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!)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

Title: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

ISBN: 9781593070946
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: John Byrne, Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction #1-4, San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2, Comics Buyers Guide

Rating: 4/5

Hellboy is, of course, a red skinned, cloven hooved demon...who was raised by humans, and so, as an illustration of nurture over nature, appearance and super strength aside, is actually just a regular joe who investigates the paranormal as an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Seed of Destruction collects the first Hellboy story arc (as well as a couple of even earlier short pieces that were published as promos for the new property). In it we learn of Hellboy's genesis in the waning days of World War II, then cut to modern times as the now adult Hellboy investigates the murder of his mentor, which leads him to the cursed Cavendish family on a forlorn peninsula of the American coast, and a showdown with an evil that ties into his origins.

Creator Mike Mignola was already receiving good notice for his art, but with Hellboy he arguably cranks it up a whole other notch, and it was his first major project as storyteller, not just a drawer of someone else's story. Mignola was presumably a bit insecure about that, because for this first arc, he brought veteran John Byrne on board to actually write the dialogue (Mignola would subsequently fly solo). What's interesting is that you can't necessarily detect Byrne's influence. I don't mean that as either good, or bad. I just mean you don't read this and detect much sense of Byrne's style, or much difference from this and the later Hellboy stories Mignola wrote on his own. Well, except there may be fewer of the trademark dry quips the series would later employ. But that may simply be because, as the first story, they wanted to establish a serious tone. After all, a red skinned demon investigating monsters could so easily slide into self parody that it was probably important to establish the serious tone before letting its hair down -- in much the same way that TV's The X-Files worked hard to establish a serious tone at first.

And the X-Files was, no doubt, very much in Mignola's thoughts doing Hellboy, being as both are about paranormal investigations, with a lot of deadpan talking heads and expository scenes as if ghosts and demons are no stranger than a burglary.

Visually, the story is richly rendered with lots of dark, brooding shadows, and landscapes that manage to be both minimalist and yet hauntingly evocative. The panels reek of atmosphere, so that you can fairly hear wind whistling spookily in the distance. Mignola's style is at once craggy and even cartoony...yet oddly realistic, suiting a story that tries to make the unbelievable seem almost commonplace, where as veteran investigators, Hellboy and his comrades, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, have seen it all before, occasionally dropping cryptic references to past investigations. The colors beautifully complement the drawings, being both sombre and brooding -- yet not oppressively so. While Hellboy himself stands out on the page, a blazing red beacon of hope.

Yet for all the genuine mood and unsettledness, this is generally a clean, fun horror. People die, and dark things are afoot, but this isn't some nihilistic, grisly horror comic that can leave a bad taste in your mouth ala Hellblazer.

The story is paced out well, managing to mix a slow building, creeping spookiness with some bombastic action scenes as Hellboy proves that when it comes to battling monsters, he can give as good as he gets. The story manages to tease us along, not playing all its cards at once, so there can be bizarre happenings, and cryptic comments, that only make sense in a later context. Because this is the opening story in what is, after all, a series (albeit an irregular series, told not in an on going comic, but in various mini-series and one-shots), it ends with some threads left dangling, including a final epilogue meant to hint at things to come. Yet with that being said, it does tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, and one that ties back into Hellboy's origin, making it satisfying as a story to be read for itself.

There can be a tad superficiality at times, the scenes maybe trying too hard to evoke a kind of deadpan cool. The catalyst for the investigation is the murder of Hellboy's mentor, Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"), yet Hellboy never quite gets that worked up over the death of a man he regarded as a father figure. And his relationship with Liz Sherman is strictly platonic.

Which brings us to reflecting on the comparison to the original motion picture. This trade was subsequently marketed as having inspired the motion picture. I was a bit skeptical of that when I saw the movie (having forgotten this plot), but re-reading it, I can see that the movie both followed it...and diverged from it (indeed, the movie, where it stays faithful to the comics, actually borrows from both this, and the next mini-series, Wake the Devil -- as well as lifting scenes from other Hellboy stories).

