Grifter/Shi: Final Rites

By Jim Lee, Billy Tucci and various (Image/WildStorm)
ISBN: 1-887-279-24-5

The 1990s were a time of startling changes in the American comicbook industry. Young upstarts broke away from the big companies to do all the job themselves, with admittedly mixed results, but as they lived or died on their own merits and ingenuity, it signalled a way that the other creative arenas (and of course I’m thinking the music biz here) could learn from even after all this time.

There had always been independent titles, but where the new guys differed from past do-it-yourself attempts was in the slick production values. These guys knew the product had to look and feel as sharp and cutting edge as the best of DC or Marvel – it’s just a shame so much of the new independents concentrated only on the style and so often ignored the actual creative content.

After a while however the very best of those independents, such as Jim Lee’s WildStorm titles from the Image Comics co-operative and Billy Tucci’s gradually unfolding martial arts epic Shi rose in sheer Darwinian majesty from the shiny, colour-saturated mire and carved a lasting place for themselves.

One of the biggest advantages of being an independent creator was how few people stood in the way if you wanted to do a team-up tale. The respective owners could just talk to each other…

This pretty and engaging tale is an unchallenging but generally satisfying conspiracy quest very much in the traditional manner starring the charismatic soldier-of-fortune Cole Cash (better known as Grifter) and the startlingly compelling and unconventional dancer/samurai masterminded by Jack-of-all-trades Billy Tucci.

Shi is Ana Ishikawa, whose father was a Japanese Warrior Monk and her mother an American Catholic missionary. Her father and brother were murdered by Yakuza boss Masahiro Arashi, setting her on a path of brutal, unrelenting vengeance using the Sohei Warrior skills taught by her grandfather, a master of the Yambushi Monks’ ancient secrets. She chose the mythical guise of Tora no Shi (Tiger of Death) to mask her when she began her crusade, but as she continued her battles her Catholic upbringing increasingly conflicted with her Sohei methodology…

Grifter is a veteran of many years of combat, covert and otherwise, who began his troubled life on the other side of the law. After years of black Ops he eventually went rogue, joining the WildC.A.T,’s super-team and was trained in alien combat techniques by the super-amazon Zealot. He has a unique no-nonsense approach to getting the job done, and has psionic powers he doesn’t like to use.

In this visually appetising collaboration Grifter returns to Japan hunting terrorists who killed one of his comrades, as the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima approaches. Meanwhile a highly placed Japanese government official has stolen a North Korean nuclear weapon, embroiling Ana Ishikawa and her sensei grandfather in a plot to steal a priceless artefact known as the “Final Rite of Kusunoki”, a 150 year old artwork that can exert an undeniable influence on the real ruler of Japan. This mastermind’s scheme includes long-delayed vengeance on the Americans, political power and even settling a centuries old feud with his clan’s greatest enemies, the Sohei

With a nuclear clock counting down Grifter must first work out who he can trust, especially the enigmatic Shi, before the convoluted machinations and seemingly endless string of opponents standing between him and his own particular brand of payback drags him down to dusty death.

Sometimes a little too complex for its own good, this is nevertheless a solid piece of entertainment from an incredible cast of creators (clearly doing it yourself includes a large amount of sub-contracting) including Brandon Choi, Peter, Gutierrez, Travis Charest, Ryan Benjamin, Jamal Igle, Troy Hubbs, Richard Bennett and John Nyberg. If you need a little more style than substance occasionally, then this is certainly the fashion to follow…
© 1996 Aegis Entertainment Inc., dba WildStorm Productions and William Elliott Tucci. All rights reserved.

Mighty Love

By Howard Chaykin, with Don Cameron, Kurt Hathaway & Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-930-2

Don’t let the outfits fool you: it’s not just another kinky love story…

Oddly released under the DC rather than Vertigo imprint, this is a story about crime in the big city and of the compromises individuals must make to achieve their purposes.

Delaney Pope is a rough, tough cop on a corrupt force who is fed up with seeing the scum she arrests get away with murder – or worse. Lincoln Reinhardt is a slick, liberal defense lawyer constantly thwarting the frames and set-ups of those cops. He often clashes with Pope in the course of his job. They both loathe each other with a passion.

