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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses - The Salad Days (Crime)

by David Lapham   
Publisher: Image Comics (April 9, 2019)
Softcover, 248 pages

Collecting issues 25 through 32 of the series. Stray Bullets never fails to disappoint. Just as the story of Orson, Nina, and Beth on the run was beginning to become stale, the narrative veers across the line to focus on the invalid Kretchmeyer - how many times is this man going to be beaten up? - traveling with Beth’s mother, who has suffered a stroke and been tossed away by her husband, and Kretchmeyer’s newly-found junkie brother.
Things are moving to an end for Orson and company, the original series picks up their story and connects it with Virginia Applejack’s in the summer of 1982, and the story is getting closer and closer to that date. Which is why I believe the narrative will shift full time to Kretchmeyer and company, while Spanish Scott and Orson get murdered out West. Which leaves me to wonder, how many times are we gonna see a guy like Monster or Kretchmeyer beaten up, only to keep pursuing Beth, only to be tricked again by Beth, which they allow because they are so in love with her? It’s starting to become repetitive.

Character development galore in these issues, We see Orson go off the wall with his alcoholism. Nina gets more sucked into drugs. The two characters which are developed the most are Kretchmeyer and Beth. More of Kretchmeyer’s disturbing past is revealed - how he executed his own parents, and weird sort of family he tried to build around Beth and her criminal confidants. Beth’s anger and hard shell envelopes everyone around her - to her detriment. Beth’s background forced her to push everyone away, to seek constant thrills in order to divert her dark thoughts and emotions before they overwhelm her - which will eventually lead to her downfall. The minute things slow down, she pushes people away. Afraid to be hurt and afraid to love.
Only two points of contention with this book. The first is that the Amy Racecar\Lil B’ story is the weakest part of the series. Once again it was a road bump that needed to be gotten over, rather than an enjoyable story. Things feel as if they are coming to a head (or at least they should be) and the fantasy stories are just in the way. Secondly, certain sections of the art felt rushed and much more sketchy than normal. This didn’t detract from the story per se, but there was a noticeable dip in quality. 
            For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses- The Queen of Palm Court (Crime)

by David Lapham  

Publisher: Image Comics (November 27, 2018)

Softcover, 248 pages

This book collects issues 17 through 24 of the on-going series. Beth, Orson, and Nina are still on the run from gangsters with two suitcases full of money and cocaine. Adding to this, Orson was badly injured by in the last volume and the group is forced to seek refuge with Beth’s mother. Who turns out to be a short-sighted, narcissistic, looks-obsessed, bad housewife whose side job is dealing pot to the local middle-schoolers.

The usual violent hi-jinks occurs. People are beaten up, people are shot, people are killed. The group nearly loses all of the money and drugs and then get it back. Several people from the past show up looking for the group, only to be put off and hospitalized. What comes across in these issues is how remarkably well-adjusted Beth actually is compared to what she had to deal with. I won’t say things go off-the-rails because they’re never on-the-rails to begin with. The story is just one wonderful messed-up episode of betrayal, self-deception, and hatred. In short, a perfect Stray Bullets tale.

The Lil B’ fantasy stories, which are a spin-off from the Amy Racecar fantasies, are given some context in this volume. Apparently they are delusional episodes by Beth as an eight-year-old after she was put into a coma for four days when her mother struck her in the head with a steel pot. It’s nice they are explained. The original Amy Racecar stories were obviously bits of power fantasy drawn by a young Virginia Applejack, while these seemed to be an attempt by Beth to figure out some great mystery that she cannot fully comprehend and whose answers shift without rhyme or reason. Which fits the dreamtime scenario.
But unlike the Amy Racecar stories from the original, the Lil B’ ones are beginning to become cumbersome. I find myself rushing through them in order to get back on track with the “real” story. It worked before when the narrative would jump with every issue, but now that Stray Bullets is telling a more linear tale they have become road bumps, things to get through, rather than fun asides. It’s a tribute to the author’s story telling that I’m interested in what happens next to Beth, Orson, and Nina- even though we know their ultimate fate.
 For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses - Change of Plans (Crime)

By David Lapham

Publisher: Image Comics (September 4, 2018)

Softcover, 248 pages

This book collects issues 9 through 16 of the on-going series. As a crime comic, Stray Bullets is sharper than a diamond and yet, somehow, comes across as more human than any others in this genre. Perhaps it's because we aren't simply seeing hard men go after a job. We also see the human wreckage that gets dragged along into the underbelly. The people not smart enough to earn except through crime. Those born into it and literally have not known any other way of life. Those kept in it out of habit, substance abuse, or threat. Each character is different and each is tragically flawed and each is remarkably human.

