Monday, October 31, 2011

Capsule reviews: Comics from 10/26

Secret Avengers #18 (Marvel, $3.99, Warren Ellis, David Aja) - This reads kind of like an issue of Planetary, and in case you were wondering, yes, that's a good thing.  Steve Rogers, Sharon Carter, and Shang-Chi have to invade an Escher-like dimension with its own physical laws to keep the Shadow Council from using that dimension to threaten the Earth.  Ellis nails Shang-Chi's character nicely (including his distaste for the "games of deceit and death").  Aja's art is wonderful, and handles the martial arts sequences beautifully.   After last issue's hiccup, this issue is pretty much just as good as Ellis's debut in #16.  Highly recommended.

All-Star Western #2 (DC, $3.99, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Moritat, Jordi Bernet) - Gotham's lords of crime (followers of the teachings of the Crime Bible, an aspect of the DC universe I'm not overly familiar with) decide to get rid of Hex and Arkham, which gives Jonah an excuse to do what he does best - namely, kill a whole lot of SOB's who need killing. As a result, with the extended gunfight in all of its gruesome glory (beautifully illustrated by Moritat), there's a little less room for the interaction and banter between Hex and Arkham.  Which is a bit of a shame, but the issue still moves along nicely enough, ending with our unlikely pair of heroes in quite a bind.

There's also a back-up story, with the first part of an El Diablo tale, where our haunted hero must face the walking dead (what else?).  This didn't grab me quite so much; the set-up here seems rather by-the-numbers, but I'm more than willing to see where Gray and Palmiotti are going with this.  Even with the less-than-stellar backup story, overall this is still one of the best things DC is doing right now.

Legion: Secret Origin #1 (of 6) (DC, $2.99, Paul Levitz, Chris Batista, Marc Deering) - While the basics of the founding of the Legion is fairly well established, there's still obviously plenty of unexplored territory that can be touched upon, as the first issue of this mini-series demonstrates nicely.  Little is changed, but rather is instead fleshed out and expanded upon.  It's a nice trick that Levitz pulls off here, balancing that which is already known with new revelations and insights.  Quite frankly, this should have been released before the two ongoing Legion series; if it had, then perhaps those who tried (and found wanting) the first issues of Legion of Super-Heroes and Legion Lost might perhaps have been more inclined to stick around, having a better grounding with what is admittedly an unwieldy and intimidating story concept to jump into.  Recommended for both long-time Legion fans as well as newbies to the 31st century.

Vescell #3 (Image, $2.99, Enrique Carrion, John Upchurch) - Again this issue has two stories in it, the conclusion to last issue's cliffhanger, as well as a stand-alone story with some new characters.  This issue pretty much has the same strengths and flaws that the preceding two issues did; lots of interesting ideas that aren't fleshed out or executed quite as well as perhaps they could be.  There is some attempt at characterization, but more attention seems to be paid toward establishing all sorts of background detail for this particular setting (I'm beginning to wonder if this wasn't originally conceived as a setting for a tabletop RPG game - the fetishization of background minutiae is a common trait of gamemasters-turned-writers).  I'll be giving this a few more issues, but this series really needs to tighten its chops, and concentrate less on fiddly details and more on clearer storytelling techniques.

War of the Independents #1 (Red Anvil, $2.99, Dave Ryan and others) - A huge crossover story, in the style of Marvel and DC's 'event' books, but instead featuring a myriad of various characters from various independent comic books.  There's something of a hook here that involves a robotic Enkidu (of the Gilgamesh epic) who faced off against some unnamed wizard in the past, and said wizard - with the demon Orcus in tow - faces off in the modern day against a disparate group of heroes (the only one of whom I recognize is Cerebus, who it should be noted pretty much steals every scene he's in).  Then there is the obligatory 'gathering of heroes' sequence, which quite frankly drags on too long.  This is all in service of facing a threat from someone named Razorjack (which strikes me as an odd name for a female character, but what the heck).  The first issue here, quite frankly, isn't very good, but with the groundwork established, hopefully the basic set-up will allow for some good stories to be told in future issues.

