War Stories Volume 2

War Stories Volume 2 

By Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-306-8

The second volume of Garth Ennis’ War Stories leads with the haunting and distressing “J for Jenny” and deals with the stresses of a British Bomber crew as they carry out their nightly missions. The plot is carried along via a bitter row between pilot and co-pilot who constantly debate the necessity of their task, one bemoaning the horrendous cost to German civilians whilst the other gloats and glories in the death of each and every woman and child. As usual, nothing is ever what it seems and the finale is a tribute to the creators’ skills and the unpredictable insanity of war itself. David Lloyd’s atmospheric meta-realistic art powerfully underpins a tale few could do justice to.

“The Reivers”, with Cam Kennedy illustrating, deals with a team of desert hit and run specialists dashing in under cover of darkness to blow up German airstrips and bases before haring off into the night. Apparently this sort of tactic directly led to today’s Special Ops units and this bunch certainly echo modern fiction’s image of beer-swilling, gung-ho nutters ready to fight and die, and always up for a bit of a giggle. The breakneck action is laced with Ennis’ blackly ironic, slap-stick humour, but never allows us to long forget the deadly and permanent nature of the business at hand.

“Condors” is set during the Spanish Civil war and is the war-comic equivalent of a shaggy dog story. During a particularly hectic bout of fighting four combatants crawl into the same crater to wait out the shelling. There’s an Englishman, an Irishman, a Spaniard and a German, two from each side of the conflict, and to pass the time they swap their life stories and philosophies. It seems to be the most true to what one might call the authors’ opinion, as the motives for fighting and killing are scrutinised through eyes and ears that have seen and heard all the explanations and reasons and still judged them wanting. Carlos Exquerra perfectly captures the camaraderie and insanity in his powerfully expressive renderings. This is an absolute gem of a story.

The last tale, “Archangel”, ends the book on a lighter tone, although the premise, based on actual missions of the convoy service, is one that hardly lends itself to easy reading. Until the cracking of the Enigma code, every Trans-Atlantic shipment of materiel –especially to our Russian allies – was practically defenceless against Axis submarine and bomber assault. One counter-scheme was to put a fighter plane on a freighter which could be launched to fend off airborne attacks. All well and good until you realise that only obsolete planes could be spared for such service, and that largely because once launched – by rocket catapult, no less – they could not land again, but had to ditch or try to find dry land if any could be reached on whatever fuel remained. It should also be noted that not all land was in friendly hands, either. This tale of an RAF misfit and his arctic odyssey is full of the ‘hopeless prawn triumphant’ that typified old British films and the meticulous artwork of Gary Erskine lends credibility to a tale that sheer logic just can’t manage.

Ennis’s war stories are always a labour of love, and his co-creators never work better than when illustrating them. Combine this with a genre that commands a respect that most comics just don’t get and you have a piece of fiction that would grace any library or bookshelf.

© 2003, 2006 Garth Ennis with David Lloyd, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra and Gary Erskine respectively. All Rights individually Reserved as appropriate.

Ultimate Adventures: One Tin Soldier

Ultimate Adventures: One Tin Soldier 

By Ron Zimmerman & Duncan Fegredo, with Walden Wong (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1043-7

There is so much that’s wrong with this book. As another volume of the collected adventures of those retooled Marvel characters that inhabit the “realer” pocket universe created when the company’s traditional fan-base stopped buying the majority of their product in the wake of the bankruptcy fiasco in the 1990s, it falls between two stools in the eyes of the die-hard Marvelites.

Addressing that slimmed-down, baggage-free, more contemporary and realistic concept itself; if there’re loads of super-beings, having crossovers and you start needing a score-card again, what’s the point of having two discrete universes?

Most pertinently, when DC Comics’ biggest rival puts out a grim ‘n’ gritty miniseries featuring a caped avenger of the night, who patterns his super persona on a winged nocturnal predator, and, armed only with a utility belt and the coolest car money can buy, looks to adopt an orphan and train him as a sidekick, what – other than a lawsuit even She-Hulk could win – have you got?