As it stands, we have Nina the junkie who stays in place because of her crime lord boyfriend's threats. Beth, smartest of the lot, who's flaw is an addiction to an easy life and easy money. A lack of self discipline is her fatal flaw. Thirdly, we have the good boy Orson with a college scholarship, who throws it all away for a more thrilling life. He becomes a wild criminal whenever he has a few swigs from a bottle.

From those who remember the original series, this entire plot line spins off from what looked like a one-shot issue number 2. Then there was a massive jump in continuity around issue, where Orson, Beth, and Nina end up in some backwater jerk-berg with a ton of stolen coke and cash. This series fills in the details on the caper and, from what I can see, this backstory plot fixing to be longer than the original series went.
Stray Bullets is such an intense well-plotted story that a longer arc is welcome. Again, knowing what ultimately happens to all of these characters from the first series (with the exception of Kretchmeyer) adds a tragic blend to these character's joys and failures.

      For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Stray Bullets: Sunshine & Roses - Kretchmeyer (Crime)

By David Lapham   
Publisher: Image Comics (May 8, 2018)
Softcover, 248 pages

I’ve been a comics fan for a long time. Ever since I picked up that issue of G.I. Joe number 39 in the 1980s, I’ve been a collector (except for that time in the 90s when the industry fell to shit). A good friend of mine, Jeff Death, used to make fun of me about it. Saying it was childish, babyish, etc. That is until I bought a copy of Stray Bullets number one. He saw it among my things one day, picked it up, and sat down. Jeff was completely silent as he read the comic straight through, then nodded as he put it down,
“Not bad.”
Every month after, he asked, “Did the next Stray Bullets come out?”
That’s how good this series is. Even people who hate comics love it.
Stray Bullets is a crime comic series, perhaps the longest running one of its kind. Certainly the longest running one using the same cast of characters, which makes the events more poignant. Most such comics, the characters are there then blown away, or in prison, or running with the cash. You never get to really know them. Except in this series, you will spend ten to twenty issues with a character and their departure will be meaningful. People keep calling it a crime noir, but that’s redundant. Have you ever read a noir that wasn’t crime?

Sunshine and Roses is really the second title of the series, the first one being simply called Stray Bullets. You don’t need to have read the first series at all to understand what is happening in this second one. Though if you have, then it adds some extra weight to the events. A lot of familiar characters are about,  Orson and Beth, skanky Rose, Monster, and Spanish Scott. Now added into the mix is a new boy, the titular Kretchmeyer. Another stone cold killer with his own agenda.
Again, for those who read the first series, you will recognize that the events here happen before many of the stories in the first book. They take place between the first and second arcs, and considering that we know the ultimate fates of many of these characters, it adds some gravity and a hint of tragedy to the events.
This book collects the first 8 issues of the series - really a bargain for the price. The story stays primarily with Beth and Orson and doesn’t skip around in time and place as the originals did. So far things have been fairly linear. This is mostly due to the fact that the second protagonist of the first book hasn’t appeared. Virginia Applejack is nowhere to be seen - though Amy Racecar does make an odd appearance. Perhaps it’s just as well as the events of the story are leading to a head and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Suicide Squad: The Final Mission (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by John Ostrander (Author) & Kim Tale (Illustrator) 

Publisher: DC Comics (May 21, 2019)
Softcover, 192 pages

This final volume collects issues 59-66 of the original run of Suicide Squad from the 1980s. All in all it lasted around five and a half years, a decent run. Certainly it was influential, considering how many times it has been resurrected and its original character Amanda Waller is now a mainstay in the D.C. universe. Not only that, it revitalized interest and gave depth to super-villain characters such as Deadshot, Dr. Light, and Captain Boomerang.

What killed it off? According to the writer it was simply low sales. This was in 1992 when the comic industry took a major dip due to oversaturation, lots of low quality material on the market, rising prices, a lot of bad art (Liefeld), and poor stories. Many new writers came in who seemed to have no interest in a series’ history or the mythos of the characters. There was an attitude many writers put on s if they were better than the material they were creating and any old slop would be wolfed down by the idiot masses. This led to the comics’ crash of the 1990s which lasted most of the decade.

