GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


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coverDan Dare: Marooned on Mercury 2005 (HC) 92 pages
a.k.a. Classic Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future - Marooned on Mercury

Written and illustrated by Frank Hampson, with Chad Varrah (script), Harold Johns, Greta Tomlinson (art)

Reprinting: the Dan Dare strip originally serialized in Eagle (vol. 3) #12-46 (circa the 1950s)

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Titan Books

Though not especially well known in North America, Colonel Dan Dare was a British science fiction comic strip hero who adventured throughout the solar system in stories serialized in the 1950s and 1960s -- essentially Britain's answer to Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Whole generations of British children -- so it's been implied -- grew up thrilling to the adventures of Dan and his companions, as they did TV's Dr. Who. But though the glory days of British comics faded away, Dan enjoyed enough of marquee value that there have been periodic attempts to revive him, reflecting the tone of the times (the different revivals viewed as apocryphal and so ignore each other).

I came to Dan somewhat backward. My first encounter was in one such revival, by Garth Ennis (reviewed below). I quite enjoyed it and, as such, became curious about the original series.

And Britain's Titan Books had begun representing the old adventures in prestigious, hardcover editions.

Marooned on Mercury begins following Dan's previous adventure, where he triumphed over whatever villainy was at foot -- but with the result that he and his companions crash on the planet mercury. There they have adventures, encounter the local Mercurians...and discover the planet has been occupied by renegade Venusians, the Treen, and their despotic leader, the Mekon, whom Dan had thought died a storyline or two ago. The Mekon being essentially Ming the Merciless to Dan's Flash Gordon.

I knew the old strip was well regarded -- even reverentially so -- by its fans. But I wasn't sure how well it would read for a new, adult reader, uninfluenced by nostalgia, such as myself. But, there's juvenile...and then there's juvenile, as this website is full of great reviews for comics that were initially aimed at kids but still provide enjoyment for adult minds.

Serialized in two page (over-sized) instalments, it makes for a nice reading format, where you can read it in bits and bites -- or a bunch of instalments all at once. The two pages allowing for more content per instalment (panel-count wise, each week's chapter being the equivalent closer to three weeks of a comparable American newspaper's weekend instalment -- back in the day when Flash Gordon and others dominated the funnies pages), while at the same time, still ensure a fast, brisk pace to the story telling, with plenty of running about and cliff hangers.

The art is often quite gorgeous. Frank Hampson and his co-artists have a style that, while with hints of caricature (with Dan's elongated face) is nonetheless quite realistic, with a lot of attention paid to shadow and light, on modelling the figures and landscape for a truly eye-popping, three-dimensional appearance. The use of colours is extraordinarily rich and multi-toned, in contrast to American comics (and comic books) of the day which employed single hue colours. The strip almost looks painted. The downside is that the colours may've exceed the printing process of the times, as sometimes the images can look bit muddy, overwhelmed by the sheer variety of colours. But I've said that science fiction (and fantasy) is about escapism, and the visuals certainly allow you to escape your every day, with a vibrantly realized landscape (Mercury fairly glimmering with a multitude of colours) and with exceptional imagination put into crafting the ships and tools and alien cities, creating a consistent alien culture, all gorgeously -- and sometimes gaudily -- coloured.

The art can lack the dynamism one might expect from American comics. Like a lot of British comics art, it emphasizes low-key realism, well rendered figures and environments. Whereas American comic art often emphasized the storytelling, the dynamic impact. Here, there's a lot of use of long shots -- sometimes making it hard to tell what's going on.

