The GeeksverseREVIEWS | Noah, City in the Desert, Vol. 2, Bad Machinery, Vol. 2, and Wild Man, Vol. 1: Island of Memory

REVIEWS | Noah, City in the Desert, Vol. 2, Bad Machinery, Vol. 2, and Wild Man, Vol. 1: Island of Memory
Published on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 by
Looking for a trade or hardcover to read? Check out our reviews of Noah (Image Comics), City in the Desert, Vol. 2: The Serpent Crown (BOOM!/Archaia), Bad Machinery, Vol. 2: The Case of the Good Boy (Oni Press), and Island of Memory (Floating World Comics) for some ideas.

[Reviewer’s note: Unless otherwise specified, all reviewed titles were provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers or creative team personnel.]

Noah (Image Comics)

  • NOAH_HC-COVERStory: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
  • Art: Niko Henrichon
  • Format: 256 pages, full color, hardcover
  • List price: $29.99
  • Sale date: 19 March 2014
  • Publisher’s description: From acclaimed filmmaker DARREN ARONOFSKY (Black Swan, The Wrestler) and artist NIKO HENRICHON (Pride of Baghdad), NOAH is a fresh take on the biblical epic for the 21st Century. A fantastical world is about to be destroyed and one man is chosen to start a new one. As wicked forces try to take his Ark, Noah must hold his family together while they watch the annihilation of all they know. Infusing the Book of Genesis with fantasy and science fiction, NOAH both reinvents the elements of the Flood story everyone knows and simultaneously takes the reader beyond them and into the unexpected.
  • Click here and here to read about the recent controversies concerning the Noah film adaptation.

A stylized retelling of the Genesis flood narrative previously published in 2011 by Franco-Belgian comics publisher Le Lombard, Noah finds the Abrahamic flood myth infused with contemporary themes and a partially humanistic bent, but it is only a limited success as an updated, character-driven graphic novel version of the Biblical story.

Noah isn’t at all unique in comics in its attempt to give a story rooted in religious tradition a somewhat secular spin for pop culture consumption, but it is still worth noting writers Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel’s efforts to give its characters psychological depth and motivation that should, in theory, give them a measure of accessibility—if not outright sympathetic appeal—to readers unfamiliar with the source material or those readers indifferent to its scriptural significance. The title character, for instance, isn’t just some cipher blindly following his god’s divine instructions, as Noah is shown at times to be mightily struggling with the moral implications of his sacred mission to save only his family and mating pairs of animals from the coming deluge. It is difficult to be convinced of the great weight this responsibility imposes on him, however, since he spends most of the graphic novel alternating between being a John Galt-styled individualist—I would have appreciated the irony better if I was convinced that the juxtaposition was wholly intended—and a raving eco-terrorist convinced that the flood is his god’s punishment to the human race for laying waste to the earth and its creatures. Noah’s family, by contrast, exhibits a more consistent sense of humanity and even naïveté, but they do little to lighten the book’s grim mood. I realize that the flood myth is basically a tale of a world’s unmaking at the hands of its creator and its rebirth through the efforts of the god’s chosen few, but in Aronofsky and Handel’s hands, it comes off as a particularly joyless exercise even for a “world’s end”-type story.

Another issue with this particular take on the story is the book’s overwhelming Biblical literalism with regards to certain elements of the source material. At a certain resolution, myths such as the Genesis flood narrative work best as metaphors rooted in the realm of fantasy, but the combination of the book’s literalism and Aronofsky and Handel’s insistence on characters’ psychological realism only serves to highlight the absurdity inherent in any such stories that would have been more easily glossed over with a different approach to the storytelling, characterization, and worldbuilding. It’s fair to ask if this was intentional on the writers’ part, but even if it is, the result is the same: Noah‘s story comes off as somewhat confusing in its themes, intent, and execution.

Niko Henrichon’s art, however, might have readers eager to dismiss any problems they might find with the writing and stick with the book for its pretty pictures. Those familiar only with the artist’s work on the acclaimed Pride of Baghdad might be surprised to see a radically different style from Canadian illustrator here, but it is no less detailed and well-considered. Henrichon steps back from the naturalism that typified his most popular prior outing and incorporates a looser rendering style slightly reminiscent of Simon Roy’s work on the Eisner-nominated Prophet. Henrichon’s texturing and coloring are absolutely gorgeous and should easily have him as an early favorite for any number of major comics art awards. Some readers may take issue with the rather radical choices Henrichon has made with the visual design—the environments, characters, and creatures of Noah wouldn’t look out of place in a classic Heavy Metal or Alien Worlds serial—but it really underlines the mythological aspect of the source narrative in a way that the writing doesn’t.

