It’s the end of the month, and I tried to review all the trades I bought in January! Did I succeed? Read on to find out!
I don’t know when I got this book, and I’m not even sure it’s mine, because it looks very much like something my wife would get. I don’t necessarily discriminate against female authors, but I do tend to like books written by men more than women (one of my favorite books ever is Possession by A.S. Byatt, so obviously that’s a gross generalization). One of the reasons why I tend to favor men over women is because a lot of the female-written books my wife gets seem like this one: There’s a person in the present investigating a mystery in the past, and there’s a connection between the present person and the past, and there’s a romance. Now, this description fits Possession, for instance, but Byatt is a fantastic writer, so she makes it work. It’s not like that’s a bad framework for a plot, but my wife must really dig it, because she reads a lot of books like that (she also really likes books in which the protagonist is a woman in a different culture than Western, so she reads a lot of those, too). So when this book came up in its alphabetical turn, I asked my wife if it was hers. She didn’t recognize it, so I’m not sure if she just forgot about it, because it’s not something I would buy on my own. But I figured I’d give it a read. Why not, right? (And yes, I have my books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author. Years ago I realized that, because I read books fairly slowly and I loved buying them, I’d buy 10 books at a time, say, and only read one or two before I went back and got more. Then I’d be keen to read the new ones, and I lost track of the books I bought further back in the past. I had books on my shelves that I hadn’t read that were 10-15 years old. Finally I decided to simply start at the beginning of the alphabet and read them in order. I’ve gone through the alphabet twice since I decided to do that. Now I’m on “H” on my third trip through the alphabet. Good times!)
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane falls into all the categories I outlined above. The protagonist, Connie, is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, studying witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England. Her mother, who lives in New Mexico, tells her about her grandmother’s house in Marblehead, which is next to Salem, and that she needs to go clean it out so that they can sell it (her grandmother having died several years before, but the house had stood empty since then). Connie discovers a piece of paper in the house on which is written “Deliverance Dane,” and she decides to track down what that is. She soon learns that Deliverance Dane was a woman in Salem in 1692, during the witch trials, and that she may have actually had a spellbook, because Connie deduces that she may have actually been a witch instead of just someone who was randomly accused of it. An actual spellbook would be a good dissertation topic, so she begins to track it down. Meanwhile, she meets a dude with whom she begins a romance, and her doctoral adviser decides that her finding the book is a very good thing, but perhaps he has an ulterior motive?!?!? And, throughout, Howe gives us interludes of Deliverance Dane and her descendants in the 1600s and 1700s, as we discover what she’s all about.
It’s not a bad premise – what if one of the people hanged in Salem was, you know, an actual witch – and Howe crafts an entertaining story out of it. It’s a breezy, beach-type book, aided by the fact that Howe is descended from two women accused of witchcraft in Salem and was actually studying for her Ph.D., so her knowledge about the subject is probably a bit better than most peoples’. Howe doesn’t delve too much into the past, but when she does, she illuminates nicely some of the things Connie is trying to puzzle out in the present (well, I should say 1991, as that’s when the book is set) even though Connie doesn’t ever know the exact details of what happened. Connie’s historical detective search is well done, too, as she tries to find the book and figure out what it really is and where it might be. It’s that part of the book that really works well. Where the book falters a bit is because Howe needs to find an antagonist, and she doesn’t do a terribly good job with it. The book becomes a bit supernatural, which was unexpected (but fine, I suppose), and things become more of a “thriller,” but Connie’s predicament and the person who is trying to thwart her are not as well developed as her search, so the attempts at a tense conclusion falls a bit flat. I’m not totally sure what Howe could have done – I’m not positive the book really needs an antagonist, although these kinds of books always do, so I guess Howe thought it was necessary. I’m a weird person in that the quest for the book and the interludes telling us what happened to Deliverance would probably have been good enough. But the final chunk of the book feels rushed, and if Howe was going to introduce a villain, she could have spent more time making one that is truly scary. The villain is not a bad character, but the “villain” part falls a bit short.
Overall, it’s a nice, interesting read, fairly forgettable but not regrettable. I’m just trying to figure out why my wife never read it …
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Green Arrow volume 1: The Death & Life of Oliver Queen by Benjamin Percy (writer), Otto Schmidt (artist/colorist), Juan Ferreyra (artist/colorist), Nate Piekos (letterer), and Jeb Woodard (collected editions editor). $16.99, 120 pgs, FC, DC.
The “Rebirth” trades are starting to roll in, because DC is publishing these suckers so fast that we get a trade’s-worth of issues PDQ. I didn’t love the first issue of Benjamin Percy’s Green Arrow, but one thing it did almost better than all the other “Rebirth” issues is actually tell a story rather than just resetting the status quo (it did that, too, by introducing Oliver to Dinah and then, because fiction always works this way, getting them into bed almost – but not quite – before they know each others’ names). So it was already more intriguing than a lot of the “Rebirth” issues, and Otto Schmidt’s art is pretty good and Juan Ferreyra’s is amazing, so I decided to check this out.
Percy introduces a human trafficking ring that is, Oliver discovers, somehow connected to Queen Industries, which leads to the shadowy figures in his own company to steal his fortune and try to kill him. The traffickers are a weird bunch called The Burned, who hang out in a bizarre floating colossus and make a lot of Dante references (the greater organization is called The Ninth Circle, while the Burned are just dudes who work for it). In this world of Green Arrow, Shado had a kid with Oliver’s father, and she – Emi – is hanging out with Oliver as well, until Shado shows up and makes Emi question her loyalties. Oliver has to fight back against the bad guys with no money and very few resources, but he has Dinah and John Diggle backing him up (it seems weird that a character created for the television show who’s named in homage to a comic book writer is now a character in the comic that the writer used to write, but there it is), as Percy is going for a “back-to-basics” version of GA in this arc, at least, because writers seem to think that super-rich crime fighters are boring even though they always like to have them play with a lot of toys that cost far more than they could afford if they weren’t super-rich. So Oliver learns lessons about friendship and trusting people and how money can’t buy everything, and Percy goes even further into the past by the end of the trade (the ending is … odd), and it’s all very competent but not terribly inspiring. I mentioned this when I read the “Rebirth” issue – Dinah criticizes Oliver for being rich because he claims he’s helping people, but it’s very hard to do what he wants to do without money, but she ignores that. So now Oliver has no money (I’m sure he’ll get it back, if he hasn’t already), but that means he’s just a guy who shoots people with arrows. Yes, he fights the bad guys (although it’s not terribly clear if he actually accomplishes anything tangible), but because the plot is fairly standard, Percy needs to make the character work more interesting, and he doesn’t do that all that well. We know Oliver is a decent dude, we know Dinah will come around and realize he’s a decent dude, and we know that Oliver doesn’t need to lose all his money to “become a hero” again or anything like that. So the arc becomes a boilerplate superhero story, which is fine, but nothing really special.
