Monday, 10 October 2005
Inspired by Greg's Comics You Should Own (initially at his own blog, then at Comics Should Be Good and now on Buzzscope) and Bob's My Collection posts at Four Realities, I thought I'd do something in between - comics from my collection that I thought deserved mentioning, in this instance, Firearm.
Firearm was part of the Ultraverse, the attempt by Malibu Comics Entertainment to create a new superhero universe, very closely modelled on the Marvel universe. It was the '90s; everyone was doing it. However, Firearm was different – the hero wasn't an 'Ultra' (the Malibu term for a being with superpowers.)
Firearm was the codename for Alec Swan when he was working for the British covert operations department, The Lodge. He had resigned and become a private detective, based in Pasadena, a job that caused him to come into contact with Ultras. Most of whom he didn't like, due to his previous experiences and probably because he was British – you know how some of us Brits feel about superheroes (Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, front and centre).
Firearm was also possibly the first series written by James Robinson. Robinson would go on to Starman (and WildC.A.T.S, Leave it to Chance and others) and eventually Hollywood (where he would ruin League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for comic book fans) but here are the beginnings of some of his tropes in comics: a love of old America, pulp fiction, film quotes, John Woo and first person narrative.
Apart from the series having a lot of gunplay, the Woo connection is seen in the first four-part storyline, American Pastimes, which is Hard Target but with Ultras as the bad guys, the rich Sportsmen, who also happen to be cannibals. Swan talks directly to the audience as if narrating his tales, in a nod to hard-boiled fiction but not a duplicate, which can be a little strange at times, but works well for the series. Swan is a Brit in the US, like James Robinson, allowing for authentic English slang (for the most part) to be used to give colour to an interesting character, so you get 'git', 'stone the crows', 'strewth', 'tossers' and 'bleeder', and that's just in the first issue. (There's even a reference to Carry On Screaming in his cry of 'Frying tonight!' in issue #4 which isn't completely appropriate of the situation but is funny if you're a Brit raised on the national institution that is Carry On films.) There's also Swan professing his love for Pasadena, a prelude to Jack Knight love of Opal City in Starman, and there are obscure oddities, like an album of Japanese prints that are a precursor to Jack's obsession with bizarre stuff.
The art for the storyline is provided by Cully Hamner (unfortunately only layouts on issue 4), using perhaps too many lines (it was 1993, after all) but displaying his cool and funky style that was seen recently on top form in Warren Ellis's Red. He can handle the talking heads which appear regularly in a crime book and excels in the action sequences. I would have preferred to see him do the covers, rather than Howard Chaykin, an artist I love, because although Chaykin can draw an eye-catching cover, I don't think his visualisation of him is quite right. And Swan has blonde hair, which is a deviation from Chaykin's normal protagonist, who always has dark hair and therefore caused a problem. That said, it's impressive that the first four issues all have a Chaykin cover adorning them.
Issue 5 is a talky issue, where Alec meets Ellen for the first time, an Ultra but with wings that are too small to enable her to fly, and they spend most of it chatting on a rooftop. This is a nice quiet issue, which leads into a crossover with Prime, which comes back to issue 6, but gets finished in Prime #10, which is slightly annoying, especially as I didn't buy it (and didn't want to). Issue 6 has nice Hamner art, especially the last third which is devoid of narrative or speech bubbles, and uses a bit of Swan's background with The Lodge, which sets up a storyline for a few issues later, but is ultimately forgettable.
Issue 7, with a nice cover by Weiringo, to mask the not quite as nice interior art of Kirk Van Wormer, is one of the lesser one-off stories, as Swan goes on the trail of a husband who has taken his daughter away from him, but it does allow for some enjoyable voiceover from Swan (in text made of lower case as well as upper case). Issue 8 sees Robinson doing a tribute to the loyalty of dogs, which is a bizarre concept for a story, but just about works in context.
Issue 9 sees a return to form, with Hamner back on art duties (inside a cool cover), that has some cool gunplay and Swan waxing lyrical about Pasadena again, as he tracks down ultras trying to get their hands on some jewels, with the story flipping backwards and forward between the final shootout and the investigation, filtered through with Swan's distinctive voiceover.
