COMICS: John Reviews “Seaguy” by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart

Seaguy Volume 1

Seaguy Volume 1

WARNING: If you don’t like overwhelmingly positive reviews filled with glowing praise, stop reading right now.  Additionally, if you don’t like incredibly wonderful stories that are emotionally moving and chock-a-block with symbolism, Seaguy is a comic to avoid.

Did you ever get the feeling that everything worth doing has already been done?  That there are no more adventures to be had in this factory-farmed, mass-produced, flat-cultured world? Well, that’s how the titular hero feels every day in Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Seaguy. Continue reading

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COMICS: petpluto Reviews Fun Home

Searching for words to describe the fantasticness of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is almost futile, but I’m going to try. The closest I can come to fully explaining its power and mystique was actually written by someone else: a reader of my personal blog; Rebekah (I’m quoting without permission here, as always) described the book thusly:

I related so well to her childhood even though it has few actual parallels to mine. Continue reading

COMICS: John Reviews “P-Brane: The Green Man” by Chris X. Ring

Much has been made of the recent trend in the motion picture industry to adapt from comic books, whether it’s literal adaptations of published works or simply adapting characteristic “comic book-style” visual or thematic elements.  This transition has also been going the other way, as the comic industry is affected by Hollywood’s sudden interest.  Film and television writers are trying their hand at writing comic scripts, and even some studios have taken to publishing their own works of sequential art (other than movies, that is.)  One such studio – Canada’s Quietus Films and their publishing division, Graviton Publishing – has put forth an ambitious and groundbreaking graphic novel called P-Brane: The Green Man that uses filmmakers’ techniques to tell a comic book story.  The result is truly a sight to behold.

An example of P-Branes art style

An example of P-Brane's art style

P-Brane begins in a familiar noir fashion, with a nameless protagonist who regains consciousness only to find that he has amnesia.  He is attacked by violent gang members, gets harassed by police officers and prisoners, befiends a street urchin and an up-and-coming journalist, and begins to piece together the scraps of information that come to him as he sleeps.  The story takes off from there, taking the Green Man (one of his many nicknames) and his friends on a world genre tour through crime drama, superhero action, apocalyptic horror and, finally, space opera.  It sounds a bit out-there, but Chris X. Ring makes the journey from grim ‘n gritty noir to Outer Limits-level science fiction seem not only plausible but inevitable. I’d say more, but that would spoil the surprise!

There are those who would say that P-Brane‘s story borrows liberally from other great works of the genre(s).  Personally, though, I found myself attempting to answer the question, “When does something make the transition from supposed rip-off to a new perspective on classic themes?”  I can honestly say that I have never read a story quite like P-Brane, even though I managed to come up with a long list of stories that may have influenced its creation.  Everything from Sin City and Boondock Saints, to Dark City and eXiStEnZ, to The Matrix and Equilibrium, to Independence Day and Star Trek come to mind, but none of them tell this story, and that’s an important distinction.  You may also notice that every one of the influences I listed above has a film version.  This was not intentional, but it does speak to the cinematic feel and approach of the book.

The most distinguishing characteristic of P-Brane: The Green Man – the technique that makes it stand out from its competition in the graphic novel world –  is its use of digitized photographs as the basis for its artwork.  There are no traditional pen-and-ink drawings, only photographs that have been retouched to give an appearance of black-and-white comic art.  You could almost call it the reverse of Sin City‘s transition from panel to screen, instead going from camera to canvas.  The result is stunning, and gives P-Brane‘s science fiction plot a strong grounding in the real world.

I would recommend that interested readers and lovers of noir/crime drama or science fiction (preferably both) give P-Brane: The Green Man a try.  Its artwork is bold and innovative, and the book overall is a new step in “cinematic” storytelling, showing the world that the film industry can give back to the comics industry as well as mine from it.  For those who do read and enjoy it, a sequel is underway.  Visit pbraneworld.com to find out how you can have your photo taken for the project, and possibly be included in the pages of P-Brane II!

