Punisher Noir (2010)

 

Quote:
Dutch sent in the big guns, huh? No problem. I got some big guns of my own.

 

This is my first read from the Marvel Noir range of books. In this set of books, well known Marvel heroes are taken from their modern setting and re-imagined in the crime ridden landscape of thirties American cities. The heroes chosen so far include Daredevil, Iron Man, Spider-man and the X-Men. This book collects issues 1 -4 of the Punisher Noir series. The creative was new to me and consisted of writer Frank Tieri (which is coincidently {?} the name of a, now dead, convicted mobster) and artist Paul Azaceta.

The story is set in two main time periods – 1928 and 1935. In 1928, Frank Casteliano Sr. is a single parent trying to keep his son Frankie on the straight and narrow while resisting the offers of protection from Dutch Schultz’s gang. Frankie is running with gangs of his friends on the streets and taking part in petty crime until he refuses to commit a robbery in a church. He returns home to tell his father only to find that the hitmen Dutch Schultz has sent round – Barracuda and Jigsaw – have murdered his father. In the 1935 story line, Frank Jr. has taken on the persona of a pulp radio show character, the Punisher, and hunts down those responsible for his father’s death while concealing his identity behind a death’s head mask.

The criminal boss who orders the hit on Frank Casteliano Sr. is Dutch Schultz. I thought I recognised the name and Googling found out that he was a real life New York gangster who died in 1935 – in a washroom just as in the comic though probably not at the hands of the Punisher. Further reading shows that Frank Tieri has mingled real life with fiction throughout the comic – other real life gangsters, such as Lucky Luciano, are mentioned or make an appearance as does the US Attorney Thomas Dewey who was also investigating Schultz in real life. But there are plenty of fictional characters too such as Jigsaw, Barracuda, the Russian and Detective Soap. Usually I like this mixing of fact and fiction, as in the TV series Dark Skies, but because it is such a narrow band of American history that I know little about it did not really add anything to the story for me.

Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable story with atmospheric art and colouring from Paul Azaceta and Nick Filardi. The new origin was an interesting parallel to Batman in that Frank lost his parents (one to cancer and one to the criminal element) rather than his wife and children as in the modern continuity. It was easy to imagine the Punisher as part of the crime laden streets of New York in the 30s but I wonder how well some of the other heroes chosen will translate. I think if I read another I will try one of the powered superheroes such as Spider-man, Iron Man or the X-Men. The only faintly ridiculous plot point was the meeting of the Russian and Frank Casteliano Sr. after the First World War and the later effect of the injury to the Russian when we meet him again in 1935. Apparently, Tieri has a reputation for black humour in his books and the plot with the Russian might be the result of that but I felt that it wasn’t needed and detracted from an otherwise well written story.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: City of Demons (2011)

 

Quote:
“Did you hear something?”

“Don’t jinx us babes. You’ll be twisting your ankle next.”

 

This collects the recent five issue mini-series. It was written by Si Spencer who is another graduate of the 2000AD as well as being a TV script writer – most notably on the soap Eastenders (something I never thought would be mentioned in my blog). The art was by Sean Murphy who work was probably last seen on the Joe the Barbarian series that also came from Vertigo. The book also contains a short prose story from Winter’s Edge 3 written and illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

John Constantine just wants to have a quiet drink but when he goes outside for a cigarette, a chain of events leads to him dealing with an outbreak of demonic possession across London. He is taken to hospital after being knocked down by a car. Two doctors recognise the signs of demonic blood in Constantine and intend to use this to bring about Hell on Earth (?!?!? – apparently they just happen to be big occultists). Taking plasma from Constantine’s blood to infect blood supplies to other patients, the doctors unleash a spree of destructive violence and self-harming. With the help of his nurse Constantine has to discover what is going on and deal with the infected.

This is a great little story that takes John Constantine back to the dark essence of the character that has been somewhat lost by some of the writers on the main series. He is back in his element on the streets of London dealing with demonic possession in his own inimitable fashion. The blood of Nergal continues to prove to be both a blessing and a curse to Constantine. Of course you need to suspend your sense of disbelief quite a lot for the premise of the story but if you can do that it is a great read. I also like the art in this one – it reminds me of the work of Jock – although in silhouette Constantine is drawn with a very pointy nose which I found oddly distracting.

Si Spencer, as is no surprise from someone who wrote a comic called The Vinyl Underground, has used song titles from British post-punk groups as chapter titles. Sometime after noticing this I noticed that there were at least a few music references scattered in the dialogue as well. I list the titles here and give you the chance to name the groups and beat my score of 4 – although I recognised all the song titles I could not remember who recorded one of them.

