GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "R", page 2

Robin Hood
see Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood


Ronin - cover by Frank MillerRonin 1987 (SC TPB), 302 pgs.

Written, illustrated and edited by Frank Miller.
Colours: Lynn Varley. Letters: John Constanza.

Reprinting: Ronin #1-6 (1983 deluxe mini-series)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by DC Comics

Mature Readers

A 13th Century Japanese ronin, killed in a bitter struggle with a demon, reappears mysteriously in a gone-to-hell 21st Century New York, his renewed struggle with the demon focusing on a bio-technology corporation that's developing a whole new form of living machine. The corporation's beautiful head of security, Casey, hunts the ronin, unaware that the real menace is the demon.

Frank Miller's unusual, stand-alone blend of SF, fantasy, martial arts, human drama, social satire, time slips, violent action and mystery -- yes, mystery -- is kind of like Philp K. Dick meets Edgar Rice Burroughs, filtered through Japanese Samurai films. Ronin was one of DC comics first forays into the field of "mature reader" comics. Frank Miller also experimented with a "cinematic"-style -- telling the story solely with dialogue; there's no voice-overs, thought balloons, or narration in Ronin. Ironically, although other writers instantly started emulating him, Frank Miller himself re-introduced narration in his own subsequent work, obviously recognizing the limitations of that technique (after all, the beauty of a comic book is it's a blend of cinema and literature and shouldn't slavishly imitate one or the other). Still, Ronin works well. Not only is Frank Miller a master of dialogue and panel composition, he also has the ability to invest his sometimes crude, though always dynamic, drawings with genuine expression and subtle nuances in a way that, even a lot of the great artists, can't.

Ronin is a gritty, exciting, atmospheric, completely off kilter work. Personally I can't think of anything else quite like it in novels, movies, or comics. I first read it all out of order, though, picking up back issues when I could, so my impression of it is a little distorted (I knew some of the surprise answers before I even knew there were questions).

When first released, it wasn't regarded as an unqualified success, and it's uneven in spots. Sometimes the action scenes can be a bit long, and the series is a bit too episodic in spots. Miller was obviously making some things up as he went along. In the first issue, reference is made to police, but subsequently we are told there is no police force in New York; important characters are introduced as late as the penultimate issue, and vital "clues", likewise, come in kind of late. But, viscerally, it's an exciting, memorable read.

Like a lot of Frank Miller's work, Ronin can be pretty violent, though for whatever reason (perhaps Miller draws gore so stylized) I don't find him as "icky" as some (the 2nd issue struck me as the most unpleasant). There's also some nudity. Most "serious" comic folk when doing "mature reader" stuff throw in violence and profanity, but their nudity is usual restricted to off-putting, disturbing scenes as in the Batman: The Killing Joke or The Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula (I'd hate to be the psychoanalyst listening to Alan Moore or Matt Wagner pontificate on sex and women); here, Casey spends an entire issue gratuitously in the buff (well, actually she spends most of an issue in shadow, and only a half-dozen panels in the buff), though it's, more or less, justified by the story.

This is a review of the version originally serialized in the Ronin mini-series.

Cover price: $___ CDN./$19.95 USA


Runners: Bad Goods

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


Ruse: Enter the Detective 2003 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Mark Waid. Pencils by Butch Guice, and Jeff Johnson. Inks by Mike Perkins, Paul Neary.
Colours: Laura Martin (a.k.a. Laura DePuy), Jason Lambert. Letters: Dave Lanphear.

Reprinting: Ruse #1-6 (2002) - plus covers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by CrossGen Comics

Imagine a movie about Sherlock Holmes directed by Howard Hawks (with his flare for snappy banter and the gender switching he brought to "The Front Page" when he turned it into "His Girl Friday"), add a supernatural spin, and throw in the pulp-era staple of a hero with a network of operatives...and you might get an idea of Ruse.

And at its best, it's every bit as fun as it sounds.

