Sunday, 31 August 2014

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai Review (Stan Sakai)

The first Usagi Yojimbo book collected the initial short comics that the character first appeared in before Stan Sakai decided to make a series out of him. This second book collects the beginning few issues in the ongoing (30 years!) Usagi Yojimbo series, and it’s definitely more of a sustained narrative than the bits and pieces of the first volume. 

A wordless duel between Usagi and another samurai sets the stage for Usagi’s retelling of his origin story to Gen, the roguish mercenary from the first book. We see a young Usagi’s training under his sensei Katsuichi, learning how to become a master swordsman, as well as the beginning of his rivalry with Kenichi, the man who would marry his childhood love, Mariko. 

Sakai keeps up the increasingly tense narrative as Usagi uses his skills to save his village and eventually become part of Lord Mifune’s elite guard. But after a crushing defeat at the hands of the evil Lord Hikiji (who will become the main villain of the series), Usagi becomes a ronin (masterless samurai) culminating years later in the duel that opened this book - a delayed revenge for past treasons against a former friend. 

The volume rounds out with three short stories as Usagi faces a kappa (Japanese water demon), meets Zylla (a Godzilla caricature), and liberates some silk workers from their greedy boss. 

What’s amazing is how quickly Sakai has captured the tone of the series at only the second volume and maintained it for so long. I’ve read his recent Usagi work and it feels exactly like these kinds of comics. This volume isn’t rough or feels like the world needs fleshing out, it’s like it came fully formed right from the get go. 

Sakai’s art is wonderful and though there’s a lot of fighting, there’s absolutely no bloodshed and when characters expire a skull and crossbones appear in their speech bubbles, so it’s appropriate for all ages. 

I’m surprised Sakai went for the origin story right off the bat but it works really well, gets it out of the way, and sets the stage for Usagi to move onto newer adventures. The short stories at the end are fine but after such an epic narrative, they feel like b-sides more than anything, there to pad out the page count without really adding much. 

After a shaky first volume, Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo finds its feet with the second. It’s a great historical/samurai story with animal characters that’s a lot of a fun to read. Delightful comics!

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai

Sebastian O Review (Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell)

Set in steampunk Victorian England, Sebastian O is a roguish dandy locked up for writing a saucy and subversive book. However, soon after his dashing escape from Bedlam, he learns that there are more than just coppers after him and that there was more to his imprisonment than he first realised…

Sebastian O is a three-issue miniseries from the early ‘90s and, despite being written by Grant Morrison, it’s relatively obscure. But if you’re familiar with the name, you might expect this book to be a little tricky to read but it’s actually very straightforward. Too straightforward even. This is actually the first Grant Morrison comic I found myself wishing things to be a little more complicated! 

Sebastian O’s plot is your average revenge story that’s been doing the rounds long before Alexandre Dumas wrote the definitive one in The Count of Monte Cristo. And because Sebastian’s a dandy who fancies himself an aesthete (with an Aubrey Beardsley hairdo) Morrison tries - and fails - to come up with some Wildean witticisms for him: 

“We may be in the sewer, but there’s absolutely no need for that kind of gutter profanity” and
“It seems almost criminal to remove my whiskers. I look indefinably christlike. Having said that, I refuse to martyr myself for one second longer”

Hmm. I know Morrison’s attempting caricature here but it doesn’t quite work, being such weak and empty humour. Alan Moore attempted something similar in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, which further underscored exactly why Wilde was so celebrated, then and now: nobody else could write or think like him. 

I quite liked Steve Yeowell’s art in this book. The mechanical gardens looked great as did Sebastian’s tricksy, trap-laden home, and steampunk Blighty looked convincing with just the right amount of oddity to make it look similar, but wholly different, to Victorian England. His design for the Abbe also looked a lot like Beardsley’s Ali Baba, a style and reference that I’m sure wasn’t a coincidence.

Sebastian O is minor Morrison but given his many successes and popularity, it seems strange that DC would decide to discontinue this book’s print run forever. I think Morrison has enough of an audience that this comic, however ordinary, could generate a decent amount of sales for them if they re-released it. 

If you’re a Morrison fan and enjoy his more story-driven work over his trippy-hippy stuff, you’ll enjoy this - it’s not amazing but it’s certainly not bad. But if you can’t get your hands on a copy - which will become more likely as the years go on - then don’t worry as you didn’t miss a masterpiece.

Sebastian O

Generation A by Douglas Coupland Review

Douglas Coupland's Generation A sees a not-too-distant world of ours devoid of bees and therefore things like fruit and flowers. A strange drug called Solon is sweeping the planet, it's effects rendering the user carefree and unafraid of the future with a deep inner peace that stops them interacting with other humans and makes them seek solitude. Highly addictive, the drug is wiping out human creativity as well as the bees. 

Five people, seemingly random, across the planet are stung by bees. They are suddenly whisked away for testing and become instant global celebrities. Shortly after being released back into the world they are recaptured and taken to a remote island off the coast of Canada and made to tell stories, the idea being something in the telling of stories releases a protein into their blood and the mixture could become a cure for Solon. 

Well, damn the negative reviews, because I loved it! Generation A mixes two of Coupland's strengths - his humour, like in Microserfs and jPod, and his humanity, like in Eleanor Rigby - together with his semi-realistic visions of futuristic society. The result is his best book to date. 

