Loveless volume 1: A Kin of Homecoming


By Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin & various(Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1061-8 (Vertigo)             978-1845763374 (Titan Books UK edition)

As an entertainment genre, the Western is a rather odd duck which can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: a sparkly, shiny version which dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades and best personified by heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff: typified by and popularised through the celluloid efforts of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef or latterly in TV shows such as Deadwood

In comics, that latter kind of yarn – grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Charlier & Giraud’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer: iconic sagas which have only recently made their mark on US culture…

This book – available in UK and US paperback editions, but still as yet not in digital form – is that sort: recounting bleak, brutal incidents utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but which in the end are probably far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

The inspirationally iconic trappings of the Western make the milieu well-nigh irresistible to creative folk. We all want a crack at a cowboy story. When the horror-smudged eyes of Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, took a good hard look at the Western the result was sheer dynamite…

This initial volume from Vertigo gathers the first five issues (from December 2005-April 2006) and steadfastly sticks to the sound maxim that “Hell is Other People”…

Down in the battered, deprived South, Blackwater was a nasty little town even before the Secession Conflict. Now that it’s occupied by gloatingly victorious Union soldiers the place is rapidly dissolving into a cesspool and an open sore, with hate and resentment bubbling everywhere.

Moreover, for many in town and throughout the surrounding countryside, the war isn’t over until they say so…

…And then former resident and voluntary stranger Wes Cutter rides back into town with a silent brooding companion nobody recognises…

A defeated Confederate soldier, outlaw and extremely dangerous man, Cutter quickly sets about making all-new enemies to complement those he’s always had in his unwholesome home town.

Is it only coincidence that his return coincides with a growing wave of murder and destruction? And just what did happen to the wife he left behind…?

Blackly violent and relentlessly oppressive; sporting a large cast of broken and intriguing characters and patiently unfolding a dire and deadly mystery, Loveless is an adult tale of revenge powerfully reminiscent of films such as High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, but this shockingly visceral saga has many more shades and crannies than either.

The compelling enigma of Cutter and his equally deadly companion is as engrossing as the violence is compelling. Here is a very modern Western which will enthral readers whether they like cowboys or not.
© 2005, 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-504-8

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.

An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.

Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.

We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.

Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.

Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.

They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…

‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.

After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…

‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.

An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.

Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.

Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…

When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’

The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.

The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.

A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…

Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Athos in America


By Jason, coloured by Hubert and translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books) ISBN: 978-1-60699-478-8

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

He won another Sproing in 2001 for his Mjau Mjau strip and the next year turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now a global star among the cognoscenti he has numerous major awards from such disparate locales as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Jason’s breadth of interest is capacious and deep: comics, movies, music, high literature, low life, real life and pulp fiction all feature equally with no sense of hierarchy, and his puckish mixing and matching of these evergreen founts of inspiration always results in a picture-treatise well worth a reader’s time.

A master of short-form illustrated tales, many Jason yarns are released as snappy little albums which are perfect for later inclusion in longer anthology collections such as this one which gathers a half-dozen sharp of the very best.

As always, the visual/verbal bon mots unfold in Jason’s beguiling, sparse-dialogued, pantomimic progressions with enchantingly formal page layouts rendered in the familiar, minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style; solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity. That delight is augmented here by a varied and beguiling palette ranging from stark pastels to muted primary colours to moody duotone…

Available as a sturdily comforting hardback and exciting eBook edition, the stream of subtle wonderment opens with understated crime thriller ‘The Smiling Horse’ as the last survivor of a kidnap team endures decades of tense anticipation before their victim’s uncanny avenger finally dispenses long-deferred justice, after which Jason examines his own life, career and romantic failings in harsh, uncompromising detail in ‘A Cat from Heaven’

B-Movie Sci Fi informs ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf’ as a scientist spends years killing women whilst looking for a body that won’t reject the mean-spirited, constantly carping head he keeps alive in his laboratory, before ‘Tom Waits on the Moon’ inexorably draws together a quartet of introspective, isolated loners who spend too much time thinking not doing into a web of fantastic horror…

A cunning period gangster pastiche rendered in subdued shades of red and brown, ‘So Long, Mary Anne’ sees a decent woman helping a vicious escaped convict flee justice. After they snatch a hostage the “victim” soon begins to exert an uncanny influence over the desperate killer, but is she just wicked or is there a hidden agenda in play?

Most welcome attraction here is eponymous final story ‘Athos in America’. This is a fabulously engaging “glory days” yarn acting as a prequel to the author’s spellbinding graphic romp The Last Musketeer.

