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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.

Reviewing this book presents an interesting problem. Generally when I write I refer to my knowledge of the author, or the material to ensure readers are familiar with what I am about to discuss. However, here I am writing about Wonder Woman, a superhero of sixty-nine years standing. Yet the character published in the comics today is nothing like that originally created by William Marston in 1941. There have been several reinventions of the character, with her personality and background having undergone drastic changes. In fact at the time of writing, J. Michael Straczynski has ushered in yet another revamp. Of course for any non-comic readers, this must all seem impenetrable. Most remember Wonder Woman as the character played by Lynda Carter on television.

Who is Wonder Woman?

What I admire about Gail Simone’s approach to this question is that she touches lightly on all the differing and conflicting iterations of the character’s history, endorsing each interpretation, while at the same time strongly asserting what Wonder Woman is not. As this collection concludes her run on the book, the final two stories of her run reassert the author’s view of the Amazonian princess. She is a warrior, but never a murderer, taking life only when she has no other choice. She is proud, but not prideful and feels slightly isolated by how others regard her. She calls the women she meets ‘sister’, due to a sense of affection and fellow feeling. She is a feminist icon, but more than that she is an inspiration to everyone.

In effect Simone and Marston are here at least on the same page. Wonder Woman as a character is equally as great, if not greater, than Superman.

Contagion collects the final two stories, A Murder of Crows illustrated by Aaron Lopresti and Wrath of the Silver Serpent with Australian artist Nicola Scott as well as Fernando Dagnino.

A Murder of Crows opens with what I assume is a homage to one of my favourite B-Movies Q The Winged Serpent, directed by Larry Cohen. An Aztec god is feeding in the subway tunnels of Washington DC. After forcing the deity to relieve himself of a train full of passengers, he confesses to Wonder Woman that he was compelled to attack the commuters, not usually having any taste for humans. Then the villains of the piece are revealed. Sinister boys dressed in mocked up school uniforms who are mentally influencing the citizens of Washington to give into feelings of rage and hatred.

The violence soon escalates, with people of different creeds fighting openly in the streets. Power Girl (Superman’s cousin from another reality…comics are confusing) arrives to investigate, only to also fall under the sway of the malevolent children. In time honoured fashion, the two comic book heroes fight one another, with Wonder Woman surprised to find herself punched as far as Canada!

Simone has a lot of fun with the brotherhood of the crows, who resemble the Children of the Damned and enjoy commenting sarcastically about the chaos they are causing. One even mentions that he will be going online later to blog his views on the events of the evening. The ‘versus battle’ between Power Girl and Wonder Woman gives Simone the opportunity to introduce alternating narration from both characters describing their impressions of one another. It makes for strong character beats and demonstrates an understanding of what makes the two women tick.

Wrath of the Silver Serpent is a more epic story, with an invading army of aliens who live by a corrupted Amazonian code besieging Washington DC. Wonder Woman discovers a disturbing connection between herself and the marauding aliens, heavily armed female warriors who decimate planets, converting everything on the surface into food to feed themselves. They choose only one hundred women from each world they visit to become members of their ‘citizenry’ and then move on. Wonder Woman proposes to their fanatical leader Astarte a public trial by combat between herself and their greatest warrior in order to spare the Earth.

This story has everything from widescreen action spectacles to the thematic subtext of what makes an Amazon ‘peace loving warrior’. It also features one of the few male gay superheroes in the DC, a reincarnated Achilles, who rides a flying elephant. There are also talking albino gorillas. It’s that kind of book.

In my opinion this is the definitive take on Wonder Woman. I recommend the whole run.

When Superman first appeared, he didn’t have X-ray vision or all the neat superpowers. In fact, he couldn’t even fly. But y’know what power he did have? He was bulletproof. Unable to be shot. And that’s why Superman was created: He’s not some American Messiah or some modern version of Moses or Jesus or whoever else historians like to trot out – Superman is the result of a meek little Clark Kent named Jerry Siegel wishing and praying and aching for his murdered father to be bulletproof so he doesn’t have to be alone.

Trailers designed to promote books are an interesting phenomenon. When I first saw one for Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies, which features among other Joss Whedon and Christopher Hitchens, I was impressed with the audaciousness of the marketing. It summarises the plot of the book – what if the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and that of the father of Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman, were somehow linked across a divide of millennia – but also plays off the faddishness of conspiracy fiction in the wake of Dan Brown’s success. What’s more the trailer itself trades in nods and winks at comic book fans. As if to suggest that this book is a self-aware parody of The Da Vinci Code, but ironically replacing high art with comic books..

Cal works with a homeless charity, cruising the streets of Miami in a van, looking for folks living on the streets. His partner Roosevelt is a defrocked preacher who insists that he needs to get himself some kind of a life outside of his work. Cal’s a man with a painful past though, one he tries to bury by doing good deeds and living humbly. As a former customs officer drummed out for misconduct he already has plenty to atone for. One night on their rounds the pair find a mugging victim with a gunshot wound in a park. Cal instantly recognizes the man as his father, who vanished from his life after he was sent to jail for the accidental killing of his wife. His past has caught up with him with a vengeance.

