Trapped at White Tiger Sanctum

Trapped at White Tiger Sanctum 

Adapted by Ah Xiu & Ah Nan, illustrated by Yan Meihua
(Zhaohua Publishing House, Beijing) No ISBN

Older readers might remember the distinctly odd TV series The Water Margin which followed the adventures of a band of heroic outlaws who fought for justice against an unjust, oppressive and corrupt Government. You might even remember that the tales were based on the classic novel “Outlaws of the Marsh” by Shi Nai’an of the Ming Dynasty. (Early Ming actually; the author wrote most of the thing in the extremely late Yuan Dynasty – it’s easy to show off when the book being reviewed has extensive sleeve notes.)

First published in China in the mid fourteenth century, the story is actually set in the early twelfth century, in the Northern Song area, centred around Mount Liangshan where 108 leaders and heroes gather together to overthrow the decadent tyranny of the ruling class. By all accounts Mao Tse Tung was a great admirer of these tales.

Adapted in this book with great economy and beautifully stylistic art of an almost balletic grace is the first tale of the saga. Imperial Arms Instructor Lin Chong is framed for attempting to assassinate his overlord, Marshall Gao, but in actuality Gao has conspired to disgrace and remove Lin Chong because his wastrel nephew wants the Arms Instructor’s wife. In a culture strictly bound by convention and class it is no easy thing to get rid of somebody and the convoluted plan goes awry.

Lin Chong, although disgraced and tattooed with the mark of a criminal, is not executed. Due to the efforts of true friends such as the warrior monk Sagacious Lu, and the uniquely honest judge Prefect Teng, he is convicted of the lesser crime of improperly carrying a weapon within the confines of the inner Sanctum, and exiled to the remote Canzhou. To safeguard his family he publicly divorces his beloved wife, giving her back to her father to protect, and then departs for the long walk to his destiny.

To western sensitivities, this might seem an oddly downbeat place to close, but in setting up the narrative engine for the epic to come, it works, especially with the masterful black and white pictures imparting a rising sense of hope to counterpoint the injustice of the plot. And while I’m being technical, this is one of those rare examples of Chinese Picture Stories (that’s the term for them, and artist Yan Meihua was an award winner at the 1980 National Prize-awarding Ceremony) that includes word balloons on the artwork to supplement the traditional picture and text block format.

In a world full of comics and strips, quality art will always please the eye, and a great story can never be beaten, so why not try something a little more exotic the next time you need a hit of something graphical?

© 1982 Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House.

The Other Side

The Other Side 

By Jason Aaron & Cameron Stewart (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-561-3

Viet Nam scarred the American psyche the way the current Gulf War will. Depending on your politics you will either agree or disagree with that statement. What is indisputable is the effect Viet Nam still has on the American consumer. So it is intriguing to see an attempt to portray that earlier conflict less in term of “Us and Them” and more as “You and Me”.

This superb tale contrasts the journey from happy home to bloody combat of surly average teen Billy Everette, his counterpart, farmer’s son Vo Binh Dai, and their predestined clash at the Battle of Khe Sanh.

Drafted from his Alabama home, Everette is a reluctant screw-up turned into an average Marine by the sheer hell of Boot Camp, where even the terrifying and very real hallucinations and delusions he suffers from can’t keep him from that dreaded Tour of Duty. In contrast, the patriotic and dutiful Vo Dai enlists in the People’s Army of Vietnam, endures starvation and disease on this long march south, determined to sell his life dearly to free his country from oppression. He too is plagued both by doubts of his worth, and terrifying hallucinations.

This simple tale, powerfully told and subversively drawn is a sensitive, darkly magical, horrific parable about war, politics and insanity, if indeed, they aren’t all the same thing in the end.

This volume also contains sketches and artist Cameron Stewart’s photo diary of his research trip to modern Viet Nam, and hopefully that gentle counterpoint to history’s blunders can offer a shred of hope to soldiers and families currently reliving the traumas of another age.

© 2007 Jason Aaron & Cameron Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

X-Men: The Movie

X-Men Movie 

By various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-0749-5

Extraordinarily poor example of how to cash in on a Big Budget Blockbuster, this slim adaptation of the first X-Men movie (47 pages), scripted by Ralph Macchio and illustrated by Anthony Williams and Andy Lanning, is augmented by trio of past tales to flesh out the characters and fill up the extra pages.

