Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

MyHeroesHaveAlwaysBeenJunkies-1.pngMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies — set in the world of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ long-running Criminal opus — is a gripping, heart-rending and ultimately tragic graphic novella about Ellie, a denizen of an upscale rehab clinic, who tests the elasticity of morality in a dog-eat-dog world where the roles of hero and villain are seamlessly interchangeable and equally immaterial.

It was purely coincidence I read this right after finishing Mark Brandi’s The Rip, which also stars two drug addicts, albeit in a Melbourne setting, and in the form of prose rather than a graphic novel. The books handle the topic of addiction very differently. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies presents the romantic idea of substance abuse as Ellie repeatedly name-drops a bunch of famous musicians who used pills and needles to (Ellie believes) fuel their imaginations and thus their capacity to create great art. Ellie doesn’t want to be rehabilitated; she’s stimulated by the idea that “drugs help you find the thing that makes you special,” even though there are occasions when the reader will wonder whether that viewpoint is starting to fracture. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies never actually presents the darker side of addiction which is precisely where Brandi’s The Rip resides as it explores characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies opens with Ellie standing on the beach, reeling from the fateful decision that forms the climax of the text. The narrative flashes back, detailing the events that lead to Ellie’s walk along the sand using Brubaker’s trademark storytelling method of the internal monologue. Ellie is a patient at the Infinite Horizon rehab clinic, locked in a schedule of tedious meetings with other patients only too happy to over share. The only like-minded soul in the place is a handsome young man named Skip, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship which quickly blossoms into a full-blown, but doomed romance. Everybody is someone’s fool, and while Ellie’s fondness for Skip is genuine, it’s complicated by the skeletons in her closet. The story builds toward two questions: whether Ellie and Skip will live happily ever after (which deems doubtful from the very start) and whether Ellie will accept the toxicity of her addiction.

Brubaker’s writing is greatly enhanced, not for the first time, by the artwork of his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips. Previous volumes of Criminal have been punctuated by moments of violence, but My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is far more nuanced, and Phillips excels at the quieter moments, capturing the emotion of a scene with unparalleled clarity. Brubaker and Phillips remain an iconic duo of the contemporary comics scene.

ISBN: 9781534308466
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 72
Published: 16th October 2018
Publisher: Image Comics
Country of Publication: US

Review: Kingdom Come by Mark Waid & Alex Ross

81tnmidlshlIt has been many, many years since I last read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, but after watching the enjoyable (but heavily flawed) Justice League, I was in the mood to indulge my love of all things DC Comics. Kingdom Come was the closest collected edition at hand, but to be frank, I was a little wary about returning to it after more than a decade. I last read it in High School, and have held it to such a high standard since that inaugural reading, I feared the scrutiny of my “adult eye.”

This “Elseworlds” tale —  a story that takes place outside the DC Universe canon — occurs in a future where a vigilante segment of the super hero population, emboldened by public sentiment, have broken the established “code” set by the traditional heroes, and have started killing villains rather than incarcerating them. Disturbed by this brave new world, Superman has “retired” and his Justice League peers have gone into various states of hibernation or eccentricity. Superman has isolated himself and no longer dons his heroic garb, essentially retired. Batman, addled by an accumulation of injuries during his decades of crime-fighting, now patrols Gotham City with a fleet of cyborgs.

After the extermination of super-villainy, these new breed of heroes are left with no one to combat but themselves; it’s a wild west with super powers rather than six-shooters. When a catastrophic incident wipes out Kansas, it forces Superman and his fellow Justice Leaguers to return order to a world in disarray; to remind them of the importance of a moral code, of fighting for truth and justice… and to foil the evil machinations of Lex Luthor and co.

The story is narrated by an elderly pastor named Norman McCay, who is approached by The Spectre to be the supreme being’s guide through these upcoming potentially apocalyptic events. As a kid, I disliked these scenes because I thought they detracted from the action, but presently, I really appreciated this human perspective. It is unfathomable to imagine living in a world populated by God-like beings with the power to obliterate us with the blink of an eye; imagine being  a person of faith. And while I have always been a great fan of Alex Ross’s art — his painterly style is often mimicked but never matched — I’ve never liked his sequential work, and find his panels rather static. Of course, whether Kingdom Come would’ve had such resonance without his illustrations is unanswerable, and his work certainly isn’t flawed; it just lacks velocity.

