From Dead to Worse: Tortured Life

Tortured Life

Written by: Neil Gibson and Dan Watters
Art by: Casper Wijngaard
Colors by: Jan Wijngaard
Letters by: Jim Campbell
Layouts by: Eric Irving

Published: September 22nd 2015
Publisher: T Pub
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

Tortured Life reads like a hack novelization of a gore-drenched heavy metal concept album, and it’s about as well-plotted as your average double-LP. In fact, the art wouldn’t look out-of-place on a metal band poster, especially when the skull-faced villain shows up and starts killing people.

Rich seems like a nice, normal young man. He has a good job and a beautiful girlfriend, but then one day he starts having visions of how everything and everyone around him is going to die. When the visions don’t go away, his life quickly falls apart and he is left friendless and alone. The book opens on the day he decides to commit suicide because he saw his own death in the mirror.

However, unbeknownst to Rich, his nearness to death opens a door to the underworld, letting through both a helpful ghost girl and the murderous Bloodyman – that aforementioned skull-faced killer.

The ghost girl, Alice, sticks around just long enough to point Rich at some exposition before disappearing from the story until the end. The explanation for her absence is that crossing over to the world of the living is difficult and dangerous, so she can’t keep going back and forth, but it makes her feel even more like a lazy plot device.

When the explanation for Rich’s visions arrives, it is both incredibly convoluted and completely nonsensical. The revelation doesn’t tie in thematically to his visions of death, and Rich and Alice respond to the explanation by as much as throwing up their hands and moving on. The ending is ultimately both anticlimactic and dour.

To be honest, I also really wasn’t a fan of the art style. The book’s cover is eye-catching enough that it drew me in, but the interior art just didn’t do it for me. It’s slightly similar to the cartoony style of the Chew books, but seems ill-suited to Tortured Life’s bleak tone.

However, I think I would have forgiven the art if I’d liked the story and characters more. Tortured Life was an underwhelming read, and I can’t recommend it.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Neither is True: Grand Passion by James Robinson

Grand Passion by James Robinson

Art by: Tom Feister
Colors by: Dave Curiel
Letters by: Simon Bowland

Published: September 6, 2017
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Grand Passion doesn’t begin to live up to its title. Instead, it tells a small-scale story that ends up feeling a bit dull.

The main characters are a cop and a bank robber who (we’re told) fall in love at first sight. Really, though, they fall into bed together and then get caught up in a shootout.

Most of the story takes place in a handful of locations over a very short amount of time, and everything wraps up at the end in a neat little bow. Of course, the ending only gives one of the characters what they want. The other has to make do with pretending to be someone else for the rest of their life.

Not only do we not get to know these characters before their story ends, we’re asked to believe that they have such incredible sexual chemistry that they are willing to forgo a lot of baggage to be together. I didn’t believe it for one second.

To top it all off, an unseen character who speaks in a distracting country dialect narrates the entire story. The author lays it on so thick at times that I wasn’t always sure what the narrator was saying.

The art is decent enough, but the story is totally forgettable. Grand Passion is the sort of crime narrative that Ed Brubaker could pull off in his sleep, but the execution here is uninspired.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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It’s Not Worth It: Snotgirl, Volume One

Snotgirl Vol. 1: Green Hair Don’t Care

Writer: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Illustrator: Leslie Hung
Colorist: Mickey Quinn

Published: February 28th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Satire, Mystery
Format: Digital
Length: 144 pages

I really loved the Scott Pilgrim books when I read them a few years ago – Goodreads tells me I gave the entire series five stars – but nothing else I’ve read by Bryan Lee O’Malley has lived up to that standard of quality.

His first book, Lost at Sea, was mostly just slight. His follow-up to Scott Pilgrim, Seconds, was better but still felt a bit lacking – I barely remember anything about either book. However, slight or not, they’re both light-years better than his newest series, the willfully unpleasant Snotgirl.

To be fair, the unpleasantness is right there in the title. Lottie Person, the main character, has an epic allergy problem that generates awful green snot at the most inopportune of times. I mean, how is she supposed to be a picture-perfect fashion blogger if she can’t even control her nasal passages?

This would maybe be a funny/gross premise if Lottie (or any of the other characters) had any kind of redeeming qualities, but they’re all horrible, vapid people being terrible and catty to each other.

