Category: Reviews

REVIEW: Tin Man
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REVIEW: Tin Man

Tin Man
By Justin Madson
Amulet Books, 224 pages, $17.99/$29.99

As coming of age graphic novel go, Tin Man is above average, a fine story of some other version of Earth with a young teen struggling to find his place in the world after the death of his grandmother. His older sister, Solar, has less time for him now that she has an, ugh, boyfriend, who happens to be a jerk. So, Fenn is left to tinker in the garage, hoping to complete a rocket ship and visit space.

While scavenging for spare parts at a junkyard, he meets up with Campbell, a tin woodsman who thinks there is more to life than merely chopping down trees in the forest. They become friends and the adventure takes off.

The book description calls it “equal parts The Iron GiantThe Wizard of OzEdward Scissorhands, and Freaks and Geeks” but it is heavily layered with Oz elements, making it very much an alternate reality from L. Frank Baum’s world. And it doesn’t need to be. In fact, all the reimagining of Oz, the wizard, the witches, etc., are actually distracting. Madson seems almost afraid to create his own story, relying on the Oz tropes to get him through, get him noticed. 

The story of friendship, wanderlust, and growing up is perfectly fine although we’ve seen all these elements before. Madson’s strength is in making us feel for Fenn, Solar, and Campbell. The sibling relationship is one of the freshest aspects of the book as is the family’s easy acceptance of a mechanical being, accepting the other.

Madson’s artwork and color is effective and his dialogue smooth. The book is fine YA addition to the GN library and might get some to go back and sample Baum’s original work.  

Enigma: The Definitive Edition by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo
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Enigma: The Definitive Edition by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo

There will probably be spoilers. If you worry about such things on a thirty-year-old obscure Vertigo comic, well, I wonder how you manage to live in the modern world, but go off and read something else on the Internet instead.

I don’t think I read this the first time out. I think I’d remember it. But it also is very much the kind of thing I was reading in 1993: I followed nearly all of Vertigo, and was a fan of Peter Milligan’s writing. So I both don’t know how I missed it and can’t figure out how I could have read it and utterly forgotten it.

I’m talking about Enimga: The Definitive Edition , a spiffy new-ish edition of an eight-issue comics series from those heady early Vertigo days, when it was “superhero comics with adult themes” and not “HBO-style shows in comics form.” Ah, were we ever so young! It was written by Peter Milligan, in the middle of his Shade the Changing Man run, and drawn by Duncan Fegredo with colors by Sherilyn Van Falkenburgh.

And, to be reductive, it’s the story of an sociopath. A mass-murdering sociopath, who either has never been socialized at all or is the usual pulp-fiction mutant who is better than humanity and so entitled to treat us as we treat ants. (Or, perhaps, both.) We think he’s a superhero, throughout most of the story, because he wears a funny costume, because someone very much the same was in an old comic book, and because he seems to be killing villains. But we learn – and, if we’re any good readers at all, we suspected this much earlier – that he made every one of those villains, and so is both directly a murderer and someone who has deliberately created mass-murderers. I don’t think there’s even a word for that. 

We are supposed to be on his side, because He Is Sad, and because he has a sexual relationship with the narrator. I say “has a sexual relationship,” clinically, because I doubt he feels anything like “love” – I’m pretty sure he feels no human emotions of any kind – and the guy he has sex with is in love with him for those same manipulating-humans powers that he used to create mass-murderers.

Yes, I’m talking about Enigma: our title character. This is the story of a young man with fabulous powers and a bizarrely impossible upbringing, whose interactions with the outside world are about 95% murder, but, on the other hand, he’s a tall attractive man with cool clothes. And apparently that is enough to make a mass-murderer into a hero.

I don’t even want to get into whether this was a positive or negative depiction of a gay man. (Wait. Am I kidding? A mass-murderer who literally turns another man gay to love him? I would struggle to find anything positive there, other than “it was 1993, and a gay man existed in comics. Yay!”)

