GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "O" - "Q"



 

Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood 2009 (SC TPB) 160 pgs

coverWritten by Tony Lee. Art by Sam Hart.
Colours: Artur Fujita. Letters: unbilled.

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: afterward on the Robin Hood legend by Allen W. Wright.

Published by Candlewick Press

An English folk legend dating back centuries, the adventures of Robin Hood have been told, re-told, and re-imagined a zillion times over the years, featured in books and comics, movies and TV series, ranging from gritty historical enactments...to stagings in the far future (such as the Canadian-made cartoon series, Rocket Robin Hood). My affection for Robin probably stems as much as anything from having read an issues of Marvel Classics Comics from the 1970s, when writer Doug Moench and artist Alfredo Alcala presented a reasonably faithful telling of the legend (as faithful as any can be given how many variations there have been).

So when I spotted Outlaw in the book store, a new graphic novel interpretation, I picked it up on a whim.

Unlike that old Marvel Comics' version, this is not meant to be a "classic" version (complete with "thee"s and "thou"s), but a re-telling and reconceptualizing in the manner of a Hollywood movie, covering all the necessary points, but stringing it together into a single narrative. Which struck me as neat, but kind of unusual -- often when comics tackle such material, it is as straight adaptations from another source. Writer Tony Lee is clearly trying to add his version of Robin to the vast catalogue of interpretations.

At the same time, he isn't really offering any radical revisions.

At first it seems like he might be, starting the story with Robin as a boy who meets an outlaw for the first time -- scenes I'd not seen in other versions. But once it gets into his adulthood, Lee happily mines familiar bits for his story -- especially more modern takes from movies and TV. So Robin is a nobleman and crusader, returning from the Crusades (I think the earliest legends had Robin as a peasant) who ends up butting heads with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the sinister Guy of Gisburn, and Maid Marian lives in the Sheriff's castle. Little John is already the leader of the outlaws when Robin meets him (ala the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the recent BBC Robin Hood TV series...while traditionally, Little John joined the band after Robin). Lee even tosses in a slight supernatural element, which seems a bit awkward when overall the story isn't fantasy. But, again, it's as if he's trying to work in bits and pieces from earlier takes on the legend (there was an earlier BBC series that played up a magic/fantasy tone).

There are various ways you could tackle the Robin Hood story, given how oft it's been re-told. Stick with the traditional plot and characterizations, but delve into them deeper, fleshing them out and enriching them. Or...come up with some completely new plot to set it against (maybe assuming this is just an untold story of one of Robin's many adventures). Or...radically reinterpret the characters, in a way that maybe puts a fresh spin on the old cliches.

And the problem is, Lee does a little of this and that, but not by much, and not enough. Most of the characterization is straightforward and pretty one note. So the Sheriff and Gisburn are just evil -- there are a couple of spots where Lee intimates the Sheriff isn't quite as evil as Gisburn...but not in a way that it impacts on events, or is particularly consistent. While Robin's band of merry men tend to be kind of bland...with Lee, perhaps, wanting to avoid the cartoony cliche of some of their traditional interpretations (Friar Tuck as the boisterous glutton), but not substituting anything in its stead. So though Little John, Tuck, Will Scarlet, etc., are around, and have scenes and dialogue...they don't really stand out as characters...or even in their relationship to Robin (I once wrote an entire essay here analyzing the various types and significance of friendship in stories). There's one scene where Robin has a heart-to-heart talk with Tuck, but nothing else before or after to suggest any significantly strong bond between them. There are some pleasant scenes of the characters pal-ing around together, but for such a long -- and talky -- version of the story, the characters and relationships could've been richer. Likewise, some bits involving a traitor amid the merry men has some good aspects...but could really have benefitted from being fleshed out more. Perhaps the most extreme twist on the classic is Alan a Dale, here re-imagined as a strange court jester...but his part is so small, it hardly matters (and is another incongruous attempt to shoehorn in a slight mystical aspect).

