Hellblazer: Black Flowers

Hellblazer: Black Flowers

By Mike Carey & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-186-3

This Constantine collection (reprinting issues #181-186) sees Carey setting his own skewed stamp on the iconic street wizard with a collection of tales that gently move the series towards a spectacular climax to celebrate the comic’s then impending bi-centenary. Carey’s greatest strength is his meticulous forward planning and many seeds are planted here to compliment those already scattered in the previous volume Red Sepulchre.

First up is The Game of Cat and Mouse, illustrated by Jock, which sees Constantine running for so much more than his life from Spectral ‘messengers’ through the secret parts of London. Lee Bermejo provides chilling art for the eponymous Black Flowers as the wizard gathers allies and information whilst purging a sleepy hamlet of some unwelcome dead visitors who’ve broken out of the local insane asylum. Fan favourite Marcelo Frusin provides pictures for the final tale Third Worlds as Constantine and his companion go travelling, encountering some old acquaintances – most notably the Swamp Thing – whilst preparing themselves for the latest Armageddon Hammer to fall.

Hellblazer is consistently terrifying and hilarious by turn, and John Constantine is probably the best anti-hero ever written. Carey and friends are consistently creating a grim, chilling, engrossing and uproarious horror romp. The least you can do is consistently own these collections. A vote with your wallet just means they’ll keep on doing it, right?

© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

Hellblazer: Red Sepulchre

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin, Steve Dillon & Jimmy Palmiotti
ISBN 1-84576-068-9

The first post-movie Hellblazer collection should take the bad taste out of fans’ mouths as Mike (Lucifer) Carey takes over the writing and immediately re-establishes the essential post-punk Englishness and milieu of the character.

Arriving illegally back in Liverpool after his American adventures, the coolest sod in comics visits his sister to discover a necromantic blight affecting the block of flats she lives in. After tackling that particular evil (High on Life from Hellblazer # 175-176, illustrated by veteran Vertigoer Steve Dillon), he returns to London to track down his missing niece Gemma, who has become an unwitting pawn in a vicious bidding war for The Red Sepulchre, a mystical artefact of legendary and unquantifiable power (issues # 177-180).

This is a welcome return to vintage form for John Constantine. Rife with double-cross and manipulation, the magician inveigles and connives his way through all sorts of Hells, with his customary Game-Face grin and plot-within-plot strategy, seemingly taking hit after hit but always most assuredly in absolute control of the field.

Marcelo Frusin’s sparse storytelling and his fearfully disciplined drawing whips the reader from page to page like fat kids down a water-slide for a completely unvarnished thrill-ride, and Carey’s essential grasp of Constantine makes for some of the best urban horror since Garth Ennis’s run on the title. Long-time fans should also appreciate the wonderfully subtle foreshadowings hidden herein when later issues are collected. Here is quality stuff that starts strong and gets better, and new readers can safely jump on for a truly spooky time.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: Half a Life

Gotham Central: Half a Life 

By Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-091-3

The second collection of this procedural cop thriller set in the urban hell of Gotham City is another superb study in genre-crossing. The action centres around the framing and persecution of long-time supporting character Renee Montoya, a detective in good standing who suddenly finds herself utterly alone, in the un-friendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth. As part of the Major Crimes Unit she’s seen how bad Batman’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter, and not just her life is at stake.

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds irrespective of the nature of crime in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story. Also included in this volume are two earlier tales from Montoya’s past (Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka and Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, and Detective Comics #747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado and Steve Mitchell) that, although stand alone tales at time of publication, lead directly into the tragic events collected here.

It’s always difficult to recommend stuff to comics virgins. This is something even your girlfriend won’t laugh at. Go on, see for yourself.

© 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-828-3

One of the great joys of the legendary comics characters is the potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case is Gotham Central, wherein modern television sensibilities combine with the long suffering boys in blue of the world’s most famous four colour city. Owing as much to shows such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it does to the continuity of Batman, the series combines gritty authentic police action with a soft-underbelly look at what real peacekeepers have to put up with in a world psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just don’t stay dead.

