Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/18/2018 – 02/24/2018

I’m utterly lacking in anything resembling a clever (or even a relevant) bit of preamble for this week, so let’s just dispense with the formalities and talk about some comics I read that you may — or may not, I won’t hold it against you — find of interest —

Vertigo founding editor Karen Berger seems to be in “full-steam ahead” mode with her Berger Books line at Dark Horse, with Emma Beeby, Ariela Kristantina, and Pat Masioni’s Mata Hari #1 marking the imprint’s third debut in, if memory serves me correctly, as many weeks (they might have taken a week off, I guess, it’s all a bit foggy at this point), and while this fairly nuts-and-bolts historical re-telling of the trial of the infamous spy/femme fatale presents a more sympathetic view of its subject than you’re likely to find from books authored by any of us goddamn men, it’s far from a pure piece of revisionism — which probably would have made for a more interesting read had Beeby opted to go that route. Not that her script is dull or dry by any stretch, but most of Mata Hari’s not-inconsiderable mystique is left to the artist to convey — which the highly-gifted Kristantina certainly manages to do with a fair amount of aplomb. Her linework is fluid, evocative, even downright alluring when it needs to be, and Masioni’s color palette is absolutely gorgeous. $3.99 isn’t bad for a comic that looks this good, but I’m hoping that the writing catches up to the art in the four issues remaining.

Meanwhile, coming our way courtesy of Berger’s former home we have Death Bed #1, and I was genuinely surprised by how much this one knocked my socks off. I figured Riley Rossmo’s art would be terrific, and it is — he’s got a high-energy, “cartoony,” frenetic style that lends itself best to “balls-out,” unhinged narratives — but writer Joshua Williamson is one of those guys who seems to have okay (enough) ideas that end up being hampered by his clunky, gramatically-deficient prose. Fortunately, he appears to have taken a quantum leap forward here, serving up a tale of a struggling female ghost-writer taking a weird gig chronicling the life story of an old-timer who claims to be the greatest adventurer that ever lived (even though nobody’s ever heard of the guy) that really plays to his artist/co-creator’s strengths and sets a highly agreeable tone of batshit insanity from page one. Ivan Plascencia’s ultra-garish colors provide the semi-psychedelic icing on the cake, and you know what? It’s actually very safe to assume that I’ll be sticking with this six-parter all the way through to the end.

Bet you never thought I’d be talking about even one Marvel book in this column, let alone two, but that’s just the kinda week it’s been. I don’t apologize, either, even if I feel like I should, because the sixth and final issue of Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov’s Punisher Max : The Platoon is seriously one of the best comics I’ve read so far this young year. These two have crafted some terrific Vietnam-based Frank Castle stories in the past, but this one seriously might be the best of the bunch. There were a fair number of plotlines running in this series that demanded conclusions that were not just satisfactory, but respectful, and Ennis deftly pulls it all off, while Parlov’s art, aided and abetted by Jordie Bellaire’s smartly un-flashy color choices, sticks you right in the middle of “the shit.” Ennis-scripted war comics are pretty much always good, but this one has been well over and above from start to finish — and speaking of the finish, the last page here might even leave a lump in your throat. Who saw that coming? Best news of all, though, is that Ennis’ love for this character has apparently been re-kindled, and this team is planning on at least a couple of follow-ups in the near future. Bring ’em on.

Last — and, in this case, least — we come to Black Panther Annual #1, a waste of five bucks if ever there was one. Here’s the thing, though : it probably shouldn’t have been. Certainly the comics-reading public would jump all over a really good, stand-alone Black Panther comic right now, and this anthology collection of three stories written by his most celebrated scribes would, on paper, seem to fit the bill — but one way or another, they all come up short.