That epic detailed the final exploit of the dashing Athos, who met his end bravely and improbably after four hundred years of valiant adventure. But what was he doing in the years before that?

A guy walks into a bar… It’s America in the 1920s and the oddly-dressed Frenchman starts chatting to Bob the barman. As the quiet night unfolds the affable patron relates how he came to America to star in a movie about himself and his three greatest friends. Sadly, after he enjoyed a dalliance with the Studio’s top star, things quickly started to go wrong…

Effortlessly switching back and forth between genre, milieu and narrative pigeon holes, this grab-bag of graphic goodies again proves that Jason is a creative force in comics like no other: one totally deserving as much of your time, attention and disposable income as possible.
All characters, stories and artwork © 2011 Jason. All rights reserved.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis: volume 1


By Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5712-0                  978-0-7851-5713-7(TPB)

When the Ultimate Comics Spider-Man died, writer Brian Michael Bendis and Marvel promised that a new hero would arise from the ashes…

Marvel’s Ultimates imprint began in 2000 with a new post-modern take on major characters and concepts to bring them into line with the tastes of 21st century readers – apparently a wholly different market from those baby-boomers and their descendants content to stick with the precepts sprung from founding talents Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee… or simply those unable or unwilling to deal with decades of continuity baggage (seven if you include the Golden Age/Timely Comics tales retroactively co-opted into the mix which saturated the originals).

Eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor and in 2008 the cleansing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of super-humans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

In the aftermath Peter Parker and his fellow meta-human survivors struggled to restore order to a dangerous new world. Spider-Man finally gained a measure of acceptance and was hailed a hero when he valiantly and very publicly met his end during a catastrophic super-villain confrontation…

This collection – published before the mega-crossover events Time Runs Out and Secret Wars which resulted in the merger of the Ultimate and mainstream Marvel Universe – re-presents the introductory teaser from Ultimate Comics Fallout #4 (August 2011) and follow-up Ultimate Comics Spider-Man: Who is Miles Morales? #1-5) with a new and even younger Arachnid Avenger and describes how, just like his predecessor, a troubled boy learned the painful price of misusing the unique gifts fate had bestowed…

The epic opens with a skinny kid having the poor taste to parade around town in a cheap imitation costume of fallen hero Spider-Man encountering and somehow defeating vicious super-villain The Kangaroo. Then the revelations begin by spinning back to the relatively recent past where manic industrialist Norman Osborn repeats the genetic experiment which first gave Peter Parker his powers (see Ultimate Spider-Man volume 1: Power and Responsibility) via the bite of an artificially-mutated spider.

Unfortunately, the deranged mastermind didn’t expect a burglar to waltz in and accidentally carry off the latest test animal as part of his haul…

When grade-schooler Miles Morales gets into prestigious and life-changing Brooklyn Visions Academy Boarding School by the most callous of chances, the brilliant African American/Latino lad quickly and cynically realises life is pretty much a crap-shoot… and unfair to boot. Feeling guilty about his unjust success and sorry for the 697 other poor kids who don’t get his chance, he sneaks off to visit his uncle Aaron.

The visit has to be secret since his uncle is a “bad influence”: a career criminal dubbed The Prowler. Whilst there, a great big spider with a number on its back bites Miles and he begins to feel very odd…

For starters he starts fading from sight…

Suddenly super-fast and strong, able to leap huge distances and fade from view, Miles rushes over to see geeky pal Ganke, a brilliant nerd already attending Brooklyn Visions. Applying “scientific” testing, the boy also discovers Miles can deliver shocking, destructive charges through his hands. When Miles goes home Ganke continues online research and deduces a connection to Spider-Man; strenuously pushing his friend towards becoming a costumed crusader.

However, after Miles assists during a tenement fire, saving a mother and baby, shock sets in and he resolves never to use his powers again…

Time passes: Miles and Ganke are roommates at the Academy for almost a year when news of a major metahuman clash rocks the city. Troubled Miles heads out and is an accidental bystander at the scene of Spider-Man’s death.

Seeing a brave man perish so valiantly, Miles is again consumed by guilt: if he had used his own powers when they first manifested he might have been able to help; to save a true hero…

As part of the crowd attending Parker’s memorial Miles and Ganke talk to another mourner, a girl who actually knew Parker. Gwen Stacy offers quiet insights to the grieving child and a phrase which alters the course of his life forever: “with great power comes great responsibility…”

Clad in a Halloween Spidey costume borrowed from Ganke, Miles takes to the night streets for the first time and stops Kangaroo from committing murder…

His third night out the exhilarated 13-year old encounters the terrifying and furiously indignant Spider-Woman who thrashes and arrests him, before dragging him to Government agency S.H.I.E.L.D, where Hawkeye, Iron Man and master manipulator Nick Fury coldly assess him.

