Friday, 28 February 2014

Hawkeye #15 Review (Matt Fraction, David Aja)

Read my review of Hawkeye #15 here:

Rocket Raccoon Gets His Own Series!

Rocket gets his own solo title separate from Guardians of the Galaxy - read the full story here:

Justice League, Volume 4: The Grid Review (Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis)

Justice League, Volume 4: The Grid has got to be the most schizophrenic New 52 book I’ve read so far! 

What stories do we have here? There are “tryouts” for new Justice League members; Despero and J’onn J’onzz fight in the Watchtower, crashing it to Earth; there’s the last issue in the Shazam mini-series; and the volume closes out with the first and LAST parts of Trinity War!!! 

Oh… dear. Where to start… 

Actually, the tryout issue wasn’t bad. I’m guessing the JL are looking for more members after Green Lantern skedaddled in Vol 2 and Aquaman went crazy in Vol 3. The characters interact well, nobody does or says anything monumentally stupid, and the issue flows nicely. Rosie the robot (I forget her real name) goes a bit koo-koo bananas (which is foreshadowing for a more serious act later on down the line) and that’s about it. 

Then things spiral out of control. Why does Despero show up? Why does J’onn J’onzz show up? When did the JL decide Firestorm and the Atom were the new JL members? Why didn’t Cyborg notice the intruders until it was too late? No clue. 

Superman and Wonder Woman’s boring, drawn-out romance becomes the reason why they’re away from the Watchtower as they interfere in Kahndaq (DC’s catch-all Middle Eastern country that’s either Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or any and all of the above) and they’re referred to as “Americans” – are they really? Maybe Superman as he was raised in Kansas, but Wonder Woman? She’s an Amazon princess! Or Greek God or whatever her new incarnation is in the New 52. Anyway, it was one helluva contrived and stupid reason to make the Watchtower vulnerable.

Then there’s the Shazam issue which wraps up the Shazam storyline. For those who’re coming to this book cold – and wow, this must be a confusing experience for you if you are! – Shazam was a backup that ran in the JL issues that were collected in its own volume. It’s finale became a full Justice League issue but if you weren’t following it, its inclusion here just comes out of nowhere. What’s happening? Who.. what?! Anyway, if you’re read the Shazam book, you’ll have already read this issue. 

Of course this is all filler for Trinity War of which we get the introductory issue and its insane ending – leaving out all the stuff in the middle! A character called Pandora holding a Damien Hirst-esque golden skull – Who? What? When? Why?! Like so much of this volume, she’s just thrown in – who’s mumbling about some kind of war with the trinity or something blah blah. Madame Xanadu’s got a tarot deck featuring the weirdest looking cards ever – instead of the usual figures of the tarot, it literally features Superman, Wonder Woman, and so on, exactly as they are! Are these tarot cards or superhero trading cards?

Doctor Light, a paper-thin character who was barely introduced in Justice League of America specifically for this issue, gets killed by Superman and the three Justice Leagues – Justice League, Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark – get into a dumb fight because they’re all morons. So far, so stupid. This book assumes you’ve been reading the other titles so you know what their deals are: why the JLA were formed, what they’re doing in Kahndaq, and so on. The problem with too many crossovers is, unless you’re reading EVERYTHING, then you’re missing pieces that makes the main story confusing – which is this book all over.

So the first issue of Trinity War then jumps to the last issue, so you’d be forgiven for wondering why 1) the various Justice Leagues have formed teams of their own, 2) what that golden skull has to do with anything, and 3) why the hell Superman is suddenly green, dying and crazy! If you’re a monthly comics reader you’ll already know how Trinity War played out as Forever Evil – aka Trinity War Part 2 – has been dominating the DC publishing schedules since it launched late last year. I won’t go into why Trinity War was so remarkably terrible because this review is already too long (in a year which had Age of Ultron and Infinity, Trinity War turned out to be the worst comics Event of 2013), but it did provide me with a good laugh when 90s Aquaman appeared – and died instantly! 

Suffice it to say the “story” of this book is a complete shambles – it’s rushed, it’s barely coherent, and it makes zero sense. Readers are unlikely to understand quite what the filler issues have to do with the Trinity War or why the book is called “The Grid” when it plays so little a role in the book. The Grid is just an electronic telephone directory created by Cyborg, and Grid is also the name of the evil Cyborg – neither of which are the focal point of this random assortment of comics, though it’s arbitrary title is fitting for this grab-bag of stuff. 

Ivan Reis’ art isn’t bad but Joe Prado’s stuff is very cartoonish and lacklustre. The dialogue is brainless for the most part. Evil Alfred literally says out loud to no-one but the reader: “Thanks to me, everyone will actually believe Superman’s killed Doctor Light!” while Superman’s dialogue isn’t much better, announcing his motivations thusly: “I won’t stop until Batman’s dead!”. Oh and the Atom literally goes into an MMORPG in a scene that is utterly baffling. Apparently, being able to shrink to the size of an atom means you can actually be in a computer game?! 

If Justice League is DC’s New 52 flagship title, the fourth JL book is indicative of the line as a whole: it’s a poorly thought out mess.

Justice League Volume 4: The Grid

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story Review (Peter Bagge)

I’ll be completely honest: I had no idea who Margaret Sanger was until I read this book. Having finished it, I’m now very much informed on the subject and thoroughly enjoyed reading about Sanger’s extraordinary life thanks to Peter Bagge’s wonderful storytelling and research.

