The Courtyard #1
Avatar Press – Alan Moore, Antony Johnston (w); Jacen Burrows (a)
When I pulled the stack of this book out of my store’s weekly shipment today, I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was essentially required to review it. I mean, I have to try and maintain some semblance of credibility amongst that small portion of both sites (Sequart.com, my original home and slushfactory.com, my additional place of residence) that reads my reviews. And one way to do that, basically, is to review anything Alan Moore puts out and try to sound at least moderately intelligent in the process. Or, at the very least, make sure that no one mistakes me for a babbling, illiterate half-wit (which is apparently harder than you’d think).
So all day, while I should have probably been working or something, I was sort of mulling over what angle I was going to take on this book. I kept remembering that I had read in an interview or a preview or some such that the story was purportedly influenced by the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, an author that I read an insane amount of work from during my many study halls back in high school. And I wondered if, having a foreknowledge of what the writer claims as an influence, my own perspective on it would be changed. That is to say, knowing that Moore wrote the story with Lovecraft in mind, would I be more likely to over analyze it, to see connections to Lovecraft’s fiction where there possibly were none? This was very worrisome to me, because it seemed to me that I was basically cheating.
I shouldn’t have worried. Apparently, “influenced by H. P. Lovecraft” means “complete homage to the man’s work.” If I had never cracked the spine on a Lovecraft collection, I’d miss the references. But someone with even a cursory knowledge of the source material is going to see them sprinkled liberally throughout the issue.
For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft, a crash-course: the root of all of Lovecraft’s fiction is that there is more to the nature of reality than is known by the human mind or even able to be comprehended by it. Frequently, throughout the course of his catalogue of work, a scholar or explorer or some other such student of erudite lore will make a chance discovery. That discovery generally relates to the existence of either a) other dimensions or b) creatures known only as “the elder gods” or “Great Old Ones,” a race of superbeings whose presence in this reality far predates mankind’s and whose power is held in check only by their millennia-long slumber, an effect that can be reversed if certain rituals are performed when particular celestial alignments should arise (giving rise to the oft-repeated phrase, “when the stars are right”). Generally speaking, that knowledge causes the person discovering it to go stark raving insane. Occasionally characters survive their encounters with the bizarre with their sanities intact, but it’s pretty rare. With that out of the way, let’s go back to the review.
The Courtyard immediately establishes its setting, a world not quite like our own, through three means: 1) it’s set in our own near future, 2) it makes reference to events in our own past that clearly did not happen and 3) it’s set on a holiday that does not exist (Farrakhan Day). A tone of racial intolerance is set immediately when an unspecified narrator refers to the holiday’s fireworks as “nigger-stars.” The references to Lovecraft begin their unchecked flow right off the bat as well, as the story is set in Red Hook, a borough of New York that served as a backdrop for one of Lovecraft’s most famous shorts. And our misanthropic narrator, a federal agent known as Sax (or so I surmised from a fax he’s reading, which is addressed to someone named Sax; the narrator himself is never explicitly named), tears off an invective-filled monologue describing the state of his life and lodging. This rapid-fire combination of sharp prose and Jacen Burrows’ smooth pencils sets the tone for the book right away.
Sax, it seems, specializes in a field known as anomaly theory. He takes seemingly unrelated crime scene evidence and intuits connections about them. In this instance, his case is a series of identical murders, for which no definite suspect can be found. In fact, the murders are complicated by the fact that three separate people, none of whom share any connection with the others, have each confessed to some unique fraction of those fifteen killings. Sax correlates the facts that are known about the murders and extrapolates a commonality amongst their suspects: a bar called the Club Zothique and a drug known as DMT-7. Traveling there and meeting with an informant, Sax uncovers a perplexing side effect of DMT-7, previously regarded as nothing more than a relatively harmless, natural hallucinogen: it results in a considerable amount of seemingly incoherent babbling on the part of the drug’s user. And lastly, information faxed to him from the Bureau about similarities to prior unsolved cases turns up a disturbing abnormality in an archived photograph from the 1920s.
