Sea Princess Azuri

Sea Princess Azuri 

By Erica Reis (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59816-401-5

This charming fantasy follows the coming of age adventures of a regal daughter of the Oceans who is reaching maturity and therefore sadly compelled to accept some pretty odious responsibilities – such as marry a foreign prince to end a war.

I’m sure this all sounds like pretty standard storybook fare so far, but when you take into account that Sea Princess Azuri is a mermaid, half girl, half Orca (that would be a Killer Whale to you or me), that her friend and bodyguard harbours secret feelings for her, and that the Prince she must marry (half man, half Eel, by the way) is a sneaky, slave owning creep with a secret agenda of his own, the potential for a real rollicking adventure is pretty high.

Erica Ries draws beautifully and her undersea world is both whimsical and fully fleshed, whilst her modernistic take on the classical fairytale scenario makes for a charming and readily approachable read. I look forward to future volumes, and so, I suspect, will you.

© 2006 Erica Reis and TOKYOPOP Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Top Traitor

Modesty Blaise: Top Traitor 

By Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-684-1

The third volume of Titan’s Modesty Blaise collections represents three of her most engaging early adventures as creators O’Donnell and Holdaway began to truly hit their stride with work often qualitatively superior even to anything else then – or even now – available.

First up is the still tellingly fresh and relevant “Top Traitor” as Secret Service Supremo Sir Gerald Tarrant vanishes leaving a nasty whiff of defection in his wake, compelling Modesty and Willie Garvin to rescue not only their friend but his shattered reputation.

“The Vikings” turns the focus onto crime action when the duo intervene in the affairs of one of their old gang members when he is sucked into an outrageous band of Scandinavian Reavers intent on reviving the plundering practises of their ancestors.

Espionage was never far away in the 1960s and the thrills and mystery continue in “The Head Girls” when sabotage, industrial theft and murder point inexorably to the return of a hated arch-foe.

These stunning and addictive slices of escapist adventure have actually improved with age – or rather by comparison with what has come since in this genre – and these volumes are an absolutely prime example of what comics can be. Get the set and treasure them for ever.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Fables 6: Homelands

Fables 6: 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) and a foreshadowing tale featuring Mowgli’s (The Jungle Books) return from a mystery mission.

Fables deals with refugee fairytale characters that 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 (such as all the talking animals sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters wander the human world, but always under an injunction not to draw attention to themselves.

This book begins with a revelation that the always ‘difficult’ Jack has gone to Hollywood with stolen Fable funds. Once there he created a new studio solely to produce 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.

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 second in command.

Compounding cliffhanger 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 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.

Fables 5: The Mean Seasons

Fables 5: The Mean Seasons 

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-032-8

The next instalment of the excellent fairy tale soap opera for adults deals with the aftermath of a devastating attack on the hidden enclave of refugees from the realms of myth. Whilst new ruler Prince Charming secures his powerbase and Snow White adapts to life as a mother, nominal leading man Bigby Wolf fades from the continuity only to star in a two chapter flash-back dealing with his exploits during our mundane Second World War.

As usual the writing and art on this exceptional series are beyond reproach, engaging interest, gripping the imagination and twisting the heart-strings by turn. In many ways this is probably the best comic for adults being published today, and the beauty of the Graphic Novel format is that no matter when you become addicted to this – and if you have a soul, you will – the previous volumes will be easy to find and a delight when you get them.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers

Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers 

By Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham and various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-918-2

This volume (with artwork by Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, Steve Leialoha and P Craig Russell) collects the wonderful, triumphal one-shot “The Last Castle”, wherein we see the final escape from the homelands to the mundane world, and issues 19-21 and 23-27 of the regular series, a bombastic saga of sex, politics and betrayal that leads to the first full assault by the mysterious, all-conquering “Adversary”.

That’s the plot, but it’s really the merest tip of the iceberg in what has become probably the best fantasy comic strip ever. There are times when this series makes me feel things that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman never could.

This is what you should show people when they ask “Why Comics?” and the best thing you could possibly get for the jaded fan (as well as the other volumes Legends in Exile, Animal Farm and Storybook Love).

Go treat yourself, and perhaps even indulge in missionary zeal by treating a friend to some Fables.

© 2004 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Neil Gaiman’s Eternals

Neil Gaiman’s Eternals 

By Neil Gaiman & John Romita Jr. (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-905239-57-3

(Also available in hardcover format in the US)

Despite the somewhat cheeky title – they’ll always be Jack Kirby’s Eternals to me – this Marvel revival is a strikingly enjoyable graphic experience very true to the power and enthusiasm of ‘The King’.

