OGNs, TPBs, and yet another reason why comics are awesome

I've been buying a grip of original graphic novels and trade paperbacks recently, and I thought I'd break 'em down!  (Yes, I said "grip."  I'm down with the lingo, don't you know.)  For one of them, I will not review it, simply show some examples of why comic books are awesome.  Like you needed a reminder!

First out of the block we have Badlands, which was recently re-issued by the good folk at AiT/Planet Lar.  Badlands is written by Steven Grant and drawn by Vince Giarrano, and it's a very interesting look at the Kennedy assassination.  Yes, I know there has been plenty of fiction about the Kennedy assassination (in the introduction, Jonathan Vankin name-checks the apotheosis of the sub-genre, Don DeLillo's Libra), but as we still don't know the whole story (unless, of course, you believe the government), it's fertile ground for a re-telling.  And Grant and Giarrano tell an interesting story of Connie Bremen, who is your garden-variety loser looking for a quick score.  He gets involved with Texas oilmen and government officials and all sorts of shady characters.  His job is to look after the oilman's daughter, who turns out to be quite the ... well, slut.  Connie, of course, ends up in bed with her, one thing he should not have done, and then she has him over a barrel just as much as he has her.  Connie slowly realizes that the men are planning to kill the president, but he's in too deep to stop it.  The guy who got him the job, Jannety, takes him to a grassy knoll in front of the president's route, and from there you can probably guess the rest.

Even though they promised he wouldn't be hurt, Connie realizes pretty quickly that they lied to him, and he runs for it, keeping Anne, the oilman's daughter, as a hostage.  A year later Jannety spots him on the street, leading to a bloody finale where bad things happen to everyone.  The ending is nicely ironic, as we see where the country is headed now that nothing makes sense anymore.

The obvious centerpiece of the book is the assassination, but Grant smartly focuses on Connie rather than the conspiracy.  Connie is not a pleasant man, but he's such a loser that we can't help but sympathize with him.  He is emblematic, really, of the American Dream - a man with little talent and little brains having every opportunity given to him, and what he does with it is up to him.  Ultimately, he's a survivor not because he's smarter or even tougher than anyone else, but because he's lucky.  Grant draws the comparisons between Connie and Kennedy - Kennedy the patrician, who reached the pinnacle of power through family connections and good looks and, let's face it, a little bit of luck (the debate with Nixon that happened to be televised) is nicely juxtaposed with Connie the schlub.  Kennedy we remember, but his head was blown apart in front of a huge crowd.  Connie is a nobody, who keeps his head down and occasionally gets lucky and survives while the gods around him tumble.  Who is better off?

As a representation of the American Dream, Connie also represents America itself, especially after the assassination.  He is drifting, unsure where to go and who to trust, and danger lurks around every corner.  Even his relationship with Anne - he kidnaps her and steals all her clothes so she can't go outside, but never touches her - can be read allegorically, as Connie, through his actions on the grassy knoll, has been rendered impotent.  In prison he was raped by Jannety, who likes to remind him of this.  The act makes Connie incapable of relating sexually to women, and he acts this out until the assassination, usually violently.  Afterward, however, his potency is gone, and a naked woman remains out of his reach.  Connie is made more pathetic by the act of killing the most powerful person on Earth.  If he was aimless before, now he is aimless without hope.

As with any good fictional piece on the Kennedy assassination, Badlands says a lot more about the minor characters and the United States than it does about Kennedy.  JFK remains an unknowable symbol, the god-king who was sacrificed, so we have to delve into how those in the country reacted to his death.  In this way, Connie, with his ugly little life, becomes Everyman, and the small offer of hope at the end of the book is cruelly ironic.

Giarrano's art is nice and rough, unlike much of his mainstream work.  It's probably because he's inking his own pencils, and they give the work a much heavier feel to it.  It's also in black-and-white, which lends the whole book a particularly seedy look.  These are unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, and the art reflects that very nicely.

