By Garth Ennis & Phil Winslade (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-327-3

Some stories are just a good, vicarious read and there’s no better description for this achingly funny, over the top eco-romp from the lord of outrageous shock comedy Garth Ennis. That it’s beautifully illustrated by master of the meticulous Phil Winslade is a tremendous plus of course…

London Zoo keeper Rosie Nolan went for a walk in the Highlands. As she was revelling in the wonders of nature something odd happened: she was gripped by an eerie emerald power and accidentally split Scotland and England apart…

At that moment ineffectual Jeff (our narrator) was cocking up his latest relationship and ecological psychopath Mudhawk was slaughtering some more people who didn’t share his passion for animal rights, but someone who did notice Rosie’s little gaffe was paranoid narcisscist  Harry Hooks, a CIA spook who had been hunting for telekinetic people to turn into US weapons for decades. He immediately headed for England where a concatenation of circumstances brought Jeff, Mudhawk – and his bellicose ex Samantha Flint – to Rosie’s doorstep just as the Yank arrived…

Mad as a bag of badgers, Hooks tried to abduct Rosie, leading to the deaths of five American agents, and when the local beat copper arrived Hooks shot him. This rash act brought cheerful old Desk Constable George Dixon into the mix. Dixon was the kind of rozzer who always got his man – and then assiduously disposed of the body before anybody could register a complaint. An old fashioned sort, he didn’t much like cop-killers, so with the sadistic Bovver Bruvvers in tow Dixon went after the kill-crazy Hooks, incidentally racking up a body-count of his own that a middle-eastern dictator would be proud of…

In a voyage that traverses the entire globe Rosie’s powers expand exponentially and as the frantic chases of all the authority figures rapidly converge on her the attendant carnage escalates. With her companions in tow she uncovers the incredible secret of her gift in a gloriously trenchant and darkly sardonic satire on society, like a gore-splattered “Carry-On” film with no limits and not even a modicum of good taste.

Fast, furious, funny and wickedly whimsical, this is classic over-the-top Ennis fare, which was purportedly postponed during its conversion from eight issue miniseries to trade paperback compilation because the terrorist themes were deemed too raw after the September 11th attacks. As one of the most impressive scenes here concerns crashing an airliner, I think I can see their point. Nevertheless, as the series premiered six years before the towers fell, and it’s been a long while since, perhaps the time is right to revisit this incredible fantasy tale for consenting, contrary adults…

© 1995, 1996, 2002 Garth Ennis and Phil Winslade. All Rights Reserved.

Aquablue & Aquablue: the Blue Planet

By Cailleteau & Vatine; translated by Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier (Dark Horse)
ISBNs: 978-1-87857-400-8 and 1-87857-404-3

I’m tempted to file these little crackers under “unfinished business” as these slim translated French albums feature the first two instalments of a classy, stylish science fiction saga that sadly hit a reef before its conclusion, despite being one of the most long-lived and impressive epics from a country that seems to specialize in successfully exporting edgy, clever comic fantasies.

In Aquablue the Starliner Silver Star is lost due to a meteor strike and in the rush to the life pods a baby is left behind. Rescued by a robot the boy is reared in space until, eight years later, he finds a planet. The world only has 3% landmass, but is inhabited by a primitive, amiable race of humanoids, and incredibly huge marine species.

In ten years the boy grows to manhood and as Tumu-Nao, becomes a valued member of the tribe. He is even betrothed to the chief’s daughter, Mi-Nuee, and the natives believe him blessed by their god, a gigantic whale-like creature called Uruk-Uru. Unfortunately Nao’s idyllic life forever alters when an Earth survey ship lands and Terran Ethnologist Maurice Dupre discovers that the young man is Wilfred Morgenstern: lost heir to Earth’s greatest financial empire, the United Energy Consortium.

However, that Consortium has already enacted a shady deal to turn Aquablue into a vast hyper-station, which will result in the watery globe becoming a gigantic ice-ball, and they certainly don’t need a naive boss who has gone native to queer their big score. Nao’s own aunt puts out a hit on the rediscovered heir, but nobody realises that his connection to the “gods” of Aquablue is real and shockingly powerful…

The Blue Planet finds Nao returning to Earth not so much to claim his birthright as to safeguard his adopted homeworld from human incursion. While he is away the Consortium has resorted to the same tactics European imperialists used as they absorbed indigenous Earth cultures – destroying them with free booze and cheap baubles.

