GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "N"


Nexus Archives, vol. 1
see Nexus: As it Happened (reviewed below).


Nexus: As it Happened, vol. 1 2009 (SC TPB) 208 pages

cover by Rude

Written by Mike Baron. Illustrated by Steve Rude.
Black & White. Letters: Mary Pulliam, others.

Reprinting: Nexus (vol. 1) #1-3, Nexus (vol. 2) #1-4 (1981-1983) - with covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Rude Dude Productions. p>Steve Rude and Mike Baron's Nexus issues have been collected in more than one format. Dark Horse comics has released the series in consecutive hardcover -- expensive -- Archive collections. While Rude Dude Productions (I assume a publisher owned by Steve Rude) has also released Nexus: As It Happened (labelled volume 1). And it reprints -- apparently -- the same material as Dark Horse's Nexus Archives, vol. 1. The difference is, As It Happened is softcover, in reduced dimensions (more like a manga volume), and is entirely black & white (the original three issues were already black & white, so it's only half the comics here that are missing colour...and they've been reprinted using grey tones and washes which evoke the sense of the original colours).

So if you're looking for a prestigious, glossy, permanent collection of Nexus issues -- the Dark Horse Archives is probably for you. But if you're just looking for an economical way to sample series you might have heard of...As It Happened might better fit the bill.

Nexus is a mix of tones and elements. Though the main character wears a costume and has super powers, it's far more a science fiction series than it is super hero. There's action and adventure...but also plenty of talking head/human drama scenes...some political intrigue and moral philosophising...and elements of whimsy, humour and satire.

Set amid a 25th Century interstellar civilization, Nexus is a mysterious, rogue element. A super powered being plagued by nightmarish dreams that compel him to seek out and kill tyrants and war criminals. Yet Nexus is not, himself, a blood thirsty man, only carrying out these assassinations essentially as a form of self-preservation, to temporarily stop the nightmares that will otherwise destroy him. His actions make him a villain to some...and a folk hero to others. His home, on the moon Ylum, acts as an open refugee camp for victims of tyranny, but Nexus' selectivity in his killings confuse many of these refugees who don't understand why Nexus won't kill whichever tyrant persecuted them.

As such, the series touches on real world issues of war crimes and dictatorships, without being some simple gung ho Punisher clone which exists just for the cathartic thrill of seeming some bad ass kill scumbags. Indeed, Baron and Rude don't even entirely dress it up in the distancing blanket of metaphor -- explicitly evoking the real world parallels by having characters with earth names (as opposed to fantasy names) and referencing real political ideologies. At the same time, there can be a sense it touches on such deeper themes and moral dilemmas...rather than delving into them whole heartedly.

And my attitude to this collection changed a bit from the first reading (which I mildly enjoyed) and a subsequent one a few years later...when I enjoyed it a lot more.

I picked this up just for a chance to sample Nexus -- my only previous experience with the character being the rather underwhelming Magnus / Nexus crossover mini-series. And as a sample, it does that. It's enjoyable enough but didn't leave me necessarily desperate to follow further adventures.

This was among the earliest things by artist Rude, and you can see his style evolving and changing over these few issues. The early issues are maybe a bit less polished -- but it's still actually better work than a lot of experienced pros! His early style puts me in mind of George Freeman (interestingly, Freeman was hired as the colourist on the first issue of the Nexus colour series). Yet as these issues progress, Rude's style becomes more polished, more impeccable, and he starts to develop a firmer, less subtle line work that puts me in mind of someone like Russ Manning (particularly given the hi tech environment that evokes Manning's Magnus, Robot Fighter). Although there's an overall improvement...I won't say there isn't some equal appeal to the style of the earlier issues. (Of course, Rude's style would continue to evolve later, getting a bit more Spartan and minimalist in its line work). Rude also shows, not only a flare for figures and detailed, rich backgrounds and environments, but also minutia, body language, and little "extras", the backgrounds often delightful to examine for little actions involving peripheral or background figures. There can be a density and complexity to the visuals that even in a slightly shrunken, black & white format never becomes cluttered or confused.

Story and script wise, Nexus is a mix of elements. For a series that could be, simplistically, described as "space vigilante doles out ruthless justice", it spends more time on character interaction, and machinations, than it does on many of the action scenes -- while still having those, too. Yet the series (at least at this point) can seem a bit meandering. Even the veering from brooding drama to satirical silliness can seem a bit like the creators are just kind of throwing in whatever struck their fancy that day, and less concerned about the greater whole.

For example, at one point representatives of the main galactic government are shown conferring about Nexus, worried that his power seems to come from draining energy from stars, creating a threat to the galaxy...then later, are talking as if their only concern is getting Nexus to share some of his energy resources. Likewise, a thread where some mercenaries infiltrate Ylum in search of a power generator Nexus is rumoured to have can seem like a bit of a tenuous plot (they go to all this trouble...over a rumour?)

