Monday, 31 March 2014

Iron Patriot #1 Review (Ales Kot, Garry Brown)

Ah, the conundrum of #1 issues. They have to do this, they have to do that - everyone has their own ideas of what constitutes the “right” way of starting a series, but I think the quality we can all agree on is that a first issue has to make the reader want to pick up the next issue. And the next, and so on. Iron Patriot #1 doesn’t do this.

That said it’s not a bad comic per se - we meet JIm Rhodes, there’s a mystery antagonist, he’s in trouble, we find out about his home life like his distant father whom he wants to become closer to and his techy niece. It’s fine, it is. It just reads very formulaically like 1) hook the reader with an arresting image and an enticing scene, 2) make Rhodey appear human by giving the character “heart”, and 3) have the character explain why he’s changing from War Machine to Iron Patriot (literally via a press conference for the reader’s benefit!).

After Ales Kot crosses off each point, he has Rhodey fight some mud monsters in the sea and then his suit fails and he crashes. You can read the entire issue and not be bored but also not be gripped in the least. I read it thinking, uh huh, I get it, that’s logical - but so what? It’s so bland! I don’t care about Rhodey or his series at all! There’s nothing new here, nothing that makes me want to keep reading like I do with Moon Knight or Ms Marvel or Silver Surfer - I don’t see a character here, I see the outline of one which Ales Kot failed to take and turn into someone who lives on the page.

Iron Patriot #1 is not a bad comic but it is a dull one. It doesn’t make you want to pick up the next issue or even want to wait for the trade - you just wonder why Marvel bothered in the first place if they were going to half-ass it like this.

Ho hum, so this one joins the All-New Marvel NOW! titles that failed to pop. Hey, they can’t all be Ms Marvels, right?

Some Thoughts on Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

So I saw the second Captain America (CA) movie today and it was as good as I’d expected. Having seen the teasers and trailers and extra footage and so on, it looked awesome and it was - no surprises there. However what was surprising to me was one scene in the first act.

A quick summary - CA1 was Cap in WW2 which ended with Cap arriving in the 21st century. The Avengers movie followed but we’ve never seen Steve Rogers getting to grips with the new world he finds himself in. And there’s lots of great little touches in CA2 when it starts up with Steve taking out a notepad where he’s written things to look up like Rocky (and maybe Rocky 2?) and Nirvana, and so on - cultural things he’s missed.

Then he goes and visits Peggy Carter, the love interest from CA1, who’s not in her 80s or 90s and basically on a life support machine in her home. Steve’s the same age but looks about 30 while Peggy’s gotten old. They have this lovely conversation where they talk through Steve’s doubts about where SHIELD is these days and then suddenly Peggy coughs heavily - Steve reaches to get her some water and she stops, looks at him.

She starts talking again and then stops mid-sentence and gasps something like “You came back, Steve! You came back!”. Steve gasps too as he’s taken aback by the emotion in her voice, perhaps realising the same thing himself for the first time. The two speaking from the heart after so much surface talk - the two really talking for the first time in 70 years.

I was blown away by this scene - it’s so damn emotional, I rolled a tear and it comes out of nowhere! At no point going into this movie - a Marvel superhero movie! - did I expect a scene this emotionally devastating, especially so early on. Oh, I loved it. Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans both doing a startling job, but Atwell deserves the credit for taking that one scene and bringing it so vividly to life for the viewer.

That scene was my favourite and I kept thinking about it from that moment on, but I loved the rest of the movie too. The opening action scene where Cap and Black Widow storm a ship taken over by Batroc the Leaper and his goons was awesome, hell all the action is amazing! The scene where Cap’s fleeing the Triskelion though was stunning. He takes out a Quinjet with such precision and skill, it’s jaw-dropping. If nothing else, CA2 shows the viewer exactly why Cap is a superhero, despite having no “superpowers” like Hulk or Thor.

Sebastian Stan is also brilliant as Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier as is Anthony Mackie as The Falcon, and the movie as a whole was so big it felt like it was the sequel to the Avengers! And speaking of which, the after-credits scene is all about Age of Ultron as we catch our first glimpses of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver who seem to be sedated or brain-damaged or something? Baron von Strucker’s introduced too though he’s not wearing the Satan Claw - maybe they show how he gets it? Or maybe they’ve just dropped it altogether.

Anyway, The Winter Soldier is a fucking brilliant movie - arguably the standout so far in Marvel’s Phase 2 - and well done to everyone involved on making it. Hugely enjoyable and great fun, The Winter Soldier is a solid film; an action superhero movie done with intelligence and skill and one of the best the genre has ever had to offer.

But that scene between Steve and Peggy - wow. My favourite Captain America moment ever.

Uncanny X-Force, Volume 1: Let It Bleed Review (Sam Humphries, Ron Garney)

I read this book a few days ago and flew through it in one sitting - sometimes this is a good thing, other times, no. In this instance, it was not a good thing. So I decided to try an experiment and wait a few days before reviewing it to see whether I’d remember the actual story of the book or just the characters in the story. Guess what? My experiment proves the latter point - I don’t remember a thing about what happened in the book! 

I know Psylocke’s in it, I know Bishop’s in it, and Fantomex x 3, and that’s about it. Maybe Gambit? Oh, Storm was in it! And they were fighting… about something. That’s right and Sam Humphries used Rolling Stone song titles for chapter headings for some reason - maybe he was saying Uncanny X-Force was a rockier alternative to the rest of Marvel’s X-titles which are the Beatles? I don’t know. Adrian Alphona’s art was in this which was weird and awesome as always. 

Ok, I’m going to take a look into the book and see what I can glean. 

