John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


Graphic Novel Review: The Rocketeer: Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens

The Rocketeer saves the day, twice.Sometimes it’s hard to articulate your feelings about a book or movie. Other times it just comes to you, like when I recently finished reading The Rocketeer: the Complete Adventures, a reprinting of Dave Stevens’ seminal series that was originally published n 1982.

I found myself saying: “Really? That’s it?”

Not that it was a knock on the content of the book. The artwork is gorgeous and really pops thanks to the re-colouring done for this edition by Laura Martin. Stevens’ stories are good too, with some decent action as stunt pilot Cliff Secord learns to use a stolen jetpack and win back his best girl, Betty.

Stevens does an excellent job of building a sense of suspense, particularly in the second story “Cliff’s New York Adventure”. It’s a nice touch that he incorporated his hero into the Wold Newton Universe, having him work alongside the Shadow and with associates of Doc Savage.

But that’s the final story. There’s only two.

This was not what I was expecting, at all. As I made my way through the book I was waiting a third and final act that would match up with the ending of the 1991 film adaptation starring Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. That climax never comes.

Instead, the Complete Adventures end with Secord leaving New York City for Los Angeles, with the expectation that he’ll be reunited with his girlfriend Betty. There should be another third to this book, but it just ends on that note. It’s an anti-climactic end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

I guess that’s the rub: those first two stories really are great. They’re fun and pulpy and in many ways are like Alan Moore’s Tom Strong.

But with any of the Tom Strong books there’s a sense that these are just a few of hundreds if not thousands of stories, and theyère much more detailed and fulfilling. The Rocketeer leaves you hanging.

It’s a shame that there wasn’t more to the series, and even worse, there never will be since Stevens passed away in 2008.

All in all, The Rocketeer: the Complete Adventures is a fun read and it has gorgeous artwork, but it’s disappointing that it’s so short and, ultimately, feels incomplete. It's a great concept, I just wish there was more of it.

If you’d like to read a second opinion, I’d recommend Chris Sims’ review of the Complete Adventures from December 2009.


Graphic Novel Review: Tom Strong by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse

Tom Strong: Book 1Every medium has its strange little quirks. Odd little rules of the form that have developed and that creators rarely deviate from.

 For example, it is rare for a movie to have a plot that unfolds in real time. Television shows are limited in length by half-hour increments, allowing, of course, for commercials. You may see a program that’s 15 minutes long, but never 45 minutes.

It’s theoretically possible to have a show be 20 minutes long or a movie that is in real time, but it’s rarely if ever done in practice.

Comic books are no different. They have their own rules and standards that creators are obliged to follow.

One of the most peculiar things about sequential art as a medium is that it is largely devoted to a single genre – superhero action/adventure.

There are certainly lots of comics that do not involve capes or tights. But the vast majority of the comics produced in this medium prominently feature superheroes.

It wasn’t always this way. In the aftermath of the Second World War, superhero titles began to disappear off the rack. Only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman survived in any form. Titles like Captain America, Captain Marvel and Green Lantern were replaced by Westerns, Romances and especially horror books.

However, as the Silver Age dawned with Showcase #4 and Fantastic Four #1, superheroes came back in to vogue. DC and Marvel plunged into producing cape and tights stories almost whole hog. Even characters that were of other genres like Nick Fury, Jonah Hex, Mille the Model, Patsy Walker and the Two-Gun Kid were folded into their mainstream continuity.

Since then, the medium and the genre have been inexorably linked. Sure, there are still some comics that do not feature superheroes, but they are few and far between.

It would be like if CBS and NBC’s programming was almost entirely police procedural dramas.

All this serves a lengthy preamble to talk about Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics, an attempt by the famed author to break free from the superhero genre. He introduced books like Top 10, Promethea and Greyshirt that were departures from the usual comic book fare.

The most prominent work in the ABC line was Tom Strong, an analog of Doc Savage, Tarzan, Tom Swift and other pulp-styled heroes of the early 20th century.

Although still definitely an action-adventure story, Tom Strong is not a crime fighter or vigilante of any sort. His primary interest is science and education. He’s constantly inventing Swiftian devices that, predictably, become useful in his latest adventure. He is a utopianist devoted to improving his world.

Of course, Strong is often beset by villains who want to destroy his hometown of Millennium City or kill him to avenge an earlier defeat. Enemies like Nazi air pirate Ingrid Weiss, technological plague the Modular Man and Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen plague the hero and his family.

They’re all fun, off-beat characters that can make you laugh while remaining threatening to the safety of Tom Strong and his extended family.

As always, Moore does a fantastic job of developing characters quickly and creating entertaining traps for Strong to unravel, all while maintaining the traditional sense of fun inherent in all pulp fiction.

A panel from Tom Strong: Book 1

Chris Sprouse's incredible work on Tom Strong. Tom Strong is conceived as Pneuman the Pneumatic Man watches on.

Chris Sprouse’s artwork shines. It’s crisp, clean and expressive, while being remarkably detailed where required. He’s a master illustrator who can communicate emotions to his readers in a single, textless panel. It’s some of the best artwork I’ve ever seen in a comic.

Sprouse isn’t the only penciler on this series though. Other acclaimed artists like Arthur Adams, Gary Frank, Dave Gibbons and Jerry Ordway lend a hand. Their inclusion in the project was done in a very clever way – they draw all the flashback scenes. Because these looks into Tom Strong’s past are presented as older issues of the series, the different styles aren’t jarring and, if anything, add to the whole piece.

I would recommend Alan Moore’s Tom Strong to anyone who enjoys comics, but especially to those who want a break from the more mainstream and mundane superhero books that clutter shelves at your local shop. He remains one of the few creators in the medium that can shed the cloak of superheroes.


