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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alpha Vol 1. The Exchange. P. Renard & Y. Jigounov. Cinebook Ltd (2008)

An enjoyable and twisty spy story. The plot for this story is reasonably straightforward, there are large illegal currency exchanges taking place where Russian roubles are exchanged for US dollars. There are a lot of different groups with an interest in these transactions besides those directly involved in the transfers. One of the transfers goes violently wrong and the money goes missing, this brings pressure on all the groups to locate it and escalating violence. As the introductory story this has a great deal of exposition in it as the various groups explain who they are and how they fit into the unfolding events. This acts as a bit of a drag on the story as you really need to know how everyone is to make sense of the action,when the action takes place is well done and fluid.
The central female character, Assia Donkova, is well thought out and a strong presence in the book. She is centrally involved in the mechanics of the plot, she has been deceived as to the true meaning of her actions by her husband. She is the only member of the cast not to have a secret agenda and instead of making her foolish or naive, it makes her straightforward and likable. All the rest of the cast have a much clearer knowledge of the real intent behind the money exchanges and have plans for the money. They are all either gangsters or spys, they all have violence and deceit in common. While the plot mechanics are a bit clumsy, the reveals are not smoothly managed or timed, there is enough momentum created to forgive this and to go with the flow. There has been enough done in this volume to create interest in how it will play out further. The art is crisp and detailed, the cast are clearly differentiated and the page layouts are variable and dynamic, they are a very strong element in the book. The cover art is not remotely reflective of the interior art.

Aliens Omnibus Volume 1. Dark Horse Books (2007)

A very well produced and thoroughly dispiriting read. The stories in this collection spin off from the film Aliens and follow the further adventures of Newt, Wilks and Ripley as they continue to find themselves involved with Alien infestations and corrupt humans. There is a cynical pessimism at large in these stories that is as corrosive an the Alien's acid blood. The actions of the human cast are consistently undermined by either human greed or external manipulation. they are futile actors in the drama and this seriously weakens the dynamics of the drama as well as being dispiriting in itself. Happy endings are not a requirement for an effective story, if the reader is to be drawn into the narrative and share in the story there has to be some sense that the main actors are actually achieving something by their efforts. It is a very poor pay off to find that as a reader you have been investing in deluded puppets. Worse when you find that the strings are being pulled by two different sets of puppet masters, in some cases three. The suspense drains from the story if the actions are all futile or just another piece of manipulation.
The most aggravating aspect to the stories is the continued assertion that the unfolding Alien Armageddon that is described is our own fault, it has been caused by short sighted human greed or straightforward delusion. This would be fine if it were followed up on to a logical conclusion, if the story was in fact a human story, this is consistently undercut by a second thread of external, non-human manipulation. This double thread simply removes reader involvement and investment.
The book suffers from neck-snapping changes in art styles that were not as noticeable when the stories were produced as separate mini-series with time between story arcs and within individual issues. In a single issue the overall narrative does gain momentum of sorts, the very different art styles dissipate it to some extent. Individually the art work is excellent on each story, collectively they squabble a bit and undermine the cohesion of the book. Ultimately very creative and talented teams of writers and artists, letterers and colourists are defeated by flaws in the dramatic superstructure of the on-going story concept.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Tick. The Complete Edlund. Ben Edlund. New England Comics (2008)

Very funny and very biting superhero parody and celebration. Ben Edlund does something very difficult in this book, he creates a great superhero comic which manages to savagely mock superheros and be a real superhero story in its own right while being very funny at the same time. Given that the stories were first published twenty years ago they retain their freshness, humour and their bite. The Tick has no back story, the appearance of a "nigh-invulnerable" seven foot lunatic in a blue costume calling himself The Tick is never explained, he just strides into the story. He is also insane, not in a humorous way, but actually insane and somewhat aware of this. Ben Edlund, in a single bound, manages to nail the central unreality of superheros, take them seriously and mock them mercilessly all at the same time. Then he proceeds to develop the ideas to further extremes and with consistently funny effect, something that most superhero parody's cannot do, they have the concept and fail with the execution.
The stories mix superhero concepts and actual insanity with ease, the serious notes give the stories weight and depth, the flow of fantastic ideas and hopelessly absurd situations taken with utmost seriousness by all involved are wonderfully done. The savage takedown of Superman is sharp enough to draw blood. One of my favourite characters is a man-eating cow that is drawn with a truly extraordinary expressiveness. The scenes when the Tick and his sidekick, Arthur, finally find their way to New York and encounter the numerous superheros resident there form a fitting crescendo to the mayhem in the book. This is not just a book for fans of superheros or for those who hate them, it is a book for any comic fan who wants to see spiky, original talent at work.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Batman. Gotham Knight. Warner Home Video. (2008)