Badlands is 13 years old, but because the mystery of JFK's assassination has not been resolved, it's still relevant.  It will set you back $12.95, but it's a very interesting look at a traumatic event in American history that reveals a great deal about us and how we cope with tragedy.


This week saw the re-publication of Kafka, Steven T. Seagle's first comics work and one of the first from Stefano Gaudiano.  This was originally published in six issues by Renegade Press, but it comes to us in handy trade paperback format from Active Images and will cost you $14.99.  Seagle is a bit of a weird writer.  When he does non-superhero stuff, like It's A Bird ... (which I guess is technically a superhero book in that it's sort of about Superman, but it's really not), or Sandman Mystery Theatre, he's a good writer, but when he does traditional superhero stuff, like his work on Uncanny X-Men or (God help us) Alpha Flight, he's pretty lousy.  Lots of writers are like that, but they don't recognize it and keep dipping their toes into the superhero pool.  This book is definitely not superheroes, despite a bit of paranormal activity going around, so I figured it would be pretty good.

Well, it's pretty good, but not great.  Obviously, as a seminal work, it's going to be a little rough, and although the story is interesting, it lacks a certain emotional depth that would push it into greatness.  Daniel Hutton, who is known now as Robert Whitelaw, lives alone in England as the curator of a historical museum.  One dark and stormy night (I'm not kidding) he is visited by two CIA agents, who tell him that his cover has been blown and he needs to return to the U.S.  We discover pretty quickly that he's in the Witness Protection Program and that his wife, whom he left behind, might be in danger if a security leak at Langley has exposed him.  Before he can make up his mind, two more men, also CIA agents, show up at the house and tell him the same thing.  Daniel makes up his mind very quickly that he really can't trust either group of men, and he runs for it.  He has an unusual ability - he can make people see what he wants them to see, and he uses it to escape from the agents and get on a plane to the States.  When he gets to Langley, his file has disappeared.  He digs a little deeper and discovers even more secrets about his ability - which is artificial, having been created by experimentation - and his past, including the terrorists against whom he testified, which forced him to leave the country in the first place.  It's a twisty kind of book, but the surprises don't really come out of left field, so we're able to go along with it despite the surprises.

The problem I had with the book is the problem you get with a lot of early works, especially with comic book writers.  It's too disjointed, and Seagle adds things that feel cool when they're half-formed ideas but don't translate well to the page.  The whole "Kafka" notion is one.  Seagle says it comes from concentration camps, when prisoners would call someone whom the Nazis took a "Kafka" as code.  That's a cool nugget of information (I assume it's true, since it's in the interview at the end of the book and not the text), but it doesn't translate well into the book.  Hutton dreams of being a child in a concentration camp, and his father has been disappeared, and the prisoners simply go around saying "Kafka."  But we never find out if Hutton himself was in a concentration camp (I doubt it, as he's not old enough) or if he's just dreaming, or why he's dreaming that in particular.  It's just a way to get the word "Kafka" into the book and explain in metaphorical terms what has happened to Daniel Hutton, but it doesn't work.  Seagle says in the interview that he didn't have the author in mind originally, but added some touches to make the book more "Kafka-esque," and I think if he had made the connection to the author a bit more explicit he could have ditched the concentration camp stuff and it would have been a tighter book.

The ostensible bad guys, a domestic terrorist group known as the American Confrontational Taskforce (ACT), are kind of ill-defined, too.  Hutton infiltrates them using his ability, but we get only a vague idea of the dastardly things they have planned and later, when the leader shows up again, he again doesn't do much except menace the good guys.  I understand that ACT is kind of a straw dog, but it would have been nice to see it developed a bit more.

