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Posts Tagged ‘trade paperback’

armycoverWelcome to Afbaghistan, soldier.

The Bagh, as we call it here, is hot, dirty, and crawling with baghis armed to the teeth. And the li’l buggers ain’t scared of dying, neither, and will stop at nothing to take you with ’em. So remember your basic training, make good use of our superior technology, and be ready for the fight of your life.

Ain’t it the coolest?

Army@Love takes place just a little bit into our future and to the left of our reality. The war has been going on for a long while, and the army has had a hard time getting people to recruit. In a stroke of genius, middle management executives are drafted, and come up with a plan: market war as peak experience.

Responding eagerly – not to say slobberingly – an adrenaline-addicted generation joins the battlefield, enjoying a moral license to do, well, anything actually – and concentrating on the combination of sex and violence, the ultimate rush. Up until now, the violence part took place in the battlefield, the sex one in “the resorts” – a few days of unbridled nudity, fornication, music and drugs.

But then Switzer, a sharp-shooter with a craving for fun, convinces Flabbergast, a stage-magician and looking good in uniform, to join The Hot Zone Club: actually doing the deed under fire. So now, everybody wants to join The Club, especially after Motivation and Morale – MOMO for short – catches on and spreads the rumor around.

Switzer is none too happy about the growing populatiry of The Club, especially since Flabbergast is telling everybody he came up with the idea. Never trust a hypnotist (as his lovely, if somewhat zombified, assistant could have once – alas, not anymore – testified). Loman, Switzer’s husband back on the home-front, overheard the whole thing over the phone, so he’s not ecstatic either. He has bigger problems, though, as his business is moving stolen parts – car or human, everything goes – from and to Afbaghistan, and the local bosses are none too happy with his recent work. He’s also sleeping with Allie, the wife of MOMO head-honcho, Healey, who, on his part, is exploring the nether-regions of his dedicated secretary, Woyner, while being squeezed by the Secretary of War, Stelaphane.

Flabbergast confuses his priorities
Flabbergast confuses his priorities

As you probably understand by now, Army@Love is a rather crowded comic, it’s about contemporary American wars, and it doesn’t pull its punches. But how well does it bode?

Well, that depends. On the satire front, it’s a bit too over-the-top while also too obvious: okay, yes, Big Business stands to gain from the war; leaders will stop at nothing to get people to follow their plans; when the fighting starts, morality flies out of the window. Nothing new or very original here. Another problem is that Rick Veitch‘s satire lacks real bite by taking all of the risks out of the game. Satire is ultimately a tragic genre, while Veitch’s universe is, surprisingly enough, rather optimistic: no US soldiers die during the comic, for instance.

But by no means is all lost. The book redeems itself by blending these rather insipid messages into a tasty, unique and extremely well crafted dish.
Army@Love
is one of those rare creations that improve with each read, and this is due to two major factors: Veitch’s thoroughness and originality. Many elements in the book are well-researched – technologically, psychologically, graphically – but also given a certain twist. For instance, Roy the Robot is, basically, a bomb-disposal robot enhanced with weapons and surveillance equipment, and Veitch based him both on existing platforms and designs for future models. But the way he communicates is all Veitch – flat computer-talk with painful attempts to sound human (“I am sorry to inform you that I am not at liberty to disclose that information at the moment”), adding neat emoticons at the end of paragraphs. There’s something bizarrely familiar about this, while it’s also absurd to the extreme. Delicious.

But this is just a taste of what, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be the book’s real forte: the characters. They are the most believable I’ve encountered in a long while in any medium – Switzer both doesn’t care about her husband and loves him deeply; Loman will swindle his own sister but risk his life to try and save a half-stranger; Stelaphane is optimistic and patriotic, and also destroys people almost absent-mindedly. These complex, beautifully human, characters are presented to us in stages and through their actions, and Veitch resorts to direct exposition only once, and even then, presenting it in the text-balloons while unique, aesthetic, combat action is taking place in the background.

And this is the final reason why Army@Love turns out to be such a good read: Veitch knows his craft. The layouts, backgrounds, pencils, word-balloons, pacing – all are top-notch, serving the artist’s intent and his relationship with the reader rather than just demonstrating ability. Combined with Erskine‘s fleshy colors, Veitch has created a full-bodied, lush, reality – which it is a delight to sink into.

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Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

YAM is a small boy, wearing hooded orange jammies and owning a pet TV set and a hover-pack. But I’ll see you that and raise ya – YAM is a comic book by Corey Barba told entirely without words. For kids.
Knowing these rather extraordinary facts, I expected YAM to be extraordinary. In a a sense, it failed to meet my expectations. In another sense, I am at fault for having these expectations.

