BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: SFSX, Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn

SFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: ProtectionSFSX (Safe Sex), Vol. 1: Protection by Tina Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “Ocean’s Eleven.” Well, admittedly, that’s a concise pitch-line offering more confusion than information value. Allow me to clarify. This series is set in a dystopia in which morality and sexuality are controlled by the state, and efforts are underway to eliminate any “deviant” sexual activity (i.e. any sexual activity not involving a heterosexual married couple having vaginal intercourse – preferably with a strong procreative intent.) Within that world, it’s a heist story. [Some might argue that it’s more a prison break, but because it involves people breaking into a secured facility in order to get others out, I stand by my descriptor. That said, it really combines the two because one of the prisoner’s takes agency to affect escape]

The story’s protagonist is a woman named Avory. She once worked a giant sex club / dungeon called “The Dirty Mind” before “the Party” [the conservative guardians of morality] consolidated control. When the Party did come to power, they raided The Dirty Mind. Avory escaped with a client who she’d fallen for, the two got married, and they were trying to live “normal” lives in compliance with the new laws. When this façade falls apart, Avory goes back to her old [kinky] friends seeking help. However, she’s seen as a turncoat by them. They don’t trust her, and they decline to help her. But things change when the Party publicizes its new activities.

Because of the nature of comic books / serialized graphic novels, the first thing I feel I need to say is that I found this to be a complete and satisfying story arc. This format often fails in this regard because it’s a challenge to keep an eye on an overall run arc while building that overarching story from component stories [that are truly stories.] Often the end of a volume feels like a speedbump rather than a conclusion. However, that isn’t the case here. That doesn’t mean the story is not left with someplace interesting to go. It is. However, if all one read was this volume, one would experience a self-contained story. In short, I felt Horn [and team] did a great job of balancing “leave them satisfied” with “leave them wanting more.”

I also found character development to be well-done. The characters are all developed, unique, and we can see their combination of motivation and internal conflict. Flashbacks are put to good use to give the reader enough insight to see why this gulf exists between Avory and her former best friends. However, these are kept to a few panels (usually at the beginning of each issue) and so they don’t bog the story down.

By this point, this probably goes without saying, but in the interest of due diligence: this book is graphically sexual. The artwork and dialogue are explicit. I won’t get into an extended philosophical discussion of whether it’s pornography or erotica. As I said, there is a story, and all of what is shown is in service to that story. That said, nothing is held-back, either. One of the book’s key points is the importance of consent as shown in the contrast between the consensual activities in the club and the “reconditioning” activities carried out by the Party. Long story short, there are some cringe-worthy scenes, at least to laity to sadomasochism. So, if you are sensitive to such matters or are purchasing this for someone who is, buyer beware.

I found the story gripping and also thought-provoking. If you are not averse to graphic sexual content, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage (Doom Patrol, #1)Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’d never heard of Doom Patrol until I recently saw a teaser for the television show (which have not seen.) That lack of familiarity made for a nice surprise. I was aware from said trailer that the team consisted of “broken” individuals, and that mental illness featured prominently in these characters’ makeup. What I didn’t know is the degree to which the Doom Patrol dealt in the strange and weird – and I do love tales of the weird. So, it’s a bizarre / dysfunctional team mashup (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” but less heroic and more mentally ill) that takes on the kind of psychedelic villains one might find in “Doctor Strange.” [I realize I’m crossing the DC – Marvel divide with my comparisons, but – owing to the movies – Marvel is much more broadly known at this point.]

I was familiar with Grant Morrison from one of my favorite Batman stories, “Batman: Arkham Asylum – Serious House on Serious Earth.” And this collection of seven “Doom Patrol” comics – while a little more brightly drawn and lighthearted – share the mind-bending surreality of that book. Though in this book the trippiness is supernatural.

