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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Transformers/G.I. Joe: Tyrants Rise, Heroes are Born (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by John Ney Reiber (Writer) & Jae Lee (Illustrator) 

Publisher: IDW Publishing (February 2nd, 2016)

Softcover, 162 pages

The history of G.I Joe crossing over with Transformers is as old as the franchises. The first crossover comic was put out by Marvel in 1986 at the height of both of their popularity. It was a natural crossover. Both were toy lines produced by Hasbro, both had cartoons produced by Marvel Entertainment, and both were popular titles put out by Marvel comics but were not part of the extended marvel universe. So why not have them meet?
When I first ran across it in the 7th grade, my mind was blown! Fucking awesome! It was an unprecedented event in the history of my personal reading. This was long before the team-up trend of Predator vs Whomever, or Aliens arrive to do a little damage, so such a thing was a fever dream, a geek masturbation fantasy. I blew all my money to get a copy and stole from my mother’s purse to purchase the rest. I didn’t care. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Or so I thought.

Those who have picked up the franchise rights over the decades have continued the trend of the two groups meeting, resulting in the current book Transformers G.I. Joe: Tyrants Rise, Heroes are Born. Most of the crossover series were non-cannon events and this volume takes that to an excellent extreme. It is set in the 1930s with Cobra Commander and his cohorts as Nazi analogues who stumbled across the three million year old Decepticons, buried in an ancient temple, and use them to enslave the whole of Europe in a weeks’ time.
Not sure what is happening, American forces create the G.I. Joe team to sneak into the Fera Islands where Cobra headquarters is(due to some leaked intel from Starscream and Destro) and reconnoiter as to what’s happening. They run across the Autobots and bing, bang, boom, massive violence ensues. Just the way you like it!

This not a book for people to begin with either series. The narrative assumes the reader is familiar with the major players of both Transformers (Megatron, Starscream, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee) and G. I. Joe (Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, Flint, Stormshadow). If you aren’t the you will be lost a certain amount of the time (like most of it). But in reality the story isn’t why you want to read this book. It is straightforward and almost derivative- even if it does have a great ending.
No, the real treat, the real joy, of this book is the immaculate art by Jae Lee- who is an incredibly artist and simply blows me away with every stroke of his brush. He plays with light and shadow to create an omnipresent feeling of dread falling over all the protagonists. When a character first spots a Decepticon, you can feel their awe and fear. As you can tell from the sample included it is an incredible book.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero Vol. 19 (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

By Larry Hama (Writer) & S. L. Galant (Illustrator)

Published: IDW Publishing (February 13, 2018)

Softcover, 120 pages

Now I usually don’t fanboy out about anything, but G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is my BIG exception. The comic that is, not the cartoon, and not the toys. This was my favorite comic growing up. The writing, the action, the characters, all of it was top notch. Even though it was initially designed to sell a toy line to children, G.I. Joe was never written as a “kiddie book”. That’s why it lasted 155 issues on its initial run.

When the comic was canceled in the early 90s, I was heartbroken. This occurred right around the same time that Chris Claremont left X-Men and the entire industry went into a giant downward spiral in terms of quality. I actually quit comics for years after these events. When there were attempts to revitalize the G.I. Joe series, I was all over them. Most were terrible, some were good. They seemed mostly honest attempts, but lacked the pacing of the original. That is each issue, always felt like a lot was going on. Then IDW bought out the rights for G.I. Joe and did one of the greatest thing ever in comics, they started up the original series, with Larry Hama writing, beginning with issue 155 ½. And I have been hooked back on it, just like I was at age 8.
Author Larry Hama

For those who don’t know G.I. Joe started out in the 1960s as an oversized action figure in the army. Eventually vehicles and companions were added along the way. Popularity for the toy died out during the anti-Vietnam war movement as all the dumb hippies wanted non-violent toys for their illegitimate children. Roll around to the 1980s, Reagan in the White House, Hasbro decides to relaunch the line and goes to Marvel for the ideas. This was normal at the time, for a successful toy launch one needed a cartoon and a comic to go along with it. Larry Hama was working on a idea around a strike force starring Nick Fury. Jim Shooter, then editor-in-chief, suggested it be adapted for G.I. Joe and history was made. Archie Goodwin came up with the idea of Cobra and Cobra Commander, but Hama designed all the rest.

