GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 1

The Sandman: The Doll's House 1990 (SC TPB) 232 pages

Written by Neil Gaiman. Pencils by Mike Dringenberg, and Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli. Inks by Malcolm Jones III, with Steve Parkhouse.
Colours: Robbie Busch. Letters: Todd Klein, John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

Reprinting: The Sandman (1980s series) #9-16

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Additional notes: intro by Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman; covers

Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

I thought I read somewhere that an earlier edition of this TPB included issue #8 -- perhaps the Doll's House was originally collected before DC decided to collect the entire series starting from issue #1. But I'm not sure about that.

This is the second volume collecting Neil Gaiman's critically acclaimed series. The Sandman -- Morpheus -- is literally the lord of dreams, and one of a pantheon of immortals Gaiman envisions that are neither humans nor gods, but knows as the "endless" -- comprising (among others) Death, Desire and, of course, Dream. The series is unusual in that Gaiman approaches it with a kind of anything goes formula -- ranging from whimsical fantasy, to grisly horror; sometimes Morpheus is little more than a supporting character -- other times, he takes centre stage.

Although this contains a couple of stand alone stories, the body of The Doll's House is one sprawling saga -- albeit, one comprised of various loosely connected threads that form their own stories. Rose Walker is a young woman who, after meeting the grandmother she never knew, is sent off to find her (Rose's) brother who she hasn't seen in years (the kids having been divided during a bitter custody dispute). She takes a room in a Florida boarding house, peopled by eccentric inhabitants, while she tries to find her brother...unaware that he is kept locked in a basement by abusive, distant relatives. That's in our world. On the supernatural level, Morpheus sets out to find some denizens of the Dreaming who escaped to reality during his decades long incarceration (depicted in the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, and conveniently recapped in the introduction). As well, a "vortex" is building which, we are told, threatens the Dreaming itself. The stories involving the various escaped Dream creatures intertwine with that of Rose and her search for her brother -- the most fearsome of the escapees beingg The Corinthian, a nightmare being who has manifested himself as a grisly serial killer.

Along the way, more is gleaned of Morpheus' higher reality, as we meet one or two of his siblings and fellow demi-gods.

Reading the original Sandman TPB, Preludes and Nocturnes, after years of hearing the series' praise, I had mixed reactions to it. I thought it was O.K., but it didn't quite live up to the hype. This second volume is somewhat stronger. Perhaps that is because it's a longer story, allowing it to seem more like a "novel", introducing ideas at the beginning that then, are delivered on by the end. It also benefits from that narrative quirk that, though not unique to comics, is nonetheless more common to them than to other mediums: the idea of shaping a big story out of littler ones. As one story thread ends, it leads us into the next one that is, nonetheless, built on what's gone before. It also allows one to forgive when stories, stretched over a few issues, resolve rather simply (because Morpheus is pretty well all-powerful). You can forgive it because each story seems like only part of a greater whole.

Gaiman has a good sense of telling a scene, crafting interesting, largely plausible dialogue and quirky situations. He has to juggle the "reality" of the human characters (even as they find themselves in decidedly unusual situations) with the strange, esoteric existence of Morpheus and his brethren -- a separate, surreal reality that, nonetheless, must adhere to its own fictional coherence.

The art, largely by Mike Dringenberg, is effective at capturing both, with a loose, scratchy, but still believable style. The guest artists on a couple of issues are also mostly effective.

The Sandman doesn't really settle on one tone or mood or genre from issue to issue, but it is often a horror series. I say that because in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes I criticize Gaiman's violence, and suggest that it's curious how series like The Sandman, we are told, are more mature, more sophisticated, than crass super hero comics...and yet they seem to revel in their violence even more. But recognizing that this is meant to be horror (at least at times) perhaps mutes my argument. Gaiman isn't trying to present a "realistic" series, dealing seriously with violence and its repercussions...it's as much fantasy and fiction as any men-in-tights adventure. A mid-story sequence -- and a double-sized issue -- that takes place at a convention of serial killers is not, really, meant to be taken at face value (I don't suppose Gaiman really thinks there are such things, nor that there actually are enough serial killers in America to attend one). But what it is meant to be is, at once, creepy and also darkly satirical as Rose and a friend innocently take rooms for the night while the convention is going on, having no idea what a "Cereal Convention" entails.

