Monday, June 23, 2014


Writer/Artist: Reinhard Kleist
$22.95, SelfMadeHero, 200 pgs.
ISBN 978-1906838775

Among fans of world comics, Germany is kind of a non-entity. Apart from the inoffensive, kid-friendly Fix und Foxi, comics have just never been as popular in Germany as they are in places like France, Belgium, and Japan, where they're positively revered, or even the U.S., where comics drive massive merchandising and media empires. In recent years, though, a few German graphic novelists have started to put Germany on the comics map, producing work that is both technically impressive and less reliant on genre tropes than much of the work produced in countries with rich comics traditions. Reinhard Kleist is one of Germany's brightest comics talents, and his latest book, THE BOXER, is absolutely riveting.

THE BOXER is the true story of Hertzko (later "Harry") Haft, a Polish Jew who runs a smuggling ring in Nazi-occupied Bełchatów, Poland, only to end up in Auschwitz. He's not in Auschwitz for long, though: his physicality and viciousness get him sent to the labor camp near Jaworzno, where he is forced to compete in bare-knuckle boxing matches—to the death—for the amusement of his Nazi keepers. Hertzko makes his way to the United States after the war's end, where he pursues a career doing the only thing he knows: fighting.

Drawn in stark black and white, THE BOXER is a very different kind of Holocaust narrative. Haft is not a sympathetic character; he's a born survivor with a remarkable capacity for violence and self-interest. This what makes his story interesting, though: burdened by horrific memories and the dream of a woman left behind long, long ago, even the brutish Hertzko is revealed to be painfully human. Kleist shows us Haft's sense of loss, his rage, unfiltered and without commentary. The reading experience is revelatory. THE BOXER will break your heart, but you won't be able to put it down.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: A substantial read that will appeal to your regular graphic novel readers and to those who'd normally never read a graphic novel. This book is a bargain.

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: Hertzo "Harry" Haft's pro boxing career was brief (1948-49), but this book may have some appeal for fight fans, especially in light of Haft's claims regarding his 1949 bout with Rocky Marciano. This book is also one of those great "introductions to the medium of comics" I'm always going on about: just about any history buff will appreciate its unflinching portrayal of a complex man making his way through turbulent times. Don't worry that the book was originally published in German; the translation is excellent.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some nudity/sexual content, graphic violence/brutality

Review © 2014, C. Michael Hall.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Writers: Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn
Artist: Dave Gibbons
$12.99, Icon/Marvel Comics, 160 pgs.
ISBN 978-0785165460

Writer Mark Millar is the king of the “elevator pitch.” In Hollywood parlance, the elevator pitch is the art of describing your project in such a way that the high concept (and all the implications therein) can be encapsulated in the thirty seconds you share an elevator with a film producer. As I said, Millar excels at this, which is why so many of his projects attract Hollywood interest. For WANTED, the pitch was, “What if an ordinary nebbish found himself indoctrinated into the secret society of super-assassins to which his dead father once belonged?” For KICK-ASS: “What would happen in real life if a lonely teenager tried to fill the voids in his existence by putting on a costume to fight crime?” For NEMESIS: “What if Batman was the bad guy?” And for THE SECRET SERVICE: “What if an aging James Bond pulled some strings to recruit his ne’er-do-well nephew for grooming as his replacement?”

Millar’s work for Marvel Comics includes some of the highest-selling comics of recent years, including THE ULTIMATES and THE ULTIMATES 2 (which greatly influenced Marvel’s cinematic film universe) and CIVIL WAR. THE SECRET SERVICE: KINGSMAN was co-plotted with Matthew Vaughn, the director of films such as STARDUST (2007), KICK-ASS (2010), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and not coincidentally, the forthcoming film adaptation of this very graphic novel. The art is by Dave Gibbons, one of Britain’s greatest living cartoonists, perhaps best known for his work on the landmark WATCHMEN series with writer Alan Moore. So, as you can see, some heavyweight talents worked on this book.

Unfortunately, THE SECRET SERVICE: KINGSMAN comes across as being a little light.

