Monday, October 31, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS Starchild by James A. Owen

James Owen’s Starchild series was one of those books that would rise to the top of my “to-read” pile when it was being published regularly back in the early 90s. I love that book and have read it a number of times through the years.

Not a horror book – as most of my other “October comics” offerings have been – it is a book perfectly suited to reading during this time of year when the days get shorter and the air becomes cooler. This was pointed out to me by my friend from the CGS forums, Adam Murdough, and when he shared this insight, I knew instantly he was correct.

The tale of the Higgins family, the bulk of Starchild is set in the timeless village of Fool’s Hollow near a magical forest. Hearkening back to our romanticized versions of ancient English villages, this is a tale wherein mythical characters like Titania live alongside caricatures of some of my favorite fantasists such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. It’s a masterful blending of myriad times and settings that Owen manages to pull off with intelligence while never forgetting to tell an entertaining story.

Owen both writes and draws these tales, and his art meshes wonderfully with the writing. Owen’s delicate lines and slightly rough style are reminiscent of old woodcuts, evoking through his artwork the atmosphere of such a tale. One can almost hear the wind whistling across the glens as the pages turn. Drawn in a different style, or by a different artist, I don’t think Starchild would evoke such wonder as it does.

Within the pages of Starchild, one encounters mystery, high drama, and familial secrets tempered by the whimsy and lyrical comedy of characters such as Old Tom and Martin Humble, and simmering beneath it all is the magic of stories, the kind that ignited our imaginations as children.

If you love fantasy and appreciate the mood found in that hour right before midnight in the early autumn, then this is a book for you. Definitely worth seeking out, Starchild is best read on the porch at dusk, with a steaming mug of cider close by.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS Frankenstein by Steve Niles & Scott Morse

A few years back, Steve Niles started a series of “Little Books of Horror” through IDW. They were slim, 48-page adaptations of classic horror stories. Niles wrote the adaptations with a number of distinct artists providing illustrations. Ted McKeever provided art for “The War of the Worlds,” Richard Sala did so for “Dracula,” and Scott Morse drew the single volume I own, “Frankenstein.”

I re-read this book just the other night, and, although it was a quick read, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Niles manages to encapsulate the entirety of Shelley’s novel with an economical use of prose. True to the source material, he includes bits that are often overlooked in other adaptations, and I applaud him for this.

It is a great challenge to boil down a novel to a few hundred words, and yet, Niles manages to do just that. Obviously, readers do not get the nuance and more fully-realized narrative that can be found in Shelley’s novel through this 48-page graphic novel. But, if one is already familiar with the book, a faithful adaptation such as this ignites the memory of the original’s reading. And, if one has not read Frankenstein before, this is a great introduction to a classic of literature that could, very easily, spur one on to go and read the original.

The big draw for this book, though, is the lush painting of Scott Morse. He provides richly imagined pieces, full of color and design and symbolism, and adds so much to Niles’s adaptation. Between readings of this book, I have often pulled it from my shelf and slowly leafed through it, studying the artistry of Morse. Somehow, his animation style fused with his sense of color manages to evoke the very genuine emotions that are to be found in the source material.

And it is a very distinct book that feels and reads like little else in comics – or prose, for that matter. This is mainly why I appreciate Scott Morse’s work so much. He – like Paul Pope or Kate Beaton or James Owen – prefer to carve out their own niche in this medium doing challenging work that stands out among the soulless “house styles” found in many of the “mainstream” comics on stands today (not that this is unique to current comics). If you love great art and can appreciate the skill necessary to create such a faithful adaptation in so few words, then this is a book you should seek out.

And if you do choose to read this book in a dimly lit room as the moon falls behind the swaying trees outside your window, you just might hear the monster crying off in the distance, and you may need to pull another blanket up close to your chin, just to keep the cold away.