One of the reasons I did buy this is because I will buy almost anything Juan Ferreyra draws, and so if he’s drawing Green Arrow, I’m probably going to buy it. Schmidt draws the first three issues (“Rebirth” and #1-2), while Ferreyra draws issues #3-5. Schmidt is a fine artist, as his slightly more cartoony style works perfectly well for a superhero book, and his coloring for Dinah’s scream is terrific – he uses ragged circles that almost grate against the readers’ ears, and it’s probably the best representation of the “Canary cry” I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how dense Percy’s scripts are, but Schmidt does a really nice job with page layouts, using a lot of small panels to pack a lot onto each page while also doing some nice “camera angle” work to show, the power and evil of the bad guys in some instances and the imposing figure of Oliver in others. His coloring is astonishing, too – he uses a looser, more watercolor-y style than Ferrerya does later in the book, and that combined with his lighter line makes the art a bit less weighty, but the colors are still spectacular. He does a wonderful job with the brightness of Oliver and Dinah’s scenes as new lovers, suffusing everything with warm, welcoming orange, contrasting it well with the action scenes, with are usually at night. There’s a terrific full-page splash of Oliver having a nightmare as he descends from a warm, yellow “heaven” into a blood-red “hell,” and the shift works really well. Ferreyra is always inventive with page layouts, and his art is naturally superb – he’s become one of the best in the business at action scenes, both in laying out the panels and creating a wonderful sense of kinetic energy with his drawings. Schmidt doesn’t get to draw the floating fortress headquarters of The Ninth Circle very much, but his version is a bit smoother than Ferreyra’s, as his is a clunky, jagged mountain of terror. Ferreyra’s coloring is also staggering – his colors are a bit more “solid,” I suppose, than Schmidt’s, so they feel anchored to the pencil work a bit more, but he’s also able to blend, so that the scenes inside the fortress are tinged red most of the time, even as the characters’ green and blue come through nicely. Schmidt is good on the book, but Ferreyra is one of the best artists in the business right now, so of course I like his issues a bit more!
I’m faced with a conundrum going forward with this book. I’m sure the next arc will be more of the same, with Percy doing an okay job but not wowing anyone. However, I know both Schmidt and Ferreyra continue drawing (although I can’t remember if anyone else joins them), so that’s a major draw. Damn these good artists! So I’ll have a think about it. This trade, however, is fairly entertaining even though it treads very, VERY familiar ground, but man, is it pretty to look at. Dang.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
I read Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! years ago, when it came out (or soon after), and I loved it. I decided to re-read it even though I have so very many books that I haven’t read yet just for fun, and it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it. Sean Howe, who is probably more famous now for his history of Marvel Comics (which I haven’t read), edited this book and brought together a bunch of writers to write about their experiences with comics. Part of the attraction 13 years ago for me was that non-comics people didn’t often publicize their experience with comics, not because they were ashamed of it (of course, maybe they were), but because it wasn’t really part of the zeitgeist, even after several successful comic-book movies. Now, a lot of people express their views on comics, so it’s less of a revelation. More than that, though, I had forgotten the sameness of a lot of the essays in this book. Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Christopher Sorrentino, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Andrew Hultkrans all write, in one way or another, about Marvel in the 1960s and even into the 1970s and how “square” DC was compared to Marvel. Now, that’s been a cliché for a long time, but any publisher that gives us Doom Patrol or whatever the hell was coming out of the brains of Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney can’t be completely “square,” and the DC-in-the-1960s-bashing feels like a relic from a different age, even if the book is only 13 years old. Almost all of the writers aren’t connected with comics in the “present” of 2004, either (Brad Meltzer, who writes a pretty good if – shockingly – somewhat creepy essay about his love for Terra of the Teen Titans, is one exception), which makes their reminiscences seem a bit condescending (even Lethem, who wrote a really good Omega the Unknown mini-series a few years after this book was published, comes off that way a bit). The writers who discuss more “underground” stuff are a bit less so – Luc Sante writing about Tintin, Aimee Bender writes about Chester Brown, John Wray writes about Jim Woodring, Lydia Millet writes about Little Nemo in Slumberland (with a bit of smugness about her own writing), Myla Goldberg writes about Renée French and Chris Ware – but even Chris Offutt’s essay about NoMan of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Steve Erickson’s musing on American Flagg! has some of it. Only Greil Marcus, writing about Alex Ross’s and Steve Darnell’s U.S., and Glen David Gold, writing about his obsession with collecting, seem to take comics seriously enough without apologizing for loving them (the writers on “underground” stuff take the comics they examine seriously, but they still seem a bit embarrassed about liking them, as they seem to want to distance the works from the designation of “comics”).
