Origin: The True Story of Wolverine

Origin: The True Story of Wolverine

By Various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-904159-07-0

Although long touted as a story that couldn’t be told, the history of such a popular character was never, ever going to remain a mystery. Wolverine captivated audiences from his earliest appearances in the X-Men comics, and apparently did it all over again in the movie versions. Thus, in a climate of declining comic book sales, finally giving him an origin was truly inevitable. Sadly, just as certain was the conviction that the event couldn’t help but be something of a disappointment.

Since I loathe story spoilers above all things, I’m going to be as vague as I can, so suffice to say that at the turn of the 19th century, 12 year old Rose is hired as the companion of sickly James Howlett, on the palatial estate of his wealthy grandfather. Among the servants she befriends an all but feral child called Logan, the abused son of a groundskeeper/general dogsbody. She settles into the daily routine quickly, but the estate is not a tranquil place.

Tragedy occurs one night as a murder-suicide destroys the stability of the gothic estate forever and Rose and the Wolverine-to-be must flee for their lives. On the run for years the pair eventually settle in a quarrying camp where the harsh conditions and physical toil rapidly mature our mutant hero. But even here the repercussions of the Howlett Estate tragedy inevitably find them leading to a final, appalling confrontation.

This is a very disappointing book. It was never going to live up to thirty years of anticipation, and the creators should applauded for ignoring the convoluted X-Men mythology to concentrate on a more primal tale in the fashion of Jack London or Joseph Conrad, but it’s a gamble that hasn’t really paid off. There’s a distinct lack of tension and no sense of revelation at all. Every character is one-dimensional, provided for a single purpose and predictably dealt with when its job is done. From the first page we know how it’s going to end and none of the characters has enough spark for a reader to emote with.

Understandably, such a “big story” needs a lot of creators so the credits are a bit convoluted. Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada and Paul Jenkins came up with the plot, which Jenkins scripted. The artwork was drawn by Andy Kubert, but any grit and edginess that this talented gentleman may have created was regrettably lost by the cloyingly heavy digital painting of Richard Isanove, whose very pretty colours have seemingly candy-coated the traumatic life-story of this most savage of heroes.

Publishing is a business, and the market always dictates what and where the stories are, but this was not what should have happened to make Wolverine. Still it is only a comic, so when someone decides to reveal the Real, True, True Real story of… we’ll all get another go at learning his secrets. Or not.

© 2001, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The March to Death

The March to Death 

By John Olday (Freedom Press)
ISBN 0-900384-80-8

We tend to remember World War Two as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil, of Us and Them. It’s valuable to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death is an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation (from whom you can still obtain a copy should you wish – please contact the CCG for address details or do that Google thing).

Comics and cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) are blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation. He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943 for which he was imprisoned until 1946. The accompanying text was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

The 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.

Hellblazer: Black Flowers

Hellblazer: Black Flowers

By Mike Carey & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-186-3

This Constantine collection (reprinting issues #181-186) sees Carey setting his own skewed stamp on the iconic street wizard with a collection of tales that gently move the series towards a spectacular climax to celebrate the comic’s then impending bi-centenary. Carey’s greatest strength is his meticulous forward planning and many seeds are planted here to compliment those already scattered in the previous volume Red Sepulchre.

First up is The Game of Cat and Mouse, illustrated by Jock, which sees Constantine running for so much more than his life from Spectral ‘messengers’ through the secret parts of London. Lee Bermejo provides chilling art for the eponymous Black Flowers as the wizard gathers allies and information whilst purging a sleepy hamlet of some unwelcome dead visitors who’ve broken out of the local insane asylum. Fan favourite Marcelo Frusin provides pictures for the final tale Third Worlds as Constantine and his companion go travelling, encountering some old acquaintances – most notably the Swamp Thing – whilst preparing themselves for the latest Armageddon Hammer to fall.

