GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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cover by LaphamHarbinger: Children of the Eighth Day 1992 (SC TPB) 112 pgs.

Written by Jim Shooter. Pencils by David Lapham. Inks by John Dixon.
Colours/letters: various. Editors: Janet Jackson.

Reprinting: Harbinger #1-4 (1992)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: covers; character profiles; intro by Gareb S. Shamus.

Published by Valiant Comics

I kind of feel like I should begin a Valiant review with some pre-amble about: "Okay, kids, today we'll delve into Uncle Comic Guy's tickle trunk and see what we can find..."

Because Valiant was a company that came and went a while back. It started in the early 1990s, fronted in part by ex-Marvel editor, Jim Shooter, and for a time looked poised to become a major player, mixing equal parts crass opportunism (taking full advantage of marketing gimmicks like special covers and the like) and true artistic grit, and hitting the ground with a clear house style, for good or ill (writer-driven as opposed to emphasizing momentarily trendy splash pages and pin-up artists -- the art chores could sometimes seem a bit homogenous, most artists almost interchangeable in their clean, realist, unsplashy style). And whether Shooter was truly the driving force or not (he initially wrote many of the early series), clearly Marvel's ill-fated "New Universe" concept (which Shooter over-saw) had been translated to Valiant...only now with the bugs worked out. It's a super-hero universe...that attempts to be more "realistic", where the characters have feet of clay, few costumes, and rarely acquire recurring arch foes.

In the case of Harbinger...it's basically a re-hash of The New Universe's DP7...only with a teen focus, like, say, The New Mutants. So the premise is that a bunch of mismatched teens, manifesting super powers, are trying to escape from and elude the clutches of a mysterious corporation, Harada, that had initially sought to recruit them (through innocuous newspaper classified ads) but which the teens suspect of a sinister agenda.

And this collection of the first four issues is quite entertaining. As I say, the Valiant line was initially very script focused, so there's a lot going on, the scenes broken into a lot of smaller panels, and the plotting is eclectic, focusing as much on the personality conflicts, and their struggle to just keep out of trouble, as it does on the big battles...though there are plenty of those, too! David Lapham's art nicely tells the tale. It's not splashy, even a little stiff at times, but it conveys what needs to be conveyed, clearly, effectively, supporting the script, not the other way around. And one thing I always dug about these early Valiant comics was their colours -- I mean, even compared to most comics today, I find the use of colour in the Valiant Comics stands out, almost as though coloured in by water colour paints or something. It's not too garish, but is multi-hued, and with the greens of trees and the blues of the sky quite vibrant.

Shooter's script plays around with the notion of, more or less, real people -- after a fashion. These are, sort of, good people -- but they deliberately aren't heroic paragons, bickering and infighting, not always doing the right thing for the right reason. Though as such, you can maybe enjoy watching them, and their interaction, more than you always like them as people. Not that you dislike them, especially. As I say: it's just that they have their foibles. Arguably the most endearing is Zephyr -- or Zeppelin -- a plump girl with the power of flight and, raised on a steady diet of comic books and sci-fi, of all of them she accepts their new life unequivocably...and embraces it, often providing her own running commentary as she flies into action. It's a character that could be too cloying (Jack Kirby used to throw in characters like that, and it could be distracting) but Shooter pulls it off.

Other characters include the leader, Sting -- with telepathic and telekinetic powers (and it perhaps creates an intriguingly unexpected lop-sided dynamic for a team, as Sting is head and shoulders the most powerful of them); the surly muscle man, Torque; the promiscuous flame-powered sex kitten, Flamingo; and, again, adding to an odd (in a good, intriguing way) dynamic...there's Sting's girl friend Kris, who possesses no powers, but is still part of the group, even acting as perhaps the brains, or at least the grounding. Valiant was deliberately skirting outside the -- then -- Comics Code guidelines, flirting with more "mature" subject matter than some other comics at the time. Yet not necessarily in a gratuitous way -- Flamingo's vampiness is less titillation than it is a character thing, a sign of her low self-esteem.

Shooter's no-nonsense approach to the writing is bracing and generally effective, and he clearly loves writing dialogue for his characters, seeing the interaction as being as important as the fights. It's not always subtle, but it's delivered with a rapid fire, snappy pace that you can enjoy just for the fact that it is there at all. Yet it can also slide a little bit too much to heavy handed. When Kris just blurts out a stream of psycho-analytical babble about Torque's character, you half wonder if it's going to be revealed her power is some sort of psychic empathy...'cause people just don't really talk that way. And when the kids manifest their powers in public...it's not clear what the "reality" of this universe is supposed to be, 'cause I think by-standers would be a little more freaked out by what they see!