Right away I missed a big character (pun intended) in the book: Puck! What does he do in the book? Nothing! So that’s why I don’t remember him! Spiral? Nope, nothing. Fights Psylocke. About a mutant kid? Whatever. Fantomex is three people… I don’t know. Ok? And he and Psylocke had a relationship… right. 

So I just flipped through this book and once again got zero out of it. Some characters appear, they do superhero-y things (fighting with their powers), and the book ends. It’s literally as uninteresting and shallow as that. Is this even still an ongoing Marvel NOW! title? I have no idea but I do know I won’t be seeking out any more volumes in the series (should they exist). 

That was my first real-time, stream-of-consciousness review and whether you read this or not is up to you but having read it myself, it feels like I didn’t read it at all. Let It Bleed indeed.

Uncanny X-Force - Volume 1: Let It Bleed (Marvel Now)

Rat Queens, Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery Review (Kurtis Wiebe, Roc Upchurch)

Firmly set in the fantasy realm of magic and dragons, our heroines are: Hannah the Elven Mage with Amy Winehouse hair, Violet the Dwarven warrior (who’s shaved her beard off), Dee the human cleric who doesn’t believe in the gods her parents worship, and Betty the Smidgen thief, a teeny tiny girl with the ability to quaff major amounts of beer and ‘shrooms. Together, they are the Rat Queens, a band of mercs who quest hard and play hard! 

Except the playing has gotten out of hand lately in the town of Palisade and after a particularly heavy night of drinking and brawling, the Queens and the other mercs are sent on missions that are setups to get them wiped out once and for all. Will the Rat Queens survive and discover who’s behind the arranged assassinations? 

D&D, fantasy, and stuff like that generally isn’t my bag - I enjoy Game of Thrones and a few other things like that but I’m not a huge fan of the genre. And here’s the thing about Rat Queens - it’s definitely generic but it’s different because its a character driven story and Kurtis Wiebe has done a marvellous job of writing some of the most likeable and entertaining characters I’ve ever read in fantasy. 

They are bitches though - they drink, use drugs, behave callously and exactly like the young people with money they are, and normally that would put me off them. But somewhere around the second or third issue I began to really like these characters in spite of their off-putting behaviour. They are distinctly their own characters with their own voices and personalities and it’s remarkable how quickly and effortlessly Wiebe establishes this. Even though there’s magic and goblins and whatnot, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a fantasy comic; you’re reading a group of real friends having a laugh and having adventures who happen to be in a fantasy world. 

I recently read Jim Zub and Edwin Huang’s Skullkickers which is another fantasy comic and, while it’s not a bad book, I never connected with it and I think that’s because the barbarian and dwarf characters were more or less archetypes rather than unique characters (they didn’t even have names, they were simply “barbarian” and “dwarf”!). Skullkickers has a fantasy framework and the characters are part of that framework; Rat Queens has a fantasy framework but the characters transcend the framework to become something else, something much less generic. 

The plotlines work really well and develop interestingly - I love how there are consequences to their actions in the most unexpected ways. While on their main quest, they get sidetracked which plays into later issues where in the one scene when they kill a troll, the troll’s girlfriend shows up later with an orc army to besiege Palisade and avenge her fallen man. 

It also feels like a very lived in world that’s very relatable to ours. The magic Dee uses derives from a cult she has left behind but her parents are still in, like most young people with religious upbringings choosing secular lifestyles, while Violet’s fashion choices seem decidedly hipster-ish in a charming, and not annoying, way. Betty’s love troubles are very sweet - hell, her entire character is really sweet and I was rooting for her to get her girl in the end! - as is Hannah’s. Ah, awkward romance!

Roc Upchurch’s (and what a great name!) artwork is really excellent, lots of strong lines and great placement of characters in panels - he’s always doing something interesting with every character - and his comic timing perfectly suits Wiebe’s style (my favourite scene being when “old lady” Bernadette yells “I’m only 39!!!” and Hannah’s response is to stare at her for a moment and then burst out laughing in the next). I know artists hate comparisons but if I said Upchurch’s style is reminiscent of Fiona Staples’, I hope this book’ll get some more attention from the Saga community (for whom this book is really well suited actually)! 

This book has a great plot but to be honest by the end I was so invested in the characters, I wouldn’t mind if Wiebe eschewed it in the next book to focus on the everyday lives of the Rat Queens - that’s how well he writes them and how enjoyable they are to read about! 

I suppose if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll love Rat Queens but I don’t want to recommend it to a niche audience only as it has enormous wide appeal to readers outside of the genre. It’s got great characters who’re tons of fun, has a great balance in tone between fun and dramatic, it feels strangely contemporary and has great writing and art. Rat Queens is an undeniably awesome comic, guys, check it out!

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery TP

Sunday, 30 March 2014

10th review on Nudge

My 10th review for Nudge is up - check it out here:

Hellish Prose: A Review of Lynne Truss' Cat Out Of Hell

Alec, a retired librarian and recent widower, is taking a break in a coastal village to get over his recent bereavement and decides to look into a laptop filled with information given to him by a fellow librarian. Inside the laptop are files that tell the story of an actor called Wiggy and his acquaintance with Roger - a talking cat. Roger’s story spans decades, years in which his supernatural longevity, intelligence and speech were down to a mysterious cat called the Captain and a Satanic cat cult. And Alec is soon to realise his wife’s death wasn’t an accident - the hellcats are coming for him next! 

Cat Out Of Hell is one of the laziest novels I’ve read in a while. I’ve never read a Lynne Truss book before so I can’t say if this is her usual style but it reads like it was a frenzied NaNoWriMo effort (National Novel Writing Month where people try to write a 50k word novel during the month of November) thrown together in bursts of typing over actual creativity. Characters splutter exposition through one badly constructed scene after another without a hint of a plot with key details left out with no attempt at making it seem like a cohesive whole. 

