Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Writers: William M. Gaines, Al Feldstein, Wallace Wood, Harry Harrison (with scholarly material by Bill Mason, Ted White, and S.C. Ringgenberg)
Artists: Wallace Wood (with Harry Harrison)
$29.99, Fantagraphics Books, 240 pgs.
ISBN  978-1606998052

Settle in, gang. This review starts with a bit of a history lesson.

In the early 1950s, American newsstands sold all kinds of comics: Westerns, superheroes, romance, teen humor, funny cartoon animals, war stories…you name it. But the top-selling comics of the day were the horror, science fiction, and crime comics perfected by EC Comics and imitated by a slew of other publishers.

The EC imitators, however, were just that: Johnny Come-Latelys in a field defined by the EC style. EC boasted a stable of cartoonists whose work was, simply put, the best the medium had to offer at the time. Now-legendary names such as Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, and Johnny Craig all worked under the EC imprint, as did the artist whose work is collected in the volume up for review this week: Wallace “Wally” Wood.

Eventually a wave of anti-comics hysteria all but killed the EC line and restricted American comics to safe, easily-palatable children’s fare,* a stunted quasi-life from which US comics didn’t begin to emerge until the 1980s.** But comics fans remembered the glory days of the EC line; they kept the legend alive and paved the way for subsequent generations of readers to discover the magic of these wild and inventive comics. Previously available only as expensive collectibles and tattered flea market finds, low-quality reprints and expensive small-press collected editions, the EC line has at last returned in high-grade formats worthy of the material. It’s long overdue, but EC’s best output is now accessible by a wide audience, finally giving this valuable part of our cultural and artistic heritage artistic the recognition it deserves.

(The author steps away from the lectern and apologizes to his audience, who might not have gone into this knowing that he has taught college classes on the evolution and creation of comics.)

Modern readers can engage with this material in two different ways. Dark Horse Comics reprints the individual EC titles (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and others) in lavish color editions, presenting the stories in the order they were published in the 1950s. They’re wonderful books, and if you can afford them, they’re worth their hefty cover price of $49.99 per volume. The subject of this review is from a different series: the Fantagraphics EC Artists Library, which collects the material by artist and subject matter, making for a very different reading experience and—because the art is presented in black-and-white—a much cheaper one, too.*** This twelfth volume in the series, SPAWN OF MARS AND OTHER STORIES, collects the science fiction stories drawn for EC by one of its most talented creators, the aforementioned Wallace Wood.

Wally Wood’s name is, among comics scholars, virtually synonymous with the phrase “EC science fiction.” In these stories drawn for EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, Wood crafts a science fiction universe that is at once terrifying and alluring, filled with fascinatingly complex technology, rugged heroes and gorgeous heroines, and weird, menacing aliens. Wood’s artwork, seen here at varying stages of its development, eventually matures into a lavish style that even the most jaded modern reader cannot help but appreciate. The art is the star of the show here.

The writing, in contrast, is almost simple. For example, the stories “Rescued!” and “The Gray Cloud of Death!” are essentially two approaches to the same basic tale! These stories are heavy on pulpy narrative exposition, and most culminate in a trademark EC twist, but that’s not a criticism. Rather, the overwrought heavy-handedness is part of the fun. It pairs quite nicely with Wood’s moody lighting, realistic textures, and penchant for detail upon detail. In total, this is a genuinely special reading experience.

I’ve already written far more than you probably cared to read, so I’ll conclude simply by saying this: if you’ve got serious art-hounds in your patron population, this book will be a hit.

I suppose I could’ve saved us both a lot of time by leading with that…

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: This is a thick, well-made hardcover at a reasonable price, and since the individual volumes in the EC Artists Library have no narrative relationship with one another, you’re free to purchase them one at a time as needed or requested.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: Fans of science fiction and horror should respond well to this material, even if they favor one genre and don’t think of themselves as fans of the other. Some readers may be familiar with the TALES FROM THE CRYPT title, but unaware of the other comics EC published; if your patrons like TFTC, suggest they range a bit further afield and try this volume, too. And finally, art buffs will, of course, go nuts over the stunning black-and-white reproduction of Wood’s art.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some science fiction and horror violence

*Yes, that happened…the United States Senate even got involved! SPAWN OF MARS contains an essay touching (briefly) on this topic, but for more on this strange and fascinating sequence of events, see David Hajdu’s terrific book THE 10-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA (ISBN 978-0312428235).