Solid storytelling and beautiful art make a great combination. There are six linked episodes that loosely follow an arc through the film, each episode has a different team doing the animation within an overall contemporary Aime style. The art is striking and by a long way the most striking aspect to the production. The episodes themselves are well written Batman items, they do not explore any outer fringes of the Batman universe nor do they take any liberties with it either. They are good, solid Batman stories. Really they are hooks for the animation and the inventiveness of the various creative teams whom respond to the opportunities with gusto.
The most striking episode is number 4 "In Darkness Dwells" in which Batman descends into the sewers to purse Killer Croc and the Scarecrow. The colour in the episode is virtually a character in its own right and it adds greatly to the piece. The designs for both Killer Croc and in particular Scarecrow are the best I have sen in any animated Batman story. Killer Croc is finally given a shape and force that match his name and the Scarecrow has a costume that matches his mission and underscores the threat he poses. A creative and very entertaining film.

The Singular Adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Alan Stockwell. Diggory Press (2006)

This is a good collection of non Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories. There is a substantial industry involved in publishing non Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories and they vary enormously in quality from the execrable to the excellent, this collection is good, not excellent. Alan Stockwell takes a very straightforward approach, the stories are all within the general outlines used by Conan Doyle, there are no unlikely match ups nor does the author use any of the left dangling by Conan Doyle in the originals as starting points. The author does not try to imitate Conan Doyle too slavishly which is a god thing, the stories are clearly written with his own versions of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. This works very well as he does not make the maddening mistake of treating Dr. Watson as cretin or a buffoon as other writers have done. He is a foil to Sherlock Holmes not a fool.
What is missing from these stories is the moment of revelation where Sherlock Holmes displayed the line of deduction that he followed to his conclusion, the the theatrical flourish which which he showed off. For these stories this is the dog that did not bark. The episodes are fine in themselves, there is enjoyable questions raised and the resolutions are fair and thoughtful, the spark that makes Sherlock Holmes the icon that he is does not ignite. A pleasant read for fans.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The English Civil War. A People's History. Diane Purkiss. Harper Perennial (2007)

This is a very well written, detailed and thought provoking book that lives up to its sub-title. As an Irishman, for me the English Civil war was lost in the shadow cast by Oliver Cromwell, a shadow long enough to still appear in current political rhetoric here. This book provides a context for Cromwell and the others who followed him that makes much more sense of his actions in Ireland that a straightforward military history or a biography of Cromwell would have. This book explores the social and religious forces that lead to the war and were reinforced and amplified by the war. The two themes of the book are God and hunger, hunger for salvation and the presence of God, hunger as means of getting closer to God, hunger as a political act, hunger as a result of shortages created by the war and the impact of hunger on the conduct of the war and probably the aftermath of the war. Diane Purkiss shows in splendid detail, by drawing on the details of a wide range of lives how the intersection between religion and politics is unstable and explosive. They are fundamentally opposed to each other, the absolutism that has to lie at the roots of religion conflicts directly with the naturally compromising and accommodating methods of politics. The force of certainty takes over politics and power is given force by moral certainty. The way the "papists" transformed from being strictly Catholics into anyone who did not strictly worship as you did is vividly described in the book.
The impact of hunger, spiritual and physical is traced very clearly, it was the most visible and longest lasting aspect of the war on the population at large and on the soldiers doing the fighting. Not only did the actual fighting disrupt the growing and distribution of food, the armies ravaged the countryside in search of food and left communities in states of semi-starvation behind them. Diane Purkiss details some of the effects of starvation on people and the long term effects it can have, it gave an extra edge to the battles and helped extend the growing bitterness and division within the communities.
What I found most interesting, as I usually do when I read history, is how easily an alternative result could have come about. I am always cheered to find out just how important individuals are, how they become the hinges of history without intending or meaning to be, simply by being themselves. Sometimes history can seem like an faceless tide of economic or political forces moving populations without intervention, there are always people at the centre making decisions and being bound by their own personalities. Reading history always reminds me of the National Lottery ad, " It could be you!!"

