Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 3: Last Stand on Jabiim

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 3: Last Stand on Jabiim 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-837-2

The dark and nasty corners of the Star Wars universe get an outing in this grim war story originally printed as issues #54-59 of the monthly Star Wars: Republic comic. The conflict, set on the eponymous monsoon planet, becomes one of the most fiercely contested prizes of the civil war instigated by Count Dooku. Both Imperial and Separatist forces desperately need the resources of the rain-soaked mudball, leading to an entrenchment situation identical to the trench warfare of Earth’s Great War. But slowly the balance of power is shifting…

With the loss of their Jedi leaders, the Padawans, led by Anakin Skywalker, are increasingly pressed by Jabiimi natives and their droid enhanced Separatist allies. Falling back to a last-ditch position they can only fight on and pray that a rescue mission will evacuate them in time. Skywalker’s subsequent – and unwitting — manipulation by the nefarious Palpatine is one of the final triggers that will lead to his inevitable rebirth as Darth Vader.

This grim and powerful tale of betrayal and regret is one of the better Star Wars adventures to spring from the second round of films, and one of the very few to create a truly epic resonance out of all the derring-do and glittery swash-buckling. This actually reads like a real war story, thanks in no small part to the deft scripting of Haden Blackman and low-key illustration of Brian Ching and Victor Llamas

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All rights reserved.

Star Wars Boba Fett: Man With a Mission

Star Wars Boba Fett: Man With a Mission 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-464-1

Boba Fett is called ‘the Galaxy’s Greatest Bounty Hunter’ and I suspect it’s the profession rather than the character that makes this anti-hero so popular with Star Wars aficionados. This collection of his adventures (garnered from the one-shot comics Overkill and Agent of Doom plus issues #7 and #28 of Star Wars: Empire) just highlight what a shallow character he is even by the low standards of the Star Wars franchise. I’m convinced that the key to the success of Lucas’s baby is that very archetypical nature of all the participants and even scenarios.

‘Sacrifice’, by British veterans John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, set just after the destruction of the Death Star, has the faceless killer hired by a planetary Governor to capture the leader of an opposition group stirring dissent in the mines that make up the planet’s only source of income. Obviously, fate conspires to place Fett on the right side by story’s end, and it’s a tribute to the creators’ abilities that such a hackneyed yarn reads quite well. Of greater interest is ‘Wreckage’ by Ron Marz and Adriana Melo where the bounty hunter finds himself outmanoeuvred by an Imperial Admiral during a sabotage mission. Especially impressive is the practically wordless nature of the narrative.

‘Overkill’ by Thomas Andrews and Francisco Ruiz Velasco practically reduces Fett to a supporting role in a battle of political will and family rivalry as an ambitious Imperial officer makes a power-grab on an important refinery world. Cam Kennedy returns to illustrate John Ostrander’s excellent ‘Agent of Doom’ as Fett takes a cut-rate job killing two genocidal slavers in an attempt to reclaim his tarnished reputation (ruined in the wake of his defeat in the film Return of the Jedi).

Boba Fett is by nature a cipher, and his missions pretty much write themselves. There’s lots of action; he never fails; bad guys get punished. So it’s a tribute to the creators that the walk-on characters carry most of the narrative and carry it quite well.

© 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Prelude to Infinite Crisis

Prelude to Infinite Crisis 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-209-6

This quick, cheap compilation reprints some of the various stories from around the DC Universe, with salient extracts and bridging text from others, to act as an introduction to the massive company cross-over event Infinite Crisis.

The most extravagant and ambitious comics spectacular since Crisis on Infinite Earths the 1986 series that literally turned around the fortunes of a company that most in the industry considered a spent force, this anniversary bash is a direct sequel to that tale, via the groundbreaking Identity Crisis with seeds sewn throughout most of DC’s monthly titles.

This slim tome features Superman Secret files and Origins 2004, Flash #214 and Wonder Woman #219, as well as snippets from various Batman titles, Teen Titans, Adam Strange, JLA and a bunch of others, and although it doesn’t read particularly well in this format, I suspect that if you are going attempt the saga that ran as a further nine (counting the aforementioned Identity Crisis) inter-related graphic novels, you might want to pick this up as a cheaper bet than all those pesky back-issue comics. Don’t say that you haven’t been warned.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up

Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-658-2

Titan Books has re-released new editions of some classic British newspaper strips over the last few years. Amongst these masterpieces are the collected and chronological adventures of Modesty Blaise. The legendary femme fatale crimefighter first appeared in the Evening Standard on May 13th, 1963 and starred in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, and all in three panels a day.

