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The Grande Odalisque by Vives, Ruppert + Mulot
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The Grande Odalisque by Vives, Ruppert + Mulot

This stylish thriller of a graphic novel (or bande dessinee) was made by three people: Bastien Vives, Florent Ruppert, and Jerome Mulot. The title of this post is styled as they are credited on the book: Vives / Ruppert + Mulot. All three are writer/artists. Ruppert and Mulot are a team who typically work together on all aspects of a story. I have no idea how they broke this down: if it were an American comic, that order would imply Vives was the writer and the other two the art team, but French credits often work in the reverse fashion.

So: the three of them did this, in some combination. If we can see a movie without worrying about what, exactly, a Director of Photography does, I think we can bring a similar equanimity to The Grand Odalisque , which is very much like a big-budget classy thriller movie on the page.

It’s a large-format album, appropriate for the style and the substance. I found the dialogue lettered just a bit too small and too lightly; take that into account, particularly if you intend to read this digitally.

It is a thriller, which means a lot of things: our heroines are amazingly competent, stunningly gorgeous, and massively flawed; the world is full of dangers, but not fatal ones; and hitting someone on the head or shooting them with a tranquillizer dart is a foolproof, immediate way of making that person go unconscious for exactly as long as you require, with no ill effects. Any readers who want more realism need to go elsewhere: this is Mission: Impossible-style action on the comics page.

Carole and Alex are high-level art thieves; we see them steal Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from the Musee D’Orsay in the opening pages of the book. They squabble like an old married couple, and have been doing this for about a decade, even though they’re both still quite young – Carole is a few years older, but I don’t think she’s hit 30 yet. Again, in a realistic world they would be killed or captured very quickly; this is not in any way a realistic world.

They are gorgeous, they are stylish, they are the best at what they do. But they can’t do the next job alone – getting Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque out of the Louvre. So first they enlist an arms dealer to get them guns, and then a getaway driver, Sam, who becomes the third woman of their team – presumably going forward, since there’s already a second book.

After some minor complications – their arms dealer is captured by Mexican bandits, and to my surprise the solution isn’t “he’s already dead” (again: this is not a realistic story) but “let’s go, in bikinis, to slaughter the drug-lord and half-heartedly take over his operations” – it’s finally time for the big caper, which is as widescreen and cinematic as could be hoped, with exciting motorcycle chases and automatic-weapons fire and both helicopters and ultralight aircraft.

And if, in the end, the reader thinks “there’s no possibly way they could escape, in public, in the middle of Paris, with that level of police attention,” well, what I have I sad three times already? You are not meant to take The Grand Odalisque seriously. But, if you take it on its level, with all of its tropes and assumptions, it is a lot of fun. If you read it, I recommend making every effort not to engage the critical side of your brain; it will be no help.

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.

REVIEW: Euphoria Complete Seasons 1 + 2
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REVIEW: Euphoria Complete Seasons 1 + 2

Any parent who somehow finds themselves watching HBO’s addictively compelling Euphoria must pray their children know no one like Rue or are raising anyone like her. The series, which debuted in 2019 just as the world locked down, has only grown in popularity. My high school students, apparently, didn’t trip over it until season two arrived earlier this year. Given the higher profile and awards it has justly earned, HBO has combined the two seasons onto DVD for home consumption, no subscription required.

Rue, played with a rawness by Zendaya, is a 17-year-old whose life began to spiral out of control after the death of her father. Alcohol, drugs, and sex were combined in varying quantities as she sought a balm, but repeated attempts at rehab proved futile. As the show’s narrator, Rue shows us her pessimistic outlook on life and helplessness; without a real sense she’s seeking redemption or salvation.

In her circle of friends, we have others who have their own issues, giving series creator Sam Levinson (who gave us an all-American spin on the Israeli series of the same name) a chance to fully explore the issues confronting today’s youth. The series is stunningly cast with the ensemble delivering captivating performances, which explains why Zendaya, Sydney Sweeney, Colman Domingo, and Martha Kelly all received two Emmy nominations each, with the series star winning twice.

