Stig’s Inferno

Stig’s Inferno

By Klaus Schönefeld & Ty Templeton (Vortex)
ISBN: 0-921451-02-4

The late 1980’s was a time of massive and unprecedented expansion and experimentation in the American comic industry. For a while it appeared that any clown with a Rotring and a couple of hundred bucks could bang out his own publication and become an overnight sensation.

Most of this burgeoning output was pretty damn bad, some actually appalling, and a small proportion was in fact, very, very good. However, not all of the Good Stuff hit big. Very little of it even survived the inevitable implosion. Such an item was Stig’s Inferno from Vortex Comics, a publisher who seemed to specialise in high quality product that nobody bought.

Stig is a cool, laid-back kind of guy who picks up a chick named Beatrice. He takes her back to his place, which is like a cross between the Bates Motel and Poltergeist Central. Whilst giving her the fifty-cent tour he gets into an argument with the sock stealing Things that are squatters in his piano.

When he regains consciousness he is in Hell, dead and naked from the waist down. What follows is a picaresque and brilliantly funny tribute to Dante’s Inferno with the voice of Bill Murray replacing Dante Alligheri’s and a mission to proffer mirth not salvation. Every page is a verbal and visual grab-bag of gags that never seem to progress the plot, but simply get funnier for fun’s sake.

The first five issues were published by Vortex with two more coming out from Eclipse Comics. The series never originally concluded, due in great part to the tragic and untimely death of Klaus Schönefeld. With Templeton being credited with story as well as art from the third instalment onwards and as he has proven himself such an entertaining writer and artist in the intervening years, it is this reviewer’s fervent hope that one day he returns to conclude the project. Nonetheless, what is there already is still wonderful, and you’ll thank yourself for picking any of it up next time you’re trawling the back issue bins.

© 1988 William P. Marks.

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible 

By Austin Grossman, with illustrations by Bryan Hitch (Michael Joseph/Penguin)
ISBN: 0-718-15291-8

WARNING! THIS IS A NOVEL. IT HAS VERY FEW PICTURES.

It seems that the signature genre of comics – the super-hero – has finally gained some literary legitimacy. If you ignore the pulp exploits of Doc Savage and the Shadow, the novelisations and prose experiments of the bigger comic publishers with their key brands and the success of such series as the ‘Wild Cards’, costumed do-gooders and crazed masterminds have finally broken into mainstream publishing with this novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of arch-nemesis Doctor Impossible and neophyte super-heroine Fatale, in our terms it’s a fairly standard battle of goodies and baddies in the ‘realistic’ vein best used by the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Kurt Busiek (Astro City, not Marvels). As such it will be pretty familiar territory to comic fans, should they choose to read all that text – and a word to the wise for the paperback edition; Bryan Hitch’s illustrations are lovely, so why not intersperse them through the text as they did with George Lowther’s 1942 Superman novel, rather than shove them at the back of the book as if you’re ashamed of them? – but I wonder if it will advance the interests of the comic aficionados and publishers as much as a blockbuster movie or TV series.

Still any literary notice and approval would be nice and the book reads well enough. How many of you are going to wait for the comic adaptation though?

© Austin Grossman, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Smallville, Vol 1

Smallville, Vol 1 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-826-7

I wasn’t sure where to place this one when I finished it. The whole point of Now Read This! is to review graphic novels so that people will read more comic material – either by expanding their usual habits as fans or by broadening the horizons of consumers who wouldn’t normally read stories told in pictures. I want to wholeheartedly and confidently recommend to browsers or fanboys and the wide panoply in between.

The whole point here is to assess whether a graphic novel compares to the best of written or visual arts equivalents. Bleak House (the book) or Inherit the Wind (the Spencer Tracy film) or Boys From The Black Stuff. Babylon 5, 2001, Forbidden Planet, Trancers or Neuromancer. These are signal highpoints of a form, Worthy Highbrow or Populist low cult.

Please don’t make me explain all that again.

So why is the book such a problem? It collects the one-shot Smallville: The Comic and the comic strip sections from the first four issues of the eponymous tie-in magazine published by DC, with a couple of the more interesting articles thrown in for balance and as a excuse to print some photos of the highly telegenic cast.

The stories and artwork are of the highest quality, from the likes of Mark Verheiden, Cliff Carpenter, Roy Allan Martinez, Kilian Plunkett, John Paul Leon, Renato Guedes and many others. They even bear a strong, direct relevance to the episodes of the hit TV show they’re derived from. And that, regrettably, is the problem.

