GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


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

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Devi, vol. 1: Namaha 2006 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by Greg HornWritten by Siddharth Kotian, Samit Basu (created by Shekhar Kapur). Illustrated by Mukesh Singh.
Colours: Nanjan J. Letters: Ravikiran B.S., Nilesh S. Mahadik. Editors: MacKenzie Cadenhead, Mahesh Kamath.

Additional notes: production sketches, etc.

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Virgin Comics

Set in modern India, Devi concerns a young woman, Tara Mehta, who unbeknownst to herself has been selected by the Gods (a non-denominational, mythical pantheon) to become the next Devi -- a god-like warrior in the battle against darkness. A fact that those same forces of darkness wish to prevent.

Virgin Comics jumped into the comics market both with the gimmick of attaching to their projects brand name creators that aren't usually associated with comics -- filmmakers like Shekhar Kapur or philosopher/gurus like Deepak Chopra or, um, pornstars like Jenna Jameson -- and, for many of their comics, deliberately seeking out an Indian flavour/vibe. I don't believe these are Indian comics per se -- Virgin is a western, Anglo-American company and these are projects original to it -- but some of the creators are Indian and, supposedly, drawing upon a unique Indian sensibility.

I say "supposedly"...because what emerges from this collection of the first five issues of Devi is a really pretty familiar concept, with obvious echoes of Witchblade or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its notion of an ordinary women suddenly dragged into a supernatural conflict as the current inheritor of an ancient power. (Subsequently there was even a Devi/Witchblade team up one-shot!)

Most stories are familiar at their core -- it's in the details and the telling that they are made fresh. Unfortunately, Devi offers very little of those, either.

First off: the good parts.

Front and centre is the art by Mukesh Singh. This is apparently among his first comics work (after an illustrative background in production design, games, animation, etc.) and he pretty well hits it out of the park first time. Not only is he an exceptionally good artist, good at both people (including the obligator beautiful women and hunky men) and breathtakingly detailed backgrounds, but he can also shift to suit the various tones of the series, from the supernatural to the urban streets, the grim and horrific, to lighter bits. As well, he has a solid eye for composition, for developing a scene through pictures. Of course credit must also be given to colourist Nanjan J.for settling on the right hues.

And the writers are certainly capable of delivering decent scenes and pacing, the occasional cute quip. It's all perfectly agreeable.

The opening sequence, set millennia ago, depicting the gods' first battle with the comics' arch fiend, the Lucifer-like Bala, is particularly striking, both visually and in its sense of evoking a mythological tone, like old Thor comics or Kirby's New Gods. When the action jumps to modern times, you can feel a bit of a let down.

Comics with heroines often come under criticism for their sexploitive visuals. There's some of that: a villainess here wears a cleavage baring shirt, and in the opening sequence, the original Devi's costume seems to amount to no more than tendrils of flame that lick about her nude body, covering only the essentials. But...when Tara finally appears in costume, it's a far more demure outfit (awww, shucks). And though Singh draws beautiful women -- they aren't ridiculously proportioned. And though the violence is, occasionally, a bit gorier than it needs to be, in general they seem to be going for a decidedly mainstream, general readership tone.

But you reach the end of these five issues and still find yourself completely undecided if the comic is worth reading. For all the running about and action and machinations (mainly villains double crossing each other), this seems barely more than an introduction. In fact, Tara doesn't even appear till midway through the second issue, and barely has any lines after that. At least, in so far as we get much of a sense for her as a person. While at one point a good guy cop even self-describes himself as a "cliche"!

The plot is vaguely presented. We first meet the cop chasing a suspect who turns into a demon-vampire thing -- except we aren't actually told why he had been chasing the guy in the first place! Or one of the villains has ingratiated himself with Tara as her boyfriend...but he didn't modify himself in any way to seduce her (in other words, if she didn't have a thing for gangsters, his plan would've been a bust).

