Monday, April 24, 2017

A NIGHT FOR SCREAMING by Harry Whittington

Mitch Walker is on the run from the law. He's been on the run for a while before we meet him as he panhandles around a small Kansas town. He can't prove his innocence so he's on the lam because he's afraid of his torture-loving ex-partner and his penchant for boiling water enemas. Fate leads him to indentured work on a sprawling farm, biding his time, and getting entangled with the farms rich owner and his fun-loving wife.

Harry Whittington was famous for being able to whip up a well-paced story with great plotting, and this book seems to be a good primer for what he can do. I really loved the smooth way that the author exposed Mitch's backstory in bits and pieces exactly when needed and the way that multiple threads of twists and developments built on each other as mounting obstacles around Mitch. A lot of noir stories hinge on hapless protagonists that make bad decisions. It was a breath of fresh air to see that Whittington made Mitch Walker a pretty smart guy. Most of his decisions, relatively so, actually seemed pretty sound. And the ones that were less smart are the ones that his circumstances forced him to make. It's entertaining and fast-moving but the ending was a real let-down to me. But still, it's an impressive little pulp tale that'll prove to be a great read for noir fans.

GRADE: B+

Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE DARK TOWER VOL. 1: THE GUNSLINGER BORN

Here we go. Years ago, I had a great time going on the epic adventure of Roland and his ka-tet as they travel in search of the Dark Tower in order to save the world(s) in Stephen King's massive genre-bending epic. With the Dark Tower movie being released this year, I thought I'd delve into the huge multi-series comic book adaptation of the story, and it starts here.

In this first 5-volume series, with guidance from King, Peter David and Robin Furth decided to begin the story by compiling material from the prequel/flashback events referenced in the main series to detail Roland's early days as a gunslinger, the fall of Gilead and the moment when the world begins to break apart at the seams. This first volume, The Gunslinger Born, is essentially a retelling of the flashbacks in King's fourth DT novel, Wizard and Glass, where Roland and his buddies find love and violence while on their first mission to Mejis to investigate the movements of insane rebel John Farson, and take the first steps toward their ka.

Wizard and Glass was a controversial departure from the main story, but if you were like me and really enjoyed that tale of young Roland then you'll also enjoy this picture adaptation! Although at times I wish it was a bit more detailed in the settings, the inky artwork by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove is eye-catching, with memorable, iconic imagery. I also like the idea of the folksy narration being told in Mid-World dialect, but it did get a little obnoxious and distracting. Still, I'm pumped to jump back into the world of The Dark Tower and join Roland on his quest again.

GRADE: B

Monday, April 17, 2017

SHINE YOUR LIGHT ON ME by Lee Thompson

In full disclosure, throughout a couple of years I grew from being just a fan of Lee Thompson to being a friend. But I was a fan first and I can say that this is the best writing I've read so far from Lee, and that's saying something. There's a passion in this piece that comes out in every page, even more so than the other books I've read by him.

Here, he writes of one eventful night in a small town where a group of bar patrons witness an unexplained miracle and it leads to a night of violence and exposed secrets. Lee takes the idea of the breakdown of a small town through mob mentality and tells it in a way I haven't seen before. Instead of the mob being fueled by hate or fear per usual in these kinds of stories, it's spurred by awe and hope, which makes the events that happen in the book that much more twisted. And his dedication to digging deep into the souls of his characters always leads to a rewarding experience, which is especially the case here.

It's always exciting to jump into one of his books because he is so courageous as a writer. His refusal to flinch at depictions of violence and graphic themes as well as his desire to try something new with every book are risky endeavors, but it's inspiring and he always pulls it off. And he has that extremely rare talent of consistently coming up with great titles for his books! Give this one a go, it'll stick with you and it's a good place to start with his work.

GRADE: A-

Friday, April 14, 2017

JOKER by Brian Azzarello

Brian Azzarello's graphic novel tells a gang war story set in Gotham City and focuses on The Joker after some dumbass at Arkham Asylum granted him an early release and he just strolls out of there of his own accord. The story is told through the eyes of a two-bit, low-level hood named Jonny Frost, who's the only one with the balls and ambition to pick up The Joker on his release and join him on a rampage through the Gotham City underworld to re-stake his claim.

The stand-out element in this scuzzy, grungy little crime book is a now infamous depiction of the Crown Prince of Crime, with the longer hair, the wrinkled, scarred face, and the ragged Glasgow Smile cut through his cheeks. Reportedly, early drafts of this depiction were used as reference for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and it's Heath Ledger version of the villain, which popularized the look. And within these pages, backed by Lee Bermejo's artwork, it's pretty freaky to look at.


