Sororities, Satan, Sea-farers, Slatterns, Satire, Spies, and other graphic novel goodness!

It's been some time since I reviewed those big slabs of comics that we in-the-know people call graphic novels and those outside of our geek fiefdom call "longer comic books," but it's about time I got to it! I have a bunch of books under the fold!

First on the agenda is Hazed, an Image book written by Mark Sable, illustrated by Robbi Rodriguez, with gray tones by Nick Filardi and letters by Kristyn Ferretti. Should you choose to accept it, this tome will cost you $14.99. Or cheaper than that on an on-line bookselling site. You know they're out there!

The back of this comic promises that it is to comics what Heathers and Mean Girls are to film. Yes, you can write that like a math problem. Hazed: comics = Heathers: ? See? Education is fun. If you're looking for me to stretch the analogy, I would say it's not as good as Heathers, but better than Mean Girls (which I liked, by the way - remember when Lindsay wasn't a train wreck?). It's certainly far more vicious than Mean Girls is, and that's why it's an interesting comic.

Ileana is our protagonist, and she's a fairly stereotypical "girl who wants to make a difference" - she even says this on the second page - who can't get into Harvard because she's the salutatorian of her class and not the valedictorian. That seems harsh, but okay. She ends up going to an unnamed "Harvard of the South" - isn't that Davidson? - where the fraternity/sorority systems reigns supreme. She meets her roommate, a gorgeous thang named James, and Val, the president of Sigma Tau Delta, the sorority on campus, and eventually decides to rush STD (yes, they make jokes about it) in order to reform the system from the inside. I wonder how that will work out.

The book quickly turns into a savage satire of pretty much everything. A good satire pulls no punches, and Sable doesn't in this book, even when you think he might. Val, of course, turns Ileana into a hot girl and ignores James, causing her to stuff herself and get fatter and fatter. Ileana loses sight of her goals, of course, and James learns some hard lessons about the way she has always treated people less fortunate than she. Yes, many lessons are learned, but for the most part, this book is simply evil people doing evil things to each other, and there's nothing wrong with that.

It's not a perfect book, though. A few times it's unclear exactly what's going on, mostly because Sable decides to forego narration and leave everything in Rodriguez's hands. It's not that Rodriguez is a poor artist - his work has a tawdry cartoonishness to it that works well in this book - but occasionally, Sable appears to leave pages out (I know that's not true, but that's what it feels like) and although we see what Rodriguez is illustrating perfectly well, it's still not clear what is supposed to be happening. Pills, for instance, are somewhat important in this comic, and occasionally there's nothing written on the labels, so it becomes confusing whether James is taking Prozac or something else. That's not really Rodriguez's fault. The confusion that arises at certain crucial times in the book intrude on our enjoyment of the book, and that's too bad. Another problem is that we never get a good sense of the relationship between Ileana and James, which is at the heart of the book. Early on, James is far too bright and sunny (which is the point, I know), but by the end, there's no reason to believe her change of heart with regard to Ileana. Sable doesn't want this to be a complete black comedy, as his upbeat ending makes clear, so we have to buy their friendship. Unfortunately, it's tough to believe it.

Rodriguez does a nice job, as I mentioned. The biggest problem is that, by necessity, the girls all look alike very often. It adds to the point that Sable is trying to make, and I guess the ancillary characters are supposed to pretty much be the same kind of person, but it was a tad annoying. However, that's a minor complaint. For the most part, Rodriguez softens the tone of the book nicely. If the art were more "serious," we might get too bogged down in the way Sable is ripping everyone so much. Because Rodriguez has a slightly comedic style, we're more willing to go along with the viciousness of the text.

Hazed certainly has no redeeming social value. You won't be a better person for having read it. Its targets are fairly easy to hit, but Sable does a good job hitting them anyway. It's the kind of comic that is fun to read, but is somewhat forgettable. It's a bit spendy, but if you can find it cheaper or at the library, it's certainly a nice read. We need more unrelenting satire in this world, and Hazed offers that in spades.

The next two books are ones that were sent to me in the mail. The first I'm really hesitant about reviewing, because I didn't really like it, but I admire the effort. It's Candy Or Medicine (volume 2), which is a mini-comic put together by Josh Blair. It's an extremely mixed bag of mostly one-page jokes, and if they work for you, then you'll enjoy this. Most of the jokes are completely arbitrary and even surreal, such as Blair's own contribution, and the artwork ranges from very rough to quite decent, as Matt Feazell's two pages show. Blair is always looking for contributors, so if you have anything, send it his way! The biggest problem I have with this is that the level of craft is not very high. But it's always interesting to see people doing creative stuff, and it's neat to get these brief peaks into the twisted (in a good way) minds of the contributors. The web site is actually very nicely designed, and each volume is very cheap (volume 2 is $1), so I encourage you to go there and check things out. You could spend your dollar on things far worse for you!