However, before they can reach a decision on Miles’ fate, murderous malcontent Electro breaks free of the Triskelion’s medical custody ward and goes on a rampage.

Despite easily defeating the seasoned heroes the voltage villain is completely unprepared for a new Spider-Man: especially as the boy has a range of extra powers including camouflage capabilities and an irresistible “venom-strike” sting…

As Miles considers the full implications of his victory, Fury imparts a staggeringly simple homily: “With great power…”

Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli crafted a stirring new chapter both engaging and intriguing and this stirring debut volume (available in Hardcover, Trade Paperback and digital editions) also contains a gallery of alternate covers by Marko Djurdjevic and Pichelli.

Tense, breathtaking, action-packed, evocative and full of the light-hearted, self-aware humour which blessed the original Lee/Ditko tales, this is a controversial but worthy way to continue and advance the legend Fights ‘n’ Tights addicts will admire and adore…
A British Edition ™ & © 2012, 2016 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

The Paper Man


By Milo Manara (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-022-2

The lush and sensuous art of Milo Manara has always outshone his scripting – at least to English speaking sensibilities – but on occasion his pared-down writing produces genuine comic gems. One such is the egregiously STILL OUT OF PRINT monochrome wonder The Paper Man.

A sparse and gritty epic of Love and Death on the American frontier, the lavishly rendered graphic spectacle ostensibly tells the tragic tale of a young man looking for his Truly Beloved in a relentless trek across Arizona, and his chance meetings with pop-culture mile-markers.

These include a weather-crazed Preacher, a demented veteran of the long-past War of Independence, and the erotic and sensual Sioux maiden White Rabbit, all depicted against a backdrop of the most hallowed tropes and clichés of the Western, exported as cultural icons from Hollywood to the rest of the world.

By following a rather inept and innocent everyman through increasingly harsh incidents with US cavalrymen, wagon-trains, drunken and malevolent cow-pokes – plus, of course, marauding “Injuns” – none of whom actually conform to their stereotypes, Manara looks at the commonplace in a fresh if somewhat reductionist manner, without losing sight of the fact that the reader always wants an enthralling story, beautifully rendered.

This untypical western with its starkly sumptuous art and crushingly tragic ‘final reel’ owes more to Brecht than to Ford or Huston, but nonetheless remains powerfully true to its roots, and is achingly easy on the eyes. Minimal but wonderful, lush and Spartan, this is a Wild West story for every adult to enjoy, regardless of when they last put on a cowboy hat.

…So, for Pete’s Sake can’t somebody puh-lease re-release an English-language version, even if only as an electronic edition?
© 1982 by Dargaud Editeur, Paris for Milo Manara. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

American Vampire volume 1


By Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Stephen King & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2830-9                  978-1-4012-2974-0 (SC)

In myth, literature and entertainment, there are many sorts of vampires. Here’s one species that’s a superbly grounded counterpoint to the scarlet deluge of lovey-dovey, kissey-poo tales of forbidden love between innocent modern maids and moody, tragic carriers of the Curse of the Night’s Children: one that uses for its themes Darwinian Survival of the Fittest, old-fashioned Revenge and the ultimate grisly example of Manifest Destiny; all played out against the chillingly familiar backdrop of the bloody birth of a modern nation…

In Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque’s first narrative arc, augmented and supplemented here by a stunning sidebar storyline from the functionally mythical Stephen King (who also provides a trenchant Introduction with ‘Suck on This’) – the kind of vampires that you should rightly beware of are introduced and explained, but although there are love stories in this series they’re probably not the sort you want your impressionable kids to read…

The sinister suspense begins with ‘Big Break’ as, in the Hollywood of 1925, struggling but popular and ambitious would-be starlets Pearl Jones and Hattie Hargrove follow their dream of celluloid stardom, working days as bit-players in movie mogul D. B. Bloch’s latest silent epic.

The girls have only been best friends for a short while but shared hardship makes them closer than sisters even if, too often, Pearl is distracted by itinerant musician Henry Preston and the aggravatingly persistent and obnoxious drifter who hangs out near their Ladies-Only boarding house.

