War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.

Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-242-8

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all has come out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small moment of that bloody mistake.

Vaughan and Henrichon, using the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, tell the anthropomorphised tale of a family of Lions who are unwillingly freed from their zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end.

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, powerful, tale with characters who you will love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item that told of the lions roaming the war torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book, which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types. Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, not yet, but read it.

© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Orbiter

Orbiter 

By Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran with Dave Stewart (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-4012-0056-7

This offering from the industry’s Enfant Terrible is a heartfelt but insubstantial slice of post-Twilight Zone hokum, set on a dystopian Earth in the years following the mysterious disappearance of the space shuttle Venture. It vanished from Earth orbit a decade previously, taking with it a crew of seven and ultimately, the world’s taste for space flight. When Venture crashes into the shanty-town that used to be the Kennedy space centre it carries only the original – catatonic – pilot, dust that could must have come from Mars and alien technology that has transformed a glorified glider into a true inter-stellar voyager. The last dregs of NASA must then reform to solve the mystery and return to mankind the defrayed, delayed destiny of The Stars.

For avowed space aficionados Ellis and Doran this is probably an earnest labour of love, but the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing particularly original or worthwhile that hasn’t been done to death elsewhere, although the artist’s departure from her usual glossy, highly stylised and glossy pencils for a more gritty and European manner of drawing is an welcome and effective surprise.

All in all, though, despite being something of a departure for the writer and perhaps a disappointment for those dedicated comics fans expecting another Strange Kiss or Transmetropolitan, there’s still something of interest to be gained for the casual reader.

© 2003 Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.

100 Bullets: The Hard Way

100 Bullets: The Hard Way 

By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-041-7

After a frankly spectacular beginning, this brilliantly stylish crime/conspiracy thriller could only decline in quality, and such was indeed the case. When as sleek and glossy a story-hook as “what if you were given an untraceable gun, one hundred bullets and a damned good reason”, is in the creative hands of talents like Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso you know the resultant drama is going to start big, but after 50+ issues can they maintain the adrenaline and the pace?

Until recently, the answer seemed to be “No”. However, with the eighth volume The Hard Way (collecting issues #50-58 of the monthly comic) there is a welcome return to form and the muddled shufflings of the previous volume now appear as nothing more than scene settings for another major charge.

The centre piece for the latest book is the true history of the United States of America and the origins of the Trust – an illicit organisation that actually controls the country. We get further insight into the workings of Agent Graves and the lethal team of gangsters called The Minutemen, through the usual quota of blood, sex, guns, intrigue and the harshest of harsh language.

As members of the Trust plan to rewrite their 400 year old accord, the scattered members of Grave’s old team circle in the wings. Wylie Times takes a bloody sabbatical in New Orleans, and becomes involved in a couple of nasty domestic vendettas, which in turn leads to the removal of a major player in the drama.

This return to form provides gripping thrills and promises an incredible future climax to what may be the best crime-comic ever published.

© 2005 Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Black Flowers

Hellblazer: Black Flowers

By Mike Carey & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-186-3

This Constantine collection (reprinting issues #181-186) sees Carey setting his own skewed stamp on the iconic street wizard with a collection of tales that gently move the series towards a spectacular climax to celebrate the comic’s then impending bi-centenary. Carey’s greatest strength is his meticulous forward planning and many seeds are planted here to compliment those already scattered in the previous volume Red Sepulchre.

First up is The Game of Cat and Mouse, illustrated by Jock, which sees Constantine running for so much more than his life from Spectral ‘messengers’ through the secret parts of London. Lee Bermejo provides chilling art for the eponymous Black Flowers as the wizard gathers allies and information whilst purging a sleepy hamlet of some unwelcome dead visitors who’ve broken out of the local insane asylum. Fan favourite Marcelo Frusin provides pictures for the final tale Third Worlds as Constantine and his companion go travelling, encountering some old acquaintances – most notably the Swamp Thing – whilst preparing themselves for the latest Armageddon Hammer to fall.

Hellblazer is consistently terrifying and hilarious by turn, and John Constantine is probably the best anti-hero ever written. Carey and friends are consistently creating a grim, chilling, engrossing and uproarious horror romp. The least you can do is consistently own these collections. A vote with your wallet just means they’ll keep on doing it, right?

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin, Steve Dillon & Jimmy Palmiotti
ISBN 1-84576-068-9

The first post-movie Hellblazer collection should take the bad taste out of fans’ mouths as Mike (Lucifer) Carey takes over the writing and immediately re-establishes the essential post-punk Englishness and milieu of the character.

Arriving illegally back in Liverpool after his American adventures, the coolest sod in comics visits his sister to discover a necromantic blight affecting the block of flats she lives in. After tackling that particular evil (High on Life from Hellblazer # 175-176, illustrated by veteran Vertigoer Steve Dillon), he returns to London to track down his missing niece Gemma, who has become an unwitting pawn in a vicious bidding war for The Red Sepulchre, a mystical artefact of legendary and unquantifiable power (issues # 177-180).

This is a welcome return to vintage form for John Constantine. Rife with double-cross and manipulation, the magician inveigles and connives his way through all sorts of Hells, with his customary Game-Face grin and plot-within-plot strategy, seemingly taking hit after hit but always most assuredly in absolute control of the field.

Marcelo Frusin’s sparse storytelling and his fearfully disciplined drawing whips the reader from page to page like fat kids down a water-slide for a completely unvarnished thrill-ride, and Carey’s essential grasp of Constantine makes for some of the best urban horror since Garth Ennis’s run on the title. Long-time fans should also appreciate the wonderfully subtle foreshadowings hidden herein when later issues are collected. Here is quality stuff that starts strong and gets better, and new readers can safely jump on for a truly spooky time.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: Tag

Ex Machina: Tag

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-123-5

The second collection of memoirs starring New York City’s coolest – and most super-powered – Mayor, picks up where the first left off as the chief official continues his quest to really make a difference by tackling every issue at once, head-on, and generally by ignoring any suggestion of traditional politics.

