Tagged: fantasy

Ghost Tree by Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane
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Ghost Tree by Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane

Brandt made a promise to his grandfather, when he was just a kid: come back to visit, ten years after “Oiji-Chan” dies, under a particular tree.

When you’re a kid, you agree to a lot of things like that. Adults say that something is really important, and you say “OK.” Maybe it is important, maybe you actually remember it decades later – maybe a lot of maybes.

Brandt did remember. Probably because it was a good excuse to run away; his marriage with Alice is crumbling, now that he’s in his early thirties, and the anniversary of his grandfather’s death is as good a reason as any to head back to the rural Japanese landscape where he grew up.

Ghost Tree  is about what he finds there. As the title implies, it’s not just a tree – this is a book in which there are real ghosts, and some people can talk to them and interact with them. Brandt’s grandfather is one, but there are a lot more – that tree is a place where they gather, and ghosts, as we all know, are unquiet spirits who have something left unfinished.

Brandt isn’t fazed by the supernatural; maybe he’d suspected, or maybe this is just the kind of thing he always was hoping would erupt into his life. He’s happy to talk to his grandfather, happy to talk to various ghosts and try to help them work out their problems.

But his grandfather isn’t sure, now, if this was a good idea. He now thinks he wasted his own life with ghosts – neglected his wife, Brandt’s grandmother, who is still there in their old house, now quietly taking Brandt to task for the same flaws her late husband had – and he’s worried that Brandt will do exactly the same thing, will give up the world of the living for the simpler world of the dead.

Brandt has other things drawing him to that world: not just his breaking marriage behind him, but the ghost of Arami, his teenage girlfriend, the one who got away, who died not long after he left her and Japan so many years ago. The past is always tempting, especially when it hasn’t changed. Even when it’s a ghost you can’t touch.

There are other elements of this collection of ghosts, other issues and problems and creatures. But that’s the core of it: the question of how much energy and time to give to the past and the dead, and how much to give to the living and the future.

Brandt has to make that decision, in the end. Arami has to make a different kind of decision, because this is a cosmology where ghosts aren’t trapped, aren’t lesser or echoes – just people, later on, in a different way.

Bobby Curnow and Simon Gane (words and art, respectively – colors are by Ian Herring with Becka Kinzie and letters by Chris Mowry) tell this story well, in a mostly quiet mode. Gane gives the world a lushness and depth, and Herrings’s mostly subtle colors add to that depth. Curnow’s dialogue is real and his people realistic, and he doesn’t turn any of his endings facile or obvious. There are a number of excellent moments near the end, in particular: a panel that pays off the “usually one a generation” talk earlier, and a stronger ending to the Brandt-Alice story than I expected.

This is a fine graphic novel: as it says, about “love, loss, and how the past never truly stays dead.”

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

Ralph Azham, Vol. 1: Black Are the Stars by Lewis Trondheim
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Ralph Azham, Vol. 1: Black Are the Stars by Lewis Trondheim

Ralph Azham does not live in the same world as Dungeon . We’re pretty clear on that; this is not Terra Amata. But it’s the same kind of world: whatever Joann Sfar brings to the mix for Dungeon, that style of fantasy seems to be the way Lewis Trondheim operates. (There are some lesser similarities to his “McConey ” books, too.)

So: we have a central smartass in a big, complicated world, full of anthropomorphic people who plot and scheme, with magic that really works and can do world-changing things but has very specific rules that need to be learned by trial and error. We have authorities who are corrupt or outright evil or just low-key incompetent – this is no surprise, since everyone is out for themselves, pretty much all the time.

Ralph Azham is our central character: another vaguely duck-like hero, like Herbert in Dungeon Zenith. He grew up in an isolated, unnamed mountain village out in the wilds of the kingdom of Astolia, the son of an engineer, Bastien, who moved there to help the locals prepare for a potential attack by the Horde of Vom Syrus. (We don’t know a lot about the Horde or its leader: they’re clearly real, and have been rampaging around the outskirts of this kingdom for decades, but we don’t know who Syrus is or what his goals are. I have a very strong suspicion at the end of this book, though.)

In this world, some children turn blue on the night of a double moon – this is a sign they have a magical power, and are Chosen Ones, or potential Chosen Ones. In Astolia, Couriers take those children off to the capital, but they don’t generally seem to come back.

