GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "B" Page 3

Blazing Combat 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 208 pages

coverWritten by Archie Goodwin, with Wally Wood. Illustrated by John Severin, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Eugene Colan, others.
Black & white. Letters: Ben Oda, others.

Reprinting: Blazing Combat #1-4 (1965-1966 - originally published by Warren Publishing)

Additional notes: old interviews with writer/editor Archie Goodwin and publisher Jim Warren; covers.

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Fantagraphic Books

Blazing Combat is one of those folk legends that crop up in any artistic field (comics, TV, etc.). One of the first projects attempted by Warren publishing after the success of Creepy Magazine, it followed a similar formula of being black & white, magazine sized, with (nominally) more mature subject matter -- and taking its nod from 1950s giant, EC Comics. But whereas Creepy was modelled after EC's horror comics, Blazing Combat was modeled after EC's war comics. Each issue boasted an impressive line up of artists, drawing short, 8 page stories, but the magazine lost money and was cancelled after only four issues.

So why is it a legend? Well, it's in the "why" of the cancelling. See the accepted story is that it was killed by politics. Because what distributors were expecting from a comic called "Blazing Combat" was a boys own adventure series about yankee pluck besting foreign hordes in stirring odes to heroism and valour. And sure, there were a few stories that fell into that category. But there were a whole lot more that didn't: stories of the grim pointlessness of war, of death and dishonour, of shell shock and pathos, stories that didn't just question the value of war but even, on occasion, the soldiers themselves. And this was, apparently, a big no no, particularly with the Vietnam War just kicking into high gear -- and Blazing Combat even did stories about Vietnam, with that same sense of melancholy ambivalence! So military bases refused to carry it (presumably a big target demographic for the magazine), distributors refused to distribute it, and it was cancelled.

Yet decades later people continued to speak highly of the series, some claiming it was among the best stuff Archie Goodwin ever wrote. Some of the stories have been reprinted and collected over the years, and now Fantagraphics has released the complete run in a single collection.

And ain't it nice when, after all that hype, something really does justify all the hype?

Because Blazing Combat holds up surprisingly well -- much better than I frankly expected.

Part of the appeal is precisely the mix of impulses -- the adult themes of politics and psychology with traditional, even simplistic, unpretentious comic book story telling. After all, these are more than forty year old comics, and though technically published without "Comics Code" approval, they're pretty tame by modern standards -- barely seeming much different, in explicitness, from what you might have read in Sgt. Fury or Sgt. Rock comics from the time. And the 8 page stories are pretty brief, often little more than vignettes. Some attempt ironic twist endings, ala a horror anthology, while others are barely more than shaggy dog stories, more about capturing a moment, or a flavour, than telling a story. Yet it's precisely because of the brevity that many of the stories pack the punch they do. The ideas and plots aren't belaboured, nor have time to get repetitious.

I'm reminded of Garth Ennis' recent War Stories series, in which he too attempts to deal unglamourously with the grit and brutality of war. But though Ennis' tales are more explicit, using modern style gore and profanity, I can't say they're better. Goodwin's much shorter pieces show that sometimes you can say more, with less. Another contrast is that though both men show an undeniable sympathy and compassion for the men in the field, Goodwin doesn't let that blind him to the fact that soldiers are people -- and that means they can be good, bad, and inbetween. Goodwin is willing to recognize that sometimes, even the men on the front lines weren't paragons. They know fears and doubt and bigotry, and some emerge as the villains of the piece (usually contrasted with another, more virtuous soldier).

What emerges is a decent variety of material. There are stories set amid historically researched chronicles of real battles, from the Civil War to Vietnam, and stories celebrating the pluck and courage of soldiers triumphing over enemy forces. There are also little, bitter tales, of dark moments and dark deeds. There are also quiet tales, psychological tales that almost have their biggest impact on you after you close the book and let it settle into your brain. Some of those, ironically, emerge as the most memorable, such as "MIG Alley" about an ace pilot who loses his nerve, or "Holding Action" with its memorable final panels of a soldier casually lighting a cigarette while, in the background, another is dragged into an ambulance. Another much talked about story is "Landscape" which is often cited as the one that most offended militarists with its quiet portrait of a Vietnamese farmer caught between the opposing sides, and its searing final images.

You know the collection is going to offer you more than you might have expected with the very second story -- "Aftermath" -- about two soldiers in the Civil War, which seems to be heading in one direction...then takes a bitter turn that says all there is to say about war and the human beast.

With all that being said, there are plenty of filler tales, too. Stories that aren't bad...but maybe aren't anything special, either.

But then we get to the art.

