Sunday, February 16, 2020

Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Vol 1: A Matter of Life and Death

Title: Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Vol 1: A Matter of Life and Death

ISBN: 9781782767534
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Titan, 2016
Artist: Emma Vieceli
Writer: George Mann
Collects: Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

The Eighth Doctor will be, for all but devoted Whovians, a blank slate, because he was initially featured in just one film, a failed attempt to relaunch the Doctor Who series in the 1990s.  Devoted fans may have heard the many audio dramas featuring Eighth Doctor Paul Gann, or read some of the novels, but most American fans will not.  Thus, his personality and quirks are not already built into the consciousness of American comics readers.

The problem is handled fairly well in this collection, a miniseries revolving around a mystery.  The Doctor returns to an old home and finds an artist living there, one whose paintings mysteriously come to life.  Over the course of several stories, not only is the mystery solved, but several apparent digressions finally come together into a single story.

Some fans won't be as interested in this unfamiliar incarnation of The Doctor, but the ones who stick around will be in for a good adventure.  The artwork of Emma Vieceli is very good, showing itself best when portraying the nearly real and the nearly human on the various worlds of the story.

The complexity of the tale aims this story at teens and adults, but it is good enough to be attractive to Doctor Who fans willing to try something different.  It would be a poor jumping-on point for readers unfamiliar with the show or the comics.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor Vol. 2: Fractures

Title: Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor Vol. 2: Fractures

ISBN: 9781782783017
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Titan, 2015
Artist: Brian Williamson, Mariano Laclaustra
Writer: Robbie Morrison
Collects: Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #6-10

Rating: 3.5/5

After their adventures in India, the Doctor and Clara return to her present – but danger is slipping through the cracks between universes, and London (and UNIT!) have no defence against the Fractures! Will the Doctor risk all of reality to reunite a family – or sacrifice a good man to keep the multiverse spinning? Then, the Doctor gambles with his life in 1960s Las Vegas, as he and Clara must team up with gangsters in order to defeat an intergalactic crime syndicate – but is this one too many spins on the Doctor’s roulette wheel?

The second trade collection which badges up Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor comic run issues 6-10, following on from the previous ‘Terrorformer’, the second volume ‘Fractures’ collects three distinct stories of The Doctor and Clara Oswald, set roughly during the eighth season of Doctor Who when Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord took to the galactic stage, and on the whole the collection is a delightful mix of some very different, and very modern Whovian tales.

‘The Fractures’, covering issues 6-8 of the comic and from which this trade collection takes its name, is the longest central story from writer Robbie Morrison and artist Brian Williamson, which sees the Doctor and Clara in modern day London (modern day as in 2014), investigating a case very close to Coal Hill School, where of course Clara teaches. Morrison’s tale feels in the vein of S8’s ‘The Caretaker’, with the Doctor as the eccentric school employee who Clara hangs around with and drags schoolgirl Lisa Foster, one of Clara’s students, into battling the titular Fractures; creatures who exist within the void between the so-called ‘multiverse’, acting when the fabric between universes is breached.

Morrison’s reason for such a breach is a very human family story, in the best traditions of Who, and he manages to balance a great depiction of the more severe, alien Doctor played by Capaldi and his dynamic with Clara alongside some genuinely interesting monsters (though they’re variants on what nuWho has done before), throwing Kate Stewart and UNIT into the mix (as Steven Moffat tends to do in most present day stories) and even manages to get callbacks to the Battle of Canary Wharf in nuWho S2 in there. All in all, it’s a really fun, well written and often gorgeously drawn three issue tale which captures the essence not only of modern Who, but also S8 and Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

The second story in the collection is ‘Gangland’, again written by Morrison and drawn by Williamson alongside Mariano Laclaustra, covering issues 9-10 of the comic run, which turns out to be a fun and frothy romp through the 60’s. You know what this one reminded me of? Star Trek fans will appreciate this – the Deep Space Nine episode ‘Our Man Bashir’, with its fusion of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. style kitsch and an added dose of alien invasion in the mix. The Doctor and Clara arrive in Las Vegas to see Frankie Seneca & the Wolf Pack play (there must have been a contractual reason why the Rat Pack couldn’t have featured here, as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Sammy Davis Jr. absolutely show up, just with different names), only to get caught up with Mafia mobsters, disgraced boxers and the octopus-like Cybok Imperium who have a very powerful Time Lord weapon and a stranglehold on the 60’s American underworld.

