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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Preacher: War in the Sun

Title: Preacher: War in the Sun

ISBN: 9781563894909

Price: $17.99

Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1999

Artist: Steve Dillon

Writer: Garth Ennis

Collects: Preacher Special: One Man's War, Preacher 34-40

Rating: 4/5

Just when you think Garth Ennis can’t get any more extreme than he has been in the previous books in the Preacher series, War in the Sun pulls out all the stops. You want big guns? Tanks should do the trick. You want more Deliverance-style in-bred redneck nutcases? No problem. You want Herr Starr – walking evidence that violence begets violence – to suffer yet more bodily mutilation? On its way. If there’s anything toned down about this volume, it’s the sex – but that’s probably just to make way for the weapons.

This isn’t to say that Ennis has done away with any kind of plot. In fact, more things of consequence happen to the major characters during the chaotic events of this book than in most of the others. Ennis is clearly at home with the carnage, putting words in the mouths of his cast that are entertaining and real, despite the destructive situations that spiral throughout the story, beyond their control.

As usual, Steve Dillon is sharp and consistent, though it could be argued that even his eye for drama is incapable of drawing the extremity of this environment. There are moments, when the carnage goes beyond the usual gratuitous head wound, where we felt that even Dillon was somewhat out of his depth.

In all though this is a cracking book, making the journey to this point more than worthwhile, and more than making up for the slightly off-kilter Dixie Fried. Just watch out for the cliff-hanger ending – you’re probably not going to want to be too far away from the remaining three volumes by the time you’ve reached the end of this one.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Sandman: Endless Nights

Title: The Sandman: Endless Nights

ISBN: 9781401201135
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2003
Artist: Glenn Farby, Milo Manara, Miguelanxo Prado, Frank Quitely, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz, Barron Storey
Writer: Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4/5

A few years back, Neil Gaiman penned the final story of The Sandman comic book series. Even though he cleaned things up and locked the door behind him, he promised us that he had more stories to tell, that he'd be back to tell them. And now he is. Here are seven stories, one for each of the Endless (seven brothers and sisters who rule the functions of dying, dreaming, despairing, etc.) that are focused strictly on them. In the series, Dream (the Sandman of the title) was always there, even if we never saw him. Here, we have stories that spotlight just the people they star, even though there are threads of other the functions woven in. And because of this, each story attempts to define the function its star represents, not the whys of it, but its impact and the action of it.

The first is "Death and Venice", illustrated by P. Craig Russell, who is the only artist to have worked with Neil Gaiman before, on the Arabian nights-like "Ramadan". In it, two stories run parallel for a time; one about a group of eighteenth century nobles who live an hedonistic existence on a secluded island and the second about a disillusioned American solider wandering present day Venice who recalls a meeting he had with a mysterious woman. The two stories twist about each other and almost mirror each other's moods, defining the two main things that we, as humans, always have to go through when Death is involved. We always fight her, and in the end, we always accept her. I think you can recognize Russell's art from a million miles away. But I never realized before how he has perfected the art of expressive simplicity. If you've read Sandman 50, you know well how absolutely ornate he can draw, but in this story, while often things look ornate, they are actually much cleaner than that. Lovely work that matches what is really a very quiet, gentle story.

Following that is the exquisitely drawn "What I've Tasted of Desire." It is the story of a young village woman who "wants like a forest fire." The object of her desire is the chieftain's son. But how can a goat girl win the love and loyalty of a man desired by all the girls of the village? It is a very intelligent story, saying a lot of sensible things about love, lust and desire -- the differences between them, and the magic of each. It is told in a way I found totally captivating. Gaiman removes the fourth wall for this story, creating a sense of intimacy and immediacy that makes it all the more moving. She tells her story directly to you, looking right out of the panels at you the reader, speaking with all the honesty that plain dialogue sometimes lacks. Milo Manara's sensual art is a perfect match for this. The people are absolutely beautiful, and his rendition of Desire, who is neither male nor female, is for me the definitive version.