OK. It is stylishly written, and even more stylishly drawn. Fegredo starts out scratchy, maybe even shaky, but he settles down, and the style suits the story very well. It is full of mysteries, and the reader does not realize how horrible Engima is until said reader is near the end of the book.

And our viewpoint character is, thankfully, not a mass-murderer. Michael Smith is instead one of life’s small losers: not very important, not very interesting, not very memorable. But he’s at the scene of a murder by a bizarre villain, and remembers that villain from his old childhood Enigma comics, and that sets off the whole plot, as he starts to think he’s central to all of the craziness. He’s not wrong, but he’s not exactly correct, either.

As I said above, he does find Enigma – the live person now using that name, as well as the crusty old writer who made the comics stories twenty-five years earlier – and fucks the former. He learns that Engima has massive, bizarre powers, but none of us learn why. Perhaps just because it was 1993 and this was a DC comic book; there had to be someone with superpowers in it.

This is a well-crafted, smart, intricate story that seems, at this distance, to be an apology for an appallingly horrible person. Enigma would be a villain in any other comics story, and rightfully so. A pitiable villain, and one that could potentially be redeemed, but, still, the mass-murder thing is hard to overlook.

I’m not sorry I read this, but all of the praise as a “lost classic” seems vastly overwrought to me. It was an attempt to have gay men in comics, yes, and it was not entirely a failure. I do have to say that, of the three gay men here, one is a middle-aged alcoholic failure, one is a mass-murdering sociopath, and the third was turned gay against his will by the sociopath – and that strikes me as not entirely a positive and loving and realistic depiction.

Such is Enigma. Consider yourself entirely spoiled.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Rain Like Hammers by Brandon Graham
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Rain Like Hammers by Brandon Graham

Genre fiction in comics tends to be straightforward: it explains the world and the stakes up front, then sends a generally pretty obvious Protagonist off to Do the Thing, which far too often is Saving the World.

Brandon Graham, in his afterword to Rain Like Hammers , describes that as being like a Japanese game show where the goal is to get someone to eat a hot dog as soon as possible after waking up. And he’s not into speed-eating hot dogs.

Graham’s stories tend to start in a more leisurely fashion. His camera-eye is focused, but not insistent. Hey, look over here, it says. Something is going on; I wonder what it is?

Rain Like Hammers collects a five-issue comics story – the issues were published in the first five months of 2021, and this collection came out in August. They’re long issues, too – the book is unpaged, but I think they’re 48 pages each. So my first question is: how serialized was this? Clearly, Graham created it in five chapters, but I really doubt he did that during those five months. But those afterwords – there’s one for each issue, two pages each of sketchbook-style comics – do show the process of making the book; he seems to have made it in order, finishing each page in turn and not going back to rework based on better ideas later.

At one point he mentions his initial plan was to have five loosely-connected single issue stories – maybe, I think, ones that all came together in the final issue? – and that’s clear in the transition between the first two issues, which are entirely different, about entirely different people in entirely different places. But, in the end, this is mostly one story, seen from a couple of angles, with a second story as a way in and a bit of parallax later.

We start out in a mobile city, on some alien planet in some future. Eugene is new in Elephant City: he finished his schooling recently, and came here on purpose, to do some keeping-the-city-running job that Graham doesn’t explain in detail. Eugene is a bit lonely, finding his footing in a new place and new to adulthood. But he seems like a sensible, devoted person: we think will be OK, we want to trust him, he hope he will do well. His story for the first issue is mostly low-key, but something from outside this world is causing trouble for many of the animal-named crawling cities, and we see a little of that here.

The second issue begins what then seems to be the main story, and we may wonder what happened to Eugene, for many pages. (We will find out.) A supercriminal, Brik Blok, is heading to Sky Cradle, a space habitat of some kind that is the seat for the rulers of this part of human space: a group of self-selecting immortal families. We think he is dangerous, we think he is exciting, and we are not entirely sure if we are on his side.

