David Lapham’s Murder Me Dead is a nine-issue standalone series about a jazz pianist named Steven who gets caught in a web of violence and deception when he inherits a fortune following the death of his wife. We quickly learn he’s been having an affair with his sister-in-law, and this bit of dishonesty lends credence to his in-laws’ belief that he killed their daughter, despite the official ruling that her death was a suicide.
Soon, Tony arrives. Steven hasn’t seen him since high school fifteen years earlier, and didn’t particularly like him back then. It’s pretty obvious that Tony is looking to mooch off the grieving widower for an extensive bar tab at the very least, but perhaps something more. When Tony mentions that Steven’s high-school crush Tara is still around and always liked him, Steven tracks her down and rekindles the old spark they never consummated—although he nearly gets blasted with a shotgun first.
So begins a gritty, tragic tale populated by characters whose true intentions are always in doubt, whose sinister and ulterior motives are slowly revealed in suspenseful, page-turning fashion, and where everything goes from bad to worse for everyone involved.
Lapham fans undoubtedly know of his work on the noir crime series Stray Bullets, and Murder Me Dead taps into the same dark vein. But I found it easier to get into Murder Me Dead because, unlike Stray Bullets, it has a sympathetic main character who tries to do the right thing rather than a vast and largely unlikeable cast that seems perpetually hell-bent on always doing the wrong thing.
While Steven’s co-star Tara is clearly hiding things from him right from the first issue, her repeated victimization by other characters undermines our suspicion that she is a femme fatale. She makes too many blunders to be the conniving mastermind we often expect from that trope, and she appears to be more like Virginia Applejack from Stray Bullets—a basically decent person trapped in a world of felons, abusers, and perverts, yet struggling to make the best of her situation.
Its tight focus, relentless pace, sympathetic characters, and devious plot make Murder Me Dead one of my two favorite works by Lapham—alongside the similarly focused Stray Bullets: Killers which brought Virgina Applejack to center stage—and it’s every bit as darkly enjoyable as my favorite tales from Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. Highly recommended for fans of crime fiction.
Welcome back to another installment of theBig Box of Comics, where I share the treasures I’ve acquired thanks to this blog’s readers. Today we’ll look at a series of comics I picked up just for the covers—but oh, what covers they are!
In the summer of 1990, just before my final year of high school, Robocop 2 hit the big screen. A huge fan of the original movie, I had to see the sequel. This was before we had year-long lead-ups to summer blockbusters with so many trailers and leaks and hundreds of YouTubers making videos about the damn trailers and everything being over-hyped online until there’s no way any movie can live up to all that.
No, I just walked into the theater without knowing much of anything other than “Robocop is awesome,” and I took an unexpected journey. It was one of the first—if not the first—movie with an R rating I got to see on my own since I had turned seventeen that year, and my teenage mind was blown away. But what really caught me by surprise was when the end credits announced the movie was written by a comic-book creator whose work I knew: Frank Miller.
The stunning revelation made instant sense to me. Movies based on comic books are a dime a dozen now, but Robocop 2 was one of the first live-action films that really captured the essence of the over-the-top action, humorous parody, pointed social commentary, insane violence, and grim-and-gritty protagonists that characterized the tonal shift in many mainstream comics in the mid-to-late 1980s. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a big part of that change, and his Robocop film had a lot in common with it.
But while the movie was so much fun in a “Rule of Cool” way, the comics adaptation based on Miller’s original script is a mean-spirited mess that lacks the movie’s focus and hilarity, and it will probably make you grateful for all the changes made for the film. Its best feature is the artwork by Juan Jose Ryp, a non-stop visual feast of intricately detailed hyper-violence that is gloriously exemplified by Ryp’s covers for the series—especially the wraparound covers.
Ryp drew my all-time favorite covers, and he is in fine form on Robocop where he renders cyborgs, cops, and criminals in chaotic combat scenes that completely destroy their urban environments. Although the series itself isn’t so great, I indulged in these works of art for my small collection of Ryp’s work for Avatar Press. Along the way, I also picked up some ripping Ryp wraps that were missing from my Anna Mercury and Wolfskin collections.
You could probably stuff a short box full of nothing but Ryp’s prolific output for Avatar. And who knows? Maybe one day I will. As Robocop says at the end of the movie version, “Patience, Lewis. We’re only human.”
Collector’s Guide: These covers appear on the original single issues of Frank Miller Robocop by Avatar Press (2003). If you lack the patience to track them all down in print, you can get the entire digital collection for about $20.
I recently got a great eBay deal on the comic book with my all-time favorite cover: Anna Mercury #2, the WizardWorld Chicago Convention variant, of which only 1500 were printed.
Anna Mercury is one of many short series Warren Ellis wrote for Avatar, including Black Summer, a brutal sci-fi adventure featuring my other all-time favorite cover: a wraparound by the same artist, Juan Jose Ryp.
The Anna Mercury story itself is just okay. It works best when it gives us every excuse to watch the leading lady kick all kinds of ass and do amazing stunts. With art pages like the following action sequence by Facundo Percio, I could be on board for just about any plot.
Anna seems to have it all: mega powers, mega weapons, mega awesome hair, and superb stunt skills. But although she has all these things in the alternate reality she struggles to rescue from oblivion, they are revealed to be an artifice when she returns to her own reality, where she is just a regular gal. Maybe Warren Ellis was making a comment on gamers and virtual world users, and the difference between our hyper-awesome cartoon identities and the hum-drum of everyday life.
As a writer of over-the-top adventures featuring an ass-kicking leading lady who also has huge hair, big guns, and major attitude problems, I absolutely love Anna’s aesthetic. When I hired an artist to do an illustration for the cover of The Second Omnibus, I sent him another brilliant Anna Mercury cover as a reference for the type of bodysuit Meteor Mags might wear, but embellished with stars and skulls.
Only a thousand of those were printed, and one of them arrived in my mailbox today. Stylistically, Anna’s been a big influence, and all I can say is that I hope Mags gets a movie deal before Anna does. May the best woman win.
The Complete Gail Simone Red SonjaOmnibus collects all nineteen of the author’s issues for Dynamite on the title, and it’s a great read. Simone and the art team created my all-time favorite adventures for the leading lady of metal bikinis, and one of the best things they did was finding her a few more sensible outfits.
The she-devil with a sword looks smashing in her bikini, but it never made much practical sense. One unrelated, non-Simone story from Dynamite shows Sonja leading a pack of male warriors though a snowy wasteland, constantly complaining about the cold while garbed in only her metal bikini and a single animal skin draped around her shoulders. No shit, Sonja. Put on some clothes. Somehow, all the men chose warm clothing, but she didn’t get the memo? Idiotic choices about combat gear make Sonja look stupid rather than tough and fearsome.
Simone gives Sonja her proper due as a warrior who doesn’t make frivolous clothing decisions when she wanders into snowy wastelands, muck-filled swamps, and other inhospitable environments.
Simone also revamped Sonja’s origin story into something far more appealing than the dusty old Roy Thomas version from 1970s Marvel Comics. Both Simone and Thomas have Sonja’s entire village and family murdered by marauders, but there the similarity ends. Thomas inexplicably included Sonja being raped right before the reader’s eyes, as if every female hero needs a good helping of rape to get started. Note to guys writing female leads: THEY DON’T.
Then, Thomas had Sonja gain her fierce warrior “power” as a semi-divine, mystical boon. That always bothered me, because it meant Sonja had no intrinsic skill or ferocity or admirable warrior qualities. They only came to her as a gift, because in her natural state she was a weakling. Compare that to a guy character like Reed Richards, who was a bloody genius before he ever got stretchy powers, or Hal Jordan who had a relentless will before he got his Green Lantern powers. Thanks, Roy Thomas, for reminding us that women are basically useless on their own.
To add insult to injury, Thomas tacked on a condition to Sonja’s warrior powers. To gain them, she needed to vow that she would never have sex with a dude unless he first defeated her in combat. What? Linking Sonja’s warrior skill to some sex thing is stupid, and it just plays into an awful idea that you need to physically beat a woman before bedding her. As a result, Sonja’s Marvel adventures never captured my imagination.
Oddly enough, Simone became a Sonja fan back in the 70s when she discovered the Marvel stories drawn by Frank Thorne. Something about the barbaric she-devil on a constant quest for drink, destruction, and dollars fired the young Simone’s imagination. When Gail had an opportunity to write Sonja for Dynamite, she cranked up the volume on all the things she loved while sweeping away the detritus Thomas left behind.
