The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews

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Adam Strange: The Man of Two World 2003 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Richard Bruning. Illustrated by Andy Kubert.
Colour: Adam Kubert. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: The three issue prestige format mini-series, Adam Strange (1990)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Additional notes: intro by the author

Published by DC Comics

In the 1950s and 1960s, Adam Strange appeared in DC Comics' science fiction comic, Mystery in Space. A throwback to pulp and comic strip heroes such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Adam was an earthman transported to the planet Rann -- a world of scientific marvels...and plenty of menaces such as monsters, giant robots, and would be conquerers that he tackled with his wits, a rocket pack, a spiffy red spaceman's suit, and his beautiful Rannian wife, Alannah, at his side.

But Adam's popularity waned and he was reduced to an occasional guest star status in other comics (appearances few and far between since he did, after all, have his adventures on a distant planet).

In 1990, with DC in the midst of its, at times, indiscriminate re-writing and re-working of its characters, came this attempt to re-ignite the character.

Adam, whose visits to Rann are only temporary (he gets zapped by a Rannian sent Zeta Beam which transports him to Rann, but only until the energy wears off, then he reappears back on earth) is told that a new beam will whisk him to Rann, permanently. He returns to earth one last time, to set his things in order, and to visit his ailing father in hospital. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing on Rann. Seems the planet isn't quite the idyllic world it appears. There's social strife, people bitter at the undemocratic ruling council that is comprised of clones of, and answerable to, Sardath (Alannah's seeming nice guy father). Trouble ensues, things blow up, Adam spends time as a fugitive and, by the end, a considerable amount of the basic premise of the series is altered.

There are two ways to write a story -- character-driven (where plot and actions are secondary to the personalities) and story-driven (where the action-adventure of the plot is paramount). Here writer Richard Bruning seems to be trying a third style: attitude-driven. This was during the dark n' gritty phase comics went through in the late '80s/early '90s (a phase that has become increasingly mocked...even by its chief practitioners). Indeed, this three part, prestige format, slightly mature readers mini-series followed on the heels of Mike Grell's commercially successful three part, prestige format, mature readers mini-series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, which was a gritty re-invention of Green Arrow wherein, like Adam, even his costume was changed. Bruning seems to have gone into this, less with a vision of character, or of plot, and more with a vision of making his mark by kicking the franchise in the teeth and seeing what got spat out.

For example, Adam goes temporarily insane in one scene, a plot device leading to his becoming a fugitive. But why does his madness manifest in violence? How does it stem logically from the character and the situation? If he's going to go temporarily crazy, why doesn't he, I don't know, don a dress and think he's Eleanor Roosevelt? The answer, I guess, is just that that wouldn't be gritty n' edgy. And that seems to be so much at the heart of the changes Bruning envisions...that they stem not from a logical extrapolation of the characters and the established reality, but from a desire to prove how gritty the book can be.

The underlining concept (at least, what may be an underlining concept) is that Adam doesn't really know his adopted world half as well as he thinks he does -- and it could be interesting. But too much of it seems to come out of nowhere (not that I'm enough of an expert on Adam Strange that I can say that with impunity). Adam was the so-called Champion of Rann...yet in Bruning's version, no one except Alannah and Sardath seems to even like the guy, let alone regard him as their champion. Much of their animosity stems for old fashioned bigotry (Adam being an alien). But, come on, don't you think Adam would've had some inkling of that if true? For that matter, wouldn't you realistically expect public opinion to be, at least, divided, with Adam still having some supporters?

Bruning seems to follow the lead established by Alan Moore in the seminal revisionist super hero saga, The Watchmen, of regarding old fashioned heroes with a kind of contempt. Here, Adam is portrayed as kind of pathetic, whose Rannian adventures are simply an adolescent fantasy made flesh, where Adam, as everything falls apart, childishly rants "this is the place where I'm the hero and everyone respects me" while on earth he shucks his responsibilities to his ailing father and his sister and cheats on Alannah. Adam barely seems like the protagonist, let alone the hero (in the middle book, he only appears on about 13 of 46 pages!) -- he's ineffectual, not accomplishing anything. If Adam had been removed from the story entirely after the first book, things probably would've transpired exactly the same way! Instead, much of the story concerns various Rannian characters and an earth lady doctor who, inadvertently, follows Adam to Rann. All that might be forgiven if Bruning had woven a complex saga of twists and turns and machinations, peopled by subtly shaded supporting characters. And, to be fair, he's trying. He just doesn't succeed all that well.

