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.

Fables: Homelands

Fables: Homelands

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, David Hahn, Lan Medina & Steve Leialoha

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-124-3

Vertigo’s best title just keeps getting better. As well as the long anticipated revelation of the identity of the Adversary, this volume (collecting issues # 34-41 of the monthly comic) also contains concurrent adventures featuring the fate of the morally ambivalent Jack (the Giant-Killer, and the Bean-stalk, et al) plus a foreboding, foreshadowing tale featuring Mowgli’s (of Kipling’s Jungle Books) return from a mystery mission.

Fables deals with refugee fairytale characters who all fled to mundane Earth from their various mythic realms to escape conquest by a mysterious and unbeatable adversary. Keeping their true nature hidden from humanity they have created enclaves where their immortality, magic and sheer strangeness (all the talking animals are sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York, for example) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters wander the human world, but always under an injunction not to draw attention to themselves.

This volume begins with a revelation that the always ‘difficult’ Jack has gone to Hollywood with stolen Fable funds and created a new studio solely to create a trilogy of fantasy films detailing his own exploits, absolutely counter to Fabletown edicts. His fate (illustrated by David Hahn) serves as a lead in to the true meat of the book: Little Boy Blue’s return to the lands of Fable on a mission of revenge and a search for his lost love. Following this, Jack will be starring in his own spin-off series, of which more at a future date…

In many ways this is the most traditional story – in comic book terms – that this series has ever produced, as the heroic Blue, with the aid of plundered magic weapons taken from the Fabletown Armoury, battles his way to the adversary’s very throne room before he is defeated by the Snow Queen, the tyrant’s number two.

Compounding cliff-hanger with teaser, Willingham then switches the story back to Earth for a glimpse at the lives of the other escaped story-people. Meanwhile drawn by Lan Medina, updates the continuity with a series of vignettes that serves to set up the next major storyline as well as lay the groundwork for the eventual return of the long missing – and popular – Bigby Wolf.

Returning to the Homelands opus Willingham and Buckingham complete their tale with stirring panache, revealing the identity of the arch-foe, delivering a memorable climax, and even then managing to pull a surprise rug out from under the feet of we weary, worldly-wise funnybook veterans.

This series just keeps on improving. A wild and savvy exploration of traditional story-telling leavened with acerbic wit and cynical street-smarts, always beautifully drawn. You must read this series (but only if you’re over eighteen, or nobody in authority is watching).

© 2005 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

By Kevin Smith & Various

(Titan Books)  ISBN 1-84576-406-4

Kevin Smith is a very disturbed individual, and therefore one of the most creative and funny people working in the narrative arts today. You are probably aware of such films as Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma. If you weren’t appalled or disgusted by any or all of them, read on. If you did find them offensive or just not your thing, stop reading and move on, because I’m not talking to you, and you’ll only get upset all over again.

As his film career advanced, Smith began scripting some high profile comic books, and also some less iconic ones. The characters from Clerks appeared in numerous mini-series, which were eventually collected as the trade paperbacks The Clerks, Chasing Dogma and Bluntman and Chronic. This Titan Books edition gathers all that material plus the all-new Where’s the Beef, and includes the rare Walt Flanagan’s Dog from Oni-Double Feature#1 (drawn by Matt Wagner). A covers, sketches and artwork gallery, plus a host of other “Clerks-iverse” material, rounds out a package that must be nigh on everything ever published about this motley band of deviants.

If you like adult humour, social satire viewed from the bottom staring up, or just dirty, clever, frat-boy humour, this a book for you. Just be careful where you leave it.

™ & ©1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 2006 View Askew Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Sebastian O

Sebastian O 

By Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84023-996-4

The mini-series was one of the earliest Vertigo outings and sadly doesn’t stand so well against later work by the writer or publisher. Blending Michael Moorcock’s alternative spy Jerry Cornelius with steampunk standbys, the myth of Oscar Wilde and the author’s fascination with higher dimensions, this is the tale of effete aesthete and super assassin Sebastian O’Leary, who escapes from Bedlam to wreak vengeance on the man who betrayed him — and inadvertently save the Empire from a cyber-space invasion.

It is well scripted, if a little forced, but the pretentious need to show off one’s cleverness obscures the narrative flow, don’tcha know, and were it not for the spectacularly underplayed drawings of Steve Yeowell, one might be forced to conclude that it’s all a bit of a bore.

©1993 Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. All Rights Reserved.
Cover and compilation © 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Fall of the Homunculus

The Fall of the Homunculus 

By Pentti Otsamo

(Drawn & Quarterly)  ISBN 1-896597-15-7

Joel and Anna are a young couple just getting by. They both have great artistic aspirations, but when Anna falls pregnant their previously harmonious partnership begins to unravel. Does Joel’s confusion and reluctance mean that they are not as compatible as he’d believed? Does Anna’s willingness to put her career on hold show her lack of dedication to her art?

This pensive Graphic Novella is a brief but telling examination of the creative urge and process that makes some interesting points about competing human drives, and the nature of creativity. Such a gentle tragedy makes no great leaps forward or claims to innovation, but the tale is honest and engaging, and the inviting and expressive black and white artwork is subversively addictive.

©1998 Pentti Otsamo. All Rights Reserved.

Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree

Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath the Tree 

By Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, P. Craig Russell & Ted Naifeh

(DC/Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-164-2

This would be a terrible book for a first time reader. The eighth collection of Mike Carey’s compelling new adventures of the devil collects the stories from issues #50, 45 and 51 – 54 of the monthly mature fantasy comic, and frankly, they’re all absolute crackers.

The first of these, Lilith, is a 40 page, self-contained delight illustrated by the magnificent P. Craig Russell, revealing not only the origins of Lucifer’s charismatic supernatural assistant Mazikeen, but also the building of the Silver City of the Host (where the Angels live) and the events leading to the Angel Samael’s defection from Heaven.

Another single issue tale, Neutral Ground, follows, with art by Ted Naifeh, relating the grim and cosmically unjust end of John Sewell, a poor working stiff who has the tragic misfortune to be selected as the venue for a board meeting of disaffected demons plotting to overthrow the current rulers of Hell. Either of these would be a wonderful introduction to a great series, so it’s a real pity that the main body of the collection recounts a pivotal tale in the seventy-five episodes (plus mini-series and one-shots) that tell the adventures of Lucifer since he abdicated his position as Lord of Hell in the Sandman volume Season of Mists.

Now, after many trials and tribulations, God has abandoned the universe and his disappearance has triggered the entropic end of Creation. Lucifer, who has made his own, separate, Universe, has reached a tense accommodation with his former peers and manoeuvres to survive and/or assume control. All the characters and sub-plots have to jockey for position in an outrageous coming together of disparate story-strands stretching back to the original mini-series and even the Sandman comics this title originally spun off from, when the Norse Deity Fenris attempts to bring Creation to a premature close on his own terms.

This is gripping reading, stylishly depicted by Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly, but you absolutely have to see what comes before if you want a cat in Hell’s chance of understanding what’s going on. So, why oh why waste two little gems, tailor made as “jump-on” stories, by cramming them into the equivalent of the middle reel of Citizen Kane or the last ten minutes of Fight Club?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.