Reviews from Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #25
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McSweeney’s, hb, 300pp
All Known Metal Bands, compiled and edited by Dan Nelson, prints in silver upon black pages the names of every metal band the author could discover, all 51,000 of them. Any writer of supernatural fiction looking for a new occult tome with which to tempt their protagonists might well find this suitable – reading any section of it aloud feels uncannily like participating in a ritual likely to end in one’s own sacrifice, right up until you reach a name that makes you laugh out loud (e.g. Dogs With Jobs or The Animatronic, to pick two at random).
It contains no less than three Necronomicons, a Necronomicon Beast, and a Necronomitron, which sounds very groovy. There are five Azathoths, six Yog-Sothoths (spelt variously), five Nyarlathoteps, five Dagons, two Cthulhus and one Cthulhu Biomechanical.
There are also three bands by the name of Minas Morgul, two Minas Tiriths, one Fellowship of the Ring, three Aragorns, seven Saurons, seven Mordors, and one Saruman. Legolas gets no love, though.
I won’t pretend I’ve read every name in the book, but I think I got the gist!  – SWT
Avon Books, pb, 416pp
I hadn’t read any fiction by Kim Newman before, though I’ve always enjoyed his film reviews for Empire. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read Dracula either, though I’ve seen plenty of film versions of it, so I came to this novel in a state of literary ignorance. Luckily, Newman held my head and told me that everything was going to be… absolutely horrible!
The twin premise here is that Dracula was not defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel, and that he existed in the same world as many other fictional characters.
It’s hard to mention that second bit without thinking of Alan Moore’s later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are other similarities, too, in that both authors have penned sequels taking their stories into the twentieth century. Earlier books in a similar vein include Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold-Newton books (credited here by Kim Newman), and of course just about every comic published since the 1940s.
Part of me wishes that Newman had limited himself to the characters from Dracula – occasionally the book drives you off to Wikipedia to look characters up, rather than drawing you in to its plot – but you can’t begrudge an author his enthusiasms, and in general he carries it off very well. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting ideas is that each family of vampires has its own abilities, mentalities and power relationships, as seen in all the different vampire novels that preceded this one. Because he died before turning, Dracula’s line is said to be tainted by the rot of the grave: damaged, and more demented than most.
For most of the novel Dracula himself is an offstage, pernicious presence. When he does take centre stage, the wait was worthwhile – Newman’s Dracula is utterly terrifying, and utterly malevolent.
Overall, this is a much more plot-driven book than you might expect, and, though the mood of fear, oppression and decay is kept at a high pitch, every word compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The literary games are always subservient to the storytelling. Similarly, Dracula’s far-from-bloodless coup has serious consequences for Britain’s society, from its class system to its political organisations and its foreign policy, but we only learn about those things as they become relevant to the story.
A brilliant book.  – SWT
Fear of Music: The Greatest 261 Albums Since Punk and Disco
Orion, hb, 384pp
It’s easy to love a single without loving the artist, but harder to do the same with an album. That really comes through in this book, where it seems hardly an album escapes adverse comment for one aspect or another of the lyrics or the artist’s politics. The writer’s a music critic, so it makes sense that he might have fallen in love with lots of different albums by lots of different artists over the years, and after all he gets to listen to an awful lot of what’s released, but it doesn’t quite convince me – it makes him seem like a gadfly, always moving on to something new, dropping bands like a shot when they’ve worn out their fashionability. I like to listen to new artists, but at the same time I buy pretty much every album by Nick Cave, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, The Wedding Present, the Aphex Twin, etc. The number of grudging reviews of albums in here just makes me wonder if his actual 261 favourite albums would be quite a different, less varied list. My version of this book would be much duller – ten or twenty albums by each of the above, plus a couple of dozen one-offs – whereas my version of This Is Uncool would have been pretty similar to his.
In my copy there are quite a few unfinished cross-references (maybe that’s why it was going cheap in HMV), and there’s also a bit of libel on p. 323, where Mulholland writes about “Woody Allen marrying his own adopted stepdaughter” (he didn’t: he married the adopted daughter of Andre Previn and Mia Farrow).
