All kinds of graphic novels, from the spiritual to the profane and everything in between!

The last time I wrote about graphic novels and such, I had a ton to review.  So I thought I would get this out a bit sooner so I could keep the number of books to a minimum.  Ha!  Real life has intruded, and I have a bunch of books under the fold that you may have missed.  Let's see what they are, shall we?

First up is The Vesuvius Club Graphic Edition by Mark Gatiss and Ian Bass.  This was published by Simon & Shuster UK and costs $15.95.  It's copyrighted both 1997 and 2005, and from what I can tell, it was originally a novel, so maybe that's the 1997 copyright.  There seems to be conflicting information, but I guess it's not that important.


The premise is pretty ingenious.  Lucifer Box is the star, and he's a secret agent for the British in Edwardian England.  Therefore, this is a James Bond book set 100 years in the past, and Gatiss and Bass do a fine job making the book feel authentic, from the characters' dress and the trappings of elite British society to the wild contraptions that show up in the book which could easily work given the technology available, despite their extreme weirdness.  Some of Bass' characters fall too easily into caricature, but his main characters are beautifully drawn, full of excellent details both in their faces and their costumes.  It's a somewhat odd book to look at, because it becomes quite serious at the end, and the cartoonish aspects of some of the people throughout make it seem goofier than it is.


The story has all the elements of a solid espionage thriller, with some weird twists thrown in.  A brief prologue introduces us to the main story, and then we meet Lucifer Box, who paints a man's portrait and then takes him out to dinner, whereupon he shoots him.  Lucifer, we learn quickly, is working for His Majesty's Secret Service, and the man he shot was plotting against the government.  He gets a new case - someone is killing England's prominent vulcanologists.  Box follows the case to Naples, where he meets the last surviving scientist.  He also meets a fetching young lady, Bella Pok, who follows him to Italy, and the scientist's manservant, Charlie Jackpot, who takes him to an infamous brothel, the Vesuvius Club, where he meets the madam, Venus.  Suffice it to say that none of these people are what they appear - it's a spy book, after all.  There's a grand scheme, naturally, that involves volcanoes, and there's double-crossing and violence and surprises aplenty.  Lucifer, of course, comes out with every impeccable hair in place, but who else survives?  Well, that would be telling.


This is a fascinating comic book in that it reads like a spy comic written by Oscar Wilde, which I'm sure is part of the point.  How much you like Wilde might color how much you like this comic, and the problem becomes that Wilde's work is really best when he's writing witty comedies of manners rather than horror.  I mean, The Picture of Dorian Gray is fine, but it's nothing like his comedies.  Therefore, the archness of this comic occasionally interferes with the narrative, and Gatiss, unfortunately, doesn't possess Wilde's genius.  That doesn't ruin the book, but it makes it less enjoyable than it might have been.  Gatiss does enough with the setting to make the book interesting, and when Box and his companions are acting in an Edwardian way rather than commenting on it, the book works.  The book is drenched in sex, despite having very little nudity and no actual sex (I'll get to the nudity), because Box is constantly flirting with everyone, and it's nice to see how Gatiss subverts some of the conventions of what we think of as social norms of that period without blasting them to pieces.  Box is the perfect gentleman, but he's still a rake.  There's a bit of nudity, but it's in a non-sexual context.  It's all part of the story, but I still wouldn't be surprised if some people got bent out of shape about it.  Suffice it to say, this isn't a comic book for kids.


I would recommend this book, with the caveat that you remember that James Bond isn't the nicest person either.  Lucifer Box isn't a very nice man, but he's an intriguing character, and the story is interesting enough to keep everything going.  It's certainly something different, and if you like mysteries, this might be something to check out.

Moving on, let's take a look at Cowboys & Aliens, which is written by Fred van Lente and Andrew Foley, with art by Dennis Calero (for the prologue) and Luciano Lima for the main story.  There are a host of inkers, too, which doesn't help.  It's published by Platinum Studios Comics and can be yours for the low low price of $4.99.