This is what it feels like was racing through the author’s mind as she hacked this one out: there’s this evil cat cult - people dying! - Roger’s evil - no, wait the Captain’s evil - no wait, the cat cult is evil - no wait the evil librarian is evil - no, the evil librarian’s the head honcho - why did that character die, never mind, they’re dead, they were never “characters” anyway! - why did that character do that action even though it went against their flimsily created character, never mind, moving on - why did we suddenly jump ahead 70 years, NEVER MIND!!! - wait, why did Roger and the Captain fall out despite being besties for years? - NEVER MIND, KEEP GOING!!!! Done? Thank god! Well, no need to go back and make sure it reads well, I’ll just send this off and get on with my life. Cheque please! 

It’s madness! You can follow what’s happening but the narrative skips and jumps for no reason. When Truss builds up to an interesting scene like a heist or a murder mystery reveal, she skips it and jumps ahead to the aftermath - probably because that’s easier to write - before going back to the safety of Alec or Wiggy’s overly chatty, rather scatterbrained narration. 

The ending is also a massive let down. Events stumble clumsily to the final act and then, just when I thought it couldn’t possibly be this predictable, Truss MUST do something a little different to make things at least a bit interesting, she opts instead for exactly the least original choice. Other bizarre creative decisions in the narrative involve switching from first person narration to email exchanges, screenplay scenes, and something downright sickening called an “e-miaow” (definitely the only horror element in the novel), for no reason! 

Truss’ ideas about the long living, talking cats could barely be called ideas. If you’re a cat owner you’ll know they have a habit of kneading their paws on you - Truss spins it so that cats used to have powers to kill humans and the non-powered cats do this expecting you to die and are disappointed when you don’t. Hmm, heard that before. Or how about their superior attitude that seems completely undeserved? Well, they used to have powers and… zzz… Ho hum. 

Truss even seems aware of her languorous efforts and addresses them in the text itself: “I no longer care much about the gaps in this story, so I hope you don’t either.” So there you go - any gaps in the story won’t be addressed and neither will the stuff that didn’t make sense. But she “thoroughly enjoyed writing it, so there you are.” Alright guys? Up yours! I put more effort and thought into writing this review than Truss did in the entire novel. 

Cat Out Of Hell isn’t horror, it’s dreary nothing. It’s not comedy either, I didn’t see any jokes in the text. It completely fails at the two genres it attempts. It’s grammatically sound, as you’d expect from the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but what a pitiful positive that is to say about a novel! Cat Out Of Hell is a rushed, poorly conceived and even more poorly executed hack job that I wouldn’t even line my cat’s litter tray with. If you want to read an interesting talking cat story, check out Saki’s short story, Tobermory instead.

Cat out of Hell

Saturday, 29 March 2014

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy Review

1980, the Texas/Mexico border. Llewellyn Moss is out hunting one day when he stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong: dead bodies and bags of heroin everywhere and over two million dollars in a bag. Moss makes the fateful decision to take the money and run and so begins a deadly cat and mouse game with a cast that includes psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh, a bounty hunter called Carson Wells, and elderly and world-weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (what amazing names!) who watches the destruction unfold. Will Moss escape with the cash or pay the ultimate price?

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is a neo-western thriller that’s a completely engrossing read. Moss’ flight from his pursuers is really exciting because McCarthy writes Moss as a competent and intelligent man able to evade his pursuers and remain one step ahead. But his main antagonist, the brutal Chigurh, is extremely adept at picking up the trail and relentlessly keeps after Moss. Both characters make No Country an enormously enthralling story to follow. 

Chigurh’s character is by far the standout of the book. A quietly vicious killer who’s deeply intense and driven in a way that makes him appear more like a force of nature than a man, McCarthy has created a character for the ages with Chigurh on par with Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector. Chigurh stole every scene he appeared in from when we first meet him in police custody, murdering his way to freedom, to the final chilling scene. Every interaction he has with any character is immediately tense as we as readers never know when he’ll decide to kill - he flips coins to make the choice for him - and the air pistol he uses to silently murder his victims was an inspired choice showing his contempt for his fellow man, viewing them as the cattle the gun was originally designed to kill. 

Sheriff Bell is the character I would say I was the most conflicted about because I both liked and disliked him for the same reason. Bell is the most cliched character in the cast - an old cop on the verge of retirement - but McCarthy writes his voice beautifully. The book is structured so that Bell will monologue for a page or two in italics before the chapter reverts back to an omniscient, unintrusive narrator. Bell’s monologues typically run along two topics for the entirety of the book: 1) the world today isn’t like the world he knew growing up - it’s a darker, more violent world, and 2) he sure does love his wife Loretta and boy is he lucky to have met her. 

The monologues become repetitive after a while but serve to break up and work effectively as a contrast to the action. And while what Bell says sounds wise in a down-home kinda way, they’re not really: the world is full of violent people? Is that a revelation to anyone? And all that stuff about his wife is corny as hell. However the way he says it is written with such an evocative sing-song quality that sounds genuinely heartfelt and lyrical, I honestly didn’t mind reading it. Given the number of awards McCarthy’s won, it’s a moot point to say he has a knack for choosing the right words, but he really does and these often mask rather insubstantial material or gussie it up to seem cleverer than it is. 

And here’s the thing about No Country: even though it’s written by a critically acclaimed writer who’s won the Pulitzer, this is not an intellectual book - but it is intelligently written. It’s not profound, it’s not overly complex, it doesn’t even have anything much to say: it’s simply a genre novel but it’s a really well written genre novel. It’s refreshingly straightforward and accessible from a writer who might be more concerned with literary complexity to the detriment of plot, given his reputation as a literary writer. Thankfully that’s not the case and his direct approach is a brilliant choice as it suits the characters and story perfectly. It might seem more literary because McCarthy eschews quotation marks for dialogue - hell, he doesn’t even tell you which character is speaking! - but it’s a thriller nonetheless albeit of a higher quality than the usual thriller fare. 