It’s still a pretty good book, don’t get me wrong. Gary Giddins’s reminiscences about Classics Illustrated will make you want to track down every issue from the 1940s and 1950s, while Tom Piazza’s fictional account of Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro at a convention is hilarious. The insights are fascinating (“Steve Ditko’s Hands” by Hultkrans particularly), and the writers are all quite good, so the essays are entertaining. At this point in time, however, the book feels … less necessary, maybe? I mean, by 2004 I was well into my second decade of collecting comics, and if there’s one thing this ABBA-loving guy never needed, it’s validation for his pop culture loves, but it was still pretty keen to see a book in which various prose writers were writing about comics. These days, it’s more interesting to consider their attitudes both toward their childhoods and the current state of comics (the writers who discuss superheroes are almost unanimous that superheroes have nothing to offer serious critics, which I think is completely wrong, even if most superhero comics are fairly childish) rather than the fact that they’re actually writing about comics. Still, it’s a fun book. I should probably check out Howe’s Marvel Comics book, even though he only brought all these writers together.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Batman volume 1: I Am Gotham by Tom King (writer), Scott Snyder (writer), David Finch (penciller/inker), Mikel Janín (artist), Ivan Reis (penciller), Matt Banning (inker), Danny Miki (inker), Sandra Hope (inker), Joe Prado (inker), Oclair Albert (inker), Scott Hanna (inker), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), June Chung (colorist), Marcelo Maiolo (colorist), John Workman (letterer), Deron Bennett (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collected edition editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC.
I picked up the first trade of Batman despite the idiocy of the “Rebirth” issue (which is still idiotic on a re-read, and I even skipped the fact that Duke “applies for a job” with Batman by showing up at Wayne Manor – does everyone know Batman’s secret identity these days?), mainly because Tom King is a pretty good writer and Batman is my favorite character in comics, so I will always try to give his comics the benefit of the doubt. So I picked this up.
Like Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, which didn’t start terribly well and got steadily worse, this arc really isn’t all that good. King gives us two super-powered individuals, a brother and sister with the unbelievably original names of “Gotham” and “Gotham Girl” (wouldn’t it be nice if she was called “Gotham” and he was called “Gotham Boy?”). It turns out Batman rescued them and their parents years earlier from a very familiar-looking mugging (DC’s wonky timeline being what it is, everyone but their heroes age), so they were inspired to become superheroes, but because they didn’t have the revenge factor of Bruce Wayne nor the ridiculous amounts of money, they simply purchased superpowers in some shady foreign country (I’ll bet it was Canada – those Canadians are shifty!) and called it a day. That seems … responsible. Batman, for all his anger over the years about actual well-trained superheroes infringing on “his” territory, accepts them really quickly, but of course shit goes sideways just as quickly (20-page issues means that everything happens quickly in DC and Marvel books these days). If you guessed that their parents would end up dead, well, gold star for you, and Gotham goes a bit wacky when Professor Hugo Strange uses the Psycho-Pirate to mess with the kids’ emotions. So Gotham goes batty (yay, puns!), Gotham Girl is terrified of her shadow, and Batman has to take down the rogue superhero.
The plot is dumb, but it’s a superhero comic – dumbness is kind of what we expect. As with everything, it’s in the execution, and the book never feels like there are any stakes because Gotham and Gotham Girl are such cardboard characters and even Batman is kind of a wuss. He’s fought superpowered people before, but when the chips are down in his battle with Gotham, he calls in the Justice League. Really, Batman? The existence of the Justice League (or, really, any one superpowered person) is always a tough nut to crack for Batman writers, because why doesn’t he just call them all the time, but most writers choose to ignore it and just hope we suspend our disbelief in that regard. I’m not sure if King is lampshading this at all, because Gotham, despite being a neophyte, takes out the entire League (even Superman!) in 2½ pages, so maybe King is pointing out why Batman doesn’t call them in because they do, indeed, suck. It doesn’t feel that way, though – it feels like King needs to prove that Gotham is super-tough so that his defeat is more meaningful, but it just makes the other DC characters look ridiculous and it makes Batman look weak.
Interestingly, the first issue of the arc, before Gotham and Gotham Girl show up (as they do, essentially, on the last page), is quite well done. A passenger plane is about to land on Gotham, which will result in the deaths of thousands, and Batman has to figure out a way to land it safely … from the ground. King offers up a slightly ridiculous but still almost plausible way for Batman to land the plane, and that shows us how good Batman is at his job. Too often, we see the aftereffects of Batman being good at his job, and we have to imagine all the preparation that went into it. King takes us through Batman’s plan, step-by-step, and it’s very clever. Sure, he needs the two superpowered individuals to save him, but King could have easily changed the scenario enough so it’s all Batman. I love the hyper-prepared Batman – not necessarily the Morrisonian “Batgod” who can anticipate scenarios from a decade in the future, but just a guy who knows himself and his equipment so well that he can even think about getting onto a plane from the ground and landing it. Then we get the goofiness of the rest of the trade, unfortunately. We get a goofy scheme involving Amanda Waller apparently thinking that she could use Psycho-Pirate to … neuter everyone in the city? Because then there wouldn’t be any crime? Man, what a bad idea. And Psycho-Pirate is in costume for one (1) panel in this trade (he’s only in the book for a few pages total), and apparently he can affect emotions even after he leaves and goes to, let’s say, the Caribbean? Is that right? Is that something that Psycho-Pirate was always capable of? I thought that he had to be present to mess with you, but he turns Gotham and Gotham Girl into puddles and they stay that way. That’s a minor complaint, because the big scheme is dumb anyway, but it seems like P-P is really, really powerful in this book, and I don’t remember him being that powerful. The whole thing with Amanda Waller brainwashing the population of a city (or maybe she just wants to brainwash the criminals?) is so dumb I can overlook the weird use of the Psycho-Pirate.
Anyway, Finch’s art is Finch’s art – you either like or you don’t, and nothing he does here is going to change your mind. I like it when he has Matt Banning as an inker – Danny Miki is fine, I guess, but he tends to smooth out Finch’s rough edges a bit too much, and Sandra Hope goes even further with that, and a smoothed-out Finch is a far less interesting Finch. But he has a style, and everyone knows what it is, so your enjoyment of the art depends on whether you like Finch. I do, but I recognize his limitations. I think he’s a pretty good Batman artist, but he’s not spectacular. The art isn’t going to ruin your enjoyment of this comic unless you really hate Finch. What’s going to ruin your enjoyment is the silly plot.