The Last Trick-Or-Treaters

If you don't normally follow Randy Milholland's webcomic Something Positive, then you probably haven't seen his series of strips called The Last Trick-Or-Treaters - start at the link and click on 'next comic' to enjoy the Halloween fun.

Music Monday: "This is Halloween"

The classic opening theme to The Nightmare Before Christmas, as covered by Marilyn Manson:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: "The New Death and others"

The following is a little different than my normal music or comic book reviews, as it covers a collections of prose short stories and poems by James Hutchings, author of the Teleleli blog; Mr. Hutchings provided me with a free copy in exchange for a review, which follows below.

The New Death and others is a collection of 44 short stories and 19 poems; in PDF form the document clocks in a 94 pages, not including the cover image.  The short stories, as one can imagine from doing the math, are very short - many are a page or less, and the longest runs about six pages in length.  Many of the stories rely primarily on ironic or twist endings (O. Henry has much to answer for), and several of the stories are based around puns and similar wordplay.  These would be fine if spread out a bit more, but reading several such stories in short succession quickly diminishes what enjoyment I might have otherwise derived from these particular offerings.

Hutchings is at his best with his (relatively) longer pieces.  'How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name', 'The Scholar and the Moon', and 'The God of the City of Dust' are all fine fantasy pieces, showing no small amount of influence by Dunsany, as well as perhaps a bit of Lovecraft's Dreamlands stories and C.A. Smith's fantasy tales.  'The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist', despite its reliance on puns, is an enjoyable spoof on Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  'Todd' is an effective modern-day horror story.  All of these stories show potential, and I hope that Hutchings' further writings follow more in their vein, as opposed to the one-note shorter pieces.

As for the poetry, well, that's something that's even more up to individual taste, and as a result is harder to critique in a manner useful to anyone reading this review.  That said, I liked several of the pieces offered here, written in a traditional rhyme structure, which I happen to prefer (you can peddle your hippie 'free verse' elsewhere, mister).  Occasionally a line of a particular piece came off as a bit forced, but most of the poems here flow reasonably well.  Four of the poems are actually adaptations of prose short stories (H.P. Lovecraft's 'Under the Pyramids', Robert E. Howard's 'The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune', 'The Garden of Adompha' by Clark Ashton Smith, and 'Charon' by Lord Dunsany), and these are some of the best poems available in the collection, perhaps because they are based off of stories that are already quite enjoyable in their own right.

The New Death and others is available for download at both Amazon and Smashwords, in a variety of formats, for a mere $0.99.  Despite the uneven quality of the different stories and poems here, I think that the better pieces in the collection are worth the price of such a meager sum.  Anything that costs a buck can pretty much be justified as an impulse buy, and I believe that there's enough here of value that such a purchase would not be regretted.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tonight, we got Rushed

Tonight, my Better Half and I got to see a screening of Rush's Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland, which will be released on DVD in a couple of weeks.  We weren't able to see the band live when they Atlanta during the Time Machine tour, so this was the next best thing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trollslayers - Henchmen

Player characters may not wish to adventure without employing a bit of aid to help them out.  Henchmen are those NPC's who are under the employ of the PC's and help them out as best they can, as long as too much is not expected of them.  Payment can vary wildly, bur for jobs where treasure is being sought out, giving a henchman a half-share of the loot taken is not unreasonable (or, for the mathaphobic who dislike working with fractions, a henchman gets one full share while a PC gets two shares).

