Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Voodoo Vendetta" is a charming and thrilling horror-adventure of legendary Spirit with the Hatchet

It has finally happened.  Thanks to an independent comic book publisher from California, the legendary Western comic book hero from the Italian Sergio Bonelli Editore house, Zagor, is at long last available in English.  It premiered in its native Italy way back in 1961, and it made its American debut in the summer of last year.  Now, for anyone that has grown up reading this celebrated action packed comic - as yours truly clearly has, during my adolescence in the Eastern European Balkans - the last twelve months are not only a reason to rejoice, but an occassion for celebration.

As written by Mauro Boselli and illustrated by Mauro Laurenti, Voodoo Vendetta (Epicenter Comics, 215 pgs, $13.99) is a rousing and often times dark tale of Darkwood forest's famous hero - the so-called Spirit with the Hatchet - that takes him deep into the heart of Louisiana's swampy bayous.   Consisting of two-hunred plus pages, in full glossy color, this third installment of Zagor in English is tightly packed with mysteries of the black magic, the charismatic Louisiana hospitality, and even pirates and lost treasures from ages ago.

While returning to their home in Darkwood, Zagor, along with his chubby Mexican companion, Chico, and their occasional treasure hunting, skinny goofball friend Digging Bill, run across a charming and (sometimes) conniving woman, Gambit.  Gambit is such an expert at gambling that she often mistakes cheating as a "rule" of the game, a habit that regularly gets her in trouble with those she swindles.  Zagor and Gambit quarrel and disagree at times, but even a blind man could see there's some sexual tension between them.

However, their stay in Lafayette is complicated by Marie Laveau, an African-American ageless beauty, whose skills in the black magic involve bringing the dead back to life, so that she can control them to gain revenge against those who've wronged her in the past.  Eric LaSalle is one of these people, and while his home is raided by Marie's Vlandingue (murderers in the art of voodoo), Zagor is accidentally caught in the crossfire, and soon finds himself in a mysterious post-mortem limbo between this world and the next.  There, he is tempted by Marie's spirit to join her and rule the ancient Songhay Kingdom as the evil Damballah, her deity partner in crime.   This journey, which will test Zagor not only physically, but psychologically as well, is imagined and presented by Boselli and Laurenti with vivid wit and insight, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's dark and spooky tales of old.

Unlike the majority of Zagor adventures, Voodoo Vendetta features a female driven charm not often seen in this series.  The alluring Gambit is a welcome presence in this macho world, where both friend and foe alike are typically of the male sex.  Additionally, the duplicitous Laveau challenges our hero in more ways than one, her maliciousness representing only a small part of her complex and three-dimensional persona.  And every episode that features the clumsy but benevolent Digging Bill is certainly worthy of the "classic" status.  Boselli writes a ghostly tale, infused with plenty of humor and old-school, over-the-top action, and he's complimented here rather gracefully by Laurenti's artwork, which is reminiscent of comic books of old: clear and saturated with various emotions, but also goofy and comical at times.  In other words, Voodoo Vendetta possesses all the right ingredients for an unforgettable Zagor adventure.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales" is more lyrical and poetic than adventurous as narrative

As an issue that explores the mythical, the legendary and the fantastical, Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales (IDW Publishing 2016, 138 pgs) feels a little different than previous adventures of Hugo Pratt's famous sea captain.   Corto will here encounter Venetian monks who know of mysteries of Eldorado; he will face German, Italian and Austrian soldiers during World War I; he will meet with members of Ireland's IRA, and will even cross paths with the famous Captain Baron Manfred Von Richthofen (otherwise known as The Red Baron).  This juxtaposition of adventures, consisting of both fictional and non-fictional historical characters, feels like a series of dreams during which Corto Maltese may or may not have been awake; it's up to the reader to interpret which.

Corto: What will you do with your share?
Onatis: I'll buy a fleet of fishing boats and with the profits, a fleet of oil tankers. And what will you do with your share, Corto Maltese?
Corto: I have many friends.  I'm going to spend it with them.