This style means that the novel shoots along at an incredible pace, the reader drawn into this lethal chase and the pages flying by as a result. It helps that the dialogue is written in a stripped down, almost screenplay-like manner and it’s interesting that McCarthy these days has taken to writing only screenplays over novels - No Country is indicative of the direction he’d take as a writer in the years after it was published. 

The only real problem I had with the story was the way a major character is dealt with towards the end. They’re killed off-page and in such a tossed-off way that I had to go back and re-read the last appearance of that character to see if I’d missed a detail - nope. It’s daring to so abruptly kill off a major player and resolve the main story in such a sudden manner that could go either way for the reader but for me, while I appreciated the uniquely different way to conclude the story, I was definitely unsatisfied with how events played out.

No Country for Old Men is an extremely violent but compulsively readable neo-western that’s genuinely thrilling and features one of the great modern literary villains in Anton Chigurh. It’s a classy pulp novel that tells its story well making it a very enjoyable read despite its rather bleak outlook.

No Country for Old Men

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Invisibles, Volume 3: Entropy in the UK Review (Grant Morrison et al.)

King Mob and Lord Fanny have been kidnapped by Sir Miles and The Conspiracy and are being tortured for information on The Invisibles - will Ragged Robin, Boy and Jim Crow save them in time? Meanwhile, Jack Frost is still coming to terms with his role as saviour of humanity as the next incarnation of the Buddha, and a new member of The Invisibles is introduced who is looking for the Moonchild. 

I really love Grant Morrison’s writing, I do, but his Invisibles series just isn’t clicking with me in the way his Batman, We3, All-Star Superman and Seaguy comics, to name just a few, do. So Entropy in the UK is the third book in the series and nearly the halfway point in the series as a whole (there are seven volumes), but I’m still having a hard time trying to give a damn about any of the characters. King Mob is tied up in a sterile lab and is being psychically interrogated by Sir Miles – and I don’t care. Am I supposed to be rooting for King Mob? I suppose so, because he and the rest of the Invisibles are fighting the baddies right? But that’s the only reason to care and, to be honest, it’s a really flimsy one. You’re basically telling the reader to like the hero because he’s the hero, rather than giving the reader reasons why they should like the hero – to use the oft-repeated writing maxim, show don’t tell, and there’s a lot of telling in The Invisibles. 

To be fair to Morrison he does continue to slowly build up other characters. In the last book it was Lord Fanny, in this book it’s Boy whose backstory is revealed (and is much less convoluted than Fanny’s was), but Boy is really a minor player in the book who doesn’t get nearly as many pages as King Mob when we as readers should be learning more about him in order for us to actually care about what’s happening to his character. 

Entropy is another decent sized volume, coming in at 230 pages, but the story is very thin on the ground. King Mob is tortured, Fanny makes a voodoo doll, Dane confronts his destiny, the rest of the Invisibles putter about, and then a rescue is launched. The torture sequence in particular is very drawn out and if there’s one thing I’ll take away from reading The Invisibles it’s how much the Wachowskis ripped off the series for their first Matrix movie. Sir Miles torturing King Mob is EXACTLY like the scene when Agent Smith is torturing Morpheus, trying to find out the location of Neo and co. Combine this and other scenes from the first book the Wachowskis used and I’m surprised Morrison didn’t get a credit in the movie! 

Then again, not everything Morrison’s doing is exactly original. I’m not the biggest Philip K. Dick fan but I have read some of his stuff and The Invisibles feels more and more influenced by his work than ever in Entropy. The numerous spiritualism scenes and discourses on Eastern beliefs and the way King Mob claims to really be a writer called Morrison are very much aspects of Dick’s writing. The author even has a cameo here! And the design for the Archon of the Outer Church is very Xenomorph-y. 

However even if the story is stretched for much of the book, there are still flashes of sheer brilliance peppered unexpectedly throughout like King Mob’s psychic defences against Sir Miles which are pretty impressive (his alter-ego Gideon Stargrave is a kind of campy James Bond but not as silly as Austin Powers) and artist Phil Jimenez does an incredible job with the artwork for his issues. The way Sir Miles interrogates King Mob by holding up a note stuck to a mirror saying “facial disease” and King Mob seeing himself with a facial disease was quite brilliant, and the way The Conspiracy keeps people in check from a young age using a code-word, which is the alphabet, was inspired. 

Morrison’s ambition and enormous vision can’t be faulted. I love the mad, chaotic moments that his imagination throws out onto the page like the sentient satellite Barbelith and the way Dane is forced to absorb the collective suffering of humanity to understand why he has to stop running and face his destiny. It’s just the way Morrison writes it that keeps me from connecting to the material in a meaningful way. The characters remain barely realised and the story remains an abstract idea. Maybe I’d feel more positively toward the series if I were as into chaos magic as Morrison but seeing the Invisibles and their enemies engaged in psychic combat made me laugh more than anything. I kept thinking of that scene from South Park where the “psychics” are having a battle and it’s just a bunch of weird people in costumes making "pew pew" noises and waving their arms at one another with nothing at all happening (sorry if you’re into chaos magic – this is just what it looks like from the outside). 

I’m going to keep going with the series because I am interested to see where Morrison is taking all of this but from what I can tell about The Invisibles so far is that it’s a series more interested in portraying semi-philosophical ideas and esoteric magic concepts rather than memorable characters or a meaningful story, which simply doesn’t make for a riveting reading experience unless you’re already interested in this kind of material

Invisibles TP #3 Entropy In The Uk

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, Volume 1: Getting the Band Back Together Review (Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber)

I blame cynical marketing for making cynics of us all (or at least me)! 