Amidst lots of Vegas glitz Williamson & Laclaustra clearly have a whale of a time drawing (including the Doctor in a Mad Men-style hat), Morrison himself enjoys throwing in lots of references to the 60’s, easy listening, sports and playing on the Doctor’s enjoyment of gambling & trickery, playing games he’s pretty certain he can win. It lacks the emotional depth or scare factor ‘The Fractures’ had, but that’s fine – ‘Gangland’ is one of those nice, throwaway, fun Who episodes you can sit back and soak up, and when it’s as well written & drawn as this, you’ll almost wish they could have actually made it into an episode of the show.

This trade collection is completed by ‘The Body Electric’, written by George Mann, drawn again by Laclaustra and printed in the Free Comic Book Day 2015 compendium rather than being an issue in the ongoing series. It still features the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, but it’s a much much more smaller ‘minisode comic’, if you like, which begins with Clara questioning – what sort of companion is she? It’s a nice little opening query which Clara answers neatly by the end of this short but sweet piece about a Quartz planet, unscrupulous miners, and sentient beings which may unwittingly be the victims of electricity. Laclaustra has fun depicting a planet made out of Quartz while Mann manages to deliver a told story, replete with villain, all in just a few pages – no mean feat. It caps off ‘Fractures’ as a collection quite nicely.

Altogether encapsulating two really strong outings for the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, set roughly during the eighth season of Doctor Who, ‘Fractures’ is a trade collection well worth your time if you want a memorable, and genuinely really well characterized dose, of the Doctor and Clara, especially now their partnership is no more (SPOILERS!). If you haven’t been picking up the Twelfth Doctor’s comic adventures weekly, do yourself a favor and grab this trade – you can jump in and enjoy them as you would most standalone Who episodes.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Red Sonja: Unchained

Title: Red Sonja: Unchained

ISBN: 9781606904534
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Dynamite, 2014
Artist: Walter Geovani, Jack Jadson
Writer: Peter V. Brett
Collects: Red Sonja: Blue, Red Sonja: Unchained #1-4

Rating: 3.5/5

Red Sonja: Unchained collects the Blue one-shot and the four-issue Red Sonja: Unchained series from last year. Blue sets up the Unchained storyline, so it’s great to have all of these issues in one spot.The Red Sonja: Unchained

Red Sonja rescues a tavern owner’s son from a demon sacrifice, but falls into trouble when – in true Sonja fashion – she makes an outfit for herself out of the demon’s pelt. To be fair, he did break her chain mail bikini, but clothing oneself in demon pelt is probably never a good idea, especially when there’s a lot of blood flying around oneself as a rule. Sonja’s on the run and has to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late and she ends up donating her own body to Bhamothes, the demon whose fur she wears.

I came in on the tail end of this storyline when I started reading Red Sonja last year, so I was very happy to get the full story here. Peter V. Brett, writer of the Demon Cycle, is great here, giving us a solid supernatural bent that puts the “sorcery” in “sword and sorcery”. He also knows his stuff – there’s a great smack at Conan – because Red Sonja wouldn’t have it any other way – that made me snicker with appreciation. Walter Geovani’s on art duty here, and he knows how to create atmosphere, whether it’s in a mead-soaked tavern or a creepy dungeon. I love his work on Red Sonja.

In addition to the 5 issues, there’s a cover gallery featuring all the covers from Geovani and Mel Rubi, who creates some amazing Red Sonja art. The book is a great companion for Red Sonja fans, and fans of sword and sorcery fantasy.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

Title: Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

ISBN: 9781593072971
Price: $12.00
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller

Rating: 3.5/5

Family Values, the third Sin City tale with Dwight as its protagonist, is at heart a very simple story, yet Frank Miller deftly wraps it in questions. When last seen in The Big Fat Kill Dwight was attempting to prevent a gang war in the Old Town that would have devastating consequences for the prostitutes working there, several of whom he considered friends. He’s now helping them out once more, except while that’s revealed early, the reasons it’s required are only clarified at the conclusion.

It pits Dwight against the upper echelons of the crime syndicates overseeing their territories, yet in an inventive fashion, overturning the theme of the series to date, as he’s always portrayed in control. This incorporates a very clever sequence reversing the usual tension. Dwight has been abducted by a group of threatening thugs who consider themselves to have the upper hand, yet are puzzled by his confidence. This is because it’s already been established that pint-sized assassin Miho is observing from the rooftops.

Miho has similarities to Elektra, as introduced in Miller’s Daredevil, but Miller’s now a far better artist, and there’s a balletic quality to the way in which she swoops and slices with her swords, aided by the visual effect of using roller-blades. That she’s depicted almost entirely in white against a strong black background supplies an almost ethereal quality. This is fantasy material, diverted into other areas of fantasy by gratuitous partial nudity. In a snowstorm.

Another controversial element is the use of racial insults by one of the thugs. Miller gets a free pass on this one. He’s established his stories as set in a form of recognizable reality even if the location is fictional and the action exaggerated. As distressing as it might be, there are people with those views unconcerned about expressing them. Substituting dialogue that might be perceived as more politically correct (as if that could ever apply to Sin City) would diminish the story. And let’s just say he won’t be talking like that again.

This is one of the shortest Sin City sequences, rendered an even more rapid read via several wordless action sequences, all very effective. Yet it’s also the best to date, the background questions providing the tension, the revelations scattered through the book, and an excellent final scene packing a hefty emotional punch.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

Title: Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

ISBN: 1593072937
Price: $17.00
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller
Collects: Dark Horse Presents #51-62, Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special

Rating: 3.5/5

For people who love dark noire thrillers, anti-heroes, beautiful dames and fast paced brutal action set against the dystopian setting of a sinister city -that looks like the mutant offspring of Las Vegas and New York City.

Follow huge ex-convict Marv, who has a mental ‘condition’ that makes him hallucinate and paranoid, as he tries to avenge a beautiful woman murdered in his bed. His quest leads us from the dirty criminal underbelly of Sin City all the way into its highest levels…

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller is another milestone in the world of graphic novels. Like his classic The Dark Knight Returns redefined Batman forever, Sin City changed the way we view graphic novels. Both in terms of art and story.

Marv is a mentally ill bruiser in Sin City. He works a local strip joint as bouncer and is generally a nice guy. That is until you get tough with him. Then you have a heavy goods train coming straight at you. Marv also carry’s numerous scars from his life of fighting and his violent nature is only kept at bay by his code of chivalry (he doesn’t hit women) and the medication he chew like M&M’s (he’s got a condition…ok).

The Hard Goodbye starts with a Marv spending the night with the beautiful Goldie. He’s an ugly guy. She’s a beautiful dame. Sounds too good to be true… but to Marv it doesn’t matter.

Things start going wrong when Marv wakes up and Goldie is lying next to him in bed, dead! Our hero quickly realizes that she was murdered while he was too drunk to notice or do anything about it. Then, before a moment is wasted the cops show up. This is starting to look like a frame-up job.

And this is where Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye shines. Marv decides he doesn’t want to go down before he figures out who killed Goldie. This means going through an attack squad of Sin City’s finest corrupt cops money can buy.

Frank Miller’s action sequences are breathtaking. No time and space is wasted on talking. No banter. No witty one lines. Just a human tank crushing through everything and anything in its way!

By now you might think that Marv isn’t a very bright man and prefers to solve problems through force. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marv won’t be getting the Nobel Price anytime soon, but he knows his limitations and is really good at asking questions.

So he figures that Goldie was scared. Scared enough to run into the dingiest part of the den of sin that calls itself Basin City (Sin City’s government name). Scared enough to look for the biggest toughest guy she could find and hope that he was enough. Enough to protect her.

