Thursday, December 24, 2015

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

We'll see you next year for new reviews.

-Zanziber

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Shutter Volume 1: Wanderlost

Title: Shutter Vol 1: Wanderlost

ISBN: 9781632151452
Price: $9.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2014
Artist: Leila Del Duca
Writer: Joe Keatinge
Collects: Shutter #1-6

Rating: 3.5/5

Joe Keatinge’s Shutter is about Kate Kristopher’s attempts to find her identity, lost among the many memories she has of her father before his death. In that sense, it’s a traditional comic where the narrative follows the protagonist throughout the mysteries of her life, the comic slowly spiraling out to include her family and the reasoning for such a secretive background. But along with that tale of finding out who Kate Kristopher really is, Shutter Vol 1.: Wanderlost is also about a triceratops, and lion people, and ghost ninjas trying to kill Kate. It’s all so chaotically coherent that Keatinge’s series has already landed a place in the hearts of many readers.

Part of that is Keatinge’s quick launch into madness. Shutter begins with a young Kate exploring the moon with her father, a sentiment that she’s held onto for sometime. It was a point in her life when things began their forward movement toward adulthood, and growing up with her father allotted her some insane Indiana Jones-style adventures. The science fiction of exploring the moon isn’t so out of this world – because now we’re going to start launching luxury rockets into the stratosphere – especially for a comic book, but it quickly becomes apparent that Shutter ain’t operating on the standards of reality that we know.

Keatinge’s world-building feels incredibly natural, helped along by Leila Del Duca and Owen Gieni’s artwork that often allows double-page shots of the environments. There are so many odd creatures, both bystanders and bounty hunters, but Keatinge makes it work with a passion for letting loose and allowing things to take shape without the need to explain every detail. The first issue alone encompasses a fight with a robot, ghost ninjas, police officers in hovercrafts, and a lion gang, and it’s just the sort of explosive introduction needed to hook the reader quick.

Besides all the action, though, Keatinge finds time for character exploration, even those that don’t have a huge role in the series. Obviously Kate is a big part of Shutter, and Keatinge uses flashback, along with some very interesting paneling choices, to capture her memories of her father. More than that, though, are the multiple jumps to other characters. Shaw and Exland, the two lion bounty hunters, are given a lot more room than I thought; in one scene, after Shaw is told to wait in the car and he instead enters a record store, Exland murders everyone in there to make it look like a robbery. Keatinge doesn’t skimp on the brutality of his story despite the often cartoonish tone, and it’s a real treat.

While Shutter‘s story isn’t incredibly original – and you’ll certainly see shades of Saga in both narrative drive and conceptualization of the issues – it’s the nuances behind it that really make it a fast-paced read. Kate’s family is all sorts of messed up, and in the later issues of Wanderlost Keatinge takes time out of the action to have a family reunion. It is Kate’s siblings that want her dead, siblings she didn’t even know she had, and the shock of finding out that the dad who literally flew Kate to the moon was hiding lots and lots of secrets is palpable.

Shutter is definitely one to watch through a lens, particularly because of Del Duca’s detailed and original layouts. It may seem a bit familiar at the outset, but Keatinge certainly shows that his series is more than just a knock-off of popular adventure tales. Allow the magic of Shutter‘s world to work on you, and you’ll find yourself landing in a fantasy place where the sights are just a bit skewed, but still similar to our cutthroat reality.

With the loss of any new Fables trades, I think I can easily add this to one of my new favorite series to read.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Grendel Omnibus Vol 1: Hunter Rose

Title: Grendel Omnibus Vol 1: Hunter Rose

ISBN: 9781595828934
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2012
Artist: Matt Wagner, Tim Sale, David Mack, Duncan Fegredo, Mike Allred, Guy Davis, Teddy Kristiansen, Ashley Wood, Mike Huddleston, Dean Motter
Writer: Matt Wagner
Collects: Grendel: Devil by the Deed 25th Anniversary Edition, Grendel: Black, White & Red #1-4, Grendel: Red, White & Black #1-4, Grendel: Behold the Devil, Comico Collection, Decade: A Dark Horse Short Story Collection, Dark Horse Extra #49-50, Dark Horse Maverick 2001, Liberty Annual 2011

Rating: 3/5

Matt Wagner created Grendel for the now-defunct Comico Comics in 1983; he later took his creation to Dark Horse after the failing Comico attempted to claim the title as one of its assets. The concept is still full of life thirty years later; Wagner will be writing and drawing a crossover with The Shadow later this year. I call Grendel a concept because there’s really not one central character. The “Grendel” name is given to a variety of main characters over centuries; it’s a dark force and possibly a demon from Hell if some of the stories are to be believed.

