Thursday, February 15, 2018

Constantine: The Hellblazer: Volume 2: The Art of the Deal: Great Ideas, But A Disappointing Mixed Bag of Art

Ming Doyle’s and James Tynion IV's Constantine: The Hellblazer: Volume 2: The Art of the Deal has great ideas and a portrayal of street mage John Constantine as openly bi, but title is enduring a harsh identity crisis that takes readers along for the confusion. And the confusion isn't about John liking men or women, it's about how John looks like a different guy in each issue.

The revolving door of artists on the book is a big part of the problem. The roster, including Riley Rossmo, Eryk Donovan, Brian Level, Joseph Silver and Travel Foreman, portrays the protagonist in vastly different styles. This is a jarring medley that isn’t working. Constantine appears, in turns, as a grizzled middle-aged man, a Nancy Boy in skinny pants and short leather coat, a spunky twenty-something, and a kid who is perhaps in his late teens. Rossmo’s lush covers feature the emaciated Nancy Boy version. Foreman has the dubious distinction, in his splash-page shots, of drawing blank-faced figures that resemble mannequins instead of people. The drawing appears unfinished. Where’s George Perez when you need him? Donovan’s Constantine looks adolescent, with stark musculature and boyish features. and very cartoonish. Cartoonish is admittedly an odd critique to make about a comic book/graphic novel, but the style is cartoonish and whimsical and disproportionate in a children’s book style or Saturday morning cartoon style, and not at all suited for a tale about  hardened rogue Constantine.

One wonders why DC Comics is making such an effort to make Constantine appear so young. He is the only DC character who has the noteworthy distinction of aging in real time and getting into his sixties by the end of Hellblazer volume one.

These art complaints and character depiction complaints aside, Doyle’s and Tynion IV's writing is close to the mark for a Hellblazer story. Constantine: Hellblazer brims with great ideas, if at time they get a little convoluted. The great ones include New York being an epicentre for magic that average civilians search out. The antagonist, Hell lord, Neron, is getting the souls of those people desperate enough to trade their souls for a taste of the real thing. He impinges on turf in the Big Apple, evicting all other magic users.

Doyle and Tynion IV also get bonus points for portraying Constantine as openly bi, desperately trying to make a seemingly doomed love affair with a fellow named Oliver work out. It is unfortunate then, that Doyle treats hunky Oliver as a man-sel in distress and little more. Their arguments about whether or not to stay together come across as contrived at times. Oliver is Constantine's Lois Lane, but with muscles, and children. Doyle and Tynion IV also get points for bringing Deadman, Zatanna and Swamp Thing into the mix and showing how Constantine wheels and deals, always at others’ expense. 

John Constantine being cute.There's the Oliver in question.
The writers do, though, reduce Constantine to kid saying “RULES ARE *$%ING STUPID” while he is doing serious spell-work. This seems a laughably petulant and teenage attitude for the streetwise street mage. And it doesn’t help that  Constantine looks all of 15 when he utters/thinks the statement.

In short, DC Comics is making headway, rescuing the Constantine character from the watered-down, milquetoast New 52 version. Yes, he’s an incorrigible, chain-smoking, booze-swilling cad again (although I thought he did not stray from his beloved pints), and he's dating men and women. However, the artistic portrayal in Constantine: Hellblazer: Volume 2: The Art of the Deal is wildly inconsistent, sometimes hard to look at, distracting, and makes his actual age impossible to guess.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Arc's Poem of the Year Contest Deadline: Feb. 15

Don't forget - Arc: Canada's Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year contest extended deadline is Feb. 15. 

Your poetry's worth a shot at the cash prize. How much of a prize, you ask, dear reader? 

Well, the first place prize is $5,000 CDN. 

$500 CDN for the Honourable Mention.

There will also be a shortlist of ten to 12 poems, selected by Arc’s editorial board, that will be eligible for the Readers’ Choice Award. The Readers’ Choice poem is chosen by Arc’s readers through online voting. The winner receives $250 CDN. Visit the Arc webpage in March to read the shortlist selections and cast your vote

All shortlisted poems will also receive paid publication in an upcoming issue of Arc and on the Arc website.

And, to top it all off, the contest fee includes subscription, so you can't go wrong. You get a crack at a cash prize and a subscription to Ottawa's prestigious triannual literary magazine, published in in the nation's capital since 1978.

