Loveless, Vol 2: Thicker Than Water

Loveless, Vol 2: Thicker Than Water

By Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-453-6

The mysteries continue and deepen as the spiritually bereft and morally bankrupt town of Blackwater further festers under Union occupation in the days and months after the American Civil War. The freed slaves are no better off under Northern rule, returning southern men have taken to wearing white sheets whilst exacting bloody reprisals and the ordinary citizens are terrified that their lives and their secrets will be found out by either the Yankees or worse yet, returned Confederate hard man Wes Cutter.

Nobody is sure what Cutter wants. He’s asking uncomfortable questions about the fate of his missing wife, and he doesn’t want to be anybody’s friend. Moreover, since the military commander and his Carpetbagging bosses have made Cutter the sheriff of Blackwater he’s a traitor with the authority to get away with whatever he wants.

How the guilty-as-sin townsfolk react to Occupation Forces, former slave/Union soldier and now bounty hunter Atticus Mann, the rabble-rousing, murderous renegade Confederate returnees let alone despised the sheriff is chillingly and graphically depicted by Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera and Marcelo Frusin when the citizens become victims of a campaign of murder.

Combining classic Western themes with contemporary twists such as flamboyant serial killers and protracted murder mysteries, Brian Azzarello even manages to include hot-off-the-presses political metaphor in this twisted, stark and uncompromising series (collecting issues #6-12 of the monthly Vertigo comic book). A brilliant Western; a dazzling comic strip. Get it if you’re old enough and tough enough.

© 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

The Boys, Vol 1: The Name of the Game

The Boys, Vol 1: The Name of the Game

By Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-494-3

Writer Garth Ennis takes his utter disregard of the super-hero genre to a whole new level with this series about a team of dedicated professionals in a world more than over-flowing with super-powered individuals.

Billy Butcher is an old soldier. He knows how the world works and what powerful men and women are really like. He also sees how super-heroes get to do what they like and get away with it, cloaked as much by influence and celebrity as they are by godlike powers and abilities.

Striking a Devil’s bargain with the CIA and other establishment authorities he forms a team to watch the metahumans, and, when necessary, to give malefactors a bit of a slapping to remind them who really runs the planet.

Told from the point of view of Wee Hughie, an inoffensive little lad whose dismembered girl-friend was just one more incident of collateral “accountancy” during a super-powered tussle, The Boys is a dark, sardonic, vulgar, wickedly brilliant, funny and touching satire on super-heroes in a real world setting. Ennis’s ability to show us the inner workings of “the other side” often means you feel more sympathy for the devils than for the angels, but that just serves to make clearer his theme that you don’t just need a costume and a Press Kit to be a hero. In a morally ambivalent society there will always be a need for solutions like ‘The Boys.’

Subtle and intense, and subversively underplayed by the excellent Darick Robertson on art, ably augmented by Tony Aviňa’s colouring, this very adult fable for discerning readers is an absolute delight.

© 2007 Spitfire Productions, Ltd , & Darick Robertson. All Rights Reserved.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface

By Shirow Masamune (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 1-84023-767-8

The long awaited sequel sees Motoko Aramaki (neé Kusanagi) as a bodiless presence capable of possessing both meat and robotic bodies in her ongoing struggle to stabilise an increasingly insane and out-of-kilter planet and society. The plot however is broad and meandering, lacking a clear narrative drive, and there is an overwhelming dependence on increasingly more detailed footnotes and authorial asides which hinders the flow. Also, on a personal note, I quickly tired of the preponderance on “anatomically coy” nude and crotch ‘n’ gusset shots.

I’ve heard all the blather about cultural differences but I refuse to believe that cyber-space combat can only be rendered with authenticity if all the combatants are young, leggy, nude, lavishly and luxuriously painted girls with prominently displayed pudenda and nipple-less breasts in every shot. It’s just cheesy, prurient and not a little bit sad.

Ultimately it also detracts from the storytelling. It’s like Hamlet in the nude. Nobody goes home pondering on the deathless poesy, and it’s just not necessary to get your attention.

The advances in computer imaging techniques have enabled the creator to produce a truly mind-boggling display of visuals for what is sadly a rather confusing and slow story that ultimately feels rather shallow to this reviewer. Perhaps however many readers will like it for the very reasons I can’t.

© 2002, 2003, 2005 by Shirow Masamune. All rights reserved.
English version © 2002, 2003, 2005 by Dark Horse Comics All rights reserved.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

By Shirow Masamune (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 1-84576-018-2

Reformatted and released to complement the publication of the long awaited sequel, Ghost in the Shell is ostensibly the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, an agent for a covert security department dedicated to protecting a country in political and economic decline from outside threat and internal depredations by hackers and organizations capable of supplanting human consciousness and turning people into robots and vehicles.