The adaptation itself is sound, if a little poorly paced, but the art is muddied by a presumed attempt to mirror the muted darkness of the film. If you don’t know the plot some humans are mutating to the next stage of evolution, the humans are frightened and the mutants themselves are splintering into two factions, one for co-existence the other for separation and/or conquest.

My major problem with this is confusion. If the reader is a newcomer fresh from the film, the radically different characters in the rest of the book – but with the same names – must be baffling. The costumes are different, the powers and histories don’t match, and even the four colour palette of ‘proper comic art’ is totally unlike the initial story.

Also included are the two-part ‘Magneto Triumphant’ story from Uncanny X-Men #112 and 113, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the story of Rogue’s joining the X-Men from #171 (by Claremont and Walt Simonson) and the first four chapters of the ‘Weapon X’ semi-origin of Wolverine from Marvel Comics Presents #72-75.

Irrespective of the quality of the reprints selected, these are not the same X-Men as the film features and not even the same kind of story. To leap from the stripped down film script where almost all the players are ciphers to Chris Claremont at the peak of his hidden history and extended sub-plotting phase of writing is cruel and self-defeating.

Surely The House of Ideas could do better than this?

© 1977, 1983, 1990, 1991, 2000 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Sorcerers & Secretaries, Vol 1

Sorcerers & Secretaries, Vol 1 

By Amy Kim Ganter (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59816-409-0

This charming, western-produced manga Rom-Com features young Nichole Hayes, a student and part-time receptionist. She would rather spend all her time day-dreaming about a fantasy realm and the sexy sorcerer who inhabits it, and harbours the fond dream of one day being an author.

Josh Kim, her old neighbour, works in a book-store and is friendly competition with a buddy to see who can score with the most girls. He has always wanted Nichole, and renews his efforts when she visits the store.

When he promises to help get one of her stories published, is it simply one more ploy for one more conquest or does he feel something deeper too? And if he doesn’t know himself how can he possibly convince her?

Unassuming and subtle in the Japanese manner, this is a sweet tale for romantics of all ages, staying just on the acceptable side of saccharine, beautifully illustrated and very readable for all that.

© 2006 Amy Kim Ganter & TOKYOPOP Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Secret of San Saba

Secret of San Saba 

By Jack Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN 0-87816-081-7

Comix legend Jack Jackson combined his love of historical documentary with the Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic void for this wonderful period supernatural thriller, skilfully woven into the fabric and lore of the Southwest desert lands that we now know as Texas.

When a silvery entity crashes to Earth in a blazing fireball, it galvanises the fading dreams of Xotl, a young Faraone warrior who had lost faith in his gods. As the years pass, the natives worship the power of the thing, and when the mighty Apaches conquer them they turn to the newly arrived Europeans for help. This tragic mistake is revealed too late when the tribe finds that Priests and colonist might speak of God but only truly worship wealth. When they learn of the Cosmic Slug that fell from the stars, all they can see is the overwhelming wealth its silver mantle represents.

The decades long battle between the Apaches and the Missionaries to control the silver makes for a powerful if cynical tale, full of the superb artistry, spellbinding storytelling, and the powerful aura of authenticity that is Jackson’s most telling narrative tool. Based on the ancient Texas stories and legends of ‘Blanco’ and ‘Negro Bultos ’(supernatural treasure mounds), this most fantastic story should be, has to be true, if only because he has drawn it.

Superb and compelling, this is a must-read item for any serious fan of both comics and horror fiction.

© 1986, 1987, 1989 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Power Girl

Power Girl 

By Geoff Johns, Amanda Conner, Paul Levitz & Joe Staton (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-280-0

Back when DC’s continuity had multiple – one could almost say infinite – Earths, there were different versions of the same character. Before Crisis on Infinite Earths rationalised all that, and long before they changed it all back again, younger writers like Gerry Conway and Paul Levitz chose to emphasise the differences between versions. So if Superman of Earth 1 (“our Earth”) had a cute cousin called Supergirl, the Earth 2 Man of Steel would have a raunchier (at least eventually – in her initial appearance she was just plain jailbait) more aggressive counterpart, and with her own name.

