Fables: Homelands

Fables: Homelands

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, David Hahn, Lan Medina & Steve Leialoha

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-124-3

Vertigo’s best title just keeps getting better. As well as the long anticipated revelation of the identity of the Adversary, this volume (collecting issues # 34-41 of the monthly comic) also contains concurrent adventures featuring the fate of the morally ambivalent Jack (the Giant-Killer, and the Bean-stalk, et al) plus a foreboding, foreshadowing tale featuring Mowgli’s (of Kipling’s Jungle Books) return from a mystery mission.

Fables deals with refugee fairytale characters who all fled to mundane Earth from their various mythic realms to escape conquest by a mysterious and unbeatable adversary. Keeping their true nature hidden from humanity they have created enclaves where their immortality, magic and sheer strangeness (all the talking animals are sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York, for example) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters wander the human world, but always under an injunction not to draw attention to themselves.

This volume begins with a revelation that the always ‘difficult’ Jack has gone to Hollywood with stolen Fable funds and created a new studio solely to create a trilogy of fantasy films detailing his own exploits, absolutely counter to Fabletown edicts. His fate (illustrated by David Hahn) serves as a lead in to the true meat of the book: Little Boy Blue’s return to the lands of Fable on a mission of revenge and a search for his lost love. Following this, Jack will be starring in his own spin-off series, of which more at a future date…

In many ways this is the most traditional story – in comic book terms – that this series has ever produced, as the heroic Blue, with the aid of plundered magic weapons taken from the Fabletown Armoury, battles his way to the adversary’s very throne room before he is defeated by the Snow Queen, the tyrant’s number two.

Compounding cliff-hanger with teaser, Willingham then switches the story back to Earth for a glimpse at the lives of the other escaped story-people. Meanwhile drawn by Lan Medina, updates the continuity with a series of vignettes that serves to set up the next major storyline as well as lay the groundwork for the eventual return of the long missing – and popular – Bigby Wolf.

Returning to the Homelands opus Willingham and Buckingham complete their tale with stirring panache, revealing the identity of the arch-foe, delivering a memorable climax, and even then managing to pull a surprise rug out from under the feet of we weary, worldly-wise funnybook veterans.

This series just keeps on improving. A wild and savvy exploration of traditional story-telling leavened with acerbic wit and cynical street-smarts, always beautifully drawn. You must read this series (but only if you’re over eighteen, or nobody in authority is watching).

© 2005 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko with Jack Kirby

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 978-1-905239-58-0

The early years of Marvel Comics produced nothing but evergreen classics, and this cheap and cheerful softcover collection of the Spider-Man stories with cover-dates of 1964 – (issues #8-19 of the comic, plus the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual) is a wonderful way to introduce very valuable stories to the greater public in an accessible manner and at a very reasonable price. I’m not going to attempt to explain the vagaries of the US distribution system – just remember that in America the month on the cover denotes when the issue should be taken OFF sale – that’s why all the Christmas stories have February or March cover dates. This is a book for readers not collectors, okay?

The second year of the moody and misunderstood Peter Parker’s superhero career kicked off with a battle against a robot that divined his secret identity before going on a rampage at his high school, and a battle with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch (drawn by Jack Kirby but inked by Spidey’s artistic godfather Steve Ditko, who drew everything else web-based in those formative years). Closely following were the first encounters with Electro and The Enforcers as Lee and Ditko balanced costumed villains with more down to earth criminals. Doctor Octopus made a return appearance and then Mysterio, The Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter all took a bow. For added flavour – and free advertising – Lee began using guest appearances of his other heroic characters. The Hulk appeared with the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man actually teamed up with Daredevil to battle the Circus of Crime.

The growth of comics continuity can be seen here, as a storyline – innovative for the times – stretched over three episodes when the returning Green Goblin, Sandman and Enforcers seemingly made a coward of the web-spinner and not even the Human Torch could help him. It all worked out eventually, of course, and the year “concluded” – for the purposes of this book at least – with a re-presentation of the landmark, and still magnificently thrilling, battle against the ‘Sinister Six’. When a team of villains comprising Electro, Kraven, Mysterio, Vulture, Sandman and Doctor Octopus kidnap Aunt May and Peter’s girl friend Betty Brant, Spider-Man must defeat them without his Spider-powers! Also included are original pin-ups and special feature pages and the comedic short ‘How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man’.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics are quintessential comic book magic, and along with the Fantastic Four, they form the very foundation of everything Marvel. This volume is a fabulous opportunity for new readers of all ages.

© 1964, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Anime Encyclopedia

The Anime Encyclopedia 

By Jonathan Clements & Helen McCarthy

(Stone Bridge Press)  ISBN 1-84576-500-1

Although a bit of a reach for this particular forum, I thought I’d put in my tuppence-worth in regard to this splendid reference tome that thudded onto my doormat yesterday.