City in the Desert, Vol. 2: The Serpent Crown (BOOM!/Archaia) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • City_in_the_Desert_v2_CoverStory & artMoro Rogers
  • Format: 152 pages, partial color, hardcover
  • List price: $24.99
  • Sale date: 12 March 2014
  • Publisher’s description: After their devastating confrontation with Darga and the Sacred Peace, monster hunters Irro and Hari leave the walls of Kevala to seek new lives elsewhere. However, when they discover that the evils of the Sacred Peace have spread far beyond Kevala’s borders, our heroes decide to journey across the wastelands to the prison of the Monster King and release him in exchange for his help in saving the city they love.
  • Click here to read our review of City in the Desert, Vol. 1: The Monster Problem.

Moro Rogers’ City in the Desert, Vol. 2: The Serpent Crown is the sequel to what was one of my favorite books of 2012, City in the Desert: The Monster Problem. The Monster Problem took a premise occasionally encountered in one variation or another in manga and anime—man finds a way to eliminate the world’s monsters, only to realize that the monsters served some essential role in the world’s functioning—and deftly turned it into a vehicle for exploring the themes of faith and religion, ecological conservation, and free will, all while providing an entertaining and affecting fantasy-adventure tale.

The Serpent Crown picks up where The Monster Problem leaves off, with the protagonists—itinerant monster hunter Irro and his loyal beastwoman companion Hari—in the barren wastelands outside the desert city Kevala’s walls, on the run from cult leader Darga and the soldiers under the thrall of The Way of the Sacred Peace. Irro and Hari can only run for so long, however, and with the help of a new ally, they soon gain some insight into Darga’s ultimate plans for the world, the true nature and metaphysical purpose of the monsters that populate their world, and the rudimentary inklings of a plan to defeat Darga.

Despite all the plot progress that occurs in the book, the more memorable narrative highlight of The Serpent Crown is the character development of Hari. The book opens with a flashback to Irro and Hari’s first meeting, and throughout the volume are sequences showing how their relationship has changed over the years while still underlining the fact that much of Hari remains a (potentially dangerous) mystery. Hari occasionally exhibits the endearing guilelessness that marked her character in The Monster Problem, but she is also quicker to anger and lash out this time around—she has been definitely changed by her experiences in the first volume and in The Serpent Crown. Some readers might actually find the book’s overall level of portrayed violence somewhat surprising, although the highly-stylized illustrations keep things from becoming too explicit for the younger set.

Speaking of the art, Rogers’ ability to clearly communicate characters’ intent and internal mental states through facial expressions, poses, and gestures remains a key strength of City in the Desert‘s visuals. Students of character design and comics illustration would do well to view Rogers’ work on this book and its predecessor as a lesson in how simple (but not simplistic) designs go hand-in-hand with effective and efficient visual storytelling. There are numerous ways to approach the task of telling a story through sequential art, of course, but the results of Rogers’ “less is more” process is particularly appealing.

The Serpent Crown is a worthy follow-up to the unmitigated creative success that was The Monster Problem, and I’m eagerly anticipating how Rogers will close out the three-part City in the Desert saga. I’m just hoping that it won’t take another 16 months before City in the Desert, Vol. 3: The Broken Wheel is released.

Bad Machinery, Vol. 2: The Case of the Good Boy (Oni Press) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • BMACHV2_6x4_COMP_FNL_WEBStory & artJohn Allison
  • Format: 136 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $19.99
  • Sale date: 12 March 2014
  • Publisher’s description: Everyone’s favorite pre-teen British detectives are back for another case! With toddlers disappearing and rumors of a large, beast-like creature roaming the woods, Tackleford is in serious danger. And then there’s Mildred’s new dog Archibald… if you can even call it a dog. After all, what kind of dog drinks tea out of a cup? Everything comes to a head once the boys get a picture of the beast and Archibald goes missing. Is there a connection? And what does it all have to do with the magic pencil Mildred won from a carnie con game? Don’t miss the second installment of John Allison’s award-winning webcomic series in print!

