Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics

Above the Dreamless Dead was published to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. It contains a multitude of Trench Poetry by a long list of poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick Macgill, Wilfred Owen, Issac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. These poems capture high art, the horrors of war, and also some of the profane responses from a number of soldiers. Very helpfully, the back matter of the book gives more information about their individual lives as well as a separate section that describes the context of their poems.

The poets are paired with a number of equally diverse and talented artists, including Hannah Berry, Stephen R. Bissette, Eddie Campbell, Lilli Carre, Liesbeth De Stercke, Hunt Emerson, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Sarah Glidden, Isabel Greenberg, Sammy Harkham, David Hitchcock, Kevin Huizenga, Kathryn Immonen, Stuart Immonen, Peter Kuper, James Lloyd, Pat Mills, Anders Nilsen, Danica Novgorodoff, Luke Pearson, George Pratt, Carol Tyler and Phil Winslade.

The poem adaptations are split into three sections: The Call to War, In the Trenches, and Aftermath.
From Thomas Hardy and Luke Pearson's "Channel Firing"
From Isaac Rosenberg and Peter Kuper's "The Immortals"

From Osbert Sitwell and Simon Gane's "The Next War"
The results are a wide range of powerful and provocative images. I really like the use of black and white to highlight the dark lines and contrasts, as well as the alternations between realistic and cartoony styles. These poems do not shy away from grim realities, loss of faith, or any type of politeness. The Great War, with its bloody and brutal combat, stripped away a lot of veneer and nicety of society and left those who fought it reeling and forever changed. Those are the kinds of sensibilities exposed throughout this volume, with some interspersed bursts of raunchy humor contained in the war songs that lighten matters up.
This is one of the tamer parts of the songs.
I would not say this is a book for young students, but it is a record of the time and a compilation of many works that would be excellent for high school students to contend with.

Chris Duffy edited this literary volume of comics. He also edited Fairy Tale Comics, one of my favorite books for younger readers. Duffy is a veteran in the field who edited Nickolodeon Comics for 13 years, as well as the Bizarro Comics anthology for DC Comics and Spongebob Squarepants comics for Bongo Comics.

All I have read about this book contains great praise. In a starred review Publishers Weekly wrote that "the real strength of the anthology comes both from the poems selected for it and the variety of visual approaches." Paul Gravett remarked that it provided great evidence that "the marriage of poetry and comics is a deeply fruitful combination." Rob McMonigal recounted his favorite entries from the book and concluded that it was "a great anthology series and well worth picking up."

Above the Dreamless Dead was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.

And a great, big thank you to Gina for the review copy!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End

As you might could tell from my reviews over the years, I really like Ed Brubaker's comics. His multiple collaborations with Sean Phillips, Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, and Fatale, are among my favorite comics ever. I am also a big fan of his superhero work, particularly his runs on Catwoman, Iron Fist, and Captain America. On that latter title, he did the impossible (to me at least), and brought back the character Bucky in an interesting and provocative way.

Looking at his credits, Brubaker gravitates toward certain artists as collaborators, and in this series he pairs up again with his main Captain America/Winter Soldier partner, Steve Epting. Epting is a comics veteran who has consistently been working since the 1990s. His artwork in this volume is crisp, clean, and very cinematic, a blend of photo realism and technicolor. It reminds me of a contemporary version of Paul Gulacy, whose classic runs on Master of Kung Fu and Sabre are seminal. Also, Elizabeth Breitweiser's coloring is exceptional. There are many pages and images that I felt could have been HD movie cels, they are that vibrant and deep.
The concept of Velvet is somewhat simple, a recasting of a James Bond-like spy thriller. Only instead of Bond being the protagonist, it is Ms. Moneypenny who is revealed to be the ultimate spy. Hiding in plain sight as a secretary of the director of a secret intelligence agency, Velvet Templeton knows where all the bodies are buried and when all the covert operations went down. What is more, she is highly trained as an agent and a combatant. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but I will say that it involves a mole in the agency, a plot to frame our heroine, and her having to go on the lam to survive and also get to the bottom of things. There are lots of twists, turns, and revelations to keep the suspense and thrills coming.
Reviews of this book I have read have been glowing. Andy Wolverton wrote that it "is filled with such wonderful scenes in a story arc that makes us think that we’ve just scratched the surface of something that could very well be not just good, but great." Joe Gordon remarked on the excellent characterization of Velvet, "Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.)." The reviewer at The Telltale Mind wrote that "this book grabs you and refuses to let go" and added that "the second volume of this book cannot come fast enough."

Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End was published by Image Comics, who provide lots of information and links here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Couple More Myths and Legends

Today's look at Lerner Publishing's Graphic Universe books features a couple written by Jeff Limke. He is an educator who has written many comics, and he seems to specialize in historical myths and fantasy stories.

