Friday, November 28, 2008

Review: Ganges #2

I finally found the time to read Kevin Huizenga's Ganges numbers one and two (Fantagraphics, 2006 and 2008, 32 pages each, $7.95 each). You may recall that I bought them at this year's SPX, so they've been sitting on my shelf for nearly two months. And I'm glad I finally read them, because they're good comics, well-made and thoughtful. I was particularly taken with the second book because the subject matter struck close to home.

Ganges # 2 is split into two parts. The first is a view of Glenn Ganges' computer screen, as he plays a Japanese fighting game -- think Street Fighter, or Mortal Kombat, except that it's gone bonkers such that the two characters morph and change with every panel, multiplying and growing and dividing and shrinking in a kind of dance that comes close to just being abstract art.

(click to enlarge -- this page comes from early in the battle, before things get really wiggy)

It's weird, it's fun, and it's not the part that I was talking about when I wrote that "the subject matter struck close to home." You remember that sentence, back at the beginning, before we wandered off into foreign-language fighting game laa-laa land.

No, it's the second part that got me. In that part, we flash back to the halcyon days of the dot com boom, when Glenn Ganges spent his days working for a small start-up company (flush with venture capital cash), and his nights in the same cubicle blasting away at his co-workers as they played a networked multiplayer first-person shooter game (think Quake). The story alternates between "real" life, in which the dot com company lumbers into "bust" mode and the money dries up, and Glenn's life inside the game, in which he tells us about how to get the super-huge auto-kill gun on top of the tower, and where to go for a good sniping position. Ultimately, the company dies and everyone moves on, and we return to the present, where Glenn sometimes pines for those happy days when all he wanted to do was play hour upon hour of a computer game against his buddies.

This story affected me because I lived it, pretty much. I worked for a dot com company run by young people where everyone wore whatever they wanted and a Nintendo was in the break room. People enjoyed working there, but the company had no way of making money, and eventually it collapsed and we had a few crummy meetings where the guys from the parent company/investor came in and told everyone that the company was being closed down, happy trails. Unlike Glenn and his buddies, however, I didn't spend my nights playing Quake with my co-workers, but . . .

I'm a gamer, and in my second year of college, I played Warcraft 2 against my friends every hour of every day of the month of January. It was all-encompassing, I went to sleep dreaming about the game, and I loved every minute. It was a gamer's paradise. (Yes, I know Warcraft is not a first-person shooter, but I've played those too, so I also know the thrill of chasing after my friends in a virtual world, blowing people away with lasers and shotguns and chainsaws while you shout at them from across the library's computer center.) Eventually, however, classes started again, people got busy, people graduated, people moved away, etc., and I don't do that anymore.

So, you see, I've been through what Glenn's been through. Like Glenn, I look back fondly and sometimes wistfully on my Warcraft 2 days, and like Glenn, I suffered through that sickening feeling that one gets when the jobs of everyone in the room are going up in a puff of smoke.

I don't know if I can be objective about how good Ganges #2 really is -- and I think it might be really good -- but it sure felt right. Huizenga nails both situations, rolling them up into one big woozy ball of nostalgia and remorse. It was an interesting trip down memory lane for Glenn Ganges and me, sort of enjoyable and sort of nausea-inducing at the same time. So check it out, and see if it works for you.

Also, it's fun to watch Glenn grab the big gun and eradicate a pursuer, only to be whacked by a second opponent shooting through the remains of the dead guy.

You can buy Ganges #2 at Fantagraphics' web site here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Alan's War Giveaway Winner!

The winner of the Alan's War giveaway contest is . . .

Joel H.! Joel wins a brand-spankin-new copy of Emmanuel Guibert's graphic novel Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope. In his contest entry, Joel wrote that he got hooked on comics when he read the Keith Giffen Legion of Superheroes ("circa issue 300 or so").

Congratulations to Joel!

And thanks to everyone who entered the contest and named the comic that got them hooked. There were a lot of interesting books in the list, and I hope everyone enjoyed strolling down memory lane.

