Bill Willingham, Peter & Max (2009)

I’ve already mentioned that I love Fables, a comic book series by Bill Willingham.

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Fables are real. And, exiled from their worlds by (initially) unknown Adversary, they live in our world. Mainly New York, as usual ;), but not only. Centuries ago a huge army started to conquer one world after another (in a kind of multiverse where every legend has its place, and Earth acts as an Amber of sorts, the core reality where mundane people live, creating and remembering stories*). Many Fables were killed, most subjugated, some serve the new regime, but some escaped to Earth – and dream of regaining what they lost. They formed a government of sorts, with HQ in NY, and they live among us. At least those of them, who can maintain human-like form, the rest live on animal farm in the wilderness of New York State countryside.

*Willingham uses popular system, where the strength of belief in something influences its power. Popular Fables are really powerful, forgotten – decline in time.

Yes, so the comics are great, and I also recommended most of the spin-offs. The novel occupied its place on my shelves for a few years, but I’ve only read it recently. Not that I was worried it would be bad – there just always was something else. Now I’ve read it and I’m quite happy about it, but convinced Willingham should stick to comics.

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A comic book for the little ones.

Raising small geeks is a lot of fun. For me – definitely, but my nieces also look quite happy about it. I do not always get it right, and showing Coraline to a three year old… hopefully won’t come out in therapy later in life a source of some major issues 😉 And Brave, after which she was afraid her mother would turn into a bear, was not actually my idea (and Madzia enjoyed both, it’s just that there were some after-effects)

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Anyway, there are better and worse ideas. I keep them supplied with Ghibli movies and Marvel plushies and make sure there are plenty of books, carefully screened for artistic value and gender equality issues.  I read them age-appropriate manga, we play games and tell each other stories. There even is a very special book she can read me!

It’s a chance for me to revisit some of the childhood’s favourites and find some new and exciting books. And in this area I’m not handicapped by living in Poland. Our fantasy is mostly mediocre (with notable exceptions, but still…), our s/f tends to be politically too far to the right for my liking, but kiddie books – we have plenty of the highest quality stuff. There are even some internationally recognised names, take a look.

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Stan Sakai, Usagi Yojimbo (1984-?)

Popular culture gives us many great samurai figures. There are probably almost as many live action samurai movies as westerns, and The Magnificent Seven Samurai duo of wonderful classics show us how close these genres could be.

But I want to introduce one of my favourite comic books, so no more about cinematic depictions (hmm, who would have won if guys on the left fired on the guys on the right :D?).

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In a world of countless great mangas, my favourite graphic novel Japanese warrior is an anthropomorphic rabbit by Stan Sakai, who, though born in Kyoto, is undoubtedly an American artist. I’m not going to argue it’s the most accurate vision of the medieval Japan, from the stuff I’m familiar with the honour goes to Vagabond, probably, and Rurouni Kenshiin has some great moments – usually just before going for silliness and fanservice. And then there is Samurai Jack, a hero whose story recently concluded, after years of waiting.

But Miyamoto Usagi from Usagi Yojimbo, he is my favourite!

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The new Red Sonja (2013-?)

Red Sonja. Female version of Conan the Barbarian, in a way lingerie football* is a female version of American football.

*There really is such a thing, and apparently quite popular in the US. Isn’t it a perfect summary of what is worst in today’s pop-culture? The worst trends in advertising and entertainment combining sport and sex to appeal to the lowest instincts of mass audience. And there is talk of empowerment and providing role models for little girls, of course… and fining players for not revealing enough skin.

This digression is not completely out of topic, because Red Sonja seems to be part of the same problem. Pulp had its strong points and can still be fun to read, but it also targeted male teenage audience with soft erotica in days when it had to be disguised and the regular porn was not easily available. Scantily clad women on the covers, damsels in distress rewarding dashing heroes with their graces, and sometimes sword-wielding females like Sonja, inspired but slightly different fantasies of authors and readers. Still, no actual women were hurt and left without medical help in the process, so maybe these were better times…

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A few words about The Witcher comics.

The game is great, books – also, I believe so, though the world is not unanimous on that, maybe my perspective is distorted by the fact it’s the first significant Polish fantasy series, and still one of the best, with uniquely Polish humour and perspective on things. Not wholly translatable into English, I’m afraid.

Maybe one day I’ll read the translation, I’m a bit curious. But it’s the only major franchise I’m experiencing in my mother tongue, it’s just so very Polish in every way. A hobbit I’ve met near Novigrad yesterday was a joke at a terrible LotR translation from the deep 90-ties (how I hated it, but for a moment it was the only one available in bookshops…), even the curse words are so cool…

Anyway, the author of Wiedźmin/Witcher books is, of course, Andrzej Sapkowski. Paul Tobin wrote, Joe Querio drew, Carlos Badilla colored and Nate Piekos lettered a few comic books taking place in The Witcher© universe.

