THE COUNTRY NURSE

THE COUNTRY NURSE: ESSEX COUNTY VOL 3
Written and Drawn by Jeff Lemire
Published by
Top Shelf

Anne Byrne makes her rounds through Essex County, rain or shine, seeing to the good health and welfare of the local populace. Whether it’s checking in on Jimmy Lebeuf and updating him on his father’s health, or seeing to Kenny, Lester Papineau’s guardian, she’s on the job. But her family history follows her everywhere. Her grandmother, Sister Catherine Byrne, once played a similar role in the community. Yet Anne is also stymied by her own inability to minister to her own son, bereft of his father for four years now. But ultimately, someone must lend their strength to the people, and Anne feels a responsibility to be there for those around her.

Along with Dash Shaw’s BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON, Alex Robinson’s TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN, and Blake Bell’s book on Steve Ditko, THE COUNTRY NURSE is one of the most anticipated graphic novels of 2008. The first two parts of Lemire’s ESSEX COUNTY trilogy (TALES FROM THE FARM and GHOST STORIES) were both among the best books of the year when they came out, and you had to be curious if Lemire could deliver an ending worthy of what he began. And with THE COUNTRY NURSE, he has done just that.

Tying together some of the threads from the first two books, and going backward in time to fill in some blanks, Lemire has finished his saga in rousing fashion. Anne isn’t perhaps as strong a personality on the page as some of the earlier characters, but it is her heart and determination to do right by people that begins closing some of the loops that he opened previously. Lester’s parentage, the Lebeuf family, the settling of the area itself… it all draws together here.

The art is brilliant and dynamic, and Lemire takes a little more time to work on atmosphere and symbolism here, opening things up and slowing down the pace a bit. Sometimes that’s a mistake, but here it matches the actual milieu on the page, so it works just fine.

One of the hardest things in writing (or filmmaking) to do is finish the story right. Not only right by the story’s logic, but also right by the reader and viewer who invested in the tale. Jeff Lemire stuck the landing. Hats off to him.

Marc Mason

BLUESMAN COMPLETE

BLUESMAN
Written by Rob Vollmar and Drawn by Pablo Callejo
Published by
NBM

Bluesman Lem Taylor looks like his luck is changing for the good. There might just be a record contract with his name on it, and he and his partner are off to get it. But a digression with some ladies derails his life permanently; one of them has been seeing the son of a rich, white family, and the night goes from hot to hell. Bodies begin piling up, the son among them. And in the 1920s deep south, that means folks bent on powerful retribution against anyone involved- especially a black survivor. His life forever altered, Lem must try and survive a vicious hunt and multiple attempts to put him in an early grave. Some folks… their blues are earned.

I reviewed BLUESMAN as it came out in three installments, loving every minute of it, so I don’t really have much more to say about it that you haven’t heard before. However, I do want to mention that this nicely designed hardcover edition feels much more like the natural format for this fine book. Collected, it will now find its home in libraries and on bookstore shelves where it truly belongs. As usual with NBM’s books, the production quality is excellent, and the dust jacket (and the image on it) are striking and beautiful.

Vollmar and Callejo previous collaborated on CASTAWAYS, also available from NBM in a nifty hardcover edition. They’re a formidable team, and this is an excellent book.

Marc Mason

SLOW STORM

SLOW STORM
Written and Drawn by Danica Novgorodoff
Published by
First Second

Ursa Crain is a rarity in rural Kentucky: a female firefighter. But it isn’t necessarily a job that fills her heart with pride and joy. She’s subjected to sexual harassment from her co-workers, is undermined on the job by her own brother, and that contributes to a healthy malaise in her life. But one day during tornado season, a lightning strike sets a barn on fire and changes the course of her life. On the scene, she meets an illegal immigrant named Rafi who shifts her thinking about her life and what right and wrong really mean. As a storm system continues to build and crash through their locale, the pair finds themselves questioning their values and the decisions they’ve made, bonding in a unique and poignant manner.

There’s a lot to like about SLOW STORM. Novgorodoff is a genuine talent, an educated painter with style and composition skills to spare. Her work is haunting and powerful, and the character of Ursa really comes alive on the page… even as Ursa feels her life’s energy slipping from her in a maze of pain and bad decisions. It’s a very mature piece of work for someone putting out her first full-length graphic novel. I admired it.

