BOOK REVIEW: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for AllComic Book History of Comics: Comics for All by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a history of comic books and graphic novels that is presented in the form of a comic book. This book turned out to be more fascinating than I expected (and, obviously, I thought it would be interesting enough to start reading it in the first place.) The added fascination, of all places, came from the economics nerd in me (I thought that guy was dead, but apparently not.) You may wonder what economics has to do with the history of comics, but it turns out that there was a long period of learning about how the unique characteristics of comic books should influence how they were most lucratively sold. At first, comics were sold just like other magazines, but eventually people realized that the fact that these periodicals told serialized stories (and that they were potentially collectable) made them a very different kind of product. And there were booms and busts along the way.

It’s not just economists who might find something surprisingly interesting in this book, there is a colorful discussion of intellectual property law as it pertained to comics. (As well as the more visceral human-interest story of the artists who created characters that made executives and actors billions of dollars, while said artists eked out a living.) Long-story-short, this book isn’t just for those interested in how artistic styles changed, or how various popular characters came to be, though those subjects are touched upon as well. It looks at the history of comics from many angles. One learns a little about the unique Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, and African comic book markets, and one even sees how comic books played a roll in international relations. While it’s mostly an industry (macro-)level look, there is discussion of a few who individuals who changed the industry (e.g. Alan Moore.)

This is a quick read, but packed with interesting information for those of us who are basically interested in everything. It’s well drawn as well. Check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Vision #1 by Tom King

Vision #1Vision #1 by Tom King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This issue imagines a family of superpowered androids moving into suburban Washington DC, into a neighborhood where the denizens are the lawyers, bureaucrats, and political professionals. Vision is a member of the Avengers. Having been created by villainous Ultron, Vision changed sides to protect humanity, the android’s affinity for humanity subsequently led him to create his own family — a wife and two children, Viv and Vin. When Vision takes a job as the Avenger’s liaison to the Federal government, he moves his family into a Virginia neighborhood popular with the DC elite.

Being fish-out-of-water, these androids are challenged by the quotidian events of suburban life and they’re perplexed by the idiosyncrasies of mankind. Setting a household of super-bots in the most mundane human habitat imaginable provides a lot of comedic fodder. The “Visions” are welcomed to the neighborhood by a couple from next door. Vin and Viv attend their first day at school. The only real action is at the very end of the issue, and it’s clearly meant to carry the story onward through subsequent issues. [Though, if you are reading this as a standalone, it feels like all the action has been crammed in at the end — almost as an after-thought.]

The art and color palette are consistent with the laid-back suburban circumstance of the story.

This issue plays on an amusing premise, but – of itself – is more of a set up than a story. If you’re interested in the character and intend to move forward with reading more issues, you’ll probably want to give this issue a read. However, if you’re expecting this to be an action-packed superhero outing, you’re likely to be disappointed.

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BOOK REVIEW: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

My Heroes Have Always Been JunkiesMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this story’s lead romanticizes drug abuse, to the point that she believes the only great art comes from those who are wasted. Said lead is a teenage girl who we know as Ellie, and whom we find in an upscale drug rehab center. She’s a troublemaker and resistant to treatment, and why wouldn’t she be as she believes that drugs make one a musical genius. (Most of her romanticization is directed toward rock-n-roll artists, but she also admires novelists such as William Burroughs and assorted other creative types who were generally blotto in the act of creation.)

Most of the story is a budding romance between Ellie and a young man who is a bit of a mystery but who encourages her to play along for her own good. Ultimately, however, his good influence is no match for her bad influence, and they end up running off together, hanging out in vacant vacation houses. In the latter quarter of the book, the story unfolds and we learn that the relationship isn’t the product of spontaneous chemistry that we’ve been led to believe.

Brubaker creates an addict driven to myopic and impulsive behavior, and so the reader can readily believe how she ends up in her own sort of hell in which she has no good options, only various flavors of terrible ones. The necessary foreshadowing was done for a twist ending, but it gets a little heavy handed at one point. However, to be fair, the reveal takes place in a short space as the overall work is fairly short, and the climax and resolution are late in the work.