Still, this is a perfect bathroom book, and it’ll encourage you to give a lot of artists a second or third try. Plenty of the albums have some kind of fantasy, horror or science fiction element to them, so that’s my excuse for reviewing the book here…  – SWT
Ghosts in Baker Street
Carroll & Graf, pb, 320pp
The theme chosen for this anthology is that the cases presented should involve Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations and offer both a rational and supernatural explanation. It works rather well. Unfortunately, it includes three Sherlockian essays – on psychology and its relation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, the psychic detective in literature, and a personal reflection by Loren D. Estleman on the success of his particular brand of pastiche – in addition to the ten short stories. I suspect the essays will have a very limited interest, where a competent introduction would have served much better.
There are only two tales that don’t really fit in with the rest. “Selden’s Tale” by Daniel Stashower (one of the editors) is an autobiographical account by Selden, the Notting-Hill murderer in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It paints a rather pathetic picture of a wounded war hero turned drug addict, features a cameo from Sir Arthur, and has no supernatural elements whatsoever. “The Coole Park Problem” by Michéal and Clare Breathnach removes Holmes and Watson to Galway, and introduces them to Lady Gregory, William Butler Yates, and George Bernard Shaw. It appears to be a romantic fantasy, or perhaps a Celtic Revival faery tale, but there is no possible rational explanation for the events depicted.
The other eight adventures are all true to the theme, and of a high standard. As a general criticism, too many authors portray Watson as either credulous or only too eager to accept explanations that rely on the supernatural. This is in complete contrast to the man of whom, in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”, Holmes says, “You always keep us flat-footed on the ground”. Watson was an intensely practical man, frequently praised for his commonsense, and as unlikely as Holmes to have reached for a supernatural explanation – even if he had greater difficulty grasping the rational one.
“The Adventure of the Late Orang Outang” by Gillian Linscott has already received much praise, and deservedly so. Equally entertaining is Jon L. Breen’s “The Adventure of the Librarian’s Ghost”, but the two most intriguing are “Death in the East End” by Colin Bruce, and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes” by Loren D. Estleman. They are both atmospheric, eerie, and original ghost stories, perhaps closer to M.R. James than Sir Arthur. While the introduction of Holmes and Watson into the ghost stories facilitates their rational solutions, that is their only function, and both adventures are ghost stories disclosed by the use of supernatural sleuths, rather than Sherlockian pastiche. Perhaps that is why I can honestly say that the majority of readers are likely to enjoy the majority of the stories, be they mystery or horror fans.
Many, of course, are both, and they will appreciate the anthology even more. – Rafe McGregor
The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Villard, hb, 192pp
I’m tempted to give this book a very approving review, just because the idea is so good (and so useful) and because the book makes such a wonderful prop when chatting to doorstep evangelists. I work at home in an area that has lots of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, so I encounter Christian evangelists of various stripes all too frequently, as they come to save my brown-skinned neighbours from their heathenish ways.
But to unreservedly recommend the book for those reasons would be a disservice to readers who might be wondering whether to buy it. It’s not all that brilliant a book, or perhaps it’s better to say that what is brilliant about it you’ll probably have already seen on the author’s website.  – SWT
The Man in the Picture: a Ghost Story
Profile Books Ltd, hb, 145pp
I bought this novella in response to – or perhaps in spite of – a review in Prism, one of the British Fantasy Society’s publications. The reviewer, David Allkins, wrote that the ghost story has moved on from M.R. James and that there is no longer any point in attempting to recapture a style long gone. I don’t believe this is the case at all, and acquired a copy to decide for myself. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Mr Allkins’ overall assessment: The Man in the Picture doesn’t quite work. But that isn’t because it is an M.R. James pastiche, or because James’s work is no longer relevant or entertaining.
First, it isn’t so much a pastiche as a tribute or homage, a contemporary ghost story in which Ms Hill attempts to recreate the atmosphere, crescendo, and restraint which served James so well. The mistake can be forgiven, as the beginning – wherein a scholar hears a disturbing tale from his old and ailing tutor at Cambridge – is reminiscent of James at his best. The professor narrates a tale of intrigue and suspense concerning a painting of a Venetian carnival, and then – just as the story is becoming a literal page-turner – he nods off. Where does this leave the reader? The break in the tension is disappointing anticlimax.
