Recent graphic novel reads (March 2011 edition)

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these recap-and-review posts about the various graphic novels and trade paperbacks I’ve read recently. Here’s an update following on from this post in December last year.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
It’s always worth paying attention whenever legendary comics-scribe-turned-ultra-successful-author Neil Gaiman returns to the medium that truly launched his career. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? can be considered Gaiman’s answer to Alan Moore’s famous tale, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – which provided one final, nostalgic and touching look at the Silver & Bronze Age Superman before he was erased by John Byrne’s 1986 character revamp. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? does much the same thing, but with Bruce Wayne’s Batman when he was “killed” in 2009.

In Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, various heroes, villains and allies gather at Batman’s wake. Everyone has a different idea of the Dark Knight, a different relationship to him, and a different explanation of his death. No matter how you interpret him, however, there are certain core features always common to Batman. And Gaiman’s explicit identification of these features helps to clarify why the character is so special; so long lasting; so well-loved. Very few writers have grasped Batman so accurately and poignantly.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is an enjoyable, fluidly moving exercise in Bat history. Admittedly it takes a while to get used to the unexplained shift between the Ages’ various interpretations – characters can change in appearance from panel to panel – but artist Andy Kubert does stunning work in referencing, and paying tribute to, the most influential Batman illustrators of the last 80 years.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? was originally told over 2 comic book issues. The trade paperback collects these 2 parts, and rounds out the book with a couple of other Gaiman-scripted Batman stories from the past few decades. These tales are nowhere near as good as Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? In fact they’re downright weird as opposed to resonant. However, considering their inclusion was never an incentive to buy the book (I didn’t even know they were inside), they shouldn’t stop you from acquiring Whatever Happened…? Especially if you’re a big Batman fan.

Pride of Baghdad
Pride of Baghdad is an award winning graphic novel from the acclaimed writer of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan. Published in 2006, and drawn with a suitable ruggedness by Niko Henrichon, it’s a powerfully moving read – one of the few comics to have me to tears.

For a pleasant change, Pride of Baghdad is not a superhero or geektastic fantasy tale. In fact, the standalone graphic novel is inspired by real events during the second US-Iraqi War. Pride focuses on a small pride of lions in the Baghdad Zoo, and their experiences once a bombing raid accidentally liberates them from their enclosure.

Pride of Baghdad isn’t at all wordy, yet the reader receives a strong sense of the issues explored by the novel, as well as the cast of characters. For the record, the lions that make up the zoo’s pride are cynical scarred matriarch Safa, youthfully boisterous Ali, his pensive mother, Noor and emasculated pacifist leader, Zill. This certainly isn’t a united family, although the cats’ grudging love and respect for one another becomes more apparent as the story progresses.

Pride of Baghdad functions on multiple levels, but it’s especially strong on 2 fronts: looking at the horrors of war from an animal perspective (with their complete inability to understand the chaos around them), and debating whether freedom given is as effective and empowering as fighting for freedom yourself. Punctuate this issue exploration with some fantastic action scenes and harrowing dramatic moments and Pride of Baghdad is definitely one of those graphic novels ideal to convert new readers to the medium. Highly, highly recommended.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life
There are seven black-and-white digest-size books in the Scott Pilgrim series from Toronto native Bryan Lee O'Malley. Precious Little Life, released originally in 2004, is the first of these hit graphic novels, which quirkily combine the topic of love and relationships with video game combat, and a manga-influenced, highly cartoony art style.

2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World combines all 7 Pilgrim books, and Precious Little Life, being the first comic, has been translated almost word for word for the big screen. It culminates with the title character – a 23 year old slacker and indie band bassist – facing off against the first evil ex of his enigmatic new girlfriend, Ramona Flowers.

If you’ve watched the Scott Pilgrim film already you may feel that there’s little reason to read the book if it’s so close to the movie. What’s the point if there’s no surprise? Well, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is worth a read whether you’re coming to the graphic novels fresh, or have already watched the film. From the latter perspective it’s fascinating to see how event and characters have been lifted perfectly from the page, and how the funniest and most memorable lines in the movie are actually straight from comic. Precious Little Life has some of the sharpest, wittiest dialogue I’ve ever read.

As for people coming to Scott Pilgrim fresh, they’re in for a real treat. Apart from the graphic novel’s strong sense of humour, Precious Little Life is a prime example of how the heavily visual comic medium can still produce loveable, well written characters and explore identifiable real issues with heart. Great fun.

Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals

After thoroughly enjoying the animated Wonder Woman film, I’ve been trying to immerse myself more in the character on the printed page. It made sense to start then with one of the most famous runs in the history of Wonder Woman comics: George Pérez’s 1987 reboot of the character, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Gods and Mortals collects the first 7 issues of Perez’s relaunch, and tells the first complete tale of the writer-artist’s 4-5 years on the title. Gods and Mortals is essentially an origin tale, explaining where the Amazons come from, why they isolated themselves and why their beautiful super powered princess, Diana left the safety of Paradise Island to enter Man’s world. Gods and Mortals is perhaps most famous as the story arc that overhauled and strengthened Wonder Woman’s link to Greek mythology after decades of muddling inconsistencies. It’s also the chief inspiration for the Wonder Woman movie.

