Friday, July 25, 2008

Mini Marvels: Rock, Paper, Scissors by Chris Giarrusso

How come we never talked about cute in my philosophy classes?

For years now, Marvel Comics has published backup stories in some of their comics called Mini Marvels. Chris Giarrusso writes and illustrates these backups, and has been doing strips and full page comics of these sort for Marvel since 1999. (Incidentally, you can click the above link to check out some of his very earliest strips from that time period) Just about every time a comic comes out with a Mini Marvels backup in it, our staff at the comic book shop stops everything to read them. Then we laugh hysterically and go back to work, smiling and a bit happier for it.

Now, Marvel has collected these Mini Marvels comics into one convenient digest. It’s adorable, it’s entertaining, and it’s funny, to boot. Sometimes, the comics are about younger, more innocent-minded versions of the familiar Marvel superheroes. Spider-Man delivers newspapers for the Daily Bugle, for example, instead of taking pictures. Venom is still Spider-Man’s enemy…but only in the sense that they’re competing newspaper delivery boys. (Also, Venom tends to say ‘I want to eat your brains’…in every single panel he’s in.) Other times, they’re willful parodies of ongoing, big Marvel events.

It’s the slight alterations Chris Giarrusso provides that make the Mini Marvels so adorable and at the same time such great, loving parody. In regular Marvel continuity, a top secret group of powerful superheroes called the Illuminati (named after the secret society) make the decision to send the Hulk into outer space. The Mini Marvels version of the Illuminati is the worst kept secret in history (they hold their meeting in Avengers kitchen), and Hawkeye continually refers to them as the Illuminators (even though he’s not supposed to know they exist). They ultimately make the decision to send the Hulk away because he eats Namor’s sandwich.

There are a lot of inside jokes, naturally, and a lot of references to Marvel stuff in the background that will make you smile. But the book works so well because it doesn’t rely on continuity. The jokes work because they’re just funny. The art carries the book, and Giarrusso works a lot of funny into every single panel.

This book doesn’t collect every single Mini Marvels comic. In fact, there’s quite a bit of stuff left out. But everything in this particular volume was written and drawn by Chris Giarrusso, and I wonder if the plan might be to release another volume later with the stuff that others did the writing chores on. I hope so! In particular, the Civil Wards story that Marc Sumerak wrote was a standout.

Mini Marvels: Rock, Paper, Scissors is a no-brainer. If you like smiling, you should buy this book. It’s so much fun, I’m sure I’ll lend it to just about everyone I know, and they’ll all get a kick out of it. And you will too. Highly, highly recommended.

My favorite part:

3-D Man shows up!! Woo!! Also, any line that Hawkeye has in the entire book is hysterical. Or maybe it’s the line “That was a haiku, chumps!” Gosh, there’s just an awful lot to love here…just go buy it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Realty Check by Piers Anthony

So, uh…how about those tesseracts, eh?

Piers Anthony has written a lot of books. Like, obscene amounts of books. Seriously, the dude’s just prolific. Chances are if you like fantasy and science fiction, you’ve heard of him and probably read him. His books are creative and interesting and you always know there will be more like it, because he has written so many friggin’ books.

Additionally Piers Anthony seems eminently approachable. Most of his books feature Author’s Notes at the end that are at least as long as a chapter, and he is known for addressing his readers directly within these sections. That’s admirable.

All of this is to say: Piers Anthony, to all appearances, is a cool dude with a ton of great ideas and a deep love for writing. Anyone that prolific is bound to pump out a few books that aren’t at their highest caliber of writing.

Realty Check is just such a book. Though it’s a light, highly readable novel, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Penn and Chandelle are an apparently retired couple looking for a new home. They luck onto the deal of a lifetime: A free month’s rent with no lease, and no requirements.

The house seems to know what they like; the fridge is fully stocked, and the closets are pre-stocked with clothes that fit them perfectly. The back door opens onto a forest that isn’t really there (what?) and the front door can apparently take them to any major city in the world. By this point in time, if I'm Penn or Chandelle, I'm out the door. Strangely, they don’t seem that bothered. It’s just a mystery to them, and they recruit Lynn and Lloyd, their grandchildren, to help them solve it.

I want to mention again: This was an entertaining read. I enjoyed reading about the discoveries they’d make, how the house kept score, and about the fantastic inventions they found in the attic (or hell, how they found the attic in the first place). But at the end of my read I found myself disappointed. The characters felt flat. Things happened simply for the sake of convenience. A surprisingly large amount of typos made their way past the copy editors, which I wouldn’t ordinarily point out if there hadn’t been so many of them.

At some point a character suddenly has a fake credit card. The only explanation give is as follows, and this is a direct quote: “getting that had been a neat trick.”

