Comic book reviews: Necronomicon

Halloween is right around the corner, so once again I am going to take a look at a horror comic book series that I really enjoyed.  A few years back, BOOM! Studios published a number of series inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.  For the uninformed, Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th Century.  He was very effectively melded aspects of the supernatural with science fiction, creating eerie, unsettling tales of “cosmic horror” and alien-spawned entities from the dawn of time exerting influence upon the present day.  Among the Lovecraftian titles released by BOOM! was the Necronomicon miniseries, written by William Messner-Loebs, with artwork by Andrew Ritchie and covers by J.K. Woodward.  Originally serialized in 2008, the four issues were collected into a trade paperback in 2009.

The eponymous Necronomicon is, within the fictional universe devised by Lovecraft, a tome of ancient, dark, powerful knowledge compiled over a thousand years ago by the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred.  Throughout Lovecraft’s stories, characters often foolishly sought out the Necronomicon, either to uncover the secrets of Earth’s pre-history, or in the hopes of discovering methods to revive the now-banished god-like beings which once inhabited the planet.

Necronomicon TPB cover

Set in 1924, Messner-Loebs’ story focuses on Henry Said, the son of an Arabian merchant who is studying engineering at Miskatonic University.  Henry, although struggling with his major, is a polyglot who possesses an incredible aptitude for quickly comprehending new languages.  His remarkable abilities come to the attention of the Miskatonic’s theosophist society, composed of both faculty & students and headed up by Randolph Carter (who happens to bear a more than passing resemblance to H.P. himself).  The society is hoping that Henry can translate the Necronomicon, providing them a copy of the text in English.  At the urgings of his friends Jeremiah “Maxey” Maxwell and Rachel Schiff, Henry agrees to take on the task.  Soon, however, as he begins to experience strange dreams & unearthly sensations, Henry realizes the Necronomicon is no ordinary book.  This is confirmed when strange creatures masquerading as human beings attempt to steal the Necronomicon from the university.

As much as I am a fan of Lovecraft’s stories, I do have to admit that there were certain formulaic elements to his writing.  One of these is that his protagonists were typically middle aged white male academics.  When non-Caucasian or female characters did appear, they were usually depicted in an unflattering light, as servants of the various “Old Ones” who were threatening to once again encroach upon the Earth.  Unfortunately, it’s likely that Lovecraft’s own xenophobia and racism played a major part in this.  One of his primary themes is fear of displacement by some degenerate group of “others” or, worse, the discovery by his characters that they were connected by tainted bloodlines to those outsiders.

Therefore, it was very interesting to read Messner-Loebs’ story, which seems to have deliberately subverted this.  Henry is a foreign-born Muslim, and Rachel is a Jew possessing fervent Zionist ideologies.  Of the three protagonists, Maxey is the only WASP, and he is actually a rather dim fellow who is having an affair behind Rachel’s back, sleeping with a blonde-haired girl who makes anti-Semitic remarks.

Necronomicon 1 pg 7

Writing from the perspective of Henry, the outsider to American society, enables Messner-Loebs to look at the bizarre, disturbing events with an alternate point of view.  Indeed, it is Henry’s awareness that he is a stranger in a strange land, and his empathy for others who are in similar situations, who are looked upon as different, feared & scorned, that ultimately leads to his salvation.

Messner-Loebs also provides a glimpse into the possible history of the infamous Abdul Alhazred himself.  A number of commentators on Lovecraft’s writings over the years have noted that this is not a genuine Arab name, but rather something the author devised which sounded foreign & mysterious.  I believe, though, that Messner-Loebs is the first individual to expand on Lovecraft’s mythos who actually addresses this fact in-story.  Henry, originating from the Middle East, immediately realizes that “Abdul Alhazred” cannot be a genuine name.  But if so, then what was the true identity of the author of the Necronomicon?  Messner-Loebs offers up an interesting theory within his story.

