Throwback Thursday: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 14 May 2013, originally published 12 September 2006)

Series: Standalone

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday review I take a look at the zombie horror classic, World War Z by Max Brooks, a truly epic and outstanding read.

One of the biggest novels that I have been meaning to read for ages was the highly regarded zombie novel, World War Z, also known as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Written by Max Brooks as a follow-up to his first book, the non-fictional The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z is a unique novel that fully examines a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives.  I had heard some great things about this novel, and I even enjoyed the movie adaptation when it came out (more on that later).  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it and I kind of figured for a while that it might stay in my to-read pile for a while.  However, it moved much higher up my list of books to check out after I read Brooks’s 2020 novel, Devolution, which was one of my favourite novels of 2020 (as well as one of my favourite all-time horror novels).  I had also heard a lot of praise for World War Z‘s awesome audiobook edition, so when my wife and I needed some entertainment during a recent cross-country road trip, this was our first choice.

Plot Synopsis:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

Holy hell, that was an exceptional book!  I loved the powerful and expansive narrative contained within World War Z as Brooks attempts to fully encapsulate the entire experience of a zombie apocalypse in impressive detail.  Literally all the good things I heard about this book were true, and I loved his unique and very captivating way of capturing the horrors of this sort of experience, both from the zombies and other humans.  An exceptional and impressively inventive read, World War Z gets an easy five-star read from me.

I cannot get over how awesome and distinctive World War Z was as a concept.  Rather than a traditional novel, Brook’s masterpiece is written as an epistolary novel, written as in-universe oral history anthology of a zombie apocalypse.  The book, which was compiled by this universe’s version of Max Brooks, contained multiple testimonials and interviews, as Brooks seeks out and talks to multiple people who experienced the apocalypse and pulls together their various unique stories.  This book contains around 40 individual stories set out across five chapters which look at the various stages of the zombie war, from its origins all the way up to the postwar ‘new normal’.

At this point I need to make a quick note about the version of World War Z that we checked out.  There are a couple of different World War Z audiobooks out there, but for our trip we listened to the World War Z: The Complete Edition, which combines two separate audiobook adaptations of the novel, and contains all the stories from the original book.  I did look over a paperback edition of World War Z before I started this review, and it looks like our audiobook version covered the full stories well, although I did notice that some of the stories were shortened or missing minor parts.  In addition, the audiobook version did not feature any of the paperback’s footnotes, which contained technical details and notes from the author.  However, I don’t think I lost out on too much of the plot from some of these missing gaps.

I really fell in love with the various individual stories contained with World War Z as Brooks went out of his way to produce the most unique and moving tales that he could.  These are mostly standalone tales, although there are a few interesting crossovers as the book continues, with some character’s mentioning events or supporting figures from other stories in their interviews.  However, as you follow the stories within these five chapters (made up of Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and Good-Byes), you get a full sense of the entire war, and it quickly comes apparent how cleverly Brooks was crafting everything here.  I personally deeply enjoyed both the individual shorter tales and the much larger connected story of World War Z, and I was deeply impressed with the excellent writing style behind it.  Brooks is a true master of writing deeply personal, character-driven tales of survival, and you swiftly become attached to the various protagonists as they tell their unique stories.  The action within is gruesome, fast-paced and deeply terrifying, and there are multiple over-the-top descriptions of zombie and human violence that will stick with you forever.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have read in terms of storytelling and action, and everything about this tale is so damn compelling.

As I mentioned, there are roughly 40 separate stories contained within this anthology, each of which contains its own unique protagonist, supporting characters, settings and unique circumstances.  Naturally, with so many stories you have a bit of a range in terms of storytelling, with some being substantially better than others.  However, I felt that Brooks did a very good job of writing each of these stories extremely well, and there were none that particularly dragged the novel down.  There is a real mixture of narratives here, with particularly gruesome horror stories mixed in with more human-focused narrative, political plotlines, military thrillers, stories that balance on the edge of science fiction, and everything in between.  The spread of these stories works pretty well, with Brooks providing an entertaining mixture of storylines throughout the book so readers aren’t constantly bombarded by tales of horror or tragedy.  Instead, there are often fascinating, humorous and humanising stories thrown in amongst the horror.  This works to make the entire novel flow at a fantastic pace.

