GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 5



 

coverStickleback  2004 (SC GN) 48 pages

Written and illustrated by Graham Annable

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Alternative Comics

Reviewed: 2004
Stickleback is a quirky meeting of influences, with its protagonist, George Stickleback, seeming to live, figuratively speaking, about two doors down from Harvey Pekar's autobiographical avatar...and one block over from the Twilight Zone. Stickleback is a mix of the kind of ultra-real, slice of life mundaneness favoured by many independent comics creators, while also flirting with a weirdly amusing surrealism.

The result is both refreshingly effective...and a bit distracting.

George is a low rent creative artist desperately trying to settle on a concept for a show he has coming up. George's medium of choice is to create little figure sculptures out of bathroom tissue, but he's suffering from creator's block. The first part of Stickleback is very much of the slice-of-life mould, with long, seeming real time scenes of George struggling to shape his figures into something that speaks to him, while his playful cat is all too eager to leap in there and mess up what little he's accomplished (the writer seeming well familiar with the traits of feline companions). It's deliberately paced and methodical in its depiction of the isolated George struggling with his figures, breaking for tea, and trying to see a point in his creations. There is an appeal to such storytelling, and creator Graham Annable's crude, low-key art style is oddly effective and expressive, but it can also go on a bit and be a little too distractingly self-conscious in being a part of the slice-of-life comics movement.

Then George is grudgingly dragged away from his creative impasse by a friend who desperately wants to talk with him. It's here the story takes a quirky turn into the slightly bizarre as George meets his friend, Yanni, at a diner and ends up getting on the wrong side of some weirdos hanging outside the diner.

The comic, overall, follows a seemingly rambling path, as one section segues into the next, but often with little connection between them, as if separate vignettes have been pasted together to form a bigger story. But, by the end, everything has, indeed, played its part, and Annable ties them together cleverly.

The mundaneness clashes a bit with the weirdness, as the reader is still left trying to ask: how much is this supposed to seem plausible, and failing -- and how much are we supposed to accept a certain unreality to it?

At the same time, there is a twistedly funny deadpan humour to some of it, particularly George's exchanges with Yanni.

In a sense, Stickleback is a hard book to assess, because it's hard to settle on what your feelings are about it. There are sections of low-key realism that are mildly interesting, to a point, but kind of drag, that then are shaken up by some genuine laughs and unexpected bizarre twists in the latter half. The story, such as it is, is fairly slight (it's a little too pretentious to call it a graphic novel). Yet I find myself teetering on a fence in my feelings toward it. When I closed the book, in my head I was leaning toward a mild "3" rating -- O.K., but not great. But it has a surreptitious charm and its low-key mood and occasional bouts of inventiveness kind of work away on you, so that even as I sit down to write this I'm already, in my head, boosting it up to a "3 1/2".

Who knows what another week of reflection might bring?

Like George, who found inspiration creeping up on him when he least expected it, Stickleback, as a comic, can kind of slyly creep up on you too.

Cover price: __
 

Pocket Book Reprint
SwampThing - cover by Berni WrightsonSwamp Thing
Published in 1982 by Tor Books - Black & White

Reprinting: Swamp Thing (1st series) #1-3 (1973)

Written by Len Wein. Illustrated by Berni Wrightson.
Letters: unknown. Editor: Joe Orlando.


This book reprints the first three issues of the original Swamp Thing comic (and for a better review, just scroll down to the next entry). These early tales mixed adventure with gothic horror as the misunderstood protagonist battled agents of a sinister criminal cartel, genetic horrors, and a Balkan mad scientist.

They tell of how Holland became the swamp creature, and introduce such pivotal figures as Abigail, Matt Cable, and villain Arcane.

There's a lot of mood at work here, and it's easy to see why the early Swamp Thing was regarded as something like a near classic. Wein's deft dialogue mixed with his literary, imagery-heavy style and Wrightson's eerie, shadow-drenched art, at once beautiful and grotesque, weave together well. Most of these type of pocket books are printed in black and white, and usually the hope is the lack of colour won't hurt the stories too much. But here, I'd argue, the stark black on white imaging actually adds to the ambience. These stories are more atmospheric than other, colour, Swamp Thing stories I've read.

Strangely, the third story, "The Patchwork Man", strikes me as the weakest. Strange, because in many ways, it's the most emotionally rich, the most poignant -- not just compared to the first stories, but later ones too. It just seems to drag a bit, perhaps because, unlike many of Wein's other stories, there are no twists or surprises lying in wait. The story, following a character even more tragic than the Swamp Thing, unfolds rather predictably. It also takes place in sunny climes, which may bleed away some of the mood.

Still, being the lesser of the three is no crime -- they're all good. Of course, the sub-ploot, involving the sinister Conclave organization, doesn't resolve in these three stories, but they're well worth reading, nonetheless.

With these pocket book reprints, often panels are trimmed to fit into the new format, but here, in addition, some panels are actually expanded. There are a few panels here and there that, when originally drawn by Wrightson, cut off at the waist, but legs have been added -- cruder legs, clearly not drawn by Wrightson.


Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis 1991 (SC TPB) 250 pgs.

Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis - cover by Berni Wrightson (a reproduction from Swamp Thing #3 or 4)

Written by Len Wein. Illustrated by Berni Wrightson. Inks by Wrightson and others.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Joe Orlando.

Reprinting: Swamp Thing (1st series) #1-10 (1973), and a story from House of Secrets #92

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: a few times over the years

Re-reviewed July 22, 2009

Published by DC Comics

The Swamp Thing comic has undergone a number of reinterpretations over the years (at one point a short-lived series focused on his daughter!), the first major change being during the early 1980s revival which, under the auspices of writer Alan Moore, turned our photosynthesicatical hero into an Elemental swamp-entity. But long before that, there were these original, more tragic-tinged tales of one Dr. Alec Holland, bio-chemist, who is turned into a muck-encrusted mockery of a man...a...a...Swamp Thing!

These were written at a time when mainstream comics were first experimenting with looser Comics Code guidelines. A slew of cross-genre characters were introduced, mixing horror with super-hero conventions from Ghost Rider to Werewolf by Night to Man-Thing (the strikingly similar Marvel character that pre-dated Swamp Thing by a few months...and a character in some ways I was actually more fond of -- and both owed inspiration to a 1940s character called The Heap).

The first issue has Holland and his wife, Linda, working on a radical formula for accelerating plant growth in the Louisiana Bayou. When Holland refuses an offer made by a sinister cartel known as the Conclave, he is blown up in his lab, resulting in his body mixing with his chemicals and the neighbouring swamp, and being reborn as a monstrous plant creature, largely incapable of speech, but with his mind intact. Linda is killed by the Conclave agents and F.B.I. agent Matt Cable starts hunting the Swamp Thing, blaming it for the Hollands' deaths. Thus begins the saga.

The subsequent stories continue the threads of Cable's pursuit of the Swamp Thing, literally across the world (and hooking up with the lovely Abigail Arcane), unaware the Conclave is keeping an eye on him. Those threads seem a little contrived at times, or as if Wein was making it up as he went along (which he probably was).

Cable and the Hollands are on a formal, last-name basis in issue one, but by the third issue, Cable is referring to them as having been his best friends (though that could be seen as a telling comment on Cable's lack of close relationships). Even then, it's not clear how or why he attributes the deaths of the Hollands to the Swamp Thing. Still, one can't help but assume the makers of the 1970s "Incredible Hulk" TV series were thinking of Cable when they invented reporter McGee (albeit with equal helpings of Lt. Gerrard from TV's "The Fugitive").

Even Swampys' decision to elude Cable fluctuates from story to story, from a general moroseness, to a determination that, with his limited vocal prowess, he'd be unable to convince anyone of the truth anyway, to a belief that his bio-restorative formula must never be rediscovered.

The Conclave stuff is kind of thin as well, a sub-plot largely missing a...plot.

But those are minor points.

