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Review: “Pretty Deadly Vol. I: The Shrike” by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios

Title: The Shrike
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Artist: Emma Rios
Series: Pretty Deadly (Vol. I, issues #1-5)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2014

Ah. I’m really not sure what to say about this one. I picked it up from the library on a whim after the sticker on its spine screaming that it was a recent acquisition caught my eye and further investigation of the cover quotes revealed endorsements by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis (Marvel’s Civil War, Secret Invasion, and just about every other company-wide crossover from the last decade) and Warren Ellis (Planetary). Well, with recommendations like that, how can I refuse?

Welcome to DeConnick and Rios’s vision of the Old West. It’s a tale narrated by a butterfly and a skeletal rabbit (Yes, you read that right). It’s a tale where the line between people and animals is blurred, if it even exists at all. Sissy is a young girl with mismatched eyes who wears a vulture cloak. Together with Fox, an elderly blind man who can still kick your ass if need be, she travels from town to town, telling stories for coins and picking the pockets of those who earn her ire. Johnny Coyote’s pocket had something in it that she shouldn’t have taken. Johnny stole some sort of file from Death, and Death’s sent his agent Big Alice to collect it. This quest sets her on the tail of Fox and Sissy, and she’s not in a mood to talk…Now Fox and Sissy’s only hope lies with Death’s estranged daughter, Deathface Ginny. You don’t want to mess with Deathface Ginny….

Now don’t get me wrong, Pretty Deadly shows an ambitious vision that is rarely seen these days–comparisons to Gaiman’s Sandman are frequent, even among the negative reviews. The book is also visually stunning, with a stark attention to detail that serves the tale’s magical take on the Old West admirably. It’s a gritty tale, with no shortage of violence, but it also has something to say. I’m just not quite sure what….the story is incredibly confusing, and I had to read most of it twice before I figured out what was going on, turning back frequently for clarification. The book was fast paced, true–too fast, perhaps. It would have benefited greatly from more time to transition smoothly, explore characters, and even just figure out what the heck was happening. The art was pretty, but a lot of the action sequences got fairly confusing at times. The characters occasionally showed flashes of being interesting, but we never really got a chance to know them. The file Johnny stole is nothing but a MacGuffin, as we never find out what it has to say, and what purpose it has disappears once Alice and Ginny meet as Alice apparently forgets about it in favor of executing what I can only assume was a standing order that took precedence over her immediate mission. Everything builds to a climax that is over too quickly and which I’m still not entirely sure I grasped. Would I keep reading the series? Sure, if the library buys the next volume when it comes out. I’m curious, and want some clarification as to what just happened. I just hope it’s a little less frenetic, a little more streamlined, and that we get to actually explore the characters a bit more. And more Deathface Ginny would be cool, she intrigues me!

CONTENT: R-rated language throughout. Several sexually explicit scenes with Johnny and his prostitute girlfriend, plus a couple other random bits of nudity, both male and female. Strong, graphic violence, delivered both at the end of a gun and a sword. The whole thing is very otherworldly and occultic, with people transforming into animals at death (or apparently at other points in their lives as well, for that matter, if I interpret things aright. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that animals are walking about as humans, not that I think on it more….)

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Review: “Star Wars: Kenobi” by John Jackson Miller

Title: Kenobi
Author: John Jackson Miller
Series: Star Wars (Legends Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2013

Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of my favorite characters from the Star Wars saga, and if I’m being honest Ewan McGregor’s performance in that role is one of the few highlights of the otherwise-regrettable prequel trilogy. I’m not his only fan–he’s such a favorite that we get adventure after adventure featuring Anakin’s former Master, to the point where I don’t think he ever once had a chance to stop and breathe during the entire Clone Wars. What hasn’t been detailed until now is his exile on Tatooine after Order 66 and the Jedi Purge. You’d think that this would have been covered long ago, given the incredible range of character-shaping events Obi-Wan has just been through, but you would be wrong. It is only just recently that we have been granted insight into this period of Master Kenobi’s life, but the result is spectacular.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is dead. He died on Mustafar after striking down his former apprentice, Anakin Skywalker. Nearly everyone he ever cared for, ever loved, is dead. The Jedi Order, his family, has been nearly wiped from existance by the treachery of Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine and the clone Stormtroopers. Obi-Wan is dead. In his place stands Ben Kenobi, the Jundland Waste’s newest settler. From his lonely hut out in the desert, Ben keeps solitary watch over the Lars homestead and the orphaned boy being raised there. He tries to stay away from the small outposts of civilization that dot the wastes, but can one of the greatest Jedi in the history of the Order ignore people in need?
For Annileen Calwell, life continues much as it has since the death of her husband years earlier. Her children are rebellious. Her shop, Dannar’s Claim, is an oasis of hospitality in the desolate wastes, keeping the local moisture farmers supplied, repaired and their thirsts quenched. Everything is normal, and yet this life is killing her with stress and boredom. Trying to learn more about Ben, the mysterious drifter who has taken up residence out in the wastes, offers at least a little diversion, but Ben is stubbornly secretive. And Orrin Gault–neighbor, local land barron, entrepreneur and her late husband’s best friend–has been acting a bit strange. Probably nothing to worry about, but more stress is the last thing she needs….
A’yark’s people are in trouble. The Tuskens have been weakened considerably from their former numbers, decimated a decade earlier when Jabba The Hutt incited war between the Tuskens and the settlers as a way to sell off his stockpile of antiquated blasters. Tuskens are used to hard times, but recently even their spirit has been broken. Three years ago, the strongest of the local warbands was wiped out with no survivors and no trace of any predator. Every man, woman and child was killed, their bodies left to the scavengers. Now the Tuskens are so weak that old traditions are beginning to die out as matters of pragmatism take precedence. A’yark struggles to hold them together, to boost their spirit as much as possible with raids on settlers that fail to properly defend themselves, but the tribe is dying despite A’yark’s efforts….

John Jackson Miller manages to pull off what I don’t believe anyone has ever done before: he wrote a Star Wars western. The elements are all there–ranchers, settlers, merciless natives, the widowed shopowner and the lone wanderer. People just trying to survive in a harsh land beyond the rule of law, where justice rides in your holster or hangs on your saddle or speeder. Beyond that, Miller manages to get inside the head of Ben Kenobi at his most broken–he has been betrayed by trusted friends, seen his family exterminated, and been forced to confront and (he believes) kill the man he has regarded as his brother for more than a decade. Ben is broken, and it shows. This was one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in a good long time, and I hope that Miller is given the chance to play in this sandbox a bit more.

This novel stands on its own fairly well, assuming you’re familiar with the movies. There are passing references to Zayne Carrick and Kerra Holt, both characters also written by Miller, but you’ve no need to know their stories in order to understand Ben’s. More significant is the story of Sharad Hett, as the history there plays into the Tusken situation, but you get most of the information you need from the text. If you’re interested, find a copy of the Star Wars: Outlander graphic novel for that tale. Ben also cites his friendship/relationship with fellow Jedi Siri Tachi and the Mandalorian prime minister Satine as earlier lessons in the importance of not getting caught up in romantic emotion. If you’re a longtime reader you’ll know Siri from the Jedi Apprentice series, and Satine comes from the lamentable Clone Wars CGI series. Neither is essential to understanding the story here, but you can look it up if you want. In any case, you should definitely give this novel your attention.

CONTENT: Mild language. Mild violence, not too disturbing. Mild flirting, but no real sexual content.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume II” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Mateus Santolouco

Title: American Vampire, Volume II
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Mateus Santolouco
Series: American Vampire (Volume II, Issues #6-11)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2011

When I read the first volume of American Vampire, I decided that I would review each volume individually because it appeared that each would be more or less a self-contained story. Having now read the second volume, I think this was a good decision. Just realize that as the review of part two in a series, this will contain spoilers for American Vampire, Volume I. Read on at your discretion. I will refrain from repeating my “twi-hard” rant though, so you can rest easy on that count.

At the end of Volume I, Marshall Book convinced his young wife to kill him to prevent his succumbing to the red thirst of vampirism, but not before she was pregnant with his daughter. Together, mother and daughter plot their revenge on the man that infected him—Skinner Sweet. Sweet walked off into the sunset, gleeful in his immortality, while his newly-turned protege Pearl Jones destroyed her traitorous best friend and the elders that turned her life upside down and then disappeared with her new lover. All is quiet for ten years….