Saturday, October 29, 2011


In “Ghost Stories,” the second part of Jeff Lemire’s acclaimed Essex Country trilogy from Top Shelf Comics, readers follow the story of brothers Lou and Vince LeBeuf from their time playing amateur hockey together for the Toronto Grizzlies up until their final years. Lemire tells this story through flashbacks – seen from Lou’s contemporary point of view – and offsets it with Lou’s current struggle to keep his family farm, keep his independence (as a nurse comes in to help a few times a week), and the eventual inevitability of him moving into a nursing home.

The main plot is a fairly standard one – that of a rift between brothers over their mutual love of a single woman – but Lemire infuses the narrative with more soul and emotion than is in many of these tales. And, he does not take it in the direction one initially expects. What appears to be foreshadowing very early in the book is actually a result of Lou’s failing health and his inability to properly recall the memories of his life.

The most vivid, and most special, moments in Lou’s life revolve around his brother Vince, who was bigger and more skilled at hockey than Lou could ever hope. The year he shared a hockey line with Vince, when they led Toronto to the playoffs, burns bright on the horizon of his mind. This pivotal time in Lou’s life is also the point where things went so wrong for these two. And it all flows naturally from the characterizations of these LeBeuf brothers.

Lou’s fading health, as he cuts himself off from the rest of his family after the mistake made during that fateful year in Toronto, mirrors his emotional deterioration. It is notable that, once Vince and his fiancĂ©e Beth leave Toronto to return to the farm, Lou suffers a debilitating knee injury that ends his own hockey career. But, at that point, he cannot go home. So he remains in the city and finds a job driving a streetcar on the public transit lines of Toronto.

Eventually, Lou and Vince come together after a family tragedy. Things are uncomfortable, and the LeBeuf brothers are never able to recapture that special bond they once had. But they are there for each other, as well as for young Jimmy LeBeuf (whom we saw in the first volume of Essex County), whose limited hockey career is able to wipe the slate clean between these brothers, at least for the short time they are able to watch him play.

With this second part of his Essex County trilogy, Jeff Lemire continues to exhibit the skills of an artist of more advanced years. His pacing is pitch-perfect, teasing out the narrative in a manner that allows pieces of the puzzle to connect slowly until various points collide, bringing the entirety of the narrative into sharp focus.

And his artwork suffuses the story with such emotion, elevating it to another level. Lemire knows when to pull back and when to close in on a moment, evoking very authentic feelings that we all have experienced at one time or another. I continue to be amazed at the ease with which he paints these characters while swiftly engaging his audience and never letting go until the final page. I anxiously look forward to reading the final part of this landmark graphic novel. If you haven’t read this yet, you need to get out and find a copy. This is as good as it gets in comics.

Also, if you’re curious, my thoughts on the first part of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy – “Tales From the Farm” – can be found here.


Friday, October 28, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS - Universal Monsters adaptations

The Universal Monster films hold a dear place in many people’s hearts. They’re fun and, as a boy, were great for a scare when I watched them on television late at night. So, when Dark Horse published comic adaptations of some of these classic films back in the early 90s, I was onboard.

It’s been a number of years since I read them, but I remember enjoying these books immensely. The adaptations were very true to the movies from which they derived, and, as it is when we see Iron Man or Batman on the silver screen, it was a thrill to have these stories in a new medium for which I have such passion.

Dark Horse did a stellar job of pulling together creators for these books. Art Adams and Tony Harris are the obvious “name” stars to have contributed to this short series. Adams’s meticulous linework in the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and his notable detail offer a fully-realized and icky swamp for this creature to reside in. Conversely, Harris’s more flowing ink style fit well with the fraying wraps of the mummy, bringing this encumbered figure to vivid, haunting life.

However, despite the involvement of Harris and Adams on this project, I was more anxious for the Frankenstein adaptation from Denis Beauvais. I was familiar with Beauvais’s painting from Dark Horse’s Aliens books. And he did not disappoint. His use of color and ability to evoke atmosphere through his painting fit this book perfectly. Easily, this is my favorite of the bunch.

