Comic Review: Love in Vain, Robert Johnson, 1911-1938 (2016)

Comics

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Love in Vain tackles one of American pop-culture’s most enduring, mysterious, and interesting figures, bluesman Robert Johnson, and retells his life-story in a widescreen graphic novel format. Some might say that there is a certain redundancy in telling the life story of a musician, particularly one who’s sound was as unique and prophetic as Johnson’s, in a soundless medium; but J.M. Dupont’s non-fiction / prose-poetry writing style (newly translated into English from it’s original French by Ivanka Hahnenberger) and Mezzo’s scratchy, seedy, and filthy art style captures the existential darkness that was the center of Johnson’s best songs.

Love in Vain is quite a short comic, clocking in at 56 pages. It can easily be read in one sitting, and that’s how I did it and would recommend all readers to do it (It might also be advisory to have a copy of Peter Guralnick’s brilliant summation of Johnson’s life, Searching for Robert Johnson, by your tableside). The sparse, stripped down writing style, echoing the non-fiction that Dupont so fearlessly searched through, communicates Johnson’s life-story with the bare minimum of detail. This sparse prose is punctuated by haunting pieces of original poetry. Take for example, the opening rhymes of the comic:

Poor Robert, your life ended in tragedy – which the angels must consider well deserved…

But before judgement is served, they need to understand your choice – to be a sinner with a demonic voice…

And why you burned your life to hell.

This is the tale I’m here to tell.

Dupont’s prose / poetic style is simple and clean-cut, and suspiciously doesn’t try to invoke the lyrical simplicity of Johnson’s own writings. There’s a clue here in who the true narrator is of the comic – a revelation that comes in the final page’s glory of excess and debauchery.

However, as good as Dupont’s writing style may be, the true artist-supreme of the book is Mezzo, who’s scratchy, stark black and white illustrations illuminate each and every wide-screen vista. Where Dupont’s writing might skip on some of the psychological ramifications of Johnson’s costly lifestyle, in Mezzo’s artwork the costs are writ clear on Johnson’s tortured face. He might be portrayed as debauched and amoral, but Mezzo imbues his illustrations with the secret, silent suffering that Johnson endured through all his trials. No illustration communicates this more than a scene set just after Johnson has buried his wife and child. Mezzo’s illustration invokes Bertolt Brecht’s silent scream – a howl of pain that cannot be uttered for fear of revenge from a force beyond your comprehension. It’s a howl of pain that carries throughout all of Johnson’s bleakly nihilistic music. It’s a howl that his many imitators have crafted into the very bones of all contemporary music, from hip-hop to rock.

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Hahnenberger’s translation reads: Some would say that God made Robert suffer to test his faith. I’m not so sure – I think he knew that this lamb was a wrong ‘un, and so he struck him down and cast him out of the flock.

There are few faults that one can find in Dupont and Mezzo’s extraordinary exploration of the life of Robert Johnson. I can only say I finished this comic wanting to know more – it’s brevity is both it’s success and it’s failure. I suppose it corresponds to the general lack of information regarding Robert Johnson’s life and death; the mists of time have obscured him forever beyond our reach. To extend the page length, Mezzo provides an illustrated song book, setting a few of Johnson’s lyrics alongside some murky charcoal portraits. His illustrations evoke the lyrics brilliant way. Ultimately, this graphic novel ranks among the best artistic expeditions into the life of Robert Johnson. You’d be a sucker to miss it out.

10/10.

Comic Review: Wonder Woman: Earth One (2016)

Comics

Wonder Woman Earth One Cover

It’s very convenient that Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s long gestating Wonder Woman: Earth One should be released so soon after the character’s debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (read my review here). Many viewers of that film will want to jump into a Wonder Woman comic and test out the source-material. Earth One in many respects is a great jumping on point, but also isn’t. It’s an absolutely fantastic, well-written, beautifully illustrated origin story for Diana Prince; but it’s also veeery different from the Wonder Woman we see in the film, and will see in her future solo film. For new readers who want the classic Wonder Woman, I’d suggest George Pérez’s classic run or Greg Rucka’s newer stuff.