Both this and the movie detail a similar WW II origin for Hellboy, and both have the main plot climaxing with a modern day attempt to summon an apocalypse by the instigator of that war time incident. Yet in the details it's interesting how both versions are better -- and lesser -- than each other. The movie cranks up the emotion/human factor, giving arguably more character to Hellboy, establishing a romantic tension between him and Liz, and giving more weight to his relationship with Bruttenholm. Arguably rendering the movie more sophisticated, more adult, than the comic. At the same time, the movie Hellboy was an embittered outsider, his very existence kept secret from the outside world. Yet there's something almost more intriguing, and endearing, about the comic book Hellboy...whose a much more level-headed, easy going guy -- and one whose existence isn't a secret. There's something wonderfully weird -- both comic booky yet eminently human-- about the cigar smoking, trenchcoat wearing Hellboy casually interrogating witnesses as if there's nothing odd about a seven foot tall red demon dropping by for tea.

And in concept, in style, the comics are arguably more ambitious, or at least, more literary. The movie was very much a Hollywood movie, chock full of bombastic action scenes, chases through city streets, big budget fights on subways, where the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a hi-tech, James Bond-y style organization -- much of it taking place in New York city. But Mignola's influences are clearly more literary and traditional than that, the Hellboy comics rooted in a gothic milieu of cursed family trees, deserted castles, and ancestral homes crumbling, generation by generation, into the sea. In fact, I'm not sure a Hellboy story comes to mind that ever took place in a big city! Mignola is drawing upon a literary provenance of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraftian lore and ancient fairy tales (some later Hellboy stories were, literally, reinterpretations of old folk legends). He also captures the essence of such tales with a story where we're not sure if we'll ever understand all that occurred -- while explaining enough that it doesn't feel like he was just too lazy to come up with a logical plot. At one point, a ghostly figure intercedes in the events, and Hellboy remarks they might never know why the apparition acted as it did...but that doesn't stop them from at least positing an explanation (unlike some comics that come to mind where the writer will toss in a convenient solution, then simply have the characters shrug it off with no explanation whatsoever).

Of course, the down side to traditionalism is there can be elements of cliche, such as the chief villain being the resurrection of the real life Russian monk, Rasputin -- a guy who has been conjured up as the villain in a zillion supernatural tinged stories over the years. (And, honestly, given all the real life monsters and creeps and serial killers throughout history, how did Rasputin get typecast as the ultimate evil?)

The movie was a big -- and yes, enjoyable -- Hollywood summer action flick. But Seed of Destruction is, arguably, a more stylistically ambitious tale, going as much for a low-key eeriness as often as it is super hero hijinx -- and there is a super hero flavor, of course, with Hellboy a decidedly more formidable protagonist than Mulder and Scully ever were, as if The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm moonlighted as a ghost buster (Mignola's style even slightly evocative of Jack Kirby). But the comics have a spookiness the movie didn't.

As the opening arc in the Hellboy saga, Seed of Destruction is effectively sure footed -- even if those feet have hooves!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls

Title: Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls

ISBN: 9781401235420
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Greg Capullo
Writer: Scott Snyder
Collects: Batman #1-7

Rating: 4/5

Batman: The Court of Owls is a deconstruction of Batman and Bruce Wayne’s vision of Gotham City. The DC Relaunch provided a landscape in which writers and artists had a way to completely recreate characters and the DC Universe as a whole into their vision. Scott Snyder doesn’t exactly do this. The Court of Owls works as both a perfect starting place for new readers to comics as well as experienced readers who have kept up through the Grant Morrison saga and Snyder’s work on Detective Comics. Characters created and explored during that time period are even featured in the opening pages of this book, so it’s not a title that completely ignores its past, which, whether on purpose or not, parallels the concept of this book. And this book is quite simply a masterpiece.

In Court of Owls, Scott Snyder tells a story of how the past of Gotham City, a past unbeknownst to The Batman, has come to haunt The Dark Knight in a way that no one, other than Snyder, could have ever imagined.

Batman has come back to the cape and cowl after being thrown through the time stream in Return of Bruce Wayne and recent excursions across the globe with Batman Incorporated, and has made his triumphant return to Gotham City. With the brighter, more positive attitude that accompanied recent events, Bruce Wayne and Batman look to the future as a way of turning away from the shroud of darkness that has been covering his city for so long, a future that expands and grows the city to new levels. Unfortunately for The Batman, things aren’t as easy as he would have hoped when he discovers that the oft-whispered name of The Owls comes to be more of a reality than an urban legend, and they are after Bruce Wayne.

Scott Snyder is one of the handful of writers who truly knows Batman. He’s in love with the character, and you can completely tell that this is a story that he’s wanted to write for quite some time. While the theme of Gotham being darker and haunted by something that Bruce is unaware of, I can’t recall a storyline in which it’s explored that Batman ultimately has no control over the fate of Gotham City, and while I’m sure that, ultimately, Batman will save the day and come out on top, that’s definitely not how it feels in this comic. In this comic, Batman is taken to the depths of the city and is shown the power of The Court of Owls. Bruce Wayne is led to believe that those in his inner circle have betrayed him, which drives Wayne to the point of questioning every single motive of those to whom he is close. Snyder does an excellent job of building Batman up to a state that we haven’t seen lately as a quiet and reserved, yet powerful character to a point where he cracks and is placed in a weakened, vulnerable state. And that’s where the key to Snyder’s story is – character work.

As I said earlier, Snyder knows Batman. Snyder has the voice of both Wayne and Batman down to a science. In Court of Owls, he manages to nail the recent, lighter characterization in Batman Incorporated while also incorporating the Batman of Hush, No Man’s Land, and Batman Year One. The detective aspect of Batman is also here because Snyder writes an incredible mystery. Pages are constantly turned when Batman discovers the DNA of a killer who has struck Gotham, which is revealed at the end of the first issue, but that’s only the start of it. Clues start popping up as to the whys, hows, and whos of The Owls that have controlled Gotham City for so long, and it’s on par with any great mystery comic out there. As a single volume story, though, it doesn’t work for me.

That’s not to say that this volume doesn’t work at all, however, because it absolutely does. Batman starts off strong as a character, is faced with a terrible situation, adjusts his mentality and drive, and ultimately comes out the victor, which is how a comic book story arc should play out. It’s just impossible to look at this volume as anything more than a segment of the grand plan which plays out through issues 8-11, so if you’re reading this book, you’re probably going to feel a little cheated that it’s not the whole thing. The comic ends with an incredibly dramatic moment which leads to a huge question mark in regards to one of Batman’s closest allies and a cliffhanger plagues the final pages of the volume, which is something I can’t stand with a collected edition. Because, when you’re buying a book like this, typically you expect some finality to the story that won’t make you want to wait until DC decides to collect the final part. You aren’t getting the entirety of the story, which is unfortunate, because in my opinion, you need the second half to truly appreciate the first.

While the writing is certainly enough to get someone to absolutely love this comic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the comic’s other half composed by penciler Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, and colorist FCO. First and foremost, whenever is group works together, they bring the best out of each other, which is evidenced in books like Haunt, but more so within the pages of Batman. They have a chemistry that makes the entire comic feel like something special just by looking at it, which it is. Capullo has a kinetic energy to his pencils that makes the still images jump off the pages with movement that is as exciting as it is clean and beautiful, while the colors of FCO enhance the comic’s beauty. Where Glapion’s talent comes in, however, is with his heavy inks that set the dark tone and mood that Snyder is crafting with The Owls. And the way these two work together sums up the pace and story of The Court of Owls, it’s an action/adventure thrill ride that also lends itself to deeper thought with a looming darkness that constantly feels like it is about to strike.