The interruption is compounded by the novella being narrated by four different characters – far too many – causing regular disruptions to the build-up to the finale. As an aside, I’d be interested to discover the word count, given the small format and numerous blank pages – I suspect it is close to the borderline of the short story-novella divide. My last criticism is that while the concept of Ms Hill’s ghost is a clever one, no real rationale is given for why it should continue to wreak its historical havoc into the present day. It seems almost as if the book was rushed by both writer and editor, and put into print without careful consideration. The failure of The Man in the Picture is thus less to do with James than Ms Hill and Profile Books.
James’s stories continue to entertain as much as ever, and he has set a standard for the ghost story which few have reached, before or since. Making a ghost – something insubstantial by definition – scary, is a difficult task for a writer and only a handful can do it well. I suspect that Mr Allkins hasn’t read many of James’s stories – or perhaps not recently, anyway – and probably has an image of doddering old men bumbling about the countryside taking fright at noises and shadows. James’s ghosts are frightening, and their antiquarian and ecclesiastical settings make them more rather than less so. I’d be surprised if there are many contemporary readers who won’t feel a chill run down their spine when they read “Casting the Runes”, or a thrill at the originality of “The Diary of Mr Poynter”.
The Man in the Picture is a disappointing read – made more so by the promising beginning – but nonetheless entertaining on several levels. Perhaps it isn’t worth buying new, but I’d still recommend it as a loan from the library, or a used book. The novella is a brave attempt to follow in James’s footsteps and the ghost story enthusiast will find its faults are as interesting as its strengths. – RM
Seagalogy: a Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal
Titan Books, pb, 396pp
What Vern does so well is get at why people enjoy these films. He’s superb at pulling out what’s good about a film, regardless of the dross it’s buried under. He’s also relentlessly hilarious, and has a tremendous eye for detail.
It’s a bit weird to read his writing without any of the usual deliberate misspellings – it doesn’t feel quite right – but I can understand why he’s cleaned it up. It would have put off readers unfamiliar with his work.
The only question mark over the book is that it doesn’t seem to address Seagal’s reputation for sexual harassment, though I’ve hopped about a bit and might have missed it. Granted, it’s not a biography, but nevertheless…
Overall, though, this is a fine and original piece of writing. I’m looking forward to whatever Vern turns to next – Wesley Snipes, maybe, or Van Damme? Of Seagal’s ouevre, I’ve only ever seen Exit Wounds, so I’m also looking forward to watching a few Seagal movies. This book’s played havoc with my Lovefilm list…  – SWT
Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair
Wordsworth, pb, 128pp
Seventy-seven years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, interest in Holmes is finally waning. Mainstream publishers have all but abandoned him and there are less than a handful of specialist presses still in business. The Hentzau Affair was first published by one of the latter in 1991, and was reprinted by Wordsworth as part of their Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural sixteen years later. It is not only a Sherlockian pastiche, but one which takes Holmes and Watson to Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins’ fictional Ruritania. Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda was an instant success in 1894; but despite inspiring a host of imitations, and even creating a literary subgenre (the Ruritanian Romance), his novels lost their appeal in the second half of the twentieth century. While swashbuckling heroes have recently become fashionable again, they are more likely to be pirates with hearts of gold than aristocrats with stiff upper lips.
There is nothing stiff or dull about The Hentzau Affair: it’s a rip-roaring, action-packed, rollercoaster ride from London to Strelsau, with scarce time to draw breath in between. Mr Davies warms up with Colonel Sapt’s arrival at Baker Street in search of Rudolf Rassendyll, pauses for a neat summary of Zenda, and then plunges headlong into a murder at the Charing Cross Hotel, a police raid in the East End, an appointment at the Diogenes Club, and passage to Ruritania. No sooner have Holmes and Watson crossed the border, than the real excitement begins: they are robbed, attacked, drugged… and find themselves on one of their most dangerous cases.
Mr Davies has wisely retained the novel format that worked so well for both Hope and Doyle, and the adventure embraces all the strengths of the form while avoiding the pitfalls. The Hentzau Affair is in effect an alternative to Rupert of Hentzau, the sequel to Zenda, and – although a Sherlock Holmes story – stands as a thriller in the finest Ruritanian tradition. The presentation of a succinct précis of Zenda is particularly resourceful: not only does it place The Hentzau Affair chronologically for enthusiasts of Hope’s series, it also allows those who haven’t read the originals to enjoy the novel on its own. In fact, no previous knowledge of either Ruritania or Sherlock Holmes is required; the characters, setting, and plot speak for themselves.