What Brik Blok is coming to do on Sky Cradle is something we learn quickly, but we learn more and more details over time: we learn it iterated, first the headlines and then the depths, eventually getting to things Brik Blok didn’t know himself. Brik Blok’s initial plans, whatever they were, fail before he even reaches Sky Cradle: he’s in a different body, in an society he doesn’t know well, with a new uncertain ally or friend.

Brik Blok is coming to save El. Or maybe retrieve her, or maybe support her. She is young and smart and, we believe, on the side of right. She’s part of a program of “candidates” for immortality: they are tested and twisted and transformed to become more of the ruling class. We start to think we don’t like this ruling class, and start to feel more positively towards those who resist. We quickly learn she did not choose to join this program…though we learn more details later.

Rain Like Hammers is mostly the story of Brik Blok and El. Two people fighting against the power structure, or trying to – both with incomplete information at this point in their lives. (This is the kind of SF where people can live a very long time – maybe even if they’re not officially one of the “immortals” – and who they once were and what they once did could be forgotten or lost or mislaid.)

They do not foment a revolution. They are not even trying to topple the immortals: their aims are smaller, more specific than that. As I said at the beginning, this is not that kind of comic: they are not going to Do the Thing, not going to Save the World.

But they, and Eugene, may be able to save themselves, and get away.

Graham tells this story from the inside, with pages full of quiet moments and strange details of this far-future world. His SF is always deeply distinctive, with things he never explains, a big lived-in universe full of odd creatures and people, all living their own lives and wandering across his pages. He tones down the wordplay these days, especially in more serious, grounded stories like this one, but there’s still some of that joy in the complications of language.

SF that requires the reader to think about it and make up his own mind about it is rare in comics – it’s not all that common in prose, frankly. That’s what Graham does; that’s what this is. Any reader who likes that kind of SF should check it out

, or anyone who likes stories with a bit of gnarl to them.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon by John Allison
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Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon by John Allison

As I type this, my post on the first volume of Steeple was written close to a month ago but has not yet gone live. So I am trying to space things out on this blog, but I may not be spacing them quite far enough for my own systems to work well. (Let’s hope I remember

, once that post does go live, to drop in a link here somewhere.)

In any case, this is a sequel to the first Steeple , which was written and drawn by John Allison with colors from Sarah Stern and letters from Jim Campbell. The first collection also appeared first as a five-issue series of floppy comics.

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon , by comparison, appeared originally on-line at Allison’s site , and is an all-Allison joint. (There is a cover by Max Sarin, presumably in an attempt to draw in the Giant Days audience.) This one collects two somewhat discrete stories, and I can even link you to those stories online, on the cheekily-titled steeple.church site: The Silvery Moon and Secret Sentai . I just noticed they were (still) there; I haven’t been as good at keeping up with Allison’s new comics there over the past couple of years as I vaguely searched for a copy of the first Steeple book to read first.

Anyway: this is set in a different corner of the Scarygoround -cum-Giant Days-iverse, down in the Cornish town of Tredregyn, where Rev. David Penrose upholds the glory of the Church of England by battling invading mermen every night (and doing essentially nothing vicaresque besides that) and the Magus Tom Pendennis does what he wilt at the Church of Satan down the lane, and what he wilt is generally sneaky and not always nice, but it tends not to be what one would actually call evil.

It’s more like a football rivalry than a battle for the soul of the town, honestly: the locals line up with their rooting preferences, and it seems like Satan is well in the lead, maybe because he always has the best tunes and dancing.

Our main characters are Billie Baker and Maggie Warren; the trainees in the two churches. Billie came to town for the CoE, but, through some odd events at the end of the first book, the two have switched roles, with the lusty, motorcycle-riding Maggie now assisting Rev. David and energetic and immensely good-hearted Billie now organizing community outreach for Satan.

