GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "D" Page 5

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Dragon Lady  2000 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written and Illustrated by Milton Caniff.

Reprinting: Amazing Comics #1-4 (which reprinted a storyline from the 1930s newspaper strip, Terry and the Pirates)  plus a couple of non-Caniff short stories

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by ACG Comics

Terry and the Pirates was a newspaper strip that followed the adventures of young Terry Lee, an American boy living in the Orient, and Pat Ryan, a rugged soldier-of-fortune type who acts as his guardian. At least that was how the strip started out (Terry grew older and became a young man as the strip progressed). This particular storyline (which ran from the end of August, 1937, to the middle of February, 1938) features the introduction of the Dragon Lady, an Oriental femme fatale who just may develop a soft spot for Pat as the story progresses. Despite seeming to meet her demise at the serial's conclusion, the Dragon Lady would reappear in the strip, becoming highly identified with the series overall.

Terry and the Pirates is something of a benchmark in the evolution of the newspaper strip, and Caniff is an artist who had enormous influence on succeeding generations of comicbook artists, so I'd been wanting to read some of the strip for a long time.

A single story stretched out over so many months could become tedious, but this turns out to be a convoluted affair, almost like two or three stories that segue one into the other. Pat is hired to help catch a spy stealing documents for a new plane. That spy turns out to be the Dragon Lady. But soon the story has taken an unexpected turn and Pat is in the Chinese jungle at the mercy of a warlord, with Terry and manservant Connie in pursuit (despite being called Terry and the Piates, here adult Pat is more clearly the main character).

The unfortunate thing about newspaper adventure strips is that their artistic heyday was probably in the 1930s and 1940s and, like Golden Age comicbooks themselves, it means that they reflect antiquated attitudes. With Terry and the Pirates set in the exotic Far East, you can't avoid noticing an underlying racism. Right in the opening strip we meet a series regular, Connie -- Terry and Pat's comic-relief Chinese manservant. Connie, unlike everyone else, isn't drawn particularly realistic; with his huge teeth and big ears, he's a caricature. Dimwitted and goofy, he's more uncomfortable that amusing. Though, to be fair, he is portrayed as having a good heart. Which is better than most of the other Asian characters, who are drawn less grotesquely, but are generally villains. Throw in ostensibly good guys occasionally using racial slurs and it's enough to make most modern readers cringe.

Though, and here's the paradox, there are occasional Oriental characters who are not portrayed in quite so dismissive a light. And the Dragon Lady herself is intelligent and seductive.

So, does that make Dragon Lady unreadable. Well, no. If we dismissed every book or movie that was tainted by racism (or sexism), we'd eliminate 60 percent of stories told prior to, say, the mid-1950s at least. But we don't. If there's enough entertainment value inherent in the rest of a story, we can hold our noses through the more offensive bits.

I say "can", not necessarily "should". If someone feels it would sour the story too much for them to enjoy it, then I respect that. For my part, though, I found myself willing to look past the occasional lapses.

Milton Caniff was considered a master of his craft, and this epic storyline shows some of why. Older strips had more room to work with than the few adventure strips remaining today: four panels a day, often of enough size to fit in a fair amount of verbige. There was also a defter handling of repitition, with less obvious reiteration of information, making for a smoother read when the strips are assembled back-to-back (though there's still enough repetition that its newspaper origins are evident). It's a technique that has been lost somewhat in modern North American adventure strips, though the British (at least into the early 1980s) were still expert practitioners of the craft with strips like Modesty Blaise and Axa, where repetition was kept to a minimum.

The exotic, Far East locale full of junks (Chinese boats), warlords, and Chinese architecture is well depicted, making the story decidedly atmospheric and enthralling. I'd never read Terry and the Pirates before, but there's something delightfully evocative and nostalgic about it all, as if I had read it long ago, in another life.

The story is well-paced and clever, taking unexpected twists. The nice thing about these older newspaper strips is that they had enough room to inject a little bit of characterization, to keep things from being too breezy, and a touch of humour, even as they're written to be fast-paced, like a movie serial.

As noted above, Caniff was an influential artist, which is more clearly obvious in his later work which influenced the likes of Frank Robbins and others. I actually find this, his early style, more pleasing. He utilizes a less stylized, generally realistic art that I quite enjoyed.

The format for this book is worth commenting on. Firstly, the first two issues contain a back up story not by Caniff (a horror story culled from some old Charlton Comics title and a war story culled from Fightin' Marines). Neither story is especially memorable, nor thematically connected to the main story. The final two issues dump the back up story, and switch to reprinting the strips in a vertical format (meaning you have to turn the book on its side to read it). Although that's not such a bad idea when published in its comic book format, in this TPB it's a bit awkward as the spine isn't as limber, forcing the pictures to curl a bit toward the spine. As well, the editors were rather lax in reprinting the accompanying Sunday strips -- sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. As such, there are occasional jumps in the story (though with a text blurb to tell you what you missed) and a whole week or so of dailies are skipped at the end (though you don't notice it). There's also a couple of pages in the first issue that got switched with each other. All of this means that, though not a bad re-presentation of these strips, it's not the best, either.

