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Contemplate This on the Tree of Woe

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008 07:17 PM
The Take
 by Fëanor

ZombieWorld Volume One: Champion of the Worms
I'd never heard of ZombieWorld until I received this book from poppy for Christmas (thanks, poppy!), but apparently it was a rather short-lived zombie-themed horror title published by Dark Horse and dreamed up by Mike Mignola, who wrote this first volume, and Pat McEown, who did the art (and apparently contributed a lot of the character and plot ideas). Mignola wrote this shortly after doing the art for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (see below), and shortly before drawing the first book of Hellboy. And indeed the tale is sort of a proto-Hellboy/B.P.R.D., featuring a team of supernatural investigators with various abilities who face off against an ancient Hyperborean wizard who worships evil worm gods and can command the dead. There are a lot of characters, and we barely get a chance to get to know them before the story is over, which is really a shame, because they seem like interesting people. There's an old guy with some magical ability who's the brains; a younger, bigger guy who's the brawn; a hot young woman with guns; and a psychic, blind black man who can send out his astral projection, sort of like Johann from B.P.R.D. They have a hard time against the super-powerful evil wizard and his hordes of zombies, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of comedy here, too. In fact, the art gives the book a very light kind of feel, as it's done in a clean, classical, cartoon strip style. This first volume is clearly only the beginning of the story, so it's really too bad that there appears to be only one more volume of the series in existence, and that one isn't written by Mignola.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are characters that fantasy author Fritz Leiber created in 1939. He wrote many stories about them and their sword and sorcery adventures, which are all set in a world rather like Conan's. This book is a Dark Horse collection of the complete four-issue miniseries - originally published by Marvel Comics under their Epic imprint - of Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola's adaptations of some of the Leiber stories.

I had never heard of Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, and was only dimly aware of Fritz Leiber, when I received this book, but poppy chose well when she selected it as a gift. After all, it's sword and sorcery with art by Mignola, who calls it his favorite pre-Hellboy work. How could it not be good?

As I said, the world is like the one in Conan's stories - full of thieves, weird religious cults, adventure, and dangerous magic - but the characters and the language are not. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser - while they are indeed thieves and scoundrels, and know their way around a sword as well as they know their way around a bottle of beer and a fine wench - are well-spoken fellows, witty and clever, and the Mouse has even been known to dabble in magic himself from time to time.

The language in the book is so unique it can sometimes seem a bit stilted and strange, and the stories, too, can get a bit odd and confusing. But the characters are strong and lovable, and the plots are artfully constructed, fascinating, effective, and moving. Each story has its own lesson to tell, but not in a dry, didactic way; they're all full of action and imagination, and quite funny in a wacky sort of way. Also, even though each story is a separate episode, they follow each other in sequence and make up an overarching whole. Our heroes find themselves seeking revenge against evil wizards; forced to do the bidding of even stranger magical creatures; pitted against each other in a quest for the mask of Death itself; caught in the terrible snare of a murderer haunted by his own misdeeds; fighting evil merchants from another universe while their lives, and the very fate of the world, hang in the balance; having a terrible disagreement with each other over the spelling of "Fafhrd;" serving priests and extortionists in the alley of the Gods; and discovering a secret treasure hold under the ocean where the Sea King's concubine's dwell - along with much worse things. It's really wonderful stuff.

Even better, at the very back of this collection they've reprinted the first few pages from what appears to be Fritz Leiber's first novel about these characters. The story told in these pages isn't any of the ones adapted in the previous parts of the book (it's set before all of them), but if anything it's even more fascinating, and the writing is just fantastic. I think I might actually have to track down Leiber's original books now...

Buffy Season 8 #10
For some reason I found this issue extremely confusing and was constantly flipping back through the pages and rereading things, trying to get a handle on what was going on. I mean, parts of it are supposed to be confusing, because they take place in an area where reality shifts and bends and nothing is quite normal or linear. But even the other parts of the book were really throwing me off for some reason. Anyway, I think after some work I do have a pretty good handle on what went on, and overall I quite enjoyed the issue. A number of very interesting shameful secrets come out which shed more light on the characters of Buffy, Willow, and Dawn. And we get to see some pretty funny fantasies from the depths of Buffy and Willow's minds. The art (pencils by Cliff Richards, inks by Andy Owens, colors by my man, the ubiquitous Dave Stewart) is also quite good. My only complaint is that sometimes the dialogue gets a bit too... Whedony? I don't know. I can only read sentences like "My grip on reality is not that grippy" so many times in a row before I just start to get a little ill inside. Still, like I said, overall quite good, and opens the way for some interesting things down the road.

