PUPPET MASTER, VOLUME 1: THE OFFERING

(Shawn Gabborin/Michela Da Sacco/Yann Perrelet; 67 pages; ACTION LAB: DANGER ZONE; 2015)

PUPPET MASTER VOLUME 1

I’ve never been a huge fan of Charles Band’s PUPPET MASTER movie franchise. Ever since my first viewing at age seven (yes, I watched rated R films as a seven year old child… thanks, Mom), I’ve always found the series to be overtly desperate without providing much quality to back up the undeniably ambitious plot. So, naturally when Unka D asked me to review the recent continuation of the PUPPET MASTER mythos from Action Lab’s Danger Zone mature readers imprint, my expectations were thoroughly embedded beneath the soles of my Vans sneakers. Luckily for me, I was pleasantly surprised.

PUPPET MASTER Issue 1 cover, page 3 (Written by SHAWN GABBORIN, cover and art by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

PUPPET MASTER Issue 1 cover, page 3 (Written by SHAWN GABBORIN, cover and art by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

Familiarity settles in quickly as the story kicks off at the well known Bodega Bay Inn. For newbies to the series, the aforementioned lodge has become a staple setting in the ten film (yes, ten film!) franchise. After a quick intro sequence involving an unlucky vagrant who meets his untimely demise, we’re introduced to the protagonists of the tale, a group of horny college students who, in typical ’80s horror fashion, have decided to get hammered and spend the weekend at the abandoned inn.

PUPPET MASTER Issue 2 (Cover by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

PUPPET MASTER Issue 2 (Cover by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

Script-wise, these books are topnotch. All the recognizable puppets make their triumphant returns (Blade being my personal favorite.). The narrative is paced like a horror film, which really keeps you immersed in the overall linearity of the story. Ladened with genuinely creepy moments, the tone of the miniseries-within-a-series (this collection features the first three-issue story arc of the current ongoing series) walks the line between black humor and horror very well. The artwork, courtesy of Michela De Sacco, really captures the dark, yet kitschy vibe that is so identifiable with the franchise. Chock-full of brutal death scenes, there is more than enough blood and guts here to please the gore hounds, as well.

PUPPET MASTER Issue 3 cover, page 3 (Written by SHAWN GABBORIN, cover and art by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

PUPPET MASTER Issue 3 cover, page 3 (Written by SHAWN GABBORIN, cover and art by MICHELA DA SACCO and YANN PERRELET)

Shawn Gabborin has done an admirable job of taking a brand that has been contrived (at best) for the better part of the last decade and breathing new life into it. This reviewer looks forward to seeing where the story goes from here. PUPPET MASTER, VOLUME 1: THE OFFERING is available at comic shops everywhere, as well as the usual on-line places, including digital download outlets such as ComiXology. For more on the PUPPET MASTER movie franchise, as well as signed, limited edition comics and more visit: Full Moon Direct.


DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND

(Shane Hensley/Various Writers and Artists; IDW PUBLISHING/VISIONARY COMICS/PINNACLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP; 2015)

Dead-Mans-Hand

What an absolutely beautiful book this is! Anyone familiar with Shane Hensley’s DEADLANDS role playing game will recognize the characters and the concept and will be immediately drawn into this world of gun-play and spiritualism. Likewise, anyone who remembers THE WILD, WILD WEST (the 1960s television series or the updated movie version starring Will Smith) will recognize the science-fiction/steampunk feel present here (especially in the first story, “The Devil’s Six Gun”) or, if you’re familiar with the early ’70s DC comic, WEIRD WESTERN TALES (home of El Diablo, a spooky Zorro knock-off with awesome art from Gray Morrow and, later, Neal Adams; the pages of WWT also saw the debut of Jonah Hex, one of DC’s most endearing western characters), you will definitely want to check out DEAD MAN’S HAND, a book that is filled with demons, spirits, monsters and supernatural happenings aplenty. Of course, these new era stories are more violent, more graphic, with far more blood than those earlier creators could depict. With that in mind, allow me to amend my first sentence to read, “What an absolutely beautifully written and illustrated book this is!”