Although the series overall is something that generally makes the list of "if you don't like comics, you might still like this", Gaiman still ties it in with DC Comics continuity. Not in a way that, perhaps, renders the thing incoherent for a general reader, but in a way that might make things a bit confusing here and there. In the 1970s, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created a costumed super hero, The Sandman, who lived in the world of dreams. Here, Gaiman tries to work that earlier version into one of his story lines, but it can leave you a bit bewildered about the details (particularly when this isn't that Sandman, but a successor, Hector Hall...and I had to go on-line to figure out who he was). Indeed, the little boy in this story, Jed, was apparently a character from that 1970s comic (and joins the list of modern era stories that give gritty, unpleasant spins to old, kinder, gentler stories).

Gaiman (and artist Gringenberg) also work in some pop references, like depicting Jed's dreams in a manner that is a homage to the classic early 20th Century comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McKay.

The stand alone stories are effective. The opening one, as an African tribesman relates a fable (about Morpheus), shows just how diverse are the stories Gaiman intends to tell in this series. As does the other tale, for that matter. It's inserted in the middle of The Doll's House saga (perhaps Gringenberg was having trouble meeting the deadlines, so Gaiman and guest artist Mike Zulli threw this in to give him a break). It tells a tale of how Death decides to grant a man his wish of immortality, and Morpheus, curious, meets with him every hundred years to see how he's getting along. Neither are horror, which relates to my point about the variety of material Gaiman engages in.

I'm still not an uncritical convert to The Sandman, but I did enjoy this and consider it a solid read, and am even more inclined to read further volumes (granted, I got it from the library, so it cost me nothing). Well written at times, and twisty in its narrative threads, the very length of the saga, following the various intertwining story threads, keeps one turning pages. And Morpheus himself is a problematic hero, at times portrayed as moral, and noble, at other times, more mercurial and pragmatic, so that you can't always like the guy.

Still, this more clearly establishes why the series is so well regarded.

Cover price: $32.95 CDN./ $19.95 USA. 


Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes 1992 (SC TPB), 200 pgs.

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes - cover by Dave McKean

Written by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Sam Kieth/Mike Dringenberg, Mike Drinenberg/Malcolm Jones III.
Colours: Robbie Busch (and Daniel Vozzo). Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Karen Berger.

Reprints: Sandman #1-8 (1988) (with covers)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics / Vertigo

Suggested for Mature Readers

For years I'd been hearing great things about Neil Gaiman's series about the Lord of Dreams (no less than the third or fourth comic book character to use the moniker Sandman). Critics waxed rhapsodically about this mix of horror, drama, and fantasy; industry pros spoke as if an epiphany could be induced simply by leafing through the pages; and there was the list of non-comics folks who were fans (writer Norman Mailer, singer Tori Amos). Finally I decided to try it for myself, and to start at the beginning with Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, collecting the first eight issues.

I liked it, really. It's just...

Based on these first issues, Neil Gaiman's forte doesn't really seem to be...plot. Many of the stories in Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes seem almost more like vignettes, little mood pieces, rather than anything where one scene builds upon another, complications are introduced, twists arise, etc. Characterization is also a bit...wanting. After two hundred odd pages, I have little memory of many of the figures who passed through the various stories -- even the Sandman himself, Morpheus, remains remarkably opaque and distant.

The collection's high point is the 40 page opener, "Sleep of the Just". Morpheus is imprisoned by some British sorcerers during World War I, who hope to force him to part with various otherworldly secrets. But Morpheus is immortal and so just waits them out. The story is moody and off-beat, lyrically written in spots. As the decades wear on, the sorcerers grow old hoping in vain that Morpheus will capitulate, and the world suffers under the weight of the Dream Lord's absence; Neil Gaiman works in 20th Century history, encephalitis lethargica, irony, pathos, and delivers an all around captivating premier.

That issue ends with the Sandman setting off to reclaim items lost during his captivity, the various quests forming the narrative thread through the remaining issues of this collection.