And finally, Dracula was brought to life by Dan Vado, “supreme commander” of Slave Labor Graphics, and J.D. Smith, who works primarily as a colorist in the comics field today. Like Frankenstein, these two were able to imbue their adaptation with the atmosphere evoked in the film. The soft linework of Smith worked well in this respect.

Are these books scary? No. Are the original films considered scary by today’s standards? No. But these books are fun, and, if you enjoyed the Universal Monster films when you were younger, reading one of these will touch that nostalgic part of you that is also what keeps us reading comics. And that, to me, seems fitting.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS Coraline, adapted by P. Craig Russell

I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and have read all of his published books. Coraline was an enjoyable read, but I would probably put it toward the lower end of my favorites by Gaiman. It was inventive and well-written, as I have come to expect from Gaiman, and he took me to another fantastic world that feels just beyond my reach, but there was a “weight” missing from it that probably has a lot to do with its intended audience. Ultimately, for me, Coraline wasn’t creepy enough.

As an aside, Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” does carry that weight I so look forward to from his best fiction, and that was also intended for young adults, for what it is worth. (And it is only my opinion)

When I heard P. Craig Russell was going to be adapting Coraline into graphic form, I was intrigued but not overly excited. Boy, was I wrong to have that reaction!

Russell’s adaptation of Coraline was amazing. When I read it, I was thoroughly on edge. Something about actually seeing Coraline’s “other family” with those button eyes just creeped me the hell out more than Gaiman’s actual prose description, which is odd since Joe Hill’s similar description of the main ghost in his novel Heart-Shaped Box made me horribly uncomfortable when I read that.

Russell is known for his delicate linework, and he does not disappoint here. But I have to admit at how surprised I was with the manner in which he evoked the atmosphere of this eerie little novel. It is a testament to his artistry that he elevates Gaiman’s prose narrative to another level for me. This is one of the very few times I have thought that an adaptation of a work of prose was better – or worked better – than the source material.

I wish I could more precisely put my finger on what it is about Russell’s Coraline adaptation that makes it so much creepier for me. But, I admit, I can’t. I just know how I reacted to it when I read it – on an entirely emotional level that left me with that gnawing ache in the pit of my stomach. Check it out.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS The Broadcast by Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon

Since “discovering” Noel Tuazon’s work on Elk’s Run, with writer Joshua Hale Fialkov, I have become a huge fan of Tuazon’s work. His loose lines and cartoonist’s approach to drawing is far more appealing to me than the current flavor of the month at the “Big Two.” He, like many of the comic artists whose work I admire, is able to infuse his pages with more emotion and atmosphere than most artists working in the field.


So, when I passed the NBM table at last year’s Small Press Expo and saw they had only one copy left of Tuazon’s most recent book, The Broadcast (written by Eric Hobbs), I had to pick it up. And was I ever glad I did. This book, along with Tuazon’s return collaboration with Fialkov, Tumor, has solidly put him on my “guaranteed winner” list.

The Broadcast, Eric Hobbs’s first major graphic novel, comes from a brilliantly simple concept – how might a small group of rural Americans in early 20th century America react if they believed Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast was real – a reality that earned Welles much criticism after that initial radio broadcast. I haven’t read The Broadcast since that first time last year, but the emotion of the book has lingered with me since then, rearing its head at unexpected times, so it is only appropriate that I write about it now, as best I can.

The Broadcast is more than just how people might react to a perceived Martian attack. It is really a story of how people under stress react to, and treat, one another and the hierarchy that quickly evolves in such an anxious time. This book is about these characters, about the injustices, perceived or otherwise, they manage to suppress until such a time as this, and the consequences of allowing one’s anxiety to dictate one’s actions.

None of the characters make it through this book in one piece, whether emotionally or physically, and Hobbs deftly handles the issues of that period – including most prominently the racism that was rampant, and is still a problem now, in our country. The Broadcast is, at times, a harrowing reading experience, but it is also touching in many instances. It’s a delicate balance of emotions that Hobbs and Tuazon manage to achieve wonderfully, and it elevates this book beyond what could easily have been a one-note story.