Comedy, more than perhaps any other comics genre, is quite subject to the peculiarities of the reader’s personal experience, culture, and language. We all like to laugh, of course, but what one person finds giggle-inducingly funny can be very different from what gets another person laughing. Further complicating matters is the subject of comedic timing: Timing is an important element in a lot of comedy, and it takes for a nuanced understanding of panel staging, page layouts, and word balloon placement for a cartoonist to control when the punchline in a comics page lands so as not to telegraph or otherwise mistime it. “Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” is an old stage actor adage, but it also applies to comics (the ones that you read, not the comedian kind).

Anyway, all that preamble was basically a long-winded way of saying that I am impressed by how John Allison’s Bad Machinery keeps me smiling and laughing. I’m not a particularly wide reader of webcomics so take this for what it’s worth, but Allison’s mystery/slice-of-life comedy title is easily in my top five list of favorite webcomics.

Like a lot of comedic serial webcomics, each page of Bad Machinery is a humorous enough read on its own, but it also propels forward the plot of an overarching story. Bad Machinery, Vol. 2: The Case of the Good Boy collects the strips that originally ran on Allison’s ScaryGoRound site from 12 April, 2010 to 30 September, 2010, and has Allison’s amateur preteen sleuths investigating a series of child disappearances, a case of preternaturally intelligent dog, a mysterious magical pencil, among other things. There’s also a running side-story about bullying that offers a somewhat more serious contrast to the more ridiculous proceedings. It sounds like just a mess of random subplots thrown together (and maybe it is), but Allison makes it work, primarily by keeping the reader too busy laughing to even worry about the internal logic or consistency in tone of it all. It’s somewhat difficult for me to articulate precisely why I find Bad Machinery‘ funny—the humor is droll more than anything else, and the preteen and teen characters talk like how I imagine children raised on nothing but Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns would talk. But it all comes together for me (Allison’s gift for caricature helps greatly), and fortunately enough, Bad Machinery is available to read for free online for others to see if it does the same for them as well.

The question here, then, even for readers who already like Bad Machinery in its webcomic incarnation, is why pay for the print version of a comic that is freely and legally available for reading on the web. Besides helping support the cartoonist (and buying the book is a much better deal than buying prints of the webcomic pages from the site), there’s the matter that younger readers, for whom Bad Machinery is eminently suited, may not necessarily have the ready 24/7 access to the Internet adult readers have (that is, they probably can’t surf the Internet at work all day like you’re doing right now). There is also the fact that the print version of The Case of the Good Boy includes a number of value-added features exclusive to the volume such as extra story pages (the second, third, and fourth pages in the preview gallery below are examples), in-story splash pages like the fifth page in the preview gallery below, some bits of bonus art, a tongue-in-cheek glossary, and an illustrated “Rare Animal Encyclopedia.” Also, the art in the book’s main story pages features occasional deviations from the webcomic original: Notice the difference between how Charlotte’s hair is drawn in the sixth page in the preview gallery below and in the webcomic version of the same page. All in all, I would say there is sufficient additional content and enough changes—improvements, even—to the presentation in the print version to justify the cost of buying it for the Bad Machinery fan.

However one decides to go about it, whether online or in print, Bad Machinery is definitely a fun read worthy of any comics fan’s time, attention, and yes, even their occasional monetary support.

Wild Man—The Natural History of Georg Wilhelm Steller, Vol. 1: Island of Memory (Floating World Comics/Press Gang)

  • IslandofMemory_cvrStory & artT. Edward Bak
  • Format: 72 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $12.00
  • Sale date: Spring 2013
  • Publisher’s description: ISLAND OF MEMORY, T. Edward Bak’s first volume of WILD MAN – The Natural History of Georg Wilhelm Steller, examines the human condition within the natural order at the extremes of the unknown. Part natural history, part adventure yarn and part experimental narrative, this 72-page full-color fever dream is the artistic realization of Bak’s inquiry into the socio-ecological consequences of empire.

Island of Memory is the first part of T. Edward Bak’s planned four-part fictionalized graphic novel account of the life of 18th century German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, a member of Vitus Bering’s ill-fated Great Northern Expedition who was the first European one of the first Europeans to attempt to comprehensively catalogue the flora and fauna of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and parts of what was then the Russian territory of Alaska.