Well actually, you have a delightful and gripping parody (that’s the plea I would go with) of the genre, albeit uncomfortably shoe-horned into the burgeoning continuity of the Ultimates line. Even though there is a just plain gratuitous team-up/fight with the Ultimate universe Avengers wedged into the middle of the proceedings, it just acts as a welcome break from the Sturm-und-Drang, pant-wetting angst of the modern super-hero idiom, without ever actually becoming forced or silly.

The humour is there in abundance for both the comics neophyte or bewildered grandparent who bought this thinking it starred some other dynamic duo, and the old lag who doesn’t mind the occasional pop at the nostalgic bulwarks of his life, but this is not a comedy book. The action is sincere and the characterisations all acute and well-rounded. Writer Zimmerman’s apparent irreverence for Marvel tradition, so successfully shown in The Rawhide Kid, once again plays to his advantage, especially when enhanced by some of the best art of Duncan Fegredo’s career. Read this before someone bans it.

© 2002, 2003, 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Batman: Public Enemies

Superman Batman: Public Enemies 

Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-915-8

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends and the pairing made financial sense as DC’s top heroes should cross sell and cross pollinate their combined readerships.

When the characters were redefined for the post-Crisis 1980s they were remade as respectful co-workers who did the same job but deplored each other’s methods and preferred to avoid contact whenever possible (except when they were in the Justice League – but for the sake of your sanity don’t fret that right now!). Here they have reformed as friends for the style-over-content twenty-first century, and this is the story of their first outing together. Outlawed by Presidential decree and hunted by their fellow heroes, they find themselves accused of directing a country-sized chunk of Kryptonite to crash into Earth! To save Superman, the world and their own reputations they are forced to attempt the overthrow of the President himself.

In so many ways this compilation is everything I hate about the modern comics industry. Plot is reduced to an absolute minimum in favour of showy set-pieces. Previously established characterisation is hostage to whatever seems the easiest way to short-cut to action (mortal foes Captain Atom and Major Force work together to capture our heroes because US President Lex Luthor tells them to?). The story length is artificially extended to accommodate lots of guest stars, and yet large amounts of narrative occur off-camera or between issues, presumably to facilitate a faster, smoother read. Also, there was an unholy rush to a collected edition, presumably because of demand, but that didn’t prevent the publishers releasing the reprint as an expensive hardback before getting round to releasing a trade paperback collection a good few months after that. This is no way to service or expand an already diminishing customer base.

On the plus side however is the fact that I’m an old fart. There is obviously a market for snazzy looking, stripped down, practically deconstructed comic fare. There must be, or Image Comics wouldn’t have lasted three months, let alone the length of time many of the perpetrators managed. Public Enemies does look good, and if much of the scenario is obvious and predictable it is big and immediate and glossy like a summer action film. Perhaps there’s room for those alongside the Will Eisners, Dave Sims, Alan Moores, Robert Crumbs and Frank Millers of the world.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Superman Batman: Supergirl

Superman Batman: Supergirl 

By Jeph Loeb, Michael Turner & Peter Steigerwald (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-114-6

DC really can’t seem to make up their minds over Supergirl. I’ve actually lost count of the number of different versions that have been foisted on us over the years, and I can’t escape the queasy feeling that above all else she’s a concept created to ease young male readers over that bumpy patch between voices breaking and hiding things under your mattress where your mum never, never ever looks.

This latest version resets to the most popular concept and has a naked blonde chick arrive on a Kryptonite meteor claiming to be Superman’s cousin. The most intriguing aspect of this incarnation is Batman’s total distrust of the girl as she is hidden from the world while she assimilates. This leads to her training/babysitting by Wonder Woman’s amazons and her eventual kidnapping by evil space-god Darkseid.

All in all though, it’s woefully predictable stuff with oodles of lovingly rendered girl-flesh and fetish outfits jostling for attention amidst the lavish fight-scenes and interminable guest-cameos. Yet as much as I bitch about all this, I won’t disparage the popularity of the material, because any increase in sales of comics is a wonderful thing in this current climate, but I just know that the writer of The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons is capable of producing better stuff for artists of this quality to draw.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Vol 1 Commencement

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Vol 1 Commencement 

By John Jackson Miller, Brian Ching & Travel Foreman (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-371-8

This is set nearly four thousand years before the events of the feature films and the Republic is a sprawling pan-galactic, multi-species culture run on largely democratic and free-market principles, policed by individual systems but overseen by the beneficent adepts known as Jedi Knights, who answer only to the Senate. Zayne Carrick is a Padawan, a Jedi-in-training, and one of the worst his Jedi masters have ever taught. In fact he’s even a bit of a joke to the various low-level criminals and thugs he in charge of policing.

