GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "R", page 1

cover by SilkeRascals in Paradise  1995 (SC GN) 102 pages

Written and illustrated and painted by Jim Silke.
Letters: L. Lois Buhalis.

Reprinting the three issue mini-series in over-sized, tabloid dimensions;

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewed: Dec. 5, 2009

Recommended for Mature Readers

Additional notes: sketch gallery; intros by Dave Stevens and Geoff Darrow; retrospective of Silke's career.

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Rascals in Paradise is at once very modern and yet very old fashioned at the same time. It's old fashioned in that it's a deliberate evocation (with tongue-firmly-in-cheek) of pulp-era adventures. Set in the distant future, the location is a planet that has been remodelled as a tourist trap meant to evoke the nostalgic days of 1930s earth...but something went wrong and, instead of evoking the real 1930s, it evokes the pulp fiction world of dank jungles, lost tribes, and jodhpur-wearing adventurers. The logic behind this is vague. (If the world was artificially created, who are these people who inhabit it? Are they real or constructions?) The plot involves kidnapped damsels, jungle cults, and secret maps. Like I said, old fashioned.

On the other hand, there is a modern aspect to Rascals in that it features a "mature readers" story with plenty of nudity and racy material. This isn't so much a re-creation of old time adventure stories, as it's a re-construction of the milieu with modern explicitness.

The result is hit and miss.

Written and illustrated by Jim Silke, this was his first foray into sequential art ("funny books" to you and me). Before that, Silke worked as a jack-of-all-trades in Hollywood for many years, publishing fanzines, writing screenplays (including the 1985 version of King Solomon's Mines), hanging out with Hollywood legends like Sam Peckinpah, and working as an artist and photographer in the glamour field (ie: doing pictures of beautiful women). It's that latter career that is clearly fueling Rascals in Paradise.

Silke's a good artist, but not quite a great one. And his newness to the medium leads to some rather flatly presented scenes, particularly action scenes, and even some confusing ones (where a caption is sometimes used to bridge two panels that otherwise don't flow clearly one from the other). His painted style can certainly capture a beautiful woman or two, and his technique adds to the whole "nostalgia" flavour: soft, blurry colours, and a sometimes unsure handling of figures (with hands and feet sometimes indistinct) actually evoking old pulp magazine cover painters, as if someone like Margaret Brundage (of Weird Tales fame) had taken to illustrating comic books.

The story is a brisk romp, only vaguely coherent, and never takes itself too seriously. This latter aspect presumably explains how Silke could get away with all the blatant sexploitation without raising hardly an eyebrow among critics -- including a ravishment scene (off camera and semi-consensual) and a flagellation scene (somewhat demurely depicted, focusing as much on the people around the scene as the damsel herself). It's a joke homage.

On the plus side, one can certainly appreciate the wanton uninhibitedness of the story (well, at least if you're a guy). Others have tried similar efforts, but usually with a result watered down and self-consciously apologetic. Silke clearly takes the attitude that if he's going to do this story...he might as well do it, and political correctness be damned (resulting not just in underclad women, but natives speaking in pidgin English). And not just the nudity, but the story itself benefits from this attitude, with Silke throwing in everything but the kitchen sink -- from jungle temples and sacrifices, to jet packs and laser guns. As well, the tempo is brisk and sprightly, keeping things moving along at a good clip.

At the same time, if you remove the nudity, and the sexploitation, I'm not sure the rest is strong enough to stand on its own. The characters never really gel into people you care about (you can't even be sure who the main character is, with the nominal heroine being "Spicy" Saunders who arrives to join the local jungle patrol, but there's also her immediate supervisor String, and a roguish mercenary, and a damsel in distress who they're trying to rescue). At first, the story makes a loose kind of sense -- at least enough to get us from one sceene to the next. But by the end, it just seems to get muddier and muddier, with too few explanations. "Spicey"'s suit has strange properties, like turning invisible and rendering her nude at various moments, but it has other abilities which manifest themselves in the climax with little justification. Even, as noted, the "reality" of the story doesn't seem to permit even a casual scrutiny.

