Opus 52:

Comic Book Rack. Green Arrow No. 1, the new version of the GA legend written by Kevin Smith, is out and deliciously rendered by Phil Hester (pencils) and Ande Parks (inks), a pair that has worked together before with splendid results. They achieve the same results here--stunning use of solid blacks, bold linework that deploys both heavy outline and delicate detailing. This issue is mostly flashback and rumination as Smith sets the perimeters for the new saga. Speedy remembers his training by Oliver Queen and the Black Canary remembers her love affair with Queen. They both remind us that Queen is dead. Or so we thought. If so, who is the aged specter on the last page, bow and arrow at the ready to dissuade a few miscreants from miscreanting?

The best part of Batman: Gotham Knights No. 14 is the backup tale, written by Paul Dini and drawn in black-and-white by Ronnie Del Carmen, whose work has been too long too hard to find. I’ve been missing it for months now. Crisp drawings, lively action, cute Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, nicely humorous.

And speaking of crisp artwork, here’s the first issue of Insight Studios’ Hammer of the Gods, drawn by Michael Avon Oeming, who also plotted the tale and created the concept with Mark Wheatley scripting and managing the production. We watch the young Viking Modi grow to maturity, becoming, thanks to a curse leveled at him when in the cradle, superhumanly strong (and wise, supposedly, but we see little evidence of that). Distraught when the gods permit his parents to die, he swears vengeance upon the gods themselves "for abandoning man to an evil fate." Two things are unusual about all this. First, Oeming’s art is simple and angular in the best "Batman animation" fashion, accented throughout by gray tones applied by John Staton. Second, Hammer of the Gods also appears on the Insight website in daily installments: www.SunnyFundays.com. And while you’re there, tune in to Marc Hempel’s Naked Brain comic strip to witness the most outrageous hilarities committed there in Hempel’s beautifully stylized manner.

Then from NBM we have Boneyard No. 1 by Richard Moore--a unique concept in my limited experience of such things. Horror humor. And well done at that. Michael Paris is on his way to Raven’s Hollow to settle the estate of his grandfather. He expects simply to sign over some land to the city and collect a check. Turns out the land is the local cemetery, and it’s inhabited by vampires and all sorts of other ghoulish creatures--all of whom, let us add hastily, seem relatively harmless when compared to the townspeople, who prowl the streets in mobs, flourishing burning torches (a scene right out of Frankenstein) and threatening to raze the "boneyard" to dust. Young Michael, smitten perhaps by the beauteous vampire, Abbey, decides to ponder his decision a little before signing on the dotted line. Although sometimes stylistically awkward, Moore’s black-and-white art is uncluttered, its bold lines confidently laid down. He spots blacks beautifully, and he times the action (and his gags, which are sly and plentiful) expertly. This’ll run to four issues when the story is done, and it seems worth the investment.

Grafic Novelz. Dixie Road from NBM (48 8.5x11" pages in full color paperback; $10.95) is another in the publisher’s lengthening line of European imports that make up the ComicsLit imprint. And this title, like all its predecessors, is superbly drawn and colored. The story by Belgian writer Jean Dufaux takes us to the American South during the 1930s, a hard-scrabble desperate and dispiriting time in the country. Hugues Labiano’s artwork is perhaps a bit too neat and clean and uncluttered for the milieu, but his panel compositions (of great and effective variety), page layouts, and pacing are exemplary. The heroine is Dixie, a teenager whose mother has fled into factory work from her marriage to a small-time bank robber. But she’s from an aristocratic family and undertakes to lead the workers in a strike. She thereby attracts the unsolicited sexual attentions of the factory owner and his son. Meanwhile, Dixie hangs out with some black kids, a proclivity that courts disaster of another sort. Just about then, the renegade husband shows up with a carpetbag full of cash from his latest bank job.

By beginning from Dixie’s point-of-view, Dufaux moves his narrative and exposition forward slowly, revealing a piece at a time, a method that gives menace to his already explosive mix of sex and race and threatening violence. By the end, there’s blood on every page.

In the book’s culminating action, Dixie and her mother and her father escape the bigoted and murderous posse and head off down the road of the volume’s title--promising more adventure (and additional volumes?) ahead. And Dufaux gets in a poetic lick or two in the prose. Nicely done.

NBM is publishing another Dufaux-written enterprise, Raptors, the second volume of which came out last fall (64 9x12" full color paperback pages; $10.95). In this series, we venture into a world that has been taken over by vampires, who have renounced the life of the night in order to take command of the day, subjugating all humankind in the process. Back when the night was first being renounced, the vampires killed Don Dolina and his wife Anna, who weren’t prepared to go along with the new campaign. Now the children of this worthy pair have grown up and have set out to avenge the death of their parents by killing off the other vampires. This homicidal undertaking brings them to the attention of a couple of New York cops, Vicky Lenore and her buddy Spiaggi, who have discovered the existence of the two vampire "kingdoms"--the old and the "new" tiny one of the assassin Raptors. In Volume II of the series, we meet yet another character, Aznar Akeba, a knight errant of sorts whom the old school vampires hire to rid them of the Raptors. Lenore and Spiaggi get caught in the middle, naturally, and we also get a detour through some orgiastic night clubs fraught with what appear to be Satanists. But even if blood-sucking populations are not your, er, cup of tea, you’ll enjoy the painted panels of Enrico Marini, a Swiss Italian, who outlines his drawings before he paints them, thereby preserving clarity of detail; and his use of color to enhance mood is expertly done, too. At the end of Volume II, Lenore is in dire strait; so we expect a third volume--at least.

Leap-frogging from Dufaux to Marini, we come to yet another NBM offering, this one an early (1992) effort by Marini--Gipsy (64 9x12" color pages in paperback; $10.95), a work that first won the artist a place in the firmament. Drawn in a manner that occasionally invokes manga (but not excessively), Thierry Smolderen’s story takes us on a wild truck ride across frozen wastes. The title character is Tsagoi, a rough-and-tumble truck driver of almost no couth whose only redeeming trait is his love for a younger sister, whom he has supported in boarding school for some years. When he runs out of money, he takes her with him on this trek, and they are soon being pursued by the bad guys who want their cargo, weapons. The tale moves rapidly, lots of action rendered in glowing color with a grittier line than Marini uses in Raptors. Breakdowns and layouts are impressive and enhance the drama of the story and the speed of the action. And there’s far far less verbiage than in the vampire epic. But Smolderen gives Tsagoi some wonderfully picturesque oaths to swear before ending this episode: on the last page, the oafish trucker stares at the snowy landscape and intones, "By the toes of the Oursar people and the immense variety of mushrooms that they tend, I’m tired of all this whiteness." Nicely done. This, too, would appear to be the first in a series.

NBM books are found at www.nbmpublishing.com; or phone tollfree 800-886-1223.

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