Comics are a wonderful medium and one of the things they do extremely well, which is never emphasised enough, is non-fiction. Whether biography, true crime, philosophy, politics, science or history, comics can make nearly every non-fiction type much more appealing and understandable. So even if I knew nothing about Margaret Sanger, I know Peter Bagge is an accomplished cartoonist, I know Drawn & Quarterly publish quality books, and I knew the medium would bring the subject to life. And I was right - Woman Rebel is a great book!

Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood, the American organisation for birth control. It’s no surprise to see where her drive for birth control came from seeing that her own mother had 18 pregnancies (10 of whom survived into adulthood) and that, as a young nurse, she saw women harming themselves to prevent further pregnancies, and living in appalling conditions surrounded by financially draining unwanted children due to ignorance of birth prevention. 

This led to Sanger’s lifelong crusade to educate and inform the women of the world about their bodies and push for sex education for everyone everywhere and the widespread use, and legalisation, of birth control methods like diaphragms. Surprisingly, she was against abortion, preferring women exercise safe sex to ensure against pregnancy, and advised women to carry their pregnancies to term, though this might have been because of it being illegal so she only saw the results of back-alley abortions. 

Sanger was a fascinating woman who, despite being diagnosed with TB at a young age, lived a full, long life. She was a proto-feminist who led a bohemian lifestyle despite being married and a mother of three, taking many lovers, among them Havelock Ellis and HG Wells. She frequently challenged the law to speak to great crowds of people on birth control, leading to numerous high profile arrests and making her a celebrity in the process - she became a rebel with a cause! 

Bagge’s approach is to be informative but also funny at times – in a respectful way – to suit the scene such as when Havelock Ellis reveals his turn-on is to watch a woman pee and, after Sanger offers, Ellis’ expression is still emotionless and blunt as he says yes. It’s a humanistic portrait too that shows how her incredible drive led to great reform but also made her a difficult person to live with and in her final years, though she remains indomitable, she becomes a drug addicted alcoholic (that is the time to throw caution to the wind though, right? You’re on your way out, so why not?). 

Due to the shortness of the comic – roughly 70 pages – Bagge’s storytelling relies heavily on exposition. Normally I’d say this is an artless way of getting across information but it’s necessary in the circumstances as Bagge eschews blocks of descriptive text or narrative boxes to set the scene or put across relevant information. Also, the choice to have the characters talk about their situations/actions as its happening makes for a more fluid and energetic reading that’s also illuminating. 

If you’re looking for more information, Bagge includes numerous pages of text at the end – with photos – that goes into Sanger’s life in more detail and also shows how much research Bagge’s put into this book. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Bagge’s work – and he’s worth checking out if you enjoy alternative comics – his art style is highly stylised. Characters aren’t drawn in the least bit realistically, arms and legs appear curved and floppy, faces turn cartoonishly extreme depending on their emotions and so on – but it’s a great style that gives his work a unique look and suits Sanger’s freewheeling and dramatic lifestyle. 

Woman Rebel is an accessible, well written and drawn book about a remarkable woman who changed the world. It’s an entertaining and informative read that sets out to enlighten readers of the life of Margaret Sanger and accomplishes this fully. Absolutely brilliant!

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Green Lantern, Volume 4: Dark Days Review (Robert Venditti, Billy Tan)

With Geoff Johns leaving Green Lantern, Robert Venditti has some pretty big shoes to fill but his work on Valiant’s XO Manowar series has been spectacular so he seems more than capable to pull this off successfully. I was eager to find out if he’d worked his magic on Green Lantern - and unfortunately, no, he hasn’t. 

Hal Jordan is now head of the Green Lantern Corps and decides to set free the hundreds of Green Lantern rings he’s holding on to, garnering hundreds of new recruits from across the universe. Unfortunately most of them are inexperienced kids. Meanwhile Hal and Carol have a falling out and decide to take a break; Prixiam Nol-Anj escapes; and an ancient threat emerges to destroy all Lanterns, everywhere. 

First of all, the book starts with a completely arbitrary and stupid attack by the Orange Lantern Larfleeze as he tries to get some shiny stuff for himself like a cosmic magpie. Larfleeze has got to be the most one-dimensional character ever – he just wants stuff for the sake of it, constantly uttering his intentions as he goes! This dumb attack is just to “test out” the new GL members who don’t know how to use the rings – it’s just a shame that none of the characters are especially interesting or that scene might’ve been better. 

There’s some relationship stuff with Hal and Carol that was also duller than dull – I mean, if Carol doesn’t know by now that Hal’s an idiot, she’s as much to blame for her unhappiness as he is! 

Incredibly, the main story doesn’t get going until halfway through this 180 page book when a giant scientist from the universe that existed before ours appears. This guy is Relic, who has discovered that the light spectrum – the source of all power for all Lanterns – is like a reservoir and that the more the Lanterns use up that reservoir the more they are destroying the universe. 

This is actually a really interesting situation as Relic, though appearing as a bad guy, is actually a good guy – he’s trying to stop the universe from being destroyed. For some reason, Venditti’s turned the tables on the Lanterns and made them the bad guys! The more they use their rings, the more they destroy the universe. Whaaaat?! 

One of the biggest problems with DC, and particularly with the Green Lantern books, is the number of crossovers going on. It wreaks havoc on the collected editions that don’t include the crossover issues, like in this book, where you get massive jumps in story from one page to the next with no idea of what’s happening unless you’re also reading the other titles. For example – and this is a big SPOILER so stop reading now if you’re going to be a baby about that kinda thing – Oa blows up. The Green Lantern homeworld goes ka-BOOM! Also John Stewart dies! 

