Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tooth

Written by Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee
Art by Matt Kindt

The Tooth, the beautifully designed hardcover published by Oni Press back in 2011, is a strange love letter to the earlier days of the Marvel Universe, when Stan Lee and his friends made comics that blurred the line between superheroes and monsters.

Graham Stone has come to his recently deceased grandfather's house to decide what to do with it, and his grandfather's strange collection of occult artifacts.  Graham is attacked by some creeps working for a local wizard, and soon enough, his life is unrecognizable, as he becomes the host of The Tooth, a man-shaped creature that grows from a large tooth now wedged into Graham's mouth.

The Tooth is an Incredible Hulk-like creature, with an origin story that harkens back to Ancient Greece.  He has to protect Graham and his fiancée, and find a way to help them stop the wizard dude.  Oh, there's also a big dragon in here, as well as another monster fight that happens in a dentist's office.

Writers Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee have a lot of fun with the old school Marvel stylings of this story, from the bombastic narration, the editor's notes, and the fake letters pages and 'bullpen bulletin' style announcements that pepper the story.  Leaving the homage aside, this is a decent enough story that is fun to read.

Matt Kindt is one of my favourite artists for the singularity of his style.  It works well here, although someone less effectively than it does on his own titles like Mind MGMT or 3 Story.  He has a way of making the most outlandish ideas (and really, what's wilder than a yellowish seven-foot tall tooth fighting monsters?) work on the comics page.

This was a good read on a quiet weekend, and I'm sure this book was a lot of fun to make.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Retro-Reviews: The Avengers #305-317

Avengers #305 - 317 (July 1989 - May 1990)

