Invisibles Book 2: Apocalipstick

ApocalipstickOrder this bookStory: King Mob’s Invisibles cell makes its way back to the 20th Century after its retrieval of the Marquis de Sade. Their opponents have moved in for the kill, and a maimed Jack Frost decides to make a run for it on his own. The conspiracy is on the move elsewhere, as a British aristocrat uses the downtrodden as hunting quarry and Chicago corporate leaders get their kicks from killing and re-animating inner-city crack users. Lord Fanny and King Mob’s search for Jack leads them to trouble, and gives Fanny reason to recall her journey from Central America.

Review: In many ways, the three chapters between Jack’s departure and his companions’ search for him are the emotional and thematic core of “Apocalipstick,” even if the “main” characters never appear. It’s very easy to get caught up in all the magic and madness of the Invisibles’ fight against the conspiracy and forget the purpose of that fight, the effort to free the human spirit. The interlude chapters explore the chains that bind that spirit – exploitation of minorities and the poor by the corporate elite, the corrosive effects of fear and hate and ignorance, the struggles of everyday people to achieve their dreams, and the crushing weight of their failure to do so. The best story of the three may be the one with no supernatural elements at all, in which we see a man’s life flash before his eyes through a series of disjointed flashbacks. The layout of this story is very effective, as scenes and fragments blend together before the story reaches its climax and they come full circle. It’s the story of a man who wanted more from life than what he got, and probably deserved more… the injustice resonates, and as a bonus, it reinforces why we want the Invisibles to win. A world this unjust is a world that needs to be remade. […]

Invisibles Book 1: Say You Want a Revolution

Say You Want a RevolutionOrder this bookStory: The Invisibles are a secret society that has fought for centuries to free humankind from the mental shackles imposed on it by forces of authority and control. The enemy is fond of torture and lobotomies to keep us in line; where that doesn’t work, magic and microwave transmissions will have to do. The turn of the millennium draws closer, and as King Mob, the leader of one Invisibles cell, says, “We’re in the final furlong of a race between a never-ending global party and a world that looks like Auschwitz.” To help turn the tide of that battle, King Mob’s cell recruits a juvenile delinquent as its newest member; after he spends some time being trained (without realizing he’s being trained), the group uses magic to project their psyches back in time to revolution-era France and ask the Marquis de Sade if he wouldn’t mind popping back with them to the twentieth century.

Review: “Say You Want a Revolution,” the first Invisibles collection, is one of the most truly creative pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. Grant Morrison packs so many ideas in here that there’s almost a palpable sense of your brain going places it’s never gone before – it’s easy to get swept up in the exhilarating rush from one idea to the next and then back again, and the sense of never quite being sure when the rug’s going to get pulled out from under you. […]

Astro City: Confession

ConfessionOrder this bookStory: A young orphan named Brian Kinney takes a bus from the country to Astro City, determined to make a mark in the world and earn the respect of those around him – something he feels his father failed to do. He works at the periphery of the hero scene, working as a busboy at establishments that cater to the superpowered community. He catches the eye of the Confessor, a nighttime vigilante who agrees to train him, and Brian soon assumed the role of Altar Boy. It’s not the best of times to be a hero, however. A series of unsolved murders in the Shadow Hill section of town has the citizens on edge, and a number of heroes have had run-ins with the media. When the mayor demands that heroes register with the government, he fans the anti-hero sentiment and eventually declares all costumed activity illegal. Brian finds his attention divided between many mysteries, chief among them being: Is there a larger threat looming behind these events? Who is the Confessor, really? Can Brian trust him? And why is he trying so hard to be a hero in the first place?