If you didn't win but still want to get your own copy of the book, head over here: Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned, written by Brian Wood, art by Davide Gianfelice, 2008, Vertigo, 200 pages, $9.99

Maybe it should have been called:

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Total Bad-Ass

Sven, the son of a Viking lord who has been living the sweet life abroad in Constantinople, returns to his homeland after learning that his Uncle Gorm (that cunning, cowardly bastard) has stolen his inheritance. Sven is a polished warrior, but he's never had that Viking edge, and he professes to not care about his culture or his people. Over the course of the eight chapters in this collection, Sven sets about recovering his money by cutting a swath through Gorm's henchmen. Along the way, Sven learns to appreciate the way of the Viking, becoming a more honorable and conscientious bloodthirsty killer.

Out of all the comics written by Brian Wood that I have read, this one might be my favorite. The story and setting are engrossing and the dialogue is excellent. Plus, although Sven is a typical Wood protagonist (starts out as a know-it-all brat, but grows and learns over the course of the story to become a true Viking), even when he is in his "immature" stage he's not incredibly annoying to read about. You want to root for the guy even though he wears his flaws on his sleeve.

There also are some solid, complex antagonists in this book. Gorm and his main man Hakkar certainly keep things interesting.

(click to enlarge)

Artist Gianfelice turns out some beautiful pages. It's obvious he's done his research -- the characters and places look spot on -- but thankfully the historical nature of the comic doesn't lead to the whole thing becoming too stilted or dry. You can feel that bitter winter cold, and the battle scenes pulse with life.

(click to enlarge)

When Sven grows that beard and shows his true Viking colors, it's totally on. You're ready to run into battle alongside him. But even there Wood throws in an unexpected twist that makes this comic bigger than your standard revenge tale.

Go and get it: it's eight comics for ten bucks. You can't beat it.

Here is issue one. And you can buy it here: Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven The Returned

Also, don't forget to enter my giveaway contest for a free copy of Emmanuel Guibert's Alan's War. Go here to enter.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Link Worth Listening To

I think everybody should check this out:

New York Times Interactive Feature: The Visual Language of Graphic Novels

It's a slideshow accompanied by audio of Seth, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and Chester Brown talking about the medium. I have no idea when it was published, but I hadn't heard anything about it. It's not very long and well worth a minute of listening.

Also, make sure you enter my giveaway contest to get a free copy of Emmanuel Guibert's Alan's War. Go here to enter the contest.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Giveaway: Alan's War

I reviewed Emmanuel Guibert's Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope a while back. I liked it a lot. And now I've come into possession of a second copy of the book. So, let's do a giveaway!

Here's how to enter to win a free copy of Alan's War:

Leave a comment at the bottom of this post that names the comic book that got you hooked on comics. (You already know mine.)

Here's the fine print: Make sure you either are signed in to your profile or put your e-mail in the comment form or I won't be able to contact you if you win (don't worry, I won't do anything else with your contact info). The entry period ends at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, November 23, 2008. After the entry period ends, I'll pick somebody at random, announce the winner, and then send out the book. It's that easy!

In case you needed more encouragement to enter, here's a link to a video of Guibert's fascinating drawing technique.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Not To Do At SPX

So here's a tale that I had blocked out from my memory of my trip to SPX that came flooding back last night for some reason. What follows is a true story, recounted as best as I can remember it.


The 2008 Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. The convention hall is packed with people moving among many tables where comic book creators sell their wares. Our hero, SANDY, approaches the table for Top Shelf Productions. SANDY eyes one of the books on the table.

Out from behind the table pops ENTHUSIASTIC MAN.

ENTHUSIASTIC MAN (enthusiastically): I see you're looking at this book! Have you heard about it before? It's by Jeffrey Brown! It's called Incredible Change-Bots! [Note: Amazingly, his speech contained working hyperlinks.] It's like Transformers, only really funny!

SANDY: Yes. I've been thinking about picking this up for a while.

ENTHUSIASTIC MAN: YES! You absolutely should. It is HILARIOUS. Great stuff!