For all the creative "vision" that Virgin Comics is selling itself as having, one can't help but suspect the problem is that of a story by committee -- with filmmaker Kapur's name featured prominently on the cover, and two writers over five issues, one can imagine there were too many people involved...but not enough people committed to it. Or maybe the fact that the "visionaries" are drawn from other mediums means they didn't realize how familiar this all might seem to comic book and fantasy fiction fans in general.

And it doesn't really seem any different than any American comic. Oh, there's some background touches, by-standers in saris or turbans, occasional bits of Indian slang (dutifully translated) and a scene where a religious procession, complete with elephant, blocks traffic -- not exactly something Spider-Man usually encounters. But the main characters all seem to act and dress in a western way, and you don't really get a sense of Indian's complex stew of cultures and peoples -- the series is even set in a fictional city, Sitapur. And, hey, maybe that just goes to show what we all know deep inside -- people are the same all over.

And, as I've noted in other comics featuring non-white characters, the characters seem oddly light-skinned.

Ultimately it's not that I hated, or even disliked Devi -- it can be an agreeabale, breezy page turner. I just found it hard to get that interested in it one way or the other.

Perhaps they'd claim they've got some grand, epic tale to unfold, and they're just taking their time doing it. But ultimately, there's only so much a reader can take on faith. This represents five issues (half a year of publishing) and we're still left with next to no insight into the characters (or why we should care about them) -- or of any master plan (or why we should be intrigued by where it's headed). Although these first five issues do form a semi-arc, it's still just part of the on going narrative. So there's not even much sense of whether the writers can deliver on a plot: beginning, middle and end. And little indication they are capable of offering up some fresh twists on old cliches.

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

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA.


Devi, vol. 2 2007 (SC TPB) 144 pages

coverWritten by Samit Basu. Illustrated by Aditya Chari, Saumin Patel.
Colours: Nanjan J. with N. Sivakami. Letters: various. Editors: Mackenzie Cadenhead, Mahesh Kamath.

Reprinting: Devi #6-10

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested (mildly) for mature readers

Published by Virgin Comics

This is the second volume of Virgin Comics' Devi series, about a young woman in the (fictional) Indian city of Sitapur who finds herself imbued with the power and life force of the Devi, an ancient demi-goddess created by the gods to fight evil. The first five issue arc introduced the concept, setting up the situation of the devil-like entity, Balal and his minions operating in modern day Sitapur and heroine Tara Mehta's conversion into the Devi.

This picks up from there. Balal and his agents are seeking the Source -- an ancient power hidden somewhere in the city that, if Balal acquires it, will give him dominion not only of the world, but even his fellow gods. Something the other gods don't want, and what they want the Devi to prevent. But unlike previous versions of the Devi, where the goddess inhabited a dead mortal, Tara is still very much alive and a very reluctant heroine.

Reading the first Devi TPB (and knowing how modern comics like to just create rambling story arcs) it wasn't really clear if there was any specific arc being developed. So it was interesting reading this second TPB to realize that it does build to a climax of a kind, meaning the first ten issues of the on going series do form a story. Also in my review of the first TPB I basically remarked that I didn't really dislike Devi, but there was little about it to excite interest in it, either. With that ambivalence in mind (and with these subsequent issues in the cheap boxes) I decided to give the series another chance at winning me over.

Unfortunately, it didn't.

On the plus side, as mentioned, this does build to a resolution of the inaugural story arc, with a climactic issue that does feel like a climax.

On the minus side...

Well, basically this continues the theme of the first volume, in that it's trying to milk a lot of mileage out of the sense of machinations and various factions at odd with each other as we cut to various players each pursuing their own agenda. Which might be good. Except it means that, therefore, the bad guys seem to occupy the majority of the page count as a lot of time is just spent cutting to various villains -- and villains who often aren't pursuing separate agendas, so much as they just think they are (as one bad guy remarks to another in exasperation: "will you never trust me?") There's a lot of talking heads in these issues...which, again, should be good. But ultimately...the plotting remains rather thin, as we basically just cut to the same characters having the same conversations over and over again. And despite all the verbiage, the characterization remains rather minimal.