Really? If it was so neat, I’d probably like to read about it!

It’s these kinds of things that make this book one of my least favorite Piers Anthony novels. Fun to read, certainly a nice distraction…but certainly not one of his best. I’d skip this one.

My favorite (just try to imagine your grandfather saying this to you while the guy is standing right there) bit:

“He finds you appealing. Do you object, Lynn?”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Terror Inc. by David Lapham and Patrick Zircher

Do we ever remember former lovers the way they truly were?

Terror Inc. features a relatively unknown character named Terror created for Marvel’s Epic line in the 80s. Epic Comics produced such works as Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, and though they were mostly creator owned comics, characters such as Terror, who could steal people’s abilities by absorbing their limbs, would eventually be integrated into the mainstream Marvel universe (and promptly underused).

(Epic Comics also produced such gems as Elektra: Assassin and Meltdown, featuring Havoc and Wolverine. Good stuff.)

This version of Terror Inc. collects the five issue miniseries by the esteemed David Lapham, with art by Patrick Zircher. Lapham is most famous for Stray Bullets, a fantastic series he both writes and draws. He is also currently doing the writer/artist thing on Vertigo’s Young Liars, a promising new book on their line which will hopefully help fill the void being left by the multitude of fantastic Vertigo books which have ended or will end soon. Patrick Zircher is somewhat of a Marvel Comics workhorse. He drew runs on Thunderbolts, Cable & Deadpool, and Iron Man, among others. His work here stands out for its intensity and its stark contrast to his superhero work.

Here’s what you need to know in a nutshell. Terror—Mr. Terror now, actually—has been alive for a long, long time. More than 1500 years, to be precise. Due to a horrible curse, he can’t exactly die, but his body is cursed to decay. Very, very rapidly. The good news is, he can swap his body parts out for other, more fresh ones. This leads to some truly gruesome (and awesome) portions of the book, as Mr. Terror constantly rips off people’s limbs to replace his own.

There’s more to Mr. Terror’s back story, a hideous bit involving love, magic, and even more ripping off of limbs, but those are best experienced first hand. The story takes place in the present, which affords Mr. Terror plenty of opportunities to get shot, blown up, smashed in a car, etc… In fact this is as good a time as any to point out that Terror Inc. is GORY. This is a horror comic, one which does not shy away from the best of the squeamish bits. There’s a bit of blood on every page, and if there isn’t blood, there’s a nipple, (and if there isn’t either, you’re reading the wrong book).

The ideas behind this story could, in lesser hands, be ridiculous and over the top. In fact, this book IS ridiculous and over the top. But that’s part of the charm; it’s controlled over the top, if that even makes sense. These gentlemen know what they’re doing, and they do it well. David Lapham is a master story teller, and Patrick Zircher’s art creates an atmosphere dark and rich with violence. June Chung’s colors on this book are amazing, too, something that it is impossible not to notice. The predominant use of reds allows the gory feel of the book to continue even when it isn’t blood-spattered.

This book works. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s bloody, and it’s fun. Highly recommended.

My favorite bit:

The hand wants coffee. It wants a buttered roll, too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Complicity by Iain Banks

Who’s the victim?

Iain Banks gained quite a bit of acclaim with his debut novel, The Wasp Factory. A dirty, violent book full of twists and dark humor, The Wasp Factory also happens to be completely fantastic. Banks wrote Complicity later in his career, a novel that parallels a reporter’s investigations into some bizarre murders and a serial killer’s escalating cycle of violence.

Complicity is smart. The book features a definition of the word complicity on the back, but as far as I can recall never uses the word within the text itself. The novel is told for the most part from the perspective of Cameron Colley, a journalist who tries to emulate Hunter S. Thompson in his writing style. He frequently says ‘Saint Hunter would understand’ when he is disappointed in himself; when he falls short of his own ideals.

Cameron’s narrative is told in first person, but there are several second person narratives describing the serial killings occurring in the background. While the second person is usually awkward and gimmicky, Banks's use of it in this particular work serves to further the theme. At some point in his career Cameron wrote an editorial about justice. He writes about a tv show he’d like to see, a show about the kind of justice he doesn’t get to experience in the real world. Instead of drug dealers, he wants to see arms smugglers taken down. He wants to see billionaires who profit from the misery of others being made miserable. He names names.

And wouldn’t you know it, the serial killer has exacted exactly this kind of justice on exactly the people he listed.

The question proffered by the book (never quite asked, never quite answered) is this: Who’s responsible? The reporter? The serial killer? You? Are you responsible if you buy the newspaper? Are you responsible if you watch the shows?

Are we responsible because we bought the book?

The murders are grisly, full of torture. Sometimes the killer doesn’t even kill, he just forces his victim to experience what he has done to others and then leaves. In one memorable scene, he’s sucking down helium while wearing a gorilla mask, and doing horrible horrible things on camera.

