Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers

Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers 

By Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham and various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-918-2

This volume (with artwork by Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, Steve Leialoha and P Craig Russell) collects the wonderful, triumphal one-shot “The Last Castle”, wherein we see the final escape from the homelands to the mundane world, and issues 19-21 and 23-27 of the regular series, a bombastic saga of sex, politics and betrayal that leads to the first full assault by the mysterious, all-conquering “Adversary”.

That’s the plot, but it’s really the merest tip of the iceberg in what has become probably the best fantasy comic strip ever. There are times when this series makes me feel things that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman never could.

This is what you should show people when they ask “Why Comics?” and the best thing you could possibly get for the jaded fan (as well as the other volumes Legends in Exile, Animal Farm and Storybook Love).

Go treat yourself, and perhaps even indulge in missionary zeal by treating a friend to some Fables.

© 2004 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Neil Gaiman’s Eternals

Neil Gaiman’s Eternals 

By Neil Gaiman & John Romita Jr. (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-905239-57-3

(Also available in hardcover format in the US)

Despite the somewhat cheeky title – they’ll always be Jack Kirby’s Eternals to me – this Marvel revival is a strikingly enjoyable graphic experience very true to the power and enthusiasm of ‘The King’.

When the comic series debuted in 1976 we met an anthropologist and his daughter who had discovered that giant aliens had visited Earth in ages past, and sculpted proto-hominids into three distinct species: Human Beings; the monstrous, genetically unstable Deviants and god-like super-beings who called themselves Eternals. Moreover those humungous Space Gods had returned once again to check up on their experiment.

Never a comfortable fit with the rest of the Marvel Universe, the comic explored Kirby’s fascinations with Deities, Space and Supernature through the lens of very human observers. Once the series ended and Kirby left, other creators greedily co-opted the concept – with mixed success – into the company’s mainstream continuity.

Now, back to the present tome. When Mark Curry, a struggling hospital intern, meets Ike Harris his mental state seems to fragment. His dreams of monsters and gods return and even though super-powered people are commonplace in a society that mandates that all super-humans register with the government, Harris seems somehow… different. And there are others. Such as Sersi, a cute chick he met at the coffee-shop or Thena or the ever-so-creepy Druig…

Harris believes they are all Eternals, made by the space-spanning Celestials as caretakers for the planet, but something has deactivated them. He cannot find any others. A crisis is brewing. Without Eternals in the picture the malignant deviants are on the rise again. There may be another hidden foe. Harris wants his help to find those missing guardians… And now Curry discovers that he has superpowers of his own…

Another strand in play is the secret foe’s plan. Someone removed all the Eternals but although the reason is unclear some things are beginning to gel. Long ago the Space-Gods punished one of their own for an unknowable sin by burying him/it deep in the Earth. Now that sleeping God is being roused, and that will mean the destruction of all life on Earth…

Kirby and Gaiman are different writers, and frankly their work is generally addressing different readerships. Kirby has heroes who are simplistic, stripped down archetypes. Whether fighting for us or searching for great things to which an uncomprehending humanity can only guess, they are generally beyond our clay-footed ken. For Kirby there would always be an Unknown. That’s why there was always a Rick Jones or Margo Damien or Dr. Watson. Such everyman characters are there to counterpoint and highlight the wonder. The readers tuned in to have their minds blown.

Gaiman’s forte is personalising the unknowables. Whether Gods, sentient Concepts, fallen Angels or super-humans, he takes us inside their lives and their heads, and shows us creatures not dissimilar to ourselves. Our modern world is not happy with mystery and ‘getting to know the real you’ has become a media obsession – and industry. And that’s the crucial difference in this book. Pedestrianising the metaphysical isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

All of which is, I suspect, irrelevant to most readers. Here is a good comic book read that will happily pass most personal taste tests. And I must – saving the best ‘til last – utterly rave over the artwork of John Romita Jr. The power and grandeur of his drawing is absolutely breathtaking! Whether a close, veiled look or a panorama of galactic proportions, he can produce that mind-grabbing visual that elicits a whispered “Gosh, Wow!” from even the most jaded viewer. Jack would be proud.

