Tag Archives: reviews

review – captain swing

Readers uninitiated either to Warren Ellis or graphic novels would benefit immensely by reading Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island. On the one hand it’s a brisk and bloody romp in a genre definitely not steampunk (as Ellis insists) but something that feels a lot like it. Sure, there’s lots of metal and some gears but it’s a story enshrouded mostly in fog, blood and sparks. 

Captain Swing is a frenzied mix of clashing societal and seemingly fantastical forces. Enigmatic spring-heeled figures, harnessing blue lightning, are caught slinking about the streets and rooftops of London.  Murdered Bobbies, drawn and quartered with all signs of foul-play pointing to the sky.  Add to this confusion the turbulence of 1830s London with the eruption of the Swing Riots, the peasant uprisings against industrialized agriculture, combined with the full-on war between the emergent policing factions of the Peelers and Bow Street Runners. All these factors paint a story of change swaddled in bedlam, easily personified through the notorious visage of Captain Swing.

Ellis writes a deceptively pithy story. Course like the London grime, his dialogue, especially between his policing factions, is as bawdy as it’s humorous and unsettling. Contrast this, however, to the utopian and progressive aspirations of his altruistic Swing. Thankfully, his own sentiment does not boil down to dualistic either-or scenario. Applying a shades-of-grey lens to the ideological questions concerning the nature of law, justice, piracy and knowledge, Ellis takes great care not to espouse any ideal but rather cloak it in uncertainty, showcasing only the confusion experienced by a rapidly changing English society.

The artwork of Raulo Caceres impeccably parallels Ellis’s authorship. Shades of navy, amber, lavender and maroon deliberately permeate the work, highlighting predominantly the shadows of London upon each character, each panel. Only the blindingly blue sparks in this pre-electrical era add any brightness to the sketches, drawn in finely intricate woodcut fashion. It is equally fun to gaze at the panels as it is to read.

Captain Swing is a grand synthesis of fiction, history and dark, alluring artwork. Whether for the casual comic fan or for readers with a more academic scrutiny, this work is an impressive exposition on the continuum of societal bedlam and progress.

review – skullkickers

Though creator Jim Zubkavich will say it’s little more than a tribute to his Dungeons & Dragons nostalgia, I believe his Skullkickers series was created more as a modern classic. Modern in the sense that he’s imagined an uber-messy mélange of happy violence, not dissimilar to the hearty hemorrhage of bloody guts and uneasy fun witnessed in Jesse Bullington’s novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Classic in that his duo is an immediate and colorful harkening back to the comics like the Asterix & Obelix chronicles, sprinkled with a touch of Dragon’s Lair aesthetic. In truth, Zub succeeds, as Skullkickers is a finely-polished effort providing eager appeal for audiences of comics, graphic novels, and general fun.

Set in a pseudo-feudal fantasy, Skullkickers tells the story of two hardened thugs-for-hire (I’ll label them Baldy and the Dwarf) and pretty much the implosion of everything around them. In Volume one (1000 Opas and a Dead Body) the pair is enlisted to help locate an allegedly injured, uppity chancellor abducted from the infamously unimportant village of Mudwich. Volume two (Five Funerals and a Bucket of Blood) continues  their travels to the more cosmopolitan Urbia, detailing their highfalutin masquerades and encounters with a more fantastical cadre of environmentalists. Each volume details countless hackings, poisonings, corpse kicking and fist pummelings, inflicted upon and from a host of demons, summoned minions and their monstrous grotesqueries. Absorbing the violence itself is a fine read for a rainy weekend, especially cathartic for channeling one’s healthy aggression after a long day at work spent with annoying colleagues.

