The GeeksverseREVIEWS | Trades & Hardcovers: November 2013 Releases

REVIEWS | Trades & Hardcovers: November 2013 Releases
Published on Friday, December 20, 2013 by
We close out our 2013 trade paperback and hardcover reviews with looks at Deathmatch, Vol. 2 (BOOM! Studios), Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthurs Jungle War, Vol. 1 (IDW), Empowered Vol. 8 (Dark Horse), and Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground (IDW). Unless otherwise indicated, all reviewed titles are digital copies provided free of charge by their respective publishers.
Deathmatch, Vol. 2 (BOOM! Studios) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • Deathmatch_V2_preview_Page_01Story: Paul Jenkins
  • IllustrationsCarlos Magno
  • Colors: Michael Garland
  • Cover: Carlos Magno
  • Deathmatch based on a concept by: Bryce Carlson
  • Format: 112 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $14.99
  • Sale date: 04 December 2013
  • Publisher’s description: The second round of the ultimate battle royale begins here, as the world’s greatest superheroes are forced to fight each other to the death in a mysterious, other-worldly prison. The mysteries grow deeper and the casualty list grows longer as DEATHMATCH continues.
  • Click here to read the preview.

Deathmatch, for the uninitiated, features analogues of popular Marvel and DC characters—Dragonfly is a Spider-Man pastiche, Sable and Mink are distaff versions of Batman and Nightwing, respectively; Meridian clearly shares many attributes with the Paul Jenkins-created Sentry (and thus is also a Superman clone), going so far as having an arch-nemesis patterned after the Void; Rat takes after Watchmen‘s Rorschach (or Justice League Unlimited‘s The Question, if you like), Sol Invictus will remind readers of Thor (or a gender-swapped Wonder Woman) just as Berserk will call to mind Wolverine, Mr. Chuckles is based on the Joker, and so on and so forth—trapped in a tournament to the death, forced to fight each other by an unknown entity, for reasons that have been erased from their memories. It wouldn’t be too inaccurate, I think, to describe it as a modernized, brand-agnostic, no holds-barred version of 1984’s Secret Wars.

But make no mistake, for all its violence and casual, barely veiled appropriation of Marvel and DC superhero character designs, Deathmatch isn’t simply an off-brand, “grim and gritty” iteration of the mainstream superhero crossover comic. Jenkins makes full use of the creative freedom afforded by working with a publisher like BOOM! Studios to do the kinds of things that—for various reasons that have more to do with editorial and corporate restraints than creative limitations—just can’t be done in a Marvel or a DC superhero comic.

More than a basic deconstruction of mainstream superheroes, Deathmatch also engages in their reconstruction: Jenkins uses the tournament-to-the-death conceit to take the superhero types apart and expose their most fundamental inner workings and motivations to the reader, and then puts them back together again, clarified and better understood. The result is that Benny Boatwright (the superhero known as Dragonfly) is, in certain ways, a “better” Spider-Man than recent versions of Marvel’s Peter Parker and the book’s ersatz Batman, the cloaked crimefighter Sable, comes off as just as true to the spirit of the Dark Knight Detective as the character Scott Snyder is writing in DC’s comics. Not all the Marvel and DC analogues get this treatment—many are simply convenient cardboard cutout stand-ins—and some of Jenkins’ attempts at superhero distillation result in gross caricatures of the genuine articles, but he racks up far more hits than misses.

Like Jenkins’ writing, Carlos Magno’s detailed art builds on the best of the mainstream superhero comics form. His work on figures and backgrounds echoes that of a prime George Pérez, but with a penchant for filigree and cross-hatching reminiscent of Leinil Francis Yu. His page layouts, particularly on double-page spreads, border on the disorienting in rare occasions, but this is almost to be expected in a comic that revels in the visual bombast of superhero comics art.

It may strike some as more than passing odd and even contradictory that Jenkins, after publicly calling out DC and Marvel (but more specifically DC) for what he termed the homogenized quality of their superhero comics, would then spend so much time and effort recreating the publishers’ most popular properties and then have them engage in a last man (or woman) standing battle royal. But there’s really no conflict here—Jenkins wasn’t railing against superheroes and superhero comics as much as he was against the editorial and corporate culture of the superhero comics industry. Deathmatch isn’t particularly groundbreaking or subversive. What it is, however, is something that is just as entertaining to read and just as important to the state of the superhero comics medium: It is a well-made superhero comic, put together by eminently skilled creators given the creative leeway and backed by editorial confidence to see their vision through.

Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War, Vol. 1 (IDW) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • FEVERRIDGE_DBD copyStory: Michael Heimos
  • Illustrations: Nick Runge
  • Colors: Nolan Woodard, Jordie Bellaire
  • Cover: Nick Runge
  • Format: 104 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $17.99
  • Sale date: 04 December 2013
  • Publisher’s description: The South Pacific theatre of World War II is usually seen from the perspective of the Marines fighting from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. Unsung in WWII fiction is the story of the 6th Army’s 6th Infantry Division (“the Sightseein’ Sixth”) and their jungle commandoes, the Alamo Scouts, under the command of Gen. Walter Kreuger, the trusted and savvy lieutenant of “America’s Caesar,” Douglas MacArthur. Fever Ridge is the story of a secret that could have changed the War, and the world.
  • Click here to read the preview.

Michael Heimos and Nick Runge’s Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War is as ambitious in its storytelling structure as it is in the depth and scope of its fictionalized treatment of the World War II material that informs its narrative. While most comics labeled with the “graphic novel” descriptor are really more short story-like in nature and only qualify as “novels” in terms of page count (and sticker price!), Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War reads like a proper (fictionalized) historical novel. A novel isn’t simply “a long short story” or a series of sequential short stories strung together—the cultivation of themes, concepts, and motifs plays a much more important role in the novel, sometimes taking precedence over the immediate concerns of a linear plot. The creative decisions and digressive features that may have made a reading of the series’ individual installments as monthly serials feel disjointed and more than a little rambling work so much better in the Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War, Vol. 1 trade paperback, which collects the first four issues of the planned eight-issue miniseries about the legendary Alamo Scouts, one of the recognized precursors of today’s US Army Special Forces. There’s a part of me that wonders if the initial serialization might have hurt Fever Ridge‘s roll-out and reception—it really is a prime example of a serial comics work that reads better collected in a trade—but at the same time, owing to its subject matter and somewhat niche comics genre, I don’t know if it would have come out at all had its creators insisted on it being released all at once as a single volume.

In any case, Fever Ridge gives the reader a compelling “insider’s look” at the formation of a fictionalized team of Alamo Scouts and the unit’s early operations against the Imperial Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea. Heimos emphasizes the unique balance of individuality and the ability to work well with others required of the team members as well as the diversity of backgrounds and skills that helped provide the Alamo Scout teams their famed operational flexibility. Character development occasionally does get shunted to the side in favor of the necessities of exposition, but it’s a fair price to pay, I think, in order to get readers unfamiliar with the history of the period to get comfortable with the setting.

Even those who aren’t into historical comics and military fiction will find the book’s visuals appealing. Illustrator Nick Runge uses a naturalistic rendering style that is perfectly appropriate given the tone of the writing and offhand, his depictions of equipment and vehicles look to be very period-accurate. Runge avoids many of the pitfalls commonly associated with “realistic” comics art; figures don’t look stiff at all—they look like they’ve been captured in mid-motion instead of being deliberately and statically posed—and he isn’t afraid to mix up his distances and perspectives, imparting a dynamic and cinematic feel to the storytelling. Woodard and Bellaire’s judicious coloring rounds out the volume’s impressive visuals.

Meticulously researched, beautifully rendered, and ultimately entertaining, Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War stands as one of the best military comics I’ve read in recent memory.

Empowered, Vol. 8 (Dark Horse) [EDITOR’S PICK]
  • empowv8Story & art: Adam Warren
  • Cover: Adam Warren
  • Format: 208 pages, black & white, trade paperback
  • List price: $16.99
  • Sale date: 11 December 2013
  • Publisher’s description: Costumed crime fighter Empowered, already reeling from “The Worst Book Proposal Ever,” finds herself roped into a desperate scheme by her grief-stricken teammate, Sistah Spooky. Journeying from a terrifying alien arsenal to the even-more-terrifying depths of hell itself, can the mismatched superheroines free the soul of Spooky’s lover from eternal damnation?
  • Click here to read a review of Empowered, Deluxe Edition Vol. 1.
  • Click here to read an interview with Empowered creator Adam Warren.
  • Click here to read a review of Empowered, Deluxe Edition Vol. 2.
  • A review of Empowered, Vol. 7 can be found here.
  • Click here to read a review of Empowered Special: Nine Beers with Ninjette.
  • Click here to read the preview.

If there’s one word that I think best encapsulates my impression of Empowered, Vol. 8, it’s “contrast.” In this installment of the long-running, mature readers-rated “sexy superhero comedy,” writer-artist Adam Warren ditches the usual Empowered narrative format—wherein he strings together about three dozen or so narrative shorts—and goes with a two-part structure: The first half of the volume sticks to the old format, but the latter half is a graphic novella that could very well serve as a stand-alone volume by itself.