The plot unfolds pretty traditionally, with Robin becoming an outlaw, joining the merry men, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, climaxing with the traditional archery contest and the return of King Richard -- without the climactic battle being all that interesting or exciting. Lee offers a few minor spins on the traditions, such as the obligatory golden arrow offered as prize at the archery contest being, ironically, fashioned by Robin himself.

Nor is there any effort to reflect the story through any modern prism, as an allegory for contemporary issues.

Lee's dialogue veers from fairly traditional, to stuff that is clearly anachronistically modern in phrasing -- again, rather like you'd expect for a movie or TV version. And he does offer a few cute quips here and there.

A problematic aspect of this telling, I'll admit, is the art. Artist Sam Hart does have some interesting aspects to his work, but the problem is it's extraordinarily Spartan, often with little -- or no -- backgrounds to the figures, and the bacckgrounds that are there tend to be simple and weirdly geometric as though churned out by an art program more than a human hand. It often falls to colourist Artur Fujita to suggest environments -- so you know they're in the forest because behind them is a sheet of dappled green, or they're in a castle because the background is brown. While Hart's figures aren't bad, but occasionally a bit stiff and ungainly. Again, weirdly geometric at times. Perhaps this is deliberate because, in a way, what it reminds me of...is video game graphics (at least graphics from a few years ago). And maybe for modern, young readers, that is the benchmark against which they evaluate visuals.

The craggy faces can be a bit more effective, but Hart tends to draw similar archetypes (and wardrobes), and then to lather on heavy shadows to boot. The result is that, quite often, I got confused about who the character was -- confusion added to by problems in the composition as well, where Hart might not properly introduce a character into a scene (so you didn't realize another character had entered the room). In this Fujita deserves his own lumps, as there isn't much effort to use colours (such as of the clothes) to distinguish the characters, either. In fact, the colours throughout tend to be dark and sombre, so that even when under the bright summer sky it's all pretty dark and oppressive.

One could argue that Lee's script isn't bad and, if you were largely unfamiliar with the Robin Hood story, it might be more effective. ...but it remains fairly generic. It comes across as though he wanted to write a Robin Hood story because he wanted to write a Robin Hood story...not because he had anything inparticular he wanted to do with it. Even the action and adventure scenes, which are fewer than you might expect, aren't cleverly staged or "cool". But combine all that with the uneven visuals, you have a telling of the legend that never manages to be more than workmanlike.

Cover Price: $11.99 USA


Predator vs. Magnus Robot Fighter 1994 (SC TPB) 64 pgs

Predator vs. Magnus cvr (or it may just be a promotional poster) - by Dave DormanWritten by John Ostrander (story Jim Shooter). Art by Lee Weeks.
Colours: Maurice Fontenot, Rachel Menashe. Letters: John Constanza, Pat Brosseau. Editors: Mike Richardson, Bob Layton.

Reprinting: Predator vs. Magnus Robot Fighter #1-2 (1993 mini-series)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Dark Horse and Valiant

Mature Readers

For more Magnus see Magnus: Invasion, for more Predator see Batman vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch

One of a number of mini-series and one-shots featuring the Dark Horse-owned Predators (licensed from the movie about a nasty alien big game hunter battling spunky humans) paired off against other, well known characters -- there have been a number of Batman vs. Predator mini-series, Tarzan vs. Predator, even Aliens (another movie franchise) vs. Predator. This time around it's Valiant's revival of the A.D. 4000 comic book hero, Magnus.

The story has some decadent rich dudes in North Am, who stage illegal hunts in the inner city, getting on the wrong side of a Predator after stealing a trophy the alien had claimed from a previous victim -- an X-O cybernetic helmet (the X-O is something from another Valiant comic book, and is kind of confusingly included here if you aren't already familiar with it -- as I'm not). Magnus was already after the so-called sportsmen himself, but quickly finds himself battling the Predator, as well.

