Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jan's Atomic Heart and Other Stories

by Simon Roy

I picked up the original printing of Jan's Atomic Heart at the Toronto Comic Art Festival back in 2009, and was pretty impressed with it.  Since that time, writer/artist Simon Roy has been steadily making a name for himself working with Brandon Graham on Prophet, and on some random stories in places like Dark Horse Presents, and the recent new series The Field.  When I saw that Image was reprinting the original story, along with some other shorts as Jan's Atomic Heart and Other Stories, I knew I'd want to own it.

The title story still reads very well.  Jan is a man whose consciousness has been transferred into a metallic body while his own body recovers from an illness or injury.  He is a little suspicious, however, that this body is not like other ones used for these purposes, and of course, things are not all as they seem.  Roy provides some interesting twists, and his sketchy, loose art style works well here.

I was pleased to enjoy the other short stories as much or more than the main tale.  In one strip, a man and a talking ape have been marooned on an island together for years, and when escape finally looks to be possible, they don't react the same way.

Many of these stories feature alien creatures or beings that would not be out of place in Prophet.  In one story, Americans try to sell weapons to a faction of insect creatures as a ploy to gain land for themselves.  In another, a bar brawl turns weird very quickly.

Roy is a very talented storyteller, whose work keeps improving.  His is a career I look forward to watching grow and develop.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Afrika

by Hermann

I love getting the opportunity to read French comics in English translation.  I always feel like I'm missing out on a wide world of terrific comics, and so trust that the translation process works in a curatorial way, ensuring that only the best books make it to our shores.

Afrika is a handsome hardcover book published by Dark Horse, and it stars Dario Ferrer, a Frenchman who is living on a nature preserve in an unnamed African country.  He spends his days trying to save the animals of the park from poachers, and generally just being surly and unfriendly.

A French journalist arrives at the park hoping to interview him and write about the poaching problem.  He's none to happy to see her, but eventually takes her out to see a recently killed animal.  Later, they end up in a firefight with some poachers, and it's established that Ferrer has had some military training.  Later still, Ferrer and the reporter witness the scene of a government-run attack on a rebel village, and the secrets they learn force them to leave the country immediately, and by foot.

This is a quick read, with some nicely tense scenes.  The cartoonist, Hermann, never wastes much time in establishing the bigger picture, so we have to trust Ferrer's interpretation of events.  There is a subplot involving Ferrer's African girlfriend and another European who is always around, but it doesn't go all that far towards adding much to the story.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Foster Anthology 2012

Written by Brian Buccellato, Troy Peteri, Vince Hernandez, Robert Place Napton, Eric Wallace, Mike Johnson, Sterling Gates, Kyle Higgins, and Paris Buccellato
Art by Jason Copland, Noel Tuazon, Steve Buccellato, Dan Smith, Don Hudson, Aaron Gillespie, Hector Collazo, Rod Reis, Karl Altstaetter, and Paris Buccellato

When I was at TCAF (the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the best comics show you'll ever attend) in 2012, I bought the first two issues of Foster from Noel Tuazon, the series artist.  I really enjoyed these two books, which are set in Vintage City, a down and dirty American city that looks and feels like it got stuck in the grimier part of the 1970s.  Vintage City has all of the usual problems of an American city, but is also home to a large group of Dwellers, mysterious and shadowy creatures who are descended from Cro Magnon man (if I remember it correctly), and who live in secret.

The series is about a guy, Foster, who is trying to protect his young neighbour, who is half-Dweller, from them.  I liked the books, and was pretty happy to see that the series was being solicited by Diamond, although nothing past the first issue ever came out.  It's possible to buy 'convention editions' off of writer Brian Buccellato's site, but they're kind of expensive.

Anyway, I was at the Toronto Comicon last weekend, and saw that Tuazon was selling copies of the Foster Anthology, a Kickstarter project that Buccellato made.  This book has a number of short stories set in the Foster universe, by a number of different creators.

