The God Interviews

The God Interviews 

By Natalie d’Arbeloff (NdA Press)
ISBN 978-0-9064-8713-6

Natalie d’Arbeloff is an artist, printmaker and author who creates comic strips on her blog featuring, I’m assuming, her semi-autobiographical character Blaugustine. In this book she has a series of chats with God – a friendly, mild-mannered, clean-shaven chap – about the kind of things that you would – if you’d been granted an interview. You know… ‘What’s it all about? Why does bad stuff happen? Are you really there?’

This gently philosophical – rather than theosophical – examination is whimsical and introspective, but never ponderous, delivered in a big, simple cartoon style and vivid, eye-catching colour, reminiscent of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. With an easy humour that would be appreciated by older children of all ages with the same questions.

There aren’t really any big new answers but to paraphrase Bob Dylan it’s not really about answers, but how we seek them, right?

See also www.nataliedarbeloff.com and www.nataliedabeloff.com/blaugustine.html

© 2006 Natalie d’Arbeloff. All Rights Reserved.

Samurai Champloo vol 1

Samurai Champloo vol 1 

By Masaru Gotsubo. Created by Manglobe (Tokyopop)
ISBN 1-5918-2282-3

A novel spin on the traditional samurai adventure genre is the basis of this manga, adapted from a successful anime (that’s cartoon show to you and me) in that although set in the civil war torn Edo period of seventeenth century Japan, the creators have eschewed the usually slavish concentration on period authenticity in favour of style-setting creative anachronism.

As well as hip, modernistic dialogue worthy of a summer blockbuster, characters may sport Raybans and goatees in addition to swords and bows. Think of it like setting Macbeth in Al Capone’s Chicago.

Trust me. In this context and used judiciously, as here, it does work, and with surprising effect.

The plot concerns the wanderings of a disparate trio who have fallen together under harsh circumstances. Erroneously branded as outlaws, they travel through a wildly dangerous country, hide-bound but simultaneously lawless as civil war tears their society apart.

Mugen is a wild, undisciplined mercenary from Okinawa (an independent nation at this period of time), continually hungry and more animal than man. Jin is his polar opposite, refined, skilled, a perfect Samurai. He is so tightly wound, however, that he is almost paralysed by his lack of a reason to fight or to live. The catalyst in this relationship is Fuu, who they discover working as a waitress. She is a paradox and has a deeply held secret agenda. She “hires” them both as her bodyguards as she embarks on an obsessive quest to find a mysterious Samurai who smells of Sunflowers.

In their travels they encounter bandits, battles, ninjas and nobility with their own plans for the trio. All the trappings of traditional Japanese historical adventures are present but the skewed perspective of twenty-first century comedy-drama sensibilities bring some much needed lightness to the often ponderous and oppressive doom-laden destiny and Giri-bound honourable slaughter of the genre-form. In Samurai Champloo most of the slaughter – and there is a vast amount – is for laughs.

Champloo is a corruption of the Okinawan word “champuru” which means mix, fusion or hybrid. This splendid combination of fashion, street sensibility and stripped down basics of a genre provides thrills and laughs in equal measure, whilst providing a strong narrative thread and engaging characters to carry the reader along. And don’t forget the mystery. What could anybody want with a samurai who smells of sunflowers?

© 2005 Masaru Gotsubo. © Manglobe/Shimoigusa Champloos. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Green-Eyed Monster

Modesty Blaise: The Green-Eyed Monster 

By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-864-X

This volume is the first to feature Enric Badia Romero as sole artistic hand, following the unexpected death of the legendary Jim Holdaway partway through ‘The Warlords of Phoenix’ and as a means of easing him into the job author O’Donnell was asked to quickly write a lighter tale to follow up the epic. ‘Willie the Djinn’ plays well to the new artist’s strengths, and although there are echoes of a previous O’Donnell and Holdaway Romeo Brown adventure, this tale of kidnapped dancing girls, oil sheikhs and military coups is a short, sweet romp, and a nice change of pace to the usual storm of murder, intrigue and revenge.