The actresses’ careers seem destined to blossom when leading man Chase Hamilton invites the fame-hungry gamins to one of Bloch’s legendary Producer’s Parties. Despite shaded warnings from their laconic stalker, Pearl and Hattie attend but when the unctuous Chase takes the Jones girl aside to meet D. B. it isn’t the kind of assignation she expects…

Reeling with horror, the feisty actress finds herself a morsel and kickback-offering for a pack of wealthy European money-men who are literally blood-sucking monsters…

King & Albuquerque then take us back to the hoary days of 1880 and Sidewinder, Colorado, as veteran wordsmith Will Bunting relates the true story behind his novel ‘Bad Blood’ to a group of eager fans and historians…

The ancient scribbler recounts the fantastic yet apparently non-fictional tale of outlaw Skinner Sweet, a remorseless thief frustrating progress, killing good folks and stealing funds from sun-shy, Euro-trash millionaire railroad speculator Mr. Percy. When the psychotic bandit is finally captured by Pinkerton agent Jim Book and deputy Felix Camillo, the triumphant banker lays on a special train for a gaggle of journalists to record the victory of civilisation over lawlessness…

As the killer’s gang subsequently derails the train and massacres everyone who survived the crash, Skinner cruelly and casually takes time out to reveal how he killed Book’s wife…

Sweet then guns down Book and overwhelms Camillo, but is utterly unprepared for the attack of effete-seeming Percy who shrugs off fusillades of bullets before slaughtering them all. Skinner won’t die easily though, and in close combat with the fanged, gore-guzzling horror blows the European monstrosity’s eye out, consequently taking its blood into his own body before at last expiring…

Unknown to all, Bunting has seen everything and, as fully-healed Percy tends to Book and Camillo, wisely decides to say nothing of the horror he’s witnessed…

The Hollywood story then resumes with ‘Morning Star’ as Hattie and Henry discover Pearl is missing. Driving to the isolated mansion they discover her; ravaged, chewed to ribbons as if by some animal, yet inexplicably clinging to life.

Pearl wakes in the Morgue, having been visited by her mysterious stalker. Skinner Sweet has shared his unique blood with her and now, as the once-deceased actress listens in astonishment, the smirking ghoul explains some facts of life – and death – to her.

Like himself she has been attacked by ancient, old-world vampires, and by sharing their blood – accidentally in his case but quite deliberately when Sweet bestowed his own kiss upon her – Pearl has become a new kind of hybrid-bloodsucker, perfectly evolved to inhabit the New World, with completely different weaknesses to the old guard and, hopefully, sharing Sweet’s lust for revenge, taste for chaos and hunger for life…

After giving her a quick lesson on the differences between the European nosferatu who have carved themselves an almost unassailable position of closeted wealth and power in the young nation and the new American Vampires (now numbering two), the morally bankrupt wanderer takes off, leaving his hungry offspring to sink, swim or stand on her own shape-shifting, taloned feet…

He does leave a present, however: locked in her closet, Chase Hamilton quickly realises he is about to pay for all his many sins…

‘Deep Water’ finds author Will Bunting also in 1925, talking about the re-issue of his fantastic novel to a store full of avid fans. The tale, describing the iconic life of heroic Jim Book and his battle against vampire outlaw Skinner Sweet, resumes at the point when the infected owlhoot wakes up in his own grave. Far above him the cabal of expatriate vampires secretly dominating America’s nascent financial system continue accruing wealth and power and insouciantly turn the entire town of Sidewinder into Colorado’s latest reservoir and boating lake…

For nearly thirty years Book continues with his peacekeeping profession and eventually Camillo is elected Mayor of new town Lakeview. More worryingly Bunting had turned the tale of Sweet and the vampires into a popular dime-novel so sensation-seekers and treasure-hunters regularly dredge the man-made mere for souvenirs of the infamous outlaw…

One day in 1909 a couple of them unearth the now legendary badman’s buried, sunken coffin and unleash a rabid horror unlike anything ever seen in the world before: a leech unaffected by running water, stakes or sunlight. Hungry for revenge and sustenance Skinner Sweet emerges into a new America and starts hunting old “friends” he owes a debt to…

In Tinsel Town meanwhile, Pearl returns to her lodgings and tells shell-shocked Hattie to flee before continuing her own quest for vengeance in ‘Rough Cut’. The immortal Euro-cabal are, as usual, discussing what to do about their personal nemesis Sweet and his protracted annoyance, unaware they have a far more pressing problem. That all changes after the unstoppable and infinitely superior Pearl butchers three of them. Without knowing what could kill this New World species of vampire, the clique resorts to age-old stratagems even as Miss Jones – resuming mortal form – turns to Henry for a little comfort and support…

Just then the phone rings and Bloch demands that she surrender herself or Hattie will die horribly…

