Friday, September 30, 2011

School: A Ghost Story -- Issues #1-4 (2005-07)

That's right, mine is signed.  Totally worth it being $6 more than what I could get it for now.
     I met Brian Defferding – the man behind School: A Ghost Story – at Flashback Weekend 2009, a local horror convention.  We talked for a good while, bonding over how incompetent SuperValue is when it comes to managing their supermarkets.  That doesn't really have anything to do with his self-published comic; to be fair I was really at that convention so I could talk to Canadian actress Katharine Isabelle.  Still, I like to think that as someone who has largely wasted whatever creative talent I may have had, I owe it to those who have the follow through and gumption to actually put a product together.  So I picked up the collected first four issues of School.
     There is much about School that identifies it as a product of a new writer – and one that is operating without an editor.  The four issues that make up the book span more than 140 pages but do little more than introduce the elements of the story.  Yes, there is clearly an involved logic to the ghost world in which Defferding sets the tale, but the story gets derailed for most of an issue just hinting at the particulars of what it means to be an enduring spirit.  This is mildly frustrating for me, as I think that the central story is the more compelling one.  Defferding knows he has a finite story with School, but seems to want to stretch it out longer than it needs to be.
Lindsay telling the reader of how she came to be a spirit at the school.

     At its heart, School is about a dead little girl – well, 12 year old adolescent girl named Lindsay Buckner – who has some anger issues predating her vicious murder.  She is drawn to a brand new school peopled with her old classmates and feels that the answer to the mystery of her killing must be there.  There are things that eat ghosts that also lurk in the school, and these provide a needed sense of danger.  Lindsay gets sidetracked dealing with her new world and remembering her past, which does give some flavor but also reduces the tension and suspense the story would have otherwise.
     I have noted previously on this blog, I have a severe lack of artistic training/talent/ability.  Nearly everyone who has ever purchased a sketch pad can out art me any day of the week.  I just want to put that qualifier out there before I start criticizing the look of School
There is something inherently creepy about the Have a Nice Day faces this trio of strangers wear.  Couple that with the black robes and a staff – or bedpost – and they have an aura of surreal menace. 
     The one thing I really want from a comic book or graphic novel is some degree of consistency when it comes to how the characters look and act.  Solid, planned writing can handle the latter with little problem.  I honestly don't know what it takes to accomplish the former, but it is not present in great quantities here.  Some of the differences can be explained with the fever dream aspects of the world of the ghosts.  But I think it is much more likely that Defferding did not allow himself the time necessary to complete each illustration at a high level.  His relative inexperience no doubt played a role as well.  This is not to say that there are not some outstanding panels in School, because there are.  They just are too frequently contrasted by entire pages that look rushed.  Defferding's style lies somewhere between mid-range scratchboard art and sharpie art.  When it works, it is good.  When it doesn't, it isn't horrible, but doesn't look professional.
I like the writing.  Defferding has no problem letting his elementary school girls curse at one another, and that feels both realistic and gives some real insight to the story.  On the other hand, there are some weak panels on this page when it comes to the art.
     For the criticism I have written, I still think School is a worthwhile title.  And not just because I believe in supporting indy projects.  There is the beginning of a good story in the first four issues, and if enough people start buying it, Defferding may eventually finish it.  The collected first four issues are available for $12 from Deftoons. The massive 96 page issue #5 is available for $10.  Both of those prices are less than what it cost me to pick up my copy, but then again mine is signed.  And Defferding had to talk to me for an extended period of time, so he earned his money from me.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Nightman and Wrath: A Sample of Malibu Comics' Ultraverse (1993-94)

This is undoubtedly the longest – mostly due to the insane amount of images added – post this blog should ever dare to post.  The smart thing to do would have been to cut it down and treat both titles in the more general sense, but I went whole hog and never intend on touching on either title ever again.