It’s too bad – King, as I noted last month when I reviewed The Vision, has written some very cool comics. But this arc of Batman, at least, was pretty weak. Oh well.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Conan volume 20: A Witch Shall Be Born by Fred van Lente (writer), Brian Ching (artist), José Luis (penciler), Andy Owens (inker), Michael Atiyeh (colorist), Richard Starkings (letterer), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), Rachel Roberts (assistant editor), and Aaron Walker (editor). $19.99, 132 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
Twenty volumes in, and Conan just keeps trucking along. This is the final arc of Fred van Lente’s and Brian Ching’s run (although Ching, naturally, didn’t draw every issue), and just like the previous 19 volumes, it’s a solidly entertaining story. Dark Horse keeps getting good creators on the book, but it’s still impressive that there really hasn’t been a bad trade in over ten years. In this one, a good queen is replaced by her evil twin sister, who was left in the desert when she was a baby because she had the mark of the witch (a red crescent shape between her boobs), but she didn’t die. Instead, she became a witch (I know, shocking!) and decided to take her sister’s place. Conan, who happens to be the captain of the queen’s guard, smells a rat, gets all stroppy when the fake queen starts changing things, and is crucified out in the desert. Of course he doesn’t die, and he spends the rest of the book building an army to take the country back and rescue the queen. It’s a very “Conan” kind of story, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Van Lente can write a good comic in his sleep, and Ching’s angular, scratchy art works well for the rough-hewn world of Conan. Conan acts like Conan, battles are fought, monsters are encountered, and the good guys win, naturally. It’s certainly a bit of a “lesser” Conan story in that even Conan’s crucifixion seems almost like a minor inconvenience to him, so the stakes feel somewhat low, but it’s still another entertaining story from this creative team. I really can’t stress how impressive it is that Dark Horse is cranking out good Conan stories for over a decade. It’s pretty keen.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
House of Penance by Peter J. Tomasi (writer), Ian Bertram (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Nate Piekos (letterer), Cardner Clark (assistant editor), and Daniel Chabon (editor). $19.99, 155 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
Ian Bertram is an artist with an unusual, haunting style, which is terrific when he’s unleashed but which we don’t get to see that often because he doesn’t do a ton of work. I don’t know if he’s slow or if he has a better-paying job elsewhere (I hope the latter), but it’s kind of a special event when we get six issues of pure, unadulterated Bertram art (with gorgeous Dave Stewart colors), because it’s just so unsettling to look at. House of Penance is a horror comic, to a certain degree, so Bertram drawing it is a terrific idea, and he brings his A game to the proceedings. His characters, with their exaggerated thinness or girth or broad shoulders, their distended necks, their giant almond eyes set inside too-big heads, are eerie and disturbing, and Bertram uses excessive hatching and stippling to make their skin look stretched, battered, and worn. As Sarah Winchester descends further into madness, her eyes seem to get bigger, and as Warren Peck joins her in descent, the scar running vertically down his face seems to get more prominent, until he regains his senses and it recedes. Bertram uses even more lines when he draws the terrifying world behind the mirror that only Sarah can see, so as her madness increases, we get heavy hatching on the stuff in the “real world” to show how things are bleeding through (Sarah’s sister, who isn’t a terribly nice person but is still completely separate from the madness, is by far the “cleanest” character in terms of lack of hatching on her face, hair, and clothing). Bertram makes the Winchester House an epic maze, with towering statues standing guard on the grounds, towers rising haphazardly from the buildings, and spacious rooms empty of furnishings. As the blood of Sarah’s guilt becomes overwhelming, Bertram turns the panels topsy-turvy, almost shaking the spirit world that only Sarah can see loose into the “real” world, with sturdy panel borders the only thing holding it back. The tubular, wormy blood that seeps into the panels from very early in the book, infecting the workers with violent madness that sparks late in the book, is a creepy reminder that not only is Sarah going mad, but the men working for her are not immune, either. Stewart gets to use a lot of red, but he also colors much of the spirit world a pale blue, contrasting nicely with the bright red and also invoking the melancholy that Sarah feels all the time. Even as she goes mad, she remains a pitiable and even sympathetic figure, due in large part to the way Bertram and Stewart present her and her world.
Peter Tomasi has never written a masterpiece (Light Brigade comes closest, but of course I haven’t read everything he’s written), and he doesn’t write one here, but House of Penance is a solid horror thriller about the depths of guilt, the lengths we go to atone, and whether that’s enough. He changes historical facts to fit his narrative, which is fine (Sarah Winchester was about 65 in 1905, when the book is set, but she looks much younger; her husband died earlier than it says in the book; her daughter died much earlier than it says in the book and not around the time her husband did; Sarah herself died in 1922, not 1906 like in the book), as he gets the basic idea of Sarah Winchester, a woman haunted by what her husband’s company did for a living, which is produce guns that, naturally, kill people. The story of the Winchester House is, I guess, well-known (I’ve known about it since I was an adolescent, but I don’t know if I’m unusual), and Alan Moore, of course, wrote a Swamp Thing story about it in the 1980s, but Tomasi eases up on the supernatural elements of Moore’s story and focuses on the everyday people – Sarah and Warren Peck, but also the rest of the workers. The house is a refuge for people with violent sins in their pasts, as Peck discovers when he happens to come across the house and is told so by Murcer, the foreman. Peck himself is a killer, and he’s haunted like Sarah is by the victims he’s dispatched. As Sarah sinks into madness, Peck is fighting his own struggles, and Tomasi does a nice job showing their concurrent journeys toward some kind of redemption. For Sarah, redemption comes from building the house. Peck is drawn into this mania she has, and he begins to share it. But what he has that Sarah doesn’t is a human focus – he doesn’t exactly fall in love with Sarah, but he sees her as someone who needs protecting, and this helps him resist the madness even though she can’t. Tomasi cleverly ties Sarah’s loathing of violence into historical events, so when the violence erupts, we see a natural reason for what happens while Sarah sees a supernatural consequence. It’s a bit too tidy a conclusion, but it’s not a terrible one. Tomasi gets a bit too cute with Sarah’s predictive abilities, but the story has shifted from her journey to Peck’s, so while she has calmed herself, she is still subject to flights of fancy, while Peck has accepted both sides of his nature and realizes he can live with the violent part of himself. Sarah’s journey is more spectacular, but Peck’s is a bit more believable.
