Stumptown volume 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)


By Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth & various (Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-93496-437-8 (HB) 978-1-62010-440-8 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-62010-068-4

Plenty of superhero, supernatural and sci fi comics make the jump to TV and movies these days, but not so many straightforward down to earth crime sagas. One that did came from the ever-entertaining, prodigiously prolific, multi award-winning Greg Rucka: a screenwriter (The Old Guard) and novelist (Atticus Kodiak crime sequence, Jad Bell series and half a dozen general thrillers).

Rucka has also crafted astounding graphic thrillers like Whiteout, Queen & Country and Lazarus and excelled working on prime properties and characters Star Wars, Superman, Batman, Gotham Central (co-scripted by Ed Brubaker), Wonder Woman, Grendel, Elektra, the Punisher and Wolverine and been a major contributor to epic events such as 52, No Man’s Land, Infinite Crisis and New Krypton.

One of HIS most engaging concepts features a private eye barely getting by in the writer’s own backyard: Portland Oregon – AKA “Stumptown”…

The series launched in November 2009 as a 6-issue miniseries from Oni Press, with modern day Portland locales a vibrant and integral part of the story. A huge hit, the series was indefinitely extended and ran until #19. The TV show launched September 25, 2019 and was equally entertaining and initially successful, before dying after one superb season during the worst days of the pandemic.

Preceded by Matt Fraction’s Introduction ‘On Stumptown’, and illustrated by Matthew Southworth (Savage Dragon, Ares, Infinity Inc.) with additional colour from Lee Loughridge & Rico Renzi, ‘The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)’ introduces Dexadrine Callisto Parios, private detective and sole owner of Stumptown Investigations.

She’s struggling with bills, two mortgages, a gambling problem, and dangerous impulses whilst looking after dependent brother Ansel and ignoring other people’s constant grief because of her bisexuality – or more likely her attitude to them shoving their noses into problems she doesn’t want to confront yet…

Here, things kick off with Dex being executed by two low grade thugs before we spin back 27 hours to the Whispering Winds casino, where her latest binge and sky high tab have won her a face-to-face meeting with the owner Native American matriarch Sue-Lynne Suppa.

The bosslady also has problems. Wayward granddaughter Charlotte has gone missing – probably with a girl this time – and Dex’s unique skillset, unusual connections and urgent need makes her the perfect hunter to track down and bring home the truant. In return, the casino will forgive the PI’s entire debt.

Its easy to decide what to do if you’ve got no choice…

However, as soon as Dex finishes checking out Charlotte’s apartment, she’s roughed up by moronic thugs Dill and Whale, who also want to find the missing bad girl. Message delivered, the idiots drive off, and Dex is immediately abducted by far more professional goons working for hugely wealthy (don’t ask how he made his pile) Hector Marenco.

Hector has pressing family problems too, but he’s not talking about his sexually-predatory firebrand daughter Isabel or ambitious idiot son Oscar. He needs Charlotte found too, and is willing to pay twice what Sue-Lynne’s offering… but only if Dex tells him first when she finds the lost girl.

Checking in with Ansel (Rucka’s superbly positive and inclusive take on a neuro-atypical character – he has Downs Syndrome but is a realistically rendered, sensitively realised actor who fully participates in the stories), Dex gets a late call from a terrified Charlotte and cautiously arranges a secret meeting…

The staggered flashbacks catch up to now as Dex’s body is dragged out of the river. Her foresight in wearing body armour pays off in more aches, pains and arrest by the Portland Police Bureau, but at least now she knows how serious Charlotte’s problem is and has a good idea who’s involved, if not why…

Diligent research provided by close friend police detective Tracy Hoffman – and an unpleasant but mercifully brief reunion with precinct captain Volk – gives Dex the identity of one of her would-be killers, but as she doggedly proceeds, ambush interviews with the evermore intrusive Marenco siblings lead to a big break. At least it’s not a missing persons gig anymore…

Now helplessly enmired in a federal crime scenario and escalating civil war within a ruthless family trapped in centuries-old bigotries, face-saving and macho posturing, Dex has to negotiate her way out and keep her meagre supply of friends safe as ancient prejudice and modern crime meet head-on and a father ruthlessly resolved to maintain his position and defend the old ways goes into merciless clean-up mode.

Thankfully, Parios is tough, thinks fast and has a gift for making plans on the fly…

A superbly stylish thriller perfectly exploiting changing society and the nature of Oregon myth and culture, this initial yarn was originally collected as a hardback in 2011 with subsequent volumes in both luxury and trade paperback editions. All are available digitally.

Winningly, there are also wonderful extras included in this first tome, starting with Artifacts of Stumptown – a photo feature of cool promotional objects (“tchotchkes”) released to market the series. There was an 8-page monochrome promo micro-comic (printed at the size of a business card and packaged with a magnifying glass) reprinted at full size here as ‘Dex Parios of Stumptown Investigations in “Mustang Ranch”’; t-shirt designs; art prints and a poster mimicking a yellow pages ad for Stumptown Investigations deigned by Eric Trautman.

If you love crime drama, detective fiction, strong female role models or just bloody great storytelling, you need to pay a visit to Stumptown.
Stumptown ™ & © 2011 Greg Rucka & Matthew Southworth. All rights reserved.