© 2006, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Fables 3: Storybook Love

Fables 3: Storybook Love

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Bryan Talbot, Linda Medley, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-857-7

Fables is probably one of the most fetching takes on narrative in the last twenty years. Bill Willingham has created a universe that appeals to the most childlike reminiscences of the most jaded adult palate.

Volume 3 reprints Fables issues #11-18 of the award winning monthly comic from DC’s adult imprint Vertigo, a sequence of single and short storylines used to flesh out the various characters prior to a big epic beginning with #19.

Bryan Talbot illustrates a tale of Jack (Giant Killer, Beanstalk etc), a vagabond rogue who literally gambles with Death (that’s actually a pun, but you’ll need to read it to see what I mean). Bigby Wolf takes centre stage for the next tale, ‘Dirty Business’, to handle the invasive probings of a Mundane reporter trying to expose the secrets of the fairytale enclave in the heart of New York City. This tale also serves to set up the eponymous ‘Storybook Love’ wherein Bluebeard, one of the most evil characters in bedtime stories, and even more of a ratbag in the Mundane world, begins his long hinted play for the top spot.

We’re introduced to the Mouse Police as Bigby Wolf and Snow White – the CEO of Fabletown – are shanghaied and set up to be murdered. Naturally they aren’t, but the byplay between the two characters will lead directly into the tumultuous events of the next year or so.

The volume is rounded out by a seemingly inconsequential piece of fluff drawn by Linda Medley which could quite easily be the pivotal point of the series as it recounts some of the history of the Fables characters when they first arrived in our realm and how they began to change from the one-dimensional archetypes they were to the cruel, callous, brave, gritty, head-bitten ordinary human beings they so often resemble.

Willingham’s Fables is a captivating exercise in how comics can reinvent and reinvigorate even the most clichéd and played-out old yarns and make them fresh for both comic reading veterans and the shallowest neophyte dragged kicking and screaming into a comic book shop. Hell, even your girlfriend would like it.

© 2003 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Fables 2: Animal Farm

Fables 2: Animal Farm 

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-729-5

Animal Farm further explores the conceit that fairytales are real and they’re hiding from the Bogeyman in our back yards. When The Adversary conquered the Realms of Fantasy, a Dunkirk-like exodus brought all these wondrous beings to our drab old Earth, where they still reside in opulent, desperate and obsessional seclusion.

Probably the most unique of these safe-havens is “The Farm”, a wilderness estate where all the beasts and non-human creatures of fantasy are confined – ‘for the greater good of all Fables’. Unable to transform every talking animal into a human simulacrum, the powers in Fable society have hidden them away from human eyes for centuries.

However ‘for your own good’ is no longer an acceptable excuse and rebellion is in the air among the talking animals, giants and monsters. Snow White and Co. must solve this diplomatic crisis before the Mundanes or worse still The Adversary discover everything.

This is another smart and savvy tale from Bill Willingham, full of sharp dialogue and brilliantly reasoned fantasy. The art from Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha is seductive and beguilingly efficient. This stuff is the purest of gold and should be compulsory reading for grown up readers of every type. You really must read these books.

© 2002, 2003 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Fables 1: Legends in Exile

Fables 1 

By Bill Willingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-614-0

New York City holds many secrets. One of the most amazing is a quiet but distinguished block of streets where some very famous celebrities live very private lives. In fact it’s safe to say that the residents of Kipling Street, Bullfinch Street and especially the Woodland Luxury Apartments are all household names all over Earth.

The reason for their preferred anonymity is revealed in Legends in Exile. This brilliant modern fantasy tells how long ago, all the heroes, myths and legends of fairytales and stories sought refuge on our mundane Earth. In their own fantastic lands and kingdoms a mysterious and overwhelming Adversary had launched a war of conquest and was consuming their Realms. Via magic, the surviving story characters fled to Earth and have lived here as refugees ever since.

The story begins approximately five centuries later as Bigby Wolf, head of security for the Fabled Enclave in called in by Chief Operating Officer Snow White to solve the brutal murder of Snow’s wild child sister Rose Red, and he’s got to do it without alerting the ordinary humans – us Mundanes. I’m afraid that’s all the synopsis I’m willing to concede, as the whole point of this is to get you to read these things.