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "The Devil's Six Gun" (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “The Devil’s Six Gun” (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

The majority of the collection compiles the original four issue run of Image Comics one-shots, beginning with “The Devil’s Six Gun” by the award-winning team of David Gallaher and Steve Ellis. The tale follows the life of scientific genius Copernicus Blackburne, a man driven to explore the unexplained. When the sewing machine repair shop he works for is given a military contract to develop new firearms, Copernicus creates and refines the protean pistol, the most accurate and deadliest weapon known to mankind. His efforts draw the attention of an American benefactor, Samuel Tygian, who commissions Copernicus to further refine his pistol, producing the ultimate weapon. As Blackburne immerses himself into his work, a series of unfortunate events robs him of his family, his home and… well, let’s just say that you should always read the fine print before signing any contract. Gallaher’s story is taut as a bowstring, while still adding little bits of personal information that allows the reader to develop an empathy toward the lead character, even as we follow his walk down the path to destruction; Ellis’ artwork is intricate and filled with a life that very few of today’s comic artists are capable of producing. The story sets the tone nicely for what’s still to come.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Massacre At Red Wing" (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Massacre At Red Wing” (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

Massacre At Red Wing,” written by long-time Jonah Hex scribes Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, is a story about a girl and her dog. The young woman’s path finds her seeking her past and fulfilling her destiny; Clementime is searching for her mother, an Indian woman, who thinks that her baby daughter was put to death by her rapist, a white man who may have more than a touch of demon blood coursing through his veins. Having gained certain information that may lead her to her mother, Clementime is traveling to a small town called Red Wing. Along the way, she comes across a community beset by demons. She considers leaving demon and human alike to their own fates, but decides to intercede, using her mystical powers to defeat the demons and, with her dog’s help, gain additional knowledge as to the whereabouts of her mother. Once she reaches Red Wing, the story reverts to a rather standard tale of rescue and revenge. In this case, though, “standard” doesn’t mean bad or even particularly predictable… the title pretty much tells you where this story’s going; it’s just a well-used plot in the Western genre, whether in comics, movies, literature or any other medium. For the most part, the story is character driven, with some fairly graphic violence tossed in just to remind the reader what kind of book they’re reading. The art by Lee Moder (with colorist Michael Atiyeh working with a palette that’s far brighter and more inviting than most would use for such a tale) is very much in the style of the great Gil Kane, with beautifully rendered figures and graceful action sequences. “Massacre At Red Wing” is one of the most visually stunning pieces of comics work you’re likely to see.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Death Was Silent" (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Death Was Silent” (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

The gritty, atmospheric “Death Was Silent” is an Old West take on the whole INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS scenario. Hoyt Cooper arrives in town on a bleak, rainy day, a body draped over his saddle. Cooper, whose tongue was cut out by “savages,” wears a slate board on his chest. The board has had a spell cast on it, allowing Cooper to “speak”; whatever he thinks, appears on the board. The slate announces that Cooper has shown up to kill everyone in the town, which is completely infected by an alien being. With a little help from an unexpected source, Cooper goes about ridding the earth of the alien mother and her offspring in a brutal display of violence. Series editor, Ron Marz’s story has everything that you could ask for in a western yarn laced with science-fiction elements and just a touch of voodoo; the artwork, by Bart Sears, matches the feel of the script perfectly… dark and moody. Atiyeh is back, using much harsher colors… drab and dreary, evoking the gloomy atmosphere of an inhabited town, as well as the weather conditions the story takes place in. Of all of the stories in DEAD MAN’S HAND, this one comes closest to the feel of those early Jonah Hex tales.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Black Water" (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Black Water” (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

Black Water” is a tale of greed, lust and revenge, with equal parts Greek mythology, Scottish lore, ancient Chinese curses, TREASURE ISLAND, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Harmon Rappaport, a rich and ruthless man, has been on a quest to find a woman he saw only once (and that, after being hit with a musket ball during the Civil War); after a visit to a spiritualist, where he learns that the woman is dead, Rappaport plans a voyage to the mystical maze of Shan Fen, where the seer says the woman can be found. The siren call of the woman leads Rappaport, his body guard Ian Fairfax and a gunslinger and self-professed “guide” named Lyle Crumbfine set out on a paddle steamer heading downstream, in search of the maze; also along for the ride are the vessel’s captain and several other interesting passengers. Three nights into the trip, the boat is destroyed by a waterspout, leaving the passengers to struggle toward the beach and safety. What lies ahead is an exciting journey of sea monsters, ambushes, death and revenge. Jeff Mariotte weaves a suspenseful yarn, exploring the extent and the deprivations that one man will go to acquire the one thing he cannot have; Brook Turner’s intricate art shows the influences of some of the legends of the field, including – most evident – Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Rich Buckler. Visionary Comics honcho C Edward Sellner’s deft hand and astute eye turns in a brilliant color job.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "What a Man's Got To Do" (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); "Vengeful" (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “What a Man’s Got To Do” (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); “Vengeful” (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