Heathen volume 1


By Natasha Alterici with Rachel Deering (Vault Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-939424-18-1 (TPB) ISBN: eISBN: 978-1-939424-19-8

The creation myths and heroic sagas of Scandinavia are part of a global grand storytelling heritage: classic epics of paragons that have been constantly retold and reinvented for more than a thousand years, subtly reshaded to suit every generation. Here’s one that’s boldly innovative and very much in tune and in demand at this moment in time.

In 2017 Natasha Alterici (Gotham Academy, Women of Marvel) began retelling those myths through a lens of female empowerment in an age still too much mired in gender subjugation. There are still talking beasts, fantastic beings and big brawny warriors aplenty and some of them are women, but here we get a look at what the consequences of a maiden bearing arms meant and what any act of female independence actually cost…

Modern iterations of historical/fantasy scenarios are rife with glamorous women warriors, but whether the goal is prurient pandering (and what idiot believes skimpy chainmail bikinis and saucer-encased boobs count as armour?) or a well-meant attempt to balance scales of omission with the Sword & Sorcery equivalent of “colourblind casting”, the truth is that that very few women fought beside male combatants in any combat. Against, most definitely, but that’s a wholly different scenario with their struggles being more in the nature of a violently resisting prize or momentary diversion from the macho business of butchery…

Okay, maybe some pirates and legendary queens have been recorded as having joined in physical fighting, but traditionally, most women in combat were reduced to side roles or forced to disguise themselves AS MEN to even have a chance of surviving the attentions of their own allies and comrades…

A far more reasonable and rational scenario underpins this vivid reworking of the Valkyries’ legend, with fugitive Norsewoman Aydis riding out on a most private mission. Capable and doughty as any male, she shares with her horse Saga how Godking Odin created the fierce and beautiful Choosers of the Slain to escort men’s souls to Valhalla …if they fell in battle. She also relates how their leader Brynhild once disobeyed micromanaging, conniving, petty Odin and was punished by exile and compelled to marry a mortal.

Crafty Brynhild thought she had the last word, convincing her creator to allow her to test her suitors’ mettle. This was done by confining her atop a mountain behind a wall of magic fire, where only the bravest, strongest and most worthy would dare to go…

Aydis is inspired by this tale as she hunts a deer and meets again Liv, reexperiencing the moment they kissed and how it changed both lives. Their act of deviancy could only be expunged by death or marriage, but while Liv’s father married her off immediately, Aydis’ sire had apparently opted to execute the degenerate fruit of his loins…

Now, the almost-lovers meet over a slaughtered stag and ruefully ponder what might have been and how it might feel to not be man’s property. They are interrupted by a rampaging bull…

Aydis easily defeats the maddened beast only to find it is shapeshifting trickster god Ruadan who lets slip that he is watching her on behalf of an intrigued god and that immortals live cyclic lives, reliving the same stories over and again…

Aydis is resolved her existence will break the eternal mould. Bidding farewell to Liv, she fashions a warrior helmet from the stag and sets out to free Brynhild and chart the course of her own life…

This initial collection gathers the first four issues of Heathen, and chapter 2 opens with wolf gods Skull and Hati idly debating food, entertainment and ending the world until one sibling steps into a metal trap he cannot break. Happily, Saga – whom they were disinterestedly stalking – is a most unique special steed and frees the godling’s paw, even as high above them all, Aydis clears the flame wall and rouses Brynhild.

She does not seek to marry the Valkyrie, but rather prove her own bravery and liberate a fellow captive of fate from male-ordained doom, but it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is…

When they reach solid ground again, Brynhild reveals a shocking secret about Saga just as other Valkyries arrive, led by their new chieftain – love divinity Freyja. The scheming immortal takes one look and kidnaps Aydis to her heavenly citadel…

The saga diverges here as Aydis becomes a guest of hedonistic Freyja, leaving the defrocked Chooser of the Slain and Saga to roam the Nordic lands, seeking allies to help them challenge the gods in their own kingdom. More secrets are shared and Aydis learns hard truths in heaven, winning an ally in mute mortal Shannon, even as on Earth, Brynhild experiences the unjust status and roles women must endure. Eventually, she reunites with a tragic hero. Centuries previously, Sigurd was the last man to free her from the flames and in these new times, he still lives, thanks to wily Odin’s divinely pedantic curse…

The final chapter sees an end to Aydis’ time in heaven, while on Earth, her would-be rescuers wander into another savage situation caused by humanity’s hidebound rules on who and how to love. This situation is further exacerbated by a new sect called Christians, who not only frown on “unnatural” love, but will not tolerate wise women and witches dispensing potions and advice. Typically, Brynhild has a most forceful and fast-acting resolution to a growing hostage situation and building riot…

And for Aydis and Shannon, a Rubicon is crossed as the outcast warrior declares war on the father of the gods…

Thrilling, compelling and beautifully illustrated, Heathen ran to 3 volumes (now available as a Complete Omnibus edition since a movie adaptation imminently looms), but here the epic concludes with a gallery of the original wraparound covers rendered by Tess Fowler & Tamra Bonvillain, with variants from Alterici, Jen Bartel and Nathan Gooden sweetening the deal.

A delicious and wry alternate take on primal heroic myths, this book offers fresh ideals and a fair shake at last while proving the Good Fight can be fought by anybody for everybody.
© 2017 Natasha Alterici. All rights reserved.

