Reviews January 2013 week four

I entered with an arched eyebrow, and left with a lump in my throat. Which, under other circumstances, might form the basis of a lacerating restaurant review. But no, the sceptic in me has been vanquished.

– Stephen on The Heart Of Thomas

The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts h/c (£22-50, Image) by Paul Pope…

“Some girls are troublesome. Some girls are just plain trouble. And some girls are… SUPER TROUBLE.”

Back in the day, no visit to Page 45 from yours truly would be complete without a plaintive query to whichever delightful denizen was behind the counter as to whether Paul Pope had released any more THB. In the end Mark just used to chuckle whilst stroking his beard rather than proffering a rejoinder, while Stephen merely arched an eyebrow temporarily dislodging another ceiling tile. And now, in turn, I also find myself just gently shaking my head with the most faintly wry of grins present on my mug, whenever someone enquires the same of me.

Pope, more than possibly any other creator for me, is the one who I simply wish was more prolific. There is absolutely nothing he has done which I have not delightedly devoured from SIN TITULO, THE BALLARD OF DR. RICHARDSON, ESCAPO, HEAVY LIQUID, 100% to BATMAN YEAR 100 and of course dear old THB. And yet, when you look at the sum total of his output over the years, given just how long he has been on the scene since the very early nineties, it begs the question, why has he not done more? It’s a delight then to pour over this veritable cornucopia of relatively early material from 1995-2001. Yes, certain parts of it have turned up elsewhere, or been reworked into other finished forms, but it’s a real treasure trove for Pope-heads. For those not familiar with his work, it also forms a perfect primer. I defy anyone to read this and not be amazed and astonished at the artistic talent and truly unique style he possesses. Not just that, he is a genuine wordsmith too, often laconic, frequently playful, always engaging. He has a real knack for pithy, punchy dialogue that combines with his beautiful visuals to produce something spectacular.

The publisher writes:

“Young lovers Tubby and Vim want to escape – escape the mistakes they’ve made, the lives they’ve lived, and the dirty city weighing them down. Their plan is simple: all they have to do is rip-off Tubby’s pals, the One Tricks – the toughest street gang in LA. If they pull it off, they’re set for life. If not, their lives won’t matter much anyway. What was going to be a smooth, straight-forward heist becomes a fast-paced battle to the death.”

Need I say more? I don’t think so, honestly; for me the man is a genius, and, joy and bliss, apparently there is a new full-length epic entitled BATTLING BOY due out October 2013. So… bated breath, yes, but holding breath, no. This is Paul Pope after all. Fingers crossed though. And, if there is just one comics wish I would  like fulfilled, it is that he continues and completes THB. If I seriously thought I could get 24,999 other signatures to petition the White House to make it a Presidential edict I would do it. Come on Paul, you know it makes sense!

JR

Buy The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts h/c and read the Page 45 review here

King-Cat Comics & Stories #73 (£2-99) by John Porcellino.

Our beardy beloved Mark’s favourite comics, KING-CAT minis are quiet and gentle, lovingly hand-crafted, with a proudly preserved zine aesthetic. Any letters are transcribed by hand, and this issue boasts a lino-cut cover.

Each experience is completely self-contained. You never know what John will muse about next, but it is guaranteed to be personal and thoughtful and give you much to consider yourself.

This time, for example, I was left wondering when I last saw an usher or usherette outside a cinema-screen’s doors, tearing your ticket on entry. Can you now stroll in to the soulless multiplexes, buy a ticket for one film and watch another instead? Buy a ticket for one film and then see two? Buy no tickets at all and watch whatever you like?

I found myself transported back to a time to when you had to queue outside cinemas whose ticket offices were always at the entrance. Oh, the lines could be long, but excitement levels rose to almost unbearable pulse rates of anticipation as you nudged closer to booth’s glass window and the warm glow of the Odeon’s foyer beyond. “Going to the pictures!” – do they even say that any longer?