Noa’s father-in-law organizes a resistance movement, fleeing with the entire tribe to the polar regions, but on Earth Nao/Wilfred is having trouble resisting the allure of technological civilisation, until Mi-Nuee, who had stowed away on a starship, rises like a gleaming message from Uruk-Uru out of the Ocean swell. With the help of Dupre they return in time for the final battle against the Consortium forces that have hunted the natives into the frozen wastelands…

And that was that.

Thierry Cailleteau & Olivier Vatine first teamed to produce the outlandishly comedic Adventures of Fred and Bob but really hit their peak on these superb eco-thrillers, based tellingly on the colonial outrages of Western Civilisation: especially in their treatment of Polynesian cultures. The series continued for another nine volumes with artists Ciro Tota and Stéphane Brangier replacing Vatine from the fifth book, moving beyond the original storyline into fascinating areas of conservation and space opera!

Although these slender pearls are worth a look just for the superb quality of art and narrative I’m plugging them here in the greedy hope that with so much European material finally crossing the channel into English, somebody will pick up and complete the translation of this delicious adventure series. Cross your fingers…
© 1988, 1990 Guy Delcourt Productions. English translation © 1989, 1990 Dark Horse Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Autumn’s Come Undone

By Shag (SCB – Baby Tattoo Books)
ISBN: 978-0-9793307-3-5

A mystery-man of few words, Josh Agle, the artist currently known as “Shag”, has produced numerous collections of sleek and stylish paintings that are the very epitome of “retro”.

Considered a leading light of the American “Lowbrow” or “Pop Surrealism” art movement his mannered, maddeningly meticulous constructions of 1960s imagery and palettes are mind-warping and oddly comforting at the same time: stirringly reminiscent of the animated credits for TV shows like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie” and films such as “The Pink Panther” and “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”.

This latest memorable collection, full of doe-eyed, bouffant-ed beach cuties, slick, dark-suited men with horn-rim glasses and thin ties, whales and whalers, beasts, devils and Victoriana viewed through a Baby-boomer’s lens gathers works from his latest gallery tour and provides yet another peek into the mind of a true – if sardonic – cultural archeologist.

Accompanied by poetry and quotations this is an engrossing treat and, I’m sure the beginning of the art-poster and greetings card “next big thing.” Catch the wave before it catches you…
© 2009. All rights reserved.

Black Jack volume 7

By Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-934287-60-6

Black Jack is at once a lone wolf hero, troubled genius, passionate outsider and amoral humanitarian combining the indomitable will of Doc Savage with the intellect of Sherlock Holmes and ambivalent, intuitive drive of Dr. Gregory House. Hideously scarred as result of extensive childhood surgery, the unlicensed mercenary medic endures public condemnation and professional scorn, experiencing every genre of storytelling as he continually confronts the cutting edges of medicine.

His esteemed creator Osamu Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered from a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although the cartoonist began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too.

Facing a career crossroads, Tezuka’s mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced medicine but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not actually invented, the Japanese anime industry.

Equally able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults, Osamu Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing, even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s eye to his college studies and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living beyond society’s boundaries and rules:  a scarred, heartless mercenary miracle-worker if the price is right, yet still a deeply human wounded soul who works his surgical wizardry from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings, Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of ethics and morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is an epic of personal combats, a lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, casual human cruelty, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, won by a Ronin with a fast car and a Gladstone bag. Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Magical Realism that rivals the works of Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. But overall these are dramatic, highly addictive comics tales of heroism; and ones that that will stay with you forever.

Volume 7 begins with ‘Guys and Birds’ and pursues a favoured theme in Tezuka’s work: the moral superiority of animals to base humanity, as Black Jack operates on a small boy beloved by the bird of the marshlands. When crooked speculators try to kill the boy for the land rights his feathered friends fight even harder than the super-surgeon to save him…

‘The Gray Mansion’ is a classical gothic horror story which finds him attempting to fix a hideously malformed burns victim despite knowing that his insane patient intends to commit murder as soon as he is again able to grasp a weapon, and ‘A Cat and Shozo’ examines love and madness as the rogue surgeon heals a traumatised man who has replaced his dead family with a pack of devoted felines…

‘The Two Pinokos’ provides another glimpse of the doctor’s past as he sees once more the little girl who provided the template for his own assistant (rebuilt from leftover organs: see Black Jack volume 1 for details). What a shame she and her entire village are dying from toxic waste pollution… ‘Unexploded Bomb’ also looks back as the diagnostic ronin takes a dark revenge on the corrupt officials whose greed destroyed his mother and set him upon his lonely path, whilst ‘Younger Brother’ finds him masquerading as another man’s son, to provide a different kind of medical comfort.