The other book I got in the mail is called The Unwanted. It was created by someone named "Diablo" and Mark Michaels (although Scott Marcano, who wrote the letter I received with it, takes credit for writing it - is he "Diablo"?), drawn by Juan Romera, and lettered by Jason Arthur. It's published by Diablo Productions, but there's no price on it. That's odd. It's not the greatest book, but it's somewhat interesting.

The basic idea is about Satanic possession. Satan is trying to gain a foothold in this world, and mayhem ensues. Yes, Satanic possession has been done to death, but what makes this interesting is the fact that that the main characters are "at-risk" children who have been sent to a "re-education center" instead of juvenile hall (which is, of course, in the middle of nowhere). This adds some interesting realism to the fantastic elements of the book. The kids are developed well, with a nice cross-section of black and white, male and female, all of whom need to figure out how to stop Satan. It's not surprising that the kids rise to the occasion, because we know they will, but Marcano still manages to make us care about the kids, and he shows how they might be delinquents, but they still have something to offer the world. These kids remain punks (kind of), but they grow up quite a bit, and that's the nicest part of the book. (Although at one point, a teacher says a kid's IEP lists three felonies for assault. In my world, IEP stands for "Individual Education Plan." Is that what it stands for here, or is there another IEP that deals more with an arrest record? Help me out, people!)

The adults don't fare as well, although they aren't completely stereotyped as evil. It's not necessarily a generational thing, which is nice, as some of the adults don't simply dismiss the kids when they start seeing evil things around the center. In stories of this nature, the adults are always putting the kids down, but this is a bit more complex than that. One teacher is particularly concerned about the problems the kids are having, and he tries to understand what's happening. Although the vessel for Satan is a bit over-the-top, the adults come off a bit better then we might expect. The kids still steal the show, which is how it should be.

I've been avoiding the Satanic part, because the book turns too easily into a horror/action book, with people getting chased down dark hallways and impalings and explosions and such. It's not bad, but it's not terribly inspired. It's much more interesting to read about the kids as they learn about each other and the creepy secret they uncover. As usual with horror stuff, once the bad guy is revealed, things become far less interesting. I'm not in love with the art, which is a bit stiff, although Romera does a very good job with the personalities of the characters, especially (strangely enough) the adults, and the shading lends the book a somewhat frightening feel. He falls a bit short on the action, however, and when the books turns that way, the look falters somewhat.

According to Marcano, this is offered in the May Previews. Maybe then they'll have a price on it! It's not a great comic, but it's better than your usual Satanic-possession story!

Moving on, we find That Salty Air by Tim Sievert, which comes to you from the fine folk at Top Shelf and costs a measly 10 dollars. On the back it's filed under "Graphic Novels/Nautical Literature/Oceanic Revenge/Seaside Heartbreak." We need more books in the "seaside heartbreak" section at the library, if you ask me.

This is Sievert's first graphic novel, and you can tell. It's very rough, but it has a lot of charms. I can't really call it a success, but Sievert is someone to watch, because he'll improve (I hope). The story of That Salty Air is simple: Hugh is a fisherman who loves the sea and everything about it. His wife, Maryanne, finds out early on that she's pregnant, but Hugh also finds out that his mother has drowned. This leads him to reject the sea, but the sea is not to be spurned, and it exacts some terrible retribution that forces Hugh to make a hard choice. Maryanne, perhaps not surprisingly, is the focus of the sea's anger, and Hugh has to learn what's important in this life and what needs to be let go.

It's the stuff of great fiction, and it's somewhat unfortunate that Sievert doesn't do more with it. His art is spectacular, actually: he is very good with the bleakness of the surface world, and contrasts it nicely with the almost magical undersea world (which is indeed magical, as the creatures don't really act like actual creatures, but more like mystically charged beings). When Hugh battles the ocean, the art is terrific, as there's a real sense of danger and action. The squid that becomes the sea's agent of revenge is sprawling and titanic, and the way Sievert creates this vast landscape on which Hugh and Maryanne are tiny and lost is magnificent. There's a real sense of the connection between Hugh and Maryanne in the book, too, mostly because of the way Sievert draws them. Hugh's mental disintegration is handled well, too.