Jason: Quest for the Golden Fleece is sort of like the Greek myth version of The Expendables, with a band of Greek heroes, including Heracles and the twins, Castor and Pollux, led by Jason on a series of adventures. In terms of this story, both brute strength and intelligence are necessary elements. I also have to say to those who are familiar with this story that the characters here are more clever than duplicitous (there are a bunch of double crossers in the versions I remember). On the plus side, the story has all kinds of great action/adventure elements, with Jason contending against fire-breathing bulls, skeleton warriors, and even a dragon.
I liked the energy and pacing in this story. The artwork, by Tim Seeley, co-creator of Hack/Slash and Revival, was crisp and very enticing. He also draws great monsters and attractive human beings in a dynamic style, which is very well suited to this particular narrative.

If I had a quibble with this book, it is with the ending, which has Medea tossing her kid brother into the ocean rather than cutting him up into little bits and a happy scene with Jason and Medea pledging their love to each other. I get that this book is geared toward younger readers, but I did blanch a little that the gory details and abject state of affairs Jason finally fell into were omitted.

This second book, King Arthur: Excalibur Unsheathed, is an excellent introduction for younger readers into the world of Arthurian legends. Adapted from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, this book recounts tales of King Arthur from his youth, from his pulling the legendary sword from the stone, to his struggles to assert his rule as a young king. He vies with King Pellinore (who will later be his ally), meets Lady Guinevere (who will later be his wife), and adventures with Merlin as he seeks his birthright and a new sword. These are fun, exciting, and extremely well rendered episodes in the time before Arthur grew his beard and came to more complicated and treacherous affairs. Like the Jason book above, the narrative ends before the grim parts of these heroes' lives.
Also like the Jason volume, the highlight (not to detract from the good story) is the artwork, here by Thomas Yeates, a very respected comics veteran. His style is intricate, realistic, and somewhat soft, smacking of his influences, Hal Foster, N.C. Wyeth, and Wally Wood.

So, to sum up today's books. They both have well presented stories, excellent artwork, and I recommend them as introductions into the world of myth and legend. I think they would both be popular with upper elementary readers who like action and adventure tales especially.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Some Greek Myths and Legends

I have reviewed a few titles from The Graphic Universe imprint before, and they make nice, affordable products that are available both in sturdy hardcover and economical softcover. They also offer e-versions of these books. This week, I am going to look at a few more of their offerings.

The writers for today's books are Justine and Ron Fontes, a wife and husband who have written more than 500 books together.  

Demeter and Persephone: Spring Held Hostage tells the oft-told tale of Persephone and how she was abducted by Hades. In the meanwhile, her mother Demeter pines away until a compromise is made, and voila, the concept of the seasons is born. This is a good retelling, with a little more personality injected than usual. I thought it was a brisk, interesting narrative. Also, the story acts as a great tour of the Greek mythological underworld, as one of the ways Persephone tries to stall is to ask Hades to show her around the realm. She sees all the various territories, including Tartarus and the Elysian Fields, and meets diverse characters like Cerberus and the Furies (or Kindly Ones, if you prefer).
In particular, I liked the characterizations and also the feminist flourishes added to this traditionally sexist story. As in George O'Connor's similarly focused Hades: Lord of the Dead, Persephone is given more of a role in the story, with her thought processes made visible about how she ended up marrying the King of the Underworld.

The art here is by Steve Kurth, a veteran artist known for his work on various Iron Man and GI Joe comic book series.

Today's second offering is The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy. The source material for this version of the story is Virgil's Aeneid and Quintus of Smyrna's The War at Troy, which gives it a different slant on the tale, more from the Trojan's point of view. I liked these small character moments that drew attention to particular characters' plights, like Cassandra's curse, Paris's pride, and Priam's bravery in the face of defeat. Otherwise, this is a pretty straight-forward version of the tale, with a couple of visuals I particularly enjoyed, such as this page laying out the gods who are major players and their motivations for the events:

Gordon Purcell's art is sort of 1990s Image Comics-flavored, in its way faces and clothing are rendered, but without so many excesses, like excessive cross-hatching. I liked his dynamic layouts and action scenes especially.

My opinion about these books follows much of what I have thought about other Graphic Universe offerings. In general, I have found these titles well-written and colorfully illustrated, and they seem great for upper elementary grades readers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Skyscrapers of the Midwest

I read a lot about comics and comic books, and one blog I consistently read is Comics Should Be Good, which features a lot of different viewpoints about many types of comics. I recall the head blogger there, Brian Cronin, writing about this series with a curious title a bunch of years back now, and I am finally getting to read it for myself. If you want to see what he has written in addition to what I am going to say, you can see him extolling the virtues of it here, here, here, here, and here.

This book contains a collection of mini-comics and comic books about an adolescent drawn as an  anthropomorphized cat, his younger brother, and the imaginative adventures they find themselves in. Now, I know this sounds all kinds of light and cheery, but this scene is not an imaginary magical dreamworld, though it does have some fantasy elements, like giant robots that sort of look like ROM. Although this book is clearly some form of memoir it is not really all that nostalgic either. It is evocative and powerful, bringing back many of the strong emotions of youth in brutal, yet empathic ways. Reading this book, it was difficult for me not to recall similar situations I found myself in when I was a kid, some painful and some humorous. For example, these three pages are from the sequence early on in the book, a birthday with a wonderful and horrible gift.