End League #1
Now, this comic. Good lord. So awful. I mean, I stuck with it as long as I could. I really tried to like it. All throughout the opening section, which tells the backstory in a completely unsubtle and melodramatic manner via loads of exposition in narrative boxes, I was saying to myself, well, it could be worse, and at least the story is kind of interesting. But then there are the ridiculous character names; the stupid super powers; the painfully terrible and melodramatic dialogue; the forced comedy; the lipstick lesbian superhero couple (not that there's anything wrong with that, but they're clearly thrown in just so the comic book nerds can ogle at two hot girls kissing each other); the preachy, constantly nagging, super angel girl in the white flowy bikini with the cape who's so "prefectly" proportioned with her giant breasts and skinny, bare mid-riff that she looks freakish and ridiculous; the part where the Guy Who Will Obviously Betray Them suddenly *gasp* betrays them... And have I mentioned the melodrama? Oh, dear GOD the MELODRAMA!!!

The story, if it matters to you, is about your generic Superman-type guy - whose name is, believe it or not, Astonishman - doing what he thinks is right by tossing a nuclear weapon into an alien stronghold under the Earth's ocean, only to discover at the last instant, when it's already too late, that the aliens are good, and that the weapon will cause a disastrous chain reaction. Afterwards, he does his best to save the Earth from the resulting floods and earthquakes and so forth, but many die. To make matters worse, a strange gas has also spread into the atmosphere from the explosion that essentially gives everybody superpowers. As you might expect, giving everybody superpowers doesn't turn out so well. Astonishman gathers together the best of the new metahumans, but the rest spread destruction across the world. Now the only hope left is finding the hammer of Thor. I assume in later issues it will be revealed why exactly the hammer of Thor is so great, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. No more End League for me, thank you.

Gravel #0
Holy crap was this past week a great one for comics (despite End League)! Three new books by Warren Ellis came out!!! This is the first of them, the opening issue in a new series published by Avatar. As with his Black Summer series from Avatar, this one is starting out with a cheap, short, prologue issue, numbered 0, and then the following issues will be full length and full price. The series is set in a world where magic and magicians exist. The British magicians are organized into two main groups: the Major Seven, who are the master magicians, and the Minor Seven, who are occult detectives that walk among the regular folks and take care of business. Our titular character is a combat magician named Bill Gravel who happens to be one of the Minor Seven. As the book opens, he's in Afghanistan killing Taliban, apparently for the British government. When he gets home he discovers that things have changed; for some reason most people think he's dead, and someone has taken his place among the Minor Seven. Time for Gravel to get back what's his, find out why and how this has happened, and figure out just what a powerful and dangerous magical text has to do with it all.

Do I need to say that this is totally freaking awesome? As usual with Ellis, it's extremely bloody and gory, but also clever, darkly funny, a bit satirical, and intensely interesting. The cover artist, Mike Wolfer, appears to have contributed to the script, as well, so some credit goes to him. The art (by Raulo Caceres, with colors by Greg Waller) isn't my favorite, but it's pretty good. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

Hedge Knight II: Sworn Sword #4
Wow! The story takes an interesting and dramatic turn in this issue as our hero's conversation with the Red Widow doesn't go at all the way he expected, he learns things about his lord that change everything for him, and the conflict escalates. I was a little lukewarm on this book at first, but the last couple of issues have been quite good and now I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus #5
I was a little off on my preview of this issue in The Setup - it's not the penultimate issue, but the ultimate one, and the intro to the letters column in the back says there are no plans yet for any more Lobster Johnson miniseries. Huh. Well, some pretty unexpected stuff happens in this issue involving a curse, and the Lobster gets help from a surprising quarter in defeating the Nazis. And really this series seems to be begging for a sequel, so I can't imagine they won't at least try to do one at some point in the future. Overall it's a good series that I enjoyed, but I have to say I was a little disappointed by it. I was expecting more from a Lobster Johnson miniseries written by Mike Mignola. There was really only one issue that blew me away; the rest were just okay. Ah, well.