     Real comic book geeks can speak volumes about the various publishers, artists, and writers that have made a true impact in the field.  I am not one of those people.  Sure, I could tell you that Spawn is – or was – an Image Comics title, or that Robocop verses the Terminator came from Darkhorse (and I never read either of these).  I followed some of the X-Men and X-Factor story arcs that Marvel put out there.  But I tended towards less successful publishers.  That could mean following The Justice Machine from Comico to Innovation – I got started too late to be reading it from its days with Texas Comics or Noble Comics – or ElfQuest on WaRP graphics.  And in 1993 it meant I went and found a title from Malibu Comics to follow, and it was The Night Man.
     Now, one does not have to be an avid fan of the graphic arts to be a fan of Batman.  Because Batman is cool, right?  Unless we want to imagine him as Adam West or a member of the superfriends.  Or if we want to ignore that he is little more than an update on Zorro, because Zorro – I do not mean Antonio Banderas Zorro – is cooler than Batman.  Still, Batman is mostly cool, and he is a compelling superhero.  But is is also one with a lot of backstory and an established stable of villains.  What would someone do if they wanted a Batman-like character, starting from scratch, and done right?
     They would have picked up The Night Man.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Study in Scarlet [Graphic Novel] (2010)

     Say what you will, I have some inner need to either work in themes or to work towards completion when it comes to a body of written work.  In both these manners the graphic novel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (2010 for the graphic novel; 1886 for the original) fits as there is decidedly a theme this week of supporting the illustrated story and Conan Doyle's Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes were reviewed on 20 September, 2011.  Granted, reading the graphic novel will allow me to not have to pick up the original tale for some time, but it does give me the illusion of having read it.
     I do want to admit – in an ugly sort of way – that I greatly enjoyed being able to finish this in the span of about an hour, much faster than if I were reading the original.  Likewise, much of the needless description of unimportant details are left out as I.N.J. Culbard illustrates the scenes well and perhaps improves upon some of Conan Doyle's approaches to setting the scene.  Unfortunately, neither illustrator Culbard or "text adapter" Ian Edginton can do little to mask some of Conan Doyle's shortcomings when it comes to imagining characters.
     If you are like me – and not in all the bad ways – then you likely grew up with a level of admiration for Sherlock Holmes.  I mean, come on, he's the world's smartest man.  And he can handle himself in a fight.  And he solves crimes.  And stops international incidents from causing wars.  He is about as English a superhero as one could imagine, and he doesn't need to come from a distant planet or be bitten by a spider to get his powers.  But in reading through the stories, there is so much withheld from the reader that it makes it impossible to appreciate what Holmes is actually doing.  And the rest of the cast is usually so confused as to how to go about detective work that the only role they serve is for Holmes to explain what he has done – things hidden from the reader until the end.
     I kind of hate that kind of storytelling.  I think of it as the Henry Lopez school of building a mystery – never mind that Mr. Lopez is working in a different medium and more than a century after Conan Doyle – where surprises can be sprung simply because no information regarding them was ever offered in the first place.  Modern detective stories usually give more of an insight as to the work.  Even comedic approaches like USA's Psych (2006-whenever USA cancels it) show the actual observations, but retain the Holmesian wrap-up speach as to how the mystery was solved.  Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a modern super-observant detective, pretends to be psychic and hides behind humor rather than endlessly berating the police force for not picking up on every single clue.
Shawn Spencer and Guster Burton, Psych's answer to Holmes and Watson.  Less pretentiousness, more snarkiness.  And occasionally the detectives know more than they do.
     Back to A Study in Scarlet.  Conan Doyle gives a brief account of how Watson came to return to England and meet Holmes.  It feels very unsatisfactory, and it is hard to imagine how these two men could come to develop a strong sense of friendship.  Watson comes across as a dullard who is living off of a government settlement due to his injuries in the Battle of Maiwand (in Afghanistan).  Holmes seems like a self-important twat (in the British sense) who is only interested in someone with whom he can split the rent and bully with his intellect.
     As for the story, it actually is pretty imaginative.  Two men are killed and Scotland Yard does not know how to find the killer – and Conan Doyle actually treats the inspectors with a small amount of respect in regards to their thinking and methods.  Holmes stumbles around, insults people, goes missing for periods of time, and then announces he has determined who the murderer is, but needs to get him as to find out why.  That leads to a rather dull and lengthy tale of the motivation behind the killings.  However, we do learn that Watson can diagnose an aneurism simply by checking someone's pulse, so that is quite impressive.
