Friday, 26 August 2011

Books: Literary Life

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Literary Life
By Posy Simmonds

2003





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My first encounter with Posy Simmonds was  back as a child - through her marvellous little children's book "Fred" (some kids have a cat, cat dies, a bunch of other cats show up, talk about how cool dead cat was and throw a massive rambunctious wake and kids join in - pretty good fun and a welcomely healthy attitude towards death (someone's died? let's throw a party!) Dang. Writing that has made me want to read it again...). Since then I've been predisposed to like her: her drawings summon up that warm, nice childhood feeling somewhere inside me that's a cross between a favourite blanket and a nice soothing cup of tea. Although that's not completely just me projecting on to her - it's the sort of feeling she does very well to help conjure up with fuzzy pencils and ever so slightly caricatured characters walking through a sharply defined realistic world (think Hergé but with a more Englishly grown-up bite).

Since Fred she's moved on and upwards into the hearts of the chattering classes ("chattering classes" is such a great phrase) with her books Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe and - this one - Literary Life. Unlike the other two (which are full stories) Literary Life is a collection of single page strips originally published in the Guardian's Review Section between 2002 and 2004 (for those that don't know - that's it's Saturday literary supplement) Literary Life is a tasty, ever so slightly devilish and most probably brought from Marks and Spencer's chocolate cake of a comic book. A wry take on the ins and outs of the publishing world - spanning all the way from independent book shops to agents to writers to reviewers - it isn't so much a satire (that's much too strong of a word) but is rather an affectionate poke in the ribs or - even better - a gentle joshing between friends - most probably at the tail end of a dinner party when everyone's had just a bit too much red wine. The way that the book works - with every page a different window into a different set of characters - reminded me of the League of Gentlemen (TV show - not the extraordinary Alan Moore comic) - snippets of comical exaggerations that slow combine to create a little mischievous universe. Yes - like her other works - it's pretty impossible to imagine a comic that could be more middle-class - but it's very good fun.

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Links: Paul Gravett Article, Telegraph Review.

Further reading: Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery, Wilson, Couch FictionAre You My Mother?xkcd.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Books: Stephen King's N

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Stephen King's N
Written by Marc Guggenheim
Art by Alex Maleev

2011




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Damn it - maybe I shouldn't have read this on my lunch break? Spooky atmospheric horror is never that effective when you're sitting around eating crisps and sandwiches and listening to your ipod (even if it was playing scary mood music: Penderecki, Ben Frost and the Essential John Carpenter film music collection). Based on a short story by Stephen King (collected in Just After Sunset) this is a story that deals with the nature of obsession and the terrifying possibilities found in the places where reality is at it's weakest. With very tasty artwork from Alex Maleev (best known for his stint working on Bendis' Daredevil) - although (should I say this now?) his depiction of the end of times didn't scare me as much as some of the stuff in B.P.R.D. Vol 5: The Black Flame (I love that book!) this is a genuinely creepy tale told in a convincing fashion - although I couldn't help the feeling that there was something missing... Reading the introduction after finishing the rest of the book (something I've done ever since the introduction to The Sandman: The Kindly Ones completely spoiled the ending for me) I realised what that thing was: the original story was completely made up out of different documents - newspaper articles, psychiatric reports, letters, emails etc (which sounds - for reasons I won't get into too deeply here - way cooler than having those documents playing over the scenes of those things happening (which is what the comic does). To put it as simply as I can: if a story is written to take advantage of a particular medium then it doesn't really make that much sense to adapt it to another one - and (sadly) this book comes across like The Blair Witch Project: The Novel or Watchmen: The Movie (ho ho ho). I'm not knocking the idea of adaptation. And there's plenty of things that get it right (in fact - check out Alan Moore's The Courtyard for an nice little horror comic based on a short story (that's great in it's own right too) that does loads of things the prose piece it's based on can't). And - again I'm getting this from the introduction - it doesn't seems like the main reason this comic was written was as a promotional tie-in to the Stephen King book that spawned it (something about 'mobisodes'? sounds well weapon...). Although maybe all this sounds like I hated it - but I didn't - it's good. It's just... well. What I said: it just feels... unnecessary.

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Links: Comic Book Resources Review of #1, PopMatters Review.

Further reading: The Stand, The Dark TowerAlan Moore's The Courtyard, Locke & Key, Cradlegrave.

All comments welcome.

Books: Final Crisis

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Final Crisis
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by J. G. Jones and Marco Rudy

2009




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My theory about why so many people tend to write stuff about Grant Morrison is that the stuff he writes is so much fun to write about. Observe: The following quote (taken from this interview below) sums up both everything that's great/awesome/stupendous and everything that's oh-so deeply wrong/muddled/bad with Final Crisis (you ready?): "superhero comics should have an ‘event’ in every panel! We all know this instinctively. Who cares ‘how?’ as long as it feels right and looks brilliant?" The end result of this philosophy is a mainstream superhero comic book that feels like a crazy avant garde experiment - reading it feels like trying to make sense out of several stories all playing over the top of each at the same time - as you struggle (fruitlessly) to hold on to any small scrap of sense or meaning before being awashed by the noise (it's DC via Merzbow!). I keep getting visions of myself running through empty fields chasing a manically laughing Grant Morrison (played for some reason by Spider Jerusalem?) as he sits upon a magic cloud dangling the small thread of "story/character motivation/understanding what the hell is going on" in front of my face - my hands swiping frantically as it bounces this way and that in the wind - each time never quite managed to grasp it - each time cruelly yanked away by the giggling Scotsman above me - before he finally decides he's had enough and ascends into sky - leaving me below - dejected and alone. That's the best way (the only way) I can describe my experience of reading this book. And - honestly - I still don't really know what I though of it. I don't know if I enjoyed it. Or if it angered me. Or upset me. Or what. I just know that it was something that happened that I didn't quite understand. An experience. An event of my life that is now over (although I do sometimes still get crippling flashbacks - but c'est la vie).

