CROOKED LITTLE VEIN Novel
Writer: Warren Ellis Publisher: Harper Perennial Reviewer: Ambush BugI wouldn’t consider myself the biggest Warren Ellis fan, but after seeing the man speak at this year’s WIZARDWORLD CHICAGO I can understand why he has such a large following. The man is one of those larger than life characters with the ability to command a room with a simple story and is never…ever at a loss for words. By his own accord, the man doesn’t sleep, lives off of Red Bull, cigarettes, and fine liquors, and laughs in the face of those who claim writer’s block. I have to say, the Evening with Warren Ellis (which included a reading from the book we are reviewing today along with quite a few fascinating anecdotes about some of the greats in the comic book industry) was the highlight of my Con experience this year.
From the reading of CROOKED LITTLE VEIN, I knew it was the type of novel I would enjoy. It’s a noir-ish road trip about a detective who is a self proclaimed “shit magnet” (meaning that whacked out donkified shit just kind of always happens to him) hired on the DL by a government representative to find the original Constitution of the United States--an article that is quite different than the one we all read about in history class. The path leading to the ancient article is a bizarre and twisted one (later referred to as a “crooked little vein”, hence the title) filled with some of the most depraved and fascinating scenes you’ll likely find in a book this year.
Godzilla fetish porn, a shared drink with a serial killer, a party where saline is injected into one’s scrotum, and the craziest presidential candidate this side of this year’s election are just a few of the peculiar bumps Detective Michael McGill runs into. With his trusty sidekick and would-be girlfriend Trix, McGill goes on a quest to find this article which is supposed to heal the United States in a time of moral crisis, which of course, if anyone is looking outside the window, is right about…now.
Warren Ellis is a true wordsmith. He understands how to introduce a scene that completely absorbs your attention and has an uncanny knack of describing things in a way that makes you want to know more of the intricate and sick details he chooses to focus on. Ellis’ detective McGill runs into a never-ending gauntlet of the weird and writes the character with more complexity than one often finds in noir novels. One would think a shit magnet would be jaded upon seeing the sights McGill does throughout the story, but Ellis writes the character as constantly surprised at the cards life deals him. By adding this character trait to McGill, Ellis makes the character instantly likable. McGill wants a normal life. He wants to be happy. There’s a moral and noble soul in there. He just has to push that aside or bury that in order to deal with the batshit-flappy stuff that constantly crosses his path.
Ellis also constructs a nicely complex character in Trix, the girl McGill meets early on in the story who tags along with him because he promises her an adventure. Trix knows McGill is having her around because he’s attracted to her and also is quite forthcoming with her open views on sex, morality, and life. Trix is one of those great characters that simultaneously brings out great character moments in the often moralistic McGill and functions completely and wholly as a character on her own.
The rest of the cast is less developed, but this is a road story where the main characters meet an assortment of characters on their trip, often never to see them again. The fun is in the build-up of experiences our main characters gather along the way. The characters Ellis introduces are fun and most are pretty damn memorable.
Occasionally, Ellis goes for shock value and this is where the book goes off track at times. I understand the point of Ellis going into these sexually perverse tangents (the quest for the real Constitution is motivated by the government’s desire to “clean up” the perversity that has become “mainstream” in today’s culture), but Ellis dives right into these perverse situations and soaks until wrinkles set in to the point of excess. Then again, that looks to be Ellis’ point of the whole damn book: that we as a culture have accepted that which has been shuffled behind closed doors, even though we are hesitant to admit it.
What I love about the book is Ellis’ way of describing a scene. He starts every scenario as if he were telling a story in a bar and the attention span of the listeners is reliant on how skewed the subject matter can become. There’s a real talent in that – one that not all writers have. It’s a testament to Ellis’ power as a writer to grip the page and completely command it.
Although comics are my literary drug of choice, I’ve read quite a few novels and this is one of the better ones. It often relishes in its own perversity and may suffer from the Chuck Palahniuk Syndrome of continuously trying to top the last wonky scenario and character with another and then another, but it was a book I couldn’t put down. A quick read, this one was. A lot of fun too. Plus I now have the uncomfortable image of scrotal saline injections emblazoned into my brainpan, which will more than likely be the catalyst to many a waking nightmare.
