Thursday, July 20, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review: The Death of Stalin

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

The Death of Stalin p.19, art by Thierry Robin.

This month, Titan Comics releases the first English translation of The Death of Stalin, written by Fabien Nury with art by Thierry Robin. Originally written in French, the graphic novel has attracted international attention as the inspiration for the forthcoming eponymous, star-studded Armando Giovanni film. The book chronicles the period from March to September 1953, from the night Stalin suffered an ultimately (but not immediately) fatal stroke to Khrushchev’s seizure of power later that year. Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from April of 1922 to March of 1953 more absolutely than any Czar, and with a ruthlessness that has become legendary. He was feared, but he was also widely beloved by the Soviet people (and remains so among many Russians even today). Nury and Thierry open their work with a caution that while the book is based on historical events, it is a work of fiction, although they note that their fiction is less strange than the actual events surrounding Stalin’s demise.

The Soviet Council of Ministers. clockwise from top: Molotov, Beria, Kaganovitch, Malenkov, Bulganin, Mikoyan. and Khrushchev. Art by Thierry Robin.

Like many successful dictators, Stalin was a genius at disassociating himself in the eyes of the public from the abuses of his regime while firmly establishing himself as the fount of its successes. Beyond his carefully designed and maintained public image, however, Stalin was a man who ruled through fear, and who held absolute power of life and death over tens of millions of people. After 53 years of rule, in many ways, Stalin was the government of the Soviet Union, and was certainly the only leader many citizens had ever known. At the time of Stalin’s stroke, the seven members of the Soviet Council of Ministers were ill prepared for a transition of power, as Stalin had deliberately kept the chairmen busy trying to maneuver against each other rather than him. The following few days, as Stalin lingered, slipping in and out of consciousness, were witness to repeated rounds of plotting and rejoicing at his impending demise, followed by overwrought scenes of joyous relief and performances of loyalty when it seemed that the “Man of Steel” might just recover.

The Death of Stalin. Script by Fabien Nury, art by Thierry Robin.

Central to these schemes and scenes was Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s long-time executioner, and head of the NKVD, state security, and the secret police. Beria was the first to be informed of Stalin’s stroke, and later claimed to have “done him in,” although whether he was referring to his decision to delay treatment or to something more direct is unknown. Bury and Robin make Beria the center of their story as he attempts to manipulate events and people in order to seize control. Stalin himself plays little direct part in the story, but his presence looms over everything that occurs throughout the book. Nury and Robin perfectly reveal the very real terror that was life under Stalin from the opening panels, when Stalin calls the studio of Radio Moscow to congratulate them on a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, and to tell them that he will be sending someone around to pick up a recording of the performance the next day. Unfortunately, the performance was a live event, and had not been recorded. No matter, however, as the orchestra simply stayed and recreated their performance that same night to record it for Stalin. Because failure to provide him with what he wanted meant the gulag at best and death at worse – for everyone involved. The fear is palpable, and the reader can almost smell it coming off of Robin’s figures.

What follows is a tour of a world gone mad, but one which operates by its own set of blood-soaked rules, and Nury and Robin take the reader through it effortlessly, evoking disgust, horror, laughter, and wonder in turn, and sometimes all at once. The creators also to an incredible job of separating average citizens and soldiers from the seven ministers at the heart of the system: the widow who wants to take her son to see and honor Stalin’s body as it lays in state, because his father died at Stalingrad. The Red Army officer who finds himself at the center of a tragedy that he neither caused nor could really have avoided. Moreover, the utter indifference of the men in power to those they rule is brilliantly conveyed by Nury and Robin’s decision not to emphasize it. Instead they present it like it was, a fact of life. My favorite touches are two quintessentially Russian “jokes” (which I’ll let you discover yourself) that I suspect are historically accurate, but which in any case reflect the fatalistic, often bitter humor that has been a hallmark of that people since before the Mongols invaded. Robin’s art is breathtaking, using a variety of panel-layouts, framing, and viewpoints that keeps the reader glued to the page and moving effortlessly through the story, while from page one, panel one, Nury lives in a brilliant balance of words and wordlessness that is the thing that comic writers dream of.

