From A Library: Asterios Polyp

By David Mazzucchelli

I recently joined City Library in London and it has been a treasure trove of new books that I wouldn’t normally get my hands on, and this has been one of them. This huge hardcover (344 pages – it was a heavy book to bring back from the centre of town) from 2009 is the first in what will be quite a selection of the impressive catalogue.

This multi-award-winning book from Mazzucchelli (there’s a lovely quote on the back: ‘David Mazzucchelli has been making comics his whole life. This is his first graphic novel’) is a very impressive debut from a creator I know only from Daredevil: Reborn and Batman: Year One. It is also what I think of when I hear the phrase ‘graphic novel’ – not just a term adopted by booksellers and the comic book industry to legitimise the medium, but a literary novel with a non-genre story about the human condition that happens to be represented in pictorial form. Everything about this book is an exact marriage of words and pictures to convey the story.

Asterios Polyp is introduced to us at the age of 50 as his home burns down. He is a tenured professor of architecture, esteemed but whose designs have never been built. He was born an identical twin; his brother, Ignazio, died at birth and is the narrator of the story. Asterios is confident, superior, a philanderer and someone who doesn’t listen to anyone but himself. Having lost his home, he decides to take a train to nowhere and ends up working as a mechanic, even though he knows nothing about cars, in a small town called Apogee (‘the highest point in the development of something’, as the dictionary defines it). The story then flashes back to how he met his wife Hana, a sculpture teacher, and their life together and how Asterios ruined the marriage, with the modern story and the past intertwining, plus asides that take in Plato’s Symposium and architect theory.

This feels like a novel in the way that it is small but addresses big things, it is full of characters that are beautifully sketched out (in both senses of the word – Mazzucchelli depicts each character in an individual and distinct style, such as the side profile bust-like look for Asterios, and he expresses their character through dialogue and artistic shape in a masterful way). He experiments with ways of telling his story and his philosophical asides, with big bold images or small details, key panels with no borders or sprawling across the page, changing the form of people from normal to sketchy to geometrical shapes to charcoal-like – it allows him to filter moments so much more expressively than prose can do on its own, giving a new dimension to storytelling that is the essence of sequential art.

The story itself is not the type of thing I’d normally go for but I like to expand my horizons and it had received glowing reviews, and my decision was rewarded with an excellent graphic novel. It has some unusual aspects, such as people having the sort of intellectual conversations that you only read in books or hear in plays (at least in my life, and I went to university), and there are some annoying characters, like Willy Ilium the choreographer who wants to collaborate with Hanna (he’s supposed to be annoying but that doesn’t help), and Asterios is not a particularly likeable person. However, after finishing the story, you feel like you’ve experienced something, which must be exactly what an author is trying to do with his or her work, and Mazzucchelli should be commended for a job well done.

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From A Library – Wolverine: Old Man Logan

Wolverine #66–72 and Wolverine: Old Man Logan Giant-Size by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

I haven’t purchased a Mark Millar comic book in ages – his overbearing hucksterism, his ‘film pitch as comic book’ approach, and his seeming dislike for people who read comic books make for an unpleasant taste in the mouth, metaphorically speaking. However, sometimes my lack of judgement gets the better of me, such as when I saw this book in the library and brought it home.

Millar’s success is based on a mixture of easy-to-grasp concepts (which are not original but he promotes them as such), shock tactics and clear storytelling. He is good at taking ideas that have worked in other forms and transposing them to comic books. Case in point: Old Man Logan is essentially Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, with some extra road movie thrown in, with Marvel’s Acts Of Vengeance crossover from 1989 as a starting point. He doesn’t hide it: the opening spread is Logan on a horse. Set 50 years in the future, Logan is a farmer with a wife and two kids who needs money to pay rent to his landlords, the grandchildren of Bruce Banner. So when a blind Hawkeye turns up (in the Morgan Freeman role) and offers him a job accompanying him across this new America (a handy double-page spread of a satnav shows how the country is split into domains), he takes it and we start the road movie section (driving the Spider Mobile, because it’s funny, I guess?).