[Low Moon]


By Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-155-8 (HB/Digital edition)

In 1965, John Arne Saeterrøy, who creates under the pen-name Jason, was born in Molde, Norway. At age 30, he burst onto the international cartoonists scene with his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) which won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

Jason followed up with the series Mjau Mjau and won another Sproing in 2001. The following year he turned almost exclusively to produce graphic novels. He is now internationally renowned and (probably quite self-consciously) basks in the glow of critical acclaim for his 24 books to date and for winning so many major awards as far afield as France, Slovakia, the USA and all areas in-between.

His stories utilise a small cast of anthropomorphic animal characters (and occasional movie and pop culture monsters): a repertory company of cartoon colleagues, acting out on a stage of stiffly formal page layouts recounting dark, wry and sardonically bleak tales – often pastiches, if not outright parodies – in a visually welcoming yet coldly austere and Spartan narrative manner. This seemingly oppressive format somehow allows a vast range of emotionally telling tales – on a wide spectrum of themes and genres – to hit home like rockets whether the author’s intention was to make the reader smile or cry like a baby.

Drawing in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style, Jason’s work bores right into the reader’s core, and this movie-themed collection of short tales is arguably his best work.

Redolent of quintessential Film Noir and especially the hard-boiled writing of Jim Thompson, poignant tale of vengeance ‘Emily Says Hello’ precedes what is billed as the World’s “first and only Chess Western”.

The eponymous ‘Low Moon’ was originally serialized in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2008: a splendidly surreal spoof of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic High Noon wherein an old menace returns to terrorise the town… until at last the Sheriff capitulates to the incessant demands for one final return match…

‘&’ is a tragic anecdote of love, loss and marital persistence related in terms and stylings of Hal Roach’s silent comedies. ‘Proto Film Noir’ owes an inspirational tip of the thermally insulated hat to Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner) – by way of The Flintstones and Groundhog Day, whilst a concluding tale of love, family and abandonment assumes science-fictional trappings to relate the soap-opera, generational tale of a mother kidnapped by aliens and the effects it inflicts on the husband and son she left behind. ‘You Are Here’ is bemusing, evocative and moving, yet manages to never fall off the narrative tightrope into mawkishness or buffoonery.

Jason’s comic tales are strictly for adults but allow us all to look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. He is a taste instantly acquired and a creator any true fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. This superb compendium could be your entry into a brave, old world, so get it while you can because stuff this good never lasts long…
© 2009 Jason. All right reserved.

Artifice


By Alex Wolfson & Winona Nelson (AMW Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-9857604-0-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Deacon sits in a featureless cell. He doesn’t look like much but has caused a lot of trouble and his two guards are each reacting in their own way: one with mounting aggression and bluster and the other with fear for his job and his life. When the taunting bigotry and disgust-fuelled bravado reach a tipping point, the immobile captive finally shows them both why they have every right to be scared…

Later, Deacon is debriefed by an interrogator. Dr. Maven is a highly qualified therapist highly ranked at NoNeCo: tasked with and determined to find out what went wrong on the mission to Da Vinci Four. It is crucial that she learns the truth. The Corporation has spent unimaginable sums building and programming Deacon and his four siblings, and can’t afford to casually scrap them. They were a highpoint in synthetic servants: stronger, smarter, faster than humanity and therefore the greatest potential threat to Man’s dominance ever encountered. Thus, he cannot be permitted further existence if what is reported to have happened there is even partially true…

When the puritanical colony needed pacifying, Deacon and his super-soldier kin eliminated all but one human being. The last battle left the other artificials destroyed in a trap. Now, Deacon explains how he allowed one organic – “Jeff” – to live because the colony systems were inoperable by synthetics and he needed to remain functional until relief arrived. Only organics could operate the rechargers supplying the artificial man with energy and life.

Deacon claims it was simply strategy. The young man was already an outcast, shunned and despised because of his genetic abnormality, and easy to psychologically manipulate. Deacon simply played on his uncorrected homosexual flaw to sustain his own existence until a scheduled follow-up mission landed four months later.

Deacon claims everything he subsequently did with Jeff and to the rescuers was simply to complete the mission, but the doctor isn’t fooled. She realises this android is even smarter and more devious than anyone imagined, but allows one final meeting with Jeff to test her theory… and discovers to her cost just how human and well-constructed the synthetic is, and how powerful is the outdated concept of love…

Alex Wolfson (The Young Protectors) writes a smartly compelling drama about intolerance and forbidden love overcoming all odds, whilst Winona Nelson (If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving) provides bleak, regimented and powerfully understated realism to the art that makes it so very believable.

A dystopian fable that ends on a note of hope and promise of a sequel, Artifice began life as a webcomic serial dealing in forthright manner with violence and sexual situations in service to a superbly engaging and enthralling drama that would already be a major motion picture if close-minded, parochial movie producers could get past the fact that it depicts guys snogging.

Thankfully, you aren’t so emotionally stunted and can enjoy the tale which closes here with ‘Reader Questions’ answered by the creative team, ‘Writer’s Notes’ by Wolfson describing the project’s genesis and ‘Artist’s Notes’ from Nelson, plus a fully illustrated run-down on their collaborative ‘Process’ and even faux press releases and reader response from evil mega-corp in ‘NoNeCo Responds’.

Proving yet again that there’s absolutely no appreciable difference in sexual orientation when telling wonderful stories of heroes, villains and lovers, Artifice is a lost treat you will definitely delight in, whoever you are and want to be.
© 2011, 2012, 2013 Alex Wolfson. All rights reserved. All characters, distinctive names and likenesses and all related elements are trademarks of Alex Wolfson and AMW Comics.

