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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Empress Book One

Title: Empress Book One

ISBN: 9781302902070
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2017
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Writer: Mark Millar
Collects: Empress #1-7

Rating: 4.5/5

Don’t let this somewhat evil looking woman on the cover fool you — Empress is an epic space opera in every sense of the word. Multiple planets explored, various aliens, tons of action, incredible spacecrafts, romance, and death loom on every single page. Add to that Millar and Immonen’s pedigree and you have a must read title if you ever saw one.

The art is simply great. If you’re a lover of science fiction or just like expressive characters this is the book for you. Immonen infuses every panel with life and creativity to the point where you wonder if he has some kind of magic mirror to see other worlds. In a panel focused on a protagonist walking in a city square you might have aliens observing a statue in the foreground simply there to add a bit of life to a scene. A lot of this book’s ingenuity stems from Immonen’s clean and gorgeous work. One could argue scenes are reminiscent of Blade Runner, but when you look closer you notice clever details in colors or graphics amongst the crowds. Credit is due to Ive Svorcina’s colors which are bright, but in a realistic sort of way that keeps the action edgy and dramatic. Inker Wade von Grawbadger keeps Immonen’s lines honest and clean adding a dimension to clothing that’s just beautiful.

Having read and loved Mark Millar’s Starlight series I had very high expectations for another science fiction story and he surpassed them. There’s a slight similarity between the protagonist in that series and the queen’s protector Dane in this book, that being they’re both rugged Flash Gordon types who are great at fighting and kicking alien butt. Outside of that, the setup and cast of characters is unique and intriguing.

The book opens on Earth 65 million years ago and surprisingly it’s filled with aliens and incredible technology. We quickly learn Earth’s ruler King Morax is a tyrant who Queen Emporia wants nothing to do with anymore. From there, Emporia flees with her children and Dane and the book follows their exploits to escape Morax for good. Along the way Dane implores a friend for aid, compelling abilities of alien life are introduced (you can switch bodies with an alien, eat all you want on a resort all the while they work out your original body!), and worlds are explored. In a somewhat Star Wars like fashion Millar has even integrated a cute robot you’ll grow to love. There’s a lot to enjoy in this book due to the colorful science fiction elements laid upon a breakneck plot.

Once about halfway through this volume it’s rather easy to see why it’s being adapted into a film and that’s due to all the action. There are family issues brought in via Emporia’s daughter–who disagrees with their fleeing and is strongly opposed to her mother falling in love with Dane–allowing strong character work throughout strung together via giant action scenes. Teleportation mishaps, spaceship chase sequences and incredible getaways continually keep the pace up and the fun very high. Each character seemingly has a function and a purpose in the volume (with a fantastic surprise to finish the book too) making every moment important.

The romantic arc between Emporia and Dane is somewhat confusing. Avoiding spoilers here, but over half of the book leads you to believe their relationship is strictly business and then…well it’s not. Unless I didn’t pick up on visual cues, it leaves you feeling a bit misled though certainly not dissatisfied.

This is a nitpicking sort of gripe, but the cute robot friend of the heroes named Ship is a somewhat annoying plot convenience to say the least.

Empress is incredible in so many ways you’ll be left in awe of how well it all comes together. There are moments where you can’t turn the page fast enough, though you still linger longer than you need to in order to enjoy the incredible art. If you’re a lover of Star Wars or simply love science fiction in general you will love every page of this book.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Occultist, Volume 2: At Death’s Door

Title: The Occultist, Volume 2: At Death’s Door

ISBN: 9781616554637
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2014
Artist: Mike Norton
Writer: Mike Richardson, Tim Seeley
Collects: The Occultist series 2 #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

As I’m sure you probably gleaned from the title, this graphic novel is centered around mystical powers. And if that’s all that The Occultist, Volume 2: At Death’s Door had going for it, it would still be a darn fine read. But fortunately for us, there is more going on here than you might first think. This is not your typical supernatural story, not by any means.

Since this was a miniseries originally, it is exceptionally nice that the writers included a couple of pages of back story to help new readers. Most of the time we don’t get that luxury. The premise here is a young man named Rob Bailey has been given the power of an ancient tome entitled The Sword. Following the loss of his trusted friend and mentor, Rob teams up with a local detective to stop the demons and the undead from seizing power and killing innocents. And that leads us to the current chain of events in this five issue series.

Keeping in mind, this is a young man still finding his way through life and trying to unlock the secrets of his powers, so he makes a few mistakes along the way…and some of them are potentially life altering. despite this, our hero is still hard at work protecting humanity and keeping the creatures of the underworld from harming others. From enraged baby spirits to Occultist-eating demons, this poor college student has his hands full. Even his new mentor has a few secrets of his own. But the main event of this comic run is the trio of witches and warlocks that seem to be able to move through the ethereal plane at will. But as with many things, not everyone is who the appear to be.