Review: This six-chapter arc is probably Busiek’s crowning achievement to date on the Astro City series. The complex plot builds well, with several mysteries raised and solved along the way, and readers of the two previous volumes will note payoffs for what may have seemed throwaway events in those earlier short stories. As always, Busiek’s focus in this series is on character, and Brian Kinney/Altar Boy is a good one – a determined, talented and truly heroic young man who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Brian’s dead father, a doctor who offered his services willingly without much thought of his own financial well-being, looms over the story; Brian feels his father let himself appear weak and be taken advantage of, and Brian is determined not to let the same thing happen to him. The son trying to avoid and overcome the mistakes of the father is certainly not a novel theme, but it’s so used so often because it works, and it works because it’s so often true. Certainly, I have no trouble relating to such stories when told by a writer as skilled as Busiek. […]

Astro City: Family Album

Family AlbumOrder this bookStory: Another set of short stories from Astro City, including two Eisner Award winners. In this volume: A single father brings his two daughters across the country to rebuild their lives in the City. A ten-year-old superheroine tries to escape to a normal life. A thief gets away with the perfect crime – perhaps too perfect. The arrival of would-be heroes from the future forces a present-day inventor and hero to reassess his career. Willed to life by an audience’s belief, a cartoon star finds fame and fortune all too fleeting.

Review: As the American comics industry shifts from a periodical market to a book market, some readers have decried a tendency to “write for the trade,” padding out stories to four, six, or more chapters in order to make a complete volume. This collection of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City proves that collections of shorter stories, connected only by theme or setting, can be more than worthwhile additions to the bookshelf. […]

Astro City: Life in the Big City

Life in the Big CityOrder this bookStory: This collection of standalone stories illuminates different corners of the fictional universe of Astro City. Among the stories: The city’s leading superhero tries to be everywhere at once, and berates himself for every wasted second as he longs for just a moment of his own. A small-time hood learns a hero’s secret identity, and tries to figure out how to profit from the knowledge. A beat reporter gets some advice from his editor on his first day on the job. A young woman tries to balance the demands of her family with her own hopes and desires.

Review: There are many smart people in comics who argue that the superhero genre is totally spent, stuck recycling old stories and old archetypes and doomed to tell superficial power fantasies, no matter how much the hot new creators of the moment try to dress them up.

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City proves these critics wrong. In Astro City, Busiek, Anderson and Ross have created a wonderfully rich setting, a city with a history and character of its own that feels as real and as diverse as any American city. The only difference is that Astro City is full of superpowered individuals, and has been for at least 75 years. Some of these characters are allegories for established heroes published by DC and Marvel – analogues for Superman, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four (among others) appear in this volume. Others are wholly original creations, allowing Busiek to take various archetypes in new directions. […]

100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low

Hang Up on the Hang LowOrder this bookStory: “Loop” Hughes is a young black man growing up in the inner neighborhoods of Philadelphia, living on the outskirts of gang life and trying not to get drawn in. Agent Graves shows up with his attache case of untraceable bullets, puts Loop on the trail of his father Curtis – a man Loop has never known – and gives him a choice: he can get revenge, or he can, at last, try to build a relationship with the man. Loop chooses the latter, which draws him further into the criminal world; Curtis Hughes is an enforcer for a local loan shark, and soon the son is following his father on his rounds, with results that are both better than Loop could have hoped for and straight from his worst fears.

Review: If you’re expecting the third 100 Bullets collection to shed more light on the Minutemen, the Trust, and the assorted conspiracies hinted at in “Split Second Chance,” you will be disappointed. “Hang Up On The Hang Low” collects a single story arc that initially seems disconnected from the overall plot of the series, and even when Azzarello shows that this is decidedly not the case, there are no answers to be found here – only more questions. […]

100 Bullets: Split Second Chance

Split Second ChanceOrder this bookStory: Agent Graves continues to offer victims of injustice an opportunity for retribution in the form of a gun and 100 untraceable bullets. He must also deal with the Trust, a group that has played a heavy and apparently corrupt role in American history and has already tried to kill Graves once. His recent actions have alerted the Trust to their failure, and they’re ready to resume the hunt. But Graves is not without allies of his own.