We’ve seen this before. Se7en, in particular, explores the notion of a serial killer who kills for an obscene sense of justice, for a misplaced sense of right and wrong, tailoring the punishment to the sin.

But Complicity actually came first.

According to Wikipedia, Iain Banks said Complicity is "[a] bit like The Wasp Factory except without the happy ending and redeeming air of cheerfulness." It’s true. This novel is dark, dark, dark. But there’s a lot to like here, and the novel has a lot to say. The copious, vivid descriptions of drug use, sex, and grisly murder make this a book that will not appeal to everyone.

But if you’re not easily offended, this book is well worth reading. You’ll have plenty to think about by the time you’re through.

My favorite part:

Cameron in the interrogation room, unable to sleep and feeling worse and worse by the minute. Everything about that scene, bouncing back and forth between his memories and the present, was incredibly awesome.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

APPLE Vol. 1 by Various

Pretty pictures do not a comic make.

APPLE, a new comic anthology published by Udon, apparently stands for A Place for People who Love Entertainment. The anthology collects the gorgeous work of a group of Korean illustrators, most of whom work almost exclusively on video games.

At least that’s my understanding. Unfortunately the book contains no information about the creators or the idea behind the project except a brief couple of poorly translated paragraphs in the back that indicate that the book is supposed to be about daydreams.

The art is breathtaking. Because the book is an anthology, some of the artists are naturally going to be more appealing than the others. I love anthologies for precisely this reason; you never know when a book will introduce you to a new favorite artist. Unfortunately with only a few pages per artist, you barely get a taste of some of the creators working on this book. As you flip through the wordless art sections of the book (which, for better or worse, seem to take up the majority of the book’s 260 some odd pages), you may not even realize you are looking at a different person’s art unless you are searching for the names. But the pictures are very pretty.

The writing, on the other hand, is very much not. Again, I’m not sure if the words are poorly translated or the stories just don’t make sense to begin with. Many of the transitions from panel to panel are hard to follow. Many panels are poorly constructed, and though the images within are gorgeous, they add little to the story and many times detract from it. A few of the comics did stick out for me, though.

A simple morality play, Mom’s Wallet by Kyung-Hwan Kim and Kang-Geon has great panel construction and good flow, and though it’s as bizarre as everything else in the book, it actually works as a comic quite nicely. Dol-V01 by An Hee-Cheol (Hichi) seems like it has potential. It was humorous and strange and left off at the right moment to make me want to read the second chapter. Unlike Mom’s Wallet, though, this particular comic has little sense of storytelling. Images seem to be just plopped down on the page wherever they look nicest with little regard to their place in the tale. That said, the pictures are very, very pretty.

The last story in the book, by Jin-Young Lee, does not seem to have a title. It was completely fantastic. I would buy an entire book of this story were it collected as such. Strangely, this comic, which seems to flow so perfectly as one, is oddly out of sorts with the art in the rest of the book. It feels remarkably different from everything else in the anthology and sticks out like a sore thumb.

Overall, as an art book, APPLE is very pretty and very diverse. If it hadn’t contained a single comic book, I wouldn’t have a complaint. I have no problem buying an art book. I’ve purchased every issue of Ashley Wood's art magazine Swallow, and never regretted it. And I don’t mind my pretty anthology comics being weird; I have every volume of Udon’s (and DMP before them) Robot anthology, and I have enjoyed it immensely despite the strangeness of the book and the sometimes disappointing stories mixed in with the good ones. But the sad truth is that the majority of the comics in APPLE simply do not work as comics. So unless you’re willing to just look at the pictures and set the book on your shelf when you’re done, I can’t really recommend the book.

As an aside, let me mention that Udon’s website is dreadful. See for yourself, look at the difference between Udon’s Robot website and the official Japanese Robot website. Also, I’ve made every effort to get the names of the creators right, but sometimes it seems like the name attached to the comic is different from the name in the index. My lack of cultural knowledge in this case leaves me clueless, and I’ve gone with the name attached to the comic. My apologies if I’ve gotten the name wrong within the review itself.

My favorite part:
Within Mom’s Wallet:
What if…I get caught stealing? My mom will turn into a tyrannosaurus!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Dororo Vol 2 by Osamu Tezuka

What gives a life its purpose?

Osamu Tezuka changed the world of manga, comics, and animation in general with his creation in the 1950s of Astro Boy. The comic (manga) and cartoon (anime) of Astro Boy were so popular and far-reaching that Stanley Kubrick actually asked Tezuka to handle the art direction on 2001: A Space Odyssey. (He turned the offer down, though; interesting to think how different the movie might have been)

Tezuka created Dororo in the 60s. Though he apparently never finished the work, what exists was interesting enough to spawn an anime, a video game, and most recently a live action film. The trailer for this film is a little bit unreal to behold, as it seems to follow the original so closely, at least visually.