Unbeknownst to either they both assuage their work-day frustrations by putting on masks and costumes to beat the crap out of criminals (with or without badges) in the commission of their crimes – where there are no doubts about guilt, innocence or mitigations.

The thrill of these nocturnal forays inevitably lead to a meeting of “Skylark” and “Iron Angel”, and a tenuous, teasing team-up when separate cases bring them together against the city’s first criminal mastermind. Not knowing each other’s real identity, but afraid to unmask and lose that so-tantalising tension, the pair have to decide what’s most important, the actual or the promised…

This delightfully fizzy adult romp prods all the fetishistic trappings of superhero storytelling as the brassy and whimsical writer/artist (with computer effects by Cameron, lettering from Hathaway and colours by Stewart) blends riffs from The Shop Around the Corner, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike and even Adam’s Rib with a plethora of crime caper movies to produce a costume drama in the unmistakable Chaykin manner.

Clearly the pilot for an unrealized longer series, Mighty Love is a fast and stylish little oddity that reads well and looks great – so if all you want is a good time; Baby, look no further…
© 2003 Howard Chaykin, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Shield


The Shield

By Irving Norvick, Harry Shorten & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN 1-879794-08-X

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t, remembered only as trivia by sad blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: Not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

The Shield was an FBI scientist named Joe Higgins who wore a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability, which he used to battle America’s enemies in the days before the USA entered World War II. Latterly he also devised a Shield Formula that increased his powers. Beginning with the first issue of Pep Comics (January 1940) he battled spies, saboteurs, subversive organisations and every threat to American security and well-being, and was a minor sensation. He is credited with being the industry’s very first Patriotic Hero, predating Marvel’s iconic Captain America in the “wearing the Flag” field.

Collected here in this Golden-Age fan-boy’s dream are the lead stories from Pep Comics #1-5 and the three adventures from the spin-off Shield-Wizard Comics #1 (Summer 1940). Raw, primitive and a little juvenile perhaps, but these are still unadorned, glorious romps from the industry’s exuberant, uncomplicated dawning days: Plain-and-simple fun-packed thrills from the gravely under-appreciated Irving Novick, Harry Shorten and others whose names are now lost to history.

Despite not being to everyone’s taste these guilty pleasures are worth a look for any dyed-in-the-woollen-tights super-hero freak and a rapturous tribute to a less complicated time.

© 1940, 2002 Archie Publications In. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Strong, Book Six

Tom Strong, Book Six 

By various

(America’s Best Comics) ISBN 1-84576-385-8

Alan Moore once again surrenders his writer’s role to a selection of top creators for an intriguing medley of tales from his own private universe in this the final collection of Tom Strong adventures.

First is The Black Blade of the Barbary Coast by Michael Moorcock and Jerry Ordway, wherein The Man of Science goes both trans-temporal and trans-dimensional in a quest to save the multiverse, with pirates, dinosaurs and the odd guest star from Moorcock’s own formidable pantheon of fantasy characters.

The Journey Within from Joe Casey and Ben Oliver features Strong’s steam-powered associate Pneuman, whose increasingly erratic behaviour proves to be less decrepitude and malfunction, and more infection and civilisation. Steve Moore and Paul Gulacy provide a dark oriental fantasy that examines the nature of fiction and reality in The Spires of Samakhara, and we see the final fate of a Science-Villain in Cold Calling from Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.

The volume — and indeed the series — ends with the appropriately apocalyptic-sounding Tom Strong at the End of the World, written by Alan Moore, who ties in the event with the ending of the Promethea series. In an introspective and contemplative turnabout the characters all transmigrate to a typically different Valhalla beautifully rendered by Sprouse, Story and colourist Jose Villarrubia.

All in all this collection (reprinting issues #31-36) is a fine end to a genuinely different take on the conventions of super-heroics, and a sad loss to the breadth and variety of the comic medium. I suspect we shan’t see its like for many a year.

© 2005, 2006 America’s Best Comics, LLC. All Rights Reserved