The narrative culminates in a crescendo bursting with swank and aplomb, and there is a clever crossover between the signature Ruritanian theme and one of Holmes’ best known skills. Wisely, Mr Davies avoids an unhappy conclusion. It was the tragic end of Rupert that dissuaded David O. Selznick from making a sequel to his 1937 blockbuster of Zenda. Instead, he started work on a film called Gone with the Wind. Had there been two Ruritanian blockbusters… the possibilities are limitless. In general, The Hentzau Affair serves as a reminder that many of the successful novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are just as gripping as last week’s releases. Specifically, this resurrection of Ruritania has all the style and élan of the original, and is a delightful entertainment. – RM
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Fourth Estate, hb, 432pp
I took this edition of the book out from the library a while ago, then half-way through got entranced by the bulging biceps and voluptuous maidens of Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 1. Soon my time with the book was up, and another had already placed a reservation, so I had to return it unfinished – always heartbreaking. Second time around, I had to settle for a large print edition from W.F. Howes Ltd, which rather embarrassingly for that company announces itself as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the cover. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’m glad I didn’t make it.
So, yesterday I was done with Conan and his savage sword, and, resisting the temptation to move onto volume two, I returned with excitement to Jewish Alaska. Large print turned out to be a boon – I felt like a reading wunderkind as I flashed through the pages, and it was ideal for reading late at night by lamplight. Having taken a month to read the first twenty-four chapters (more or less one each night), it took me an evening and a morning to read the rest.
So that’s how I got to the end. Briefly, to remind myself in future years of the plot, this is where it begins: a rumpled policeman gets beaten up a lot (often by inanimate objects) as he investigates a murder in the weeks leading up to the abolition of a Jewish settlement in Alaska.
This is an alternative history novel in the tradition of Kingley Amis’s The Alteration, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I won’t go into the details of the differences from our world, because they are seeded through the book like little alarm clocks, but they don’t seem to stem from one single change. The main difference is that the nation of Israel did not survive, and a temporary settlement in Alaska was established instead.
The story works well as a detective story. There’s a lot going on, but Chabon has a knack of having his characters gather their thoughts just as you think you’re about to lose the thread. It also works well as alternative history – everything is plausible, but more to the point it shows how even in a world quite different to our own similar pressures would still exist. They would just be applied in different locations.
It was very reminiscent of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, another fine literary detective novel, what with the snow, and the crimes, and the slight fantastical twist. It added to those things a narration in the present tense, which made me groan as I read the first page, but won me over pretty quickly. It served a purpose – throwing you into the events and feeling them in the here and now, rather than relegating them to a distant irrelevant past.
Having finally finished it, I’m in a rather giddy mood today, so here’s the movie tagline I came up with last night: Even when everything’s different, some things stay the same. The Coen Brothers can have that for free…  – SWT
Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus Vol. 2
Dark Horse, pb, 448pp
I started reading this when it arrived, forgetting that I’m still in the middle of the first omnibus. Never mind.
Most of this is one huge (three hundred page) story, “Deadliest of the Species”, written by Chris Claremont with art by Jackson Guice and Eduardo Barreto. It’s very ambitious, and Claremont makes a real effort to tell a science fiction story that’s new to this universe, rather than rehashing the greatest hits. But while it’s enjoyable, with a lot of exciting stuff going on, I have to admit that I found much of it baffling, including the conclusion. That may be the effect of having read it late at night, though, so don’t take my word for it.
That’s followed by five short stories, mostly taken from the Alien vs Predator annual, which are all pretty entertaining.
The book concludes with “Xenogenesis”, a ninety-page story collected from the mini-series of the same name. It’s good fun, but doesn’t really surprise. I spent most of the story wondering where the big guy with short blonde hair had got to: make sure you pay close attention to the bottom panel on page 393.  – SWT
The Authority: The Magnificent Kevin
Wildstorm, tpb, 112pp
A former SAS soldier is called into action to help the stricken members of The Authority, and along the way we see into his past. The tone is very similar to Hitman, a previous comic by Garth Ennis, in that it mixes very broad comedy with fairly serious stuff, in this case what it means to be a soldier, to take orders, in particular ones that you know are wrong.