So when Larry Hama jumped back in, he got in right there as if he were cradling his baby. He wiped away all the crap others had dumped on it and kept going from where he left off. This volume collects issues 241 - 245 of the ongoing series (and may it continue to be ongoing) and sees the Joes fighting on several fronts.

The most interesting one occurs in the town of Springfield (Cobra's foothold in the U.S.) where various anti-Cobra factions combined to break into the stronghold to sabotage various plans of the terrorist organization. This brings back the spiritual return of Snake Eyes (who was killed off in what was perhaps one of the worst G.I. Joes stories ever), when the ninja’s mind in implanted into the body of a young girl via the Brainwave Scanner.

This incident also heralds the return of an old villain, Dr. Venom, who is implanted into the mind of Dr. Mindbender. For those old time fans, you will recall the character was killed off in issue 18 when a grenade landed at his feet. He was later buried in a potter's field, but the character always had a lasting effect on the G.I. Joe universe in his creation, the brainwave scanner.  Now he has returned in all his glory and reminds the heads of Cobra about their lowly beginnings. Specifically that the Commander started his career as a used-car dealer who raised millions in a pyramid scheme.

In addition to this, we have the Joes completing operations in Trucial Abysmia (the go-to place for Joe stories in the Middle East) and Darklonia (the go-to place for stories in Eastern Europe). These stories are what drew me into the comic in the first place. The characters seem real, the action seems real, their decisions are understandable for men under pressure and under fire. The comic has always remained grounded despite the slight sci-fi element in the gear, which has always been present.
One of the best issues of G. I. Joe ever.

 There has always a sense of humor hidden in the story whether it be Cobra Commander’s egotistical abuse of the thesaurus for each speech, a few pins ups of the Zaranna and the Baroness inside a Cobra locker, or writing on a chalkboard in the Joe’s cafeteria, “Knowing is half the bar-be-que burger”, or a discussion happening on a mini-golf course designed to laud the cobra leaders, or a construction company called Vindoveipers. Little details like that are what keeps me coming back every time.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman (Biography) (Graphic Novel)

By Box Brown

Published: First Second (January, 2018)

Softcover, 272 pages

          This is another biographical treat from Box Brown who brought us the life of Andre the Giant and the surprisingly intense history of the video game Tetris (Well, surprising to me at least). Now he has tackled the life of oddball comedian Andy Kaufman, or part of it.
          This is not the definitive life of Kaufman as it mostly focuses on his fascination with wrestling, which drove him to wrestle women for money (and apparently sexual arousal), leading up into his infamous confrontation with Jerry Lawler on the David Letterman Show (the smack heard round the world). While this is probably his most famous stunt, I always felt the explosion he had on the TV show Fridays was just as good.

          In retrospect, Kaufman’s humor sliced in two different ways. He was the original troll. We know now nearly everything he did was staged beforehand and we can appreciate people’s stunned reaction to him, laughing as much at them as the man himself. But there was a special charm, an edge of uncertainty, to seeing him live for the first time and always questioning whether it was real or fake. That doubt always gave his performances an extra bite, which time unfortunately has eroded.
          Additionally, the book delves into the Jerry Lawler's entrance into wrestling and the history of old time wrestling, before Vince McMahon Jr. took it mainstream. It demonstrates, accurately in my opinion, how Kaufman was ahead of its time in seeing the mainstream celebrity potential of wrestling (and not the gay Greco-Roman kind either). Within a year after Kaufman’s death and the death of McMahon Sr. the WWF exploded all over the country.
          As you can see from the photos included the art is minimalist, direct representation of the material. One guy said to me that it looked amateurish until I told him to shut up, which started up a whole big thing of pushing and shoving and horrible words exchanged. Then I got accused of “hate speech” and I retorted with, “Well I fucking hate you, so I guess I’m guilty!” Security jumped in and started tazing everyone, so I ran off with a stolen copy of this book.
But my point was that often with biographical material a minimalist look adds to the impact of the story. Something more elaborate would draw attention away from the life of those portrayed, might prevent the reader from becoming so engrossed in the narrative. You can see this in the original drawings for Maus, which were much more detailed (and somehow not as effective) as the later style used.
Maus original art

                                                        Maus finished art

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

X-Men: Asgardian Wars (Superhero)

By Chris Claremont (writer), Paul Smith, & Arthur Adams (illustrator)

Published: The Marvel Entertainment Group (1988)

