Tag Archives: graphic novels

Welcome to Lovecraft

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Robert Crais, book 1 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key Welcome to Lovecraft

This volume collects the first six numbers of the horror comic Locke & Key, which came to me highly recommended, and lived up to its reputation. The writing is truly scary, and the art is gorgeous. The writer and artist have each done excellent work in developing the central characters, and the plot involves both supernatural horror and more “pedestrian” terror. Psycho-cinematic devices like flashbacks and imagined alternatives come across clearly. 

The story has some similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, but with a more complex backstory that can clearly support a longer narrative of evolving conflict. Rodriguez’s art reminds me a little of Rick Geary, but definitely has its own style: bold lines and dramatic perspective help to keep the reader following the action. And the colors by Jay Fotos manage to hit just the right notes, no small consideration in a horror comic.

Although this book is the first of several collections from a continuing title, it does contain a full plot arc, and it makes for an excellent read in its own right. I’m happy to pass along the recommendation that brought me to Welcome to Lovecraft.

The Shadow Kingdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kull, Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad, José Villarrubia, & al, foreword Mark Finn.

Nelson Conrad Villarrubia Howard Kull of Atlantis The Shadow Kingdom

Arvid Nelson returns to the original Robert E. Howard stories to build a 21st-century Kull comic that far outshines its 1970s Marvel predecessor. Certainly, Will Conrad’s art benefits from the improvements in comics production: full-process color and finer printing throughout, with compositions planned for glossy white pages instead of newsprint. But writer Nelson does an altogether better job of adapting the seminal REH piece “The Shadow Kingdom.” A few examples: Nelson adds an artful scene in the Room of Kings in the Tower of Splendor, both to provide background for the later appearance of King Eallal’s ghost, and to serve as a setting to articulate the “Kull … the fool!” mutterings which are here ambiguously attributable to Kull’s animated conscience (as in the REH original) or to lurking serpent priests. Also, where the Marvel writers chose to interpret the REH statement that Kull “had never known … the love of women” by simply avoiding any attention to Kull’s sexual consciousness, Nelson chooses the more sophisticated approach of representing the king in a frosty political marriage. Finally, this newer version returns to Kull’s companion Brule a critical pronouncement during the climactic confrontation with a mass of monsters disguised as the king’s councilors.

The distinctive facial scar that characterized the Marvel Kull is abandoned here, but several panels show Kull’s massively scarred back — no doubt a legacy of his widely-rumored time as a galley slave. The Pict warrior Brule really looks fierce in these comics, while he often looked somewhat silly in the old Marvel numbers. Likewise, Conrad captures the joviality of the Pictish ambassador Ka-nu much better than the Severins ever did. The Serpent Men are altogether more inhuman and menacing, and Valusia itself seems more monumental and ancient than it did in the rather medieval Marvel vision. There is plenty of gore, in keeping with the spirit of the REH original, and an appropriately dark tone pervades the stories. 

The new version of “The Shadow Kingdom” forms the central bulk of this volume, complemented by a warm-up “The Iron Fortress” and the epilogue “The Eye of Terror.” My only complaint about the adaptation was that the very last panel of “The Shadow Kingdom” proper (less than an eighth of the page at the lower right) was a mildly humorous undercutting of the heavy finish of this somber tale. Even so, it did “work” narratively in the larger plot frame that Nelson had constructed in order to expand on Howard’s original.

REH scholar Mark Finn provides a foreword here, as he does for the Dark Horse reprint of the early Marvel Kull stories. But where he focuses on the comics in the Marvel case, this essay is really trained on Howard and the genesis of the Kull character. Likewise, a concluding essay by Nelson reflects on the character and his relationship to the better-known and more “successful” Conan, explaining distinctions between them and his preference for the former.

Xombi

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Xombi [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by John Rozum, Fraser Irving, & al.

Rozum Irving Xombi

For a book that collects a comic starting with issue #1, this really gets going in media res. It’s full of exotic supporting characters who get defined on the fly. While the Xombi’s powers are the result of hyper-technological “nanites,” his friends and foes seem to be mostly supernaturally religious/occult in their origins and orientations. They seem to have some larger background, because they shared in an earlier series, but they are all sort of quirky and enigmatic anyway: the tone is closer to Bob Burden than Jack Kirby. Superpowered nuns and rabbis are funny, right? Although the original Xombi from the 1990s became involved with the larger DC superhero milieu, this reboot sequence (by the original writer) is more contained. The origin story is not rehashed, but rather dribbled out through incidental allusion.