Generally, a PC can have up to (PRE+Level)/4 (rounded down) henchmen at any given time.  If they try to have more than that number, they spread themselves a bit too thin, and all of the various henchmen start taking penalties to their morale as a result.  The means of contacting a potential henchman are numerous, and can range from hiring a town crier to bumping into the right person at a bar and buying them a drink.  Getting the potential henchman to agree to follow the PC requires a 10+ on a PRE attribute check.  A modified roll of 7-9 means that the potential henchman is uncertain, and that the PC can try again if they offer an extra incentive to help sweeten the deal.  A result of 4-6 is a flat-out 'no', and a natural 3 or less means that the PC will suffer a -1 penalty on any potential future hires in the area, due to the potential employee trash-talking the PC behind his or her back.

The level of the henchmen can be determined randomly, if desired, by rolling 2d and adding the PC's level, then comparing to the following chart:
8-        Zero-level 'man-at-arms'
9-12      1st level
13-16     2nd level
17-20     3rd level
every +4  +1 level 
(this can and probably should be modifed by the size of the village/town/city that the hiring is being attempted at, but that's a post for another day)

Usually, a henchman won't follow someone who is of lesser level than their own, although there may be exceptions to this.

If the henchmen is 1st level or higher, then he or she is (roll a d6) on a 1-3 a Warrior, on a 4-5 some sort of Expert, and on a 6 a Magician (Paragons are almost never found as henchmen).

Henchmen usually start out with only 1d x the PRE in SP (if that) - the employer may need to pay for some of the henchman's basic equipment to get them to agree to hire on.

When following a PC/leader, the initiative rolls for henchmen cannot exceed that of their employer (they're looking to their leader to take the lead, after all).  This goes for NPC leader-types as well - a goblin horde will not exceed the initiative score of their chieftain on any given round, for example.

Henchmen get full EP for facing threats and spending money on tithing/studying/carousing, half EP for exploration while in the service of an employer, and no EP for time spent playing at the gaming table (after all, they're NPC's).

Besides all the other benefits having henchman can provide, once per gaming session a PC may opt to deflect a threat/hazard/attack towards one of their henchmen instead, if such a thing can be explained in a reasonable manner (if the PC Drogo fails to disarm the poison needle trap on a treasure chest, it's not too likely that one of his henchmen is just going to happen to suffer the effects instead - however, if Drogo triggers a wire trap that causes a crossbow bolt to be fired from down the hallway, a nearby henchmen could instead be made to suffer for Drogo's lack of alertness).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Capsule reviews: Comics from 10/5, 10/12, and 10/19

In a desperate attempt to get caught up from the last few weeks, these reviews (such as they are) will probably be a little more capsule-y than normal...

Action Comics #2 (DC, $3.99, Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, Brent Anderson) - It's one thing to capture a man of steel, it's another thing to break him, as Luthor finds out the hard way.  Morrison's script continues to entertain, smartly updating the '38 Superman concept for the modern day.  Anderson's guest work here on the pencils meshes decently enough with what Morales is doing, enough so that the difference isn't terribly jarring.  Recommended.

Stormwatch #2 (DC, $2.99, Paul Cornell, Miguel Sepulveda) - A little better paced that the preceding issue, but still a bit clumsy in spots.  The best thing about this issue is that we can already see the different factions and power plays that are showing up in the group.  Hardly perfect, but interesting enough to make me want to see this through at least to the end of the first storyline.

Moriarty #5 (Image, $2.99, Daniel Corey, Anthony Diecidue) - Part one of 'The Lazarus Tree' finds us with a Moriarty who is a different man than he was during the Dark Chamber story - coming face-to-face with his own mortality has changed him.  In search of answers, the Professor heads to Burma, where he quickly gets entangled in the local political and criminal maneuverings.  It's not the blockbuster start to a story that #1 was, but it works well enough, especially in terms of the first chapter of a sequel.  Recommended.

Vescell #2 (Image, $2.99, Enrique Carrion, John Upchurch) - Once again, this issue has two stories in it, although the second story is of the 'to be continued' variety.  And once again, the ideas and background presented here are interesting, but the presentation thereof could use a little fine-tuning.  Also, the second story suffers from an excess of sexual content that serves less to drive the story and more to act as clumsy titillation.  Which is a shame, because the core concept of this book is certainly a serviceable one; I only hope that Carrion and Upchurch start to hit their stride sooner rather than later.

