GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "M" page 2


The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics 2008 (SC TPB) 480 pages

cover by Tim EldredWriters/artists: various. Editor: Paul Gravett.
published in black & white

Reprinting: a lot (24 stories!)

Additional notes: intro by Gravett (to the collection, and each story)

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

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Published by Running Press Books

The "Mammoth Book of..." anthology series has produced a huge catalogue of short story collections, ranging from "Dickensian Whodunnits" to "Lesbian Erotica". But in a kind of unusual branching out, this text-only series has also included some comic book collections, including a Horror comics and a War comics collections. And this: crime comics.

It's a particularly diverse collection, ranging from old Golden Age stories to comics published in the 1990s, mainly American but with some European comics thrown in (some translated into English for the first time). Stand alone film noirish tales are interspersed with those featuring series characters (like The Spirit, Ms. Tree, Italy's The Torpedo, and others). And the lengths run from eight page shorts to feature length comics as long as fifty pages, as well as a couple of daily newspaper comic strip story lines. There are mainstream, general readership tales...and mature readers stories.

In its very diversity and scope, the collection succeeds as a nice tome to have on the shelf, with a little something for everyone.

The problem with "best of..." collections is that they very rarely live up to that adjective. As grab bags of hit and miss tales collected conveniently between a single cover, they're fun to flip through, where you might have picked it up for a particular creator and instead find it a nice introduction to the work of someone you'd never heard of before. But it's the sheer quantity (and variety) of material that is the appeal...more than the quality.

Still, editor Paul Gravett has done an exemplary job of assembling an eclectic collection. The inclusion of series characters was part of the appeal for me, as it meant the collection wasn't just a stream of philandering husbands and murderous business partners, but included tales of adventure and heroism, as well. Gravett also does a good job considering that most of the publishers that dominate American comics today don't seem to like to participate in multi-company collections, maybe fearing it would dilute there efforts to cultivate a readership loyal to their "brand" (supposedly DC had been approached with a request to include a Batman comic in another multi-company anthology...and DC refused). So there are no Marvel or DC or Dark Horse properties represented here -- excepting ones where the rights ultimately reside with the creators.

The lack of the major companies' participation could threaten to make this a "Best Crime Comics...by Second String Companies". But the nature of the genre means the majors wouldn't necessarily have been primary contributors anyway (now if there was a Mammoth Book of Super Heroes, then there might be a problem).

Visually, the book is rarely to be faulted, with most of the comics nicely drawn in various styles, some presenting the work of acknowledged masters (Alex Raymond's beautifully elegant art on a lengthy Secret Agent X-9 newspaper strip) some European artists not well known in North America. It's all presented in black and white, even stories originally published in colour, but black & white suits the crime n' mean streets milieu.

But story-wise, a lot seem too insubstantial, or build to anti-climactic, almost shaggy dog endings. "The Switch" features the European-created exploits of a 1930s Chicago hit man, the Torpedo. Beautifully illustrated in a Joe Kubert-esque way by Jordi Bernet, it's a rather unsavory series (apparently original artist, American Alex Toth, bowed out after the first few episodes finding the series' nihilistic glorification of an amoral killer not to his tastes). But the plot, in this instalment, is pretty weak, with the Torpedo planning revenge against a cop that takes eight pages of planning for a rather simple resolution. More high brow is "The Murder of Hung", about a Vietnamese woman in New York, but it's a pretty obvious tale that seems stretched even at eight pages. A Golden Age American comic by the classic Simon & Kirby team, a traditionally told tale of con artists, is well told, and quite entertaining, seeming almost to be shoe horning an entire B-movie into its limited pages...but resolves in an abruptly anti-climactic resolution.

What you notice about a lot of the European comics is a penchant for setting the stories in the U.S. Editor Gravett applauds these efforts, remarking how remarkable it is that they capture the mood of New York or Chicago when the creators had never even visited the States. But I regard it with a tad more cynicism. As a Canadian who sees too many Canadian storytellers preferring to set their stories in the U.S. -- essentially killing their own cultural through neglect -- I think it's a shame that creators would rather write about things they've read, rather than things they know. It smacks less of creative inspiration...and more creative regurgitation.