Again, it's because it seems as though the attitude is driving the story and characters, rather than the other way around.

And because Bruning focuses on brooding character introspection (not that I felt he realized his characters especially well) and political machinations, it means that the book doesn't even function on the basic level of the original an adventure.

The art is by Andy Kubert, an artist with a style reminiscent of his dad, Joe Kubert. At first blush, it's a good choice, because Joe Kubert's scratchy, brooding art is associated with 1960s DC characters like Hawkman...but Adam Strange was the purview of Carmine Infantino, who lent a brighter, more clean- cut look to the series. Andy Kubert's art is brooding and atmospheric, but maybe Bruning's re-invention of the series would've resonated better if contrasted with bright art and clean lines. Still, the art is certainly decent enough.

Ultimately, The Man of Two Worlds seems too much like someone decided to shake up the character...precisely because no one at DC cared about him (making the dedication at the end seeming a touch insincere). And all they succeeded in doing is stripping the character and the comic of the things that made him interesting (if only as a nostalgic icon) and replacing it with, well, very little. And the experiment was, one assumes, pretty much a failure, as there was no follow up monthly series, and Strange's occasional appearances since this mini-series have generally ignored it (often being retroactive appearances, set before this mini-series). Nor does it entirely succeed as just a stand alone, sci-fi saga since, as noted, the heroes accomplish very little. It feels too much like the main point is simply to set it up for a new series...a series that, then, never materialized.

The most curious question is why DC Comics decided to collect it as a TPB now...some 13 years after it first saw print? (Though I think it might be because DC was starting up a new Adam Strange monthly comic).

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

American Flagg: Hard Times 1986 (SC & HC TPB) 90 pages

cover by Howard ChaykinWritten and illustrated by Howard Chaykin.
Colours: Lynne Varley. Letters: Ken Bruzenak. Editor: Mike Gold.

Reprints: American Flagg #1-3 (1983)

Mature Readers

Additional notes: introduction by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by First Comics

Collecting the first story arc from Howard Chaykin's critically acclaimed satirical science fiction/suspense series, this was set, when it was first published, decades in the future. Reuben Flagg, one time porn actor, idealist and Martian colonial expatriate has just joined the Chicago branch of the Plexus Rangers -- the 21st Century police. America has fallen apart with the political and business leaders relocated to space: the centre of Chicago is one giant mall, clean and decadent, while the suburbs are a no man's land of warring street gangs. Hard Times introduces an assortment of eccentric characters (including a talking cat named Raul) while Flagg faces shoot outs, corruption, subliminal messages, beautiful ladies, and a murder mystery.

American Flagg: Hard Times is refreshingly off-beat, inspired less by comics or movies (as you might expect) than by -- gasp! -- literature. Particularly science fictioon novels from the '60s and early '70s (Alfred Bester comes to mind). In many respects it genuinely comes across as an adult comic (adult in a good way, not a sophomoric Heavy Metal way) with edgy, effective -- and witty -- dialogue and convoluted plotting and character interaction. The character's are well-realized, even the cat, Raul, who could've been cloying but isn't. The obvious concept would've been to make Raul eccentric (smoking a cigar and talking in slang maybe). By making him level-headed, Raul becomes almost believable...which makes him even more eccentric.

Flagg is also Jewish. It seems odd to comment on that but, even now, at the dawn of a new millennium, it's curiously rare. Jewish actors portray heroic, action characters all the time...but how often are they allowed to portray Jewish action characters? And how many superheroes are Jewish? Think about it, kids.

Art-wise, Chaykin employs a near flawless, realist style that is superbly effective and designs elaborate costume and set designs. Even how the characters dress reflect an artist thinking about every little button and zipper.

Most striking, American Flagg seems to be the product of a guy who'd spent many years in comics and wanted to try every trick he'd ever imagined. Chaykin doesn't just use comics to tell his story, he embraces them. From eclectic panel arrangements and overlaps, to even the placing of word balloons and sound effects, American Flagg tries to see just what the medium is capable of...and succeeds more often than not. I'm not sure I've seen anyone else, even Chaykin, do as much with the medium before or since. At one point Flagg prepares dinner...and the actual recipe is provided in the letter's page! The down side is that sometimes Chaykin's experimentations don't work as well as he'd like, and some sequences can be slightly confusing.

