Graphic novels & comics

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Nov. 2016

I’ve enjoyed the work of Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell) for 12, 13 years maybe. In high school I spent hours poring over the endless portraits (almost exclusively Wet Moon characters, at the time) in her deviantART account – humid, sexy, angsty, a little uncomfortable, very Goth, all executed in her trademark style of mostly monochrome ink and marker, with lots of lovely wash textures. There was a lot going on that you didn’t see much of in comic art those days – chubby girls, black girls. I was fascinated almost equally by the bodies and the fashion – hair, piercings, soft thighs under ripped fishnets – of all those languorously sprawling, sulkily self-possessed, implicitly vulnerable girls (and very occasional androgynous boys).

I have no good reason for why it took me so long to actually read Wet Moon, except that it used to be harder to find comics from smaller labels.

In the time since, Campbell came out as trans. To put it baldly, this presented an easy resolution to my one discomfort with Campbell’s work: that it could come off as voyeuristic, or fetishistic. To have a lingering male gaze suddenly revealed as [trans]female – suddenly consumption, desire, appreciation, longing are all construed so, so differently. Finding out that Campbell had come out as trans remains the most interesting shift I’ve ever experienced in my perception of an artist and their relationship to their work.

Wet Moon is a dark, dreamy slice-of-life comic, featuring a cast of southern, small-town punks, Goths, and art students, almost exclusively women, and heavily queer. Flavors: cigarettes, hairdye, patchouli, art-supply-store air, pie, swampwater. I’ve also seen comparisons to Twin Peaks, though being only two volumes in, the implied supernatural/mystery element is very slight. There’s a missing student who left a strange dark circular stain on her apartment floor, for example, and inexplicable, moonstruck behavior performed by various characters – midnight swamp immersions, ritualistic circling in front of windows. It’s all lovely and unsettling, and reminds me of, yes, the earliest episodes of Twin Peaks, where I had no idea what was going on, and small moments were rendered all the more terrifying because of it. (Those shots of the traffic light at night, for example – I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of what a traffic light might mean.)

The protagonist is Cleo Lovedrop (yes, all of the characters have wonderful, absurd names – Malady Mayapple might be the winner), with the blue forelock on both of the covers above. Her struggles with romantic confusion and low self-esteem have so far provided the most obvious or continuous dramatic impetus for the series. But the drama is deliberately minimal; the interest lies more in mood, in the understated sense of mystery, and in the affectionate evocation of the banter – listless, playful, or barbed – and small upsets within an extended network of friends.

And then, much of the series so far has been implicitly about bodies: resenting them, costuming them, wanting them to be something different, subjecting them to long minutes of mute observation and appreciation. Multiple characters receive scenes of self-examination in mirrors: sucking in stomachs, examining scars, trying to make muscles. Most of the characters are overweight; some have disabilities or deformities. There’s so much bodily difference that different becomes the order of the day. The cumulative effect is, again, lovely; all the soft curves and folds and rumpled, revealing clothing contribute their own sense of soft melancholy.

Wet Moon is a unique and soulful work of art; I’m grateful that it exists. Scuttlebutt suggests that the series does become plottier, or at least more overtly dramatic – as a devoted fan of plotlessness, I’m almost disappointed, but obviously excited too for whatever Gothic mayhem awaits. Now it’s on me to track down the remaining four volumes (hopefully in the updated editions, with Campbell credited as Sophie, and some great cover designs by Annie Mok); volume 7 is still being eagerly awaited.

Related reading:
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

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Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

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Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

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Korgi, by Christian Slade (2007): The woodland escapades and scrapes of a fairy-like young girl and her magical corgi companion – corgis were traditionally said to be fairy steeds. There are three volumes so far; I’ve read the first two.

Korgibook korgi3

This would be a great gift for folks, children or otherwise, who are keen on fairies and/or dogs. Korgi is so cute and so peaceful – nearly as cute as Mouse Guard, and whimsical, dreamy, and celebratory of motion in a way that’s reminiscent of a lot of the first volume of Flight. Slade is not a very good draftsman (wandering facial features + an overall look that is slightly squishy and uncertain), but every panel is well-composed, again and again hitting that evocative sense of marveling at a woodland expanse. Also, his linework is notably enjoyable – scratchy, nervy, woodsy. His treetrunks are so nice.

Something that Slade does really right is letting loose when drawing the villainous critters – their gleeful bloat and gnarl works well to counterbalance the wide-eyed sweetness of the rest of the comic.

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ApocalyptiGirl, by Andrew MacLean (2015): A beautiful, energetic, but morally questionable post-apocalyptic yarn of a young warrior woman and her cat surviving amid tribal warfare.

ApocalyptiGirl

Read it for the crisp action sequences, expressive characters, and scruffy, nubbly, involving environments (rusting, grass-overgrown mechs; a home built in an abandoned subway train). The story’s mysteriousness is dampened by exposition that manages to be both heavy-handed and slightly garbled, and by the pat ending, which seems to lazily undercut all of heroine Aria’s past moral quandaries over the bloodshed she’s seen and enacted.

