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: Slugfest – Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

SlugfestAlthough I am longer a Wednesday Warrior, and visits to my local comic book shop have dwindled to maybe once a month, I remain deeply interested in the industry. Working in a bookshop means focusing on prose rather than comics, and the reality is, nobody ever asks my opinion on the latest issue of Spider-Man, but they do value my thoughts on the latest Bosch novel by Michael Connelly. But comics — specifically DC Comics and Superman — initiated my love of reading as a child.

I lost myself in the convoluted world of Superman in the mid-nineties, when he returned from the dead with a mullet after his devastating battle with Doomsday, broke off his engagement with Lois Lane, then married her, then developed new electric powers… Much of it was nonsensical, all of it was ridiculous, but I loved those comics. My father and grandmother would buy me a comic book from the newsagents every weekend, and every school holidays dad would take me to the comic book shop, where I had a $50 spending limit, and got to indulge my habit. I started reading Batman and Justice League, then discovered Marvel’s stuff, and became a regular reader of Spider-Man. The storytelling was soap-operatic and addictive, and from those superhero comics I moved onto Marvel and DC books starring their flagship characters, which in turn propelled me into reading non-superhero related fiction. It’s a safe bet to say I would not be writing this blog, or be working as a bookseller, if it wasn’t for comic books. And the current state of the industry, in terms of the periodicals themselves rather than the cash-cow films, concerns me greatly. There are so many brilliant writers currently crafting brilliant comics, specifically on the creator-owned scene, and it’s terrifying thinking about the limited readership on offer despite the incredible storytelling on offer.

Reed Tucker’s Slugfest – Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC is a succinct blow-by-blow account of the often-bitter rivalry between the comic book industry’s biggest players. It’s riveting, for those interested in the subject matter, but reads more like a primer than a comprehensive delineation of DC and Marvel’s evolution from ‘funny books’ to intellectual property for multinational entertainment behemoths. Much like Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, my favourite sections of Tucker’s book are whenever personnel from the two companies offer their perspective on specific events that transpired; the raw animosity between editorial departments and personnel, their attempts at one-upmanship, and the few times the companies partnered for crossovers. Tucker’s book is impeccably researched and authoritative, but I wanted more.

The book is evenhanded and certainly readable, and for those with even the smallest interest in the industry it’s a great place to start. Those who want more depth and analysis should check out books published by Sequart, who specialise in going deep on everything comics-related.

ISBN: 9780751568974
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Sphere
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 5-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: James Bond, Vol. 2: Eidolon by Warren Ellis & Jason Masters

9781524102722_p0_v2_s192x300Despite the exemplary creative team attached, the first volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond relaunch flattered to deceive. It was  packed with the staples Bond fans expect — shoot-ups, car chases, deadly cybernetically-enhanced henchmen, to name but a few — but lacked that special something. Less akin to Casino Royale, and more like Spectre. Thankfully volume 2 — produced by the same creative partnership of Warren Ellis and Jason Masters — rectifies the first’s missteps, and outdoes its predecessor in every way.

As dirty money is being laundered through MI5 — the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency — the Secret Intelligence Service has been neutered and disarmed. ‘Eidolon’ — another word for ghost, or spectre — has infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence, and it’s up to Bond to terminate their operation. It’s a simple set-up, as the Bond novel plots have been since day dot, when Fleming wrote Casino Royale; but it means the creators get to focus on perfectly-choreographed, wide-screen action sequences, including one terrifically rendered car chase. There’s a dash of sex, plenty of thrills, and even features a visit to Q Branch, although there’s a distinct lack of high-tech gadgetry.

Ellis lets Masters take charge during the action scenes, limiting dialogue, allowing  these blockbuster moments to occur in silence. Masters pulls it all off with aplomb. It is brutal and visceral, but not gratuitous. But when Ellis does have the characters interacting, he nails their repartee. This is a tight script, full of great one-liners and scything commentary. One moment in particular had me chuckling, when Bond dumps a gun in a bin during an escape, and his companion asks: “You’re going to leave a loaded gun in a bin?” Bond’s reply is perfect: “It’s America. I don’t have time to give it to a child or a mentally ill person, so I’m leaving it in a bin for them to find.”

