Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Bulletproof Coffin

The Bulletproof Coffin is a whole bunch of things in one package, including a critical commentary on the comics industry and how it treats its creators, a recapitulation of classic Marvel bullpen personae, a nostalgic look at Golden and Silver Age comic books, and a piece of good old fashioned science fiction paranoia. The story stars Steve Newman, a voids contractor whose job is to clean out dead people's houses and take their unwanted belongings to the local landfill.
He and his partner Joey Spinoza often go to each house the night before to select any choice bits, and consequently Steve has amassed quite a collection of collector's items like old comic books, toys, and store displays. He keeps all these treasures in his attic sanctuary, away from his wife and children.
The plot thickens when Steve finds an old television, some (he thought) unpublished comic books, and a Coffin Bug costume. Suddenly he finds himself compelled to wear the suit, which fits like a glove, and he is transported to all kinds of adventures with comics heroes The Red Wraith, The Shield of Justice, The Unforgiving Eye, and Ramona Queen of the Stone Age. They fight mysterious shadow men and a dimension-traveling zombie horde at the end of time, but they learn that their dire fates could be averted if they find their creators David Hine and Shaky Kane.
The proceedings are very meta-textual, with all sorts of jabs at industry conventions and also some satirical yet creepy recreations of comic book features like advertisements, letters to the editor, and fan art. This book contains some very elaborate packaging and commentary, and it seems to be a real labor of love as well as a lot of fun. All of these details do not weigh down the proceedings, and I feel that the adventure stands on its own merits as a piece of superhero action/science fiction.

What drew me to this book in the first place was the art by Shaky Kane. Kane has been drawing various comics since the mid-1980s and his style is influenced heavily by "Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Savage Pencil, Jack Kirby, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy" (per his bio). His Kirby riff is prevalent in this book, but his art straddles classic and contemporary comics styles. It is both raw and polished, and it reminds me a lot of Bob Burden's. The story is by David Hine, who has written a multitude of comics for many different companies. Both creators speak about their work in this interview.

Reviews I have read have praised this book that is simultaneously in love with and highly critical of comic books.  Ryan K. Lindsay called it "a smart comic that is also insanely enjoyable." Alex Carr called it "entirely original" and added that "it's worth seeking out for any true culture vulture."

The Bulletproof Coffin was published by Image Comics. The entire first issue is available as a preview here. For those interested, there is a sequel, The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred.  I recommend this book for mature readers, as it contains some adult language, bloody violence, and nudity.
Trick or treat!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Chuckling Whatsit

As I am reviewing spooky graphic novels during this month, I would be negligent if I did not include a work by one of the most prolific and macabre artists of the past few decades. Richard Sala has created a number of impressively creepy, funny, and suspenseful comics for a wide range of readers. He can make quick, violent, colorful confections like this past year's e-comic Violenzia, or suspenseful and fun children's fare like Cat Burglar Black. He is a master of combining various gothic elements in narrative and visual form. His art style is very distinctive, an amalgamation of Mad magazine details with art deco geometry and design as well as elements of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey throughout. He is excellent at creating tone and conveying a punchy story, as you can see from the first couple pages of a story originally serialized in Zero Zero, The Chuckling Whatsit:
The plot of The Chuckling Whatsit is layered like an onion, partly about the search for a creepy set of dolls made from human body parts, a slack-about writer looking for work, a lost folk artist, a serial murderer who targets horoscope authors, and a secret society of villains and assassins. There are many excellent, surprising details in the backgrounds as well as visually striking characters, from the masked female burglar who is always carrying a rose to the hulking, lurking henchman who has a huge scar across his forehead and carries a sack that barks orders at him. Not only does Sala deliver an excellent plot and mystery, dropping hints and information like bread crumbs, he also provides a motley and memorable cast of players.
Among Sala's other works are his story collection Mad Night, Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires, Delphine, Black Cat Crossing, The Hidden, and his most recent work, In a Glass Grotesquely. He speaks more about his many works and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this classic book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that "The wildly imaginative storytelling and sly pastiche of lurid pulp material make an appealing mix." The Onion A.V. Club's Stephen Thompson opined, "Although its ornate lettering and perfect crosshatching are great to look at, the truly admirable quality of The Chuckling Whatsit lies in its labyrinthine plot."

The Chuckling Whatsit was published by Fantagraphics Books, who provide a preview and much more here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Afterlife with Archie

Last year, I did a week long look at Archie Comics and some of their attempts to diversify their brand of comic books. I did not mention the most dramatic departure they were making, the new series of horror comics, Afterlife with Archie. This series stars the established Archie characters, but it takes them in a much different direction than the typical humor and romance schtick.

This volume collects the first five issues of the comic book series. The plot begins with Jughead's pet Hot Dog being run over by a car. He cannot deal with the loss, so he goes to Sabrina the Teenage Witch for help. She defies her aunts' wishes and resurrects the dog, though she is severely punished for it. In the meantime, Hot Dog is back but he is not right. The monstrous and ravenous canine turns on Jughead, biting him and beginning a contagion that turns Riverdale's citizens into flesh-eating ghouls.

Following the conventions of a zombie movie plot, what is left of the Archie gang holes up in the Lodge mansion, trying to find a way out of town and away from the creatures who want to devour them. Of course, there are complications, such as people who have been bitten but try to hide it as well as selfish moves by people who want to survive at any cost. And, I have to add, the backstories of the main characters get mined in ways that help heighten the drama while also ramping up the creepiness of the whole enterprise. This book might simply be a zombie movie with the Archie cast offered up as sacrificial lambs, but it is also true to the characters, oddly compelling, and well done.

Afterlife with Archie is a collaboration between Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla. Aguirre-Sacasa is a playwright, screenwriter, and author whose major credits include writing for the TV shows Big Love and Glee and co-writing the 2013 remake of Carrie. He has also written a slew of Marvel Comics as well as an Archie meets Glee crossover series. Francavilla is one of the best contemporary noir comics artists, having won the Eisner Award for Best Cover Artist. He has worked on his own series Black Beetle as well as having done Detective Comics and a run of the beautifully rendered Zorro. Both creators speak about their work on Afterlife with Archie in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very complimentary. Andy Wolverton called it a "must read" and added, "Maybe what makes Afterlife with Archie so powerful and compelling is that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have taken characters we’ve known and loved for nearly 75 years and have shown us that maybe they’re not as safe as we thought they were." EricJoseph gushed that it is "the best zombie comic on shelves today." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote that the "basic plot may be B-movie, drive-in fare, but it looks and is told like a Golden Age Hollywood classic," and summed up, "For horror fans, comics fans and horror and comics fans, it’s a must-have."

Afterlife with Archie is rated T for Teen and is published by Archie Comics, who has a preview and more links here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

X'ed Out and The Hive

Charles Burns is well known for his gorgeously composed and grotesque black and white artwork in books like Black Hole, but with X'ed Out he presents his first full color graphic novel.The story is a creepy mystery starring a guy named Doug in at least two roles. In one narrative he is an art student who is trying to balance his work with his relationships and in the other he is an amnesiac named Nitnit (or Johnny 23) in a surreal, horrific world of weird creatures and strange customs. Certain images and figures, including flesh wounds, Polaroid pictures, a black cat, and an old man recur in both worlds, causing the reader to question what is real and how much memory can be trusted.
Doug has some serious problems.
The artwork is fantastic as the story is intriguing and compelling. Burns references the classic style of Herge's Tintin in the forays into the otherworld, which adds to the identity play going on. He also references the drug-fueled and surreal work of William S. Burroughs, masterfully combining his strong storytelling skills with uncomfortable images of various fetuses, monstrous beings, strangely speckled eggs, gaping wounds, and flowing sewers. X'ed Out is a seriously weird, unsettling, and engrossing reading experience.
Seems like great advice to me...
Because of Burns' reputation, this book was reviewed in many well known venues, and many of them comment on being somewhat underwhelmed. New York's Dan Kois called it "a gorgeous head trip." The LA Times' Ben Schwartz offered that he felt the book fell a little short but that "Burns has still outdone himself in sheer ambition." The Guardian's Rachel Cook summed up her feelings, "I think there is something delightful about delayed gratification and this is a very beautiful book in its own right."

X'ed Out was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. It ends on a cliffhanger, and the continuation of this book, The Hive, has also been published, for those who want more of this tale.

In this second book in a series, Nitnit (the Tintin version of Doug) finds himself as a menial worker in the titular hive. He pushes a cart, delivers packages, and cleans up messes in the fleshy hallways. The hive is where the breeders live and reproduce while green-skinned alien workers and pig-men do all kinds of jobs to maintain the place. All of this is just as gruesome and unsettling as it sounds.

Meanwhile in the real world (?), Doug is in a budding relationship with Sarah, taking lots of photographs, doing performance art, reading lots of romance comic books, dealing with Sarah's (unseen) violent ex-boyfriend, facing an unexpected pregnancy, and also caring for his dying father. There is much going on, and interspersed in the proceedings are apparent sessions with a therapist, though she is utterly rude and unprofessional, which makes me think it may be some sort of dream or hallucination. Confounding imagery crosses into both worlds, and at times we seem to be getting closer to some revelations or resolutions. It seems something pretty terrible went down, and Doug is repressing memories.
In terms of the artwork, the horror factor gets ramped up in this volume, as things begin to resemble rotting meat more and more. Plus, Burns juxtaposes even more disparate, unsettling images. He really knows how to access some primal symbols to make his readers squirm. He speaks about his work on this volume in this interview.
The reviews I have read of The Hive have been largely positive, commenting on how this volume continues and differs from X'ed Out. Rachel Cooke wrote, "The Hive is even more disorienting than the book preceding it – and that was dizzying enough. I truly have no idea, yet, what is going on. But the feeling of dread Burns evokes is quite something." The Comic Journal's Grace Krilanovich admired the amount of craft, writing, "Burns has incorporated any and all narrative strategies into this saga, in layers upon layers fanning out in all possible directions. We get photography as evidence, comic within a comic, punk cultural history, romance, drug trips, dreams, alternate universe and homage, all working together. For Burns, more is more." Kirkus Reviews commented on the obtuse nature of the book, "As if the introduction to this series (X’ed Out, 2010) wasn’t hallucinatory enough, this second installment will leave initiates feeling significantly disoriented. And perhaps that’s part of the point, as Burns blurs the distinctions within this anti-narrative among comic books, reality, drugs, masks, nightmare and identity."

The Hive was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. The third book in this trilogy, Sugar Skull, was just published. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy 59th Birthday, Charles Burns!

Photo yoinked from Wikipedia
We are almost to October, and for that month I am going to review a whole bunch of creepy and spooky graphic novels. Before we get there though, I am taking the time to wish a happy trip around the sun to one of the most accomplished of horror comics creators, Charles Burns.

Burns has won multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Awards for this work. He is also sort of the Jason Voorhees of comics, slow yet steady and always delivering a killer product. He has been making comics for the better part of 30 years now, and he is known for his combination of horror aspects with an analysis of a potentially nostalgic past. He is also known for his strong, clean black lines and his expertly crisp artwork.

His work appeared in issues of Raw magazine as well as other anthologies, and those stories were later collected into a number of volumes. Big Baby followed the exploits of a young boy who lives in the suburbs and suspects his neighbors of burying people in their backyards. El Borbah is about a hulking private detective who happens to wear a lucha libre outfit. Skin Deep is an anthology of various tales, including some about Dog Boy, a creation that starred in MTV's Liquid Television in the 1980s.

His most known and celebrated work to date is Black Hole, a comic book series that stretched 12 issues from 1995 to 2005. The entire story has since been collected into one volume, and it follows the exploits of some teens in the Seattle area in the 1970s as they are inflicted with some sort of plague that is spread by sexual activity. This disease manifests with physical changes that leave many disfigured in monstrous ways, and the affected teens are banished to a squatters' settlement outside of town. Although it is set much later, Black Hole is reminiscent of 1950s horror movies, although updated with a more modern sensibility.

More recently he has been working on a trilogy of books from Pantheon. These books, X'ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull, are a kind of mash-up of Tintin comics and William S. Burroughs' writing, and the first of his works to be published in color and not black and white. I will review the first two entries in depth in my next post.

In addition to his comics work, Burns is also a sought-after commercial artist who has illustrated for prominent companies such as Coca-Cola and Altoids and also produced album art for Sub Pop Records and Iggy Pop. He speaks about his career in this interview, which is accompanied by ten facts about the man.

Happy Birthday, Charles Burns!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Rise of Aurora West

Battling Boy was one of my favorite graphic novels from last year,with its wonderful blend of superheroics, horror, and YA novels. This volume, The Rise of Aurora West, is the first prequel to that story, telling the tale of how Aurora West came into her role as a monster fighter and providing more insight into the villains who terrorize this world and steal its children.

A lot of the book revolves around Aurora's relationship with her father Haggard. He is seasoned hero and monster fighter, and, as you can see below, his mode of child rearing might best be summed up by the term "tough love."
He does not coddle Aurora in the least, because the enemies they face are devious and give no quarter. Eventually, the father and daughter come to a different kind of understanding. Also, along the way, we see how Aurora inadvertently assisted the monster enemies when she was a child and also may have had a hand in her mother's horrible fate. She is a wonderfully conflicted character, and the complicated plot has lots of twists and turns that build suspense and also surprise.
The story here is by Paul Pope and JT Petty. Pope is an award winning comics creator with decades of credits, and he talks about his work on this book here. Petty is a director, video game writer, and author who also wrote the underrated graphic novel Bloody Chester. The artwork is by David Rubín, a Spanish artist whose style is similar to Pope's. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview. He certainly excels at depicting fantastic science fiction landscapes, characters, and creatures, and I feel the black and white format only highlights his line work and narrative flow. These pages are dynamic and atmospheric, and my only complaint is the same one I had with Battling Boy, that I wish the pages were larger. I appreciate the manga paperback size being convenient and portable, but I would still love to luxuriate in a larger sized format.

Even though this is a darker story than Battling Boy, all of the reviews I have read have been celebratory. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "This feels like a very different direction for the characters, and it’s a thrilling one; expect readers to clamor for the next installments of this clever spinoff." Thea called it "a surprising powerful, emotional tale about the bond between a leader and a sidekick, a father and a daughter, rooted in one young heroine’s journey of self-discovery and realization." Win Wiacek concluded that it was "a superb and moving sidebar yarn, packed with clever intoxicating mystery, astounding action, tense suspense and beguiling characters that will delight older kids, and reads even better if you’re their adult keeper or guardian."

The Rise of Aurora West was published by First Second, and they provide reviews and more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Turning Points: Little Rock Nine & Sons of Liberty & A House Divided

Turning Points is a series of graphic novels from Aladdin Paperbacks, that tell about important moments and events in US history. These books are portable and affordable, and I have had them on my "to read" pile for a while now, so there is no time like to present to see how good they are. All three of these books I review below were written by Marshall Poe, a writer and historian known for his work at The Atlantic and also as editor in chief of the New Books Network.

Little Rock Nine details the ongoing struggle in 1957 about integrating the public schools in Arkansas. Because of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, school integration was national law, but the state laws in Arkansas forbid it. This conflict is embodied by looking at two families, a common conceit in these books I found, which makes the issues both more pressing and personal. The two families, of course are black and white, and the main focus is on their children. Walter McNally, a 16 year old white boy, listens to his family squabbles over the integration. His father is a lawyer fighting for the rights of black people while his grandfather is the conservative foil who argues for keeping things as they are. Poe makes these characters somewhat sympathetic and human, but he also makes sure that they wear their views on their sleeves.
There is more nuance when looking at Thomas Johnson's family. He is a 15 year old black boy, and he took part in an attempt to integrate the schools the year prior. Of course, he wants to be treated equally, but he and his family have experienced the intense backlash from those who want to keep things as it was, and they are hesitant to deal with all the potential degradation and violence that came with social action. I appreciated that civil rights issues were here considered with more attention to the context, because I think for some students these matters are such cut and dried, facile decisions and I feel they should see how much of an actual struggle such change was.