Oa blowing up is dealt with in a couple of pages which is really weak considering it’s a pretty damn big deal! And John Stewart’s “death” isn’t referenced at all. He’s there one page then later on somebody says John died! He doesn’t really of course but it’s bizarre to see him ok in one scene and then later on being told that he’s dead. It’s like, what? When? How?! Oh and Guy Gardner’s a Red Lantern and Kyle Rayner’s a White Lantern!?! 

If you’re just reading this book, stuff like that is jarring to see on the page because it comes out of nowhere. Those events are probably dealt with in more detail in other books like Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns (and who knows whatever other GL titles there are), but because this book just collects the Green Lantern comics, the holes in the story completely throws the reader for a loop. 

Dark Days is just a really weird and really boring Green Lantern story. Weird because how it manages to make all Lanterns everywhere baddies, and Hal Jordan one of the worst for wilfully taking part in the downfall of the universe (and he’s supposed to be the hero!!); and boring because mostly it’s made up of bland GL action we’ve seen a million times before, and even duller cops’n’robbers stuff like when Hal and co. chase after Nol-Anj in a ridiculous Western pastiche. I love Venditti’s XO Manowar comics but his Green Lantern series is really poor. Dark Days is one of the weakest GL books I’ve read in a while.

Green Lantern Vol. 4: Dark Days

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Fables, Volume 2: Animal Farm Review (Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham)

Snow White, the Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, and her wayward sister Rose Red venture out of the city and into the country to visit the Farm. This is where all of the Fable creatures who don’t look humanoid – the various talking animals, three giants and a dragon – are kept and whose presence is masked through enchantments. However this means they’re unable to leave the land without being seen by the mundys (slang for humans – as in “mundane”, ie. “normal”). This limiting of their freedom for hundreds of years has led to widespread discontent among as the Farm Fables as Snow and Rose are about to find out – the animals are revolting! 

Like the first volume which was a murder mystery, the second volume of Fables is a self-contained five-issue story arc, though less generic and unfortunately less interesting. It’s a bit like a horror mystery as Snow and Rose find out the idyllic land harbours poisonous intentions that boils over into murderous actions kind of like in The Wicker Man (NOT the Nic Cage version which was a comedy. “HOW’D IT GET BURRRRNNNNEDD?!?!??!”). 

Bill Willingham references well-known literary works like Lord of the Flies and of course Orwell’s Animal Farm though they only bear a superficial resemblance to this book as Willingham’s story doesn’t explore the same themes or in quite the same level of depth and thoughtfulness. Fables remains a straightforward series. 

It’s enjoyable to see well known characters playing against type like the militant Goldilocks as she leads a communist-esque revolution as the female Che Guevara and Snow fighting Shere Khan from Kipling’s Jungle Book is exceedingly good (hehe!). And Willingham continues to explore the concept of the Fables themselves by establishing that they can live hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years yet retain youthful appearances, and how the more popular Fables can’t die no matter what injuries they sustain due to their popularity with the mundys. The more who believe in you, the more powerful you are – it’s not an original idea that I remember seeing for the first time in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books years ago. 

Except the second book still feels like setup. I get that this is a complex world so Willingham needs more time to lay the groundwork of who the Fables are and how they live in our world, but the whole faux-revolution thing just didn’t work for me. Mostly because we know the real enemy of the series is the mysterious Adversary and not the talking pigs/Goldilocks, so they were never going to succeed thus defusing the tension of the story, but also because a chase plot isn’t that interesting. They run, they fight, they run some more, yeah ok. And the ending itself felt anticlimactic and drawn-out. 

Snow and Rose are fairly interesting characters but shouldn’t really have books centred around them as they’re just not compelling enough. Snow is a goody-two-shoes and Rose is predictably rebellious – the stereotypical good sister/bad sister combo we’ve seen a million times before. Here, the more engaging characters like Bigby, Bluebeard and Jack were supporting players at best while Snow ran around a forest. The others, like the talking animals, are barely characters at all – they’re just interactive background really. 

Animal Farm isn’t a terrible book and hasn’t put me off the series but it’s not terribly compelling either. It sets out some important information, it’s got some great art, and if you like Snow then you’ll enjoy this. But it’s also pretty dull quite often and predictable too. It’s ok, not great.

Fables Volume 2: Animal Farm

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Quantum and Woody Volume 2: In Security Review (James Asmus, Ming Doyle)

James Asmus’ second Quantum and Woody arc is as strong and funny as the first, and this time around he’s joined by the amazing art team of Ming Doyle and Jordie Bellaire.

Eric’s rich cowboy boss, Terence Magnum, knows he’s secretly Quantum and hires him to be his own personal superhero - inadvertently hiring Woody too as, without klacking their super-powered bracelets every 24 hours, they both die. Their first mission? To take out a hillbilly outpost in rural America that’s stockpiling weapons for a 21st century revolutionary war against the durn govment! But things aren’t quite what they seem and before they know it, Eric (a black man) is inexplicably on the side of white supremacist right wingers in a fight against a private army! 

Q&W is a comic where the premise of the superhero duo is strangely the least interesting aspect of the series. I read Q&W for the comedy and amazing chemistry between the two leads, brothers who’re very much the odd couple of the comics world (or the Riggs and Murtaugh of the Valiant Universe - and not because they’re black and white). The book’s filled with tons of great details like Woody going apartment hunting with his clone girlfriend 69 (whose name has nothing to do with what you’re thinking!), and the continued appearance of Vincent Van Goat, who is a dangerous but lovable goat. 