What sets the work apart, though, is the clever and humorous dialogue and narration. Expectedly, the protagonists are base and gruff, weirdly enlightened, or at the very least enchanting. Aside from the excitement from inflicting their pain-for-hire, they’re less interested in worldly matters other than properly supporting their “jumblies” and the refilled tankard at the local Gizzard. They’re discriminating brutes, not half bad, really. Even the supporting and disposable characters are as amusing as they are impermanent, helplessly ho-humming just before learning their grisly fate. But beyond the amusingly chippy back-and-forth, the narration really stands out in the series. Adding to the more traditional action descriptors one may remember from the Batman television show, the creators get innovative.  Just as much for the artwork, descriptors such as “Disgusting Spray!”, “Misplaced stab!” or my personal favorite, “Butter Knife Trauma!” had me in several bouts of chuckles. The narrative subtitles of various victims added on account of “mashed faced chatter” is a nice touch as well. Unrelentingly brutal though the sketches may be, the humor from these aspects provided a great balance to an otherwise intriguing concept.

My main descriptor of the artwork is that it’s simply vivid. Whatever skullkickery takes place, there is always a movie-tinged coloring to the panels. Especially captivating are the multitudes of lavender and purple depicting nighttime sequences. Combined with heavy uses of bright red and orange, the combined aesthetic action provided from Zub and colleagues Edwin Huang and Misty Coats never stops throughout the work.

Skullkickers is an entertaining read for those looking for a little brutal levity. My only near-criticism is that it seems that after only two volumes collected, the creators have set a high bar of quality that may prove hard to sustain over the long haul of publication. But with the passion Jim Zubkavich places on creator-owned comics and books, he seems the sort to not let such a slide happen. In the meanwhile it should be enjoyed thoroughly.

review – daytripper

Daytripper has to be one of the more wholly representative works of the graphic novel genre. All components imagined, written and sketched by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba are so effortlessly, subtly synthesized into a breezy evocation not just of Brasilian life, but life itself. It’s the work of a pair of brothers with nothing to prove beyond simple but effective storytelling. Though by no means slow, it is a story in which everything takes its time to unfold, perhaps one integral trait of South American or Brasilian culture.

It is the story, or perhaps stories, of nothing more than Bras de Oliva Domingos, obituary writer and aspiring novelist. Looking to parallel the literary success of his father, Bras is an ordinary individual striving for some balance apart from Brasil’s numerous sensory distractions, constantly reminded to grasp the importance of living and dying in the moment. To be sure, there are plenty of distractions in Brasil, such as his friendships, family, loves and dreams, but none contemplated without quiet deliberation and perhaps a strong cup of coffee. Such deliberations are shown through a series of vignettes of various time periods in his life, each detailing the circumstances of these spontaneous moments when living and dying get in the way of his daily routine. These momentous accumulations, with a Tarantino-esque flair for anachronism, are caressingly startling. It is here where Ba and Moon confound the reader as to the intersection of reality and our dreams, and the wonder of life and death.

Like fellow Brasilian Rubem Fonseca, Daytripper provides a peek into the culture of passion in Brasilian South America. Despite the instances of death and violence in the work, there is an equal amount of warmth between the characters in their mutual goal of embracing the present. Additionally, the undertones of social and ethnic equality perceived in Brasil, exhibited through Bras and comrade Jorge, is also refreshing. Violence, inevitable as it is everywhere, is simply accepted as a sporadic part of life, a tolerated cost of a naturally unhurried and carefree lifestyle.

The lush coloring from Dave Stewart and sharp sketches from Ba and Moon make Daytripper an achingly quick read. For as much as the story emphasizes a deliberate and dreamlike pondering about life, it’s so engaging one can’t help but devour the atmosphere.

review – chinatown and the mystery of mr. wicker (the goon)

 After learning of Eric Powell at this year’s NY Comic-Con, I’ve been eager to absorb Powell’s highly touted wit and humor. Indeed, Powell’s reputation precedes himself, but interestingly enough this particular work, while a fine representation of The Goon experience, displays a concentrated depth of craftsmanship within an unusually somber though focused graphic novel.

