GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Media Tie-In Stories - Page 6


X-Files reviews
see my X-Files Page.


Xena: Contest of Pantheons 2007 (SC TPB) 96 pages

coverWritten by John Layman. Art by Fabiano Neves.
Colours: Richard Isanove. Letters: Simon Bowland.

Reprinting: Xena (Dynamite series) #1-4

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dynamite Comics

The TV series Xena: Warrior Princess is another one of those properties that has gone through a few comic book incarnations, first from Topps, then Dark Horse (both while the series was on the air, I believe), and more recently Dynamite, a company that has so far made its mark resurrecting older properties.

Like with a lot of media tie in properties, I'm not sure how well the Xena franchise has fared in comics. Neither the Topps nor the Dark Horse runs were particularly long, and even Dynamite has so far only produced two story arcs and an annual (and a few Xena/Army of Darkness crossovers).

Anyway, Xena spun off from the TV series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and was set in the same Ancient Greece, involving machinations of Gods and warlords, but with tongue firmly in cheek, as characters talked in decidedly un-archaic colloquialisms, and the tone could shift from wacky slapstick to angst riddled and grim. And the series ended with Xena dead, but her ghost continuing to travel with her sidekick, Gabrielle.

Instead of dealing with that, Dynamite has perhaps wisely begun its run simply with a four part story in which Xena is fit and fiddle and corporeal, travelling with Gabrielle, in a way that very much resembles the series (the next Dynamite story arc, collected as Dark Xena, apparently was set between the TV series and this story, and explained how she got from being dead to alive). In other words, you can just read it for itself, as a Xena adventure, and not worry about the overall continuity. The plot here has the Greek and the Egyptian gods at war with each other over a stolen necklace, but then decide their dispute would be better settled by choosing human champions to fight it out.

The first chapter is a bit uneven in the telling, which can probably be laid at the feet of both the writer and the artist. There are a few scenes that seem not to flow too logically from each other -- Xena and Gabby escape a sinking ship in a life raft...then land on shore apparently with crates of supplies; they flee a pillaged village and run into some thugs tormenting Autolycus -- but wouldn't the thugs be running away from the conflict too? (Now maybe the point was that there was a greater time/distance gap between Xena and Gabby running from the conflict and their encountering Autolycus, but that's not obvious).

Oh, and the story is heavy on the familiar guest stars, with recurring characters like Joxter, Autolycus, and Calisto all along for the ride. On one hand it can make the story seem a bit too much like a fanboy reunion...on the other hand, maybe that's what it is, since it is, after all, the first new Xena story in years.

Anyway, as we build to the climax of the first chapter, there were three ways it could go: the obvious (which you figure a mediocre writer will do), the cleverly less-obvious (which you think the writer should do), and the unexpected (which you can't anticipate because that's why it's unexpected). I was assuming Layman would go for the obvious...and so was pleasantly surprised when he went for the less obvious, raising both him and the story a bit in my estimation. And sure enough, the rest of the saga proves a decent romp. At 88 pages, it's not exactly a masterpiece of Byzantine plotting and character nuances (heck, that "less obvious" twist doesn't actually have much impact on the story's direction), but Layman does throw in enough twists and turns (with a hidden agenda or two) that the story emerges as more than simply an excuse for a contest of combatants. In fact, part way through, the contest itself gives way to another plot.

The problem a property like Xena has when translated into comics (or novels) is to capture the series' eclectic mix of comedy and drama, self-reflective and sincere. It's hard to do slapstick in a printed form, and its hard to blend the styles without an actor acting as the bridge. But Layman tries gamely, and gets better as the story progresses, mixing in the witty quips that suit the various characters, or a confrontation with some Storm Giants that goes for the humour rather than the action. Though the fight scenes are basically generic fight scenes, rather than trying to mimic the series' carefully choreographed, John Woo-esque fights.

Fabiano Neves art is a bit stiff, but certainly evokes the characters easily enough (though only his Joxter really looks photo-referenced) and his women -- Xena, Gabby, etc. are quite beautiful. The art, combined with Richard Isanove's beautiful, lush colours, has a rich, almost painted look at times, suitable for this fantasy setting (and reminiscent of the verdant New Zealand countryside in which the series was filmed...or the old CrossGen Comics publishing line). Though like a lot of modern comics, the visuals can be a tad gorier at times than is necessary, and than the series itself was.

Ultimately, despite some initial flaws, Contest of Pantheons is a solid enough effort, the characters are in character and it's perfectly evocative of the series it is derived from, without seeming too much like just a rehash of old cliches (despite the reliance on familiar supporting characters). It doesn't jump any bars, but it is a better-than-decent chance to revisit the series.

