Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde


By Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Guido Crepax (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-079-6

Guido Crepax was born in Milan in 1933, the son of a noted cellist, and grew up in an atmosphere of art and music (his closest childhood friend was the noted musician and conductor Claudio Abado). Inevitably the boy Crepax became a creative artist in his own right. Whilst studying architecture in the 1950s he freelanced as a graphic designer, illustrator and printmaker, producing book, medical texts and magazine covers, posters and record sleeves most notably for Classical and Jazz musicians ranging from Charlie Parker and Fats Waller to Domenico Modugno.

He won acclaim and advertising awards throughout the 1950s, but was driven to do still more. In 1963 he began drawing comics, and two years later created his most famous character Valentina for the second issue of Linus. She was initially the lead character’s girlfriend, but whereas superhero Neutron soon lost the interest of readers, the sexy, psychedelic, culturally bold and accessible distaff evolved to become an evocative, fantastic, sophisticated, erotic zeitgeist of the 1960s and far, far beyond. He passed away on July 31, 2003.

Although noted – if not always revered – for his strongly erotic female characters, Crepax was an astute and sensitive tale-teller and examiner of the human condition, and all his varied works vibrate with strong themes of charged sexuality and violence, none more so than his chilling, oppressive adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

As Editor Maurice Horn points out in his introduction, Stevenson’s novella – first published in January 1886 by Longmans, Green & Co. – has never been as faithfully adapted in any other medium: the tale being constructed and narrated as a recap within a flashback, and almost utterly devoid of any relevant female characters. The story revolutionised not only fiction, but also modern sensibilities, cementing an entire concept of human behaviour into the modern lexicon and becoming a keystone of two separate literary genres, science fiction and horror, whilst maintaining for almost its entire duration the semblance of just another tale of mystery and detection. What it must have been to get to that final chapter and discover an entirely new kind of ending! We simply cannot imagine…

For most readers of the text, rather than viewers of the impossibly large number of film, television, radio and stage productions, the brief morality play is clearly a metaphor (I, for example, have always felt it addressed social repression via an examination of addiction) and Crepax has chosen to interpret the issue here as one of unleashed sexual license…

Narrator Gabriel John Utterson is friend and legal representative to Gentleman Scientist Henry Jekyll, a brilliant, upstanding man obsessed with his image and standing in a rich and excessively reputation-driven society. When the wizened, disreputable Edward Hyde appears and begins to exert some inexplicable, overwhelming hold upon the genteel Jekyll, even keeping him from seeing his friends, Utterson is driven to investigate and uncovers a horrendous, unimaginable catalogue of the dwarf’s excesses, ranging from brutal violence, sexual bondage, blackmail and even murder…

Crepax retained the unique narrative structure, dialogue and even chapter headings of the original text, but peppered his visual interpretation with the highly charged, sexually explicit imagery he was – and is – notorious for in such a manner that their sybaritic inclusion made perfect sense. Following the eerie unraveling of the saga in  ‘Story of the Door’, ‘The Carew Murder Case’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Incident at Dr. Lanyon’s’, ‘The Window’, ‘The Last Night’, ‘Dr Lanyon’s Account’ comes the revelatory, post-mortem disclosures of  ‘Henry Jekyll’s Confession’ and Utterson’s shocked realisation of the pressures of English society and the forces they contain and conceal within every man…

Stark, shocking, convulsively claustrophobic in its public scenes whilst indolently free and spacious for the unleashed hedonistic, yet curiously idyllic and lyrical depictions of debauchery, Crepax’s artistic stylisations are as always cannily calculated to work on the reader’s subconscious and bestow an unrelenting power and oppressive inevitability to the tragedy.

Here is a powerful saga magnificently retold using the language and terms of the British Empire, but this highly adult interpretation is also unflinching in its sexual imagery, so if such visual candour depicted in a truly unique style and manner is going to offend you don’t seek out this superb tale.

