GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "A" Page 2


Alias: Come Home 2003 (SC TPB) 128 pages

Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Illustrated by Michael Gaydos.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: Richard Starkings, Jason Levine, Wes Abbott. Editor: Stuart Moore.

Reprinting: Alias #11-15 (2002)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for mature readers

Published by Marvel Comics

Alias was a comic book series about a female private eye that had no connection to the TV series about the female spy (how two projects ended up with the same title almost simultaneously, I dunno). Though a "mature readers" comic, with plenty of cussing and adult subject matter (though no nudity or anything, at least not in this volume), it's also squarely set in the familiar Marvel universe, and the heroine, Jessica Jones, is an ex-super hero, now working as a plain clothes private eye. I say that up front, because I had assumed the series was just a regular private eye saga, isolated from Marvel's regular continuity. So it's a bit jarring when characters start talking about mutants and super-heroes, and characters refer cryptically to Jessica's "powers" (though they aren't manifested in these issues). I had then thought she was some old super hero, dusted off for this new series -- but apparently not, she was created for this comic (though there was some suggestion, when Bendis came up with the idea, it was going to be about Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman).

Anyway, this -- the second TPB collection (I think the whole series has been collected as TPBs) -- involves a four part story where Jessica comes to a small town, hired to find a missing teenage girl, and a final, character focused issue.

Among other things, Bendis has had an acclaimed run on Daredevil -- a couple of story arcs of which I was underwhelmed by. Bendis seems very much to be at the forefront of the "decompression" movement in modern comics (as I've heard it called) where stories are stttrrrretched out and the pacing sloooowwed down, and stories that once might've taken an issue now can take five or six. Theoretically it's too make for better, richer, more sophisticated and subtle stories...cynically, one could also argue it's because the writers are eyeing the TPB collection down the line and, frankly, it can be easier, as the writer has to come up with fewer ideas per month.

Alias is very much of the decompression school, where the story creeps along, and conversations get stretched out over a series of pages. One kind of gets the impressions Bendis is probably a big fan of scriptwriters like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, because his style of dialogue goes for the same style of lots of rapid fire repetition and half-formed, interrupted sentences. It's a style that can work when actors say it (and can also fall flat), but can be more problematic in a comic. It can seem a tad too...self-conscious, at times. It's supposed to be "real", but can seem as transparently mannered as any comic booky "Take that, you vile villain you!" In a way, there can be a feeling that Bendis is more concerned with how his characters talk than what they're saying. There's the old adage that "less can be more" and one can't help thinking Bendis could learn from that.

As the story unfolds, Jessica discovers there was a rumour the missing girl was a mutant, and learns the local priest preaches anti-mutant sermons. In other words, she discovers there's a dark underbelly to this idyllic small town. But it's not like it's a particularly novel concept -- a small town with a bigoted heart? Who'd a thunk it? And that's where Bendis' style becomes problematic, because one suspects he wants his story to be as much a portrait of the town as anything, but for me the long, oh-so clever conversations kind of undermined the immediacy, the reality of the story -- the humanity -- when it is, I assume, supposed to enhance it. We actually get surprisingly little portrait of the town as a whole.

And the story itself is a bit of a shaggy dog story -- and Bendis doesn't even try to hide it, as the issues trundle by and we realize we aren't really being offered any concrete clues, or potential suspects. In fact, when Jessica finally gets the crucial information -- it's from a character that I'm not sure had appeared before, and where it's unclear why Jessica thought he knew anything! Again, it's as if Bendis is so concerned with his style, his scenes, he has little interest in the greater whole of plot development.

Now, with all those negatives, I don't want to be too harsh. I have mixed feelings about Bendis' dialogue -- but mixed means it's not all bad. There can be some cute exchanges, and there can be a kind of hypnotic rhythm to it all. And there can be an effectiveness here and there. But, again, I say: less is more.

Michael Gaydos' art is also mixed. On one hand, I like it, with its kind of broody, scratchy realism, nicely suited to this story that is meant to be realist (super hero background notwithstanding). I'm guessing Gaydos uses photo references for his characters and wonder if he might even use celebrities -- Jessica herself reminds me a bit of Janis Joplin, while a local sheriff she meets is reminiscent of actor Luke Wilson. But Gaydos' art also reflects a trend that also is part of the decompression movement -- where an artist will literally reuse the same picture over again.

