Dark Horse Book of the Dead

Dark Horse Book of the Dead 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 1-59307-281-0

The mystery compilation from the “Book of…” series features tales of Zombies and living dead men produced by a decidedly superior collection of creators. Kelly Jones covers familiar territory in his mountain man tale of ‘The Hungry Ghosts’ and Mike Mignola provides a wonderful new Hellboy short, ‘The Ghoul’.

‘Old Garfield’s Heart’ is a Robert E Howard prose vignette illustrated by Gary Gianni, followed by ‘The Ditch’ from David Crouse and Todd Herman. Bob Fingerman and Roger Langridge lighten the mood if not the tone with ‘Death Boy’, Eric (The Goon) Powell provides the uncharacteristically sombre and oppressive ‘Wallace Expedition’ and the quirky ‘Queen of Darkness’ comes courtesy of Pat McEown.

Jamie S Rich and Guy Davis concoct a haunting tale of feudal Japan in ‘Kago No Tori’ whilst Editor Scott Allie and artists Paul Lee and Brian Horton’s Devil’s Footprint series is represented by ‘The Magicians’.

The unquestioned star of this volume is saved for last as Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson steal the show with the superb ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, a chilling and beautiful tale of household pets that has horror aplenty, yet remembers that sadness can be just as crushing as terror.

As anthologies go, horror and mystery are always a safe bet and should serve as a vehicle for pulling resistant readers into our world of comics. When they can be this diverse and still maintain a high level of quality throughout they should be mandatory for any proselytizing fan.

© 2005 respective copyright holders. All Rights Reserved.

Criminal: Coward

Criminal: Coward 

By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-610-5

I miss 1953. I wasn’t actually there but if you love comics it was a year of astounding promise. Every conceivable genre of funnybook could be found on US newsstands: Little kids books, war super-heroes, horror, science fiction and especially crime.

Bad guys living – and dying – bad lives were everywhere, and don’t even get me started on movies. Technicolor™ was still expensive so the post-war sensibilities were best captured by gritty, grainy, moody Film Noir.

What has this to do with the book in question? Nothing really except that for the first time since those days there is a genuine resurgence of straight crime thrillers for the comic book crowd. Even acknowledging the standout work of Brian Michael Bendis and David Lapham, there has been precious little straight crime drama in comics of late. But at last creators can once again craft dark, thrilling stories of the other side of society without having to sweeten the comic-fan pot with shadowy organisations or near-superhuman protagonists.

Criminal: Coward follows the bad choices of Leo, a professional bank robber and crime planner as he is lured into masterminding an armoured car heist by a couple of bent cops. Not only is Leo a master of his nefarious art, he is a master of keeping uninvolved and getting away, but this time it doesn’t work out. The thing about bent cops is that you already know they’re untrustworthy, right?

As his world turns to $#!+ around him, the cautious planner must adopt the tactics he dreads and despises if he or any of his loved ones stands any chance of survival. Ed Brubaker provides a masterful modern thriller that is tense, contemplative, action-packed and terminally bloody-soaked and the moody, seductive, understated art of Sean Phillips captures you from panel one, and won’t let go until the bitter end.

Great Stuff! More please! Or I’ll start blathering about the old days again!

© 2007 Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips. All Rights Reserved.

Bite Club

Bite Club 

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman & David Hahn (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-065-4

Produced in DC’s new pocket paperback format, Bite Club seems like quite a small package but delivers a sizable portion of entertainment in the tried–and-true Chaykin obnoxious, spit-in-your-face, poke-in-your-eye style. Writing with long-time collaborator David Tischman and stylishly illustrated by David Hahn, with an enticingly limited palette colouring job by Brian Miller, he’s managed to add to his reputation as a Iconoclast by retooling the Vampire genre for the post-Goth generation.

Vampires are real, they’re not magic, they are super-powerful, and they mostly live in sunny Miami where they run the rackets. When Leto Del Toro, the son of the biggest Vamp Capo became a Catholic priest it was a shock. When he’s called back to rule the family after his father’s spectacular murder, that’s a recipe for slaughter, hip racial intolerance and the cool cynical intrigue that’s been a trademark of this creator for the last twenty-five years.

Those other trademarks; lashings of kinky sex, graphic, gratuitous violence and worst of all, quite harsh language makes this book an absolute treat – or perhaps the next contender for a book-burning near you.

© 2004 Howard Chaykin Inc., David Tischman and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 2

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 2 

By Frank Hampson and various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-088-3

The concluding volume of Dan Dare’s adventures on the ringed planet, or more accurately on its inhabited moons, opens with the crew allying with the natives on Titan, attempting to throw off the yoke of the overlords of Saturn. The exploratory mission has discovered life on all the moons, enslaved to these rulers who have also subverted the science officer, Blasco, who has accepted their offer to rule Earth as their vassal. Our intrepid heroes must not only liberate these subjugate races but save their home-world too!