This is coming from me, a huge fan of the Lovable Alpha Bitch. Cordelia Chase on Buffy/Angel and Taylor Townsend on The OC were my jam. I like stories that uncover the hidden depths of that particular archetype… but Snotgirl is not that. Lottie is shallow and horrible, and when bad things started happening to and around her, I was not in her corner.

The twist, see, is that Snotgirl also wants to be a murder-mystery-slash-thriller. Did Lottie really see someone die, or is she losing her mind? Again, this feels like a potentially rich vein of storytelling – fashion blogger + murder = DRAMA – but the execution was so muddled and obtuse that I didn’t care about what was actually happening to Lottie.

It’s a shame, really, because I do like Leslie Hung’s art. It feels a bit like manga designs from the eighties crossed with fashion sketches. I just can’t figure out what O’Malley sees in these characters. They have no redeeming qualities, and I’m not sure he even likes them. Does he just want to punish them for their vacuous ways?

DISLIKED IT

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Glitterbomb: Red Carpet Bomb

Glitterbomb, Volume 1Glitterbomb, Volume 1: Red Carpet

Written by: Jim Zub
Line Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan
Colors by: K. Michael Russell

Published: March 7th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Satire
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for just over three and a half years now, so obviously that means I can consider myself an expert on the city, as is traditional.

Therefore, with my sacred powers as an Angeleno, I’ve decided that satires and takedowns of LA only work if they come from a place of love. If you’ve got nothing but hate for Los Angeles, if you can’t see even one iota of the appeal of this ridiculous city, then your critique will probably come out sour and clichéd.

Or, in any case, that was my reaction to reading the first volume of Jim Zub’s Glitterbomb.

In Glitterbomb, we meet Farrah Durante, a struggling middle-aged actress only minutes from destitution. Her sole claim to fame was a small recurring role on a cheesy sci-fi show many years ago, but after the show fired her, nothing has gone right since.

That all changes when she tries to drown herself in the ocean and a horrifying vengeance monster possesses her, giving her the ability to eviscerate anyone who has wronged her. At first, the unexplained black-outs and gruesome murders confuse and horrify her, but it isn’t long before she gives herself over completely to the monster’s dark desires.

Glitterbomb reads like the author visited LA once, hated it, and then funneled that hatred into a takedown of easy targets.

It’s common knowledge that actors are oftentimes horribly mistreated and that the industry is especially bad for women who no longer look like twenty-somethings, but that also means that it is an over-used cliché. Throwing in a monstrous twist isn’t even a particularly new idea, but it is what gave me a glimmer of hope about this book.

The fact that these tropes are familiar wouldn’t matter if the execution brought something new to the table, but Zub’s writing completely misses the mark. My theory is that it’s because he can’t seem find anything to love about LA.

In fact, there are any number of Hollywood satires and critiques that feel both more realistic and more powerful because they understand the allure of Hollywood without immediately holding the city and those who love it in contempt.

For example, FX’s Better Things focuses on a middle-aged actress trying to balance family life with an acting career, but it’s obvious that she loves what she does, despite the terrible people and sometimes crushing grind. It tells a far more well-rounded story by focusing on a main character who has a complex love-hate relationship with a difficult industry.

All that Glitterbomb has to say about Hollywood is that aspiring actors are shallow idiots who want fame and validation for the sake of it, and movie producers are nothing but predators.

Farrah doesn’t even have a compelling character arc in this first volume; she switches gears from despairing to malevolent with little to no build-up – it almost felt like I missed an issue – and then the book ends in a way that feels both rushed and inconclusive. I have absolutely no idea where Glitterbomb might go after this volume, but that isn’t an exciting prospect.

I also thought the art was wildly inconsistent throughout. The characters sometimes looked like completely different people from one page to the next, and I had no idea that Farrah’s babysitter was black until her mother said something her race.

This is the second Jim Zub book I’ve read and found disappointing, so I probably won’t pick up any more of his work.

DISLIKED IT

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That Familiar Darkness: Criminal, Volume 1

Criminal, Volume 1: CowardCriminal, Volume 1: Coward

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Val Staples

Published: February 10th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.

Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.

I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.

Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.

I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.

