Recent Readings 3/31/2013: A Mix of Old and New

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BALTIMORE: THE WIDOW AND THE TANK one-shot (Dark Horse, February 2013) Story by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. Art by Ben Stenbeck. Colors by Dave Stewart. Letters by Clem Robins.

          As good as Mignola’s recent HELLBOY and B.P.R.D. stories have been, he really shines on the BALTIMORE one-shots. The adventures of Lord Henry Baltimore, Thirteenth Baron Baltimore, of Boscastle in County Durham as he stalks across post-WWI Europe in search of the king vampire Haigus are as grim and determined as their protagonist. There are two stories here; and each is a masterful example of combining story and art in a magical way to tell a very engaging story.

          In “The Widow” Baltimore searches England for Lieutenant Yeardsley, whose small company of men are thought to have died in battle or roaming deserters, depending on whose version is told. The truth is they have all been transformed into vampires by Haigus and Yeardsley hides away in his home, keeping his wife semi-infected in order to maintain the ruse of his disappearance.

          “The Tank” finds Baltimore in France, where a vampire is supposedly living inside an abandoned British tank. The vampire is actually hiding inside the tank to protect himself from an even bigger threat. Baltimore forms an uneasy but short alliance with the vampire. If you aren’t reading some of these you are missing some of the best short form work in horror comics today.

CHEW #1-10 (Image September 2009 – November 2010): Written and Lettered by John Layman. Drawn & Coloured by Rob Guillory.

          Layman and Guillory are major talents and worthy of a larger audience. Layman is garnering new praises as scripter on DC’s DETECTIVE COMICS and you should check that out. Guillory may take a little more homework to locate his more recent works. I’m glad I chose to re-read the first arc again plus the rest of my stockpile (all prompted by a recent sale). I had forgotten what a gem this book is. CHEW is one of the most original (both story and art) works in recent years as well as a thoroughly engaging and amusing read. It’s a wry blend of crime, horror and satire. CHEW is an ongoing title, now up to Issue #32. You can collect all the issues up to #30 in hardcover (in 3 volumes) or trade paperback (in 6 volumes) and I highly recommend that.

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          The premise is that a massive epidemic killed millions of people in the United States and also globally as a result of what the government claimed was an avian flu. As a consequence the raising of chickens and processing of chicken ingredients in food was outlawed. The subsequent distribution of black market chicken by organized crime and others was so widespread that the government increased the power and authority of the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate and prosecute these crimes. That alone would make for an interesting storyline and subplots. But the characters that are stirred into this chicken gumbo are what really make CHEW come alive, and with bite.

          Let’s give writer Layman some time here. In Issue #1, he says: “Meet Tony Chu. Tony Chu is almost always hungry. And almost never eats. Here’s why: Tony Chu is cibopathic. That means he can take a bite of an apple and get a feeling in his head about what tree it grew from, what pesticides were used on the crop, and when it was harvested. Or he could eat a hamburger and flash onto something else entirely.” As a Philadelphia police officer, those skills often come in handy for Chu, especially when he and partner John Colby stakeout an illegal chicken carry-out operation in an abandoned storefront. Tony samples some of the chicken stew that the cook splashed some blood into from a cut finger, and that sets off his telepathic food forensic abilities. He learns that the chef is a serial killer and makes the arrest, although his partner gets a butchers’ cleaver in the side of the face during the takedown. Tony’s detective work gets the attention of the FDA, and suddenly he has a new job and a new partner, agent Mason Savoy. He also gets a new boss, the angry Mike Applebee who immediately hates Chu and tries to sabotage his job and his health.