Everybody else with their senses of drama, history and perspective intact should go ahead and enjoy a brilliant tale stunningly interpreted: another classic graphic novel desperately in need of reprinting…
© 1989 Olympia Press, Italy, Luca A Staletti, agent. English translation © 1990 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Frog Volume 1


By Mine Yoshizaki, translated by Yuko Fukami (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-59182-703-0

Another monumentally popular manga saga of recent years is this broad, archetypically Japanese fantasy comedy with all the prerequisite elements for success. Keroro Gunsō, Sergeant Keroro or here Sgt. Frog is the mildly malevolent destabilising element that disrupts the life of schoolboy Hinata, just as he’s making the thoroughly distressing move from Elementary to Middle School.

As leader of the school’s Occult club Fuyuki is open to most new and fantastic experiences but even he is given pause when he and his obnoxious “oh-so-perfect” older sister Natsumi accidentally capture a frog-like alien hiding in their house. The revelation panics the orbiting Keronian battle fleet and sends it scuttling away in panic, abandoning all their hidden operatives and leaving them to fend for themselves.

Leader of an elite platoon of infiltrators Keroro offers his surrender but doesn’t really mean it, intending to overcome the primitive earthlings or “Pokopenians” when their guard is down. But as the days pass the little monster gradually “goes native”, succumbing to the constant mental abuse of Natsumi, the grinding drudgery of imposed household chores and the addictive delights of television, the internet, pop music and Gundam model kits. Besides, Fuyuki confiscated his all-purpose Kero Ball super-weapon and the Pokopenians’ mother Aki is a super-hottie MILF who edits manga comics…

A lot of the added-value, in-joke pop-references will have been lost to most English-speaking readers: casualties of both the translation process and the passage of time, but some of the Frog’s wider word-play and constant harping on Bandai model kits, Gundam, Space Battleship Yamato, Dragon Ball, Neon Genesis Evangelion and other ubiquitous elements of modern Japanese fan-culture will still resonate I’m sure…

A further complication occurs when wealthy Mimoka Nishizawa, a shy classmate of Fuyuki’s – who secretly has the biggest crush on him – is found to be in possession of another abandoned platoon member, the highly devoted and incredibly destructive Private Tamama. Mimoka is unable to tell Fuyuki of her feelings and her frustrations usually manifest in psychotic, explosives rages and ultra-violent tantrums…

This first volume features the first dozen episodes or “encounters” and follows the gradually unfolding epic as Keroro’s glittering past and future plans are exposed, with loads of the brutal slapstick, dire puns, situational embarrassments and social gaffe ironies beloved of Manga humour books, but there’s also some touching moments and poignant touches as the ever-expanding cast (which includes ghosts and ancient gods of destruction) go about their lives unaware that everybody’s playing a double game…

Debuting in boys weekly Shonen Ace to immediate success, naturally the series has made the jump to television, movies, computer and even role-playing games. The collected, translated volumes number 18 and counting, comprising an exceedingly engaging light and fluffy concoction that will charm and delight genre fans and casual reader equally.

This book is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

© 1999 Mine Yoshizaki. English text © 2004 TokyoPop Inc.

Hunter x Hunter Volume 1: The Shonen Jump Advanced Edition


By Yoshiro Togashi (Viz)
ISBN:  978-1-59116-753-2

It’s been a while since I reviewed manga graphic novels in any breadth or depth so I’m going to start again, but as there’s simply so much new material around I’ve opted to concentrate more on older series with a few volumes under their belts, occasionally leavened with whatever new material catches my eye – or that publishers send us.

Moreover, I’m no expert, so these will be thoughts restricted to the simple perspective of an interested casual collector, and measured against all other illustrated stories and not other manga/anime. There are plenty of specialist sites to cater for that and they’re there at the touch of a search engine…

Hantā Hantā (which I translate as either Hunter times Hunter or Hunter Versus Hunter; someone who actually speaks Japanese may not concur) first appeared in Weekly Shonen Jump in March 1998, before exploding into 27 volumes of manga, an anime series and three cartoon movies (so far) and primarily tells the extremely engaging and phenomenally extended tale of young Gon Freecss; a gifted twelve-year-old lad abandoned by his father, who dumped the kid on an aunt in the agrarian backwater of Whale Island before disappearing.

Gon is an exceptional child with a restless nature, big dreams and some uncanny abilities. In the alternate world of fantastic creatures that Gon inhabits the best job in the world is that of the Hunter: incredible Renaissance Men who combine the talents of detectives, treasure hunters, archaeologists, assassins, bounty hunters and repo-men with astounding physical prowess, travelling the world for profit or sheer scientific curiosity. If somebody wants something Hunters will get it.

