Monday, October 11, 2010

Legend of the Guard, Baltimore, and Dr. Solar

Was cleaning up for my girlfriend's visit and came across a few books that I had thought were worth recommending and somehow just fell by the wayside.

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #3: Mouse Guard is one of the best Independent comics out there and something that is designed to appeal to a wider range of ages and audiences than your typical superhero comic now put out by the major companies. I normally don't get it for a couple of reasons. One, the price on them always seemed a bit high to the actual time it would take to read it. Two, the art which I like on browsing the comic I discovered didn't really work for me in large dosage after I sat down to read one of the trades that I checked out of the library. In small doses, for a page or two, I find the art and print quality striking, but I cannot put my finger on why it doesn't work for me in the longer form. However, Legends of the Guard #3 has smaller stories by other creators such as B.P.R.D.'s and The Marquis' Guy Davis. The other creators in this issue I'm not as familiar with, but the stories are all top notch, most with a humorous bent. "The Ballad of Nettledown" by Nate Pride has a certain Jeff Smith feel in places and delivers a wonderfully whimsical tale. The final story is a truncated adaption of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" with appropriately gloomy art, perfect for reading in October.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships: A while back, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden wrote the novel Baltimore or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire. As a novel, it fits firmly the style of Mignola's original Hellboy comic book tales though it does not take place in that world. Instead, its action is in the final days of World War I, where Captain Baltimore discovers something worse than the War, vampires who are responsible for widespread sickness and deaths that are being passed off as a plague sweeping England. Plus, he earns the personal enmity of one that he had dared to defy and scar during the War and whom he vows to hunt down and kill. Most of the novel, Baltimore is little seen, as it centers largely around several of his friends that are waiting for him in an inn and their sharing stories of horrors and terrors they have personally seen and experienced.

"The Plague Ships" is a mini-series set largely in the missing years of the novel, after Baltimore's experience in the War but before his climactic meeting with his friends and the final confrontation. As such, the mood and atmosphere of a world that is gray, dismal, and claustrophobic in its feel of impending doom is carried over from the novel. The second issue slows down the story to take time to visibly recount Baltimore's war-time experiences and encountering the vampire. The art by Ben Stenback is not as stylized as Mignola's but it grounds the story with a relative down to earth realism that underscores the horrors. Colorist Dave Stewart knows his craft well, how to use color to supplement the mood and atmosphere of the story without being distracting.

Another beautiful book by Mignola and the people at Dark Horse is the slim hard-cover volume The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. The book collects various one-shot stories and stories produced as part of anthologies: "The Amazing Screw-On Head", "The Magician and the Snake", and "Abu Gung and the Beanstalk" (which is actually re-done and expanded for this volume). To round it out are also a trio of stories done specifically for this book and a sketchbook which are always fun to look at. It is also one of the most affordable buys around, $17.99 at full US price. That's cheaper than many trades and this actually has substantial new material and will look good on any bookshelf.

The only drawback is a backpage of advertising for other books by Dark Horse and collections of Mignola's. Not something I look for in my hardbacks.

Lastly, also from Dark Horse, is the trade paperback collecting the first seven issues of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom. First published in 1962 and 1963, one can see how the title reflects the times but manages also something different. Think of the first issues of Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice League. Think of the first few stories of Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. While Stan Lee talks about how he was trying to write superheroes for a sophisticated audience, Western's take on superheroes seemed to really walk the walk. Doctor Solar was the type of science fiction hero one would almost expect to see on television. His powers had a severe drawback that provided tension between him and his would be girlfriend. The stories themselves were more along the lines of popular spy shows or science-fiction shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. There was something more literary and even more real-world than anything going on at DC or Marvel. While Charlton had the similarly powered Captain Atom whose appearances bracketed these stories, it might be their Peacemaker that came closest to reflecting a real-world superhero. Added to that are early stylistic covers by Richard M. Powers reflecting many of his science fiction covers at the time while the later painted covers by George Wilson was reminiscent of many 1950s lurid paperback covers (I believe he also painted the covers of a few Phantom paperbacks). Wilson painted covers for much of Western Publishing's line, easily separating them visibly from the standard comic book covers of the other companies on the racks. His covers alone are often worth getting the books for, Dark Horse should do an art book just collecting all his various covers, though that may mean working out a deal from the property holders of Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Dark Shadows, etc.

Likewise, the artwork by Bob Fujitani and Frank Bolle are decidedly not flashy as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, or even Don Heck. This is interesting as in the 1940s, Fujitani was one of the more bombastic and stylistic artists around. Otherwise, the illustrations looked like it belonged more to a slick magazine than one of a superhero. Even when he finally does get in a real costume like a more standard superhero, it's still very utilitarian looking and possessing wrinkles and folds.

Looking back, at least to this volume, the stories might seem a little dull. His powers are ill-defined and powerful yet often leaving him vulnerable to wearing himself out. In fact, that was the biggest danger, no one was really a direct threat. In that way, the stories were not too dissimilar to the adventures of various television heroes in the 1970s where we saw the likes of the Bionic Man, the Invisible Man, and the Incredible Hulk taking on fairly mundane type threats. Yet, it's this grounding that makes the character and stories seem more serious about the science and basic realism that it's going for. It's not the 1950s science fiction and characterization still fueling DC nor the over-wrought teen-age angst and pop culture science fiction storytelling that drove Marvel. Doctor Solar and the rest of their line looked like they were truly offering something for more discriminating readers.

And, this carries over into the trade's appearance as well. With the cover being a reproduction of one of Richard Powers abstract covers on the front and the more pulp-paperback influenced painting by George Wilson on the top half of the back, even the trade looks like it takes itself a bit more seriously than most comic book reprints.

I'm glad to see Dark Horse reprinting these in paperback as well as the Archives, which are just a bit out of my price range.

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