This is a revised and expanded edition of a very useful thing: a comprehensive, informative and passionate lexicon of all things to do with Japanese cartoons. If you’re a new convert, an expert, a nostalgic dabbler (Yay, Marine Boy!) or even a curmudgeon who thinks he has no interest, this is the book for you.

Subtitled ‘A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917’, this hefty (nearly 900 pages) paperback covers film and television features, providing technical details and a synoptic overview of everything from A15 Anthology to Zorro the Magnificent with thematic entries, a huge index, 150+ illustrations, and screen captures culled from the more than 3,000 reviews. Separate listings of studios, creators and anime history are included. And there’s even a parental advisory for each entry — to prevent any surprise or misunderstandings when Gran visits!

Thoroughly readable, this work glows with the writers’ enthusiasm, making it a pleasure to consult. My review copy went straight to my reference shelf and yours should go next to your TV/home entertainment system.

Text © 2006 Muramasa Industries Ltd. & Helen McCarthy.
Original illustrations © 2006 Steve Kyte.

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

By Kevin Smith & Various

(Titan Books)  ISBN 1-84576-406-4

Kevin Smith is a very disturbed individual, and therefore one of the most creative and funny people working in the narrative arts today. You are probably aware of such films as Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma. If you weren’t appalled or disgusted by any or all of them, read on. If you did find them offensive or just not your thing, stop reading and move on, because I’m not talking to you, and you’ll only get upset all over again.

As his film career advanced, Smith began scripting some high profile comic books, and also some less iconic ones. The characters from Clerks appeared in numerous mini-series, which were eventually collected as the trade paperbacks The Clerks, Chasing Dogma and Bluntman and Chronic. This Titan Books edition gathers all that material plus the all-new Where’s the Beef, and includes the rare Walt Flanagan’s Dog from Oni-Double Feature#1 (drawn by Matt Wagner). A covers, sketches and artwork gallery, plus a host of other “Clerks-iverse” material, rounds out a package that must be nigh on everything ever published about this motley band of deviants.

If you like adult humour, social satire viewed from the bottom staring up, or just dirty, clever, frat-boy humour, this a book for you. Just be careful where you leave it.

™ & ©1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 2006 View Askew Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: Honor and Duty

Star Wars: Honor and Duty 

By John Ostrander, C.P. Smith, Jasen Rodriguez, and Luke Ross

(Dark Horse Books)  ISBN 1-84576-334-3

It’s back to the beginning – as if that has any meaning with this franchise – in a tale of intrigue designed to fill in some edges in the puzzle of what happened between the second, third and fourth movies.

Sagoro Autem is a Senate Guard. That’s him on the left in most of those panoramic wide-shots, standing behind Senator, and later Emperor Palpatine. He’s basically a cop, and his life is a cop’s life. But when he becomes aware of some dangerous insights into just how the universe really works, he’s plunged into the thick of everything and his life changes forever.

Touching upon the disintegrating relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, the rise of the Empire and the first days of Darth Vader, this is a sharp little adventure (two, actually – originally published in Star Wars: Republic, issues #46-48 and 78) designed to satisfy die-hard fans, but crafted well enough to please any fan of a good comic read.

© 2006 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved

Superman: Sacrifice

Superman: Sacrifice 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-243-6

Rather humdrum conclusion to one of the major plot-lines of the Infinite Crisis event as Superman, mind-controlled by Maxwell Lord, architect of the plan to remove all super-beings from humanity, is compelled to attack his fellow heroes.

Reprinting Superman issues # 218-220, Adventures of Superman #442-443, Action Comics #829 and Wonder Woman #219-220, and featuring the efforts of nearly three dozen creators, this is still little more than a glossy but extended punch-up, culminating in what has been touted as an irreconcilable break-up between the DC Universe’s Big Three. As the volume ends – and I’m not being a spoiler by revealing this – those best of friends Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are alienated and apart – seemingly forever. Or at least until the next times sales dictate a team-up…

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Strange Attractors

Superman: Strange Attractors 

By Gail Simone, John Byrne & Nelson

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-249-5

Here’s a Superman collection that’s tailored to the fight fan, as the mighty Man of Steel takes on a bevy of baddies in short, terse tales designed as an antidote to all those multi-chapter epics. First up is a battle against the incredibly mad Master of Magnetism, Dr Polaris, aided, if not abetted, by the Egyptian super-being Black Adam. The original run of these stories was interrupted for the “Sacrifice” storyline (collected as a Graphic Novel of the same name), so this volume reconvenes with the episode after.

