From A Library: The Wizard’s Tale

The Wizard's Tale

Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by David T Wenzel

It was a delightful surprise to find in the library this IDW reprint of the graphic novel from 1995 (it was one of the first publications from the Homage imprint of Wildstorm comics) – it is a very fine packaging of the material in a format that does the story and art justice. Because The Wizard’s Tale is a wonderful book: an utterly charming fairy tale with beautiful, exquisite and equally charming art, full of colourful and distinct characters plus tiny background details that bring the story to life.

Once upon a time … there was an evil wizard called Bafflerog Rumplewhisker, descended from a long line of evil wizards. Except he can’t quite get the hang of being evil, no matter how hard he tries – he attempts a storm spell over the village overlooked by his evil castle, only to bring them a nice rain to help them with their drought, even producing a rainbow at the end. Because of this, Lord Grimthorne of the Darksome Council comes to visit Rumplewhisker Keep to demand that Bafflerog finds The Book of Worse, which was hidden by Grumpwort, the toad who lives in the keep and whom Bafflerog calls friend, even though the toad is supposed to be his prisoner. If Bafflerog doesn’t find the book, Grimthorne will destroy the castle. The Book of Worse contains all the spells of all the evil wizards and would have tipped the balance in the final battle between the wizards of light and dark, until stolen by a young wizard of the light called Basil, who spirited it away before the dark wizards could find it. He was then turned into Grumpwort, but he never told anyone this; until now, providing Bafflerog with more details to help him on his quest. Grumpwort does this because Bafflerog is different from the other dark wizards – Grumpwort and Bafflerog are genuinely friends – and so points him in the direction of the book ‘four realities downward’, into a realm more familiar to readers …

The Wizard's Tale

I think that it’s universally accepted that Busiek is a talented storyteller across many genres, so I don’t have to lavish praise on the story. The hyperbole should be pointed in the direction of Wenzel’s art – I had never seen it before (he’s well known for an adaptation of The Hobbit) but it’s fantastic. The charming style perfectly depicts the fairy tale milieu but it’s not just this element that makes his artwork so impressive: the attention to detail and level of charm he brings to each panel without ever losing the narrative flow that makes reading it such a pleasure. Pages are crammed with tiny characters spilling out of the panel borders, something that adds to the magical dimension of the story but also reflects the fleeing nature of the little creatures as they try to hide from view by escaping the frame of artwork so that they can’t be observed. The artwork is meticulous yet warm, magical yet believable, entrancing yet clear – it creates a synthesis with the story and words that makes them all better.

This is a lovely book: warm, inspiring, delightful, enchanting and a joy from start to finish, with a lovely atmosphere throughout. Highly recommended.

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From A Library: JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers #1–4 by Kurt Busiek and George Perez

JLA/Avengers #1

My mainstream superhero obsession in my early years was the X-Men books, which meant that I grew up thinking that the Avengers and the Justice League of America were the uncool comic books of the previous generation. Therefore, I was never one of those fanboys for whom this was the ultimate comic book dream – a crossover between Marvel and DC’s big-hitter teams. Add to this (heresy alert), I’m not a fan of Perez’s art; I admire his talent but it doesn’t appeal to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to read this book and enjoy it.

Krona, an exiled Oan, is destroying universes in his quest for the ultimate truth. When he arrives in the Marvel universe, he meets the Grandmaster, an elder of the universe. A game is proposed to save universes. Cut to the DC universe: the JLA (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman in beard and partial armour, Plastic Man, Wally West Flash and Kyle Rayner Green Lantern) are taking down Terminus (with Hal Jordan Spectre on clean-up); in the Marvel universe, the Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Warbird, Wasp, Triathlon, She-Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Jack of Hearts, Vision, Yellowjacket) are fighting Starro. And these incidents are not isolated: Skrulls are attacking Thanagar; Lobo is attacking the Imperial Guard of the Shi’ar Empire; Flash uses Barry Allen’s treadmill to hop dimensions, losing contact with the Speed Force.

The JLA get a visit from the Watcher and the Grandmaster: a quest for 12 items, six from each universe, which must be assembled or ‘countless billions will die’. The team is split up in classic crossover style, sent to different parts of the Marvel universe (Latveria, Genosha, Manhattan), where they see a less wholesome Earth to the one they are used to. When they go to Monster Island to get the Ultimate Nullifier, the Avengers (now with Hawkeye) try to stop them; the JLA are unexpectedly returned to the DC universe, and Metron appears to the Avengers and tells them that they need to find the same items (from the Marvel universe: the Soul Gems, the Wand of Watoomb, the Casket of Ancient Winters, the Evil Eye, the Cosmic Cube; from the DC universe: the Medusa Mask, the Spear of Destiny, the Green Lantern Power Battery; the Orb of Ra, the Eternity Book, and the Bell/Wheel/Jar), and that the Avengers must obtain them before the JLA, unaware that they are watched by the Atom; Metron gives the Avengers a Mother Box, which they use to get to Metropolis. It is on.

Avengers/JLA #2

The next part is one of the best touches in this book: contrasting the two universes against each other by being viewed by teams from the other universes. The JLA are shocked by the realism (in their eyes, the horror) of the Marvel universe and the lack of help they think the Avengers have provided to their world. The Avengers are in turn amazed by cleanliness and the honoured treatment the DC universe gives its heroes (Quicksilver: ‘They have a museum devoted to a super-speedster. A museum!’). Tackling this as part of the story is a lovely way to see the differences between the two comic book publishers and the massive interconnected stories within, and it made me grin like a child. This carries into the meeting of the two teams, in a lovely double-page spread: the JLA floating on top, the Avengers grounded on the surface, i.e. the gods versus the mortals, with Hawkeye typically getting the best line: ‘Those losers – they’re nothing but a bunch of Squadron Supreme wanna-bes!’ Then Thor hits Superman with Mjolnir, and fanboys squee in delight.

