GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "G"

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cover by Dave Gibbons Give Me Liberty 1990 (SC TPB) 200 pages

Written by Frank Miller. Art by Dave Gibbons.
Colours: Robin Smith. Letters: Dave Gibbons (?). Editor: Randy Stradley.

Reprinting: Give Me Liberty #1-4

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Pegging who and what Frank Miller is -- ideologically speaking -- isn't the easiest thing in the world. Arguably one of the most critically regarded writers (and sometimes artists) in the comics biz, Miller's varied works are often a wild combination of satire and solemnity, boasting an astonishing humanity and insight into character, while at the same time wallowing in a senseless, puerile love of violence and brutality. Miller can be one of the smartest writers in comics...and one of the dumbest. Sometimes within the space of a few panels. One merely has to contrast his classic Batman mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, with its unfortunate sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, to see the two extremes of Miller's creative personality.

After spending most of the 1980s tooling around in the comic book mainstream of super heroes (save the off beat, and under-appreciated, Ronin) Miller started exploring other genres in the 1990s. One of the first of these was Give Me Liberty (ironically subtitled: An American Dream). It's a combination of a violent, science fiction thriller with a farcical social satire -- a combination that I'm not sure could be pulled off as well in any other medium (movies, novels). You see, it's meant to be taken seriously, in the sense that the daring escapes and threats are meant to be edge-of-the-seat stuff, and the characters are (mainly) meant to be real people with real emotions. And yet, it's also blatantly, in-your-face silly as Miller satirizes any and everything in his portrayal of 21st Century America (this having been written in the 20th Century). When American troops battle fast food consortiums, and the consortiums send Godzilla-sized robots of their company icons marching across the battlefields, it's not so much that you don't know whether to laugh or scream -- you're meant to do both, you're brain reading it on both levels simultaneously.

One suspects Miller was influenced a lot by Howard Chaykin (particularly Chaykin's American Flagg), but Miller is the more sentimental. Underneath the caustic satire, there's some touching character stuff.

The saga follows Martha Washington, a young black girl growing up poor in a ghetto-cum-prison under the seeming unceasing reign of an oppressive dictator/president who has rewritten the Constitution to give himself almost limitless power. After much trial and hardship, Martha eventually joins the army -- the only way out for her -- but by this point there's been an unexpected regime change, with the right wing dictator being replaced by a liberal who wants to direct the country's military might towards more positive goals (such as saving the rain forest from the burger companies). What follows is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, of double crosses and coup d'etats, taking Martha all across the increasingly divided and disintegrating U.S.A. I had initially assumed the series was military SF, since the first issue culminates in Martha joining the army and a sequence of jungle warfare seeming lifted from an old Vietnam War movie. But that isn't what it's about, as the story strays far afield from simply grunts in the trenches.

The best part of the saga is the first chapter, chronicling Martha growing up in the crime ridden, cordoned off, ghetto, as Miller depicts his dystopian future as perceived by one of its "have nots", her growth taking her from the ghetto, to a mental hospital, to the streets. At times it's almost heartbreaking, while also being clever, and witty. When Martha finally joins the army, the reader can experience a simultaneous sense of relief (as she finally achieves stability and security) and horror (as she's plunged into the maelstrom of war).

When Miller's at his best, he can use the comicbook medium better than almost anyone, repeating phrases and juxtaposing words to images, for ironic or surprising effect. Granted, there are aspects of over indulgence, as Miller relies on some of his familiar stand by techniques that can seem a bit like rote for him (the incoherent babblings of the mentally ill).

The ensuing chapters, though entertaining, and never less than fascinating, are perhaps not as strong. The strength of the series is that you really can't guess where it's headed, as Miller veers all over the place, zagging when you thought he would zig (the jungle war, which I assumed would be the main story, is actually over fairly quickly). It's fast paced, not really allowing you to get too bored...or complacent. The weakness, though, is that Miller seems to be putting his wild concepts ahead of a strong core narrative, and even ahead of the characters. Although Martha remains the heroine throughout, after the first chapter, it seems less about her and more about the events.

Miller's handling of characters can be intriguing, particularly the new, liberal president Nissen who even as he goes from hero to villain, may lose our sympathy, but not our empathy. Yet other times, the characters can arise abruptly, such as a Native Indian guy who becomes Martha's ally...but I'm not entirely sure where he came from, or whether he was one of the Apache Indians who held her hostage at one point.