Thor: For Asgard


By Robert Rodi, Simone Bianchi & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4445-8 (HB/Digital edition) 978-1-84653-482-9 (TPB Marvel/Panini UK)

In his anniversary year and with another motion picture interpretation of Marvel’s Thor eagerly anticipated, it appropriate to remember his roots and that there’s plenty for established fans and freshly-interested parties to grapple with in book form. Here’s one that might tickle the fancy of older readers…

In an effective and beautiful re-imagining by Robert Rodi, illustrated with astounding imagination and beauty by Simone Bianchi (assisted by Andrea Silvestri and colourist Simone Peruzzi), the long dreaded Twilight of the Gods has begun and cracks are beginning to show in the heroic façade of the noble and mighty Asgardians…

Reprinting a six-issue miniseries published in 2010 under the Marvel Knights imprint, our saga opens in the second icy year of the dread Fimbulwinter, with shining god Balder long dead, all-father Odin long missing and Thor as long-suffering Regent.

A better warrior than ruler, the Thunderer leads an embattled, increasingly contentious and disgruntled populace in punitive forays against old enemies such as the Frost Giants. All around them, former vassal states are stretching long unused muscles and airing old grievances whilst the unhappy ruler’s two closest advisors are at constant odds with each other…

With the snowy streets of Asgard awash with resentment, if not outright sedition, Idunn informs the out-of-his-depth Storm Lord that the Golden Apples – source of Asgardian immortality – are almost gone and with Spring and Summer banished, no more will grow.

Asgard’s enemies are gathering, led by a secret mastermind, Odin’s mysterious mission has gone awry and, in the gleaming city, mutterings have become desperate, traitorous acts. With even Valhalla – glorious Hall of the Dead – threatened, and now murder in the streets, Thor needs all his powers to help him, but even his faithful magic mallet has betrayed him: it has been long indeed since the Prince of Asgard was worthy enough to wield the Hammer of the Gods…

With chaos and destruction from every faction and direction, can hard-pressed Thor hold things together, or is the truly heroic action letting Ragnarok come and starting afresh amid the ruins…?

Bleak, subtly allegorical and utterly enchanting, this moody epic of endings and new beginnings is a powerful tale of a deftly different pantheon that will delight newcomers to the character but possibly irritate long-term Marvelites. Moreover, by ending on a foreboding note – completists should take heed – the tale is not completely done yet and more may follow…

The moody, sexy, and uncompromisingly violent tale is augmented in this 2019 re-release by a ‘Spotlight’ addendum, featuring stills from the movies and heavily-illustrated background feature ‘For Asgard!’ by historian Mike Conroy, covering author Rodi’s other Thor sagas (The Deviant Saga, Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers and Astonishing Thor). This volume is also still readily available in a British released edition from Marvel/Panini UK.
© 2019 MARVEL.

High Crimes 


By Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa (Dark Horse) 
ISBN: 978-1-61655-472-9 (HB) 978-1-53431-047-6 (TPB/Digital edition) 

Generally I prefer to go into loads of detail regarding the plot of a book under review but sometimes that’s not possible or even fair. This is definitely one of those occasions… 

High Crimes originated as a 12-part digital comic from writer Christopher Sebela (Screamland: Death of the Party, Captain Marvel, Escape from New York) and artist Ibrahim Moustafa (The Pound: Ghoul’s Night Out, The Flash: Season Zero). It was produced by Monkeybrain Comics and its stunning blend of captivating big-sky concept, seedy suspense thriller and chase-movie blockbuster was just too heady an experience to deny fellow action fans. 

The scintillating serial took the industry by storm; garnering immense praise and loads of award nominations and was on completion collected by Dark Horse in its entirety – along with sidebar stories and a wealth of behind-the-scenes and promotional material – into a splendid hardcover and paperback chronicle for a wider, more traditionally-minded, book-loving audience. 

Once upon a time Suzanne Jensen owned the world. Now she’s an exile eking out a shabby life on its metaphorical roof. When she was a world-famous Olympic snowboarder, medals piled up, but after the authorities discovered their public paragon of perfection was an unrepentant recreational drug abuser, “Zan” went to extraordinary lengths to escape punishment, abandoning everything she knew and loved to avoid giving back those glittering but pointless symbols of former greatness. 

Drifting across the globe, she eventually settled in Kathmandu, working as a fly-by-night, cut-rate guide, living life one pharmaceutical hit and geological challenge at a time. Despite countless promises to herself, however, she never quite made it to the top of the granite goddess dominating the view and attention of everyone around her, native, grifter or spoiled obnoxious tourist… 

She found makework and a fellow damaged soul in aged burn-out Haskell Price, who preys on the families of rich idiots and starry-eyed dreamers risking everything to reach the top of Mount Everest. Haskell is a cold-hearted modern-day graverobber, collecting small personal effects and occasionally recovering the bodies of the many climbers who don’t make it. 

More accurately, he initially rescues just their right hands (for fingerprint identification), strong-arming grieving relatives into handing over cash to retrieve the complete cadaver for decent burial. The mountain takes a ferocious toll on the ever-growing mass of thrill-seeking visitors, and even if only one bereaved family in a handful fall for his proffered “service”, it’s enough to get by… 

Everything changes when he finds a corpse-icle lost for years near the summit. When these particular prints are faxed Stateside it unleashes an avalanche of terror in the form of an ultra-secret, black-ops hit-squad determined to find missing super-agent Sullivan Mars and – most importantly – the still-crucial secrets he absconded with so long ago. Haskell can’t help them when they turn up, since Zan has already swiped Mars’s journal and a canister of microfilm, but when she sees the collateral carnage the cleaner-squad are prepared to inflict, she makes the craziest decision of her life. 