There are a lot of wild ideas at work, and the mall setting creates its own unique ambience. But that's also the problem. Chaykin throws in a lot of concepts that he only plays with half-heartedly. Hard Times isn't intended as a stand alone work, but more like a TV pilot -- the main plot ideas resolve, true, but others are there establishing the premise, or setting things up (one assumes) for later stories.

The concept here is that America has largely fallen apart and, as the tag line on the original cover of the first issue says, "someone's gotta put it all back together". Chaykin conjures up a leftist attitude -- at one point Flagg denounces capitalistts and is disgusted by the idea of expensive "nostalgic" jewelry utilizing communist motifs (Chaykin being one of the few SF writers to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union, though for different reasons than really happened) -- but the specifics of his satirical barbs are vaguer. The Plex, the corporation that runs the U.S., has out-lawed sports...but Chaykin fails to suggest why (at least in this story) unless it's just to provide a politically neutral rallying point for his readers. Part of the plot involves Flagg discovering a TV show that induces violence. Aside from the fact that in this storyline we never really learn why the Plex would do this, is Chaykin really suggesting media can influence behaviour? Chaykin, who himself has been criticized for the sex and violence in some of his stories? I'm not saying an artist can't or shouldn't be incensed or concerned by media violence...I just find it hard to believe Chaykin is that sincere about it himself.

In that sense, some of the "adult" aspects of the story seem less impressive. Some of the ideas and satires are, well, obvious and not sufficiently justified. And Chaykin's portrayal of male-female relationships shows all the sniggering maturity of a James Bond movie. Not that I'm objecting, per se. After all, despite the serious undercurrents, Hard Times is supposed to be a fun romp. And a naughty one at that. This is definitely a mature readers story. There's mild cussing and grown up themes and Chaykin depicts the most explicit sex scenes I've ever seen in a (mainstream) comic. There's no nudity (cover notwithstanding), but it's still very raunchy in spots.

American Flagg: Hard Times is a fun, bracing read for grown ups. It's arguably more clever than it is smart, but still enjoyable.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in American Flagg comics.

Cover price: 

Babylon 5: The Price of Peace 1998 (SC TPB) 128 pages

Written by Mark Moretti, J. Michael Straczynski, Tim DeHaas. Pencils by Mike Netzer, Carlos Garzon, John Ridgway. Inks Rob Leigh, Garzon, Ridgway.
Colours: Robbie Busch. Letters: Tracy Hampton-Munsey. Editor: Laura Hitchcock.

Reprinting: Babylon 5 #1-4, 11 (1995) - with covers

Based on the the Warner Bros. TV series by J. Michael Straczynski.

Introduction by J. Michael Straczynski.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

This collects a four issue storyline from DC's short-lived Babylon 5 comic (spun off from the TV series), plus a later, unconnected story.

Babylon 5 was a TV series that took a fair shot at being Star Trek's heir apparent. Set on a space station (Babylon 5) in the far future, it was self-described novel for television, telling a staggeringly complex saga of conspiracies and alliances, of alien cultures and political machinations, of intergalactic war and peace, and big, edgy issues involving racism and fascism. When the series worked, it was one of the most impressive series ever made (SF or no). The series started out uneven, laying the ground work for the amazingly complex story to follow. It hit its stride with the intense, almost Apocalyptic 2nd and 3rd seasons (someone once suggested to me a good tag line for the series would be: "once you've seen Babylon 5, everything else is just television"). The story arcs were intended to run five years, but fears of early cancellation meant they kind of crammed things in the fourth season, to provide a reasonable conclusion in case of cancellation -- resulting in a rushed and choppy season. And when it did get renewed...they had kind of exhausted most of their ideas, and the 5th season is, at times, interminable in its pointlessness (and even then, ended with too many plot threads left dangling!)

I have mixed feelings about the TV series (though more good than bad). This comicbook series was a somewhat unusual attempt to do a comic that was actually "canonical" -- where the events actually are meant to complement the series (and vice versa). In other words, this is meant to read as if it really is a "lost" episode that could neatly fit into the series' framework.

The main, four part story here bridges the first and second seasons of the TV series, when the series' main character, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, had been unceremoniously written out of the series by being made Ambassador to the planet Minbar. Here we actually see Sinclair receive his new assignment, and go to Minbar...only to be implicated in an assassination plot linked to a right wing, anti-alien conspiracy. It falls to his colleagues on Babylon 5 to scour the station for proof of his innocence. The story evokes much of the series, with its big cast, and its emphasis on dark conspiracies, and its backstory involving Humans and Minbari.