Ruse is set in an alternate reality late 19th Century (presumably England), where bat-like gargoyles flitter about the streets the way pigeons and sparrows do ours. Simon Archard is a Sherlock Holmes-type: a brilliant detective, able to infer clues from things most people don't even notice, but with a lack of people skills. He's rude, abrupt, and condescending. His Dr. Watson-esque female sidekick is the feisty Emma Bishop who, in some respects, is more truly the star, in that she provides some of the narration and the story often follows her without Archard, more than Archard without her. She's also more compassionate. Their relationship is flinty at times, allowing for amusing banter and sarcastic asides.

But there's a little bit more at work here, because Emma has a secret unbeknownst to Simon. She has magical powers (to stop time), and seems to be here with an agenda to study, and/or subtly teach, Simon.

The opening story arc has the two investigating a newly arrived Baroness in a plot that is perhaps intended to have vague echoes of "Dracula" -- though only vague. It throws us instantly into this world, as though already an on-going series with a history to the characters already in place. We are casually introduced to Simon's various eccentric operatives, from a child savant to an ex-boxer, to characters meant to evoke pre-existing figures such as a chimney sweep named Bert -- ala "Mary Poppins" -- and a man dressed like the Elephant Man (both appear only briefly).

Kingdom Come mini-series from a few years back, imagining a future reality for DC Comics' superheroes including Superman, Batman, etc., was particularly well received (albeit, as much thanks to the breathtaking, fully-painted art of Alex Ross). Like all writers, Waid can be hit and miss, but his work on Ruse is, at times, exceptional. Well-paced, it'a a talky, investigative detective series, but with plenty of action and suspense. Waid, tongue firmly in cheek, seems totally at home with his characters and the evocative milieu. The badinage between Emma and Simon might actually have you chuckling out loud at times. Above all, Waid seems to be having fun, and wants his reader to as well.

The series is cut from similar cloth as Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neil's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with its light-hearted evocation of Victorian Era fantasy adventure given a modern spin. But Ruse is frankly better -- despite its tongue-in-cheek aspect, it's a more human, more narrative-driven version of the concept.

The art by Butch (Jackson) Guice is also a stand-out. Guice is an artist who's been around for a long time, and has always been a perfectly serviceable artist...but his work here is light years ahead of anything else I've seen by him. Perhaps some due goes to inker Mike Perkins, or colourist Laura Martin. But the art is wonderfully effective, full of detailed city scenes, and period drawing rooms, well realized wardrobes, and careful, realist figures and faces full of energy and conviction. If you're going to do a period piece, it helps to have an artist who can draw period details. Guice even manages to slip in a certain element of sensuality...no easy feat giving that the women all dress in shoulder-to-feet gowns. But there is a lush beauty to his women.

Guice also experiments with the comicbook format, his panel arrangements being such that you read from left to right across a two page spread. It can take a bit to adjust to -- particularly as he isn't entirely consistent: the first few pages are conventional, read-each-page-at-a-time, sort of stuff, and even later he occasionally breaks his own format. But once you figure it out, it's an interesting approach, almost like a "widescreen" comic. Curiously, not so very long ago I had been thinking along those very lines, how it might be interesting for an artist to try such a stylistic experiment.

At the same time, the story can be a bit oblique -- in writing and art -- in a way that means some scenes have to be read carefully to get what's happening. The first panel of the second page is, itself, a good example. Well, we can say oblique...or we can say confusingly done.

The first four chapters comprise the initial story arc and it's a delightful romp -- fun, clever, exciting, with a touch of the macabre. Granted, as often happens with Sherlock Holmes pastiches (or homages as this more truly is, since, after all, it's not about Sherlock Holmes), it's more a suspense-thriller than a genuine mystery. We learn the Baroness is the villain early, and as Simon and Emma uncover aspects of her villainy, we wait to learn what her master plan is. But then it turns out, there isn't one. Her actions aren't so much a means to an end...they're the end in and of itself.

Still, as a rollicking adventure, it's thoroughly entertaining.