As the merciless operatives force Haskell to lead them on the arduous, weeks-long trek to the summit and Mars’ body, she determines that with no place left to run she’s going to clean up her own mess for once. 

Following the killer elite, Zan resolves to rescue Haskell, or barring that, at least finally get to summit of the overpowering mountain and see the world as it truly is before she dies… 

Mirroring her slow and torturous progress with a succession of shocking revelations from Sullivan’s stolen secrets, and clocking up a startling bodycount, this epic odyssey offers a stupendous and breathtakingly vicarious journey of discovery no armchair adrenaline addict could possibly resist, with an emotional pay-off that is a joy to behold and shock to experience. 

Preceded by an Introduction from Greg Rucka, the compulsively enthralling yarn is complimented by a Bonus Features section including commentary by author Sebela; alternate cover sketches; the 3-page trailer vignette ‘Strange Truths’ from Free Comic Book Day 2014’s ‘Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Defend Comics’; a “declassified” ‘User’s Guide to High Crimes’, loads of character sketches and all the phenomenal, inspired and imaginative promotional postings and briefs issued to rouse interest in the series. 

Epic, arduous and devastatingly addictive, something to treasure for all the right reasons and not just because it’s there… 
High Crimes™ © 2013, 2014 Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa. All rights reserved. 

100 Bullets: Book One 


By Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso & various (Vertigo/DC Comics) 
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3201-6 (Deluxe HB) 978-1-4012-5056-0 (TPB/Digital edition) 

What’s your favourite crime movie? TV Show? Novel? Chances are it isn’t 100 Bullets, but trust me, it should be… 

Now that there’s a little distance and the initial furore has died down, it’s time to review one of the most hyped comic sensations of the early 21st century. This initial compilation collects 100 Bullets #1-19 (August 1999- February 2001) and includes a brief tale that first appeared in seasonal anthology Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #3.  

It all begins with eponymous revenge yarn ‘100 Bullets’… 

Isabelle “Dizzy” Cordova is released from prison but isn’t happy. She’s returning to the crime-infested, poverty-wracked streets she came from, dead inside since while she was there her man and her baby boy were killed in a drive-by shooting. 

On the ride back, an old man gets on the train. He looks like a spy from a 1960s movie. Sharp black suit, sunglasses, thin black tie, shiny attaché case: He says he’s Agent Graves. He says he knows all about Dizzy Cordova. He says Hector and Santiago weren’t killed by accident. He says that if she wants to make it right, he has a gun and one hundred rounds of ammunition that will never – EVER – show up in a police investigation. If she wants revenge she can have it free and clear… 

And so begins one of the best crime comics of all time, but this premise, which would surely be enough for five hit seasons on any TV channel, is merely the beginning of a decade-long conspiracy thriller that is dark, engrossing and, after nearly 23 years, still a phenomenal achievement and tribute to the abilities of writer Brian Azzarello and illustrator Eduardo Risso and their loyal accomplices colourists Grant Goleash & Patricia Mulvihill, and letterer Clem Robins. 

After practically constant re-reading, I’m still finding nuggets and gems that confirm its brilliance and the creators’ gift for forward planning and attention to detail. 

Following on from Dizzy’s seemingly self-contained moment of epiphany comes ‘Shot, Water Back’ as we meet a down-on-his-luck barman whose entire life was destroyed by a rich girl’s petty whim. When she walks into his bar one night though, Agent Graves has just walked out, leaving behind him another gleaming attaché case… 

Next follows an 8-page seasonal delight set in a police station. ‘Merry Christmas, Bitches’ is funny and chilling, proving that the short story form is not yet dead, and panel for panel is the best thing in this wonderful, terrifying so-very-adult book. More importantly, the apparent throwaway nature of this brief encounter will have crushing repercussions later on… 

The fascinating proposition of what you would you do with a grudge, a gun, one hundred untraceable bullets and an ironclad guarantee of no comeback is more deeply explored through further seemingly unconnected interactions, consequently but so slowly unravelling the mystery of enigmatic Agent Graves – purveyor of both the ordnance and the inquiry. 

‘Short Con, Long Odds’ introduces hard luck kid Chucky Spinks, a cheap grifter and ex-con who gets a visit from the cadaverous Man in Black. Chucky’s life was ruined when he got drunk and killed some kids: but at least his friend Pony always looked out for him when he got out of prison. Still, what kind of friend would drag your drunken ass out of the passenger seat and behind the steering wheel before the cops show up…  and never tell you? 