The second issue is the fight between the teams, focusing on Captain America and Batman as they face each other – not a slugfest but testing each other out, sussing out their opponent, before Batman says, ‘It’s conceivable you could beat me, Avengers. But it would take a very long time.’, which is another in a line of choice moments – Busiek knows these characters well, having worked in both universes for a while (he was writing the Avengers at the time), and he knows to show these character moments amid the battles that are expected.

Many more heroes appear, may more locations are visited (Wakanda, Asgard, the Batcave, the JLA Watchtower, the Flash Museum, Paradise Island, the Blue Area of the Moon), even Apokolips – Darkseid has the Infinity Gauntlet but it doesn’t work in his reality, so he discards it – until the big rumble in the jungle (i.e. the Savage Land), with hero against hero, and Superman holding Mjolnir as Thor tries to hit him with it –the geek-out levels in this book are stratospheric – until Krona turns on the Grandmaster and Galactus and the universes dissolve …

JLA/Avengers #3

The third issues begins with the universes crossed – the shared history (JSA/Invaders crossovers), the JLA and Avengers are friends (except perhaps for the boisterous nature of the relationship between Hawkeye and Green Arrow). The only doubt in this scenario is found in Captain America and Superman – both characters are so strongly linked to their own universes that they can’t completely believe in this new reality, causing this shared universe to ripple to accommodate it. It is in these sections that Perez comes into his own – he is the crossover artist ne plus ultra, drawing hyper-detailed panels full of as many heroes and Easter eggs as can be humanly packed and rendered, but here he has a blast drawing the different members of the JLA and the Avengers in different incarnations and different costumes, taking characters from various timelines in the different universes and combining them with amusing repercussions. The level of geekery on display is thoroughly charming, with quick highlights of the fake history of their battles achieving particular heights, until Captain America and Superman face off, causing things to unravel. This leads to a fantastic double-page spread of the JLA and the Avengers being shown the universes as they should be – a circular ceiling view looking up at various snapshots of their respective histories; it’s the sort of thing only Perez would attempt and nail perfectly. Now, they team up to restore their universes, even if the reality might be harsh …

The team-up is smart and emotional, and the fight against Krona is as spectacular and as epic as the situation dictates – there are heroes from both universes popping in and out as Krona keeps shifting the universe, with various villains brought into hold off the heroes, and noble sacrifices are made in the effort to defeat Krona. I may think Perez is an old-school superhero artist whose style doesn’t appeal to me but even I can see that he’s put in an astounding job here – the level of detail and effort and sheer all-encompassing nature of the work of showing all the many, many heroes in different eras of the same character is a sight to behold. Busiek does a great job of providing not only a suitably huge story for these two teams to justify this crossover, but also an amazing amount of history and geek knowledge used in service of a good story with character moments and humour. I found this a genuinely good story, despite my reservations, and worthy of being the most recent crossover between Marvel and DC.

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From A Library: X-Club


X-Club #1–5 by Si Spurrier and Paul Davidson

My first experience of reading something by Spurrier (his novel, Contractsee my thoughts here) didn’t go well so it meant that I didn’t hunt out his work in comic books; however, I try not to let my experiences blinker me (with the exception of Jeph Loeb), so I thought I would give Spurrier another chance with this collection of a mini-series from 2011, about Dr Nemesis, Kavita Rao, Madison Jeffries and Danger, collectively known as X-Club.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised, although that could have been a reaction to my expectations coming in, mostly due to the wry sense of humour that permeates the book. The story is called ‘We Do Science!’ and the character descriptions on the third page set the tone (‘Magneto. Old. Powerful. Probably not evil. Doctor Nemesis. Science bastard.’), which is continued throughout with the constant ‘science snark’ from Dr Nemesis.

The story starts with the X-Men teaming up with Stratocorp to create the ‘first viable space elevator’ in the Atlantic Ocean. Things go awry (of course they do – this is an X-book, after all) when a protesting Atlantean goes beserk (Dr Nemesis: There is science to conduct … in the laboratory of violence.) and Danger returns to Utopia in a crazy freakout. In addition, the presence of Terrigen-242 in the area is causing mutations in sea creatures – this leads to the largest element of humour when ‘an echinodermic specimen’ chemically bonds to Nemesis’ head, acting as an ‘empathic starfish’ revealing his ‘inner monologue to the unworthy universe’. For example, to Rao he reveals, ‘I have often admired your shapely behind’; to Cyclops, ‘I wish my costume was as cool as yours’; to Jeffries, ‘I crave your friendship. Please comfort me’. Meanwhile, after escaping the depths of the ocean (where Stratocorp is, of course, revealed to be villainous because it’s a corporation), Jeffries can be seen riding a mutated hammerhead shark, shouting ‘Fly, my pretty! Fly me to explode justice on the crackling wings of science!’, while the starfish is singing Wagner (‘Kill the Wa-bit’). If you laugh at these, you’ll enjoy this book – I know I did.

The villain of the piece is a former Nazi eugenicist (always a good choice for a go-to bad guy in comic books) who tried to trap an extra-dimensional entity but failed, putting him a stasis field so that his consciousness vibrates across realities while the entity was trapped and impregnated Danger to save itself; now the deranged super-Nazi is trying to collapse dimensions to reshape history (it sounds even more ludicrous when I write it down). Therefore, Nemesis has Rao inject him with Terrigen-242 (‘I am become Experimentallo, Wierdking of Science!’) so he can fight the super-Nazi while Jeffries delivers Danger’s baby. Who says comic books aren’t as crazy as they were in the 1960s?