Softcover, 224 pages

          Most of the time on this blog, I don’t review mainstream comic titles like the X-Men, but nostalgia bit me on the ass over the last week, and I felt a fondness for a younger time when I could while away three hours (when I had that much time to spare) slurping down gummy worms and reading about my favorite mutants beating each other up. Ah, those were the days. Pre-internet, where if you wanted to find some back issues you had to scrounge in some dingy second-hand shop or a foul smelling stall at the flea market. And even then there was no guarantee that you’d come up with what you needed. That's how all these comic cons started, collectors wanting to find back issues to complete their collection. All the rest, the guests, the contests, etc, were just add-ons.
          Having very limited funds when I was young, I never read any of the original issues collected here in this volume: X-Men and Alpha Flight #1 & 2, New Mutants Special Edition #1, and Giant-Sized X-Men # 9. The holes I scoured never had them in stock, so stumbling across this book was a real treat. A Marvel book from back during the second golden age of comics (the 1980s) and an X-Men title (with its satellite mutant titles) written by the man who turned the X-Men from a second rate series into the most popular one in Marvel’s lineup. Hell, it was so popular that they were putting the comic out twice a month, in addition to limited series and one-shots like these. The art is fantastic, I've always felt  that Arthur Adams never got as much recognition for his art as he should have. It is playful, bold, and action packed, detailed without being cluttered. A masterly job all around. 

          There are two story arcs in this book. The first has to deal with Loki making a pact with Those Who Dwell Above in Shadow (which are the Gods of the Asgardian Gods). In exchange for their favor, he must offer a selfless act to the people of Midgard and make the world a better place. Loki, by his very nature, does this in a way that causes chaos and is defeated by the X-Men and Alpha Flight. The great trickster then vows vengeance and strikes at the mutants through their junior branch, The New Mutants. Forcing the Enchantress to abduct them and Storm (this was when she lacked her powers), he attempts to enslave them to his will and use them as weapons against the rest of the X-Men. The battle moves to Asgard and explodes.
          These were not just throw away issues. Events happen in them that shape several of the characters for years. Most notably, the character of Mirage (before she was depowered on M-Day) becomes a Valkyrie and her winged horse Brightmane. What happens to her in this book, has shaped her character ever since.

          The 80s were really the greatest time in mainstream comics. You had John Byrne on Fantastic Four, Larry Hama on G.I. Joe, Walter Simonsen on Thor, Frank Miller on Daredevil (in addition to him redefining Batman), Mike Baron on Punisher, Mike Grell on Green Arrow, Jon Ostrander on Suicide Squad, and Chris Claremont on his titles. Anyone who came after these guys was only playing catch up. They redefined the characters and no one has done more with them.
This collection of the Claremont mutant titles is him at his purest. Action, character development, moral questioning. A lot of current writers should take note. The X-Men always championed the principles of tolerance, inclusion, anti-prejudice, and acceptance. And they always managed to do it without being preachy. Now that’s some skill.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Green Tea Heist (Horror)

by Donald Armfield 

Publisher: Nihilism Revised Crime (November 26th, 2017)

Paperback, 42 pages

          “The lady who vomited into the punchbowl gets down on her hands and knees and licks up some of the barf/punch that has collected in the cleavage of the fallen woman, arousing the lady to snap out of her brief unconscious state. She reaches up and grabs a handful of hair, tugging the other woman closer to her chest. The lock of hair tears away from the skull, staying tightly grasped within the woman’s hand. The other woman shows no reaction to the pain of her hair being ripped out....Instead they look at one another and kiss.”
          Originally published in Busted Lip anthology, this standalone publication of the tale is well worth the money. Morbidity lingers within this tale of toxic love and greed. The green tea mentioned here is a chemical weapon developed by shadowy scientists. Once ingested, the imbiber turns into a rapidly decaying and uber-horny zombie.  Add to the mix a modern-day pirate who stumbles upon a liner where they stuff is being tested and all sorts of horror ensues.
Author Donald Armfield

          I love independent stuff like this. Very rarely have I ever been disappointed by a purchase. Sure, it might not be the next Finnegan's Wake in writing style, but it has heart and passion (if a little disgustingly displayed) and that comes across in the book. Too many people are ignored by the mainstream and thus their talents and a good deal of excellent material is lost.
         This is a fun and grotesque story (as you can see from the sample above), but is not for the easily offended, the faint hearted, those who wear monocles (as they might pop out after gazing at the material), or non-lovers of horror.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