Character stuff can seem to hiccup here and there. One of Nexus' chief aides, Tyrone, is a militant, who actually leads a bit of a coup at one point...then later is right back at Nexus' side. While late in this run of issues, we are suddenly introduced to another Ylum inhabitant, a catwoman, who takes up a chunk of the story as if an important character...except I'm not sure we'd seen her before.

There's a thread of whimsy and satire throughout -- I'm assuming all of it intentional. That is, I'm assuming the fact that aliens have names like "Dave" and "Tyrone" is meant to be humorous. Such whimsy, while adding layers to the overall tone, seems to increase as the issues go, and may explain why the plotting can be a bit lax at times -- scenes are thrown in just for their quirkiness. Such as a scene where the aforementioned catwoman, acting as a lawyer, faces off against opposing counsel, a catman, and the two start hissing at each other because, we are told, the two genders are incompatible (when not in the mating season) -- basically a joke on the territoriality of cats. It seems as though it's setting things up for the court room conflict...yet then they have no further scenes together!

Yet though these are legitimate criticisms, as mentioned -- I liked it more after a later reading. Indeed, in my initial review, I wrote that for a series that expends so much time on characters and characterization, of Nexus, of the romantic interest, Sundra, of Nexus' right hand man, the unflappable Dave -- the characters are pleasant and likeable enough...without being especially compelling. Though Mezz, an alien boy, is effectively cute and endearing. But I liked and enjoyed the characters a lot more -- maybe now that they had an aura of familiarity, like revisiting old friends.

As well, the variety of tones I mention, from drama to comedy, space battles to political machinations, travels to different worlds and flashbacks filling in Nexus' origin, is what makes a collection like this an enjoyable read, as it never really has time to grow stale.

Because this is the early issues of an on going series, it doesn't build to any particular climax, with plenty of threads and mysteries (including some relating to Nexus' origin) still left dangling. At the same time, the final issue doesn't end "to be continued" and enough threads are resolved, or dealt with (including giving some explanation for Nexus' backstory) to make for a satisfying enough read just taken on its own.

With attractive, sumptuous art by Rude, and a mix of tones, thoughtful and whimsical, and some quirky, off beat ideas, Nexus is an enjoyable read. And As It Happened makes a nice collection as a sample of the series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $9.99 USA.


Nick Fury: Who is Scorpio?

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here


Northwest Passage: The Annotated Collection 2007 (HC) 268 pages

cover by ChantlerWritten and illustrated by Scott Chantler.
black and white: Editors: Randall C. Jarrell, James Lucas Jones, Jill Beaton.

Collecting: Northwest Passage #1-3 (2005-2006)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: extensive commentary and annotations by Chantler.

Published by Oni Press.

Northwest Passage is an old fashioned historical adventure in the vein of someone like James Fenimore Cooper. Though what makes this slightly atypical is that Canadian writer/artist Scott Chantler sets his story in Canadian history, when fur trading forts were the beacons of European civilization and traders were as much explorers as merchants. The reason that's unusual is because it's actually not that common for Canadian storytellers to set their stuff in Canada -- particularly if meant to have a pulpy, entertainment vibe (consider a previous work by Chantler, in collaboration with fellow Canadian J. Torres, was Scandalous -- a very good, but very American-centric,, drama set in Hollywood during the 1950s). And the fact that this was published by an American publisher, and received positive reviews in the American press, would seem a vindication for Chantler...and Canadiana!

The story focuses on Charles Lord, a one time fur trader and legendary explorer, who has spent the last few years behind a desk as the governor of a Hudson Bay Company trading fort. Lord is on the verge of returning to England after decades in the Canadian wilderness, but adventure rears its head when an old Indian friend of Lord's, Eagle Eye, shows up at the fort, near death and with a warning. Before Lord fully knows what's happening, an enemy from his past has taken the fort, killed most of its inhabitants, and Lord and the few survivors are on the run in the woods -- outnumbered but determined to take backk their fort, not the least because Lord's own estranged son, the half-Indian Simon, and Lord's nephew are still there.

Northwest Passage (the title being more symbolic than literal, in much the same way the movie "Chinatown" wasn't actually set in any Chinatown) was initially published as three vaguely digest-sized volumes of 70 odd pages each. And it's perhaps an interesting reflection on the nature of comic book formats. Because I had bought the first issue, found it moderately interesting, but -- despite my patriotic leanings -- hadn't really found myself too eagerly seeking out the next instalments.

Yet read in its collected form, and not as a serialized adventure, I found it much more effective and compelling as a graphic "novel".