Mike Richardson and Tim Seeley are together here. They have penned a wonderful story that reaches beyond the average superhero comic and stays interesting and action-packed the whole way through. Mike Norton‘s art is bold and distinct, lending itself to the story rather than trying to outshine it. This comic is the perfect marriage of the visual and the literary.

Much better that volume 1, there is 1 item that makes me look forward to possibly more Occultist: They touch on the other supernatural "superheroes" in the Dark Horse universe. I would love to see an Occultist/Ghost crossover.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Occultist Vol 1

Title: The Occultist Vol 1

ISBN: 9781595827456
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2012
Artist: Victor Drujiniu
Writer: Mike Richardson, Tim Seeley
Collects: The Occultist #1-3, Dark Horse Presents #11-13

Rating: 2.5/5

Robert is a momma’s boy in college. Worse, he is a momma’s boy nerd who just got broken up with because all he does is play video games and read books. I sympathize. Luckily, Robert can go get some good advice from Mr. Elder, the owner of the rare book shop Robert works at. Surely Mr. Elder has better advice than Robert’s mother who merely said that the girl was evil and a temptation? But before we learn any valuable lessons, Robert notices a strange book which Mr. Elder tells him not to touch while walking out of the room. Robert is then chosen by the book, The Occultist, to become the Sword. This stellar quote about sums it up, “Man does not choose to wield the sword. The sword chooses to wield the man.” p. 16

Predictably it is right after this scene the benevolent Mr. Elder is murdered while trying to hand off the book to the sketchy dudes sent to pick it up. Subsequently, we learn two things: these sketchy dudes work for Aiden Beck, an evil shaman, and the sketchy dudes are substantiated evil crow spirits. Now all of their talk about shiny things, pecking out eyes and the great cornfield in the sky make sense. Thankfully, we don’t have to listen to them blather on about who gets to peck out Robert’s eyes because “The Occultist” reveals their true form and Robert is able to destroy them. While I quite like the concept of Native American shamanism and evil spirit animals, etc. I didn’t entirely like the way in which mid-battle the book reveals a Wikipedia-like page detailing the origin of the enemies and how to kill them… It was kind of cheesy. However, I feel like this method of explanation is not going to go away and the reader should prepare themselves for the narration to be paused mid-action scene in the future so we can understand the “true nature” of the evil spirits Robert, aka the Sword, is attempting to vanquish.

Immediately following the defeat of those damn, dirty crows, Robert is confronted by the ghost of Mr. Elder, who sets up the classic superhero, “with great power comes great responsibility” clause, except he adds the caveat that it really doesn’t matter how good Robert’s intentions are: he’s doomed to eff everything up… Great, the reader is in for Robert’s ride up shaman sh*t creek. At this point I’m waiting for both Robert’s mother and his ex girlfriend to be murdered by eye pecking crows, while he’s engrossed in his pity party of thinking, “Poor me, why was I chosen as the sword? I didn’t ask for this. *sob*”. This seems an even more likely scenario as Aiden Beck, who is dressed like a hobo who found a suit, summons all of the, “hit mages”, to kill Robert. Again, I like the concept, but the shirtless Native American hit mage bro who has a vagazzled happy trail is really a little much… And the fact that they are called hit mages. Do some research and find the bad ass ancient shaman name for assassin. And for the love of god please do not reveal the origin of Native American bro’s vagazzling and how to “vanquish” it…

The second chapter of “The Occultist” opens with a hooker. Literaly, a prostitute. About time… We didn’t get to see any boom shakalaka during the college scenes because Robert was too much of nerd, but now we get to see the shaman summon spirit animal python? Samuel L. Jackson would be proud. Oh scratch that; the shaman is brutally murdered by the hooker aka the disguised “Sword-breaker”. The reasoning behind this seems to be because Aiden Beck wasn’t a nature shaman anymore, hew was a techno-shaman… I’ll be honest, I was glad to see Beck go. He was really stressing me out by “sacrificing” iPhones in bizarre rituals, and jamming his fingers into USB sockets. Plus what kind of pussy-ass shaman has to hire hit mages? It seems that the “Sword” has a new bad guy to deal with… The “Sword-breaker”!

Luckily Robert seems to have come to terms with his new powers, by casting a love spell on his ex girlfriend, and well… Someone is summoning spirit animal python if you know what I mean. Craziness ensues as the local detective comes to question Robert about the death of Mr. Elder. The hit mages conveniently show up at the same time. Vagazzled Native American Bro (VNAB) hasn’t shown up yet, but there is Pandora, and something seems to be up with her “box”. Yes, there is definitely some sexual innuendo going on here. Anyways, the second chapter ends with Robert facing off against the hit mages, setting us up for the third chapter which is where things get interesting.

