GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 3-A

Sigil: The Marked Man 2002 (SC TPB) 208 pages

cover by Joe ChiodoWriters Mark Waid, Barbara Kesel. Pencils by Scot Eaton, Kevin Sharpe, George Perez. Inkers various.
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 huusband, 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 Perrez-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.


The Silence of Our Friends 2012 (SC GN) 202 pages

coverWritten by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos. Illustrated by Nate Powell.
black & white

Additional notes: afterwards by Long, published in manga-sized dimensions.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for mature readers (language)

Reviewed May. 2012

Published by First Second

The Silence of Our Friends is a semi-autobiographical tale set amid the American Civil Rights struggle in the late 1960s. "Semi" because it's based on the recollections of only one of the two writers, and even then, is more about his father than himself. It's set in Houston, Texas and focuses on a liberal white family, the father a reporter for the local TV news station, and a black family, the father one of the leaders of the local Civil Rights movement. And it's set against real events -- slightly fictionalized, but basically hewing to the history of escalating campus unrest that culminated in a riot and accusations members of the protesters shot some police.

Indeed, the book ends with an afterward putting the story and events in their context, and it might have been a better idea to have some of that at the beginning, to better orient the reader since it's now more than four decades later (not so much to explain events that are revealed in the plot, but simply aspects of the era).

The black & white art by Nate Powell is quite effective for the most part. Like a lot of similar comics, there's a certain cartoony simplicity to it -- it's not like you'd expect to see the same art gracing a Batman comic. Yet it's a deceptive simplicity, as Powell captures expressions, and the environments are evocatively rendered, and he uses grey washes to give the thing a textured atmosphere rather than simply black lines on white paper. Admittedly, some of the characters aren't always well distinguished from each other, but mostly it's effective.

Coincidentally, I had just been thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird shortly before coming upon this, and one can hear slight echoes of that seminal novel here -- tackling a similar subject but in a different period and milieu. Instead of a small town, its a big city, and the Civil Rights movement is now in full swing. But racial intolerance is still prevalent. But like To Kill a Mockingbird the broader social crisis is filtered, partly, through a childhood recollection. Indeed, what can be effective is that at times the racial stuff just simmers on the backburner, and it seems more just a childhood recollection of the era, with scenes of the family attending a rodeo or watching a moon launch. It can lend the story a well roundedness -- rooting the racial stuff in a period.

At the same time, it's perhaps an indication of the problem. As mentioned, co-writer Mark Long based this on his own childhood -- his father really was a reporter at the time, covering these events (though it's unclear whether his father was quite as embroiled in it as the hero in this story is). And so one can easily infer the little incidents and vignettes are drawn faithfully from Long's memories (at one point the white kids meet the black kids for the first time, and the two groups are fascinated by the texture of each other's hair).

Yet where that becomes a problem is that Long and co-writer Jim Demonakos have trouble then structuring the thing into a proper narrative -- a story. It can feel a bit like a collection of moments and incidents that contribute to a picture of the time more than they develop a plot (like a scene where the dad's old army buddy shows up for one sequence). When the story then builds to the riot, and the ensuing trial (again, shades of To Kill a Mockingbird) -- stuff more obviously dramatic and narrative-focused -- the developing of these things can feel a bit perfunctory, awkward, and unconvincing (though even this was based -- with some artistic license -- on actual events).

And though it might seem an odd thing to quibble about, toward the end a pivotal moment in the story involves references to a real historical figure -- yet a figure I'm not sure was even alluded to anywhere else in the book. Now that might seem a silly complaint, since most people hardly need the figure explained to them...but from a "narrative" point of view, it does feel a bit of an odd structure to have an emotional climax revolve around someone not previously mentioned.

To Kill a Mockingbird managed to mix aspects of (fictional) childhood memoir, with a social-political theme, yet still make it feel like a story, with a plot that is unfolded. The Silence of Our Friends doesn't pull this off as effectively. Heck, beyond the reporter, the Civil Rights leader, and the reporter's kids, most of the supporting characters don't really become more than devices to prop up the scenes (even the wives can feel a bit undeveloped).