One of two new stories to this edition is called “What a Man’s Got To Do.” Written by DEADLANDS brand manager, Matthew Cutter, and illustrated by Ulises Roman (with colors by Doug Spencer), the short piece delves into Indian mysticism and spirit animals, as Lucas Pitt joins a posse that is, ultimately, massacred by the outlaws they were hunting. With Pitt, the only survivor, on the run from the villains, he and they quickly discover that Lucas is a completely different… animal when he’s sleeping. DEADLANDS creator Shane Hensley supplies the script for the other new story, “Vengeful.” A marshal’s idyllic retirement is shattered by an escaped convict, intent on exacting revenge on the marshal and his wife. As the outlaw and his gang sets fire to the couple’s home, leaving the bodies to rot, we are quickly reminded that, sometimes, even a righteous soul can want vengeance. The art, provided by penciller Sean Lee, inker Mike Munshaw and colorist Sellner, is spacious, befitting the wide-open land it depicts. Other unique bonus features include a roleplaying supplement for the DEADLANDS RELOADED game, character concept sketches from Steve Ellis, Lee Moder and Brook Turner and a preview of the first DEADLANDS novel, GHOSTWALKERS, written by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall. Whether you’re into the RPG or not, whether you’re into weird western comics or not, you are still going to love the storytelling and the magnificent art of DEAD MAN’S HAND… don’t miss out.


EMPIRE OF THE WOLF

(Michael Kogge/Dan Parsons/David Rabbitte/Chris Summers/Marshall Dillon/Doug Beekman; 125 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2014)

DIG030689_1

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF is a four issue limited series – collected here in one place – that explores historical aspects of the Roman empire, melding realities with the mythological story of Romulus and Remus, which, naturally, leads to the introduction of another European legend into the mix – the werewolf. Overall, the story is well constructed, though I did find it a bit confusing differentiating between the characters. I found myself re-reading pages and going back farther into the story to catch up on who was doing what and where they were doing it (and to whom); that problem, I feel, has more to do with the artists’ designs and execution than a jumbled script. If you’ve been around for as long as I have, then you probably remember Barry (Windsor) Smith’s early work on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN and some other Marvel books, as well as Mike Grell’s earliest efforts at DC with THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, GREEN ARROW and, of course, THE WARLORD; while I have come to appreciate the art and storytelling prowess of both of these gentlemen, those early works featured rather stiff figures, with odd angles and extended torsos and faces. Dan Parsons, who pencilled the first two issues, has those same tendencies; David Rabbitte, penciller on the final two issues, suffers the same malady, though to a lesser extent (maybe that similarity is an attempt to retain continuity throughout the series). The colorists (Rabbitte on the first and fourth issues, Chris Summers on the middle two) worked directly over the pencil art, giving the pages a cool painted look, which smooths out some of the problems already alluded to. Don’t get me wrong… while the artwork may be an acquired taste (at least, for me), it is in no way inferior. In fact, both artists prove they are not without talent, as there are several absolutely brilliantly illustrated pages in each of the four issues (plus, Parsons handled the original cover art, which is certainly of a high standard). Also, special mention must be made of the other member of the original artistic team, letterer Marshall Dillon, who was handpicked by Kogge to give the pages the look and feel of those early ’70s Marvel books by such greats as John Costanza and Sam Rosen. His work does, indeed, add a special touch to the book.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

The first issue (or Book I, to be more accurate) is sub-titled “The Savage North” and introduces the two protagonists, centurions of the Second Augustan Legion, Canisius Sarcipio, a former slave, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, nephew to the emperor, who are leading their forces through Britannia, convinced that the only way to civilize the Celts is to conquer them; failing to civilize the Celts, nothing less than their utter destruction will do. As their general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, joins them, it would seem that their decision has been made for them: Genral Vespasianus has discovered the eviscerated body of a fellow soldier, the work of a Druid sect under the leadership of a giant named Caradog. As the general and centurions lead their armies, intent on destroying everything in their path, they encounter Caradog, a killing machine who quickly dispatches over a hundred Roman soldiers as well as Vespasianus, all in the name of his ancestor, Remus. As the general lies dying of his wounds, he gives his command to Canisius; Lucius and Canisius pursue Caradog, eventually catching up to… something that definitely isn’t human. At home, in Rome, Canisius’ beloved, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta, is troubled by dreams and visions of death and defeat. Her visions prove to be right; as Lucius is bitten by the monstrous Caradog, Canisius forces the fight, allowing his friend to escape back to the Roman encampments. Meanwhile, Lavinia, cursing Vesta, vows that if Canisius does not return, Rome will burn. There’s a lot of groundwork to digest in “The Savage North,” and much that needs to be explained. The story is off to an action-packed start but, for it to be told properly, it cannot maintain this break-neck level.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