It is in Chapter 3 - Concerto in O'Mino for Harp and Nitroglycerine - that Corto comes closest to testing his melancholy loneliness - as he often does in company of new females who intrigue him physically and emotionally - while traveling through Dublin.   The woman in question is Banshee, a dark haired, freckle-faced widow of an IRA leader, Pat Finnucan, who was executed recently by the British mercenaries, led by someone named O'Sullivan.   It is apparent that Corto is attracted to the heartbroken woman, but as in most of his encounters with the opposite sex, it's not meant to be, as displayed in the scene of their parting.

Banshee: Are you leaving, Corto Maltese?
Corto: Yes... Do you want to come with me?
Banshee: My name is Banshee, remember? I bring bad luck... I brought it to the two men I loved... I can't risk it with you...

The consequent chapters involve the abstract more so than the factual.  As Corto lays asleep in the English countryside of Salisbury, the legendary Stonehenge towering nearby, a handful of mythical characters - consisting of Morgana, the Wizard Merlin, the little fairy Puck, and the mysterious and stylish enchantress Oberon - gather to discuss matters of both social and political importance, as well as the current war that's devouring England.  There is also a talking crow, and this bird is able to communicate with our hero after he wakes from his slumber, still unsure what is real and what is abstruse.  This chapter was more head-scratching than thrilling and entertaining on a literal level; perhaps Pratt would've done himself a world of good if he had cut the mythological and the fantastical portions of Celtic Tales to a minimum.  As it is, they feel oddly out of place, and a bit too sententious .

Unlike the previous episodes of this series, Celtic Tales feels more episodic than grandiose or epic in any way.  Each chapter comes across like a story on its own, with its own beginning and end, and none depend on the preceding or following chapters for clarity.  In other words, it's an endless series of mini-episodes, as if on a loop, that one could read in any order, and still be just as confused - or clear - about what they've just read.  That's the allure of Corto Maltese: he charms you even when he's clearly not even trying to.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Safe Area Goražde" is Joe Sacco's intelligent insight into the hell of what was the cruel Bosnian war

Joe Sacco's journalistic graphic novel, Safe Area Goražde, is a non-fictional account of events that took place in Eastern Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.  During the Bosnian War that unfolded at that time, Goražde was a small town on the Drina river, a place where Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats lived in harmony until the civil war devoured it, along with many of its citizens.  More than just a comic book-styled depiction of its survivors' stories, this is a strong documentation of a Hell-on-Earth, in which men turned on their neighbors, and a genocide of unspeakable evil unraveled, all the while most of the world was convinced that no harm ever came to Goražde.

Consisting of several accounts of Goražde's own citizens, Safe Area follows the testimonies of Edin - a friend of Sacco - as he tells the story of how the occupation of Bosnian Serb Army devastated and destroyed the town he grew up in as the UN forces remained unable to stop the slaughter and the shelling, for the sake of not appearing neutral in front of the international community.  There are also stories by Dr. Alija Begovic and Nurse Sadija Demir.  These two Bosnian medical professionals witnessed first-hand the horror and bloodshed that their own people endured, as they treated thousands of wounded, in many cases having to amputate infected limbs without the use of anesthesia - one of many detriments of carrying out the tasks of saviors in the middle of a fiery purgatory.  

Joe Sacco's artwork is part comical, part pragmatic, but entirely gripping.  The people he spent time and made friends with during his brief stay in Goražde appear tragically humanistic, displaying wide range of emotions, from fear, content, and eventually, relief, while their homes were raided by gunfire and shells as they were still inside them.   The fact that the survivors were able to pick up the pieces of their broken and damaged lives and move on in the aftermath of the war speaks even further about their strength to persevere and try to forget the three-and-a-half-year long living nightmare.  Safe Area Goražde is an authentic and honest testament to the survival and endurance of the human spirit in the most unimaginable of horrors, and as such, it should not be ignored by those who would otherwise find such subjects too depressing and dreary.