That may be why one of the best of the European translations here is "The Street", featuring the recurring character of Commissioner Spada, which actually is set in Europe, and is an appealing, low-key little tale (and one of the least gritty in this collection).

I could go on detailing some criticisms, or how some of the "series" stories seem to suffer from their continuity, often unclear what was happening or why -- including a couple of other U.S.-set, European comics (Alack Sinner and Kane). Even with an episode of Will Eisner's classic The Spirit, Gravett has strangely selected a story that seems to draw upon too much continuity to quite satisfy as a stand alone tale.

But some of the more memorable tales include the Secret Agent X-9 epic (covering 80 pages in this collection!) which is a fun, movie serial-like romp -- though there is a printing error (pgs. 150-151 should be inserted between pgs. 142 and 143) and it's only held together by the most tenuous logic (strangely, the identity of the villain is blatantly revealed early...yet then is treated as a "revelation" toward the end) -- this particular X-9 story was adapted to a BBC radio series many years later; Charles Burns' darkly quirky El Borbah about a cynical detective who dresses like a Mexican masked wrestler; comics' legend Jack Cole's film noir-ish "Murder, Morphine, and Me"; Johnny Craig's traditional, but well-told tale of infidelity and murder, "The Sewer"; and the previously-referenced Commissiaro Spada story. As well as others that, if not classics, are nonetheless enjoyable page turners, such as a Mike Hammer newspaper strip by Hammer creator Mickey Spillane.

I can't quite sign off on the "Best" designation...but for the price, it remains a generous collection, and with its smattering of European creators, Golden Age tales, newspaper strips, and indie comics, can open up a window on a world of lesser known creators and characters.

Worth having on the shelf.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $17.95 USA.


The Man Who Grew Young 2001 (SC GN) 112 pgs.

cover by Tim EldredWritten by Daniel Quinn. Illustrated, coloured and lettered by Tim Eldred.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Context Books

(Mildly) Suggested for Mature Readers

The Man Who Grew Young begins in what appears to be modern times. Except it isn't, not quite. The world as we know it has reached its end and is now reversing itself. Scientists have theorized that our expanding Universe will eventually begin contracting, but what writer Daniel Quinn imagines is that this reversal will entail a turning back of time, as well. In the world the story's hero, Adam Taylor, inhabits, life is lived in reverse. People are dug out of the ground, grow younger over the course of their lives, eventually returning to their mother's womb. The opening sequence is particularly effective as Adam and friends wait by a grave side so that he can meet, for the first time, the woman who will be his wife.

The idea of a backward reality is intriguing. Particularly for me. Being a scribbler of fiction, as well as reviews, I've been toying with an idea in that vein for a few years now. And there was an episode of the British science fiction sitcom, "Red Dwarf", that utilized the concept. Although "Red Dwarf"'s, um, earthy sense of humour explored aspects of the idea in ways that Daniel Quinn, wisely, leaves untouched.

The hiccup in The Man Who Grew Young is that Adam doesn't know his mother, so he cannot return to the womb. He is immortal, stuck watching the passage of time, the reversal of events as we know them (in Adam's reality, Europeans don't emigrate to North America...they pack up and leave it) and the dismantling of what we know as civilization. All the while, Adam is on a quest for his mother.

This is the first graphic novel by novelist Daniel Quinn, here teamed with artist Tim Eldred. Quinn's first novel, Ishmael, was something of a phenomenon and he's, apparently, as much a philosopher as he is a story teller, with much of his work being treatises on the Human Condition dressed up in a narrative. I suppose, put one way, he is this generation's Richard Bach. I don't say that to draw any profound comparisons between the two (it's been years since I read Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and wouldn't presume to recall any of its specifics) -- I'm merely trying to establish a point of orientation.

On one hand, The Man Who Grew Young is an intriguing odyssey through a truly alternate world. Along the way, Quinn presents some provocative ideas that are genuinely worth chewing over as he uses his premise to re-examine the place of Human Beings in the grand scheme of things, and to question our lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. And Quinn seems comfortable with the dialogue-focused medium of comics.

On the other hand, the book isn't really a story, per se. There's a beginning, and an end (of sorts) and there's a protagonist, but supporting characters come and go, most not really people but ciphers. They are tools by which the author can obliquely lecture Adam, and by extension, the reader. An exception is when Adam meets Merlin the magician. Merlin is portrayed as a quirky, humourous figure and their interaction comes alive...but he is gone too quickly. Adam has a few liaisons over the course of the story, but they are without romance, without passion.

