TOP 5: War Comics

With the current geopolitical climate being what it is, it seems as apt a time as any to ask: War. What is it good for? I tick down my personal list of top 5 must read comics about the horrors of war.

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(Written and Illustrated by Ethan Young)

Set amidst a brutal massacre in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed, this is the story of two Chinese officers trying to escape the capital city of Nanjing after it was seized by the Japanese in late 1937. The book is a little shy about depicting the atrocities that happened in full detail, instead choosing to focus on the toll it is taking on the characters.

It is a sobering moment in history that we in the west don’t hear about very often, but one that will never be forgotten in China.
 

4)DMZ

(Written by Brian Wood; Illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli)

DMZ is the only book on this list that is not based on actual historical events, but that doesn’t take anything away from its impact as an anti-war parable. After insurgencies from the Midwestern United States strike at the government over growing anger at the direction of the country’s foreign policy, skirmishes start to break out all over the county. The government and the revolution become stalemated at Manhattan. Many of the city’s residents have fled, but several hundred thousand still call the island home.

DMZ focuses on the exploits of journalist Matty Roth who is embedded in Manhattan during the bloody second American civil war. The book puts emphasis on exploring the way that extended conflicts change us as people, while also bringing the experience close to home for American readers. At 72 issues, it is a commitment, but there is so much to explore here, you’ll wish it was longer.

Fixer.jpg

(Written and Illustrated by Joe Sacco)

The story of Joe Sacco traveling to Sarajevo and buying stories from a local ex-soldier named Neven, The Fixer exposes some of the criminal underbelly of a country ripped apart by war. Joe’s time with Neven spans three meetings over the course of 10 years in which time he finds that when it comes to war, it is often hard to tell what parts of the story are true and which are fabricated.

Sacco is responsible for several other books about countries in war time and all are worth the read if you want a deep dive into some major world events, however, this one really digs into what the fog of war does to the truth and the people lost within it and, for that reason, it is the first one I recommend to anyone looking for good comics journalism.

 

(Written and Illustrated by Marjane Satrapi)

The first book of Marjane Satrapi’s auto-biographical comic, Persepolis discusses her childhood caught up in the turmoil of the Islamic revolution. For many, this was a book that showed the human side of people and children enmeshed in revolutionary movements. The time we spend with Satrapi is powerfully empathic as we share her teenage self’s victories and defeats. Throughout, we learn that though she lives a world away, she shares and invites us to look at her essential humanity.

It is not enough to know what she went through, but we feel it in agonizing detail. I read this book many years ago and it has stuck with me ever since.
 

1) Maus

(Written and Illustrated by Art Spiegelman)

Art Spiegelman’s brilliant and gut wrenching book about his parents’ journey as Jews from Poland who lived through time at Auschwitz ranks among the great World War II stories of all time. Told through the lens of anthropomorphized animal characters, there are layers upon layers of symbolism baked into this book. Along with the compelling tale of their survival, told by Vladek, Spiegelman’s father, Art’s own sense of guilt about not sharing his parents’ pain is openly portrayed and dissected.

It is a study of two generations shaped and, to some extent, defined by the war. I highly suggest you read every book on this list, but if you can only read one, make it Maus.

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Honorable Mentions

There are several other books that are solid reads in this category, here are just a few others that are definitely worthy of a read:

Shooting War
Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995
Palestine
Sheriff of Babylon
We Stand on Guard

Perhaps you can introduce me to a few more important books like these.

REVIEW: We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce

We Stand on Guard, a 6-issue mini-series penned by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Steve Skroce in 2015, just got its trade paperback edition, so I decided to finally read it. The near-future story of war between Canada and America was a quintessential Brian K. Vaughan offering, with witty dialogue, fast paced action, and an exploration of some interesting themes enmeshed with international relations. Vaughan gives a passable explanation to the far-fetched notion of war between the US and Canada and that’s good enough for me.

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The story itself feels a little rushed (the entire mini-series is only 6 issues long), however the individual arcs do feel earned. There is a lot of personality pressed onto each character, and the interactions between them all – including the villains – is one of the strongest parts of this mini-series. There are one or two moments of eye-roll worthy jokes, but if you’ve read any of Vaughan’s work before, you’ve already learned to find it a little endearing and move on.

Steve Skroce’s line work is incredible and the details on things like hands and fingers are little gifts for the eyeball. The design on all the future tech looks incredible and seems like it involved a lot of research into robotics, which I'm a bit jealous of. Additionally, Skroce’s feel for depicting the hell of this war stands out as strongly in heavy action scenes as it does in the quiet moments of contemplation and conversation. Colored by Matt Hollingsworth, the palette is bold, but not overstated. He makes judicious but memorable use of deep reds, while the rest of the book is a bit more muted.