When the comic series debuted in 1976 we met an anthropologist and his daughter who had discovered that giant aliens had visited Earth in ages past, and sculpted proto-hominids into three distinct species: Human Beings; the monstrous, genetically unstable Deviants and god-like super-beings who called themselves Eternals. Moreover those humungous Space Gods had returned once again to check up on their experiment.

Never a comfortable fit with the rest of the Marvel Universe, the comic explored Kirby’s fascinations with Deities, Space and Supernature through the lens of very human observers. Once the series ended and Kirby left, other creators greedily co-opted the concept – with mixed success – into the company’s mainstream continuity.

Now, back to the present tome. When Mark Curry, a struggling hospital intern, meets Ike Harris his mental state seems to fragment. His dreams of monsters and gods return and even though super-powered people are commonplace in a society that mandates that all super-humans register with the government, Harris seems somehow… different. And there are others. Such as Sersi, a cute chick he met at the coffee-shop or Thena or the ever-so-creepy Druig…

Harris believes they are all Eternals, made by the space-spanning Celestials as caretakers for the planet, but something has deactivated them. He cannot find any others. A crisis is brewing. Without Eternals in the picture the malignant deviants are on the rise again. There may be another hidden foe. Harris wants his help to find those missing guardians… And now Curry discovers that he has superpowers of his own…

Another strand in play is the secret foe’s plan. Someone removed all the Eternals but although the reason is unclear some things are beginning to gel. Long ago the Space-Gods punished one of their own for an unknowable sin by burying him/it deep in the Earth. Now that sleeping God is being roused, and that will mean the destruction of all life on Earth…

Kirby and Gaiman are different writers, and frankly their work is generally addressing different readerships. Kirby has heroes who are simplistic, stripped down archetypes. Whether fighting for us or searching for great things to which an uncomprehending humanity can only guess, they are generally beyond our clay-footed ken. For Kirby there would always be an Unknown. That’s why there was always a Rick Jones or Margo Damien or Dr. Watson. Such everyman characters are there to counterpoint and highlight the wonder. The readers tuned in to have their minds blown.

Gaiman’s forte is personalising the unknowables. Whether Gods, sentient Concepts, fallen Angels or super-humans, he takes us inside their lives and their heads, and shows us creatures not dissimilar to ourselves. Our modern world is not happy with mystery and ‘getting to know the real you’ has become a media obsession – and industry. And that’s the crucial difference in this book. Pedestrianising the metaphysical isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

All of which is, I suspect, irrelevant to most readers. Here is a good comic book read that will happily pass most personal taste tests. And I must – saving the best ‘til last – utterly rave over the artwork of John Romita Jr. The power and grandeur of his drawing is absolutely breathtaking! Whether a close, veiled look or a panorama of galactic proportions, he can produce that mind-grabbing visual that elicits a whispered “Gosh, Wow!” from even the most jaded viewer. Jack would be proud.

© 2006, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Fables 3: Storybook Love

Fables 3: Storybook Love

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Bryan Talbot, Linda Medley, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-857-7

Fables is probably one of the most fetching takes on narrative in the last twenty years. Bill Willingham has created a universe that appeals to the most childlike reminiscences of the most jaded adult palate.

Volume 3 reprints Fables issues #11-18 of the award winning monthly comic from DC’s adult imprint Vertigo, a sequence of single and short storylines used to flesh out the various characters prior to a big epic beginning with #19.

Bryan Talbot illustrates a tale of Jack (Giant Killer, Beanstalk etc), a vagabond rogue who literally gambles with Death (that’s actually a pun, but you’ll need to read it to see what I mean). Bigby Wolf takes centre stage for the next tale, ‘Dirty Business’, to handle the invasive probings of a Mundane reporter trying to expose the secrets of the fairytale enclave in the heart of New York City. This tale also serves to set up the eponymous ‘Storybook Love’ wherein Bluebeard, one of the most evil characters in bedtime stories, and even more of a ratbag in the Mundane world, begins his long hinted play for the top spot.

We’re introduced to the Mouse Police as Bigby Wolf and Snow White – the CEO of Fabletown – are shanghaied and set up to be murdered. Naturally they aren’t, but the byplay between the two characters will lead directly into the tumultuous events of the next year or so.

The volume is rounded out by a seemingly inconsequential piece of fluff drawn by Linda Medley which could quite easily be the pivotal point of the series as it recounts some of the history of the Fables characters when they first arrived in our realm and how they began to change from the one-dimensional archetypes they were to the cruel, callous, brave, gritty, head-bitten ordinary human beings they so often resemble.

Willingham’s Fables is a captivating exercise in how comics can reinvent and reinvigorate even the most clichéd and played-out old yarns and make them fresh for both comic reading veterans and the shallowest neophyte dragged kicking and screaming into a comic book shop. Hell, even your girlfriend would like it.

