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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

Title: Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

ISBN: 9781593072971

Price: $12.00

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005

Artist: Frank Miller

Writer: Frank Miller

Rating: 3.5/5

Family Values, the third Sin City tale with Dwight as its protagonist, is at heart a very simple story, yet Frank Miller deftly wraps it in questions. When last seen in The Big Fat Kill Dwight was attempting to prevent a gang war in the Old Town that would have devastating consequences for the prostitutes working there, several of whom he considered friends. He’s now helping them out once more, except while that’s revealed early, the reasons it’s required are only clarified at the conclusion.

It pits Dwight against the upper echelons of the crime syndicates overseeing their territories, yet in an inventive fashion, overturning the theme of the series to date, as he’s always portrayed in control. This incorporates a very clever sequence reversing the usual tension. Dwight has been abducted by a group of threatening thugs who consider themselves to have the upper hand, yet are puzzled by his confidence. This is because it’s already been established that pint-sized assassin Miho is observing from the rooftops.

Miho has similarities to Elektra, as introduced in Miller’s Daredevil, but Miller’s now a far better artist, and there’s a balletic quality to the way in which she swoops and slices with her swords, aided by the visual effect of using roller-blades. That she’s depicted almost entirely in white against a strong black background supplies an almost ethereal quality. This is fantasy material, diverted into other areas of fantasy by gratuitous partial nudity. In a snowstorm.

Another controversial element is the use of racial insults by one of the thugs. Miller gets a free pass on this one. He’s established his stories as set in a form of recognizable reality even if the location is fictional and the action exaggerated. As distressing as it might be, there are people with those views unconcerned about expressing them. Substituting dialogue that might be perceived as more politically correct (as if that could ever apply to Sin City) would diminish the story. And let’s just say he won’t be talking like that again.

This is one of the shortest Sin City sequences, rendered an even more rapid read via several wordless action sequences, all very effective. Yet it’s also the best to date, the background questions providing the tension, the revelations scattered through the book, and an excellent final scene packing a hefty emotional punch.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

Title: Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

ISBN: 1593072937

Price: $17.00

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005

Artist: Frank Miller

Writer: Frank Miller

Collects: Dark Horse Presents #51-62, Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special

Rating: 3.5/5

For people who love dark noire thrillers, anti-heroes, beautiful dames and fast paced brutal action set against the dystopian setting of a sinister city -that looks like the mutant offspring of Las Vegas and New York City.

Follow huge ex-convict Marv, who has a mental ‘condition’ that makes him hallucinate and paranoid, as he tries to avenge a beautiful woman murdered in his bed. His quest leads us from the dirty criminal underbelly of Sin City all the way into its highest levels…

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller is another milestone in the world of graphic novels. Like his classic The Dark Knight Returns redefined Batman forever, Sin City changed the way we view graphic novels. Both in terms of art and story.

Marv is a mentally ill bruiser in Sin City. He works a local strip joint as bouncer and is generally a nice guy. That is until you get tough with him. Then you have a heavy goods train coming straight at you. Marv also carry’s numerous scars from his life of fighting and his violent nature is only kept at bay by his code of chivalry (he doesn’t hit women) and the medication he chew like M&M’s (he’s got a condition…ok).

The Hard Goodbye starts with a Marv spending the night with the beautiful Goldie. He’s an ugly guy. She’s a beautiful dame. Sounds too good to be true… but to Marv it doesn’t matter.

Things start going wrong when Marv wakes up and Goldie is lying next to him in bed, dead! Our hero quickly realizes that she was murdered while he was too drunk to notice or do anything about it. Then, before a moment is wasted the cops show up. This is starting to look like a frame-up job.

And this is where Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye shines. Marv decides he doesn’t want to go down before he figures out who killed Goldie. This means going through an attack squad of Sin City’s finest corrupt cops money can buy.

Frank Miller’s action sequences are breathtaking. No time and space is wasted on talking. No banter. No witty one lines. Just a human tank crushing through everything and anything in its way!

By now you might think that Marv isn’t a very bright man and prefers to solve problems through force. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marv won’t be getting the Nobel Price anytime soon, but he knows his limitations and is really good at asking questions.

