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Headlines   2004 Review Index   April 27, 2004
Suspended Animation &

Michael Vance

Mark Allen

Michael Vance Books

The most-circulated and longest-running comics review column in America
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Review Index 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998
The Punisher: Circle of Blood

      Frank Castle was a good man, war hero, dedicated husband and father… until organized crime took his family from him. Pushed over the edge, Castle decides to take on the world of "The Punisher."

      Marvel's collection of the1985 miniseries Punisher: Circle of Blood, is as entertaining as it is sad, and disturbing, and dark, and..., well, you get the idea.

      Writer Steven Grant creates what I consider to be the quintessential Punisher story; the one tale that perfectly captures what the character should be. Castle is focused, dangerous, relentless, and totally committed to his mission of destroying organized crime. At the same time, he is sad, single-minded, perhaps even demented, but at the very least, deluded, as is demonstrated by the very belief that he CAN wipe out organized crime.

      The art is handled by Mike Zeck. Coincidentally, I consider his Punisher to be THE Punisher, not to mention the best work he has done to date, possibly due to inker John Beatty. Zeck deftly captures the nigh-maniacal, frenzied anger of the character, as well as the rugged, harsh, and deadly settings of the story. Be it prison bars or city streets, Zeck's pencils are perfection. As artists like to consider their work a growth process, it may not be thrilling to think of a nearly 20-year-old work as their best.

      I discovered the character with this story, however, and, while that may seem a bit personal for someone who's supposed to be objective, I believe a total 30 years of comic reading would tell me if my infatuation was a result of inexperience; it hasn't. The Punisher: Circle of Blood is still one of the stories I read again...and again....and again, because it's good. And it's recommended for all but the youngest readers who enjoy crime drama or prison stories.

            The Punisher: Circle of Blood, published by Marvel Comics, 144 pages, $15.95. Find it at your local comic shop, some bookstores, online auctions or comic conventions.

     Review by Mark Allen

Button Man

            Harry Exton is a "button man;" a paid killer. And he can't stop killing. He daren't, you see, because he's been hired to play a game... a killing game. At any time, he, and other mercenaries, may get a call from one of the "voices," men they never meet face to face, who decide the time, place and players. But, Harry wants out, which is against the rules. How does he escape this vicious cycle when even the other button men will kill him to keep him from leaving?

      The scenario of Button Man is fairly straightforward; its execution (no pun intended) is what is so remarkable. Originally written for a British comic entitled Toxic, it later ended up running in the U.K.'s 2000 AD. In 1995, it was collected in an oversized graphic novel format by Kitchen Sink Press.

      Lucky for comic readers in the U.S., as it could be considered one of the most engaging comic works of the last couple of decades. Writer John Wagner weaves an intensely visceral tale that goes right for the reader's jugular. Exton, the leading character, is extremely believable as a ruthless killer, not hindered by any ethical restraints, but unsatisfied with a situation out of his control. There are no redeeming moral qualities to Exton, so readers shouldn't look for them. Wagner stays true to the character.

      What to say about artist Arthur Ranson's work...? We don't see enough of it in the U.S. Much has been said about comic artists with a sense of realism in their work. None, however, has outdone Ranson. His fine line work and detailed composition are seen in every aspect of his craft. Combined with the 9" x 12" format, Button Man achieved a "cinematic" look years before such a style became popular in comics books. Button Man is recommended for adults who enjoy great action, mystery and intrigue.

      Button Man, published by Kitchen Sink Press, 96 pages, $15.95. Find it at your local comic shop.

     Review by Mark Allen

The Beast of Chicago

      If you think Rick Geary's amazing "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series must be getting redundant, think again. They are getting serial.

      Serial murderer H.H. Holmes lived in the 1800s and killed most of his victims in Chicago. He confessed to killing 27 people; he may have murdered hundreds. During Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893, his bizarre building called the "Castle" may have been a "murder factory". His motivations are as twisted as the maze of narrow hallways, trap doors, and airtight rooms of the Castle. Thought of as America's first serial killer, his life was marked with indifference to his murders.

      Leave it to Geary and his sources to once again untangle Holmes' mystery. It is no secret that Geary is methodical and careful in his research, not only of the circumstances surrounding Holmes' crimes, but of the clothing, architecture, and events of his day. In addition, the author reports with crisp captions and dialog but does not sensationalize his subject. He creates a feeling of suspense and gnawing foreboding without profanity, nudity, or gore, proving once again that none of those things are necessary in horror. His subject sensationalizes itself.

      It is also well-known that this reviewer is a great admirer of Geary's distinctive art. Using careful detail and feathering (parallel lines that create the illusion of gray tones), his thick-lined style is perfect for recreating the Victorian era. His characters are always distinct from one another, often bearing the little physical and unattractive nuances that make us all human. His internal, visual logic is perfect, and his anatomy believable.

      So, here it comes, right? Now the great reviewer reveals what is wrong with Geary, his style, method and The Beast of Chicago.

      May I have a drum roll, please?

      There is nothing wrong.

      The Beast of Chicago is highly recommended.

      The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H. H. Holmes is 62 pages and priced at $15.95 from NBM Comics Lit. It is sold at and comics and book shops.

       Review by Michael Vance

Steve Canyon #1 & #2

      The best flies high again.

      From 1947 to 1988, the comic strip Steve Canyon set standards for cartoonists worldwide that have yet to be surpassed. Creator Milton Caniff had already made a giant splash with Terry and the Pirates, a comic strip that had won him acclaim in the '30s, but it would be Canyon that firmly established him as an undisputed, widely influential master. Both strips were world hopping, reality-based adventures saturated with military and political intrigue and a love of country and aircraft. For those unfamiliar with Canyon, think of Eisner's comic book, Blackhawks. For those unfamiliar with both, shame.

      Why were Terry and Steve so influential?

      Caniff's reality based art was technically perfect, stylistically distinctive, and widely influential with at least the first and second generations of comic book artists. The interrelated position of objects (people, buildings, landscapes, etc.) was especially effective in making the action within each panel clear, and in focusing a reader's eye on what was important. His use of varying angles, close-ups, medium and long 'shots', silhouettes, and the balance of blacks and whites in his art, all in the service of telling his story, are unsurpassed. To his detriment, his femme fatales are visual clones of each other.

      Caniff’s words and stories were equally powerful although there were flaws. His use of dialects, fashionable for their time, is difficult for today's reader to understand. His plots are interchangeable and the characterizations of his leading ladies redundant. In these two books, all are powerful and/or working women who secretly just want to be married.

      Steve Canyon is highly recommended.

      Steve Canyon #1 (1947) & 2 (1948)/139 & 159 pgs., $14.95 & $18.95 ea. Published by Checker Book Publishing and sold in comic and book stores, and at

       Review by Michael Vance


MINIVIEW: The Smell of Burning Dreams [Bzzz Bee Café] Although a professionally packaged story of an attempt to depose Santa Clause as the 'CEO' of Christmas, this title is weakened by misplaced dialog balloons.  Review by Michael Vance


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