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Review: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I” by Tony Lee et al.

Title: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I
Writers: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, & Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Josh Adams, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg, Kyle Latino, & Deborah McCumiskey
Series: Doctor Who (Series 2, 2010) #1-12 + Annual 2011
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2015

How do you explain Doctor Who? The Doctor is an alien who looks human (“No, you look Timelord!”), the last of his kind, travelling all of time and space in a vessel camouflaged to look like a 1960s British police telephone box. There’s a fair bit of tourism, to be sure, but the Doctor is always willing to help someone in need…and since his ship has a habit of depositing him when and where he’s needed rather than where he wants to be, he has ample opportunity. When critically injured he regenerates into a new body, thus allowing the showrunners to do a semi-reboot every few years without actually hitting the reset button and starting from scratch. Clear as mud? Good! Let’s move on to the book, shall we? This particular tome is a collection of Doctor Who tie-in comics starring the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy and Rory Pond, set during Amy and Rory’s honeymoon in between the fifth and sixth seasons of the revived series. It’s status as canon is questionable, but even with the occasional inconsistency* it shouldn’t be too hard to square things given the shifting nature of the timeline.

Doctor Who is at its most fun when it’s reveling in its core of whimsical lunacy, but there’s a deep vein of tragedy and determination to the character of the Doctor, and it’s the moments that this is revealed that make the franchise one of my favorites. Thankfully, this collection does both elements extremely well. There’s whimsy galore, from spam email infecting the TARDIS’ mainframe and manifesting as holograms to Kevin, a robotic tyrannosaur that briefly joins the adventuring. There’s a story that functions on one level as a standard Doctor Who romp and on another as an homage to the show Castle, transplanting the cast of that series to a space station. There are also more serious moments, such as a conversation between Rory and the Doctor about how much Amy means to them both, or between Rory and Kevin about finding your place and purpose in the world. These moments serve to ground the characters, making the Doctor, for all that he is an alien, very human. There’s a wide variety of art styles, and while I’m more a fan of some than others, they all seem to work for the stories being presented.

Most of these are written by Tony Lee, with the exceptions being the stories from the 2011 Doctor Who Annual. Spam Filtered (art by Andrew Currie, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the TARDIS overrun with holographic spam mail after Rory and Amy use it’s extra-temporal internet connection to check their email, forcing the TARDIS to set down and reboot. Unfortunately, the planet they land on is scheduled for destruction in about an hour…. The art here is pretty good, especially when it features the Doctor or Amy. Rory kind of gets the shaft, though. Also, the leader of the Scroungers is totally Danny Trejo. In The Ripper’s Curse (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, & Tim Hamilton, colors by Phil Elliott) the Doctor and company get sidetracked to Whitechapel, London just in time for Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. The art on this one is shared among three artists, which leads to some small inconsistencies in the visuals, but the colorist is the same all the way through and helps to smooth things out with a painted (maybe watercolor?) aesthetic. It was different. I liked it, most of the time anyway, though I’m starting to think nobody can draw Rory properly. They Think It’s All Over (art by Mark Buckingham, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) has our protagonists once more sidetracked on their way to their football match, this time a case of right place, wrong time. This time, they’re in the ninth century, stuck between the invading Vikings and Alfred The Great’s defending Britons. Good story, and it includes a scene that should help explain just why the Doctor and Rory are two of my favorite characters ever, in different ways. The art was good, as is expected from Buckingham. When Worlds Collide (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) gives us a minimalist, geometric aesthetic that actually worked better than I’d expected. The story involves a strange resort built on a rift allowing for different spaces slightly out of phase with each other….until an accident merges them all. Suddenly, there’s a dozen Amys, a dozen Rorys, and a dozen Doctors….and a whole army of Sontarans. Also introducing Kevin the Dinosaur! Space Squid (art by Josh Adams, colors by Rachelle Rosenberg) was weird. I think the writer had a fixation with the television show Castle (and who can blame him?) because the side characters are all named after the cast of that series. Commander Katic, Major Fillion, everyone down to Ensign Quinn. It was honestly a bit distracting, though I did laugh when I first noticed. The likenesses aren’t bad, either…most of the time anyway. The story involves a mind-controlled cult on a space station that wants to enslave the galaxy to their giant squid god. Yeah, you read that right. It’s not Cthulhu though, unfortunately. Body Snatched (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the Doctor set off to save his friend Trevor, the Horse Lord of Khan. It seems Trevor has had his mind transferred into a bioengineered plant person on the hospital planet of Bedlam….Smith’s art is once more strangely suitable for the story being told. Silent Night (art by Paul Grist, colors by Phil Elliott) is a “silent” tale featuring the dynamic duo of The Doctor and…Santa Claus? Odd, but fun. Not sure how it fits in with last year’s Christmas Special though… Run, Doctor, Run (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Blair Shedd) is an homage to the Looney Toons, featuring a planet without conventional physics that makes up and down unpredictable. Down To Earth (written by Matthew Dow Smith, art by Mitch Gerads, colors by Gerads & Kyle Latino) was a nice little tale featuring an alien stranded on Earth who would rather just stay if it’s all the same to everyone. The art was good, too. Tuesday (written and art by Dan McDaid, colors by McDaid & Deborah McCumiskey) is told in the form of a letter home to Amy’s parents detailing a few of their adventures. The art was odd, but it worked.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, nothing too severe. Several murders, played to be quite scary in The Ripper’s Curse. A couple scantily clad characters. Minor sexual innuendos in the form of a couple “little blue pill” jokes in Spam Filtered or Rory’s sudden enthusiasm for a beach vacation at the thought of Amy in a bikini. Some prostitution in The Ripper’s Curse, nothing too explicit.

