Trade Paperback Reviews: American Vampire, Batman & Robin and More

American Vampire Vol. 1

By Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque and Stephen King


They had me at “Hello.”  Okay, that’s not quite true.  They actually had me by the second paragraph of the introduction when Stephen King reminded us that vampires are supposed to be killers.  They’re vicious, literally blood-thirsty killers.  For that reason, vampires used to be the villains.  Yet, they’ve also always been fascinating which is why they’ve been elevated to heroes, anti-heroes and protagonists.  So how do you strike the balance between a character who is sympathetic enough to be the series’ lead and vicious enough to be a vampire?  Scott Snyder devised the brilliant solution.  He introduced a new breed of vampires, American Vampires, who have different powers, different weaknesses, yet the same thirst for blood.  The central struggle in this series is between the new American Vampires and their old-world counterparts.  Their battle to distinguish themselves from the old-world, old caste system strikes a chord with the American spirit of freedom and individualism.  Yet the new Vampires are still vicious, cold-hearted killers.  Their continued cruelty disturbs us even as we occasionally cheer them on.  It’s an inspired set-up, playing in the gray mists of morality. 


The story itself is well-told.  I admired the dual-story structure.  The first half of each chapter focuses on the innocent Pearl Jones, a young lady trying to break into show business in the 1920s; the second half followed Skinner Sweet, the first American Vampire, who was transformed in the midst of a train robbery in the 1880s.  Each story has its twist and its turns, its betrayals and its surprises.  Together, they build a new mythology.  I also liked the way that the new powers and weaknesses were slowly revealed as either Skinner or Pearl discovered them.  It was interesting to learn the new rules alongside the characters.  However, American Vampire is not for the faint-hearted.  These are real vampires.  The brutality can sometimes be a little disconcerting.  Yet for those with a strong enough constitution, American Vampire is both interesting and unique. 


Batman & Robin Vol. 1: Batman Reborn

By Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Philip Tan


I know that it’s heresy to write anything bad about Grant Morrison.  When he’s at his best- as he was on All-Star Superman- the results are incredible and he rightly receives rave reviews.  Yet he isn’t always at his best.  There are flashes of brilliance in Batman & Robin but there is also a significant flaw which mars the final product.


First, the good stuff.  Grant Morrison gets the characters and their relationships right.  They feel real and that’s always critical.  I appreciate the interactions between Dick Grayson as the new Batman and Damian Wayne as the new Robin, the sage advice from Alfred and the cautiousness from Commissioner Gordon.  Morrison also does a great job of introducing new concepts or updating old ones.  I like the new Batmobile, especially the windshield shaped like the Bat-signal.  And I thought it was clever to have Dick, who was raised in a circus, fight across the Circus of Strange in his first outing as Batman.  Circus villains are something of a comic book cliché, yet Morrison and Quitely managed to make these foes feel fresh and interesting.  Another new villain, the Flamingo, also has a nice look though Quitely does a much better job with it on the cover than Philip Tan does within the story. 


Unfortunately, Morrison has also adopted a minimalist approach to plotting and story-telling.  He leaves out connecting scenes, expecting the reader to fill in the gap for him.  It’s an experiment that works for a few of the fight scenes as it conveys the frenetic pace.  But it doesn’t work on a larger scale.  It’s often confusing or distracting.  An amusing stakeout scene between Dick and Damian comments on the drudgery of detective work but we never actually see the dynamic duo do any detecting.  Additionally, new villains are brought into the story with little information or introduction.  I learned more about the Flamingo from the afterword than I did from the story, and that’s not a good thing. 


iZombie Vol. 1: Dead to the World

by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred


What a wonderful comic!  I was a little leery of the initial concept- a zombie detective who solves cases after eating brains.  Ew!  That had the potential to go terribly wrong.  Instead, it’s gone terrifically right. 


Gwen, the zombie, is a surprisingly sympathetic character.  She has to hide her nature from her co-workers and come up with little excuses to get away to eat at night.  The self-conscious concealment of her true self resonates with the audience.  We’ve all felt like we’ve had to hide who we are at some point in our lives.  It’s especially appealing to comic book fans who are used to being denigrated or dismissed. 


Writer Chris Roberson does a great job of crafting both small scenes and a larger mythology.  The individual scenes work on their own, whether they’re the depictions of everyday awkwardness or the sight of a vampire attack in an alley.  Roberson also introduces a grand theory of dual souls which are occasionally prevented from leaving after death.  The result is zombies, vampires, werewolves and more.  Yet the mythology is presented in a way that’s visually arresting and pertinent to the story.