For more contest details, go here

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My Year in Comics: Joe Ollmann's The Abominable Seabrook, Monstress, The Less than Epic Adventures of T.J and Amal, & More

As I contiune My Year in Comics, I describe, amongst other gems, the totally unexpected but welcome weirdness of Alex de Campi’s Archie vs. Predator, Charles Burn's X’ed Out and The Hive, Canadian writer and artist Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr. Seabrook and E. K. Weaver's The Less than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal. As well, I mention two big disappointments, The Dark Knight III: Master Race (Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson) and Cinema Purgatorio (Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill et al.).

Totally Unexpected but Welcome Weirdness

Alex de Campi’s Archie vs. Predator
Dark Horse Comics and Archie Comics Crossover, 2015
The title of this abomination says it all. The 1980’s action-horror motif meets the ol’ Riverdale gang and carnage ravages their ranks. As always, the talented de Campi is merciless, and skewers tradition (in more ways than one). She also keeps a dandy of a feminist subversive theme beating at the centre of this gory beast. The art’s classical, but the story is decidedly not. No one is safe, least of all Veronica’s beloved “Archiekins”.

Charles Burn's X’ed Out and The Hive
Pantheon Books, 2010 and 2012
William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch surrealism meets Hergé meets underground comics meets teen angst in the second and third parts of his masterful and disquieting X’ed Out trilogy. The first volume was Sugar Skull. Among the unnerving symbolism are pigs, worms, projected identities, and deformed monsters. It's also non-linear storytelling from first page to the last. Burn’s use of sex and violence and emotional distance are exceptional and uncomfortable. Charles Burns is not messing around, and leaves a mark on the reader.

Joe Ollmann’s (writer and artist) The Abominable Mr. Seabrook
 Drawn & Quarterly, 2017
Ollmann has pulled off a balanced and honest depiction of the tragic journalist William Seabrook. Seabrook was a gonzo journalist before there was gonzo journalism, and somewhat worshipped by Hemingway’s lost generation because he was writing about his out-of-country experiences after living them. The early twentieth century traveler's notable accomplishments include abandoning every successful venture he took on, coining the term “zombie”, going on safaris, and witnessing voodoo rituals firsthand. This biographal subject, however, is afloat in alcoholism from his formative years to his decline. Seabrook's fascinating-yet-cautionary tale is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's meteoric literary career. Both writers go from open-minded adventurer to hardened and defeated alcoholic. Prepare to have your heart shattered to bits, faithful reader. Abominable isn’t always easy to handle, but constantly enlightening and fascinating. Ollmann's treatment is exhaustively researched. In the appendix, Ollmann lists Seabrook's novels in order of preference. This is a noteworthy and thoughtful gesture for readers unfamiliar with Seabrook's opus.
Aw, William, put down the drink. Agh...

Noteworthy (read: rather brilliant) comic-book artist and writer Seth has called fellow Canadian Joe Ollmann "criminally underappreciated", and there’s no argument from my corner. Ollmann depicts the everyday human struggle, from the mundane to monumental, follows life-like and very flawed characters and depicts mercilessly realistic settings and situations. All of this puts Ollmann in the same room as American comic-book writer icon Harvey Pekar, in my opinion. 

Required reading of  Joe Ollmann’s oeuvre includes Mid-Life, Science Fiction, and Happy Stories About Well-adjusted People.

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, Ben Katchor (writer and artist), Michael Chabon (contributor)
Little, Brown and Company, 1996
The plight of loner and urban observer/historian Julius Knipl is indie-art-meets-urban-angst. Katchor is sentimental, quirky and offbeat. At the end of some tales, about doomed storefront businesses or solitary characters or the urban infrastructure as a living creature, your heart aches. Katchor makes the reader long for the fleeting moment, the transient urban structure, as though it is part of them that is lost.

