Red Team – Garth Ennis

Red TeamIs this just The Boys without the Supes? That’s what you’re asking yourself isn’t it? Here is the story of an elite NYPD unit that can’t catch bad guys the legal way and so decide to bump them off instead.
This is a very mature work in the best sense of the word. Ennis like to make you think. Previously he has screamed and shouted, bombarding you with visual mayhem to try and shock you into paying attention. Now he tries a smoother approach. This is television on the page.

Red Team is that gritty, hard-boiled cop drama that started with Hill Street Blues and has been distilled into ever more sophisticated storytelling. This would absolutely work as a film or television show or maybe a novel. It’s the characters and the things they feel and say that tell the story here which can be bad news for a graphic novel.

The art is great and new face Craig Cermak brings the lush, Jacen Burrows photorealism that Ennis likes to work with. Everything is steady and traditional with all but the binocular shots having straight panels. He is careful not to overshadow the action and characterisation with gratuity but effortlessly keeps pace with the unfolding drama. The colouring is excellent and as this book cleverly makes a feature of talking heads there is some exemplary portraiture.

Each issue is narrated by a single member of the team to an unknown questioner and this device grabs and holds our attention. The dialogue is superb and within a few pages you are hooked. There is no traditional slow burn of Ennis’ earlier works and no hyperbolic action either. This is the smooth confident touch of the master writer.

You can sit back and enjoy the ride or you can pounce on the little clues to try and work out the ending before the last page. Either way you are in for a very rewarding, and uncharacteristic, work from one of our finest writers.

Double Thumbs Up!

Chew: Volume 8 Family Recipes – John Layman

Chew08For yet another volume Tony Chew is relegated to being a bit player in his own comic. This could be seen as worrying as Tony has made an excellent vehicle for us to ride along with in Layman’s convoluted plot. But Toni Chew steps in – even though she is dead – with her unique sense of humour and shows us a good time.

With so many wonderful characters at Layman’s disposal he can’t resist ditching the humorous detective story for an ensemble family drama. Unfortunately many of these characters get so little screen time we are in danger of forgetting what made them so great in the first place.

The series seems to be in an awkward middle ground, trapped between characters and plot. Speaking of which we do take a step forward in the Avian Flu thread that was the set-up for the whole story in the first place. There are so many balls in the air at the moment that we aren’t really sure where we should be looking.

The great art performs its dependable magic once again. No one uses colour as boldly as Guillory with every panel dripping with vibrant power. His faces are dynamic, packed with elastic expressions that make the figures move as you read. Dream sequences, flashbacks, trip-outs, and science fiction daydreams are all mastered with aplomb. Never was an artist and a series so perfectly matched.

Despite appearing unfocussed and overburdened, and having lost the incredible narrative trickery that launched this voyage, it is still better than a lot of its competitors. There is heart and humour at play and you won’t want to give up on it.

Thumbs Up!

American Vampire: Volume 6 – Scott Snyder et al

American Vampire 6This slim volume is in two parts. The first is a standard story, and a good one too, with Albuquerque getting a script and story credit as well as an art one. Like all good vampire tales this is a romance, but with the usual bittersweet aftertaste.

The second is an anthology with one-shots of various lengths by Jason Aaron, Jeff Lemire, Becky Cloonan, Francesco Francavilla, Gail Simone, Garbiel Ba, Greg Rucker and another outing from Albuquerque on art and story. They are bookended by some Snyder pages that are just dressing really.

As with all anthologies there will be some you like and some you don’t but the standard is pretty high with each author taking a strong hook and using as much or as little of the Snyderverse as they feel necessary.

The art is great and we see some new names such as Declan Shalvey, Ivo Milazzo, Ray Fawkes, Tula Lotay, Fabio Moon and JP Leon, getting involved in the anthology. There are certainly a lot of different styles at work and the Albuquerque piece is very different from his usual fare. The star is Francavilla whose story is told almost entirely in block colours of blue and red.