House of Penance is an entertaining comic that takes the easy way a bit too much, but is still a creepy, disturbing, effective tale. The artwork does a lot to help it, but Tomasi does a nice job giving us characters who are compelling and sympathetic. He doesn’t quite earn the ending, but other than that, it’s a neat comic.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
I think The Shadow Glass is Aly Fell’s first full-length comic series, and if it is, it’s an impressive achievement. She was an animator and she did some covers for Asylum Press, but it seems like this is the first story she’s done. It’s a beautiful book, fully painted (digitally, of course, but it still looks amazing), and Fell shows that she’s a pretty good storyteller as well as being an excellent artist. Her story takes place in Elizabethan England and features John Dee, so it’s already veering toward cliché, but Fell does some nice things with what is basically the story of idiot men trying to call up a demon. The protagonist, a girl named Rosalind, is an unofficial student of Dee’s (because she’s a girl), and Fell uses some standard tropes to imply that she’s a lesbian even before it’s obvious, from her desire for knowledge and her small skill at sword fighting to her masculine dress, which she prefers to dresses. The story takes place in 1582, so obviously Rosalind isn’t going to be too overt, but Fell makes a good case for her wanting to be “masculine” but not really understanding herself (until a bit later in the book). Meanwhile, Dee and a rascally sort of fellow, Thomas Hughes, are trying to call up a demon using an obsidian mirror that Hughes stole from a Spaniard who had stolen it from the Aztecs, and after they fail in 1562, 20 years later they succeed. Rosalind, seeking answers about her parentage (her father admits that he’s not her father), returns to Dee’s house, where she sneaks out at night and sees them calling up the spirit, who calls herself Manimi. Of course, Manimi escapes the circle that binds her, seduces Rosalind, and promises that they will run away and do whatever they want together. Rosalind should know that you can’t trust a spirit! So we learn about Rosalind’s true father, we discover that Manimi is far more than Rosalind suspected, and things go pear-shaped rather quickly. Of course they do!
Hughes’s scheme doesn’t make a ton of sense, because it’s unclear what he wants. Dee and Edward Kelley, who assists in the summoning ritual, claim they want knowledge beyond the realm of men, which is nice and vague, but Hughes is a douchebag, so I’m sure he doesn’t care too much about esoteric knowledge. So as an antagonist, he’s scary but not particularly compelling. Far more interesting is Rosalind’s relationship with Manimi, which drives the book. Rosalind is mesmerized by the spirit, who appears to her as a stunningly beautiful angel, and so it’s easy to see why she would have sex with Manimi, but it’s also clear that, as a fairly sheltered 18-year-old in Elizabethan England, Rosalind lets her guard down far too much. She steals the “shadow glass” that Hughes, Kelley, and Dee used to summon Manimi, which brings Hughes’s wrath down on her, but she resists him valiantly, and it’s fascinating, because we can guess that falling in love with Manimi is a really bad idea, but it gives Rosalind such strength that she becomes a formidable adversary for Hughes, even as he outsmarts her (again, she’s still a fairly naïve girl). Rosalind does a nice job showing the twin sides of obsession – Hughes is so obsessed with whatever Manimi has to offer that he commits any sort of sin to obtain it, while Rosalind becomes so obsessed with lust that she is blind to what’s really going on. It makes the book much more interesting – Hughes is definitely the bad guy and Rosalind is definitely the … good guy, sort of (she’s not evil, let’s put it that way), but as we move through the book, we learn that … they’re not so different!!!!
As I noted, Fell’s art is spectacular. She brings Elizabethan England to full life through the architecture, the scenery, and most of all the fashion. Rosalind’s insistence on wearing men’s clothing is, of course, much more striking in an age where clothing was far more delineated by sex, and she stands out well, to the degree that at least one passer-by condemns her for her choice of clothing. Fell’s details are terrific – she is especially good with Manimi’s face, as we can see how devious the spirit is just by the way she smiles or cocks her head, things the characters in the book don’t read as well. The final chapter is great, as we see Manimi as she really is and Rosalind realizes what has happened to her, and the way Fell draws Rosalind’s dawning consciousness is superb and heartbreaking. Her painted coloring is excellent, too, as she uses shading very well to keep the dull browns of Elizabethan England from becoming drudging, and when Rosalind is outdoors, Fell uses much brighter colors to wonderful effect. The sex scene between Rosalind and Manimi isn’t too graphic, but it is highly erotic, and that’s crucial to showing the path Rosalind has taken. Fell’s drawing of the women and the colors she uses for the scene are important to creating the effect, and she’s very good at it.
The Shadow Glass has some issues, but it shows a very talented creator doing her own thing and bringing a very specific time period to radiant life. I don’t know what Fell is doing next, but I’ll be looking out for it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Goddamned volume 1: Before the Flood by Jason Aaron (writer), R.M. Guéra (artist), Guilia Brusco (colorist), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer), and Sebastian Griner (editor). $9.99, 121 pgs, FC, Image.
