Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Retro-Reviews: Avengers #255-287 (May 1985 - January 1988)

Written by Roger Stern, except for #280 (written by Bob Harras) and #286-287 (scripted by Ralph Macchio from a plot by Stern)

Breakdowns by John Buscema, finishes by Tom Palmer, except for #280, pencilled by Bob McLeod and inked by Kyle Baker (!)

During the summer, I felt the urge to start re-reading some classic comics, and as the longbox with my Avengers comics was closest to hand, that's where I started (you can read about it here).  I was enjoying myself, and decided to keep reading.  I decided that this particular run of issues are worth discussing for a number of reasons.
To begin with, these are the comics that I still consider to be my personal definitive run of the title, at least until Brian Michael Bendis came along and blew everything up, or perhaps until Jonathan Hickman's current tenure directing the team, where he seems to determined to really examine the mechanics of the Avengers concept on a larger scale.  To me, these are mostly definitive because they were published between 1985 and 1988, which is my own Golden Age (being between the ages of 10 and 13), giving my memories of these comics the same sepia tone that the paper in some of them has yellowed to.
I remember being home sick from school, and my dad bringing me a copy of Avengers #259 that he picked up at a corner store, not knowing I already had it.  I remember reading #273 a few times in a row, as I was stuck on a long road trip, with my grandmother crammed into the backseat of the car with my sister and I, and it was all I'd brought with me to read.  Going through these books brings back some good memories.
This run also stands out because every one of these issues save one was drawn by Buscema and Palmer.  That's thirty-three issues with only one fill-in!  To be more accurate, these two talented, iconic artists continued with the book even longer, but I chose Roger Stern's departure from the book after many years as my point to stop reading for this column.  Imagine an artist team today being able to put out that many issues, and in an era when comics were two pages longer than today's.  They also drew more panels than current artists, although sometimes backgrounds were lacking.  Their work is never stunning, but it is exceptionally good at telling a clear story, and to my mind, their portrayals of Captain Marvel, the Black Knight, the Wasp, and Hercules are classic.
This run is notable for a number of reasons in terms of story as well.  Let's run through some key moments in bullet-form:
  • Captain Marvel becomes trapped on Thanos's vessel, the Sanctuary II, by Nebula and her crew (this was Nebula's first appearance).
  • The team fights Terminus in the Savage Land, and the whole thing gets destroyed and covered by ice (I'm not sure how it ever came back).
  • Firelord joins the team in travelling to rescue Captain Marvel, and gets all angry when he has to help Skrulls.
  • The Beyonder shows up a few times, as Stern had to make the ridiculousness of Secret Wars II work in his storyline.
  • The Avengers lease Hydrobase from Stingray after losing their security clearance, and receiving notification that they can't fly their Quinjets out of their mansion anymore.  Eventually, they move the whole mansion to Hydro Base (I don't remember when it was moved back to Manhattan).
  • Namor joins the team, which makes a lot of the general public very angry, because of his status at that time as a villain.
  • The Avengers discover the weird pod-thing in Jamaica Bay which eventually turns out to be holding Jean Grey, in a tie-in to the new title X-Factor.
  • Baron Zemo gathers his Masters of Evil in the slow set up to an epic story.
  • After vanquishing the Beyonder, the Avengers and Fantastic Four need Molecule Man to fix the entire Earth so it's not destroyed.
  • Kang embroils the Avengers in a complicated plot to eradicate his other selves.
  • Alpha Flight and the Avengers help Namor fight off Attuma, who has kidnapped his wife and taken over Atlantis.
  • The Masters of Evil infiltrate Avengers Mansion, beating the hell out of Jarvis and Hercules in the process.  Eventually they are taken care of, but it's a pretty dark tale for that time.
  • Dr. Druid joins the team, Thor wears some truly hideous armour, and Captain Marvel becomes the leader after the dust of the Masters of Evil story settles.
  • We get to see some of Jarvis's history with the team as he contemplates leaving, after recovering from his injuries.  This is the fill-in issue, and it's really weird to see Kyle Baker inking an artist as straight as Bob McLeod.  You can see hints of where he has ended up as an artist.
  • Zeus gets angry with the Avengers for allowing Hercules to be hurt (he's in a coma), and brings them to Olympus (by way of Hades) for revenge.
  • The Super-Adaptoid, in the guise of the Fixer, starts gathering robots and artificial beings to help him with a plot.
The team's line-up is interesting during this time, consisting of:
  • Captain Marvel
  • Black Knight (these two are the only ones to be in almost every issue in this stack)
  • Captain America
  • Hercules
  • The Wasp
  • Starfox
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner
  • Thor
  • She-Hulk
  • Dr. Druid
Stern's writing during this period became less focused on the mechanics of running a team, although he did show that both the Wasp and Captain Marvel suffered a number of doubts and self-recriminations over their decisions.  Hercules is portrayed as being a little misogynistic, as he keeps complaining (if only to himself) that the Wasp should not be giving him orders, mostly because she is a small woman.  From the beginning, Stern shows that Dr. Druid has designs on taking over the team, but does almost nothing else to develop his character aside from taking every opportunity to show his arrogance.
I noticed that the Avengers get attacked in their mansion or on Hydro Base a lot in these issues.  They almost seem to be sitting around waiting for the bad guys to come to them, and they don't ever appear to be very proactive in their work.  It's interesting that the issues around their security clearance are just left dangling for ages, but, unlike the last pile that I reviewed, there are no subplots that never really go anywhere (like the Quicksilver storyline I talked about before).
One last thing that I found notable about these comics came in the issue after Stern left (wherein Ralph Macchio is given only a scripting credit, but no credit is given for the plot), in the form of a column by series editor Mark Gruenwald.  In it, he talks about why Stern left the book, citing irreconcilable differences about where the editor wanted to take the book, especially in relation to two other series, Thor and Captain America (which Gruenwald was writing - this was the era of The Captain and John Walker in the usual Cap uniform).  There is a fair bit of hubris in Gruenwald's description of events, and it made me wonder what plotlines Stern had planned that were left abandoned.
I did notice that, after the Masters of Evil storyline, my enjoyment of these books took a bit of a down-turn, with the Olympus and Super-Adaptoid stories running a little too long, and being a bit dull.  Still, that Masters of Evil story is a classic, and one of the best Avengers stories ever told (might make a good plot for movie #3 or 4).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Wrenchies

