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I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.

In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.

In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.

Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US  is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.

Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.

Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.

Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.

While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.

This take on the meaning of the Bible proclaims it as stridently anti-authoritarian, the very opposite of Nietzsche‘s assessment of Christianity as a religion of slave-morality.

Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.

 

[Edit @ 23/02/11 I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Dwayne McDuffie. An immensely creative and inspirational figure within both the comic and general entertainment industries, his prolific output contained positive messages for his audience that eschewed cynicism. Often noted for his critical assessments of the comic industry in particular, as mentioned below, made for very entertaining and inspirational writing. I never had the opportunity to meet McDuffie at any conventions, but saw him frequently online, trading stories with fans on message boards and dispensing his insights on the importance of good storytelling. He will be much missed. My sincere condolences to both his family and loved ones.]

Milestone was a semi-independent comic book company back in the 90’s that offered a more interesting spin on superheroes than most. Its characters were drawn from a broader racial mix than offered by books from the mainstream comic companies. DC Comics helped publish the books, produced by African American writers and talent. The company has since been merged with the DC comic book line, which I feel is unfortunate, as Milestone had a distinctive voice all of its own. Most of the stories are set in a city called Dakota, rife with crime and corruption. Hardware was the first book to be published by the line, written by co-founder Dwayne McDuffie.

The book opens with young Curtis Metcalf relating a story from his childhood. He once owned a parakeet that would often escape its cage and then slam itself into a closed window. It could never understand that it was trapped by a bigger, invisible cage of glass. Then McDuffie brings us to the present day. Metcalf has become a techno-savvy superhero named Hardware, who fights not for any single ideal of justice, but revenge. He feels compelled to avenge himself on the man who trapped him in a glass cage all of his own. That man is his employer, mentor and surrogate father – Edwin Alva.

Metcalf’s technological genius earned Alva’s millions in patents and yet when he asked for a bigger role in the corporation he was told in no uncertain terms what his status really was:

“You are not respected, Curtis, you are merely useful. This was an interesting experience, Curtis. Rather like having one’s dog suddenly announce that he’s displeased with his living arrangements. You may go now.”

Alva is involved in multiple criminal conspiracies, laundering drug money and bribing law enforcement. As Hardware, Curtis has been targeting his illegal operations, eliminating any opposition he encounters.

Utterly consumed by his mission, Hardware begins to lose touch with his humanity, becoming as cold and calculating as the high-powered weaponry he uses. McDuffie introduces love interest Barraki who is very unimpressed with his campaign of terror against Alva. Her role in the book is to challenge the tendency of modern comics to indulge its audience’s vicarious enjoyment of violence.

“Let me see if I got this right…You built a secret underground lab and outfitted yourself for a high-tech war […] You’ve destroyed millions of dollars in property [..] You’ve killed people. Ended their lives without any visible remorse […] And you did all this because your boss wouldn’t give you a raise?”

It’s a great moment, one of many strewn throughout the issues collected in this volume that illustrates the critical sensibility of McDuffie’s writing. Issue eight focuses on a nightmarish vision where Hardware’s is interrogated by a doppelganger of himself that echoes Barraki’s critique. He is confronted by the phantoms of the men he has killed; witnesses his own development as a child (all the while wearing a cute toddler version of his armour); attends a lecture by Barraki on his resemblance to the mythical trope of the Trickster figure; and is interviewed by ‘Opra’ on his lovelife, a sequence which features my favourite quote in the book –

“Well, that just about does it for today. Be with us next time for a special show, live from the Houston Astrodome, where our audience will be made up entirely of white people who think that Curt has a chip on his shoulder.”

I laughed out loud after reading that. There is a fantastic metatextual undercurrent to the book. After all, the very first issue is titled ‘Angry Black Man’. In one issue McDuffie introduces a bloodthirsty vigilante named Death Wish. However, while his origin does involve rape and murder, McDuffie has Death Wish eschew the ‘Rape as Backstory’ trope by having him himself be a victim of an assault. His subsequent psychotic behaviour is therefore defined as a traumatic reaction and not the typical ‘vigilante empowerment’, so prevalent in the 90s.

Denys Cowan’s art works well with the material, although there are regrettable flashes of Rob Liefeld’s popular, at the time, style of oversized muscles and scratched lines over faces. Still the overall impression left by this collection is of a new, hungry series eager to make an impression. I am desperate to track down later issues.

DC Comics please reprint Hardware and/or put him front and centre in your books! An excellent collection for a very innovative superhero character.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of checking out the new film Tron Legacy, which inspired me to do a little video blogging over on my disused Somnopolis account. Feel free to give it a gander. I have no problem admitting that my enjoyment of the film  is mostly due to nostalgia. Tron was a large part of my childhood. Y’know what I did not like when I was a child? The Punisher.

