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Posts Tagged ‘Trade paperbacks’

Kingdom Come cover

Kingdom Come cover

Red Arrow, Aquaman II, The Whiz, Braniac’s Daughter, Avia, Atom Smasher, Phoebus, Alloy, Magog, Pinwheel, Nightstar.

These are just some of the new super-heroes introduced in the Kingdom Come miniseries (now collected as a trade paperback), saying nothing of virtually every important hero – and many villains – from the DC universe. Little surprise, then, that Kingdom Come can make any comics’ enthusiast breath a little shallower. After all, if on every page you encounter new heroes with new powers (not to mention scantly clad men and women with perfect bodies), what more could a geek want? Some story and art couldn’t hurt, but luckily, these  – especially the latter – are also found in abundance.

But let us begin at the beginning. To be more precise, let us begin 20 years after the end. We have moved forward in time from DC’s normal continuity: comics’ cyclical time has been unfrozen, and the years allowed to take their toll. Superman is no longer perpetually in this 30s. As a matter of fact, he’s no longer Superman: he has retired in confusion and disappointment when the people of Metropolis chose another, more brutal champion over him: Magog.

Taking their cue from The Man of Steel, his contemporaries ceased their attempts to contain their powers and integrate their vigilante efforts into the fabric of human society. Some, like Green Lantern, have retired from the world. Others, such as the Batman in Gotham and the Flash in Keystone, have turned their various cities into crime-free utopias at the price of usurping political power.

They, however, are not the problem. Their progeny are. It turns out that when two super-people have children, at the very least their offspring will have a mix-and-match set of their parents’ powers. What they won’t have is any real understanding of the super-hero’s role in society, nor many moral bounds. The world is full to the brim with super-heroes, and it can’t take much more of it.

Kal-El is persuaded by Wonder Woman to resume his role as Superman, re-forming the Justice League and touring the globe with a simple message aimed at super-people: cease all independent activities and join us, or else.

Two forces are at the forefront of the opposition to Superman’s new role as a world leader. The first are the humans, who are not too enthusiastic about being told what to do. They oppose Superman benevolently via the UN, and malevolently via Lex Luther’s Man Liberation Front, with a surprising recruit in tow: Captain Marvel. The second force opposing Superman is rather more unexpected: the Batman is none too happy to take orders from who he deems to be a naive late-comer that has yet to grow out of his school-boy morality. So he does some recruiting of his own.

All of this is, naturally enough, building to a head. Only when so many big players are involved, with such immense powers at their disposal, it is of little wonder that this is a rather boiling, explosive, world-threatening head.

Or, as Norman McCay fears, it may well be apocalypse.

Norman McCay is a pastor, only he has been plagued by horrible visions of late. The grim and fiery future these visions describe seems to be of special interest to a higher force – or at the very least, to his spirit of vengeance, the Spectre. Together, McCay – confused and frightened – and the Spectre – cool and detached – roam the world, observing events as they unfold. And we, the readers, sit on their shoulders, enjoying the view.

And what a view it is.

Spot the human
Spot the human

Alex Ross came to Kingdom Come fresh from his and Kurt Busiek‘s Marvels. While both projects aim to offer a panoramic view of the central players in the two comics companies’ respective universes, and while both of them do so through the eyes of a “regular” human, the similarities end here. Unlike Marvels, Ross’ later work – which is also his brainchild, story-wise – is concerned with the mythological and religious elements of the super-hero concept. While the backgrounds of the characters play a significant role in the book, Kingdom Come is not nostalgic in nature. If anything, the DC universe is warped and changed in it almost beyond recognition – with every major player allowed to develop, and drastic actions with dramatic consequences taking place.
In order to accomplish all of this, Ross was paired with writer Mark Waid, which lent the necessary drive and pathos to the plot and dialogues, managing to keep a sweeping story with multiple characters interesting and to the point from beginning to end.

But, yet again, Kingdom Come is Ross’ creation. It was the first DC series to ever feature gouache paintings as internal art (and not just on the covers), it cemented Ross’ position as the wunderkind of comics, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and it was published when Ross was only twenty-six years of age. The tremendous quantities of love and hard work Ross put into it shine through, and Waid’s encyclopedic knowledge of the DC’s history and characters lets Ross’ unique vision of super-heroes as beings on par with the Gods color and uplift numerous players, new and old, and perhaps the whole DC universe itself.