*One that springs immediately to mind is Jack the Ripper, here shown to be an alien stopped by the Doctor and friends, elsewhere stated to have been “stringy, but quite tasty” by Madame Vastra.

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Review: “Star Wars: The Last Of His Breed” by Jason Aaron & Simone Bianchi

Title: The Last Of His Breed: From The Journals Of Old Ben Kenobi
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Simone Bianchi
Series: Star Wars #7 (Official Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

Back to the Marvel ongoings! This is a one-off flashback story featuring Obi-Wan Kenobi as he tries to adjust to his “Old Ben” persona about eleven years before the events of A New Hope. It’s issue #7 of Marvel’s current Star Wars ongoing, and will be collected in Star Wars Vol. II: Showdown On The Smuggler’s Moon.

It’s been seven years since the rise of the Empire, seven years since the death of the Jedi and the Republic. Formerly one of the greatest Jedi of his generation, now Obi-Wan Kenobi lives a life of obscurity on the desert planet of Tatooine. Where once he protected the innocent of the galaxy, now “Old Ben” forces himself to look the other way lest he draw the Empire’s notice as Jabba’s thugs extort water from the locals. All that matters is protecting the boy, Luke Skywalker, on whose unknowing shoulders rest the fate of the galaxy. But there are limits to the patience of even the greatest of Jedi….

This was a good one. The story was solid, and it’s always interesting to see Obi-Wan’s state of mind during his exile. Was this done better in John Jackson Miller’s Kenobi? Yes. That goes without saying, if only because he had more than twenty-four pages to tell his story. At any rate, Kenobi isn’t canon anymore, so we’ll not dwell on it. Simone Bianchi’s art here was stellar, I must say, and his Kenobi managed to blend Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness superbly. I would very much like to see more of these one-off excerpts from Obi-Wan’s journal appear in future issues of the comic.

CONTENT: Mild profanity. Mild violence. No sexual content.

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Review: “Deadlands: Ghostwalkers” by Jonathan Maberry

Title: Ghostwalkers
Author: Jonathan Maberry
Series: Deadlands
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Much to my chagrin, I’m not all that deeply embedded in the world of RPGs. The interest is there, but traditionally there’s been a shortage of people willing to follow me down the rabbit hole. I recently managed to con some of my family into trying the new Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight, but that’s a different story. Anyway, all that to say that I’d never even heard of Deadlands when I picked this up, but very much want to further explore this version of the Weird West.