This isn’t the kind of thing that is really going to stretch Garth Ennis, but it’s very entertaining, and he comes up with some very funny dialogue, especially between Kevin and the Midnighter.
As for the artwork, this is some of the best work I’ve seen by Carlos Ezquerra for American comics. In previous stuff I’ve felt his artwork would have looked better in black and white (I’m thinking of the Preacher specials and the later 2000AD work) – it seemed very flat, with a glaze of colour over the top, whereas here there seems to be more detail and depth. Maybe it’s just that he has a more compatible colourist for this one.
Overall, not quite magificent, but well worth an hour of your time.  – SWT
Conan: The Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories (Vol. 3)
Dark Horse, tpb, 168pp
A nice substantial collection. It’s going over ground already covered, usually at more pace, by the Marvel comics, but the difference in approach makes it still worth reading. There seems to be more of an effort to build an ongoing narrative, which is appealing, and less verbosity in the captions, which I was ambivalent about. There was something interesting in the way Roy Thomas wrote with such elegant effusion about the adventures of a murderer and thief, but it could be an acquired taste – and reading issues in bulk you do sometimes think, as each issue launches with a flowery essay, Here we go again! On the other hand, the approach here – all the captions are extracts from a history of Conan being read as an education to a Prince – can be a bit distancing and, in comparison to Roy Thomas, a bit bland.
The artwork, mainly by Cary Nord, is of a very high quality, but the main thing I came away thinking was, What’s the point of drawing nipples if you aren’t going to colour the areola? The effect is that the women look like Barbie dolls. In my opinion, John Buscema’s artful arrangement of long hair and jewellery was much sexier.  – SWT
Doctor Who: The World Shapers
Panini, tpb, 288pp
Another fantastic book of John Ridgway’s Doctor Who comics, this time complemented by the writing of Jamie Delano and Grant Morrison, among others. I wish Delano, in particular, had spent a bit longer on the strip – his work here is excellent.  – SWT
Fruits Basket (Volume 3)
TokyoPop, pb, 191pp
With an average rating of 4.46/5 from 600 ratings on Goodreads at the moment, this book obviously has something going for it – but whatever it was I didn’t like it. I found it confusing and dull. Many key characters were virtually indistinguishable, the artwork bland, production-line stuff, the stories frivolous and weak. It reminded me of nothing so much as an Indian soap opera, with endless images of reactions and over-reactions to lame dialogue.
Reading everything backwards was a chore, though I guess complaining about that puts me in the same category as people who complain about watching subtitled films.
I just picked up the wrong book from the library that week.  – SWT
Hellblazer: Papa Midnite
Vertigo, tpb, 128pp
Interesting miniseries prompted by the character’s appearance in the Constantine movie (like many characters before him, he’s given a makeover to better match the movie version), telling of his involvement with a black Manhattan Spartacus. The story is decent, and the history of it was new to me, but I was left rather wishing I’d read the source material instead. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but, given the nature of his curse, if Barack Obama wins the presidential election will we see a sequel showing the effect his victory has on Papa Midnite?  – SWT
Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Other Stories (Vol. 7)
Dark Horse, tpb, 144pp
A collection of short stories from various sources, such as the Dark Horse Book of Hauntings and its siblings. All the stories are written by Mike Mignola, and he draws most of them too, but P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben provide the artwork for “The Vampire of Prague” and “Makoma” respectively.
The storytelling is more minimal than in the first Hellboy collection, Seed of Destruction (which I started reading a day or two before writing this review), which makes it all the more evocative, and makes Hellboy’s mood-puncturing dialogue all the funnier. However, I did have to be careful not to flip through the book without paying attention to the details of the art. A lot of people say they read comics twice – once to find out what happens and a second time to enjoy how it’s told – but when reading a library book you have to make the effort to do both things first time around.
All the stories are worth reading, but “Makoma”, in which Hellboy finds himself living through an African legend, was superb.  – SWT
Dark Horse, tpb, 120pp
Lots of odd little stories about Hellboy from the days before he found his way into our world, mainly written by Bill Wray, of Ren and Stimpy fame. Maybe it’s the geek in me, but I couldn’t help wondering whether these were supposed to be in continuity or not: the hell in these stories is awfully prosaic compared to the place I imagined Hellboy coming from – basically it’s a Christian hell rather than a Lovecraftian one. (Though I haven’t read much Hellboy, so maybe that’s the Hell you see in the other books too.)