If you've read Coupland before you'll know his love of employing gimmicks into his stories. The reams of numbers in jPod showing pi or the novel within a novel in The Gum Thief or the new dictionary slang of Generation X; in Generation A, the second half is taken up by short stories told by the characters. While this might irritate some readers (short stories are notoriously niche) let me tell you that the stories are brilliant. They not only fit into the themes of the book but are also great stories to be enjoyed for the sake of stories. 

I won't go into too much analysis here but what I got from Coupland was his message of humans telling stories to humans is essentially what makes us human. While Solon (so alone?) is a futuristic drug that induces in the user the feeling of having read a thousand books in an hour, telling stories engages the teller and the listener in the present and keeps us together. The overall message is of stories and company and how this is the only antidote to the growing isolation of humans as a result of the tidal wave of technology. 

Read without any subtext, the book is a joy for the reader and a masterclass in writing from Coupland. The swift pacing is kept up throughout and the world he portrays, while different, retains an eerie sense of familiarity. 

Generation A is accessible for new readers and old and while Coupland has his ups and downs (to be expected from a writer whose approaches and ideas towards fiction changes from one book to the next) this is most certainly a brilliant novel and easily one of his best. Amazing stuff, highly recommended.

Generation A

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Dragon Ball, Volume 13: Piccolo Conquers the World Review (Akira Toriyama)

Guys: there is literally a King of the World in this series! Forget Presidents, Prime Ministers, etc. – there is an actual King of the entire World! And he’s a talking dog! Akira Toriyama can do anything now in Dragon Ball and I don’t think it would faze me.

I shouldn’t be that surprised – this is the series where Master Roshi destroyed the moon in a fight with Son Goku, with absolutely no consequences – but for some reason the King of the World stood out as a completely insane detail. But you know what? There’s a purity in the storytelling here you rarely see anywhere else. This is fiction, so why not go all the way? Simplify, amplify, push further, do whatever, it’s your world – and it works here brilliantly.

So, in this book: after losing decisively to Piccolo, a near-dead Goku is being taken back by Yajirobe to Master Karin (aka the Hermit Meowster, whose face was apparently based on Toriyama’s cat’s sleeping face!) to find a way to defeat the Demon King. Meanwhile, Master Roshi and the gang are on their way for a fateful showdown with Piccolo… but are they just bringing him the Dragon Balls he needs to restore his youth?

After the surprising death of a main character in the last volume, Toriyama keeps going, killing off not one, not two, but three more major characters in this volume! It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers but it’s essentially the characters throwing everything they have at Piccolo while Son Goku rests and powers up. 

I’m not giving this the full five stars though as it’s Goku-light and, because we know it’s ultimately down to him to stop Piccolo, the fighting between the Demon King and the others feels a bit like filler, not to mention predictably one-sided. 

That said, the action is very enjoyable with multiple great fight scenes, and, because Toriyama’s shown no compunction with killing off cast members, there’s tension as you don’t know who’s going to eat it next. But without giving away who lives and who dies, I’ll just say that it’s another great seat-of-your-pants episode in the ongoing Piccolo storyline.

I will suggest to not do what I did and read this without having Volume 14 to hand because it’s such a great cliffhanger, I’m dying to find out what happens next!

Dragon Ball, Volume 13: Piccolo Conquers the World

Mister Wonderful Review (Daniel Clowes)

Mister Wonderful is the story of Marshall, a damaged divorcee meeting another damaged divorcee in a coffee shop on a blind date. The book covers their evening, taking in their awkward first encounter, and their brief misadventures from there. It's nothing too dramatic – it is Dan Clowes! - but I don't want to give away the whole story here as it's quite a short book.

If you've read Clowes before you'll be familiar with the characters - neurotic, nervous, awkward people struggling with basic things like polite conversation and self-expression. Marshall and his date are the same, Clowes-ian characters you've seen before in his other books like Ghost World, Caricature, Ice Haven, etc. 

While the book is a decent read, it's very much like Clowes' previous work and doesn't really do anything different to stand out from them. It's not as funny as "Wilson" but is interesting enough to make it worth checking out if you enjoy indie comics. Comparatively though, he’s done better and the book is about as close to a cookie-cutter Clowes book as you could get.

Mister Wonderful: A Love Story

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Goon #47: Occasion of Revenge #2 Review (Eric Powell)

Broadly, The Goon’s latest storyline, Occasion of Revenge, is about a group of evil sorcerers trying to steal Goon’s turf from him but with Eric Powell’s treatment, the story has many offshoots and diversions in addition along the way – all to the good of course!

In Occasion of Revenge #2 (or The Goon #47 if you still want to use the original numbering), there’s the dark story of Longfingers, one of the villains, who steals children until the Goon stops him. The sad story of Fred and Sandy – Fred who was led on by Sandy and who now haunts her in death – continues as Fred begins torturing Sandy. And we see Willie Nagel’s origin story (he’s the zombie with the daisy in the bowler hat) which is, of course, tinged with darkness and tragedy.

There are some light moments like Franky’s alarm clock getting covered in revenge shit by a chap called Giuseppe and Goon’s relationship with his new lady friend blossoms, but, my word, Powell is going all out on the misery in this arc!