Overall, the team of We Stand on Guard does a good job with a solid script. It’s nowhere near Vaughan’s best (see: Saga, Y: The Last Man, Pride of Baghdad), but if you’re looking for a quick and enjoyable read with something of a deeper message about the ludicrousness of war, this one will get you to where you want to be.

ART: Dave McKean from The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch

A chilling reminder of Dave McKean's talents from his team up with Neil Gaiman on Mr. Punch. This book left haunted little dreams for me for a long time after I first read it in my teen years. They just released a paperback 20th anniversary collection, so if you've not yet put this in your comic collection, isn't it about time?

REVIEW: The Flintstones vol. 1 by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh

The Flintstones, Vol. 1The Flintstones, Vol. 1 by Mark Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Flintstones comic, written by Mark Russell and illustrated by Steve Pugh, has, so far, been a terrific series of scathing allegories, which lampoon everything from marriage to war. Each issue tackles its own societal problems with brutal satire that continually manages to straddle the line between depressing and hilarious. This isn’t just a straight up series update, and for that reason, it manages to do what most adapted properties fail at, to wit: it’s good because it does something different with the source material instead of just trying to smash it into the clothes of another medium without full consideration of its inherent differences.



Russell uses the frame of the Flintsones to create a very different kind of story. One that discusses topics as wide ranging as (in no specific order) worker’s rights, corporate greed, the fickleness of the art world, consumerism over substance, the blind acceptance of organized religion, the human desire to be wanted, the human desire to kill, bullying in popular elections, the rich othering people outside of their clan in order to take their resources via warfare, adopting children of wartorn places, veterans being a political talking point while they are useful and cast aside afterward, marriage as a love insurance scheme, the blocking of gay rights, and I’m sure there are a bunch I’m leaving out. Impressively, while covering that vast spread of topics, nothing felt rushed. The argument that each arc tries to make is always clear and no point is ever belabored. The characters are all well characterized and each has their own sense of depth. Pebbles especially, in her limited page time, reminds me so much of people I met as a teenager on my own forays into the punk scene.

Steve Pugh’s art is a good fit for the modern take on the series. Though I was never completely blown away by any specific panels, I enjoyed the character designs quite a bit, especially those of the main cast. The panel and page flows were apparent from page one and well-defined throughout this trade and Pugh imbues the book with a nostalgic familiarity while also making it his own. Colorist Chris Chuckry adds his touch with cleverly muted flashback scenes and an intriguing color palette that feels vital.



All in all, The Flintsones is a great read for you if you’re looking for sarcastic, dark humor dressed up like a childhood memory. If you are in the market for a revamped Honeymooners send up, you’re not going to find it in these pages (though the original show had its own subtle and sardonic charm), but I think this will land with the people near my demographic who watched the show when they were kids, but want a new brand of satire. Of course, the fact that pretty much all of these issues are self-contained stories and there isn’t much bleed from one arc to the next means that there doesn’t seem to be any grander story arc, though that also means that it never feels bogged down in an overwrought plot. If you’re a fan of Mad Magazine or films like Idiocracy or Tropic Thunder, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If not, you might be better served trying something else.


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REVIEW: Unfollow vol. 1: 140 Characters by Rob Williams and Michael Dowling

Unfollow, Vol. 1: 140 CharactersUnfollow, Vol. 1: 140 Characters by Rob Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good, but not amazing opening volume to one of Vertigo's newer ongoing series. Written by Rob Williams and illustrated by Michael Dowling, Unfollow is the story of a billionaire social media mogul who decides to do a little experiment on some of his platform's users. In order to find out if humanity is basically good or evil, he spreads his wealth out over "140 characters," meaning people in the world. Yes, it is an eye-roll worthy pun, I happen to enjoy a good pun from time to time, your mileage may vary. From that point on, the fewer people there are in the group, the larger percentage of the inheritance each member gets. I'm sure you get the idea here. Violence begins. Mysteries start to be revealed. And so on.

There is a lot to like in the ridiculous situations Williams puts his characters into throughout the first volume. There are enjoyable, absurd characters around every corner (which I find to be a hallmark of a good Vertigo book), their dialogue sizzles along nicely, and this trade makes me want to know where their arcs are going. However, the book sometimes feels like people make decisions more because the plot demands it than because it felt true to their character, and once that genie is out of the bottle, it is hard to regain immersion in a story. Hopefully this is an issue that clears up once Williams gets the feel of these characters and their motivations completely under his control.