However, with Book II, “The Mark of the Beast,” even though the action doesn’t slow appreciably, the story does advance nicely… so, what do I know, huh? Canisius’ battle with the beastial Caradog leaves them dead or dying – the former from a vicious bite from the latter; Caradog from his own weapon, a mystical sword called “Moonblade.” By now, we all know what’s happening here, right? Caradog and his followers are werewolves, a fact that can only mean… Canisius isn’t dead, just weak from loss of blood, with the added bonus of the lupine infection passed on from his foe’s bite. In the meantime, Lucius (who is also infected) claims sole command of all Roman forces in Brittania, seeking the glory that will make it possible for him to ask for the hand of the lovely Lavinia; he didn’t necessarily seek the death of his friend but, he certainly intends to take advantage of it. Canisius awakens, naked and freezing, as a Druid sorceress named Ambrosia appears. Ambrosia, knowing the warrior’s fate, has purposed to bring out the beast in Canisius, thinking that he may be the chosen one, who will lead the Celts to ultimate victory. Upon Lucius’ homecoming, he is – naturally – rebuffed by Lavinia. There’s a nice bit of Royal Court intrigue, as the “conquering hero” is feted by his uncle, the emperor, and his ambitious mother. I guess if you wanna call the last few pages of this chapter a “surprise ending,” that works as well as any. Differentiating between the two primary characters is a lot easier in this issue, mainly because they’re never together. Again, the writing is crisp; the artwork features flashes of brilliance but, still, the characters occasionally suffer from a… uh… stiffness, I suppose, is the best word. Parsons’ action scenes seem to be more fluid here than in Book I, so that’s a definite plus.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

An origin story of sorts opens Book III, subtitled “The Blood of Remus.” The legend of Romulus and Remus, sons of the Roman god of war, Mars, born of a virgin, unfolds in the first six pages of the chapter, offering insight into the main tale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF. Mythology buffs will remember that the twins were raised by wolves and, eventually, Romulus’ lust for power led to the death of Remus at his brother’s hand. David Rabbitte’s art and Chris Summer’s use of subdued earth-tones to color these pages are the best of the series so far; the opening splash page alone is a thing of compositional beauty, boding well for the rest of this book, as well as the final chapter of the series. As the Druid Ambrosia relates to Canisius the legendary tale, he begins to understand and accept what has happened; his memory also returns and he is determined to return to Rome and Lavinia. Upon entering a Roman outpost, he is met by an old friend who is surprised to see him; it seems that Lucius has declared him dead and has become the cruel emperor Nero. Now, Canisius has another reason to return home: To liberate Rome and his beloved and to seek revenge on his traitorous friend. As his plans now seems to dovetail with that of the Druids, a plan is formulated and the group boards a Roman galleon returning to Rome. While on board, a Roman officer attacks Ambrosia, triggering the lupine change in Canisius. Meanwhile, back in Rome, the desire of two great leaders, Lavinia, witnesses a brutal attack by the beastial Lucius, sending her fleeing from the city. From that point, things get a bit muddled, with shipwrecks, vengeance-seeking corpses and some very confusing scenes taking place in a cave; originally, Canisius appears to be under the thrall of a sibyl who has taken the form of Lavinia but, suddenly, the scene shifts to another cave where Lavinia is hiding from the wrathful Lucius, who has managed to hunt her down. As long as you pay close attention to the captions, you’re gonna know what’s going on but, now that both Lucius and Canisius are basically in the same situation, the identity problem has, again, reared its utterly confused head. Our heroes simply look too much alike for a casual reader to browse over this part and not come away scratching their head. The pencil art throughout the cave scenes would have benefited from some inks, as the shading leaves the faces looking a bit muddy; other than that minor complaint, the artwork is, overall, a vast improvement over the first two installments. With a little more exposition mixed in with the action, Book III has set up what should be an exciting and eventful finale.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

Book IV is “Empire of the Wolf,” an epic culmination of Michael Kogge’s two decade journey to tell this story. It begins with Canisius’ journey through Hades, searching for the soul of Ambrosia; the Druid, however, did not perish in the shipwreck and she – and several surviving members of the sect – are saved and brought to Rome… entertainment for the emperor. Lucius, allying himself with Lavinia’s father, has taken her as his reluctant empress and, as the brutal Nero, sends Ambrosia and her companions to certain doom, facing a menagerie of wild beasts in the gladiatorial ring. When Canisius appears from the depths of Hades, the two old friends battle for supremacy, with a fight that rages throughout the city. With Rabbitte now coloring his own pencil work, the art takes on a more atmospheric tone, especially the scenes at the River Styx and in Hades and the fight scenes. I’m really not the type of person who enjoys delivering spoilers, so… I’ll just tell you that, in this version, the historical burning of Rome definitely does not happen while Nero fiddles. The finale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF also features reversals of fortunes, acts of revenge, scenes of comeuppance, historical references that give the story a vibrant ring of truth and a very satisfying ending. I don’t know if Kogge has any plans for a sequel, but if he does… sign me up. By the way, how about that brand new, awe-inducing Doug Beekman painting that appears on the cover of this collection? I would stack that up against any (non-Frazetta) cover to ever grace an issue of CREEPY or EERIE.