Thanks a lot for that one, Mr. Ellis.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, reviewer and co-editor of AICN Comics for over seven years. Look for his first published work in MUSCLES & FIGHTS 3 (AVAILABLE NOW!) at Muscles & Fights.com. Check out a five page preview on his ComicSpace page. Bug was recently interviewed here and here at Cream City about indie comics, his own artistic process, the comics industry, and other shades of bullsquat. Look for Bug’s follow-up this Fall in MUSCLES & FRIGHTS!
Writer: Peter David Penciller: Larry Stroman Inker: Jon Sibal Publisher: Marvel Comics Reviewed by: BottleImpSo I’m flashing back to high school, when my comic book collecting reached that all-important stage of getting a monthly subscription. The title was X-FACTOR, the first issue I received in the mail was #71, and the sole reason that I started reading it was that Havok was one of my favorite characters—I knew next to nothing about Wolfsbane, Polaris, or even Peter David. I remember when I got that comic in the mailbox and opened it up the first thing that hit me was Larry Stroman’s artwork. I remember thinking: “Wow… this looks weird.”
I’m flashing back to that moment because I had the exact same reaction when I opened X-FACTOR #33. See, back then I had been adhering to a steady diet of Ron Marz, Jim Lee, John Byrne, John Buscema—the “realistic” comic book artists. Stroman’s abstracted figures, faces, and page layouts were totally alien. Of course, I quickly became acclimated to his unique style, and came to appreciate how well his work complemented the writing. Now, years later, I’ve been exposed to a wide array of artistic styles and have come to appreciate them, but I had grown accustomed to the even more realistic “realistic” comic book art that has graced this volume of X-FACTOR since Peter David came back to the helm. Just as before, Stroman’s art feels alien, and I think one reason why it’s not gelling for me is due to the coloring.
Comic book coloring has advanced a long way even in the past ten years—subtle color shifts, textures, and gradations are now commonplace—but that doesn’t mean that every book should be treated in the same manner. Artwork of a more expressive or abstracted style (such as Mike Mignola’s, Teddy Kristiansen’s or Ted McKeever’s) tends to be more bold and graphic than artwork of a more naturalistic type, and I find that this graphic quality is enhanced when the coloring is kept more accordingly simple. Just look at some of Mignola’s HELLBOY comics to see what I mean. I think that Marvel needs to find a colorist for X-FACTOR who will be more in tune with what Stroman’s trying to achieve.
But enough about the artwork—this issue is a “Secret Invasion” tie-in and also crosses over with SHE-HULK. The reason I like X-FACTOR is that it seems to stand alone and tell its own stories more often than the other X-Books, so I’m not too thrilled at the direction this storyline is taking; I was hoping to learn more about what happened with the characters between the last issue and this one. But in my opinion David has been batting pretty close to 1.000 on this book so far, so I’m hoping that he’ll keep the focus on the X-Factor team members rather than get mired down in Skrull business.
FINAL CRISIS: ROGUES’ REVENGE #1
Writer: Geoff Johns Artist: Scott Kolins Publisher: DC Comics Reviewer: Optimous DoucheI felt like Two-Face after reading this issue, torn between my adoration of Geoff Johns’ ability to make even the most infinitesimal side-line characters in DC canon seem important, and the over-arching feeling that FINAL CRISIS is nothing more than a 3 card Monty game to resurrect Barry Allen.
Quite honestly, I have to wonder if DC did Johns and Kolins an egregious disservice by forcing this book to tie in to an event that has left fans confused and bewildered as to its true purpose. Right now, I’m starting to feel like any and all books tagged with the CRISIS handle are quite simply a reason to kill and resurrect Barry Allen. I haven’t seen a corpse pulled out and used this much since I dabbled in necrophilia during a dating drought in the mid-90s.
I would like more than anything to let the tie-in point go and examine the book on its own merit, because it was a damn strong title. Aside from a few nits I have with the pencils, I love when a title humanizes the evil doers of the world and peers beyond the powers to look at the men behind the gadgetry.