So it’s much more than grim irony when his Jedi masters slaughter all the other Padawans and frame Carrick for the crime. Hunted and desperate the fugitive must team-up with a minor crime-lord and other “evil-doers” to discover the truth of a plot to re-shape the Galaxy if he is ever to find peace and justice.

This is an old fashioned story told in a traditional way, and it’s great. Harking back to the glory-days of the pulp genre from which the Star Wars brand evolved, it’s full of breakneck thrills, baroque characters and action, action, action. No knowledge of backstory is necessary, and there’s even a twist in the tale. All licensed comics should be this good.

© 2006 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: Empire Vol 7 The Wrong Side of the War

Star Wars: Empire Vol 7 The Wrong Side of the War 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-457-9

This final volume – containing issues #35-40 of the comic book series – returns to the Jabiim war front of the previous volume and focuses on Imperial up-and-comer Janek Sunber (Star Wars: Empire volume 3 The Imperial Perspective), a generally honourable ‘good soldier on the wrong side’, and a very useful narrative tool for creators wanting to ad some depth to the bad guys.

Here he’s part of the Imperial force interrogating captured Jabiimi on military/resupply base Kalist VI. As Luke Skywalker and a Rebel team infiltrate the base to steal fuel and rescue a vital Rebel Spy, Sunber is compelled to make harsh choices when he discovers some unpleasant facts about the way the Empire actually works. He also learns that the Rebel hero causing so much chaos is that scrawny kid he grew up with on Tatooine…

Less a conclusion than a bridge to further adventures in spin-off tales, this book nevertheless delivers a healthy dose of fun and thrills that will satisfy both franchise followers and adventure addicts alike. Both the main story by Welles Hartley, Davidé Fabri and Christian Dalla Vecchia, and John Jackson Miller and Brian Ching’s prologue thriller featuring Darth Vader’s hunt for a Rebel spy rattle along full pelt and are very easy on the eye. Why weren’t the films this well done?

© 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved

Star Wars: Empire vol 6 In the Shadows of Their Fathers

Star Wars: Empire vol 6 In the Shadows of Their Fathers 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-271-1

With stories set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, this volume of intergalactic derring-do (reprinted from the comic book Star Wars: Empire issues #29-34) returns to the events of the Battle of Jabiim (see Star Wars: Clone Wars Vol. 3 Last Stand On Jabiim).

The plot examines how that tumultuous debacle has affected the sons of the leading proponents, Anakin Skywalker’s son Luke and Nolan Gillmun, child and heir of the resistance leader Anakin abandoned there more than twenty years previously. After an enjoyable first chapter by Scott Allie and artist Joe Corroney highlighting Darth Vader’s unique diplomatic skills, the main action begins as the Sith Lord returns to the rain-planet after two decades, where the young Rebels Luke and Leia, have come a cropper whilst on a mission for the Rebellion.

Jabiim had resisted the Empire in a bloody guerrilla war for that entire time, and a link up with the Rebels of other worlds seemed an ideal way to increase pressure on their mutual oppressor, but then the Jabiimis discovered that Luke was the son of the ultimate traitor Jedi Skywalker…

Full of action and suspense, although less dark and oppressive than its Clone Wars precursor, this is still a powerful tale that offers fresh insights into the complex character of Anakin/Vader whilst delivering a whole bunch of escapist fun, and the script by Thomas Andrews is captivatingly illustrated by Adriana Melo and Michel LaCombe makes this book some good clean fun for a rainy day.

© 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved

Star Wars: Empire vol 4 The Heart of the Rebellion

Star Wars: Empire vol 4 The Heart of the Rebellion 

By various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-029-8

This volume of the series, set during the time frame of the original triptych of film blockbusters, shines its spotlight on Princess Leia Organa, with four tales set at key points of her Rebellious life.