But is it worth it?  Well, for 5 dollars, maybe.  It's a bit disappointing.  The prologue sets things up nicely, as the Europeans coming to the Americas are compared to the aliens who ultimately invade.  It's a "will of the strong" kind of thing - if the Europeans claim they're just bringing culture to the natives, aren't the aliens just bringing culture to the Europeans?  And, you know, killing them in the process.  So the set-up is clever: aliens invade the Old West, and cowboys and Indians must team up to defeat them.  Can they work together even though they've been enemies for lo these many years?  Well, of course they can.


The disappointment comes from the way the story plays out.  It's entertaining, certainly, and there are a few nice moments when the cowboys (Zeke and Miss Verity) are forced to ally themselves with the Indians, represented by War Hawk, who is your typical "noble savage."  Of course, the cowboys are pretty stereotypical as well.  There's an alien who changes sides, naturally, and helps our poor human heroes out, but said alien's motives might not be completely pure.  It all plays out pretty much as we expect it to, with big explosions and the cowboys and Indians learning a little about each other, and the arrogant aliens getting what's coming to them from the indomitable humans.  That's pretty much it.  Lima's art isn't great, but it tells the story.  That's about all I can say about it.


Cowboys & Aliens is a mildly entertaining book with a nice twist on the "conquerors v. conquered" theme that has always played out over human history.  Van Lente and Foley could have done a lot more with the theme, although then the book would have stretched out a bit.  It's not the worst way to spend 5 dollars, but it's not the best way, either.  I'm lukewarm about it because it's kind of a bland but inoffensive book: it tells a story, it will keep you interested, but there's no reason to go find it and read it right now!  If you like a mix of genre fiction, though, it might be something you enjoy.


Moving on, we come to Silverfish, the new graphic novel by David Lapham.  It's published by DC/Vertigo and is $25 dollars.  Unfortunately, it's not really worth it.


That's not to say it's bad, it's just not worth the large amount of money you'd spend on it.  If you can get it on-line somewhere for a lot less money, it might be a good purchase.  The problem with the book is that it unfolds pretty much exactly as you expect, and that's no mean feat for a book that features a character who believes fish are swimming through his head and talking to him.


The prologue shows us a brutal murder.  We see the killer, and we also see that he believes fish are swimming through his brain.  It's actually a nice visual cue to his madness, and Lapham doesn't really overdo it.  The story proper begins three years later (in December 1988, although that's not really relevant beyond some references to music and fashion) with two teenaged girls shopping in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, right on the ocean.  One of the girls, Mia, is "morose" because her mother died - four years ago, as her friend Vonnie tells her.  Still, she's morose.  She has a younger sister, Stacey, and a relatively new stepmom, Suzanne, whom she hates.  Her father and Suzanne go away for the weekend, leaving the two girls at home.  Vonnie comes over, brings friends, and Mia starts to poke around in Suzanne's stuff.  That's just never a good idea.


Vonnie convinces Mia to start investigating Suzanne's past through the address book they find, and Mia starts calling numbers.  This leads back to the killer on the first page - shocking, I know.  The kids don't realize what they've done until it's far too late.  Pick your cliche - they stirred the pot, they bothered the hornets' nest, they POKED THE BEAR!  Suzanne finds out, she comes home to explain why she has a killer's phone number, the killer gets a bit grumpy that punk kids are calling, and things snowball from there.  We move inexorably and inevitably toward our conclusion, and that's my problem with the book - we can pretty much figure out what's going to happen, and Lapham doesn't throw any curves at us.  You might say that's okay because if you base a story entirely on twists and turns, it won't hold up, but there's also a problem with being too straightforward.  It's a gripping tale, to be sure, because Lapham creates a nice atmosphere (I've been to the Jersey shore in the winter, and Lapham does a nice job evoking the creepiness of it) and the characters are interesting, but when you're done, you simply think, "Oh.  So that's it."  It's a shame, because Lapham's art is very nice, the black-and-white of the book is perfect, and, like I said, the general mood of the book is unsettling.  It just never goes to places where it transcends the crime genre.