Ralph is blue. He can tell, infallibly, how many children someone has had. It seems to also include knowing who else was involved in the creation of those children, even if they were never born. And a Trondheim smartass can get himself in a lot of trouble, especially in a small village, knowing who knocked up who, who had a quiet abortion, who had older siblings that are now dead, and so on.

Ralph was taken by a Courier. He came back, a failed Chosen One – so he thinks. Since then, he’s become the village scapegoat and annoyance – he hasn’t helped this at all, to be honest, but he’s not treated well at all. The truth about Chosen Ones, though, is much worse, for a lot of people.

Ralph Azham: Black Are the Stars  collects the first three album-length books of the series. There have been twelve books in French, published between 2011 and 2020, and, as far as I can tell, that’s the complete story: this is not something open-ended like Dungeon. The first book, Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love? , was published in a slightly altered form by Fantagraphics in 2014, but this volume is the first time the rest of the series has been translated into English. Three more English omnibuses are already scheduled, through next March: if all goes well, the whole series will be published within a year. (But the lesson of every Trondheim comic is: things never go well.)

What I’ve just told you covers roughly the first half of the first book. From there, the Horde does come, and violence ensues, as always in a book like this. Obviously, Ralph will leave his village to see the wider world. He will meet other Chosen Ones, and learn what happens to Chosen Ones. There will be magical items with very specific uses that are deployed in inventive and surprising ways. Ralph will learn that he has another, larger power, and two other people from his village – a kid, Raoul, and Claire, who is Ralph’s age – will also turn blue and travel the path of the Chosen One. There will be powerful people who are not who they seem, or who are corrupt and scheming, or both at once. There will be antagonists who are very hard to kill, and ordinary people who are far too quick to die.

The story is about Ralph’s family, maybe. Or about what it means to be a Chosen One. Or the usual overthrowing-the-corrupt story of epic fantasy. Or maybe just surviving in a dangerous world full of people with weapons and magic. This is only a quarter of the way through: it would be premature to say what the whole thing means at this point.

But it’s prime Trondheim: smart fantasy adventure with a sharp edge, pitched only slightly less cruel than Dungeon, accessible to smarter, slightly older kids but with depths only adults will recognize. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it.

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

Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy by Jeff Lemire, Tonci Zonjic and Steve Wands
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Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy by Jeff Lemire, Tonci Zonjic and Steve Wands

Nigrum Malleoleum est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Some Black Hammer books have numbers in the title: those are the main series. Before the book I’ll be complaining about today, there’s been Secret Origins , The Event , Age of Doom 1 , and Age of Doom 2 .

Some Black Hammer books have the words “Black Hammer” in the title, but no number: Streets of Spiral , the Justice League crossover . These are side stories about the whole team.

(Black Hammer ’45  is deeply confusing in this schema, but it actually fits in the next category. The “Black Hammer” referred to in the title is not the same as the other books, for maximum what-the-fuck-age.)

And some Black Hammer books are about other people in the same world, whose stories may intersect the main gang of mopey superheroes or may not obviously do so. (This is superhero comics: all stories intersect in the Grand Summer Crossover eventually.) Before this book, there was Sherlock Frankenstein , Doctor Andromeda , and The Quantum Age .

Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy , as the title implies, is in the third group. For those who weren’t counting along on their fingers, it’s the eleventh collection. It is written by Jeff Lemire, creator and co-owner of the whole shebang, with stylish gritty art by Tonci Zonjic (often breaking into double-page spreads, which are gorgeous and well-designed but made me wish I wasn’t reading the whole thing on a tablet) and lettering by Steve Wands.

Skulldigger asks the superhero question: “what if the Punisher instead used a metal skull on a chain to kill people, instead of guns? Wouldn’t that be totally awesome?!” It is perhaps the most ’90s idea ever to have been thought up twenty years later, and would have fit comfortably into either DC or Marvel’s mid-90s grim and gritty eras – which, of course, is the point of all of the Black Hammer comics: they’re meant to seem like that stuff you read long ago while at the same time being new stuff you can buy on Wednesdays.

(The argument about how all superhero comics have been doing this more and more consistently for roughly the past forty years is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Now, in any realistic universe, Skulldigger would be shot dead extremely quickly, but so would Batman, so he gets the same dispensation. At the time of the 1996 of this story, he’s been around for maybe a decade, and is seemingly the preeminent crimefighter in Spiral City.