Moving on - I guess I could try and tell you what it's about - or at least as much as I could understand (see above). In 1985 - DC comics decided that their 50 years of comic book history (that's the history inside the comic book universes instead of the real life history of the comic books) needed a clear out - so they came up with Crisis on Infinite Earths - that as far as I could tell (I've never read it - and am probably never going to): made more of a mess than the thing it was trying to clear up - in that it was followed by Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (in 1994) then Identity Crisis (in 2004), Infinite Crisis (in 2005 and 2006) and then - finally - Final Crisis (2008). My own personal opinion about all of this (and I'm sorry if this offends any of you DC fans out there) is that all this getting bogged down by continuity stuff isn't really what stories are about - and hey - as long as the stories are good - who cares? And - anyway - I'm more of a Doctor Who kinda guy when it comes to continuity stuff - where the motto is generally - if it feels good - do it. (for full lovely discussion read this - it is awesome). But anyway. I don't know if reading the other big DC Crisis events would help any - but that's at least the history leading up to it. Plus - there's this evil guy called Darkseid (pronounced "Dark-side" - but you knew that already right?) who's an evil all-powerful New God dedicated to being really really evil - all the time (from Jack Kibry's New Gods series - that you probably should also try and read before this) - he's less a character - and more just something for the superheroes to fight against - you could switch all his appearances with the word "EVIL!" standing in his place and you'd have pretty much the same effect. Also - most importantly - you mustn't forget that running up to - and into this - before getting lost somewhere in the middle: you also have Grant Morrison's run on Batman - that was taking place at the same time and that has important information that will help you make sense of this (or was that the other way round? It's so hard to tell with these things).

That's as much background reading that I'm currently aware of (and yes - I'm well aware that what I'm writing is starting to disintegrate into the same sort of unfocused noise that I've been accusing this book of - but oh well): carrying on (and this is hopefully going somewhere - so hold on): I read somewhere once that the difference between reading Marvel and DC comics - is that the way that Marvel is written - you can pick up any issue at random - and even if you don't get all the references (and let's face it - you probably won't get all the references) - you can still understand what's going on and get involved: it's more inviting, more willing to do stuff to help get you up to speed, more kinda welcoming and friendly. DC - on the other hand - is more insular than a möbius strip - and writes stories that don't really care if you've just joined in: keep up or be left behind - this is serious stuff (hell - it's called FINAL CRISIS!) and we don't have time for laggers... So my point (haha! I have a point!) is that - although my experience of Final Crisis was all huh? and what? and I don't understand? and noise noise noise and general story-telling static: this stuff does make sense (apparently) and that there are whole blogs devoted to getting all of the many, many the references (take a bow final crisis annotations!) that is basically what makes up most of the noise. My expectations the first time round reading this was that it was gonna be a superhero blockbuster kinda thing that was all contained in one volume and could be enjoyed by everyone (DC's version of The Ultimates with an apocalyptic edge) - and well - it's not that. What I've given here is my experience of what it reads like - and if you're looking for advice on whether or not you should try it yourself. Well. I reckon the people who would get the most from it - the hardcore DC fanboys and girls who will nod their heads at every allusion and nod to past events and stories - have already read this back when it first came out. For the rest of us mortals - in which I include myself even tho I've read a fair few comic books in my time (well duh): it's still worth taking out from the library. There's small sequences that surface fleeting out from the rest of the book that are pure comic candy: "...at my other job" = awesome, the spread of the Anti-Life Equation is proper 28 Days style awesome, that moment with the rubix cube is action movie awesome and the Japanese superhero Most Excellent Superbat (self proclaimed power: "being rich" [1]) is - yes yes yes - very much awesome (does he have his own comic book? Because I would totally read the hell out of it). So yeah: "superhero comics should have an ‘event’ in every panel! We all know this instinctively. Who cares ‘how?’ as long as it feels right and looks brilliant?" Ok then...

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[1] I have a theory that you can trace the slow decline (or hell - ascent - if you're that way inclined) of Grant Morrison from rebel underground cultural terrorist to - basically - mainstream corporate comic's spokesperson from the way he deals with the idea of money: there's a line from Bruce Wayne in Batman and Son that goes: "And while we're at it, let's make wealth compulsory. It would solve so many of the world's problems if everyone were a millionaire, don't you think?" Which - the first time you hear it kinda sounds like a good idea - until you think about it just a little bit and realise that - oh - actually: it's a stupid idea. I mean obviously for a rich person (and - spoiler alert: Grant Morrison is a pretty rich guy) the idea that money can solve everyone's problems would just seem obvious - but (for me at least) it doesn't really seem like the firm foundation for a properly moral outlook on the world... (I mean - let's not get too deep into all the ins and out of it but just leave it with the simple observation that money isn't always the best solution to things - yeah?).