      Accidents Will Happen

 

      Another Girl, Another Planet

 

      Nag Nag Nag

 

      Babylon’s Burning

 

    Going Underground

The Dave Gibbons story is a humorous little tale of festive cheer with Constantine on the hunt for cigarettes and a curry ending up tackling a resurrected plague victim dressed as Santa Claus.

Wolverine Origins: Born in Blood (2007)

 

Quote:
I’ve got one secretary of state, fried to a crisp. I’ve got one cruise missile, origins unknown, sticking out of the White House lawn. I’ve got one robot samurai – origins also unknown – lying in two pieces in the hall outside the Oval Office. And in the center of this whole mess, I’ve got Wolverine running around, completely off the chain …

 

This book collects the first five issues of the Wolverine spin-off series, Wolverine Origins and follows on from the last book I read, Wolverine: Origins & Endings. It was again written by Daniel Way. The art this time was by the fabulous Steve Dillon – another artist who put in a shift on the British weekly 2000AD before moving to the American market most notably with his collaborations with Garth Ennis on Hellblazer, Preacher and Punisher.

Wolverine continues to try and hunt down the people responsible for making him the way he is but when he starts to get close to anyone who can help move further up the chain of responsibility, they are quickly taken out in a hasty scorched earth policy. After an attack on the White House, the President authorises the deployment of Nuke – a failed super-soldier experiment or an all too successful attempt to create the berserker temperament of Wolverine – to draw Wolverine out into the open. Flashbacks recall Wolverine’s involvement in the recruitment of Nuke as a child and later in his conditioning as a killing machine in the Vietnam War. In a battle with Captain America, broken up by Cyclops, Hellion and Emma Frost, Wolverine is told, by Emma, that his son still lives and comes to realise that the sins of the father are to be passed to the son.

A pretty good read that reveals some tragic and unsavoury events in Wolverine’s past as well as his role in the creation of Nuke. The art is terrific, as usual from Dillon – I particular like his version of a hard-nosed Captain America. The first five issues also featured some fabulous covers from Joe Quesada and Richard Isanove. This is the first volume in a continuing series so while the story can be read on its own quite satisfactorily, it does set up Wolverine’s continued quest for answers, revenge and now the redemption of his son that he did not know had lived.

Wolverine: Origins & Endings (2006)

 

Quote:
“Logan has regained his memory.”

“All of his memories? All of his … real memories?”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“That ain’t a good thing, girlie.”

 

This book collects Wolverine (volume 3) issues 36 – 40. It was written by a writer new to me called Daniel Way who has written a number of mini-series for Marvel featuring characters such as Venom, Sabretooth, Bullseye and the Punisher. The art was by Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira – I don’t think I have come across Saltares work before but I liked Texeira’s work on the revival of Ghost Rider in the early 90s.

Set in the aftermath of the House of M storyline, Wolverine has gone off the grid with a full set of regained memories. This triggers a full alert in SHIELD, the military and government – especially amongst those involved in the Weapon X project. Wolverine evades detection and attacks the prime minister of Japan in order to force a showdown with the Silver Samurai and confirm some of his new memories. He also tracks down the base where he was experimented on and confirms that he had help escaping and tracks down the Winter Soldier to hear his account of past events.

Another book I was disappointed with, I’m afraid. Wolverine is one of my favourite characters and they could write almost anything and I would probably lap it up but this book is all tease with no pay off. Although Wolverine has regained his memories he doesn’t share what they are – even when confronting others to confirm details a lot of it is done via Wolverine’s internal monologue in which he is satisfied with what he hears without the reader being any the wiser. The whole storyline of the book is a set up for a spin off series, Wolverine: Origins, and does not really provide a satisfying read on its own. Luckily I have a few of the collected volumes of this series and will now have to bump them up in the reading list.

JLA: Riddle of the Beast (2001)

 

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And in the far north, Gotham Crags is a place of ghosts, lorded over by its insane ruler!

 

This is an original graphic novel written by the Scottish writer Alan Grant who has had a long career in comic books. He has co-written many times with John Wagner but probably most notably on Judge Dredd. he has had a long association with the British comic 2000AD also writing Strontium Dog and Judge Anderson amongst others. He had a great run writing Batman in the early 80s in Detective Comics and later Shadow of the Bat as well as the early Lobo mini-series. This book has a host of artists such as Carl Critchlow, Liam Sharp, Glenn Fabry, Gregg Staples and many more.

This book is an Elseworlds books – an occasional series of stories that place familiar DC heroes in unusual circumstances such as historical settings, being villains instead of heroes or with powers swapped with another hero. This book has a high fantasy setting. The World is at an uneasy peace after the defeat of the Beast but this peace is disturbed when the Riddler calls for Robin Drake and tells him of his visions of the return of the Beast and how he must reunite the peoples of the World to rise up against it. After the destruction of his village, Robin sets off on a quest, with the help of some others that he meets along the way such as Zatanna, the bird-like Hawkmen and a cat-faced Green Arrow, to visit the main regions of the World and try to convince them to put aside old enmities and accept that the Beast has returned.