The world was shattered in 1863 when a native shaman performed a ritual intended to banish the white man from the Americas. Instead, reality itself has unraveled. The dead walk the Earth, forcing the Civil War to end in an uneasy stalemate. In California, the land itself was ripped apart by a massive quake, leaving a broken labyrinth of chasms and canyons populated by mysteries and monsters. In the wake of the disaster, a new element is discovered: Ghost Rock, burning hotter than coal and with a host of strange properties that is driving a new era of scientific discovery. Ex-Union soldier Grey Torrance is a gun for hire haunted by the ghosts of those he’s failed to save, constantly moving in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the specters who would drag him down to Hell. Torrance would tell you he’s no hero, but a chance encounter with a native scientist sets the wheels in motion for a confrontation with a madman who would conquer the world with an army of the walking dead….

Based on a successful tabletop RPG, Deadlands: Ghostwalkers is pulp fiction at its best. The quick and the undead mix with everything from Lovecraftian gods to creatures from another age in a yarn that, while perhaps short on what some would call literary merit, is still a darn fun tale. Seriously, this book has it all. Zombies, dinosaurs, zombie dinosaurs, necromancy, a subterranean world right out of Jules Verne, steampunk weaponry, even a third-act cameo by Cthulhu. The characters aren’t always the most three-dimensional, but that’s to be expected from this genre. A couple incidents early in the book feel like irrelevant side adventures at first, but later are revealed to be essential plot elements. I’ve never played the game, but the book seemed a pretty good introduction to the world, and I’m looking forward to exploring it further.

CONTENT: Strong violence, occasionally gruesome. Occasional R-rated profanity, but mostly pretty PG-13. Mildly explicit sexual content. A lot of the elements of this world could potentially be considered occultic, from possession to necromancy.

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Review: “Serenity–Better Days and Other Stories” by Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Jim Krueger, Zack Whedon, Patton Oswalt, Will Conrad, Chris Samnee, & Patric Reynolds

Title: Better Days And Other Stories
Writers: Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Jim Krueger, Zack Whedon, & Patton Oswalt
Artists: Will Conrad, Chris Samnee, & Patric Reynolds
Series: Firefly/Serenity (Serenity: Better Days #1-3, The Other Half from MySpace Dark Horse Presents #13, Downtime from USAToday.com & Serenity: Float Out one-shot)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2011

I mentioned my love of Firefly/Serenity last time, when I reviewed Those Left Behind, didn’t I? Anyway, if you’ve not checked it out yet you really should. Better Days is the second collection of Serenity comics, featuring a three-issue miniseries and (if you get the second-edition hardcover) three other hard-to-find tales to boot.

Most of this volume is set either during the television series or in the interim between the show and Those Left Behind, based on the characters present and their relationships. Better Days finds our favorite crew of ne’er-do-wells knee-deep in a heist, just like a thousand times before. Except this time…this time they strike it rich. Our crew can handle misfortune just fine, they do that all the time. But success? Success just might be the death of them…. As with the previous miniseries, this one felt like it was ripped from the screen, almost like it was supposed to be an episode of the show. The writing was spot on, and the art was awesome. The Other Half is a short little tale featuring our heroes attempting to transport a fugitive to meet his friends…while Reavers try and eat their faces. Again, the dialogue was stellar, and the central focus on River was a nice change. Downtime is another short episode, this time following our cast as they attempt to wait out a snowstorm keeping them from taking off. Difficult as it is to pull off in a story this short, every character gets at least a moment to shine. The art isn’t quite as pretty this time out, being a bit more impressionistic, but I enjoyed the tale nevertheless. Finally, and most heart-breakingly, Float Out is a one-shot tale set after the film and featuring the friends of a certain fallen character toasting their memories of him. I’ll refrain from further discussion in the interest of avoiding spoilers for those who’ve yet to see it, but that final page might just make you tear up all over again at the demise of [REDACTED]….

