Combat Zone: True Tales of GI’s In Iraq – Karl Zinsmeister

Karl Zinsmeister was a journalist embedded with a U.S. regiment during the Iraq war. This graphic novel is adapted from the books and newspaper columns he wrote during that time.

If this was a work of fiction it would be great. There are charming characters, realistic dialogue, tension and drama, clear cut heroes and villains and a happy-ish ending. Because this is supposed to represent fact it is a very dangerous text.

The Americans are quite clearly the good guys. Lots of emphasis is put on the rules of engagement and the extraordinary lengths the military goes to to avoid civilian casualties and property damage. Equally prevalent are the tales of cowardly acts perpetrated by the people who had their country invaded who clearly deserve to be killed.

If you put a journalist in a military unit it stands to reason you will choose your most sensible one and tell everyone to be on their best behaviour. You would probably pick a person sympathetic to your cause too. There is always the possibility that Zinsmeister didn’t witness any US atrocities, civilian casualties, friendly-fire incidents, cultural insensitivity, looting and profiteering, or anything else that has happened in every war since time began. Or it might be with a strict brief and limited page count he chose to leave them out.

This isn’t journalism here. This is a lovely feel good piece about the way wars should be fought and the wholesome, lovable, well-rounded people we would choose to fight them – assuming we need to fight wars at all obviously. There is no objectivity here.

Most of the violence happens off screen apart from the final few pages and only two Americans died. The faceless, nameless, evil enemy remain such and get no humanising treatment. This isn’t Platoon with a war is hell message, or even Band of Brothers. Everyone seems to be having a lot more fun, and smiling, and telling stories than you would think during a war.

There is tech on show, new words to acquire, procedures to observe and other things to learn. There is an unexpected mention of the CIA and their role too. The art is good with explosions and action making for prime visual candy. Ultimately this is a dumbed down feel-good piece which is a shame as this doesn’t do justice to the stories of the men who are actually getting shot at and risking not coming home to their loved ones. TV programmes such as Over There did a fine job of exposing the broader picture and emotional issues of this conflict. This could have gone so differently and so it gets the No Thumbs!

153/212.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 1- Ronin  – Stan Sakai

Welcome to the month five roundup. (Please make it stop now!)

This month we had no Thumbs Down titles again. I will have to find a barrel to scrape.

We had four No Thumbs titles. Quite a lot really.

Mercedes – Mike Friedland

CSI: Intern at Your Own Risk – Sekou Hamilton

The Pitt – John Byrne & Mark Gruenwald

Combat Zone: True Tales of GI’s In Iraq – Karl Zinsmeister 

We had twenty-one Thumbs Up titles.

The Walking Dead Volume 1: Days Gone Bye – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 2: Miles Behind Us – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 4: The Heart’s Desire – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 5: The Best Defence – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 7: The Calm Before – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 9: Here We Remain – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 10: What We Become – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 12: Life Among Them – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 13: Too Far Gone – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 14: No Way Out – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 15: We Find Ourselves – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 16: A Larger World – Robert Kirkman

The Hedge Knight – George R. R. Martin

Morning Glories: Volume One – Nick Spencer

Morning Glories: Volume Two – Nick Spencer

Drafted – Mark Powers

Hellgate London – Ian Edginton

Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian – Alexi Sayle

The Last Winter – Larry Fessenden

This month we had six Double Thumbs Up titles, I think that’s a record!

The Walking Dead Volume 8: Made to Suffer – Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead Volume 11: Fear the Hunters – Robert Kirkman

Morning Glories: Volume Three – Nick Spencer

Midnight Nation – J. Michael Straczynski

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. – Warren Ellis

The Originals – Dave Gibbons

It has been an interesting month with one amazing series and some outstanding stand-alone titles.

My star was The Walking Dead series and probably Morning Glories too. I am desperate for the next volume of that I can tell you. Special mention goes to J. Michael Straczynski’s introduction on Midnight Nation. Profound.

See you next month, and I haven’t found any Olympic titles so if you have any suggestions…

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The Originals – Dave Gibbons

Dave Gibbons drew and co-created the landmark Watchmen with Alan Moore. But as this book shows he is so much more than that legacy. This is Quadrophenia – almost to a T – but with hover scooters. In a retro-futuristic world one young man’s life changes forever in a touching and sincere coming of age story. Everything about this is perfect. The storytelling, the drama, the invented youth-speak, and the wonderful art.

You would class the drawing as black and white but I have never seen so much depth in grey before. Although the character’s faces are quite simple there is a lot of expression and emotion conveyed. It’s not just the wonderfully rendered panels that are perfect but even the space in between. The pages are matt black and the generous margins really focus your attention. Often narration will appear as white text in the margins and it so much more effective and atmospheric than if it were traditional white on black.