Fables starts brilliantly and just gets better. By transposing some of the reader’s earliest fictional experiences to a post-modern gritty milieu and by embedding the characters in modern genre set pieces such as murder-mysteries, soap-operas and political thrillers, Willingham and his brilliant artistic collaborators have produced a fantasy set to rival Sandman in terms of creativity, and sheer enjoyment.

© 2002 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Elektra: The Scorpio Key

Elektra: The Scorpio Key 

By Brian Michael Bendis & Chuck Austen (Marvel Knights)
ISBN 0-7851-0843-2

Every so often in comics everything falls together. A character or characters will stand out in a storyline, captivate for a too brief moment, end gloriously and be done. While it’s happening it’s a perfect experience, and you’re desperate for all you can get. When it ends that feeling persists, but if you have any sense you’ll stifle it, because it won’t ever be the same.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, American Flagg! until Chaykin left, Mantis until she married that plant, the Moench-Gulacy Master of Kung Fu’s, Terra’s betrayal and death in New Teen Titans, the Dark Phoenix saga from Uncanny X-Men, and of course Elektra’s initial run in Daredevil that lead to her murder by Bullseye. All of these were comics zeitgeist moments. All magic. All best left untrammelled, all great narrative moments in comic history, redolent with drama and high passion, made greater because we know they’re ephemeral and can’t be topped. You’d be stupid to even try.

The modern comics industry is not noted for restraint, and usually we are stupid enough to try. Even top-line creators are seduced into attempting to rebottle their best genies rather than be allowed to make new magic, and when new makers are tasked with recapturing old magics – which to publishers means only Sales – the results can be painful.

All of which is a poncey way of saying, “if you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all”. Bendis and Austen’s The Scorpio Key is a sorry mess of espionage twaddle featuring the re-Reborn Again super she-ninja on a mission to recover a cosmic weapon from the clutches of sundry baddies including the subversive secret society Hydra, the Silver Samurai and even the demented ruler of Iraq (No, Really!). Chockful of dastardly double-crossers and clichéd news reportage as narrative devices, it’s little more than an empty headed pastiche. There are, naturally, many fights and explosions. A simple case of ‘So Many Killings, So Little Sense’.

Considering the sheer presence of Elektra in the past, it’s an absolute travesty to see her returned for this pedestrian nonsense. We are never going to have our own Camille, Sydney Carton, King Lear or even Romeo and Juliet as long as publishers think an easy branding exercise can replace creative excellence.

© 2002, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Voyage to Venus 1

Dan Dare: Voyage to Venus 

By Frank Hampton (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-644-2

There is precious little that I can say about Dan Dare that hasn’t been said before and better. What I will say is that everything you’ve heard is true. The vintage Dan Dare strips by Frank Hampson and his team are a high point in world, let alone British, comics, that ranks alongside Tintin, Asterix, Tetsuan Atomo, Lone Wolf & Cub and the best works of Kirby, Adams, Toth, Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff, Elzie Segar and Carl Barks. If you don’t like this stuff, there’s probably nothing any of us can do to change your mind, and all we can do is hope you never breed.

The Titan edition is a lavish re-presentation of the first year or so (14th April 1950 – 12th January 1951) of the strip that headlined the groundbreaking and legendary Eagle. Earth is slowly starving and must find new resources to feed its hungry billions. Space Fleet, despite three tragic losses, readies another mission to the mystery planet Venus, where it is thought such resources could be hidden beneath the all-enveloping clouds. The Earth’s last hope might be a strong-jawed, taciturn pilot and his podgy Lancastrian batman.

Thus starts a fantastic, frenetic rollercoaster of action and wonderment, replete with all the elements of classic adventure: determined heroes, outlandish villains, fantastic locales and a liberal dose of tongue-in-cheek fun. This is landmark comic adventuring and it has never been bettered.

The book also contains interviews and text features to bring alive not just the context of the stories produced in the 1950’s yet still affecting our world today, but also a Who’s Who of the characters, features on the creators and a checklist and glossary of the original stories. If you’re into comics, you should definitely own these volumes. If you love a good read, you should seek out this book and its sequels. Or simply if you’re Decent and British, Dammit, you should love these stories!