This book wasn’t meant to change the face of comics. It’s a sardonically dark action-comedy, as Millar’s creator-owned work tends to be, and it succeeds on that level. The villain’s plot is almost an afterthought shoehorned into the story of our Bond-proxy and his nephew…which is entirely the point, I suppose, but this robs certain characters’ story arcs—particularly their deaths—of the gravitas they deserve. That’s not a deal-breaker; Millar’s style has always relied on a certain measure of callousness in its gallows humor. But THE SECRET SERVICE: KINGSMAN, while a perfectly good graphic novel, underscores precisely why that style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Does the fact that I really enjoyed this book mean I’m a bad person?

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: Millar’s KICK-ASS was a popular comic before the movies came out; the films made it even more popular. There’s a good chance the forthcoming film will lead readers to this book as well, which is a great opportunity for you to increase your circ figures and introduce people to non-superhero comics at the same time! Plus, being a standalone work priced at only $12.99, it’s a bargain.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: Note that while the graphic novel is called THE SECRET SERVICE: KINGSMAN, the forthcoming film is called KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Readers who enjoy spy stories, dark comedy, and over-the-top action scenes will devour this book with relish. It is, however, a very adult work (see Content Advisory).

CONTENT ADVISORY: Strong language, graphic violence, nudity and sexual content

Review © 2014, C. Michael Hall.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Writers: Various
Artists: Various
Edited by Matt Dembicki
$19.95, Fulcrum Publishing, 156 pgs.
ISBN 978-1938486388

Full disclosure: I've known Matt Dembicki for some time now. We were both members of the same small press co-op long ago (I'm depressed by the sudden realization of just how long ago) and our work has appeared in a few of the same publications. I've always appreciated Matt's work as a writer, cartoonist, and editor; seeing him evolve into a comics creator of such rare ability and intelligence has been a pleasure. It isn't because I know him that I am so appreciative of his work, though. It's because Matt is incredibly adept at making quality comics.

Matt's previous graphic non-fiction anthologies, TRICKSTER  and DISTRICT COMICS, were both delightful, and I heartily recommend both to any library that hasn't already shelved them. That said, WILD OCEAN might be his best editorial effort to-date. WILD OCEAN is a collection of short stories, each one focused on a different endangered sea creature, produced by a different creator or creative team, and each one a unique narrative experience. The art is vibrant and quirky, and though the writing lacks polish in spots, the immediacy of the work is such that it compensates for its few rough edges. WILD OCEAN illustrates the plight of these animals without preaching, without resorting to angry rhetoric or shocking imagery. It transports you into these creatures' lives and makes you love them.

If you aren't completely entranced by the time you've finished the first story in the collection, Jay Hosler's "Tortuga, the Island that Swims," might be a robot.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: WILD OCEAN is a work of fiction about a non-fictional topic, which makes it an ideal way to introduce readers to a subject without throwing reams of data at them. It takes an entertaining approach to the subject matter and encourages further study. You can't beat a non-fiction book that pulls off that particular feat.

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: This is a sure-fire winner for readers into oceanography and the environment, but this book may also appeal to readers interested in comics but turned off by the usual "muscles and tights" style of art so prevalent in American comics and the "big eyes, small mouth" style so common in manga. And, as with any good non-fiction graphic novel, it's a fine way to lure in those non-fiction readers who normally wouldn't consider reading comics.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some content might be too intense for sensitive or very young children.

Review©2014, C. Michael Hall.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Writer: Ryan North
Artists: Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, Mike Holmes
$34.99, Kaboom! (an imprint of Boom! Studios), 144 pgs.
ISBN  978-1608863242

Licensed comics based on popular film and television properties are often ungainly, disappointing affairs, creative train wrecks that fail both as comics and as emulations of the source material. Well, ADVENTURE TIME fans, make merry and rejoice, because the ADVENTURE TIME comic book does not have that problem.

The plot of this collection is straightforward enough: Finn the Human and his shape-shifting canine companion Jake are sucked into a bag of holding (tabletop gaming nerds will get that) by an evil Lich (tabletop gaming nerds will get that, too) who threatens to destroy the Land of Ooo. Hilarity and, of course, adventure ensue. The comic’s tone is pitch-perfect: the dialogue perfectly evokes the show’s voice, and the art takes full advantage of the show’s vibrant color palette; writer Ryan North and the talented artists with whom he works totally nail it.