Now, here’s the problem in reviewing this book. I loved it, I’ll say that now. But I think a good portion of the reason that I enjoyed it is because I “get the jokes.” I know, from having read Lovecraft, that at least some part of the gibberish that DMT-7 users spew out is chock-full of references to specific Elder Gods and their mythical locations. As well, I know that seeing a reference to the town of Innsmouth, a comment about a remote East Coast port and a picture of something clearly subhuman all ties back to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a Lovecraft story about New Englanders that interbreed with monstrous creatures from the deep.
The problem then is whether or not to absolutely recommend the book. Even if I didn’t know anything about Lovecraft, I think I would still be very intrigued by the events of the book, more than enough so to justify picking up the concluding issue next month. By that rationale, I should. However, knowledge of Lovecraft’s work makes the book infinitely more enjoyable, I’m sure. So if I follow that line of logic, the book should lose some points for not being entirely accessible, in my opinion.
So I’ll say this: horror fans would be crazy to miss out on this, regardless of whether or not they’ve read Lovecraft (though I can’t imagine a serious horror fan having not). Alan Moore completionists will want this book regardless of anything that I have to say. And anyone looking for a unique, atmosphere-laden story should definitely look into picking it up. Though I’ve often said that if anyone writes a better comic book that Alan Moore that I don’t know who it is, Jacen Burrow’s artwork should not go unsung, because he does his fair share of carrying the book. I’m usually fairly critical of the artwork in the average Avatar book (despite the fact that one of their frequent contributors and I share the same name), but his pencils here are absolutely outstanding, very detailed work.
DC Comics – Will Pfeifer (w); Kano (a)
DC has a strong history, in my opinion, of reviving and relaunching their own old concepts. Most recently (and more importantly, most financially successful), they brought back JSA, a bigger accomplishment than most people realize. Until the recent announcement of its cancellation, I would have said that the new Doom Patrol was a success, given that it had achieved respectable sales figures and critical acclaim, no small task when you consider the fact that the majority of comic readers probably don’t have a rosy recollection of their childhood involving Doom Patrol (and let’s be honest, nostalgia is what drives 90% of this industry; it’s not a new development at all, the guys doing G. I. Joe were just smart enough to capitalize on an untapped resource). This is all relevant because this book is essentially a straight relaunch of the long-dead title Dial H for Hero.
For those not aware, the essentials of Dial H for Hero, as I understand it (given that I’ve not read more than a handful of issues in my life, if that), were that a particular device had the ability to grant superhuman powers to its possessor if the word “hero” was dialed out on it. Now, I don’t recall if this gizmo switched hands on a regular basis or if it stayed with one owner, but in this incarnation, the magic doohickey in question will be passing from owner to owner as each story arc changes. Essentially, the high concept is that an object of unchecked power will pass from person to person, making heroes and villains of the most unlikely individuals and the story will serve as a character study in regards to what average people would do with nigh-limitless power. Think of it as the superhero version of 100 Bullets, that’s how I’ve been explaining it to my customers. All in all, a concept that has a lot of potential. Whether or not that potential is realized, of course, is a matter of who’s in charge of the book.
Pfeifer has chosen, in the book’s opening story arc, to tell a story that is less than uplifting. Now, that’s probably not a decision that I would have made (because you don’t want to give your superhero-centric readers the impression that your book is going to be a downer, since that’s apparently the kiss of death to a lot of them), but it’s gutsy and I think it works on basically every level.
Jerry Feldon, our protagonist, is a man down on his luck. When the story opens, Jerry is huddled in a phone booth in the pouring rain, mumbling desperately to an operator on a suicide hotline. In the course of his cry for help, Jerry pours out his life story to the stranger on the other end of the line.
