GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Night Raven: The Collected Stories 1990 (SC GN/TPB) 62 pgs.

coverWritten by Steve Parkhouse. Illustrated by David Lloyd, John Bolton.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: the early Night Raven stories first published as back-up stories in The Hulk #1-20 (Marvel U.K. comics).

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Feb. 2015

Published by Marvel

Night Raven belongs to that "nostalgic" sub-genre of comics that is more prevalent today. It may in fact have been an early entry in the field as these stories were originally published starting in 1979. It's set in an unnamed but archetypal (presumably American) Depression-era style big city of gangsters, bootleggers, and Chinese secret societies. And Night Raven is less a super hero and more an homage to the mysterious pulp era crime fighters like the original Sandman or The Shadow. He wears a mask, but his main costume is a trenchcoat and fedora, and he is more likely to kill his foes than leave them for the police.

Night Raven was a super-hero/crime fighter who appeared in short stories in various comics published by Marvel's U.K. branch in the 1980s. Some years later the comic book stories were collected in this graphic novel presentation (and possibly presented in colour for the first time) -- though the character was continued by the likes of Alan Moore and Jamie Delano in all-text short stories. Now I don't really know much about the character's initial reception, but from the surrounding blurbs (on the back cover and in the intro by Delano) it seems like the character is fondly recalled by a certain generation of British comic book readers.

Unfortunately you'd probably have to be of that generation to get what the fuss is about. Not that Night Raven is bad, or badly done, but there are problems with trying to repackage it here.

For one thing, you have to realize that British comics were often different from the average American comic -- usually presented as anthologies of shorter pieces. Indeed, British comics can almost be likened as much to old newspaper adventure strips as to American comics, by virtue of their brevity. In the case of The Night Raven, these stories were originally published in small three-page instalments. Even the longer stories here were originally serialized in three page portions (you might notice a tendency for every third page of a longer story to end on a conspicuous cliff-hanger style moment).

As such, what might have made a fun little confection squeezed in between other features can seem a bit thin and insubstantial when collected on its own. We never learn anything personal about Night Raven or ever see him without his mask and costume. The short three-page plots are generally minor vignettes where the Night Raven appears without explanation and trounces the bad guys just as mysteriously in a manner evocative of the often equally ill-explained Shadow. The longer stories are a bit more exciting but are, essentially, just action stories with lots of running about and fighting.

Also you have to remember that much of Marvel's U.K. out-put involved just repackaging the American adventures of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, etc. So I can imagine the British readers getting a special thrill out of The Night Raven stories being written and illustrated by U.K. talent specifically for the U.K. audience -- although the unnamed city is supposed to be American (subsequently Night Raven himself was revealed to be a Canadian Indian). Though at one point he uses the more British expression of calling something "rubbish!" but I'm guessing writer Steve Parkhouse just didn't realize that wasn't an American expression.

It isn't that the stories aren't well enough written for their 3-page presentation (often broken into a lot of panels) nor well drawn primarily by David Lloyd (probably best known for V for Vendetta, though here with a slightly less gritty style). The final multi-chapter storyline is drawn by John Bolton and he maybe brings something even more to the proceedings, with his lush, moody, illustrative style -- certainly it's among the more memorable stories (and also introduces a Chinese villainess who, I guess, became a significant arch foe in later stories -- the ethnic stereotype presumably to be forgiven because of the pulp fiction/retro-vibe of these stories).

Without any real character depth (or background) to Night Raven, and with stories that are more just brisk page-turners rather than interesting or clever plots, Night Raven: The Collected Stories is a good-looking, breezy read -- but not especially noteworthy. But, as I say, that's coming at without any nostalgia for the properly. This collection must have inspired something, though, because it led to Night Raven: House of Cards -- an all-original graphic novel (reviewed below).


Night Raven: House of Cards 1992 (SC GN) 62 pages

coverWritten by Jamie Delano. Illustrated and painted by David Lloyd.
Letters: Jenny O'Connor.