This TPB is dubbed a "Special Collection", and it doesn't so much reprint Amazing Comics as it literally collects them between a single cover. It really seems as though it's the four issues glued together, complete with front and back covers of a different paper than the story pages, plus ads. It's also worth noting that this was apparently limited to only 600 copies.

Unavoidably dated by some of its sensibilities, nonetheless this collection of Terry and the Pirates is an entertaining adventure harkening back to a bygone day of adventure and mystery. It gives an idea of why the strip, and Caniff, is so well regarded all these decades later.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $10.95 USA. 


Dreadstar, Definitive Collection, part 1  2004 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written and Illustrated by Jim Starlin Inks by Starlin, with Joe Rubinsten.
Colours: Glynis Oliver. Letters: Jim Novak. Editor: Archie Goodwin, Jo Duffy.

Reprinting: Dreadstar #1-6 (1982)

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Walt Simonson; sketches; covers

Published by Dynamic Forces

These comics have been reprinted a few times: originally published as a deluxe format comic by Marvel's imprint, Epic, then reprinted in 1985 as a six issue, regular format mini-series still by Marvel called Dreadstar and Company, then in 2001 Slave Labour Graphics released a series of black & white TPBs reprinting the saga -- beginning with the precursor series "Metamorphosis Odyssey" -- of which these six issues comprised volume 4, sub-titled Plan M and finally Dynamic Forces has released issues #1-12 as both a single hard cover, and a two volume TPB collection. Whew!

Dreadstar is basically a chip off the Star Wars block in that it follows a group of rebels battling intergalactic tyranny. Except here the heroes are caught in the middle between two warring tyrannies, the religious-fueled Instrumentality, and the royalist Monarchy. As well, the series borrows a bit from super hero comics in that this rebel group is just a team -- just five characters -- and some with super powers. And clearly the series has enjoyed a certain lingering "cult" appeal, given the number of times it's been reprinted over the years (or, at least, the times these early issues have been reprinted).

The first issue supplies a recap of what's gone before. Despite this beinging with issue #1, hero Vanth Dreadstar had been around for a while, first being introduced in Starlin's "Metamorphosis Odyssey" saga serialized in Marvel's Epic Illustrated magazine (and collected in a TPB), and then appearing in a Dreadstar Annual #1, then a Dreadstar graphic novel. And "Metamorphosis Odyssey" was definitely a "mature readers" story, moreso than the Dreadsat regular series.

All six issues here tell relatively self-contained adventures (no "to be continued" cliff hangers between issues), meaning it's not too hard to just jump in even if you just found one or two in the back issues bins.

These initial six adventures provide a reasonable introduction to Jim Starlin's science fiction saga, and the characters drop references to a mysterious "plan M" throughout that, then, is revealed in issue #6, creating a sort of story arc. At the same time, these six issues were never really meant to form a stand alone arc, building to a definitive climax in #6 (Dynamic Forces has released issues #7-12 in a second TPB and, I assume, those dozen issues do better form a story arc). Even "plan M" isn't so much threaded through the series as a developing plot line, as it's just referred to occasionally, before being revealed. So elements are introduced, but not developed, and references are made that never lead anywhere. Even the very uniqueness of a hero caught between two forces is muted, as Vanth by the end of these six issues forms a temporary alliance with the Monarchy.

However, taken as just six issues of an on going series that don't end on a cliff hanger or anything, Dreadstar and Company is a decent enough read, with strengths and weaknesses. Each issue totals about 30 pages of story (save the last issue, which is 22 pages). As such, Starlin can take his time with the issues, mixing talkiness with action scenes, and, as noted, crafting self-contained adventures. But, despite that, the stories and the characters aren't especially elaborate. The issues are enjoyable...without being that memorable after the fact, despite what should be grandiose, memorable scenes -- like Vanth and pal Syzygy trying to get out of the way of a nuclear bombardment! Likewise, issue #2, for instance, is very much a character issue focusing on Willow...but even after six issues, Willow remains a fairly bland personality.

The stand out adventure is #5, with Starlin working a little more humour into the proceedings, putting a little more swashbuckling into his space opera.

Starlin's art is appealing, if a lttle too prone to big muscles and, sometimes, stiff postures. But his backgrounds are detailed, which is a plus in a science fiction series where it's all about creating a reality -- though, mayhap, it's a little too connsistent: the corridors in one ship look rather like the corridors of another, which look a little like the corridors on this planet or that. Along with the 30 pages, there are plenty of little panels, meaning the stories don't feel skimpy.