Page 17, where Watson assesses Holmes
     The drawing style feels modern while still evoking a comfortable image of Victorian England.  I prefer how the cutaway scenes are handled to the main story, but both are well done.  The scenes move at a good clip, and the faces come across as emotive enough to get the job done.  The action – there isn't much – is a little lackluster in appearance, but maybe it is meant to be restrained to begin with.
     I think the asking price of $14.95 is kind of high.  I checked a copy of from the local library – at a cost of $0, which is always pretty solid.  Still, it isn't a price gouge.  And if one were really into all things Sherlock Holmes, this would make a fine addition to the collection.  It is also is probably a better means of introducing the characters to the younger set – especially if they can see this before the Guy Ritchie films –than the alternatives.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes (2003)

     I would imagine that the average reader probably wants something different from an examination into the serial killer known as H.H. Holmes. I want more of an understanding of the motivations of the subject, and I want the details of the killings – because those inform the picture as well as anything else.  Being partially educated, I knew I probably wasn't going to get much in regards to the psychology of Holmes from a graphic novel, but that didn't mean there wouldn't be any appeal for me.
     Rick Geary's The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H.H. Holmes (2003) is noted on as one of the five graphic novels one needs to read (provided one has already read The Walking Dead).  I definitely would not rank it that high, but I have not read any of their suggestions from that list, save the subject of this post.  It has some merit, but almost none of that seems tied to it being a graphic novel.
Geary's take on the second floor of the Castle
     In essence, Geary manages to turn what would be a somewhat dry four page paper on Holmes' travels, schemes, and possible actions – that part needed to be better researched – into a 70+ page collection of illustrated panels which add little to his text.  This is not a knock of Geary's skill; he is quite good.  It is just that there is so little action implied in his drawings that the illustrations do little to pace the narrative.  None of the horror of Holmes' acts carries into the artwork, but Geary does have a flair for conveying a sense of the late 19th Century.  Where the illustrations work best is in showcasing the look and layout of Holmes' Murder Castle, but I cannot say that these are more informative that the existent information already available.
Geary's presentation of the Castle's exterior
     Geary essentially gives a bare bones account of Holmes, noting his rise from being little Herman Webster Mudgett in New Hampshire to traveling across the country – and into Ontario, Canada – in an effort to perpetrate a fraud (and kill some people along the way).  There is no dramatic license in the narrative.  Indeed, Geary seems to go out of his way to make sure that he is well within the established facts – as far as he researched them – of the case.  Unfortunately, this leads to there being scant few panels where Geary can impart more than a stoic face, a street scene, or architecture.
More realistic depiction of the Murder Castle
     As a primer on Holmes, I think this book serves a purpose.  But I don't know if it does a better job than looking him up on Wikipedia (where this very graphic novel serves to inform the entry).  It takes surprisingly little time to read, which makes it a fine selection to check out from the library.  I just can't recommend it as a purchase, nor can I say it serves to better understand psychopathy or serial killing in general.  At the same time, it doesn't celebrate Holmes or killing, so it is better than some of the other titles in the same genre.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kremin (1991-94)

Kremin – Issue #1, Volume #1
     It may seem odd to kick off a week of posts dedicated to comic books and graphic novels with a little known title – Kremin (1991-94) – that had an extremely limited run.  Chances are good that neither you nor your children ever dressed up as Kremin for Halloween.  There has never been a blockbuster movie starring the character.  Indeed, I have a feeling that most the the reading public would have no idea who he is or what he does.  So why start with this title?
     Part of that has to do with my own history in regards to comics, and I will detail part of that in this post.  Another reason – and probably the more compelling one – is that the man behind this indy title is still in the industry, still making a go at releasing titles and stories that aren't in the mold of the major players in the industry.  That man is named Charles D. Moisant, and he was good enough to give me a couple hours of his time to help me better understand from where he – and the character of Kremin – were coming.  I will address some of Mr. Moisant's current projects later in the post, as well as what you – the reader – can do in order to support his efforts and vision if you find his work to your liking.  I would very much like to encourage you to visit his sites and give his work a chance.