In many interviews, Grant Morrison has talked about how he had gone back to the original Marston issues of Wonder Woman and discovered a very different character; one swamped in the sexual kinks of it’s author, a purpose-built icon of feminism, and a champion for the queer. Whilst Marston’s original creation might not fly in today’s feminist world, Morrison has re-incorporated these elements into the character for his new origin story.

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Diana’s curiosity gets the better of her.

The result is a graphic novel that celebrates alternative sexuality, the queer, and feminism in the modern world. It’s an undercurrent that informs many of Diana’s interactions with people, from her first hilarious meeting with Steve Trevor (the first male she’s ever seen in a lifetime of thousands of years), to her understanding of consenting submission as an ultimate expression of compassion and care. The book never feels exploitative of it’s subject matter, something that the comics industry of today could easily have done, and it results in a book that manages to capture the essential characteristics of Wonder Woman in the same way that Grant Morrison captured Superman in his epic masterpiece, All Star Superman.

Earth One will especially appeal to readers who are bored by the standard brawling superhero narratives and want something a bit more introspective and thematically resonant with their own lives. I can’t recall a single fist being thrown by Diana. There is very little action in this comic, and some of the best moments in the narrative are seeing how Diana handles situations that male characters such as Superman or Batman would solve with their fists. Diana’s essential characteristic is that she sees the best in people and wants to take care of them, to protect them from harm. She is the definition of compassion, and her views on the modern world are extremely prescient in this day and age.

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Earth One isn’t without it’s minor flaws. Elizabeth Candy, a minor supporting character who teaches Wonder Woman a few things about the place of women in “man’s world,” isn’t a particularly deep character. She basically serves to teach Diana about the modern world and beyond that doesn’t have much of a relationship with her despite assertions that she and Diana are great friends. Another minor quip is that this volume feels very much like the first act of a three act origin story. That’s nothing to complain about, as Morrison and Paquette have said they’d love to do further volumes, but by the time I finished the book I just wanted the next one. One last criticism is one that I have for the rest of the Earth One books too. I don’t feel this is a very cohesive universe at the moment. None of the books have made any effort to integrate with each other. And whilst there hasn’t been much published just yet, the line started in 2010 and the books have yet to come together. In the upcoming volumes, I would like to see some references to previous events on this world peppered in for the eventual Justice League: Earth One.

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Paquette’s Paradise Island is an absolute marvel to behold.

Paquette’s artwork in this slim volume perfectly captures Morrison’s ideas and plot, with stunning panel layouts and beautifully composed panels. Paquette really is one of the best artists in the business, and his beautiful art is complemented by Nathan Fairbairn’s stunningly rich colours. Wonder Woman: Earth One might already be the best-looking graphic novel of 2016.

Wonder Woman: Earth One is the best of the Earth One books that have published, beating out even the much-loved Batman: Earth One volumes. Morrison handles the limited page count better than the other writers who have published books in the line, and successfully delivers a stunning superhero narrative that is fresh, compelling, utterly different from any other, and full of optimism, positivity, diversity, and celebratory depictions of non-heteronormative sexuality. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves Wonder Woman, the comics form, or has struggled with their own sexuality. Hell, give this to any bigots you might know, and they might change their mind. It’s that good.

9/10.

Comic Review: B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs Vol. 1 TPB

Comics

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After having read all six oversized volumes of the Hellboy Library Editions, I couldn’t imagine that any spin-off series of one of the greatest American comics could be any good, especially with Mike Mignola’s limited involvement. I am glad to say that this first of four volumes collecting the first cycle of the B.P.R.D. series, which has been dubbed “Plague of Frogs,” lives up to the quality established by the Hellboy series. This first volume is uneven, but by the end the writers and artists have found their trajectory and have begun to settle in to what has become an acclaimed run.