Though "youth-aimed", this holds up quite well for an adult reader -- even with the obligatory dog along! (And he is kind of cute). Partly because of the two-page format (as opposed to one page), there's time out for banter, wit and character interplay. As with the visuals, Hampson and his team put a lot of effort into some of the dialogue, creating idiosyncratic voices for some of the characters, particularly the aliens, creating a real sense of other life forms...and an undercurrent of humour. One of Dan's sidekicks, who looks like a blue-skinned Howdy Doody, talks in a particularly quirky hyperbole. The nature of the short instalments means the story clips along, as the characters go from one scrape to another, getting captured, escaping, captured, etc. Yet it does ultimately move forward, tossing twists and turns as you go, surprise encounters that can keep you intrigued about where it will take you, meeting characters of whose motives you can't be sure, building to a climax as Dan and the gang gradually uncover the Mekon's dastardly master scheme and must thwart it.

The running and daring escapes remain mostly quite exciting, as Dan has to use cunning and wile as much as right hooks and laser guns. A sequence where Dan and the others are trapped on a ship locked in orbit, safe from the Mekon, but without food or water, creates some effectively off beat tension and suspense.

Yet even though there's interplay and character banter...I wouldn't say the characterization is especially deep, or given to profound, emotional moments. Part of that could be laid at the feet of the British stiff upper lip, with Dan the epitome of an unflappable Englishman. But characters might think one of their friends has died...and it barely seems to faze them!

It's also interesting to see how the times are both reflected, and maybe deflected, in the series. The heroes are English, and white -- yet lip service is paid to pluralism, as Dan technically works for a global planetary space fleet. And though the enemies are green-skinned Treens...one of Dan's closest friends and companions is the Treen Sondar. As well, the Mercurians emerge as sympathetic and trustworthy, and at one point Dan even identifies them as "human" when they hardly look that...implying a rather open and accepting definition of "humanity". Another of Dan's party, and, along with Sondar (and Dan), the brain's of the group, is Professor Jocelyn Peabody -- a woman, who is just "one of the guys", making the series seem surprisingly liberated. Except Peabody was actually one of the very few women to appear...in the entire run of the series (an absence of women -- in any capacity -- may well've been a trait of old British comics, at least based on some of the others I've read)!

Peabody is a smart, capable member of the team, which one could contrasts with Flash Gordon's Dale Arden -- not that Dale wasn't capable of holding her own, but could be viewed as Flash's arm candy. So that might make Dan Dare seem more sophisticated and progressive than Flash Gordon. On the other hand, you could contrast the fact that Flash and Dale were clearly romantically involved with the passionless celibacy of the Dan Dare characters. Which, arguably, makes Dan Dare a little more juvenile, eschewing the "mushy" stuff that might have boy readers squirming uncomfortably on their sofa cushions.

Having read only this one volume, I can't really compare it to the others. One commentary I read suggested this was an average, if unexceptional Dan Dare adventure. If so, that says good things about the series overall. Because this is an entertaining adventure, with beautiful, atmospheric visuals, and an exciting, well paced story. And it makes a perfectly good intro. It's a self-contained adventure that wraps up by the end, and though it doesn't feature all the supporting characters of the series, it features enough of the main ones -- Digby, Sondar and Peabody. And, of course, the evil Mekon.

I started on this not quite sure what to expect. As the pages went by, I was enjoying it. But, admittedly, I was thinking it was one of those things where, as much as I was enjoying it, I wasn't sure it necessarily was firing me to assemble a complete collection of Dan Dare adventures. That is: I was enjoying it but, honestly, could probably just re-read this sometime if I wanted another hit of Dan Dare (which is also a compliment to the story -- that it feels nicely quintessential).

But by the end...I dunno. Another "classic" Dan Dare volume might someday find a place on my shelf.

Cover price: $22.95 CDN.


coverDan Dare Omnibus  2009 (HC & SC TPB) 176 pages

Written by Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Gary Erskine.
Colours: Parasuraman A., others. Letters: Rakesh M. Mahadik. Editor: Charlie Beckerman.

Reprinting: Dan Dare #1-7 (2007-2008) - originally published by Virgin

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

Number of readings: 3

Published by Dynamite Comics

Note: Virgin Comics also released the first three issues in a collected edition -- an odd, perhaps mercenary, decision, since those issues don't form a story and end to be continued. So if you pick up this collection, make sure it's the complete 7 issue volume!