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Books: Tank Girl: Tank Girl One

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Tank Girl
One
Written by Alan Martin
Art by Jamie Hewlett

2009



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Tank Girl is punk rock (three chords and you're away!) . Unfortunately for her - I'm more of a post-rock kinda guy. I like devastating noise: but I like it in carefully targeted in controlled bursts. Punk (and - hey - I'm making a general point here - so none of you take it too personally please) always seemed too over the place. Too sloppy. Too unfocused. Too senseless. And well that's why this is a comic that I've always found kinda hard to enjoy (and that's not good). To be clear tho: Tank Girl herself is great (see the Bad Reputation link below for a full run down of her majesty) and - speaking personally - one that I've always been slightly (ever so) in love with back when she was propping up Time Out covers. But (damn it) no matter how awesome a character is they've gotta have good stories to contain them - but then Tank Girl is too punk rock for that (damn her). The artwork has cool moments and well-observed touches (there's the page where Tank Girl berating/celebrating people's way with their clothes and she's standing with the soles of her feet slightly touching - and it's just seems so well observed and life-like that it makes my nerve ends sing). But - well: it's comics that probably looks better as a poster than as something you'd (as in: I'd) really want to read. But hey - acquired tastes and all that - and I would strongly urge you (if you've never sampled her delights before) to at least reading it once to see if it's something that appeals.

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Links: Bad Reputation Article: Tank Girl vs My Enemies, Grovel Review, The Hooded Utilitarian Article: Wow, We Just Don’t Care, Do We?: The Inanity of Tank Girl...and this made me laugh.

Further reading: Tank Girl: The Gifting, Hewligan's Haircut, Orc Stain, I Kill Giants, The Ballad of Halo JonesJudge Dredd: The Cursed Earth SagaChew.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Books: The Punisher: Marvel Universe vs. The Punisher

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Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher
Written by Jonathan Maberry
Art by Goran Parlov

2011




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So. Comics Universes (and I guess I'm thinking of the main two: DC and Marvel - but this could apply to any of them) are created to never end - they go on and on and on and on - and the heroes never stop beating the bad guys and saving the day. Part of that is commercial reasons - Batman, Spider-Man are all the rest are still pretty popular - and however much people may try (Morrison and Bendis I'm looking at you [1]) - you can never really kill them off (in fact is there a major superhero left that hasn't died and been miraculously brought back to life?). Plus - the fans - (damn them) never seem to tire of the same cycles - mainly because when you fall in love with someone as a child - that stuff tends to stick. Now - obviously - the strange thing about stories that never end - is that everywhere else - stories tend to do just that. And - frankly - for many of them: that's the best bit (that's why they're called "climaxes"). And what's interesting is that recently there's been a spate of comic books that have depicted the ends times of the Marvel Universe: Old Man Logan, Marvel Zombies and now this (is three enough to constitute a "spate"? hmmm. maybe not). Of course this kind of thing is nothing new. The big obvious forerunner is Alan Moore's famous Twilight of the Superheroes Proposal (which you can read in all it's glory here and I very much recommend). And obviously you could include both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as part of the same continuum. But the point is (is there a point?) that: the end of things in where things get interesting. To the book in hand: Marvel Universe vs the Punisher (not to be confused with Garth Ennis' 1995 book: Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe nor indeed that other story about Frank Castle at the end of the world - Punisher: The End (also written by Garth Ennis) and collected in The Punisher MAX: From First to Last - worth checking out): a collection of a four-part miniseries that does for The Punisher what Old Man Logan did for Wolverine. And - damn it - it pretty much follows the same trajectory: the first issue is amazing - full of atmosphere, details and delicious slices of unremitting doom. I wasn't expecting much - but the framing and way the parts of the premise fell into place left me like putty in it's arms. And then - well... (and watch how I make this tie in with everything I said at the top): stories need ending - because that's what makes them cool - and that's what makes them satisfying. The great thing about end of the world stories of the superhero variety is that they offer the promise of a final climax (in the form of a bang or a whimper - whatever: i'm not too choosy): but because everything is always about commercial reasons and so even if you're dealing with something that's set at the end of the world - you always (always) got to leave room for a sequel: you get end of the world stories that (oh the irony) don't have endings - only vague "to be continueds." And so it is with this - Old Man Logan - and Marvel Zombies (how many sequels does that have now?) - that seem to promise some sort of superhero closure / Ragnarök / closing of the book / kinda-thing - but instead give you: just another iteration in the never-ending battle between blah blah blah. Should you read this book? Yeah. It's diverting and the pictures are pretty. It's just disappointing that it doesn't live up to it's opening promise. Oh well.

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[1] That's a joke. Morrison and Bendis may have killed off their respective heroes but they did them (mostly) for great storytelling reasons. Well. Bendis at least. Morrirson I can never tell if he's just going for the headlines and market share.

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Links: 4thletter Review, Inside Pulse Review, Comic Book Resources Interview with Jonathan Maberry.

Further reading: Wolverine: Marvel Universe vs. WolverineThe Punisher: The Punisher MAX, Wolverine: Old Man Logan, Marvel Zombies, Hulk: The End, The Walking Dead.

