Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga, Books 1 & 2

Today I am writing about two books that contain more than 600 pages of comics each following a creator-owned character that originated in 1984.
I have read the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo before, mostly because his creator Stan Sakai worked on a ton of Groo comic books I read when I was a kid. But it has been years since I have checked in on him. Luckily, Comixology Unlimited has the first two books of The Usagi Yojimbo Saga available to borrow, and I got to read a great many of these wonderful stories over the past few weeks.

The plot mainly follows Miyamoto Usagi, a samurai living in 17th century Japan (during the Edo Period) who has lost his master and now wanders the road alone. He has a code of ethics, and he seeks to help those in need and often finds himself embroiled in interesting situations. What I find most impressive about this series, it features "funny animals" but they are some of the most human and evocative comics I have ever read. Sakai is masterful at creating tense situations and full characterizations in very short order. His artwork is impressively detailed and smooth, and the economy of his storytelling is superlative. He can portray small scenes of poignancy equally as well as large scale battles. Just check out this preview:

The tales in these books range from one-page gags to multi-page episodes to one multi-chapter epic (called "The Grasscutter"). I was shocked and amazed to see how much material was incorporated from all these disparate episodes into one long narrative in Book Two. The scope and scale of the world-building here is nothing short of remarkable. I feel that these books are masterpieces of comics, and what is more they are accessible for readers of almost any age. And apparently I am not in the minority here, as "The Grasscutter" stories won one of Sakai's five Eisner Awards. If you read comics and have never read Usagi Yojimbo, you should make time to do so immediately.

You'll be glad you did.
The Usagi Yojimbo Saga was published by Dark Horse, and they have a preview and more info about the series here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vague Tales

The joke is that there is nothing vague about Vague Tales. It's chock full of comics that will melt your face off. Actually, that is not true - it is more of a bunch of comics that comment about how such extreme experiences have become cliched and vacuous.

Much of Eric Haven's past work trucks with archetypal comic characters and settings, and this book is no different. The main narratives star a brooding, crystalline alien named Psylicon, an evil witch named Ruin, an apocalyptic barbarian named Pulsar, and a sorceress named Sorceress. And eventually, the stories all bleed into each other. Ruin attacks the Sorceress; Pulsar defends her; Pyslicon is mysteriously aloof but intercedes in an unexpected manner. The whole enterprise is reminiscent of old cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian or Masters of the Universe, only skewed with a touch of absurd realism. Haven is obviously poking fun at these story and character conventions, but it is also apparent that he also enjoys them and takes great joy in casting his own stories using them.
Thinking, in the Mighty Marvel Manner!
And if this book were simply comprised of those adventures, I'd simply say it was some sort of parody or homage to that genre of comics. But there is also the hulking, angry blonde man featured on the cover, whose presence is almost entirely unrelated to the way-out adventures. This guy mostly stands or sits around his house, gazes out the window, or knocks back some drinks, until a weird thing happens toward the end of the book that places him directly in the action. I am not going to spoil it, but they change the tone of the story and make it more of a commentary on contemporary fandom and/or media.

In the end, I feel that this story is more an exploration of the constant drive for bigger, better, and more extreme experiences that abound in popular culture (in the USA anyhow). The culture is driven by more intricate and complex special effects, blockbuster movies, and innovative video games. The net result, I am extrapolating from Haven's tales here, is that each amped up moment in the end leaves people empty. Or maybe it is the nature of such escapism to leave people unfulfilled. Mostly, stuff gets blown up just for the hell of having a big explosion, narrative be damned. What is clear is that those grand moments lose any kind of nuance or impact, forgotten in short order. All is spectacle, and the chase for such experiences is ultimately fruitless. Or maybe that is the more intellectual way of looking at the book, and I should just appreciate it for being a bunch of fun, crazy stories and not look for anything deeper.

That I got this much out of a relatively short 75 pages is noteworthy in itself, speaking to the great craft that went into these various narratives. This book is beguiling, silly, confusing, thrilling, and fantastic. Like much of Haven's prior work, it is also impactful and unforgettable.

I have been a fan of Haven's for a while. I have read all of his works, including the series Tales to Demolish and his books The Aviatrix and Ur, which was nominated for an Eisner Award. His comics are short, distilled, potent pieces of storytelling. They are weird, provocative, and delightful. His art style here reminds me of a combination of Fletcher Hanks, Herr Seele, and Jim Starlin, full of wonder and weirdness. Also of note, aside from making comics he was a producer for the popular show Mythbusters, which may account for his relatively sparse publication record. Haven sheds much insight into his work in this interview.

I had a hard time locating any reviews of this book, but the one I did find was laudatory and thoughtful. Rob Clough wrote that these stories amount to "images of a man-child, and it seems that Haven is satirizing that tendency toward indulging this sort of infantile fantasy as much as he is celebrating it."

Vague Tales was published by Fantagraphics, and they have a preview and more information about it here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Motor Crush, Volume 1

This book is another I got at HeroesCon this year, and it's by the same creative team behind the recent, very fun Batgirl revival. Here they have more leeway to write and draw as they please, as this is a creator-owned property. Motor Crush follows the exploits of Domino Swift, a phenom competing in an international motorcycle racing league. She reluctantly takes part in the business side of racing, which includes participating on social media and making sponsors happy.

Also, she has a secret night life where she competes in illegal and dangerous street races where the winners obtain Crush, a rare and valuable substance that supercharges ordinary motors. The rub here is that for some reason Domino is able to take Crush herself, and instead of dying she gains superhuman attributes. Over the course of this book, we get to see the effects of her lifestyle on herself, her family, and her girlfriend. Also, Domino begins to learn more about herself and how she came to have her special abilities.

I loved the energy and artwork of this book. The story is quirky but it hums along at a good clip, and the images really pop, conveying action and characterization in excellent fashion. There is a lot going on in this book, but I have to say that it was all very compelling and thrilling to read. And it ends on a breath-taking cliffhanger that left me hungering for more of this series.

The creators behind this book are Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr. All of them are involved in plotting the series, and Tarr and Stewart create the artwork. Stewart is an Eisner and Shuster Award winning artist/writer who has worked on a number of different comic book series as well as his webcomic Sin Titulo. Fletcher is a veteran comic book writer, and Tarr is an illustrator who is relatively new to comics. The trio speak of their work on this book and series in this interview.

Most of the reviews I read about this book were positive. Mara Danoff wrote, "The characters endear themselves quickly and never appear one dimensional." Nico Sprezzatura summed up, "If you want fast-paced, candy-colored cyber-motorpunk, then Motor Crush is the comic for you." Rory Wilding felt the story took a while to get up to speed but still concluded, "Although the narrative occasionally falters, Motor Crush expands on some of the ideas the creators explored in their Batgirl run and has fun with this colorful futuristic bike-centric action book."

Motor Crush, Volume 1 was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and more info about the series available here. This book collects the first five issues of the series, which will resume in September with a six-issue arc. I would recommend this book for more mature high school readers and anyone older.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Southern Cross, Volume 1

I have been wowed by images from this series across the social media platforms I frequent, so much so that I took a flyer on buying this volume on Comixology. I have had it on my device for a while but just got to it, and I have to say I am kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Southern Cross is some of the most compelling, suspenseful comics I have read in years. I would put it in a category with works like the original Alien movie or Alan Moore's early Saga of the Swamp Thing stories. It's that great.

The story follows Alex Braith, a troubled woman with a checkered past, as she rides the space freighter Southern Cross to Titan to retrieve the body of her estranged, now dead sister.

Along the way, she encounters many interesting, if upsetting, events and people. There's the creepy mercenary who keeps propositioning her, a doctor who keeps offering her illicit substances, and her surprise roommate who starts out just avoiding her before possibly disappearing. Also, the warp drive on the ship is malfunctioning, creating all sorts of strange, horrific visions that may be dreams, or something worse.

The more Alex stays aboard, the more she learns, not just about what happened to her sister but what illegal activities some of her shipmates are up to, not to mention a horrible evil presence that threatens not just the ship but also the universe. I struggle with calling the events of this volume a ghost, zombie, or Lovecraftian story, though it does share some elements of those things cast in a science fiction setting. I will say that it is a finely crafted mystery that is seriously spooky and horrifying. The cast of characters is wonderfully shady and suspicious, and the artwork appropriately paints a dingy, menacing atmosphere.

What is best, this book does not reveal all and it seems that much is yet to come. So, in the end I am sort of glad that I waited this long to read the series because the second volume is coming out in a few days. And I guarantee you I will be reading it much sooner than I did this one.

The main players in creating this book are writer Becky Cloonan and artists Andy Belanger and Lee Loughridge. Cloonan is a comics writer and artist who has been nominated for multiple Eisner Awards and is best known for creating Gotham Academy as well as for her work on the series Demo and By Chance or Providence. Belanger has drawn many comics and is known for his work on the series Kill Shakespeare. Loughridge is a colorist who has worked on many Batman titles as well as some indy works like Deadly Class. Cloonan and Belanger speak about their inspirations and work on this volume in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Aubrey Douglas wrote, "The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, and the artwork is some of the best that I have ran into. If you haven’t read this book, you’re doing yourself a disservice." Eric Houstoun stated that "Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger manage to create something very special in the first volume of their book and have created something distinctive and unique." Paul Aloisio called it "a celebration of the comic book format. It’s fun, yet scary. It’s spooky, but it never gets overbearing."