None of the characters are meant to be realistic and that’s what I love about this book. Magnum’s a caricature of a rich Republican down-home Southern Baptist kinda fella (he’s even got a cross-shaped hot tub on his private jet – handy for spur-of-the-moment baptisms!) while the hillbillies are, well, as you’d expect from the label: nutjobs who blame everything on the “fascist” government. As highly enjoyable as these cartoons are Asmus does make Eric a Republican and writes him as an intelligent one, not a right-wing extremist like the others. Staying on the political slant to the series for a moment, I also really liked the way Asmus went after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell while it was still in effect (the US Army’s former policy on homosexual soldiers). 

I love that they’re still squabbling like kids but Woody’s somehow making Eric seem like a lunatic, like in the first book where he somehow managed to twist Eric’s words to make him look racist! In the second book, they discuss 69, the clone of their enemy, and Eric says “she’s got evil blood and I don’t trust her!”, and Woody says “You know that stance is basically eugenics, right?”. And it’s a small detail but Eric having trouble coming up with quips while he fights goons was a nice touch – becoming a vigilante and a “witty” chatterbox don’t instantly go hand in hand! 

Ming Doyle’s art is fantastic, complimenting Asmus’ comedic script with perfect facial expressions and physical comedy – the repeated use of the close up head shot was brilliant (also felt vaguely Chew-ish – but that’s definitely a compliment, as that comic is awesome). I loved the onomatopoeia in the final battle. When an overweight redneck with a bow and arrow (who Woody calls Fatniss Everdeen) gets a missile to the chops, the sound effect is “FAT-DOOOOM!” and when Eric figures out how to use his shields as weapons to take out a tank, the effect reads “BA-DASSSSSS!”. 

I was going to say the series needed more Vincent Van Goat but then I saw that next month’s issue is all about him showing how well that Asmus and co. know their audience! Quantum and Woody isn’t just Valiant’s funniest series, it’s one of the funniest and most entertaining comics being published right now. Volume 2 continues to impress and amuse with its unique brand of comedy and superheroes.

Quantum and Woody Volume 2: In Security

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth Review (Grant Morrison, Dave McKean)

Based solely upon his 2006-2013 run, Grant Morrison might be the greatest Batman writer of all time. But he wasn’t always so brilliant as his first Batman book, the mega-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, shows. 

The inmates have overrun the asylum and are holding civilians hostage. With Joker running free with a knife, Batman goes into the asylum to stop him and enters a nightmarish netherworld. Meanwhile, the troubled life of the asylum’s founder, Amadeus Arkham, is explored. 

The story is one long rambling mess, which is part of Morrison’s intent. It’s designed to be dream-like and to read like a song and therefore, as a comic, it’s difficult to follow or really understand. I get the impression the symbolism of the tarot is important but the book didn’t make me interested enough to want to pursue a deeper understanding of it. Batman’s characterisation is a bit off too – how was he beaten by a deranged doctor!? 

Some readers might scoff that Morrison’s comics are always like this with his drug use, but he actually wrote this before he began using drugs and alcohol – he writes in his afterword that he stayed up for hours on end to achieve the altered state of consciousness he wanted before sitting down to write. So it’s official: with or without drugs, Morrison writes weird comics! Hear that, poseur artists, you don’t need vice to produce art! 

Dave McKean’s artwork matches Morrison’s bizarre story well but it still looks a bit too avant-garde for a comic. McKean’s best known for being The Sandman’s cover artist and his art is well suited to that format. But for page after page of interior art? It’s just headache-inducing! And when he does draw distinguishable figures, they look like poor Simon Bisley facsimiles. 

I liked Morrison’s idea to have the Arkham doctors try weaning Harvey Dent off of the two-sided coin and onto the I Ching. It seemed like an original and viable means of treatment for Two-Face. But other ideas like the Joker calling the outside world the asylum and the world inside Arkham the real world was just corny, and the Amadeus Arkham storyline just read like a poor man’s Psycho. Morrison’s comics usually have more substance to them but Arkham Asylum is all surface texture with few great ideas. 

Arkham Asylum is a visually interesting book but it looks and reads like an art student’s project, ie. a pretentious mish-mash of nonsense, than a good comic. I definitely wouldn’t rank it among Batman’s classics! If you want to read Morrison’s best Batman books, start with Batman and Son and go forwards from there.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Anniversary Edition

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Review (Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch)

The FANTASTIC FOUR are the WORLD’S GREATEST. The WORLD’S about to END! They have to save BILLIONS of PEOPLE from imminent DEATH! Johnny’s in a BAND and sleeping with a VILLAINESS! Reed’s old flame shows up OUT OF NOWHERE! Did I mention the WORLD’S about to END!?! The FANTASTIC FOUR are the WORLD’S GREATEST!!!!!!!!

Why am I writing like this? This is Mark Millar at his most Michael Bay-iest. 




At one point Reed gets into a giant robot suit and fights another giant robot so the comic ends up looking like the finale of every Power Rangers episode. Galactus gets used as a battery. I… I just don’t care! 

But at least Reed gets something to do. Sue gets nothing and is side-lined for the entire book. Ben gets a new girlfriend who couldn’t be more boring – just your everyday teacher who falls for a rock monster! That’s half the team and those are their entire storylines! Johnny’s storyline is just embarrassing. He gets it on with a low level villain lady who’s into flameboys (whose father turns out to have the same powers so… that’s weird) and then starts a band. Reed is really the only character with an actual storyline, but wow, it’s such a dreary one!

The world of the future is a wasteland and the billions stranded there need a new world to inhabit. Coincidentally, Reed’s old girlfriend and her husband are building a copy of our world where only the super-rich will be allowed in to. Guess what the solution to this story is? The other arc is about a giant robot that goes on a rampage. Whatever. 