Simone’s Red Sonja origin still includes the murder of her entire family and village, but this Sonja has the skills to pay the bills. Simone’s young Sonja puts her keen mind and hunting ability to use in a bid to exact bloody revenge on the marauders, and she doesn’t need some mystical gift to accomplish it. She doesn’t need to be sexually assaulted for us to feel the horror she experienced, nor to take pleasure in seeing her adversaries die by the score and regret the day they ever met her.
Beyond correcting the origin, Simone delivers the best characterization I’ve ever read of Red Sonja as a brutal but relatable barbarian. Sonja makes mistakes and must deal with the consequences, often going to great lengths and incurring painful, personal loss to make things right. Sonja is admirable but rough around the edges. Fine cuisine is lost on this hell-beast who prefers plain and honest meat.
Sonja also has a major aversion to bathing and, despite her good looks, usually stinks so bad that she can’t even get laid—a fate that is often played for laughs, because this Red Sonja is a bit like Jenny Sparks from The Authority in that she isn’t ashamed of craving a good shag.
Sonja is so relentlessly barbaric that when she encounters traditional “girl time” of putting on makeup, doing her hair, and wearing pretty clothes, the whole thing is utterly alien to her and awakens emotions she doesn’t know how to process. By contrasting Sonja’s rough-edged rowdiness with softer and more traditionally feminine characters, Simone gives us a well-rounded and complex portrayal of the red-headed warrior.
On top of all that, Simone absolutely nails Sonja’s voice. Where the old Marvel stories narrated using captions full of third-person exposition, Simone lets Sonja narrate many scenes in her own first-person voice, and it’s a joy to read. There were plenty of places in this run where the plotting and the villains’ motivations seemed weak to me, but the strength of Sonja’s voice carried the story, and her force of character kept me engaged.
Simone transformed the savage she-devil from an embarrassing character trapped in Marvel’s vintage boys’ club into a fully realized sword-slinger, and my only real complaint is that she didn’t do it for a few more years.
Collector’s Guide: The physical omnibus currently sells for $100 or more, but you can get it in digital format for Kindle for $30. It’s a lot easier than trying to collect the original issues and trade paperbacks. You can also find Dynamite’s reprints of the original 1970s series in three Adventures of Red Sonja volumes in digital or paperback for about $20 each.
I was chatting with some fellow dinosaur geeks about Age of Reptiles and discovered that artist Ricardo Delgado might be working on a new volume of the series to amaze and astound us. Along the way, I realized I was missing one of the short stories: “The Baby Turtles”. I have now rectified that omission!
Between the epic awesomeness of 2009’s four-issue The Journey and 2015’s stunning Spinosaurus series Ancient Egyptians, Delgado produced two mini-stories that each appear in a different volume of the anthology title Dark Horse Presents.
In 2011, “The Body” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #4 (Volume Two). The story begins with a kill, and its eight pages are essentially a prehistoric nature documentary about what happens to the body of the prey. First, large predators squabble over the meat until they’ve eaten their fill, then smaller scavenging predators arrive, followed by even smaller insects and at last, flowering plants and the elements themselves.
Filled with detail and expressive animals, this wordless poem speaks volumes about both the impermanence and interconnectedness of all life.
In 2014, “The Baby Turtles” appeared in Dark Horse Presents #3 (Volume Three). This story begins not with death but with birth, and the newly hatched sea turtles must make their way from their sandy nests to the ocean where they will spend their lives. A variety of voracious predators await them in the sky, on land, and in the water in a danger-filled expedition that remains largely unchanged for today’s modern sea turtles.
This mini-story is also eight pages long in print, but six of those eight pages are gloriously detailed two-page spreads, each a single image filled with conflict between numerous species.
On a personal note, these pages remind me of what I often drew in elementary school to alleviate the boredom. I spent hours drawing insanely detailed doodles of warfare between different races of aliens with all kinds of weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. I was no Ricardo Delgado by any stretch of the imagination. My aliens would be simple shapes such as triangles with arms and legs, or ovals with multiple appendages like paramecia—just so long as they were easy to draw and easily identifiable as different factions. Every square centimeter of my alien war scenes were covered with detail, slaughter, and simplistic characters who each had their own story in my mind. My mother would sometimes see these pages and really not know what to make of them.
I think Delgado would have understood. I enjoy seeing him take that kind of intensity and deliver it with actual skill and draftsmanship based on extensive research. The detail-rich pages can be daunting to explore, but like some kind of Mesozoic Where’s Waldo, they reveal expressive, individual characters doing unique things within the scenes, all captured in one brief instant of their struggle to survive.
Here’s hoping the rumors about a new, upcoming Age of Reptiles series are true. I’ll buy two copies!
If you’re new to Age of Reptiles and want to get started, I recommend the digital edition of the Age of Reptiles Omnibus for about USD $13. It will be a lot more cost-effective than trying to buy the print versions, and it includes the first, second, and third series.
Reading The Hunter sheds light on how much Donald Westlake’s series of Parker novels influenced the ultra-gritty Sin City series by Frank Miller. It seems fair to say that the style of Sin City also influenced Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of its predecessor, bringing it all full-circle.
For example, Cooke sometimes fills a page with a single image and a column of narration on the side, something Miller often did, especially in the first Sin City volume The Hard Goodbye, and which John Byrne later parodied in She-Hulk.
Cooke also shows a fondness for the BAM sound effect rendered in blocky lettering when a pistol fires.
It’s a classic sound that brings to mind Miller’s iconic pages from the sixth issue of The Hard Goodbye where the sound effect becomes the frames for the action, and it reminds us that Westlake’s Parker and Miller’s Marv are cut from the same cloth.
If you crave stories with empowered women, then Parker isn’t for you. Parker’s world is a man’s world. Women are trotted onstage mostly for sex and betrayal. In Cooke’s four volumes, the woman with the most agency and initiative is Alma in The Outfit, since she sets up the heist while having her own secret plans. She wants to be a femme fatale, but her treachery does not end well for her.
Despite depicting a few variations on the female form, Cooke seems to have a default idea about what a beautiful woman looks like, and the faces of women in The Hunter often resemble faces he’s drawn before in his superhero comics. The face of the woman who betrayed Parker could easily be Cooke’s Wonder Woman or Catwoman, and that makes her feel a bit generic.
Oddly, that works for The Hunter, because Westlake built the story around characters who don’t run very deep—whether male or female. They are more like archetypal examples of the tropes of hard-boiled detective and crime fiction, as if they are so primal to the genre that they need little exploration. The Hunter is unconcerned with delving into what makes them unique, remaining entirely focused on the relentless advance of the revenge plot. If you want well-rounded female characters with depth and agency, go read some Greg Rucka or Gail Simone stories—because it ain’t happening in Parker!
This criticism didn’t stop me from being totally caught up in the story. What I love about Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter is how he chooses when to tell the story wordlessly and when to deliver exposition. We get some narration and one brief line of dialogue on the first page, and then nearly twenty-five pages of story told without a single word or sound effect. But in those wordless pages, all the action is so clear, expressive, and compelling that it comes as a shock when words once again appear on the page.
I also love how Cooke’s stripped-down approach to visuals honors Westlake’s stripped-down approach to prose for Parker. Compared to Westlake’s more lighthearted Dortmunder novels, the sentences in the Parker series are much leaner and tighter. Cooke’s artwork echoes that with a kind of minimalism, a simplicity that only conveys the bare essence of details to create the mood and tell the story. Panels lack borders, and thick shadows and bright light do almost all the work of defining images without lines. Cooke might depict the ironwork on a bridge by only inking its shadows and never drawing the outline of the overall shapes. While I love the detailed linework of artists such as Juan Jose Ryp, Geoff Darrow, or Steve McNiven, Cooke creates compelling environments and people using light, shadow, and monochromatic midtones.
The Outfit relies entirely on purple, and The Score uses a warm, dirty yellow that suits the setting in a hot desert mining town. While Sin City did something similar in a few volumes, those colors were more like occasional highlights than Cooke’s creative midtones.
It would have been fun to see another volume in red. The end of the fourth volume did promise another return of Parker. Sadly, Cooke was taken from us by cancer in 2016 at only fifty-three years old, and we never saw a fifth Parker adaptation.