Occasion of Revenge #2 is a lovely, leisurely-paced comic with beautiful art as usual from Powell – the pencils in Willie’s tale are wonderful. It’s a bit like those old-timey comics from the early 20th century where there were blocks of text accompanying the art. Things look to be ramping up as Goon makes a temporary alliance with mob boss Rigatti while the sorcerers prepare to mount their next attack on Lonely Street.

I’m delighted to have a regular Eric Powell comic again after so long! Occasion of Revenge #2 is another fine Goon issue from this modern-day comics genius.

Letter 44 #9 Review (Charles Soule, Alberto Albuquerque)

The giant alien ship, nicknamed the Chandelier, has finally been assembled. Now comes the moment of truth – is it a mining device or a weapon of war? We instantly get the answer as the aliens test it out, destroying one of Jupiter’s moons! Alarm bells start ringing to everyone in the Clarke and back on Earth, but with such immense power, does humanity stand a chance?

Charles Soule is unfurling his inspired story perfectly. Things have been built up beautifully to this point with Soule juggling the Clarke’s storyline in space and President Blades’ storyline back on Earth with enormous skill, especially as there are mini-plots within each thread.

Former President Francis T Carroll (the George W. Bush-esque character) is up to something shady in Germany, while Blades’ wife makes a startling proposition to the Head of Congress. The brilliance of this series is that even the political storylines on Earth are as entertaining to read about as the more dramatic story happening in space.

Soule’s writing is as superb as ever, as is Alberto Alburquerque’s art. Letter 44 #9 is a fantastic issue that shows a series only improving the deeper we get into it. The ending is one helluva cliffhanger too!

Oh and in Letter 44’s universe? Queen are still together and impossibly young (unless they’re all holograms)! But I heard Roger Taylor’s drums on We Will Rock You when I was reading the last few pages so what an appropriate cameo!

Letter 44 #9

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Kiki de Montparnasse Review (Catel, Jose-Luis Bocquet)

Alice Prin was born in 1901 into poverty in rural France. Raised by a loving grandmother along with several other bastards, her mother was in Paris chasing artists and the high life while her biological father was nowhere to be found, and when Alice turned 12 she was sent to Paris. Her high energy and natural beauty became too much for her carefree mother and after being caught modelling nude for a local painter, Alice was turned away by her mother and forced to make a living on the streets. 

It’s from there that she learns about the bohemian lifestyle of Paris, post WW1, emerging into the party lifestyle of the 1920s. She meets artists, painters, photographers, writers, and becomes a notable figure herself, changing her name to Kiki, Queen of Montparnasse, the area of Paris she lived in most of her life. 

The book follows Kiki’s life from the glamour days of her twenties with her whirlwind romances, to her role as muse to numerous avant-garde artists of the time, in particular the love of her life, Man Ray. It also takes into account her later years when the drink and drugs took over her life and eventually killed her. 

For a figure who painted, sang, wrote a memoir, and acted in many films, Kiki was unknown to me until I read this so it’s strange that she didn’t create anything that’s lasted. Her legacy seems to be as an inspiration for other, greater artists to create their work on; artists like Foujita, Kisling, Calder, and of course Man Ray (who took the famous picture of Kiki the cover art is based upon). 

That said, she lived a life! She had many loves, she did many things, she saw a lot and did a lot, and eventually it was living the life she lived at 21 that killed her at 52. The book showcases a free woman in a world where women were anything but, and a woman who loved life to death. 

The drawing style is vibrant and captures emotion in the faces of the characters beautifully. It’s also an unmistakably French style of art – if you’ve read other French comic books like Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian’s “Monsieur Jean” books or David B’s work, you’ll see similarity in the method. Like those other artists, Catel and Jose Luis-Boucquet have created a wonderful book about a kind-hearted, warm soul. 

Alice Prin may not be the most famous person to write a book about but the book Catel and Jose Luis-Boucquet have written about her has done justice to her life and kept her memory glowing for a new generation to discover her. “Kiki de Montparnasse” is an excellent read and a great comic book that’ll keep you enthralled throughout.

Kiki de Montparnasse

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Mystery of Mary Rogers Review (Rick Geary)

On 28 July, 1841 a woman's body was found floating in the Hudson, off the shore of Hoboken, New Jersey. She'd been dead for a few days after being beaten and strangled. She was identified as Mary Rogers, the missing girl who worked in a popular cigar shop on Broadway. And so this strange story begins.

We meet the odd people in her life. Her fiancé who makes up an alibi different from his real story despite neither being incriminating. Her mother who reacts bizarrely to the news that her daughter is dead. The former lodger of her mother's house who had meetings with Mary in the days leading up to her death and then tried to have the investigation stopped for no reason.

Geary throws all of the murder’s theories into the book. The murder suspects include: a jealous ex-lover returning from a sea voyage and who becomes angry once his advances are repelled; an abortion gone wrong leads the abortionist faking Mary's death; the fiancé, once the abortion is complete, finds out that Mary wants to leave him and loses his temper.

In fact this last theory (and I've only mentioned three though there are more) is the most compelling, not least because the fiancé drinks himself unconscious every day until he eventually visits the spot where she was supposedly murdered and takes a lethal dose of laudanum.

