"Zanziber's Point-Of-View" is a non-biased place where you can read reviews of graphic novels and trade paperbacks. Currently, these are based on my reading choices, but I will accept requests for reviews.
Title: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Dalibor Talajić
Writer: Geroge A. Romero
Collects: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two # 1-5
Empire of the Dead is set in a New York beset by far more problems than anyone realities. Like in any city in Geroge A. Romero’s USA, the zombies are on the streets for anyone to see, but within protected areas life goes on. Mayor Chandrake, up for re-election, sees to that, but only the chosen are aware he and his inner cabal are actually vampires. Even those are unaware that New York is a target for other forces.
An immediate difference from Act One is the change of artist from Alex Maleev to Dalibor Talajić. He’s better than Maleev when emotional drama is called for, and draws some superbly slimy men in suits, but lacks Maleev’s ability to convey the dirt and grime of a zombie infested world. Under Talajić’s watch everything looks too clean, and that’s not appropriate. Additionally, under Talajić the slimy Mayor Chandrake bears too great a resemblance to Tony Stark.
Make no mistake, this isn’t Romero using plots not good enough for his zombie movies, this is Romero delivering a plot he could never afford to make for cinema. Act One was the slow burn introduction of the cast, and Act Two ups the ante, smoldering and nudging in preparation for the bloodbath we’re expecting in Act Three. The political machinations and slow romance are largely formulaic, with the interest prompted by some zombies able to control their raging blood lust to a degree and possessing a rudimentary intelligence. Romero also investigates vampire lore, and this is less satisfactory as he changes the fundamentals considerably to suit his purposes, so no fear of garlic or a crucifix, no transformations into bats, sunlight is okay and mirror reflections are as normal. Removing some of the random sillier aspects of the traditional vampire makes narrative sense, but there’s a feeling of cheating about it. The threat to the vampires therefore comes not from the usual methods, but from a new character, a diligent and thorough police detective. A balding Columbo if you will.
The key to whether or not Romero’s movie fans will like Empire of the Dead very much depends on whether or not it’s considered acceptable that there’s actually been very little zombie action so far. Romero certainly supplies plenty of good drama via a cast it’s easy to believe in, but the zombies are very much the background, not the focus. By the conclusion of Act Two Romero has cranked up the pressure considerably, and supplied a surprising ending to lead us into Act Three. Alternatively, all three acts are combined as George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead.
Title: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 - No Power in the ‘Verse
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2017
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Writer: Chris Roberson
Collects: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 # 1-6
I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of Firefly. Every time I see them appear in comic form, it gives me that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling that every media company seems to be trying to tap into these days. Although the previous comic series have been hit or miss, I have enjoyed them enough to look forward to any new series Darkhorse puts out. This issue leans heavy on the nostalgia, spending a lot of the time checking in on the rag-tag crew, but this issue does plant a few seeds for conflicts that could have a dramatic impact on the franchise.
Whenever a new series comes out there is always a little bit of an adjustment period on my part. Each artist always takes each character design in a new direction and Georges Jeanty is no exception. But while some of the designs tend to take the characters in new directions, there are other instances where the pencils just seem a little off. Maybe a wandering eye appears in one panel, or a lack of details in a close up panel. Most of the time these small issues won’t have an effect on the panel, but when they happen to your main character, it’s the equivalent of a lead actor in a movie looking directly into the camera when giving their lines, it’s jarring and takes you out of the story. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often and as for the rest of the issue the art is solid. The creative team has done a good job here. Serenity feels like home.
The story doesn’t offer a whole lot of new ideas, but it does lay some groundwork for what could be interesting conflicts. After a job doesn’t pay as much as they hope, the crew is requested to look into a missing person’s case. A former ally with ties to a new terrorist organization has gone missing and Mal and crew are brought in to find here. It isn’t the most original plot hook, but it will do. I was really more interested in the side plots that are taking place between characters on the ship. Zoe is portrayed as being a new single Mom on a ship that is not suited for a baby. Jean, in addition to his usual friction with the captain, also seems to be feeling a bit alienated on the ship and given his history that could spiral off into a few different directions. Meanwhile, Kaylee and Simon also show hints of trouble. It’s good to see Mal and Inara as the ships’ stable relationship. It feels like the characters are maturing in a way that feels natural and the writer, Chris Roberson, is just letting those conflicts play out on the page.
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 26-50
Cerebus began as a Conan parody, but this was something far more ambitious – an honest to goodness graphic novel. With this approach in mind, Sim largely eschewed the normal episodic pacing of comics in favor of a narrative that would make more sense when read in its entirety. Realizing this, many Cerebus readers stopped buying the comic and just waited for the collections. This became known as ‘the Cerebus effect’, and the ramifications of it are still felt in the industry today.
By this stage in his career Sim was a confident and accomplished artist whose style had developed organically from a Barry Windsor-Smith wannabe. He retained much of Windsor-Smith’s love of the ornate, but his art had become very much its own thing. His writing had progressed even further, and High Society is a complex, mature work with important things to say about the nature of power, while often being very, very funny into the bargain.
The plot is labyrinthine and resists precis, but when Cerebus turns up at the Regency Hotel in the city-state of Iest he’s warmly welcomed by everyone because of his past associations with Lord Julius of Palnu, another city-state to which Iest owes a great deal of money. Cerebus was his Lord Julius’s Kitchen Staff Supervisor – Julius likes to keep everyone on their toes by making sure no one has the faintest idea of who does what. Before long, Cerebus is embroiled in Julius’s complicated political machinations, running for Prime Minister against Lord Julius’s goat and trying to wage wars on neighboring countries.