Still, other times the dialogue is good, quirky, and witty, and as I say, the characters themselves are often unexpectedly nuanced and shaded.

There were not a lot of TPBs from Valiant, and like this one, often just collected the first four issues of a series. This collection doesn't end on a cliff-hanger...indeed, these four issues do resolve with a suitable sense of -- if not an end, than at least a good place to pause. Nor is it just one tale told in four chapters, but we do get a few different adventures and conflicts, with the team escaping their Harada pursuers, leading an attack on Harada H.Q., and then, in a seeming complete change of pace, battling aliens. But it does mean, if there are no immediate questions left dangling...there are bigger overall questions left unanswered, such as what the Harada corporation's agenda is (although certainly not "good guys" we can be left to wonder if their goal isn't 100 percent evil, either). While the aliens can seem a bit like a perfunctory plot aspect...except it was part of the Valiant Universe, the same aliens cropping up in various other series at the same time, where their presence was perhaps better explained.

All you need to know to read and enjoy this collection for itself is here...but there are other questions that you might want to know the answer to, and aren't explained.

Still, sometimes the appeal of a series (whether a comic, or TV show, or what have you) is simply the fun of discovery, meeting the characters, learning their story, establishing the tone and milieu...before the whole thing has time to settle into a rut.

And on that level, Children of the Eighth Day is fun, fast-paced romp, with a solid mix of character drama, unexpected twist on the super hero genre, with a few fights and adventures so that it can feel like a sample of the series...not just a single story.

Cover price: $__ USA


Hawk and Dove - cover by Erik Larsen / Karl KeselHawk & Dove 1993 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

Written by Barbara Kesel (a.k.a. Barbara Randall) and Karl Kesel. Pencils by Rob Liefeld. Inks by Karl Kesel.
Colours: Glenn Whitmore. Letters: Janice Chiang. Editors: Mirk Carlin, Renee Witterstaetter.

Reprinting: Hawk & Dove #1-5 (1988-1989 mini-series)

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

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

This re-invention of Hawk and Dove (after the original Dove was killed off) has a similarly-powered villain, Kestrel, looking for Hawk, apparently for recruitment purposes, and killing just about everyone who gets in his way...literally. Meanwhile Hawk has to deal with the fact that a woman has cropped up wearing his dead brother's costume...and he doesn't know who she is.

The story starts out well, with a secondary plot involving thugs working for a mysterious chemical company. The non-super scenes of Hank (Hawk) Hall at University, meeting some new buddies, is fun, with good dialogue. Even the humour of Hawk portrayed, basically, as a moron, blundering his way through situations even as he thinks he's the cat's meow, is kind of fun. And the idea of treating Dove's identity as a mystery is unusual.

Unfortunately...

Barbara and Karl Kesel haven't delivered sufficient plot to justify 111 pages. Turns out Kestrel and the chemical company are connected, and Kestrel's plan follows a simple recipe: draw Hawk out with some violent attack, try to recruit him to the Lords of Chaos, if he refuses, try to kill him -- then repeat, ad nauseum. The "domestic" scenes of Hank and his college buds never really go anywhere, or develop the characters beyond the opening few scenes. And the mystery of Dove is, well, pretty obvious (and avoid the introductory essays until after you've read the story). Most damning of all, the story never resolves anything. Kestrel keeps dropping cryptic references as to how Hawk and Dove don't know who gave them their powers, or why...and then never provides the answers. Sure, you get some hints, but I assume it was left for the regular series to fill in the blanks.

Ultimately, this is another multi-issue story that sags under its own length. The dialogue is good and condensed into, say, three issues, I might've enjoyed it more.

The series is pretty action heavy, but action should be more than just repetitive fight scenes dragged out over many pages. You need a sense of a goal, of accomplishment, and a sense of variety. Since Kestrel wants Hawk, and Hawk and Dove want Kestrel, it limits the story options.

I was out of comics during Rob Liefeld's rise to stardom, and know nothing about him except that this was among his earliest work. Here he gets the job done, nothing more. There are awkward bits with perspective, with it unclear which character is in the fore ground; his eye for knowing what to emphasize is weak (the bad guys wear stylized bracelets...but even knowing that, and flipping back to early scenes, it's hard to notice them); and as the chapters progress Hawk begins to look more and more like an ageing sumo wrestler -- no kidding! There's also a character who, I think, is supposed to be Asian...but you wouldn't know it. The art isn't terrible, but I certainly wouldn't have pegged him as a guy on the verge of fan adulation.

However, I've always like Janice Chiang's lettering.

Now on to the highbrow stuff.