Gaudiano's art is far rougher than it needs to be, too.  It works fine for telling the story, but the lines are very heavy and appear to make the characters, ironically, much less defined than they should be.  Like a lot of artists, too, he has some difficulty with legs and feet.  What's up with that?  This is old work, obviously, and Gaudiano was just starting out, and it's interesting to watch the work evolve even over the course of the book.  His scenes in the concentration camp are actually much better, because he lays off the heavy lines and allows the details to come through better.  As usual with me, as long as the art doesn't repel me, I can deal with it, and Gaudiano is at least in tune with the noir-ish feel of the book.

Ultimately, like Shatter, this is an interesting experiment from comics neophytes that doesn't exactly hold together but is certainly not the worst thing you could buy.  If your tastes run toward moody noir pieces, it's kind of cool.  The ideas behind it are exciting and neat, too, and although the execution isn't perfect, it's cool to see these two guys working their way through this.  I wouldn't recommend Kafka unequivocally (obviously), but it's a neat little comic.

Next up we have The Lone and Level Sands, by A. David Lewis and Marvin Perry Mann from Archaia Studios Press, which will cost you $17.95.  I have been looking forward to this since Cronin reviewed it a while back, so I was happy it showed up.  Before I get into it, I should mention that I have big issues with God, if indeed he does exist, about which I have serious doubts.  I'm not about to step all over anyone's beliefs, but with a comic that examines the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, it's going to come up, so I thought I'd just get that out of the way.

This is a very good graphic novel, even though it has its flaws.  Lewis tells the story of the Exodus from the point of view of Ramses II, the Pharoah of the Bible story.  Comic book geeks, of course, will recognize Ramses by his Greek name, Ozymandias, and poetry nerds by the Shelley poem of the same name (one of my favorite poems).  Ramses is one of the most successful pharoahs in Egyptian history, but he always kind of gets the short shrift because of his role in the Exodus.  Moses is the hero, after all, and every hero needs an arch-villain!  Ramses is all powerful and godlike, so he makes a good foil.  Go, Moses!  Bring that jerk down!

So Lewis rehabilitates Ramses - to a degree.  The story is interesting because we get to see not only Ramses, but Moses, to a point, in a new light.  Lewis wants to humanize both men, and although he doesn't really succeed with Moses - like Kennedy, possibly, he is such an archetype that it's difficult - we do get a nuanced portrait of Ramses, a man who is completely trapped by the society in which he lives and the expectations every one has of him.  He is the most powerful man in the world, but even so, he cannot break out of the structure of Egyptian society, and therefore he plays his role to the bitter end, even knowingly sending his grand vizier and best friend to his death in the Red Sea.  It's fascinating to watch the destruction of Egypt by God, especially because Ramses and his court is brought to life so vividly by Lewis and Mann.  These are people who care for their children and grandchildren, who worry about having enough food to feed the people, who even are slightly uncomfortable with their roles as slavemasters.  Not extremely so, but certainly it weighs on their minds.  Lewis does a very nice job of making us experience Ramses' pain when his favorite wife dies and when his children and grandchildren die.  Finally, when Ta, the vizier, goes to his death, Ramses can take no more and his breakdown is the climax of the book, as he curses God but slowly accepts the burden of rebuilding his kingdom.  It's a powerful book that could have offered a great deal of illumination into the sin of pride, as both Ramses and Moses are consumed by pride and cannot see their way past it.  Luckily for Moses, he has God on his side.  Ramses does not.