This review is going to be a bit of a mix of two perspectives -- my review of it after a first reading, with no previous knowledge of Dan Dare, and then a reconsiderations after having subsequently read Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury (reviewed above).

Onward...

Dan Dare was a popular British comic strip hero. Though relatively obscure outside of Great Britain (certainly here in North America), he was the sort of plucky, can-do hero whole generations of British children grew up on, like Biggles and others, though Dare was a science fiction strip, his adventures taking him around the solar system.

As frequently happens with such figures, his popularity has waxed and waned, and he's undergone revisions over the years. Though his original adventures in the 1950s and 1960s were fairly clean cut, there were later revivals that were part of a gritty, violent British comics sensibilities. As well, there was an obligatory revisionist deconstruction or two.

And now there's another revival, from Virgin Comics, a glossy, but troubled, publisher that seemed to come and go in the space of a couple of years -- hence why this collected edition is actually published by Dynamite Comics.

Ignoring all previous revivals, once more it takes the idea of a (slightly) older Dan, dragged out of retirement to save the solar system one more time from invasion by his arch foe. And it's written by Garth Ennis, whose work on Preacher and Ma href="general_h1.html">Hellblazer is marked by an unrelenting stream of four letter words and as many shock/punk concepts as he can cram into a panel. Even his entertaining Seven Brothers (also for Virgin) was an R-rated effort of profanity and violence.

So the biggest surprise about Ennis' Dan Dare...is how respectful it is of the character. This isn't a cynical deconstruction, or a scathing satire. It's grittier, darker, more adult than was the original, the language is a little harder (damn) and the violence grimmer. But this isn't meant to turn off old fans and it's not too inappropriate for younger readers (I mean, not young-young readers, of course). It's PG, not R, rated. In a way, it reminded me a bit of Marvel's Prince Valiant mini-series from a few years ago.

And perhaps a mark of its success is that it can entertain and intrigue even if you know nothing about Dan Dare whatsoever -- like I did when I first read it. The story is clearly enough explained and the concepts and archetypes traditional enough, that you can appreciate the themes and story, and even the aura of nostalgia, regardless. Dan is a living legend, an unflappable Englishmen's Englishman, whose steely determination is tempered by his liberal compassion. Digby is his trusty, crusty, right hand man. And, of course, there's an arch foe -- The Mekon, an alien dictator that is Ming to Dan's Flash Gordon.

You might never have read a Dan Dare story before...but you certainly feel as though you have, because you inherently know who these characters are.

Reading some reviews of this, fans of Ennis' outrageous, profane storytelling on Preacher were a bit put off, finding it an oddly subdued project for Ennis. But presumably that's because they weren't aware of the other side of Ennis, his interest in gritty combat stories such as his War Stories one-shots.

Because although this is a science fiction tale, with elements of swashbuckling daring do, and with Dan a paean to the power of the individual, it is also very much a war tale, where action scenes are comprised of anonymous troops shooting at each other, or battle fleets blasting away at other battle fleets. Ennis -- who has kind have positioned himself as the modern Robert Kanigher with the number of gritty, war themed comics he's written -- attempts to walk a fine line, doing both an obvious tribute to men and women in uniform, where victories are meant to get the reader pounding his fist in the air...without over glamorizing things, and where victories come at a cost, where "we've paid for the party with our dearest blood" as Captain Kirk said (to quote another of Dan's U.S. counterparts). There is a profound undercurrent of melancholy that adds to the air of maturity of the thing...and was absent from the old stories.