by Farel Dalrymple

Farel Dalrymple's work can be a little inaccessible at times.  I enjoyed his Pop Gun War, but by the end of it, wasn't really sure of what it was that I had read.  His Omega: The Unknown is universally adored, but he didn't write that.

I went in to The Wrenchies a little unsure of what to expect, but came out of it with a massive appreciation of Dalyrmple's plotting and story construction, to go along with my usual enjoyment of his art and sense of design.

The Wrenchies is a multi-layered book, basically about a future where only the young are able to survive, and even they are in a constant battle with the Shadowsmen, as well as with the hostile environment the Earth has become.  The gang of kids who have built a reputation as being able to best fight off the Shadowsmen are The Wrenchies, who have named themselves after an old comic book.

This comic was written and drawn by Sherwood Presley Breadcoat, who as a young child entered a cave with his brother, did battle with demons, and then embarked on a long adolescence of being a hero, then an art student, and eventually an unhappy comics artist.  He embedded The Wrenchies #1 with a number of puzzles, to draw mystics to him.  Next door to adult Sherwood lives young Hollis, a misfit child in a bad homemade superhero costume, who has a ghost as a best friend, and who believes that his Wrenchies comic may be making him do bad things.

The narrative shifts between these different groups of characters as the book unfolds, and as we learn just how connected all of these different plotlines are.  Dalrymple blends, very successfully, a variety of genres in this graphic novel.  We get some pretty cool post-Apocalyptic action, a coming-of-age story that I'm sure a number of comics fans can relate to parts of, and some pointed commentary on the nature of the comics industry, and its influence in the world.

I found the book's shifting narrative structure, and embedded connections to different layers of the story, to be reminiscent of novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  Dalrymple's art is terrific, and I especially liked the pages where he laid out the floor plans to secret underground lairs or scientific laboratories.  There were some pages where the colouring process rendered things a little too dark or muddy, but overall, this was a beautiful and rewarding book that screams out for second and third readings so that its nuances can be completely understood.  Highly recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bad Houses

Written by Sara Ryan
Art by Carla Speed McNeil

I knew I wanted to read Bad Houses just on the strength of artist Carla Speed McNeil's involvement, but I was not prepared on any level for how good this book is.

Bad Houses is set in Failin, a small town in Oregon that has seen better days.  It's main industry, the Faithful Angus Brewery has been closed for years, and young people seem to be in a hurry to get out.  The story is centred around Cat's Matchless Estate Sales, which organizes and runs estate sales as the town's aging population dwindles.