The seven comics included in this volume include the four parts of the “Crawling from the Wreckage” story, plus: “The Butterfly Collector,” “The House Jack Built,” and “Imaginary Friends.” Robotman (Cliff,) Crazy Jane, and Rebis (an amalgam of Larry Trainor / Negative Man and Dr. Eleanor Poole) are the principal heroes of the “Crawling from the Wreckage story, though Joshua Clay (Tempest) and Dr. Niles Caulder play supporting roles. (Caulder is this team’s wheelchair-bound, genius leader. Yes, like in the X-men. While this team is less well known, it does go back to the early 60’s so I don’t know who copied who, but I know both sides seem to have snatched ideas on occasion – or maybe great minds do think alike.) The “…Wreckage” story involves the threat of an imaginary universe (Orqwith) spilling into the world as we know it. The team is established in the first two books, and we are introduced to the opposition in the form of “The Scissormen” (faceless villains that – literally – cut people out of this reality.) Then in the third and fourth installments Orqwith is introduced, and the heroes much go there to bring an end to the threat.

“The Butterfly Collector” and “The House that Jack Built” together present a story of Rhea Jone’s disappearance from the hospital. (Jone’s character is at times a member of the Doom Patrol known as Lodestone, but in this comic book she is mostly unconscious.) One of Crazy Janes’ personalities figures out how to open the portal that the kidnapper must have used. Crazy Jane and Robotman cross over to confront the villain, Red Jack. (Yes, sort of an “Alice in Wonderland” thing going on.)

In “The Butterfly Collector” we are also introduced to Dorothy, a hideous-looking little girl whose imaginings can come to life in the real world with disturbing consequences. The last book in the collection, “Imaginary Friends” imagines Joshua Clay watching Dorothy while everyone else is out. Joshua is a minor character in the other books in this collection, but in this one he is the hero of the hour. The story involves Dorothy’s imaginary friends who’ve come to exact vengeance. We learn that Dorothy developed these friends because she couldn’t make real friends owning to her appearance, but then she had to get rid of them when they got out of hand. Incidentally, tales of woe are a repeated refrain with this team. That’s what creates the team’s uniqueness. There’s an intriguing contradiction. Normally, a reader might envy a superhero, but with the Doom Patrol envy is not where the mind goes.

As I said, I love a good tale of the weird, and this was one strange tale after another. The book is both entertaining and also thought-provoking. If you enjoy comic books and graphic novels, this one is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night, Vol. 130 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes the run-of-the-mill vampire tale into more chilling territory by setting it in Barrow (a town on the northern end of Alaska that sits within the Arctic Circle) in the dead of winter when weeks pass without sunlight. The vampires, thus, figure they have a month to feed without having to hide from the light, or risk being staked to death in their sleep.

On the day of Barrow’s final sunset of the year, the Vampires send in a scout to destroy all communications – starting by stealing and burning all of the residents’ cell phones. As I thought about this after reading, it was one of several points that strained credulity, but I have to say the visceral setup these people being trapped in darkness while being hunted kept me from being too skeptical at first reading. (I don’t know what cell service is like in Barrow but it seems like eliminating a tower would be more probable means of success than steeling a huge number of individual phones. To be fair, the scout does knock out the central communication hub as well, and maybe the reader psychology of being without personal communication (a cell phone) in the world we’ve grown accustomed to makes this course more intense – if absurd.)

The vampires, literally, chew through most of the population in short order. We do get some sense of the futile resistance put up by locals – particularly the protagonist and sheriff. [I would assume in a town like Barrow everyone over six-months-old possesses at least one firearm, and that likelihood is not disregarded, which makes the inconsequential resistance more chilling.] While the pacing feels slightly fast, it does get the scenario down to a manageable few to be hiding out together in a single building. (There is another major vein of strained credulity with regards to the people hiding out while maintaining core temperature, but – again – it was engrossing enough that I wasn’t much distracted at the time.)

I give the resolution high marks for being clever and gripping, but I will say that it felt to me like it unfolded too quickly and was too easy. I suspect that that may have to do with this being a serialized story. While I will say that the story is successfully wrapped up as a stand-alone arc (no mean feat as this is often a fail in serialized graphic novels or comic books,) the one eye toward setting up the continuing story arc may have contributed to this ending’s rushed feel. (Or maybe it was too much story for the allotted pages.)

I found this to be an intense and riveting read. If you like vampire horror, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad

Tremor Dose (comiXology Originals)Tremor Dose by Michael Conrad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full disclosure: I love trippy, mind-bending stories that use strategic ambiguity to keep one guessing about what’s truly happening. This is that type of story. The setup is brilliant and gets the book off to a captivating start. A college-aged girl is talking to some type of researchers, describing her dreams. The intriguing bit is that we find out that a man appears in this girl’s dream, and that what drew her to the research institute was a flyer with the man’s picture on it and a heading that read “Have you dreamed this man?” That had me hooked. Is this a Freddy Kruger scenario? Something else? I didn’t know, but I wanted to.