Those elements return in full in the eponymous ‘Green-Eyed Monster’ as the spoiled and obnoxious daughter of a British ambassador is kidnapped by South American rebels and Modesty and Willie must use all their skills to get her out of the terrorists’ clutches, escape the deadly jungles and resist the overwhelming temptation to kill her themselves.

‘Death of a Jester’ closes out the volume as our heroes stumble across a bizarre murder that leads to another job for British spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant. A man in Jester’s garb is impaled by a knight’s lance and thrown to lions in a caper that revolves around Mediaeval Re-enactments, a band of bored and dangerous British ex-commandos and the impossible theft of the Navy’s latest super torpedo.

The infectious whimsy of the early 1970s was becoming increasingly present but under the strictly controlled conditions of the prolific and ingenious O’Donnell, Blaise and Garvin continued to carve out a well deserved reputation for excellence in these magnificent tales of modern adventure. Certified Gold.

© 2005 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Marvel Knights Spider-Man

 Down Among the Dead Men

MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN: Volume 1 DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN
ISBN 0-7851-1437-8

Venomous

MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN: Volume 2 VENOMOUS
ISBN 0-7851-1675-3

The Last Stand

MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN: Volume 3 THE LAST STAND
By Mark Millar, Terry & Rachel Dodson and Frank Cho (Marvel Comic)
ISBN 0-7851-1676-1

The Marvel Knights imprint is pretty much credited with saving “the House of Ideas” after the near disastrous financial collapse of the mid-1990’s. It’s become a watchword for edgier, more worldly-wise, almost tongue-in-cheek material aimed at an older, more discerning fan. There are one or two stinkers, but generally this has produced a better quality of story, more accessible to new and/or older readers. The three books here comprise one extended adventure, blending that real-world sensibility with the truly bizarre continuity that had grown around Marvel’s most over-exposed character.

After yet another defeat for the Green Goblin (who has known Spider-Man’s secret identity since the earliest days of the hero’s career), which has lead to that villain’s actual incarceration for a change, our hero gets a mysterious phone call that literally changes his life in an instant. The mystery caller knows all Peter Parker’s secrets, and moreover, has kidnapped his beloved Aunt May. All Parker’s loved ones are at risk and someone out there has an irresistible hold over Spider-Man. He can’t even be sure that she’s even still alive, a notion that becomes increasingly real as the weeks pass with no word.

In a protracted search through the far corners of the Marvel Universe the increasingly desperate hero encounters old friends and a veritable legion of old foes who aren’t the clowns and bozos he – and we – were used to anymore. By the end of the saga our view of the status quo is utterly changed, and the world is a much darker and cynical place.

Sharp, edgy and funny scripting is wonderfully blended with the hyper-realistic illustration of the Dodsons and Frank Cho for a harsh and vivid revitalisation of many of the web-slingers greatest foes to produce an epic romp that is ideal to jump on or jump back to the amazing world of Spider-Man. However this should always have been one volume, not three. Maybe Marvel can rectify that error with the next imprint.

© 2004, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Peach Fuzz vol 1

By Lindsay Cibos & Jared Hodges (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 1-5953-259-9

Amanda is a little girl who wants a pet. After much doing of that thing kids do, her cost-conscious mother finally surrenders to the inevitable and lets her get a baby ferret from a somewhat downbeat pet store.

What the humans don’t suspect is that the baby ferret (christened Peach Fuzz by the besotted Amanda) is a creature with an astonishing Walter Mitty-like fantasy life. She regards herself as the pampered princess of a Noble House, with courtiers and knights to carry out her every desire. The recurrent depredations of the hideous, monstrous five headed “Handra” that abducted her from her palace and often now accosts her before rudely returning her to her “dungeon” she sees as a dreadful indignity. Naturally therefore, she defends herself at every opportunity.

Amanda meanwhile, is emotionally (and physically) torn, since her pet isn’t everything she expected. Although she loves Peach Fuzz dearly, the animal is not particularly affectionate. In fact, she is being bitten every time she plays with her, and can’t even complain since mother has threatened to return the ferret if it bites!