The best stories are the ones set in various historical periods.  Buccellato writes a story (drawn by Jason Copland, of Murder Book fame) about an attempt at a military alliance between Ancient Rome and the Dwellers.  Troy Peteri and Tuazon have a very nice story about a trapper in the 19th Century who runs into the Dwellers in the woods.  I also really enjoyed Kyle Higgins's story about a cab driver in Vintage City who won't pick up Dwellers.  Rod Reis's art in this story reminds me of Bill Sienkiewicz around the time he was doing Elektra Assassin.

It is my hope that the Foster series will get collected into a trade format soon, as I'd really like to see how the story ends (and am not interested in reading it digitally).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Where Bold Stars Go To Die

Written by Gerry Alanguilan
Art by Arlanzandro C. Esmeña

I loved Elmer, Gerry Alanguilan's very political graphic novel about sentient chickens who have to find ways to fit in with society, and so was intrigued when I saw that Slave Labor Graphics was releasing a new graphic novel, Where Bold Stars Go to Die.

This slim book is quite different from Alanguilan's prior work, touching on themes of desire and obsession.  Our main character is a young man who falls in love with a bold star (the Filipino version of a soft-core movie star) who he sees in an old movie.  He tries to learn more about her, but has little luck.  One night he visits her in a dream (that kind of borrows some ideas from Bill Willingham's Fables), and that sends him on a road of absolute obsession.

Alanguilan's writing is itself pretty bold here, not shying away from the masturbatory practices of his hero.  The guy's friends can tell what's up with him, especially as he becomes ever more bedraggled and spent.

The art is by Alanguilan's close friend, the late Arlanzandro C. Esmeña, a trained architect who only ever completed this one comic before his death.  His women are lovely, but his landscapes even more so.

The book is supplemented with a string of pin-up pictures, mostly drawn by Filipino comics artists.  This, and Elmer, are both books that are worth checking out.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Grave Doug Freshley

Written by Josh Hechinger
Art by mpMann

I'd always meant to pick up The Grave Doug Freshley back before Archaia comics imploded for a while, and ended up cancelling the mini-series.  By the time it came out in hardcover, I'd kind of forgotten it, until I saw it in a comics store a little while ago.

The main reason why I'd wanted this comic was for the art of mpMann, whose other comics (The Lone And Level Sands, Inanna's Tears, and Some New Kind of Slaughter) were all pretty impressive.  His minimalist cartoony style works very well for comics set in different time periods, and reminds me a little of Darwyn Cooke's work.

The story of The Grave Doug Freshley can be summed up as "Lone Wolf and Cub set in the Old West, if the Lone Wolf were dead".  A vicious gang of cattle thieves, the Delanceys, have been making life difficult for folk, killing everyone on a ranch before running off with their cattle.  They attack the McNally family, killing everyone there except for their young son Bat.  Doug Freshley, an old friend of Bat's father and Bat's tutor, is also killed, although he gets up shortly after taking a bullet to the head.  He rescues Bat from the fire the Delanceys set, and the odd pair head off looking for justice.

The story is a pretty familiar one, although the fact that Doug is dead does add a little twist to things, as does the fact that the Grim Reaper is hunting him.  This is a lighthearted and enjoyable comic, and like all Archaia hardcovers, it's built quite beautifully.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Judas Coin

by Walter Simonson

If asked to list my favourite comics creators from my pre-teen and teen years, Walter Simonson would definitely hold a place of prominence on that list.  His work on Thor was revolutionary, and I remember his run on Fantastic Four with fondness.  His X-Factor was visually stunning, and his Manhunter a classic of the superhero genre.

He hasn't been producing much in the last years, aside from a recent resurgence of variant covers and short art appearances on Indestructible Hulk and Legion of Super-Heroes.