And it's all surprisingly entertaining. Though an adventure story, it's also quite talky, with characters standing around, discussing things a lot. Yet it remains compelling throughout. It's also quite cinematic -- reading it almost feels like you're watching a movie unfold. Part of that is because there's something unarguably evocative about it all, without it seeming like just a collection of tired cliches. And it works in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect it too. Dan is very much an unflappable guy, who never second guesses himself and is never wrong. It could be a boring character...but grows on you. Partly it's because Dan isn't cocky: he's a rock in a crisis, but doesn't need to flaunt it. Also, of course, it plays into British cliches of the stiff-upper-lip, a people who are never fazed. But Ennis keeps the cliche real, by maintaining an emotional undercurrent. When a tragedy occurs, Dan reacts with ridiculous nonchalance while it's happening...then quietly excuses himself from the room afterwards for a powerful moment that is as emotionally telling as any teeth gnashing, primordial scream.

Indeed, the series has an emotional impact overall, moments of victory...and heartbtreaking pathos -- all in a way I doubt the original series ever did.

Dan's steely, even grim determination is rarely tainted by personal rancour, or petty vendettas -- he fights because he has to, not because he wants to. As depicted here, he's precisely the kind of guy you'd want in charge, saving the universe.

The real question about this series is to wonder what Ennis is doing writing it! There's something bizarre, yet charming, to imagine the guy who wrote Preacher was once a guileless kid thrilling to weekly instalments of this establishment hero. Ennis pulls it off with only a modicum of tongue-in-cheek. That is, one could well imagine another tackling it with affection...but it would be an affection diluted by condescension, an inherent sense of parody. Certainly there's some of that. The stiff-upper-lips are so prominent here, the mustaches must be like bristol board, and characterization is hardly subtle, with pompous stuffed shirt antagonists and plucky stalwart protagonists. It's corny -- but deliberately so. That's part of the fun! Yet the overriding sense is one of sincerity -- even if it's a sincerity that occasionally winks at us. And maybe that's because, as I say, such archetypes are so much a part of British tradition...and a contrast to the more bombastic good ol' boys of American war stories.

Perhaps part of that is also thanks to artist Gary Erskine. When I first saw a few sample pages of this, I was unenthused. Erskine has a detailed, realistic style, yet one that tends to be unglamourous, and where the figures can be a bit dumpy, the action scenes a bit stiff. Yet once you're reading the story, it works quite well. Again, it's partly that sense of British tradition, aiming for realism, rather than Kirby-esque bombast. His composition, his environments, his space battles -- all are suitably grand and compelling. To use a cinematic comparison...it's a motion picture more than a made-for-TV movie. Though Erskine maybe touches up his work clumsily with an art program, as sometimes figures overlap in odd ways or one figure in a panel will be grainier than another -- suggesting in some cases the elements of a picture were drawn separately, then pasted together, sometimes quite sloppily! Or, in a picture of a body floating in space, you realize someone simply copied and pasted the right foot where the left foot should be. Still, despite such unprofessionalism, it's mostly effective, aided by the sharp colours, which like the rest of the book manages to straddle being vibrant and appealing while also ominous and sombre.

I first read this with no prior knowledge of Dan Dare (save, maybe, preconceptions and assumptions). But I sufficiently enjoyed this it couldn't help but whet my curioiusity to seek out the original. So how would it read for existing fans? I suspect...still pretty well. This isn't a seamless evocation of the old, nor is it meant to be. It's a grittier, more sombre version. Dan himself is credibly an older, more jaded version of himself. The Mekon is certainly the same. Ironically, the character who has undergone the most alteration is Digby -- ironic, because it was the old Digby that was more of a parody, whereas it's this Digby that is treated more seriously, as Dan's crusty right arm. The original series was more swashbuckling daring do, and running about, whereas this is more restrained, and more serious, where good people can come to bad ends. Yet the basic plot of a Mekon invasion is evocative of the old series.

A comparison that comes to mind is the old Dan stories are like the 1960s "Star Trek" TV series, and this is like the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", with its more navel tone, its battleships in space, its tale of an aging hero facing an old foe...and the undercurrent of melancholy. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Ennis was thinking of that film specifically as he wrote this.

