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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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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.1.11 (re-read; originally read circa 2006)
Book from: Personal collection

Hellboy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction
Art by Mike Mignola, script by John Byrne

“When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar.”

It’s alllll about the broody menace. I was not too impressed by my first read of Hellboy‘s first volume, five years back, having gotten idiotically hung up on what I dismissed at the time as “unoriginal” plot elements. (Hello, 2006 Emera, paying tribute to pulp favorites is the point…) This time I just sat back and let the consummately pulp-noir atmosphere swallow me up, to much better effect.

After all, there’s so much to enjoy about Hellboy. The storytelling, even if often predictable, is crisp and fast-paced, cannoning the reader from a glimpse at Hellboy’s WWII origins into a present-day case featuring frog demons, an Arctic expedition gone awry, and a cursed family. The dialogue and exposition (vol. 1 is kinda exposition-heavy) are loaded with menace and portent, the action sequences are so beautifully composed as to look balletic (even when they mostly involve Hellboy punching demons), and now let’s talk about how much I love Mike Mignola’s art.

LOOOOVE. I love the way that he builds his compositions mostly out of shadows and looming statuary, frequently in suggestive poses (when Hellboy first manifests in a churchyard, the two angels carved in relief in the background seem to make gestures of threat and aversion); I love the way his craggy, massive, mostly stone-faced figures lend themselves to expressions of unexpected tenderness and piercing emotional simplicity. One of my (many) favorite single panels in this volume is the one below, in which Hellboy attempts to comfort his adoptive father, the aged paranormal investigator Trevor Bruttenholm:

This volume includes generous art extras: early sketches of Hellboy, the two mini promotional stories in which he first appeared, and an excellent gallery of guest art. I should note though that the trade paperback edition has terrible binding – the cover cracked away from the glue on the spine after I’d been reading for about 45 minutes. So, definitely not worth it unless you happen to find it on sale.

That aside, Hellboy is eerie, tightly written, and features an intriguing cast and Lovecraftian/Revelations-inflected apocalyptic mythos. (The chapter headings have scenes from Revelations as their backgrounds: the seven-headed beast, the Four Horsemen, etc. Again, LOOOOVE.) This time around, I’m going to have to follow the series to its finish; I’d love to get to know Hellboy and his teammates better.

Go to:
Mike Mignola: bio and works reviewed
B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth & Other Stories, by Mike Mignola, review by Emera

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Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

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Date read: 5/31/08
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories collects side stories of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, from the Hellboy universe, though all (deliberately) absent the eponymous hero.

  • “Hollow Earth” (written by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski; art by Ryan Sook and Curtis Arnold): The fish-man Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, and a disembodied medium named Johann Krauss venture into the center of the earth, searching for their missing teammate.
  • “The Killer in my Skull” (written by Mike Mignola, art by Matt Smith and Ryan Sook): The B.P.R.D.’s Depression-era counterpart, Lobster Johnson, encounters a mad scientist.
  • “Abe Sapien versus Science” (written and inked by Mike Mignola, drawn by Matt Smith): A disquieting glimpse into the origins of both Abe and Roger.
  • “Drums of the Dead” (written by Brian McDonald, art by Derek Thompson): Abe and a young psychic investigate paranormal incidents – possession, inexplicable shark swarms, ghostly drumming – manifesting on an Atlantic shipping route.

I read the first Hellboy collection quite a while ago, and wasn’t impressed, but reading this actually motivated me to go back to the series. Though the stories aren’t terribly original, I’m a sucker for the art (most of the art in these stories closely emulates Mignola’s own, though whether that’s good or bad is debatable) and characters – particularly the erudite, gently tragic Abe. I love the art’s distinctively shadowy, bold look, and Dave Stewart’s dim colors give the series an appropriately eerie, pulp feel – the panels look as though they’ve had all the light sucked out of them, except for cigarette sparks and lantern glows and the occasional dose of phosphorescence or hellfire. This was especially effective for the haunted-ship story – I always love a good sea-ghost tale.

Bottom line: predictable stories, but the art and affecting characters win out for me.

Go to:
Mike Mignola

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Date read: 11/16/09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(Nightcrawler: The Winding Way collects Astonishing X-Men: Nightcrawler #7-12.)

