Bizarro Comics

Bizarro Comics 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-56389-779-2

I’ll happily go on record and say that all of the fun and true creativity in comics comes out of the ‘alternative’ or non-mainstream writers and artists these days. To prove my point I’d list a bunch of things, and very near the top of that list would be this book.

In its seventy-five odd (some, ever so) years in publishing, DC Comics produced many of the most memorable, most engaging and most peculiar comic characters and concepts you could imagine. They also managed to create a deep and abiding affection in the hearts and minds of some of the most creative people on the planet.

Within the hilarious framing sequence of a monstrous creature attempting to conquer Mr Mxyzptlk’s 5th dimensional home, Chris Duffy and Stephen DeStefano tell a weird and wonderful tale of the outlandish failed Superman clone Bizarro. As the appointed champion of the endangered dimensional our ‘hero’ resorts to his ultimate power, producing comic strips featuring unfamiliar adventures of DC’s most recognizable heroes…

Cue a veritable who’s who of the cool and wonderful of modern comics creating a plethora of wacky, dreamy, funny, wistful and just plain un-put-downable strips that would delight any kid who read comics but then accidentally grew up.

If you’re a fan of Jessica Abel, Kyle Baker, Gregory Benton, Nick Bertozzi, Ariel Bordeaux, Ivan Brunetti, Eddie Campbell, Dave Cooper, Mark Crilley, Jef Czekaj, Brian David-Marshall, D’Israeli, Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, Abe Foreu, Ellen Forney, Liz Glass, Matt Groening, Tom Hart, Dean Haspiel, Sam Henderson, Gilbert Hernandez, Matt Hollingsworth, Dylan Horrocks, Nathan Kane, John Kerschbaum, Chip Kidd, James Kochalka, Roger Langridge, Carol Lay, Jason Little, Lee Loughridge, Matt Madden, Tom McCraw, Pat McEown, Andy Merrill, Tony Millionaire, Will Pfeifer, Paul Pope, Brian Ralph, Alvin Schwartz, Marie Severin, Jeff Smith, Jay Stephens, Rick Taylor, Craig Thompson, Jill Thompson, Andi Watson, Steven Weissman or Bill Wray you’ll see them at heir best. If you haven’t heard of anybody on that overwhelming list then get Googling. Then get this book and get enjoying.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Star Wars: Empire vol 5, Allies and Adversaries

Star Wars: Empire vol 5, Allies and Adversaries 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-272-X

Space opera fans have another fine romp on their hands as the classic cast members of the now-legendary film franchise strut their swashbuckling stuff in a selection of tales taken from issues #23-27 of the Dark Horse comic.

The action starts with “The Bravery of Being Out of Range” by Jeremy Barlow and Brandon Badeaux, a tale of smuggling and subterfuge, and proceeds with “Idiots Array” by Ron Marz, Jeff Johnson and Joe Corroney, with Han Solo and Chewbacca betrayed by old friends whilst on a mission for the Rebels. Darth Vader is on hand to provide some chills, too.

“General’ Skywalker” from Marz, Adriana Melo and Nicholas Scott closes the book, with the boy-hero teaming up with a stranded Clone-Warrior, lost since before Palpatine made himself Emperor, against a horde of Imperials on a rampage.

There’s no great import to these adventures, just good old-fashioned thud–and-blunder heroics, drawn well and engrossingly scripted, and surely that’s enough to ask for?

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

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 5: The Best Blades

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 5: The Best Blades

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-903-4

This fifth collection of stories from the Clone Wars era of the franchise presents another fine set of classy comic stories (from Star Wars: Republic issues 60-62, 64 and the Star Wars: Jedi-Yoda one-shot).

“Dead Ends” by John Ostrander and Brandon Badeaux with Armando Durruthy is an insightful political thriller which sees Princess Leia’s soon to be adoptive father Bail Organa fighting a different sort of battle against the machinations of the evil Palpatine in the halls of the Senate, whilst the same creative team spotlight the eventual emperor himself in “Bloodlines”, a tale of personal seduction.