It isn't simply that Blazing Combat boasted a lot of top talents -- it's that these were top talents working at very near the top of their game, some delivering work even better than I expected from them! Maybe the short format, and quarterly deadlines, allowed them to devote more care to the pages. Maybe the black & white format meant they were able to experiment with techniques denied them in a regular colour comic. Maybe they were just excited by the edgy material in a medium dominated by men-in-capes and comedic teenagers. As I say, not only are these great artists delivering some of their best work, but they often seem to be stretching and experimenting even from story to story -- look at the different techniques Reed Crandall uses in the stories he illustrates, ranging from meticulously detailed line work in some, to painted grey washes in others. Most of these stories aren't just black & white because no one coloured them -- the art was meant to be seen in black & white, as the artists make use of greys and shading that would be lost in a colour reproduction. Perhaps the weakest of the art is Joe Orlando -- ironically, a holdover from the EC Comics era and so, no doubt, seen as a nice link to the comics that inspired Blazing Combat. And it isn't that Orlando is bad -- his storytelling and composition is quite good. But it still looks the most like, well, like regular comic book art.

What's perhaps most noteworthy about this collection, is there's scarcely a rum story in the batch. As I said, there are certainly lesser stories, stories that pretty much are what one might have expected -- or the distributors were hoping for. Straightforward tales of gutsy soldiers out gunning the enemy. But settled on your shelf, there's hardly a tale that can't withstand a re-reading somewhere down the line, either for the script, or the art. And there's a variety to the material, not just with the shifting visual styles (though all employ a realist look -- if an anthology like this were done today, presumably the realist stories would be the exception, with cartoony and manga flavoured visuals dominating), but shifting time periods, with anything from cowboy and Indian battles to world wars to Korea and Vietnam in the offing...even a throwback to the Greek battle of Thermopylae (the same battle Frank Miller later turned into the cash cow, 300) and a post-apocalyptic sci-fier. And though most are American-centric, occasionally Goodwin will focus on British or even German characters. There's even "Lone Hawk", a story about real life Canadian air ace, Billy Bishop, that, like the better stories, kind of zings you with a denouement that is understated even as it's profound.

Of course, I can be cynical. I mean, whether Blazing Combat was really the victim of conspiratorial forces...or whether it just makes a good story -- who knows? Even publisher Jim Warren, in an interview, suggests that no one ever officially owned up to an attempt to kill the mag. It's not as romantic, nor as dignified, but it's quite possible the poor sales...really were poor sales. I mean, the comic biz is full of titles that crash and burn. And the very things that make the stories weather the test of time as well as they do, might very well have turned off readers just looking for a little escapism on a Sunday afternoon. I mean, everything can be spun according to the "vision" of the teller. In the introduction to an interview with Archie Goodwin included here, it credits Goodwin with securing Marvel the comic book rights to "Star Wars" which, though technically true as Goodwin was ed-in-chief at Marvel then, my understanding was it was Roy Thomas who pushed for the acquisition. It's also then stated that the Star Wars comic "probably saved" Marvel Comics -- hyperbole which smacks a bit of an editor/interviewer eager to spin things so that Goodwin emerges as a creative and commercial visionary.

But whether Blazing Combat was a martyr on a cross of artistic integrity...or simply a comic that didn't quite click with a paying audience, doesn't change the fact that, collected here in its entirety, this is a strong anthology, full of great art, and stories, that on occasion, in their short, eight pages, will linger with you as memorably as any epic graphic novel, motion picture, or prose novel on the subject of war.

War is hell...but sometimes the chronicling of it can be art.

Hard cover price: $28.99 USA  
Soft cover price: $ ___


Blood & Roses Adventures 1995 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by Brad GorbyWriten by Bob Hickey, Joe Martin, Jerry Smith. Pencils by Brad Gorby, Gene Gonzales. Inks by Bob Hickey, Jerry Foley.
Black and White. Letters: Chris Riley, Steve Stegelin. Editor: Joe Martin.

Reprinting: Blood & Roses: Future Past Tense #1-2, Blood & Roses: Search for the Time-Stones #1-2

Additional notes: behind-the-scenes sketches, promotional art work, pin- ups, etc.

Suggested mildly for Mature Readers

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Knight Press; characters copyright Skyverse

Sometimes I like to take a risk and pick up a book that I know absolutely nothing about, that I can dive into without any preconceptions or expectations. Sometimes the result is a hidden gem, sometimes the result isn't. Unfortunately, this leans toward the latter.