CONTENT: Mild profanity, unless you can read Mandarin Chinese. Then I imagine it would be R-rated. Strong violence. Occasional sexual content consistent with the show.

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Review: “The Rose Of The West ” by Mark Bondurant

Title: The Rose Of The West
Author: Mark Bondurant
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Bongo Books, 2014

You’ve gotta love a good steampunk western, and Mark Bondurant’s debut novel certainly delivers. The pace is a bit leisurely in the first half, and a couple artifacts from previous versions of the story occasionally pop up, but on the whole I really enjoyed this one. I received my copy in exchange for an honest review through the Goodreads FirstReads program.

Deke Hayden is product of the American West, raised among the Paiutes and fighting by their side against Mexico and their allies after his parents were killed. Now he’s seventeen and on a mission to see the big cities of the East. Kay Mapleton is a girl alone in the world, her family having died off one by one. She’s not hurting for money, as her grandmother’s estate proved quite substantial, but a seventeen-year-old girl cannot live alone and living with her aunt’s family holds no appeal. Instead, she sets out west to find her father, disappeared ten years previous. It would of course be smarter for both of our young protagonists to wait for the Great War between the North and the South to end before setting out, but youth should be allowed some measure of foolishness….

Like I said, I really enjoyed the book. Steampunk is a genre I’ve not explored nearly as much as I’d like, but I’ve been a fan so far. The characters were likeable enough, and I found myself caught up in their adventures despite there being very little mystery as to how things would turn out after the spoiler-ridden introduction. The plot is leisurely, definitely more focused on the journey than the destination, but that’s okay sometimes–I certainly think the book would suffer from any attempt to shorten it or make it conform to the traditional “three act” structure. I will admit that there a few flaws, though, despite my enjoyment.

Now, I love a good alternate history–it’s one of my favorite genres, in fact–but it involves walking a tightrope between changing things enough to warrant the effort and keeping things recognizable. Additionally, you have to identify the inciting incident for the change and tell us what happened to set history onto a different path. This is one of the few places the author suffers a misstep. In the world that’s presented here, the Civil War was somehow delayed until the late 1880s/early 1890s. We aren’t told why, but its easy to rationalize that it had something to do with the increase in steam-driven technology. What’s more difficult to rationalize away is the fact that despite this delay the Presidents of the warring factions are still Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Delaying the Civil War by almost thirty years should make both men too old to fill their historical roles when it finally goes down, or at least force some sort of change, but when he appears in the book Lincoln acts like his normal self (inasmuch as a dead historical character I’ve only read about can “act like his normal self). In my humble opinion, it would have been better to adjust the birth of steam technology backwards than to adjust the war forwards–had there been no mention of the date, that’s the assumption I would have made. The only other quibble I have is that there are a few artifacts from a previous version of the story–namely, references to the characters’ future exploits that then have no place in the future described by the coda. Details below, involving mild spoilers.* Again, a minor quibble and easy to ignore if you aren’t paying close attention, but it bugged me a bit.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, not widespread. Some strong violence and the implication of torture. No explicit sexual content, but plenty of low-detail implied sexual material including the rape and attempted murder of a character along with numerous references to prostitution and related activities.

*Specifically, there are numerous references to the “Hayden Gang,” and at one point it is stated that “It was the first flight of the Hayden Gang from the law, a foreshadow of their trials in the long years to come.” Except that the coda describes their future as legal and aboveboard mine owners, growing rich and having kids.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume VII” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Matias Bergara

Title: American Vampire, Volume VII
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Matias Bergara
Series: American Vampire (Volume VII, American Vampire: Second Cycle #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2015

Finally! American Vampire is back from hiatus, and my library got it in! As always, this review might spoil previous collections, so you might want to start from the beginning…. (Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV/Volume V/Volume VI) You’ve been warned!