Recommended mildly for mature readers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Feb. 2015

Published by Marvel

Night Raven was a character created for Marvel's U.K. wing by U.K. talent. An homage to pulp fiction characters like The Shadow and The Spider, the series was set in an archetypal big American city circa the 1930s, initially playing out in short, three-page instalments (the entirety of which was collected as Night Raven: The Collected Stories - reviewed above) then subsequently revived in all-text stories. All with little exposure on the North American side of the pond.

Initially an enigma, Night Raven was a masked, fedora and trench-coat wearing, gun-wielding figure without an alter ego who would crop up in times a danger. Over time his backstory was developed and expanded upon, but with little that seemed to stick as definite (doing a quick google search of the character, it seems like a lot of developments to the character were contradicted by other stories, so it's unclear what is, or isn't, canon).

Though one interesting aspect, referenced in this story (and seeming accepted as mythos on-line) is that Night Raven himself is actually Canadian -- specifically a Mohawk Indian. Perhaps later U.K. writers were frustrated that this British creation was set in the U.S. and thought that by making him Canadian at least it served as a bridge between the American setting and the U.K. creators (though on-line references say he's a Mohawk from Alberta -- but Mohawk territory isn't that far west; but maybe his parents had moved west for a job).

All this brings us to Night Raven: House of Cards, an all-original graphic novel by Jamie Delano and Night Raven's original artist, David Lloyd. And given what I've just written, I'm not entirely sure where or how this is supposed to fit into continuity. The story is set in New York (or near as) circa the 1930s, and is a pure film noir melodrama about gangsters and crooked cops, with Night Raven often flittering about the peripheries. At the heart of it is a romantic triangle of sorts, involving a mob hitman, Soldier, and the hitman's girlfriend, a lounge singer named Inez, and Night Raven himself, who works as a janitor and is infatuated with her. Trouble arises when Soldier's boss wants him to hand the singer over to a corrupt politician for his sexual perversions.

In a way, House of Cards could be seen as a product of its time.

It's an example of the gritty revisionism that comics were indulging in. On one hand, the story is certainly in keeping with the original comics -- a period setting of gangsters and speakeasies, and in which the titular hero is hard to quite get a grasp on, often as much about the gangsters he's fighting as about him. Yet those original stories were, nonetheless, a fairly light, "comic book"-y series. But House of Cards wants to be seen as more "adult" -- it's grittier, seadier, with occasional profanity, and is more melancholic. Though Lloyd returns as artist, here it's fully painted art.

One can infer the influence of The Watchmen, particularly the character of the demented Rorschach (another hat-and-trenchcoat vigilante) with Night Raven now seeming more unstable and, yes, pathetic here than in the earlier stories where he was given no alter ego. Is he a super hero masquerading as a lowly janitor -- or is he a lowly janitor exorcising demons by killing criminals? His unrequited infatuation with Inez seeming as much the product of a borderline stalker as a chivalrous knight.

And just as Rorschach narrated his scenes with an overwrought melodramaticness, so Delano lather's on the heavy handed text passages. Delano writes captions like this one describing the city's streets: "Death carved this meshed confusion of trenches to torment the patient earth and baffle the cleansing wind." And he writes them -- a lot!

The book can be seen to have anticipated Frank Miller's Sin City stories, which likewise were over-the-top homages of gangsters and dames and corruption, where even the protagonists are often anti-heroes.

Yet I would argue the problem is that there was a greater element of tongue-in-cheek -- or at least irony -- to those others. In The Watchmen, Rorschach was essentially a critique of such characters, while I've always assumed that Miller's Sin City stories, with their exaggerated cliches, extreme action, and deliberately purple prose, are winking knowingly at the reader.

But House of Cards seems as though it wants to be taken entirely at face value, as a serious descent into the dark side of the city. But it never quite transcends its cliches, the characters and their world never quite becoming more than their archetypes.

At times Night Raven is almost a peripheral character, so that -- in some scenes -- the hitman, Soldier, seems more like the protagonist, forced to turn on his boss in order to protect the girl (in a very Sin City-esque sort of theme). But part of the problem I have -- and I freely admit a lot of people don't share this attitude -- is it means there aren't really any "good" people in the story to engage you. Soldier may be doing a good thing, but he is still, at heart, a cold-blooded mob killer. This is a saga about bad guys turning on bad guys with Night Raven not really enough of one thing or another to balance things. Likewise, Inez is largely just a plot device, a figure men either want, or want to protect, but not really a person in and of herself. Yet neither does she emerge as a romantic paragon. If Night Raven is supposed to be infatuated with her from afar, we as the readers should be, too.