I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Suburban Weirdness, Circa 1988: Paper Girls, Vol 1

paper girlsPaper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Cliff Chiang
Colors by: Matthew Wilson
Published: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Adventure
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

Paper Girls feels like a forgotten 1980s adventure that piles on the subversive twists. They don’t make movies like that anymore, let alone ones this weird.

I think the technical term here is “box office poison,” and yet I’d love to see Paper Girls up on the big screen. It begs for the kind of lovingly nostalgic adaptation that could only work with modern special effects and sensibilities.

Erin is a paper girl in the small town of Stony Stream, Ohio. Her story begins on the morning of November 1st, which is known in her profession as “Hell Night” thanks to all the teenaged trick-or-treaters still humming on stolen sugar highs.

When Erin runs into three other girls on the same route, they team up to stay safe during the night, but run into something far more sinister than marauding teenagers. Things only get weirder from there.

If you enjoy Vaughan’s work on Saga, you’ll recognize the same bizarre sensibilities here. What starts off like a throwback to Spielberg at the height of the eighties quickly collides with Vaughan’s surrealist sci-fi tendencies, and shit gets weird.

I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in the story at the end of the first volume, but it definitely grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. As soon as I finished issue five, I bought the next issue at full price and am seriously considering subscribing to the series on Comixology.

My only real criticism of the book is that the girls don’t get much character development. Erin is a good girl. Mac is a cynical rebel. KJ and Tiffany are… present? Somehow the book still works despite hanging on archetypical characters with little to no depth.

That said, that lack of depth could be a major turnoff if you aren’t a fan of Vaughan’s brand of weirdness. My hope is that future issues flesh out the characters a bit more, but either way I’m hooked.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Tell Your Story to the Trees: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Volume 1 CoverTrees, Volume 1

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Jason Howard
Published: February 24, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 160 pages

Trees has a simple premise and a massive scope. It asks: what would happen if aliens invaded Earth and then completely ignored humanity?

The book opens ten years after massive alien “Trees” landed on and crushed cities across the globe. The invaders never tried to communicate with humanity, and there were no obvious signs of life inside their impossibly tall alien pillars.

Many people fled from under the shadows of the Trees, but those who remained found new ways to live. New societies formed in these most unlikely of places, and this volume tells some of their stories.

The book shifts back and forth between perspectives in a handful of far-flung locations, including an artist’s colony in China, a research station in the Arctic, an Italian city in the grip of warring fascist mobs, and a border skirmish in Somalia.

Although Trees doesn’t match the tone or worldview of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the narrative here is similarly ambitious and deeply concerned with the particulars of human behavior. This is, I think, the first time I’ve read a volume of an ongoing series that included eight issues in its first arc.

That scope and ambition is commendable, but it also means that the larger plot doesn’t have much forward motion. The Trees are essentially an enormous backdrop for more intimate, character-driven storytelling. The most compelling story told in this volume is about young love in a dangerous place.

However, despite the focus on character-driven stories, Ellis introduces so many characters at such a fast pace that I couldn’t tell you any of their names without referring back to the book.

Also, the pacing in this first volume is very measured, which makes me wonder how many issues Ellis and Howard have planned for the overall series. It looks like Trees is on hiatus and has been since December of last year, but Image says issue #14, which completes the second story arc, releases later this month.

As for Jason Howard’s art, it is chock-full of expressive characters and beautifully rendered cityscapes. My only real criticism is that several of the female characters look very similar, so I initially had a hard time keeping them straight in my mind.

If you’re the impatient type, it might be best to hold off on reading Trees for now, but if you’re into personal stories with a global backdrop, it’s definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Kaptara: Finest Pulped Space Comedy

kaptara-coverKaptara, Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien

Written by: Chip Zdarsky
Art by: Kagan McLeod
Published: December 23rd, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Pulp, Adventure, Comedy
Format: Graphic Novel
Length: 128 pages

Kaptara is very weird and very funny. Both come with the territory when Chip Zdarsky is at the helm, but Kaptara makes Zdarsky’s work on Howard the Duck seem downright traditional. At a basic level, Kaptara is a foul-mouthed piss-take version of classic pulpy sci-fi adventure stories, but it also features a diverse cast and bizarre, gorgeous art.