The Green Man, in black and white

The Green Man, in black and white

COMICS: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Envy Adams, Scotts ex-girlfriend and lead antagonist of Vol. 3

Disclaimer: If you haven’t been keeping up with the Scott Pilgrim series (or my reviews thereof), you might feel a bit lost reading this.  Do yourself a favor and check them out before continuing.  But if you really can’t find the time, I’ll transcribe the synopsis that Mr. O’Malley was kind enough to include in the back of this book (though I couldn’t find the flowchart that went with it):

“Scott was dating Knives, and everyone was making fun of him for it.  He was having dreams about Ramona, who he’d never met, and then he saw her in real life, became obsessed and eventually asked her out.  She has seven evil ex-boyfriends and Scott has to defeat them all in order to keep dating her.  So far he’s beaten two of them!  The third one is Todd, who happens to be dating Scott’s ex, Envy Adams.  They’re in a band called The Clash at Demonhead, and Scott’s band Sex Bob-omb is supposed to open for them on Sunday (that’s in two days!).  Meanwhile, Knives is suddenly dating Young Neil (presumably to make Scott jealous,) Stephen Stills is insanely nervous about the show, Kim is feeling weird about meeting Envy, and Scott is freaking out too (because he isn’t over her!)”

Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Volume 3 of the series, picks up scant minutes after Volume 2’s cliffhanger ending.  It turns out that the critically-acclaimed and soon-to-be-rich-and-famous band The Clash at Demonhead is comprised of not one, but TWO old flames of Scott and Ramona’s!  Lead singer Natalie V. “Envy” Adams (pictured on the cover) broke Scott’s heart last year, and bassist Todd Ingram is Ramona’s third evil ex-boyfriend.  Scott is put in a triply awkward place after the show: He must do his best to get closure with Envy, defeat Todd in single combat and get his band ready to open for The Clash at Demonhead, all in two days!  It’s a good thing he’s got his girlfriend Ramona, his ex-kinda-girlfriend Knives, his roommate and his bandmates on his side, because he’s going to need all the help he can get!

Truth be told, I feel a bit repetitive in giving these reviews.  Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness is a strict continuation of Volume 2 in both story and style.  The action is still ramped up from Volume 1, but I would say it’s roughly on par with the previous entry in the series.  There’s a bit less fighting in this volume, which focuses more on relationship drama.  With such a tangled web of relationships, how could it not? Thankfully, more of the same is a great thing when it comes to Scott Pilgrim.  The quirky awkwardness of the relationships is so reminiscent of real life that I found myself checking old photos to see if  Bryan Lee  O’Malley had been stalking and following me through my finest and darkest romantic hours, taking notes.  The flashback sequences continue to be the best, partially because of the slightly different art style that gives them a different feel from the present-day material.  Scott Pilgrim’s world has become increasingly more fleshed out and easy to lose oneself in with each volume, and this is no exception.  O’Malley has constructed a world full of enough rich, interesting characters to do any number of successful spin-offs once Scott’s story runs its course.  I want my “Whatever happened to Lisa Miller?” story, gosh darn-it!

Teaser cover for Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3.

Teaser cover for Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3.

Of course, what would a volume of Scott Pilgrim be without video game references?  From Scott and Envy’s old band being called Kid Chameleon (a favorite Sega Genesis game from my youth) to the appearance of save points and hard-won extra lives (which, in the tradition of Mega Man, look like a stylized version of Scott’s head) to a fairly obscure PaRappa the Rapper reference (I gotta believe!), there’s plenty to keep gamers happy.  Non-gamers should not be afraid, though, the only reference that takes prominence in the story is the 1-Up, and I’m pretty sure anyone who reads this book will have played some video game that featured 1-Ups at some point in life.

To keep it short and sweet, O’Malley took the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart and created yet another wonderful blend of stylized cartoon action and close-to-home romantic drama.  Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness is more of the same, by which I mean solid gold.  A must have for anyone who enjoys the series.

COMICS: John Reviews “Black Summer” by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp

Today is November 5th (Happy Guy Fawkes’ Day!), and America is abuzz with political news and discussion in the wake of the most heated race for the White House in recent memory.  Many of us will be happy to take a break from the constant barrage of political news pumped out by the 24-hour news networks, but since we’ve got the White House on our minds, why not check out Warren Ellis’s Black Summer, a shock-and-awe-inspiring cautionary tale of what happens when superheroes and politicians can’t see eye to eye.  If the cover image doesn’t grab your attention, I’m not sure anything will.

Now THAT's a cover!