This is more like an adventure novel than simply super heroes without costumes. There is action and swashbuckling daring do, but it's also more subdued, with plenty of talking head scenes and as much concerned about the characters, their emotions, and their machinations and strategies as any knockdown drag out fight scene. Which is maybe why it reads a bit better collected -- there isn't quite enough occuring in the individual issues (particularly at 70 pages!) as they are meant to be nothing more than parts of the whole.

This may well be artist Chantler's first stab at scripting -- and he delivers an impressive debut. Thhere's a sure footedness to the writing, and a genuine ambition to some of the scenes and the handling of the characters, the slowly unfolding of back stories and hidden agendas. This is a graphic "novel", with a large cast of generally interesting characters to be juggled, alliances to be formed and shattered, and even some allusions to legend (in his accompanying annotations, Chantler says he was paying homage to the legends of Charlemagne with his hero Charles Lord). The heroes are heroic, but given shading and humanizing flaws. (Perhaps my biggest qualm would be that the villains are French vs. the good guy English...putting the conflict on an ethnic level, though Chantler goes some way toward emphasizing it's a renegade group).

Chantler's black and white art style is of a cartoony style that might seem a bit at odds with the essentially serious grown up material ("grown up" in the sense that it's not childish, not in that there's anything of a particularly "mature readers" variety -- there's no cussing, and the violence and deaths are not especially gratuitous or gory). I find myself waffling back and forth towards that as an art style. On one hand, instinctively I'd say I prefer realist art, but I've come to appreciate that there is an effectiveness to a cartoony style, even when depicting non-cartoony material. There's a stripped to the bone elegance, where characters reduced to simpler caricatures can taken on an added reality. Certainly Will Eisner (a personal idol of Chantler's) and Chester Gould have proven that. So although the visuals may've been another reason I was less than excited when I read the first instalment, by the end of this collected edition...it's hard to imagine another art style bringing to life the scenes and characters quite as efficaciously. Chantler has a sharp eye for composition, so even the "talking head" scenes are well staged, and his character designs are well considered.

The basic story is introduced, developed and resolved in these pages -- but as with so many comics, Chantler isn't quite prepared to deliver full closure. So though the book does form a story, there's a certain unsatisfying openness to the end. And the reason that's doubly frustrating is because Chantler does what so many comics writers do -- he leaves it open for future stories...but seems in no hurry (if at all) to tell them. At the time of posting this review it's been a couple of years since the collected volume was published...with still no sign of any sequel.

Now as I say, unlike some such works, if Chantler never returns to it, this still works on its own...but I just find myself increasingly impatient with comics writers who, presumably enamoured of the prestige inherent in crafting a "magnum opus", kind of seem to be setting up some epic arc...then lose interest and drift on to other things. (To be fair, just because Chantler is focusing on other projects now doesn't mean he doesn't sincerely intend to return to Lord and his crew).

I mentioned at the start of this that it's not all that common for Canadian writers to see in their country and history the stuff of rousing adventure -- too enamoured of "exciting" American history (and unaware much of American history has been filtered and embellished by the imagination of American storytellers). Historians might debate how realistic the story here is, but it's still fun to see an old fashioned adventure story set unapologetically against a backdrop of the Canadian woods and fur trade forts.

In his notes, Chantler remarks that a number of American commentators questioned the friendly relationship between Lord and Eagle Eye, and he points out that the European-Indian relationship was slightly different in Canada than it was in the U.S. In the U.S. the Indians were largely seen as enemies, an impediment to colonization, whereas in Canada, where business more than colonizing was the initial goal, the Indians were seen as useful allies. That isn't to say there weren't conflicts, nor that the Indians weren't badly treated -- but the underpinnings of the relationships were not quite the same. Heck, the fact that the U.S. Cavalry was essentially an army intended to fight Indians can be contrasted with the Northwest Mounted Police (later the RCMP) which were ostensibly intended to simply be a law enforcement organization (I reiterate: that doesn't mean the Indians were treated equitably in actuality). But, of course, Cavalry's and Mounted Police were many years after the time of this story. But since Chantler himself brought it up, I thought it was interesting to note a way where the "Canadian" aspect of the story might have made it different than an "American" version of the tale might have been. (Heck, the fact that a whole race -- the Métis -- arose in Canada defined as being of mixed European and Indian ancestry certainly indicates a lot of commingling).

Ultimately, Chantler has succeeded at crafting a genuine graphic "novel" -- evocative of the kind of "boy's own" adventure of a Cooper or a Robert Louis Stevenson. There are ways I can quibble with it (the climax seems a bit anti-climactic, the overall story fairly straightforward -- I had thought the taking of the fort waas the first step in some greater scheme but, no, that is simply the villain's goal). But with its large cast and story twists and turns (the sub-plots are more twisty than the main plot) it's a work that kind of lingers with you and you can see wanting to have on the shelf, to dig out again somewhere down the line to re-experience.

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



 

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