Volumes two through four had interesting moments. The Outfit abruptly interrupts the established visual style to insert a series of explanations about a series of crimes. We get a multi-page newspaper article about a casino robbery, cartoon guides to horse-race gambling and smuggling cash on airplane flights to pay for heroin, and several pages of how to operate an illegal “numbers” betting operation. Everything I previously knew about “numbers running” came from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so it was interesting to get Westlake’s rundown on these vintage illegal enterprises.
The fourth and final volume, Slayground, traps Parker in an abandoned amusement park where he comes up with clever ways to use the environment against gangsters who want his money from a job he narrowly escaped. One of his ideas is spraying a blob of paint on every surface in the hall of mirrors, then luring someone in. I’ve seen so many hall-of-mirrors scenes in movies that I hoped to never see one again, but this was a brilliant take that restored my faith in reflective surfaces.
Slayground also delivers powerful moments of cinematic, wordless storytelling such as a four-panel page of a car we just saw lose control on the icy roads on the previous page, and now goes tumbling over our heads into the distance. You can almost feel the impact.
But of all four tales, my favorite is the first: a relentless revenge over a double-cross that made a heist go horribly wrong. It’s harder than hard-boiled and blacker than noir, a morally vacant tale about a repulsive protagonist who gets the job done with his hands.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that Parker makes it out of The Hunter alive. Westlake wrote twenty-four of these novels, and Cooke adapted four. At this point, you go into the series knowing the stakes are not life-or-death for Parker.
That does lower the dramatic tension. If you know the main character can’t be killed, then that lowers your investment in his success. In a series such as Sin City or Criminal, where individual stories are told out of order, a character might very well meet their end in any particular episode—and often does. Investment is high. You never know what’s coming next.
With Parker, we know he is unstoppable. The fun comes not from wondering whether he will live or die, but discovering how he bends circumstances to his will no matter what life throws at him. Parker’s world is a grim place, and he is not a role model nor even likeable. But he is enjoyable as an immovable object in a world of irresistible forces, or maybe the other way around. He possesses a singular focus and physical strength, and a superior insight into his amoral world of crime, lies, and power that helps him make it out alive—and, if he’s lucky, with a bit of money in his pocket.
Collector’s Guide: You can currently get the complete four-volume set of Cooke’s Parker adaptations in digital format for about $40 through Kindle/Comixology. Each volume was also printed in hardcover and paperback editions.
Steak is an independently published comic from the UK that explores the personal and political ramifications of traveling back in time to hunt dinosaurs for their meat. Author and educator Will Conway reports that when he started out, he had not heard of the Flesh series from 2000 AD, and that Steak is an entirely different beast. While Flesh sprung from the violent imagination of Pat Mills and focused on brutal chaos in a prehistoric setting, Steak delves into more psychological dimensions of the dino-hunting enterprise. But there’s plenty of Cretaceous carnage, too!
The main character, Benjamin Buckland, comes up with the idea while recovering from a brain injury, and he and his scientific partner Roger Dukowicz conceive the means of time travel after eating “a rare cactus”—presumably peyote. If that sounds like a mentally unhinged way to start a business, then it should come as no surprise that by the second issue, Buckland’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. It doesn’t help that his more even-keeled partner gets abducted, and a shadowy organization is spying on him.
As a self-proclaimed “zoophage” who gets a thrill from eating exotic animals, Buckland asserts that his main goal is to eat dinosaurs. He pays for his hobby by opening restaurants and doing licensing deals to expand the market for his Mesozoic meat. This leads to hilarious narration about how different dinosaur species taste, several gory yet coldly factual pages about how to butcher them like cattle, and pun-filled products such as “Apattiesaurus” burgers and “Psit-taco-saurus” food trucks. Dukowicz sports T-shirts with dinosaur-themed pop-culture references such as “Iguanodon Corleone”.
But with corporations trying to steal his technology for profit, and militaries trying to obtain it for a pre-emptive advantage in warfare, Buckland is beset from all sides. How it will all play out remains, at the time of this writing, a mystery. Issue number three of this five-issue series is currently in production, so now would be a good time to subscribe and see what happens next.
Marc Olivent’s artwork is a lot of fun, especially in the scenes of dinosaur hunting and how they go horribly wrong. The dinosaurs are impressive and energetic, whether they are chomping someone’s head or stampeding off a cliff. The narrative structure is creative, jumping around a bit in time in the first issue without much guidance as to when things take place other than intentionally vague captions like “Now then” and “Meanwhile”. It works well for a time-travel story, and piecing together the puzzle is part of the pleasure.
Steak considers the ethics of killing animals that died off millions of years ago. Are they endangered species because they are now extinct or, as one character puts it, is it “morally okay” because “They were already dead before they were already dead, I guess?” And when members of a hunting party get killed by dinos, the lawyers struggle with the question of how to handle someone dying millions of years before they were born. But these philosophical conundrums don’t bog down the narrative, which remains fast-paced and lively, and lets you draw your own conclusions.
So far, the series has avoided the complications of potentially altering the future by killing animals in the past, an idea most famously explored in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. But who knows? Maybe we will get there eventually, because Steak is a smart, funny, and exciting romp that serves up a unique and unpredictable take on a classic concept.
Collector’s Guide: You can order print copies at the Steak website, and subscribe to updates about upcoming issues. Currently the first two issues are available for Kindle in the USA and in the UK.
Racism and oppression based on race are nothing new to the United States. It was written into our original Constitution, and we had a full-blown war over it not too many generations ago. Judging from current events, that war left wounds that are far from healed even more than a century later. But one of the most overlooked parts of American history is how this nation treated its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
It happened at the same time we still pat ourselves on the back for because we opposed the Nazis. The Third Reich was herding Jews into ghettoes and eventually death camps, and the USA was the hero with the ethical high ground for opposing such inhumanity. That might be the morally satisfying story your grandparents remember about WWII—unless they were of Japanese descent. Here in the States, we were herding American citizens into camps of our own.
In 2019, former Star Trek star George Takei published a graphic novel about his experiences as a child in those camps. The narrative is interesting for the way it shows his multiple perspectives on the events at different times in his life. As a child on a train to the camps for the first time, protected by his parents from the true horror, he initially sees the detainment with a child’s sense of wonder at being on some new adventure.
As a teenager developing a broader historical perspective, he rages at his father for not violently resisting the incarceration.
As an older man, George comes to understand that his father and mother did everything in their power to do what was best for their children in a horrific situation no one should ever experience. Only later in life did he realize how much it meant for his mother to smuggle a sewing machine.
They Called Us Enemy includes a few framing sequences. One portrays George giving a TED Talk, which seems to be his presentation from 2014 in Kyoto, Japan.
I don’t know about you, but I think if I lived through what George did as a child, I would be bitter for a damn long time. Maybe forever. But George’s memoir continues through rebuilding his life after the war, getting involved in theater, landing his role as Sulu, and making peace with his past through political advocacy, non-profit work, and speaking to new audiences.
One would hope that George’s efforts to educate about that period of American history will prevent us from repeating horrors of the past. But it is difficult to maintain such hope in a time when thousands of people are held in similar camps for attempting to cross our border, where hundreds of thousands of people work as slave labor in prisons in a country with the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and where millions of people of color are being systematically disenfranchised though racist voting laws, gerrymandering, and the dismantling of election oversight committees.
But that’s what I love about Takei’s graphic novel. It doesn’t present an easy solution. It gets you thinking. It reminds you that if you don’t want the USA to be a nation governed by racist policy, then you need to get involved. You can’t just sit by and do nothing. They Called Us Enemy is both a cautionary and inspiring tale for those of us who envision a country where, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
On a related note, I recently discovered a Chris Hopkins series of paintings and drawings about the people who lived through the internment camps, and they range from powerful to heartbreaking.
Chris painted the cover of one of my favorite editions of old pirate biographies, and he also brought the Tuskegee Airmen to life with his brushes. You might have seen Chris’ paintings for 1980s movie posters such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Labyrinth, and Return of the Jedi. He currently has a gallery of dozens of paintings and drawings about the Japanese internment camps at http://www.chrishopkinsart.com/
One thing the Hopkins paintings cover that the Takei story does not is the rule that people sent to those camps could not bring their pets. As sad as it is to leave behind possessions and people, there’s something especially sad about leaving behind a best friend and companion who lacks the words and pictures to even comprehend what is happening.
Fortunately, George Takei and his artistic collaborators created words and pictures we can understand, relate to, and learn from. They Called Us Enemy is an educational yet personal account from a man who lived through the worst of times, and it deserves a place alongside Maus and March in your collection.