Although he loves the gift, the reality of his age and his social standing end up crushing any enjoyment, which is highlighted by juxtaposed sequences where we see his little brother having a great time just playing with the box the backpack came in. This entire opening narrative is available in the preview link below, and I suggest you go read it. What I admire most about this opening, and the book as a whole is how it is clearly realistic and truthful about the realities of growing up. Lots of people struggle with their families, loss, love, religion, and fitting in when they are younger. Not everyone grows up popular and accepted, and the pain and nuances of emotion in this book are both palpable and powerful. Not to say I found this book depressing, but it does what Marianne Moore wrote the best poetry does, namely depicting "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."

This was Joshua W. Cotter's debut comic, and the artwork certainly reflects his growth in that area over the course of the book. I admired the rawness and sketchiness of his lines as well as how he deftly tells stories and creates emotional impacts. He also created Driven By Lemons, a book containing an interesting mix of comics, sketches, and prose. He speaks more about his life, art, and work on Skyscrapers in this interview.

Reviews I have read of this book have been glowing. Comic Book Resources' Timothy Callahan remarked that "Cotter has created something true and meaningful about the experience of growing up, and it's a powerful story." Brian Heater called it "that rare critical mass of dynamic art and storytelling" and went on that "Cotter manages to capture the wonders and horrors of childhood, which are perhaps far more entwined than we’d wish to remember." Andrew Wheeler simply called it "a hidden gem of modern comics."

A preview and more about Skyscrapers of the Midwest can be found here from Adhouse Books.

This review wraps up Adhouse Month for me. I hope that you enjoyed my look at a publisher of diverse and wonderful books from a wide range of creators. Go check out their catalog, because I only scratched the surface of their output.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Congratulations, 2014 Eisner Award winners!

The complete list of 2014 Eisner Award winners is available here.

Also, I want to point out a few of the winners I have reviewed in the past year:

Best continuing series: Saga

Best new series: Sex Criminals

Best publication for kids (ages 8-12): The Adventures of Superhero Girl

Best publication for teens (ages 13-17): Battling Boy

Congratulations, all!

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack

Sometimes I feel like a bad person. I think that this song is funny (warning, it's NSFW). I am amused by these guys constantly hitting each other. I think this cartoon is entertaining. I miss the work of Mark Beyer, whose Amy and Jordan comics I absolutely love. The brand of schadenfreude in The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack is of the over-the-top and hilarious variety. It begins on a day when the naive, sweet, and unluckiest man in North Dakota is at the supermarket, girding up his courage to tell a woman that he fancies her. After one of his friends tells him to have some liquid courage, the innocent dope buys a giant can of alphabet soup using some dodgy logic.

Of course, consuming that much soup in one setting makes him incredibly sick, but still he soldiers on.
I will save you the disgustingly hilarious pictures that follow, but poor Bobo projectile-vomits soup intermittently for a few blocks. His spew spells out ghastly, mean, and obscene messages, which rile up a local thug, thoroughly insult his potential belle, and get him into a whole bunch of trouble. These events put a whole bunch of misery in motion, and no matter what Bobo does, it all ends of catastrophically. And hilariously. I do not want to spoil much, but the climax involves cat allergies, the Yakuza, and a large, hungry snake.

I understand that this comic might not be for everyone, what with its dark comedy and gleefully grotesque pictures. Personally, I think that artist Jon Chadurjian is following in a great comic tradition of folks like Chuck Jones (think that one cartoon where the artist torments Daffy Duck, or any Daffy Duck cartoon he did for that matter). Chadurjian works and teaches at The Center for Cartoon Studies and also publishes under the name Jon Chad. He has created the science-themed graphic novels Leo Geo and his Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth and Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis. Like this book, they are gorgeously rendered, but unlike this book they are appropriate for all ages.

Some of the stories in this book originally appeared as mini-comics. Also, I had a difficult time finding reviews for this title, but the ones I did find were complimentary. Shea Hennum praised its weirdness and stated that although it might not be for everyone "the book fits well in the catalogue of high quality books that Chris Pitzer is curating over at Adhouse." Rick Kreiner at The Comics Journal positively spoke of Chad's characters as "grotesques in their fully rendered, rounded, loving detail."

Like all the graphic novels I am reviewing this month, The Bad-ventures of Bobo Backslack was published by Adhouse Books. They provide a preview here.

I met Chadurjian at this year's HeroesCon, and he was a smart and funny guy. I bought one of his Leo Geo books on Saturday and was so impressed I came back and bought one of every graphic novel title he had. He was nice enough to sign one of these color initial-versions of this book's cover for me. You should check his books out because he is a very talented fellow!
Our hero surrounded by those who make his life difficult.