It’s now 1965, and in the ten years since Pearl Jones and Skinner Sweet last saw each other everything has changed. America is a different place, from the space race to a war half a world away. Pearl has converted her family farm to a safe haven for young and innocent vampires on the run from the real monsters, while Skinner spends his time on the southern border robbing smugglers and drug lords. It’s peaceful, comparatively speaking. Of course, it can’t last….The Gray Trader, the original vampire, the first link in the evolutionary chain that ends with Skinner and Pearl, is coming. He’s powerful. He’s evil personified. He may just be the Devil incarnate. What does he want? God only knows, and unfortunately he’s not all that chatty with our protagonists….Rounding out the collection is a flashback story featuring Gene Bunting as he tracks the myth of the Gray Trader in 1947, following clues left in the journal of a doomed miner working a claim digging its way to Hell.

Gotta say, this was definitely worth the wait. Whereas the previous entries in the series have been stellar, they were admittedly lacking in a cohesive, ongoing narrative that tied the different stories together. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading about the various adventures of our protagonists, those were great stories! But now it looks like we’ve got an overarching story to tie everything together. What’s more, it’s looking to be a doozy! Rafael Albuquerque’s art is stellar as usual, with his trademark style that fits this book so well. Newcomer to the series Matias Bergara also hands in a great bit of work on the backup tale. I can’t wait to see what happens next….

CONTENT: This isn’t for the kiddies! It’s a Vertigo book, so you’ve been warned. R-rated language. Strong, gory violence, as you would expect from such monstrous creatures as appear here. Pearl and Skinner are on the side of the angels, but they’re monsters nevertheless. Their opponents? They’re worse. Mild sexual references, plus a couple creepy bits of nudity in the sketches from the journal. Not too explicit, but there nevertheless. No occultic content; these vampires are purely physical.

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Review: “East Of West, Volume I: The Promise” by Jonathon Hickman & Nick Dragotta

Title: The Promise
Writer: Jonathon Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Series: East Of West (Volume I, issues #1-5)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Image, 2013

Apparently this was one of the hottest creator-owned books to come out last year, and I totally missed it. No longer! I was recently scanning the graphic novel/comics section at the local library for that eye-catching sticker designating new acquisitions for my greedy perusal, when I ran across this particular gem. Science-fiction-slash-Western, you say? Well, I doubt it can top Firefly, but I’ll give it a go. Alternate history? I like alternate history. I find alternate versions of any familiar world interesting, especially ours. The apocalypse? I love a good impending apocalypse. Probably why I watch both Sleepy Hollow and Constantine these days, among a slate of others. All of these factors together? That’s gotta be interesting….

The Four Horsemen walk the Earth, heralding the end of days. Surprisingly, however, they do not stand united….Following a staggering betrayal, Death stands opposed to his former comrades, and may just prove to be the only hope humanity has left. The forces against him are legion, including a cabal that would hasten the apocalypse, and he has few friends left standing. But one simple fact remains: eventually, Death comes to every man….

That synopsis really doesn’t do the book justice, of course. Half the fun here is slowly figuring out exactly what’s going on. That can be a little difficult at times, admittedly–the book does you no favors in terms of presenting backstory in a timely manner–but is well worth it nonetheless. It’s less alternate history than it is a future based on an alternate history, but that difference is somewhat academic. Now, what else can I say about this without spoiling it for you? It’s delightfully over-the-top, the product of numerous impulses that blend together to give a flavor that is sometimes Tarantino, sometimes Eastwood, often manga/anime/whatever-you-call-it, and always amazing. I can’t wait to read the next collection….

CONTENT: Profanity on a PG-13 level. Some brief sexual innuendo and non-sexual nudity (it’s a childbirth scene, in case you were wondering). Over-the-top, bloody violence. I’m not sure occult is the right word, but we’re dealing with the Four Horsemen here. I’m not sure what other word to use. Oh, and there are a couple Native American witches. I suppose that qualifies as well.

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