Many of the tales are sidebars to actual episodes, or derive from specific events from the show, and if you’re cursed with an average memory, or didn’t watch the series, reprinting stories one or two seasons after the fact leaves a reader floundering for the full story. It’s a great looking package that could really disenchant all but the most dedicated fan of the programme. Unless, of course, you buy the DVD’s at the same time…

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Street Angel: The Princess of Poverty

Street Angel 

By Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca (SLG)
ISBN: 1-5936-2012-8

Another spectacular Indie offering is this unbelievably readable pastiche of modern culture featuring the insane super-heroic exploits of monster crushing, ninja-hating Jesse Sanchez.

13 year old Sanchez is the eponymous Street Angel, a homeless girl who dumpster dives for food and cigarette butts, goes to school – when she has to – drinks cheap booze, and saves Angel city on a regular basis from Gods, monsters, scientists, super-villains and anything else that tries to do bad to the world. She has nothing to aid her but her phenomenal martial arts skills, skateboarding abilities and unwavering optimism.

Created by a team hopelessly seduced by, but not trapped in, a wash of popular culture iconography such as comic-books, trashy movies, skater-boy chic and the timeless beauty of excessive and cleverly staged gratuitous violence, this wickedly clever spoof is a masterpiece of cliché-busting fun illustrated with an startlingly accessible and economic verve and utility that can’t help but suck you down like a Aztec God tripping over his own time portal. I especially call your attention to CosMick O’Brannigan, the World’s First Irish Astronaut and fluent speaker of Australian – “The Friendliest Language on Earth” as a potential megastar of the future.

Smart, sassy and catchy as a “Chicken Tonight” jingle – this is a series worth hunting for.

™ & © 2004, 2005 Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca. All Rights Reserved.

Frank Miller’s Sin City, vol 1: The Hard Goodbye

Frank Miller’s Sin City, vol 1: The Hard Goodbye 

By Frank Miller (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-045-X

To coincide with the release of the film, Dark Horse released all seven of Frank Miller’s quintessential noir thrillers in a new, more compact format. Whilst reviewing the first of these I noticed something that had utterly escaped me in the past. Maybe I’m simply the last one to notice, but as the brutal Marv rampages through the wickedest city in the world, hunting for the murderers of the hooker he woke up beside, dodging cops, kicking butt and leaping from tall buildings, it seemed to me that over and above the starkly reductionist art style he was rendered in something else was going on.

In what was heralded as a breaking away from the genre morass of superhero fare Miller had produced in artistic staging a purely superheroic visual lexicon. The poses, the leaps and fights, and especially the way that coat billows in the breeze are all pure spandex iconography.

You probably all noticed that already. Which means that you already knew this dark adult, crime comic is a breakneck thrill-ride tour-de-force. And that they originally appeared in short bursts in the anthology comic Dark Horse Presents #51-62, plus a tale from the Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special.

Still worth picking up though. No?

© 1991, 1992, 1993, 2001, 2005, Frank Miller Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Shirley! A Sex Comedy

Shirley! A Sex Comedy 

By Noa Abarbanel & Amitai Sandy (Dimona Comix Group)
No ISBN: go to www.dimonacomix.com for details

This odd little book crossed my desk recently, so I thought I’d share it with you — although I genuinely don’t really know if I got it or not. I ought to warn you now though, that if frank discussion of sexual topics gives you the screaming Heebie-Jeebies, you might want to stop reading any second now. The book is both frank and graphically uncompromising, although this is an earthily humorous story rendered in full colour illustrations by Amitai Sandy in the loose and stylish manner of alternative cartoonist Lee Marrs.

Shirley Marchevsky is a progressive young woman in present day Israel with a full life, many friends and lots to do. She is also a girl on a mission.

As a sexual libertarian, she has lots of intimate partners but she is still looking for her own special Mr Right. Would that be a certain type? A specific ethnicity? A certain form of physicality, perhaps? Not really.

Shirley’s difficulties stem from her heart-felt belief that sex is good and should, above all other things, be fun. Sadly she often expresses that belief in inappropriate if not outright off-putting behaviour such as wilfully breaking wind at the most intimate of moments, substituting a pet’s mouth for her own when her partner is unable to focus his eyes, and generally laughing at the most intense moments. There can’t be a man alive who can keep … concentrating… when his partner is chortling, guffawing and doing an uncanny impression of a Whooppee Cushion. Talk about performance anxiety!

What she wants is a guy who also believes that mutual punch-lines are much more important than mutual climaxes. She’s tried it without the clown act but it’s just not as good. Somewhere out there must be a man who thinks and feels as she does. Does she find him? Well, I’ve been pretty explicit thus far but I even I have my limits. Best if you find out for yourself.

