Review: The Losers (movie)


Zoe Saldana!
Chris Evans!
Idris Elba!
Jeffrey Dean Morgan!

All good actors. All very likeable and popular actors. None of them a stranger to genre films, especially comic book-based ones. All doing a good job with the script they were handed.

And therein lies the problem. It’s a terrible script, full of suck.

Thank goodness I borrowed this film from the library, because while I ended up wasting my time, at least I didn’t waste any money on it. Based on the Vertigo series of the same name by Andy Diggle and Jock, it was a flop at the theaters, and I’m here to tell you there’s a good reason for it.

It sucks.

And not in that “they changed it so much from the source material” way that usually makes comic nerds upset. No, in the “wholly unoriginal, cliche-filled turd” way.

God, what a horrible waste of money and talent. If you were going to make a shitty mid-80s action flick with bullshit macho dialogue, an unbelievably over-the-top evil bad guy, and an ending that’s the biggest “f*** you” to the audience who invested their money and time in this thing, why even waste a penny “optioning” a property? Just make your shitty movie, call it Extreme Patriots or Double Cross in Bolivia or Gunfight in L.A., release it straight to DVD, and save yourself the embarrassment, not to mention about $20 million off the budget.

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I should have stopped watching, when in the first 20 minutes of the movie, the bad guy, CIA insider “Max”, proves he’s indeed bad by a) asking our CIA covert ops protagonists go ahead with the bombing of a drug dealer’s compound, even after they find out he has 25 innocent kids on the premises, b) having a US jet fighter shoot down a US helicopter evacuating said 25 innocent children, killing them all, and c) thinking he’s killed our heroes, who have been serving their country selflessly. But wait, there’s more! As if that wasn’t enough to convince you he’s really, really bad, there’s a scene where he’s walking on a beach, and has an attractive female assistant carrying an umbrella to shade him from the sun. But when a gust of wind blows the umbrella away for just a split second, and the assistant apologizes instantly, Max grabs a gun and shoots her! Because, you see, he’s a bad guy. A real bad guy.

But wait, there’s even more! So the entire point of the movie is that our heroes are on a quest for revenge, trying to expose Max’s slimy, evil ways, and restoring their good names so they can get their old lives back, but…

SPOILER ALERT (not that you care)
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Max gets away in the end. There is no closure. It’s just one huge, open-ended, “let’s set it up for a sequel” ending.

As in: “f*** you, audience, for expecting a resolution.”

So in that same spirit, a hearty f*** you to Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt, who wrote the bullshit screenplay for this movie, and all the assholes involved in greenlighting and making this movie.

What a complete waste.

(A version of this review appeared on my old Ferret Press blog on January 12, 2011)

Review: Space Pirate Captain Harlock (movie)

So brooding. So angsty.

Guardians of the…oops, wrong movie.

So I watched this 2013 Japanese CG animated movie on Netflix, totally on a whim. While I was aware of the existence of the Captain Harlock manga and anime, I had no exposure (or vested interest) in it. I’m pretty sure this slick remake/reboot differs quite a bit from the source material, but I’m going to review it based solely on my experience with the movie.

We used to be a lot cuter.

We used to be a lot cuter.

To put it succinctly: the animation was beautiful, the story was a hot mess.

So in the future, billions of humans have colonized space, but dwindling resources forces them all to return to earth. But since our world can’t possibly support all of them a huge war (known as the “Homecoming War”) breaks out for the privilege of return. Blah blah blah, a governmental body called the Gaia Sanction forms and declares Earth off-limits to everyone. Blah blah blah, alien race called the Nibelung, dark matter technology, Captain Harock and his dark matter ship the Arcadia, Gaia Sanction espionage, treachery, loyalty, angst, pseudo science, lots of futuristic jargon with the words “protocol” and “Jovian” and “oscillator” thrown about, ships blow up, people yell at each other, and then….