Written by John Byrne, with scripting by Fabian Nicieza (#317)
Pencilled by Paul Ryan
Inked by Tom Palmer
In my last retro-review, which covered the set of issues that came after long-time writer Roger Stern left the book, I had written about how rudderless the Avengers series began to feel, and how I was curious to see how the addition of John Byrne as writer for an extended run would help stabilize things.
It looks like Byrne was intent on making a number of changes to the way in which the Avengers operated.  In his first issue (#305) he has Captain America assemble any and everyone who was ever considered a member of the team, to basically have a little pep rally.  He basically gets rid of the distinction between East Coast and West Coast teams (which makes sense, considering that Byrne was both writing and drawing the West Coast title, which reshuffled its name under his tenure), and declares that he doesn't really see the team as made up of active and reserve members anymore.  Instead, he'd like the ability to call up anyone he needs, when he needs them.  This goes over well enough, and leads to a pretty fluid line-up for the rest of Byrne's run, although to my mind, it's marked by the sudden disappearance of some characters (like the Black Panther, who is there for a couple of issues, and then just isn't).
Another change that Byrne brought to the book was the creation of a support staff for the Avengers.  It didn't really make sense to have Jarvis do everything for the team, especially after moving the Mansion to Hydro Base, so this was a wise change.  Strangely, none of these people were hired in the main title.  I vaguely remember Cap approaching some of them in his own title (like that annoying Fabian kid), and so suddenly, people like Peggy Carter and that O'Brien Guardian guy are just around, sometimes.  John Jameson too.  Also some plant-based villain, whose job is keeping the tropical Hydro Base plants alive once the island is based just off Manhattan.
Here are some of the things that happened in this run:
  • After Cap's pep rally, Lava Men attack the island and capture the Avengers, leaving Reed and Sue Richards to try to save the island from destruction.
  • Gilgamesh gets badly hurt fighting the Lava Men.
  • The Avengers try to get Sersi to help save Gilgamesh, which leads to a trip to Olympia, which has gone missing.
  • The Avengers search for Olympia in the Negative Zone, which leads to a big fight with Blastarr.
  • The Acts of Vengeance crossover begins, which leads to a bunch of robots attacking and sinking Hydro Base while all the Avengers are away.
  • A group of heroes fight off Freedom Force from attacking Avengers Park, which has become their main base after losing Hydro Base.
  • Mandarin and the Wizard (constantly referred to as the Wingless Wizard, which is just weird) then attack the same park, and get fought off by even more Avengers.
  • Loki is never actually revealed as being behind the Acts of Vengeance in this series, although it's pretty obvious.
  • Nebula shows up again, manipulating some old scientist into using a device that wipes out existence (although a small group of Avengers manage to continue existing to take the fight to her).
  • The Stranger shows up because Nebula stole some super-weapon from him.
It's hard to point out a list of 'active' Avengers in this run, because of the changes Captain America made to their usual protocol (the classic six-person roster), but these are the characters who fought under the Avengers banner for some or all of this run:
  • Captain America
  • Thor
  • Quasar (although he spent much of his time sitting out or just missing the team)
  • She-Hulk
  • Gilgamesh
  • Black Panther
  • Namor
  • Sersi (she joined somewhere in here)
  • Scarlet Witch (I'm pretty sure she stayed with the West Coast team)
  • Hank Pym (red jumpsuit era; also West Coast)
  • Wasp (West Coast?)
  • Falcon (showed up out of nowhere, disappeared right after)
  • Vision
  • Black Widow (for one issue)
  • Hellcat (for one issue)
  • Wonder Man (West Coast)
  • Spider-Man (joined team for one adventure, and was awkwardly fired at the end of the story, which isn't in this run as Byrne left)
  • Starfox
  • Iron Man
I'm not entirely sure that Byrne brought the stability that people were looking for, as the team was constantly shifting around, and there were no plotlines involving characters' personal lives (although both Vision and Captain America were shown as being doubtful that there was someone other than Tony Stark in the Iron Man armour, which is something he was claiming at the time, apparently).  One thing he did that I appreciated was use some random pages in early issues of his run to set up later storylines.  From the beginning, we kept being shown the old scientist who ended up working with Nebula towards the end of the run.  I liked when writers did this more, but writing for the trade has killed that kind of thing in modern superhero comics.
I was pretty disappointed with the Acts of Vengeance issues.  Granted, these are tie-ins to a larger event which I didn't just re-read, but I was surprised to not reach a resolution in this title (where did that happen?), and to not see any kind of checklist or indication as to what other books I would need to read to get the whole story.  Was there really a time when Marvel didn't over-market their cross-over events?  It's hard to believe, isn't it?
While not as impressive as the run on this title by Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer, it is impressive that the team of Byrne, Ryan, and Palmer were able to put out thirteen straight issues together.  I assume that Byrne left because his superior Namor series launched towards the end of this run (now that's a title I should re-read), and I've noticed that Ryan and Palmer stuck around a fair amount afterwards.  Keeping Tom Palmer as inker on this book for so many years really gave it a consistent feel, and he works well with Ryan, who is a very capable artist.
This was definitely not one of Byrne's more celebrated comics.  His work here is fine, but it doesn't compare to the other books he's so well known for, like Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Namor, Superman, or even She-Hulk.
From what I recall, after this run, the Avengers continued to slouch slowly towards 90s terribleness, so my next retro-review will cover the period from Byrne's departure to my own abandoning of the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dotter of her Fathers Eyes

Written by Mary M. Talbot
Art by Bryan Talbot

I've never had a lot of interest in the writing of James Joyce, and have only ever read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man back when I was in university, but I am always interested in seeing how comics can intersect with the academic world, and I have long been a fan of Bryan Talbot's work.

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is written by Talbot's wife, Mary.  She is the daughter of James S. Atherton, a renowned Joyce scholar, and, apparently, a difficult man to get along with.  Growing up, Atherton was a complicated presence in Mary's life.  In some ways, she longed to please him, but in others, she found his intransigence painful.  So, in other words, she was a typical daughter to a typical father, especially considering we are talking about post-War Britain.

To prove the commonality of her story, it is told in parallel to that of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, who was subject to her family's nomadic and penniless ways, and who was forced to put a successful dancing and teaching career on hold because of familial obligations.  The two women's stories unfold in such a way as to look for lines of intersection, but the telling difference is that where Mary ended up marrying Bryan and becoming a successful academic, Lucia ended up in a string of asylums.

This is a very personal work, made even more so by the fact that the artist is married to the writer.  There are a couple of places where Mary includes small notes to disagree with the way Bryan has pictured events, and these add to the sense of accuracy that this book carries.  Mary shows a strong sense of self-awareness, and Bryan keeps his art clear and more minimal, avoiding the lush work we are used to seeing from him in his Grandville graphic novels.