It is a shame, then, that with Eidolon, Ellis and Masters bid adieu. Just as they hit their stride and manufactured the perfect contemporary James Bond adventure, they’re gone. Still, what an exit. Any comic book reader with even a remote interest in 007 will dig this volume; so, too, any readers looking for a standalone action thriller.

ISBN: 9781524102722
Format: Hardback (267mm x 178mm x 19mm)
Pages: 152
Imprint: Dynamite Entertainment
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Publish Date: 14-Mar-2017

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: Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

9781760276539.jpgThe cynic in me wanted to view Derek Fridolfs’ and Dustin Nguyen’s Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice as a perfunctory vehicle to spotlight younger versions of DC comics heroes and villains ahead of the release of the blockbuster film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I’m a sucker for the DC’s ‘trinity’ – Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman – and I’m a long-time admirer of Dustin Nguyen’s art. So despite my hesitations, I pulled a copy from the shelf and dived in… and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was delighted. This is a book that’ll have both adults and kids in stitches, scouring pages for inside jokes and references, and enraptured by the core mystery. In other words, it’s a winner.

Young Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince form their own Junior Detective Agency in the halls of Ducard Academy in Gotham City when they realise there’s more to their new boarding school for ‘gifted’ children than meets the eye. They’re an oddball triumvirate, each displaying the divisive characteristics that’ve been portrayed in the comics for decades. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the school’s secret headmaster, overcoming the villainous obstacles in their way including fellow students Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the Joker, as well as dastardly school staff including General Zod, Hugo Strange, Vandal Savage, and so forth.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is layered with references that young fans and older will enjoy – but every element is explicated well enough to ensure the layman won’t be left lost and confused. This is fundamentally a story about friendship – how different personalities, regardless of upbringing, can be moulded into an effective team – with a good amount of super-heroics thrown in. It’s told through traditional comic book pages, journal entries, pamphlets, text messages, and report cards, and the variation enhances the tale’s readability. The only flaw I identified was the novel’s pacing. The story takes its time to get going – it’s not plodding, but necessarily measured in order to establish the characters and their world – but in contrast the climax feels rushed, like suddenly the storytellers realised they were running out of pages. It’s not a major issue, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the novel’s successes, but it’s a noticeable stumble.

This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a kid. It’s fun and quirky, but doesn’t talk down to readers. I’d love to see further adventures in this universe, and there’s certainly a ton more characters to explore from the DC Universe.

ISBN: 9781760276539
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Scholastic Australia
Publisher: Scholastic Australia
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Stumptown, Vol. 1 – The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini)

Stumptown Vol 1Crime fiction is littered with private detectives, but few have punctuated the genre like Dex Parios. Oh, sure, the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations hasn’t yet achieved the resonance of Rockford, Spade, Spenser or Marlowe – but give it time. Thanks to her incorrigible knack of landing herself in hot water, showcased in the opening pages of Stumptown: Volume One, when she is ruthlessly gunned down by a couple of thugs, Dex is destined to earn a place among that echelon.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) introduces Dex as a talented investigator, but a screw-up in just about every other aspect of her life. She owes the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast’s casino almost eight thousand dollars; and with her credit cards maxed out, and less than a hundred bucks to her name, she’s in no position to pay it off, or negotiate when the casino’s manager offers an opportunity to clear the debt. Seems the manager’s granddaughter has gone missing – maybe run off with a boy, maybe not – and Dex’s particular set of skills could be of use in discerning her whereabouts. Unfortunately for Dex, Charlotte’s whereabouts requite a detour through Portand’s seedier districts.

Rather than implementing the stereotypical noir-soaked first person narrative readers might expect, writer Greg Rucka avoids captions entirely, leaving artist Matthew Southworth to carry the heavy load of portraying Dex’s emotions and hinting at her thoughts. It’s a wise move – Southworth is up to the challenge. Stumptown is a comic that necessitates artistic excellence in the quieter moments, as a large portion of the narrative involve non-violent confrontations. Southworth effortlessly renders these scenes, choreographing conversations for maximum readability.  His fellow colourists, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi, also deserve massive credit for their chosen palette, which is stultified, but never anything less than evocative.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) sets an astronomically high bar for future volumes of Stumptown, but given Rucka’s track record, few will doubt his capacity for betterment. Bring it on, Dex.