Hellblazer is consistently terrifying and hilarious by turn, and John Constantine is probably the best anti-hero ever written. Carey and friends are consistently creating a grim, chilling, engrossing and uproarious horror romp. The least you can do is consistently own these collections. A vote with your wallet just means they’ll keep on doing it, right?

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin, Steve Dillon & Jimmy Palmiotti
ISBN 1-84576-068-9

The first post-movie Hellblazer collection should take the bad taste out of fans’ mouths as Mike (Lucifer) Carey takes over the writing and immediately re-establishes the essential post-punk Englishness and milieu of the character.

Arriving illegally back in Liverpool after his American adventures, the coolest sod in comics visits his sister to discover a necromantic blight affecting the block of flats she lives in. After tackling that particular evil (High on Life from Hellblazer # 175-176, illustrated by veteran Vertigoer Steve Dillon), he returns to London to track down his missing niece Gemma, who has become an unwitting pawn in a vicious bidding war for The Red Sepulchre, a mystical artefact of legendary and unquantifiable power (issues # 177-180).

This is a welcome return to vintage form for John Constantine. Rife with double-cross and manipulation, the magician inveigles and connives his way through all sorts of Hells, with his customary Game-Face grin and plot-within-plot strategy, seemingly taking hit after hit but always most assuredly in absolute control of the field.

Marcelo Frusin’s sparse storytelling and his fearfully disciplined drawing whips the reader from page to page like fat kids down a water-slide for a completely unvarnished thrill-ride, and Carey’s essential grasp of Constantine makes for some of the best urban horror since Garth Ennis’s run on the title. Long-time fans should also appreciate the wonderfully subtle foreshadowings hidden herein when later issues are collected. Here is quality stuff that starts strong and gets better, and new readers can safely jump on for a truly spooky time.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: Half a Life

Gotham Central: Half a Life 

By Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-091-3

The second collection of this procedural cop thriller set in the urban hell of Gotham City is another superb study in genre-crossing. The action centres around the framing and persecution of long-time supporting character Renee Montoya, a detective in good standing who suddenly finds herself utterly alone, in the un-friendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth. As part of the Major Crimes Unit she’s seen how bad Batman’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter, and not just her life is at stake.

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds irrespective of the nature of crime in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story. Also included in this volume are two earlier tales from Montoya’s past (Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka and Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, and Detective Comics #747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado and Steve Mitchell) that, although stand alone tales at time of publication, lead directly into the tragic events collected here.

It’s always difficult to recommend stuff to comics virgins. This is something even your girlfriend won’t laugh at. Go on, see for yourself.

© 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-828-3

One of the great joys of the legendary comics characters is the potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case is Gotham Central, wherein modern television sensibilities combine with the long suffering boys in blue of the world’s most famous four colour city. Owing as much to shows such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it does to the continuity of Batman, the series combines gritty authentic police action with a soft-underbelly look at what real peacekeepers have to put up with in a world psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just don’t stay dead.

This volume kicks off with Ed Brubaker’s introduction of the cast, and first tale wherein superfreak Mr Freeze intersects a kidnap investigation by detectives Driver and Fields leading to the latter’s hideous demise. The ensuing noir classic theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is edgy and fast paced while still delivering pithy characterisations. Greg Rucka handles the second story arc as the now fit for duty Driver and his new partner use solid police work to solve the kidnap case, all the while under the gun as Batman villain The Firebug dances on the horizon threatening to destroy the city.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo play well under Michael Lark’s deft illustrations, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, playing out in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: Tag

Ex Machina: Tag

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-123-5

The second collection of memoirs starring New York City’s coolest – and most super-powered – Mayor, picks up where the first left off as the chief official continues his quest to really make a difference by tackling every issue at once, head-on, and generally by ignoring any suggestion of traditional politics.

The premise that a do-gooder would go public, eschew using his powers – in this case the ability to communicate with and command all electronics – quit flying around via his trusty jetpack, and even establish a frank and open dialogue with that arch bogie-man, the US government, is a refreshing dose of Realheroik, and the sustained mystery of the precise origin of his powers adds body to an engaging and well realised piece of fiction.