© 2003 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Fables 2: Animal Farm

Fables 2: Animal Farm 

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-729-5

Animal Farm further explores the conceit that fairytales are real and they’re hiding from the Bogeyman in our back yards. When The Adversary conquered the Realms of Fantasy, a Dunkirk-like exodus brought all these wondrous beings to our drab old Earth, where they still reside in opulent, desperate and obsessional seclusion.

Probably the most unique of these safe-havens is “The Farm”, a wilderness estate where all the beasts and non-human creatures of fantasy are confined – ‘for the greater good of all Fables’. Unable to transform every talking animal into a human simulacrum, the powers in Fable society have hidden them away from human eyes for centuries.

However ‘for your own good’ is no longer an acceptable excuse and rebellion is in the air among the talking animals, giants and monsters. Snow White and Co. must solve this diplomatic crisis before the Mundanes or worse still The Adversary discover everything.

This is another smart and savvy tale from Bill Willingham, full of sharp dialogue and brilliantly reasoned fantasy. The art from Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha is seductive and beguilingly efficient. This stuff is the purest of gold and should be compulsory reading for grown up readers of every type. You really must read these books.

© 2002, 2003 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Fables 1: Legends in Exile

Fables 1 

By Bill Willingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-614-0

New York City holds many secrets. One of the most amazing is a quiet but distinguished block of streets where some very famous celebrities live very private lives. In fact it’s safe to say that the residents of Kipling Street, Bullfinch Street and especially the Woodland Luxury Apartments are all household names all over Earth.

The reason for their preferred anonymity is revealed in Legends in Exile. This brilliant modern fantasy tells how long ago, all the heroes, myths and legends of fairytales and stories sought refuge on our mundane Earth. In their own fantastic lands and kingdoms a mysterious and overwhelming Adversary had launched a war of conquest and was consuming their Realms. Via magic, the surviving story characters fled to Earth and have lived here as refugees ever since.

The story begins approximately five centuries later as Bigby Wolf, head of security for the Fabled Enclave in called in by Chief Operating Officer Snow White to solve the brutal murder of Snow’s wild child sister Rose Red, and he’s got to do it without alerting the ordinary humans – us Mundanes. I’m afraid that’s all the synopsis I’m willing to concede, as the whole point of this is to get you to read these things.

Fables starts brilliantly and just gets better. By transposing some of the reader’s earliest fictional experiences to a post-modern gritty milieu and by embedding the characters in modern genre set pieces such as murder-mysteries, soap-operas and political thrillers, Willingham and his brilliant artistic collaborators have produced a fantasy set to rival Sandman in terms of creativity, and sheer enjoyment.

© 2002 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Elektra: The Scorpio Key

Elektra: The Scorpio Key 

By Brian Michael Bendis & Chuck Austen (Marvel Knights)
ISBN 0-7851-0843-2

Every so often in comics everything falls together. A character or characters will stand out in a storyline, captivate for a too brief moment, end gloriously and be done. While it’s happening it’s a perfect experience, and you’re desperate for all you can get. When it ends that feeling persists, but if you have any sense you’ll stifle it, because it won’t ever be the same.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, American Flagg! until Chaykin left, Mantis until she married that plant, the Moench-Gulacy Master of Kung Fu’s, Terra’s betrayal and death in New Teen Titans, the Dark Phoenix saga from Uncanny X-Men, and of course Elektra’s initial run in Daredevil that lead to her murder by Bullseye. All of these were comics zeitgeist moments. All magic. All best left untrammelled, all great narrative moments in comic history, redolent with drama and high passion, made greater because we know they’re ephemeral and can’t be topped. You’d be stupid to even try.

The modern comics industry is not noted for restraint, and usually we are stupid enough to try. Even top-line creators are seduced into attempting to rebottle their best genies rather than be allowed to make new magic, and when new makers are tasked with recapturing old magics – which to publishers means only Sales – the results can be painful.

All of which is a poncey way of saying, “if you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all”. Bendis and Austen’s The Scorpio Key is a sorry mess of espionage twaddle featuring the re-Reborn Again super she-ninja on a mission to recover a cosmic weapon from the clutches of sundry baddies including the subversive secret society Hydra, the Silver Samurai and even the demented ruler of Iraq (No, Really!). Chockful of dastardly double-crossers and clichéd news reportage as narrative devices, it’s little more than an empty headed pastiche. There are, naturally, many fights and explosions. A simple case of ‘So Many Killings, So Little Sense’.

Considering the sheer presence of Elektra in the past, it’s an absolute travesty to see her returned for this pedestrian nonsense. We are never going to have our own Camille, Sydney Carton, King Lear or even Romeo and Juliet as long as publishers think an easy branding exercise can replace creative excellence.

© 2002, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.