One day Gon meets a hunter who reveals something the lad had already deduced. His missing father Ging was one of the greatest Hunters of all, and is still alive somewhere. Gon immediately resolves to become a Hunter too, but things are not that simple…

Hunters must pass a horrendous exam, and just getting to that exam is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. Undeterred, Gon says his goodbyes to Aunt Mito, not realising his assessment has already begun. Taking ship to the mainland he joins dozens of other candidates including enigmatic orphan Kurapika and brash Leorio, the only two hopefuls not to fall at the first hurdle.

Reaching Dolie Harbour the three would-be Hunters endure a number of tests and challenges just to find the Examination site: and that’s where the real testing of their worth and character begins…

Nearly 50 million copies of Hunter x Hunter have been sold thus far, and it’s no surprise. This is a perfect example of the “young hero’s path to destiny” fantasy adventure that Japanese creators do so very well, blending action, humour, unashamed sentiment and wondrous imagination into a seamless, supremely readable confection that is impossible to put down and always leaves the reader hungry for more. Gon and his comradely rivals strive to overcome all obstacles, each blessed with their unique talents and motivations and the tale fairly rattles along until the abrupt cliffhanger end hits like a thunderbolt.

Superbly entertaining, you’re best advised to read this gem a half-dozen volumes at a time.

This book is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

© 1998 POT (Yoshiro Togashi). All Rights Reserved.

Hotwire Comics volume 3


By various, edited by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-288-3

The third magnificent, oversized compendium of cutting edge cartooning and alternative artistic visions has finally arrived and once more combines famed and possibly less well-known creators in a bold, brassy high-quality, giant-sized (9×12 inch or 230x304mm) full colour and black and white anthology of new tales and concoctions. There’s even a multi-page psychedelic, phantasmagorical fold-out ‘The Magnificent Pigtail Show’ from the incredible Steven Cerio.

Beginning with art-pieces – David Sandlin’s ‘Studio of Sin’ and Tim Lane’s ‘Greetings From Hotwire USA’ – the sequential narratives launch with Michael Kupperman’s ‘Meet McArf!’, a decidedly smooth shaggy dog story, the eerie childhood reminiscence ‘Car-Boy’s Family’ from Max Andersson and ‘Bottomless’ a salutary tale of excessive appetite from Eric Watkins and Chadwick Whitehead.

The first of a series of ‘Feral Spheres’ – monochrome artworks by David Paleo – is followed by ‘Denial’ and ‘The Bully’, two moody introspections from Jayr Pulga and Sam Henderson’s gross-out gag-strip ‘At a Frat Party or a Sports Game or Something Like That’, before editor Glenn Head enthrals with the cheery chiller ‘Candyland Clinic.’

After Paleo’s second ‘Feral Sphere’ the always fascinating Mary Fleener describes how and why she bought a gun in ‘The Judge’ and Rick Altergott reveals the sordid saga of a sweet young thing who was just too ‘Keen on a Clown!’, after which sordid shocks Head returns with some  ‘Psychedelic Smut’.

Onsmith’s beguiling ‘Dispossession by Tornado’ is followed by another ‘Feral Sphere’ and Mark Dean Vega reinterprets some of our most beloved comics characters in his mouth-watering ‘Popeyeconography’ before Doug Allen’s grotesquely funny ‘Hillbilly’s Dun Gawn Ta College’ and the ever offensive Johnny Ryan provides insight to life with ‘The Cockhorns’.

Following the aforementioned Cerio foldout section Tim Lane crafts a chilling tale of hobos riding the rails in ‘Spike’, Danny Hellman illustrates a truly lovely clash in ‘Alice Versus the Sandman’, R. Sikoryak retells the story of Hamlet using Hank Ketcham’s oddly appropriate cartoon cast in ‘The Menace of Denmark’ and Mack White provides a surreal and terrifying glimpse into ‘Roadside Hell.’

Another ‘Feral Sphere’ precedes, for my money, the very best piece in this collection. The darkly mannered tale entitled the ‘Passion of Atte’ by Matti Hagelberg is a complex, brooding tale of vanishment and suicide – or is it?