Although I would prefer an oversized edition that collects the entirety of this team’s run, all of the creators truly work together to create a magic book that is absolutely worthy to be the first chapter of Batman in the new DC universe. I think it’s deserving of a future Absolute Edition, don’t you?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Trekker Omnibus

Title: Trekker Omnibus

ISBN: 9781616552114
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2013
Artist: Ron Randall
Writer: Ron Randall
Collects: Dark Horse Presents Vol. 1  #4-6, #20-22 and #39-41, Trekker #1-6, Trekker Color Special, A Decade of Dark Horse #2, Trekker #1 from Image Comics

Rating: 4/5

Ron Randall's Trekker returns in an omnibus edition, and it's a good thing to have as like many creator owned comics originating in the 80s the series bounced around a bit from being a feature in another series or changing publisher as was the case with other series like Grimjack, Usagi Yojimbo, or Groo. This volume pulls the Trekker stories from Dark Horse Presents Vol. 1  4-6, 20-22, and 39-41, Trekker 1-6, Trekker Color Special, and A Decade of Dark Horse #2, from Dark Horse as well as Trekker #1 from Image Comics. In addition to that is over 60 pages of new color material featuring both new story material and chapter/story break illustrations. Other goodies include a profile on Trekker creator Ron Randall, a sketchbook section displaying various pencil pages, designs, promotional pages and the like, as well as a foreword by Gail Simone (writer of Batgirl , Birds of Prey, and Secret Six). All of that together allows this omnibus edition to clock in at some 300 plus pages.

But what is Trekker you ask? One answer is in the world of Trekker, a trekker is a bounty hunter sanctioned by the government to supplement the underfunded police. Another is the adventures of Mercy St. Clair, the title character of the series. While yet another answer is sci-fi noir. Sci-fi noir? Sure, detectives, bounty hunters, hit-men, mobsters, smugglers, crooked politicians, and spaceships! Imagine Grimjack without the fantasy elements or Judge Dredd with out the dark humor/satire and you kind of get the feel. Or possibly think of something like Firefly.

On to the adventures of Mercy St. Clair. Noir and sci-fi action fans will have plenty to enjoy as Mercy goes through a series of adventures pitting her against adversaries ranging from mobsters to hit-men to corrupt politicians to outlaw killers to smugglers to terrorists as well as against the police and even other trekkers. Many with the requisite henchmen of course. That's not to say it's all action, action, and more action. Randall includes many character and drama driven scenes with Mercy interacting with characters such as her closest friend, boyfriend, mentor Angus, and Uncle Alex (who as a police lieutenant provides an even more interesting dynamic at times as a result)in addition to scenes with her pet Scuf which allow for reminisces about Mercy's past. And speaking of past, yes, we do get an origin story as tragedy in Mercy's past is hinted at along with the road to her becoming a Trekker which is revealed later on in the volume.

Those various adventures take Mercy to a variety of locales. What would noir stories be without seedy bars or the docks? Or even shadier alleyways? Abandoned tunnels, swamps, deserts, spaceports, as well as any other locales her hometown of New Gelaph can throw at her.

Some of the stories collected in the omnibus are in color while others are in black and white. This is simply how they were produced as some were black and white comics while others were color. While some might prefer all one or the other, I honestly think the color stories look best as they are while the black and white stories have the proper tone to them to look how they should as is.

If you want to try a series with a strong female lead, give Trekker a shot. If you want to try some sci-fi comics, give Trekker a shot. Or if you just want to read some comics with good art and a good story (which is all a comic needs),  give Trekker a shot. Just be careful that Mercy doesn't shoot back! I agree with Gail Simone's P.S.: "More Trekker, please."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom

Title: Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom

ISBN: 9781401240219
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2013
Artist: Inaki Miranda, Barry Kitson
Writer: Lauren Beukes, Bill Willingham
Collects: Fairest #8-14

Rating: 4/5

The legend of Rapunzel gets a new twist, as fans of Vertigo’s Fables are treated to an adventure starring the lass of long locks moving her way through Japanese culture and history to find her long-lost children. Summoned back to Japan to relive her medieval wanderings and the love she shared with one woman — a kitsune (fox) — Rapunzel must make things right between her and the people she left behind before arriving in Fabletown. Meanwhile, her mother Frau Totenkinder has other plans for the magic Rapunzel once vowed to restore, leading to an all-out gang war between legends in the streets of downtown Tokyo.