This is a detailed and densely written book, Diane Purkiss presents a vivid and compelling view of a huge upheaval and how it effected the the lives of those who suffered for it and through it, a great read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hellboy Animated, Sword of Storms. Starz Media (2006)

A very enjoyable, original animated Hellboy film. As ever with the extended Hellboy franchise the quality control is very high and the story is allowed to develop according to its own logic without being constrained by continuity issues from other branches. In Japan a scholar opens a scroll that tells the story of how a brave samurai warrior trapped the demons, Thunder & Lightning in a sword and lost his beloved to the wrath of her father. The scholar becomes possessed and tracks down the sword and starts a process to release the demons and their brothers the dragons. The B.P.R.D., in this case Hellboy and Kate Corrigan and some others go to Japan to investigate the theft of the sword while Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman remain at the base. Hellboy soon finds himself trapped in a parallel space where he has to journey home with the sword,facing a number of challanges along the way as well as having some ambigious help, while in the real Earth dragons are coming to life in countries all over the world. In a very nice touch all the dragons are the ones that are particular to the traditions of that country. Abe and Liz are caught in a storm and a plane crash at sea and find themselves battling a very fierce creature from the deep. Hellboy crosses a mythical Japanese landscape, returns to modern Tokyo with trouble in tow and the smashing conclusion is delivered.
Some of the scenes in this film are drawn directly from Hellboy stories, others are freshly minted for this story. The animation is excellent, the Japanese flavour is clear without being insulting or intrusive. The various monsters are inventive and the fights are forceful and effective. With the same cast as the live action films providing the voices and a witty polished script, this is a quality production with plenty to interest a non-Hellboy fan.

The Dammed. Volume 1. Three Days Dead.Cullen Bunn (Writer), Brian Hurtt (Artist) Oni Press (2007)

Excellent idea support by a very skillful and effective execution. This very smart story is set in a Prohibition era style America where in the background of the underworld, demons are running the gangs and rackets, with the biggest racket being the trade in mortal souls. The protagonist of the story, Eddie, has been cursed by a set of demons, when he is killed, if he is touched by another that person dies in the same way and Eddie comes back to life, with a fresh scar to mark the passage. Eddie is called back from lying dead for three days by a major demon, Alphonse Aligheri, who needs Eddie to do some investigating for him. Aligheri and his main opponent had proposed a deal, to seal it required a third party, another high ranking demon, who had now gone missing. Eddie was to find the missing demon and that would clear his debts to Aligheri. The story unfolds in a very thoughtful and interesting way, the mix between the supernatural and the grim reality of the mortal world with it mixed cast of demons, gangsters and the cursed being skillfully drawn.
Critically the creative team have captured the cynical, mean-spirited core of the novels by W.R. Burnett as well as the style of the films that were made from them. Eddie is unpleasant man, what makes him work so well as a character is both his self knowledge and his feeling for a woman who has left him. These human traits make him a great flawed hero and give the book enough emotional weight to catch and involve the reader. The art is excellent, a suitably moody black and white that captures the shadows that hang over everyone even in broad daylight. The demons are just differentiated enough from the mortal cast that they could plausibly be existing in the same world, they are not overdone. The differences between most of them and the mortals they deal with is one of degree rather than absolutes. Skillful comics from a very talented team.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Aliens Vs Predator Omnibus Volume 1.Dark Horse Comics ( 2007)

Surprisingly good and excellent value. This is virtually the definition of "High Concept", take the monsters from two very successful science fiction film franchises and have them go head to head, the rest should be simple. As anyone who was unfortunate enough to have seen the film will know it is possible to make a complete hash of the concept. The stories in this book, for the most part, get it right, the creative teams have realised that it is neither the Aliens nor the Predators who are interesting, it is the human cast that has to carry the story. The first and longest story in the book, Blood Time, sets up the essential concepts very well. The Predators seed planets with Alien eggs, they come back to hunt the Aliens. This time there is a small human colony on the planet Ryushi and they are caught in the middle. It is essentially the same story arc as the film, except it is done with intelligence, care, craft and most importantly, the unlimited budget available to comics. The escalating fight between the Aliens and the Predators, with the struggling human group fighting both is excellent. It gives enough scope to the human cast to allow the reader to care, and in the person of Machiko Noguchi an excellent action heroine.
Other stories in the book are a bit variable as the writers try to grapple with the essential limitations of the concept, Eternal, is the best of the rest, a clever and nasty twist on the concept that has a real bite. The omnibus is well produced, the stories are reprinted in colour and it is satisfyingly hefty,Dark Horse have developed a very smart way to capitalise on their back catalogue.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Melissa Etheridge. Gtreatest Hits. The Road Less Travelled. Island (2005)