Script by Fabien Nury, art by Thierry Robin.

In all, The Death of Stalin is a brilliant, darkly funny portrait of the machinations of the powerful, and a deeply moving study of the people who are both the victims of, and victors over their rulers. The heart of this incredible story is ultimately in the background, in the characters who have been forgotten by history, or who spring from the pens of Nury and Robin. This is an astonishing feat of storytelling in any medium, and a vanishingly rare one in comics. The Death of Stalin is a work of beauty in the Russian mold, where “the awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” In short, this book has soul.

The Death of Stalin is currently available at comic shops, and will be released on Amazon and other booksellers on July 25.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Ten Percent – The Best One-Night Stands!

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

aten1

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent, a space where Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there has always been that slim slice of sublime. The Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – I think our previous columns have proven that point – and that’s because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

This column is a little different, since the focus is not going to be on a single item, but rather on a service that I urge you – yes, YOU – to take nigh-immediate advantage of. Fathom Events is a content provider owned by the AMC and Regal movie theater chains which is devoted to using satellite feeds to bring extremely-limited screenings (one-night stands, usually) to theaters across the United States. The choices offered through Fathom range dramatically – I’ve seen Rifftrax screenings of extraordinarily bad movies and short films, as well as true classics like Casablanca, since Fathom and Turner Classic Movies have teamed up to get cinematic gems back on the silver screen. And let me tell you – it’s completely different from seeing these movies in the comfort of your own living room. When Ingrid Bergman is twenty feet tall, you understand what all the fuss is about – that woman is so luminous she fairly glows. Fathom also has an arrangement with the Metropolitan Opera in New York to broadcast encore shows this summer – and trust me, if you have never seen an opera, it’s not stuffy and dull as you might have been told. Opera is blood-and-guts, passion-and-revenge writ extra-large when it’s simply on stage – put that on the big silver screen and WOW!

What makes a Fathom event special is also the audience – when Ensley and I last went to Casablanca, there was one gentleman wearing a white dinner jacket, as if he had just come from Rick’s. (I suspect he had letters of transit tucked safely in the inner pocket of his jacket.) You’re part of a crowd who loves movies and who had to do some planning to get there. It’s congenial, fun, and joyous.

For us, the closest theaters that are part of Fathom event screenings are about an hour’s drive away, so we make a “date night” out of it. Tickets are a few dollars more (only a few) than a usual night showing of a movie and you’ll have tales to tell.

Fathom isn’t limited to the high-brow. (Seriously – Fast Times at Ridgemont High is scheduled for the end of July. Oh, Spicoli!) They include sporting events, inspirational documentaries (one devoted to Steve McQueen’s search for meaning is on the schedule for September!), and anime. (Really, you should check out Studio Ghibli FestKiki’s Delivery Service is scheduled for this month.) There’s even a chance for you to score a foam shark hat if you go see Shark Week on the big screen! Or, if you prefer the fine arts, Fathom has you covered with broadcasts of the upcoming Bolshoi Ballet season as well as the new production of Kushner’s Angels in America being staged by London’s National Theatre. Or why not give the color and energy of Bollywood a try?

And don’t forget that later this year, it’s The Princess Bride which you know you need to go to.

Make plans – you won’t regret it!

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (September 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Film, K. Dale Koontz, The Ten Percent Tagged: angels in america, bollywood, bolshoi ballet, casablanca, ensley f. guffey, fast times at ridgemont high, fathom events, metropolitan opera, rifftrax, Shark Week, steve mcqueen, Studio Ghibli, tcm, the princess bride, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review – Berlin: The Seven Dwarves

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

Marvano’s juxtaposition of the sun-drenched fields of England and the explosion-ripped pitch of the nights above Berlin is beautiful and terrible, and his portrayal of loss and love in a world gone savage places him among the finest war comic creators.