This is a strange book. I wanted to like it as I usually like Alan Grant’s work but despite being a 100+ page long book the story felt rushed and lacked detail in places. The variety of artists meant that the book lacked cohesion and it was not clear why so it was felt that so many were needed to work on the book – although their work in the main was good and I like a lot of them in other works. A bit of an oddity but it might appeal if you are a fan of fantasy and are interested in this sort of mashup with familiar characters but it all lacked a certain spark of true originality for me, I’m afraid.

Bullet Points (2007)

 

Quote:
Stop him, sir? Perhaps I wasn’t clear. […] No one has ever stopped him.

 

This book collects issues 1 – 5 of the Marvel mini-series. It was written by J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of the great Babylon 5 who now seems to have moved into comics writing with stints on Marvel characters such as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Thor and DC characters such as Wonder Woman and Superman as well as creating his own titles such as Rising Stars. The art was by Tommy Lee Edwards who has also worked on various Marvel and DC titles.

This is an alternative history of the Marvel universe. The premise is that the doctor who was due to administer the super-soldier serum to Steve Rogers is assassinated by a Nazi fifth columnist before he can do it. A soldier who was protecting him, Ben Parker, is also killed and these two deaths have a rippling effect that fundamentally changes the course of some of the characters in the Marvel universe. So as no one else can administer the serum Steve Rogers volunteers instead for the army’s back up plan the Iron Man project. With no father figure after the death of his parents, Peter Parker becomes a disaffected youth and wanders into the testing range just as the gamma bomb is to be tested becoming the Hulk. Reed Richards delays his space mission to look after the health of Steve Rogers but when the mission takes finally takes place it is sabotaged and he is the only survivor and becomes the head of SHIELD. Bruce Banner, wracked with guilt at the fate of Peter Parker, tries to find a cure and is bitten by an irradiated spider. And finally when Galactus turns up with the Silver Surfer there is no Fantastic Four to thwart him and so it falls to all the superheroes and villains to do their bit in the struggle to save Earth. And it falls to the most despised of these to turn the tide.

An interesting story from Straczynski with a fresh look at some old characters. Of course he is selective in how the effects of that one bullet ripple through time and there are holes in the plot you could drive a bus through at times – such as how did a surly teenager manage to find himself in the middle of a military testing range. But if you can put that aside it is an entertaining ride with cameo shots of lots of different Marvel heroes and villains, in the climatic battle, that I have not seen for a long time such as Tigra, the Scorpion and Cloak and Dagger to name a few. I have to say that I was not a great fan of the art on this one – it comes across as very crude at times – which surprises and disappoints me as Edwards has some lovely examples of his work on his web site.

Punisher: The Resurrection of Ma Gnucci (2009)

 

Quote:
“Funny thing is I should be in bed with a supermodel now.”

“Shouldn’t we all?”

 

This book collects issues 1 – 6 of Punisher: War Zone. It was created by the fantastic team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon – responsible for arguably the best run on Hellblazer, the fantastic Preacher and other Punisher stories.

When the Punisher hears rumours of the return of crime boss Ma Gnucci – a woman who had her limbs bitten off by polar bears and who was last seen being kicked into a raging fire by the Punisher (in the excellent Welcome Back, Frank) – he tracks down her only remaining ex-gang member and enlists his help to track down the truth of the rumours. Castle soon finds that the truth is more mysterious than the rumours and that they lead to a new incarnation of a criminal called Elite – the original was also killed in Welcome Back, Frank – who is seeking revenge on the Punisher.

I am a big fan of both Ennis and Dillon – as I said in the introduction they are responsible for two of the best storylines from Vertigo, outside of Sandman, a run on Hellblazer and the series Preacher. In this book he revisits some of the characters he used in Welcome Back, Frank – including Lieutenant von Richtofen from the Punisher Task Force. The book features the usual Ennis excesses – a Punisher who takes no prisoners and uses violence to excess with impunity, bizarre animal related mutilations, people having sex with vegetables. While not quite as good as Welcome Back, Frank it is still a worthwhile read for fans of Ennis’ humour and over the top story telling.

Dracula (2008)

 

Quote:
Many of the respectable ladies of the city have been hiding an unmentionable secret. … the night awakens a sleeping animal within them.

 

I am a big fan of Bram Stoker’s book Dracula so I am always interested in other books and media that relate in some way to the original story. I recently picked up this book cheap in a remaindered book shop. It is a retelling of the original story by Argentinean artist Luis Scarfati.