The road movie section is a plot distraction – it’s just to show off this new world of Millar’s, including a very odd side chapter about Hawkeye’s daughter (who is also Peter Parker’s grandchild, which is pretty icky – Hawkeye having sex with Parker’s daughter? – but it is an indicator of Millar’s level for later) which sees the gratuitous deaths of Frank Castle and Matt Murdock, opportunities for Hawkeye to kill some fools, the explanation of why Logan is no longer Wolverine and also includes a Venom T-Rex. We see the corpse of Giant Man decomposed to a skeleton – Hawkeye dies as well, which he has to because he’s Morgan Freeman, remember? – and the death of all the X-Men, because Millar really loves superheroes, which is why he kills them all the time (see Civil War and the zombie world in his Fantastic Four story). Then, after all of this time, Logan dispatches the bad guy in a few pages (in a set of ridiculous circumstances) before finally we get to the entire point of the story: Logan releasing his claws and going psycho. This is so monumental that it warrants a double-page spread that is just the word ‘SNIKT!’ in red letters on black background. Sigh.

The thing that annoys me about this comic book is the sloppy plotting that Millar uses to justify the ‘coolness’ of his story (which is his modus operandi). The biggest problem I have is with the whole reason that Logan no longer fights: it’s because he killed the X-Men while under the hypnotic influence of Mysterio. This is completely unbelievable nonsense on so many levels that Millar doesn’t even attempt to explain how it is possible for Mysterio to have hoodwinked Wolverine, or that Wolverine is able to kill all of the X-Men without any of them stopping him – it makes me angry to think he was allowed to get away with such an obvious plot hole, especially when it’s critical for the story. What’s worse is that, after getting Logan to kill the X-Men, the villains just let him go (if the whole point is to kill all the superheroes, why let him live?) and let him live as a farmer for 50 years. He’s that dangerous but he’s allowed to survive. Completely illogical.

Then there are the embarrassing coincidences that allow Logan to kill the Red Skull – he is the president of the former United States, having succeeded in the Acts of Vengeance (albeit without Loki, who was the instigator originally – we see Loki’s skeleton in the road section, just to clarify this), and given areas of the country to his helpers. We find him gloating in his trophy room [which has a Punisher t-shirt in the trophy cabinet, even though Punisher only died a day or two earlier in another part of the country; also, why was Moon Knight, whose cowl is in the trophy cabinet, killed but not Hawkeye or Punisher or Daredevil?] in the White House – because that’s what the Red Skull does – while wearing Captain America’s cowl because this is funny, I guess? Anyway, this just happens to be where Skull’s agents bring the corpse of Logan (because that makes sense), which provides Logan with Cap’s shield to poetically kill the Skull (he has yet to pop the claws). Then there is an Iron Man armour for Logan to escape the White House, because it’s cool, of course.

The story finishes with Logan, his family slaughtered by Banner’s grandkids, hunting down and killing Bruce Banner and his inbred redneck family (Banner sired kids with Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk, his cousin, because Millar has the sensibility of an adolescent); Logan is apparently able to kill Banner from the inside when Bruce ate him, which makes no kind of sense, but what are you going to do? The finale sees Logan doing his version of Lone Wolf and Cub by taking Banner’s youngest grandchild and going on the road to kill all the supervillains. I think this is supposed to be the happy ending.

This is also an incredibly violent comic book – Hawkeye’s daughter decapitates a man by hitting his neck with the handle of a shotgun, not to mention Wolverine’s slaughter in the X-Mansion and the Banner family; he also gets some of his own decapitation act with a Cap shield/Red Skull interface. I must be getting old because ‘Parental Advisory’ on the back doesn’t seem strong enough. However, McNiven does a good job drawing this ultraviolence; he’s a very talented artist, with a sharp line and clean storytelling. All his characters look like individuals and he’s great at picking those shots that say more than a narrative caption could. It’s just a shame that it’s for something like this.

