Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Four-colour friends

Paid a visit to my local Forbidden Planet today (Old Fart Aside (OFA): I can remember when ‘Forbidden Planet International’ was just the small SF bookshop near the university in Edinburgh). Anyhoo, I visited my local branch to catch up with my order and to pick up a TPB. The money I spent would’ve paid for a decent-sized rpg hardback, which, let’s face it, is really quite steep for an afternoon’s reading. But what the heck, I just love comics.

I mean, I really love them. There was a time back in the 80’s when, for one reason or another, I found myself reading fewer books than I was used to, something which made me start to feel stupid. Fortunately for me this period coincided with the glory days of the early 80’s comics renaissance, when a swathe of new writers and publishers finally brought Anglophone comics up to speed with their continental counterparts, as a medium adults didn’t have to be embarrassed about enjoying.

These comics saved my intelligence. Seriously. Well, OK, there might just be a dash of hyperbole there, but it is certainly true that witnessing a medium familiar from my childhood rising to new heights was a thrilling and enriching experience. I discovered new ways of telling stories not to mention new kinds of stories, and learned about form, motion, and colour; lessons which have stood me in good stead as a gamer in a variety of ways.

I dropped out of comics reading in the late 80’s, and I no longer have the collection I amassed in those glory days. In the past few years though, I have returned to this medium I love so much. I don’t want this piece to turn into an analysis of the medium itself, or a treatise on the state up the industry, so without further ado, here are the highlights of today's pickup.

The Legend of Grimjack, Vol.2
Quite by accident I recently discovered that this 80’s classic from the First Comics stable has been revived by IDW and that they were also republishing the original stories in TPB format. Volume 1 reprinted the backup shorts that featured in Starslayer. Volume 2 presents issues 1-7 of Grimjack itself.

What a delight this stuff is! When I first read Grimjack I knew next to nothing about the hardboiled detective genre that was one of writer John Ostrander’s big inspirations for this character (heck, I probably hadn‘t even read Chandler at that point!). This didn’t stop me enjoying this great comic, over and over again. Returning to it many years later, I am much more aware of where Ostrander got a lot of his moves. This hasn’t stopped me enjoying these stories all over again.

Ostrander’s stories are as gutsy and gritty as ever. The dialogue is still snappy and smart. The characters are still as quirky and engaging as before. Timothy Truman’s early artwork is as lush as ever, bringing Grimjack’s Cynosure to life with feeling and a wealth of detail. Everything is as fresh as ever, even the jokes, which can still make you laugh out loud. In a world of limited edition chocolate bars and ice-cream (WTF?!); where what topped yesterday’s contrived list is tomorrow’s classic; this is the real McCoy, and well worth the price of admission.

The Authority: Revolution, ##10-11
Warren Ellis is one of the biggest names in comics to come out of Britain since Alan Moore, and justly so. The Authority by DC-Wildstorm is one of his best-known and most controversial series, featuring a bunch of very hi-powered anarchist superheroes who decide that it’s not enough to save humanity from alien menaces, God, and so on; they set out to save humanity from itself, or its leaders, to be more precise. Personally I love this kind of stuff, but it has been known to induce hysterical ravings in those of a certain cast of mind (literally frothing I suspect, but that doesn’t come across on the internet).

It is fair to say that the series has had a chequered history since Ellis left the helm, but that’s not unusual in comics. And it certainly doesn’t help that the essential premise tends to undermine the nature of a continuing series: basically the most powerful beings on earth will either win, and that’s that, or lose, and ditto. Still, many of the problems inherent in this, not to mention those aspects of the series that have most offended some of its most vocal critics, are exactly what this 12-part sequence has been all about.

I’m not going to recapitulate the previous 9 issues, nor even go into detail about these 2 either. But sufficeth to say that the Authority have had to face up to the consequences of their actions; an old villain has reappeared; and familiar characters have been transformed beyond recognition in ##1-9. What I read today brought everything together to set up the final confrontation, and guess what? It’s the Midnighter versus everyone else.

Now when the Midnighter says to the entire Authority: “I know how to kill you… All of you. You’ve already lost, you just don’t know it yet,” I for one am quite prepared to believe him. Sure, there are some flaws in this comic, and it’s still not as good as it was when Ellis was writing it (smart of him to get out before his premise imploded, wasn’t it?). But what the heck, this is a superhero comic, so I’m prepared to make allowances. And anyway: the Midnighter versus the Authority? THIS IS WHAT WE WANT!

Conan and the Jewels of Gwahlur, ##1-3
Like so many others, I read the Conan stories of Howard and his imitators as a teenager, most of which I enjoyed, and some of which I really loved. I later came across the Marvel adaptions, which I also liked. So, looking for a fantasy comic today because I’ve started GM’ing WFRP, I asked what was available and found the Dark Horse Comics Conan is all there is.

I picked up a bargain 3-for-2 bundle giving the entire story of Conan and the Jewels of Gwahlur, with script and art by P. Craig Russell. Neat, I thought: I’ve liked Russell’s artwork since I read some of his interpretation of classical myths back in the 80’s; and I’ve reread Howard’s original version of the story only recently.

This comic has a lot to recommend it. The adaption is a good one, handling well the transition from Howard’s text to the comics medium. Artwork aside, this is mostly done through the use of narrative text boxes, which is a more sensible approach to my mind than having Conan become the narrator, or trying to detail all the plot in the artwork. The overall effect is of an illustrated version of Howard’s text rather than the completely different story that often results when prose fiction is adapted for the movies.

The artwork is also nice. Russell’s draughtsmanship is nicely precise, and evocative of the sumptuous and mysterious setting of the world of Conan. Russell also does a nice line in the nubile maidens who regularly appear in Conan stories. The colouring is delicately done too, in naturalistic pastel tones, which work well.

If all this is good, then unfortunately the artwork is the source of the comic's greatest weakness. Why? Simple: Russell’s Conan is unconvincing to my eye. He looks far too slim and youthful to me, nothing like the barrel-chested barbarian of my memories. This is a shame, because in pretty much every other respect I found this to be a creditable adaption of this legendary swords and sorcery character by a comics creator whose work I was pleased to catch up with again.

I would heartily recommend all these to comics readers everywhere, and to GM’s looking for some neat ideas to inflict upon their players. Good reading everyone.

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