The strength of the series is that its fast paced and audacious in the wild ideas thrown at the reader (the Surgeon General as a mad messiah always seen, creepily, in surgical gown and operating goggles) but, as such, our emotional attachment becomes less after the first chapter. The reader's just trying to keep up with Miller, with little time to become too involved.

Another plus for the saga -- and a surprising one for me -- is Dave Gibbons' art. I've never been that big a fan of his work -- he's a realist artist, to be sure, but often un-dynamic and prone to stiff figures. But his art works quite well here -- perhaps away from the more flamboyant world of super heroes, his style can come into its own. Or maybe the material just inspired him more than other things have, with its shifting between drama and comedy, gritty realism and sci-fi extravagance. But his faces are expressive, his scenes energetic and well presented. Granted, his Martha tends to look a bit older than the teenager she's supposed to be.

Gibbons also seems to share Miller's penchant for sliding from sophisticated satire...to just sophomoric. Miller likes to use joke names for characters, while Gibbons depicts orbiting laser satellites as blatantly phallic.

A further, inevitable, weakness is that, like so much in the comicbook field, Give Me Liberty was not necessarily meant to be stand alone (it was followed by the mini-series Martha Washington Goes to War, and some one-shot specials). It doesn't end "to be continued", and the story climaxes with Martha confronting her arch nemesis, but the structure, which basically relies on the idea that "the more things change, the more they remain the same" means that we don't get satisfying closure. Even though the follow-up was three or four years later, it feels like Miller intended to do a sequel all along.

I began this piece by saying it's hard to peg Miller because Give Me Liberty can seem a bit unfocused, as Miller directs a merciless barrage of seeming genuine outrage, with equal parts goofy parody, at just about every political stripe -- Right and Left. Until, by the end, you aren't entirely sure what his point is (though his thread about protecting the rain forest seems without irony). But I think Miller can be described as, well, an idealistic-cynic, or maybe an idealistic-nihilist. He's idealistic enough to be outraged by the injustices of the world (injustices he then inflates and extrapolates upon in a science fiction milieu), while being cynical and even nihilistic enough to not believe there's much hope or solution. Miller's knack for characterization (when he's at his peak) indicates a man who can care deeply for people as individuals...even as one suspects that he despises people as a species. This might explain why Miller has also become enamoured of film noire type archetypes (as demonstrated in his long running Sin City stories) -- film noire being characterized as a cynical genre with little in the way of a moral centre.

As such, Give Me Liberty is more about saying that "life sucks...but it can make for entertaining stories."

Perhaps, if one were to draw any consistent theme from Give Me Liberty...it's that nothing's ever as simple as it seems, as characters, both good and bad, try to wrest control of the political order, and to"improve" things, only to have things fall apart as every solution opens up a slew of complications. Not as strong as perhaps the best of Miller's 1980s work (Batman, Daredevil, Ronin), Give Me Liberty is still aentertaining, clever saga...and more disciplined, and more effective, than his much later Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Ironically, these kind of biting, bitter parables can actually be over taken by time. Written in the 1990s, Miller's initial fascist, right wing president, is clearly modelled after Ronald Reagan (with his good ol' boy homilies and church yard exclamations -- "Gosh!"), yet it's still intended not as a criticism of America as it is, but of an America that could be. Read a few years later, during the reign of George W. Bush, one would swear that Miller was writing about him...and it doesn't seem so much like science fiction after all.

Cover price: __


Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome 2009 (HC TPB) 176 pages

coverWritten by Steve Gerber, with Arnold Drake. Pencils by Sal Buscema, Don Heck, Gene Colan. Inks by Vince Colletta, others.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Marvel Two-in-One #4, 5, Defenders #26-29, the Guardians of The Galaxy story from Marvel Super-Heroes #18, the lead Defenders story from Giant-Size Defenders #5 (1968-1975)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2015

Published by Marvel Comics

The Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that no idea is ever wasted in comics. After all, as a concept they first came to life in an obscure one-time story in an anthology comic in 1968 and yet eventually gave birth to one of the biggest box office hits of 2014! Talk about rags to riches. Granted, the modern version of the team is pretty different from its original incarnation.