“Hate and Fear” by Haden Blackman and Tomás Giorello is a more traditional adventure with a captured Obi-Wan Kenobi and friend escaping the dungeons of a dark Jedi warrior queen, and “No Man’s Land” by the same team tells of what happened to Kenobi’s young squire Anakin Skywalker as his master was held captive and the bloody consequences of their eventual reunion.

Yoda’s tale “The Best Blades” written by Jeremy Barlow and illustrated by HOON, Ramiro Montanez and Stacy Michalcewicz is in many ways the weakest one of the bunch, as the diminutive master leads a team to the world ruled by an old friend in an attempt to prevent its succession from the republic, only to find a hotbed of palace intrigue and assassination. The story wanders between political thriller and samurai honour quest but doesn’t know how to get itself comfortably to the inevitable and predictable ending. The over-rendered, manga-derived painted CGI art also serves to blunt any edge of tension that might otherwise leak through, which is a pity, considering how popular the little green sock-monkey has become.

In the main though, this is a rock solid piece of entertainment, which is more than you can honestly claim for the film it devolves from.

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All rights reserved.

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 4: Light and Dark

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 4: Light and Dark 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-360-2

I’ve already declared my disinterest elsewhere, but I’ll briefly reiterate here. I’m not a great a great fan of the films, so any review will be based solely on what I see in a graphic novel. I will say however, that the Star Wars cast are not “great characters”. Rupert of Hentzau is a great character. Sherlock Holmes is a great character. Ozymandias, the Spirit and Dr Doom are great comic book characters. Let’s not labour under any illusions here.

The latest book reloaded from the Dark Horse franchise collects Star Wars: Republic #54, Star Wars: Jedi – Aayla Secura, Star Wars: Jedi – Dooku and Star Wars: Republic #63. Creators throughout are the usually excellent John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, who I must admit produce some of the best writing and art I’ve seen in quite a while as they trace the long story of Jedi Master Quinlan Vos as he goes deep, deep, deep undercover in an attempt to infiltrate the growing Confederacy rebellion instigated by the ever-so-evil Count Dooku.

There’s plenty of double-dealing, subterfuge and high octane action. Shadowy faces ponder aloud whether Vos is really undercover or actually turned to the Dark Side and whole bunches of exotic characters abound, but it feels like a Chinese menu: One from column A, two from column B, must have a veggie dish, and we’ll have a passable night out. I needed a scorecard to keep all the elements in play, and as any fule know, at a really good restaurant they take the damned menus away when the food arrives.

But enough metaphor. What we’ve got here is a competent piece of comic work in the old tradition of keeping a licence fresh while the mainstream product prepares its next outing or dwindles from public notice, and I’m sure on that level those who slavishly follow the films and bother to read books will be more than satisfied. There are many more layers and textures than you’ll find in the average action movie, but I can’t help feeling that, as an attempt to get more people to read comics, this can only bewilder not enlighten.

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All rights reserved.

Star Wars: Empire vol 3, The Imperial Perspective

Star Wars: Empire vol 3, The Imperial Perspective 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-933-6

This collection of stories deals with the battle between Empire and Rebel from the viewpoint of the bad guys. Reprinting adventures from the comic Star Wars: Empire (specifically issues 13, 14 and 16 – 19) it contains “What Sin Loyalty” by Jeremy Barlow and Patrick Blaine wherein an imperial storm-trooper/clone ponders the imponderables and re-examines his values during the last moments of the Deathstar, followed by “The Savage Heart” by Paul Alden and Raul Trevino, a cinematic and painterly actioner with a crash-landed Darth Vader fighting his way back to civilisation.

The real gem here is Welles Hartley and Davide Fabri’s “To the Last Man” which has echoes of The Young Lions, Cross of Iron and Zulu. Janek Sunber is a junior officer in the imperial infantry who finds himself and his unit trapped on a jungle world facing impossible odds, and hampered at every turn by the inept officer-nobility ranked above him. Rounding out the volume is another outing for the Dark Lord of the Sith in “Target: Vader” by Ron Marz and Brian Ching, a fairly standard, if engagingly illustrated, tale of espionage and assassination.

