Back in the Stacks on Saturday

Wrapping up the capsule reviews from last week. Some superhero books, some fantasy, some western, and some oddball humor, even.


Conan: The Nightmare of the Shallows by Brian Wood, Davide Gianfelice, Mirko Colak, Andrea Mutti et al.The blurb: In the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, Conan and Belit find their bond buckling under an enormous strain. When Belit returns to her childhood home, what she discovers in the sands of Shem could separate her from Conan forever. Conan then seeks clarity through the mind-altering power of the yellow lotus, but the visions revealed to him may be more than the barbarian can bear. Brian Wood's defining run on Conan continues with art by the celebrated talents of Davide Gianfelice, Mirko Colak, and Andrea Mutti!

What I Thought: Well, mostly what I thought was, "This isn't my idea of Conan at all."

It's a great-looking book, certainly, and everyone who worked on it is at the top of their game. The art is amazing, the colors are lush and gorgeous without looking over-photoshopped... it's a really nice book. Moreover, Wood is telling an engaging story here. But those who came in, as I did, expecting to see a story of Robert E. Howard's mighty barbarian are going to be shaking their heads and saying "huh?" and "hey, wait--" a lot.

I should clarify this. I am not a Howard purist-- I don't think anyone who comes to Conan through the comics can be. Certainly, there's room for interpretation. Both Roy Thomas and Kurt Busiek's Conan came off as being more thoughtful and reflective than Howard's, Tim Truman's was meaner, Robert Jordan's was sly and a bit of a schemer... and so on. But they were all recognizably the same guy. Brian Wood, in his zeal to try to capture what it's like for a young uncivilized tribal kid to feel real adult love and passion for the first time, is giving us a guy who's not Conan at all. I just don't believe the young warrior he's writing about is Conan the barbarian, and every time he is addressed as 'Conan' it pulls me out of the story. The scene where he is overcome with regret and vomits after accidentally killing a doe in front of her fawns is typical of the kind of thing I mean.

Seriously? Conan the pirate who routinely beheads his enemies? Weeping over a dead deer? No. Just no.

I sympathize with genre writers who long to try something different, and with those who are hoping to show another side of a character and not just play the hits. But in this case, I think Wood's gone so far afield that he shouldn't get to call it Conan any more. All that being said-- it's still a good book. Just not what I thought I was buying.


Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Newspaper Strips by Nick Park and various hands.The blurb: Spawned from the three-time Oscar-winning animation shorts, Grand Day Out, Close Shave and the feature-length, Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the Wallace & Gromit Complete Newspaper Strips Collection collects 52 whole weeks and 311 individual strips of hilarious invention and unintended consequence! The strip, which appears daily in The Sun, the UK's most popular daily newspaper, is read by an audience of 2.3 million readers. The full-colour strip features a self-contained, weekly-continuity that sees our plucky, bald inventor race from one hair-brained invention to the next with gusto, extreme silliness and more puns than you can shake a stick at!

What I Thought: This is a very classy little hardcover collecting a year's worth of the comic strips that spun out of the original stop-motion claymation film shorts and as such, it is an entertaining enough book. The characters are more or less acting like they should, but things seem a little off. The whole package hinges on whether or not you like the movies. I do, so I found myself willing to forgive more than I otherwise might have. But really I was getting flashbacks to my original experience reading the Gold Key comics version of Bugs Bunny-- the comic was good but it didn't feel like the character I knew from the screen, and there's a little of that same disconnect here.

Nevertheless, it's a cute book, and certainly the price is right; $14.99 for a hardcover collecting a year's worth of strips. Overall, though, I think it's more for the kid in your life who likes the movies than anyone else. An adult fan with more exacting standards is likely to feel disappointed.


Graphic Classics: H.G. Wells by H.G. Wells and many talented artists.The blurb: The long-out-of-print Graphic Classics: H.G. Wells returns with 80 new pages. New to this edition are "The Island of Dr. Moreau" adapted by David Hontiveros and Reno Maniquis, plus a newly-illustrated "The Time Machine" by Antonella Caputo and Craig Wilson. Returning are "The Inexperienced Ghost" by Tom Pomplun and Rich Tommaso, and "The Star" by Brad Teare.

What I Thought: I just can't say enough good things about what Tom Pomplun and the folks at Graphic Classics are doing. I know from my own experience both as a reader and as an educator what an amazingly powerful tool comics are for helping kids achieve literacy and for de-mystifying the act of reading itself. Chances are, if you are a single person reading this column, then you're probably already a book lover and the idea that kids have to be cajoled into reading anything is foreign to you. But most of you parents out there probably all know what a hurdle that is to get over, and presenting something as a comic is a terrifically effective way to get kids to TRY a story. Finding the old Classics Illustrated comic-book version of Hamlet before I ever encountered the original play made all the difference in the world-- when it eventually came up at school, I was completely up for it.

I knew it was a great story with ghosts and intrigue and murder and cool swordfights and so on long before I knew it was also supposed to be Great Literature.

All that, though, is only the reason I approve of comics adaptations of classic lit books in general. What I love about Graphic Classics in particular is that they do it better than anyone else ever has.