All comments welcome.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Books: Heart of Empire or the Legacy of Luther Arkwright

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Heart of Empire or the Legacy of Luther Arkwright
By Bryan Talbot

2001





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In the seventies and eighties Bryan Talbot electrified the comic world with his magnum opus: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, an experimental science-fiction adventure that was one of the first, serious attempts at a long-form comic book (or as Bryan Talbot himself categorised it: a comic book that worked like a novel). Full of dynamite action, apocalyptic dread and fun knockabout humour with allusions to (mainly English) history, philosophy, poetry and other strange esoteric pursuits and ideas and starring a white-haired trans-dimensional secret agent known as Luther Arkwright - a cross between James Bond and Jesus Christ (with - I should point out - original inspiration from Jerry Cornelius: as you can see here) this was a comic book that reached further and wider than anything else before: and although it may have taken a while to get to grips with - touched readers in exciting strange new places. So why - in 1999 - twenty three years later after the completion of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright - would Talbot feel the need for a sequel and - more importantly - is it any good? Second question first: Yes. Yes and yes again. It's good. And (thankfully) unlike most sequels which suffer from rehashing what went before - Heart of Empire never feels beholden to it's predecessor instead striking out in fresh, new directions: ditching the brain-twisty structures for a streamlined, relentlessly linear ("Seven Days To Cataclysm") dynamic that pulls you along by the scruff of the neck, and replaces the grainy melancholy black and whites for bold, enlivening colours. If The Adventures of Luther Arkwright was the cerebral, jazz-influenced, ever so slightly stodgy (sorry Luther) older model - the Heart of Empire is the young, go-getting, high speed racing version with paint so fresh it's still wet to touch and go-faster strips everywhere. With resplendent artwork that captures perfectly the architectural marvels and delights of an empire at it's height and mixing a Victorian sensibility to science-fictional concepts: it's bizarre, alien and intoxicating in all the right ways. Splashed with copious amounts of sex and violence and a thoroughly English sensibility that soaks through it's very pores (when the bad guys toast to their victory - they do it with tea and biscuits). As to why it was needed: well - it nicely moves the world of the first book along and throws back the light on it in peculiar ways and (without spoiling things too much) showing that revolutions have a tendency to be co-opted. If you're one of the ones that thought that the first book was too much and too hard to get into - then I would recommend trying this out - and if you loved the first book then I would still recommend this as it contains many of the same pleasures (and a few welcome returns of favourite characters). Excellent.

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Links: The Comics Journal Review., Page 45 Review, I Am Not The Beastmaster Review.

Further reading: The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ministry of Space, The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century, The Filth.

Profiles: Bryan Talbot.

All comments welcome.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Books: Iron Man: The Invincible Iron Man

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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 1: The Five Nightmares
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2009



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 2: World's Most Wanted Book 1
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2009



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 3: World's Most Wanted Book 2
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2010



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 4: Stark Disassembled
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2011



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 5: Stark Resilient Book 1
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2011



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 6: Stark Resilient Book 2
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2011



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 7: My Monsters
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2011



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The Invincible Iron Man
Vol 8: Unfixable
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Salvador Larroca

2012



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The best way I can put it - is that: if all the other mainstream Marvel/DC superhero comics out there are like a can of coke (but coke that's gone a little flat and that tastes a little bit too sweet and is just a little bit too warm) then Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's The Invincible Iron Man is a freshly poured glass of lemonade: cool, clear and refreshing. Yes - it's still very much a canned drink with all sorts of artificial flavourings and preservatives (in this case: the need to cross over with all the big Marvel events and also fit itself into the all powerful continuity etc): but - damnit - it's a really good canned drink and one that's going to leave you feeling enlivened and reinvigorated rather than feeling like a tooth slowly being worn away [1]: put it this way: I would happily put it up there with Bendis's run on Daredevil (which most of you should know is high praise indeed [2]).  

A big part of the the charm of these books comes from Mr Iron Man himself. As most of the world has figured out by now (thanks to the movies) Tony Stark is a smarmy prick: and therein lies his considerable appeal. By now I'm sure that all of you already knows that he was originally created by Stan Lee in response to a dare to create a superhero who represented the exact opposite of everything the sixties free-love and peace-out counter-culture [3] stood for: which is why he's a product of the military: in fact no less than a weapons dealer, an unabashed capitalist [4], obscenely wealthy, a serial monogamist and (oh boy) un-apologetically arrogant forget Bizzaro: Tony Stark is the exact opposite of Superman. And yet (yep) still despite (because of?) all that - he was still somehow - a hero - and one that the kids (who should have hated him) embraced with open arms.

One of the reasons I like Iron Man is that (compared to most over superheroes) he's inescapably modern with all his gleaming technological gadgetry stuff and I can totally buy the idea of a committed crime-fighting multi-billionaire wanting to be ostentatious rather than skulking around in caves and hiding in the dark (sorry Bruce). Matt Fraction understands all this - and it's why The Invincible Iron Man is such an exciting and enlivening read. Following one from the events of the Marvel Civil War and beginning in pretty hardcore fashion with brutal terrorist attacks in Africa: this is a mainstream superpowered comic book that feels limitless in it's reach and doesn't mind taking the time to make sure when things explode and people start beating each other up - you know the reason why. With artwork from Salvador Larroca that's sleek and glossy in all the right ways and some jaw-dropping framing (there's a great moment in the first book where he's suspended around the Earth that just looks - well super great and exciting and cool: that stuck with me for days afterwards as a perfect little portrait of calm) it's always propulsive and always ready to good one step beyond. It won't change your world - but with writing that takes in multiple chess, brain-wipes and the solution to the worldwide decline of fossil fuels (woo) - it will entertain.