Devi/Tara herself remains a kind of blandly defined heroine/personality.

And the action scenes are basically just, well, action scenes, as opposed to intriguingly choreographed battles that generate suspense and tension. That's part of the problem with a generically powered heroine who's super strong and can zap things...it's not like she's got some simple, finite power that she has to figure out how to employ against her foes in novel ways.

A big plus of the first five issues was the art by Mukesh Singh. Unfortunately, he's moved on, and his replacements are less impressive. Aditya Chari is okay, but his figure work is rather stiff. While Saumin Patel struck me as even more problematic, his simple, cartoony style not even seeming particularly professional. Though I wonder if it might be a deliberate art style, as it reminded me -- vaguely -- of ancient Indian art, like the kind you might see on a temple wall or illustrating a scroll, as though it was a deliberate stylistic choice for this series about Indian deities. But if so, it's still not that appealing aesthetically. And the composition itself is problematic, particularly in the action scenes (reading over the climactic fight, I kept wondering if the order of the panels somehow got messed up -- or panels left out entirely!) Patel's art is also pretty gory in spots, pushing this towards a "mature readers" category.

Although one writer remains at the helm for this run of issues, I still can't help wonder if part of the fault lies with the whole editorial philosophy behind Virgin Comics. It's a company that jumped into the biz, promoting itself as visionary and creatively driven...but overall seems just kind of crassly mercenary, launching a bunch of titles with glossy covers and all the promotion money can buy and series by "name" creators...who didn't actually write the darn things (here, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur). It smacks of comics by a committee of business men rather than by a circle of comics creators -- or at least, dilettantes who want to play at being comics creators, without having to do the heavy lifting. The fact that recently (just a year or two after the company started) there are already rumours it's in trouble, isn't really surprising.

Heck, the fact that the mysterious power source the characters are hunting for is called...The Source, seems a bit like no one was exactly knocking themselves out with creativity.

The first Devi volume left me on the fence...not really excited, but willing to concede it could get better. But this second volume just seems to tip me off the fence, with repetitive plotting and characterization that still fails to rise above generic, a heroine that never manages to command centre stage, and not even being visually arresting.

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

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA.


Devil Dinosaur Omnibus 2007 (HC TPB) 176 pages

coverWritten and drawn by Jack Kirby. Inks by Mike Royer.
Colours: Petra Goldberg, with George Roussos. Letters: Mike Royer.

Reprinting: Devil Dinosaur #1-9 (1979)

Additional notes: intro by Tom Brevoort; letters pages and Kirby's editorials from the original comics; covers; published at slightly over-sized dimensions.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Jack Kirby is one of the most significant and influential figures in mainstream comics. Dubbed the "King" by Stan Lee in the 1960s when Lee came up with nicknames for all the Marvel bullpen, that label stuck with Kirby. Although one can debate how well Kirby was treated by publishers in his lifetime, in recent years -- and with the burgeoning cottage industry of collected editions -- Marvel and DC both seem to have gone crazy for making sure everything Kirby did has been re-released in lavish, prestigious, tribute editions. Of course some of Kirby's stuff warrants such honours -- his New Gods for example. Others, not so much.

Take Devil Dinosaur for instance. Among the last projects Kirby did for Marvel, and the Big Two comics publishers, before devoting himself mainly to animation story boards and creator controlled projects released through smaller publishers, Devil Dinosaur only ran nine issues. And it's not that it doesn't have its good points -- in a Kirby-esque way. But somehow "omnibus" seems a pretentious label for nine seventeen page comics, and an expensive, hardcover, slightly oversized volume seems a bit much for a series that didn't even last a year.