For this second volume, Scott Snyder handles sole writing duties (I guess Stephen King was just in for the first arc) and the book ceases telling two stories simultaneously (see Volume I for an explanation of that) in favor of simply moving forward. This collection is composed of two stories, Devil In The Sand and The Way Out. First, Rafael Albuquerque holds the pencil as Devil In The Sand introduces a new protagonist in Cash McCogan, sheriff of the formerly-sleepy little town of 1936 Las Vegas. Vegas isn’t very sleepy anymore, however, not with the Hoover Dam going in. The workers need someplace to let off steam, and gambling and prostitution have been “temporarilly” legalized in order to allow them to do just that, but somehow McCogan doesn’t think things will settle back down after construction is complete. What he doesn’t know is that the dam is being secretly financed by the vampire Elders, and when someone begins taking out the consortium in charge of construction his town is about to become ground zero for a battle between the vampire old guard, the local vice lord “Bill Smoke” (A.K.A. Skinner Sweet), and a group dedicated to the erradication of vampire-kind from the face of the Earth. And despite his trouble believing in the existence of vampires, it turns out he has a far more personal connection to the conflict than he realizes….Next, Albuquerque gets a break to catch up while Mateus Santolouco draws The Way Out. Pearl Jones’ traitorous ex-best-friend Hattie Hargrove’s wounds have turned out to be less than fatal, and after ten years of torture and experimentation at the hands of the Elders she wants some major payback on Jones. Meanwhile, Jones and her husband Henry stumble into conflict with a human smuggler and his vampire crew.

Snyder’s scripting continues to be spot-on here, though I was a bit disappointed in The Way Out’s ending. I felt like they set it up to be one thing and then pulled out the rug. Oh well, that’s just me. Albuquerque’s art fits the series well, as I’ve mentioned before, and Santolouco does a credible job trying to match his style for the second feature. On the whole, American Vampire continues to be an excellent book.

Content: This is a Vertigo book, folks. That means grown-ups only. Bloody violence, vampire and otherwise. R-rated language. Sexual content, including nudity.

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Review: “The Ferguson Rifle” by Louis L’Amour

I actually read The Ferguson Rifle (*****) for the first time years ago* and loved it, but I recently won the audiobook from Goodreads via their FirstReads program. (My review is not influenced by this fact, for the record.) This lined up nicely with a road trip my wife and I had to take, and so the adventure began anew….

I don’t usually do audiobooks, as I have little time for them. I don’t have copious amounts of driving built into my day (if this ever changes, I likely will start consuming larger quantities), I can’t listen at work, and frankly given the choice I would rather actually read the book myself. All that said, this was an excellent production. The reader, Brian D’Arcy James, has a marvelous command of accents, be they British, Scottish or Irish, and this book allowed him to showcase them to great effect. My wife and I both loved it, so I am reasonably sure this book will please both Louis L’Amour fanatics and newcomers.

It is no real secret that given how many novels L’Amour wrote that were set in the old west, sometimes they tend to run together in your memory. This, however, is one of those especially excellent entries in his bibliography that stand out in your memory both from sheer uniqueness and from persistent quality. Unlike most of Louis L’Amour’s bibliography, this book is not a “western” in the classical sense. It is set on America’s frontier around the year 1800, meaning the northerly Great Plains–the Dakotas, Montana, that area. In another sense, however, this is very much a western. That was “the west” at the time being described, just as what we now think of as the “east coast” was at one point the western frontier of exploration. It is into this territory, newly bought from France through the Louisiana Purchase, that Ronan Chantry rides. His old life is dead, all he loves burned up in a tragic fire. Now all he has is his experience on the frontier as a boy, his education in Europe as a man, his horse, and the extraordinary rifle he was given as a boy. He rides with a company of trappers into a new land, nearly unexplored, in search of a new start. When he discovers the trail of a woman and boy alone, being ruthlessly hunted by unsavory men, Ronan feels called to help. But when there is a fabled fortune of gold in the offering, men are not likely to give up its pursuit easily….

I’m a known Louis L’Amour devotee, so I absolutely loved this. No one crafts an adventure like Louis L’Amour, and few writers I’ve found have his appreciation for the scope of human history and the persistent force of western movement, while still retaining an appreciation for the contributions of the individual to history’s march. This is one of those books that, while reading, makes you yearn to look out across the unspoiled territory this country once was, to stand where his characters stand and see what they see. There’s a beauty to it, and you can hear in L’Amour’s writing a lilting note of mourning for what we have lost. He does not blame the pioneers and the farmers for what has happened, he understands history too well for that, and appreciates the inevitability of the march of “progress.” That doesn’t mean he (or his characters) have to like it. Ditto for the Indians, and you see that here as well. There are several sequences where the Indian is discussed, his character, his future, and his habits. Again, L’Amour understands why things happened as they did, but it still saddens him. Longtime Louis L’Amour readers will know what to expect in terms of characters and character development–there’s not usually a whole lot of moral ambiguity to a L’Amour adventure, there are good guys and bad guys, and they know their roles. Is that a problem? Not so far as I’m concerned. We need stories like that just as much as we need the other kind, maybe more. And this day and age, that type of story is harder to find.

CONTENT: Mild language, some violence, little to no sexual content.