Well, I’m not sure. See, while there’s a beginning to the story, and what could pass for a middle, there’s no ending. It’s a complete and utter failure, where the motivations of both the protagonist and the antagonist (and the antihero) are completely forgotten or dropped, and there’s no clear resolution to anything The origin or purpose of the Nibelung? Harlock’s mission to reset the “Genesis Clock”? All forgotten. The narrative focus jumps around more than a faulty projector, random facts and events are thrown at the audience for no apparent reason, and…well, you get the point.

This is a script that could have used some serious, serious editing.

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The visuals, on the other hand, are very strong. I found the costumes, sets, and world building to be top notch. There’s a bit of steampunk sprinkled in with the slick future tech, and the weapons and armor and spaceships all look really well-designed and impressive.

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There’s lots of epic space battles that look good (but make zero sense if you stop to think about the logic of what’s happening). And I’ll admit, each time the Arcadia burst out of a cloud of dark matter “smoke,” it looked pretty bad-ass.

So in conclusion: great eye candy and entertaining in some ways, if you’re willing to turn off your brain, and not try to make sense of things.

Update 8/26: On Facebook, my friend Tony Goins asked the question “How does this fit with your essay from a while back, that not every story needs a beginning, middle and end?” Here was my answer:

Good question. I guess my feeling on that is the work as a whole needs to embrace that aesthetic for it to work. So for instance, it’s ok if it’s a Jim Woodring comic, or a Jim Jarmusch movie, or a Jack Kerouac book. But when you give me a very traditionally structured story, then in the 3rd act be all like “eff it, man, I don’t need an ending because ART!” that doesn’t work for me.

Maybe you can get away with that in some rare cases, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. That movie was tightly plotted and hewed closely to the Hollywood 3-act paradigm, but it still left the audience with a very ambiguous ending. But it worked, because that ending tied in directly to the very theme of the movie, it’s whole DNA, about what exactly is “reality”?

But in the case of this movie, not only did it start out with a very traditional story structure, but it’s very look screams sci-fi action video game, a medium firmly rooted in beginning-middle-end storytelling.

Of related interest to this discussion: this article about the Chinese & Japanese 4-act (introduction, development, twist and reconciliation) plot structure called kishōtenketsu, which doesn’t rely on conflict to advance the narrative.

Review: Paris, Je T’aime (movie)

paris_movie-754580I really enjoyed Paris, Je T’Aime, a 2006 anthology movie featuring 18 vignettes set in (and inspired by) Paris. It features an ensemble cast of American, British and French actors (Bob Hoskins, Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu, and many more) and directors (Alfonso Cuarón, Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Bruno Podalydès, The Coen Brothers, etc.)

As with any anthology, there are hits and misses, but the vast majority of the shorts were well done. A few of my favorites:

Parc Monceau – A conversation between Nick Nolte and a young woman, filmed in a single continuous shot, with a very clever, funny, and unexpected ending.

Loin du 16e – a heartbreaking piece about an immigrant nanny.

Quartier des Enfants Rouges – notable not so much for the story itself, but actress Maggie Gyllenhaal delivering her entire dialogue in French, with a great accent to boot.

14e arrondissement – a bittersweet story as told in broken French by a middle-aged American tourist (actress Margo Martindale, who went on to win an Emmy for her role as Mags Bennett on Justified, one of my favorite shows). She’s making a “book report” of sorts for her French class about her first trip abroad, and it’s simply emotive and quietly heartbreaking.

Watching the movie, it suddenly occurred to me that this is what a Lifelike movie would look like, were such a thing ever to come about. The individual films are all very short, 5-10 minutes each. And they’re filmed in a variety of styles and techniques.

The producers of this film followed it up with New York, I Love You in 2008, but I didn’t enjoy that one quite as much. It just didn’t have the same charm and ambiance, probably because I romanticize Paris way more than NYC.

Anyway, I highly recommend this movie.

(A version of this review originally appeared on my Ferret Press blog, January 2008.)

Review: The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics

The_CartoonistAnother library rental, and a very enjoyable one at that, The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics is a 2009 documentary about local boy made good, Bone creator and fellow Columbusite, Jeff Smith.

