Trade Paperback Reviews: District X, Lobster Johnson and More

 District X by David Hine, David Yardin, Lan Medina and Mike Perkins


There’s a reason why I skipped District X when it first came out.  There was a trend in comics at the time- and particularly in X-Men comics- to wallow in the ugliness of life.  I know that our world includes prostitutes and drug addicts.  A comic book universe which never reflects that part of the world isn’t being true to life.  But conversely, a comic book which only depicts the ugliness of life, which- as I said- wallows in it, is being just as untrue.  This life also has goodness and beauty.  My concern was that books like District X and NYX and even Grant Morrison’s X-Men would become so infatuated with the ugliness of the world that they would be both unappealing and untrue. 


I have since changed my mind about Grant Morrison’s X-Men and also NYX.  Yes, there is ugliness, but there is also goodness.  NYX depicts ecstasy and runaways, but it also has brotherly affection and the bonds of friendship.  I held out a similar hope for District X.


Honestly, there are several favorable facets to District X.  Bishop is well cast as a cop assigned to a mutant ghetto.  He’s a strong combination of authority and sympathy.  It’s also understandable that a police officer would see a larger share of the ugliness of life.  The mystery of Mister M is compelling.  Who is he and what are his powers?  He’s somewhat fascinating as a shadow figure who makes the hard choices.  Writer David Hine raises some interesting questions, including the central concern of a cop who may have been pushed into murder by mind control.  And there is redemption in the midst of the ugliness as Officer Ortega discovers the truth about Mister M. 


However, despite those positive elements, District X unfortunately wallows in ugliness.  Officer Ortega’s first partner is blatantly bigoted.  A mother is addicted to her son’s sweat (his skin secretes a psychotropic compound, like certain frogs).  Mister M hides monstrous tendrils under his hat (the extras show that the artist originally envisioned an exposed brain which would have been preferable).  The ugliness isn’t the only problem.  Due to decompressed story-telling, Bishop doesn’t show up until the last panel of the first issue and Mister M doesn’t show up at all.  But the ugliness, and the lack of truth it represents, is clearly the main problem.


Hellboy: Strange Places and Hellboy: The Troll Witch

by Mike Mignola, with Richard Corben and P. Craig Rusell


Strange Places is Hellboy at its best.  This sixth collection contains two stories, The Third Wish and The Island.  The Third Wish moves from the African plain to the African shore to a grotto under the sea.  The Island, appropriately enough, takes place on an island.  


Both stories feature typical Hellboy fare.  Mike Mignola’s art is angular and sharp.  It’s great at conveying mood.  It’s simultaneously dark and sparse with lots of blacks and lots of open spaces.  The villains are visually interesting.  There’s a mermaid with a long, fishy tail.  There’s the demon boar with hands in iron gloves.  There are knights from the crusades and fire elementals.  There are witches and whales and creatures with horns.


The stories are interesting too.  Nothing is what it seems.  Wishes backfire on those who ask for them.  Requests for aid are likely traps.  Pretty faces hide evil hearts.  And Hellboy often has to out-think his opponents instead of simply hitting them with his big right hand.  Of course, he punches plenty of enemies too.


The Troll Witch is unfortunately disappointing.  This seventh volume is a collection of shorter stories.  Over the years, Hellboy has appeared in quite a few specials and anthologies and the like.  The short stories are often incredible, conveying an interesting tale in a succinct manner. 


However, too many of the short stories in Troll Witch seem like truncated tales instead of completed narratives.  The resolutions aren’t always clear.  Often it feels like we entered into the middle of a story and left before it was done. 


There are highlights here.  I wouldn’t claim that every entry in the Troll Witch is bad.  Richard Corben’s Makoma story is an interesting fairy tale.   And P. Craig Russell’s puppet battle in Prague is a lot of fun.  But the volume as a whole is unfortunately inconsistent.     


Lobster Johnson

by Mike Mignola and Jason Armstrong


I wanted to like this, I honestly did.  I love the world of Hellboy (despite the tepid review of The Troll Witch above).  I think that Mike Mignola has done a great job of introducing supporting characters who are interesting in their own right.  I love Abe Sapien as a solo star and I look forward to future volumes of his adventures.  I find Edward Grey, the Witchfinder, endlessly fascinating.  Alas, I cannot say the same for Lobster Johnson.