SANDY: Yeah - I saw a few pages of it in a review I read online, I think. Or maybe on Top Shelf's website.

ENTHUSIASTIC MAN: YES! You mean this preview?

SANDY: Yeah - I remember that preview. But there was another part that I read somewhere that was really, really funny.


SANDY: It was this great bit where the transformer robot is a pick-up truck with a refrigerator in the back, and it's being driven by a guy, and then the robot transforms and the driver gets smushed. It was so funny!

NOT-SO-ENTHUSIASTIC MAN (face crumbling): No, that wasn't in Incredible Change-Bots.

SANDY (remembering now): Oh --

NOT-SO-ENTHUSIASTIC MAN: You're thinking of a comic strip from Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch.

SANDY (mortified): Right --

NOT-SO-ENTHUSIASTIC MAN: Luckily he didn't make many strips about transforming robots.

SANDY: Of course! I knew that! I'm so sorry! I knew that!

Six members of the SPX Enforcement Squad encircle SANDY.

SPX ENFORCEMENT SQUAD LEADER: Excuse me, sir. You'll have to turn over your visitor's badge immediately. And any mini-comics you may have purchased. And your password to your comic book blog; you no longer deserve to write about comics. You disgust me.

SANDY is thrown out of the convention.

SANDY (screaming): I didn't mean it! Of course I knew the difference between the two comics! Please! Please!



Ok, maybe that last part didn't happen, but everything else was true. I felt like such an ass. That guy was so excited to show me this great comic -- that I really did know about -- and I felt like I had taken it and ripped it up in front of him. Such a schmuck. So, here's another apology to you, ENTHUSIASTIC GUY, wherever you are.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: Bottomless Belly Button

Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics, 2008, 720 black & white pages, $29.99) already has popped up on the "Best of 2008" lists of Amazon and Publishers Weekly, and it's going to show up on many more lists as the winter wears on. And here's the thing: it really is that good. So let me add my voice to the chorus and give you my two cents for why it deserves such high praise.

This whopper of a graphic novel is about a family that reunites at their beachfront home for a weekend before the mother and father divorce after forty years of marriage. It's packed with characters -- mom, dad, older brother and his wife and baby, middle sister and her daughter, and younger brother and his new love interest -- and it spends enough time with each one for you to get to know everybody and care about what happens to them. But by the time it works its way into the final third of the book, it's primarily the story of two of the characters: the older brother, who refuses to accept the breakup (causing his own crackup), and the younger brother, who ditches the family to spend time with the girl.

The spine of the book states that "There are many types of genres. This is: Family comedy/drama/horror/mystery/romance." That's not really a joke. The story zips between moments that are funny, dramatic, horrific, mysterious, and romantic. There are hints of deeper goings-on that are never truly explained, laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-pounding scene of exploration and discovery that will attack and overwhelm your senses. It's powerful stuff. By the time you reach those last pages -- and you will reach the end quickly, this sucker does not want to be put down (and not just because if you put it down it'll break your bedside table) -- you'll find yourself completely invested in the well-being of these characters, and absolutely crushed when they leave that house and are gone from your life. The book is not a sprint, it's a marathon; you will be exhausted by the time it is over, but it's totally worth it.

(click to enlarge)

(Edited to add: For a fuller discussion of the book's art, please see my comment below.)

You can see a slideshow preview of this book here (be sure to click on that last picture in the show -- WOW!) and you can buy it here: Bottomless Belly Button

Note: due to nudity, sex, and other miscellaneous adult content, this book is not for children or for people who like to read comics on the train during their commute.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review: Jack and the Box

The new publisher TOON Books has released a number of children's comics that are worthy of a place on your kid's bookshelf. Here is the second of three reviews of their newest books.

In Art Spiegelman's Jack and the Box (RAW Junior/TOON Books, 2008, 32 pages, $12.95), Jack's parents give him a box that contains a wacky talking jack-in-the-box. Jack spends the rest of the story scoping out his surprising new playmate.

The book is aimed at the youngest of readers, effectively using very basic words and pictures to tell its simple story. And it is packed with little jolts to keep kids on their toes.