For long time readers, "The Heart of a Star" is a special treat, because it shows us a much, much younger Dream, taking his beloved Killalla of the Glow to a very important meeting, where he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his lover to his family and friends. While still formal, he's a much happier being. While Death, who has been known to use the expression "peachy keen" is, well, different. I admit I loved it because it featured my favorite of the Sandman characters, and gave some interesting insight, but it is also a very wise and bittersweet story. It is about the dream of love, and the nightmare of it, and about what planets dream of, and stars...

Miguelanxo Prado does a lovely job on the art. His rendition of space is fabulous, and several of the special guests, whose true identity I'll keep mum about, require a special quality to them that I think he achieves perfectly.

"Fifteen Portraits of Despair" is not nearly so gentle. Baron Storey lends his talents to this evocative, wrenching look at the darkest depths of Despair's Realm. It is not a conventional one person's story, but the tale of everyone who despairs. Gaiman begins by describing her appearance and moves to the people who are even now visiting her; a priest accused of a horrible crime, a girl who lists things that make her happy, but can only think of one thing, and a man who lets down the animals that depend on him in a most terrible way. It is poetry interspersed with bits of prose, for example, "Her kiss is the black dog that follows you in the darkness" and, I think, would have been very effective even without the art. The art changes in style and feeling, showing us things of horror and darkness, interspersed, here and there, with things that could be beautiful. It is imaginative and disheartening.

"Going Inside" is Delirium's story, of an unlikely rescue mission conducted by an even unlikelier team of people who know her ways intimately. Bill Sienkiewicz draws this intricate story, one that as if tells of the rescue mission, it shows several different voices. All people whose grasp of reality is not the same as our own. Part of the reason why this works so well is that they use different caption boxes for the different stories. There is also a mixture of artistic styles to help lead us into the realm with them. From the almost photographic perfection of Delirium and Dream, to the black and white pen and ink used to show us our heroes, it is the essence of Delirium's Realm.

This isn't the last time we visit with Delirium. In "On the Peninsula" she joins her brother Destruction. An archeologist goes to San Raphael, where she takes part in a dig but instead of excavating the past, she excavates the future. Destruction agrees to help her in the dig and we learn about how, it seems, even though he abandoned his realm long ago, it looks like we humans don't need him. We're perfectly capable of destruction all on our own. All the stories, you could argue, mix the functions of the endless. But this one mingles them all very closely, so that you can see how closely dreams and desire and despair are all linked to the small destructions that happen to us every day, as well as the larger ones. Glenn Fabry is the artist here, creating really clean, more traditional graphic book art, rendering even the stranger things, such as her dreams, as very real feeling.

The final story is, as it should be, Destiny's. It is hard for Destiny to have a real "story", because he carries a book that has all of our stories. It tells of his walk, through his realm, and of the contents of this book. Frank Quitely's art is really pretty, filled with soft colors and expressive art. It is almost an epilogue, gently ending these endless nights, while strangely, promising that there are more stories to be told.

The Sandman: Endless Nights is, all and all, a beautifully done book. Several different styles and tastes of art that capture the stories and expand our experience. Neil Gaiman is a master of telling short stories. The opportunity to read seven distinct tales told in different ways is a true treat for us, allowing us to experience different worlds and textures. I found them moving and strong. This is a must read for Sandman fans, and provides a fabulous start for those who would like to try out Neil Gaiman's graphic work but were worried about starting on a ten-book series.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man: Election Day

Title: Amazing Spider-Man: Election Day

ISBN: 9780785141310

Price: $29.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009

Artist: John Romita Jr., Barry Kitson, Fabrizio Fiorentino, Patrick Olliffe, Marcos Martin, Todd Nauck

Writer: Marc Guggenheim, Zeb Wells, Matt Fraction

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #583-588, Amazing Spider-Man: Extra #1 & 3

Rating: 2/5

Election Day collects a five part arc (plus a few shorter tales). But even though the first issue is labeled "chapter one" -- it's actually the climax to plots that began much earlier. Still, at least modern Spider-Man comics begin with a tabloid newspaper type opening page, recapping what's been going on, making it more new reader friendly than you might think. Granted, other stuff is just assumed -- like things relating to Harry Osborn's background (though even that is more or less filled in as you go). Now why the fourth issue in the arc is labeled "chapter three" is anyone's guess!