The premise that a do-gooder would go public, eschew using his powers – in this case the ability to communicate with and command all electronics – quit flying around via his trusty jetpack, and even establish a frank and open dialogue with that arch bogie-man, the US government, is a refreshing dose of Realheroik, and the sustained mystery of the precise origin of his powers adds body to an engaging and well realised piece of fiction.

The plot this time concerns the discovery of a serial killer/monster that is lurking in the New York Subway system that seems somehow connected to The Mayor’s exotic past, but the most satisfying moments are when Mitchell Hundred applies his obdurately direct manner to the thorny issues of fund raising, gay marriage and media relations. If only more party hacks read this, maybe we’d all benefit in our daily lives.

Ex Machina is a fine example of that rarest of Hen’s Teeth, an adult comic for people who have actually grown up. You should get politicking and go spread the word.

™ & © 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 

By Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-025-5

It is always a genuine pleasure to see something different done with the tired cliché of the superhero in the “Real World” and this new series from Vaughan and Harris is probably the freshest and most entertaining example I’ve seen in many a year.

Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer in New York City who accidentally gains the power to talk to electronics and machinery. Like every other right thinking post-baby boomer he decides to become a superhero, which plausibly enough results in a total fiasco. He then does the next most logical thing. Publicly abandoning his role as the Great Machine he runs for Mayor – and wins.

The real bones of this tale lie in the interplay of a capable idealist thrust into that other great machine – politics – and how a life already cursed with mysteries aplenty has to deal with the day to day job of making a difference in the most chaotic and charismatic city on earth.

This collection of the first five issues is charming and thrilling by turns, with plenty of West Wing/Spin City brand humour, an engaging cast of characters and even lots of bang and boom thrills all lavishly captured by the superb art and design skills of Tony Harris (who won so much acclaim with Starman). We have an absolute gem here, something which is actually worth making into a movie.

© 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All rights reserved.

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl 

By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka & José Marzán Jr.

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-179-0

I’m finally warming to these travails of Yorick Brown as he lives out the supposed daydream of every man, namely being the only guy on a planet full of chicks. Naturally, life is never so simple nor, luckily, quite so crass, and the horrors which this nondescript young hero has to endure are as much of his own making as the result of cosmic catastrophe.

When every male creature on Earth expired, Beth, Yorick’s true love, and dedicated anthropology student, was on a field trip in the Australian Outback, and all his previous adventures have been geared to reuniting with her, despite the collapse of civilisation, and ultimately all higher life on Earth. This volume, reprints issues #32-36, with Yorick aboard a ship bound for Japan.

He and his long time-retinue, bodyguard Agent 355 and biochemist Dr Allison Mann, who have been tasked by the surviving US government (coincidentally his mum) with the twin tasks of ensuring our boy’s survival and finding out why he’s still breathing, are all in pursuit of Ampersand, his pet monkey, the only other male alive, who has been ape-napped by a mysterious ninja. Apparently the monkey holds the secret to the mystery of the plague which killed all us mouth-breathing, unsanitary louts.

Whilst aboard ship, Yorick’s drag disguise yet again fails and his concomitant and somewhat unwilling liaison with the lusty ship’s Captain is only thwarted by a torpedo fired by the Australian Navy. It seems that the lad is going to Oz after all, despite the depredations of pirates, drug runners, ninja-assassins and the imminent return of old foe General Alter Tse’elon and her renegade cadre of Israeli commandos, but naturally life – and comic-books – ain’t that simple. Yorick might not be absolutely sure that Beth is actually alive, but we are, and the last chapter tells her story, and hints that when her man comes for her, she might not actually be there anymore…

By sticking with this overused premise but by carefully building strong, credible characters and situations, Vaughan has crafted an intellectually seductive fantasy soap-opera of memorable power, and the narrative thread has consistently advanced to the point that this less than avid original reader is actually keen to see where we go from here. The quality of writing and art have won this series many fans since it began and if I can become one, then so might you.

© 2005 Brian K.Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall

Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall 

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin & Doug Alexander Gregory

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-233-9

This collection of the adventures of the world’s cockiest mystical bad-ass (from Hellblazer issues #187-193) sees an on-his-uppers John Constantine gathering what feeble allies he can muster as the un-nameable supernatural horror that has been waiting to devour humanity since the dawn of time (and for the previous two volumes) finally gets its snout in the door.

The chills begin with his niece Gemma having her own grisly adventure as the dupe of an old acquaintance of her uncle, who lures her to a seemingly deserted Scottish Island to complete a old mission and a new magical machine in Bred in the Bone, illustrated by Doug Alexander Gregory, before she eventually, and reluctantly joins Constantine in London for the main event, drawn with creepy and economical effectiveness by regular artist Marcelo Frusin.

Carey’s writing smoulders with a steady and overwhelming oppressiveness as his rag-tag band of desperate and self-serving mystics are forced to combine their talents in a desperate and inevitably futile attempt to thwart a truly unstoppable opponent who (which? what?) not only out-powers them, but has also achieved the inconceivable by out-foxing the arch-trickster Constantine.

How the wily con-man defeats a Thing that has won it all, and what the genuinely terrible cost is, provides a masterful horror tour-de-force that is compelling and eminently satisfying. Mike Carey’s tenure on this series is going to be one that will always rank as the highest of high points.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.