As you would expect with any documentary, this one charts Smith’s career, from his childhood doodles to his college days, animation career, and self-publishing Bone. Along the way, we’re treated to interviews with Smith himself, as well as a friends and fellow cartoonists like Paul Pope, Coleen Doran, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, and Terry Moore. Oh, and of course Lucy Caswell, of the Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum, who was one of Smith’s early supporters and mentors.

There was a fair amount of time spent on Smith’s seven years with Character Builders, the animation house he co-founded with two friends after graduating college. It was fun seeing snippets of commercial animation from the trio, including an opening sequence for a planned Jack Hanna animal show called Super Safari, as well as ads for Warner Cable (featuring the superhero Warner Man) and White Castle (in claymation, no less!). Smith credits the discipline learned from years of doing animation, both in terms of craft (learning to draw every character consistently and with varying emotions) and business (heeding deadlines, interacting with customers and vendors professionally) as one of the reasons for his success as self-publishing.

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Smith himself talks about his early influences (Carl Bark’s Uncle scrooge, Walk Kelly’s Pogo), as well as the seminal comics from 1986 that opened his eyes to the potential of the medium: Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns. (Quick digression: I was lucky enough to catch a talk by Smith at CCAD about 10 years ago, where he spoke passionately about his love of comics, and incorporated dozens of images from the aforementioned books in his presentation to explain the intricacies of the craft.) Parts of the interview are also set in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, specifically Old Man’s Cave, wherein Smith talks about the influence of that specific geographic region on his art and the settings of Bone.

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Smith’s wife, and business partner Vijaya Iyer is also featured. In a humorous clip, he explains how he talked her into quitting her promising Silicon Valley job to help him make comics. In another interesting anecdote, talking about the genesis of his new series RASL, Smith mentions coming up with the basic premise back in 2001, and running it by his friends Paul Pope and Frank Miller. At one point, they were going to work together on a science fiction anthology called Big Big, with RASL being Smith’s contribution. Alas, scheduling conflicts kept the project from ever materializing, but that would have been a trip, no?

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Oh, and on a personal note, it was cool to see my local comic shop of choice, The Laughing Ogre, featured in several of the shots in the documentary. Ogre employee Lloyd even makes an appearance in a segment set at the Smith/McCloud talk at OSU’s Mershon Auditorium. Speaking of which, most of that talk (which I had the pleasure of attending) is included on the DVD as a bonus feature. There’s also a mini-feature where Smith discusses his new series, RASL, talking about his research into both the real science and fringe science that makes up the backbone of the story.

For fans of comics, Bone and/or Jeff Smith, I’d definitely recommend this documentary. It’s professionally produced, well written, and contains good interviews, with some clever bits as well (like incorporating black & white film footage as humorous interstitials).

(A version of this review originally appeared on my Ferret Press blog, February 2011.)

Review: Shutterbug Follies

shutterbug_follies_coverShutterbug Follies, written and drawn by Jason Little, Doubleday Press, 2002.

This was a fun little caper, with a mystery that grabs your attention, and a female protagonist who is interesting in her eccentricities and single-mindedness. Bee is just out of high school, a self-proclaimed artist, and somewhat of a snoop. She becomes intrigued by a photo artist whose oeuvre is realistic portraits of crime scenes…except that she thinks there’s more to his story than meets the eye. Despite some outlandish plot twists, I found myself caught up in the mystery. The ending was a little too “TV movie of the week” for my tastes, though. Also, the plot hinges heavily on a couple of newly-archaic technologies (1-hour photo development shops and pagers!) but for me, that actually added to the charm of the book.

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Jason Little’s artwork elevated this graphic novel above the uneven plot, with beautiful, clean lines and expressive flat colors. It’s really a pretty package, and his accessible, cartoony style juxtaposes oddly against some of the story’s more gruesome images, but again, I think that works in its favor. Overall, a fun, light read.

Little’s latest graphic novel is Motel Art Improvement Service, featuring the same protagonist, Bee. While not bowled over by Follies, I liked it enough (and the premise of the new book is quirky enough) that I’ll probably give it try if I can grab a discounted copy.

(A version of this review originally appeared on my Ferret Press blog, February 2011.)

Review: The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

Mr_Punch_coverThe Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch, written by Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean.

This is a quickie review of an old Neil Gaiman graphic novel that I just recently got around to reading. Mr. Punch tells the tale of a man remembering his childhood, spent at a bleak seaside town where his grandfather operated an indoor arcade. Through hazy remembrances, he confronts dark family secrets, nightmares, and a mysterious Punch and Judy man. Now, as many of you already know, I’m a big Gaiman fan, however (and I know this may sound like blasphemy) I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Dave McKean’s art. I appreciate his work, but it doesn’t move me or speak to me as other artists’ work does. So this direct collaboration between the two was a mixed bag for me.

Overall, this was a well written, solid effort from Gaiman, but being one of his earlier books, it lacks some of the charm that his later works weave so well into the narrative. It did get me interested in the history and culture of Punch and Judy shows, though, and sent me off to do a bit of reading on the subject at Wikipedia.

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Gaiman and McKean collaborate quite well together, as you would expect. Using puppets (instead of illustrations) to tell a story dealing with puppet shows makes sense, and McKean is eminently qualified for the job. The standout moments to me were the sequence where the author recalls a hazy memory of a conversation (which McKean depicts by placing the maquettes of the characters behind soft gauze), and the emotionally brutal confrontation between the protagonist’s grandfather and a “mermaid”.

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If you’re a fan of either creator, you know what to expect and won’t be disappointed, but I found this particular outing a bit too dry and bleak for my tastes. Again, your mileage will vary.

(A version of this review appeared on my old Ferret Press blog, March 2011.)

Review: 5 Is The Perfect Number

5_isI bought this graphic novel (published by Drawn & Quarterly) on a whim, based on the artwork alone. After reading it, I found it to be a refreshing change of pace from my other readings.

A straight-up mafia crime story set in Napoli in the 70s takes a few surreal turns in this book by Igort (aka Igor Tuveri). Peppino is a retired hitman for the mob who picks up his guns again to avenge the death of his son, also a mob hitman. What transpires next is an escalating spiral of violence and intrigue. While most of the characters are criminals and not exactly likeable, Igort does a good job of making them at least relatable. At times the story veers a bit too deep into philosophical discussions, but I actually prefer that to just action and violence.

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The artwork, produced in an atmospheric duotone, is in turns sparse, dense, breezy, or brooding. He uses very subtle, ethereal lines when drawing a peaceful village setting, but easily switches to heavy inks and blocky black shadows to portray dangerous rendezvous and moments of emotional intensity. It’s also published in the larger European graphic novel size, so you can truly appreciate Igort’s layouts and composition as they were intended.

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The only problem I had with this book was the translation from Italian. The captions sometimes came off as dry, stilted, and academic. By contrast, the spoken dialogue tried too hard to affect an accent or realistic slang, but just came off as stereotypical and clunky. Stuff like “Get yar ass over here” or “dis here is my gun”.

But overall, if you like crime stories, this is a pretty good one, and the sequential storytelling is quite strong.

(A version of this review first appeared on my Ferret Press blog in May, 2011)

Review: Animal Man #29 – series finale

Some minor spoilers ahead. Also, not so much a review of the last issue, as a meditation on the series as a whole, and it’s unfortunate end…

So one of DC’s few remaining books featuring a character not from the Superman, Batman, or Green Lantern mythos came to an end this week. Animal Man #29 was the last issue of the surprise break-out hit of the “New 52” relaunch. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed, not just by the issue itself, but the way the whole series was unceremoniously cancelled. Despite the publisher’s claim that writer Jeff Lemire felt he had told the story he intended to tell and this was the right place to end the series, I have a feeling the decision had a lot more to do with editorial and marketing decisions than creative ones.

