Monday, December 30, 2013

Image Comics' Manifest Destiny: The wild, the fearsome, and not-so innocent

Manifest Destiny: The wild, the fearsome, and not-so innocent
by rick olivares

“I fear that birds, small game and Indians will be the only creatures we will come across.”

Captain Meriwether Lewis penciled in that entry in a diary after Second Lieutenant William Clark shot a wild heron to document and study as part of the objectives of the Corps of Discovery that was commissioned by American President Thomas Jefferson.

That isn’t a true to life entry. That is a line written by Chris Dingess, an admitted fan of the horror genre, who has come up with a clever reimagining of some of America’s pioneers in Lewis and Clark.

In the real life expedition, Lewis and Clark crossed what is now the western portion of the United States, departing St. Louis via the Mississippi River and making their way through the continental divide to the Pacific coast.

It was a select group of US Army volunteers under the command of Lewis and Clark that undertook a perilous journey last from May of 1804 up to September 1806. The party only took one casualty and that was due to appendicitis more than any Indian arrow.

In this Image Comics series by Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts, it’s the latest in the current phenomenon of placing real life and historical figures and placing them in different if not supernatural situations (see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer among others). And it wasn’t only native American Indians that Lewis and Clark encountered but also the weird and unexplainable.

During the ages of discovery, men left the safety of their homes for flag and country (and the promise of eternal youth and gold among many others) to seek new frontiers across land and sea. In essence it was to claim new territory. They came back with tales of terrifying monsters and creatures. Anything new to them was a monster.

The original expedition wasn’t only some scientific expedition, they were sent out to map the undiscovered country and to declare these lands as property of the United States of America before the European powers could claim them for themselves.

Dingess keeps that premise but from the very beginning inserts some tension with the expedition party by including convicts who have been conscripted into this journey in exchange for a pardon. So there’s danger from outward and from within. Jensen, a convicted murderer is like having The Walking Dead’s Shane for company. In the very first issue, he murders one of the soldiers who accidentally discovered his plans to desert the expedition party at the first possible opportunity.

And there’s his diary entry about small game and Indians being their only encounters. You know that is not going to be the case or else, there wouldn’t be this comic book.

On their way to La Charrette (populated by moss-covered zombies), the last European-American settlement on the Missouri River (the boundary between their known world and the unknown), the Corps of Discovery comes across an arch that looks like a gateway (and one I suspect should provide an inspiration for the St. Louis Gateway Arch later on although that was constructed in 1963 and not in 19th century America). While Lewis wonders what to make of the arch, they are attacked by a Minotaur-like creature that wounds Sergeant Parker who will be murdered by Jensen. As someone who has extensively read American history, I only have a passing knowledge of the mythology of Native Americans. I do know that in Blackfoot and Cheyenne beliefs, there is a Buffalo monster that haunts them. Could this be that creature?

In the second issue, there’s this female elemental who jumps from a cliff to the ground below that somewhat reminds me of the Swamp Thing. It’s also a matter of time when this creature is revealed.

The first two issues were a perfect blend of characterization and action. In the space of a few panels and pages, Dingess reveals the motivations of the characters. In some pre-release interviews, the author says that his lead characters will not always be heroic. Their frailties will be on display in issues to come and all I can say it, it cannot come soon enough. As for the rest of the expedition party? They are there to ratchet up the body count.

Matthew Roberts’ detailed and expressive art is a treat and perfect for bring to life this strange old yet new world. His monsters are frightening. His facial expressions are very expressive. Roberts brings to life the expedition and the mythological creatures of Native American culture.

If you thought that the Sasquatch was the only “mythological creature” in American culture then be prepared for a “history” lesson.

Furthermore, the cover to the second issue alone showing a tomahawk embedded in a human skull is alone worth the cover price.

I can’t wait for them to introduce Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian who in real life accompanied the Corps of Discovery as their guide and interpreter. But judging by the cover art for the fourth issue of Manifest Destiny, she’s some monster slayer too.