Mike Allred’s pop art is also a treat.  His clean style is great for conveying humor and surprisingly strong at conveying emotion.  Plus, it keeps the series from becoming too gross. 


Spider-Man 2099 Vol. 1

By Peter David, Rick Leonardi and Kelley Jones


Origin stories are often uninteresting.  It doesn’t matter that much how a character got his powers- whether it’s a science experiment gone awry or cosmic rays- as much as what the character does with those powers.  Yet Peter David defies conventional wisdom and comic book clichés by crafting an interesting origin story for Spider-Man 2099.  In fact, one could argue that this entire 10-issue volume comprises his origin story.


Miguel O’Hara is an expert scientist working for one of mega-corporations of the future.  When he tries to quit his job, his employers force an addictive drug on him.  In order to combat the effects of the addiction, O’Hara attempts to cure himself with one of his experiments.  Unfortunately, a jealous rival sabotaged the equipment.  The experiment backfires and Miguel gains the powers of Spider-Man.  As a new Spider-Man, Miguel finds himself on the run from his employers and the law, hiding secrets from his brother and his girlfriend, and battling bounty-hunters and crazies who want to make a name against him.


There are a lot of things to like about this origin.  Miguel isn’t foolish or conceited.  He’s not the typical mad scientist who experiments on himself to prove a point. He’s trying to save himself.  He’s a victim, but not a helpless one.  Plus, the experiment goes wrong as a result of someone else’s meddling.   He’s transformed, but not incompetent.  There’s also a wonderful voyage of discovery.  Miguel doesn’t quite understand his powers- they’re slightly different than the original Spider-Man.  Plus, he has to learn about them on the fly, while trying to run, battle, hide or rest.


There are other things to admire as well.  Miguel is a great character.  He’s got a quick wit- one of the many things he shares with the original Spider-Man.  His sharp tongue adds a lot of laughs and lightens the mood.  There are some fun relationships.  Miguel and his brother Gabriel have an interesting rapport in which they intermittently trust and understand each other.  And there’s the quick pace.  Spider-Man 2099 moves along at a wonderful clip, maintaining momentum from scene to scene.   


Star Wars Omnibus: Quinlan Vos, Jedi in Darkness

By John Ostrander, Jan Duursema and others


The story of Quinlan Vos is one of the great character journeys in all of comics.  John Ostrander and Jan Duursema introduced their own creation into the Star Wars mythos.  Far from being a diversion from the better known characters of the movies, Vos became one of the driving forces in Star Wars: Republic. 


In this volume, we are introduced to Quinlan Vos, a Jedi suffering from amnesia.  He escapes from the smuggler’s moon and embarks on a quest to restore his memory.  In the process, he discovers that he has also lost his Padawan, Aayla Secura, and his quest expands to save her as well.  Eventually reunited, Quinlan and Aayla continue their journey, taking on the forces that defeated, erased and enslaved them.


Jedi in Darkness is a long, sprawling story.  We follow Quinlan across the universe.  We visit the smuggler’s moon Nar Shaddaa, the twin planets of Kiffu and Kiffex, the capital city of Coruscant and the dark force haven of Dathomir.  We bounce from slave houses to regal palaces to prisons.  In between current adventures, we are treated to stories from Quinlan’s past.  We discover important stories of Quinlan as a young knight and a young boy in which he builds relationships of friendship and trust with his mentor Tholme, his peer Obi-Wan Kenobi and his student Aayla Secura.


Those relationships are part of what defines Quinlan Vos.  Although he holds himself at an aloof distance, Vos hides an ardent heart.  He rescues Aayla because of his deep personal concern for her, rather than a sense of duty.  He also develops friendships with unlikely characters such as the Devaronian Villie.  He becomes an unusual Jedi, acting out of passion more than principle.  That leads him into interesting places both in terms of plot and personality.  And it makes Quinlan’s story a grand epic. 

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Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on April 26, 2011 at 1:27pm

I gotta agree with Chris on this one. I wouldn't let whether or not I like Gunsmoke or not determine whether I was going to read Jonah Hex.

Heck Walking Dead is definitely horror, whereas iZombie isn't.

Comment by Eric L. Sofer on April 26, 2011 at 6:59am
Yeah, Chris.  Your bafflement baffles me.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on April 25, 2011 at 5:53pm
It baffles you that a good tv show about zombies might put me in the mood to read a good comic book about zombies? Really? Huh.
Comment by Chris Fluit on April 25, 2011 at 1:10pm
Jeff, you baffle me sometimes.  Why would the Walking Dead tv show- which has absolutely nothing to do with the iZombie comic book- determine whether or not you would give it a try?
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on April 25, 2011 at 10:05am
American Vampire: Sounds like it might appeal to me. I like vampire fiction only if the vamps are vicious blood-thirsty killers. We just finished watching season two of True Blood, but that’s a discussion for another forum.