Cat runs the business along with her son Lewis, who is just out of high school (I assume) and is learning the ropes.  He meets Anne at one of the sales.  She's an artsy high school student who feels very deeply the connection that people have to objects.  Part of that comes from her mother, Danica, who is a hoarder.  Danica meets AJ when he admits his mother to the old age home where she works, and they begin a relationship.  The other important member of the book's cast is Fred, a grumpy antique shop owner, who has a connection to Cat and Lewis's absent father.

Writer Sara Ryan uses an interesting approach to telling this story, using a third person narrator who sometimes steps into the characters' heads to help explain their thinking, and at other times leaving the heavy lifting to McNeil.  All of these characters are complex and very well-realized, and after reading through the book's hundred and fifty pages, I felt that I knew them so well I'd been reading about them for ages.

This book explores our relationships with stuff as well as with other people, and has a good understanding of just how much emotion, hope, and memory can be invested in the things that we own.  It also looks at how hard it can be to share some of our most personal inner stuff with others.

McNeil is an incredible cartoonist, and it's nice to see her portray a more everyday world than the one she has created in her superb Finder graphic novels (which I cannot recommend strongly enough).  I really wish that McNeil was more prolific, because her work is so strong.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Arctic Marauder

by Jacques Tardi

I've been enjoying Fantagraphics translations of older Jacques Tardi comics, and so was happy to be able to pick up The Arctic Marauder, a very strange graphic novel by the French comics master.

This book is set in 1889, and stars Jérôme Plumier, a medical student who has, for some reason, booked passage on a ship, L'Anjou, which is sailing through the North Atlantic, in a region filled with towering icebergs.  The crew of the ship spot another vessel wedged on the top of a gigantic iceberg, and a small group of sailors, and Plumier, are sent over to investigate.  What they find is the Iceland Loafer, with both ship and crew frozen solid.  They aren't able to spend too long exploring the mystery before L'Anjou suddenly explodes, with all hands lost.

Eventually, Plumier is rescued, and returns to Paris, where he finds out that his uncle has died, leaving behind even more mystery.  In his lab, Plumier finds evidence of some strange experiments involving animals, and a machine that's only function appears to be freezing itself.  Later, Plumier receives word that his uncle may not be dead, and he heads north to try to find out what is going on.

Plumier ends up on a ship being sent to the North Atlantic to discover why so many vessels are sinking in a particular area, although that ship also explodes.  It's not easy to discuss where things go from here, except to say that the titular Arctic Marauder is a very unique vessel, worthy of a James Bond villain, and that Plumier, upon finding his uncle, is not a good person.

Tardi has a great time with this story and its design elements.  The story was originally published in 1974, which makes me wonder if Tardi may be the inventor of the steampunk genre.  He delights in surprising the reader by having Plumier joyfully join his uncle in his evil plans, and in setting up the ultimate hero of the book as a villain.

The art in this book is incredible.  Tardi captures the dread of a dark ocean, with a ship surrounded by menacing icebergs that loom over it.  His design for the Marauder, and the strange assortment of submarines, flying vessels, and manned torpedoes that its crew uses, are amazing.  He makes great use of the larger pages of a French comic to construct page layouts that remind me of stained glass windows.

The book is a much quicker read than I would have expected from its size, mostly because after each chapter (some lasting only five pages), there is a full title page for the subsequent chapter.  I also found it odd that this volume doesn't share a trade dress style with the other books in Fantagraphic's Tardi series.  Still, this is well worth getting your hands on.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Black Beetle Vol. 1: No Way Out

by Francesco Francavilla

I've been a fan of Francesco Francavilla's art for some time now, but had decided to hold off on buying his Black Beetle mini-series, because the serial in Dark Horse Presents didn't really do a lot to impress me.  Now, having read No Way Out in hardcover, which also collects the DHP story, I'm glad I waited.

The Black Beetle is a pretty typical costumed noir crime fighter.  He has some specialized equipment, and a tendency to prowl around at night.  When he goes to bust up a meeting between rival mob families, he is surprised when the meeting place explodes, apparently killing everybody there.  As he tries to solve the mystery of who is behind the explosion, he soon crosses paths with The Labyrinto, a costume villain who dresses in a maze-themed outfit.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Mike Mignola's Lobster Johnson, as much as he does characters like The Shadow.  Both central characters are essentially ciphers, giving away nothing about themselves over the course of the story, but the Black Beetle works alone.  That means that this story is very plot-driven, as he attempts to infiltrate an inescapable prison, explores abandoned subway tunnels, and sneaks into a heavily guarded wooded estate.  It's hard to care about the Beetle, because we don't know anything about him (when he goes undercover into a nightclub, he wears a different mask), and so Francavilla's art is left to do all the heavy lifting in the story.

