The GeeksverseREVIEWS | Trades and Hardcovers released September to November, 2012

REVIEWS | Trades and Hardcovers released September to November, 2012
Published on Saturday, December 15, 2012 by
[UPDATED] The third entry in our series of “capsule review” articles covering 2012 trade paperbacks and hardcovers spotlights September, October, and November releases. Unless specifically noted, the books reviewed were digital copies provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers. Most of these books will likely still be on shelves at your local comic shop and bookstores, but if they’re not, remember that they can be back-ordered from your local comic book shop or purchased from various online retailers.

The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1: Science. Bad. ($14.99, Image Comics)

  • Story by: Jonathan Hickman
  • Art by: Nick Pitarra & Jordie Bellaire
  • Publication Date: September 2012
  • Format: 144 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com)What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs?

Well, that description above wasn’t very helpful, was it? The Manhattan Projects is a work of alternate history crossed with the sort of “mad ideas” science-fiction readers find in the work of say, Warren Ellis. Hickman (The Nightly News) ramps up the crazy in this book—in this alternate world Werner Von Braun is a cyborg, Harry Daghlian is a disembodied skull, and Robert Oppenheimer has been replaced by his psychotic twin—but I do wonder if in taking events and characters so far away from their historical referents, Hickman might be undercutting his ability to make salient historical commentary with the narrative. That concern aside, this is highly entertaining stuff that manages to be provocative and funny at the same time. Recommended.

Rex Mundi Omnibus, Vol. 1 ($24.99, Dark Horse Books)

  • Written by: Arvid Nelson
  • Art by: EricJ, Jim Di Bartolo, Juan Ferreyra, Brian Churilla
  • Colors by: Juan Ferreyra, Jeromy Cox
  • Cover by: Juan Ferreyra
  • Publication Date: September 2012
  • Format: 584 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from DarkHorse.com)Paris, 1933. Europe is still in the grip of feudalism, sorcerers stalk the streets at night, and secret societies vie for power. When a medieval scroll disappears from a Paris church, Dr. Julien Saunière begins uncovering a series of horrific ritual murders connected to the Catholic Church. His investigation turns into a one-man quest to uncover the deepest secrets of Christianity, a trail of conspiracy that extends all the way to the walls of Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

The Manhattan Projects is off to a good start in fleshing out its account of an imagined world history, but Rex Mundi, which began publication in 2003 as an Image Comics title before moving to Dark Horse in 2006, might just be unparalleled in comics in terms of the breadth, scope, and historicity of its alternate world. This epic series by Arvid Nelson (Zero Killer) is set in a pre-WWII world where magic is real, the Reformation was snuffed out in its infancy and the Catholic Church subsequently never lost its grip on real political power, the French Revolution failed to overthrow the monarchy, and the American Civil War ended in a stalemate. The repercussions of these changes require some effort on the part of the reader to fully appreciate, but they help situate and provide more meaningful context for the murder-mystery and the search for the Holy Grail that are the main narrative threads in the book. Readers who take the time to invest in the setting will be rewarded with an absorbing whodunit that gets creative with the various Church conspiracies that have infiltrated their way into the popular consciousness. The art, both by original artist EricJ and later illustrator Juan Ferreyra is impressive, with special attention paid to period-accurate (inasmuch as an alternate history 1930s can be called a “period”), Art Deco-inspired, architectural detail. Very highly recommended.

Thief of Thieves, Vol. 1: I Quit ($14.99, Image Comics)

  • Story by: Robert Kirkman & Nick Spencer
  • Art by: Shawn Martinbrough & Felix Serrano
  • Publication Date: September 2012
  • Format: 152 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com): Conrad Paulson lives a secret double life as master thief Redmond. There is nothing he can’t steal, nothing he can’t have… except for the life he left behind. Now with a grown son he hardly knows, and an ex-wife he never stopped loving, Conrad must try to piece together what’s left of his life, before the FBI finally catch up to him… but it appears they are the least of his worries.

Thief of Thieves is very much a modern heist book on its surface: It has the snappy patter, byzantine schemes, double-crosses, the diverse gang of specialist grifters, gratuitous flashbacks and flash-forwards, the works. One could almost say that it’s a little bit too reminiscent of say, Out of Sight or Ocean’s Eleven. The heart that keeps the story beating however, is the subplot of a father trying to reconnect with his son and and keep him from making the same mistakes as he has in his life, and I found myself much, much more drawn to this aspect of the narrative than what at this point is shaping up to be a fairly orthodox crime/heist “A” plot that seems tailored for adaptation to premium cable TV. Smart dialogue by Nick Spencer (Forgetless) helps round out the characters and the art by Martinbrough and Serrano is quite effective, ditching extreme stylization and panel and page design gimmickry for straightforward storytelling that is nonetheless visually interesting.

Dancer ($15.99, Image Comics)

  • Story by: Nathan Edmondson
  • Art by: Nic Klein
  • Publication Date: October 2012
  • Format: 132 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com)The multiple sell-out miniseries from the writer of WHO IS JAKE ELLIS? and the artist of VIKING, DANCER is the story of a retired assassin who must protect his ballerina love from a sniper stalking them both through the back alleys of a wintry Europe.

