Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Thunder Hides What the Lightning Sees

Thunderbolt Jaxon, written by Dave Gibbons, illustrated by John Higgins (2006): DC's Wildstorm imprint assayed a number of books in the mid-to-late oughts based on British comics characters of the 1940's, 50's and 60's. This was the so-called 'Albion' universe, which at its inception had some input from Alan Moore (Watchmen). And here we have two other Watchmen creators -- artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins -- on another Albion book, albeit as writer and artist, respectively. The history of the Thunderbolt Jaxon character is weird enough to warrant the inclusion of a link to it:

Wild, hunh? British comic books always seemed to have way loopier publication histories, especially when they dealt with super-heroes, who never gained the sort of strangehold on the comics mainstream that they did in the U.S.. The Albion miniseries of a few years back offered a cornucopia of bizarre British characters. One can see at least some of the occasional, carnivalesque wackiness of British comics writers that inlclude Alan Moore and Grant Morrison being inspired by the peculiar British world of super-heroes, science-heroes and giant crime-fighting eyeballs.

While Wildstorm's Albion miniseries brought a number of the old British characters into the modern world mostly unchanged, Jaxon instead attempts a complete reboot. It's an interesting though perhaps overly familiar at points story (kids find magical artifacts, magical artifacts turn one kid into an adult 'superhero' [in this case, the Norse god Thor]). Higgins's art looks great, and Gibbons keeps things zipping along.

The whole thing feels a bit decompressed (five issues for an origin that only truly gives us 'Thunderbolt Jaxon' at the very end?), and as sales were apparently not enough to justify an on-going series or another miniseries, we're pretty much left in the end with the end of the beginning of Thunderbolt Jaxon. Oh, well. The name itself is still great. Recommended.

Angry, Dizzy Hulk

Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk Volume 1, written by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Paul Reinman and Dick Ayers (1962-1963): Of all the classic Marvel characters created in the early 1960's, the Hulk was the least fully realized in his early appearances. He started off grey and surly and possessed of a full, albeit thuggish, vocabulary.

Over the course of the six issues collected here, the Hulk turns green, changes from Dr. Bruce Banner to Hulk only at night, can't change back into Banner at all, is briefly mind-controlled by teen sidekick Rick Jones, changes between Hulk and Banner only when bombarded with gamma radiation, and gets cancelled with issue 6. Whew!

Banner is clearly the hero in most of these issues, with the Hulk playing a supporting role that alternates between grumpy menace to humanity and two-fisted saviour of humanity. Indeed, Banner and not the Hulk saves the entire Earth from the invading space armada of the Toad People, and it's Banner and not the Hulk who convinces misguided Communist super-scientist the Gargoyle to turn against his Commie masters in the Hulk's first issue. Banner's mind also (sort of) controls the Hulk for a couple of issues, though growing more surly and (early) Hulk-like by the panel.

The first few issues are a lot of fun partially because of the protean nature of the Hulk: it's like reading Lee and Kirby workshopping what would eventually become a very popular character, trying stuff out and discarding that stuff almost as quickly. Two of the most defining traits of the Hulk in the broader popular imagination -- his child-like personality and Banner's transformation into the Hulk when under emotional stress -- wouldn't appear until the Hulk was brought back from cancellation to star in his own stories in Tales to Astonish a couple of years after the stories collected here. Lee, Kirby and Ditko do their usual fine early-1960's work. As a bonus, Ditko inks Kirby on a couple of issues here, a penciller/inker combo as rare as it is awesome. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ligotti's Comics and Stories

The Nightmare Factory, written by Joe Harris and Stuart Moore, illustrated by Ashley Wood, Colleen Doran, Ted McKeever, Ben Templesmith and Michael Gaydos, based on four stories by Thomas Ligotti, introductions by Thomas Ligotti (2007): Solid collection of four comics adaptations of Ligotti short stories. Ligotti, a contemporary horror writer who deserves far more popular and critical recognition than almost all his peers, supplies helpful introductions to each story. Art on each story seems appropriate, and Templesmith, whose work on 30 Days of Night I wasn't impressed by, really raises his game here, but all four story artists (and cover artist Ashley Wood) produce fine work here.

Inevitably, the stories are better simply as stories ("The Last Feast of Harlequin", Ligotti's secret sequel to Lovecraft's "The Festival", is a masterpiece of modern weird fiction), but that's in part because Ligotti's work relies so much on suggestion and ambiguousness. He's like the literary love-child born of a four-way among Lovecraft, Kafka, Borges and Robert Aickman, capable of existential horror that nonetheless carries with it a certain drollness and bleak humour. Recommended.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, written by Jonas Frykberg, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, directed by Daniel Alfredson, starring Noomi Rapace and Mikael Nyqvist (2010): Disappointing second film in the adaptation of Larsson's best-selling Millennium trilogy. Even though large chunks of the novel are (necessarily) discarded to make a 2-hour running time, what's left is still plot-heavy and characterization-light, to the extent that the ridiculous coincidences that drive most of the plot become way, way too apparent.

Rapace and Nyqvist are still excellent as super-hacker (and by this point, superhero) Lisabeth Salander and muck-raking reporter Mikael. Bonus marks for making a genetic disease with much the same effects as leprosy into the source of a villain's, well, super-strength and super-tolerance for pain. I'd only recommend the movie for people with a high tolerance for 1930's-Republic-serial level coincidence and villainous incompetence.

