Sgt Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place

Sgt Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place

By Joe Kubert & Brian Azzarello

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-4012-0054-0

Sgt Rock and Easy Company are some of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of the late Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

Most closely associated with these characters today is legendary creator Joe Kubert, who has worked as artist, writer, editor and educator since the earliest days of the medium. So when a new Rock edition was announced, the artist was never in doubt, and Brian Azzarello was one of a vanishingly small pool of potential scripters. Their collaboration has produced a powerful, if simplistic, morality play about the nature of killing. And, most importantly, it’s a damn fine read.

War is hell, but the death is somehow justifiable if your country tells you to. So how does a moral man, a soldier, react when the killing moves beyond the acceptable parameters laid down by his superiors? When Rock and Co capture four enemy officers after a frantic battle, the Nazis are taken prisoner and treated under the Articles of War. The next morning three are dead and the fourth is missing. The Germans have all been executed at close range whilst confined.

Immediately a cloud of suspicion descends on the previously close-knit unit of G.I.s. Was it the missing prisoner, or is one of their own capable of the kind of atrocity they’re all fighting to end? And even so, don’t these monsters possibly deserve it? Rock must find all the answers. Not simply to restore his faith and trust, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As much detective mystery as war story, this is a searching and haunting re-examination of the most telling quandary of conflict. Why is dealing death right sometimes and not others? I can’t promise you answers, but the questions have seldom been asked in as striking or beautiful a manner.

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

By Geoff Johns, Allan Heinberg, Chris Batista & Mark Farmer

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-279-7

Following on from the events of Identity Crisis, which revealed that some members of the JLA used inhumane, if not illegal, mind altering methods on their defeated foes, the once heroic team was divided and in turmoil. Not only had the erring heroes monkeyed with the villains’ minds, they had also tinkered with the brains of fellow heroes who objected to the measure.

Now those guilt-racked heroes are reaping the consequences as the villains return, with restored faculties and murderous intent, seeking their own kind of justice. So do Batman and Catwoman, who now also know what was done to them. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason has all but destroyed the League, and now they face destruction for their mistake. And who hates them enough, and is powerful enough, to have restored those doctored memories in the first place?

Although convoluted and a little histrionic in places, there’s still plenty of action and intrigue for super-hero lovers to enjoy here, but casual readers might be well advised to re-read Identity Crisis first.

This story first appeared in the monthly JLA comic, issues #115-119.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Papa Midnite

Hellblazer: Papa Midnite 

By Mat Johnson, Tony Akins & Dan Green

(Vertigo) ISBN 1-84576-265-7

Papa Midnite was a character first seen in the premier issue of John Constantine’s own comic, but it was really the movie that sealed the deal on this solo outing for the Voodoo lord. Despite all that, however, this is vintage Hellblazer material, as a ghostly visitation leads to a trip down memory lane and we discover the deeply disturbing early life of the slave and his equally gifted sister, Luna.

As ownerless slaves they scrounge out an existence in 18th century Manhattan, surviving on wits, bravado and a smattering of magic learned from their mother. Always seeking the main chance, they become agents provocateur in a slave uprising, the repercussions of which still challenge Papa Midnite three centuries later. The resulting climax of three centuries worth of bad karma and blood debts provides a good, old fashioned supernatural revenge thriller pay-off.

Although no masterpiece, this is a solid addition to the Hellblazer canon, so followers of the franchise and horror fans in general should applaud another mystic anti-hero strutting his street-wise stuff in our grim and gritty modern world. He’d probably look better on screen, too.

© 2003, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Bosnian Flat Dog

Bosnian Flat Dog

By Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson

(Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN-10: 1-56097-740-X
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-740-7

A startling and powerful excursion into the ‘collective unconsciousness of the Balkans’ results in this surprisingly compelling and funny tale from two of Sweden’s finest comic makers (it originally appeared in Death & Candy #2-4 in a somewhat less effective manner). Ostensibly, this is story of a journey by the creators to Slovenia and an alternative cartoonists convention that spirals into a manic road-movie quest. When they decide to reimburse an old friend for a story they “borrowed” for their comic, an out-of-control ice cream truck begins shooting at them. Amongst the debris they find an engraved grenade shell with the word Sarajevo on it. They take this as a sign that they must do the right thing and embark on a Kafka-esque trip to the troubled Balkans.

