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Giant robot warriors and talking hippos and other things that make comics groovy

And now for something completely different: reviews of sequential art books longer than individual, monthly-produced single issues!  I know: can you handle the excitement?

Larry Young is on another promotional blitz, it seems, as he is sending copies of Giant Robot Warriors out to various people.  I always like getting stuff from Larry in the mail.  It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Giant Robot Warriors is written by Stuart Moore and drawn by Ryan Kelly.  It’s published, obviously, by AiT/Planet Lar, originally appeared  in 2003, and costs $12.95.  Larry is pushing it, presumably, because of Kelly’s higher profile now that he’s working on Local.  Is Local all that high-profile, though?  Either way, it’s a chance to see Kelly’s art in between the somewhat lengthy appearances of Local.

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Giant Robot Warriors tells you exactly what to expect in the title.  This is indeed about giant robots who are built and deployed by the United States military.  The idea of giant robot warriors as substitutes for nuclear weapons, which is how Moore uses them, is pretty freakin’ brilliant, actually.  It’s a wonderful idea, goofy yet slightly unsettling at the same time, and for the most part, Moore does a very good job with it.  This is basically a satirical book, with plenty of asides about the Cold War, the situation in a certain Middle Eastern country, and even the nature of celebrity culture.  It doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but Moore and Kelly keep things zipping along, and it’s an enjoyable read.

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The problems start when you actually think about the book too much.  Yes, it’s a satire, but Moore chooses to go after some easy targets, and there the book suffers just a bit.  Not enough to make it a bad comic, but enough to temper my enjoyment of it slightly.  Moore goes after the president, and his solution for why Bush makes some weird statements occasionally is rather ingenious.  However, it just seems too easy to go after the president.  I’m no fan of Bush, so you would think I would enjoy this more, but what I really wish is for Moore to go after all politicians, because Bush is just an example of the crappiness of our elected officials.  Moore’s idea about Bush would work just as well with Kerry, to be honest.  It might actually be funnier.  The bad guys, who are ostensibly Muslim, are both strangely concerned with interior decorating.  It’s weirdly funny when one of them rants about it, but when his replacement does too, it’s feels a bit off.  But it’s just a few panels, so I can deal with it.

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Kelly’s art is the real star of the show.  His robots are hulking beasts, clunky yet fluid, and he jams details into every panel in the book, bringing this wild world to full-blown life.  His drawings are a bit more cartoony than they are these days, but in a book like this, that’s a plus.  He has a wonderful sense of scale and perspective that makes the book interesting and unusual to look at without being disconcerting.  And his robot battle near the end is truly magnificent.  It’s mostly Kelly’s book, and all Moore does is hang a tale on his art and get out of the way.

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This is certainly not the greatest book in the world, but it’s a fun read with some nice jokes and some shallow political satire.  It’s almost worth the cover price for the art alone, and when you throw in a pretty decent story, it’s definitely a fine book to check out.

Next up is Hip Flask: Concrete Jungle, which is published by Image and proclaims that it is Volume One, “The Big Here & the Long Now.”  It’s written by Richard Starkings, with part of the script by Joe Casey, and fully painted by Ladrönn.  Starkings, through Active Images, was nice enough to send this to me, and I’m glad he did, because this is a stunning piece of art.  Really magnificent.

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The nice thing about this big book is that you don’t need to have any knowledge of the characters coming in, even though they star in a monthly comic book, Elephantmen (which is also very good).  Starkings and Casey do a fine job introducing the characters and the concepts of this futuristic world without forcing it on us, and we’re quickly immersed in 23rd-century Los Angeles, as well as the lives of the animal/human hybrids who walk her streets.  Hip Flask, the hippopotamus detective, is the star of the book, but we also meet Obadiah Horn, the rhinoceros businessman, the giraffe shopkeeper, Lieutenant Trench, the zebra policeman, and Casbah Joe, the camel club owner (yes, Joe Camel).  Starkings gives each of these characters, plus the many humans who populate the city, solid personalities and nifty little quirks, and although this is a pseudo-noir mystery (Blade Runner is the easiest comparison to make in the movie realm), none of the characters feel too much like stereotypes.  The added dimension of these hybrids living among humans lifts the book up beyond just a simple noir-ish mystery and adds a nice level of ethical and racial issues.  These hybrids are unwanted in the city and are subject to prejudice, but they soldier on.  Hip Flask embodies this determination to get things done.

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It’s a thickly plotted book, too, with a time travel experiment gone wrong at the heart of it.  This leads Hip Flask to investigate Casbah Joe, which leads back to Obadiah Horn’s business dealings.  Horn has a rival in his underworld dealings, a human named Serengheti, and there’s a gang war going on.  Plus, the scientist who created the hybrids has something going on, and he’s confident that he’s about to get out of prison.  Add to this the underpinning of prejudice against the Elephantmen, which Hip Flask deals with throughout the book, and it’s a nice meaty story to sink your teeth into.

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Ladrönn’s art is spectacular.  He brings Los Angeles to life with startling details and impressive full-page spreads of sprawling freeways and towering buildings.  There’s also decay, of course, and on the ground in the city, we see the rottenness at its core.  Ladrönn shifts easily from the beautiful African landscape to the alleys of the city to the penthouses of Obadiah Horn to the warehouses where brutal violence is practiced.  And it’s quite brutal, but Ladrönn does a good job making us squirm when he shows the effects of violence.  His Elephantmen are wonderful, too, as it’s always clear they are animals, but they look so human it’s easy to forget.  The human beings, especially the women, have a vague what I would call “European” look to them – I can’t really explain it, but it feels reminiscent of European artists from the 1970s like Moebius.  They look out of style.  Check out Vanity, Hip Flask’s companion:

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It’s not that the depiction is bad, it just looks somewhat out of whack with the rest of the book.  It’s a minor point, not even really a complaint.  It just struck me as strange.

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The biggest problem I have with the book is really nothing to do with the book if you read it in a vacuum.  I have been reading the monthly series, however, and I’m a bit puzzled where this book fits in with those.  Several elements and characters from the monthly book are in this, and the biggest problem is that someone gets killed in this book who’s still, as of last issue, alive in the monthly series.  And the doll that features rather prominently in the montly series makes an appearance, but it doesn’t seem to have gone on its journey yet.  I assume this takes place after the events of the monthly series, but how will that story continue in conjunction with this one?  It’s weird.  Plus, this is the first in what presumably will be a series of graphic novels.  It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (two, really, with the death of the character and a big event over Los Angeles), and another volume is promised.  Considering that it probably takes Ladrönn forever to paint these kinds of things, I doubt we’ll be seeing it any time in the near future.  So will the events in the monthly reflect what happened here?  These things bug me.

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Taken completely on its own, Concrete Jungle is a beautiful and gripping graphic novel.  It costs 30 dollars, which is a bit steep, I’ll admit, but it’s very much worth it.  The cliffhanger ending notwithstanding, it’s an excellent piece of art.  I just hope we see the next one within a decent amount of time!

Up next is Sore Thumbs by Owen Gieni and Chris Crosby, which is published by Keenspot Entertainment (based in South Dakota!) and will set you back $12.95.  It’s also volume one, so presumably more are forthcoming.  The people at Keenspot were nice enough to send this my way, so I thank them.

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This is a bit of an odd duck.  Everyone knows the expression (which is totally sexist and I would certainly never use in casual conversation!) of “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”  This is actually a perfect example of this, because Sore Thumbs is a webcomic that you can read for free, with a new strip appearing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  This volume collects the first eight months or so of the comic (from March to November, 2004), but it’s not like you can’t read it yourself, if you want to.  Here’s the link to the first page of this collection, and you can just go from there.  So I’m not terribly sure why this is collected and sold, when you can easily get it for free with a simple Internet connection.  Maybe this is for the poor sad people who don’t have an Internet connection (in which case sending it to me isn’t going to do much good).  I’m no marketer, but it just seems weird.

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Of course, the question is whether it’s any good or not.  Well, it’s okay.  Crosby’s manga-esque art has a goofy charm, whether it’s his ridiculously pneumatic Cecania, her round-headed brother Fairbanks, or the charming second fiddle Harmony.  He does a nice job in the book with the gamers who show up at Fairbanks’ video game store, showing them in all their nerdy glory, staring slack-jawed at Cecania’s ample bosom.  There’s not a lot of action in Sore Thumbs, so Crosby has to be good at shifting our focus easily from one character to another, and he does this well.  He also does facial expressions extremely well, another plus in a limited space like this.  Fairbanks, interestingly enough, often gets the most varied palette of facial expressions, despite having a rather bland “normal” face.  Maybe that’s why Crosby cuts loose with him so much.  One strange problem with the art is a lot of the backgrounds are very fuzzy, as if Crosby just sketched something vague and then added the figures in front.  It’s not that big a deal because so much of the book focuses on the characters, but it’s a bit odd.

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The writing is hit-and-miss, which is to be expected, possibly, from a comic that tries to tell a joke in one page every other day.  There are long storylines running through the book, but Gieni also wants to have each final panel end with a punch (not necessarily a joke, just something that ends the segment), so it feels very disjointed a lot.  And not all of the jokes really work all that well.  There are plenty of funny moments, but lots of kind of dull moments too.  Gieni uses Cecania, the super-liberal, and Fairbanks, the ultra-conservative, to take potshots at political figures (Fairbanks is far more the figure of ridicule than Cecania, but she’s still a target), and some of the jokes are very funny, but the satire isn’t as razor-sharp as it could be.  Wow, Fairbanks has gay fantasies about the president!  Isn’t that clever?  Picking on conservatives and video game players is kind of easy, after all (it’s like picking on comic book nerds!), so although there are some funny moments, a lot of times it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  Sore Thumbs is gleefully politically incorrect, however, and it’s nice to see Gieni and Crosby at least going full bore to offend everyone.  Sometimes, however, it’s just not that funny.

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I can’t really recommend Sore Thumbs, even though it’s enjoyable.  It misses the mark as much as it hits, and I keep coming back to the price.  Why would you buy it?  Go to the web site and read some of it.  See if it’s for you.  There’s no need to shell out 13 dollars for this.

Moving on, last week saw the re-publication of It Rhymes With Lust, which was originally published back in 1950.  It’s a pulpy noir book written by Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller and drawn by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin.  Dark Horse published it this time around, and it costs $14.95.  It would have been nice to see it before Drake died, but for some reason, it was delayed a bit.

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It’s an interesting book to read even though it’s not that great.  I’m glad I bought it, but at the same time, I find it more interesting as a historical artifact than an actual good comic book.  It’s fascinating to see how little the pulp noir genre has changed in over 50 years (more, really, if you go back to the 1940s and earlier).  The art and some of the writing has a distinct 1950s feel to it (no cursing, in other words), but if Sean Phillips re-drew this and Ed Brubaker, just for fun, slapped his name on the script and it came out over a few issues of Criminal, I doubt if anyone would bat an eye.  It has everything a pulp noir book usually has, and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this.

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Our hero, Hal Weber arrives in Copper City from the East when an old flame, Rust Masson, summons him.  Rust is your prototypical femme fatale, marrying a rich older man and then taking over when he dies (he’s dead at the beginning of the book).  She wants to take control of the state’s political machine, and she needs to destroy her rival, Marcus Jeffers, to do it.  She hires Weber to run one of the two newspapers in town – the one everyone thinks is “unbiased” – to smear Jeffers.  Weber knows he’s being played, but he can’t resist Rust’s charm (her name, after all, rhymes with lust!).  His saving grace is Audrey Masson, Rust’s step-daughter, who is, naturally, a blonde beauty with a heart of gold, who falls for Weber and tries to get him to do the right thing.  There are double-crossings, murders, Weber falling into Rust’s bed (tastefully off-panel, of course), and women slapping other women.  Man, that Rust is mean!  The politics of Copper City might be the most interesting part of the book.  Of course, that comes from someone who thought the local politics of Chinatown and The Two Jakes were riveting, so take it with a grain of salt.

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This is a remarkably modern book, both in the story and the art.  The people, obviously, are dressed in the style of the times, but if we compare it to a lot of the monthly comic books that were coming out at the time, it’s crisp, realistic, and everyone is well-proportioned and normal-looking.  Too often with bad comic book art, the artist is trying too hard to squeeze things into panels that aren’t the best size for it.  Baker easily tells the story, and makes sure every person is where they should be.  It doesn’t look like a 1950s comic book, and it’s very nice to look at.  The story, as I’ve said, holds up, with people acting like people, and despite some purple prose, there’s nothing here that makes us roll our eyes and shake our heads.  Rust’s power over Weber is a bit weird, especially after he realizes what a viper she is, but she’s a red-headed sexpot – who wouldn’t be in her power?

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But I have written that it’s not that great.  Well, yes.  Most of what I like about this book comes from the fact that it doesn’t feel like something that was written and drawn in 1950.  It’s still a pretty standard story, with all the elements of a pulp novel, and nothing really comes as a surprise.  If you’re a huge fan of the genre, it’s worth checking out, but it’s not going to make you marvel at its originality or even its flair.  Drake and Waller, neophytes in the comic industry, don’t do anything in this book to make it stand out.  Perhaps it’s because they were neophytes, and they wanted to make sure they could still work in the industry.  A little over a decade later, Drake created the Doom Patrol, and it’s interesting to see how much better he writes in those stories than in this one.  There’s nothing really wrong with this book, but there’s nothing really special about it, either.

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However, like I wrote, as a historical curiosity, it’s kind of neat.  But that’s about it.

Finally, last week we got a re-issue of Solstice, by Steven T. Seagle and Justin Norman.  It’s published by Active Images and costs $12.95.  If it weren’t an old book that got a bit of a makeover for this edition, I would say it’s in the early running for best graphic novel of the year.  It’s phenomenal.

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Solstice was originally planned as a three-issue mini-series, but the company publishing it went under and it was never completed.  It shows once again that Seagle is wasted on big-time superhero comics, where his work (what I’ve read of it) is unimpressive.  It’s unfortunate that it’s what pays the bills, but at least it allows him to write stuff like this and the Superman graphic novel It’s a Bird …, which is also brilliant.

This book tells the story of Russell Waterhouse and his son, Hugh, who have a contentious relationship, to say the least.  Russell is a stereotypical domineering father who happens to be a multi-millionaire.  He is obsessed with staying alive, and the book is centered around his quest to find the Fountain of Youth.  Russell takes Hugh on three different expeditions to three remote corners of the world, and we see his ruthlessness and his contempt for weakness, as well as his unbelievable drive to succeed.  Russell is a harrowing portrait of an evil man, and we’re not terribly unhappy that he falls (seemingly) to his death on the third page of the book.

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Yes, Russell falls from a waterfall and dies.  The entire book is told by Hugh in flashback, and he begins his tale in the jungles of Chile, where the third expedition has gone horribly wrong.  Seagle’s choice of starting it here means that he can circle around the events of the book, making this a wonderful puzzle to read.  Hugh constantly jumps back and forth from the “present” (the expedition to Chile, even though that’s in the past too) to further in the past, and the non-linear style of writing means that Seagle can concentrate on the relationship between Hugh and his father, revealing moments between them that allows us to constantly shape our perceptions of Russell.  Despite being a monster, he’s also human, and when he shows his human side briefly, it’s a powerful moment.  Seagle also reveals a big secret about their family late in the book that shows us why Russell is so focused on finding the Fountain of Youth, a secret that occurs early on in Hugh’s life.  It wouldn’t be as emotionally wrenching if it came chronologically when it’s supposed to.  The entire book is like that, with Russell doing something horrible and then Hugh going back to an earlier event that reveals the context.  It doesn’t make Russell less of a horrible person, but it helps undercut our perceptions about why he does what he does.  The final secret of his quest is revealed after his death, and it puts his entire life and his reaction to it in clear focus, and we realize that we’ve understood very little about what’s been going on.

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Seagle seems to do well with this kind of book.  He is very concerned with the connections we have to family members and why we forgive them even when they commit seemingly unforgivable acts.  Seagle is primarily dealing with the relationship between and father and a son, and he does an excellent job showing how Hugh can still remain with Russell even after his father humiliates him constantly.  It’s not just because Hugh is weak – in the end, he turns out to be stronger than we thought.  And it’s not just because Russell is so domineering – he needs Hugh, and even though he berates his son, he also tries to keep him in his life.  It’s a brutal relationship, one that is uncomfortable to read about, but it’s real, and it remains intriguing throughout the book.

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Norman’s artwork is stunning as well.  He shifts easily from the South American jungles to the Siberian wastelands, and does a fine job showing Russell and Hugh at different times of their lives.  As this is a book that jumps back and forth in time, Norman has to keep up with Seagle’s shifts, and he does it admirably.  On one page, he draws Russell’s “walk,” which Hugh recognizes as his supremely confident walk, four different times with four different backgrounds, and it’s a wonderful effect that shows just how powerful Russell can be.  Norman also does a very good job showing Russell’s easy change from charming to monstrous, and as we look, it’s actually surprising to see the same face change so quickly and clearly.  It’s a wonderful book to look at, full of interesting little details and nuances.

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This edition has a nice appendix, with the publishing history of the book and an interview with Seagle and Norman, in which we learn that Norman had to relearn his style from a decade ago to finish the book, and that Richard Starkings re-lettered the entire book once it was completed.  Stuff like that, the nuts and bolts of creation, are fascinating to me (it’s why I love good commentary on DVDs).  It’s a nice companion to the main book.

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Solstice is a great comic book.  It’s adventurous, it’s thrilling, it’s an honest and chilling look at a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son.  Seagle can write all the mainstream superhero comics he wants.  As long as he gives us something like this every few years.  Check it out – you won’t be disappointed.

Well, that’s a bunch of big illustrated books to get through!  I hope something here caught your fancy, because with so much keen stuff out there, there’s no need to wait around to see who next draws Supergirl like a slut!

(By the way, I apologize for the poor legibility of some of these pages.  I’m not sure what the deal is.  Bad paper quality, maybe?  Or perhaps I’m using the wrong program to load pictures.  I’m sure if I had more time I could figure something better out.  Anyway, I’m sorry.) 

17 Comments

I’m so picking up Giant Robot Warriors.

For the record, Owen Gieni is the artist of Sore Thumbs. Chris Crosby’s the writer.

There are a handful of reasons to want print editions of webcomics. You’ve got the ability to peruse the archives without sitting at your computer. If the cartoonist did his or her job properly, the art looks a lot better on paper at somewhere between 300-600dpi as opposed to 72dpi. I don’t know if the Sore Thumbs volume does this, but some collections toss in extras like sketches or commentary. It’s a way to help support the cartoonist (or at least help him not go bankrupt on the production costs), in exchange for a nifty collectible. They look neat on a shelf.

Lots of people seem to think so, too. Penny Arcade’s got three volumes out from Dark Horse. PvP has a deal with Image. Megatokyo is currently being published by DC, under the CMX Manga imprint.

I don’t disagree with the idea of publishing webcomics as books. I’ve got Shutterbug Follies and would like more volumes of that, but I do disagree with this:

If the cartoonist did his or her job properly, the art looks a lot better on paper at somewhere between 300-600dpi as opposed to 72dpi.

Surely if the job is a webcomic then if the artist has done their job properly it’ll look as good as possible on the screen. how it would look printed out at a higher resolution is almost irrelevant

Greg, have you read Blacksad? If not, it’s a wonderful piece of anthropomorphic noir, tautly written and gorgeously illustrated. The Hip Flask pages reminded me of a sci-fi version of Blacksad.

I have 2 of the Ladronn Hip Flask issues, and they’re absolutely beautiful. The writing, however, did not engage me. I haven’t read them in a few years, but I remember feeling a little lost, maybe because the visuals overpowered the narrative. Perhaps I was looking for more noir and less sci-fi, or the time between issues was too long for me to remember characters and events. Is the writing in the ongoing better than the writing in the Ladronn books?

Thanks, Andrew. This is what happens when I simply assume the writer will be listed first! Yes, I have a writer bias! The comic actually looks better on screen, because the paper quality of the book isn’t all that great. It looks fine in the book (my poor scans notwithstanding), but it’s a bit crisper on screen. I understand wanting everything in one nice volume and not having to page through different screens, and I’ll take book form over reading something on the computer any day of the week (I’m old-school!), but I just wonder about the financial feasibility of it. I guess it works; as you mention, plenty of webcomics have book editions.

Mike – I have not read Blacksad. What’s the deal with it? Who publishes it, who did it, that sort of thing. I’m always keen to check new stuff out. As for the writing, I’m actually with you on the old Hip Flask stuff. I got “Unnatural Selection” when it came out and was frankly pretty confused. This book is much clearer, as is the monthly series (which is, unfortunately, not Ladronn’s work), so it seems like the kinks have been worked out. There’s still a lot that’s unexplained, but it at least feels like Starkings has a plan.

Giant Robot Warriors and Concrete Jungle look like must buys.

I thought Rhymes With Lust was good fun. It’s pure pulp and kinda trashy, but it was nice to look at, and the plot was more intricate an’ twisty than you’d expect from this kinda thing.

Blacksad vol. 1 & 2 (Arctic Nation) have been released in the U.S. (published by ibooks). The series was written by Juan Diaz Canales and illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido. It’s a noir set in the ’50s. The characters are all anthropomorphized animals, and the plots are fairly conventional noir, with femme fatales, plot twists, and a private detective protagonist. The execution, however, is what puts Blacksad above other books of its type. Canales’ pacing and characterization keep the reader interested, but Guarnidio’s lush, eye-popping artwork is the book’s main draw. Only a few American comic artists come close to his work.

Hip Flask looks incredible. I’ve been craving some anthropomorphic safari animal noir.

I really appreciate your column, Greg. As someone that lives far from a proper comic shop and usually treks out for a handful of graphic novels at a time I find it to be an invaluable resource. Particularly since you spotlight some of the more interesting and less hyped books which I would otherwise never hear of.

No problem, Lucion. I know that sometimes it’s hard to find things that aren’t shoved down your throat, which is why the Internet is such a neat place.

Wow liked reading about another comic seems like a great book . It must be hard to get comic before people today where they can be brought and sold. I have a ebook on line and people in stores never get to see it to decide if they like it or not .The story seems to deal with the extra special lov between a man and he’s son . I hope someone reads this and helps make this persons dreams come true .

FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 30, 2007 at 2:58 pm

“Solstice is a great comic book. It’s adventurous, it’s thrilling, it’s an honest and chilling look at a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. Seagle can write all the mainstream superhero comics he wants. As long as he gives us something like this every few years. Check it out – you won’t be disappointed.”

I won’t.

Because I already own it!

HA HA Greg, you’re slipping man!
Reviewing stuff I’ve already read, it’s like you don’t just post for me to read, or something.

In fact I think I recomended it in a comment to one of your columns a while ago.

Anyway, I’d second your recomendation wholeheartedly. Everyone should read Solstice.
Because if everyone did, we’d get more good adventure/psycholgical thiller comics on the shelves, and that’s something I desperately want.

Actually, sir, that was partly why I ordered it – because of your recommendation! So thanks for that. It was an inspired pick!

FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 30, 2007 at 3:36 pm

“Actually, sir, that was partly why I ordered it – because of your recommendation! So thanks for that. It was an inspired pick! ”

Someone likes my taste! God Bless the internet!

Meanwhile, my flatmate who was in the loungeroom while I read it, was there when I finished and said ‘That was fucking fantastic, you should check this out!’, won’t.

Now if I can ever convince someone to check out Strangehaven I’ll be a happy man.

You’ve just undone your recommendation of Solstice for me by recommending the rather tedious Strangehaven

Hey, thanks for the great coverage of two of our books (Concrete Jungle and Solstice)! Glad you dug ‘em too.

Just wanted to clarify that the monthly Elephantmen series from Image is indeed prequel to the Hip Flask books, and reveals a lot of backstory, characterization and details that should help you make sense of the whole thing.

JG

Thanks for the clarification, John. It will be interesting to see how the monthly leads into the graphic novels.

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