In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner

In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner (Collected 1983): This mid-1980's collection of short stories and novellas by Wagner includes probably his most famous story, the award-winning "Sticks" from the mid-1970's. Wagner, who died too young in 1995, was a major writer, publisher and anthologist in the horror, dark-fantasy, and sword-and-sorcery genres for more than 20 years, with his annual Year's Best Horror anthology from DAW pretty much setting the gold standard for genre 'Best of' collections from the early 1980's until Wagner's death and resultant cancellation of the series.

Here, we get many of his best horror stories, including the forementioned "Sticks", a whopper of a Lovecraft homage that also references the artwork and lifestory of pulp illustrator Lee Brown Coye. Did the makers of The Blair Witch Project read "Sticks" at some point? If not, it's an incredible coincidence.

Other stories bounce off Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman and Robert Chambers' seminal The King in Yellow in interesting and productive ways, all without requiring any actual knowledge of the references for readerly enjoyment. The novella "Beyond Any Measure" remains, nearly thirty years after its first appearance, one of the five or six cleverest vampire stories ever written. Highly recommended.


Thor Omnibus, written by J. Michael Straczynski, illustrated by Mike Deodato, Olivier Coipel and Marko Djurdjevic (2007-2010, collected 2010): This omnibus collects all of J. Michael Straczynski's (JMS) run on Marvel's Thor, including the initial 'return of Thor's hammer Mjolnir' storyline from JMS's run on Fantastic Four. Three years prior to the JMS Thor reboot, Ragnarok/Gotterdammerung had arrived (yet again) for Marvel's version of the Norse gods, and all of them seemingly perished. But as Algis Budrys once said about science fiction ("In science fiction, death is always conditional"), I can say about super-hero comics: no one ever stays dead forever.

JMS's two-year stint on Thor ended fairly abruptly when he moved completely over to DC. This is not necessarily a bad thing. His lengthy stint on Spider-man got progressively more and more loopy the longer he stayed on the book. Here, while he leaves before any 'complete' dramatic resolution, he also leaves the book rebooted in an extremely successful and (hopefully) durable way. All the toys are put back on the table for someone else to play with, and a lot of excess continuity baggage gets thrown out. It's actually almost a model other writers could follow to rejuvenate other superheroes who've worn out their welcome, a model writers used to follow back in the 1960's, 70's and 80's before continuity came to trump all. JMS even managed to give the always-dubious Volstagg a couple of heroic moments, which is not all that easy a thing to do.

The art by Olivier Coipel and Marko Djurdjevic is pleasing throughout, though the depiction of Norse fire-demon Surtur here literalizes him as a fairly traditional Western demon/devil, and thus fails compared to Walt Simonson's more stylized Surtur of, oh, about 25 years ago now. Otherwise, though, the art does the job, with a lot of one- and two-page spreads for all the momentous, earth-shattering stuff that's been a hallmark of Marvel's Thor since Stan Lee stopped having the God of Thunder fight Communists and bank robbers back in the mid-1960's. Recommended.


Giant-Size Marvel, written by everybody, illustrated by everybody else (1970's; collected 2007): Bad comic-book art in the 1970's had a very distinctive feel: it tended to look simplistic in a bad way, and it was often inked by Vince Colletta. Colletta may have been a terrific guy, but as an inker he really should have been kept away from, well, almost everybody. Steve Ditko apparently used to visit the Marvel offices and give Stan Lee the Royal Stink-eye when he found out that Lee had again assigned Colletta to ink Jack Kirby on Thor.

And Kirby's pencils were robust enough on Thor and New Gods to mostly withstand the reductive inks of Colletta, who had the super-power to make every male character's face look exactly the same regardless of what the pencils looked like. Still, New Gods inked by Joe Sinnott would have been eight kinds of awesome. WHY DID EDITORS KEEP PUTTING COLLETTA ON KIRBY?!?!?!

As you can see, I really don't like the inking of Vince Colletta. And I swear, he inks almost every story in this anthology of 'Giant-Size' Marvel specials from the 1970's. Only the late, great, idiosyncratic Frank Robbins (on Giant-size Invaders#1) really survives the Colletta Blandification process relatively unscathed, probably because Robbins looks to have been a pretty tight penciller, and he didn't really draw like anyone else at Marvel at the time. Still, some of those patented Colletta plastic-mannequin heads still manage to find themselves grafted onto Robbins characters on the occasional page. Ugh!

Otherwise, this anthology is pretty much a dog's breakfast of the good (the aforementioned Invaders piece by Roy Thomas and Frank Robbins; the first appearance of the new X-Men by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum); the passable; and the unfortunate. I'm pretty sure I can live the rest of my life without reading another Tigra/Werewolf by Night crossover. Or another appearance of Man-Wolf. 'Giant-size' referred to the fact that these comics were 64 pages long (with ads) as opposed to the standard 32 pages with ads format of regular books. Not recommended unless you pay $5 for it like I did.

The Uninvited

The Uninvited, written by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle, directed by Lewis Allen, starring Ray Milland, Donald Crisp, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell (1944): Charming, occasionally comedic ghost story, nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar (B&W) in 1945 (it lost, deservedly, to Laura). A middle-aged brother and sister buy an old house on the West Coast of England. It's cheap because it's haunted, possibly by more than one ghost. Reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rebecca (also based on a novel) in terms of how family secrets drive the narrative, with their revelation being key to closure. The ghost effects are limited, subtle and effective. Recommended.