Moon Knight #14
Another comic I was off on my preview of: this issue was not written by Duane Swierczynski. I thought he was going to be the author on this book for the foreseeable future, but some Googling has finally turned up the fact that he did the Annual as a one-shot, and he'll be moving on to Cable while Mike Benson and Charlie Huston share writing duties on Moon Knight from now on. Which means I expect I'll be moving on to Cable myself and dropping Moon Knight, because I was pretty unimpressed by this issue. It's just Moon Knight beating people up while arguing with a demon that may or may not be a hallucination. It's pretty dull. The art's okay, but that's not enough to keep me around.

Annihilation: Conquest #1
Annihilation: Conquest #3
I'm a big fan of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Nova, which is currently telling a small part of Marvel's over-arching, multi-book Annihilation: Conquest story, wherein the Kree empire has been taken over by the Phalanx. Like any respectable over-arching, multi-book story, Annihilation: Conquest has its own main miniseries, which is all you really have to read to get the most important plot points. I've been seeing scans from this book, and from other books in the over-arching series, and really enjoying them. So when I saw that the third and latest issue of this miniseries had come out this past week, I decided to pick it up. And of course, since I can't start reading a series at #3, I had to go back in the stacks and try to dig up #1 and #2; as you can see, I was only able to find one of them. All of this is despite the fact that I'd read the Annihilation: Conquest Prologue one-shot (it was one of the books I picked up during my Free Comic Book Day comic-buying orgy, in fact) and had decided based on it to not collect this series.


Anyway, as it turns out, these books are actually really good, with fantastic art (Tom Raney on pencils, Scott Hanna inking, and Frank D'Armata on colors), an exciting and well-written story, interesting characters, and some kick-ass action. I realized that probably the reason that I didn't like the Prologue all that much is because it mainly focused on Quasar and Moondragon, who are the only real weakpoints in the series. Their relationship is all mushy and melodramatic, and the characters themselves are pretty boring. They're constantly having emotional problems and talking about them. Icky! Get this chick flick out of my comic book!

Luckily, there's plenty of punching, shooting, robots, double-crosses, and explosions to make up for the girly girls and their emotional issues. And there's a talking raccoon and a dude who's pure power and other cool stuff like that. It rocks! Now I just need to get #2 and settle in to collect the rest of this series.

Ms. Marvel #23
I'm coming into this book on the third part of a story arc (which I don't like to do, but... whatever) called "Monster and Marvel," and a lot of crazy crap has already gone on involving a couple different kinds of aliens. I'm relatively unfamiliar with the character, too, and didn't realize she had a whole team of friends to back her up, including S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; my old buddy Aaron Stack, the Machine Man (whom I remember fondly from Warren Ellis' Nextwave), who's sporting a new, shapely, female body (which wasn't a shock to me as I saw the scan where that plot point was introduced on scans_daily); some lame heroine named Araña; a weird green guy named Sleepwalker; and sometime Avenger and movie star Wonder Man. Ms. Marvel has part of an alien named Cru inside her, and this alien has depowered her somehow or other. Which is unfortunate, because the Brood have invaded Earth and are trying to kill her. Interestingly enough I'm familiar with some of the backstory of Marvel's fight with the Brood thanks to the backstory for the nameless Brood drone in Planet Hulk. Marvel's the one who turned the Brood Queen to crystal, and the Brood drone made it to the planet Sakaar (where it met and joined the Hulk's Warbound) trapped inside that crystalline body. How the Queen recovered from being dead and turned to crystal is not entirely clear. But recover she did, and Marvel and her friends find themselves fighting said Queen and a horde of her children in this issue. And it looks like there's only more butt-kicking in store next issue. So yeah, I'll stick with this title for now and see where it goes.

Omega: The Unknown #4
A lot of the crazy crap that freaked me out last issue started to make more sense in this issue. There's a battle for human minds being fought with nanotechnology, mostly via the medium of fast food! Meanwhile, the subplot with the bullies at school gets a lot more serious, and Mink might actually end up making himself useful. It's a good comic.