The result is pretty good. If you aren't familiar with the TV series, there will be spots that might be a tad confusing but, surprisingly, probably not that much. Most crucial things are explained, sooner or later, so that it might not be that hard to jump into.

TV series creator (and chief writer) J. Michael Straczynski writes the opening chapter -- giving the thing a stamp of officialdom in the process. How much he was involved in the overall plotting is unclear. The opening issue sets up the main story, but it is sufficiently isolated that the assassination-conspiracy plot might be entirely writer Mark Moretti's. Straczynksi's script is more introspective as Sinclair receives his assignment to Minbar, and learns just why the Minbari sued for peace in the earth-Minbar war ten years previous (stuff familiar to fans of the series). The character-focus of the opening chapter is a good idea, because the rest of the story is more plot driven, and the emphasis shifts back to Babylon 5. But the lingering effect of that opening chapter helps imbue the story overall with a sense of emotional depth, and makes Sinclair seem much more prominent overall.

Character-wise, Sinclair, Garibaldi, Delenn, and maybe Talia Winters, are probably used the best, even then there's not a lot of character emphasis, with other characters like Sheridan, Ivanova, and Dr. Franklin there, and participating, but not as fully realized (while alien ambassadors G'Kar, Kosh and Londo only appear in a couple of panels). The goofy humour the series used to counterpoint the intense drama is also mainly absent.

Still, this captures the essence of (some of) the series, and really feels as though you're reading a missing episode.

As a mystery-suspense plot, it's paced well, and keeps you turning pages, even if the questions are more intriguing than the solutions. At one point they do a mind scan of someone -- but all it really does is confirm what we already knew. And an eleventh hour "clue" (involving surveillance cameras) is something the characters should've checked right at the beginning! The plot is reminiscent of the movie "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" -- it even has a similar flaw in that the nominal hero is largely a passive participant in the events. Ironically, I regard "Star Trek VI" as the worst of the Star Trek movies, but I enjoyed this TPB. Perhaps the plot is more suited to Babylon 5 (with its emphasis on machinations and conspiracies) than it was to Star Trek (which should be about exploring strange new worlds). Or maybe they just did it better here.

Actually, the pilot movie to Babylon 5 also involved Sinclair being accused of an assassination!

The art, like a lot of media tie in comics, is uneven. But overall, it's pretty effective, thanks in no small part to the emphasis on shadows, imbuing the story with a palpable mood, aided by the brooding colours of Robbie Busch. Mike Netzer (inked by Rob Leigh) does most of the the story, and though some of his work is crude, there are flashes of such luminaries as Neal Adams in his work. Carlos Garzon pinch hits for one issue. The likenesses of the actors are occasionally captured, with Sinclair, Talia, and Delenn probably fairing best, with Garibaldi certainly identifiable, if a bit awkward looking.

Also included is the last issue of DC's original run by writer Tim DeHaas and artist John Ridgway and apes some of those quirky, "atypical" episodes the TV series would do (you know, episodes done as though a documentary or something). The story mimicks a propoganda piece for the sinister Psi-Corp, as a cheery host tells us the history of the Corps. DeHaas never quite makes the point obvious. If you didn't know Psi-Corp was a sinister organization, you wouldn't realize the whole issue is meant to be ironic. And even to long time fans, the story doesn't offer much. As a back up "filler", following a hundred page story, it's cute. As originally published as a stand alone issue, it seems a tad pointless.

Ultimately, this TPB does a nice job of achieving what it set out to do: feeling like an unaired episode. Not perhaps one of the best episodes, but not one of the worst, either. Sufficiently tied into the series' story arc that it seems part of the saga, but sufficiently stand alone that it can be read and enjoyed for itself. For fans, it's fun, and for those who haven't had a chance to catch the TV series, it might give you a taste of the real thing.

DC's original series only ran 11 issues, which I believe produced another TPB ("Shadows Past and Present") collecting #5-8 -- meaning, curiously, only #9-10 were never re-published. Subsequently, a Babylon 5 mini-series was published, "In Valen's Name", which was also collected in a TPB (though with limited distribution, I believe). And that's about if for Babylon 5 in far.