Anyway, the main thrust of this arc is that we're counting down to the election for Mayor of New York (yes, despite real life president Barack Obama being featured on alternate covers for this collection, it's not his election to which the title refers), which some of the regulars have stakes in. Meanwhile, a super villain, Menace, also has an interest in the outcome. And Spidey is the chief suspect in a string of murders where his spider tracer devices have been found at murder scenes.

And to be fair, most of these threads all come to a climax in these pages and, more or less, resolve.

And I wish I was more enthused about the results.

Part of the problem with series that have been around for so long (almost 50 years of Spidey!) is it's hard to find that new or novel story to tell -- at least while still staying within the parameters of the characters and their world. And, more, being a reader who has read so many comics over the years, it's awfully hard for me not to see echoes of other tales. Yet I recently read Clandestine Classic and in my review remarked that the opening arc for that series was vaguely clichéd...yet I still thoroughly enjoyed it, because writer/artist Alan Davis managed to take a familiar idea, and enliven it with his unique telling of it.

Old plots can be refreshed by the characters that inhabit them. And here there's certainly a use of a supporting cast -- but not in a way that they particularly make an impression. Granted, a long-time reader might have a different view. Nonetheless, this is five issues...plenty of time to make me interested in, or care about, the characters -- and it didn't. Heck, mayoral candidate Bill Hollister barely exists as much more than a plot point. I mean, are we supposed to be rooting for this guy or not?

And reflecting the modern trend in comics, there are a lot of big panels, and a lot of stretched out scenes. There's the obligatory scene of J. Jonah Jameson going on TV to rant about Spider-Man -- things he's been doing since the 1960s! Yet Guggenheim devotes a whole page to it. Part of the fun of long running series is the cozy clichés, sure...but don't belabor them unless you have something new to say/do with 'em.

The story can move at a glacial pace at times -- supporting character Carlie Cooper makes a discovery in #584, leading instantly to a conversation...that she's still having in #587! Although in that time/spatial distortion common to storytelling in any medium, in that same five minute span...Spidey is able to cross the city, get into a fight with Menace, and get captured and arrested by the police!!!

It's not that Election Day is bad, but I just found myself flipping through it to get to the end, rather than because it involved me as a story. A little while back, Marvel did a controversial Spidey story to re-set the bar on the series (hence why long dead Harry Osborn is now healthy and hale and back on the team), and supposedly it was to provide a needed shot in the arm for the franchise. But I'm just not seeing it, based on this and the few other recent Spidey stories I've read (like Kraven's First Hunt). It all feels like the creators are running on fumes, recycling old ideas, without finding that new or inspired twist to make them live again. Even Spidey's quips, though amusing, feel a bit belabored -- sometimes the funny, snappy line is funny because it's, you know, snappy. And everyone seems to talk with the same sort of patter. And that's not even getting into the idea that there used to be a contrast, with Spidey both the wisecracking smart ass...and the grim, melancholy brooder (something better reflected in the back-up story, "With Great Responsibility Comes Great Power").

And I have a long, up and down relationship with John Romita Jr's art. I do kind of like his sense of composition, of storytelling, the action and energy he brings to fight scenes. But he also has a deliberately stripped down, cartoony style. Sometimes that sort of style can actually add to the realism of a story -- ironically -- as through caricature the characters can come alive. Yet here, his faces and expressions are fairly rudimentary and bland. If you were to remove the dialogue balloons from many of the probably wouldn't be able to guess what the underlining emotion of the scene was.

Rounding out this collection are four short tales, most decent enough, some filling in gaps in the main story, some unconnected. One story is the "famous" one where Spidey meets President Obama (hence why the prez gets his face on the cover of some editions of this collection) -- Republicans need not feel slighted, though, as Sen. McCain also appears, and is also treated with uncritical adoration.

Now, obviously, this collection will probably read differently for someone who has been following the issues leading up to it. But as I've said before, I often just review these things from the point of view of saying, I picked this randomly off the shelf, an' here's what I thought of it.

