GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Media Tie-In Stories - page 3

Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer 2007 (DC TPB) 208 pages

cover by SimonsonWritten by Michael Moorcock. Art by Walter Simonson.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: John Workman. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: the four-part prestige format mini-series (2004-2006)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Michael Moorcock's sword & sorcery hero, the albino Elric of Melnibone, is arguably the most famous fantasy series character after Conan the Barbarian, with a long, somewhat eclectic publishing history. Though written for short stories and novels, the character has enjoyed some comic book appearances. But other than an early 1970s guest appearance in a couple of Conan comics (written by Roy Thomas but with Moorcock credited as a co-plotter) such incursions into the four colour field have generally been simply adaptations of the text stories.

Until Elric, the Making of a Sorcerer, which is an original comic book adventure...and one written by Moorcock himself.

I mentioned that Elric's publishing history was a bit eclectic. And that's because the character first came into being in the early 1960s, featured in a few short stories and novels, culminating in the characters death. The series was steeped in a deliriously over-the-top adolescent angst, with Elric a star-crossed, tragic anti-hero, bemoaning his cursed fate as a puppet of cosmic forces he barely understood, saddled with a vampiric black sword, Stormbringer, that was as much a curse as an aide.

Moorcock himself has made no bones about his own shifting feelings about his most famous creation who, I suspect, was Moorcock's own personal Stormbringer -- something that he constantly casts aside...only to reluctantly be drawn back to.

He returned to the character in the 1970s, writing new stories to be inserted between the originals and concocting a whole "multiverse" where Elric was but one facet of The Champion Eternal. Then he moved away from the character again, often in essays and editorials implying, in essence, that he had out grown the mindset that created him. But Moorcock has returned to the character again and again, but I would argue, his ambivalence toward the character, and a perhaps understandable ambivalence to the violent, hack n' slash mentality of sword and sorcery in general,.has led to some problematic novels which seem to lack the undercurrent of tragic fatalism that was, after all, the point of the series...and even much sense of adventure (The Fortress of the Pearl, for instance, seemed slow moving and padded, as if Moorcock was writing to meet a word count, rather than from inspiration).

So for Moorcock to turn to comics might seem like one final, mercenary effort to squeeze a few more dollars out of a property even Moorcock no longer had much interest in. (a concern added to by some sloppy backcover text: misspelling the Moorcock novel, Behold the Man, or likening the story to the Lord of the Rings as if DC Comics itself didn't really have faith, or interest, in the Elric franchise and were simply trying to cash in on the TLOTR movies!)

In fact, despite having been a big fan of Moorcock and Elric in my younger days, I had become sufficiently discontented with Moorcock's later, 80s and beyond return to the character, that I hadn't, initially, paid that much attention to this series when it first came out.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Making of a Sorcerer is actually pretty good.

Intended as a prequel to the Elric saga, it features Elric having to prove his worthiness to be heir to the Melnibonean throne by undergoing a series of dreamquests -- with his sinister cousin Yrkoon attempting to see him dead before he succeeds. The idea of the dreamquests is that basically Elric finds himself living the life of some ancient ancestor, each of the four "books" set in a different time, while also forming a sort of chronicle of Melnibonean culture. (As such, though each issue is part of the mini-series, the core plot of each issue is self-contained).

Moorcock adapts to the comic book medium quite well, the stories are decently paced, the scenes themselves told with economy. The plots brim with wild and dreamlike concepts, having aspects of folktales about them as Elric's world is full of demons and gods and talking birds, ancient vows and cryptic sorcery. At first blush, a series about Elric set before the main series -- and before he acquired Stormbringer -- and in which Elric is essentially not himself (as he is living the lives of ancestors) might seem like it's not really going to be an "Elric" series -- and in some ways, perhaps, it isn't. But in other ways, it is, as Elric is still caught up in the machinations of the higher realms and those of the Duke of Chaos, Arioch. Stormbringer even crops up from time to time.