“Hollow Earth” kicks the series off with a bang, as Abe Sapien, Roger the homonculus, and new recruit Johann Kraus team up to find Liz Sherman, who has gone missing after a spiritual journey to learn how to control her hazardous powers. On the surface, “Hollow Earth” is a story crafted in the Hellboy tradition, featuring lots of monsters fighting monsters, and vast subterranean tunnels. But really the story explores how Abe and Roger are dealing with the aftermath of Hellboy’s departure from the B.P.R.D., and there are many tender moments as the characters reflect on their own friendship with Hellboy. Essentially the story serves to redefine their roles in the Hellboy universe, now that they are without big red’s help. Johann Kraus is also a fascinating new character who has plenty of opportunity to excel in the pages of the ongoing narrative. Ryan Sook’s art clearly mimics Mignola’s style as well as quality, and the pages are often beautiful.

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“Hollow Earth” begins explores how Hellboy has impacted all of his coworkers at the B.P.R.D. and addresses how they feel about continuing there without him.

“The Killer in My Skull” and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” are two shorter stories, both written by Mignola and illustrated by Sook, that further explore the character of Lobster Johnson and depicts the resuscitation of Roger after the events of Conqueror Worm. “The Killer in My Skull” is an enjoyably pulpy narrative, and “Abe Sapien vs. Science” gives the chance to build a relationship between Abe and Roger. Both are solid reads.

“Drums of the Dead” is a freaky little solo story featuring Abe. Whilst the idea is interesting and the artwork is grotesquely beautiful, the story stumbles slightly without Mignola’s direct input. It’s an enjoyable enough story, but it just doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe. Also, Abe’s sharpened teeth look a little too scary.

“The Soul of Venice,” like “Drums of the Dead,” also doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the Hellboy universe, but this is more to do with the pacing of the story and Michael Avon Oeming’s cartoony artwork. However, it’s great seeing the main team together for the first time in full, with Liz, Abe, Roger and Johann, all having their moments to shine.

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Important developments abound for Roger’s character in “The Soul of Venice.”

“Dark Waters” is the first work by Guy Davis on B.P.R.D. and it is also one of the best stories in this first volume. Roger and Abe go to a New England town to investigate the corpses of some witches that are a little too fresh. It’s a great reflection on America’s own dark history of witch-hunting, and again gives an opportunity for Roger and Abe to interact. Davis’ artwork is stunning, and is a natural fit for the Hellboy universe despite a very different style from Mignola’s. I particularly like his interpretation of Roger.

“Night Train” is another stumble in the collection, with Geoff Johns providing an uninteresting story about a ghost train and Scott Kolins on artwork that is just a bit too cartoony / superheroic for a Hellboy-universe story. However, it does have significant impact as there are a few good scenes showing Roger and Liz interacting and gradually becoming close friends. I liked this element, but the other stuff I could have gone without.

“There’s Something Under My Bed” is the worst story in the collection, as writer Joe Harris‘ dialogue comes off as very stiff and unnatural, with several jokes that don’t land, and Adam Pollina’s zany artwork which has very little smooth flow. It’s not terrible but I found very little that I liked in the story.

Mignola returns to writing duties with the great short “Another Day at the Office,” with wonderful artwork by Cameron Stewart. It’s very short, but basically shows Johann and Abe taking on some zombies. Stewart’s artwork is simply superb. I would love to see more of his work on B.P.R.D. for sure.

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Plague of Frogs reintroduces the Frog threat from the classic Hellboy story “Seed of Destruction,” and Guy Davis excels on artwork.

The volume closes with the extended opening chapter of the “Plague of Frogs” cycle, suitably titled Plague of Frogs. Guy Davis returns on artwork and continues to impress whilst Mignola is once again on writing chores. The team take some seeds from the classic Hellboy story Seed of Destruction to open up this ongoing story of the Frog plague. The true stars of the book have to be Johann and Abe, as they go head-first into battle. Abe’s origins are also hinted at, adding even more complexity to one of Mignola’s star creations. Whilst the story is only a beginning, it’s a great one at that and the best story in the volume. Absolutely superb.

Whilst there may have been a few duds in the first volume of B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs, the great stories really overcome the lesser ones. It’s a great continuation of the Hellboy mythos and I cannot wait to see more of Guy Davis’ work in future volumes. Great stuff, recommended.

8/10

Comic Review: X-O Manowar Deluxe Edition HC Vol. 1 (2013)

Comics

This graphic novel collects X-O Manowar issues 1-14.