This type of story is what I expect from superhero comic books – crazy, violent, silly, funny, tongue firmly in cheek but staying true to itself. Spurrier seems to have a writing style similar to Warren Ellis (Nemesis is essentially a Ellisian character taken to the extreme), and that’s a good thing; he’s not as good as Ellis but I don’t think there are many people like Ellis so Spurrier shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I haven’t seen much of Davidson’s art before this but his style matches Spurrier’s story – it’s a little off-kilter and unpolished for my particular tastes, and a tonal shift from the Nick Bradshaw cover that adorns the collection, but he’s a competent storyteller, able to handle the uber-weirdness without too much difficulty and keep up with the facial expressions and timing necessary to sell the character humour. It helps that he’s got the same British sensibility as Spurrier, which infuses his work, and this is early in his career, so it’s not as tight as the work he’s producing now.

In summary: I haven’t forgiven Spurrier for Contract but I enjoyed this diverting tale of X-scientists in action.

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Book Review: Dark Detectives

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries
Edited by Stephen Jones
Illustrations by Randy Broecker
Published by Titan Books

I’m a big fan of the investigator of the supernatural element – see my previous blog posts about Mike Carey’s Felix Castor and Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt – so I was delighted to get the chance to read an anthology dedicated to the concept. In the extensive introduction by editor Stephen Jones, in which he details the origins of the dark detectives (from Dupin and Holmes through the psychic and occult investigators, including the wonderfully named Dr Silence), he doesn’t mention Castor or Pitt but he does list a bunch of stories that I now want to read, among them Simon Ark, a 2,000-year-old Coptic priest cursed at Christ’s crucifixion, and Lord Darcy, Investigator-in-Chief for the court of good King John and assisted by a forensic sorcerer. Fortunately, he does mention John Constantine, so I can forgive him. Jones also gets bonus points for including a primer on each character for every short story in the book, so you can jump in and not feel lost.

The stories in this anthology are presented in a loose chronology, so Jones advises not dipping in and out, especially with Kim Newman’s multi-part story written especially for the anthology, Seven Stars, which weaves in and out of the other stories at the appropriate era. The prologue starts in Egypt, with a real historical figure called Pai-net’em during the 10 biblical curses and the Jewel of the Seven Stars (a novel by Bram Stoker, from which Newman has borrowed bits, as he did more famously in the excellent Anno Dracula with Stoker’s more famous novel). Each successive story develops the narrative at different junctures in time and with a different character as the focus. The Mummy’s Heart is the next part of the story, starring Charles Beauregard (also in Anno Dracula, but this is a different timeline), a gentleman who works for the Diogenes Club; he is in the British Museum because of the Jewel of the Seven Stars, discovered in the Valley of the Sorcerer in the mummy of Pai-net’em the previous year but nine men have died since in connection with it. Now it has been stolen, and Mycroft Holmes has asked Beauregard to investigate. The next part of the story is The Magician and the Matinee Idol, a tale of Edwin Winthrop and Catriona Kaye (the former the lead character in The Bloody Red Baron), who have been employed by Beauregard to ensure that all traces of the Diogenes Club are expunged from the ‘photoplay’ of Sherlock Holmes being filmed in London and starring John Barrymore, by acting as ‘advisers’ to the film company. (Mycroft wasn’t happy that Watson had mentioned the club in print) In The Trouble with Barrymore, the third episode, our narrator is a nameless private investigator who is visited by Peter Lorre with a case involving John Barrymore’s corpse, which is now missing; others are after it, including Edwin Thorp and Geneviève Dieudonné, in a tale involving a prophecy of Nostradamus, zombies and a ritual involving ‘the White House’ (the reveal of the last made me laugh out loud in the middle of a commuter train). The fourth episode is The Biafran Bank Manager, a Richard Jeperson story – he’s a tall, thin, bony amnesiac in multi-coloured outfits who investigates the strange and the bizarre for the Diogenes Club. Jeperson is called to the West Country to see Edwin Winthrop, who is in trouble (Jeperson had been an assistant to Winthrop, who has retired from the ruling cabal), called by Catriona Kaye. There is a black human shape moving under the carpets of their home, and it is related to Winthrop’s use of the jewel to stop the War (the occult war that had used the Second World War for its own purpose) and the ramifications of that decision. Episode five is Mimsy, a Sally Rhodes story, who is a private investigator of darker worlds, tasked with finding Mimsy, who took the Seven Stars with her when she disappeared. The Dog Story is the sixth part, starring Jerome Rhodes, son of Sally, and set in 2026 (with some very interesting futuristic language – monad, stay-at-homes, meat-lives, gunmints, piedater), with Jerome being asked to find a ghost, specifically the terrorist-corps called Seven Stars, while dogs go crazy and attacking owners leading to an official cull … The final part is The Duel of Seven Stars, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (with a different surname to the equivalent in Newman’s Anno Dracula series), where the world has changed (The Plagues, The Wars, The Collapse, the boiling point of water is now 78°C, monsters coming from the sea, the end of electronic communications), and can only be saved by seven lives twice-lost …

The other short stories vary in length and style. Our Lady of Death by Peter Tremayne is about Sister Fidelma, the youngest daughter of the King of Ireland and a member of the Celtic church, who stops at a hostel due to a severe snowstorm where the innkeepers believe they are haunted by the ghost of the woman’s first husband. The story is easy to work out, and there are lots of Gaelic words and phrases that are then immediately explained, which is an odd way to imbue Irish language in the prose, and Fidelma is not an overly warm character, but it is an interesting tale.