Subtlety is not Melissa Etheridge's strong suit, the songs on this collection could win Plain English awards, they are direct and played at full tilt and all the better for it. Musically, vocally and emotionally these songs all benefit from the full bore treatment they receive. They are songs about tumultuous emotions and tangled, uncertain situations where feelings are running high and frequently ragged. Low key would betray them by not honouring the force they represent.
Melissa Etheridge has a great voice, she can sing at volume, not shout nor loose any element of musicality, it is a rare gift. I love the sweep of the music and her voice, the clear articulation of the laden words is a pleasure, the emotions are loud and proud.
The stand out song on this collection for me is track 11, "I Want To Come Over", unrequited love has never been more forceful and despairing, it is a punch to the heart. This is a great open hearted collection of songs, turn the volume up to 11 and let them sweep you away.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Brak the Barbarian. John Jakes. Tandem (1976)

A Conan the Barbarian clone that stands firmly on its own feet and an excellent example of the genre. I bought this book long before I had ever heard of Conan, either in the comics or the original stories by Robert E. Howard and it has been a favourite of mine since I first read it thirty odd years ago. I was reminded of it while reading the reprints from Dark Horse of the various Marvel Conan comics from the 1970s. It has stood the test of time very well, re-reading it does provide a sharp antidote to nostalgia, the stories retain their flavour and strength. The opening story, The Unspeakable Shrine, sets the stage for the rest of the stories and introduces the key characters. Brak, a barbarian from the northern wastes has been exiled for mocking his peoples gods to much and has decided to make his way to Khurdisan the Golden, the richest kingdom in the world where the sun shines on beautiful women and easy plunder. In the first town he encounters, Brak is kidnapped to become a living sacrifice to the Dark One, Yob-Haggoth along with two others. Brak attracts the attention of Ariane, the daughter of Septegundus, the High Priest of Yob-Haggoth. Brak fights for his life on the alter of Yob-Haggoth with literally explosive results and gains the undying enmity of both Septegundus and Ariane. The rest of the stories are more adventures of Brak as he continues on the road to Khurdisan.
In any genre, originality is not at a premium, they key to success if how effectively the writer works within the constrains of the form. John Jakes delivers great sword and sorcery stories, they fit exactly into the mould, they are as predictable as they should be and mightily satisfying for the fan of the genre. They are a very precious thing, excellent sword and sorcery stories, the prose is loud and purple in the extreme, evil is vivid and horrible to see, a savage is more civilised than most city dwellers, more honourable in his dealings and ultimately has the courage to fight when it counts. This is high quality modern pulp and worth getting if you should come across it lurking in the depths of a second-hand bookshop.

Willie and Joe. The WWII Years. Bill Mauldin. Fantagraphic Books. (2008)

A very handsome, two volume set of the wartime cartoons by Bill Mauldin that enraged General Patton, who wanted to throw Bill Mauldin in jail for "spreading dissent" and were loved by the millions of infantry soldiers who lives he illustrated. What makes this much more than an interesting historical document is that the jokes are still funny long after the context for them has receded far from the public memory. These were intended for a very specific audience who would read them in a very specific context. The were being read by soldiers and civilians who were in a war and would read the public context for the cartons as much as the actual content. It was this that caused General Patton such rage, the context gave the content a dangerous edge. Today, when they context of WWII is as far away as the Jurassic Age all we have is the content and that makes reading them a completely different experience.
Bill Mauldin realised that being a soldier, war time or peacetime, is primarily a job, much like any other job that functions within a large bureaucracy and management structure. The cartoons are about people at work, the absurd constrictions and the petty rules that define work, the comradeship that exists between people thrown into work together and the uneasy relationships between those who give orders and those who obey them. That the context is military at peace or war is far less importance that the shared experience of anyone who has had a job and the frustrations and oddities that come with working. In particular reading the cartoons of his unshaven GIs at war in Europe, the struggle in not with the enemy it is with the Army and sometimes with your fellows. It rings as true now as it did for the audience in the trenched and tents who saw that someone actually understood what it was like to do what they did.
In the last months of his life Bill Mauldin received thousands of letters and cards from old veterans and their relatives, they knew that he was on their side and in a war that is deeply precious knowledge. This box set is worth getting because a talented artist still shines as brightly today as he did over sixty years ago.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rocco Vargas. The Dark Forest. Daniel Torres.Dark Horse Comics (2001).