Part of that may lie with Lloyd's art. Lloyd has a realist but unromantic style at the best of times (he's perhaps best identified with V for Vendetta) and here, with his dark visuals and washed-out paints, and a propensity for long shots or shadow-draped faces, the characters themselves have trouble emerging as individuals. It often took me a moment with some scenes to figure out who was who. Sometimes this is deliberate (as we never see Night Raven clearly when unmasked), some a product of the storytelling (where it's hard to keep track of the characters and the rival mobs and who works for who), but sometimes just a problem with the visuals. And in that sense, Inez fails to be a physically alluring even aside from her personality (the way Miller's Sin City dames could at least be sexy in an objectified way).

So with all that said: House of Cards leaves me mixed. Taken as simply an archetypal homage to film noir it has the requisite gangsters and crooked cops, shoot-outs and double crosses, hard men living by their hard codes of honour (or breaking those codes). And the visuals are atmospheric if murky and washed out. All served up with shamelessly overwrought hard boiled captions. But it never quite shakes off that cocoon of cliche to become its own butterfly. The plot never really surprises or goes anywhere unexpected. And the human, emotional factor never quite comes together enough to the point where you can care about the characters and what happens to them beyond their function as archetypes in a stereotypical milieu.


Northguard, book one: Manifest Destiny 1991 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Written by Mark Shainblum. Pencils by Gabriel Morrissette. Inks by Gabriel Morrissette, with Jacques Boivin and others.
black & white. Letters: Ian Carr.

cover by ByrneReprinting: the lead stories from New Triumph featuring Northguard #1-5 (1985-1987) - originally published by Matrix Graphic

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Caliber Press

Northguard was a Canadian black & white comic mixing elements of super heroes with spy/espionage and "mature readers" cussing and occasional subject matter that (at the time) wouldn't have made it into Superman or Spider-Man comics of the day. (The comic was officially titled New Triumph featuring Northguard -- "New Triumph" being an homage to a 1940s Canadian comic, Triumph Comics).

Phillip Wise, a nebbishy young adult in Montreal, is recruited by PACT, a private corporation guarding against corporate malfeasance. PACT has developed a prototype, telepathically controlled super weapon but, when the agent intended to wield it is murdered, they are forced to recruit Phil for no other reason than his brainwaves are similar to those of the dead agent. Phil and PACT find themselves up against ManDess, a mysterious U.S. organization intent on destabilizing and conquering Canada -- and both are woefully out of their depths playing on the kill or be killed field of international espionage.

These issues chronicle Phil's recruitment as the wielder of the Uniband and costumed hero, Northguard (in a "reality" where super heroes don't exist, Phil offers a kind of clever explanation for why he wants a costume: as a comic book geek, plunged into an unreal situation of spies and terrorists, playing at being a super hero gives him a point of reference). There are fights with agents of ManDess and others, a lot talking heads and character scenes, and arguments within PACT itself when members begin to have second thoughts about recruiting the inexperienced Phil. Though these five issues don't end on a cliffhanger, neither do they resolve the basic conflict, as it was meant to be an on going series. American publisher Caliber Press later published the subsequent wrap up -- Northguard: The ManDess Conclusion mini-series -- and released the original New Triumph issues as a TPB collection (the subsequent mini-series wasn't collected).

There's a lot that's really good here, a lot that's smart and ambitious. And other stuff that doesn't quite come together, fledgling talents still feeling their way with the medium. The opening issue is a good example where there's too much info dumb in long winded dialogue passages, setting up a scenario that seems kind of blandly generic and ill-defined.