The future setting does not intrude save for hover vehicles. The world is decaying East-End London streets. The obligatory trip to Brighton is to a domed waterpark but everything else including the clothes and hairstyles could be from the seventies. This realistic grounding ensures there are no barriers to the emotional resonance of the story.

Absolutely brilliant in every respect and thoroughly British. Must be a Double Thumbs Up!

152/213.

Tomorrow: Combat Zone: True Tales Of GI’s In Iraq – Karl Zinsmeister

The Last Winter – Larry Fessenden

There are many graphic novels that have been made into movies (V for Vendetta, Kick Ass, A History of Violence) but very few that have gone the other way, being movies made into comic books.

This is the graphic novelisation of the low budget indie horror/ drama The Last Winter. It concerns a remote oil drilling operation in Alaska and has a strong ecological message. It was constructed by the film’s storyboard artist Brahm Revel from an early draft of the script, meaning there are solid differences between this and the film.

The art is really good and once you get over the shock of seeing Ron Pearlman in comic book form you settle into it effortlessly. The colours are black, white and grey but there is also a very pale blue (a glacial blue) too. This is used sparingly for ice and snow and sky and the odd highlight. All the indoor or nocturnal scenes are just black and grey so when you suddenly pop outside or look out a window you get a nice visual jolt. There are a couple of speech bubbles from angry characters that instead of containing words the artist has just scribbled furiously, which is an excellent idea.

It is good. I enjoyed the film and it’s nice to see the tale told in a different format, but I was concerned too much was given away removing much of the mystery. Definitely a Thumbs Up, especially to the artist.

151/214.

Tomorrow: The Originals – Dave Gibbons

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. – Warren Ellis

Basically you start laughing on page one and you giggle and guffaw your way through this entire book. It’s pure fried gold!

Warren Ellis has taken five marvel z-list heroes that no one remembers, along with some villains too, and made a hilarious, irreverent team book. It’s like Planetary (and it is like Planetary) but for toddlers, or the mentally deficient.

The art has that web-comic kind of feel and reminds me very much of Disney’s Kim Possible – light on detail, big on colour, lots of frenetic action. There is loads of action too, and as there are no weighty concepts or emotional soul searching to rush back to it is a joy kick back and watch Death Bears, Combat Pterodactyls, Robot Samurai and Broccoli Men get carved up by our heroes. And have you ever seen an issue with six double-page spreads… in a row!

It is cheap and puerile elevated to its highest possible level. There are some quite harsh digs at big Marvel heroes and the Marvel Universe in general but in a witty and intelligent way. It does get more serious than you thought at the end causing you to pause for a moment before making your sides split. This being Warren Ellis there must be some political stabbery; and there is. But it is done in such an in-your-face, Technicolor way that you never stop smiling.

There are wacky and even zany ideas bubbling forth reminiscent of camp 60’s Batman and the anarchic Prisoner TV show. Watch for the upside down panels that make your brain itch. There are no expletives in this book at all just the same four skull and crossbones symbols that regularly appear allowing you to fill in your own language. Ellis does everything he can to break your immersion, with letters pages full of made up letters, editors commentary, statements directly to the reader and so on, yet all of these things endear you to the story and characters more.

There is nothing like this book. It feels so casual and light-hearted and yet is a masterpiece in construction and execution. A true joy to read. Double Thumbs UP!

150/215.

Tomorrow: The Last Winter – Larry Fessenden

The Pitt – John Byrne & Mark Gruenwald

What the hell did I just read? Was it an issue zero for an established series? A debut issue for a new series? Or a crazy novella from some publisher with more money than sense.

An otherworldly explosion destroys Pittsburgh and three separate protagonists get caught up in it. Or a ghost, a colonel and a woman with a robot-suit walk into a crater…

A bit of research reveals that this is a one-shot spinoff from the comic Star Brand published in the 1980s. You get to see three separate characters, only two of whom meet each other, and see how they get caught up in this disaster. One has a giant robot suit and one is a disembodied psychic entity but that is neither here nor there.

The dialogue is perhaps the most striking feature. Written and set in the late 80’s it really feels like something from much earlier. Who drives an automobile? Who traverses places? Who dresses in a trench-coat and fedora anyway?

The art is old-school 4 colour Marvel comics. The panels are fixed and straight but there is the occasional bleed and good use of full page images. There is a text monologue from one character at the start and a bookend by another at the end. There is also a technical schematic of the explosion that destroys Pittsburgh as a sort of appendix.

Missing out on the previous and subsequent works in this line I am so out of context there is nothing for me to latch onto so it has to be No Thumbs.

149/216.

Tomorrow: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. – Warren Ellis

Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian – Alexi Sayle

“It turned out my rubber plant was in league with Mr Saunders.” This bizarre line and others like it are typical of this surrealist outpouring from the once ubiquitous political comedian Alexi Sayle.

