Monday, March 26, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Trashed" by Derf

(Originally written for

"Trashed" is the true story of the year the author spent working on a garbage truck for minimum wage. At the time, Derf was trying to decide where his life was going after he dropped out of art school. His new job came complete with road kill, abusive bosses, white-trash neighbors, attack dogs and maggots, to mention just a few of the highlights.

And you thought you had it bad.

Derf goes into graphic detail about the life of the garbage man, and it’s both eye-opening and flat out disgusting. The heat, the mess, the smell, the slime -- you'll feel dirty just reading this book.

And yet it's funny as hell. It's slapstick, gross-out humor, full of people falling in garbage and garbage falling on people, but the timing of the gags is impeccable, and you can’t help but laugh while you squirm.

Derf's art style (which you may have seen in his syndicated comic strip, "The City") complements the story perfectly. His chaotic line work fills every inch of the frame with garbage. His characters are all extreme caricatures of emotional faces. It’s hyper-cartoonish, making things both more iconic and real to the reader despite its exaggeration.

It's unfair to completely characterize this book as just a gross-out. For one thing, I came away with a real respect for the men carting our waste around for us. This is a tough job, and I vowed never to over-stuff a garbage bag again after reading this book.

For another thing, "Trashed," at its heart, is really a coming of age story. Derf spent a terrible year on the back of a garbage truck, but he looks back at much of it with affection despite the hardships. In the beginning of the book, we meet a young man who sees himself as a loser. But when he’s quitting the job to go back to college at the end of the book, he watches his old garbage truck drive away and feels no shame: "In some perverse way," he says, "I'm indebted to that damn thing. I was such a clueless toad when I first climbed on the back...head firmly lodged up my ass...Trash...I hate to admit...made a man out of me!" He's gained direction in his life, and learned how to handle himself.

Of course, he then goes out and gets drunk, and mutters "No more trash" before throwing up on his shoes and passing out.

One more mess for good measure.

Three and a half stars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Review: "Kolchak the Night Stalker"

(Originally published at

"Kolchak : The Night Stalker" by Jeff Rice, art Gordon Purcell and Terry Pallot

Jeff Rice, creator of the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV movies and series of the 1970s has returned to the character, adapting both his original novel and the first movie’s teleplay into a new graphic novel from Moonstone Books.

If you’ve seen the original “Night Stalker” movie, then you pretty much know the plot of this book: Carl Kolchak, reporter for the Las Vegas Daily News, investigates a series of killings where young women have been drained of their blood. He suspects a vampire did the dirty deeds, and while he’s ultimately proven to be right, Las Vegas city officials cover it all up, and his paper won’t print the story.

There are a few significant differences between this book and the movie, though. The killings and their details differ, there are some interesting “new” characters, and Kolchak’s girlfriend is quite clearly a hooker, something the producers of the 1972 movie left vague.

The graphic novel’s greatest strength is in Kolchak’s voice: Jeff Rice knows this character well, and the cadence of the newsman’s narration moves the story along as a brisk, crisp pace. Rice doesn’t do quite as well with many of the other characters, whose voices can seem wooden and lacking in personality. The pacing is sometimes off, and the transitions between a few scenes are awkward and rushed, if not just plain unclear.

Penciller Gordon Purcell and inker Terry Pallot do a serviceable job on the art. They capture series actor Darren McGavin’s features quite well as Kolchak, but his body shape seems to vary with every panel -- sometimes he’s fat, sometimes he’s lean. The art is loose, and characters often seem to lack the weight to anchor them in their surroundings. Some details are out of perspective.

The book would have benefited from an extra 20 pages. It’s too short as it is, with not enough time early on to develop the Kolchak character for the new reader, and a conclusion that is rushed and lacking in impact.

It also would have benefited from some decent editing. This book can’t decide what year it’s set in. Sometimes, it seems as if it’s set in the movie’s 1972, with Nixon-era dialogue lifted straight from the source material. Then there are characters using cordless phones and a reference to the newspaper’s website, which make the graphic novel seem like it takes place today. But then the villain, born in 1900, is described as being “over 90 years old,” placing the story in the Nineties. Someone needed to make a decision and stick with it.

Ultimately, this is a decent effort, but not quite as good as it could have been with more space and more focus.

Two stars.

Moonstone Books, 2002, $6.50

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Essential Howard the Duck"

The Essential Howard The Duck by Steve Gerber, art by Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, et al.

When Steve Gerber created the character of Howard the Duck in the seventies, it was as a throw-away character in a horror comic he was writing at the time. But Howard--a walking, talking, cigar-smoking, sarcastic duck, ripped from his own dimension and transplanted to an Earth full of "hairless apes" instead of his native fowl--proved to be so popular that he graduated to his own series, most of which is reprinted in this collection. (Much later, Howard made an ill-conceived jump to film, in one of the biggest box-office bombs in history.)

While Howard's first appearances had him fighting characters like a vampire cow and a turnip from outer space, the comic quickly became a venue for Gerber's acerbic commentary, and Howard just as quickly became Gerber's alter-ego, a smart-ass duck "trapped in a world he never made." Okay, sure, the book stars a talking duck, but this is some sharp, angry, sacred-cow-ripping satire. The comic takes on everything from religion to the oil industry, from mental health to moral censorship. Howard runs for President in 1976, and Gerber's commentary seems like it's about Bush-Gore instead of 25 years ago. He even gets away with more then than he could have today: somehow a modern story about a Presidential candidate (albeit a duck) running from assassins doesn't seem like it would make it in the politically correct 21st Century. With that exception, the topics seem just as relevant now as they were in the seventies (although Howard's human companion, Beverly Switzler, sometimes seems the product of a less enlightened time).

Most of this collection is drawn by the excellent Gene Colan, whose sweeping and fluid line art is probably best known from his other seventies title, "The Tomb of Dracula." While several other artists also contributed to the book, it's the Gerber-Colan team that really brings Howard to life. Howard's a duck, but he's a real person, pushed to the point of nervous breakdown by a world he does not understand.

Gerber left the "Howard the Duck" comic after 27 issues, in a legal dispute with Marvel Comics over the ownership of the character. This book collects Gerber's entire run on the character (with the exception of a newspaper comic strip that ran at the same time), over 500 pages of hilarious, ahead-of-its time satire, reprinted in affordable black and white. Unfortunately, as much as Gerber's wit and intelligence make this an easy book to recommend, the circumstances of his departure make a recommendation harder. He left with many, many plot threads unresolved, and this collection simply ends with the characters' lives up in the air and no hint of what was to come next. If there is ever an "Essential Howard the Duck, Volume 2," it would reprint non-Gerber work, and maybe we would find out what happened to the characters, but that doesn't help us now. After reading 500 pages, Howard is a real character whose travails in a very difficult world demand some closure, and the reader deserves a conclusion, but this book simply ends with a "next issue" blurb and we have no idea what really does come next.

Today, 20-some-odd years later, Gerber himself is working on a new "HTD" series for Marvel after resolving some of his differences, but he has said that any "Howard" story he did not write is not his Howard the Duck (case in point, the misguided movie version, which starred a duck named Howard, but not the "real" Howard the Duck). It's a testament to the writer that we care about Howard so much by the end of this book, but still, a conclusion would have been nice.

Two and a half stars.