 Upon first glance Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker can be wrongly dismissed as a duo of stories slapped together, providing a lengthier dose of unrepentant, whimsical pummeling one typically would expect from a Goon escapade. That expectation is immediately squashed with Powell’s blunt but effective disclaimer on page one: “This Ain’t Funny.” Even for a newcomer like myself, the blank slate this creates gives way to a duo of thoughtful interweaving of chronologically related episodes detailing a pensive depth to Powell’s chronicle of a brute foretold. Committed fans will receive a greater depth to Goon’s history, while new readers will get a firm grasp for the man himself in his quiet monstrosity.

The story dreamily flows back and forth between Goon’s young adulthood and his firm establishment as strongman-in-chief of the eerily invisible boss Labrazio. One half concerns the past circumstances detailing Goon and Franky’s reluctant negotiations of waterfront lebensraum with the entrepreneurial Triads, while the other with a more prickly unseen influence, straining the pair’s grasp on their community’s cash flow. Connecting these instances are the relationships experienced by Goon. His continual heartache with the sultry Mirna is better understood given the lessons learned from his time with Isabella in Chinatown. The resultant maturity Powell bestows upon Goon beyond mere street thuggery is thus the drive behind this story; it is where his scars, both visible and buried are fully revealed.

Which is not to say the tale lacks action in favor of romance. Powell sketches a startling brutality in Goon’s worldview, complete with flying fists, lead pipes and two-by-fours to all locations on the anatomical map. For however many lumps that Goon and Franky give, they receive an equal share, perhaps a reminder that they are admittedly little more than hardened tough guys and certainly no superheroes. Undoubtedly, though they live among countless thieves and slack-jaws, one can sympathize with their basic humanity but probably not much beyond an image of a pouncing Franky shrieking “Knife to the Eye!”

It is an elegantly sketched and colored brutality, though. The artwork emanates an expertly smoothened feel, showing great care attended to each line drawn on the page. The alternating time periods are brilliantly divided into a past colored in smoke-filled, charcoaled sepia, contrasted with a present washed in comfortable, light pastels with cloudy overshadowing of a rundown, quasi-gothic town. It is a strangely electrified and askew milieu, evoking both the squalor and dustiness imagined by John Steinbeck but with a supernatural and inviting charisma.  

Chinatown and The Mystery of Mr. Wicker is not only an excellent introduction to The Goon, it is a meticulous work of art. Hopefully it will introduce new readers to the creativity of Eric Powell but it may also serve an indication for Powell to continue his graphic novel exploration.

review – cardanica

Reading Dario Tonani’s Cardanica has been a pleasantly unsettling experience. This novella is a perfect choice for those wishing for a greater daily dosage of pulpy gore in their literary diet, especially if read in the claustrophobic confines of an airport or plane.

It’s the story of a cargo ship’s crew inching through a harsh and remote desert world with little to control save their own psyches. Not much is known of their purpose except their eventual progression across the uneven sands, powered by a lumbering mechanical caterpillar of a vessel.  Conjoined with the vehicle is a semi-sentient, self-sustaining and incessantly oiled “pneumoarc”, the driving force behind an inevitable and undesirable turn of events.

Cardanica is a meaty however brief story containing a good mix of sci-fi, horror, and steampunk imaginings. It’s definitely more than a work of simple shock value; rather, the story is a well-conceived peep into a dissolution of desperate events facing an unequipped crew. While leaving a fair amount of questions at its conclusion, the work justifies further exposition, perhaps best as a graphic novel, requiring a greater sense of closure. It’s hard not to think of Cardanica as an overly oozing, anachronistic offshoot of Kubrick-inspired space drama, but is there anything wrong with that?

review – packing for mars

The only thing uncertain in Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars is the title. Aside from some passing references to the red planet, the majority of the Roach’s book concentrates mainly on the granularity and the weirdness of preparing for life and travel in space.