That story comprises only four of the six chapters collected here. The fact that the next two issues are relatively stand alone affairs should be welcome. You get one epic, novel length adventure...plus two bonus stories! Part of the appeal of the initial story arc is its very length, as the plot veers about, throwing in a few twists and turns...something the shorter pieces can't quite match. The next story, for instance, has Emma investigating a serial killer of prostitutes, and it's a decent but somewhat banal affair. Since it's basically an Emma story, the highly entertaining interplay between her and Simon is missed, and the humour can be awkward when it's maintained even in scenes of Emma visiting the parents of a victim. The final story, featuring a murder during an illusionist's act, provides hints into Simon's background. That last story is drawn by Jeff Johnson -- it's also beautifully realized, but, II'll admit, lacks some of the striking reality of Guice's work.

But part of my quibbling arises from the whole nature of collected edition trade paperbacks -- usually included under the umbrella title of the "graphic novel". A book like Ruse: Enter the Detective is available in outlets (bookstores) that the monthly comic isn't. And so, it's not unreasonable for a casual reader to expect it to form a true "novel". Although the four-part opening story comes to a close, it ends with Simon MIA -- making it a welcome decision on the part of the editors to include the next story, which sees Simon return. And the final story answers some questions raised in the previous chapters -- all well and good. But it also raises new questions. Not in the sense that the story seems "to be continued" or anything. But it still leaves a certain feeling of dissatisfaction. The initial questions about Emma -- her powers, her secret agenda -- go unanswered (in fact, they're barely alluded to as the chapters progress).

It's a problematic concern. Since this collects six issues of an on-going title, one can't expect everything to be wrapped up neat and tidy here (else the series might have nowhere to go). On the other hand, TPB collections have become so prevalent (to the point where I've heard it suggested that TPBs are actually how the companies make their money, moreso than from the original comics) it might behoove writers to structure their stories bearing in mind that the end result will be a collected volume. At the same time, the following issues have already been collected in two more TPB volumes.

As genuinely fun, as geuninely clever as the story is -- and as genuine as my enthusiasm is -- it's not quite as smart as you would like it to be. Part of the appeal was the belief that it would all come together, at least somewhat, in the climax. But that doesn't quite happen.

Ruse: Enter the Detective was refreshingly delightful, particularly the initial story arc. Well realized characters, and witty dialogue, mixed with its intentionally evocative milieu, makes for a truly fun read. And I'm certainly encouraged to seek out the duo's further adventures. Which, after all, is no doubt the point of the unresolved sub-plots. It has been collected both as a regular TPB and, for those on a budget, in a smaller, (slightly) cheaper format.

TPB Cover price: $ __ CDN./ $15.95 USA
Digest-sized Traveler Edition: $15.95 CDN./ $9.95 USA.



Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder 2011 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Mark Waid. Illustrated by Marco Pierfederici, Minck Oosterveer.
Colours: Marco Pierfederici, Antonio Fabela. Letters: Rob Steen.

Reprinting: Ruse (Marvel series) #1-4 (2011)

Additional notes: interview with Waid (about Ruse) and a Marvel exec (about the acquisition of the CrossGen properties); covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Mar. 2012

Published by Marvel Comics

A few years back, comics publisher CrossGen hit the stands with its own "universe" -- headed by a bunch of A-list talent. Avoiding the conventional "super hero" milieu, their series tended toward SF, fantasy and historical adventure (or a mixture of those) -- but like more than a few companies over the years, it didn't quite weather the market forces, and the company folded after two or three years. More recently, Marvel has picked up CrossGen's catalogue (in much the same way DC Comics has a history of buying up properties from defunct companies). And it seems to be testing the waters with limited series revivals.

In the case of Ruse, Marvel even recruited the series' original writer/creator -- Mark Waid. And the first volume of the original series is reviewed above.

