She Hulk 1: Single Green Female

She Hulk 1: Single Green Female 

By Dan Slott & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1443-2

She Hulk is the cousin of the Incredible Hulk. Her alter-ego, lawyer Jennifer Walters, got a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner and the inevitable result was a super-powerful, ample-bosomed, seven foot tall, green Valkyrie who is the poster-child for “As If…”

For most of her comics career she has been played slightly skewed to the rest of the Marvel Universe. For a good deal of it she has been the only character to know that her “life” is merely a comic-book, with all the fourth wall comedy that could be wrung out of that situation. This latest outing still concentrates on the humorous aspects, as with a huge tip of the hat to TV’s Ally McBeal, she leaves Avengers Mansion and joins New York’s most prestigious law-firm to specialise in the fledgling speciality and legal grey area known as Superhuman Law.

Single Green Female covers this transition with tongue-in-cheek aplomb, and all the gag prerequisites covered. Sexy rival, geeky lawyer who secretly prefers Jen to her Junoesque super-persona and slightly daffy boss are all in place and awaiting their cues, but the real secret to why this works is the fan-boy nit-picking that extrapolates the superhero world but isn’t ashamed to see the comedy potential. A shape-shifter is on staff because he can always get close enough to serve Writs. Sorcerer Dr. Strange is retained as a consultant for the more exotic cases. The law library contains every Marvel Comic ever published because they are considered pertinent legal documents…

Working on such cases as a man suing for compensation after a nuclear accident gives him super-powers, a murder trial where the victim is the key witness, a libel case where a certain wall-crawler sues a prominent publisher for defamation and a wrongful imprisonment case that involves an underage criminal provides plenty of action and laughs. The art is by Juan Bobillo, Paul Pelletier, Marcelo Sasa, Roland Paris, Tom Simmons and Dan Hillsman and although a little disconcerting in places in all of a high standard.

© 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon

Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon 

Adapted by Wang Hsing-pei with drawings by Chao Hung-pen & Chien Hsiao-tai
(Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1976)
No ISBN

Although not strictly a graphic novel, this wonderful book is one of my favourite pieces of pictorial narrative. The Monkey King has been a popular figure in modern entertainment in the East and West almost since Wu Cheng-en’s epic mythological tale Pilgrimage to the West was first published, and he’s been given numerous celluloid and comic book outings too.

This particular version, from China itself, was first released in an English edition in 1964, with numerous reprintings since. I’m fairly certain that if I make any converts here, you could pick up a modern edition just by cruising your local Chinatown district. Stop off for a bite while you’re there, too, and impress the staff with your perspicacity by reading it at the table.

Told in beautiful, lavish black and white line drawings, in the manner of classical Chinese art, with one huge panel per page and a brief block of text underneath, much like Rupert Bear or Prince Valiant, the story involves Monkey, with his faithful companions Pigsy and Sandy, in an epic duel with the Queen of Demons as they escort their spiritual master, the Buddhist Monk Hsuan-tsang in a journey to discover lost Scriptures in the West.

This engrossing fantasy is spellbinding in its execution. The simplicity of the text allows the reader to be absorbed in the meticulous, yet airy line work, the magnificently stylish patterning and sheer expressionism of the characters, rendered familiar and exotic by the use of traditional Chinese operatic costuming and scene setting. This is a pretty, lovely, beautiful picture book. Go West, Young Fan, and see for yourself.

Presumably© 1964, 1973, 1976 – my computer can’t reproduce the Mandarin symbols, I’m sure they know who they are. If anyone can tell us we’ll happy correct this oversight. All Rights Reserved, I suspect.

Kanpai!

Kanpai!

By Maki Murakami (TokyoPop)
ISBN 1-59532-317-1

This whimsical action-fantasy tells the story of Yamada Shintaro, who, although a seemingly average, everyday, good-looking, teen fighter of the supernatural horrors of the night, is, in fact, the world’s latest Monster Guardian. Appointed to protect the Earth’s dwindling and endangered un-natural species, he finds himself annoyingly embroiled in a budding relationship with the distractingly attractive Nao, a human girl who attends his high-school.