Allison, as usual, has a decent-sized central cast, who are interestingly quirky. I don’t think these folks have gotten quite as defined as the Giant Days crew or his best Bad Machinery characters (Lottie Grote, for example), but they’ve had fewer pages to do so to date.

In any case: this is two more adventures of Billie and Maggie, one with a werewolf and one with a Japanese guy in a funny costume. They are both Allisonianly quirky and fun, and he’s filling out the details of this corner of his world nicely as he has more pages and time to do so.

I’ve said it many times: Allison is one of the most entertaining, and most distinctive, comics-makers of his generation, and his stories are always fun and always different from what anyone else is doing. How can you not want to read that? 

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa
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The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa

Endings are harder than beginnings: any story-teller will tell you that. So if I quibble that The Golden Age doesn’t end as well as it begins, I’m largely saying that it’s a story, and that’s what stories do.

Reading the second half

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, though – the graphic novel or bande dessinee The Golden Age, Book 2 , written by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, and drawn by Pedrosa with some coloring support from others – there were several times my editor’s pen itched to make notes. I don’t know if these would have made the story better, but if I were involved in the creation, these are the things I would have asked.

First, Book One follows Tilda, the older child of the now-dead king of Antrevers. The beginning of Book Two looks like it might follow her younger brother, who finally gets a name (Edwald) for what I think was the first time at the very end of this book. Edwald does not become our viewpoint at any time here; this is still Tilda’s story. And maybe it had to be. But for a story about political factions and civil war, about opinions on how the world is supposed to be, about noblesse oblige and the democratic impulse, about the battle for the soul of a kingdom, something wider than just Tilda and a handful of advisors as viewpoints would have been useful. As it is, Edwald’s side is basically an evil caricature, with nothing good or positive about them, not even stability or continuity, and that feels like a lack.

Second, both books begin with the same group of peasants, standing in for the whole population of Antrevers, the ones who will be affected by all of these battles and decisions by nobles and kings. It looks like those people may be important to the action of the story, as thematically they are important: The Golden Age is the story of a transition from autocracy to something like democracy, in a very simplified sense. But they really aren’t. The masses are there to fight against each other, while the Important People stand in the center of panels to declaim and fight each other, to do the Important Things. The Golden Age says that it’s about them, but like so many supposedly-democratic works of the fantastic, the strong single person is more interesting, easier to work with narratively, than a mass of “just ordinary people.”

I like parallels; I like books to set things up and then knock them down; I like guns on mantlepieces to be taken down at just the right moment and fired. Golden Age does not quite do those things; it instead is caught up in a vague supernatural element that seems to inherently corrupt all of the autocratic rulers of Antrevers and a possibly prophetic old book of political philosophy (or is it mean to be religion? It’s presented in the manner of a religious text

, but its matter is political). Golden Age seems to want to say this mystical book is the Law of the Universe, but the actual operation of the magical things here is deeply obscure: are they set up by a god or gods? were they the embodied power of the ancient kings who stole power from the masses? were they self-generated somehow? are they actually operating against each other, as they seem to be, or is there some deeper balance underneath them?

So, anyway, there’s a magical box and a magical book. The book is supposed to be in the box, but the box seems to be the source of all the bad stuff and the book the source of all the good stuff, so thematically, locking the good stuff inside the bad is a weird metaphor.

I should be clear, after going so deeply into the weeds: this is the subtext, and only occasionally reaches the level of text. The story here is that Tilda’s tired, mostly unpaid, deeply fragile army is besieging Edwald’s castle, and not doing well. Tilda has had a vision of victory, and is utterly uncompromising in that vision, but does not seem to notice ways that the actual world does not line up with her visions. Meanwhile, another army loyal to Edwald is on its way: Tilda’s forces need to win quickly, or will lose forever. And she’s already shattered most of their strength in repeated pointless assaults on a portion of the curtain wall she is sure her forces can break.

So the story is about the siege, and the fight, and who lives and who dies, and how they kill each other. The big ending includes the book and the box, and whatever magics they have. And, as I said, it works pretty well but feels not quite as crisp as it should be to me.

