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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cobra: Son of the Snake

Title: Cobra: Son of the Snake

ISBN: 9781613775479
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: IDW, 2013
Artist: Antonio Fuso
Writer: Mike Costa
Collects: Cobra #13-16

Rating: 3/5

G.I. Joe (or Action Force to British readers with long memories) is at its best when it forgets its toy store origins and focuses on delivering solid stories of warfare with a touch of the fantastic. Cobra: Son of the Snake is a good example of what the franchise can be used for. A tale of double-dealing and espionage, it works on multiple levels – as a decent spy thriller, but also as a reasonable detective procedural with a nice sprinkling of action adventure.

A catastrophe has severely reduced G.I. Joe's resources. This ups the game slightly; the heroes can no longer rely on ridiculous super-technology to track bad guys and shorten the chase, and now they have to use their heads a little bit instead of just beating the tar out of villains. The cast of characters has been selected fairly carefully. Some of these heroes will never get their own action figure, and that’s a good thing; it allows the tale to focus on believable characters in a larger-than-life world.

The artwork is messy and gritty, but still manages to be very easy on the eye. The action scenes are strong, without resorting to cheap gimmicks, and violence is used sparingly and to good effect, with a hyper-violent scene early on serving as an anchor for later events.

Fans of the more recent Bond movies, as well as those who dig shows such as NCIS might want to consider taking a look at G.I .Joe: Cobra – Son of the Snake. This particular serpent really has shed its skin and become something much more interesting than an extended toy advert. There’s enough here for fans of the franchise to enjoy but it’s also a good stepping-on point for new readers.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Azrael: Angel in the Dark

Title: Azrael: Angel in the Dark

ISBN: 9781401228743
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Ramon Bachs
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Collects: Azrael #1-6

Rating: 3/5

Some people seem adamantly against superhero comics or characters touching on certain real-life issues in stories. For instance, Greg Rucka and Judd Winick are two writers who’ve caught flack in the past for telling stories involving gay characters and the persecution they sometimes face. Personally, I think it all depends on how you portray the issue, and whether you come off as preachy.

In Azrael: Angel in the Dark, Michael Lane is a soldier of the cross, tasked with carrying out God’s justice. But what does being God’s Dark Knight actually mean? Our new Azrael is presented with several conflicts that test his merit, both as a person and as a hero. To an extent, how he fares is up to the reader to decide. But keep in mind, this book implies that the Suit of Sorrows (which Azrael wears as his armor) will one day drive Michael Lane insane.

I really want to give this book to a Catholic minister, just to see what his/her reaction is. At the end of the first issue, we see an image of Lane being CRUCIFIED. I’m not a heavily religious person, and that surprised me. I can only imagine how a devout Roman Catholic would feel.

The book also touches on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Lane is a war veteran, having served in Iran. In the third issue, he protects a Palestinian who has been savagely beaten in a heavily Jewish area of Gotham. Then, he and his former batallion-mates confront another fellow soldier who’s been killing Muslims in Gotham City. Lane has to decide whether this man deserves to live or not. The decision he makes is a bit surprising.

We also get appearances by Batman & Robin, Huntress and Ragman. Solicitations advertise Azrael as “a crusader forever linked to Batman’s destiny.” (But do they mean the Dick Grayson Batman, or the Bruce Wayne one?) Batman is also featured on this book’s cover, presumably to boost sales from casual readers. I’m really hoping this book doesn’t go the way of Gotham Central and get cancelled in the midst of its prime. I’m really enjoying this series, if for no other reason than it’s not afraid to be in that religious realm. But at the same time, it’s not preachy. Best I can tell, Azrael’s adventures are never intended to be anything but fantasy. Still, some of them make you ask moralistic questions of yourself, and that’s pretty cool.