With that said, the incidents and vignettes are often well presented, and they try to avoid making anyone too obviously a paragon. The white family is liberal and want to do the right thing...but even they had never actually had much personal contact with blacks until a tentative friendship is struck up with the black activist. While the black activist can be embittered by the prejudice and struggles he faces every day.

The result is visually atmospheric, and interesting as a historical memoir...but can be a bit less satisfying as story, as a graphic novel.

Cover price: $16.99 USA


Silencers 2007 (SC TPB) 112 pages

coverWritten by Mark Askwith. Illustrated by R.G. Taylor.
black & white. Letters:Ron Kasman. Editor: Gary Reed.

Reprinting: Silencers #1-4 (Caliber Comix - 1991)

Additional notes: intro by Askwith.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Mar. 2012

Published by Image Comics/Desperado Publishing

Free piece of advice to aspiring comic book creators: don't call your series "silencers". After all, in 2003 there was an entertaining series under that title about a bunch of gangster-super-villains-as-protagonists...that, despite good reviews, failed to catch on with the audience (my link to my review is below). And long before that was this unrelated 1991series set in the milieu of Cold War espionage. Granted -- it was a "mini-series", but I'm guessing creators Mark Askwith and R.G. Taylor were hoping to do further tales about their plucky heroes...but the dice didn't roll that way.

Although a decade and a half later the series has been re-released as a TPB in a joint venture between Image Comics and Desperado Publishing, so clearly it struck favourable chords.

It's a black and white independent comic about spies...but this isn't the high octane action of The Black Widow or James Bond. No, this is the murky, sedate spy world of John LeCarre where sometimes frumpy protagonists struggle, not so much to achieve victories...but dignified stalemates.

Though its publishers, first Caliber Comix, then Image, are American, it's created by Canadians Askwith and Taylor, and set within a fictional Canadian spy agency. Actually, at first that's not entirely clear -- the characters aren't American (as the Americans are referred to in the third person) but one can mistake them for being British, and at one point a dart playing agent makes wagers in "pounds". Yet by the second issue, it's made explicit these are Canadians, and you half wonder if the creators were just insecure at first, maybe not having decided whether to make the characters Canadian in the first issue. But by the third issue the confusion is made a bit clearer, as it turns out these are Canadian agents operating out of the U.K. bureau of their department...explaining why there only seem to be a handful of operatives.

Still, the fact that even such a little thing as where these characters are and what country they represent should take a while to become clear is perhaps an indication of a slight storytelling problem.

Spy stories, particularly these kind of cynical, world weary tales are supposed to revel in a murky obliqueness, so maybe it's deliberate. Likewise, we are kind of thrown into the deep end of the environment without water wings, character names tossed about willy nilly, so it's an issue or two before you can comfortably get a sense for who the characters are...and what name goes with who!

In that respect, the art is also a culprit. Taylor uses a scratchy penmanship, with lots of loose and extraneous lines, maybe putting me in mind of some old Modesty Blaise comic strips by Neville Colvin and others. It's mainly thin lines as opposed to much in the way of thick lines or shadows. Yet it's almost photo-realistic at times -- and quite striking. In fact, it's literally photo-referenced, with many of the characters modelled after friends and acquaintances (and possibly celebrities -- I'd swear one character toward the end is actor Joe Don Baker). Indeed one agent, Graham Glass, was modelled after their fellow Canadian comic book writer-artist, Seth, who sometimes draws himself into his slice-of-life stories -- so there might be a certain weirdness to seeing a familiar face (or, at least, character design) in an unfamiliar setting, as though an actor taking on another role. But though I kind of liked the art...I think it's part of why I had a bit of trouble keeping track of the characters, because some aren't as obviously distinct from each other as they could be. And the photo-referencing can lead to a bit of stiffness in the poses. And there are some odd artistic experiments -- like some panels where Taylor tilts his figures on an angle...but draws the background level!