‘High and Low’ is a delightful change of tone as, against all odds, human nature and past experience a lowly worker and a millionaire businessman honour their debts to each other, ‘Goribei of Senjogahara’ is a heart-jarring tale of survival and bestiality, featuring an ape gone rogue and a professional hunter and ‘The Kuroshio: a Memoir’ probes the nature of glory and debts not honoured when a celebrity danger-man puts his latest TV stunt ahead of common humanity…

‘Black and White’ again finds Black Jack caught between feuding gangsters, but this time he’s also competing against a decent young doctor who is everything he once aspired to be, ‘A Hill for One’ has him again champion the rights of a noble beast against repulsive men and in ‘Cloudy, Later Fair’ he has to operate on a mountainside where every move of his scalpel could call down a lethal lightning strike.

The book closes with ‘Hurricane’ as a dying millionaire’s family abandons surgeon and patient to a killer storm and ‘Timeout’ sees the doctor perform a medical miracle but still fail to win justice or peace for his patient…

For many modern readers the highly stylised semi-comical “cartoonish” illustration that Osamu Tezuka chose to work in has proved a conceptual hindrance, not only for these astounding adventures in medical meta-fiction, but for many other of his incredible stories of heroism and fantasy. But in these days of vast art-teams, computer enhancements and a zillion colour effects these carefully crafted black and white pages use a simple symbology, concise, almost diagrammatic illustration (for the graphic scenes of surgery – squeamish folk consider yourselves warned!) and deft design to tell tales that only the most sophisticated consumer can fully appreciate: not because they’re difficult or obscure, but because they hit home and hit hard every time…

The pictures may be soft, seductive and welcoming but the content – and intent – are as hard and uncompromising as a surgeon’s scalpel…

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

© 2009 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2009 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Checkmate: the Fall of the Wall

By Greg Rucka & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84756-848-5

Spy series – as opposed to spy stories – in comic-books are notoriously short-lived things: in the mainstream the covert tension inevitably dissolves into more-or-less traditional punch-‘em-up costume dramas, and even mature imprints such as Vertigo, WildStorm and others can’t seem to translate the particular values and allure of “the Great Game” to panels and borders. Such is sadly the case with DC’s boldly dark Checkmate which can already be seen as rapidly thundering to a big finish even in this collection (re-presenting #16-22 of the monthly periodical) which marks the mid-point of the run.

In the aftermath of DC’s Infinite Crisis an international organisation to monitor and control meta-human affairs was developed, under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council. Originally an American agency, the new Checkmate is tasked with policing all nations, protecting them from superhuman dangers and terrorism, and also preventing rogue nations and regimes from weaponising their own paranormal resources.

This is a bleak and furtive blend of genres from writer Rucka, pencillers Joe Bennett, Chris Samnee & Joe Prado and inkers Samnee, Prado, Jack Jadson & Steve Bird, with the murky world of espionage coldly and logically grounding the shiny gleam of costumed super-doers.

Although Checkmate is United Nations mandated, every member knows that partisan patriotism too often trumps global cooperation, leading to a delicious edge of distrust among operatives. For some time both Kings, Mr. Terrific and Taleb Beni Khalid, and Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux have suspected White Queen Amanda Waller of running her own operations within Checkmate and actively sabotaging missions that might harm American interests.

Now “the Wall” makes a move to take control of Checkmate unaware that her cover is blown and that the people she has so readily and repeatedly betrayed are waiting for her, resulting in UN agents facing off against Waller’s American penal brigade of coerced super-villains the Suicide Squad

The greater tale unfolds against a series of close, intimate tales investigating the lives of regular personnel and packs a masterful punch because of it: a subtle technique more writers would benefit from studying, and the volume closes with a solid two-part yarn revealing the heritage and destiny of Black Queen’s Knight Josephine Tautin: the latest French operative to carry the glorious code-name Mademoiselle Marie.

‘La Vie en Sang’ by Rucka and Eric S. Trautman, illustrated by Chris Samnee, is a cracking, high-octane thriller that takes a fascinating delve into the DC universe’s hidden history, and proves how espionage adventures can work within a world of gods and monsters.

