Brother Lono by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso – A Book Review

It’s not necessary to read Azzarello and Risso’s Eisner award-winning series 100 Bullets to understand Brother Lono, but it would certainly help.  Lono proved a breakout character from that hard-boiled serial, so it’s no surprise that years after 100 Bullets fired its final shot, Lono should make a reappearance.

Azzarello and Risso tell a classic tale, but of course, with their own violent and disturbing twist.  Lono has found himself south of the border in a town ruled by a drug cartel.  It’s a merciless town, a lawless town, but instead of reveling in his natural habitat, Lono takes refuge at an outlying church.  There he tries to stifle the demon within, protect the church’s orphans, and aid Father Perez however possible.

But as these stories so often prove, sometimes we need monsters to fight monsters.  When the drug cartel threatens to annex the church, Lono must draw a line in the sand.  And, if you know Lono, that line isn’t stationary.  His line keeps moving toward his enemies until every last one  of them is annihilated.  The question is, once he’s the last devil standing, will he still side with the angels?

Violent, disturbing, frightening – Brother Lono somehow takes the previously established tone dictated by 100 Bullets, devours it, and then spits out something even more gruesome and demented.

Of course, that’s meant as a total compliment.  Azzarello and Risso have created a fitting companion piece to their original series, and if they continue to keep to their high standards, I would love to see them return to this world again and again.

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean – A Book Review

Originally published in the early Nineties, Black Orchid is an early work of Neil Gaiman.  It debuted long before his rise to fame as a novelist, a children’s author, and a luminary within the comic book industry.

True to form, I just now read it in the year 2014.

Decades later, Black Orchid still impressed me as a comic book unlike anything I’ve ever read (which is quite a statement as I’ve been reading them since the early Eighties).

Gaiman wrote a super hero comic that mostly breaks with the clichés and tropes of the genre yet still somehow adheres to it.  Though the character seems to have returned to her more conventional super hero roots in the present, this Black Orchid is a vegetated clone created from the DNA of a scientist’s troubled best friend and, consequently, only love.  Black Orchid retains some knowledge of her human source, but is also a blank slate in many ways.  Furthermore, she’s not the only clone.  A story ensues, as one would hope, and in many ways it is more a path to self-discovery than it is an adventure.

That is not to say it’s perfect.  Batman appears and utters some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever experienced from the character.  Lex Luthor is a major component I also could have done without.  There are other characters more regulated to the Vertigo universe, which is this book’s imprint, and they feel far more organic.

To be honest, Dave McKean is the true reason this book flourishes.  His surrealistic style molds this book into something unique, something original, something that has already withstood the test of time.  His Black Orchid is creepy, moody, and without the usual methods one expects from a comic book.

If you consider yourself a Neil Gaiman or Dave McKean fan, I urge you to add this to your collection.  Black Orchid is early proof that both men deserve every accolade bestowed upon them during the last two decades.


Spaceman by Brian Azzarello – A Book Review

With art by 100 Bullets collaborator Eduardo Risso, Azzarello has created a bleak, unsettling landscape where the very rich are well taken care of, and the rest of us are left to survive by any means necessary.

Spaceman follows the story of Orson, one of a group of genetically engineered astronauts meant to explore Mars.  However, most of the story takes place in a flooded, ruined city that, like most of the coastal world, has been overwrought by melting glaciers.  Long since returned to Earth after the demise of NASA, Orson is left to pirate and scavenge in order to endure.

Soon, however, Orson finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping, one in which an orphan has been stolen from a reality television show’s super-couple, obviously modelled after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  The couple are the stars of a show where orphans must compete to be adopted by the celebrities and live a life of leisure.

Before long, Orson is at odds with the only other surviving member of his astronaut crew, Carter.  His brother has taken a darker path in life, consequently, and he too becomes involved with the abduction.  If the child is to survive, Orson must overcome hauntings from Mars that still disturb him as well as a very present cadre of killers.