Even Edgar Allan Poe is a suspect (though unlikely) as his sequel to The Murders in the Rue Morgue was based on the mysterious death of Mary Rogers, becoming The Mystery of Marie Roget. The short story bears many resemblances to the real life case but of course Poe is never really seen as a suspect having barely known the girl years earlier when he lived in New York (he was in Philadelphia at the time of the murder).

It's a testament to Geary's ability that he can take a long forgotten case of a dead young girl appearing on the Hudson River and turn it into such a fascinating and vivid book. The Mystery of Mary Rogers is a very satisfying and interesting comic told with skill and a swift pace akin to a thriller.

The Mystery of Mary Rogers

Inhuman #4 Review (Charles Soule, Ryan Stegman)

Four issues in and Inhuman has yet to really catch fire despite having a main character who can actually become an inferno. His Inhuman name is Inferno. His human name is Dante. Dante’s Inferno. You know, I generally stick up for comics when I hear someone saying they’re simplistic and dumb but sometimes you just can’t defend crap like this.

So Thor’s visiting New Attilan for some reason and Medusa’s showing him around their market. Someone takes a shot at the Queen, Thor does his thing, and the tension brought about by this influx of new Inhumans – or Nuhumans as Medusa has dubbed them – is tediously underscored again. Meanwhile, in China, a mysterious chap called Reader is tracking down a Nuhuman though unlike Lash he’s not potentially murdering them if he doesn’t think they’re useful enough.

Ryan Stegman’s taken over art duties from Joe Madureira so the series doesn’t look quite so good. While I’ve generally liked Stegman’s work on Spider-Man, some of the panels in this issue look rushed and sloppy, particularly the panels of Medusa and Thor walking through the crowded market. Very sketchy, rough imagery.

Charles Soule is writing his blandest scripts ever with Inhuman and #4 is no different. He continues to cultivate the uninteresting theme of characters dealing with their new identities/powers, and has failed in making the Inhumans seem interesting to a wider audience. If Marvel were hoping for this group of characters to shine as brightly as the X-Men for a potential future movie franchise, this series has surely seen those hopes dashed.

Reader is a semi-interesting character though and his scenes in China with the Nuhuman were the highlight of the issue. Whether he’ll develop into a great addition to the series or, like Lash before him, seem interesting at first before becoming yet another one-dimensional character, we’ll have to wait and see.

When I picked up my copy of Inhuman #4 I noticed how few copies my local comics shop had brought in, so I’m not the only one aware of how underwhelming this series has been. I’ll stick around until the conclusion of this first arc with #6 but this “event” has been a total wet firework since the start and issue #4 is no different than the preceding three comics.

Inhuman #4

Weird Love #2 Review (Edited by Craig Yoe, Clizia Gussoni)

Weird Love is a series that republishes obscure romance comics from the 1950s-70s. While the first issue was kinda fun, the novelty is starting to wear off with the second one and the stories, though containing a few funny moments, are becoming less compelling.

In “I Was An Escort Girl”, a woman, duh, becomes an escort girl only to fall for a good-looking john. But it turns out he’s an undercover cop trying to bring down her pimp – probably the unpimpiest-looking pimp ever.

The only good thing about “Too Fat For Love” is the title which still makes me smile. The tedious story follows a brain-dead girl who believes no-one will love her because she’s plump, so her brain-dead father (a wealthy factory owner) pays one of his colleagues to pretend to love his daughter.

The daughter finds out and is distraught but falls for the suit-wearing teenage boy from her school who’s been professing his love for her in a creepy stalker-ish way the whole time. And, in the end, she drops the weight after a breakdown and starves herself, becoming a thin girl. Aww, happy, brain-dead ending!

In “Slave to Despair”, the world’s oldest teenager (she looks like a middle-aged schoolmarm) falls for a guy who gets her hooked on drugs. There’s a one-page bio of Ronald Reagan from 1952 proclaiming him the “Dream Beau of the Month” and in “Beautiful One” a blank canvas of a man learns the banality that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Mini Must Go” is pretty funny in the way the clueless office manager tries banning short skirts because they turn him on, only for the ringleader of the fashionistas to fall for him. And “Bosco Plays Matchmaker” is crazy because a young man and woman constantly show up in front of Bosco the bear’s cage in the zoo – I guess zoos were a pickup spot in the ‘60s?

Bosco pretends to attack the woman who’s gone into his cage for her things, before the man heroically steps in and Bosco allows him to punch him in the nose and “save” her. That’s definitely the weirdest love story of the bunch, though also the saddest as Bosco was probably put down afterwards for being aggressive.

Weird Love #2 is basically more of the same as the first issue, though I realised I’m no longer interested in reading any more weird romance comics from yesteryear. They’re kind of predictable in their oddness and the laughs are few and far between, while the poor writing and art soon begins to grate. It’s an interesting project that has its niche audience, but I think I’m about done with the concept after two issues.

Wildcats Version 3.0: Full Disclosure Review (Joe Casey, Dustin Nguyen)

You know what this book is about? A car battery. Seriously. That’s “the plot”. 

If I didn’t tell you that this is a superhero comic, you wouldn’t be able to guess. Most of the characters are guys in suits trying desperately to appear clever and totally failing because their actions and dialogue don’t convince. Grifter - the guy with the handkerchief? – is in a wheelchair for the whole book, smoking. Spartan, who goes by Jack Marlowe these days, lives up to his name by using his powers in a spartan fashion. And that’s it – the rest of the cast are made up of office managers and accountants who couldn’t be more tedious to read about. 