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From A Library – Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is a wonderful novel blending fiction and history, with characters appropriated from novels and films, into an alternative timeline (in which Dracula wasn’t killed but has become consort to Queen Victoria and brought vampires into English society) detective story about a Jack the Ripper killing vampire prostitutes. I enjoyed it, so I was glad that the book was republished recently, perhaps due to the recent popularity of vampire-related material, which has also led to the republishing of the other books in the series. Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron is the first sequel, set in 1918, thirty years after the first novel. After the events of Anno Dracula, Dracula has become the head of the Central Powers, and the First World War has occurred more or less as in history, but with vampires fighting alongside warm (non-vampire) soldiers, meaning that silver was the metal most donated from houses for bullets to kill vampires.

The focus of the story is the battles between fliers: on the German side, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richtofen and his squadron, Jagdgeschwader 1 (also known as the Flying Circus), and on the Allies side, the Cundall Condors; Edwin Winthrop is a warm man put in charge of the Condors and the task of discovering the secrets of JG1 at the Chateau du Malinbois (later named Schloss Adler, the castle in Where Eagles Dare), where scientists such as Doctor Caligari, Doctor Mabuse and Professor ten Brincken are performing experiments. Edgar Poe (he has ditched his stepfather’s name), a new-born vampire, has been assigned to ghostwrite the autobiography of von Richtofen (to be used as propaganda for the war); Kate Reed, a journalist (and new-born vampire from Anno Dracula), is also trying to find out more about the Chateau, as she continues her crusade to reveal truths about the war – she made a name for herself revealing the ineptness of the French General Mireau (who is the character from the Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film, Paths of Glory); and Winthrop’s disastrous first flight leads him on a dangerous and obsessive quest.

The book is well written and well researched, with the feeling of authentic details grounding the fantasy in a reality that puts the reader in the war. The First World War was a horrific war of attrition, as millions died in trenches for no reason, so there is a rather sad element to the book that sometimes stopped me from enjoying some aspects. Also, Winthrop’s obsession is one of the main elements of the story, an unsympathetic aspect that I found distancing on occasion. Far more enjoyable are the interactions between Poe and Richtofen (I completely missed the great Peanuts joke the first time) and the flashes of humour that Newman laces throughout the book: for example, the Dracula double who is a Hungarian matinee idol from Lugos.

There is great fun in seeing real people used in this story with aspects of history: Herman Goring is present (a veteran air fighter pilot in the First World War, he was the real last commander of JG1); Winston Churchill is a new-born vampire who is part of Lord Ruthven’s government (Churchill was part of the government during the war, becoming Minister for Munitions in 1917); von Richthofen had a brother Lothar, also in the book, and Manfred had silver cups made to mark his victories in the air; Mata Hari is seen as a spy executed in France (although know she is a vampire, so she is killed with silver bullets). However, the real fun is in the use of fictional characters from books, film and television (and I didn’t recognise them all – you need the list at Wikipedia to help): some I recognise – such as the American pilot called Allard with a maniacal laugh, who is The Shadow; the English pilot Bigglesworth and his chums Algie and Ginger (I’ve never read the Biggles stories, but all British people grow up knowing about the character from all the various parodies); Doctor Moreau and Doctor Caligari – but most I didn’t and I was glad for the annotations because the book is full of characters from a variety of different material. For example, I was delighted to discover that Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, the German officer who befriends Poe at the Chateau, is the sympathetic German officer from the excellent The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. Newman has a love for vampire stories and an encyclopaedic knowledge (Mark Kermode tells an anecdote in his book about how he uses Newman as an unofficial reference back-up when he needs to know something about a particular film), but he is also a very entertaining writer as well, so spot-the-reference is an amusing side game, instead of being the sole reason for the book’s existence.

