Sunday, September 28, 2014

Spawn Origins Collection Volume 1

Title: Spawn Origins Collection Volume 1

ISBN: 9781607060710
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2011
Artist: Todd McFarlane
Writer: Todd McFarlane
Collects: Spawn #1-6

Rating: 2.5/5

Taking us back to the earliest days of one of the most important superheroes in recent memory, Spawn Origins Collection Volume 1 shows us a comic very much in its developing stage, trying to figure out what it wants to do and how to go about doing it. The six issues presented here widely vary in quality, from the fantastic Justice to the wretched Payback, but serve as an excellent time machine if nothing else. For all its flaws, Volume 1 is a great trip back through time showcasing enough of Spawn's potential to be an enjoyable, if not overwhelmingly great read.

Spawn is shown to be a sympathetic man trapped in an undesirable situation due to his love for his wife and a bad deal with (literally) the devil. We spend this comic getting to know him, and this, along with his frequent interactions with the Violator, a shapeshifting fiend capable of ripping the hearts out of his victims, form the core developments for the first arc of this book, a four part storyline entitled Questions. We are also introduced to Sam and Twitch, two unorthodox police detectives who will likely end up serving as Spawn's version of Commissioner Jim Gordon sometime in the next few issues. They are working on many of the same things as Spawn in this comic, but the two entities have only brief contact. They also provide some of the only enjoyable banter in the entire book. Unfortunately, for as intriguing as Spawn is and as solid as the Sam and Twitch duo are, they can't salvage a mediocre opening arc that can't quite figure out where it wants to take the character and what kind of tone to set.

In the Questions arc, we see many of the problems that lead to this identity crisis in the early Spawn comics. This gruesome and dark story is undercut by villains who talk in ridiculous rhymes, cheesy and totally unoriginal catchphrases being shouted at one another during any kind of combat, and a mildly unsatisfying story that sees Spawn lamenting the fact that he is only able to take human form as a white male, among other things. Spawn, formerly an African American named Al Simmons, travels to the house of his widowed wife to see what she has been up to for the last six years. The whole incident of Spawn in "whiteface" is totally laughable (more for the writing than the concept-Spawn makes plenty of coy comments about his true identity when interacting with his former family that felt totally out of place) when it should have been the perfect opportunity to really give this character a tragic back story. He is still a very tragic figure, but this scene represented an enormous opportunity lost in making the character even better.

That doesn't mean that everything is bad though. The Violator has his moments of awe inspiring power, the problem is that he should just shut up and demonstrate them. Additionally, Spawn has plenty of mysterious elements to his origin and former life at this stage that will serve as good fodder for future episodes and help to give him some depth that the angst ridden script otherwise fails to provide. The addition of the power clock quandary, the use of Spawn's powers brings him that much closer to a second death, also leads to a very interesting moral dilemma, though he will likely find a permanent solution to it sooner rather than later. Other than that though, this is a comic that can't figure out if it wasn't to be a gritty, quasi-Biblical series not dissimilar to Batman or a more light hearted and fun comic with lots of catchphrases and a hero that is more style than substance, and the overall quality matches this.

Rounding out the collection are two less crucial stories that give us a feel for Spawn's ongoing struggle to cope with his powers and new life. First up is the highlight of the collection, "Justice," that deals with Billy Kincaid, a child murderer newly released from prison. Kincaid is an incredibly simplistic, possibly mentally disabled character, but the questions that he stirs in both Spawn and Sam and Twitch make this comic an excellent example of what this series could be. His release causes many people to question what justice and the law really mean, and Spawn of course has a personal connection to the case with his wife's daughter at potential risk for being dismembered and glued to a wall. Kincaid isn't a terribly difficult character to hate, but a particularly disgusting scene where he murders a young girl then severs her fingers manages to do the job quite nicely. This is quite a shocking scene that definitely pushes the comic more towards the mature and gritty, so in that regard this issue works wonderfully to start to set the tone for the series to come. After some deliberation and careful hunting, Spawn finally gives the killer his comeuppance in a thoroughly satisfying way, and this issue marks the first time that Spawn truly feels like a comic with potential.