Moody and addictive, but far too dependent on a working knowledge of the DC universe, this is a series well worth a few moments of any serious fan’s time, and the spy-game milieu should, even now – produce a few converts from espionage devotees looking for a little something on the wild side…

© 2007, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Conceptual Realism in the Service of the Hypothetical

By Robt. Williams (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-299-9

Robert L. Williams II has been a rabble-rouser and cultural iconoclast since he first gained public attention with his outré celebrations of grotesque Hot Rod illustrations, and shocking underground comix work.

He was born on 2nd March 1943 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started his education at the Stark Military Academy. The boy spent his youth shuttling between New Mexico and Alabama, and was always painting and drawing. He became obsessed with car culture at an early age, and was purportedly given his first automobile at age 12. In his teen years he became a builder and driver of Hot Rods: pared down, souped-up vehicles customized for racing and display. Williams was apparently a difficult kid and always in trouble with local authorities.

In 1963 he moved to Los Angeles, attending City College, where he worked on the school’s paper The Collegiate before transferring to The Chouinard Art Institute, and quickly moving on into commercial art, working as an illustrator for cult car maven “Big Daddy” Roth and his brand/mascot Rat Fink.

By this time painting in oils for his own creative pleasure, Williams drifted into the Zap Collective: a loose-knit congregation of like-minded artists arguably the driving force behind the Underground Comix movement which revolutionised graphic narrative during the 1960s and 1970s which included R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscosco and Spain Rodriguez. In 1970 Williams published his signature anti-hero in the eponymous Cootchy Cooty Men’s Comics and Zap Comix #5, combining shocking, tasteless imagery of sex and violence to shake up the establishment. Cootchy Cooty still occasionally resurfaces in the artist’s paintings…

In 1979 many of his paintings were collected into a book that has become (utterly contrary to William’s explicit wishes) the name of the modern gallery-art movement dedicated to cultural examination through co-opted and re-found popular arts imagery. The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams was a groundbreaking book, at odds with the elitism and snobbery of “capital A art”, capable and prepared to back up its artistic arguments with keen intellectual vigour and insight.

He embraced the 1980s Punk movement (see his next book The Zombie Mystery Paintings) and as he followed his muse and formulated his creative philosophy he founded the art magazine Juxtapoz in the early 1990s (which has since launched the careers of many Pop Surrealist and Lowbrow artists). He has been controversial for decades due to his repeated use of sexual nudity, commercialism, ultra-violence and all manner of moral turpitude: a practice he explained (but felt no need to defend) in the book Visual Addiction, wherein his Rubberneck Manifesto declared “Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas!”

Williams uses his classical painting skills and careful recapitulation of visual elements from our shared modern cultures to lure in the viewer, and to smash his point home with telling force. As with all “Lowbrow” artists he rejects in turn High Art’s rejection of skilled performance: restoring value to the mastery of techniques denigrated for decades as “mere craftsmanship” by critics and modernists. His pictures look like what they’re supposed to: it’s the motivation and message that are occluded, “all the better to bite you with…”

This spectacular oversized art book – a softcover edition of the incredible hardback released at the end of 2009 – collects recent works seen at his 2009 show Conceptual Realism: In the Service of the Hypothetical which toured California and New York, a delightful, magnificent package of social commentary, plaintive questing and mischievous mickey-taking encapsulated in 25 new paintings, and four fascinating sculptures (regrettably still works in progress at the time of going-to-press) each accompanied by revelatory essays, sketches, visual notes and underpaintings, and a another brief and challenging treatise from the artist himself: all preceded by a telling introduction from Tattoo artist and advocate Don Ed Hardy.

All art intends to make contact and connection: here is another powerful book from an unrepentant and unstoppable communicator – one whose works have always had the force and immediate influence of a swift smack in the mouth. Love it or leave it. You simply can’t ignore it.

© 2009 Robert Williams. This edition © 2009 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons

Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-150-3

You’ll hear a lot about the pen being mightier than the sword regarding this book, but sadly it’s just not true. Nothing stops determined governments, outraged religions and greedy rich bastards from sending the young and idealistic to their mass-produced deaths, especially those innocents who have any modicum of patriotism or sense of adventure.

Our own current situation proves that mankind is always far too ready to take up arms, and far too resistant to giving peace a chance, especially when a well-oiled publicity machine and mass unemployment gang up on the man and woman in the street. We’re all susceptible to the power of a marching beat played on fife and drum…

At least here among these 220 plus cartoons we see that rationalism or conscientious objectivity or pacifism or even self-interested isolationism are as versed in seductive arts as the power and passion of jingoism and war-fever.

