Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Jack Kirby!

I don’t have the time (and certainly not the space) to tell you how much I have enjoyed the work of Jack Kirby all my life. Here are just a few of the great Kirby images I hold dear:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sleeper Omnibus (2013) Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

The Sleeper Omnibus (2013) Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips 
DC Vertigo
Hardcover, 720 pages
ISBN 9781401238032

I’m a big fan of many of the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips collaborations such as Criminal and Fatale, so I was eager to dive into their first venture together, The Sleeper, which originally ran from 2003 to 2005, collected here in The Sleeper Omnibus, a massive 700-page collection. (The Sleeper is actually a spinoff from another series by Brubaker and Colin Wilson called Point Blank, included in the first section of this omnibus.) 

Holden Carver, an undercover agent has been “modified” so that he literally can’t feel anything and can recover from just about any injury. When he is attacked, he can also “channel” that pain and its intensity to anyone he touches, making him practically unstoppable. 

Carver has been assigned to infiltrate an international spy organization run by a man named Tao, a terrorist who has spent years rising to the top. Carver discovers that Tao is far more powerful than Carver had previously thought. Tao is, in fact, the mastermind behind a group of superbeings so powerful that they make decisions on a global scale that regular people like you and me never even know about and probably couldn’t understand. 

Things begin to go wrong; very wrong. Carver’s handler is in a coma and can’t bring him in. Carver begins to suspect he can’t really do any good anyway. Even worse, Carver isn’t sure that the tactics he’s using to try to bring down Tao are any different from the murderous methods Tao uses without thought or conscience.  

The Sleeper twists and turns like good noir is supposed to; you never know exactly where it’s going, but it’s always an interesting ride. The book is also loaded with fascinating noir characters besides Carver, such as Carver’s sometime lover, Miss Misery, a sadistic, voluptuous woman who literally gets sick if she has even an inkling of kindness emerge in her being. Then there’s Genocide Jones, a bullet-proof member of Tao’s organization that looks like he could go toe-to-toe with the Hulk. My favorite, though a minor character, is Triple-X Ray, a skinny kid with Bart Simpson hair who can see through objects.

I normally love the Brubaker/Phillips combinations, especially Criminal, and in trying to figure out why I didn't like The Sleeper as much, I think I've come up with some reasons.

Brubaker and Phillips are at their absolute best when they stick to straight-up crime noir, such as Criminal. I enjoy their current series Fatale, but not as much as Criminal. I think the difference is that Fatale combines horror with noir, something that I think is interesting, but doesn't work quite as well for me for reasons I can't really articulate. 

The Sleeper works even less for me, being a combination of noir and science fiction. The sf elements seem to take away from some essential element of the noir. Perhaps the introduction of the sf takes away something of the humanity (or lack thereof) of noir, taking it to a level too far removed from normal humans. But there’s more to it:

The Sleeper is violent, enormously violent and quite sexual. (Well, it is, after all, noir.) It also contains very little hope, which is also an essential element of noir. A lot of bad people get killed in these pages. So do a lot of innocent people. I accept that that also is a part of noir. Actions have consequences and while The Sleeper comes to a definite conclusion, it’s not a very satisfying conclusion, at least for me. Again, I understand noir and recognize that The Sleeper follows the conventions of noir quite faithfully, but I have to hold out for some hope and I see very little here. Maybe this was just the wrong read at the wrong time. Yet I cannot argue with the storytelling and the art. Brubaker and Phillips are a very powerful combination. 


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Two Graphic Novels for Kids

Rust: Visitor in the Field (2011) Royden Lepp
Hardcover, 192 pages
ISBN 9781936393275
Recommended for ages 8 and up

Rust: Visitor in the Field contains some absolutely beautiful images of life on a prairie farm, but before we get to that, we see something not-so-beautiful that occurred 48 years earlier: war. 

The uniforms and weapons resemble those from World War I, but we soon see some mechanical devices that look out-of-place and strange. Very strange.... In an almost wordless 30-page introduction filled with suspense and intrigue, Lepp had me hooked. 