Review: This second collection of 100 Bullets is even stronger than the first. Azzarello could quite easily mine his premise for years, giving us disconnected short story arcs that explore different people’s response to Graves’ gift. But “Split Second Chance” makes clear that this is not merely an anthology title; the titular gift is only one element of an overarching plot that should draw in fans of conspiracy and espionage stories. Graves’ obsession with justice and retribution is a personal quest; his job appears to be as leader of a group of operatives known as the Minutemen. The Minutemen, in turn, are somehow connected to the Trust. Here Graves begins putting his own pieces into play – for exactly what purpose isn’t yet clear. And somewhere in all of this figures Mr. Shepherd, who may be working with or against Graves. […]

100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call

First Shot, Last CallOrder this bookStory: Three stories are connected by the presence of the mysterious Agent Graves. Graves approaches a person to whom some injustice has been committed and gives him or her a briefcase. The briefcase contains a photo of the person who committed the injustice, evidence against that person, information as to their whereabouts, a gun – and one hundred completely untraceable bullets. No law enforcement agency can touch the owner of that gun and those bullets – from that moment on, they are above the law, free to determine how they will use the power and information they have been given.

Review: The premise of this series is unbelievably cool, and Azzarello does not disappoint in exploring it. His plotting is very strong, with layers of intrigue, plotting and betrayal. You don’t find out a lot about Agent Graves, or the organization that he works for, in this book, but there are hints of at least subplots that will connect the tales of the different recipients of the gun. […]

Clone Wars Vol. 5: The Best Blades

The Best BladesOrder this bookStory: Obi-Wan and Alpha, captured by Asajj Ventress after the Battle of Jabiim, make their escape from Asajj’s homeworld of Rattatak. Anakin, temporarily assigned to Master Ki-Adi-Mundi, insists his master is still alive – and when he has the chance to prove he’s right, Ki-Adi-Mundi joins him in a rescue attempt. Across the galaxy, the Clone Wars persist in a stalemate, putting friendships and alliances to the test. The continued crisis motivates the Senate to place power in Palpatine’s hands, leading some Senators and Jedi to wonder how much the Chancellor can be trusted.

Review: This collection features a number of short stories rather than a single primary arc, and with a number of artists and two different writers, it’s very much an anthology – people looking for a more coherent collection might be disappointed. There are two primary tracks to the story. First comes Obi-Wan’s escape and rescue, which is a nicely written action piece. The relationship built up between Obi-Wan and the ARC Trooper called Alpha is put to good use here, and there are some nice background details on Asajj. […]

Clone Wars Vol. 4: Light and Dark

Light and DarkOrder this bookStory: When Jedi Master Quinlan Vos’s cover as an underworld operative is blown, he and Master Tholme decide on a dangerous plan: Quinlan will appear to betray the Rebellion and join Count Dooku while sending information back to the Republic. Even his former padawan, Aayla Secura, believes Quinlan has gone to the Dark Side, and her conflicted feelings may prove deadly when she must battle Aurra Sing to save the lives of Tholme and another Jedi. For Quinlan Vos, the challenge is even greater: he must walk far enough into darkness to convince Dooku of his sincerity without letting it consume him.

Review: The story of Quinlan Vos has been building since before the Clone Wars began; the tale of his memory loss and subsequent struggle to regain his identity was central to many post-Episode I Star Wars comics. The galactic war provides Ostrander with the perfect setting for Quinlan’s ultimate crisis of conscience. In the context of such a great evil, it’s easy to justify getting one’s hands a little dirty for the sake of the greater good; if Quinlan can save millions of lives and end a destructive war at the cost of some of his own purity, isn’t that a worthwhile price to pay? But exactly how much can he let his darker impulses reign before he can’t bring them under control again? Ostrander does a very good job of walking the knife edge here, making each of Quinlan’s actions on its own appear justifiable, but building up a larger context where it soon feels that he’s doomed. He’s equally good at portraying Dooku, gradually drawing Quinlan further down the dark path. […]