After all of this rather breathless (or, perhaps, shallow-breathed) praise, it’s important to mention that Kingdom Come is not, narrative wise, a true landmark in comics’ history. It hardly has the impact of The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, and while bold, it is not revolutionary. But the story works, manages to never become too grand or ridiculous, and is entertaining to read the second (and fifth) time around. And the art, oh, the art, it’s just so, oh…

Will someone bring me a paper bag, please?

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<i>Boneyard Volume One</i> cover

Boneyard Volume One cover

Michael Paris thought he had a lucky break when he inherited some land from his grandfather. It was located in the remote town of Raven’s Hollow, but that was okay – the municipality was eager to purchase the plot from Paris, and he was just as eager to sell.

However, upon arriving in Raven’s Hollow, Prais finds out a pall hangs over the little town.
Literally.
The townspeople, led by the mayor, are eager to purchase the plot (and by “purchase” I mean “destroy”) – as it turns out the plot houses the town cemetery, which, it turn, houses several, ummm, unusual characters. These include, among others, an animated, cigar-smoking, skeleton called Sid; a shade-totting werewolf; Glumph, a minor demon with a fear of socks; and Abbey, a rather fetching vampire which seems to be leading the lot.

Paris is beset upon by both sides, which need his consent to either get rid of all of this abnormality or, respectively, protect their home. He decides to stay for a while, in order to weigh all positions and options. He soon discovers things are even more sinister than they seem, his time seems to run out, and he’s pressed into action.

Richard Moore does a splendid job – he manages to create a book for the whole family without compromising one bit. Younger readers can enjoy the array of fantastic characters, the bright colors and the action, while older ones can savor the humor, the romantic (and even sexy) touches and even the occasional dash of horror. This is truly a fun read, and while light-hearted, the dedication and talent that has been put into it shines through.
Moore seems to be a versatile artist, at least content-wise: while this is a family-friendly title, he has also released erotically inclined work. The only trace of that here, though, is his excellent treatment of the human (especially the female) form – so there’s nothing to worry about (or expect).

Abbey shows what she's got
Abbey shows what she’s got

Boneyard is an independently published (“indie”) comic that has been ongoing for five years now – a rare achievement in this day and age. The trade paperback collections are published by NBM Publishing – and while the comic appears in black and white, and the trades are first released in b&w as well, they are then re-released in color (done by Jessica Kindzierski). Currently, there are six released paperbacks, the first four of which have been colored.

So far, I have only read Boneyard Volume One, and while it is a short read, it is also a self-contained story-arc, and thus, left me both satisfied and hungry for more.

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Top 10 Book 1 cover

Top 10 Book 1 cover

Welcome to Neopolis! If you could hang your cape over here, the local teleportation system will bring you to your destined lair, cave or hideaway. Please avoid using your super-powers during travel. Thank you!

By the time Alan Moore started the America’s Best Comics imprint in WildStorm, he was already a comics legend. With such accomplishments as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and Supreme under his belt, expectations were naturally high. And Moore – whom I suspect is incapable of producing bad work – certainly delivered with four new series (and several spinoffs): The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promothea, Tom Strong and Top 10.

Top 10 is how the local police headquarters, Precinct Ten by official Alter-Earth designation, is known in the city of Neopolis. Police work is never easy, but in Neopolis it’s more complicated than usual: every inhabitant of the city – including the pets and vermin – has super-powers. How do you control such teeming masses of super-people? Robyn Slinger, fresh out of the police academy, is about to find out. Teeming up with Smax, a blue-skinned, pig-headed giant, she goes to work with the rest of the cast – aromr-suited Irma Geddon, colorful and athletic Girl-One, electrically bigotted Shock Headed Peter and his partner with the twelver-shooters, The Dust Devil and many others. Arresting mad Nazi scientists, preventing giant monsters from drowning the city in radioactive puke, a psychokinetic Santa – it’s all in a day’s work in Neopolis.