Shout out to my fellow blogger and comic-book enthusiast Ben Herman for introducing me to this book with his post about meeting George at a 2021 Comic Con.
Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has long been one of all-time favorite works of fiction in any medium, and the greatest crime is that I’ve never written about it since discovering it around thirteen years ago.
My first exposure to this prolific creative team was the Sleeper series, which was either the first or second time Brubaker and Phillips worked together. Set in the same “universe” as the WildC.A.T.s (created by Jim Lee) and featuring the villainous mastermind Tao (created by Alan Moore), Sleeper was an unsettling combination of the two main elements which gave rise to the superhero genre: crime fiction and science fiction.
But Sleeper had little use for superheroes, beyond guest-starring Grifter. Instead, it focused on the adventures of villains doing covert operations for shadowy organizations. Subverting the superhero genre, Brubaker treated Sleeper like a pulp crime story with a first-person narration by a deeply broken, hardboiled protagonist you would expect to find in a noir detective novel.
When I discovered Criminal shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to see what Brubaker and Phillips could do with a pulp crime story without any of the superpowers and sci-fi. I joined the ongoing series around the time the first storyline was wrapping up, so I got a subscription and enjoyed the rabid, edge-of-my-seat anticipation of every new issue.
But it’s hard to say why I love this series so much. It’s hopeless, bleak, and downright depressing. Anything resembling a character’s redemption arc is sure to end in tragedy and tears. Everyone is either broken, or despicable, or both. Characters tend to be either victims of abuse, or abusers, or both. Any brief moments of happiness are either doomed, or illusory, or both. The world of Criminal is an inescapable hell that destroys everyone, even the most powerful and the most innocent.
Maybe my fascination with the series is related to that part of the human mind that can’t resist looking at a crash on the highway. That sick part of our monkey brains that slows down to see the carnage until the road is backed up with gawkers for miles. It’s probably the part of our minds that is responsible for slasher flicks and so-called “disaster porn”, the part that craves horror and violence even in otherwise well-adjusted people who normally avoid such things. Maybe Criminal channels that aspect of human experience into fiction where it’s safe, where no one really gets hurt. You can gawk at a fictional train wreck and not feel guilty.
Criminal is also a remarkable feat of storytelling. You can read any one of the self-contained stories on its own or, as Brubaker often says, in any order at all. The stories feature numerous recurring characters connected by the strands of their web of crime, and the stories are not delivered in chronological order. You might meet someone in one story, then discover their childhood in another. Someone who dies in one story might appear years earlier in another.
Through it all, narrative captions tend to focus on one character’s internal experience or monologue per issue, sometimes describing the action that appears in the panels, but more often a step removed from the story that Phillips tells visually, giving insight into what characters are thinking or feeling. You also see certain events from multiple perspectives—sometimes from issue to issue, and sometimes from story to story. This approach amplifies the feeling that all events are connected and inevitable.
Criminal influenced my approach to storytelling when I started writing fiction, but the criminals I write about revel in their lawless lifestyles. They experience horror, but they mostly enjoy being on the wrong side of the law and doing what they do. They have fun!
Any fun that Brubaker’s criminals enjoy is a short-lived uptick on their downward spiral to despair and disaster. If you’re looking for happy endings or uplifting messages about the human condition, Criminal isn’t for you. The most fortunate characters end up dead, and the least fortunate keep on living, trapped in Brubaker’s sprawling saga of doom, degradation, and mutual destruction.
But the series is so well-constructed, so impenetrably dark, and so well-told that I find it impossible to avert my eyes from the wreck, and I have read and re-read each story many times. I think the saving grace, what makes it possible to wander into this cruel, noir world, is that so many of the characters evoke sympathy and empathy. Many of Brubaker’s villains tend to have some spark of humanity that makes them relatable. They are rarely evil for the sake of being evil, like so many poorly done “bad guys”. Instead, they have been twisted and morally deformed by the awful events of their lives.
Even a complete scumbag such as Teeg Lawless, who often beats and abandons his two sons, is shown to believe that in his own fucked-up way, he thinks he loves his kids. His deranged and damaged brand of “love” is not one I would wish on any child, but it’s consistent with the way that even the worst villains in these tales tend to think of themselves as some kind of heroes, even when they are so incredibly wrong.
That’s something we need to think about more often but has become increasingly rare. It is now easier than ever for delusional people to find similarly deluded people in Internet echo chambers and rally around causes that range from nonsensical to dangerous. It has become increasingly easy for people to embrace messages of hate in the name of love, to proclaim treason as patriotism, to promote lies they accept as truth, and to advance anti-social policies under the guise of freedom.
We could all use a bit of self-reflection to step back and ask ourselves whether or not our heroic stances are, in fact, villainous. When writing a good fictitious villain, the best authors know that the villain should be a hero in his or her own narrative about the world.
But that isn’t something that’s only true in fiction. It works in stories because it expresses something true about real people. I often look back on my life and am filled with regret for things I did and mistakenly thought were right at the time, only to realize later that despite being a hero in my own story, I was the villain in someone else’s, and things I believed to be right were so very, very wrong.
Criminal warns this is a universal aspect of human experience, and if there is any moral compass or lesson to be learned from Brubaker’s tragic tales, it is that we need to question our own ideas, assumptions, decisions, and sense of justice. If we don’t, then we will remain as trapped as the characters in Criminal, and nothing good can come from that.
The Dominion graphic novel takes place prior to the recent Godzilla Vs. Kong movie, and it earns a place in my pantheon of all-time favorite Godzilla stories for not only leaving out all the stupid human stuff, but for its poetic treatment of the radioactive reptile, and for its ass-kicking artwork by Drew Edward Johnson, with colors by Allen Passalaqua.
The author, Greg Keyes, wrote the novelizations for the two most recent Godzilla movies. He’s also written novels based on Pacific Rim, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Avengers, and other licensed properties. His written versions of Godzilla movies have received mixed reviews on Amazon: People either love them or hate them, without much middle ground.
But if you use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the prologue of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, then you’ll get a sense of the prose treatment Keyes uses to describe Godzilla. Dominion is like that gorgeous prologue sustained for an entire book.
Keyes tells a relatable tale of the monster’s search for a new home. Godzilla wants a place to settle down, somewhere he can chill out while rejuvenating his body and mind. But everywhere he goes, creepy weirdos get all up in his business. Flesh-eating vermin invade his old pad. He goes hungry for far too long. Despite winning his battles, he might be doomed to never know peace.
Keyes offers an unusual take on my favorite city-stomping hell-beast. In Dominion, Godzilla is more than a mindless force of destruction. He is in tune with the Earth and is a protector of the planet he calls home, waging war on other kaiju who would ignite global catastrophe by munching on nukes or destroying the ecological balance in the settings they invade.
Dominion paints an oddly heroic portrait that lends more depth to Godzilla than you might be accustomed to, but don’t expect Godzilla to be some peaceful, Earth-loving hippie. The monster’s battles in service of the big, ecological picture also wreak total havoc on ships, surfers, and off-shore drilling stations. Eco-sensitive Godzilla is the poster child for “collateral damage”.
As for the artwork, I absolutely love it. It looks a bit better in the digital version than the paperback, because many of the underwater pages are so dark that it helps to have your device backlighting them. And some of the glorious two-page panel layouts lose parts of images in the “gutter” of the paperback, while you can easily appreciate the entire page in digital format.
Although Dominion is a serious treatment of the king of monsters, the creators can’t resist sneaking in at least one comedic sound effect: HHGGIMPAAAK! I didn’t get the joke until my second read.
At times a thoughtful meditation on the monster and his life, Dominion still has plenty of awesomely rendered kaiju battles, explosions, and the larger-than-life chaos we expect from Godzilla. My favorite line? “They thought they could challenge him. They were wrong.”
I used to have a few of the single issues of Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl from Dymanite, and I admit they were a guilty pleasure. There is so much wrong with the classic jungle girl trope that I hardly know where to begin. On the other hand, how can I not love this idealized, bikini-clad beauty punching a pterodactyl in the frickin’ face—with a crowbar!
So, what the hell. Last month, I got the Omnibus edition that collects all three “seasons” of the series, and I was not disappointed by the lush depictions of savage dinosaurs, giant sea krakens, and other monstrosities in physical combat with Jana the jungle girl. I like heroines who kick major ass, and Jana kicks countless miles of ass in a non-stop adventure that takes her from one peril to the next in fast-paced action.