He did release The Judas Coin in 2012, although I've only just now gotten around to reading it.  This is a very cool graphic novel, which begins with the crucifixion of Christ, and continues into a very futuristic 2087.  Each short story in this book is linked by the presence of a single coin, lost by Judas when he tried to return his thirty pieces of silver at the dawn of the Christian era.

Jumping through the various eras, this book also serves as a survey of some of the different, storied parts of the DC Universe's past.  Little-seen characters such as the Golden Gladiator, the Viking Prince, and Captain Fear star in the first chapters, while Bat Lash is given the 19th Century slot, and Batman and Two-Face represent the present day.  Simonson creates a new, 2070 version of Manhunter (unless this is just a really obscure DC character I never knew about) to finish up the novel.

Each of these stories involve some sort of misfortune that befalls the person holding on to Judas's coin.  It's a very effective framing device, that allows Simonson to tell a number of different stories that match the genre of each era.  Of course, the Viking Prince story involves large monsters like those Simonson drew in his Thor days, while the Bat Lash story takes place after a particularly heated game of cards.

I love Simonson's art, and the way in which he adapted things for each new chapter.  The Bat Lash chapter has a slight sepia-tone to it, and in the Manhunter 2070 story, the female adversaries look like they could have stepped out of an anime series.  The decision to construct the Batman story around the landscaped shape of a newspaper strip was an odd one, and while it looked nice, I hate having to read comics sideways, especially in hardcover.

It would have been nice to see some of the other eras of DC history or future represented here.  I would have loved a Justice Society of America chapter set in the WWII era, and for the book to have ended with the Legion of Super-Heroes, but I can see how the powers that be didn't want the book to be too visibly pre-New 52.  Still, this is a solid read, and worth checking out.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

by David Mitchell

It was through reading reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel when it was first released in hardcover that I learned of David Mitchell and his work, which lead to my reading two of his other books (Black Swan Green and the brilliant Cloud Atlas) before tackling this rich and impressive novel.

Jacob De Zoet is a young Dutch man, working for the Dutch East India Company at the turn of the 19th century.  He has been sent to Dejima, the small island trading factory in Nagasaki Bay, at a time when Japan was kept strictly off-limits to foreigners.  The Dutchmen of the Company, with their various slaves and servants from other parts of the world, are practically kept prisoner, but are also the source of much lucrative trade, and the power that comes with it, and so are accorded a level of respect and deference.

De Zoet has arrived on Dejima with a new manager, the previous one having been revealed as a thief and scoundrel.  De Zoet's job is to perform some forensic accounting on the Company's books, and to determine how bad the damage is.  His goal is to raise enough money for himself through his honest work that he can return to Denmark and be with the girl he wants to marry.  Of course, it's not long before he meets the mysterious Orito Aibagawa, and he falls for her.

To all intents and purposes, the first third of this book gives the impression that the whole novel is a historical romance of manners and status, kind of like a historical multicultural Remains of the Day, but anyone who has read Cloud Atlas should know better than to expect that kind of adherence to conventions from a writer like Mitchell.

Soon enough, the book becomes more concerned with the goings on at a mountaintop shrine owned by a powerful Lord.  At this place, women are systematically 'engifted' with the seed of the monks at the shrine, although the purpose of this ritualized rape is unknown to just about everyone.  At this point, the book becomes a little more adventurous in nature, reminding me of a Kurosawa samurai movie.

Later still, a British frigate appears in the harbour, looking to take over Dejima and the trade that takes place there, and the novel tacks in yet another direction.

What makes all of this work is the steady hand of Mitchell's writing, and his strong sense of character.  As the story progresses, the characters, especially De Zoet, and his favourite Japanese interpreter, undergo a number of changes, and hold the reader's attention.

Mitchell does an excellent job of breathing life into such a foreign and distant point in History.  His description in the book is phenomenal, often using short declarative, almost haiku-like sentences to paint the scene for each new chapter or setting.