Moore uses an old trick in order to introduce the readers to the characters and their world: he makes it an initiation story for Slinger – a.k.a. “Toybox” – and things are revealed to us as she learns about them. It works well, and allows Moore to achieve an impressive feat: with all of its wonders, Neopolis feels plausible, even realistic. This is also accomplished by Moore’s trademark characterization: all the characters seem to have back-storys (whether we learn of them or not) and distinct personalities, and interact with each other along reliable lines of personal likes and dislikes. This is not to say that Moore stops at creating a reliable – and fascinating – world: the story involves much tension, detective work and even the occasional action sequence.

Alex Ross' cover for the first Top 10 issue

The two artists behind the series, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, bring Neopolis to splendid, radiant life, with detailed backgrounds, reliable urban topography and excellent character design which avoid – or exploits – clichés. Fans of comics, science fiction and fantasy can spend hours of fun just location all the tongue-in-cheek references hidden in the panels – without all of the other readers missing out on anything important.

The series won multiple Eisner Awards but ended after issue 12. Two trade paperbacks were released, covering the complete run of the series – and this is book 1, covering issues 1-7. Some cases are solved, but many story-arcs continue into the next trade paperback. The series also spawned three spin-offs, two written by Moore and one by Paul Di Filippo.

Top 10: Book 1 is one of Moore’s most standard books: no post-modern references to the super-human myth (see Supreme for those), no intricate juggling of multiple plots or political debates (see V for Vendetta for the latter and Watchmen for both), nothing too complex. He’s just telling a good story, with interesting characters set in a unique world – and the end result is such a fun read than one can only hope Moore will, one day, come back to mainstream comics.

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Planetary - cover of first issue

Planetary - cover of first issue

In 1991 Warren Ellis first came to the attention of the world of comic readers (albeit a small portion of it) with Lazarus Churchyard, a cyberpunk comic illustrated by D’Israeli. He was 23.
17 years later, Ellis has worked for Marvel, DC, Avatar, WildStorm and Image (among others, if you’d believe it). His most important accomplishment is probably his Transmetropolitan, collected in no less than 10 trade paperbacks. But his most enjoyable work, for me, is Planetary.

Elijah Snow is sitting in a diner the middle of the desert, drinking shitty coffee and hating the world, when in walks Jakita Wagner. Unlike Snow, which is dressed all in white, Wagner is wearing a skin-tight black and red one-piece. But they do seem to share a certain lack of enthusiasm for the human race, and, more importantly, a burning desire to uncover the secret history of the 20th Century. Joined by The Drummer, a smug and unbearable super-geek, the three travel the world in search of the glories behind its scenes. They discover a secret society of super-people from the 1930s, a semi-alien ship that crashed into the planet long ago, and many other wonders just a small shift away from drab, ordinary reality.

Cassaday and Ellis go full throttle on this one, both demonstrating they are masters of their respective trades.
Ellis, renown for his crazy technological innovations, throws a new wonder at the readers every few pages, and yet, manages to keep them from seeming eclectic. The dialogue is effective, if sometimes unrealistic, and the characterization is wonderful – we have few characters, but each one is well defined. In his other works, Ellis’ biggest problem was his inability to create suspense and mystery: things are usually revealed too soon and resolved too quickly. Planetary avoids this nicely by having an ongoing backstory that unfolds slowly, along with shorter self-contained story arcs. Tension towards a final climax is built, but steady doses of adventure, technological innovation and revelations are also supplied.

Jakita tells us why she does what she does

Jakita tells us why she does what she does

John Cassaday, on his part, makes the story come to life with beautiful, detailed art. Exquisite backgrounds serve as the perfect backdrop for the action in the foreground; panel size and allocation changes to serve the story without becoming distractingly experimental; flashback sequences become dark and gritty. This is all impressive enough, but Cassaday also manages to pull off a harder stunt: making realistically drawn characters seem to move and interact. When an artist draws realistic characters – as opposed to more abstract or cartoony ones – they often seem frozen is mid-action, the panels distinct from one another, broken moments in time. Planetary‘s protagonists, on the other hand, are full of life and energy. Laura Depuy’s bright colors certainly help, but it’s mostly Cassaday’s attention to detail and body language that does the trick.