In fact, she fights so hard that her bra almost comes off, and that tells you just about everything you need to know about the vibe of this series.
Early on, the creative team lampshades their pandering to the male gaze by showing the screen of a video camera held by one of the male supporting characters. The screen is filled with Jana’s boobs in one panel, then her butt in the next. It’s a tongue-in-cheek self-reference for a series that clearly indulges the readers’ desire to look at Jana in all her unattainable glory, and I would be surprised to discover that any of those readers are women.
Despite the gratuitous yet awesomely rendered cheesecake, I can’t see this series as sexist or inherently degrading. As a character, Jana possesses a keen intelligence and a deep knowledge of the flora and fauna in her environment, even if she is ignorant of technologies and terminology of “the outside world”. She holds the moral high ground, proving herself ethically superior to the scumbags she encounters. Jana is strong both physically and in terms of her unassailable will power and confidence. Other than her portrayal on the cover, she is never really a “damsel in distress”, even though she does get into some jams—as every hero should. Jana is kind and loving to those who earn her trust, yet absolutely ready to end any human, animal, or monster who messes with her. Jana is both a protector and a destroyer, and though she parades through these pages in pin-up poses, she gives readers many reasons to respect and admire her character. She is like a female Conan.
The creative team, helmed by Frank Cho who draws the covers and co-plots the series, leans hard into the typical aspects of a jungle girl trope. Jana is a white girl in an animal-print bikini who has hairless legs and armpits despite never shaving, and picture-perfect, dirtless feet despite constantly traveling over rough terrain in her bare feet. Let’s not even discuss how she never has a stray pube despite the total lack of bikini waxing in her jungle. The bikini trope is leaned into so hard that Jana reveals she has various bikinis stashed in secret caches across the landscape, sometimes pausing the plot to change into a new animal print for no good reason.
As the series progresses, it incorporates other classic tropes and concepts dating back to around a century ago when the jungle girl became a mainstay of American fiction. The series has been compared to earlier “Lost World” stories, and the second and third seasons are rife with Lovecraftian beasts. Jungle Girl is like a story from 100 years ago, but produced with modern, high-quality artwork.
I agree with other reviewers who had “WTF” moments with the third season. For the entire third season, Jana ditches her bikini and wears a full-body wet suit after a dive, which makes sense, except that the other characters who needed wet suits lose them almost immediately. The plot veers from the absurd into the completely nonsensical, and it ends on a nearly incomprehensible note. It’s a weird stew that gives the impression that the creators wanted so much to incorporate all the vintage tropes that they forgot to have it make sense. I would say that Jungle Girl “jumps the shark” at a certain point, if not for the fact that the entire series consists of shark jumping.
While the Jungle Girl Omnibus: The Complete Collection will never be considered one of the great literary works of our time, it’s an action-packed ride for readers who want to see an ass-kicking beauty ride a mammoth, spear a T-Rex, fight a giant octopus, and bash the living daylights out of hordes of creepy weirdos. What it lacks in terms of plot coherency is made up for with dinosaur stampedes. What it lacks in sensitivity to female readers, it mostly makes up for by giving Jana such an admirable characterization that she is more than mere eye candy.
Though there’s plenty of that, too.
Collectors Guide: This Omnibus collection is easily found on Amazon in print and digital formats, and often in stock at MyComicShop.
I was thrilled last month when I read that NASA is sending squids into space. I’m a space-octopus enthusiast, so squids in space is something I can get excited about. But the article dashed my dreams with a cold dose of reality. After serving as research subjects, the helpless squids will be returned to Earth—frozen.
Their fate brings to mind another tragic tale: that of Laika, the canine cosmonaut. She was an abandoned puppy who became the first dog in space, but she was also abandoned a second time, in orbit. Though the details of her demise were obscured at the time, it’s now widely accepted that she died from overheating. She got so hot that it killed her. Think about that for a second. I don’t even like dogs, but that’s not a destiny I would wish on any of them.
Nick Abadzis tells her story in his graphic novel, Laika. Though he portrays her as an adorable and loving companion, and certainly the main character, Abadzis resists the urge to anthropomorphize her. He tells compelling, human tales about the researchers who worked with her, trained her, and tested her, but Laika remains resolutely canine.
The one artistic decision that bothers me is the author’s tendency to wax poetic as Laika orbits the Earth. While the decision lends the moment an inspirational grandeur befitting its place in the history of space exploration, I could not help but feel sad and angry knowing that the reality for the animal was intense suffering in her final moments, alone and without comfort inside a metal cage, tortured for a purpose she could never understand nor even desire.
But Abadzis knows these harsh facts, and he shows more than the public backlash from the world’s discovery that Laika died. He shows the grief on a personal level in the reactions of the woman who worked with Laika and built a bond of affection and trust, despite the experiments she oversaw that must have been absolutely terrifying for the animal.
We as a species need to reconsider our choice to send intelligent, feeling animals into space to die. As much as we have benefitted from space exploration and research, the time has come to stop treating animals like disposable garbage in the pursuit of new horizons.
The inscription on the Soviet Monument to the Conquerors of Space speaks of the “reward for our toils”. Though the sentiment is noble, the reward for animals we send to space is not noble. It is only nightmare, or death.
And thus rewarded are our toils, That having vanquished lawlessness and dark, We have forged great flaming wings For our Nation And this age of ours!
In 2016, IDW answered my long-unheard prayers for a Godzilla story that cut out all the stupid human parts, made my favorite radioactive lizard the main character, and gave him the task for which he above all other creatures is best-suited: destroying the ever-loving shit out of everything in his path! The five issues of Godzilla in Hell are my favorite Godzilla story so far, beating the original 1970s Marvel stories I loved as a kid and topping the monumental, manga-style Dark Horse mini-series from 1988. Let’s take a look inside.
The first issue begins with Godzilla falling through a hole into the wastelands of Hell. It offers zero explanation about how or why this fate befell our hero, and that is a solid artistic choice. You are either all-aboard with this insane premise or not, and no amount of pseudoscience, mysticism, or tedious exposition will sway your opinion. So, why bother?
Each issue has its own creative team with its own visual style, and issue #2 is the only one that has narrative captions. Otherwise, the series has little use for text beyond monstrous screaming. I get the impression that each team received minimal instructions, something along the lines of “Godzilla encounters various horrors and monsters on his way to the end of the issue, where he will descend into the next level of Hell.” The plot is as simple and direct as Godzilla himself, who meets each foe head-on with primal ferocity and unbridled rage.
This is what Godzilla is all about to me. He’s a force of nature like a waterfall or a late-period John Coltrane improvisation. It never occurs to him to slow down, run away, or give up. And when he meets, in the third issue, a weird entity that attempts to convince him to join the forces of peace and submit to its will, Godzilla ain’t tryna to hear any of that bullshit. Peace is for beings of lesser fury.
Godzilla’s path, as he demonstrates with unrivaled brutality, is one of pure destruction. In some ways, his portrayal in this series reminds me of the unstoppable Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub. No matter what you throw at him, he’s on a mission of annihilation. Skreeeonnnnnkk!
Along the way, Godzilla murders every freakish monstrosity and classic kaiju Hell can throw at him. Yet his triumphs are short-lived. He is doomed at the end of each issue to go to another hellish level, like Dante’s Inferno but with way more ass-kicking.
In the final issue, the king of all monsters is eaten alive and completely destroyed by a swarm of flying scumbags who are little more than mouths and wings and hate. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it is a pitch-perfect finale that expresses Godzilla’s true essence in a way no movie or comic book ever has, before or since. If you want the best Godzilla story ever, then the solution is simple: Go to Hell!
Collectors’ Guide: It’s hard to find the original single issues in print or TPB, but this five-issue series was collected along with two other mini-series in Godzilla: Unnatural Disasters, which is easy to find for about $20 on Amazon in TPB format or Kindle/Comixology format, and also at MyComicShop in TPB format.
The Cretaceous graphic novel is the most recent addition to my collection of pure dinosaur comics, and it is non-stop awesome. Like Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles series, it is a wordless dino adventure, though Tadd Galusha does drop in the occasional text-based sound effect or growl. Cretaceous delivers a wildlife documentary from hell, with nearly every page being full of brutally violent dinosaur fights and dinos eating other dinos. This tale of carnage and mayhem is not a cute book for toddlers!