Though not as deliberately bleak and nihilistic as the Elric stories could be, Elric himself less cynical and generally triumphing over his ordeals, nonetheless there is meant to be a melancholy progression as the trek through history is meant to show us how the relatively benign Melnibone of ancient history became the corrupt Empire of Elric's age.

How well this will all read for someone wholly unfamiliar with the Eric stories, I'm not sure. But I suspect it probably isn't the best jumping in point. Oh, the nature of the "historical" adventures means that the gist of the stories aren't really connected to the other Elric stories...but certainly themes and cryptic foreshadowing will only resonate for fans. Conversely, how well this adherers to the Elric mythos is also questionable, as the nature of a series written over many decades and, as noted, in various phases, means Moorcock himself has sometimes contradicted his own continuity (I believe). But though I've read most of the Elric stories, I haven't necessarily re-read them that recently, ad I didn't really feel you needed an encyclopedic recall of the Elric stories to enjoy this.

The art is by Walter Simonson -- no stranger to sword & sorcery type comics, having had a long and respected run on the mythological based Thor comics. Simonson's raw, energetic art might not seem the obvious choice for Elric (the first Elric comic I read being drawn by P.Craig Russell in his more elegant, dreamlike style) but it works well. In fact, I'd argue this may be among the best work I've seen from Simonson...and artist who, I'll admit, I sometimes have mixed reactions to, feeling his line work can be a bit cluttered and overly busy. Simonson's costume and set designs seem a mixture of Norse (appropriate for a guy who did Thor) and North American Indian influences. Again, not necessarily what you first think of when thinking of Elric...but Simonson quickly makes the series his own, visually speaking, setting the scenes against vast and sprawling, barren landscapes effectively evoking the idea of a world in its infancy.

The Making of a Sorcerer, surprisingly, emerges as one of Moorcock's better Elric tales in years, and perhaps showing Moorcock finding a way to reconcile his sensibilities of today with the sensibilities that first gave birth to the character. As such there is a melancholy undercurrent at times, and the idea of heroes who are pawns on a cosmic chessboard...without being narcissistically bleak or nihilistic. And though there is fighting and bloodshed, there's not an undue reliance on that. Moorcock paces out his tales well, so that the tempo is brisk, the sense of adventure and running about high...without it just being scenes of Elric hacking away at adversaries.

Sure, the twists and turns aren't always as twisty and turny as you might like -- you don't necessarily close the book marvelling at the clever machinations and re-reading scenes to see how certain things were set in motion. And, as it is a "prequel" you might feel that, by the time it's over, it hasn't really taken you anywhere as it is, in a way, a prologue. But, if one wanted to compare, you could say Moorcock succeeded more with his prequel quartet than say, George Lucas did with his prequel trilogy.

As I mentioned, what too easily could be dismissed as a mercenary, throw away effort by a creator milking one more go round form a character he no longer believes in, actually emerges as solid entry in the Elric canon.

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


Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe
see my review here


Graphic Classics: Jack London
see my review here


Graphic Classics: Rafael Sabatini
see review here


coverHeroes, vol. 1 2007 (HC & SC TPB) 236 pages

Written by Aron Eli Coleite, Joe Pokaski, others. Art by Micah Gunnell, Marcus To, Staz Johnson, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: the first 34 webcomics, with chapter covers by Tim Sale

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by actor Masi Oka; interview with the writers; published with two variant covers, one by Alex Ross, the other by Jim Lee.

Published by DC Comics / Wildstorm

Heroes was the surprise hit TV series that shamelessly mined the last few decades of comic books for ideas, and presented it as a serialized drama about people throughout America suddenly finding themselves developing super powers. Despite the rather complex and convoluted on going narrative the TV series portrayed -- or maybe because of it -- the show's makers felt they wanted to add even more layers to the story. And so marrying the series' creative inspiration -- comics -- with the way more and more TV series try and offer supplementary material for their hard core fans on the internet, the show was instantly spun off into a weekly webcomic.