This initial volume introduces Modesty and her right hand man Willie Garvin, retired super-criminals who got too rich too young and are now bored out of their brains. Enter Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of a nebulous British spy organization who recruits her by offering her excitement and a chance to get some real evil sods. From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’, the pair begin a helter-skelter thrill ride in the ‘The Long Lever’ and the eponymous ‘Gabriel Set-up’. Also included is ‘In the Beginning’, which was produced in 1966 as an origin and introduction to bring newly subscribing newspapers up to speed on the characters.

Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Jones – a light-hearted adventure strip from the 1950’s and itself well overdue for collection) produced story after story until Holdaway’s tragic early death in 1970. The tales are stylish and engaging spy/crime/thriller fare in the vein of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories (the comic version of which Titan also reprints) and art fans especially should absorb Holdaway’s beautiful crisp line work, with each panel being something of a masterclass in pacing, composition and plain good, old-fashioned drawing.

In an industry where comic themes seem more and more limited and the readership dwindles to a slavish fan base that only wants more and shinier versions of what it’s already had, the beauty of a strip such as Modesty Blaise is not simply the timeless excellence of the stories and the captivating wonder of the illustration, but that material such as this can’t fail to attract a broader readership to the medium. Its content could hold its own against the best offerings of television and film. Sydney Bristow beware – Modesty’s back and she takes no prisoners.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Atlantic Syndication.

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-305-X

With all the interest generated by DC’s mass crossover event Infinite Crisis, not to mention the continuing popularity of the Justice League Unlimited animated series, it was inevitable that yet another compilation of classic tales would be forthcoming from the burgeoning archives of the “World’s Greatest Superheroes”. Many will quibble with the title of the collection. The tales presented here are without doubt, not the very best examples from the title’s chequered, 46 year history – most of those have already been reprinted – but nonetheless this selection does illustrate why the series has such faithful fans.

The mandatory origin is from 1982, when the first volume of the comic book series reached its 200th issue, with fan favourite artist George Pérez illustrating Gerry Conway’s subtle updating of the legend. Then, “The Super-Exiles of Earth” (Justice League of America #19, 1963) by Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs is a standard high-quality adventure with the heroes forced to leave Earth only to sneak back in their civilian identities – unknown even to each other at this time – and thwart the dastardly Dr Destiny. At tale’s end the Leaguers operate on their own minds to expunge the knowledge of those secret identities.

This twin theme of mind control and secret identity, so pivotal to the Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis scenarios is again revisited with “Snapper Carr – Super Traitor” (Justice League of America #77, 1969) as Denny O’Neil and Dick Dillin/Joe Giella reflect those troubled flower-power days in a tale of deceit, betrayal and revelation. Civil liberties just didn’t seem to apply to the inside of heads back then.

Justice League of America #122, 1975 provides another adventure of memory manipulation with “The Great Identity Crisis” as scripter Marty Pasko reveals how a master plan of the villainous Dr Light was the reason the heroes finally trusted each other with their civilian secrets. Dillin once again illustrates, with Frank McLaughlin providing the inking. “The League That Defeated Itself” (Justice League of America #166-168, 1979) is a rather mediocre body-swapping yarn featuring the Secret Society of Super Villains, by Conway, Dillin and McLaughlin, but has become the pivotal plot maguffin of the current high-tension JLA continuity. It just shows how a skilful re-interpretation of past tales can be a more effective tool than simply destroying the universe and starting over – and over – and over.

Next up is the first issue of Justice League, an immensely successful re-launch from 1987 that balanced the meta-human thrills with deprecating humour and zingy one-liners to great effect. “Born Again” comes courtesy of Keith Giffin, J M DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin, who recently revived the whole concept with the series Formerly Known as the Justice League (also available as a graphic novel).

“Star-seed” from JLA Secret Files #1 (1997) was the reincarnation of the last but one team (as of this writing a new regular – 4th? – series is back again). Grant Morrison and Mark Millar reinvigorated the team-concept and Howard Porter and John Dell supplied the art-gloss demanded by modern fans. The plot involves a reinterpretation of the very first adventure wherein a starfish from outer space tries to conquer the world. The last story comes from JLA #61 (2002), courtesy of Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen. In “Two-Minute Warning” we see a snapshot of each member over a crucial, if routine, moment of their lives.