These strips first ran in the weekly Eagle comic from October 1953 to May 1954, and cemented the rise of this new heroic icon in the hearts and minds of British children and their parents. All concerned must have seen the echoes of the recently concluded War in the liberation of alien cultures and especially the scenes of Earth “Blitzkrieged” by robot-bombs as tense Space Fleet personnel scrambled squadrons from Fighter Command map-rooms. The colourful, compelling, cosmic drama seamlessly blended thrills, wonder and national optimism to create groundbreaking, unforgettable fiction.

Rounding out this magnificent comic reading experience are two short complete tales ‘Operation Triceratops’ and ‘The Planulid’, whilst this volume’s text section features an article by Steve Holland on the science of the series plus a fascinating “sketchbook” page illuminating how Frank Hampson prepared images for his burgeoning art-team to finish.

These thrill-a-minute stories rank alongside the greatest of our children’s fictions. The standard of art and story that was typical of Dan Dare has seldom been equalled, never surpassed and nothing has ever beaten it for longevity, vitality and sheer unwavering quality. They are worthy shelf-mates for the likes of Ivanhoe, The Narnia Chronicles, The Once and Future King or indeed any adventure story that makes it onto the National Curriculum Reading List. Buy them all and then start badgering your Local Education Authority to do the same.

© 2005 Dan Dare Corporation, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Books of Magick: Life During Wartime

Books of Magic: Life During Wartime 

By Si Spencer & Dean Ormston (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-005-0

Neil Gaiman is a big name in comics. He’s one of those guys who’s “made it” in the realer world but hasn’t completely turned his back on comics. He is also one of a small creative elite whose name liberally spread out on a book cover can bring non-comic clientele to a package, which is a long-winded way of saying that no comic title he’s been involved with will long stay in Limbo.

The latest return of The Books of Magick and super magician Tim Hunter features yet another revamp of the young, guileless innocent that Gaiman, John Bolton and a small band of painterly superstars tasked with a journey of self-discovery through all the Mystic Realms of the DC Universe back in the 1990s. Unfortunately a lot of pages have been published since then and the scrofulous young yob starring here is no kin to that waif.

This in itself is no bad thing. The adventures begin in another universe where humanity and demons are at war, a supernatural global conflict that has pushed Man to the brink of extinction. One last bastion lies besieged and Vertigo stalwart John Constantine is their embattled leader, as they await the return of their all-powerful deity, The Hunter.

The echoes of William Hope Hodgeson and C. S. Lewis are interrupted with a segue to a young adult Tim in what looks like our reality, dossing about after graduating university, doing drugs, swilling beer and shagging totty, just like anybody. As the story progresses long-time readers will realise that something is amiss, though. This life is just as out of whack as the demon war-scape and events lead to the inevitable conclusion that a deadly congruence of circumstance will catapult Tim and his coterie of reprobates into an alien Armageddon.

My poncey locution aside, this is quite an enjoyable fantasy ride. Si Spencer brings his television writing (Grange Hill, Eastenders) into the mix of earthly and unreal to great effect – let’s face it, most comics are soap-operas these days – and Dean Ormston manages to be grungy and stylish at the same time. My quibble stems from what I said earlier.

Although a re-interpretation, much of the narrative depends on a more than passing knowledge of the DC Universe (Hellblazer, Zatanna etc.) and especially the characters such as idealised girl friend Molly, from the long previous runs of Books of Magick. If those comics had sold well enough to garner a solid readership, we wouldn’t be discussing this new version at all, and to ask new readers to muddle along knowing there’s a subtext but not getting it seems at best harsh and at worst a recipe for yet another early bath.

For those Gaiman groupies, it might be an actual turn off from an otherwise useful addition to comics’ adult fantasy stable, and even comics in general.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman and the Mad Monk

Batman and the Mad Monk 

By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-495-1

The concluding volume of Matt Wagner’s reinterpretation of two of Batman’s earliest and most iconic triumphs features a classic duel with the Dark Knight’s most obvious antithesis – a vampire. A flamboyant, magical bat monster to combat the grim, steely rationalism of this hero was an obvious conceit when Gardner Fox wrote it in 1939 (Detective Comics #31 and #32 – most recently reprinted in Batman Chronicles Volume 1 ISBN 1-84576-036-0) and Wagner proves that it still has merit.

Following on from Batman and the Monster Men with the sub-plot of Bruce Wayne’s first girlfriend Julie Madison and her tragically flawed father, this subtle blending of high gothic fantasy and modern Goth sensibility sees a mysterious cult leader moving into the upper and lower echelons of Gotham society, recruiting thugs , seducing the glitterati and killing at a whim.