The strengths of the Swamp Thing were the issue-by-issue stories. Adventures mixing gothic horror and dark fantasy with evocative titles like "The Last of the Ravenwind Witches", "The Patchwork Man" and others. Wein's use of mood-setting description ("Dawn rolls in with a whimper, spreading shimmering fingers of scarlet across the snow-capped Balkan landscape like a blind man feeling his way.") would probably be unheard of in the modern, cinematic way of writing comics -- but a lot of the series' mood derives from those purple passages. As well, Wein just has a nice ear for dialogue. The frequently surreal stories remain oddly memorable for the most part, tales of Swampy stumbling upon isolated communities where, for the sake of the narrative, he is accepted unquestioningly as often as he is repelled as a monster -- communities with weird secrets, some terrible, some more uplifting. Usually wrapping up with one of Wein's patented clever twist endings.

Berni Wrightson's eerie, shadow-drenched art, at once beautiful and grotesque, full of rain-soaked swamps, bizarre architecture and equally bizarre people, was well-suited to the material, giving it a Gothic, period flavour even though the series was set in modern times. At its best his art combined with Wein's prose to draw you in to Swampy's haunting reality. Even the lettering is used to add to the ambience, often drawn in ragged boxes.

Together they could make even cliches surprisingly fresh. One of the best stories, "Monster on the Moors", is a simple, old fashioned werewolf tale.

Arguably a weaker tale is "Night of the Bat" (#7), which served as the climax to the Conclave sub-plot and brings super hero Batman into the saga. Unfortunately, it's an awkward fit. Leaving behind the dark fantasy genre, the story has Swamp Thing prowling the streets of Gotham, playing detective, hanging out in bars, supposedly interrogating thugs for clues (how a creature who is largely mute can interrogate someone, Wein never answers). I've often thought of Wein as one of my favourite Batman writers, but his Batman doesn't fully click here (though I realize this may've been before Wein had tackled the character in his own mags) and Wrightson's art is less-well suited to the superhero milieu. And the basic plot lacks the climactic feel one would expect for a confrontation that had been building for seven issues.

The final issue is also one of my least favourites. Swamp Thing, as presented here, was more Gothic horror, genteel in its way, grotesque but not gory, while later writers like Alan Moore would infuse the series with more modern sensibilities, an ugliness evoking Clive Barker more than Mary Shelley, Stephen King more than H.P. Lovecraft. However, "The Man Who Would Not Die" is a somewhat more unpleasant tale evoking old EC horror comics, in concepts and visuals. Perhaps significantly, though written by Wein, the story is credited to Wrightson.

Of course, there are interesting side points to ponder. Swamp Thing came out around the same time as Man-Thing, and Wein's descriptions of Swampy, of his misshapen limbs, and his penchant to leave trails of slime, all evoke the Man-Thing...but not as much the way Wrightson drew Swamp Thing who, other than a pot belly, looks reasonably well-formed, and not particularly slimy at all!

As an added bonus, included is a short story by Wein and Wrightson that first introduced the concept of the Swamp Thing (from House of Secrets). It's not supposed to be considered part of the same reality, it's a period piece featuring an Alex Olsen...but it's interesting to see the beginnings of the idea. (Much later Alan Moore did try and tie it into the mainstream Swamp Thing mythos).

Though uneven in spots, there's no denying the atmosphere of these curious little tales. Though, admittedly, by the end of this collection -- which reprints the entire run of storiess drawn by Wrightson -- there's a sense the series was running out of steam. At the same time, it is interesting how there is a temporary sense of closure to this collection. #7 wraps up the Conclave storyline. And though #9 doesn't literally bring an end to the Cable-in-pursuit thread (he would continue to hound Swampy for more issues) it does provide a kind of thematic or character climax to that arc. While #10 involves Swampy's first time encountering a returning foe, creating a sense of a kind of book-ends feel to this collection. As such, though not intended that way when first published, these ten issues almost do form a kind of graphic "novel".

Though the series gained greater acclaim when Alan Moore turned the premise on its head in the '80s and had Swamp Thing revealed as being an elemental -- not Alec Holland at all -- I think these early tales are a reminder of something that was lost in the change. A layer of poignancy, and a universal resonance as Holland sought what we all seek (if less literally)...acceptance, and to assert his humanity.

All of these issues have been reprinted before, including in a 1985 5 issue, deluxe mini-series, Roots of the Swamp Thing.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.95 USA


Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows  2001 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written by Alan Moore. Pencils by Stan Woch, Steve Bissette, John Totleben. Inks by John Totleben, Alfredo Alcala, Ron Randall.
Colours: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

Reprinting: Swamp Thing (2nd series) #43-50 (1985-1986)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

suggested for mature readers

Published by DC Comics

Alan Moore garnered enormous critical acclaim for his first major American comics work, taking over the reins of a revival of the 1970s cult classic (a revival greenlit to "cash in" on the motion picture) and quickly remade it as his own. Making it more surreal (revealing Swampy not as a mutated Alec Holland, but as a plant elemental) but also darker and grittier, more horrific.

This TPB picks up in the middle of a loose arc dubbed "American Gothic" in which Swamp Thing has been travelling around America, following directions by the enigmatic John Constantine, a cynical British mystic. The series is caught up in Moore's contradictory creative impulses and, indeed, the direction in which comics were headed. On one hand, Swamp Thing was being pushed outside the DC mainstream in a "mature readers" direction with a franker treatment of sex and violence...even as it's more entangled in DC continuity than ever before, as Moore ladles in guest appearances and cameos of DC characters. Heck, when Moore tosses in a trio of obscure pink skinned demons, you can't help thinking Moore has read wa-ay too many comics (and then, realizing I recognize them myself, I realize I've read wa-ay too many, too). Some of the continuity references can be cute, such as an issue where Swamp Thing encounters other plant elementals, and Moore makes an explicit reference to "Alex Olsen" (prior to the 1970s Swamp Thing comic, creators Wein and Wrightson first test drove the concept as a short horror story that, prior to this issue, was not considered to be part of the same continuity) and a more coy reference to the 1940s swamp creature, The Heap.

These issues occur around the time of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths but, cleverly, instead of simply tying into that (save for one issue) Moore has Swamp Thing and other supernatural themed characters deal, not with the Crisis, but an ancient evil that is taking advantage of the cosmic uncertainty. So though it ties into the Crisis, it doesn't require much familiarity with that series.

And the first few issues here are even less connected to all that. Swampy was getting embroiled in some isolated stories that Constantine suggests are connected simply as ripples of the coming evil. But wasn't that the nature of the series from the beginning? Swampy wandering around from location-to-location, getting involved in dark events, usually with more than a hint of parable or metaphor? "American Gothic" is just the same old formula, pretending it's something new.

Though there are a few artists on display here, with various inkers as well, the visuals maintain a fairly consistent feel, nor is it a radical departure from Tom Yeates (who first started drawing the revived series) nor Berni Wrightson who first drew Swampy in the 1970s. But suiting Moore's darker, uglier tone, there's a creepier mood at work, a more unsettled tone. Stan Woch is probably my favourite of the artists here, particularly when paired with old pro Alfredo Alcala as inker -- the two maintaining the flavour of Bissette and Totleben, but with a more realist style. But the art, mixed with Moore's introspective, brooding captions and narration, creates a lot of mood that really sucks you in.

Moore's tones shift from benign fantasy to grisly horror, from people sitting around a kitchen to armies of demons waging war. But this is very much a horror comic, with Moore et al deliberately indulging in grotesque and appalling things just for the sake of the shock, so be forewarned.

The first three issues here are interesting, but with mixed success. In the opening story, Swampy barely appears, as it involves some people coming upon a seed that dropped off his flora form, and finding it induces differing hallucinagenic reactions. Like a lot of the stuff here, it boasts some nice writing, some moodiness -- but feels a bit stretched. Moore came from British anthology comics where stories were told in short five to eight page chapters, and there's a feeling he's still stuck in that format. It feels repetitive, Moore saying all he can say with the idea long before his 20-some pages are used up. And this is true of a number of the issues here -- boasting some nice phrasings, some clever ideas, some moody visuals...but with thin plots.