This is a review based on the story as it originally appeared in the comics.

Cover price: ___



For another Zorro review
see Dracula vs. Zorro.


Zorro: Matanzas 2010 (SC TPB) 112 pages

Written by Don McGregor. Illustrated by Mike Mayhew.
Colors/letters:

Reprinting the four issue mini-series

Suggested for mature readers

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dynamite Comics

Zorro began life as a pulp fiction character, has gone on to be featured in movies, movie serials, TV series, (occasional) audio plays, and various comic book incarnations -- albeit the latter of limited success. By the time of this mini-series, Zorro's comic book rights were owned by Dynamite -- but this is a "lost" story, prepared for a previous publisher a few years before. But those rights lapsed before it was published. As such it's very much a part of that earlier run of Zorro, with Don McGregor scripting -- McGregor clearly having a fondness for the property, having written Zorro comics for Topps, as well as IDW, and a syndicated newspaper strip (itself collected and reviewed below). And it's illustrated by Mike Mayhew, a sometimes artist on McGregor's Topps comics.

McGregor himself can be a bit of a polarizing figure, dating all the way back to the 1970s on properties like the Black Panther (McGregor in many ways the writer who really defined the character for later writers), Killraven, and Sabre. At his best his comics were deliriously overwritten and florid, striving so hard to be literature you could practically smell the creative sweat McGregor spilled on the pages, using escapist fantasy stories to explore adult themes of love and morality. At his worst his comics could be horridly pretentious, like a 14 year old's idea of what smart and sophisticated was, writing dense, turgid passages you need hip-waders to slog through like a literary swamp. And sometimes his work is both those extremes at once. At his best, I love McGregor's stuff, at his worst I find it interminable.

And unfortunately McGregor's Zorro work could lean toward the latter.

The problem is that McGregor was trying to lather introspective, sophisticated ruminations onto material that was, for the most part, shallow and unsophisticated. Unlike his heyday with the Black Panther and Killraven, there's very little depth or complexity to the personalities or the plots, even as McGregor is desperate to pretend there is. It's as if he has taken the template of the fondly remembered family-friendly 1950s TV series, with its simple plots and unnuanced characters (certainly I think his comical Sgt. Garcia owes much to the TV show), and then tries to make it seem adult.

Which brings us to this mini-series -- which also has the problem that I don't know if it was intended as a mini-series to begin with, or simply a four-part tale of the then on-going comic. But the plot is practically non-existent. Drawing upon the characters and milieu of that era, the four issue tale has the main characters going to attend a ritual cattle slaughter (more on McGregor's penchant for detailing violence and brutality in a moment) where a recurring foe of Zorro, Machete, plans mischief -- I say mischief because, honestly, I have no idea what his plan was or why he does what he does. But Zorro's dad ends up injured by a bull and the climax has the characters trying to escape a stampede -- and in terms of the characters' lives, issue #2-4 probably cover all of 15 minutes! (I'm also not sure what the title means).

This is a signature of what I've read of McGregor's Zorro work (and its spin-off Lady Rawhide): really thin plots stretched over multiple issues as McGregor breaks every moment down into multi-panel/multi-page sequences to ruminate on philosophical issues. Except these ruminations themselves are not particularly insightful, thought-provoking, or nuanced -- not too mention it's repetitious since it's a limited regular cast, so he tends to just repeat the same themes over and over and over again. And, as mentioned, the characters and their relationships are not especially complicated to begin with.

It's a bit as if McGregor is still trying to be that young, experimental writer he was in the 1970s -- but no longer has anything he particularly wants to say.

Another hallmark of McGregor is the contrasting of supposedly ambitious philosophising with slapstick humour and crudity. But even the humour often misfires, either because it just isn't that funny or simply humour is best served by brevity...and McGregor belabours things. So, for instance, Garcia stepping in a cow paddie is given multiple panels and densely written captions.

And then there's McGregor's long time fetishization of violence and sadism. He loves to put his characters through the wringer, detailing every cut, every gash they receive, expending paragraphs of text captions to describe their pain and ordeal. And he also seems fascinated with brutality to animals -- dating back to old Black Panther comics (where he would throw in extended sequences of the Panther fighting n' killing animals) all the way up to a story like this which, after all, is wrapped around a mass bovine slaughter. It isn't so much that I think McGregor is a consciously cruel or sadistic person -- so much as I just think he has a weird fascination with cruelty and sadism.

