End of another year

Well it is the end of another year and I haven’t managed to spend any time maintaining this blog. So, in what is rapidly becoming an annual tradition, I am posting an image from Goodreads of all the comic books that I have read this year.

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Highlights this year were The Walking Dead, The Unwritten, Batgirl Year One and Saga.

I have been reading the first two volumes of Saga over the last few days and will continue till I have finished the currently available issues (24). This book is really good and if you are a fan of Y: The Last Man then you should also love this book from BKV. A highlight of this year will be the publication of the last issue of BKV’s self published comic The Private Eye so that I can finally read the story in one go.

Until the next time – whenever it might be – have a great 2015 if you can.

Roots of the Swamp Thing (2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book collects the first 13 issues of the 24 issue first volume of Swamp Thing. The stories were all written by Len Wein with the first 10 illustrated by Bernie Wrightson and the rest by Nester Redondo.

While not in the same league as the later Alan Moore era, there is enough in these stories to keep a Swamp Thing fan entertained giving an introduction to a lot of the elements that Moore later reused for his own take on the character.

The remaining 11 issues in volume 1 have not been reissued in book form and having continued on from this book to read the single issues it is clear to see why. They are not of the same quality as the Wein stories and the writers don’t seem to have any clear idea what to do with the character.

So if you are interested in exploring the earliest roots of the Swamp Thing then this volume contains all you need.

Joker/Mask (2001)

“Wait! Where’s the SWAT team? I don’t see the SWAT team! I don’t even rate the SWAT team anymore.”

Joker/Mask is the collection of a four issue series from DC and Dark Horse. The story was written by Henry Gilroy with art from Ramon F. Bachs and Howard M. Shum. I have not seen the work of any of these creators before but Gilroy is a co-writer on the Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series among other animation series credits. Bachs is a Spanish artist who has worked on a number of Star Wars comics as well as some titles for Marvel and DC.  Shum is a writer on a number of titles as well as an artist.

The Joker decides to go to a museum and blow up an exhibition featuring frowning clown masks. However his day does not go well as the head henchman has sent the other henchmen to the wrong location and Harley Quinn has removed the detonators from all the explosives. But the henchman discovers a mask that gives the wearer a manic energy and superhuman powers. Wearing the mask, the Joker is able to beat Batman severely enough that he is out of action feared dead and the Joker is left free to pursue his insane agenda across Gotham while monopolising the television airwaves. Harley fears for the Joker and enlists Poison Ivy’s help to remove the mask from the Joker before he blows up Gotham for real.

This story features the Joker on maximum overdrive and overkill. Even Harley Quinn finds it hard to continue to love her Mister J and the Joker/Mask has to keep coming up with wilder and more extreme exploits to stop himself becoming bored with how easy committing crime is with super powers. While there is some really good comic moments in this book, the manic intensity of the Joker/Mask combination is sometimes too much for the reader as it is for the characters in the story. With the Joker/Mask as the main character throughout the book, the pressure to come up with gag after gag relentlessly is a perhaps a drag on the writing.

I liked the art from Bachs and Shum. It is very cartoony in style but fit in well with cartoon qualities of the Mask and the manifestation of his powers. There are even some lovely renderings of Poison Ivy as well.

A quick and cheerful read that won’t change your life but is worth a look if you can find it.

JLA: Earth 2 (2000)

“There is justice after all. A whole new world stretched out and screaming.”

This recent reprint is of a graphic novel from 2000. The book was by the Scottish creative team of writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. The pair have worked on a number of projects together including Flex Mentallo and We3 for Vertigo, All-Star Superman and the launch of Batman and Robin for DC and New X-Men for Marvel.

Alexander Luthor uses stolen technology to cross the barrier between an anti-matter and matter dimension. He arrives on what he calls Earth 2 looking to call on the Justice League to help him bring justice to his cruel dimension. In Luthor’s dimension good is evil and the Justice League has it’s own dark reflection in the Crime Syndicate of Amerika who use their powers to subjugate the populace and profit from its misery. How much good can the JLA do in a world of evil and what about the the CSA when they get the chance to terrorize a new world?

