Another Weekend in the Stacks
My town is going nuts this weekend. Apparently there’s some sort of impending sporting event that has sent Seattle residents into a spiral of crazy. Seriously, it’s a lot like that old episode of Star Trek where the clock strikes six and everyone runs screaming into the streets, “FESTIVAL! FESTIVAL! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
For me, this week also marked the end of the school semester, which means I’m coming off several weeks of trying to get my writing and cartooning students to focus on meeting their print deadlines, and then gathering all that work together and meeting MY print deadlines so they could have their books in hand in time to finish out the term. That was day before yesterday, and I’m still a little wiped out.
So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a good time to hole up and see if I can dig through this giant pile of books I keep setting aside to write about.
Some have been sent for review and some just caught my attention. Reprint collections, new releases, all kinds of stuff. So I’m going to do the capsule-review, lightning-round thing again and we’ll see how many of these I can get through today.
Garth Ennis Presents Battle Classics. by John Wagner, Cam Kennedy, and others.
The blurb: New York Times bestselling writer Garth Ennis, writer of The Boys, Preacher and Battlefields, selects his favourite stories from the seminal 1970s British boys’ comic Battle. Included in this fantastic volume for the very first time is the complete HMS Nightshade, and the never-before-reprinted The General Dies At Dawn. With insights and introductions by Ennis himself, this collection of war comic rarities is not to be missed!
What I Thought: There are few things as completely endearing to me as when a writer or an artist known primarily for work with a hard-edged, cynical tone suddenly reveals they are as capable of geeking out as the most rabid fanboy. And for Garth Ennis, what does it is old British war comics, apparently. The nice thing is that these strips really are as cool as he says they are, and this is a very handsome volume.
The bulk of the book is the run of the strip HMS Nightshade, the saga of a naval vessel as told by sailor George Dunn to his grandson. It’s written by John Wagner with art by Mike Western and it’s terrific. Most of the rest of the book is The General Dies at Dawn by Alan Hebden and John Cooper, a great story of a highly decorated German officer presenting his side of the story to one of his jailers, and then the book’s filled out with a couple of short pieces from Cam Kennedy.
Ennis writes wonderfully detailed introductions to each section of the book and his sheer enthusiasm is infectious; I think his gleeful nerding out in the intro sections actually helped me enjoy these more than I would have just seeing them on their own, although I still certainly would have– they are very fine stories. The whole thing is just a great package. Easily the best of these war collections Titan’s put out yet, and it’s a stunning hardcover for a very reasonable $29.95. Recommended.
The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins.
The blurb: Quarry doesn’t kill just anybody these days. He restricts himself to targeting other hitmen, availing his marked-for-death clients of two services: eliminating the killers sent after them, and finding out who hired them…and then removing that problem as well. So far he’s rid of the world of nobody who would be missed. But this time he finds himself zeroing in on the grieving family of a missing cheerleader. Does the hitman’s hitman have the wrong quarry in his sights?
What I Thought: Well, regular readers know that Hard Case Crime pretty much owns me. First of all, even though I’m very fond of fantasy and science fiction, my deepest affection lies with pulp action-adventure stories, and of those, the street-level crimefighting vigilante sort are the ones I love most of all whether they’re comics or prose. Mack Bolan, the Spider, Batman, Daredevil, Mike Hammer… those are my guys. So a new Quarry book from Hard Case Crime essentially has me at hello.
Apart from that, Hard Case Crime also has a knack for hitting that sweet spot in my fan psyche where the adult that appreciates well-crafted work intersects with the thirteen-year-old boy that just loves stories about hitting and shooting and car chases and shit that blows up. It delights me that this imprint exists at all, and whenever a new one arrives, just looking at the (always wonderfully lurid) cover instantly whisks me back to my early teens when I’d take my lawn-mowing money and ride my bike up to the Sentry Market to check out the spinner racks for new comics and paperbacks. The only thing missing from these Hard Case books to make it a total nostalgia trip for me is some kind of tacky series numbering on the front.
I only mention this to explain that the wave of affection that hits me whenever I see a new Hard Case cover will often stay with me as I’m reading the book. I know it’s just packaging, but it really works on me. I think I must be their ideal audience. The fact that the books are always so much better than the original schlocky pulp novels the imprint homages is a nice bonus. The funny thing is, Max Allan Collins actually got his start as a spinner-rack paperback-originals guy with his Nolan and Quarry books way back when, so his picking up the Quarry series again specifically for Hard Case is just about perfect as far as I’m concerned.
I’m late to the party, here; I only got started on the Quarry books when he revived it for Hard Case Crime a while back, but I’m on board now and this series rivals Ms. Tree as my favorite Collins project. Quarry is a former Marine sniper who returns home from Vietnam and becomes a hit man; albeit one who still has a little bit of a moral code. The books are very tough and cool and with a pleasantly nasty sense of humor. The latest one is no exception, and I liked it a lot.
I should add that I’d have probably liked it just as much had it arrived as a classy hardcover, but it feels much more right to see it behind that marvelous old-school paperback illustration. Collins is one of the best things Hard Case has going for them and I hope it’s a partnership that continues for years.
