Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Captain America: The New Deal (2003)

Author: John Ney Rieber | Illustrator: John Cassaday | Page Count: 176

"Blood on your hands, they say.  As though it stops there.
At the wrist.  Like a glove."

TND was John Ney Rieber’s first Capt America story, and the one that launched yet another reboot of the series, post 9/11.  It wasn't a good start.  It’s political.

I live in the UK.  We’re not patriotic.  It's a generalisation but largely true.  We aren’t taught allegiance in schools, or weaned into it by fraternities and sororities, and expected to declare undying loyalty, etc.  Being an outsider means I don’t know if the view I have of American culture is even remotely close to the real America; it’s a view based on media offerings, and we all know their truth to bullshit ratio.  The book embodies what the media tells me so I can't know how much of it mirrors real sentiment, and how much is exaggerated.  Irrespective, it’s not a good story.  If you strip away the self-reaffirming monologue, the calls for unity and the blatant mollycoddling then there’s almost nothing left.

Most of the text is in short, broken clauses; the type that's best reserved for action scenes.  When that kind of writing takes up the bulk of a text it disrupts the narrative flow and stops being fun to read.  It’s like listening to that kid with lung problems from Malcolm in the Middle read someone's diary.

There’s an attempt to show the 'enemy' perspective, but it’s uneven.  Respect to Rieber for trying, but when Capt resorts to beating down his demonised opponent with words, claiming that at least America doesn't kill children, I was ready to fling the book out the window.  I’d like to say it was a clever device to show him naïvely blinded by patriotism but I really don’t think it was.  I sincerely hope I'm wrong.

John Cassaday’s art is fantastic.  His depiction of the Captain sifting through rubble, gray dust filling the frame, with a pained sense of failure on his hero’s shoulders is beautifully presented, and the action scenes are dynamic.  It’s a shame that such great work was accompanied by such a problematic text.

The book collects together Captain America Vol 4, Issues 1 - 6

2 torn flags out of 5

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Marvels (1994)

Author: Kurt Busiek | Illustrator: Alex Ross | Page Count: 248

"I was learning a great deal about the world, and even more about the pain of a forced solitude.  I was aware of everything... understanding nothing."

The individual stories that Marvels was originally envisioned to tell would've been interesting but the unified, multi-layered work that it became is something very, very special.  Writer Kurt Busiek cites Tom DeFalco as the man that provided inspiration for turning many ideas into one idea, so kudos to him.

It revisits iconic comic moments that span 35 years (1939 to 1974) by exploring those events from the perspective of the regular people that were directly affected by them.  It's the Everyman story entwined with the story of a world unprepared for the threats that face it.

The eyes and voice of the work belong to Phil Sheldon, a freelance photo journalist.  Phil can’t climb walls or shoot fire from his fingertips, he can’t even protect himself from being swept up by a changing public opinion, but when the superheroes begin to bleed into society he’s there to capture it with his camera.
Sheldon embodies the fear, awe and confusion that grips a person as they watch two ‘Marvels’ fighting for dominance, tearing up a city like it was paper.

Flipping the perspective from the heroes and villains to the common man replaced the usual metaphor device with a more overtly relatable truth.  It emphasised the choices and consequences forced upon the ordinary citizens thrust into a world they'd no control over.

I wasn't familiar with all of the storylines that played out on the city like a canvas but it didn't matter too much, the book is written in such a way that a lack of knowledge doesn't exclude you from Phil Sheldon’s story.  Even if this is the first comic book you've ever read, it still astounds.
It’s a love song to an age of comics that can never be repeated, and a genre breaking advancement in narrative that works on many levels.

It was Alex Ross’ comic début.  His fully painted art is unmistakable.  Using people as models helped capture a sense of realism.  His heroes are truth exaggerated but never twisted into impossible forms.

5 rolls of film out of 5

Friday, March 29, 2013

Button Man: The Killing Game (2003)

Author: John Wagner | Illustrator: Arthur Ranson | Page Count: 88

Twenty thousand pounds – is that a fair price for a man’s life?

This first Button Man story appeared in the pages of 2000 AD in 1992.  If I go into even the briefest synopsis it could rob the story of its power, so I’ll be writing a review that tells you almost nothing about the thing I’m reviewing.  It’s the equivalent of a politician’s answer to a direct question.

From beginning to end it’s an intelligently written, beautifully illustrated bleak British Noir.  Making a reader sympathise with a killer is no easy task; John Wagner drips just enough info to allow us to decide if we want to do just that.