Played for laughs and action in equal measure, with distractions to a peaceful, romantic life as diverse as the High School Occult Club, defeated Monster-hunters who refuse to stay dead and a persistently determined hottie/exorcist who won’t take a hint, this is an above-average teen-romp that will nicely fill the gaping gap in your dire life since Buffy stopped filming new episodes.

© 2001 Maki Murakami. All Rights Reserved.
English text © 2005 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel 

By Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-211-8

A dark and brooding look into the heart and soul of Superman’s ultimate and eternal foe tries to add gravitas to villainy by explaining Lex Luthor’s actions in terms of his belief that the heroic Kryptonian is a real and permanent danger to the spirit of humanity.

Using the business and social – not to say criminal – machinations undertaken by the billionaire (believed by the world at large to be nothing more than a sharp and philanthropic industrial mogul) to get a monolithic skyscraper built in Metropolis and the necessary depths sunk to in order to achieve this ambition is a strong metaphor, but the semi-philosophical mutterings, so very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, although flavoursome, don’t really add anything to Luthor’s character and even serve to dilute much of the pure evil force of his character.

Flawed characters truly make more believable reading, especially in today’s cynical and sophisticated world, but such renovations shouldn’t be undertaken at the expense of the character’s heart. At the end Luthor is again defeated, this book’s protagonist is diminished without travail and nothing has been risked, won or lost. The order restored is of an unsatisfactory and unstable kind, and our look into the villain’s soul has made him smaller, not more understandable.

Lee Bermejo’s art, however, goes from strength to strength and fans of drawing should consider buying this simply to stare in wonder at the pages of beauty and power that he’s produced here.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lenore: Noogies

Lenore: Noogies 

By Roman Dirge (Titan Books)
ISBN 13 9781845760908

Lenore is a sweet little girl who has cute, if somewhat surreal, little adventures. Did I mention that she is also dead and has been for quite some time? Bleak, eccentric, and darkly comic strips featuring this little charmer and her strange coterie of acquaintances have been entertaining audiences since 1992 when she first appeared in the alternative arts magazine Xenophobe in San Diego. Slave Labor Graphics eventually picked up the character and this volume is a compilation of the first four issues, with the veiled threat of two more volumes to follow.

Richly dipped in the traditions of Charles Addams, and appealing to the same skewed and twisted audiences that follow “Squee!” and “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” from Jhonen Vasquez or the more Goth inspired series such as “Gloom Cookie”, or even Giffen and Roman’s “i Luv Halloween”, not to mention the animated films of Tim Burton, these weird and wonderful fables are an unwholesome treat for those kids of all ages with a taste for the darker flavours of life and it’s inevitable cessation. Try it, you might like it!

™ & © 2006 Roman Dirge. All Rights Reserved.

The Golden Age of Marvel Comics

By various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0564-6

I’ve said some harsh things about the work produced by Marvel (nee Timely) Comics in its golden age incarnation, so it’s only fair that I redress the balance with this tome that collects a bunch of tales that show the company in its most flattering light during those dark times. Edited by the inestimable Tom Brevoort, it gathered and remastered a selection of material (admittedly much of which the company had already reprinted during its first large scale expansion in the late 1960s in such comic specials as Marvel Tales and Fantasy Masterpieces), that combined historical significance with the best quality work that the archives could offer.

First is Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner from Motion Picture Funnies Weekly which actually pre-dated the company, but which was re-packaged as part of Marvel Comics #1 (1939). It is followed by the team-up/cross-over with the Human Torch from that venerable magazine’s eighth issue (June 1940) with art by Carl Burgos and Everett.

Another collaboration of both the artists and their most famous creations follows with ‘The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner Fighting Side by Side’ (Marvel Mystery Comics #17, March 1941), and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s ‘Horror Plays the Scales’ stars the gruesome Red Skull in an adventure from Captain America Comics #7 (September 1941).

Simon and Kirby also produced ‘The Vision’ from Marvel Mystery Comics #25, in November of that year. A second Cap story ‘The Cobra Ring of Death’ comes courtesy of Captain America Comics # 22, drawn by Syd Shores in 1943. Sub-Mariner returns in ‘Terror of the Boiling Sea’ from Marvel Mystery Comics #42, April 1943, drawn by Carl Pfeufer, and that issue also provides ‘Quarantine for Murder’ a swashbuckling adventure of the Angel, credited to Ron Garn and Gustav “Gus” Schrotter.