Nothing perhaps draws attention to an inherent lack of drama to some of Bendis' dialogue than the fact that Gaydos will simply re-cycle the same reaction shot over and over (and over!) again, indicating he didn't feel there was anything in the dialogue that warranted a new picture. Sometimes he'll doctor an image -- close a character's eyes, move a hand -- which just reminded me of old cheapo Saturday morning cartoons where they'd just repeat the same image over and over again to save costs. In one such long conversation, Jessica refers to her facial expression...but it's actually the same expression she had throughout the scene!

Obviously a big part of the series is the character development of Jessica, who's a bit of an emotional wreck and given to bouts of heavy drinking and one night stands. Of course, read on its own, it's hard to really get too much into those scenes, because it's not always clear where it's come from or where it's going. And can be kind of confusingly oblique. At one point, Jessica has a drunken dream of a super heroine (herself?) flying with Thor -- but I wasn't sure what it meant or why. In another scene she starts talking to herself in a mirror in the third person, and I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be literal (that there really was another presence there) or what.

The final issue is pure character stuff, as it amounts to just two scenes and two conversations -- that's it, that's all it is, two eleven page conversations. It's not that I can't appreciate the notion of trying such a thing, but it's basically conversations within the greater character arc, and not really a well-structured sequence of its own (ala Cerebus #36). Again, it's a mixed bag -- it can be kind of funny, and clever (and profane)...and it can also be rather long-winded and repetitive.

What's funny about making Jessica a part of the Marvel universe is it's an awkward relationship. Bendis ties this into the Daredevil stories he was writing at the time (there's even a brief scene that we see here and in a Daredevil comic, though from different perspectives). On one hand it can make for an amusingly multi-levelled scene -- on the other hand, should Marvel really be intricately tying together a mainstream series like Daredevil with this "mature readers" series? (Not that you really need to read the other to follow the story). And the characters behave differently in the different formats (in Alias, they swear a lot more!)

This is particularly awkward with Luke Cage, Power Man, with whom Jessica had a tryst. Is the Luke Cage here really talking and acting the way the Luke Cage in those old "Comics Code Approved" comics acted?

It's perhaps ironic that when "serious" writers tackle Batman, they fall all over themselves trying to explain why he is the way he is. But give them a black man who lives in Harlem but doesn't cuss like a rap star and sleep with dozens of women and apparently they just can't understand the character, so simply jettison that characterization in favour of what they think a "real" black man should be like. Hmm. Go figure.

Ultimately, for all my criticisms, there can be an appeal to the series -- in a way. A modest level of interest in the character. But the plotting itself seems a bit thin, and style more self-indulgent than servicing the story.

This is a reciew of the story as it was originally serialized in Alias comics.

Cover price: $ __ CDN./ $13.95 US.


cover by Tim ConradAlmuric  1991 (SC TPB) 72 pgs.

Written by Roy Thomas. Illustrated and painted by Tim Conrad.
Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting the material originally serialized Marvel Comics' Epic Illustrated magazine #2-5 (1982)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Dark Horse

This is an adaptation of the only science fiction novel by Robert E. Howard, who is best remembered as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Of course, this isn't "SF" in the Star Trek-vein of flashy spaceships and laser guns, but the SF/fantasy hybrid popularized decades ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, where the idiom owes a lot to barbarian fantasy, with swordplay and the like, but set on an alien world where any underlying principle is based in pseudo-science rather than mysticism.

The story has Esau Cairn, a big brawler born "outside his epoch", transplanted from 20th Century earth to barbaric Almuric, where he does the usual sort of Burroughsian things: fights barbarians and monsters, wins friends, meets a gal, rescues said gal and battles the evil overlords of the planet, the winged men called Yagas.

It's a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing. Particularly as Almuric, unlike Howard's other works, isn't as frequently re-issued by publishers, so the story is unlikely to be that familiar. If you grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, this definitely will strike a nostalgic chord somewhere inside you. Even if you didn't, it's fast-paced and entertaining...with apropriately modernized sensibilities. In Howard's original novel, the evil Yagas have dark skins, while good guy characters are white, suggesting an unfortunate racist subtext; here, Thomas and Conrad quietly eliminate that troubling aspect of Howard's original by simply giving all the inhabitants of Almuric -- good and bad -- dark skins (save Esau, who remains white).

I first read this years ago, when it was originally serialized in Marvel's Epic Illustrated, an anthology magazine mixing black & white and painted colour stories. I wasn't sure how I'd react re-reading Almuric all these years later, particularly now that multi-tone colouring, even painted colour, is not uncommon in comics.

Well, the art holds up very well. Tim Conrad uses ink lines to define the figures, but then colours everything in with rich, vibrant paints. He has a remarkable technique for creating a real 3-D effect that boldly carves out the figures and their landscape and literally makes the action leap off the page. Almost twenty years later, and Conrad's painted art here still stands among the best I've ever seen in a comic. And there are single and double-page spreads that are breathtaking.

His actual figure work is more uneven in spots, his style leaning towards squat, even distorted people in spots. But overall, the work is beautiful, whisking the reader away to this sultry, sunny, alien environment.

An old hand at adapting Howard, Roy Thomas' script is well-paced, capturing most of the essences of the novel, even as he trims and condenses in spots -- and the novel was pretty tight to begin with. As such there are spots where there's a feeling stuff is missing, where allusions are made to things that haven't actually been depicted. A scene where the heroine, Altha, speaks poetically of bruising herself on "life's rough edges" reads a little more logically in the original, unabridged text. Still, unlike a Hollywood movie, comicbook writers like Thomas tend to be respectful of their material...this remains faithful to the source novel.

Since Epic was billed as "adult" fantasy, there were a couple of token nods to that in this adaptation, with a bare breast in a panel or two, and one or two bits of profanity that definitely weren't in Howard's 1930s written manuscript. But, overall, there's a feeling Thomas and Conrad only threw those in half-heartedly as an editorial concession, and it only barely warrants a "mature readers" notation.

Dark Horse also published Robert E. Howard's Ironhand of Almuric, a four issue mini-series continuing the adventures of Esau Cairn (nicknamed Iron-Hand on Almuric), written by Thomas with Conrad providing the covers, but not the interior art.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Epic Illustrated

Cover price: $__CDN./ $10.95 USA.


American Flagg: Hard Times 1986 (SC & HC TPB) 90 pages

cover by Howard ChaykinWritten and illustrated by Howard Chaykin.
Colours: Lynne Varley. Letters: Ken Bruzenak. Editor: Mike Gold.

Reprints: American Flagg #1-3 (1983)

Mature Readers

Additional notes: introduction by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by First Comics

Collecting the first story arc from Howard Chaykin's critically acclaimed satirical science fiction/suspense series, this was set, when it was first published, decades in the future. Reuben Flagg, one time porn actor, idealist and Martian colonial expatriate has just joined the Chicago branch of the Plexus Rangers -- the 21st Century police. America has fallen apart with the political and business leaders relocated to space: the centre of Chicago is one giant mall, clean and decadent, while the suburbs are a no man's land of warring street gangs. Hard Times introduces an assortment of eccentric characters (including a talking cat named Raul) while Flagg faces shoot outs, corruption, subliminal messages, beautiful ladies, and a murder mystery.

American Flagg: Hard Times is refreshingly off-beat, inspired less by comics or movies (as you might expect) than by -- gasp! -- literature. Particularly science fictiion novels from the '60s and early '70s (Alfred Bester comes to mind). In many respects it genuinely comes across as an adult comic (adult in a good way, not a sophomoric Heavy Metal way) with edgy, effective -- and witty -- dialogue and convoluted plotting and character interaction. The character's are well-realized, even the cat, Raul, who could've been cloying but isn't. The obvious concept would've been to make Raul eccentric (smoking a cigar and talking in slang maybe). By making him level-headed, Raul becomes almost believable...which makes him even more eccentric.

Flagg is also Jewish. It seems odd to comment on that but, even now, at the dawn of a new millennium, it's curiously rare. Jewish actors portray heroic, action characters all the time...but how often are they allowed to portray Jewish action characters? And how many superheroes are Jewish? Think about it, kids.

Art-wise, Chaykin employs a near flawless, realist style that is superbly effective and designs elaborate costume and set designs. Even how the characters dress reflect an artist thinking about every little button and zipper.

Most striking, American Flagg seems to be the product of a guy who'd spent many years in comics and wanted to try every trick he'd ever imagined. Chaykin doesn't just use comics to tell his story, he embraces them. From eclectic panel arrangements and overlaps, to even the placing of word balloons and sound effects, American Flagg tries to see just what the medium is capable of...and succeeds more often than not. I'm not sure I've seen anyone else, even Chaykin, do as much with the medium before or since. At one point Flagg prepares dinner...and the actual recipe is provided in the letter's page! The down side is that sometimes Chaykin's experimentations don't work as well as he'd like, and some sequences can be slightly confusing.