Berlin: The Seven Dwarves cover, art & story by Marvano.
Recently I’ve been raving about Belgian artist and writer Marvano’s (Mark Van Oppen) work on the graphic novel adaptation of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, currently being reprinted by Titan Comics. My introduction to Marvano’s work, however, actually began with one of his later works, a war comic published in America under the title Berlin: The Seven Dwarves. This small graphic novel is actually part one of a trilogy of books, each with a connection to the eponymous city, and each taking place in a different year: 1943 for Berlin: The Seven Dwarves, 1948 for Berlin: Reinhard le Goupil, and 1961 in Berlin: Deux Enfants de Roi. Unfortunately, the latter two volumes have yet to be translated into English, and your correspondent’s French is – sadly – only adequate enough to give me the bare jist of their contents.
The three volumes focus on the Second World War and its aftermath, with the first book focusing on the pilot and crew of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber named “Snow White” for its squadron call letter “S,” and in reference to the seven crewmen who serve aboard – her seven dwarves. The war story is framed by the meeting of two older women at an abandoned RAF airfield in 1993, where the elder shares with the younger a letter from Flight Sergeant David “Aubie” Auberson, the Snow White’s pilot and CO, dating from 1943. Auberon and his crewmates were part of the massive British night bombing campaign over Germany and occupied Western Europe. Arising from the lack of long-range fighters to protect the bombers during the day, and the British abandonment of the idea of strategic bombing in favor of area bombing – specifically designed to “de-house” the German population, particularly the working class – night-bombing became the specialty of RAF’s Bomber Command throughout the war.

Berlin, art & story by Marvano.
Despite resulting in fewer losses than daylight raids, the combination of well-coordinated anti-aircraft artillery, searchlights, increasingly effective German night-fighters, and the difficulties of nighttime navigation, the RAF’s bomber crews suffered heavy casualties throughout the war. In Berlin, Marvano perfectly captures the stressed-to-destruction tension and terror of these raids, the freezing temperatures, the sudden chaos of enemy searchlights and flack, and the end of terribly young lives, whether in an instant or an eternity of fiery agony. Aubie himself, in command of thousands of tons of aircraft and thousands of pounds of bombs, is all of nineteen. He has flown 17 combat missions over Germany. Sarah, the WAAF that has caught his eye, and who has already lost a husband to the war, is an ancient twenty-four. Neither their ages nor experiences are historically remarkable.

Berlin, art & story by Marvano.
Berlin does not shrink from the war, and Marvano is at his beautiful best, again displaying his mastery of the subtle detail – a beautiful spring field dusted with blooming red poppies, strange and silly wartime posters urging vigilance or caution, blinding afterimages from exploding flak, or a Plexiglas machinegun turret suddenly painted red from the inside with blood. Marvano’s juxtaposition of the sun-drenched fields of England and the explosion-ripped pitch of the nights above Berlin is sublime, and his portrayal of loss and love in a world gone savage places him among the finest war comic creators. At the time of writing, Berlin: The Seven Dwarves is available new on Amazon for just under $14 in paperback, or $8.99 for Kindle.
This is one you should own.
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Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Ten Percent – Gaiman’s Pages

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

 

Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks (well, roughly), Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud (trust me on this, I just saw Baywatch for the movie show I co-host) – but there has always been that slim li’l piece of heaven. The Ten Percent crosses genre boundaries, mostly because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than just passive reception.

In my last column, I discussed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which, at the time, was just about to begin its run on the Starz network. I am currently caught up on episodes and am also avidly following the comic version. American Gods just makes me smile and the high quality of the work in multiple Media (hi, Gillian Anderson!) is a revelation of how magnificent storytelling can completely transcend genre. The show has already been renewed for a second season, which reassures me that they’ll take their time telling this convoluted tale.

Much of Gaiman’s work belongs in the Ten Percent.* The last column touched on his best-known work, Vertigo’s Sandman, and if you haven’t read that (slowly, thoughtfully, and with great deliberate intent), you have an amazing treat in store for you and I’m jealous that you get to experience the Endless for the first time. However, I wanted to bring your attention to several other works of Gaiman’s that you might not know about. Yes, he’s written for Babylon 5, Doctor Who, and several of his works have been adapted for the silver screen with more on the way. But why wait?

