torsdag 24 juli 2014

Yves Sente & André Juillard: Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords

Are you familiar with those classic British detective series on TV – Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Inspector Lynley etc? Of course you are. (And if you aren't, that doesn't really matter; it was more of a rhetorical question.)

The standard plot for one of these whodunits starts out with introducing the main protagonists or the problem the detective has to solve – or a very old event that sets the stage for what is to follow. If the latter case, it is usually not entirely clear exactly how this will affect the present-day crime riddle, but solving that riddle is often dependent on the detective realizing how those old events are connected to it.

We then have a crime, usually a murder, which gets the detective(s) involved in the case. While trying to  understand that case, and perhaps feeling that he/she/they is/are getting a grip on it, another murder is committed, which makes it obvious that that is not the case at all. Digging deeper, the detective(s) a) encounter some red herring(s), b) find a crucial bit of evidence that is frequently not understood properly. Suddenly, perhaps from a comment by his/her partner, the detective realizes exactly what has happened and why, and who the guilty party is, and rushes to – in the very nick of time – stop the murderer from killing another victim.

The end.

This is a rather stereotypical way of structuring your plot, and the reason it is so stereotypical is of course that it works. People – readers and viewers of criminal fiction – love it, and faithfully follow well constructed series in the genre. It offers tension, the challenge of oneself making sense of the various bits of information revealed during the investigation, some "aha!" moments, and the satisfaction of seeing justice enacted. Who could complain? As long as it's well done, of course. Stereotypical plots enacted badly are just terrible, whether in book or film/TV format.

(As you may already have guessed, the plot of Blake & Mortimer – The Oath of the Five Lords conforms to this basic structure.)

Blake & Mortimer is a comics series created by writer-artist (and Hergé collaborator/assistant) Edgar P. Jacobs, combining elements from detective stories and science fiction. Several albums were published in Swedish when I was a kid – and I would dearly like to know where the hell the albums I bought then have gotten to, because I can't bloody well find them today. 

From what I recall, though, the panels were usually a bit too text-heavy and the storytelling a bit too cumbersome for me to really appreciate it. Much later, however, something happened. First, in the nineties French publishing giant Dargaud decided to revive the series, with some top contemporary comics creators doing the honors as Jacobs passed away in 1987. Second, British Cinebook started translating all B&M albums, publishing them in English.

(Now, I can read French, but I do need to have a dictionary on hand, so it's easier for me to read the stories in English. Also, I can buy them cheaper and easier via my comics dealer. Thus, I'm thankful to Cinebook for making these and many other French/Belgian comics easily available as there are very little French-language comics published in Swedish these days. The notable exception, small-press publisher Albumförlaget, can only publish so much.)

Anyway, this particular story starts out in 1919, depicting how some MI5 spook with a grudge against Lawrence of Arabia has a manuscript stolen from the war hero. We are then transferred to the fifties, when a masked figure burglarizes a museum to steal a violin. Coincidentally, scientist Philip Mortimer – half of Blake & Mortimer – has been invited to that very museum to hold a seminar on science and archaeology. Meanwhile, his old friend Francis Blake, head of the MI5, hurries off to the funeral of an old Oxford chum. Turns out the old friend was murdered… And some other old friends from that Oxford circle are then murdered, one by one…

From there on, it's basic traditional British whodunit; following leads, some of them red herrings, and gradually discovering how the two cases are connected – and how they are connected to the scene depicted in the prologue. Both Sente and Juillard are old hands, so they know their craft, and they do it well. I'm a bit annoyed at the way Captions are handled, as they sometimes give redundant information and are lettered in all caps while the speech balloons are in lower case, giving the impression of a narrator speaking in a RATHER LOUD VOICE. But the overall work is solid, with a complicated plot that is gradually revealed to the reader, skillfully weaving in some real-life connections and an interesting episode from Francis Blake's past, adding some dimension to the character and a reason for him to take a special interest in the case. 

There are also some nice bits of characterization showing the reader what incredibly Britishly polite people Messieurs Blake and Mortimer are. As an example of that, please listen to the head of the MI5 asking the person at the front desk of a hospital to make a life-or-death phone call: "I don't want to impose on you, miss, but could you place another call for me?" 

Overall, the positive aspects of the story compensates for the actual solution to the case being not all that special and somewhat predictable. (Only "somewhat", though, because if you're familiar with the genre, you're not particularly surprised by it, but Sente does keep his options for tying the whole thing together open for most of the album.)