And Vanth and his crew have personalities -- I don't want to suggest they don't. It's just that, like with the action-adventure, little really stands out.

Ultimately, this certainly leaves one open to looking up subsequent comics. But neither are these issues strong enough to necessarily make such a pursuit a priority. There's a feeling a lot more could be done, than is. Even Plan M, when it's revealed, is a great, audacious, potentially controversial, idea. But, at least as presented here, it's not handled especially convincingly.

This was enjoyable, the leisurely pace making it a relaxed read, even as it ends up seeming a little thin at times, with protagonists who are personable if not much more.

This is a review of the comics based on the earlier reprint mini-series, Dreadstar and Company.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA. 


The Drowned 2004 (SC GN) 80 pages

Written by Laini Taylor-Di Bartolo. Illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo.
black & white

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Image Comics

Reviewed: 2004

The Drowned is set in early 19th Century France and is an off-beat mixture of suspense and the supernatural, told with an under-current of fairy tale- like whimsy. The main character is Theophile -- a young man who, as the story begins, escapes from a Paris insane asylum...and we aren't entirely sure if maybe he doesn't belong there. Driven by impulses he can't define, and pursued by men who may or may not be there, Theo sets out to finish a mission that was interrupted a few years before when he was incarcerated. His journey takes him to his home town, where tragic things occurred years before -- though not before he is waylaid in a creepy little village that only exists when the tide is out.

Actually, the above description maybe makes The Drowned seem weirder, and perhaps more inaccessible, than it is. As the story progresses, the logic to things begins to emerge, and we realize Theo isn't (quite) as confused as we might have first thought.

It's a testament to writer Laini Taylor-Di Bartolo's ability that she presents a tale that straddles the needs of a literal narrative, featuring a sympathetic protagonist, with an off-kilter edge, as though being fuelled, if only a little, by the spirit of Lewis Carroll or Mervyn Peake. When strange things occur, Theo seems to recognize they're strange...but doesn't maybe recognize they're as strange as they are. Which is the point. This is a world where the line between normal and the bizarre is occasionally rather tenuous; a superstitious time when nervous villagers regularly paint good luck symbols on their doors. And yet the story mainly keeps its footing, not going too far in any one direction, and allowing us, for all the quirkiness, to still feel anchored, even as there's an at times dreamlike ambience to things. Theo's narration is dense and almost literary, without being so overwhelming that you wonder why they bothered with the pictures -- this is a comic book where the pictures convey as much information as the words. But it gives the book a nice, literate, occasionally poetic, feel. And the dialogue is also well- handled, with some nice, quirky humour and wit, as well.

The 19th Century French setting isn't fully evoked, though. Oh, it certainly has a period ambience, to an extent, but not specifically France, or even our world. The dialogue itself seems a little too English, as if Taylor - Di Bartolo has modelled her characters after the very English "French" depicted in colloquial English translations of Les Miserables, or old British Hammer Films.

The black, white and grey art by Jim Di Bartolo suits the tone admirably, presenting a wife-husband creative team that seems to be nicely in sync with what they're both trying to do. He works in a semi-realist style, yet one that has a thread of caricature through it: faces are gaunt and care worn, bodies at times knobby, mouths often full-lipped (in an English sort of way). His sense of place, in costumes and sets, is well presented, and the composition, though energetic and frequently imaginative (with a low angle shot, or a high one) doesn't get needlessly clever, which adds to the ambience. The weirdness is accentuated precisely because he's not going overboard to make it seem weird. There were a few times, admittedly, when the meaning and clarity of a scene was a bit muddled (such as an early panel where Theo opens a box and it's not immediately clear what's inside). But those are minor quibbles.

As with all stories, it probably loses some of its weirdness and mystery towards the end as the inexplicable is explained -- rendering the climax a bit anti-climactic. A revelation as to what's in another box isn't particularly surprising, although Taylor - Di Bartolo throws in another plot turn that should keep you from figuring out where it's all heading.

However, the biggest stumbling block comes with a kind of vague resolution. Over the course of the story, Theo learns he has acquired a "gift" by accident. This "gift" is crucial in the climax...and it's never fully explained what that "gift" was or how it works. Obviously, it's an ability to combat supernatural evil, perhaps even rendering him impervious to same...but for such a long build up, one kind of wants it clarified. What is it that Theo can do that another could not?

Part of the problem may be that the creators wanted to leave the door open -- in true comic book fashion -- for seqquels. It's not that the story ends to be continued or anything, or with any conspicuously dangling plot threads, but there is a sense that what should've been a "graphic novel" ends up feeling a little like a TV movie pilot.

With all that being said, it's a darn fine read, sure-footed and off-beat, and one that actually encourages more than one reading. The first time through you can enjoy the strangeness, the whimsy of it all...the second time through, knowing where it's headed, you can enjoy re-reading scenes for the clues and hidden significance you missed the first time through.

cover price: ____


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