Dororo tells the tale of a young man named Hyakkimaru. His father pledged his unborn son’s body parts to 48 demons, and when Hyakkimaru was born, he was hardly a person. His mother and father floated him down a river to die in peace, but he was found and raised by a benevolent stranger. Now he wanders the world, searching for the 48 demons that have his body parts. Each time he kills one he regains another piece of himself.

Along his travels, Hyakkimaru meets Dororo, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest thief, a young boy with no family and no home. Dororo has a really interesting back story, and very quickly we come to understand why the story is named after him, and not after Hyakkimaru, who seems to be the more obvious choice as protagonist.

Dororo is a very interesting book with a slightly unusual feel to it. A great deal of offbeat humor pervades throughout. On more than one occasion, Dororo turns to the reader and acknowledges that he is within a comic book. He occasionally breaks through the panel barriers to illustrate a punchline. These sorts of slapsticky intrusions are characteristic of Tezuka, and are simply part of his charm.

But the dark mood of Dororo, overall, belies these comedic moments. Selfishness, greed, and prejudice persist in all Tezuka’s depictions of the people our protagonists come into contact with. Very few people come across as innocent, and those who do frequently find themselves at the wrong end of a sword or an arrow. Hyakkimaru and Dororo see a number of demons, and Tezuka works a lot of subtext into the manga by using these demons as pretty obvious metaphors.

This volume tells three particular powerful stories. The first involves a city split apart by civil war. The second is the story of a religious icon perverted by demonic intrusion. The third is the story of a marriage gone wrong, but also of a woman who raises unwanted children. Hyakkimaru says, at some point in this third story, “Why abandon your child? If you won’t raise him, why have him? Why have it only to abandon it?”

This could be seen as the theme of the second volume of Dororo, as each story depicts a different story of abandonment and separation.

Dororo is just another example that proves Tezuka’s mastery of his artform. Osamu Tezuka’s works are being slowly reprinted by Vertical. Dark Horse will be reprinting Astro Boy, and hopefully someday we’ll see Phoenix back in print as well. I, for one, will be buying each book as it is released, because I have never been disappointed by anything he wrote. I doubt that anyone with any interest in comics would be, either.

Highly recommended.

My favorite part:

“This potato head’s a kid?”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Monster Vol 15 by Naoki Urasawa

It’s hard to talk about a book this good.

Monster is an 18 volume manga created by Naoki Urasawa. With its sales of over 25 million copies, multiple awards, and a successful anime adaptation, the book obviously achieved great success in Japan. It is constantly nominated for awards in the United States as its translations are released, and there are currently plans for an English-language motion picture version.

So why haven’t you heard of it?

Monster tells the story of a Japanese brain surgeon named Kenzo Tenma who lives and works in Germany. Hospital politics continually to grate on his nerves, and his superiors constantly ask him to set aside his moral concerns and follow orders. One day he is ready to operate on a young peasant boy when an important, wealthy figure is brought to him. He is ordered to switch patients and refuses, operating on the boy instead.

The wealthy patient dies. Tenma is removed from his position. His license is revoked. His fiancé breaks up with him. Later he is framed for murder. And as it turns out, the young boy he operated on is absolutely and without question evil.

By doing the right thing, he has unleashed every manner of wrong.

The book, from the first volume on, asks all kinds of interesting, difficult questions. What is right and wrong? Do the ends justify the means? Can an evil action be justified? And all the time it does so through a chilling, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from one part of Europe to the next. The slow change that overcomes Dr. Tenma is crushing to watch, as he goes from enthusiastic young surgeon to…whatever he has become by this point in time.

Obviously volume 15 would be a horrible place to start reading, which makes it difficult to review. If you’ve read this far into the series then you, like myself, are hooked. You’re going to want this volume, and it’s going to fit like the next piece of a very rewarding puzzle.

But here’s the skinny: This volume is great. The art seems to get better with each chapter, and the characters are really hitting their peaks. The farther into the book we get, the more motives everyone seems to have. And it’s fascinating that in three more volumes the whole thing will be finished.

You should read Monster. If you like comics, if you like fiction, if you like tightly woven narratives with existential questions and complicated motives, if you like complex storytelling and characterization, if you like guns and chase scenes, or if you just like a good thriller, this book is for you. In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear by now, this book gets my highest recommendation; if you read comics, you should be reading Monster. Even if you don’t ordinarily like manga, this book will probably scratch an itch you didn’t even know you had.

My favorite part this volume:
“It’s amazing. A single necktie will get you anywhere… Just a single, stupid little necktie…”