The Horse of the Invisible by William Hope Hodgson is a Carnacki story about his visit to the Hisgins family in East Lancashire and the family legend where, if the first child is a girl, she would be haunted by a horse during her courtship. It’s a strange narrative, which tries to have its cake and eat it when it comes to the question of the supernatural, so comes off as a riff on Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Adventure of the Crawley Horror by Basil Cooper is a story of Solar Pons, the second most famous consulting detective in London, based in 7B Praed Street, with his chronicler Dr Lynden Parker and landlady Mrs Johnson; he has run-ins with Inspector Jamison of the Yard and with his brother Bancroft. If this sounds strangely familiar, then it’s because the Pons stories were written by August Derleth, a student at the University of Wisconsin who asked Conan Doyle if he could write Sherlock Holmes stories; Conan Doyle said no, so Derleth created his own pastiche, writing 68 stories in the process. In the late 1970s, Cooper was asked to revise the books, spending two years to fix the >3,000 factual and procedural errors, before being invited to continue Pons’ exploits. This means that the narrative follows the established formula – a letter, a visit to the detective, telling the reason for the visit (in this case, a ‘corpse figure’ coming from the Marsh around the rich miser’s manor, burning with a bluish fire). There’s a niece, a doctor, a drunk, a guest, a family secret, and a resolution – Copper writes in a clear, detailed style reminiscent of Conan Doyle but with humour as well.

Rouse Him Not by Manly Wade Wellman (a great name) is a John Thunstone story in which he investigates a circle in a yard with no grass in the back of beyond, linked to the Crett Marrowby sorcery case 200 years previously. Thunstone is an interesting character, with a silver blade forged a millennia ago by St Dunstan, and an old-fashioned chap.

De Marigny’s Clock by Brian Lumley is a Titus Crow story, who worked in the War Department to stop the occult forces of Hitler and then became an acknowledged expert on magics, antiquities, mythology and many other areas. This story sees his home invaded by two burglars in the middle of the night, who get more than they bargained for …

Someone Is Dead by R Chetwynt Hayes is a story about Francis St Clare and Frederica Masters – the world’s only practising psychic detective and his assistant, a gifted materialistic medium – in their first story, from 1974, a mix of horror and humour as they are called to a haunted home that was built on the site of a 17th-century prison …

Vultures Gather by Brian Mooney is a Reuben Calloway and Roderick Shea story – the former worked in the British Intelligence Corps and now investigates the occult while a university lecturer; the latter is an Irish priest with some psychic gifts. Calloway relates the time he visited the Yorkshire mansion on millionaire Sir Isaac Price, who asked Calloway for help – when Price dies, Calloway should investigate because Price believes he will be murdered. Twenty years later, Calloway and Shea return to the mansion after Price calls them; the next night, Price dies. Calloway doesn’t believe it was suicide …

Lost Souls by Clive Barker is a very short story about Harry Amour, New York private investigator of the occult who fights a war against demons, set at Christmas and involving a search for a demon, a pregnant woman and a theological assassin called Davrieux Marchetti.

The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence by Jay Russell is a Marty Burns story – Burns was a child actor in a biggish sitcom before becoming a minor heartthrob teen-idol, but bad films led to him becoming a low-rent private investigator in LA. It’s great opening line sums up the fun tale: ‘It started with a friendly game of strip Ouija; it ended in massive head trauma, a moderately broken heart and the pink taffeta dress that John Wayne was buried in.’

Bay Wolf by Neil Gaiman is a prose poem with a pun title (the main character is Laurence Talbot – the name of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman in the films – a lycanthropic PI) about a mythological monster, a creature calling itself Grand Al, eating beautiful young people on the beach in LA …

As with any anthology, this book is a mix of quality, style and content, but this is a very enjoyable collection with a clearly defined focus that allows for a range of adventures. The sign of a good anthology is wanting to read more stories by these authors in this genre: Dark Detectives succeeds on that measure and more. The diversity is rich, the styles are enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the narratives entertaining. Recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Notes On A Film – Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I felt sorry for Joss Whedon, the successful, talented, smart, funny, creatively satisfied man. A little bit. Not only did he have to follow up his own success by writing and directing the sequel to the third largest grossing film so far, but he also had to contend with the myriad of other factors involved in making a blockbuster film with a huge cast with huge stars that is also a lynchpin for the Marvel cinematic universe, the entertainment behemoth that has completely changed the way franchise films operate. And he also has to make a really good film in its own right. That’s a lot of pressure.

I needn’t have worried – Whedon is incredibly gifted, driven, capable man and he has proved it again with Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This is a film that gives everyone in its vast cast some quality moments, provides spectacle and action, finds time for character moments, introduces major new characters to the Avengers roster, and a new villain who is a serious threat (and highly entertaining as well), sets up bits for future Marvel films (a mention for Wakanda, setting up business for the next Thor film, not to mention the Infinity War stuff), and still finds time to be funny and quippy and jokey in that special Whedon fashion. In the words of Scott Kurtz’s PVP strip: Joss Whedon is our master now.

The film starts with a bang, as the Avengers chase down Baron Strucker in Sokovia (a non-specific European nation) to locate the sceptre used by Loki, in a great tracking scene to show the team in action and their abilities in sync, with a lovely slow-mo shot that’s the equivalent of a splash page of the team that made me smile like a loon. This opening section also introduces the superpowered twins, Pietro and Wanda, natives of Sokovia who want to make a difference and who hate Tony Stark and the Avengers – Wanda uses her ability to manipulate minds to affect Tony in the castle, showing him a vision that preys on his fears as a protector of the world. This is what causes him to use the artificial intelligence in the scepter’s gem to complete his Ultron global defense program without telling the rest of the Avengers (apart from Bruce Banner, who has reservations). After a celebration party in the Avengers’ headquarters (which is a great scene, with lots of people and lots of great dialogue and a brilliant scene of the other Avengers trying to lift Mjolnir [the look on Thor’s face when Captain America starts trying to lift it is priceless]), Ultron reveals himself and his desire to bring ‘peace in our time’ by eliminating humanity; he steals the sceptre, he recruits the twins, and steals some vibranium from Ulysses Klaue (a lovely performance from Andy Serkis – one word: ‘cuttlefish’) to upgrade his body before things get worse …

I really loved this film. It had everything I want from a superhero comic-book action movie. It has the interconnectivity of the Marvel universe, with appearances from the Falcon, War Machine, Dr Selvig, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, plus some nice cameos from other characters. It has great action scenes (such as the Hulkbuster versus the Hulk scene) that work within the context of the movie, but it also finds time to dwell on the characters – there’s nice depth for Hawkeye, back story for Black Widow and the development of her relationship with Bruce Banner, and the fleshing out of Pietro and Wanda. There is a good villain with a specific purpose in Ultron, wonderfully voiced by James Spader, who is the demented version of Tony Stark. (Ultron wasn’t what I expected – a different voice style, a different mentality – but it was all the better for it.) And the film is really funny – Whedon fills it with great quips, in the great tradition of comic books, but which work in the context of a film.