Of course, another problem is that in reinventing Swamp Thing as Moore had, he maybe has made him too powerful. He often shows up more than half way through a story because, well, once he shows up, the story is basically over because nothing can menace him. As well, Swampy often seems like a supporting character in his own series. John Constantine would later get his own, long running comic and it's easy to see why...because in many ways Moore treats this as his comic already! Constantine is the one with the plan, with the agenda, while Swampy (and others) basically just follow along going "huh?" I suspect Constantine gets more face time than Swampy!

Unfortunately, for me, I'm not a big fan of Constantine's "nihilistic cool".

And there can be a problem with overtly supernatural stories, where "magic" can be used to just pull whatever rabbit out of his hat the writer needs, without regard to logic.

As mentioned, the earlier stories (including prior to this TPB) supposedly provide hints to some grand revelation...but it is more a shaggy dog story than anything. Even the one-off plots can be a bit...nebulous. #47 has an intriguing set up, of people entering a deserted mansion full of bizarre architectural quirks (in shades of The Haunting of Hill House) but even it kind of leaves you unsure by the end just what the ghosts intended. And, again it's a story that feels like a good old EC horror story (complete with cliched characters like the milquetoast and his brazen wife) but feels stretched.

As we move into the second half of this TPB, the bigger plot comes to the fore, involving an ancient cult seeking to unleash the daddy of all evils. It can seem a bit like Moore had an idea...but wasn't sure what to do with it. So there's a lot of scenes of people sitting around, talking, and Constantine gathering together various DC Comics' supernatural characters, and more talking. When we get to the climactic 50th issue...well, there's more of that sense of thin ideas stretched out to meet a double-length page count! All building to an airy epiphany about the nature of good and of evil.

Moore ends this epic with characters exclaiming how everything is different, good and evil can't mean the same things anymore, and wondering how will that affect future stories?...and you can't help but wonder is this the characters talking, or is Moore really convinced that he has somehow redefined storytelling for all future writers? ('Cause, y'know, he hasn't).

Moore offers up some nice writing throughout, some moody scenes, even if laid over thin stories. Whatever my disappointment, I found myself turning happily to the next issue. But as we move more into the epic plot, it starts to falter more. The irony is Moore (and his compeers) is embraced by his fans for bringing a grittier, adult sophistication to "silly" comics (and just in case we're too dense to get that, DC helpfully blazoned "sophisticated suspense" on the covers) even as he actually dragged the character further and further from, um, realism. He had already discarded the idea of Swampy being a man searching for his humanity (a kind of universal theme that, in a way, reflects the Human Condition) in favour of Swampy being a mystical elemental (and dropping the lonely pathos by giving him a hot babe girlfriend!) but once you get into journies into the higher realms of heaven and hell, with guest stars galore -- from Zatara to the Demon, Dr. Occult to Dr. Fate -- it all seems pretty fanciful. Even a story in which a serial killer refers to his 165th victim seems more comic book-y than real.

I've often complained that Moore's stuff can seem more cerebral than emotional. Although this avoids some of that, there are still awkward scenes, such as when the magician Zatanna suffers a personal tragedy, and her ensuing dialogue...well, doesn't really sound like how someone would really react in that situation.

And though #50 does provide a grand climax, this is an on going series, so there's another, minor, sub-plot still left dangling, with Swampy's human girlfriend arrested on a morales charge after pictures are published showing her in an intimate situation with the Swamp Thing (perhaps Moore intended the, um, unconventional relationship as a metaphor for homosexuality or something).

I was all set to say that, despite its flaws, I enjoyed this viscerally, for Moore's moody writing and the atmospheric visuals. But as we get away from the stand alone tales, and into the actual multi-part arc involving the ancient evil, my interest waned somewhat more (despite being more "adventure" oriented).

This is a review based on the original comics.

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



 

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