DEADLANDS PROMOTION

(UPDATE BELOW)

DEADLANDS Promo

Back in the day, when the only comic books that I had access to were from Marvel, DC and the Warren black and white magazines, I bought and read just about every title from those three publishers. As they began to price me out of their market, I drifted on to other things, buying only the hardcover collections of some of my favorites. Now, however, with the Mule expanding past the music coverage that fLUSH and fLUSHstl was known for, I’m playing a bit of catch-up, especially with the ever-expanding world of indie imprints and studios. Which brings me to Visionary Comics and a title called DEADLANDS. DEADLANDS began as a role playing game (for those unfamiliar with RPGs, think DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, but set in Old West), expanded to a series of one-shot comics published by Image and, now, has grown to include novelizations, new comic stories, a proposed television series and more.

Now, IDW Comics is issuing a trade paperback (TPB) of the four Image one-shots, which will also feature a couple of new stories (one written by DEADLANDS creator, Shane Hensley), as well as a preview of the first novel, GHOSTWALKERS (by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall). While the TPB won’t be in your favorite comics shop ’til March, Visionary is offering a pre-order special for the collection, called DEAD MAN’S HAND. Here’s how that works: Through the January 29th deadline, pre-order the book at your favorite shop, post “I just got dealt the #DeadMansHand at (name of shop where you pre-ordered)” and e-mail a link to that post to PreOrderPromo@visionarycomics.com; you will then receive two free PDF books, a copy of the comic book THE KID, and a DEADLANDS RELOADED game book of your choosing. Pretty cool, huh? The Visionary web-site has all of the details here: visionarycomics.com/pre-order-dead-mans-hand-now-get-free-books; if you wanna check out the book, you can go here: visionarycomics.com/feature-dead-mans-hand-creator-spotlights.

So… full disclosure time here: Neither myself nor the Mule are associated with Visionary Comics, IDW Publishing, Tor Books or any entity involved with this project. I contacted Visionary because I thought the book looked like something I would enjoy. Likewise, the Mule just thought that our readers would like to check out what we think is a really cool weird western comic book (review coming soon) and get a bunch of free stuff, to boot… or not… your call.

UPDATE: Due to popular demand, this pre-order promotion has been extended through Monday, February 16, 2015. You’ve still got time but, it’s running out faster than you think!


THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA

(Bret M Herholz/Rori Shapiro/Peter Simeti; 74 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2008) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

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In younger days, my parents and I would gather around the television on Sunday evenings to enjoy a PBS program called MYSTERY!, an anthology of murderous delights hosted by Vincent Price and, later, Diana Rigg. That sentence is relevant to this review on a few levels: First, this story is a murder mystery; second, it features artwork inspired, no doubt, by Edward Gorey, the creator of the original opening animation for the show; third, though the story takes place in Massachusetts, there is something very British – like most of the tales presented on MYSTERY! – about the style of storytelling used here. And, finally, of course, is the fact that the convergence of those first three, added to my already professed enjoyment of the MYSTERY! series, means that I really like A SINISTER AURA and would certainly like to see more of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 1 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

The story itself is “loosely based on real events” that occurred in 1899, updated here to 1929 and featuring the fictional amateur sleuths Polly Plum and her very prim, very proper, very British valet, Montgolfier Handgraves. As befits such a tale, it is a dark and stormy night as the pair seek refuge from the inclement weather in a small town just outside Worcester. The intrigue is well underway upon their arrival, as the police have arrived at the Hampstead mansion across from the inn. It would seem that the Hampstead’s only son, Lionel, on the virtual doorstep of matrimony to Ivy Proust, the eldest daughter of the town’s other leading family, has committed suicide because, according to newspaper headlines, he was “to timid to marry.” Miss Plum is, apparently, much more than an amateur sleuth, as she begins to have visions of two men, one with a wound amazingly like the one suffered by the younger Hampstead. The visitors find the police to be vague, tight-lipped and just a bit shady. With minor subterfuge from Handgraves, Polly sneaks past the local constabulary and into the Hampstead home to investigate the scene of Lionel’s demise. Unfortunately for Polly, the one police officer who senses that all is not right, Detective Fiske, catches her moments before the man of the house walks into the room. Outraged, Mister Hampstead demands Polly’s removal. As the case moves into a second night, Polly has another dream of another supposed suicide, this time Ivy Proust’s mother; Fiske contacts her to join him at the cemetery, the scene of the… incident. Things begin to fall into place after Handgraves interviews a person close to both victims and Polly and Fiske confront Hampstead once more. The wrap up is quite satisfying without cutting any corners.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 2 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