Being an 80s comic, Gods and Mortals is very heavy on the cheesy dialogue and exposition. Still, it’s always fun to revisit old comics, and this trade paperback is highly entertaining, pitting Wonder Woman against god of war Hades (intent on triggering nuclear war), his cunning sons Phobos and Deimos, and the hideous monster Decay – who literally destroys everything she touches. Although Wonder Woman here is more a girl than a woman; naïve and eager to please, Gods and Mortals is still a useful entry point for new Wonder Woman readers, given the character background and context it provides.

Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities
Written by The Goon’s Eric Powell and drawn by Kyle Hotz, the quirkily named Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities is a pulpy horror tale that mashes together fictional characters and legendary historical figures.

Originally a 4-issue miniseries released in 2005, Old Timey Oddities sees outlaw Billy the Kid – roaming the United States in anonymity after faking his death – blackmailed into helping a travelling freak show retrieve a powerful artifact from Victor Frankenstein, holed up in a hard-to-find village in Europe. In typical Dark Horse style, the supernatural and monstrous feature prominently in the tale.

Played straight for the most part, Old Timey Oddities has a lot of potential. Hotz’s artwork is suitably unnerving and nightmarish with its strong shadows, jagged curves and bloated beasties featuring bulging eyes and slimy tentacles. Powell meanwhile has populated his tale with a good half dozen really interesting characters, including a Mexican wolf man, the Human Spider (a man with fully functional hands for feet), the diminutive Miniature Boy, and a tattooed lady whose ink and blood body markings continually change to hint at the future.

The problem with Old Timey Oddities though is the same problem that I have with a lot of Powell’s work – a great set-up is followed by a too abrupt payoff that saps all emotion from the story. This leaves Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities as a creepy quick read that only partially gratifies. And that’s disappointing.

The Goon: Noir
The Goon: Noir is a collection of short stories from various writers, comedians and artists attempting to parody creator Eric Powell’s darkly comic The Goon – a Dark Horse series about a burly Depression era mob enforcer who brings the smackdown to everything from common thugs to zombies, mad scientists and giant lizard men.

Published in 2007, The Goon: Noir collects the 3 black-and-white comics that make up the anthology. Contributors include Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Thomas Lennon, Kevin Nowlan, Humberto Ramos, Steve Niles, Arvid Nelson, Hilary Barta and Powell himself.

If you aren’t familiar with the Goon, his sidekick Franky and the rest of the series’ colourful supporting cast, I don’t know how much you’ll get out of Noir’s tongue-in-cheek tribute – which is heavily reliant on prior knowledge of the characters. Even if you are a fan, the collection is pretty hit-and-miss. Maybe 2 tales in total really stand out: one in which Franky is trapped in a she-beast’s honey pot (make of that what you will), and the other in which the Goon is reimagined as Yogi Bear, the terror of zombie picnickers everywhere. With most tales only a few pages long, the overall effect is pretty superficial.

If you’re in the mood for a mix of cartoony violence and juvenile humour, The Goon: Noir is fine for a quick laugh. However, for a more rewarding reading experience you’re better off getting hold of the increasingly poignant original Goon series.

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder
Written by bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult, and drawn by Terry Dodson, Drew Johnson and Paco Diaz, trade paperback Love and Murder collects issues #6-10 of the Wonder Woman comic that relaunched in 2006.

Love and Murder sees Diana suffering from a crisis of confidence after killing a villain and having the world, including friends Superman and Batman, judge her a murderer when she believes she was doing the right thing. As a result, Wonder Woman is in hiding, masquerading as Diana Prince, a special agent in the Department of Metahuman Affairs. This is all good and well until Diana and her partner Tom Tresser are instructed to arrest Wonder Woman, and immortal sorceress Circe initiates a scheme to destroy the Amazons' home of Themiscyra.

Despite the involvement of a big name like Picoult, Love and Murder is very average. There are some nice touches – the reader receives a strong sense of Diana’s outsider status (she isn’t nearly as socially integrated as fellow “alien” Superman), and there is plenty of light humour scattered about. A particular amusing moment sees Circe tease Wonder Woman mid battle about her tendency to yell “Great Hera!” Wonder Woman’s response? A grudgingly muttered “I rarely say that anymore…”

These positives – and Terry Dodson’s stunning signature WW artwork in Chapters 3 and 4 – aside, there are several things that spoil the overall experience in Love and Murder. Characters behave unbelievably stupidly and never question glaring flaws in logic (would Wonder Woman really leave her indestructible bracelets at a crime scene?), Circe’s continual “Look at yourself” taunts grow tedious very quickly, and some jumps between scenes are confusing. Then there’s the book’s cliffhanger ending, which, without any resolution whatsoever, essentially forces you to read the next Wonder Woman collection, (the much hated) Amazons Attack. It's such a pity that the experiment of attaching a high profile female author like Picoult to iconic female character like Wonder Woman just doesn't deliver in Love and Murder.


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