End of Month Three

Welcome to the month three roundup.

This month we had no Thumbs Down titles thankfully.

 

We had four No Thumbs titles.

This shows that even with a great writer, great source material or fresh ideas you can’t always get it right.

Covert Vampiric Operations: Volume One – Alex Garner

Covert Vampiric Operations: Volume Two: Rogue State – Jeff Mariotte

Fall of Cthulhu 1: The Fugue – Michael Nelson

Criminal: Bad Night – Ed Brubaker

We had nineteen Thumbs Up titles. A respectable figure and a mix of standalone and series titles.

Our Cancer Year – Harvey Pekar

Exit Wounds – Rutu Modan

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less – Sarah Glidden

Covert Vampiric Operations: Volume Three: African Blood – El Torres

Jericho (Season 3) – Alejandro F. Giraldo

The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln – Scott McCloud

Girls Volume 2: Emergence – Luna Brothers

Judge Dredd: The Carlos Ezquerra Collection – Various

Fort – Peter Lenkov

7 Brothers – John Woo & Garth Ennis

7 Brothers: Volume 2 – John Woo & Benjamin Raab

Kick Ass – Mark Millar

Defoe 1666 – Pat Mills

Bram Stoker’s Death Ship – Gary Gerani

Criminal: Coward – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: The Dead and the Dying – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: The Sinners – Ed Brubaker

Soldier Zero: Volume 2 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

Soldier Zero: Volume 3 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

This month we had eight Double Thumbs Up titles, more than ever before. Girls has to be the most successful series yet, I hope it wasn’t just for the nudity…

Girls Volume 1: Conception – Luna Brothers

Girls Volume 3: Survival – Luna Brothers

Girls Volume 4: Extinction – Luna Brothers

At the Mountains of Madness – Ian Culbard

45 – Andi Ewington

Criminal: Lawless – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent – Ed Brubaker

Soldier Zero: Volume 1 – Paul Cornell

Everyone should read the Criminal series as it is masterful storytelling.

Everyone should checkout Girls as it is an amazing idea.

Anyone with a Lovecraft interest should get hold of At the Mountains of Madness as it is the best adaptation in any medium and has gorgeous art.

Everyone should marvel at 45 for showing just how different you can be in a graphic novel.

My star was probably Soldier Zero for its bold beginning. I just wish Cornell had stuck with it as the direction it promised would have been an interesting one. Even with new writer however it still didn’t lose its charm.

See you next month.

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Soldier Zero: Volume 3 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

The template has been established. There will be two big fights and one lot of heavy exposition per volume. Promising characters that were well established in the first book will be completely ignored or given a single page appearance.

The previous book was all action. This volume is mostly action but little things like characterisation, good dialogue, humour and plot are slowly being slotted in. There are a lot of talking heads but the dialogue feels natural. Although heavily recap laden it does give the characters a little more depth and likability.

We are also introduced to the big plot and it is big with a capital B with some universe spanning gravitas. We have left the personal, emotional journey of one man behind and are firmly in the epic space opera territory. This is undoubtedly a shame as the initial premise could have been a really mature tale. Having said that, it does execute action and spectacle very well. It is also an effortless and graceful read and will be over before you know it.

The art is just as attractive with lovely colours and pretty faces to look at but the high polish of the previous instalments has subsided. The digital tricks like motion blur are there but used sparingly and intelligently.

It is a very good natured book with humour to make you smile. There are lots of media references including X-files, Close Encounters and Jaws that you will also enjoy spotting. This isn’t the book it was, this isn’t the book it should have been, but it is still a great book and I am already looking forward to the next part. Thumbs Up. 

92/273.

Tomorrow: Crossed Volume 3: Psychopath – David Lapham

Soldier Zero: Volume 2 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

A change of writers could mean many things, most of them bad. But luckily this volume retains just enough of the original genius to keep the spirit alive. This book focuses on action and is basically two extended fight scenes back to back. The social message is gone, the emotional struggle is gone and most of the characters are quickly ditched to make way for explosions.