Also this issue: a chance sighting of a mysterious bird sends the amateur ornithologist in John in search of the cuckoo which has always eluded him. It also sends him unexpectedly to the opticians. Amused to see that Porcellino frets about looking suspicious to the landowners when encroaching on their land for a closer inspection. I would too!

Then a dream is recalled with a clarity and precision I envy, evidencing preoccupations I can also relate to… apart from being a monk… and as usual we are treated to John’s Top 40. This is no mere pop pick, however, but a celebration of all he has read, seen, listened to, chewed or chewed over since last you looked in.

God bless you, John Porcellino. Truly you’re one of comics’ great treasures and pleasures.

SLH

Buy King-Cat Comics & Stories #73 and read the Page 45 review here

The Heart Of Thomas h/c (£29-99, Fantagraphics) by Moto Hagio.

I entered with an arched eyebrow, and left with a lump in my throat. Which, under other circumstances, might form the basis of a lacerating restaurant review. But no, the sceptic in me has been vanquished.

This is an astonishingly accurate portrait of young, unrequited love which ticked so many recognition boxes for me, albeit at a slightly older age and evidenced in different combinations of those around me. Nor is it a single, simple relationship but a complicated cat’s cradle of loudly declared intentions, tentatively voiced affections, barely comprehended yearnings and closely guarded secrets, all of which, by the time this kicks off, have already lead to misunderstanding and tragedy.

It begins, you see, with a suicide.

A young boy called Thomas, his boarding school affections rejected as publicly as you could imagine, throws himself off a bridge. He leaves behind him two notes: one hidden in a book, the other addressed directly to prefect he doted on:

“To Juli, one last time.
“This is my love.
“This is the sound of my heart. Surely you must understand.”

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the weight of being left a legacy like that? The burden of guilt than comes with a letter directed specifically at yourself as the reason for suicide? That Moto Hagio successfully manages to explore that weight with rounded consideration is astonishing.

Additionally, the circumstances were far more involved than most of the protagonists realise. The affections when voiced were misconstrued by almost all as but part of a mischievous bet instigated by another lad, Ante, to see which of them could seduce Juli first. Ante had his own agenda which, if not exactly innocent, was at least motivated not by malevolence but by a crush elsewhere, while Thomas was perfectly sincere in his adoration.

As for Juli, who has now retreated into a shell of quiet yet obdurate propriety, his reasons for rejecting Thomas were far more complicated that a simple lack of reciprocation. To understand Juli, you must wait to understand his mother, his grandmother, the blood of his errant father, and the scars on his back which to him represent the mutilation of wings. Whatever they represent, they are the concrete evidence of predatory abuse. As is the cigarette burn he hides just below his throat. He was damaged goods long before Thomas’ declaration, let alone his jump.

Into this suffocatingly obsessive, drowning mix of privately guarded grief and guilt – as well as the chattery gossip of a communal boys’ boarding school – comes junior transfer student Erich. Erich has never been to any school, let alone boarding school, and all he wants is to return to the arms of his mother who is now casting her eyes towards suitors. Erich is terrified of being abandoned back home, while at school he is bewildered by the boys’ boisterous banter, the more lascivious machinations of the slightly older lechers, and the overt hostility of Juli whom others regard as a saint. Too bad, then, that Erich is the spitting image of young, dead Thomas, his mere presence constantly dredging up emotional detritus that would be better off buried, and too bad that he too becomes infatuated with Juli.

As for Oskar, Juli’s dashing but level-headed best friend and peer, throughout the entire book he demonstrates the most extraordinary and affecting degree of self-control and self-sacrifice. The headmaster’s ward, Oskar has been assigned as Juli’s room-mate to watch over him in the wake of assault. While everyone else it oblivious, it is Oskar who knows Juli’s secrets, so considers himself closer and, yes, he too is in love. But first he lost Juli to Thomas (oh, but he did), then to the memory of Thomas (and you cannot compete with a memory) and now to young Erich. “Am I not good enough?” he wonders to himself. In his weaker moments he does feel slightly proprietorial but he never once acts on those instincts or its attendant jealousy: everything he does is to facilitate Juli’s happiness often at his own expense. He’s possibly the only person in the book who doesn’t declare his hand or self-interest.