This is definitely a vanity project with a thin storyline acting as a vehicle for some incredibly subtle digs at British society. It’s like the Goons and Pythons meet Raymond Briggs in a pub.

What is quite clever is that the story concerns Alexi writing a children’s book, which appears within the story, and then merges with real life. And the dinosaurs are a nice twist too.

The art is mostly hand drawn watercolours but there are some photographs snuck in along with a collage of photocopied crosswords, sweet wrappers and pages from the Radio Times. The main story narrated by Alexi is hand lettered and the children’s book is typeset. There are also amusing footnotes pasted in.

Other than something to get Alexi Sayle fans for Xmas I am struggling to find a reason this book was ever conceived or published. It does remind you that you can do anything in a graphic novel and that Alexi Sayle was a very witty chap indeed. It also makes a superb palate cleanser after something profound or dark and disturbing. For being different, Thumbs Up!

148/217.

Tomorrow: The Pitt – John Byrne & Mark Gruenwald

Midnight Nation – J. Michael Straczynski

This is a big book, a really big book. I’m not just talking about the three hundred pages, twelve issues, plus covers, plus extras either. This is big in concept, big in ideas and big in existentialism.

A cop investigating a mysterious homicide has his soul stolen and wakes up trapped between worlds. He must then begin a long journey to get back what he has lost. It’s a fantastic idea and although the whole “is this really happening, is he in a coma, what’s going on” has been done before, this is an expert execution. Despite the whimsical premise you are absolutely hooked within pages by the incredible dialog that Straczynski excels at.

The journey continues and becomes more and more abstract until you are treated to a metaphysical sermon about the nature of modern life and existence in general. Assuming you survive this thought summit the story glides to a neat conclusion. You might get lost along the way and probably won’t understand all or possibly any of it but you will certainly have to admit you have witnessed something rather profound. It’s the kind of art that people tell you is art but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

The graphics are really good and as there is an incredible amount of text the pictures work hard using every trick they can to break up the writing as much as possible. There are lots of views looking down, an angle that is rarely used in most comics, that proves very effective in communicating the character’s isolation in this strange new world. It really is worth going back to the book for a second read just to look at the variety of techniques in play here.

As well as the mighty story there is a one shot spinoff, all the sumptuous covers, and J. Michael Straczynski makes possibly the most personal and moving statement by another human being I have ever read as he describes the origin of this book.

This is Sandman sharpened into a mere dozen issues and delivering a razor sharp Double Thumbs Up!

147/218.

Tomorrow: Geoffrey the Tube Train and the Fat Comedian – Alexi Sayle

Hellgate London – Ian Edginton

Oh no it’s a graphic novel based on a computer game. We can all predict how this will turn out. But prepare to be surprised… I was. Demons have invaded through a portal in London and all but taken over the world. Three groups of resistance fighters, the Templars, the Cabbalists and the Demon Hunters, must put aside their differences before it’s too late.

This is a story set in near future London and what a refreshing difference it makes having a British writer at the helm. The places, the dialogue, the history are all authentic. It is jammed with hundreds of subtle references to modern life in the UK. The geography is all correct and the historical facts – from the ravens at the Tower of London to the names of its lost rivers – are too. There is witty dialogue, good structure and pacing, relevant action scenes, rounded characters and some nice twists and turns.

The art is good stuff even if the demon fighting armour for ladies is very skimpy. There is a beautiful underground scene lit with blue light that really stands out. The panels are fluid and dynamic but easy to follow. The lettering is compact but highly legible. Plus London after the end of the world looks great. St Pauls, Centre Point, the Thames, the Underground are all here faithfully rendered and destroyed.

A nice surprise and a welcome Thumbs Up!

146/219.

Tomorrow: Midnight Nation – J. Michael Straczynski

Drafted – Mark Powers

An alien race arrives to mandatorily conscript all of humanity to fight a war for the survival of Earth.

This is a long book composed of 12 issues and so there is plenty of time to tell a decent tale. It isn’t bad either. People are picked seemingly at random from across the globe and pressed into units. World leaders and minimum-wagers are lumped together and must all get along. As well as the people who leave Earth we also see those left behind. As the planet is gradually de-populated those that remain face harder struggles as there is no one left to keep the lights on.

This work has a lot to say about humanity. As we are all finally united by a common cause we get to see how petty the differences are that keep us apart. We learn what makes people heroes and what people will fight for. Religion also comes under the spotlight, and where does God fit into an alien invasion.

The art is good but changes artist and style for the last two issues making an uncomfortable transition. There are some nice low light scenes and lighting effects. The aliens are also suitably alien and their first appearance is a strikingly good rendition.

There is a bit of a twist at the end that does feel a little uncomfortable and clearly another part was intended as the story stops dead but sadly there was none. For a good effort this gets a Thumbs Up!

145/220.

Tomorrow: Hellgate London – Ian Edginton