To explain:
YAM lives on a small tropical island but often visits the nearby city. Both are populated by bizarre creatures – his good feline/humanoid friend Gato, the scientifically-oriented May, talking cupcakes, edible tortoises, emotional clouds and more.
The exploits of YAM have appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine over the last few years, and YAM: Bite-Size Chunks collects these yarns along with several new tales. This probably explains the variable formats and styles displayed in the book – colors and black & white, inks and pencils – with stories ranging from a single page to 38 pages. To Barba‘s credit, he seems equally at ease in all of these – YAM remains characteristically YAM whatever the length and technique, and the stories never seem to suffer from the limitations I assume the original medium imposed.

YAM being Yam
YAM being Yam

The problem with YAM is that while it is original and often charming, it almost never seems to soar – the characters are neat, but nothing much happens to them, the stories often revolve around a single joke or a simple theme, and they are neither very funny nor profound. Unlike the designation on the back-cover, I am not at all sure that this is an All-Ages comic, but, rather, aimed exclusively at kids.

But this, I shall reiterate, is my undoing more than YAM‘s. Coming from the well-respected Top Shelf Productions and described on the same back-cover as “stirringly fun” and “cartooning at its finest”, I expected something that would appeal to me and not only to my kids. Abandoning expectations, YAM proves to be very well executed, full of the right spirit, and, most of all, much fun for the kids. My five-year-old found YAM’s alternative world charming and intriguing, while my three-year-old laughed at the visual puns and fell in love with the adorable characters. For them, the book was a perfect introduction to comics – the absence of words made it possible for them to enjoy the book without my help, and they took turns telling the short stories to each other.

The story the kids found the most bothersome was, however, my own favorite: the 38 pager that Barba added for this collection tells of how YAM fell in love with the girl of his dreams, and then fell in dreams and forgot about reality. It contains most of the book’s surrealistic scenes, and possesses an eerie, dream-like quality that is the closest YAM comes to meeting my (misguided, I know) expectations.
There’s no doubting Barba’s talent, but if I could be self-centered for a moment, I wish he would write more lengthy stories and use the same talents to let us see YAM – or other denizens of his obviously impressive imagination – reach its full potential. The result, I wager, would be enchanting for adults as well as children.

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Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo is the ongoing saga of a lone ronin (a masterless samurai) by the name of Myamoto Usagi. The story takes place in Edo period Japan, a feudal period of harsh realities: the shogunate has been established, but the lords of several clans undermine it; the land is governed by law but still overrun by brigands; the hard steel and hard training of swordsmen is still much appreciated, but other weapons, easier to master but just as deadly, are entering the scene; and anthropomorphic animals roam the land.

Well, what did you expect? “Usagi Yojimbo” means “Rabbit Bodyguard”, after all, and the protagonist is a, well, a rabbit. But no fuzzy-eared, tame-natured, wide-eyed rabbit is he! Myamoto Usagi may be a rabbit, but his ears are tied in a topknot and his mastership of the katana and wakizashi is legendary.

In Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin we are introduced to Usagi the best possible way: by his actions. The book collects several stories that follow each other in time, and in the first of these Usagi seeks shelter in a cabin that is plagued by hideous goblin, and recounts the tale of how he lost his master. The following stories introduce most of the supporting cast: Tomoe Ame, the beautiful feline vassal and bodyguard of Noriyuki, the young lord of the Geishu clan, both of which Usagi helps in their time of need; The treacherous Lord Hikiji and his snake-like (well, actually, really a snake) counselor Hebi; Murakami Gennosuke, Gen for short, a good-natured if immoral rhino of a bounty hunter; and the blind swordspig Zato Ino, who so wants to live in peace that he’ll kill whoever tries to stop him.
Each character is well defined, most of them revolving around the strict conduct code of bushido, governing every aspect of the samurai’s life. Usagi, in particular, will never break this code – but he doesn’t forget than people, even if they are simple peasants, come first.

The stories are action-packed, but Sakai takes his time to show us the scenery, add reliable dialogue, and slowly demonstrate and develop the characters and their relationships. His attention to detail and meticulous research are a constant source of joy and information – from the vegetation, through the clothing and up to the political plots, everything is inspired by accurate historical information. Sakai’s attention to detail is also showcased in the beautiful black and white art (and everything here is done by Sakai – pencils, inks, layouts and lettering) which uses clean lines and functional paneling to tell the story in the most effective way, paying homage to the characters and the society they live in.

Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view
Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view

Usagi Yojimbo has been published continuously since 1985, first by Fantagraphic, then by Mirage (where he was published in color) and finally by Dark Horse. In comics, this by itself is no mean feat for a creator-owned character inhabiting an original universe, but there’s more: all of the regularly published Usagi comics have been collected into trade paperbacks, and are still in print and available for purchase. In other words, if you like Usagi all you have to do is buy the books and read them – and not, say, dig through used book stores, hunt for issues online and generally go insane trying to follow the history of an independent character you like.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin has already gone through eight editions, and rightly so – it offers a unique and entertaining mix of a straight-forward story with a background of solid research, exquisite art that’s never there just to impress but remains impressive, and wonderful characters than may have large ears but have an even larger heart.