Our Man Flint #0 (Moonstone, $1.00, Gary Phillips, Kevin Jones) - Based off of the Flint movies of the '60's, which were parodies of the Bond films.  I've never seen the Flint movies, so I don't know what tone this book is meant to emulate, but this doesn't work as a comedy, and likewise it's a pretty bland action story.  Neither the writing nor the art overly appeal to me, for that matter.  I'll be giving this one a pass.

Phases of the Moon #2: Honey West/Kolchak (Moonstone, $2.50, Mark Rahner, Glen Fernandez, Matt Hebb) - After the disappointing first issue of PotM, I wasn't really intending to get the rest of the story, but it wound up in my pull list anyways, and it was cheap, so...

Unfortunately, the second installment really isn't better than the first one was.  The art isn't that great, and it doesn't fit very well with the kind of story being told (the coloring is too bright, as well).  The best part of the issue is the Kolchak story, which isn't fantastic, but holds up a little better, and at least Rahner captures Carl Kolchak's 'voice' and narration fairly well.  I'll probably wind up getting the rest of this, but only because there's only one issue to go, and because, well, it's cheap.

Demon Knights #2 (DC, $2.99, Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves) - This book continues to be one heck of a romp.  Vandal Savage is hilarious, and pretty much steals every scene he's in.  There's no small amount of humor here (including the fact that nobody seems to be fooled by Shining Knight's disguise), but it's not a comedy, and there's plenty of action, and even some drama here, as well.  Of the 'new 52' titles, Action and All-Star Western are probably better written, but overall this is the title that I'm enjoying the most. 

Legion Lost #2 (DC, $2.99, Fabian Nicieza, Pete Woods) - Wildfire narrates this issue, giving some much-needed backstory that probably should have appeared sooner.  The local townsfolk mourn the loss of their dead, and the time-stranded Legionnaires mourn as well, although they apparently can't be bothered to grieve for their two 'dead' teammates in the process.   The team encounters the first victim altered by the pathogen that was released, and suffice to say things don't go well.  Better than the first issue, but there's still plenty of room for improvement here.

(as an aside, can I point out that the concept of the Legionnaires having so much difficulty with the taint of 21st century Earth's atmosphere, when their transuits have dealt without difficulty with the atmospheres of alien worlds that were far more hostile and polluted, is a really, REALLY stupid and ham-fisted concept?)

The Shade #1 (of 12) (DC, $2.99, James Robinson, Cully Hammer) - An enjoyable first issue that re-introduces the anti-hero of Robinson's Starman series.  It moves a bit slowly, and is more character driven than action oriented, but Robinson handles the pacing of the quiet moments deftly enough.  Which is to say, this is written by good-Robinson and not Cry For Justice-Robinson.  Recommended.

Elric: The Balance Lost #4 (of ???) (Boom!, $3.99, Chris Roberson, Francesco Biagini) - Okay, I officially have no idea just how many issues this story is supposed to run.  Is it too much to ask that this sort of information be included either on the cover or in the publishing info?  In any case, the story moves along decently enough, although it's spread a bit too thin at points.  Eric Beck finally looks like he just might develop a personality, and perhaps even a spine; hopefully, he'll actually continue to grow as a character and perhaps even actually have a meaningful impact on the story.

Glamourpuss #21 (Aardvark-Vanaheim, $3.00, Dave Sim) - C'mon, it's Glamourpuss... if you've read the earlier issues then you know what you're in for.  If not, then this sure as hell isn't the place to jump in to find out if it's for you or not.

Liberty Annual 2011 (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, $4.99, various writers and artists) - This year's anthology by the CBLDF, as part of their ongoing fight against censorship.  Detailing the multiple stories presented here would taken an entire blog post by itself, so suffice to say that not only is this for a good cause, but the stories presented here are quite good, as well.  Very much recommended.