Titans Hunt, Dan Abnett (writer) et al.
DC Comics, 2016
Abnett Stephen-Kings (Is that a verb? Because I just made it one. - The editor) this whole DC Comic rebirth/reboot, with great success. Abnett uses the King's tried-and-true techniques such as the recurring nightmare motif, a dastardly villain crossing the country in search of the heroes, and a cast of disparate characters who have seemingly never met but unite to figure out just what the hell is going on. Why can't Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Robin, Speedy and the remainder of the heroes remem this healthy influence of Dean Koontzesque supsense building, and seductive exploitative art, along with the traditional superhero attitude of let’s-fight-and-figure-out-why-afterwards, Titans Hunt is a great and unexpectedly enjoyable yarn. This is sort of tiding me over until I can find season three of Young Justice, a remarkable show that I learned (very recently) has returned, much to its cult following's delight.

Totally Unexpected Beauties

Wonder Woman ’77 Volume One trade paperback
DC Comics, 2016
Marc Andreyko (writer), Drew Johnson, Matt Haley, and Cat Staggs (artists)
Charming through and through, Andreyko’s weird lovechild of the 1970’s accurately depicts Linda Carter in all of her fine features, and feels like the network T.V. show. For those of us who watched Carter in her star-spangled tights the first time, this book is a real delicious retread, and it's trippy for all its familiarity. As well, there's not a single budget constraint, because this is a comic book, my friends. For newcomers, this is a great conversion camp to the cult of T.V.’s First Lady of Amazon Island.

Page from The Less than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal by E. K. Weaver.
The Less than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal, E. K. Weaver (debut as both writer and artist)
Iron Circus Comics, 2015
Indie-film-meets-comic-book-page in this stunning and heartfelt debut from Chicago writer-artist E.K. Weaver. Two fellows, T.J. and Amal, take a cross-country trek, a sure-fire art-house motif that sings beautifully, from landscape depiction to quiet moments between two young men, who are questioning where they are at in the world, and who may or may not get together, and the secrets they carry with them. Beautiful in many instances, this is the first creature of its kind I’ve seen.

Monstress Volume One: AwakeningMarjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (artist)
Image Comics, 2016
Lovecraft, anime and Tolkien blend like orchestral music in this beautiful saga with art that knocks you back. Lui spotlights a heroine the reader with a monstrous side whom the reader can get behind. There’s so much beauty in the painted artwork that you have to reread panels, or stare at them until you have had your fill.

Image from Monstress Volume One: AwakeningMarjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (artist).

Mark Waid’s The Unknown Volume One trade paperback
BOOM! Studios, 2010
What seemed like such a promising premise with heroine Cat Allingham falters badly. Unlike, for example, Alex de Campi’s, Semiautomagic, this is a lacklustre John Constantinesque character. Artist Minck Ooosterveer uses every available opportunity to showcase the character’s bosom. However, Ooosterveer's style fails to make the protagonist beautiful. She's just stylized, unlike Michael Gaydos' renderings of Jessica Jones in Brian Michael Bendis' Alias series, where Jones appears beautiful in many instances, but not exploited for a (presumably imagined) male gaze. Erik Jones’ covers, on the other hand, do show Allingham as beautiful, but they are lurid and sexy and don’t match the carpet (i.e.: Ooosterveer’s pencils inside the book). It’s like the writer had a vision, the artists saw cleavage, and the result was a solid story with unnecessarily exploitive art that undermines Waid’s considerable storytelling talent.

The Dark Knight III: Master Race, Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello (writers), Miller, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson (artists)
DC Comics, 2015 to 2017
What Miller did in The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he does here again. And again. In this dystopia, Miller further deconstructs Bruce, Clark, Barry and other DC Comics characters. While readers initially hope that co-writer Azzrarello and artists Kubert and Janson will temper any possible bloat in the narrative, this hope dims to nothing as the story runs amok.  The Dark Knight just keeps rising again, and again, ad nauseam. The momentum that builds is a tiresome, mundane exercise of rattling the reader with progressively more outrageous depictions of comic book heroes. It was better the first time around, and certainly better when Alan Moore did it in Watchmen and, closer to DC Comics fans’ hearts, better when Mark Waid deconstructed the whole works in his brilliant Kingdom Come.