Superior Spider-Man has been a huge bestseller for Marvel and spinoff titles were inevitable. So when I saw the multiple Superior titles appearing – Team-Up, Foes, and Carnage – I stayed away thinking they’d be derivative knock-offs. And it’s that attitude that kept me away from one of Marvel’s hidden gems from the last year: Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man (a series which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with Superior Spider-Man). 

Boomerang, Shocker, Speed Demon, Overdrive and Beetle are the new Sinister Six (and yes they’re aware they’re only 5!) who’re tired of being beaten by Spidey and winding up in jail. But of course they didn’t get to where they are today without failing to learn from their mistakes so they jump right into another criminal plot! During his latest stint in jail, Boomerang comes up with one big heist to put the new Sinister Six back on the map and in the money: steal the head of Silvio Silvermane (a cyborg gangster) from the Owl! 

Foes follows in the footsteps of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye and FF and Mark Waid’s Daredevil, in that it’s a strongly character-driven series with innovative art, jokes aplenty, and a minimum of traditional superhero shenanigans. Boomerang is a dude who throws boomerangs and wears a boomerang on his head but he becomes more than a gimmicky D-list villain in this book and turns into a real character that you actually care about. 

Care about or at least laugh at. Foes looks at the life of a loser villain who: hangs out in crummy basements while planning heists with his equally loser villain colleagues; has a former friend as his parole officer, Abner Jenkins the original Beetle now Mach VII (a cheap War Machine knockoff); falls for a baseball-loving bartender; attends supervillains anonymous (Wreck It Ralph had a similar scene); and gets fleeced by his sleazy lawyer. 

Spencer’s script is filled with great scenes and jokes that work. When Beetle tries to rob a comic book store, she leaves exasperated when faced with the nerdiness of it all: “which variant covers did you want? Bags and boards?” etc. At the supervillains anonymous meeting, Boomerang hugs a giant hippo character in a scene parodying the Ed Norton/Meat Loaf scene from Fight Club when Norton’s face gets smooshed into Meat Loaf’s moobs – Lieber even positions the characters in exactly the same pose! 

Lieber’s art matches Spencer’s comedic script perfectly. Taking its cue from David Aja’s approach in Hawkeye, creative and different styles get thrown into the mix alongside solid artwork. Symbols replace banal dialogue so when girls flock to Mach VII for a photograph, you just see a symbol rather than the words “can we have a picture with you?”. There’s an awesome four panel dream sequence using near-stick figures when Boomerang’s with his lawyer, Partridge, and imagining decapitating him with a boomerang. Also, the layout of the Owl’s lair is simplistically portrayed in a child-like two-dimensional way to mirror Boomerang’s simplistic plan to storm the place head on. 

Superior Foes Vol 1 has turned me into a Steve Lieber fan and made me do a 180 on my opinion of Nick Spencer’s writing. It’s a funny, inventive and really entertaining comic which I would never have thought could be done with characters like Boomerang and Overdrive – that Spencer’s pulled it off is a helluva feat! If you like comics like Hawkeye and Daredevil, check out Superior Foes of Spider-Man for an awesome read.

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man Volume 1: Getting the Band Back Together

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Real Heroes #1 Review (Bryan Hitch)

New comic book day yesterday and I had a pile of stuff to read – lotsa Marvel, some Vertigo, Image – and looked through them to see which one I wanted to read first. I settled on Bryan Hitch’s Real Heroes #1 because it looked interesting and cool – it is Bryan Hitch, amazing artist of multiple titles - and a number one is usually a decent place to start. Little did I realise Real Heroes #1 would ruin my evening. I made it halfway through the comic before setting it down and not bothering with the rest of the comics in the pile (except Ghost Rider #1 which I did read for Tradd Moore’s art and was surprised at how much I liked Felipe Smith’s writing).

Real Heroes #1 is a shit-show. It’s a cliché-ridden, hackneyed attempt at writing which happens to have great art from Bryan Hitch. That he’s also the writer means that he joins multiple artists from Andy Kubert to George Perez to Neal Adams who tried being both artist and writer on a title and failed miserably in the writing department showing why great comics need separate writers and artists. There are exceptions of course but very rarely does a single person pull off the writer/artist combo successfully – and Hitch ain’t one of them.

One of the worst clichés in comics is the exposition/scene-setting via TV and/or radio reports. I’m absolutely sick of seeing this in comics and can’t stand it when this happens and that’s exactly how Real Heroes #1 opens. It also opens on 9/11 for one page before shifting – completely without any reference for “10 years later” which would’ve been useful, because it makes it look like in this world, the aliens are responsible for 9/11 – to the “present” which is an Avengers-type movie. Talk about awkward tone-setting!

So far, blandness prevails. Blandly designed superheroes fight blandly design supervillains in a bland cityscape – no stakes, no understanding of what’s happening, no reason to care about any of it.

Then we shift to the actors watching the movie who’re talking about back-end deals, and are busy schilling their crap for the cameras. There’s a “delinquent” actor who’s doing a groupie and drugs in a bathroom in a pitiful scene even Mark Millar would be rolling his eyes at and then the actors are gathering and talking about how much money their movies going to make. I couldn’t care less about anything that’s happened in this comic so far and all of the characters are loathsome cunts.

That was it for me. I stopped at that point, unable to go any further. I think it was halfway, it might’ve been just before the staples, but I knew I didn’t want to read any more of this drivel. And it’s a single issue comic! 30 odd pages at best, more like 20 something usually, and I couldn’t get more than halfway through.