The book also contains a novella: Vampire Romance, set in 1923, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (from Anno Dracula, an elder with a different line from Dracula) and Winthrop, which is a ‘1920s Old Dark House weekend mystery’, as Newman calls it, drawing on the works of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse – the plot involves a gathering of elder vampires at Mildew Manor, the home of ‘Aunt Agatha’ (from the Jeeves and Wooster stories), to select a new ‘King’ of vampires to replace Dracula. It also includes other characters from the previous books, such as Dravot and General Karnstein, as well as amusing world-building touches, such as the fact that Charlie Chaplin is the world’s most famous film star due to his character, the Little Vamp. It is a charming little murder mystery tale, told in chapters alternating from the point of view of Geneviève and Lydia, Agatha’s niece, who desperately wants to become a vampire at the hands (or teeth) or a dashing, brooding vampire, and has a very nice reveal (all good murder mysteries should have a good surprise in the reveal), which left me with a smile on my face. Two great stories in one book, which also contains some annotations from Newman and a treatment for a film that was inspired by the book, mean that this is highly recommended.

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From A Library – Trade Paperback Selection

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom (issues #1–5) by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham and Luca Rossi

A young woman, Fig, an architect of sorts, is chased by a creepy couple and ends up escaping in to the House of Mystery, a strange house located at a supernatural crossroads between worlds. The house has many guests, but there are regulars: Harry the bartender, Cress the waitress, Ann the pirate bouncer, and Poet the poet. The rule of the house: you pay for food and lodgings by telling a story. This provides an avenue for other artists (and writer: Sturges is the main writer, with Willingham providing occasional short stories) to provide pencils, and hark back to anthology nature of the original comic from the 1950s. The five main characters seem to be stuck in the house, there are some scary people outside the boundary of the house, and Fig can talk to houses (including the House of Mystery), so the book has a solid Vertigo set-up with the extra Gaimanesque dimension of telling stories within the nature of the narrative. The book is interesting, although it does have a slightly annoying voiceover narration from Fig, which is overwrought and ponderous, something that distracts from an otherwise intriguing book. The best thing about the book is the art from Rossi – great storytelling, distinct characters and a lovely style (elements of early Tony Harris with the extra lines and squiggles in the faces, and hints of Chris Bachalo and Sean Murphy), which is strong and distinctive and interesting; I want to read more House of Mystery just because of the art.

Ultimate Comics Captain America (issues #1–4) by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney

This is the story of Frank Simpson, the Ultimate universe version of Nuke (also known as the Captain America of Vietnam), who is selling his own super-soldier serum to North Korea, so Steve Rogers has to go ‘rogue’, in a nice scene with Carol Danvers, and find Simpson. He locates him in a village in Cambodia where all the villagers have been turned into super soldiers; they capture Steve and Simpson tortures him while telling him about the reality of what the United States has done around the world (a nice Clockwork Orange riff, and the line, ‘Just keep telling yourself … water boarding isn’t torture’). Obviously, despite being physically weaker than Simpson, Rogers wins the day (he gets a great line to the villagers after: ‘Don’t grow up to be terrorists, kids’) but the charm is in the attitude Aaron brings the story – Rogers is a soldier who fights, he is not a boy scout – and Garney’s earthy art, which is dynamic and dirty and tough. It’s a dispensable tale but told with energy, wit and brio.

Bite Club (issues #1–6) by Howard Chaykin, David Tischman and David Hahn

This is an unusual little book (the trade paperback is manga-sized): a modern-day Godfather with vampires, set in Miami, with double-dealing, crooked people (human and vampire), and a good guy turning bad to protect the family, even killing to evolve the family business; throw in sex and swearing, and you’ve got a typical Chaykin/Tischman book. However, it never really engaged with me; it felt all sizzle and no steak, especially the ending, which feels like the authors were turning the tables but feels narratively empty. Also, Hahn’s artwork, while clean and showing good storytelling, doesn’t seem to suit the style needed for the story – the excellent Quitely covers do a much better job of capturing the tone. Not a book I could recommend.