Blood and Roses Adventures collects two mini-series about two butt-kicking babes who act as agents for a kind of Time police agency that sends them through time, trying to retrieve shards of a shattered time crystal. Tamara Rose is a cop from our future, Christina Blood is from the 11th Century or so, who bristled under the restrictions placed on women in her time (she wanted to fight in the Crusades).

It's not that writer-creator Bob Hickey, his collaborators, or artists Brad Gorby and Gene Gonzales, are without talent, but they do seem a tad un-ripened at times.

The plotting seems a bit slapdash. Given that these were, I believe, the characters' inaugural stories, they're kind of hard to follow, or get much of a grip on -- you'd swear the series already had a few issues under its belt (which may've been the point). Hickey's so busy trying to drag his heroines from one action scene to another, the plot seems secondary. Logic -- even coherence -- is often weak. Despite having comprised two mini-series, each of the four issues has its own plot and adversary -- though a cliff-hanger connects each #1 with its appropriate #2. In the story that, perhaps, most threatens to gel into an actual plot, Blood and Rose find themselves in King Arthur's Camelot...but even here the plot seems just shoe horned in willy-nilly. Looking for a time shard, they instantly assume that Merlin has it (why?), so they go to Camelot...and instantly try to sign up for the tournament (but shouldn't they look for the shard?)...but -- ah hah -- it turns out the shard is offeered as the prize. But they didn't know that when they signed up! And the resolution...well, it seems more like the writers just ran out of pages, so they hastily wrapped it up without any regard for proper dramatic development.

There's a light-hearted tone to the series, with jokey banter between the leads, but Blood and Rose are hard to distinguish, despite their different historical origins. And they're of the bland, hyper-macho, out-male-the-males type that is kind of dull, and even unlikeable (the characters seem to enjoy fighting for the sake of fighting). TV's Xena and sidekick Gabrielle made an interesting pair...not so these. Sometimes Blood is given to old fashion speaking patterns...and sometimes she isn't. Likewise, the characters in Camelot switch back and forth.

Wouldn't you think if you were going to create such characters, and such a series, it would reflect a personal interest? But one gets very little sense that the writers have any interest in, or even knowledge of, history -- given that the only historical period depicted with any detail is Camelot...a largely fictional era that they presumably based more on B-movies they'd seen than historical texts they'd read. The rest of the action takes place in (ill-defined) futures or pre-history.

As noted, the art is decent enough for an independent comic, with both Gorby (who draws the first mini-series) and Gonzales (who draws the second) not without skill. Though Gorby's work is a little too busy and cluttered, confusing in black and white (it might take better to colour) while Gonzales' is a little too minimalist, with lots of blank backgrounds. Gorby goes whole-heartedly for the cheesecake with the heroines decidedly pneumatic, while Gonzales is much more restrained (which seems odd given that one suspects the marketing of the series was based on the idea of nubile heroines). Though, despite a mild mature readers caution, there's nothing particularly salacious here -- both girls keep their clothes on, and don't even appear in anything particularly skimpy.

There's a real sense this was being written on the fly, with the creators hoping things would come to them as they went (kind of like how I wrote as a kid). Cryptic sub-plots are threaded through these issues that go unresolved, but with little sense of where they're ultimately headed, or why, or even if.

Since this collection devotes more than a third of its pages to reproducing sketches and promotional art (from cards and posters) one kind of wonders what the real intent was. Was Hickey trying to create a comic book, and spinning it off into trading cards and posters was just a sideline, or was his real goal simply to market still art and trading cards, but needed a comicbook property to base them on? Frankly, I could easily believe the latter theory, the characterization and the plotting seem so vague.

Cover price: $17.50 CDN./ $12.95 USA 


Bone: Eyes of the Storm 2006 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Story and art by Jeff Smith.
Colour: Steve Hamaker

Collecting: Bone #12-19 (plus some additional and re-done pages)

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Scholastic (and others)

Bone was the enormously popular fantasy series that set out to straddle that "All Ages" gap, with a youth-aimed series that, nonetheless, boasted enough style and sophistication to win adult readers as well, particularly those who recognized some of the varied inspirations for the series, from Lord of the Rings and Narnia, to Walt Kelly's fondly remembered newspaper strip, Pogo. The original comic book series told an epic, unfolding tale mixing humour and whimsy, with adventure and touches of horror -- but as such, it can make reviewing the individual collections a bit problematic. Because the volumes are merely parts of the greater narrative.

With that being said, it's not like this collection begins in mid scene, nor does it end on too blatant a cliff hanger. There's enough that occurs here to certainly give you a taste of the series, mixing bucolic scenes, amusing humour, with some tense action scenes -- as well as some revelations that relate to the greater narrative.