Unlike most media-derived comic productions many of the Star Wars publications manage to rise above their “cashing-in” origins, and this book is a fine example of good comics as well as a welcome addition to the canon of the franchise.

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

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron vol 1

Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron vol 1 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-360-2

Re-packaged as a handbag-friendly omnibus edition are the first few adventures of the eponymous band of space pilots led by Death-Star survivor Wedge Antilles. Collected here you will find X-Wing Rogue Leader, X-Wing Rogue Squadron: The Rebel Opposition and X-Wing Rogue Squadron: The Phantom Affair plus information pages from the Rogue Squadron Handbook.

Full of space opera and intergalactic swash-buckling, these are competent action tales set in the immediate aftermath of the first Death Star’s demise. The Battle of Britain spirit is evident and these classic tales should help plug the void caused by the hiatus of the movie franchise.

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

Supergirl: Candor

Supergirl: Candor 

By Joe Kelly, Greg Rucka, Ian Churchill & Ed Benes and others (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-354-8

Comics isn’t baking. The theory goes that with the right ingredients and the correct recipe you get perfect results every time. Sadly we’re not talking about baps but the new incarnation of Supergirl. Hang on though…

Supergirl first gained popularity as the back-up feature in Action Comics, as a tag-along (and trademark protection device) to her more illustrious cousin. After many years of faithful service, she was killed as a sales device in the groundbreaking Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series in 1985. Since then there have been a number of characters using the name – but none with the class, nor the durability of the original (and it’s always useful to have a trademark protection device).

The latest incarnation has much of original’s trappings – Superman’s cousin, close variation of the suit and symbol – but a much more modern attitude and edgier origin as suits today’s readership (and modern kids understand the value of a trademark protection device).

Candor is a dreadful mish-mash. It starts with Power Girl (herself once a Supergirl substitute) in a story from JSA Confidential #2 (and recently reprinted in Power Girl’s own trade paperback), and a selection of pages from JLA #122-123 which had Supergirl on them (no cohesive narrative, just the bits with her in). Then a team-up with her cousin from Superman #223 and a Power Girl/Huntress team up from their Earth 2 days originally seen in Superman/Batman #27.

Confused? If you’re not a comic collector then I’ll just bet you are. Such out-takes and shavings might fill up the book, but they have no real relevance to the narrative. Some depictions – all culled from before DC continuity ‘re-set’ in the Infinite Crisis storyline – actively contradict their later characters. So let’s be straight here: Either these books are a way to get more and new people reading comics or they are just another way to get extra cash out of the same poor suckers who buy the monthly pamphlets. If it is the former then a lot more editorial planning is necessary. These convolutions frankly baffle the casual reader.

After the never-ending calamity of the DC Infinite Crisis event, the company re-set the time line of all their publications to begin One Year Later. This enabled them to refit their characters as they saw fit, provide a jumping on point for new converts and also give themselves some narrative wiggle-room.

One year later, Supergirl and Power Girl are in Kandor, a miniaturised city full of assorted aliens, trapped in a bottle in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Krypton worshipping supremacists are instigating a species-pogrom, using Superman’s likeness as the basis for a hate-based religion. Our heroines are part of the resistance, taking the identities of legendary heroes Nightwing and Flamebird. But a hidden villain is behind all the horror and Supergirl is drawn to the dark side by…

Candor is a mess. There’s no real hook or bite – just aimless flailing about, trying to fill pages with pitifully uninspired stock scenarios pilfered from dozens of other stories, and someone, someday, is going to have to acknowledge the difference between Graphic Novels and periodical comic publishing. You just can’t have ‘big reveals’ of mystery villains in ‘proper’ books – and simply assume your audience recognises them because they buy all the books you publish. That’s purely an astonishing – but increasingly diminishing – facet of comic-book readership. It’s no way to grow the sales base. And even in comics it is SUCH a cliché.