Legion of Super-Heroes #2 (DC, $2.99, Paul Levitz, Francis Portela) - For those still reading after last issue's non-jumping on chapter, this issue is decent enough, especially for long-time Legion fans.  The threat from Daxam is fleshed out a bit, some needed background info is given, and a few subplots are serviced along the way.  It's a workable 2nd chapter to a multi-part story, albeit not an exceptional one.  

Fables #110 (DC/Vertigo, $2.99, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham) - Part three of 'Inherit The Wind' continues to entertain, in terms of both main storyline and the Oz subplot.  Obviously, this isn't the issue to jump in on to see if you like the series, but really, you should already be picking it up.  Yeah, it's that good.

Conan: Road Of Kings #9 (Dark Horse, $3.50, Roy Thomas, Dan Panosian) - I'm still not crazy about the current storyline, but this issue does pick up a notch with some decent action sequences and a nice twist at the end.  Panosian does a decent job of taking over the art from Mike Hawthorne, giving me a bit of hope for the rest of this series.

Dark Horse Presents #5 (Dark Horse, $7.99, various writers and artists) - One of the best values in the market today keeps on moving along nicely; seriously, any comic book fan whose reading doesn't begin and end with superheroes really should be checking this out.   Eric Powell and Andi Watson provide a pair of enjoyable one-off stories, and the various ongoing serials continue to entertain (with the exception of Neal Adams' 'Blood', which just continues to plod along - *sigh*). Both the overall value and the range of storytelling styles and genres make this pretty much a must-read.

Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword #3 (Dark Horse, $7.99, various writers and artists) -While not as overall as strong in terms of content and execution as Dark Horse Presents, this is still worth picking up for any Howard fan, or any fan of action-adventure in general.  The Conan serial ends well enough, finishing up a bit better than I had anticipated.  A western story featuring the Sonara Kid starts off well enough, there's a fair Brule story, and a pretty decent Steve Harrison story here, as well.  The highlight of the issue is a re-printing of the first part of  'The Vale of Shadow', a Kull story illustrated by Tony de Zungia that was first published as a stand-alone graphic novel by Marvel back in the late '80s. 

Near Death #2 (Image, $2.99, Jay Faerber, Simone Guglielmini) - Another fine done-in-one hardboiled story, with Markham agreeing to protect a man whom others are seeking to kill, only to find out that things aren't exactly black-and-white in terms of doing the right thing.  Faerber avoids taking the easy way out here with the story's conclusion, which I appreciate.  Recommended.

Animal Man #1-2 (DC, $2.99 each, Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman) - One of two DC titles that I initially wasn't planning on picking up, but decided to give a try based on good word of mouth.  I have a fondness for Morrison's run on the original run of this book, and Lemire wisely acknowledges that part of the character's life without directly trying to emulate it.  It's not quite a horror story, but there are certainly horrific elements to it.   It's very well written, although I'm not certain if it's a concept I want to follow in the long-term; that said, I'm more than willing to give the rest of this story a chance, and see just how it plays out.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1-2 (DC, $2.99 each, Jeff Lemire, Alberto Ponticelli) - Another title that I was originally going to pass on, but had recommended to me anyways.  It's also written by Lemire, as it turns out, and it's another book that I wound up enjoying (perhaps I should give Sweet Tooth a try, if this is any indication).  The basic concept comes off as if someone crossed together the B.P.R.D. with Grant Morrison's run on Doom Patrol, which as it turns out is a pretty neat thing in my book.  Lemire isn't afraid to throw plenty of weirdness and high concepts at the reader; not everyone will appreciate this, especially a certain branch of comic book reader who like their fictions to be easily explained and digested.  That said, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and am looking forward to see where this all goes.  Recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unknown Armies available electronically

Although the various Unknown Armies supplements have been available as PDF downloads for a while now, the core rulebook was not, and could only be acquired in print version (which was hard to come by at times).  Thankfully, e23 now has the corebook available for purchase in PDF form.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Music Monday: "Ghost of a Chance"

Twelve years ago today, a woman who is far, far too good for me said the words "I do."  All these years later, she still somehow manages to put up with me, and my life is all the better for it.  And so it is for her that today's Music Monday, "Ghost of a Chance" by our favorite band Rush, is dedicated to.

