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.

Y: The Last Man Vol 3: One Small Step

Y: The Last Man Vol 3: One Small Step

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán with Paul Chadwick (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-805-4

When a plague killed every male on Earth, only Yorick Brown and his pet monkey survived in a world utterly female. With a government agent and a geneticist escorting across the devastated American continent to a Californian bio-lab all the young man can think of is re-uniting with his girlfriend, trapped in Australia when the disaster struck.

Volume 3, collecting issues #11-17 of the monthly comic, begins a meandering progression of shorter tales as the trio make their way across a devastated America and picks up from the previous volume with the eagerly anticipated arrival of astronauts who have avoided plague contamination by the simple expedient of being in space when it struck. Moreover, two of them are hulking great healthy men!

Naturally it is all doomed to go wrong. Filling out the book is a two part story illustrated by Concrete creator Paul Chadwick, which examines the roles of Art and Mass Entertainment on the media (and especially TV) deprived women in a post plague world. It is, perhaps, in such smaller scale stories that Y shows the most potential, so let’s hope it’s a foretaste of things to come.

Ultimately, taken on its merits, Y is a somewhat glib contemporary reworking of a much-explored theme that is perhaps best realised by Philip Wylie in his novel The Disappearance, but it’s readable enough, very well drawn — and it does it all without resorting to coyness or exploitation.

© 2003, 2004 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man Vol 2: Cycles

Y: The Last Man Vol 2: Cycles 

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-728-7

When a plague killed every male on Earth, only Yorick Brown and his pet monkey survived in a world utterly female. With a government agent and a geneticist escorting across the devastated American continent to a Californian bio-lab all the young man can think of is re-uniting with his girlfriend, trapped in Australia when the disaster struck.

The second volume picks up as the trio end up in a curiously stable community in the Midwest where the sight of a male hardly seems to ruffle the assembled feathers, and consequently presents Yorick with his first instance of genuine sexual temptation. Sadly, the idyll is short lived as the Amazons catch up to the wanderers there, with tragic results.

The ongoing soap-opera tone burgeons in this comparatively ill-paced and sluggish volume and a faint “cliff-hanger” air starts to descend over everything. Israeli commandos are hunting for the last sperm-donor on Earth. There’s lots of lip service paid to the type of society the world would be without most of its pilots, entrepreneurs, mechanics, labourers and violent felons but there’s precious little story progression.

The volume even ends with a classic shock cliff-hanger. That might be acceptable for a periodical (these stories first saw print in issues #6-10 of the monthly comic) but is quite unsatisfactory for a collected volume and somewhat defeats the purpose of using these collections to lure non-collectors back to the fold and create a new readership.

 © 2003 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Y: The Last Man Vol 1: Unmanned

Y: The Last Man Vol 1: Unmanned 

Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra & José Marzán (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-708-2

An old, old science fiction concept gets a new and pithy updating in the Vertigo comic Y: The Last Man, as a mystery plague destroys every male mammal on Earth including all the sperm and the foetuses. If it had a Y chromosome it died, except, somehow, for amateur escapologist and slacker goof-ball Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. One night the guy goes to bed pining for his absent girlfriend (who’s an anthropology grad on a gig in Australia) and the next day he’s the last man alive.

His mother, part of the new – for which read Female-and-Still-Standing after a failed power-grab by the widows of Republican Congressmen – Presidential cabinet, is by default a Leader of the Free World until The New President can get to Washington and take office. Once Yorick makes his way to her through a devastated urban landscape – the plague hit during rush-hour on the East Coast and we all know that chicks just go to pieces in a crisis – he escapes from her half-hearted attempt to lock him a bunker and immediately announces he’s off Down Under.

Mum and Madam President then allow the world’s only known source of the next generation to undertake a cross-country trek rather than subjecting him to some more rational project… such as milking him for IVF resources. Off Yorick goes with a lethal and ambiguous secret agent known only as 355 to the secret West Coast laboratory of Dr Allison Mann. The good doctor is a geneticist who thinks she might be the cause of all the trouble, but even so… come on. His mom is a US politician, for Pete’s sake! Surely he would at least have a platoon of armed guards for the trip!