I suggest beginning with Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman’s first collection of short pieces. Early in his career, Gaiman would write for just about anyone who would help him pay his rent and he was honing his craft. Good short stories are actually devilishly difficult to write, because you don’t have the space and word count to mess around. Smoke and Mirrors actually contains several of my favorite pieces, including a fascinating story about one of Arthur’s knights who finds the Grail in the least likely (and most English) of places. There’s also an incredible story of old Hollywood, magic, and the grind of writing for the movies that’s not to be missed.

If you’re ready for a longer work, try starting with Neverwhere. I much prefer the book to the BBC adaptation or any of the other versions. (It’s been a comic and both a radio play and a stage play.) If I were being hard-nosed about it, I could argue that Neverwhere is very, very good, but not Gaiman’s best work. However, it is my favorite and this tale of the colorful denizens of London Below likely always will be. It helps that Gaiman has recently announced that his next work, The Seven Sisters, will be a sequel to Neverwhere. And I’m glad to the point of splitting – I’ve got a fistful of questions I want answered.

If you loved Sandman want to stay in the world of comics, pick up the four-issue version of Stardust. This was made into a film that gave Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer some juicy roles to play with, but honestly – the film is only so-so. While you could read the novelized version, I suggest the comic, which features exquisite painted illustrations by Charles Vess, a longtime Gaiman collaborator. His style perfectly complements Gaiman’s Victorian-era fairytale of a boy, a girl, and a fallen star.

Gaiman’s first novel was actually a two-person effort. Written with the late, truly great Sir Terry Pratchett, Good Omens will delight fans of Pratchett’s twisted Discworld as well as Gaiman folks. Imagine what would happen if those two got together, got silly, and decided to take a crack at The Omen and you’re ready to get started. An adaptation of this retelling of the misplaced Antichrist of the Apocalypse is coming to Amazon in 2018, so go ahead and brush up on it now.

Gaiman is a devourer of tales and myth (his latest book, Norse Mythology, is a retelling of the legends of that part of the world) and his love for these tales permeates his work. (I often wonder what a dinner party involving both Gaiman and Joseph “Monomyth” Campbell would be like, then I shake my head and decide that’s just too bizarre.) He has the rare gift of being able to write in a variety of styles and use source material without coming across as a mere copyist. Nowhere is that more evident than in his retelling of Kipling’s Jungle Book. This book, simply titled The Graveyard Book, restores the eerie qualities inherent in a tale of a child being raised by benevolent, yet unnatural, guardians that was Disney-fied out of the original Kipling. (Hey, I love “Bare Necessities” as much as the next gal, but Kipling had something far darker in mind.) Gaiman’s story never feels as if he was forcing a point to make it “fit” the Kipling version – he’s content to let his story spin on its own axle and the result is dreamlike in its perfection.

There’s more, of course. Gaiman has written for a variety of audiences, including the youngsters – even down to the picture book level. My First Big Book of Gaiman will vary by the age of the reader – for very small ones, try Chu’s Day; for the slightly older, Coraline. That one will probably be read under the covers by a few children and result in a couple of evenings with a higher electric bill than usual as the young fry keep the lights on – just in case.

He’s a treasure and Hollywood is finally discovering his unsettling, yet oddly moral, works so soon the rest of the world will be claiming they’ve been fans of his since Woodstock. Beat the rush and start reading him now. You won’t be sorry.

*Plus, he’s just a good guy. Patient and funny with his fans, and willing to do strange things for a good cause. Case in point, his willingness to read the entire Cheesecake Factory menu to raise money to help displaced refugees. Really, you want to donate to that – and you have about three weeks to do so.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Babylon 5 Universe (September 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog “Unfettered Brilliance and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 


Filed under: books, K. Dale Koontz, neil gaiman, The Ten Percent Tagged: American Gods, Charles Vess, comics, ensley f. guffey, Gillian Anderson, good omens, graveyard book, neil gaiman, neverwhere, norse mythology, smoke and mirrors, stardust, terry pratchett, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

C’est la Guerre Advanced Review: The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

I’m adding The Lost Fleet: Corsair to my pull list, and if you dig military SF, I suggest you do the same.