     But back to me for a brief while.  
Kremin – Issue #2, Volume #1
     I never really considered myself a Jeff Albertson, especially when I was young, fit, and had a head full of hair.  I just wasn't that into comic books.  I do remember the first comic book that was given to me as a gift was a Batman title in which Batman died.  Batman died!  Well, Batman of Third Earth, but still not a great start for getting a child interested in the format.  My best friend got me into ElfQuest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in graphic novel format (when that term wasn't just applied to a comic book printed on higher quality paper with a more robust cover), but I didn't follow his interest in picking up the Conan comics he voraciously read.  
     I had a pretty limited interest when it came to titles.  I did follow ElfQuest for a while, but it eventually stopped being interesting to me; nothing could beat the original quest in terms of story.  I was a huge fan of Robotech (1985) and tried to get every issue of Robotech Invid War that Comico put out.  I picked up a few issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but found the stand-alones to be less fulfilling than the graphic novels (especially #1 & #4).  But I was more likely to buy a Marvel title at a 7-11 to have something disposable to read than I was to start following a new title.
Kremin – Issue #3, Volume #1
     I had a few places to go to buy comics when I found a title I wanted to follow.  There was a comic book shop in Worth, IL that was across the street from my eye doctor (Dr. Richard Dykstra) – I want to say that it was All-American Comics, but I could be wholly mistaken in regards to the name.  There was a store just down the second story walkway from Orland Hobbies – when it was off of La Grange Road in Orland – that was relatively accessible.  But the only comic book store I felt a kinship with was Taurus Comics in Cheboygan, MI.  I would wager that had more to do with the fact that my time in the upper Lower Peninsula meant limited contact with people my age and comics were an easy refuge.
     The other place I could go for comics was One Stop Comics in Oak Park, IL.  Where most of my friends – actually, all of my friends – came from stable, two parent homes, I was a child of divorce.  Even though I lived in Orland Park with my father from 1989 to early 1993, I also spent time with my mother in the other OP.  One Stop was kind of an all-purpose comic book store (it still exists, but I have not been in it in years).  It is where I picked up my AD&D 2nd Ed. PHB and the Dark Sun box set.  I think I even bought a novel there.  But what I will remember most about One Stop, other than it was an easy walk from my mother's apartment (and less depressing than it, too), is that it was where I could find Kremin.  
Kremin – Issue #4, Volume #1
     I guess it would be more appropriate to say that Kremin found me.  Writer/Publisher Charles D. Moisant was in one day signing copies of his new title.  And it was decidedly local.  Not that I considered myself part of Oak Park, but I still saw the appeal.  You may have noted that I popped for a signed copy of issue #1, complete with a mistake on which number out of the 1,000 it was.  
     But what kind of title was Kremin?
Kremin opens with this page.  I ask you to direct your attention to the car below.  Or the narrowness of the building – with no support on either side.  This is what I think of when I write that Kremin looked unprofessional in its debut issue.
Weird body language and proportions, but what got to me was that it took an extra two panels to get back to Bryon Morrison and Hacer Ciencia to get on their way to the laboratory.
Byron Morrison waking up with souped-up powers.  But the quality of the artwork leaves something to be desired.

This is an entire page dedicated to announcing the characters are going to eat at Starship Subs.  And the dialogue is a little clunky.  But it isn't the worst looking page in the debut issue.
This weird picture of Hacer reaching out of the page?  Yeah, that may be my least favorite part of the first issue.
Byron Morrison as the Wave, in a page that looks like it belongs in a completely different book.
The closing page from Kremin #1.  I like it, except...look at the legs.  Still, a sign of better things to come.  Oh, by the way, Kremin doesn't go splat in the first issue.
      That really needs to be addressed in stages.  It is hinted at in the actual issues –and was confirmed by Moisant – that Kremin was a kind of early foray into the format.  It also did not have a bankroll behind it.  What may have been intended as a monthly, bi-monthly, or even quarterly title ended up being released as the money to make it happen became available.  It was a kind of super-independent independent title being published by its creator.  
