GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 4 - B
 
 
 
 

Star Lord  2014 (SC TPB)

see my review here


Starslammers - cover by Walter SimonsonStarslammers 1983 (SC GN), 64 pgs

Written and drawn by Walter Simonson.
Colours: Louise Simonson, Deborah Pedler. Letters: John Workman. Editors: Al Milgrom, Mary Jo Duffy.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics in over-sized tabloid format.

Space opera about a planet of elite inter-galactic mercenaries who had been an oppressed people, and now use their new calling (and the money and weapons they collect as payment) as preparation for going to war with the planet that had oppressed them.

If you ever thought "Star Wars" was too jingoistic and warlike, then you'll definitely hate The Starslammers. Walt Simonson, whether reflecting his own philosophy or just escapist entertainment, indulges in a kind of macho diatribe that, frankly, seems weird and even uncomfortable in the latter part of the 20th Century. The story's peopled by Macho-He-Men (and He-Women), talking about "true men", where human worth seems literally to be measured by an individual's fighting prowess. The "heroes" are mercenaries whose greatest dream is to commit genocide against their (admittedly sleazy) enemies.

The plot seems more of a build up to a story than the story itself. The characters aren't well defined, or even memorable, and the overall results cold. The story takes itself too seriously, lacking any kind of swashbuckling jauntiness that would, at least, make the Starslammers fun on a non-think level.

Still, if all that sounds like fun, Walt Simonson is certainly a fine artist and a competent, if unexceptional, dialogist. Simonson later returned to the premise a decade later with an (ultimately unfinished) mini-series set, apparently hundreds of years later (meaning it's not really a direct sequel).

The Starslammers was published in oversized, tabloid format as a Marvel Graphic Novel.

Original cover price: $6.96 CDN./$5.95 USA


Steed and Mrs. Peel: The Golden Game  2012 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover Written by Grant Morrison, Anne Caulfield. Illustrated by Ian Gibson.
Colours: Gibson. Letters: Ellie de Ville.

Reprinting: the six issue Boom mini-series (which itself reprinted the 3-issue 1990 Eclipse/Acme series) -- and not to be confused with Boom's subsequent on-going Steed and Mrs. Peel series.

Rating: * * * *  (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted Dec. 2014

Published by Boom Publications

Steed and Mrs. Peel is a comic book revisitation to the world of the fondly regarded, chic 1960s British TV spy series, The Avengers -- albeit published many years later. It's named Steed and Mrs. Peel -- after the main characters -- because, obviously, the name The Avengers has a rather different connotation in comic books!

These issues were first released in 1990-1991 over three issues (I'm assuming they were double-sized issues) then re-printed by Boom as a six issue mini-series, before Boom collected them as a TPB. And it's worth noting that Boom also started publishing an on-going Steed and Mrs. Peel series by other creators, which has also been collected in various TPBs. A fact made more confusing because though this collection is, technically, sub-titled The Golden Game -- I'm not sure that's made obvious on the cover. So you're better off identifying it by Morrison, Caulfield and Gibson's names on the cover.

Interestingly, both stories here take place after Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg) was written out of the series, but since her character is most identified with the show, nonetheless both stories feature her along with series' stalwart, the impeccable Englishman's Englishman, John Steed (the TV series throughout its run, and its subsequent 1970s revival, always featured Patrick Macnee as Steed, but with shifting co-stars). In the first story, Steed's post-Peel partner, Tara King, is kidnapped, so Steed calls upon Emma Peel to return and help him find her. The story involves espionage and a series of bizarre murders linked to a club obsessed with games. While the second story is set immediately on the heels of Peel's departure from the show and so kind of assumes the reader is familiar with the circumstances. Her believed-dead husband has returned, and they go off together -- and in the comic, run smack dab into trouble involving a quaint English sea side town and a South American cult (her husband having returned from South America) -- and John Steed arrives to help.

Comics spun off from movies or TV shows can be tricky -- tricky to capture the flavour of the source material, hard for the artist to evoke a likeness of the actors, and tricky to do that while also adapting it to the needs of a comic book (the sequential panels, the need not to get bogged down on too many talking head scenes without going too far the other way of being just "comic book" action -- and a willingness to exploit the limitless "budget" of a comic without betraying the source).

And this pulls it off quite well, both writers capturing the series (by then developed) winking aura of tongue-in-cheek whimsy and eccentricity -- without simply being camp or a comedy. Though it does veer a bit toward the deliberately goofy at times. The art by Ian Gibson plays to this, being more comic and caricaturish -- almost of the kind you might expect to see in a newspaper's editorial cartoon, where the tricky is to be humorous, yet still authentic. Those expecting a straight, photo-realistic depiction will be disappointed, but it captures the sense of wry whimsy, while still doing a good job of genuinely evoking actors Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Put another way, if you were shown a picture of Gibson's Macnee, but not told who it was supposed to be or that it was from a comic based on The Avengers, you'd probably still identify it as Macnee.

With all that said, The Avengers could be rather light-weight -- deliberately so. Or, at least, depending on the eras (the very earliest episodes -- lost to posterity, but recently being re-staged quite effectively as audio dramas by Big Finish -- were more straight-faced, as was the 1970s revival). But the mid-1960s era -- when the series was at its most defining -- was definitely light and breezy, reflecting kitsch and pop art sensibilities. As such, the creators here do a good job of evoking the old series, but a casual reader should be aware that, y'know, it is just meant to be a breezy romp steeped in a Brirish ambience, involving implausible machinations, vague logic, eccentric suspects, and two largely unflappable protagonists who deliver bon mots as easily as they deliver justice.

It's breezy -- but fun.

Cover price: $__ CDN.


The Steel Claw: The Vanishing Man  2005 (HC) 112 pages

cover Written by Ken Bulmer. Illustrated by Jesus Blasco.
black & white.