As for the last stories, they hold up pretty well. It wasn’t a lack of ideas that drove this comic out of business. It unfolds through two separate story arcs that certain shadowy forces within the military and intelligence services have copied Waller ideas surrounding the Suicide Squad and have put together teams made of super-villains to be wet work teams across the globe. Waller discovers them involved in the attempted assassination of JLI member the Atom, acting as a death squad enforcers for a third world dictator, and a literal assassination squad in the U.S.
Once this is all dealt with, the surviving members of the squad disperse and Waller decides that her ideas about the Suicide Squad were flawed, recent events showing her just how far they could be taken. She decides to retire and help rebuild the third world country trashed by the copycat super-villains. But, as I’m sure you know, this doesn’t last long.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Suicide Squad: The Dragon's Horde (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by John Ostrander (Author), Geof Isherwood (Illustrator) 
Publisher: DC Comics (December 12, 2017)
Softcover, 232 pages

Collecting issues 50 (a double sized issue) - 58 of the original series from the 1980s. Actually, most of these issues travel into the 90s when comic books started to go bad. The degradation occurred mostly due to the rise of Image comics, which suddenly took a large chunk of the market with substandard material made by renegade creators from Marvel. They hit with an impact and it rippled across the industry. Comics with intelligence were out. What was needed was guys with large muscles constantly beating the crap out of each other- not plot or characters. Ultimately, Image lived up to its name- it was all image with no substance, but not before significant damage was done and great comics like these were canceled. It was around this time that I quit collecting comics for most of the decade.

Suicide Squad wasn’t entirely cancelled yet, however. This is merely the penultimate book leading up to the concluding story. Once again, the squad is sucked into various missions taking place all across the world. I will say this about the title, it really gave you a sense of worldwide geo-politics in a superhero world. Most of the follow up titles all seemed so American-centric, as if no other places existed on Earth, or that they wouldn’t have their own squads.

The main story of this collection, “The Dragon’s Horde”, takes place all over the map from Afghanistan, to Japan, to Cambodia, to America. At the tail end of Russian-occupied Afghanistan, a general betrays his own troops and smuggles thousands of weapons to a cache in Cambodia with a plan to sell them onto the Yakuza. Sounds like a spy novel. Essentially it is, only with superhero teams for the Russian, Japanese and our dear old Suicide Squad added into the mix.  Intelligent, violent, and all sorts of fun.
Book-ending the main tale are a few shorts. The double sized issue takes a look back at the original two iterations of the Suicide Squad from the 50s and 60s.  Following that is a solo issue dealing with Deadshot and his psychosis. A further one focuses on the deceased Dr. Light and his return to this side of the river Styx - easily the weakest of the stories.
The last issue in this volume is part of the forgettable D.C. crossover event for 1991, War of the Gods. It spanned twenty five issues across different titles like Dr. Fate, Wonder Woman, Starman, Animal Man, Hawk and Dove, The Demon, etc. ad nauseam. In this storyline, after the Amazons announced themselves to the world, Circe has been lurking behind the scenes watching Diana's every move. Circe is responsible for a series of brutal murders where various artifacts of power have been stolen. The Amazons are framed for these crimes and public hysteria is whipped up against them. Not that great. The big event results in nothing permanent happening in the DC universe. Presented only in single issues, a slice of a much larger pie, it was forgettable. I found myself rushing through it, so as to get back to stories actually important to the title.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Suicide Squad: The Phoenix Gambit (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

By Tom Ostrander (Author), Kim Yale (Illustrator), & Geoff Isherwood (Illustrator)

 Publisher: DC Comics (May 23, 2017)

Softcover, 236 pages

Collecting issues 40 - 49 of the original Suicide Squad series from the 1980s - or really the early 90s by the time these issues first came out. This volume epitomizes the old style of comic writer from the new one. The old style ones, such as John Ostrander, John Byrne and Chris Claremont, spent more time creating new ideas and characters then in destroying them. Sure they might alter a character in a life changing way or occasionally even kill one, but for every concept they destroyed they added at least five new ideas. These new ones are like vampires. All they do is kill old characters and feed off the ideas of the past.

This volume expands on the world of espionage and meta-humans, combining the two with deftness and skill. As ridiculous as superheroes are, this book reasonably absorbs the idea into the intelligence world, demonstrating how things would look and play out if they were embraced by the intelligence community. As we see in this volume, the idea has spread worldwide with nearly every secret service and country having their own sponsored meta-human operatives. The ones introduced here are the teams for Israel, Egypt, and the Soviet Union (this was first printed during the Cold War).