This volume collects their original appearances -- before even landing their own solo series in Marvel Presents (which is collected in the next -- and better! -- volume, The Power of Starhawk ~ reviewed below).

The team was created by writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan, given a one-time try-out in the comic Marvel Super-Heroes. Set in the distant future it involves a misfit collection of characters (Vance Astro, Charlie 27, Martinex and Yondu -- mostly representatives of different mutant off-shoots of humanity from colonies on Pluto, Jupiter, etc.) who end up banding together after earth and her colonies are overrun by the humanoid-lizards of the Brotherhood of Badoon. It's more just introducing the characters and concepts, and establishing the possibility of a series about these far future rebels (years before Star Wars made space opera rebellions en vogue!) but it's an exciting, effective enough tale. Drake, whose credentials as a writer of quirky, misfit teams was established with The Doom Patrol (though the Guardians is more sombre) holds your attention and Colan renders it with his signature stylish and atmospheric visuals. At the time there were only handful of sci-fi comics in the largely super hero dominated medium (The Legion of Super-Heroes, Magnus) which might explain as much as anything why it didn't go beyond this (indeed, Marvel Super Heroes immediately switched over to being an all-reprint comic).

And that might have been it, both for the Guardians and for the Brotherhood of Badoon (who previously I think only ever appeared in a Silver Surfer comic).

But the characters must have caught the attention of Steve Gerber, because about five or six years later suddenly the Guardians are an active concern again.

First Gerber re-introduced them in a couple of Marvel Two-in-One issues (featuring the regular star, The Thing, teaming with Captain America and The Guardians in their far future reality) then he brought them over to The Defenders (the definition of a misfit team circa the 1970s) -- first in a one-shot Giant-Size Defenders story with the GG arriving in modern New York, then in a four part tale of The Defenders journeying with them to help free the future earth from The Badoon. And though the story builds to a suitable climax, nonetheless one assumes by this point plans for an on-going stories were already afoot. In the Defenders run Gerber adds the enigmatic Starhawk to the team but with only hints at his backstory. It's obviously something meant to be told later (though, funnily, even though Gerber did write the team's solo adventures -- he left before fully exploring Starhawk's origin himself!)

And the result is a decent collection but, maybe, not really a great one. Certainly as a showcase for the team it's problematic since most of these issues involve them just being guest stars. And the art, for the most part, is capably handled by Marvel stalwart Sal Buscema -- but admittedly an artist I usually found serviceable more than inspired. Which maybe explains why it's the original Drake/Colan solo story that, in many ways, stands as the most memorable and atmospheric.

As well, though Gerber is rightly famous (or infamous) as an industry maverick, and his best stuff could be edgy and quirky and provocative, I did sometimes feel his strength wasn't always in the plotting of a super hero adventure. So here there are some quirky bits, some off-beat digressions, but in service of a fairly straight forward action plot. The Badoon are given no more dimension or individuality than as just the generic despotic-alien-tyrants-of-the-week. And the story hinges on the characters getting split up, but the actual plotting is pretty simple, not really requiring a great deal of strategizing or cunning on the part of the heroes.

If we break the Gerber run into three separate stories (the Marvel Two-in-One two-parter, The Giant-Size Defenders story, then the four-part Defenders run) arguably the best is the Giant-Size Defenders one, where Gerber is less worrying about a long form, multi-issue plot and can focus on what he does best: quirky ideas, philosophical rumination, and eclectic narrative structure. Don Heck draws and though not an artist of which I'm especially fond, does evince a nice eye for storytelling composition in this one.

And we do see maybe a foreshadowing of where Gerber intends to take the later solo series, as the four-issue story does involve the teams getting scattered, allowing for a bit of a sci-fi allegory and social satire (the Hulk and Yondu prisoners of a demented game show!)

Still, for all my criticism, it's not like the run of issues is bad, either. It just lacks some of the quirkier, sci-fi aspects of the later, solo run (which took place entirely in outer space involving strange worlds) and though there are some character bits (this was at a time when Jack Norris hung around the Defenders -- the erstwhile husband of the body inhabited by the Valkyrie) there's not enough of that to really make the character stuff stand out.