And the story is pretty good too, as we see Joker bumping heads with other baddies for a change and it's interesting to see him through the eyes of criminals rather than the good guys this time. And the tension really ramps up as Jonny begins to see just how unhinged and unpredictable and downright insane The Joker is, and how it's a huge mistake to believe that you can simply be "friends" with a man like that. The Joker is possibly one of the greatest villain characters ever created in any medium, and this book does him justice.



GRADE: B+

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

COLD IN JULY by Joe R. Lansdale

It's pretty well-known by this point that Joe Lansdale is probably the most versatile author out there, able to successfully jump at whim between so many genres and make it all seem so fresh.  Cold in July is a straight -up crime thriller, with a completely different feel and tone from other books I've read by him, including his recent westerns or the comedic adventures of Hap and Leonard.

The novel is initially about the clash between family man Richard Dane, who kills a man trying to burglarize his house, and that man's criminal father, recently released from prison and seeking old-school revenge. But once they realize that they've both been played for fools, they form a shaky alliance to seek out a different sort of vengeance.

Another talent that Lansdale has is the melding of different genres, which he pulls off in this book like the pro he is. This crime thriller is more of a classic western story with a dogged pursuit of revenge, themes of honor, justice, and the effects of violence, and there's even a great climactic showdown; very similar to Unforgiven and The Searchers. The only thing missing are the period elements and the horses!

At the heart, the most important thing that Lansdale is interested in here is the exploration of fatherhood, the fear of paternal failure and leaving behind a legacy that you might regret.

GRADE: B+

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

VILE MEN by Rebecca Jones-Howe

There's a certain kind of man who goes for damaged girls.
This is a collection of Rebecca Jones-Howe's unflinching short fiction, brave tales about damaged people and their dysfunctions. Mostly the stories focus on sexual dysfunction, but also emotional and social impairments as well. If you go strictly by the title, you would jump into this book thinking that the stories are about all of the shitty things that men do, but in reality, Jones-Howe equally examines the scarred and emotionally crippled women that are involved with these same men.
The cab driver is the kind of guy I'd fuck in my dreams. He's got dark hair and olive skin and thick bench-pressed triceps. He's probably got a monster dick, a big dick that's actually a monster, a throbbing snake with a face. That's just the way my dreams are. They've been nightmares since I started university. 

I pop another pill.
Rebecca writes with serious courage and an unrelenting eye for illuminating issues that both sexes should be tackling. In "The Paper Bag Princess," she takes the infamous saying, "I'd only fuck her with a paper bag over her head," and focuses on that woman that would take that phrase to heart, desperate for affection.The book is filled with stories like this, ones not for the easily offended and prudish, stories that are uncomfortable but provocative and thoughtful. "The Paper Bag Princess" is good, but tales like "Thinspiration", "Masturbating Megan's Strip Mall Exhibition" are particularly memorable.

GRADE: B+

Saturday, April 1, 2017

DIE DOG OR EAT THE HATCHET by Adam Howe

Adam Howe's got the goods!! Howe is a natural-born storyteller and seems to be one of those rare authors with the gift of being able to write about any damn thing under the sun and captivate readers no matter what. You can find this same quality in writers like Joe Lansdale, Jeff Strand, and Stephen King; natural tale-spinners!

In this book, Howe collects three of his novellas, all of which are intense pieces of pulp fiction that pay homage to various classic sub-genres. Each story was consistently engaging and definitely memorable, but each in it's own way, really showcasing Adam Howe's versatility. Each tale is very different but what they do share is a true pulpiness in their bones.

The first novella, Damn Dirty Apes, is the longest, following a washed up ex-boxer now bouncing in a shitty titty bar. He joins a motley crew of low-lifes on a hunt for the mysterious skunk ape, a Sasquatch-style creature legend, which has kidnapped their friend to use as a sex toy. It's the most Lansdale-esque of the stories, with a great balance of Southern humor and violent, wacky action. I can imagine Hap and Leonard going skunk ape-ing too! It's a great send-up to the 80's B-grade action movies, and every character is charming in their own way.

When the second novella, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, comes along, it marks a demanding change in the book's mood, presenting a terrifying story that is miles away from being anywhere near funny. It's a graphic slasher story that presents crafty and unpredictable twists on the usual serial killer tales. The way that Howe builds these twists and turns, the way he changes point-of-view, and stacks the pieces so that the obstacles become unbearable, it's really something you should read without me spoiling it. But be warned, if you can't handle EXTREMELY graphic violence and horrifying scenes, this book probably isn't for you.