Lauren Beukes is one of a select few to write in Bill Willingham’s sandbox of Fables characters, and she unquestionably lives up to the feat presented in this volume, largely focused on the relationship between Rapunzel and Tomoko, the fox woman of Japanese legend. It’s a largely sensitive portrayal of romantic love, however sad, in a series with few LGBT characters to date, and one that keeps the tradition of tragedy alive in Japanese mythologies despite the flip in genders. Rapunzel is certainly no angel here, driven by understandably selfish motivations, nor is any other player in the grand scheme. From Mayumi — the Japanese urban legend of a woman with a grisly surgical smile — to Totenkinder with her (clearly) ulterior motives, characters float in and out of the tapestry of the story to leave behind the sense that no one is getting exactly what they want, despite their best efforts. The rich well of Japanese legends brought into the story is a nice change of pace from the usual standard of European fables which populate the main series, and it seems to go along with this title’s other, unspoken mission to bring Western and Eastern mythologies together, as Willingham did so eloquently in volume one of the series. Certainly, seeing an anthropomorphic Panda brandishing an automatic weapon has got to please even the most jaded reader.

Inaki Miranda introduces a vision for the Hidden Kingdom that lets readers continue to uncover more and more ideas upon every page through. As someone who is not well versed in Japanese lore, I found the combination of Miranda’s detailed pencils and Beukes’ subtle references enough to gain context, and in some cases, experience great glee in recognizing some aspect of the culture I’d absorbed and thought lost to memory long ago. Of particular note is Miranda’s transformation of Rapunzel into the look and inspiration for the spectral woman of Ringu, blending more contemporary ideas of Japanese myth with ancient lore quite effectively. While the art does seem to deteriorate slightly over the course of the six issue arc, ending in a rather under-detailed final chapter, so many of the artistic interludes along the way compel prolonged attention and make that faltering a minor blip in an otherwise well-crafted book.

The volume does wrap up with a short story by Willingham himself, drawn by master artist Barry Kitson, starring the Princess Alder, tree nymph and beloved daughter to the Adversary himself. It’s a cute tale of a predictably mismatched date gone wrong that makes for a fun contrast to the otherwise dramatic contents of the volume. Like most of the Fables universe to date, this volume proves that the opportunities for great storytelling are limitless when it comes to these characters, and Fairest continues to stand up to its parent book in quality and sheer entertainment value. I can’t wait to see what the ladies of Fabletown have to offer us next.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Title: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

ISBN: 9781616552381
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2013
Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Writer: Mike Mignola

Rating: 4/5

People rejoice, for the great team behind some impossibly great Hellboy stories are reunited for an original graphic novel. Indeed, Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart, those behind such stories as Hellboy: The Wild Hunt and The Storm and The Fury are back as they try to tell an original story featuring a much younger Hellboy, one with perhaps a tiny bit of innocence still left in him. While it may be particularly great for fans of the beast of the apocalypse, is it perhaps something that readers unaware of the mythos of the series might enjoy? More importantly, is it good?

It is my belief that the answer to both these questions would be in the positive, as Mignola is able to mix childlike sensitivities, a feeling of horror and the Hellboy mythos flawlessly without alienating any of these aspects in favor of the others.

Speaking about each of those aspects, the childlike sense of wonders comes directly from the point-of-view of the titular character, Hellboy himself. In this story, though, readers are treated to a much younger protagonist. Gone is the tough supernatural detective, replaced by a character much more akin to the younger self readers grew to love from stories such as Pancakes. The innocence of Hellboy is not only a particularly refreshing take on the character, but it is also what propels much of the story forward. His fears and his sense of wonders plays a huge part in the atmosphere of the story, magnifying everything as it passes right through the emotions of the character.