I was motivated to pick this up to read because the art looked good: Frazer Irving provides expressive painted panels throughout, and there are a generous number of full-page tableaux. The six issues of the new series conclude a distinct plot arc “The Ninth Stronghold,” and the 2009 re-debut of Xombi in The Brave and the Bold 26 is appended to these. Scott Hampton’s art in the latter is looser and more expressionistic.

A Study in Emerald

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Study in Emerald [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, Dave Stewart, & al.

Gaiman Albuquerque Scavone Stewart A Study in Emerald

This graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story was pretty disappointing to me. The text is very faithful to the original, with only a few omissions to smooth the reading experience, and these are compensated in every case by the illustrations.

On its own terms, the art is passable, but I didn’t find it compelling. It was markedly inferior to my own visual imaginings when I read the text-only version. More importantly, it collapsed important ambiguities in the original telling, and sometimes in ways that were unhelpful to the cleverly disorienting effects of the tale. An important instance is the portrait of Queen Victoria on the coins in the panels at the bottom of the final page of part 2, “The Room.”

Reading this version is probably better than not reading the story at all. But the text-only version provides a superior experience, especially for those with the relevant background in Holmesiana and Yog-Sothothery. And that version is freely available online.

The Magic Order

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magic Order, Book One [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Millar, Olivier Coipel, & al., volume 1 of The Magic Order series.

Millar Coipel The Magic Order Book One

I borrowed this comics collection from the public library, having heard nothing of it previously. Apparently, the second volume has appeared in individual floppies, and the once-cancelled (during pandemic gyrations) Netflix series is back in active development. It’s ultra-violent and and not especially clever about supernatural magic or stage magic, both of which are central to the story. Thaumaturgy is hereditary, and the “Order” is a family concern.

I liked Olivier Coipel’s art very much. His compositions are dynamic, and the characters are expressive. The art benefits from the masterful colors by Dave Stewart, of course.

The book was just barely good enough that I’ll read Volume Two if I can borrow it from the library, and I’ll give the tv series a shot if it ever manifests.

The Doctor Is Out

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange: The Doctor Is Out [Amazon, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Waid, Emma Rios, & al.

Waid Rios Doctor Strange The Doctor is Out

Although I came to it without high expectations, Mark Waid has provided the best Doctor Strange story I’ve read in many, many years. He has opened up room to reinterpret the character by centering the story on Casey, his new apprentice. Things have not been going well for Strange since he is no longer Sorcerer Supreme, and his broody attitude seems more justified than it has been in the past. He doesn’t have the use of much of his accustomed magical ability; the damage to his hands has returned as a kind of stigma.

While a previous Strange title (based on the unrealized movie script) reconstructed Doctor Strange’s origin story along the lines of The Matrix, the narrative device of the new apprentice’s perspective makes this one feel quite a bit like an occult version of Doctor Who.

The art by Emma Rios is really excellent. Although I was not seized by it at first — mostly because of the overpowering floral colors (never have I seen so much fuschia in an occult comic!) — a few pages of reading showed me that she could really tell a visual story. Her Doctor Strange is more worn and expressive facially, and he largely keeps to street clothes rather than the ceremonial/superhero getup. Rios noticeably incorporates some of the stylistic traits of Ditko and Colan’s classic Strange art, and she acknowledges their influence in a brief interview appended to the comics. In fact, the off-putting element for me (other than the palette) may have been a sort of extreme “looseness” of composition that I also associate with Colan’s work.

Most importantly, Rios draws the magic well! While keeping some continuity with the Ditko and Colan representations of sorcery, she develops her own graphic idiom for the purpose to good effect — entirely distinct from, but comparable to P. Craig Russell’s past turns on Doctor Strange. This book is also full of nonhuman spirits (yeah, demons), and Rios offers persuasively outre and varied forms for these.

This volume, despite collecting four individual comlcs, reads like an integral graphic novel because they were a “limited series.” It does provide a very conspicuous opening for a sequel, and I would certainly be interested if the creators of this one were to fulfill that.

Spin Angels

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spin Angels [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jean-Luc Sala and Pierre-Mony Chan. (See also the Spin Angels series.)