Whedon has a done a marvellous (pardon the pun) job – he handles the huge cast with a deftness and lightness of touch that belies how tough it is. He uses misdirection to surprise us, he uses emotion to power the story and the characters (when Hawkeye tells someone, ‘If you go outside, you’re an Avenger’, it brought a lump to my throat), he understands and communicates his understanding of the essence of what it means to be an Avenger, and the use of Mjolnir to prove worthiness is a brilliant moment. If I have to mention something to partially negate all this praise, I found the visualisation of the Vision a little strange – the comic-book version I’m used to has very smooth facial features, more synthetic and less human, whereas this is obviously the wonderful Paul Bethany with some things on his face. I guess I’ll get used to it the more I watch it (and I will be rewatching it plenty), but it seemed less genuine than the rest of the other Avengers.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning the overload of superhero comic book movies and the large slate of films with dates announced well in advance. But, seriously, if action-blockbuster comic-book movies are going to be of this quality, this entertaining, this fun, this enjoyable – where’s the problem?

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Comic Book Review – Elric Volume 1: Elric Of Melniboné

The Michael Moorcock Library Volume 1: Elric Of Melniboné

The Michael Moorcock Library
Elric created by Michael Moorcoock
Script and adaptation by Roy Thomas
Art by Michael T Gilbert and P Craig Russell
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
Original editor: Michael Friedrich
Collection edited by Tom Williams
Published by Titan Comics

Originally published in 1983/1984 by Pacific Comics, these six issues adapting the first Elric novel (Elric of Melniboné) have been enhanced and re-edited for this new hardcover collection, and make an interesting companion piece to the latest adaptation of the same material (the second volume of which I reviewed here). It is a testament to the strength of the original material that the 30 years since this adaptation hasn’t seen an effect on the story – it is more about the execution of the adaptation and what it says about the time in which it was created.

These comics stick closely to the novel, which sees emperor Elric of Melniboné betrayed by his crazy cousin Yyrkoon and Elric’s quest to save his beloved Cymoril from Yyrkoon, and does a grand job of evoking the spirit of the novel in both narration and art. Roy Thomas was the man who brought sword and sorcery to Marvel comics with his run on Conan the Barbarian, so he was a natural choice to adapt the book. His style matches Moorcock’s prose and dialogue, of which there were naturally more in comic books from 30 years ago, but it doesn’t affect the storytelling and seems apposite to the genre.

The most intriguing aspect, appropriately, is the art. The art is by Gilbert and Russell, but the collaboration is a fluid one – the first three issue credits have pencils and colours by Gilbert, and layouts, inks and colours by Russell, but the order is swapped around; the last three issues have ‘art & colours’ by both but with the order swapping each issue. There are some pages that feel more Russell than Gilbert – particularly the last third of the first issue, with the full page being used to tell the story with few other panels and art nouveau touches to the panel design – but it is difficult to see where one artist ends and the other begins. I’m more used to Russell’s art from his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and less used to Gilbert’s, whose Mr Monster stories are the only work that I’ve read; however, his style here is very different to what I remember of the Mr Monster stories. The fusion between the two produces a style that echoes what I consider an art style of the 1970s – elaborate, ornate, gothic, arch – and very different from the style common in superhero books from that time. There are times where the characters are grotesque, such as Yyrkoon and Dr. Jest the torturer, with strange close-up panels and the violence of the battle scenes. Then, there are times where art takes on an artistic beauty, large panels beautifully drawn to illustrate a small moment in time, or where the detail is in the composition and framing. The colours can veer into the slightly garish at times – strange pinks and yellows and greens that seem harsh on the eye, so much so that the limited drab palette of the chapter set in the plane of dimension that contains the city of Ameeron is something of a relief (although Rackhir the Red Archer’s costume stands out somewhat).

As a fan of Chris Claremont’s original run on The Uncanny X-Men, I was delighted to see in these comic books the lettering of Orzechowski – his ability to squeeze in many balloons of dialogue and narration into beautiful artwork, honed by years of working with the notoriously verbose Claremont, is put to good use here and helps to make the book an enjoyable read. The art of lettering is a little different nowadays, with computer fonts and the ability to change things more easily, so it’s a joy to see a gifted professional working in the old-fashioned style doing a marvellous job of making the lettering an unobtrusive part of the artwork.

This collection is an interesting artefact of a different time – Pacific Comics was one of the first publishers to back creator-owned work, although liquidation of the company would occur later in 1984 after the final original issue of Elric Of Melniboné was published, and this adaptation can be seen as part of the early wave of independent comic books that didn’t have to adhere to the Comics Code Authority (there is some nudity and the aforementioned battles are quite bloody) and which would pave the way for books in the mid-1980s that turned the industry around. If you’re a fan of Moorcock, Elric or the art of Russell and Gilbert, this is a book that you’ll want as part of your collection; for others, it’s an intriguing curio and cultural document.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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Comic Book Review – Elric Volume 2: Stormbringer

Elric volume 2: Stormbringer

Elric created by Michael Moorcock
Written by Julien Blondel & Jean-Luc Cano (based on the novel by Michael Moorcock)
Art by Julien Telo, Robin Recht, Didier Poli
Colours by Robin Recht, Jean Bastide & Scarlett Smulkowski
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Letters by Gabriela Houston
Published by Titan Comics

I always feel in adequate in my geek qualifications when I admit that I haven’t read much Moorcock; I’ve read more by authors who have named him as a specific influence (Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, who provides an excellent foreword to this book). I don’t know if it’s an issue of timing – if I’d been born 10 years earlier, perhaps, or discovered collected editions in the library when I was a teen, I might have been a convert to the church of Moorcock. However, I am aware of his stature in the field and the fondness and respect with which the stories of Elric of Melniboné are held by people better read than me, which is why I was eager to try this book.