In Batman, there’s an argument that Bruce Wayne would do more good with his wealth and power as a billionaire than Batman ever could as a vigilante. Joe Casey uses that time-worn idea in this book by having his “superheroes” use their global Halo corporation to fund the creation of a battery that never runs out. Except Casey never goes further than have the battery exist. Once that’s done, the characters are at a loss as to what to do next. I was willing them to kill themselves but unfortunately they didn’t. 

It’s difficult to know what I hated more – the lack of any story or the despicable characters. One character called Agent Wax is a psychic who uses his mind control powers to hypnotise his boss’s wife in order to make her totally vulnerable and then repeatedly rapes her. A paranoid office manager called Sam Garfield believes his staff is made up of spies and then, on the drive home one evening, his road rage gets the better of him and he shoots an innocent man through the throat.

Grifter meanwhile is busy training up an accountant called Edwin Dolby to become a world-class assassin for some reason. They spend about half the book on this pointless sidestory. Edwin goes on a mission to somewhere for something, fails, then his role as assassin is forgotten and he goes back to being an accountant. Elsewhere, a woman called CC Rendozzo is blackmailing Spartan over something. Fucking hell, Joe Casey can’t write for shit!

I did like two things: Dustin Nguyen’s art, and the fact that Sam Garfield’s office staff WERE spies – though unfortunately Casey goes no further with that setup.

I got this one after DC recently announced that they were never going to republish this book again (along with another dozen or so books). However, after reading it, I can see why they made that (easy)decision. I have no clue why anyone would rate Joe Casey highly or why this series is considered “influential” when its empty of ideas and features a cast of one-dimensional characters I would never tire of seeing repeatedly hit in the face with a crowbar. 

Wildcats? More like Mildcats. Full disclosure: this book is crap.

Wildcats Version 3.0: Full Disclosure

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Peace by Richard Bausch Review

1944, southern Italy. It's the closing stages of the war and the Americans are chasing the Italian Fascists and the Nazis north and out of Italy. After the American squad encounters a Nazi ambush, 3 GIs are sent with a local Italian to scout ahead of the main group up into the mountains. 

But as they make their way up they begin to question the loyalties of the Italian - is he a harmless old man or a Fascist sympathiser leading them into another trap? As they ascend higher, the continuous rain becomes continuous snow, and they soon get close to the backs of the retreating army. And that's when the possibility of enemy snipers covering the retreat becomes very real to them...

I've never heard of Richard Bausch before but I was pleasantly surprised with this exciting historical novel. All of the characters seem genuine and their dialogue very convincing - Bausch is a talented writer who did his research well. The story - which takes place over the course of a single hellish night - is so vividly described that you can almost feel the punishing weather and exhaustion on the characters' souls. 

There were some fantastic scenes like when the American Sergeant sets a trap for the enemy sniper and then stays behind to save his wounded men, waiting. You know that scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad ambush a machine gun nest? This book has that energy and pace throughout. 

If you're in the mood for a short read that'll keep you hooked from the first page to the last, you can't go wrong with Richard Bausch's Peace.


Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin Review (Joe Casey, Eric Canete)

In this dire comic, a baddie called the Mandarin, a Chinese immortal with alien tech and magic, threatens to take over the world. SHIELD approach Iron Man to check him out and see if he's dangerous, which of course he is, but not dangerous enough that Iron Man can't take him down, which of course he does.

There isn’t anything positive to say about this book. Casey writes trite dialogue with conceits in the story that grate on the reader, though maybe most annoying of all were the bad guys. A character who dresses as a scarecrow fights Iron Man and, by unleashing the awesome power of blackbirds (actual blackbirds) he defeats Iron Man(!!). 

Mandarin himself is like Doctor Strange minus the intrigue but with a Green Lantern-esque magic ring from which he gets all of his power. Whatever. I didn’t care one bit that Shane Black changed Mandarin for Iron Man 3, especially given his character in the comics is terrible anyway. 

Canete's drawings of Iron Man are really poor quality. In several panels he makes Iron Man look like he has spindly, ridiculously thin legs; this isn't from a distance, the perspective is right up close and yet his legs are absurdly thin in the armour. In other scenes the suit looks like a set of pyjamas, folded up in a thin briefcase. The entire book felt like a storyboard for a simplistic cartoon for kids, especially as it was coupled with Casey's uninspired story.

So bad guy tries taking over the world with a space laser that targets cities. Yawn. The story is so hackneyed it's amazing it even got published. Marvel's quality control blinked and let this stinker through the net. "Enter the Mandarin" is the worst Iron Man book I've read – and it’s not like there are a lot of great ones around! - and a really poor comic overall. Avoid.

Iron Man: Enter The Mandarin

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan Review

Shaun Tan's "The Red Tree" is a sparely scripted book with incredible paintings telling the story of depression and how a person copes with it, from waking up and struggling to get out of bed, to finding the energy to walk to work as well as constantly battling the negative thoughts in your head. 

One of the most haunting images in the book is of an ordinary street scene rendered nightmarish by a giant fish with a gaping mouth and bleeding eyes hovering above the main character. It's a more frightening rendering of the traditional metaphor of depression as the "black dog". 