Her dedicated fight to preserve some kind of status quo in a world spiraling out of technological/spiritual balance and her inevitable evolution to another state struck a metaphorical chord world-wide, spawning a TV series, two movies and a computer-game. Shirow Masmune’s complex prognostications and spectacularly detailed illustration astonished and captivated audiences, although previous English language publications were drastically censored. This new edition restores and translates these omissions for the first time.

Complex and intriguing with much to recommend it, it nevertheless remains a difficult book to read if all you want is a quick thrill, but the visual panorama is an art fan’s dream. I suppose we should try to concentrate on what’s going on, not just how well it’s drawn.

© 1991, 1995, 2004 by Shirow Masamune. All rights reserved.
English version © 1991, 1995, 2004 by Dark Horse Comics All rights reserved.

Common Grounds

Common Grounds 

By Troy Hickman & Various (Top Cow)
ISBN: 1-5824-0436-4

At first glance this little gem appears to a wry and savvy blending of Cheers, Friends, and Astro City, but a closer scrutiny reveals a rather unique viewpoint and talent working here. The premise is simple enough. In a universe awash with the standard clichés of superheroes ‘Common Grounds’ is the name of a chain of Coffee Shops that caters to the ultra-powered, the drastically mutated and the hyper-enhanced.

The six issues collected here feature a series of short vignettes that concentrate on the quiet moments, the down-time and the back-stories of the many varied denizens of the super-heroic and super-criminal communities.

Illustrated by a pantheon of the industry’s top talents such as Dan Jurgens, Al Vey, Michael Avon Oeming, Ethan Van Scriver, Chris Bachalo, Carlos Pacheco, George Perez, Angel Medina and Sam Kieth among others, it’s wonderfully easy on the eye, but the real pay-off is the scripting by Troy Hickman. Here is someone who can tell a fully realised story in a remarkably short amount of space and with a deft and incisive ear for dialogue.

That in itself would make this a treat, but just when you think you’ve got the measure of the thing Hickman pulls all the seemingly disparate little sit-com skits into one highly emotive and cohesive human drama that takes your breath away. Without realising, the reader has been putting together a jigsaw puzzle, unaware even that that is what they’ve been holding.

Marvellous, charming and enthralling: track a copy down and become a different kind of coffee addict.

© 2004 Top Cow Productions, Onc.

Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt

Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt

By J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-7851-2330-X

One of the most memorable Spider-Man epics of the last forty-odd years has finally been repackaged and is available again. No cheap paperback edition yet (that I know of) but Kraven’s Last Hunt (originally collected as Spiderman: Fearful Symmetry) is probably worth the extra cost and a more sturdy format.

The eerie psycho-drama that originally ran in 1987 through Amazing, Spectacular, and Web of Spider-Man saw a dark and obsessed Kraven the Hunter finally defeat his arch-nemesis and Oedipally replace him, before inevitably succumbing to his tragic just desserts.

After years of battle, Kraven here is back-written into an intrinsically noble but twisted relic of a bygone era, whose compulsion to defeat Spider-Man spirals into a demented desire to consume and then become him. Kraven’s initial success only serves to highlight the fundamental differences between them, such as how each deals with the savage and cannibalistic rat/man hybrid Vermin who brutally rampages through the rain-soaked and terrified city in a compelling and efficient sub-plot, or with those ordinary people that impinge upon the lives of protagonist and antagonist equally.

Despite the heavy psychological underpinnings, Fearful Symmetry is a gripping thrill-ride adventure, simultaneously moody and fast-paced. Writer DeMatteis curtails his wearisome tendency to overwrite, stifles his leanings toward flowery sentimentality and the maudlin, and lets the art team of Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod have plenty of opportunities to impress with traditional comic art set-pieces.

This series electrified Spider-Man fans when it first appeared and it has lost none of its power today. This is a must-have item for any fan of the medium.

© 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

By the Numbers, Book 1: The Road to Cao Bang

By the Numbers, Book 1: The Road to Cao Bang

By Rullier & Stanislas (Humanoids/DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0385-X

I carp on about the overwhelming predictability and numbing sameness of the American comics industry an awful lot. In fact I sometimes wonder if I’ve become bigoted and provincial in my old age. After much soul-searching I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not me, but everything else in the universe that’s wrong.

Seriously though, when it comes to comics and strips, America has historically had an unforgiving attitude to the non hero/horror/SF material, or even the just plain foreign. And before you mention Manga, think about just how many strips the Japanese (and Korean and Hong Kong Chinese etc. etc.) produce in an unbelievably broad number of genres and formats that we never see flopped and translated, especially without the support of a blockbuster toy/TV/card fad to give them a big push.

Huge kudos are then due to DC for linking up with the European publishers Humanoids (Les Humanoides Associes) on another attempt to bring some quality and variety to a fearfully moribund and declining market.

Laurent Rullier has been relating the human adventures of thrill-addicted accountant Victor Levallois since the 1980s. This first translated tale relates how a bored young office worker in 1948 find himself embroiled in a money-laundering scheme and ends up as a dissolute émigré in Indochina just as the Vietnamese begin their war against the occupiers of their country.