*I’ve read most of Louis L’Amour’s books, but I can’t always remember which ones. This is fine–I’m totally up for reading a lot of them again. Probably going to go questing to read the entire bibliography at some point.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume I” by Scott Snyder, Stephen King, & Rafael Albuquerque

Title: American Vampire Volume I
Writers: Scott Snyder & Stephen King
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Series: American Vampire (Volume I, Issues #1-5)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2010

Are you a “Twi-Hard?” Then you really have very little reason to be reading my reviews of anything vampire-related, for one thing, and probably have a vastly-greater tolerance for crappy writing. You probably won’t want to read this review. I’ve said it before (though I don’t believe I’ve said it in any of these reviews): immortal beings who sparkly are not vampires but a particularly nasty breed of fairy. If I’m being charitable, perhaps a vampire-infected breed of fairy–but a fairy, nonetheless. Vampires are an incredibly rich subject matter for storytelling, allowing you to wrestle with themes of immortality, good VS. evil, inner demons, all kinds of stuff. A conflicted vampire, ala Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Angel? Sure. Walking in sunlight? Dracula does that in the original novel, so I’m flexible on this count. Sparkling? That’s just wrong. Sneaking into a girl’s room to watch her sleep? That’s just creepy, and I don’t mean the kind of creepy one should find in a vampire novel. (Want some fun? Find a YouTube video of Robert Pattinson discussing Twilight. He hates it!) My favorite apraisal of Twilight comes from an interview where the reviewer asked Stephen King what he thought of the book, given his praise of J.K. Rowling and the fact that some people were comparing Twilight and Harry Potter. Mr. King responded in a very matter-of-fact manner: “Stephanie Meyer cannot write for $#!^.” I’m less rigid in my ideas of what vampire stories are aloud to do than King is–I suspect Angel would stick in his craw almost as badly as Edward Cullen–but given that review I was fairly certain I was not in for yet another Twilight knock-off when I picked up the first volume of American Vampire . I was not disappointed.

American Vampire is a Vertigo series conceived by Scott Snyder, with the first volume (issues #1-5) written by Snyder and the legendary Stephen King, and drawn by Rafael Albuquerque. The first collection forms two stories told in alternating chapters, one set in 1925 Los Angeles, the other beginning in the 1880s and detailing the origin of Skinner Sweet, Old West outlaw-turned-vampire. Snyder writes the 1925 story, telling the story of Pearl Jones, a wannabe-actress and newly-minted pawn in an old feud between Skinner Sweet and the old school of vampires–European nobility of breeding and money. King writes the origin story based on Snyder’s outlines. Sweet is the first of a new breed of vampire, and the first vampire conceived on American soil. Sweet’s strain of vampirism doesn’t follow the old rules. He can walk in the daylight, may even be strengthened by it, and seems impervious to silver and garlic. The vampires of this series are savage animals, and while they may at times be sympathetic protagonists we are never allowed to forget how monstrous they are just below the surface. I’m not really all that well versed in art, but I will say that Albuquerque’s work here is very good. He captures the feel of the Old West and the savagery of the characters quite well. I’m not sure if King’s involvement goes beyond this first volume (UPDATE: it does not), but nevertheless I definitely intend to continue reading this series!

Content: This is a Vertigo book, so very much intended for an adult audience. There is a lot of violence, very savage and vividly rendered. This is a vampire book, what did you expect? The language is definitely R-rated, and there is a bit of sexual content. A bit of nudity too, but that part is non-sexual. (It’s a corpse, if you must know. Don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t find that arousing….)

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Review: Marvel Comics’ “Stephen King’s Dark Tower,” Arc I

Story & Creative Consultant: Stephen King
Plot & Research: Robin Furth
Script: Peter David
Pencils: Jae Lee (except for Fall Of Gilead)
Colors: Richard Isanove (handles full art duties on Fall Of Gilead and shares the art credit for Battle Of Jericho Hill)
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2007-2010

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Thus began one of Stephen King’s most epic works, the seven eight-volume Dark Tower fantasy series that provides the glue that ties all of King’s works together. I was personally introduced to the franchise through Marvel Comics’ prequel series, which details the origins of Roland Deschain and what brought his world to the state we find it in when King begins his epic saga.

This review is for the first arc of the story, consisting of the first five miniseries as well as the one-shot The Sorcerer. I plan to read the second arc, but that will be a second review. I also plan to read the actual series, but that could take a while as it ties into so many other King novels I have yet to pick up….