While pretty much all these stories are fun and tell some outstanding tales of the zombie apocalypse, there are a few that stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.  I had some early fun with the Stanley MacDonald storyline, which showed an amoral illegal surgeon in Brazil unwittingly transfer a zombie heart into a patient, which led to one of the earliest outbreaks in South America.  The Jesika Hendricks plot showed a brilliant, if very dark, take on ordinary citizens trying to flee the zombies only to experience the other dangers of surviving the winter in a desperate community.  There are several amazing and cynical storylines, such as the Breckinridge Scott and Grover Carison testimonies that showcase the capitalist opportunism that surrounded the initial outbreaks.  I also really liked the South African focused storyline around Paul Redeker, which showed a former Apartheid strategist using his stark and brutal plans to save the country from the undead hordes.  I loved the particularly inventive and clever testimony surrounding the character of Arthur Sinclair Junior, which focuses on how America was reorganised after the initial stages of the war, with the country setting its sights towards industry, construction and warfare, which really highlights the author’s impressive insights into the world.

Two other fantastic World War Z storylines set in Japan focus on two unique individuals, one an “otaku” (a computer-obsessed outsider who tried to live entirely online), and a blind “hibakusha” (a person affected by the atomic bombs used in WWII).  Both characters were outsiders in Japan before the zombie war, but the zombie invasion changed their entire lives and led to them becoming renowned warriors and survivors against all the odds.  These two storylines are extremely compelling, and I loved the way that the author utilised unique subsections of Japanese society and tried to imagine how those sorts of people would survive the zombies.  There was also a really intense storyline, told by Admiral Xu Zhicai, that details a Chinese submarine’s attempt to escape the zombies with their families, which turns into a brilliant, powerful and occasionally disturbing tale of survival, loyalty and family.  I also must mention the Terry Knox testimony that details the actions aboard the International Space Station and the Darnell Hackworth story that looks at the US army’s canine units that helped scout and herd zombies (yay for mini dachshunds, the real heroes of this book).  However, out all the testimonies featured within World War Z, my favourite had to be the ones focussing on soldier Todd Wainio.  Todd battled the zombies at multiple stages of the war, and his multiple entries paint a pretty grim picture but are easily some of the best depictions of the horror of the zombies and the challenges faced by the armed forces.  His first testimony about the army’s initial inability to combat the zombies is very chilling, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes to his training and equipment as the military adapted to fight this new and strange enemy.  I am honestly just scratching the surface of these testimonials here, as pretty much all of them were great in their own way.  However, the ones I mentioned here were my personal favourites, and I had a blast listening to them and seeing how they fit into the wider narrative.

For me, one of the main highlights of World War Z was Brooks’s incredible inventiveness and insights when it came to envisioning a potential world-wide zombie apocalypse.  Thanks to his amazing range of stories, Brooks showcases a vast global catastrophe that impacts everyone no matter where they are.  I loved his depiction of how the apocalypse emerged, and rather than a continuous attack that pretty much destroys everything in a single day, Brooks imagines a gradual catastrophe that is initially ignored and mishandled before it spreads uncontrollably.  This is covered in the early chapters of the book with some substantial skill, and you really get to see how and why everything falls apart, with appropriate zombie violence included.  While there is an understandable focus on America, I found it fascinating to see how Brooks imagined different countries would deal with this crisis, with different culturally informed strategies, and there are even some compelling references to real-life figures (the Nelson Mandela facsimile reacts in a very different way than you’d expect).  The author really dives into all the details of a zombie attack and examines all the pros and cons of various strategies humans could utilise, from fleeing, staying in defensible positions, or fighting back.  There are some brilliant testimonies that cover all of them, and Brooks’s dark depictions of unprepared or overconfident humans failing to understand the threats in front of them and paying the price for it are shocking, bleak and captivating.  Brooks also comes up with some truly unique and clever problems or impacts of the zombies, many of which are referenced or experienced by multiple characters, including floating zombies, marine zombies, feral children who survived without their parents, looters, civil wars, and even crazed humans pretending to be zombies.

These intriguing insights from Brooks’s imagination are further expanded on in the later chapters of the novel, where the author explores how the world order changed because of the zombie war.  Again Brooks dives into multiple countries here, and it was fascinating to witness which countries the author imagines will be destroyed by the zombies and which would thrive.  I really enjoyed his examinations of the way that America needed to reorganise itself and its subsequent battleplans, which were perfectly covered by several of the best characters.  Seeing countries likes Russia, China, Japan and more change in drastic ways a result of this apocalypse was really cool and compelling, especially as the author covers it in such a reasonable and logical manner.  Countries like Cuba and the West Indies thriving due to their isolation was pretty fascinating, and they stood as an interesting contrast to more prominent countries that were disadvantaged or never stood a chance thanks to their socioeconomic issues or unsuitable landscapes.  I loved some of the unique issues that some countries experienced, such as the infested Paris catacombs or the mystery around North Korea, and they leave some intriguing afterthoughts as a result.  Brooks also cleverly examines other unique impacts that the zombies are having on the world, such as extinctions (goodbye whales), changes in global relations, and long-term problems, and I was deeply fascinated and enthralled by all this impressive thinking.  All of this compelling insight and imagination really enhances the stories being told by various characters, especially as they all impact humanity’s potential survival, and I really lost myself in the author’s powerful and impressive vision of a zombie apocalypse.