If you’re like me, you wish that Godzilla movies and comics would just get rid of all the stupid human parts and show more monster battles. Galusha—who worked on some Godzilla comics for IDW—must feel the same way, because Cretaceous is all killer and no filler. Early on, I wondered if the book even had a plot, or if it was just an endless stream of savagery, with different dinos weaving in and out of each other’s lives on the way to their doom.
Although that’s a fairly accurate statement about Cretaceous, a plot does emerge. The protagonist is an adult male Tyrannosaurus Rex, a fearsome monster who, in the first scene, attacks a herd of Parasaurolophus and slaughters one of them. He carries the fresh corpse back to his home, where the meat feeds his juveniles first and then his wife. The mother Rex waits patiently while the children feed, and this detail of her characterization takes us on the first step down the path of learning to love these murderous beasts. Yes, they are killers, but within their family unit is affection, devotion, and tenderness.
But not even these rulers of prehistory can escape the eat-and-be-eaten web of life, especially when smaller predators have developed the skill to hunt in packs and accomplish what a lone individual cannot. Tragedy befalls the Rex family, and the remainder of the book resembles an old-fashioned revenge tale. A classic Western, almost.
The daddy Rex hunts his enemies and searches for his surviving child. The perpetual horror he encounters earns him our sympathy, and his mastery of unarmed combat earns him our respect. Step-by-step, as we follow him through the forest primeval and other resplendent landscapes brought to life by Galusha’s pen and colors, we learn to love this monster.
The environment is so much a part of the action that it’s practically a character itself. Galusha doesn’t just draw pretty backgrounds. The earth, the trees, the fog, the ocean—they are all more than mere settings. They are both friends and foes to the dinosaurs, often at the same time. Plus, their visual splendor is a counterpoint to the sheer terror that drives Cretaceous. And is that any different from our real lives? We are fragile creatures, even the toughest of us, inhabiting a beautiful universe where life often feels like a relentless string of one ugly event after another.
Yet life goes on, and though we know exactly how all our stories will end, we persist. By boiling down the dinosaurs’ lives into their most primal aspects, Cretaceous seems to comment on our human lives. Galusha presents an unflinchingly brutal vision of life and death, a narrative of ceaseless struggle illuminated occasionally by the moments of hope, triumph, and even love that keep us going—despite knowing all too well the cards are stacked against us. We come to love the monstrous Rex, because the monster is us, and everything around us. His quest is ours.
Cretaceous blew my mind and earned a spot among my all-time favorite dinosaur comics, a pantheon which includes Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles, Steve Bissette’s Tyrant, and Jim Lawson’s Paleo and Loner.
Wolfskin is one of a couple dozen miniseries written by Warren Ellis for Avatar Press, a company founded in 1996 and which does not shy away from graphic violence, gore, vulgarity, nudity, and countless variant covers. You’ll find all five in Wolfskin, brought to life by artist Juan Jose Ryp, who collaborated with Ellis on several titles such as No Hero and my personal favorite, Black Summer.
The titular, barbaric character hacks and slashes his way through a hell of a lot of people, occasionally pausing to rage against what he calls “machines”, which includes firearms and apparently anything mechanical. Wolfskin resembles Conan in his brute force and (questionably) superior moral code compared to the people around him, although Conan’s big gripe was not with machines but with sorcerers. And where Conan felt his god Crom was more or less disinterested in human affairs, Wolfskin’s god Wrod is available to assist with a lifeforce and power boost when Wolfie eats some magic mushrooms.
Wolfskin’s first three-issue series is a straightforward tale that revels in its own savagery. One of the things I find most amusing is Ellis’ take on the gratuitous shower scenes for women in basically every science fiction movie and plenty of superhero comics written by guys to indulge other guys in the “male gaze”. The better part of one issue consists of conversations Wolfskin has with a series of visitors while he bathes naked in a woodland river. He eventually steps out of the water for some full-frontal nudity featuring his uncircumcised dong that dwarfs even Dr. Manhattan’s bright blue wang.
I can’t help but feel Ellis and Ryp are satirizing pointless female bathing scenes, but it’s also funny because the poor guy can’t even wash up in peace without weirdos dropping by to pester him with their messed-up schemes and dubious stories—which is exactly how I feel as a bachelor who has his showers interrupted by everyone from landlords and maintenance people to neighbors and delivery drivers who can’t find someone else’s apartment without help.
Anyway, Wolfie gets so irate that he can’t even monologue, exposit, or make sound effects.
Wolfskin is the kind of bad-ass I love to read about, whether male or female, and he has a follow-up miniseries called Hundredth Dream in which he once again totally rages against the machines by destroying the hell out of them. Ryp didn’t draw that one, but the art still kicks ass.
Hundredth Dream is also a straightforward tale of battle and bravery, but with a steampunk vibe thanks to technology that is at once futuristic and primitive.
Despite a few dialogue-heavy scenes, Ellis avoids the traditional narrative captions and expositional thought balloons of your typical superhero comic. Many pages are wordless, and sometimes Wolfskin goes several pages without saying much more than “Fuck!” I find it not only hilarious that Ellis got paid to write that dialogue, but also how much more realistic it feels compared to, for example, Chris Claremont’s X-Men characters who couldn’t walk down a simple flight of stairs without hundreds of words of self-examination, existential pondering, and plot summary floating around their heads.
I’m not putting Claremont down; it’s just a totally different approach to scripting. Ellis scripts in a way that doesn’t so much direct his artists as it does unleash them. With a draftsman like Ryp, it’s probably best to just throw a couple scraps of raw meat at him and let him off the chain. Bryan Hitch, a longtime Ellis collaborator, once joked in an interview about how Ellis scripts have incredibly simple statements to cue the artist for massively complex splash panels, such as “The fleets engage.”
If I had collaborators like Hitch and Ryp, I’d have them engage the fleets all day long. Their visual sensibilities are far beyond mine. The Ellis approach has undoubtedly infected my fiction. But instead of putting the descriptive burden on a penciller, I delegate that work to my third-person narrator, allowing him to paint a picture even if the dialogue is only a few profanities.
It just feels more real to me that way. When was the last time you injured yourself and launched into a longwinded exposition about your problems and what led up to them? Probably never. Like Wolfskin, you most likely exploded into some convenient curse words without much forethought. Maybe later, while talking to a friend, you explained for a couple hours about how your entire life story revolved around that injury. But in that case, you had crossed over into a Brian Michael Bendis comic! It certainly wasn’t Wolfskin!
Wolfskin and its Hundredth Dream sequel are like fun popcorn movies, just as long as you don’t mind getting blood all over your snacks. You won’t need to ponder the cosmic or bleeding-edge tech concepts Ellis employs in many other works. Just sit back, enjoy the mayhem, and savor every line of the ultra-detailed art. May Wrod have mercy on your soul!
Collector’s Guide:Wolfskin appears in single issues with variant covers to choose from. I especially enjoy Ryp’s wraparound covers. The standalone Annual also appears in a two-volume TPB that collects the first series plus all the single issues of Wolfskin: Hundredth Dream. Amazon has digital versions that collect the first series (including the Annual) and the second series.
Today’s entry in the Indie Box is one I have never owned nor even seen in the flesh. But with insane, sci-fidinosaur art from Steve “Tyrant” Bissette and Peter “Ninja Turtles” Laird, who could resist? These pages come from the Mirage Mini Comics Boxed Set, a treasure so long out-of-print that I don’t mind if you post a link to buy it in the comments!
March is a three-issue graphic novel from 2013 that autobiographically tells the story of 1960s-era civil-rights activist John Lewis, who later served as a representative for Georgia. He led one of the groups that helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Through a series of framing sequences and flashbacks, March takes the reader on a journey from an impoverished rural childhood, through times of heartbreaking violence and protest, to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. That moment was a cultural victory for millions of Americans, and reading about it this month puts recent events into perspective.
In January 2021, we saw a different kind of march on Washington. A violent mob of white supremacists and incredibly misguided people who swear allegiance to a reality-TV demagogue and known liar stormed the capitol, claiming their racist hate was patriotism, claiming their attempt to overthrow a fair and democratic election was a defense of democracy, and leaving in their wake a trail of death and destruction in the name of so-called freedom.
March also reminds us that this despicable aspect of America is nothing new. Similar violence and even worse was rained down upon black Americans staging peaceful protests attempting to be served in restaurants, join schools, or ride a bus — and it was accompanied by the same sort of flag-waving idiocy and bible-thumping madness that too many have used to advance an agenda of racial subjugation that has nothing to do with our country’s ideals of equality nor the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
John Lewis passed away last year, in 2020. But we are fortunate that he left us with this memoir. It is a monument to how far our country advanced in terms of equality in his lifetime and, especially in light of recent events, a reminder of just how far we have to go.