This is the revised and expanded third edition of their H.G. Wells volume, and as usual, it's terrific. The books are a treat for comics fans of any stripe-- Mr. Pomplun always manages to load the books with an eclectic array of talent from both the mainstream and indy artist pools. H.G. Wells is no exception-- there's work in here from Reno Maniquis, Craig Wilson, Brad Teare, Rich Tommasso, Simon Gane... some of these are names I'd already heard of, and others I'm definitely going to be looking out for in the future. The retail price is $12.95 but if you go straight to the website you can get it for ten bucks. That's a great deal for 144 pages of really cool comics. Check out some of the other volumes while you're there, they're all good. I'm partial to Western Classics and Adventure Classics, myself, but you really can't go wrong with any of them.


Superior Spider-Man Volume Three: No Escape and Volume Four: Necessary Evil by Dan Slott, Christos Gage, Humberto Ramos, et al.

The blurbs: Volume Three is, The Spider-Slayer is scheduled for execution and Mayor J. Jonah Jameson is leaving nothing to chance. To ensure that everything goes according to plan, Jameson's called in the one man he can trust to oversee everything - the Superior Spider-Man.

And Volume Four reads: Back by popular demand, Spider-Man 2099 returns! But when the future Spidey and the Superior Spidey clash, who will be the most superior Spider-Man in the multiverse? It may not matter, because the end of the battle brings about a moment that will alter the world of Spider-Man - and the Marvel Universe - for years to come! But which Spider was responsible for this shocking change? Then, from the ashes of battle come the first team-up between the Superior Spider-Man and the Black Cat. Felicia Hardy always cared for the Spider more than the man...but what happens when that man is Otto Octavius? And as an Osborn we haven't seen in a while returns, Otto celebrates a milestone! Is the world ready for "Dr. Peter Parker"...or what he plans to do next?

What I Thought: I know it's blasphemy, I know it drives a number of Spider-fans right out of their minds, but I have to admit that Dan Slott and company have completely sold me on Superior Spider-Man. The book is just hysterically funny. I love seeing Otto Octavius struggle with trying to apply the obvious supervillain fixes to Peter Parker's life, and constantly having it blow up in his face. It's a hoot. (And it was very cool to see Spider-Man 2099 again... I still miss that book. Sigh.)

I don't really understand the fans throwing a fit about Spider-Otto; for God's sake, there's big-budget movies and cartoons and everything else, there's no way Marvel was going to lose Peter Parker forever. This is a long-form story like Knightfall or The Return of Superman or The Death of Captain America. I'd have thought we would have all learned our lesson about this by now. Anyway, I follow this book in trade so I'm months behind everyone else on it, but it sure is a good time. The only real downside is Humberto Ramos on the art; his stuff is just not to my taste, though it doesn't bother me as much as it used to. Either he's toned down his cartoony bigfoot approach a little or I'm getting over it.

But it's always the story that gets me and this is a good one. I enjoy Slott's other stuff but Spider-Man is where he does his best work; he even has me sort of rooting for Otto from time to time. To my mild astonishment, Dan Slott has somehow managed to keep the feel of Spider-Man and his life and world without actually having the real Spider-Man in the story at all. It's a fun book. People should calm down and enjoy it.


The Lone Ranger Rides by Fran Striker.The blurb: At last, the origin of The Lone Ranger, written by Fran Striker, his original creator. Learn why our legendary hero wears a mask, how he acquired his horse, Silver, how he met Tonto, his faithful Indian companion, and why he uses silver bullets. Witness the ambush of the Texas Rangers by the Cavendish Gang and watch as the Lone Ranger goes on a journey of retribution. Join us for a classic rip-roaring tale set in the Old West with many twists and turns that will keep you guessing right up until the end.

What I Thought: This is a little oddity from a small-press house called Starry Night Publishing. The reason I picked it up is because it is actually THE origin of the Lone Ranger as told by his creator, Fran Striker... and it's not part of the set of eighteen licensed Ranger novels from Grosset & Dunlap that came out throughout the forties and fifties. This one was originally published by Putnam in 1941, after the Lone Ranger was already an established hit. So Striker had the benefit of hindsight when he wrote this... in fact, I can't swear to it, but this might be one of the earliest examples of a 'retcon' there is, because Striker made several changes to the main story and added quite a bit. As such, it's the equivalent to one of those Year One stories you see in comics all the time.

At any rate, this is a nice book to have and I enjoyed seeing Fran Striker's actual words on the page--we've seen the origin all kinds of ways but I'm going to assume this is THE version and accept no substitutes hereafter. I also appreciate the fact that they put in all the little black-and-white illustrations that I assume were in the Putnam book as well. I wish they'd reproduced the original cover though-- i put it up for you there on the right, and as you can see, especially compared to that nice color rendering, the Starry Night trade dress is not very appealing at all.

For whatever reason, this book is in the public domain now, so if you prefer not to drop the ten bucks on the trade paperback, you'll find it for free at Project Gutenberg, here.


And there you go. That's put a dent in the review pile, at least. Of course, the to-read pile is still waist-high, but progress is progress.

See you next week.

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