Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Graphic Novel Speed Round: Sequels and Continuations

I am off celebrating the holidays, but I thought I would do a big follow-up post on a few series I have written about before to see how they have been developing.

The latest installment in Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales (see one and two), Donner Dinner Party tackles a dark topic, the dire straits of the Donner Party. These ill-fated travelers were going west from Illinois to California, took a "short cut" that led them into treacherous territory, and became trapped in snow drifts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In particular, the focus is on the Reed family, led by father James, who makes lots of calamitous decisions. But we also get to see much about his children as they find themselves in very unfamiliar and eventually dangerous circumstances. The tale highlights American ingenuity and enterprise but also pigheadedness and extreme survivalism where people resort to cannibalism to survive.

This volume follows in the tradition of the others, introducing elements of humor into well researched and presented facts and information. It is jam-packed with details, clear and expressive art, and also the sturdy framing aspect of the other volumes. Still, this may be the weakest volume of the three books for me, as I did not find this one as vibrant as the first or as exhilarating as the second. Perhaps the subject matter makes the jokes seem less funny to me, but it is still certainly an excellently presented historical graphic novel that is simultaneously informative and thought-provoking.

Out of all the books here, this one is most appropriate for YA readers. The books ahead are strictly for mature readers.

Next up is Fatale, a series I first wrote about here. In this second volume The Devil's Business, Josephine is laying low in Hollywood as a recluse holed up in a villa. Despite her not taking visitors or even going out into the public for any reason, she encounters a struggling movie star named Miles and a woman he is trying to protect when they end up in her backyard. The duo have stolen a film reel showing some very twisted, Satanic stuff, and the owners will do anything to get it back. Because of Josephine's enchantment (curse?), Miles immediately falls in thrall to her, though he does not quite realize it. The poor sap just thinks he's in love. Of course, complications arise and a body count mounts.

Brubaker's deft plotting and Phillips' atmospheric, evocative art combine to produce another winning volume in this series. They make excellent use of historical context: from the fashions and actor likenesses at various Hollywood parties, the time period is the late 1960s or early 1970s. There are references to Manson Family-type goings on, and this book has a genuinely creepy feel to it. In a style appropriate to its horror/noir precursors, lots of bad things happen within these pages, to the main characters and to the shady characters pursuing them. There are also compelling, dark plot twists as well as a few revelations that kept me yearning to know more about these mysterious characters' backgrounds. Good thing a third volume is now available...

War Torn concludes the epic begun in Volume 1 of Glory, which was one of my favorite books of 2012. Whereas that first volume is all about revelations and twists, this one focuses more on Glory's family relations. Apart from her free-spirited, volatile, violent, and obscenity-spewing little sister Nanaja, we also get to know her and her parents better. Nothing is as pat as it seems in this group of alien angels and demons, and what's worse, their creators, the Knights are coming back to Earth to either destroy or subjugate its inhabitants. Consequently, Glory calls in some favors and amasses a powerful, ragtag army to combat the coming menace, and the proceedings climax in a huge battle.

Although I do not think the plot was as tight as it was in the earlier volume and some of the scenes seemed short and choppy to me, writer Joe Keatinge still did a great job weaving together a good number of plot and subplots into a cohesive whole. The highlight here was the work of artist Ross Campbell (and a few additional collaborators) who produced a visually impressive display full of interesting character designs, dynamic action scenes, and personality. These creators completed a satisfying story in expert fashion, tying up their major plot points and having some satisfying moments while leaving plenty of leeway for a sequel.

I was very impressed with the first trade paperback of The Manhattan Projects, and They Rule continues with the mind-bending, sinister machinations of scientists with access to unlimited power and fantastic resources. This time, the oligarchs catch on to the amazing achievements the scientists are creating and they want to make sure they realize who is in charge still, so they rig computer system FDR to destroy its confederates. The scientists are geniuses, needles to say, and they catch on to this plan before it reaches fruition, and the resulting conflicts are violent, bloody, and spectacularly rendered.

Among the high points in this issue, apart from a very well plotted story by Jonathan Hickman and vigorous artwork from Nick Pitarra are the way-out depictions of historical figures in insane contexts. Crazy Masonic Harry S. Truman is one of my favorites, as are super-charged Yuri Gagarin and Laika. This frenetic and ingenious twist on historical science fiction continues to surprise, shock, and delight me. I am definitely in for future volumes.

The only reason why the first volume of Saga was not on my best of 2012 list was because I had not read it yet (What? I can't get to EVERYTHING in time). This is the series that bookstores advertise with signs that say, "If you have never read a comic book before, you should read this one." And deservedly so, I say. I found the first volume to be fresh, fun, fast-paced, and utterly engrossing, an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy.

This second volume is also full of amazing things like an asteroid that is actually an egg about to hatch, and the baby inside is non-too-pleasant. There are also breath-taking cliffhangers, and when the danger, action, and intrigue become most perilous, that's when the in-laws come to visit and everything goes to pot. The plot purrs along, and subplots are deftly woven in and out, as well as flashbacks. This book just keeps surprising and enchanting like a finely detailed tapestry, both in terms of the narrative and the finely rendered artwork. Saga is such a fast-paced, frequently funny, well scripted, and wondrous ride, and this volume is a worthy entry in an exciting series.

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