Robert finally gets to test out the Sword’s power against the hit mages and it is a pretty epic battle, which is thankfully not interrupted by any freeze frame background info on the hit mages. The Sword dispatches all of them pretty easily, stuffing Pandora back into her box, shaving VNAB and pretty much leaving an all round bloody mess. It looks like Robert is going to come out on top when the “Sword-breaker” shows up, and the one hit Mage who doesn’t seem like a complete mongoloid actually saves Robert.

What follows is a lot of cheesy dialogue, but the writers seem to be cognizant of this, and use the cheesy dialogue as a distraction to help Robert escape, while reemphasizing that he is a nerd extraordinaire. However, I see this self aware irony on the part of the writers as a massive cop out, and this is really where the comic lost me again. They bring up some deep issues, but they do it in an ironic or shallow way, almost as if they only want this comic to be an entertaining read. But if that was the case, they should’ve cut out all of the “deep” dialogue to begin with and kept it a fast paced narrative. An example of this shallowness is when it is revealed why Robert was chosen to be the sword in the first place… He has, “walked the line between life and death” thanks to his crazy Christian-scientist of a mother who refused to take him to a hospital when he was a kid suffering from Meningitis. What. The. F**k. You can’t just casually throw that out as an explanation for the crux of the plot line and then not bring it up again at all in the following 3 chapters!

I’m not even going to bother summarizing the last three chapters of the trade paperback of the Occultist. All I’m going to say are two words: vampire prom.. Yes, the book ends with Robert crashing a vampire prom. In my mind this is one of the numerous examples of the authors skirting around issues of substance, and unnecessarily adding “marketable” vampires and demons for Buffy-esque slaying. There are some plot twists that occur in the last chapters, but again they seem cliche. Do we really care what happens to Robert as he goes to college and is tutored on how to use his new powers by the secretly resurrected Aiden Beck? Aiden Beck’s reappearance also serves as a way for the authors to silence the friendly ghost of Mr. Elder who has been getting dangerously close to some deep issues in his dialogue… Thank god we don’t have to listen to that geezer drone on about values, and what it is like to mature in a world where you have very little control. Kill more vampires, please! Oh and yes I would love mid battle to know the origin of the demons he is trying to exorcise back to hell! I missed the freeze frame Wikipedia articles!

In summary I would say that the Occultist had potential, but the authors tried to draw in too many disparate plot elements and decided to focus on what seems to be marketable action scenes versus saying anything of value. Maybe I’m being too harsh in my judgement, and the authors have really just been foreshadowing the deep issues that will be explored later in the series. But the vampire prom made me not really care if that’s the case. And while the sword has kick ass powers, they seem too hodgepodge. It is like the authors were trying to decide what type of monsters fans would like, as opposed to what would really work well for the plot. They should’ve stuck to spirit animals and shamanism instead of running the whole gamut of mythological beasts from Druids, Pandora, Indiana Jones to demons and vampires. Oh yeah and let’s not forget Native American Vagazzled Bro.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

John Constantine Hellblazer: Rare Cuts

Title: John Constantine Hellblazer: Rare Cuts

ISBN: 1401202403
Price: $14.95
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2005
Artist: David Lloyd, Sean Phillips, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham
Writer: Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison
Collects: Hellblazer  #11, 25-26, 35, 56, 84 Vertigo Secret Files: Hellblazer #1

Rating: 3.5/5

This selection of six issues from one of Vertigo's longest running series brings together a few of the morally ambiguous stops on John Constantine's journey through the bleak heart of humankind. The episodes, originally published from 1988 to 1994 and reprinted here for the first time, begin with Constantine's bitter memory of a time "before hell impaled and toasted us, writhing over the roaring fires of our own inadequacies."

The series is legendary for its combination of political cynicism, magical exploration and occult horror. Constantine bends demons to his will at times, gets trounced by them at others, and always wonders if he and the rest of humanity are worth the effort. Marvelous storytelling from three of the series' best writers-Delano, Ennis and Morrison-will make the collection hard to resist for fans and a great way in for new readers.

Morrison's two tales, "Early Warning" and "How I Learned to Love the Bomb," are especially riveting as a parade of suppressed human desires released by a combination of nuclear frequencies and pagan ritual threaten Constantine. Hyper-realistic art by Lloyd, Philips, Rayner and Buckingham gives powerful expression to the varied horrors of demonic force and human weakness. A timeline and map of "Constantine's London" at book's end is an appealing bonus.

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