Nathan Edmondson (The Activity) takes together stand-bys of the espionage genre—the veteran operative who wants to get out of the spy game, the young agent out to claim the master agent’s crown, opportunistic and cutthroat handlers—and attempts to blend them with a conceit decidedly rooted in science-fiction. Think of it as Tom Clancy-meets-Michael Crichton. The combination works if you don’t think too much about the details, but consider the one techno-thriller-ish element in the story as more than a convenient, if unusual, device for moving the plot along and the questions it generates can upend the whole narrative. Nic Klein’s art fits the tone of the book perfectly, and he does a good job of depicting the exotic European locales the book takes place in as distinct settings. Recommended, with some reservation.

Epic Kill, Vol. 1 ($12.99, Image Comics)

  • Story & art by: Raffaele Ienco
  • Publication Date: October 2012
  • Format: 144 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com): Hitmen and mercenaries are ordered by the President to bring down an eighteen-year-old super assassin named Song- but she’s going to turn the tables on them – and every kill is going to be epic! Song has trained since childhood to take revenge on the man responsible for her parent’s deaths – the man who has just been elected President!

Ienco’s poorly-considered visual storytelling does no favors for Epic Kill, a mediocre mash-up of Luc Besson’s Nikita and Tarantino’s Kill Bill, with some The Matrix-style sequences thrown in for good measure. Human figures look fairly decent until they are drawn in motion, whereupon they take on the stiff, lifeless quality of marionettes flailing about. Ienco also needs to use references for his drawings of gun battles considering how often they occur in the book: More than once, he draws bullets being fired out of gun barrels still in their casing, an acceptable oversight in a Looney Tunes cartoon, less so in a work that is trying to present itself as a serious action comic. He draws great scenery, architecture, and vehicles, but that’s not nearly enough to redeem this title. Avoid.

Once Upon a Time Machine ($24.99, Dark Horse Books)

  • Written by: Lee Nordling, Jason Rodriguez, Tara Alexander, and others
  • Art by: Khoi Pham, Charles Fetherolf, Nelson Evergreen, and others
  • Cover by: Farel Dalrymple
  • Publication Date: October 2012
  • Format: 432 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from DarkHorse.com): Fairy tales have fueled our dreams and fired our imaginations for centuries. Step inside a time machine built by a collection of today’s finest storytellers, and enter a range of futures where familiar tales are reimagined in an astonishing variety of styles. Editors Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens bring you the next wave of leading writers and illustrators working alongside superstar creators like Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War), Ryan Ottley (Invincible), Khoi Pham (Daredevil), and Brandon Graham (King City) to deliver a reading experience that will delight generations young and old.

The basic concept of Once Upon a Time Machine is intriguing: Twenty-five classic fables, folk stories, and fairy tales updated with a science-fiction twist are collected in one massive anthology volume. The book also features 25 chapter-break pin-ups by artists like Brandon Graham and Cary Nord. There’s a lot to like here—Tara Alexander and Nelson Evergreen’s “1001” and Fred Duran and Dave Proch’s “A.L.I.C.E.” which riff on “One Thousand and One Nights” and “Alice in Wonderland,” respectively, are but two of the more memorable stories—but there are also a number of entries that  there are significantly less enjoyable due to issues with the level of craft or creativity. All in all, the good material outweighs the bad, but only just.

Saga, Vol. 1 ($9.99, Image Comics)

  • Story by: Brian K. Vaughan
  • Art by: Fiona Staples
  • Publication Date: October 2012
  • Format: 160 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com)From New York Times bestselling writer BRIAN K.VAUGHAN (Y: THE LAST MAN, EX MACHINA) and critically acclaimed artist FIONA STAPLES (MYSTERY SOCIETY, NORTH 40), SAGA is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in a sexy, subversive drama for adults.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair with “mad ideas”-style comics for most of the past twenty years, those comics—spiritually descended from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! and more recently, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and The Authority—that push the medium’s capacity for meta- and intertextuality, incorporating the bizarre and the obscure to an almost hallucinatory extreme. Mad ideas, when used in the service of an overarching theme and an internally consistent story logic add a lot of entertainment value to a comic book, but when used solely for their own sake are terribly annoying and ultimately wearying. Vaughan and Staples’ Saga is awash in mad ideas: character and setting designs are straight out of a mescaline dream and the story reads like Romeo and Juliet and the Nativity of Jesus filtered through Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta’s Starstruck. I am not sure where Vaughan is taking this particular story, but I’ve been highly entertained by the dialogue and action so far, and the art in this budget-priced collection is some of the most imaginative published work I’ve seen from the talented Ms. Staples. Very highly recommended.

Valentine, Vol. 1: The Ice Death ($24.99 Image Comics)

  • Story by: Alex de Campi
  • Art by: Christine Larsen, Tim Durning, Cassandra James
  • Cover by: Steven Belledin
  • Publication Date: October 2012
  • Format: 352 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • Description (from ImageComics.com): 1812. As the mightiest army in the world is pitilessly ground into dust by the Russian winter, two soldiers, lost in a blizzard, are given a package by a dying general. Suddenly the young soldiers find themselves hunted by relentless, blood-eyed monsters out of their worst childhood nightmares. For those tales of terror and legend told across the Earth all have a kernel of truth: humans are not alone. And these monsters, now stuck in a world whose magic has drained away, will do anything to go home. Pity the humans caught in their path. 