The nature of the beast has changed but this offering is still very good at what it does. There is a frenetic ride through a blockbuster special effects sequence that is both compelling and page turning. New characters are brought in to shake things up, more about Soldier Zero’s origin is revealed and there are some neat little ideas floating about.

This isn’t a trouble free work however. The graceful action hits a brick wall and eight pages of humungous exposition slow you to a crawl before it resumes the high speed mayhem. It is all spectacle and no depth. You literally have to turn your brain off and enjoy this story using only your eyes. The rich, well rounded characters you spent all that time getting emotionally invested in, including the hero in many respects, are gone or are reduced to single page cameos.

The art is stunning. The panels are large, often full page, making the book a rapid read. The poses are dynamic and fluid and really give a sense of motion. The colours are gorgeous and the different locations all have unique tones and casts. There is less opportunity for the lettering to shine but it remains consistent with the previous volume. There are some nice digital tricks with focus and showing off energy effects.

It is a far cry from the emotional launch. It feels like Ellis’ rebooting of Stormwatch and there is a very good recap at the beginning for those jumping on with this book. If it revisits its firm foundations then it will be a great work; if it continues to be all style and no substance then it will be a real let down. Thumbs Up… for now.

91/274.

Tomorrow: Soldier Zero: Volume 3 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

Soldier Zero: Volume 1 – Paul Cornell

Having a disability can be tough. Usually the problem isn’t your disability as you find ways around that, the problem is typically the rest of society and how it treats you. One of the drawbacks of having a disability is you don’t get to appear in fiction (unless you are villain with an eye-patch or a hook for a hand) and comics in particular.

He we have a recently disabled soldier who is coming to terms with the changes in his life. His family, friends, women, people on the street all treat him differently now because he is in a wheelchair. We get to see and feel his pain and awkwardness at dealing with a culture that is too embarrassed to think about or discuss people with differing abilities. We also get to think about own overreaction and discomfort in these situations.

This isn’t a preachy book and it doesn’t spend the whole time making you feel guilty. With a superb tone it highlights things that you either never thought about or you brushed under your mental carpet. Our hero meets another wheelchair user so we get to see differing attitudes to having a disability.

You could spend a whole book on just this subject alone and with Cornell’s masterful style it would be an entertaining and insightful read. But two aliens drop from the sky and one of them possesses our hero’s body granting him and ability to walk, and fly too. This invasion is more of a cohabitation as the two personalities vie for control of the physical form. What follows is one of the finest buddy-movie capers seen in a very long time as both ego’s jostle for position.

The art and the colouring are superb. There are excellent nocturnal colour casts and star filled skies. Expert use of digital painting gives the alien technology a very otherworldly feel and great use is made of geometric shapes. There is a fantastic flashback whose sepia tint and rounded corner panels are an exemplary choice. The deliberately obscured faces in that sequence help us understand our protagonist’s loneliness and isolation.

Having two people thinking and talking from the same face, particularly when one can change his voice, seems like a nightmare. Through expert colour coded lettering this is handled with ease. Chances for letterers to shine are few and far between as it is often the most overlooked profession but what we see here is real innovation and creativity.

This is possibly the most perfect comic book. It has a compelling story, lots of action, relatable characters, intriguing mysteries, a strong and well delivered social message, beautiful art and is expertly told. This is a lot for volume two to live up to. Double Thumbs Up!

90/275.

Tomorrow: Soldier Zero: Volume 2 – Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent – Ed Brubaker

Just when you think Brubaker (the writer) and Phillips (the artist) could not possibly top the genius volume that was Lawless, they do. This is an incredible tale whose pieces fit together so perfectly it takes your breath away.

The cliff-hanger ending at the end of the first issue stuns you and takes you off in a direction you weren’t expecting, but is a perfect fit for the Criminal world Brubaker has created. The central character’s fate balances on a knife edge and you really have no idea how it will end. And when the end comes it might surprise you but it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The undisputable star quality comes from a bold art decision. Through great writing we get to see who the characters truly are by seeing their childhoods. We are privy to the life changing decisions and experiences that formed who they are today.