That isn’t to say the book is without issues. Novgorodoff is a talented artist, but her storytelling needs work. The pages and panels are composed beautifully, but they don’t always propel the story forward in solid fashion. She also chooses some POV shots and wider shots that don’t always convey the emotion of a moment when it would be appropriate. And Rafi never quite develops as strongly as Ursa does; I think that Novgorodoff struggles to put herself in his mindset as easily as she does Ursa.

Still, this is a good work, and I expect that we’ll want to keep our eye on her future output. Novgorodoff is a real talent.

Marc Mason

SCUD THE DISPOSABLE ASSASSIN – THE WHOLE SHEBANG

SCUD THE DISPOSABLE ASSASSIN THE WHOLE SHEBANG
Written and Drawn by Rob Schaub
Published by
Image Comics

In a slightly alternate world than ours, it’s fairly easy to kill somebody that’s pissing you off: pop some change into a vending machine and get a disposable robot assassin. And better yet, they leave behind no proof, since they self-destruct once their target is dead. But for one robot assassin, things turn out a bit different- he spots the self-destruct message on his back, sneakily manages to leave his target in a coma, and heads off to lead a life of ridiculous violence, massive destruction, and perhaps even love. As long as he keeps making enough money to keep his target on life support in the hospital, that is.

SCUD THE DISPOSABLE ASSASSIN was one of the better indy efforts of the 90s, right up until it (and its creator, Rob Schaub) disappeared off the radar without warning. But recently Schaub returned to the property to finish the story and now the entire 24-issue series (along with the DRYWALL: UNZIPPED one-shot) has been collected in this monster-sized trade paperback. Trust me on this one: this is reason to rejoice.

Schaub (who went on to co-write the film MONSTER HOUSE and who now writes, directs, and produces THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM) was a forefather of the “gonzo pop culture gone insane” comics movement, paving the way for such creators  and books as diverse as Warren Ellis, STREET ANGEL and the guys who created SCURVY DOGS. And for those who have never seen his work, what will they get in this 500+ page book? A sampling:

“I’m Jesus with a laser gun and you’re all going to hell.” “The rest of them die tonight. Weather permitting.” Zombie dinosaurs. Robot sex. Ben Franklin: voodoo priest. A spare arm borrowed from a werewolf. Jayne Mansfield’s head floating in a jar. The ghost of Gus Grissom. And a whole ton of other ridiculousness. The beautiful thing about SCUD was always its complete unpredictability, and through the course of this book, you’ll see Schaub’s gift for the absurd in all its glory. You’ll wonder how he’s managed to avoid being institutionalized, too.

This is one of those rare books that gets my unreserved recommendation. One of my all-time faves, complete under one cover, at a very fair price point. Buy it. Your funny bone will thank you.

Marc Mason

MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN

MY BRAIN IS HANGING UPSIDE DOWN
Written and Drawn by David Heatley
Published by
Pantheon

Autobiographical comics are a tricky thing. The best of them take you inside someone’s life and offer up a point of view or unique experience to share. They transcend some of the more basic conventions of comic storytelling and deliver an emotional experience. The worst of them tell you nothing about the author except for the extent of their own narcissism, showing all the depth of a mud puddle. The bad ones lack a point or a heart.

It is an oddity to find both extremes in this collection of work by David Heatley.

MY BRAIN is divided into five sections of comics, each focusing on a different aspect of Heatley’s life: “sex history”, “black history”, “portrait of my mom”, “portrait of my dad”, and “family history.” Three of these sections run from good to excellent- the final three, actually. But the first two, sex history and black history, are among the worst autobio comics I’ve seen in recent memory.

Sex History is, bluntly, exactly what it sounds like. A long, rambling tour through every sexual feeling, conquest, and confusion in Heatley’s life. From the girls he’s kissed, to the ones he’s fucked, to his experiments with men, it’s all here. And boring as shit. It seems like Heatley tries to chalk it up to working out his issues on paper, but what it really reads like is someone who wants to overshare. And overshare. And overshare. There’s no point to the section, and it has no emotional arc or payoff once you get all the way through it. The one thing that stands out is that he chickens out on describing aspects of his sex life with the woman who is now his wife, but then spills out the graphic details on every other woman he’s been with. It’s a nasty form of hypocrisy on top of everything else. And “black history” is no better- it’s the same rambling narrative, except this time it details his dealings with blacks, friend and foe. And exposes him as having some issues with racism. But again, the section lacks a point or emotional payoff.