The artwork is varied and beautiful on every page with Tan's imagination lending itself enormously well to simple lines like "sometimes you just don't know what you are supposed to do" followed by an elaborate stage filled with grotesques and strange creatures surrounding the main character doing unfathomable things dressed up as a magician while playing to a mysterious audience of hats! 

It's a supremely creative book dealing with everyday questions that we never answer. Profundities manifested in paintings. The human condition told as a picture book. 

The book is labelled as "children's"which I feel is a mistake as it would dissuade some adults from picking it up for themselves as it's a book that people of all ages can get something from. 

Shaun Tan has crafted a wonderful book about a difficult subject and it is something to be enjoyed and seen by all. Ultimately uplifting, "The Red Tree" won't necessarily help people with depression but might help people who don't go through it to gain a perspective on it that they might not have had before. 

The book's worth picking up for the sublime paintings alone. “The Red Tree” is a great work by a remarkable artist.

The Red Tree

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Drop by Dennis Lehane Review

How’s this for a Russian doll of a book? The Drop started life as a short story called Animal Rescue in a crime anthology before being made into a screenplay/movie called The Drop, and now this is the novelisation of the film; all different forms of the same story, all written by Dennis Lehane! Why not just republish/read the original short story, instead of the novelisation of the film it’s based upon? Well…money is probably the answer!

To be honest though I didn’t read the short story and I haven’t seen the film yet (at the time of writing, it’s due for release in Britain in two and a half months), so I can’t compare this to anything.

One night while closing, Marv’s bar is knocked over by a couple of stick-men, taking what’s in the register. Except it’s a Chechen gangster-owned bar. But, now that it’s been hit, they decide Marv’s place is going to be the drop bar for the Superbowl – a drop off point where bagmen deposit sacks of illegal betting cash to be picked up in one drop by the Chechens. And since Superbowl Sunday is the biggest betting day of the year, the jackpot is potentially millions. Meanwhile, Marv and Bob have to figure out who robbed their bar and get the Chechens’ money back by hook or by crook.

But the novel’s not really about that plot. It’s about Bob, a young-ish guy with a chequered past who’s tired of his sad life. He’s a Boston bartender who hates his job. He goes to church, he lives alone, and he’s sick of being lonely. Then an abused puppy he later names Rocco enters his life and along with him, a damaged woman called Nadia. The novel follows Bob’s slowly changing life after he lets in these two souls that make his own life, as well as theirs, less miserable.

The Drop is bleak. I can’t emphasise that enough - it’s a deeply dark story of evil and/or miserable people doing terrible things to one another. It might be “realistic” - I don’t know about crime life in New England, or anywhere really - but it’s so damn depressing to read! I know “liking” or “rooting” for the main character isn’t the point of great fiction but when I read a book for enjoyment, I actually do want to like the main character and I couldn’t really connect with Bob.

That’s because Bob is a one-note guy. He’s tough, he’s cold - he has to be, I get that, if he isn’t then the neighborhood kills him. But in other Lehane novels like Shutter Island or Moonlight Mile, I cared enough about the protagonist’s stories to want to see them through to the end. For Bob, I didn’t really know exactly what he was aiming for - I don’t think he was aiming for anything really, except survival - and I didn’t really care if he made it or not.

In the film he’s played by Tom Hardy which is actually perfect casting because I can easily see the performance. Have you seen Warrior or Lawless? Hardy’s characters in both of those movies are exactly who I saw as Bob, so it won’t be much of a stretch seeing him play this character with the same level of intensity and detachment. It’s also worth noting that The Drop was James Gandolfini’s last movie, so I’ll be checking it out to see the great man’s final performance.

Though it’s a short novel, The Drop doesn’t have much pace to it and the plot ambles for much of the book. There are short bursts of decent action and one or two brilliant dialogue exchanges between the characters but for the most part this is a weak effort from Lehane who is perhaps suffering from telling this story one too many times at this point. It’s certainly not of the same high quality as his other books like Shutter Island or Moonlight Mile.

The Drop is a forgettable crime novel with a love story awkwardly shoe-horned in. It may be dark and gritty but those qualities don’t immediately make for a great crime story – memorable characters and an engaging plot do, and, unfortunately, The Drop is lacking in both.

The Drop

Frankenstein's Womb Review (Warren Ellis, Marek Oleksicki)

1814, and Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont (pregnant with Lord Byron's child) are en route to the Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva when they pass through Darmstadt and see the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. Intrigued, Mary stops the coach and goes into the ruins alone to investigate. There she meets a mysterious creature who takes her on a metaphysical journey... 

The first thing that strikes you when you open the comic book is the black and white artwork. It's dark, tempestuous, and utterly romantic, perfectly suiting the Romantic period. The horse and coach hurtling through the black forest with the driver's cloak billowing is very dramatic and takes you there instantly. Throughout this short comic there are lots of moments like that and full credit deserves to go to the artist, Marek Oleksicki, who did a fantastic job with the art. 

Ellis' script is also excellent. Taking various strands of history and fiction and weaving them together into a pseudo-premonition/explanation of the modern era via the novel "Frankenstein" is at times genius, at others baffling, but always compelling. 