Cinema Purgatorio, Alan Moore (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist), and Kieron Gillen, Garth Ennis, Max Brook et al.
What started out at as a brilliant anthology series with four continuing stories in a magazine style has devolved into a spinning of tires. Readers can’t leave Alan Moore’s cinema literary conceit (a first-person narrative that involves a different deconstructed film each time, shot through with arcane cinematic history) any more than the characters in all the other stories can move on with their quests. Most of these quests, in fact, involves giant monsters. I have nothing against giant monsters, but when three of the five feature stories about these beasts, it's just too much sugar. The early issues, up to about number six, are fine. However, once the reader realizes they’re duped and the storylines are without end and, in fact, repeating themselves, the book becomes decidedly a-one-trick-pony by issue eight.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

First Fan Letter

So, uh, yesterday, I got my first fan letter today about my sci-fi story, "Living Under the Conditions", which someone read as a reprint in The Fourth Science Fiction Megapack.
I feel the need to add that other contributors in the 2012 anthology from Wildside include Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Isaac Asimov, Ayn Rand, Henry Kuttner (one of Ray Bradury's mentors), and fab fellow modern author, Ray Cluley.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Best Poetry Books I Read in 2017 (or Why Ottawa's Poetry Reading Scene Sings)

I haven't finished reading all of my poetry books that I started in 2017, but I know beautiful and painful work when I absorb it. Here are some of the titles that made me pay attention. Perhaps you should too, ever-faithful reader.

Richard Harrison
On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood 
Buckrider Books/Wolsak and Wynn
Harrision writes heartfelt and nuanced prose poetry pieces about his relationship with his father. Difficut subject matter, this, the tangled complexity of relating to his own son as well as his ailing father, but Harrison pulls it off with aplomb. The poet also works in some fine allusions to comic-book icons such as Superman and Captain America, and how fans of the characters relate to these icons, even across a generational divide. As a parent, I find Harrison's works irresistibly maudlin and profound. His work prompts me to reflect on my rapport with my child and the sometimes difficult relationship I hold with my own father. Harrison may be graceful as a wordsmith, but his truth hits hard and stays with you.
Proof that I bet on a wining horse? The book won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry.

Why Ottawa's Poetry Reading Scene Sings
I also had the pleasure of hearing Harrison read from On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood, along with D. S. Stymeist,  at the Oct25, 2016 Tree Reading SeriesHarrison's selections, particularly about his father-son relationships in early life and end of life, nearly moved me to tears several times.

Tarah-Michelle Ziniuk
Whatever, Iceberg 
Mansfield Press
Painfully personal and confessional, Ziniuk leads readers through a gallery of heartbreak, love, loss and angst. It is not always easy reading. This is because Ziniuk puts the audience in the position of the jilted, the rejected and the cast off, widening the perception of the reader. Ziniuk's is a pained free-verse  voice, sending missives from the wreckage of failed relationships.

Michael V. Smith
Bad Ideas 
Nightwood Editions
Smith too is confessional, writing about the crucible he has gone through, from cruising for sex in public parks to sex addiction. But he also writes bout whimsy, a longing for a lost innocence and lays bares some of the narrator's mortifying moments. One can't help but empathize or come away with insight about the journey we're all on. Funny, irasciable and intelligent, Mike once again proves he can swing poetry and prose.
Back in June 6, 2017, I did a more expansive and intensely personal review of both Bad Ideas, as well as Smith's My Body is Yours: A Memoir. You can find it here.

Why Ottawa's Poetry Reading Scene Sings
Last year, on May24 20017, I was lucky enough to hear Ziniuk and Smith read along with Ben Ladouceur (Arc: Canada's Poetry Magazine's Prose Editor), Marc McCann and Pierre-Luc Landry at Venus Envy. This comprised the Ottawa leg of their Dirty Spring Book Tour. Smith played a witty and funny master of ceremonies, charming the room.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I'm Operations Officer for Arc: Canada's Poetry Magazine!

True believers, here's the news of my new gig. I'm officially the Operations Officer for Arc Poetry Magazine (Canada's Poetry Magazine), a triannual literary magazine established in 1978, publishing poetry and prose about poetry.

With the ink dried on the contract, I can finally announce my new gig. Thank you, Arc crew. I'm raring to come up to speed. And I'm thrilled to be here.

Here's the official announcement from Arc:

"Arc is proud to annouce that poet, horror author and ex-Tree Reading Series director @jkmoran has joined our team as our new Operations Officer. Read his full bio on our Arc People page."

"Arc was excited to tell the world about our new Operations Officer, James K. Moran. However, in this time of transition, we are sad to announce the departure of Monty Reid from his role as Managing Editor after six years. 