‘Infernal Combustion’ is a bold, old-fashioned paranoid nightmare by David Sandlin, followed by one last ‘Feral Sphere’ and Danny Hellman’s delightful ironic parable ‘Tales of the Sodom Ape Men and the Electronic God’, Stephane Blanquet provides so much more than just a ‘Drawing’, Karl Wills delivers a punchy space fable in ‘Connie Radar’ and Mats!? chills and thrills with his deeply disturbing discourse ‘Sleep Walker.’

The final tale is the classy history of an unsung hero from another, more wicked time:  Glenn Head relates the rather sad and nasty tale of ‘Vulvina, the Ventriloquist’s Dummy Daughter!’ which closes another startling, offensive, compelling and thoroughly wonderful box of cartoon delights for brave, hungry souls in search of different kicks. Strictly for those of you over voting age, this is a treat no real comics aficionado can afford to miss.

All artwork and stories © 2010 the respective creators. All rights reserved.

Artichoke Tales


By Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-344-6

Megan Kelso has been producing unique, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking comics stories for more than twenty years; the very best of which can be seen in her award-winning collections Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. She works far too slowly for my greedy nature to be completely happy with, but as the results are always superb I’m just going to have to “Man Up” and count myself lucky whenever something new hits the bookshelves…

Artichoke Tales is a generational saga which recounts, like film run backwards, the aftermath, events of and build-up to a tragic and devastating civil war on a serene, stable agrarian culture: a land of farmers, foragers and fisher-folk who all look like they’re sporting vegetable hair-dos. Don’t be fooled though – despite the stalks sprouting from their skulls these are not Arcadian vegetable characters dreamily dwelling in their own sylvan Pogle’s Wood: these are people, gullible, fallible and intensely complex.

Kelso first created her artichoke people for a short tale in the anthology comic Girlhero, and began working on this longer story in 1999, citing such thematic influences as the Little House on the Prairie books, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Anthony Minghella’s movie Cold Mountain for this gently compelling, beguiling story of the Quicksand family, apothecaries to the village of Ladle and how an insane and unwelcome split between North and South sorely wounded not only the nation but three generations of women caught up in it…

Young Brigitte was gathering herbs for her grandmother when she once more met the charming soldier Adam. Military types weren’t particularly welcome and Northerners even less so, despite all the years that had passed since the War, but young hormones and the promise of something fresh and exotic have always won out over common sense…

Torn between newborn passion, a sudden hatred for her boring old life and fear of the unknown Brigitte forces Grandma Charlotte to tell the previously unspoken history of the conflict and how it shaped the Quicksand family: a tale of pride, high-handedness and avoidable mistakes that led to those bitter prejudices which still scarred people on every side.

Told in a stunning minimalist manner which demands the reader’s closest scrutiny and collaboration, the refined and simplified drawings unfold story within story, like the skin of an onion, as the truths peels away to reveal some depressingly universal truths about families, society and the use of power. Despite the engagingly simple art and storytelling style this is not a book for younger readers, so parents read this beautiful parable before you let your kids at it…

Those of you without impressionable progeny can just go right ahead and dig in: Artichoke Tales is truly magical and is waiting for your avid, appreciative attention and consumption…

© 2010 Megan Kelso. All Rights Reserved.

Temperance


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not jingoistic madness. Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying. Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that might just be the best thing I’ve read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and counting…) this multilayered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and leaders’ lies yet still seemingly prosper. As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory this enchanting story will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator “Temperance”…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a literal epic which blends Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedoms and honour – personal and communal – surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery. Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …

© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved.This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird


By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-917-3

Cartoonists have more than their fair share of individuals with a unique perspective on the world. Elzie Segar, Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Steve Bell, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Norman Dog, Gary Larson – the list is potentially endless. Perhaps it’s their power to create entire sculptured worlds coupled with the constant promise of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw.

Born Scott Richardson, Tony Millionaire clearly loves to draw and does it very, very well; seamlessly referencing classical art, the best of children’s books and an eclectic blend of pioneer draughtsmen like, George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray as well as the aforementioned Segar and Herriman with European engravings from the “legitimate” side of the ink-slinging biz. He especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as formative influences.