Without this team, this concept, we would arguably not be here now. Stan Lee cites the initial success of the series as the impetus for Marvel’s Fantastic Four. It certainly played a part in cementing superheroes and the comic-book inextricably together in the public consciousness. These yarns are certainly worth reading, and if you’re a newcomer or late returnee drawn in by the current media attention, despite not being the absolute “greatest stories”, they are at least entertaining and thematically relevant. And surely that’s not such a bad thing?

Compilation © 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen Strings of Cash

Fifteen Strings of Cash 

Adapted by Kuang Rong illustrated by Wang Hongli (Foreign Languages Press Beijing)
No ISBN

Here’s another beautiful example of the traditional Orient’s take on graphic narrative in the form of a classical tale of love and justice. When the dipsomaniac Butcher and widower You Hulu borrows fifteen strings of cash from his sister-in-law, he jokingly tells his daughter that he has sold her when she asks where the money came from. As young girls have no discernable sense of humour, she goes to bed weeping, before deciding to run to her aunt for sanctuary. As she leaves her father, passed out on the bed, she does not realise that a neighbour will soon murder the old drunk and accuse her of theft and patricide.

How the demure Su Xujan and the kind young man, Xiong Youlan, who befriended her on the road are arrested, tried, and condemned to death for a crime that they had no idea even happened, and how eventually one conscientious court official, the Prefect Kuang, risks his career and his life to exonerate them and catch the real killer, is a whirlwind of delight that combines romance, comedy, detective yarn and political thriller, illustrated in a truly rhapsodic dry brush and fine-line pen and ink style that almost renders the text (in Mandarin, I think, and English) unnecessary. The format is the tried-and-true single frame and text block per page that comprises most traditional Chinese publications of this type.

Fifteen Strings of Cash is an absolute delight for readers of all ages, and proves that if great stories are universal, how much more so are great picture stories. The current printings should be available at any good Chinatown book or art materials supplier.

Presumably© 1982 Foreign Languages Press Beijing – my computer can’t reproduce the Mandarin symbols, I’m sure they know who they are. If anyone knows better we’ll happy correct this oversight. All Rights Reserved, I suspect.

Daredevil: Parts of a Hole

Daredevil: Parts of a Hole 

By David Mack, Joe Quesada & David Ross (Marvel Knights)
ISBN 0-7851-0808-4

The second collection (reprinting Daredevil issues #9-15) of the revisionist Marvel Knights ‘Man Without Fear’ has fan favourite David Mack join artists Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti to recount a muddled thrill-chase introducing Echo, yet another variation of the hallowed and much used “Player on the Other Side” plot.

For the uninitiated, DD is blind but his other senses have been amplified to (over)compensate, and the young sexy villainess is deaf but is also hyper-enabled. Deceived by the Kingpin, who is a titular godfather to her, she hunts Daredevil, who she thinks murdered her father, whilst simultaneously falling in love with the hero’s secret identity. It’s all very pretty, and even the abrupt switch to David Ross as penciller doesn’t hurt the flow much, but it’s still just too like every thing we’ve seen before. And just what kind of sod is Matt Murdock that he always ends up trading punches with his girlfriends? I fully accept that there are only so many plots for action-characters, and subplots even less so, but for Pete’s sake, don’t you think he’d try for just one chick that took Home Economics at school rather than Karate?

This is quite a disappointing effort when you consider the standard of the creative people involved although the fill-in episode is an unexpected treat. Between issues #11 and 13 a slight scheduling hiccup necessitated a quick fill-in and Quesada and Palmiotti wrote a sharp, edgy human interest portmanteau tale starring bystanders who were in the vicinity of the fight that concluded the previous episode. Artist Rob Haynes turned in a visually understated and remarkably efficient job that just plain steals the show. Well done to all concerned for including it in the volume and especially for sticking it in the back of the book so as not to disrupt the narrative flow.

© 2002, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Best of American Splendor

Best of American Splendor 

By Harvey Pekar and various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-096-4

Harvey Pekar is something of a conundrum. By his own reasoning and admission he is a fairly ordinary working stiff, just trying to get by. For all of his life he has had a “real job” and a “real life”. His comic scripts are introspective, and let’s be honest, not illustrated in a manner guaranteed to suck in the average comic fan, but his comics are always beguiling, intriguing and utterly readable. By telling tales and sharing thoughts he has managed to make an everyday world extraordinary.