Still, since some have argued the "boom" period of indie comix in the 1980s-1990s basically went bust because of too many substandard products flooding the racks, whatever its flaws, Silencers is a slick, professionally put together effort.

At the same time, I can get a bit cynical about the deliberate "murkiness" of such spy stories, and the story telling conceits even in similar novels and movies. Having a sneaky suspicion that that obliqueness is being used to make the story seem more profound and enigmatic than it is...and, frankly, to plaster over gaps in the plot.

Because the plot of Silencers is a bit vague, meandering about a bit, where even when people are killed, or bombs go off, you're not entirely sure who or why, and then kind of resolves in a shaggy dog fashion. There are two main threads to the saga -- one involves an attempt to extract an East German defector that goes wrong in the opening pages, resulting in the critical injuring of a Canadian agent. The other involves a simple courier job, done as a favour to the Americans, that also goes wrong, and uncovers evidence of a chemical weapons smuggling ring. The East German defector was a chemist, and the two cases are (we infer) connected.

Actually, flipping back through the pages, I realize there are references that anticipate certain revelations, and explanations that, if not always explicit, at least point the way to connections. But maybe that's what I mean about using a deliberately murky style to obfuscate...because when you connect what dots there are, it doesn't necessarily form a particularly complex picture or offer surprise twists. And, as I say, where you still don't know precisely who did what...in the sense of who actually this assassin or that is specifically working for, or what's in such-and-such a file people are hiding, or self-destructing. It's a bit like a story that's playing around with the form of a spy story, but considers the content less important.

Maybe it does hold together a bit better with subsequent readings...but it needs to be entertaining and intriguing enough the first time through that it invites -- nay, demands -- you drag it off the shelf again. And to be fair -- it's okay enough that I'm not saying I'd begrudge flipping through it again on some rainy day, but it's not like there are stunning plot twists, or particularly exciting action scenes (despite occasional shooting and fighting) -- after all, the whole point is to be a kind of low-key story of people in trenchcoats who mutter cynically about the pointlessness of their occupation.

Askwith had also collaborated on The Prisoner mini-series for DC Comics -- which was based on the cult TV series, but emphasizing cold war espionage over the sci-fi parables of the television program. And I can certainly detect a similar, muddled storytelling style in the two works.

With all that said, and despite my suggesting I found even the characters a bit hard to identify at first, there is an appeal to Silencers...and surprisingly, it is the characters. Particularly department head Ian, who despite being the senior agent, is in a sense the outsider -- his background in science, not subterfuge -- and very much the kind of LeCarre-esque bureaucrat more than a debonair super spy. While Glass is the opposite extreme, clearly meant to be the "cool" agent, but in an atypical way, with glasses and cigarette, almost effete, but clearly the guy you'd most want watching your back...and the last guy you'd want to cross. The others wander about in the middle, but gradually start to develop presence and personalities. As well, by making the characters Canadian it adds a slight variation on the espionage cliches...even if it's doubtful Canada has a spy network even on this level! And though not "anti-American" they can present a more realistically grey shade world than most American-centric spy stories -- one where the Americans are the heroes' allies, but not always certain ones.

As I say, this was a mini-series -- it's not like it ends in mid-plot, or like it was cancelled prematurely. But I'm guessing the creators wouldn't have been adverse to telling further tales about the characters, and despite some of the flaws...I can't say I would've been entirely adverse to seeing if they could've smoothed off the rough spots in subsequent tales.

Cover price: __.


The Silencers: Black Kiss

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


Silent Leaves: Exception to Life  2008 (SC GN) 160 pages

coverStory and art and letters by Christopher Shy, with Studio Ronin. .