The thing about that is that Francavilla is an incredible artist, and his choice of story gives him plenty of opportunity to show off the amazing and innovative layouts he's known for.  This is a gorgeous book, and that alone makes it worth buying.

I like the way Francavilla has sprinkled some clues and subplots throughout this story, to help set up future adventures for the character.  There's something about a hollow lizard, which an occult figure with access to a high-tech group of Nazis is after, and I get the feeling that as the larger story progresses, we will eventually learn more about the Beetle.

In the meantime, I'm happy with stories that are this visual, although I think sticking to the trade format, and reading them in one sitting, is the way to go with tales like this.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shoplifter

by Michael Cho

Michael Cho is one of my favourite local artists.  Two of his Toronto alley way pictures hang in my bedroom, and his art book Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes is a favourite of mine.  I loved his short comic piece about the atomic bomb (I think it was in an issue of Taddle Creek magazine), and have bought novels on the strength of his covers.  I was very excited to hear about Shoplifter, his new original graphic novel.

Shoplifter is centred on Corinna Park, a young woman who upon graduating with an English Literature degree, began working at an advertising firm.  She's moved to the big city (I'm not sure which - at times it looks like New York, but isn't; there are a few pages that are recognizably Toronto though), took in a stray cat, and waited for her exciting new life to begin.  A few years into this life, she's more than a little disillusioned, dissatisfied, and generally bored.

One of the few thrills left to her in life comes from shoplifting magazines from a local convenience store.  She has a well-thought out system that never fails, although the momentary high does little to make her more satisfied with her choices.

Over the course of this book, Corinna makes a big mistake during a client meeting, and is now in danger of losing her job.  Seeking solace in a party, where she meets an attractive photographer, doesn't do much to help her out.

Cho does a great job of portraying the modern condition.  Everyone around Corinna is glued to small screen, and is increasingly cut off from real interaction.  The isolation of modern city living is put on display, as is the existential angst it creates.  Cho doesn't have much to say that is new, but this is a nice distillation of where we are right now as people.

Cho fills the book with incredible cityscapes, and portrays people quite expressively, using a minimum of lines.  The book is shaded very effectively with only pink and black.

This book is a quick, but very rewarding read, and I hope it is the beginning of lots more comics work from Cho.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos

Written by Harlan Ellison
Art by Paul Chadwick

As much as I've always recognized Harlan Ellison's importance to science fiction as a genre, I've barely read more than a handful of his stuff over the years.  The news that he had a graphic novel coming out from DC featuring his own characters interested me, but then I saw that Paul Chadwick was going to draw it, and getting a copy became a certainty.  I love Chadwick's Concrete, and have been hoping to see more work from him.

7 Against Chaos is kind of a strange graphic novel.  I originally assumed from the title that it would be yet another take on Seven Samurai, but it really isn't.  A mysterious hooded character takes he first third of the book to put together a team of strange characters from a number of different planets in our solar system.  All of these people are in trouble when the hooded guy shows up - one is a genetically modified (reordered) miner with metal pincer hands, another a faceless thief, another a sentient robot, an insect guy, and a woman who will burst into flames if she touches another human being).

Eventually, we find out what the mission is - this team is needed to go back in time to man's earliest days, to put a stop to an effort being made by the lizard-being Erisssa to replace mankind with evolved reptiles.  The story is a lot more complex than that - each character is given enough space to develop fully, and Ellison has a good time exploring the ramifications of time travel and how to make some of these concepts work on the page.

The graphic novel has a retro feel to its art.  Paul Chadwick fills it with designs that could have come from the heyday of 50s science fiction magazines, but the book still feels very modern.

Perhaps it's just the inclusion of the character Tantalus, who looks like a human-sized preying mantis and is reminiscent of Bug, but this comic reminded me a lot of the classic Micronauts series.  It has the same general feel of a multi-world system that has gone wrong, and that none of the characters will necessarily stick around through the whole thing.

I think that this was originally written to be a four-issue mini-series (perhaps in the prestige format) because there are a few places where the story gets kind of recapped immediately after a big moment, and am a little curious to know the history of how this project came about (especially because this is not the kind of thing that DC usually publishes, and it didn't get a lot of hype when it was released in 2013.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Nao of Brown

by Glyn Dillon

I really don't understand how Glyn Dillon's 2012 graphic novel, The Nao of Brown, didn't receive a lot more attention and acclaim than it did, and how it's not getting recognized as one the best graphic novels of this decade.