I’m not such an expert on artwork in comics. The art and coloring seemed good to me, but I remember thinking that Ellie looked old to be approximately 18 – but then that could have been purposeful as she’s supposed to have drug years on her.

I found this to be a thought-provoking work and read it straight through. It’s not preachy, but does suggest an inevitability of life going sour when one lives such a life. I’d recommend this book for those intrigued by the premise.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those unfamiliar with this series or the movie featuring Sean Connery, this graphic novel assembles a team of heroes from 19th century science fiction and adventure novels. Specifically, the team includes: Mina Harker (of Bram Stroker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine series), Captain Nemo (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Jules Verne novels), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featuring their names), and Hawley Griffin (of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man.) The team’s principle nemesis is Professor James Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Interestingly, this book follows the same general plot progression as the movie, but is much different in tone, settings, and character details. The plot progression of which I refer is that the team is assembled (with no small amount of mutual animosity) and they bond into a team as they face a grandiose threat of steampunk industrialization run amok. That plot progression aside, you’ll find an entirely different story otherwise. First, those who favor gender equality will appreciated that Mina Harker is in a leadership role in this volume, the role played by Quatermain in the movie. (That being said, this isn’t a group of individuals who take readily to being led.) Second, those who like darker, grittier tales will find this book more appealing than the movies. Allan Quatermain is found by Harker wasted in an opium den. Griffin is captured after having moved into a girl’s school to use his invisibility to lecherous advantage and the head mistress of said school is decidedly dominatrix like. I generally liked the grittier tone better, though it was hard to reconcile Griffin’s abhorrent behavior with heroism—anti-heroes are a challenge, particularly one who can disappear at will. Third, the team in the book is smaller and more manageable, with the movie having taken on two more characters (Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer.) Finally, the book doesn’t get around so much. The movie features at least four major settings—not counting the high seas, but the book takes place mostly in Victorian London.

You don’t have to have read all the classic works from which the characters derive to get the story, but it does make it a little more fun. (Yes, I realize that I’m using “classic” for books–some of which–were considered the pulp fiction of their day. However, if your book is still in print after 100 years, I’d say you deserve the status and respect.) Those who’ve read the books will get some subtleties that aren’t critical to the story but are kind of nifty. That being said, don’t expect the characters to match their originals perfectly. The novels covered are wide-ranging, some rely on supernatural elements and others are more realistic, some are futuristic while others reflect the times more accurately. One can’t bring all these individuals into one world and have them be exactly as they were in their original domains.

There are some extra features at the end including a short story featuring a time traveling Allan Quatermain and some art from the series.

I’d recommend this book for those who read comics and graphic novels—especially if they’ve read the stories of at least a few of the 19th century characters. (If you haven’t read any of the novels, you should probably go back and hit some classics before you read anything else. Just my opinion.) It’s an intriguing concept, and it’s done well.

The movie trailer is here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, et. al.

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Amazon recently had a sale on classic Batman collections in celebration of the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary. I bought a few titles, including this one.

Batman: Year One is Frank Miller’s vision of the hero’s first year of crime fighting. Unlike the first movie in the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins, there’s no backstory about Bruce Wayne’s training. The comic begins with Bruce Wayne beginning to go on the equivalent of self-sanctioned “neighborhood watch” rounds in Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s in his planning and research phase, and only quasi-reluctantly gets into brawls with street thugs. His goal is, ostensibly, intelligence gathering.

Miller’s work isn’t aimed at a boyish market. From the intimation of underage prostitution to themes of marital infidelity to the unsubtle homage to Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, this book is directed at a more mature reader. It’s grittier, but Batman hasn’t yet become so sophisticated as to abandon wearing his underwear outside his pants.

The four chapters that make up this graphic novel parallel and twist together the stories of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne as they each begin their Gotham crime fighting careers. In many versions of the Batman mythology, Gordon is a young cop who helps boyhood Bruce Wayne on the night his parents are killed. This is one of the ways in which the Miller version differs. In Batman: Year One Gordon is a detective who moves to Gotham from Chicago at about the same time Bruce Wayne is sticking his toe in the waters of Gotham crime. This comes in handy for Miller later in works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in which he is able to have a geriatric Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon coexisting.