Unfortunately, the rest don't live up to the beginning. "Imperfect Hosts" (#2) throws in Cain & Abel (the "hosts" of DC Comics horror mag, House of Mystery -- acting oddly out of character -- though that may just be my lack of familiarity with them) and is weird, but intriguingly so, and oddly poignant. I didn't quite understand it, but, hey, I like things that make me feel stupid (Philip K. Dick, Salman Rushdie). But after that, things get increasingly straight forward and simple. Many of the issues have aspects of "road trip" stories...only where nothing much happens along the way. The Sandman's quests turn out to be remarkably easy. As the collection progresses, it becomes worse, largely as you realize Neil Gaiman isn't going to throw you any curves. So I still very much like "...Dream a Little Dream of Me" (#3), even though it demonstrates many of the flaws I've alluded to. But, I'll admit, as the issues went by, my ambivalence increased.

Neil Gaiman has a nice ear for dialogue when writing British characters (Gaiman is British and, unlike many other Brits -- and Canadians -- working in U.S. comics, he isn't ashameed of his origins), though sometimes his American dialogue is a bit blah. There are some nice scenes throughout, but also some, frankly, mundane ones. Like Gaiman's plotting, the art work, initially appealing in its crudeness (with hints of Berni Wrightson in Sam Kieth's issues) also begins to wear thin after a few stories.

Another weakness, at least to me, was Gaiman's decision to use some pre-existing DC characters. Some, like Cain & Abel or John Constantine, in major parts, others in cameos. I had figured a "mature readers", cutting edge comic would be more self-contained. It doesn't ruin the issues, but it does hurt them in spots, as I tried fitting Gaiman's interpretations in with my preconceptions, or as I struggled to understand a character I was wholly unfamiliar with, but who the reader was obviously supposed to recognize. Even the series' chief villain, Dr. Destiny, was apparently an old Justice League of America foe -- though, in keeping with modern "sophisticated" comics, Gaiman has reinvented this formerly non-lethal villain as a homicidal psychopath.

Strange, isn't it? How, even as the violent crime rate steadily declines (at least those are the statistics here in Canada), writers who claim to be "mature" and realistic, actually increase the levels of violence and brutality in their stories. Usually without any increase in recognizing the true consequences of such violence.

Both Neil Gaiman and Karen Berger, who write an afterword and an intro, basically suggest these aren't the best stories, that Gaiman was still feeling his way. So, combined with that admission, and some of the admittedly good things about Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, I might very well pick up another Sandman collection one of these days.

Just not right away.

(I eventually did, and it's reviewed above)

Soft cover price: $27.95 CDN./$19.95 USA 


coverScandalous 2004 (SC GN) 100 pages

Written by J. Torres. Illustrated by Scott Chantler.
black & white. letters: unbilled. Editor: Jamie S. Rich.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Additional notes: afterward by Ande Parks; manga-sized.

Published by Oni Press

Number of readings: 2

Hollywood may be the city of dreams, but for those legions stuck in the waking world of their own failed ambitions, there's a tarnished reality lurking behind the dreams. A reality happily exposed and exploited by gossip columnists and scandal sheets.

Such is the City of (fallen) Angels that serves as the backdrop for Canadian creators J. Torres' and Scott Chantler's black and white graphic novel, Scandalous, about the Hollywood fringe dwellers that comprise the world of gossip columnists, paparazzi, and rumourmongers. This is also a period tale, set in the 1950s -- a time when the pious practice casual racism and where careers can be shattered in an instant by the infamous "blacklist" if there's even a hint of "un-American" leanings, with the anti-Communist witch hunts in full swing.

The key characters are Harry Richards, a private eye who has reluctantly sold his services, and maybe a little of his soul, to act as the west coast investigator for an east coast tabloid magazine, peeping in hotel room windows to see who's sleeping with whom; Paige Turner, a supremely powerful, vituperative, Hollywood gossip columnist who can make or break careers depending on the mood she is in; and Harry's friend, Chaz Derrick, a cheerfully hedonistic casting agent who's about to find his comfortable reality pulled out from under him when he becomes targeted by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Of course, Harry and Paige, as much as they make a living tarnishing others' dreams, are themselves haunted by their own thwarted ambitions: Paige is a failed actress while Harry wants to be writer, but his editor only wants him to supply the gossip for others to turn into articles.