None of this made me laugh out loud, and parts made me feel positively queasy, but it was an amusing read. Kind of like how the Beano and Dandy would never make me laugh, but I always enjoyed them.  – SWT
Hellboy: Weird Tales, Vol. 2
Dark Horse, tpb, 144pp
Lots of great little stories about Hellboy and his friends. The artwork is of an excellent standard. I almost said a uniformly excellent standard there, but stopped myself, partly because that’s such a cliche, but also because the art is anything but uniform – a dozen completely different styles appear, each of them quite marvellous. This was actually the first Hellboy book I ever read. Volume 2 of a collection of stories not written by the character’s creator Mike Mignola is a funny place to start – it’s what they happened to have in the library – but it left me keen to read more.  – SWT
JLA: Rules of Engagement (Vol. 13)
DC Comics, tpb, 144pp
I came to this having previously read up to volume 9, a Mark Waid book, and then, earlier this week, volume 17, Syndicate Rules, by Kurt Busiek. What, for me, placed Joe Kelly’s work here over either of those was that it felt like things were happening: relationships were changing, decisions had ramifications, villains were dangerous. What the stories here do very, very well is get at Superman’s biggest weakness – not kryptonite, but being forced into making decisions in situations where there is no right or wrong answer. He has super-strength, but he has no power of super-philosophy.  – SWT
JLA: Syndicate Rules (Vol. 17)
DC Comics, tpb, 200pp
I really wanted to enjoy this – one of the longest modern JLA stories I’ve read – and I did, but it still left me a little disappointed. It’s Grant Morrison’s fault. His, and that of the other British invaders, like Warren Ellis, Mark Millar and Alan Moore. They can’t write everything (though Mark Millar gives it a good try), but few others can match them. So a perfectly decent story like this feels a bit flat because it lacks the flash, bang and sparkle of a Morrison JLA story. It’s unfair: I wouldn’t watch Two and a Half Men and complain that it isn’t quite as good as Annie Hall. I try to enjoy things for what they are, but reading comics, where the geniuses and the craftsmen all use the same characters, the small things accumulate. Flash isn’t quite as cheeky. Green Lantern isn’t quite as imaginative. Batman isn’t quite as cool. Superman isn’t quite as awesome. You’re left looking for what’s missing, rather than enjoying what’s there.
One other problem here is that the longer it goes on, the more it seems that very little is going to happen. Worst of all is a scene where the JLA are in life-or-death battle with aliens, and we’re being told that they are being soundly defeated – but they’re all invulnerable, and just being slapped about by energy beams. There’s no real sense of peril or drama.  – SWT
JSA: Savage Times (Vol. 6)
DC Comics, tpb, 168pp
JSA, like its pre-Crisis counterpart All-Star Squadron, is a title that operates along the seams of DC’s damaged continuity, stitching it up and adding new pieces to complete the patchwork. But where All-Star Squadron, though always a good read, often brought the story to a halt to fix minor continuity issues, JSA never lets up on the action, while still sorting out some pretty huge problems – Hawkman, for one. It does a marvellous job of bringing together characters and storylines from all eras – members of the original 1940s team such as Wildcat and Green Lantern, Atom Smasher from Infinity Inc, elements from Gaiman’s The Sandman and John Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, as well as introducing new characters like Mister Terrific. This story gets a bit bogged down in the Shazam/Hawkman shared history, but is still a good read, if only to sympathise with Captain Marvel’s crush on the Star-Spangled Kid! Poor guy – if he says anything she’ll think he’s a pervert – it’s not always easy being a kid in an adult’s body!  – SWT
JSA: Lost (Vol. 9)
DC Comics, tpb, 208pp
When I read JSA I sometimes wish it was the only comic being published about the DC universe, because it’s here that it all makes sense. The characters have a past, present and a future, into which they are moving, rather than being stuck in an eternal present.  – SWT
JSA: Black Vengeance (Vol. 10)
DC Comics, tpb, 208pp
The first story is a team-up between the JSA of the 1950s, directly after their decision to disband, and the present team. The second continues the story of Black Adam and Kahndaq, while also warming up for the Day of Vengeance mini-series. It was probably my favourite Geoff Johns book to date, while the artwork, by several different hands, is very, very good throughout.  – SWT
The Lost Colony Book One: The Snodgrass Conspiracy
First Second, pb, 128pp
An odd little book, set on the peculiar island home of some peculiar people, in 19th century America. My American history isn’t very good, but I think it’s an alternative US, since slavery is still legal. I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much – the characters were interesting, but the story’s told mainly via a series of close-up shots of their heads, which becomes a bit wearing after a while. 5 – SWT
The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 1
Dark Horse, tpb, 542pp
A marvellous collection of stories from Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan magazine, plus a few that appeared earlier in Savage Tales. Roy Thomas and Conan were a match made in Cimmeria and this volume shows them at their mutual best.