Batman & Robin: I really liked the early issues of this series, then kind of lost the story toward the end. I suspect it’ll read better in a single sitting and plan to do so someday… but not someday soon.

iZombie: Now that we’re caught up with HBO’s True Blood on DVD and are awaiting season three on May 31, we started watching AMC’s Walking Dead last night, but that, too, is a discussion for another forum. If the tv show catches my fancy, I might give iZombie a try.

Spider-Man 2099: I don’t much care for the character (what admittedly little I’ve seen of him) or the artist overly much. Might give it a try someday, but there’s far too much I know I’ll like demanding my attention.

Star Wars: I don’t follow the Star Wars universe in comics, but over the weekend I read a prelude to “Crimson Empire III” in Dark Horse Presents, but once again (you guessed it), that’s a discussion for another forum.
Comment by Captain Comics on April 24, 2011 at 10:27pm

As much as I love Allred's work -- and I do -- I may have to agree with you, since I got dropped Madman due to boredom.


One thing I really love about Allred's art is hard to describe to those a generation younger than me. What he captures so splendidly is the 1960s pop art 'vibe' that was once my environment. Time has moved on, as it does, and as it should. But I'm overcome with a wave of welcome nostalgia whenever I see Allred's artwork. I'm sure it's not for everyone, and I wouldn't want to see every artist draw like that, but it wraps my inner 10-year-old in a warm blanket, and that's a good thing now and then.

Comment by Figserello on April 24, 2011 at 8:46pm

The wife had no option but to read American Vampire, one night, when there was nothing else for her to read in the house.


She liked it pretty well, considerring she doesn't normally read comics.  So I concur with Cap's statement regarding its suitability for the the 'not-we's.


The first six issues of Batman and Robin were amongst the most straightforward superhero comics Grant has done in years.  (For what that's worth!)  I'd have thought they'd be that little bit easier to read in TPB form.  Pity us poor monthly readers!


Having bought all the floppies, I'll have to Byrne-steal the afterword, methinks.  The Flamingo was a bit of a let-down after a build up.  There is an overall scheme about actors and pretenders to various roles, so the Flamingo mightn't have been meant to measure up when push came to shove.  Or he was badly written - you decide!


Quinlan Voss sounds very interesting.  Ostrander isn't the flashiest writer, but I love how morally 'muscular' he can be.  If I ever do read a Star Wars tie-in, this looks like a contender.  I see its an omnibus, so presumably this SW:Republic story is a massive epic. 


I'm hoping my library has iZombie soon, as it sounds worth a look.  It started around the same time as Unwritten and my budget wasn't up to two new open-ended series.  Comics are much more expensive here in Australia.  I'm a martyr!  Allred is a fantastic artist/stylist, but he does need a good writer to bring his work up to A-list, I think.  (Or maybe that's being cruel to Madman.  Lightweight can be worthwhile too.)


Comment by Captain Comics on April 23, 2011 at 11:12pm

My top two picks from your list echo the others, Chris. American Vampire and iZombie are two books that I don't hesitate to recommend for anyone, not only both sides of the superhero divide but to "mundanes" as well.


I don't recall liking the 2099 series very much, but if I had a favorite it would probably be Spider-Man 2099, specifically because of the presence of Peter David, the source of that Spider-wit we both enjoyed. I'm assuming the arrival of this collection is tied to the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions videogame, in which Miguel is one of the five Spider-protagonists, and does not herald an imminent revival of the line. The more I think about 2099, the more I remember disliking it.


It's been a while since I collected DH's Star Wars line, but when I did, I remember really enjoying Quinlan Voss. (Didn't we have a discussion about him at Captain Con?). Jedi in Darkness explores the same territory as Joe Casey's Sleeper, in that it raises the question of how far undercover you can go before you become what you're pretending to be. Ostrander managed genuine tension in how much of Quinlan Voss's turn to the Dark Side was pretense ... and how much was not. The mark of a good book for me is one I keep thinking about long after I finish it, and the Voss story was like that.


Also, I agree with your B&R assessment in that Morrision seems to forget these days that not all of us live in his head and he races along without always keeping us in the loop. He could stand to slow down and help us with a little exposition now and then!

Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on April 23, 2011 at 5:03pm
Good lord, do I love iZombie.  That soul theory which explains all "monsters" was brilliant.
Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on April 23, 2011 at 1:51pm
Count me in on American Vampire as well. I haven't heard anyone say they tried it and didn't like it. Everybody seems to like iZombie, too, so I'm looking forward to getting that first trade soon.


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