And that’s where this graphic novel most resoundingly parts company both with my own experience and, surely, reality itself: everyone at the school seems gay! And out! And gossiping about it. Which is a healthy kind of message to send to young people but, as one customer researching queer content in comics remarked, “What did they put in the water?!”

What’s also healthy – and perhaps I should have emphasised this earlier – is that none of this has anything to do with sex. Some of the cast are way too young to have even considered sex in their lives; instead the various degrees of affection ranging from young love to mere infatuation (always difficult to tell at the time, don’t you think?), all of this reaching out is a response to feeling lonely. It’s a desire to share: experiences, confidences, and, well, time together. And the word they all use is “like”.

Here Erich tentatively reaches out to Juli as Juli takes him on a tour of dormitory inspection, and Juli… evades, battens down the hatches, and then comes out with something quite profound:

“Have you ever had anyone tell you he likes you?”
“Your question has nothing to do with inspection. Now we turn off the main switch and we’re done.”
“Juli… what would you do if someone really liked you?”
“Nothing.”
“I mean really! Enough to die!”
“If he wants to die, that’s his business. What about you? If someone loves you, do you have to love him back?”
“Well… no, but…”
“Exactly. If it was someone I hated, I wouldn’t have any obligation to requite it, would I?”
“…”
“…”
“How about me? Do you hate me?”
“… No.”
“Well… do you like me? Even a little?”

Does he? Or has it all proved too much?

Coming in at 500 pages, there’s a lot to be digested in this revolutionary manga from 1972 – far more than I can go into during these attention-span-sapping few paragraphs. But it’s worth noting why I was so sceptical in case you’re experiencing those same minor aversions.

It’s billed as a boys’ romance whose manifestation in the hot-boy-on-boy-action sub-genre usually has me rummaging around in my booze-addled brain for as many puns as I can in one long, light-hearted mock-athalon. So fucked up are its preening protagonists that they don’t give ‘gay’ a good name.

It also looked fey and I don’t do fey. I’m positively allergic to pink, and the art initially struck me as so flowery that I shuddered. It reminded me rather queasily of Death In Venice, complete with antiquated costume, overly luscious locks and even more kiss curls. There’s an early scene in a dining room full of school boys talking around and about our main protagonist while he, young Juli, stares off into the distance, a galaxy of stars sparkling in his eyes as if he’s in secret and silent communication with the entire cast of My Little Pony.

But it wasn’t long before I realised that this prettiness also contributed to the purity of the piece, helping to render it sexless. Most of the main cast look too ethereal to be capable of anything more corporeal than a kiss.

So yes, my bad.

Also, I do recall now that I reviewed Moto Hagio’s A DRUNKEN DREAM AND OTHER STORIES and found that quite brilliant too.

SLH

Buy The Heart Of Thomas h/c and read the Page 45 review here

Danza (£9-99, Kodansha) by Natsume Ono…

Six delightful vignettes from the author of RISTORANTE PARADISO which all revolve around family and friendship. It would be fair to say relationships are a common central theme throughout pretty much all of Ono’s work, and whilst I have found much of her output endearing and subtly enchanting (and in the case of NOT SIMPLE, simply compellingly shockingly distressing), there has also been the very occasional miss where I didn’t feel a sense of engagement with the stories or characters.

I think it is quite possible, however, that may have simply have been due to when I read the works in question. In any event, I found all of the six shorts in this particular work perfectly formed snapshots in the lives of the various protagonists, each capturing a few brief scenes of touching sentiment plus the odd bit of gentle strife, and I do think each short could quite easily have been expanded to form a self-contained longer-form work, which hopefully gives you an idea of my regard for them.