And the artwork from Tuazon is beautiful. His inkwash technique, coupled with Tuazon’s facility with facial expressions, perfectly evokes the atmosphere of the dreary, rain-soaked setting and the weight of finality under which these characters rest. Tuazon’s storytelling is on full display here, and any artist looking to break into comics would be hard pressed to do better than study The Broadcast, or any of Tuazon’s other work.

Although told in a quiet manner, this is a brutal book about the dark places of the human soul. It is a compelling read that shines a hard light onto the horrors of fear, very real horrors that feel more authentic than most of those found in graphic fiction, or fiction of any kind. Hobbs and Tuazon come together to showcase the best of what this medium has to offer, and I heartily recommend you seeking this book out. You won’t be disappointed.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS: Batman – Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween specials

I’m not sure why I picked up the very first LOTDK Halloween special. I know it had nothing to do with the creative team – neither Jeph Loeb nor Tim Sale was familiar to me at the time. It could have been the nice shiny cover, with that gold foil “enhancement,” but I like to think that wasn’t the case. More likely, it had to do with the fact that it was prestige format. When a publisher – most often DC comics – published a book in that squarebound format (see: Dark Knight, Longbow Hunters, Hawkworld, Killing Joke, etc.), it piqued my interest. So I bought that first special right off the shelf. And I loved it. The story moved along at a brisk pace, the artwork was stylish but appealing, and it was done in one.

With the success of that first Halloween special, it became an annual tradition for the next two years, with Loeb and Sale reuniting to tell other ethereal tales from Batman’s history. They too were immensely enjoyable and just plain fun reads. And, with each successive volume, I came to appreciate more and more the artistic talent of Tim Sale.

Sale’s linework is smooth and organic, with fluid inking that helps to suggest movement on the page in a similar manner to the inking style of Will Eisner. It’s a tough thing to accomplish in a static medium such as comics, and is a major reason why I have such trouble with many of today’s photorealistic artists – their work is just too precise, taking all of the energy out of their drawing.

Loeb’s writing has received a lot of criticism in recent years – not all of it undeserved – but in these specials, he really shines. The stories move along at a brisk pace and don’t collapse under the weight of a longer narrative. With the limited page count, Loeb was forced to pare things down and get right to the heart of the matter, and, similar to Chuck Dixon, Loeb can drive a plot forward pretty well. It doesn’t hurt that he was paired with a stellar talent like Sale.

I regularly return to these books, pulling them out of the longboxes to re-read every couple of years, usually during this season. These books help remind me why I love comics. If you’ve never given them a try, you should seek them out. You won’t be disappointed.

And, if you have the chance, read them late in the evening while the wind sweeps across your lawn – the creaking branches and rustling leaves will add to the atmosphere already present in Sale’s moody linework, and you might understand better why I cherish these stories.


Friday, October 21, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS: Taboo from Spiderbaby Grafix

It is appropriate that October be the month of Halloween, especially here in New England with darkness creeping in at the frayed edges of these shorter days, the naked branches scratching against window panes as brittle leaves blow past, propelled by a chill wind heralding the coming winter. The brisk air is tinged with a scent of horror – something almost tangible – that insinuates itself into our minds as we try to reconcile the change in the seasons.

Stephen Bissette’s horror anthology, Taboo (published from 1988-1995), masterfully captures the atmosphere of this time of year. With contributions from such notable writers and artists as Dave Sim, Charles Burns, Tom Sniegoski, Charles Vess, Bernie Mireault, Keith Giffen, Chester Brown, Eddie Campbell, Moebius, Melinda Gebbie, Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli, Alan Moore, and Bissette himself, every issue of this series reaches for – and often achieves – an incredibly high standard of graphic storytelling.