There are two sides to Grant Morrison – the straight ahead, traditional comic book writer and the more surreal writing usually reserved for his own creations but which sometimes is seen in the superhero books that he writes, such as his run on Doom Patrol. I tend to love his more out there work more but this is a fine example of his conventional comic book writing. As he does with a lot of his work on established characters, he has taken a team from the history of the JLA and updated it for a new audience. The CSA is new to me so I am not sure how much is in the archives and how much comes from Morrison but the mirror dimension is nicely imagined and brought to life. Being a Batman fan I was most interested in the different ways life had turned out for Batman/Owlman and their families and friends. I am also a big Frank Quitely fan so the book is worth the money for his wonderful art alone.

Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Nights (2001)

“Reign of terror? I’m not sure I understand. But you’ve got lots of time to explain it to me. Well, at least the night.”

This prestige format one-shot from DC is part of their Elseworlds series where a twist is applied to a familiar hero usually by changing their normal setting. This mash up of Green Lantern with 1001 Nights was written by Terry LaBan who is more of an underground comic writer/artist but has done some work for major companies including The Dreaming for Vertigo and a Grendel mini-series for Dark Horse. The art was by Rebecca Guay whose work I know from the Black Orchid ongoing series from the 90s and some Sandman spin-offs.

In this story, Scheherazade is a Green Lantern has come to the town of Isafakhar to end the reign of the wicked sultan Ibn Rayner. But once she insinuates her way into the Sultan’s chambers, she finds that he is not the cruel ruler that she was expecting but more of a naive, misled puppet ruler. Through three tales of the reluctant hero Al Jhor Dan and his powerful genie, she tries to educate him in how a ruler show behave personally and towards his people.

A not bad story transposing the Green Lantern mythos onto the tales of the Arabian Nights. As usual with these Elseworlds tales, a lot of the elements of the superhero remain the same just subtly tweaked to fit with the new setting. So in this case the Lanterns do not have rings to start with but summon genies from lamps to carry out their will instead. Perhaps the story was a little over-moralistic but that is the nature of the originals I can live with it. Rebecca Guay’s art is perfect for this tale as she specialises in fantasy illustration and it looks great on the page – especially the leading ladies.

Camelot 3000 (1988)

“But no need to stand on ceremony. You may call me King Arthur!”

This book is a collection of the first comic book maxi-series, as claimed in the introduction by Don and Maggie Thompson. The series was written by Mike W. Barr who is probably best known for his writing on various Batman titles such as Batman and the Outsiders, the Year Two story in Detective Comics and the Son of the Demon graphic novel. The art was by British artist Brian Bolland who is more often associated, these days, with fabulous cover art but also worked on early Judge Dredd stories for 2000AD and DC’s The Killing Joke.

It is the year 3000 and Britain is under attack by relentless aliens from the solar system’s tenth planet. In it’s hour of need, King Arthur, it’s greatest defender, is reborn. His first act is to restore Merlin to his side followed by the reincarnations of his knights of the Round Table. They discover that Morgan le Fay is behind the alien attacks and so old conflicts are renewed.

I bought this book because it is one of the few examples of a comic series illustrated by Bolland whose work I love. Unfortunately the story did not match my expectations. For a comic that was DC’s first for mature readers, it felt very immature – let’s mix Arthurian legend with the future and an alien invasion and it’ll be cool. It seemed very thin and being stretched over twelve issues did not help. This book has not aged as well as some of it’s contemporaries from the mid eighties. It doesn’t help that a number of later comics, such as Fables, deal with the updating of mythological or fantasy characters much better.

But I came for the art and the art was good but it didn’t blow me away in the same way that his covers can do. Partly this is because it does not have the same detail as his work in black and white does – Bryan Talbot is another good example of someone whose work I prefer in black and white because so much more goes into it. I was also expecting more due to the problems that I know plagued this book as regards to deadlines however I don’t feel that it necessarily shows in the finished page. So all in all a bit of a disappointment – maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.

