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.

American Splendor: Our Movie Year

American Splendor: Our Movie Year 

By Harvey Pekar & various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-024-7

Harvey Pekar has been a continual source of great comics writing for adults since 1972 when fellow Jazz and underground comix enthusiast Robert Crumb offered to draw some scripts he’d been shown. From then Pekar’s work, mostly autobiographical, and mostly in his own American Splendor publication would appear at irregular intervals, illustrated by a broad band of artists.

The highly personal musings of a man who collected books, records, facts, opinions and worries whilst living the life of an ordinary blue-collar Joe in Cleveland, Ohio, made for highly regarded if not commercially acceptable comic strips. Dry, acerbic, introspective, often funny, and above all absolutely human in scale, his work was always at the fringes of the comic consciousness, and consequently never particularly financially rewarding.

This collection of stories is culled from a variety of sources and recounts the long and bewildering journey of Pekar’s work from comic page to the movie screen, as a twenty year ambition was realised with the eventual release of an independent film based on his comic. The documentary American Splendor not only happily captured his work but some critical awards too, and this volume recounts the peculiar whirlwind that followed its success and the world-wide promotional tour that the creator and his family had to endure in its wake. Also included are a selection of the “Lost and Found” vignettes that highlight lives, careers and works of people and things that the intellectually omnivorous Pekar periodically produces.

As usual, a large number of artists were involved. Handling the pictures here were Crumb, Gary Dumm, Mark Zingarelli, Josh Neufeld, Gerry Shamray, Greg Budgett, Frank Stack, Ed Piskor, Joe Zabel and Dean Haspiel.

As with his powerful breakthrough volume My Cancer Year, this is often an uncomfortable book to read, but it’s great to see the little guy finally get his share of the limelight in a medium that so often concentrates on the outlandish and superhuman. That makes this a great choice for those who treasure humanity and like the chance to ponder upon it every so often.

© 2004 Harvey Pekar, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Western Chamber

The Western Chamber 

By Wang Shifu of the Yuan dynasty

Adapted by Hong Zengling, illustrated by Wang Shuhui & translated by Zheng Kangbo

(Hai Feng Publishing Company Hong Kong)
No ISBN

This beautiful fable uses the ancient plot of the hard path to true love to examine the nature of aspiration in a hidebound culture as well as the greater quest for personal freedom. The Western Chamber is adapted from a classic work of the Yuan dynasty, attributed to the dramatist Wang Shifu, and was produced in pre-Reunification Hong Kong.

The story tells of a bright, ambitious scholar named Zhang Gong, who called himself Junrui, and his fateful decision to go to the Capital and gain a government position. En route he visits a monastery where he accidentally glimpses Cui Yingying, sequestered daughter of the recently deceased Prime Minister.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacles of rank, wealth, pride, rivals, politics, potential mothers-in-law and even a marauding rebel army and its libidinous General all prove ineffective. We know that eventually love will conquer all and that the ending will be a happy one, but fans of beautiful drawings will delight in the fact that the adventure is delivered with the seductive mastery of line and black ink that epitomises all that is great in Eastern picture storytelling.

As with most oriental graphic novels The Western Chamber has been in print continuously since its release, and should be readily available from most shops in your local Chinatown.

© Hai Feng Publishing Company 1982. All Rights Reserved.

Trinity

Trinity 

By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-892-5

Matt Wagner’s epic featuring what purports to be the initial adventure of arguably the three most recognizable comic characters in the world, is a classic and stylish romp relating the attempt by immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, and the tragic, monstrous Bizarro to use stolen Atomic missiles to bring about a new world order.

There is always the dilemma when producing this kind of tale to trade on current continuity or to deconstruct and attain a more iconic, epic feel. Part-time and casual readers need not worry. Wagner has hewn to the ever-fresh basics to create a gratifyingly “Big” story that still manages to speak more of the individual characters involved than a years worth of most periodical publishing.

Trinity is a grand adventure, accessible, exciting and rewarding, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they should always be but so seldom are. Graphic Novels should all be this good.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Birthright

Superman: Birthright 

By Waid, Yu & Alanguilan (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-013-1

This wonderfully user-friendly re-tooling of the most rewritten origin in the history of comics pays loads of lip service to the most common modern conception of the first super-hero – that of the Smallville TV show – whilst still managing to hew closely to many of the fan-favourite idiosyncrasies that keep old duffers like me coming back for more.

Beginning with Clark Kent’s protracted “gap-year” when he wandered the planet, secretly doing good, through his early moments with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, et. al., and ending with the saving of Metropolis, the calamitous – albeit temporary – downfall of Lex Luthor and the public acceptance of this “strange visitor from another world”, Mark Waid and Lenil Yu have produced a feisty reworking that shouldn’t offend the faithful whilst providing an efficient jump-on guide for any late-comers and potential converts. And it’s much more fun to read than this review, too.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: General Grievous

Star Wars: General Grievous 

By Chuck Dixon, Rick Leonardi & Mark Pennington (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-109-X

This slim volume is an intriguing attempt to tell a tale from the viewpoint of an inveterate, rather than misunderstood, villain. Grievous is a cyborg predator and his favoured meat is Jedi Knights. At the time of telling (two years after the Battle of Geonosis, for those of you who follow such things) he is cutting a deadly swath through the ranks of the Galaxy’s defenders. A small group of Padawans (apprentice Jedis) have decided to ignore their teachers’ warnings about succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force and attempt to assassinate the General.

Led by Flynn Kybo, who had just narrowly survived an encounter with the sinister villain, they embark on their mission of necessary evil only to become embroiled in an unwitting rescue of child Padawans (you can call them ‘Younglings’ if you want) that Grievous had kidnapped, with the intention of turning them into bio-mechanical hybrids like him/itself.

Fast-paced and action-packed, this tale falls a little short in its attempt to add flesh to what remains a rather two-dimensional arch-villain, and the themes of honour in war-time and expediency versus right are somewhat lost in the mix, but Leonardi’s art is, as ever, an absolute joy to look at and the story simply rattles along at a fine pace. Here be pure entertainment, accessible and fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

© 2005 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.