Wednesday, October 30, 2013


The set-up of this book is very much like many noir stories; our hero is visited by a pretty woman from his past because she wants him to do a job. But this book has a pretty infernal twist on that scenario.

In this case, our hero is Hector "Heck" Hammarskjöld, an ex-football player who became estranged from his father, coming home only after the old man's death. What he found was that his father was a mystic and that there was an opening to Hell in his house. Heck turns this circumstance into a vocation, going into Hell to retrieve secrets and messages from the damned for a price.

In this book, Heck is approached by a girl he had a crush on in high school, Amy, whose husband was a thief and a philanderer who died in a horrific and suspicious car crash. She has a question for him, and contracts Heck to go ask him. Heck and Elliot, a former waterboy and current friend/associate go into the infernal realm, which takes Dante's conception as its model, and they are tested beyond belief. They had forgotten just how much an ordeal going through Hell is, even for the living who do not belong to the place (yet). Eventually, the place tests their resolve, sanity, and very being.

In the end, however, they both realize insights about themselves, and the ending took me a little by surprise (in a good way). This story first appeared in installments in one of my favorite publications of the past year, Double Barrel. This anthology series was created by Zander and Kevin Cannon (who are not related to each other) to showcase a couple of serials, this one and Kevin's Crater XV, as well as some shorter works and a series of advice columns for making comics. Both of the main serials are excellent, and I am particularly taken with how Heck takes familiar scenarios and genres and bends them into a thoughtful, dark, suspenseful, and well-plotted tale.

Zander Cannon began this book as a 144 Hour Challenge, an experiment in creating 12 comics chapters over a year by drawing once a month in the space of 12 consecutive hours. Time and circumstances led Zander to abandon the experiment, but he continued with the narrative, drawing it out into a longer and more satisfying length. The latter chapters definitely seem less rushed and are better composed and clearer than some of the earlier ones. Still, I think the book is very well presented throughout, and this is one of my favorite works from the past year.

Zander Cannon has produced a number of graphic novels with Kevin Cannon, including Evolution in collaboration with Jay Hosler, The Stuff of Life with Mark Schultz, and T-Minus with Jim Ottaviani. He also created his own series The Replacement God and worked with Alan Moore on the series Smax. He speaks more about his work on Heck in this interview.

Cannon is an award winning comics creator, and his work here has received much praise. John Seven wrote, "you can enjoy the action and adventure and humor, but there is something at the core of Heck that runs deeper than any of those." Mark Flowers wrote in admiration of some of the cheeky aspects of the book, but added "at heart this graphic novel is a serious morality play, with the conflicted relationship between Elliot and Heck (who feels responsible for Elliot’s condition) at its center." JK Parkin summed this book up as "pretty awesome." In short, it has effective action and mystery elements, but it also has great heart.

A preview and much more is available here from publisher Top Shelf.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Lindbergh Child

One of the prime contenders for the title "trial of the century" as well as a landmark case in terms of its historical impact, the Lindbergh Kidnapping was a sensational news story. Charles Lindbergh, a national hero internationally renowned for being the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo via airplane was a pioneer in aviation and a hugely public figure. When his firstborn child was kidnapped it drew major attention and attracted many well-wishers, potentially good Samaritans, and shady characters looking to cash in on the situation. The jumbled mess that came of all these figures made for a case that created as questions as answers, and notably led to the use of a central authority to conduct investigations in the form of what would become the FBI.

This books does well in detailing all these various characters and their input into the case. It also does well in accounting for the growing role forensics took in analyzing crime scenes and using evidence to identify suspects. In the end, Bruno Hauptmann, a German carpenter, was convicted and executed for this crime. Even so, he maintained his innocence until his death, and afterward his widow kept up his cause, trying to find ways to exonerate her husband. Today, many of the prime players and evidence of this event are well in the past, and there are those who question whether he was the perpetrator or simply a patsy. And there are also those who claim the Lindbergh baby was not actually murdered, to the point where some have come forward claiming to be that baby all grown up.

The Lindbergh Child is part of Rick Geary's major project, the multiple volumes in the Treasury of Victorian Murder and Treasury of XXth Century Murder series from NBM Publishers. In these books, he presents meticulously researched and excellently rendered accounts of some of history's most famous and infamous events. Geary has received numerous accolades over his long career, and he is considered a comics virtuoso. He posts about his work, providing lots of sneak peeks into his art, on this publisher's blog.

Clearly, there are many moving parts and scenarios involved in telling this tale. I feel like this volume may be a little more text heavy than most, but the story being told is very compelling and full of twists and turns, and Rick Geary lowers the emotional boom with a handful of devastating images. As he has proved fully capable in the past, he balances a journalistic tone and human drama very well (as you can see in the excerpt below).