ApocalyptiGirl

Still, the ambience and visuals are striking and memorable; I’m very happy to own the comic to keep revisiting the art.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.27.2016
Read online for free.

Kennedy Michelakos has decided to quit smoking… She likes to ride horses. Her parents are Greek. We both really dig Tom Jones.

K.M. & R.P. & 1971 is a beautifully understated 16-page comic that deals in double layers of nostalgia: one for mildly dysfunctional high school friendships (sigh), and one for 70’s culture. (The tiny Jim Morrison poster might be my favorite bit of cultural clutter, but the rumpled Valley of the Dolls paperback is great too.)

The paneling is beautiful, and the color palette and nubbly linework are delicious. If the comic had a flavor, I think hazelnuts would be involved.

I’ve had the comic open for the past couple hours, just scrolling back and forth and enjoying the look and feel.

Related reading [quiet darkness and/or disaffected ’70’s girls]:
Egg Comic, by Z. Akhmetova
The Moth Diaries, by Rachel Klein (2002)
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel (2006)

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I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

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“Here is Egg Comic in its entirety.”

Kakaner, someone made a comic for you! Z. Akhmetova’s Egg Comic is seven pages of woodsy textures and homey comforts, paired with thick unease and late-night misdeeds.

The big-eyed, big-nosed auntie character and the way that eeriness is played off of a warmly inhabited setting had me thinking of Miyazaki movies. Also, you will probably want an omelet after reading it.

– E

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.5.2014
Book from: Library

Fashion Beast is a 10-issue comic written by Alan Moore, Malcom McLaren [yes, that Malcolm McLaren – father-of-punk Malcolm McLaren], and Antony Johnston, with art and colors by Facundo Percio.

“Doll was unfulfilled in her life as a coat checker of a trendy club. But when she is fired from the job and auditions to become a “mannequin” for a reclusive designer, the life of glamour she always imagined is opened before her. She soon discovers that the house of Celestine is as dysfunctional as the clothing that define the classes of this dystopian world. And she soon discovers that the genius of the designer is built upon a terrible lie that has influence down to the lowliest citizen.”

Such a whitebread back-cover description! Some high-concept terms that get at it better: Beauty & the Beast in a rotting, faintly fascist retro-future city on the brink of nuclear winter, with a lot of gender ambiguity and sundry, Gormenghastly gothic touches.

Surprisingly, despite all those Emera-tuned keywords, I didn’t love this, and primarily because I didn’t enjoy the art. I quite liked Percio’s penciling (especially his pacing of gestures and facial expressions from panel to panel), but the colors are everything I dislike about digital color in comics: every surface airbrushed into metallic smoothness, plus periwinkle shadows for everyone’s skin in case they didn’t already look enough like metal. Also, for a comic that’s about clothes wearing people rather than the other way round, the fashion is disappointingly boring: all basic, flat Neo-Edwardian silhouettes. I wish it had exerted more visual seduction.

Otherwise, I found the comic to be an enjoyably rich text. In the days after I’d read it, I thought through its themes repeatedly. It’s a darkly cheeky satire on celebrity and image – very similar there to Watchmen, really, but more winking, a bit more knowingly confected, and targeted more specifically at myths of creative genius, and consumerism. The allegorical elaborations are anchored by characters who are developed just enough to read as prickly, human, and sympathetic.

I can’t seem to find this review anymore, but I had read one that mentioned the troubling erasure of the initially apparently queer characters: the girl who looks like a boy who looks like a girl, ends up clinching happily and heterosexually with the boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy… I wish I could find that review to credit it, because it made the ending of the comic click for me: “But that’s the POINT!” The provocateur who seeks validation and fame by way of the establishment ends up becoming the establishment; the consumerist machine chews its way forward; the walls close in again. Also, everyone’s going to die in a nuclear apocalypse anyway.

A side note on said nuclear apocalypse that I loved: the creepy background notes riffing on the hollowness of fashion – the use of uninhabited, remote-controlled radiation suits to patrol and reclaim destroyed areas, for example. Who cares why they would be suits rather than just robots, when it’s such a great image?

All in all, Fashion Beast would easily have been a favorite if not for my feelings on the art. Do pick it up if you like Moore’s other work, or enjoy dystopias and dark fairy tales.

Go to:
Alan Moore: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.16.14
Book from: Borrowed from C.

Alison Bechdel opens her tragicomic memoir by casting her closeted gay father as Daedalus, artificer of the labyrinth that enclosed their family’s lives, and somehow complicit in her own, Icarian “downfall” – her eventual realization that she was a lesbian. The labyrinth was for me the ideal opening image: I found Fun Home hypnotically meandering, manically meticulous in its assemblage and arrangement of cryptic, resonant details. It’s claustrophobic yet internally expansive in its explorations of space, and meaning.

Most of all, I was in awe of how deep a reader Bechdel is of her own life. I had difficulty finding words to express how moved I was by the complexity and intensity of her vision, and the anguished detachment that keeps her in abeyance to this analytic lens. “Perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.”