Artist Stanislas renders the real word in a powerfully engaging Naïve-ist style (which the back cover blurb laboriously likens to Hergé’s Tin Tin) to create a sharp, and compelling human drama that successfully plays against a powerfully iconic period of history.

I regret that even DC’s market clout couldn’t bring this sort of work to a broad enough comic community to sustain itself and generate some variety in the home crop, but maybe a few concerts might eventually open wide those floodgates..

English version © 2004 Humanoids Inc., Los Angeles (USA). All rights reserved.

Diabolo, Vol 1

Diabolo, Vol 1

By Kei Kusunoki & Kaoru Ohashi (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59532-232 -9

This powerful an engrossing urban horror tale with classical supernatural overtones features the exploits of two mysterious young men, Ren and Rai, as they attempt to help ordinary people enmeshed in the sinister coils of the supernatural.

Years ago two little boys were supposed to have killed a young girl in Chiaki’s apartment building. That’s why it’s half empty and the people that do live there are all weird. Still, she has her own problems. School is awful and her parents are acting strange and her boyfriend won’t talk to her and her period is really, really late…

When she meets Ren and Rai she discovers a whole new world. They sold their souls to the demonic Diabolo – specialises in buying the souls of children – but like all Devil’s Bargains they were cheated, and now they use the powers they’ve been granted to thwart Diabolo’s schemes. But there’s a deadline. All the devil’s clients become insane murderous monsters on their eighteenth birthdays. The boys have less than a year before they must kill each other.

And that’s just the introductory background: The two boys mission to save other victims from making their mistake is simply a vehicle to tell modern horror/adventure stories in a chilling urban setting with ordinary people as the stars, and it works very well indeed.

The action is finely balanced by an oppressive atmosphere not often present in Manga, but which superbly enhances the tension, allowing the beautiful clean drawing style to enhance rather than dilute the aura of fore-doomed intensity. This is a highly recommendable treat for supernatural thrill-fiends.

© 2001 Kei Kusunoki & Kaoru Ohashi. All Rights Reserved.
English text © 2004 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Batman in Detective Comics: Vol 2

Batman in Detective Comics: Vol 2

By Joe Desris (Introduction) and various (Abbeville Press Inc 1994)
ISBN: 1-5585-9837-5

This second pocket cover-art compendium, reproducing the seductive and blatant images that first made us buy all those funny-books, is probably the more potent of these little Nostalgia Grenades, covering as it does Detective Comics #301 (The Condemned Batman! – drawn by Sheldon Moldoff and dated March 1962) to #600 (Blind Justice by Denys Cowan and Malcolm Jones III from May 1989) a period during which surely most of us initially caught this four-colour bug.

From the whimsical, through the double-edged sword of 1960s Batmania, to the gradual return of the Dark Knight of Justice these incredible images are a catalogue of childhood and growing maturity for us all, as well as being incredible examples of popular art and design.

So come revel and recall the talents of Dick Dillin, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Irv Novick, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, Ernie Chan, Mike Grell, Rich Buckler, Vince Colletta, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin, Jim Starlin, José Luis García-López, Ross Andru, Walt Simonson. Gene Colan, Don Newton, Ed Hannigan, Gene Day, Todd McFarlane, Alan Davis and a host of others as they depict the incredible world of Batman.

A true childhood dream and a guilty pleasure.

© 1994 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles, Vol 3

Superman Chronicles, Vol 3

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and the Superman Studio (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-569-9

The third collection of the Man of Steel’s earliest adventures, reprinted in the order they first appeared, reaches the still innocent year of 1940 in a spiffy little package that covers his appearances in Action Comics #21-25, Superman #4-5, and his last starring role in New York World’s Fair #2 (and that only because the title would convert to initially World’s Best and eventually settle as the much more reserved World’s Finest Comics).

Although Siegel and Shuster had very much settled into the character by now the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance. ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ in Action #21 was followed by ‘Europe at War,’ which was not only a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, but a continued story — almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring, featured four big adventures, ‘The Challenge of Luthor’, ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, ‘The Economic Enemy,’ a spy story about commercial sabotage by an unspecified foreign power, and a tale of gangsters and Teamsters called ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’. Action #24 featured ‘Carnahan’s Heir’, a wastrel Superman promises to turn into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘The Amnesiac Robbers’ compelled to crime by an evil hypnotist.

Superman #5 is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wicked science with ‘The Slot Machine Racket’, ‘Campaign Against the Planet’, the insidious threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ and finally the Big Business chicanery of ‘The Wonder Drug’. All topped off with a gangster thriller from and set in the New York World’s Fair.

(And as a personal aside, difficult though it might be to successfully attribute credit so many years later, I’m pretty sure that this last adventure is not Shuster and the many fine artists that formed the Superman studio, but the wonderful Jack Burnley. Anyone got any comments or information they care to share here?)

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous child-like perfection. You really should make them part of your life.

© 1940, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.