Bryan Hitch is a good artist but he can’t write worth a damn. Real Heroes #1 is Real Crap.

The Private Eye Volume 1 Review (Brian K Vaughan, Marcos Martin)

A man with a camera lurks in the shadows of a building looking across at a building opposite where a beautiful woman is undressing. She takes off her coat; she takes off her jewellery; she takes off her dress; and then she takes off her skin to reveal another person underneath!!! The world of the future is a pretty weird place to say the least!

In 2075 the internet is no more. Everyone stored information in The Cloud until The Cloud “burst” and ruined everyone’s lives. Search histories, recorded conversations, private emails, texts and tweets – all of it came out and inverted the world. Now privacy is a premium with everyone – EVERYONE – wearing masks and disguises in their day to day lives and if anyone wants to find out about anyone else, they hire a paparazzo like Patrick Immelmann aka PI to get information. 

Ayoung woman called Taj McGill hires PI to investigate her. PI reluctantly agrees but things become more complicated when Taj is murdered and PI realises he’s stumbled into a massive terrorist plot. Hunted by international assassins, global conglomerates, and a maniac with a modified space shuttle, PI, Raveena (Taj’s sister) and his faithful chauffeur, the teenage Mel (aka Lady Nunchuk), must survive it all and stop the madman. 

Brian Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye is the most entertaining neo-noir story you’re likely to read. It follows the conventions of the classic sleuth story – the jaded investigator, the femme fatale, the underdog against the powerful, a mystery that leads to a greater mystery, even the sassy accomplice – but does so with a freshness and lightness that’s enormously invigorating. It also helps that this is an incredibly good looking comic thanks to Martin’s stunning art and Muntsa Vicente’s bright and beautiful colours. 

While it’s set 60 years in the future and is clearly futuristic, it’s not implausibly so. The vehicle designs are different (especially Mel’s car which rocks) but they’re not a million miles away from what’s on the road now, and there are still high street shops (including, depressingly, McDonald’s). The changes are there but subtle – nobody has smart phones anymore since the internet no longer exists, but computer games are still played on wall-sized screens, just not online. Bizarrely the press have replaced the police as the guardians of law and order and libraries have become fortresses since information is the new currency. 

The new world order, where disguises are de rigueur as people have become their former internet avatars, means Martin can let his imagination loose leading to some eye-popping pages where crowds of superheroes, monsters, cartoon characters, and animals populate the streets and the ones not wearing costumes are the “weird” ones - it’s a world filled with cosplayers! 

Vaughan’s on top form with this series. His characters are sharply realised, his plot clicks along at a perfect pace with the mystery unfolding in satisfactory pieces, and his future world and it’s society is convincing and fascinating. Even the small details are brilliant like the Schwartzenegger Medical Center, PI’s office in the Chateau Marmont, and the hint that Rand Paul (or Ron) was once President! I really like PI’s Gramps too. You know everyone these days who has tattoo sleeves? Gramps was one of those people when he was younger; as an old guy with those tats? Ergh – doesn’t look right! 

You might be looking for the book on Amazon or on your library catalogue and you won’t find it because here’s the thing about The Private Eye: it’s available only digitally and only on the website,, owned and operated by Vaughan, Martin and Vicente. It’s also designed to be read on tablets/laptop screens because the pages are rectangular. Here’s the other thing about The Private Eye: it’s completely free! Well, you can download it for free as a DRM-free PDF OR you could be cool and chip in a few bucks to show your appreciation. Even if you don’t want to pay full graphic novel price for it, give them something rather than take it for nothing: quality work deserves to be rewarded. 

The Private Eye is an utterly brilliant and highly original neo-noir story that crime and comics fans will absolutely adore. First class storytelling, writing and art, The Private Eye is the full comics package – don’t miss it!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme Review (Joe Sacco)

Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme isn’t a comic per se - it’s a staggering 24 foot long wordless panorama depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Folded numerous times to fit into book format, it can be “read” like a book and looks a bit like an accordion in profile. It shows in jaw-dropping detail countless soldiers from the first page of a troubled General Douglas Haig well behind the lines to the gravediggers and dead bodies on the last. 

The Battle of the Somme remains one of the worst battles in human history with over a million dead between July and November 1916. Sacco shows the first day from the Allied perspective which saw a staggering total of 57,000 British soldiers dead or wounded by day’s end, making it the worst loss in British military history. In comparison, the Germans lost an estimated 8,000. 

How could such a catastrophe occur? Ineffective bombing. After a week of Allied bombing, the British expected to go in with their 120,000 troops and storm through the lines but, as soon as they entered no man’s land, they realised how much the bombs had missed the Germans’ lines when they saw line after line of barbed wire and machine gun nests intact. 

In the style of the Bayeux tapestry 1000 years ago which depicted the Battle of Hastings, Sacco’s panoramic view of the battle takes in everything from the soldiers on their way to the front, arriving and eating breakfast, getting prepared and heading into the trenches, to the distant bombings getting closer, to the trenches themselves, and the beginnings of the attack which sees explosions and bullets tearing apart soldiers in the most horrific ways. It builds in pitch, starting slowly to becoming more and more frenzied until the final cold silence. 

It’s such an impressive accomplishment by Sacco, especially when you look closely and see how he’s drawn every single soldier on the page - their faces, their correct uniforms and weapons - and amidst the grandiose scenes of bloodshed, moments captured: the sobbing expressions of stretcher bearers carrying dying soldiers, men cowering behind trenches, the lone survivor in no man’s land frozen in place as he looks around him to where his comrades were. There are so many in the panorama that you find yourself studying every inch of the page as you go. It’s simply a visually breathtaking, stunning and deeply moving work - a career highlight for sure by this incredible cartoonist. 