Planetary is a rare treat: solidly mainstream yet intelligent, without literary pretensions but well-crafted, not groundbreaking but demonstrating the full potential of the medium.

[Important note: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories is the first trade paperback in the series, collection issues 1-6 of the monthly series. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t contain a complete story-arc or stands well on its own. It’s a necessary beginning and a good way to see if you like the series, but if you do, you’ll need to buy the rest of the trade paperbacks (and the last one isn’t out yet) to see how the story develops.]

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Whiteout Volume 1 cover

Whiteout Volume 1 cover

In 1998, Oni press started publishing novelist Greg Rucka‘s first attempt at writing comics. This was, it turned out, the beginning of a leap forward in Rucka’s career: while he was fairly successful and respected as a novelist, he was tremendously well-received in the comics field. Since then, Rucka has written known characters for Marvel and mostly DC, has invented at least three new series (Gotham Central and Queen & Country being the most prominent), and has received three Eisner and one Harvey awards. He is considered one of the most important voices in contemporary mainstream comics.

Ten years later, reading Whiteout, which was first collected into a trade paperback only in 2007, one can see why.

Carrie Stetko is the U.S. Marshall to America’s largest base of operations on the continent of Antarctica – McMurdo base. She’s not generally a happy person, but down at the bottom of the world, in what’s known to the few local inhabitants as “the ice”, she’s as happy as she’s likely to get. And then someone has to go and commit a murder on her turf.

Stetko, bulldog like, sinks her teeth into the case, initially with very little success but much attitude. As things progress, they also deteriorate: teamed up, against both of their wills, with English spook Lily Sharpe, they face an increasing body count from a faceless foe in a fur hat. Stetko, on the edge of the world, is forced to relive old memories and re-evaluate her allegiances.

Rucka delivers a solid detective story. While not groundbreaking, it is certainly a well-crafted Whodunit, keeping the suspense up without losing credibility. It is, however, Rucka’s attention to detail that makes this a winner: his solid research on Antarctica, crisp and reliable dialogue, and believable characters. While the heroine is indubitably Stetko – and what a memorable, no-nonsense, tragic character she is – the supporting cast all make sense and are not left behind.

Stetko and

Stetko and Sharpe see some action

Rucka, however, didn’t achieve all of this on his own. His partner, artist Steve Lieber, is responsible for everything but the words – pencils, inks, lettering, it’s all Lieber. Here, again, there’s nothing groundbreaking – the paneling is very standard, the art straightforward without slipping into excessive realism. But, again, the attention to detail shines through: the way his snow looks when one falls into it is quite different than the way it looks when blown by 300 km/h winds; the McMurdo buildings look right; and the human body reacts properly when bent in odd-angles by an angry U.S. Marshall. More than this, though: Lieber’s cold, sterile, wind-swept Antarctica is as fresh and liberating as it is deadly, and one can see what Stetko finds in it and why she cringes from the hot, crowded, messy company of other humans.

Whiteout hasn’t reinvented comics, nor does it really stretch the boundaries of the genre – any genre. But it is a work without flaw, pristine and beautiful, and that is certainly enough.

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Comics, especially superhero comics, are a very popular form of telling stories. They sell well and generate much interest – but, even though Hollywood has recently (re)discovered them, most of this interest is among children and teens. This is certainly okay, but may also be one of the reasons most mainstream comics are, well, not exactly prime examples of good storytelling.

Graphic novels, on the other hand, tend to set higher artistic standards for themselves. They tell a story with drawings and words – sequential art, as Will Eisner called it – but they try and tell a complicated story which has something to contribute to the ongoing discussion of the human condition. However, many graphic novels are, to put it bluntly, no fun at all.

I like graphic novels and comics. A lot. But while the bland clichés and artificial climaxes of many mainstream comics fail to engage my attention, the lugubrious depth and slow pace of most graphic novels fails to engage my enthusiasm, which is just as bad.

Hence – Comics’ By Products. Here I’ll write about graphic novels and trade paperbacks (collections of comics first published in magazine format) which manage to forge the magic amalgam of excitement and intelligence which makes the medium – for me, at least – one of the most rewarding forms of art and entertainment.

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