There are a lot of wild ideas at work, and the mall setting creates its own unique ambience. But that's also the problem. Chaykin throws in a lot of concepts that he only plays with half-heartedly. Hard Times isn't intended as a stand alone work, but more like a TV pilot -- the main plot ideas resolve, true, but others are there establishing the premise, or setting things up (one assumes) for later stories.

The concept here is that America has largely fallen apart and, as the tag line on the original cover of the first issue says, "someone's gotta put it all back together". Chaykin conjures up a leftist attitude -- at one point Flagg denounces capitalissts and is disgusted by the idea of expensive "nostalgic" jewelry utilizing communist motifs (Chaykin being one of the few SF writers to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union, though for different reasons than really happened) -- but the specifics of his satirical barbs are vaguer. The Plex, the corporation that runs the U.S., has out-lawed sports...but Chaykin fails to suggest why (at least in this story) unless it's just to provide a politically neutral rallying point for his readers. Part of the plot involves Flagg discovering a TV show that induces violence. Aside from the fact that in this storyline we never really learn why the Plex would do this, is Chaykin really suggesting media can influence behaviour? Chaykin, who himself has been criticized for the sex and violence in some of his stories? I'm not saying an artist can't or shouldn't be incensed or concerned by media violence...I just find it hard to believe Chaykin is that sincere about it himself.

In that sense, some of the "adult" aspects of the story seem less impressive. Some of the ideas and satires are, well, obvious and not sufficiently justified. And Chaykin's portrayal of male-female relationships shows all the sniggering maturity of a James Bond movie. Not that I'm objecting, per se. After all, despite the serious undercurrents, Hard Times is supposed to be a fun romp. And a naughty one at that. This is definitely a mature readers story. There's mild cussing and grown up themes and Chaykin depicts the most explicit sex scenes I've ever seen in a (mainstream) comic. There's no nudity (cover notwithstanding), but it's still very raunchy in spots.

American Flagg: Hard Times is a fun, bracing read for grown ups. It's arguably more clever than it is smart, but still enjoyable.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in American Flagg comics.

Cover price: 


Anibal Cinq: The Last 10 Women I've Known 1997 (HC GN), 62 pgs.

Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Illustrated by George Bess.
Anibal Cinq - cover by George BessColours/letters/editor: uncredited.

Originally published as "Humano sa, Geneve/Les Humanoides Associes"

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Heavy Metal

Definitely Recommended for "Mature Readers".

Anibal Cinq: The Last Ten Women I've Known is a raunchy, SF, spy-parody about a kind of cyborg agent, Anibal 5, working for a futuristic European spy organization, and his battles with a diminutive megalomaniac, the Mandarin.

The problem is it's one of those things which refuses to take itself seriously enough for the reader to actually care about what happens...without actually being funny enough to qualify as a comedy. It's bizarre and weird, but to the point where it stops being edgy and unpredictable, and instead is just plain nonsensical -- eventually inducing a kind of "ho hum" indifference. Not unlike all those spy parody's Hollywood produced in the '60s (the Matt Helm movies, the Flynn movies, Modesty Blaise, Casino Royale).

Even the title doesn't seem to make any sense.

There's plenty of nudity -- some quite explicit -- and that's its main appeal. But even the eroticism is problematic. One almost wonders if Anibal Cinq: The Last 10 Women I've Known is intended as much as a parody of eroticism as of James Bond, because it's often more uncomfortable and off-putting than exciting: a Lolita-esque character; a gorilla turned into a beautiful, furry, woman; the one sex scene ending in an assassination. Even a horde of voluptuous, nude lady storm troopers...who get knocked around, shot up, etc. One comes away fearing you've gleaned more about Jodorowsky and George Bess's fetishes than perhaps you would want to.

The art by George Bess is good, but Jordorowsky's dialogue, like a lot of translated comics I've read, makes me wonder if there were some mistakes in the translation here and there, because the dialogue doesn't always seem...right.

Hardcover price: $__ CDN./$14.95 USA

A cheaper version might be to track down a back issue copy of Heavy Metal Pin-Up (1994) vol. 8, no. 1, the original (U.S.) magazine version of the story (where I read it). Sometimes Heavy Metal censors its more risqué stories when publishing them in the comic magazine, but I don't think that happened here.


Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Iniforms

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here


Artesia
   For my review of the Artesia series (including Artesia, Artesia Afield and Artesia Afire) at www.ugo.com, go here.
 

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