The plot, at least at first, is more secondary to the characters and their milieu, but both are handled quite well. The characters are just broad enough to be colourful, just grounded enough to be real. Torres has clearly imbibed his era, and presents it with a nonchalant confidence, better evoking the period than many of the (rather few) Hollywood movies that have chosen to explore it (arguably the best Hollywood witch hunt movie was 1976s "The Front", while 1957s "The Sweet Smell of Success" is a blistering look at the power of a cold-blooded gossip columnist and those desperate to curry his favour). Understated scenes of ostracized celebrities sitting all alone in a crowded restaurant, and once successful, now-blacklisted Hollywood players scraping by as delivery men, nicely bring home the temper of the times. There are even subtle, and not so subtle, nods to real personalities, such as a red-headed TV comedienne named Lily (ie: Lucille Ball) who begs Paige's help when she finds herself under investigation by HUAC, or a matinee idol hiding an implied secret homosexual life named Brock Goodson (a play on Rock Hudson). Though Hudson's sexuality has been known for years, I was surprised (after looking it up on the internet) that Ball really had, however briefly, found herself under the eye of HUAC!

There's a snappy, breezy pace to the story, perhaps conjuring up a 1950s movie itself, with crisp dialogue and an at times clever juxtaposition of scenes, allowing for some effective irony. In one scene, Harry complains to his editor about how they sometimes make things up to jazz up a story, then, a scene or two later, he sits despondently mute while Chaz tells a bartender that "They don't just make (the stories) up, you know!" Or a nice juxtaposing of images has Harry, deftly having given the slip to some mysterious goons, driving off with a grin while, in the background, is a cigarette billboard with the slogan "Smooth!"

Chantler's art is of a bold, cartoony style, with blocky figures and eyes that are just black dots -- it's clean and easy to follow, helping to keep the tempo up. The story isn't a comedy, but it is sassy, and the art plays into that. I sometimes have mixed feelings about cartoony styles in a realist story, but the characters are vivid and expressive, their landscape evocative. And it suits the period, evoking older comic strips like Gasoline Alley or Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Just as a period motion picture might be shot in black and white to evoke the cinema of yesteryear, the art style employed here can easily allow one to imagine a 1950s readership opening their daily newspaper to the exploits of Harry and Paige and their hanger ons. But though a slightly cartoony, caricaturish style can help define characters, allowing the artist to exaggerate features, it can equally make them a bit indistinct and, I'll admit, for a story chok full of minor, fleeting character, I sometimes had trouble recognizing characters in different scenes.

Where the book falters a little is in the overall story arc. Torres vividly recreates his 1950s Hollywood, and the characters are human and vulnerable -- Harry may be a tabloid reporter, but we sympathize, sensing he has qualms about his profession. The story takes a turn when Harry and Chaz adopt a "damn them all" attitude and start their own popular scandal sheet. But at that point, it becomes unclear what Torres' message is. Perhaps the point is a kind of revenge of the downtrodden, as Harry and Chaz recruit other blacklisted writers to help them spill the dirt on Hollywood's elite. If so, it doesn't quite seem as though just desserts are always being dished out to the right people. And how is outting a closeted homosexual any more admirable than what HUAC was doing going after supposed "reds".

Of course, Torres' intent may be to simply explore a time and place with characters who are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad -- victims who can be villains and villains who can be victims. The climax, however, feels a bit rushed, and the characters -- even Harry -- haven't really grown by the end. Entertainment is, ultimately, a visceral experience -- and viscerally, you can close the book on its downbeat denouement feeling a tad unsatisfied, like it's a collection of threads and characters that never fully coalesce into a unit -- like they never quite found that emotional core to wrap it around.

A feeling you've just read a really good comic...that teetered on the cusp of being a truly great one, but didn't quite make it over.

Still, good is good. Evocative and briskly paced, snappy, smart and sardonic, Scandalous boasts some nice character touches, and rich period detail, making for solid entertainment. It's a look back at a world which is both foreign and too familiar. On one hand, in today's permissive culture the idea of career's being brought low by scandals seems almost quaint -- yet, if anything, the scandal market has become a ravenous monster that they couldn't have imagined in the 1950s.


Scarlet in Gaslight
see my review here


Scimidar Book One: Pleasure and Pain 1989 (SC TPB) 128 pages.

Written by R.A. Jones. Pencils by Albert Val, Rob Davis. Inks by James Baldwin.
Black & White. Letters: Clem Robbins. Editor: Chris Ulm.