Three stories collide in this volume. It picks up a year after the previous book, with Amanda Waller in prison. She is quickly offered a pardon and reforms the Suicide Squad to tackle an international situation. The squad now is completely autonomous from the United States government and Taskforce X, allowing them to take jobs with any foreign power or entity who can meet their price.
They begin in fictitious Vlatvia, where Count Vertigo is being used to front a popular uprising against the communist dictatorship and some undercover Russian metahumans. In this case it is who is really using who, with backstabs and double crosses. No one seems to be there to actually seize power but to play some bizarre pantomime for back home. After that comes a single shot issue dealing with Captain Boomerang’s backstory. Then onto Israel, where Kobra is attempting - again - to bring in the Age of Chaos by blowing up a sacred monument. Finally, we hit the streets of Gotham, sans Batman, where a newly created Thinker is attempting to stalk and kill Oracle. Loads of fun. 
      For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Suicide Squad: Apokolips Now (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by John Ostrander  (Author) & various artists 

Publisher: DC Comics (December 27, 2016)

Softcover, 200 pages

Collecting issues 31-39 of the original 1980s run of the famed comic title. Revived now, over mainly the collective boners of people around the character Harley Quinn and how good Margot Robbie looks in still shots carrying a huge mallet. As much as I was bored by the film, I am happy it came out, because it spurred DC to reprint the original series. And with ten issues per book, it is reasonably priced at about 2 dollars an issue. The only downside is this run of Suicide Squad came out before Harley Quinn was conceived of as a character (especially not one that would crossover from the cartoon to the regular series). So the character does not appear in any of the stories.

In this volume, the Squad is made up of such villains as Dr. Light, Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, Lashina, Count Vertigo, Shade the Changing Man, etc., who are given time off their sentences in exchange for agreeing to go on dangerous missions for the U.S. governments. It is led by the Bronze Tiger and headed up by Amanda “The Wall” Waller - easily one of the most nuanced anti-heroes in the DC universe. The writing threads between internal politics of an espionage agency and superhero antics as deftly as any comic could. It’s a tribute to the intelligence of the writers back in the 80s how they really refined the essence of superhero comics and made it shine, all without dumbing down the story or dialogue. There’s a reason why all the superhero films keep plundering storylines from the 80s.

In the case of this story, Lashina (who has been going by the codename Duchess) has discovered a way to return to Apokolips and attempt to retake her place as leader of the Female Furies. To this end, she recruits and kidnaps most of the Suicide Squad and forces them to attack Granny Goodness and the Furies. Lots of death occurs. The Forever People show up, along with a number of other Kirby created characters, and engage in a free-for-all where the deaths pile up. I was surprised how many characters the writers were allowed to kill.
The fallout from the Apokolips attack leads to several of the criminals escaping and the seeming disbanding of the squad, with Amanda Waller being sentenced to prison after illegally taking out one more band of bad guys. 
  For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Suicide Squad: The Janus Directive (Superhero) (Graphic Novel)

by John Ostrander  (Author)  

Publisher: DC Comics (July 19, 2016)

Softcover, 272 pages

This was one of those multi-issue crossover stories that strafed across five titles. The kind we got plenty of in the late eighties and which quickly became tiresome. The purpose was to boost sales in flagging books, but all it really achieved, from the standpoint of a reader, was to interrupt the storylines of the series you were interested in in order to shoehorn in some part of a bullshit story of which you were only half aware.

That being said, when the entire collection is put together like this, it makes it much more palatable to read, but it is still slightly annoying. After all, you've bought a book about the Suicide Squad and they only appear in about half the issues. The rest of it is filled with various characters to which I have only a peripheral knowledge of, or their Pre-Crisis version, or an Elseworlds version, or whatever. This book collects issues 26 - 30 of Suicide Squad, 15 - 18 of Checkmate, #14 of Manhunter, #86 of Firestorm, and #30 of Captain Atom (the last one could've been jettisoned from the pack in my opinion).

A cold war has erupted between the American intelligence services various metahuman (DC talk for superhero) teams. People have been killed and secrets compromised. This results in a lot of back and forth conflicts. One team hits another. Some people are killed. Lois Lane investigates. Then the real culprit is revealed and finally defeated. Unlike most crossovers however, this one has lasting effects for the Suicide Squad.
Like most Suicide Squad arcs, it is uncertain which characters will survive to see its end. The team itself is made up of 2nd tier super-villains, all of them easily expendable. In fact, this series was famous for making wash-up villains more interesting (Deadshot & Captain Boomerang, are two examples) and promoting their popularity so much that they had to be written out of the series.

      For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.