Visually, as much as I just finished complimenting Erskine's art, it has tough competition from the old comics, particularly with their more vibrant and colourful palettes...rather than battleship grey. Though because Erskine uses bigger panels and more close ups, it has a more modern, dramatic feel than the old comics with their greater reliance on long shots.

Perhaps the biggest shift is the underlining themes. There are metaphors and political undercurrents. At one point a character suggests street level hooliganism, against which politicians campaign, is merely a response to political corruption -- the politicians are the role models for the very behaviour they abhor. And one can easily infer in the character of the prime minister an angry rejection of modern polticians -- maybe even a direct attack on Tony Blair (who many Britons felt became a puppet for George W. Bush).

The old Dan was one of those Star Trek-like optimistic futures, of a united earth. Here we learn the future took a dark turn, that the United States and China blew each other to bits, a united earth is no more, and Engand is practically the only remaining power on earth.

I've mentioned before, that being Canadian -- a country where many Canadian story tellers do everything they can to NOT acknowledge their story is Canadian -- I kind of have an affection for stories that revel in their own national identity (and provide a counterpoint to the American-centric pop culture that dominates western civilization). So the very Britishness of this Dan Dare is kind of fun...but can also go a little too far. Despite its overt British sensibilities, the original Dan still operated in a nominal international organization. But here the idea is Britain is the ruling nation -- the space fleet that sets out to face the Mekon and his armada fly British flags.

The story tries grappling with the ambiguity of nationalistic themes. But one can't help feeling that Ennis and the rest are nostalgic, not simply for the days of English pride, but for the days of the British Empire. Which is funny given Ennis is Irish! A scene where Dan and a group of marines heroically hold off a much larger (but less well armed) horde of aliens can't help but put you in mind of movies like "Zulu".

On one hand, there's a moderately significant character who's black -- something I'm guessing didn't happen often in the old Dare stories -- yet he remains pretty much the only non-white person in the series! So even as characters criticize racist, anti-immigrant politicians...the "archetypal" vision of English-hood they depict is still overwhelming white and Anglo-Saxon (and male -- even though there are some strong female characters...they remain the minority). And though we see a few green-skinned Treens who are not the enemy -- that's arguably less progressive than the original, where one of Dan's closest companions was Sondar, a Treen, and where other alien races appeared.

Of course Ennis might not be that comfortable with the sci-fi aspects (despite his horror/fantasy background). In both story and visuals, this is actually less blatanty science fiction than the original: no aliens other than Treens, ships that look like battleships in space rather than the colourful rocket ships of old. One of the neat things about Marooned on Mecury (the classic Dan Dare story I read, reviewed above) was the way they created and explored an alien civilization.

As much as I like this story, I'll admit after a couple of subsequent readings, I did find the nationalistic jingoism a bit over-the-top and even occasionally uncomfortable -- though that's more in the earliest chapters. As well, as mentioned, Ennis' template is clearly less the sci-fi serial influences of the original comics, and more a military drama that happens to take place in outer space. But there's a fine line between paying sincere homage to the men and women in uniform...and displaying a fetish for all things military, a line Ennis occasionally crosses. Even the fact that Dan's old scientist friend, Jocelyn Peabody, is now a politician, and Sondar nowhere to be seen, shifts a bit of the emphasis from space exploring scientists to simply grunts-in-space (in much the same way the Star Trek motion pictures signficantly played down the "exploring strange new worlds" theme in favour of Cold War metaphors).

Still, such food for thought aside, what emerges -- perhaps quite surprisingly for me, given my lack of familiarity with the character originally -- is a truly compelling, entertaining adventure. And after having now read an old Dan Dare story...I still like this. Despite its length it maybe comes across as a long movie rather than a true epic saga (and shorter than the old serialized adventures). But it does work on that level. Fast paced and exciting enough to work as an adventure, thoughtfully and occasionally, powerfully poignant enough to give weight to the heroics, and with a hero who, despite his unflappable demeanour, does emerge as a genuinely compelling protagonist.