This 64-page hardcover continues with the adaptation of the Elric novels, and is the second in the series so far. The book provides enough context in two paragraphs to bring the reader up to speed (although, in contrast to my opening paragraph, I have actually read this previously in prose form, so I was aware of the story so far anyway). Elric is the emperor of ancient Melniboné, an albino with pink eyes, ruling from the ruby throne in Imrryr, the dreaming city. However, his rule is threatened by his traitorous cousin, Yyrkoon, who has kidnapped Elric’s queen, Cymoril. Angry and desperate, Elric has called upon Arioch, the Lord of Chaos, to aid him in his quest to find Cymoril and punish Yyrkoon. But calling on a Lord of Chaos, by definition, will not go smoothly …

Elric volume 2: Stormbringer interior art

This instalment of the saga sees Elric make his bargain with Arioch; enlist the aid of Straasha, king of the seas; journey on the Ship Which Sails Over Land And Sea; have an encounter with Grome, king of the earth; fight Yyrkoon; and realise the nature of his fate is entwined with the dark sword, Stormbringer. It is easy to see why Moorcock is revered as an author of fantasy and science fiction – this story is the stuff of legends but told in a fresh and invigorating fashion, and his ‘fate-harrowed icon’ (a delightful turn of phrase from Moore in the foreword) is a rich and fascinating tragic figure. The wonderful names (Dyvim Tvar, Vaarda’sh, Dhoz-Kam), the playing with mythology, the broad tapestry filled with details – there is a reason why these stories have been adapted repeatedly in comic books and why they resonate with readers.

Another interesting aspect is described by Moore (he’s a smart chap – he’ll go far) when he talks about how we the readers change but Elric does not – the character remains the same but the way we see him does not. I can easily imagine how this story would captivate a teenage version of me, with the angst and the torment and the sacrifice perfectly encapsulating my adolescent mindset. As a man who is older, if not wiser, I see sadness and giving into fate and love blindness that interfere with duty, and I can even see an all-consuming selfishness that causes me to despair a little. In a way, this interpretation by a French creative team seems to capture all of that at the same time, as if it is in sync with the Gallic temperament (as least as I understand it from watching French movies) – the belief in love conquering all yet the inevitable betrayal for reasons that seem noble somehow resonates more keenly through a French perspective.
Elric volume 2: Stormbringer interior art
This richness of interpretation also continues through to the art – it is dark and angry yet beautiful and tragic, mixing light and shadow to tell the story, contrasting the colour of Elric’s skin and eyes with the palette of black and reds that dominate. Elric is a powerful figure, powerful yet haunted, philosophical yet a force of nature. If a reinterpretation of the eternal champion in comic-book form is done, then the art must be something worthwhile or it is an exercise in futility, but the art here is definitely worth the adaptation. If anything, it makes me want for more than the 64 pages of story here – I know it is the way of bande dessinée to have these smaller volumes coming out more regularly, but it’s not enough for someone like me used to trade paperbacks of double the size. Moorcock has declared this as his favourite Elric adaptation thus far, Alan Moore agrees with him; I’m not foolish enough to disagree with them. Bring on the next volume.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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From A Library: iZombie

iZombie TP1

Created/written by Chris Roberson & created/drawn by Michel Allred
iZombie: Dead to the World (iZombie #1–5 and part of The House of Mystery Halloween Annual #1)
iZombie: uVampire (iZombie #6–12 and The House of Mystery Halloween Annual #2)
iZombie: Six Feet Under and Rising (iZombie #13–18)
iZombie: Repossession (iZombie #19–28)

Now that iZombie has premiered on television, it seemed a good time to talk about the books from which the show has been adapted. The concept behind iZombie appeals to me – I bought the first issue (bargain priced at 99 cents) – because the main characters are a zombie (Gwen) who lives in a cemetery and works as a gravedigger, a ghost (Ellie, who died in the 1960s) who is her best friend, and a werewolf (well, a were-terrier, whose name is Scott but he gets called Spot), who live in a town (Eugene, Oregon) where vampires run a paintball camp, and where Gwen gains the memory of the dead person when she eats the brain. That’s the sort of set-up that will get me interested. However, the execution never quite grabbed me in that first issue, so I only got round to reading the book through the generosity of libraries.

iZombie TP2

There is more to the book than just the central hook – Roberson has worked out his own reasons for the folklore of the individual creatures, which involves the multiple types of souls that the Egyptians believed in being responsible for different varieties of mythical creatures. Roberson’s version has two souls – an oversoul and an undersoul: the oversoul is in the brain, the undersoul is in the heart, referring to the conscious and unconscious mind, respectively. A bodiless oversoul is a ghost; a bodiless undersoul is a poltergeist; a vampire is when the oversoul remains in the body; a zombie is when the undersoul remains in the body; a bodiless soul can infect a living body, so an animal undersoul infection can lead to a werewolf; a bodiless oversoul can infect the living, which is a possession. Because of all these types, there is obviously an organisation that hunts these monsters: the Corporis Fossorii, who have come in contact with John Amon, the ‘mummy’ who explains all of this to Gwen.