This volume kicks off with Ed Brubaker’s introduction of the cast, and first tale wherein superfreak Mr Freeze intersects a kidnap investigation by detectives Driver and Fields leading to the latter’s hideous demise. The ensuing noir classic theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is edgy and fast paced while still delivering pithy characterisations. Greg Rucka handles the second story arc as the now fit for duty Driver and his new partner use solid police work to solve the kidnap case, all the while under the gun as Batman villain The Firebug dances on the horizon threatening to destroy the city.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo play well under Michael Lark’s deft illustrations, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, playing out in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: Tag

Ex Machina: Tag

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-123-5

The second collection of memoirs starring New York City’s coolest – and most super-powered – Mayor, picks up where the first left off as the chief official continues his quest to really make a difference by tackling every issue at once, head-on, and generally by ignoring any suggestion of traditional politics.

The premise that a do-gooder would go public, eschew using his powers – in this case the ability to communicate with and command all electronics – quit flying around via his trusty jetpack, and even establish a frank and open dialogue with that arch bogie-man, the US government, is a refreshing dose of Realheroik, and the sustained mystery of the precise origin of his powers adds body to an engaging and well realised piece of fiction.

The plot this time concerns the discovery of a serial killer/monster that is lurking in the New York Subway system that seems somehow connected to The Mayor’s exotic past, but the most satisfying moments are when Mitchell Hundred applies his obdurately direct manner to the thorny issues of fund raising, gay marriage and media relations. If only more party hacks read this, maybe we’d all benefit in our daily lives.

Ex Machina is a fine example of that rarest of Hen’s Teeth, an adult comic for people who have actually grown up. You should get politicking and go spread the word.

™ & © 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 

By Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-025-5

It is always a genuine pleasure to see something different done with the tired cliché of the superhero in the “Real World” and this new series from Vaughan and Harris is probably the freshest and most entertaining example I’ve seen in many a year.

Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer in New York City who accidentally gains the power to talk to electronics and machinery. Like every other right thinking post-baby boomer he decides to become a superhero, which plausibly enough results in a total fiasco. He then does the next most logical thing. Publicly abandoning his role as the Great Machine he runs for Mayor – and wins.

The real bones of this tale lie in the interplay of a capable idealist thrust into that other great machine – politics – and how a life already cursed with mysteries aplenty has to deal with the day to day job of making a difference in the most chaotic and charismatic city on earth.

This collection of the first five issues is charming and thrilling by turns, with plenty of West Wing/Spin City brand humour, an engaging cast of characters and even lots of bang and boom thrills all lavishly captured by the superb art and design skills of Tony Harris (who won so much acclaim with Starman). We have an absolute gem here, something which is actually worth making into a movie.

© 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All rights reserved.

Boneyard, Volume 5

Boneyard, Volume 5

By Richard Moore (NBM)
ISBN 1-56163-479-4

Boneyard goes from strength to strength. This black and white collection (there’s also a line of books collecting these self-same issues of the comic book series in full colour) features the young guy who inherited a cemetery and the extremely engaging gang of goblins, monsters and out and out weirdoes who inhabit it in more sharp, funny and endearing horror comedy for the lost generation.

Michael Paris shares his life with a hot vampire chick, a werewolf, an over-sexed fish-woman, assorted demons and monsters. But somehow, these are the good guys and they are often beset by really nasty types who have evil intentions. For example, there’s the US government, or the creature that keeps beheading counsellors at the kid’s summer camp across the way, or what about that creepy Pumpkin head guy who magics you unconscious then desecrates your dreams?

The peculiar sub-genre of horror/comedy is in safe hands with Richard Moore, whose light, deft touch combines traditional cartooning with spot-on slapstick, surreal humour, and a touch of contemporary cynicism. He can also imbue his abhuman cast with genuine humanity when necessary. And he’s disarmingly honest too, apparently, as this book begins with the last chapter of the previous story-arc, which he seemingly “forgot” to include at the end of the previous volume. Doesn’t someone like that deserve your money? Especially if he’s going to plough it back into making more great comic stories?