Jason Aaron’s, R.M. Guéra’s, and Giulia Brusco’s masterpiece, Scalped, was a fairly bleak comic. I mean, lots of people died, sure, but a lot of people who survived found themselves trapped in situations and couldn’t get out of them. It was bleak, sure, but what made it great was the way Aaron slowly revealed this about the characters and how desperate and impotent they really were. However, the characters in Scalped take a look at The Goddamned and think their lives are pleasant drives through the countryside while eating scones, because The Goddamned is motherfucking bleak. To the point where it’s actually unpleasant and even pointless to read. It’s not something I have any interest in reading more of, because nobody in here is even that interesting to overcome their utter nihilism. Cain is the protagonist, and he’s been wandering the Earth for 1600 years, ever since God threw everyone out of Eden. He can’t die, of course, because God marked him after he killed his brother (I never quite understood that, myself, but whatevs), so he wanders around in an absolute shithole of a world, looking for something to kill him. According to him, only the Nephilim can kill him, so that’s what he’s looking for. Along the way he meets Noah, who’s busy collecting animals for his ark, and Noah becomes the villain of the story, which makes a bit of sense because he is, after all, ignoring the plight of humanity so that he and his sons can live on. He knows he’s the chosen one, so he thinks nothing of killing people who get in his way – they’re already dead, so who cares?
The comic, as I noted, is unremittingly unpleasant, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. What makes it bad is that Aaron doesn’t seem to care about any of the characters, so there’s no reason for us to care. Why should I read something in which the “hero” is the world’s first murderer and only wants to die and doesn’t really have much of a reason for his change of heart? Where Noah is a fat, disgusting slob who doesn’t seem to deserve to live any more than any of the other people on this blighted world? Why did God pick Noah, in this comic? Cain and Noah are both very aware that God is real and listens to people, so it’s not like Noah is delusional (I mean, he might be, but it’s not the natural thing to assume), so why would God choose this scumbag? The answer, of course, is that God has a “sick sense of humour,” to quote Martin Gore, but that’s also a lousy reason to read the book. Cain decides to sort-of do the right thing at the end of the book, but of course that goes to shit as well. It’s not a terribly well-constructed story, as the one twist is easy to see coming, and no one, even Cain, is all that interesting, so the bleakness is all the book has, and that’s far from enough.
Even Guéra’s absolutely stunning art can’t quite save the comic, and that’s partly to do with Brusco’s dark coloring during the climactic scenes. A lot of the book occurs during the day, and Brusco’s earth tones are fine (and her coloring on the brief Garden of Eden scene is wonderful), but at night, she overdoes the blues so that Guéra’s amazing pencil work gets lost a bit. But Guéra’s beautiful work makes the world a true shithole, and while it sounds contradictory, it really is amazing how well he gives us a world that’s gone to hell. His details are stunning – he gives us skeletons lying on the sides of roads, dogs eating corpses on the edges of settlements, strange beasts that might not make it onto the ark, a wide range of body types for the men (naturally, the only woman in the book is somehow attractive), and a plethora of brutality that makes the book uncomfortable to read, in a good way. His inks are ragged and ferocious, making these people little more than animals, so we can certainly believe that God would want to wipe them from the face of the planet. When Aga finds her son (helping her is what makes Cain act like a hero, even for a short time), Guéra does a superb job showing the joy on her face, even though it doesn’t last. Guéra has always been excellent at fight scenes, too, and Aaron gives him plenty of them, so the book feels kinetic and flows well. If you just want to look at the pretty drawings and skip the words, well, I can’t fault you for that.
It’s too bad about this, because Aaron and Guéra are a good team. It’s just a lot of unpleasantness (if you’ve even wanted to hear Adam and Eve trade foul-mouthed insults, this book’s for you!) with no real point except to show that everyone sucks. Yeah, thanks. I already knew that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Phantom: Danger in the Forbidden City by Peter David (writer), Sal Velluto (penciler/inker), Jonathan D. Hallett (inker), Malena Molina (inker), Eugenio Mattozzi (colorist), and Ken Bruzenak (letterer). $19.99, 120 pgs, FC, Hermes Press.
Back when the first issue of The Phantom was solicited, I confidently thought, “I’ll wait for the trade.” Yeah, that was almost three years ago – this series took a REALLY long time to come out, and the trade was resolicited, too. So I’ve been waiting for this for a while, but it’s not as bad as those people who bought single issues, I imagine, because I hadn’t read one or two of the issues and was forced to wait! I don’t know why it was delayed – Velluto inks the first four issues completely and then needs help in the final two, so maybe he just got behind, but now it’s all between two covers, so we can enjoy it the way it was meant to!
David divides comics fans, it seems, more than a lot of writers. Perhaps it’s because he’s so prolific, so that a lot of comics fans have read a lot of his comics, so they can form opinions about him, but a lot of people, I know, find his reliance on puns cringe-worthy, and that’s fair. I don’t think he uses them as much as some people do, or maybe they just don’t bother me that much, so David is a writer I’m always interested in, even if he misses with some things. One thing I like about David is his commitment to long-term stories, which is why I love that he does runs of books that last for years. But he writes very good short adventures, too, which is what this book is. The six issues form one story, but David still finds time to re-introduce very old Phantom characters, bring in several antagonists, and tell a rip-roaring adventure as well. Basically, the Phantom and his wife, Diana, are asked to help out an African tribe which has been visited by pirates. The pirates are looking for Ophir, the city of gold, and the Phantom has a long history of not liking pirates, so he’s in. The pirates kidnap the daughter and granddaughter of the chief, so the Phantom has extra motivation. Along the way, he meets up with Jimmy Wells, a very thinly-veiled Tarzan analog who appeared in 1936 as a possible identity of the Phantom before Lee Falk decided to go a different way. It seems that David gave him the origin that he tells in this comic, which is such a rip-off (I suppose it’s an “homage”) of Tarzan I’m surprised no one got sued. He’s married to the Baroness, another Phantom character from 1936. David does a good job integrating both of the characters into the book, and the friendly rivalry the Phantom and Wells have plus the grudging friendship that grows between Diana and the Baroness are very well done. They all end up in Ophir, of course, where they fight the pirates and the queen, who has some secrets of her own (and knows Wells, of course, because Africa is such a small continent). There’s a lot of derring-do, intrigue, and some humor, which is all very Davidian, so it’s not surprising. It’s a fun comic.