(Oh - and (brief side-note) in case you wondering (and it was driving me a little crazy for a while trying to place him) Salvador Larroca's Tony Stark isn't based on Robert Downey, Jr but Lost's Josh Holloway (I was so pleased when I worked that one out). Now - if only I could work out who his Pepper Potts is based on... [5])

And obviously having a great main character will only take you so far: and if it was just about the Iron Man appeal then every comic with his name on it would be worth a read [6]: so I should say that the main power of the book comes from the snappy and charming conversational style put together by Matt Fraction. Most superhero comics that I've read make me feel like I'm being shouted at from several directions at once. Reading The Invincible Iron Man on the other hand: is like being chatted up in a high-class restaurant. Yeah. There's still explosions and bad guys and all the action stuff: but it's played more like a seduction than a frenzied wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am ravishing.

I should say that yeah - it's not perfect. And here and there you can very much see the seams and feel them give way (The whole World's Most Wanted storyline in particular starts to fall apart if you pick it and hold it up to the light: but then it's whole The Fugitive meets Flowers for Algernon is such a blast that it seems churlish to complain that it's leaps in logic are a bit of a stretch too far) and at points it would be way smarter  if it didn't have to make such a big deal of showing us how smart it's being (if that makes sense? [7]).

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[1] That's a reference that everyone can get - right?

[2] And for those of you that don't know: hell: what are you waiting for? Go out there and read it.

[3] Apparently back then it was mainly the hippies who were buying all the comics. And - well hell: track down any vintage Jack Kirby comic with all it's talk of cosmic trips and interstellar mind-bending adventures and it's not hard (at all) to see why.

[4] At one point in the first book the bad guy calls Stark a "Capitalist Warmonger" - and well (and this is a big part of what makes Iron Man so much fun for me): he's got a really good point - Tony Stark is a capitalist warmonger. And even tho I'm a good, nice, liberal, tree-hugging, do-gooder (well - at least I try to be): and yeah - I think war is bad and peace is good: it's still super super fun following the adventures of someone who's coming from the opposite side of that. I mean: you don't have to agree with everything a person is to be able to root for them - right? (Because otherwises the only person you'd ever be able to root for is yourself: and god that would be just awful).

[5] Oh boy: got it. It's a (very young) Nicole Kidman. Ha. YES.

[6] Spoiler alert: in my time (for my sins) I have read quite a few Iron Man comics and let me tell you something: pretty much all the rest of them are absolutely dire.

[7] Case in point: "Stane had exploited all of my weaknesses and thought I was off the board permanently. That's a deliberate metaphor on my part - Stane was obessed with chess." (all this overlaid over an image of Stane playing chess): I mean - I dunno - maybe I'm being a little bit too tough on a comic that's target audience is probably twelve-year olds: but I just think that things would have been a tad more classy if it didn't have to point out that it was utilizing a damn chess metaphor.

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Further reading: Iron Man: Extremis, Ultimate Comics: Iron Man: Armor Wars, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Daredevil (2001 - 2006)The Avengers: The Avengers (2011 - 2012).

All comments welcome.

Books: Ministry of Space

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Ministry of Space
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Chris Weston

2005




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A three-issue mini-series set in an alternative world where Britain won the Space Race: this is a comic book that starts with fantastical concepts and then slowly examines the repercussions that extend from within them. With gob-smackingly splendid artwork from Chris Weston (one of my favourites) this is a book that pulls up a comfy chair to nestle in the space between Dan Dare and gritty kitchen sink realism. With a smattering of tally-hos and cups of tea both Ellis and Weston together create a picture of world that feels plausible whilst still existing tantalisingly out of reach. Of course it's all over much too soon (only three issues damn them) - but it's a fantastic voyage while it lasts. Jolly good.

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Links: Astronotes Review, BrooWaHa Review.

Further reading: The Filth, Tintin: Destination Moon / Explorers on the Moon, The Chimpanzee Complex, Heart of Empire or the Legacy of Luther Arkwright.

Profiles: Warren EllisChris Weston

All comments welcome.

Books: Hellblazer: City of Demons

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Hellblazer: City of Demons
Written by Si Spencer
Art by Sean Murphy

2011




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Damn this book has got some nice art. All the figures and poses and expressions are captured really nicely (although I didn't know that John Constantine had such a pointly little nose): but all the background details and environments are lovingly drawn too (I liked the moped going past the bank). If I was younger - this is the kind of book that I would spend all my time copying out pictures from - luxuriating in all the cool perspective shots and darkly picturesque (if that's the right word) panoramic views of London (and London buses!). The story? All John Constantine wants is a quiet pint with no distractions - unfortunately when you've spent too much time dambling in the dark arts and you've got demon blood running through your veins - distractions have a way of finding you. Very dark, loads of gore and lots of typical Constantine humour: "Jesus, when did I become such a grumpy old man? Fuck it, I was a grumpy young man." Includes a bonus story by Dave Gibbons: "Another Bloody Christmas."

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Links: Comic Book Resources Review of #1, Comic Book Resources Interview with Sean Murphy.

Further reading: Hellblazer: Pandemonium, Joe The Barbarian, Hector Umbra, Chew, Sin City.

All comments welcome.