It's reminiscent of religious comics I read as a kid. Not that Quinn is a religious writer, per se (despite having had a religious schooling). In fact, the very beliefs he challenges, such as Humanity being king of the earth, is very much at the heart of Judaeo-Christian philosophy. But there is a teaching tool technique to this story, with Adam sitting at the feet of various gurus who politely, but dispassionately, attempt to enlighten him. The "religious" feel is further articulated by a sequence that is blatantly a parable, re-interpreting the story of the Garden of Eden.

The problem with philosophy dressed up as a story, rather than a story that is infused with philosophy, is that there's no fall back position. The reader can't say, "It was a real page turner, regardless of the ideas" the way you can with something that is a story, first and foremost. I'm pretty friendly with what Quinn had to say. Nothing shocked me, or offended my beliefs. But like a lot of philosophy that is, after all, ideas in theory, there was an airiness to them, a feeling that that's all very fine, but how would you apply these beliefs practically? One can appreciate the symbolism of the back to nature ideas, but when he has characters suggest that a hunter-gatherer life is easier than our technocratic existence, one isn't sure just how literally -- or seriously -- he means us to take such statements.

This "airiness" also relates to more concrete aspects of the story. This isn't really science fiction, in which one might expect an exploration of the ins and outs of this world (such as asking how would people behave who had no fear of an unexpected, or untimely, death?) or in which things have a literal cause and effect. The big ideas at work, understandably, don't really lend themselves to a secular, concrete resolution. But even though the reader is therefore prepared, the vague ending is a little unsatisfying.

The art by Tim Eldred portrays the story with a matter-of-fact simplicity, a kind of un-splashy art style that seems appropriate for a man who has worked in television animation. In a way, it's reminiscent of the Valiant comics house style from the early 1990s. The figures are clean, the proportions well realized, though there's a vague undercurrent of PBS cartooniness -- which can be a bit off-putting when the story occasionally strays into "mature readers" areas. The colours are bright and bold, and the whole thing is pleasant to look at, with Eldred demonstrating a good eye for telling a scene through panels. At the same time, given the story's surreal aspirations, one wonders whether a more impressionistic artist might have served the material better, lending it a greater moodiness.

Ultimately, this is an interesting, likeable work. For fans of Quinn's other (non-comics) work, it presumably delivers what they've come to expect, while for comics readers, it offers a change-of-pace from the gritty tales that populate most super hero and science fiction flavoured comics. Quinn poses some interesting questions, though his answers don't always satisfy, and the story would've benefited from stronger plot and characterization to give the ideas something to rest upon.

Cover price: $32.50 CDN./$19.95 USA.


Manhunter: The Special Edition 1999 (SC TPB) 100 pgs.

Manhunter - cover by Walter SimonsonWritten by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Walt Simonson.
Colours/Letters/Editor: ?

Reprinting: The Manhunter stories from Detective Comics #437-443 (1973-1974)  plus an unpublished, 23 page Manhunter story.

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

Number of readings: 3

Published by DC Comics

Occasionally -- very occasionally -- I'll review a trade paperback collection where I've only read some of the material reprinted in it, but enough that (I think) I can offer some sort of comment. Case in point: Manhunter. I first read the complete Manhunter series in a deluxe edition reprint first published in 1984. Now DC will be releasing the series as a genuine TPB in June, with an additional 23 page new Manhunter story, based on a plot by the late Archie Goodwin and drawn -- without dialogue or text -- by Walter Simonson.

My review, therefore, is of the original, 69 page, seven chapter series, minus the new story. What did I think?

It was pretty darn good.

Manhunter was one of those series often referred to reverentially in letters pages years after it was first serialized as a back-up in Detective Comics. When I finally got a chance to read it for myself, it lived up to the hype quite well.

