Introducing the Propaganda reviews

Published On February 28, 2007 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

My names Richard Bruton. Until last October I used to work at Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham UK, where I spent 19 years as the longest serving Saturday boy in their history. Not so much a job, more a great place to see my friends and share a love of comics with the customers.

During my time there I started writing a monthly newsletter / review sheet called Propaganda. It was designed to highlight some of the better books and Graphic Novels that the staff at the shop thought our customers should be reading. Over the years we’ve turned lots of people onto many books they may have missed or ignored and hopefully helped do our bit to keeping the medium of comics as vibrant and diverse as possible.

However, in October 2006 I moved 131 miles north to start a new life in Yorkshire. So sadly, I had to quit. Moving so far away meant I began to feel my connection to the world of comics slipping away.

But luckily for me it didn’t end there.

I’ve been blogging for a while at Fictions and started to put up a series of posts called Nostalgia & Comics & Me. These caught the attention of Kenny at Forbidden Planet International and he and Joe started linking to them on this very blog. Kenny then asked if I’d be interested in carrying on Propaganda as a review section on the FPI blog.

So here I am, ready to put Propaganda before you every couple of weeks. It’s going to include books I love and books the staff at Nostalgia & Comics want you to see.

I’ll be here every two weeks sharing them with you. Hope you enjoy them……

Here goes………….

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Desolation Jones Volume 1: Made in England
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by J.H. Williams III
Wildstorm (2006)

I think Warren Ellis suffers from a similar disease to another favourite writer of mine, Grant Morrison. He seems to spread himself very thin and takes on many projects that I feel merely take him away from writing more interesting, complicated stuff.

Transmetropolitan, The Authority, Planetary, Ministry of Space, Orbiter are all examples of what I think he should be writing more of. But I really don’t need another Strange Killings tale, or the latest Wolfskin (which was so memorable I just had to Google Warren Ellis barbarian for the tile).

Luckily Desolation Jones definitely falls into the good category.

Desolation Jones is Michael Jones; ex-MI6 spook who not so much burnt out as self-destructed: “MI6 does not request professional drinking in any job description…….James Bond never urinated on himself.”

As an alternative for dismissal he’s put on the Desolation Test; a programme that seems designed to send MI6 agents to la-la land and back. But I’m sure more on that will be revealed in time. Basically Jones was sat in a room for a year, fed drugs, data and horrific imagery and kept conscious and alert throughout. He’s the only survivor and it’s left him slightly scarred to say the least.

And that’s the set up. From that point on any fan of Warren Ellis knows that we’re on good ground here. The fucked-up anti-hero is something Ellis does really well, most famously in Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem. Desolation Jones is a spying, private detective version of Spider Jerusalem. He operates from L.A. specialising in investigating the ex-spook community and surrounding himself with fellow casualties of the craft.

This first story arc collected in Made In England concerns Jones investigating the theft of some dodgy Hitler porn from an elderly ex-spy. The plot, including the ex-spy’s daughters, owes an awful lot to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in its construction and overall feel. Not a bad thing at all.

A huge part of the success of the book is the stunning artwork provided by J.H. Williams. He’s working in a similar way to his art on Alan Moore’s Promethea, with some fantastically constructed panel layouts and perfect detail. He and colourist Jose Villarrubia are deliberately working with a muted colour palette that perfectly suits the feel of the book.

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The bad news is that Williams is only on the title for this arc and the next arc sees the debut of Danijel Zezelj. Being a little behind in my reading I haven’t seen the new art but Ellis seems happy with his new artist (there’s an interview with Ellis about his choice of artist on Newsarama here).

Desolation Jones is a real return to form for Ellis and is well worth picking up. A gloriously seedy setting, superbly fractured lead character, lots of great plot twists and turns and all served up with Ellis’ classic mix of gonzo writing, spot-on dialogue and inventive storytelling. Between this and the quite brilliant Fell with Ben Templesmith it appears we have enough good stuff from Warren Ellis to at least put up with trash like Thunderbolts.

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Superman Confidential issues #1 – 3
Darwyn Cooke & Tim Sale
DC Comics 2007

This was added to my pile of stuff to look at by Dave, manager of Nostalgia & Comics with a simple “I like this, give it a go”. Now I have to admit I think Superman is a pretty dull, dead end character. How far can you go with the most powerful man in the world? In fact the only Superman stories I’ve ever really liked have been the few that Alan Moore did and Grant Morrison’s current, quite wonderful All Star Superman.

But this makes it into the top three. Fair enough, it comes in third behind Morrison and Moore but that’s still pretty good.

The nicest thing about this is the sense of deliberate timelessness that Cooke and Sale have placed on the book. It’s set early on in Superman’s career but it takes place in a very retro-futurist Metropolis, full of mobile phones, laptops, cinecameras and reel to reel tape machines. It’s a little touch but it’s a very nice one.