Still in his first year of his mission, the inexperienced Batman must reassess his role and his beliefs before his city can be saved.

This is great story-telling, beautifully illustrated, paying proper respect to the triumphs of the past whilst reverently refreshing them for the modern reader. This is a classic Batman that everybody can enjoy – and should.

© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 1

Dan Dare: Operation Saturn 1 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-809-7

This volume of the adventures of Britain’s greatest star-farer sees Dan and his trusty crew sent to the fifth planet to investigate the origins of the mysterious, marauding “Black Cats”, tiny probes that bore through anything and have a nasty habit of exploding if approached. It’s danger as usual as the team discover new, exotic civilisations, and old passions among their own ranks as they bring with them a villain as nefarious as the aliens they encounter.

These stories are genuinely timeless classics of adventure, suitable for all ages and wonderfully free of the hyperbolic angst that permeates today’s entertainments. Long-time aficionados are well served by the added text features which this time include not only another lavishly illustrated interview with creator Frank Hampson, but also the Secret History of Dan Dare by Wallis Rigby. The star introduction this time around is from Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials.

The strips first ran from February to October 1953, and rounding out the magnificent comic reading experience is a short complete thriller “The Double-Headed Eagle” reprinted from the Eagle Annual. The standard of art and story that was typical of Dan Dare has seldom been equalled, never surpassed and nothing has ever beaten it for longevity, vitality and sheer unwavering quality.

© 2005 Dan Dare Corporation, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hush Returns

Batman: Hush Returns 

By A. J. Lieberman, Al Barrionuevo & Javier Pina (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-258-4

The worst thing about major events in comics publishing – as elsewhere, sadly – is the blind compulsion to follow up and cash in on them. There were a whole bunch of years between Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the recent sequel, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have thus far resisted all urgings to revisit Watchmen. But it was inevitable that Hush, Batman’s dark opposite, would return sooner rather than later.

Relying on the tired plot premise that ‘everything you know is wrong’, and yet another string of guest-stars to bolster a weak and confusing storyline. Here it involves a battle for crime supremacy among insane super-criminals (Joker, Riddler and even the Penguin) intent on outsmarting each other, but this frankly bewildering mess could have benefited from fewer chapters and stricter editing, although the art is pretty good and Batman fans as much as any follower of long-running characters, have grown used to dry patches and occasional troughs between all those epic high points.

Originally published in Gotham Knights issues #50-55, the volume also contains a nominal epilogue from issue #66 featuring Hush’s hired thug Prometheus and the assorted villains from the criminal Society that plagued DC’s hero community since the onset of Infinite Crisis. This one is so very Not Recommended for anyone trying a graphic novel for the first time.

© 2004, 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury

Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-847-X

Volume four of Titan’s high quality hardback reprints finds Dare and crew crashed on of Mercury after saving the Earth from the ravages of the Red Moon Menace. With breakneck rapidity (these stories were originally published at two pages per week, remember, so there’s no hanging about) they encounter the indigenous rock creatures and discover where the monstrous Mekon has been skulking since his last defeat.

The stories are clear-cut but engrossing with solid, comfortable, archetypical characterisations and the artwork, as Hampson and his team hit their creative peak is an absolute joy to behold. Nobody with a Sense of Wonder should be denied this stuff!

The extras include the continuation of an interview with Frank Hampson and a fascinating article discussing the retail market for his artwork, both lavishly illustrated, plus a Dan Dare Checklist and character profiles of the cast. These books can’t come out fast enough for my tastes.

© 2005 Dan Dare Corporation Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Berlin: City of Stones

By Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 1-896597-29-7

This lyrical viewing of the final days of the German Weimar Republic is seen primarily through the eyes and experiences of art student Marthe Müller as she begins a new life in Berlin. Already a cauldron of expressionism and radical politics by the time of her arrival, the German Capital is soon to descend into the bitter final ideological struggle between the communists and National Socialists.

As she interacts with the decadent intelligentsia of the art world and the solid citizenry of the streets, she eventually becomes involved with crusading left-wing journalist Kurt Severing, whom she first encountered on the train to the Capital in September 1928. All around is a slow gathering of violence.

City of Stones is the first in a projected trilogy from Jason Lutes who uses the story and the powerfully understated drawing to explore such minor themes as the nature and place of art in society, the responsibilities of the creative force in a cold and hungry world and the transitional nature of ethics within his ostensible narrative exploration of fictional people undergoing real events.

This is a lovely tale to read, and unlike most of our medium, possesses a depth of feeling and accessible profundity that puts it in an arena that few books or films could aspire to. This is a genuine landmark of our craft and you should know it.

© 2001 Jason Lutes. All Rights Reserved.