The first volume is all set-up, but this continues into the second trade paperback with the ‘origin’ of Spot the were-terrier and how the oversoul of his grandfather got into the body of a chimpanzee. Then there is the burgeoning relationship between Gwen and Horatio, a hunter in the Corporis Fossorii, the introduction of a Frankenstein’s Bride (Galatea, known to Amon, who Roberson describes as ‘the creation of an alchemist in seventeenth century [sic] Germany’), and the back story of Ellie the ghost, expanding this little universe that Roberson has created. The third volume sees the introduction of the Dead Presidents, who are named after former presidents but are a zombie, a were-cat and a disembodied entity, led by Zombie Lincoln. Comics! This volume also has some of the sloppiest knowledge-dropping in the series – Galatea goes to talk to Gwen but runs off when Ellie tells her about all the zombies in the catacombs but Galatea somehow drops a photograph of Amon and Gwen from when Gwen was still alive, which is found by Ellie – but plots have to be fed, I suppose.

iZombie TP3

We learn that Eugene is a place where the walls between the worlds are thinner and that something is going to break through soon, something which Amon wants to stop. Things are complicated by the arrival of the Dead Presidents and the Corporis Fossorii in Eugene for the zombie outbreak, plus Horatio’s partner in the Fossorii announces that Gwen is a zombie. Gwen’s brother is possessed by a revenant who used to live in the writer/artist of the comic book character The Phantasm. And then Gwen touches Amon and finds out that she knew Amon before: he skilled herself because Amon asked her to save the world.

The huge fourth trade paperback, collecting the final 10 issues, sees the zombie invasion in full effect, with the army brought in to try to contain it, and the build-up to the return of Xitalu (a giant Lovecraftian-type monster), who will consume the earth. There’s a lot going on in this final storyline, with sacrifices and kidnaps and possessions and natives of higher dimensions, but it feels rather rushed, making you wonder if Roberson was trying to fit everything in before the book was stopped.

iZombie TP4

I thought that iZombie was an interesting book with an interesting take on the classic film monsters, with a vibrancy enhanced by the use of real places in Eugene. It was also positive to have a female lead character, still rarer than it should be. I didn’t think that the book completely gelled – the idea and the characters were interesting, but the entirety of the series never seemed to fuse and come to life (if you’ll pardon the pun). The other problem I have is with the art – I’m not a fan of Allred’s pop-art style. I can see that he is a good artist who knows how to tell a story and has a quirky and engaging style, but it’s never worked for me (I always thought that his art in X-Statix was rather ugly). It is a good choice for the book because it counters the ghoulish nature of the creatures involved by presenting them in a colourful and non-threatening manner, but it left me cold and I know that’s my issue. In fact, I preferred the fill-in artists (J Bone and Jim Rugg), which is the reverse of how I usually feel about a book – the original artist is the defining influence on the art style and representation of the comic book.

Despite my reservations about the book, which I mostly enjoyed, I hope that the TV show does well – it seems to be a different thing, going for a police procedural with Gwen as the equivalent of a psychic with her brain-digested memories, and none of the other characters from the comic book, which is a shame because it would have been nice to see the actual comic book on screen – but Veronica Mars was a great show, so I trust Rob Thomas enough to oversee it. I hope we get to see it in the UK, and I hope that it sees some interest in the book (even if Roberson did burn his bridges with DC).

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Comic Book Shops: Bromley

It’s been a while since I’ve documented visits to comic book shops in London (and elsewhere), but I have recently become a resident of south-east London, so it was a pleasant surprise to find not one but two comic book shops in the general area. The two shops provide a contrast in the style and approach towards selling comic books to the public in the 21st century, so I thought I would write about them together.

Piranha Comics

I’ll tackle them in geographic order, from north to south: Piranha Comics is at the north end of Bromley high street, next to the Empire cinema – it has a nice shop front, a good display window, a funky logo and typeface, and generally looks modern. It is an open and friendly comic book shop, and I spent a good bit of time chatting with the chap running the shop – I guess that approaching customers is standard practice, as he asked about my tastes so that he could recommend things I might like, but the chat became more wide-ranging than that when he couldn’t point me towards something I didn’t already know about. We talked about various creators and their work and the different comic book universes (I felt sorry for my girlfriend, who felt like a third wheel, but unfortunately I was enjoying myself …), so I hope we didn’t geek out any other customers in the shop.

Because it is a modern comic book shop, Piranha Comics has merchandise but the emphasis was definitely on comic books – there were lots of trade paperbacks/hardcover collections, a large wall of new comic books, various collected sets of comic books on the shelf in the back next to the Superman statue. The variety was good, and it felt like a proper comic book shop (it compared favourably to my personal favourite, Gosh!) and it was friendly, a good size, welcoming and pleasant. It also acts as host to a regular Magic the Gathering evening, which was good to see even if I don’t have any interest in it. Piranha Comics has a good website (although the blog link doesn’t have any entries), a Facebook page that is well populated and well visited, and there is also a Twitter account for the shop – this level of social media presence should be standard for a retailer nowadays, but it’s good to see it done well in addition to serving the customers in the shop.

Time Trek shop

At the south end of the high street, nearer to Bromley South station and the larger shopping centres, is Time Trek, which is very different. It is a small shop, squeezed between a barber and a Wilko; the shop display is full of a wide range of merchandise, and it is rather cramped inside. The comic books are organised by publisher, crammed along the right wall as you walk into the shop; the range is impressive, with a lot of independent publishers included, but the comic books all overlap each other and it feels a little chaotic. There are also trade paperbacks and hardcover collections, as well as comic book sets, although not as much as Piranha. On the left, there is a centre section of merchandise, and then there is even more merchandise around the other side (there is only enough room for one person to walk down the aisles, which means you have to stand in the alcove at the back to let someone pass). The type of items on sale tend towards the popular stuff, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who (for example, I remember a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver pizza cutter), although it does cover the full geek range of sci-fi and fantasy.