In ‘Day, Hour, Minute… Man’ we gain some insight into the manipulative Graves’ long-term goals as he engineers gang-war to draw some old comrades back into his game. There are intriguing hints of an old crew and some very high-powered bosses – operating as “The Trust” – after contact is made with brutal mob enforcer Lono and someone wonders out loud if somebody is reviving something called “the Minutemen”… 

‘The Right Ear, Left in the Cold’ then finds ice-cream vendor Cole Burns - who sells more than popsicles from his van – shocked to discover that his current boss torched an old folks’ home where Cole’s grandmother died. That’s just the start of a vicious round of revelations before Cole is revealed as another “retired” Minuteman. It looks like someone’s putting the band back together… 

A viscerally satisfying one-off story follows as a waitress gets an unwelcome heads-up about her happy home in the chilling ‘Heartbreak, Sunnyside Up’… 

Dizzy Cordova resurfaces next: bundled off to Paris to meet American ex-pat Mr. Branch: a reporter who once dug too deep and uncovered the greatest secret in US history. ‘Parlez Kung Vous’ begins unpicking the mysteries of the Trust, the Minutemen, and especially Agent Graves in a brutal yet delicate manner, engrossing and satisfying: yet manages the magician’s trick of leaving a bigger puzzle and readers hungry for the next instalment. In the meantime though, Dizzy learns some secrets and gets on the job training to die for… 

The best crime comic in decades oh-so-slowly begins transforming itself into the best conspiracy thriller in the business with ‘Hang Up on the Hang Low’ as further hints about The Trust and their unique police squad The Minutemen slip out during the dark, bleak story of Louis “Loop” Hughes, a young street tough swiftly going the way of most of his kind in the streets of Philadelphia… at least until impeccable Agent Graves turns up. He knows exactly where Loop’s father has been for the embittered kid’s entire life, but he’s only telling about the last few years… 

Curtis Hughes collects debts for one of the nastiest old loan-sharks in Philly. The broken down old leg-breaker has been around and seen it all, but wasn’t expecting a street punk to stick one of those guns in his face – and certainly not the son he abandoned all those years ago. Against all odds, he reconciles with his son and starts teaching him business and life; but once family duty and work allegiances come into conflict, there’s only ever one outcome. And just how does Curtis know about Graves and the Minutemen? As always, where Graves has been, lives change, bodies drop and more undisclosed secrets are uncovered… 

The story portion of this book concludes with some scene-setting character portraits as ‘Epilogue for a Road Dog’ sees Loop reconnect with Agent Graves whilst wild card Lono discovers an unsuspected connection with the young gangbangers cousin Carlos. As Graves moves his pieces in a vast but still undeclared game unlikely alliances are forged in anticipation of a coming conflict… 

Rounding out this extremely adult entertainment is ‘Dossier’: a sketchbook by Eduardo Risso offering early character designs of the broad and diverse castoff reprobates thus far embroiled in the unfolding saga… 

These tense, bleak opening dramas have the generational grandeur of The Godfather trilogy, as much febrile resonance as The Wire and more punch than Goodfellas: weaving a tragic tapestry of family, disillusionment and overwhelming necessity, and although readers of the original comic books didn’t know it, laid much of the groundwork for the “Big Reveals” to come.  

Astoundingly accessible and readable in its own right, this gripping tome is just step one on a path of intricate mystery and intrigue: one no fiction-fan (grown-up, paid-up and immune to harsh language and rude behaviour) could resist… nor should you. The slick switch from crime comic to conspiracy thriller is made with superb skill, with no diminution of the extreme violence and seedy sexuality that are hallmarks of this uncompromising series. Savage, brilliantly executed and utterly addictive, this is a landmark book in a landmark series. 
© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2014 Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. 

Lone Wolf & Cub volume 4: The Bell Warden


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga) 

ISBN: 978-1-56971-505-5 (TPB/digital edition) 

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature. An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976. It was an immense and overwhelming “Seinen” (“Men’s manga”) hit… 

The tales prompted thematic companion series Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972-1976, but the major draw – at home and, increasingly, abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble ÅŒgami Ittō and his solemn, silent child. 

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco. 

The original saga has been successfully adapted to most other media, spawning movies, plays, TV series (plural), games and merchandise. The property is infamously still in Hollywood pre-production. 

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey – with its timeless themes and iconic visuals – has influenced hordes of other creators. The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired around the globe are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to the masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack are direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative. The material has become part of a shared world culture. 

In the West, we first saw the translated tales in 1987, as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankōbon-style editions of about 300 pages each, between September 2000-December 2002. Once the entire epic was translated, it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project. 

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ – on stylistic interpretation – this moodily morbid monochrome collection truly gets underway, keeping many terms and concepts western readers may find unfamiliar. Therefore this edition offers at the close a Glossary providing detailed context on the term used in the stories, plus profiles of author Koike Kazuo & illustrator Kojima Goseki and another instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ by Tim Ervin-Gore. The occasional series of articles here offers a rundown on exotic weaponry of the era in Weapons Glossary: Part one…  

Set in the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the saga concerns a foredoomed wandering killer who was once the Shogun’s official executioner: capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami Ittō lost it all and now roams feudal Japan as a doomed soul hellbent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado. 

When the noble’s wife was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous, politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor ordered Ōgami to commit suicide. Instead, he rebelled, choosing to be a despised Ronin (masterless samurai) assassin, pledged to revenge himself until all his betrayers were dead …or Hell claimed him. His son, toddler Daigoro, also chose the path of destruction and together they roam grimly evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of doom, with death behind and before them. 

Unflinching formula informs early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target necessitates forging a cunning plan where relentless determination leads to inevitable success. Throughout each episode plot is underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido… 

That tactic is eschewed for a simple commission in opening tale ‘Tsuji Genshichi the Bell Warden’ with the assassin hired by a prestigious and honourable official. Greater Edo runs to the timetable of nine great bells, dictating the flow of civilised time and acting as emergency alarm system in times of crisis. All that power and responsibility is controlled by one man: The Bell Warden. 

