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Monday, February 19, 2018

Grandville: Force Majeure

By Brian Talbot

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (November 14 2017)

Hardcover 176 pages

Finished 2/18/2017

Amazon Listing 

          Continuing with my current theme of reading graphic novels of worlds filled with anthropomorphic animals we come to Grandville: Force Majeure, the fifth and, unfortunately, last book in the series. The author states that essentially each of the pages simply take too long to produce and five excellent books surrounding this character is nothing to be ashamed of. He further states that he feels the art and story are the strongest so far and has decided to go out while on top.
          For those who don’t know, the world of Grandville is an alternate history steampunk setting where Napoleon was not defeated at Waterloo and went on to dominate Europe. The only recent break in this was in England, which won its independence after many decades of guerrilla warfare. Grandville is a nickname for Paris which is the cultural, economic, and political center of the world. The various animals races are not commented upon and, like all such worlds, one simply has to accept them. The main character is Detective Inspector Archibald Le Brock, a badger from a working class background who has risen up the ranks through brilliance and determination. A violent Wind in the Willows.

          This is a very dense book. A lot of ins and outs, flashbacks, take backs, explanations in the old Sherlock Holmes style (re-read some of the original stories they often have large portions of Holmes explaining his actions from earlier in the story). This is fitting as we are introduced to Le Brock’s mentor, Hawksmoor (a Holmes analog) and are treated to more of the detective’s history. The action escalates with the release from prison of the gangster Cray, the brother of the man who murdered Le Brock’s wife. This starts an avalanche of murder and mayhem which leads to Le Brock having to match wits against the Napoleon of Crime in Grandville, master of all of the Paris gangs.  This one is not for the kids.
          Even better than the story is the incredible artwork. Full color and glossy, the detail given to each of the various animal species is incredible. The author doesn’t stick to the normal array of animals as do most who create such worlds. He has shellfish, crabs, slugs, badgers, an extraordinary number of different bird, lizard, dog types, and even a T-Rex. There are also a few nods to the anthropomorphized characters from other series about: Blacksad, Howard the Duck, The Bearenstein Bears, Donald Duck, and a few others that have slipped my memory.

          I’m going to miss this series. The dialog, the characters, the world in general, despite being all animal heads, felt very real. It takes a true master of storytelling to allow a reader to effortlessly look past the more bizarre elements of the story and become swept away in this fiction. He did before with Luther Arkwright and has succeeded again with Grandville. And with both the author always leaves me wanting more.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Spy Seal: The Corten-Steel Phoenix (Graphic Novel)

By Rich Tommaso 

Publisher: Image Comics (January 30, 2018). 

Softcover, 96 pages. 

Finished 2/14/2018

Amazon Listing 

          This is a fun book about a world with anthropomorphic animals in a Cold War setting. As you can guess, the main character is s seal who is inevitably drawn into a world of spies, codes, murder, and mayhem. Malcom, the seal, is recruited into MI-6 after preventing one assassination and accidentally causing the death of another agent. He is quickly trained and, still somewhat naive, goes on a European tour to track down what seems to be a collection of former spies selling secrets through art galleries.

          The action is somewhat surreal, just one step removed from reality, the said assassination happens during a dancer performance where the agents are on stage and attempt the murder mid-way through their dance. The charm of this book is how it is played absolutely straight. All the odd elements, the art, the mid-air disasters are taken in stride by the characters as if this was another day at the office. Rabbits blowing up art exhibits, okay. Secret agent is a phoenix so he keeps coming back from the dead, no problem. Fell out the back of a speeding train and down a ravine with only scrape and bruises, well that happens.

          It feels like a Tin Tin book. I suppose this was deliberate, the layout, the clean line art, the coloring, even the size of the book all match the Tin Tin style. If Herge decided to adapt a James Bond novel in his own style this would be the result. The author, Rich Tommaso, always is doing something different with each work. If you remember he authored the cult hits Clover Honey and  The Horror of Collier County, then moved on to the biographical piece Satchel Paige, then the touching story of Pete and Miriam. And here again we have a departure, a wonderful one. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Amazing Cynicalman Vol. II (Graphic Novel)

By Matt Feazell

Publisher: Not Available Books (2013)

Softcover, 153 pages

Finished 2/13/2018

Publisher's Site Listing

I found this under a pile of books in a comic shop in Charlotte, N.C. and it took me quite back. I’ve run across Cynicalman and his counterpart Antisocialman before. Most notably as a feature in a one-shot indie comic called Czar Chasm. It caught my eye because the cartoonist seemed to be doing the exact opposite of everyone else in the story, putting his best foot forward. Among the various comic art styles was this little stick figure story, an exercise in absolute minimalism, that succeeded more than any of the others, as it was the only strip I can remember (with the exception of Geriatric Man).