This book was well worth reading, and provided some insight into the lives of the brilliant.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Johnny Hiro {The Skills to Pay the Bills}

by Fred Chao

I absolutely fell in love with Johnny Hiro when Fred Chao first started publishing his adventures through Adhouse Books.  I picked up and enjoyed the first graphic novel, even though I'd already read most of it, but I somehow didn't know until just recently that a second volume, {The Skills to Pay the Bills}, had been published.

In Johnny Hiro, Fred Chao follows the titular character, a sushi chef who lives in New York, as circumstances create problems for him and his Japanese immigrant girlfriend Mayumi.  They sublet an apartment from Hiro's best friend, and worry about money, their relationship, and what will happen if Mayumi's work visa is not extended.  Hiro also has to spend his days fighting off the assistant chefs of Shinto Pete, his boss Masago's bitter enemy.  They literally attack him at the fish market every time he goes.

Hiro and Mayumi are basically trouble magnets.  A nice lunch with Mayumi's work friend, who is also Hiro's ex from college, gets interrupted when a giant ape, the son of King Kong, randomly picks up the blonde, and tries to make off with her across the city.  It is Hiro who manages to save her, leading to the couple's second meeting with Mayor Bloomberg (the book came out in 2013).

Later, Masago's restaurant is chosen to cater an event at Gracie Mansion for Bloomberg, but that turns into a disaster when the Mayor's usual caterers try to sabotage the event, and end up chasing Hiro through the historic building.

As we get deeper into the graphic novel, which is made up of short and longer stories, Chao abandons some of the hijinks in favour of having Hiro retreat into his head a little, and contemplate his life going forward, as he moves into his late twenties.  We also get Masago's backstory portioned out over a couple of stories, as we learn why he's so grumpy all the time, and just why Shinto Pete has such beef with him.

What really makes this book work is the depth of its charm.  Hiro and Mayumi are very loveable characters, and their relationship feels very real.  Chao blends the wacky and the profound beautifully, and I especially like the shorter vignettes, such as the one where Hiro watches a stranger comfort another stranger on the subway, and wonders why he's not capable of such kindnesses.  Chao's art is simple and straightforward, but capable of transmitting a lot of emotion.

I love how much New York City becomes a part of this book (New York and LA even meet for a beer at one point, sort of), as Bloomberg pines for the failed Atlantic Yards project, and we learn the true reason for the first King Kong film being made (as well as Peter Jackson's remake).  Also, any book that has a cameo by rapper Grand Puba is okay in my books.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Avengers #288-304

The Avengers #288-304 (February 1988-June 1989)

