Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Indigo Prime: Perfect Day

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Indigo Prime: Perfect Day (Rebellion, 2014).

Every once in an agonizingly long while, we get a new appearance from one of my favorite comic series. It's a very weird mindblower of a concept called Indigo Prime, written by John Smith and appearing in the pages of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, 2000 AD. The sci-fi weirdness concerns a busy bunch of interdimensional troubleshooters protecting the multiverse from existential and bizarre threats while punching the clock, processing work orders, and watching walls of television with millions of channels across the whole of time and space.

After a 1991 curtain call, the series returned in 2008 and again in 2011 (stories collected in 2013's book version, Anthropocalypse), leaving the faithful and the frustrated anxiously waiting for more. Happily, they're back in action right now in the pages of 2000 AD, a couple of weeks in to what I believe is an eight-part story. It's called "Perfect Day" and it's illustrated by Lee Carter, and it's every bit as wonderful and unpredictable as we'd hoped.

Carter, who had designed the series' current lead characters for what everybody thought was a different series entirely - that's one of Indigo Prime's tricks, popping in and out of different titles altogether - has a tough job in following Edmund Bagwell, the artist who made the 2011 stories so beautiful. Bagwell is a hard act to follow, but Carter, who gets better and better with every new art job, seems up to the task. As was expected, Smith has been throwing a lot of deliciously weird imagery at Carter to realize - time tunnels, taxidermist-stuffed monarchs, Roman legions, that aforementioned wall of television monitors - and, two weeks in, Carter has been nailing it and throwing in some unusual Easter eggs. The 2011 stories showed that there was a strange and malicious force called The Nilhist hiding behind the walls of the agents' reality. We're getting hints here and there that it might be slowly breaking through. Meanwhile, agents Redman and Dak have been escorting a very old Nazi superscientist from his dimension to Prime's base of operations at the center of time. They're probably right not to trust him one teeny bit...

As I've said before, Indigo Prime would definitely benefit, going forward, from more one-offs and short tales letting us know more about the players before things get too weird and ragnarok starts thundering down again. It's interesting that Danny Redman and Unthur Dak have become the series' leads over the characters who were more established in the original run. Those few that have turned up, like the popular Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord, have been relegated to supporting players, suggesting just how very busy this agency is. I imagine that Basalt, Foundation, Fervent, Lobe, and all those other characters from the late '80s are still working cases, just not ones that we're seeing presently.

While I'm glad that the series is back for a couple of months, I genuinely wish that it hadn't been two and a half totally dry years. With a cast as large as any in comics, surely we could have had an occasional one-shot featuring one of the series' minor players or old stars in place of a Future Shock, or a short story in place of one of these often tedious three-week Tharg's 3rillers. Five pages in the annual December 100-page issue isn't too much to ask, surely? "Perfect Day" is great and promising, but Smith and 2000 AD's editor should definitely agree that, where this series is concerned, more is definitely much, much more. Highly recommended with the hopes of extra weirdness and character development to come.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Monster of Florence

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Monster of Florence (Grand Central, 2008).

In the unlikely event that I decide to kill anybody, I think that I should do it in Italy. I read The Monster of Florence, which is an account by two journalists about a serial killer who claimed between twelve and sixteen victims, in pairs, between 1968 and 1985. The first two incidents might not have been by the man who orchestrated the later six, although it's very probable that they are. Plenty of people have been arrested for these crimes. Some have been charged, and some convicted, only to be overturned. The common link is not the heinous murders. It's the staggering incompetence of the police.

I'm not kidding. You know how, on Criminal Minds, they'll occasionally pepper one of their bizarre villains' methodology with comparisons to some real-life monster? If Reed hasn't made a link to the Monster of Florence, and how the police investigating that mess made such a screw-up over it, it's only a matter of time. The journalists who collaborated on this book - American Douglas Preston and Italian Mario Spezi - both ended up getting arrested or targeted by the Italian police, almost certainly as payback for mocking their incompetence and/or corruption. At one point, Preston starts correspondence with some conspiracy theorist nutball whom the lead cop takes way too seriously. Honestly, the same force that doesn't even switch on a computer for years, not trusting it, suddenly starts attributing the crimes to a Satanic cult on the advice of some hair-brained lady with a radio talk show, sort of an Italian blend of Lyndon LaRouche and Alex Jones.

About fifteen years after the last confirmed killing, the lead prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, took a crazed dislike to Preston and Spezi sniffing around his fumbling investigation. He decided to claim that Spezi was planting false evidence to incriminate Spezi's most wanted suspect, and arranged for his car, computer, and phone lines to be bugged. Stupid interrogations, time-wasting jail terms, massive violations of the freedom of the press... honestly, serial killer stories don't intrigue me like they once did, but watching the writers of this story become players while the police stupidity escalates so wildly really makes for a striking and bizarre story.