When I was in high school and college, I enjoyed Messner-Loebs’ writing on Flash, Wonder Woman, and various other titles.  Regrettably he has not been employed as frequently within the last decade or so.  I was certainly happy to see him writing this miniseries for BOOM! and, indeed, it was on the strength of his past work that I purchased it.  Necronomicon is a very effective synthesis of the themes found in Lovecraft’s original writings and Messner-Loebs’ own sensibilities as an author.

Necronomicon 1 pg 20

I am not familiar with Andrew Ritchie, who illustrates and colors the miniseries.  I did a Google search to see what else he’s worked on and located his Tumblr site, which contains some really nice artwork.  It reminds me a bit of Charlie Adlard’s work.  Ritchie’s style is certainly well-suited to this miniseries.  He definitely imbues a macabre sensibility and atmosphere to the story.  Richie’s depictions of the Mi-Go and the Elder Ones have a genuine quality of the alien and unearthly to them.  And his renderings of Henry’s Necronomicon-spawned visions into other times and other worlds have the unsettling, sickly feel of a fever dream.

The cover work by J.K. Woodward is quite good.  These were done by him several years ago, earlier in his career, and consequently perhaps not nearly as polished as his recent amazing work on the Star Trek / Doctor Who crossover published by IDW.  That said, even back then it was obvious that Woodward had real talent & potential.  His cover for the first issue, a depiction of Lovecraft’s cosmic entity Cthulhu, is very striking.

If you are in the mood for an interesting, somewhat different interpretation on Lovecraft’s now-iconic legacy, the Necronomicon series is well worth a read, especially right around this time of year.  Happy Halloween!

Five new comic book artists who I like

Last month I was over at Jim Hanley’s Universe for one of their creator signing events. It just so happens that standing right next to me in line was Fabrizio Fante, author of the excellent WordPress blog Fate’s Inferno.  As we were waiting on line, Fabrizio and I got to talking about a whole bunch of topics.  One of the things that came up was new comic book artists.  Specifically, Fabrizio was curious to know which new artists I was a fan of.  And, y’know, I immediately started drawing a blank.  Every single name I could come up with off the top of my head was someone who had been working professionally for more than a decade now.  It was actually really bothering me.  Surely there had to be at least one artist who had broken into the biz after 2003 whose work I enjoyed?

I guess my subconscious mind was dwelling on the subject, because over the past few weeks several names did gradually come to me.  Yes, there are definitely a number of really good, talented individuals working in the comic book field nowadays.  I am going to spotlight some of those artists here.

Rocket Girl 1 cover signed

AMY REEDER

I first discovered the work of Amy Reeder on the Madame Xanadu series written by Matt Wagner and published by DC Comics / Vertigo.  To be perfectly honest, when I first learned that Reeder had broken into comic books via Tokyopop, I might have sighed in exasperation, figuring that she was yet another of the Manga-derivative individuals to flood comic books in the last two decades.  But actually looking at her art for Madame Xanadu, I was floored.  First of all, Reeder has this amazing storytelling sense, the ability to really lay out pages in a dramatic fashion.  Second, her first story arc “Disenchanted” was set over a millennia-long period, which required that she conduct an extraordinary amount of research to obtain an authentic look for numerous historical eras across the globe.  I was really impressed by the work she put into those ten issues.

Reeder has drawn a couple of really stunning books written by Brandon Montclare, her former assistant editor at Vertigo.  The first was the whimsical fantasy one-shot Halloween Eve, published last October.  The second is the sci-fi Rocket Girl, the first issue of which just came out.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the series was picked up by Image Comics.  Rocket Girl #1 looks great, and I’m very much anticipating upcoming installments.

Star Trek Doctor Who 3

J.K. WOODWARD

Working on a number of books at both IDW and BOOM! Studios over the last decade, J.K. Woodward first caught my attention when he produced amazing painted artwork for the Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation 2 miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton.  This eight issue crossover saw Captain Picard’s crew working with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy & Rory to face the combined forces of the Borg and the Cybermen.  On the early issues, Woodward did full artwork, while on the later ones he was paining over Gordon Purcell’s pencils.  In both cases, the results were fantastic.