I really enjoyed this novel.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Good-Bye

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I'm pretty sure that, with Good-Bye, I've now read all of Drawn & Quarterly's collections of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's manga that have been published so far.  Tatsumi really is a marvel, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to have read so much of his work.

Lucky, and kind of depressed, as his stories are all about people who have been brutally isolated by modern, post-war Japanese society.  In one story, a man mourning his upcoming retirement decides to spend all of his money so that his cold and controlling wife doesn't get any of it, and even manages to end up in bed with the girl he's had a crush on, only to find the entire thing so incredibly sad and empty.

Another story has a young man become the only resident of his apartment building, after a corpse is discovered in the adjoining apartment.  In another tale, a young woman decides to prostitute herself out to American soldiers stationed nearby, mostly because she doesn't know what else to do with herself.

This is a very bleak book, and with its frank and sometimes explicit approach to sexuality, not at all what I would have expected to have been published in Japan in the 70s.  These are very literary and mature stories, and reading them in quick succession is a little numbing, but ultimately in a good way.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Journal of the Main Street Secret Lodge

by Steven Gilbert

I'm always on the lookout for interesting historical comics and graphic novels, and when I saw this show up at the store where I shop, I was intrigued.  The book, by Steven Gilbert, who apparently built a bit of a name for himself in the Canadian independent comics scene in the 90s, is set in the town of Newmarket (now basically just a suburb of Toronto) at the end of the 19th century.

The title is a little bit misleading, as there is no Main Street Secret Lodge in evidence, but we are given an interesting look into a place at a time where society was going through rapid change.  At the centre of this book is a story called 'Cold Cold Ground', which follows a pair of bank robbers, a man and a woman, who have come up from the States.  They attack a Northern Outpost, drawing away Captain Gilbert (presumably an ancestor of the author), so that they can rob a bank on Main Street.  That robbery doesn't go well, and there is a fair amount of bloodshed.  As the robbers flee, things get even worse for a small family we are introduced to earlier.

This story is bookended by some random information on crime in that time (there is a lengthy essay on how people used to rob hotels), and portraits of 'billiards' girls in the nude.  In the middle of the story are a couple of pages about the growth of the railroad, and throughout the book are large pictures of scenery and establishing shots.

Gilbert is a strong cartoonist with a deep love of cross-hatching, and the place he is portraying.  His publisher, from what I can tell, is a comics store in Newmarket, and it's clear that this unconventional book is a passion project.  I enjoyed it, and would gladly return to the journals of the Main Street Secret Lodge, if given another opportunity.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Escalator

by Brandon Graham

I've been a big Brandon Graham fan since first learning about his work a little while after the first volume of King City came out.  This book, Escalator, collects a number of his earlier comics stories, and it is pretty fantastic from cover to cover.

When I think of Graham's work, I always think of strange and complicated futuristic cities, characters who just seem to get by living in the urban environment, and endless sight gags and puns.  All of that is represented here, and the book makes me feel like I'm watching Graham figure out a number of things as a writer and an artist.

In one story, a writer is just trying to get some work done when interrupted by a demon or something, who is trying to take his soul.  In another strip, a couple hang out on their balcony.  In another story, a young artist and his friend tag trains.

There is definitely an autobiographical feel to much of this book.  In one strip, young Graham is having a hard time making things work for himself, and can't help but realize that while he's climbing stairs to a friend's walk-up that he's crashing at, Moebius is probably dreaming of crystals.

This is a very enjoyable book, and a must-have for anyone who has enjoyed King City or Multiple Warheads (there is a MW short here too).  If you only know Graham from his amazing writing on Prophet, this is still worth checking out, as you can connect the dots from that work to this.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Saviors #1

Written by James Robinson
Art by J. Bone

We all know the score these days - Image Comics launches a new series, everyone gets really excited about it, there's some action on the after-market, and the world is just a little bit richer for it all.  This has been going on for a while now - it was a trend even before Saga dropped.  What I've liked best about this is the novelty of the books that have been appearing, and the quality of the creators involved.