A solid horror-fantasy tale accompanied by charming art, although I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that de Campi did not do more with the historical setting and context. As it is, Napoleon’s failed conquest of Russia is largely relegated to the backdrop as the story takes on the format and beats of the action-fantasy genre, although a late-occurring temporal twist changes things up a little. Somewhat reminiscent of Mignola and Arcudi’s Baltimore, but lacking in a sense of menace.

Marked Man ($14.99, Dark Horse Books)

  • Story and art by: Howard Chaykin
  • Colored by: Jesus Aburto
  • Publication Date: November 2012
  • Format: 72 pages, full color, hardcover
  • Description (from DarkHorse.com): To the casual observer, Mark LaFarge has it going on. He’s got a beautiful wife, cute kids, a McMansion in the South Bay… the guy is the living embodiment of the American dream. But nothing is ever as it seems. LaFarge is a career criminal who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life… and that life of crime, completely separate from the life he presents to the world, is about to catch up with him. And there will be blood… a great deal of blood.

Given how common they are in film, television, and comics, it’s quite rare that I get blindsided by revenge dramas these days, but Howard Chaykin does such an excellent job of lulling protagonist Mark LaFarge—and by extension, the reader—into a false sense of security that when the inevitable tragedy that will require avenging strikes, it hits with the impact of a punch to the gut. Marked Man doesn’t stray from the established revenge drama formula but it doesn’t really have to: Sometimes working within the confines and conventions of genre is enough when the execution is this spot-on. I can’t help but feel that Chaykin’s art has seen better days, though, and while the story really does say all it needs to say within a compact 72 pages, the volume feels unusually slim for a publication at this price point compared to other offerings on the market.

Ragemoor ($17.99, Dark Horse Books)

  • Story by: Jan Strnad
  • Art by: Richard Corben
  • Publication Date: November 2012
  • Format: 112 pages, full color, hardcover
  • Description (from DarkHorse.com): Ragemoor! A living castle, nurtured on pagan blood, harborer to deadly monsters! A fortress possessed of its own will and ability to change itself, with the power to add and destroy rooms and to grow without the help of any human hand. Its servants aren’t human, its origins are Lovecraftian, and its keeper must fend off the castle walls from the terrible race of worm men!

Long-time horror/fantasy/sci-fi comics collaborators Jan Strnad and Richard Corben come together for this Lovecraftian tale of a sentient castle and the prehistoric terror that it hides. Watching the castle’s doomed residents try to deal with the tragedies and disasters Strnad visits upon them (and go slowly insane as they do so) is a delightful exercise in horror-derived comedy. Corben’s detailed illustrations and disgusting creature designs add to the vintage EC Comics/Warren Publishing horror-comedy feel. Recommended.

Trigun Maximum Omnibus, Vol. 1 ($19.99, Dark Horse Manga)

  • Story and art by: Yasuhiro Nightow
  • Publication Date: November 2012
  • Format: 568 pages, black & white, trade paperback, oriented in right-to-left reading format
  • Description (from Darkhorse.com)Vash the Stampede, the galaxy’s deadliest gunslinger, emerges after two years in hiding to help his beleaguered desert homeworld, Gunsmoke. But the Stampede’s many enemies have kept their motors, and they’re back on his trail and determined to bring Vash to ground—hard! And a new crowd of bounty hunters, badasses, and brain-cases are also looking to cash in the astronomical price on his head!
  • The first 27 pages of the book can be read here.

Trigun Maximum poses an interesting quandary to Trigun fans. The original Trigun series, both in the original manga and the subsequent anime adaptation (one of my favorite late-1990s anime series, by the way) had a pretty definitive ending, which raises the question of whether or not the space-western action-comedy really merited a sequel series outside of commercial considerations. Having Vash the Stampede come back seems weird and a little wrong somehow. That said, at least it’s still being done by Nightow—whose artwork depicting the planet Gunsmoke and its collection of characters looks better than ever—and the stories in this first omnibus collection should be quite satisfying to old Trigun fans who didn’t quite get their fill of Vash, Wolfwood, Meryl Stryfe, Milly Thompson, the Gung-Ho Guns, and the rest of the cast the first time around. One great thing for returning fans about this sequel series is that the stories don’t follow the established early-days formula of the original, where the “mystery” of Vash’s identity was drawn out interminably—Nightow wastes no time getting into some awesome space-cowboy gunfightin’ action in the first chapter with a bare minimum of exposition. It’s not an ideal introduction to the property for new readers, but it’s still quite accessible for a sequel series. Those Trigun novices who do want to get fully acquainted with Vash’s earlier adventures have multiple options on how they want to get up to speed: Dark Horse Manga offers translated collections of the first series and the 26-episode anime adaptation of the original Trigun is readily (and legally) viewable on YouTube and Hulu in many territories.

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