So what can I say about this book? I wish I could be more positive. I’m here to make comic reading more popular, not to warn potential readers off. You can see the largest breasts on a super-heroine? There are many great artists producing cheesy, prurient puberty-porn? It’s all blithering nonsense and a there’s total disregard for the reader’s intelligence plus a truly harrowing reliance on the modern fashion for story resets whenever things start getting too complex to solve with a well illustrated punch? There’s certainly all that and less…

I’ll always try to say something nice or positive. Taken out of the book’s context, the Power Girl solo tale is very good – so you should buy the Power Girl collection and read it in its entirety. The Huntress/Power Girl story from Superman/Batman #27 is funny and beautifully illustrated by Kevin McGuire. The final story of the volume, wherein the inexplicably returned to Earth Supergirl goes clubbing and reminiscing with a coterie of fellow youngbloods is both poignant and amusing, so kudos to Kelly, Churchill and Norm Rapmund for that at least.

Otherwise? This is rubbish. I’m absolutely positive. Only get this if you’re blessed with a very short attention span, or haven’t had a girlfriend yet.

© 2005-2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Son of Superman

Son of Superman 

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-56389-595-1

2017AD. In an overwhelmingly conservative and corporate America, Superman has been missing since 2000, the Justice League has become an arm of Federal Government, and the biggest threat to security is the terrorist organisation “The Supermen” led by the vanished hero’s oldest friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang. Ruthless and unscrupulous Lex Luthor owns most of the planet.

Jon Kent is a smart mouthed high school kid and his mother, Lois, is a Hollywood screen writer. Their lives are pretty normal (for rich Americans) until the worst solar storm in history triggers young Jon’s superpowers and mom has to reveal that his long dead dad was in fact the world’s greatest hero. From having to deal with girls, grades and puberty John Kent suddenly finds himself the focus of all manner of bad attention, heroes and villains, the Feds, and his own budding conscience.

How this new hero saves the world, busts the bad guys, and solves the mystery of his missing father makes for a good old-fashioned “never trust anyone over the age of 30” romp, full of thrills and spills thanks to the scripting skills of arch-nonconformist Howard Chaykin and writing partner David Tischman, with spectacular artwork from J.H. Williams III (of Starman and Promethea fame) and Mick Gray.

This surprisingly enjoyable if unchallenging alternative tale of the Man of Steel comes courtesy of the much missed ‘Elseworlds’ imprint, which was designed by DC as a classy vehicle for what used to be called ‘Imaginary stories’ – for which read using branded characters in stories that refute, contradict or ignore established monthly continuities. Although often a guaranteed recipe for disaster, every so often the magic of unbridled creativity brought forth gems. This is one of the latter. Ooh, Shiny!

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-242-8

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all has come out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small moment of that bloody mistake.

Vaughan and Henrichon, using the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, tell the anthropomorphised tale of a family of Lions who are unwillingly freed from their zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end.

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, powerful, tale with characters who you will love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item that told of the lions roaming the war torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book, which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types. Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, not yet, but read it.

© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Orbiter

Orbiter 

By Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran with Dave Stewart (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-4012-0056-7

This offering from the industry’s Enfant Terrible is a heartfelt but insubstantial slice of post-Twilight Zone hokum, set on a dystopian Earth in the years following the mysterious disappearance of the space shuttle Venture. It vanished from Earth orbit a decade previously, taking with it a crew of seven and ultimately, the world’s taste for space flight. When Venture crashes into the shanty-town that used to be the Kennedy space centre it carries only the original – catatonic – pilot, dust that could must have come from Mars and alien technology that has transformed a glorified glider into a true inter-stellar voyager. The last dregs of NASA must then reform to solve the mystery and return to mankind the defrayed, delayed destiny of The Stars.

For avowed space aficionados Ellis and Doran this is probably an earnest labour of love, but the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing particularly original or worthwhile that hasn’t been done to death elsewhere, although the artist’s departure from her usual glossy, highly stylised and glossy pencils for a more gritty and European manner of drawing is an welcome and effective surprise.

All in all, though, despite being something of a departure for the writer and perhaps a disappointment for those dedicated comics fans expecting another Strange Kiss or Transmetropolitan, there’s still something of interest to be gained for the casual reader.

© 2003 Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.