As I entered the shop, the man behind the counter (who I think is the owner – you can see him in the photographs accompanying this piece in a local newspaper from last year, which I think was referring to the 25th anniversary of the shop) asked me if I was all right and then said that the shop was very quiet that day – he said that it was usually busier; it was a Saturday, so I hope he was right. The shop felt a little dated – the shop front hasn’t been changed in years (it still has an 081 phone number on top – see my photograph) – and it has a static page for its website, with no other social media, indicating an old-fashioned approach to retailing. However, there is obvious love for comic books and sci-fi, such as a ‘recommended’ graphic novel on the cash desk (when I was there, it was the first volume of Rat Queens), and the owner must be doing something right if the shop is still in business after 25 years.

Bromley: a town centre with two very different comic book shops. The choice is yours.

[EDIT as of 2016: Time Trek is now closed, after the untimely death of the owner – the details can be found in this article at News Shopper.]

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Comic Book Review: Kick-Ass 3

Kick-Ass 3 collection cover

Kick-Ass 3 #1–8
Written by Mark Millar
Pencils by John Romita Jr
Inks by Tom Palmer
Colours by Dean White with Michael Kelleher
Letters by Chris Eliopoulos
Edited by Jennifer Lee
Published by Titan Books

After the events of Kick-Ass 2 (the comic book), Mindy McCready, aka Hit-Girl, is in prison and waiting to be sprung by Dave Lizewski, aka Kick-Ass. She has left him plans and money and her headquarters, but Dave and the rest of the former crime-fighting team called Justice Forever are a ‘bunch of goddamn pussies’ (to quote Mindy). This means that, six months later, Mindy is still in prison and the headquarters are being used by a new hero, The Juicer, as his apartment, much to the annoyance of Dave, who now has a job at a fast-food place and rents a place in Hoboken.

After getting mugged (which leads to him getting a girlfriend), Dave continues to plan Mindy’s escape – she is now in solitary and running the prison from her cell while trying her own escapes – and taking on the new head of the New York mob, Rocco Genovese, who plans to build a supermob of all the criminal gangs on the east coast. Meanwhile, Rocco has arranged the release from prison of his nephew, Chris, aka The Mother-Fucker, formerly The Red Mist, but Rocco is alienating subordinates with his extreme approach to running the organisation. Events are leading to the inevitable showdown between all parties, in a violent and explosive fashion.

To enjoy this book, you have to suspend your disbelief like you’ve never suspended it before. Despite the premise that this is a ‘real-life’ superhero story, Kick-Ass 3 is very much a superhero comic book with superhero comic book rules and superhero comic book reality. The only difference is that it is set in a world where all our comic books and comic book movies exist, so that all frames of reference relate to them: Dave posing like Bruce Wayne brooding over the grave of his parents (while his friend Todd photographs him); Dave wanting to burst into the mafia meeting like the scene in Batman: Year One; there’s even a panel that’s a reference to the famous splash page with the costume in a dustbin from Amazing Spider-Man #50 from 1967. Films are another reference point, such as Dave escaping gangsters by lying on the road and then hauling himself underneath a truck that drives over him, with the other characters referencing the fact it looked like Indiana Jones, so you can never completely believe that this book is supposed to be ‘reality’.

An aside: pop-culture references are the mainstay of Millar’s work – all of it is swamped in time-specific mentions of pop culture: this book namechecks Game of Thrones, Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, Angry Birds, The Wire, Transformers 3, the CBR forums, the Borg, Harry Potter, ‘a shape-shifting Skrull’, the Princess Diana movie, the movie Commando; there is even a Shakespeare bust for entry to the Hit-Cave. However, now Millar can even reference himself: there’s a line in the book, ‘This is Justice Forever’s Civil War …’, as well tying in this book to the rest of his Millarworld books (Mindy reading Jupiter’s Legacy and Supercrooks comics, watching Superior films, a reference to Nemesis).

That’s the thing about this book: it is the fever dream of a comic book nerd who grew up loving and consuming comic books, and has now made his living out of his lifelong obsession. He is also mocking himself and people like him who devote themselves to comic books (the finale sees Dave berating himself for his comic-book obsession: ‘fucking comic books’, ‘What a waste of a life’, ‘all this useless, pointless superhero information’, before having a rather trite dream sequence of his parents that reaffirms his love of comic books and helps him out), while at the same time giving the main characters a happy ending because faith in comic books deserves to be rewarded (even his friend Todd survives, even though all other members of Justice Forever are slaughtered).

As long as you can keep this in mind while reading this book, you can find things to enjoy: the ridiculously over-the-top violence, the exciting finale of the last issue, a total commitment to the craziness of the world in which the characters live. Millar knows how to craft a story and Romita Jr knows how to illustrate one, even if his children have a slight oddness to their physiques (a geeky aside: you could make a connection between this book and the original ‘world outside your window’ superhero universe of Marvel’s New Universe, where the superheroes reference our comic books, via Romita Jr’s art on the lead title in that comics line, Starbrand, although I might be stretching it a bit; his work in this book isn’t like the smoother lines of his artwork back then, or even his Daredevil work with Ann Nocenti, the milieu of which has more in common with Kick-Ass, with the emphasis on organised criminal gangs and the colourful costumed characters thrown into the mix). I still find it odd seeing Romita Jr drawing teenagers having sex or a teenage girl slicing off the top half of a gangster’s head with a samurai sword, but that’s just because I’ve seen his artwork on mainstream comic books for 30 years; he seems to be enjoying himself while drawing this crazy violence, and he hasn’t lost his storytelling skills in the change from PG to R.

Kick-Ass 3 sees a fitting end to the trilogy (well, four books with the Hit-Girl mini-series acting as a bridging book between Kick-Ass and Kick-Ass 2), in keeping with the excessively violent tone and the wish-fulfilment story of a teenage boy who loved comics and thought he could become like his heroes by putting on a costume and doing some press-ups, and the teenage girl who’d been raised to be a homicidal vigilante. It’s exactly the sort of story that fits with modern comic books, and it does it with gusto and skill. Personally, I didn’t like it and wouldn’t recommend it, but I can see its value.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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