          Savoy and Chu’s first assignment in “Tasters Choice” is to investigate the disappearance of health inspector Evan Pepper, whose detached finger turns up in a McBeefy’s hamburger. Of course, Chew has to munch on the finger to learn some of these details and the search is on, leading to an encounter with Yakuza assassins and a huge bounty on Chu’s head. Tony meets and falls in love with Amelia Mintz, a newspaper food writer who is also a saboscrivner, meaning she writes about food so accurately that the readers can actually taste it. Tony saves her as well as a newsroom from anti-chicken prohibition terrorists, but she disappears. Savoy and Chu’s trail next leads to Russia and a joint U.S. – Russian observatory that is a taxpayer financed party site for crooked politicians. This leads back to the Evan Pepper disappearance and the discovery that Chu’s partner has a criminal background, just before he takes a piece of Chu as a bargaining chip.

          It just gets crazier from there. During “International Flavor”, the second story arc, Chu reunites with his former partner Colby who now sports a bionic enhanced jaw and cheekbone. Chu goes on an unauthorized solo mission to a remote island where a strange plant/fruit has been discovered that, when cooked, tastes just like chicken. He runs afoul (a pun, if you do the improper spelling) of a secret military base, a martial arts skilled USDA agent at odds with him, a vampire, a coveted fighting rooster named Pojo, a corrupt police chief, and a local governor holding international chefs (including his brother, Chow Chu) against their will. Oh yeah, there is a murder investigation in the middle of this, and Chu finds out where the lovely Amelia Mintz has been vacationing. Great stuff. Now I need to pick up the remaining 4 trade paperbacks and continue the amusing adventure.

THE CROW: SKINNING THE WOLVES #1 – 3 ( IDW December 2012 – February 2013) Story & Breakdowns: James O’Barr. Story & Art: Jim Terry. Colors: Tom Binko.

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          Perhaps THE CROW can find a new audience in the 21st Century. Since the heights of its popularity in the late 1980’s there has been very little new material available. That’s why this mini-series is such a welcome return. There is certainly a place in horror comics for tales of revenge and redemption as lavishly depicted and illustrated as done here.

          If you’re a fan of the EC Comics / Tales From The Crypt style of art and yearn for a modern update with a splash of ultra-violence thrown in, this book is for you. On the credits page, SKINNING THE WOLVES is dedicated to Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis (two legends of 1950s-1960s comics art) and the style employed here is a very respectful and adept homage. The meat of the story is easily absorbed in one reading; but I keep returning again and again to admire the art, superbly highlighted by the clever coloring of Tom Binko.

         The Crow was created by writer/artist James O’Barr following the death of his girlfriend by a drunk driver. It was originally published by Caliber Comics in 1989 and dealt with an unjustly murdered victim who is resurrected by a crow and then seeks revenge. The crow speaks to the revived, acting as guide and sometimes as manipulator. After the original mini-series O’Barr returned to the character for 3 issues from Tundra Comics in 1992, and then followed up with several limited series from Kitchen Sink Press. It’s always enjoyed underground success and then rose in popularity following the release of THE CROW movie in 1994. Other authors and creators have tried their hand writing Crow stories, including John Shirley in 2012 (also IDW). The one constant in each new series has been the presence of a crow, which serves to resurrect the severely wronged and assists them in revenge.

          SKINNING THE WOLVES takes place in a German concentration camp, where a mysterious figure hangs behind as the imprisoned Jewish families leave the cargo hold of the prison train. When soldiers attempt to remove him from the car, he furiously dispatches them in a bloody wave of murder equal to the cruelties of the soldiers upon their captives. He is a former prisoner of this same concentration camp, now revived by the crow and seeking vengeance on the sadistic commandant who killed his wife and daughter during a mandatory life or death game of chess. Time and again he is put down by the German forces, only to revive later and inflict more punishment and death on the entire encampment until he makes his way to his former persecutor and achieves redemption. The reader will easily figure out where this is going after reading the first issue. The magic is in the depiction of events. It’s an artistic achievement and a proper tribute to two legends of the form. This is clearly a case where the dialogue is used to enhance the art as opposed to the art embellishing the storyline.

FLASHPOINT: BATMAN KNIGHT OF VENGEANCE #1-3 (DC, August – October 2011) Written by Brian Azzarello. Illustrated by Eduardo Risso. Color: Patricia Mulvihill. Letters: Clem Robins.