People drop in and out of her orbit depending on Rue’s needs or absences, beginning with her best friend Lexi (Maude Apatow), who seeks to find her voice and get out from under the shadow of her older, sexier sister Cassie (Sweeney). Cassie is trying to correct her life after sexual promiscuousness and has learned some harsh life lessons early.

Perhaps the most sympathetic character in her circle is the newly arrived Jules (Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl who enters a turbulent romance with Rue, and they almost run away together, but when that doesn’t pan out, things grow tense. Jules has other issues, including having had sex with Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), father of Cassie’s ex Chris (Algee Smith), who has a habit of recording his conquests, masking a deeper issue that surfaces in season two.

Rue takes her issues out on everyone, each a means to a particular end, all in service to end her pain. Zendaya’s bravest performance may be seen in season two’s “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird” when she lashes out at everyone, including her younger sister Gia (Storm Reid) and mother Leslie (Nika King). Her acting is subtle and demonstrates the impressive range, from the quiet contemplative “Trouble Don’t Last Always”, where she sits in a diner with her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) to “Hummingbird” where the pain and snot come out in equal amounts of anguish.

The show filled the Covid-19 gap with two one-hour specials, the first focusing on Rue and Ali and the second on Jules in therapy. Both work as standalone dramas while providing important insight into the characters.

It should be noted the parents get placed in a harsh spotlight as well. It’s not just Cal who does damage since Cassie and Lexi’s mom Suze (Alanaa Ubach), visibly has a handy glass of wine, ready for the next one.

The other adults round out the perspectives with Ali an interesting ally to Rue and drug dealer Fezco (Angus Cloud), forming an unexpectedly deep friendship with Lexi.

While other shows about teens range from the banal (Saved by the Bell) to the absurd (Riverdale) to the almost believable (Sex Education), this one is all about exploring the darker side of the teenage experience with few moments of genuine joy and almost no emphasis on being students preparing for their future as adults. Their learning is happening nowhere near school but the homes, bedrooms, and back alleys of their world.

The sixteen episodes plus two specials are included on five DVD discs which look fine but one wishes for at least Blu0ray to capture all the subtitles of the gray world they live in. The Special Features all come from HBO’s broadcast of the series, including “Euphoria in Conversation: Zendaya and Sam Levinson”; Storyboard to Scene; Euphoria Scene Breakdown; Euphoria Unfiltered: Zendaya; “Enter ‘Euphoria’”; “Enter Euphoria’ Part 1: Rue”; “Enter Euphoria Part 2: Jules”; “Euphoria: The Craft”; “Costumes of Euphoria”, and Euphoria Set Tour with Sydney Sweeney.

REVIEW: Silver: Of Treasures and Thieves Book One
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REVIEW: Silver: Of Treasures and Thieves Book One

Silver: Of Treasures and Thieves Book One
By Stephan Franck
Abrams ComicArts/224 Pages/$24.99

When you think you’ve seen every interpretation of vampires, someone comes along to prove you wrong.  In this case, Stephan Franck offers us vampires on a heist caper successfully mixing gothic horror and crime noir.

Frank, a supervising animator on The Iron Giant, wrote and drew the story across four volumes over the last decade or so. Now, Abrams ComicArts has wisely seen to it to collect these into two handsome volumes, the first of which is now available.

Franck starts with characters and legacies directly tied to Bram Stoker’s Dracula so there are many familiar names, including Vlad Tepes himself. But we focus mainly on other players as the criminals gather to raid a castle in European. Our protagonist is James Finnigan seeking bar of pure silver that is coveted by the castle infested with vampires, who have long sought this relic. That the bar and information is found in the crypt of the Harker Foundation, beginning connections between Franck’s world and Stoker’s.

A gang of human criminals is contrasted with the vampire cult, corrupted living versus the undead masquerading as the living, with immortality warping their worldview. To them, immortality isn’t necessarily a great thing, and it has left them with ennui, lacking a purpose beyond drinking blood to survive.

Franck does a nice job delineating his characters, letting us into their lives in bits and pieces, notably during an extended train trip to the castle. There are a variety of types that any good heist story requires, complete with a vampire among them who has a separate agenda. The vampires themselves are a little less diverse but no less interesting.

The page construction and artwork make reading this a pleasure, as does the heavy paper stock that allows every line to reproduce with clarity. This story is for any good fan of adventure, crime, and horror as the three genres converge into something refreshingly entertaining.

Kevin Conroy, Batman’s Voice, Dead at 66
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Kevin Conroy, Batman’s Voice, Dead at 66

NEW YORK, NY (November 11, 2022) – Actor Kevin Conroy, the most beloved voice of Batman in the animated history of the character, died Thursday at age 66 after a short battle with cancer.

A noted stage, film and television performer, Conroy rose to unparalleled voice acting fame as the title character of the landmark Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1996). He would establish never-to-be-broken records as the quintessential voice of Batman, bringing the super hero to animated life in nearly 60 different productions, including 15 films – highlighted by the acclaimed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm; 15 animated series, spanning nearly 400 episodes and more than 100 hours of television; as well as two dozen video games. Conroy was also featured as a live-action Bruce Wayne in the Arrowverse’s 2019-2020 “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event.

In recent years, Conroy was a notable fixture on the Con circuit, greeting fans with the same warmth, respect and enthusiasm they reserved for him. 

“Kevin was far more than an actor whom I had the pleasure of casting and directing – he was a dear friend for 30+ years whose kindness and generous spirit knew no boundaries,” said Emmy Award winning casting/dialogue director Andrea Romano. “Kevin’s warm heart, delightfully deep laugh and pure love of life will be with me forever.”

“Kevin was perfection,” recalled Mark Hamill, who redefined the Joker playing opposite Conroy’s Batman. “He was one of my favorite people on the planet, and I loved him like a brother. He truly cared for the people around him – his decency shone through everything he did. Every time I saw him or spoke with him, my spirits were elevated.”

Born on November 30, 1955 in Westbury, New York, and raised in Westport, CT, Conroy began establishing himself in the acting community while under the tutelage of John Houseman at The Julliard School – where he studied alongside the likes of Christopher Reeve, Frances Conroy, and his roommate Robin Williams.  

Conroy began his career following his love of the theatre, keeping him on stage in both New York and at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The actor received rave reviews for his starring performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Public Theater, Eastern Standard on Broadway, Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee, and in the title role of Hamlet at the 1984 New York Shakespeare Festival. In addition, he performed in films and television – most notably in the mid-1980s when he had recurring roles on Dynasty, Tour of Duty and Ohara; successful runs on soap operas Search for Tomorrow and Another World; and guest roles on popular series like Cheers, Murphy Brown, Spenser: For Hire and Matlock.

But it was his incomparable, nuanced performance as the voice of Batman that put Conroy on the map – and the fans’ radar – when Batman: The Animated Series debuted on September 5, 1992. From that point on, Conroy would forever be linked to the Dark Knight – in TV series like Batman Beyond and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited; films ranging from Batman: the Killing Joke and Batman: Gotham Knight to Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman; and more than two dozen video games.

“Kevin was a brilliant actor,” Hamill said. “For several generations, he has been the definitive Batman. It was one of those perfect scenarios where they got the exact right guy for the exact right part, and the world was better for it. His rhythms and subtleties, tones and delivery – that all also helped inform my performance. He was the ideal partner – it was such a complementary, creative experience. I couldn’t have done it without him. He will always be my Batman.”

“Kevin brought a light with him everywhere,” said Paul Dini, producer of Batman: The Animated Series, “whether in the recording booth giving it his all, or feeding first responders during 9/11, or making sure every fan who ever waited for him had a moment with their Batman. A hero in every sense of the word. Irreplaceable. Eternal.”

Conroy is survived by his husband Vaughn C. Williams, sister Trisha Conroy, and brother Tom Conroy. Memorial services are pending. 

REVIEW: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 40th Anniversary Edition
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REVIEW: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 40th Anniversary Edition

Steven Spielberg is closely associated with science fiction even though he’s really only made two pure SF films. In 1978, he dazzled us with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then, just four years later, enchanted us with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The latter turns 40, and Universal Home Entertainment has released a special 40th-anniversary edition 4K version with an excellent scan and new DTS:X soundtrack.

In both films, there’s a sense of wonder about how we’re not alone in the universe. But, where the former film involves many people and leans into the UFO tropes, E.T. makes it far more personal as first contact is largely limited to one family. The emotional journey young Elliot goes on, as his fate and E.T.’s become intertwined, adds some nice weight to what could be seen as merely a children’s story. It is filled with heart and soul and a stirring John Williams score. I still remember feeling transported when I watched it that summer so long ago.

While the 4K edition debuted in 2017, this edition is somewhat superior, thanks to the improved audio and one new special feature. Please note this has been released to various retailers in various packages so shop wisely.

The 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD Code combo pack is what has been reviewed and is strong throughout. The 1080p Blu-ray transfer is sparkling. Either disc will make for fine watching with the family. The new audio is very strong and clear and they include the 2.0 soundtrack as well, which is fine. The DTS:X track for the Blu-ray is serviceable and won’t detract from the viewing.

New to the package is40 Years of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial – An all-new retrospective of the film and its lasting legacy.

All the previous special features remain and for completists, here’s the breakdown:

4K Disc 1

  • 40 Years of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • TCM Classic Film Festival: An Evening with Steven Spielberg
  • The E.T. Journals
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Steven Spielberg & E.T.
  • A Look Back
  • The Evolution and Creation of E.T.
  • The E.T. Reunion
  • The Music of E.T.: A Discussion with John Williams
  • The 20th Anniversary Premiere
  • E.T. Ride
  • Designs, Photographs, and Marketing
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Special Olympics TV Spot

Blu-ray Disc 2

  • 40 Years of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • TCM Classic Film Festival: An Evening with Steven Spielberg
  • The E.T. Journals
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Steven Spielberg & E.T.
  • A Look Back
  • The Evolution and Creation of E.T.
  • The E.T. Reunion
  • The Music of E.T.: A Discussion with John Williams
  • The 20th Anniversary Premiere
  • E.T. Ride
  • Designs, Photographs, and Marketing
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Special Olympics TV Spot
REVIEW: Krypto the Superdog: the Complete Series
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REVIEW: Krypto the Superdog: the Complete Series

I am decades away from the target audience for the just-released Krypto the Superdog: the Complete Series. Ever since the Canine of Steel arrived in 1955, he has been a popular supporting player, and with all-things super-heroic now part of the pop culture zeitgeist, it made perfect sense to give him a series for the younger side of the television demographic.

All 39 episodes of the 2005 series are presented here, adapted by producer Chris Mitchell. Joining Krypto (voiced by Sam Vincent) on his crimefighting adventures are Streaky (Brian Drummond), Supergirl’s pet cat, and Ace the Bathound (Scott McNeil). They even created Stretch-O-Mutt (Lee Tockar) to round things out. And if there are going to be animal heroes, there have to be animal villains, who happen to include the pets of Lex Luthor (Brian Dobson) and Catwoman. When things look dire, they can count on help from the Dog Star Patrol.

With Superman (Michael Dangerfield) too busy to walk and feed him or even play fetch, he leaves his childhood companion with Kevin Whitney (Alberto Ghisi), a 9-year-old boy, who winds up accompanying the dog on many escapades. Conveniently, Streaky is now housed with his next-door neighbor Andrea Sussman (Tabitha St. Germain).

The animation is solid and perfect for the audience. With Alan Burnett and Paul Dini looking over everyone’s shoulders, the stories are equally strong and in keeping with the other animated fare then running on television. It makes for fun viewing with your younger relatives, children, or even grandchildren.

The DVD is perfectly fine for viewing, with all 39 episodes contained on four discs, which offer no Special Features.

REVIEW: Titans: The Complete Third Season
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REVIEW: Titans: The Complete Third Season

The live-action Titans series has been flawed from the get-go by presenting us with a Dick Grayson that the writers woefully misunderstand. There is no comic book creator who ever depicted Grayson in this manner so it sets the wrong tone. Its low-budget when created for the short-lived DC Universe streaming service didn’t help.

And yet, it has staggered through three seasons, with a fourth now streaming on HBO Max. Just last week, Warner Home Entertainment released Titans: The Complete Third Season on Blu-ray (no DVD or 4K).

We pick up from the end of season two with the team mourning the death of Donna Troy (Conor Leslie), they are jarred to discover that now Jason Todd (Curran Walters) has been murdered by the Joker. The team, and yes, it’s nice to see them function as a unit for a change, journey to Gotham City to console Bruce Wayne (Iain Glen). Not long after, a new vigilante, the Red Hood, is operating and the team takes its sweet time figuring out that it’s Jason, who somehow has been leading a secret life that the ever-aware Batman missed.

A large portion of the narrative features Dick versus Jason with everyone else in supporting roles. The Red Hood is a blood-thirsty, angry teen who happens to have been trained by the World’s Greatest Detective, so he’s very dangerous. When we discover Todd has been manipulated this whole time by the Scarecrow (a wonderful Vincent Kartheiser), we finally gain some sympathy for him. All sorts of psycho games are played during their bouts, making this more of a two-hander than a team show. In between, Dick finds time to renew his long-simmerig love for Barbara Gordon (Savannah Welch).

So, what is everyone else doing? Well, Starfire (Anna Diop) is visited by her also-angry sister Blackfire (Damaris Lewis), who romances Superboy (Joshua Orpin). Oh, and Donna has her own resurrection story (of course).  Raven (Teagan Croft) and Beast Boy (Ryan Potter) don’t get to do much, wasting their talent and chemistry.

Based on a numerous stories from the comics, none make the most of super-heroes or teen angst, or good storytelling. It’s more meh than anything else.

The 1080p transfer is perfectly fine for home viewing with rich blacks and a nice color palette.

There are a handful of Special Features including Training a Metahuman; Looking the Part, which spotlights LJ Shannon, Specialty Costume Designer; Inside the Character: Red Hood; Inside the Character: Barbara Gordon; and, Welcome to Gotham.

Goldilocks and the Infinite Bears by John McNamee
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Goldilocks and the Infinite Bears by John McNamee

Discovering something creative that you like is fun. Learning that it’s over is sad. But what if you’re not sure if it’s over or not?

Pie Comics was (is?) a strip by John McNamee. It used to be on GoComics . It used to update regularly on Tumblr . The Tumblr page mentions a website that doesn’t resolve. But there have been three collections of the series, all of which seem to have come out after the last update to the Tumblr page.

My theory – which is mine, and what it is too – is that McNamee did this strip regularly in the mid-teens, and collected it mostly after it ended, and that there will be no more. But I’d be very happy if that theory were wrong.

(I also can’t find anything else by McNamee since the last Pie collection in 2020, so I hope he’s working on a bigger story that will come out very soon and make us all happy and laugh and rejoice.)

I’m thinking all this because I recently found the first collection, Goldilocks and the Infinite Bears , semi-randomly in my library’s digital-reading app and just read it. (The other two, unfortunately, are not also in the same app, so I’ll have to search for them elsewhere.)

So: yay! This is funny and neat, in a vaguely Tom-Guald-ian way – McNamee’s art style and his tone are both in the same vague space that Gauld has been working – and collects a hundred or so comics, mostly single-pagers (with a few epic two-pagers), mostly four-panel, and entirely about fairy-tale, folkloric, and other fictional creatures.

(Note: the Judeo-Christian God does show up a few times. I stand by my immediately previous statement.)

McNamee has a simplified, fun style that makes everything more amusing, and his writing is zippy and smart, too. I am happy that there are two more books to search out, and mildly optimistic that McNamee (who seems to still be pretty young – he references being in college in the Aughts) will do more Neat Stuff in the near future. If you, too, like funny comics about fairies, wizards, Godzilla, zombies, dragons, demons, Death, unicorns, Superman, and their ilk, you’ll want to check it out.

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

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

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.