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by novelist Michael Easton (scripter of Soul Stealer)

Suggested for mature readers

Published by DMF Comics

Silent Leaves: Exception to Life is a dreamlike science fiction story. And it's the second volume in a series -- though other than with the use of a sub-title ("Exception to Life"), it doesn't actually indicate that (ie: with a "Book Two" caption or something). Which is kind of important to know, because when you get to the end, it doesn't -- end, that is.

Artist Christopher Shy is probably better known for doing still, stand alone pictures of weird and dreamlike images, but has been branching out into the world of sequential storytelling.

Influenced a bit by "Dune", Silent Leaves is set in a desolate world populated by the remnants of various ancient factions -- including humans, who live in a walled city. But various characters become concerned that an ancient evil, the Prey, is on the verge of returning, threatening humans and others alike despite their mutual antipathy.

There are some potentially interesting ideas here -- unfortunately, in presenting them, Shy has a lot of trouble. Like a lot of would be SF/fantasy writers, Shy seems to have put too much thought into his world building...and too little into his story telling, or his characters. The first part of the book is deliberately meant to be vague and confusing, where you aren't really sure what's going on or why, as characters casually refer to things and beings where we aren't really sure who or what they're talking about. Then, the latter part of the book gives us (some) explanation, making some of the earlier conversations a bit clearer. But the result is a book that seems to consist mainly of a lot of talk and exposition...and not too much story to prop it up. There's a vague, dreaminess to a lot of it, as characters wander about, where the time span between scenes is often vague, or how certain scenes relate to each other is confused.

Not as confused as Shy's collaboration with writer Michael Easton on Soul Stealer, though. In fact what's frustrating about Silent Leaves is that it almost comes within touching distance of working.

In setting up the history, and the machinations, the different factions at odds with each other, there is some decent ideas. But these are simply the building blocks of a story -- it's like looking at the naked steel girders of a building, and the builder declaring it finished and fit for habitation.

The characters (what few characters there are) are vaguely presented, the "reality" of their reality almost non-existent. The story is mainly just set up -- which, when you get to the end of hundred and fifty pages, can feel like a rip off. And, as mentioned, the events can seem a bit disjointed and confused at times -- such as a later scene where the book's nominal heroine, Ian, goes off and has a big fight -- with who, why, or where, I have no idea.

Shy's imagery is part of the problem. On one hand, the painted (or photoshopped) imagery can be strangely hypnotic, surreal, and occasionally quite striking. On the other hand, it is frequently confused, failing to really tell the story through the imagery, with Shy recycling the same images, faces and figures over again, not as if it has some point, but simply because he had no other image to use. Heck -- Ian's hair goes from dark to fair part way through, and I don't know if that was symbolic of something, or just because Shy lost track of what she looked like. Which is easy to do, because another problem with the images is that in their vague, muddiness, it's often a bit hard to recognize characters from scene to scene. Or even with in a scene. And the conversations are often repetative and confusingly presented, where it's a bit hard to tell who's actually saying what.

At the end of the book are various appendixes, with maps, and a glossary of terms. On one hand, it shows what I said: Shy has obviously put thought into his world building. On the other hand, that's kind of what I mean about problems with his ability to convey information in the narrative. You shouldn't really get to the end of a hundred and fifty pages and still need text pages to make sense of what you just read, or where you get details of things that were never even hinted at in the story itself.

The problem with so much of modern storytelling -- from comics, to TV, to books even -- is that everyone wants the series, the franchise, the marketable product (the book even contains an ad selling statues of the heroine!). And the back issue shelves are full of unfinished sagas, left in limbo either because of poor sales forcing cancellation, or because the creators lost interest before completion (perhaps never having had a true vision of the climax to begin with). For all my criticisms, Silent Leaves has just enough interesting aspects that it might've struck me more favourably had it been complete. But what do you say about a work that has some okay ideas, but suffers from confused storytelling and presentation...and fails even to tell a story with an end, simply being one act in a vaguely promised longer work?

If Shy wants to convince readers to buy his later works, he kind of needs to convince us he can deliver with the work that's here.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA.


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