If Millar’s writing in this book is utterly dismal (horrible plotting, even worse characterisation), Bryan Hitch’s art is at least great. It’s really gorgeous as usual and suitably epic to fit Millar’s vision. The problem is the splash pages and BIG imagery looks cool but doesn’t mean a damn thing because nothing’s happening in the scene meaning the reader simply doesn’t care. BIG EPIC SCENE – what am I supposed to feel exactly? Something, right? I don’t. 

Apparently Millar’s “masterminding” the newest Fantastic Four movie (is anyone interested?) and if it turns out like this, it’s gonna be another turkey. Hitch’s art may be accomplished as hell but it’s not reason enough to pick up this badly written, brainless crapfest.

Fantastic Four: World's Greatest

Quantum and Woody #8 Review (James Asmus, Ming Doyle)

The brilliant second arc in the newly relaunched Quantum and Woody comes to a suitably barmy conclusion in Q&W #8. It’s crazy Blackwater-esque private military contractor Magnum Security vs. crazy hillbilly survivalists/Quantum fans for a showdown in the middle of Montana - with Q&W on the side of the hillbillies!?

James Asmus is writing a superhero comic filled with action but knows the selling point of the series is the comedy and the Odd Couple relationship between Eric and Woody, of which we fans get bucket-loads of in this issue. One minute Woody’s pointing at a chubby redneck with a crossbow and calling him Fatniss Everdeen and the next they’re debating the merits of being a Republican which - shocker! - Eric reveals himself to be.

Asmus has been heavy on mocking the politically right-wing - which is fair in a story where the rednecks have declared their weird little group a sovereign nation - but makes them appear sane and human with Eric. Real Republicans are worth listening to, not the hyper-religious, anti-intellectual kind you find in groups like the Tea Party, and Eric is a fine example of one.

There are too many gems in Asmus’ script to point out in this review (though in one panel their relationship felt exactly like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s in The Last Crusade) but suffice it to say that whether your bag is physical comedy or witty humour, Asmus has you covered. And there’s tons of awesome action too!

Ming Doyle’s artwork continues to impress especially with the way she draws Q&W’s emotive facial expressions, a factor that’s crucial to pulling off the humour in Asmus’ writing. I also love that the onomatopoeia in this comic reflects the action of the panel - when Fatniss Everdeen bites it, the noise caption is “FAT-DOOOOOM!” and when Woody takes out a tank it’s “BA-DAAAASSS!”.

As this is the final issue in this story arc, if you’re new to the series I’d wait for the trade to pick this up and then jump on the next issue, but Quantum and Woody is definitely worth following if you love smart, funny comics. Quantum and Woody #8 is an absolute treat in a series that has been near-flawless.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye Review (Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore)

Officer Rick Grimes gets shot in the call of duty and goes into a coma. When he awakens in the hospital weeks later, he finds himself alone in a world where the zombie apocalypse has happened – and his family have disappeared. So begins Rick’s journey to find his family as, in a world where the end can come at any moment, he and the other survivors become the walking dead. 

It’s taken me a while to get around to actually reading the world’s most popular comic (The Walking Dead #115 was 2013’s bestselling single issue comic and the trades dominated the top 10 bestsellers list!) and it’s mostly because it feels very unoriginal. Robert Kirkman’s other creator-owned series, Thief of Thieves, reads like a shameless re-telling of Ocean’s 11 with generous helpings of Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight in particular). 

The Walking Dead feels like every zombie story ever plus some scenes are lifted wholesale from specific zombie movies. Rick waking up in the abandoned hospital is identical to the opening of 28 Days Later, while escaping the zombie hordes in the city is like that George Romero picture, oh what’s it called, oh right, ALL OF THEM! 

That said, despite all of that, I was drawn into the book. Kirkman knows that zombies are always second to the characters in every zombie story, and he focuses instead on building them up. The relationship between Lori and Shane is a brilliant touch that works perfectly in this scenario, bringing their situation and the trio of characters vividly to life. The zombie action is handled really well too as Rick and Glenn’s forays into doomed Atlanta are very exciting. 

Kirkman’s approach to the writing of this series is akin to classic horror from the 90s and beyond, incorporating schlocky horror movie jump scares, and artist Tony Moore’s preference for wide panels adds to the cinematic flavour of the comic. In this sense I find the comic somewhat annoying as it’s like it’s not using the medium to full effect, choosing instead to adopt a storyboard-type aspect that makes it feel like the comic was a natural stepping stone to the more lucrative medium of film (or, as it turned out, TV). 

I’m conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I’m interested in the characters and what they’ll do next. Parts of the book were exciting and enjoyable to read and I’m going to pick up Volume 2. Moore’s art isn’t bad but he’s not producing amazing panels. And on the other hand, there were parts that felt recycled, the art and writing were both serviceable at best, and on the whole Kirkman isn’t doing anything original with the zombie concept that we haven’t seen before. And, man, is this is a miserable comic! It’s an complete downer from start to finish (and what an insane finale!). 

It’s a decent start to the series but not an amazing comic by a long shot.

The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye

8th review on Nudge

My 8th review on the Nudge Network went up yesterday. Read it here:

Thursday, 20 February 2014

100 Bullets, Volume 1: First Shot, Last Call Review (Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso)

If you were offered the chance to the kill the person who murdered your family or destroyed your life, and get away with it no questions asked: would you do it? That’s the offer Agent Graves, a mysterious man with an untraceable gun and 100 bullets, presents to Dizzy, a recently released Latina former gangbanger whose husband and baby were gunned down by corrupt cops, and Lee, a bartender whose happily married and prosperous life was destroyed by false paedophilia allegations. 