**Technically, the underground “comix” of the 1960s and ‘70s were the first American comics to challenge the idea that comics were exclusively for children. It wasn’t until the 1980s that mainstream publishers began to push the envelope, though, and really, that’s the watershed moment: the undergrounds may have paved the way creatively and even ideologically, but it was this mainstream paradigm shift that eventually led to the broad, diverse comics marketplace we enjoy now. We’re still decades behind the French, but that’s another article entirely.

***It’s also a lot easier to appreciate the astonishing level of detail ECs artists employed when you see the art in B&W, which is why publisher Russ Cochran’s fabled Complete EC Library reprints were so sought-after by collectors for so long…but again, that’s another article.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


By Mike Mignola and a variety of writers and artists
$24.99, Dark Horse Comics, 261 pgs.
ISBN 978-1616555108

Writer/artist Mike Mignola’s genre-bending Hellboy series—equal parts two-fisted pulp heroics and supernatural horror—is one of the independent comics scene’s most enduring titles. This collection is a bit of an oddity in the Hellboy library in that (with the exception of the first couple stories in the book) it isn’t Mignola’s work. Rather, this is a collection of short stories by an all-star lineup of creators, originally produced to coincide with the release of the first Hellboy film in 2004, but released only recently in hardcover form.

The stylistic approaches to these stories are all over the map, as one would expect from a collection of this nature. The stories take place in different times and places, highlighting the range of tales one can tell in the wide-open playground that is the Hellboy universe. Some are funny, most are action-packed, and a couple are genuinely eerie. It’s a lot of fun seeing Hellboy in the hands of creators other than Mignola and his usual collaborators, and fans of the series will find much to appreciate here.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: From a librarian’s perspective, the book’s only real shortcoming is that it isn’t a very good introduction to Hellboy or the world he inhabits. If you’ve got room in your collection development budget for only one Hellboy book, this isn’t the best option. Instead, go with either HELLBOY Vol. 1: SEED OF DESTRUCTION (ISBN 978-1593070946) or, if you can afford it, HELLBOY LIBRARY EDITION Vol. 1: SEED OF DESTRUCTION AND WAKE THE DEVIL (ISBN 978-1593079109), which collects the first two Hellboy story arcs in one hardcover edition.

READERS’ ADVISORY TIPS: Readers who enjoy genre mash-ups, rejoice…this book has them all! The stories herein should also resonate with fans of pulp action-adventure, horror, and mythology.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Horror violence; some nudity; some adult language; material some readers may find ideologically offensive

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Been a while, hasn't it?

Much has transpired since my last post here. I wrote and drew another in my line of instructional comic books for libraries, this time for Independence Community College in Independence, KS (You can read the book HERE; give it time to load, because the file is huge!). Then, as soon as the book was completed, I moved across the country...1800 and some odd miles, to be exact, all the way from Southeast Kansas to the Portland, Oregon region, where I look forward to carving out an all-new niche for myself in the library world.

The Kansas library community was very good to me, and while I'm loving Oregon, there are many people in Kansas I will miss terribly...people who truly embraced my work and who at every turn encouraged to do more, be more. You know who you are. It's because of you that a part of me will always miss being a Kansas librarian.

I'm currently concentrating on completing the final book in my series of library instructional comics. It's shaping up to be my favorite of the bunch, and I can't wait to show it to you! In the meantime, you'll have to make do with fresh new reviews, the first of which can be read in the very next entry...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

BATMAN AND SON plus BONUS CONTENT: How to read Grant Morrison's entire Batman run!