There are lots of different criteria for judging the success of a story -- no one more valid than the other. But one of them is to ask, not just how much did the story interest you, but how much did it interest you in the greater series. Despite being the climax of long brewing threads (the election, the Spider-Tracer Killer, the identity of Menace) nothing here really made me curious to track down the preceding stories to fill in blanks. Nor inspired me much to see where things went from here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sandman Volume 9: The Kindly Ones

Title: The Sandman Volume 9: The Kindly Ones

ISBN: 1563892057

Price: $19.99

Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1996

Artist: Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D'Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, Kevin Nowlan

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Collects: The Sandman #57-69

Rating: 4/5

If you're interested in ancient religion you may have heard of the Erinyes of Greek mythology. Also known as the Furies if you happen to be a Roman, or the Kindly Ones if you don't want to offend them, they were symbols of vengeance, personified as three women. The three had a tendency to get particularly hacked off if you inflicted harm on a member of your own bloodline, hounding the perpetrators of such crimes until they were reduced to gibbering wrecks. The Erinyes first appeared in The Sandman to help Dream find his artifacts, way back in Preludes and Nocturnes.

The particularly attentive will be aware that Dream, the Sandman himself, spilled a bit of family blood back in Brief Lives. And with a relatively minor character from The Doll's House believing that Dream has kidnapped and murdered her son, she invokes the Furies to hunt him down.

It's the perfect excuse to hook up with many of the characters from previous volumes, as the Furies run riot through Dream's creation in an attempt to destroy him. There's a strong feeling that, despite its length, this series was always heading towards the conclusion of this volume, which is helped by the reappearance of so many familiar characters.

Considering the number of artists partaking in this exercise, the book is surprisingly coherent on a stylistic level. Perhaps it's because most of the characters have an established likeness, though this takes nothing away from the artists themselves, who seamlessly marry the drama with the fantastic.

For an ongoing series with a finite end, The Kindly Ones is a landmark of excellence, especially on the part of Gaiman who can barely be faulted. Providing the fans with exactly what is required while gathering seemingly disparate and throwaway strands into an epic war of the supernatural, it's a Gaiman tour de force. There's little point starting your Sandman journey here, but it's books like this that make the voyage so worthwhile.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds’ End

Title: The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds’ End

ISBN: 1563891719

Price: $19.99

Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1995

Artist: Michael Allred, Gary Amaro, Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano, Tony Harris, Steve Leialoha, Vince Locke, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens, Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, Michael Zulli

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Collects: The Sandman #51-56

Rating: 4/5

Worlds' End is a book about telling stories. In fact, it's a book about telling stories within a story, and some of these stories are about story-tellers telling more stories. It sounds more complicated than it is, not least of all because of the effort Gaiman has put in to ensure its twists and turns are smooth and seamless.

The basic premise lies around an inn called the Worlds' End. Although this looks a little like a horrifically stereotypical old-fashioned English pub - the kind of establishment where a buxom wench might serve a flagon of ale - it's actually quite unusual. Perhaps inspired by Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the Worlds' End appears when something major happens in the universe; when something occurs that's so big and so resonant that time and space collide. This can cause unusual storms that the inn provides shelter from, making it a place where people from the multitude of worlds created by Gaiman during his Sandman writings can come together for shelter. And, while they're there, they tend to spin the odd yarn to help pass time. Some of the characters in these stories are familiar, others completely new.

There's no denying that Gaiman is good at working a short story, as he's already proven in Dream Country and Fables and Reflections. There's nothing here that impacts on the main Sandman story though, except for a few portents of what's to come in the future and some fleshing out of incidental characters. It's more of a showcase for Gaiman's imagination, though fans of his work will see no issue with that.

Art wise, each story has been dished out to a different artist, with Bryan Talbot left responsible for illustrating the main back-story at the inn, which holds the individual tales together. Mixing up artists like this can make for a mixed bag, but this is one occasion where it works beautifully, partly because of the way the story is segregated - there's no real need for coherency since the individual stories feature different sets of people.

Although difficult to describe as much more than a filler volume, it's high-concept filler with a classy feel to it. Gaiman is undoubtedly one of the best story tellers in comics and this package shows off his art well. The only disappointment, from the view of a Sandman fan, is that there isn't much Sandman in it.

Cerebus Vol 3: Church & State Volume I

 Title: Cerebus Vol 3: Church & State Volume I ISBN: 0919359094 Price: $ Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanheim, 1987 Artist: Gerhard Writer: ...