Now doing a comic book spin off of a TV series is nothing new, but the difference here was that the webcomic wasn't just a farmed out spin off telling new, apochryphal stories about the same characters, but was intended to actually act as a supplement to the episodes. Posted on-line weekly in generally five page instalments, the webcomics were meant to flesh out the weekly TV episodes, giving background to certain actions, adding more nuance to a character's motivation. It wasn't that you had to read the comic to follow the TV episodes, but nonetheless the web comics were meant to be viewed as, at least nominally, canonical.

And eventually the webcomics were collected in paper form in hardcover (and softcover) collections, of which this is the first volume.

As such, this isn't really recommended to someone wholly unfamiliar with the show. Unlike a Star Trek comic, or what-have-you, which could still be picked up by someone who had never seen an episode of the TV source, these Heroes comics will often make little sense if you haven't seen the surrounding TV episodes. In many cases, these aren't really "stories", but little vignettes (as the brief page count indicates) where much is left unexplained since it's assumed you know the characters and their circumstances from the series. With that being said, although I have seen every episode of the first season (when these comics were first posted), that was a couple of years ago...yet I still found I could remember the pertinent stuff enough that I could place the comics in their proper context 90 percent of the time. Well...would ya believe 80 percent?

But, still, it can make a not wholly satisfying read, not just if you can't quite remember the information a story is referencing, but because most of the pieces are just vignettes. And as is the way of modern comics, the five pages are often told with a lot of big panels and minimum verbiage, making for rather brief snippets. Some can nonetheless be quite effective -- such as an early piece about Hiro, providing a deeper, more emotional context for his self-imposed mission. Others, though, can seem rather inconsequential, not really much on their own, nor adding much to our understanding of the greater narrative.

As the stories progress, they indulge in a few stories spread over more than one instalment, and the greater length often makes for more meaty, memorable tales -- particularly a Vietnam War flashback. The comics also do something interesting, by using a character, Hana Gitleman, barely seen or even referenced in the TV series (though I guess she had appeared in the TV show). She is actually featured in a number of the comics, and by focusing on this character, and detailing her history, motivation, and adventures, it allows this collection a greater ability to stand on its own.

Of course this also reflects the modern trend in comics where labels are misused to make something seem classier. Specifically, I kind of object to the way the term "graphic novel" is applied, willy-nilly, to a lot of comics. This collection labels itself as a "graphic novel" even though it is anything but. A graphic novel implies something that has a beginning, middle and end -- not a collection of vignettes, many unconnected to each other, and many that have little context when separated from the TV series. The Hana Gitleman stories come closest to justifying that label, as her stories do form a bit of an arc.

Various artist are involved throughout these 34 instalments, with Micha Gunnell dominating the first half. Gunnell has a simple, open, slightly cartoony style that conveys the information, but isn't my preferred style -- though perhaps suited to being read on the internet where too much detail would require staring too hard at a screen. Marcus To has a slightly more realist, detailed style. Then about halfway through this collection, the art become more realist and detailed, the chores dominated by the likes of Staz Johnson, Michael Gaydos and Jason Badower. The art becomes more textured, more rich in shadows and mood. Aside from any aesthetic preference, the advantage to more realist artists is that in any comic based on a TV series, you want to evoke the actors playing the roles. And with these mini-comics, it's even more important, since often instant recognition is kind of important. In one multi-chapter story arc, Badower takes over part way through with his more obviously photoreferenced visuals and, suddenly, I knew who the characters were supposed to be, whereas earlier I wasn't entirely sure. Actually, it was a particularly impressive visual trick, because one of the characters wasn't actually supposed to be a character from the series...he was supposed to be a character related to a character from the series. So Badower had to evoke the actor...while distinguishing the character as someone other than the actor.

As a series, Heroes has become a bit of a problematic phenomenon. After becoming a water cooler hit in its first season, the ratings have steadily declined. And I, too, found that though I quite enjoyed the first season, my enthusiasm waned over the second season...and I haven't watched much of the third, the series feeling too much like we've "been there, done that" without maybe having made any of the ensemble of characters sufficiently endearing we can watch it just for them, even if the story arcs seem recycled.