And this is where the book fails a bit, although not enough to not recommend it.  Every story about the Exodus must fail unless the writer is prepared to do a few things, which I'll get to.  The huge elephant in the room with regard to Exodus is that God is a dick.  Read the Bible, people!  Ramses wants to let the Israelites go several times, but God keeps "hardening his heart" so that he revokes his promises and Moses has to unleash another plague, leading up to the massacre of every first-born in the country.  Why does God do it?  No reason is given, except to prove that he's hella powerful and can kill anyone he wants to at any time, including innocent Egyptian babies.  Lewis tries to get around this a bit by having different people plead with Ramses to hold the Israelites back, but they are all possessed by God (or the "Hebrew demon," as Ramses calls it) and are simply doing God's will.  When his queen, Nefertari, is possessed on her death bed, Ramses knows that it's not her yet promises to keep the Israelites in Egypt anyway.  God is evil in this story, and therefore, we react to that rather than the human drama.  The only way to get around this is to excise God from the story completely, which could be done, I suppose.  Ramses then would be completely evil, because his empire is falling apart around him but he refuses to let go.  I don't know if that would work as a complex human drama, which for the most part is what this book is, but it might work as a good-versus-evil kind of thing.  Of course, that would go against what the Bible says, and we all know that the Bible is the literal truth, right?  Therefore, we just have to accept that God is a dick.

Despite that, the book is a very interesting character study.  Ramses and Moses, raised together in Seti's palace, are locked in a struggle that will ruin hundreds, if not thousands of lives, simply because they are prideful men who can't accept submitting to another's will.  Moses, of course, submitted to God's will, but Ramses cannot make that journey, and he pays for it.  It's just a shame that God had to get involved at all.

The art is very nice, too, as it looks and feels like ancient Egyptian.  The only problem I have with it is that Ramses looks remarkably younger than Moses (his lack of beard probably has something to do with it) and it's a bit of a shock when you first hear a young boy calling him "grandfather."  Other than that, Mann does a nice job showing us a culture far removed from our own, as well as the horrors of the plague and the pain on Ramses' face when all the bad things start to occur.  It's a beautiful book to look at as well as fascinating to read.

Except, of course, for the evil puppeteer pulling the strings.

Moving on, we have Smoke by Alex de Campi and Igor Kordey, which is published by IDW and carries the rather hefty price tag of $24.99.  IDW charges a lot for their books, but they are usually of pretty good quality, and Smoke is no exception.  I resisted this when it first came out because I hated Kordey's art so much on X-Men that I couldn't stand to look at it.  Really.  His art on X-Men was some of the worst art I've seen in the past ten years or so, and it made me dislike the stories, even, which is a measure of how bad it was, because I loved Morrison's X-Men run.  Yuck.  I realize he was under a lot of deadline pressure on X-Men, but that doesn't mean I have to like the ugly product.

Then I started hearing good things about Smoke, and I grew intrigued.  I saw some sample art and realized that when he has some time, Kordey is a pretty good artist.  He's still not my favorite, but he gives Smoke not only a nice futuristic feel, but a slightly surreal look, as de Campi's script, while not terribly funny, contains some comic and off-center moments that Kordey helps bring to life.  Unlike many artists, who have a bit of trouble with action set pieces, Kordey does a nice job with those, keeping a kineticism to them while plainly showing all that happens.  In the third issue the art got a bit rougher, indicating that perhaps Kordey was rushed a bit, but it remains strong throughout.

De Campi's story is nothing that is going to break new ground in the dystopian future genre, but it has plenty of energy and, like I said, oddly comedic moments.  The Right to Beauty Brigade, a terrorist group who kidnaps the Venezuelan president of OPEC, who is in London to discuss oil prices, is the most obvious comic element - the members are all rather, shall we say, portly, and they bicker about wanting burgers and give explicit instructions about how their lunches should be served.  De Campi adds several smaller humorous touches, too, despite the deadly seriousness of the proceedings.  It's an interesting and convoluted story, delving deeply into the politics of a slightly futuristic London (William, presumably the one who is a teenager now, is a dissolute king, and it appears to be only ten or fifteen years from now) and their gasoline problems.  The fascinating thing about it is that it feels like something that could happen now, and it adds a relevancy to the story that might be lacking if de Campi had come up with something a little more outlandish.