Thunderbolts #118
The second of my three new Warren Ellis comics this week (hee hee hee!) is the latest issue of this great series about a team of villains trying to be heroes. As usual, everything goes horribly awry, this time thanks to the secret influence of a group of psychics in the prison. Osborn is totally snapping, Spawn is going on a rampage, the Swordsman is starting a little coup, and somebody's putting up anti-Thunderbolts posters all around town. Meanwhile, Doc Samson and Penance are sitting around watching rugby (and not at all having a brutal knock-down drag-out, like it shows on the cover). Huh. The point is, totally fascinating story, deep characters being deeply analyzed, funny and clever dialogue, and explosions! Can't ask for much more than that.

Ultimate Human #1
The third Warren Ellis book that came out this past week is about Tony Stark trying to "cure" Bruce Banner of his Hulk problem. It's exactly as awesome as I was hoping it would be - and they haven't even started fighting yet!! It helps that Cary Nord's art (with the always fantastic Dave Stewart's colors) is so excellent. But of course we also have Ellis in rare form again, with some really fantastic, funny dialogue (especially from Tony and the Hulk), some great mad science sequences (especially the brilliant, thrilling transformation sequence), and the introduction of the Ultimate universe version of the Leader. Ellis also uses explanatory captions in an interesting way in this book, sometimes just defining words used in the panel, other times describing people and places, and still other times just telling you intriguing and amusing facts about what's going on. And of course, the end of this issue sets us up for a nice big fight between the Hulk and Iron Man in the next issue. Ah, it's a good time to be reading comics.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Volume 1
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Volume 2
These books are a couple more Christmas gifts, which I received through the family pollyanna. I mentioned these before in my gift round-up post; they're the first two parts of a manga which Hayao Miyazaki wrote and drew so he could make a movie based on it, as at the time (that being the 1980s) in Japan, you didn't make an animated movie unless it was an adaptation of an already existing manga. I really enjoy the movie - and, indeed, all of Miyazaki's movies - so I figured I would enjoy this. And I was correct.

I was slightly disappointed that the books are entirely in black and white (except for the full-color, double-sided fold-out in each one featuring a map and portraits of the characters), but the visuals are still quite fantastic. Also, the writing is excellent, the story is engaging and exciting, and the characters are wonderful.

It's set in another world (or possibly our own world, but far, far in the future) that is essentially post-apocalyptic; a terrible cataclysm known as the Seven Days of Fire ended civilization, and the descendants of those who survived have only the barest remnants of technology, the use of which is mostly forgotten, and live mostly in small rural villages. Another legacy of the now lost industrial society is pollution. A huge forest known as the Sea of Corruption has arisen, full of deadly spores and gigantic, rampaging insects, and it's spreading its poison further and further across the planet each year, swallowing up whole cities.

The character we follow is Nausicaä, a young princess from the Valley of the Wind who, amongst other seemingly magical abilities, has a strange connection with the insects of the forest. And she just might be the Chosen One of prophecy.

Yeah, I know. Sounds pretty familiar. But Miyazaki takes the old conventions of the fantasy epic and makes a completely fascinating story out of them, full of adventure, action, magic, beauty, and political intrigue. There's also the typical Miyazaki anti-war, pro-environment themes. He can get a little heavy-handed and preachy when it comes to that stuff, but he doesn't get too out of control in these two volumes.

If you have seen the movie, these books are still worth a read, because there's a lot more here than he was able to fit into the film. The plot is far more layered and complex and involves many more characters. Miyazaki doesn't try to make things black and white, either; as usual with him, there aren't just good guys and bad guys. Well, some of them are pretty angelic, and some of them are complete scoundrels, but mostly it's just a bunch of people all trying to do what they think is right, and often tragically coming into deadly conflict with each other.

The point is, I could hardly put these books down each time I picked them up, and I'm definitely going to have to collect the rest of them now. Also, I've got to watch this movie again, soon...
Tagged (?): Books (Not), Buffy (Not), Comic books (Not), George R.R. Martin (Not), Gravel (Not), Hayao Miyazaki (Not), Jonathan Lethem (Not), Lobster Johnson (Not), Mike Mignola (Not), Omega (Not), Song of Ice and Fire (Not), The Take (Not), Thunderbolts (Not), Warren Ellis (Not)
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