Feazell’s work has been mentioned in Scott Morse’s Understanding Comics and features on his chart of artistic styles as the iconic elements taken to the most extreme degree. I used to constantly run across his work in mini-comic form (most of which are impossible to get) in various comic convention, but now he has completely migrated to the web.
As for the actual content, the strips in this book are done in a daily strip format with a set-up and punchline ala Beetle Bailey or what-have-you. Most surround Cynicalman as he works for the Board of Superheroes and the various odd characters that inhabit the stick-figure world: Lizard Girl, Captain Videotape, Stupid Boy, etc. As for the content, it ranges from the amusing at best, to the groan inducing pun at worst. I enjoyed his work more when there was a longer story attached, it seemed more in line with his particular talents. Some of these strips are painful.

The art? What can I tell you, its stick figures. You either can accept it or don’t read. I will say Feazell is the master of giving stick figure characters personality with only a squiggle or a slanted line. Also in 2012, he produced a 90 minute live-action film based around the Cynicalman comic. I have not idea if it’s any good, but I’m including the trailer on Youtube for those who are interested.

I’m not including the Amazon listing for this one as the prices on it are ridiculous. The author’s direct website has much more reasonable rates for the products, plus new strips if you just want to browse. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Jazz Age Chronicles: The Case of the Beguiling Baroness (Graphic Novel)

By Ted Slampyak 

Publisher: Caliber Press (1991)

Softcover 140 pages 

Finished 2/22/2018

Amazon Listing 

          Now here’s another piece of near-forgotten comic history for you 80s comic buffs, Jazz Age Chronicles. This came during the comic renaissance when many talents, who might otherwise have been unknown, found havens in smaller comic publishers. Such is the case here.
          The story set in the 1920s teams up Harvard professor Dr. Clifton Jennings and scruffy private eye Ace Mifflin in a twisty story over the sale of an evil arcane artifact that turns into a bad case of murder...and there’s a vampire. Obviously a lot of research went into making sure this comic looked and sounded right. The dialogue contained a lot of obscure slang from the era (“sheiks” for guys, “shebas” for gals) and there was not an anachronism among the dress styles, architecture, or vehicles from what I could see.

          While well put together and wonderfully illustrated, the story itself feels tired. A collection of cobbled together cliches. The university professor archaeologist, the gruff private eye, his faithful secretary who stays with him even though he’s always late with her check, the supernatural elements in the 20s ala Lovecraft. I didn’t see that much originality here. Maybe it got better as the series went on and I would definitely read more if I could find them cheap enough.
          It was originally published by E. F. Graphics, a house so small I literally cannot find any information about them except that they apparently once existed, but quickly folded. It was then picked up by Caliber Comics and ran for 9 issues. This collects the first three of them and several short stories, both illustrated and prose, starring one of the main characters. Caliber Comics (restarted in 2012 as Caliber Press) is the company who brought us Dead World - the original zombie comic book and far superior to The Walking Dead. And such classic as Baker Street, Kabuki, Renfield (Which is Dracula as told from Renfield’s point of view), Nowheresville, and Brian Michael Bendis’s first works Fire, A.K.A. Goldfish and Jinx.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Thieves' World vol 6 (Graphic Novel)

By Robert Asprin, Lynn Abbey, & art by Time Sale

Publisher: Starblaze Graphics (1987)