Accompanying the panorama is a short introduction by Sacco (which leaves out how long it took him to create, a detail I would’ve liked to have known) and an illuminating essay by historian Adam Hochschild for context and perspective. There’s also a breakdown of the 24 plates, pointing out and explaining specific scenes.

Though Sacco is best known for his superb comics journalism like Footnotes in Gaza and Palestine, The Great War is not a comic but is an astonishing work of art not to be missed.

The Great War

Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick Review (Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky)

Long before the middle of the book I was - and you will be too - deeply in love with Suzie and Jon (the titular Sex Criminals) and their story, but it was the middle of the book when Suzie jumped up on the pool table to belt out Fat-Bottomed Girls by Queen that I realised I was reading a completely new kind of comic I’d never read before. As soon as Suzie opens her mouth, the lyrics are blocked out by captions from Matt Fraction explaining why they couldn’t reprint the Queen lyrics because certain things hadn’t gone through the legal department in time. It’s an absolutely perfect moment. 

Sex Criminals was the most original comic of 2013, in a year filled with terrific and original comics, and if you’ve never heard of it, I’m here to tell you this is a book everyone (provided they’re over 18) should read. Suzie and Jon can temporarily freeze time when they orgasm and they can walk about in the frozen world. Jon works as a personal assistant in a bank which is foreclosing on Suzie’s library and, after the two meet at a party and discover their mutual ability, they decide to rob the bank to keep the library’s doors open. But Suzie and Jon aren’t the only ones with special powers and they’re about to find out what happens to sex criminals when the sex police show up!

The premise is excellent and completely unique but what really makes the comic so good are the characters. The first chapter introduces our heroine, Suzie, as she narrates her life story directly to the reader, taking in her tragic home life - father committed suicide, mother became an alcoholic - which is an unexpected tack to take in a book that’s marketed as a comedy, to finding out about sex and her powers. Jon’s story follows with its own bumps along the way (what’s a story without conflict, eh?) which questions the overly medicated youth of America in a funny way and explains why he chooses a creative location for his daily poops. 

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky pull off an amazing balancing act of telling an original, exciting story with well-rounded, believable characters, with tons of great jokes that are perfectly suited to the comics medium. I already mentioned my favourite scene with Suzie singing Queen, but there are loads of great moments like when Suzie’s in high school and learning about sex. I dare you to keep a straight face when the older girl doodles on the bathroom stall, describing the various sex positions (my favourites - and by that I mean the ones that made me laugh the most, not because I do them myself - are shrimping, brimping and the Dutch microwave. Read the book to find out what they look like!).

Zdarsky deserves a lot of credit for his work on his book. I think any other artist on this simply wouldn’t have had the same effect as he has had - his art is absolutely first class and perfect on every single page, but his imaginative layouts takes Fraction’s script and makes it something else. The scene where Suzie meets Jon for the first time and they walk about the party while Jon quotes Nabokov’s Lolita was stunning, especially when Suzie’s feet lift off the ground, the background falls away, and the two, sat on the sofa, lift off the page into white nothingness. 

Even the background stuff - especially the background stuff - is amazing. When the two visit Cumworld, a sleazy sexshop from Jon’s youth, there are too many background gags to mention that are so much fun to discover for yourself but I’ll mention one of the pornos: Hard-On Fink starring Johnny Spurturro and directed by Joel and Ethan Boen. But the best background gag is Sexual Gary - I won’t say any more than that except that Sexual Gary is the best background gag in comics ever. 

As you’d expect in a book called Sex Criminals, there’s a lot of sex and nudity but it’s done in a very matter-of-fact and realistic way so that it’s never exploitative or sleazy but comes off instead as surprisingly charming. And because Suzie and Jon are in love with each other, those scenes do feel romantic and sweet, like you’re really seeing two people falling for one another as two people would in real life. 

There’s not a single thing I can critique in Sex Criminals - it is a flawless comic. It’s art and writing is both smart and funny, entertaining and clever, where the tone is pitch perfect and possesses an intoxicating mix of contemporary drama, sci-fi and comedy, as well as featuring two of the most realised characters you’re like to meet in Suzie and Jon. It’s an utterly beautiful comic too with some of the best art you’ll see all year. One Weird Trick is a startlingly original book that is quite simply a masterpiece. Fraction and Zdarsky are doing something special with this series and I can see Sex Criminals easily becoming one of the major high points in 21st century comics. 

These guys… if you haven’t already, get in on this one immediately and see two incredible artists producing the greatest work of their career. It'll also probably be the only time in your life you utter the phrase "I love Sex Criminals"!

Sex Criminals Volume 1 TP

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste Review (Carl Wilson)

Celine Dion. 

What’s your response? Like me, it’s probably: ick. Right? 

Well, you’re not alone as nearly everyone seems to have this response to Dion mostly thanks to her obnoxious monster hit, My Heart Will Go On, from James Cameron’s Titanic that won an Oscar and sold bazillions of copies worldwide. But chances are you won’t have heard much of her music beyond that song, or know much about her as a person, and yet the response to Dion is still: ick. Why?

That’s what Carl Wilson sets out to discover in his look at Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love. But unlike the other books in the 33 ⅓ series, Dion’s album is barely touched upon as Wilson chooses instead to examine what “taste” is and how people form critical opinions in culture. 

What Wilson does in the book is definitely interesting and laudable but I found his conclusions to be a little obvious and his approach a bit too academic at times. He basically comes to chastise himself for being too much of a snob to exclude Dion and pop music in general because he perceives it to be schmaltzy and decides to be more inclusive of his cultural intake - which is fine, but isn’t an eye-opening revelation (not to me anyway as this is already my own personal approach to all things cultural) especially when that’s what you’d expect in a book that sets itself up the way it has. 