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Andy Kubert, JH Williams III, Tony S. Daniel
$19.99, DC Comics, 384 pgs.
ISBN 978-1401244026

In 2006, Scottish comics scribe Grant Morrison launched the most ambitious run in Batman's 75-year history, one ultimately hailed as among the best Batman tales ever told. That storied run begins here, as Gotham's Dark Knight discovers he has fathered a son with Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra's al Ghul, master of assassins. Will young Damian Wayne take up the mantle of the bat, fighting crime by his father's side? Or will his upbringing by the League of Assassins turn him into Batman's deadliest foe? And who are the three Batman impersonators leaving a trail of bodies across Gotham?

From the very beginning, Morrison's run on Batman is stuffed to bursting with outlandish ideas and strange, magnificent plot twists. The Damian storyline—vital to later Batman continuity—accounts for only the first few chapters of this book. The better part of this volume is devoted to the emergence of the Black Glove, a world-spanning criminal enterprise which factors heavily into the next phase of Morrison's run, Batman R.I.P. However, while this book was clearly written to lay the groundwork for the epic storyline Morrison would tell over the next 7 years (!), BATMAN AND SON is perfectly enjoyable in its own right. Effortlessly blending the action and mystery elements of Batman's world with the absurd convolutions that world acquired in decades past, BATMAN AND SON is a wild ride.

For crying out loud, it has Batman fighting giant, mutated bat-ninjas. Don't even try to tell me that doesn't sound awesome.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: You might be wondering why I'm reviewing this book. This is a new printing, sure, but the book isn't really "new." Well, three reasons. One, Batman: People will be discovering this run for years to come. Two, Morrison: He is writing DC's Multiversity event right now, and has a great deal of buzz built up around him. And three, there's a new Batman-related TV series called Gotham airing on Fox, and if the trailer for the first season is any indication, the series will draw on Morrison's abundance of ideas, thus driving readers to the source comics. In addition, this book is a bargain, as graphic novels go; it costs twenty bucks, yet contains literally twice the quantity of comics that price normally gets you. Between the interest level and the price point, you can be certain BATMAN AND SON is worth your collection development dollar.

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: Bat-fans will definitely appreciate this title, as will fans of Morrison's other comics work. Though Morrison draws heavily on obscure Batman continuity for inspiration, knowledge of that continuity isn't required to enjoy this book; it serves as a satisfying beginning point. Morrison's Bat-run had a few horror elements in it, too (which makes sense, given that Batman's rogues gallery includes a nigh-endless parade of theme-obsessed psychotic killers), so horror buffs are likely to find something to enjoy here as well.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Superhero action/violence, some horror violence, suggestive content. If BATMAN AND SON were a film, it would carry a PG-13 rating.

BONUS: The rest of the story...

Reading Morrison's entire Batman run is a little tricky, since there's no over-arching numbering to walk you through the whole thing. If you want to read and/or purchase the whole globe-spanning epic (and why wouldn't you?), here's the reading order from beginning to end. (Note: Morrison wrote some Batman appearances in other titles, including the crossover event Final Crisis, but those appearances aren't required reading. The run itself is contained in these volumes, and events that take place outside the run are summarized in these pages.)

BATMAN AND SON (ISBN 978-1401244026)

BATMAN R.I.P. (ISBN 978-1401225766)

Strictly speaking, Time and the Batman isn't mandatory for understanding Morrison's run, as it's possible to go from the ending of Batman R.I.P. directly into Batman & Robin Vol. 1. That said, it greatly enhances the reading experience and makes the transition much more satisfying on a narrative level.

BATMAN & ROBIN Vol. 1: BATMAN REBORN (ISBN 978-1401229870)
Be careful not to confuse this series with the New 52 series Batman and Robin. Note that one uses the word "and" in the title, the other, the "&" sign; note also that the individual volumes have different titles and that Morrison is credited on one series and not the other.

BATMAN & ROBIN Vol. 2: BATMAN VS. ROBIN (ISBN 978-1401232719)

The events of this book actually take place parallel to the first three or four chapters of Batman & Robin Vol. 3. It's a time travel story, though, so make of that what you will. A word of warning: this volume is tied into DC's pre-New 52 continuity in a myriad of ways, which might make it tough to follow if you're not a longtime DC reader. That said, this story explains a number of plot points key to the second phase of Morrison's run, so it's worth the confusion.