This year, as the only book being published by Image this week, we get the first issue of a new collaboration between James Robinson, who is best known for his work on Starman at DC comics, and cartoonist extraordinaire, J. Bone, who has worked all over the place at different times.

This series is set in a tiny, dusty desert town.  Right from the beginning, we are introduced to Tomas, a bit of a layabout who loves his town, loves getting high, and finds that life generally treats him pretty well.  He has a big drugged-out heart-to-heart with a lizard while smoking up one day, and later, while under the influence, manages to convince himself that the town's Sheriff is actually a lizard-man, or an alien, or something.  Of course, this being comics, the cop is most definitely a lizard-man, and he comes after Tomas for knowing too much.

Most of this issue is given over to the typical first issue stuff - we get a real strong sense of place and character from this issue, and Robinson and Bone work very well together to establish that.  Tomas's ongoing narration lets us understand him perfectly, while Bone's art makes the town a very familiar place.  Robinson's writing reminds me a little of his Leave It To Chance series, although this is a more 'mature' title.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where this series takes us.  Robinson has been hit-or-miss in the years since Starman ended, but this series is different enough from that work that I get a real positive vibe off of it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hawken: Melee #2

by Jim Mahfood

In such a busy new comics week as this last one was, it would be very easy to overlook something like this comic, but luckily, I noticed that Jim Mahfood was writing and drawing a video game comics tie-in.  I guess this Hawken: Melee series is a series of one-off issues, although it appears that the other issues are a little more traditional in their creators.

This issue, however, has Jim Mahfood doing a science fiction comic.  I couldn't possibly pass it up.  I have no idea what this Hawken stuff is all about, but it looks like it involves people fighting each other in walking battle tank things.

The story is about a single pilot, Lance Armourstrong, who while skilled, is a complete narcissist and liability to his team.  When the comic opens, we see Lance out for a night on the town with his fellow pilots, who are quietly plotting against him.

Mahfood is a master cartoonist, and it's a real treat to see him handle something like this.  He brings a hip-hop sensibility to everything he touches, and I like seeing how that applies to a project that would have presumably had a fair amount of direction from the game makers.

I hope to see more things like this coming from the newly revitalized Archaia (of course, I'd be even happier to see them finish off more of extant and unfinished projects like The Secret History).

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leaving Megalopolis

Written by Gail Simone
Art by Jim Calafiore

Living in Canada has made participation in most Kickstarter campaigns prohibitively expensive, as the shipping rates for graphic novels have become a touch exorbitant over the last couple of years (thank you Peak Oil).  When I saw that Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore, the creators behind The Secret Six, my favourite DC comic of the new century, were collaborating on a creator-owned graphic novel though, and that they had priced it reasonably, I was more than happy to support the endeavour.

Leaving Megalopolis is the kind of book you would expect from these two, were they not fettered by corporate sensibility.  The story is set in a city filled with powered heroes, which gives it the reputation of being the safest city in the United States.  Something has happened though, and it's turned all of the heroes into killers with no respect for the human lives they had previously spent so much time protecting.  Now, they roam the city searching for people who have been hiding out, and force people to turn on one another to survive for a day or two longer.

The closest we come to a hero in this book is Mina, a police officer (maybe) who starts to pull together a small group of people to try to escape the city limits.  As we follow them from one disturbing scene to another (this book doesn't reach Crossed levels of gore, but it comes close), we are shown flashbacks to various stages of Mina's life, and come to appreciate her as the sort of complex female character that Simone writes so well.

Jim Calafiore is one of those excellent artists who, I've felt, doesn't get near the recognition he deserves.  He has a strong sense of character in his figures, although I started to wonder if some of the Kickstarter rewards involved getting backers drawn into the book, as a few people looked very photo-referenced in places.  He also writes and draws a backup story that helps flesh out a few of the super-powered characters we see in passing earlier in the book.