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Harrow County: Snake Doctor" suffers form lack of a strong narrative

Unlike the first two story arcs (Countless Haints and Twice Told) of Dark Horse's Harrow County comic book series, this third volume, Snake Doctor, is neither here nor there.  It consists of three stories (and not just one, as was the case with its predecessors), and neither is very engaging, thorough or conclusive.  They feel like vignettes and chunks of potentially good ideas, but possess not a coherent length to sustain a narrative worth being moved or enchanted by.

In the first story of Snake Doctor, the series creator and writer Cullen Bunn returns, but this time with a new artist, Carla Speed McNeil.  Their tale consists of a mysterious drifter who arrives in Harrow County late at night, and then proceeds to harass Emmy's friend, the skinless boy, about the absolute necessity and need to discover his own name.  By the time we reach the end of the tale, the effect is anti-climactic and less than stellar.  The only thing that shines throughout is McNeil's artwork, which vibrates with life and atmosphere in every single frame.

In the longest tale of the volume, young Bernice tries to solve the new local problem with venomous snakes in HC, and her plight will lead her to Lovely Belfont, an old woman long believed to be a witch by everyone in the community.   As Bernice is told a little bit about the snakes' history,  she is also pulled into the art of witchcraft, as the last few pages hint at.  The fact that this tale supposedly includes a "to be continued..." at its end, and doesn't actually continue, leaves this reviewer a bit puzzled.  However, the artwork by the series original Tyler Crook is strong and creepy.

The last and the least of the three tales brings back our heroine from the prior two volumes, the young witch Emmy, and it involves her helping a needy family rid their house of an otherwordly evil.  As still written by Bunn, this tale introduces us to new artist of the series, Hannah Christenson, and her illustrations are just too inconsistent, and therefore a far cry from the previous styles that befit this series more appropriately.   All in all, Harrow County is still a very relevant and effective series, and Snake Doctor is proof that for every couple of influential and successful tales (as in the first two volumes), there is a less than inspired three-quel.  Let's hope this is just a minor bump in an otherwise very strong and solid road.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

"Sausage Party" is a vulgar and perverted trip into the culinary profane world of Shopwell's

More than any animated movie you've seen so far in your life, Sausage Party is profane, obscene and downright lewd.  As one of the first animated features to be catered exclusively to adults, that crude quality benefits it as much as possible during its less than 90-minute running time.   In addition to the sexual innuendo present in nearly every other line of dialogue, the script (by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir) infuses allegory of the religious, the political and the social, and there are laughs aplenty, to be sure (particularly amusing is the quarrel among and the eventual friendship between Sammy Bagel Jr. and Karim Abdul Lavash, two edible pastries that clearly represent two races standing on opposite ends of religious spectrum in a very sacred land).  The final act, however, in which all the products in Shopwell's supermarket (the movie's setting, for the most part) fight the humans in their protest to be eaten and otherwise used, feels redundant and superfluous.  Haven't these guys learned by now - from the lead characters in Toy Story franchise - that it's best if you just accept your fate in a human dominated world, even if that means being digested by the "Gods"?  Still, Party delivers what it promises: a satisfying good time for the deviant child in all of us.

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Kubo & the Two Strings" is overproduced and over told; its mythology is convoluted and perplexing

Kubo is a good kid, to be sure, but his plight in "Kubo and the Two Strings" is confusing and unnecessarily complicated.   Accompanied on his journey by a white haired primate with parental instincts known simply as Monkey (Charlize Theron) - who may or may not be the reincarnation of his recently deceased mother, I'm not quite sure - and eventually by Beetle, a Samurai-type warrior (Matthew McConaughey) with four arms who wears a large suit of armor - Kubo - with his magical guitar and his equally marvelous sheets of paper, which can transform into whatever the young boy plays on his enchanted tambourine - battles twin witches (or are they sorceresses?), giant underwater Eye monsters and eventually the legendary Moon King.  Although the visuals look amazing, the script is heavy handed on mythical folklore of the world it takes place in, and even more laborious when it comes to the spoken word, which is hardly charming or humorous.  This is the sort of experience that children will merely only "like", while the adults will be too busy checking their watches all too frequently.  It is a movie that will leave an impression on everyone without really impressing anyone.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Manifest Destiny Vol 1: Flora & Fauna" puts a new twist on Lewis & Clark's American expedition

