Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary 

By Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-198-7

Fleetway veterans Ennis and Ezquerra have a long association with British war comics and the apocalyptic 2000AD, so combining those sensibilities in a near-future World War III adventure must have seemed a natural for the fledgling DC science fiction imprint Helix. Since the first four-part miniseries spawned an almost immediate sequel they must have been more or less correct, but as Helix folded in the space of a year, with its surviving projects being absorbed by Vertigo, this compilation comes to us courtesy of them.

In 1999 Europe went back to war, massive, bloody conventional war with the bankrupt and barmy US of A, ostensibly over economic and religious differences, but actually because our creators needed a backdrop for the world-weary Mary to display her exceptional talent for slaughter in the signature arena of idiot Generals and venal politicians whose sole reason for existing seems to be to prune back the surplus of the current generation of decent folk.

Under the guise of a mission to secure a biological super-weapon, Mary and a crack team of expendables battle a spectre from her gore-splattered past and the EU’s top hit-man as they carve a swathe of destruction through Europe’s few remaining landmarks in the first tale (released in 1996), whilst the follow-up story (“Lady Liberty” from 1997) sees her return to a devastated America on a mission to wrest New York City from the army of religious maniacs who have captured it.

Trenchant, savage, satirical, gripping and plain old thrilling, this slice of fun shows these creators at their best, giving you an everyman view of all the hell and stupidity our leaders drag us through on much too regular a basis. Grown-up comics at its very best and long overdue for its rightful place on your bookshelf.

© 1996, 1997 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hong Kong

Batman: Hong Kong 

By Doug Moench, & Tony Wong (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-758-9

This Batman outreach project is a surprisingly engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema in comic form by frankly inconsistent writer Doug Moench and the anonymous horde of illustrators used by Comics Supremo Tony Wong to churn out literally thousands of lavishly executed Kung Fu comics that have earned him the title “the Stan Lee of Hong Kong”.

The story itself is fairly unsurprising tosh. A serial killer who webcasts his murders as realtime snuff movies leads Batman to the former British colony and a civil war between a Triad leader and his brother – a cop determined to bring him to book. Add to the mix a dashing young nephew who loves his family but thirsts for justice and you have all the elements for the next John Woo blockbuster.

Although a touch stiff in places and a little disorienting if you’re unused to the rapid art-style transitions of Hong Kong comics (artists and even forms of representation – paint, black line wash, crayon etc. can vary from panel to panel) this has a lot of pace and fairly rattles along. This book is a lot better and more accessible than many outings for the caped crusader in recent years.

© 2004 DC Comics

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight 

By Brian Augustyn, Michael Mignola, P. Craig Russell & Eduardo Barreto (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-403-X

This long overdue volume collects the seminal classic Gotham By Gaslight, which spawned DC’s eclectic “Elseworlds” imprint, and its cruelly neglected sequel Master of the Future.

The conceit of the first story is the transposition of the most recognisable icons of the Batman mythos to the end of the 19th century, enabling troubled millionaire and would be avenger Bruce Wayne to begin his caped career in gory battle with the world’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Brian Augustyn’s moody steam-punk script is elevated to spectacular heights by the astounding artwork of comic giants Mike Mignola and P Craig Russell, and the results have long been considered one of the comic high-points of the last twenty-five years.

Which in some ways is a shame, as Master of the Future is in many respects a better story, with the superb but criminally unappreciated art of Eduardo Barreto recreating the turn of the (20th) century technological wonderment of Jules Verne and H G Wells. As a Mad Scientist threatens to destroy the burgeoning metropolis of Gotham City from his airborne dreadnought, only the by-now disenchanted Batman could possibly stand against him… if he can be bothered. Augustyn’s examination of vigilante motivation once his anger is expiated, especially in an era and milieu of extreme wealth and privilege, provides an interesting counterpoint to the mind-numbing obsessive ness of the “regular” caped crusader.

Batman was voted the most popular comic character of the 20th century. How strange, then that two of his best escapades deal with the age before then? How about judging for yourselves with this superb collection?

© 1989, 1991, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective

Batman: Detective 

By Paul Dini & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-428-5

Here’s a pure and simple treat for all Bat-fans, ancient and modern, as award winning animator Paul Dini joins the monthly Detective Comics magazine as regular scripter. A consummate storyteller, he’s also quite obviously a lover of the character in all his aspects.

Playing to a long-forgotten facet of the Batman’s CV, that of ‘World’s Greatest Detective’, Dini has kept the bloodletting insanity rampant in Gotham City to a minimum and concentrated on the solving of outrageous crimes that used to such a large a factor in the popularity of the Caped Crusader.

These gripping yarns (Detective Comics issues #821-826) also showcase a host of premiere artists to great effect. J. H. Williams III starts the ball rolling in his unique high design style illustrating ‘The Beautiful People’ as a mugging gang, trained to pass as upper class swells targets Gotham’s Glitterati. ‘E. Nigma, Consulting Detective’, with art by Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher, features Batman’s obsessive arch-foe as a seemingly cured and reformed private eye on the trail of a murderer attempting to frame Bruce Wayne.

The homicidal poison Ivy features in ‘Stalked’ but as the prey of a marauding monster determined to destroy her. Joe Benitez and Victor Llamas provide pictures for a tale where not every thing is as it seems. Riddler returns, as does the art team of Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher in ‘Night of the Penguin’, as another apparently reformed foe plays victim not villain. This one is also noteworthy for a sparkling guest appearance by Superman’s wife, Lois Lane.

All the regulars take a break as guest writer Royal McGraw and artists Marcos Marz and Luciana Del Negro describe the vengeful campaign of murder and mayhem undertaken in ‘The Return of Dr. Phosphorus’, an homage to the era – and villains – of the groundbreaking Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers run of issues in the early 1970s.

The volume concludes with one of the best Joker — and definitely the best Robin — stories in decades. Dini, Kramer and Faucher all return for the Christmas horror story ‘Slayride’ as the Crazed Clown traps the Boy Wonder in a stolen car and makes him an unwilling participant in a spree of vehicular homicides amongst the last minute shoppers. If there is ever a ‘Greatest Batman Christmas Stories Ever Told’ collection, (and if there’s anybody out there with the power to make it so, get weaving please!) this just has to be the closing chapter.

Great Character, great creators, great stories; let’s pray that this is the start of a Batman renaissance. Even if it’s not though, this is still the best Bat-book in simply forever and you should get this superb read.

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

The Authority: Kev

The Authority: Kev 

By Garth Ennis & Glenn Fabry (WildStorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-040-9

Garth Ennis is not particularly fond of superhero comics. That’s a shame since whenever he does write men in tights he tends to bring a wicked eye and vicious sense of the absurd to the party. The Authority as a rule tends to be a little po-faced and ultra serious in its Sturm und Drang, dystopic, angst-ridden, post apocalyptic way and Ennis would seem to be first choice not to write one of their adventures. However, Kev, collecting together both a special and a miniseries (Kev one-shot and More Kev #1-4) is one of the best volumes in this franchise so far.

The Authority are a small band of superbeings who live in a colossal, trans-dimensional spaceship, who use their god-like abilities to, in essence, rule the world. This, obviously, does not sit well with Earth’s politicians and militarists, but The Authority does not much care, choosing to right wrongs rather than follow any nation’s policy agenda.

Great Britain takes it upon itself to rectify this situation by sending an ex-S.A.S. assassin to murder them in their own space ship. There are only two problems. One is that Kev Hawkins, although a highly proficient death-dealer, is also an incredibly jammy, total screw-up, so even when he does accomplish his mission he then discovers that the entire plot is an insidious alien invasion scheme, and has to resurrect all the super-tossers to defeat the would-be conquerors. The second problem is that the resurrected heroes are quite unhappy about being murdered in the first place, and truly enjoy bearing grudges.

When the special first appeared, it was a welcome, if coarse, vulgar, crude, excessively violent and hilariously funny alternative to the cosmic histrionics of the parent series. Something that successful couldn’t help but spawn a sequel, and More Kev debuted a year later. When an alien embassy holds most of the super-team hostage against the return of an interplanetary criminal who has concealed himself amongst Earth’s population, only drastic action can save humanity.

A major complication is that only The Midnighter and Apollo – a gay couple – are free to hunt him/it, and they need the unwilling help of the last man to see him/it alive. That, of course, would be a certain homophobic gunman who they still haven’t forgiven for killing them earlier in this book. What follows is vintage Ennis, brimming with soldier-boy camaraderie, ugly shagging, brilliantly foul and funny dialogue and the now mandatory pop at any and all governments, whilst Glenn Fabry’s art weaves a fine, unobtrusive line between realism and caricature without ever stealing the focus from the narrative.

There are plenty of hilarious set-pieces, vast amounts of gratuitous gore and a shed load of harsh language in this wonderful antidote to the heavy- handed hyperbole that is bogging down so much of modern comics’ output. An absolute hoot!

© 2005 WildStorm Productions, an imprint of DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

WE3

WE3 

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-159-6

Grant Morrison has upped his output of comic material in recent years and much of it is in the form of brief stories spread over three comic issues, designed to be repackaged as slim Graphic Novels for the burgeoning book-store market. This hasn’t always resulted in the best work, but it undoubtedly has encouraged experimentation.

WE3 has echoes of Morrison’s early animal rights convictions, so tellingly employed in his re-creation and early run on DC superhero Animal Man. The story tells in sparse, often wordless, balletic set pieces the story of a Rabbit, a Cat and a Dog who have been grotesquely transformed by misguided scientists, fuelled by Senatorial ambition and Military money into unstoppable killing machines.

None of the thinking is new. None of the deeply emotional triggers are fresh or novel. There are no new insights into the philosophies of scientists, politicians or soldiers, all of whom act just as we world-weary cynics expect them too – even when they redeem themselves.

The secret of what makes this work so very, very well is the subtle restraint of the script, and a deft underplaying of the characters. And of course Frank Quitely. Always an artist of immense power who knows the value of a well-staged shot, simply executed. He is without doubt one of the most accomplished illustrators in the field today, and is never tempted to succumb to the seductive call of fashion. He just plain draws good.

WE3 is lovely and poignant and disturbingly comforting. You really should read it.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories Volume 2

War Stories Volume 2 

By Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-306-8

The second volume of Garth Ennis’ War Stories leads with the haunting and distressing “J for Jenny” and deals with the stresses of a British Bomber crew as they carry out their nightly missions. The plot is carried along via a bitter row between pilot and co-pilot who constantly debate the necessity of their task, one bemoaning the horrendous cost to German civilians whilst the other gloats and glories in the death of each and every woman and child. As usual, nothing is ever what it seems and the finale is a tribute to the creators’ skills and the unpredictable insanity of war itself. David Lloyd’s atmospheric meta-realistic art powerfully underpins a tale few could do justice to.

“The Reivers”, with Cam Kennedy illustrating, deals with a team of desert hit and run specialists dashing in under cover of darkness to blow up German airstrips and bases before haring off into the night. Apparently this sort of tactic directly led to today’s Special Ops units and this bunch certainly echo modern fiction’s image of beer-swilling, gung-ho nutters ready to fight and die, and always up for a bit of a giggle. The breakneck action is laced with Ennis’ blackly ironic, slap-stick humour, but never allows us to long forget the deadly and permanent nature of the business at hand.

“Condors” is set during the Spanish Civil war and is the war-comic equivalent of a shaggy dog story. During a particularly hectic bout of fighting four combatants crawl into the same crater to wait out the shelling. There’s an Englishman, an Irishman, a Spaniard and a German, two from each side of the conflict, and to pass the time they swap their life stories and philosophies. It seems to be the most true to what one might call the authors’ opinion, as the motives for fighting and killing are scrutinised through eyes and ears that have seen and heard all the explanations and reasons and still judged them wanting. Carlos Exquerra perfectly captures the camaraderie and insanity in his powerfully expressive renderings. This is an absolute gem of a story.

The last tale, “Archangel”, ends the book on a lighter tone, although the premise, based on actual missions of the convoy service, is one that hardly lends itself to easy reading. Until the cracking of the Enigma code, every Trans-Atlantic shipment of materiel –especially to our Russian allies – was practically defenceless against Axis submarine and bomber assault. One counter-scheme was to put a fighter plane on a freighter which could be launched to fend off airborne attacks. All well and good until you realise that only obsolete planes could be spared for such service, and that largely because once launched – by rocket catapult, no less – they could not land again, but had to ditch or try to find dry land if any could be reached on whatever fuel remained. It should also be noted that not all land was in friendly hands, either. This tale of an RAF misfit and his arctic odyssey is full of the ‘hopeless prawn triumphant’ that typified old British films and the meticulous artwork of Gary Erskine lends credibility to a tale that sheer logic just can’t manage.

Ennis’s war stories are always a labour of love, and his co-creators never work better than when illustrating them. Combine this with a genre that commands a respect that most comics just don’t get and you have a piece of fiction that would grace any library or bookshelf.

© 2003, 2006 Garth Ennis with David Lloyd, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra and Gary Erskine respectively. All Rights individually Reserved as appropriate.

Ultimate Adventures: One Tin Soldier

Ultimate Adventures: One Tin Soldier 

By Ron Zimmerman & Duncan Fegredo, with Walden Wong (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1043-7

There is so much that’s wrong with this book. As another volume of the collected adventures of those retooled Marvel characters that inhabit the “realer” pocket universe created when the company’s traditional fan-base stopped buying the majority of their product in the wake of the bankruptcy fiasco in the 1990s, it falls between two stools in the eyes of the die-hard Marvelites.

Addressing that slimmed-down, baggage-free, more contemporary and realistic concept itself; if there’re loads of super-beings, having crossovers and you start needing a score-card again, what’s the point of having two discrete universes?

Most pertinently, when DC Comics’ biggest rival puts out a grim ‘n’ gritty miniseries featuring a caped avenger of the night, who patterns his super persona on a winged nocturnal predator, and, armed only with a utility belt and the coolest car money can buy, looks to adopt an orphan and train him as a sidekick, what – other than a lawsuit even She-Hulk could win – have you got?

Well actually, you have a delightful and gripping parody (that’s the plea I would go with) of the genre, albeit uncomfortably shoe-horned into the burgeoning continuity of the Ultimates line. Even though there is a just plain gratuitous team-up/fight with the Ultimate universe Avengers wedged into the middle of the proceedings, it just acts as a welcome break from the Sturm-und-Drang, pant-wetting angst of the modern super-hero idiom, without ever actually becoming forced or silly.

The humour is there in abundance for both the comics neophyte or bewildered grandparent who bought this thinking it starred some other dynamic duo, and the old lag who doesn’t mind the occasional pop at the nostalgic bulwarks of his life, but this is not a comedy book. The action is sincere and the characterisations all acute and well-rounded. Writer Zimmerman’s apparent irreverence for Marvel tradition, so successfully shown in The Rawhide Kid, once again plays to his advantage, especially when enhanced by some of the best art of Duncan Fegredo’s career. Read this before someone bans it.

© 2002, 2003, 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Batman: Public Enemies

Superman Batman: Public Enemies 

Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-915-8

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends and the pairing made financial sense as DC’s top heroes should cross sell and cross pollinate their combined readerships.

When the characters were redefined for the post-Crisis 1980s they were remade as respectful co-workers who did the same job but deplored each other’s methods and preferred to avoid contact whenever possible (except when they were in the Justice League – but for the sake of your sanity don’t fret that right now!). Here they have reformed as friends for the style-over-content twenty-first century, and this is the story of their first outing together. Outlawed by Presidential decree and hunted by their fellow heroes, they find themselves accused of directing a country-sized chunk of Kryptonite to crash into Earth! To save Superman, the world and their own reputations they are forced to attempt the overthrow of the President himself.

In so many ways this compilation is everything I hate about the modern comics industry. Plot is reduced to an absolute minimum in favour of showy set-pieces. Previously established characterisation is hostage to whatever seems the easiest way to short-cut to action (mortal foes Captain Atom and Major Force work together to capture our heroes because US President Lex Luthor tells them to?). The story length is artificially extended to accommodate lots of guest stars, and yet large amounts of narrative occur off-camera or between issues, presumably to facilitate a faster, smoother read. Also, there was an unholy rush to a collected edition, presumably because of demand, but that didn’t prevent the publishers releasing the reprint as an expensive hardback before getting round to releasing a trade paperback collection a good few months after that. This is no way to service or expand an already diminishing customer base.

On the plus side however is the fact that I’m an old fart. There is obviously a market for snazzy looking, stripped down, practically deconstructed comic fare. There must be, or Image Comics wouldn’t have lasted three months, let alone the length of time many of the perpetrators managed. Public Enemies does look good, and if much of the scenario is obvious and predictable it is big and immediate and glossy like a summer action film. Perhaps there’s room for those alongside the Will Eisners, Dave Sims, Alan Moores, Robert Crumbs and Frank Millers of the world.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Superman Batman: Supergirl

Superman Batman: Supergirl 

By Jeph Loeb, Michael Turner & Peter Steigerwald (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-114-6

DC really can’t seem to make up their minds over Supergirl. I’ve actually lost count of the number of different versions that have been foisted on us over the years, and I can’t escape the queasy feeling that above all else she’s a concept created to ease young male readers over that bumpy patch between voices breaking and hiding things under your mattress where your mum never, never ever looks.

This latest version resets to the most popular concept and has a naked blonde chick arrive on a Kryptonite meteor claiming to be Superman’s cousin. The most intriguing aspect of this incarnation is Batman’s total distrust of the girl as she is hidden from the world while she assimilates. This leads to her training/babysitting by Wonder Woman’s amazons and her eventual kidnapping by evil space-god Darkseid.

All in all though, it’s woefully predictable stuff with oodles of lovingly rendered girl-flesh and fetish outfits jostling for attention amidst the lavish fight-scenes and interminable guest-cameos. Yet as much as I bitch about all this, I won’t disparage the popularity of the material, because any increase in sales of comics is a wonderful thing in this current climate, but I just know that the writer of The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons is capable of producing better stuff for artists of this quality to draw.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.