It's said that the writer Thomas Harris attended at least one of the fumbled Monster trials, and chose to move his character Hannibal Lecter to Florence in one of his novels based on what he saw. He might have been inspired by Florence's art and culture, by the Monster's depravity, or by the whole "feeding to pigs" bit, which actually happened to some criminal on the far periphery of this case. No, he moved Lecter to Italy because the character could kill with impunity, so dumb are the local cops. Recommended as a curiosity.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

March: Book One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of March: Book One (Top Shelf, 2013).

Wow. What an excellent heartpunch of a book this is. Georgia Congressman John Lewis has teamed up with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell (whose Swallow Me Whole I have been intending to read for years) to tell his story of the civil rights movement in comic form. I have certainly read of Lewis's role among many sitting down at lunch counters in Nashville department stores, suffering taunting and abuse while awaiting service. I've read about the beatings he received a few years later on the Selma-Montgomery March. I've never taken the time to read his own words before, despite his authoring at least two memoirs prior to this. Should've done that.

The first book of March - three are planned - takes Lewis's story from his childhood in rural southeast Alabama into his college days at Fisk University. Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, inspired by hearing Dr. King on the radio. This first segment of the story ends on the promising note of Nashville's mayor making a public statement in support of desegregation, but readers are aware all through the book that this story is far from over, and it's going to get really ugly before it gets better.

Powell, it must be said, draws the absolute hell out of this book. I had no idea that I would like this artist's work so much. It's just a beautiful grayscale wash, dense with detail. Powell and Aydin have paced this story astonishingly well. It's just a masterclass in using the form effectively. Lewis's story is already both painful and incredibly inspiring; seeing the faces of the uncaring, unthinking thugs who stood in the way of social progress fifty years ago gives the narrative an almost impossible-to-bear extra weight. It's honestly and simply such a remarkable telling of the tale that it left me in tears. Anxiously awaiting the second volume, this is highly recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Banzai Battalion: Just Another Bug Hunt!

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Banzai Battalion: Just Another Bug Hunt! (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2014).

I haven't checked in with the world of 2000 AD in far too long a time. I'm glad to see that the venerable comic's association with American publisher Simon & Schuster is still going strong, and that they're releasing good collections aimed at this market. One of the most recent is the 160-page complete collection of John Wagner's Banzai Battalion. This reprints every one of the characters' appearances, along with a few somewhat similar Judge Dredd episodes - similar in that they also feature robots - by many of the same creators.

The cover of this collection, originally used for their second story in March of 2000, features a wonderfully old-fashioned composition by Cliff Robinson which evokes any number of 1980s IPC comics. The little gunmen are the action figure-sized heroes of Banzai Battalion, who had two run-ins with Judge Dredd. They are actually semi-sentient pest control droids who keep finding themselves thrown into situations where human criminals become the pests they need to stamp out

A strip like Dredd requires an astonishing number of new concepts and new scenarios thrown at it every week, and every so often the new supporting players take on a life of their own. Wagner and Henry Flint crafted the Battalion's first appearance in 1999, giving the little robots the over-the-top personalities of older war comic heroes. Captain Bug Stomper - "He's a legend in pest control!," people keep telling us - tries to do things by the book, until his men persuade him to charge into glory for the greater good.

A year later, they returned in another Dredd story, this time drawn by the amazing Cam Kennedy. Since their human owners died during one of the Dredd world's occasional catastrophes, and since they keep making themselves useful, the droids are sent by Dredd to join Justice Department in some capacity, but when they reappeared in their own series in 2001, they had to take the initiative to strike out on their own.

Now drawn, brilliantly, by Ian Gibson, the resulting story is a very silly, over-the-top homage to old war comics, with the blustery, true-blue Captain Bug Stomper leading his troops on an expedition through Mega-City One that leads them to a wonderful new garden in which to fight insects. The garden, introduced more than fifteen years previously in a memorable Dredd adventure, becomes the battleground for rival teams of robots and a cute parody of another old comic character, IPC's General Jumbo. As leads, Stomper and the team were kind of limited, and their appearances run to a total of only 19 episodes, but they're clever and hilarious. The artwork is consistently first-rate, and I love the masterful way that Wagner mixes both knowing parodies and old continuity. Neither is essential for following the adventures, but they are mind-blowing little Easter eggs for old fans.

There are many things to love about the Judge Dredd universe, and one of them is the way that the series can wear different hats and be an action strip one week, a grim drama the next, and detective fiction the next. For readers who enjoy the bonkers, oddball comedy of the future, then this is a terrific book, certain to leave you laughing aloud and very impressed with Wagner's skill at making this weird, wild world work. Highly recommended.

A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.