Just to mention, if you have read much of her work, you will note she has a particular affinity for Italy, with stories often being set there, or characters having a connection to the country. I have absolutely no idea why this is, other than to say that yet again that is the case in this particular work, with some shorts featuring vineyards, carabinieri and gelati. Though we also do have a time traveller too! In addition the title translates from Italian as ‘dance’. It is a very appropriate title, actually, given the polite movements and turns various family members perform around each other to avoid, or occasionally deliberate choosing to, tread on each other’s emotional toes. Very much like real life then!

In terms of an ongoing series, I really must mention for those of you not reading it that we do have her genial comedy of manners THE HOUSE OF FIVE LEAVES, featuring the not-so-dastardly gang of Edo-period kidnappers and their slightly calamitous newest member who is probably the least likely Yojimbo ever! I note she is also about to begin another Edo-period series on the generally excellent Viz Ikki imprint, though I have no further information about it.

JR

Buy Danza and read the Page 45 review here

The Way We Write (£5-00) by Rachael Smith…

I’m not sure what the connection between Rachael Smith and Her Name Is Calla actually is, but given both hail from Leicester I suspect there probably is one. I must confess I’m not familiar with their music, but being a big fan of easy-going talented tinkle poppers like The Boy Least Likely To, I will certainly give them a go. So, if nothing else, Rachael’s amusing intro to the likeable three-piece might end up winning them at least one new fan!

You can see that Rachael is a talented illustrator. I immediately thought of John Allison’s early SCARY GO ROUND material, both in terms of the art and the zany storyline (also HECTOR UMBRA actually on that latter point), and I happen to know she is a fan of John’s simply because I asked her. But her style is definitely her own with some distinctive flourishes that add a lovely swooshy touch to proceedings. This, then, is a phantasmagorical affair as our urbane trio head to remote Oswy House  for a weekend writing and jamming session, but some ghostly choirboys are damned if they’re going to let the band get anything done!

I think it would be fair to say we’re going to see a lot more in the future from Rachael as her story-telling and art develops further, in much the way in we’ve seen John Allison progress from the very early non-published purely web-comic Scary Go Round material through to Murder She Writes and THAT, and Luke Pearson progress from SOME PEOPLE to the HILDA books, I certainly think she has that potential ability. For a debut work this is indeed really excellent and I have popped some interior art up of the first few pages for you to see for yourselves. Next up for Rachael, the inevitably tricky second album… err… I mean comic. I look forward to seeing it.

P.S. Anyone spot my hidden album and band reference? I did misspell the album title ever so slightly to make it work, and I will give you the clue the album was released in 1985. A free copy of THE WAY WE WRITE to the first, and probably only, person to tweet Stephen with the answer!

JR

Buy The Way We Write and read the Page 45 review here

Saucer Country Vol 1: Run  (£10-99, Vertigo) by Paul Cornell & Ryan Kelly –

There’s a lot going on in this story; we start out on the eve of an historic announcement as Arcadia Alvarado, governor of New Mexico is about to declare her intention to run for the presidency of the United States of America. Were she to win it would be the double whammy of first female president and first Hispanic president. So quite a big deal then.

So, when she and her “I still love you but we’re just no good for each other” ex go for a drive out in the middle of the New Mexico desert and awake with vague memories of bright lights and bobble-headed grey creatures a number of problems present themselves. Firstly, UFO believer is not a good look for a Presidential candidate so there is no way any of this can get out. Secondly, the memories are fragmented, inaccessible; it’s impossible to know what really happened. Thirdly, something the aliens said makes it impossible for Arcadia to ignore the whole incident, much as she might like to.

“You are us. You belong to us. Soon you will all know that.”

That right there is what the Americans refer to as a Clear and Present Danger and Arcadia isn’t about to let it slide. In fact it has made her more determined than ever to win the Presidential race so that she can use her position to defend the U.S.A from the alien threat. Oooookay.