Velluto isn’t as well known in the States as maybe he should be, mainly because he doesn’t work in this country exclusively. He’s been drawing comics for a long time, and has nice runs on Moon Knight and Black Panther under his belt, as well as work on Justice League Task Force, but recently he’s been working for tiny publishers (Penny-Farthing Press, which I’m shocked to see is still in business, and for which he did the criminally under-rated Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril with Joshua Dysart) or out of the country. He’s always been a good, solid artist, but when he has time (which he obviously did for this comic), he can do stellar work. His rich detailed work brings Africa to vibrant life, and he does superb work on the full-page splashes throughout the book – in one, the Phantom and Diana are riding through the jungle, and Velluto draws the beautiful lush vegetation around them and the flowing stream beside them exquisitely. Each location is fully realized, so that Diana’s office is utilitarian because it’s a simple work place while Jimmy’s home is ultra-modern and sleek, modeled after Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and perfect for a rich mid-century playboy (the story is obviously set some time in the late 1940s or 1950s, but that’s as specific as it gets). Ophir, meanwhile, is a stunning city of gold, with several different kinds of architecture, implying that they have been around long enough to influence or be influenced by several centuries’ worth of building designs. Velluto draws some terrific action scenes, too, including a really nice aerial dogfight, and while all the main characters (including the pirate captain) are fairly attractive, they’re attractive in different ways, which is interesting (the Phantom never takes off his mask and cowl, either, which is kind of neat but makes me wonder what his and Diana’s romantic life is like). Velluto uses good page layouts and panel designs to make each book feel longer than the standard 20-pager (which these are), so while David, it seems, can be a verbose writer, the artist needs to figure out how to get all of that on the page without cluttering it up, and Velluto is up to the task. Mattozzi’s colors are great, too – he does that digital rendering which can be the bane of an artist, but Velluto has strong enough lines and powerful enough inking that the colors end up augmenting the line art rather than obliterating it. Mattozzi uses vivid colors to make the book feel more like an adventure, as despite the danger our characters are put in, we’re never that worried about them, so Mattozzi doesn’t create a moody tone, but more of a high-spirited one. David is capturing that tone in the script, and Velluto and Mattozzi mirror it in the art.
This mini-series isn’t going to change the world or anything, but it’s the kind of big adventure that is just a joy to read. I know we have a lot of old fogies reading this blog, and if they already didn’t know about this mini-series, maybe they should go check it out so they can read it while keeping kids off their lawns. It’s a blast.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Scarlet Witch volume 2: World of Witchcraft by James Robinson (writer), Marguerite Sauvage (artist/colorist), Annie Wu (artist), Tula Lotay (artist/colorist), Joëlle Jones (artist), Kei Zama (artist), Mike Perkins (artist), Muntsa Vicente (colorist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colorist), Ian Herring (colorist), Andy Troy (colorist), Cory Petit (letterer), Travis Lanham (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collections editor). $15.99, 115 pgs, FC, Marvel.
Robinson’s Scarlet Witch series is a hoot, mainly because of the conceit of using one artist per issue, which isn’t a new concept recently but is always kind of fun. His overall plot – that Wanda needs to “save” witchcraft – is fine, but Robinson and Wanda don’t seem to care all that much about it, as she takes her time getting to it and gets diverted by many things. Robinson, like John Ostrander in his Suicide Squad days, is keen on expanding the Marvel Superhero Universe beyond the United States, so he gives us a story starring Le Peregrine (who first appeared in 1982 and whose name, as Robinson points out, is grammatically incorrect in French, where he’s “Le Faucon Pèlerin”) but hints at other French superheroes, at least one of whom is a pre-existing character, and he introduces Alice Gulliver – the Wu – in Doctor Strange: Last Days of Magic (reprinted in this volume) and uses her in an issue set in Hong Kong. In France, Wanda has to convince Alain Racine to continue with his superheroing after his wife’s death, and she uses his wife’s ghost to do so; in Hong Kong, Wanda and the Wu fight a mystical crime boss, and Robinson resolves it rather cleverly; Wanda visits a therapist who is, naturally, more than he seems (and even someone like me who isn’t up on the Marvel Universe as much as some others knew who he was, probably because I think he’s done this before); Wanda and Pietro disagree over Civil War II, which Robinson makes fun of a bit (“The thing between Steve and Tony that happened a while back?” which frustrates Pietro to no end) and ends with Wanda telling Pietro she never wants to see him again (which feels a bit forced, but oh well – at least that’s the extent of Civil War crap in this book); Wanda travels to Kyoto to find out who killed a warlock and why no one seems to remember certain aspects of his life. Robinson works well within the constraints of the 20-page story – only the final issue feels a bit rushed – and while I don’t know if he’s going to get to finish his grand plot, he does move it along incrementally.
The stars of the series are the artists, though. Sauvage draws the French issue, using her light line and muted colors to create a dreamy, romantic feel, which fits the love story Robinson is telling. She also uses marvelous page designs and panel borders the move our eye across the pages, swooping and flowing to make the dreaminess even more obvious. Wu’s rough lines fits the hard-boiled tone of the Hong Kong story, as Alice is a police detective who uses magic subtly to make her weapons more effective, because she doesn’t want anyone to know that she uses magic. Lotay is still not the smoothest artist when it comes to action, but she is quite good at using colors to set a mood and create an effect of unreality, as well as showing subtle facial expressions and body language, so she’s a good artist for the issue with the therapist, which features a lot of talking. Jones is probably the best “action” artist of the group, so she gets to draw a bit of fighting, but her angular style also fits the break between Wanda and Pietro, as they’re both too hard to yield and Jones shows that in her line work. I was unfamiliar with Zama’s work, but it’s stunning – she’s based in Japan, so she knows what she’s drawing, and her beautiful winter scenery is a highlight of the issue, but she handles the big evil thing very well, too. Marvel has gotten really good artists to work on this book so far, and while Robinson’s story is interesting, the art makes the book far better than it might otherwise be.