A not disagreeable collection, even as it's not especially stand out (given it was released in hardcover). And though laying the foundation of the later GG success -- modern readers won't recognize most of the characters.

This is a review of the stories as they were originally serialized in Marvel Presents.

Cover price: __ CDN./$24.99 USA


Guardians of the Galaxy: The Power of Starhawk 2009 (HC TPB) 192 pages

coverWritten by Steve Gerber, Roger Stern, with Stan Lee (uncredited assists from) Mary Skrene, Chris Claremont. Pencils by Al Milgrom, with John Buscema. Inks by Bob Wiacek, others.
Colours: various. Letters: Denise Wohl, Irv Watanabe. Editor: Marv Wolfman, Archie Goodwin.

Reprinting: Marvel Presents #3-12 (1976-1977)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

The Guardians of the Galaxy began as a one-shot try out in the first version of the anthology comic Marvel Super Heroes (an odd placing since the series wasn't strictly "super hero" per se), then they cropped up as guest stars in a few places (notably a run of The Defenders) -- all of which has been collected in the previous collection, The Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Over Come. Much later, the characters enjoyed a few revivals (including in a self-titled 1990s series, and even more recently -- albeit with some membership changes). But this collection reprints the complete run of their very first solo series which ran in the pages of Marvel Presents.

(It might seem unusual to a modern reader the notion of "try out" titles that could provide a home for shifting features -- but that was because, back then, it made publishing sense to keep a title going, even if the contents changed, rather than nowadays where companies eagerly cancel and restart series at the drop of a hat because "first" issues are seen as more marketable to collectors).

Though conceived by Arnold Drake, it was Steve Gerber who used the characters in his Defenders run and who crafted their initial solo adventures. A mix of science fiction and super hero, it was set a thousand years in the future about an odd misfit group with super powers (appropriate given Drake had also created DC's Doom Patrol -- the prototypical misfit team). Think of it as a darker version of DC's Legion of Super-Heroes, as the Guardians' 30th Century had seen earth and its colonies conquered by the genocidal Brotherhood of Badoon. In fact, most of the half-dozen characters comprising the group -- products of off shoots of the human race from various colonies on Pluto, Jupiter, etc. -- were literally the last of their respective species. All this was covered in their earlier appearances, and the first issue here basically wraps that up, as earth (with the Guardians' help) finally overthrows the Badoon -- allowing the series to move away from the "resistance fighters" theme that dominated many 1970s SF comics (Killraven, Starfire, etc.)

Guided by the enigmatic Starhawk, the Guardians then set out for space adventures -- specifically to try and thwart a cosmic force that threatens the entire galaxy, a multi-part story arc (allowing for a few side adventures on the way), which then is followed by a multi-parter filling in the background on Starhawk. Along the way there's also an issue framed about a heavily edited Lee-Buscema reprint of The Silver Surfer #2 (from the 1960s) which relates to the Badoon.

And as you might expect for Gerber -- and Marvel circa the 1970s -- it can be kind of weird, and wild, and provocative. It can also be a bit loose and undisciplined, too. I tend to feel Gerber had a bit of trouble with long form stories -- often good at the little bits, the moments, the scenes, the concepts, his character interaction interesting, his themes intriguing, his imagination nicely outrageous. But often how it all holds together can be a bit vaguer, as if to him overall "plot" was just a primer to paint his more imaginative ideas upon.

Starhawk himself acts as a bit of a plot crutch, self-described enigmatically as "one-who-knows", Gerber basically uses him to move the action from A to C, without really having to bother with B.

Still, those As and Cs can be entertaining. In a comic like this, there's a certain brevity, as the action is racing along, with plot points, and even character development, seeming a bit as though it's just being crammed in wherever there's a momentary space. It can make it a bit unsatisfying, but it also means it's the opposite of the flaw in modern comics...the "decompression" movement, where minor plots are stretched out and padded, and thin characterization belaboured as if by taking more time to say very little, the reader can be fooled into thinking there's deeper meaning. Here you might wish Gerber would take a bit more time to develop things...but maybe it's better than wishing he would just move things along.

The Guardians are a reasonably interesting bunch, with some good character interaction and conflict (though still in the process of being defined) and are certainly a visually imaginative bunch -- maybe one of the most appeallingly off-beat looking super teams around, with one guy a humanoid crystal, another a hulking giant. Heck, the most normal of them, Major Vance Astro, a 20th Century astronaut in this far future thanks to suspended animation...must wear an all-covering protective blue and white suit (otherwise he'd crumble to dust), so even he looks odd.