It revolves around Harry Exton, a former mercenary.  We don’t learn much about Harry’s past but his actions hint at one that’s filled with violence.  Whatever it was, it’s given him an edge: he’s good with a gun and can kill without remorse.  That trait makes him a desirable commodity for certain people.  It seems the pastoral English countryside has a darker side.

I adore Arthur Ranson’s art style.  It’s unlike traditional comic work.  It’s as if he’s taken an actual photograph and recreated it using only the parts that are necessary.  He distils the image into something dramatically striking through his use of a limited and muted colour palette.  Think of a 1970’s British Cop Show, and imagine it put through a Photoshop filter.
Most of the story takes place at night meaning Ranson’s palette is dark, and his locations shadowy, like a Noir should be.

There’s been talk of a film adaptation for years.  It’s perfect for a film.  It even has its own transitions that would work onscreen.  It would take a real idiot to screw it up.  The problem with making a film now is a number of similar stories have been brought to screen since its publication, so it’ll no longer seem fresh.
I'm also worried that if it happens in the current climate they’ll likely want to turn it into Bourne or Bond to capitalise on the action junkie audience, and that’ll diminish it.  Maybe it's best if it never gets made.

4 telephone voices out of 5

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Astonishing X-Men Vol 2: Dangerous (2007)

Author: Joss Whedon | Illustrator: John Cassaday | Page Count: 144

"I want this thing off my lawn."

Vol II picks up where Vol I: Gifted (2006) left off. I was hoping for more of the same, but it’s different and not always the good kind of different.

The story hits the ground running. Bang! Straight in. No foreplay! From then on it's a roller coaster ride of semi-exciting highs and face-palm lows.
The danger level is cranked to maximum. There's the feeling that we're getting something that could do some real and lasting harm for a change, but it shits the bed and delivers something that isn't very dangerous at all.
Five minutes after the initial battle everyone is fully recovered and ready for more. You were dead but you're okay now. Let's get snacks.

Whedon has proved over time that he gets it right more often than he gets it wrong, but he wrote himself into a hole this time. Either he got lazy or was busy with a hundred other projects and forgot how astonish. He even forgot that Professor X is paraplegic, or did I miss something prior to this story?
The plot is ridiculous. The ending feels like it was pulled from a hat. If Wolverine had started doing card tricks it wouldn't have felt out of place.

What held my attention was the continued character development, particularly between Kitty and Peter. I like Joss' ability to balance characterisation and action in the same instance; he doesn't need to stop one to focus on the other.
I also liked the role given to Beast, and how artist John Cassaday translated that role to the page. Needs more Beast.

Volume I left me very eager for more. Volume II left me asking myself do I even want Volume III? If it’s on sale... maybe.

The book collects together Astonishing X-Men vol 3 issues 7–12

2½ purple helmets out of 5

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Judge Dredd: Democracy Now! (1992)

Authors: John Wagner / Garth Ennis  |  Illustrators: Jeff Anderson / John Burns  |  Page Count: 48

"You're dangerous, Dredd.  You have to be removed."

Dredd’s world gets shaken or burned often but very little change occurs within the establishment.  Once the blood is cleaned off the streets and the Meat Wagons take the bodies to a Resyk centre the Judges carry on as normal.  The oppressed citizens, most of them oblivious to the inner-workings of the Hall, lose more freedoms without realising it and the 'fascist' system perpetuates.

The Democracy storyline shines a light on that situation by turning the focus toward the judicial system, by making it the villain, similar to how the Megazine had portrayed the Judges in the America (1990) storyline.

There are a few pages of text to get you up to speed with what’s been stirring in the cities before the story begins, because you don’t just wake up one morning and decide to have a referendum.

Dredd believes the benefits the eight hundred million citizens receive from Judge protection far outweigh the drawbacks, but not everyone agrees.  Will the vote go in Joe’s favour?  Or will the citizens throw a collective middle finger at the system and return to a red tape Democracy?

It’s a short book and only a small snippet of a larger whole.  Going into it without some Dredd knowledge isn't advisable.  You’ll miss the subtleties of his actions and reactions to a threat that he can’t kneecap nonchalantly with a gun.

2½ redecorations out of 5

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Indigo Prime: Killing Time (1992)

Author: John Smith | Illustrator: Chris Weston | Page Count: 63

"...there's red on the train... on the window, the floor, the seats and the ceiling...  Shiny shiny Whitechapel Red..."

