Friday, August 19, 2005


I've dug up a few reviews, because frankly I haven't read that many books lately, so here's some things I've reviewed but for some reason or another I never got around to posting them (because I'm lazy and I forgot!).

Conan Vol. 1: The Frost-Giant’s Daughter and Other Stories
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates
Published by Dark Horse Comics; $15.95 USD

Robert E Howard’s Cimmerian warrior has a long, storied history in comics. The first Conan comics came from Marvel in the early ‘70s, originally written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, the series and its many spin-offs would last well into the ‘90s before Marvel dropped the property. Dark Horse comics acquired the rights to publish a new series in 2002 and shortly thereafter hired Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord, two men best known for their superhero work, to bring Conan back to comic shelves, and to keep the book on schedule Thomas Yeates was brought in to co-pencil with Nord.

This collection houses issues #0-6, and part of issue #7, and follows Conan as he journeys north from his homeland in search of Hyperborea. Along the way he is recruited by the men of Aesir to seek vengeance on a group of Vanaheim raiders who slaughtered women and children in the Aesir village. In exchange the Aesir agree to see him to Hyperborea. What follows are well over 170 pages of beautifully illustrated, bloody, violent battles, ancient sorcery, mythical beings, beautiful temptresses and fantastic realms.

Busiek’s decision to adapt Howard’s original tales into illustrated form is a noble one, and he manages to manipulate the world Howard created to great effect. The story that gives this collection its title, The Frost Giant’s Daughter was one of Howard’s earliest Conan tales, and is essentially just a short story involving Conan fighting a pair of frost-giants. However, Busiek weaves the story flawlessly into the tapestry of Conan’s history, adding layers of depth to the story’s seemingly typical encounter.

The un-inked artwork of Nord and Yeates masterfully captures the savagery and beauty of Howard’s fictional land. From Conan’s very first appearance in the book they’re able to show how he is both a fierce and valiant warrior as well as a kind, intelligent man. It is his sword we see first, which leads into a full page illustration of a brutal decapitation, necessary for saving the life of a woman and her child. In a short series of panels the creative team has given us all the information we need to know about the Cimmerian.

The collection is also brimming with social commentary, some of it occasionally out of date, but relevant nonetheless. Early in the story Conan finds himself allied with people he would normally call his enemy, the Aesir, people who in fact treated him as an enemy upon their first meeting. As he helps them track down and kill the Vanaheim men that attacked their village he wonders if has been wrong about one enemy, can he be wrong about the other.

The most fascinating issue Busiek addresses is that of paradise, and at what cost ultimate peace is obtained. Conan was told that in the land of Hyperborea there is bliss, a land of an eternal race, where the sun always shines and there is no famine or disease. What he discovers is that all this is indeed true, but this paradise comes at a cost, one that could turn the hardest of stomachs.

As gorgeous as the artwork is, perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid is that it’s impossible to distinguish between Yeates’ and Nord’s pencils. The two work flawlessly together, and with the help of colorist Dave Stewart, they have created a comic that visually sets itself apart from anything else currently on comic shelves. While un-inked pencils are fairly common in today’s market, there have been few examples of how well the process can be used, the process is used so successfully here that it is impossible to imagine it any other way, and after seeing their Conan, no other seems exactly right. Barry Windsor-Smith’s version of the character is likely the most well known illustrated interpretation, at least in the comics community, and his work is reflected in Nord’s and Yeates’ pencils, but I dare say the duo’s vision of the character is slightly superior to Windsor-Smith’s.

Perhaps part of that superiority is in the way Busiek writes the character. Again, taking his lead from Howard’s original work, Busiek portrays Conan as an amalgamation of many things, not simply a fierce and unequaled warrior, but a kind man, one whos duties are honorable and who can not only fight his way out of a situation, but is able to outwit his foes as well. Add to that his occasional misstep, one of which costs his friends their lives and you have a character that is relatable, no longer is he a superhuman brute, just a man trying to do what’s right, one who can both succeed and fail.

This collection also contains a few “special features”; a brief biography on Robert E. Howard, written by Mark Finn as well as pages from Cary Nord’s sketchbook, along with Nord’s three page try-out pencils of a story written by Busiek. Finn’s biography, though brief, captures the beautiful tragedy that was Robert E. Howard’s life. For anyone, like myself, who is familiar with Howard’s work, but not his life, it’s a revelation. The fact that his creations, Conan in particular, continue to live on and thrive so long after his death speaks volumes about what he was able to achieve in his all-to-short life.

Busiek, Nord and Yeates have delivered a book that is as faithful to Howard’s vision of Conan the Cimmerian as anything that’s come before it, and the books success is any indication (the first issue has now gone to a third printing), they are indeed achieving what they set out to do. It’s one of the finest examples of modern comics done right and proof that the fantasy genre is as viable today as it was in the past. Grade: A+


Frontier Publishing Presents #1
Written by Derrick Ferguson, Russ Anderson, Trevor Carrington, Mike McGee, Michael Exner III
Drawn by Alex Kosakowski, Tamas Jakab, Sheldon Bryant
Published by Frontier Publishing; $2.50 USD

Frontier Publishing Presents #1 contains four separate tales, two of which are prose stories. The first, Dillon and the Escape from Tosegio is scripted by Russ Anderson with a story by Derrick Ferguson and art by Alex Kosakowski. Dillon is not exactly an original story, the style will feel vary familiar to any fans of the Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider series’, but Derrick and Russ still craft a fun, interesting tale.