Tamara Drewe By Posy Simmonds

Despite buying the newspaper on a regular basis, I don’t remember reading the strip when it was serialised in the Guardian on a weekly basis (you can still read the strip at the Guardian website), but then I’ve never read Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, which is the inspiration for this story, so what does that say about me? Far From The Madding Crowd is the title of the advert for a writers’ retreat in Devon, run by the wife of a successful novelist who writes the popular Detective Inchecombe novels; unfortunately, he is also a serial womaniser, which he admits to his wife so that she is sort of all right with it. The plot gets underway with the return of Tamara Drewe: a trendy columnist for a newspaper in London, she now owns the farm next door to the retreat (her family home where she grew up) and her arrival stirs things up, with emotional intrigue, drama, a former pop star, what it’s like for teenagers growing up in a small country town and what it’s like in a writers’ retreat. Simmonds has a soft, watercolour paintery style that seems to suit the bucolic nature of the story. It’s gentle and expressive and quite beautiful, and she’s a gifted storyteller, with a mixture of traditional comic book panels with word balloons, and lots of silent panels with chunks of text telling the narrative where necessary, which feels appropriate for a literary story – sections of people’s thoughts, which may have a single image or a collage. It works well, except for the notable event near the end of the book, which didn’t come across clearly in pictorial form compared with a novel (or in the film adaptation). However, it’s an involving story that is well told from different perspectives and with notably different voices. Not wanting to sound unoriginal, but I preferred the book to the film adaptation – the book is more complex, more literary, more engaging, more absorbing.

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From A Library – Star Trek: Crew TPB

Star Trek: Crew #1–5 by John Byrne

I did not know about the character known as ‘Number One’ in the Star Trek universe. Played by Majel Barrett in the original pilot episode, she was never referred to by name and was an intelligent, logical, calm first officer to Captain Pike. For various reasons (ranging from disapproval of the prominence of a women so high in command, to the executives at NBC being furious that a relatively unknown actress was playing such a major part just because she was having an affair with Gene Roddenberry), her character was discarded and her demeanour transposed on to Spock in the next pilot. (The things you can learn on the internet …)

This trade paperback collects five issues of the adventures of the Enterprise’s ‘most experienced officer’ and how she arrived at that position, from cadet to lieutenant (while refusing promotions along the way). The entertaining element is that, to remain the mystery of the character’s name, Byrne never allows anyone to speak it or identify her in any way, which is tricky to do and blatant at times; however, it’s a nice touch which shows that Byrne is obviously a fan and this is a love letter to ‘Number One’.

Set in the era of Star Trek: The Original Series, Byrne tells stories that are very much in the same style and vein as those original television episodes, particularly the ‘Ghost’ story in issue 3, and which also comply with the continuity – she eventually gets on to the Enterprise with Pike as Commander and Mr Spock as an ensign. The stories are rather charming and enjoyable, in an old-fashioned way; the lead character is a strong female in a traditional science-fiction setting, which is always a good thing, and they fit in well with the established stories without falling into the trap of having the lead character save the universe and make other stories redundant.

Byrne is a good storyteller – he’s had years of experience of both writing and art – but he’s not the super art talent he was. His style is clear and his composition easy to follow, but it’s lost some of the polish it once had. Therefore, it’s a strange choice to include the entirety of the original uncoloured pages for the third issue at the end of this collection. It’s a waste of space, it doesn’t deserve inclusion and it’s annoying when you think there is another issue at the end of the trade and discover that it’s something you’ve already read.

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From A Library – The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1–7 by Peter David, Robin Furth, Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

The appeal of this comic book is supposed to be Stephen King – the first adaptation of his work into comics, I believe – but the real attraction is the art of Jae Lee. It is the real reason to read this comic book – it’s a thing of beauty. Exquisitely rendered (with fantastic colouring by Isanove, which really elevates the art even more) and great storytelling that captures the world King has created: some sort of future Earth where war has ravaged the landscape decades earlier, mixing a Western style with an apocalyptic civilisation vibe. Panels and pages are works of art, looking like paintings that happen to tell a story.