Much of the book’s plot is driven by the attempts of various characters to control and manipulate Cerebus. The main culprit is Lord Julius, who often seems to be working against himself, but also includes Astoria, Cerebus’s political advisor (and Julius’s ‘niece’) and assorted political and religious factions. However, Cerebus (who only ever refers to himself in the third person) proves himself to be not only cunning – something we had seen glimpses of previously, even in the early Conan pastiches – but also surprisingly knowledgeable in the ways of both magicians and politicians.
This book is a great starting point for anyone wanting to sample one of the most important comics in the history of the medium, self-published or otherwise. The first book, though relatively unpolished, is also worth a read, introducing many of the characters that would appear in this and later volumes over the course of 25 years, but any later books would be nigh impossible to follow without being aware of what has gone before.
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 1-25
Cerebus is something of a legend in comics. Begun in December of 1977 by Dave Sim, it was one of the first entirely independent, self-published comics in a field dominated by the large work-for-hire companies like Marvel and DC. It ran for 300 issues and nearly 27 years and became one of the most influential independent comic books of all time, in part due to Sim's outspoken views in favor of creator rights and his regular use of the editorial pages in Cerebus issues to air those views. This collection (the first "phonebook") collects issues 1 through 25, with one of the amazing wrap-around covers that makes all of the phonebooks so beautiful (possibly partly by later Cerebus collaborator Gerhard, although if so it's uncredited so far as I can tell). Cerebus reliably has some of the best black-and-white art you will ever see in comics.
There is some debate over where to start with Cerebus, and a faction that, for good reasons, argues for starting with the second phonebook (High Society). While these first twenty-five issues do introduce the reader to a bunch of important characters (Elrod, Lord Julius, Jaka, Artemis Roach, and Suenteus Po, for example), all those characters are later reintroduced and nothing that happens here is hugely vital for the overall story. It's also quite rough, starting as Conan parody with almost no depth. The first half or so of this collection features lots of short stories with little or no broader significance, and the early ones are about little other than Cerebus's skills and fighting abilities.
That said, when reading the series, I like to start at the beginning. It is nice to follow the characters from their moment of first introduction, and it's delightful to watch Sim's ability grow (surprisingly quickly) through the first few issues. Cerebus #1 is bad: crude, simplistic artwork, almost nothing in the way of a story, and lots of purple narration. But flipping forward even to Cerebus #6 (the first appearance of Jaka), one sees a remarkable difference. By Cerebus #7, Cerebus looks like himself, the plot is getting more complex, and Sim is clearly hitting his stride. And, by the end of this collection, the art has moved from crude past competent and into truly beautiful in places. It's one of the few black-and-white comics where I never miss color. The detailed line work is more enjoyable than I think any coloring could be.
The strength of Cerebus as an ongoing character slowly emerges from behind the parody. What I like the most about Cerebus is that he's neither a predestined victor (apart from the early issues that follow the Conan model most closely) nor a pure loner who stands apart from the world. He gets embroiled in political affairs, but almost always for his own reasons (primarily wealth). He has his own moral code, but it's fluid and situational; it's the realistic muddle of impulse and vague principle that most of us fall back on in our everyday life, which is remarkably unlike the typical moral code in comics (or even fiction in general). And while he is in one sense better and more powerful than anyone else in the story, that doesn't mean Cerebus gets what he wants. Most stories here end up going rather poorly for him, forcing daring escapes or frustrating cutting of losses. Sim quickly finds a voice for Cerebus that's irascible, wise, practical, and a bit world-weary, as well as remarkably unflappable. He's one of the best protagonists in comics, and that's already clear by the end of this collection.
Parody is the focus of these first issues, which is a mixed bag. The early issues are fairly weak sword-and-sorcery parody (particularly Red Sonja, primarily a vehicle for some tired sexist jokes) and worth reading only for the development in Sim's art style and the growth of Cerebus as a unique voice. Sim gets away from straight parody for the middle of the collection, but then makes an unfortunate return for the final few issues, featuring parodies of Man-Thing and X-Men that I thought were more forced than funny. You have to have some tolerance for this, and (similar to early Pratchett) a lot of it isn't as funny as the author seems to think it is.
That said, three of Sim's most brilliant ongoing characters are parodies, just ones that are mixed and inserted into the "wrong" genres in ways that bring them alive. Elrod of Melvinbone, a parody of Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone who speaks exactly like Foghorn Leghorn, should not work and yet does. He's the source of the funniest moments in this collection. His persistent treatment of Cerebus as a kid in a bunny suit shouldn't be as funny as it is, but it reliably makes me laugh each time I re-read this collection. Lord Julius is a straight insertion of Groucho Marx who really comes into his own in the next collection, High Society, but some of the hilarious High Society moments are foreshadowed here. And Artemis Roach, who starts as a parody of Batman and will later parody a huge variety of comic book characters, provides several delightful moments with Cerebus as straight man.
I'm not much of a fan of parody, but I still think Cerebus is genuinely funny. High Society is definitely better, but I think one would miss some great bits by skipping over the first collection. Much of what makes it work is the character of Cerebus, who is in turn a wonderful straight man for Sim's wilder characters and an endless source of sharp one-liners. It's easy to really care about and root for Cerebus, even when he's being manipulative and amoral, because he's so straightforward and forthright about it. The world Sim puts him into is full of chaos, ridiculousness, and unfairness, and Cerebus is the sort of character to put his head down, make a few sarcastic comments, and then get on with it. It's fun to watch.
One final note: I've always thought the "phonebook" collections were one of Sim's best ideas. Unlike nearly all comic book collections, a Cerebus phonebook provides enough material to be satisfying and has always felt like a good value for the money. I wish more comic book publishers would learn from Sim's example and produce larger collections that aren't hardcover deluxe editions (although Sim has an admitted advantage from not having to reproduce color).