My young son was fascinated by it, although I found it a little too abrasive for my tastes (too much bickering between Jack and his weird new friend, not enough happy fun). Still, I think it does a good job of introducing new readers to the comic book format, and it certainly will keep their attention.

You can see more sample pages here, and you can buy the book here: Jack and the Box

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Love Rob Liefeld's Store

Hey people, I just thought I'd point out that I've created an store where you can find lots of interesting comics to buy. But this isn't just any old store -- it will help you see the future of comics!

I've put up three categories of books:

(1) Reviewed Comics: these are all of the books that I have reviewed on I Love Rob Liefeld (well, most of them), collected in one place for easy purchasing access;

(2) Good Comics: these are other books that I like and recommend (still working on this one); and

(3) Upcoming Comics: these are books listed on Amazon that have not yet been published. I've gone through the upcoming books announced by Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, First Second, Vertical, Viz, Vertigo, Oni Press, and other publishers, and these are the ones that stood out.

Definitely check out the Upcoming Comics category. There are some things on that list that will make your eyes light up.

I've put a link on my sidebar to the store in case you want to find it at some point in the future, and there's also a nifty widget thing further down the sidebar where you can see some of the books.

So hey, don't feel like you need to buy anything, I just thought I'd point it out in case anybody is interested. And if you have any suggestions (how to make the store better, books I should include/should not have included, other publishers to check out, etc.), I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Review: War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle

I've mentioned how much I love writer Garth Ennis's work on the Punisher, so you know I had to get the new collection of his recent mini-series War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle (Marvel MAX, 2008, 120 pages, $24.99). And while it doesn't reach Punisher's "holy crap this is incredible" level, it's a good book and well worth checking out.

The comic tells the story of Karl Kaufmann, a World War One wanna-be flying ace fighting with the American volunteers in Britain's Royal Flying Corps. It alternates between nutso dogfights and the goings-on back at the barracks, and we get to watch as Kaufmann gradually transitions from a complete schmuck into a hardened warrior of the skies.

I'll be honest -- there isn't a ton of plot here. We're basically just watching Kaufmann learn on the job, face the horrors of war, and befriend other soldiers who then die. But Ennis's dialogue is sharp and Kaufmann is a compelling character to watch. He starts out as such a clueless idiot, but at the same time is kind of a loveable lug, that you root for him. By the end of the book, I was certainly ready to read more stories about him.

And the book is more about the "feel" of war, anyway. Ennis and artist Howard Chaykin made an interesting choice about how to depict dogfighting: it comes off as a mad scramble that is over almost as soon as it starts. These battles are short: our heroes either shoot down the Germans or they are shot down. Or they just disappear, and we learn later that they didn't make it home.

The reader is put in that cockpit with Kaufmann, and the book effectively conveys the insane nature of airborne war.

Another big draw of the book is the, um, drawing. Chaykin fills every panel with stuff -- smoke, flame, soot, planes, falling pilots:

(click to enlarge, and behold the carnage)

The art feels like a movie made by Ridley Scott, who always seems to have a ton of stuff just hanging in the air around his characters. For example:


and how could we forget:

(scenes from Alien, Blade Runner, and Legend)

When done well, this kind of image is enthralling -- it just feels full of life. And Chaykin pulls it off here. It's vivid work, and it fits perfectly with a book that is trying to show the reader just how crazy war can be.

(click to enlarge)

And it makes for a terrific contrast to those few panels that aren't filled with stuff. I'm thinking of the parts of the book showing what it is like to fly before you've engaged the enemy, when the air is clear and you feel completely free. Those are the panels where Chaykin leaves a lot of unused space that allows the characters/planes room to breathe.

(click to enlarge)

It's a nice break for the reader, too. You almost wish Kaufmann could just fly around for a bit and enjoy his time in the clouds. But Ennis won't let you or Kaufmann linger too long up there before plunging you back into the crazy mess. War is hell, after all.

You can buy this book here: War Is Hell: The First Flight Of The Phantom Eagle