It’s only been two issues but I’ve been hooked by Manifest Destiny. Was the wild and untamed West the final frontier? Nope. It’s comics like these that push the boundaries of great storytelling.

That’s how much I have been hooked by this new series that has television series option written all over it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Trese: The Case of the Book of Diabolical Delights.

Trese: The Case of the Book of Diabolical Delights.
by rick olivares

Reviewing Trese: Book of Murders
358 pages compiling Cases #1-13
Published by Visprint

Why is being the sixth so important?
-       From The Baptism of Alexandra Trese

The sixth child of Anton Trese, the former guardian of Metro Manila against supernatural beings such as the tikbalang, aswang, and wicked elementals, has the capacity to bring about a great age for the underworld or to become their scourge.

From the earliest of superhero comics, the stories have always been the reimagining of mythical characters in a heroic and modern setting. Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s Superman was inspired by Samson and Hercules. Soon after, fans were treated to Wonder Woman, an Amazon; and Flash, a character created with a nod towards the Greek god Mercury. And it has been pretty much the same formula since.

There have been many similar stories through the years in popular media where gods or mythical creatures live amongst modern man – Sandman, Aria, Fables, Neverwhere, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Underworld, are but a few.

For Budjette Tan’s and KaJo Baldisimo’s Trese, the writer-artist team bring together the mythical creatures from Philippine culture and place them in a modern setting. Not just in a modern urban setting but in Crime Scene Investigation manner.

So with Trese, think Kolchak The Night Stalker (probably granddaddy of this particular genre as it ran on television from 1974-75 and is a show I keenly followed) and Joss Whedon’s Angel.

When I first read Trese during its initial release in late 2005, what first jumped into my mind was James Robinson’s and Paul Smith’s excellent “Leave It To Chance” where the daughter of Lucas Falconer, Chance, becomes Devil’s Echo’s protector against the supernatural.

“Leave It To Chance” produced 13 issues that were published irregularly by Image Comics from September of 1996 up to July 2002. It was discontinued after the 13th issue despite winning several awards including the Harvey Award for Best New Series and Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Title for Young Readers in 1997. A re-print collection of the first four issues was the top vote getter for Comic Buyer’s Guide Fan Award for 1998.

Ironically, Trese is about Alexandra Trese, who takes over from her father Anton, as the protector of Manila from the weird and supernatural.

But maybe because Paul Smith’s bright and sunny artwork is intended for a younger audience; Leave It To Chance is like Nancy Drew.

Trese isn’t at all like that. It’s dark, moody, and terrifying. It is a creepier Night Stalker/Angel* because what Filipino did not grow up hearing about all these supernatural beings? Even if you didn’t believe the nuno sa punso when you passed by one, you always said, ‘Tabi tabi po’ just to be sure.

Trese isn’t for the weak. It’s violent yet the blood and gore never goes overboard just like every good horror story. The idea isn’t to make one squeamish but to feel the hair on your arms stand up.

Tan’s writing isn’t long and winded. In fact, the backstories of all the characters are seamlessly worked in without you realizing it.

And that’s the hallmark of a good story.


Why is Trese important?
-       My question

Trese mines our rich culture for a terrific storyline that although owes its inspirations from our Western counterparts yet is at once our very own. I have to admit I was a little skeptical at first. But as a kid, I loved reading those reprinted Tales of Lola Basyang and that kid called “Kangkong” who fought supernatural creatures and I’ve seen Budjette’s previous work so who am I not to give this a chance.

And the black and white artwork of Baldisimo fits the story just fine. It adds to the noir feel of the story. The line work isn’t too heavy and dark. Excellent use of white and dark spaces so you never feel like it’s muddled. Overall, the story has the feel of Mike Mignola’s ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Blood: The Last Vampire” that means it keeps you on the edge as you know something wicked this way comes.