It might be that Snyder is interested to see what others make of the world he has created, after all his initial book was a collaboration with Stephen King. Or it might be that he is so caught up in his extensive work for DC that he must neglect one of his finest and most original works. The next volume will probably tell us.

Thumbs Up!

Commando: Rescue Mission #970 – Unknown

CommandoAn English general, a Russian general and an American general are in a German chateau. No it isn’t the start of a joke it is the premise for this bizarre war story.

Commando is a digest sized magazine that has been printing illustrated war stories since 1961 and is still going strong to this day. It isn’t a graphic novel as such but there are two or three panels per page that have both prose narration and speech bubble dialogue. The pictures are always to accompany the story never to tell it.

This issue is from 1975 and it shows. The Germans are stereotypes uttering “Himmel” and “Donner und Blitzen” and providing the comedy relief. Whilst they are the bad guys they aren’t actually faceless and evil. They behave rationally and intelligently and act with courage and honour. Their key personnel all have names and just as much characterisation as the allies – which isn’t that much.

You aren’t sure if the story is meant to be true or not. Names and places are all detailed but the story is so extraordinary that you feel like you are watching the sequel to Where Eagles Dare. It is very wordy but certainly ticks along quite merrily and delivers you expertly to the finish.

The art is black and white ink with the occasional area of grey shading. It has a colour cover and looks to be printed on the cheap book stock of the time that yellows and crumbles fast.

Despite the fact not a single female appears or is referenced in this book it still gets a Thumbs Up and would definitely make a great film.

500 Great Comicbook Action Heroes: A Graphic History – Mike Conroy

500 Great Comicbook Action HeroesThis is a very thick book packed with facts, figures, dates and history. It is unfortunately mind numbingly boring. If you use it as a reference book to look up the potted history of a character or occasionally browse some of the more in-depth articles on the history of comics it is fine. Five minute chunks here and there are ok. If you try and read more the giant slabs of text and monotone commentary proves unpalatable.

For a book dealing with visual media there are no helpful timelines or other snazzy graphics to make the facts more digestible. There are a lot of comic covers however and pre-internet this would have been a great chance to see rare art you never would.

The chapters start with male heroes at 193 pages and get progressively shorter as they go through female heroes, teams, newspaper heroes, war heroes, western heroes and sci-fi heroes. There is also a 30 page introduction that takes you through the history of comics.

Good for research but dull as ditchwater.

No thumbs.

War Comics: A Graphic History – Mike Conroy

War Comics A Graphic HistoryThis book presents a potted history and whistle stop tour of war comics spanning almost a century. Highlighting both World Wars as well as Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East in addition to more ancient and modern battles it reveals the true extent of this massive genre.

As this is such a huge field there is very little time to stop and explore at your own pace. As if on a coach tour that never stops you can only look out the window as title after title passes you by. However, Conroy does a good job of selecting both the typical and the quirky from many decades of publication both American and British and there will probably be many titles you are curious to find out more about.

This isn’t a dry academic work and it is hard to find a single page without an illustration as both covers and strips are reproduced. Because space is at a premium you do have to squint at several of the smaller offerings but everything is readable.

Whether specifically interested in war and war comics or just comics in general this is an eye opening read. Many of the comic industry’s well known writers and artists contributed to war comics and often served in wars themselves informing their experiences.

Thumbs Up!

It Was the War of the Trenches – Jaques Tardi

It Was the War of the TrenchesThis is a powerful and valuable work that both shows and tells you the true horrors of the First World War. Rather than a traditional linear narrative with a protagonist this is a series of vignettes. Tardy has taken the words of French soldiers and actual war photographs and come up with a nightmarish scrapbook of how horrific things were.

Many of the tales prove truth is stranger than fiction, as absurd coincidences and tragic events occur along the journey to death. Many of these tableaus will stick in your mind just as they did the soldiers who wrote them down.