Issue 10 and 11 are a two-parter, the memory of which probably instigated this post, as it has some stunning art from Gary Erskine. I've been moaning about how his art seems subdued in the otherwise enjoyable Jack Cross, when I know he has done better and here is a prime example. Written pre-Matrix, this issue sees Swan tricked into a computer environment by his former employers, The Lodge, where he ends up in a cyberpunky Glasgow, shooting the shit out of lots of people in suits. It's a ripping read, with lots of insanely detailed and disfigured artwork from Erskine on fire. He really makes Swan look like he's seen action, as he has always been great at drawing scarred people, whereas other artists tend to make him a little prettier, as he is the hero. There's a double page spread in issue 11 when Swan first sees the computerised Glasgow that's quite stunning, and his fight scenes bristle with violence and dynamism – he's a bit like a messier Geoff Darrow.
Issues 12 through 18 are the Rafferty Saga, the big story that Robinson had been building up to all along, as interludes referring to it had been appearing as early as issue 6. Issue 12 starts off sweetly, as we see Swan asleep in bed with Ellen from issue 5, but then becomes viciously brutal, as Rafferty kills off most of the ultras we've met in the interludes, as well as some new ones. Ben Herrera provides some cool art, but it's still a lot of death for one comic, and it's billed just as the prologue.
The Rafferty Saga begins proper in issue 13, where Swan is hired by the immensely rich dad of one of the ultras bumped off by Rafferty in the last issue. Rafferty then makes contact with Swan, telling him when and where the next hit will be, and developing the rules of the game that the two of them will be playing. Robinson is aiming for an updating of the Holmes/Moriarty conflict, with Rafferty saying how much alike they are. Swan goes to protect the next ultra to be assassinated, who his attacked by lots of goons in black, as we go into full Woo mode, even down to the ludicrous scene where Swan slides along peaches on the ground in a peach grove, allowing him to kill the remaining hired guns (and we'll try to ignore the Arnie-like 'I'm feeling peachy' which pops up in the gunfight). This is nicely illustrated by Steve Carr, even if the first few pages are rather ugly. It all turns out to be misdirection, as Rafferty is the master criminal who has somehow poisoned his target.
Firearm #14 sees Alec in New York, where Rafferty has said he will kill two ultras. This leads to him saving Sludge, the Swamp Thing-like creature in the Ultraverse universe that lives in the Manhattan sewers, only for Rafferty to double cross him with the choice of saving the sewers, leading to the death of another ultra. Meanwhile, the gunfight in the previous issue has lead to Swan becoming a media figure, as it is revealed that he is pursuing an ultra killer. Brian O'Connell's art in this issue sways between capable and ropey, making you wonder why they couldn't get a constant art team on the book.
The visual inconsistency is continued into issue 15, with Mike Edsey on art, which is a little rough in places. Another repeated aspect is the crossover with other Ultraverse titles. Rafferty appears in The Strangers #17, based on the cover art, and this issue sees the appearance of Night Man, a Batman-esque vigilante who doesn't sleep and can see in the dark (or something; it sounds too bizarre to investigate further, especially as he is a late night radio DJ as well) and the group, Freex, who seem to be going for the X-Men vibe, who all live in San Francisco. This crossover is taken to the extreme when, on page 21, a footnote from Robinson tells you to read Freex #15 and Night Man #14, BEFORE turning over to the next page, which is perhaps the most bizarre instance of a comic company crossover I can recall. The story has problems in coping with this scale, which doesn't really work well for the character of Alec Swan, with the exposition-heavy TV news segments disrupting the flow, Swan not doing anymore investigating and just reacting. The end sees him propose to Ellen over the phone, which is supposed to be sweet, but comes off a bit mawkish. Not the best book in the series.