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          I’ve been reading a lot of Batman titles recently, both new and old. This particular mini-series really stands out as the cream of the crop. If you missed it the first go-around, try and find or borrow a copy somewhere. It ranks in the Top 10 Batman stories of all time (my subjective opinion only), even though it’s an Elseworlds type (so it never really happened, at least not on Earth One, right?) As far as “Dark” Batman stories go, it makes the Top 5. Azzarello keeps it grim and gritty throughout. Risso’s work has never looked better. It’s so atmospheric and equally dark. A different Wayne is Batman. He’s aggressive and tough-minded and has a totally different plan for controlling crime in Gotham. Harvey Dent is mayor. Jim Gordon is still a close friend, but a partner in a police-force for hire. Oracle is different, but serves the same function. Batman fights dirty. Joker is crueler than ever, especially when it involves young children. There is a huge shocker at the end of Issue #2. Please take my word on this and read this series.

MY LITTLE PONY MICRO-SERIES #1: TWILIGHT SPARKLE (IDW, February 2013) Story, Art & Letters by Thomas Zahler. Colors by Ronda Pattison.

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          The MY LITTLE PONY books from IDW have been a runaway success. After hearing that many adult males have been seen purchasing these books at Captain Blue Hen Comics I became very curious and joined their ranks by picking up this one-shot. I don’t have any grandchildren to read this to, but I could see how an adult would enjoy sharing this with a young daughter. It’s a good book and conveys a lesson about friendship at the same time. Under the capable hands of Thomas Zahler (LOVE AND CAPES) the story is a fresh and colorful adventure of the purple hued pony with the bangs and matching tale ( indigo, with some red hued stripes). Twilight Sparkle has to put off her studies for the magic test so that she can assist an injured librarian organize the book collections. The librarian is crabby and testy and hard to get along with until the two discover a shared interest in books and a particular author. If you have young daughters or granddaughters I recommend sharing this with them. (Not that I’m biased - - if your son or grandson likes this type of thing - - why deprive them?)

THE SIXTH GUN #7 – 11 (Oni Press, December 2010-April 2011) Written by Cullen Bunn. Illustrated & Lettered by Brian Hurtt. Colored by Bill Crabtree.

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          It is almost two years later before I finished reading the second story arc. That’s got to be a record for me, and an indicator that I may be stockpiling more books than I really should. What prompted me to finish this is an interested buyer. I’m glad I returned. I’d forgotten how great this book is. Now I’m going to be hunting down those trade paperbacks to catch up.

          Writer Cullen Bunn is doing some interesting work over at Marvel. But, if you want a better indication of how close he is capable of flirting with epic masterpiece storylines, then THE SIXTH GUN is the best example of his creativity. It’s a perfect blend of classic western with supernatural elements. If I had to choose between this book and ALL STAR WESTERN/JONAH HEX, then THE SIXTH GUN wins hands down. The art and color are dynamic and a delight to view.

          Things have gotten even darker and mysterious in the second story arc. For those who aren’t familiar with this title, the contents page sums it up nicely: “During the darkest days of the war, an evil man came into possession of six powerful pistols. The Six, as they were called, could bring forth fire, strike with the force of a cannon shell, spread disease, raise up the spirits of the dead, and grant ever-lasting life. After the Razing of Devil’s Forks, the most powerful of the guns vanished only to resurface in the hands of an innocent young woman, following a harrowing escape from the clutches of an undead madman. Becky Montcrief, Drake Sinclair, and Gord Cantrell have holed up at the Velvet Dove in New Orleans as they plot their next move. But Drake wants nothing to do with the magic weapons that have now fallen into his hands.”

          The five-part “Crossroads” story arc marks a turning point as the characters reflect on their situation and make some critical decisions. While they contemplate the next step, evil spirit forces in New Orleans do their best to obtain the power of the pistols. The story occurs in the Louisiana swamps and Orleans cemeteries and also introduces the western equivalent of the Knights Templar plus a likeable gunslinger antihero, adding even more layers of depth to this engrossing setting. Good stuff.

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