You won’t find the Indigo Prime back-story in this collection.  If you want a brief history lesson to prepare you, in case you decide to pick up the book, then click the button below.  If you'd rather not know, then skip to the next paragraph.

Killing Time features Max Winword and Ishmael Cord, both of whom are ‘Seamsters,’ which means they deal with temporal matters.  Other roles existed within the agency that dealt with other problems.
The two Seamsters are sent to the year 1888 to track down Jack the Ripper; that’s not a spoiler, it’s revealed on the first page.  Jack’s misdeeds have consequences outside of just culling the hooker population.

The story resembles the kind of thing you’d get if you blended HG Wells’ machinations, Lewis Carroll’s imagination, and HP Lovecraft’s unease.  If that sounds pretty damn amazing to you, then you’ll get some jollies here.
The dialogue is consistent with the era and the social classes represented.

Chris Weston's art is wonderfully baroque, full of elaborate ornamentation and twisting lines which really help bring the work to life.
Colour is used in an unusual way; it’s not at all naturalistic but it works within the confines of its own twisted reality.

Smith & Weston's Killing Time is a great book that was much overlooked at the time.  2000 AD's current owners Rebellion have recently reprinted it so fingers crossed it gets the attention it deserves.

3½ stitches in time out of 5

Monday, March 25, 2013

Spider-Man: Blue (2004)

Author: Jeph Loeb | Illustrator: Tim Sale | Page Count: 144

…maybe by chance, or maybe God has a sense of humour
and we’re all part of the joke.”

Blue is the story of how Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy fell in love, and how his life seems to him a pendulum that swings from good to bad repeatedly.  He tries to rationalise it by seeing the bad as being a necessary precursor to the good.

It's split into two distinct time periods that work in tandem.
The first is a confessional memoir narrated by Peter in what I’m going to call the present.  It mostly takes the form of text boxes (captions) that sit inside the frame, and act like a v/o in a film.  They’re spoken by a Peter that’s endured hardship; a Peter that’s developed a deeper understanding of his purpose, and the dangers inherent in it.
The second time period is a visual retelling of past events.  The art and speech bubbles that make up the majority of the frame depict what happened or was said in the past.  They show a Peter early in his career as Spider-Man; he’s less mature, less aware of how tragedy shapes and scars an individual. The past and the present exist in the same frame and together they tell the full story.

Even though the pictures fill the majority of the page, it’s the captions that carry most of the weight, and the reason this story works so well.  If they were absent, it wouldn't need to be retold.  Jeph Loeb tinkers with the original very slightly but there's no major retcon happening.  By the end you'll be glad he did what he did, particularly if you can relate emotionally.

Tim Sale’s art is a perfect match for Loeb’s words.  His colour-blindness doesn't seem to be a handicap at all.  His lines are bold and his blacks are striking.  He seems to have a filmmaker’s eye.  If his frames were taken verbatim to a screen they would make some very dynamic eye-candy; I’d wager even better than any of the existing Spider-man films.

The book collects together Spider-Man: Blue issues 1 – 6.  The events that Blue reference can be found in The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 issue 43 - 48 and 63.

4 thwips out of 5

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Judge Anderson: Childhood's End (1995)

Author: Alan Grant | Illustrator: Kevin Walker | Page Count: 64

There was a simple method of finding out our worth.  Every year, they locked one hundred of us in a Gulag with food for only fifty.’

PSI Judge Cassandra Anderson had a rather severe crisis of faith in the events leading up to this book.  The incident left her unsure of her role in the Justice system, and equally unsure of the system itself.  To distance her from the system that made and fears her, she’s shipped off-world to explore the famous Head of Mars.  For half a million years the head has held mysteries, and it’s time for them to be revealed.

The important moments in Anderson’s development have been handled almost exclusively by Alan Grant.  He took her to dark places within herself that weren't light reading.  Childhood's End is a critical step in that evolution; it’s the step that takes her over the line.  It feels as if it was written to contain one hugely significant act that would go on to shape Anderson from that point onward, but the story that’s built around that act isn't sufficient to carry the weight of it.

I loved Kevin Walker's work on ABC Warriors but his Anderson has a sinewy and overly masculine physique.  Judges are required to be at the peak of fitness at all times but she’s a bit too chunky for my liking.  I prefer Arthur Ranson’s approach, where her strength is more reliant on the ferocity of her convictions.  I think she works best when contrasted with a more traditionally skewed male view of what femininity ought to be, as the seemingly weaker female, so when she revels her true self and crushes those preconceptions it’s much more dramatic.

