Category: library of doom

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

By Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
15th Anniversary Edition published in 2004 by DC Comics

This won’t be a traditional Library of Doom review because I imagine at this point in human history, 20 years after its initial publication, there are probably few people interested in a traditional review of Arkham Asylum. Prior to last night, I was probably one of the few remaining regular comics readers in 2009 who had yet to read this book, in spite of my good intentions. But last night, I had a 30% off coupon to use, so here we go.

Honestly I wasn’t all that excited by the main story. It was interesting to read, worth a little effort to think about, and somewhat pleasing to look at. I seem to have shackled myself quite a bit with this pervasive awareness of my place in the comics review timeline, but I’m just not sure I’m going to have too much to offer in terms of Unique Takes on This Story.

But that’s okay, because I ended up really enjoying the book once I got to the bonus materials. For the Anniversary Edition, DC has included Morrison’s script for the book, including some contemporary notes from the author. Sometimes I skip things like this, but I was underwhelmed enough by the feature presentation that I hoped I’d get a little good out of reading the appendix.

Reviews: XKCD Volume 0

In my secret, not very interesting real life, I’m a web “professional,” which is to say I spend eight hours a day fixing HTML code. My sweet, sweet refuge is XKCD, updated every Monday – Wednesday – Friday.

Time Well-Served With Criminal

Criminal vol. 2, “Lawless”

Criminal vol. 2, “Lawless”

I know other Doomkopfers have already praised Criminal up and down in the 2008 year-in review (2007, too), but I’m new here, and feel like I ought to send another good word to the creative team. It’s the kind of book that was written just for me. My first experience with writer Ed Brubaker was on his continuing run on Captain America, the first post-2000 take on the character that was actually any good. When I found out he was starting some creator-owned series I was interested, and when I found out it was called “Criminal”, I was a guaranteed buyer. I love the cop & criminal genres: detective stories, film noir, heists. They’re 20th century westerns. A battle between the black hats and the white hats, only their roles are so often interchanged.

Anyway, Brubaker is built for stories like these. (more…)

The Book of Lies

By Brad Meltzer (W)
Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2008; 336 pages; $25.99

Comparisons between The Book of Lies and The DaVinci Code are probably unavoidable; they’re mystery / murder / thrillers in which the protagonists seek to solve an ancient mystery. In some ways, this is like The DaVinci Code for comics fans, because the Siegel family and the creation of Superman are at the core of this story.

Without giving away anything more than is what included on the inside flap, Cal Harper is reunited with his estranged father under peculiar circumstances. As they end up in the sights of a murderous religious zealot, they attempt to simultaneously solve the mystery of who killed Mitchell Siegel in 1932, discover the weapon that Cain used to kill Abel, and save their own lives as the mystery deepens and the body count rises.

The Good:
This book has a fun plot that never suffers under the weight of the conspiracy structure. Meltzer paces and places the interwoven storylines to great effect, weaving in and out of them to reveal just enough information to propel the story and keep the drama tense.

He does a great job of rewarding the reader upon revealing a few mysteries — there are some “hidden in plain sight” clues dispersed throughout the book that draw absolutely no attention to themselves at the time. His red herrings range from the subtle to the overt, and it kept me guessing and then sure … then guessing again and then sure … until the point when he decides the reader should know.

The characters are diverse and believable, and it’s easy to find oneself rooting for and against the same character with just a few minor turns. The good guys have their flaws and the villains have their virtues. There is very little ambiguity that’s not easily justified by the story.

The comic book aspect of the book is likely an attraction for comics readers, but it should in no way be a deterrent for non-comics fans. The Siegel / Superman content is less geek-out potential and more like a nod of appreciation for the history; it’s presented in a completely accessible way for those who’ve never read a Superman comic or even cared to.

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer vol. 4: The Francis Blake Affair

By Jean Van Hamme (W)
and Ted Benoit (A)

Published by Cinebook, 2008; 68 pages; $15.95

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer is a reprint series of comics starring characters created by Belgian writer / artist Edgar P. Jacobs in the 1940s. The first three volumes issued by Cinebook were works created by Jacobs. After Jacobs passed away in 1987, the series was revived by other creators. Volume 4, The Francis Blake Affair, is the first post-Jacobs entry among the Cinebook translations.

In this volume, Captain Blake is working with MI5 to uncover a secret spy ring in England. Blake confides an ironic suspicion to his friend, Professor Mortimer, that there are moles within the British military. This theory is quickly proven true, as Blake is caught on camera making a dead drop for another spy. Blake’s treason becomes national news, as he escapes with the captured spy and goes underground. Professor Mortimer, meanwhile, finds himself under suspicion as Blake’s closest friend. He becomes a fugitive himself as he escapes surveillance and attempts to discover what’s really going on.

