I assume few of you are actually reading this on Christmas Day, and I hope you all have better things to do on the holiday—even if it’s just a day off work for you than a holiday you celebrate—than read me talking about comics. But in the off-chance than any of you do check out Blog@ today, I thought I’d leave some content for you. Here then are some short reviews of several recent-ish graphic novels and collections...
365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice (Dark Horse Comics): J. P. Kalonji’s violent tale of an Edo-era swordsman’s bizarre quest, to kill the titular number of samurai in order to avenge his master and discover the meaning of life, is deceptively simple. It’s also blisteringly paced; it’s almost-400 pages flying by with the speed of protagonist Ningen’s steel being unsheathed. That’s because of the rather unique format.
Each page of the small, square, seven-by-five-ish inch book is a splash page, so each page is also its own panel. From the craft perspective, it strikes me as a very interesting way to produce a comic book, but from a reader’s perspective, the results are a lightning-fast pacing that’s perfect for the subject matter. I can’t be positive without going back and counting, but I think we may actually see 365 samurai get killed within these pages—although, to be fair, he does kill over 200 by simply dodging a blow in one of the book’s more clever fight scenes—but when Ningen’s quest is completed, he (and we) learn an appropriately Eastern, zen-like moral.
Kalonji’s character designs are a real treat, a bit of exaggerated, funny cartooning, a bit period-appropriate simplified Japanese abstraction and a bit of samurai movie actor caricature. It’s black and white, with plenty of black ink arcing and splattering about as Ningen cuts his way toward enlightenment. It’s a truly unique work in the genre that should feel fresh to its adherents, and good enough at what it does that even those with no prior affection for or experience with samurai comics should find something to appreciate in it.
Showcase Presents: The Warlord Vol. 1 (DC Comics): Writer/artist Mike Grell’s late-70s/early-80s fantasy series still seems doomed to never be anything more than the second best comic book barbarian adventure series, but it does have its advantages over Marvel’s (and now Dark Horse’s) Conan. There’s the modern day setting (Well, now it’s a few decades in the past, but you know what I mean) and the Hollow Earth element, which makes Skartaris more of an unpredictable, anything-can-happen sort of environment. Rogue CIA agents, robots and alien invaders fit in just as naturally as the dinosaurs and Dungeons & Dragons stuff, and after these first 28 issues (plus the DC First Issue Special), I’m hard-pressed to imagine something that would actually seem out of place in The Warlord’s weird milieu.
Grell’s work is especially well-suited to the Showcase Presents format, as the black and white re-presentation eliminates the period coloring and the ravages of time on the original back issues so that there’s nothing to come between a reader’s eyes and Grell’s impressive designs and line-work. Additionally, the paper stock and low price-point seem more appropriate for this than more high-end, color collection—Grell’s was pure pulp adventure, so the pulpier the presentation, the better.
I’m sure the storyline grows more epic, complicated and sprawling as it goes on—the first volume lasted 133 issues, after all—but these early adventures are a nice introduction to a pretty fun premise, if a readers need more than 500 pages of nice drawings of scantily clad beautiful people and rampaging monsters and dinosaurs to get them to pick up a book.
The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book (Fantagraphics Books): The two Joe Daly stories collected here are difficult to describe, as the great pleasures of each story are the odd, idiosyncratic details Daly includes, and the way in which he reveals them.
I suppose it’s safe to say that it stars Dave, a freelance artist in Cape Town, South Africa, who has red-hair, a monkey-like face and even more monkey-like feet. Hell, they’re not monkey-like; they are straight up monkey feet, with thumb-toes and everything. He and his best friend Paul, a freeloading hippy-type, find themselves involved in strange mysteries. In the first story, “The Leaking Cello Case,” Daly introduces us to his characters, and Dave and Paul find a dangerous mystery within Dave’s own apartment complex.
In the second, “John Wesley Harding,” the two begin the story hunting for a runaway capybara, and things just get progressively weirder, in a bizarre spiral of unlikely coincidences and seemingly random but interconnected plot points that the story gets funnier every couple of pages. I’ve never read anything like it—and now I want nothing more than to read more of it.
Sublife Vol. 2 (Fantagraphics): This is a John Pham’s gorgeously designed one-man anthology book, including about a half-dozen stories of various genres, formats, sensibilities and even art styles, each impeccably laid out on longer-than-it-is-high, 8.5-by-7-inch rectangular pages. Some of them seem to begin in-progress but, having never read the first volume, I’m not sure if that is the case, or simply Pham’s approach to those stories.
There’s a short, funny story spread across a stack of four comic strips on the inside front cover that you’ll have to turn the book sideways to read (this is a book that will require a lot of turning). There’s a 13-page story set in space (that’s the one the cover reflects) that really needs to be seen to be believed—it features some of the most innovative and interesting use of a comic’s page that I can recall encountering this year. There’s a four-page slice of life story told in sketchier, slightly more abstracted designs. There’s a weird, two-page, many-tiny-paneled story about St. Ambrose (the actual saint, a school named after the saint, and some of the people who went there). There’s a 27-page, cryptic, post-apocalyptic action-adventure story, with softer lines. And there’s another short, funny one-page story on the inside front cover.
They’re all pretty great on their own, and taken all together, they make up a downright remarkable book.
Wolverine: Weapon X Vol. 1: Admantium Men (Marvel Comics): This recent trade paperback collects the first few issues of Marvel’s fourth ongoing Wolverine title, and while there’s never a lack of Wolverine comics available for purchase, writer Jason Aaron and artist Ron Garney have managed to separate their Wolverine from the pack. It’s hardly essential reading or groundbreaking comic book-ing, but it is accessible and fun superhero entertainment, and if one wants to read a comic book about Wolverine, this trade seems like as good a place to start as any, and a lot better a place to start than most.
Despite the familiar sub-title, Aaron moves forward rather than looking back, and takes a stab at relevance by having one of Marvel’s evil corporations buy the plans for making Weapon X-es to use in their security firm. He takes an even bigger stab at over the top action that makes the recent Wolvie film seem restrained. These new Weapon X-es have laser claws and guns that shoot bullets that give you cancer, and Wolverine’s plans for taking on the bad guys involve such subtleties and crashing his motorcycle headfirst into a limo and cutting people with his claws as he flies through the windshield and out the back window and bringing an attack helicopter to a claw fight.
For his part, Garney does the work of his career, seemingly having made such progress in his work since the last time I encountered it at any great length that I hardly recognized it as his work.
There’s an even better story following the initial arc, although it’s more poorly communicated through the art (Adam Kubert illustrates it, and his layouts are choppy and hard to read, with overly showy, over-designed captions calling to much attention to themselves).
Aaron goes a bit meta, showing a few weeks in the life of Wolverine, who had two Marvel Universe ongoings, is a member of various X-teams and the New Avengers, and can be relied on to show up in a few random one-shots and make around a dozen guest-appearances every month. It’s funny to see what a few days in the poor guy’s life are like but, in the second half, Aaron finds an in-story reason for Wolverine’s business, and ties it into recent events in the hero’s fictional life in a way that make it almost seem to matter. It’d be a stretch to call it poignant, but it is clever as hell.
Yotsuba&! Vol. 7 (Yen Press): Still great.