A gorgeous piece of romantic science fiction, the future as it should be with beautiful, stylish art and a solid thoughtful story. A mysterious virus has swept through the solar systems computer network, it has displayed only the message " The world breathes through the forest..." and vanishes as mysteriously as it arrives. Rocco Vargas, one time space explorer, night club owner and science fiction writer and Dr. Jill Covalsky, a scientist, both wonder about the message and find that it may have more meaning than has been realised. When an attempt is made on Jill Covalsky's life the chase is on to find the true meaning of the phrase. When it is revealed it is as gloriously sweeping and galactic as it should be.
This is science fiction about the possibilities of the future, it is as lushly romantic as the great travel posters of trains and ocean liners from the 1930's were, they are full of promise and the glamour of technology. The future is rushing ahead at full speed. The style of the book is very distinctive, it is the 1950's catapulted ahead into an retro future with flying cars that have tail fins and look like they came straight off the set of Grease.
Daniel Torres has drawn the future like it should have been, robots everywhere, technology that feels as futuristic as it should populated by a cast that wear double-breasted suits as naturally as breathing. The detail of his art is wonderful, he has a number of crowd scenes which are full of life and carefully differentiated characters. Daniel Torres is willing to go for a big idea as well, to give his story a wide scope that matches the huge vision of the future. A pleasure to read.

Mister X. The Archives. Dean Motter & Co. Dark Horse Books (2008)

I did not catch this comic at all, there is nothing astray with the production, the writing or the art, it simply did not grip me as a reader. The basic premise of the stories is an interesting one, the architect of a Utopian city returns to try and undo the changes made to his work that have created a cityscape that drive the inhabitants mad. This is a sharp concept with huge room for interesting and varied stories and the ambition of the idea does not quite make it through to the execution. The stories are solid and the plots and reveals are well constructed, they are just smaller that the concept calls out for. The focus is on too small group when it should be on the great panorama of the city and the extraordinary interactions possible between its inhabitants and their urban context. The stories shrink rather than expand.
The book is very stylish, Dean Motter is a graphic designer and the book shows the strong influence of design ideas, the images of the cityscape seem to come from Metropolis and have lovely sweeps of Art Deco, the cast step out of the world of film noir with updated 1940's clothing and styles. The mix is interesting and the various artists who worked on the stories respond with great expression and energy.
There is not a believable emotional core to the book that can reach out to the reader and draw them into Radiant City and have them join the cast, it always remains a spectacle at one remove. In the film noir stories there was a centre of sweaty desperation that drew in the viewer, that made you hope for a better ending than you know will arrive. This comic has captured the clothes but not the heart of those stories and looses the true spirit it was hoping to evoke. There were a million stories in the Naked City there too few in Radiant City.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Escape in Iraq. The Thomas Hamill Story. Thomas Hamill & Paul T. Brown. Stoeger Publishing (2004)

On Friday April 9th 2004 Thomas Hamill was kidnapped by Iraqi fighters and on Sunday May 2nd 2004, 24 days later he escaped and was rescued by a military patrol. This gripping book is the story of how Thomas Hamill found himself in Iraq, how he survived his captivity, how his family survived the pressure of his absence. Thomas Hamill was not a solider, nor did he have any special training. The reason he was in Iraq was the most basic one imaginable, he need the money that that he could earn there as a civilian contractor to support his family back in America. In America Thomas Hamill had to drive trucks long distance to support his farm and family and the struggle to make ends meet was just getting harder all the time. Iraq represented a great chance to accumulate some money to get a little ahead and take pressure off his family.
His convoy was attacked and he was injured and taken prisoner. I think it was the fact that he was not a solider that was a contributing factor to his survival, he was just a regular working man much like the people he met. The differences were balanced by strong similarities and they achieved a sort of rapport that allowed him to survive. His descrptions of the kindness he was shown, the small interactions he had with his captors are very moving. He was never sure if he would be killed, he kept his spirit enough to finally sieze his chance to escape.
For a non-American reader like myself, the deep and strongly expressed religious faith that Thomas Hamill expresses all the time is very striking. This book is a great reminder that we humans really are extraordinary beings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Emperor's Pearl. Robert Van Gulik. University of Chicago Press (1994)