Issue 16 sees a return to form. With a striking cover by Chaykin, and the stylish and assured pencils of Arne Jorgensen (in his early days as a bit of Quesada-clone), the history of Rafferty is revealed, sort of. It is told in a bizarre mix of voiceovers, as Rafferty tells his tale directly to the reader, only for another set of captions tell the true facts behind his version. It's unclear whether the second voice is the author or something else, which makes for a strange read at times. Robinson links Rafferty back to his first storyline by having the remaining Sportsman being the funding behind Rafferty and, although not explaining the reasons completely, relates how Rafferty had an innate killing ability, honed and trained when he joined the army and ended up in special forces.
Firearm #17 sees Alec and Ellen get married, by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, naturally, and has that action film flaw of the master criminal doing something uncharacteristically stupid that leads to the final conflict with the hero. In this case, raiding the cathedral which is looking after the miracle baby that cures all illnesses (mentioned several times throughout different issues) in order to kill her, only for it to turn into a hostage situation, as he keeps ultras out by linking bombs to a device that detects ultra energy, and asks for Swan to come in alone.
Firearm #18 was the last issue for Robinson (last ever?) and sees the culmination of his ideas for Swan – a decent man who has done some unpleasant things, doing things for the right reason, whatever the odds. Walking into a place teeming with goons makes it seem highly unlikely that the hero would survive; one man against dozens are not good numbers, and the heroic bloodshed films of John Woo don't usually have happy endings. Only, he is saving a baby that has the ability to cure people, so you know that Robinson can have his cake and eat it, by having Swan die bravely saving the child and have it reciprocated, for a happy ending. One of the reasons for Swan being such an interesting character is the voice that Robinson gave him, the English slang and the characteristics of a human being, which occupies a comic book version of the hard-boiled narrative without sounding corny. This is played to in the final issue, with the thoughts of Swan channelled through the gunplay action to full effect.
Firearm isn't a perfect comic, by any means, with the changeable art and the necessity of interacting with the rest of the Ultraverse harming some of the storylines. However, a strong central character with a genuine personality, imbued with a love of the John Woo films, detective fiction and English slang (I wonder how many Americans knew what the insult was when Alec called someone a 'merchant banker'?), made for an enjoyable series. Robinson seemed to develop the letter column style that would move into Starman, where he would want to chat about other things, not just the book to which you were writing, which made for a fuller experience (although, like Starman, that fell by the wayside too many times.) In it, he mentioned an annual with art by Hamner and Erskine that never saw light of day, unfortunately, as it would have dealt with the friendship between Alec and Ben, his cop buddy. In other material about Firearm, here is a two page story by Robinson and Chaykin in Ultraverse Origins, which provided some background on Alec Swan. There was also the video, billed as Firearm #0, which I have specifically not mentioned, as (a) I never got it and (b) it sounds an incredibly stupid thing, and the stills in the advert made it look like direct-to-video drek. But all you need to hunt down are the 18 issues to have yourself a good afternoon's reading.
Wednesday, 5 October 2005
(As I already give too much love to Ellis, cover of the week goes to Stan Sakai and his brilliant creation.)
Comics filling my fiction fix for this week:
Usagi Yojimbo #87
Stan is creating another epic storyline, so not an issue for those wanting to pick up their first issue. Still wonderful stuff, though.
Gotham Central #36
One of the best DC mainstream books of the moment.
First issue was a cracker and I don't expect number two to be any different.
Jack Staff #9
When was the last issue of this? I'll have to dig out the old ones to remember what's going on …
New storyline, same old excellent storytelling. Even though Powers is well served in the trade format, I can't wait that long for the book.
A good week, by all accounts. Comic shop, here I come …
Tuesday, 4 October 2005
Desolation Jones #3
Warren Ellis & J.H. Williams III (Wildstorm Signature)
As you can probably tell, I enjoy the work of Warren Ellis. There is something about his style, his inventiveness, his dialogue, his attitude and his sensibilities that speak to me. I don't automatically believe that everything he touches will be genius – Mek and Tokyo Storm Rising didn't thrill me, for example – but I'll still get something out of an idea or his technique. I don't post on The Engine (or was a prolific poster on the WEF) so don't think I'm an acolyte or stalker, rather an appreciator of his work (much like Nik at Spatula Forum, as you can see in this post).