Anyway, Devil Dinosaur is set at basically "the dawn of time", when (evolutionary theories aside) primitive ape men walk side by side with dinosaurs. Devil Dinosaur is a red skinned, preternaturally canny Tyrannosaurus who is befriended by Moon-Boy, one of those erstwhile ape men. Essentially, it's a boy and his dog type tale -- if the boy was covered in body hair and the dog was a giant lizard! But there's no doubt Kirby's tapping into a kind of primal wish fantasy (how many of us as kids haven't had fantasies about riding a dinosaur?). At first blush it's a pretty wild and wacky series -- Kirby through and through. Of course, in retrospect you can see the creative threads. The most commercially successful of Kirby's then-recent stint at DC was Kamandi, about a teen in a post apocalyptic wasteland ruled by talking animals. Devil Dinosaur isn't the same, but you can see the connection. As well (according to the introduction by Tom Brevoort) Marvel was looking for a property it could shop to TV networks as a possible cartoon (nowadays such mercenary cross marketing is almost mandatory, but back then not as much so) and one can see that factor playing a part in the creation. It's easy to picture Moon-Boy and Devil romping across your screens (save the comics, with their perceived broader audience, are a little darker, with people occasionally getting killed). Not that such small screen adventures ever happened.

And for that matter, pre-historic adventures, though definitely a minority in comics, occurred often enough to form their own little mini-genre -- from Tragg and the Sky Gods, to Tor, to Turok and others. Like with super heroes, dinosaurs and cavemen make a good fit with comics which aren't hamstrung by budget considerations.

Still, whatever the precedents, Devil Dinosaur's appeal is partly just that it's different from the men-in-tights faire. And delivered with Kirby's patented overwrought dialogue, and a weird mix of sensibilities -- seeming childish and juvenile one moment, then trying to tackle weighter themes and philosophies the next -- it's fun just to lose yourself in its atypical milieu. Storytelling is about escapism -- comic books even moreso. And you can't escape from your day to day grind any more thoroughly than in a series set millions of years before our civilization -- even our species! -- existed.

The first few issues are entertaining just because they are different. But the initial novelty does fade a bit. There's a multi-issue arc -- involving aliens and temporarily introducing some other ape men with Moon-Boy sidelined a bit -- that maybe shows Kirby's ideas are often better realized in tighter one or two issue stories. Not that the arc is bad, but his simple plots often work best as little vignettes -- fables.

Kirby's art is also uneven -- though that's a matter of taste. Different people will cite different periods as Kirby's visual peak. I've read some reviews that cite his late 1970s work as his glory days. Still, it's undeniably Kirby, energetic and clearly told. Though for a comic all about dinosaurs, Kirby doesn't maybe demonstrate any especial fondness for depicting them, the great lizards often seeming a bit crudely depicted (Devil's teeth are represented by just a zigzag line). Still, though I was skeptical as to whether the material warranted such a prestigious presentation, there is a certain appeal to seeing the art reprinted at slightly over-sized dimensions.

Ultimately, Devil Dinosaur is a moderately enjoyable effort, simply for its off beat setting and atypical leads (a dinosaur and a boy that isn't, strictly speaking, human). But Marvel might have been better releasing it in a more economical form...'cause it's not exactly must read material, either.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$29.99 USA.


The Dick Tracy Casebook: Favorite Adventures 1931-1990 1990 (SC) 273 pgs.

The Dick Tracy Casebook - cover by Chester Gouldselected by Max Allan Collins and Dick Locher

Reprinting: "The Hotel Murders" 1936, "The Brow" 1944, "Crewy Lou" 1951, "Model" 1952, "The Spot" 1960, "Big Boy's Open Contract" 1978, "The Man of a Million Faces" 1987

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by St. Martin's Press

Prior to this, my only experience with comic strip cop Dick Tracy was the 1990 movie with Warren Beatty and a couple of the films from the '40s -- none of which had exactly won me over to the granite-jawed sleuth and his rogues gallery of grotesques. I'd never even seen the daily newspaper strip, or any of the sundry other compilations (meaning I have nothing to compare this collection to). But reading The Dick Tracy Casebook, I'm beginning to get an idea of the strip's popularity.