Anyone that read Johns’ run on FLASH back at the dawn of the millennium, or has been keeping up with his latest work on ACTION, will not be surprised by this ability to turn evil characters into so much more than just foils for the title’s protagonist. The idea of giving Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, Mirror Master and Heat Wave their own title is long overdue. Some will gripe that we’ve already travelled this path in FLASH proper, but each and every one of those stories had to divert from the Rogues to focus on the stories’ main character. Here the villains are the main characters, and Johns solidifies this fact at every turn.
It was in these revealing moments about the Rogues that Johns was able to make me entirely forget that this title is tied to Jesus Barry, I mean FINAL CRISIS. The pages where the police peel back the Freudian layers of the Rogues’ psyches helped to not only fully actualize each character, but also served as great exposition to acclimate anyone that missed Johns’ earlier work on the scarlet speedster.
But then the Piper appeared. I don’t know about you, but it’s virtually impossible for me to look at Piper without remembering his decrepit “hand job” from CRAPDOWN. Considering that was one of my favorite moments from the regrettable series and I still cringed a bit, it makes me wonder if he will ever be able to escape this new legacy, especially in the eyes of more fervid fanboys.
Aside from a few flashes to Iris Allen, the rest of the story focused on Keystone’s Fab Four of villainy trying to climb their way back to the top of the underworld food chain. Again, this was a nice touch that could only be formulated by someone who has a deep love of the comic medium. The KINGDOM COME approach to the next generation of villains being epic douche bags and utterly inept warmed the cockles of this writer’s juvenile middle-age heart. Resourcefulness and cleverness are always more interesting to watch than sheer brute force.
Aside from the CRISIS connotations, my other issue centered on Kolins’ art. When we first see all four villains together I had thought Heat Wave’s gun had gone awry; everyone looked like they suffered from Wicked Witch syndrome and were melting. OK, this can’t be right, since no one is pissed off at Heat Wave. So they aren’t melting, well they look kind of furry. Could it be that all four developed a Furby fetish and bioengineered their skin to prey upon the sexually adventurous? No, alas--they were wet from the rain. I shouldn’t have had to think this hard.
Melting characters and big events aside, this was a damn stellar issue, especially for those with a nostalgic fondness of Johns’ last turn on FLASH. I worry that the honor code among Rogues may one day end up suffocating the danger element of FLASH, but for the time being these guys are out to settle old scores and restore the status quo of diabolical debauchery.
When Optimous Douche isn’t reading comics and misspelling the names of 80’s icons, he “transforms” into a corporate communications guru. Optimous is looking for artistry help, critical feedback and a little industry insight to get his original book AVERAGE JOE up, up and on the shelves. What if the entire world had super powers? Find out in the blog section of Optimous’ MySpace page to see some preview pages and leave comments.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN # 566
Writer: Marc Guggenheim Art: Phil Jimenez (breakdowns), Mark Pennington (finishes) Publisher: Marvel Comics Reviewer: Ambush BugBlah, blah, didn't like One More Day…
Blah, blah, gave Brand New Day a chance...
Ok, now that I got the obligatory mentions of gripes, beefs, and hopes towards the metamorphosis of Spidey's book has undergone in the last year, I can now get to the important part of this review.
This may well be my favorite single issue of the year. It captures the right tone, injecting enough action and twists, and incorporating the ongoing subplots that have been darting throughout ASM for a while now. Up until this issue, I have to say that the last Dan Slott arc with Paper Doll was my favorite with Zeb Wells’ weird snowstorm arc coming in a close second, but after reading this issue, Marc Guggenheim has proven his worth to the Spidey team.
Guggenheim does a great job of juggling both the action at the forefront and the subplots in this one. There's a sense of building tension in the Spidey books and despite the fact that different creative teams are leaping on and off the book, editor Steve Wacker (whose previous credits include the surprisingly cohesive 52 maxiseries over at DC) has been making the reading experience as smooth as a morning lake. Sure there's a different villain every now and then and a new main problem perplexing Spidey and making him inner monologue like no tomorrow, but the feel of Spidey is consistent and Wacker should be commended for this achievement.
