Star Wars: General Grievous

Star Wars: General Grievous 

By Chuck Dixon, Rick Leonardi & Mark Pennington (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-109-X

This slim volume is an intriguing attempt to tell a tale from the viewpoint of an inveterate, rather than misunderstood, villain. Grievous is a cyborg predator and his favoured meat is Jedi Knights. At the time of telling (two years after the Battle of Geonosis, for those of you who follow such things) he is cutting a deadly swath through the ranks of the Galaxy’s defenders. A small group of Padawans (apprentice Jedis) have decided to ignore their teachers’ warnings about succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force and attempt to assassinate the General.

Led by Flynn Kybo, who had just narrowly survived an encounter with the sinister villain, they embark on their mission of necessary evil only to become embroiled in an unwitting rescue of child Padawans (you can call them ‘Younglings’ if you want) that Grievous had kidnapped, with the intention of turning them into bio-mechanical hybrids like him/itself.

Fast-paced and action-packed, this tale falls a little short in its attempt to add flesh to what remains a rather two-dimensional arch-villain, and the themes of honour in war-time and expediency versus right are somewhat lost in the mix, but Leonardi’s art is, as ever, an absolute joy to look at and the story simply rattles along at a fine pace. Here be pure entertainment, accessible and fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

© 2005 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 6: On the Fields of Battle

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 6: On the Fields of Battle 

By John Ostrander, Jan Duursema & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-106-5

This instalment of Star Wars wonderment comes as the ongoing battle against Count Dooku’s forces compel the Jedi into fighting on many fronts. Mace Windu leads a daring raid against a horde of killers in “Show of Force” by the ever reliable John Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. Aayla Secura and clone trooper Bly challenge her former master Quinlan Vos in a race to recover plans for a world-destroying weapon (also by Ostrander, Duursema and Parsons), whilst Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi aid the beauteous Tohno in a tale of tragedy and sacrifice by Randy Stradley and Brandon Badeaux entitled “Forever Young”.

A long-running sub-plot seemingly closes as Anakin and Obi-Wan join Jedi renegade Vos to prevent a fleet of warships from falling into enemy hands. Vos then returns to the Jedi, revealed as a deep-cover agent in Ostrander, Duursema and Parsons’ “Dreadnaughts of Rendili”. But all is not as it seems…

These tales, reprinted from Star Wars: Republic #65-71 are set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and are cracking space-opera adventures in the grand tradition. As is often the case, even when the films may disappoint, the comic spin-offs can offer a smidgen of hope for the fan and the casual browser alike.

© 2005 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All Rights Reserved.

The Spider

King of Crooks

King of Crooks (The Spider) 

By Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan & Reg Bunn (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-000-X

and a winner of a Comics Creators Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement.

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at comic collections is to make sure that the guy typing isn’t looking through the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week after – and often during – those long, dreary school days.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself, I can hand-on-heart, honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two pages per episode so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan (who also created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – and kudos to Titan and Comic Historian Steve Holland for finally laying to rest the 40 year confusion that often gave that credit for the Spider’s creation to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in the lavish historical section of this grand hardback album) he begins his public career by gathering a small team of crime specialists before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

The second adventure, “The Return of the Spider”, also scripted by Cowan, sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a super-criminal who uses optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider has to crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity. The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but settle for his defeated rival.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to Superman. The aforementioned criminal scientist was another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics that showed again and again that although crime does not pay, it certainly provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun.

The book concludes with a short reprint from the 1969 Lion Annual, entitled “The Red Baron”. Whilst not up to the standards of the regular strip the accent on straight action provides a welcome change to the Machiavellian skulduggery and cliff-hanger narrative.

A major factor in the strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating, not to say downright creepy, artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His strongly hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing. Bunn was an absolute master of black and white art whose work in comics was much beloved. Once the industry found him he was never without work. He died on the job in 1971 and is still much missed.

The Spider is back and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Ministry of Space

Ministry of Space 

By Warren Ellis, Chris Weston & Laura Martin (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-924-7

This thematic and – artistically at least – stylistic revisitation of the glory days of British comic icon Dan Dare explores what might have happened if the ravaged and near bankrupt post-war Empire had captured those Nazi rocket scientists rather than the Soviets and Americans. By examining the rise of the UK Space Force and its ruthless creator Sir John Dashwood through the lens of post-Thatcherite cynicism, Ellis and Weston create a telling fable of patriotism and lost chances.

This is a sharp tale crisply told, and should be entertaining to long time comic readers and newcomers alike. In fact, no one but the most intransigent Dare fanatic or spandex junkie could find fault. I especially like the paper friendly, futuristic cover (is that Tyvek plastic? I’d love to know!).

© 2005 Warren Ellis & Chris Weston. All rights reserved.