Nao Brown is a young mixed race British woman whose father, an alcoholic, lives in Japan.  When the book opens, she has just returned to London from visiting him, and is feeling a little bit lost.  She has no boyfriend or job, and aside from a great cache of anime and manga-themed toys and memorabilia, has come back from her trip with little to show for herself.

Dillon slowly lets us get to know Nao, her interest in Buddhism, and the depth of her love for Japanese culture.  After running into an old friend, she gets hired at his toy shop, which specializes in all the things Nao loves.  While things are looking up for her, the reader begins to piece together that Nao is not just a little bit eccentric; she's actually somewhat disturbed.  It seems that whenever she interacts with people, she can't stop herself from imagining killing them in increasingly spectacular and unique ways.  She has a mantra she chants when the images become too much for her, but aside from her flatmate, a nurse, she keeps this stuff to herself.

As the book continues, Nao meets (and manipulates into meeting again) a washing machine repairman who reminds her of a character in her favourite anime.  They begin to date, just as Nao also gets closer to her friend and boss, Steve.

The book really examines the effects of Nao's mental illness on her relationships, in a thoughtful and respectful way.  Dillon does a terrific job of showing how different people react to her, as they begin to realize that she is dealing with something they didn't know about.  It's especially interesting to see Nao try to hide a big part of herself from her boyfriend.

The story is interrupted by the story of Pictor, a character in one of Nao's favourite Japanese series.  Pictor is a young man who is part human and part tree, and who lives in a forest playing a music box and herding sheep.  He frequently helps military commanders out of the forest in exchange for their youngest daughter's hand in marriage.  His pages are beautifully rendered in large panels.

Actually, the entire book is beautiful.  Dillon's art is terrific, full of rich reds and evocative facial expressions.  The book is very nicely designed, with high quality paper.  I really enjoyed reading this book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Chicanos Vol. 2

Written by Carlos Trillo
Art by Eduardo Risso

Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Risso had a long and prosperous partnership together, creating some very interesting comics like Vampire Boy and Borderline, but their Chicanos is probably one of the stranger and more memorable projects they worked on.

Chicanos tells the story of Alejandrina Jalisco, a short and awkward private investigator who can barely rub two dimes together, who lives and works in a poor Latino area of New York.  She is cursed with terrible luck - she has a tendency to get hit by buses whenever things start to go her way, which isn't often - and is generally mistreated by almost everybody she knows, yet she maintains a level of optimism and goodwill about her.

This second IDW volume collects the second half of Jalisco's stories, I believe for the first time in English.  The collection is interesting - the stories stay pretty bleak but are humorous at the same time - and Risso's art looks very nice, in the way that his work always does.  I wish IDW had done a little more to separate the various chapters, as it's not always clear where one story ends and the next begins (plus, I'm sure there are some beautiful Risso covers that weren't collected).

If you're looking for an oddball graphic novel to entertain you, you could do a lot worse than this.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rubicon

Written by Mark Long (from an idea and story by Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Capel)
Art by Mario Stilla

I love a good war comic, and am always a sucker for a nicely-designed book, so picking up Rubicon, from Archaia's Black Label imprint, seemed like an easy decision.

This story, conceptualized by screenwriter, written up by a former SEAL, and then finally written for comics by a novelist and video game designer, modernizes the concept behind Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and sets it in Afghanistan.

We are introduced to Hector Carver, a fire team leader, who gets word that one of his close friends was killed in a suicide bombing within a forward operating base in the Panjshir Valley.  His team is on its way (although I'm not entirely sure why - it's not like the military would send special forces in after such an event), despite the fact that this puts Carver in hot water with his ex-wife, and his current girlfriend.

We learn that the bombing was carried out by a resident of a local village of opium farmers, who are opposed to the Taliban.  This guy was forced into doing this because his family was being held captive.  When Carver's team find the guy who made the bomb, they drop him off in the village so that the bomber's father can have his revenge.  The village decides to let the guy go so as to not anger the Taliban, who decided to come back and steal all the opium anyway.

The soldiers decide to dig into the village and protect it, even though that leads to some difficulties with the locals.  Carver's team is supported by two FOBbits, one of whom feels a serious need to prove himself in the eyes of the more experienced operators.  Much violence and bloodshed ensues.

This is a pretty standard story, and one that reminded me of a lot of fiction from the Vietnam War.  The base is surrounded, everyone depends on one another, as they slowly get picked away by an overwhelming number of enemies.  In that sense, the story works well, but there are some things that I felt weren't very clear.  I was not sure what the relationship between the village and the base was, and why there wouldn't be more support during the big fight.  I also was never clear on why Carver's team was there in the first place.  Perhaps this story needed a little more workshopping to make it smoother.