It is a blessing then that he is written very well, with a certain sense of mischief, of adventure and a desire to be part of something. Like a lot of children, Hellboy simply doesn’t know any better and gets in trouble, which is the highlight of the story as things he doesn’t understand begin to gravitate toward him. Despite his wishes and what he’d like to be, the story plays a huge part on developing certain traits of his. Being part excitable and gullible, it is a wonder to see him get excited about his favorite comic book, Lobster Johnson or when he is being attacked by monkeys and all sort of beasts in the circus. As the point-of-view for the horror and the marvels of this weird world created by Mike Mignola, the younger Hellboy works like a charm.

What also works very well is the much more horrific aspect of the tale. Playing with some of the more classical tropes of what people might attach in terms of fright to a circus, Mignola adds some other things of his own to the regular horrors connected with the concept. We do have the animals, the helpers and the like to rely upon for the fearful elements, but Mignola weaves in demons, illusions, crazy dreamscapes and some fables in his story that adds quite a lot in terms of concepts. Weaving in the mythology built around his character to the mix, Mignola does so without destroying the effects some of the elements may have on the readers. Fans might get a bit more from this story knowing who Astaroth is, but the key concepts around the character are clear enough for the non-initiated to be aware of just what kind of person he is.

Perhaps the only element that is weaker than the rest is the story itself, though, as it doesn’t accomplish much except perhaps add a bit of mythology for Mignola to use in the current Hellboy series. The general elements and the progression is fairly standard as far as plotting goes, with the story handled in the same manner as a child tale, which is part of its charm, yet it doesn’t do much in terms of complexity. It’s the classic tale of a child running away, only to learn the lesson that he shouldn’t have done so in the first place. The direct reference to Pinocchio is quite apt in the story itself, considering that angle, yet the strength of this graphic novel doesn’t lay in the basic plot behind it, but in its execution. There are a few twists here and there that fans of the Mignolaverse may get more of a kick out than other readers, but they aren’t exactly clear-cut in the narrative. They don’t retract anything, yet not everyone can exactly gets all the references. It’s strong work, yet not necessarily for the occasional readers.

The strongest aspect of this whole thing, though, is the art by Duncan Fegredo. In this graphic novel, he uses a good number of different styles, conveying a certain sense of wonder on one side with a more traditional Mignola approach on the other. The circus scenes have a different design, with the lines being a mix between Fegredo’s approach to storytelling and Mignola’s, with some unfinished lines combined with complete ones. There is also a certain opaque sense of details when dealing with the circus elements, enhancing the otherworldly sensation in the pages and panels dealing with this setting. The other style is much closer to the rougher, but also very fitting approach of Mike Mignola, with a certain focalization on rougher lines and shadows. The character designs, expressions and poses are all top-notch, with their reactions being very fitting for each new twists or concepts thrown in the story. The backgrounds, needless to say, are simply gorgeous as it becomes clear that this graphic novel took a lot of work from Fegredo. They are striking, memorable and full of life as close to none of them are lifeless, making the pages brimming with details without becoming chaotic or simply unfocused. Fegredo understand the strength of empty spaces in terms of storytelling, as he is able to balance things out in order to use them without making the pages look empty as well. The story flow is good, the panel sequencing is great and much of what is found there is good. This is an excellent display of Fegredo’s talent.

It is also a display of why Dave Stewart won a good number of Eisner awards, as the colorization fits the tone and the style in an excellent manner. Stewart use a vast number of colors to great effects, with most pages showing a different style to add to the marvellous aspects of the script. The invocation in the circus, the belly of the whale, the discovery of the circus, the hellish landscapes, the library scenes and a variety of others showcase a very different palette each time, creating a rich visual diversity that simply add so much to the tale. Contrasts are visible everywhere, enhancing the focus on certain elements, yet are done without brushing away other elements. It’s excellent work from Stewart, plain and simple.

Combining horror, a sense of child-like wonder with a subtle touch of Mignola’s own mythology, this graphic novel simply astounds on many levels, the strongest being the art of Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart, which can only be summarized as breathtaking. In simpler terms, it’s a beautiful and impossible strong piece of work from everyone involved.