While World War Z is primarily about survival and the wider impacts of a zombie apocalypse, Brooks also takes the time to cover a few interesting themes.  In particular, he uses this novel about zombies to examine humanity.  While there is a certain overlying theme about the indomitable human spirit and our ability to triumph no matter the odds, there are some very noticeable depictions of the worst parts of human nature.  I found his initial depictions of most people ignoring or ridiculing the slow rising zombie threat to be pretty realistic (keep in mind that this was written 14 years before COVID).  There are also some major critiques about corruption and government incompetence in the face of disaster that I also found to be very intriguing and insightful.  Many of the early chapters that talked about military attempts to fight back had some interesting parallels to the wars in the Middle East, and I really appreciated the author’s clever critiques of these conflicts through the medium of a zombie war.  I felt that Todd’s testimony about the first major battle of the zombie war was a great example of this, as he regales the reader with how politically motivated leadership and incompetence led to a massacre.  All of this added a thought-provoking and entertaining edge to many of the storylines in the novel, especially the earlier testimonies, and I felt that Brooks did an amazing job bringing some of his own insights and critiques into his writing.

As I mentioned a few times above, I listened to the extended audiobook adaptation of this novel, which I personally felt was the absolute best way to enjoy this epic read.  Running at just over 12 hours in length, we absolutely powered through the World War Z audiobook during our road trip, and it served as an excellent entertainment for a long drive.  I often find that having a story read out to you really helps you to absorb everything about the story, and this was particularly true with World War Z.  Not only did the narration allow you to focus on all the details of the testimonials, but the horror elements and action felt a lot more intense, especially when you were dragged into some of the more gruesome scenes.  I also feel that the audiobook version of World War Z had a better flow than the paperback novel.  The testimonials with the audiobook are a lot more separated out, treated as a new chapter each time the narrator changes.  This is very different from the paperback version, which throws multiple testimonials in a quick fire manner, with everything crammed together into the five chapters.  As such, I really felt the audiobook helped to highlight the uniqueness of each testimonial and you really got to focus on each story a lot more.

However, easily the best thing about the World War Z audiobook was the truly impressive voice cast that were featured within.  Brooks, a voice actor himself, recruited a crack team of international actors to fill out his cast, including several A-listers, who give some outstanding and amazing performances.  All these actors really dive into their various roles here, conveying the emotion, fear and insights of their protagonists, and their great voice work definitely enhanced the already cool stories of their characters.  I deeply enjoyed all their voice work throughout the audiobook, and I know that I enjoyed several testimonies even more because of the talented actors voicing them.  This cast is led by Brooks himself, who voices the interviewer, asking all the questions and meeting all the various figures the novel is set around.  Brooks does a really good job here, and his calm, collected interviewing style and additional narration helps to set the scene for the entire novel and moves the other character’s stories along at a great pace.

Aside from Brooks, there are a good 40 or so voice actors featured in the World War Z audiobook, and I was pretty impressed with all their performances.  Some standout early performances include a brief appearance from Nathan Fillion as Canadian soldier Stanley MacDonald; Paul Sorvino, who gives a very fun performances as the sketchy doctor Fernado Oliveira; and Martin Scorsese, who gives an unrepentant portrayal of corrupt businessman Breckinridge Scott.  Other great performances include Kal Penn as Sardar Khan, an Indian soldier who serves an excellent witness to an act of heroism; the late, great David Ogden Stiers, who brings Ukrainian solider Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk to life perfectly as he watches a great act of evil from his government; Common as dog trainer Darnell Hackworth; and Rob Reiner as “The Whacko” a radical politician/former Vice President who shares his strong opinions in a very fun outing.  I really need to highlight some intriguing voice performances from Simon Pegg, who does a pretty good Texan accent in the role of Grover Carlson; and Alfred Molina, whose Australian accent was pretty accurate (a rare talent).