Lobster Johnson is Mike Mignola’s pulp hero.  He owes his existence to The Shadow, The Green Hornet and Doc Savage.  He fights mobsters and the yellow menace, Nazis and mystical monsters.  He comes from a time before comic books and superheroes, when even the good guys used guns.


He’s supposed to be an homage.  But for me, Lobster Johnson never rises above the level of pastiche.  He’s a mix and match of other heroes but he never develops into a character of his own.  There’s a place for him in the world of Hellboy.  It’s okay for him to be a stand-in for all pulp heroes when he shows up to help the BPRD but that’s not enough to carry a story on his own.


The same is true for the supporting cast.  Lobster Johnson has a team of assistants who fill certain roles- the tough guy, the tech guy, the token minority.  But they never become more than their roles.  I understand that was typical of the time.  Jack Kirby’s World War II gangs were similarly identified by one trait (the smart guy, the brawler, etc.).  Yet, in this case, Mignola sinks down to the level of his antecedents rather than rising above it.  It may have been typical of the time, but that doesn’t make it interesting or good. 


On the plus side, Mike Mignola and Jason Armstrong throw everything they can into this story.  We rush from one danger to another: a giant white ape, a guy stuck in an iron suit, a mystic artifact, giant jewel snakes and a brain in a jar.  And that’s only the first half.  The story moves along at a breath-taking speed and there’s always something new to distract your imagination. 


But that’s all it is- a momentary distraction.  Lobster Johnson has a lot of noise to it, but no real sparkle.  It’s like hearing fireworks in the distance but not being able to see them. 


Star Wars Omnibus: Rise of the Sith and Emissaries and Assassins


The Star Wars expanded universe is a wonderful place.  I know that some fans prefer to stick tightly to the original trilogy but they’re missing out on an incredibly rich palette of places and characters.  There’s a grand history and a universe full of stories. 


The Rise of the Sith is a good example.  It’s a strong collection that mixes stories from several sources.  As a result, the stories vary in length.  There are short stories- some the length of a single issue, others as small as six to eight pages.  There are longer epics, the equivalent of a full mini-series or a six issue arc.  The change of pace makes for a good reading mix.


The length of the story isn’t the only variable.  There are also shifts in protagonist or point of view.  Several of the stories focus on the stars of the first prequel movie.  We follow Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi in the months before they become embroiled in “The Phantom Menace.”   Other stories feature minor characters from the movies, giving them a chance to shine in a spotlight of their own.  Jedi Council members Mace Windu and Ki-Adi Mundi are two of the major beneficiaries of this extra attention.  And some of the stories follow the bad guys, with Aurra Sing showing up in a short story and Darth Maul squaring off against a crime syndicate. 


As with any collection this size, the quality of the stories also varies.  For example, I wasn’t overly fond of the first Qui-Gon story which leaned too heavily on humor.  However, the high marks easily outshine the low points.  The villain stories are especially interesting.  Aurra’s origin is well-told and Darth Maul’s mission features lush art by Jan Duursema. 


The next volume, Emissaries and Assassins is a step down.  It opens with a series of one-shots focusing on the main characters of “The Phantom Menace.”  I’ve defended the prequel movies before, including recently.  However, these one-shots highlight the flaws of that first film, giving a prominent role to Jar-Jar Binks and his annoying patois and exposing Qui-Gon’s ridiculous plan to get off of Tatooine.   


The following stories are stronger.  In one, Ki-Adi undertakes his first mission as a member of the Jedi Council.  He travels to Tatooine where he is betrayed by Jabba the Hutt (that shouldn’t be a spoiler to anyone familiar with the character) and attacked by Aurra Sing.  He also discovers an exiled Jedi and brings his son, A’Sharad Hett, back to the Jedi Temple.  In the next, a half dozen Jedi travel to Malastare in order to oversee peace talks.  Of course, not every side is actually interested in peace and some would prefer to pursue a vendetta against the Jedi. 


These aren’t perfect stories.  The art is inconsistent.  One artist in particular has trouble drawing aliens.  And the second story is a little over-crowded.  But they are interesting.   I’m particularly drawn into the start of A’Sharad’s journey as a Jedi and Ki-Adi’s attempt to keep his life in balance while fighting for peace. 




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Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on February 14, 2011 at 9:43am
See now, I actually liked District X. The only story I cared about  Bishop, or enjoyed him.
Comment by Chris Fluit on February 14, 2011 at 9:59am
I liked parts of District X but not enough to recommend it. And I do agree that Bishop's role was one of the best parts.


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