Tag Archives: comic

The Contract with God Trilogy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Contract with God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Will Eisner.

Eisner The Contract With God Trilogy

There is a tiny irony in the fact that when Will Eisner coined the phrase “graphic novel” in 1978 to describe his work A Contract with God, the book in question did not have the single plot of a unified novel. It was instead a set of four shorter narratives joined by a common setting at No. 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. The first of these is the properly-titled “A Contract with God,” and it concerns the moral vicissitudes of a Jewish immigrant in New York. The other three stories center on a Depression-era “street singer,” the building superintendent at No. 55, and a summer vacation season.

The Contract with God Trilogy collects the original book with its two sequels, both of which fully merit the “graphic novel” label. The Life Force is a complex story centered on the carpenter Jacob Starkah, and taking place mostly in 1934. Dropsie Avenue spans more than a century of transformations of the Dropsie neighborhood, pulling the events together into a single tale of striving, corruption, and transformation. The Trilogy volume is supplied with a preface and some new interstitial art from Eisner.

When he composed these pages, Eisner had already developed his techniques of visual storytelling to a high pitch, and throughout the work the characters and plots are presented with startling efficiency, while the compositions are striking and effective. The illustration is all in monochrome inks, presented in this handsome hardcover with uniform dark brown line art on ivory paper.

All of these stories raise powerful moral and emotional concerns, leavening them with occasional humor. They also clearly incorporate a level of memoir that powerfully documents 20th-century cultural history for the Bronx. I read a copy borrowed from the local public library, and I strongly believe it deserves a place in such collections.

Engines of Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doktor Sleepless: Engines of Desire [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez.

Ellis Rodriguez Doktor Sleepless Engines of Desire

This volume contains the first eight issues of Doktor Sleepless, plus some endmatter consisting of painted cover art from individual issues, and print snapshots of the wiki at Doktorsleepless.com. Having started in this vein, I plan to follow this title in trade paperback format, though goodness knows there’s enough meat to each issue to make it worth reading in individual comics. 

Although there is no resolution to the steadily-intensifying plot in this collection, there is a climactic epiphany in the eighth issue. Doktor Sleepless invites comparison with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, although the target is clearly today’s USA, rather than the Thatcherite UK of Moore’s dystopian fantasy. As in V, the central character is a self-caricaturing enigma who is engineering the collapse of the existing social order. He’s got a girl sidekick, and seems as much villain as hero. There’s even business with mass-distribution of masks — Ellis doubles down on that trope, in fact. 

Creepy, violent, and believable, this comic picks up and continues the outrage over injustice that Ellis exhibited in Transmetropolitan, while stripping the (always somewhat ornamental) science-fictional elements down to a bare minimum. A kindred cyberpunk comic would be Testament, but where Rushkoff uses the Bible to frame his tale of techno-sociological crisis, Ellis substitutes the Necronomicon (or something worse). 

Anyhow, it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ll be impatient for the next collection.

The Dreaming City

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dreaming City [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Julien Blondel, Jean-Luc Cano, and Julien Telo, foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet, vol 4 of the Elric series.

Blondel Cano Telo The Dreaming City Elric

This newly-released (in English) fourth volume completes the “first cycle” of Julien Blondel’s bandes dessinées adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. Blondel takes a lot of liberties with the original texts–something on the level of a typical cinematic adaptation of a novel–but his choices are generally very good and have reportedly met with Moorcock’s own approval. One of the biggest changes was introduced at the end of the third volume and is central to this one. . . . . . . . [hover over to reveal spoilers] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I like the gloomy, shadow-heavy art by Telo in this book, but some of the compositions are hard to “read” in narrative terms, especially during the climactic confrontation among Elric, Cymoril, and Yrkoon. In some panels for example, I didn’t know which of the rune-swords is being shown: is that Stormbringer or Mournblade? These stumbles “work” impressionistically, reflecting Elric’s own confusion, but they are still a little frustrating for the reader.

The foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet (co-founder of Métal hurlant, who asks that you read his essay after The Dreaming City to which it is prefaced) is the least of these in the series, but like the others it contains some piquant autobiographical reflections and musings on international culture and the role of fantasy. It does include one amusing double-translation through French: the Moorcock novel “Here’s the Man” (i.e. Behold the Man, which is the biblical ecce homo).

The claim to have finished a cycle of the larger saga is a fair one here. Most of the story threads have been tied off, if not ruthlessly cut and burned, by this point. The issuance of these volumes has been at a pretty leisurely pace, and I hope that they continue without an even longer intermission than the ones before.

The Life and Death of Conan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Barbarian, Book One: The Life and Death of Conan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mahmud Asrar, Jason Aaron, & al., book 1 of the Conan the Barbarian (2019-) series.

Asrar Aaron Conan the Barbarian The Life and Death of Conan

This trade paperback collects the first six issues of the new iteration of the Conan the Barbarian title at Marvel Comics. Writer Jason Aaron and principal artist Mahmud Asrar appear to be accomplished creators within the contemporary Marvel operation, and they both do competent work here. I’m not really blown away the way that I was in the early numbers of the Dark Horse run back in 2003-4, but I did find these new comics to be quick and satisfying reading. It does seem like there’s an attempt to strike a balance between the tone of the original Marvel run and the Dark Horse title.

Aaron hits a few clinkers with his language, but on the whole his Conan seems more faithful to Howard’s original hero than most of the pastiche novel Conans have been (to say nothing of the movies). Each issue starts with the same Nemedian Chronicles quote (“… when the oceans drank Atlantis yada yada …”) and a full-continent Hyborian Age map highlighted to show the location of that number’s principal adventure.

This collection has stories set throughout Conan’s life, using as a framing device young Conan’s encounter with a malevolent witch who returns to kill him in sacrifice to her arch-demon benefactor many years later when Conan is king of Aquilonia. Whether she succeeds (as implied in the “Life and Death of” title of the book) is left unresolved at the end of the sixth issue.

Appended to the reprinted contents is a vast gallery of alternate cover art. For the first issue alone, there were at least a dozen covers. I really have to wonder if this now venerable publishing gimmick is really serving any purpose. Are readers foolish enough to buy multiple copies for the different covers? Well, I guess I represent the opposite extreme, since I waited for the trade collection and then borrowed it from the public library.

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Problem of Susan and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, P Craig Russell, & al.

Gaiman Russell The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

The Problem of Susan collects four graphic adaptations of Neil Gaiman fantasy stories. The first two are illustrated by P. Craig Russell, who also did the scripting and layouts for the third. The title story–a sequel/critique for the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis–is the longest of the four, and it’s one I had read some years back. Russell’s adaptation is magnificent, with repeated visual motives and a really glorious concluding panel.

The second story “Locks” is a very short one built around Goldilocks and the Three Bears and again bringing adult reflection to bear on children’s literature. In the third tale “October in the Chair,” personified months of the year have assembled around a fire in the woods for what seems to be a recurring convocation in which they exchange stories. October’s contribution is the centerpiece, and it’s suitably autumnal and spooky. The final piece in the book is hardly a story at all, more of a short poem really, called “The Day the Saucers Came.” Paul Chadwick’s art for this one is entirely in full-page illustrations, just seven of them.

Ghost Circles

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Ghost Circles [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 7 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone: Ghost Circles

I suppose it is a sign of Jeff Smith’s skill at developing his fictional world and its characters that I have read each volume of Bone in fewer sittings than the last, even though their length and complexity remains consistent. 

The end of the previous volume Old Man’s Cave made it seem as if the heroes had had a major victory, but Ghost Circles begins with almost overwhelming setbacks, and of all the Bone collections so far this one is easily the darkest in mood. Even a few scenes with the usually comical Ted the Bug are quite grave.

Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance by Alan Moore, illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp.

Moore Alan Moore's Another Suburban Romance

This book contains more black-and-white comics adaptations from Alan Moore’s non-comics oeuvre, in the vein of his Magic Words. This time, the three components are all parts of a single (though rather discontinuous) performance piece, and all of the art is by Juan Jose Ryp. 