Happy anniversary, hon.  Love you, now and always.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Capsule reviews: Comics from 9/21 and 9/28

In which I attempt to get caught up from the last few weeks...

Legion of Super-Heroes #1 (DC, $2.99, Paul Levitz, Francis Portela) - Having lost several team members recently due to the events in Legion Lost #1, some of the recent trainees from the Adventure Comics series are brought up to the big leagues.  Of course, the people who trained for years in the Legion Academy are passed over, in favor of a few newbies who had all of one adventure, in which one of their number was killed.  Nope, nothing at all arbitrary about who the Legion chooses for their ranks.

Snark aside, this is a decent enough introduction to a new story arc.  The main story concerns a Legion team investigating a watchworld on the edge of Dominator space that has stopped communications with the United Planets, which moves along well enough.  There's also some subplots advanced and some nice character bits as well, including a nice bit of interaction between Brainiac 5 and Mon-El.  Overall, this issue is enjoyable enough for any Legion fan.

What it isn't is a particularly good introductory issue for a new reader.  While I'm just as glad that DC didn't yet again reboot the Legion continuity, this is still theoretically a potential fresh start that should ideally be new-reader friendly.  Not only is this a #1 issue, it's part of a huge re-launch of the DC line, and as a result may draw in the curious reader who might not otherwise do so under other circumstances.  Other than making sure there are caption boxes giving the names and powers for most of the characters, Levitz makes no special effort to make this issue especially engaging for the new reader, nor does he go out of his way to highlight what makes the Legion so engaging for its long-time fans, and how it's unique as compared to the rest of the DC universe.  Given the floundering status of the Legion in recent years, this was a golden opportunity to bring new readers into the fold.

Sadly, that opportunity appears to have been wasted.  Granted, it doesn't fail to the degree that Legion Lost did in this regard; the story is functional enough, and I no major complaints about Portela's art.  Still, it irks me that what could have been a bright beginning to a new chapter in Legion history turns out to be just another first chapter of yet another story arc.  

Fables #109 (DC/Vertigo, $2.99, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham) - Part two of "Inherit The Wind" moves along briskly; about half the issue concerns the choosing of the successor of the North Wind, but there's also further developments with Bufkin and company's continuing adventures in Oz, the ongoing training of the former Nurse Spratt, and even the status of the Farm is briefly addressed.  There's a lot going on here, with several twists and turns along the way, but Willingham and Buckingham handle it all adroitly.  As always, recommended.

Dark Horse Presents #4 (Dark Horse, $7.99, Evan Dorkin, Jill Thompson, Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Filipe Melo, Juan Cavia, Robert Love, David Walker, Peter Hogan, Steve Parkhouse, Steve Niles, Christopher Mitten, Howard Chaykin, Ricardo Delgado, Carla Speed McNeil, Dara Naraghi, Patrick Alexander) - Best issue of this anthology series so far.  Greene and Brown's Rotten Apple, Love and Walker's Number 13, Chaykin's Marked Man, and McNeil's Finder all continue to entertain.  There are several new pieces here as well; Dorkin and Thompson provide a delightful Beasts Of Burden story to kick off the issue, Melo and Cavia introduce us to the opening chapter of  The Adventures of Dog Mendonca and Pizzaboy, Hogan and Parkhouse also kick off the Resident Alien storyline, Niles and Mitten kick off the Criminal Macarbe story, Delgado provides us with a beautiful, wordless Age Of Reptiles story, and Naraghi wraps things up with a haunting story called The Protest, with a one-page gag piece Teenagers by Alexander acting as the issue's coda.  All of the stories are quite enjoyable (there's nothing as weak as Neal Adams' Blood to drag things down), and the wide variety of genres and styles is a definable bonus.   This continues to provide one of the best bangs-for-the-buck in the comic book marketplace today.  Recommended. 