In fact, the final novella, Gator Bait, probably isn't for you either. But I fucking LOVED it. This time, Howe writes a classic swamp noir of the Gold Medal variety, much in the pulp vein of Harry Whittington or Charles Williams. Here, our noir "hero" is a pianist who lost a couple of fingers to a man he cuckolded, but he obviously didn't learn a lesson because he jumps back into trouble when he takes a job playing at a hot swamp honky tonk and lays his eyes on the wife of the bar's demented owner. Horace Croker is a terrifying villain, and like any good noir, from the moment the two men meet, you can tell things will go to shit in a big way. And it does.

This was one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, and if each novella was released separately, I'd give them all an A. I'll definitely be reading more by Adam Howe.

GRADE: A

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

CRIMINAL VOL. 4: BAD NIGHT by Ed Brubaker

Not too long ago, I wrote a review of Brubaker and Phillips's The Dead and the Dying, gushing that it was my favorite volume in the Criminal series that I've read. Well I'll be damned, here I am saying it again! This volume is not only the best Criminal story so far and one of the best graphic novels I've read so far, but it takes this series to a whole new level, delivering a story of noir that's so ink-black and classic in it's development that Goodis, Brewer, Cain, Keene, and Thompson would all be impressed.

Bad Night focuses on Jacob Kurtz, the counterfeiter-turned-cartoonist who was a supporting character in Lawless, a loner and insomniac who's quiet life is upended when he meets a sexy, redheaded lush at a late night diner. To say more about the plot would spoil the unhinged, fascinating ways that this tale of murder, obsession, and sex evolves. Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips have always been partners in total sync, and Phillip's art here is a perfect fit for this grimy and brooding piece of graphic fiction. If you have any interest in noir or in any dark crime fiction in general, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's like all your favorite books in the genres, but with pictures!


GRADE: A

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

THE ASSIGNMENT by Walter Hill

Most fans of crime fiction are familiar with the solid work put out by Hard Case Crime. But fewer might know that they've just recently started delving into the comic book world with the intention of bringing the same high quality work to the graphic fiction world, so far recruiting great authors like Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Max Allan Collins, and legendary filmmaker Walter Hill. One of the Walter Hill stories is now the first complete graphic novel release from the company.

The story here is pure pulp, following a smooth hitman named Frank Kitchen who is kidnapped by the batshit crazy sister of his latest victim whose intention is to (umm, let's see, how should I say this?...)...permanently "transition" him. He is released into the world as a "changed" man but with a grudge and the will to track down the people responsible. Cue the bullets!



It's an action-packed tale similar to an entertaining B-movie that you can't help but finish. It's interesting to see Frank trying to deal with his new life, although it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief. The way that the writers treat the villain and the hospital scenes are a little awkward as well but the art pays a great attention to detail and this graphic novel is definitely worth a look! FYI, there's a reportedly-shitty movie adaptation of this directed by Hill and starring Michelle Rodriguez.

GRADE: B-

Saturday, March 25, 2017

FRAGILE DREAMS by Philip Fracassi

This novella is simple but shockingly intense. After an earthquake rips through the Los Angeles area, Matthew Calvert is trapped in a collapsed office building. As the rubble slowly crushes him to death, he tries to hold on to hope for rescue, as well as keep his grip on reality as he realizes that there might be something else down there with him in the dark.

Philip Fracassi might end up being one of my favorite author discoveries this year. His prose-style is both soaring and fiercely intimate at the same time. The language here is vivid and evocative as he places you right there under all that rubble with Matthew, in the pitch-black darkness, with a piece of wall slowly breaking your spine and something unseen scuttling around you in the void. Here's an example of Fracassi's word-talent as he describes the earthquake:
The building gave in to the earth's desires, and graceless as a dying giant, it collapsed in an implosion of glass and concrete and iron, heaping itself atop the bodies within, burying everything inside of it in a tangled black mass of clumsy, angry death.
Fragile Dreams is a pretty unsettling experience but also emotional due to Fracassi's efficient character development. I also loved how he kept certain elements vague and mysterious, recognizing that much of his story's strength lies in the hidden and the unfathomable. The book also includes an unexpectedly playful and charming short story called "Death, My Old Friend," about a boy's lifelong friendship with Death. This is recommended to anyone that likes unnerving horror, or dark or weird fiction. Fracassi has a few new book's coming this year and I'll be buying them all.

GRADE: A-