At the end of the book is a sketch gallery showing preview images from the next storyline. But either sales for this first storyline weren't what they were hoping for (though this TPB collection was still in print years later) or Silke just lost interest, because to my knowledge, no further adventures of "Spicey" and the gang were published. There's a problem with writing a story in which some threads are meant to be part of something larger...if the creator doesn't have the discipline to follow through. Silke's only other foray into the comicbook field, I believe, was the later, similarly-themed Bettie Page: Queen of the Nile (taking the real life 1950s pin-up queen and featuring her in a racy, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure).

The bottom line is, if you don't expect much, Rascals in Paradise can be campy fun (more for guys than gals) simply for its unapologetic luridness (lots of nudity, though no full frontal), the brisk pace and the old fashioned idiom it evokes.

Cover price: $23.75 CDN./ $16.95 USA.


cover by Jim SterankoReturn of Valkyrie 1989 (SC TPB) 72 pages.

Written by Chuck Dixon. Pencils by Timothy Truman, Stan Woch. Inks by Tom Yeates, Willie Blyberg,
Colours: Ron Courtney. Letters: Tim Harkins. Editor: Timothy Truman.

Reprinting: Airboy #1-5 (1986 Eclipse series)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Eclipse Comics

For other Valkyrie stories -- including Airboy reprints -- see Valkyrie! and Valkyrie: Prisoner of the Past.

The title of this collection is a bit misleading. For one thing, this doesn't just feature the return of Valkyrie, but a whole slew of Hillman Publications characters that were first seen in the '40s and '50s and were acquired by Eclipse Comics for this 1980s revival. In fact, Valkyrie's presence, though pivotal, is also rather minor.

The story focuses on Airboy -- not surprising since he was the title character of the new series, and the headliner back in the '40s and '50s as well. So who was Airboy? you ask. He was a youthful (teen or young adult) fighter pilot who fought Nazis and other, post-war villains with his unique air plane, Birdie (which actually flapped its wings).

This storyline picks up decades later. The middle-aged Airboy, David Nelson, is living in a secluded monastery with his teen-age son, Davey, and the son's mentor, Hirota. David is clearly a troubled man, long since having given up his life of adventure, and being blackmailed by a mysterious adversary. The monastery is attacked by villains, and though they are repelled, David Nelson is killed. Thus it falls to young Davey to adopt his father's wartime mantle and find out why his father was killed, and to get revenge. Along the way he hooks up with other revived characters, such as the ageing air ace Skywolf, now flying a chopper instead of a plane, and the macabre Heap, the 1940s precursor to such swamp creatures as Marvel's Man-Thing and DC's Swamp Thing. The trail leads Davey, Skywolf and Hiorta to a South American country, ruled by a brutal dictatorship, where Airboy's quest for revenge hits an ethical snag or two. The local tyrant, meanwhile, is partnered with an old Airboy foe, the sinister and supernatural Misery -- and it's Misery who has Valkyrie prisoner, kept in suspended animation for decades.

The Return of Valkyrie was published over the first few issues of the revived Airboy comic, which was a publishing experiment of being a twice-a-month series, each issue only 13 pages of story. As such, though five issues, it only comes out to 65 pages. Still, Chuck Dixon, and co-creator Timothy Truman, fit a lot into those 65 pages. At the same time, the story, like most of Dixon's stuff, is largely a well-paced, but action-focused story. There is some character stuff -- including a surprising one of having the evil dictator show at little fortitude in a crisis. But characterization isn't really the focus. As well, I'm no expert on villain Misery, but Dixon's take on him seems a little...mundane. reducing him to a B-movie villain, rather than the eerie, almost otherworldly figure that appeared in a story collected in the reprint of 40's stories, Valkyrie!

The art shifts fairly seamlessly between Truman (with Yeates on inks) and Woch. The two styles aren't quite identical, but the change isn't glaring or distracting. Throughout the art is well realized, detailed and evoking the lush tropical jungles, all beautifully and strikingly coloured in warm, sunny hues. There's a lot of atmosphere at work throughout.