As with most hereditary official posts, great glory and vast wealth inevitably accrues to the position, but now the aging incumbent is preparing his successor. He has three candidates and grave misgivings about the worth and dedication of each. His solution: hire the most infamous outlaw in Japan to chop off the right (bell-ringing) arm. If they can’t survive and overcome they are none of them the man for the job… 

Drowning in his own ocean of duty, Ōgami accepts the commission and isn’t surprised to discover there is a hidden agenda in play… 

As the nation modernised – or lost its ethical core – noble samurai economised by firing their retainers and hiring domestic mercenaries. As this new class – “Chugen-Gashira” – grew in power, they feathered their own nests; increasingly turning to villainy and chicanery, further debasing Japan’s moral core. They were shielded by their own base-born origins, since upholders of the old ways could not “punch down” to retaliate.  

In ‘Unfaithful Retainers’, when two noble children seek redress for their father’s assault, the Lone Wolf also falls foul of his own entrenched self-image, and must concoct a byzantine scheme to reach the guilty party and deliver honourable justice…  

Daigoro takes centre stage in ‘Parting Frost’ as his father goes missing during a mission. As his supplies run out and winter snows start to melt , the boy is compelled to strike out in search of his father, only to encounter a Samurai who discerns exactly who and what he is. Testing the child to destruction with fire and steel, obsessive Iki Jizamon is only foiled by the abrupt return of the cub’s far from happy sire… 

Set in a brutal uncompromising world of privilege and misogyny, these episodes are unflinching and explicit in their treatment of violence – especially sexual violence. In detailing another historical aspect of the culture, ‘Performer’ focusses on a particular underclass: Gōmune. The term grouped together all street folk who busked for money: female minstrels, dancers, sleight-of-hand conjurers, weapons-demonstrators, kabuki actors, drummers, travelling players puppeteers, preachers, contortionists, storytellers acrobat and countless others all entertaining for coins. Naturally, they had no protection under law and when a swordswoman martial artist was brutalised by woman-hating warrior using treachery and hypnotism, she was unavenged… 

In her shame and fury, O-Yuki had her body further desecrated by horrific, attention-diverting tattoos, giving her a momentary advantage as she butchered a succession of Samurai on her way to finding one in particular… 

Accepting a commission from a lord rapidly being depleted of soldier-servants, Ōgami plays detective but finds himself deeply conflicted when he finally corners his prey. However, his given word is inviolate, his philosophy is unflinching and a job must be done… 

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on many levels most of us westerners just won’t grasp on first reading – even with contextual aid provided by the bonus features. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating. Also a little unsettling is the even-handed treatment of women in the tales. Within the confines of the notoriously stratified culture being depicted, females – from servants to courtesans, prostitutes to highborn ladies – are all fully rounded characters, with their own motivations and drives. The wolf’s female allies are valiant and dependable, and his foes, whether targets or mere enemy combatants in his path, are treated with professional respect. He kills them just as if they were men… 

Whichever English transliteration you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s grandiose, thought-provoking, hell-bent Samurai tragedy is one of those too-rare breakthrough classics of global comics literature. A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics you must not miss. 

© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All rights reserved. 

Green Eggs and Maakies


By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-618-8 (HB/Digital edition)

As a career and lifestyle, cartooning has far more than its share of individuals with a unique perspective on life. Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Steve Bell, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Gary Larson – the list is potentially endless.

Perhaps it’s the power to create entire carefully curated and scrupulously sculptured worlds coupled with the constant catharsis of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw – or maybe it’s simply the crucible of constant deadlines that makes their efforts so addictive and effective.

Tony Millionaire loves to draw and does it very, very well: referencing classical art, vintage children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and that George Herriman guy. These influences, styles and sensibilities he seamlessly blends with the vision of European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket. The result is eye-popping…

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as formative influences.

He has a variety of graphical strings to his bow – such as his own coterie of books for children like the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts and Sock Monkey series; animation triumphs and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies – which recounts the riotously vulgar and absurdly surreal adventures of Irish monkey Uncle Gabby and fellow dissolute über-alcoholic/nautical adventurer Drinky Crow.

They are abetted but never aided by a peculiarly twisted, off-kilter cast of reprobates, antagonists and confrontational well-wishers such as Drunken Cop, old Wachtel, The Captain’s Daughter and avian Aunt Phoebe whilst constantly opposed by nefarious Gallic crocodile The Frenchman. Or not. Sometimes. It depends…

Launching in February 1994 in The New York Press, the strip is now widely syndicated in US alternative newspapers such as LA Weekly and The Stranger and globally in comics magazines like Linus and Rocky. There was even an animated series on Adult Swim.

Since continuity usually plays second fiddle to the avalanche of inventive ideas and outré action the strips can be read in almost any order, and the debauched drunkenness, manic ultra-violence in the manner of the best Tom & Jerry or Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, acerbic view of sexuality and deep core of existentialist angst still finds a welcome with Slackers, Laggards, the un-Christian and all those scurrilous lost Generations since X… and everyone addicted to bad taste tomfoolery. This lovely lush landscape collection from 2013 compiles two years of impossibly wonderful weirdness and plumbs new depths of daft depravity proving clearly time cannot wither his infinitely grotesque variety one little bit…

In the grand tradition of the earliest US newspaper cartoon features, each episode comes with a linked mini-strip running across the foot of the strip – although often that link is quite hard to ascertain. Nominally and notionally based in a naval setting of rousing rip-roaring 19th century sea-faring situations, replete with maritime monsters and stunning vistas, the dark-and-bitter comical instalments vary from staggeringly rude and crude through absolutely hysterical to conceptually impenetrable.