The Joker’s Last Laugh #1-6 (2001)

“Didn’t figure you for the prayin’ type, boss.”

“Why? Because I kill people and do really rotten things to puppies and kittens?”

My first digital comics read on my new tablet is this six part series from DC. The series writers were Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty. There were numerous artists on the series: Pete Woods; Andrew Pepoy; Marcos Martin; Mark Farmer; Alvaro Lopez; Walter McDaniel; Andy Kuhn; Ron Randall; Rick Burchett; Mark Lipka; Dan Davis.

While incarcerated at the Slabside Penitentiary, the Joker is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. He reacts by inciting a riot and using the prison’s own defences to “jokerize” the other inmates – may of whom are super-villains. Having created his own super-army, the Joker escapes and lets them loose upon the world hoping that he will be killed by an old friend before he dies.

The annoying thing about this series is that it is not self contained. And for a series featuring the Joker there is not nearly enough scenes in which he appears. The chaos caused by the Joker ripples throughout the DC Universe and some of the action takes place in other comics. This would be fine if the main series told its own story consistently but instead there are scene and plot changes between issues that are just not explained and so the story has unsatisfying holes in it. This is the reason I tend to avoid crossover events, and don’t read too many modern Marvel books where there constantly seems to a crossover happening. I hate the presumption of publishers that either readers are reading all their books or that they will stump up the extra to follow the story beyond a central series.

As I have already stated, the story is less a story about the Joker than it is about the victims of his cruelty. Oracle and Nightwing are the ones to suffer most throughout the story. Their moral stance on the Joker and his continued existence testing them and their relationship to the limit. This could have been a great story in the vein of The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family if it had been allowed to develop within its own pages with a consistent art team but the disjointed nature of the series ruins its emotional impact for me.

As I said at the start, this is my experience of digital comics and using a tablet to read them. In general my experience has been positive. I bought a 10″ Samsung tablet and the size of the visible screen is only slightly smaller than a standard comic page – which is important as I don’t like the directed zoom way of reading comics that can divorce the words from the images. A big plus is the regular sales on Comixology and Dark Horse Digital and, as there is a lot of old stuff I have still to pick up, I can wait for issues to be bundled or sold for 99 cents an issue. For example, the collection for this series is out of print and  I picked it up for $5.94 rather than the $30 which is the cheapest second hand copy on Amazon UK or Abe Books (once shipping is included). The only downside is the price of new comics that tend to be same price as the print version which has never seemed right to me for any digital media.

Penguin: Pain and Prejudice (2012)

“Mr. Cobblepot, sir. I-I’m glad you brought me here so I could apologize again in person. Of course, I’d never think to be rude to someone of your … … stature.”

Cover to Pain and Prejudice collection

This book collects the five issue mini-series of the same name and a one-shot Penguin story from the first Joker’s Asylum series. The main story was written by Gregg Hurwitz with art by Szymon Kudranski. Both are new to me but Hurwitz is a thriller writer who has also done some comic book work including Batman, Moon Knight, The Punisher and Wolverine. Kudranski is currently the artist on Spawn from Image comics. The short story was by writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Pearson.

The main story sees the Penguin doting over his frail mother and showering her with expensive gifts that have been brutally stolen from their owners. After her death, Oswald fills the lack of love in his life with the friendship of a blind woman who can love him back without judging him on his appearance. His idyll is shattered when Batman comes to call investigating the theft of various pieces of jewellery.

These stories show some of the background to the character of the Penguin. The boy and man that loved and was loved by his mother but who was reviled by his father and teased and victimised by his brothers. Someone who just wants to be accepted for who he is despite his appearance. The main story has more detail given that it is longer but the story rambles without much logic or direction as far as I am concerned. Being shorter, Aaron’s story is much tighter and tells a similar tale of teasing and abuse creating a manipulative monster in adulthood. I liked the art by Kudranski without being blown away but some of his work on Spawn, as highlighted on his blog, is truly spectacular.