Can all these little traumas be resolved? The answer makes delightful reading for kids of all ages with a taste for tongue-in-cheek whimsy. Peach Fuzz is the product of two newcomers to the field who won the Grand Prize in TokyoPop’s talent competition Rising Stars of Manga with this tale of communication, compromise and commitment. Well worth a look.

© 2005 Lindsay Cibos & Jared Hodges. English text © 2005 TOKYOPOP INC. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Hell Makers

Modesty Blaise: The Hell Makers 

By Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway with Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-865-8

‘The Hell Makers’, lead story in this Modestly Blaise volume, concentrates on developing the unique relationship between the heroine and her partner-in-crime, Willie Garvin. When enemy agents capture and subject him to an horrendous ordeal of drug-induced torture as a means of bending Modesty to their will, we learn just how powerful are her platonic feelings for Willie and also just how deadly and ruthless she can be in defence of her friends.

‘Takeover’ is a more conventional crime thriller with our heroes reluctantly compelled to thwart an attempt by the Mafia to take control of the British crime scene.

In many ways ‘The War-Lords of Phoenix’ is the most memorable story, and not solely because it was the last that unsung genius Jim Holdaway worked on. Tragically he died, at the miserably young age of forty-three, midway through a truly exceptional adventure, featuring a Japanese secret society, assassination, martial arts mayhem and a generational saga of Atomic Armageddon that truly typified the super-agent genre so popular at the time.

The frantic search for a replacement artist is told in a text feature, but it is a lasting tribute to all concerned in the strip’s creation that a seamless transition was accomplished with the hiring of Barcelona-based Enric Badia Romero, who, whilst speaking no English, adapted his style to a passable imitation of Holdaway’s, and settled in for a long and competent run on the strip.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the mastery of Holdaway’s genius is that his best work remains as vibrant and captivating as ever.

© 2005 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

James Bond: The Golden Ghost

James Bond: The Golden Ghost 

By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-261-4 ISBN-13: 9781845762612

Jim Lawrence went from strength to strength as the premier Bond scripter with these tales from 1970-1971. The eponymous lead feature sees the British super-agent risking a deadly double cross as the head of Spectre offers to sell information of a potential disaster that leads Bond on a trail involving psychics and assassins and an attempt to destroy British prestige and end our country’s Nuclear Airship Programme. As usual there are thrills and glamour in abundance in a plot that presages modern summer blockbuster movies.

The Golden Ghost is followed by Fear Face, a tale of robotic assassins that might have been influenced by the “Cybernaut” episodes of that era’s other spy sensation, the TV series The Avengers. 007 is embroiled in a complicated plot when 0013 Briony Thorne, a disgraced agent, comes to him for help in clearing her name after a communist scheme has made her appear a traitor to the Realm. They are soon in contention with not only mad scientists, killer robots and ruthless gangsters but also their own secret service comrades.

Double Jeopardy is an early example of that now commonplace scenario, the replacement of prominent figures by flawless duplicates who steal, blackmail and kill. A deadly variation is the death of each duplicate and the original to close off the trail. Luck as much as skill is necessary to defeat a plot to sabotage a peace conference, by having the delegates murder each other.

The final story, Star Fire, is an enticing change of pace, full of ploy and counter-ploy as the leader of a ‘hippie cult’ unleashes what appears to be a plague of fireballs randomly incinerating anyone who mocks his beliefs. Just how that leads Bond to the death of a government scientist and the loss of secret plans for a top-secret British aircraft is a marvel of fast-paced storytelling, and the eventual resolution is bloody, thrilling, and a tribute to the real world roots of this most fantastical of espionage adventures.

Whilst tapping in to the contemporary fascination with the spiritual and supernatural, Lawrence and Horak never strayed too far from the basic solid grounding of the action-adventure. Sexy women and evil men litter the streets, cafes and bedrooms, evil organisations and enemy powers work their wiles and always the outcome depends on the determination and skill of the right man in the right place. These timeless thrillers are a joy to read and a pleasure to return to again and again.