Quite a bit of the book forms a connected narrative set fairly early in Conan’s career. Towards the end there’s a jarring excursion into the future with an adaptation of “The Hour of the Dragon”, by which point Conan has already both become a king and been deposed.
I wish I’d had this at eleven or twelve, when it would have been the most valuable treasure in my possession!
The artwork, by many hands (several stories are part-credited to “the Tribe”), is of a consistently high quality, but of course the work of John Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith stands out. There are no sexier women in comics than those in this book (and, I’d wager, no sexier men either, though that isn’t my area of expertise).  – SWT
Starman: A Starry Knight (Vol. 7)
DC Comics, tpb, 180pp
Jack heads into space on his quest for an earlier Starman, taking a fairly roundabout route. The art and writing are top-notch, and as always in this title there are some lovely nods to the past, but I still find Jack himself to be the least interesting part of the book.  – SWT
Rebellion, tpb, 112pp
This book collects two serials, “Stone Island” from 2000AD progs 1500-1507, and “Stone Island: The Harrowers” from progs 1550–1559, both written by Ian Edgington with lovely, horrible art by Simon Davis.
I was surprised by how graphic this was – I haven’t read the main 2000AD title for a while, though I subscribed to 2000AD Extreme Edition right up to its recent demise. But it was a pleasant surprise!
The first serial is a flat-out horror blockbuster, a Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Alien v Predator dumb-but-fun bit of Hollywood excess.
The second serial has its moments, but is less interesting – a venture into what is pretty much a standard issue world-beyond-the-portal. What’s beyond the portal is nearly always better left to the imagination.  – SWT
Superman: Red Son
DC Comics, tpb, 160pp
Was this the book with which Mark Millar stepped out from Grant Morrison’s shadow? I’m not sure of the chronology, although I know the publication of this was delayed a while and people were saying how good it was for a long, long time before it was released. It’s a great book, but won’t amaze anyone who’s read, for example, John Byrne’s Superman & Batman: Generations (another story which allows time to pass), or Superman: The Dark Side, by John Francis Moore and Kieron Dwyer, which sees Superman grow up on Apokolips. I enjoyed both of those, and I enjoyed this one too. It’s supposedly quite a controversial book, but I think that’s mainly because communism doesn’t turn Superman totally evil!  – SWT
Terminator Omnibus Volume 2
Dark Horse, pb, 376pp
“Hunters and Killers”, the eighty-page story that opens this volume, was interesting for me in being the first Terminator story I’ve seen or read which didn’t feature any time-travelling. It made for a refreshing change, as was seeing what was going on during the war with Skynet somewhere other than the US.
“Endgame” takes us back to some of the characters who survived the stories in the first omnibus, as the Terminators try to prevent John Connor’s birth. It’s a good story, but it’s easy to see why the comic came to a close at this point (licensing issues aside): there’s a limit to how many Terminators you can send back after Sarah Connor before their failure becomes ludicrous.
Dark Horse then lost the license for a few years, before returning with “Death Valley” (originally a mini-series just called The Terminator). It’s an okay story that wouldn’t be out of place in the current tv series. Guy Davis’s artwork in the first half is good, but Steve Pugh’s artwork in the second half is a huge departure, and is very hit and miss. John Connor looks rather “slow of thinking” in many panels; far from the sharp-eyed, quick-witted scamp you’d expect. (“Suicide Run”, a short story which appeared in Dark Horse Presents at about the same time, is also included in the book.)