At one point, he had a pretty decent, if exceedingly mundane, life. He lived with his parents, went to school and made good money working in the local automotive industry. But in a tale nearly as old as the Industrial Revolution, his area’s economy took a turn for the worse and his job disappeared before his very eyes. Within a span of months, he goes from a man with a good job and a healthy family, to a man who is unemployed and completely alone (his father passes away and his mother moves out west to look for work, effectively abandoning him). Forced to make do on his own, he accepts a job in a local restaurant, making sundaes for a clientele that he is increasingly disgusted with.
Jerry’s luck begins to look up when one night, while doing the dishes at work, he chances upon the Hero device (or so I will hereafter refer to it until it gets a proper name). Concealing it in the filthy dishwater from the prying eyes of its rightful owner, Jerry takes it home and ponders it while watching tv with his cat. And in a flash of inspiration, he takes it and climbs the highest building in his town, a bank office ten stories high. Dialing out the word “hero,” Feldon finds himself transformed, wearing a costume and cape, able to soar away from the roof through his own power. But, unsurprisingly given the fact that the reader knows that Jerry ends up on a suicide hotline in a downpour, things do not go as planned.
If I had one complaint about this book (and that’s all I have: one complaint), it’s that I was under the impression that each issue would be a self-contained story, an idea that’s disturbing novel given today’s more popular trend of writing arcs for the purpose of being collected in trade paperback form. I have no idea where I got that idea and I was clearly mistaken, as the story will be resolved no sooner than next issue. However, as first issues go, Pfeifer has cranked out an exceedingly solid one. The premise is well-established via its reliance on a pre-existing one, but not fleshed out so much that there isn’t room for creative license or a sense of wonder about what’s going to happen next. And when you figure that the real mark of a well-crafted first issue is a drive in the reader to pick up the next issue, you can’t help but call H-E-R-O #1 a success.
Lady Death #1
Crossgen Entertainment/Code 6 – Brian Pulido (w); Ivan Reis (p); Marc Campos (i)
For the second time in as many weeks, I must say that this book isn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it to be.
Now, I know that there is a group of rabid Chaos! Comics fans out there. Apparently there aren’t enough of them to keep the company’s ledgers in the black, but that’s neither here nor there (and a bit of a low blow, I admit). But I must say, I never found Chaos’ books to be to my liking. Call me narrow-minded, but I think a lot of that had to do with my reluctance to be taken for any more of a geek than I already am, and reading a stack of books featuring grotesquely-endowed (and entirely anatomically impossible, I might add) women with names like Bad Kitty just didn’t seem like the most logical way to accomplish that.
But anyway, back to the matter at hand. I’m not going to comment on the rumors of impropriety on behalf of either Pulido or Crossgen in relation to this book. Because, frankly, a) I don’t know the first thing about it and b) it has no impact on whether or not this is a good read (and some would add “c) it has no place in a review, so stop talking about it, Matt”). Nor can I accurately compare this relaunch to any past efforts with the character, due to my aforementioned complete lack of any knowledge of those efforts. It’s a unique position to be in, I think, to have basically no grounds on which to have a preconceived notion about the book, yet still expect to dislike it.
But I didn’t.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m going to shout its glories from the rooftops, but this incarnation of Lady Death is remarkably different from what I expected it to be.
Lady Death is set in the fantasy village of Novgorod, in the early 1200s. Fearing the proliferation of the human race, the Eldritch, a magically-inclined humanoid race many centuries the senior of the humans, engages in what is known as the Wild Hunt, a practice of regularly raiding human villages and slaughtering the inhabitants for sport. However, the Eldritch lord, Tvarus, finds himself falling in love with a human maiden named Marion. During one night of the Hunt, as magically-drawn snow blankets the village, Tvarus and Marion consummate their love. Horrified to learn of the slaughter that had taken place whilst she dallied with the enemy, Marion flees Novgorod, leaving behind a Teutonic Knight named Wolfram Von Bach as the only survivor of the battle.