Kingdom Come is one of those collections non-comic-reading people can enjoy. Unrestrained by continuity, it is that rare thing in comics: a story that has a beginning and an end. A decade after I last read it, I’m thrilled it still holds up, and serves as a demonstration that tales involving costumed heroes don’t just have to involve punch-outs and explosions. The best stories have heart.

ISBN: 9780606340083
Format: Hardback (257mm x 170mm x 15mm)
Imprint: Turtleback Books
Publisher: Turtleback Books
Publish Date: 30-Sep-2008

Review: Hard Boiled by Frank Miller, Geof Darrow & Dave Stewart

Hardboiled.jpgThere’s a lot to love about Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s Hard Boiled, newly republished in an oversized hardcover edition, and it’s all to do with the art.

Try and make sense of Miller’s plot. I dare you. Set in a bleak dystopian future — think Blade Runner, but even more depraved and perverted, and inhabited my ultra-violent robots — the world of Hard Boiled is comprised of A.I. units that look, think and act like normal humans, but are actually corporate assassins. Nixon, our protagonist — because you certainly couldn’t label him a hero — is one of these death machines, who finds himself mixed up in a potential robot revolution.

Of course, your take might vary. Much of Miller’s script is monosyllabic. When dialogue is present, it’s barely there. Hard Boiled is, consciously, a vehicle for Darrow’s intricate, bombastic artwork. His pages are the kind you’ll obsessive over, Where’s Wally-esque in their details. This is a guy who won’t just draw a brick wall; he’ll show all of its cracks. His crowd shots are littered with sub-stories, and he seems to love crafting this profane, horrible world. It’s dirty, it’s nasty, it’s heinous, and certainly not for kids — but it’s damn impressive.

A younger me would’ve loved poster-sized blowups of these pages for my bedroom walls. The almost-thirty me merely enjoyed spending an hour or so enjoying the minutiae of the illustrations. There’s just not enough here for me to wholeheartedly recommend. The plot is too basic, too undercooked, for me to recommend to a sci-fi buff, or a reader seeking a new take on dystopias. Lots to look at and enjoy, but it’s all too fleeting. One to borrow from the library, but unless you’re an art connoisseur, you won’t need more than an hour with this one.

ISBN: 9781506701073
Format: Hardback
Pages: 136
Imprint: Dark Horse Comics,U.S.
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics,U.S.
Publish Date: 26-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Batman Vol. 1 – I Am Gotham (DC Rebirth) by Tom King & David Finch

batmanThe whole purpose of DC’s ongoing ‘Rebirth’ initiative is to relaunch the publisher’s well-loved core characters in their most iconic forms. In other words, make them accessible to new readers, but throw in some bones for the long-time fans, too. Tom King and David Finch’s first volume of their Batman run achieves this. It’s a fun, action-packed story-arc, which introduces two new superheroes into the lore, and leaves plenty of page space for Finch to showcase his artistic skill. It’s a fun romp; but it’s not much more than that. Which is enough, for some; but for readers such as myself, who dip in and out of mainstream comics, there’s not quite enough here to warrant a return for the second volume.

When a couple of masked metahumans with the powers of Superman arrive in Gotham City, Batman thinks they have the potential to be the kind of heroes he won’t ever be: he is only human, after all. With their super powers and impervious dedication to the protection of the city from its own sordid underbelly, Gotham and Gotham Girl are precisely the kind of guardians who can protect Gotham for decades to come. That is, until their perceptions are twisted by one of Batman’s villains, and suddenly Gotham’s most powerful heroes become a force for evil, and the Dark Knight becomes their target for termination.