Reprinting Scimidar Book One #1-4 (1988) plus a 3 page prologue -- originally published by Eternity Comicss, a division of Malibu

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Malibu Graphics

Additional notes: introduction by R.A. Jones; covers; early sketches.

Definitely suggested for mature readers.

A near-future bounty hunter gets seduced by the decadant, perverse world of her latest quarry.

I hadn't heard of Scimidar prior to picking this up, but subsequently came across indications it was a controversial "adult" series of sex and violence that had few friends among critics. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I was determined not to fall into any kneejerk reactions, and to read this black and white TPB with an open mind, taking the story and its creators seriously.

For the first half of the book (ignoring a kinky prologue that was presumably done specifically for this collection) the story is pretty straightforward. Scimidar lives in one of those ill-defined, near future settings where things are supposed to have kind of gone to hell in an inspecific way, where technology and fashions are pretty much the same as now, and where you kind of wonder why they bothered setting it in the future at all (not unlike TV's recent "Dark Angel"). Scimidar is both a poet (perhaps the story's main SF element: that a poet would be rich and famous) as well as being a bounty hunter whose empathic abilities allow her to absorb the emotions of her opponents.

Although there's plenty of cussing in the early chapters and allusions to "adult" material (hints Scimidar might be a little too close to her half-brother -- though only hints) it's a pretty tame set up as Scimidar is hired to find a hitman who leads her to Ecstasy -- a Las Vegas-based lady mobster. There's little nudity and the violence, as drawn by Val, isn't graphic.

It's in the second half that the shift is made to gorier violence and nudity (though, as is usually the case, the violence tends to outweigh the sex). Still, Pleasure and Pain remains doggedly...predictable as it becomes the usual idea of the hero(ine) seduced to the Dark Side by the villain(ess') seductive world. We've seen it a hundred times in undercover cop stories. She gets drawn in by Ecstasy, her friends tell her she's in too deep, then she eventually realizes her errors and goes after Ecstasy. If that were the end of it, Pleasure and Pain's main crime would be in being dull, largely lacking an interesting scene or original idea.

Unfortunately, in his introduction creator R.A. Jones explains the lofty ambitions behind Scimidar, the profound questions he wanted to explore. Mainly the connection between sex and violence.

Normally in these stories the hero is seduced by the glamorous lifestyle of the villain, only vaguely aware of the dark underbelly. Here, Scimidar is seduced by watching Ecstasy stage an illegal gladiatorial contest between emaciated people fighting over food. In other words, the scene that should be the hero's horrifying wake up call is, in fact, just the beginning. When later characters warn Scimidar she's fallen in with a bad crowd and she bristles like a teen-ager who's told her boyfriend's hair is too long, the whole thing becomes utterly ridiculous given the atrocities she, and the reader, has already witnessed. What's more, since Scimidar is an empath, her emotional reactions are being skewed by those around her. This isn't a character study anymore than it would be a character study if she was force-fed mood altering drugs.

Of course, Jones doesn't explain why Scimidar can be corrupted by depraved emotions but isn't brought back to her senses when hanging with more benign influences. It's just one of the many logic problems -- like why Scimidar, who is depicted in a (brief) montage participating in group sex, is subsequently shocked when she wakes up in bed next to Ecstasy (the closest the story comes to an "erotic" scene in its hundred pages).

Jones claimed he wanted to explore the connection between sex and violence, but if you don't feel there is one, then the story fails to make any sense.

The first two issues are drawn by Albert Val (one wonders if he bowed out once he realized where Jones was headed), the last two by Rob Davis. Davis is O.K. -- the better, more detailed artist of the two -- but both smack a little of the independent comics field: not (quite) ready for the big time. And both have difficulty distinguishing their female characters so that it was often hard to tell Scimidar from Ecstasy.

Ignoring the controversial sex and violence and claims to relevancy, this is a predictable thriller that seems more like the outline to a story rather than the story itself. Accepting its desire to be taken seriously, it suffers from weak characterization and a failure to give Jones', uh, unusual (arguably twisted) philosophical views any sort of universal resonance. We aren't seduced by Ecstasy's world the way Scimidar is. And with the emphasis more on violence than sex, it can't even pass as just an erotic romp. If it wasn't so bland, failing to really engender much reaction from me at all, it would probably be offensive.

Cover price: $11.95 CDN./$9.95 USA.



 

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