She returns eighteen years later with her daughter, Hope, a child conceived during her one night with Tvarus, only after the girl’s insistence to see the home of her mother. Immediately, it becomes apparent that Hope has inherited some of more unsettling characteristics of her father’s rather otherworldly ancestry. When facing a villager, the father of a boy killed during the Hunt the resulted in her conception, Hope’s eyes turn completely white. However, when viewed by anyone else, they appear completely normal. Hope and her mother take refuge in a local inn, where a bit of clunky, ham-fisted dialogue reveals Hope’s origin to her. The revelation is cut short, however, by the return of Henry, the villager to whom Hope’s eyes transformed, with a medieval-style angry mob in tow. Meanwhile, Hope’s paternal half continues to seek out the daughter he has never known, all the while oblivious to the fact that tragedy looms over her head.
Now, given that summary, I’m inclined to point out that this doesn’t sound terribly different from a number of other Crossgen books. As far as genres are concerned, fantasy is something that the company is in no way short of, particularly fantasy involving female leads. But as it doesn’t involve the sigil, it’s technically not a Crossgen Universe book, I suppose; hence the Code 6 imprint. All the same, it’s not likely that Lady Death is the book that’s going to give Crossgen its first breakout success, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s terribly similar to a large portion of their company-owned books.
But here’s the funniest part: for all I know, this could be the exact same origin sequence that the Chaos! version of Lady Death had, only with smaller boobs. In which case, Chaos! should have taken that step years ago, because it does wonders for the impression that the book gives off.
In any event, Lady Death isn’t a bad book. The dialogue comes off as a little forced on occasion and the plot isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but it’s a solid effort. More importantly, it’s a visually tame effort, at least in comparison to past versions of the character. The art from Ivan Reis is very reminiscent, at least to me, of Bryan Hitch. It’s not as detailed, nor is it in Hitch’s trademark widescreen style, but something about the way Reis draws faces reminds me a lot of Hitch and that’s no bad thing. So, at the end of the day, you could certainly do a lot worse than to pick up Lady Death. Fans of the character are going to grab this book no matter what I say, but fantasy aficionados that might have been put off by the reputation of the license should give the book a chance. They might be surprised by it.
JSA: The Liberty Files #1 and 2
DC Comics – Dan Jolley, Tony Harris (w); Tony Harris, Ray Snyder (a)
I am such a sucker for this book. 1) I love Batman. 2) I’ve always felt that Nazis make the perfect villain for almost any story, since there’s absolutely nothing redeemable about them, so there’s little to no chance of a face turn down the road for the Nazi bad guy (as opposed to the number of villains gone good during the ’90s, like Venom and Sabretooth). 3) There’s something inherently cool to me about Elseworlds. Probably the fact that they’re alternate reality stories that neither disrupt the narrative flow of the regular DC Universe books (i.e., Batman and JSA’s stories didn’t go on hiatus to tell this story as a crossover) nor carry on for more than a couple of issues.
At the same time, I have some very real issues with most Elseworlds books. Primarily, it seems to me that every time DC produces a title under the banner that involves more than one character, the story will inevitably revolve around Superman and how the DC Universe could never have reached its current incarnation without him landing in Kansas and being raised by the Kent family. The earlier mini-series The Nail dealt with it. Mark Millar’s upcoming Superman: Red Son mini is dealing with it. And JSA: The Liberty File deals with it.
The Liberty File begins as a complete riff on the film Casablanca. However, rather than have Peter Lorre intercept Nazi documents and stash them in Rick’s Café Americain, Jack the Grin (i.e., The Joker), a schizophrenic smuggler, hides out in Hassan’s, a bar in Cairo. As in Casablanca, Nazi agents are in hot pursuit of the stolen papers. However, The Liberty File introduces the superheroic to the mundane via the use of special agents of the United States government known only as The Bat, The Clock and The Owl (Batman, Hourman and Dr. Midnite), dispatched by their commanding officers to ascertain whether or not the documents contain evidence of the existence of the long-suspected Nazi super-man (yup, there it is: Superman).