Deadman Book 3 by Bob Haney, Paul Levitz, Jim Aparo, and various; and Deadman Book 4 by Len Wein, Jim Aparo, and various.
The blurb: Deadman, the groundbreaking undead super hero driven to find his own murderer, returns in these collections of his 1970s adventures. Featuring appearances by Superman, Batman, The Phantom Stranger, Sgt. Rock and more, this title finds Deadman continuing his quest to bring his killer to justice while battling occult menaces throughout the DC Universe.
What I thought: The original Arnold Drake / Carmine Infantino / Neal Adams Deadman stories have been reprinted a number of times, in a variety of formats…. and rightly so, because they’re classics. But for the first time, DC is following up with reprint books that collect the other follow-up attempts to get a series with this character going. These are– well, not classic, but it’s nice to see them back in print. I suppose it’s necessary in order to placate the completists that are apparently the target market for these, but if I was the guy putting it together I think I’d have just included the stuff from Phantom Stranger and Adventure, the ones that are primarily Deadman-centric (and much, much better than the other) stories, and done it as one volume. The guest appearances from World’s Finest, Brave and the Bold, and Lois Lane (!) could have safely been left out, and since those are far and away the weakest things in the books, it would have made for a better read. Still, I got these so cheap I can’t complain, and I think I approve of publishers doing smaller books at a lower price. The good news is that volume five is on its way and that’s when you get to the good stuff again– the Helfer/Garcia-Lopez mini-series, in particular. But these two volumes are okay books to have and I like the general idea of DC doing a complete Deadman reprint series. The execution could have been a little better, is all.
Justice League: War by various folks at DCU Animated.
The blurb: When the powerful Darkseid and his massive, relentless forces invade Earth, a group of previously unaligned super heroes – misunderstood and, in some cases, hunted by the authorities – discover the only way to fend off the attack will be to work together as a cohesive unit. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Shazam and, in his origin story, Cyborg combine their respective talents in an all-out battle to save the planet.
What I thought: Full disclosure– I did not care for the Geoff Johns/ Jim Lee relaunch of the JLA this is based on. However, I flat-out hated the Red Hood series of Batman stories by Judd Winnick that resulted in the animated feature Batman: Under the Red Hood, which was a movie that I surprised myself by enjoying quite a bit. So I thought maybe the same alchemy would happen again.
Well, alchemy happened, but it went in the wrong direction. This is actually way, way worse than the published comics. It’s as though they looked at the original story and thought, well, not bad, but we could probably make this story louder and dumber.
In a typical display of this attitude, the decision was made to remove Aquaman entirely from the story to substitute the New 52 Captain Marvel, or I guess Shazam as he’s called now. (At one point he actually introduces himself by that name, which should have made him change, but apparently… the magic word only works sometimes? Who the hell knows? Never mind, move on, oh look explosion!!)
Apart from the fact that the character just shows up with no real explanation or introduction to speak of, it’s a bad idea because of what it does to the team dynamic. You know how to make Captain Marvel look completely useless and silly? Put him in a story with Superman and make sure to remove all the qualities that make Captain Marvel distinct from him. There’s a major plot point where Batman explains that they have to go rescue Superman because he’s their ‘big gun.’ Hello, Bat-dude, World’s Mightiest Mortal, pretty much the same power set as Superman, STANDING RIGHT THERE; but clearly he’s just Superman-Lite. If it had been Aquaman in that scene, the insane risk that Batman then takes might have made sense.
And so on. But I’m obviously setting the bar too high. Really, the whole idea of character development and thinking through the plot seems to have been pushed aside. The villain of the piece, Darkseid, has almost no lines at all, let alone any that might let us know why he’s suddenly arrived on Earth and blowing shit up. God forbid the League try to find out. The heroes are jerks, except for Cyborg, who’s actually just as teeth-clenchingly pissed off as everyone else but he at least is given a reason to be, and the Flash, who is… well, not as pissed off as the others. But that’s about it. Even thirteen-year-old me who loved punching and shooting and explosions would have been bored silly after the first half-hour of heroes hitting parademons, arguing, hitting each other, arguing, hitting Darkseid… that’s pretty much all there is. I’ve been snotty about New 52 DC trying to be XTREEM Marvel, but this is more like DC trying to be early 1990s Image.
Why anyone thought that would make for a good movie eludes me. At least when the Space Ghost and Herculoids cartoons did total-mayhem stories like this, they had the cool jazz soundtracks and they knew to get it done in six or eight minutes. This new League cartoon just goes on and on. I never would have thought fights and explosions could be so tedious.
My advice? Skip this; I watched it so you don’t have to. You would do much better, if you have a hanker on to see the JLA fight aliens trying to take over the world, to go back and watch the old Justice League cartoon three-parter about the Thanagarian invasion. (Here it is on Amazon for quite a bit less money than War, even.) It’s basically the same kind of story but, y’know, smart. Or go back and read the Johns/Lee print version of this story, which even a curmudgeon like me can admit is suddenly looking pretty good compared to the animated version.
I still have a big pile of books I wanted to talk about here, but this is running a bit long despite my vow to try and keep things short. So I’ll stop here for now and we’ll pick this up… next week. See you then.