I don't want to give too much away -- part of the fun is watching the plot unfold. Heck, for the first two chapters, the reader isn't really supposed to have any idea what's going on! Suffice it to say, Manhunter wasn't really a conventional super hero strip, despite featuring a masked hero and being inspired by a then-obscure Simon & Kirby character from the '40s. Manhunter mixed various themes popular in the early '70s, including James Bond-like espionage, martial arts, cloning, and a paranoia-conspiracy plot...not to mention '70s fashions. Manhunter's battle with a secret organization was delightfully cosmopolitan, whisking the reader to various locales. In fact, unusual for a (DC Comics) comic, is how un-American-centric it was. Though the hero is American, his adventures take place elsewhere, with "authority" represented, not by the U.S. government, but Interpol.

Unfolding within the confines of, generally, eight page instalments, Manhunter was a significant artistic/stylistic achievement. Milking as much as they could from their limited pages, Goodwin and Simonson played around with chronology, panel arrangement, and anything else that would let them cram the most into the least, creating a surprisingly rich, dynamic story for such a limited number of pages.

As well, part of the mystique of Manhunter was that Goodwin and Simonson were allowed to bring it to a close...a true graphic novel.

The chief weakness is the 20 page conclusion, mainly because Manhunter teams up with Batman. I like super heroes, but I see nothing wrong with ignoring the existence of other comic book titles for the sake of creating a self-contained "reality". I know that's seen as heresy these days where a character in one comic can't so much as sneeze without a character in another comic getting a cold, but there you go. The problem with a team up, aside from forcing the titular character to share centre stage in a climax that should be his crowning moment, is also a moral one. Manhunter is a gun-totting, knife-wielding, kill-or-be-killed character -- which is fine, taken on its own, don't-take-it-too-seriously, James Bond level. But Batman is a sanctity of life kind of guy. Putting them together is awkward, even disturbing when Manhunter tries to legitimize his ruthlessness.

The idea of bringing in Batman for eleventh hour climaxes in titles which, frankly, seem better suited placed outside the superhero world was done in the late '60s and early '70s with Deadman and Swamp Thing as well.

Goodwin shows some nice writing in plot and dialogue -- he often seemed more at home away from conventional super heroes (such as his Star Wars stuff for Marvel). This represents some early Simonson work. Fans can clearly recognize his style, but in some ways I prefer it to his later stuff. Although cruder in spots, at other times its richer, moodier, making better use of light and shadow and details. And, as noted above, his experimentation with panel arrangement, close-ups, etc., are beautifully effective and dynamic.

All in all, Manhunter was successful both as entertainment and as art (it picked up 6 comic book awards...for a series of only 7 chapters!). Even if the new piece included in Manhunter: The Special Edition is total dreck, it shouldn't detract from the effectiveness of the original series. Heck, after re-reading the Manhunter series preparatory to this review, I'm half-tempted to buy the new TPB for the additional story myself.

All in all, you could do worse than whiling away an afternoon with Paul Kirk, Christine St. Claire, Batman, and...the Council.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$9.95 USA


M.A.R.S. Patrol: Total War 2004 (SC TPB) 112 pages.

cover by Wally WoodWritten by: unbilled: Pencils by Wally Wood. Inks by Tony Coleman, Dan Adkins.
Colours/letters: unbilled.

Additional notes: intro by Batton Lash, afterward by Dan Adkins.

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Originally published by Gold Key comics in the mid-1960s, M.A.R.S. Patrol (originally titled Total War for its first two issues) was a short lived mix of sci-fi and military adventure. Despite the mis-leading acronym, the MARS in questions stands for an elite, fictional American military branch -- the Marine Attack Rescue Service -- and the action starts up when the U.S. is invaded by a mysterious army. At first it's assumed it's a foreign nation...until they get reports that nations all over the world, including the U.S.S.R., are likewise besieged.

This TPB collection from Dark Horse Comics reprints the first three issues that were drawn by comics legend Wally Wood, and they are fast paced action pieces as the core, four man MARS unit is sent to one hot spot after another as the invaders attack, then retreat, with equal mysteriousness. The characters even end up in Canada for a sequence, aiding the Canadian army when the invaders strike at both sides of Niagara Falls.

Why Dark Horse should choose to reprint these obscure stories now is a question. Perhaps with their recent successes publishing Marvel's old Star Wars and Conan comics, and a massive Magnus Robot Fighter hard cover on the way, Dark Horse is just hot for reprints these days. There is a modest enjoyment level to the stories -- they're fast paced and crisply illustrated by Wally Wood. But although Gold Key has had its peaks, it's not exactly known for its thinking man comics, and in the 1960s, it seemed happy to hold its ground of simplistic stories even as DC and, especially, Marvel, were attempting to break new narrative ground when it came to plotting and characterization in comics.