The writing, however, is predictable and occasionally dull. Characterization comes exclusively through the art, so when Hugh suddenly turns on the sea because his mother dies, it feels far too abrupt. He's in love with the sea on one page, and on the next, he's throwing rocks in it (a symbolic gesture, of course), and drinking heavily. We don't believe it, because we have no idea about his connection with his mother. We also don't understand why he rejects Maryanne so casually. She doesn't get a chance to tell him she's pregnant until later in the book, but until that point, he's a real jerk to her, and we don't know why. To his credit, once he finds out she's pregnant, he does the right thing, but prior to that, he seems far too emotionally attached to his mother and not to his wife, and it doesn't read very well. Similarly, although the ending is powerful, it's also predictable, which robs it of some tension. We never believe things will turn out differently than they do, and although there's a nice scene where Hugh finds his mother (and no, it's not icky, because it's in the "mystical" part of the book), we still don't get why he was so distant earlier. Yes, I know we can use shorthand and think, "Well, his mom died, and if my mom died I'd be upset too," but not to the extent that we would reject our wife and almost cause her harm (indirectly, but still). So it's a bit frustrating reading this, because the themes are very powerful and presented in a way (with the help of the art) that makes this a compelling tale, but the faults are larger than they should be.

I can't give it an overwhelmingly positive recommendation, but it is an interesting comic by someone who can only improve. There's a lot to like about That Salty Air in particular and Sievert's abilities in general. It will be interesting to see what he does next.

We're not done yet! Let's look at Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah, a horror comic written by Mike Mignola and drawn by Troy Nixey (for the first three issues) and Farel Dalrymple (for issue #4). It's lettered by Pat Brosseau and Ed Dukeshire. Boom! Studios has republished this (it first came out in 1999), and slapped a $14.99 price tag on it. Yes, it's finally here! Huzzah!

I've been looking forward to this for a while, which is never a good thing because it just builds up expectations in my mind. I want it I want it I want it I scream in my head, and that becomes a problem. However, Jenny Finn is quite good. At least there's that! But it has one big problem, which I'll get to.

Mignola, who is an underrated writer, gives us a tale of Jenny Finn, a young girl who wanders around "the city" (on the back of the book it's identified as Victorian London, but it's never named in the book, and it seems only modeled loosely on Victorian London) and seems to be the epicenter of some kind of strange plague affecting the inhabitants. Many citizens are "infected" by something that causes them to sprout tentacle-like suckers and other odd appendages of the sea (like fish tails). A man from the country, Joe, becomes obsessed with finding out what's going on, but he doesn't like what he finds. An, just for good measure, there's someone killing women out there. Naturally, it's connected to Jenny and her secret.

The story is fascinating, as Mignola slowly sheds light on Jenny's true nature, why someone is killing women, and why people in the highest echelons of government are interested in Jenny. Their plan for Jenny is defined but never really fully developed, as we're not exactly sure how Jenny will do what they claim she will do. But that's okay, because this is more a story of Joe and how he learns to do the right thing after doing the wrong thing early on in the book. His journey forms the crux of the book, and his redemption is the interesting part of it. That's not to say the plot isn't well done and quite creepy, because it is. But the fact that Mignola leaves some points out doesn't make much of a difference.

The biggest problem in this comic is the shift in art from the first three issues to the fourth. Nixey has a much more fluid style than Dalrymple, so the way the characters' bodies change when they catch the "plague" is extremely horrifying. The first three chapters are very unsettling, as not only the characters, but the entire landscape seems to be on the verge of shifting, and it adds an element of creepiness to the book. Dalrymple, who's a fine artist, doesn't fit the tone as well. His style is rougher and solid. The landscapes in his issue are quite good, as they convey the stolidness of Victorian London well, and although his characters are decent, for this book, where Nixey established a sort of fluidity to them, it's jarring to see them when Dalrymple draws them, as they seem far more blocky and grounded. Dalrymple is called upon to draw a monster, and while it's impressive, it's not quite as unsettling as Nixey (probably) would have made it. I'm not sure why Nixey didn't finish this, but it's unfortunate. Again, it's not that Dalrymple is bad, and it doesn't ruin the book, but the impact of Mignola's story is a bit lessened because of the shift in styles.

If your only experience with Mignola the writer is when he writes Hellboy, check this out. It's a slightly different kind of horror than his franchise book, but it's pretty darned keen.