Softcover 64 pages

Finished 2/9/2018

Mile High Comics Listing

       This is an adaptation of several stories from the Thieves’ World shared fantasy setting. There have been at least twenty five novels and short story collections in the series, various board game and rpg spin-offs and this collection of comics. Beginning in 1978, this was the first in a number of shared universe series along the line of Wild Cards, The Man/Kzin War and, my favorite, The Damned Saga or Heroes in Hell.
          The stories presented here are “The Vivisectionist” by Andrew J. Offutt, about a man who, dum dum duuuummm, is a vivisectionist is gutting random people he captures for fun; and “The Rhinoceros and the Unicorn” by Diana L. Paxton, about a man who paints a picture for the shifting wizard, Enas Yorl, and is granted the ability to paint a person’s soul. Both of these were originally published in the third anthology Shadows Of Sanctuary.  The last is an original piece done for the series called “Arno the Nose” about a retired thief that can sniff out and destroy magical wards, who is coerced into one last job, but he insists on bringing his newborn baby along.

          All three stories are told in a staggered account, a little piece at a time is revealed in each tale before moving onto another story, giving the impression that they are all happening simultaneously. This is not how they are depicted in their original format, but adds a nice touch in my opinion.  The art masterfully plays with shadow and light adding the needed element to the dying city of Sanctuary and its derelict denizens.

          Now the internet will have you believe that these books are rare and charge astronomical fees, but I keep running into them in the bargain bins of comic stores and the dusty shelves of second hand book shops. So look there. I picked up this volume for $2, not 60 like some places are charging.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Good-Bye and Other Stories (Graphic Novel)

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi 

Publisher: Catalan Communications (January 1, 1988) 

Softcover 118 pages

Finished 2/8/2018

Amazon Listing 

          This is a collection of nine short stories from manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.  These are not the types of tales you might of upon hearing the word manga. No giant robots, psychic monsters, or sorcerer powers here. These are stories of regular people trying to cope with real problem in then-modern Japanese society. Still they aren't boring. No even really for kids. They tackle some adult issues such as abortion, infidelity, prostitution, sexual dysfunction, pimping, and virginity.
          The style here is a traditional Japanese one from the 1960s and 70s before the anime version (big eyes, small mouth) began to dominate the export medium for manga. While the characters are not explicitly Japanese looking, they are done in a bigfoot style with finer shading. It’s almost old fashioned, but still looks great, perfectly blending in with the story material. Though it is a little distorted as the original Japanese printing was of a much smaller scale, but I barely noticed the differences.

Catalan Communications, who published the book in English, was a company that, like several other failed companies in the 1980s, decided to translate and import European comics into the American market. It was a little more successful than its competitors as if offered better than average material at a reasonable rate, being the first to introduce Rocco Vargas, Torpedo 1936, Milo Manara’s work, and many many others into the United States. They were involved in a brief obscenity trial (back when America still had such things) over their distribution of Squeak the Mouse trade, which they eventually won. They lasted until 1992 when the big comic bust was just beginning and then went the way of many other companies. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Steven Burst's Jhereg (Graphic Novel)

By Steven Burst (original material), Alan Zelenetz (adpatation), & John Pierard (Illustrations) 

Publisher: Epic Comics (1990)

Softcover, 48 pages

Finished 2/6/2018

Amazon Listing 

          This is an adaptation of the fantasy novel of the same name by Steven Brust. It is published by Marvel’s now defunct Epic imprint, which was their attempt to present more mature content in the marketplace. It published and reprinted a host of great material. The print version of this story was originally published in 1983 and is the first of some twenty two novels by the author in this setting.
Author Steven Burst

          The action surrounds a sorcerer and professional assassin, Vlad Taltos, and his Jhereg familiar, and their attempt to track down a crime lord who has stolen several million gold pieces from the treasury of a powerful organization. The Jhereg is a sentient miniature dragon with a poisonous bite, carnivorous tastes, and the ability to psychically link with another sentient. Complication piles upon complication, until the hero realizes that another, more sinister, motive exists behind the thief’s actions and the protagonist must act to prevent a civil war from breaking out.
If you want to read the series here's where you want to begin. 

          Unfortunately the limitations of space in this graphic novel (48 to adapt 239 pages) meant that a lot of material, necessary background material in my opinion, had to be left out. The results is a standard fantasy story without the embellishments that make this series stand out. Characters are rushed, or mentioned then never seen again, or just thrown into the story. The art was good, but didn’t overcome the limitations of a rushed story.