Dr. Psycho is an old Wonder Woman villain, an evil, sadistic dwarf with the power to control minds. When he arrives in Metropolis intent on mischief, Superman finds that every citizen is a foe and hostage at the same time. Once again, Black Adam is on hand to render ambivalent assistance, before it all devolves into the obligatory fist fight. Devil-surrogate Lord Satanus and the Spectre use the city as a phantasmal Ground Zero next, and, after refereeing that little cataclysm, Superman finds himself the target of a psychic and spiritual assault from old JLA foe The Queen of Fables. The fun concludes in a duel with Livewire, that perky punkette with absolute control of all things electrical.

Originally published as Action Comics #827-828 and #830-835, these yarns from Gail Simone and returning veteran John Byrne more than live up to that promise. Not overly complicated, concentrating on exhilaration and excitement, but still managing to sustain some tense sub-plots involving Lois and the venerable supporting cast, these stories are just plain fun. Let’s hope the fashion experiment catches on.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Superman: Up, Up and Away!

Superman: Up, Up and Away! 

By Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns, Pete Woods & Renato Guedes

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-348-3

After the never-ending calamity of the DC Infinite Crisis event, the company re-set the time line of all their publications to begin one year later. This enabled them to refit their characters as they saw fit, provide a jumping on point for new converts and also gave themselves some narrative wiggle-room.

During that missing year, Superman vanished and Supergirl became the guardian of Metropolis. Clark Kent and his wife lived a normal, happy and successful life. Clark had adapted to a human scale of operation, but now that’s all about to change.

Lex Luthor is freed from prison – corporate lawyers never lose their powers – and moves to retake ‘his city’, the ex-Man of Steel still consorts with the likes of Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, but chooses to fight evil with a typewriter and a press pass. So when a plague of villains attacks, he’s helpless to resist the assault. Luckily that’s when his powers start to return, just as Luthor takes control of an ancient Kryptonian warship and moves to conquer the world. Can a gradually recovering but markedly under par Superman defeat the limitless power of the Kryptonite warship and regain his pre-eminent status as Earth’s greatest hero?

Of course he can. There’s no suspense here, and I suspect no attempt was made to create any. Everybody knows how this will end and the creators have wisely concentrated on spectacle rather than narrative. After the establishing set-ups there is a dogged trudge to the inevitable triumph and then the board is cleared for new adventures. This is not a great start for the rebooted Man of Tomorrow but it is a necessary one, although I do wonder how this story would have evolved if the movie Superman Returns had been released in a different year…

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Superman: Emperor Joker

Superman: Emperor Joker 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

The night is broken with hideous screams. Every night. A black-clad superhuman smashes out of Arkham only to be subdued by the warped Superman clone called Bizarro before daybreak. Every night. A diminutive pixie of a man dashes to an appointment only to be hit by a train, or a giant weight or… In a sky that rains custard pies hangs a moon that has the Joker’s face. What is going on and when will it all end?

Although not a new plot, and despite being the product of more than two dozen creators, this tale of a time when the Joker steals the power of the Fifth dimensional Mr. Mxyzptlk and literally remakes creation in his own image just so he can torture the heroes who have so often thwarted him, actually works. Keeping up a breakneck pace and peppering the action with in-jokes and sly asides, the narrative of Superman under terminal pressure to save the universe is gripping and the eventual denouement actually works in context. This is a marvellous piece of comic eye-candy.

Although taken from a particularly grim and humourless period in recent Superman history, this thinly disguised tribute to the zany genius of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and those wacky Warner Brothers cartoons reads like a breath of fresh air when gathered together in one collection.

Originally published in Superman #160-161, Adventures of Superman #582-583, Superman: The Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics #769-770 and Emperor Joker #1. Written by Jeph Loeb, J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Schultz and Joe Kelly, with art by Ed McGuinness, Can Smith, Mike Miller, José Marzan Jr., Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen, John McCrea, Kano, Marlo Alquiza, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel, Jaime Mendoza, Richard Bonk, and Armando Durruthy

© 2000, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sebastian O

Sebastian O 

By Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84023-996-4

The mini-series was one of the earliest Vertigo outings and sadly doesn’t stand so well against later work by the writer or publisher. Blending Michael Moorcock’s alternative spy Jerry Cornelius with steampunk standbys, the myth of Oscar Wilde and the author’s fascination with higher dimensions, this is the tale of effete aesthete and super assassin Sebastian O’Leary, who escapes from Bedlam to wreak vengeance on the man who betrayed him — and inadvertently save the Empire from a cyber-space invasion.

It is well scripted, if a little forced, but the pretentious need to show off one’s cleverness obscures the narrative flow, don’tcha know, and were it not for the spectacularly underplayed drawings of Steve Yeowell, one might be forced to conclude that it’s all a bit of a bore.

©1993 Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell. All Rights Reserved.
Cover and compilation © 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.