With that in mind, I just wanted to talk about a recent book of his, Desolation Jones. There is a quote that Roger Ebert uses in his review of The Maltese Falcon: 'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean' by Chandler about his hero, Philip Marlowe. As Warren admitted, there is a connection to Chandler in this first arc, following plot patterns, so the quote feels appropriate, even if Jones himself can be a little mean (although there is a humanity in him that infuses his character.)
There is an overall McGuffin of Hitler porn, and sees Jones delve into the underworld of porn, spending most of the issue talking to a girl in the business, but the story is more than about just that – for better analysis of the issue, go read Jog's critique.
As I said in my comments in response to that post, 'I've seen other people's comments about the seeming lack of story but I find the :relating a new thing: is one of the interesting sections in a story. I enjoy finding out information I don't know, especially when told in an conversational tone. It's part of the writer mentality, the squirreling away of facts and the fun of sharing them, and it makes me feel that the writer has done some research and is doing storytelling in its most primal sense. Or that could be just me.'
The majority of the issue is talking but it is interesting conversation, telling us about something we might not know about (in this case, the world of porn; I love the line 'gay for pay') as well as giving insight into the mind and character and of Jones, as his perceptions distort during the discussion (as Jog states, that 'everything in this series is glimpsed as Jones sees it, even when he's on panel.'), which also breaks up the talking heads nature of the issue, allowing J.H. Williams to strut his stuff. He can do the normality of everyday life, talking in a pub, psychedelic views and the visceral quality of the fight scene at the end, making you feel the violence, which is a jump in tone from all the talking.
The ending, in keeping with the Marlowe connotations, sees Jones getting knocked out, so we should see some interesting visuals of him unconscious and recovering in the next issue, if the Chandler parallels are continued – I'm thinking of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (based on Farewell, My Lovely) as Marlowe, getting swallowed into a black hole when he is bashed on the head. Williams' art is a perfect accompaniment to this tale of a strange man in a strange place, allowing Warren to write whatever his fertile and diseased brain can originate, which can only be good for us readers.
In future on this blog, I hope to spread my love of certain creators, both writers and artists, giving others a fair shake, so don't worry that this will become an Ellis shrine, even if I just spent some time recently enthusing over Fell.
Monday, 3 October 2005
I don't think Marvel likes to give titles to individual issues anymore, not like the old days. However, if they did, then this would have to be 'Daredevil's Dames' or something, as we spend most of the issue with the women who will be impacting the life of Matt Murdock in this last arc from Bendis & Maleev. This comic seemed even more talky than normal, suggesting that women like to talk more or something, and Maleev expands to more double page layouts to accommodate all the information. Maleev is a very enjoyable artist, with his expressive, grainy and moody artwork telling the story and providing an evocative tone. And he draws beautiful women too … Bendis is moving all his pieces into place for what I hope will be a very satisfying conclusion to his run.
Jack Cross #2
I'm enjoying this, even if I can't work out how it exactly fits into the DC Universe, except for the muted artwork of Gary Erskine. He's a great artist, as demonstrated by the four page sequence of gunplay in the cars, but it's like all the energy, detail and verve of his art has been diluted out in order to sell it as a mainstream book. This is a shame, as it was his mad detail that made him something special, like the Dark Horse book, Hypersonic. Still, he's a good storyteller, allowing Ellis to get on with his usual excellent job of dialogue, characterisation and well-researched, tight plotting. I'll be interested in seeing what happens when Jack meets super-heroes …
Legion of Super-Heroes #10
This is where it gets really good. The LSH in action, the mention of Shrinking Violet ('Atom Girl, you mean?'), the splitting up of legion into three teams, Projectra demonstrating spirit, a nice moment between Brainy & Dream Girl – all before Waid shows that the greatest victories come from beating an enemy that is better than you, by having them strategically ahead of the LSH. The suicide bombers is a little close to home for a Londoner like me but reality and fiction often interact at the strangest places. Kitson's clean lines are back for a full issue all characters easily discerned and given moments. This issue is the reason for yet another revamp, especially when real sadness, seen at the end, seems to be integral to this version.