A quick recap is in order, I guess, since this issue is the middle chapter in the "Kraven's First Hunt" arc. Spidey's new roommate, Vin Gonzales, is a down on his luck cop whose life seems to be getting worse since coming into contact with the wallcrawler. Spidey finds himself followed home by a mysterious and tiny figure in our last issue. He's being hunted. The hunter turns out to be a tiny lass who is calling herself Kraven (ties to the original Kraven or Ron Zimmerman's dag-nasty redux of the character are unknown as of this issue). Kraven follows Spidey home and in a mix-up that you would only see in comic books, she kidnaps Vin instead of Peter and thinks he is Spider-Man.
What makes this issue stand out as one of my favorites is the absurdity of the situation that Spidey finds himself in, the spotlight on Peter Parker as a character who is both funny, worrisome, dedicated, and heroic all at once, and the simple fact that Guggenheim fills every panel with situations that ooze fun from every panel.
Without his Spidey costume (which was stolen by the tiny Kravenette), Spidey is forced to look up his buddy Daredevil and borrow his. The scene where Spidey negotiates with Matt Murdoch so he can borrow his Daredevil costume is hilarious, as are the thought balloons dedicated to Spidey coming up with an excuse to tell his roommate just why he has a Spidey costume to begin with. Seeing Spidey having fun in Daredevil's costume is a great way to show how Marvel's heroes are so much more than their costumes. Guggenheim, with art by Jimenez and Pennington, capture the quirky and spindly nature of Spidey, giving him his own posture and making it easy for the reader to tell that despite the costume change, it's the wallcrawler under there.
I also have to give a nod to Guggenheim for keeping the action intense. It's not like this is a breezy laugh fest. It balances out the dangerous aspects and casts this new Kraven as quite a formidable foe despite her size. There are references galore to KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT, right down to the way Vermin talks and the location where the first hunt took place.
Phil Jimenez and Mark Pennington deserve some credit here too. The lines are clean and vivid. Details are attended to, but not overly so. Spidey, Daredevil, and especially the vicious Vermin have never looked better. And I like the new design of this new Kraven. Although they effed up the color of her costume last issue and colored it purple, they seem to have fixed it in this issue and the new brown and black coloring makes the character look modern, but with subtle references to Kraven's original lion-face costume.
Spidey borrows Daredevil's costume. That's about it to this issue and that's perfectly ok with me. It's one of those fun premises that isn't earth shattering or status quo jostling. It's just a fun story. If you are one of those readers that need that type of hype behind every book you read, you probably won't take notice of this issue. But if you're a longtime fan of Spidey and miss the kookified fun you used to have reading his adventures, this story arc is right up your alley.
THE NEW YORK FOUR OGN
Writer: Brian Wood Penciler: Ryan Kelly Publisher: Minx/DC Comics Reviewed by Humphrey LeeWell, it only took me a year and a half, and the creative crew responsible for the absolutely amazing LOCAL series from ONI PRESS to do it, but HumphreyLee is now offically MINX line initiated. I don't know if I should feel dirty or not. Actually, I'm shocked it took me this long. A good story is a good story nonetheless, no matter what the intended audience, and from what I've seen these little novellas have packed some pretty solid talent up until now. Andi Watson, Jim Rugg (Pittsburgh represent), Mike Carey, etc. I guess I just had to find that one creative crew that I knew could make a line like this and if the aforementioned LOCAL was a sign of what could happen with Wood and Kelly doing one of these, and with a nominal price tag, well then I guess it's worth a shot, right?
Worth a shot, but I'm not sure about being much more. Not that the story taking place here in NY4 is a bad one. Not by any means. It's a solid little story about a girl, Riley Wilder, and how drastically her life starts to change by going to college and getting reacquainted with her estranged sister. There's good and not so good in this tale, the good outshining the bad by a solid margin but overall I think I just wasn't into it because it seemed rather...tame I think is a good word for it. I guess what could be the case is since I came in on this based on my experience with LOCAL and no idea what to expect from MINX I just was looking for more of the former. And there are bits of that here. The way NYC is used in this story makes it as much of a character as our lead, Riley, and one of the high points of LOCAL was, well, the locales. They gave a great ambiance to the book and it works here in NY4 as well.