Perhaps it helped the book that I suffered from stomach flu while reading it, but the ruin and demise of the world depicted in its pages truly touched a nerve.  Risso’s gritty, detailed artwork is a perfect match for the tale, and he portrays a horrifyingly civilization that may not be that far off.

Quite honestly, I expected Spaceman to take place more in outer space.  I was surprised that the majority of the book unfolded on Earth.  I was further surprised that, at its core, the story presented a child kidnaping case.

However, the story is far more than just that.  I truly believe Azzarello to be an underestimated writer in today’s literary scene.  His stories are often violent, alarming, and graphic, but they also touch on themes that apply to our modern life.  For example, Azzarello realizes that we are ruining our environment and that repercussions await us all.  Those repercussions are evident in Spaceman.  He also has noticed that the poor seem to be getting poorer, while the rich get richer.  Spaceman delivers a painfully realistic portrayal of what the current trend may yield.

And though it’s a matter of much controversy, I find Azzarello’s commitment to language commendable in Spaceman.  Like his rendition of society, he presents a language that is falling apart, shortened, and slowly dying.  Azzarello clearly put a great deal of thought into his vision of our ruined language, and the dedication to his vision reminds me of writers such as Anthony Burgess.

Spaceman is a potentially prophetic science fiction work that offers a troubling glimpse of our destiny.  Azzarello grants us a violent adventure with the life of a child hanging in the balance, a societal warning, and a craftsmanship to be celebrated.

daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – A Book Review

daytripper is the perfect marriage of art and story and unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Created by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, daytripper follows the stories of Bras de Oliva Domingos.  Bras is an obituary writer, a novelist, a son, a father, a lover, a friend, and a dog owner.  He lives and he dies; he dies and he lives.

Though this is a book of sequential art, it is not the stuff of superheroes, monsters, aliens, or robots.  It is about a man, and it is about all of the possibilities that surround every man and woman’s life.  To turn left instead of right opens up a whole new world of potential, and we get to experience what could be with Bras, and what was.  I will reveal no more than that, for to do so would be to spoil the rich experience of daytripper.

While the concept of daytripper is extremely ambitious, Moon and Ba execute it perfectly.  The story is not mired down by the plot, and the characters thrive within the structure of the story rather than drowning within it.

Put quite simply: daytripper is literature at its finest and among my favorite books of all time.

Neil Young’s Greendale by Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang – A Book Review

The graphic novel Greendale serves as a companion piece to the Neil Young album and movie of the same name.  I was totally unfamiliar with both before reading the graphic novel, and, after a little bit of investigating, it seems you can enjoy the graphic novel with no knowledge of its sisters.

That being said, Greendale is an interesting book in many respects, and disappointing in others.

The story revolves around Sun Green, young woman who has inherited a mysterious connection to nature, as do all of the women in her family.  Sun is experiencing visions that she doesn’t quite understand, and when a stranger comes to the small town of Greendale, those visions are forced to become a reality – for better or for worse.

Greendale is set in 2003 and is a politically-charged, socially-relevant commentary on ecology as well as our military actions from that year on.  Joshua Dysart’s dialogue flows along nicely, and Cliff Chiang’s artwork is both pleasing to the eye and incredibly adept at conveying the characters’ moods, thoughts, and personalities.  However, the real star of this book is the colorist, Dave Stewart.  I read an advanced copy of Greendale that was mostly in black and white, but those few pages that were colored were astounding.  I can’t wait to see the final product to see the rest of Stewart’s colors.

On the other hand, Greendale is a convoluted plot that never made total sense.  There are far too many characters with similar names to keep track of, and, at times, I caught myself thinking, “What’s the point of this story?”  Yes, there is a lot of social and political criticism, but there’s also an underlying story involving mysticism that never really rises to the surface in any meaningful and satisfactory way.  I generally enjoy Vertigo’s offerings, but the plot of Greendale was a bit too heavy-handed and vague for my taste (which is a strange pairing).

The art is very pleasing, the coloring is fantastic, the dialogue isn’t bad, but the overall story failed to entice.