The plot this time concerns the discovery of a serial killer/monster that is lurking in the New York Subway system that seems somehow connected to The Mayor’s exotic past, but the most satisfying moments are when Mitchell Hundred applies his obdurately direct manner to the thorny issues of fund raising, gay marriage and media relations. If only more party hacks read this, maybe we’d all benefit in our daily lives.

Ex Machina is a fine example of that rarest of Hen’s Teeth, an adult comic for people who have actually grown up. You should get politicking and go spread the word.

™ & © 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 

By Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-025-5

It is always a genuine pleasure to see something different done with the tired cliché of the superhero in the “Real World” and this new series from Vaughan and Harris is probably the freshest and most entertaining example I’ve seen in many a year.

Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer in New York City who accidentally gains the power to talk to electronics and machinery. Like every other right thinking post-baby boomer he decides to become a superhero, which plausibly enough results in a total fiasco. He then does the next most logical thing. Publicly abandoning his role as the Great Machine he runs for Mayor – and wins.

The real bones of this tale lie in the interplay of a capable idealist thrust into that other great machine – politics – and how a life already cursed with mysteries aplenty has to deal with the day to day job of making a difference in the most chaotic and charismatic city on earth.

This collection of the first five issues is charming and thrilling by turns, with plenty of West Wing/Spin City brand humour, an engaging cast of characters and even lots of bang and boom thrills all lavishly captured by the superb art and design skills of Tony Harris (who won so much acclaim with Starman). We have an absolute gem here, something which is actually worth making into a movie.

© 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All rights reserved.

Boneyard, Volume 5

Boneyard, Volume 5

By Richard Moore (NBM)
ISBN 1-56163-479-4

Boneyard goes from strength to strength. This black and white collection (there’s also a line of books collecting these self-same issues of the comic book series in full colour) features the young guy who inherited a cemetery and the extremely engaging gang of goblins, monsters and out and out weirdoes who inhabit it in more sharp, funny and endearing horror comedy for the lost generation.

Michael Paris shares his life with a hot vampire chick, a werewolf, an over-sexed fish-woman, assorted demons and monsters. But somehow, these are the good guys and they are often beset by really nasty types who have evil intentions. For example, there’s the US government, or the creature that keeps beheading counsellors at the kid’s summer camp across the way, or what about that creepy Pumpkin head guy who magics you unconscious then desecrates your dreams?

The peculiar sub-genre of horror/comedy is in safe hands with Richard Moore, whose light, deft touch combines traditional cartooning with spot-on slapstick, surreal humour, and a touch of contemporary cynicism. He can also imbue his abhuman cast with genuine humanity when necessary. And he’s disarmingly honest too, apparently, as this book begins with the last chapter of the previous story-arc, which he seemingly “forgot” to include at the end of the previous volume. Doesn’t someone like that deserve your money? Especially if he’s going to plough it back into making more great comic stories?

© 2004, 2005 Richard Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Year 100

Batman: Year 100 

By Paul Pope (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-424-2

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators to emerge in the last decade, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing. He’s worked on a few Batman projects in that time but none quite as high profile as last year’s prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. In a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, a long-vanished threat to that iron control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands.

Eschewing the contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations, Pope leaps head-first into the action in this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this version of the iconic Batman taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Once more a special man, fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections – especially the police.

Guys with suits and a Plan have always scared me more than nutters in spandex and it’s clear that I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s civil servant antagonists cut a swathe of destruction through the City they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the newest Caped Crusader as he cleans house in a dirty city in a dirty world.

Also included in the book are ancillary text pages to supplement the story, notes and design sketches, and as a bonus, Berlin Batman Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. In this alternative yarn (originally published in Batman Chronicles #11) Pope and Ted McKeever depict the career the nature of a Jewish super-hero who plagued the Nazis through the darkest days of the Third Reich.

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously thrilling story that honours the history and conventions of the Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the original did in 1939. This is a book for the generations.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.