Part of the appeal to the story, particularly if most of the comics you read are super hero, is the slight uniqueness of the premise. Sure, it's still action-adventure-heroics, but it has a slightly different ambience from usual men-in-tights stories. Though that raises its own qualms. Dixon and Truman heartily embrace the mentality of their series, with characters happily blasting away at their adversaries with pistols, machine guns and whatever else they find -- something that might make sense for old soldiers like Skywolf or Hiorta, but you might think young Davey would be less ruthless.

Actually, the story seems to straddle Left and Right sensibilities. Right Wing readers will enjoy the gun play, the kill-or-be-killed heroics, and the loving detail Truman, in particular, brings to drawing weaponry, while Left Wing readers will enjoy the political sub-text of the heroes siding with rebels against a dictator who has an autographed picture of then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan on his wall.

Perhaps the most curious thing about this is the nostalgia angle. The story is, in some ways, short changed at times in favour of introducing old characters. The Heap's presence, for one, is never quite explained logically. Yet how many readers would have even heard of Skywolf, the Heap, or even Airboy himself? The story still works, but it doesn't quite invoke the misty-eyed nostalgia Dixon may've been hoping for.

Ultimately, this is an entertaining, atmospheric adventure, nicely mixing mood and heroics. Though, at 65 pages, it's best to regard it as a simple "graphic novel" rather than expecting some sort of epic, complex, multi-issue saga. And, as noted before, the titular Valkyrie has a very, very small part. And though the story might warrant a slight "mature readers" warning for its violence and grittiness, there's little of the raciness implied by the TPB's cover (with Valkyrie spilling out of an evening gown -- hard to see on my scan, but the image in the lower quarter of the cover).

The original comics also featured some nice editorials, detailing the history of Airboy and the Heap. But whether they were included in this TPB, I don't know.

This is a review of the story originally serialized in Airboy comics.

Cover price: 


Rick Mason, The Agent  1989 (SC GN) 80 pages

Written by James D. Hudnall. Illustrated by John Ridgway.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Carl Potts.

Additional notes: tabloid dimensions.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel

Rick Mason, The Agent is a kind of hybrid story, mixing espionage-adventure, with super hero fantasy. Rick Mason is a freelance secret agent with no super powers, but whose assignments generally embroil him with super powered people. In this case, rumours of super powered people plotting political coups in third world nations -- and actually pulling one off -- sends Rick down to a South American country that, after enduring a succession of hard right and hard left dictatorships, has recently been taken over by a small cadre of super villains. Rick's assignment: to figure out what's behind it all, and stop it.

I had assumed this would just be a story set in its own reality -- but it turns out it is actually supposed to be the normal Marvel Universe, with both super spy Nick Fury (who assigns Rick to the job) and villain The Kingpin (in a minor role) cropping up. Though otherwise, it's not really connected to existing Marvel lore. And presumably the idea was to play around with the quirky idea of a "normal" hero tackling super villains.

Sort of.

The problem is, clearly what's also inspiring writer Hundall is the notion of writing a James Bond adventure. So we have a tough-but-suave secret agent travelling to exotic locales, and with the usual libidinous escapades where women seem to melt into his arms at the drop of a hat. He can make short work of normal opponents -- and doesn't have too much trouble even with the super variety. That's partly thanks -- again in shades of Bond -- to a few gadgets. James Bond isn't exactly a "realistic" character himself. In other words: though he may not wear tights, Rick ultimately does just come across as a super hero.

I had sort of assumed the story would be about a kind of everyman hero who triumphs through wit and wile against people much more powerful than he is. Instead he's more just Batman or Captain America -- sans costume -- or, as I say, James Bond.

As such, there seems less novelty to what I had assumed was supposed to be a novel premise. Then again, maybe I just misunderstood.

The James Bond angle may also reflect the problem American comics face, given the market is so dominated by super heroes. Perhaps Hundall did just want to write a James Bond-type comic, but could only get an editorial okay if he added in some super beings.

On the level of a James Bond movie (with super beings) it's certainly an okay page turner. Artist John Ridgeway has a realistic style that suits the idea of a hero in civilian clothes, and where the locations (starting out in Hong Kong and moving to South America) are part of the atmosphere. The art is moody, and with generally good composition, including a nice use of big panels and splash pages. It's also bright and clear (some other art by Ridgeway I'd seen was a bit overly dark and murky -- so maybe also give credit to colourist Lovern Kindzinski). It's some 72 pages long and though I won't say it's breathlessly paced, it nonetheless moves along efficiently.