The book’s somewhat unconventional approach to sequential art and its esoteric subject matter will perhaps limit its initial appeal to a crossover niche consisting mostly of “art comics” readers with an already cultivated interest in the subject of natural history. If Steller is familiar to other potential readers at all, it might be because many of the endangered Arctic animals that bear his name have been the subject of popular nature documentaries broadcast by the BBC and other networks.

Island of Memory, however, is ultimately about more than just the artistic interpretation of Steller’s exploits as a naturalist and explorer—there’s enough going on in the volume to engage even those with only a marginal interest in the subject’s historicity. Bak attempts to ground the character by showing flashbacks to his life before joining Bering’s crew, focusing in particular on his relationship with his wife Brigitta, whose memory serves to power Steller through the many trials faced by the expedition as it found itself wrecked on the island off the Kamchatka Peninsula’s east coast that became Bering’s final resting place. Shown too, are hints of Steller’s attitude towards Kamchatka’s native Koryak people, which was significantly progressive and open-minded for the time, and it is this aspect of the narrative—the commentary on the interplay between a colonial power and an indigenous people—that I hope to see Bak expand on in future volumes of Wild Man.

Island of Memory‘s pages are primarily single panel image spreads with the occasional “typical” comic book page with multiple panels, reminiscent of the approach used by Eric Drooker on Blood Song: A Silent Ballad. It’s an ideal format for showcasing Bak’s lush art, which shifts in rendering style from painterly to cartoonish to surrealist to woodcut print-like depending on setting and mood. The stylistic shifts can be jarring, particularly in the early portion of the book dominated by cross-cutting to and from flashbacks, but it’s clear that at least some of the discomfiture generated by the stylistic transitions is intended to exaggerate the physical and temporal distance between Steller’s present situation and his past. The book’s second half, set entirely on Kamchatka, makes for a more conventional comics reading experience, and Bak’s depiction of the stark, hostile environment and the men making their way through it is thoroughly captivating.

5 Responses
    • This is a swell review, thanks! I’m the author-artist of WILD MAN and just wanted to clarify a couple details. It’s true that the work is essentially historical fiction, but I am closely following Mr. Steller’s own journals and other source material from the Second Kamchatka Expedition as the basis for the work. It is my intention to be as accurate as possible with the natural history while demonstrating where Mr. Steller was incorrect, which he frequently was. Anyhow, WILD MAN is a work-in-progress; I have traveled through Alaska and visited St-Petersburg, Russia for research, and intend to devote more time to remote places explored by the SKE in the interest of accurate representation (and, of course, to satisfy my own curiosity).
      Just FYI: Russia did not claim Alaska as a territory during the period of the SKE, which was at the time a top-secret expedition. The Russians did not want other foreign powers in the North Pacific to know how they were improving their charts and determining Asia’s geographical relationship with North America (Bering’s previous voyage had failed to definitively accomplish this task, which was one reason the SKE was undertaken); the Russian expansion eastward into the North Pacific did not occur until after the beginning of the fur trade, which actually occurred as a direct result of the SKE, a fact I will address. Also, Mr. Steller was not the first European to attempt to comprehensively catalogue Siberian flora and fauna; he was preceded in his explorations by his mentor (and the deceased first husband of his wife, Brigitta), Dr. Daniel Messerschmidt, another German about whom we will learn in Volume 2: Sea of Time.
      Meanwhile, thanks for the otherwise generous and gracious review.

      • Thank you for the clarifications, and you’re welcome for the review. As you’ve no doubt gleaned from the review, my knowledge (such as it is) of Russia’s territorial history leaves something to be desired, and I welcome any and all opportunities to learn more about Wild Man‘s subject matter moving forward.

    • […] REVIEWS | Noah, City in the Desert, Vol. 2, Bad Machinery, Vol. 2, and Wild Man, Vol. 1: Island of M… March 26, 2014 […]

    • […] for a trade or hardcover to read? Check out Zedric’s reviews of Noah (Image Comics), City in the Desert, Vol. 2: The Serpent Crown (BOOM!/Archaia), Bad […]

    • […] was the case in my reading of Giant Days #1 (BOOM! Box), the new comic written by Bad Machinery creator John Allison and illustrated by Disney Feature Animation story artist Lissa Treiman, […]

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