The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1, variant cover art by Max Bertolini.

Jack Campbell and AndrĂ© Siregar’s The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1 from Titan Comics feels like ten pounds of story in a five pound sack. There is a lot going on in the first issue. To be fair, as part of Campbell’s Lost Fleet universe (which at the time of writing includes 16 novels), Corsair is bound to come in carrying some plot-baggage. Very briefly, Campbell’s series are set in a far future universe in which humanity colonized much of our local galactic space, and shook out into two major sociopolitical factions: the Alliance, a kind of multiplanetary federal republic, and the Syndicate Worlds (Syndics), an interstellar corporate state where “CEO” and “executive” are political and/or military titles.

Over a century before the first novel in the series, the Syndics launched a surprise attack against an Alliance convoy, and the resulting Alliance-Syndicate War had been raging ever since, stretching the political, military, economic, and social structures of both polities to the breaking point and beyond. At a pivotal moment in the war, Alliance Captain and legendary hero from the very first battle of the war John “Black Jack” Geary is discovered orbiting an out of the way star in a survival pod kept alive in suspended animation for the last 100 years. Called on to lead the Alliance Fleet out of a potentially fatal situation, Geary wins through, but the cost of the fleet’s escape is a suicidal rear-guard action by the battlecruiser Repulse, commanded by Black Jack’s grand-nephew Michael Geary.

Although never seen again in the prose series, Lost Fleet: Corsair reveals that Michael and some of his surviving crew were captured and imprisoned by the Syndics, where they have remained throughout the action of at least the first six books in the series, if not longer. Issue #1 picks up with the Syndicate Worlds falling into rebellion and disarray sometime after the events of The Lost Fleet: Victorious and The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight. Pretty much everything above gets mentioned in one way or another in Corsair #1, so it’s worth touching on. At times this issue is overburdened with all of the continuity that is hanging out there in another medium, but it also feels like something that Campbell and Siregar are just pushing through in order to get it out of the way so they can focus on the story they want to tell here. I expect that subsequent issues will be more self-contained as the creative team is able to remove their characters and story from the existing plotlines.

The Lost Fleet: Corsair gets the introductions out of the way right up front.

The series is set to revolve around Michael Geary and Syndicate Executive (Ground Forces) Destina Aragon who, with her unit helps Geary and the other Alliance prisoners escape so that they can steal a Syndicate warship and get back to their respective homes. There is a lot of distrust on both sides of a hundred-year war in which tactics devolved into massive frontal assaults and planetary bombardment was regularly used by both sides to wipe out civilians by the millions. Thus the first and probably the second issue of Corsair seem poised to set up a story of characters from both sides coming together through necessity and shared danger as they try to make their way back home. While similar in some respects to the plots of both The Lost Fleet and The Lost Stars series, Corsair marks the first time that the main protagonists come from opposite sides of the conflict, rather than different organizations or factions within the same state, and I’m looking forward to seeing if he can pull it off.

However, issue 1 is incredibly fast-paced and action heavy, concentrating on introducing the main players and getting the story rolling – character development and Aragon’s backstory will have to wait a bit. Campbell really hits the ground running, and while the sheer amount of information he needs to get across while also launching a new story sometimes causes the flow to stumble, the reader is nevertheless pulled into the breathless rush. Siregar’s pencils are sharp and realistic, a style reinforced by Bambang Irawan’s confident and precise inking. Unfortunately, Sebastian Cheng’s colors are a bit too slick, and sometimes dip characters into an overly smooth, video game-esque uncanny valley look, and despite the scars and scuffs provided by Siregar and Bambang, his colors are a bit too clean and bright for the setting.

The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1 art by André Siregar.