But with that said: it's equally fair to say it's a generic James Bond (or other mercenary/"Men's Adventure Magazine"-type) story. There's some running about, escapes, captures, shoot outs, etc. But nothing -- and no one -- that necessarily stands out from the crowd. Rick, as mentioned, is basically just a James Bond substitute, without being Bond, nor without being enough different or idiosyncratic to establish his own personality. He hooks up with feisty senorita who is associated with the local rebels -- but, honestly, she makes some Bond-girls seem three dimensional. Likewise, the villains are basically just villains. The story is meant to have a bit of a twist toward the end as to who's behind it all -- but you can see it coming. Not the least because, as is often the case in comics, there aren't that many characters to suspect.

Ultimately Rick Mason, The Agent is one of those books it's hard to quite review. It's attractively illustrated, and decently paced, general holding together logic-wise, and holds your attention sufficiently throughout. But the mix of secret agent and super heroes, instead of creating a unique hybrid, just ends up seeming like a kind of familiar version of both, with neither characters or the plot really standing out. A decent read, but inside it carries a sub-title ("Foreign Devils") which might imply Hundall and co. were hoping this would be the first of many adventures. But so far as I know -- there weren't.

Original cover price: $9.95 USA.



The Ring of the Nibelung
is reviewed here

Road to Perdition  1998 (SC GN) 304 pages

Written by Max Allan Collins. Illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner.
Letters: Bob Lappan. Editor: Andy Helfer.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Collins (at least, in the 2002 re-issue)

Published by DC Comics/Paradox Press (and Pocket Books)

In 1930 Illinois, Michael O'Sullivan is a hit man for mobster, John Looney. After O'Sullivan's son, Michael Jr., witnesses a mob killing, his family is targeted by the Looney clan -- his wife and youngest son are killed, forcing the two to hit the road, Michael Senior determined to get revenge.

Road to Perdition is a crime thriller set, sort of, amid real characters -- John and Connor Looney were real, as were Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Eliott Ness and one or two others who makes appearances. But the basic narrative is fiction (apparently there was a hitman who the Looney's turned on, but one infers he didn't hit the road with his son or bear much relation to this character). Collins is no stranger to historical fiction (having written some novels about Ness) so it's too bad he's willing to play so fast and loose with history.

Although first published in 1998, this gained a bigger profile after it was turned into a big budget, critically acclaimed -- and, frankly, somewhat better -- motion picture.

It's presented in a style evocative of Japanese manga comics -- slightly larger than a pocket book, in black and white, with only three or four panels per page. Collins makes no secret of his love of manga, nor of the influence of Lone Wolf and Cub, a Japanese comicbook series (and movies) about a rogue Samurai, betrayed by his boss, who travels the road with his son (in that case, a baby).

re-issue coverClearly the book wants to be literature. It ain't about men-in-tights with fancy powers; it's rooted in a gritty historical milieu, and it plays around with themes of honour and Catholicism. It starts out interesting, benefiting from the period atmosphere, and the slightly atypical milieu for a comic book. And benefits from our own expectations. But, ultimately, it's disappointing.

The basic story is, well, basic. Man's family is killed, man seeks bloody revenge. I'm sure Steven Segal has starred in a dozen films with that same plot. There aren't a lot of twists and turns, nor even any mysteries that need to be unravelled. The action scenes are protracted and repetitive -- O'Sullivan repeatedly walks into rooms, ostensibly to talk, and/or is unarmed, and thugs try to kill him. O'Sullivan, being a superduper assassin, wipes them out, sometimes employing objects at hand. The ease with which O'Sullivan can slaughter his way through odds of ten to one stretches credibility at times.

Plot-wise, there's a late story sequence where O'Sullivan tries to put pressure on Al Capone's mob to give him Connor Looney (who they are protecting) by robbing their business interests, hitting them in their pocket books. It's moderately interesting...but likewise proves repetitive and fails to build to anything.