Ruse is about Simon Archand, a dynamic, brilliant but insufferably arrogant detective in Victorian England, and his trusty, but long suffering, sidekick. And, yes, that's every bit as evocative of Sherlock Holmes as it sounds. There are some obvious differences -- his sidekick is a beautiful woman, and more than up to trading sarcastic barbs with the "great man", all with a heavier emphasis on wit and comic banter than in the Holmes stories. However, the CrossGen comics were set in an alternate reality England where supernatural creatures flittered about the cobblestone streets as readily as pigeons. Waid might not have been comfortable with that aspect -- perhaps it was an editorial edict by CrossGen -- and now at Marvel he is able to do the series as just a straight Victorian adventure (with aspects of steampunk futurism). Or, who knows? -- maybe it's Marvel that asked for the magical stuff to be removed (there's nothing in this story that precludes Waid from re-introducing such aspects in subsequent stories -- it's just not utilized anywhere here). But the problem with dropping it is that what initially came across as a clever homage to Sherlock Holmes...can now, without the urban fantasy, slide a bit toward just being a derivative rip-off of Holmes!

Anyway...this revival of the series is both a continuation of the old series, while still being perfectly accessible to new readers. You don't need to know anything about the characters to follow the plot.

Which could also be illustrative of a weakness. (More on that in a second).

After opening with Archand dramatically solving a quirkily (if surprisingly grisly) mystery, we launch into a multi-pronged puzzle involving a mysterious gambling syndicate and someone targeting Archand's operatives (Archand having a network of helpers ala The Shadow). It had been quite a while since I had read any of the original Ruse stories, and I had forgotten how witty and clever Waid could make it, the banter highly entertaining -- all delivered with a reasonable evocation of its period lexicon. And at first, there's enough spinning plates to keep things lively.

At first.

But it kind of reminded me a bit of the problem I found with Waid's original Ruse arc. That is -- it starts out clever and witty and imaginative, but becomes more mundane as it goes. In both cases, Waid likes playing around with the idea of a great detective solving a mystery -- more than he likes to actually bother writing an actual mystery. In that sense, it can be likened to the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, which are more action-adventure than whodunit -- indeed, you might wonder if Marvel thought Ruse was due a revival because of the success of those films, with their similar emphasis on comic interplay, and a more eccentric-than-usual Holmes. But as The Victorian Guide to Murder progresses, the sense of an actual "whodunit?" becomes less acute. Part way through, they conclude that the villain is Archand's old foe, mistakenly assumed to be dead (not unlike all those Holmes' pastiches which are less mysteries than just battles of wits with Moriarty). Even then, they deduce it's him simply because, well, he's the only one clever enough for it to be. Not exactly the kind of deduction that would hold up in court, eh?

I earlier mentioned that the fact that this could be read by a new reader might be illustrative of a weakness, and this was kind of what I meant. The fact that you could have a story that, in a sense, is built on the characters' backstory, with a returning arch foe, yet doesn't really require any familiarity with those past stories, or much explanation, perhaps indicates how generic the concepts are.

Still, The Victorian Guide to Murder is a breezy enough romp, with some chuckle-out-loud dialogue. Though what hurts it, in contrast with the original series, is the art. The previous Ruse I read was drawn by Butch (Jackson) Guice with a stunning, sumptuous, almost photo-realist style that helped paint over any lapses in the plotting. But this time out, Guice only provides the covers. Most of this story is drawn by Marco Pierfederici. He affects a realist style that is meant to echo Guice -- just not as good. Indeed, the very realism of it draws attention to the stiff figures and lop-sided features. It almost looks as though the pictures are collages at times, as if different elements were drawn separately, then pasted together. Minck Oosterveer pinch hits an issue with a more conventional comic book-y look, though still leaning toward realist -- although some of his female faces have a certain Manga look that's distracting. The art from either man isn't terrible, and it gets the job done (well...there were a few of Pierfederici's panels where I wasn't quite sure what was supposed to be happening) but it is a disappointment when contrasted with Guice's art and, as I say, provides less of a safety net for Waid's ultimately comic book plotting.

As such, The Victorian Guide to Murder is a perfectly okay adventure -- boasting some great, witty banter. But at four issues, it does threaten to run out of steam, the plot and mystery not as clever as the dialogue is, and the visuals not that captivating.

Cover price: $14.99 USA.
 

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