Presumably© 2005 Noa Abarbanel & Amitai Sandy. All Rights Reserved.

Roxanna & the Quest for the Time Bird

1. RAMOR’S CONCH (ISBN 0-918348-30-7)
2. THE TEMPLE OF OBLIVION (ISBN 0-918348-34-X)
3. THE REIGE MASTER (ISBN 0-918348-47-1)
4. THE EGG OF DARKNESS (ISBN 0-918348-56-0)
By Loisel & Le Tendre (NBM)

Like much French art and culture, French language comic material (I’m controversially including Belgium in this half-baked, nigh-racist, sweeping statement) usually seems to be a triumph of style over content. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, simply that sometimes the writing and plotting isn’t as important to the readers as the way it looks on a page, and deep, complex characterisation isn’t often given the same amount of room that scenery, fighting or sex gets. When you combine that with their reading public’s total inability to be shocked by nudity or profanity, it becomes clear why so little of these beautiful rendered strips ever get translated into English. Confidentially, I also think they think that super-heroes are silly!

Beginning in the mid-1980s, there was a concerted effort to bring a selection of European comics to an American audience, with mixed results, and there have been a number of recurring, abortive attempts since. One of the best was the fairly innocuous if splendidly fanciful fantasy Roxanna and the Quest for the Time Bird, which combined sword-and sorcery in the manner of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal with the sly raciness of the Carry On films.

Roxanna 1

Ramor’s Conch introduces us to a world of many races, species and magics via the astonishing Roxanna, sent on a mission to recruit Bragon, the Greatest Knight in the World (and quite possibly her father) to capture the legendary Time-Bird and prevent the destruction of the planet at the hands of the mad god imprisoned within the Conch. Bragon, old and crotchety, takes a lot of persuading, even though he loved the Witch-Princess Mara who is Roxanna’s mother and the only thing currently holding back immanent Armageddon.

Of course he does accept the mission, but is unable to prevent the girl from accompanying him. Whether it’s because she may be his daughter or simply because this plain faced girl has the sexiest body on the planet and the mind of a young girl (which here translates as a devastating blend of ingénue maiden and scrubber-in-training), he decides to keep her with him as they set out on their desperate quest, the first part of which is to steal the Conch itself from a city of religious maniacs who haven’t even seen a woman in months. After much derring-do and snide asides they succeed, picking up a relentless foe in the shape of the deadly Bulrog, and a breast-obsessed (Roxanna’s chest is unfeasibly large and inviting), inept young warrior in the process. The first book closes with the trio setting off for their next stage with only eight days remaining until the end of the world and the revenge crazed psychopath Bulrog hot on their heels.

Roxanna 2

The Temple of Oblivion sees the reunion of Bragon and Mara as he deposits the Conch and takes a party to the aforementioned temple to translate runes that will lead to the Time-Bird itself. With the Bird they can literally stop the clock until Mara can devise a way to re-imprison the mad god Ramor. Their journey pushes them to emotional and physical limits, and a dark edge creeps into tale, as they again succeed but only at the cost of all but Bragon, Roxanna and her young warrior. As they head to their next destination, only seven days remain.

Roxanna 3

The Reige Master finds them slogging through jungles strikingly similar to French Indo-China, nearing their goal, but being stalked by weird vulture-like beings led by an old warrior who has become an obsessive hunter, dedicated to dealing out death as a spiritual experience. Over the course of four days much is revealed about Bragon, and Bulrog as well as the confirmation that everything is not as it seems with the irresistible and so off-limits Roxanna. Without ever feeling like the creators are just marking time, the volume closes with three days until doomsday, all four travellers uncomfortably united and the path to the Time-Bird open before them.

Roxanna 4

The Egg of Darkness opens many years after the events of the previous books, with an old man relating the adventures as a bed time story for his grandchildren. The fantastic action is overtaken by a metaphysical detour and explosive revelations about the quest and the participants that provide a spectacular shock ending. As with all great myth tales the heroes triumph and fade but still leave some mystery, as well as wiggle-room for a return, if called for.

Although simplistically plotted, the stylish worldliness of Loisel and Le Tendre both in the sparse and evocative script and the frankly phenomenal illustration, and the sheer inventiveness of the locales and inhabitants of the alien world of Akbar are irresistible lures into a special world of reading magic that more US/UK fans should experience. It’s not Tin Tin, it’s not Asterix, it is foreign and it is good. Go questing for it.

© 1983-1987 by Dargaud Editeur.
English language edition © 1987-1989 NBM.