There are many way to execute flashbacks such as these including black and white, colour casts, strange borders and so on. Phillips changes the art style completely to that of a children’s comic such as the famous “Archie” American comics. The characters become completely flat and two-dimensional with virtually zero depth and shading. The lines are super clean and the colours bright and vibrant. This is a definite contrast to the gritty black shading and hatching that is a trademark of the series. Even the lettering changes to a straighter, more upright font.

This high contrast style leaves no confusion over the timeline and point of view. It works so well that you can easily jump back to the past for a single frame. You can even mix present day into past memories for dream sequences. This isn’t the first time a change of art has signified past events. Stormwatch did an excellent past flashback featuring period art. What makes this so special is that the children’s comic style is perfect for expressing memories of childhood. Mixing the two narrative threads on the page is something that would only work in the comic book format and it takes a great talent to understand and use that quality.

Definitely the best in the series and a Double Thumbs up!

89/276.

Tomorrow: Soldier Zero: Volume 1 – Paul Cornell

Criminal: The Sinners – Ed Brubaker

Tracy Lawless, the lead from the finest book in the Criminal series (Lawless), returns. We rejoin him in Mr. Hyde’s employ one year after we left him. Someone is killing the criminals and corrupt of the city and Lawless must find out who.

The basic whodunit story is simple enough and the killers are revealed to the reader early on. That isn’t the highlight of this book. What is, is the character of Lawless and every other character he meets. Some of whom we know and others might just have a book to themselves in future. That is the beauty of Brubaker’s talent, his adroit characterisation.

Brubaker keeps piling problem after problem on his lead character’s shoulders. Amazingly he doesn’t break or descend into farce. It would be too easy for Lawless to slip from man into superman but he doesn’t. He is just a regular Joe and you know that things aren’t going to go well for him. You just hold your breath to see if he gets the job done before his inevitable fate.

The art is fantastic. Phillips has really reached the top of his game with this series. He has found the perfect blend of detail, shadowing and colour. This is the most colourful of the books with many of the locations having emotionally themed palettes. But this is Noir colour. The flickering streetlamp, the neon sign, the all-night diner provide the nocturnal sunlight that bathes this world.

This builds on, and equals, the tour-de-force that was Lawless. We want more. An incredible Thumbs Up!

88/277.

Tomorrow: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: Bad Night – Ed Brubaker

Even the best of us have a bad day and that looks like what has happened here. Brubaker is an exceptional storyteller but it looks like he has bitten off more than he can chew, which is a shame as the exceptional cover art promises us something special.

The story starts well enough with the familiar Brubaker single protagonist and their monologue. Slowly we uncover this man’s past and his secrets. A woman is introduced and shakes things up like only a Noir woman can. Then the shit hits the fan with a double, double-cross and the plot twists and turns. We begin to question the man’s mental state and re-evaluate just how reliable a narrator he is.

Everything was going well and the signs of mental illness are expertly portrayed. The whole uncertainty about who is really telling the truth is very well done. The problem comes when we leave the main character’s point of view and hop into the heads of two other characters and spend a while with them. This destroys the intimacy we have established with our lead. Their narration is third person so we don’t even get to have a Rashomon-like switch to another point of view like we did with Brubaker’s previous volume The Dead and the Dying. Had this jolt come earlier or been a constant fixture of the piece then it might work. But we are so late in the day that this derails the fine tone and pacing that has been working so hard to build.

The art is of the usual high standard. There is a great technique that visually symbolises the lead character’s unbalanced state of mind. This is pure genius and definitely more effective than anything done with words. The cover is also worthy of mention as being a wonderfully noirish, loaded image. Shame it has no relevance to the story within.

I feel bad for my low opinion of this book. I have enjoyed all Brubaker’s previous works and no doubt will enjoy the next ones but this just gets too complicated and drops the ball. No Thumbs today sadly. 

87/278.

Tomorrow: Criminal: The Sinners – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: The Dead and The Dying – Ed Brubaker

This contains three short stories that are really the same story told from three different points of view. A lesser writer would have put them into one big story. But then we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of putting all the pieces together ourselves. Brubaker sticks to his rule of only having one lead at a time and letting them tell us their own story in their own words.