I don't know if it will show up in softcover or if you can find a bargain on-line.  If crime drama is your thing, it's certainly worth a look.  But it's not very memorable.


Another crime drama that came out recently is Black Cherry by Doug TenNapel, which costs $17.99 and is published by Image.  I have different problems with this than I do with Silverfish, but I still have problems with it!


In his forward, TenNapel writes that his "anti-Catholic secularist readership" might wonder why he's telling yet another story of faith.  I guess he's talking to me, although I'm not really "anti-Catholic" per se, but I am "secularist."  So going in, I knew it was going to delve into Christian themes (I've never read anything by TenNapel, so I didn't know this was common) and I was curious how it would dovetail with the tag on the cover promising "A lurid tale of sex, violence, and the supernatural!"


The story begins rather well.  Eddie Paretti tells of Black Cherry, a stripper he fell in love with.  Before he could ask her to marry him, she disappeared.  So he spends his time sleeping with married women and stealing their money, but his real job is as a gangster.  He owes his boss, Don Mauro, money, so another gangster asks him to do a job that will pay twice what he owes.  All he has to do is snatch a body from Don Mauro's house.  Eddie gets in and out without Don Mauro finding out he stole the body, and then Eddie opens the body bag and finds ... a living alien.  Yes, the story takes an odd turn.  A priest and a nun show up at Eddie's apartment looking for the alien.  Don Mauro, it seems, stole the alien, whose name is Harold, from the priest's monastery.  Eddie, of course, knows the priest - he grew up at the monastery, and Father McHugh - the priest - is like a, you know, father to him.  So Eddie gets involved in saving Harold, who wants to bring the Word of God to his people, while Don Mauro, who is working with and then possessed by a demon, wants to stop him.  Shit, as they say, hits the fan.


It's a pretty interesting set-up, and it's kind of nice to see a story of faith in which the characters aren't exactly role models.  Both Eddie and the nun - no points if you realize early that it's Black Cherry (and Eddie figures it out pretty quickly) - are not very "good" people, but they both realize they have to strive for something better in order to save the world.  Usually, characters who are unsavory and become better simply do it in a secular environment.  Both Eddie and Black Cherry are in an environment that demands faith in a higher being, and they understand that.  It's an interesting take on what it means to be faithful.


Unfortunately, there are a couple of things wrong with the book.  First of all, it's a bit too stereotypical.  The stripper who reforms and becomes a nun?  Check.  The gangster who's really a decent guy?  Check.  The gangster's horrible relationship with his own father that fucks him up until he is shown true love by a surrogate father?  Check.  Cherry's speech about how she danced to convince herself that she would never find true love and Eddie came along and messed that all up so she ran away is really silly.  I've never spoken to a stripper, but I wonder if TenNapel has.  It just seems like something men want a stripper to think, but feels false.  Maybe he interviewed dozens of strippers and they really feel that way.  It still feels false.


The religious aspects of the book are where it breaks down a bit.  I honestly have nothing against religious comic books - if it's well written, I don't care what the subject matter is.  However, religion - especially Christianity - seems to turn good writers into preachers, and TenNapel is no exception.  Too often in the book it feels like Father McHugh or Eddie or Cherry or even Harold is just spouting the party line, and it breaks up the flow of the narrative.  It becomes a sermon about how great God is, and even though that's fine, and I appreciate how TenNapel tries to show why God's grace is good even when it appears life sucks, it still feels too forced.  It becomes less of a story about people trying to rediscover their faith and more of a testament by people who already believe and are thumping the pulpit.  This is something that hurts a lot of religious comics, and unfortunately, it does here.  So despite the weird and somewhat interesting story, it breaks down at the end.  TenNapel almost saves it on the final few pages, where Eddie muses about the aliens and how they will handle all the evil in the world, but it's not enough to really save the book completely.