The first segment “Judy Switched Off the TV” is a little ho-hum. I think I would have enjoyed either the text or the illustrations better if they had not been together, simply because the pictures were such a literal translation of the words. Either one would be surreal, but in combination they seemed mechanical.

The second and longest portion “Old Gangsters Never Die” has more substance, but the sense of the pictures being completely at the service of the words is still there. This failing is of course ironic, since talented comics writer Moore’s writing for comics generally avoids this particular fault.

Moore himself is depicted as the central character of the final episode “Another Suburban Romance.” In this case, the text is sufficiently sparse, and the creative inclusion of Moore’s portraits is helpfully destabilizing, so that the art feels much more rewarding. All of the illustrations in this section are full-page panels or two-page spreads, which allow Ryp’s maniacal level of detail to be shown to full advantage.

Alan Moore’s Magic Words

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Alan Moore’s Magic Words by Alan Moore, illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, with introduction (in the deluxe edition) by Warren Ellis.

Moore Alan Moore's Magic Words

Magic Words is a short anthology of Alan Moore’s song lyrics and brief poetry, adapted for comics by an able assortment of artists. Unlike Moore’s arm’s-length relationship to the cinematic transformations of his work, he is credited here as a “consulting editor.” 

This project bears comparison to the adaptation of Moore’s Light of Thy Countenance, which I have read previously. The production values are lower here (only black and white for the interior art), but despite the variable quality of the individual pieces in Magic Words, the best of them certainly surpass Light of Thy Countenance in exploiting the comics medium. 

In particular, the illustrations for “14.2.99” add a further layer of meaning to the text that is still sympathetic with it. On the downside, the art on the title page of that piece (which appears similarly on the inside back cover) was evidently drawn as a 2-page landscape spread, but has been rotated 90° to fit onto a single page, losing the orientation and confusing the rich detail of Juan Jose Ryp’s fine portrait of teledildonic rapture.

The artists here are all clearly sympathetic to Moore’s larger themes and ambitions–and they were probably thrilled to have the opportunity to work with his texts. Illustrators Vicente Cifuentes and Alfredo Torres bring into play the Moon & Serpent motif that is central to Moore’s magical cultus, even while adapting texts that don’t specify it. The lead item, Jacen Burrow’s rendition of “The Hair of the Snake that Bit Me,” features it by necessity.

The book concludes with what amounts to a set of liner notes and an audio discography. Besides documenting Moore’s musical and performing history, this article provides some broad outlines of his claimed magical attainment: Neophyte to Magus in a six-year period concluding on April 11, 2002.

The aggregate result may be trivial for a casual reader, but it is very engaging for someone familiar with the esoteric elements of Moore’s work.

Prelude

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Marvel’s Doctor Strange Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim, &al.

Pilgrim Fornes Aburtov Marvel's Doctor Strange Prelude

The first half of this book consists of three Doctor Strange comics in which Strange does not appear. They supply a story to establish the Kaecilius villain and Kamar-Taj setting of the related movie. I found them underwhelming at best. The rest of the book is a mix of reprints from earlier comics: the first issue of The Oath, a bit of the 2015 Doctor Strange series, Strange’s endlessly-reprinted debut from Strange Tales, and best of all the Englehart and Brunner Marvel Premiere story that preceded the 1970s run of the comic. This last one seems to have been included to justify the time-manipulation feature of the movie plot, as well as the use of the name Cagliostro, although the latter appeared nowhere except the cover, where it evidently referred to a character addressed as Sise-Neg throughout the comic.

I guess this book would be just the answer for someone who thought the Doctor Strange film was the cat’s meow, but had never read any of the comics. So it’s good that my local public library has it. Although I was intrigued by the effort in the “prelude” element, I found that content disappointing, and I would not recommend it to fellow longstanding fans of the superheroic Sorcerer Supreme. It was first published in advance of the movie, and I doubt it persuaded anyone not otherwise inclined to buy a ticket. [via]