This is one of a series of books featuring the fictional adventures of a real Chinese historical figure, Judge Dee, he is remembered as a master detective as well known in China as Sherlock Holmes is in Europe. The books are formal, very stylish, neatly plotted and a pleasure to read. Judge Dee is the magistrate in Poo-yang, the "mother-father official" for the area, as a magistrate his remit runs far beyond criminal justice, he is the chief civil administrator for the district. Presiding at a local boat race one of the crew mysteriously dies and it is quickly established that he was poisoned. A little later a woman is found murdered in a remote house and further murders occur.
Judge Dee actively investigates both and finds a neatly constructed plot that includes the possible whereabouts of The Emperor's Pearl, a jewel that went missing from the Imperial Palace a hundred years before. This ads a dangerous political edge to the mysteries and Judge Dee has to act very quickly to get to the root the problem.
As ever in the series the central mysteries are nicely constructed, the pieces are logically connected and the steady reveals are nicely paced and do not seek to cheat the reader. There is a satisfactory set of possible suspects and the conclusion is satisfying and effective.
The mystery itself is only half the charm of the book, the setting is wonderfully evoked, Robert Van Gulik was a notable Chinese scholar as well as a diplomat and he created the setting with confidence details and very smart characterisation. The cast are developed with wit and skill and Judge Dee is a rounded, fallible man who can find that he has read the situation incorrectly and regrets it. The illustrations in the book, also by Robert Van Gulik, done in a "Chinese" style are a pleasure and add greatly to the atmosphere. All told a excellent period detective novel with a striking and unusual setting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Conan Doyle Detective. Peter Costello. Robinson (2006)

This is a shadow biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, tracing his life through the real life crimes that he was interested in or involved in. Part of the argument running through the book is that the rational, deductive methods that Sherlock Holmes used were the natural thinking processes that Conan Doyle used and applied to crimes that caught his attention. It is an interesting book with a lot of curious detail and the author makes the most of the evidence.
There is a notable weakness in the book however and that is the lack of direct evidence in a lot of cases, there are a lot "could have" and "must have" moments in the book. Peter Costello pushes the evidence to the limit, he does not overstep the mark, there is a little more argument and suggestion than substance. This is not to suggest that the book is flimsy or that Peter Costello has not done formidable research, he has, it is simply that direct evidence from Conan Doyle can be scarce.
Where there is a direct involvement the details are collected and the story is very effectively told, the case of George Edalji is told with great clarity and skill. The whole context for the episode is gone into and the additional details are fascinating. The same is true for the Oscar Slater case, the long tails of each case are followed up to the very recent past. Equally Conan Doyle's championing of the spiritualist cause, something which evokes embarrassment rather than anything else in other writers, is treated with respect and candour. The intertwining of spiritualism and criminal activity is explored with care and there is a surprising amount of evidence brought to light. The great affection Peter Costello has for Arthur Conan Doyle both as the creator of the immortal Sherlock Holmes and as a man who was willing to work to fight injustice is clear and elevates the book. This is a worthy addition to the books about a great and honourable man.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hellboy. The Companion. Stephen Weiner, Jason Hall, Victoria Blake. Dark Horse Books (2008)

Given the facts that only committed Hellboy fans are likely to buy this book and committed Hellboy fans would buy it pretty much regardless of the quality, this is accessible, entertaining and a treat for any Hellboy fan. In keeping with the quality control exercised throughout the franchise, this is thoughtful, well produced and literate. It does a very nice job of both extending and explaining the literary roots and context of Hellboy and diving headfirst into the details and revelling in them.
The core of the book are the character profiles by Victoria Blake and Rachel Edidin, these cover just about every character who cross any page in any Hellboy or B.P.R.D. book. This should be inaccessible to anyone but a committed fan and possibly even a step too far for a lot of them. Thanks to fine writing by Victoria Blake and Rachel Edidin this is a series of intriguing micro biographies of a wonderfully assorted cast of characters. There is a notable absence of referential defensiveness in the writing, the reader does not have to possess a degree of prior knowledge to enjoy the profiles. They are informative and comprehensive, the various illustrations, old and new, from Mike Mignola, has been chosen with care.
The Official Timeline by Jason Hall is really for committed fans only, it is also just fantastic. It has the correct level of detail, catches all the highways and byways that are explicit and implicit in the stories and creates a breathtaking view of the world of Hellboy. The Literary Heritage of Hellboy, an essay by Stephen Weiner, and the Further Reading section round of the volume in fine style with the essay showing the breath and depth of the influences and sources that Mike Mignola lovingly draws upon for his work.
I read this book straight through, I appreciated and enjoyed the authors care, attention and talent and they have increased my enjoyment of the various Hellboy comics and films greatly.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Savage Sword of Conan Volume 4. Roy Thomas (Writer). Dark Horse Comics (2008)