The good stuff, which he does in shorter strips and stories and puts the focus on family, is mostly terrific. Heatley paints an intriguing picture of his mother and her internal strength, and he puts together a heart-breaking look at his relationship with his father. And you can see him maturing (finally) in the pieces about the births of his children. These sections display a cartoonist with depth and with something to say. They have a point and an involving spirit about them. There’s some amazing material to be found there.

So it’s a tale of two books under one cover. Whether or not you feel strongly about great autobiographical comics to get through the bad stuff is where you’ll have to make your decision.

Marc Mason

THE RABID

THE RABID
Written by Jason M. Burns and Drawn by Guy Lemay
Published by
Viper Comics

Kevin usually has a fairly easy job; he’s a small town sheriff whose day usually revolves around minor paperwork, the occasional auto accident, and perhaps a stray dog. He also has to deal with the fact that he knows his wife has been sleeping with his best friend. But on one fateful afternoon, that ol’ stray dog starts biting the townspeople and the other dogs, turning all of them into raging, marauding, rabid zombies. Now Kevin has to find a way to not only keep his family together, but to actually keep them alive, as the population of rabid folks is exploding and no help is in sight. One by one, the remaining people gets bitten… so how long can they possibly hold out?

Master of the high concept, Jason M. Burns, strikes again with THE RABID, this time seeing him dabble in the horror genre. There truly seems to be no end to Burns’ ability to come up with screen-worthy plots. If I had a studio shingle, I’d put him on retainer and chain him to the keyboard. It seems to be Burns’ gift that he understands how to hit the beats on any number of genre stories, never limiting himself to one type of tale, and he never repeats himself. Certainly, THE EXPENDABLE ONE and DUMMY’S GUIDE TO DANGER bear no resemblance to THE RABID. Burns can extend himself.

This time around, he’s aided and abetted by Guy Lemay, who is another terrific find for Viper. Lemay is a true oddity in newer artists; when you look at his inspirational roots, it’s pure Paul Grist- something I really haven’t seen in anyone else. That give the book a really unique look and keeps the storytelling simple and moving at a solid pace.

My one complaint is that the plot to THE RABID sometimes feels a little too paint-by-numbers. Burns can rock the high-concept like nobody’s business, but the character depth here, and the conflicts, don’t set my world on fire. I want to see him stretch a bit more and show me some different tricks on the character end now.

Marc Mason

HELL GIRL VOL 1 BUTTERFLY

HELL GIRL VOL 1: BUTTERFLY
Episodes Showing on
IFC FREE VOD
Episodes Showing on Independent Film Channel Beginning 10/3/08

Is someone tormenting you? Making your life miserable to the point you don’t know how to cope? Are you beset by someone who wants to do you harm just because they can? If so, Hell Girl is ready to listen. At midnight, you can type the name of your tormentor on Hell Girl’s website and she’ll show up to hear your plea. The deal sounds good up front- she’ll immediately take that person straight to Hell if you want. But then there’s the catch: after you finish your own natural existence, you’ll find yourself in Hell as well, no matter how good a person you might have been in life. So what do you do?

What do you do?

A few weeks back, I reviewed volume two of the manga and found it to be a bit inconsistent in how it drew in reader interest in the characters who crossed Hell Girl’s path. But that’s not a problem here; not at all.

Sometimes the manga is much better than the anime because it can capture certain aspects of the story better and take more time in development. Shows like SUZUKA come to mind. But there are times when the anime is WAY better, and HELL GIRL is one of those.

What makes it better? A number of factors. The stories are tighter and more interesting. Having color gives more dimension to the stuff Hell Girl puts the bad guys through. The voice actors give extra depth to the characters on screen. So in the end, this series comes across as a dark, creepy, disturbing piece of entertainment about very sad and very damaged people. I’ll be watching… but only in daylight.

Marc Mason

SWAMP THING THE SERIES VOL 2

SWAMP THING THE SERIES VOL 2
Starring Dick Durock and Mark Lindsay Chapman
Released by
The Shout Factory

Volume two of the DVD release of the SWAMP THING television show actually picks up with the first half of the third and final season. In one of those real oddities, season three ran for 50 episodes!

Once again we head back into the swamp and pick up the adventures of Dr. Alec Holland, once a great scientist and now a shambling muck monster (played by Durock) who is deeply in touch with the local flora and fauna. Holland protects the locals from threats that creep out of the water, but mostly he protects them from a creep who lives near the water: Dr. Anton Arcane, played with extraordinary gusto my Mark Lindsay Chapman.

I reviewed volume one here and noted that the series was an incredibly earnest, if overwrought, entertainment that was mostly given life by Chapman’s incessant chewing of the scenery, and that holds true for volume two as well. There are some slight changes here; some episodes look like they had a budget of $1.87 rather than the first two seasons’ $1.53. They also get more mileage out of cutting back on Swampy and shifting the focus to Arcane, which works not only budget-wise but also to spotlight Chapman and let him run wild on screen. The best example of this comes in “Tatania,” wherein Arcane revives his comatose wife (played by a positively wooden and godawful Heather Thomas- oh, Heather, why ruin my memories of THE FALL GUY and your bikini poster like that?) and discovers that the body he woke up was that of a stripper surgically altered to resemble Arcane’s spouse. We get about 90 seconds of Swampy, and it doesn’t really matter- Chapman’s so hilariously over-the-top that you never get tired of him.

The earnestness comes in episodes like “Mist Demeanor,” which features a noted character making the ultimate sacrifice and in “Swamp of Dreams” where they turn Swampy into a (I kid you not) drug addict in an attempt to add pathos to his plight.

You can’t go in to watching this series expecting something brilliant or wonderful, but if you want to find something silly and goofy to watch for 22 minutes, you’ll get a kick out of this.

Marc Mason

ACES CURSE OF THE RED BARON

ACES: CURSE OF THE RED BARON
Written by Shannon Denton and G. Willow Wilson and Drawn by Curtis Square-Briggs
Published by
AiT/PlanetLar

A Yank and a Brit walk into a bar… No, that’s not the setup for a punchline, it’s the setup for ACES, a graphic novel collecting the material previously serialized in NEGATIVE BURN. It all starts nicely enough for the pair- they have a simple dispute over which one of them shot down the infamous Red Baron. But the argument takes a back seat to the map they found on the Baron’s body- the Nazi pilot was rumored to have amassed a secret fortune, and the two want it- badly. But to get it, they’re going to have to steal one of their own planes, cross behind enemy lines, and avoid court martial. Not to mention a horde of bad guys with an agenda far beyond Hitler’s imagination.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in ACES, and the creative team certainly works hard to draw in the reader and give them a lark. Multiple aerial dogfights, bar brawls, a sexy villainess, a dashing legendary villain in the Baron, wacky superiors, hidden islands… it’s a pulp paradise when you crack the book open. Full credit for that.

On the flip side, the story doesn’t hold together at all, something I thought might be improved by a collected version rather than the serialized edition, but not so. The preposterousness of what the pair find themselves involved in stretches past your ability to buy into it. Indeed, the third act twist reads like it came from a different story altogether.

It looks pretty, and the dialogue is zippy, but the final act just doesn’t, well, fly. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if so (or if you just love WW2 books) this book will work perfectly for you. If not, you may want to give it a miss.

Marc Mason

SMUGGLING SPIRITS VOL 1-2

SMUGGLING SPIRITS
Written by Ben Fisher and Drawn by Mike Henderson
Published by
Studio 407

Al Stone is a simple man trying to make a dishonest living. It’s Prohibition, and he’s one of the best bootleggers around. Aided and abetted by his kid sidekick Nathan, they travel the back roads trying to get hooch from place to place. The biggest obstacle isn’t the cops, though- it’s the monsters. They’re called Darklings, and they inhabit this alternate history with a sense of menace and terror unmatched. For a long time, Al and Nathan have mostly managed to avoid trouble with the creatures, but now that time is over. Al has something they want, and the Darklings won’t allow anything to stand in their way to get it. Not Nathan, not a town full of people. Nothing.

SMUGGLING SPIRITS has a lot going for it. The story concept is solid, and the characters of Al and Nathan are interesting on the page. It’s easy to get sucked into their tale and to get invested in what they need to do. Mike Henderson turns in some fine, nicely detailed artwork, and in this new version of the book from Studio 407, many of the faults of the original printing have been fixed.

The production quality has really ramped up this time around. The art is printed at a larger size and closer to the bleed, allowing Henderson’s sense of detail to shine through. That also allows for the pages to grab the reader’s attention better; without the extra white space, you never fall out of the story the way you would in the original series. And for this volume, Henderson has gone back and redone some of the pages, adjusting layouts and details to make the book look even better. The lettering also gets stronger with the new version, easier to read and perceive.

I’m much more able to recommend SMUGGLING SPIRITS with this new version, as it lacks a the problems that littered its initial incarnation- the book is worth a look and shows off a couple of guys who could make some noise going forward. I’m pleased for them that they were able to get a stronger take on their vision ijnto print.

Marc Mason