Mario Stilla's art was very nice.  He is an Italian artist, and so things look pretty European, in terms of layout and design.  I especially liked the establishing shots that really captured the look and feel of a remote Afghan village.  He also handles the action very well.

One thing I really liked about this book was the envelope at the back, which contained a variety of documents, such as a letter home, a Purple Heart certificate, and some military papers like maps and reports.  I've always been a sucker for that kind of thing, and it helps add a level of veracity to the whole affair.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago... Vol. 4

Written by David Michelinie, Jo Duffy,  Bob Layton, Archie Goodwin, Linda Grant, and Roy Richardson
Art by Gene Day, Tom Palmer, Kerry Gammill, Ron Frenz, Luke McDonnell, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Al Williamson, Carlos Garzon, Tom Mandrake, Bob McLeod, and David Mazzucchelli

The first comic I ever bought was Marvel's Star Wars #30, and with all of the hype surrounding the upcoming new movies, and the shifting of the license away from Dark Horse and towards Marvel, I've found myself occasionally wondering about those old licensed books, which I remember as being not all that good.  I was at a very good used bookstore the other week, which also carries a lot of remaindered graphic novels, and saw Volume 4 of Dark Horse's Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago..., their nice thick collections of the old Marvel stuff.  The price was great, so I thought I'd pick this up (mostly because I'm a sucker for Bobba Fett, and the cover made it seem like he was going to be prominent in the volume).

This book contains issues 68 through 85 of the regular Marvel series, an Annual (#3), and the four-part adaptation of Return of the Jedi (by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson, no less).

Most of the regular comics were written by Jo Duffy (whatever happened to her) and drawn by Ron Frenz, with very strong inks by the wonderful Tom Palmer.  There are a fair number of fill-in issues, some by writers I've never heard of, and a few real surprises in terms of artist choices, like Klaus Janson, and a very early David Mazzucchelli.

The stories varied a lot in quality.  This series was famously hampered by a lack of foreknowledge of what was going to happen in the next film, leaving the writers to find ways of crafting interesting stories that don't really develop the characters at all, and that don't contain information that's likely to be contradicted in the next movie.  For that reason, there is a lot of Chewbacca and Lando looking for the frozen Han Solo, without ever going directly to Jabba the Hutt.  After the events of Return, with Vader and the Emperor dead, the stories shift to Han's misadventures in reclaiming lost money, and having the characters travel around looking for planets to start working with the Alliance.

The focus is largely on the swashbuckling, as bounty hunters are chased, and lost Rebel pilots are hunted for.  There are some very unfortunate characters, such as Plif of the Hoojibs, a cutesy creature race that predates the Ewoks.  There are also some very good comics in here, such as the annual, which has two young boys decide which side of the galactic conflict they are on.

It was a bit of a trip to read these stories, despite the fact that I only ever owned one of them (having moved on from Star Wars comics to almost everything else Marvel published at this time).  There is a sense of naivety to these comics that matches the first Star Wars film, but considering the time period, I'm willing to forgive it.  Now, if Jason Aaron and John Cassaday's upcoming series reads like this...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Scene of the Crime #1-4

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Michael Lark

Some times I look back on some of the mini-series I've missed over the years, and I've had to wonder what I was thinking passing some things over for other things.  The first issue of Scene of the Crime is cover-dated May 1999, so I would have been in my last year of university, working on my second degree.  Money was tight, but my time was even tighter in those days, so I can understand how I may not have picked up this gem, but when I look at the checklist in the back, and realize that I was buying Peter Milligan's The Minx instead, I have to wonder (although, strangely, that was drawn by Sean Phillips, so maybe I should have read both of these books together).

Anyway, Scene of the Crime has recently been re-released in a nice new hardcover edition, but I came across a complete set of the comics, and decided I'd rather read that.

This series came very early in writer Ed Brubaker's career, and from what I can tell was his first mini-series (most of his earlier work appeared in anthologies like Dark Horse Presents).  Artist Michael Lark had been around for a while, but hadn't really made much of a name for himself (although I have fond memories of his issues of Shade the Changing Man).  It was still kind of new for Vertigo to tell a straight-up noir story, without any fantastical elements at play.

