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

Review: Huck, Book 1: All American by Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque

Huck_vol1-1.pngThere is a unique sweetness and optimism to Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque’s Huck so rarely seen in superhero comics these days. It makes for a refreshing change of tone from what we’ve become accustomed to, and besides Albuquerque stunning artwork, is what makes this otherwise fairly old-style superhero caper truly shine.

I say “old-style” because of its simplicity. Nowadays simplicity is frowned upon; character histories have got to be convoluted; plots have got to be expansive, and are generally overwrought. Huck benefits from its streamlined narrative. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated – delightfully so. Huck is an orphan, left at a stranger’s doorstep in small town America when he was a baby. He’s grown up to make a living as a gas station attendant – and has earned a reputation as the town’s do-gooder. Huck’s got superpowers – incredible strength, the ability to leap – not fly, definitely leap – tall buildings in a single bound, and he uses his powers to benefit the town, who in return, keep his abilities secret. So naturally, when a newcomer exposes his secret, the life Huck has constructed for himself falls apart very quickly.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe Huck was written by the writer responsible for the bloody and violent Nemesis and Kick-Ass, which I suppose demonstrates Mark Millar’s range. Five or six years ago, I was turned off by his output – too one-note and violent for my tastes, – but since then, following the publication of Starlight (possibly my favourite sci-fi comic ever) and Jupiter’s Legacy, Millar’s turned himself into one of my must-read writers. Which shows, I suppose, that a reader should never totally dismiss a creator’s output based on what has come before. Millar writes Huck as a dim-witted good guy; who sees the world in black and white, and struggles when the greys expose themselves. Huck’s not bright, but he’s so damn likable; he’s the friend we all need in our lives, not for the scintillating conversation, but because he can distil our troubles into a manageable form.

Albuquerque is the true star here, though. Already a megastar, his work on Huck takes the artist to a whole new level. His style of cartooning is so unique and expressive, able to capture the emotional moments as well as the blockbuster heroic moments. And he’s coloured brilliantly here by Dave McCaig, whose work adds an almost watercolour-like quality to Albuquerque’s pencils. It’s quite possibly the work of their careers, but you wouldn’t put it past them to outdo themselves; perhaps in Huck’s second volume?

A fun, rip-roaring yet poignant superhero tale. There’s not enough heart in superhero comics being published today. Hopefully Huck rubs off on some of the capes and cowls crusading in the pages of Marvel and DC and reminds the Big Two that we want more than fisticuffs and explosions.

ISBN: 9781632157294
ISBN-10: 1632157292
Format: Paperback (275mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Pages: 160
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 26-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Superman, Vol. 1 – Before Truth by Gene Luen Yang & John Romita Jr

Before-Truth-Cover-201x300The Superman titles have undergone a renaissance recently, sparked by the arrival of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder on ACTION COMICS, and followed by Geoff Johns’ and John Romita Jr.’s brief stint on SUPERMAN. Now Gene Luen Yang steps up to the plate – the acclaimed writer of American Born Chinese – with Before Truth, the first volume in his run on SUPERMAN. And with Romita Jr. by his side, he’s redefining Clark Kent for the ‘New 52’ generation. Fans rejoice: we’ve finally got a Superman who’s emblematic of the character we know and love, who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way; but also renewed and rejuvenated under this new stewardship.

Before Truth picks up where Johns’ The Men of Tomorrow arc ended. Superman has discovered a new power – a solar flare that obliterates everything in its radius, but leaves him powerless for up to 24 hours. Why introduce a new power into Superman’s mythology, you might ask? Well, this version of Superman is de-powered; he’s not quite the God-like being readers have become accustomed too, so the solar flare ability is effectively a ‘last resort’ option. When all else fails, when Superman has got to lay it all on the line, he ignites. This allows Yang and Romita Jr. the opportunity to showcase Clark Kent’s misapprehension of the human condition; a few sips of alcohol leave him inebriated, and he’s developed a newfound appreciation for food. These are small touches, but they add layers to a Clark Kent who has been fairly uninteresting since DC relaunched with the New 52.

Before Truth introduces the villain Hordr, who has learned Superman’s secret identity and threatens to expose him to the world unless he does precisely what’s demanded of him. Aided by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Superman deliberates between his desire to maintain a normal life as Clark Kent and refusal to bow down to the villain’s command. But ultimately, it might be a decision that’s taken out of his hands . . .

Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s SUPERMAN is, simply, a rip-roaring superhero tale. They haven’t aspired to redefine Superman’s character or continuity; rather, they’re focused on telling a good story and implores readers to pick up the subsequent volume. There’s no doubt about that. Solid characterisation, rapid pacing, great Romita Jr. art –  it’s all here. A Superman story for readers, old and new, to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781401259815
Format: Hardback
Pages: 224
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 12-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: United States