As such, not only did I read this a couple of years after the episodes they were meant to accompany...but after my interest in the series itself had started to fade. Still, this remains a decent collection. As I said, I remembered enough of the generalities from the first season that, more often than not, I could place the context, and though the five page instalments make for rather insubstantial reads, that's also the appeal...little bite size episodes to be delved into while you're waiting for your soup to come to a boil.

Not a "must have", but for fans a decent collection of hit and miss episodes.

Hard cover price: $__ CDN./ $29.99 USA.


coverIndiana Jones Omnibus, vol. 2 2008 (SC TPB) 376 pages

Written by Pat McGreal & Dave Rawson; Elaine Lee; Karl Kesel; Lee Marrs; Gary Gianni. Illustrated by Ken Hooper; Dan Spiegle; Eduardo Barreto; Leo Duranona; Gary Gianni.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Indiana Jones and The Golden Fleece #1-2, Indiana Jones and The Iron Phoenix #1-4, Indiana Jones and The Spear of Destiny #1-4, Indiana Jones and The Sargasso Pirates #1-4, The Shrine of the Sea Devil #1 (1994-1996)

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: published at 15.3 cm x 23 cm dimensions

Published by Dark Horse Comics

The character of mid-20th Century archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones first appeared in movies...and has spun off into novels, video games, a TV series (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and comics. In addition to adapting the various motion pictures, Marvel Comics produced a monthly comic -- The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones. Then Dark Horse picked up the property, this time going the route of various mini-series. Efforts that may or may not have proved successful: Dark Horse seemed to stop after a couple of years.

None of the mini-series were (I believe) collected on their own, but now Dark Horse has begun releasing "omnibus" volumes -- clearly inspired by Marvel's Essential volumes in which vast amounts of material are collected between a single cover. Though unlike the Essential books, Dark Horse's omnibuses are in colour, on heavier paper -- therefore more expensive -- with fewer pages and in (slightly) reduced dimensions (the smaller page size a surprisingly attractive presentation). The entirety of Dark Horse's 1990s Indiana Jones stories are collected in two volumes. I decided to pick up the second one simply because you get more stories (five!) for your money.

Considered from least to best, we start with "Shrine of the Sea Devil" -- the shortest of the tales. Originally serialized in six page sections, then collected in a one shot, it only totals 24 pages. Though drawn by Gary Gianni (who also scripted) an artist whose work I was looking forward to, the plot itself is rudimentary and forgettable -- seeming more like a vignette than a story. And even the art was not as compelling as I had expected.

The four part Iron Phoenix is set just after W.W. II and has Indy getting involved with both Russians as well as the ubiquitous Nazis conspirators. The basic plot was, I believe, originally conceived for a video game that was never produced. And it definitely has a video game feel, as characterization is minimal, and the plot is basically an excuse for a lot of exotic set pieces and situations where Indy has to find clues and suss out puzzles...and do a lot of running and climbing and escaping booby traps. Strangely, there can be a kind of fun, evocative vibe to it, if you ever played such video games. The art by Leo Duranona is reasonably effective, if rudimentary at times. But it remains just a little too slight, a little too empty to quite score, though it does perhaps have the most epic scope of all the stories here, with Indy travelling across the globe and finding lost temples that would strain a movie's budget.

The Golden Fleece is only two issues, and with Indy in war-time Greece, racing both Nazis and a mysterious cult for the Golden fleece of legend, can seem a bit like a TV version of the Jones films -- as if they didn't quite have the budget. At the same time, it has some effective -- off beat -- action scenes (like a bicycle chase!) and has Indy meeting up with a feisty -- and very pregnant -- Greek woman for an amusing pairing. Ultimately, it's enjoyable, nicely illustrated by Ken Hooper (who did a neglected Aquaman series a few years previous).

The Spear of Destiny is back up to the weighter four-part length and emerges as one of the strongest of the collection. Ironically, it too has a "TV budget" feel in that the characters are just running about rural Ireland, but with good twists and turns to the plot. This re-teams Indy with his father (played by Sean Connery in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) -- to good effect. In fact, I didn't really care for the character, or the movie, but here he works better. The reason the story works is because writer Elaine Lee tosses in supporting characters for Indy to run about with and play off of. In a series where you basically have only one regular character -- Indiana himself -- the success of a story can rely a lot on whether there are guest "stars" and how well portrayed they are. The art is largely by Dan Spiegle, an old time comics pro who's one of those guys I wasn't that fond of as a kid, but have grown to appreciate more as an adult. His work is unsplashy, but succeeds precisely for its straightforwardness (though some of his panel arrangements got a bit too clever and confusing).