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His Books <br>of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One</i> cover

Mr. Monster vol. 1 cover

It was a dark and stormy night when I stumbled into the mysterious shop in one of the city’s winding side-alleys, seeking shelter from the pouring rain. The lights seemed to be out, but a sole candle was burning, its flickering flame sending shadows racing up and down the jumbled heaps of books.

“Yessss? What do you require”?

Omitting a startled yelp, I whirled in the direction of the hoarse whisper, in the process knocking over some books from one of the countless shelves. Suppressing a shudder, I crouched to pick them up.

“Sorry! Ah, I mean, I didn’t mean to startle you, ah, you startled me, eh… I mean, I mean I was just looking for…”

The gaunt figure stood up, mostly hidden by shadows, and pulled its long limbs and many joints into the  semblence of a man with eyes that seemed to shine a dull red. Its voice was no louder, but somehow more penetrating.

“Oh, never mind what you were looking for. Why don’t you follow me into the sanctum? We can discuss it there, yessss?”

There was something tempting about the offer. It seemed to suggest warmth and darkness and tranquility. Still frozen in mid-crouch, I was about to dreamily obey.

CRACK-A-BOOM!

The thunder was almost instantly followed by a flash of lightning that threw the store into sharp blacks and whites, revealing the face of my host.

Only four blocks down the road did I notice I was still screaming as I ran, and that I couldn’t stop. I attempted to put my hand over my mouth and suddenly understood  I was clutching the book I was in the process of picking up.

This is how the curse came upon me. This is how I entered the pit. This is how I came to be in possession of Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One.

Well, not really. But if I was living in Mister Monster’s world, it could have happened much like this – only it would have been funnier.

Mister Monster– known to the medical world as doctor Strongfort S. Stearn – lives atop Slaughter Mountain, where the rain never stops. He’s that kind of guy, you know. His stately mansion is shared only by his assistant, the voluptuous Kelly Friday – and the occasional visitor in need of assistance. Our story opens with one of these visitors – Myron Clotz, an I.B.M employee who just happened to be bitten by a werewolf. Lycanthropy, it turns out, is the dumps – it’s wrecking havoc with Myron’s efficiency ratings, the mean guys at the were-devils athletic club demand he joins them and his romantic relationship with Millie Feinstein is off to a shaky start (he tried to rip out her throat, you see).
Luckily for Myron, this is just the sort of problem Doc Stearn solves before he even has his breakfast cereal. Not so luckily, though, he usually solves it with his 45s. Things soon get hairy, as it turns out the were-devils were following Myron, and their leader, a giant albino werewolf by the name of Crudlick, has every intention of getting rid of the pesky Mister Monster. And now, yes, you guessed it – all hell ensues.

And this, dear readers, is just the first story. Mister Monster moves on to fight a laboratory experiment gone horribly wrong in ‘The Hemo-Horror’, is transported to a different dimension in ‘No Escape from Dimension-X’, fights a rabid mutated cell when (yet another)  experiment goes (again) horribly wrong in ‘The Demon of Destiny Drive’ and more.
And he does it with style.

Mister Monster is Michael T. Gilbert‘s creation. Gilbert has worked for Disney for many years, but hasn’t really managed to make a name for himself as a prominent comics writer. This is also the case with Mister Monster, which has been around for twenty years, but didn’t get regularly published anywhere – hopping from Pacific (they crashed) to Eclipse (they crashed too) to Dark Horse (they’re okay) and then to Atomeka (not doing too well, actually). And this is a pity. It’s a pity because Gilbert deserves more; it’s a pity because Mister Monster deserves huge success; it’s a pity because it’s a testimony to how intolerant the comics field has become to non-standard stories.

Oh, no! He's back!
Oh, no! He’s back!

But Gilbert – or, perhaps, Doc Stearn – is a stubborn fellow. Mister Monster keeps popping up from time to time – his latest book, World Wars Two, was released in 2004 – and this brings his publishing history to at least three published books. This is not too bad for an independent character – that is, a character that inhabits his own continuity (and not, say, the Marvel Universe shared by all Marvel-published characters) and where the rights for the character belong to the creator. In this case, the creator is also the artist, as Gilbert provided pencils or art for almost all of the stories in Volume One, with the help of William Messner-Loebs doing the finished art for all but the last two stories.