The book contains story lines selected by the current (at least as of 1990) producers of the strip, writer (and novelist) Max Allan Collins and artist Dick Locher. Included are five by Tracy creator Chester Gould, and two story lines from the post-Gould period by Collins and artist, the late Rick Fletcher, and Collins and Locher respectively.

The Chester Gould stuff is a genuine eye-opener. I don't know how this material would read in daily doses, but put together, there's a breathless pacing and genuine excitement exploding out of the bizarrely cartoony images mixed with film noire grittiness, colourful action, human drama, off-beat quirkiness, and light sci-fi touches (like wrist radios). The strip was also more sophisticated than the 1990 movie. Admittedly, though, Gould's stuff can get pretty grisly in spots (for all the talk of modern media violence, I find it hard to believe some of this stuff would be printed in newspapers today).

Chet Gould, generally using four panels per day, crams a lot of information into the strip, with a true talent for reiterating information without seeming to be repeating the last day's episode. Trying to imagine reading a strip at random, I get the sense you could pick up the necessary information quickly, but read together, there's little sense of obvious recapping that would impede the narrative flow. It's an impressive achievement.

Unfortunately, it's a talent that wasn't entirely passed on to the next generation. Max Allan Collins' first story is O.K., but still not on the same level as Gould's, while the final story I found dragged some. Gone are the jam-packed four panels, with Collins and Locher utilizing three -- sometimes only two -- panels per day, with heavy use of repetition. At times the first panel is a virtual reproduction of the last day's panel, making the whole thing an exercise in "two steps forward, one step back". The pacing drags and the drama (and comedy), and the characters themselves, seem less real than in Gould's hands. Too bad.

In their editorials, Collins and Locher explain that they wanted to include stories that hadn't been collected much before (at least in their entirety) and, as the sub-title suggests, these are personal favourites, selected subjectively. As such, one infers, some obvious stories may have been ignored.

Overall, the choices are good (at least of the Gould stuff) -- though I have nothing to compare it too, whether there might have been better stories included, or how well this reflects Dick Tracy overall. In a number of spots Collins makes allusions to Gould's right-of-centre politics, but it's little in evidence here. And there's nothing as odiously right-wing as, say, the 1990 motion picture (produced by Warren Beatty, a supposed Hollywood Liberal -- go figure). Gould's Tracy, at least in these stories, doesn't brutalize suspects for information, he doesn't rant against civil rights, and he doesn't shoot first. Compared to most cops in novels, TV, movies and comics, that makes Dick Tracy a veritable bleeding-heart-hippie-do-gooder -- but, as I say, that's based solely on these stories.

What stops the book from being a perfect encapsulation of Dick Tracy is that, because these are personal favourites, Collins and Locher skip over an entire period in the '60s when Tracy, apparently, relocated to the moon. Although this was during a science fiction boom, and could be clearly seen as a mercenary attempt to catch a wave, Collins implies that Chester Gould was genuinely enthusiastic about the shift to the fantastic...to the consternation of fans like Collins. As such, Collins and Locher have chosen to jump over that period, leaving novices like myself rather curious about what those stories were like. Likewise they skip over a period when Gould tried to modernize Tracy by giving him longer hair and a mustache.

And, of course, even the erstwhile colour Sunday Funny strips are here printed in black and white.

Ultimately, whether this is a great collection when compared to other Dick Tracy collections, I don't know. I'll admit that the post-Gould period left me unimpressed (which is a shame to say, because the enthusiasm of fans-turned-pros Collins and Locher is clearly genuine) but the Chester Gould stuff was quite entrancing. Admittedly, I don't know if I've been turned into a true, dyed-in-the-wool fan or not, but I do have an irresistible urge to shout into my watch, "Calling, Dick Tracy!"

Original cover price $15.95



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