You’re engrossed not only in the story but you find yourself investing in the characters. You want to know more about Alexandra Trese, the Kambal (who certainly demand a story of their own), Captain Guerrero who is this book’s Commissioner Gordon, and all the supernatural beings that become a part of the book. The nuno sa manhole is frigging brilliant. Oscar the Grouch is officially out of business!

Trese unfolds like a casebook of crimes that takes the reader through different parts of Metro Manila with each issue introducing us to the spirits living in the material world and how they have integrated into society. You’ll have fun identifying names and how their lives have intertwined with urban legends from Balete Drive to the serpent that allegedly haunts the malls of a Taipan.

I am not going to give away plotlines in this review. That is for you to find out. I am just telling you why Trese deserves your time and attention because I wouldn’t be surprised one day is this is optioned for a film or even a television series like The Walking Dead.

You see Trese is that diabolically good.

Now don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly lit side of the metro.

* Kolchak was an investigative reporter while Angel was a vampire with a soul who worked as a private detective dedicated to “helping the helpless” while battling demons and humans allied with these supernatural beings.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Peter Pan story for the new millennium -- Image Comics' Peter Panzerfaust

As a war buff and fan of history, I picked up two "war" comics books with a revisionist bent -- Avatar Comics' Uber and Image Comics' Peter Panzerfaust. 

I picked up the first issue of Peter Panzerfaust on a whim. I had a little extra money to spend and with my shift to more indie comics, I took a chance on the title despite not knowing anything about it all.

By the first issue's end, I was... er, forgive the word... hooked. Imagine Peter Pan and all the characters from the story set in France during World War II. All I can say is -- it's a brave new world. 

I never read J.M. Barrie's writings and believed the character to be a Disney creation until I was in my college years. And I have to admit that I still haven't read it to this day. I saw the movies and the plays. And aside from the original Disney cartoon, my other image of Peter Pan was in Steven Speilberg's HOOK that I loved. 

Doing my research about J.M. Barrie's character, it turns out that the Scottish writer never fully described Peter. All he wrote was he had his first teeth and he is a beautiful boy with a beautiful smile, "clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees".

So that virtually leaves Peter to the imagination of those who read the book that first came out in 1902.

On to Peter Panzerfaust. 

Peter is an American boy in France helping some orphans (the Lost Boys) fight against the invading Nazis. Just as Bill Willingham mined popular Fairy Tales for Fables, so does the creative team of writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins do for Barrie's set of characters. Everyone is here -- Wendy Darling, Tiger Lily, the Indians. I can't wait for Tinkerbelle's actual appearance. 

As for Captain Hook? His villainy will hound Peter and the Lost Boys all the more. In his Nazi character, he could be like Malcolm McDowell's sadistic Nazi officer role, Captain Von Berkow, in the 1979 film The Passage. Maybe even more and that leads to more explosive confrontation between him and Pan.

After the first issue, I didn't pick up another as I decided to wait for the trade version. And boy, I am glad I did because the Deluxe Edition (collecting the first 10 issues in hardcover format) that came out today Wednesday all over the world contains the notes of Wiebe and sketches of Jenkins. Wiebe's notes made me appreciate the book more as he imputed Barrie's words and various Peter Pan-isms in all the story (and the artwork). If you ask me, the Deluxe Edition makes for a much better read for all.   

I cannot honestly say where the creative team is taking this story and I think that is great. While it is quite obvious that Europe and France will be liberated from the Nazis, Peter and the Lost Boys' role in all -- as part of the underground resistance -- has to be told. 

Now I am in a quandary -- do I get the individual issues to satisfy my Peter Panzerfaust fix or do I wait a few more months for the second volume? And furthermore, I have to get a copy of Barrie's book now so I can even appreciate more what Wiebe and Jenkins are doing. 

But isn't that the purpose of a comic book -- to get you thinking some? 

It's a great read folks.