As they set off on their galaxy saving mission, the story veers into weird and surreal areas that make the adventures of the starship Enterprise look positively prosaic. Gerber was also one of comicdoms premier auteurs, bringing a distinctive vision and philosophical POV to his stories. This leads to a satirical interlude that echoes themes in Gerber's Howard the Duck series, and reflecting his obvious sense of dissatisfaction with urban life, as the Guardians stop over on a planet that, though populated by bizarre-looking aliens, nonetheless is a dead ringer for 1970s New York. The issue's title? "Planet of the Absurd!"

But as this arc reaches its climax, it can seem a little as though Gerber's ideas are exceeding his ability to articulate them. Both conceptually...and visually, as Gerber expects artist Al Milgrom to depict a gigantic being whose arm span stretches light years. Needless to say, the visual don't really capture that. It's all propelled along by cryptic directions from Starhawk as "one-who-knows" -- what he knows and how he knows it is, of course, not always clear. Still, the story does contain a scene that in a medium given to "cosmic" events, and things like "cosmic suicide", may be a first -- essentially "cosmic...copulation". And yes, in a Comics Code Approved story. Proving that the Comics Code wasn't necessarily the impediment to "mature" subject matter modern readers like to think it was.

This arc is then followed by a run of stories delving into the mysteries of Starhawk's origin, threads begun in the earlier issues. Gerber bows out, handing the reins over to a (then) relatively new Roger Stern. Stern does a perfectly creditable job, though maybe lacks Gerber's sophistication, the character interaction not as edgy, the ideas not quite as weird. When writers are changed in mid-story, you're left unsure how much might have been lost. Certainly, there's still a lot left vague and unexplained, and character threads Gerber was teasing along get ignored. But whether that's Stern's fault, or whether Gerber would've been equally muddled is hard to say. I mean, Starhawk's origin, as begun by Gerber, is traced back to a ruined city of misfit creatures, all suffering from a weird apathy, and a baby found in a jar. Yet then Stern simply refers back to it as a city of mutants. But, um, that doesn't explain why they all had the same apathetic demeanour, nor why the baby was in a jar! Of course, maybe in the continuity heavy medium of comics, the readers are expected to have some prior knowledge. There was some suggestion in a letter column that Gerber had used the villains -- The Reavers of Arcturus -- in another, unrelated story, so maybe the background was better explained there.

Yet for all the flaws, there are equal strengths. For every idea that seems a bit vague or ill-explained, there are others that are genuinely intriguing and interesting.

The art is also mostly effective. Milgrom is an uneven artist, capable of some good imagery and drawings...and others that can just seem a bit rushed and hasty; some nicely composed panels...and others that are just cluttered. But he was well suited to space operas, where a certain anarchy to the visuals suits a series crammed with wild ideas, and wild-looking characters, and his depictions of space -- not a clean void of celestial pin pricks, but a Kirby-esque maelstrom of flaring suns, nebulae and other cosmic bodies -- is quite dramatic. And some of his splash pages are explosive in their action. The visuals can vary depending on the inker. One issue has Milgrom paired with the detailed, meticulous finishes of Terry Austin -- a pairing I'd seen once before on a Captain Marvel issue -- for arguably the best of the bunch, Austin cleaning up Milgrom's rougher edges. The main inker, though, is Bob Wiacek and, though not as good as the partnership with Austin, nonetheless makes for a better-than-average pairing.

Fortunately, the cancellation of this run doesn't appear to have been wholly unexpected. And the final issue (a relatively self-contained one about a derelict ship), though not resolving any lingering character threads, avoids any cliff hangers, making for a run that takes to a collected edition better than some series would've.

I liked the Guardians of the Galaxy, for its otherworldly setting, its colourful cast, its quirky ideas and, yes, for Milgrom's uneven but compelling visuals. But there can be a certain dissatisfaction at times, a feeling that the intriguing aspects don't always congeal into a firm whole.

But it's a fun ride.

This is a review of the stories as they were originally serialized in Marvel Presents.

Cover price: __ CDN./$24.99 USA


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