Larry Young sent me the next offering in the mail, for which I'd like to thank him. Now I have two copies (I smell a contest)! It's called Holmes, and it's written and drawn by Omaha Perez. AiT/Planet Lar publishes it, and it will cost you $12.95. I remember reading the first issue that Perez self-published something like three years ago, so it's nice to see the full story come out.

It's a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, of which we have many, but Perez puts a nice spin on it: Holmes is a full-fledged opium addict, and quite the moron. Watson writes up his adventures to make Holmes sound brilliant, as he does in this book. It's fun to read Watson's narration, especially in the later chapters when Holmes confronts "Moriarty," because it's at odds with what we're watching. Holmes begins by getting absolutely everything wrong about their client, in a twist on the classic way Conan Doyle began many stories, but Watson shouts the client down, because obviously he's wrong and Holmes is right, even though it's the opposite. It's Sherlock Holmes, after all - he can't be wrong!

The story is a fairly typical Conan Doyle plot, as a client explains that Joseph Haydn's skull, which we see being removed in the first scene of the book by graverobbers and is now being shown in London, has been stolen. Holmes, of course, immediately suspects Moriarty (and it's always interesting that pastiches of Holmes often use Moriarty, when he's not that big a presence in the actual Conan Doyle stories), and the plot goes from there. Whether it is Moriarty or not, or whether Holmes actually recovers the skull (two things I won't give away!), the fun of the book is much more in watching Holmes and Watson get into outlandish situations. Holmes shows up in drag, wanders around for a few pages with a syringe sticking out his neck, visits a prostitute (and then interrupts Watson, who is enjoying himself with two women), digs a public grave for someone who isn't dead, and has an unexpected confrontation with his foe on a bridge. It's extremely iconoclastic, irreverent, and very funny. Its success does rest a lot on the fact that this is Holmes and Watson, but if you have any knowledge of Conan Doyle's originals, this is a fine read.

The biggest problem with the book is the art, which is often stilted and disproportionate. In the afterword, Perez claims his desire was for the art to be "passable - to not suck." Well, it doesn't suck, but it's not going to set the world on fire, either. He does quite a nice job with Holmes in the wilder situations - his Holmes in drag is oddly compelling - but breaks down with the more mundane aspects. The covers of the chapters (an example of which is on the front cover) are much nicer, and at one point in the book, Holmes has an opium nightmare done in the same style, but as Perez admits in the back, that would take so much more time the book might never have come out. As I'm not an art guy, the art doesn't really bother me. You can tell what's going on throughout the comic, and that's all that matters to me. I can deal with the stiffness of the art.

So that's Holmes. It's a fun comic, and if you really care about Sherlock Holmes, it might offend you deeply. But that's what makes the world go 'round, isn't it?

Man, this post is getting long, isn't it? Okay, we're in the home stretch. Sorry, but in the past two weeks I've gotten a ton of thick novels, so when I started this post, I had far fewer books to review. Stay with me, people! Up next is Thomas Ott's Cinema Panopticum, which is published by Fantagraphics and for which you can expect to pay no more than $18.95. It's a nice hardcover comic that is a tiny bit overpriced, but it's still an interesting book.

Ott is a Swiss auteur who creates wordless books, so this has, well, no words. A young girl visits a circus and has money only for the eponymous theater, in which she can watch several scenes. There are five small "panopticums" in the theater, each showing the fate of one of the characters she has already passed at the circus. She looks into each one, and Ott shows us very weird things. There's the man who enters a hotel where no one is at the desk, but there's a tasty dinner all laid out for him. Or is it really that tasty? There's the Mexican wrestler ("El Macho!") who fights Death in a mighty battle. Does he win? Can anyone win when they're wrestling Death? We see the near-sighted man who agrees to take some experimental drugs to help him with his sight ... and they help him in a way he could never have expected. Finally, there's the homeless man who predicts the end of the world. What happens when he's correct? The last panopticum into which the girl looks is titled "The Girl." Does she really want to look in there? Of course she does!

