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Graphic Novel Review – Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 1

Darth Vader Vol.1 “Vader” written by Kieron Gillen illustrated by Salvador Larroca

Vader Cover

The original Dark Lord of the Sith stars in his first ongoing series! Ever since Darth Vader’s first on-screen appearance, he has become one of pop culture’s most popular villains. Now, follow Vader straight from the ending of A NEW HOPE into his own solo adventures – showing the Empire’s war with the Rebel Alliance from the other side! But when a Dark Lord needs help, who can he turn to? As Vader pursues a very personal vengeance against the Rebels and investigates the Emperor’s secret machinations, he clashes with weapons scavenger Aphra and deadly Battle Droids, and returns to Geonosis to build an army. But some very powerful people don’t want him to learn the truths he seeks! Guest-starring Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett and more!

 

I’m a hard, old, bitter curmudgeon. Sometimes, anyway. I was a Star Wars fan club member back when Bantha Tracks was still printing exclusive news about Revenge of the Jedi. There’s been so much new expanded universe stuff since then that it all sort of blurs together. And I haven’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for it.

When the new Star Wars comic was announced the only interesting thing about it was that John Cassaday was the artist. We didn’t even consider picking up Darth Vader or Princess Leia. A year’s gone by, now. Things have changed.

One thing, really. We read The Wicked + The Divine. Usually when I like something a lot I reread it over and over again. Then I enter into the broader conversation in some way. I’m okay for a little while. And then I become Galactus.

So that’s why I picked up “Vader.” I’m on a binge. The thing is, it’s great. I mean, I’d heard that. There’s a good chance you’ve heard that. Anyway, it’s true.

Darth Vader comes at the character from surprisingly varied vectors. It opens with some straightforward action. Vader is implacable and indomitable. The philosophical difference between the dark side and the light is clearly illustrated. This is the Vader you expect, that you secretly want from the broader narrative.

From there it skips back a beat, to an audience with the Emperor; a dressing down for the catastrophe of A New Hope. Vader, as the sole survivor, shoulders the singular responsibility. You can almost hear minor chords in the background as the comic begins to do the work episodes one through three were meant for and largely failed to accomplish. The first stirrings of sympathy for the Sith Lord.

Subordinated to an Imperial Grand General, suspicious of his master, and investigating the mysterious rebel youth who destroyed the Empire’s ultimate weapon, Vader negotiates a web of intrigues. Gillen ties this new interstitial story strongly to both the original trilogy and the prequels. The references are both strong and subtle. And they’re enabled largely due to Salvador Larocca’s attention to detail.

Scenes from each of the films are redrawn and juxtaposed, reframed and recast. There’s an extended sequence remixed from Raiders of the Lost Ark and rehabilitating the droideka that introduces the first of Vader’s new allies. I hesitate to spoil things, of course, but the supporting cast is a large part of the draw. Amoral Aphra is rule 63’s perfect answer to Indiana Jones. Triple Zero is Anthony Daniels’ HK-47, a sociopathic C-3PO. And BT-1 is, adorably, astromech Wolverine.

Two droids and a self possessed young woman. Narrative and structural parallels. From Tatooine to Geonosis, Darth Vader gets it. It’s of the Star Wars universe and among the fans. This is the dirge of Anakin Skywalker.

And it’s got space whales.

Recommended for fans of Farscape, Knights of the Old Republic, and “Bad Romance.”

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Graphic Novel Review – Finder: Third World

Finder: Third World written and illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil

Finder Third World

There hasn’t been a single place that Jaeger couldn’t infiltrate, escape, or loot—until now! Award-winning creator Carla Speed McNeil and colorists Jenn Manley Lee and Bill Mudron create the very first full-color Finder graphic novel. Serialized in the pages of Dark Horse Presents, Finder: Third World now includes seventeen extra story pages and extensive annotations by McNeil!

I had Finder: Voice dropped in my lap. It was my birthday. A couple friends had been talking Finder up for awhile and finally took action when it became clear I wasn’t going to run out and buy it. As one does.

I loved Voice. I love Voice. I yield to none my love for Voice. I read it before going to bed that night and I’m still talking about it. Most fans will tell you Talisman is the best story, though.

But this isn’t about either of those. I just figured revealing my bias was warranted. I’ve read every Finder story a couple times. Voice and Talisman a few more. I had known that Third World was being serialized but had neither the habit nor the inclination to track down individual issues of Dark Horse Presents in order to get them. So I was surprised to, er, find the collected edition while visiting the library in our old neighborhood.