The allure of a brief follow-up to the legendary “Panther’s Rage” storyline by that epic’s author, Don McGregor, is what drew me in, but his story here is lackluster and exposition-heavy and is frankly only worth spending some time on for Daniel Acuna’s art. Spoiler alert : T’Challa’s former love interest, Monica Lynne, dies in this one, but all the deliriously purple McGregor prose in the world can’t seem to coax an emotional reaction that should, by all rights, be pretty easy to achieve. Meanwhile, Reginald Hudlin just tosses off a dull recap of his years on the book that’s accompanied by equally-uninspired Ken Lashley illustration, and Christopher Priest does his best (which is actually pretty damn good) with his too-short yarn centered on CIA agent Everett K. Ross, but artist Mike Perkins’ low-rent riff on Lee Bermejo really lets the side down. This story should have been given a lot more room to breathe — hell, give it the whole book — and it should have been drawn by someone else.

One thing worthy of note : McGregor at least has the decency to dedicate his and Acuna’s story to original “Panther’s Rage” artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham — and that’s more recognition than they receive from Marvel in the new Black Panther film, where neither of their names even appear in the long laundry-list of “thanks-you” credits at the end. Let’s hope that this glaring and inexcusable oversight is corrected in time for the home video release.

Okay, that’ll do it for this time around. Next week don’t we have a new Shaky Kane book coming out? I think we do. That alone should make a trip to the comic store worth it. Join me back here in seven days when we take a look at that, as well as whatever else strikes my fancy. Hope to see you then!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/04/2018 – 02/10/2018

Once again, and against all odds, the new release racks at my LCS featured a pretty decent selection of stuff worth both reading and talking about this week, so give me a second to roll up my sleeves here and I’ll get into it —

Twisted Romance #1 is the first of a four-part weekly “supernatural love”-themed anthology published by Image and spearheaded by writer Alex De Campi, who is here joined on the main feature, “Old Flames,” by the incomparable Katie Skelly — who probably should have been been given free reign on both story and art, since this succubus-themed tale is a decent enough little throwaway yarn, but certainly no My Pretty Vampire by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a crisp, breezy read that wisely allows the stylish and sharp visuals to pull most of the weight, but ultimately rather forgettable.

Fortunately, though, things improve as the book trudges forward, first with  “Leather & Lace,” a pleasing-if-predictable prose story  about two Wendgio hunters (one human, one vampire) in love written by Megan Cubed that may not knock your socks off but gives you just enough of a handle on the characters to want a happy ending for them before proceeding to deliver precisely that, and then with a downright stunning impressionistic/interpretive backup (or first-up, depending on which of the “reversible” covers you flip to) strip, entitled “Red Medusa In Hell,” by visionary talent (not to mention damn fine critic) Sarah Horrocks that straight-up blew me away with its fatalistic high-energy visuals and daringly sparse scripting. The story looks and feels like a cry for help from a doomed lover for whom it’s already far too late, and touches on themes of anger, jealousy, rage — and even necrophilia! This is a direct shot of uncomfortably violent stimuli mainlined right into your brain via the optic nerve and a deliriously chaotic cacophony of all that can go wrong when love does go wrong. The book’s worth four bucks for this story alone — hell hath no fucking fury, indeed.

Shifting from “alpha” to “omega,” but sticking with Image, we come to Rock Candy Mountain #8, the finale of Kyle Starks’ superb love song to hobo culture, and yes, the mythical “promised land” of many an itinerant worker that the title alludes to is, indeed, found by our protagonist here — after a fashion, at any rate — but fear not : there’s still another gigantic hobo brawl to get through first and, oh yeah, the inclusion of the Spear of Destiny into the joyously-gummed-up proceedings finally pays off in quiet-but-major fashion. I’m really hoping that Starks and colorist supreme Chris Schweizer team up for another project sooner rather than later, as this has been a textbook example of first-rate cartooning from start to finish. If  you’ve been passing on it in singles then you definitely need to pick it up in trade (the second volume should be available shortly), and I’ll tell you what : even though financial suicide isn’t exactly my thing, if they collect the entire series in a handsome hardback at a fairly reasonable price, I’ll probably “double dip” and go for that, as well, since that would be a damn fine thing to have on my bookcase. I have nothing but love for this comic.

