extended prologue – and one helluva boring, predictable, bog-standard one at that. 

Up yours, Marvel!

Daredevil, Volume 3 by Mark Waid et al. Review

Three volumes in and we’re still on this omega drive storyline! Daredevil has a memory disc that looks like a Fantastic Four patch which contains dangerous information of numerous villainous organisations and all of them are after him. The first half of the book features Daredevil teaming up with Spider-Man, the Punisher and Cole. Who’s Cole you ask? No clue, I haven’t been reading Greg Rucka’s Punisher run, but I think she’s the wife of a man who was gunned down at her wedding, turning her into female Punisher. 

So the four of them hatch a plan to lure the various baddies to one place, “destroy” the omega drive in front of them, thus getting them off of Daredevil’s back while he hands the info over to the Avengers. I feel like this storyline has been going on forever especially as I’ve lost interest in it by now. Bad guys chase Daredevil. Daredevil outwits/outfights them. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Waid finally wraps up this storyline about halfway through this book but the whole team-up storyline is pretty dull and pointless given the ending where it was all for nothing. Anyway. 

There’s a cool story from Matt and Foggy’s past when they were in law school room-mates and how Matt went all Sherlock Holmes on one of their professors who had a grudge against Foggy for having a privileged background. Then we’re back to this bleeding omega drive nonsense where another convoluted plan takes off. Thankfully this one goes a lot faster and the story becomes Daredevil being held hostage by Dr Doom in Latveria who’s intent on vivisecting poor Matt to find out how his radar works. 

Daredevil, a blind man, gets his remarkable abilities from his enhanced senses so seeing him cope without them after Doom’s nanobots immobilise him is a novel feature of the story, lending an air of desperation and vulnerability to the character that I liked. A lot of readers have remarked on Waid’s approach to Daredevil, giving him a happy go lucky (or devil may care) attitude for most of the series, but in this story arc Matt addresses his attitude directly, talking about how much of a concerted effort it is and a façade at best. It’s an interesting insight into Matt’s mind, as well as referencing an acclaimed aspect of this series. 

Daredevil Volume 3 is half a good book. The omega drive storyline went on too long, plus Cole is an awful character who gets far too many pages, but the young Matt and Foggy story and Matt’s fight for survival in Latveria made it worth reading. With Daredevil fighting for his life as the book closes I’m still on board with this title and want to see what happens next, especially as this omega drive stuff is finished.

Daredevil, Volume 3 by Mark Waid

Hunger #4 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Leonard Kirk Review

My review of Hunger #4 went up today - read the full piece here: