Books of Magick: Life During Wartime

Books of Magic: Life During Wartime 

By Si Spencer & Dean Ormston (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-005-0

Neil Gaiman is a big name in comics. He’s one of those guys who’s “made it” in the realer world but hasn’t completely turned his back on comics. He is also one of a small creative elite whose name liberally spread out on a book cover can bring non-comic clientele to a package, which is a long-winded way of saying that no comic title he’s been involved with will long stay in Limbo.

The latest return of The Books of Magick and super magician Tim Hunter features yet another revamp of the young, guileless innocent that Gaiman, John Bolton and a small band of painterly superstars tasked with a journey of self-discovery through all the Mystic Realms of the DC Universe back in the 1990s. Unfortunately a lot of pages have been published since then and the scrofulous young yob starring here is no kin to that waif.

This in itself is no bad thing. The adventures begin in another universe where humanity and demons are at war, a supernatural global conflict that has pushed Man to the brink of extinction. One last bastion lies besieged and Vertigo stalwart John Constantine is their embattled leader, as they await the return of their all-powerful deity, The Hunter.

The echoes of William Hope Hodgeson and C. S. Lewis are interrupted with a segue to a young adult Tim in what looks like our reality, dossing about after graduating university, doing drugs, swilling beer and shagging totty, just like anybody. As the story progresses long-time readers will realise that something is amiss, though. This life is just as out of whack as the demon war-scape and events lead to the inevitable conclusion that a deadly congruence of circumstance will catapult Tim and his coterie of reprobates into an alien Armageddon.

My poncey locution aside, this is quite an enjoyable fantasy ride. Si Spencer brings his television writing (Grange Hill, Eastenders) into the mix of earthly and unreal to great effect – let’s face it, most comics are soap-operas these days – and Dean Ormston manages to be grungy and stylish at the same time. My quibble stems from what I said earlier.

Although a re-interpretation, much of the narrative depends on a more than passing knowledge of the DC Universe (Hellblazer, Zatanna etc.) and especially the characters such as idealised girl friend Molly, from the long previous runs of Books of Magick. If those comics had sold well enough to garner a solid readership, we wouldn’t be discussing this new version at all, and to ask new readers to muddle along knowing there’s a subtext but not getting it seems at best harsh and at worst a recipe for yet another early bath.

For those Gaiman groupies, it might be an actual turn off from an otherwise useful addition to comics’ adult fantasy stable, and even comics in general.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman and the Mad Monk

Batman and the Mad Monk 

By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-495-1

The concluding volume of Matt Wagner’s reinterpretation of two of Batman’s earliest and most iconic triumphs features a classic duel with the Dark Knight’s most obvious antithesis – a vampire. A flamboyant, magical bat monster to combat the grim, steely rationalism of this hero was an obvious conceit when Gardner Fox wrote it in 1939 (Detective Comics #31 and #32 – most recently reprinted in Batman Chronicles Volume 1 ISBN 1-84576-036-0) and Wagner proves that it still has merit.

Following on from Batman and the Monster Men with the sub-plot of Bruce Wayne’s first girlfriend Julie Madison and her tragically flawed father, this subtle blending of high gothic fantasy and modern Goth sensibility sees a mysterious cult leader moving into the upper and lower echelons of Gotham society, recruiting thugs , seducing the glitterati and killing at a whim.

Still in his first year of his mission, the inexperienced Batman must reassess his role and his beliefs before his city can be saved.

This is great story-telling, beautifully illustrated, paying proper respect to the triumphs of the past whilst reverently refreshing them for the modern reader. This is a classic Batman that everybody can enjoy – and should.

© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 1

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 1 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-809-7

This volume of the adventures of Britain’s greatest star-farer sees Dan and his trusty crew sent to the fifth planet to investigate the origins of the mysterious, marauding “Black Cats”, tiny probes that bore through anything and have a nasty habit of exploding if approached. It’s danger as usual as the team discover new, exotic civilisations, and old passions among their own ranks as they bring with them a villain as nefarious as the aliens they encounter.

These stories are genuinely timeless classics of adventure, suitable for all ages and wonderfully free of the hyperbolic angst that permeates today’s entertainments. Long-time aficionados are well served by the added text features which this time include not only another lavishly illustrated interview with creator Frank Hampson, but also the Secret History of Dan Dare by Wallis Rigby. The star introduction this time around is from Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials.

The strips first ran from February to October 1953, and rounding out the magnificent comic reading experience is a short complete thriller “The Double-Headed Eagle” reprinted from the Eagle Annual. The standard of art and story that was typical of Dan Dare has seldom been equalled, never surpassed and nothing has ever beaten it for longevity, vitality and sheer unwavering quality.

© 2005 Dan Dare Corporation, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hush Returns

Batman: Hush Returns 

By A. J. Lieberman, Al Barrionuevo & Javier Pina (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-258-4

The worst thing about major events in comics publishing – as elsewhere, sadly – is the blind compulsion to follow up and cash in on them. There were a whole bunch of years between Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the recent sequel, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have thus far resisted all urgings to revisit Watchmen. But it was inevitable that Hush, Batman’s dark opposite, would return sooner rather than later.

Relying on the tired plot premise that ‘everything you know is wrong’, and yet another string of guest-stars to bolster a weak and confusing storyline. Here it involves a battle for crime supremacy among insane super-criminals (Joker, Riddler and even the Penguin) intent on outsmarting each other, but this frankly bewildering mess could have benefited from fewer chapters and stricter editing, although the art is pretty good and Batman fans as much as any follower of long-running characters, have grown used to dry patches and occasional troughs between all those epic high points.

Originally published in Gotham Knights issues #50-55, the volume also contains a nominal epilogue from issue #66 featuring Hush’s hired thug Prometheus and the assorted villains from the criminal Society that plagued DC’s hero community since the onset of Infinite Crisis. This one is so very Not Recommended for anyone trying a graphic novel for the first time.

© 2004, 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury

Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-847-X

Volume four of Titan’s high quality hardback reprints finds Dare and crew crashed on of Mercury after saving the Earth from the ravages of the Red Moon Menace. With breakneck rapidity (these stories were originally published at two pages per week, remember, so there’s no hanging about) they encounter the indigenous rock creatures and discover where the monstrous Mekon has been skulking since his last defeat.

The stories are clear-cut but engrossing with solid, comfortable, archetypical characterisations and the artwork, as Hampson and his team hit their creative peak is an absolute joy to behold. Nobody with a Sense of Wonder should be denied this stuff!

The extras include the continuation of an interview with Frank Hampson and a fascinating article discussing the retail market for his artwork, both lavishly illustrated, plus a Dan Dare Checklist and character profiles of the cast. These books can’t come out fast enough for my tastes.

© 2005 Dan Dare Corporation Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Berlin: City of Stones

By Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 1-896597-29-7

This lyrical viewing of the final days of the German Weimar Republic is seen primarily through the eyes and experiences of art student Marthe Müller as she begins a new life in Berlin. Already a cauldron of expressionism and radical politics by the time of her arrival, the German Capital is soon to descend into the bitter final ideological struggle between the communists and National Socialists.

As she interacts with the decadent intelligentsia of the art world and the solid citizenry of the streets, she eventually becomes involved with crusading left-wing journalist Kurt Severing, whom she first encountered on the train to the Capital in September 1928. All around is a slow gathering of violence.

City of Stones is the first in a projected trilogy from Jason Lutes who uses the story and the powerfully understated drawing to explore such minor themes as the nature and place of art in society, the responsibilities of the creative force in a cold and hungry world and the transitional nature of ethics within his ostensible narrative exploration of fictional people undergoing real events.

This is a lovely tale to read, and unlike most of our medium, possesses a depth of feeling and accessible profundity that puts it in an arena that few books or films could aspire to. This is a genuine landmark of our craft and you should know it.

© 2001 Jason Lutes. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hush

Batman: Hush 1 

Volume 1
By Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee and Scott Williams (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84023-718-X

 Batman: Hush 2

Volume 2
By Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee and Scott Williams (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84023-738-4

These are collections of the multi-part, mega-epic that ran in Batman #608-619. The plot is pretty negligible, as a mysterious foe assembles all the Dark Knight’s arch-enemies to have another pop at him, and despite only introducing one new character, dares us all to guess who the mastermind can possibly be.

Overblown, over-hyped and histrionic, it’s the perfect equivalent to the mindless, summer-movie blockbuster, technically and visually attractive but with no real meat on its bones. Such a disappointment considering the quality that all the creators are capable of producing.

Still, this is the shallow stuff that modern dreams seem made of and absolutely reeks of glitter, angst and testosterone in equal measure. Flashy and, I’m sure, a secret, guilty pleasure for many, I can only hope that as often happens, what succeeding creators do with the aftermath will make all the fuss eventual worthwhile and sensible.

