Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trade Waiting: Titan Triple Bill – Hagar, Dan Dare, Charley’s War

These three books might seem like disparate content but they each come from Titan Books, who were nice enough to ship them to me, and they are all great collections of old material. Hit the jump to see why these three books will scratch your Viking/sci-fi flight/war itches.

Charley’s War: The Great Mutiny VII

Written by Pat Mills
Art by Joe Colquhoun

Each year, Titan issues another HC collection of this British strip about WWI. A very handy page titled ‘Previously In Charley’s War’ gives you the run down on what’s come before but otherwise you should be right to just pick this book up and enjoy it. The nature of the old strips was that stories ran on but you weren’t expected to know every little detail that had come before.

This collection opens on a murder and the drama unfolds from there. We focus on Charley Bourne, a young soldier experiencing the tragedy and horror of war, and the strip certainly doesn’t shy away from showing it all in grim detail. The art, and scripts, don’t mind digging deep into the despair and terrible conditions that were so common in the first Great War.

There is a decidedly old feel to these pages. Drawn, mostly, in the early years of the 1980s, these could easily have originated in the actual period which they detail. Violence hurts, men look like monsters, and no one is ever truly happy. This isn’t a recollection of war as a glory field, this is the truth of what happens when men set out to kill each other by any means necessary.

There’s a vignette feel to the tale in that it is presented in three page chunks. Each strip progresses the story a little and nearly always ends on a good moment, which means you don’t want to put the collection down. It’s easy to lose a night because you constantly move forward in three page snippets and they can add up quickly. While each scene is separated, this is all one big story and a true marvel to absorb and take in. The storytelling is metered and precise and extremely enjoyable. Well, as enjoyable as watching the deaths of many can ever be.

After a mutinous adventure, Charley joins up with the stretcher bearers, which puts him right into the thick of broken bones and mulched piles of skin that people often exit war as. There is one brilliant strip where Charley is bested by a German who proceeds to shove a grenade down his clothes. As fortune and favour would have it, the grenade is a dud and Charley lives. And he’s angry. Charley runs to the offensive opponent and brutally bayonets him to death. War changes men, makes them their worst, no matter what their intents. Men can be bent by the actions of others and those actions are all around you in a battlefield.

Mills has a grim ear for dialogue and his structure keeps the strips passing by whether the content is light or direly heavy. He is equally matched by the art of Colquhoun who makes every panel count and every emotion felt. Reading the collaboration between these two makes you understand what comics can truly be when both creative parties are invested in the process.

The last few pages of this collection are occupied with a detailed, insightful, and interesting commentary on the strips by Pat Mills. He has plenty to say and doesn’t mind airing his grievances. He’s a smart man who felt passionately about his work and it’s a delight to read his thoughts here. There is also mention of Further Reading, which lists books and online resources that can add to this title.

Verdict – Buy It. This isn’t the sort of comic you idly read and then forget. No, you become, and must be, invested in this book. War is real and these strips bring you closer than you might always like to be. Reproduced in glorious large pages, and with no censorship or offending alterations, this is the pure Charley’s War and a book that means something.

Dan Dare – Safari In Space

Written by Frank Hampson, Allan Stranks, and Eric Eden
Art by Frank Hampson, Eric Eden, Don Harley, Gerry Palmer, and Keith Watson

I never previously had much exposure to Dan Dare. I didn’t know what to expect but luckily this volume, which is Volume 12 in the series of reprints from Titan, kicks things off with an excellent forward by Richard Sheaf. It then has a list of characters with their biographical statistics. A quick flip through and I was ready to get caught up on Safari In Space.

One thing I quickly noticed about these two page strips, and fell in love with, is the fact that each strip contains a caption that recaps the tale thus far. This tale is meant to standalone, to a degree, and so the very first caption merely recaps the status quo of the character. As the tale goes along, and gets longer in the tooth, the captions work very hard to be succinct and only give you what you truly need. I appreciate that as it gets everything straight for you.

Dan Dare is a fun comic. It’s amazing that things were so inventive and fantastical, even back in the 50s. Kind of like discovering your grandparents knew how to get their freak on. It’s impressive, and scary, but mostly just intriguing. Old science always fascinates me and this comic provides glimpses of other planets as well as all manner of future fashions, weapons, and asteroid bases. Perhaps you’ve heard of the old serials that used to entertain people in the papers and sometimes even in live motion before the picture shows. This is a stellar example of one of those old serials. There’s plenty of thrills and wonder mixed through the excitement and danger.

You could almost make a case that these old serials were the beginning of decompression, but just because these tales were spread out for so long doesn’t mean they weren’t packed with moments. In every two pages plenty has to happen, there’s no time or room for padding, you just get a chance to strap yourself in and then it’s a fleeting take off for a surprise bumpy journey through giant bugs and dogmatic dogfights like you have never seen before.

The story in this book is just bloody good fun. Dan starts off in Venusian peril but later on ends up on a new planet in search of his long-lost father. The overall plot lines might seem broad but so much happens in between, usually involving dire circumstances for our hero to overcome, that you’ll be captivated by this hardcover for hours.

The art has a crisp and dense feel to it. Backgrounds hold complete stories and every character is completely elucidated visually. These were how the good old strips were created, no corners allowed to be cut. The colours are also amazing and bring each page to spectacular life. Just looking through this book is a delight.

Verdict – Buy It. If you’re a fan of space faring adventure and old timey heroics then this book will sate your needs. Dan Dare is the sort of timeless hero that you should always make time for. There’s fun in these pages, as well as some storytelling lessons to be learnt. It would be nice if more people exposed themselves to this sort of quality.

Hägar The Horrible

By Dik Browne

I can’t speak for you, but I grew up with Hägar books in the house, as well as the similar Garfield and Footrot Flats books. They were those old, thin paperback collections. This collection is the same dimensions, except about 5 times thicker. The strip, for those who don’t know, is all about Hägar, kind of like a Viking prototype of Homer Simpson, if you will. He’s terrible at most things, being a father or husband or Viking or man, and yet he’s completely lovable in everything he does wrong. This is purely a comic strip, played for laughs, and you’ll find plenty of laughs in here.

Sergio Aragones is nice enough to kick things off with a very sweet foreword and then Brian Walker pens an introduction that shows us how these strips were made. It’s a fascinating read all on its own as we see the production schedule for the strip, and what a family effort it all was. Insightful reading and then we get the main show.

Each strip is three panels, usually, and so it’s all about the set up and the quick punch line. It all has to get in and out fast and entertain. And it manages it most of the time. The comic likes to comment on the nature of war and family and relationships and life, much as the best newspaper strips always did. I always viewed Hägar as one of the best, at least a personal fave, and after all this time he still delivers. Rereading this all, I laughed many a time.

The art is simple and yet expressive in so many ways. It’s easy to flip through quickly and completely grasp who is there and what is going on. It’s a nice change of pace to sample something so pure and uncomplicated.

There aren’t really ongoing tales in this book, just rolling punch lines. Characters don’t really grow too much because it’s funnier to play into their stereotypes. But if you don’t think it’s worth your time then maybe you should be more like Charlton Heston, he once wrote a fan letter to Dik Browne.

Verdict – Check It. I can’t guarantee this will be for you, perhaps you’re after more adult fare, but if you want something easy to read sitting on the coffee table for when young guests arrive and need entertaining, or perhaps your water closet needs some simple and quick reading material, but overall I’d say if you were going to sample the old strips then this is the ultimate way to do it because this collection feels like a labour of love.

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