The interests of Gordon and Batman only align at the very end of the last chapter. Until then, Gordon is trying to find and apprehend Batman like all the other cops. In fact, Gordon is leading the crusade against the Dark Knight when his bosses still have little interest in it—until Batman crashes their ball.

There are no supervillains yet—only corrupt cops and organized crime. Bruce Wayne, who adopts the guise of Batman only after a bat flies through his window (never heard of that happening), gets off to a rough start. He isn’t yet the phantom nightmare that he will later become, and is still learning his lessons. In his early encounters with criminals, he prevails mostly by being able to take a punch.

Besides Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue being a bit ham-handed, I enjoyed this work. The ham-handed inner monologue is—no doubt–intended to convey that Wayne is a man of thought as well as a man of action, but it’s hard to believe that someone who could transform himself into the Batman would be that riddled with doubt. That said, the dialogue is better written than the typical comic. There’s not a lot of the “As-you-know-Bob” dialogue that often plagues this genre.

If you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, this is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy: Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

Hellboy: The Midnight CircusHellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Hellboy meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. In this issue, Hellboy—as a boy—runs away from the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and stumbles upon a circus that operates only through the wee hours of the morning. An acknowledgement of Ray Bradbury suggests that the use of a creepy, nocturnal circus of the netherworld was not a coincidence but a purposive homage.

The comic also borrows elements of the story of Pinocchio, which is explicitly referenced in the story line.

The comic is well-written and drawn. Those who don’t like it will likely find their dislike rooted in the comic’s ending. The title character doesn’t have a great deal of agency—i.e. he has little influence on the resolution of the story arc. That said, given that Hellboy is a boy in this issue and that his upbringing as a human boy by the Professor is credited with his ability to refrain from regression to his demon-like nature, there’s not a lot that he could probably do without straining credulity.

I enjoyed this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Wolverine by Claremont & Miller

WolverineWolverine by Chris Claremont

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I got this as the Kindle “Daily Deal” about a week ago. It’s really a bundling of six comic book editions: Wolverine No. 1 through 4, and Uncanny X-Men No. 172 & 173.

The story begins as Wolverine travels to Japan to check on his beloved Mariko only to discover she is married to another man. Her abusive husband is a man owed a debt by Shingen Yashida, Mariko’s father, and a Yakuza crime lord. Mariko is the repayment of debt. Over the course of the six books, Wolverine battles Shingen Yashida and–having defeated him–must take on Mariko’s half-brother, the Silver Samurai. In the process, while Wolverine loves Mariko, Yukio (Shingen’s assassin sent to kill Wolverine) falls for Wolverine’s animal charm. The final two editions involve the X-men coming to Wolverine’s wedding to Mariko, but only Storm plays a significant role in the action.

I will admit that comic books are not my bag. As a writer, I generally find the dialogue and internal monologues contrived and filled with jarring “as you know, Bob” style references. This is nails-on-chalkboard grating to me, and it was no less true for this book than others. However, I accept that some of this is an inevitable result of the serialized nature of story lines (often across different series), the space limitations, and the fact that boys are a targeted audience.  The Watchmen is one of the few exceptions to this problem.

Having said that, I thought the story line was intriguing and it obviously kept my interest through to the end (albeit without much of a significant time investment.) There are lots of battles with ninja, so how cool is that?

It’s the first graphic-intensive book that I’ve read on my Kindle–which is the basic model, and I was surprised how well it worked. Each page contained several frames, usually in mice type that was hard on the eyes, but one could double-tap the screen to call up a single frame in very legible type.

I think this is worth a read if you’re interested in the Wolverine story. The upcoming Wolverine movie seems to share many of the same characters, but apparently with a different story line. Of course, as I understand it, the X-men series of movies are legendary for scrambling the mythology and timelines of the comics without much concern for being internally consistent, let alone consistent with the comics.

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