Admittedly, there isn't too much to the story here. There are so many ways it could go off into interesting ideas and twists (like Magnus forced to protect the bad guys from the Predator), but never really does, despite the promise in early scenes. Instead, it's more just a fast-paced action-piece -- which, in itself, isn't a bad thing, per se. Shooter and Ostrander haven't exactly strained themselves coming up with a plot, but it's moderately entertaining and briskly paced.

My focus coming into this was Magnus, not the Predator. After reading Magnus Robot Fighter: Invasion I had been looking for other Magnus stories and figured this would be a good bet to get a complete story without any danger of finding it to-be-continued. I have mixed feelings about it, as regards Magnus. The art by Lee Weeks is exceptional, reminding me a little of David Mazzuccelli's work in Batman: Year One but more robust and not as stylized. It's striking and moody...but...what had appealed to me about Magnus: Invasion was the clean art style evoking Magnus' creator Russ Manning. This is very well drawn...but it doesn't feel like Magnus entirely. This is also a darker, more bitter Magnus, at one point even suggesting he has more sympathy for the Predator than the humans (though he seems to have divested himself of that odd bias by the end -- there's little to choose between them, after all). Nor does the story entirely exploit Magnus and his world as well as you might like -- there are very few ways in which the sttory had to be be about Magnus. It could've been almost anyone fighting the Predator.

The Predator idea itself, I'll admit, seems a bit limited for such a surprisingly successful comic book franchise. Interesting in a movie, but against comic book heroes...well, how is the Predator different from any other super villain? And here it seems a bit stale, as if the creators are kind of going through the motions. There's little real mood or any of the terror generated in the (first) motion picture.

It's also worth noting that this is kind of gory in spots -- not surprising given the movies. Likewiise, there's some mildly mature subject matter in language and scenes (Magnus and girl friend Leeja in bed together), though nothing that wouldn't be aired in U.S. prime time. It's the violence that a reader might want to be prepared for (though only in a few panels).

Of course, this may have been signaling a "new" direction for Magnus. Around this time, John Ostrander took over the scripting of the regular Magnus Robot Fighter comic where he kicked things off (#21) by beginning an epic storyline where earth is attacked by outer space, homicidal robots (looking a lot like the critters from the movie "Aliens") who kill off most of the series' supporting characters in various grisly ways. It was a move that some pundits felt derailed an otherwise promising revival of the robot fighting guy.

This is entertaining enough to help kill an hour...but will read better if you can get it, or the original mini-series, on sale. The story itself is also only 48 pages. I'm not sure what they did to bulk this collection up to 64 pages.

This is a review of the version serialized in the Predator vs. Magnus Robot Fighter mini-series.

Cover Price: $11.95 CDN./$ 7.95 USA. 



The Prisoner: Shattered Visage
is reviewed here


coverPsi-Force Classic  2008 (SC TPB) 200 pages

Written by Danny Fingeroth, Steve Perry, with David Michelinie, Fabian Nicieza. Pencils by Mark Texeira, with Bob Hall, Mike Vosburg. Inks various.
Colours: Bob Sharen, others. Letters: various. Editor: Bob Budiansky.

Reprinting: Psi-Force #1-9 (1986-1987)

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

In the late 1980s Marvel Comics unveiled their "New Universe" which was a bunch of new comics set in a reality separate from the regular Marvel U of Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. The idea was to do what Stan Lee had done in the 1960s with the so-called Marvel Age, revolutionizing super hero comics by making them more "realistic"...only to do it one better. These were still comics about people with powers, but ostensibly set in the "real" world, with an absence of garish costumes and convenient arch foes.

And though Marvel has recently released a few "classic" TPBs of those series -- including DP7 and Star Brand -- most regarded the New Universe enterprise as a misfire. The creators seeming too concerned with what the series weren't...but never quite figuring out what they were. It could also be argued that when Lee (and his collaborators like Kirby, Ditko, etc.) did their thing, it was a sincere expression of creative impulses. Whereas the New Universe was an editorial edict, with perhaps a lot of the creators writing to a style...they didn't really feel. Which is maybe why Star Brand was arguably one of the better realizations of the idea...and it was written by Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter who perhaps most understood what they were going for.