And the image on the cover is only where the story begins! Here’s a brief synopsis for you:

In the bad old days, a group of scientifically and ideologically motivated young upstarts created spectacularly powerful new hybrid bio/weapon technology and used it to give themselves incredible super-powers.  They called themselves the Seven Guns, and they became America’s most powerful protectors from  enemies both foreign and domestic.  Now the Seven Guns have disbanded and are burning out or fading away, with one notable exception: John Horus, the most morally unshakable of the Guns, takes his war on corruption and exploitation to its undeniable source – the President of the United States of America.  He murders everyone in the Oval Office (see cover) and declares that America will have free elections (with properly counted paper ballots) to determine a leader worthy of the position.  The Pentagon gives the Guns’ former mentor (now a Black-Ops commander) license to kill Horus and his old comrades (most of whom did not support Horus’s actions, and none of whom were accomplices) but they’re the most powerful beings on the planet, and they’re not going down without a fight.  To quote the trade paperback’s back cover, “Black Summer is about where you draw the line.”

Black Summer is a return to Warren Ellis’s characteristic blend of deeply important social issues and wide-screen spectacular action (see: The Authority), with just the slightest hint of pitch-black humor thrown in for good measure.  His ambitions were lofty, considering the original purpose of the comic was to win a bet with his Publisher at Avatar Press.  He was given a daunting challenge: Write a book that mirrors the grandiose “Event” stories being published by the big-name comic book companies without relying on the crossover of familiar characters to sell books (since Avatar doesn’t have a stable of recognizeable superheroes to draw from.)  Eventually, he hit the mother of all story hooks:  What if a superhero killed the president?  Along with that came the theme of the story, “Where do you draw the line?”  The details of Black Summer followed soon after, from the creation of the characters to the establishment of how their super-powers could be expalined in real world terms.  The theme is explored in great detail throughout the book, ranging at times from tugging subtly at the back of your mind to smacking you full-force in the face, according to the story’s progression.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for stories that deal with superheroes’ ability (or lack thereof) to affect major change in the world, and Black Summer scratches that itch wonderfully.  At times you’ll find yourself rooting for the good guys, then the bad guys, then you’ll begin to wonder just who’s really good and/or bad after all.

The art in Black Summer is nothing short of astonishing.  I’ll admit that my only prior exposure to Juan Jose Ryp was in “No Hero” (his latest collaboration with Ellis, currently on issue #2) but I was completely blown away with the level of detail in his drawings.  The cover image above is a great example, but you don’t get the full effect until you see that every page has that much detail and is that expressive.  The action sequences absolutely explode off the page, and I’m kicking myself for not buying the hardcover edition.  Reading the paperback version is like watching Iron Man in Blu-Ray on a Standard-Definition TV: It looks great, but you know you’re not getting the full effect.  Flip through it at your local comic shop and see if you don’t immediately agree.

As far as dialogue is concerned, this is unmistakably an Ellis comic.  His political rants that made Spider Jerusalem such a joy in Transmetropolitan keep sneaking their way into Black Summer, like this one:

“Article One, Section 8: Congress shall have power to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.  The Second Amendment:  A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.  When non-governmental organizations like private security firms are being put on the streets  of my otown – where’s Congress? Nowhere to be f!@#ing seen.  Companies like Blackwater routinely put Chileans and Bosnians on the streets, armed, to enforce not laws enumerated by elected representatives, but the terms of no-bid contracts handed them by a government that’s given up on ruling … I want the rule of law back.  I want my constitutional rights.  Give me a gun and i’ll make the bastards execute the laws of the Union.”

That’s just one sample of the heavier political stuff in the book.  For those who find it a bit wordy, don’t fret. It’s counter-balanced by lots of pretty explosions.  Sure, there are times when you could argue that Ellis shamelessly steals the characters’ voices and uses them as mouthpieces for his own political views (in particular, a rather scathing indictment of both Iraq Wars) but it’s framed nicely and it’s interesting to read, and if you’ve read any of Warren Ellis’s other landmark series (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, The Authority, etc.) it won’t seem out of place.

Time to wrap this up:  Black Summer is a big-budget action spectacular with plenty of ultra-violence in beautifully depicted detail, but also with a strong sense of social conscience and self-awareness.  It succeeds in its mission, which is to make the reader question exactly how far heroes should go in order to protect ordinary people from the tyranny of evil men.