The last book that I read that wove together myth, history, and family with such complexity and vitality was Middlesex, which I found a thrilling read – but there’s a particularly sharp, human poignancy to Fun Home because you know that this is a real person looking back at painful, incomprehensible events – the core and substance of her own life – and making something rich, strange, and uncannily beautiful out of all of the intersections and patternings of father and daughter, family and art. It’s dark, spooky stuff – close reading as divination, intertextuality as invocation.

I identified so much with these elements of Alison’s personality: the recourse to narrative and archetype for “explanatory” patterns, the generally obsessive analytical bent. And, of course, the universal family dynamics – the struggle of a child to define herself against or around what her parents want, against what her parents represent. Here they’re shaped with particular sharpness by the fascinating inverted gender dynamics between her and her father. I’m haunted by the strangled potential of the one direct conversation that Alison had with her father, shortly after her coming out and only weeks before his death, about his homosexuality. He admits that he wanted to be a girl when he was little, that he wanted to dress up in girls’ clothes. And Alison leaps in to remind him how she always wanted boys’ clothes, hiking boots and short hair, when she was little. She does this with painful eagerness (how could he have forgotten?), hungry for the moment of identification and closeness, hungry to bring together their reflected selves to a rare point of convergence.

Artwise, I loved the often mordantly funny understatement of Bechdel’s illustrative style, its cool, reptilian composure a counterpoint to the American-Gothic perversity of the Bechdels’ lives. I did wish that the ink washes had darker darks, for more atmospheric drama in certain scenes – but obviously that’s a stylistic choice. It gives a ghostly, faded effect, appropriate to both the sense of imminent storm that never breaks, and to Bechdel’s curatorial reproductions of the numerous family artifacts that appear within. (I was so curious about all of the background details – like the fact that her brother is very specifically wearing a Frank Marshall t-shirt when the family gathers for their father’s funeral. How many of those details were recalled or researched from family photographs, and how many were invented or extrapolated based on more general period reference?)

By the end of the novel, I felt incredibly tender towards both Alison, and her father. As much damage as he did, his story is heartbreaking. I can’t help but hope that he would have found Fun Home a fitting tribute.

As my tribute to Fun Home, I’ve posted a full (and partially annotated) list of all of the books mentioned or read within its pages here.

Go to:
Alison Bechdel: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.19.13
Book from: Personal collection

 

Sakuran cover

I expected Sakuran to be fun – racy, rambunctious, ornate. Brothel life in Edo-era Japan, oh yeah. And it is fun, sort of – bubbling over with scheming, ambition, spectacle, and biting exchanges of emotional violence.

Sakuran opening spread

But it’s also deeply, and more lastingly, sad. Kiyoha is fifty times the usual feisty protagonist: she’s crass, arbitrarily malicious, and often outright violent. While this can all be amusing, even admirable, it’s also a disturbing, straightforward statement about the molding influence of a system founded on mistrust, competition, and the basic cruelty of buying and trading young women. Sure, Kiyoha might just be a queen of cats by inclination, but we also bear witness to the events that progressively eat away at her humanity, at her willingness to trust and share and be kind.

The courtesans’ lives are haunted by a desperate craving for love, and by its impossibility. If I recall correctly, only one of the girls eventually marries her favorite patron; the rest are fated to disappointment, or even death, at the hands of patrons, or their own desperation. The manga culminates in a quiet emotional ruin: in a few pages, we see Kiyoha – at the ripe age of twenty-something – eaten completely hollow by love’s casual betrayal. Sakuran is an anti-romance, in other words.

While I have nothing but praise for Sakuran‘s emotional daring and honesty, there are several practical stumbling blocks to enjoying the manga. Moyoco Anno draws only a veeeery narrow range of facial features, so it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the oiran (and many of their patrons, too) except by their wardrobes. Flipping frantically between pages to double-check which girl with what dialogue bubble had the kimono with the crane pattern and not the peony pattern and these hair ornaments not those hair ornaments, was about as fun as it sounds – and then you get to do it all over again as soon as the scene changes and everyone’s wearing different clothes! Which happens often, since the manga drifts from vignette to vignette, with little connective tissue. This works to create a sense of drifting and dislocation, of the oiran existing in an unmoored twilight realm whose essential drudgery is punctuated by episodes of bizarrely heightened emotion. But my god, it wouldn’t have hurt for everyone to look a little bit more different, would it?

Productionwise, there’s a lot to love about Vertical Inc.’s sophisticated visual design, as usual (ohhhh that glamorously garish metallic cover), but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translation. While a certain degree of informality seems apropos to the manga’s earthiness and irreverence, many of the anachronisms (“spacing out,” “twerp”) just seemed silly and misplaced. And, too, most of the lyrical reflections don’t quite reach the height of fluency and elegance that they need to work as emotional transitions between scenes; they contort into fortune-cookie-esque awkwardness, e.g. “Castle-topplers whisper idle nothings to trap their guests.”

Still, the underlying substance of the manga is so very excellent that it more than made up for all the practical distractions; I look forward to the added fluency of comprehension that a reread will bring. If you didn’t like Memoirs of a Geisha (I didn’t), or maybe if you did, too, but are ready for a more hard-bitten take on the courtesan-memoir, I strongly suggest you give Sakuran a try.

Go to:
Moyoco Anno: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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