As for the story, it’s a simple set-up. There’s a new businessman in town and Perry White, convinced he’s dirty to his bones, enlists the trio of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to investigate. The businessman just happens to have the biggest chunk of Kryptonite you’ve ever seen inside his Casino and obviously has dastardly plans for its use. Unfortunately Cooke has made the mistake of making the Kryptonite sentient which means having to plow through 4 pages of pretentious crap at the start of each issue before getting to the nice stuff.

But because it’s two top notch creators at the helm, it manages to rise above its simple, pretty obvious storyline and stupid sentient Kryptonite sequence and becomes more a story about feelings and insecurities. This early Superman doesn’t know his limits and he doesn’t know how to deal with his life. What if he can be killed by extreme heat, how about extreme cold, how will he know what can kill him until it’s too late? And then there’s the Lois problem. To be in love with one woman whilst being responsible for so many people’s lives.

Cooke and Sale do sterling work here, handling it all with a skill that marks this out as far above almost every other Superman story. Unfortunately for them, they’ve published their story while the best Superman story I’ve ever read is unfolding………….

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All Star Superman
Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
DC Comics 2006/7

And this is it, probably the greatest Superman story I’ll ever read.

I knew it was going to be good, after all it’s Grant Morrison finally being allowed to play with the big Red S and his track record with supertypes is pretty good. His JLA run gave us some of the best JLA stories and his X-Men run is easily the best in the title’s history.

So I was always expecting great things from Morrison’s take on Superman and within 3 pages of issue 1 I knew he’d nailed the concept perfectly. The first 3 panels and the splash page tell you everything you ever need to know about Superman’s origin and do it in a simple, detailed and clever way. It’s smart, well dialogued, inventive and iconic all at once.

Funniest thing is seeing how much Quitely tows the company line with this book – look at Supe’s face – completely unlike a normal Quitely face. Obviously he’s been told to keep the franchise looking the same as always. This could be the one problem with the book; if DC get scared and stop Grant doing anything too off franchise message it could destroy what could be the next great superhero work. But if they actually hold their nerve and let him loose this could be wonderful.

Every issue so far has been a perfect little masterclass at how to write brilliantly well structured stories building up to a greater overall story. Morrison is deliberately stripping his sometime overly wordy style down and giving us pure economy that works wonderfully well.

So ultimately, I think if you had to choose only one Superman book on the shelves at the moment, it would have to be All Star Superman, but Superman Confidential comes a close(ish) second. I still say the characters a bit of a dud though.

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Chronicles of Wormwood # 1
Story – Garth Ennis
Art – Jacen Burrows
Avatar (2007)

Well, this wasn’t exactly a big surprise. In fact, it’s Garth Ennis by the numbers. I’ve thought for a number of years now that Garth is struggling to live up to the early promise shown by the quite marvellous Preacher. Things like this only go to prove that thought. It’s almost as if he had an image of the Antichrist in corporate human form shagging Joan of Arc and decided to make a story out of it.

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(panel from Chronicles of Wormwood #1, Avatar has several pages for preview on their site – need I add for mature readers only since it is a Garth Ennis work!)

The story is simplicity itself; Danny is the Anti-Christ. Son of Satan. But he really doesn’t fancy going into the family business and tells Dad (Satan; red, tail, horns – the works) to bog off and settles down to life on Earth, deciding he would rather run a cable TV company specialising in smart cutting edge shows (allowing Ennis to give lots of freedom of speech speeches in the comic’s pages). He’s a bit of a bastard, messes his girlfriend around and argues with his talking rabbit, but bringing about the destruction of the world and all on it? Not for Danny.

Meanwhile, Jesus has done a similar thing and told dad where to get off if he thinks that he’s going to go through all that pain and suffering shit again. Of course, Jesus’ idea of living amongst men and working a social, rather than spiritual revolution didn’t work out too well and he fell foul of the LAPD, got beaten down in a demo and suffered serious brain damage. So brain damaged Jesus and corporate Anti-Christ meet up for drinks in a bar regularly.

Of course, I’m damning it far too much here. It’s well written, some of the set pieces are hugely entertaining and Ennis’ dialogue cracks along as usual. If you like Garth Ennis, you’ll like this. If you liked Mark Millar’s Saviour or Chosen, then you’ll like this. Hell, if you like the idea of the Antichrist at play on Earth or Joan of Arc in a compromising position, you’ll like this.

But I’m left feeling like it should be somehow more. Surely Garth has better stories in him than this? Surely he’s not going to tread literary water for much longer? Surely he can’t just keep riffing on Preacher again and again and again?