Still, it's always interesting to read a comic that is unabashedly Christian, just to see how the writer tackles a complex issue.  TenNapel actually does a good job for a good portion of the book in trying to come to grips with Catholicism in the modern world.  That he ultimately falls short doesn't mean we should ignore the effort.  So although I don't love Black Cherry, it's certainly a book holds your interest.


Our next selection is Crecy by Warren Ellis and Raulo Caceres, which is a nice slice of graphic novelty for $6.99 and comes to us courtesy of Avatar and Ellis' own Apparat line.


This is certainly an interesting book, with stunning art by Caceres, but I don't think I'm impressed with it as some other people are.  I've read a few reviews (by whom I can't remember) that said it made history interesting.  Well, those people are reading the wrong history books, but even then, I don't think it really makes history interesting, because Ellis isn't really interested in writing history.  Sure, all historical writing is inherently biased, so we can't really be sure exactly what happened in the past, but what Ellis wants to do is create an English myth that is rooted in history.  There's nothing really wrong with that, and he's right about one thing - the Battle of Crecy was a turning point in history for all the reasons he cites, especially the use of longbows by the English, but it wasn't as dramatic as Ellis makes it out to be.  What he's far more interested in is his narrator, William of Stonham, who's not a bad character at all.  William, however, is somewhat unreliable, and because his is the only point of view we get, this can't be good history.  But what about the actual story?


Well, there's not really a story here.  This is a lecture by William about the reasons the English are marching their way through France toward their destiny.  That's not to say it can't be entertaining, and it is in a lot of spots - but a large part of that comes from Caceres' detailed art, which brings home the conditions of the fourteenth-century world far better than Ellis' narrative does.  The best parts of Ellis' story are when William concentrates on the way a bow works, because it's very fascinating, and the battle itself, which again goes back to the magnificent art.  Ellis obviously has a bit of a mad-on for weaponry, so William's descriptions of how crossbows work and how longbows are made draw us into the story.  William's ranting about history and why the English are in France are less compelling.  First, he gets some history wrong - there's no evidence whatsoever that Harold Godwinson was killed by an arrow through the eye, and most evidence points to four knights breaking through the English line at Hastings and hacking him to death.  The story about how Edward II died is a nice if gruesome tale, but I've never read any confirmation of it.  "So what?" say you.  "Both fit into the tale."  Well, sure, but in that case, why not just make up everything about the past?  Oh wait, that's what our current Administration does.


With those choice facts wrong, it casts doubt on the rest of the book, where William talks about how soldiers live off the land and what happens in battle.  It sounds correct, but again, it could be Ellis making shit up.  And in a book that is not real heavy on a narrative thread, we rely on William to tell us the truth, at least about the things a fourteenth-century soldier would know.  But we can't believe it, and therefore this book falls apart both as history and as drama.  And that's a shame.


It sounds like I really don't like this book at all.  Well, that's not really true.  As I've mentioned, the art is wonderful.  Caceres is hyper-detailed, sure, but he gets the idea of France as a heavily forested wasteland, like much of Europe back then, and he shows the terrible slaughter on the battlefield that most people can't imagine in this age of video-game wars.  Even if we see a wounded soldier on television, we can't grasp the scale of something like Crecy, which, by all accounts, was a massacre.  So that works very well.  Ellis, as I've pointed out, does a good job with a soldier's point of view, and if you discount the occasional shady history, the story does a nice job letting us know how people viewed things back then.  Ellis oversells the battle just slightly - yes, it revolutionized warfare, but England didn't destroy France because of it, and even ten years later, when Edward the Black Prince captured the king of France at Poitiers, the English couldn't take advantage of the opportunity.  Ellis also has William claim that Philip VI started the Hundred Year's War, except for the fact that Edward III invaded France in 1337.  Again, that's fine, as long as you don't accept this as history.


