Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

30 October 2009

High Moon, v. 1

Collects: High Moon Chapters 1-3 (originally available at

Released: October 2009 (Zuda / DC)

Format: 192 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401224622

What is this?: Weird Western intrigue as gunfighters meet werewolves in the Old West.

The culprits: Written by David Gallaher and art by Steve Ellis

I admit I never would have heard of High Moon, v. 1, if it hadn’t been for Valerie D’Orazio’s Occasional Superheroine blog. High Moon is the second release from DC’s Webcomic line, Zuda. The line’s first release, Bayou, passed me by without making an impression.

But High Moon did appeal to me. It was firmly in the weird Western genre, with six shooters and werewolves and other supernatural nastiness. I hadn’t heard of writer David Gallaher or artist Steve Ellis, but that wasn’t an important consideration. When it came down to it, though, buying High Moon was a whim I indulged to get free shipping.

High Moon coverBreaking with usual tradition, I’ll discuss Ellis’s end of the collaboration first. I like his relatively realistic humans, which contrasts with the extreme grotesqueries of the monsters. His sense of character design is usually good and sometimes better than that; his steampunk Tesla collaborator, Tristan, is the best part of the art. But even though I like his characters, they do tend to look a little alike — or sometimes the same character doesn’t look anything like himself. In the first chapter, there is one too many old white guys with overabundant facial hair, and it took a second reading to realize there was only one black guy in the story. In a story that deals extensively with transformations and subtle hints, Ellis’s work — especially in the first chapter — doesn’t quite cut it, unless you’re willing to give it a second read. And High Moon is a high-concept romp — you shouldn’t have to read it twice.

But maybe I’m being too hard on Ellis’s pencils. His drawing isn’t helped by the coloring, which I suppose was his work as well. Much of the story is colored with a dominant palette, usually deep blues or fiery reds. In theory, such color schemes tend to set the mood. In actuality, they tend to drown out subtleties in the work and flood the eyes with uniformity. (Or bore the viewer; the post “No Man’s Land” Detective Comics stuck with almost a monochrome, and the art nearly put me to sleep.) These colors don’t bore. They are vivid, leaping off the page at readers’ before the linework has a chance to make an impression. In the second and third chapter, this isn’t as important, since there are fewer subtleties to the plot or transformations. But, as clichéd as it is, you never get a second chance …

Gallaher’s story and characters should be fun. I can feel it in my bones. Somehow, though, I never engage with the characters and never enjoy the plot. The former is because there are carefree, fun characters; everyone has a dark past, something that has literally and figuratively scarred them. It could have to do with the switch in protagonists after Chapter 1, especially given the two leads didn’t interact enough, and the new lead felt thrust upon the reader by authorial fiat. Also, Gallaher seemed to feel there was a symbolic passing of the torch, but it never showed up on the page.

The story … the story is lacking, somehow. The art can’t be entirely blamed for the confusion; Gallaher plays it a little too subtle in places. (That might be my fault for not reading too carefully, but I don’t know that I should have to read that carefully.) The quest of former Pinkerton agent MacGregor to round up a gang, rescue a kidnapped girl, and deal with the supernatural he’s obviously battled before has a lot of great elements, and his own secret adds a little something to his character. He has a grim sense of humor. But the addition of his past with Eddie Conroy, the secret of the mines, the sheriff’s daughter … I think Gallaher thought he was wrongfooting readers who saw the big werewolf and jumped to the obvious conclusion. He was, but he was also adding a lot of clutter to a story that didn’t need it to be interesting. The second and third chapters are a little more streamlined, but the new protagonist isn’t quite as interesting.

Perhaps it was a great misreading on my part, thinking that the story should be fun. But on the other hand, I have no interest in a weird Western where everyone is miserable, especially when the writer heaps the misery on the characters before he gets me to start liking them.

(Oh, and I’m sure having the cavalry captain say “I’m your huckleberry” seemed like a cool idea. Yes, it sounded cool when Val Kilmer said it as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. It’s not cool here. And the army doesn’t have a rank of “commander.”)

Obviously, I didn’t like High Moon. The rating below is higher than my negative comments might indicate; High Moon gets a bonus simply for being part of the weird Western genre. Fortunately, readers can sample it before making a decision — actually, read the entire series, including the start of the fourth chapter, online at Zuda Comics.

Rating: Zuda symbol Zuda symbol (2 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

23 October 2009

The Essential Batman Encyclopedia

Collects: Original content

Released: June 2008 (Del Rey)

Format: 400 pages / 32 pages of color plates / $29.95 / ISBN: 9780345501066

What is this?: A thorough reference book detailing 70 years of Batman comics

The culprit: Writer Robert Greenberger

When the Random House blog Suvudu launched last August, they had a Batman trivia contest; the prize was The Essential Batman Encyclopedia by Robert Greenberger, a former editor at DC. I was fortunate enough to win a prize, although it took about half a year to get the book (I have no idea why, but I suspect some sort of personnel shuffling). Still, I was impressed with the book.

One word of warning, though: Do not read this book all the way through at once. Since this is a set of alphabetical entries on just about everybody Batman has come across, approach the Essential Batman Encyclopedia the same way you would Wikipedia: look up something, see an interesting cross reference, and then start wandering. Reading straight through, as I did … well, it takes a while, because it’s hard to read more than six or eight pages at one gulp (basic dictionary / Bible rules), no matter how interesting the subject matter. And after a while, it all begins to blend together, and your brain feels ready for a long stretch in Arkham.

Essential Batman Encyclopedia coverThere are, in essence, three or four types of entries, all of them footnoted to help place them chronologically. There are the gangster entries, which stretch from the beginning of Batman’s career to the end of the Silver Age. If they’re goofy gangsters — the ones with stupid gimmicks or the ones who take advantage of Batman being intangible or having a broken arm or being a purple giant — they’re from the ‘50s and ’60s. If not, they’re from the ‘40s, and the stories sound surprisingly sane and interesting. If they mention real crime — you know, with ethnic groups, so we can blame our troubles on foreigners and minorities — then the character’s from the ‘90s or later. The second kind of entry covers the long careers of Batman’s costumed villains; these aren’t as fully footnoted as I might have hoped, but they are pretty complete entries. Then there are entries that tie in to all the crossovers and plot devices Batman’s gone through since Knightfall.

It gets a little repetitive. That’s not Greenberger’s fault, and he tries to throw in cutesy nicknames like “Bird of Banditry” (Penguin) to add a little variety to the entries. (They don’t help.) And it definitely doesn’t help when he has to deal with Earth-1 and Earth-2 versions of characters, then any revisions to the Earth-1 character that were caused by Crisis on Infinite Earths or Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis.

But Greenberger makes things as simple as they’re likely to be. He is to be praised for not stinting on those entries focusing on Batman’s early career, even if I didn’t care about Ferris Hedrant or “Fingers” Nolan (his name is the most interesting thing about him). On the other hand, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia also doesn’t linger on those early “glory” days, giving readers plenty of info on Gotham’s current happenings. I felt there might have been fewer entries on the ‘70s than other decades, but maybe nothing other than Ra’s Al Ghul’s plots happened back then.

The illustrations do help; they are sprinkled throughout, and rarely do two pages go by without some sort of illustration. Those in the text are black and white, taken from all points of Batman’s publication history; there are also 32 pages of color plates from many different artists, although they shade toward the last 20 years. Some of the black-and-white pictures aren’t captioned, and although most are easy to place with an entry, some are difficult.

For those of you who wondered exactly what orifice Grant Morrison was pulling his ideas out of during his Batman run, here’s where you can find out. If you read through this book, you find that almost every odd plot point, every weird name came from some Silver Age story you haven’t read. (And judging from the descriptions, you don’t want to.) Zuhr-En-Arr, Thomas Wayne in a Batsuit, the Batmen of All Nations (or Club of Heroes, if you prefer) … They’re all here. Unfortunately, the book was published before the end of Morrison’s run, but it does include a portion of those stories as well.

Greenberger’s done an excellent job with the The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. It is reasonably priced, and it’s very detailed. (I wish he would have used a more conventional style for his references — put the period after the reference, man! — but that’s a minor, if enduring, criticism.) Despite all the boring stuff that’s happened to Batman (any character who’s been around for 70 years is going to have a lot of boring stories in his books), The Essential Batman Encyclopedia is extremely interesting.This is really an outstanding work for all Bat-fans.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4.5 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , , ,

16 October 2009

The Hood: Blood from Stones

Collects: The Hood #1-6 (2002)

Released: July 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785128182

What is this?: A small-time crook gets an alien’s cloak and boots, which give him superpowers — and a chance at becoming a big-time crook.

The culprits: Writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Kyle Hotz

When the trade paperback for The Hood: Blood from Stones went out of print, I thought my chance to read the story was pretty much nil, unless a local library picked it up. But somehow Marvel slipped a hardcover copy past me a couple of years ago …

Hood is the story of an obvious Spider-Man analogue, Parker Robbins (“Parker” for Peter Parker, “Robbins” because he’s a thief and a thug). Unlike Peter, no one was around to teach him about the positive correlation between power and responsibility, so when he and his cousin shoot an alien and take his super shoes and cloak, Parker’s thinking of supervillainy, not superheroics.

Hood: Blood from Stones coverNot that Parker is evil. He visits his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, in the nursing home, telling her stories he thinks will make her happy, and he really wants to get her into a better home. He wants to build a better life with his pregnant girlfriend, although he lies to her about how he gets his illegal money. When the use of his powers leads to the grave injury of a police officer, he’s deeply sorry; when his cousin is thrown in jail for his crimes, he works hard to get him cleared.

But he wants to be a criminal like his father, who worked in organized crime. He visits a Russian prostitute. He lies, takes the easy way out, makes the easy choices, often by pulling a trigger. Like Peter, he has had a hard life; unlike Peter, he doesn’t have strong moral teaching or a moral anchor. So he drifts. It keeps Parker sympathetic, despite all the wrong things he does.

Hood is labeled as — and definitely is — part of Marvel’s Max line. There is plenty of sex, violence, and cursing. The interesting part is this allows writer Brian K. Vaughn the freedom to write natural dialogue in a way that’s totally different than Brian Bendis’s “natural” dialogue, even when Bendis was doing indy comics and could curse. There’s no stammering, no awkward pauses; it’s just men laughing at and with each other, insulting everyone in sight. It feels natural and is often funny.

The Hood’s big plan is to rob an incoming shipment of blood diamonds, and there he runs into his first superpowered opponents. If there’s a fault in the story, it’s in Parker’s opposition: he easily defeats the Constrictor, Jack O’Lantern, and Shocker (at once), outwits a pair of FBI agents (who aren’t that bright), and manages to pull one over on the mobster he robs and his enforcer. They seem too easily overcome to be serious antagonists. However, even though a pair of pistols are technically part of the Hood’s “powers,” Vaughn does make sure to show they’re not the answer to Parker’s problems — they do little to the supervillians, and they only make his problems worse in the end.

The story ends with an obvious set-up for later stories: the crime boss who the Hood fought cries over a picture of his family, the widow of a man killed during the story puts on a costume, and the alien whom Parker killed to get his super-equipment is shown to be alive. None of this is followed up on; whatever Vaughn had in mind, it came to naught. This is a bit frustrating, mostly in the sense that Vaughn’s vision for the Hood — which has largely been subverted — is an interesting one. The subplots he used as a trailer … well, I won’t miss not seeing them.

I like penciler Kyle Hotz’s art, although a good amount of credit should also go to inker Eric Powell and colorist Brian Haberlin. The Hood’s world is entirely a nighttime one, and it’s filled with shadows and darkness — appropriate for someone who’s path keeps going farther and farther into the darkness. In this world of darkness, Hotz’s art creates a New York filled with wide-eyed craziness, shabby apartments, and second-hand lives. The women are all overly curvaceous, although he avoids gratuitous shots.

I wish I had read The Hood earlier; it really is an excellent story. It’s too bad Vaughn and Hotz’s version of the character was jettisoned like a horse in the Doldrums, but that doesn’t affect this story.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (4 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , , ,

14 October 2009

Non-fiction excuse

The reviews have been missing for the last few weeks, I realize.

I would like to come up with a fanciful explanation, but the real reason is a bit more prosaic: I am co-writing a book about how libraries can build their collections of graphic novels. This has been taking my time for the last few weeks — having a co-author is good in that it means you won’t slack off, but it also means when they expect material, you have to buckle down.

The deadlines will continue for a while. So, unfortunately, I’ve decided to cut back the reviews to one per week; the new reviews will go up on Fridays. (This week will be The Hood: Blood from Stones. The first winner of the Zuda contest, High Moon, will be the Halloween entry.) There may be other posts during the week. We’ll just see how things go.

So I’m sorry for the cutbacks in reviews. It’s hard times. Cutbacks are everywhere.

Labels: ,