Overall, though, there doesn't see to be much character study going on here in NY4. Oh, there's drama, and there's some hints at something deeper inside Riley and the group of misfits she befriends, but it mostly comes out a bit superficial. Most of Riley's life basically revolves around her little mobile phone to the point where she almost ignores other people completely and while I can appreciate the little statement that says about tech and young people in our society, it still rings a little hollow to someone like myself because I can't see something like that being that excessive in someone's life. But then again, I didn't really understand teenagers and college goers back when I was amongst their ranks either. The other aspects of her life do ring true; moving out "on your own", as much as your first college place meets that phrase and meeting new people amidst all the clamor that is school and on and on, but the rest was just a little flat to me. Not quite "After School Special" flat, but not quite "My So Called Life" quality either.
Another shame is that, sadly, this digest-sized format really doesn't help out Ryan Kelly's art. It still looks good, mind you, but like with the writing being sort of hampered by the format methinks, so too is the art. Kelly's art just loves to detail and cram as much into those backgrounds as he can, which is why every page of his is a visual feast and makes his art so vivid and lively. The shrunken size of these pages, though, just doesn't help that aspect of his art at all, and cramps the panels. There's still some gorgeous full and half page shots, particularly of the architecture of course, but it is definitely hurt by not being in full-sized glory.
And there you have it. I won't say I'm disappointed with the NY4 here, for the price these MINX volumes charge and the "pretty alright"ness of the story it was a nice little diversion, but the main appeal to someone like me on a book like this is obviously the creative crew, and it just seems like this format is a little bit hindering to the talents involved. For its true audience though, these books must be great if NY4 is any indication. The only thing I'm curious as to, though, is just how much of that intended group is really the audience and how much of it is made up of guys like me that just wanted to see the tandem of Wood and Kelly again? I hope that's not the case, Lord knows the industry could use all the new readers and wider audience it could get, but I'm pretty doubtful. But hey, if it works once or twice that still means it worked. I hope so, because right now I think we'll take any victory we can get in this industry. Cheers...
THE HELM #1 (of 4)
Writer: Jim Hardison Breakdowns: Bart Sears Finishes: Randy Elliot Publisher: Dark Horse Reviewed by: BottleImpThe cover blurb says it all: “What if YOU had a magical superpower… AND IT HATED YOUR GUTS?” Think Green Lantern, if the ring had a cantankerous personality and thought that Hal Jordan was the last person on earth who should be wearing it.
Simply put: this book is hilarious. An overweight, ex-video store clerk, role-playing gaming fanboy steals a magical talking helmet from a garage sale (over the protests by said helm) and must now become a powerful warrior or die in the process. Everything in this comic is pitch-perfect, from the detailed yet slightly cartoony artwork to the situations and dialogue. One scene in particular hits far too close to home: our hero Mathew is driving home after being simultaneously dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job. “JILLLLLLLLL!” he laments, as he passes a sign for a garage sale. “JILL! JILL!! JI—garage sale?” Oh, the lure of the garage sale… I’ve been there many a time.
Any fan of Sword & Sorcery genres, adventure comics, and satirical fare such as “The Venture Bros.” would do well to pick up this book—you won’t be disappointed. And you’ll want to get on board before Hollywood starts sniffing around to do the inevitable adaptation (I can see the proposal now—Jack Black or Seth Rogan as Mathew and Ian McKellan as the voice of the Helm). This is one of the few times a comic book made me laugh out loud as I read it—highly recommended.