If you've never read anything about Crecy or the animosity between England and France during the 1300s, this is a pretty good place to start.  It's only seven dollars, and the artwork overshadows the fact that it's a rant by an Ellis stand-in.  After you've read this, go read Jean Froissart's Chronicles.  It's biased, sure, but it has the advantage of being written by someone who was actually there.


We finish with Postcards: True Stories that Never Happened, an anthology of stories edited by Jason Rodriguez and published by Villard.  It costs $21.95, and it's worth a look.



I've been keen to read this book ever since Rodriguez announced it over a year ago.  It's a great idea: he dug up old postcards that had been mailed, sent them to various comics creators, and asked them to come up with a short story based on what was written on the back of the card.  What he got was a slew of interesting stories, some of which are brilliant, and great art by a wide variety of people.



Not all of the stories work perfectly.  Some are too short and could use a page or two added.  Others are a bit too predictable, even though they're interesting experiments.  Others, which are better, don't really tell much of a story - they're more about the mood of the postcard itself.  Therefore, the book begins with a whimsical story by Chris Stevens and Gia-Bao Tran that turns dream-like quickly, and it does a wonderful job bringing us into the book.  Tom Beland contributes a nice story about a man mourning the death of his wife and how much she meant to him.  "Cora's Dress," a story by James W. Powell and Drew Gilbert, is a sad story of a girl who doesn't want to dress up for her mother, a decision she comes to regret.  Stuart Moore and Michael Gaydos' story, "Tic-Tac-Bang-Bang," is a interesting story about con men in the early years of the 20th century.  "Best Side Out," by Antony Johnston and Noel Tuazon, is a story about a woman who rebels in her own quiet way, while "Intersection," by Neil Kleid and Jake Allen, is about two sisters who try to figure out how to cope with poverty.  Finally, the very fun "Holiday in Hades," by Robert Tinnell and Brendon and Brian Fraim, is the story of a post-Great War superhero, the Midnight Caller.



There are other stories, of course, but for me, those were the highlights.  The wonderful thing about this book is there is something for everyone.  Even the stories that don't work as well, like "Send Louis His Underwear," feature wonderfully claustrophobic art by Jason Copland.  Similarly, although "Taken on Faith" is a bit predictable, Ande Parks and Joseph Bergin III create a very nice atmospheric feeling in the story.  Phil Hester's beautiful "A Joyous Eastertide" breaks down only because it doesn't really earn its epiphanic ending.  That's the point, though - there's so much in the book that is different from each other and what you usually see.



The biggest disappointment about the book is that the postcards are all similar.  They're mostly from the early years of the 20th century, so most of the stories are set during that time.  Most of the writers take a depressing turn with the stories, too, even though many of them are hopeful.  The stories are still full of grief, which is why something like the Midnight Caller story is so refreshing.  It's not a reason to skip reading the book, but I just thought I'd warn you that it's a bit of a downer.


Rodriguez has a sequel lined up, and I would hope for a couple of things.  One, that the postcards are from different time periods or maybe different countries.  Two, that some of the stories deal with the weird stuff on the front of the cards.  The first story, as I mentioned, is fairly whimsical, and that's because Stevens and Tran use the front of the postcard, the elephant in Margate, New Jersey.  Most of the postcards are too boring to write stories about them, but it shouldn't be a problem finding ones that aren't.  Those are just suggestions, though.  And who the hell am I to suggest anything?

Postcards is a great idea that turned into a very cool book.  It's something you don't see often, and the creators have really put a lot of thought into the stories.  Even if they don't all work, it's still worth a look.  And hey! - Rodriguez is giving away signed copies of it!  So there's no excuse not to get your hands on it!

Well, that's it for this time.  I hope I helped show you some books that you might not have seen at your local comics store.  It's always good to be adventurous!   

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