Fran is the female counterpart to Jim Woodring’s Frank, a somewhat traditional “funny animal” cartoon character who lives in a completely untraditional world of mayhem, magical beings, mysterious objects, and massive acid trips. It’s a world where even when Woodring shows you exactly what is happening, you still wonder what the hell is happening! Frank stories are unpredictable and open to interpretation, and the Fran graphic novel is no exception.
Things start out simply enough. Fran and Frank are living in apparent marital bliss, where a morning of play fighting and teasing is just an expression of their mutual affection.
But when Frank and his pet chase down a creep who stole Frank’s sketchbook, they unearth a hole that leads to a subterranean cavern filled with presumably stolen wonders. Frank, being amoral or at least morally ambiguous, loots the cave and takes home the booty.
One of the treasures is a projector that, when worn on the head, projects the wearer’s memories like a movie. When Fran refuses to put it on her head, Frank loses his temper and screams at her.
As a result, she leaves him. When Frank realizes she’s gone, he is heartbroken, and beats himself up for being such a jerk.
The rest of the story primarily concerns Frank’s quest to follow Fran’s trail into the psychedelic wilderness and reunite with her. But there is more to Fran than meets the eye, and we discover several things about her that suggest she had good reason to not want her memories exposed to Frank via the projector. She violently slaughters some creeps who assault her, shacks up with a guy with a freaky face, and ultimately uses a shape-shifting deception to ditch Frank once again.
Frank doesn’t take it well. He lets loose a howl that brings down the heavens… or something!
From there, things get really weird. Frank’s journey takes unexpected twists and turns through a deranged cosmos loosely governed by cartoon physics and hallucinatory horror. Like the previous novel-length Frank adventures in Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals, Fran will keep you guessing about what could possibly happen next, and leave you pondering what it all means at the end.
Patience is my favorite work by Daniel Clowes. It tells a relatively (for Clowes) straight-forward yet suspenseful science-fiction tale. Having deconstructed the superhero genre in his previous work, The Death-Ray, which was a pastiche of multiple comic-strip conventions, Clowes gave us Patience in a more traditional narrative style. Despite that, this book subverted my expectations many times, and I love that about it.
The story begins with the quiet slice-of-life drama you might expect if you’ve read Clowes’ Ghost World or Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. Humdrum everyman characters encounter mostly typical problems while filled with a persistent existential malaise. I usually find stories about average people to be quite tedious. Real life is average enough for me, thanks. So, I began to wonder what all the hype was with Patience, because there are about twenty pages of this stuff before the story really kicks off.
But after an unexpected tragedy, the story shifts tone and becomes a mystery, and I began to wonder just what kind of book I was reading. Then the story jumps into the year 2029, which has been one of my favorite years for science-fiction tales since the first Terminator movie came out, and the tone radically shifts again. About forty pages in, our humdrum everyman has undergone a dramatic emotional change as he sets eyes on the catalyst for the rest of the tale.
Okay, now we’re into exciting territory! A force of nature! But the problem for the protagonist is that despite his delusions of grandeur, he is still a bumbling, incompetent lunkhead. Full of raging desire to set the world straight by exacting his revenge, he only makes more of a mess of everything. His bungling ineptitude reminds me of the 2007 film Timecrimes which, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching without reading about it or seeing the trailer first.
The visual style of this book feels like an homage to the brightly colored pulp comic books of a bygone age, the kind of books Clowes also paid tribute to in David Boring, which included excerpts from an imaginary superhero comic about The Yellow Streak. But there’s one convention he repeatedly messes with: He places all or most of many speech balloons outside the panel borders, cutting off their edges so the dialogue is incomplete. The result is a sense that the dialogue is less important than the protagonist’s relentless interior monologue as he narrates the story in captions which are never cut off.
Throughout the adventure, the hero becomes increasingly deranged, experiencing wild moods swings and psychedelic visions. These are shown in a style that feels more like the trippy underground comix of the 1970s than their pulp predecessors.
While Patience employed some common science-fiction tropes, it excelled at keeping me guessing about what would come next and how it would all play out. Several times I thought I might have it all figured out, only to be proven wrong. And that’s the fun. With all the plot twists and turns, gradual character reveals, and the tonal and stylistic shifts, Patience kept me riveted to the page.
Action Philosophers uses humor, exaggeration, and sight gags to spice up a subject that many people avoid just because it’s too damn boring. Writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey bring much-needed life to the topic in their irreverent yet educational takes on many of the most influential philosophers, from ancient times to modern.
Consider Bodhidharma, an important figure in the development of both Zen and martial arts. Did you think a lesson on Zen was going to be a bunch of boring monks sitting around meditating? Think again!
Then there’s Isaac Luria, portrayed in an homage to the sorcerer Dr. Strange of Marvel Comics fame.
In their quest to make philosophy exciting, the creative team pays other tributes to action-packed comic book styles, including Jack Kirby’s pulse-pounding visuals.
Pop culture references abound, such as imagining David Hume using the old Saturday Night Live catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” I’ve read Hume before, and it was nowhere near as fun as this version.
The conventions of comic book art lend themselves to illustrating some abstract concepts, like this page where objects and people disappear because the philosopher isn’t thinking about them.
And why suffer through tedious history books about Francis Bacon when a handy infographic does the trick?
This is a fun series, and I thank reader Ergozen for recommending it a few months ago. The Tenth Anniversary “uber-edition” collects all the material so that the philosophers appear in chronological order, but it’s often out of stock or exorbitantly priced. However, you can find a similar complete collection on Amazon at a reasonable price.
You can also explore more fun and educational works at Ryan Dunlavey’s site, including a lengthy sample of his history of comic books.
It’s no secret that one of my favorite pieces of fiction is Frank Miller’s Sin City series. I discovered it at the Las Vegas public library about eighteen years ago when I checked out the A Dame to Kill For TPB. It was the most awesome thing I’d ever read, with over-the-top brutality and an atmosphere that was darker than the blackest noir. It was so intense about being intense that it was funny and morbidly serious at the same time, and the first thing I did after reading it was read it again. Then I tracked down the other stories! One had dinosaurs.
For a while I had the complete series in an awesome collected edition, but those books were smaller than the full-sized TPBs, and there’s just something about this series that suits being as big as possible. The original TPB collections also appear to include more pages than were printed in the original serialized formats, such as extra splash pages for multiple perspectives of Dwight holding a dude’s head underwater in a toilet in The Big Fat Kill. The one missing ingredient in the earliest TPBs is color, the use of just one primary color as an accent to individual stories, such as the yellow highlights in the TPB for That Yellow Bastard. Still, I’m okay without the color if I get a bigger page size!
The black and white art is insanely melodramatic, as shown in a couple pages of Marv walking in the rain from the first Sin City TPB, later titled The Hard Goodbye. The text is like a hard-boiled detective novel with the volume turned up to eleven. I not only love this scene, I love that it goes on for ten whole pages — eleven in the TPB!
While writing last week’s post about Next Men, I looked into some other John Byrne works I hadn’t seen yet, including his stint on The Sensational She-Hulk. That run is best known for relentlessly breaking the fourth wall and having the characters be aware they were in a comic book. Byrne based the fiftieth issue on a gag that he had been killed, and the cast needed to find a new writer and artist. So, he showed how some of his friends in the industry would do a She-Hulk story. That’s how we got a couple pages of a Sin City She-Hulk.
This post was made possible by this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to buy comics. Recent store credit made it possible to reconnect with the Sin City TPBs that first hooked me on the series. Thank you!
Once upon a time, I had the complete Next Men series, except for the Hellboy issue. Though I read the series three or four times, I’ve missed having it around ever since I sold it. This month, thanks to this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to find books, I earned enough store credit to get all six of the 1993 trade paperback collections. Reading the series again reminds how much the series blew my mind the first time through, and as a bonus, it includes the Hellboy issue with pages drawn by Mike Mignola.
Hellboy’s appearance in issue #17 makes it the most expensive one to collect. It’s easy to collect all the other original, single issues for less than $3 each, but #17 will cost as much or more than all the other thirty issues combined. That’s not a problem with the collected paperback.