Mike Sekowsky drew the Mighty Destroyer tale ‘The Beachhead Blitz’ from All-Winners Comics #12 (Spring 1944), technically perhaps the last truly Golden Age story in the book, as the Marvel Boy adventure that follows, ‘The Deadly Decision’ comes from 1951. This was produced (from Astonishing #5) by Bill Everett at the absolute top of his creative form, as he still was with the ‘Tidal Wave of Fear’ reprinted from Venus #18, February 1952.

In the mid-1950s Marvel tried to revive their ‘big three’ and super-hero comics in general, on the back of a putative Sub-Mariner television series to cash in on the success of the Superman show. This led to some impressively creative comic work, but no appreciable results.

Young Men Comics #24 (December 1953) is represented in its entirety here, and featured ‘The Return of the Human Torch’ by Russ Heath, Captain America was ‘Back From the Dead’ as was a now mysteriously communistic Red Skull, in a tale drawn by John Romita Sr., and Bill Everett returned to his greatest triumph with ‘The Sub-Mariner’. The Star-Spangled Avenger gets one more bite of the cherry in ‘Captain America Turns Traitor’ (Young Men Comics #26, March 1954) with Romita Sr. once again providing the visuals.

When this last gasp of super-heroic shenanigans failed, Marvel/Atlas once again concentrated on humour, horror, westerns, war and more or less straight adventure. From July 1955 (issue #2) comes a tale of the Black Knight, written by Stan Lee and drawn by the absolutely unparalleled Joe Maneely, and the book closes with a taste of what was soon to come with Jack Kirby’s scientific fantasy adventure ‘The Microscopic Army’, a tale of the insidious Yellow Claw (one of the comics industry’s many knock-offs of Sax Rohmer’s legendary Fu Manchu) from the third issue of his own short-lived magazine (February 1957).

Without exception these varied and excellent tales showed what the characters and creative forces at Marvel Comics could produce. Sadly much of the best comics work of the period covered here were produced in genres not considered particularly commercial in today’s superhero and space-opera dominated market-place. Here then, is a historical document that Marvel can feel proud of, and which does fit today’s market forces. Why isn’t it still in print then?

© 1939-1944, 1951-1955, 1957, 1997 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me

James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me 

By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-174-X

The action goes into overdrive in this 007 compilation from Titan Books as the reprints of the 1960’s newspaper strips reaches the point where Fleming’s last work is adapted, promptly followed by all new adventures from adaptor Jim Lawrence.

The Spy Who Loved Me is fleshed out (Fleming’s novel is written from the view point of damsel in distress Vivienne Michel, and Bond does not appear until the last third of the text) into a taut battle of wits between Bond and Vivienne against a duo of deadly arsonists and hitmen, following the super-agent’s foray against a revived S.P.E.C.T.R.E. gang in Canada to provide a tense battle of wits and suitably gratuitous come-uppances all around.

Veteran strip writer Lawrence swiftly shifts the emphases from the tense, terse prose model to encompass the much more visual prerequisites of the illustrated story-form, and by the next adventure which closes out this volume, the action aspect has been given the spotlight previously awarded to the setting of scenes and building of tension.

The all original material begin with ‘The Harpies’ as Bond goes undercover at a defence contractor’s factory to rescue a kidnapped scientist and end the depredations of a deadly gang of female flying bandits. Both tales are illustrated by the uniquely stylish Yaroslav Horak, whose extreme design style and dynamic lines impart tremendous energy to scenes that must labour under the incredibly difficult restrictions of the three-panel-a-day newspaper format.

Stirring stuff from top-notch creators working on a legend of fiction. What could be better?