The series follows the Bone cousins, creatures of unspecific species (but looking a lot like denizens of Walt Kelly's Pogo) -- main protagonist Fone Bone, the conniving Phoney Bone, and the dimwitted but up-beat Simely Bone. They've ensconced themselves in a rustic valley of humans and some talking animals, where sinister rat creatures prowl the night, and an ancient evil seems to be slowly reasserting itself. While Phoney and Smiley return, reluctantly, to the village to pay off a debt incurred from some previous exploits (and endure a harrowing escape from the rat-creatures) Fone is staying with an enigmatic old woman and her pretty grand daughter, Thorn -- a woman with whom Fone is quite smitten.

And it's all reasonably engaging.

As mentioned, the series shifts tones, sometimes comedy, sometimes drama, and sometimes action-thriller, with a couple of nicely staged scenes with the characters out on dark nights, hunted by the rat creatures (who themselves alternate between comedic and sinister). Writer/artist Jeff Smith has an open, clean lined style that isn't busy or complicated, but nonetheless creates scenes and characters, and he has a nice eye for composition, for telling the scenes in sequential panels, both the comedic and serious bits. Granted -- and maybe it's just me -- but there can be something almost disconcertingly sensual about how he's drawn Thorn, with her big mane of hair and often barefoot -- disconcerting given the "All Ages" intent. Though even then, there's hardly anything gratuitous or exploitive about her.

But I continue to remain...mixed on the series. I enjoy what I've read of it (this and the first volume) without it quite gripping me enough (or conversely being sufficiently hilarious) to make me rush out for the rest of the series (collected in various TPB editions, some colour, some black & white, as well as a complete, mammoth, black & white omnibus!) I suppose it may be because, for all that I say it appeals to young and old alike, it nonetheless is more aimed at youngsters, more likely to be something an adult will enjoy...but not necessarily find riveting. The twists and turns, and hints of revelations to come, moderately interesting...but no more. As well, though Smith's storytelling/composition is quite good, and he cleverly paces out scenes so some revelations require a turn of the page (as opposed to comics where an important reveal will be at the bottom of the page -- where a reader's peripheral vision will have already seen it). At the same time, because of that, there can be some scenes which seem a bit padded -- or decompressed to use modern lingo -- where Smith has clearly decided he wants to only go so far in a chapter...and so stretches out the scene to fill the page count.

And, as I say, each TPB volume is part of the greater narrative -- readable enough on its own to provide a taste of the series, but not self-contained enough to fully satisfy as just a volume to be read for itself alone, where a reviewer might say: "Oh, even if you don't care for the whole series, you have to read volume __".

And so I review this third collection much as I did the first: saying it's a good little series. And one I might pursue to its end someday...or not.

Cover price: __ USA 


Bone: Out From Boneville 2005 (SC TPB) 140 pages

Story and art by Jeff Smith.
Colour: Steve Hamaker

Collecting: Bone #1-6 (1991)

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Scholastic (and others)

Jeff Smith's Bone was a series I had been hearing about for a while, garnering enthusiastic reviews. A mixture of comedy and drama (though mainly comedy) with a style that owes a lot to Walt Kelly (the main hero, a white, undefined creature, bears more than a passing resemblance to Kelly's Pogo) while its milieu owes something to Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Originally published in comic book form, the series has been assembled in various collections (including a massive omnibus), with both The Complete Bone Adventures, vol. 1 and Bone: Out from Boneville reprinting the first six issues (Out from Boneville, published by an imprint of Scholastic, presents the series in colour for the first time). The complete run will comprise 9 TPBs.

The series aims to be that elusive "all ages" sort of comic, which can appeal to the young and the young-at-heart equally.

The story has the three Bones -- Fone Bone, his mercenary cousin, Phoney, and his goofy cousin Smiley, lost in the desert after being exiled from Boneville (I initially assumed this was a few issues into the series but, no, this is the beginning). After getting split up, they eventually find their way to an isolated valley...where the series truly begins. In this valley are rustic humans, but the animals talk, and there are mysterious forces at work, including a dragon that, at first, only Fone Bone sees, and giant rat-creatures that, though sinister, are sinister in a comic relief way. But as the tone of the series begins to assert itself, they could be likened to the Orcs out of the Lord of the Rings, dark agents of a mysterious, decidedly uncomedic cowled figure.

The series, as the hype suggests, is a reasonably engaging, likeable effort, with a few chuckles, a lot of smiles, and enough suggestion of grander, darker events lurking around the edges to suggest this is intended to be something of an adventure epic, not just a whimsical comedy. Smith's art is appealing in its restrained cartooniness, open and clean, and though intended for black and white, the colour edition is well done.

