Scimidar Book One: Pleasure and Pain 1989 (SC TPB) 128 pages.
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 Comics,, 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.
John Woo's Seven Brothers, vol. 1 2007 (SC TPB) 134 pages
Written by Garth Ennis. Art by Jeevan Kang.
Colours: S. Sundarakannan, Jeevan Kang. Letters: Nilesh S. Mahadik, Sudhir B. Pisal, B.S. Ravi Kiran. Editors: Gatham Chopra, Mackenzie Cadenhead.
Reprinting: Seven Brothers (1st series) #1-5 (2006-2007)
Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Published by Virgin Comics
Recommended for Mature Readers.
For all it's pretentions to grandeur and philosophy, Virgin Comics' line was very much of the gimmicky school adopted by fledgling comics publishers -- finding some pre-existing "name" to sell their comics. But instead of licensing a movie spin-off or toy line, they got famous non-comics creators to put their names on the comics...but how much active participation they had in the comics is the question since they didn't actually write and draw the comics.
Which brings us to Seven Brothers, credited to Hong Kong action movie director, John Woo (Hong Kong...and elsewhere, having made American and Canadian films as well), though this, the first of two mini-series, is actually written by comics scribe, Garth Ennis. Owing a tip of the hat to the old children's story about the Three Chinese Brothers (each with a special ability), Seven Brothers has seven guys of different nationalities and ethnicity summoned to a mysterious meeting where they are told they are each the descendants of an ancient Chinese sorcerer, each with a unique power, and they must unite to prevent an even more powerful ancient sorcerer, the self called Son of Hell, from conquering the world.
And the result is fairly vapid and thinly plotted...but a lot of fun, too.
Like a lot of modern comics, the actual story doesn't entirely justify being stretched over five months. The plot twists and turns are limited, and even the time span is one of those things where you aren't supposed to question it too closely (while the "brothers" are having their meeting and revelation...the villain is able to set his plan in motion, travel from China to Los Angeles, summon a supernatural body guard...etc. -- that's a looonnng conversation they're having!) And though there are seven guys (and one woman, the enigmatic Rachel who summons them), Ennis only really provides enough characterization for a few of them. That is, after five issues, you can't really say you especially care about the characters...or even really know who they are.
But that's all being critical.
Shutting off your brain, it's an enjoyable, breezy read. Despite my comments about a thin story, it nonetheless is paced out well, so that it doesn't feel slow or padded. There's a grandeur to the concepts, drawing upon real history (the saga having its roots in a real Chinese merchant fleet that set sail in the 1400s) and tying it into the mythical lines of power many philosophies believe ring the earth. There are off beat (if ill-explained) ideas, like Rachel's fighting ability that seems to defy time, or a pretty major mid-story twist where the brothers get pretty thoroughly defeated! The dialogue is generally good and colourful and there's a definite light-heartedness and comic relief element, particularly in the form of Rodney -- who talks in a never ending stream of street profanity and is a comedic would be pimp (we first meet him being beaten up by hookers). And Rodney ends up providing the closest thing the story has to a character arc. Now whether a pimp should really be portrayed as cute comic relief is a question for ethicists.
Of course this is Garth Ennis working with John Woo on a "Mature Readers" comic, so there's plenty of four letter words and brutal violence, just so's ya know.
The art by Jeevan Kang is quite striking and adds to the whole, particularly with rich, painted looking colours by him and S. Sundarakannan. The art is a sketchy and murky, and admittedly adds to why some of the "brothers" fail to quite stand out as distinctive figures (since it was hard to always recognize some of them). But it's generally effective, adding an extra sense of sophistication to the otherwise superficial story, with Kang nicely rendering the quiet scenes of people talking, the explosive violence of the action scenes, and the grandeur of the mystical and more apocalyptic scenes. If John Woo was involved in the actual plotting, one can see why he chose to present this story in a comic rather than on the big screen -- it would cost a fortune to film and still not be quite as visually striking.
And this actually is self-contained, coming to a climax that, though certainly intended to leave things open for a sequel (and Virgin published a follow up mini-series, by a different creative team) nonetheless it doesn't demand a sequel, with no glaring plot threads left dangling. It can be read for itself alone.
Don't go in expecting a profound or meaningful saga -- but as the comic book equivalent of a big budget summer action movie, this scores quite nicely. Stylishly -- occasionally breathtakingly -- visualized, with a brisk pace, some witty interplay, a grandly epic concept, and enough unexpected ideas to keep the pages turning, Seven Brothers is an engaging read.
This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics
Cover price: ___
Seven Samuroid 1984 (SC GN) 64 pages
Written, illustrated, lettered by Frank Brunner.
Colours: Jan Brunner.