Never more than cult characters, the original Hawk and the Dove were created in the '60s, epitomizing their namesakes: an aggressor and a pacifist. Added to the mix was the fact that they were bickering brothers, giving the "symbols" very human grounding. Supposedly creator/artist Steve Ditko (a bit of a conservative) left the series after he felt the scripts were being slanted too much against Hawk. But though a lot of comic folks claim they're Liberals, it was clear (bearing in mind I've read only a few -- a very few -- stories over the years) that they didn't quite know what to do with Dove, or how to write a story where a pacifist might be effective. Too entrenched in the action/fisticuffs of comics as they were, Dove's pacifism was reduced, sometimes, to hitting people with his butt (I kid you not) as if, by not using his fists, it made it non-violent. Logically, the stories should revolve around the characters trying to resolve problems as much as beat up bad guys, but such sophisticated storytelling may have been beyond most writers. Bob Haney probably could've done it -- he's written a lot of two-fisted storiess, but also less knuckle-driven adventures.

Finally, Marv Wolfman and the DC editors announced the end to such '60s idealism by killing Dove off during the Crisis on Infinite Earths debacle.

So how do '80s/'90s sensibilities deal with an ambitious, allegorical concept intended to be an examination of a nation's soul?

By lobotomizing the whole premise, that's how.

This new Dove is not a pacifist. Instead, the dynamics are between brains (Dove) and brawn (Hawk) -- or rather brains & brawn (Dove) and just brawn (Hawk). This isn't even like the original Star Trek TV series, where the contrast was between logic and emotion, and how each philosophy had its strengths and weaknesses. Dove is the hero and Hawk is the dork. Substituted for the real world politics of pacifism and aggression is the fantasy ideologies of Order and Chaos -- stuff that was pretty cool in Michael Moorcock books I read as a kid, and can even be nifty in a metaphysical story, but here it just seems like what it presumably was: a retreat from anything edgy or provocative or that might force the readers (and the writers) to think! I shouldn't have been surprised by the change. After all, DC made it clear what it thought of its resident pacifist...by killing him off. But the terms "Hawk" and "Dove" don't stand for chaos and order, they stand for war and peace. Still, try telling that to the geniuses at DC. It's a bit like reinventing Batman as a guy with a grasshopper motif, but still calling him Batman -- it don't make sense.

As well, by losing the brothers element, and the character dynamics inherent in it, another, fairly unique aspect of the series is gone. For that matter, Hawk no longer seems acrophobic. This new Hawk and Dove are just a little more like any other super heroes. They no longer represent anything tangible, they're no longer family, and since their "extraordinary powers" were never very extraordinary...

A final thought on the violence of the thing. On one hand, the story goes for glib humour and fun action...on the other hand, Kestrel goes around brutally massacring scores of people. O.K., so DC upped the bar on mass deaths by destroying whole planets simply for convenience in its Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Marvel gave us Carnage -- a Spider-Man foe who's a super-powered serial killer. But it's still...disturbing at times, the cavalier way death is handled. Consider: Don Hall is dead, no more than a few months, but is Hank and, especially, his parents, really portrayed in a way that seems at all convincing as a family that has lost a son? Modern comics up the levels of violence and death...but fail entirely to deal realistically with the repercussions.

The follow-up series, though it lasted longer than the original, was still relatively short-lived (and even that may be nothing to brag about, since my understanding is that the audience has so imploded over the years, sales figures that are considered "a hit" today would've resulted in an instant cancellation notice twenty years before). Subsequently, I believe, this Dove was also been killed off and Hawk turned into a villain. What their current status is, I don't know.

Cover price: $12.95 CDN./$9.95 USA


Hawkman TPBs are reviewed on the previous page (just so I could keep them together).


Hellblazer
is reviewed here


Hellboy
is reviewed here


Patsy Walker: Hellcat
   The TPB collection mainly reprints the 2008 mini-series, but it also includes a shorter story first serialized in an anthology comic. Since I've only read the mini-series, I've just posted the review here in my mini-series section.


Howard the Duck
is reviewed here


cover by Brian Bolland The Huntress: Darknight Daughter 2006 (SC TPB) 224 pages

Written by Paul Levitz. Pencils by Joe Staton. Inks by Steve Mitchell, Bob Smith, Bob Layton, with Bruce Patterson, Jerry Ordway and Mike DeCarlo.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: the Huntress stories from DC Super Stars #17, Batman Family #18-20, Wonder Woman (1st series) #271-287, 289-290, 294-295 (1977-1982)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Paul Levitz

Published by DC Comics

The Huntress, in current DC Comics continuity, is Helena Bertinelli, the daughter of a mob boss who fights on the side of justice. Prior to that, the Huntress was Helena Wayne, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on the alternate world of Earth 2 (it was that version of the character that served as a loose inspiration for the version in the TV series, Birds of Prey). Initially created in the 1970s to join the ranks of the Justice Society (Earth 2 heroes appearing in a then revival of All-Star Comics), the Huntress was launched off into a solo series of back up tales, most notably in the pages of Wonder Woman (until the Crisis on Infinite Earths which eliminated Earth 2, therefore the Earth 2 Batman, therefore, this Huntress).