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein 

By various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0785116346

There’s a tremendous amount of value in these phone-book sized cheap ‘n’ cheerful monochrome Essential editions. This particular collection reprints Marvel’s interpretation of the Mary Shelly classic from the early 1970’s when the censorious Comics Code Authority first loosened some of its strictures banning horror material from the pages of comics.

Much American comic art should only be seen in colour – that is after all how it was intended to be, but in this instance that moody – and economical – black and white only serves to enhance the groundbreaking artwork of Mike Ploog. A young find who had worked with Will Eisner, Ploog illustrated Gary Friedrich’s pithy adaptation of the original text before moving on to new ventures as the strip graduated to all-new material.

Ploog was followed by John Buscema and Bob Brown before Val Mayerik settled as regular artist and Friedrich gave way to Doug Moench, a writer once synonymous with Marvel’s horror line.

My only quibble in a book that re-presents the entire 18-issue run of the comic, plus the crossover from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 and all the strips from the horror magazines Legion of Monsters #1 and Monsters Unleashed #2 and #4-10, is that a little more attention to publishing in chronological order might have made for a smoother read.

Taken all in all, however this is great treat for fantasy fans and should be a perennial favourite for introducing civilians to the world of comics.

© 1973, 1974, 1975 and 2004 Marvel Characters Inc.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun 

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

The second Titan volume collecting the adventures of Britain’s Greatest Action Hero (Female Division) expands the supporting cast whilst dropping Blaise and her devoted urbane psychopath partner Willie Garvin into the heroin trade pipeline and the then escalating Viet Nam conflict to deal with the eponymous oriental master criminal. The action is rational as well as gripping and there is more character development in this forty year old strip, served up in 3 panels per day continuity than most modern comic books can manage in entire issues. Only 100 Bullets on its best day even comes close. Modesty Blaise keeps her cool and her mystique in every manner of hairsbreadth situation and surely the charismatic Garvin is the prototype for all those “tortured, civilised beast” funnybook anti-heroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher – though he’s never yet been bettered.

The strip’s horizons broaden exotically in the second story, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” as the duo complete, with their usual lethal dispatch, the mission of a murdered friend. Said chum fell foul of a spy ring employing a psychic to steal state secrets, but the villains never expected the likes of the reformed super-crooks to cross their paths. Following that, they return to more mundane menaces with a blood-curdling battle of wits and weaponry against mobster vice-lord “Uncle Happy” and his sadistic trophy bimbo/wife.

As always, O’Donnell’s writing is dry, crisp and devilishly funny, accepting that readers want a thrill-ride but never assuming anything less than intellect and not a hormone balance drives his audience.

Jim Holdaway’s art went from strength to strength at this time, scenes plastered with just enough detail when required, but never drowning the need to set mood and tone with dashing swathes of dark and light. On a newspaper page these panels would jump out and cosh your eyeballs, so the experience is doubly delightful on nice crisp white pages.

Absolutely Recommended.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication

Star Wars Rebellion Vol 1, My Brother, My Enemy

Star Wars Rebellion Vol 1, My Brother, My Enemy 

By Rob Williams, Brandon Badeaux & Michael Lacombe (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-460-9

The Good Imperial returns as Janek Sunber (see Star Wars: Empire volume 3 ‘The Imperial Perspective’ ISBN 1-84023-93-6, and volume 7 ‘The Wrong Side of the War’, ISBN 1-84576-457-9, amongst others) stars in this book set just after the destruction of the Death Star and explores his early years growing up with Luke Skywalker whilst telling a contiguous tale of spy and counterspy in that action-packed galaxy long ago and far away….

Echoes of the American Civil War abound as two noble young men find themselves on opposite sides in this dark espionage thriller. At Rebellion HQ a rescued Rebel strategist slowly recovers. Is his return a lucky break or has his mind been turned by the Empire’s brainwashing techniques? Meanwhile, “Tank” Sunber has approached Luke personally, claiming to be disenchanted by the methods used by the Empire and its minions. Can the young Jedi trust his oldest friend or is even childhood friendship a hostage to Imperial ambition? Is this all a plot by the awesome Darth Vader to crush the Alliance once and for all?

As well as providing intriguing insights into the formative years of these characters this story dishes out huge amounts of pulp-pounding fun, tightly scripted and lavishly illustrated. In a franchise with buckets of product available this collection is certainly a cut above.

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

It’s A Bird…

It’s A Bird… 

By Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-4012-0109-1

Something of a departure from the typical Superman Graphic Novel fare here with author Seagle getting to sell his (presumable) angst about writing a Superman story by writing about an author who has misgivings about writing a Superman story. All glibness aside though, there is a subtle undercurrent of savvy verity to all this which strikes a chord with many creative professionals and insightful consumers. Let’s be honest here, every comic fan, indeed every twitcher and hobbyist, looks for a way to present and explain their particular passion to the “real” world and not feel like an imbecile in the process.