Conan: Road Of Kings #8 (Dark Horse, $3.50, Roy Thomas, Mike Hawthorne) - Conan heads down into the catacombs beneath Tarantia, with the child Albiona in tow, in search of the comic's plot.  Along the way, he fights some monsters, meets once again with the various surviving conspirators from last issue, after which more monsters show up.  I suppose I shouldn't be so dismissive, but part of me can't help but think - and I know this is going to sound awful - that this story wold pick up if the kid got whacked sooner rather than later.  As is, the plot for this issue is somewhat thin, albeit ably illustrated by Hawthorne.

Hellboy vol 11: The Bride Of Hell And Others (Dark Horse, $19.99, Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Kevin Nowlan, Scott Hampton) - Ah, just when I was getting a little depressed about the state of comics today, along comes Hellboy to remind me just how good comics can be.

The six stories reprinted here are all from Hellboy's earlier days, long before he left the B.P.R.D.; chronologically they range from the 1950's to the 1980's.  This is one of the many strengths of the Hellboy universe - when Mignola set up the basic concept of the character many years ago, he allowed himself over three decades of time in which it was stated that Hellboy was having various adventures.  This gave him the freedom to go back and tell whatever stories he wanted to set during those years, without having to tie said stories in to the ongoing more recent story arcs.  As a result, continuity is used as a tool, rather than being a straightjacket to hinder storytelling, or a master that must be served before other concerns.

The stories here are generally smaller in scope then the apocalyptic epics that have shown up in recent years in both Hellboy and B.P.R.D., but are no less effective and enjoyable for that.  One of the great things with these stories is that Mignola is free to choose different artists for different stories, playing to their respective strengths.  As a result, we have Richard Corben illustrating a tale involving lucha libre Mexican wrestlers teaming up with Hellboy, while Scott Hampton provides the art for a gothic tale involving vampires and ghostly yet beautiful females, and Kevin Nowlan helps to show us a demented tale of aliens and farm animals; if you know anything of these artists, you can probably already start to imagine just how well each of those pairings work.

Not only is this a very enjoyable collection in and of itself, but because these stories aren't tied in to more recent events in the Hellboy universe, it's also a fine jumping-in point for anyone curious about the character and the overall mythos surrounding him.  Recommended for both long-time fans and potential newcomers.

Near Death #1 (Image, $2.99, Jay Faerber, Simone Guglielmini) - Hired assassin Markham has a near-death experience, in which the threat of Hell makes him reconsider his ways, after which he seeks to balance the scales by saving lives to make up for all the ones he killed.  It's a simple premise, but an effective one, allowing for all sorts of potential stories as he seeks to thwart his former employers.  One of the interesting things about Markham is that his new goals haven't really changed who he is; he's still an amoral murderous SOB, and it's out of fear, not any moral epiphany, that Markham seeks to make redress.  This raises an interesting question - is it the deed that counts, or the intent behind it? 

This is a strong first issue; Faerber's plot moves along at a nice place, not stretching things out unnecessarily, and hits all the right hard-boiled elements, which Guglielmini illustrates effectively.   Recommended for any fan of crime/noir fiction.