Charley’s War: 2 June 1916 – 1 August 1916

Charley’s War: 2 June 1916 - 1 August 1916 

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-627-2

More than twenty years ago Titan Books began an abortive series of British comic and strip classics. There was great material, good production, low prices and no spandex. Except for Modesty Blaise they all sank like stones. This time it’s got to be different. I refuse to believe that work as good as Garth, Jeff Hawke or Charley’s War can’t find an audience.

When Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable underage lad who enlists just in time to fight in the atrocity of the Somme campaign I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no idea that this time they were going to create absolute magic.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no comic strip that so successfully overcomes its roots to become a slice of meta-reality. There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

I won’t go into more detail of plot, script or even the riveting authentic depictions. I won’t praise the wonderful quality of the package and the additional articles in this superb hard cover edition. I simply state if you read this you will get it, and if you don’t, you won’t.

I’ve waited so long and now let’s all make sure that it’s NOT all over by Christmas!

© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Blade: Black and White

Blade

By Various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-0843-2

I can understand capitalising on big screen success if you’re a publisher with a desperate eye to the bottom dollar – and even if you’re not – but this collection of disparate tales must be quite a shock to any movie-goer that hot-foots it out of the cinema or off the couch to scoop it up from the bookshelves.

Firstly it is indeed in monochrome, which I personally favour, but is still considered somehow less acceptable to the general public, Manga sales notwithstanding. Secondly the art, by the likes of Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Gene Colan and even Ladronn – comic masters all – is far from the contemporary main stream.

The writing, if truth be told, is also not the best from Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont, whose multipart magazine epic The Legion of the Damned (which first saw daylight in Vampire Tales #8 & 9 and Marvel Preview #3 & 8 ) is woefully clichéd, even for the mid 1970s. The problem is further compounded as they get caught up in hopelessly kitsch “white-boys writing Blacksploitation” mode (“Enjoy Hell, you motherin’ piece o’ scum!”).

James Felder’s short story, taken from Marvel: Shadows & Light #1 is silly and unsatisfactory, whilst Christopher Golden’s tepid team-up (Blade: Crescent City Blues #1 1998) with Brother Voodoo (another painfully clichéd black hero – let his name be all the hint you need), is a listless shamble – even by Vampire-Zombie standards – that only wastes Gene Colan’s impressive drawing skills. Moreover, the story doesn’t even complete in this volume. That’s an absolute crime for any book, which is what we’re reviewing here.

Finally, the biggest problem with this as a tie-in is that the character here, created as a contemporary antagonist for the excellent Tomb of Dracula comic series in the 1970s, bears no real similarity to the half-vampire super-being in the films and TV series.

Blade here is a mouthy Jazz musician who is immune to vampire bites (yes, I know, how feasible is it to be immune to bleeding to death?) whose mother was killed whilst he was being born, not an ultra-cool costume-wearing force of nature. It seems to me that nothing but confusion and frustration await herein…

© 1974, 1975, 1976, 1997, 1998, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman: Cover to Cover

Batman: Cover to Cover 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-4012-0659-X

Although not strictly a graphic novel, this giant collection of the best comic covers to depict the caped crusader since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, is a nostalgic delight for old timers newcomers alike. Many of the people who worked on Batman over the past decades were polled to provide their own favourites.

What seems like an impossible task at first glance is sub-divided into easy to digest, themed subject-headings such as Fearsome Foes, Welcome to Fun City, The Dynamic Duo, Batman by Design, Death Traps, Guilty, The Batman Family, Bizarre Batman, Secrets of the Batcave, Covers from around the World, A Death in the Family, Milestones and World’s Finest (pairing our hero with other heroes from the DC universe). Added features include an examination of the logo by designer extraordinaire Rian Hughes, discussions on cover construction by Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams and Bob Schreck and a vote on the greatest cover ever by the likes of Alex Ross, Chip Kidd and Mark Hamill.

This fan-boy’s coffee table book is lovely to look at and should provide hours of debate as we all dip in, reminisce and ultimately disagree on what should and shouldn’t be included. Enjoy. Art-lovers!

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.