Review: Liar’s Kiss by Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano

liars_kiss_cover_lgIt’s cliché to say it, but LIAR’S KISS by Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano is the kind of noir tale that will keep you guessing until the very end. Essentially, the final twists and curveballs the creators throw at readers in the final pages are earned, as the narrative comes full circle, and all the dots connect. Sometimes it’s not about innovation; it’s about crystallising what makes a genre great; LIAR’S KISS perfectly encapsulates everything we love about hardboiled crime.

Nick Archer is a private investigator with a sweet gig: he photographs pictures of his client’s wife to prove her faithfulness, while bedding her on the side. Win-win, right? Sure – until Archer’s client is murdered, and his wife is immediately the first suspect. Now Nick’s tasked with clearing her name – while fulfilling his own hidden agenda.

There are no caption boxes; no monologs. Skillman leaves it up to Soriano to portray everything not articulated in the dialog, and he couldn’t have picked a better partner. Soriano’s artwork shifts from jagged black-and-whites to a softer greyscale, almost painterly style for the flashback sequences; in both instances, it’s excellent.

While the final chapter successfully pulls together the various plot threads, the dramatic shift in storytelling approach – it takes the form of a confession – suggests Skillman had worked himself into a deep, dark plot hole – and this was his only way out. The first seven chapters are heavily plot-driven, and build up a head of steam; it feels like we’re heading towards a stunning climax, only for it to screech to a sudden halt. It’s an odd storytelling choice; but it’s not enough to detract from an overall compelling graphic novel.

Review: Words For Pictures – The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis

Words for PicsIn October 2000, at the age of twelve, I sweet-talked my father into buying me a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man #1. The issue’s writer, Brian Michael Bendis, meant nothing to me. He was an unknown.

That changed thirty pages later.

From my earliest days I understood the compartmentalized process involved in creating comics, and could identify respected artists and writers, and even inkers on occasion – but my purchasing decision was never based on who was responsible for the product. I bought everything Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, and that was that, no questions asked.

But something changed with Ultimate Spider-Man #1. Bendis’s storytelling choices, his back-and-forth dialogue, resonated with me, as it did with the vast majority of fandom. From that day on, I made it my mission to read everything Bendis published, and continues to publish. Much like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis played an essential role in my formative years as a storyteller, and as a storytelling connoisseur.

And now he has written a book on writing comics.

With WORDS FOR PICTURES, Bendis has created the ultimate writers’ resource. A one-stop-shop for aspiring creators, and those already heavily vested in the craft. And even those without the slightest creative inclination will find Bendis’s exploration of the process captivating. WORDS FOR PICTURES isn’t just a ‘How-To’ guide; it’s littered with interviews with industry professionals; writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction; Marvel Comics editor Steve Wacker; artists Mark Bagley, Michael Allred and Chris Bachalo; and that barely scratches the surface. It might be Bendis’s name emblazoned on the books cover, but this book isn’t an insular breakdown of the process; it encompasses a grand selection of industry professionals, and the book is a greater resource because of this.

What is the Marvel Style scripting method? What’s the best way to foster a relationship with an artist? Bendis answers these specific questions, and more, but also offers his thoughts on grander subjects; why do we write? How can you identify an idea as good or bad? It’s in these moments, when Bendis extrapolates his own opinions, that WORDS FOR PICTURES transitions from writers’ toolbox to writers’ inspiration. This is a guy who has been writing comics professionally for almost two decades now – how does such a prolific creator retain his passion and determination? And what can we, as writers aspiring to match his exploits, from him?

There are several comic book writing resources available for ambitious creators, but few can match the star-power and comprehensive content offered in WORDS FOR PICTURES. This is the kind of resource that’ll sit on my desk for months; something I’ll return to, frequently, for intermittent moments of motivation and encouragement. In WORDS FOR PICTURES, Bendis tells it like it is; there are no guarantees in any creative industry, and he acknowledges working within its confines is rife with failure – but after reading it, I’ve never been more determined to succeed.