Along the way they encounter zombies, mummies, war atrocities and the man who has the corpse of Marshal Tito in a refrigerator in his car. Not to mention that rare breed of hound: The Bosnian Flat Dog…

More treatise than adventure, and savagely underpinned by the appalling realities of the Sarajevo crisis, this thought-provoking psycho-comedy has compelling pictures, dark whimsy and enough fourth wall contravention to supply the reader with much metaphysical and social meat to digest long after they’ve finished reading. As surreal as it seems, though, there is still a distressing amount of truth to be found amid the icons of the fantasy world. This is a damned compelling book if you want a read that will wake you up and not lull you to sleep.

© 2006 Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson. All Rights Reserved.

Catwoman: The Replacements

Catwoman: The Replacements

By Will Pfeifer, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-426-9

After the never-ending calamity of the DC Infinite Crisis event of 2005-2006, 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 give themselves some narrative wiggle-room. Now read on…

Gotham City is a much changed place one year later. Batman and crew have been absent, crime seems down and Catwoman has also changed. Depending on your point of view, she’s either a completely different person or a single mum just trying to get by as best she can.

It transpires that for the last twelve months Selina Kyle has been living under an assumed identity while she brings to term, and gives birth to, a bonny baby girl. The father remains, for us, unknown, but plenty of likely prospects are presented in the course of events, from Batman and Slam Bradley on down. Wisely, the creators are keeping this one a secret for a while longer.

Of more relevance is the fact that Selina has asked her old sidekick Holly to take over as masked protector of her beloved East End of Gotham City. Despite help and training from a number of veteran crime-fighters such as Wildcat, she’s not quite up the job yet. Selina’s old enemy Angle Man wants revenge, and teams with the truly demented late night TV pundit Film Freak to exact it. Initially, he’s as unaware as the police (who still want ‘Catwoman’ for the murder of crime boss Black Mask) that somebody else is wearing the leather and wielding the whip these days.

It might sound confusing, but this is actually a sharp little revenge-mystery with plenty of spills and chills, full of tense moments and well observed comedy breaks. Obviously there’s a point at which the ‘real’ Catwoman takes over, but the inevitable is well leavened by the ingenious, and even old know-it-alls will acknowledge that this is a plot that’s been tweaked by masters. The Replacements (which collects Catwoman issues #53-58) is good storytelling, and I certainly look forward to the next volume.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol Two 

By Bob Kane & various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-427-7

If you buy into the myth, then there are actually many great Batman stories. Over the decades lots of very talented creators have excelled themselves within Gotham City. Often the real problem is one of context, as many adventures worry reprint editors in terms of Sell-By Date, as if nearly seven decades of creativity can avoid looking dated to some modern consumers. Guys, who cares? They’re the ones who want to remake The Ladykillers and never read any book written before 1989. If they can’t understand history unless it’s got an American accent then they’re not worth the effort.

This selection has opted for a more open-minded interpretation and there is probably something that will appeal to every disparate sub-section of Bat-fan, from Dark Knight to Alien-Busting Boy Scout, since one of the big secrets of the Caped Crusader’s success has been his adaptability. There really is a Batman-for-all-seasons, and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a thesis on his social mirroring of each popular societal trend.

For us though, there’s a charming and rewarding blend of Dark and Light as we walk the streets of Gotham from the late 1930’s to today.

One smart move is opening with a modern(ish) retelling of the origin and first case by reprinting Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers’ excellent tale of the Golden Age Batman from Secret Origins #6 (1986) and following with Hugo Strange and the Monsters (Batman #1, 1940), Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s pulp masterpiece that was recently reworked by Matt Wagner as Batman and the Monstermen.