Herholz’ home town history and his imaginative retelling of the story goes a long way toward proving that much of the best comics and graphic novel material is coming from independent sources like the phenomenal Alterna Comics. Likewise, Bret’s art (ably aided by Rori Shapiro’s gray tones and the unique lettering style of publisher Peter Simeti) offers something beyond the Manga and drawn-by-a-five-year-old styles that are prevalent in some of the majors’ books (uh… cough, cough… Marvel!… cough). As mentioned above, his style reminds me very much of the masterful Edward Gorey; but, I also see elements of another master of the understated macabre… Charles Aadams himself (something about the eyes and the mouths and, of course, those creepy mansions). At first glance, the art doesn’t seem all that elaborate or complex but, dig a bit deeper and check out those odd perspectives and the minute details hiding in the background ink lines and cross-hatching. Miss Shapiro’s work on the original pen and ink adds a certain eerie depth to Herholz’ stark black and white art, a real plus on this particular story. Bret’s (and Rori’s) work is also on display in several other graphic novel titles from Alterna, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery and an anthology called CONFESSIONS OF A PECULIAR BOY.

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES, page 3 (written by BRET M HERHOLZ, art by BRET M HERHOLZ and RORI SHAPIRO)

As for this book, it does come with some “bonus material.” A message from Herholz regarding his desire to do something based around the 1899 murders in his hometown of Spencer, Massachusetts that became the focal point of A SINISTER AURA, in which he takes us through the creative process. Of note is the creation of the fictional members of the story, particularly Polly and Handgraves. It was always Bret‘s intent to make Polly the defacto leader of the pair, with Handgraves becoming, as he puts it, “the and… ” of the team. There’s also a bonus short piece called THE AUSTEREFIELD FAMILY REUNION, another bleak look into family dynamics. This time around, the story reads like a fairy tale and Herholz’ art is unadorned by the gray tones of the title feature, which seems to work best for this peek into the morally corrupt Austerefield clan. Unfortunately, the print version of THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY AND HANDGRAVES: A SINISTER AURA is no longer available but, you can still pick up a digital copy from ComiXology. Do it now… your eyes will thank you (and, by extension, me, so… you’re welcome).


EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

(Brockton McKinney/Larkin Ford/Jason Strutz; 129 pages; ACTION LAB COMICS, 2014 – collecting EHMM THEORY, issues 1-4, 2013)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE (from Action Lab’s Danger Zone imprint) collects the first story arc starring the recently murdered Gabriel Ehmm and his pet, a kitten named Mister Whispers, which died from starvation after Gabriel’s death. “Cat, Quantum and Contrition” starts, fittingly enough, in a cemetery filled with killer midget clowns, three days after Ehmm is shot by his jealous girlfriend. From there, the story starts to get weird. Gabriel – and by extension, Whispers – finds himself on a kinda existential journey of self-discovery involving talking animals (including the ball of gray fur sitting on Ehmm’s shoulder), murderous senior citizens, Saint Peter and his gas chamber teleportation device (except not really), deadly cyborg crustaceans, a team of oddball super heroes (who really aren’t), multiple realities and, of course, those knee-gnawing zombie midgets! In other words… What’s not to like?

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

After the brief introduction (which comes back around), writer Brockton McKinney brings things into focus where the whole thing started – Gabriel Ehmm’s origin story, if you like – as our intrepid hero returns home with a surprise for his girlfriend, Stacy; she, of course, has a surprise for him, too. Soon, Gabriel wakes up dead, with the adorable Mister Whispers sitting on his chest, asking “You okay, dude?” The befuddled pair are soon joined by a cigar-chomping Mafioso-looking guy, nattily dressed in white and sporting a well-trimmed white beard and perfectly quaffed and ponytailed white hair. Why would they question such a being when he introduces himself as God’s gatekeeper, Peter? Which brings us back to the beginning and the graveyard of tiny terrors. Gabe and Whispers are overpowered by the zombie horde and saved by an ax-wielding senior citizen, a woman named Alyona Tarasov who knew Gabe’s birth father and, so… the ride of Gabriel Ehmm’s young unlife is about to begin. A quick note about Larkin Ford’s artwork (and the besutiful color work by Jason Strutz) is necessary here: It is absolutely mesmerizing, especially the cemetery sequences and the murder sequence. This initial chapter (the first issue of the series) can be a bit confusing, with enough twists and turns to make your head spin but, with a promise that all eventually will be made clear, we move forward.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