As well as assorted children’s books and the fabulous Sock Monkey, Millionaire produces a powerfully bizarre weekly strip entitled Maakies which delineates the absurdly rude and surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his alcoholic nautical comrade Drinky Crow (see Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury for further details).

In 2007 he produced the acclaimed and award-winning Billy Hazelnuts, the salutary tale of a Golem built from garbage by oppressed, vengeful rats and mice. Originally a ghastly, fly-bedecked monstrosity Billy was rescued and redeemed by little girl scientist Becky who gave him Hazelnut eyes and a fresh-baked confectionary body, and they went through a series of uniquely fantastic adventures.

Now he’s back in another strident, striking, fantastical folktale voyage. Irascible, good-hearted, fiery-tempered and super-strong, Billy is adapting to life on Rimperton Farm but has a few philosophical problems with the natural world: notably everything in it is icky, oozy and wants to eat everything else in it.

After a titanic tussle with the farm cat and an owl, Billy reluctantly takes responsibility for a newly hatched owl chick – an ugly, vicious, violent baby brute that keeps consuming whole chunks of his baked body…

After consulting the confectionary conjuror and all-around wise man Rupert Punch, Billy resolves to return the chick to its lost mother, undertaking a hazardous and utterly surreal journey through Millionaire’s incredible signature land-, sea- and sky-scapes, with the malevolent and opportunistic farm cat “assisting”, but he’s got to hurry: the ungrateful baby bird has already eaten the back of his head and an entire arm…

Rendered in Millionaire’s captivating black and white line, this darkly frantic race against time is a charmingly belligerent fantasy yarn with the requisite happy ending that will appeal to kids on any age, full of action, wonder, imagination and good intent, clearly promising that the author will soon be the worthiest contemporary successor to Baum, Sendak, the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll.

Brilliant, scary, poignant and lovely, make Billy Hazelnuts a part of your leisure-life now.

© 2010 Tony Millionaire. All Rights Reserved.

Wolfpack – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Larry Hama, Ron Wilson, Whilce Portacio, Kyle Baker & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-306-7

It’s been a long while since Marvel published an all-original graphic novel as opposed to a reprint collection, but not too long ago they were the market leader in the field with an entire range of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only proprietary characters but also licensed assets like Conan and even creator-owned properties.

They also took chances on unusual and cross-genre tales such as this little oddity which falls squarely into the category of a successful “bold departure” which subsequently spawned its own twelve issue series.

Wolfpack (not to be confused with the later maverick band of costumed heroes that appeared in the Marvel crossover event House of M) is an intriguing meld of savage inner-city reportage and high fantasy Ninja conspiracy thriller set in the utterly alien streets of the South Bronx. It takes a two thousand year old, multi-generational battle between ultimate Good and Evil and sets its latest skirmish in a terrifying ghetto where hope and honour refuse to die. It would make a great Teen TV show today…

‘Rafael’ is a loner in trouble. The corridors of Horace Harding High School are every bit as dangerous as the mean streets outside, but the cocky young outsider has a secret. He’s been training with the school caretaker…

What Rafael Vega doesn’t know is that Mr. Mack is a man with a past and a plan. As a black sailor in post-war Japan he experienced intolerance and repression from his own (white) shipmates, but found acceptance from certain Japanese ancients who saw in him a chance to continue a battle that had already spanned two millennia.

The ancients trained him in all their fighting arts, requiring him to form a new “Pack” and confront an everlasting circle of wealth, power and wicked excess called “The Nine”: an ever-changing cycle of decadents who represented the forces of Evil in some indefinable Cosmic Balance.

Mack returned to New York and began his task, knowing this opposing force would find him wherever he went. Ghastly and blighted as it was, the South Bronx would have been far worse if not for the decades-long, beneficent watch of a silent guardian – but that‘s all about to change…

Unknown to even his pupils, Mr. Mack had been clandestinely training kids in various fighting and philosophical arts for years, so when up-and-coming schoolboy gangster Lamarr targeted Raphael for death, Mack realised that it was time at last to introduce his young wolves to each other.