The story is about Jack Herriman, a private investigator who is a lot younger than the usual archetype character we find in stories like this.  Herriman lives with his aging uncle, who is a famous crime photographers (who'd once punched out Weegee in an argument), and they sometimes collaborate on his cases.  When Jack was young, his police officer father was killed in a bomb blast that was meant to take out another cop, Paul Raymond, who has spent his life looking out for Jack.  When the series opens, Paul has sent a new client to Jack.

The young woman is looking for her sister, who has gone missing.  It doesn't take Jack long to track her down, after discovering that she'd spent some time around a commune-like group (the story is set in San Francisco) that also makes their money growing weed.  Jack and the missing sister have a nice conversation, and Jack leaves her, having completed his task.  The next day, he discovers that the girl was murdered, and his sense of justice demands that he investigates further.

The story works very well, as Jack and a couple of his friends and accomplices investigate the hippy organization that the girl had briefly lived with, and find connections between it and another group whose commune had been destroyed in flames years before.  Brubaker tells these types of stories very well, building up the characters into familiar types, (I was, at times, reminded of the 70s arcs of Fatale) but still keeping the story feeling fresh and interesting.

Lark is a very good artistic choice for this kind of story.  His approach to realism is never flashy or attention-seeking, and he furthers the story quite well.  He has a very good sense of personal drama about his characters.

This was a solid read that, with the exception of the rarity of modern personal electronics, has aged very well.  That hardcover is worth getting a copy of.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shogum of the Dead Book 1: Twilight of the Samurai

by Daniel L. Werneck

This book was the last of my TCAF impulse buys that I hadn't read yet.  Cartoonist Daniel L. Werneck took popular the current trend for zombie stories, twisted the usual tropes of the genre a little, and set his tale in feudal Japan for Shogum of the Dead.

At the beginning, Lord Tachikawa has travelled to meet with Izanami, a supernatural creature from the underworld.  She promises him that none of his clan would stay dead for as long as Tachikawa's war with Yasutomo, his enemy, continues.  When one of his soldiers is struck down, he rises later, not bothered by his injuries, and ready to continue the fight.  As their death continues, these soldiers develop a bit of a smell, and a desire for human brains, but they retain their personality and intelligence.

The story is pretty sprawling, encompassing intrigue within Tachikawa's house, the travails of an AWOL soldier, and the adventures of the Dirty Seven, a group of dead killers who are sent to kill Yasutomo's son, but figure the best way to do that is to wait for him at a brothel for weeks.

Werneck takes a pretty irreverent approach to his story, and that makes this book fun to read.  His art is a little on the rough side, but it works with this type of story.  There's plenty that could be expanded upon in this story, but I feel like he does a good job of telling a complete tale.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Foster

Written by Biran Buccellato
Art by Noel Tuazon

I was pretty excited to finally be able to sink my teeth into the completed Foster.  I'd picked up the first two issues a couple of years ago at TCAF from artist Noel Tuazon, and really enjoyed the beginning of the book.  Like many self-published titles though, it kind of disappeared, except for prohibitively expensive 'convention editions' or digital editions available online.  Now the whole six issues have been collected into one trade paperback by OSSM Comics, a pretty new company, and I could finally read the whole story.

Foster is set in Vintage City, which is Buccellato's amalgam of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA (although it mostly resembles New York), in their dirty seventies and eighties incarnations.  The city is run down, as are the people living in it.  Eddie Foster is one of the most run-down people around.  An alcoholic and a war vet, Foster is haunted by the choices he's made in his life, and mostly spends his time drinking in a crummy apartment, next door to a junkie prostitute he used to date.

One day, he comes home and finds that his neighbour has taken off, and has left her son, Ben, with no one to look after him.  Foster takes him home with him, and gets him to school the next day, assuming that his responsibilities are complete.  When he gets home, a gigantic man-like creature, a Dweller, shows up looking for the boy.  The Dwellers are evolutionary offshots (or maybe forebears) of humanity, who live in secret, preying on the edges of civilization.  Lots of people are aware of them, but nobody talks about them, and in their dark trenchcoats, they blend in with the urban decay around them.

As it turns out, Ben is the only hybrid born of a human woman and a Dweller (I'm not sure how they reproduce, because they all look like men to me in this book).  Foster does everything he can to keep the kid safe, as the King of the Dwellers wants his son back, and the other Dwellers just want to kill him.