The follow up, part one of an arc known as Payback, is an abysmal story that definitely shows its age. In this book, the mob in New York suspects Spawn of being the murderer responsible for ripping out the hearts of many of their crime bosses. To this end, they hire a Sicilian cyborg named Overt-Kill to track down Spawn and kill him. Overt-Kill has a cringe worthy design straight out of the worst comics of the 90s. Lots of shiny, sharp angles to his suit, a cheesy cybernetic eye, and enormous guns make this character feel like something out of an X-men comic or something....he just does not fit into what the Spawn series has been doing thus far and with the way this comic ends, with Spawn stocking up on huge weapons of his own, I'm sure we will see more terrible shootouts between these two in the next volume.
This is the villain in the Payback arc.

The artwork, much like the rest of the story, suffers mightily from an identity crisis. While the story calls for copious amounts of blood, horrifying underworld figures, and a hideously scarred protagonist in a beaten down city, the coloring couldn't tell a more different story. Though most of the cityscape shots are darker and definitely akin to something straight out of Gotham City, particularly in the Payback arc, most other things aren't. Many of the interiors are incredibly bright, and characters are colored with an often unyielding degree of brightness (Spawn being the exception to this rule, of course.) Satan is colored in a near blinding white-yellow color with lots of similarly colored flames surrounding him, a design far too bright for the usual imagery associated with hell, and too light for a character supposed to be the supreme bad guy of this book. Spawn looks pretty good in most panels, with his iconic costume being colored quite vibrantly, but other than that and some decent coloring on the gory stuff, this book is quite sub-par where colors are concerned.

On the other hand, the pencils are quite nice. There is a fantastic amount of detail packed in to this book, and though it isn't the most intricate comic ever conceived, it certainly gets the job done in this crucial department. Every page is packed with detail and although this does occasional lead to pages that are a bit disorganized and poorly planned, this book is a fine example of Todd McFarlane's prowess with the pen. There are a few uneven moments here too: characters are sometimes given comically exaggerated expressions, and the battle scenes are more often than not a complete mess, but Spawn's iconic design is almost worth the price of admission alone.

One last note on the art though is the often overlooked but quite important feature that is typically pointed out only when it is done wrong: the lettering. This book is no exception, as for some reason the letters are all over the place in terms of style. Underlined letters, blue font, red font, bloody lettering,  this book is a mish mash of various font styles and worst of all, it is near impossible to figure out what most of them are supposed to represent. What does blue font even signify? How is an underlined word any different from a bold or all caps one? The lettering was just a bit too gaudy for my tastes and felt like someone experimenting with fonts for the very first time.

Even though this is a very mixed comic, this is something that pretty much every comic book fan should at least thumb through or be aware of. Spawn is a crucial series in the history of comic books, being one of the first indie titles to make it big, reinventing the action figure/sculpture game, and becoming the epitome of cool during the mid to late '90s. Additionally, the presentation in the Origins collection is top notch with a few insightful forewords, a cover gallery, and a few preliminary sketches all printed on high quality paper.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rose City Comic Con 2014 Recap


This year was a bit difficult for me, and I almost didn't go to RCCC... but I'm glad I did.

I didn't have any money for prints or new trades to add to my collection. My full attention was to acquire autographs to add to my collection, and I did just that with the help of a couple of friends who I helped to introduce to RCCC last year. I'm very grateful for their help.

Gail Simone-

When I first arrived, I had a "plan of attack". When I saw Gail at the Dark Horse booth, all that went out the door. I had a bit of a fanboy moment because I have been waiting a long time to get Gail's autograph on my Batgirl action figure. I had also been pushing for months to get her signed to the event via Twitter. I'm very thankful that Dark Horse was able to bring her in on the day I was there.

I did ask how she felt with who is taking the reigns for Batgirl and she commented that she feels like it will be in good hands. I look forward to continuing to follow her work.
 

 


Joe Keatinge-

Since this years Emerald City Comicon, I have been trying to track down a copy of Joe Keatinge's Morbius trade. Via Twitter, he graciously offered to bring a copy he had available for me to RCCC. As I mentioned before, I didn't have money for this con, but I managed to make sure I had enough to get this from Joe. Now, everything I own that he's written have his signature on them. Such a good writer.

Other than Glory, I haven't had the opportunity to read any of Joe's work for Image... but I'll be taking a look when I have fewer trades on my "To Read" stack.


Kurt Busiek-

Several years ago, I had the full collection of Kurt's Marvel storyline but they have since been sold off in a time of my life where autographs didn't mean as much to me as they do now. Thankfully, I was able to procure the set again and Kurt was kind enough to sign them.









Tony Moore-

When I first heard that Tony Moore was going to be attending Rose City Comic Con, I picked-up the 10th anniversary Walking Dead #1 and made sure I had a few copies of the exclusive from Emerald City as well. I was well stocked with Walking Dead for him to sign for my collection, but when I arrived at his booth, he was charging $5 per signature. Since I didn't have much money budgeted for this con, I was only able to get 3 of the books I brought signed. I'm a little disappointed, but I'll get over it. The only other artist I have run into that has charged for his signature was Brian Pulido last year at RCCC... but I was able to get about 15 books signed for $20. Oh well.







Ron Randall-

Last year at Stumptown Comic Fest, I was introduced to Ron Randall's Trekker and I've been a fan ever since. I've been picking-up the original Dark Horse Presents issues where Trekker was originally published. I already have the omnibus and The Train to Avalon Bay. From what Ron told me, it looks like Dark Horse is working to publish more Trekker and hopefully there will be a new trade soon. Ron was also kind enough to grade my copy of Avalon Bay with a sketch.


Skottie Young-

Ever since I first saw Skottie Young's baby variant covers, I have been drawn to his art. I'm not sure exactly what it is that makes me like it, but I know I do. I'm thankful that he was willing to sign the stack of books I brought. I hope that I might be able to convince him to help out with Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer.




I had brought books for Kelly Sue DeConnick to sign, but not only did I not see her, I misplaced them while I was transitioning books from one bag to the next. I was really looking forward to getting her autograph on the 2 remaining Ghost books that she hasn't signed for me yet to complete her run on the series. It's a good thing she's local. Hopefully I'll be able to catch-up with her at a later con or a signing event at Things From Another World.

We'll see how 2015 goes.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury

Title: The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury

ISBN: 9781250028884
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Thomas Dunne Books, 2013
Writer: Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga

Rating: 4.5/5

"The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury" is the second in a series of novels that take place in the same universe as Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" comic books. The novels serve to flesh out the backstory of people and places from the comic books who never got a chance to shine in Rick Grimes's storyline.

The plot of "The Road to Woodbury" follows Lilly Caul, a young woman and self-identified coward at the end of the world. Unsure of herself, suffering from extreme anxiety, and depending heavily on those around her, Lilly makes her way from one not-so-safe haven to another in an attempt to eek out an existence among the walkers. Along the way, something happens to Lilly to make her overcome her fear and discover the heroic survivor within herself.

As the title would suggest, Lilly and her companions end up at Woodbury, the fortified town under the leadership of one Philip Blake, aka the Governor. We learned about how the Governor came to be who he is in the first TWD novel, "Rise of the Governor."

It's hard not to compare the two novels, and in that comparison the second book doesn't quite rise to the level of the first. "The Road to Woodbury" is missing the shocking conclusion, the nightmare-inducing examination of evil that was "Rise of the Governor." Instead, what it offers is a much more identifiable character study of a realistic survivor. Lilly isn't the stuff of legend like the Governor is. Instead, she manages to represent us—in all our faults and fears—in a surprisingly realistic way (or so we assume, having never actually survived a zombie attack).

In "The Road to Woodbury", fans of the TWD comic books will recognize several minor characters who played pivotal roles. The novel fleshes out their backstories and connects them, giving depth to people who remained largely mysteries in the comic books. For comic book readers, the novel is full of easter eggs and surprise connections, making it not only entertaining, but necessarily for filling in the gaps left by the comic books.

The ending—while as grisly, intense, and death-defying as any TWD story arc—is perhaps a bit anticlimactic. It's as if the moment the whole book has been leading up to has been delayed at the last second, held over for the next book. This probably means that the third TWD novel (as yet unnamed and unannounced) will likely pick up right where this one leaves off, with the survivors of Woodbury and their tenuous peace under the leadership of the Governor.

"The Road to Woodbury" is an essential read for any fan of "The Walking Dead." It does more than simply flesh out the backstory of an important character from the comic books. This book asks the question (better than any other TWD story so far): What would I do? How would I react to the end of the world? Would I rise to the occasion, or cower in fear? What would be my tipping point? What single event would give me the will to survive? And how far would I be willing to go?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith

Title: Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith

ISBN: 9781593073091
Price: $12.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Doug Wheatley
Writer: Miles Lane
Collects: Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith #1-4

Rating: 2.5/5

When reviewing these comic book adaptations, I'm trying to review the adaptation but, inevitably, how well it works will also depend a lot on the source material. That is, I think this is one of the better comic adaptations...but a lot of people would argue the Revenge of the Sith was one of the better movies (at least of the prequel trilogy), so the comics folks are working with more compelling material. The prequel trilogy had the fatal flaw that it didn't really have a compelling "hero" -- the story more focused on anti-hero Anakin's transformation into villain Darth Vader (which, itself, wasn't especially intriguingly teased out). But neither Anakin...nor Obi-Wan, nor most of the characters, were really that compelling. But the third movie, by focusing on the machinations, and the culmination of plans, at least works more effectively as a plot-driven story. And, with that being said, does generate some emotional moments of suspense, and tragedy.

I also tend to try to review these comics from the point of view of how well they tell the story regardless of whether you've seen the movie -- something that, admittedly, is hard to do (since I have seen the movies). But in this case, though I had seen Revenge of the Sith, I hadn't seen it for a while before reading this, and I found the comic reasonably coherent and comprehensible. (And for a second reading it had literally been years since I saw the movie). There were a few scenes here and there that might be a bit confusingly staged, but in general, I think writer and artist capture the flow of the narrative well.

The art style keeps evolving from adaptation to adaptation of these prequel films, from the effective but Spartan-lined style of the Phantom Menace, to the more detailed and shadowed look of the Attack of the Clones, to this, which goes for a more stylish, painted look, as though colorist Chuckry is coloring over Wheatley's original pencils. It gives the book the most lush and ambitious visual look of any of the comic adaptations. Granted, the art can seem a bit stiff at times, but in general it works more than it doesn't. The likeness of the actors are captured well (including Natalie Portman, who in an earlier book I commented seemed to be tricky to evoke), and though there is some bland composition, at other times, Wheatley does capture some effective mood through his visual choices, his close up and angles. As with all the comics, there's actually probably a bit more visual mood in the comics than the movies generated.

Like with Dark Horse's other Star Wars movie adaptations, this sticks pretty faithfully to the source, making this, perhaps, more a translation to comics than an adaptation. Scenes and dialogue adhere pretty close to the source, with one or two minor changes -- such as having Count Dooku lose only one hand in the opening battle (which, I think works better, as does his more emotive expression).

Ultimately, as I say, reviewing these is a bit tricky as there are different factors to be considered: is it enjoyable on its own? Does it capture the source material? If so, are you really reviewing the comic...or the movie? Etc.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Title: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

ISBN: 1569716099
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2002
Artist: Jan Duursema
Writer: Henry Gilroy
Collects: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones #1-4

Rating: 2.5/5

It's a fairly straight forward, faithful translation of the movie to comics, with not too much left out for space reasons...but, there's nothing much added, either. Obviously, when you read an adaptation of a movie, you want it to stay true to the movie, but sometimes it can be nice to get an "expanded" version, either by including extra scenes, or using richer, more textured text captions to add nuances, or introspection.

Funnily, when I first reviewed this, I commented that action scenes were truncated -- which I suppose is true compared to how action-heavy the movie was. But re-reading this recently (and immediately on the heels of re-reading the Phantom Menace adaptation, in which the talky scenes were most definitely emphasized over the action) I'd almost make the opposite complaint: the action scenes and fights go on too long, consuming series of pages. And though they might be exciting in a live action movie, in a comic (where the action is often a bit hard to follow) they can just feel over-long and unexciting.

The notion of text captions have largely fallen out of favor with modern comics practitioners, preferring a straight cinematic style of comic storytelling to one with a toe still in a literary stream. But here, writer Gilroy does in fact employ captions... quite a bit. But it's generally there just to clarify a scene or an action ("Landing on the Reek's back, Anakin takes control of the beast.") Although that's welcome when the scene is otherwise muddled, it also means the captions tend to be rather flatly written, as if Gilroy includes them as a necessary evil, rather than because he was putting any effort into crafting them. Indeed, it can often feel like heavy handed captions to a children's picture book, as opposed to passages told with literary flourish, meant to give us insight into a scene and the emotions.

Ironically, even with these purely serviceable captions, some of the action scenes still remain confusingly staged if you haven't seen the movie for a while (as I hadn't when I read this). How much that lies with the script, the artist's composition, or just the trickiness of trying to recreate cinematic action in still panels, I'm not sure. I suspect each contributes its own flaws.

The art by Jan Duursema (no stranger to Star Wars as I think she even drew some comics back when Marvel published the comics) is solid enough, and with Ray Kryssing's inks, and the brooding colors, tends to try for a bit more sombre mood than did the movie. Of course, doing a visual adaptation of a movie/TV show can be tricky, as there tends to be a lot of talking heads and people just standing around stiffly. But though the art is decent, it can also be a bit undynamic. She does a decent enough job evoking the actors...with the exception maybe being Natalie Portman (perhaps a reflection of the fact that Portman's features tend to be, I dunno, unblemished for lack of a better word -- an artist can't exactly emphasize distinctive lines or creases because she doesn't really have any).

Interestingly, although the art is in many respects more detailed than the art employed in The Phantom Menace, I think I found the simpler style in that earlier adaptation more appealing.

But, ultimately, I'm not quite sure how to review this -- it was faithful to the material and competently drawn. But, I'll admit, it didn't fully hold my interest. That may be a problem with the adaptation but, I suspect, it's also a problem with the source material. I tend to be a Star Wars fan...who tends to like the idea of the Star Wars movies more than I do some of the movies themselves. In fact, the story in the comic picks up during the sequence when Obi Wan is investigating and goes to the clone planet...precisely where I recall finding the movie becoming more intriguing, as a "plot" began to emerge. But in both versions, it's a fairly brief interlude.

Despite this "mystery", and the potential for emotional drama in the blossoming romance, I recollect this as the weakest of the three prequel movies...perhaps explaining why this is the least compelling of the three comic book adaptations.

Bottom line: a competent, but perhaps uninspired translation of the movie.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

Title: Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

ISBN: 9781593070918
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, Hellboy: The Wolves of Saint August, Hellboy: Christmas Special, Hellboy: Almost Colossus #1, Dark Horse Presents 100 #2

Rating: 4/5

There's something weirdly undiscrimnatory about the Hellboy trades I've read. That is, if I were to read five Batman trades, or Spider-Man, I'd expect some good ones, and some not-so-good ones. Yet with Hellboy, I'll admit -- I tend to like them all. I liked them after a first reading, and enjoyed them even more after a second (more forgiving of any flaws).

With that being said, if you were looking for a good sampler/starter trade of Hellboy, The Chained Coffin and Others is probably a good nominee. Many of the Hellboy trades collect single, long form stories, originally published as mini-series. Whereas The Chained Coffin is one of a few that collect a variety of stories between a single cover, which is why it makes a nice sampler. And the variety allows for different tones and feels.

The longest piece was first published as a two issue mini-series, "Almost Colossus", and stands out as a particularly strong tale. Though it follows on the heels of a sub-plot in the previous trade -- Wake the Devil -- it still is reasonably self-contained. Hellboy's colleague, Liz Sherman, is in a semi-coma after essentially having her life force stolen to reanimate a homunculus, and Hellboy and Kate Corrigian scour the Romanian countryside trying to capture the creature -- unaware another, more sinister presence also seeks the wayward homunculus. I'd commented before that both the strength, and the short coming, of Mignola's writing/art is a certain deadpan style, eschewing the more obvious emotion of the motion picture. Yet here he seems to have mastered that low-key style, so that there's actually some powerful, deep emotional undercurrents, even as it's handled in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Scenes of Abe Sapian standing vigil by Liz's hospital room are quite touching. And the homunculus is given more depth and sympathy than as simply the monster of the week.

Because of its length, Almost Colossus acts as the center piece of the collection, and harkens to the long form stories fans are accustomed to from the longer Hellboy mini-series.

Yet almost as long is the moody, spooky one-shot, "Wolves of St. August", and there are some other "feature length" (ie: comic book length) tales, such as "The Corpse" and "Christmas Underground", as well as some tasty little short pieces, including the title story, "The Chained Coffin" which, given its length (10 pgs.) might seem an odd choice for the title...but is significant as it shines some light on Hellboy's murky origin.

Part of the appeal of Mignola's writing is that he doesn't just write a quirky horror series inspired by the latest cinematic scare fest. Rather, Mignola is clearly a student of traditional folklore and legends, steeping Hellboy in a tone and style that is actually quite different from the average 20th/21st Century pop horror series. And that becomes even more explicit here than in the earlier tradess, as in his various commentaries introducing the stories, Mignola frequently alludes to the actual folk tales that inspired the stories, how some stories he had wanted to adapt for years (presumably before he'd even created Hellboy) while with others he set out to write a Hellboy story, and searched around for a folk tale to provide inspiration.

As such, there is often a dreamlike sense to the Hellboy stories, where logic can be rather tenuous. Yet instead of just seeming like a narratively confused mess, it adds to the richness, the sense of ineffability. Partly because it does seem so evocative of the logic and narrative rhythm of folk tales. Yet with all that being said, the stories do generally hold together -- I don't want to leave the impression they don't. It's more in the little asides that there is a certain surrealism...the way skeletons will offer warnings, unbidden, or animals will start speaking, as though in a dream.

Of course, much of the success of the series is that it's all about the mood, which is why the dreamlike narrative flow suits the stories. You open a Hellboy story and it's like your slipping into a vivid dream, rich in mood and atmosphere. And an enormous part of that is Mignola's art, which is almost breathtaking in his ability to evoke a sense of place, of gothic castles and lonely, midnight draped open fields, all with some deceptively simple line work. And it's all wrapped in deep shadows, adding to the sense of spookiness...yet also adding a comforting warmth, strangely enough. In all this he's aided by the colors, which with a penchant toward sombre hues and earth tones captures the sense of darkness, without going overboard and making it just visually dull and murky. And by contrast, we have the bright read Hellboy at the center of it, fairly glowing like a stained glass portrait.

It's all a little creepy and scary, sure, but it's also fun and inviting.

After all, in addition to the scary stuff, the creeping mood, the portentous utterings of otherworldly beings -- there is a nice contrast with Hellboy's deadpan wisecracks, and his gruff but good-hearted phlegmaticness dealing with things he's seen before. In The Wolves of St. August, when asked if he's seen anything like it before...he casually rattles off a series of previous incidents. And part of the humor of Hellboy is precisely that his comebacks and wisecracks can be lame, making them funnier in the context, calling monsters, "you horrible thing!" It's funny precisely because he doesn't always have the perfect retort waiting on his tongue.

Hellboy is long lived, and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, though a US organization, seems to operate globally, so in a collection like this Mignola can play up that, as the stories take place in various locales, and various times (from 1961 to 1994) -- not that it's necessary to the narratives, but adds to the sense of filling in the holes in Hellboy's exploits.

In addition to Almost Colossus, probably the best of the tales here is The Corpse, in which Hellboy must find a final burial place for an animated corpse, yet being turned away at every likely spot. Inspired by a real Irish folk tale, it's a story where the very minimalism of the premise adds to the elegance of the narrative, mixing a spooky darkness, with the humor of Hellboy's nonchalance. And even a kind of melancholy ambivalence, as the story involves Hellboy bargaining to rescue a human baby from fairies, but once this is accomplished, a fairy tells him the age of the fairies is almost gone, leaving the reader with a certain melancholy, as the "monsters" become more sympathetic.

Wolves of St. August is also memorable. Though, admittedly, a lot of the climaxes to the stories can be just big fight scenes, rather than anything that clever -- Hellboy just tougher than his opponents.

Some of the stories are maybe little more than fillers. But as a collection, a sample of Hellboy, with some long, well plotted pieces, with shorter, mood-heavy vignettes, it's a nice tome to have. And though making some references to other Hellboy adventures, overall it is among the most cleanly self-contained of the trades.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hellboy: Wake the Devil

Title: Hellboy: Wake the Devil

ISBN: 9781593070953
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: Wake the Devil #1-5

Rating: 4/5

Wake the Devil collects the second major Hellboy story -- a five issue mini-series. And is the second trade in the Hellboy collection. Though that's rather problematic, as in between the first mini-series, Seed of Destruction, and this, were a couple of short stories and one shots, which this story makes passing reference to...but for page count reasons don't get reprinted until the third Hellboy trade volume!

The wholly original aspect of the story is that Hellboy and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense investigate a murder at a curio shop that seems to involve the stealing of the corpse of one Vladimir Giurescu -- a man whose legend dates back to the Napoleonic wars and was rumored to be a vampire. Possibly even the inspiration for Dracula. So Hellboy and friends head off to Romania to investigate and, if necessary, prevent Giurescu's resurrection, the group splitting up to seek out different likely spots, with Hellboy alone coming upon the dead nobleman's castle.

How this ties into the previous tales is that the theft of Giurescu's body was performed by the same cabal of ex-Nazis whose occult ambitions first resulted in Hellboy coming to earth -- a cabal led by the resurrected Rasputin, still determined to use Hellboy to bring about the apocalypse. As such, there are characters running about, and cryptic references, that will have greater resonance if you've read the previous tales.

At the same time, a lot is explained as you go...and still more, part of the mood of Hellboy is its very obliqueness. The series' appeal is that Mignola isn't just some guy who developed his love of horror and dark fantasy from Stephen King novels and Hammer horror films, but a guy clearly well versed in the real thing -- ancient legends, myths and fairytales. And Hellboy is steeped in that sense of folklore and fairy tale, of interventionist god-like beings, all combining for a certain dreamlike ambiance, where not everything has a rational explanation. Yet it holds together well enough that it doesn't just feel like lazy storytelling by a guy unable to put his imagery into a coherent pattern. Indeed, when you reach the end of the tale, Hellboy even remarks he's not sure what happened, that he "was right in the middle of things, and I think I only saw the tip of the iceberg". Yet the reader actually has a better grasp of what transpired, because we were privy to scenes and conversations Hellboy wasn't.

At the same time, there is a sense the story kind of wandered away with itself -- or was dragged in a different direction (Mignola acknowledges as much in an afterward). Giurescu, which is what/who the story seemed to be about, kind of gets sidelined into being a secondary plot as Rasputin and his plans for the apocalypse retake center stage. Mignola remarks this was his most ambitious project (at least, at that point) and if all the threads and characters don't fully coalesce into a natural whole, that very complexity adds to the enjoyment while reading, justifying the five issues and keeping you turning the pages, cutting from one agenda to another, one set of characters to another.

And, of course, a huge appeal of the Hellboy stories is Mignola's art -- craggy and deceptively simplistic in a way, yet astonishing in the mood and environments he can evoke with just a few lines, a few brush strokes. Artfully rendered with thick, spooky shadows, and often deadpan characters (kind of evoking the low-key tone of TV's The X-Files). Hellboy's adventures take place against deliberately traditional, gothic environments, such as here, much of the action taking place in a deserted European castle -- or in the seemingly cathedralesque caverns beneath the castle (a recurring trick in Hellboy stories is floors caving in depositing the characters in subterranean caverns). And he captures an almost cinematic language by cutting away to close-ups of statuary or fresco's, that add to the sense of mood, and place -- and slow building tension, as if even the inanimate is sentient.

Mignola's writing isn't maybe terribly heavy on the angst or emotion (unlike the motion picture) yet nonetheless does nicely capture personalities and a sense of camaraderie and relationships, with even the villains having some nuance, different agendas and personalities. His writing is good -- not always realistic, deliberately so, by evoking a folkloric feel as otherworldly creatures utter cryptic pronouncements. Some of the exchanges between Rasputin and his followers are deliberately evocative of Biblical conversations between Jesus and his disciples -- sacrilegious? Maybe, but not really. It just further adds to a sense of resonance, and of apocalyptic grandeur, Rasputin the dark priest of his own religion.

Yet there's also some nice, human exchanges, and witty -- if very deadpan -- quips and dry observations.

And, of course, with all the mood, the creeping horror, this is still a comic book about a red skinned demon paranormal investigator, so there are also comic book-style action scenes, and smashing through walls!

Wake the Devil is a thoroughly effective installment in the Hellboy saga (even the title has multiple meanings), but though readable on its own, ideally isn't the best volume to start with, evolving as it does from Seed of Destruction. Indeed, though both sagas tell their own story, they also form a combined epic (a sense further emphasized because the 2003 movie essentially combined scenes and ideas from both mini-series into a single story). And since Rasputin and the Nazis don't really recur for a while, there's a greater sense of temporary closure to the themes as well (even if there are a few -- minor -- dangling bits, like a sequence involving a homunculus!)