The content for these comics (especially The Gunslinger Born) is culled from flashbacks and other material revealed throughout King’s masterworks. King himself serves as creative consultant and first line of approval on the series. The research and general direction is handled by Robin Furth, author of The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance (I assume this means she’s an expert). The actual script is handled by Peter David, veteran of many of Marvel’s most enduring series. Pencils for the series are mostly handled by Jae Lee, while Richard Isanove handles the colors. Later in the series Lee is inexplicably absent for a set, with Isanove filling in almost seamlessly. When Lee returns, they share the art credit. I cannot rave enough about the beauty of the product of their collaboration throughout the series. The content and subject matter is unrelentingly dark, and yet there is great beauty to the books because of the artwork. It’s incredibly striking. I’ll seed some examples through here.

Roland and his kin inhabit a world not our own, though I understand that in the novels that come later Roland does a fair bit of jumping around Stephen King’s multiverse. These comics, however, are anchored firmly in Roland’s own All-World. The best way to describe All-World is to say that it is a land where there once existed a civilization much like ours, but they are long gone. It is implied that the “Old Ones” wiped themselves out with nuclear war, given the presence of mutated humans and livestock. After the destruction All-World was united by Arthur Eld, who ruled a mighty kingdom from his capital, Gilead in New Canaan. Roland and his father are descendants of Arthur Eld. Civilization has reorganized along feudal lines, and the technological level has plateaued at the “Old West” level, excepting the rare Old Ones’ artifact that someone manages to reclaim and get working again. In the Dark Tower mythos (and by extension, all of King’s body of work since most of it ties back to here), all of reality exists as various levels in the Dark Tower. From Roland’s world it is actually possible to enter the Dark Tower, a fact that makes it unique among all of reality. Roland and his friends are opposed by the Crimson King, John Farson, and the evil wizard Marten, who want to either destroy the Dark Tower and return the world to a state of chaos or control it and rule everything. As our story opens, the forces of these evil ones have been rolling across the world towards Gilead, opposed only by the Alliance led by Steven Deschain, Roland’s father. How long they can hold out against this ultimate evil remains to be seen…..

If you are interested, here are links to my reviews of the individual collections on Goodreads. Caution: reviews may contain spoilers for the previous volumes…..
Volume I: The Gunslinger Born (*****)
Volume II: The Long Road Home (***)
Volume III: Treachery (****)
Volume IV: Fall Of Gilead (*****)
Volume V: Battle Of Jericho Hill (****)

Content: This is not for kids. This is a series for adults and late teens, those old enough to appreciate the works of Stephen King.
Violence: There’s quite a bit of this. People die horrible and gruesome deaths frequently in these pages, and not just the bad guys. Young women, little children, strong men and weak, none of them are safe. This can be pretty gory at times, and is vividly rendered.
Language: Pretty PG. This is still Marvel, after all. Nothing you won’t hear on primetime TV.
Sex: Sexual matters are referenced and discussed fairly frankly, especially in the first volume when a young lady is sent to a witch to be checked to see if she is “still pure.” There is some implied sex–glossed over by a double-splash of the two characters kissing passionately while the narrator does his thing, and then dressing on the next page–but nothing explicit. No nudity.

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Review: Louis L’Amour’s “The Sackett Saga, Book I: Sackett’s Land”

I love Louis L’Amour’s writings. Formulaic as some of them can be (he was writing in the era of the pulps, don’t forget. He himself tried to keep anyone from reprinting certain of his short stories he felt were less than stellar), there is a quality to them that I rarely find anywhere else. This is an element that some would dismiss as cliché or outdated–Louis L’Amour’s characters are heroes, through and through. When I was a boy, I learned honor and chivalry from Arthur and his knights, from Robin Hood, from all those sorts of tales, it’s true. But I also learned these things from the Louis L’Amour westerns my dad let me borrow. For that reason, as well as the sense of pure adventure and the lure of the American Frontier, I will always have a place in my cram-packed library for a Louis L’Amour book. Among L’Amour’s most enduring creations is the Sackett family, which he revisited over and over again. Word is that he had at least three more of these tales planned before he died, but unfortunately we’ll have to be satisfied with those dozen or so Sackett stories he finished.

The first of these Sackett tales chronologically (and that’s the order I’ll be following, so like it or lump it!) is Sackett’s Land. Barnabas Sackett is a young man living in England’s fens, circa 1599. He has been left by his father with a bit of land, most of it swamp, a sword, and the skills to use both. A windfall discovery of several ancient Roman coins sets him on the road to trading in the New World, but he will have to tread carefully, for he has made a powerfull enemy. A promise to his father, made on the field of battle, threatens the inheritance of a rising star in the English Court. If Barnabas does not tread carefully, he will find himself an outlaw. If he does not watch his back, he may find being an outlaw the least of his worries….

Content: Some violence, some mild language. Nothing too severe.

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