Brian Azzarello’s morality story plays out convincingly and not entirely predictably. There is the usual “is this for real?” doubt going back and forth in the story over the odd situation Graves presents her with and, while Dizzy did do what I knew she was going to by the end of her arc, there was a surprise element thrown in that I didn’t see coming. Similarly with Lee’s storyline, you expect it to go one way and then it goes a different way and then ends in another way. 

I don’t know anyone whose life is like Dizzy’s so can’t speak to the authenticity of the dialogue and values – it often felt a lot like parts of The Wire – but it didn’t seem fake. The conversation amongst the Latina characters given their socio-economic backgrounds seemed realistic.

Eduardo Risso’s art is as perfect as ever. There’s great use of shadows to accentuate characters’ entrances, the pages are imaginative with traditional panelling thrown out in favour of more dynamic layouts with backgrounds from one scene bleeding into another. The character designs are cartoonish and angular at times but in a way that’s visually appealing, eye-catching and memorable. 

So why aren’t I raving about this book? It is decently written and well-illustrated. Except it never really drew me in. I read this understanding what was happening but I was detached and unaffected by the characters’ plights. This is probably because of the short-story format where each new 2 or 3 issue arc introduces a new setup and cast with the one constant being Agent Graves and his gun. Azzarello simply doesn’t have the space to build a world or develop a character, he has to jump in with broad strokes and hope it’s enough. It feels like a short story collection rather than a unified series in the same way other titles like Transmetropolitan or The Sandman are. 

The concept itself seems fine but limited, at least based on this first book alone. Wronged person goes after bad guy, one of them dies, repeat. I can understand the potential of this in terms of the kinds of people this involves – gangsters, bankers, politicians, and their opposites, namely the downtrodden masses getting their cathartic comeuppance – but it still seems somewhat repetitive. Though maybe the concept changes and develops over time? I just don’t get the series’ direction (if it has one). 

100 Bullets Volume 1 is a decent crime comic with really good art, and I can certainly appreciate the talent here, but this first book didn’t leave much of an impression. I’m glad I finally read something of this series, but it’s missing heart and a plot which doesn’t make me want to seek out the next volume in a hurry – though I will get to Volume 2 at some point, and that says something.

100 Bullets Vol. 1: First Shot, Last Call

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Nirvana's In Utero Review (Gillian G. Gaar, 33 1/3)

I loved Nirvana when I was in high school. Nevermind was the first album I bought with money I earned from my first after school job, washing dishes in a local restaurant (and then played repeatedly in the kitchen much to the chefs’ annoyance!). I enjoyed In Utero but preferred Nevermind though the older I got the more I appreciated the variety and ambition of In Utero until it became my favourite Nirvana album. So continuing my exploration of the excellent 33 ⅓ series I thought I’d check out Gillian G. Gaar’s book on the album - which disappointingly turned out to be the worst I’ve come across in the range so far. 

Put simply, the recording of In Utero was remarkably unremarkable. The band recorded demos in Brazil, they hired Steve Albini to produce it, they put together the record with Kurt changing the song titles as they went - just standard stuff. Kurt took lyrics from his journals, he recorded a version of Rape Me with his daughter on his knee, squalling in the background. Albini’s mix of the album was panned by the record label who wanted a more polished sound. So far, so dull - I’d read all of this before in Charles R. Cross’s biography of Kurt, Heavier Than Heaven. 

Part of the problem is Gaar’s writing style. She writes something like “Krist wanted to raise the bass levels” and then there’s a quote from Krist where he says the same thing. Then Gaar writes another statement, backed up by another mundane quote. The style is akin to a kid writing an essay where they’re told that each point has to be backed up by a quote so the end result is a literal bland jumble of straightforward sentences. It also doesn’t help that most of the detail here is about the band tinkering with the sound, re-recording versions of songs, and spending two weeks on the track listing. 

About the only interesting thing I found out in this book was that the old man in the Heart Shaped Box video collapsed on the set from undiagnosed cancer after shooting his scenes; one of the lines in the song references cancer. The video’s director, Anton Corbijn, also reveals the colour effect achieved in the video as filmed in colour, transferred to black and white, and each still hand-coloured, which is why the video looks so vivid. I also discovered the song “Sappy” from this book that I hadn’t heard until recently and which was a song Kurt recorded and re-recorded for years, unable to get the sound to his satisfaction. 

Some of the books in the 33 ⅓ series show some amazing stories behind the albums, like Steve Matteo’s Let It Be, but unfortunately Gillian G Gaar’s book on In Utero is not required reading. By refraining from describing Kurt’s troubled personal life, she’s produced a book that’s extremely dry of anything interesting and by sticking to the tedious chronology of its production she shows that the story behind In Utero isn’t worth telling. I came away from the book little the wiser about the album and its artistic qualities, though it did get me listening to it again, reminding me of how great some of the songs remain. Listen to the album but skip this 100-page book of dreary writing.

"Nirvana" "In Utero" (33 1/3)

Books v. cigarettes Review (George Orwell)

Books v. Cigarettes is another fine collection of selected essays by George Orwell in the Penguin Great Ideas series, this one focusing on books, literature in harsh political regimes, patriotism, his time in a run-down hospital in France, and his memoirs of going to a private boarding school. 

Books v. Cigarettes is a somewhat laborious essay where Orwell explains that working class people read fewer books and choose books over things like cigarettes, beer and gambling, not because the habit is expensive but because they’re not interested in it - contrary to their claims that it is. He mathematically works it out and, while I agree that he’s probably right, it’s a bit of a pedantic essay to read. 

