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.

The Dead Boy Detectives

The Dead Boy Detectives 

By Jill Thompson (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-181-2

The legacy of The Sandman continues under the auspices of Jill Thompson, but her second venture into this Mangamerican style sadly isn’t as good or even as readable as her previous At Death’s Door. The two dead schoolboys, Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, who refused to go when collected by Dream’s sister, Death, have hovered around the Vertigo corners of the DC Universe since their introduction in Sandman: Season of Mists, obviously garnering some fans amongst both creators and the general public, but their role here might be something of a stretch.

As consulting detectives they are contacted by a girl from a private school in Chicago. Her new best friend has disappeared, but her teachers refuse to care about it or even acknowledge her existence. Having both died under similar circumstances, our heroes rush to the rescue.

So far, so good, but then it all breaks down. Thompson has elected to produce the tale as an homage to the Japanese publishing convention of Shōjo Manga, which emphasises a world of passivity, dreams, inner searches and human relationships over conflict, drama, perseverance and action – or as we’ve come to define it, Girls’ comics rather than Boys’ comics. It must have been a plausible pitch, but the actual story is vapid and meandering with no real dramatic hook, no threat, real or implied, to produce tension, and a resolution copped from the worst days of Scooby-Doo. A series of embarrassments and misadventures leads to a conclusion devoid of revelation, empathy, or satisfaction.

All that leaves is the humour, and there is precious little of that. I’m afraid that dressing dead boys up as girls will never make it into the gagsters Hall of Fame, no matter how venerated a tradition it might be. Its good news that such memorable characters aren’t being sidelined and doubly so that DC are prepared to let creators experiment with them. Sometimes, however, that means a miss rather than another hit. Let’s just wait for next time, then.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Day of Vengeance

Day of Vengeance 

By Bill Willingham, Judd Winick, Ian Churchill & Justiniano (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-230-4

Another story strand in DC’s ambitious and ubiquitous Infinite Crisis publishing event, the miniseries collected here dealt with the various magic users in the company’s current continuity.

The graphic compilation begins by setting the scene with a text piece defining the nature of magic and a reprint of “Lightning Strikes Twice” (originally printed as Action Comics #826, Adventures of Superman #639 and Superman # 216) which pitted magic-based hero Captain Marvel and the Man of Steel against the demonic and ethereal spirit of rage, Eclipso. Following this rather standard possessions-and-punches outing from Judd Winick, Ian Churchill and Norm Rapmund there is another highly informative and rather necessary text feature outlining the major (or should that be ‘minor’?) protagonists of Day of Vengeance.

The writing of Bill Willingham is always a treat and he adds a gloriously wry and contemporary air to what might have a turgid and silly enterprise, namely rationalising the role of magic as a narrative and plot device in the new continuity that DC is building.

The Spectre, an all-powerful spirit charged by Heaven with the task of punishing the wicked and exacting Divine Vengeance, has been seduced by Eclipso and determines to end all evil by wiping out magic and its practitioners. Using this pompous, ponderous and awe-inspiring premise as a starting point, Willingham constructs a sly, sassy, cynical and utterly irresistible caper, starring a team of mystical second-raters, bar-flies and no-hopers who determine not to wait for the ghostly hammer to fall but rather to risk everything on a pre-emptive strike against the ultimate in the Wrath of God stakes.

Led by septuagenarian sword-swinger Nightmaster, and with strategy and planning by the brilliant and worlds-weary Detective Chimp, The Enchantress, Ragman, Blue Devil, Nightshade and Black Alice, C-list occult heroes though they are, determine to stop the Spectre and save what’s left of their universe.

With enthralling illustrations by Justiniano, Ron Wagner, Walden Wong, Livesay and Dexter Vines, this rollicking, roller-coaster romp is possibly the best and certainly the most accessible of all the various tales that make up Infinite Crisis.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Captain Marvel: vol 2, Coven

Captain Marvel: vol 2, Coven 

By Peter David, Kyle Hotz & Ivan Reis (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1306-1

It’s a return to Reality for the cosmic symbionts Genis and Rick Jones after their near catastrophic brush with hyper-metaphysicality (for clarification see Captain Marvel: Nothing to Lose ISBN 0-7851-1104-2). Coven picks up a little later as a still-mad-as-a-bag-of-badgers Captain Marvel is back on Earth, only held in check by the will-power of Rick Jones. Then the man named Coven enters their lives.

A sadistic serial killer sentenced to death on Rick’s testimony, Coven unsuccessfully claims immunity from prosecution since he’s an alien and not subject to human law. After his execution he revives and begins another murder-spree, only to encounter our hero(es) fresh from being kicked out of Asgard – home of the Norse Gods – where Captain Marvel had ticked everybody off by declaring himself a better god than them and claiming squatter’s rights.

Rick, convinced his life is threatened by the resurrected murderer, is astounded when Genis unaccountably decides he wants to hear Coven’s side of things, precipitating a team-up/battle with Spider-Man, an alien invasion and a chilling lesson in inter-species Real-Politik which leaves Jones wondering just who is the monster and who the checking force?