Sala Chan Spin Angels

Billed in the jacket copy as “a head-on collision between John Woo and John Paul II,” Spin Angels (originally Crossfire) is also like what you’d get if Dan Brown were assigned to write a serial plot arc for Charlie’s Angels — although to be fair to author Sala, the details of religious conspiracy and ancient heresy are actually presented more credibly in this comic than what you’ll find in the Da Vinci Code. Certainly, the characters are more vivid and entertaining. Artist Chan mixes manga visual conventions with a detailed, painterly style and highly dynamic panel compositions. 

This volume collects the first four issues of the Marvel Comics English translation of the original Soleil bandes dessinées for this title, which do not in any way conclude the story. The fifth (and most recent as of this review) was published in French in 2010. Recommended to those who enjoy the application of adrenaline and testosterone to esoteric religion.

The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec Vol. 2: The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Tardi. (In some places the title of the second story is given as Mummies on Parade, so in this intro blurb I’ve opted for the story title on the cover.) (The film adaptation includes material from the second story in this volume.)

Tardi The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies

This second Fantagraphics reprint volume collects the third and fourth numbers of Jacques Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec stories: “The Mad Scientist” and “Mummies on Parade.” “The Mad Scientist” is very much in line with the earlier numbers with its modest pacing, bewildering plot, and droll character interactions. It focuses on the reanimation of a Pithecanthropus and his surprising behavior, and culminates in some spectacular violence on the streets of 1912 Paris. In “Mummies on Parade” Tardi really pulls out the stops, bringing together plot threads from almost all of the earlier stories, adding a mass revivification of Egyptian mummies, connecting Adele’s troubles with the wreck of the Titanic, and providing a downbeat ending after a somewhat hilarious cascade of mayhem. The art in “Mummies” is especially fine: there were several panels that I would be happy to enlarge and hang on my wall — though my tastes are rather outré!

Tardi The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele  Blanc-Sec The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies two panels from Mummies on Parade

A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Douglas Rushkoff with Goran Sudzuka and José Marzán Jr.

Rushkoff Sudzuka Marzan ADD Adolescent Demo Division

Rushkoff’s A.D.D. is apparently set in a parallel universe where those initials applied to kids have never meant attention deficit disorder, or in which the entire society suffers from sufficient mental myopia to disregard the fact. Other than that, it’s an all-too-credible story of psychological experimentation on humans that could be read as either a near-future scenario about media manipulation, or as a parable about a larger-scale set of events that have already been going on for decades. 

Blurber Grant Morrison compares this graphic novel to the X-Men, but I thought it was essentially a cyberpunk version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The benevolence of Professor Xavier or even Willy Wonka is in short supply here, though. Sudzuka’s art fits the story of this digital-candy-oubliette quite nicely. There is a lot of violence and sex of the sort that realistically applies to hothoused adolescents. It’s a fast read: two solid sittings should be sufficient.

The Sandman: Overture

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sandman: Overture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, J H Williams III, and Dave Stewart, with Todd Klein and Dave McKean.

Gaiman Williams et al The Sandman Overture

The six-issue Sandman: Overture comics series was the last to be created for the title character. It was published more than fifteen years after the seventy-fifth and last number of the original Sandman title, which had in its day been fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s largest and highest-profile comics work. As “Overture” suggests, this later sequence supplies a story set immediately prior to the main series, anticipating its themes and forms.

Although I was an active comics reader during the heyday of the lauded former serial, and it certainly fit my general tastes, for whatever reason, I haven’t read it–even though it has remained in print in trade paperback collections ever since. It has new currency now with the release of the big-money-small-screen version from Netflix. So when I considered reading some of the comics this summer, I decided to start with Overture. After reading the copious creators’ notes and interviews in this volume, I realize that the intended audience for Overture were really longtime fans and knowledgeable readers of Sandman. Oh, well. I didn’t find it difficult to follow, although I suppose it would have been a richer read if I had been familiar with the other work.

The art in this book is outstanding, with the lines and shades by J.H. Williams III (of Promethea fame) and amazing colors by Dave Stewart. Another key contributor, who doesn’t appear on the cover but still features among the creative personnel interviewed in the end matter, is letterer Todd Klein. Perennial Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean also provided cover art for the series.

Among comics, I was most reminded of the Eternity story arc from 1970s Doctor Strange, although Williams and Gaiman in their remarks refer to Jim Steranko rather than Gene Colan as a visual comics influence. In literature generally, Gaiman’s “Endless” characters reminded me most of Tanith Lee’s “Lords of Darkness” in her Tales from the Flat Earth books. They are not mere personifications of abstract concepts. It might be more accurate to call them hypostases of cosmic principles–but ones that somehow elicit the reader’s human sympathy.