Speaking of love, that’s also an eminently fair description of how I felt about Incognegro : Renaissance #1, the second comic to come down the pike from editor Karen Berger’s new “Berger Books” line at Dark Horse. A prequel to writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece’s Incognegro graphic novel (which Dark Horse re-issued in hardback to coincide with this comic’s debut), this is immediately arresting stuff that sees our “light-skinned-enough-to-pass-for-white” protagonist stumble headfirst into a murder mystery set at the height of the Harlem Rensaissance (hence, ya know, the title) that is bursting at the seams with intrigue and any number of potential red herrings right from the outset. Johnson’s dialogue is witty, sly, and authentic, Pleece’s always-underappreciated art is frankly better than ever, and to say this comic “oozes atmosphere” is probably an understatement, but oh well, too late, I already said it. I was a little bit iffy about the direction Berger’s imprint was heading in after an underwhelming debut with Hungry Ghosts last week, but now I’m feeling decidedly more optimistic. This was a terrific read, and fuck you if you think a black-and-white comic ain’t worth $3.99.

DC wants eight of the dollars you work so hard for in exchange for Swamp Thing Winter Special #1, and whether or not you should give it to them probably depends on how big a fan of the character you are. The main feature by Tom King and Jason Fabok certainly pays loving homage to co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, but the AM sports radio framing sequence surrounding the “Swampy tries to keep a young boy safe from an unseen snow monster” tale falls flat, you’ll see the plot “twist” coming from at least ten miles away, the attempts at heartstring-tugging seem forced, and King’s hyper-stylized, “choppy” dialogue is beginning to make all the characters in all the books he writes sound exactly the same. And speaking of the same, he employs the identical “fast-forward” truncated timeline technique in this as he does in the latest issue of Batman. I guess Jason Fabok’s art is okay if you like standard-issue “New 52” superhero stuff, but I don’t, so count me as being fundamentally unimpressed with everything about this story.

Of somewhat more interest is the backup, which was to be the first issue of a new Wein/Kelley Jones Swampy mini-series. Their last six-parter was all kinds of retro fun, and the prospect of them re-teaming for another filled me something approaching joy, but Wein’s untimely passing cut that short, and so all we have is this glimpse of what could/should have been. Jones’ always-superb, Wrightson-esque art is here presented sans dialogue and narration, since Wein — whose script then follows — essentially wrote “Marvel-style,” providing his artist with what amounts to an extended synopsis that includes minimal specific panel instruction, very little dialogue, and lots of “leave me room for some caption boxes here”-type notations. It’s fascinating to see the level of (entirely well-placed) trust he had in Jones, and DC did absolutely the right thing (how often can you say that?) both in terms of deciding not to let somebody else step in and finish what Wein had started, and in making sure Jones’ sumptuously creepy art was able to see the light of day. Does it make me long for what could have been? Sure, but I’m glad we got this much, and its inclusion here provides a fine endcap for what is essentially a “tribute special” for Swamp Thing’s creators.

And on that note, I think we’ll call this a wrap. A couple packages — including one from friend of this website Brian Canini — arrived yesterday, so I’ll look forward to diving into that stuff and reporting back on it, plus whatever else strikes my fancy, when next we meet here in seven days!

 

 

 

Will “Hungry Ghosts” Satisfy Your Horror Cravings — Or Leave You Feeling Famished?

Anyone who knows me in “real life” knows that if there’s one thing I absolutely despise, it’s so-called “foodie culture.” Sure, I can appreciate the fact that there is a fair amount of artistry involved in good cooking and that a lot of chefs are doing their level best to promote worthwhile causes such as “farm to table,” eating local, etc., but come on — anyone with any sense of proportionality has to admit that the whole thing has gone too far. We’ve gone from having a couple of celebrity chefs on TV to having hundreds of the bastards, high-priced restaurants are popping up in every major city in the country in numbers that can’t possibly be sustained, food bloggers are tripping over each other for frankly lame “scoops” on the insular-bordering-on-incestuous culinary “scenes” in their towns — it’s absolutely out of control, and that’s before we even get into how flat-out gluttonous and offensive it is that people have the nerve to critique food on things like “presentation” while half the world is literally starving to death. Disappointed in the “flavor nuances” and “lack of seasoning” in the dish you just paid $50 for?  Well,there are entire countries full of people that would gladly trade places with you and “suffer” through your tribulations, so kindly fuck the fuck off you fuckhead.