The plotting is pretty rudimentary, as the invaders attack various bases or towns, and our heroes fight them off. There are clever strategies, occasionally, but its all told with brevity -- barely do we know what the invaders next strike will be when, a couple of panels later, our heroes have devised a counter-strategy. There's little attempt to milk suspense from a sequence in favour of just keeping things fast and furious. It's also a combat/action series, so there's little (in these issues at least) of change-of-pace stories, either emphasizing suspense or human drama. Nor is there much obvious science fiction -- despite the back cover extolling Wood as a master of drawing SF comics. There's little characterization to speak of -- the MARS patrol men are a fairly generic lot where even the letterer and colourist sometimes had trouble recognizing who was who, occasionally with word balloons pointing to the wrong speaker, or one character wearing another's colours. Sgt. Ken Hiro seems the most likely to threaten to become an individual...and even he is mainly just a little feistier than the others.

Yeah, you read right -- Ken Hiro. An Asian-American. Whatever MARS Patrol lacked in sophistication, it gets point for its multi-ethnic heroes (also including a black guy and two whites). Practically unprecedented in 1960s comics -- and contemporaneous movies and TV. And they were of equal importance to the action, not just a white guy and his minority sidekicks (best exemplified in the third issue, where we follow each of the four on separate solo missions). The comic also touched on the idea of racism and, at least in the first issue, the grim realities of war, as the heroes (briefly) struggle with the morality of striking at the enemy, knowing innocent American civilians will be "collateral damage". All that stuff is surprisingly sophisticated, adult concepts...for a comic that, otherwise, isn't particularly.

The first issue is the best, creating a genuine sense of danger and paranoia, as the invaders strike without warning. Scenes of the heroes coming upon the aftermath of battles, or hearing gunfire in the distance, create an eerie sense of plausibility, moreso than if the heroes were always in the thick of it.

But by the end of these issues, you still don't know who the invaders are (though that may've been revealed in the subsequent, non-Wood issues that Dark Horse may or may not plan to collect). And there isn't even a sense that we're building to a revelation. Each issue ends with the characters reiterating that know nothing about the enemy...but it's not like there are any clues or hints accumulating from issue to issue.

Wood apparently worked on the infamous "Mars Attacks" trading cards from a few years previous to these comics, and one can see the influence, as plot and characterization is tossed aside in favour of what seems more like visual set pieces, as if MARS Patrol was all ready to be featured on its own set of trading cards (though it wasn't). Wood's art is good -- I've certainly been an appreciator for years. But I'm not sure it's good enough to justify this collection all by itself, particularly as that's what Dark Horse seems to be selling. Wood has a clean, clear style, but it works best when serving a stronger script. Who actually wrote the stories is a bit vague. Certainly some have implied it was Wood himself (the cover even says "Wally Wood's MARS Patrol"), but scenes where the visuals clash with the script (like having a Canadian flag flying overhead...after the characters have already returned to the U.S. side of the border) would suggest a miscommunication between a writer and an artist.

There's also a certain roughness to the presentation. Visually, it looks almost as though Dark Horse reprinted this from the comics, rather than the original galleys -- the reproduction is bit smudged at times. It still looks good, just not as crisp as you might expect. And there are even a few pages, in the second issue, that are printed in reversed order! On the plus side, although this only reprints three issues, each one was 32 pages, making the story page count a full 96 pages. But it's still kind of pricey for what it is, particularly given the lack of care taken in reprinting the issues.

Still, the book can be moderately fun, particularly for its fast paced tempo that means that it never slows down enough to be boring. And there's an appealing, childish innocence at work. At the same time, it is a war comic more than a science fiction one, and a violent comic at that. It's not gory or anything, but it is a brutal depiction of kill or be killed, total war (as the title indicates) -- a fact that then clashes a bit with the cavalier jingoism of the heroes, who seem to be able to take on any number of invaders and receive nary a scratch.

Cover price: __ CDN./ $12.95 USA.


Marvel: 1602
is reviewed here


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