So he figures that Goldie was scared. Scared enough to run into the dingiest part of the den of sin that calls itself Basin City (Sin City’s government name). Scared enough to look for the biggest toughest guy she could find and hope that he was enough. Enough to protect her.

Marv starts asking questions. He goes to guys who might know something, asks them and if they don’t give a satisfying answer –hits them over the head a few times. Two bumbling hit men come after them, one has a very fine coat. Marv asks them some questions and gets a fine coat as a gift for his troubles. Slowly he works his way up the ladder and discovers something (that will turn out to be even more) horrible.

Prostitutes have been going missing. Golide (surprise) was one of them working gals. Everything is pointing towards the Roark’s, Sin City’s founding ‘royal family’, who rule this town with an iron fist. No business (legal or illegal) is off limits, the Roark’s get paid from everything that goes on.

Can Marv take on the powers that be of Sin City and avenge a woman he only knew briefly? Is he even getting all this right, after all our hero is prone to paranoid delusions and hallucinations?

Why does someone who looks exactly like Goldie keep trying to kill him? What sinister secrets does an old farmhouse just out of town hide? Who really killed Goldie and why?

The answers to these questions will thrill, shock and engross you!

Frank Miller is the master of the dystopian anti-hero. He also contributed to elevating the American comic into the form of the graphic novel that we know and love today. Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye is a prime example of this.

Miller’s artwork stands out because it is black and white. No colors. Just light and dark. His use of positive and negative spaces is mind-blowing. Often you don’t see a character, building or action –you see an outline.

Miller makes light and shadows dance with each other. You’d think that this simplicity would take away from the visuals but it doesn’t. It lends Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye a very unique and stylized look. Sin City is a filthy, dangerous and menacing place. The artwork conveys this atmosphere and tension perfectly.

Through this look, Miller also, once again, proves that he is a master of illustrating very complex characters and environments in detail without actually putting a lot of detail onto the page. He shows you just enough to get your imagination filling in the blanks, which leads to Sin City reading like a blockbuster action movie instead of a graphic novel.

Miller’s writing in Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye perfectly intertwines with his artwork to tell an action packed noire detective story without a detective.

Dialogue is used sparingly. It only purpose is moving the story forward or filling in information that can’t be communicated visually. This means that The Hard Goodbye is a very tightly integrated and flowing story.

You really get drawn into the story and connect with Marv. He’s a violent mentally ill bruiser but he has his own idiosyncratic system of values. He’s doing bad things to bad people.

That’s kind of a theme with Miller. That those who practice violence should be punished in kind. I love the little quirks that Miller weaves into the storyline, Marv’s obsession with fine coats for example.

The Hard Goodbye is an excellent read full of action and barely contained energy. If you like noire detective thrillers and modern action movies read this book!

If you just want to cleanse your palate after reading something more emotionally intense like Maus by Art Spiegelman or Daytripper by Moon & Bá –read this graphic novel! The Hard Goodbye is an American masterpiece that will stand out in any collection.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories

Title: Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories 

ISBN: 9781593073015

Price: $15.99

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005

Artist: Cary Nord

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Collects: Conan #0-7

Rating: 3.5/5

Most readers of my generation first learned of Conan and Robert E. Howard from the popular 70s Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian and its companion magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. Initially written by Roy Thomas with elaborate art by Barry Windsor-Smith (and later John Buscema), the series ran until the mid-90s, when Marvel dropped the property due to lagging sales.

With Del Rey's best-selling, definitive reprint volumes of Howard's works (the fourth is due this summer), persistent rumors of a new film, and the 2006 centenary celebration of Howard's birth, Dark Horse Comics smartly acquired the comic book rights to Conan. Dark Horse has previously enjoyed successful runs with former Marvel hit licensed properties Star Wars and Godzilla. In the late 80s they began their long string of lucrative franchised properties with Aliens followed by Predator, Planet of the Apes, Betty Page, Tarzan, and others. Conan and Dark Horse are a natural fit.

Conan: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories collects the first seven plus issues of the comic book (issues zero-six and part of seven). At first glance, "The Frost Giant's Daughter" is an unusual piece to adapt. While potentially visually exciting, the story is one of Howard's weaker (and earliest) Conan tales. Unlike most of Howard's other Conan stories, it is basically just a fight scene containing little substance or plot. By using elements found in Howard's essay on the world of Conan ("Nemedian Chronicles" aka "The Hyborian Age"), Kurt Busiek expands the scope of the original to place the events in the context of Conan's life. Busiek develops Howard's version to incorporate other elements of the Conan mythos.

Contrary to popular misinterpretation (thanks primarily to the Marvel comic books and two feature films), Conan, as presented by Howard, is much more than a fighter. He is a thinker, a tactician, a lover, and a loyal friend. Conan is a barbarian, a thief, a mercenary, and ultimately, a king. The tales are full of political intrigue, romance, swordplay, magic, mythology, and more. Like all of Howard's work, Conan was a vividly imaginative interpretation of a young man's West Texas world.

In the graphic novel, a young Conan has journeyed north in search of the legendary kingdom of Hyborea with its riches and immortals. While saving a young woman's life, he gets embroiled in a confrontation between the warring peoples Aesir and Vanir. Through a series of fights and political machinations, events eventually lead to the frost giant's daughter and eventually Hyborea.

Busiek's masterful manipulation of Howard's playground is supported and supplemented by the artistic talents of Gary Nord, Thomas Yeates, and Dave Stewart. Robert E. Howard was a master of action, who wrote some of the finest and most influential fight scenes ever produced. Reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, the art manages to translate the intensity and flow of the source material. Nord's interpretation of the frost giants is original and inspired.

Similar to DVDs, graphic novel compilations must have extras. The highlight of this section is Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn's enlightening and entertaining overview of Howard's life and work, illustrated with Nord's original concept sketches. (This certainly bodes well for Finn's forthcoming literary biography of the author.) Other bonus materials include Nord's audition pages and Joseph Michael Linser's chapter breaks.

Unlike most previous attempts, the handsome Dark Horse package is a welcome addition to the Conan mythos. With Busiek, Nord, Yeates, and Stewart at the helm, I'll be back for more.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Saga Volume 9

Title: Saga Volume 9

ISBN: 9781534308374

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Image, 2018

Artist: Fiona Staples

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Collects: Saga #49-54

Rating: 4/5

This is a space opera that tackles the most difficult and relevant topics of our own society, doesn’t hesitate to shock readers, flip the script, and most frightening of all, doesn’t hold back from killing off major characters that we are deeply invested in. It’s a cruel message, that even the best people trying to just live their lives and maintain their ideals can be snuffed out by those with less scruples, and that those that have used violence in the past can rarely escape the consequences, even after having turned to a peaceful path. This volume will leave you stunned, gutted, and struggling to recover. Not only that, but writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have said they will be taking an extended hiatus after this volume. It may be a good time to re-read the entire series and consider the first nine volumes as a major story arc that comes to a stunning ending here.

In Vol 9, Marko & Alana, their daughter Hazel, Prince Robot, his son Squire, Petrichor, Ghus, Upsher & Doff, The Will, and Ianthe continue their tense cat & mouse chase. While the “good guys” are taking a breather, Upsher & Doff pitch the idea of sharing Marko & Alana’s story to their tabloid in exchange for a big payout that will let them (possibly) escape from all their pursuers and enemies and just be a “normal” family, one not under the constant threat of death from rival galactic empires that both have an interest in extinguishing them. At the same time, Prince Robot has his own plans on how to achieve happiness for himself, Squire, and Petrichor. This extremely unlikely trio makes for a fascinating family unit, and the whole series is so good at mixing up very different characters and forcing them to face brutally-difficult decisions in the midst of harrowing circumstances. How Vaughan manages to keep the banter clever, humorous, and yet completely honest is an amazing accomplishment. There are no false notes, just a continuously shifting tone as we go from quiet moments of brief happiness to sudden, wrenching, and violent deaths. It’s quite an emotional roller-coaster, so be prepared to be thrown for six and put through the wringer – it’s hard to imagine any fan of the series getting through this volume unscathed, and I was once again so impressed by how Vaughan and Staples use the story panels to create unbearable tension. I use Comixology and have it set so you read each panel without seeing the next, so there were moments in the story when I just didn’t want to move to the next panel, knowing something awful was waiting, but being unable to stop myself. It’s a perfect use of the medium, and the artwork is clean, expressive, and gorgeous as always.

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