Things slow down a bit when we jump to Taylor’s farm in the present. Young Roman Taylor is trying both to manage the farm and to reconstruct a.... Well, I’ll leave that part for you to discover (as well you should). Assisting Roman is an odd, yet mechanically gifted boy named Jet. I’ll leave that for you to discover as well. 

The entire book is filled with yellow, goldenrod and rust-colored tones that fit perfectly with the old-time mood of the tale. Lepp’s depictions of motion and his action scenes are breathtakingly beautiful, but at times the lack of more varied colors creates confusion as to the detail of people and machinery. Still, this is a nit-pick in an otherwise excellent graphic novel. I am certainly eager to read the next installment, Rust: Secrets of the Cell


10 Little Insects (2009/2012) Davide Cali, Vincent Pianina
Hardcover, 80 pages
ISBN 9780987109910
Recommended for ages 9 and up

This was an odd little graphic novel that looks like a children’s picture book... Our library has it in the J-Fiction section, which is probably appropriate for older kids. The premise, as you might guess, is a riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, only with insects. 

It's goofy, quirky fun but I don't know many kids who would understand the book's vocabulary and subtleties, much less the jokes. Probably teens (who were forced to read the book for school) will get more out of it. I think it’s maybe a tiny bit violent for younger kids, but it is pretty much just goofy fun. Another strike against the book is the size of the panels, which are quite small. They’re not as small as those you’d find in a Tintin collection, but they’re pretty close. Check out a library copy before you buy it for yourself or someone else. 


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hawkeye: Little Hits (2013) Matt Fraction, David Aja, et. al

Hawkeye: Little Hits (2013)
Matt Fraction, David Aja, Francesco Francavilla, Matt Hollingsworth, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Annie Wu
Collecting Hawkeye #6-11
Trade Paperback, 136 pages, Marvel Comics
ISBN 9780785165637
Retail price $16.99

Tell a superhero comic book fan that you’re going to give him a comic featuring a superhero on his days off and you’ll probably get a “No thanks.” I’m sure some fans who would read it (some fans would buy a comic about shopping for floor tile), but most probably wouldn’t. Hawkeye is all about what Clint Barton does when he’s not with the Avengers. If you read the first volume, Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, then you know what you’re getting in for:  a somewhat restrained, low-key, street-level comic about a guy living in a rough neighborhood, generally trying to do the right thing, and failing miserably at understanding women. 

You might expect Little Hits to be more of the same (which wouldn’t be a bad thing), but Fraction branches out here, adding more depth to an already good character while getting him into situations containing more complexity and danger.

Case in point: Hawkeye’s lending a hand to his friend Grills and Grill’s dad during a storm could be just another nice humanitarian story involving a scrape with Hawkeye’s rival Kate Bishop, but it’s not. There’s much more going on not only with Kate, but also with Grills, the tracksuit thugs, even the “pizza dog” (who gets his own story which, by itself, is worth the price of the book). 

Oh, did I mention there’s also a serial killer on the loose?

Not only does Fraction toss all these balls in the air and keep them going, he also enlists the help of artists Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Annie Wu and Francesco Francavilla (in addition, of course, to the incredibly talented David Aja) to bring a different tone to different issues. I don’t know if this was an act of necessity or design, but the result is absolutely brilliant. 

There’s a reason why Hawkeye and Daredevil (Chris Samnee’s art, to be specific) were the only Eisner winners (and apart from children’s comics, the only nominees) this year from Marvel: they’re very good, they’re smartly written, and drawn by a creative team with imagination and vision. If you’re not reading Hawkeye, you’re missing out on a real treat. 


Monday, August 12, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! (2012) Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad (2012) Nathan Hale
Hardcover, 128 pages
Recommended for ages 8 and up
ISBN 9781419703959

Someone should build a statue of Nathan Hale. (I mean the author Nathan Hale, not the American Revolutionary War hero; he already has a statue.) Hale could very possibly, single-handedly, cause kids to love history. 

Seriously. I’m not joking.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales is a series of books for young readers that makes history accessible and fun through the graphic novel format. The second book in the series (after Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy) finds Nathan Hale (the spy, not the author; don’t get confused) about to be hanged by the British. Apparently in the first volume (which I have not read), Hale was swallowed up by a giant history book which gave him special powers to see future historical events. To delay his execution, Hale tells his executioners that in the future, “King George’s unstoppable Navy will become totally obsolete.” His British captors, of course, don’t believe him, but demand to hear this outrageous story. So Hale (in the manner of Scheherazade) tells the tale of the Civil War ironclads the Merrimack and the Monitor. 