The art helps but my own interest in this era, especially this group of individuals at this time, made me enjoy the book more than others who perhaps haven't studied the time. My main problem with the book is that it isn't longer (it’s just under 50 pages) where Ellis could’ve taken the story to Lake Geneva and introduced Byron and Polidori. 

As it is though, Frankenstein’s Womb is one of the better books to have come from the Apparat line with Warren Ellis experimenting successfully to create a wonderful comic.

Frankenstein's Womb

Dragon Ball, Volume 12: The Demon King Piccolo Review (Akira Toriyama)

I know it’s a little early to be mentioning the saiyans (nearly at Dragon Ball Z though!) but this volume of Dragon Ball suddenly went super-freakin’-saiyan! 

The epic battle between Son Goku and Tenshinhan for the title of Strongest Under the Heavens is concluded (of course I won’t say who won!) then, without giving the reader a moment to catch their breath, Akira Toriyama kills off a major character! 

Though completely depowered from his fight with Ten, Goku jumps onto Kinto’un (his flying cloud) with the Dragon Ball tracker to hunt down his friend’s killer - and gets thoroughly beaten for his rashness. 

Enter: Piccolo the Demon King. A super-powerful sorcerer, Piccolo has been freed by Reich Pilaf from an enchanted rice cooker (wonderful detail) where he was imprisoned years ago by Master Roshi’s master. Now freed, Piccolo is taking out the world’s most powerful martial artists, so he can never go back to his prison, and hunting down the Dragon Balls to regain his youth. 

One of the many strengths of the series is the way Toriyama introduces new characters at crucial moments and folds them perfectly into the Dragon Ball world. Piccolo showed up at just the right moment to give the series the shot in the arm it needed by being a powerful and evil adversary for Goku, while Lord Yajirobe, a savage who can nonetheless hold his own against Goku, joins the good guys as a much-needed ally. 

Most of the Dragon Ball books have been rated “for everyone” but this is the first one I’ve noticed is rated “for teens”. This is definitely the darkest Dragon Ball book in the series so far, from murdering a series favourite (though I’m sure he’ll be back once Goku collects the Dragon Balls and asks Shenlong the Dragon God to resurrect his pal), to the way Yajirobe defeats his opponents, slicing them in half with his sword. 

Also, a word of caution if you do read this, or any of the Dragon Ball books - do NOT read the contents page as the titles of the chapters give away major plot points ahead of time! 

Vol 12 has the most awesome fight scene in the series so far - it’s not nearly as long or complex as the ones in the Strongest Under the Heavens fights but it is really satisfying because it means something. Goku catches up with his friend’s killer and DESTROYS him in a flurry of incredible moves. I think I read that whole scene without blinking once! 

With the Demon King’s entrance, Dragon Ball has entered its darkest time and most exciting storyline yet. This volume really ramps up the pace of the series! And guess who’s coming back in the next book? The Hermit Meowster - fantastic!!

Dragon Ball, Volume 12: The Demon King Piccolo

Monday, 25 August 2014

All-New X-Factor, Volume 1: Not Brand X Review (Peter David, Carmine Di Giandomenico)

Nope, this isn’t a comic book version of that shite TV show fronted by the most punchable face on television, Simon Cowell, but a return of that ‘90s favourite, Peter David’s X-Factor. And I should say right off the bat that I was never a fan of that series - I was barely a fan of the X-Men, then and now! - so I wasn’t fanboying out over X-Factor coming back. 

It’s also not the best place for completely green readers to start with this series. David basically assumes that everyone reading this will know all about the team members so there’s hardly any intro for any of them with description of their backgrounds or powers; you’re just thrown in at the deep end and asked to swim. You’re bound to know a couple of them though - Gambit, for instance, is relatively well-known, as is Quicksilver, if only for his recent appearance in Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past and the forthcoming Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron. 

Serval Industries is the Marvel Universe’s version of Google. A massive conglomerate that built its fortune off the back of a search engine, it’s decided that it needs a corporate super-team in its quest to do good, and that team will be X-Factor. Gambit, Quicksilver, and Polaris immediately join up and get sent out on a variety of missions, none of which are particularly interesting or well-written. 

Their first adventure puts them in the path of a mad scientist who’s found a way of giving himself mutant superpowers. They stop him. Nothing much else to say except it’s super-yawn-worthy. There are also a few other Marvel superheroes making cameos but I have no clue who they are (Fatale?). 

Their second adventure introduces them to Danger, the robotic version of the X-Men’s Danger Room who appeared in Joss Whedon/John Cassady’s (rightly) celebrated Astonishing X-Men series. Someone from the Thieves’ Guild (of which Gambit is the head) has hacked into Serval’s servers, so Gambit goes to stop him and finds out Danger’s being used unwittingly to assist major hacking operations. Danger goes a bit loopy and she’s stopped in possibly the stupidest way ever: Gambit frenching her. Ooh la la, what a retarded way to defeat a killer ROBOT! Seriously! 

The third and final adventure sees X-Factor crossing the paths of Warlock and Magus. Don’t know who they are, but they’re also sentient robots. Again, if you don’t know the characters of this series, there’s nothing in this that’ll enlighten you but I assume fans of X-Factor were loving that Warlock and Magus were back (if they were in X-Factor at all). 