Beyond the book’s narrative structure, Empowered, Vol. 8 also adopts a dramatic shift in tone from those of preceding entries in the series. Oh, the on-the-nose, sometimes hit-and-miss, fanservice-y sight gags and sexual humor is still there as are the occasional cutaways, and the cringe-comedy factor is still unmatched in Western comics, but long-time Empowered readers are in for a serious case of mood whiplash by the time the second half of the book, ominously titled “I Never Looked in Your Eyes; I Never Heard Your Voice,” really gets rolling, although in retrospect, it does seem like the end of Empowered,  Vol. 7 was building up to this darker and more serious story direction. I won’t go into detail about the plot details as I don’t want to to risk spoiling what I feel is the strongest Empowered story so far, so I’ll just say that it will fundamentally change how readers and fans view Emp’s Super Homies teammate and frequent bully Sistah Spooky. Empowered has always been good at showing persistent character development ever since the fourth volume or so of the series, and “I Never Looked in Your Eyes; I Never Heard Your Voice” is a new high water mark with regards to this aspect of Warren’s writing.

What does remain constant in this volume, carried over from previous installments, is the practiced and economic quality of Warren’s dynamic,  occasionally unconventional, “in-your-face,” rapid-fire visual storytelling, although even on that score, it seems like he has devoted more panels than usual in the service of establishing shots and scenario-setting. It’s a welcome development perfectly suited to the longer-form narrative of Vol. 8‘s second half.

Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground (IDW)
  • SLAYGROUNDCVR-copyStory & art: Darwyn Cooke
  • Adapted from the novel Slayground by: Donald E. Westlake, writing under the name Richard Stark
  • Cover: Darwyn Cooke
  • Format: 96 pages, partial color, hardcover
  • List price: $17.99
  • Sale date: 11 December 2013
  • Publisher’s description: Darwyn Cooke’s masterful and multi award-winning series of PARKER graphic novels continues with Slayground! Parker, whose getaway car crashes after a heist, manages to elude capture with his loot by breaking into an amusement park that is closed for the winter. But his presence does not go unnoticed—a pair of cops observed the job and its aftermath. But rather than pursue their suspect… they decide to go into business for themselves, with the help of some “business associates.” From then on it’s a game of cat and mouse, one played out through closed rides of the abandoned carnival… a game that slowly starts to favor the mouse.
  • Click here to read the preview.

After over a year-long wait, Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground, the fourth in Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels (originally published under his most famous nom de plume Richard Stark) finally hit comics shops and bookstores earlier this month.

The decision to adapt 1971’s Slayground is a somewhat curious one. This means Cooke and IDW are jumping eight novels ahead in the original novel release timeline (Cooke’s adaptation of the 1966 novel The Seventh, previously available only in the Parker: The Martini Edition deluxe hardcover, is included in this volume). Now granted, this isn’t the first time Cooke and IDW skipped over one of the original Parker novels in this series—they elected not to adapt 1963’s The Mourner between the release of their adaptations of The Outfit (1963) and The Score (1964)—and it’s not as if Cooke or IDW ever claimed that they planned to adapt all of the Parker novels. Still, I’m mentioning the jump here, in case any readers are wondering if Cooke/IDW adaptations of The Jugger (1965), The Handle (1966), The Rare Coin Score (1967)The Green Eagle Score (1967), The Black Ice Score (1968), The Sour Lemon Score (1969), and Deadly Edge (1971) exist. They don’t, at least not as of this writing, and there’s no word if Cooke will come back to one of those novels for the next adaptation scheduled for release in 2015 or if he’s moving forward with the post-1971 Parker novels.

This is the first of Cooke’s Parker graphic novels that I’ve not read the original novel, but if he approached the task of adapting Slayground the same way he did in the three previous books, and there’s no reason to think he didn’t, I’m confident in saying that it’s very likely that he stayed true to the mood, tone, and pacing of the source text, taking liberties only when motivated by the technical demands of comics storytelling and page count limits.

Cooke’s monochromatic art is especially suited to the setting of the story, the various shades of blue highlighting the winter cold and the bleak abandoned fairground landscape that serves as the impromptu battlefield for Parker and the organized crime figures out for his head. As with the previous Parker graphic novels, Cooke also takes advantage of the sequential art medium to “show, not tell” and the book is the better for it—the largely wordless sequences where Parker uses the various funhouse attractions as improvised traps and distractions against his enemies are particularly well done.

Even with the book’s inclusion of the previously published The Seventh, there isn’t much opportunity in the somewhat brief and decidedly action-oriented Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground for those unfamiliar with the original Parker novels to get into the continuity and characters of the property—2009’s Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter or last year’s Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score are better choices for first-time Parker readers—but for those already invested in Cooke’s take on this most popular of Donald E. Westlake’s creations, this is almost an automatic purchase.

Check out our reviews of 2013 trades & hardcovers by clicking on the links below:
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