Dillon is a soldier of fortune, currently on the run from a group of natives for “stealing” their princess and some of their technology, the only catch being he has neither. His partner, Awesome Times has double crossed him, taking both the princess and the technology, leaving him to fend for himself.

The creative team has a good handle on serialized storytelling. In this age of the decompressed style of comics, it’s rare enough to find a single issue that tells a complete story, much less one that does it in ten pages. Derrick and Russ do an excellent job of conveying the history of the character without having to go into too much detail; we’re given the basic facts that are needed to understand the story and that is it, and it works surprisingly well. They also wrap up the plot nicely, yet leave it open for future stories, one of which an advertisement promises is available now.

Alex Kosakowski’s art, while not phenomenal, manages to hold its own with the fast paced script. The action sequences are pretty good; it’s never difficult to follow the story, with or without the dialogue, which is more than most rookie pencilers can accomplish. Overall it’s an entertaining story, nothing really new, but that’s not always a bad thing.

The second is the first of the two proses, titled Idyll; it’s written by Trevor Carrington with an illustration by Sheldon Bryant. Idyll is the story of Ann, a woman with Bell’s Palsey, a condition which can paralyze your face either partially or wholly.

It’s a touching account, one that feels out of place with the other tales contained within the issue. But, that doesn’t detract from its value in the least. Simply put, it follows Ann throughout her workday, dealing with the stares of the people around her, and then to a local bar where she meets a man who asks her to smile.

There are moments where it’s a bit heavy handed, but overall it’s a stirring, tender tale of a woman learning to live with her disabilities, despite the rejection and misunderstanding of those around her. The illustration by Sheldon Bryant is of a key moment in the story, and is very reminiscent of some early Bill Sienkiewicz cover illustrations. Unfortunately the black and white coloring detracts from it rather than adding any kind of tone or nuance.

Third in the book is a story titled The Skiff, written by Mike McGee with pencils by Tamas Jakab. It follows two people, Kitty and Evan, as they recover the dead body of one of Kitty’s friends to dispose of it. We’re not given much background as to the why’s and what-for’s of what is going on, but McGee sets up the relationship between Kitty and Evan nicely. Their friendship is one we can easily latch on to and instantly care about, and the end is fitting, if somewhat bittersweet.

Jakab’s pencils do a decent job of holding the noir-style the story is aiming for. It’s an interesting comparison to Kosakowski’s pencils in the Dillon story; here every panel feels alive with erratic movement, jumpy and irrational, never wanting to stay in one place too long, where as Kosakowski’s panels are more inviting and appealing to the eye, trying to cram as much detail in the panels as possible so that you can linger a little bit longer. While both stories are the same length, the pencils here make The Skiff seem much shorter. Not that that’s a bad thing, or that they aren’t good, just that Jakab’s style is very jagged, it’s like watching a film with very quick cutaways.

Unlike Dillon, this story doesn’t feel as open ended, sure there is more that could be explored, specifically with the duo’s relationship, but it doesn’t leave that desire behind as it ends. Of all four stories this is probably the best, McGee and Jakab have a good chemistry between them and it will be interesting to see what they can produce next.

The final story, and the second prose tale, is Death as a Pimp, written by Michael Exner III with another illustration by Sheldon Bryant. It’s the shortest story within the book, clocking in at two pages, but it’s still a worthwhile read. In fact, to call it a story is probably a disservice, it’s closer to a poem, and therefore tremendously difficult to critique. Both the work and the accompanying art have been crafted well, and there can be many meanings read into exactly what the two are trying to convey, I choose to see it as representation of death on the streets, a message about urban decay, one that can be slightly over-the-top in a few paragraphs, but no less powerful. But ultimately, like any poem, its meaning and message are up to the mind of the reader. Bryant’s art, as good looking as it is, is very out of place within the story, and doesn’t seem to represent the message the author is trying to convey, but it is pleasing to the eye regardless.

Overall the book is a noble first effort from people both passionate and dedicated to comics, art, and the written word. Frontier Publishing has made a good primary step with this collection, and I look forward to seeing what they can produce to follow it up (Note: A shorter version of this review will appear in my next Loose Staples!). Grade: B-


Lunch Hour Comix
Written and Drawn by Robert Ullman
Published by Alternitive Comics; $4.95 USD

Got this one from ADD a while back, I've probably read it a half dozen times since. It's a good collection of slice-of-life comics, very much in the same vein as Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries. The book is smart, funny and often silly as hell, but always very charming. Ulmman's art is pretty darn good, more down-to-earth than most diary cartoonists. There's nothing really exciting here, but it is a great read regardless. Good observational humour and day-in-the-life drama. It's a short read, but like I said one you can keep coming back to and it makes a hell of a coffee table book. Grade: A


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