But if John Connor looks weird in that story, wait till you get a look at “The Dark Years”. At the beginning of that story (split between the turn of the century and the Skynet war of the future), the adult John Connor looks like a stern yoga instructor, but by the end he has transformed into a post-potion Obelix. Amazingly, there’s no change of penciller, so the inkers must have really gone for it on this one. The last panel has to be seen to be believed.  – SWT
Ultimate Galactus Trilogy
Marvel, hb, 344pp
This is a very substantial book, so if you’re looking for a blockbuster comic to get stuck into this will fit the bill nicely. The tone of the first chapter is much grimmer than the other two, and Galactus, though avoiding the inherent goofiness of the original, is a bit of a letdown. But as crossovers go this is pretty great. Each of the three main artists involved does some stunning work, especially Brandon Peterson, and all the characters involved get a chance to shine.  – SWT
Vertigo: First Cut
Vertigo, tpb, 192pp
Contains the first issues of seven different Vertigo titles (DMZ, Army@Love, Jack of Fables, The Exterminators, Scalped, Crossing Midnight and Loveless) and a preview of an eighth (Air). It hasn’t left me desperate to read any of them, though they all seem like decent comics. They just felt a bit grim, taken together – two of them are set in wars, two are westerns, and another is about the ongoing war between man and vermin. The remaining two, Jack of Fables and Crossing Midnight, are the ones I’m most likely to read more of, though I’ll probably be reserving them at the library rather than buying my own copies.  – SWT
War Stories, Vol. 1
Titan Books Ltd, tpb, 240pp
I remember, back in the days when letters pages in comics weren’t quite so rare, Garth Ennis asking for help in completing his collection of Commando and the like: in these specials he has a crack at writing some of his own, and makes a pretty good fist of it. David Lloyd’s artwork is stunning in the last of them.  – SWT
War Stories, Vol. 2
Vertigo, tpb, 240pp
Four more great stories from Garth Ennis. My favourites were the story about catapult-launched planes, “Archangel”, and the one about a prototype SAS squad, “The Reivers”. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thinks Garth Ennis should do a monthly SAS comic. They turn up in just about everything he does…  – SWT
Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991
Harper, pb, 384pp
The modern Superman comes in for quite a bit of criticism for being a bit of a wimpy new man, but the Superman of the 1950s was as much a product of his time, with his gratingly patriarchal attitude.
Zot, on the other hand, is like a Superman out of time, free of the need to appear in twenty comic books a month or to maintain a status quo. He’s happy, comfortable with his powers, accepting of the things he can’t change, determined to change the things he can. He has no hang-ups, but is understanding of the hang-ups of others. He’s everything Superman has the potential to be.
This superb and substantial book contains nearly all of his adventures in black and white (leaving out backup strips and a couple of issues drawn by Chuck Austen – though Scott McCloud’s layouts for those issues are included). The stories are light-hearted, funny and exciting, with a bit of soap opera to keep you going from issue to issue. McCloud’s approach to super-heroics and super-villainy is imaginative and innovative.
If the book has one flaw it’s that the author’s notes, which appear at the end of each story, might have been better collected at the end of the book. They are fascinating, but it feels sometimes as if the author is trying to overdetermine the reader’s response, in particular in his attitude to the later issues, which take place almost entirely on Earth.
He obviously loved those issues (as did a lot of readers), but after reading so many notes about how much better the comic is without the superhero stuff, I found those issues rather underwhelming. I much preferred the bulk of the book, in which the relationship stuff is just one element among many.
The art is astounding from start to finish. McCloud uses a variety of approaches to create various effects, but his main mode is a clear line style similar to that seen in Tintin, with a dash of manga expressionism.
All in all, a joy to read, and a feast for the eyes!  – SWT
McSweeney’s, hb, 300pp
This isn’t one of the issues of McSweeney’s that you buy for a substantial read – if it takes anyone more than an hour to read it all I’d be surprised. It’s been a while since I last finished a book on the same day it was delivered!
But it’s a book of fables, and the power of a fable isn’t in the reading, it’s in the retelling, and I could see a few of these fables having a life beyond the pages of these perfectly produced little books. It’s easy to imagine a headmaster using one as the basis for a school assembly, for example.
You wouldn’t want to pay twenty pounds for it, though – anyone in the UK tempted to buy McSweeney’s from a bookshop should note that (at the time of writing) if you subscribe directly you can get the whole year’s issues for only about fifty quid, thanks to the current exchange rate.  – SWT