Psi-Force is about a group of teens, each having a super power. They are recruited by an ex-CIA agent, Emmett Proudhawk, who warns them various organizations and people might want to capture or kill them. Proudhawk himself is killed by the end of the first issue...but the teens discover that, in addition to their individual powers, they can create a composite super being, the Psi-Hawk (who does, indeed, wear a super hero-like costume), in times of danger -- in shades of the Forever People and their Infinity Man! The teens take shelter in a San Francisco runaway shelter...and basically mope about there for the next few issues.

It seems a bit directionless. When Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson are credited as the creators...yet neither worked on so much as a page of the comic, it can kind of suggest a certain lack of commitment and passion to the concept. Steve Perry writes the first two issues, and there are a couple of other fill in writers over these nine issues. But Danny Fingeroth writes the majority and, to be fair, that shouldn't preclude a creative vision -- many a series have had a writer come in mid-run and effectively re-shape it to his vision.

But there's just a sense the comic is spinning its wheels (even some of the kids' powers, including one able to heal any wound, and a telepath able to erase memories, means there's rarely any consequences to events). The kids live at the shelter, they go to school, they get into fights with other kids...and occasionally ward off attacks from sinister government agents (both foreign and domestic). But a lot of the issues just feel like place holders, as opposed to well conceived stand alone tales (though most issues are self-contained)...yet without much sense it's going anywhere, either. Initially there's another CIA agent sympathetic to the kids...but he seems to disappear from the story. While the head of the runaway shelter...never really develops much beyond when we first meet her.

The New Universe creators set out to present a more "realistic" super hero universe by dropping the super hero accoutrements of costumes and heroic ideals. But really, you make it more realistic...by setting it amid a realistic environment, by giving the kids friends and real problems...kind of like what Lee did with Spider-Man! (Or Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes did with Omega the Unknown). Instead there's little in the way of a supporting cast (save a one-note bully). Nor is there much sense Fingeroth has much affinity for the "kitchen sink" realism the series was, ostensibly, supposed to reflect. And without supervillains, action is provided by an unending stream of cartoonish thugs and bullies picking fights with them, or the occasional hit squad -- none of which seems that realistic! There are a few issues that try to "deal" with issues involving runaways, child exploitation, etc. But often make comics where Superman or Spider-Man do the same seem like 60 Minutes' exposes by comparison!

The dialogue tends to be clunky and awkward, as Fingeroth and Perry try clumsily to evoke teen patois (Kathy basically just says "gross" a lot). And the kids themselves don't evolve much beyond their stock characteristics -- yet the characters are, after all, what the series was supposed to be about! There's a nice idea that Tyrone, the erstwhile basketball star, thinks that he has adjusted to the group better than the others because he's used to being a team player...but we don't necessarily see that manifested much in the action itself. By the end of these nine issues...there isn't too much sense of evolving relationships.

Occasionally the kids reflect on how they don't know much about the Psi-Hawk entity -- is it a product of them? or a ghost of Emmet Proudhawk? -- particularly since it seems to exert an influence over them. But it's never answered...not even in the next couple of issues after those collected here (which I've read).

The art is mostly by Mark Texeira, who started his career with a rather workmanlike style, but evolved into a more stylish, realist artist. And this period seems to be in the middle, as there's some nice work, with hints even of Neal Adams, or Bill Sienkiewicz (circa the early 1980s), mixed in with bland composition and stiff figures. Still, it means that visually, the comic is certainly okay, also with Bob Hall pinch hitting a few issues.