City of God (Drama)

By E. L. Doctorow

Publisher: Abacus (2001)

Paperback 320 pages

          “Perhaps the first songs were lullabies. Perhaps mothers were the first singers. Perhaps they learned to soothe their squirming simian babes by imitating the sounds of moving water, the gurgles, cascades, plashes, puddlings, flows, floods, spurts, spills, gushes, laps, and sucks. Perhaps they knew their babies were born from water. And rhythm was the gentle rock of the water hammock slung between the pelvic trees. And melody was the sound the water made when the baby stirred its limbs.”
          A few have called this the author’s written mid-life crisis, which may be well deserved. But I don’t call such a description damning. This book is a reflexive look at the author’s world through a series of seemingly disconnected events, characters, and personal revelations that are interwoven together (at least thematically) in an examination of faith and God, and how the two connect together in the lives of many people. It focuses extensively on how one’s faith (or lack thereof) can powerfully affect people decades later for whom the original has no knowledge.
          A few people might have written off the similarity in names between this text and the 5th Century Christian philosophical work by St. Augustine of Hippo, but the parallels between the two works are very apparent. The Augustine text was written after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths and was meant to comfort and direct Christians who found their world crumbling about them. It is one of the cornerstone of Western thought giving written form to such key concepts as the suffering of the righteous, the existence of evil, the conflict between free will and divine omniscience, and the doctrine of original sin. Essentially these ideas boil down to a singular struggle between earthly delights and spiritual growth.
Author E. L. Doctorow

          St. Augustine places all of human history in this struggle, naming one the Earthly City and the spiritual side as the City of God. Thus all actions are a result between the forces of evil and good, interacting in ways that one might not realize. Taken through this lens, the novel begins to make much more sense.
          Now what this means (especially in the life of the character Pem, a fallen priest) is that, regardless of one’s personal faith, a person living in this world cannot help be affected by faith- whether for good or evil. And that, even if a person renounces all forms of society and religion, much the direction of their lives will be caught up in this struggle between the Earthly City and the City of God. It cannot be helped. This is the structure of life and will always be so.
          The writing in this novel is brilliant, inspired, a whirlwind of form and shape. Often I read passages aloud and just let the rhythm of the verbal constructs wash over me. Not to say that this is for everyone. If you want a tightly structured plot, where the protagonist goes through a five-act character arc, look elsewhere. These are vignettes tied through sub-text. Let the action wash over you, and the purpose beneath will reveal itself.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Out Stealing Horses (Drama)

by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born)

Published: Picador (April 29th, 2008)

Paperback, 238 pages

       “In the course of one month they both died, and after they were gone I lost interest in talking to people. I really do not know what to talk to them about. That is one reason for living here. Another reason is being close to the forest. It was a part of my life many years ago in a way that nothing else has been, and then it was absent for a long, long time, and when everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realized how much I had missed it. Soon I thought of nothing else, and if I too were not to die, at precisely that point in time, I had to go to the forest. That’s how it felt, and that simple. It still is.”
          This is another rambling novel, almost pseudo-stream-of-consciousness, where the first person protagonist rambled on and on, with many divergent comments before getting to the point. As is usual with these types of novels, all grammar regulation is tossed out the window, as you can see in the paragraph above. While this sort of deconstructionist prose can be done well (see the works of Raymond Federman and Cormac McCarthy) this novel does not do it. It is a rather rambling and boring product.
It falls flat in that the novel simply does not go all the way, as it should. It is a half-assed approach to the style, which produces a mediocre concept between the two. If you’re going to deconstruct don’t just ramble, play with rules and forms and completely abandon any grammar. What we have here is a protagonist that is neither very interesting, nor generates any pathos. He is a simple dull person that something horrible happened to in his past and has retreated into the woods to deal with it. While it does have flashbacks inside of flashbacks, and plays expertly with time and space, the prose isn’t enough to keep the world interesting. The double meanings of the plot is well done, one of the book’s highlights, but the narrative takes too long to get interesting. A reader has to push on to nearly halfway through the book before the mystery really unfolds.
Author Per Petterson