© 1970, 1971 Glidrose Productions Ltd/ Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Lagoon Engine

Lagoon Engine 

By Yukiru Sugisaki (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 1-59523-359-7

Good old fashioned supernatural action and hi-jinks is what this adventure for older kids promises and delivers in a lively manner. Yen and Jin Ragun are schoolboys with all the pressures that entails but they also have a family duty to perform. They are the latest generation tasked with the banishing evil spirits, ghosts and demons whenever and wherever they might rear their scary, disembodied heads.

As a premise for adventure it ranks between Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with plenty of sibling squabbling, homework and friend tensions, not to mention lots of action. But Yukiru Sugisaki is not afraid to blend a little pathos and sensitivity into the mix and the result makes for a much more complete read.

Although I found some of the attention to explaining the rules of magic under which the brothers must labour a little long, dry and extraneous, not to say a bit reminiscent of learning all the rules of Pokemon Duelling, I’m sure that’s not necessarily the case for the target audience, and even so the drama, pace and character interplay still made this a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.

© 2002, 2005 Yukiru Sugisaki. All Rights Reserved.

Jew Gangster

Jew Gangster 

By Joe Kubert (ibooks Graphic Novels)
ISBN 1-5968-7827-4

Joe Kubert is a comics legend who just seems to get better and better. This offering harks back to his early childhood to tell the simple tale of young Ruby Kaplan, a smart kid living a poor life in depression-era Brooklyn. Seduced away from his loving family by the easy life he sees the neighbourhood gangsters living, he becomes a rising star of the underworld, only to have it turn to ashes in his mouth.

The story is not new, and the iconic setting is one beloved of many comics legends including Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, whose creative sparks also first flickered in those ominous ghettoes in the 1920s and 1930s, but Kubert’s take is a pared-down, parable-like examination of roads not taken rather than Eisner’s scrutiny of the human condition or Kirby’s irrepressible faith in the human spirit to overcome odds. In such circumstances, anybody could have become Ruby Kaplan, and the creator probably had many friends who did.

As ever, the artist’s laconic mastery of black line, cinematic composition and especially individual expression are an effortless pageant of subtle efficiency. You don’t read Kubert, you breathe it in, all but unaware of the effect his art has on you till you blink again and realise that you’ve reached the end. Power, tension, action, empathy and terror all wash over you unbidden, as the ruthlessly pared down pages practically turn themselves. This is what comic storytelling should be, and this is a book you should know.

© 2005 Joe Kubert. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond: Colonel Sun

James Bond: Colonel Sun 

By Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham), Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-175-8

James Bond proves he can never die as the first of the prose “continuation novels” is magnificently adapted by the regular strip-team of Lawrence and Horak. Unbelievably, by today’s publishing practises, when Ian Fleming died in 1964, there was only the unfinished Man With the Golden Gun to be eventually released. Bond books languished on hiatus until 1968. The story of how Kingsley Amis came to write Colonel Sun is a fascinating tale, and is fully recounted in this latest graphic collection from Titan Books.

What we all want though, is chills, spills, chicks and thrills and the opening reprint from the Daily Express in 1969 is American strip veteran Lawrence’s second all-original 007 script. And what a cracker it is! In River of Death Bond has to infiltrate the Amazon River stronghold of a maniacal oriental scientist. This madman is supplying trained animals to international criminals for the purposes of robbery, espionage and murder. Horak’s intense illustration is approaching a career peak and easily copes with action, mood, cutting edge science, beautiful women and exotic locales as diverse as the Alps, Rain Forests, London’s underworld and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time. This is James Bond at his suave and savage best.

Colonel Sun might almost have been an anti-climax after such an auspicious run by two creators on such a visionary roll, but the sheer pace, complexity and action of Amis/Markham’s only Bond novel simply encourages them to up their game.

When “M” is kidnapped and 007 is too obviously lured into a rescue attempt in the Greek Islands it leads to an unlikely alliance with Soviet agents against a mysterious third force. These devils are not beyond using Nazi War criminals to achieve their nefarious ends, and this classic Cold War Spy-romp delivers a punch with every strip.

It must have hell on the nerves to follow this adventure in short daily doses, and doubly so at the week-ends. If ever comic strips become part of the National Curriculum we can only pray that this is the calibre of material on any reading list.

Strip © Express Newspapers Ltd. 1987. All Rights Reserved.