So he’s not-Punisher. There’s also Detective Reyes, who is not-Rene Montoya (literally: tough female detective, lesbian, always fighting with her captain, olive skinned – I do wonder if Lemire does that on purpose or just can’t be bothered to change the details), one of the other viewpoint characters.

The third viewpoint character is Matthew. He’s twelve, and we see his parents get murdered in front of him in the first scene, with a particular overhead view that will make you think they just came out of a Zorro movie. (Black Hammer is many things, but it is never, ever subtle.)

Anyway, the story here is: random thug kills Matthew’s parents. Skulldigger arrives, kills random thug. Matthew becomes non-verbal at witnessing his parents’ murder, doesn’t respond to any questioning by cops including Reyes, is institutionalized. Reyes is obsessed with finding and stopping Skulldigger; her boss literally says “he’s killing the right kind of people, don’t waste time on him.”

Look, do I need to give all of the story beats? Skulldigger gets a sidekick. If you’ve been paying any attention, you know who that is. It’s not a good idea, but he at least seems to be devoted to training the kid so he doesn’t die immediately.

Oh, and meanwhile, an ex-superhero – formerly the Crimson Fist, now civilian Tex Reed – is running for mayor, on a “let’s get back to happy superheroing” platform. (He’s an unpowered guy, maybe a bit more Moon Knight than Batman, and now fiftyish and retired for ten years or so.) The Crimson Fist’s old nemesis Grimjim – who is not anyone in particular from another superhero universe, but is deeply in the Batman Villain template, something of a mash-up of Joker and Ra’s al Ghul conceptually and Killer Croc visually  – has to break out of not-Arkham Asylum to cause trouble.

Tex and Grimjim and Skulldigger have hidden connections, of course. Every superhero story is about the same people tripping over each other over and over again; there’s never anyone new.

It is grim and it is gritty and it is violent: this is supposed to be a 90s-style story, from the dark and decadent age of superheroing. We are meant to deplore that at the same time we revel in it.

Frankly, this is one of the most successful Black Hammer stories to date, in my mind: it tells a specific story, beginning to end, without getting caught up in extraneous crap. It isn’t burdened with the core series’ weird reluctance to move from the initial premise, and has the strengths of the whole series to date: Lemire’s naturalistic dialogue and strong plotting, and great storytelling art.

It’s still a pastiche grim-n-gritty Punisher/Batman comic that has no good reason to exist, mind you. But it’s successful at the things it sets out to do.

One last point: the descriptive copy for this book describes it as a tragedy. It is not. Not in any traditional sense, not in any way. “Tragedy” here seems to mean “a story in which sad things happen,” but that’s most of them. This is not a tragedy, not for Skulldigger or Skeleton Boy or Det. Reyes, or even for Grimjim. And a tragedy has to be a tragedy for the main character.

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

Delicates by Brenna Thummler
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Delicates by Brenna Thummler

I don’t want to say there’s always a sequel…but, these days, it’s the way to bet. Anything that has any degree of success will have a follow-up, telling more of the story or doing as much of the same thing as possible.

So when Brenna Thummler’s first graphic novel, Sheets , was an unexpected success a few years ago, what would her next project be?

Yes, obviously: the direct sequel Delicates , which came out three years later (in 2021). And, though I might sound dismissive, Delicates does all the things a good sequel should: it starts from the end of the first book (rather than rehashing the same story/issues/ideas), adds more details and richness to the world, examines slightly different (but related) concerns, and moves the overall story forward.

Sheets took place, in retrospect, in the fall of Marjorie Glatt’s seventh-grade year. (We didn’t know then exactly how old she was; we did roughly know the time of year.) Delicates jumps forward a bit, to the start of another school year. Summer is ending: Marjorie is about to enter eighth grade.

In the wake of the events of Sheets, Marjorie has a new friend group, mostly because the boy she has a crush on, Colton, is part of it. The rest are all girls, and at the center is Tessi, a mean-girl-type who controls the conversation and is low-key angry most of the time. Tessi has her own issues, mostly with a mother who is trying, in a well-meaning way but not one that has much chance of luck with the terminally sour and image-obsessed Tessi, to engage and lighten up her daughter. But we’re not really on Tessi’s side – we don’t have an antagonist here as we did with Mr. Saubertuck in Sheets, but she’s pretty close.

Wendel the ghost is still Wendel, still basically the same. That’s usually the deal with ghosts, of course. If you want to change, you have to do it before dying.