Throughout the action and various twists, the duo’s paths converge, including a requisite run-in with arch-nemesis Olrik. Although first published in the 1990s, the story is placed firmly in the mid 20th century, in both the story and the delivery. It’s presented in a “retro” style that manages to be charming without being kitschy or campy.

It’s also somewhat deceptively satisfying for only being 68 pages. This thing is dense. I realize I’m risking making myself sound like an idiot, but I have become so conditioned to the relatively light breeze of reading mainstream superhero comics that I seriously had to stop myself and start over several times to adjust to the density of this storytelling. I just counted, and there are more than 330 words on the first page; there are 66 words in the first panel alone. It’s rare to find a page in this book with fewer than 10 panels. There is a lot of story packed into those 68 pages.

Strange and Stranger:
The World of Steve Ditko

By Blake Bell
Published by Fantagraphics Books, 2008; 220 pages; $39.99

“Strange and Stranger” by Blake Bell is an intriguing biography in the life, career and politics of Steve Ditko, best well-known in the pop-culture world as the co-creator of Spider-Man, but also creator of several other characters like Dr. Strange, The Question, Captain Atom and the Ted Kord Blue Beetle.

Bell dives into Ditko’s early years in comics, when he scraped by doing whatever paying work he could get. In those days, before the Silver Age superhero boom, much of that work was in horror comics.

“I have a fondness for his pre-superhero Marvel material,” Bell told me. “Those 5-page, Twilight Zone-ending stories that just drip Ditko atmosphere.”

Around this time in his early career, Ditko was exposed to Ayn Rand and the moral and political philosophy of Objectivism that sprang from her work, and for much of the second half of the book, Bell illustrates how Ditko’s creative output would never be the same. A rigid outlook on right and wrong, producers and consumers and justice and punishment steered Ditko’s career into obscurity, and his comic creations ended up becoming a grotesque autobiographical document of the man’s descent into a harshly judgmental, self-imposed isolation.

A healthy sampling of Ditko’s early work is presented in the book, showing the evolution of his style as he built confidence and started developing some of his storytelling techniques.

“I chose every image because I wanted to comment on those images and have them represent the arc of Ditko’s career,” Bell said.

The visual aides are without a doubt one of the best parts of the book. True to comic form, the art functions as a story of its own as it also illuminates points Bell makes in his text. Given Ditko’s beliefs, it’s no small irony that much of this work is now in the public domain.

Prince of Persia

By A.B. Sina (W)
and LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland (A)
Created by Jordan Mechner
Published by First Second, 2008; 190 pages; $16.95

Prince of Persia is a graphic novel inspired by the era, setting and general mythology of the video game series of the same name, though not directly starring or attempting to personify any characters from said games. It’s just an attempt to tap into that same world and the same sensations that inspired the original characters and adventures.

The story follows two parallel narratives — the triangle of a weak ruler, his bride and her brother; and a girl and exiled orphan who live in the resulting kingdom several hundred years later. One prince attempts to atone for the sins of another as various relationships intertwine, empires rise and fall and a whole lot of heads are lost. With prophecies and settings like palaces, ruins and secret tunnels, it’s fairly effortless to get swept up in a world that is very easy on the imagination.

The art is beautiful — scratchy, bold brush strokes and a palette rooted firmly in oranges and purples create an expressive, fantastic world that is far more violent and adult than the almost Disney-esque characters would suggest. The effect is not unlike Michael Avon Oeming’s work on Powers — the effect is magnified when gruesome things happen to “cute” characters. But at the same time, the art is abstracted enough to allow the reader to fill in plenty of the details, whether it’s the gore or the scenery.

Green Manor vol. I:
Assassins and Gentlemen

By Fabien Vehlmann (W)
and Denis Bodart (A)

Published by Cinebook, 2008; 56 pages; $13.95

I won’t risk losing any readers by saving the verdict for the end — I loved this book and cannot heap enough praise on it.

A puzzling scenario opens the collection, as a psychiatrist arrives at a mental institution to speak with an inmate who believes himself to be the Green Manor Club personified. This introduction really only serves as a frame story to introduce several seeming stand-alone tales of activities within the club. I’d dismiss the frame as an irrelevant distraction if not for the fact that the close to the book suggests it will be advanced in the next volume, but either way, the self-contained short stories here are definitely enough to sustain a book on its own if they had to.