These aren’t strangers to us. Technically they are minor characters mentioned in earlier books but we have quickly learnt there is no such thing. We are convinced everyone in Brubaker’s world has a history and a destiny mapped from cradle to grave. That mute shoeshine boy you dismiss today will turn out to be the lynchpin of tomorrow. This is what makes Brubaker’s ship in a bottle so magnificent, it feels so real and authentic and we have no idea how he does it.

The art is excellent and the dark skin tones of the numerous black cast are handled expertly in the noir setting. The first page is a full page panel that really slaps you in the face and makes for a hell of a beginning.

This series is consistently of the highest quality and I am sure the next volume, like this one, will be a definite Thumbs Up!

86/279.

Tomorrow: Criminal: Bad Night – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: Lawless – Ed Brubaker

An ex-criminal returns home to discover who killed his brother. Incognito he infiltrates his brother’s old gang in order to get some answers. Along the way he gets mixed up in more than he bargained for.

There are comics writers who are imaginative, creative, witty, political, astute, but very few who are great writers. In addition to being gifted technically Brubaker understands language. He makes it flow effortlessly; balancing its cadences and weaving it so fluently it becomes transparent. His use of third person narration works wonderfully and contrasts very well with the previous volume’s first person voice-over.

He is also a plot magician who keeps more balls in the air than you think possible. He lays invisible seeds behind your back that burst into bloom at exactly the right moment. Nothing is forced, contrived or gratuitous. This is the smoothest ride you will ever read.

Here is a story you could tell a hundred ways but Brubaker’s is flawless. We have a murder mystery, a crime caper, a thriller, a family lament and a wonderful character study. For most writers this would be too many balls to juggle but not in this case. There are also some wonderful references and cameos from the previous book and it really rewards the loyal reader. There is intricate world-building at play and you know the next volume will be even richer by growing out of this shared continuity.

The art is excellent. The harsh shadows from the last volume are gone and this one has a wonderfully muted feel symbolic of the lead character’s loss. There are some showcase moments such as a police car chase through the snow with some incredible red and blue colour casts. The style is wonderfully cinematic and the characters are all drawn with a unique look.

Even if, like me, you think a crime story would hold no interest for you whatsoever force yourself to buy this book. The sheer literary skill on display here is exceptional. This truly is the best of the best – a proper Double Thumbs Up!

85/280.

Tomorrow: Criminal: The Dead and The Dying – Ed Brubaker

Criminal: Coward – Ed Brubaker

Before superheroes people read comics about crime. Proper old-school noir comics which featured the words gumshoe and caper. That genre has all but disappeared but makes a welcome return here.

Fusing old school Dick Tracy and original Oceans’ Eleven with modern day examples such as Heat and Pulp Fiction this tale is a real treat. Told in the classic style of alternating third-person action with first person narration we follow a lone criminal with a code who undertakes one last heist which goes as wrong as they always do.

It twist and turns then shocks and awes you but always in moderation and only when appropriate. Overall the pacing is unhurried and the central monologue does a great job of slowing the pace and building up tension. It is a tale that has been told a thousand times but this is certainly one of the better recitals. There are just enough hints at the past to flesh out the central character and you certainly grow to like him quickly. Other than an all too convenient character introduction that feels a bit leftfield this is an excellent work. As a standalone story the writer has the freedom to really shake things up and doesn’t pull any punches.

The art is appropriate to the style pushing the dim and dingy to the max and using heavy black shadows and thick outlines copiously. It definitely feels like vintage Batman era stuff. There isn’t a lot of detail but the characters are all well defined and there are some great facial expressions when necessary. It sticks rigidly to the three tier grid system with many thin panels per line packing a lot in per page. Virtually every panel has a person and speech in it yet it never feels too wordy or cluttered. Noir is all about dramatic and relevant conversation and this hits the nail on the head.

There is also a tale within a tale with the occasional appearance of a newspaper strip featuring a private detective. It’s not the Black Freighter of Watchmen but a nice little in-joke for those who care to smile at it.

Other than a well plotted narrative there are some nice nods to previous classics with a great Italian Job reference. This is a very worthwhile read that ticks all the boxes. Thumbs Up!

84/281.

Tomorrow: Criminal: Lawless – Ed Brubaker