Reprinting: the serials "The Steel Claw", "The Steel Claw vs. Dr. Deutz", and "The Steel Claw vs. Sharkey", serialized in Valiant (1962-1963)

Additional notes: intro by Steve Holland; writer and artist bios; complete story checklist; published in an over-sized format.

Rating: * *   (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted Sept, 2011

Published by Titan Books

To most North Americans, British comics are largely defined by Judge Dredd, Captain Britain, and maybe a few Dr. Who comics, that nation not having quite developed a thriving comic book industry like America (and other countries) -- despite, ironically, producing some of the most influential American-published comic book writer and artists of the last few decades! Yet in the 1960s, inparticular, there was a bit of a boom in British comics. Though they were modelled more after the format of newspaper strips, the comics being anthologies of often only two or three page series serialized from issue to issue. There have been periodic attempts to revive the old characters, either as themselves, or as subtle homages, including the mini-series Albion. Albion I don't think proved as successful as was expected (given Alan Moore's name was attached to it) but it did lead to Britain's Titan Books releasing a few hardcover collections of some of the more fondly remembered old series, including Albion Origins (an anthology), The Spider, and this -- The Steel Claw.

The Steel Claw is about one Louis Crandell, a lab assistant with a steel hand (a result of a lab mishap). When he is electrified in another mishap (yeah -- maybe he should seek another line of work) he discovers that the temporary charge renders him invisible -- save for his steel hand. The initial premise deliberately harkens back to the seminal British SF novel, The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells -- particularly as Crandell is actually the villain, launching a crime spree and a wave of terror while his erstwhile employer, Prof. Barringer, seeks to rein him in. Another British comic from the time -- The Spider -- also featured an anti-hero/crook as a the title character. Except here, by the end of the first story it is -- retroactively -- explained that the accident unhinged Crandell, and that he's really a good guy, and he recovers his moral sense. Thus allowing him to act as a regular hero for the next two stories in this collection.

Well, in the next story he is a good guy -- but no one believes that, as a Jekyll/Hyde-type mad scientist frames him, so once again he is being hunted by police and Professor Barringer. But by the third story, his good guy credentials are unchallenged, and he ends up taking on modern day pirates on the high seas.

Being something of a pop culturalist and incurable nostalgist, when I learned of these old comics that I had never heard of, I became curious to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, the results tend to be rather mixed.

Obviously, some of that is simple context -- these were ultimately aimed at young, juvenile readers (much as American comics were at the same time) so obviously they are problematic for me, a modern adult. Particularly as I have no affectionate pre-disposition for them (the way I might reading a 1960s comics featuring a character I liked from later, more sophisticated comics). But the truth is, even by comics of the time, these can be a bit problematic. Part of that is the serialized format of two pages per instalment. It allows for a brisk tempo, keeping things moving fast, but it doesn't encourage much character development, or emotional undercurrent. As well, the plotting itself is fairly rudimentary -- the first two story lines inparticular just tend to involve a lot of running back and forth and repetition, as if the writer is more concerned with stretching the plot out over many weeks than telling an actual story.

The third story in this collection is a bit better, as there's at least more of a sense of a narrative progression -- but there's still not much in the way of emotion or characterization. Crandell himself is a fairly non-descript personality. Nor is there wit or humour to enliven the scenes.

What it does have going for it is beautiful, almost photo-realist art by Jesus Blasco, rendered in moody and shadowed black & white. Particularly compared to the average art in American comics at the time, it's stunning, detailed and sophisticated. However even here I might quibble. Blasco is an exceptional artist, there's no doubt about it. But there's perhaps nothing exceptional about his composition, or design. The pictures look good -- but it's fairly straightforward in terms of storytelling. Granted, the scripts don't maybe point the way to any obvious embellishments he could try.

The scripts were written by Ken Bulmer (though the character was created by an editor) -- who is actually better known as a respect science fiction novelist. Unfortunately, there's not too much in the way of literary finesse evident in his comic book scripts. As mentioned, the characterization is all but non-existent, and the plots are straight forward. Despite Professor Barringer being present in the first two stories, there's very little development of a relationship, or a sense of a supporting cast (and he's absent from the third story). Though it is interesting that in the second story, a featured character is the professor's niece, Terry -- who is one of the few people who believes in the now-reformed Crandell's innocence. It's interesting because I had noted that in a lot of the other British comics from that era women were conspicuously absent. I mean -- literally there were no women in the strips at all! Yet here there is a more American-style romantic undercurrent -- though it is just an undercurrent. Terry doesn't appear in the next story (nor do any women!), so I'm not sure if she was anything more than a one-time figure.

Another way these old British comics might differ from American ones -- other than most being in black & white, the newspaper serial format, and the general absence of love interests, is that they were published without any over seeing Comics Code Authority. Although they were still aimed at a family audience (there is crime, action, and sometimes murder -- but no "adult" subject matter) one can't help thinking eye brows might've been raised in the U.S. about a comic book series in which the hero deliberately goes around sticking his fingers into light sockets, or grabs live wires, in order to induce his invisibility!

The fact is, I have a fondness for newspaper adventure strip collections -- the tight, limited panel format allowing for a concise, efficient storytelling style. And I can also read a lot of old "juvenile" comics from the 1960s and enjoy them for their relative lack of pretention, and for the sometimes unexpected ambitions, in terms of character, emotional threads, clever plot twists, and witty dialogue and wisecracks. And I have enjoyed vintage British comics quite a bit (notably Dan Dare). But I'll confess -- The Steel Claw just didn't really work for me, read now, decades after the fact, suffering as it does from an uninvolving hero (despite his claw and invisibility) and bland plotting.

Cover price: $__ CDN.



 

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