Books: Berlin

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Berlin
Book One: City of Stones
By Jason Lutes

2000




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Berlin
Book Two: City of Smoke
By Jason Lutes

2008




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If Charles Dickens wrote a comic book - it would read a lot like Jason Lutes' Berlin. A sprawling, multi-faceted, multi-layered dissection of Berlin in the twilight years of Germany's Weimar Republic with a cast that encompasses every possible side of the many social divisions that make up a city - this is a comic book that comes a lot closer than most to capturing the feel of a novel: with each character humming with their own individual issues and conflicts and stumbling messily around - rather than marching lockstep side-by-side and calmly waltzing from plot point to plot point. But just because it feels like real life - it doesn't skimp on the drama or intrigue and just because it feels literary in it's style and movements - it doesn't cut corners with the artwork: there's loads of graceful comic book moments where the pictures and layout communicate ideas and emotions beyond the reach of words alone. It does take a while to warm up - and it took me to the read of Book One before I was convinced - but for those of you willing to commit - this is a sensuous book with plenty on it's mind that left me in awe at it's careful construction and meticulous research that made me feel at points that it wasn't fiction but rather re-enactments of actual historical events. Please be aware before you start - that this book is part of a trilogy - and Book 3 has yet to be released (and judging from the interviews it may be a while before it does) but that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy (and fall in love with) the books already written.

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Links: Quarterly Conversation Review of Berlin: City of Smoke, Slant Magazine Article: Comics Column #1: Windows on the Other Art, Comic Book Resources Interview, The Daily Cross Hatch Interview Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3.

Further reading: Jar of Fools, From Hell, Logicomix, Kiki de Montparnasse.

All comments welcome.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Books: Batman: Year One

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Batman: Year One
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli

1988




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"Year One" is a term used in political history to refer to the start of a radical, revolutionary change. So - when Frank Miller (fresh of the success of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) got given the chance to re-tell the first faltering steps of Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting career - he thought not only is it a cool-sounding title [1] but it's also a place to make a radical, revolutionary change that (not to get too hyperbolic about things) has since swept the entire world of entertainment: what if you told a realistic Batman story? Yeah. That's right. A superhero comic book that doesn't take place in some faraway fantasy land: but in a world that looks and acts and feels just like our own.

Of course nowadays what with the Christopher Nolan Batman films [2] and things like Kick-Ass and Defendor and Special and Super [3] and stuff like that (hell - it's particularly it's own mini-genre at this point) it no longer seems like such a radical idea: but back in the day it just wasn't the sort of thing that was done. Hell - Tim Burton's Batman film (released the year after this) - thought that the only way to make Batman make sense was to put him into an oh-so-obviously artificial looking Gotham City where all the backgrounds are matte paintings [4] and everything looks like a sound-stage [5].

Although often referred to as an origin story - Year One actually skips the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne (already well covered in The Dark Knight Returns [6]) and goes straight to Bruce as a young adult - returning from his travels aboard and sends him straight into the fray - making it all up as he goes along. With a real-world kinda vibe that has him going up against gangsters and crooked cops - as opposed to his typical rogues gallery of costumed loons - and with stark and crispy artwork from David Mazzucchelli (better known now for his sterling work drawing and writing Asterios Polyp) this is a Batman that's less Tim Burton and more Martin Scorsese - (thinking particularly of Taxi Driver). And because it's written by Frank Miller - it's tense, edgy and thrilling in all the right places.

My only gripe is that I wish it were longer - even knowing that Frank Miller continues his Batman run in other Batman books - Year One has such a great feeling and atmosphere, Miller and Mazzucchelli such good chemistry and the story feels like it's only just got going that it's a shame that there's not more (although there is a Batman: Year Two by a different creative team - that although I've never actually read it - doesn't seem like much to get excited about).

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[1] And one that caught on with lots of other DC characters which is why the world has: Robin: Year One, Black Lightning: Year One, JLA: Year One, Green Arrow: Year One etc (none of which are worth your time).

[2] And he owes Frank Miller a drink. At the very least.

[3] Which in my humble opinion is the best of the bunch.

[4] What? You thought this was real?

[5] And just going back to the Chris Nolan's Batman films just a sec: gotta say even that doesn't quite manage to make things feel that realistic. Pretty much everytime you see Christian Bale in his full get-up he looks more like a chump dressed up as Batman than - you know - actually Batman.

[6] Which you could kinda see as a sequel - altho one with a completely different tone and sense of place.

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Links: Robot 6: Your Wednesday Sequence | David Mazzucchelli’s Year OneThe M0vie Blog Review, IGN Review, Nerd Bastards Review, NPR Interview with Frank Miller.

Further reading: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: All Star Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes AgainDaredevil: Born AgainAsterios Polyp, Batman: The Long Halloween, Sin City, Batman: Broken City, Batman: Year 100, Gotham Central.

Profiles: Frank Miller.

All comments welcome.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Books: The Sandman

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The Sandman
Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III

1989



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The Sandman
Vol 2: The Doll's House
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse

1990


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The Sandman
Vol 3: Dream Country
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran and Malcolm Jones III

1990



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The Sandman
Vol 4: Season of Mists
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Matt Wagner

1991



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The Sandman
Vol 5: A Game of You
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch, and Dick Giordano

1992


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The Sandman
Vol 6: Fables and Reflections
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by P. Craig Russell, Bryan Talbot, Shawn McManus, Jill Thompson

1992



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The Sandman
Vol 7: Brief Lives
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Jill Thompson and Vince Locke

1993



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The Sandman
Vol 8: World's End
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Michael Allred, Gary Amaro, Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano

1993



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The Sandman
Vol 9: The Kindly Ones
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Marc Hempel, Richard Case, d'Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, and Kevin Nowlan

1995


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The Sandman
Vol 10: The Wake
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Michael Zulli, Jon J. Muth, and Charles Vess

1996



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Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns both broke new ground by showing mainstream western readers that comic books could be "taken seriously" and hit the same sorts of artistic sweet spots as other mediums (and find a few new sweet spots of it's very own) - but - ultimately both (by necessity) were still in thrall to superheroes - and however much deconstructing they did - they were still both about guys in costumes running around fighting evil. Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (and however great some of the artists who worked on this title may have been - The Sandman is very much Neil Gaiman's thing - hell - just compare and contrast his author photo to the main character) was the first and most notable major and successful series to show readers everywhere that comics could be "grown up" without the need for superheroes/superpowers/superstuff and that there was an audience out there ready and waiting for it. That's why it's "important."