He’s a psychopath. A gun-toting Vietnam veteran who has decided to deal with the trauma of his family’s deaths by slaughtering the criminal underworld of New York. He makes Dirty Harry look like an easy-going guy. He cannot be reasoned with, is almost robotic in his lack of humanity and despite wearing a costume of sorts, is nothing like a superhero.

In fact writer Garth Ennis seems to agree with me. In his introduction to this volume of his initial twelve issue run he writes: Defend the Punisher? Justify what Frank Castle does to people? Condone the actions of a mass-murderer, whose bodycount must run well into the tens of thousands by now? I think not.

And yet. What Ennis does with Frank is to admit all of the excessive violence and inhumanity of his actions, while also poking fun at them. These issues feature endless scenes of murder and death, but also highlights just how ridiculous Frank’s vigilantism is, courtesy of an increasingly cartoonish set of villains and set-pieces. As Ennis concludes “you don’t have to worry about a thing: you can enjoy the Punisher with a completely clear conscience.”

The plot of Welcome Back, Frank concerns a vendetta between Frank Castle and the Gnucci crime family in New York. He has been systematically killing off the members of the Mafia clan and when he kills the sons of Ma Gnucci, she sends out a call for every gangster and hoodlum with a gun to hunt him down.

Since returning to New York Frank has found himself a new apartment in a run-down section of the city. Much of the book concerns his relationships with fellow tenants and the risk his activities place them in. Ennis manages these character building moments with a great deal of pathos, which is not what you might expect amid the blood and thunder of a Punisher comic.

The third thread of the storyline is the influence of Frank’s vigilantism on others. We meet three self-declared defenders of the peace – although their ideas of what that means is contradictory. There’s The Holy, an axe-murdering priest; Elite, a Manhattannite with extreme views on neighbourhood watch; and finally Mr Payback, who targets the wealthy. All three look up to Frank as a source of inspiration, justifying their murderous actions by dedicating themselves to his example.

Despite the bloodletting and brutal imagery, this is a very funny book. Ennis is a master of poking fun at machismo, as seen in his hit series Preacher, a comparison reinforced by his frequent collaborator Steve Dillon’s art. Frank Castle ‘s face carries the same trademark grimace to familiar to Marvel fanboys, but his musculature is not as oversized as the in-house artists insist upon. Dillon has Frank appear as he should – just another anonymous New Yorker wearing a long coat on the streets of the city.

The absurd extremes of Ennis’ script is the source of much of the humour. The villainous hitman known as the Russian wipes out an entire special forces team in Kazakhstan, sending the surviving officer running crying for his mother. There’s a great little sight gag involving Ma Gnucci that references The Empire Strikes Back. And then there is the unfortunately named Buddy Plugg, whose behavioural assessment of the Punisher is rejected as pure psychobabble: “obviously less a man than a force of nature. Have left his own humanity behind long ago, he has become a symbol as stark as the one he wears on his uniform. A spectre of vengeance moving like a virus within the criminal psyche…” In one stroke Ennis satirises every complaint raised against the character. He is, as he insists, only trying to entertain. Any attempt to analyze the meaning of this ridiculous character is doomed to failure.

As such Ennis once again delivers a book that manages to be both funny and disturbing, in equal measures. If you enjoyed Preacher, you’re strongly advised to check out his spin on this Marvel icon.

Last week the official trailer for Keneth Brannagh’s Thor was released (click here for a gander).

Personally I am looking forward to this one. Yes it’s another comic book movie. Yes, Marvel Studios are shoving the story into some kind of shared continuity along with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man to build anticipation for the planned Joss Whedon Avengers picture. I do not really mind all this as Brannagh has nailed one aspect of Marvel’s Thor and that is the paradoxically futuristic vistas of the city of Asgard from Norse mythology envisioned by Jack Kirby. Paradoxical as Stan Lee set the comical precedent of having Asgardians speak in a bizarre, faux-Shakespearean version of English, yet they reside in a cloud-borne metropolis that outstrips Fritz Lang.

What disappointed me the most about the recent Thor relaunch by J. Michael Straczynski was that Kirby’s vision of Asgard was completely lost, with the Norse deities cleaving more to Stan Lee’s anachronistic medieval type. This much-praised take on Thor, to my mind, mislaid much of the original storyline’s appeal. Kirby had a recurring notion that gods worshipped by man were in fact a higher form of alien life, an idea he made more explicit with his Fourth World/Eternals books later on. He avoided a simple repeat of Chariots of the Gods by having familiar gods, such as Thor and Loki, be at once technologically advanced aliens who appeared to humans as ancient warriors.