Power Girl debuted as part of the ‘All Star Squadron’ in 1975, designed by Ric Estrada and Wally Wood, and promptly became one of the most prominent members of the team, literally burgeoning into a implausibly pneumatic Amazon, consequently becoming a huge favourite with the fans, editorially assessed as being primarily male, and mostly young teens.

The first tale in this volume is from her three issue run in DC try-out comic Showcase (#97-97) in 1978. This good old-fashioned super-hero yarn featured many Justice Society guest-stars and established a new secret identity, whilst clarifying her origins. Written by Levitz, the art was by the acquired-taste art team of Joe Staton and Joe Orlando, with Dick Giordano providing a more tradition inking style for the latter parts of the tale.

After Crisis on Infinite Earths, a new origin had to be constructed for her as the multiverse became one single cosmos, where popular properties were shoe-horned into one continuity. Secret Origins #11 (1987) featured Paul Kupperberg and Mary Wilshire retooled her into a magical refugee from ancient Atlantis, and left it at that, but the illusion of change is everything in comics and as she appeared in another miniseries (not collected here), the very popular Justice League and Justice League: Europe comics and ultimately in JSA her back story grew and fluctuated. By 2006 all the inconsistencies and contradictions meant that another overhaul was on the cards.

With Infinite Crisis looming large on the DC agenda Power Girl became a major factor purely because of her continuity flaws. Reprinting relevant extracts from JSA #32 and #39, the convoluted trail leads us into her starring role in JSA Classified #1-4 (which comprises the remainder of this trade paperback).

The stage is set for a delightful adventure that combines wit and humour with an obvious love of all the minutiae of this character when writer Geoff Johns and artists Amanda Conner, Peter Snejbjerg, Patrick Gleason, Jimmy Palmiotti and Christian Alamy employ the table-turning tactic of embracing all Power Girl’s multiple identities and origin’s in a bravura piece of creative showmanship that is a guilty joy for any super hero fan. But be warned, this doesn’t resolve much: the entire show is a prelude to Infinite Crisis (which I will deal with in due course).

On its own terms this is a passable piece of eye-candy for the faithful, but might be a little daunting for new readers. If that not a problem, the stories and especially the art has a lot to offer. And of course she does have really, really large breasts.

There, that’s much clearer now isn’t it?

© 1978, 1987, 2002, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub Deluxe Edition

Lone Wolf and Cub Deluxe Edition 

By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima (First Publishing 1988)
ISBN: 0-915419-47-5

Whichever English title you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – the grandiose, hell-bent Samurai tragedy created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt one of those all too rare world classics of comics literature.

Itto Ogami was once the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. When his family was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous and politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor orders him to commit suicide.

He rebels, choosing to become a Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, and to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or until Hell claims him. His one surviving son, the toddler Diagoro, also chooses the way of the sword and together they wander the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, in a sprawling epic of intrigue and action.

The thousands of beautiful black and white pages produced by these gifted creators has gripped and captivated generations of readers around the world and, more importantly, influenced many successive creators. The manga and movies that the stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this particular edition, has referenced the works in his science fiction saga Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Sin City. And Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is an unashamed tribute to this Japanese saga. Even children’s cartoons such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this strip.

For the last seven years Dark Horse Books have been reprinting these tales, but for sheer artistic value you should try to hunt down the First Publishing edition if you can. Behind the painted dust-jacket by Bill Sienkiewicz and the aforementioned Miller pencil on sepia cover are six big stories on big pages for greater enjoyment. As well as the initial outing, ‘The Assassin’s Road’, are ‘The Coming of the Cold’, the poignant ‘Pitiful Osue’, ‘The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’, ‘Headless Sakon’ ,and ‘The White Way Between Two Rivers’.

As an added bonus there is also a gallery of paintings from Kojima, Olivia De Berardinis and Alex Wald. Great value, but if beyond your means or resources settle for the Dark Horse editions. Comics this good belong on shelf and in your life.

©1988 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All Rights Reserved.