David’s signature dark whimsy and sharp dialogue create some brilliant moments and the story is seldom predictable. The absurdist sensibilities and love of word-play sadly don’t completely solve the major problem, however, which is the seven tons of backstory needed to follow it. This is the kind of quality comic work that would win over new readers, but neophytes and civilians can’t help but be deterred by the bewildering amount of necessary research needed before starting.

© 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Captain Marvel: vol 1, Nothing to Lose

Captain Marvel: vol 1, Nothing to Lose 

By Peter David, ChrissCross, Ivan Reis & Paco Medina (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1104-2

This particular incarnation of the “trademark-that-must-not-die” features the son of the Kree warrior who was Marvel’s first holder of the name (after the copyright on a character held now by DC, but originally taken out by Fawcett in 1940 finally lapsed in 1968) and long-time company supporting character Rick Jones in a symbiotic relationship that echoes the heyday of those flower-power glory days. Fair warning though, despite the excellent writing and great art, if you are not at least passingly familiar with Marvel’s close continuity, this is not a series of books you want to read.

Nothing to Lose (reprinting Captain Marvel: volume 4, issues #1-6 and I told you it was confusing didn’t I?) is the story of Genis, the test-tube baby son of Mar-Vell, an alien warrior who saved the Earth and the Universe countless times before dying of cancer in the landmark Death of Captain Marvel, the company’s first ever Graphic Novel.

Artificially matured, Genis tried to emulate his father as a galaxy-spanning crusader, with mixed results, before hooking up with Rick Jones – his Dad’s original sidekick who offered the promise of real, insider insights into what made him such a hero.

When Nothing to Lose opens he is in fact, in just the same situation his father endured with the teen-aged Jones back in 1960’s. Their bodies are linked by “Nega-bands”, which are fantastically powerful alien wrist-bands, which both wear, but sadly only in turns, as they have the drawback of merging their molecular structure. This means that only one body can inhabit our universe at once, and the other is trapped in a sub-atomic pocket-universe called The Microverse, from where they can observe and communicate, but not affect us here.

Marvel also has his father’s greatest power, “Cosmic Awareness” an ability to discern everything happening everywhere at once. Sadly, and inevitably, this ability is turning Genis into a raving madman. Just knowing something bad is happening doesn’t mean that the only solution you can offer is ultimately the right one for the universe. This is tragically demonstrated when Captain Marvel stops a suicide bomber from detonating, only to see her murdered by one of her intended victims. This hopeless situation is repeated and magnified by their intervention in an alien invasion and other missions.

As the days progress Rick has to face the fact that his partner’s omniscience is more curse than blessing, and an increasing capriciousness is affecting Captain Marvel’s desire to “Do Good”. When the cosmic avenger starts taking advice from the Punisher, joins the militaristic Kree’s colonial space fleet and even kills himself (successfully but apparently not permanently) he decides that his destiny is to destroy creation, and it leads to a confrontation with a number of the universe’s most powerful conceptual entities before a new status quo can be reached.

Peter David’s blackly tongue-in-cheek examination of power and perspective has some truly chilling moments, and has a lot to say on the nature of heroism, all leavened by his absurdist sensibilities and love of comedy word-play. It is such a shame that there’s so much baggage to attend to before the casual reader can even approach it.

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

Bloody Mary

Bloody Mary 

By Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-198-7

Fleetway veterans Ennis and Ezquerra have a long association with British war comics and the apocalyptic 2000AD, so combining those sensibilities in a near-future World War III adventure must have seemed a natural for the fledgling DC science fiction imprint Helix. Since the first four-part miniseries spawned an almost immediate sequel they must have been more or less correct, but as Helix folded in the space of a year, with its surviving projects being absorbed by Vertigo, this compilation comes to us courtesy of them.

In 1999 Europe went back to war, massive, bloody conventional war with the bankrupt and barmy US of A, ostensibly over economic and religious differences, but actually because our creators needed a backdrop for the world-weary Mary to display her exceptional talent for slaughter in the signature arena of idiot Generals and venal politicians whose sole reason for existing seems to be to prune back the surplus of the current generation of decent folk.

Under the guise of a mission to secure a biological super-weapon, Mary and a crack team of expendables battle a spectre from her gore-splattered past and the EU’s top hit-man as they carve a swathe of destruction through Europe’s few remaining landmarks in the first tale (released in 1996), whilst the follow-up story (“Lady Liberty” from 1997) sees her return to a devastated America on a mission to wrest New York City from the army of religious maniacs who have captured it.

Trenchant, savage, satirical, gripping and plain old thrilling, this slice of fun shows these creators at their best, giving you an everyman view of all the hell and stupidity our leaders drag us through on much too regular a basis. Grown-up comics at its very best and long overdue for its rightful place on your bookshelf.

© 1996, 1997 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All Rights Reserved.