JUNK – RECORD OF THE LAST HERO V1 - 2
By Kia Asamiya Released by DrMaster Publications Inc. Reviewer: Scott GreenKia Asamiya's JUNK offers a seinen manga approach to the classic weakling/superhero dichotomy. In the tradition of Spider-Man, he's a geek, who stumbles into great power, warranting a lesson in great responsibility. Modification to this hybrid is that the hero picks up a super powered form modeled after the helmeted on top, monochromatically focused skin-tight on the body uniform of sentei tokusatsu shows, with the explosions lighting up urban centers rather than rock quarries. Then, to take matters into more mature audience, seinen territory, said geek is a weapons-grade underachiever, to be more specific, a hikikomori who slinks in his parent's house, refusing to attend school, accepting the meals that his mother leaves outside his door. That disposition is sufficiently bad that when his super-suited misadventures result in blowing up his parents' house, with them inside, the loss hardly dents his misanthropic malaise. Willfully ignoring, "get your business together," "use your power for good" lectures, he begin sleeping with his girlfriend's mother. He uses the life insurance money to set himself up in an expensive, empty but for a PC apartment and fund his obsession with a pop singer. He uses the super powers to become a social avenger of the strife that cripples bullies and knocks holes in the walls of the homes of would-be anonymous internet trolls.
The key quality of JUNK is that it is a Kia Asamiya manga. Its Captain Hikikomori is a promising high concept: a hero who’s so pissed at the world that leaving his room is agonizing. Yet, it is not the dark, sordid release or existential super-heroics that the premise could have yielded. Overwhelmingly, the lyrics are sung in Kia Asamiya's voice.
Kia Asamiya has had a complex relationship with the world of American comics, particularly super hero comics. His works, like sci-fi/horror action SILENT MOBIUS and fantasy DARK ANGEL had a strong presence leading into the dawn of the North American manga boom. For a while, he seemed to be the go-to guy for manga cross-overs, producing works like BATMAN: CHILDREN OF DREAMS and the manga adaptation of STAR WARS: PHANTOM MENACE, as well as art for DC and Marvel comics. There is credible speculation about the degree to which he is mercenary in his work, but whether he sees the genre as an opportunity and/or he's a fan, Kia Asamiya is definitely drawn to super hero stories.
At the same time, Kia Asamiya has always been a love or hate figure among North American manga fans, with sentiment frequently weighed towards the latter. His approach to character design has always had its detractors. For a manga artist with a clean, idealized look, he has always utilized prominent facial features. This allows for structural variety in his faces. It is also liable to provoke the reaction "check out those huge noses!" Even among readers who appreciated his sculpted bombast, his problems telling a coherent, original story has been the subject of plenty of criticism. Jason Thompson's MANGA: THE COMPLETE GUIDE brow-beats Asamiya's work on titles like DARK ANGEL as poorly structured flash. "The series ends abruptly with no resolution, but the plot is so weak that you could open up any volume and it'd make just as much sense."
By no means is JUNK a train wreck. It's not spectacularly bad, or even resoundingly bad. There's a spark to tease genre fans. If you're invested in the American notion of the superhero story... If you're like manga that challenge the boundaries of what's tasteful and smart... there's promise in the idea of a very intelligent, very misanthropic, very dangerous teen. Look at international hit DEATH NOTE for a demonstration of where the potential can lead. Asamiya's strengths as an illustrator feed into that sense that the work is on the brink of an impressive conflagration. The strict lines of a cityscape that fences in porcelain, pretty figures starts looking like a grand balsa wood structure... one constructed to be knocked down with a concussive blast.
As much nitroglycerine as Asamiya packs into the premise and pre-wave sandcastle look, JUNK is ultimately failed by Asamiya's abilities as a manga artist. In scripting it, he introduces far too many forces pulling on the hero, vying for his attention and soul. The quantity is not necessarily unmanageable, but it is unmanageable by Asamiya, whose ability to plot a graceful story arc has rarely been apparent over the course of his career.
Asamiya's illustration acts as an exacerbating factor. His panels are generally distinct. Each image makes its down statement rather than flowing into the next. With a maelstrom of intentions buffeting the action and difficult to parse page layouts, the manga lacks an apparent relationship between cause and effect.
Rather than thinking about what is happening, thoughts turn to what Asamiya is trying to achieve. At that point, JUNK starts looking authorially driven. Heroes, villains, and the dark puppet master behind the scene all seem subject to Asamiya's dictates. There is logic, but not as much logic as is needed, and that strips the hero of the agency needed to cheer his betterment or revel in his bastardry.
Scott Green has been writing for AICN ANIME for close to seven years. If you like what you see here and love anime & manga, be sure to check out his latest AICN ANIME column here.