This compilation features strips from 1990 to 2004 and is the usual, unusual mix of self-exploration, reminiscence and social trivia blended with some more of his compelling potted histories and commentaries of historically “lost” figures from literature, sports and music. This ability to impart his obvious fascination and empathy for other creators unjustly forgotten and critically downtrodden (like himself?) may simply point to personal bias. Maybe he is championing those he feels have been similarly mistreated, or does it perhaps go deeper than that?

Here is a creator inarguably obsessed with achievement and the justice of recognition, but he is not saying “Hey, look. You’re doing to me what you did to them!” Here is someone who simply perceives genuine worth that needs to be revered and shared, just doing his bit to make it right.

As for my earlier crack about the art, please don’t misunderstand. The artists are not pikers, they just aren’t cranking out your everyday fancy-dan, computer-coddled, mutant fan-boy fodder. The illustrators here include Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Joe Sacco, David Collier, Gerry Shamray, Sam Hurt, Joe Zabel, Gary Dumm, Paul Mavrides, Alex Wald, J. R. Stats, Jim Woodring, Carole Sobocinski, Scott A. Gilbert and even Spain. If you read comics broadly rather than stockpile fanatically, you will know most of these names. Hopefully you also know their other work.

The stories themselves range from slice of life single gags, to the familiar recollections and ruminations, from short yarns describing the authors’ close brushes with fame and security, to the extended and deeply moving “TransAtlantic Comics” co-pencilled and inked in two sections by Frank Stack and Colin Warneford. This gem alone is worth the price of admission. The stories set at comic conventions where Pekar was in attendance are horribly familiar and should serve as a warning to any comic collector who retains a semblance of rationality.

If graphic novels are ever to attain the critical, let alone popular acceptance of their picture-free namesakes, it is going to be because of creators like Pekar. I’m unsure of the value of a review such as this, in a venue like this one, to change the minds of notoriously close-minded comics fans, (and yes I regretfully include myself in that description) but I live in hope. Perhaps I’ve convinced you to try something a little different. To paraphrase this most extraordinary man himself, and his philosophy on Jazz, “You either get it or you don’t”. You should get it.

© 2005 Harvey Pekar LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Arcana Volume 1

Arcana Volume 1 

By So-Young Lee (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59532-481-X

This traditional Manga fantasy tale is the story of a young orphan girl with the magical ability to speak to and understand animals. With her best friend Zode – a large Collie dog (sort of) — she is summoned to the court of the Emperor as the next hundred year winter is about to fall upon the land. Her improbable mission is to retrieve a guardian dragon to protect the Empire from a predatory demon-race waiting for the long shadows to fall.

Our demure and uncertain heroine is unconvinced that all these noble lords have the right Chosen One, but gamely and dutifully agrees to go a-questing accompanied by the enigmatic, young and eerily good-looking wizard Yulan and a growing assortment of motley companions of all races and species.

This epic of magic and adventure is simple, uncomplicated fare that will delight all fans of imaginative fiction and historical romances.

© 2003 So-Young Lee, DAIMON C.I. Inc. All Rights Reserved.
English text © 2005 TOKYOPOP Inc.

The 101 Best Graphic Novels

The 101 Best Graphic Novels 

By Stephen Weiner (NBM)
ISBN 1-56163-444-1

WINNER: CCG ‘BEST COMIC RELATED PRODUCT AWARD’ FOR 2006

With the huge upsurge in Graphic Novels currently swamping the market it takes a braver man than I to try and limit any list to 101, but that’s what compiler Weiner (with a little fudging) has done. This is an updating of an earlier edition, and some books have dropped out to make way for others, but the point is surely not that this book is better than that one but rather to celebrate the uniqueness of the strip-cartoon medium and let it takes its place alongside other popular art-forms in the societal gestalt.

Each entry includes a cover illustration, brief synopsis, creator information, ISBN and price; every thing you need to order these books should they catch your attention. They even have an age rating so you could buy a copy of this reference work for your local library and then pester them mercilessly until they get all the listed books into their own Graphic Novel section.

© 2003 Stephen Weiner.