If the X-Files taught us anything it’s that wherever there are flying saucers there are conspiracies, shadowy agencies, half-truths and lies hidden in plain sight. And so we have in this book government agencies, academic groups, aerospace engineers and plain old conspiracy nuts with various takes on the situation. There’s even a Harvard scientist who is being visited by the couple engraved on the Voyager space probe. (They, apparently, are helping him out with knowledge obtained at the outer rim of our solar system. Or possibly he’s just mental.)

What the Cornell has done well is blend all these (sometimes hackneyed) elements together, turning some of them on their head so that we end up with an interesting set of conspiracies-within-conspiracies which should give the story legs.

On the other hand the pacing lets this first volume down somewhat; we go from roadside mystery to full on race-to-the-Whitehouse-to-stop-the-aliens so quickly that it feels like all set-up with no time to breath. The parts of the story which touch on more “real-worldy” issues feel a bit clunky too. The “I’m an illegal alien, we’re all aliens in this land” stuff sits a bit awkwardly and the alien probing as rape theme, while being a pretty pertinent point, is hammered without much subtlety. Nevertheless, if you love a conspiracy and a bit of political shenanigans you will probably get a kick out of Saucer Country, especially as in the later volumes we will (presumably?) get to see The Whitehouse vs The Aliens.

DK

Buy Saucer Country Vol 1: Run and read the Page 45 review here

Reset h/c (£11-99, Dark Horse) by Peter Bagge.

Mining a similar vein to Taniguchi’s A DISTANT NEIGHBOURHOOD (two volumes) and Alex Robinson’s TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN, but in his own inimitable car-crash comedy style, HATE’s Peter Bagge returns to the realms of virtual reality. First there was the identity crisis of OTHER LIVES, now it’s the eternal question about whether – given the opportunity to relive major moments – you’d change any decisions you made in your life: things you did, things that you said, things you can never take back. Now you can, or at least washed-up actor/comedian Guy Krause can, after he signs up as a guinea pig for a virtual reality experiment wherein he walks around in his own history and engages with those he once knew. But is he only going to make matters worse? I don’t know! He keeps pushing the reset button!

Suspicious and cynical, however many times Guy Krause walks out, he keeps coming back: convicted of road rage, he’s been off the stage for too long. He’s broke, he needs money and the experiment’s backers know that, so when he does try to secure a spotlight again, however minor, the rug’s mysteriously pulled from under him right at the very last minute.

Meanwhile lead scientist Angie Minor has done extensive research into Guy Krause’s history, gleaning all manner of intimate details based on Guy’s stand-up routine, extensive media coverage and interviews –  that’s what makes him the perfect candidate – but she’s even dug out the relevant college yearbooks. And that’s where the opportunities for exploration begin: on Graduation Day when Gail Malone, a girl Guy had admired from afar, said the first and last word she will ever say to him: “Spaz.” It’s a moment that’s sure left its scars. Will Guy ever find out why she said it, and if so, how can that be possible in a pre-programmed virtual reality?

This… didn’t quite go where I was hoping it would. OTHER LIVES really ran with its premise, exploring all kinds of temptations to deceive online, each with its own ramification offline. And certainly this throws up all sorts of questions about what celebrities are increasingly prepared to do in order to maintain or rekindle their profiles and fortunes. Also: how much unfinished business a lot of people carry with them, cluttering up their lives, and how many lies may be told about you once you’ve left a particular circle of friends, safe in the knowledge you’ll never hear what is said. Sorry if I’ve induced a little paranoia there!

But this doesn’t dig deep enough nor unearth any great surprises, while the ‘game’ itself goes nowhere. As to the sub-plot behind it, well, there is an alternate use the system’s been tested for which is topical and could actually work, but I’ve had to imagine those circumstances myself: there’s nothing to convince you of it here.