David (and Furth) recreates the distinctive narrative voice of the tale (which take a little getting used to when you start reading) and the particular patois King has chosen to be the language of this world, which can be quite lyrical on occasion. The story has inevitable tragedy to it, if you like that sort of thing. These seven issues tell the origins of Roland Deschain, the gunslinger of the title, as he reflects on how he came to be where he is. It tells of how he took his coming-of-age test at a young age, how he was sent with his ‘ka-tet’ (group of friends bound by destiny) to another town on a mission to discover the allegiance of the people there, only for it all to turn dangerous when a group of assassins turns up (the ‘Big Coffin Hunters’) to kill Roland. Also in the seven issues: Roland has a relationship with a young woman, the big evil (the Crimson King) is shown, Marten Broadcloak is treacherous, the Great Old Ones’ weapons have been stolen, and there is a showdown in the Shaved Mountains. I haven’t read the novels, but I’m sure this means something to people who are knowledgeable of this world, because this is all background material to fill in details for the fans.

I don’t know if the story would be the same without the wonderfully evocative art of Lee. It is dreamlike, perfectly designed, artfully composed, full of shadows and silhouettes, dynamic in the action scenes, creepy in the pages with the evil doers; Lee can even draw really good horses and dogs, something which a lot of artists find hard to do (and he needs to draw horses a lot for this book). The artwork is stark elemental beauty, and I could post pages of the preview art (I think four is enough to give you a taste). But I won’t; I’ll just recommend that you search out this collection so that you can enjoy it for yourself.

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From A Library: Marvel Universe Vs The Punisher

Marvel Universe Vs The Punisher #1–4 by Jonathan Maberry and Goran Parlov

I don’t understand the current obsession with apocalyptic scenarios in pop culture (and comics in particular). I think it is very strange and and seems a bit macabre and depressing, but then I’m not a fan of the endlessly grim story (I don’t read The Walking Dead or Crossed, for example). The reason for trying this book was Parlov: his art is amazing. I talked about how much I loved it in Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge when I ‘reviewed’ it, and I loved it in this collection.

The story: Frank Castle, the Punisher, killed some thugs when he catches them trying to sell secret bioweapons but the chemical was super toxic, which was a shame when it exploded in the fight, covering the Punisher, making him immune to it; however, it then went into the water system, which then turned people into cannibal predators. The world’s population becomes uninfected survivors or super-powered tribes eating everyone else (which means you get to see a variety of Marvel characters, both heroes and villains, in this world gone awry). The only person in the middle is Frank Castle, trying to kill the creatures he believes he created.

There are some nice touches in the tale: Spider-Man is the head of an infected tribe who does a deal with Frank to rescue Mary Jane from another infected tribe run by Kingpin; Deadpool’s healing factor is played perfectly for laughs (Punisher has killed him 33 times but he keeps on regenerating; just before the last time, Deadpool says: ‘Dude, I’m never teaming up with you again’). I’ve never read anything by Maberry before (he’s a novelist who has won the Bram Stoker award) but he does a nice job here. He has a deft touch throughout, especially with the ‘Punisher journal’ narrative (‘War Journal, Day 1,830: Same $?#%, different day.’), which makes for a fun experience in the midst of a story that is set in the ending of the world.

As I said, the art is the real star here. Parlov’s art is simply superb: he has a European style that is craggy and real but with a definite comic book-centric character work. He is still able to comfortably incorporate superheroes into his style so that they don’t look ridiculous, and his style is perfectly suited for this mixture of an urban setting with a barbarian vibe. It’s expressive, dynamic, beautiful, rugged, muscular, visceral, vibrant and sexy. There are some fantastic splash pages, which look gorgeous, but he’s also got great storytelling skills, great facial expressions and fantastic action. He’s a great, great talent and I could fill this post with various images from the book because it’s so good and I could look at it all day. You should read the book for his art alone; fortunately, the story is worthwhile, too.