Using the actual characters and events (with a few liberties), Hale tells a story that is both a compelling page-turner and LOL-worthy. The book works in part because Hale’s artwork (especially his characters’ facial expressions) is clear and easy to understand, but Hale also knows when and how much humor to mix with the action scenes (which are plenty). The tale is somewhat irreverent at times, but never to the detriment of the historical narrative. 

In short, history is fun again.

After the story is finished, Hale includes biographies of the book’s characters, a timeline for the events depicted, and an impressive bibliography for kids who want to read more. 

For librarians, teachers or parents looking for books for kids who love adventure and hate to read, your prayers have been answered. Pick up a copy of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad (or One Dead Spy or the new Donner Dinner Party) immediately. And check out Hale’s other work. Very highly recommended. 


Monday, August 5, 2013

Graphic Novels Read in July 2013

Copra Compendium 1 (2013) - Michel Fiffe


Sweet Tooth Vol. 6: Wild Game (2013) - Jeff Lemire


Doctor Strange: The Oath (2007) - Brian K. Vaughan, Marco Martin

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (mostly Ditko) set the bar very high for Doctor Strange way back in the early 60s, so much so that few writer/artist combinations have matched the level of the originals, both in weirdness and storytelling. 

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the few writers who understands that Doctor Strange is powerful, a bit arrogant, and has a bit of a twisted sense of humor. And that his knowledge of the mystic arts is unparalleled. All of this comes out in The Oath, a very enjoyable mini-series. Doctor Strange discovers his faithful servant Wong has a terminal brain tumor and is not long for this world. Seeking a rare elixir that could change not only Wong’s life, but that of every cancer patient, Strange finds himself fighting for his own life, aided only by... a night nurse? Of course all is not as it seems and there’s more to the story. 

I have two fears about a rumored Doctor Strange movie project: one, that it will never see the light of day; two, that it will, but would suck (on the level of the Daredevil movie. Ugh...). Yet if Vaughan had a hand in writing it, I’d probably feel pretty good about it. 


Mr. Murder is Dead (2011) - Victor Quinaz, Brent Schoonover, Stacie Ponder, Mark Englert, Deron Bennett

Mr. Murder is dead as the book begins. No mystery here; Mr. Murder, nemesis of former cop Gould Kane (a.k.a. The Spook), is dead and Kane looks like the prime suspect. The murder investigation is really only a jumping off point, allowing an aging Kane (sort of a Dick Tracy knock-off) to reflect on his life and career. The interesting part is the way the creators show flashback scenes in the style of Golden Age newspaper strips. The stylistic jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing, but I found them mostly interesting. Unfortunately, they were the most interesting part of the story, one that seemed needlessly convoluted when the final page was turned.  


Stumptown, Vol. 1 (2011) - Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth, Lee Loughridge

Dex Parios is a Portland, Oregon private eye who’s trying to pay off a gambling debt and look out for her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. When Dex gets a call to find the missing granddaughter of a casino owner, she thinks maybe things are starting to go her way. Of course, she’s wrong.   

Greg Rucka has slowly but surely crept onto my list of “must read” comic book writers. Not only does he consistently write strong female protagonists, his sense of crime/noir fiction is well-grounded in tradition, yet willing to explore and push boundaries. Stumptown may be one of Rucka’s more conventional outings, but it’s nonetheless excellent storytelling. 


The Spirit Archives, Vol. 1 (1940/2000) - Will Eisner


DMZ, Vol. 2: Body of a Journalist (2007) - Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli

Brian Wood continues the tale of Matty Roth, a would-be reporter in demilitarized Manhattan following a second American civil war of sorts. Matty is still in way over his head, but is starting to figure out a few things, such as who the bad guys really are and how this whole war got started. Wood’s writing continues to impress me, as does Burchielli’s gritty, no-holds-barred art style that works beautifully here. Look for the deluxe editions of DMZ arriving later this year.