The tales are typically Twilight Zone-ish, and although they aren't terribly original, they are eerie and bizarre and even have morals. Obviously, the stories work on the strength of Ott's art and storytelling, and he's up to the task. The girl is sufficiently cherubic, and the beleagured participants in the stories fit the tones of the stories well - the businessman is beaten down by life, which sets up his fate well; the wrestler is powerful and proud, which means Death has a way to chip away at him; the near-sighted man is a geek who gets a new lease on life; and the homeless man looks slightly crazy, which makes his reception when he claims the world is ending all that more typical. Ott's attention to detail is very nice, too, as we can almost hear the wrestler shouting in anguish when he finds out how Death has won and feel the punches that land on the homeless man. It has an extremely old-time feel to it, too, which makes the cliché of setting the story in a creepy circus less egregious. It's commonplace now to think of circuses as freaky places, but if you actually go to a circus, they're really not. By setting this in the past (or at least making it seem like it's in the past), Ott helps remove it from the squalid present and helps us believe this sort of theater could exist at a time when circuses were more popular.

I say it's a bit overpriced because it's 19 bucks, and for that you get weird stories, but nothing that's exceptional. It's a very neat comic, because wordless books are hard to pull off, but Ott does it nicely. Find it cheaper on-line somewhere and pick it up!

As we reach the last book, we come upon 2 Sisters by Matt Kindt. This came out in 2004 from Top Shelf, but I got it after reading (and loving) Super Spy. It costs 22 dollars, but it's 334 pages of awesome.

2 Sisters is another spy comic set in World War II, but in some ways it's superior to Super Spy, and in other ways it's not as good. The art is not as good, as Kindt has become more confident and fluid in his pencil work, but the art is still very expressive and Kindt uses many nice touches to show parts of the story, like when the sound effects form the border panels, or there's a large statue in the middle of the page and a character climbs over it and through the panels, or, early on in the book, there's a full-page drawing of a woman escaping shackles that looks very odd, but works:

The story follows Elle, who arrives in London and volunteers for duty during the war. She meets a man named Alan to whom she becomes close, but he is killed in a bombing raid soon afterward. Alan, however, was working for British intelligence, and he was trying to recruit her. Elle becomes a spy, and an excellent one at that. She goes further and further into her role as spy, until she doesn't want to do it anymore. But she needs to go on one last mission, one that will turn her world upside down again. Of course, she has a sister, Anna, who has stayed on their farm. Through a series of flashbacks, we see their childhood with an abusive, drunk father. Elle is withdrawn, while Anna is outgoing, flirting with boys and dreaming big dreams. We don't know why Elle came to the big city and not Anna, but we find out by the end. Plus, we follow the path of a Roman vase throughout the book, which leads us from Venice to pirates (and a wonderful double-page fight scene) and a desert island. Why does Kindt follow the vase? Ah, that would be telling! It's an interesting trail through history, tying into the main story in a somewhat unexpected way.

This book is certainly not as ambitious as Super Spy, although Elle's missions are cleverly laid out and the convergence of the disparate story lines are well done. Some people have complained that it's difficult to figure out who some of the characters are in Super Spy. There are a lot of characters in the book, so that might be a cause for concern. Our own MarkAndrew didn't really get the narrative thread, and that's fair, I suppose (although I don't agree with him). This book is less complex, but it fares better in terms of story, because there's only one real narrative thread: Elle and her relationship with her sister, and how they influence each other and why Elle is in London and Anna isn't. It's an emotionally gripping story, especially when Elle confronts her father and when she learns the secrets surrounding her final mission. I'm a bit confused as to why she's sending letters, but to say more would spoil it, so I'm not going further. It's a minor point, but it still bugged me.

This is another amazing book by Kindt. I don't love it as much as Super Spy, but it's still fantastic (and that's like saying I like Apocalypse Now more than The Godfather, Part II - you can't go wrong with either!). Seek it out and purchase it. You will not be disappointed. And if you are, maybe the fault lies within you! Did you ever think of that?

Man, that's a bunch o' books. Let's review:

Hazed: A savage satire with no redeeming social value, but quite fun.Candy or Medicine: Not my bag, but charming in a rough way.The Unwanted: An interesting premise with at-risk youth fighting Satan, and decent if unsophisticated artwork.That Salty Air: Very nice to look at, but oddly unemotional and somewhat predictable.Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah: Extremely creepy horror story, with fine art except for the last chapter, which doesn't really match the tone of the book.Holmes: A ridiculous pastiche of the great detective as drug-addled buffoon, but very funny despite rough art.Cinema Panopticum: Wordless comic with nice expressive art; a bit overpriced for simple, Twilight Zone-type stories.2 Sisters: An excellent spy story with complex and riveting back stories; good value for your money.

All right, that's it for this time. These books aren't going to buy themselves, people! Get to it!

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