Bookshop Memories and Confessions of a Book Reviewer are definitely my favourite essays here as I’m a bibliophile. Orwell spent some time working as a bookseller and his observations from that time are very entertaining. He observes that few customers in the shop could tell the difference between a good book and a bad one, that their clientele were mostly foreign students haggling over cheap textbooks and “vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews”. 

There’s even a line about a “dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover” that reminded me of Jen Campbell’s “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops” which shows how little people have changed in nearly 100 years. 

It was interesting to find out the three most-read authors of the time were: Ethel M. Dell at #1, Warwick Deeping at #2 and Jeffrey Farnol at #3 - all authors I’ve never heard of, and I consider myself fairly well-read. I suppose in a few decades people will be wondering who the hell James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer were, which is a reassuring thought that such crap gets forgotten! 

These essays display Orwell’s good sense of humour as he observes “stamp collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women apparently fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums”, and his description of the life of a professional book reviewer was very amusing. His line that “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are” rang true for me as a semi-professional book reviewer. 

The Prevention of Literature explains how great literature or any art form cannot exist in a regime that disallows freedom of thought or religion which gives us the great quote: “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox”. That said, I felt the essay was something that Orwell had written about before and better elsewhere and was therefore a bit tiresome to read. Similarly unengaging was My Country Right Or Left which goes into Orwell’s patriotism of Britain, regardless of the kind of government in charge. 

How The Poor Die was a visceral recounting of Orwell’s time in a French hospital for the poor where he was being treated for a bronchial infection - Orwell suffered with breathing problems his entire life as he had an untreatable lesion on his lungs which would eventually kill him at the tragically early age of 46. It’s a shocking account of the way patients’ humanity is overlooked by uncaring doctors who are more interested in treating them as living cadavers than real people who need help. 

The volume closes out with Orwell’s excellent essay, Such, Such Were The Joys, which recounts his unpleasant time spent at St Cyprian’s, an upper-class boarding school which he attended on a scholarship and deeply loathed. I wrote about it at length in a separate review you can read here.

Books v. Cigarettes contains a couple of essays that I was ambivalent about but on the whole it contains his usual insightful commentary and uncanny ability to draw the reader into the subject matter completely. Orwell is always worth reading for his high quality writing, crystal clear thinking, and challenging subject matter that he makes accessible for the reader, but this volume is especially enjoyable if you’re a bookish sort of person.

Books v. Cigarettes (Penguin Great Ideas)

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Deadpool's Funniest Covers

Take a look at Deadpool's 20 Funniest Covers here:

Sin City, Volume 6: Booze, Broads and Bullets Review (Frank Miller)

Booze, Broads and Bullets is the only Sin City volume that’s a short story collection. It features some characters from previous volumes like Marv from The Hard Goodbye, Nancy from That Yellow Bastard, and Dwight from A Dame To Kill For, and some new ones like Blue Eyes, a voluptuous assassin.

This is also the last great Frank Miller book. Miller would go on making comics for years afterward - The Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman and Robin, and Holy Terror for example - but they never recaptured the brilliance of his glory days and many were just plain terrible. Even Hell and Back, the final Sin City book, was slow and overlong and is the only Sin City book that could be considered boring. 

So what makes Booze, Broads and Bullets so damn good? The stories are simply awesome. The Josh Harnett short that opened the 2005 Sin City movie is here in “The Customer is Always Right”, a mere 3-page story that grabs you instantly. A handsome, James-Bond-ish man stands behind a beautiful woman on a balcony in the rain, they talk cryptically and breathlessly about death, they embrace and then - BANG - she’s dead and lying in his arms. He’s a hitman and she was his target. 

The book showcases Miller’s adeptness at the short story format, each one coming at you like a string of bullets and each one hitting the target square on. Rats, a 7-page story, depicts a claustrophobic, nightmarish dark room where the mere thoughts in the man’s head are enlarged captions in the panels showing how quiet it is. It’s intimated the man is a Nazi officer in hiding - another man appears, and kills him with the oven, in the same way the Nazi must’ve killed Jews in the death camps. Another story, Daddy’s Little Girl, a 9-pager, shows how a sick couple get their rocks off with strangers. 

If you love characters like Marv and Dwight then you’ll be delighted with their stories here. Marv is at his laconic best, having drinks while watching Nancy on stage doing her act, gleefully getting into fights with mobsters and police alike in “Just Another Saturday Night”. Later on he appears as an avenging angel, rescuing a little girl from sexual slavery in a near silent story appropriately called “Silent Night”. Dwight meanwhile continues his streak of bad luck with women in “The Babe Wore Red”, picking up a woman in trouble, gallantly fighting off her oppressors. 

The black and white art is perfect. The scene where the man and woman kiss in the rain in “The Customer is Always Right” is iconic and was replicated by Robert Rodriguez for his film; “Silent Night” uses full page panels to tell its story and the way Miller draws the heavy snow captures its remarkable beauty juxtaposed with the ugliness in the stories’ conclusion; Miller’s only use of colour is with regards to the women, using blue, pink and red for their dresses as if saying the only joy in this grim world lies with the women. 