Pedrosa, though, gives us another set of absolutely gorgeous pages, striking in their vibrant colors and stunning in their energy. That makes up for any gaps in the themes: the book powers over any possible quibbles through pure visual power, culminating in a stunning phantasmagorical conclusion. 

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Uncharted
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REVIEW: Uncharted

Tom Holland has proven a charming actor, capable of poignancy, humor, and super-heroic action. Stretching beyond his work as Spider-Man, he detoured into an adaptation of the Uncharted video game, coming off more as a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond than an original character, which is not at all his fault. He is an appealing performer and you want to root for him to succeed.

The PS3 game this is based on works fine as a video game and its sequels (or so I’m told, I don’t have time for video games) but the simplified storytelling conventions for a video game need to be expanded and evolved for filmed entertainment. Here, screenwriters Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway (working from a story by Judkins, Jon Hanley Rosenberg, and Mark D. Walker) let the fine cast and their audience down.

Bartender cum thief Nathan Drake (Holland) is recruited by Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to help locate a hidden treasure. A treasure that Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) thinks belongs to his family so you can see the conflict coming a mile away.

There are some lively set pieces that show Spider-Man prepared Holland for the stunt work and he sells the bits and pieces. Director Ruben Fleischer is just fine working with action as seen in his previous films, Zombieland and Gangster Squad but as seen with his two Venom films, doesn’t recognize storytelling weaknesses in the script, demanding better. He brings a visual flair without a tremendous amount of attention paid to characterization. As a result, the thrills are there but the emotional connection to the stakes and characters are absent.

Some credit for how effective the film is goes to producers Charles Roven, who made fine contributions to DC’s filmed heroes, and Avi Arad who got things rolling with 2000’s Spider-Man film.

This is a visually interesting film given all the locales, very much Bond-inspired. You can see why some are lobbying for him to be the next 007, although I suspect he’s too young and too pretty to fulfill Ian Fleming’s description.

Anyway, this is a passable evening’s entertainment and little more although it could have been.

Sony Home Entertainment has released this in the usual formats including the reliable Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo. The 1080 p transfer is just fine for home viewing, letting you see all the details, without annoying distractions. The

Uncharted Blu-ray, Audio Quality   4.5 of 5 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is up to the challenge, easily matching the visuals.

The film performed well enough at the box office although pre-Covid I suspect it would have been deemed a disappointing

, coming as it did a mere two months after Spider-Man: No Way Home. Holland’s coat tails may not be long enough yet.  This may explain why the special features are perfunctory.

We have Deleted & Extended Scenes (10:23); Never a Dull Moment: Stunts & Action (5:54); Becoming Nathan Drake (3:59); Audio Commentary: Director Ruben Fleischer; Villains, Backstabbers, & Accomplices (4:20); Charting the Course: On Set with Ruben Fleischer (4:28); The Buddy System (3:49); Big Action Breakdown: C-17 Globemaster (5:03): Music Video (1080p, 2:38): and the music video “No Mind” by Milkblood.

REVIEW: Heavy Metal
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REVIEW: Heavy Metal

Unsuspecting comic book readers raised on the EC-inspired black and white horror magazines from Warren Publishing had no idea what to make of Heavy Metal when it debuted on American newsstands in 1977. We came to understand it was a domestic version of France’s wildly successful Metal Hurlant, and introduced us to European talents and storytelling. It was mind-blowing.

The magazine’s success led to an animated feature, released in the summer of 1981, heralded by the beautiful Chris Achilléos promotional poster image

, introducing us to Taarna, who has become the magazine’s unofficial mascot and most recognizable figure.

The film, like the magazine, was a series of animated shorts, an anthology of science fiction, and fantasy, with heavy dollops of violence, nudity, and heavy metal music. And like the magazine, it was beautiful to look at and occasionally made sense.

It opened to mixed reviews and modest success, leading to the less enchanting Heavy Metal 2000. Both have been restored and re-released in a fine box set from Sony Home Entertainment.

For the record, the film consists of:

“Soft Landing” adapted by Dan O’Bannon (Blue Thunder) and Thomas Warkentin (Star Trek comic strip), from their own story. This leads into “Grimaldi”, continuing the tale.

“Harry Canyon” is adapted from Moebius’ The Long Tomorrow by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum, with music from Blue Öyster Cult, Donald Fagen, Stevie Nicks, Journey, and Riggs.

Richard Corben’s classic “Den” is brought to life here and is one of the best looking segments of the film. John Candy is surprisingly good providing Den’s voice.

Bernie Wrightson’s “Captain Sternn” follows in an original story after the hero debuted in the magazine a year earlier. Young Eugene Levy voices Captain Lincoln F. Sternn and John Vernon is his Prosecutor.

“B-17” is an original from O’Bannon with music from Don Felder.

Angus McKie adapts his own “So Beautiful & So Dangerous” with vocal work from Candy, Levy, and Harold Ramis. Music here comes from Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Fleder, Trust, and Sammy Hagar.

“Taarna” closes out the film, adapted from Moebius’ Arzach by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum. This sword and sorcery/SF tale is accompanied by music from Black Sabbath and Devo.

The film is loosely connected by an orb called Loc-Nar (voiced by the stentorian Percy Rodriguez) and it sort of works as does the entire movie. The uneven quality is a result of multiple animation houses simultaneously working on the film and there’s even one sequence that was cut because of time constraints.

It’s a time capsule of story and music so worth a look in that regard. The magazine’s heyday was over within a few years of the film’s release and it wasn’t until two years ago it regained any notoriety thanks to new management. (Ful disclosure, CEO Matt Medney and I co-wrote a novel coming out in October.)

The film has been lovingly restored in both 4k Ultra HD and Blu-ray. The animation is crisp, the color palette subtle and bold where it needs to be. This is one of the better-animated transfers I have seen. Accompanied by the swell Dolby Atmos soundtrack, every electric guitar thrum and synthesizer is nicely balanced with the effects and dialogue.

The combo pack comes with Heavy Metal in both 4k and Blu-ray and just a Blu-ray of Heavy Metal 2000. The special features from the previous Blu-ray release remain intact with the addition of Heavy Metal: A Look Back (9:20) as producers Ivan Reitman and Norman Reedus, geek Kevin Smith, actress Ebony Jeanette, screenwriter Matthew Klickstein, and HM CEO Matthew Medney chat it up. The other features include: Heavy Metal: Feature Length Rough Cut (1:30:21); Deleted Scenes (8:42); and, Imagining Heavy Metal (35:39).

Assholes by Bram Algoed & Micah Stahl
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Assholes by Bram Algoed & Micah Stahl

Does this count as a foreign comic? It’s written by an American (Micah Stahl) but drawn by a Belgian (Bram Algoed), and was originally published in Dutch – this edition is a translation, and comes from an outfit (Europe Comics) specifically devoted to bringing Eurocomics to Amerireaders.

That’s foreign enough for my purposes, but there’s an additional wrinkle: this is a satire, with two main characters who are, well, Assholes . One is American, one is British. So to restate the original issue: does this count as someone else picking on those people, or is it all within the family?

It’s familiar enough, and the satirical targets (rich

, self-obsessed TV celebrities! golf!) are broad and obvious enough that I don’t think anyone will actually care. But it does make the is-the-call-coming-from-inside-the-house? question more interesting here than usual.

Anyway

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, this book takes place all during one morning, at a presumably exclusive golf club, the Royal Marabou, which seems to be somewhere in the LA area. Two popular game-show hosts, the American Chuck Atkins (of Spin Your Luck) and Simon Kennedy (of Enigma) are starting a round there. Chuck is a big bluff sort with a brushy moustache, on his fourth wife – you know the type. Simon is toothy and slick – you know that type as well.