The book collects together Anderson: Childhood's End from Judge Dredd Megazine: Vol II: Issues 27 - 34.

2½ intelligent apes out of 5

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Caves of Steel (1954)

Author: Isaac Asimov | Page Count:  224

Even as a youngster, though, I could not bring myself to believe that if knowledge presented danger, the solution was ignorance.

The Caves of Steel was the first full novel in what would come to be known as Asimov’s Robot Series.  Some people include I, Robot (1950) in the series despite the contradictions between the two works.  I adore I, Robot but the bridge narrative structure keeps it from being perfect.  The Caves of Steel has no such handicap, nor does it rely so heavily on direct speech for exposition, meaning it flows much more organically.  The pace is also improved.

The Caves of the title are huge interconnected steel domes that house an ever-expanding human population.  In contrast, the outer planets are populated by Spacers, people descended from colonists that left Earth centuries before.  Whilst the Spacers embraced robots, the Earth people didn't.  Resentment of Spacers runs deep, even in those whose job dictates that they should remain impartial.

When a Spacer is killed, Detective Lije Baley is tasked with finding the killer.
Baley is an Earth-man.  When he’s partnered with a Spacer, the Robot Danell Olivaw, more than one of his prejudices get put to the ultimate test.
Asimov must've really liked R. Danell because he used him in subsequent novels, much more frequently than any of his other returning characters.

The world in Caves of Steel is beautifully fleshed out, with consequences that are far reaching.  There are of course sci-fi concepts but if you strip them away you’ll find another of those puzzles that Asimov was so very good at.  He doesn't use wild technology as a crutch, meaning resolution isn't reliant on some impossible science.  Beneath the sheen it's a fully developed and deeply compelling detective novel that just happens to be set in the future.

5 diplomatic incidents out of 5

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013)

Author: Alan Moore | Illustrator: Kevin O'Neill | Page Count: 56

Frankly, I like the odds better if I'm in a tank.

Heart of Ice is a standalone work that’s nevertheless a part of Moore and O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.  You’ll need to have knowledge of the previous books, particularly the Century trilogy, if you want to know how the main protagonist got to be how she is.

It merges the traditional pirate adventure story with the world of one of America’s most celebrated horror writers (circa 1930).

Like before, some character names are changed or purposefully omitted to avoid legal action.  My knowledge of penny dreadfuls is almost zero, so I wasn't familiar with over half of them.  I'd to go to Wikipedia just to find out who the hell the main antagonists were.  The ones I did recognise (an African queen and a notorious 1920’s publishing tycoon) had very little to do with anything once the story got under way.  The fast pace leaves little time for any of the secondary characters to make an impact.

For me, Moore’s repeated use of violence in his portrayal of women isn't a negative thing.  I think the opposite is true: the women hold their own in a world of vile masculinity.  That strength and power of the female is again to the fore.
Janni (Nemo) is a worthy substitute for Mina.  She’s equally as driven and equally as determined to shake off the shackles of her male forbearers.  If the story had the same depth as her then it’d have been much more entertaining.

The swift move from place to place required artist O’Neill to jump from a world of steampunk contraptions to a world of tentacled horror.  Somehow he made it work like he always does.  The League world is as much his as Moore's.

3 giant penguins out of 5

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

50 Facts That Should Change The World (2004)

Author: Jessica Williams | Page Count: 303
These are facts, but they are not immutable truths. It's not too late to change the way our world works.
A collection of 50 essays that reveal not only the facts themselves, but also the circumstances of their existence, their extent and possible solutions. Some are more pressing than others, but all are engrossing especially if one takes the time to think about them further. Some are a problem only in certain countries like the UK's overuse of surveillance or the USA's unpaid dues to the United Nations, but the majority are grave global problems such as the deadline for oil reserves or the size of the illegal drug trade.

It is a quick, but fascinating read for anyone who feels like being enlightened a bit to some real problems both ethical and technical. The engrossment is helped by Ms. Williams concise, but compassionate prose that feels both knowledgeable and sincere. Despite it being written in 2004, it is astounding how many of the facts are still ongoing. There is also an updated 2.0 version which should be checked out for anyone wanting some real issues to learn about and possibly help fix. Or at the very least some decent conversation topics. You know, if you're an asshole.