From the idyllic 1950s period comes The Career of Batman Jones (Batman #108, 1957), a tale of a boy who wants to be a crime-fighter, by Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris. And the same team produced Prisoners of Three Worlds, a trans-dimensional sci-fi drama featuring Batwoman and the very first of many Batgirls (Batman #153, 1963). How Many Ways can a Robin Die? (Batman #246, 1972) comes from that edgier period when Batman first regained his grim mystique, and has the hero hunting for his missing partner and an axe-wielding psycho-killer, courtesy of Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano.

The Batman’s Last Christmas comes from Brave and the Bold #184 (1982), a potentially confusing tale for some, as the daughter of the deceased Earth II Batman crosses the dimensional divide to spend the holidays with our hero. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo keep the scorecards there. Detective #526 (1983) gave us All My Enemies Against Me! an anniversary tale featuring a huge punch-up against nearly two dozen bat-foes and the origin of a new Robin, written by Gerry Conway, drawn by the shamefully neglected and much missed Don Newton, and inked by Alfredo Alcala.

The more-or-less modern Batman is represented by Of Mice and Men (The Batman Chronicles #5, 1996) by Alan Grant, Scott McDaniel and Ray McCarthy and Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez (Batgirl: Year One #4, 2003), both reinterpreting the early days of the characters for a modern and ostensibly more sophisticated audience, and both doing a good job of it. The volume closes with a stylish pastiche of black and white movie classics with the decidedly odd but engaging Citizen Wayne by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from The Batman Chronicles #21, 2000.

With judicious selection, there’s probably a good few more tales that could appear in successive volumes, but I’m still a little hesitant with that ‘Greatest Ever’ tag. Surely they can’t all be … No wait, I actually think they can.

© 1940, 1957, 1963, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wolverine: Wizard Masterpiece Edition

Wolverine: Wizard Masterpiece Edition

By various

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 1-905239-42-4

(A BRITISH EDITION RELEASED BY PANINI UK LTD)

Here is a great big book of mutant mayhem to introduce new readers to the world of Wolverine. Although not what I’d call masterpieces, and certainly not a section of the choicest cuts, this volume has good, solid action, lots of great art and many big name creators on board. If you are new to the X-scene this is a handy package to bring you up to speed without breaking the bank.

The first tale comes from Uncanny X-Men #139 and 140 (1980), with Chris Claremont and John Byrne at their creative peak, telling a gripping story of a reconciliation with Wolvie’s previous team, Alpha Flight that turns into a hunt for a carnivorous monster called Wendigo. This is followed by Shattered Vows (Uncanny X-Men #172-173, 1983), as the diminutive mutant prepares to marry a Japanese princess but runs afoul of prejudice, evil mutants, and the Yakuza. The excellent Paul Smith deftly underplays the art to superb effect and Claremont once again supplies the script.

Vicious Circle by Peter David and Todd McFarlane, comes from Hulk #340 (1988), and is fondly regarded by fans as one of the few times both characters truly lived up to their savage reputations, and this is followed by Ann Nocenti and John Bolton’s Hunter and Prey, originally published as a back-up strip in Classic X-Men #25 in 1988. It highlights the primitive side of Logan in a primal triangle involving a bear, an obsessive hunter, and our hero, in an arctic wilderness.

Next up is a classic tale from Uncanny X-Men #268 (1990), Madripoor Knights, a contemporary tale which also flashes back to World War II. Here a pre-claws and adamantium skeleton-ed Logan teams with Captain America and the Black Widow (sort of), whilst beating the stuffings out of arch-Nazi Baron Strucker and the ever insidious ninja gang, The Hand. Claremont’s story is illustrated by the then rising star Jim Lee.

The longest story in the book is taken from Wolverine’s own comic (vol. 1. issues # 150-153, published in 2000) as writer/artist Steve Skroce constructs an epic confrontation against insurmountable ninja odds when Wolverine has to rescue his adopted daughter from the clutches of a Yakuza gang-lord or become the unwilling weapon in a battle for underworld supremacy of Japan. Blood Debt is seventy-seven action-packed, gore filled pages that nevertheless manages to maintain enough decorum to keep an all-ages rating, something of a mutant miracle in itself.