But forget all that - and let me try and explain why it's very much worth reading: Firstly it's the first comic I read as a teenager with the "suggested for mature readers" tag which didn't leave me feeling bored and listless. And while maybe that's more about me than about The Sandman I'm going to use it to make the following point: it has got lots of 'clever-clever' stuff going on and plenty of hardcore references to classic tomes and legends and myths of old to send shivers of delight up the shine of English Literature students (which is a cool - and something I learnt to appreciate as I grew up): but it's still got enough drama and interest and - hell - cool things (off the top of the head: Gods bidding against each other for the key to Hell, a 14th Century solider who decides that he's not going to die and the (mostly true) history of Joshua Abraham Norton, first, last and only Emperor of the United States of America) to keep people unaware of all that stuff hooked on reading it (ie my sullen teenage self) - which is a roundabout way of saying that the one thing that The Sandman is and the thing it does best: is stories and the stories are good.

Which brings us to the second point - which is: not only are the stories good - but they're also wide and far-reaching. So you get stories from Africa, Arabia, The Far East, Legends, Shakespeare, Faerie, The World of The Dead, Cats, Cities, etc and so on - all combining together to form a patchwork that covers pretty much as much as you could hope for. With enough variety to make sure you're always freshly entranced and never giving you a chance to be - well - bored.

The third thing is what ties it altogether: as I realise that I haven't really said what The Sandman is 'about.' The central character, the Sandman himself: Dream, Lord Morpheus, Oneiroi etc - the (mostly) human personification of dreams and - yep - stories. Presiding over each instalment - sometimes as the guy leading the action and sometimes as a shadowy presence hovering at the edges. He's the one - along with his equally momentous brothers and sisters - who gives the series it's constant personality and while individual humans might flitter in and out and grab some time in the spotlight in the stories within The Sandman - the story of The Sandman is his. But it's only revealed slowly and in a way that means that - unlike most long-running comic series - there are plenty of books you can start from. If you want to be proper - you can start from the start and 'Preludes and Nocturnes.' You should know however that' it's the Pablo Honey of The Sandman books - in that it takes it's while to find it's feet - and features distracting cameos from some of the superbeings from the rest of the DC Universe (although that doesn't last for long). It does have some breakthrough hits in the shape of - "24 Hours" and "The Sound of Her Wings" (which is the point when the book finally comes into it's own). Better places to start - if you just want to try it out - are the anthology volumes: Dream Country, Fables and Reflections and Worlds' End. These books - whilst in some small subtle ways contribute to the overall arc - serve as short story collections that can be easily picked up and dipped into and feature the wide range of styles, moods and tones mentioned above. Then there are the Sandman stories that comprise the main meat of the epic: The Doll's House, Seasons of Mist and A Game of You. Each of these books contain their own big story - which can be enjoyed by themselves without any reference to the rest of the series - and can be pretty much read in any order (although they do have some tangential links). Brief Lives, The Kindly Ones and The Wake are the final stretch and really should be read in order (with World's End fitting in-between). Compulsory mention of the art (although the writing is really what it's about): it does vary quite a bit and the best thing to say about most of it is that it's functional. (Sorry people).

Summing up: I don't want to go overboard with the hyperbole because otherwises - if you're one of the ones approaching it for the first time - there's a risk it won't be able to live up to it. But - well - The Sandman is a magical series in all the best senses - it's heartfelt, wise and moving with a light touch that will slowly but surely break your heart and then fix it back together again. Recommended as much as I possibly can. The kind of book that (somehow) makes your life better just by the mere virtue of reading it. And (rubbish final sentence alert): it reads like a dream.

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Links: Grand Hotel Abyss Essay on The Sandman, Too Busy Thinking About My Comics Article Part 1 / Part 2, Comics Girl Revisiting The Sandman, NPR Dream Country Book Club Talk Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4, Weird Tales Sandman Article / Weird Tales Review Vol 1 / Vol 2 / Vol 3 / Vol 4 / Vol 5 / Vol 6 / Vol 7 / Vol 8 / Vol 9 / Vol 10, The M0vie Blog Review of Absolute Sandman Vol 1 / Vol 2 / Vol 3 / Vol 4, The Oncoming Hope: Re-Blogging The Sandman, The Hooded Utilitarian Sandman ArticlesAV Club Back Issues Vol 1 / Vol 2 / Vol 3 / Vol 4 / Vol 5 / Vol 6 / Vol 7 / Vol 8 / Vol 9Vol 10.

Further reading: Death: The High Cost of Living, Death: The Time of Your Life, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, The Sandman: Endless Nights, Cages, HabibiSwamp Thing, Lucifer, Fables, Hellboy, I Kill Giants, Planetary, Watchmen, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

Profiles: Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot.