With all that said, the person most commonly known as “Grendel” is Hunter Rose, the original holder of the title. Grendel Omnibus Vol. 1: Hunter Rose collects Rose’s story in the way Wagner wants to tell it ... and as a result, the original story from 1983 isn’t collected here. Wagner has called it a rough draft and its events are portrayed here in a story called “Devil by the Deed," which you should skip if you’re unfamiliar with the material. Instead of a regular story, “Deed” is an illustrated plot summary told in the form of a biography of Hunter Rose; some of these fragments were used in previous Grendel stories and later assembled here.

To replace that “draft," Wagner created three mini-series: Black, White and Red; Red, White and Black; and Behold the Devil. The result is, in essence, an anthology book telling one story from numerous angles. It’s a fairly daring experiment in sequential art. Once you read the three mini-series and re-read “Devil by the Deed," the entire tale of Hunter Rose mostly makes sense. There are a few flaws; the primary one comes in the form of Rose’s adversary, Argent the Wolf, a werewolf who still feels out of place despite Wagner’s best attempts to inject more mysticism into the story. Some of the nearly fifty individual stories could have been moved around to clear up the timeline.

These flaws are offset by two great strengths. One is that Hunter Rose is an absolutely fascinating anti-hero in the literal sense of the term. Rose has morals; he’s very protective of his young charge, Stacy Palumbo, and he never turns down the opportunity to kill pedophiles. Of course, Stacy is in his care because Rose killed her treacherous mobster uncle after said uncle tried to betray him to Argent. As Grendel, Hunter Rose controls New York City’s crime scene through terror and a ruthless efficiency, sometimes recruiting rival gangsters and other times taking them out with his unique fork weapon. Regular people are just chess pieces for him to move around. If you’ve ever tried to find a comic book version of Nietzche’s concept of the √úbermensch, Hunter Rose would be a good place to start.

The other great strength in this Grendel omnibus is the sheer volume of artistic talent involved. Wagner, a personal favorite artist, really shows off his skills in Behold the Devil with a masterful use of the page space. As two of the mini-series’ titles implied, the black and white artwork is joined with occasional and well-planned splashes of red. This only rarely feels like a gimmick. In “Devil’s Vagary," the entire color concept is modified so that some scenes are done almost entirely in red with black line work and white details. “Devil Dreams” confines the red solely to a hallucination of a god of death to amplify the anguish Argent goes through. Many of these stories add detail to minor characters from Behold the Devil.

While Wagner writes every story collected here (along with nearly every Grendel story every published), he only draws a few of the tales in BWR and RWB. He’s instead joined by one of the greatest assemblages of comic book artists this side of SDCC’s Artist Alley. If you have a list of favorite indie artists, you’ll likely find three or four of them within these pages. Phil Hester gets to draw the crucial chapter wherein Barry Palumbo betrays Grendel; it makes me long for a crossover with The Wretch. BWR features Tim Sale, Michael Allred, David Mack, Duncan Fegredo, D’Israeli, Paul Chadwick, and Chris Sprouse. RWB has Jill Thompson, Cliff Chiang (with John Workman on letters!), Jim Mahfood, Kelley Jones, Stan Sakai, Zander Cannon, Darick Robertson, and Ashley Wood. And that’s only about half of each roster!

Matt Wagner tailored his stories to work with each artist’s style. Teddy Kristiansen’s scratchy pencils in “Devil on My Back” add a true sense of unease to a tale of Hunter Rose’s childhood and the origins of his villainy. Stan Shaw uses caricatures and inventive type-setting to tell the sordid tale of Rose’s literary agent in “The Devil’s in the Punctuation." To explore Rose’s rise in the mob, Wagner and Timothy Bradstreet use fake news reports interspersed with silent, black-and-white panels. Tom Fowler illustrates the fall of an adversarial senator with careful calligraphy and what look like political cartoons. This is immediately followed by Andi Watson’s “Devil’s Karma," told entirely in haiku. A personal favorite, “Roulette du Diable," matches the dark deeds of Grendel to Stacy’s actions while bored, with Dan Brereton’s art carefully accented with red and pink.

These two mini-series are separated by what could be the greatest “It Gets Better” comic ever written. Remember, kids: homophobia is inefficient, and inefficiency makes Grendel want to stab people. This story was the most recent until the announced crossover with The Shadow. I really hope Dark Horse can get Matt Wagner to do some more Grendel work, especially with the departure of the Star Wars license. If nothing else, Grendel Omnibus Vol. 1: Hunter Rose packs an incredible amount of value, with the smaller pages keeping the crispness of the lines for the most part. Just be prepared to do a little mental (and online) work to put the entire story together.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Constantine Vol 2: Blight

Title: Constantine Vol 2: Blight

ISBN: 9781401247478
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2013
Artist: Aco, Szymon Kudranski, Beni Lobel
Writer: Ray Fawkes
Collects: Constantine #7-12

Rating: 3/5

In the last volume, Constantine struck a blow to the Cult of Cold Flame, and now they've both usurped Constantine's magical inventory and are killing rival magicians. Constantine is attacked by Sargon the Sorceress, who seems about to land a killing blow -- until she and Constantine go to bed together.