If only the real journey of the two famous 19th century explorers was this much fun when it really took place.   Starting in year 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark set out to explore the unexplored American frontier, and in the hands of writer Chris Dingess and artist/illustrator Matthew Roberts, their journey is both fantastical and horrifying.  More than just a Wild West adventure, Manifest Destiny Volume 1: Flora & Fauna is a delightful treat for eyes and the ears for all comic book lovers the world over.

Accompanied by the Lemhi Shoshone Native American woman, Sacagawea, the journey of Lewis and Clark in this comic book series incorporates an updated twist on the historical journey of these non-fictional, historical people.  Imagine if the real explorers of the aforementioned quest ran into Minotaurs who possessed a taste for the human flesh, and who were large and threatening and intimidating in stature, with a buffalo head on top of their bodies instead of a bull's one?  Or how about an infected group of zombie like former humans, whose bodies have been taken over by plants and roots, and who are capable of turning anyone they come into contact with into one of them?

In addition, Dingess and Roberts' version of Sacagawea is a bad-ass warrior, capable of slaying the said Minotaurs with ease, and putting down any undead threat without difficulty.  She's sort of a Lara Croft of the American wilderness, a woman whose toughness here exceeds her legend, and rightfully so.  Combined with the ambition of Lewis and Clark, this trio is bound to re-write the history of the American exploration with some serious bang and panache.  Manifest Destiny: Flora and Fauna may not be historically accurate, but that's not what it's trying to be to begin with.  Interpreted purely as a comic that's meant to entertain - and do so with a particular kick to the readers' senses - it's an imaginative work of exceptional ambition.  In a sea of science-fiction themed comics from Image, Destiny infuses history, originality and unbridled excitement in the most impressive way yet.

Monday, August 15, 2016

"Suicide Squad" is pure visual excess with little story & character substance

An overblown action movie mess that is more focused on how it looks than how it sounds.  The script is pretty lame; several times I cringed at how poorly the dialogue was written, and the villain - khm, villainess, an other-wordly entity called Enchantress, is clearly over the top, and cartoonish to a point.  Whatever happened to good old fashioned villains of flesh and blood?  There are a few scenes with Jared Leto's Joker and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn that are more captivating than they have any right to be, but overall, the movie is at least twenty minutes too long.  Will Smith brings nothing to the role of Deadshot, as the character could've been played by anyone, and the difference would've been negligible.  All the bad guys (i.e. members of the titular so-called "Suicide Squad") are rather lame, and have none of the personalities to hold this storyline together the way a movie of this expensive of a budget should, but it is no matter.  David Ayer's direction, and especially the script, is lazy and uninspired.  But, with the movie's large box office intake so far, we can certainly expect countless sequels, prequels and spin-offs in the decade(s) to come.  And they may not even have a script next time at all; just a series of shots that add up to two hours of running time, in which these people walk around arguing and using poor wisecracks to show us just how "human" they are.  That scenario probably would've been better than this movie, if I'm being honest.

Friday, August 12, 2016

"Shutter Volume 1: Wonderlost" is an overstuffed fantasy suffering from excess of story and characters

I never thought I'd see this.  A decent idea of a story, led by a beautiful and clever heroine, in a setting of unlimited imagination, but ultimately held back by its own excessive ambition.  Shutter Volume 1: Wonderlost feels like someone's wild dream gone completely out of control to the point where nothing really makes sense anymore, except the level of absurdity we witness from page to page.