And, indeed, as chapter two opens, we find Gabe, Whispers and Alyona on the road, seeking the father he never knew, as the old Russian explains her relationship with Aaron Ehmm and why she didn’t bat an eye at the dead talking cat. It seems that she and her sister, Dominika, first met Aaron at college in 1982, where the brilliant young Ehmm was turning the heads of students and faculty, alike. A professor’s tale of a talking rabbit he encountered at the South Pole began to consume the elder Ehmm. Before Alyona could continue her story, the car is set upon by a giant, cybernetically-enhanced crab in another well-drawn sequence. The action comes fast and furious as, with the Russian being poorly over-matched, GODD shows up. Wait… who? The Guardians of Dimensional Defense, three super-powered beings and a pair of intelligent robots: Mindwolf, the team leader, who introduces GODD as “the good guys; the Thermal Ghost, a being of blue flame; Alchemist, who looks like a shabby, shaggy mummy; the Emp, a foul-mouthed, smart-aleck little robot, who’s kind of a cross between HERBIE (from those crappy old FANTASTIC FOUR cartoons) and Skeets (from the not-crappy BOOSTER GOLD comics), who has a serious problem with Mister Whispers (there’s a wicked funny exchange between the two); and an impressive looking female ‘bot called TAMMI (which stands for Technologically Advanced Mechanized Military Instrument). While Gabe and Whispers are dutifully impressed and more than ready to accept the team’s help, Alyona isn’t so easily swayed and pretty much tells ‘em to take a hike. The final two pages of this chapter reintroduces “Saint Peter” and the true villain of the piece… ah, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it? McKinney, aside from writing a really great fight scene, has begun to unravel the plot twists with more answers promised for the third installment.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

That third installment starts with another beautifully rendered sequence, as Alyona relates more of the story: Aaron, Professor Lanny Crowell (who had seen the rabbit at the South Pole), Dominika and she had traveled to the Pole in search of a possible reason for the talking bunny. What they found was a dimensional anomaly… a portal to other worlds and other realities. Again, the story is interrupted, though not in a fashion as dramatic as a cyborg crab and a super-powered dust-up. The trio has arrived at their destination: Jon Kaye Town Hospital, where an old friend of Ehmm the elder currently resides. Spoiler alert: Tym isn’t the drooling husk in the wheelchair. So, Tym joins the group on their journey and relates more of the story, with more talking critters and the introduction of Gabe’s mother, the Princess Emera, from an alternate dimension… the very dimension the portal chose to spit Aaron into. Tym’s story ended, the four arrive at the last known residence of Aaron Ehmm, where Gabe has a total meltdown at the prospect of seeing his father for the first time. From here, things are brought into clearer focus as the good guys begin to separate themselves from the bad guys, with the unexpected return of Gabe’s girlfriend, Stacy (who has, by this time, gained an “e” to become Stacey), and another wicked fight sequence between GODD and Alyona and Tym, ending in what, I suppose, would be called a “double betrayal.” Another well-written, beautifully rendered installment ends with an exploding door, an injured Alyona and a shotgun wielding Aaron Ehmm.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

So, the fourth and final installment (issue four, if you’re counting) isn’t the action-packed throw down that you would expect… not to say that there isn’t an action-packed throw down, there is and, all you really need to know is this: “Robeartopus!” It is every bit as mammoth and weird as it sounds. There is plenty of exposition, explaining the whys and how-fors of everything that has happened and is happening. But, even so, you will find yourself so engrossed in the story and art that you’re really not even aware that every third panel isn’t some scene of carnage and mayhem. This issue is so densely written, with everything explained (while also setting up the next story arc), that I really can’t reveal much without spoiling the end of one of the most adventurous story-lines in comics history. Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know… hyperbole much? Well, boys and girls, I suggest you pick up this collection and decide for yourselves. Now… here’s the one problem with EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: The story and art are exemplary but, for some reason that eludes me, EVERY page from the original single issues is included here. That means that at the end of each installment, there are pages of in-house advertisements for then-upcoming Action Lab releases, including the next issue of EHMM THEORY (a total of at least 12 pages over-all). A minor complaint, but one that really seems to annoy me with all of the company’s collections. Both physical and digital copies are available at the Action Lab site, at ComiXology or, even cooler yet, visit your local comic shop.