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In many ways, X-O Manowar cannot be considered an original comic, either in concept or execution. The main character, Aric of Dacia, a 5th Century Visigoth, is a strange mix of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. His enemies, the Vine, are an alien species intent on killing him and all of Earth if it comes to that. None of it rings particularly original, does it?

But you don’t come to X-O Manowar for originality (or a great name for a comic, it appears). Rather, you come for great characters and great action. It’s been a while since I’ve read such a comic that manages to fuse both great action scenes and genuine character development. Across the 14 issues collected in this beautiful hardcover, you will be genuinely thrilled.

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The action is always intense and dynamic in X-O Manowar.

The first storyline, By the Sword, is an entertaining origin story of the lead character. Aric of Dacia is taken from his 5th Century world into the present day by the alien species the Vine. He is a slave on one of their many command ships. After a rebellion, he manages to break free, steal sacred armour, and return to Earth. It’s the definition of decompressed storytelling, and probably only has enough story to fill one, maybe two issues. But the action-sequences are so well executed by Cary Nord that it’s hard to complain.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

The second storyline, Enter: Ninjak continues this origin story as Aric gets used to the modern world. The leaders of the Vine employ the assassin Ninjak and a Vine seedling called Alexander Dorian to eliminate Aric and steal back the armour. Things don’t go according to plan, and as the three warriors meet head-on sparks will fly. This is a genuinely good volume, filled with lots of characterization in between the major action set pieces. It also serves as the rebooted introduction to Valiant’s fan-favourite Ninjak. I’m not too familiar with the character, but I enjoyed his appearances in this volume and would like to see more of him.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

The final storyline, Planet Death, is the volume’s piece de-résistance. The Vine prepares their invasion / extermination of Earth, and all that stands between them and annihilation is Aric. However, the volume takes a surprising twist by Aric defeating the invasion easily (though at a personal cost), and then taking the fight to the Vine home world of Loam. It’s a genuinely brilliant storyline and the best one in the volume. Not to be missed.

A large part of the series’ success is the stellar artwork on display. Cary Nord illustrates the larger half of the collection, with Lee Garbett (aided by inker Stefano Gaudiano) and Trevor Hairsine lending their talents as well. While their styles vary, and it can be a bit jarring switching between the illustrators, all are top talents and you can’t really complain when the artwork is just that strong. Cary Nord does some particularly strong artwork in the third arc, Planet Death, which is full of dark blacks and firm lines. In many ways, it’s a callback to an earlier style of illustrating comics, and it is refreshingly simple. The lack of detail is it’s strongest point, because the characters somehow feel heavier in appearance and thus more real.

X-O Manowar provides Conan artist Cary Nord with some rich material. His artwork is frequently beautiful and astonishing.

The action wouldn’t be as well executed as it is if it wasn’t for some great writing by Robert Venditti, who balances action with some good character development. None of the violence feels unnecessary and every time Aric charges into battle, it feels like he has purpose and isn’t just there to take names. Likewise, the supporting cast is also really interesting, particularly Alexander Dorian, Ninjak, and the High Priest of the Vine. This last character in particular is interesting, as the High Priest brings a lot of nuance to the villains of the book, fleshing out the history, culture, and motivations of the Vine.

My only complaint with the comic would probably be a notable lack of female representation. Whilst an argument could be made that Aric hasn’t stopped fighting since the events of the first issue, and thus he hasn’t had time to meet any female characters, any women present within the pages are in beds or insinuated to be there primarily to have sex with the male characters. This isn’t often, and it only happens in two instances. I hope to see this rectified within the future events of the series, as it does feel a bit off-kilter because the book is just populated with few women. I don’t think the book is outright sexist in its depiction of women, but some work could be done in this respect. For all I know, it already has been and I haven’t just read it yet, so really it is a minor concern. Valiant Comics (the publisher) is known for its diversity so I imagine it will occur sometime later in the series.

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All in all, X-O Manowar is an incredibly entertaining, action-packed science-fiction series that will please all readers. It’s also a great starting place for anyone interested in the recent Valiant Comics reboot. It does everything that you could want a mainstream superhero comic to do, but with the refreshing qualities of independent publishing. I cannot wait for the second volume.

8/10.