BATMAN & ROBIN Vol. 3: BATMAN & ROBIN MUST DIE (ISBN 978-1401235086)

This volume collects the first comics released under the Batman, Incorporated title; the next two on the list collect the second series to bear that title. Both series are vital to understanding the run, as this is where the whole thing builds to its conclusion.



Review copyright©C. Michael Hall, 2014.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Writer: Kurtis J. Wiebe
Artist: Roc Upchurch
$9.99, Image Comics, 128 pgs.
ISBN 978-1607069454

Imagine the stalwart band of heroic adventurers headlining your traditional sword and sorcery tale: the kind of troupe you'd encounter in, say, The Lord of the Rings, or your average game of Dungeons & Dragons. Now, re-imagine that group as a team of wise-cracking, booze-swilling women equipped with weapons, magic, and attitude to spare, and you've got RAT QUEENS. Series creators Wiebe and Upchurch have taken a collection of classic fantasy tropes and stood them on their ear, simply by viewing the material from a female perspective as opposed to the male paradigm that typically dominates heroic fantasy. And the result is an absolute blast.

Our heroines are but one band of mercenaries inhabiting their world, a place where parties of adventurers compete to score choice adventure opportunities (modern freelancers, regardless of the field, will almost certainly empathize). Of course, in the Rat Queens' line of work, disgruntled associates don't just sabotage your career...they cast dark magic in your direction and dispatch monsters to devour you whole. Unfortunately for the Rat Queens—but great for the reader!—our heroines have no shortage of enemies and rivals.

A fresh take on a genre that relies too often on business as usual, RAT QUEENS is snarky, funny, exciting, and violently over-the-top, yet strangely poignant: the book never forgets its characters are people. Frankly, if more role-playing games and fantasy books were executed like this comic, I'd be a much bigger fan of the genre.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: It's yet another $9.99 volume one from Image Comics! This pricing strategy is perfect for libraries and for the publisher: you get a cheap graphic novel for your shelves, they create a bunch of new readers. Everyone wins!There's a RAT QUEENS TV series in the making, so get this book on your shelves before the media hype machine kicks into gear.

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: Suggest this one to fantasy readers, fans of role-playing games (odds are, you've got a group playing in your library!), and those who prefer their comics female-driven. The series' humor and violence will appeal to those who like their comics a little bit on the subversive side, too.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Adult language/themes, fantasy violence and blood

Review©2014, C. Michael Hall.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Writer: Alan Moore (credited as "The Original Writer")
Artists: Gary Leach, Alan Davis
$29.99, Marvel Comics, 176 pgs.
ISBN 978-0785154624

One of the most legendary runs in comic book history is back in print at long last!

Freelance reporter Michael Moran dreams of wondrous and terrible things: of soaring through the clouds, of doing battle, of seeing dear friends die in flames. Mike's dreams turn out to be more than mere fantasy, however, when he rediscovers the long-forgotten magic word that transforms him into Miracleman, a being of mythic stature and godlike power who vanished from human consciousness decades ago. Mike and his wife Liz see their life wholly transformed as Miracleman's reappearance propels them toward a strange new future...provided, of course, the remnants of his past don't destroy them first.

It doesn't sound like anything especially remarkable when described so simply, but that's because the real magic to MIRACLEMAN is not in the concepta classic "hero rediscovered" myth narrativebut in the execution. This series proved so influential in the 1980s that it virtually redefined superhero comic books and established its writer, Alan Moore, as one of the most important comic book writers of his generation. Moore's deconstructionist approach to the archetypal superhero changed the way pop culture thinks about this kind of character. Not bad for a series that was essentially an attempt to restore to commercial viability a decades-old knock-off of Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel...but that's another story, one big enough to warrant its own book...specifically, my pal George Khoury's Kimota! The Miracelman Companion (ISBN 978-1893905115).