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From A Library – Conan: The Frost-Giant’s Daughter And Other Stories

Conan #0–6 and part of #7 by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord

Even though I’m a fan of genre stories, I’ve never read any Conan the Barbarian, which includes the original pulp stories and the respected comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith; I’ve only seen the Schwarzenegger films and didn’t really care for them. Therefore, I wasn’t particularly interested when Dark Horse acquired the rights to produce new Conan comics, even though it was written by Busiek. However, the presence of Busiek as writer meant that it was an easy call to try this collection when I saw it in my local library. And it was a good decision: these are very good comics, which are enjoyable and well told.

The book is about the early days of Conan, a young Cimmerian who has left his home lands to explore the world; he has ventured north where he becomes embroiled in a blood-feud between two northern clans (helps the Aesir against the Vanir). The Aesir follow the Vanir who attacked them, heading further north (where Conan meets the frost-giant’s daughter of the title) until they are betrayed and captured by Hyperboreans – not the noble spirits Conan was told about, but tall savages who capture Conan and his fellow Aesir, taking them back to the legendary city, where the awful truth behind Hyperborea is revealed.

These stories of Conan are told as legends (as revealed in a framing device in issue #0), and even I know enough about Conan that he eventually became a king, so these comics don’t have the immediate drama of possible death for the lead character in the fight scenes or the stories as a whole – it’s an odd reading sensation when you know that the majority of characters introduced who are not Conan are probably going to die. Therefore, the enjoyment of these tales is in the telling, and in this it is very successful. Busiek tells the adventures beautifully, with a strong and poetic voice for the narration and an authentic feel to the dialogue of a bygone era (although this could come from Robert E Howard’s original stories).

The other half to this storytelling excellence is the stunning art of Nord: he draws a great Conan (powerful and noble), dynamic sword fights and beautiful women (although I can’t understand why they’re not allowed to be completely nude; so silly). He is also a good visual storyteller with the perfect style for these stories (I can understand why he drew the book for several years); the only slight qualm is that the colouring directly onto his pencils sometimes obscures the beauty and power of his pencils. This is highlighted by the inclusion at the end of this trade paperback of the three-page audition by Nord for the job of Conan artist (from a Busiek script designed to demonstrate a penciller’s ability to cope with all aspects of Conan stories) – Nord’s pencils are absolutely fantastic and I would have preferred to see his art inked to show them to their best at all times. However, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent book containing the adventures of the noble barbarian – after reading this, I can definitely see continual appeal for these pulse-pounding tales.

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From A Library: Grandville

Script, art and book design by Bryan Talbot

Even though I am European, I haven’t read a lot of what I consider European comics (specifically bande dessinée and Italian comics) – even though there is only a small stretch of water separating us, it’s not that easy to get your hands on them (except for Asterix and Tintin), and they’ve always seemed to be completely different to the sensibility of British comics (such as Eagle, 2000 AD or The Beano). Grandville seems to be a British version of those exotic European books, produced in their hundreds every year (on a trip to Brussels, I spent a happy hour just being in a shop that was covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of these graphic albums), and I mean that in a good way.

Grandville is a ‘scientific-romance thriller’ – containing elements of steam punk, alternate history and adventure. It just happens to occur in a world of anthropomorphised animals (which is not a problem for someone like me who is a huge fan of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai). The hero of the tale is Detective Inspector LeBrock (French for ‘The Badger’) of Scotland Yard, a powerfully built and capable badger with the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes. The setting is a world where the British lost the Napoleonic wars and France conquered Europe; for the past 200 years, Britain was a ‘small and unimportant country connected to the French empire by the Channel railway bridge’ that has recently gained its independence, becoming the Socialist Republic of Britain. The French empire is ruled from Grandville (Paris) by Emperor Napoleon XII, where there is a lot of Anglophobia after a terrorist attack occurred which had a similar scale to September 11.