Graphic Novel Review: The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner

Amongst comic book fans, Will Eisner’s the Spirit is legendary. It’s the foundation on which modern sequential art has been built. Indeed, on the cover of the Best of the Spirit, USA Today praised it as “The Citizen Kane of Comics.”

This, of course, made me pretty sceptical. After all, one of my favourite pet theories is Citizen Kane Syndrome, which states that influential classics lose their lustre because what made them shine is now cliché.  I shouldn’t have been concerned though – the Spirit easily lives up to all the hype.

The Spirit was a widely syndicated adventure comic that appeared as an insert in Sunday newspapers across the United States starting with the aptly named "Origin of the Spirit" published on June 2, 1940. The Spirit was originally Denny Colt, a criminologist killed while on a case. Reincarnated as the apparently immortal Spirit, he sought justice around the world. The original run lasted 12 years, and changed the way comic book writers and artists worked.

The introduction of "Meet P'Gell"from Oct. 6, 1946.

Eisner is often cited as an artistic genius who revolutionized pacing and layout. All of that skill is brought to life on the pages of the Best of the Spirit.  His characters are cartoonish, but remain incredibly emotive. Characters that appear for only a panel or two are instantly sympathetic. And if you want to see just how groundbreaking his design is, please check out the picture on the right.

I’ve often heard it said that Eisner was not afraid to spill ink all over the page and make his work incredibly dark. This is true, he’s not afraid of filling negative space with ink. However, it’s his colouring that was striking. It is incredibly bright and vibrant – bright yellows, oranges and greens pop in comparison to the black ink.

Also, when the scene calls for it, Eisner will leave more than half a page blank with some lettering and one or two characters. His reputation for dark, moody work belied a surprisingly diverse and colourful style.

What really impressed me though, was the quality of his writing.

The stories are short – seven pages each – but cram in an entire tale that manages to include character development, action and resolution in one neat package. This is a far cry from today’s decompressed epics where it takes nearly 100 pages for anything of substance to happen.

I would love to see a monthly Batman or Spider-Man book where there are two or three of these quick stories. They could be one-and-dones where the hero handles a case in the span of one night. I think it’d be a great contrast to the longer, more involved plotlines being used today. It would also make a great jumping on point for new fans.

There are some small drawbacks to the Spirit, of course. The inadvertent racism of the Spirit strips can make the reader uncomfortable. Aside from a few brief glimpses, the highly offensive Ebony White wasn’t included in this collection. But there is still a brief appearance of an Italian landlady, Mrs. Pizza, who says things like “No sorr... She’sa keep d’apart-ement joosa like dis...” Yikes. Eisner had to create characters in shorthand to save space, and too often that means stereotypes.

What’s most impressive about this book is how well it holds up. These stories were originally published between 1940 and 1950, but they’re still quick and fun. I’m definitely going to try and pick up more editions of the Spirit to add to my collection.

The Best of the Spirit was a pleasant surprise that confounded my expectations and is definitely worth checking out if you're not familiar with Will Eisner's work.


Graphic Novel Review – Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso

I was wandering through my local library when I saw the name “Satchel Paige” on the spine of a graphic novel and was immediately intrigued. The legendary pitcher has always interested me and I wanted to learn more. Even though it was written for young adults I borrowed it, figuring it was worth a look.

It turns out that I’d picked a fantastic piece of work by independent comic stars James Sturm and Rich Tommaso. In their hands the plight of African American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow south and the magic of Satchel Paige comes to life.

If you’re not familiar with Paige, then you’re missing out on a nearly mythical figure in American history.

Argued by some as the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige claimed that he had pitched in 2,500 games and won 80% of them. Of course, his claims can’t be verified since, as an African American, he couldn’t play in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barriers, and Paige was in his 40s. Baseball historians have since confirmed that he won at least 291 games between various leagues across the United States and Carribbean.

Tomasso uses sepia tones picked out with heavy black ink to render the tale of Emmet Wilson, his son Emmet Jr. and, of course, the legendary Paige. His style is reminiscent of children’s illustrators of the 40s and 50s like H.A. Rey of Curious George fame or Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day.

Relying on a straight forward six panel frame for most of his pages, Tomasso’s art is well-paced. In particular, the baseball games are very exciting and are a nice mix of extreme close-ups, expansive double-wide panels and reaction shots. (Click here to read the first ten pages online)

At first, Tommaso’s plain, two-toned artwork seems too simple for the subject matter. However, he handles graphic images like the lynching of a sharecropper with great sensitivity. Tomasso deservedly won an Eisner Award in 2008 for his work on the book.

Sturm’s script draws the reader in and creates a real sense of tension, particularly surrounding the menacing Jennings twins who seem capable of anything.

He also does a good job of differentiating between the latent racism of Southern society represented by segregated baseball fields or the paternalistic Mr. Jennings and the blatant hatred of his twin boys who engage in violent hate crimes.

Most impressively, Sturm handles the enigmatic Paige with a rare touch that maintains his mystique while making him into an early champion of racial toleration. The penultimate scene where Paige faces down the bigotry of the Jennings brothers is a slow, simmering burn that the reader can savour.

The Center for Cartoon Studies commissioned this book, and they deserve full credit for putting together a wonderful package that includes online resources like samples of Tomasso’s draft work and other tools for teachers. Of course, they also put the Sturm-Tomasso tandem together which is what makes the book great.

Although geared towards adolescents, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow is an enjoyable, light read that doesn’t shy away from some tough subjects. Sturm and Tommaso are deft storytellers that express a myriad of emotions with minimal words and art.