That said, David does give characters who we see only once, all the exposition for some reason. So Gambit’s “dad” introduces himself while informing you of his background and recent history at the same time, when that kinda info dump would’ve been more useful for Polaris, who’s in the book throughout. All we find out about Polaris is that she had some kind of freakout in another comic, and that’s it (and I refuse to use a Marvel wiki to read one of their comics!). 

I suppose if you’re a fan of Peter David’s X-Factor you’ll get more out of this comic than I did but what this first book doesn’t do is make me want to go back and read more of this team’s backstory. The characters themselves aren’t interesting and when Gambit comes off as the best one in the group, you know it’s a shit group. 

The covers are stylish though, I’ll give it that!

All-New X-Factor Volume 1: Not Brand X

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Beast of Chicago Review (Rick Geary)

This is the case of H H Holmes, the "Beast of Chicago". Told succinctly but thoroughly and always clearly, despite the often complicated situations Holmes created, Geary has written a highly engaging book on the man labelled as "America's first serial killer". 

H H Holmes scammed insurance companies to raise enough money to build his own hotel labelled by locals, "the castle". He hired different companies to build different parts of his hotel with the overall scheme of the building known only to Holmes. 

This was due to the various rooms he wanted built: a hanging room, airtight rooms with gas injectors, secret rooms, a trapdoor in the bathroom leading to and from the basement, an enormous furnace, stairs that led to nowhere, rooms without windows, and a medieval style basement with stretching rack. 

He then opened the doors to visitors coming to Chicago's World Fair that summer. He targeted mainly young women and estimates on his murders reach triple figures though he only admitted to 27 after he was caught. His "castle" burned down shortly after he was executed. 

Geary doesn't try to explain Holmes' behaviour through speculation but only mentions the known facts, few as they are. Holmes was beaten by a drunken father as a child and was also locked in a doctor's room alone with a human skeleton. Some schoolmates also remember hearing that he used to dissect stray animals. Though these are signs of a fractured psyche it's no explanation for the pathological and psychotic killings that Holmes committed in his life. He remains a mystery. 

I'm interested in history but rarely to the extent of reading 700 page books on a particular case or person. It's useful then that Rick Geary's written/illustrated several 50 page graphic novels about fascinating and sometimes forgotten figures in history. This is one of Geary's best, and Holmes' case is a mesmerising read. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is also worth reading for the H H Holmes chapters.

The Beast of Chicago

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Sin City, Volume 2: A Dame to Kill For Review (Frank Miller)

It's hard to give a summary of the story without making it sound cheesy and stereotypical with far too much macho action, because the book, and series even, is all of those things but manages to be so much better than all of that. A sleazy photographer takes pictures of an extra-marital affair with which he plans to blackmail the man with - this is our hero. Then the noir element kicks in - the femme fatale enters the bar in a haze of smoke and shadows. She's in trouble, and the photographer called Dwight is the one to save her after all... they used to be lovers. And then we're off, onto a twisting plot through the deadly streets of Sin City to a blood soaked ending.

I read the Sin City series shortly before the first movie back in 2005 and, now that the sequel's out, I thought I'd revisit this one to see if it holds up - and it most certainly does. This is Frank Miller: The Glory Years, when he was writing amazing Batman books, Daredevil stories, and creating his own comic masterpiece with Sin City. He writes and draws these books providing a master-class to all artists who read it: this is how you write a noir comic and make it both high art and bad-ass to boot.

The book is in black and white, and Miller uses light and shadows to full effect in all of the panels. Look at Ava Lord's entrance: first full page silhouette with hazy white smoke at the top, then close up, then look at Dwight's face, then close up still but not making out any features on the shadowy face, then the meeting, then straight into dialogue fresh from the 1930s. It's so cinematic! 

Or Dwight's fight with Manute and his bloody end, flying through a window, falling with the glass, hitting the bottom of the page, then a blank black page, then a full page look at his spread-eagled, unconscious form - end of chapter. There are too many moments like this to go into but I was shaking my head in awe of Miller's use of black and white in this book. The guy created a unique look to these comics that remain untouched with age and still looks innovative today.

I won't go into the twisty, turning plot which takes you one way and then, halfway through, switches direction with breath-taking ease and sends you hurtling another way. I will say one thing which is to read "The Hard Goodbye" before this as that's the first Sin City book and "A Dame To Kill For" is the second, and the two cross paths in their telling in a way that you'd appreciate more if you read them both in order. Hell, read them all, they're all brilliant!

The dialogue is wonderful, full of macho metaphors, moody voice-overs, each character playing an archetype with relish and verve - they're cartoons, they know it, Miller knows it, and that frees them up to just have fun with it. Don't approach this book expecting realism - it's gritty but not at all in a realistic way. 

The book and series is nothing short of a triumph of high art, literature, and the beating heart of what people love most about comics: fun. If you know someone who doesn't like comics because to them it's for people with low IQs or are perennially stuck in childhood, give them a copy of this book and see if it won't change their mind. 

Noir was a great genre while it lasted and Chandler, Hammett, and Cain were all geniuses but Miller takes Noir and makes it even better with his Sin City stories. There should be another label for the genius of these books but there isn't so I'll end this review by urging new and old readers of the series to pick up these books if you're looking for a damn good read. 

Get yourself a copy and settle down with a shot and a brew - Marv and co. have some stories to tell you.

Sin City, Volume 2: A Dame to Kill For