As often happens I've spent so long reviewing the writing I've ignored the art. Well, Mayhew's art is pretty good and striking, with detailed environments and well rendered and realist characters. Albeit there can be a bit of a stiffness to the figures at time. But mostly it's effective and attractive stuff. Well -- let's add a caveat to that word "attractive." Because as mentioned, McGregor' story is mired in violence and brutality at times, and Mayhew delivers on the visuals of slaughtered cows or trampled bodies. So it's worth noting this as a "mature readers" story to some extent.

What's frustrating about this -- and other McGregor Zorro stories I've read -- is that I have little doubt McGregor is deeply committed to the character, that he loves Zorro and his milieu. But maybe that very love is the problem -- that he's unable to step back from it. His Zorro is a pleasant personality -- but pretty bland. And as noted the plotting tended toward thin when Zorro should surely epitomize the "swashbuckling" adventure series, with lots of running about and twists and turns. And McGregor's very penchant for densely written captions saps the fun and excitement out of the few action scenes.

Obviously -- this is a pretty negative review. But the funny thing is, I do like McGregor at times (heck, I'm posting this at the same time as I'm posting of far more effusive review of Black Panther: Panther's Quest!). But that's when he balances his pretention with his storytelling...and actually has something profound to say.

Cover price: ___


Zorro: The Dailies: The First Year 2001 (SC TPB) 232 pages

coverWritten by Don McGregor. Illustrated by Thomas Yeates and Tod Smith.
Black & White. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Sandra Curtis.

Reprints the Zorro newspaper strip from April 12, 1999 - April 9, 2000 - dailies and Sundays (plus a couple of new panels)

Additional notes: published in oblong format; intro by McGregor; history of Zorro in movies; creator bios.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Image Comics

This is another review where I've amended and upgraded my review after a second reading...so we read on...

I was eager to try this newspaper strip compilation that collected -- not some old, "classic" strip -- but a recent one featuring everyone's favourite Robin Hood of old California: Zorro. Zorro, who began life in a series of pulp magazine stories by Johnston McCulley, and has been translated into movies (among the best are "The Mark of Zorro" with Tyrone Power and 1998's "The Mask of Zorro" with Antonio Banderas), plus serials, TV series, comics, and some recent novels, but might never before have graced a newspaper's page (though I'm not sure). It's written by Don McGregor, an ambitious, sometimes too ambitious, comics writer (his purple prose and philosopichal themes can sometimes go over-the-top) -- McGregor also wrote a short lived Zorro comic for Topps in the 1990s, that produced a few TPB collections, and is -- at the time I write this -- writing another Zorro comic for another publisher). And it's beautifully drawn by Tom Yeates and then Tod Smith (with Yeates on inks) in a style seeming meant to evoke Alex Toth (who drew some much praised Zorro comics in the 1960s).

Part of the problem daily comic strips suffer from is obvious repetition, the necessary recapping of what occurred previously that can be distracting when read all together in a comic book form. But McGregor does an exceptional job of maintaining the flow. Reading the strips together, it's hard to remember that these were originally staggered over many days.

As well, a problem comic strips face is that some newspapers just carry the dailies, and some the colour Sunday pages. The claim is that drama-adventure strips have to be written so someone can follow the story even if he/she is reading just, say, the Sunday strips. Some strips simply tell separate stories in the daily and the Sundays -- probably the best way of doing things. However, most narrative strips stick with one story. Although it's claimed that writers of comic strips can pull off the trick of making dailies and Sundays separate but connected...they very rarely do! Usually reading one without the other results in a choppy, slightly incoherent story. That's not a problem when collected like this -- but I just thought I'd mention it.

If I were to level a criticism at other adventure newspaper strips, it would be to say they tend to be too tight, with the action moving by too quickly, and little time for developing things. But with McGregor's Zorro, the problem is the opposite. Although imbuing the strips with character stuff, philosophical asides, and his patented purple prose, the sequences sometimes just go on and on and on. This collection of the first year of strips (dailies and Sundays) contains only two stories. By contrast, another adventure strip that comes to mind crammed six stories into a 52 week period!

But that would be all right if McGregor offered up complex, Byzantine plots to justify the length. He doesn't. The first story, "Tusk Envy", basically involves Zorro duelling with soldiers, trading quips and barbs (literally) while we keep cutting to a farmer and his son at the nearby La Brea Tar Pits contemplating harvesting the tusks from a Mastodon carcass that has risen to the surface. For the characters, the entire story line transpires over maybe half an hour. For the reader, it was originally published over the course of FOUR MONTHS!