This book was nominated for an Eisner Award, and it has been very highly regarded. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and stated, ""This thoughtful retelling of one of the century's most notorious crimes deserves several readings." Andrew Wheeler called it "another excellent graphic novel about a horrible crime by the master of that very specific form." Greg McElhatton summed it up as "Unforgettable, from start to finish."

The Lindbergh Child is published by NBM Publishers. They provide links to this and many more of Geary's books here. There is a brief preview available from Amazon.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Killed Adolf Hitler

I really enjoy time travel stories like The Terminator and Dr. Who, with all their baggage about the ethics of changing the past and possibly damaging the time stream that they bring. This story is ostensibly about that, set in a world where assassins are commonly employed to deal with family troubles, marital strive, or conniving co-workers. One of these assassins is hired to go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler and prevent the horrors of World War II.
The rules are fixed so that there won't be multiple trips back and forth, making for a high stakes trip.
Unfortunately for the protagonist, he does not get things right the first time, and in fact not only muffs the assassination but also allows Hitler to flee to the future, leaving himself trapped in the past. Seeing how he deals with his plight and how all of these actions connect to his relationship with his estranged girlfriend make for some very interesting and all too human character dynamics. The narrative is an unpredictable and subtly complex ride, and it is no surprise to me that this book has been optioned by a British producing company to be made into a movie.
I Killed Adolf Hitler was created by Jason, a Norwegian comics artist whose actual name is John Arne Sæterøy. He has been a prolific author of international renown, publishing many books such as Athos in America, Low Moon, Hey Wait..., and The Left Bank Gang. He has received many accolades, winning an Inkpot Award, multiple Eisner Awards, and a Harvey Award. He speaks about his work and influences in this interview.

As you can see from the excerpts, Jason's style is pretty stylized and spare. Words can be sparse in his panels. The use of anthropomorphic animals adds a creepy vibe to the proceedings; they are deadpan "funny animals" that do not seem funny at all. I think they add a surreal touch to all of his works, and also their expressionless faces and animal identities leave them pretty open to interpretation and expression. I think that they are very sturdy, empty vessels for readers to fill with meaning.

Also, despite the funny animal characters, this is not a book for young children. There is some explicit language as well as bloody violence.

This book won the Eisner Award for best US Edition of International Material, and reviews I have read about it have been very positive. Seth T. Hahne called it "a terse, well-told, and well-managed story that is equal parts humourous, morbid, thoughtful, and touching." Mark Andrew commented that Jason's works, in particular this book, "demonstrate a huge breadth of understanding of the multiple dimensions of the human experience," even if he does draw all that well in his opinion. The reviewer at read/RANT marveled at "the subtle, yet conceptually complex, love story that slowly emerges from the background and transmutes unexpectedly into the main plot."

I Killed Adolf Hitler is published in the US by Fantagraphics, who provide a brief preview and more links here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Crater XV

This sequel to Far Arden picks up on the exploits of Army Shanks, who is equal parts government agent, roustabout, explorer, and Popeye. In this book, his tale involves him running into a woman who may or may not be his lost love from his orphanage days.These days she is running with some wayward Russians who may be about to launch a rocket from their ship (or they might be dangerous smugglers). Add to this situation 15-year-old Wendy who just wants to get off of Earth via a top secret Canadian space expedition project, a bunch of government agents, and a couple of ragged and worn astronauts, and what results is a book that covers a whole lot of ground, but does it artfully, with a sense of humor and adventure.
The characters are strongly depicted, full of emotion, history, conviction, and longing, but most impressive is the artwork and how it conveys action, movement, and the surrounding environment in such a fulsome manner. It also combines words with pictures in innovative and arresting ways. This cartoon world is so realized and lively that it propels the narrative like a rocket.
This book's creator Kevin Cannon has a growing number of impressive works under his belt, including the collaborations with Zander Cannon (no relation) Evolution, The Stuff of Life, T-Minus, Bone-Sharps, Cowboys, &; Thunder Lizards, and the electronic comic anthology Double Barrel where this story was first serialized.  His art and storytelling are exemplars of economy, wit, and energy.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been overwhelming in their praise. Seth T. Hahne frankly stated, "I love these books more than I love the vast majority of comics that I love." Publishers Weekly wrote, "Few cartoonists know better the meeting place between grief, humor, and adventure like Cannon, and this second Shanks story is further proof of his abilities as a storyteller." Greg Burgas called it "better than its predecessor." Mike Young rated it 10/10, and Jeremy Nisen raved, "Nothing in the comics canon (pardon the pun) currently merits a higher recommendation in this reviewer's opinion."