The Sandman: Endless Nights

Sandman: Endless Nights 

By Neil Gaiman & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-784-8

The Sandman has become one of the lasting successes of the comic industry and a new offering has the cache of a media event. Each new work therefore seems intent on being just a little bit “more” than the last, presumably as a way of distancing it from the plethora of ordinary comic-book spin-offs that grew into a sub-imprint once the regular periodical series concluded. Following the prose ‘The Dream Hunters’ (with painted illustration by Yoshitaka Amano) Gaiman returned to the series’ graphic roots with seven short stories, each focussing on one of the Endless, and each pictured by a major international star.

Death is drawn by P Craig Russell, Desire by Milo Manara, Dream himself by Miguelanxo Prado and Despair is a highly stylized collaboration between Barron Storey and Dave McKean. Bill Sienkiewicz delineates Despair, Destruction is rendered by Glenn Fabry and Destiny is left for Frank Quitely.

There’s no point in summarising the stories themselves. The art is all you’d expect from such a prestigious assemblage. The writing is what you’d hope for from a creator who’s moved on and come back for a visit. If you’re a fan or a convert you’ll be delighted, and if you don’t like the Sandman you won’t want to read it anyway. But if you wanted to see what all the fuss was about and can appreciate beautifully told stories beautifully pictured this could be your personal introduction into a whole new, wonderful world.

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lunar Legend Tsukihime

Lunar Legend Tsukihime 1 

Vol. 1: BLUE BLUE GLASS MOON, UNDER THE CRIMSON AIR ISBN 1-59796-075-6

Lunar Legend Tsukihime 2

Vol. 2: BLUE BLUE GLASS MOON, UNDER THE CRIMSON AIR ISBN 1-59796-076-4
By Sasakishonen/Type-Moon/Tsukihime Project (DrMaster Publications Inc.)

This dark and stylish modern horror-adventure series tells the tale of Shiki Tohno, a troubled young man with an awesome gift. Ever since a childhood accident, he has had the ability to see the hidden lines or weak points in all things, organic or otherwise. By striking or cutting along these normally invisible stress lines, he can literally slice through anything, as if through hot butter. As he matures, along with this power comes a growing and irrepressible urge to kill.

When he succumbs to the demonic call and literally dismembers a young woman the pressure of his rich, dysfunctional life temporarily eases, until she turns up at his front door, hale, hearty, and quite keen to recruit him into a little project of her own.

The tale moves into a higher gear in the second book as the mysterious and beautiful Aoka Aozaki explains just exactly what kind of creature she is to our troubled young hero, and how his awesome power might just be a blessing, not the curse he has always feared.

She explains that she is an immortal vampire who refuses to drink human blood, embroiled in a war with her much more traditional descendents, and she desperately needs his aid if she is to win, and perhaps even survive, against more or less unstoppable monsters who simply want to slaughter humans and breed more bloodsuckers.

This is an intriguing spin on the over-used vampire-hunter genre with lots of action and a genuinely sympathetic (anti)hero. It stands out well in a veritable sea of similar material. I just wish the title wasn’t so much of a mouthful.

© 2005 Sasakishonen/Type-Moon/Tsukihime Project. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Ant-Man, vol 1

Essential Ant-Man, vol 1 

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0822-X

Marvel Comics built its fan base through strong and contemporarily relevant stories and art, but most importantly, by creating a shared continuity that closely followed the characters through not just their own titles but also through the many guest appearances in other comics. Such an interweaving meant that even today completists and fans seek out extraneous stories to get a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. In such an environment, series such as Marvel’s Essential… and DC’s …Showcase are an economical and valuable product that approaches the status of a public service for collectors.

If you’re of a particularly finicky nature – and what true comic fan isn’t? – you could consider the Astonishing Ant-Man to be one of the earliest heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics. He first appeared in Tales To Astonish #27 (cover-dated January 1962), one of the monster anthology titles that proliferated in those heady days of Science Fiction Double-Feature B-Movies. The 7 page short introduced Dr Henry Pym, a maverick scientist who discovered a shrinking potion and became ‘The Man in the Anthill!’ This engaging piece of fluff, which owed more than a little to the classic film The Incredible Shrinking Man was plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and beautifully illustrated by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.

Obviously the character struck a chord with someone, since as the superhero boom expanded he was rapidly retooled and returned as a full-fledged costumed do-gooder in issue #35 (September 1962). His brand new origin involved Communist agents (this was at the height of Marvel’s ‘Commie-Buster’ period when every other villain was a Red somebody or other) and fairly rips along with our hero thwarting his evil abductors and developing his powers on the run. ‘Return of the Ant-Man’ was crafted by the original team of creators, as were the succeeding four adventures: ‘The Challenge of Comrade X!’, ‘Trapped by the Protector!’ (crook, not spy, this time), ‘Betrayed by the Ants!’ (the debut of his arch-foe Egghead – ah, simpler times, eh?) and the wonderfully primal monster menace of ‘The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!’.