While his father Lloyd is relieved to see Cal, he also appears to be running scared. His story of a vicious mugging does not seem too plausible. Pulling in some favours from a friend in the force, Cal discovers not only is his father involved in a plot to smuggle a secret item into the country, the bullet he was shot with came from the same gun that was used to murder Mitchell Siegel in 1932.

Meanwhile an assassin with complicated father issues of his own named Ellis is on Lloyd’s trail. He believes Cal’s father is in possession, or knows the whereabouts of, an artefact known as the Book of Lies. Believed to reveal the weapon used by the Biblical Cain in murdering his brother, Ellis’ organisation has been searching for it for centuries. They are willing to kill anyone in their path, after all God is on their side. The last person rumoured to have owned the artefact was Mitchell Siegel. Could Jerry Siegel have witnessed his own father’s death and hidden the location of the Book of Lies in a Superman comic?

As this is a novel about a McGuffin its pages are filled with ominous definite articles. The Book of Lies, The Map, The Prophet. I found myself cursing under my breath towards the end What Is The Point? Is this a parody of Brown, or an excoriation of the poor treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by their publishers? It is interesting to note that Meltzer himself has written for DC Comics, including the best-selling miniseries Identity Crisis, which featured the murder and retroactive rape of the much loved Sue Dibny character. It was not very good.

Neither is this novel. Most chapters are no more than two or three pages. The plot feels like Bible and comic book history trivia strung together haphazardly. Characters dump exposition on the page to move the action along. Everyone has parental issues of one kind or another. Someone once said all American fiction is about fathers and sons. This book takes that adage a little too literally.

While I like the idea of the holiest relic in Western culture being a comic book, it doesn’t justify this dull, plodding narrative. I closed this book with a sigh of relief.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

I remember the advertisements for Zero Hour, a major crossover between titles for DC’s superhero comic book line. The series gimmick was eye-catching – each issue was numbered in reverse order from #4 to #0. Also the hype was contagious for 14-year old Emmet – ‘Everything will change’, the promotions declared. Wow, I gotta check this out I thought. I never did read it in the end though. Now I suspect that was a blessing in disguise.

First off, I do not recommend this collection to casual readers. Comic book annotation sites were invented for books just like this. The cover shows well-known DC characters Superman and Batman leading a charge of superheroes. However, they barely feature in the storyline itself.

The ‘plot’, is concerned with a character named Waverider, a time traveller from the future, warning the heroes of 1994 that the villain Monarch is somehow interfering with time itself. Unfortunately for everyone, Waverider’s intervention only increases the threat. Now empowered with the ability to travel through time, Monarch seems to be somehow responsible for an entropic force eroding the universe’s future and past. Renaming himself Extant, the villain takes on the combined force of the Justice Society of America, World War II era superheroes who were transported into the present day (just….just run with me on this).

Using his control over time itself Extant kills and disables the team, leaving the surviving heroes the difficult task of trying to stop the forces of entropy in both the future and the past. As the chronal wave advances  through time billions of lives are erased. Protected by Waverider’s powers, a small number of heroes remain to face Extant. Only for the shocking reveal that the real force at work is former Green Lantern Hal Jordan, now calling himself Parallax. Having been driven mad the one-time hero has decided to restart creation itself, according to his own designs.

Alright……to steal Linkara’s catchphrase, this comic sucks! The plot is incomprehensible; characters appear and disappear in a confusion of cameos; and without an encyclopaedic knowledge of who’s who readers will quickly become rudderless in a sea of continuity fixing. Here’s where another history lesson is need. Zero Hour is actually a sequel to a previous crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The irony is that ‘Crisis’, was an editorially mandated effort to make the DC Universe less confusing, by eliminating a series of ‘alternate earths’, that resulted due to the sliding timescale caused by characters were first emerged in the forties still being published in the present day. So the older adventures of Batman, for example, occurred on a different earth from the present-day stories that contemporary readers were following. Zero Hour was an attempt to resolve further problems that had emerged due to Crisis, including the continuity snarl of the Hawkman character, eliminating the Justice Society for the crime of being too old I guess and to the annoyance of an oh-so-annoying-nerd-cult named H.E.A.T. making Hal Jordan a bona fide super villain. Also the Flash died again. Flashes always die during a DC Crisis event for some reason. In Zero Hour the death of the Flash is delivered in such a perfunctory manner that it is hard to care.

In a sense this was a thankless task for Jurgens and Ordway to attempt. I get the impression the miniseries was intended to launch a new era of the DC comic line, with several new characters briefly appearing during the storyline. Most failed, with the notable exception of James Robinson’s Starman series. Furthermore, most of the deaths featured in Zero Hour have since been reversed. Hell the villains Extant and Parallax have both returned from beyond the grave redeemed as heroes.

I would advise anyone reading this to avoid Zero Hero if possible. Maybe play a couple of games of Little Big Planet instead, as I saw several kids do in my local library when I wandered back from the lonely comic section. Comic commentators wonder why kids today are refusing to read the ninth art and spending their parents’ money on games instead. Titles like this, with the convoluted continuity issues recently condemned by Darwyn Cooke (he says it much better than I ever could..), are among the primary causes for this evacuation of the medium.

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