At the story's core, and supposedly what makes it literature as opposed to just a comic book, is the father and son drama. Yet there's no real character growth or development. You might expect it to start out with Michael Jr. not liking his father, then coming to love him by the end, or loving his father at the beginning but, once he knows what his father does for a living, growing to despise him. Or some such variation. But their relationship doesn't really change one iota over the course of three hundred pages (though given the few panels, it's more like 100-150 pages).

There isn't a lot of characterization, period. O'Sullivan is one of those squinty-eyed, close-to-the-vest, man-with-no-name archetypes that are more defined by their dangerous cool than their multi-faceted personalities. While Michael Jr, despite being the narrator, is largely defined by his reflections on his father. The other characters are basically there to serve the plot, or provide a historical "guest" appearance, rather than to be explored as people.

The story's other big themes are honour and Catholic guilt. O'Sullivan is seemingly cast as a good man who happens to do bad things, frequently referred to as "honourable" -- a man who views his profession as no more morally ambiguous than that of a soldier fighting a war...despite the fact that he is supporting pimps, pushers, extortionists and murderers. Maybe if Collins had given us more background to the character, a sense that he got in too deep to get out. But this isn't about a man who lost his way. It's about a man who is doing what he was born to do -- but he does it with "honour". We can especially see the influence of Japanese Samurai fiction in this approach. At one point, O'Sullivan specifically states that he isn't responsible for what happened to his family -- and I don't think that's meant to be ironic. Sure, the Looney's are directly to blame, but indirectly, O'Sullivan is responsible for his family being involved in that world to begin with. And if you don't accept O'Sullivan's moral subjectivity, the story just becomes kind of creepy, as a sociopathic killer takes an impressionable child under his wing. Because O'Sullivan is a good Catholic, he lights candles for those he kills, and makes Confession regularly. I'm not that familiar with Catholicism, but aren't you supposed to confess to repent your sins? What's the point of confessing...if you have every intention of going out and committing the exact same sins again and again?

The art by Richard Piers Rayner got a lot of attention, and it is impressive to a degree. Heavily photo-referenced, there is a realism to figures and backgrounds that's quite impressive. But like a lot of photo-referenced art, it can be a bit stiff, with characters looking too much like they're posing, and where facial expressions seem copied from a finite number of reference images. Lengthy talking head scenes -- stretched out because, like a lot of modern comics, Collins often only allows one character to speak per panel -- can amount to a collection of rather non-specific head shots. In one later scene, a character is shot in the knee, yet when he speaks, instead of grimacing in agony, his expression wouldn't tell you he was even injured! Rayner might also have thought to give O'Sullivan a distinguishing characteristic -- a scar, a moustache -- because it was often hard to recognizee him.

Nor is Rayner's choice of composition anything spectacular -- there aren't any really stylishly desiigned scenes, or moodily composed images that necessarily augment the text.

Obviously, I read this with some mixed feelings, morally speaking, but the main problems are more narratively based. The ambience can only carry you so far before you notice it's a really thinly story, and not very fresh. There are too many stretched out gun battles and too little character development.

Interestingly, the motion picture stuck close to the comic in some ways, well diverging significantly in others (including slightly changing some names). The whole intent of the film is different, notably by underplaying the action-violence. Where in the comic O'Sullivan might get into a shoot out with ten guys...in the movie, it might only be two; in some scenes, the shoot out has been removed entirely! There's also considerably more attention paid to characterization, including adding a whole surrogate son-surrogate father dynamic to the relationship between the (anti-)hero and the mob boss that isn't really in the comic. The movie, like the comic, suffers from a certain thinness to the plotting, and neither really capture any sense of grief either O'Sullivan would surely be feeling over the death of their loved ones, but it's a more satisfying take on the story.

Both versions also have some (minor) historical lapses. In the comic, a character quotes the May West line about "are you glad to see me?"...in a story set before West had made any movies. While in the movie, the kid reads a Lone Ranger book, a few years before the Ranger had been created.

Collins has subsequently written a series of shorter graphic novels, under the title On the Road to Perdition, set within the framework of this book (since the graphic novel takes place over many months, that left a few windows in which to insert stories of the two O'Sullivan's on the road). He also wrote the text novel adapting the movie.

Cover price: $21.50 CDN./ $14.00 USA.



 

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