™ & © 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man, Vol 5 Ring of Truth

Y: The Last Man, vol 5 Ring of Truth 

By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán Jr. (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-043-3

Yorick Brown woke up one morning and every other male (not just Man, but every other living thing with a thing) was dead. Except him – oh, and his pet monkey, of course. Over the course of two years he has made his peril fraught way from the East Coast of America towards his fiancée, who was left stranded in Australia when civilisation ended.

In this fifth volume events move into higher gear as the secret agent who has been bodyguarding him and the geneticist who has been trying to solve his mysteriously continued existence both reach turning points in their own particular journeys, as does Yorick’s previously insane sister, Hero, who has been stalking them across the feminine, ravaged and now generally dis-United States.

When they all arrive in San Francisco, Agent 355 has a lethal confrontation with her ex-comrades, Hero has an epiphany of sorts, and Dr. Mann actually discovers the secret of the last man’s immunity to the disease that killed all those guys.

Hey, remember the Monkey? He’s stolen and shipped abroad. It is absolutely vital that the team must rescue him from captivity in, surprise, surprise, Australia!

If that felt a little confusing, you really shouldn’t read this gradually improving, well-written – if contrived – adventure, although the art is deliciously effective in an unassuming, subversive way. If you are engaged, however, and prepared to track down the previous four volumes first, you might enjoy it.

© 2004, 2005 Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man, Vol 4 Safeword

Y: The Last Man, Vol 4 Safeword 

By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán Jr. (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-921-2

Yorick Brown woke up one morning and every other male (not just Man, but every other living thing with a thing) was dead. Except him, oh, and his pet monkey, of course. Over the course of two years he has made his peril fraught way from the East Coast of America towards his fiancée, who was left stranded in Australia when civilisation ended.

Accompanying him on his trek westward is bodyguard and secret agent 355 and geneticist Dr, Allison Mann who believes she may have caused the plague by giving birth to the world’s first parthenogenetic human clone.

Having reached Colorado they pause in their everyday adventures so that the increasingly gung-ho Yorick can get medical care for Ampersand, his monkey. By his very existence Yorick is a valuable commodity, so he has to spend most of his time in some form of drag. Rather than risk his discovery needlessly, 355 and Dr. Mann leave him with a conveniently undercover fellow agent (their particular organisation is called ‘The Culper Ring’) whilst they scavenge foe antibiotics.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that this agent has her own agenda. Yorick wakes up naked, tied to a ceiling and subject to a Dominatrix’s specialist attentions. But all is not as it seems and an extended – and adults only! – ‘interview’ provides some valuable, if obscure glimpses of Yorick’s life before the plague. By the time it’s all over we’ve been introduced to another mysterious factor in this saga – the deadly agents of the rival ‘Setauket Ring’.

Obviously America is devastated by the Plague, but recovery is slower than might be expected. One reason for this is discovered when the pilgrims reach Arizona. Following in the bootsteps of their paranoid-survivalist-militia menfolk, the women have blockaded the only motorway and are starving half the country. Believing the Federal Government created the Plague, these ‘Patriots’ are retaliating in the only way they know, and only brutal violence will solve the crisis. And once again the real victims are the people who help Yorick.

Increasingly this series is growing beyond its clichéd premise and developing into a clever, ironic and powerful tale to be read on its own terms.

© 2004 Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra & various. All Rights Reserved.

Transformers Energon Pocket Edition 2

Transformers Energon Pocket Edition 2 

By Simon Furman & various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-959-X

In this twenty-first century incarnation of the eternal civil war of the “Robots In Disguise”, both Autobot and Decepticon factions are on Earth seeking to replenish the life giving fuel source Energon, leading to simultaneous conflicts both here and on their own planet Cybertron.

In this much improved Volume 2 the heroic and hard-pressed Autobots strive valiantly to defeat a force of Decepticons who are trying to resurrect the ultimate, planet crushing Unicron whilst saving their new human allies Rad, Carlos and Kicker. Matters are further complicated when Autobot leader Optimus Prime vanishes, lost in space between Earth and Cybertron. He seems to have been captured by the “ghost” of Megatron, long since consumed by Unicron…

Chock full of high-tech, explosive-but-not-gratuitous action, this yarn fairly barrels along and the marked improvement of the colouring since volume one adds some much appreciated clarity to the process. A solid read for aficionados and thrill-seeker of all ages.

© 2004 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.