From Hell and Lost Girls both had their starts in this anthology. Readers also experienced the fleeting glimpse of Gaiman & Zulli’s Sweeney Todd (with the prologue found in issue 7), which never found another publisher once Taboo ceased publication. Spain Rodriguez’s succinct retelling of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult film classic El Topo can be found within the pages of this book. (issue 4, to be exact). And there is any other number of horror masterpieces to be found within various issues of this landmark series.

The offerings in Taboo are not what one would describe as typical horror comics. These stories are disturbing, uncomfortable, demanding pieces of art. They are the horrors that keep one up at night, staring into the blackness to identify the sound that startled you awake. These stories are creepy, and the slimy film of the narratives is hard to wash off, staying with you long after the book is closed.

If you’re a fan of “shock” horror and want to be scared – Taboo might not be the book for you. But if you like your fiction challenging, if you want to read stories that make you think, and if you appreciate that anxious flutter in the pit of your stomach when the clock strikes midnight, then you should be seeking these books out because they are becoming harder and harder to find.

The stories found in this seminal anthology are a fitting capstone to a crisp, cool October day.


Thursday, October 20, 2011


This time of year I always dig into my longboxes or go to my shelf for something appropriate to the season. Recently, I’ve been re-reading some of the early Hellboy collections by Mike MignolaWake the Devil and Chained Coffin & Others, to be precise.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Hellboy, and I had forgotten how great this series is. Mignola really seems to be having fun with these stories. He packs so much action, fantasy, folklore, and fun into these tales that it really is a wonder to behold. Even through pages of talking heads and exposition, Mignola makes it interesting – whether it’s the cadence of a character’s speech or just the fanciful nature of the dialogue – and I find it completely engaging.

Even with the emphasis on plot and the fantastical elements of these narratives, Mignola doesn’t forget about the characters. He knows Hellboy and Abe and Liz and all the others, and he plays them off each other well. It would be easy for the story to trump the characterization, but Mignola manages to balance things and has me wondering where he went with all of these great characters.

And has an artist ever been more suited for the stories being told? The way Mignola paints his blacks (with apologies to the Rolling Stones) and the manner in which he delineates the ancient architecture all adds to the atmosphere of these tales. The imagery has a gothic feel to it that is perfectly suited to the narratives, along with being pitch-perfect for this world Mignola has created.

If you want something haunting and exciting for this autumnal season, you would have trouble doing any better than Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. After re-reading these older books, I am now going to seek out the later volumes to see where he has taken “the big red guy” and the rest of the BPRD, and I cannot wait.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

OCTOBER COMICS: A Glimpse of Crime & Terror

It’s October, which means I have an obligation (self-made though it may be) to recommend some cool “autumnal” comic fare (i.e. horror comics in honor of Halloween)

Anything Scott Morse is involved with gets my attention. He is one of those cartoonists – like Los Bros Hernandez or Frank Santoro – whose work I will buy without hesitation. Since he landed at Pixar, his comics work has been rather limited. So, when I read online about him and Steve Niles doing something together, I was interested.

The series – co-created and co-owned by Niles and Morse – is called Crime & Terror. Morse described the book on his blog as a book where he and Steve can create the stories they want. In his initial post, Morse wrote that Crime & Terror would have an over-arching narrative following detective Mike Fallon, along with a number of short stories – both prose and comic – in whatever genre they chose – sci-fi, horror, noir, whatever. I’m a sucker for great anthologies, and when you have creators of this caliber writing and drawing whatever they want – I’m in!

As a teaser, Niles and Morse have created a limited edition oversized board book of A Glimpse of Crime & Terror that includes two short stories. I read this a couple of weeks back and thoroughly enjoyed it. Morse’s artwork and storytelling are spot-on here, and the stories were novel for the fact that they weren’t what I was expecting.