When the ship Kanga is sucked into a strange anomaly in space, it crash-lands on Kaptara, an alien planet full of hideous monsters and dangerous locals. The Kanga’s crew is separated and some of them are gruesomely murdered, but one man – a bio-engineer named Keith – manages to escape with his life despite his penchant for sarcasm and cowardice. Although Keith initially resists the call to adventure, it isn’t long before he’s on a mission to stop a villain named Skullthor from overthrowing the Earth.

Kaptara is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but Zdarsky also lets a few poignant moments peek through the silliness. Keith is a misfit who feels like he doesn’t fit in back home, and he doesn’t fit in with his crew, either. After he crash-lands, Keith meets a new band of weirdos and misfits who all seem far more comfortable in their skins than he could ever be, and I’m sure he’ll do a bit of learning and growing as he adventures on Kaptara.

The book has a bit of everything thrown into the mix, including several foul-mouthed characters who feel somehow anachronistic even though the setting is a futuristic alien planet (where they’ve probably had swearing for millennia). There’s even a little murder mystery to keep things interesting.

I loved Kagan McLeod’s character designs and art throughout. The world of Kaptara is full of vibrant colors and strange creatures that look like nothing I’ve ever seen. “Cat tanks” are the primary mode of transportation on Kaptara, and if you’re picturing elephant-sized hairless cats with smushed faces and convenient tank treads, you have the right idea.

I’ll probably read anything Chip Zdarsky writes at this point, but it’s nice to know that he delivers more often than not. I’m looking forward to reading more about the strange world of Kaptara, and definitely recommend picking up this first volume.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Empty Inside: The Beauty, Volume 1

The Beauty Volume 1The Beauty, Volume 1

Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley
Art By: Jeremy Haun
Published: March 16, 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.

There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.

One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.

The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.

One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.

When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.

One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.

After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.

Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Private Eye is Weird Neo-Noir for Luddites

The Private Eye: Deluxe EditionThe Private Eye: Deluxe Edition
Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Marcos Martin
Color by: Muntsa Vicente
Published: December 17th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics / Panel Syndicate
Genre(s): Sci Fi, Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Hardcover
Length: 300 pages

Brian K. Vaughan might be one of the busiest writers in comics, and every new project he announces is weirder than the last. The Private Eye was the first series published through Panel Syndicate, a digital-only, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want imprint that releases comics designed specifically for tablets.

The Private Eye’s 10-issue run was so popular and well-regarded that Robert Kirkman from Image Comics convinced Vaughan to let them publish a deluxe hardcover edition of the series. This all-in-one edition is probably one of the best ways to enjoy this limited series.

The year is 2076, and it has been decades since the “cloudburst” leaked everything stored in the “cloud” to the public and secret search histories ruined lives. There is no internet, no wi-fi, and iPhones are forgotten relics of the past. In another twist, the press handles law enforcement and is known as the “Fourth Estate”.

P.I. is an unlicensed paparazzi – a private investigator by another name – who keeps an office in the Chateau Marmont and spends his time trying to photograph adulterers despite the fact that everyone wears masks and uses pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

When a young woman hires P.I. to investigate her past and she almost immediately turns up murdered, the killers and the press target P.I., and he soon finds himself roped into an investigation into her death. He eventually uncovers a conspiracy that will change the state of the world as he knows it.

At its heart, The Private Eye is a fairly traditional murder mystery. The bizarre trappings – hologram tiger-heads and Luddite tendencies – are what make it stand out from the crowd, as does Marcos Martin’s kinetic art style. The Los Angeles setting is carefully drawn, with a number of details that make it feel believable and lived-in, which only adds to the noir flavor of this book.

However, the story doesn’t always make sense. For example, I’m still not entirely sure why the villain felt the need to murder the woman who sets off the main plot. I also never quite bought into the villain’s motivations in general; it felt more like Vaughan was trying to say something about the present day through a sci-fi lens and molded his bad guy to fit that narrative and not the other way around.

Overall, The Private Eye is a fast-paced and entertaining read. If you’re curious about the story and aren’t quite ready to drop big bucks on a collected hardcover, you can always buy digital copies very cheaply from the Panel Syndicate website.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I also purchased my own copies as they came out.

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