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I think it’s safe to say that nobody expected Animal Man to be such a hit, but it managed to differentiate itself from all of DC’s other titles by blending horror with superheroics, feature a lead character who was married with kids, and introducing strong new concepts into the DC Universe, such as The Rot. But despite Lemire’s strong writing, the book did lose its way (and much of its stream) around midway through its run). Although counterintuitive, the “Rotworld” crossover with Swamp Thing, written by the equally popular Scott Snyder, actually ended up hurting sales. From a plot standpoint, the crossover made sense. The metaphysical realms of The Red, The Green, and The Rot were out of balance due to a power grab by The Rot, and Animal Man and Swamp Thing, avatars of their respective realms, had to come together to restore the balance. However, in execution, the story was long, meandering, and ultimately, pointless. From page 1 every reader, jaded by decades of similar “elseworlds” or “imaginary” stories knew that this supposed dystopian future would not come to bear, that somehow everything would be “fixed” by the heroes and the status quo restored. There was no real sense of drama, nothing at stake.

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And so sales took an unexpected hit.

I was actually on the verge of dropping the book when Lemire turned it around, rebounding with more strong ideas and a new direction. The whole “Brother Blood invades The Red” final storyline felt like a return to what made the book so good to begin with. And it didn’t hurt that it featured some fantastic brushwork by artist Rafael Albuquerque. And perhaps I’m wrong, but the jump to an alien planet and the introduction of the enigmatic new character The Bridgewalker in issue #26 felt like a setup for some major new storylines in the future.

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But by then, I think the decision had already been made to cancel the book. And looking at the numbers, it’s clear that sales were not the main reason for the decision. Animal Man was selling in the 18-19K range, putting it above other lower-selling yet continuing titles like Superboy and Birds of Prey. In light of DC’s reluctance to feature married superheroes, is it any surprise that the one book featuring emotionally complex and dynamic stories built around the heroes familial relationships is being cancelled?

Which brings us to the last issue. In between an opening and closing sequence showing Buddy’s reconciliation with his estranged wife (and drawn by the book’s original artist, Travel Foreman), the book is otherwise a series of 11 splash pages illustrated by Lemire himself. This sequence depicts Buddy’s young daughter, Maxine, essentially recounting the events of the whole series as a bedtime fairytale for her dad. It’s sweet, and brings a nice emotional close to the loss of Buddy’s son, Cliff, and it gives Lemire an excuse to jam out a bunch of bold splash pages like this:

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But ultimately, it felt like a cop-out. Like the writer’s best effort to put a positive spin on an arbitrary decision from on high to end the book.

And I get it. I understand that business decisions will usually trump creative ones for any publisher. Lemire is one of the few writers at DC with a high cachet, able to bring in readers to new books. And the multitude of weekly series in the pipelines are sure to sell better on a per-issue basis than any continuation of Animal Man. So I get it.

But it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Especially when it means one less book with a unique perspective, in favor of more os the same superheroes.

Review: The Rabbi’s Cat

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I’m not a fan of religion as a topic, and despite the accolades this graphic novel had received, I wasn’t exactly rushing to the bookstore to grab a copy. But I’m glad I did, because it really delivers on all levels.

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Joann Sfar’s art took a while for me to warm up to, but on every page there’s something new – a detail, a sight gag, a different technique – that proves he’s an illustrator at the top of his game. And the story…wow. It’s poignant, charming, funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and meaningful. Sfar uses the characters of an old Rabbi in Algeria, his daughter, and his cat (who gains the gift of speech after eating the Rabbi’s parrot) to masterfully ruminate on the nature of religion and Judaism, human nature, philosophy, and relationships. And just when you think that the subject may be getting a bit too deep or heady, he very naturally and organically interjects subtle humor into the narrative.

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Through the pages of this book, I traveled to Algeria and Paris in the 1930s, saw human foibles through the eyes of a smart-ass cat, and fell in love with the central characters. A truly fantastic work of sequential art and storytelling. I just got the sequel to this book, and I’m looking forward to reading it as well.

(This review originally appeared on my Ferret Press blog, August 5th, 2011 )

Review – Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight and Nightmares

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Jon J. Muth, one of my favorite artists, takes a shot at capturing the tone of the Dracula novel in a 48-page graphic novel. As you can well imagine, this isn’t a straight-up adaptation, not even an abridged one. It’s more of a “reimagining,” with liberties taken with characters and plot. And actually, it’s not exactly accurate to describe it as a graphic novel, as the presentation is more of a collage of writing and art. But most of the story elements are there, and the gothic tone is richly captured by Muth’s artwork.