Like most Finder stories, you’re dropped right into the middle of a story in progress and kind of left to fend for yourself. You want desperately to know how the story came to this point but you’re swept forward through McNeil’s dense narrative. Third World follows Jaeger, an wandering sin eater and one of the perennial characters in these interwoven stories, as he tries to go legitimate. He gets a job with a common carrier and puts his unusual skills and abilities to the test trying to deliver undeliverable packages. There’s humor and pathos and longtime readers get a look at the depths and heights of the culture of the domed cities that dot this vaguely post-apocalyptic setting.

But, because it’s a single character and because it’s neither a flashback nor directly contiguous with previous stories, a new reader could begin here. Jaeger’s sense of humor and duty shines through. And, perhaps importantly to some, it’s in color. All the previous Finder volumes have been black and white. Here you get a sense of the vibrant visual world and the diversity of the cast.

There’s almost no chance of catching everything the first time through. And McNeil’s willing to reference her own work and dozens of others, along with an anthropology department’s worth of multicultural praxis. But don’t worry, there are endnotes for every page. They aren’t necessary, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to confirm everything you recognize and look up everything you don’t understand. The endnotes mean you don’t have to read with Google open.

If you like culturally advanced sauropods, creeping technological mystery, complex cultural intersection, and a bit of unexplained magic, this might be the comic for you. Finder: Third World is the first volume to really get out of the cities and show the spaces, and the peoples, in between. Carla Speed McNeil is a careful, thoughtful storyteller and a skilled artist. Check out an excerpt here.

Recommended for fans of Nam Jun Paik, Baraka, and Seveneves.


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Graphic Novel Review – Jem and the Holograms: Showtime

Jem and the Holograms: Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

Jem and the Holograms Showtime

Meet Jerrica Benton – a girl with a secret. She and her sister Kimber team with two friends to become… JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS! But what does it mean to be JEM today? Fashion, art, action, and style collide in Jem and the Holograms: Showtime!

So, if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you won’t be surprised to learn that we wholeheartedly recommend Jem and the Holograms. We’ve devoted increasing attention to comics this year and Erin’s even doing some external writing for larger readerships. What you need to understand is that it’s all due to this masterpiece from Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell.

It’s not that we didn’t read comics. In my youth, I was guilty of encouraging the multiple cover foil embossed special card limited edition kind of thing that shook the industry. These days, we’re the folks with two shelves full of trades.

And we’ll get this one even though we own every issue. We’ll probably get a couple extra to give to friends and family during the coming holidays. The old theme song declaring Jem excitement and adventure, fashion and fame could not be more appropriate.

Collecting the first six-issue arc of this beautiful, heartrending comic, Showtime is basically the coolest thing to hit the racks since, um, probably superheroes. As a former fan of the cartoon, I feel confident saying the creators have as much or more love for the source material as anyone. And the characters are compelling enough to draw unfamiliar readers in.

The story’s simple enough. Struggling musicians Jem and the Holograms put their futures on the line by entering a battle of the bands contest hosted by established industry juggernauts The Misfits. With the help of a sentient holographic artificial intelligence, they overcome their lead singer’s stage fright and capture the public consciousness. Along the way they face danger, romance, and food fights.

Everything in Jem is full of high intensity bathos. A coffee house conversation has the same stakes as the collapse of a career. And while the writing, and especially the dialog propel the drama, it’s indelible largely due to the artwork.

Sophie Campbell depicts emotion like no other artist I’m familiar with. The comic could be silent and still provoke fiero or sorrow, cheers or tears. If that weren’t enough, each character is a distinct individual person with his or her, mostly her, own expressions and, more importantly, body type. In a medium where basically everyone tends to look the same, this is incredibly refreshing.

Jem Broadsheet

You’re more likely to see yourself in this title than pretty much any other. Strong, confident lines and an incredible eye for design make each encounter with a character an experience to look forward to. And when they come together, there’s no mistaking them.

Not only that, Campell uses a clever, fluid layout for musical scenes that combines text and music video montage along with abstract streamers to evoke the energy and tone of an experience that’s difficult to express in static pictures. So a poppy love song comes with rounded edges and almost bubbly shapes while a pop-punk anthem comes with sharp lightning.

Do yourself a favor and check this one out. Even if it seems silly. Especially if it seems silly. You’ll be surprised.

Recommended for fans of truth, beauty, and transcendence.


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Graphic Novel Review – I Remember Beirut

beirutZeina Abirached’s I Remember Beirut looks quite similar to one of the most celebrated graphic novel autobiographies of the last 20 years – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Both are stories of a young woman growing up in a war-torn, Middle Eastern country. Both use a stark black and white art with strong lines and simple, but stylized forms. And clearly the publishers are attempting to hook the same audience, an apt move on their part. Check out the similarities between the cover of Abirached’s book and the poster for the film adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiography.persepolis

However, it becomes obvious early in I Remember Beirut that Abirached’s writing is markedly different than Satrapi’s. While Satrapi tells more of a straight-forward narrative, Abirached’s memoir feels poetic. Each memory opens with “I remember…” Her use of anaphora, that is repetition and parallelism for an accumulated effect, gives the story a circular, insulated atmosphere. Each day of the war feels Sisyphean. Her memories are retold intimately, as though we might have been there too, and we’re all sitting around rebuilding the days of war from our youth.

Some memories are humorous, like the bad haircuts by the stylist who believed curly hair needed to be short. Others are ironically horrifying, like when her brother goes on a shrapnel hunt for his collection. Others are somewhere in between, offering an ironic, evocative, personal anecdote to characterize both her family and the war, like the way her mother would replace the blown out windshield of their car with effusive optimism, and how that got worn down until she just drove around with no shield, as though it were a convertible. Like all good memoirs, I Remember Beirut pulls the reader into the particular moment and place. It is a setting that didn’t exist before this moment, and it will never exist again in quite that same way. ?????

I Remember Beirut is strong entry into the world of non-fiction graphic novels. The art and writing are evocative and poetic, bringing the reader into a child’s view of war. Recommended for fans of Persepolis, Maus, and their ilk.


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High Concept, Mixed Execution – Trillium by Jeff Lemire

TRILLIUM-PROMOb-600x911Trillium is a creator-owned comic published by Vertigo. For that alone, it gets my respect. Jeff Lemire also earns my respect for his high concept sci-fi, which mixes portals through time and space with a star-crossed (literally?) lovers story. Here’s how the publisher describes it:

It’s the year 3797, and botanist Nika Temsmith is researching a strange species on a remote science station near the outermost rim of colonized space.

It’s the year 1921, and renowned English explorer William Pike leads an expedition into the dense jungles of Peru in search of the fabled “Lost Temple of the Incas,” an elusive sanctuary said to have strange healing properties.

Two disparate souls separated by thousands of years and hundreds of millions of miles. Even though reality is unraveling all around them, nothing can pull them apart. This isn’t just a love story, it’s the LAST love story ever told.

There’s a lot going on in Trillium. There’s a riff on colonial fiction and attitudes of the turn of the 20th century, the “jungle” narratives and assumptions of savagery. There’s also an invasive, adaptable virus decimating humanity, creating levels of the colonization theme, but also supplying the motivation for characters to take risks and act impulsively, if not irrationally. There’s the back stories of trauma and loss that both Nika and William have – hers the loss of parents, his the experiences of World War I. Then there’s the portal through time and space that brings them together, the psychotropic flower that allows them to communicate and then bond, and the rewriting of time that they bring about. Finally, they have to find each other again and save the last of humanity from the virus.

trilliumThe execution of all of this is mixed. Nika and William are drawn so similarly, I predicted their relationship would be long-lost relatives or even dopplegangers rather than the lovers they are revealed to be late in the book. The artwork in general is sketchy, with visible jaggedness and an unfinished quality. I wasn’t a fan of it. But Lemire inventively uses symmetry and mirroring to show parallel aspects in the two timelines and re-orients the image in the boxes to suggest the flip-flop of narrative when the timelines get crossed.

Not until the end was I engaged with the two characters, but at least by that time, I was drawn in enough to appreciate the sweet, thematic conclusion. Recommended for high concept sci-fi fans who don’t mind a humorless story.


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Anticipating Fight Club 2, the Continued Commentary on Failed Fathers

Fight Club comic book sequel Chuck PalahniukAccording to a USA Today interview with Chuck Palahniuk, a Fight Club sequel is in the works. As commenter BigDukeSix states on The Guardian article on the same topic, “I am Jack’s growing sense of doubt.” I too initially thought only of the impediments to Fight Club 2 living up to the legacy of the original, not so much book, but film by David Fincher. Because if you live in my house, you believe the film is greater than the novel.

The sequel is taking the form of a 10-issue graphic novel published through Dark Horse and illustrated by Cameron Stewart, which initially struck me as an oddly confined narrative format. The limits of prose in a graphic novel are profound – allowing maybe six sentences a page, mostly dialogue with phrases of exposition or narration. Furthermore, though graphic novels are visual and can be cinematic in a storyboard sort of way, the form lacks the kinetic movement and editing surprises the film version offered. For instance, the flashes of Tyler early on in the film, before the narrator actually meets him, would be difficult to suggest in comic book pages.

However, upon further thought, there is a brilliance to making the sequel a graphic novel mini-series. Most importantly, the comic book form is a bridge between novel and film. Fans fall into the categories of those who love the novel, those who love the film, and those who love both. The graphic novel allows an in-road for everyone to relate to. Additionally, if the story is good, and Fincher is directing, I’m all for a second film. In that case, the graphic novel can serve pretty easily as an initial storyboard, depending on how the artist conceptualizes the frames. And Cameron Stewart, the graphic artist on the project, described it thusly:

Fight Club 2, especially for those like him who were first exposed to the movie, “is as much a meta-fictional comment on the cultural response to Fight Club as it is a sequel.” And instead of embracing realism, his style for the series tends toward the “cartoony” because it was “more appropriate for the density of the story and for some of its more absurdly comical moments.” (Truitt, “Chuck Palahniuk reconvenes his ‘Fight Club'”)

Even five years ago, a sequel to Fight Club would have seemed like an absurd money-grab, but reading Palaniuk’s reasoning makes a lot of sense to this new(ish) mother:

The original book was “such a tirade against fathers — everything I had thought my father had not done combined with everything my peers were griping about their fathers,” says Palahniuk, 52. “Now to find myself at the age that my father was when I was trashing him made me want to revisit it from the father’s perspective and see if things were any better and why it repeats like that.” (Truitt)

In fact, it reminds me of the way Richard Linklater approached the Before series – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Linklater would not even consider making a sequel until he had enough life experience to offer a new perspective and wisdom on the central couple, Jesse and Celine. At that point, he would meet with his actor-collaborators, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and they would collectively script the next chapter of these characters’ lives. Likewise, the original Fight Club is told from the perspective of a lost son, a young man whose father has failed to raise him into adulthood. Fight Club 2 makes the narrator the father of a 9-year old, finding himself now failing that son. Further, his son is now at the mercy of Project Mayhem. That’s a perspective change that intrigues me greatly.

However, I’m less enthusiastic about a less ambiguous Tyler Durden. Palaniuk has teased: “Tyler is something that maybe has been around for centuries and is not just this aberration that’s popped into his mind.” Tyler works, in part, because of the mystery of him. I suppose it’s a necessity to explore what Tyler actually is. Will he be a supernatural trickster figure? Will he be an archetypal shadow? Some other type of god or demon? A manifestation of a shared psychological aspect of humanity?

Fight Club 2 is scheduled for May 2015. I know I’ll be reading it.


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Review – Black Science Vol. 1: How to Fall Forever

imageBlack Science Vol. 1: How to Fall Forever by Rick Remender has been growing in my esteem since I finished reading it last night. Initially I was put off by the douchery of Grant McKay, the protagonist of the comic. The story opens in medias res with Grant bemoaning the choices that have led him to this dangerous situation, estranged from his wife, imperiling his children and his scientific team, running from scary fishmen riding giant turtles. But Grant reflects on this in a quantum physics sort of way. He is a dimensionaut (as they tentatively call themselves), traveling among layers of the everwhere, an onion-styled multiverse. He hopes that in one of these dimensions, he hasn’t screwed everything up. This is what drew me to the title in the first place–the multiverse aspect–and it’s what makes the story more than just a tale of adventure and redemption. Of course, there’s also plenty of that, but it’s entangled, if you will, with the heady mind-puzzle of parallel realities. That’s played out in the adventure in multiple, intriguing ways. Different versions of history, of the team, and of Earth itself become the randomized settings for the team’s survival after their travel device, the Pillar, is sabotaged by a mystery team member. In each place, they must survive long enough for the Pillar to make its next jump. Grant becomes much more sympathetic as the story goes on, as do even the most villainous of the characters. And no one is safe from the peril of their situations–will the next leap of the Pillar bring them to a safe, civilized place, or the battlefield of Germans against the technologically advanced Indian American tribes of alternate North America? Of course it leaves you hanging, as all good serials do. I’m certainly interested to see where the next jump will take the crew and if they’ll make it back home. image

The Monarch, one of Grant McKay's doppelgängers from The Venture Brothers version of reality.

The Monarch, one of Grant McKay’s doppelgängers from The Venture Brothers version of reality.

I appreciated the diversity of the cast of characters but was continually left cold by the art. The scenery was drawn and colored beautifully and moodily, but the humans were oddly modernist–all angular and cartoonish. Grant looked too much like The Monarch for me, and facial expressions were overdramatized. But I tend to be fairly elitist about my comic art. If it’s not by John Cassady, I probably won’t dig it. Most comic readers won’t likely be bothered by this.