Her subtitle is spot on, however. From the very outset, Roach dispenses with the mystique of space in favor of the curious, no, rather the unsettling scientific and unacommodating realities of space travel, in every aspect imaginable for human beings.

Roach illuminates for the reader all the behind-the-scenes, between-the-lines unpleasantries unaware to the typical science fiction or emerging space enthusiast such as myself. From the international space station cooperation that is lost in translation, to the unorthodox psychology and research upon and performed on behalf of astronauts chosen for selection, the fallacy of weightlessness (epsecially in parabolic testing), the secrets held by our sebum layers outside the atmosphere, and the ever continuing conundrum of preventing rogue escapees through creation of the ultimate space toilet, Roach provides damning evidence that not only will we always be out of our element in space, but that our greatest challenge in space originates completely from within ourselves rather than from our stars.

Biologically and psychologically we are our own worst enemy, to be sure. Even more so in the heavens.  But as our futile enmity rages on down here on earth, there is no reason, as Roach appeals to the reader, to not push on and continue our exploration of the outer spheres. Space has never seemed so unfathomable and yet so cheekily inviting.

review – sensation

Hard to classify Sensation by Nick Mamatas without describing the work like some obscure underground internet radio station. It definitely falls within the parameters of contemporary urban science-fiction, a more American counterpart to the British labyrinthine imaginings of China Mieville, while faintly echoing the finer philosophical musings of The Matrix movies. On the other hand, it confluences in wild absurdity, paralleling a strange hybrid of The Hitchhiker’s Guide with Woody Allen’s New York state of mind.

The story doesn’t have much of a center as it’s more a series of falling dominoes, beginning with an atypical breakup between lackluster couple Raymond and Julia,  and the subsequent societal fallout both monitored and controlled from forces unforeseen. Such forces reveal themselves as the interplay between two warring super-intelligent species of spider and wasp, molding our reality as omnipresent observers of “indeterminate ethnicities”, policing society’s actions in their own war of survival.

Mamatas frequently references the butterfly effect in this work, using timely and humorous popular social references to illustrate the torrential effect of the small actions people collectively take, whether they be defacing newly constructed mega-stadiums, driving buses into the United Nations, or enacting “Plan Z” through the perfected strategy of web-based, pseudo-bourgeois “mutually assured confusion”. With all these accumulated acts, Mamatas eagerly invokes the free will argument, whether in this highly controlled universe or that of the interweaved, yet nebulous “Simulacrum” in which our players occasionally encounter themselves.

There’s a lot going on in Sensation. With creepy subtlety and detachment, Mamatas brilliantly narrates from the view of his hyper-intelligent spider species; his interweave of our reality and that of the Simulacrum is too underdeveloped for my taste though, as he focuses on the plight of an overeducated, insipid Raymond and his ubiquitous Julia. More time could have been spent on the hive-mind of his wasp species, for it too, was left wanting in relation to his spidey sense. The absurdity emanating from and surrounding his characters in an ever insane New York is quite enjoyable though; Mamatas deftly strangles our sense of self-importance, adding a much needed humility to our unquestionably mindless endeavors. It’s also an unquestionably worthwhile read.

review – how they were found

Not at all a typical collection of short stories here.  Matt Bell delivers a set of blueprints and indices with the utmost tender caress of detail to the mania festering among family, compatriots, combatants and the disaffected in his work How They Were Found. Read closely enough and you’ll find elements of fantasy and sci-fi, but what you’ll really discover is pure introspection amid the onslaught of grief and the bizarre, futile attempts of disassociation from it.

Stylistically the stories are wildly dissimilar, though all build a slow momentum to conclusions that are anything but. Stories that involve the best intentioned investigators who can’t help their attachment to the evidence, wild impromptu trysts of self-devouring in barroom lavatories, the story of sibling hoarders and their blind pursuit of each other buried within their castle, the detached indexing of the slow and gruesome disintegration of a family, and a priest’s obsession with the potential salvation of a new, steampunked Virgin Mary. Lingering stories that keep the readers guessing as to the characters’ interweaved histories.