Sol Brodsky replaces Ayers as inker for ‘The Day that Ant-Man Failed!’ (Tales To Astonish #40), and Kirby himself gives way to Don Heck on ‘Prisoner of the Slave World!’ from TTA #41 and ‘The Voice of Doom’ (TTA #42), the King’s lavishly experimental perspectival flamboyance deferring to the comfortingly humanistic passion of Heck. The following issue H. E. Huntley replaces Lieber as scripter.

‘Versus the Mad Master of Time’ is a run-of-the-mill mad scientist tale but the next issue (TTA #44) is significant for a number of reasons. ‘The Creature from Kosmos’ has Kirby pencil for Heck’s inks and introduces The Wasp – Pym’s bon vivant crime-fighting partner – in a tale that features alien invaders and the secret origin of Ant-Man. In a rare and uncharacteristic display of depth we learn that Pym’s first wife Maria was murdered by Communists, changing the scientist from a scholar into the man of action he is now.

‘The Terrible Traps of Egghead’, ‘When Cyclops Walks the Earth!’, ‘Music to Scream By’ and ‘The Porcupine!’ are all unremarkable, if competent adventures from Lee, Huntley and Heck, but the next big change comes with TTA #49’s ‘The Birth of Giant-Man!’. Lee writes and Kirby and Heck illustrate a tale where Henry Pym learns to enlarge, as well as reduce, his size and mass just in time to tackle the threat of an extra-dimensional kidnapper. Steve Ditko inks Kirby in ‘The Human Top’, a two-part tale that shows our hero struggling to adapt to his new abilities. The concluding chapter is inked by Dick Ayers who would draw the bulk of the stories until the series’ demise. Also with this issue (TTA #51) a back-up feature starring the Wasp begins, and the combination of fact-features and horror vignettes narrated by the heroine are included in the volume.

The super-hero adventures settle into a pattern now as a succession of menaces are promptly dealt with in tales of variable quality. The Black Knight, the returning Porcupine, South American commie agent El Toro (drawn by Heck) and that pesky Human Top all come and go without too much trouble. A stage charlatan called The Magician is less trouble than TTA #57’s big guest-star when the size-changing duo battle Spider-Man, a sign of the increasing interconnectivity that Lee was developing. Captain America has a cameo in the battle with the giant alien Colossus, and issue #59 has all the Avengers visit before Giant-Man squares off against the Incredible Hulk.

Although the Human Top engineered that battle, Lee was the real mastermind as with the next issue (TTA #60 if you’re still counting) The Hulk becomes a co-star and Giant-Man’s adventures shrink back to 14 pages. ‘The Beasts of Berlin’ is a throwback in many ways as the duo must battle Commie Apes – no, really! – behind the Iron Curtain.

The writing was on the wall by issue #61. With the Hulk most prominent on the covers, substandard stories and a rapid rotation of artists, it was obvious Giant-Man was waning. ‘Now Walks the Android’ is illustrated by Ditko and George (Roussos) Bell, ‘Versus the Wasp’ is by Carl Burgos and Ayers, ‘The Gangsters and the Giant’ by Burgos and Chic Stone and ‘When Attuma Strikes’ by Burgos and Paul Reinman. This last was scripted by the mysterious and timid “Leon Lazarus”.

One final attempt to resuscitate the series came with the addition of Golden-Age legend Bob Powell (inked by Heck) as artist for issue #65’s ‘Presenting the New Giant-Man’. With a new costume and powers, these last five issues are actually some of the best tales in the run, but it was clearly too late. Frank (Giacoia) Ray inked Powell for ‘The Menace of Madam Macabre’, Chic Stone inked ‘The Mystery of the Hidden Man and his Rays of Doom!’ and the series concludes with a powerful two-parter (TTA #68 and 69) ‘Peril from the Long-Dead Past’ and ‘Oh, Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?’, inked by Vince Colletta and John Giunta. So far along is the decline that Al Hartley finishes what Stan Lee started, i.e. concluding the tense tale of the Wasp’s abduction by the Top and the retirement of the heroes at the story’s end.

Ant-Man did not die, but joined that vast cast of characters that Marvel kept in play in team books, in guest shots and in the occasional re-launch and mini-series. Despite variable quality and treatment he remains an intriguing and engaging reminder that the House of Ideas didn’t always get it right.

© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2002, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.