Battlestar: Galactica

  BSG reviews are assembled here

Blood & Roses Adventures 1995 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by Brad GorbyWriten by Bob Hickey, Joe Martin, Jerry Smith. Pencils by Brad Gorby, Gene Gonzales. Inks by Bob Hickey, Jerry Foley.
Black and White. Letters: Chris Riley, Steve Stegelin. Editor: Joe Martin.

Reprinting: Blood & Roses: Future Past Tense #1-2, Blood & Roses: Search for the Time-Stones #1-2

Additional notes: behind-the-scenes sketches, promotional art work, pin- ups, etc.

Suggested mildly for Mature Readers

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Knight Press; characters copyright Skyverse

Sometimes I like to take a risk and pick up a book that I know absolutely nothing about, that I can dive into without any preconceptions or expectations. Sometimes the result is a hidden gem, sometimes the result isn't. Unfortunately, this leans toward the latter.

Blood and Roses Adventures collects two mini-series about two butt-kicking babes who act as agents for a kind of Time police agency that sends them through time, trying to retrieve shards of a shattered time crystal. Tamara Rose is a cop from our future, Christina Blood is from the 11th Century or so, who bristled under the restrictions placed on women in her time (she wanted to fight in the Crusades).

It's not that writer-creator Bob Hickey, his collaborators, or artists Brad Gorby and Gene Gonzales, are without talent, but they do seem a tad un-ripened at times.

The plotting seems a bit slapdash. Given that these were, I believe, the characters' inaugural stories, they're kind of hard to follow, or get much of a grip on -- you'd swear the series already had a few issues under its belt (which may've been the point). Hickey's so busy trying to drag his heroines from one action scene to another, the plot seems secondary. Logic -- even coherence -- is often weak. Despite having comprised two mini-series, each of the four issues has its own plot and adversary -- though a cliff-hanger connects each #1 with its appropriate #2. In the story that, perhaps, most threatens to gel into an actual plot, Blood and Rose find themselves in King Arthur's Camelot...but even here the plot seems just shoe horned in willy-nilly. Looking for a time shard, they instantly assume that Merlin has it (why?), so they go to Camelot...and instantly try to sign up for the tournament (but shouldn't they look for the shard?)...but -- ah hah -- it turns out the shard is offfered as the prize. But they didn't know that when they signed up! And the resolution...well, it seems more like the writers just ran out of pages, so they hastily wrapped it up without any regard for proper dramatic development.

There's a light-hearted tone to the series, with jokey banter between the leads, but Blood and Rose are hard to distinguish, despite their different historical origins. And they're of the bland, hyper-macho, out-male-the-males type that is kind of dull, and even unlikeable (the characters seem to enjoy fighting for the sake of fighting). TV's Xena and sidekick Gabrielle made an interesting pair...not so these. Sometimes Blood is given to old fashion speaking patterns...and sometimes she isn't. Likewise, the characters in Camelot switch back and forth.

Wouldn't you think if you were going to create such characters, and such a series, it would reflect a personal interest? But one gets very little sense that the writers have any interest in, or even knowledge of, history -- given that the only historical period depicted with any detail is Camelot...a largely fictional era that they presumably based more on B-movies they'd seen than historical texts they'd read. The rest of the action takes place in (ill-defined) futures or pre-history.

As noted, the art is decent enough for an independent comic, with both Gorby (who draws the first mini-series) and Gonzales (who draws the second) not without skill. Though Gorby's work is a little too busy and cluttered, confusing in black and white (it might take better to colour) while Gonzales' is a little too minimalist, with lots of blank backgrounds. Gorby goes whole-heartedly for the cheesecake with the heroines decidedly pneumatic, while Gonzales is much more restrained (which seems odd given that one suspects the marketing of the series was based on the idea of nubile heroines). Though, despite a mild mature readers caution, there's nothing particularly salacious here -- both girls keep their clothes on, and don't even appear in anything particularly skimpy.

There's a real sense this was being written on the fly, with the creators hoping things would come to them as they went (kind of like how I wrote as a kid). Cryptic sub-plots are threaded through these issues that go unresolved, but with little sense of where they're ultimately headed, or why, or even if.

Since this collection devotes more than a third of its pages to reproducing sketches and promotional art (from cards and posters) one kind of wonders what the real intent was. Was Hickey trying to create a comic book, and spinning it off into trading cards and posters was just a sideline, or was his real goal simply to market still art and trading cards, but needed a comicbook property to base them on? Frankly, I could easily believe the latter theory, the characterization and the plotting seem so vague.

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