All art, but most especially cartooning, has the power to bore deep into the soul, just as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster “Your Country Needs You” so effectively did to millions of young Americans during the Great War. How satisfying then to see his is the very first anti-war cartoon in this incredible collection of images focusing on the impassioned pleas of creators trying to avoid or at least reduce bloodshed.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons gathers a multitude of incredibly moving, thought-provoking, terrifying, but, I’m gutted to say, ultimately ineffective warnings, scoldings and pleas that may have moved millions of people, but never stopped or even gave pause to one single conflict.

The editors have divided these unforgettable pictures into a broad variety of categories and I should make it clear that not all the reasons for their creation were necessarily pacifistic: some of the most evocative drawings here are from creators who didn’t think War is Bad per se, but rather felt that the clash in question was none of their homeland’s business.

However with such chapters as Planet War, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, The Gods of War, Profiteers, Recruitment and Conscription, The Brass, The Grunts, Weapons of War, The Battle Rages On, The Long March, Famine, The Anthems of War, The Horrors of War, The Suffering, The Families and Children of War, The Aftermath, Victory Celebration, Medals, Disarmament, Resistance and Peace we see immensely talented people of varying beliefs respond on their own unique terms to organised slaughter, and for every tut-tut of the stay-at-homers there are a dozen from genuinely desperate and appalled artists who just want the horror to end.

With incisive examinations of shared symbology and recurring themes these black and white penmen have used their brains and talents in their strivings to win their point (there is also a fascinating section highlighting the impact and energy of the Colors of War) but the most intriguing aspect of this superb collection is the sheer renown and worth of the contributors. Among the 119 artists include (120 if you count Syd Hoff and his nom-de-plume “Redfield” as two separate artists) are Sir John Tenniel, Caran d’Ache, Bruce Bairnsfather, Herbert Block, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ron Cobb, “Ding” Darling, Billy DeBeck, Jerry Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Rube Goldberg, Honore Daumier, Goya, George Grosz, Bill Mauldin, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Thomas Nast and most especially the incredibly driven Winsor McCay, (I’ve scandalously assumed that many of the older European draughtsmen won’t be that well known, despite their works being some of the most harrowing) and their efforts, although perhaps wasted on people willing to listen to reason anyway, are cruel and beautiful enough to make old cynics like me believe that this time, this time, somebody in power will actually do something to stop the madness.

A harsh and lovely book: buy it in the hope that one day Peace will be the Final Solution.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons and the digitally remastered public domain material are © 2009 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thunderbolts: Justice, Like Lightning…

By Kurt Busiek, Peter David, Mark Bagley & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0817-7

At the end of  1996 the “Onslaught” publishing event removed the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man and Avengers from the Marvel Universe, unwisely (hindsight being a magical thing) handing over creative control to Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee for a year. For the early part of that period the “Image style” books got all the attention, but a new title created to fill the gap in the “real” universe proved to be the real star of the period.

Thunderbolts was initially promoted as a replacement team book; untried champions pitching in because the superhero big guns were dead and gone. Chronologically the team debuted in Incredible Hulk # 449, by Peter David, Mike Deodato Jr. & Tom Wegrzyn, in a fairly standard game of “heroes-stomp-monster”, but the seemingly mediocre tale is perhaps excusable in retrospect…

This volume gathers all the early appearances of the neophyte team: the Hulk tale, Thunderbolts #1-4 and their 1997 Annual, a Tales of the Marvel Universe one-shot, and Spider-Man Team-Up Featuring… #7, and although the stories are still immensely readable a book simply can’t recapture the furore the series caused in its early periodical days, because Thunderbolts was a high concept series with a big twist: one which impossibly for comics, didn’t get spilled before the “big reveal.”

The action here starts with issue #1 as Busiek, Bagley & Vince Russell introduce a new team who begin to clear the devastated, post-Onslaught streets of New York of resurgent super-villains and thugs who are making the most of the established heroes’ apparent demise. They consist of the Captain America clone Citizen V, size-shifting Atlas, super- armoured Mach-1, ray-throwing amazon Meteorite, sonic siren Songbird and human weapon Techno, and the terrified citizenry instantly take them to their hearts. But these heroes share a huge secret…

They’re all super-villains in disguise and Citizen V has major long-term plans…

When unsuspecting readers got to the end of that first story the reaction was instantaneous shock and jubilation.