RAWHIDE KID: SLAP LEATHER

(Ron Zimmerman/John Severin; MARVEL COMICS FIRST EDITION Hard Cover, 2010 – collecting RAWHIDE KID Volume 3, Issues 1-5, 2003) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

APR100663

The Rawhide Kid debuted in 1955, a time when parents (and a few United States Congressmen) were worried that the horror and crime comics of the day were seriously warping the fragile minds of America’s youth (much like the thought Nazis decried the violence in the Looney Tunes cartoons and forced all of the best parts to be edited out for television viewing during the ’80s). But I digress. Comic historians have debated who actually created and wrote those early issues, but betting men usually cite either the legendary Marvel mastermind, Stan Lee or his brother, Larry Lieber. We do know that as Atlas Comics was becoming Marvel Comics, Stan and artist Jack Kirby relaunched the Kid, giving him something he hadn’t had in the previous 16-issue run: a background story (an origin, if you will… or at least as much of one as a western gunslinger can have).

Now, writer Ron Zimmerman has taken that back story, fleshed it out and, in doing so, has given us a much different Johnny Bart than we’ve ever seen! I’d seen a couple of news stories and read a couple of reviews about this “revision” of the Rawhide Kid character when the strip was first announced in 2003. Apparently, there were some folk who were more than a bit upset about the character’s sexual orientation. What? The Rawhide Kid was gay?

I wasn’t too sure how I felt about that. Not that I cared one way or the other if a writer from the HOWARD STERN SHOW had taken a relatively minor (and presumed hetero-sexual) comic book character and “turned” him or “outed” him or however you wanna phrase it; it just reeked of that bastion of capitalists the world over – exploitation! Just one more character being transformed or revisioned for the sake of change or for the shock value. Maybe managing editor Joe Quesada knew that the Marvel brand may take a hit for this one, so when Zimmerman brought the idea to the powers-that-be, they foisted a third-stringer in the Marvel Universe on him to try it out. I don’t know. And, to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t care all that much. The Rawhide Kid – gay, straight, celibate (which, I guess, he seemed to be in all of his previous incarnations) – was never high on my list of must-read books.

Anyway… I wrote all of that so I could get to this: Nearly ten years after the fact, I decided to check out the hard cover collection (published in 2010), partly because I’d remembered reading something about the series and primarily because it was in the 80% off rack (which made the final price somewhere south of five dollars American). I wasn’t expecting much, aside from amazing artwork from the legendary John Severin. Boy, was I wrong! Not only is Mister Severin’s art exactly what I expected, but SLAP LEATHER is one fun-filled ride from first to last! Yeah… it is a bit cringe-worthy in spots (the Kid in blue speedos, the Kid in buttless chaps and trap-door long johns… you get the idea), but the story is also filled with enough gun-totin’ action and over-the-top, laugh-out-loud comic moments to excuse those. Some of the asides regarding the Kid’s style sense reminds me of the hilarious (and sadly overlooked) 1985 Tom Berenger movie, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.

Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, issue 2, page 20 (art by JOHN SEVERIN, story by RON ZIMMERMAN)

Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, issue 2, page 20 (art by JOHN SEVERIN, story by RON ZIMMERMAN)

Built around a solid plot with a great message, SLAP LEATHER, takes the Rawhide Kid mythos (if such a vague thing actually existed before) and fleshes out the Stan Lee “origin” story, to show a young Johnny Bart as a harassed and bullied “sissy,” both at home by his drunken father and at school by the bigger boys. Obviously, the diminutive young lad, having taken all that he could stand, finally took matters into his own hand and a legend was born.

Fast forward to… uh… I don’t know, somewhere between the early 1870s and the late 1880s or so. The sleepy little town of Wells Junction has been set upon by an ornery gang of desperadoes and ne’er do wells, with only a single, untried sheriff to stand up to them. Obviously, things don’t go well for Sheriff Morgan, much to the dismay of his young son, Toby. Of course, as in any good Western yarn, in rides our hero. Always dapper and well-dressed, the Kid really just wants to have a nice hot bath, a good meal and a few drinks. He doesn’t want to get involved and only does so when he’s provoked by the villainous horde of marauders riding roughshod over the town-folk (and making fun of the Kid’s clothes). The story is enhanced by the inclusion of several very recognizable characters, drawn from such classic TV shows as BONANZA (Michael Landon and Dan Blocker as Little Joe and Hoss in one of the funniest sequences in the whole book), GUNSMOKE (Milburn Stone as Doc), BAT MASTERSON (Gene Berry) and an unlikely LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE storyline (Melissa Gilbert’s Laura Ingalls). Heck, Zimmerman even throws in Don Knotts’ character from THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST!

So, if ya ain’t read this’n yet, saddle up, pardners, there’s a laugh-riot goin’ on down ta Wells Junction and you don’t wanna miss the fun! I understand that there’s a sequel out there somewhere and if I ever see it, I will own it! I might not even wait for it to hit the 80% off rack!