Category Archives: Reviews – Dark Horse

Academic Discourse

UA #1 second printingThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #s 1 & 2
Writer: Gerard Way
Artist: Gabriel Ba
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Blambot
Cover Artist: James Jean (Gabriel Ba for #1 second print)
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US each

The biggest factor that’s gone into the marketing of this property is the participation of music star Gerard Way. Personally, I don’t know the difference between My Chemical Romance and the Chemical Brothers, so that other-media fame isn’t a lure in my book. The greatest strength of The Umbrella Academy is the incredible balance between the surreal Silver Age wonder of the concepts and the heartfelt emotions that drive these bizarre characters and serve to bring them down to earth. Way and Ba’s collection of oddball, dysfunctional heroes represent a delightful slice of the creators’ imagination, but they prove to be compelling, fragile souls as well. They have power in droves, but happiness seems to elude them. One can recognize elements from the dynamics of how their family functions (or doesn’t) in one’s own life as well.

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People Are Strange, When You’re a Strangewell

Maxwell Strangewell original graphic novel
Writers/Artists: Matthew Fillbach & Shawn Fillbach
Editor: Dave Land
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $19.95 US

According to Dark Horse’s website, the Fillbach Brothers’ previous claim to fame is some popular work on the Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures digests. Now, while Maxwell Strangewell is a science-fiction story, it’s a radically different sort of story than some Lucasfilm spinoff. There’s a distinctly philosophical and surreal quality to this book that’s quite appealing. Now, the ultimate granola message of the story is rather obvious (and spelled out far too plainly by the book’s end), but it never fails to amuse. Furthermore, the cast of characters is expansive, and early on in the book, the reader can never be sure if each new character or alien contingent is a protagonist or villain. There’s a complexity to the structure of the dramatis personae that’s appealing. Maxwell Strangewell isn’t quite as deep as it seems at first, but it’s solidly entertaining from start to finish. As I read through the first couple of chapters, it reminded me of other samples of pop culture I’ve enjoyed in the past. Have you ever seen the movie Starman, John Carpenter’s sci-fi love story featuring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen? Maxwell Strangewell is like that movie, had it been written and directed by Tim Burton.

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Handheld TV

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #s 1-4
“The Long Way Home” Parts One through Four
Writer: Joss Whedon
Pencils: Georges Jeanty
Inks: Andy Owens
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Comicraft
Cover artist: Jo Chen
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US per issue

From what I can gather, the announcement a few months back that Joss Whedon was going to continue the TV saga of a certain vampire slayer in the comic-book medium was met with glee on the part of the show’s diehard fans, but I assumed that the appeal of the new title would be limited to that crowd alone. Of course, I realized I shouldn’t assume anything about a particular comic book. The new series has performed well for Dark Horse, of course, and Whedon has written a few non-Buffy comics that I enjoyed in the past. With that in mind, I delved into the first four issues of the Buffy “Season Eight” series. While there are a lot of references to Buffy’s TV continuity, I was surprised to find that the plot is fairly easy to follow. Whedon has taken a much more ambitious approach to the vampire-slayer mythology, and the dialogue, unencumbered by U.S. television’s Standards and Practices people, is snappy and entertaining. Nevertheless, the subplots and revelations of this series are clearly intended for fans, not for new readers.

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Ghosts in the Machine

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine trade paperback
Writers: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Artist: Guy Davis
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Mignola
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $17.95 US

Mike Mignola’s decision some time ago to shift the Hellboy property to a series of limited series about his colleagues in the B.P.R.D. was a wise choice. He’s managed to avoid telling repetitive stories featuring Hellboy and how his toughness and grounded nature ultimately enable him to come out of supernatural scrapes intact, and the shift has also provided Mignola and co-writer John Arcudi to explore more character-based stories by fleshing out the supporting characters and adding to the cast. The writers take a split approach to the storytelling here, as they offer up a plotline about an intellectual quest that turns dangerous as well as a number of shorter stories that delve into the past and personalities of the members of the core team. It makes for a well-balanced and accessible read. And if ever there was an artist whose style was as well suited to the surreal and gothic, supernatural world that the B.P.R.D. patrols as Mike Mignola’s, it’s Guy Davis’s.

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Sakai It to Me

Usagi Yojimbo #100
Writers: Stan Sakai, Mike Richardson, Frank Miller, Diana Schutz, Sergio Aragones, Jamie S. Rich, Jeff Smith, Mark Evanier & Guy Davis
Artists: Sakai, Rick Geary, Miller, Matt Wagner, Aragones, Andi Watson, Smith, Scott Shaw! & Davis
Letters: Sakai, Geary, Miller, Tom Orzechowski, Watson, Smith & Shaw!
Cover artist: Sakai
Editor: Schutz
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $3.50 US

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo has been a mainstay of the comic-book industry for more than two decades. When people think of longtime, successful comic-book creators who work outside of the dominant super-hero genre, names such as Dave (Cerebus) Sim and Jeff (Bone) Smith come to mind. Sakai has earned a place among such creators with his single-minded dedication to this property, which he has guided single-handedly over the years. This 100th issue of the current Dark Horse series doesn’t feature a milestone story in the life of the title character or a climactic conclusion to a long-running plotline. Instead, it’s a jam issue in which the creator, not the character, is honored by colleagues in a colorful, roast-like fashion. Even if one isn’t familiar with the rabbit samurai hero of the series, this self-contained, tongue-in-cheek issue offers up an entertaining and frank look at the culture and camaraderie of the comic-book industry.