The strongest issues is #8, with the kids on a tour of Alcatraz Island and attacked by a foe from an earlier issue. Ironically, it's the most "Old School" of the issues, but maybe that's why it works. It's tightly paced, with enough room for characterization...but not so much so that the character moments seem belaboured. The old prison makes an off beat environment, and the villain has some nuance and shading. It comes amid a few "filler" issues, and maybe reflects Fingeroth and Texeira having had a chance to re-charge their batteries. Texeira's art is his best on the series (and the only issue he inks himself), showing a lot of mood and style, channelling a lot of Sienkiewicz during his Moon Knight/New Mutants phase. It would also be Texeira's last issue (other than covers).

I've picked a few "New Universe" comics (because a local comic shop offered some bagged sets, dirt cheap) and have had mixed reactions to them. Even with the ones that I've liked, such as Star Brand and to a lesser extent, DP7, there's a sense that the conceit (of a new, "realistic" super hero universe) was driving the series...without much sense of what that meant.

This is a review of the stories as they appeared in the original comics.

Cover price: ___ CDN./ $24.95 USA.



coverPunisher / Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday's Web  1992 (SC GN) 48 pages pages

Written by D.G. Chichester. Pencils by Larry Stroman. Inks by Mark Farmer.
Gloria Vasquez. Letters: Michael Heisler, Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Nelson Yomtov.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan. 2015

Published by Marvel Comics

Spinning Doomsday's Web has super spy, The Black Widow, being assigned to trackdown a rogue weapons designer -- and all around homicidal nut -- who may be in the process of building a kind of "dirty" nuclear missile. It's a hunt that gets complicated because gun-totting vigilante, The Punisher, is also on the man's trail for some civilian murders he committed.

This was published at a time when The Punisher was uber-popular (glory days or a dark age depending on your view of the character) while The Black Widow was drifting about, as she does, without a regular title. Which might explain why, despite the title billing, this is more a Black Widow story in which The Punisher is just a guest star. She takes up more of the story, and is the focus at the beginning and the end, and is given what little emotional/philosophical thread it has. Presumably writer Chichester wanted to do a Black Widow story but figured it would be easier to market with The Punisher along for the ride.

First up: the art is quite good, with a slight cartooniness mixed with some well rendered faces and figures, and some modelling and shading (maybe credit inker Mark Farmer) to give the scenes and characters texture and dimension. The plot may be thin, but it's pleasant to flip through.

Story-wise, the result is largely undistinguished, but that doesn't make it bad. Just -- undistinguished. It basically dots all the i's and crosses the t's. So we have a Nick Fury cameo (as head of SHIELD) who gives Natasha Romanov (The Widow) her mission. And when The Punisher shows up there's the obligatory bit involving the two heroes fighting each other (because The Punisher just wants to shoot the villain, but The Widow needs him alive to lead her to where the missile is) before they team up. And so on. The whole thing clips along, but is basically an action story -- it's not like Natasha's investigation actually requires any detective work, or that the plot offers any particular twists and turns. And the villain has no discernable motivation for his destructive agenda other than just being, y'know, a psycho villain.

There is an attempt to give the story a bit of emotional gravitas as The Widow is both worried she's losing her edge (and so fears she might not be the best one for the job) and also grapples with questions of lethal force. But it can feel like just a tacked-on aspect.

Her brief lack of confidence isn't really well defined, and doesn't have much impact on her actions or how she behaves. And as for the lethal force "debate" -- seriously? The Punisher -- Marvel's then cash-cow and of the kill-'em-all-let-God-sort-'em-out philosophy -- has his name on the cover! Does anyone really expect this story is meant to seriously debate the moral pros and cons of killing villains? Besides, given The Black Widow's roots as more a spy than super hero, I'm pretty sure she's used lethal force before (and it's not like she kills someone in cold blood here -- they're generally life and death struggles).

So, yeah, nothing to tease the brain, either philosophically, or in terms of plot and characters. But it is attractively visualized and well paced, so if you're hankering for a summer action movie-type romp, this'll kill a few minutes.

Cover price: __.


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