Set just before the opening of the original movie, ‘Princess… Warrior’ (reprinted from issues #5-6 of the Star Wars: Empire comic book) tells of the tragic events that stem from her half-hearted attempts to aid the Rebellion, and how she learns the hard tasks and responsibilities that leadership demands. Randy Stradley adapts Brian Daley’s radio script, with art from Davidé Fabri and Christian Dalla Vecchia.

‘A Little Piece of Home’ by Ron Marz and Tomás Giorello (issues #20-21) follows Leia’s search for a new Rebel sanctuary to the palatial planetoid preserve of an past boy-friend and where old feelings are rekindled. As so often before grim reality once again intrudes with heartbreak and disappointment the only rewards.

Issue #22 originally provided ‘Alone Together’ as Han Solo’s latest flirtation provides character insights into the nature of her perceived rival for the Correllian’s affections. When Deena Shan, Leia, Chewbacca and Solo are trapped on a world with a deadly monster her rivalry turns into something more positive in this fluffy change of pace tale from Welles Hartley, captivatingly pictured by Adriana Melo.

Star Wars: A Valentine Story was the original venue for ‘Breaking the Ice’ a sadly lacklustre offering from the usually excellent Judd Winick and Paul Chadwick. Set immediately before the Rebels moved to the Ice planet Hoth (The Empire Strikes Back) it depicts the gradual warming of the frosty relationship of the arrogant and insufferable Han Solo and the haughty and controlling Princess.

Although not a great issue by the impressively high standard of the franchise, this book is still a readable and pretty package foe readers and fans of al ages and persuasions.

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

Star Wars: Empire vol 1, Betrayal

Star Wars: Empire vol 1, Betrayal 

By Scott Allie, Ryan Benjamin & Curtis Arnold (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-655-8

This intriguing series concentrates on tales of the Star Wars universe told from the perspective of the evil Rulers rather than the heroic resistance. In this first collection (issue #1-4 of the monthly comic), set in the weeks just prior to the events of the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, betrayal is in the air.

As the Empire’s greatest weapon nears completion, Darth Vader is dispatched to the galactic hinterlands in pursuit of an apparent survivor of the massacre of the Jedis, unaware that a different kind of revolt is brewing at home. An unhappy collection of generals have decided to assassinate the Emperor, and their plan seems perfect.

As their machinations proceed and Vader is diverted to the Death Star to oversee the final arrangements, the creators of this volume manage the nigh impossible task of instilling a sense of tension, despite the sure and certain knowledge we all share that this plan simply can’t succeed because it didn’t.

How the plan fails is a good strong yarn, with a chance to see the charismatic Vader at his scene-stealing best, and the close echoes of the plot by his own generals to kill Adolf Hitler lend the fantasy some much appreciated undercurrents which are so often absent from space opera adventuring. Scott Allie’s script is economical and Ryan Benjamin art is open and dynamic, making this a page-turning delight for fan and civilian alike.

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: The Comics Companion

Star Wars: The Comics Companion 

By Ryder Windham & Daniel Wallace (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-108-1

Now here is a smart idea. The Star Wars franchise has spawned an awful lot of comic books and this lavish coffee table volume lists them all, both as comic series and in their graphic novel compilation form. Stuffed with illustrations and usefully categorised by the continuity’s main narrative eras (from 25,000 years prior to 25 years after the first film – now irrevocably designated Episode IV: A New Hope). There’s also a section for anthologies and Manga editions, lists of all the pertinent information a new reader or Trivial Pursuit nut might ever need from plot summations to creator credits, and even spoiler warnings so you can quench your thirst for information without spoiling the thrill of the eventual read.

Obviously there’s no real attention to the individual quality of the stories, so there’s always the risk that you might not like what you eventually do read, but that’s a risk you take every time you buy a book or comic. At least you’ll have some idea of what to look for in the first place and as the illustrations are taken from the comics themselves you can also get a feel for what the things will look like.

Hopefully this will lead to a plethora of such editions, not just for such media-based Dark Horse managed properties as Aliens, Predator or Robocop, but for the unbelievably convoluted major comics players from other companies. Wouldn’t you like to see an overview of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman or X-Men at a glance?

© 2006 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved