Weekend with the Review Pile
I don’t actually know how I got on so many publishers’ radar all at once. I’m sort of dreading the day when something arrives that I really, really hate, because then I’ll feel guilty and ungrateful. I’m not really what you’d call a hard-ass reviewer guy. But so far, everything that’s been arriving ranges from, “This is pretty cool– maybe not really for me, but it’s nice that it’s out there,” to “Oh my God this is friggin’ AWESOME!!”
So this week I’m going to go through all that good stuff for you.
Tom Green at Titan Books, especially, has been sending along all kinds of great new reads. Technically they’re not really COMICS but I think they will be of interest to you folks nevertheless.
For example, if you are fans of Marvel’s Shang-Chi you might be interested to see the source material.
Titan is re-issuing Sax Rohmer’s original Fu Manchu novels in a really lovely series of trade paperbacks.
The books are handsomely put together with new cover art by– I love this part– Ron Lesser, a guy who’s done a lot of genuinely classic paperback cover illustration, including previous takes on the Devil Doctor.
The books themselves are acknowledged classics of pulp fiction, and though some of the racial references might cause a modern reader to wince, the bottom line is Fu Manchu, despite all the huffing and puffing about sinister Oriental wiles and so on, always comes off as the coolest, baddest dude on the block. Today’s supergenius villains owe a huge debt to Sax Rohmer and his fiendish creation. (I’m looking at you especially, Doctor No.)
I’m delighted Rohmer’s books are back in print and especially that they’re getting such terrific packaging. When you spend as much time bookscouting as I do, even just as a hobby, you develop an appreciation for books as artifacts, and these are just nicely-put-together books; clearly designed with an eye towards pleasing aficionados of the genre (Ron Lesser!!) as well as new readers.
Also newly available from Titan are re-issues of Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton series of novels. Full disclosure– Win Eckert, who’s overseeing this reprint series for Titan, is a friend of the blog and we correspond on occasion… but then, this isn’t really a review because I’ve already been recommending these books to superhero fans for years. The idea that Tarzan and Doc Savage and James Bond and Travis McGee all share a common ancestry and live in the same universe has delighted my inner superhero nerd since I was in the seventh grade.
As I’ve told comics fans many, many times, Philip Jose Farmer was doing Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen shared-universe idea back in the 1970s. Now Farmer’s Wold Newton books, originally done in a scattershot fashion with various different publishers in no particular sequence (it helps if you’ve read Farmer’s Tarzan biography first, but it’s not really necessary) are coming out as an actual SERIES, with their own trade dress and a whole bunch of cool extras added.
I’m looking at the new edition of The Other Log of Phileas Fogg right now and I’m delighted to see it back after so long, and in such a classy package. This is one of Farmer’s best, an amazing adventure that reveals that Phileas Fogg’s wager and subsequent eighty-day voyage was actually a desperate attempt to stave off alien invasion. And even though this one is an old favorite of mine and I’ve had it for years, this new edition has some nice additional stuff from Win about what the Wold Newton thing is all about and a helpful chronology as well… enough that I’d have probably decided to treat myself to the new edition if Titan hadn’t already sent me one. If this is one of those book series you’ve been meaning to get around to for years, this is a great time to get on board.
Truthfully, the only book that Titan sent me that left me feeling kind of ‘meh’ was Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, a collection of essays covering everything Whedon has done in comics and television, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on up through Dollhouse, Astonishing X-Men and even the new Avengers movie.
Now, there’s lots of good stuff in here, including interviews with folks like Jane Espenson and Alexis Denisof and Tim Minear, and a couple of fun personal reminiscences from fans who explain how they came to be such Whedon devotees in the first place. But overall, the book largely is a collection of literary and academic essays and that hits me just completely the wrong way. Even if I agreed with the analysis being presented– which is by no means a hundred-percent proposition– after a while you just want to say, For God’s sake, it’s just frigging TV and comics, calm down. (And I say this as someone who’s probably contributed more than his share of over-thought analytical fan essays to the body of work out there.)
Julie tried to read it too, and gave up about a quarter of the way through. She probably summed it up better than I could– “I like Joss Whedon too, but there’s only so much worshipful awe a person can take.” That’s pretty much my take too.
But I know there are a lot of Whedon fans out there that live for this sort of thing and they would love this book. It’s absolutely right up their alley and if you’re one of those– someone who shows up all over the net to defend Dollhouse and still is angry about Willow and Oz breaking up and has posted things on message boards beginning with, Well, clearly Joss is trying to… – then yeah, this book’s for you and you will love it.
But it’s not my thing. It reminds me too much of all the stuff that would blow up into idiotic internet brawls on the CBR TV and Movies Forum every Wednesday morning, way back when Tuesday was Buffy and Angel night on the WB.
Got kind of carried away talking about Titan, but there’s all sorts of things arriving from other publishers as well. Let’s see how many of them I can get through here. Lightning round!
Erik Hendrix at Arcana sent along The Evil Tree, a trade paperback coming out in September, “just in time for Halloween!”
I was prepared to dislike this and blow off reviewing it, honestly. Here is my terrible secret– I love horror fiction and am very fond of horror movies, but the slasher, splatterpunk stuff is a subgenre I despise, and even worse, I really don’t care for straight horror comics. Never have. Not EC, not Warren, none of them. (I don’t count monster comics… especially not the continuing-character things from Marvel like Satana or Tomb of Dracula, because those always feel more to me like superhero books that live on the dark side.) Straight horror comics, though, even classics like the Tales From the Crypt or Creepy or Eerie… they don’t feel scary to me, just gross.
So writer Erik Hendrix and artist Daniel Thollin really had the deck stacked against them as far as I was concerned. I took one look at that cover with the bloody axe and thought, oh hell, this is another gross-out torture-porn book for all those people who loved the SAW movies. Once I started reading it, with its opening scenes of a nervous girl having a bad premonition on her way to her new home, an isolated house in the woods, I was even more ready to scoff.
But you know what? Hendrix and Thollin sold me. Their tale of a young couple inadvertently awakening Something Very Evil may not be innovative, but I have a soft spot for classic tropes done well, and Mr. Hendrix rang enough changes on the formula that I was never bored. As a haunted house story, The Evil Tree is genuinely haunting… even scary.
I was especially impressed with Mr. Thollin’s ability to craft and stage comics layouts that were actually frightening and surprising, considering his cartoony style put me off a bit at first. But it works for this.
In a way it’s almost more immersive– the jagged, simple style of the art helps put across the emotional part of the story. And when the art is that well-suited to the story, that’s my definition of good. Considering how much I was prepared to dislike it, I figured the least I could do was tell you all how good it is. Check it out when it arrives in September.
… well, that wasn’t very lightning-like. I guess I can’t help myself. Let’s try again.
I admit their comics are pretty hit-and-miss with me, but Moonstone continues to put out great prose books. (I was actually supposed to get a big package of stuff from them not too long ago but I have an ugly hunch it was stolen off the front stoop where our idiot mail carrier left it.) But the fact that the book package never arrived just means I end up going and getting them myself anyway.
The new Green Hornet and Lone Ranger anthologies are amazing.
Moonstone’s also started putting out short prose novels that are really reminiscent of my beloved 1970s spinner-rack action series paperbacks. And in a world where standard 32-page comics are going for as high as $3.99, $4.99 for a new paperback novel is a steal.
I especially adored Howard Hopkins’ Lone Ranger novel, Vendetta. Mr. Hopkins has contributed a great deal to my enjoyment of the Moonstone prose books over the last few years, doing all kinds of terrific work there, and I was saddened to hear of his untimely passing not too long ago. I didn’t know him but I loved his stuff, and it’s a shame there won’t be any more. But Vendetta is a great one to go out on.
And finally, occasionally readers send me things to look at. Most of these I answer privately, especially if it looks like student work. But once in a while I get something so accomplished and well-crafted that I’ll push it here.
Such is occasional CSBG commenter Gavin Bell’s new crime novel, Halfway to Hell.
It’s pulpy and nasty and moves like an express train. I can’t do better than the description given here: Following a botched heist, professional thief Johnny Park and a crew of mismatched miscreants rendezvous in the small desert town of Halfway, Arizona. Things go from bad to worse when their fence is found murdered, and it soon becomes clear that someone has followed them to this dusty speck on the map with the intention of killing each member of this disparate group.
Unable to cut his losses and run, Johnny must deal with a suspicious sheriff, a knockout redhead, and a gang where the only person he trusts is himself. Are the killings related to the heist, or has a phantom from the past come to Halfway to enact a bloody reckoning?
In his covering note, Gavin told me that some editors had turned it down for being too noir, or something. Well, in my household, there’s no such thing. It’s tough and cool and very much in the tradition of comics like Steven Grant’s 2 Guns or movies like Jason Statham’s The Mechanic. In point of fact, Halfway to Hell would make an amazing Jason Statham movie, come to think of it.
But until that happens, you can find Gavin’s book right here in Amazon’s Kindle store. Well worth the paltry $3.99 it’ll set you back. Check it out. After all, when one of the regulars here has published something this good, we should support it, and I’ve spent a lot more for books I liked a lot less. Hell, I’ve spent more for COMICS I liked a lot less.
I know this is going up very late — though it’s still the weekend! he added defensively– but I have a really good reason.
Yesterday both my Cartooning and Young Authors kids were rolling out brand-new books at the Olympia Comics Festival.
We had a great show and the students all did really well. I’ll have more to say about all of it…
…next week. See you then.