It's here that Fawkes begins to approach Constantine's mature comics roots. The scene causes the reader no end of difficulty, on one hand because of the implication that Constantine has been forced to have sex with his captor, and on the other hand for the equal implication that Constantine is in fact manipulating events himself to his own ends. In the first issue, artist Szymon Kudranski's art is nicely shadowed and atmospheric, though the characters -- Sargon especially -- tend toward a dead-eyed, far-off look that feels a bit sloppy. The second issue, however, gains a breath of fresh air with artist Aco's (ACO's?) distinct figures and rounded lines -- somewhere between Michael Lark and Frank Quitely -- which make both story and art feel strong, and it's at that moment the reader sees a Constantine series that could really go somewhere.

The end of that issue, however, intersects Constantine with the climax of Trinity War, and then the next issue picks up in media res in Blight. Again, Aco lends a wholly needed touch of class and maturity to the proceedings, but the issue essentially involves Constantine and his new magical crew battling the giant-size Blight monster across Central Park, almost Ghostbusters-esque. Fawkes does not acquit Constantine badly here, and again Aco really steals the show, but it feels like the kind of big, bombastic superhero story that doesn't befit the Constantine character, and it's miles away from Constantine going to bed with Sargon to infiltrate the Cold Flame.

Equally problematic is that all of Blight turns on Constantine being considerably (and quite vocally) in love with Zatanna, and desperate to save her from the Crime Syndicate at all costs. I don't claim to be a Hellblazer expert, but it seems to me that Constantine with one clear, altruistic goal is not Constantine at all. Take, for instance, Fawkes's own story of Constantine and his sidekick Chris foiling Sargon in Constantine Vol. 1: The Spark and the Flame, in which Constantine quite knowingly sacrifices Chris's life for the greater good; Constantine might have felt bad afterward for doing it, but he didn't regret it. Even as Blight is a fun team-up of DC's mystical characters, it stems from Constantine acting out of character, and that nags at the reader through all eighteen parts.

The next issue, with art by Beni Lobel, serves mainly to take up space in the Blight crossover, with a recounting of Constantine's already-introduced traveling companions. Shortly thereafter, Blight itself rather unexpectedly changes its focus from the Blight monster to a conflict between the new Justice League Dark and villains Felix Faust and Nick Necro. Though there are sizable Blight-gaps between the Constantine issues -- and between the book's final two issues are no exception -- they involve Constantine being captured by Necro at the end of one issue and still imprisoned in the next (despite some shenanigans in other issues) such that the final issues give the illusion of being more apiece than the rest.

John Constantine's magical internship under Nick Necro was a big part of Jeff Lemire's final Justice League Dark storylines, largely unremarked on so far in Constantine, so it's interesting to see Fawkes make it "canon," so to speak. Lemire's suggestion in Dark of Constantine as an impressionable kid in New York learning magic with Zatanna at the feet of Necro, supposedly just five years ago, felt a bit pat; Fawkes nicely deepens it, hearkening again to the mature roots, by suggesting what we all assumed, that Constantine and Necro had been lovers. Here again, the first issue of the sequence has Aco's strong art, whereas in Lobel's closing issue, at times Constantine and Necro look so alike that I had to re-read pages to know who was who. The conclusion is a strange mix of Constantine kissing Necro set against Constantine fighting a zombified Earth-3 Sea King who looks like the 1990s hook-handed Aquaman -- again, a little bit Vertigo, but also superhero antics where Constantine doesn't quite fit.

I'm a sucker for a crossover and a shared universe, and there's a rich tapestry between J. M. DeMatteis's Justice League Dark and Phantom Stranger, and Ray Fawkes's Constantine and Pandora. To an extent, it's entirely worth the price of admission to Constantine Vol. 2: Blight's for me to see Constantine talking to the Scottish Terrier that conveys the voice of God from Phantom Stranger, or to see the Stranger and Constantine's momentary confusion over how coincidentally each has mistreated a boy named Chris. There's only so much of Fawkes's Constantine left until it's cancelled and relaunched with Convergence, but I'm in for another volume to see at least if the first two chapters of this book are representative of where Fawkes really intends to go with the character.