It may not be a hundred percent true to the spirit of the original stories, but in its own way, is quite respectful of them.

Tally ho, boys...but remember to be back for tea, wot?

This is a review based on the original comics.

Hardcover price: $29.99 USA.
Soft cover price: $19.99 USA. 


The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings 2002 (HC) 96 pages

cover by Gary Gianni

Written & Illustrated by various.
Editor: Scott Allie.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mature Readers

Published by Dark Horse Comics

The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings is a comic book anthology published in hardcover...though not unreasonably priced. Featuring seven original comic book stories by various writers and artists, including some highly respected names like artists P. Craig Russell and Paul Chadwick, it has a new Hellboy story by Mike Mignola (Hellboy, a demonic paranormal investigator -- kind of a cross between Marvel's Son of Satan and DC's The Demon -- will apparently hit the silver screen next year) and a new "Devil's Footprints" story (which was a supernatural mini-series, also available as a TPB). More off beat aspects to this accretion are an actual text short story by the late Perceval Landon first published in 1908 (I believe), given a few modern illustrations by Gary Gianni, as well as an interview with a real life spiritualist.

The first thing you notice from that line up is that there seems to be a lot of care, or at least enthusiasm, put into this project (I mean, an interview with a self-styled spiritualist?!?) all in order to generate a certain thematic cohesiveness. The other noteworthy thing is how restrained the stories are: for a horror comic, in a medium long criticized for its excesses, there's very little gore. Any "mature readers" caution is warranted more for some profanity and a bit of nudity. In fact, only one story goes for a grisly, macabre ending, and it's still drawn with restraint. Instead, by focusing mainly on ghosts and hauntings, the stories can be almost...genteel. Some are definitely going for the chill-factor, but others are humorous or poignant.

The opening story, "Gone", written by Mike Richardson, and beautifully drawn by P. Craig Russell and coloured by Lovern Kindzierski, is about a deserted old house from which no one seems to return. It is blatantly meant to be creepy and works quite well for the most part, unnerving in its very understatedness. But it builds to a kind of weak ending. "Lies, Death and Olfactory Delusion", a childhood reminiscence as the narrator remembers the death of a picked on schoolmate, is by Randy Stradley and Paul Chadwick. It goes more for pathos than horror, and is among the most memorable stories for that. Another winner, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, is Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's "Stray", a humorous ghost story...about dogs.

The text story, "Thurnley Abbey", is a very traditional haunting story -- right down to its archetypal hook of the narrator being told the story by a chance aquaintance. It works reasonably well, precisely because a short story can, in some cases, cover more ground than a comic (a picture ain't always worth a thousand words).

Other stories in the collection aren't necessarily as successful, often quite slight, but none are cringe inducing awful, either. Uli Oesterle's "Forever" is moderately fun in its traditional, macabre, EC Comics sort of way involving a scoundrel and a cursed tattoo. Though Mike Mignola's Hellboy contribution, "Dr. Carp's Experiment", with the character called in to investigate a haunted house, doesn't really give you enough to decide whether or not you'd like to track down Hellboy's other adventures for those previously unfamiliar with him (like myself). "This Small Favor" -- the "Devil's Footprints" story -- involves the protagonist also called in to cleanse a home of willful spirits. And the brief "The House on the Corner" likewise relates events surrounding a haunted house, but in a style evocative of an old Ripley's Believe it or Not comic.

Ultimately, this collection of supernatural tales maybe doesn't quite succeed in elbowing itself to the top of anyone's "must have" list. But the very commitment that editor Scott Allie seems to bring to the project is appealing, right down to the elegant, almost old-fashioned, packaging. With two or three better-than-decent tales, a variety of emotional tones, good art throughout in a variety of styles, and a welcome, old fashioned restraint, it's an agreeable read.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.95 USA.


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