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Shazam! The Monster Society Of Evil
Issue 1 (of 4)
Story & art: Jeff Smith
DC Comics (2007)

And after the decidedly adult Wormwood, here’s something unashamedly and wonderfully all-ages: Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society Of Evil. The problem for Jeff Smith is that his only major work; Bone was such a wonderful comic it almost makes it difficult to think of him doing anything else. I’d certainly recommend picking up the wonderful and ridiculously good value for money Bone: One Volume Edition. But over the past few months there have been plenty of excited blog posts and teaser images from this, his first big DC series. And everyone, myself included, in that big wide, incestuous world of blogging, has been lapping up all the tease, all the pre-release images and going potty over them.

So, was it worth it?

Absolutely. It’s a wonderful, nostalgic comic. For one thing it’s actually a comic based squarely on the assumption that, if Captain Marvel inhabits the body of a young boy (7, 8?), then the comic’s sensibilities, its voice, should reflect this.

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I’m sure some readers will pick it up and flick through and be put off by the art or the story, both of which are distinctly more child-like and innocent than the terribly dark, adult stuff our superheroes provide in these modern times. But in putting it back, these readers are missing the point. Jeff Smith has nailed the childlike quality of the hero perfectly. His art, his story, his dialogue, pacing, the sheer sense of wonder on display all reflect the age of the hero, little Billy Batson.

Great story, great art. Jeff Smith really has come good with this. It’s simple, innocent, heart-warming fun. And it’s about time we had some of that.

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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (issue 1 of 7)
Plot & Consultation – Robin Furth
Script – Peter David
Art – Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

This feels like Peter David trying his best to do a Neil Gaiman impression. Frankly it’s just not very good. Sometimes it’s a bad thing when Neil Gaiman does a Neil Gaiman impression, but when someone with less talent tries it; it just doesn’t work at all.

This is David trying to be clever, trying to write in a style he simply doesn’t have the talent for and it fails on nearly every level. Sure, the art’s pretty, but not my cup of tea and I certainly wasn’t enjoying it when the overblown writing gets in the way.

The basic story concerns Roland Deschain; a boy who will one day become the character known as the Gunslinger:

The gunslinger is a creature of what ye would call destiny and he calls “ka.” Ka is a wheel, its one purpose is to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it started. The gunslinger’s ka turns towards an inevitable goal…… a Dark Tower

(You can see what I mean by the Neil Gaiman impression.)

Roland is being manipulated by the sorcerer known as Marten Broadcloak, chief advisor to Roland’s father Steven. Roland is also being trained for some reason by a man called Cort. The training seems to consist of throwing falcons around. For some reason Roland decides he’s had enough training and challenges Cort to a falcon duel. Roland wins, Cort dies. This means that Roland has now become a Gunslinger. There is a confrontation with Broadcloak, Roland may have to be exiled for some reason and it all ends with his father shooting the gun from Roland’s hand. That’s the first issue in total. Now you don’t have to read it.

I know first issues can be a problem sometimes, having to introduce the characters and situations but that’s no excuse for such a bad comic as this. I’m not a Stephen King fan so maybe that’s the problem. Sadly, because it’s Stephen King, it’s getting a huge amount of press. Which is a shame because if this is the sort of thing we want to show the world at large then the world at large is hardly going to be knocking down our doors for more.

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Batman / The Spirit # 1
Will Eisner’s The Spirit # 1 & 2

Jeph Loeb / Darwyn Cooke.
Inks – J. Bone.

Now this is more like it. This is simply beautiful. A lot of people have questioned the wisdom of bringing back Will Eisner’s signature character, but I think it’s fairly obvious that this is a pure labour of love from Darwyn Cooke and J Bone. Every panel drips with style, design and it’s a perfect homage to a master storyteller.

The Batman / Spirit story that came out first did a great job of setting the scene. Jeph Loeb was on board to help Darwyn Cooke out with the story, but from then on it’s all Cooke’s show.

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And what a show it is. It has the same feel as the early Batman Adventures comics by Dini and Timm. The artist for those was the late Mike Parobeck and he showed, in simple 4 panel pages, exactly how a story should be told. Not a panel was wasted, nothing was out of place and every brushstroke served to tell the story dynamically, simply and beautifully.

And thankfully, seeing how important the legacy of Eisner’s greatest creation is, Darwyn Cooke and J Bone are just as good as Parobeck at telling a story on the comic page. This feels exactly like it should, it’s very much a worthy addition to the Eisner library. And having Cooke and Bone along to create a consistent feel and tone for the book means it wont suffer from the highs and lows that the last attempt to update the character did with Kitchen Sink’s Spirit: New Adventures.

One thing I have seen mentioned online in a review of issue 2 was how well Cooke and Bone capture the essential sensuality of P’Gell. Eisner, for all his mastery, never truly made her into the perfect femme fatale. With the opening splash page of issue 2, Cooke and Bone have done exactly that.

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Well worth picking up for fans and interested parties. Whether you choose to see it as homage or simply a brilliantly executed book, showcasing the best in adventure writing and stunning art, it’s up to you.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.