© 2004, 2005 Richard Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Year 100

Batman: Year 100 

By Paul Pope (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-424-2

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators to emerge in the last decade, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing. He’s worked on a few Batman projects in that time but none quite as high profile as last year’s prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. In a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, a long-vanished threat to that iron control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands.

Eschewing the contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations, Pope leaps head-first into the action in this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this version of the iconic Batman taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Once more a special man, fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections – especially the police.

Guys with suits and a Plan have always scared me more than nutters in spandex and it’s clear that I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s civil servant antagonists cut a swathe of destruction through the City they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the newest Caped Crusader as he cleans house in a dirty city in a dirty world.

Also included in the book are ancillary text pages to supplement the story, notes and design sketches, and as a bonus, Berlin Batman Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. In this alternative yarn (originally published in Batman Chronicles #11) Pope and Ted McKeever depict the career the nature of a Jewish super-hero who plagued the Nazis through the darkest days of the Third Reich.

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously thrilling story that honours the history and conventions of the Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the original did in 1939. This is a book for the generations.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl 

By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka & José Marzán Jr.

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-179-0

I’m finally warming to these travails of Yorick Brown as he lives out the supposed daydream of every man, namely being the only guy on a planet full of chicks. Naturally, life is never so simple nor, luckily, quite so crass, and the horrors which this nondescript young hero has to endure are as much of his own making as the result of cosmic catastrophe.

When every male creature on Earth expired, Beth, Yorick’s true love, and dedicated anthropology student, was on a field trip in the Australian Outback, and all his previous adventures have been geared to reuniting with her, despite the collapse of civilisation, and ultimately all higher life on Earth. This volume, reprints issues #32-36, with Yorick aboard a ship bound for Japan.

He and his long time-retinue, bodyguard Agent 355 and biochemist Dr Allison Mann, who have been tasked by the surviving US government (coincidentally his mum) with the twin tasks of ensuring our boy’s survival and finding out why he’s still breathing, are all in pursuit of Ampersand, his pet monkey, the only other male alive, who has been ape-napped by a mysterious ninja. Apparently the monkey holds the secret to the mystery of the plague which killed all us mouth-breathing, unsanitary louts.

Whilst aboard ship, Yorick’s drag disguise yet again fails and his concomitant and somewhat unwilling liaison with the lusty ship’s Captain is only thwarted by a torpedo fired by the Australian Navy. It seems that the lad is going to Oz after all, despite the depredations of pirates, drug runners, ninja-assassins and the imminent return of old foe General Alter Tse’elon and her renegade cadre of Israeli commandos, but naturally life – and comic-books – ain’t that simple. Yorick might not be absolutely sure that Beth is actually alive, but we are, and the last chapter tells her story, and hints that when her man comes for her, she might not actually be there anymore…

By sticking with this overused premise but by carefully building strong, credible characters and situations, Vaughan has crafted an intellectually seductive fantasy soap-opera of memorable power, and the narrative thread has consistently advanced to the point that this less than avid original reader is actually keen to see where we go from here. The quality of writing and art have won this series many fans since it began and if I can become one, then so might you.

© 2005 Brian K.Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis 

By Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales & Michael Bair

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-34576-126-X

For such an impressive and far-reaching comics event, this collection is quite a slim and swift read. Whilst the comic drove the narrative forward in the manner of a whodunit, most of the character by-play and the ripples of the bare events related could only be experienced in the (inter-linked) individual issues of the involved titles. When this is all absorbed week-by-week, month-by-month, the cumulative effect is both bewildering and engrossing, but such an experience could not be duplicated in traditional publishing.

The plot involves DC heroes re-assessing their careers whilst hunting down the murderer of the wife of second-string hero/detective, Elongated Man. As the investigation proceeds, heroes and villains confront many of their bedrock principles such as tactics, allegiances and even the modern validity of that genre staple, the Secret Identity. The dialogue is memorable and the artwork magnificent and the aftershocks of revelation did indeed live up to their hype. How sad then than this “core” book feels like a rushed “Readers Digest” edition, whilst many of the key moments are scattered in a dozen other (unrelated) collections.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.