All comments welcome.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Books: Last Day in Vietnam

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Last Day in Vietnam
By Will Eisner

2000





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Made up from several short stories that give you small snatches of action (and inaction) in the American wars in Vietnam and Korea - this is a moving and darkly humorous take on the ins and outs of army life that runs the full gauntlet of emotion from cowardice to heroism from lust to friendship. Most of the stories may only last a few pages - but that's just testimony to how skilled Eisner can be in getting his point across whilst locking you straight into the heart of the characters. Drawn in an inviting sepia-tone that gives the art a warm feeling that is then expertly under-cut by the dangers and craziness within - this is a comic resists the urges of more gung-ho war books and instead puts forward it's reality in a way that's always clear, concise and to the point.

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Links: The Comics Get Serious Review

Further reading: Alex's War, Battlefields, A Contract with God: and Other Tenement Stories.

All comments welcome.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Books: Civil War

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The Road To Civil War
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Alex Maleev, Mike McKone, Ron Garney and Tyler Kirkham
2007





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Civil War
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Steve McNiven

2007




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Superheroes spend their time fighting bad guys. That's how it works. That's what they do. Fighting each other? The only time they tend to do that is when one of them is tricked by something or brainwashed or something: so the only reason Spider-Man is fighting Captain America is because he's been taken over by an evil space hamster or whatever: but in those cases - even tho they both look like good guys - one of them is secretly bad (clue: that's the one being controlled by the evil space hamster). But what if? What if there was something that made all the superheroes turn against each other that didn't mean that one side was in the wrong? That had good guy squaring up against good guy over a cause where the answer wasn't certain and everyone had just as much as a point as everyone else? Civil War was Marvel's 2006-2007 crossover storyline that turned things on their heads and friend against friend in a way that - for once - made things feel weighted because the conflicts all came from stuff that you already knew was imbedded within each character. Iron Man believes in the government. Captain America believes in moral absolutes. Spider-Man believes in his friends and family. And The Punisher believes in punishing (duh). Don't expect anykind of intellectual political intrigue or anything like that - it's still just people in costumes beating each other up: but it's one of those rare times that you might actually find yourself wanting both sides to win/both sides to lose. Which definitely counts as somesort of achievement.

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Links: GraphiContent Review, The M0vie Blog Review, Freedom versus Security: The Basic Human Dilemma from 9/11 to Marvel’s Civil War, Daily Skew Review, Film Fodder Review, NY Times Article.

Further reading: House of M, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Seige, The AvengersThunderbolts: Faith in Monsters / Caged Monsters, Iron Man: The Invincible Iron Man, Kingdom Come.

Profiles: Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar.

All comments welcome.

Books: American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor

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American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor
Written by Harvey Pekar
Art by Robert Crumb, Kevin Brown, Greg Budgett, Sean Carroll, Sue Cavey, Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik and Gerry Shamray

2005



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Harvey Pekar was one of the first people to seriously approach comic books as a medium for expressing not the fantastical or the childlike - but the mundane and the everyday - and all the countless unremarked moments of adult life ("ah, fresh bread!"). Using his own life as inspiration Pekar constructed stories that - if you're being nice: resisted easy answers and pat resolutions / or if you're being mean: don't go anywhere or do anything. If you're searching for a book that is full of immediate slice of life tales that take pleasure from being lost in their own thoughts - then you should give Harvey a try. He's an acquired taste - but one that a great many people have taken a liking to and seeing how most of the stories in this collection only last a few pages at most - it's perfect for dipping into and finding out for yourself if he's your thing.

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Links: Guy.com Article on Harvey Peker, AV Club Article on Harvey Peker, Review Graveyard Review.

Further reading: The Quitter, The Beats: A Graphic HistoryAmerican Splendor presents: Bob and Harv's Comics, American Splendor: Another Dollar, WilsonMake Me A Woman, Breakdowns.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Authors/Artists: Brian Michael Bendis

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Brian Michael Bendis
August 18, 1967
Cleveland, Ohio









"Prolific" doesn't quite sum it up. This guy writes a lot. And (damn him) he's very, very good - especially in his dialogue writings which far surpasses pretty much everyone else out there (the only people I can think of who has such an attuned ear to modern speech cadences is Joss Whedon and Andrew Sorkin). Although he dabbled in being an artist at the start of his career (check out Goldfish) he soon graduated to being a full time writer steadily working his way up the graphic novel food-chain until reaching the highest heights working as Marvel's head writer and over-seeing all of the big tent-pole summer events including: House of M, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Siege. But if the thought of bright-coloured spandex comics leaves you cold - then I'd recommend you try his earlier stuff - like the dark and moody Goldfish. Or (even better) - there's the amazingly excellent Powers (which straddles the line between the two extremes)with it's melding of police procedural and superheros constantly shifting into fresh and exciting new shapes.

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Links: Comics Journal Article, Comics Journal Interview, AV Club Interview.

Selected works: Goldfish, Powers, Daredevil (2001 - 2006), Ultimate Fantastic Four, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spider-Man, Road to Civil War, The Avengers: The New Avengers (2005 - 2010), House of M, Spider-Woman: Origin, The Avengers: The New Avengers: Illuminati, Secret Invasion, Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., Dark Reign, Siege, Takio, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (2010 - 2011), Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man, The Avengers: The Avengers (2011 - 2012), Ultimate Comics: Doomsday, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man (2012).

All comments welcome.