Scarfati has created his book in the style of a children’s picture book – although the book is most definitely not intended for children – with most double page spreads in the book consisting of a full page illustration and a paragraph or two of text on the page opposite. As the book is only 100 pages long it means that he has to be quite precise in his storytelling but he does a good job of covering the main points of the story – though how much someone not familiar with the novel would enjoy it is hard to say. But the joy of the book is in the fifty pages or so of pen and ink drawings. The art reminds me of a number of other artists such as Ralph Steadman and the Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele – especially in the depiction of the women in the book.

A bit of an oddity but a beautiful book to have a casual browse through.

Batman: Private Casebook (2008)

 

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Next thing you know she’ll be trading in her top hat and fishnets for a cape and cowl. “Bat-anna”. It has a ring to it.

Batman: Private Casebook cover

 

 

This book collects Detective Comics 840 – 845 and a short tale from DC Infinite Halloween Special 1 that features Scarecrow and Zatanna. The book was written by Paul Dini (with one of the chapters written by Peter Milligan). The excellent art was by Dustin Nguyen with inks by Derek Fridolfs – both of whom have worked together on various Batman titles.

As the title would suggest, this is a collection of stories rather than a story arc itself. The stories feature some of Batman’s long time foes and colleagues such as Ra’s al Ghul, the Mad Hatter, Scarface (with a new ventriloquist), Zatanna and the Riddler. If the book has a theme then it probably one of manipulation and deceit – the Mad Hatter finds himself at the mercy of his own mind controlling technology; the new Ventriloquist is used by Scarface as a means of revenge against a small time criminal; Riddler’s eagerness to solve a series of crimes is used as a lure for the killer to exact revenge on him for past misdemeanours.

Although the individual stories were fine, I was slightly disappointed in this collection. The blurb on the back promises that “old secrets are revealed as the Dark Knight becomes haunted by his past” which would have been great but I got no sense of Batman feeling haunted or of any secrets being revealed. My favourite stories were probably the Riddler story and the two part Scarface story that also featured one of my favourite superheroines, Zatanna. I have not really been keeping up with all that has happened in the recent Batman continuity but one of the greatest surprises is the fact that the Riddler has given up a life of crime to become a private investigator – as also seen when I read the first volume of Gotham City Sirens recently. This story also reveals that Batman occasionally uses online crime forums to discuss cases and perhaps pick up new leads when he is feeling at a dead end.

Even though I enjoyed the stories I would probably recommend that this is a book to borrow from your library rather than buy. Unless they are complimentary to some other storyline within one of the Batman titles they don’t really hang together enough as a book for me.

Peter and Max: A Fables Novel (2009)

 

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He told people what to do and no one ever told him what to do – except for sometimes his wife did, but Max already understood how marriages involved a private exception to many rules.

 

Now for something slightly different. Bill Willingham, writer and creator of the fabulous Fables comic series from Vertigo, has written a prose novel set in the same world. The story stands outside of the continuity of the comic but the modern era parts are set before the assault on the Homelands and the toppling of the Adversary. Willingham states in a note before the start of the novel that:

 

Quote:
No one needs to be familiar with the comics to fully enjoy and understand this book.

 

Which is true so I wonder why he then felt the need to spend seven pages in the first chapter giving a potted history of the Fables mythology. It’s a minor quibble – as a fan of the comic I just wanted to get into the new story – but I don’t know if new readers will equally find that it slows the start of the book down or whether it is a useful primer to the background of the existing rich world.

The story concerns the intertwined fate of two brothers, Peter and Max Piper, and the paths they are forced down after the invasion of the Emperor’s forces into the tranquil world of Hesse turns their lives upside down. Max, harbouring some resentment towards his father and brother after the family heirloom is passed to Peter, finds himself on an increasingly dark path. Lost in the Black Forest he comes across a young Frau Totenkinder who, in a bid to use Max as a means of revenge on some knights in Hamelin, hands him the instrument that allows him to become one of the most powerful and dangerous Fables in existence. And now he has returned to seek retribution against his brother and reclaim what he sees as his birthright.

This excellent book could easily have been a secondary storyline in the main comic series or a mini-series but it works well as a novel – a small number of regular characters from the series are used to frame the story and get the action going with only Frau Totenkinder having an active role in the main storyline. As the regular characters are used sparingly, the book is a fine way to introduce non-comic reading friends and family to the world of Fables – and hopefully inspire them to read more. The book contains a number of black and white illustrations from regular inker on the series, Steve Leialoha. In additon he also draws an epilogue to the epilogue that consists of an eight page comic detailing Peter and Bo Peep’s role in the attack on the Adversary’s forces in the battle for the Homelands.

If you are interested in giving it a look, you can find chapter 1 and chapter 2 online.