It always feels a little odd reviewing PvP, as it is a collection of strips rather than a 'proper' comic book but this is an issue which demonstrates that it's not about just gaming. The first half is standard sitcom territory with some nice lines: 'So … what happens next? Do we all get naked or do I watch you two?' and 'She's a college girl gone wild! The videos are true, Cole.' and 'How do you like me now you floppy eared son of a bitch!' The enjoyment depends on how much you like the people and it is in this regard that Kurtz really shines, with his sharp visuals and strong characterisation make comic strip individuals feel like real human beings.
In his diary at the front of the book, Gary Spencer Millidge reminds me that this book has been going for just over ten years. Wow. I think it's a testament to the quality of this book that it is still going and I still look forward to it, even though there have only been 18 issues in all that time. (How does he survive financially, I wonder?) This issue feels plot-heavy, perhaps because it's been a while since the last one, with Alex accepting the invitation to join the knights in the role of spy, Sergeant Clarke investigating the attempt on Dr. Houseman's life, and the final scenes at his twin brother's house. The misunderstanding from Janey about Doreen changing a t-shirt scene I found annoying, but I've always had a low tolerance towards the 'oops, vicar, where's my trousers?' school of farce that is long standing in this country. However, this felt liked a packed story and I hope Millidge is able to get Book 4 out on a more regular schedule, as this is a great book by a talented writer-artist, even if he suffers from the unfortunate disorder of being a Chelsea fan.
Saturday, 1 October 2005
Warren Ellis & Ben Templesmith (Image)
After the term 'widescreen action' was coined for The Authority issues illustrated by Bryan Hitch and made obvious the connection between comics and cinema, Warren Ellis is now making the connection between comics and television in Fell. In this first issue, he tells a complete story, introducing a new setting, character and atmosphere (brilliantly realised by Ben Templesmith) in only 16 pages.
The title refers to Detective Richard Fell, who has moved 'from over the bridge' to Snowtown, a strange and crazy place, which only has three and a half detectives to cover the entire precinct. In a densely packed story, he moves into his new place, meets his new boss, meets a nice but crazy girl who owns a bar, discovers some of the weirdness of Snowtown and solves a homicide in the next door apartment.
In my journey home from work, I can usually read two, maybe three comics, depending on the tube connections and service level. Fell #1 took the whole journey. That's impressive. Ellis packs the book with information and great touches, such as the Snowtown tag or Moon St. Precinct ('Welcome to the Moon, detective.') or the dialogue of an embittered secretary, dumped by her husband for the dog. And let's not forget the contribution of Ben Templesmith. His art helps create the sense of this peculiar new city, from the Polaroid images of locations to the individuality and personality of each character. It has a wonderfully grimy quality that lets you know everything you need to know and tells the story perfectly.
I've read complaints about this being a typical Ellis cynical character which I feel are lazy and without merit. This is an expression of the fears, frustration and anger of a man who sees the world around him and wants it to be a better place but knows that it is a difficult journey. If you've ever seen the strangeness on his former site, www.diepunyhumans.com and his official site, Warren sees the world through a unique perspective but, deep down under the bluster, is someone who believes in the possibility of a better world. Spider Jerusalem was a mouth piece to rail against the greed, corruption and downright nastiness of such things as corporation, politicians, organised religion and the innate odiousness of the dark side of the human race. A lot of Warren's other work shows he wants something more for humanity, which might be one of the reasons I keep coming back to his work; the sheer humanity of it. I hope he gets the chance to keep on producing new work to express himself, and Fell is another piece to add to his immensely enjoyable output.
Detective Fell and Snowtown are fascinating characters – Fell is smart, both cerebrally and street-wise – and I can't wait for the next episode. Because, as I stated above, this feels very much like a television series. The lead character has the job-related plot of solving the murder and the personal-related plot of moving to a new place, all coming together by the end of the programme. If Global Frequency didn't persuade people to get Warren to create his own television show, then this should convince them to do it, and turn Fell into a series now.