They both are tremendous assholes, though in my personal scorecard Chuck pulls far ahead on points and the race is never in doubt. The book is structured around their golf round, with chapters for each hole after some brief scene-setting among the caddies and groundskeepers, early that morning. We see Chuck and Simon interact with their fans, insult and belittle each other, do a lot of hitting balls with highly-engineered sticks, drink, and generally act out.

It’s all amusing, and often quite funny – assuming you enjoy comedy about assholes. But, then, if you didn’t, the title would be enough to keep you away. There’s no higher goal, no frisson of discovery or breakthrough: assholes these two men began and assholes they will remain. If that’s enough for you, this book provides snappy dialogue and bright art that, to my eye, sits somewhere between ligne claire and a modern North American art-comics look.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Trese, Vol. 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo
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Trese, Vol. 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo

I feel like I did this already, but that was a decade ago, so maybe I need to do it again.

Also, and probably more importantly, the last time I talked about this book, it wasn’t actually available at my end of the Pacific at all, which made my praise slightly beside the point for most people. But, luckily, the Trese books are now coming out from Ablaze: the third volume hit in January and the fourth (which is beyond where I saw the first time around) is coming in May. 

But, here we are with Trese 2: Unreported Murders , collecting what were four issues of the floppy-comics series of the same name, originally published in the Philippines sometime in the mid-Aughts. (See also my post from last year on the first book in its Ablaze edition.) Trese is our main character: Alexandra Trese, who runs a bar in Manilla and also is called in by the police on “weird” cases.

This is an urban fantasy, of the common subset that assumes every folkloric or imagined creature is real – they’re all out there somewhere, and they interact with each other and mankind in complicated and often violent ways. Sometimes they need to be dealt with, or just figured out. That’s what Trese does, and what – as we get some hints in these stories – her father did before her.

On a base level, Trese is just good urban fantasy: taut, exciting, full of action and mystery and strangeness. For Filipinos, there’s the added frisson that the fantasy creatures are all part of their folklore – this isn’t yet another story full of the same old boring werewolves and vampires and tedious brain-eating zombies. For non-Filipinos, I think that’s an even better point: these are strange creatures. I don’t know what they are, what they might do, how they connect to the world, what their powers and concerns are. Fantasy all too often falls into the familiar; Trese has no truck with that.

And even more than that, Trese has the secret weapon of KaJo Baldismo’s art. Writer Budjette Tan gives him a lot to work with, true – all of those strange and frightening creatures, all of the odd corners of urban life where they lurk – but Baldismo’s pages, more often with black backgrounds than white, are gloriously detailed and atmospheric, moving from sketchy figures obscured by mist to tight close-ups on detailed faces quickly and confidently. And don’t get me started on the creatures he draws: Baldismo draws the details of horror as well as anyone since Swamp Thing-era Steve Bissette, and has a similar taste for both small things crawling and damp things flying.

As I said, this book collects four stories, four cases. They all have a similar structure: something bad is happening, Trese is called in, and it all gets worse before she fixes it, with the aid of her two bodyguards (not explained here, though they’re clearly something folklorically specific, like all of the other supernatural elements), her connections, and her knowledge. They’re good stories

, creepy and specific and dark and ominous and startling. And, these days, they’re easy to find in the USA, so there’s no excuse not to read them.

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Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Steeple by John Allison with Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell
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Steeple by John Allison with Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell

I have two theories about John Allison’s best stories, or maybe two versions of the same theory. One goes that his best works are organized around triumvirates – I should perhaps say triumfeminates – such as Bad Machinery  and Giant Days , which allows the three main characters to bounce off each other in complicated ways. This theory goes on to say that the more straightforward, less convoluted Allison works are more likely to have two main characters (q.v., By Night ) who contrast each other in a more obvious way. [1]

The other theory is more straightforward: in every generation of Allison protagonists, there is a female character who embodies chaos, around whom reality itself sometimes bends, who is a force of nature, who both the complications of the narrative and the audience love. Shelly Winters, Charlotte Grote, Esther De Groot – that kind of character. The Allison stories that feature one of those characters are the best ones.