And there’s a new central character: Eliza, the girl on the cover. She’s the oldest daughter of a favorite teacher at this middle school, has just been held back to repeat eighth grade, and is clearly on the spectrum somewhere. (No specific diagnosis is given in the book: she’s just who she is. But she has obsessions and verbal tics, and I may just be more prone to notice those things.) Her particular obsessions are photography, ghosts, and their overlap: she spends a lot of time trying to photograph ghosts.

She doesn’t know ghosts are real – or, rather, doesn’t know how ghosts actually work in Thummler’s fictional world. She’s pretty sure ghosts are real. I don’t know if she pictures them as Charlie Brown kids-in-sheets, but that’s what they are here.

Delicates is partially a book about fitting in: Eliza is too weird, too specific, to really fit in, Marjorie is weird but can cram herself into a shape Tessi & crew will be friends with, and Wendell only really has Marjorie, so he hates any ways she changes that makes her less friendly to him.

It’s also, like Sheets, a book in which death looms, always off the page and never specifically mentioned, but there all the time. All of Marjorie’s family is still dealing with her mother’s death: her father is engaging more with life now, but seems to be running around trying to do all the things his wife used to do, to keep all the old plates spinning, and to tightly control the few things he feels competent to control. Her kid brother Owen is doing something similar, on the level of a first-grader. And Marjorie, of course, is trying to be a “normal” teenager – have a friends group, be part of the group, maybe have a boyfriend if she can ever figure that out.

By the end, they’ll all have to be themselves instead of the people they’re trying to be. This isn’t exactly a book with a moral, but the story it’s telling aims in that direction: be who you actually are, and let other people do the same. Those are excellent things to remember, and Thummler tells a good story around them.

This is most obviously for people around Marjorie and Eliza’s age – the ones figuring out who they are, alone and with their parents and with their friends and with any potential boy/girlfriends. But, like all good YA, it’s a fine story even for those of us who have been pretty sure who we are for a few decades now, since we sometimes can still tend to forget.

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

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag
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The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

Morgan Kwon knows exactly how her life is going to go. She’s going to get through highschool, being exactly the person she seems to be now, with exactly the same friends, and then she is going to get off Wilneff Island forever, go to some big city, and begin her real life as the person she really is. All she has to do is keep everything packed up in the right boxes until then, and everything will be fine.

Narrator: everything will not be fine

Morgan is at the center of Molly Knox Ostertag’s mid-grade graphic novel The Girl from the Sea , and I think every reader – even those on the young and thoughtless end of that age-band – will sense that Morgan protests too much, that she can’t keep all of the boxes separate. Her parents have already separated when the story starts, so that’s one box broken up…and that, of course, is the point: she’s trying to control the things she thinks she can control, because something so central to her life was just totally uncontrolled.

In the opening pages of Girl from the Sea, Morgan slips on some rocks and nearly drowns. She’s saved by what she thinks is a cute girl, Keltie. And, if we readers are paying attention, we notice one very big box that she’s trying to keep separate and closed: that she likes girls. She thinks that’s got to stay hidden until she gets away, that it can only be a piece of her eventual adult life.

But Keltie is not just a cute girl: she’s something more special, and already loves Morgan. She’s loud and pushy and wants things and can show Morgan different ways of viewing and living her life.

Some of that is a metaphor for coming out. But a lot of it is literal: Keltie is a selkie, transformed from seal to girl, and with a lot of the traditional folkloric issues. (Ostertag plays a bit with reader expectations for some of these, I think, especially Keltie’s skin, but she’s not retelling any specific story or doing the usual folkloric stuff here.)

So: this is a story about whether Morgan will let herself unbend, if she will let herself break through her own boxes and be the person she actually is right now. And what will happen along the way: do her friends and family react the way she fears they will?

Oh, and Keltie has something pretty important she needs to do, too – she’s not in human form for nothing. Oh, sure, she’s crazy about Morgan, too – that definitely is part of it – but she has a mission for her people as well, and that’s not optional.

I liked Girl from the Sea better than Ostertag’s Witch Boy  books – those were fine, but had a slight whiff of formula about them, a sense that they were Teaching Lessons and Being Good Models and all that. Girl from the Sea feels more personal and specific, tied to a specific place Ostertag knows well and centered in a deep but new relationship. I also like the way it implies conflicts that never happen – there are things that are huge in Morgan’s head but don’t really exist in the real world. It’s still very much a book for younger readers, so people even more cynical and world-weary than me might find it too too, but it’s the kind of book I love to see for young readers, the kind that tells them they can be exactly the people they really are and that they have good, loving places in the world that they just need to find or make.