At the same time, this is the beginning of a larger saga (which Smith finally brought to a close just a few years ago), which makes this volume a bit hard to review. It doesn't end on a cliff hanger, per se, and the three Bones finally are reunited by the end, but there are definitely more questions left unanswered than are answered. And I tend to try to review graphic novels and TPBs as entities in and of themselves. And, as such, read on its own, Out of Boneville isn't wholly satisfying.

It's good enough that I'm leaning toward finding other volumes and pursuing the saga...but not necessarily great enough that I'm making it a priority of my budget. Bone is, perhaps, more often amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and though there are some bordering on creepy moments, ultimately -- at least so far -- Smith is trying to keep things light, the tension usually dispelled a bit with humour and whimsy, making it not exactly suspenseful (though I could imagine the rat creatures would give younger readers a few uneasy nights).

Of course, I may not be reading it on its level. I'm an adult, expecting adult entertainment, and Smith might well argue that "all ages" or not, his primary audience is younger. Fair enough.

Ultimately, for me, Bone is an engaging effort, but mayhap a bit slight.

Cover price: __ USA 


Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards 2005 (SC GN) 166 pages

cover by Mark SchultzWritten by Jim Ottaviani. Illustrated by Big Time Attic (a.k.a. Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon, Shad Petosky)
black and white

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: published in oblong format

Published by GT-Labs (General Tektronics Labs)

Comics are generally associated with super heroes -- of course -- as well as personal, autobiographical independent comics, plus occasional sci-fi, noire, etc. But a less common genre is the docudrama or the comic book equivalent of the bio-pic. It's not unheard of -- Chester Brown's Louis Riel, Ho Che Anderson's King -- but it's hardly common place.

Bone Sharps (subtitled "A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Palaeontology") chronicles the early days of fossil hunting in America, focusing inparticular on the bitter rivalry between Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh. It was the days after the notion of dinosaurs and fossils had become accepted (it might almost be interesting for someone to do a story about the very earliest days of the profession, when people first started speculating about the bizarre possibility of pre-historic dragons) but before cooler, more disciplined heads prevailed. Too some extent, for people like Cope and Marsh, fossil collecting (at least as depicted here) seemed to border on being an obsessive mania, where the acquisition was all. This was hardly restricted simply to palaeontologists -- in the 19th Century, archaeologists were so keen to dig up whatever they could that the claim is modern museums still have basements full of uncatalogued artifacts.

Anyway, despite actually sharing similar theories, Cope and Marsh were bitter rivals and, at least here, with Marsh emerging as more blatantly the villain of the piece. Cope was difficult and arrogant but a "warm human being and a likeable rascal" as one character remarks. A man who essentially drove himself to death with his fossil hunting. But Marsh, more an armchair fossil hunter, underhandedly sabotaged Cope's work and stole the fruits of his efforts. (Yet Marsh also acted as an advocate for some Native people, suggesting he wasn't entirely without his virtues). Other historical figures who were part of this world flitter in and out -- P.T. Barnum, for example. With perhaps the level-headed "anchor" character being Charles Knight, the artist whose illustrations helped to popularize dinosaurs -- though Knight, too, appears only sporadically through the story.

The result is, generally, an intriguing, entertaining work. Nicely, and subtly written, as well as appealingly illustrated. In my review of Louis Riel, I suggest it would be interesting to see a less stylized art style applied to a non-fiction comic. The artistic collective, Big Time Attic, still has a cartoony style, but it's a more expressive, realist cartoony style -- reminiscent of maybe Dave Sims, or even Will Eisner. Not with the same compositional flare, perhaps, but nonetheless, the scenes are told well and with clarity.

Bone Sharps is a bit of a sprawling effort, covering a lot of ground and characters. Had this been a movie, it perhaps would've demanded a little more, um, constructive recreation -- dropping or amalgamating characters, and crafting a better arc to the material, building to a dramatic denouement. As it is, the creators take some liberties with the material, but generally stick to the facts. Yet by telling the tale in this narrative way, it perhaps brings a drama and humanity and, well, entertainment aspect to it that a straight, non-fiction book wouldn't have. So while losing strengths of a straight text book or a straight Hollywood-ized movie, it finds a strength in its own middle way approach -- kind of what comics should be.

What's also intriguing is that, like with Brown's Louis Riel, the authors feature footnotes at the back, pointing out where they took liberties with the material (and sometimes, the liberties are pretty minor and easily justified). It actually makes it harder to criticize those liberties because, at least, they're being up front about it (unlike a movie where the myth is left to stand as though it's fact).

Cover price: $22.95 USA


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