The Spear of Destiny suffers a bit from a feeling that Lee knows her Irish folklore a little too well, constantly having the characters drop mythological allusions and references that really won't mean much to the lay person. There's also a feeling maybe Lee was trying to cram too much in and had to edit her storytelling a bit, as characters seem to know things (like another character's name) when we weren't shown how they knew it.

The best of this collection is also the last -- The Sargasso Pirates. And again, it's the use of a richly drawn supporting cast that really sells it, as Indiana finds himself reluctantly with a motley collection of shady figures. There's also a lot of humour to counterbalance the drama. The concept is kind of odd for a Jones story -- though the premise I've seen before. Lost at sea, Indy and his fellows find themselves on the Sargasso Sea -- the real life stretch of ocean notorious for its thick sea weed and still waters -- and where writers even before Kesel have envisioned the notion of a floating colony comprised of sailors who've become marooned there over the centuries. Set largely within this one (surreal) environment, there's nonetheless lots of running about and double crosses, the twists driven as much by the characters and their motivations as physical action. Writer Karl Kesel clearly intends there to be aspects of homage in the story -- one sailor character is named Segar, ala the creator of Popeye, while in the background of a panel toward the end, you can see characters lifted from the classic Terry and the Pirates comic strip. In fact, Kesel pauses the action periodically for captions that are clearly meant to evoke...well, something, though I'm not sure what (silent movie captions? old newspaper headlines?) I'm guessing there were other references I probably missed. Drawn by the well regarded Eduardo Barreto (from layouts by Kesel) like all the art in this collection, it's determinedly unflamboyant, telling the tale rather than dazzling us with overly indulgent artistic innovation.

There's a raciness to the story that's absent from the others, with Indy paired with an alluring femme fatale in a low cut dress, and with some rather overt innuendo in spots (as she uses her feminine wiles to seduce guards).

These omnibus volumes, like Marvel's Essential books, kind of shift the onus on stories. Read on their own, these stories are of variable quality. And even the best, might perhaps suffer under harder scrutiny. But as a collection, no one story has to carry the volume, and even the lesser stories can be viewed as just pretty padding between the winners. But The Spear of Destiny and the Sargasso Pirates and, to a lesser extent, The Golden Fleece, are all eminently enjoyably page turners. With even the breezier Iron Phoenix gaining something from the association. The various tales capture aspects of the films and the character -- indeed, I'd argue Indy comes across as a more sympathetic, likeable guy than he does in the movies -- while offering enough variety in ideas and settings and tone to avoid repetition (the potential downside to being collected in a single volume).

If you're looking for a chance to go adventuring with Indiana Jones again...Omnibus Volume 2 certainly makes a nice grab bag for the shelf.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.95 USA.



James Bond 007: Permission to Die
  I've left the review here (in my mini-series section)


James Bond 007: Serpent's Tooth 1993 (SC TPB) 150 pages

cover by GulacyWritten by Doug Moench. Illustrated by Paul Gulacy.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editors: Jerry Prosser, Dick Hanson.

Reprinting the three part mini-series

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Dark Horse Comics / Acme Comics

Ian Fleming's super spy has had limited adventures in comics (despite a long running comic strip) -- but there was a slew of prestige format projects in the 1990s. The first was the mini-series, Permission to Die, in which writer/artist Mike Grell seemed to be trying to pull back from the more highflying excesses of the motion pictures. In contrast, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy's Serpent's Tooth whole heartedly embraces the over-the-top action of the movies -- right down to an opening prologue leading into a title splash page meant to evoke the credit sequence of the movies.

And the result both succeeds and falters for that reason.