COMICS: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vol. 2” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Ramona has purple hair!

Ramona has purple hair!

Welcome to part 2 of my series of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel reviews.  Today I’ll be taking a look at Volume 2 in the series, entitled Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (which, incidentally, is the proposed title for the feature film adaptation of the series.)

First, let’s catch up.  As we begin Vol. 2, 23-year-old slacker and musician Scott Pilgrim’s life has gotten substantially more exciting and complicated.  He is forced to choose between his platonic relationship with his 17-year-old “girlfriend” (in the most innocuous sense of the word) Knives Chau and his blossoming romantic relationship with the mysterious and spectacular Ramona Flowers (who works as the sole delivery person for amazon.ca and can rollerskate through shortcuts in the fabric of the universe.)  If he picks Ramona, he’ll have to do battle with the remaining six members of The League of Ramona’s Evil Ex-Boyfriends (having beaten the first at the end of Volume 1.)  What’s a guy to do?  And so begins Volume 2.

Rather than pick up immediately where Volume 1 left off, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World begins with an extended flashback sequence, fleshing out some details of Scott’s high school years that will doubtless become important in the present or immediate future.  We are introduced to the first two important women in Scott’s adolescent life: Lisa Miller, whom he befriends after losing his first schoolyard fight (before he can even make it through the front door!) and Kim Pine, who would later become the drummer for Scott’s bands.  Lisa absolutely adores Scott, but he somehow manages to never notice her advances.  He instead falls for Kim, whose antisocial attitude would give Daria a run for her money.  The trio (plus another friend) form a band called Sonic & Knuckles, and everything is fine until Scott’s family moves to Toronto and he must leave them all behind.  Meanwhile, back in the present, Scott has to figure out how to break up with Knives without destroying her self-esteem and how to beat Ramona’s next evil ex-boyfriend.  Things are going manageably until Scott’s most recent ex, Envy Adams (the one whose break-up took a year for Scott to recover from) calls to tell him some good and bad news: Her band, the monstrously successful Clash at Demonhead, needs another act to open for them at an upcoming show.  Scott is jealous and bitter, but it’ll be Sex Bob-Omb’s biggest gig ever, so he agrees to the gig.  The stage is now set for several confrontations that make up the bulk of the book:  Ramona Vs. Knives,  Scott Vs. Evil Ex #2 (Pro Skateboarder-turned-actor Lucas Lee),  and Sex Bob-Omb Vs. The Clash at Demonhead.  Who will perish, and who will live to see Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3?  What does that flashback have to do with any of this?  Find out in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World!

Everything seems to be ratcheted up several notches from Volume 1, from the art (which has taken on a far more cinematic feel, while at the same time embracing more of its manga pedigree) to the story (which is considerably longer this time around, and more action-packed.)  Fight scenes are a joy to behold even without the frequent pop culture and video game references, though those are a treat as well.  The overarching plot becomes a bit more layered and deep, with clues given regarding the checkered pasts of both Scott and Ramona.  In fact, one narration box calls attention to how little is known about Ramona Flowers, American Ninja Delivery Girl: “Age – unknown.  Everything – unknown.  Fun fact – unknown.”  Her ex alludes to a darker past, and warns Scott that she may not be as wonderful as she seems.  After all, how many girls inspire their exes to form a league dedicated to stopping future guys from dating them?

My biggest criticism with Scott Pilgrim Versus the World is the use of the flashback sequence and the establishment of so many similar characters.  Ramona may have seven evil exes (of which we’ve met three by the end of the book) but Scott is no slouch himself.  Lisa, Kim, Envy, Knives and Ramona either were or are vying for his affection, and all of that can get confusing.  I actually thought Lisa and Envy were the same person for most of the book, since Lisa isn’t mentioned again outside of the flashback and Envy is mentioned as though her past with Scott had already been established.  Silly me!

The video game references are back in this volume, and some of them are truly priceless.  When Scott beats his opponent and claims his victory coins, he is also rewarded with a special item.  In a send-up of one of videogaming’s most aggravating traits, Scott doesn’t have the ability to use the item and must watch despondently as it flickers out of existence.  There are a few nods to games like River City Ransom and Sonic the Hedgehog, as well as several broader genre parodies.  Like the first volume, it’s got enough in-jokes to keep video gamers chuckling without alienating the larger audience.