In all, this is a very capable graphic novel.  There has already been some talk on-line about revisiting these characters and this location, which doesn't seem like it would be too easy to do, but I do know that I'll be there to support any future collaborations between this duo.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden is one of my favourite contemporary authors, and I was pretty excited to dive into The Orenda, his newest novel.  It is set in 17th century Huronia, and is narrated by three people whose lives have become intertwined, despite the way they feel about one another.

Bird is a Wendat (Huron) warrior whose family was taken from him in an assault by a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  While travelling one summer, Bird and his group come across a Haudenosaunee family and slaughter them, taking with them a young girl as a hostage.  Later, Bird chooses to adopt this girl, named Snow Falls, as his own daughter.  Our third narrator is Father Cristophe, a Jesuit priest sent to live among the Wendat to learn their ways and to convert them to Christianity.

The novel is basically a chronicle of how contact with Europeans led to the downfall of the Wendat people.  Christophe means well, but he brings disease into the community, and sows distrust.  Bird frequently wishes to kill him, but as the Wendat become more dependent on the tools, weapons, and favour of the Iron People of Kebec, he has no choice but to protect the priest, and eventually grow to admire him.

Snow Falls cannot harbour her anger towards Bird forever, and over the course of the book we watch her grow into an independent and strong woman.  Bird is the most unchanged person, yet he is the one who most fully has to absorb the brunt of the changes brought to his people as they are devastated by sickness, and subjected to increasingly harsh and large skirmishes with the Haudenosaunee.

Basically, Boyden has written a fictionalized accounting of what happened at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission founded on the shores of Lake Huron.  Christophe is a stand-in for Father Jean de Brebéuf, and meets an incredibly similar fate.  He does a terrific job of recreating the society and values of the Wendat people, bringing their culture back to life, and not bogging down the story too much in exposition.

Having studied this time period, and having read other novels such as Brian Moore's Black Robe and William T. Vollmann's utterly superb Fathers and Crows, much of what was on display here felt familiar and perhaps a little predictable.  When Boyden had his priests pull out the Captain of the Day, a wind-up clock used to mystify and command potential converts, I groaned a little, thinking of the Captain Clock scenes in the film version of Black Robe.  I don't know if this was a common trick, or something that was invented for the film, but I found it a bit repetitive here.

Still, despite all that, this is an incredible study of three people in a time that we don't think of often enough in this country.  Boyden's mastery of their voices, and the inevitable violent ending to this book kept me riveted throughout.  I especially liked the small nod to his other novels, which felt like a bit of a reward for loyal readers.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Letter 44 #2

Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alberto Alburquerque

When this new series debuted last month, I found the first issue to be very exciting, and very well balanced between exposition and character development.  Now, this second issue has me even more excited about the future of this series.

A small group of scientists and military personnel have been sent on a multi-year mission, a one-way trip, to the outer reaches of our solar system to investigate what looks like an alien mining operation.  The framework for this series is that new President of the United States, its 44th, has just become aware of what has been going on, and is trying to figure out how to respond to it while maintaining his political ideals, and trying to fix a country that has been brought to the point of economic and diplomatic ruin.

In this issue, the astronauts have crossed through a sensor-jamming barrier created by the aliens.  This has shorted out their vessel, requiring repairs, and gives us readers a chance to get to know the characters a lot better.  This is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster where the characters need only fit vague stereotypes; instead, writer Charles Soule has provided more than enough material for storylines to take place within the ship that don't necessarily have to be about the aliens.

At the same time, President Blades is getting up to speed on the technological advances the US has made (and is sitting on) to help them with this mission, and to defend against the aliens should they choose to come and attack Earth.

I really like the way Soule is balancing this book, and the way that artist Alberto Alburquerque is depicting things.  I know that there has been a lot of interest in this series, especially since news came out of a television deal, and I urge people to pick this up; it's a very good comic.