Arc’s Coordinating Editor, Chris Johnson, will also be transitioning into the newly defined role of Managing Editor. For full details on these changes, please visit the Arc website."

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Year in Comics: Best Reads, Part One

Wonder Woman Volume One: The Lies, Greg Rucka
DC Comics, 2017
This Wonder Woman  ispart of DC Comics' whole Rebirth retcon/return to what works with flagship characters. Princess Diana succeeds here because of  Rucka's sly writing but also the artwork, which, at every chance, depicts Steve Trevor displaying his six-pack. Diana swoops in to save him more than once. The Amazonian warrior remains heroic while the male supportig role remains helpless. This is grand subversion that Rucka executes well, with glorious exploitative and kinetic artwork by Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott.

Cover of issue # 1
from the AfterShock Comic website.
Cover art by Wilfredo Torres.
Mark Waid’s Captain Kid
AfterShock Comics, 2017
Mark Waid’s penchant for turning all he touches to gold is familiar to readers of his run on Daredevil, the new Captain America, Black Widow, The Flash and, I have it on good authority, All-New, All-Different Avengers and Champions. And, oh, Kingdom Come as well for those in the class who want to go back and see how apocalyptic is done, aside from The Dark Night Returns and Watchmen.  Captain Kid’s art by Wilfredo Torres and Brent Peeples is somewhat uneven, but the premise is fertile ground. Instead of orphan teen Billy Batson saying a magic word and becoming a godlike adult figure (Captain Marvel or Shazam!, depending on which side of the longstanding legal battle you want to fall on), Waid posits the reverse scenario. What if a depressed, middle-aged man pronounces a magic word and becomes a virile teen hero? This clever subversion of the Shazam! mythos flourishes under Waid’s Midas-touch talents, resplendent with commentary about an older hero trying to reconcile his younger view of himself as a hero. The protagonist even has to contend with hormones clouding his judgement when he is in adolescent form.

Cover of Volume # 1. Published by Oni Press.
Artwork by Matthew Southworth and Rico Renzi.
Greg Rucka’s Stumptown 
Volume One: The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) 
Volume Two: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case
Oni Press, Various printing dates
I know what you’re thinking. Another take on Portland? Rucka’s yarn features randy protagonist Dex Parios, a private detective who is immersed in the character of Portland, Oregon. The series draws its name from an early nickname for the sparsely populated lumber-and-trading hub. From architecture to local characters, Stumptown is film noir drenched in weird locale. Think Raymond Chandler, reincarnated and walking the streets of Portland in a haze of illicit smoke. The hero, similar to Brian Michael Bendis’ Jessica Jones of Alias, has a more open outlook and devil-may-care attitude. Ths series is remarkable because Portland's architecture, from sidewalks to brick storefronts, is much a character as the aloof-but-tough Dex. Strong character, a classic mystery motif and a keen self- awareness of locale make for spicy storytelling.

Art by Tyler Paige. 
Chicagoland Detective Agency Book 1: The Drained Brains Caper Trina Robbins
Graphic Universe, 2010
Wonder Woman scholar, comic-book scribe and artist Robbins has a great little series in Chicagoland.  Thirteen-year-old Megan Yamamura, who narrates and speaks in haikus, possesses a healthy fear of adult authority. Sure, the teen notices everything adults overlook, but that’s the audience and the story is fun and smart for kids ages eight and upward, or adults. Throw in Bradley, a talking dog obsessed with pulp detective films and a plethora of horror-and-action-film references, and one sees how Robbins reaches young and grown-up readers with hilarious and self-referential aplomb.

Still to Come:
Alias by Brian Michael Bendis, vols. one through four
Paper Girls vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan

Totally Unexpected but Welcome Weirdness
Alex de Campi’s Archie vs. Predator
Charles Burns' X’ed Out, The Hole
Joe Ollmann’s (writer and artist) The Abominable Mr. Seabrook
Julius Knipl:Real Estate Photographer, Ben Katchor
Titans Hunt, Dan Abnett et al.

Totally Unexpected Beauties
Wonder Woman ’77 volume one TPB, Marc Andreyko (writer), artists Drew Johnson, Matt Haley, and Cat Staggs
The Less than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal, debut by E. K. Weaver (writer and artist)
Monstress, Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (artist)