Marv starts asking questions. He goes to guys who might know something, asks them and if they don’t give a satisfying answer –hits them over the head a few times. Two bumbling hit men come after them, one has a very fine coat. Marv asks them some questions and gets a fine coat as a gift for his troubles. Slowly he works his way up the ladder and discovers something (that will turn out to be even more) horrible.

Prostitutes have been going missing. Golide (surprise) was one of them working gals. Everything is pointing towards the Roark’s, Sin City’s founding ‘royal family’, who rule this town with an iron fist. No business (legal or illegal) is off limits, the Roark’s get paid from everything that goes on.

Can Marv take on the powers that be of Sin City and avenge a woman he only knew briefly? Is he even getting all this right, after all our hero is prone to paranoid delusions and hallucinations?

Why does someone who looks exactly like Goldie keep trying to kill him? What sinister secrets does an old farmhouse just out of town hide? Who really killed Goldie and why?

The answers to these questions will thrill, shock and engross you!

Frank Miller is the master of the dystopian anti-hero. He also contributed to elevating the American comic into the form of the graphic novel that we know and love today. Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye is a prime example of this.

Miller’s artwork stands out because it is black and white. No colors. Just light and dark. His use of positive and negative spaces is mind-blowing. Often you don’t see a character, building or action –you see an outline.

Miller makes light and shadows dance with each other. You’d think that this simplicity would take away from the visuals but it doesn’t. It lends Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye a very unique and stylized look. Sin City is a filthy, dangerous and menacing place. The artwork conveys this atmosphere and tension perfectly.

Through this look, Miller also, once again, proves that he is a master of illustrating very complex characters and environments in detail without actually putting a lot of detail onto the page. He shows you just enough to get your imagination filling in the blanks, which leads to Sin City reading like a blockbuster action movie instead of a graphic novel.

Miller’s writing in Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye perfectly intertwines with his artwork to tell an action packed noire detective story without a detective.

Dialogue is used sparingly. It only purpose is moving the story forward or filling in information that can’t be communicated visually. This means that The Hard Goodbye is a very tightly integrated and flowing story.

You really get drawn into the story and connect with Marv. He’s a violent mentally ill bruiser but he has his own idiosyncratic system of values. He’s doing bad things to bad people.

That’s kind of a theme with Miller. That those who practice violence should be punished in kind. I love the little quirks that Miller weaves into the storyline, Marv’s obsession with fine coats for example.

The Hard Goodbye is an excellent read full of action and barely contained energy. If you like noire detective thrillers and modern action movies read this book!

If you just want to cleanse your palate after reading something more emotionally intense like Maus by Art Spiegelman or Daytripper by Moon & Bá –read this graphic novel! The Hard Goodbye is an American masterpiece that will stand out in any collection.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories

Title: Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories 

ISBN: 9781593073015
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Cary Nord
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Collects: Conan #0-7

Rating: 3.5/5

Most readers of my generation first learned of Conan and Robert E. Howard from the popular 70s Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian and its companion magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. Initially written by Roy Thomas with elaborate art by Barry Windsor-Smith (and later John Buscema), the series ran until the mid-90s, when Marvel dropped the property due to lagging sales.

With Del Rey's best-selling, definitive reprint volumes of Howard's works (the fourth is due this summer), persistent rumors of a new film, and the 2006 centenary celebration of Howard's birth, Dark Horse Comics smartly acquired the comic book rights to Conan. Dark Horse has previously enjoyed successful runs with former Marvel hit licensed properties Star Wars and Godzilla. In the late 80s they began their long string of lucrative franchised properties with Aliens followed by Predator, Planet of the Apes, Betty Page, Tarzan, and others. Conan and Dark Horse are a natural fit.

Conan: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories collects the first seven plus issues of the comic book (issues zero-six and part of seven). At first glance, "The Frost Giant's Daughter" is an unusual piece to adapt. While potentially visually exciting, the story is one of Howard's weaker (and earliest) Conan tales. Unlike most of Howard's other Conan stories, it is basically just a fight scene containing little substance or plot. By using elements found in Howard's essay on the world of Conan ("Nemedian Chronicles" aka "The Hyborian Age"), Kurt Busiek expands the scope of the original to place the events in the context of Conan's life. Busiek develops Howard's version to incorporate other elements of the Conan mythos.