At any rate, Mister Monster is a treat. His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One has several stories written by other writers – including one written by the illustrious Alan Moore, who also wrote the enlightening introduction – but none manage to strike the wonderful balance Michael T. Gilbert seems to pull off so effortlessly. This balance is a heady elixir of slapstick, action, tongue-in-cheek humour and genuine horror – an over-the-top parade of genre cliches that, somehow, seems to re-invent both the genre and itself every few pages. The other writers tend to make Mister Monster’s world too campy, or the character too idiotic, and it’s an easy mistake to make – since, come on, who puts on underpants to fight mutated blood-cell?
Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster, that’s who!

Sadly, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One seems to be out of print, so you’ll have to settle for a used copy. However, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume Zero, showcasing some of the later Mister Monster stories published (in black and white) by Dark Horse is still available.

But Don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t follow me into the pit. At all costs, avoid reading Mister Monster – or you will be doomed to hours of fun.

Doomed, I say.

DOOOOOMMED!

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The Ultimates Super-human vol. 1 cover
The Ultimates Super-human vol. 1 cover

In 2000, Marvel comics launched their Ultimate Marvel imprint. Basically, the Ultimate version of Marvel’s lead characters attempts to make them more accessible to new readers by creating new origins for the characters, freeing them from decades of long, elaborate, and often illogical histories (this is known in the comics industry as a reboot).

In 2001, Mark Millar – a Scottish comics writer fresh from his big break writing The Authority (a series created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in the WildStorm universe) and several years of working for DC – joined the imprint. He first wrote Ultimate X-Men, which was a huge success, and in 2002 moved on to The Ultimates, a rebooting of The Avengers, which was an even bigger success.
Since then, Millar has become quite the phenomenon – working on several Marvel series and crossovers (the Civil Warevent), he still found time for no less than four new, creator-owned, series. His Wanted has already been adapted into a movie directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy. He is, no doubt, immensely successful.
He is also, and too much to my taste, solidly in the mainstream.

The Ultimates begins in 1945. Captain America, a super-soldier alter-ego of Steve Rogers, leads a team of soldiers bent on stopping Nazi Germany from launching a nuclear attack on the United States. As is his habit, Captain America succeeds. Contrary to his manner, though, he seemingly fails to survive the mission.
Forty-seven years later, meet Nick Fury, new manager of S.H.I.E.L.D., a security agency in charge world security (no less). Fury has just decided to boost the profile and the funding of the Super-Soldier program – the original serum disappearing along with Captain America.

One by one, Fury recruits scientists to help him discover the super-soldier serum. All of them have first hand experience with super-heroics: Bruce Banner, the depressed and insecure alter ego of the Hulk; Janet Pym, nee van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp and her husband, Hank, which grows into the costume of Giant-Man; and billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who dons the Iron Man armor. Their work on the serum is unsuccessful, but then they discover that Captain America is not quite as dead as everybody thought. In an attempt to further bolster their forces, they attempt to recruit the super-powered new age guru Thor, initially failing at that as well.
Soon, though, The Ultimates encounter their first big threat, and have to demonstrate their powers both as a group and as individuals, as well as their ability to overcome personal tensions between various group members.

The Ultimates was, as mentioned, a huge success. This is not reason enough to review it here, as many successful mainstream comics are just not my cup of tea. However, the series was also critically acclaimed, and I was personally assured by several acquaintances that it is an excellent read.
Well, I disagree.

Bryan Hitch and Andre Currie supply impressive, dynamic drawings, that do justice to the sweeping action sequences (I wager that New York inhabitants are fed up with their city monuments getting demolished in popular media by now) and bring to life every explosion and all bulging muscles. The action, in short, is excellent.

An action-charged charge
An action-charged charge

But what of the story? The Ultimates has no pretension of literary quality. That, by itself, is not a problem – but the story failed to engage me. It is, perhaps surprisingly, a character driven story, less concerned with outlining the imaginary world, or describing technological/alien threats and innovations. And the characters are just not that interesting. Why does Captain America believe in his mission? How come Hank and Jan Pym love each other so much but also get along so badly? We’re never told, we just have to take it for granter – and with the action taking so much of the time, developments in character relationships seem sudden, sharp and irrational.
If the story was interesting by itself, flat characters wouldn’t be such of a problem – but nothing important seems to happen, and the climax is an action sequence rather than any kind of plot forwarding resolution. On top of this, Millar’s dialogue is too clean and well-rehearsed, and everyone is pithy and heroic while also being lighthearted and amusing. This makes all of the characters sound identical and fake.

I can see why The Ultimates was such a big success – the rebooted origins of The Avengers is plausible, the action spectacular, and nothing is dumbed down. After decades of implausible plot twists and often mediocre story and art, this must have seen like a breath of fresh air for Marvel fans. But I’m not a Marvel fan, and without previous interest in the characters and their respective stories, The Ultimates: Super-human vol. 1 was not much fun to read on the first go, and I have no intention of returning to it – or to further collections of the series – in the future.

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