The story begins showing key, but seeming unrelated events -- in the South American jungle an Indian ggirl is kidnapped by a seeming flying saucer; in England, prominent scientists are kidnapped; and then there's the ubiquitous attack on a nuclear submarine which seems like it's begun half a dozen Bond films!

Soon Bond is called in to investigate a mysterious industrialist named Indigo who operates out of Peru -- the two men having their first encounter on opposite sides of a casino's gaming table. And soon Bond, after teaming up with local operatives -- including the obligatory sexy female agent -- uncover's Indigo's world shattering plan.

And, as I say, all this is the strength and weakness of Serpent's Tooth.

If you're a fan of the Bond films, it will all seem nicely familiar and evocative -- but the flip side is it's a little too familiar. Bond's encounter with Indigo in the casino -- a staple of the films -- is entirely generic, without really managing to create the undercurrent of veiled tension that some of the (better) such scenes in the movies do. As well, what Moench -- and I suspect many Bond fans -- overlook is that despite the action scenes being predominant, Bond films are, at their core, mysteries. Where neither Bond, nor the audience, really knows what's going on, or where it's all going to lead, at first. Often Bond movies begin with Bond investigating a seeming minor incident -- say, stolen diamonds -- that only gradually lead him to discoverr an apocalyptic plot. But here, there's a feeling that Moench plays all his cards too soon. Partly that may be less a problem with Moench's unfolding of the story than, as I say, the very cliched-ness of that story. But I do think Moench does have the characters explain what's going on too early, so that the story becomes mainly just a lot of running about and action, rather than a puzzle we're waiting to see how the pieces come together.

And the problem with the inherent superficiality of the Bond films, and their emphasis on long action scenes, is that a sufficiently charismatic actor, like Sean Connery, or Roger Moore, can add a level of emotion, or at least character, to otherwise shallow fight scenes. But in a comic, the writer has to work a little harder to make us care.

One way in which Serpent's Tooth perhaps diverges from the movies is that it's even more outrageous and sci-fi oriented -- Indigo has genetically modified himself so that he's actually part lizard, complete with scales! I don't want to give too much a way, but one suspects Moench was being inspired by a certain hit movie at the time, and asked himself, what if James Bond were inserted into that scenario?

Hardcore purists might balk, but others might see in it Moench and Gulacy deciding that if they're going to compete with a score of motion pictures, the ace they have is that comics basically have an unlimited budget. And Serpent's Tooth certainly contains scenes and ideas that, even today, would probably put it outside the capability of a Bond movie's budget -- indeed, some of the scenes are so grand, they test Gulacy's ability to depict in pencil and ink! In a way, the opposing camps of Bond can be kind of epitomized in the reaction to the Bond film Moonraker -- a movie a lot of critics hated for its outlandishness, even as it was one of the most successful at the box office (and is one of my personal favourite Bond films).

At the same time, the one way the story seems "smaller" than a movie, is the lack of globe hopping common to many (though not all) Bond films. Not that the Peruvian setting here isn't glamourous and exotic, but often Bond films unfold over a few countries and locations.

Moench and Gulacy have been on again/off again collaborators for decades, and this project seems like a logical effort for them. After all, their mid-'70s work on Marvel Comics Master of Kung Fu was clearly inspired by the spy antics of James Bond. And Gulacy has a nice, cinematic eye for story telling, and a semi-realist style of drawing (though he's become more caricaturish in recent years). Though someone needs to tell him that drawing the philtrum on women isn't necessarily attractive! In fact, his realism can be an unintentional problem, when Bond's good guy South American contact looks uncomfortably like Saddam Hussein! The colours too are richly vibrant, bold and attractive -- another necessary part of Bond films which are often as much travelogues, set in beautiful and exotic locales, as action-thrillers!

Bottom line: if you're looking for something that has the look and feel of a James Bond movie -- Serpent's Tooth succeeds quite well. But despite some of the over-the-top plot elements, it remains blandly generic, with none of the characters, or even many of the action scenes, muscling their way to the upper echelons of Bond iconic characters and scenes.

But for what it is, it's a modestly enjoyable romp.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: __ 


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