The book is more than a mere recreation of the TV series, though. The creators realize that comic books are a physical medium, so they incorporate gags taking advantage of the print format. Footnotes offer humorous parenthetical asides; secondary “parallel narrative” comic strips run across the bottoms of certain pages; “fourth wall”-shattering gags reference the reader’s turning of pages and how it affects events in-story. There’s a wealth of creative use of the print medium to be found here.

In short, the book is innovative as a standalone work, yet evocative of the source. Top marks all around.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: Yowch…sticker shock! If this book has one flaw, it’s the hefty price-point: thirty-five bucks for fewer than 150 pages! That’s expensive even for a hardcover edition. It will circulate—this is virtually guaranteed, given the show’s popularity among both kids and kids-at-heart—but if your graphic novel collection development budget is on the small side, you’ve got a difficult choice ahead of you. You could easily purchase two paperback graphic novels of similar size to this one for about the same money. This same story is collected in a much cheaper paperback edition ($14.99, ISBN 978-1608862801), but that collection lacks this edition’s bonus content and (obviously) its quality binding.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: It’s kid-friendly, but so genuinely funny that adults will love it as well. Fans of the show are an obvious target audience (Time to hook some new readers!), but ADVENTURE TIME’s many pop culture allusions might also appeal to tabletop gamers and video gamers of multiple generations.  

CONTENT ADVISORY: Cartoon action/mild violence, mild crude language (i.e., “butt” “sucky”)

Review©2014, C. Michael Hall.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


Writer(s): Various
Artist(s): Various
$49.99, Dark Horse Comics, 272 pgs
ISBN 978-1616551049

The 16th volume of this lavish reprint series collects issues 73-77 of the classic horror anthology Creepy. For those not steeped in comics history, Creepy (1964-83) was a black-and-white horror comic published in magazine format. This difference in presentation allowed for content that was, at that time, forbidden by the Comics Code. Creepy was the spiritual inheritor of the legacy of EC Comics, publisher of the infamous 1950s classic Tales from the Crypt: in addition to pushing the envelope of what was then permissible in American comics, Creepy employed a similarly stellar array of artistic talent. In the 1970s, Creepy's artistic roster included European artists whose work made for a striking stylistic complement to the work of veteran American illustrators like John Severin and Alex Toth. This lineup of artistic talent, and the meticulous care taken in presenting their work in these collected editions, make the CREEPY ARCHIVES a true feast for the eyes.

The stories collected in this volume run the gamut from twist-ending horror parables in the classic EC mold to that special brand of surreal, counter-culture science fiction that, pre-Star Wars, almost typified 1970s sci-fi (one issue reprinted in this volume, Creepy #73, is a themed, "all science fiction" issue). The writing, cutting edge in its time, seems a bit obvious and uneven to modern sensibilities. The art is the real star here, though, and it's absolutely gorgeous. Rich black line work, gray washes, a smattering of hand-painted color...the magazines produced by Warren Publishing in that period looked better than anything else on newsstands, and the quality printing and paper stock Dark Horse uses for these archive editions serve as a true showcase for the material.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: At around fifty bucks a pop, these archive editions are pricey. That said, it's unlikely you're paying full retail price, and these are very nice hardcover books. If you've got a patron population with an appetite for horror, Bronze Age comics, or for quality comic book art, this might be worth the purchase. This collection also features a great deal of science fiction material, which broadens the book's reach considerably. 

READERS' ADVISORY NOTES: Readers who appreciate vintage horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror may also appreciate the CREEPY ARCHIVES. Because Creepy wasn't subject to the Comics Code and courted an older audience, the material is less dated than one might expect. The content is adult (see the Content Advisory below), but not excessive; readers of modern horror comics like The Walking Dead will find this is much less extreme.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Horror violence/gore, adult language, adult themes, nudity

Review©2014, C. Michael Hall.