Contrary to popular misinterpretation (thanks primarily to the Marvel comic books and two feature films), Conan, as presented by Howard, is much more than a fighter. He is a thinker, a tactician, a lover, and a loyal friend. Conan is a barbarian, a thief, a mercenary, and ultimately, a king. The tales are full of political intrigue, romance, swordplay, magic, mythology, and more. Like all of Howard's work, Conan was a vividly imaginative interpretation of a young man's West Texas world.

In the graphic novel, a young Conan has journeyed north in search of the legendary kingdom of Hyborea with its riches and immortals. While saving a young woman's life, he gets embroiled in a confrontation between the warring peoples Aesir and Vanir. Through a series of fights and political machinations, events eventually lead to the frost giant's daughter and eventually Hyborea.

Busiek's masterful manipulation of Howard's playground is supported and supplemented by the artistic talents of Gary Nord, Thomas Yeates, and Dave Stewart. Robert E. Howard was a master of action, who wrote some of the finest and most influential fight scenes ever produced. Reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, the art manages to translate the intensity and flow of the source material. Nord's interpretation of the frost giants is original and inspired.

Similar to DVDs, graphic novel compilations must have extras. The highlight of this section is Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn's enlightening and entertaining overview of Howard's life and work, illustrated with Nord's original concept sketches. (This certainly bodes well for Finn's forthcoming literary biography of the author.) Other bonus materials include Nord's audition pages and Joseph Michael Linser's chapter breaks.

Unlike most previous attempts, the handsome Dark Horse package is a welcome addition to the Conan mythos. With Busiek, Nord, Yeates, and Stewart at the helm, I'll be back for more.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Saga Volume 9

Title: Saga Volume 9

ISBN: 9781534308374
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2018
Artist: Fiona Staples
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Collects: Saga #49-54

Rating: 4/5

This is a space opera that tackles the most difficult and relevant topics of our own society, doesn’t hesitate to shock readers, flip the script, and most frightening of all, doesn’t hold back from killing off major characters that we are deeply invested in. It’s a cruel message, that even the best people trying to just live their lives and maintain their ideals can be snuffed out by those with less scruples, and that those that have used violence in the past can rarely escape the consequences, even after having turned to a peaceful path. This volume will leave you stunned, gutted, and struggling to recover. Not only that, but writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have said they will be taking an extended hiatus after this volume. It may be a good time to re-read the entire series and consider the first nine volumes as a major story arc that comes to a stunning ending here.

In Vol 9, Marko & Alana, their daughter Hazel, Prince Robot, his son Squire, Petrichor, Ghus, Upsher & Doff, The Will, and Ianthe continue their tense cat & mouse chase. While the “good guys” are taking a breather, Upsher & Doff pitch the idea of sharing Marko & Alana’s story to their tabloid in exchange for a big payout that will let them (possibly) escape from all their pursuers and enemies and just be a “normal” family, one not under the constant threat of death from rival galactic empires that both have an interest in extinguishing them. At the same time, Prince Robot has his own plans on how to achieve happiness for himself, Squire, and Petrichor. This extremely unlikely trio makes for a fascinating family unit, and the whole series is so good at mixing up very different characters and forcing them to face brutally-difficult decisions in the midst of harrowing circumstances. How Vaughan manages to keep the banter clever, humorous, and yet completely honest is an amazing accomplishment. There are no false notes, just a continuously shifting tone as we go from quiet moments of brief happiness to sudden, wrenching, and violent deaths. It’s quite an emotional roller-coaster, so be prepared to be thrown for six and put through the wringer – it’s hard to imagine any fan of the series getting through this volume unscathed, and I was once again so impressed by how Vaughan and Staples use the story panels to create unbearable tension. I use Comixology and have it set so you read each panel without seeing the next, so there were moments in the story when I just didn’t want to move to the next panel, knowing something awful was waiting, but being unable to stop myself. It’s a perfect use of the medium, and the artwork is clean, expressive, and gorgeous as always.