The hero of the story is Rupert Cain, an albino government assassin who finds his conscience during the story and discovers dark dealings within the government.  Cain decides to expose the truth when his old commanding officer is killed, and he finds out that defence minister, Lauderdale, is locked in a power struggle with a group of old men, a group that included his CO, who run the British government.  The story grows more complicated but never loses us, and Cain finds out that it hurts a great deal to uncover the truth.  Interestingly, Cain is not developed as a character particularly well - he's certainly the main character, but we never get a sense of him really changing all that much.  We know he's a government assassin and therefore supposed to be a "bad guy," but despite a killing he performs early on, we never get the sense that he's all the evil and therefore his change of heart, while admirable, doesn't affect us all that much.  It's still his story, though, but it's unusual that de Campi didn't spend a bit more time on his personality.  The reporter, Katie Shah, who is the other main character, is a bit of a typical "reporter who will do anything for the story," and she fulfills her function well.  But Cain remains a bit of an enigma.

Smoke is a nice, complex spy story.  That is all it wants to be, and it succeeds admirably.  The only real problem I had was with Lauderdale's fate.  Without giving too much away, can anyone tell me what that thing is that Lauderdale finds in Starling's house?  I have not re-read the book with any great attention to detail, but I have flipped through it a few times since I read it and can find no mention of what that thing is or why Lauderdale thinks it's so groovy.  It's strange, because it feels important.  I will have to sit down and re-read this soon and see if I can figure it out, but any help would be appreciated!

Smoke is pretty cool, despite the price.  Check it out!

Another book that frustrates me because of an ambiguous ending is Sudden Gravity: A Tale of the Panopticon by Greg Ruth, which will set you back $10.95 and comes to us from the fine folk at Dark Horse Comics.  Sudden Gravity has two very good things going for it: Ruth's art is absolutely stunning, and it is one of the creepiest comic books I have ever read.  It's an old work, copyrighted 1997, and Ruth's art, which I have only seen in Freaks of the Heartland, is not as polished as that, but it's still wonderful.  According to the introduction, he did it all with a Bic pen, which makes it even more amazing.  He does astonishing things with shading and the roughness of the lines, making the dark places of the insane asylum where the story takes place even darker, while rendering each person in beautiful and thin-lined detail.  We can see each stroke, and appreciate the time and effort that went into creating this book, as each line adds another layer of reality to what is a fantastical and weird story.  The art grounds the book, which is what it needs to do because of the strange elements of the story, but it also heightens the tension that is brewing in the asylum.  When Ruth wants to show some of the more disturbing aspects of the book, he is able to add the right amount of darkness and ambiguity to the art that makes it just unclear enough that we use our imaginations to supply the missing details, which is a neat trick.

The story, as I mentioned, is very creepy.  It begins with a new patient, Alice Spark, arriving at Bentham Hospital, the "panopticon" of the title, where she has been sent after killing her husband and children.  Her doctor, Henry Auget, is connected to the case in more ways than we originally know, and he begins treating her but soon discovers she has more secrets than just what happened the night her family died.  Meanwhile, Julius, the boy in Room 13, has woken up from whatever stupor he is in, and is waiting patiently for the equinox, which arrives in five days (each chapter is another day, with the portentous titles of "Five Days Left," and so on).  And then staff members and patients start to die.  And a man thought long dead begins appearing.  And people begin talking backwards.  The governing board of the hospital, desperate to hush up any bad publicity, sends a mysterious enforcer to Bentham to find out what's going on.  Why does he have a band-aid on his forehead?

It's very difficult to summarize this book, because there's a lot going on and it sounds far too bizarre if I were to simply summarize it.  Basically, in the early part of the twentieth century the head of the hospital, Addison Bonticou, was placed in charge of the neighborhood around the hospital during an outbreak of tuberculosis.  The area was quarantined and Dr. Bonticou was allowed to "fix" the outbreak however he wanted.  All the children in the area were brought in and drained of blood.  Many children died, but the plague stopped suddenly.  In 1977, the current chief of staff discovered that the children didn't die, but were reinfused with an unknown substance.  Dr. Bonticou was a member of a secret order called the Tillary Society, which had been outlawed in England two hundred years earlier and had taken over control of the hospital in 1878, where they continued experimenting on children.  No one knew what the results of Dr. Bonticou's experiments were, nor what had happened to the children.