After being seriously wounded in an inexplicable attack, Nightcrawler struggles to escape the nightmarish memories of his past: his youth in Germany behind the scenes of a circus, his unwilling murder of his brother, and his eventual enslavement in an American circus. Once recovered from his injuries, Nightcrawler retraces his history both in Germany and in America, seeking to understand the forces that seem determined to dredge up his past and threaten the boundaries of the mystical worlds.

Nightcrawler: The Winding WayHmm… well, for starters, I don’t like Darick Robertson’s art (I’ve also seen his work in The Boys). Though a few of his cover spreads for this mini-series are nicely textured and moodily desaturated (e.g. the cover above, which I quite like), his art within the run is hilariously inconsistent, and flat-out terrible on several pages where it’s obvious that he had to rush it. He’s also one of those people who can’t draw women without certain parts of their anatomy straining at their improbably tissue-thin, vacuum-suctioned-to-the-skin clothing. Also, not so much a fan of Matt Milla’s coloring, either, as it’s in the digital style of which I am an anti-fan – hard, oversaturated, metallic colors.

Storywise, this is also not amazing. Schmaltzy dialogue and narration, predictable plotting. The only bits I enjoyed were the angsty Nightcrawler flashbacks, and that’s partly just me being a Nightcrawler fangirl – there isn’t that much genuine emotional depth to them. I’d probably only reread it for those bits, though, so at least it has some reread value.

Also… I’d love to use stronger language here, but I’m going to control myself and just say, enough with the Wolverine cameos. Really. Are there really that many people on the face of the earth who would pick up a comic title purely because it includes a certain Canadian flaunting his body hair and tossing off predictable lines involving the word “bub”? (Don’t answer that question, and yes, I’m sure I’m late on the bandwagon of people who complain about that.) In general I’m losing interest in the Marvel superhero universe, or at least the mainstream superhero titles. It’s so frustrating that their overall storylines are really compelling, but they generally end up being killed by the writing, or the art, or both. Case in point: I love that the Nightcrawler series concept is to have him investigate the mystical and paranormal events that the X-Men generally don’t handle, but the end product is hardly worth reading.

…That was a lot of spleen.

Go to:
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

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Date Read: 9.24.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Stalking Tender Prey sets the stage for an epic trilogy by introducing the intertwining stories of the Grigori (fallen angels) family line which begin in a little countryside town, Lil Moor. Certain people in Lil Moor discover latent psychic abilities and the arrival of a traveling Grigori triggers a cascade of events that uncover the Grigori roots of Lil Moor. (First book of the Grigori Trilogy)

Review

Unfortunately, this book, and subsequently trilogy, pales in comparison to Wraeththu and the Magravandias trilogy. I’m a little bit surprised because Constantine has plenty of material to work with and sets up a rich landscape and sophisticated characters, but fails to do much with them.

I’d say the best point of this book was the character development, what I believe is consistently one of Constantine‘s strengths. Constantine somehow (I wouldn’t say masterfully) uses dialogue, subtle nuances of action, and atmosphere to create enchanting characters, who whether by their own self-realizations or due to the fantastical circumstances of their current lives, develop in amazing ways. Also unlike Wraeththu and Magravandias characters, each of the ones in Stalking Tender Prey seem to be shrouded in this veil of impenetrable mystery, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to quite grasp or connect to any on a personal level.

However, there was just about… no plot. The only plot that moved was a recurring flashback that mainly consisted of character develop of the Grigori traveler. Well, maybe “no plot” is a bit harsh, but the novel was basically a stagnant story about this little town in which nothing happens. Nevertheless, there was a climax and sex with a cat. Judging from this book, there is plenty of potential for the second book with respect to characters and plot threads, so I am still excited.

Go to:
Storm Constantine

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Date Read: 1.30.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

This humorous, 2003 Eisner Award winning one-shot is the story of an unlikely superhero, Screwn-on Head, who researches an occult myth at the behest of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, an evil zombie named Emperor Zombie has stolen important ancient tomes that could lead to the destruction of the earth. The cast of this comic also includes Mr. Groin, Screw-on Head’s manservant, and Patience, Screw-on Head’s old vampire lover.

the-amazing-screw-on-head-opening-sequence

I actually first watched the TV pilot adapted from this comic written and developed by Mike Mignola (best known for Hellboy) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies). After holding out for about a month to find a copy of The Amazing Screw-on Head, I gave up and attained a much more accessible copy of the TV pilot. Later, I finally found a copy on eBay (cursed OOP’s).

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