Overall though, The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1 is a mile-a-second ride that left me impressed and slightly dizzy with everything that the creators managed to fit into 25 pages. The series promises to expand the Lost Fleet universe in some new and interesting directions, and provide plenty of SF action along the way. It remains to be seen whether or not the carefully detailed battles that Campbell’s prose is known for will translate into sequential art, but I look forward to finding out, or even to watching him take a different tack completely. There’s a lot of potential here, and I want to see what happens next, so I’m adding The Lost Fleet: Corsair to my pull list, and if you dig military SF, I suggest you do the same.

The Lost Fleet: Corsair #1 will be available in comic shops on June 7, 2017.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

C’est la Guerre Advanced Review: The Forever War #4

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

The Forever War is brutal, beautiful, and utterly sublime. Haldeman and Marvano are creating must-read comics with every issue, and providing a master class in just how powerful the medium can be.

Cover of The Forever War #4. Art by Fabio Listrani.

Issue 4 of Titan Comics’ The Forever War hits stands next week, continuing the reprint of this incredible series from writer Joe Haldeman and artist Marvano. Mandella and Marygay have returned to an Earth that, thanks to the effects of relativistic travel, they no longer recognize. Only a few years older subjectively, decades have passed back home, and the ongoing war against the Taurans has taken its toll on society, although the masses are largely unaware of how much things have changed.

Script by Joe Haldeman, art by Marvano.

In a sequence that reads like a frightening look at things to come, Mandella discovers that at age 70 the government ranks individuals according to how valuable they are to society, and provides healthcare appropriately. For Mandella’s mother, now 84, that means no care at all, despite having a celebrated veteran for a son. On this new Earth, information is carefully controlled and manipulated, and every effort is made to keep the world’s populace in blissful ignorance as to the realities of the war and their own socioeconomic problems. So the two “young” people go back to the only home they know – each other and the military. There things are SNAFU, but at least predictably so.

Script by Haldeman, art by Marvano.

The retelling of Haldeman’s novel continues to be masterful, with deft scripting that manages to compress without chopping the story into snapshots of some greater whole, and Haldeman also knows when to get out of Marvano’s way. I continue to be in awe of Marvano’s storytelling, and his stunning eloquence. Towards the end of this issue there is a five-panel page where Mandella is watching Marygay’s ship leave orbit where Marvano’s use of perspective and distance manages to produce a gut-wrenching sensation of loss and loneliness as Marygay’s ship moves farther away from Mandella while the figure of Mandella is simultaneously moving farther away from the reader’s point of view. Describing it commits a gross injustice to the work, but unfortunately this page was not included in the art provided for us by Titan. You will know it when you see it, however, and you need to see it.

The Forever War #4. Script by Haldeman, art by Marvano.

The Forever War is brutal, beautiful, and utterly sublime. Haldeman and Marvano are creating must-read comics with every issue, and providing a master class in just how powerful the medium can be. This one should be on your pull list, and if it isn’t – you are cheating yourself out of a true phenomenon. The Forever War #4 will be available in comic shops on Wednesday, May 17.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Advanced Review: Joe Lansdale & Sam Glanzman’s Red Range.

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

Red Range is a wild, weird, woolly, and imperfect ride, but definitely one that’s worth taking, blending genres in a way that is dizzying and delightful.

Cover of Red Range from It’s Alive Press. Art by Sam Glanzman.

Red Range by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman was originally published in 1999 as a black and white comic and received little real fanfare or critical appreciation despite Lansdale’s position as one of the leading splatterpunk horror writers of the day and Glanzman’s devoted comics fan base. The book has languished in relative obscurity ever since, until Eisner award nominated comics editor Drew Ford chose it to launch his new publishing line It’s Alive Press. Dedicated to reprinting and preserving out of print and historically notable comics like Red Range, It’s Alive has an impressive line-up of forthcoming titles, including Trina Robbin’s adaptation of Dope by Sax Rohmer, Sam Glanzman’s Voyage to the Deep, and Family Man by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