The fourth volume of the reprint volumes of one of my favourite comics continues to be fantastic value and a joy to read. The centrepiece of this volume is the multi part adaption of the novel, Conan the Buccaneer by Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga. The writing by Roy Thomas is up to his usual excellent standard, it is rich and fruity, the descriptions are dense and luxurious and they create a great texture for the astonishing art by John Buscema and Tony Dezuniga.
Sometimes reading a collection of comics can be a bit numbing, they formulas that underlie the stories becomes too clear, the sameness overtakes the enjoyment. They were designed to be read singly with monthly intervals between them so that the details would blur slightly and the structures not be so noticeable. The stories in this volume do stand up very well to reading as a group, the formula is very clear, the skill with which it is applied, the quality of the art become clearer when they are presented in a group like this. The underlying sameness is a strength in the stories rather than a diminishing factor, they way that Roy Thomas manages the subtle re-arrangement of details is disarming and the sheer variety expressed in the artwork is stunning.
The extra length in the stories is very useful also, it gives room for a greater cast and movement within and between the stories. This is just pure comics pleasure.

Noble Causes Archives Vol 1. Jay Faerber (Writer) Image Comics Inc.(2008)

Thoroughly enjoyable and very good value black & white collection of the first set of miniseries and the first twelve issues of the ongoing excellent superhero series. The best known superheros are carefully guarded company properties entangled in decades of history, revision and counter revision that excludes the casual reader. I had thought the the true future for superhero stories was in animation where the ideas could be revitalised and the essential concepts be revealed. This book proves that superhero comics can be friendly, well thought out, creative and exciting.
Jay Faerber takes the essential science fiction element of superhero's, they are people with extraordinary powers and abilities, and plays it straight down the line to wonderful effect. Thankfully this is no element of knowingness in this book, there is no wink to the audience that really we are all in on the joke, this is simply first rate science fiction.
The premise is simple, Liz Donnelly marries into a family of suprepowered beings, the Noble family and discoverers that they are a family, with all the emotional tangles that involves first and super heroes second. This is how Jay Faerber neatly solves the essential limitation of the superhero concept, how can their adventures be interesting if they are more powerful that everyone else they encounter? There is no tension as they can not be overcome, there may not even be the prospect of it. Like other writers before him, Jay Faerber adds a soap opera element to the mix so that the real difficulties come from themselves rather than some external source. To do this successfully the people inside the costumes have to be as interesting as their powers.
They are, the Noble family are a vividly drawn set of characters who emerge as clear individuals with mixed emotions ad confused motivations that are horribly complicated by being superpowered as well. This is a really enjoyable comic with a solid dramatic and emotional core that supports the varied and exciting stories that Jay Faerber and the wide variety of artists tell. The only drawback to this volume is that the newsprint does come off on to your hands.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Draining Lake. Arnaldur Indridason. Vintage (2007)

This is a intriguing and very atmospheric mystery set in Iceland, the fourth in a series featuring the detectives Erlendur, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli. Like the earlier books this is as much about the detectives, in particular Erlendur as it is about the carefully constructed mysteries that wend their way through the books. In the book a skeleton is found at the bottom of a lake that has started to drain due to the result of an earthquake. The skeleton has an old Russian radio transmitter tied to it and the cause of death was violent as well. The investigation starts with missing persons and slowly centers on one particular case that may well have nothing to do with the skeleton in the lake. At the same time a second narrative is started by the discovery of the body as a man who knows a great deal starts to review this time in Leipzig when it was part of East Germany, he went there as a dedicated Icelandic communist to study. The story of his time in Leipzig winds its way through the story of the investigation into the missing person and the skeleton. The Cold War casts a long shadow over the investigation and the lives it touches.
There is very little action in the book, the investigation is methodical, leads are found and slowly eliminated or developed further. Finally an unexpected conclusion is reached and peace of a sort is finally achieved. This is a quietly gripping book, the cast are engaging and the mystery absorbing, it is carefully laid out and the human dimension is always foremost. The atmosphere is one of resigned patience as the work of resolving the questions is done methodically while the lives of all the characters are illuminated and revealed with sympathy and care. A highly enjoyable, thoughtful read.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I.R.$. 1 Taxing Trails. Stephen Desberg (Writer), Bernard Vrancken (Artist). Cinebook. (2008)