The Bronx Kill by Peter Milligan – A Book Review

The Bronx Kill is a graphic novel released through Vertigo’s crime imprint.  In case you’re not aware, Vertigo is a division of DC Comics, aimed at mature readers and offering mature content.  Not pornographic, mind you, just a little bit more adult-themed.  Think of DC as network television, and Vertigo as HBO.

Peter Milligan delivers a story about a young writer who opted to ignore the family’s history of going into law enforcement.  He takes his young wife to visit The Bronx Kill, a space of forlorn land where terrible things have happened to his family in particular.  She is fascinated by it, especially given his father’s past.  The writer soon leaves the country in order to research his newest novel, but when he returns, his wife—and his life—are irrevocably changed … and it has everything to do with The Bronx Kill.

I have to admit that much of Milligan’s story was predictable and well-tread.  However, he put enough suspense into it to make it an enjoyable read, and once through the first third of the book, I couldn’t put it down—despite its familiar ingredients.  Milligan did one thing, however, that really set The Bronx Kill apart.  He inserted excerpts from his main character’s latest novel, and it isn’t long before the passages begin to parallel the main storyline.  I thought this was a nice touch that really made the book feel special.  It definitely augmented the book’s quality in my mind.

James Romberger provided the art for The Bronx Kill, and he does a serviceable job.  To me, his work didn’t really stand out as especially captivating.  And while he successfully conveyed the mood, the story’s progression, and the action, his pictures just didn’t seem to totally fit with Milligan’s themes.

Overall, The Bronx Kill is a fast, enjoyable read with some moments of real originality.  If you’re a fan of crime noir and sequential art, I’d give it a try.

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

In many cases, novelists have difficulty making the jump to comic book writing just as comic book writers and screenwriters may have a rough time adapting to pure prose writing.  I’m happy to report that Bill Willingham not only made the jump to prose writing well, but he exceeded my already lofty expectations.

Okay, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer full disclosure and admit that I am a huge Fables fan.  That doesn’t mean I automatically give Willingham a free pass, though.  I’ve written some glowing Fables reviews, but I’ve also come down pretty hard on the title every now and again.  I’m simply trying to clarify that while I may not be totally objective with Willingham, I can remain critical.

For those unfamiliar with Fables, the premise is that all of our storybook legends, nursery rhyme characters, and mythological figures are very real and lived in their own worlds.  When their homelands were overrun by an evil overlord, they fled to our dimension just as New York was being founded.  There they have lived among us ever since, always searching for a way to win back their own lands.

Peter & Max is a very well-written, tightly-plotted, astutely-orchestrated novel.  As you know, it focuses upon Peter Piper and his brother, Max, as well as Little Bo Peep.  And in true Fables fashion, Willingham is sure to deliver the scenes we’d expect from such characters, but he also makes them his own and offers some unexpected twists and turns.  I also enjoyed that the chapters alternate – a chapter will focus upon Peter and Max’s past, and then the next will zero in on the present.  This was a great way to build suspense while slowly revealing pertinent plot points.

What I appreciate the most about Peter & Max, though, is the fact that it makes sense.  Willingham lays the groundwork early on and doesn’t throw any last minute plot-changers into the mix.  While he still managed to catch me off guard, none of the resolutions struck me as, “No fair!  That came out of nowhere!”  Too many times an author plays willy-nilly with their climax and resolution, but not Willingham.  He remained consistent throughout, even if we couldn’t guess why he included certain bits of information early on.

Furthermore, while I believe a Fables fan will especially love this novel, by no means is Fables a necessary read in order to enjoy Peter & Max.  If anything, I see the novel as a gateway to the comic book, though I’m certain the comic book fans will be frothing at the mouth to pick up this book, and rightly so.

Willingham has a captivating writing style, and I like the fact that while he gives us nuanced details, he doesn’t go overboard with it.  I really can’t emphasize enough Willingham’s skill as a prose writer.

Well-written, surprising, exciting, and carefully plotted, Peter & Max will impress and delight both Fables fans and those entering the Fables world for the first time.

