Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Terrible Pope 1-3

As he was finishing the 2004-2011 "Borgia" series with Milo Manara, Alejandro Jodorowsky was already preparing the follow-up. It's probably due to scheduling that the first volume of "Terrible Pope" actually came out two years before the Italian artist finished drawing the preceding series, but the two  books can still be read separately.

"Della Rovere", published in 2009 by Delcourt pairs Jodorowsky with Theo Caneschi to present the papacy of Borgia's successor on the throne of Saint Peter. Gulliano della Rovere was a character in the Manara-drawn historical epic, but the writer goes to great lengths to make the new series accessible.

This is paramount considering the early 16th century setting could easily lead to the reader getting lost in the historical facts. Just like with "Borgia", Jodorowsky is careful to treat the material as a genre work full of intrigues and sexual debauchery. The protagonist's homosexuality quickly comes to define the work, coupled with his blood lust.

To put it kindly, the creative team present the major historical figure as a depraved raving lunatic and compel the reader to follow his machinations in a late Renaissance setting. The first volume starts with a story relating the events leading to della Rovere becoming the pope and follows it up with his revenge on the Borgia family that kept him from achieving the position at an earlier age.

Once again, the reader is given a primer regarding the events from the previous series and is in no way penalized from not reading the Manara illustrated story. Della Rovere is given a lover that helps humanize him and gives the protagonist someone to confere his thoughts to. The many sex scenes and intrigues prevents beautiful Aldosi from being a mere plot device. Instead, by pairing him with a black slave not only completes the menage a trois, but gives della Rovere a pair of servants devoted to carrying out his schemes.

All of this is very graphically illustrated by Theo, who lacks the precision of Manara's ethereal work, but instills a vulgarity and passion to the sinful Vatican depicted in the series. His work is gorgeously colored in browns and reds and helps to instill the series with its own identity. Par for the course of the historical fiction, the artist is burdened with historical references missing from his previous fantasy work, but the external details do support the unique balance of the work.

"The Terrible Pope" is at once a comic book biography that deftly manages to cohere the complicated political landscape of sixteenth century Italy and crafts it into a narrative about power similar to "Borgia". It is in the succeeding two volumes that Jodorowky's collaboration with Theo further crystallizes into a work with its own identity.

Ironically it does it by calling attention to one of the previous' work's major themes, that of the family. By bringing together a bevy of his own cousins, Gulliano at first seems to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, but his megalomania quickly spins out of control and the bizarre combination of freaks is quickly and unceremoniously dispatched.

Thus "Julius II" follows the first volume by essentially splitting into two stories, that feed into one another, and more importantly, continue fanning the political flames of della Rovere's insanity. The readers are instructed not to attach themselves to the supporting cast, as the major historical figures seem to be the only ones to escape the grisly treatment.

This is not to say that the creative team treats them with any kind of dignity, but that as the series goes on della Rovere's interest in lovers turns to the famous artist that he patronized. This is especially true when it comes to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Theo struggles somewhat when it comes to the famous artist's character design, but his role in the story is much more controversial. Simply put, the antics that go in the relationship he has with the pope, and later on Raphael are sure to prove divisive to a portion of the audience. Yet, it's difficult to think that any of the purists would have remained with the work long enough to witness the plot twists.

The second are third volumes are framed in Machiavelli's narration, with the philosopher's treatment stylistically in keeping with the rest of "The Terrible Pope". Thus, the writer of "The Prince" relates the story a quarter of obese prostitutes, with whom he enacts his fantasies of unified Italy.

Yet the the third volume is not completely devoted to the artistic legacy of Gulliano's time in the papal seat. The intrigues, always laced with depravity keep up as the ailing Holy Father fights fever and his usurpers. It's clear that his rule will not last much longer but the series leaves room for one final installment, even if it hasn't been formally announced. The last year's volume is otherwise just as brutal as the previous ones and maintains some of their flaws.

It's easy to see the series as simply a way for the venerable writer to amuse himself and imbue the facts with a sinister reading, which robs the series from some of its impact. Theo's work likewise maintains the visual identity and dedicates itself to the storytelling in such manner that it's difficult to look at it as something more than competent European-styled genre work.

Due to its over the top imagery "The Terrible Pope" is unlikely to find the success of "Borgia" and will likely be remembered as a spin-off that is no more than a footnote in Jodorowsky's bibliography. Nevertheless, the series has its own identity and presents Gulliano della Rovere's tale in a very compelling manner. Hopefully, the creators and Delcourt will find it feasible to finish their story with the fourth and final volume, that closes the door on their retelling of a particularly bloody time in Italian history and the rise and fall of the controversial man that was in front of it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dream Thief volume 1: 1-5

"Dream Thief" is a long gestating project envisioned by Jai Nitz and Greg Smalwood. After three years of development, the two Kansas based creators have finally come to an agreement with Dark Horse to publish the initial five issues. Despite some work for DC's Zuda line of webcomics, Smallwood has remained a little known creator, while Nitz has spent a dozen years patiently building his career in the unforgiving Direct Market. Aided by an Alex Ross sketch that has eventually became the cover of their debut issue, the "Dream Thief" finally saw print last year.

The story opens with a recurring motif of the protagonist bewilderly waking up in an unexpected location, with no immediate memory of how he got there. The density of the creators' approach is clear from the very first page, featuring dual narration and a cascade of small panels. Visually, the layout and the heavily atmospheric minimalist stylings call to mind the work of Sean Phillips, particularly his time on "Wildcats".