Now that Marvel Comics has spent a fortune untangling the complex legal issues surrounding ownership of the character, readers can at last enjoy this famous story in a high-quality (i.e. "not bootlegged") format, with all-new digital coloring and digital lettering. The end product's not without flaw; Moore was still developing his authorial voice when he wrote this first volume, much of which is over-written and mired in comic book tradition (right down to the thought balloons). But, by the time it was over, Moore's run on MIRACLEMAN was a watershed, a quantum leap forward in comics craftsmanship, and the brilliance begins here.

Top marks, warts and all.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: For its length, this book is pricey. Of course, it took about a bajillion lawsuits and handshake deals with various creators to get this series back into print. Those costs have been passed on to the consumer, I suppose. Still, it's a series you will circulate, both to fans of comics history and just plain good comics, so it's worth your collection development dollar. Oh, and the second volume hits shelves in October!

READER'S ADVISORY NOTES: Fans of "mature" comics will gravitate to this one, as will both fans and detractors of writer Alan Moore. If you've got patrons who've enjoyed deconstructionist/revisionist works such as Marvel's The Ultimates, DC/Wildstorm's The Authority, DC's Watchmen, and even Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, steer them toward this one. This is where the deconstructionist movement started, after all.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Graphic superhero violence, adult language, nudity

Review©2014. C. Michael Hall

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A new tool for my fellow librarians!

Yes, it’s been quiet around here lately…too quiet. Your humble reviewer has been a bit overwhelmed with work—both in the library and beyond—and reviewing time has been hard to come by. But just so you don’t go thinking I’ve abandoned you (perish the thought!), I’ve created a little something special for my library peeps. Yes, available for the low, low price of absolutely nothing, it’s…a downloadable mini-poster advertising your library’s graphic novel collection, plus shelf-talkers!

I’ve been meaning to create some special shelf-talkers for you folks for some time, but…well, insert something about roads, infernal nether-realms, and good intentions here. But the right moment has finally presented itself! I just created these characters (I call them the Library Legion!) for an unrelated library project, and it occurred to me I could repurpose them for this one! The mini-poster and shelf-talkers are all contained in one handy PDF. Just right click THIS LINK and hit “Save As…”, then print them on 8.5x11” paper or cardstock and enjoy.

Look for my return to reviewing next week. I’ve been backlogging some good ones!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Ed McGuinness
$17.99, Marvel Comics, 136 pgs.
ISBN 978-0785188216

In this throwback to the fun and exuberant X-Men tales of the late 1970s/early 1980s—arguably the X-Men's peak period, and one Marvel would do well to revisit more often—our mutant heroes embark on a cross-dimensional adventure in the afterlife. There they reunite with fan-favorite Nightcrawler (dead since 2010) to cross swords with Nightcrawler's demonic father Azazel. It's a swashbuckling, pirate-flavored adventure with the very fate of the afterlife hanging in the balance. It's every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it's absolutely wonderful.

This is also a very well-crafted comic. Jason Aaron's script hits all the right emotional beats, balancing humor and that special brand of soap opera melodrama that makes the X-books unique among superhero comics. Ed McGuinness' artwork has taken an evolutionary leap forward with his work on this title, boasting a clean, expressive line that perfectly matches the bombastic energy of this story. This is a comic simultaneously "retro" in its sensibilities and modern in execution, the work of a creative team clearly having a great time with the material.

If you don't try to take it too seriously, you'll have a great time, too.  

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: If you're trying to keep up with all the X-books, don't panic! This title actually picks up where Astonishing X-Men ended, so there'll be no more volumes of that series. Marvel isn't sticking you with yet another X-title on which to spend collection development funds. Well, not yet. Give 'em time.

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: Fans of Marvel's mutants will enjoy this one, particularly those readers who prefer the more lighthearted vibe demonstrated by titles such as All-New X-Men. This is also a good return point for lapsed readers who were alienated by Marvel's "darkening" of the X-books back in the '90s, a trend that is only now starting to abate. Finally, let's not overlook the fact that this is, despite its supernatural and superheroic elements, a pirate story...and who doesn't love a pirate story?

CONTENT ADVISORY: Superhero action/violence; story elements some readers might find ideologically uncomfortable

Review©2014. C. Michael Hall