Also out to stake their claim and add to the tension are a crack squad of Israeli commandos with a hidden agenda and mysterious sponsor, plus post disaster cult The Daughters of the Amazon who want to make sure that there really are no more men. Throughout all this Yorick remains a contrary cuss. Defying every whim and Guy stereotype all he wants is to be reunited with his girl trapped in Oz.

Although this is mostly set-up the main are characters are engaging and work well to dispel the inevitable aura of familiarity and cliché this series can’t help but struggle against. This volume collects issues #1-5 of the monthly comic series for adults.

© 2002 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Wrath of Gog

Superman: Wrath of Gog

By Chuck Austen, Ivan Reis & Marc Campos
ISBN 1-84576-066-2

Over the course of too many years I’ve followed the Man of Steel’s adventures, and realised that as well as being the absolute progenitor of the superhero industry, he’s probably the most re-worked character in it. I’ve seen a champion of the poor become a social redeemer, a boy scout, an interstellar policeman and even a grim ‘n’ gritty caped Rambo. Surely to keep following him through all those changes I must be some kind of fan, right?

Then why does the current incarnation leave me so cold?

Even when produced by – as was ever the case – some of the best contemporary creators around, the recent stories just seem to be lacking a certain something. This particular excursion, Wrath of Gog (reprinting Action Comics issues #812-819), rattles along and it’s competently illustrated, but it’s a superficial, slick kind of modern pick and mix of fight scenes.

After a brief, violent interlude with Darkseid and Co, Gog, yet another time-travelling villain (springing this time from the pages of Kingdom Come), attacks Smallville and not even the Teen Titans can stop him. When Superman appears, he is seriously wounded, leading to a mass attack by glory-hungry super-villains, and only Wonder Woman can protect him, until he recovers and wipes the floor with everybody.

To his credit, Austen does try to inject some depth with the return of extended sub-plots and these stories weren’t originally designed as a cohesive epic, but simply periodical publishing. The last tale, a Memento-esque parable, contrasts the relationship of husband and wife criminals trying to kill the Man of Tomorrow with the looming romantic triangle of Clark Kent, his wife Lois and the newly divorced Lana Lang. Although forced, it does have something more than a big, arrogant charmless ruffian hitting everything all the time, and the competing flashback technique does keep the attention.

Wait, perhaps that’s it? Maybe today’s superheroes don’t get to have charm anymore. The glorious sense of wonder, once present even in the darkest Superman tales, just isn’t there anymore. Is it all about tights, boots and hitting now?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Unconventional Warfare

Superman: Unconventional Warfare 

By Greg Rucka & Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-026-3

I have some difficulty with the superficiality of many modern takes on classic comic characters. It’s probably because I’m old but it often feels that rather than write something new, creators simply get told to put a modern spin on the old stuff and keep it circling in a holding pattern until the current audience have grown up and moved away. I’d love to see some sales figures on retention of new readers as compared to people my age who keep buying out of love and inertia. I don’t care how much red paint you slap on a Fiesta, it won’t never be no Porsche.

But I digress. The latest Superman collection tells of yet another conspiracy to destroy the Man of Steel produced against the real world backdrop of America preparing to invade a Middle Eastern nation – in this case the oddly reminiscent “terrorist state of Umec”. Clark Kent is in the doghouse with his bosses and is trying to rebuild his career, so Lois Lane – or is it Kent, or Lane-Kent – is covering the story on her own. So what with job worries and a new super villain showing up every twenty pages, Superman is not there when his wife is shot by a sniper.

Normally I try to avoid spoiling the story, but no-one in their right mind believes a major character is going to stay dead at a company that has enough resurrected people in its stable to form their own football league. The point here is that writer Rucka has been able to rise above these woeful predictabilities and engage the reader by sheer quality of writing. Here is an instance of how it happens actually superseding what’s happening. Here is a classic character being treated with a little thought and a lot of respect.

It’s very well drawn too. You should read it yourself.

© 2005 DC Comics