Both Nitz and Smallwood are keenly aware of the space limitations of a 22 page comic, but seem determined not to let it impede their complex plots. Thus, the well acted and keenly observed look of "Dream Thief" is employed in service of storytelling, with the first issue acting as a complete story. The three suceeding issues are standalone, even while they feed into the wider plot begun in the inaugural episode.

In practice, they turn the title into a procedural with a supernatural twist, setting out a capable formula strong enough to support a bevy of successive stories. The creators call out this ready for TV series approach by having one of the characters be a fan of the "CSI" styled cop show. The high concept of "the Mask" meeting "Quantum Leap" is suprisingly easy to get a grasp on, making the reader care about the multitude of victims' perspectives.

Namely, while he sleeps, John Lincoln is possessed by the spirits of the newly murdered, leaving him to try to make for more righteous resolutions once he awakes to the aftermath of nighttime brutality. He is presented with the memories and abilities of the recently deceased, which go a long way towards resolving the situation that made them a victim in the first place.

The creators fully utilize the genre roots and the strengths of the medium they are telling their stories in, making for gripping cliffhangers and plot twists that maintain the paranoia. The reader is thus never sure what will happen once the perpetually sleep deprived protagonist awakes after finally succumbing to sleep.

Smallwood's clean pages intuitively respond to plot twists by becoming animated whether through innovative layouts or different color schemes when pertaining to flashbacks. For his part, by utilizing dualling narration, Nitz is able to string together the pertinent information about each of the vengeful spirits' previous lives. The writer is careful to make each experience different, while enabling the titular Dream Thief to retain all of their thoughts and abilities.

Such a scenario could risk turning the protagonist into a cypher, but instead the creators use the experience to help the character grow and mature. 

John Lincoln is introduced to the reader as a down on his luck slacker, quickly losing control of his life. Yet, the information regarding his past and the quickly set up group of friends and loved ones hint at the complex, multi-faceted person.

In many ways, the mystery surrounding John is more compelling than the murders he spends the central part of the story investigating. After introducing the story with a personal tragedy that gives him his powers, the mini-series ends with his return to Atlanta, forcing him to deal with his own situation, while in the process setting up the new status quo.

John's sister and his best friend are there to address his transformation and seem poised to remain by his side as he masters his new abilities and deals with the newfound knowledge regarding his predicament. The creators end the first volume of "Dream Thief" by promising that its follow-up will consist of a single story, more centered on John trying to discover the truth about his father. Hopefully, "Escape", starting June 25th, will be the first of many mini-series that continue Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood's strong debut on "Dream Thief".

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dead body road 1-6

Announced at last year's Comic Con, "Dead Body Road" was marketed as a creator owned revenge mini-series. The creative team consisted of Justin ("Luthor Strode") Jordan and Matteo ("Indestructible Hulk") Scalera. The latter has since seen his name attached as the regular penciller of Rick Remender's ongoing "Black Science", making for a year with very strong presence by the artist.

Most of the appeal of his collaboration with Jordan is visual, as his talents lend gravity to the fast-paced, pulpy tale. The gritty, heavily inked textures are somewhat reminiscent of Sean ("Punk Rock Jesus", "The Wake") Murphy's work, and coupled with Moreno Dinisio's colors make for a well-rendered, gritty tale purely defined by physicality.

The art team helps relax the readers into a seemingly familiar revenge scenario, giving them time to warm up to the way the plot navigates the cliches. The well paced action scenes which start the story filled with desperate, sweaty mercenaries quickly capture the reader into Jordan's uniquely inventive pulp rythms. His laconic, gleefully sadistic characters never stay still and quickly arrive at a conflict that suits each of their paranoid greed-motivated psyches.

Gage, the nominal protagonist slowly progresses into a man with a morality that goes beyond the familiar revenge motivation, while the book easily becomes something of an ensemble piece. By introducing Rachel and Orson, the writer manages a very unhealthy dynamic, that fuels the story's constant need for conflict.

Thankfuly, the whole creative team is onboard to illustrate the successive action scenes, as the characters opt to use violence in every possible instance. Even when professing aid to one another, they are either openly threatening each other, or defer to resolving the argument after a bout of violence.

What quickly comes to define the book's pages, densely realized in black washes, which seem particularly effective despite the medium's traditional problems when it comes to depicting vehicles in motion as related to one another. Not every beat is as clear as the other, but in general the thrill never lets up as the tightly plotted story propels from one set piece to another.

The central mystery, relating to the robbery whose aftermath "Dead Body Road" concerns itself with is slowly broadened to comment on the aforementioned morality of Gage, as the writer tries to instill a sense od nobility and character progression that distingishes him from the cutthroats and psychopaths he is set against and seems to understand all too well.

Most importantly, the story comes to a close in a bloody showdown whose results for once seem earned, as there persists a sense that something was accomplished beyond the customary McGuffin. Despite the inventivness of their take on the tropes, the creators manage to instill a humanistic viewpoint right at the center of their bleak revenge scenario, turning "Dead Body Road" into an actual story that goes beyond the typical list of cliches which usually characterizes similar narratives. Coupled with outstandingly raw and visceral artwork, this tale of grinning mercenaries set against each other in a bleak landscape on the brink of civilization certainly fulfills the reader's urge for a tense and dramatic revenge narrative in a medium that all too often employs the more fantastic elements in such stories.