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String Theory

Red String Vol. 1 graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Gina Biggs
Editor: Mike Carriglitto
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $9.95 US

Though Tokyopop and Viz dominate the world of manga in the Western market, one has to acknowledge that Dark Horse Comics definitely makes itself known in that arena as well, and not just when it comes to English-language adaptations of Japanese material. Red String isn’t technically original English-language manga, since its original presentation was online. Creator Gina Biggs is clearly a fan of manga and Japanese culture, as she sets her teen romance story in the Land of the Rising Sun. Biggs boasts a soft, appealing visual style that’s in keeping with the lighter, youthful tone of her story. Unfortunately, the backgrounds are lacking, making for some repetitive and unengaging artwork at times. The story itself is fairly simple, even silly at times, but it’s also sweet. Red String is all about giggly girls and their rivals, as well as the boys they swoon over and those that torment them. Red String is bound to delight young, female readers, but its appeal seems pretty much limited to that small, niche market.

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Dead Mailmen Do Tell Tales

Mail Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Housui Yamazaki
Translation: Douglas Varenas
Letters: IHL
Editor: Carl Gustav Horn
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics/Dark Horse Manga
Price: $10.95 US

Though I initially found it difficult to glean what this book was titled, reading it turned out to be a great diversion on a slow afternoon. Mail Vol. 1 proved to be one of those rare manga publications that actually appealed to me. If there’s one thing that Japanese creators seem to do well, it’s horror storytelling. Mail is really an anthology of horror stories, with the common thread of the same medium/ghostbuster turning up in each disparate, creepy tale. There are flaws in some of the choices that writer/artist Housui Yamazaki makes at times, but overall, he manages to offer up some fun but chilling stories of the supernatural without resorting to gratuitous, gory imagery to do it. Another reason these eerie ghost stories are so entertaining is that the creator never takes things too seriously. There’s an irreverence to the storytelling that helps to offset a couple of the more derivative or convenient elements. The biggest problems with the book have little to do with the craft of comics, actually, but rather with design and marketing.

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By Crom, I Want a Corvette

Conan and the Midnight God #1
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Will Conrad
Colors: Juan Ferreyra
Letters: Comicraft
Cover artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Editors: Scott Allie & Matt Dryer
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US

From Marvel’s Conan comics to the Ah-nuld movies to The Savage Sword of Conan magazines, I’ve never been one for the barbarian genre. I’ve said this time and time again, so it should come as no surprise that I approached this sword-and-sorcery comic with some trepidation. To my surprise, I found what might be the beginnings of the best Conan story I’ve ever read. Writer Joshua Dysart presents us with a vision of Conan as a conflicted soul, torn in several different directions at once. It’s perhaps the most grounded vision of the warrior king I’ve seen, and I’m surprised to find I’m interested in where Dysart plans to go with the rest of this story. The artwork captures the title hero’s moods perfectly, reinforcing the down-to-earth elements in the story. The plot is fairly simple, but it boasts a political element that drew me into the book a little more as well.

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The Best Man Is Actually the Worst

Hellboy Animated: The Black Wedding original graphic novel
“The Black Wedding”
Writer: Jim Pascoe
Artist: Rick Lacy
Colors: Dan Jackson
Letters: Blambot
Cover artist: Jeff Matsuda
Editors: Scott Allie & Matt Dryer

I’m looking forward to the upcoming DVD release of Hellboy Animated: Sword and Storms movie, and I thought the live-action flick was great big-screen fun as well. I assume that the new DVD release will be full of the same lighter, more energetic kind of fare one finds in this graphic novel, but I hope the plotting and overall flow of the storytelling are more refined. The storytelling in this main story is choppy and occasionally confusing, and I realize it’s because writer Jim Pascoe is trying to provide a number of different though connected threats for the various members of Hellboy’s team. The more cartoony designs for the characters are an interesting change of pace, but the linework seems rough around the edges, and the confusing tone I mentioned before is exacerbated by poor scene transitions. The colors are unusually bright given the gothic, supernatural elements in the story, but surprisingly, they work.

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The Path Less Taken

Path of the Assassin Vol. 1: Serving in the Dark graphic novel
Writer: Kazuo Koike
Artist/Cover artist: Goseki Kojima
Translation: Naomi Kokubo & Jeff Carlson
Editor: Tim Ervin
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $9.95 US

I didn’t expect to enjoy Path of the Assassin. It’s rare that a sample of manga that appeals to me, and the very first English-language edition of Lone Wolf and Cub (issued in the late 1980s by First Comics and championed by Frank Miller, long before Dark Horse Comics reprinted the series in digest form) failed to make a connection as well. Since Path was crafted by the same creative team as Lone Wolf and Cub, I figured my reaction would be lukewarm at best. Mind you, I’ve grown a great deal as a human being and as a comics reader since then, which may have something to do with it. But to be honest, I think the nature of the characters and the subject matter made for a connection this time around. Despite the cultural gap between the audience and the characters, there are elements here to which one can relate.

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Feat of Clay (and Kavalier)

The Escapists #s 1 & 2
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Philip Bond, Eduardo Barreto, Steve Rolston & Jason Alexander
Colors: Dave Stewart, Paul Hornschemeier & Matt Hollingsworth
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Cover artists: Frank Miller & James Jean
Editor: Diana Schutz
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $1 US (#1) & $2.99 US (#2)

I haven’t read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about two comics creators in the Golden Age of the industry. I sampled some of the stories from Dark Horse’s Escapist anthology, featuring the adventures of the Kavalier/Clay-“created” super-hero. It was diverting, but I found creators were essentially using the character to tell new “classic” stories in the vein of other characters, such as the Spirit and the Batman. I lost interest, as the book really didn’t stand out from the crowd. I suppose that’s why this new series, The Escapists, failed to grab my attention at first. Buzz about this series is growing, and justifiably so. Y: The Last Man and Runaways creator Brian K. Vaughan has done it again, crafting another must-read comic that demonstrates the writer’s keen appreciation of human behavior.

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