GEARS OF WAR: JACINTO’S REMNANT

GEARS OF WAR: JACINTO’S REMNANT
Written by Karen Traviss
Published by Ballantine/Del Rey

I don’t play video games. Don’t even own a home system of any kind. So my knowledge of GEARS OF WAR as I sat down to read this novel amounted to this: I knew that GEARS OF WAR was a video game. That’s pretty much it. So as you can imagine, I was pretty dubious about plowing through 400 pages of prose about characters from a video game.

Never under-estimate the power of having a really, really good writer working on a property. Even one you have no familiarity with.

That’s because Karen Traviss (who has STAR WARS novels to her credit, as well as a prior GEARS outing) really knows how to deliver a strong military/sci-fi story. The story begins in media res as nearly all the humans left alive on the planet Sera are escaping from what was the destruction of the final livable city: Jacinto. The bug creatures that have been overrunning the world and killing off the population, the Locust, are at that point hopefully all nearly drowned, leaving the few thousands left to go on the run and look for a place to try and rebuild the human race. Their protectors, soldiers known as Gears, are always on the frontlines, trying to keep those few humans intact and safe. However, none of it comes easy- the Gears are as emotionally scarred as any of the civilians, if not more so. Each has demons coming home to roost and is struggling to keep moving forward with their lives. Plus, there are still stray locusts out there, ready to strike at a moment’s notice, not to mention human threats known as Stranded; people who were unable to get to Jacinto before the rest of the world was laser-blasted into oblivion as a way to kill most of the Locust population.

JACINTO’S REMNANT is a strong, interesting piece of licensed work. The characters come to life on the page; those created for the novel really feel fresh and interesting, especially a nearly 60-year old female soldier name Bernie (think Susan Sarandon if you will) who cannot easily give up the military life or forget the horrors she experienced at the hands of the Stranded. While game characters Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago get the majority of the face time, it’s Bernie that, from the start, captures your imagination and interest in what’s going to happen through the course of the novel.

Traviss succeeds in her work because she smartly thinks her way through what the reader needs. In my case, I needed everything; without familiarity with the game, the comics, or her first book in the series, I could have been lost. But she laid out everything I needed to know in short order and kept my interest from flagging. Every once in a while, I just like to sit down and read a solidly done sci-fi novel; JACINTO’S REMNANT fulfilled that need for me just fine.

Marc Mason

SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE

THE SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE
Written by Robert Venditti and Drawn by Brett Weldele
Published by Top Shelf

THE SURROGATES was one of the best science fiction graphic novels of the decade, coming out of nowhere to deliver thrills, chills and excitement in a world where no one (really!) was what they seemed. With the majority of the human population living through robotic bodies while their real bodies remained chairbound at home, it showed us the dangers of human complacency and fear. However, when someone began murdering the robots and in-turn causing the deaths of their operators, Detective Harvey Greer was forced out into the world again to try and find the killer. Awards for the creative team (rightfully) followed.

Now Greer is back, in SURROGATES: FLESH AND BONE, a prequel graphic novel that introduces us to Greer while he’s still a street cop, fifteen years before the events of the first graphic novel. Three young rich kids hijack their parents’ surrogates and beat a living, breathing homeless man to death, setting the city on edge, ready to burn. Thrown into the mix, Harvey works to track down one of his best informants, a man who witnessed the crime and can prevent the wealthy perps from getting away with it. But it won’t be easy; the informant is spooked and on the run, the kid’s lawyer is working the court of public opinion into a frenzy, and the ex-con known as the Prophet is leading an ever-growing anti-surrogate flock into a frenzy that’s threatening to consume the city. Forces are about to collide, and it’s going to get really, really ugly.

I was a bit dubious when I saw that FLESH AND BONE was to be a prequel; but it actually works quite well. Greer is still recognizable as the man we met in the first graphic novel, but we get to see more layers of him here- the building blocks of who he becomes as the years wear down upon him. The story works as a solid mystery-thriller, and the science fiction element, while toned down, is still absolutely terrific. Weldele’s art is beautiful to look at, and the scripting is solid. While it was a risk to produced a sequel (prequel) to a much-respected work like THE SURROGATES, the creative tam did themselves proud and produced a very worthy effort.

Marc Mason

STITCHES

STITCHES
Written and Drawn by David Small
Published by W.W. Norton

As a young boy, David Small was set to have what he was told was a relatively harmless operation to remove a cyst from his neck. But when he woke up, he found a jagged scar running down the side of his neck and was virtually mute. It would take some time to learn the full details, but when he did, the truth was horrific: he had actually had cancer, which his parents had not informed him of, and had a vocal cord removed.

You’re probably thinking that Small’s parents were total dicks, and you’d be right about that. In fact, that’s really what’s at the heart of STITCHES: Small’s growing up in a household without love and support, and facing emotional and physical abuse from not only his parents, but his grandmother.

There’s no question that Small’s artistic capabilities are really wonderful, and he shows off some impressive storytelling prowess in his panels and really manages to find movement (physical and/or emotional) in the smallest gestures and looks. I found myself entranced by some of the pages, poring over his use of shadow and light to get the full effect of his work. However, I was less impressed by the story told by the book itself.

Initially, there are problems with the pacing. It takes far too long to get to the pivotal incident that changes his life and really starts moving the book forward. The early material really only suffices to show just how cold and unloving his family is. It accomplishes that well, but it drags severely along the way. I’d have liked to have seen forty or so pages cut from this section to push the book towards its meat a little faster. I also had issues with the actual story; we get so deep into why his family was as screwed as it was, and it ultimately overshadows us learning more about what kind of man Small became once he was out on his own and away from those people. For a book that is about his own troubles, I never felt like I knew Small, and that bothered me. Perhaps that is because he is truly a man of few words, but I felt like I needed more than what I got from him.

No question, this is a quality work. Your mileage may vary, particularly in how you feel about the autobiography genre. It hits shelves in September.

Marc Mason

VILLARD x 2

VILLARD X 2
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Villard

Couple of new ones from the folks under the Random House banner. Let’s take a look…

Just seeing the words FLIGHT VOL. 6 as I opened the package was enough to make me smile, as FLIGHT has long been my favorite anthology series. But to my surprise, volume six is not only another fine entry in the series; it’s easily the best one since volume two. Editor Kazu Kibuishi has once again assembled some top-notch talent to produce this lovely annual, but what makes this one work so well boils down to two factors. One, there’s less here. Rather than over-stuff the book with material and risk adding duds to the mix, there are only fifteen stories in volume six. That means that the creators are working with more pages at their disposal and doing more long-form material. That breeds better stories. It encourages experimentation and innovation in character and layout. And in this case, it delivers excellent storytelling. As a bonus, you get a couple of wonderful pieces that really give you your money’s worth above and beyond what you might be hoping for, including Kibuishi delivering a new Daisy Kutter short story (DAISY still being my favorite of his solo works) and Michel Gagne’s opening piece, “The Saga of Rex: Soulmates” which is a piece of virtuoso art in both the color and storytelling. Seriously, folks, I don’t know what else to say: you should be buying these every year.

Writer/artist Nicole Chaison’s THE PASSION OF THE HAUSFRAU is an interesting hybrid book. The chapters/essays are written in prose, but each is supplemented by cartoon strips from the author (as well as some wonderfully snarky footnotes). Chaison details her struggles with parenthood and her mother, from the mundane things that drive everyone crazy (trying to get the kids to behave, lack of sleep, etc.) to the bizarrely odd (hiding watching the Colin Farrell sex tape, depressed libido seemingly caused by snowfall, trying to determine if it’s okay to bake cookies after her kid has sneezed into the dough). What works here is Chaison’s prose; she’s a terrific writer, funny, insightful, and bluntly honest (about herself and everything else around her), making PASSION feel like it has some “street cred” you might not get from other books covering the same subject. However, what didn’t work for me was her cartooning. Yes, the way she uses the cartoons is clever, but her artistic skills are kind of weak. I found myself thinking that she could have integrated much of the written material in the strips over into the prose and made it work just fine and just as funny. Still, even if you took the cartoons away altogether, PASSION is a worthy read.

Marc Mason

THE PHOTOGRAPHER

THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Photography by Didier Lefevre, Art by Emmanuel Guibert, Design by Frederic Lemercier
Published by First Second

Pressed to pick the best graphic novel of 2008, I would have chosen Emmanuel Guibert’s ALAN’S WAR, also from First Second Books. So when THE PHOTOGRAPHER arrived in my mailbox, my expectations of the book were quite high. Really, really high.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER exceeded those expectations in every conceivable way.

As with ALAN’S WAR, THE PHOTOGRAPHER is a work of non-fiction, but it’s a work quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. 1986, French photographer Didier Lefevre joined a caravan of physicians in the MSF (Medicin San Frontieres – the organization that would eventually go global and be known in the states as Doctors Without Borders) on a caravan across the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and into the Afghani villages beset by sickness and war violence from the rebellion against the USSR. He was hired to shoot the caravan’s journey and bring his findings back to the western world to show the plight of the people and the work that the physicians were doing. 130 rolls of film later, he had done just that. But he had done, and gained, so much more.

Lefevre’s work did get some play in the French papers, but his story- the whole story- remained mostly in his head (thanks to the loss of his journals) until his friend Guibert suggested that they recreate the trip through the use of the photographs and of Guibert’s art. Thus, THE PHOTOGRAPHER is a truly mixed medium graphic novel: pages are composed of Lefevre’s pictures and of panels drawn by Guibert, fleshing out Lefevre’s narrative of that first journey back and forth across the border and into Afghanistan.

And what pictures they are! From impressive landscapes, to villagers posing, to horrific shots of war wounds and violence, Lefevre captured an era and a people in ways you have likely never seen before. You can easily get lost poring over his work and absorbing the story he was telling with his camera as he trekked through the mountains and watched his comrades trying to save lives. Make no mistake: much of THE PHOTOGRAPHER is harrowing, and even on a journey that was meant to be of relative safety, Lefevre’s life is at risk on multiple occasions. However, that fear and that pain are not transferred into his shots. The pictures simply tell his story… like a good journalist should.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER is a challenging, powerful work, and it won’t be one you can put down and easily forget. Particularly in light of the world’s situation today, it is a book that educates, illuminates, and fascinates. Highly recommended.

Also from First Second Books:

STUFFED is written by Glenn Eichler and drawn by Nick Bertozzi. COLBERT REPORT writer Eichler delivers his first graphic novel with this serio-comic look at father issues, brother issues, and race relations in STUFFED. When Tim Johnston’s father dies, Tim is stuck with the contents of the old man’s “Museum of Oddities” which includes a statue which turns to actually be a real African warrior of indeterminate descent that has been stuffed for preservation. Embarrassed by the politically incorrect nature of the statue, he must battle his hippie brother “Free” and work alongside an African-American museum official to try and figure out who the statue really was so they can try and send him home for a proper burial. Hilarity, and more than a few arguments, ensues. The story in STUFFED was surprising; I was never quit sure where Eichler was going with his tale, but I was engaged enough to care how it turned out. Bertozzi’s art is solid (as usual), and there is a surprising intellectual heart to the story of how the fate of the statue has to be decided. I wasn’t blown away by it, but the book gets the job done and entertains.

Marc Mason

NIGHTMARE WORLD

NIGHTMARE WORLD
Written by Dirk Manning, Artwork by Josh Ross, Jeff Welborn, Len O’Grady, Austin McKinley, Jason Meek, Rene DeLiz, Ray Dillon, Erich Owen, Dustin Miller, Kristen Perry, and others
Published by Shadowline Web Comics and Image Comics (in the fall)

NIGHTMARE WORLD is collection of thirteen seemingly disconnected tales that, upon publication of the full fifty-two compliment of stories, will reveal themselves to center around a main premise. Already there is some unification apparent in the stories currently available via Shadowline’s Web Comics, such as repeat appearances of characters and common themes, and though several seem to be stand alone stories, nearly every single one of them is a highly enjoyable trip down “What the fuck?!” lane.

The breadth of stories contained within NIGHTMARE WORLD are about as varied as any you will ever see in one collection of comics. They cover numerous plots, such as unfaithful men finding their comeuppance in a way they never imagined, demons locked in a domestic dispute, psychotic murderers professing their love, dead men making amends and creatures from a Japanese horror film finding something in common. The themes range from darkly disturbing to black comedy to just plain comedy to completely random, so undoubtedly there is something for everyone. Another advantage of this multi-tale format is each story is only eight pages long, therefore if one story is not to the reader’s liking, it won’t be long before they are treated to an entirely new story with different characters and artwork.

Several artists were recruited for the creation of this comic, adding yet another advantage to this amazing book. Each artists’ work seem to fit flawlessly with the story they were paired with, and each artists’ style is utter unique, ensuring the book remains fresh throughout its two hundred pages. One story was told in stick figure format which really heightened the hilarity of the content, another was leaning more towards the creepy, mystical side, a feeling which was bolstered by the hazy, pastel look of the art.

Props must be given to Shadowline for their easy-read web comic format, allowing the stories to shine, but naturally most of the accolades go to Manning for his expansive imagination and his bevy of artists, each of which more than hold their own in this diverse and massively entertaining collection of comic stories.

Avril Brown

 

JENNA BLUE

JENNA BLUE
Written by Jason M. Burns, Artwork by Steve Gendron
Published by Outlaw Entertainment

JENNA BLUE is the tale of an unusual assassin who finds more than she’s looking for on her latest job. While on the surface this sounds like any other story about a hired gun in a heap of trouble, the slight twist here is the gun in question doesn’t exactly blend in with the rest of society due to her bright blue skin.

Jenna Blue is an assassin for hire who is very good at what she does and has a knack for eliminating the competition as well as the intended target. She manages to do both within the first issue, keeping the pages action packed, but the target turns out to be an unexpected surprise to Jenna as he is revealed post-mortem to have the same color skin as she. Pretty soon Jenna Blue is immersed in a sea of conspiracies and other killers-for-hire who have been recruited to take her out by any means necessary, all for a reason she doesn’t fully understand.

Jenna has a sharp sense of dark humor and a habit of insulting/threatening everyone she meets, which is highly enjoyable if not a bit cliché. She’s pretty bad-ass and a killer completely without a conscience is always fun to read. The plot is not terribly complex and the big reveals aren’t too hard to figure out, but the combination of a sassy (and pissed off) blue chick armed with many weapons plus plenty of action and an alien conspiracy make for an entertaining story.

At first glance the artwork was not exactly my favorite style, but the long faces on the characters rather grew on me and shortly into the first issue it really felt like the perfect look for Jenna and her supporting cast. The coloring (or lack thereof) is the best part about the book; the mainly grayish tones more than succeeded in its purpose of causing Jenna’s red lips and blue skin (and the blood of her victims) practically pop off the page.

All in all JENNA BLUE is a slightly dark and easy read coupled with outstanding visuals, and a bargain at only eight bucks for over one hundred pages of story, making it worth checking out for the assassin junkie.

Avril Brown

WE THE PEOPLE

WE THE PEOPLE
Created by Rick Villa and Tony Hobdy, Written by Jason M. Burns, Artwork by Joe Eisma
Published by Outlaw Entertainment

WE THE PEOPLE is a story of the descendents of famous folk heroes of old who band together to protect the people of their city who are unable to protect themselves. The evil, corrupt mayor has decided to clean up the streets by kidnapping and containing all of the vagrants his secret police can get their hands on. What Mayor Allred hadn’t counted on were the distant progeny of Sinbad, Robin Hood and Zorro challenging his agenda and standing up for what is right.

Praise must be given to a book that opens with a dirty joke and a big explosion, and the fun continues as one of the main characters, the one who cannot keep his motor mouth shut, is introduced. Though Xavier, later to be known as Z, is a laugh riot, it soon becomes clear this is not a book of solid substance but one of quick quips and flashy action. We are introduced to the main characters and given enough background information to make them interesting, as well as a scene or two to give them the motivation to don a mask, but the character exploration ends there.

WE THE PEOPLE can be massively cheesy and is certainly pushing the boundaries on ridiculous, it is also packed with a light-hearted, “laughing with you” kind of hilarity making this book impossible to resist. Z’s lines were consistently comical, though by far the best line in the book belonged to Talia aka Robyn, who when fed up with the bickering of her male companions shouted: “We get it! You both have big, virile tools capable of slaying the mightiest of vaginas!” You don’t get golden lines like that in every comic book.

There is nothing negative to say about Eisma’s artwork. Consistently beautiful from start to finish, his pencils are one of the best parts about this book. Crisp, clear faces coupled with appropriately proportionate smoking bodies make for attractive and appealing main characters, and the action sequences and background detail compliment the rest of the story perfectly.

If you’re looking for a deep, meaningful comic then check out the list of potential Eisner winners, but if you’re looking for a swashbuckling, laugh-out-loud, young adult adventure story then WE THE PEOPLE is the book to pick up. The abundance of amusing one-liners and the visceral sense of purpose these young heroes are infused with are easily entertaining, and the striking artwork makes it effortless to get caught up in the explosive escapades. Do not look for anything subtle or serious here, just look for a good time and WE THE PEOPLE will provide.

Avril Brown

FAMOUS PLAYERS

FAMOUS PLAYERS
Written and Drawn by Rick Geary
Published by NBM

There are few things you can truly count on in the world of comics. Rick Geary is one of them.

FAMOUS PLAYERS is the latest entry in his “Murder” series, this one focusing on the death of William Desmond-Taylor, a film director in 1920s Hollywood. Taylor was found lying on his floor one night, the victim of a gunshot wound. But the case turns out to be a tough one: there are multiple suspects (he had “relationships” with many actresses, not to mention a former servant of ill-repute), there are no witnesses, and false leads are cropping up all over the place. And in addition, it turned out that Taylor wasn’t exactly who his peers thought he was… literally. So in short, the murder was an instant Hollywood legend… and remains so to this day.

But as with all of Geary’s murder works, the death itself is the least interesting aspect of the tale. What makes FAMOUS PLAYERS a brilliant read is, first and foremost, Geary’s ability to recreate the milieu in which the crime took place. He uses his research to rebuild Hollywood as it was 90 years ago from both a physical and moral standpoint, immersing the reader in a world you’ve never had the chance to really understand before. He also uses his research to flesh out the lives of not only the victim, but also the friends and suspects, fashioning a rounded portrait of those who were or would be famous during that era. It’s completely captivating.

And it has to be, in many ways. Unlike many books in the murder series, this one was never solved. But that isn’t really the point of Geary’s work. Unlike many creative talents, Geary knows that the journey truly is the best part, not the destination, and the journey he takes you on in FAMOUS PLAYERS is excellent from start to finish. I highly recommend you pick up the book and take the ride.

Marc Mason

THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY 1

THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY #1
Written by Chuck Dixon and Drawn by Esteve Polls
Published by Dynamite Entertainment

The Man With No Name (a/k/a “Blondie”) gets a reboot under a more familiar title as THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY lands on comic shop shelves. As this new series gets underway, we find our protagonist (you can never call him a hero) on the trail of a five thousand dollar bounty. But to collect it, he’ll have to go through a couple of small towns, Northern soldiers looking to prevent rebels from crossing the Mexican border, and the usual riff-raff you’ll find in a spaghetti western.

Veteran comics scribe Chuck Dixon takes over the character, and there’s no question he knows what he’s doing. The story is tightly plotted, the action handled well and doled out in the proper doses. And Polls turns in solid work for this genre, which isn’t always an easy task. So GBU has plenty going for it.

Except one thing, and stay with me because I’m about to commit what some will see as blasphemy… and that’s an interesting and strong lead character.

When this character appears on film, as played by Clint Eastwood, he’s taciturn to the point of nearly being silent. But Eastwood gives his body language and facial expressions dimensions that you can’t really capture on the comics page. He’s also an actor of great charisma, another quality that cannot really be displayed well on the comics page. Comics are a medium that work well on action and dialogue, and with Blondie, you really only get one of those.

So while THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY is actually quite a fine comic, the one thing it doesn’t necessarily need is that title. You could swap in a different lead, and the story still works and the art still looks good. This isn’t Dixon or Polls’ fault; it’s just the nature of the character. Ultimately, you should buy this book if you’re looking for a good western to read, no matter the title.

Marc Mason