Legal Drug Vol 1

Legal Drug Vol 1

By CLAMP (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59182-485-0

Kazahaya Kudo works in the Green Drugstore, but that’s not really his job. He shares an apartment with work colleague Rikuo, but that’s not where they live. When not dispensing prescriptions and stocking shelves they inhabit a twilight world of intrigue, confusion, suspense and even danger.

Kazahaya has a strange power. He is a psychometrist, able to glean visions, memories and dreams simply by touching objects. He and the hulking, imperturbable Rikou – who also has rare abilities – supplement their meagre incomes by undertaking missions and tasks for the eerily beautiful and androgynous Kakei-San, who manages the pharmacy. However, these side-jobs are usually extraordinary, such as retrieving phantom books or finding invisible fire-flies. All the missions would seem to have a deeper spiritual, metaphysical or even poetic meaning.

Always desperate for cash, but increasingly hungry for understanding, Kazahaya’s surreal nightlife becomes increasingly oppressive and his visions more disturbing. What can it all mean? And how will it all end?

Combining action-adventure with a surreal and supernatural otherworldliness, this intoxicating mystery is full of drama and tension to counterpoint the unreality. Here is a series with an engrossing concept that combines philosophy, buddy-movies and detective fiction to memorable effect, and which will enthral readers eager for something a little less straightforward.

This book is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

 © 2001 CLAMP. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2004 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Promethea, Book 1

Promethea, Book 1

By Alan Moore, J H Williams III & Mick Gray (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0032-X

I wonder if when Alan Moore first conceived this ‘Strong Female Character’ as part of his private superhero universe, he realised quite how far he would take this tale, or just how far he and collaborators J H Williams III and Mick Gray would push the boundaries of Graphic Narrative?

Ignoring the superficial resemblances to Wonder Woman – herself more archetype than property these days, but don’t tell the lawyers I said that – what is on offer in this series (issues 1-6 of which are collected in this first volume)?

Sophie Bangs lives in the big city, in a world of Science Heroes, multi-powered villains and real, scary monsters. She’s a smart kid, if not traditionally pretty, doing teen-age things with her best friend Stacia. She’s also researching a term paper on a name that has cropped up in esoteric poems, art and popular culture since the fifth century AD. She seems inexplicably fascinated by the concept of Promethea.

After interviewing the widow of the writer of a Promethea comic book she is attacked by a shadowy demon and rescued by the widow, who is the comic heroine. Promethea is a little girl who was taken into the Immateria, the Realm of Imagination, and became a concept. Throughout history, she has become real by incarnating in the women – usually – who inspire art and creativity. As the monster returns, Sophia finds her own artistic method of calling the Immateria and becomes the newest incarnation.

Thus begins a journey of metaphysical as well as metahuman adventure. Sophia fights monsters and meets heroes, but the never ending battle is not what this series is about. She wants to know more, and whilst various flamboyant forces array themselves against her, she is seeking deeper answers for questions she never knew she had.

Moore’s sly and subversive scripting, in a superhero universe pushed to its illogical extreme is superbly matched by artists Williams III and Gray, who increasingly raise the bar on graphic creativity and printing technology for a visual experience that is simply staggering to behold.

© 2003 America’s Best Comics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Dreamer

The Dreamer

By Will Eisner (Kitchen Sink Press – Published most recently by DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-5638-9678-8

This thinly disguised diary of the early days of the American comic book industry might be short on action and page count but the strength of the aspirations shine through. Creative people seem to gravitate towards each other, and depression era tales abound with big dreams fuelled by desperation, against a backdrop of comradeship. The politics of revolution simmer in the minds and unfilled bellies of the poor. Characters we all should recognize make their choices and move on to become the gods of popular or even High Culture we all grew older with. Can you spot ‘em all?

There is an added impetus for the afficionado of the strips. Not only engaging characters, not merely an insider’s perspective on the beginnings of our beloved obsession, not at last a direct link to history that the rest of world thinks worth remembering, but also a real glimpse inside the minds and hearts of the creative wizards that started it all.

Covering a period rife with daily human drama, and exploring an age where dreams were common and creativity unshackled, The Dreamer is a captivating reverie of how comics were, how they work and delivered in the best manner of one of comics’ greatest innovators and practitioners.

© 1986, 2004 Will Eisner.