It is an entertaining conceit and one which Kieron Gillen appears to be returning to in this collection. The story follows Straczynski’s recent departure from the book and so at present Thor is in exile from Asgard for murder; Balder the Brave has taken his place as ruler; and Asgard itself is stranded on Earth, no longer seperated from Midgard.

As such the Norse gods are vulnerable and supervillain Doctor Doom has decided to exploit their weakness by kidnapping and experimenting on Asgardians to learn the secrets of their power. The gods have recently been guests of his nation of Latveria, thanks to the trickery of Loki, which explains the title. Doom would be a modern day Prometheus, steal the power of the gods themselves and elevate himself above them using only his intelligence and reason.

When the gullible yet noble Balder, who is beginning to realize just how much he has been manipulated by Loki, attempts to lead an attack on Doom’s fortress he is faced with a horrific sight. Former comrades and loved ones taken by Doom, twisted and corrupted into new cybernetic bodies, utterly brainwashed. The Asgardians are forced to fight against these tortured creatures, with the tide of battle finally turning upon Thor’s arrival. Unfortunately Doom has anticipated this also and has discovered the secrets of Asgardian technology such as the Destroyer.

It is of course no coincidence that the same alien weapon features so prominently in the movie trailer linked to above, with Marvel ramping up the release of Thor titles in advance of the movie’s release.  I am grateful to see such welcome synergy between the two mediums, as too often in the past Marvel Comics has dropped the ball in terms of capitalizing upon the films success. How many Blade books were sold after Stephen Norrington‘s box office hit?

Thankfully Gillen is not just writing a tie-in book. His story mixes elements of tragedy and some very decent character development. Balder’s insecurities about leading in his brother’s stead are well-realized and the script even allows the constant betrayals of Loki to be seen in perspective. He is the master of deceit after all, the most famous ‘trickster god’, who is capable of winning the trust of even his most fierce enemies.

However, it is of course Doom who steals the show, refusing to accept the superiority of gods themselves. He finds the very idea of a god insulting and demonstrates a degree of malevolent sadism in the treatment of his Asgardian prisoners.

I am happy to see such an epic tone return to the Thor franchise, which has recently become too enamored of the cliched ‘gods with feet of clay’, story conceit. A return to Kirby high fantasy and science fiction would be welcome.

As I said  in yesterday’s review, I have decided this weekend to write about two comic book creators whom I am most excited about for the next year. Yesterday I wrote about Paul Cornell, today I have chosen Jeff Parker. Now as it happens I have already reviewed a book by Parker – the whimsical Mysterius the Unfathomable. His comic book career continues to grow from strength to strength, and like Cornell, he evidences a strong fondness for a brighter, more fun spin on the stories he writes. Agents of Atlas, his superhero team book for Marvel Comics, is a wonderful example of comic book absurdism, with talking gorillas, vast global conspiracies and underworld (literally) societies. It was fun, refreshing and each issue left me wanting more.

For this earlier effort from Parker published by Virgin Comics, he has teamed up with Ashish Padlekar to fictionalise a series of episodes taken from the life of creator Dave Stewart. Now I already thought Stewart was cool – he and Annie Lennox were a bright light in my culturally sour 80’s childhood – but with this book he outstrips even that previous coolness cachet.

What I really want to know is, when Stewart was a young fellow jaunting around Europe did he really meet a psychic octopus? According to Parker’s script something like that happened…

Well in fact the story of Walk In concerns a young Mancunian named Ian who has a habit of blacking out and finding himself in strange locations with no idea of how he got there. Recently these episodes have gotten worse and he has found himself coming to in new countries, with no memory of what he has done. In an attempt to cope with the dislocation, Ian begins to frequent strip clubs. They provide a decent cover for his unusual behaviour, plus there is complimentary food (and naked ladies).

He begins to experience visions after he arrives in Moscow, visions that he uses as part of a variety act at a strip club named Deja Vu. It appears his black outs have bestowed upon him the gift of being able to surf the patrons’ subconscious. He works for tips, is given floorspace to sleep on at an apartment belonging to two of the club’s strippers Astrid and Valery (shared with a German band named Doppelganger) and becomes a permanent fixture at the club, with his act as ‘The Dream King’.

His increasing fame draws the attention not only of the club patrons, but two sinister shaven headed twins who appear to be following him. Also his visions begin to become more elaborate. Not only is he witness to people’s dreams, he begins to see individual auras as well, not to mention the odd appearances of an octopus around Astrid’s neck. Finally one night, after hours of listening to Doppelganger’s turgid experimentalism, he goes into a trance state and sees an incredible futuristic vista of flying vehicles, incredible buildings and people resembling the unusual twins. Has he completely lost his mind, or is Ian actually stretched between two worlds.

Oh and there’s a talking bear from Sussex who is not too fond of string theory. Just throwing that plot detail out there.