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Two volumes I’ve read so far, House of Glass and Fox Children, were clearly spiritual children of the games, not books, but since we’re talking about the greatest cRPG series ever, it’s not exactly an accusation. Something I’ll probably repeat many times in the ever coming Wiedźmin book review – Sapkowski is a very interesting writer, but ultimately, whatever his Polish fans might think, one of many. The Witcher’s creators are geniuses of their trade.

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Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates (2002)

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The famous reimagining of the mightiest Marvel’s heroes, the Avengers, was the love child of Millar, praised here for his work on Civil War, and Hitch, a British comic book artist known mostly for his detailed, and usually late, work ;). The comic book turned out to be as controversial as popular. The authors’ ideas on how should the contemporary Avengers look like inspired the movies’ creators and through them – made a huge impact on the whole Marvel universe. Can you imagine a different Nick Fury than Samuel L. Jackson?

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Jackson served as the model for the comic book Nick Fury long before he even dreamt of appearing in this role in the movies. Before that, Nick Fury was white and looked a lot like a good-bad western sheriff. A bit like Sam Vimes, actually 😉 And it all leads us to Clint Eastwood ;).

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The primary idea was simple, tested earlier by Spidey, for who else could take the risk and survive? 😉 In the early years of the XXI century there was a deep, a bit anxious feeling among the Marvel moguls that their beloved heroes got old and slightly outdated. That their stories became so convoluted that only the most hardcore fans even cared about them any longer and could count all the times the heroes died and were brought back to life. The idea of a new, fresh start seemed all of sudden very promising.

And lo and behold, here they are. But changed rather more than we would expect.

[Attention! Mild spoiler alert!]

Meet the Cap, a rather brutish, straightforward guy with a tiny, shameful penchant for cruelty. A hero as a soldier, as a civilian… well, I don’t think I would like to cross him. Meet Hank Pym, a self-assured, conceited genius and a secret wife-beater. Meet his wife, the famous Wasp, who can change into a tiny, sparks-flinging creature not due to any marvels of technology, but to her mutant genes. And meet Thor, an ex-patient of a psychiatric hospital, an anti-globalist and anarchist who has delusions of being a God’s son. But best, or worst, of all, is Hulk.

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Bruce Banner is such an insecure weakling with a gigantic inferiority complex that you wouldn’t believe he can also change into a cannibalistic monster driven by the lowest animal urges. And his Mister Hyde side, by the way, reminds me a lot of Cú Chulainn in his warp spasm:

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[End of spoilers]

Well, the idea of updating the old, well-known and well-liked heroes certainly paid off. The first thirteen issues had been a huge commercial success and were soon followed by two sequels, each thirteen issues long, which later even got their own sequels ;). The graphic novels served as an outright visual inspiration for the cinematic Marvel universe, from the first Avengers movie through Captain America: The Winter Soldier and to Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movies didn’t follow the dark, at times cynical story line of the Ultimates, opting for safer and less controversial depictions of the superheroes. I can’t say I fault them: Ultimates are dark indeed and it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile the traditional images of the heroes with the ones proposed by Millar and Hitch. The new Thor was endearing, but the nasty side of Hank Pym or the brutal monstrosity of Hulk took a lot from their original charm… You can’t help but start to ask the question: what it means to be a hero? Which, in the end, is the question all fans of superheroes should ask themselves ;).

As a study in the deconstruction of super-heroism, Ultimates fall short of the ideal, which in this case is unequivocally Watchmen ;). But as a story in the what-if genre, a slightly darker type of tongue-in-the-cheek, brutal fun, Ultimates are a pretty decent entertainment. The story, as usually in Millar’s case, is solid and intriguing, touching on many contemporary problems. Watchmen are a clear inspiration here, with the heroes being simultaneously the cause and the solution of the problem. As for the graphics… Hats off to Hitch, because the visual side is stunning, with wide, dynamic frames instantly bringing to mind panoramic shots from action movies. The British artist might be slow-working and always late, but his work is worth waiting for.

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All in all, Ultimates, at least #1, is a must-read for the Marvel cinematic universe fans, and a nice-to-read for the hardcore fans of the comics. Published fourteen years ago it’s really old news by now, really, but if anyone out there haven’t read it yet, it’s high time they do it now :).

Score: 8/10

Jay Faerber, Copperhead (2014-…)

Wow, that was the longest break ever, for various reasons.  Sorry. Shit happens…

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There is more to comics than Marvel & DC. There is weird European stuff and there are things like Saga or Copperhead. And many many others. But I wanted to call everybody’s attention to Copperhead.

Still a new thing, published by Image from late 2014, with only two collected volumes out on the market.  Written by Jay Faerber, illustrated by Scott Godlewski, this space western features a single mum who becomes sheriff of a small town on a peripheral desert planet. Full of proven tropes, sometimes reversed, sometimes played straight, a great read for genre lovers.

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