“Steve” is a writer working through some problems. He is coming to terms with his family’s gradual disintegration, mental, physical and spiritual from the hereditary genetic disease Huntington’s Disease – Chorea, as was. His father has gone missing. His mom and partner are making the “let’s have kids” noises whilst he’s waiting for the hammer to fall. He never wanted to write comics even though he’s successful at it, and now his editor wants him to write Superman. He’s never had any feeling for the character or the medium and his damned editor just keeps on and on and on about… You get the picture?

It’s a Bird… is slow and lyrical in its deconstructive self absorption, as Steve makes his choices, and Teddy Kristiansen’s range of enticing drawing styles is a marvel, but there is a distressing whiff of authorial preciousness that just doesn’t feel honest. All in all, though, it’s worth a look, if only to see how churlish I may be being.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! Vol 2

Eden: It’s an Endless World! Vol 2 

By Hiroki Endo (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-488-9

In a world decimated by the ‘Closure Virus’ and racked by global civil war, survivor Elijah Ballard is ranging through South America, seeking his lost mother when he is captured by a band of soldiers. Initially they seem more interested in Cherubim, his robot bodyguard, but eventually he begins to bond with the disparate unit of flawed and exotic warriors fighting a war for power on a planet that needs every human left if humanity is to regain its pre-eminence.

As the group make their way over the mountains to rest in Cuzco City they are attacked by a Propater force. Although that is basically the plot for this volume the asides into the nature of ideology and conflict are intriguingly revealing and the examinations of the various characters motivations and coping mechanisms are both evocative and telling. Trapped and under pressure Elijah and the others exhibit rare humanity in a milieu both dehumanising and increasingly artificial.

By flashback and cross cutting we also learn that Elijah and his mother may be much more that citizens caught in the tide, and the young man may well be the most strategic piece on the blood-soaked world stage. Was his capture just an accident or does he have a secret value?

This Titan Books edition is printed in Japanese format – that is read from back to front and right-to-left, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll rapidly adjust and the slight effort is worth it. Blending beautiful drawing with breakneck action and strong characterisation, this series will appeal to fans and casual readers alike – as long as they’re over 18. Fair warning: this volume ends on a cliffhanger, so if you’re impatient you might want to wait for the third volume before you start reading.

© 2007 Hiroki Endo. All Rights Reserved.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! Vol 1

Eden: It’s an Endless World! Vol 1 

By Hiroki Endo (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-487-0

Despite the truly monumental breadth and variety of manga, I suspect that to western eyes Japanese comics are inextricably linked to science fiction in general and cataclysm in particular. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, merely saddled with a few unfair presuppositions. With that stated and in mind any fair reader should sit down to Eden: It’s An Endless World! and be prepared for a treat.

Elijah Ballard is one of a small group of immunes who have survived the global pandemic named the ‘Closure Virus’. Most of humanity has been eradicated, and those infected who have survived their initial exposure are doomed to a slow deterioration that compels them to augment their failing bodies with cybernetics simply to survive. They barely qualify as human by most standards.

Pockets of survivors immune to the plague are dotted about the planet and as the years pass various factions form to take control of the world. Through a series of flashbacks we see the immediate aftermath of the plague before jumping twenty years to follow this young man’s picaresque ramblings through a devastated South America. Accompanied by a robotic bodyguard he is eking out a precarious existence when he is captured – or perhaps adopted – by a rag-tag band of soldiers.

When the world died political society divided into two camps. The fragmented remnants of the United Nations tried to retain some degree of control but found themselves under attack by Propater, a revolutionary paramilitary organisation that had been planning a world coup even before the virus hit. Global war has raged among the survivors ever since.

Now caught up in this conflict Elijah begins to realise that his long missing parents are major players in the new world order and day to day survival is no longer his only concern…

Despite the cyberpunk appurtenances and high octane pace of the narrative, this is in many senses a very English approach to the End of the World. There are echoes of that other Ballard (J. G., an author, not a comic strip scripter), Aldous Huxley, and even Chapman Pincher. The adult themes present here aren’t simply nudity and violence – although they are here in an abundance that will satisfy any action manga fan – but also a lyrical philosophy and moral questioning of political doctrine that underpins the text in the manner of much Cold War era science fiction.

This Titan Books edition is translated into English but printed in Japanese format – that is read from back to front and right-to-left, but don’t let that deter you. You will adjust in minutes at most and the slight effort is really worth it. Subtly engaging, beautifully illustrated and balancing swift action with introspective mystery, this series looks set to appeal to that literate sector that needs their brains tickled as well as their pulse rates raised.

© 2007 Hiroki Endo. All Rights Reserved.