It’s Alive’s edition of Red Range adds color by Jorge Blanco & JOK to the original work, a short western horror piece by Glanzman called “I Could Eat a Horse,” as well as an introduction by Richard Klaw (Mojo Press), an afterward by Stephen Bissette (Swamp Thing, Taboo), and historical commentary by Bissette, in a hardcover edition that, if Ford follows his usual habit, will be high quality and really well bound. The front-, middle-, and back-matter is particularly interesting for pop-culture history geeks like me who get a little too excited about the story of small publishing houses, or the history of cowboys and dinosaurs. The title story itself is… odd. The opening panels depict one of the most brutal, gory, and realistically violent lynchings that I have ever seen in a comic. This is interrupted by the African American vigilante Red Mask who proceeds to splatter the blood and brains of the white Klansmen widely with the help of a Sharp’s rifle and a double-barreled shotgun. Red Range, particularly the opening pages, has often been called hyper-violent, but I found the depictions to be realistic, and not nearly as graphic as that found in, say, many of Avatar Press’ regular titles. Still, the opening panels are a kick in the gut, particularly when you realize that what they depict is far from being among the worst historical atrocities perpetrated against African American families in the US, particularly in the late 19th century.

Red Range. Art by Sam Glanzman.

So Red Mask rescues the only survivor of the small family, a ‘tween boy, and takes him to his hide out with the head of the Klan – a typically pointy-headed, sweaty, fat man named Batiste – vowing revenge. What follows is a Wild West hunt that goes terribly wrong for the hunters. Ultimately, good triumphs and evil gets its just desserts, but along the way things are just really weird, with everyone being transported by a flash flood into a lost, underground world ruled by black men in Spanish conquistador armor, and otherwise populated by dinosaurs – including an inevitable t-rex. There is also strange strain of humor throughout the book, from basic slapstick to ruminations on the many uses of the humble chicken. In truth, a lot of the story, despite tremendous artwork from Glanzman, just doesn’t work. Even the virulent racism of Batiste is revealed to spring from a specific, horrific, and very painful assault he suffered as a child at the hands of several black kids. This scene (which is my personal favorite piece of Glanzman’s art in the book) tends to undercut the story’s effort to expose the realities of American racism by providing a reason for something that is ultimately entirely unreasonable and unreasoning. It also serves to equate Batiste with Red Mask, whose vigilante career began with the death of his wife and son at Batiste’s hands. So the tale is less about racism than revenge – on both sides. Red Range does better in its handling of racial tensions within the black community, as Red Mask and his companion find themselves condemned by the black rulers of the lost world because they are too black. This is a good lick, pointing up the damned-on-all-sides reality that some African Americans face, but taken with the problematic wellsprings of Batiste’s rage can also be read as something of a “blacks can be racists too” apologia.

Red Range. script by Joe Lansdale, art by Sam Glanzman.

Where Red Range really shines is Glanzman’s art. Bold, dynamic, and strong, this book showcases the artist at the height of his powers. His horses stamp and blow, his people start and move, his bullets violently end lives. Yet Glanzman also shows his chops quietly, beautifully, with close ups of weathered faces that tell tales all their own of grief and hate and love and pain, each an individual entity, with single panels showing the reader a life lived in a hard land for good or ill. This is truly amazing stuff, and worth the $29.99 cover price all by itself. The book is also a testament to the western genre’s seemingly endless flexibility. A mix of horror, social commentary, comedy, and lost world fantasy, all built upon a traditional western structure, Red Range blends genres in a manner that is almost dizzying, and – despite its flaws – delightful.

In the end, Red Range’s narrative stumbles are overcome by Glanzman’s art, including the “silent” short story included in the volume, and by the contextual history provided by Bissette and Klaw. This one goes onto my shelf because it’s a wild, weird, woolly, and imperfect ride, but definitely one that’s worth taking.

Red Range will hit the shelves in June of this year, and is available for preorder on Amazon or from your local comics shop.

 

The post Advanced Review: Joe Lansdale & Sam Glanzman’s Red Range. appeared first on Freaksugar.



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