It is, unfortunately, a bit thin, but it’s still priced pretty well – five issues of a Marvel series would be 20 dollars, and you get it plus the Wu’s origin for 16 – but it still feels slight. That’s the way Marvel’s trades work these days, but I just wanted to warn you that it doesn’t feel as hefty as it should. So sad!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
A Train Called Love by Garth Ennis (writer), Mark Dos Santos (artist), Andrew Elder (colorist), Salvatore Aiala Studios (colorist), Rob Steen (letterer), Simon Bowland (letterer), and Joe Rybandt (editor). $29.99, 232 pgs, FC, Dynamite.
As some of you might recall, Garth Ennis is one of my favorite comics writers, and Hitman remains the second-best comic I’ve ever read. Not everything he writes is great or even good, though, and it seems that the less editorial interference he has, the worse his stuff gets. His worst tendencies reached a nadir about 5-10 years ago, while he was writing The Boys and some other less-than-good stuff, but recently he’s been on an upswing, so I was keen to read A Train Called Love even though it was written for Dynamite, where I’m not sure he has editorial … let’s call it “guidance” (despite the presence of an editor on this book, I don’t know how much the editor actually did). But I’m glad I did, because this book is a hoot.
It’s an Ennis romance, so there’s going to be some … irregular arenas of sex, to say the least, but it’s very funny, very violent, and not mean-spirited at all, which is what Ennis seemed to be turning into a decade ago. I know you don’t like superheroes, Garth, so why did you write a 60-issue diatribe about how horrible they are? Did anyone really need that? Anyway, here Ennis is channeling his inner Doug Liman and John August, the director and writer of Go, the 1999 movie that features a bunch of actors caught up in a drug deal that goes horribly wrong and tells the story from several different points of view (Go is a terrific movie, by the way). In A Train Called Love, we get a drug deal gone horribly wrong, but we also get a bunch of other plots, and it’s probably easiest to list them, bullet-pont style!
- Valerie goes across the street to confront a pervert who’s spying on her, where she meets Myles, who just so happens to be finishing up killing said pervert. They fall in love immediately. Myles is working for a gangster for … reasons. Which are both poignant and, it turns out, hilarious.
- Marv, Jev, Chip, and Mike have in their possession a crapload of cocaine, and they’re trying to sell it. To the same gangster that Myles works for. Of course. They’re not very good at it.
- Penny (Valerie’s sister) and Marv are a couple, but Penny caught Marv doing something for which he must atone. It’s one of those sexual irregularities that Ennis enjoys, but he plays it totally for humor.
- Jev is dating Beverly, who has a terrible (and hilarious) secret in her past. Marv finds out, but doesn’t know what to do with his knowledge.
- Mike is black (the other three want him in their drug deal because they think the black gangster will be impressed with his “gangsta” cred even though he’s from the suburbs), and he’s tutoring a hot teenager whose parents have a dark secret. Hilarity ensues.
- Marcy is a singer whose best friend is Penny but who is obviously in romantic love with her, even though Penny remains oblivious.
- Dave is a struggling actor and a friend of the four guys, and he meets his action-movie hero and gets some hilarious advice on how to make it in Hollywood.
- There’s also an inexplicable neo-Nazi working for the gangster, who is, as I noted, black. Nobody thinks this is unusual until the very end of the book, when things go pear-shaped.
Ennis throws his characters in and out of danger and other hilarious situations, but there’s some very nice writing here. Valerie is attracted to Myles because she’s a bit of a danger junkie, but they really do love each other and have a very interesting, if a bit unorthodox, relationship. The four drug-dealing dudes are pathetic, sure, but they’re not irredeemable, as Marv really does want to make his relationship with Penny work and Chip, the least developed of them all, actually has a wife and kid and he seems perfectly fulfilled. Penny isn’t trying to be cruel to Marcy, but she really doesn’t get that Marcy is into her, and the way Marcy’s story unfolds is actually heart-breaking. Even Dave’s story, which is separate from the others’ for most of the book and is by far the goofiest, brings up several nasty truths that we’d rather not think about (well, I say “truths,” but Ennis could be talking out of his ass – it certainly feels like something that happens!). There’s a lot of nudity (both female and male), a lot of ultra-violence (guts, brains, you get the gist), but it’s still a comedy, and it’s still a love story, and someone who wrote the magnificent love stories of Tommy Monaghan and Natt the Hat and Jesse Custer and Tulip knows how to write a good romance.
Dos Santos’s cartoonish art is a good fit for the series, as well. He never lets things get too awful, even as bodies are getting blown apart or the Nazi hitman finds himself in a precarious position on an escalator. He does a really nice job with the sight gags, from the way the giant gangster gets serviced sexually to the way Dave discovers how he’s supposed to get ahead in Hollywood. His characters are great – very expressive and occasionally very sexy (both the men and the women), but also capable of being utterly goofy. Valerie does this a lot – she has big boobs and she’s naked throughout a really nicely-written scene where she learns more about Myles, but she’s also goofily adorable when she thinks about shooting guns but she only knows about guns from action movies. Every character gets moments like this – Beverly, for instance, is a very sweet girl, but when she finally reveals her secret, Dos Santos does a wonderful job showing both her enthusiasm and mania, which is utterly endearing and slightly disturbing. Ennis comes up with some unusual ways to die, and Dos Santos does a very nice job bringing them to life.
I know Ennis never went anywhere, but he still seems to be in a mid-career renaissance (he started so young it’s still hard to believe that he just turned 47 this month), and I’m pretty happy about that. I really like reading Ennis’s comics, so I was sad for those years when his stuff just wasn’t interesting to me (I still can’t deal with the Punisher, even if Ennis is writing him) or downright bad. This is a very cool comic, and it’s a very good example of all the things Ennis is really good at.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Well, that’s all I have this month. This doesn’t include the stuff I bought last week, but I’m already behind in the new year, so I’ll probably include that stuff in my February post. Sigh. There’s not enough time to read all the good comics in the world! Anyway, if you’re interested in buying any of these, you can click on the link below and I’ll get some money, even if you go buy something else completely unrelated to comics! I know I tell you that every month, but I hope you don’t mind, because it is nice to get a little money out of this venture. But it’s your choice! Thanks for reading, and I hope everyone has a good February!