Bell’s strength is evidenced by his incredible knack for manifesting a measured though chilling terror, but also for his unorthodox unlayering of the circumstances revealing the disturbing states in which his characters find themselves. Some of  the stories suffer slightly from overcomplexity but there’s no doubt about their powerful themes and Matt Bell’s potential. A quality read.

review – museum of the weird

Amelia Gray‘s Museum of the Weird is concisely that. This little compendium of curios doesn’t mess around; nay, it’s a sucker-punch of surreal hurled straight to the breadbasket. While some of the stories in this collection are a slow time-release of quirk into the bloodstream, others are a full-on mainline of weird cooked freshly from Gray’s meth lab of imagination. But in a good way, I assure.

The great thing about this work is the quality, as a majority of the stories, each contained within just a few pages, can easily be novellas or even larger works in scope.  And while the sentiment typically flows from the wellspring of psychological insecurity of her characters, Gray’s talent shines from the reserved awkwardness in their behavior. A waiter serves an entrée of hair but it’s a matter of for whom, not if it’s eaten; the work required to maintain a modern snake farm of the highest professionalism; the un-reciprocated dedication to a bag of frozen tilapia or a paring knife; or even the uneasy barroom conversation between a penguin and armadillo.  Gray makes it work, no matter how strange the situation and delivers feeling, regardless of how absurd, creepily gothic or awkwardly sweet. 

The downside to the work is that it’s too bloody short. There’s a great spectrum of stories to sample, but they’re over too quickly. Throw in a couple of Gray’s intriguing writing exercises to fatten it out a bit and the reader will soon enough finish the book, noting not only the thoroughness of her weirdview but perhaps a hunger for something more.  Museum of the Weird is a freakishly well-written book, ideal for those geared for a reread in order to fully savor.

review – the windup girl

Paolo Bacigalupi is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. Not because he so deftly speculates on the more pressing social and environmental issues currently ignored by most of our so-called leaders, but that he does so with such an effortless ease in mixing his ominous messages with exciting and thought provoking stories. Readers like myself may just enjoy the escapism of a good, suspenseful dystopia without getting depressed that it might actually be true within a few decades.

Bacigalupi’s science fiction is odd in that there is an uneasy anachronistic feel to his near-future milieu.  His stories are set against omnipresent backdrops and/or rumors of rising seas, dissolving borders, and energy scarcity (coal,oil). The only energy available is that which humans expend or is inefficiently dissipating within their makeshift and inefficient coils and springs.

Such is the case with Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl.  A longer exposition of two stories found within his collection “Pump Six and Other Stories”, The Windup Girl is a novel of totality in a new, yet stagnant-world order.  It is a story of scavenging and survival on multiple tenuous levels: of a kingdom, its government ministries, corporations, and its occupants.

It’s a story of archetypes more than anything.  Amid the wondrous, giant lolling megodonts and overcrowded towers of crime lords and suffocating tenants, The Windup Girl describes the ebb and flow of power-hungry generals and governmental ministers, the infiltrating genehacks of farang agri-corporates, the unpredictable order infused with terror by the incorruptible white shirts, the “yellow-card” immigrant Chinese fighting for scraps within a so-called welcoming Thai society, and the not-so-human consorts trying not to overheat in the incessant, sopping humidity.  It’s a story that sparks with every intermingling among these factions, inevitably bursting with the sad disappointment of human predictability, better termed samsara, that Bacigalupi has such a firm grasp of.

The genius of Bacigalupi’s writing is found not just in what is necessarily written, but equally in what is evoked by his speculation. Massive societal contractions and expansions in Asia, Finnish anti-corporate insurgence, and the ascendancy of potential seats of power in Iowa, of all places, all due rising hunger and seas. It is inspired with the tension and vision of the Blade Runner worldview, but for a new generation of science fictioneers that is entirely original and engrossing.