     Kremin was an ultra-local title.  Never mind that the it was published locally, it was set in the neighborhood.  The restaurant of choice for the souped-up heroes is Starship.  The people buy their comics at One Stop.  The local mall is a stand in for the North Riverside Mall (becoming the North of Riverfield Mall, I assume to avoid any legal issues).  The local bank may seem to be set a ways south – it is the Park Forest Bank – but is merely Forest Park flipped around for the comic.  It is pretty clear that the dangerous neighborhood one of the characters ventures into is Austin.  

From Issue #2.  The Wave will stop you from stealing a purse and make you speak English.  All while a Hitler-esque baddie is gunning for him.  That is what it means to be a souped-up hero.  But the artwork does look  better.
The Wave and Kremin don't exactly hit it off when they first meet.  Oh, by the way, it's issue #2 and Kremin is finally meeting the guy from issue #1.  Actually, it works in a comic book sort of way.
     The look?  Well, that definitely evolved.  Issue #1 simply didn't look good (see the selected images above).  It didn't look like the major labels.  It didn't look like the art school independents.  Quite frankly, it didn't look professional.  It got the point across, but it didn't convey much in the way of energy or movement.  It wasn't a self-contained issue, either, so the promise of more wasn't necessarily one that ensured a better project.  Then we get issue #2 in 1992 (with perhaps the ugliest cover ever).  But it looks better.  The lettering doesn't look like it was typed in and the scenes look much more dynamic.  Then something awesome happened.  Nivard Tuazone started doing the artwork for Kremin in issue #3, and it looked professional.  Better than anything the second tier artists at DC or Marvel were putting out.  Characters could look menacing one moment and comical the next, yet it still seemed consistent.  The quality of the artwork allowed for a smoother pace for the stories.  
     The theme?  Well, I guess I didn't think there was much of one when I first read Kremin.  I would ask for some consideration in regards to this; I was sixteen when issue #1 came out and nineteen when the run ended at issue #4.  I was young and there was quite a bit of time between each issue.  Re-reading it in preparation for this review, I came up with a different interpretation than the one put forth by Moisant.  My take – which is not the official one – is that Kremin is an anti-hero, a type of restrained anarchist who works not for ultimate freedom but to ensure small scale liberty from those who have no consideration for the rights of others.  He is in opposition to The Entity, an angelic figure who, in my take on the story is so concerned with huge picture Good that the destruction of entire worlds as perfectly acceptable when combating the threat of evil.
Page 3 from issue #3.  All of the sudden, Kremin looks like a professional, bad-ass comic book.  Big guns, super powers, baddies who want to be the Terminator.  Yeah, all of that can work.
Souped-up heroes sitting around, reading comic books.  This is cool in a meta sort of way, but it is immediately followed by a few pages of the comic they are reading.  With such a limited run, I would have preferred for more space been dedicated to the main story.  Again, the art work is miles beyond (maybe Streets Ahead) of where it was in issue #1.
That's right.  Even amongst friends, the Wave demands that you "Speak English!".  Well, I guess you don't want the guy with sonic powers – which can let him fly or blow a hole through a wall – becoming so frustrated that he just lashes out.
     Having written that, Kremin is part superheroes, part supernatural, and all aimed at the mindset of the adolescent male.  It takes full advantage of comic book logic, where tensions can be eased or erased in the space of a panel and tenuous connections are good enough to move the plot along.  In terms of roleplaying games, it is part Heroes Unlimited (from the Wave – an experiment – to Hacer Ciencia – a scientist piloting a robot), part Rifts (the inter-dimensional travel, the giant guns, magic, undead, and even part of Kremin's look), and all 1980s style where "cool story" trumps whatever the rules have to say.
     There are some problems with Kremin.  First of all, there is a lot of the story that simply doesn't make it to the page.  Moisant told me that when he started, he didn't really know how to pace a story for a comic book and even approached the first issue with kind of a stream of consciousness manner of writing.  Kremin doesn't play much of a role in the first issue of his book.  The other major player, the Wave, comes across as a bit of a bigot when he shouts at characters speaking Spanish to "Speak English!", though Moisant maintains that he is reacting more to a feeling of being left out when others speak in a language he doesn't understand.  Kremin himself is a bit of a misogynist who the ladies can't resist.  From what I learned from Moisant, there is more than enough information about each of the important characters to sustain them for a lengthy run, but so much is kept from the reader that these same characters are in part (except for the Wave) unfortunate enigmas.  Oddest of all, none of the issues were the same size in terms of dimensions.