The aforementioned Hulk tale incongruously appears next, followed by the Tales of the Marvel Universe tale ‘The Dawn of a New Age of Heroes!’ as the group continue to do good deeds for bad reasons, and #2 ‘Deceiving Appearances’ finds them winning more hearts and minds by defeating the Mad Thinker at a memorial service for the Fantastic Four and Avengers.

Spider-Man Team-Up Featuring… #7 ‘Old Scores’ by Busiek, Sal Buscema & Dick Giordano sees them even fool the spider-senses of everybody’s favourite wall-crawler as they take down the super-scientific Enclave, whilst Thunderbolts #3 finds them facing ‘Too Many Masters’ whilst dissension begins to creep in as the team round up more old allies and potential rivals such as Klaw, Flying Tiger, Man-Killer, Tiger-Shark and other assorted Masters of Evil. ‘A Shock to the System’ in #4 has them invading Dr. Doom’s castle to aid utterly oblivious innocent and potential new recruit Jolt; finding and fighting the monstrous creations of rogue geneticist Arnim Zola along the way.

Thunderbolts Annual 1997 concludes this collection; a massive revelatory jam session written by Busiek with art from Mark Bagley, Bob McLeod, Tom Grummett, Ron Randall, Gene Colan, Darick Robertson, George Pérez, Chris Marrinan, Al Milgrom, Will Blyberg, Scott Koblish, Jim Sanders, Tom Palmer, Bruce Patterson, Karl Kesel and Andrew Pepoy, which could only be called ‘The Origin of the Thunderbolts!’

This is a solid superhero romp that managed to briefly revitalise a lot of jaded old fan-boys, but more importantly it is a strong set of tales that still pushes all the buttons it’s meant to more than a decade after all the hoopla has faded. Well worth a moment of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.

© 1996, 1997, 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Troublemakers

By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-922-7

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there is Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that is Love and Rockets (where his incredibly insightful tales of Palomar and the later stories of those characters collected in Luba gained such critical acclaim) he has produced stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his bold, instinctive, compellingly simplified artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of the literary techniques of Magical Realist writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has added to and made his own.

Now he has acknowledged such influences as Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson as he continues to break new ground and reprocess the cultural influences that shaped all us baby-boomers. In Luba we also glimpsed the troubled life of her half-sister Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, lisping psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and “B-movie” starlet of such faux screen gems as Three Mystic Eyes, Blood is the Drug and Love From the Shadows. Fritzi has unfeasibly large breasts.

In 2007 Hernandez “adapted” one of those trashy movies as the graphic novel Chance in Hell – although Fritzi only had a bit part in it – but here he places her fully at centre stage in an incredible crime-caper of cross and double-cross that works astoundingly well as a gritty, grimy hard-boiled pulp fiction thriller.

Generation X waster Wes has a dream of singing in his own rock club. His dirt-bag drug peddler pal Dewey Booth has $200 grand and isn’t stupid enough to share it. Nala was a stage magician before she took to hooking and she knows her incredible body won’t last forever.

They’re all doing a cautious dance with Dewey’s cash as the prize when hard-as-nails grifter Vincene shows up and the plot starts to boil over. Wes knows Vincene from long ago: she once kidnapped Nala and stole her car and stage act and Dewey isn’t nearly as dumb as everybody thinks he is…

This explosive mix won’t end well and the big question is: after all the bodies and collateral damage is sorted out who’s going to get the dough and who’s going to get bodybags?

Raw, gripping and thoroughly engaging, this perfect pastiche of the genre still has Hernandez’s signature brash sexuality, clever dialogue and sly elements of rock and roll surrealism to elevate it above the vast body of such fiction, and straight crime fans will enjoy this as much as any Palomar devotee. Every adult who loves the Big Thrill should snap this up immediately…

© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All rights reserved.

Sublife volume 2

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-60699-309-5

After what feels like far too long, self-publishing wizard/minicomic genius John Pham and Fantagraphics Books have released the second volume of the twice-yearly series dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in this modern, wonder-deprived world, and I must say (grudgingly) that it has been worth the wait.

This offering, once more crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading British comics) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After a faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ which examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’ wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece which reminds me of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming the author’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’ This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go dog-training…

This leads into the anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume is taken up with ‘The Kid’, a practically wordless post-apocalyptic Science Fiction tale of scavenging and the price of love that is deeply reminiscent of – and respectful to – the movie Mad Max, with just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume closes with the nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’ a fond memoriam to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. He tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re tired of the comics mainstream but still love it too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…

© 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.