The problem with the book is two-fold. For one thing, the two-issue prestige mini reads like it was written to be a four issue standard mini-series. Each issue seems to be split in half, with two separate conflicts that resolve themselves independently of each other. Granted, the events string along sequentially towards the end, but when The Bat and company catch up with Jack the Grin halfway through the first issue, it just feel like the issue should close afterwards, rather than make a jarring jump to the next portion of the story.
Secondly, the resolution of the story is entirely too sudden. I’ve come to expect that basically all Elseworlds specials, regardless of what character they deal with, typically end with some sort of twist. That’s part of the fun of it, when you realize, for example, while reading The Nail that the title refers to the absence of Superman. But I found myself stopping right before the conclusion to check and see how many pages were left in the book, because I couldn’t see any way that the writers could logically conclude the story in such a short span of time. Granted, it’s a conclusion that I’d been expecting since I learned the super-man’s name, but it was still unsatisfying.
In the end, JSA: The Liberty File is a fun read because of the homage that it makes to a classic film or two and because Elseworlds specials, if written at least competently, are usually amusing in a fanboy sort of way. However, I have a strange feeling that marketing played a role in the pace of this story (prestige issues can be set for a much higher price point that standard issues) and it’s sad, because the format works to the detriment of the narrative, in my opinion.
My Uncle Jeff
Origin Comics – Damon Hurd (w); Pedro Camello (a)
Reading this book made me feel bad about myself.
Initially, I looked at the solicitation copy for this in Previews and said to myself, “Oh, another autobiographical mini-comic. That’s what the industry’s short on…” So I’m not really sure why I felt the need to go ahead and order it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve got a comics budget that would sicken a normal fan (that’s not hyperbole, I assure you) or maybe it’s because the cover features people who look like they could be my neighbors (I live in an extremely small town in southern Illinois, if that helps you visualize). In the end, I think it’s because book seemed like it was a story about heavily favoring one member of your family over the others and I can sympathize with that feeling, because I don’t like a good portion of my own.
So why do I feel bad about myself? Because this book is stunningly good and I didn’t have faith in it.
Reading My Uncle Jeff is a lot like being introduced to your significant other’s family at some sort of family function or gathering (and I’d know, since I met most of my fiancée’s enormous family at Thanksgiving dinner). You’re hit with a rapid-fire barrage of names, faces and terse summaries of the relevant facts about each member of the family. Things like “That’s Uncle Joe; he swears a lot.” Or “That’s my Aunt Kay, she doesn’t get along with my mother.” Hurd begins introducing his father’s side of the family, then backtracks to introduce the absent maternal side, feeling (and rightfully so, I should add) that his story about his father’s brother is incomplete without something for comparison.
The family tree that Camello illustrates and Hurd narrates is where I first realized how great this book really is. Much like the last issue of True Story, Swear to God where Tom Beland was more honest about himself to an audience of complete strangers than I would ever have to balls to be (and if you know what I’m referring to, that’s an unintentional pun), Hurd displays a remarkable openness about what would be a “dark family secret” for some. That honesty, as well as a willingness to engage in open sentimentality, carries the story along for the course of the book, despite the fact that there is almost no plot or conflict to speak of (the story concerns a family meeting regarding what should be done about the family patriarch, Hurd’s 90-year old grandfather). There is simply Jeff and Damon, Damon’s memories and emotions, his hopes for tomorrow and his long-lost dreams, and a realization about the reality of adulthood.
In the end, My Uncle Jeff is a story with nigh-universal appeal, since it seems to me that even people with Norman Rockwell homes can relate to some portion of the story. I have nothing but respect for the author’s complete willingness to bare his history to his audience and I look forward to further work from him.
I can’t believe I almost didn’t order this book.