So what’s the effect of this stylised art and storytelling combination? Sin City is genre writing, specifically hard-boiled noir. Miller is writing in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and numerous others, albeit in a heightened manner as to almost parody the genre. Narrators frequently speak in clipped sentences, rarely stepping outside the bounds of what the reader needs to know to follow the story, occasionally tossing in a melodramatic metaphor in the style of noir. Miller’s characters are deliberately exaggerated: the men are either men’s men like Marv and Dwight who can fight, drink and love like gods, or else they’re degenerate slobs, ugly on the inside and the outside; the women are generally beautiful with perfect figures. They are extremes of characters to match the extreme stories Miller tells - life and death stories, people who are either about to die or about to kill. There are no half measures in the storytelling therefore there are no half measures in the characters.

The art style matches this approach - simple black and white for 99% of the books. Characters are either good or bad, black and white, their morality and world depicted in the stark absence of any grey. The bad are punished - badly - by the good. And because Basin City is so full of bad people, the books’ art is drawn heavily in black with slivers of white used for definition - the title of the series is called Sin City for a reason. 

I can understand some readers’ reactions to Miller’s work as unimpressed with its portrayal of men and women, but when it comes to Sin City, readers should go in knowing that what they’re about to read has nothing to do with reality, or even subtlety, and everything to do with the noir literary genre. Noir is not reality, it’s a cartoonish viewpoint of larger-than-life characters that’re cynical and world-weary, the stories containing extreme stakes, soaked in seedy sex and dive bars surrounded by the pallor and whiff of stale cigarette smoke. In this sense, Miller’s Sin City books are a triumph, especially Booze, Broads and Bullets that are enthralling melodramatic stories told in perfectly measured pages where no panel is wasted and the art and writing compliment each other to enormous effect. 

Miller may have become a crazy person in the years following this book’s release, producing some of the most mocked comics ever, like All-Star Batman and Robin (“I’m the goddamn Batman!”), as well as a flat-out offensively racist book in Holy Terror, but his Sin City books are flawless and represent the pinnacle of comics art. They’re a good example for me of loving the art, hating the artist. I may not care for Miller as a person but the comics he produced in the 80s and 90s are undeniable in their artistry. 

Booze, Broads and Bullets is the last gasp of Miller’s incredible talent but it’s a helluva great book to leave on. I’ve re-read it many times over the years and it still manages to hook and draw me in, holding me in my seat as I go through the book in one relentless sitting every time. The Sin City books are among the comics I turn to after reading several bad comics to remind me what a great comic looks like and how great the medium can be. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favour and check it out today; if you’ve read it before, it’s definitely worth re-reading again.

Sin City Volume 6: Booze, Broads, & Bullets

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White Review (Rick Geary)

On the night of June 25, 1906, during a theatrical performance atop Madison Square Garden, New York City, Harry Kendall Thaw, the millionaire son of a family whose fortune was made from mines and railroads, shot the prominent architect Stanford White three times with a pistol at point blank range, killing him instantly. The murder took place in a crowded room with dozens of witnesses and Thaw never denied the murder, claiming he would do it again in a heartbeat – and yet he walked away a free man. But why did Thaw kill White and how was such a miscarriage of justice allowed? 

A new Rick Geary book on famous crimes is always welcomed as they’re so damn good and The Murder of Stanford White is no different. Geary takes a forgotten murder from the early twentieth century and unravels it’s many nuances for a whole new audience to gasp at. 

The book is a sordid tale of upper class debauchery for all parties involved. Stanford White, a 47 year old wealthy architect who designed many of New York’s most famous buildings like Madison Square Garden, had numerous affairs with young ladies from the theatre, entertaining them in his own private accommodation far from his house where his wife and kids lived. One of them was the up and coming starlet, Evelyn Nesbit, a 16 year old whom he courted and eventually brought back to his private rooms, giving her her first taste of champagne. After her second glass, she doesn’t remember anything until waking up in bed next to him, naked! 

She never sees White again and moves away from New York City but another wealthy admirer of hers, the Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, stalks her relentlessly until she agrees to marry him. Thaw was a deeply disturbing and disturbed man. An heir to the Thaw fortune, he had a monthly allowance of $80k (this is a large amount still today – imagine what it would’ve meant 100 years ago!), and a profligate lifestyle that allowed to do whatever he wanted. Madness ran in the Thaw family and Harry was one of the craziest. He would lure women into his rooms and savagely beat them with whips or strip them naked in baths and pour boiling water on them. He was also addicted to morphine and cocaine, injecting both regularly. 

So when Thaw found out about his wife’s rape by White, he went into a blind rage, nurturing his hatred of the celebrated architect over a long time until he discovered where White would be on the fateful night of June 25. As Thaw’s party was leaving an evening theatre performance in Madison Square Garden, Thaw turned back, went straight up to White and shot him twice in the face and once in the shoulder – White’s corpse was unrecognisable afterwards. 

There were numerous trials afterwards but Thaw’s family money kept him out of jail, putting him into mental asylums for brief periods before he would escape and use his family’s influence to keep the powers that be at arm’s reach. Thaw was never incarcerated and lived a long life in which he continued to appear in the headlines for many years afterwards, beating young boys with whips until they were near-dead, but getting away with it each time. 

This Murder of Stanford White is a fascinating read, highlighting the lives of three interesting individuals and a remarkable crime that challenges the readers’ moral compass – how do you feel about an older man taking advantage of young girls and then getting shot in the face? On the one hand you might think he got what he deserved but when a private citizen takes justice into their own hands, shouldn’t they be held accountable too? 

The book especially draws attention to the corruption of the American legal system that favours the wealthy to an inordinate degree, making them more or less untouchable for their crimes (unless they kill one another!), and the debauched lives the super-rich lead as a result. Rick Geary has produced another fine book in his murder series that fans of true crime comics will love.

Treasury of XXth Century Murder, A: Madison Square Tragedy : The Murder of Stanford White