Back in 1909 Sweet’s ‘Blood Vengeance’ eliminates every human in Lakeview and proclaims his intentions to a horrified coterie of haughty, privileged, old-world bloodsuckers who previously believed themselves the planet’s apex predators. Even so, the resurgent outlaw has more pressing business. Before the last man in town died, Sweet made him send a telegram to Jim Book…

‘Double Exposure’ sees Pearl desperately negotiating for Hattie’s life, knowing surrender only leads her to becoming the cabal’s eternal, experimental lab rat. She is utterly unaware she has already been betrayed by someone close to her: someone pitifully greedy and unable to resist the subtle pressures and obvious blandishments of the European ancients.

However, even bushwhacked, mysteriously weakened and brutally assaulted, Pearl, with the aid of her last true friend, turns the tables and even destroys Bloch’s fortress before escaping to prepare for one last showdown…

The writer’s tale is also approaching a climax as ‘One Drop of Blood’ finds Book, Felix, the young Bunting and Camillo’s daughter Abilena hunting Sweet through the hellish ruins of Lakeview just as the bloodthirsty travesty discovers that his powers and energies are unaccountably waning. Watching unsuspected from a distant position of seclusion, “Euro-Vamps” bide their time and witness the shocking finale as the valiant comrades use dynamite to bury the debilitated devil in a deep mine-shaft under tons of unyielding rock – but not before the sadistic Skinner deliberately infects Book with his own tainted, mutagenic blood…

Pearl’s story in this first stunning volume concludes in a sustained spray of scarlet gore as she climactically confronts Bloch and his surviving comrades only to face one final tragic betrayal in ‘Curtain Call’ whilst ‘If Thy Right Hand Offend Thee…’ discloses Book’s climactic battle with the cursed thirst Sweet had inflicted upon him, even as unstoppable Skinner enjoys one last chat with the Euro-leech who created him…

The time-distanced yet parallel tales then coincide and conclude with a hint of foreboding; presaging more horrors in the days and decades to come…

This initial creepy, compelling chronicle also includes a pithy Afterword from Snyder, a welter of variant covers by Albuquerque, Jim Lee, Bernie Wrightson, Andy Kubert, JH Williams III and Paul Pope, a feature on the script-to-art process and 6 pages of designs and sketches by the supremely skilled and multi-faceted Albuquerque to delight and impress all fans of truly mature supernatural thrills and chills.

Far more True Blood than Twilight and substantially closer to Sam Peckinpah than John Ford or Tod Browning, this lightning-paced, sardonically gory excursion into blood and sand and love and death is a spectacular, absorbing thrill-riot by two of the industry’s best talents, backed up and covered by an absolute master of tone and terror, combining to craft a splendid, sordid, sexy and utterly spellbinding saga, riddled with far deeper metaphors than “unrequited love sucks”.

American Vampire offers solid screams and enchantingly fresh ideas all fear-fiends will find irresistible, making this modern classic an absolute “must-have” and a certain reminder that there are such things as monsters and some beasts just should not be tamed…
© 2010, Scott Snyder and Stephen King. All Rights Reserved.

Indian Summer


By Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt, translated by Jeff Lisle (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 0-87416-030-2-8

Hugo Eugenio Pratt (June 15th 1927-August 20th 1995) was one of the world’s paramount comics creators, and his enthralling graphic narratives inventions since ‘Ace of Spades’ (whilst still a student at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts) in 1945 were both many and varied.

His signature character – based in large part on his own exotic early life – is the mercurial soldier (perhaps sailor would be more accurate) of fortune, Corto Maltese.

After working in both Argentinean and English comics for years Pratt returned to Italy in the 1960s. In 1967 he produced a number of series for monthly comic Sgt. Kirk. In addition to the Western lead character, he created pirate strip Capitan Cormorand, detective feature Lucky Star O’Hara, and a moody South Seas adventure called Una Ballata del Mare Salato (A Ballad of the Salty Sea).

The magazine folded in 1970, but Pratt took one of Ballata’s characters to the French weekly, Pif, before eventually settling into the legendary Belgian periodical Tintin. Corto Maltese proved as much a Wild Rover in reality as in his historic and eventful career…

However, a storyteller of such vast capabilities as Pratt was ever-restless, and as well as writing and illustrating his own tales, he scripted for other giants of the industry. In 1983 he crafted a steamy tale of sexual tension and social prejudice set in the New England colonies in the days before the Salem Witch Trials. The tale is timeless, potent and – naturally – out of print in the English language. In a world of digital publishing I find that utterly incomprehensible…

Tutto ricominciò con un’estate Indiana (released and known as Indian Summer – although a more appropriate and illustrative translation would be “All things begin again with an Indian Summer”) was brought to stunning pictorial life by fellow Italian graphic raconteur Milo Manara.