Well, we find out what happened to the children, but Ruth is never clear on exactly what was done to them and why it's so important.  He leaves that deliberately vague, and this is where the book breaks down.  Julius, the boy in Room 13, is one of the children, and he is extraordinarily powerful.  Alice Spark knows about the Tillary Society, as does Henry Auget, but he doesn't remember what he knows until very late in the book, with dire consequences.  The governing board is involved in a war with the Tillary Society, but over what, we're never quite certain.  It's frustrating, because Ruth sets up the book so well, and it's very disturbing and creepy.  I would have liked a better pay-off, though.

This is the kind of book that demands multiple readings.  Things that make no sense early in the book are revealed much later, and they fit well.  This is a finely constructed horror comic, and that's why the ambiguous ending is so frustrating.  Dr. Auget becomes more and more aware of his role in the war, and he tries hard to fight against it, but it might be too difficult.  Susan Jeffries, another doctor at the Bentham, slowly discovers that she is an important player in the drama, but when she finally does come to her senses, it might be too late.  And the other staff members all play their roles, even though they aren't always aware of it.  Ruth adds nice touches throughout the book, like the tree Alice Spark sees when Dr. Auget is interviewing her (the tree is important) and the fact that Dr. Strauss always wears surgical gear, which gives him a decidedly disturbing look.  The drawings on the wall are freaky, too, but I can't say more about them without ruining it.  Other tiny touches are nice, too - at one point, the writing on Alice Spark's forehead is backward, and you might miss it the first time (backwardness is important in the book).  And I'm still not sure what's going on with the talking cockroach (seriously).

All of these things add up to a very interesting package, and for the most part, Sudden Gravity is a beautiful and creepy comic book that I would recommend completely.  However - that ending just bugs me.  I want this to resolve better.  "Panoptic" means "including everything in one view," and the title might be considered ironic, but I don't think Ruth wants that.  I think he wants us to realize that once we see everything, we will be enlightened, but in the end, he doesn't show us everything.  So we're left with a very cool book that is weakened just slightly by the omission.  Ruth says on his web site that he has another tale of the Panopticon to tell, so maybe that will clear up some of the questions about this.  Maybe.  In the meantime, this is still one of the creepiest comics I've ever read.  If you like that sort of thing, it's for you.


Finally, we have Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan, brought to us from the folk at Marvel and costing $12.99.  It's written manically by Zeb Wells and drawn manically by the late Seth Fisher, and gives us yet another reason why comics are awesome: sound effects.  Only in comics can you get the cool sound effects that just add that little extra to the proceedings.  I'm not even going to bother discussing the story (monsters invade Japan and the FF and Iron Man have to deal with why they're so scared) or how it's a direct contradiction to Uncanny X-Men #181 (sacrilege!), but it's a fun story, full of goofiness and insanity.  I'm not even going to discuss Fisher's unbelievably cool art.  I'm just going to show you panels with sound effects in them, and if that doesn't make you want to buy this, I may have to report you to Homeland Security.

Why even try to resist the instellar ZWANG?  You know you will fail!

Man, that's a bunch o' books, but that's why comics are awesome!  So, let's review:

Badlands: Pretty good, especially if you're a Kennedy assassination nut.

Kafka: Not bad, but not great, either.  Kind of spooky.

The Lone and Level Sands: Very good, if you can get past the fact that God is a dick.

Smoke: Good art, action-packed story, very relevant.

Sudden Gravity: Beautiful, frightening, good story that lets us down a bit at the end.

Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan: Manic, excellent art, sound effects!

Get thee to a book store, grasshoppers!

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