But as DC has begun re-acknowledging its multiple worlds concept, it has released some TPB collections of its old Earth 2 stories...including this collection of the solo adventures of the pre-Crisis Huntress (including her origin tale).

Though never having read a solo Huntress tale, I picked this up for various reasons. One, just because it's sometimes fun to try something precisely because you aren't that familiar with it, two, because I do have a fondness for the Earth 2 reality and, three, because the series was comprised of short 8-10 page instalments. (I know it sounds funny to buy something based on the page count of the chapters, but I've sometimes enjoyed collections of such shorter format series, such as Showcase presents the Elongated Man or Marvel Masterworks: The Sub-Mariner).

These stories are all written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton, the duo who created the Huntress in the pages of All-Star Comics. In his intro, Levitz points out that he was pretty young when he wrote these and acknowledges it probably shows. I would also add that though Levitz has climbed to the very heights of the biz (President of DC Comics itself) he was probably never more than a capable writer. I've certainly enjoyed Levitz's stuff on things like the JSA and his long run of the Legion of Super Heroes is well regarded and produced some great stories. But he never really developed a "voice" or a something you could identify as his particular strength or style. He's just a decent, working writer.

Which probably explains why the result here is...okay. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plots rarely manage to be more than filler material. And though Levitz tries to introduce a supporting cast...not much is done with them (maybe a problem with the short page count of the instalments). Likewise, sub-plots just seem half-heartedly introduced and developed. Even a burgeoning romance with a DA and its complications when he learns Helena's secret and is unsure if he can deal with it (cleverly reversing the gender cliches) never quite becomes involving, because we never much care about the relationship. (Ironically, a sequence where the now adult, Earth 2 Robin shows up for a few chapters creates a more intriguing romantic tension).

Above all, Huntress herself is pretty bland and clean cut. Too often heroines were not given the same character range as male heroes (who could be dark and brooding, or wisecracking, or nebbishy, etc.) Levitz has trouble quite coming up with a distinctive core to the character. Surely the gimmick with Huntress -- despite being driven to become a crime fighter by the death of her mother -- is that crime fighting is more the family business than a driving obsession. But instead of seeing that as an off beat motive, Levitz wants to portray her as a character who "has" to do what she does (hence the tension with the DA who loves her but not her lifestyle).

Part of the fun of Earth 2 stories is the way they can draw upon a whole separate mythos and pantheon of heroes and villains -- but there are surprisingly few guest stars: her JSA team mate Power Girl crops up for a story arc, and the aforementioned Robin, and occasionally Earth 2 villains like Solomon Grundy appear.

There are some decent tales. A three parter involving a prison break/riot is a memorable tale, providing an off beat backdrop. And other stories are okay page turners. Particularly towards the end there's a nice story arc, that benefits from the fact that it is less a single story, than separate adventures that build upon each other.

Joe Staton's an artist I kind of like, but can be a mixed bag, as his style is often kind of loose and cartoony. Some series he can really make his own because they play to his strengths, such as the shape shifting Plastic Man, or memorable runs on Green Lantern. But there's less of an obvious visual "key" to the Huntress series, so sometimes Staton's loose, cartoony art just seems kind of, well, loose and cartoony. (Though he does go for an unexpected bit of cheesecake here and there, with Helena sometimes in cleavage barring bath robes and the like). Different inkers bring different things to Staton's pencils, and I actually preferred the stories toward the end where inkers like Bruce Patterson and Jerry Ordway bring a more realist finish to Staton's pencils. Yeah -- you loose some of the feel of Staton's art (the two Ordway inked chapters you'd barely realize it was Staton drawing) but it maybe suits the more down to earth nature of the character.

This collection doesn't represent the whole of the Huntress' solo stories -- her stint as a Wonder Woman back up continued for another couple of years. But this represents the entirety of Levitz' full credit scripts (he received a plot credit on one or two other stories). And though Staton stuck around longer, he too handed over the reigns to other artists. So although this does form a surprisingly self-contained collection -- the final story arc resolves, and the romantic thread with the DA isn't left dangling -- there are a few other minor threads that don't go anywhere.

Ultimately, this collection of 1970s/early '80s stories are basically what they are. Nothing particularly special or noteworthy -- this isn't some re-discovered classic run. At the same time, there's nothing egregiously wrong with them either.

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

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