Accompanying these tales are featurettes and commentary culled from the pages of the fan magazine Wizard, covering such diverse topics as Wolverines Greatest Foes, blueprints for his skeleton, the best and worst costumes of the last thirty years, and even “what if Wolverine had been a woman?”

© 1980, 1983, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles Volume 2

Superman Chronicles Volume 2 

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-435-8

Here’s another welcome cheap-and-cheerful soft-cover collection of the earliest stories of the Man of Steel who quite literally spawned a genre, if not an actual art form. The rough, uncontrollable, wish-fulfilling exuberance is still present throughout, although Siegel and Shuster are swiftly polishing their craft with each story. These tales of the righteous, empowered man dealing out summary justice to wife-beaters, reckless drivers and exploitative capitalists as well as thugs and ne’er-do-wells captured the imagination of a generation, and are presented in totality and chronological order from Action Comics #14 (July 1939) through #20 (January 1940), and issues #2 and 3 of his own solo title.

To be strictly accurate, only the first and last strips from issue 3 appear in this volume, but they’re still great and I’m sure the remainder of the issue will appear in the next volume.

In this volume you’ll meet the first ever returning foe (us lags call ‘em “arch-enemies”), The Ultra Humanite – twice!, plus a rip-roaring mix of hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels – all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion. No continued stories here!

Read these yarns and you’ll understand why today’s creators keep returning to this material every time they need to revamp the big guy. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.

© 1939, 1940, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Havoc in Heaven

Havoc in Heaven 

By Tang Cheng & various

(Foreign Languages Press)  No ISBN

Although not strictly Graphic Novels, and certainly hard to find in many parts of the country, the picture books portraying Chinese tales and legends are always a rewarding read. If you have a local Chinatown it’s certainly worth a scout around, or perhaps you might try Googling.

This time out is a double oddity, in that Havoc in Heaven, another tale of Monkey, taken from Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West features full colour stills from an animated film of the same name, embedded with small blocks of English text in the manner of Rupert the Bear, rather than those wonderful black line drawings that drive western artists to tears of jealousy.

The irrepressible and wayward Monkey is the bane of the pious and stiff denizens of Heaven, whom he offends with his carousing and fighting and mischief. In an effort to control him, The Jade Emperor invites Monkey to join the Celestials and even gives him a job in the palace, but Monkey’s wayward nature cannot be tamed and the resultant chaos and combat shakes the heavens and rattles the gods themselves.

Spectacular, bright and irresistibly engaging, this colourful interpretation is an absolute delight, thanks to the beautiful illustrations of Yan Dingxian, Pu Jiaxiang, Lin Wenxiao, Lu Qing, Gao Yang and Fang Pengnian. Although these books are seldom out of print for long, it would be nice if some entrepreneur could pick up a British license for both the books and the film too.

© Foreign Languages Press BEIJING 1979

Swamp Thing: Healing the Breach

Swamp Thing: Healing the Breach 

By Joshua Dysart, Enrique Breccia, Ronald Wimberly & Richard Corben

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-235-5

Although starting strongly, this current revival of the evergreen (sorry, I’ve resisted that long enough now) franchise has started to falter, if not positively meander, in its spooky journey through the nastier corners of America. Reprinting issues #15-20 of the monthly comic, we find a no-longer omnipotent Earth God tripping back to his college days and consorting with his old mentor, even whilst he tries to deal with the imminent destruction to his Bayou habitat from both assorted creatures from beyond and the construction of a huge refinery.

The scripts might be in need of some attention, but you can’t fault the pictures. The astounding Breccia is supplemented by Ronald Wimberly and, for the final two chapters, the legendary Richard Corben, as Swampy/Alex Holland delves deeper into his formative years.

Since this is merely a portion of a much larger story-arc, perhaps the next volume will get the narrative back on track and deliver some of the metaphysical chills and wonderment that fans have become accustomed to.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.