DMZ: On The Ground (Volume I) – A Graphic Novel Review

I picked this up on a whim while visiting my local library and DMZ: On The Ground grabbed me by the jugular and wouldn’t let go within two pages.

Even though the premise of DMZ has been done before, author Brian Wood delivered his take on a second American civil war with such adrenaline and ferocity that it is unlike any of its thematic predecessors.

The idea is that because our armies our stretched so thinly overseas, radical militias within the heartland separate from the USA and spread all the way to New Jersey.  Manhattan becomes the DMZ while the rest of New York is still the United State’s.  A young intern named Matt (Matty) Roth flies in with a journalism crew and then becomes stranded after the entire crew is wiped out.  Instead of fleeing during the next available extraction, he decides to become embedded within the war-torn DMZ and report what’s truly happening.

I read a lot of graphic novels, and it’s been a long time since one completely captivated me within instants of starting it.  Brian Wood executes a tight, fast-paced, brutal storyline with realistic dialogue.  Wood also impressed me with the sheer logic of what things would really be like if this actually ever occurred.

Artist Riccardo Burchielli draws some of the most detailed, tense renderings I’ve ever seen.  While not meant to be photo-realistic, he amazed me by faithfully depicting a city in shambles.  His half-destroyed buildings, burnt cars, litter, and bomb craters sucked me right into the story and made me feel like I was living it, not reading it.  This is one of the highest compliments I can pay an artist.

Along with Fables and Ex Machina, DMZ has moved to my “must-read” list and I urge you to read it as well.

Fables: War and Pieces – A Graphic Novel Review

In this presupposed crucial volume of Fables, Bill Willingham and company finally bring about the “final” battle between the Adversary and his Empire … but first, we have to muddle through a clichéd and by-the-book tale featuring the unlikely super-spy, Cinderella, and even her two-issue story was preceded by an issue focusing upon Boy Blue and Rose Red’s festering relationship.

So, as you can plainly see, it takes a while for War and Pieces to actually get to the war part of everything.

I’ve waited a long time for this pinnacle battle, and once the battle ensued, I found myself more than frustrated by its brevity and irreverence.  It also seemed a little too formulaic and lacked the usual panache I’ve come to expect from Fables.

So while I still tout Fables as the best comic series currently running to anyone who will listen, War and Pieces proved unimpassioned, hurried, and a bit too unoriginal when compared to earlier volumes.

Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores by Brian K. Vaughan – A Graphic Novel Review

This final installment to the Y: The Last Man series left me both unsatisfied and disappointed.

Y: The Last Man started out as a fantastic series.  It was a high concept with excellent characterization and an epic, fascinating plot.

But, as the series wore on, it lost steam.  I assumed this was the lull before the storm; that Vaughan slowed things down a bit so he could hit us hard for the ultimate chapter.

He didn’t.

Whys and Wherefores should have been monumental.  Instead, it felt to this fan as though Vaughan simply went through the motions of getting all the plots tidied up and packed away.  When Beth and Yorick reunited, a moment for which we’d literally waited years, it lacked any real emotional intensity.  Agent 355’s final fate cheated both the character and her characterization.  Alter’s motivation turned out to be a cliché.  The only truly authentic scene involved Yorick and Ampersand, his pet monkey, both of whom are male.

Which leads me to an important distinction.  Y: The Last Man, while initially very good, also originally focused mostly upon Yorick.  As Vaughan spread out his cast of characters, most of whom are obviously women, the title lost some of its magic.  I applaud Vaughan for undertaking such a mammoth challenge: any man attempting to write an entire series about how women would remake the earth without men is either supremely confident or a little crazy.  But sadly, as the series wore on, his women felt less and less genuine and more like a male’s excuse for including lesbianism and girl-on-girl violence.  In other words, they seemed to become objectified, which is the antithesis of how the series started.  For the record, I would be supremely interested to hear a woman’s take on this series.

All in all, Y: The Last Man ended with a whimper.  Its characters were swindled out of what should have been a majestic goodbye, and its readers were left without much to celebrate or commiserate.  It simply read like an ending rather than a finale.