Especially striking was Woodward’s cover artwork to issue #3, which contained a flashback to the Fourth Doctor meeting the crew of the original Enterprise and fighting some old-school Cybermen.  As someone who grew up watching Tom Baker and William Shatner on re-runs of Doctor Who and Star Trek in the early 1980s, I thought that was a super-cool addition to the story.  Woodward has stated that his childhood was spent watching many of those same reruns.  He did a stunning job on this piece.

Captain America 625 cover

FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA

Italian artist Francesco Francavilla made his debut in 2006.  His style is quite reminiscent of the legendary Alex Toth.  I first noticed Francavilla’s work when he illustrated several issues of Captain America for Marvel Comics.  He’s also worked on Black Panther and Hawkeye, as well as rendering numerous amazing covers for a variety of publishers.  Most recently he’s been the cover artist on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time for IDW.

Amongst the current crop of “hot” artists who seem to have defaulted back to early Image Comics-inspired work full of over-rendering and excessive crosshatching, Francavilla’s retro pulp leanings are a breath of fresh air.  It has often been observed that it is the seemingly “simpler” styles of art that are actually much more difficult to pull off.  An artist does not have all the fancy bells & whistles to hide behind, and must rely on genuine talent & storytelling ability. I think that is true of Francavilla’s work.  In any case, his art has a very noir sensibility, with a palpable atmosphere to it.  He also possesses a really amazing design aesthetic, a talent for knowing exactly how to lay out a cover or a page for maximum dramatic impact.

Supreme 64 cover

CORY HAMSCHER

I’m probably bending the rules a little here, since I think Cory Hamscher has been a professional artist for slightly more than a decade.  But he’s really come into prominence in the last several years.  I first noticed his work when he illustrated a back-up story in Savage Dragon #150 that spotlighted Mr. Glum, the diminutive alien dictator from Dimension X.  Shortly after, Hamscher did an absolutely superb job inking Tom Grummett’s pencils on X-Men Forever and Chaos War: Dead Avengers.  Last year, Hamscher provided very detailed finishes to Erik Larsen’s layouts on Supreme.

Hamscher has an inking style that immediately appealed to me.  It reminds me quite a bit of the amazing embellishing of Terry Austin, who is one of my all time favorite inkers.  Hamscher just makes the pencils or layouts he is inking pop off the page.  He’s amazingly talented.  Recently on Facebook, Hamscher has expressed a desire going forward to do full artwork, i.e. both pencils & inks.  I really hope that he has that opportunity, and I’m looking forward to further announcements about his upcoming projects.

Vescell 6 cover

JOHN UPCHURCH

First becoming a professional artist in 2011, John “Roc” Upchurch has been doing stunning work on Vescell, a sci-fi / fantasy / noir series written by Enrique Carrion and published by Image.  I did a full-length review of the latest issue, #8, on my June 13th blog post, so go check it out!

Upchurch has this beautifully polished, slick quality to his work that perfectly matches Carrion’s imaginative, darkly humorous scripts.  What is especially noteworthy about Upchurch’s art is that, yes, he can draw these really stunning covers and dynamic action sequences.  But he has also demonstrated that he is a good storyteller.  Carrion’s stories have frequent “talking heads” segments where important plot points & philosophic issues are discussed.  Upchurch does a masterful job rendering these, drawing multi-panel pages which engage the reader’s attention and keep the flow of the story going.  I definitely hope to see more from Upchurch in the future, as he continues to grow & develop.  He has a hell of a lot of potential.

(By the way, I was actually able to think of at least twice as many new comic book artists as I profiled here.  But I chose to spotlight these five because they are among my favorites.  And, of course, I can always save the others for a future blog post!)

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.