Buccellato really builds the story nicely, and has a good feel for that era.  Tuazon's rough pencils are perfect for portraying this kind of world, as everything feels like it has a layer of grit on it.  This graphic novel is nicely self-contained, and would work very well as a film.  I am very glad I finally got to read the whole story, and recommend checking it out.  It's a good chunk of story for only $12.99.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Seconds

by Bryan Lee O'Malley (with assistance by Jason Fischer)

One of the most highly anticipated new graphic novels of the last few years, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, has finally arrived, four years after he finished his classic Scott Pilgrim series.  As with many writers, recording artists, or directors who have a giant hit on their hands, I'm sure O'Malley felt a lot of pressure to satisfy his fans and meet or exceed expectations.

Seconds is definitely an interesting book, and while reading it, I was most curious to see how much O'Malley switched up his approach to story-telling.

The book is about Katie, a successful chef who, at twenty-nine, is beginning to worry about where she is in life, in terms of controlling her own career, finding love, and living a life that really gives her what she wants.  She's reached a certain degree of fame in her city for her cooking at Seconds, a lovely restaurant situated on a hill overlooking the town, with exposed rafters and a warm fireplace.  She lives above the restaurant in an attic apartment, but she does not own the business, and at the point where the book opens, doesn't even actually work there anymore, despite the fact that she spends most of her nights in the dining room or in the kitchen.

Instead, Katie has taken a big gamble, and has, with a very positive business partner, purchased a run-down building on the wrong side of a river that runs through her town, which she is slowly having renovated so she can open Katie's, her own place where she does things her way.

You would think that she'd be happy, but Katie is a lonely wreck.  The appearance of Max, her ex, at the restaurant one night sends her into a spin, and she ends up making out with Andrew, her replacement chef, in the walk-in.  While they are off doing their thing, Hazel, a waifish young waitress, gets injured in the kitchen, and Katie feels terribly responsible.

Later that night, Katie has a strange dream where a spectral young woman comes to her and gives her a box that contains a notebook and a strange red-capped mushroom.  There is an instruction card the explains that if Katie writes down what she regrets, then eats the mushroom and goes to sleep, things will be better in the morning.  The next day, Hazel is not injured, and Andrew has no memory of anything special happening between he and Katie.  Basically, the day had been re-written, and only Katie had any memory of what had happened.

From there, Katie discovers a stash of these special mushrooms growing under a floorboard, and goes on a bit of a spree, rewriting days to try to fit with how she wishes they'd gone, and eventually graduating to using the mushrooms to revive her relationship with Max, and to correct errors she made in choosing the site of her new restaurant.  As the story unfolds, Katie begins to regret fixing her regrets more than she does the original mistakes.

O'Malley plays with the concept of 'house spirits' here, and as Hazel and Katie become closer, they work out just who the woman that Katie keeps seeing on her dresser really is.  These aspects of the story reminded me of Latin American magical realism, as concepts like house spirits and magic mushrooms are just a readily-accepted part of O'Malley's otherwise very normal comic book world.  I'd say that the conceit works very well, although as the book reached its climax, which involves a second house spirit, I found myself wanting to get back to the more everyday aspects of the story.

I think that this book is a worthy successor to Scott Pilgrim.  Katie is older than Scott's crew, although to be honest, reading about the midlife-like crisis of somebody who is not yet thirty is kind of irritating for someone who crossed that divide a ways back.  The waitresses, who are invariably pretty and are identified by their proximity to being twenty-one, could probably have hung out with Scott, but with the exception of Hazel, they aren't all that important to the book.

O'Malley's style of cartooning has not changed very much, although the colours of Nathan Fairbairn do add a necessary dimension that makes the book feel more mature than the Pilgrim books.  While embracing magical realism, and still using some classic manga tropes (like the teardrops that appear on the side or back of characters' heads when they feel stressed), O'Malley has abandoned the video game in-jokes that filled the visuals of Scott Pilgrim, again making this feel like a much more mature piece of work.

One thing that I loved about Pilgrim that is missing here is the clear sense of place.  We don't know what town Katie lives in, and the city feels like it's not a part of the story at all.  When we see outside shots of Seconds, it looks like it's in the countryside, and we barely see cars parked outside, even when the dining room is packed.  Perhaps its just because Scott Pilgrim was set in Toronto, and made such great use of iconic locations that have meant something to me personally (the Reference Library, Honest Ed's, and Lee's Palace in particular) that I identified so much more strongly with it, but I missed that aspect of this story.

I think that with this book, O'Malley has proven that he is not a 'one-hit wonder' creator, but is instead a strong cartoonist, with a knack for creating endearing characters and situations.  We've all wished we could go back and undo mistakes we've made or things we've said, and in this book, he taps into that feeling very well, while showing us why an easy fix is never the right answer. Sure there are times when I started to feel that the book was a little too precious, but overall, I really enjoyed reading this book.