Tom King is currently penning one of my favourite comic series, The Sheriff of Babylon, but his Batman run lacks the punch of that creator-owned series. It’s not that his writing here is of an inferior quality; just that, by necessity, and the fact this is a mainstream superhero comic book, it has been stripped of much of its nuance. His pairing with David Finch seems wasted, too; while the artist excels at the big moments, and the action-packed pages are wonderful to behold, the quieter moments lack any sort of pop and emotional gravitas.

I Am Gotham is a solid superhero yarn, which sets the board for King and Finch’s run on the title. I’ve read better superhero comics, and I’ve read worse. It is stuck in that annoying middle ground, where there’s not much to say about it, one way or the other. It’s a book I read, enjoyed, and won’t remember.

ISBN: 9781401267773
Format: Paperback  (252mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 24-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

9780545540629Raina Telgemeier continues her exploration of tween and teenage social and family life in her heartfelt graphic novel Ghosts, which adds a twist of the supernatural to proceedings.

Catrina and her mixed family (Latino/white) have moved from Southern California to Bahía de la Luna on the Northern California coast in the hopes that the cooler climate will help with her younger sister Maya’s cystic fibrosis. Cat isn’t happy with the relocation – is moody throughout the opening pages – while Maya’s elation is both heartening and heartbreaking; her obvious joy for life, and desire to explore and go on adventures, is contradicted by her degenerative condition.

When the girls meet their neighbour, Carlos, who is Bahía de la Luna’s resident “ghost tour” guide, he explains that the town is filled with spirits, who feed off cool winds. With the Day of the Dead approaching, spiritual activity is at an all-time high; and while the prospect of seeing ghosts excites young Maya, it terrifies Cat, who must combat her fear of the unknown to protect her sister.

Ghost’s best, and most poignant moments, feature Maya being treated for her cystic fibrosis. The scene where Maya gleefully asks if she can shake her can of nutritional supplement is especially heartbreaking; so too her forced seclusion from Halloween festivities. Raina Telgemeier deftly balances the book’s various themes, from the exploration of Mexican-American family life, Maya’s illness, the ancient “Day of the Dead” tradition, and Catrina’s desperate struggle to form new friendships in a new town. Her illustrative style is a pure joy to behold; cartoony, yet incredibly expressive. From a visual standpoint, this is undoubtedly the best work we’ve seen. Impossibly, Telgemeier improves with each successive work.

Background material includes some process material, which the wannabe-creator in me finds incredibly fascinating, but of particular interest, especially to younger readers, is her synopsis on the graphic novel’s key themes.

While I don’t think Ghosts had the same impact on me as, say, Drama – I’m far more of a sucker for High School drama tales involving the complex inner-workings of teenage relationships – there’s no question, Telgemeier’s latest is a work of the highest quality. She has reached that highest echelon of creator: her work demands immediate reading upon publication.

ISBN: 9780545540629
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 256
Imprint: Graphix
Publisher: Graphix
Publish Date: 13-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: James Bond, Vol. 1 – VARGR by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

tnjamesbondhccovtempmastersAfter avenging the death of a fallen 00 Section agent in Helsinki, James Bond assumes his fellow agent’s workload, which takes him to Berlin, on a seemingly routine mission to dismantle a drug-trafficking operation.

Warren Ellis is one of my favourite comic book scribes. Even when his work doesn’t quite strike the right chord, I always appreciate his particular brand of storytelling and innovate ideas. So when news broke that he’d be penning a new James Bond series, I was ecstatic – even when it was revealed this would be a contemporary take on Ian Fleming’s character. Having read Fleming’s novels, as well as those by John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Jeffrey Deaver and so forth, I’ve decided Bond belongs in a post-War setting. I’d love to see more stories set in the 1950s and 1960s – a bit like Anthony Horowitz did with Trigger Mortis, which was set between Fleming novels. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see the Fleming Estate sign off on a series of novels set between Fleming’s? Philip Kerr does such a great job bouncing around a wartime and post-war timeline in his Bernie Gunther series – one could easily employ Bond in the same setup. Anyway – moving beyond my deepest James Bond desires…