That may not always be true, in the actual real world. But it’s an important story, and it needs to be said as often as possible.

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

Black Hammer/Justice League: Hammer of Justice! by Jeff Lemire, Michael Walsh & Nate Piekos

Black Hammer/Justice League: Hammer of Justice! by Jeff Lemire, Michael Walsh & Nate Piekos

In the life of every licensed superhero comic, there will come an especially blessed day: Baby’s First Crossover.

This, my dear hearts and gentle people, is that blessed event for the unnamed super-team of Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer comics. [1] (See here for the previous volume and here for the first volume, if you’re unfamiliar.) Oh, you may quibble that they have already met quite a lot of other superheroes and villains, fighting and teaming up and generating a lot of Licensable Content. But all of those previous encounters were from Lemire’s universe as well; those calls were all coming from inside the house.

For the first time here, someone else deigned to have a play-date with Black Hammer, to let their toys play with the Black Hammer toys, to touch the dolls’ faces together to make them kiss. Those heroes are the current Justice League, the someone is DC Comics, and it is a bit like Barbie and GI Joe in the hands of an hyperactive eight-year-old.

The story is Black Hammer/Justice League: Hammer of Justice!, possibly the laziest possible title for this story. (The exclamation point might have taken a moment of thought; thus the “possibly.”) It’s written by Lemire with art by Michael Walsh and colors by Nate Piekos; I imagine someone on the DC side kibitzed editorially to keep the JL on-brand as well.

Amusingly to me, the Black Hammer gang are still their core ’80s incarnations while the JL is the current (I think) modern incarnations. Sure, separate universes don’t need to line up their timelines exactly, but wouldn’t it be more fun if Lemire had used the contemporaneous bwa-ha-ha era League? Or, possibly even better, the Detroit League? Ah, well.

In any case, the plot is the usual: a Mysterious Someone appears to both teams in their normal milieu (the BH gang grumping on the farm; the JL punching Starro) and swaps their places for making-mischief reasons. In a twist that is never explained, the JL immediately believe they’ve been on the farm for ten years, and mope about that, but the BH gang are aware of actual reality and spend most of their time squabbling with other Justice Leaguers.

The plot from there is…well, there’s that squabbling and moping, which takes up a lot of pages, then the inevitable Reveal of the Mysterious Someone, which is played up big but is one of the few obvious candidates and doesn’t really lead to anything, then, finally, as the play-date is ending, all of the dolls need to go back into their respective boxes separately, so they can stay in mint condition for the collector’s market. Lemire does throw out what may be a hook for another story, but it would need to be another DC Crossover, so let’s hope he gets good grades in school and does all his chores, so maybe there will be another play-date.

At the end of the book, we get what seems to be thirty pages of variant covers for the five issues of this miniseries, and I have nothing coherent to say about that.

I cannot take a single thing about Black Hammer seriously for a second, even while reading it. It is so deeply pastiche that there’s nothing substantial about it. If you are less cynical about superhero comics than I am, you may enjoy this on a more normal level. But it’s well-done – the characters talk like human beings and are drawn in a solid modern style – so it amusing on whatever level you can connect to it on. Black Hammer is not bad; it’s never been bad. It’s just deeply pointless and creepily incestuous.

[1] Black Hammer was a guy; he’s dead now. His daughter later becomes the new Black Hammer, and another woman who looks very much like her becomes another version a hundred years later. And I think there was one before the main guy, but Lemire hasn’t told any stories with the old dead one yet. This is superhero comics; names are just trademarks, and trademarks have to be used or they will be lost.

The team, on the other hand, has no trademark, no identity, since they’re drafting on the Black Hammer name and it’s far too late to create something new now, ten books in.

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

Blackwood by Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish

Blackwood by Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish

All the most interesting people have the least-likely careers. (Says the man who started out as a SF editor and somehow ended up doing content marketing for corporate lawyers.) Evan Dorkin was a fiery young cartoonist in the ’80s and 90s when I discovered his work, writing and drawing id-fueled scrawls like Milk & Cheese  and The Eltingville Club . But somehow, along the way, his modern comics career is mostly about writing vaguely Lovecraftian-flavored fantasy/horror adventure stories for other artists to draw.

Like Beasts of Burden  or Calla Cthulhu  – or like this book: Blackwood , written by Dorkin with art by wife-and-husband team Veronica and Andy Fish.

Blackwood College seems to be just another mid-rank private learning institution, though it seems like all of their fields of study are specialized cases of anthropology with various cultural, occult, or religious bends. It’s not that simple, of course: Blackwood has Deep Secrets.

And four brand-new first year students, who have all been recruited to the secret college-within-a-college at Blackwood, are going to find out about those secrets the hard way.

Blackwood collects a four-issue series, so it gets going quickly – with some old guy who just did something magically dangerous and is now dictating his last words while Something happens to him – and keeps at a blistering pace throughout. There’s not a lot of room for the lore of this place to be explained, so the reader (and those four main characters) pick it up in bits and pieces as Dorkin tosses it out.

The last issue hits all of those Deep Secrets, some of which the reader will have guessed and some of which seem to come out of left field. (I wonder if this was originally planned to be longer – maybe six issues? and it got shortened somewhere in the process.) It all runs just a hair too fast and is a hair too generically Creeping Horrors for me, but it is fun and zippy throughout, and the Fishes make good artistic choices: they do grotesquerie well and Veronica’s chapter-break art is particularly atmospheric and spooky.

All in all, I wanted a little more How This World Works and a little less “ahh! the bugs are going to kill us!” but this is largely a Teenagers in Danger movie done as a comic, so what I wanted is somewhat outside the bounds of the genre. This is just fine for what it is, and sets up a world where there could be plenty of other stories – I know there’s at least one more already.

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

Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison

Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison

When last we left the Mystery Teens of Tackleford, at the end of The Case of the Missing Piece , they had mostly stopped solving mysteries, and two of the core girls, Lottie and Shauna, had just fallen out. That’s what the title refers to for this final collection: not the supernatural menace that threatens Tackleford (which is quite real and sinister), but the break between two of the main characters.

This is the tenth and last Bad Machinery collection, The Case of the Severed Alliance . Creator John Allison has a short afterword where he says his original intention was to have one case for each term of the Mystery Tweens/Teens’ seven years at school, which would have been twenty-one books. He gives a few reasons why he only made half that many stories, but I think he quietly missed the most obvious one: time. Allison is a creator whose stories take place in time. He sometimes drops back into the past – the Bobbins flashback series, for example, or, in an odd way, all of Giant Days – but time always passes in his stories, things change, and his characters grow older. The Bad Machinery stories came out about two a year, not three a year, and I think his characters just grew up, in his head, faster than he expected.

The Bad Machinery books are a creative peak for Allison – he’s had several; most people are more familiar with Giant Days – with a big cast well deployed, a complex and quirky world for them to live in and explore, wonderful dialogue on every page, oddball supernatural menaces that lurk deep in the story and only emerge fully near the end, and long rambly plots full of interesting incidents and unexpected moments that all come together for bang-up finishes. These can’t have been easy stories to plot, write and draw; my sense is that Allison is more of a plotter these days than a pantser, but any multiple-times-a-week comic is going to morph and change as the individual installments come out, so I don’t think anything quite ended up exactly the way he expected.

In any case: this is the “teens get jobs” storyline. All six of the main cast are about 15-16 here. Lotty works at the local newspaper, partially to have a work-study arrangement (called “P&Q” here, which is some British term that I don’t think is ever spelled out) [1] and partially because she is frustrated with her lack of movement in her preferred solving-mysteries-as-a-teenage career. (Yes, that is a thing in the Allisonverse, with glossy magazines and gala awards and all. See Wicked Things .) And Shauna is working for Amy Beckwith-Chilton, one of the old-time Tackleford characters, in her antiques shop, along with a young man named Romesh who Shauna found and who has a mystical ability to detect valuable antiquities among junk.

But the story is mostly about the gentrification of Tackleford: the main street is filling up with posh, expensive shops, rents are skyrocketing, houses prices are ditto, and an “Inland Marina” is being built where the kids used to swim in the local river. We also meet Sewerman General Johnson, the tough man who keeps the drains of Tackleford running, and the massive, possibly sentient, Tackleford Fatberg that he’s been trying to break up. Amy and her competitors in the very Lovejoy-esque antiques trade are chasing after the fabled cursed Pearl of the Quarter, a gem of immense power that disappeared at the death of its previous owner Tommy Binks, the man who made Tackleford the modern success it is.

Oh, and there’s something going on with Tackleford’s sister town, Wendlefield, which is as run-down and hopeless as Tackleford is shiny and expensive.

Shauna and Lottie work opposite ends of this mystery – do they eventually come to find it is the same mystery? Are they forced to work together? Is there a shocking confrontation in a half-constructed industrial scene? Has the mystic Pearl been incorporated into some weapon that threatens the whole town? Is there a fiendish villain who must be stopped? Do all of the Mystery Teens, and their new powers and abilities – I’ve neglected to mention that Mildred has been learning to drive a car! – come into play at the end? Is Tackleford saved?

Reader: yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and sort of.

I would not start here, if you haven’t read Bad Machinery. Severed Alliance is wonderful and funny and exciting and marvelous, but it works much better if you know the characters. So find the first book, The Case of the Team Spirit , and start there. But Bad Machinery is awesome; you should read it if you haven’t already. And if you read it online (it was originally on Allison’s site but now lives on GoComics ), it might be time to get the books and read it again.

[1] Utterly nonamusing anecdote: on a call with some Brits this past week, I realized that what Americans call an “intern” (college-age person working in a business for a limited period of time, usually tied to and providing credit for their school) is called an “apprentice” in the UK. This, I think, is a similar issue.

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

Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands

Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands

This post may be shorter than my previous diatribes about the wonderful world of Black Hammer, for multiple reasons. One, I’ve said most of the things I could say. Two, this is an odds and sods collection to begin with, so it’s small and random and miscellaneous and will not stand the weight of serious criticism. There may be other reasons as well, but I think those two will do.

In any case, I have written a bunch about the previous Black Hammer books – the most recent was the flashback Black Hammer ’45 , and that one links further back in turn. And, frankly, how much background do you need? This is a pastiche superhero universe, with mixed DC and Marvel influences (Legion of Super-Heroes here, New Gods there), and anyone who knows superhero comics from the second half of the 20th century will find all of it deeply recognizable.

So this is Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral . It was the ninth collection of the series, and the one that gathered all of the loose bits of string to that point: one “Giant-Sized Annual,” in case you thought it wasn’t on-the-nose enough about its obsession with ’70s comics; a one-shot called Cthu-Louise; The World of Black Hammer Encyclopedia, a very “Who’s Who”-style compendium of superhero details; and a short story from the Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day issue for 2019. The Encyclopedia was written by Tate Brombal with series-creator Jeff Lemire; Lemire and Ray Fawkes wrote the short story; Lemire wrote the rest solo. Art is by a large number of people:

  • Nate Powell, Matt Kindt, Dustin Nguyen, Fawkes, Emi Lenox, and Michael Allred for the Annual
  • Lenox with Dave Stewart (who provided colors for nearly all of these pieces) for Cthu-Louise
  • Fourteen different people for the Encyclopedia, including many of the above
  • David Rubin did full-color art for the short story
And what are these individual stories?

The Annual is one of those standard multiple-artists, multiple-heroes “special” stories, which could be assembled piecemeal, showing the whole team dealing with Problem X individually. As was the case with its models, it doesn’t add up to a whole lot in the end. There is a sub-Starro the Conqueror eyeball/squid thing, which appears repeatedly out of the Random Mystical Zone and which has to be punched back out of the normal world. It is, repeatedly – this is a superhero story, after all.

What what does it all mean, ask our heroes in the end?

Well, probably nothing. In a regular superhero universe, it’s either space-filler or a set-up for a crossover. In Black Hammer, it’s just yet another kind of indulgence.

Cthu-Louise is very familiar; the character (and her father, the former supervillain Cthu-Lou) have appeared at least once before, and the plot beats here are very similar. Louise is a teenager with a alien-god squid head, which makes her unpopular, and she wants to fit in. Eventually, she does.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of pages on all of the major characters that have appeared in the various Black Hammer comics to this point, with first appearances and power levels and known family and all that bumf. It is much odder when it’s about a world created by one guy, in one series of stories, over only three or four years.

And the short story is the most forgettable, functioning mostly as a teaser – well, it was in a FCBD comic, and that’s the whole point of the thing – for both past and (I assume) future Black Hammer stories.

If you like Black Hammer, this is a bunch of minor Black Hammer. If you like vaguely ’70s-esque, vaguely Big Two-ish comics, you will like Black Hammer. And god knows there are more of you out there than I want to believe.

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

Enigma: The Definitive Edition by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo

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

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, 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.