Kremin adopts a disguise by changing the color of his skin – to pitch black.  No matter how bad I feel about typing this...he must not be from around here.
Kremin, shouting at The Entity.  Not only is this a great example of traditional comic book art – albeit with an indy touch – but it encapsulates the relationship between the two characters in a single panel.
     Still, Kremin does a pretty good job of telling a complex, mutli-dimensional story in the space of four issues.  It was relatively cheap for a real independent title – $2.50 for the first three issues, $2.95 for issue #4.  It found interesting ways to interject humor, some of which really worked (like where a comic book geek turns all Sam Spade when he learns the girl he was romancing is really a powerful necromancer) and some that didn't (the comic-book-within-a-comic-book may be funny, but it was maddening at the same time because it took space away from the main story, which already felt constrained by page count).
     So...what has Moisant been up to since?
Myth-Told Tales, based on the book from Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye, published by Silver Phoenix Entertainment. 
Mystery Manor: Haunted Theory, another Silver Phoenix title.
     Well, there is a different publishing company.  Kremin came from Grey Productions, Inc.  Quite fittingly, the current one is Silver Phoenix Entertainment.  He has done some well regarded titles since the days of souped-up heroes, and has even more in the works.  Heck, you can even pick up all four issues of Kremin for $20 from the Silver Phoenix store (which would probably help any efforts to relaunch the title, and considering what some labels charge for back issues, it isn't a horrible price).
Roller Derby Drama
     The projects that deserve the most ink at present are the Roller Derby Drama Calendar and Blood Feast.  The former is both a tie-in to a title that would combine superheroines and roller derby (in a world where roller derby is the top sport) and Moisant's own sponsorship of a real-world roller derby team.  The latter, which is slated to feature an alternate cover by Joe Abboreno (who I consider a friend), is a more traditional horror type comic.  I like to think Blood Feast sounds like the spoof Mad Magazine did for Motel Hell (1980), with all of the humor and more gristly gore.  And looking really good.  
     Now, I know that not everybody has an affinity for horror as a genre, and horror-comedy is a hard mix to get right.  However, Moisant isn't new to the concept.  He has been doing the haunted house bits – in Nebraska and now in Illinois – for quite some time, so the fundamental understanding of how to incorporate the backstory (so often overlooked or underserved) in order to make the experience and tales pop.  Likewise, I get that not everybody gets excited about roller derby.  I know that I am not clearing my schedule to go out and watch matches, but at the same time I see the appeal and possibilities that the Roller Derby Drama concept can yield.  I'd like to see where Moisant could take it (even if it is in a brief run, like Kremin).
Joe Abboreno's work in progress artwork for Blood Feast.
     Moisant is actively seeking some funds to get both of these projects rolling, and I think that both are worth some investigation to see if they are your kind of thing.  But it is exceedingly difficult to find quality products that aren't part of the corporate propagation of their own brands.  It would be nice if those who have a taste for these products would be willing to pledge some support to them.
     Also slated to come from Silver Phoenix is Whispers from the Void.  From what Moisant told me, it is a horror comic title that is both well versed in the rich mythology of horror monsters, but also puts a unique psychological twist on them.  These beasties are all, at their core, motivated by one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Oh, and the protagonists have to find a way to use these vices to achieve some sort of virtuous end (which doesn't mean that it has to be pleasant). 
     When Kremin came out, my life was starting to get a little better than it had been the two years prior.  When it ended its run, I was about as low as I ever could be.  Yet, perhaps because it is a comic book, it doesn't feel grounded to those times.  It harkens a bit of the adolescent hopefulness and rebellion that most of us keep buried inside, but has enough of a deeper element to maintain the interest of an adult.  If that was the level of quality a man just getting started in the industry stumbled upon, you have to know that it is guaranteed now.