Maurilio Manara (born September 12th 1945) is best known for his wry, controversial erotica – but that’s more an indicator of the English-speaking comics market than any artistic obsession. The compelling creator is an intellectual, whimsical craftsman with a dazzling array of artistic skills ranging from architecture, product design, painting and of course an elegant, refined, clear-clean line style with pen and ink.

He studied painting and architecture before becoming a comic artist in 1969, beginning with the Fumetti Neri series Genius, worked on the magazine Terror and in 1971 began his erotic career illustrating Francisco Rubino’s Jolanda de Almaviva. In 1975 his first major work Lo Scimmiotto (The Ape – a reworking of the Chinese tales of the Monkey King) was released.

By the end of the decade he was working for the Franco-Belgian markets where he is still regarded as a first-rank creator. It was while working for Charlie Mensuel, Pilote and L’Écho des savanes that he created his signature series HP and Giuseppe Bergman – which initially saw print in A Suivre.

The “HP” of the title is his good friend Hugo Pratt…

New England in the 17th century: The Puritan village of New Canaan slowly grows in placid, if uneasy, co-existence with the natives who have fished and hunted these coastal regions for centuries. When young Shevah Black is raped by two young Indians, outcast Abner Lewis kills them both. Taking the “ruined” girl back to his mother’s cottage in the woods, he introduces her to the entire family – mother Abigail, siblings Jeremiah, Elijah and Phyllis – a whole brood of damned sinners banished by her uncle the Reverend Pilgrim Black.

The mother was once a servant in the Black household, but has lived in the woods for twenty years, ever since Pilgrim Black’s father raped her. When Abigail fell pregnant she was cast out for her sin and her face still bears a sinner’s brand. Aided by the Indians the reluctant mother built a cabin, and over the years had three further children.

Her progeny are all wild creatures of nature; healthy, vital and with many close ties both to the natives (from choice) and the truly decadent Black family (by sordid, unwelcome history and association)…

Now blood has spilled and passions are roused: none of those ties can prevent a bloodbath, and as the day progresses many dark secrets come to light as the intolerance, hypocrisy and raw, thwarted lust of the upstanding Christians leads to an inexorable clash with the Indians – by far the most sensible and decent individuals in the place – with the pitifully isolated, ostracized and alienated Lewis clan stuck in middle and betrayed by everybody…

Beautiful, disturbing and utterly compelling, this thoroughly adult examination of sexual tension, attitudinal eugenics and destructive, tragic love is played out against the sweltering seductive heat and primitive glories of a natural, plentiful paradise which only needs its residents to act more like beasts and less like humans to achieve a perfect tranquillity.

Sadly, every Eden has serpents and here there are three: religion, custom and pride…

Pratt’s passion for historical research is displayed by the graphic afterword in which he not only cites his extensive sources – including a link to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter – but adds some fascinating insights and speculations on the fates of the survivors of the New Canaan massacre…

Although there is a 1994 NBM edition available, I’m reviewing from my 1986 Catalan copy principally because I own that one, but also because the Catalan copy has a magnificent four-page foldout watercolour cover (which I couldn’t fit onto my scanner no matter how I tried) and some pretty amazing sketches and watercolour studies gracing Javier Coma’s insightful introduction.

This is a classic tale of humanity frailty, haunting, dark and startlingly lovely. Whatever version you find, you must read this superb story and if any print or digital publisher is reading this, you know what you should do…
© 1986, 1994 Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

The Last Musketeer


By Jason, coloured by Hubert and translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books) ISBN: 978-1-56097-889-3

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

He won another Sproing in 2001 for the series Mjau Mjau and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now a global star among the cognoscenti he has won seven major awards from such disparate regions as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Jason’s breadth of interest is capacious and deep: comics, movies, music, high literature and pulp fiction all feature equally with no sense of hierarchy and his puckish mixing and matching of his inspirational sources always produces a picture-treatise well worth a reader’s time.

As always, this visual/verbal bon mot unfolds in Jason’s beguiling, sparse-dialogued, pantomimic progressions with enchantingly formal page layouts rendered in the familiar, minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style; solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity augmented here by a beguiling palette of stark pastels and muted primary colours. This delicious caper is one of his best yarns ever and even spawned a prequel…

The Last Musketeer is an epic gem rife with his signature surreality; populated with his quirkily quotidian cast of darkly comic anthropomorphic regulars, and downplaying his signature themes of relationships and loneliness to produce a wild action-adventure for a charmingly macabre cast of bestial movie archetypes and lost modern chumps to romp through…

The brief full-colour thriller opens with a drunk in a Paris bar. He claims to be the musketeer Athos, still alive after four centuries… and he is.