A preview and much more is available here from the book's publisher Top Shelf.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Battling Boy

A long time in coming (it was first announced in 2006), Battling Boy is a mash-up of superheroes and mythologies that is a splendor to behold. It follows the adventures of Battling Boy, the son of a war god, who finds on his thirteenth birthday that he has to go "a-rambling" and find his way in the universe. He is sent to a planet over-run by monsters and has to figure out how to contend with them on his own. He was not set on his journey without some materials, and he has a cape made of special material as well as a dozen different t-shirts with totem emblems on them. Each shirt gives him special powers and weaknesses according to its emblem.
Pretty strong, though the arms are kind of useless.

The world he is on is inhabited and part of what he has to contend with is navigating the environs of Arcopolis and its human inhabitants, which include a conniving mayor and his board of advisors. They set BB up with a new name Arco-Lad (he hates it) and some public relations appearances:
Also complicating the situation, the city already had a hero named Haggard West who was recently killed by monsters, and his daughter has been training to take up his mantle. She and Battling Boy have the same intentions, but they may also be too headstrong to collaborate.

Everything set up in this book just has a energy that I find admirable. The characters and situations play off of superhero conventions, but in fresh and modern ways both narratively and visually. His monsters are also excellently composed of elements of classic creatures like vampires and werewolves, more like the Universal Monsters meet Brothers Grimm than some of their contemporary translations. I see so much potential in this book and hope that there is at least one, but even better multiple, sequels where everything can develop and be fleshed out.

Battling Boy was created by Paul Pope, a multiple Eisner Award winning talent known for his series THB, 100%, Heavy Liquid, and Batman Year 100. He began his career drawing for the Japanese manga publisher Kodansha. He won the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award for his comic strip "Strange Adventures" as well as a Master Artist recognition by the American Council of the Arts in 2010. In addition to all these honors, he has been a extremely high profile artist, working for the fashion company Diesel on screenprints that went into clothing designs. He speaks about his work on Battling Boy and his comics career in these interviews in video and print.

Pope cites among his influences the comics masters Jacky Kirby and Moebius, and as seen in the excerpt above, both of their sensibilities show through in his work. His monsters are truly monstrous and frightening, the action bold and grand, and his people look like real, opinionated, cool, deceptive, wonderful, sweaty, tired, inspired, fearful, bold, and hopeful people. My only real criticisms of this book are that it ended too abruptly and that I wish the pages were larger to display Pope's artwork more fully. So the worst thing I can say about this book was that I wish there was more of it. Now.

All of the reviews I have read of this book so far have been raves, and I expect it to be included in many "best of" lists come year's end. In a starred review Publishers Weekly raved, "the book is more than just eye candy, matching its style with substance and tackling all-too-human problems (despite a cast of mostly otherworldly characters) like the fear of failure and the pressures of legacy." In another starred review Kirkus Reviews called it simply "A masterful nod to the genre." Kazu Kibuishi summed up his opinion, "It is my favorite thing that Paul Pope has ever done, and I’ve been a fan of his for a very long time."

 Battling Boy is published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mind the Gap, Volume 1: Intimate Strangers

This book collects the first five issues of a comic book written by Jim McCann and drawn by Rodin Esquejo. McCann won an Eisner Award for his book Return of the Dapper Men, and he also worked on a series of comics about Hawkeye and Mockingbird for Marvel Comics. Esquejo has been mostly known as the cover artist for Morning Glories. All these proceedings in this book are well communicated by his clear, fluid artwork. McCann speaks more about the origins and intent of this series in this interview.

The plot follows Elle Peterssen, a wealthy, young woman who was attacked in a subway station and is in a coma. No one, not even she, knows who assaulted her or why, and almost everyone from her over-bearing father, jerk brother, distant mother, and hard luck ex-boyfriend are suspects. Add to the mix that Elle's spirit seems to be floating around in the ether overseeing things and a suspicious doctor who hides information while knowing way too much about her and her situation, and the result is a pretty compelling and interesting mystery.

Reviews I have read about this volume have been largely positive with some reservations. Booklist's Snow Wildsmith wrote, "This first volume sets up the rest of the series, but even when it is trying too hard to be cool, the story is still engaging." The Patient Comic Addict offered this opinion: "While it can be wordy and expository at times, the story is quite compelling." Francesca Lyn summed up, "the strong characterization and well-written dialogue on Mind the Gap is enough to keep me entertained while I try to figure out just what is going on."

 The regular series and this collection are published by Image Comics. A sizable preview is available here from Comic Book Resources.