Also, occasionally it becomes almost a bit too "let's do a really, really British whodunit", but overall, it's enjoyable like a good Midsomer Murders or Lewis episode. Worth your time.

Here's an enthusiastic review with some art samples.

måndag 14 juli 2014

Azzarello, Jones & Bermejo: Before Watchmen – Comedian, Rorschach

Count me among those who felt it was a bit silly of Alan Moore to have a hissy fit about other people doing Watchmen prequels when he's made a whole career out of taking characters created by others and remaking them.

However, even though I still feel that way, I also feel that Brian Azzarello botched his takes on Comedian and Rorschach; these stories do not add positive value to the Watchmen saga.

The problem with the Rorschach story is that Moore's ruthless, efficient, crazy-but-cunning character here has been transformed into, basically, a sadistic but well-meaning klutz. He starts out torturing a drug dealer/user to learn where a drug gang's HQ is, goes there and is promptly defeated by the gang and beaten to death. No, wait – the drug lord has cooked up a grand scheme to catch and kill Rorschach, but doesn't bother with actually killing him. Instead, he's beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead in the sewers. Right there, the gritty "realism" (actually "detailed, sadistic depictions of violence") of the story loses its believability.

Meanwhile, a serial killer called "The Bard" is mutilating and murdering women in the city. Also, a kind waitress befriends Rorschach's secret identity, the down-and-out loser Walter Kovacs, and tries to help him. (You just know, reading it, that it's not going to end well.)

Anyway, Rorschach searches out one of the gang members who nearly killed him, and tortures him (in graphic detail) for information – anybody recognize a pattern here? – and then barley escapes with is life as the rest of the gang turns up. Opting for an ironic twist to end the story, Azzarello then has bad things happen to the waitress in connection with the aforementioned serial killer, and has Rorschach murder "The Bard", who gets off on some unexplained technicality, three years later. The end.

This story reminded me of Tamburini and Liberatore's RanXerox – violent to the point of being sadistic, with excellent art and a not particularly good writing. Azzarello gets lost in his own violence-feast, and even Bermejo's brilliant art can't save him. Tamp down the sadism, and you'd have a story that would work with the ironic ending, but not with Rorschach. Moore's Rorschach simply doesn't work in this story – in fact, it's hard to understand how a Rorschach this bumbling would have survived long enough to even be a part of Watchmen.

The Comedian story in this volume is somewhat better, in that it doesn't do too much damage to the character. However, it delves way too deeply into conspiracy theory territory for my tastes – having a cold-hearted Jackie Kennedy conspire with Eddie Blake (the Comedian) to murder Marilyn Monroe, FBI higher-ups conspire to keep Eddie from Dallas to save President Kennedy from being murdered, the army conspires to smuggle drugs to fund the nascent Vietnam War, and the CIA conspiring to assassinate Robert Kennedy. It gets somewhat tiresome.

Anyway, Eddie Blake comes off as a somewhat more fully-developed character here than in Watchmen (as well he should, of course, having a whole mini-series to himself). He's a close friend to the Kennedy family, and he takes President Kennedy's murder very hard. Lyndon B Johnson's administration then sends him off to the budding Vietnam war where he's supposed to be merely a PR figure, but instead he infuses a fighting spirit into the lackluster American soldiers he encounters. (Of course, the notion propagated in this comic that all you need to win battles is to be sufficiently bad-ass is something I sorely doubt; but perhaps things like fire, movement and cover aren't as visually exciting as standing upright in full view of the enemy dressed in a gaudy costume and going full rock'n'roll with your machine gun.)

The war and the politicking back in the US takes its toll on Blake, and he gets more and more unhinged and cruel, until nobody wants to have anything to with him anymore – including his old friend Bobby Kennedy who decides that enough is enough, and America needs a leader who'll say no to war crimes and massacres, and Eddie Blake needs to be held accountable for his crimes. Of course, Eddie Blake can't allow that… Exactly how he goes about to try and stop it, I won't reveal, as I try to stay away from spoilers as much as possible.

This is a better-written story than the Rorschach one, but like I said, I'm tired of Kennedy conspiracies. I also think that the Vietnam war has been somewhat overused as an excuse for craziness. If you feel your story needs somewhere where there's no rules and you can do anything, no matter how crazy, the Vietnam war is always there, waiting for you. But even if your story is a well-crafted one, I'm likely to have read or seen it before, just because it's so easy to put people into that environment and go "anything goes, and look how this drives ordinary men crazy".