I appreciate the extensive research Wilson’s put into his book like informing the reader of Dion’s life and background, and putting her personality into the context of her Quebec upbringing - if nothing else, you’ll come away knowing a lot about Dion as a person. But did we really need an entire chapter on schmaltz? I understand why it was included but some of the topics here have only the most tenuous connection to the basic thesis that my attention was strained at times throughout. As relatively short as the book is - 160 pages - I feel if Wilson had tightened it up a bit, it’d be a more satisfying read that’d be as informative. 

But I did enjoy many sections of the book. I liked Wilson’s autobiographical notes such as his trip to Las Vegas to watch one of Dion’s last shows when she was a resident there and feeling momentarily touched by her singing, and that he wore headphones when listening to her music at home so his neighbours wouldn’t know he was listening to Celine Dion. Also as a huge Elliott Smith fan, I appreciated his anecdote about how Smith always defended Dion after meeting her at the Oscars (his song Miss Misery was nominated the same year as My Heart Will Go On and Smith performed it before Dion came out) saying that he may not like her music but he respected her as a person for coming up to him pre-show and showing him a basic level of courtesy that no-one else did at the ceremony. 

I think Wilson hit upon a really great idea with this book: take an album you have zero personal connection to and use it to examine music criticism itself, and for that alone it’s a standout in the excellent 33 ⅓ series. It’s just that at times it’s a little long-winded and it’s conclusions aren’t as inspired as the premise. If you want a thoughtful book that takes a nuanced look at music criticism and its faults, or an intellectual review of Dion’s seemingly bland songs, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is worth a look.

Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love (33 1/3)

Preacher, Volume 1: Gone to Texas Review (Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon)

Garth Ennis is definitely one of my all-time favourite comic book writers. I forget which series I read first - his Punisher MAX run I think followed by The Boys - but I do remember coming to Preacher very late in the game, despite being told it was his finest work to date. And I remember reading it and thinking, no, it’s not. Re-reading it recently, I’m still not convinced and I’m baffled at most readers’ overwhelmingly positive response to it. 

Jesse Custer is a former bad boy turned preacher in a Texan town who one day gets superpowers from God and accidentally burns his entire flock alive. He meets his old flame/hitman, Tulip, and a random stranger called Cassidy who’s also an Irish vampire, and together they look to hunt down God - who’s on Earth somewhere - and tell him what a lousy job he’s doing with Creation. Meanwhile, the Saint of Killers, an unstoppable killing machine, is on Custer’s trail. 

The book opens with Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy sitting around a cafe table nattering away, and it’s this setup that bothered me the most in the volume: they’re always sat round cafe tables reminding themselves (and the reader) who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. I guess Ennis really liked Pulp Fiction and Tarantino’s other movies and thought it’d be riveting to have his characters mimic that style - and that’s fine, there were plenty of Tarantino copycats in the wake of Pulp Fiction - but he can’t emulate Tarantino’s dialogue successfully enough and instead his expositional summary dumps became extremely trite long before the end. 

The characters didn’t grab me - I don’t really care about boring Jesse whose quest to find God or whatever isn’t interesting in the least, and the other characters like Tulip are about as two-dimensional as you can get. Cassidy plays the louche slacker (a quintessential 90s archetype that still annoyingly crops up now and then) whose jokes fall flat every single time. “I’ve got this brilliant recipe for quiche. You make the quiche, right, an’ then you cook it, an’ then you throw the stupid fuckin’ thing out the window. Then you grill yourself a t-bone an’ eat that instead.” Ugh. He comes up with drivel like that all the time and it’s so irritating. 

I’ve seen lots of reviews that mention that Preacher is gory and bloody, etc., and it is but not enough to really warrant it being THE thing to know about the book. If you’ve read Ennis before, you’ll already know he writes gory comics - The Punisher, The Boys, Jennifer Blood, War Stories, hell, practically every Ennis book contains the same amount of gore as you see in Preacher, so I’m not sure why it’s worth pointing out about this comic. It’s a bloody story but no more so than any other Ennis and/or Steve Dillon book you’ll read. 

The setup is just boring. Some weird thing from Heaven (which is real) called Genesis has escaped and become part of Custer who now has the Word of God, meaning he can will whoever into doing anything he wants with his voice. And because the world’s gone to pot, Custer’s going to find God and tell him to sort it out, make him care somehow, probably using the Word of God? Meh. I’m not sure why Tulip or Cassidy are along for the ride either. I guess neither have anything much going on? Which is always a compelling motivation to have…

I really like Steve Dillon’s art so seeing that here is always awesome, and Ennis’ murder mystery in New York City at the end was ok. At least that had a story rather than characters standing about telling the reader about themselves and their situation while they waited for the Saint of Killers to show up. You can also see the prototype for Detective Soap from Welcome Back, Frank in Detective John Tool - the two are comically incompetent detectives chasing after much more competent criminals. 

And Arseface still makes me laugh - he’s a Kurt Cobain fan who tried committing suicide the same way as his hero with a gun in the mouth but miraculously lived and whose face now looks like an arse! The scenes where he’s trying to be upbeat and cheerful to his grim father who can’t bear to look at his son were so damn funny. But overall there’s very little to like in a 200+ page book that’s hugely rated by the majority of readers. 

First volumes aren’t always indicative of the series as a whole. I wasn’t that impressed with the first volumes of Sandman, Y: The Last Man and Scalped but went on to adore the rest of the series. And Ennis has written enough brilliant books to warrant a level of trust other writers wouldn’t, so I’ll keep on with Preacher. But Gone to Texas is a surprisingly very weak first book in such an acclaimed series.

Preacher Book One TP