Each story revolves around some Club members planning, investigating or otherwise romanticizing a murder, and each story also includes an ironic twist at the end. In one story, an elderly member presents fellow club patrons with a murderous riddle they have to solve; in another, two club members attempt to plan the perfect murder. It’s like dark comic O. Henry, or the French origins and psychiatric issues involved might even indicate a nod to Guy de Maupassant. Regardless, the cast of characters are easily unlikeable enough for the reader to gleefully follow along as various characters meet their undoing.

The pattern becomes evident early on, but the fun is always not in what will happen but how it will happen. It’s enjoyable as fiction but at the same time very admirable on the craft level, as so few pages are required to tell such memorable stories.

The art is cartoony but perfect for carrying the ironic comedy; the darkness of the stories would probably be a detriment with a more realistic style. It allows for the right level of detachment to watch these despicable people humorously navigate themselves through this world they’ve created through their own arrogance.

The Grade: A+
Green Manor vol. I is fantastic. It’s a quick read but definitely worth revisiting. I can’t recommend it enough. Volume II, The Inconvenience of Being Dead, is due out next month.

IR$: Taxing Trails

By Stephen Desberg (W)
and Bernard Vrancken (A)

Published by Cinebook, 2008; 96 pages; $19.95

When I saw a book called “IR$” about an IRS secret agent, I gave a mental groan. I actually put this book on the top of my review stack — I thought it would be super lame so I wanted to get it over with. The idea of reading some thriller via a tax man was just making me cringe with advance embarrassment.

Agent Larry B. Max gets called in to assist with cases that involve large sums of money. He reads “evasion and money-laundering rings like a pianist reads a Mozart piece,” says the Secretary of the Treasury during an expository golf outing. And he tells an FBI agent “I’ve got nothing against FBI files … but to get a real idea of someone’s life, believe me … there’s nothing better than to read his tax statements!”

This book has all the makings of an unintentional satire. A gunfight with a would-be assassin includes this exchange:

ASSASSIN shooting at Larry Max: “I’ve come to pay my taxes, sucker! With interest!” (BLAM BLAM)
LARRY MAX, IR$: “It’s time to liquidate this case.”
ASSASSIN: “I’ll give you as many bullets as it takes and I’ll put them all down as professional expenses!”
LARRY MAX: “Bloody Hell! That crazy woman’s going to turn this whole traffic line into a profit and loss statement just to take me out!”

So it was with much relief that I discovered IR$ actually has a great mystery driving it. The story is broken into two chapters — “Taxing Trails” and “The Hagen Strategy,” comprising the original two French volumes. Max follows the murder of a Swiss bank employee through several parties, all the way back to some historical drama coming out of Nazi concentration camps.

Ayre Force

By Adam Slutsky and Joseph Phillip Illidge (W)
and Shawn Martinbrough (A)

Published by BDG Entertainment, 2008; 96 pages; $19.95

There’s an issue of the Grant Morrison / J.G. Jones “Marvel Boy” miniseries in which Marvel Boy battles with Hexus, a living corporation. It establishes Brand Hex — a company that dabbles in a little bit of everything, and everyone knows they want something to do with it, but no one knows anything about it. The issue opens with a computer programmer and a musician both waiting in line to interview; each is surprised that the other would be interviewing at the same place, yet neither can really elaborate why, since neither really knows what Brand Hex is.

So when I received an email from Bodog’s marketing people asking if Doomkopf would be willing to review their new graphic novel, “Ayre Force,” I felt a little bit like a cog in the mysterious Brand Hex factory. All I knew about Bodog was that it was an offshore company … that had mixed martial arts fighting … and a record label … and poker. The marketing rep even asked that I include a link to Bodog’s poker site in the review, with any anchor text I’d like (I’m happy to oblige). I felt like I was almost helpless to avoid getting sucked into this huge marketing machine.

The comic book, in addition to being a tangible book that you can purchase and read, is itself an extension of the Bodog marketing effort, as it features real-life personalities in the Bodog empire as its protagonists — Bodog founder Calvin Ayre and his assistant Fawn LaBrie; Bodog recording artists Bif Naked, Jason Darr and Nazanin; Bodog poker players David Williams and Josh Arieh and blackjack dealer Evelyn Ng; and mixed martial artists Jorge Masvidal and Tara Larosa.

The basic idea reminds me of a project one of my friends and I worked on when we were in middle school. During the first Gulf War, we passed the time in study hall writing fictional adventures of middle school students fighting off an Iraq invasion. Iraq Attack 1, Iraq Attack 2 and the epic Iraq Attack 3 put us and our friends in the middle of the struggle of good against evil. It was fun, but it was also a little bit embarrassing.