I do enjoy the rugged feel of Dowling's art throughout. I think it strikes the right tone and the close-ups on faces give a great amount of detail without getting in the story's way. A lot of the set pieces remind me of Jon Davis-Hunt's work in Clean Room.



If you've got a full docket of comics, this is one is ultimately missable, but if you've got some money burning a hole in your pocket and the time to spare, you could definitely do worse than picking up the first volume of Unfollow.

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UHH?: Rat Queens

I'd planned on finally starting a book I'd been looking forward to for a while, Rat Queens and then writing a review and that's exactly what I did. I enjoyed the first volume too. And then I went digging around to get a little more information on the creators and found out about a whole load of personal problems the book has run into. Suffice it to say that it seems like the co-creator and original artist on the series was a wife abusing jerk-off and got booted, but I guess now they're trying to get the old band back together and it's just soured me on the whole thing.

I honestly can forgive a lot when it comes to separating artists from the art--maybe too much--but in a book that is, on the surface, all about female empowerment, even considering bringing back someone who has admitted to using physical violence against his wife in the past (while he was working on the book, no less) kind of baffles me.

So...I deleted my review and I guess my advice is sadly going to have to be, don't bother. The set up is decent, but I'm not in the business of supporting abusers who seemingly (at least according to the abused) have no interest in much except soothing their own conscience while ignoring the responsibilities of their transgressions.

And though I don't get many visitors here, and I'm not usually the PSA type, if there's even a snowball's chance in hell this helps somebody out, I'll post it:
If you or anyone you know needs support with domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

PROMO: A Wicked Little Town by K. Patrick Glover and Keith Perkins

A couple of acquaintances of mine have put out a comic recently and I'd like to let you all know about it!

I've got my own copy of A Wicked Little Town in the mail and should be receiving it today. Per the back cover:

In Dodge City
In 1878
Law And Order Had Two Faces
Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday
A Wicked Little Town

Initially released serially on the now defunct Weaponizer magazine website, A Wicked Little Town was Written by K. Patrick Glover and Illustrated by Keith Perkins who've decided to put together a trade for their adoring public. Personally, I'm psyched to help out some indie comics creators and am looking forward to reading their take on the wild west.

ART: Darick Robertson from Happy

Darick Robertson, the esteemed artist of Transmetropolitan and The Boys, did this short book with Grant Morrison about a hardboiled ex-cop, hot on the heels of a deranged child murderer who, after a near-death experience, starts seeing a flying, blue rabbit/unicorny thing. As always, Robertson is on point with his art, evoking a heavy noir feeling, while maintaining a silly lightness when Happy is around. It's a fun book if you're looking for something dark and surreal.

REVIEW: The Sheriff of Babylon vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. by Tom King and Mitch Gerads

Sheriff of Babylon (2015-2016) Vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (Sheriff of Babylon (2015-))Sheriff of Babylon (2015-2016) Vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. by Tom King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second (and final) trade of Sheriff of Babylon kept the story moving in all the right ways. The arcs of each main character beautifully split away from the others and then twine themselves back together in this volume. We end off with a sense of false closure and uncertainty, but by no means does that imply that this story arc felt unfinished.

Tom King's easy familiarity with this depraved murder story set in Iraq just after the Gulf War is almost scary. He has a hold on each of these characters -- or maybe they've got a hold on him -- and we are guided through a complicated, but clearly depicted world of deceit and trust, zealotry and insincerity, control and terror. Eventually we reach the end, but what questions have really been answered is for the individual reader to decide.

And please do not forget Mitch Gerads' art. For the most part Sheriff has a reserved, Sepia-toned color palette that really contributes to the desert aesthetic without being too obvious. When he moves away from that, he does it strongly with deep blues and greens that make perfect sense and leave a bold impression. The detail on the characters' faces is incredible, and Gerads etches the years and sorrows that have followed these people through the simplest of facial expressions and wrinkles.



The complex and difficult beauty of this story is the real reward waiting for you at the end. Many are saying this is the best limited series of 2016, and I have to agree. It might be the best one I've read in years.

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ART: Chris Ware from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Chris Ware has always been a boundary pushing creator. Both writing and illustrating his work, Ware has changed our understanding of what comics can do for years. Jimmy Corrigan is a semi-autobiographical and entirely haunting book about dealing with painful family history that will stick with you for a long time after reading.