Now in ‘The Crucible’ Rafael discovers that some of his oldest associates were also singled out for a higher purpose by Mack and as he reassesses his new pack-mates, “Slag” Slagley, “Slippery Sam” Weltschmerz, wheelchair-bound “Wheels” Wolinski and even his own girlfriend Sharon, events turn ugly with startling rapidity. The new warriors organise none too soon as Lamarr graduates to attempted murder by destroying the store owned by Slippery Sam’s dad.

The Nine now make their move, recruiting Lamarr to their inner circle, but the wicked, Old-World Machiavellians have no idea how modern inner-city depravation can shape the nature of evil. As the death-toll mounts and the Pack strike back, events speed to a violent conclusion in ‘Transfiguration’ and The Nine realise that they might have made a terrible mistake with Lamarr…

Harsh and uncompromising, this introductory tale (I can’t shake the feeling this was originally scheduled as a three-part story-arc and “bumped” into a more high-profile graphic novel at the last moment) effortlessly compels with a dark mix of telling social drama, dark wit and superlative action-adventure that is far more hard-hitting than most comicbook tales even today.

The workmanlike Ron Wilson is probably nobody’s favourite artist, but he is a solid dependable illustrator with a good line in brooding brutes and inner city landscapes. Here, inked and augmented by such diverse budding stylists as Whilce Portacio and Kyle Baker his art takes on a moody realism that complements both the harsh environs of the plot and mystical martial arts elements with striking effect. The letters are provided by Joe Rosen and the somewhat hit-or miss colouring is by Petra Scotese, Max Scheele and Glynis Oliver.

Ugly, uncompromising, breathtakingly hard, this is the kind of book to show anybody who thinks that comics are all about men-in-tights and written for powerless sissy-boys…
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment Group. All Rights Reserved.

Dungeon Twilight volume 3: The New Centurions


By Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, Kerascoet & Obion, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-578-8

This slim tome is yet another instalment of the eccentric, raucous, addictively wacky and frankly stupendous franchise that is far better experienced than read about. Dungeon: Twilight joins Dungeons Parade, Zenith and Monstres as a wholly defined sub-series of a truly vast epic which follows the history of a fantastic magic castle on the magical, anthropomorphically stable world of Terra Amata…

The inhabitants of this weirdly surreal universe include every kind of talking beast and bug as well as monsters, demons, smart-alecs, wizards, politicians and stroppy women-folk. There’s always something happening and it’s usually quite odd…

The nominal star was originally a duck with a magic sword which forced him to channel dead heroes and monsters, but by this stage Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the rank of Grand Khan – though he’s still not quite sure how – the doddering old guy in charge when the entire world of Terra Amata exploded. Now secondary stars have risen to prominence, off-beat heroes such as the nomadic crimson warrior Marvin the Red – an unsavoury bunny in super-powered armour – and Herbert’s revolting children: the sexually voracious acting ruler Duchess Zakutu and her treacherous, spiteful brother Papsukal.

This volume starts as the world’s various exotic survivors eke out a perilous existence on isolated islands chaotically afloat hundreds of metres above a global sea of molten lava…

Comprising two translated albums it all kicks off with ‘The New Centurions’ illustrated by the delightfully adroit Kerascoet, in which Marvin begins to chafe under the Machiavellian intrigues and back-biting that dominate life in the ruined court of the Khan. Tasked with training assorted soldiery who won’t take a rabbit-warrior seriously yet keenly aware that the vultures are circling Marvin knows that when the take-over attempt begins they won’t be ready…

Inevitably that day comes and the usurpers are victorious, but Herbert survives to regroup: however Marvin and his mentor the Dust King are fed up with the whole interminable push-and-shove of politics and quit. Sneaking away they go looking for some uncomplicated adventuring among the floating Islands in the sky…

In ‘Revolutions’, with art by Obion, the pair are soon stranded on a giant chunk of land that is slowly rotating in a downward manner. With their bat-steed dead and Marvin’s armour lost to carnivorous grass the wanderers are forced to continually climb upwards just to stay in place. The alternative is a rapid and terminal plunge to the surging lava-seas below…

Eventually they come across a group of bears and other creatures who are pulling a gigantic villa and garden, keeping it one step ahead of the rotation doom. Why do the bedraggled and exhausted volunteers pull so determinedly? Is it for the eight hours of rest and sustenance in the paradisiacal gardens they are granted every third shift? Is it the favours of the willing women of the little Lord Takmool’s family? Or is the diminutive aristocrat simply the slyest snake-oil salesman and most duplicitous capitalist conman in the universe?