The contemplative warrior dreams of past glories and inseparable old comrades but things aren’t just the same anymore…

As he muses on a bench, destructive balls of energy rain down on the city and Athos realises he is needed again and might just have one last adventure in him…

Despite failing to get the old gang back together, he persists in his quest and, after fighting a couple of green-skinned invaders, induces them to take him to their world…

All too soon he is making friends, battling the flamboyantly evil King of the Red Planet, helping a Princess of Mars foment an Earth-saving revolution and encountering an enemy from home he had long forgotten…

And we’re all still here so he must have triumphed in the end…

Outrageously merging the worlds of Alexander Dumas with Edgar Rice Burroughs whilst gleefully borrowing Flash Gordon’s props and work ethic, The Last Musketeer is a superbly engaging pastiche that is pure nostalgia and pure Jason.

Jason is instantly addictive and a creator every serious fan of the art form should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list.
All characters, stories and artwork © 2007 Jason. All rights reserved.

Doug Wildey’s Rio: The Complete Saga


By Doug Wildey (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-210-2                  eISBN: 978- 1-62302-476-5

There have been a lot of Western comics over the years created by Americans and other nations. Most were banged out as commercial fodder to feed fashion during periods when more mainstream media celebrated a periodic re-emergence of the genre. Rio is most definitely not one of those.

Working at his own pace for his own pleasure over many long years and virtually isolated from the mainstream comics world, the late Doug Wildey – famed animator (Johnny Quest) and comic strip artist (his Outlaw Kid strips for Marvel were a rare high-point during the 1950’s Western boom following the rise of TV ownership in the USA) – produced an iconic and elegiac immortal character.

After a meandering trail of appearances at Eclipse, Comico and Marvel, the wanderer most recently settled at IDW for this glorious collection: far more a serious art book than simply collection of wondrous comics storytelling.

Almost the entirety of this stupendous compendium is shot from Wildey’s immaculate multi-media original art with corrections, amendments and every instance and evidence of the creator’s interaction with the page left for aficionados to enjoy. No flattening bowdlerisation of the print process here: Think of it as a gallery visit in your own hands…

The content is all Wildey’s published stories, one entire unpublished tale and a final almost-complete saga the artist was working on when he died. As he was a rather mercurial cove Wildey skipped about a story, wrapping up pages as the whim took him, so the missing parts are there in spirit too: as roughs, sketches, pencils or script and layout designs. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a born raconteur and relentless perfectionist plying his trade…

Also included are dozens of sketches, pin-ups and other associated images all given weight and context through a loving appreciation by Mark Evanier in his Introduction. What more can a fan want?

Well, obviously, a damned fine read…

An old gunfighter and badman in the heydays of the Wild West, Rio is rangy loner wandering the country just ahead of creeping civilisation, trying to live the rest of his life as best he can as the end draws near.

The saga began as a serial in the early 1980s in Eclipse Monthly, during the early days of American Comics’ Direct Market revolution before being collected into an album-sized compilation and assorted reprints since.

In ‘The Hide Butchers’ the iconically world-weary “tall rider” is engrossed on a tricky and dangerous mission. Offered a full pardon by President Ulysses S. Grant in return for stopping the decimation of the Buffalo herds by “Sporting Specials”, Rio is in Wyoming Territory vainly attempts to reason with the Railway boss Dorsey.

These train excursions, wherein customers could slaughter the animals from the comfort of their seats, nearly wiped out the Buffalo, and consequently almost starved the Indians who lived off them to their own extinction.

Deemed a threat to profits, the loner is promptly framed for murder by the bigwig’s hirelings – the Grady Parrish gang – and must hunt down a small army of gunmen before he can know any real peace…

That hunt begins in ‘Satan’s Doorstep’ wherein the trail leads into Apache country and a doomed clash with a cavalry troop led by a glory-obsessed fool who thinks he’s the next Napoleon Bonaparte…

Sole survivor of that desert confrontation, Rio picks up his quarry’s trail in Endsville, Wyoming and quickly crosses the border to an enslaved Mexican town turned into a ‘Robber’s Roost’ by the bandits he’s chasing.