All the reviews I have read about Little Rock Nine have been positive. Snow Wildsmith wrote, "Poe’s insistance [sic] on showing as many sides of a story as possible succeeds admirably here, resulting in two main character [sic] who are believable boys caught up in a storm they don’t quite understand and aren’t sure that they’re strong enough to face." The folks at the Historical Novel Society called it "exciting and historically accurate." Marya Jansen-Gruber offered this opinion, "This format will encourage young readers to ask questions about the civil rights movement, and the book will provide an excellent platform for a class segment about the Little Rock Nine."

The art in this volume is by Ellen Lindner. She is a cartoonist and illustrator known for her Ignatz Award nominated webcomic The Black Feather Falls and various other comics projects. Her artwork is somewhat cartoonish, but her storytelling is very clear. I also admire her ability to depict the emotions through her figures' faces and postures.

The artwork in the next two books is by Leland Purvis, whose other graphic novel works include the Resistance trilogy and a biography of Neils Bohr. His work in this volume is a combination of strong ink lines and sketch-like illustrations. I think he captures the historical flavor through costumes and backgrounds, though sometimes it is difficult to keep track of which character is which.

Sons of Liberty follows a period of US history from 1768-1776, a time of great change and a number of historical events leading up to the American Revolutionary War. The entryway into this story is Nathaniel Smithfield, a fictional apprentice to Paul Revere. He is ten years old when the book begins, and over time he meets a number of prominent patriots, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, and is witness to many events, such as the Boston Tea Party and combat in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Although this book is a piece of historical fiction and uses much original dialogue, there are a number of sections based in real accounts that feature first-hand descriptions of events.
Nathaniel throws a pretty mean rock.
The drama in this story is heightened by family tensions, with Nathaniel butting heads with his Loyalist father. In a clever way, this familial conflict mirrors the thought process of the colonists to rebel against England, and over time, the family dynamics shift and events cause people's minds to change. Even though I was pretty familiar with the actual events, I felt myself becoming concerned for the characters' lives. There is a lot to digest in the book, in terms of the sheer amount of facts, events, and characters, but I feel that the story is quite compelling and interesting.

The reviews I have read about Sons of Liberty are pretty mixed. Snow Wildsmith felt that this book was relatively weak, "mainly due to Poe attempting to cover too much time in too short of a book." The Historical Novel Society commented positively that it "gets to the heart of what it felt like to be a young boy in the middle of a thrilling period of history, with its conflicts, agreements and world-changing events." The Breed's Hill Institute summed it up as "an imperfect but interesting taste of history."
The third book in this series is A House Divided, set in the years leading up to the American Civil War.It follows a couple of brothers from the year 1856, Owen and Amos Bennington. They are close and very sympathetic to their parents' abolitionist rhetoric. After their parents deaths, they decide to take action and spread their message in the contentious soon-to-be state of Kansas. While there, they see just how violent and sneaky the pro-slavery contingents are, which leads them both to question how they can best help help the abolitionist cause. Younger brother Amos decides to join up with John Brown, because at least he is being proactive and taking the battle to those who would defend an unjust social system. Older brother Owen decides to go work for a politician he admires for his bold speeches, Abraham Lincoln.

The dual narratives shows two very different paths on the road to abolishing slavery, and there are a great many events enumerated in the storytelling. In addition, Purvis's artwork is less sketchy than in Sons of Liberty and includes more grey tones, which give it a more painterly sheen. The sum total of these features is an engaging set of tales that balance historical import with human emotion.

I was not able to find many reviews of A House Divided, but Snow Wildsmith praised it particularly because "one of the strongest points of this book (and of the series) is that Poe doesn’t neglect to tell both sides of a story as much as he can" and because "Purvis’ art is also stronger in this volume." I agree with her on both counts.

Previews and more information about all these Turning Points books can be found here from their publisher.