As written by Joe Keatinge and illustrated by Leila Del Luca and Owen Gieni, Wonderlost possesses a most bizarre visuals that at once capture our eyes and imagination.  Their protagonist, Kate Kristopher, who leaps from one dangerous, life-threatening situation with her talking cat (which, by the way, has a clock on its stomach), is the kind of heroine reminiscent of our own best explorers.  She's a dare-devil with long white boots, and a flock of lengthy dark hair to match.  As Kate occasionally recalls her adventures with her late father - who even led her to the moon once upon a time - she is chased by assassins and hoodlums from the entire universe over - some wanting to capture her, while others want to see her dead - and it would seem that a member of her own family is behind it all.  

All of these events occur with such high kinetic energy that I found my head spinning more than once.   The narrative, which starts off well, quickly jumps into unnecessary overdrive, without developing the lead characters appropriately, and proceeds to introduce way too many additional cast members of this very quirky and bizarre universe.  By the time I turned the last page, I couldn't help but wonder if the creator was high on something while conceiving this idea; it feels terribly over-written, and if I may so, overstuffed with too much of everything.   It looks great, that much is true, but it sounds anything but genuine and authentic.  It's difficult to care for a lead character when she isn't even given a proper minute to develop even the slightest bit of humanity.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"The Manhattan Projects - Vol. 1: Science Bad" portrays USA's finest military and science experts as murderous madmen

What if the "genius" men behind the (in)famous Manhattan Projects from the middle of the last century weren't the celebrated and brilliant generals and scientific experts we consider them to be, but something else altogether?  What if one of them was a multiple-personality homicidal maniac who only appears to be normal, and in fact is anything but?  What if there were aliens from other cosmos who agreed to help us in destroying our enemies in exchange for other favors?  Such an alternate reality is a product of writer Jonathan Hickman and artist & illustrator Nick Pitarra, and their creation is a comic book series that, for the most part, defies genre conventions.

In The Manhattan Projects Volume 1: Science Bad, Hickman and Pitarra introduce us to the primary characters that will drive their narrative forward.  They consist of the leading military expert of the top secret project, General Leslie Groves, who is in charge of the entire operation; Dr. Joseph Oppenheimer, a man who "is not his own brother", and who appears to have psychological problems of the worst possible kind; Richard Feynman is a physicist who has a strange affection for his own appearance; and rounding out the rest of the main characters is a dejected looking Albert Einstein, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in form of an Artificial Intelligence, and Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist from Germany who possesses a prosthetic arm.

The tone of this first Trade Paperback volume is satirical, to say the least, and infused with plenty of the absurd (Japanese Kamikaze Killing Machine attacks the Manhattan Projects secret base!) and the truly bizarre (alien Siill and his buddies, from a far away galaxy, who offer the above mentioned characters "the stars" in exchange for future favors of yet undetermined nature).  The violence is campy, the dialogue is bordering on the humorously outlandish, and the storyline consists of an alternate reality where just about anything can - and does - happen.  Hickman's and Pitarra's The Manhattan Projects may not be for the mainstream comic buffs who grew up on Marvel and DC's superheroes' universe, but for those who are fans of other Image sci-fi & horror serials of the peculiar kind, such as Black Science, Nameless and Cry Havoc (to name just a few), it should satisfy their sweet tooth just enough to keep reading further.

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Legend of Tarzan" is flat, uninspired and worst of all, boring as shit

Without a doubt, the worst movie adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' legendary character yet. The script is awful and full of cliches already seen thousand times over in countless terrible films, the casting is uninspired (Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan? Seriously???), and the action scenes come across as watching paint dry on a fence that's barely hanging on to dear life. Director David Yates brings no vision whatsoever to this material that arrives not that long after the similar but much superior The Jungle Book. This summer has already seen a record number of bad movies that not only underperformed at the Box Office, but have been less than inspiring for the audiences. This should be on any sane person's ten worst movies of 2016, and the best way to view it on a plane, if you must, is to watch it without using the headphones, and also without looking at the screen.