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The story is told through various devices: excerpts of ship logs, diaries, traditional prose, conversations, and even a movie script. The evocative artwork, beautifully painted in watercolor as always by Muth, is sometimes in the form of a full page illustration, other times as a collage, or even pseudo comic book sequentials. The overall effect is a wholly unique book that is light on narrative, but heavy on atmosphere and emotion, which I found befitting the material. If you’re a die-hard fan of the Bram Stoker novel and don’t like reinterpretations, you may want to skip this book. But if you’d like to see a consummate professional flex not just his artistic skills, but his writing and design muscles as well, or are just a fan of Muth in general, this is a great book to track down. It’s a quick read, but you can spend hours looking over the beautiful artwork. I found it to be a worthy experiment from a fantastic artist, and would definitely recommend it.

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Originally published in 1988 by Marvel Comics (#26 in their line of oversized graphic novels), Muth’s Dracula was was later reprinted by NBM in 1993 and is easy to find.

(This post first appeared on my Ferret Press blog September 5th, 2011)

Review: Lazarus, vol. 1 – Family

Greg Rucka’s latest comic book series features yet another iteration of his trademarked tough-gal protagonist. But I found Forever Carlyle (also referred to as Eve) to be quite an interesting, complex lead character.

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The setting of the book is futuristic, and the world building is pretty solid. It’s not a world difficult to imagine: the wealthy, rather than governments, run the world. Power is consolidated amongst a few warring families, and everyone else is either a “serf” (useful and in the employ of a family) or a “waste” (left to fend for themselves).

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Each family has a “Lazarus,” a member who is endowed with the best bio-mechanical advances science can provide, to be the family’s ultimate warrior. This is the story of Forever, Lazarus of the Carlyle family. And although we see her begin to question her role and actions, she’s not exactly a hero. Yet.

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Michael Lark’s dark, moody artwork fits the tone of Rucka’s dystopian crime epic perfectly. It’s everything you remember and expect from Lark: atmospheric, lush, textured. The action sequences are well choreographed and presented like a punch to the gut. The character moments are equally well-crafted, with plenty of scene setting and emotional depth.

These guys are veteran creators, and work so well together. On Lazarus, they’re absolutely in sync, and the result is a complex, layered, nuanced story. I’m looking forward to future installments.

Review: Fishtown

I like a good crime story now and then, especially in graphic novel format. Brubaker and Rucka have done some great ones, and I dug a lot of the entries in Vertigo’s line of crime books. This book – which started out as a Xeric award winning webcomic – is about 4 teenagers who murder another teen, for no real reason. I picked it up for cheap at Half Price Books, based solely on the interesting looking artwork and nice packaging. Well, the gamble didn’t pay off.

I really, really disliked this book.

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The main problem I had with the story is that the characters are all unlikable. No, strike that, they’re plain detestable. And there’s not much else to it than that. A bunch of vile assholes committing a horrific crime. The end.

There’s no depth to the events surrounding the crime. No exploration of the “why” of the crime. No insightful look at the lives of the perpetrators, other than a few pages of lip service paid to the broken domestic situation of a couple of them. And I do mean a couple pages out of over a 100. It’s not enough to make you have even a sliver of empathy or sympathy for the characters. Oh, and the sole female in the group is the most messed-up, manipulative, evil one of them all, even though you’re never shown what in her upbringing led to that. So basically you’re presented with a series of gruesome images of a hateful crime, as narrated by a bunch of unrepentant, despicable teens. The end.

Joy.

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The artwork is definitely the stronger craft shown here. It’s fairly solid, though at times it’s hard to distinguish between some of the characters. I did like the aesthetic of the art presentation, done in monochromatic yellow. But that’s about it.

There is skill in Colden’s storytelling, but the story itself is vile, nihilistic, and in my opinion, pointless.