All that being said — if there’s one TV chef who doesn’t make me want to strangle him with a cord made out of pasta or ramen noodles, it’s Anthony Bourdain. In fact, I actually like the guy. I work an overnight shift on Saturdays, and many is the time all-night marathons of Parts Unknown on CNN have been all that stood between me and falling sleep on the job. Bourdain goes to interesting and exotic places, spends time getting to know the locals, and seems to genuinely appreciate the fact that he leads a life most people can only dream about. Yeah, my eyes do glaze over a bit when he gets into the minutiae of the ingredients in whatever dish he’s preparing and/or eating, but that’s usually all over and done with in a minute or two — plus, ya know, he’s got the advantage of being a comic book guy.

So, hey, if I were Vertigo founding editor Karen Berger, and I was launching my new Berger Books line at Dark Horse, having the imprimatur that Bourdain’s celebrity provides on the cover of very first comic I put out? That’s something I would definitely go for. And yeah, I’d probably give his name top billing, even over the title of the book itself. And so, from a business, maybe even a creative, perspective, everything about the new four-part horror anthology Hungry Ghosts makes sense. Joel Rose, who co-wrote the Get Jiro! graphic novels with Bourdain, is back in the same role (that being, I’m guessing, the guy who does the lion’s share of the actual work), and Berger has assembled a murderer’s row of artistic talent to illustrate these tales, with the first issue alone featuring Alberto Ponticelli and Vanesa Del Rey on line art, the incomparable Jose Villarrubia on colors — heck, even Paul Pope on hand to provide a truly stunning cover. Surely a team this star-studded is bound to produce something special, is it not? In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that this basically had no choice but to be a damn good comic.

I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not a betting man, then, because against all odds, Hungry Ghosts #1 is a decidedly mediocre read. I certainly dug the introductory framing sequence, a modernized take on EC-style “openers” with an international spin that sees our nameless horror hostess drop us off, figuratively speaking, at a Russian oligarch’s privately-commissioned feast prepared by a gaggle of top chefs who decide to while away their time in the well-appointed kitchen by indulging in a culinary version of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, essentially the Japanese Samurai equivalent of everyone sitting around the campfire and trying to one-up each other by telling progressively more frightening ghost stories. And that’s where things kinda fall off the rails.

Certainly none of the fault here lies with the artists — Ponticelli’s gritty style suits the opening scene and the first story, “The Starving Skeleton,” to a proverbial “T,” and Del Rey’s lush and expressionistic visuals make the pages of “The Pirates” absolutely sing, while Villarrubia’s palette expertly shifts to underscore the varied, but equally visceral, styles of fright each yarn attempts to deliver. Unfortunately, those attempts come off as half-hearted at best, with “The Starving Skeleton” being a standard-issue morality play (chef won’t serve a starving homeless guy who enters his restaurant after closing time, said starving homeless guy is then revealed to be a spectral, skeletal wrath who consumes chef — which makes you wonder why he ever found himself going hungry in the first place?), and “The Pirates” being a high-seas take on castration horror clearly inspired by Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea, but nowhere near as good, and featuring an unfortunate woman at its center who somehow manages to bite the balls off literally dozens of men, one at a time, in the same ship’s cabin — with none of them turning on her until all is said and done, even though you’d think the screams of pain and spurts of blood might, I dunno, clue these scurvy guys lined up to be “serviced” by her that something was maybe wrong. Clearly, then, neither tale of “terror” was all that well thought out beyond the “gotcha” moments in each.

Which could certainly be forgiven, at least by me, if they offered something else, something greater or at least “other,” than most quick-fire scary stories do, but this is some seriously bog-standard stuff in the extreme. The principal of escalation inherent in the set-up of the “game” these chefs are playing makes me think — or at least hope — that better things are in store as the series progresses, so I’ll probably stick it out for at least one more issue, especially since Berger’s track record is as close to “unblemished” as a veteran editor’s can possibly be, but Hungry Ghosts #1 is far from an inspiring debut for a mini-series, let alone for an entire new (and much-publicized) line of comics. It wouldn’t be fair at all to say it leaves a bad taste in your mouth or anything of the sort — but it is surprisingly unsatisfying, even for an appetizer.