Steeple  is a contrasting-two-people story, and neither of them (yet?) have risen to the level of an Allisonian Chaos Magnet. So I might perhaps say at this point that it’s not quite as zany as his best work, but that might also be said, in a different way, that it’s more accessible and less likely to hare off in random directions for no obvious reasons.

This story is set in the same universe as Tackleford – though, like Giant Days, it touches other parts of that world only very lightly. We are in the small town of Tredregyn, Cornwall  – that’s in the far Southwest of England, for those geographically challenged, about as far you can get from Tackleford’s Yorkshire and still be in the same country. In Tredregyn, there are two churches. And, in each of those churches, there’s a young woman with good intentions.

Just arriving at the local parish – I think it’s CoE

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, and I think it’s St. something-or-other’s that only gets mentioned once in the book and which I can’t find now – at the beginning of the book is the new parson Billie Baker, to help out the Rev. David Penrose.

On the other side of town, there is a Church of Satan, run by Magus Tom Pendennis and Warlock Brian Fitzpatrick – though I had to look up their full names online; they’re just “Tom & Brian” in this book – where Maggie Warren does what she wilt as the whole of the law when she’s not slinging pints at the local pub. (First lesson: God pays better than Satan. Maggie needs a side job; Billie does not. Who knew?)

Billie and Maggie meet cute when Billie arrives in town, and become friends, even though their lives are deeply opposite to each other.

So that’s one major conflict: they’re friends but they work for (to put it mildly) competing organizations.

The other major conflict is weird supernatural stuff, as it often is in Allison: Tredregyn is in danger from a race of aquatic monsters who want to drag the town and surroundings back beneath the sea whence it came, and apparently they could be successful in this if the local priest doesn’t spend his nights punching said monsters in the cemetery. Penrose keeps asking for strong, burly assistants to aid him in biffing the salty foe, but his superiors keep sending him thin and weedy types. Like Billie, for example.

Now, those sea monsters are said to be sent from the devil, but they don’t seem, at least in this first storyline, to have any connection to the Church of Satan. So it may be that the devil has legions who know naught of each other, or perhaps the sea beasties are actually the spawn of Cthulhu or Belial or some different evil entity. Or perhaps the Church of Satan is the modern, free-living kind of Satanism, and has mostly or entirely sworn off actual evil in the sense of conquering the world and dooming souls to eternal torment and suchlike.

This first volume of Steeple stories – it doesn’t have a “Vol. 1” anywhere on it, though a second volume has since appeared, and a third is coming this summer – collected five comics issues, written and drawn by Allison with colors by Sarah Stern and letters by Jim Campbell. Each issue is basically a standalone story, mostly along the lines of Giant Days, so my assumption is that the hope was to do a few issues, assess, and then do more issues for years and years. That did not actually happen; subsequent Steeple stories have appeared on Allison’s webcomics site , so my guess is that the American comics market continues to Be Difficult.

As I said, both Billie and Maggie are pretty sensible

, though they are in one of those weird Allisonian towns. I could wish for a bit more mania and craziness from both of them, to juice the stories up, but these are early days yet. These five adventures are quirky and fun, and the status quo gets upended pretty seriously at the end, which I hope will lead to odder, stranger stories for the next batch. So far, I’m counting this as solid B+ Allison, with signs that it could ascend to the top tier quite easily. And it’s entirely standalone, thus being a good entry point for new readers.

[1] Potential counter-argument: what about things like Bobbins and Scarygoround, which have larger casts around whom the plots circle? How do they fit into this schema? There I pull out a timeline, and argue that the count of Allison’s central characters for a given story tend to diminish over time, and so, therefore, in about 2030 he will publish a comic featuring no central characters!

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.