One of the most unexpected joys of reading this volume was the surprisingly haunting moments between Scott and Envy, his recent ex.  O’Malley perfectly captures just how awkward and painful a conversation like theirs can be (though I hope you’ve never had to experience such a thing yourself, dear reader!)  In general, I would say that Scott Pilgrim Versus the World breaks with sequel tradition by having the “real” moments feel even more real and meaningful than those in the first volume.  Of course, the action scenes are bigger and more action-packed as well, and there’s even a recipe for vegan shepherd’s pie!  What’s not to like?

In short, if you liked Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and want to know how the story continues, you will likely enjoy Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.  Next time, I’ll examine volume 3 of the series,  Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness. Till then!

COMICS: John Reviews ‘Zombies Calling’ by Faith Erin Hicks

Hey, kids! Do you like zombie stories, but have to wait until you’re older to watch R-rated movies like Shaun of the Dead? Well, you don’t have to wait any longer for your living dead fix! Faith Erin Hicks’s first original graphic novel, Zombies Calling, is a fun-filled and action-packed horror tale that has all the fun of popular zom-coms like Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead and (to some extent) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with a PG rating!

Jocelyn (or “Joss,” as she prefers to be called) is a reasonably typical Canadian college coed. She’s terrified of her mounting student loan debt, is enamoured with British culture and positively obsessed with zombie media. She claims to know all of “the Rules” of zombie fiction, though she has a much harder time remembering to study her actual coursework. On an otherwise ordinary day, her most exciting dreams and worst nightmares are realized as zombies overrun the campus! Joss quickly barricades herself and her friends (studly, dimwitted jock Robyn and sardonic mall-goth Sonnet) in her dorm room where they plan to use Joss’s knowledge of “the Rules” to survive until help arrives.

Will Robyn, Sonnet and Joss survive the zombie outbreak? Will Joss still have to face the nightmare of insurmountable debt? Will she ever get to realize her dream and visit Merry Olde England? And what’s the deal with the zombies, anyway?! The answers to all these questions and more are waiting to be read by you in Zombies Calling!

Judging by her love for the subjects in this book, Faith Erin Hicks must be nearly as zombieand Britishobsessed as I am. There are dozens of homages to the great creators and works of the sub-genre, from the first pair of zombies exclaiming “Grr! Arrgh!” to Joss’s scathing derision of the lone “fast zombie.” Pay close attention to the posters on Joss’s dorm room wall for a few more nods. Joss longs for a zombie-destroying cricket bat, but has to settle for a change jar and, later, a spork (which makes for some of the best humor in the book!) And what would a piece of zombie fiction be without some form of social commentary? The zombie master puts things into a very humorous perspective that anyone can understand, but college students will especially appreciate.

It took until nearly the end of the book for me to stop judging it by standards that do not apply. Zombies Calling is not cut from the same cloth as any of its predecessors, with the possible exception of Shaun of the Dead. If you are expecting a dark tale about the collapse of society in the face of rampant consumerism (of flesh!) or any other heavy social metaphor, you are looking in the wrong place. This is a light-hearted look at zombies that stabs the fourth wall with a mighty jab from its blood-covered spork. Its ideal adaptation (in my mind) would be an animated prime-time special on Cartoon Network. I say a special rather than a movie because it is rather short in length, only taking one hour at most to read through (if you’re not hunting for homages.)

Faith Erin Hicks not only wrote Zombies Calling, but pencilled, inked and lettered it as well. She admits that her style is reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Andi Watson (Clubbing, Glister, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and I completely agree. In particular, Sonnet bears a striking resemblance to Charlotte, the protagonist of Clubbing. The characters each have their own unique looks (Sonnet notwithstanding) and the action is kinetic and dynamic without being graphic. Also, it’s very funny to watch Joss fend off packs of zombies with nothing but a hybrid utensil. The panel layouts are straightforward and easy to follow, which is perfect for an all-ages (or at least ages 8 and up) book.

I would recommend Zombies Calling for anyone who enjoys zom-coms and can laugh at their better-known conventions, but doesn’t require layers of subtext underneath the menace of flesh-eating undead. It may still be a bit too much of a horror book for younger readers, but I would put it on par with your average R.L. Stine book in terms of scariness. As joss would say, it’s bloody brilliant!