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Bound & Ungagged:
TPB Reviews
By Dan Epstein


U.S. War Machine
Writer: Chuck Austen
Artist: Chuck Austen
Black and White
Released by Marvel Books

I bet I am one of the few people who remember the original War Machine series from the early 1990’s. It was like “What if Iron Man had fallen into black paint and become a really bad comic book.”

When I first heard that War Machine was going to be one of Marvel MAX’s flagship titles I had hope great hope. DC Comics had had great success with taking extremely lame characters and turning them into successful mature titles (i.e. Animal Man and Doom Patrol). Not knowing much about the writer/artist Chuck Austen, I picked up this book with my own money.

I sat down with it on the subway, started reading and once the train got to my stop, I got off sat on a bench and finished the book. Fantastic, Marvel finally figured out what to do.

The story is basically an Elseworlds that takes place right when Tony Stark fell deep into alcoholism and gave up his suit to Rhodey. Rhodey makes a few mistakes and ends up leaving Stark. He hooks up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and trains an elite team of soldiers to use War Machine armor to take out A.I.M.

Nudity, brains splattered on walls and cigars all within the context of the story. Jim Rhodes is smart, tough and intelligent all the best things that Bob Layton and David Micheline instilled in his character come out in this complex and quick moving story. Told over 264 pages, not one panel is wasted. Besides reviving and making War Machine interesting, they brought back Darkhawk and were able to make him into an unstoppable killing machine as well.

Chuck Austen created a story of espionage and intrigue that actually rings true. These soldiers aren’t perfect and the addition of a suit of powerful armor magnifies those imperfections a thousand fold. The leaders make mistakes, research scientists make mistakes and the soldiers make mistakes just like real life. If this story weren’t a work of complete fiction it would make an excellent Oliver Stone flick.

In reading this story, there is a huge Nazi theme running through the enemies and it just got me wondering whether what ethnicity Chuck Austen is. It doesn’t really make a difference. This story is all about tolerance but you’re not knocked over the head with it, which I enjoy.

One of the very few complaints I have about this book is the black and white artwork seemed kind of muddled when characters were standing in front of objects or each other, Nick Fury underused as always. I hate when he shows up and says “Welcome to Shield” puffs his cigar then you don’t see him ever again. Also Tony Stark is shown as a slight racist but since this isn’t in regular continuity that’s okay I guess.

The price was right, for $14.95, even if you don’t like it, it’s not such a big deal. Now if they could do MAX Rocket Racer series.

Article continued below advertisement

Stranger Kisses
Writer/Creator: Warren Ellis
Artist: Mike Wolfer
Black and White
Released by Avatar Press Inc.

Stranger Kisses is Warren Ellis’ sequel to Strange Kisses. It involves the same main character, William Gravel of Britain’s SAS and is an occult magician who freelances.

Stranger Kisses is about videotape, bad secrets, and what it's like to have an entire city wanting kill you. The videotape is of seriously physically modified whores provided to wealthy celebrities when regular sex is not enough. Somehow I think Richard Gere and Sally Struthers are probably customers.

This book paints a darker vision of Los Angeles, possibly even darker than such classics as Polanski’s Chinatown and even that awful Joel Schumacher movie about snuff films.

While Strange Kisses focused more on the magic part of this great character and exploding body parts while this one is more like an action movie with extra tongues.

This is good book and it would never have been put out by any other company. But it seems like writers like Ellis are more suited to creating a tapestry, which eventually tells an entire story (like Garth Ennis did with Preacher or Alan Moore was doing with From Hell). Ellis may feel that since he is already doing a very personal work in that way, his creation Transmetropolitan, but since that is nearing its end lets have something else.

Also, I don’t know if he even realizes this but this work is also very influenced by the work of David Cronenberg. When actors in the “porno” films are stuffing their hands into holes on the other people’s bodies it is very similar to the way James Woods was brainwashed in Cronenberg’s early work with videotapes being crammed into vaginas on his stomach.

The stories that Ellis has been putting out through Avatar Press have been quick and dirty, sometimes very dirty. Dark Blue was all about the killing. Strange Kiss was all about the exploding anuses filled with lizards and Stranger Kisses is all about the extra cocks and vaginas.

It’s about 70 pages long and certain images will possibly haunt you but overall its a lot like going to bathroom. It’s over pretty fast, it seemed like a long time when you were doing it and once you finish you don’t really think about it.

Murder Me Dead
Author/Artist: David Lapham
Publisher: El Capitan Books

Frank Miller may have turned film noir on its ear with Sin City but David Lapham picked it up by both ears, dusted it off and put it back on its feet.

Lapham himself describes it as "a nine issue tale of murder, greed, cute little babies, mean old women, lost souls, con men, dirty dealin', music, violence, gangsters, back alleys, resort hotels, prison, love, lust, and murder."

All the characters are given enough time to develop so you actually care about their existence. Steven Russell the husband, Barbera Kroft, (Russell's secret lover); Sam Fred, a PI hired by the Kroft family, Tony, an old friend of Russell and Tara Torres, an old flame of Russell’s from high school.

I’ve known of Lapham’s work since the early days of Valiant Comics. Anyone remember those? From the first pages of Murder Me Dead you are pulled immediately into the story. I suppose everyone should follow his lead but if everyone did all stories would start off with someone hanging dead from a ceiling fan.

Lapham has taken all the best elements of noir from every film out there and piled them all into one book and then he mined his feverishly paranoid brain for the best ways to present it. Every kind of noir is here, from the femme fatale to the prison film, to the private detective that wont get off your ass after you’ve had too much to drink the night before.

Funnily enough I finished the book on the same days that I watched the movie What ever Happened to Baby Jane? directed by Robert Aldrich one of Lapham’s influences as stated in his introduction. Much like that film, Lapham uses wild angles, the light changing from panel to panel to emphasize someone or something bad and or even the lack of dialogue dozens of panels in a row all to create that feeling of tension inherent in all the best film noir. This story reminds of me of Kiss Me Deadly with a hard splash of Jagged Edge and a little Escape From Alcatraz.

How many artists are out there actually draw faces like he picked out of a dingy bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan? His faces are distinctive, you remember those faces.

The story starts off simply enough with a classic noir scenario, an adulterous is accused of murdering his wealthy ex-wife and her family wants him to go down for the crime. But spread over nine issues this story has more twists than Reading, Pennsylvania with more back stabbings than an entire season of HBO’s OZ (sorry, noir always puts me in a metaphor mood).

I am glad to have another noir comic book on the market and this one certainly doesn’t hold back in the violence department. brutal stabbings, hangings and rough sex are all lovingly presented in a series of close-ups that highlight rather than hide the action.

It's also good to see a noir where the main character isn’t a cop on the edge or a hard drinking private detective but instead is a piano player who ended up marrying the hot lady boss.

Perhaps the only complaint about this book is that at the end 252 pages, it ends.

This book is beautifully presented in black and white and is very well bound with a glossy cover and is worth every penny of the $19.95 you’ll spend on it.


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