Be warned: Millionaire’s gags are utterly unfettered by bounds of taste or simplistic acquiescence to wholesome fun-squelching decency.

He often promotes his other creative endeavours on Maakies pages and digresses into autobiography and personal rants, brings in guest creators to mess with his toys and even invites the readership to contribute: ideas, pictures, objects of communal interest – especially any tattoos his dedicated readership can be enticed/bothered to submit. This penetratingly incisive, witty and often poignant cartoon arena is his playground and if you don’t like it, leave… but quietly please, ‘cause there’s a hangover going on here most days…

Green Eggs and Maakies offers, in starkly indisputable monochrome, more of the wonderful same with such spit-take, eye-watering, drinks-coming-out-of-your-nose moments as how mermaids and ugly fish are created, fun with snakes, the thoughts of ‘Real Ladies of the Dog Park’; arguably the best Superman fart joke ever, and so much more, scraped like barnacles from the edges of all time and space and history.

Moreover, in a positive frenzy of public-spirited beneficence, this book features ‘Maakies Womb Portraits’; returning visits of ‘Dr. Dubel, Helicopter Faith Healer’; easily absorbed lessons on ‘How to Drink’; scatological marriage proposals, a running commentary on ‘Married Days’ and general sex advice; revelations of ‘The Accidental Sobrietist’; secrets of such self-surgical procedures as removing impacted belly hair or how to conduct an auto-splenectomy; an ode to ‘The Robust Human Liver’ and more bright ideas from ‘The Universal Moon Genius’.

All the timeless favourite themes Millionaire specialises in are on show, and the usual variations of sordid sexual encounters, ghastly interspecies progeny, assorted single entendres, bodily function faux pas and gory death-scenes share space with some of literature’s greatest poets and sots – who never knew what hit them…

There are even a few continued tales starring ‘Noah’s Ark’, barbarian dwarf ‘Klaus Santa, son of Kleas, son of Wachtel’ and two sets of cut-out, colour-and-keep Christmas tree ornaments to make any seasonal pine a domestic no-go zone…

If you’re not easily upset this is a spectacularly funny and rewarding strip, one of the most constantly creative and entertaining in existence today, and if you can thrive on gorge-rousing gags and mind-bending rumination this is an experience you simply cannot deny yourself.

If you’re still not a fan, Green Eggs and Maakies is the perfect opportunity to become one, and if you’re already converted it’s an ideal gift for them that isn’t…
© 2013 Tony Millionaire. All rights reserved.

Clumsy


By Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-0-97135-976-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

If you’re a fan of Jeffrey Brown’s cartoon exploits you might understandably admit to a small degree of confusion. In 2012 he scored his first global best-seller with a hilarious spin on the soft and nurturing side of the Jedi experience in Darth Vader and Son, following up with equally charming and hilarious sequels Vader’s Little Princess, Star Wars: Jedi Academy and others. You’ll probably adore his latest treats – the Lucy & Andy Neanderthal series…

Before that, Jeffrey Brown was the sparkling wit who had crafted slyly satirical all-ages funny stuff for The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror, Marvel’s Strange Tales and Incredible Change-Bots and similar visual venues.

The original is yet another Jeffrey Brown: instigator and frequent star and stooge of such quirkily irresistible autobiographical Indy comics classics as Bighead, A Matter of Life, Little Things, Funny, Misshapen Body,Undeleted Scenes and the 4-volume “Girlfriend Trilogy” – Unlikely, AEIOU and Every Girl is the End of the World For Me and opening shot Clumsy, …

Whichever Brown’s your preferred choice, he’s a cartoonist of rare insight and unflinching revelation who still makes you laugh out loud when not prompting you to offer a big consoling hug…

Brown was raised in Michigan but relocated to Chicago in 2000 to attend the School of the Arts Institute. He studied painting but before graduating switched to drawing comics. Clumsy was released in 2002, quickly becoming a surprise hit with fans and critics alike.

The material is both delicious and agonising in its forthright simplicity: a sequence of non-chronological pictorial snippets and vignettes detailing in no particular order how a meek, frumpy, horny, inoffensively charming art-school boy meets a girl and tries to carry out a long-distance relationship.

Every kid who’s gone to college, got a job or joined the services has been through this, and for every romance that makes it, there a million that don’t.

Drawn in a deceptively Primitivist style with masterful staging, a sublime economy of phrase plus a breathtaking gift for generating in equal amounts belly-laughs and those poignant lump-in-throat moments we’ve all experienced and forever-after regretted, this is a skilful succession of stolen moments which establish one awful truth.

We’ve all been there, done that and then hoarded those damned photos we can’t even look at any more…

With titles like ‘My Last Night with Kristyn’, ‘Don’t Touch Me’, ‘I Draw her Naked’, ‘I Farted’, ‘But I Want to Make Love’ and ‘You Can Ask Me’, a mosaic of universal joy and despair forms as we watch Jeff and Theresa meet, blossom, exult, dream, plan and part…

Packed with hearty joyous wonder and brimming with hilarious examples of that continual and seemingly tireless teen-lust us oldsters can barely remember now, let alone understand, Clumsy is a magical delight for anybody safely out of their Romeo & Juliet years and a lovely examination of what makes us human, hopeful and perhaps wistfully incorrigible…
© 2002 Jeffrey Brown.