Strip © Express Newspapers Ltd. 1987. All Rights Reserved

Global Frequency 2: Detonation Radio

Global Frequency 2: Detonation Radio

By Warren Ellis & various (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84023-858-5

The second volume of Ellis’ take on International Rescue (no hidden Islands – lots of guns) crossed with Mission: Impossible sees the planetary saviour squad of 1001 agents tackle hi-tech hitmen (drawn by Simon Bisley), kidnappers (Chris Sprouse and Karl Story), deranged gene-therapists (Lee Bermejo), super-violent bio feedback experts (Tom Coker), an attack on their own “headquarters” (Jason Pearson) and an attempt by the US military to cull their own surplus population back to a manageable level (Gene Ha).

This is a most modern comic series, stripped down to all its most essential elements, frenetic, vastly, graphically violent and always thundering along at top speed. Being drawn by the top artists in the industry doesn‘t hurt either. Think of six summer blockbusters per volume and don’t worry too much about making sense.

© 2003, 2004 Warren Ellis and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Bad Suki

Modesty Blaise: Bad Suki 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-721-X

One of the greatest strengths of Modesty Blaise was the powerfully contemporary relevance of the stories when they first appeared in the London Evening Standard. Many of the topical plots could also be seen on the news pages most days, but there they sadly lacked the likes of the inimitable heroine and the charismatic Willie Garvin to sort out the perpetrators.

The title feature pits our reformed supercriminals against a deadly gang of drug-dealers, an area of endeavour they’d loathed and shunned when they ran the organisation called the Network. The vehemence with which they dispatch the dealers plaguing London’s swinging scene has more than a little whiff of wish-fulfilment to it, and the action set-pieces crackle with tension.

The follow-up tale “The Galley Slaves” uses the lavishly garish location of a movie-prop Roman Trireme to pit Modesty and Willie against an army of mobsters attempting to make off with US military hardware, and the final tale, “The Red Gryphon” is a more personal tale as Modesty takes revenge for the murder of a companion whilst solving an ancient Venetian treasure mystery.

In all these stories, as the plots unfold, O’Donnell and Holdaway increasingly concentrate on the protagonists’ characters, fleshing out already-complex heroes with subtle mannerisms and peccadilloes seldom seen in popular fiction, let alone strip features. Blaise and Garvin are complex, complex people.

These tales are classic adventure outings. The action is always credible, even throwaway characters are well-realised and the villains memorable even when they suffer their inevitable ends. Perhaps the greatest strength of Modesty Blaise is the powerfully timeless quality of these tales.

© 2005 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Global Frequency 1: Planet Ablaze

Global Frequency 1: Planet Ablaze 

By Warren Ellis & various (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84023-849-6

The Global Frequency is a pan-national organisation owing allegiance to no government, dedicated to cleaning up the technological, biological and other extraordinary menaces perpetrated by delusional rulers and/or the deranged populations of our patently insane planet. Run by the charismatic but stroppy Miranda Zero, with 1001 specialists based all over the world, they take on the tasks that the authorities can’t or won’t – with or without their approval.

Each story is drawn by one of the industry’s top talents in an all-out action-fest. Pared down, terse dialogue races beautiful graphics to spectacular conclusions as Ellis blends the ethos of Thunderbirds with the tactics of Mission: Impossible to solve the dilemmas of The X Files. ‘Bombhead’ (with art by Garry Leach) finds the solution to a malfunctioning and long-forgotten cold-war weapon; ‘Big Wheel’ (art by Glenn Fabry – with a little help from Liam Sharp) deals with a Cyborg assassin built by the US military, and ‘Invasive’ tells a last stand tale of alien incursion (drawn by Steve Dillon).

‘Heaven’s One Hundred’ finds desperate agents to handle one of the dumbest hostage situations ever (Roy Allan Martinez), ‘Big Sky’ deals with the aftermath of an invasion by Angels (John J Muth), and the volume concludes with David Lloyd’s gripping illustration of ‘The Run’, as an Ebola bomb is set to devastate London and only a Le Parkour (urban street racer) runner can find and stop it.

This is comics as pure action. There are no textures or sub-plots and nothing but a hint of backstory. This is a full-pelt run to the end of the tale as a series about last-minute rescues ought to be, with pictures by some of the best in the business. I’m not sure if that’s enough to sustain a long run but since that’s not the point of a miniseries or graphic novel that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, no?

© 2003, 2004 Warren Ellis and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.