There is a lot to like about VARGR. It’s packed with the staples Bond fans expect: shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen; and all the characters you’d expect appear (though artist Jason Masters has been given free-reign to re-create their appearance, so don’t go expecting a Ralph Fiennes-inspired ‘M’, or indeed for Bond to look anything like Daniel Craig). But in too many respects it plays out formulaically. Where’s Ellis’s trademark spark? Why not take advantage of the absence of a film budget and depict truly spectacular set-pieces? VARGR just feels a little too easy, is too reminiscent of James Bond adventures we’ve read, or seen, before. It’s a fun, action-packed romp for sure – and Masters delivers these scenes in spectacular fashion – but it’s not going to earn a place in the James Bond adventures highlights reel.

That being said, with Ellis and Masters signed on for a second volume, which sees the return of SPECTRE, there’s every chance the next volume will deliver on this creative team’s promise. The fuse has been lit, and VARGR provides some sparkle; my fingers are crossed for EIDOLON to deliver an explosion.

ISBN: 9781606909010
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Dynamic Forces Inc
Publisher: Dynamic Forces Inc
Publish Date: 5-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Spider-Man – Miles Morales, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli

spider-man-volume-1Until the series ended, Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man was a staple of my comics reading. When it launched in 2000 I was thirteen-years-old, and the perfect age to read about a teenage Peter Parker. As I got older, and my interest in the medium fluctuated, Ultimate Spider-Man remained an essential component of my reading life. Even when ‘ultimate’ Peter died, and was replaced by the Hispanic teenager Miles Morales died – by which time I was a full-fledged adult – I remained whole-heartedly invested in the world and its characters.

And then everything changed.

During the 2015 mega-event “Secret Wars,” both the Ultimate Marvel universe and the mainstream Earth-616 universe were destroyed.  When the dust finally cleared and the crisis concluded, Earth-616 was restored — along with Miles and his family. Thus, when Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 opens, Miles is one of two “Spider-Men” operating in New York City; and he’s a card-carrying member of the Avengers, too.

My biggest fear was that this opening volume would focus on Miles’s transition from one universe to another; but that’s not the case at all. There is a real push to make this a fresh start and a true first chapter in Miles’s story. The only problem is, it cheapens the drama that’s come before, and brings into question the continuity of what we read in Miles’s adventures in the Ultimate universe. One of the most devastating moments Miles experienced was the death of his mother; now that’s reversed. There was real emotional when Miles’s father discovered his son was Spider-Man, and his anger and refusal to converse with his son was deeply affecting; now that’s been wiped away.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 is a callback to the archetypal high-school superhero story. Basically: I have to save the world but I have homework, too. And while we’ve seen it time and time again, Bendis does it so well, and frankly, it’s nice to read a superhero comic working on a smaller-scale. Between you and me, I’ve a little over world-ending scenarios. The best Bendis comics– Alias, Daredevil, Ultimate-Spider-Man — have always been character-focused, which suit his heavy-dialogue style, and it’s the quieter moments that prove the most memorable here. Miles’s confrontation with his grandmother over his flailing grades is hilarious; so too his conversation with best friend Ganke about whether it’s better to be “skinny and black” or “chubby and Asian” in America. Sure, there’s a whole plot-thread in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 about Black Cat and Hammerhead teaming up to take out Spider-Man; but what makes the volume resonate is the building friction between Miles and Ganke over his secret identity. The super-heroics are just the backdrop for a fun, emotive high-school story.

Sara Pichelli’s illustrations are gorgeous. The action is dynamic, but the way she nails the smaller moments – the mannerisms and expressions of characters during their conversations – is peerless. In issue #4 she draws ten pages of dialogue between Miles and Ganke in the school cafeteria. Boring, you might be thinking. But just check out the way she lays it all out. It’s incredible. Just like the whole book, really.

No, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Vol. 1 doesn’t redefine superhero comics. As a standalone tale, it’s not even particularly memorable. But as the next phase in the Miles Morales story – as another part of an unfinished collage – it’s fantastic.

ISBN: 9781846537165
Format: Paperback  (198mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 120
Imprint: Panini Books
Publisher: Panini Publishing Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom