PURGATORI KABUKI VOL 1

PURGATORI KABUKI VOL 1
Written and Drawn by Yasushi Suzuki
Translated by Daniel Sullivan and Asako Otomo
Adapted by Ailen Lujo
Published by
DrMaster

A young swordsman utterly defeated by a demon gets the bargain offer of a lifetime: promise to collect the swords (and power) of a thousand warriors for the demon, who’s looking for a way to Heaven, and the swordsman will not only have his body repaired, but his physical limits will be stretched to superhuman levels and he’ll even look a bit different. That’s a deal you can hardly blame the boy for taking. But his quest will prove to be quite a bit more difficult than he can imagine, as there are plenty of forces lined up to oppose him, including some of the most powerful demons in the land.

PURGATORI KABUKI is something different for DrMaster, a manga published in a slightly larger format. The company is one of the less flamboyant manga publishers, choosing (wisely) to focus on its more boutique-sized line of books, and maintaining a nicely strict quality control over the material they put out. Thus it comes as a surprise that they’ve put out a huge miss like this book- it doesn’t happen often.

What’s wrong here? Loads. Suzuki’s art is dark and murky, and his action sequences are nearly incomprehensible. More than 75% of the time, I couldn’t tell what was happening or who was doing what. The figure-work is fine, but you don’t get enough of it to overcome the problems with the rest of the art. Second, the adaptation and translation don’t service the story as well as they should. At the end of the book, there’s a section called “design works” that actually does a far better job of explaining who all of the ancillary characters and foes are than the book itself. Then there’s the issue of the book’s design giving you no incentive to buy it- the back cover has no text copy, and the cover flaps don’t either. That means anyone picking this up in the store is going to look at it and have zero clue what it’s actually about.

If you’re interested in trying a DrMaster manga, check out the superior HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS, or a fine series like JUNK. PURGATORI KABUKI is definitely one to avoid.

Marc Mason

ESSEX COUNTY VOL 2: GHOST STORIES

ESSEX COUNTY VOL 2: GHOST STORIES
Written and Drawn by Jeff Lemire
Published by
Top Shelf

Lou Lebeuf has lived a long, painful life. Now, near the end, he has gone deaf, and he must rely on a caretaker coming to his farm to help with some of his basic living skills. But Lou’s life was once very different; as a younger man, he was a star hockey player for the Toronto Grizzlies, skating to victories alongside his brother Vince. However, the glory days didn’t last long enough, and a betrayal between brothers fractured their family for a quarter-century. Faced with mortality and a shortage of days, Lou finds himself slipping further and further back into his own life, facing the ghosts of his triumphs, and much more painfully, his mistakes. Has his life been for nothing? And is he as truly alone as he’s always felt?

Lemire’s first volume of GHOST STORIES, TALES FROM THE FARM, was an excellent piece of work, but nothing about it prepares you for how much better GHOST STORIES actually is. This is a dynamic, emotionally gripping read, and an incredibly mature work of art. Lou isn’t meant to be a man you necessarily root for, and you don’t; instead, he works as an example of a life that you would surely want to avoid copying. It’s a mistake-fraught existence, and almost every choice he makes is the wrong one for far too long a time. But as with all things, Lemire does allow time to begin doing some healing of his soul, even if it cannot be repaired. And showing powerful dedication to his theme, Lemire delivers a climactic two-page spread that will tug on the heartstrings of all but the most emotionally detached readers- damned near brought a tear to my eye, the bastard.

This is also a longer work than FARM, but it does have a brief, cute “crossover” moment reminding you that you’re reading stories set in the same backyard. After two books under their label, I’m ready to declare Lemire to be Top Shelf’s best find of the past few years, a worthy A-list talent deserving of a spot alongside Moore, Robinson, Kindt, and Runton on their roster. He should be a perennial seller for the company.

Marc Mason

SWAMP THING THE SERIES SEASON ONE AND TWO

SWAMP THING THE SERIES SEASON ONE AND TWO
Starring Dick Durock, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Carrell Myers, and Kari Wuhrer
Available From
The Shout Factory

IN STORES TODAY!

Coming off of two cult-classic films, Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s SWAMP THING was given extra life in the form of a television show. Running from 1990-1993 on USA Network, the series saw the resurrected Alec Holland getting involved with the Kipp family, new to the swamp, and continuing to face off against the evil of Dr. Anton Arcane. Over the course of these twenty-two episodes, he does both in relatively equal amounts, though the way it plays out is somewhat unusual, beginning with the show’s actual format. SWAMP THING was the rare 30-minute drama series, a run-time associated heavily with sitcoms. And there wasn’t a funny bone in the entire series, to be honest.

Well, that’s not entirely true. If we separate out the good and the bad of the series, you have to start with Mark Lindsay Chapman’s portrayal of Arcane. Chapman is actually quite hilarious in the part, the only problem being that it isn’t meant to be intentional. Watching him, it’s amazing how svelte he is, because he chewed enough scenery in these episodes to make him into a Thanksgiving parade balloon. Plus, he has the added bonus of rocking a full Patrick Swayze mullet and a wardrobe that would have embarrassed Don Johnson in 1984. The man practically oozes sleaze from every pore. The other major problem the show dealt with throughout the first season: its other primary character, a young boy named Jim Kipp who essentially became Swampy’s sidekick. Unfortunately, the kid couldn’t act, and he brought down every other actor he worked with in a scene (excepting Durock). But that also leads to some of the good about the series.

In the final episode of season one, Arcane and a corrupt sheriff kidnap Jim, slap him in a shipping container, fake his death, and send him off to slavery in South America. Pretty dark cliffhanger, right? It gets darker! Because when the show returns, they don’t even mention it. His mother is over it, Jim’s name goes unspoken, the world moves on! Can you imagine a show trying to get away with that today? Also to like: Durock. The man is stuck in that suit (and kudos to the suit makers- it’s the best looking thing on the show, totally amazing), but he gets every ounce of pathos and emotion out of his eyes and mouth, and Swamp Thing is a very rich character because of it. Really, you have to credit the entire production for what they were doing- they obviously had zero budget, were filming in Florida at Universal Studios, and they weren’t tackling Shakespeare. But they put out a product that was extremely earnest, and you can’t fake that.

Mind you, it wasn’t actually great TV. Season two, minus the kid, shows a strong level of improvement, though it could have lived without Swamp Thing giving the full Meredith Grey voiceover at the end of the episodes. SWAMP THING was strictly B-level entertainment. But you know what? That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For 22 minutes at a time, you can pop one of these episodes in your DVD player and see something unlike anything on the tube right now? That’s really the point, isn’t it?

Marc Mason

MADMAN AND THE ATOMICS VOL 1

MADMAN AND THE ATOMICS VOL 1
Written and Drawn by Mike Allred
Published by
Image Comics

Early on in the MADMAN saga, Frank ran afoul of a group of street beatniks, and that encounter left them covered in alien goop that has altered their cellular structure and give them strange powers (it also left one of them as the mate of an alien bride who was going to eat him after they mated- apparently that planet never heard of RU-486). Now, those altered by the goop have drawn back together and become their own sort of twisted super-team, though they really don’t do a lot in the way of battling a lot of evil. Instead, they do just about as much of squabbling and loving each other, making this a cross between X-MEN and DAWSON’S CREEK (to use an entirely outdated reference).

Anyone who knows anything about comics knows that Mike Allred is one of the true titanic talents working in the field, as he took the world by storm with MADMAN back in the 90s, and the rain still hasn’t stopped falling. When the fifteen issues of THE ATOMICS contained in this omnibus album came out, they were first a bit of a curiosity, as many fans wondered why he would take his full focus off of Frank (Madman) and his adventures. But the answer was easy to find: ATOMICS gave him a much broader palette to paint with. There are stories here that MADMAN simply could not tell.

As with all his work, Allred’s art is striking and vivid, aided and abetted by the superior color work of his wife Laura Allred. The characters pop off the page, and when they hurt, physically or emotionally, the hues deliver that punch. This is the third massive MADMAN paperback collection Image has issued, and I think it’s my favorite to date. These books have been a gift to comics fans everywhere. Do yourself a favor and pick one up to see what the fuss is all about.

Marc Mason

PAX ROMANA 1

PAX ROMANA 1
Written and Drawn by Jonathan Hickman
Published by
Image Comics

In 2053, the secret to time travel is unlocked, and the world’s history is about to be re-written. How? The scientists who succeed in doing so are devout Catholics and turn their research over to Rome. Thus, the papacy puts together a force of clerics and military men and gives them a one-way mission: go back to 312AD, shift the world’s developing course, and make sure the “proper” way of thinking becomes dominant that much sooner. This is the story now being told in secret to the King of the World, a 4-year old boy ascended to Roman power, in a wildly divergent timeline than the one we know. But to even the most intelligent eye, it would seem that the time-traveling expedition didn’t achieve its goals quite as intended. The question then, is: what did happen to those who went back 2000 years to change history?

I made no secret of my absolute loathing for Hickman’s first book, THE NIGHTLY NEWS; it was a pedantic, whiny work, resembling nothing more than the ramblings of a college freshman who has just discovered who Che Guevara was. So I frankly expected very little from PAX ROMANA. So it is with great surprise that I sit here and tell you that this is a much more mature, assured story, and I was intrigued by it from page one. It really seems like Hickman has ironed some of the kinks out of his storytelling; there’s a flow to what happens here, and he avoids making value judgments about any of it, leaving the emotional response solely to the reader. That’s a sign of confidence, and I like it.

No question, I’m also a sucker for a good time travel story as well. And what interests me here, is that I don’t think this is a story where the genie will be put back in the bottle; it looks like Hickman is set on telling his story within an alternate history on a permanent basis. That makes for an engaging challenge, and I’m going to be watching carefully to see how successful Hickman can be in playing it out.

Marc Mason

THE MUSEUM VAULTS

THE MUSEUM VAULTS
Written and Drawn by Marc-Antoine Mathieu
Published by
NBM

Eudeus Volumer is an expert in all things art-related, able to critique, organize, and understand the history of what he sees. Therefore, he is called to his greatest challenge, the organization of the vaults and sublevels at the Musee Du Revolu, an alternate reality/alternate Earth version of the Louvre. Little does Volumer know that the undertaking will introduce him not only to great works of art, but also great levels of absurdism.

This is the second in a series of four graphic novels actually commissioned by the Louvre itself, and it’s certainly a wildly different one than the first, Nicolas De Crecy’s GLACIAL PERIOD. Here, Mathieu puts his focus more on taking the piss out of the Louvre and the concept of museums and their caretakers themselves; as Volumer passes through this surrealist version of the great museum, he finds himself contending with such departments as the restoration workshop (which at one point worked to put limbs and noses on crumbled statues, and now works to restore them back to broken status or simply makes the restorations so ludicrous that patrons will understand what the originals looked like); the department of copies, which does precisely what it sounds like (though each copy is now considered art… but some copies are so precise that they’re considered “fakes”); and the frame depot, which has a caretaker who believes the frames to be just as important (if not more important) than whatever they surround. And along the way, he also meets another expert and begins to see exactly what his true destiny will be.

Mathieu has an interestingly stark art style, using black and white and gray tones with precision and grace. He keeps his characters simple, using his powerful gift for detail on the backgrounds and the museum environment. He also has a very dry sense of humor running through the book and through Volumer’s journey. Like De Crecy’s earlier book, this is a fascinating effort, and one any serious graphic novel reader will want to own.

Marc Mason

OUT OF PICTURE VOL 1

OUT OF PICTURE VOL.1
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by
Villard Books

The members of Blue Sky Studios, responsible for such animated films as ICE AGE and ROBOTS, stretch their artistic muscles with OUT OF PICTURE, an anthology of sequential art stories on a variety of topics. The group demonstrates an interesting mélange of styles, ranging from very traditional looking comics to the more avant-garde faire, but in their own rights, each story within the book is interesting enough to draw your attention and thought processes.

That isn’t to say that some pieces aren’t wildly more successful at reaching their goals than others. Greg Couch’s “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is an amusing meeting between classic fairy tales and “The Maltese Falcon”, and his art reminded me very much of Bill Sienkiewicz’ early material. For my money, though, the best piece in the collection is the one immediately following Couch’s effort, Michael Knapp’s “Newsbreak.” It’s a surrealist meditation on the effect the news media has on people of conscience, and it certainly seemed to be tapping my own reservoir of nightmares. His art is quite intriguing, as well, using a look you’d almost describe as a very basic animation combined with a deep paint layer. It’s very unique.

There are some weaker bits in the collection, but even those have their own merits, whether conceptually or artistically. Really, this is a lovely book, and it also has a format to envy. One of the only things I’ve not enjoyed about other superior collections like FLIGHT is their slavish attachment to the 6.7×10.2 printing format. OUT OF PICTURE runs at 9×12, giving the work room to breathe on the page. Easily worth your twenty dollars.

Marc Mason

MRS. SHUMAK’S BOARDING HOUSE

MRS. SHUMAK’S BOARDING HOUSE
Written by Marty Kam
Published by MKO Press

Mary Shumak and the seven boarders living in her house have a pretty stress-free existence. Even when Mary’s ne’er-do-well brother Bert is around, life is pretty easy. But corrupt developer Victor Masters wants to put an end to it all. Mrs. Shumak’s house occupies land that Masters wants to use to build a new casino, and he’s willing to use every dirty trick in the book to use it. Bribed officials, mobster heavies, and house inspections the place can’t possibly pass… he’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on the Shumak land. But Mary, Bert, and the boarders have a few tricks up their sleeves and refuse to give up. Now they just have to hope that one of their long shot, odd ideas will pay off and save the home they so desperately love.

BOARDING HOUSE is Marty Kam’s first novel, and it’s a pretty breezy, lighthearted affair. There’s no sense of true malice in any of the events that happen throughout the book, more of a feeling of the storm before the charm. Indeed, the characters living in the house are so broadly amusing and interesting that your rooting interest never wavers, and you never feel that Kam will err and give you anything but a positive resolution for them. Yet while in some books that would be a flaw in the writing, here it is essential. A good comedy, written or filmed, really only has one target to hit: your smile reflex. Kam knows it, and he aims squarely at the target, chapter after chapter. You only need to get to the climax, which switches back and forth between a TV quiz show and a blundered attempt by the mob to lean on the good guys, to see that the author really has a perfect sense of timing in telling a joke. Even a long one… and that’s a gift you can’t teach.

Kam himself has run a boarding house, and many of the characters in the novel are composites or tributes to the people whose lives he touched during that period of his life. Every creative writing teacher in the world tells their students to write what they know, and Marty certainly has done so. MRS. SHUMAK’S BOARDING HOUSE isn’t the great American novel, but it is a very good first effort.

Marc Mason

THE LAST MUSKETEER

THE LAST MUSKETEER
Written and Drawn by Jason
Published by
Fantagraphics

Athos the Musketeer is till kicking around France, though 400 years have passed since his swashbuckling heyday. Unfortunately, the local citizenry doesn’t see and recognize him as the hero he was; instead, they see him as a drunken, homeless bum. But glory calls one night as his beloved Paris is beset by destructive death rays sent from the planet Mars. Hijacking an alien ship, he makes his way towards the source of the threat, determined to save his homeland one last time and remind the French of his heroic greatness.

Early on as Fantagraphics translated Jason’s work for North American audiences, I was one of the few people seemingly unimpressed, even as the artist accumulated accolade after accolade from the critics. His work had a technically sound feel to it, but it struck me as emotionally stoic and even somewhat flat (but not on purpose). However, as the years, and the books, have passed, Jason’s material has really grown on me. Partially, it’s because there’s an increasing sense of warmth and whimsy to his stories; certainly, the ludicrous plot at the core of this one demonstrates that well enough. But it’s also because he’s gotten better at balancing how he delivers the heavier moments. There’s a poignancy and a moral core to Athos’ character that rises above the sillier trappings of the story. That’s something that really only comes with time and experience as a creative force, and Jason now seems to possess a wealth of it.

There’s also something to be said about how he packs a ton of story into a small space; what happens in forty-eight pages here would typically be spread out over 132 pages in a traditional pamphlet comic. That makes the thirteen dollar price tag a bargain.

Marc Mason

SUPER REAL VS THE MOVIE INDUSTRY

SUPER REAL VS THE MOVIE INDUSTRY
Written by Jason Martin and Drawn by Various
Published by
Super Real Graphics

Jason Martin’s reality TV-meets-comic books SUPER REAL takes one more digression before getting back to its regularly scheduled storyline in SUPER REAL VS THE MOVIE INDUSTRY. Last time out, we got the weak SUPER REAL VS THE COMICS BOOK INDUSTRY, and it looked like Martin had perhaps gambled away the goodwill he was building for his nifty little indy book. Frankly, I questioned whether or not the ongoing book could survive a second digression. But give Martin credit: MOVIE INDUSTRY is a huge improvement over COMIC, and it fits better with the actual main book, making this feel less like a lark and more along the lines of something reasonably useful in the process of the main plot.


This special features four guest artists helping Martin tell the tale: Dennis Budd, Jerry Gaylord, Dan Mendoza, and Josh Howard. As you might expect, Howard’s (DEAD @17, CLUBBING) the best of the guests, but Mendoza shows some real promise in his segment. The story itself is pretty thin, something to mostly hang the title gag on: the five reality superheroes are sent on a training mission that involves them playing out scenarios from some of their favorite films. These include RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, KILL BILL, STAR WARS, and TRANSFORMERS. Kinda pedestrian choices, but Martin gets major props for throwing CUBE in of all things. That alone gets him a pass on the writing end.

SUPER REAL’s charm has always been the cheeky attitude displayed not only by its characters, but by its creator in his work on the page. SUPER REAL got its start as an indy book in search of distribution, and that distribution didn’t come quickly. But Martin has persevered and done things his way, even when they could have blown up in his face. That’s why he has my respect, and why I’ve kept supporting the book.

Marc Mason