LeBrock has been called in to investigate the death of a British diplomat, who was found in his home having seemingly committed suicide. Things are not what they appear, naturally, and soon LeBrock is on his way to Grandville accompanied by his sidekick, Detective Ratzi, and where LeBrock immediately finds himself in trouble as his investigations start to uncover a political conspiracy. And the trouble is violence – for a book full of animals that harks back to children’s stories (Rupert the Bear is an inspiration, according to Talbot, and makes a cameo in the town called ‘Nutwood’ where LeBrock’s investigation begins), the violence is bloody and vicious. It is no surprise that, along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Quentin Tarantino is one of Talbot’s influences – there is even a torture scene where an ear is cut off. This blood-spilling action and fruity language make for a compelling blend that contrasts with the furry setting – seeing LeBrock firing a massive machine gun with one hand and slaughtering lots of Frenchies is great stuff.

There is lots of referencing in the book, which adds to the appeal. In addition to Rupert, there is a character called Snowy Milou (Tintin’s dog was called Snowy in the English translation, Milou in the French), who refers to the Congo and the Blue Lotus; the only humans who exist (‘a hairless breed of chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angoulême’) look like they’ve been drawn in the style of Hergé; there’s a poster for Omaha the cat dancer at the Folies Bergère; there is even the priceless film reference pun, ‘Badgers? We don’t need no steenkin’ badgers!’, which is an indication of the humour Talbot employs throughout.

This is a beautiful book – Talbot’s clear line is exquisite and his sense of design and storytelling is impeccable. All the different animals look great and the action sequences are fantastic. The story is a thrilling mix of different genres – it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s romantic – and I love the alternate history that Talbot has created for himself. If I have one tiny complaint, it was the unnecessary death of the love interest, seemingly there just to provide LeBrock’s fury for the final violent section. It was the only bum note in an otherwise rip-roaring adventure yarn, and I look forward to the remaining books in the series (a second book is already out, Grandville Mon Amour, and there are three more planned).

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From A Library – The Sandman: The Dream Hunters

By Neil Gaiman and P Craig Russell

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was a very important book in my development as a comic book fan, but I never really kept up with any of the spin-offs or extras that came out after the series itself ended. I read the last Gaiman-written Sandman stories (Endless Nights) via a book from the library, and I never even read the original prose novella (with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano), or bothered to seek it out. I didn’t even know that the story had been adapted into a four-issue comic book series by P Craig Russell; when I saw it in the library, I had to pick it up because I was so surprised by its existence, and because Russell is a fantastic artist and adapter of other people’s work.

In the afterword, Gaiman says something pertinent to my reading this: ‘What I did not expect was the strange feeling that comes from reading a new Sandman comic. … It was magical.’ Not having read much of the other material, I came to this quite anew and it was exactly like reading a new Sandman comic, and it was magical. It is not a vital story about Morpheus – he is a supporting character in this – but it is an enchanting and exquisite tale, marrying Gaiman’s beautiful prose with Russell’s gorgeous art. Set in Japan sometime in the distant past, it tells of a Buddhist monk who looks after a small temple on the side of a mountain and a fox spirit that starts out trying to evict him (in a wager with a badger spirit), only for emotions to get involved and a plot by a Kyoto civil servant (who deals in magic) to kill him through dreams. It is a story of hubris, tragedy, love, sacrifice, revenge and, of course, dreams, and it leaves you both sad and happy in the way that a good Sandman comic can. There are appearances from the Three Witches, Cain and Abel, and Matthew the raven, and Morpheus appears in human form but also in the form of a large black fox, which looks absolutely fabulous.

The art is ridiculously beautiful – Russell talks about the three influences in this work: Japanese woodblock prints, European Art Noveau and, bizarrely, Disney – and it all shows in the precise detail and composition. A clear line, with visuals playing off each other from panel to panel, while some hark back to Japanese prints in the scene-setting panels (mountain vistas in tall vertical panels, or waves in the sea echoing Hokusai); then there is the playfulness of the fox and the badger and Morpheus-fox, or the charming facial expressions that speak volumes, which are then contrasted by the huge majesty of the strange and beautiful places the monk passes through to enter Dream’s palace. Russell has done his usual outstanding job, and I’m glad that he persuaded Gaiman to let him adapt the story into this comic book, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoyed the original Sandman series.

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