So even though this is a better story than the Rorschach one, it still doesn't get me very emotionally involved, because I've already seen so much of it before. Had Azzarello concentrated more on Blake's  relationship with the Kennedys, or on actual politics instead of conspiracy theories, or the actual Vietnam war instead of the readily-available stereotypes, I might have been more interested. OTOH, if you haven't already seen or read too many Vietnam movies, documentaries, stories or books, you might get more out of this story than I did.

Not recommended, even though J. G. Jones does a credible job on the art. Alan Moore made his career – heck, his superstardom – taking characters others created and doing something special with them, so it's perfectly reasonable that "his" characters should also be available to others. But do something special with them then, for crying out loud!

lördag 12 juli 2014

Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Well, this is quite the mix of well-known – even classic – comics creators, starting with Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino (and inker Sid Greene) for the very first Batgirl story (from 1967). Barbara Gordon, prim librarian daughter of Commissioner James Gordon, creates a tight-fitting, bat-themed masquerade outfit that'll show everybody that she's more than just a brilliant brain, but on the way to the big party encounters a crime in progress and decides to break it up. With her brown belt judo skills, she accounts herself well, attracting the interest of Batman himself. Accidentally interfering in Batman and Robin's handling of a case, she nevertheless perseveres and proves herself to be a crime-fighting force to be reckoned with. (I will mention, however, my disappointment with scriptwriter Fox for his apparent belief that a laser beam works much like a jet engine.)

The excellent (of course) Alex Ross cover.
Then follows a couple of stories penned by Frank Robbins; typically for his bat-stories, they're pretty decent detective yarns. The first Robbins story, from 1970, is drawn by Gil Kane with inks by Murphy Anderson. While I don't think Anderson is the best inker for Kane, he's competent enough and Kane's dramatic storytelling still comes through. Don Heck's the artist for the next couple of stories (from 1972), and I was unfortunately never much of a fan of his art. The scripts are weaker, as well, with Robbins trying to put some social significance into them by having Barbara go into politics to improve society.

That sad trend continues in an Elliot S! Maggin-Mike Grell overly patriotic and fantastic story from 1975 celebrating the US bicentennial, marred by Maggin's use of magic, the Devil (yes, sadly), and a syrupy sentimental speech before Congress by Rep. Barbara Gordon in his script. Grell's art is also weak; illustrating the story but adding neither elegance nor power to it. Next, an apparently intended-to-be-in-good-fun 1977 Bob Rozakis story about Two-Face's daughter pretending to be the daughters of the Penguin, the Riddler, the Scarecrow and the Joker which doesn't work either, partly because too much focus is on Robin instead of Batgirl, but mainly because it's just pointless. Instead of whimsy, we get dull. Old pro Irv Novick does the art but wasn't really suitable for something so light-weight – especially not with the inks of Vince Colletta.

These two stories shouldn't have been in this volume; they're just not good enough to deserve it – especially in a book called "The Greatest Stories Ever Told".

Then things start looking up again. In a post-Crisis story from 1997, Devin Grayson and Duncan Fegredo depict Robin and Batgirl's new first meeting, two kids who're trying to learn the ropes of superheroing and who also have to learn how to work together as a team on the fly as they pursue a hostage-taking burglar. It's a cute story where Grayson's fun, lively script works well and establishes a pleasant but not rivalry-free relation between the two. Fegredo's elegant and dynamic art makes the story even better.

And speaking of elegant, the last story (from 1998) is inked by Kevin Nowlan, who has one of the most beautiful ink lines ever. (Script is by Kelley Puckett, and pencils by Terry Dodson.) "Folie A Deux" nicely tells of how Commissioner Gordon took care of Barbara after her biological parents died in a car crash, and how a newly minted Batgirl blackmails Batman into training her when he tries to stop her from risking her life fighting crime. It uses some advanced storytelling, but loses a bit when it tries too hard to be clever when depicting Gordon being saved by Batgirl after trying to stop a robbery – if you can't get your point over without making too-improbable jumps in logic, perhaps you should rethink how you intend to make it. But the inks are by Kevin Nowlan, and the Barbara-Gordon relationship is very well depicted, so this is still worth your while.

I'm rather disappointed with DC for including those two weak Maggin and Rozakis stories; they've both done better, and certainly there are better Batgirl stories around that could have used. In fact, there's a whole Batgirl Showcase volume chock-full of Batgirl stories, most of them better than that (and many of them drawn by Gil Kane). This collection is still worth reading for getting a sense of the character's history, some beautiful art and decent-to-good stories, but it's not a must-read.