The Dust King is not so easily fooled but even he eventually joins the eager Marvin on the team – it is, after all, the only game in town. However this Garden of Eden supplies its own temptations and serpents and the darkly satiric allegory looks set to come to a bloody end until catastrophe strikes the entire island and a whole new world comes into being in the spectacular aftermath…

Surreal, earthy, sharp, poignant, hilarious and brilliantly outlandish, this fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read and the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of exuberant, graphic style. Definitely not for the young reader, Dungeon is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit and just plain smart read that older kids and adults of all ages will adore, but for a fuller comprehension – and even more insane fun – I strongly recommend buying all the attendant incarnations too.

© 2006, 2009 Delcourt Productions-Tronfheim-Sfar-Kerascoet-Obion. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

The Legendary Couple Book 1


By Louis Cha, Tony Wong & various, translated by Stuart Young (ComicsOne)
ISBN: 978-1-58899-191-1

If you’ve never experienced the unique manner in which Hong Kong comics are told and count yourself more of an art-buff than story junkie then the non-stop action and blistering, bewildering pace of these lush and lavish martial arts mystic mysteries could be a way to renew jaded appetites.

Whether original yarns, adaptations of legends and myths or novels such as celebrated Chinese writer Louis Cha’s book Return of the Condor Heroes which forms the basis of this staggering generational saga of love and vengeance, all stories for this market involve dastardly plots, glorious heroes and increasingly puissant combat philosophers and savants of spiritual mayhem battling interminably and usually with no discernible victors or victims.

Crafted in a variety of artistic styles including pen-and-ink, crayon, painted art, even photography, this is an exotic and frenetic comicbook about fighting, heavily influenced by the mystical component of Kung Fu. If you prefer a semblance of realism in your fiction this rollercoaster romp is not for you. This is Fighting Fantasy.

Superhero fans might be amazed at the variety of powers a lifetime of knuckle push-ups and bowing can produce, but these tales are wedded to the concept of training and will creating miracles. They are, however, irresistibly exuberant, beautifully illustrated and endlessly compelling. If you’re an open-minded fan, you may find yourself carried away on this relentless tide of non-stop action and shallow characterisation (at least to Western eyes – for the target market the pictures are everything: how a participant looks is his/her interior and exterior).

I’ve said it before and it’s still true. Hong Kong comics are beautiful. They’re produced using an intensive studio art-system that means any individual page might be composed of numerous graphic styles and techniques: literally anything that will get the job done.

And that job is to enhance not so much nuances of plot but rather details of the mysticism/philosophy of Kung Fu that my western sensibilities just aren’t attuned to. They are astounding to look at, but I don’t expect them to make much sense.

In this first of six volumes we are introduced to an army of warriors and fighting masters; living pin-ups spouting impressive genealogies, greatest hits and their duelling preferences and specialisations before getting down to the spectacular business of determining just whose Kung Fu and what secret techniques is the mightiest.

The slim narrative thread is provided by the tragic tale of Yang Guo; separated from his beloved Xiao Longnu for 16 years during the Song Dynasty of old China, and who spent the intervening time overcoming harsh odds and perfecting his abilities. Now with reunion in sight both lovers wonder if their passion has survived the years…

None of which is particularly germane here as almost the entire volume is a prequel, which introduces the myriad forces and players, brought together by the bloody vengeance spree of Chuo Lee, driven to madness when the noble Yuan Lu spurned her attentions, preferring the genteel Guan Ho instead. Chuo Lee, bloody rampage of murder and destruction earned her the name Fairy Qilan – the Red Snake Fairy.

Her depredations draw a number of disparate individuals fated to clash and love and die…

Because that’s fundamentally what this genre is about: glorious, lavish, mind-blowing exhibitions of Kung Fu excellence. Like much of the region’s classic cinema, all other considerations are suborned to the task of getting the fighting started and to keeping it going. If you’re looking for intense personal investiture, sharp dialogue or closure, look elsewhere. If, however, you want Good Guys thumping Bad Guys in extended, eye-popping ways, you might want to give this a go. Be warned though, it is by nature and design, a never-ending battle…

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