 I always have a policy of finishing a book once started, I found myself rushing through the pages in order to get it over with. While some of the fault of the poor presentation of this book might fall onto the translator, I believe much of it has to do with the original prose.
          Many of the literary community have leapt on this book, heaping it with laurels and praises, but this seems to be part of the domino effect of the literary snob world, where one person says it's brilliant and everyone has to jump on the bandwagon lest they appear uncultured. Several of them are commenting that the novel employs a minimalist style. That is, a simple style and short words to demonstrate the protagonist’s state of mind- a simple man of the woods. This falls flat, as minimalist also means minimal description, which the novel does not do. It is riddled with dull description (sure they add to the protagonist's character, but there has to be a limit). In my mind, a good book has  generate interest either in the plot or the characters (hopefully both), Out Stealing Horses fails to do either.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Offshore (Drama)

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Publisher: Caroll & Graff Publishers, Inc. (1989)

Softcover, 141 pages

    “Dignity demanded that the dealer should hand the tiles back with a pitying smile. But he could not resist holding the bird up to his desk lamp, so that the light ran across the surface and seemed to flow over the edges in crimson flame. And now Martha and he were untied in a strange fellow feeling. Which nether of them had expected, and which they had to shake off with difficulty.”

          It’s a humorous book, but of the dry British wit variety, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is essentially about a group of people who are trying to live on houseboats on the riverbanks near Chelsea. It is almost a Dickensian world where the characters must face a personal crisis and their lives are changed forevermore.

Author Penelope Fitzgerald
    The beginning is somewhat jumbled, the author doesn’t seem to know which character to begin with, so she jumps into the region, as Hawthorne did in The Scarlett Letter. This book, despite its short length, does take its time getting to the point and introducing its protagonists. It is almost postmodern in its execution (at least initially) and does have that flatness or lack of emotion most of the writers in that genre reflect. As such, most of the characters don’t have much personality and even less in the way of character growth. Many of the boats described in this story have more personality than most of the characters.

    There are snippets of well done parts here and there which demonstrate the talents of the author, unfortunately she did not follow through in the same vein throughout. This is a pity because I believe this truly could have been a great book rather than a mediocre one. I sold my copy the day I finished it, I have no desire to ever read it again.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Miramar (Drama)

by Naguib Mafouz

Published: Anchor, Reissue edition (January 14, 1993)

Softcover 192 pages

    “I liked the weather in Alexandria. It suited me. Not just the days of clear blue and gold sun; I also liked the occasional spells of storm, when the clouds thickened, making dark mountains in the sky, the face of morning glooming onto the road. The roads of the sky would be suddenly hushed into ominous silence. A gust of wind would circulate, like a warning cry or an orator clearing his throat; a branch would start dancing, a skirt would lift- and then it would pounce wildly, thundering as far as the horizon. The sea would rage high, foam breaking on the very curbs of the streets. Thunder would bellow its escaticies out of an unknown world; lightning would corsucate, dazzling eyesight, electrifying the world. The rain pouring down would hug earth and sky in a wet embrace, elements mixing their waring natures to grapple and heave as if a new world were about to be born.”

    Set in 1960s Alexandria, Egypt. The action takes place around a pension (a bed and breakfast for extended stay customers) above the Miramar cafe. A girl, fresh from a small village, has run away from her family and an arranged marriage,  and works as a servant in the pension. She is a symbol of Egypt itself- rejecting the old ways, and working hard to educate itself to be self-sufficient. Yet people keep trying to interfere. 

Author Naguib Mafouz
    Like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character. Each adds to the symbolism, as they represent a different aspect of the rising tide in Egypt at the time. None of them are particularly ideal, but there is little difficulty in telling the different the narrators apart. With the deftness of an observer of human nature we see three young males and their odd attempts to woo Zohra. All are similar, yet each one is distinct. We have the rich boy, ripe in arrogance, who assumes that because she is poor, he could have the girl with a snap of his fingers. The emotional void who is frightened of processing deep emotions, and rejects any idea of happiness for himself. Last is the man who separates love from marriage. Unless a marriage can propel him upwards socially, he feels no need to indulge in it. All three of the ideologies come to blows surrounding the lovely Zhora, resulting in a murder.

    There are numerous references made to the political turmoil in Egypt during that time period. Effectively the country had gone through a series of revolutions Some readers might not be aware of the various political upheavals of the country, but at the time of the novel, it is just a few years after the 1952 revolution which completely abolished the monarchy and was setting about tearing down those nobles who had profited from it. The government was a fiercely nationalistic one, with various communist and Islamic fanatics skirting around the corners. If you’ve never heard of this before, well join the club. I had only a cursory knowledge of these events and that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.