While this is a type of story I enjoy, it’s also a subgenre that’s easy to foul up. Capturing the unique logic and illogic of dreams is no simple task. Too ordered and dream becomes indistinguishable from base reality. Too bizarre and it becomes more of an acid trip than a dream. Then there is the challenge of balancing the maintaining of consistency with keeping the reader guessing. There is definitely a varied level of surrealism across the various dreams, but I can’t say I was bothered by this. Actually, the nature of comic is conducive to conveying some elements of a dream state even in a realistic setting – i.e. we pick up in the middle of events and jump from one locale to the next in different panels.

I felt “Tremor Dose” did pretty well with these issues. When I was perusing reviews, considering reading this book, I noticed a few comments about pacing issues at the end. I can definitely see people’s problems with regards to pacing, and I think it is largely a matter of the type of story being told. By that I mean, because one is trying to figure out what is base reality, if there is a base reality, when the climax and resolution are compressed it feels rushed because one’s mind is so engaged with trying to piece together what is happening. I don’t think the flow would have been as much of a problem. [One might reasonably ask whether this is something I would have noticed if I hadn’t seen it mentioned? Possibly not, but I think so. When I got to the end-reveal, I found myself stopping to think about whether the end made sense / was consistent with the story up to that point. I think that’s what creates the rushed feel is that one has to stop to mull rather than reading through it.]

The artwork is unique. It’s pencil-drawn and is not like what one typically sees in graphic novels. I don’t really know anything about comic art, and, so suffice it to say, the drawings weren’t distracting nor did they leave me confused. That’s about all I ask for in graphic novel artwork.

I enjoyed this story, and if you like stories that move in and out of layers of dreams, you’ll likely find it a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King

American Vampire, Vol. 1American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel includes two distinct, but interconnected, stories presented in an interspersed fashion (i.e. each chapter presents a piece of each story.) The first story, written by Scott Snyder, is set in flapper era Hollywood, and revolves around a hardworking aspiring actress, Pearl, who is lured into a den of vampires by a big-name actor who she has a celebrity crush on.

The second story, by Stephen King, is set in the wild west and tells the story of a violent bandit named Skinner Sweet. Sweet is also turned vampire when he is “killed” by a vampire whose business activities are disrupted by Skinner’s rogue ways. The connective tissue between the two stories is the character of Sweet, who is a background character in Snyder’s story – playing a sort of mentor / guide who Pearl is only reluctantly and skeptically willing to accept.

Like Blade, character from Marvel Comics and the movies of the same name, Pearl and Sweet have enhanced capabilities in comparison to the old “European” vampires. These enhancements are similar to Blade’s, as well. The American Vampires don’t instantaneously fry in sunlight, and they are stronger and faster than their old-world counterparts. I suspect that in both cases, these enhancements are meant to make things interesting, given that – in both cases — these characters are at a disadvantage in every other way (i.e. they are outnumbered, they have many fewer resources, and they are far less experienced.) Unlike Blade, the “American Vampires” morph into nastier and more monster-like versions of themselves when they go on the attack.

The stories are straightforward, though skillfully crafted. In the first, Pearl is turned and then goes out for some payback, her best friend getting caught up in the action as well. In the second, Sweet plays out his vendetta against a lawman who was his nemesis. We get additional insight from a man who wrote up Skinner’s story as a work of fiction, but then came out as having really been writing the truth – much to the amusement of a skeptical audience. Flashbacks throughout this author’s talk layout the Skinner Sweet story. One does get the sense that immortality has had a tempering effect on Sweet, who doesn’t seem so prone to be mean for meanness sake. Although, this might be deceptive as we don’t see much action by him in the Snyder story.

I found the artwork to be well-done. While I don’t have expertise on the subject, I could follow the panels with no problem, and that’s about all I need out of them.

I was engrossed by this book. It can’t be claimed to being original, but it is an adept execution. If you are interested in vampire stories, this is an interesting take on them.