This is a fantastic book. Also, given the locale of Ian’s adventures with drug dealers, Russian mafia and strippers, the tone is surprisingly innocent. Parker’s script gives Padlekar plenty of opportunities to include funny little details in the panels, such as a Pizza Hut sign in Cyrillic script, or Ian’s ‘Dream King’, costume resembling Dr. Strange‘s duds. There are also plenty of hints scattered throughout as to where the plot is going, such as Valery hearing from a fortune teller that she will lose her heart to a man with long hair. It does happen, but not in the way she expects.

The book itself is also very funny – the talking bear is also a sharpshooter, I love that damn bear – and Ian’s weary acceptance of his increasingly weird life is well described. His narration to the reader is audible to the other characters, who assume he is crazy. If you’re looking for a comparison, think Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but with a psychic octopus and some strippers with hearts of gold. Padlekar’s art is somewhat cartoonish, which adds to the slightly innocent tone as mentioned above, with plenty of opportunities given for psychedelic excess during Ian’s visions of the futureworld.

Strongly recommended folks, Parker is someone to watch for the future.

Fellow blogger Colin Smith over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics has been on a roll lately. First there was his excellent series of articles on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman versus J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One . Then he quickly followed that up with another series on the DC event series Kingdom Come.

What can I say, I like his comic reviews. Also I am all over the comments threads for these pieces like a bad rash!

So I am taking a leaf out of Colin’s book and doing two comic reviews this weekend on the writers I am most excited about  for 2011, starting with Paul Cornell. Chances are, whether you know it or not, you have already enjoyed his work. With an impressive television career, he’s written for everything from Holby City to Coronation Street. Prior to his entry into American comics Cornell was mostly known in nerd circles for his Doctor Who novels, at least one of which was adapted for television, the excellent Human Nature. With a CV like that, and with Marvel/DC overrun by television writers such as Joss Whedon, Marc Guggenheim and Allan Heinberg it’s no wonder Cornell got a shot.

To date his comic career has shown a fondness for injecting a vibrant (and welcome) sense of optimism into the vicariously grim affairs of superpowered folks who like to wear garish costumes. He also specialises in rediscovering discarded characters and concepts, giving them a bit of a polish and then expanding upon their initial appearances.

Dark X-Men was published during a company wide storyline by Marvel Comics known as Dark Reign. To summarise in brief, the villains won and the US government itself has been infiltrated by arch-manipulator Norman Osborn, an erstwhile Spider-Man antagonist given a new shot of life by the series.

As such he has adopted an aggressive public relations campaign, creating his own superheroes, including a new X-Men team – filled out with former supervillains given new identities. His X-Men are the shapeshifting terrorist Mystique; Beast an evil doppelganger of this world’s Hank McCoy from another timeline; Mimic, an opponent of the original X-Men who first appeared back in the 60’s; and Omega, who was recently possessed by a destructive entity known as The Collective.

A wave of mass suicide attempts, with each individual chanting ‘I am an X-Man’, alerts Osborn to a new crisis. He is not so much concerned about the potential loss of life as he is copyright infringement. He orders the team to investigate. The duplicitous Mystique, who is attempting to gain the support of the other team members to revolt against Osborn’s control, discovers the cause of these events is a psychic being thought dead known as ‘X-Man’.

The team is ordered to capture and detain this immensely powerful mutant. However, they come to realize that if X-Man defeats Osborn, perhaps they could profit by the new regime. Villains will be villains after all and one double cross leads into another.

Where Cornell’s script excels is in its shades of grey. Mystique has betrayed so many people in her life no one trusts her anymore. As it happens she is only leading Osborn’s X-Men as he has placed a bomb on her that he will detonate if she tries to rebel. Mimic is tortured by his own inadequacies. Leonard Kirk draws him to resemble the original X-Man character Warren Worthington. This is a cruel joke on the character, a hired gun in the employ of a madman who has deceived the general public to see Mimic as a hero.

Dark X-Men is a book about characters who want to be something more than doppelgangers and stealers of powers. The sting in the tail of the book’s final panels is perfectly done.

The X-Men are not so much superheroes, as civil rights advocates in comic book hero drag. Osborn complains ‘Mutants are super heroes with politics.’ Cornell not only nails that ambiguity, he realizes the full potential of such X-Men action clichés as psychic combat, introducing Kirk’s grotesque image of a brain composed out of hundreds of bodies. The formerly lugubrious X-Man, Nate Grey, is rescued from comic limbo. There’s even hilarious running jokes throughout (each character is introduced on panel with a song title that describes their traits).

Combined with Kirk’s soft, yet dynamic pencils (the moment when Beast cheerfully smiles is both cute and terrifying)  that rivals Stuart Immonen, this book is both action packed and thoughtful. Great fun.

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