The Spider #2 (Moonstone, $3.99, Martin Powell, Hannibal King, Gary Phillips, Roberto Castro) - This came out a few weeks earlier, but my shop got shorted on copies by Diamond, so I only recently was able to get an issue of this.  The lead story, part one of 'Blood Reign of the Thunder King', involves New York City being deluged with thunderstorms of unusual and unnatural intensity.  Of course, there's someone behind all this, but how does even the Spider fight the weather?  Powell's plot is appropriately over the top here, and King's artwork is suitable to the story, if a little stiff in places.  Meanwhile, part two of the Operator 5 back-up, 'The Faithful', concludes our hero's struggle with the Nordic Cross (for now, at least) in a satisfying fashion, with a suitable mix of intrigue and adventure.  I'm not terribly familiar with Operator 5 as a character, but I would like to see Phillips and Castro do more with the character.  In both stories the semi-monochromatic technique applied to the coloring helps in evoking a period feel, but that visual approach probably won't appeal to everyone, especially the "I hate black-and-white comics" crowd.  Recommended for pulp fans. 

Secret Avengers #17 (Marvel, $3.99, Warren Ellis, Kev Walker) - A mysterious semi-truck is wandering the desolate areas of serbia, kidnapping residents using hi-tech means.  Not necessarily the most engaging of concepts, but Ellis manages to get some mileage (heh) out of it.  There are some cool moments here and there, but overall this isn't as good an issue has the previous one; partially because the story - despite some occasional bits of superhero weirdness - almost comes across as mundane, in spite of its high-tech premise - but also because of Walker's somewhat murky art, which occasionally serves the story well, but also occasionally hinders the enjoyment thereof.

You know what would have improved this issue?  If the evil semi was revealed to actually be U.S. 1 - now that would have been awesome.

All-Star Western #1 (DC, $3.99, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Moritat) - After enjoying the various done-in-one issues that had graced Jonah Hex, I was a little saddened to find out that with the transition to All-Star Western more emphasis would be placed on multi-part stories.  Jonah Hex was one of the few titles out there that delivered quality comics that didn't stretch themselves out, prostate to the unholy god of decompression.

I shouldn't have worried.  I had forgotten that Gray and Palmiotti had occasionally done multi-part stories in the past on Hex, and had pulled it off quite nicely.  It should then come as no surprise that the first issue of All-Star Western is a doozy, gracing us with a strong first chapter that gives us plenty of content, but also leaves us wanting more, laying down the groundwork for the rest of the storyline in a manner that feels neither rushed nor forced.

Hex is called East to Gotham City, where it appears that a Jack The Ripper-style killer is having his way with the local working women.  Hex is forced to team up with Dr. Amadeus Arkham, who in later years will help build a certain Asylum that will be named for him.  Of course, Hex would rather work alone, caring little for Arkham's presence, and the Doctor's first impression of Hex isn't terribly favorable, either (Arkham's continuing attempt to psycho-analyze Hex provides no small amount of entertainment for the issue).  By the issue's end, the unlikely duo realize that the evil they face is far more powerful, and pervasive, that they first anticipated.

This is both a wonderful first part to the current story, as well as an excellent introduction to the character for those who might have overlooked Jonah's adventures in the past. Gray and Palmiotti are at the top of their game, and Moritat, who had recently been working on The Spirit, is pretty much the perfect artist for a book like this.  His style has a certain roughness to it, but is also very fluid, with excellent composition and panel layout.  He also handles various period details well, such as Arkham's use of absinth in a couple of scenes.  It really is just an excellent comic book.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jim Shooter dissects Red Hood And The Outlaws #1

While I certainly don't agree with everything former Marvel E-I-C Jim Shooter has said and done, his breakdown of the now-infamous Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 really does highlight what is so very wrong with this particular comic, even aside from the questionable portrayal of the character of Starfire.  You can see the big guy laying down the smackdown here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"The Write Agenda"

A brief post to let you know about a group calling itself "The Write Agenda", which are essentially a bunch of literary scammers.   Fortunately, Writer Beware is shining a spotlight on said scammers, documenting their various misdeeds here.

(Yes, I know I haven't posted much recently.  Yes, I need to get back on the stick.  Shut up already.)