It isn't that it doesn't have its moments, but it's awfully slight.

The second story line, "Dead Body Rising", seems more promising, starting out a bit slower, with more detail paid to Zorro's alter ego of Don Diego, and with a murdered Indian woman discovered in the tar pits -- aha! a murder mystery! -- and the ensuing action involves prejudice and 18th Century mores -- not your usual topics for a newspaper strip. The sinister Capitan Monasterio wants to bury the Indian woman in a Christian grave, while Zorro wants to preserve her beliefs and return her to her coastal Indian tribe, leading to Zorro stealing the body, a carriage, and a macabre chase. But, again, this eight month epic is extremely thin on plot, and even characterization (there's characterization, but it tends to be repetative). The chase sequence alone is stretched out over half the story!

And the murder mystery is barely developed at all. It was even less developed in its original form where, apparently, editorial skittishness required McGregor to be rather ambiguous about certain aspects; this collection contains a couple of new panels that clarify motivation.

But here's the thing: I'm kind of flip flopping in my opinion. All the above was my reaction when I first read it and, yes, I was disappointed. But then I recently re-read one of the story's (the longest: "Dead Body Rising") -- and I liked it more. I've noticed before that one's opinion can change, that you can be disappointed by something the first time but then, prepared for the shortcomings, you can appreciate the strengths the second time. In the case of "Dead Body Rising", it's still a bit thin, and the "who killed her?" aspect is still rather secondary. But that's because I first went into it expecting -- wanting -- a complex plot full of scene changes and plot twists, and I thought the chase, though imaginative, went on too long.

But read a second time, I realize: that's because the chase isn't just something inserted into the story, it is the story, in many ways. Just like there are some movies from the '70s ("The French Connection" or "Bullit") famous for their lengthy chase scenes, McGregor and company set out, rather audaciously, to try and do the Zorro chase sequence. So once I read it a second time, and realized the chase wasn't a minor action scene but was, in a sense, the climactic sequence, I enjoyed it more.

I read a lot of the scenes, at first, as things meant to carry me along into the next scene. But, the second time through, I read them as just things to be enjoyed for their own sake, less concerned with whether the "plot" was being advanced. And, again, I got more out of it.

McGregor introduces original supporting characters, in addition to regulars like Monasterio, and the comic relief Sgt. Garcia. Although one can appreciate the larger-than-life, James Bond-ian aspects of villain Quickblade, equiped as he is with gadgety swords, as a personality, he's rather dull and unimposing. And shouldn't he have a Spanish name to add to the strips' ethnic flavour? Also tossed in is Eulalia Bandini, a feisty Senorita who occupies much of "Dead Body Rising"...only to just kind of disappear from the story. Perhaps McGregor continued with her in later strips? (If there were later strips...I don't know how long it ran).

There's much to like here. Yeates and Smith's effective, dynamic and evocative art. And McGregor tries hard in the writing, mixing philosophical asides with sophomoric humour; as well as unconventional ideas that broaden the scope of a Zorro story, while still staying within the milieu: touching on prejudice and Christian-egomania. Some of his action scenes are truly imaginative and even spectacular: the carriage chase as it slowly loses wheels, or the flight across hoodoos. Good stuff. There are also shortcomings. McGregor's mixing of comedy and drama is admirable...but it isn't always as funny as he thinks it is. Too many of the characters are written the same, and the deliberate lapsing into modern (and un-Spanish) colloquialisms doesn't fully work. Nonetheless, McGregor is definitely tying to write an adult, thinking man's comic strip.

So I'm torn -- the first time through, though I applauded the strengths, I felt without complex plots, it started to collapse under its own thinness, with action scenes that are cool for a few days worth of strips...but get overdone after a month. A second time through -- demanding less from plot, and taking more from the spirit -- I enjoyed it more. But even now, deciding I enjoyed it more, and don't begrudge it a space on my book shelf, I still feel that, for such an expensive collection, it delivers a little less than the reader has a right to expect. But -- yes, I guess I'm now forced to say I did, at least moderately, enjoy it.

But given the strengths, I can't help thinking how great it could have been.

One final aside: Image really needs to invest in a proof reading department. The reproduced strips are fine, but there are numerous typos and mistakes in the introductions and creator bios (at one point referring to McGregor's Lady Rawhide as Lucy Rawhide) and even on the back cover (using "it's" when they meant "its")! Yikes.

Cover price: $29.95 CDN. / $18.95 USA.

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