A very satisfying crime story told from an unusual angle. Larry B. Max is special agent for the US Internal Revenue Service and he becomes involved in a enjoyably complex plot that is triggered by the murder of Swiss man in Los Angles, he had been under surveillance by the IRS and they are very curious as to why he was murdered. The trail leads to a female assassin and a man who is fighting with Swiss banks to recover assets deposited by Jews trying to keep it safe from the Nazis.
Larry Max has an professional encounter with the female assassin and the trail leads to a very wealthy man who also has roots in the Nazi concentration camps and who is supporting the work to recover the lost assets of the Jews who died there. The plot nicely avoids the obvious and takes an interesting turn into a bigger more widespread story. The conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
This art is clean and detailed, the action is dynamic and the cast is well drawn. The story packs a great deal of information into each page and the plot structure is logical, the various reveals are well timed and add to the force of the story. Larry Max is an excellent action hero, a hard professional able to respond quickly to trouble, with a nice shadow in his private life that humanises him. An excellent series.

Bruce Springsteen Working on a Dream. Sony Music (2009)

A glorious collection of songs form one of the best albums that Bruce Springsteen has released to date. I have listened to this CD a lot since I got it and I enjoy it more each time, it is just bursting with life and vitality. It captures the spirit of some of the very early albums with the more stripped down sound that he later developed. The momentum of the songs is infectious and the music is bubbling with pleasure and joy.
Outlaw Pete is simply an amazing song, it shot straight into my heart, the country influences of Tunnel of Love have matured and developed into a great melody and sharp lyrics. The Wrestler is a melancholy song that is not despairing. The character in the song has a life that is all behind him no matter how many years there are to go, he is resigned not desperate, the work continues. This CD is so good that I can forget about the terrible cover art and the ridiculous soul patch that Bruce Springsteen is sporting. Treat yourself to a great talent working at the top of his game.

Baltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden. Bantam (2007)

A very striking vampire story that uses the Hans Christian Andersen story , The Steadfast Tin Soldier as a counterpoint to the action of the narrative. Mike Mignola illustrates the story with very atmospheric pictures that capture and extend the mood of the book. The violent actions of World War 1 have called forth vampires, they have been awakened by the noise and death, Captain Henry Baltimore sees the vampires as they first emerge and become a plague in the world. Baltimore become a fighter against the vampires, seeking them and and killing them where he can. He has asked three people, stranger to each other but with Baltimore in common to meet him in a tavern in a city in the grip of the plague. Each of the three recount how they met with Baltimore and the experiences they have had that convince them that the plague is not natural. When Baltimore himself arrives they become involved in a confrontation that Baltimore wanted them to witness.
This is hugely enjoyable book, the language is luxurious and takes it time, it has lovely weight and texture. The narrative is unhurried and gives space to each of the voices of of the major character. The story moves to the climatic confrontation as Baltimore finally finds his true quarry only to find that endings are also beginnings. This is a contemplative vampire story where the vampires themselves are mostly on the margins of the story, the impact they have on the rest of the world is what is critical. A Gothic treat.

The Legend of Lord Snooty and his Pals. 60 Years of Clasic Cartoon Art. D.C Thompson & Co. Ltd (1998)

This is high quality nostalgia, very nicely packaged in an outsize hardback. I never was much of a fan of The Beano, I would happily read it if I came across it, I preferred the more action orientated comics, The Hornet, Battle and the like. Getting this book was a pure impulse buy that was turned into a very happy one. The presentation of the one page stories on outsize pages is excellent and critically allow all the details of the art to be clearly seen.
Dudley Dexter Watkins was the original artist for the Lord Snooty stories , they launched in 1938 and continued on the strip until 1968. The pleasure of these stories lie in the quality of his art and the myriad details that he put into the background. The original formula for the stories, the young Lord Snooty would sneak out from Bunkerton Hall to play with his friends from Ash Can Alley played specifically to the anticipated audience for the comic, the readers were much more likely to be closer to the Ash Can Alleys gang than Lord Snooty.
The stories developed and became much more like slapstick and fantastic , crucially they retained the theme of mocking and humiliating authority figures. Teachers, cooks, butlers, policemen, mayors all were taken down a peg. The war time stories are great fun, they are clearly propaganda, they are carefully created propaganda. The overall level of craft on display is amazing, these stories were published weekly and must have created a staggering workload for the artist. The carefully chosen stories in this collection are a great tribute to an enduring comic icon and to the extraordinary talent of Dudley D. Watkins.