The art is superb being mostly grey with black and white saved for the highlights or dramatic effects. There is gore and revulsion but it is very subtle. A tragic silhouette, a mangled limb just in frame and corpses everywhere. This is a very intelligent and affecting use of powerful imagery. What is highly disconcerting is that a number of characters look right out of the page at you as if accusing you for not doing more to save them. It’s eerily well done.

Because this is a short volume compared to a novel you never become inured to it. Tardi takes as many different instances of horror as possible so each fresh tale is uniquely disturbing. Soldiers being shelled intentionally by their own side, giving themselves gangrene in order to get discharged, civilians and ‘cowards’ being shot, and a tragic waste of men and animal’s lives.

The book includes an introduction and a passage of prose that complement the rest of the visual work and it finishes up with an illustrated list of statistics detailing the toll of the war.

This is a Double Thumbs Up!!

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place #2 (Vertigo Resurrected) – Brian Azzarello & Joe Kubert

Sgt. Rock Between Hell & A Hard Place 2This concluding part continues the great work established in the first book. Things do get more complex, as just when you are thinking the Germans were nothing more than faceless uniforms they start to talk. Things do get a bit Noir and then more philosophical than you were expecting which does disorientate you a bit.

Comics are filled with violence and even death but there is something about a war comic that makes the suffering endured by real people seem more tangible. It is the courage shown by those without superpowers which is the most valuable and most relatable.

The art is just as good as ever with the visuals, whilst appearing simple, conveying a lot of emotion and atmosphere.

We have another two classic stories from the Rock cannon. How the Sarge got his stripes and the arrival of “the wall.” Both are typical of their time and have a much faster pace than the superbly told Azzarello story.

This volume doesn’t have the historical chapter heading of the previous volume which is an opportunity lost.

Still a Thumbs Up!

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place #1 (Vertigo Resurrected) – Brian Azzarello & Joe Kubert

Sgt. Rock Between Hell & A Hard Place 1Brian Azzarello, best known for his award winning series 100 Bullets, takes the reins of an iconic character from DC’s past and does an outstanding job with a WWII mystery drama.

Modern attitudes to war are much broader and less sympathetic and Azzarello does a great job of reminding us war is hell. The opening pages take place amidst a sea of bodybags and the downbeat mood sets the tone of the piece.

The story is a tense drama that’s deals will the killing of prisoners. It is set against the backdrop of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in 1944. This provides a good historical and emotional account of the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.

This is a good introduction to someone who has never read any Sgt Rock as we see Rock and fellow Easy Company members doing what they have always done. Azzarello treats the characters and mythos with respect as well as telling a gripping story.

The art is by Joe Kubert, lifeling Rock artist and one of his creators. This modern tale uses a softer palette and ink washes which are perfect for the wintery landscapes. There are a lot of silent panels which really get a chance to show you what war is like better than any dialogue.

Between Hell & A Hard Place was a story released in 2003 as a six issue mini-series. This Vertigo Resurrected title reproduces the first three issues and two classic stories that deal with Rock’s origin and that of Terry O’Riley “the ice cream soldier.” As well as providing some context and background for the characters in the main story these also show you the different art and story styles from decades ago.

Thumbs Up!

Richard Matheson’s Hell House: Volume Four – Ian Edginton

Hell House 3This is last volume and you’ve been expecting a twist haven’t you. Some clever revelation about the house. Well sadly there isn’t one. The mystery is solved and some revelations come out but without significant foreshadowing they are of little value.

The good point about these four volumes is the journey. The mystery, the development of the characters and the suspense is what has drawn you here. In the 1970’s this may have been a fresh and original work, although it did receive criticism for being similar to other novels of the time. Today the ending appears rather flat. Maybe it’s the way you tell them as all the elements are there for an interesting finale.

A capable end but not all it could have been.

No Thumbs Today.