Gabriel Morrissette's art is an example of the strengths and weaknesses. This is no amateur artist, his realist style delivers some nicely realized faces, some well drawn figures...but at other times seems to be struggling. Particularly in the early issues, proportions can be off, panels can be too cluttered (maybe it would've worked better in colour). His art is best served when he inks himself, and you can see an improvement as the series progresses -- the fifth issues is probably the best drawn, with the faces and figures the most consistently strong, the composition generally clearer, and cleaner. He also begins using occasional photo backgrounds, a technique that seems to work better in black and white (where the contrast between the drawing and the photo isn't as glaring).

This is a "revisionist" super hero comic. There are no super villains or alien beings; Phil is no kung fu fightin' bad ass but an "everyman", frequently getting trounced in fights, only saved by his Uniband. But that may be part of the problem. Despite "realist" touches, and quirky scenes (a moment that is both funny and suspenseful as Phil races to his locked car to stop an assassination...and realizes his keys aren't in his super hero pants!) by setting the story amid spies and would be megalomaniacs, all that's happened is one fantasy genre has been substituted for another. And what might seem "different" for a super hero comic...can seem kind of trite for a spy story.

What can give super hero comics their impetus is the very "anything and the kitchen sink" approach, mixing human drama, street level crime, super villains, sci-fi, fantasy, high brow, low brow, etc. By trying to get away from that...you lose what can make the genre so unique.

Anyway...

Though references are made to Phil's parents, we get very little sense of Phil's "real" life (he doesn't seem to have a job or day-to-day friends). So for a series that presumably wants to seem more real than the average super hero comic...it can seem less grounded than a lot of them.

And though there are some effective suspense and thriller scenes, the very nature of the revisionism -- Phil being a poor fighter, and even looking a bit geeky in his costume -- is that the series lacks a certain...cool factor. Though there's humorous bits, and in jokes on super hero conventions, it's not really trying to be that funny. So though I, sort of, like the series, it's not realistic enough to be kitchen sink, not funny enough to be parody, and not cathartically satisfying enough to be high octane adventure (which might relate to Morrissette's drawing of the fight and chase scenes).

The second issue stands out as one of the best -- the action is minimal, but the cast of characters are being nicely fleshed out. There's some creepy mood created by some intense, character-defining dreams (including the Jewish Phil surrealistically dreaming of Nazi-occupied Hungary) and some tension cranked up by the obligatory building thunder storm that serves to foreshadow the action/thriller part of the story, dragging us toward the haunting climax.

But the characters don't seem to develop much further. Or maybe the problem is that Shainblum is relying too much on the characters, more than plot, to hold our interest.

There are ideological undercurrents, with the villains racist, religious fundamentalists -- but even that can be a problem because, given the amount of page time they get, Shainblum fails to really flesh them out, to humanize them. Doctor Doom has lasted so long because, in a sense, there are nuances to his character. Phil's holocaust dream, or a scene where he grabs up a Canadian flag and angrily yells at it "Mean something!", seem as though hinting at Phil's motivation for becoming a super hero. But despite his flag-themed costume, and his fight to save Canada from American ultra-conservatives...we don't get much sense of any underlining philosophy at work. Phil's saving Canada because Canada means...what, to him?

As noted, this was meant to be an on going series. Phil's friends and family, the motivation of the characters, might have been intended to be developed over time. Even the villains' plan which, as it stands here, seems a goal without method (they want to conquer Canada...but how?) An early line where a character remarks that Phil's request for a costume is not "without precedent" makes you wonder whether Shainblum intended to develop the idea of some precursor hero. Certainly his licensing and incorporating into the cast master-of-disguise mercenary, Steel Chameleon (created by Captain Canuck co-creator Richard Comely), and having a woman Phil encounters adopt a costume of her own suggests Shainblum was expanding his "universe" beyond just Phil.

As a five issue collection, I remain mixed, liking some of it, feeling other aspects needed to be tweaked, or developed, or re-thought, with art that is damnably good...even as it can be uneven and not entirely dynamic.

Northguard is a respectable effort, and I believe, in the field of "indie" comics, is regarded as a lot more advanced than most of its contemporaries. But though yet another Canadian flag costumed hero (joining Captain Canuck, Northern Light and the American-created Vindicator/Guardian), one could argue the competition is still open for the truly iconic, Canadian super hero.

This is a review of the stories as they were serialized in the comics.

Cover price: __

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