Additional notes: oversized, tabloid dimensions.
Rating: * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Published by Image International Publishing Corp.
Mildly recommended for mature readers.
The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven idea gets a hi-tech face lift in this graphic novel set in a galaxy spanning future. Millennia ago, robots with human minds were created to defend the defenseless, but eventually the robots became disillusioned and disappeared. Now on a planet being besieged by an evil warlord, a woman rebel uncovers one such Samuroid robot, who is reluctantly persuaded to join the fight for freedom, and he also sets out to recruit more of his long vanished comrades.
Written and drawn by Frank Brunner, this was a creator-owned property published by Image International -- no relation to the later comic book company. This was a branch of a New Zealand-based printing company that was, presumably, attempting to make forays into the comic book field. As a product, it's certainly well put together on glossy paper. As entertainment, it's O.K., but nothing more.
I'm not that familiar with Brunner's early work, such as his 1970s stuff on Dr. Strange that helped cement his reputation. Here, his style is a bit loose, and a bit rough, as though like a lot of artists as they progress through their careers, he was trying to open it up a bit, not being as rigid with his lines and details. It's certainly decent work, getting the job done (though there are a few panel arrangements that are confusing to read the first time through). But it's not exactly breathtaking, either, with neither the art, nor the composition, being that spectacular. It's the kind of art that is good -- don't get me wrong. But it works best in service of a strong story, but doesn't gloss over weaknesses in the script with awe-inspiring imagery.
And the story is only O.K., too.
There isn't anything that fresh here, which isn't unexpected, as the intentionally derivative title suggests. Brunner borrows plot ideas from The Seven Samurai, and a few sci-fi movies, with the central premise of a man's soul inside a metal body reminiscent of the comic book Rom, Spaceknight.
Brunner seems to have conceived of a much longer work that he, then, crams into 64 pages. There's a lot of exposition, a lot of telling us about things, rather than depicting them, or places where a couple of panels are bridged by a descriptive text caption. Handled right, it's a way a comic can cover a lot of ground, but here, there's just a sense we're more getting a synopsis, or an out line, of what should've been a larger work. Characterization likewise suffers. The main Samuroid, Ultek, is sweet on the woman who found him, but we kind of have to take his word for it, as it's another thing that is more referred to, rather than demonstrated. The story picks up most when Ultek discovers a space ship carnival where a couple of his embittered fellows are whiling away their years as exhibits. Ultek meets up with a quirky, misfit robot, Toto -- an "honourary" samuroid -- who probably displays the most personality of anyone, human or robot.
Brunner is best known as an artist, and his dialogue is largely workmanlike.
The history behind this is unclear. This was, apparently, one of the last things Brunner did in comics before moving on to other artisic ventures, and may well be the only thing he wrote on his own. So does that make this the culmination of Brunner's career, his dream project? Or was it just the last gasp of a talent getting bored with the whole medium? Did Brunner intend this to be his swan song...or did it just work out that way?
Certainly one can infer that Brunner was maybe intending to revist this reality, since there are things that are alluded to, but not followed up on in these pages. The story is self-contained, but cryptic references are made to "lost rune tapes" and a thread of robot rights/persecution is hinted at, but undeveloped. Or maybe Brunner was hoping to use this as a showcase for a marketing property -- after all, one can't help but notice the similarity to toys at the time, such as Rom, Shogun Warriors, and the Transformers. Though the occasional bit of "mature readers" material (violence, and one panel of a bare breast) makes it an unlikely commercial for kids toys. The back cover blurb acts as a kind of pre-amble, setting up the backstory for the book, and so should be read before you read the inside story.
Overall, the Seven Samuroid is a mild page turner rather than anything to get excited about. Because comics are so super-hero heavy, sometimes an SF (or whatever) story can be enjoyable just as a change of pace. In that sense, this graphic novel is O.K....but nothing more.
Original cover price: $9.50 CDN./ $6.95 USA.
Sigil: The Marked Man 2002 (SC TPB) 208 pages
Mark Waid, Barbara Kesel. Pencils by Scot Eaton, Kevin Sharpe, George Perez.
Colours: Wil Quintana, Laura DePuy. Letters: Dave Lanphear, Troy Peteri.
Reprinting: Sigil #8-14, CrossGen Chronicles #4 (with covers)
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Published by CrossGen Comics
Sigil is a science fiction series set amidst a conflict between earth -- and related planets -- and a race of lizards, who not only are attacking humans, but who can literally evolve by eating higher lifeforms (meaning humans). The story concerns Samandahl Rey, a decommissioned earth soldier who finds himself inexplicably imbued with super powers thanks to a sigil branded into his chest, which makes him regarded as a bit of a random element by humans and saurians alike.