To pass the time the sadistic brutes play a murderous hunting game with the citizens, however when Rio is captured he finds a way to turn the tables against them…

Wildey was a master storyteller and a Western Historian of some note. His art graced many galleries and museums, but his greatest achievements can be seen here, where his artistry brings that lost and fabled world briefly back to vibrant life, in spirit as well as look.

Wildey switched over to colour in his own unique style and a more luscious and painterly colour palette, transferring his iconic lone rider from the wilderness to the very borders of the creeping Civilisation he so patently abhorred in a sequel to his original tale of ‘Mr. Howard’s Son’

Now finally pardoned by President Grant, Rio is invited to become sheriff of Limestone City, a burgeoning metropolis less than 100 miles from Kansas City yet somehow a town with no crime! Whilst considering the offer, he finds old friends already living there; two of the most infamous outlaws in history who – with their families – are living quietly as respectable, if incognito, citizens of the progressive paradise.

However, after a botched kidnapping and speculative bank raid exposes the retired outlaws, human nature and petty spite quickly lead to disastrous chaos and a spiral of bloody tragedy which the new lawman is ill-equipped and much disinclined to help with…

Next up is ‘Hot Lead for Johnny Hardluck’ as Rio meets a young Dutch kid hardened by exploitative mine work who has chanced upon a fortune. After winning a huge diamond at poker the boy heads for San Francisco, unaware that the sore loser has hire a pack of thieves to restore the stone at all costs…

Happily, Rio is working as stagecoach guard on the route the kid follows but even after the fireworks are over, the danger and bloodshed isn’t…

Another brush with famous gunmen informs ‘Red Dust in Tombstone’ as Rio meets up with Doc Holliday and his pals the Earp brothers. Trouble is brewing in town and tensions are high but Wildey smartly shows us a telling side of all concerned that movies have not…

Wrapping the narratives up with the tantalising promise of what might have been, ‘Reprisal’ is an unfinished masterpiece of cowboy lore as the lone rider saunters into a brewing crisis on the border. Bandits are raiding ranches but when the wanderer uncovers a scam with soldiers selling gunpowder to the outlaws the situation quickly escalates into savage tragedy…

The wagon train of wonders closes with an epic visual treat as ‘Doug Wildey’s Rio Gallery’ re-presents covers, evocative colour illustrations, sketches and model sheets to delight every fan of the genre or just great illustration.

Gripping, authentic, and satisfyingly mythic, these tales from a master of his subject and his craft are some of the best westerns America has ever produced and some of the most sublime sequential art every set to paper.
© 2012 Ellen Wildey. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2012 Mark Evanier.

Sshhhh!


By Jason (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-497-0

Jason is John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won Norway’s biggest comics prize: the Sproing Award.

He won another in 2001 for the series Mjau Mjau and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. A global star among the cognoscenti, he has many more major awards from such disparate regions as France, Slovakia and the USA.

All his tales brim with bleak isolation and are swamped with a signature surreality; largely pantomimic progressions populated with cinematically-inspired, darkly comic anthropomorphs ruminating on his favourite themes of relationships and loneliness, viewed through a charmingly macabre cast of bestial movie archetypes and cartoon critters.

A perfect example of his oeuvre is ‘Sshhhh!’: a deliciously evocative, extended romantic melodrama created without words; the bittersweet tale of boy-bird meeting girl-bird in a world overly populated with spooks and ghouls and skeletons but afflicted far more harshly by loneliness and regret. Of course, it’s not just that. It’s also boy-bird loses girl-bird to death, other men, his own inadequacies and the vagaries of parenthood. It’s about how money fixes nothing and how Death is ever at your elbow and can be – quite frankly – a bit of a pest…

It’s sex and death and discontentment and bloody ungrateful kids; aliens, being invisible, miserable vacations, disappointing locations, guys who are sexier than you and The Devil… and birds-nests…

The enchantingly formal page layouts are rendered in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style: solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity augmented here by a stunning palette of stark pastels and muted primary colours.

Jason’s work always jumps directly into the reader’s brain and heart, always probing the nature of “human-ness” by using the beastly and unnatural to ask persistent and pertinent questions. Although the clever sight-gags are less prominent here, his repertory company of “funny-animal” characters still uncannily display the subtlest emotions with devastating effect, proving again just how good a cartoonist he is.

This comic tale is best-suited for adults but makes us all look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. Jason is instantly addictive and a creator every serious fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. Don’t even wait for a physical copy, buy a digital edition ASAP, just so you can see immediately what all the fuss is about…
All characters, stories and artwork© 1998, 1999, 2008 Jason. All rights reserved.