4 Exploitations of developing countries out of 5

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

HR Giger's Film Design (1996)

Author: H.R. Giger | Illustrator: H.R. Giger | Page Count: 138

'...holes of all description, holes in the ground, holes in the head, ass-holes, etc.  I’m still not sure what they were for but they’re great nonetheless.'
William Malone

H. R. Giger's Film Design is a large format book that offers an insight into the artist’s film projects.  Much of it will already be well known to fans, his work on Dune, Poltergeist II, etc, but knowing about a thing and exploring the genesis of a thing are very different experiences.

It covers a wide range of work, from short films, lengthy personal projects to music videos and even furniture building.  But the real treasure is when it goes into detail about the films that didn't make it past the design stage.  There’s one in particular that has the potential to equal David Cronenberg at his most bizarre; it’s both repulsive and tantalising in equal measure.  The only problem is the budget required to do it justice could buy a small country.  In truth, I’d rather it never get made than get it half-assed.

There’s a lot of space devoted to his involvement with the Alien franchise.  Seeing him working on models and sculpts, getting a sense of scale and seeing the evolution from sketch to 1:1 model is fascinating.  The film was his most commercially successful from a production design point of view and is the one that stuck most faithfully to his designs.  You’d think that thick-as-shit Hollywood producers would have made that connection by now.  Instead they pay him for sketches and then continually change them to better suit their own weak ideals.

Which brings me nicely to the only negative aspect of the book.  There’s some duplication with the similarly sized Species Design volume that came out the same year.  If you already own it then you'll be able to skip that chapter.

5 good intentions out of 5

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I, Robot (1950)

Author: Isaac Asimov | Page Count:  256

"People say 'It's as plain as the nose on your face.' But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” 

I, Robot is one of Isaac Asimov’s most famous works.  People know of it even if they haven’t read it.  It’s a collection of nine short stories loosely tied together by a frame narrative.  It introduced Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which were designed to be unbreakable.

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Making them unbreakable didn't stop him spending the rest of his career bending them, or finding new ways to interpret them.  That’s where Dr. Susan Calvin comes in.  Susan is a robopsychologist.  When something goes wrong with a robot that can’t be attributed to mechanical error, it’s her job to figure out why.  Was the order given in conflict with the Three Laws?  Or was it open to misinterpretation by the robot?  They are thinking machines after all, they need to be to function autonomously, but are they given too much free will?

The prose style is simple and direct, which is an asset to the story as it lets you engage fully with the concepts without losing the narrative thread.
Albert Einstein said, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”  Even though Asimov’s technology is fictional, he understands it completely.  He explains complicated scenarios in simple terms, without it ever feeling diluted.  Mostly they’re puzzles that need to be figured out, sometimes by connecting the dots, and sometimes by creating the dots from scratch.   Once the puzzle is solved, there’s an abrupt ending each time.

4 positronic brains out of 5

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia (2013)

Authors: Shigeru Miyamoto, Eiji Aonuma | Page Count: 276

'As the stories and storytellers of Hyrule change, so, too, does its history.'

Zelda fanboys / fangirls are an odd bunch.  I can say that without malice because I’m one of them.  The Hyrule Historia that we waited so long for isn't the Zelda bible like some claim; it’s a Zelda history book like the title implies.  The content is spilt into 4 main parts:

1. An in-depth look at the most recent LoZ game: Skyward Sword.
The book has a heavy bias toward Skyward Sword; it begins and ends with it, and fills a large part of the middle.  It makes sense from a developer point of view to push your most recent game deep into the consciousness of the reader but it makes the book uneven.

2. The official History of Hyrule.
It gives the story of each game in chronological order, so expect major spoilers if you haven’t played them.  It attempts to explain the split in continuity in the timeline that occurred after the events of Ocarina of Time, which is interesting.

3. Production sketches and art from the 25 year history of the series.
There are hundreds of illustrations, from all of the games.  Some people might call that filler but I call it treasure.  Getting to pour over previously unseen concept art and line sketches is something I enjoy.  If you 'meh' at the thought of doing similar, you'll hate this section.

4. A manga prequel to the Skyward Sword game.
A short manga written and illustrated by long time LoZ manga creator(s) Akira Himekawa.  If you're a collector of the manga, you'll know what to expect.

Overall, it's a beautifully presented book with a wealth of information and a shitload of artwork that should keep fans happy for a while.

4 decipherable alphabets out of 5