I expected a crime story and a horror story, but instead, Morse and Niles offer a mash-up of these two genres, and it works amazingly well. The plots hearken back to noir films of the 50s – with the requisite sprinkling of the fantastic and zombified accents. They aren’t necessarily world-shattering. But the beauty of this book is in the way the stories are told. Despite the “dark” nature of these two genres, there’s a fun aspect to this book that is never missing in anything Scott Morse does. I imagine it has a lot to do with the animation style Morse incorporates. His work is distinct, and, despite the “cute” aspects of his art, Morse continues to exhibit a range in genre and tone that is remarkable.

And, if you order this limited preview, each copy will be signed by Morse. So get on it.

The regular book will be a series of 80-page hardcovers, and I cannot wait for the first one to drop. Be on the lookout, because these are going to be some fun, entertaining, and well done comics.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

NEW COMICS: Love & Rockets (New Stories) #4

I came late to the party where Love & Rockets is concerned. But, thanks to my wonderful wife, I got introduced to the amazing cartooning of Los Bros Hernandez the right way when she bought me the omnibus editions of Palomar and then Locas a few years back. From page one of Beto's Palomar stories (which came out a year before Jaime's Locas collection), I was hooked.

At that point, Fantagraphics was producing volume II of L&R, in a smaller comic-sized format. I got all 20 of those issues and have continued on with volume III, which offers new stories from these master cartoonists in annual 100-page chunks, with Jaime and Gilbert each taking roughly half of each book.

If you have never read Love & Rockets, and you are a fan of great comics or just great storytelling, you need to remedy that situation. There are few cartoonists working today of this caliber. Their stories are poignant or fanciful or cute or heartbreaking or involve any number of emotions along one's mental spectrum. And their simple, yet elegant art (with Beto having a softer, more rounded look to Jaime's very precise, sharper lines) illuminate these stories so perfectly.

The Hernandez Brothers (including, from time to time, Mario) are also pioneers in graphic storytelling, utilizing the page and its inherent rhythms and boundaries to evoke these emotions and tell their stories in new and inventive ways, despite having done this for nearly three decades. It is a testament to their mastery of the medium that, with this latest iteration of Love & Rockets, one still finds something new within their work to be amazed at.

For example, take a look at this double-page spread encapsulating the relationship between Maggie and Ray through the years. Simply brilliant:

And, if you want, here are those two pages at a larger size, for a better comparison:

In particular, the work of Jaime in these last two installments of the "New Love & Rockets" has been breathtaking. In issue #3, he ripped my heart out with the understated narrative he offered, illuminating facets of the Chascarrillo family (Maggie's family of Hopey & Maggie) that put many of his previous stories into a whole new light. It was an amazing, heartbreaking story full of very authentic emotions, but handled so deftly that it resonated more.

And Jaime followed that up with equally heartfelt and emotional chapters of Maggie's story in this latest issue. The way he continues to tell these characters' stories - while also allowing them to actually grow old and evolve into similar, yet new, characters - and add more to what has come before without it growing stale is a joy to experience.

Gilbert's offerings in this volume are equally enjoyable, if less "earth-shattering." In recent years, Beto has been enjoying recounting the B-movies of his character Rosalba "Fritz" Martinez. They are fun, over-the-top, stories that allow Beto to show a fanciful side, which has always been present in his work. But I don't want to downplay his contributions. The beauty of these stories has been the little bits of humanity lurking beneath the slick veneer of the main narrative. The moments when we see Fritz away from the movie set, able to be human and relate her own feelings and dreams. These are the gems that elevate his recent narratives.

The humanity and the artistry found between the covers of any Love & Rockets book is a wonder to behold. Every new edition jumps to the top of my to-read pile, even trumping the novels I may be reading at the time. And this newest iteration of Love & Rockets is a nice hefty package that affords Los Bros Hernandez to produce longer works that keep them invested in the material, which was part of the reason for the change in format. The subtle differences in art style, along with the different stories each brother wants to tell (and did I mention that Jaime was producing a superhero story with his characters in the initial two issues of the "New Love & Rockets"?) provides a nice balance within each issue.

You cannot go wrong with Los Bros Hernandez and Love & Rockets. Seek it out. Now. You won't regret it.