Justice Inc. #1-4 (1975)

 

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My weapons … the gun i call Mike and the knife Ike! Once again, They are my only friends … my only allies … and my hope!

 

Just as The Shadow series was about to draw to a close, DC released this short-lived series featuring another 1930s pulp character, the Avenger, with most of the original stories written by Paul Ernst writing as Kenneth Robeson. Like The Shadow series, Denny O’Neil handled the writing duties and had a crossover story in The Shadow #11. The art in the first issue was by Al McWilliams but what makes the series stand out is the art on the remainder of the series by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer. Jack Kirby is of course the comics legend who helped create characters such as Captain America and other Marvel staples such as the Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk as well as the Fourth World mythos for DC.

The first issue features the origin of the Avenger. Richard Benson is an adventurer and explorer who boards a plane to Montreal with his wife and daughter. On returning from the bathroom, he finds his wife and daughter missing along with another passenger. Everyone else on the plane insists that they were never on it and in an ensuing fight Benson is knocked out cold. He awakes three weeks later in hospital to find that his skin and hair have turned white and that he can mold his face so as to mimic others. Benson then sets off to investigate what happened to his wife and daughter and avenge them.

All the stories can standalone but, as he picks up new members for his Justice Inc. crime fighting operation along the way with each issue, should be read in order if possible. The first story is about a hostile company takeover but the remaining stories all feature some technological or scientific discovery as the focus of the story.

The series features more pulpy goodness from O’Neil and fabulous art from Kirby. The technology based stories and face changing antics of the Avenger puts me in mind of the Mission Impossible TV series and it would be interesting to find out if O’Neil was influenced by this or if it was a feature of the original pulps. Worth a look for fans of Jack Kirby if you can find it.

The Shadow #1-12 (1973-1975)

 

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Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

 

I have been wanting to re-read Andrew Helfer’s run on The Shadow from the 80s for a while now. But when I went into the loft to dig them out I got sidetracked by DC’s first comic series with the character. The majority of issues (10) were written by Denny O’Neil with the other two written by Michael Uslan. O’Neil has worked on a vast number of titles for DC and Marvel and includes the Hard Traveling Heroes Green Lantern/Green Arrow story, a run on Batman and a revivial of the Question in the 80s. Uslan is better known as a film and TV producer and has been a producer on a number of the modern DC film adaptations including all the Batman movies. The art duties were handled by Michael Kaluta (5 issues), Frank Robbins (4 issues) and ER Cruz (3 issues). Kaluta’s work I know from Starstruck and a recent run on Madame Xanadu but the other two artists are new to me – in fact ER Cruz seems to be a bit of a man of mystery himself.

Each issue is a standalone story with no overall arc so each can be read on their own. The stories are true to the pulp origins of the character and set in the 30s (when the radio serial and books first appeared). The Shadow is a vigilante dispensing, often fatal, justice to organised crime gangs. He has unexplained mystical powers to hypnotize and evade adversaries and slip into the shadows. He has a number of alter egos including a rich socialite and in some ways can be seen as a precursor to Batman. He also has a team of associates that he uses to gather information and help him in his pursuit of criminals.

In general the stories were good examples of the pulp style. However, at 18 or 20 pages long, they were a bit too short for me – a lot of the story development and detection work was skipped to fit in the action within the page limit. The art was generally fine. This early example of Kaluta’s art was a bit cruder than his later Mucha influenced style but fit in well with the overall mood of the pulps. The Robbins art had more of a cartoony style but was still enjoyable to view. I probably liked the art by ER Cruz best as it was a bit cleaner than Kaluta’s and a bit more realistic than Robbins’. If you are a fan of pulp writing, the Shadow or Denny O’Neil then it is probably worth your while tracking this series down.