Southern Cross was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview of this book and more information about the series here. This book book collects the first six issues of the series and is intended for mature readers.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Knife's Edge

I have been looking very forward to this sequel to Compass South, and boy did it not disappoint. That first book in the Four Points series was one of the best reviewed books of the past year, receiving lots of accolades for its fine story and art, and I daresay that this book is even better. After reuniting with their father, twins Cleo and Alex are faced with many quandaries. They learn more about their mother, why they were abandoned, and how they ended up in their current predicament, but at the same time they face more mysteries and unanswered questions. The plotting of these stories is so complex and well thought out, and I love how approachable and natural the whole narrative still seems.
In addition to the many revelations, there are also a few new characters and locales introduced, but none of it seems forced or rushed. There is a sizable amount of exposition, but it is adeptly worked into the story, not seeming like a slog to read or rote information to note. Part of why all these features are the case is the exceptional artwork that brings out strong characterizations as well as expertly imparting verve into every scene. Cleo especially seems to spring from the pages as a fully realized character, full of nuance and affect. I loved this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good swashbuckling tale that is full of heart and human moments. I sure hope that this book is not the final installment in this series, because it left me yearning for more.

This book is a fantastic collaboration between writer Hope Larson and artist Rebecca Mock. The Eisner Award winning Larson has created a number of graphic novels, including an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and the young adult story Chiggers. She is also writing two comic book series, one about a teen detective Goldie Vance and the other a run on DC Comics' Batgirl. In addition to the Four Points books, Mock was a co-organizer of  the Hana Doki Kira anthology. You can read more about their collective work on this book, in this interview with Larson and this one with Mock.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been full of praise. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "As in its predecessor, every question answered leads the twins to more questions to be asked, and it ends with a breath-catching cliffhanger." Oliver Sava was impressed by Mock's "talent for expressive, engaging characters and crisp movement." Tamara Saarinen called it "a fast-paced, absorbing tale."

Knife's Edge was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and they have a preview and more info available here.

I saw the artist Rebecca Mock at HeroesCon this year, and she was so kind to sign my copy of this book. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

All My Ghosts

Last month I went to HeroesCon in Charlotte, NC and had a blast seeing my friends, some artists, getting some original art, going to panels, and buying some new books. I did not buy as many books as I have in the past, because I find I don't get to read as much as I'd like right now, but I did manage to pick up a few things I might not otherwise. One of these such purchases was this book, All My Ghosts, by Jeremy Massie (a very nice guy who I had a lot of fun talking to about his work). It is a "slice of life" story about a middle-aged man named Joe Hale who runs a local newspaper. The business has been in his family for generations but times are getting tough and it is increasingly difficult to keep it afloat. On top of this major problem, Joe also has a bad case of writer's block and is in a general funk.

His life takes a major turn when an opportunistic company swoops in to buy his newspaper, and he goes through a series of changes, mostly for the better, although many of the people around him would probably say differently. In shaking off the ghosts of his past, he gets a bit selfish and the consequences of his actions have a large impact on his friends, employees, and various townspeople.

What I liked about this book were its spare yet powerful art style and that it told a realistic, personal story in a thoughtful and interesting way. Not much about this book turned out as I expected, and I liked how it resisted an overall "feel good" vibe. Perhaps not everything played out well or in a satisfying way, but this book has a lot of raw energy and artistry, and I enjoyed reading it. Not all of the characters were well defined, but the ones that were seemed very real and familiar. Heck, I'd read the continuing adventures of Joe Hale if there were more to come.

Like I wrote earlier, this book is the creation of Jeremy Massie, who has a number of other works under his belt, including the horror story Bee Sting, a quirky superhero tale called The Deadbeat, and the current ongoing, all-ages series Amazing Age. He speaks about his work on All My Ghosts and his other works in this interview.

Most of the reviews I have read about this book found it uneven, though they all praised the visual storytelling. Johanna Draper Carlson was a bit let down by the book overall but also stated that "the story is told strongly when it comes to the art, and I would check out Massie’s next project." Jason Wilkins wrote, "Massie’s cartoony style is expressive and accessible. All My Ghosts is so easy to read in large part because his art is so pleasing to the eye." Nick Ford found some good parts in the book but also commented, "The story’s not bad but it’s handling a timeless conflict that’s been done a million times before."

All My Ghosts was published by Alterna Comics, and they have a preview and more info here. It was originally released as a four-issue series, and the physical graphic novel was funded initially by way of Kickstarter.

This book features some adult situations and themes as well as occasional profanity, and I'd recommend it for more mature readers.