Hellboy might be part demon, but he is a far cry from the absolute evil of the series’ main villain. Sathanas is the remnants of a mutated energy vampire who kills people by draining their lifeforce, and since so much of him got blown up, he survives in a mechanical suit. Despite his silly name, he’s among my favorite John Byrne villains.
Despite the fun of the paperbacks, they have three disappointments, possibly because they were made more than a quarter-century ago before TPBs became so popular. These days, we expect the TPB to include all the original covers and, if any, all the variant covers. But the Next Men covers get treated terribly, reduced to about 1/6 of the page size and combined in a “gallery”. It’s an odd design choice, considering that there’s a useless page between each “issue” that just splits the words “Next Men” across its front and back. That would be a lovely place for a cover!
Second, the story is so intertwined with the short graphic novel 2112 that the original Next Men series isn’t complete without it. This oversight is forgivable, since the events of 2112 get summarized by one of the characters.
What’s unforgivable is the omission of the entire series of “back-up” stories, M4. These were short episodes with characters who, at first, seemed only tangentially related to the main series. But the stories intersected eventually, and the M4 characters were essential to the finale and resolution. Leaving out the M4 pages makes these characters appear to pop out of nowhere in the main storyline, which makes for utterly confusing plot developments for unfamiliar readers. Plus, M4 had its own covers, featured on the back of the single issues where it ran, and the TPBs have none of them.
For the completists: When IDW reprinted the series in color in 2009, they included M4 but not 2112. IDW’s 2011 reprint series (“Classic Next Men”, in three TPBs) includes both M4 and 2112, and it’s also in full color. I’ve only ever seen it in stock on Amazon for around $40 per volume in paperback, but you can get them for $10.99 each for Kindle and Comixology, and as a set with the sequel for a total of $43.
Even with these omissions, I loved re-reading this imaginative and intricately plotted series that features some of Byrne’s most humanized and fully realized characters. Consider what he does with three wordless pages to show Jasmine’s emotional state as she flees from an attack in underground tunnels. Her old, perfect life was taken from her, and she’s not adjusting well to reality, where trauma awaits her at every turn. Without a single line of expositional captions or thought balloons, Byrne portrays her fragile condition in these pages.
This week’s pick from the indie comics short box is Utopiates, a four-issue black-and-white series focusing on characters who take a drug that temporarily alters their personality and emotions, but with violent and disastrous results.
The first issue opens with a full page of Gen-X angst that sets up what, at first, appears to be a simple tale about a young man who takes a drug to escape the dull hopelessness of his life.
By the end of the first issue, it becomes clear this tale is not so simple. We learn that the drug is somehow giving people specific personality traits because it is composed of genetic material copied from specific people. I don’t buy that bit of pseudo-science at all, but playing along with this central idea of injecting genetics like drugs does make for some interesting developments. For example, the young man in the first issue starts killing people his drug dealer assigns to him, but when he injects some Jack Ruby DNA, he kills the wrong person. This doesn’t end well for him.
The second and third issue tell the story of a different young man who served in a war as part of a private military contractor’s invasion force. We learn that he and all the contractors were constantly hopped up on one of these genetic drugs to reduce their fear and increase ferocity.
This two-part story shows how the soldier does not adapt well to normal society after his contract is complete and he can no longer get his drugs. The robotic psych counselor the company forces him to see is useless, so the young man starts looking for a source of the drug. His path leads him to discover whose DNA he and his troops were injecting.
The fourth issue tells the story of another former soldier, a woman who becomes an assassin for hire much like the character in the first issue. It suggests that the mysterious drug dealer in all these stories is giving out these gene-drugs and manipulating people as an art form. I found that motivation a bit lackluster, but I suspect that if the series had continued, then writer Josh Finney would have given us more depth and detail about what makes the dealer tick.
I love the artwork in this series, with Finney collaborating with artist Kat Rocha to produce moody, dramatic pages that look amazing without color. I don’t know why the series ended, but it feels like it could be a treatment for an ongoing TV series with action, adventure, mystery, futurism, and a bit of social commentary. Finally, it’s possible that Finney took the name of the series from a 1964 book detailing research into why people take LSD. You can read a review and summary of that book in the University of Chicago archives.
The four issues of Utopiates make a fairly quick but thought-provoking read, and you can have them for about $2 a piece.
This week’s pick from the indie short box of comics is the complete four-volume collection Queen & Country: The Definitive Edition. It’s also an entry in the big box of free comics series, because I wouldn’t have this collection if not for this blog’s readers. This espionage thriller featuring a British female spy comes from the mind of crime novelist Greg Rucka and an art team that changes with every major arc, giving each episode a unique look and feel.
The four volumes total nearly 1500 pages, which includes the entire single-issue series and three supplementary Declassified series, plus a slew of extras such as interviews, scripts, and sketchbooks. I loved it, with a few reservations, and it was maybe the third time I read the series.
Years ago, I sold a complete collection, and you can see photos of the interior art and full-color covers in my old post about the collection. I had discovered a few scattered issues in a used bookstore and gradually pieced together the set before selling it. With the Definitive Edition, it was great to read it all again in chronological order.
Still, you will find a few a gaps in chronology. Queen & Country is also a series of prose novels, and the comic-book adaptations sometimes skip a novel. “These events take place after the events in [novel]” comes up at least once. But, you get enough context from each story to follow along anyway, and a helpful flashback or two fills in the important gaps.
With the Definitive Edition, you won’t get the full-color covers, though the black-and-white versions are high quality. The page size is slightly smaller than a typical comic book, which occasionally makes the lettering a little hard to read. It was not as bad as the Tintin collection, which practically required a magnifying glass. I only struggled in a couple of stories, such as the first one where Tara’s thoughts appear in a cursive script that didn’t fare well from being shrunk.
The black-and-white art of the original series still looks incredible at this size, though some of the edges of panels disappear in the gutter — unless you want to test the limits of how far you can force the book’s spine open. A wider blank space in the gutter would have been a good thing. But, each of the four volumes is a sturdy paperback with a solid binding and high-quality paper.
Overall, it’s an awesome way to enjoy the complete series, and way easier and more cost-effective than trying to hunt down all the single issues one-by-one.
The art and writing are top-notch, with a compelling lead character who does some bad-ass spy stuff but has way more interesting internal and emotional conflicts than, say, James Bond. Tara Chace has depth, and she changes over the course of the series, and her world is turned upside down more than once. She has a strong supporting cast, and several merit standalone stories as leads in their own right.
Toward the end of the series, reading it one weekend as I did, I noticed there were an awful lot of scenes of people talking in offices, and pages of people having discussions that made a point but didn’t really advance the adventure. These were interesting for a while in the beginning, but by the end I was way more more invested in what Tara was doing than what some guys in offices were droning on about, and I skipped a few scenes.
You’ll probably feel the same way about the leading lady, and your mind might be blown at the cliffhanger ending of the series, and you might even want to pick up some of the novels afterward!
This is the second time a book published by DC Comics has broken the rules and earned a place in my indie short box. This time, it’s Metalzoic by the legendary team of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and there’s not much about it you can call “mainstream”. Metalzoic takes place in a future where the Earth is ruled by intelligent, mechanical beasts patterned after modern and prehistoric animals — and boy, do they love to fight!
Yes, you just witnessed a brutal showdown between a gorilla with a saw blade on his head, and a lion with a chainsaw for a tongue and metal skis for feet. Do I really need to say anything about the story’s plot, or is that cool enough for you? Two of my favorite pages show a shark attacking a caravan of wooly mammoths during a trek across the ice.
It’s like some sort of psychotic nature special! I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating it for a BBC documentary.
O’Neill always delivers wonderfully twisted artwork, but he pulls out all the stops to illustrate Metalzoic‘s endless mecha-menagerie.
The story is interesting, especially since the main character — the saw-blade gorilla — is a brutal, amoral hell-raiser whose brawn and ferocity might be the only thing standing between the Earth and total destruction.
And just look at him go!
When all this takes place and how it came to be are slowly revealed throughout the story. We don’t get a clear timeline until about 50 pages in. It might have been helpful to see a historic summary earlier in the story, so here it is.
If you’re like me, and you wish Godzilla movies would cut out most of the human-related nonsense and just show more monster fights, then this 64-page epic adventure is the book for you!
Collector’s Guide:Metalzoic; DC Comics Graphic Novel #6, 1986. Though it’s often out of stock at MyComicShop, you can usually find it on Amazon for between $15 and $30.