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BOOK REVIEW: World War Hulk by Greg Pak

World War HulkWorld War Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection [World War Hulk (2007) #1-5] picks up where “The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk” left off. “Planet Hulk” sees Hulk arriving on the harsh planet of Sakaar where he engages in a series of adventures that take him from enslaved gladiator to king. I reviewed that work recently, and enjoyed it more than this one, though both are from the same author and each tells an intriguing story. The “Planet Hulk” story was just more intricate and thought-provoking — we see a change in the Hulk and the events that bring those changes about.

In “World War Hulk,” the Hulk returns to Earth, seeking revenge upon the “Illuminati” group who jettisoned him into space (i.e. Tony Stark / Ironman, Doctor Strange, Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, and Black Bolt.) Said revenge isn’t so much for shooting him into space, but because the craft that they sent him to space in blew up leveling Sakaar’s capital city and killing (among many others) his brand new Queen. So, the story is just the Hulk trying to put a beating on the four superheroes who shot him into space as they try to not get beaten (and to keep a [mostly] evacuated New York City from being leveled.] The Illuminati quartet face a number of problems, however. First, while they might have had the combined ability to defeat the Hulk before (at least teamed with the many other heroes at their disposal — and many are present from street-level vigilantes to big leaguers like the Fantastic Four,) the Hulk is madder than ever, and thus stronger than ever (but also wiser / more experienced.) Second, the Hulk now has his own monster-level “Warbound” entourage (i.e. Korg, Miek, Hiroim, Brood, and Elloe Kaifi.) Finally, the one hero who, without a question, has the power to stop Hulk and his Warbound, i.e. The Sentry, is severely agoraphobic and schizophrenic. So, it’s a great challenge to get him out the door and once you do, he’s at risk of schizoid behavior. On top of all that, he contains enough power to destroy the world – accidentally or because of distorted perceptions.

I did like the touch about The Sentry being a basket case. I’m not a big fan of hugely overpowered heroes, but if they have enough weaknesses they can redeem what would otherwise be terminally boring storylines. This is certainly the case with the Hulk who is at his most powerful when he is out of control and who is also, generally, at his least intelligent at those times. The Sentry takes it a step beyond because he’s barely functional. One may be doubtful about someone so powerful being scared to go outside, but it is the nature of mental illness that one doesn’t always see oneself as one is seen and there need not be a sound logic to one’s perceptions of the world.

I’d recommend reading “Planet Hulk” first and – if you enjoy it, which I suspect you might – you’ll probably find following it up with “World War Hulk” worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman, Vol 1: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of OwlsBatman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection (Batman #1-7 of The New 52) shows Batman’s discovery of a shadowy and age-old nemesis that has managed to cling to the darkness so well that it’s known only by a creepy nursery rhyme / folksong. The Court of Owls not only predates Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, but we learn it goes back at least to the time of his [great-]great-grandfather, Alan Wayne, a railroad magnate largely responsible for Gotham’s look.

The story opens with a grizzly murder involving a large number of well-placed throwing knives, positioned to allow the victim to survive for some time. However, it’s Bruce Wayne’s meeting with Lincoln March, an apparently magnanimous man running for mayor, that brings things to a head. During the meeting, March is stabbed by a costumed villain claiming to be carrying out the sentence of the Court as he goes on to attempt to assassinate Wayne. While the Court of Owls connection is clear, Batman concludes that it’s just another villain using the symbolism of the nursery rhyme in the same way he uses the symbolism of the bat. However, as his investigation goes forward, that theory becomes less tenable.

I greatly enjoyed this collection. While we see Nightwing, Red Robin, and the current Robin, this story is very much a solo outing for Batman. The past and present sidekicks serve only to join Alfred in reminding Batman that he’s burning the candle at both ends, and to facilitate [skillfully delivered] exposition. While we see Batman as the pragmatic master detective and as the butt-kicking caped crusader, what I really enjoyed (and what set this edition apart for me) was a trippy, surreal piece of the story. There’s a section of the book that reminds me of Grant Morrison’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious Place on Serious Earth.” While it draws on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, it gets mind-bending as Batman finds himself trapped in a labyrinth and his only water source is provided by a conveniently-existing fountain in said labyrinth.

I’d say this is definitely among must-reads for fans of Batman. It sets up what will be an on-going battle, but it was an intriguing in its own right.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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