Flash Gordon Volume 2

Flash Gordon Volume 2 

By Alex Raymond (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 0-9741-6646-4

The second irresistible collection of the immortal Flash Gordon’s adventures sees Alex Raymond and co-writer Don Moore introduce a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over. In Sunday Comics pages that ran in newspapers from April 21st 1935 until October 11th 1936 (generously sub-divided into ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’, ‘At War with Ming’ and ‘Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ for your ease and delectation) we can experience the sheer beauty and drama that captivated the world, producing not only some of the world’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books and more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series is enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s futurism endlessly accesses and refines the picture perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo, wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all out war with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come – and the volume ends as the heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. True, there is the merest hint of formula in the plots, but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…

© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

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.

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.

Star Wars: Honor and Duty

Star Wars: Honor and Duty 

By John Ostrander, C.P. Smith, Jasen Rodriguez, and Luke Ross

(Dark Horse Books)  ISBN 1-84576-334-3

It’s back to the beginning – as if that has any meaning with this franchise – in a tale of intrigue designed to fill in some edges in the puzzle of what happened between the second, third and fourth movies.

Sagoro Autem is a Senate Guard. That’s him on the left in most of those panoramic wide-shots, standing behind Senator, and later Emperor Palpatine. He’s basically a cop, and his life is a cop’s life. But when he becomes aware of some dangerous insights into just how the universe really works, he’s plunged into the thick of everything and his life changes forever.

Touching upon the disintegrating relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, the rise of the Empire and the first days of Darth Vader, this is a sharp little adventure (two, actually – originally published in Star Wars: Republic, issues #46-48 and 78) designed to satisfy die-hard fans, but crafted well enough to please any fan of a good comic read.

© 2006 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved

Star Trek: The Trial of James T. Kirk

Star Trek: The Trial of James T. Kirk

By Peter David, James W. Fry & Gordon Purcell

(Titan Books) ISBN 1-94576- 315-7

This edition of Titan’s Star Trek series of graphic novels collects issues #7-12 of the DC comics series from the 1990s. Here the creators try for tense rather than action packed, with a tale of political intrigue as a coalition of alien races (the Klingons and an uncomfortably Iranian-esque fundamentalist species called Nasguls) attempt to have Captain Kirk thrown into prison.

Things come to a head when the price on the Captain’s head leads the universe’s greatest bounty-hunter to attempt his capture — almost destroying the Enterprise in the process. Kirk voluntarily surrenders himself to end the constant disruption and naturally pulls a stunt that turns all those stacked tables against his foes. This stuff is pure classic Trek. The fans loved it then and will now. It’s also a very good example of how to do a licensed property in comic form and readers and wannabe creators should buy and take note.

™ & © 2006 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Star Trek: The Return of the Worthy

Star Trek: The Return of the Worthy 

By Peter David, Bill Mumy, J. Michael Straczynski & others

(Titan Books) ISBN 1-94576- 319-X

Titan’s reprinting (issues #13-18 of the DC series from the 1990s) of the venerable TV phenomenon continues with a sly pastiche of Lost in Space courtesy of Mumy and David, with art from Gordon Purcell and Arne Starr. The maturing crew find the preserved ship of a legendary family of Space Heroes, (complete with a pneumatic-tube-arm waving robot) and must help adapt to a time that has largely left them behind. There are dramas and in-jokes aplenty in this fond romp, balanced in part by Worldsinger, a more traditional Star Fleet tale from J. Michael Straczynski, Purcell and Starr as the crew must convince a poetic alien survivor not to die with his doomed homeworld.

Ken Hooper and Bob Dvorak illustrate Howard Weinstein’s Partners?, a two-parter that fills out the volume. Once again the Enterprise is in a deadly face-off with Klingons after a suspicious border incident threatens to start a shooting war.

As always, these licensed comics are a welcome treat for Trek-deprived fans and in purely strip cartoon terms they are well-written, competently drawn and thoroughly readable. The added fillip of silver screen creators can’t hurt either.

™ & © 2006 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Fountain

The Fountain

By Darren Aronofsky & Kent Williams

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-171-5

Lavish companion to the Aronofsky film of the same name, this book tells of a love that challenges time itself and shows how human will is the ultimate force in the universe.

Divided into three vignettes, and interwoven with flashes forward and back along the narrative, The Fountain follows Tomas in 1535 as he ravages Central America for gold and converts, but finds instead The Tree of Life; as a desperate medical researcher in contemporary America, struggling to complete the cancer cure that will save his one, true love; and as a futuristic star-traveller seeking to restore that fabled Tree by catching a super-nova.

Lyrical and metaphysical, this pretty volume wafts along carried by the loose and evocative watercolour illustration of Kent Williams.

Completists should note that although designed as a companion to the film, that production was shut down as the book was being produced. When production was restarted, with an altered script, the Graphic Novel was completed according to the original conception. Think of it as a Directors Cut that you can read in the bathroom.

© 2005 Phineas Gage Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Blackmark — 30th Anniversary Edition

Blackmark

By Gil Kane

(Fantagraphics Books)  ISBN 1-56097-456-7

Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science-Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.

His Name Is Savage was an adult oriented black and white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles. The other venture, Blackmark, not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.

Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black and white magazines Savage sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.

Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.

Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.

Although the tale may seem old-hat the beauty on power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate. The script, over Kane’s story is provided by the incomparable Archie Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself.

This compilation collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.

© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.