Written by Ralph Macchio (#288-290, 300-303), Mark Gruenwald (#290, 301-303), Walter Simonson (#291-300), and Danny Fingeroth (#304)
Breakdowns by John Buscema (#288-300), Walter Simonson (#300), Bob Hall (#301), and Rich Buckler (#302-304)
Finishes by Tom Palmer (#288-300, #302-304),Walter Simonson (#300), and Don Heck (#301)
I've kind of fallen into rereading all of my Avengers issues, at least from the arbitrary starting point I picked back in the summer.  The collection of books I discussed in the last two columns represent the high point of The Avengers in my childhood, and were the best that comic was until Kurt Busiek came along and fixed the extremely bad choices of the 1990s.  The collection of issues I've picked for this column, however, represent a low point.
This batch was grouped due to the inconsistency in writing that happened between Roger Stern's legendary run, and John Byrne's largely forgotten one.  None of these issues are to ever be considered iconic, and feel very constrained by some of the decisions being made in other Marvel comics (such as Captain America giving up his uniform and taking on the unique new name, The Captain).  The team roster was shifting as often as the writer's credit, and for a couple of issues, the only Avengers team in existence was the West Coast one, not that they appeared all that often in the book.
To examine the main plot points, in bullet form:
  • The Avengers deal with the Super-Adaptoid's plans to take over the Cosmic Cube, after recruiting a number of robots to aid him, including Machine Man.
  • Namor proves himself to be a very over-protective and domineering husband, refusing to allow Marrina to fight on the team, despite her always being around.
  • The Cosmic Cube adopts the name Kubik, and looks really stupid.
  • Marrina goes all feral at a party, turns into a gigantic worm, and starts wrecking ships at sea.
  • In order to stop his wife, Namor uses the Black Knight's Ebony Blade to cut her, which causes the Black Knight to suffer from a curse (resulting in his having to wear a cumbersome exo-suit, and to become sharp to the touch somehow, as well as immobile).
  • Doctor Druid becomes ever more critical of Captain Marvel's leadership, and begins to manipulate her.
  • Captain Marvel takes a break after the fight with Marrina, and Druid manipulates (and psychically control) his fellow Avengers into making him chairman.
  • We learn that Druid is himself being manipulated by Nebula, who has become part of the Kang Korps.
  • Everyone ends up fighting one another at Nebula's behest, while she tries to retrieve a super weapon from a time bubble, or something like that.
  • The Avengers basically break up after getting rid of Nebula and Druid.
  • Jarvis is the only Avenger left, and he runs into some weird crap during Inferno, when all the payphones in Manhattan become demons.
  • The Captain goes to suburban Connecticut to get help with the Inferno problem from Reed and Sue Richards, just to arrive after Nanny and the Orphan Maker (remember them?) kidnap Franklin Richards.
  • While fighting these ridiculous villains, Gilgamesh, the Forgotten Eternal shows up to help fight, just cause.
  • The Captain (who almost immediately becomes Captain America again) decides, basically in some text pages, to hire a bunch of helpers for his new Avengers team, and we occasionally see some of these people, but their presence is never explained in any story.
  • Super-Nova, a very large member of the Nova Corps decides that he's angry at Nebula for destroying the planet Xandar, so he comes to Earth to wreck it (apparently he thinks she's an Avenger).
  • Quasar, the Fantastic Four (of which there are only three?) and the West Coast team fight him because the new East Coast team is fighting robot brain leech things in space.
  • Captain America, Thor, and Gilgamesh hang out on Ellis Island, where they try to stop Puma from taking a kid from his tribe back home.  That kid opens a portal to another dimension and the U-Foes show up to fight them.
These issues feature the following Avengers, many of whom leave the team for very poor reasons, story-wise:
  • Captain Marvel (leaves after losing most of her energy)
  • Doctor Druid (lost in the time-stream)
  • Black Knight (becomes immobile, left behind in a protective energy field during Inferno, and not seen again)
  • She-Hulk (leaves because she's embarrassed at being mind controlled)
  • Namor (leaves after killing his wife)
  • Thor
  • Captain America/The Captain
  • Nebula (although I don't think she was technically ever an Avenger)
  • Mister Fantastic
  • Invisible Woman
  • Gilgamesh
None of these line-ups were exactly classic.
One thing I noticed is that I'm not the only person revisiting this timeframe lately.  In a recent issue of Avengers World, Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, is seen telling a bartender a story about himself being, basically, in a full-body cast during a battle.  Also, in Mighty Avengers, when a boring mystic type (Kalluu?  Something like that) talks for too long, She-Hulk remarks that he's just like Doctor Druid.
As I said, the writing here was very inconsistent.  I wasn't surprised to find the issues that were hastily written after Roger Stern's departure to be lacking, but I would have expected a lot more from Walter Simonson, with these issues coming between his excellent runs on The Mighty Four and The Fantastic Four.  Perhaps he never really wanted to take this job, as the stories really lacked enthusiasm.  It's weird that even his Thor, the character he knew best at that time, felt forced and unnatural.
The art also began to suffer as John Buscema and Tom Palmer took some breaks (presumably out of exhaustion, after having drawn so many consecutive issues).  A lot of the fill-in artists, such as Rich Buckler, Bob Hall, and Don Heck represent an earlier Marvel era, and they weren't adapting well to the transitional era that moved away from artists like Buscema, Byrne, and Romita Jr. towards people like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane.
It's not hard to imagine, at a time when the X-Men were at the height of their popularity, that the Avengers were kind of an after-thought in the Marvel offices.  That would explain the general malaise one gets from reading these issues.  Was John Byrne able to turn it around when he came on the book?  Find out next time!

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


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


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.