SLH

Buy Reset h/c and read the Page 45 review here

Captain America vol 4 h/c (£18-99, Marvel) by Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn & Scot Eaton, Steve Epting.

“I was meant to be the first of a whole line of super-soldiers. Even when I was taking that formula, I never imagined I’d be the one out in front. I hadn’t wanted to wear the flag and carry that burden…
“I just wanted to do the right thing.”

I don’t know that I’ve seen that emphasised before: the fact that leadership was never what Steve Rogers craved, or expected, or thought he had any natural affinity for. He was supposed to be one of an army, not a one-man army leading the charge.

This is the closing chapter of Ed Brubaker’s epic eight-year stint on CAPTAIN AMERICA which transformed an often awkward and gaudy title into a crisp, low-lit espionage thriller thanks in no small part to the likes of Steve Epting. It’s also the finale to the four-part second series begun in CAPTAIN AMERICA VOL 1 as Madame Hydra and Baron Zemo attempt to conquer through stealth by undermining Steve Rogers’ self-confidence. Here they go for the nation’s confidence in him too, using the corporate medium of television, and it almost works: the baying mobs are completely out of control.

It’s neither as tight nor as clever as what’s led up to this, but then it’s not solo Brubaker and it does at least conclude with some considered thoughts on what the poisonous campaign has ended up inadvertently exposing. What is solo Brubaker and infinitely more satisfying is the very final issue in which Steve Rogers sits by a hospital bedside, thinks back over the earliest years and assesses the role of Captain America as an enduring inspiration to others, and his own checkered history as the man behind the mask. The original series’ first and finest artist Steve Epting returns for that quiet and contemplative celebration, after which Ed says good-bye in a final message to his readers, finishes off WINTER SOLDIER and moves on to FATALE instead. We earnestly recommend you follow.

SLH

Buy Captain America vol 4 h/c and read the Page 45 review here

Arrived, Online & Ready To Buy

Reviews already online if they’re new formats of previous books. Otherwise the most interesting will come under the microscope next week, while the rest will remain with their Diamond previews acting in lieu of reviews.
Gaboon’s Daymare (£12-50) by Tobias Tak

Shortcomings s/c (£9-99, Faber & Faber) by Adrian Tomine

Deva Zan: The Chosen Path h/c (£37-99, Dark Horse) by Yoshitaka Amano

Judge Anderson: The Psi Files vol 3 (£19-99, Rebellion) by Alan Grant, Peter Milligan, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Arthur Ranson, others

The Books Of Magic: The Deluxe Edition h/c (£18-99, Vertigo) by Neil Gaiman & John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, Paul Johnson

Gambit Classic vol 2 s/c (£22-50, Marvel) by Howard Mackie, Terry Kavanagh & Mike Wieringo, Klaus Janson

Wolverine And The X-Men: Alpha & Omega s/c (£14-99, Marvel) by Brian Wood & Mark Brooks, Roland Boschi

Ultimate Comics: The Ultimates vol 2 s/c (£14-99, Marvel) by Jonathan Hickman, Sam Humphries & Esad Ribic, Luke Ross

Secret Avengers vol 1 s/c (£14-99, Marvel) by Rick Remender & Patch Zircher, Gabriel Hardman

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange vol 2 (£18-99, Marvel) by Stan Lee, Dennis O’ Neill, Roy Thomas & Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Marie Severin

Wolverine: Sabretooth Reborn h/c (£18-99, Marvel) by Jeph Loeb & Simone Bianchi

The Flowers Of Evil vol 4 (£8-50, Vertical) by Shuzo Oshimi
Did you think the reviews this week were rubbish? They could be worse! Here’s Roger Langridge’s Fred The Clown inimitable style of critical cogitation. (See final strip below.) Genius!

Here’s a webcomic you fantasy lovers may swoon over: NIEBLA as recommended by Scott McCloud. Some fine atmospherics.

– Stephen

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