This second TPB collection follows on the heels of the first and has Rey and his misfit crew of three (including a hologram/ghost of his dead best friend) arriving on the home planet of the woman Zanniati -- whom they just rescued from her evil hussband, the sultan of a neutral world.
CrossGen is a relatively new comics company that has clearly staked out alternative territory to the superhero heavy DC and Marvel. Most of CrossGen's line involves fantasy or SF themes, and it's all attractively produced. A couple of other CrossGen TPBs I've read left me with the feeling that, though I moderately enjoyed them, the plotting seemed a bit thin. And The Marked Man is no exception. I hesitate to describe the plot in a synopsis, because I'm afraid I'd give too much away.
The book opens with a flashback story from CrossGen Chronicles (a comic I'm guessing is used to tell out-of-continuity tales about CrossGen's on going titles). It chronicles an early adventure of Rey and best buddy, Roiya Sintor (before she became a hologram), back when they were still in the army. It's basically aimed at the military SF/"Starship Troopers" crowd, as it covers the usual cliches (opening with a bar fight, then seguing into a tactical mission on the saurian world that turns into a running firefight). Despite my ambivalence toward that genre, it was briskly paced and O.K. (though Sam's personality doesn't gel with his personality in the body of the book).
Despite that beginning, the regular series seems not as much about "grunts-in-space", which should be good...but it's not really swashbuckling adventure either. The first few issues more concern the characters just standing around, chatting. When the action does kick in, it tends more to just be the big fight scenes that are too common these days (though a climactic scene where Sam must rescue a ship from destruction is moderately suspenseful). Yet despite the emphasis on talky bits, the story doesn't quite move up to being the complex saga of machinations and subterfuge it thinks it is. Zannitai has proof that the sultan is planning an alliance with the saurians, proof the sultan will do anything to get back. But, as mentioned earlier, though that's a plot...it's not quite a complex plot.
Much time is taken up with other stuff, such as character scenes, portraying the budding romances between Sam and Zanniati, and between the holographic Roiya and the enigmatic JeMerik Meer. Meer also possesses superpower and clearly knows more about Sam's power than Sam does and has set himself up as a kind of guardian angel. But all the stuff relating to the Sigil is meant to raise more questions than is answered here, as clearly Sam and his crew are caught up in the machinations of higher beings (and the comic, in ways that aren't addressed here, is presumably meant to have some connection to another CrossGen title, Mystic, a fantasy series about a woman with a similar sigil mark).
By focusing on the romantic aspect, one can admire the writers' intentions, attempting to create more than just a hit-'em'-tll-they-drop action saga. But though it's not ineffective, neither is it quite gripping stuff either. The relationships are less developed than they are simply stated. And the characters are, frankly, a little bland and unmemorable.
I also have a minor qualm with Sam's powers -- namely, they seem a touch too much. He's so powerful, there isn't a lot of suspense in the action scenes. And while addressing side points, the lack of ethnic diversity in Sigil seems a bit odd, particularly as sci-fi often promotes itself as racially progressive. It's not that there are no non-white principals -- it's that, other than in the George Pereez-drawn issue, there aren't even non-white people in the backgrounds!
The art engenders as much ambivalence as the writing. The flashback story is drawn by veteran George Perez is his meticulous, extremely detailed style and is pretty effective. Although Perez can almost be too detailed, filling his panels with so many lines and objects the key element can be lost in the clutter. The other artists are even more problematic. Both Kevin Sharpe and Scot Eaton are good artists with similar styles (Eaton is slightly more realistic, at least when drawing men's faces, though both tend to draw their women with a slightly gamine/Japanese manga flavour). But like with Perez, their art can be overwhelming with the detail, too the point where the images are just too busy. This is particularly significant in a series where, as noted, time is made for the human interaction of characters just talking. But those scenes seem cluttered, too, losing the intimacy. And everything has the same plasticy sheen: people, backgrounds, ships. And one planet looks much the same as another, one ship the same as another ship. What adds to the problem is the colouring, which can often tend toward shades of single colours for the background -- and darker colours, to boot. Or, conversely, bright colours that can actually be hard on the eyes. It means you have already busy panels, where it's all made even harder to focus on what you're seeing.
I know more and more readers who are starting to complain that when it comes to comic book art and detail...more isn't necessarily always better. There's a feeling that a lot of modern artists are better artists than they are storytellers.
Ultimately, I can't be too hard on Sigil: The Marked Man. Despite my criticisms, it was briskly-paced and there's nothing horribly wrong with it in writing or art. But it never really interested me. As an action-adventure, as a political thriller, or as a character story, it all was a bit bland.
Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA.
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