The performances of Masi Oka and Frank Kamai really brought to life the two Japanese characters I mentioned above, as does Ric Young for Chinese Admiral Xu Zhicai’s elaborate testimony.  I also really need to highlight the brilliant work of Alan Alda in this book as he voices pivotal administrator Arthur Sinclair Junior.  Alda, whose voice I have loved since M*A*S*H, perfectly inhabits the role of this intriguing figure, and I loved hearing his narration of how America’s economy was changed.  However, out of all the voice actors in World War Z, my favourite was the always impressive and remarkable Mark Hamill, who voiced standout character Todd Wainio.  Hamill was one of the main reasons why Todd was such a great character, and I loved his outstanding performance as a former ground soldier recounting all the horror of the front line of the zombie war.  There is so much weariness, trauma and cynicism in Hamill’s voice as he narrates Todd’s testimony, and you really feel the character’s resentment and anger.  The way that Hamill describes all the gruesome gore and zombie violence was just so great, and his impressive range and tone helped to really enhance the insanity and horror of the moment.  These voice actors, and the rest of the impressive cast, are extremely epic here, and they turned this production into something extremely impressive.

A quick final note about the World War Z film.  Until I read this book, I really did not appreciate how wildly off-book the film adaptation was.  None of the true magic from the original story appears in the film at all, as they turned it into a generic action flick rather than a clever analysis of how a zombie apocalypse would change the world.  While I did enjoy the World War Z movie on its own, it is a terrible adaptation, with only small elements from the book appearing in the film.  While I can appreciate that this is not the easiest book to turn into a film, they didn’t even try.  I really do hope that someone does a proper adaptation of World War Z at some point, as it frankly deserves a lot better than what it got (perhaps a television series with each episode recreating one of the testimonies).

As you can clearly tell from the massive essay above, I deeply enjoyed World War Z by Max Brooks.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have ever read, and it definitely deserves its epic and highly regarded status.  Brooks’s distinctive and brilliant story was just plain amazing and I loved the outstanding combination of smaller testimonies coming together into one connected and thought-provoking tale.  The author cleverly examines every single aspect of a potential zombie apocalypse, and you find yourself not only loving the insane horror elements, but the fascinating political and social impacts that come with such an invasion.  Best enjoyed in the full audiobook format which features so many impressive voice actors, World War Z comes extremely highly recommended and I cannot hype it up enough!

World War Z Cover 2

Throwback Thursday: Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf by William King

Space Wolf Original Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Ragnar series – Book One

Length: 266 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I dive into the world of the Space Wolves chapter of Space Marines with the classic Warhammer 40,000 novel, Space Wolf by William King.

The Warhammer 40,000 expanded universe is truly blessed with the sheer range of unique stories that it contains.  From pulse-pounding crime novels (Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), deeply fascinating novels about aliens (Ruin, Reign and Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!), haunting horror tales (The Bookkeeper’s Skull), and even brutal war stories by common soldiers (Steel Tread and First and Only).  However, at the end of the day, most of the more intriguing stories focus on the iconic and awesome Space Marines.  These genetically enhanced and over-armoured warriors are often the true MVPs of the Warhammer canon, with some great series based on them (for example, the 50+ book Horus Heresy series).  There are a ton of great Warhammer 40,000 series around the Space Marines that I am exceedingly keen to get into, and I was recently lucky enough to find a copy of the first book of one of them which I immediately dived into.

That book was Space Wolf by William King, who I best know from his epic work in the Warhammer Fantasy franchise with his Gotrek and Felix series (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  Space Wolf is the first book in King’s six-part Ragnar series (also known as the Space Wolf and Wolfclaw series).  Focused on the character of Ragnar, a legendary member of the Space Wolves chapter, this series sounded really cool, especially as I have been really enjoying King’s writing lately.  I ended up having a great time with this novel which contains an awesome and very fun story.

In the far future, humanity is constantly at war with aliens, daemons, traitors, and heretics, all of whom wish to tear the massive and fragile Imperium of Man to shreds.  Humanities best and often last line of defence are the mighty Space Marines, the Emperor’s angels who fight the very worst xenos and spawns of the Chaos Gods.  Out of all the Space Marine chapters, one of the most respected, feared and honoured chapters are the Space Wolves.  Born from the genetic material of their legendary founder, Leman Russ, and bearing the touch of the wolf, the Space Wolves have stood tall time and time again.  But how does a mere man become a bestial and lethal Space Wolf?

On the planet of Fenris, Ragnar Thunderfist is a young warrior, content to work on his father’s ship and contend with the many dangers of his fierce and low-tech home world.  During a raid upon his village by a rival tribe, Ragnar is killed in a mightily duel after felling many enemies.  However, this is not the end of Ragnar’s journey; instead he finds himself waking up healed, resurrected by one of the mysterious Wolf Priests who watch over the planet.  Taken from the ruins of his village with other worthy aspirants, Ragnar learns that he has been chosen to become a member of the next generation of Space Wolves.

However, earning the right to join the Space Wolves is no easy task, and Ragnar soon embarks on a gruelling and lethal training regime that will test him to his very limit.  Working to hone himself into a living weapon, Ragnar will face trials, monsters and deadly rivalries as he attempts to prove himself.  But even if he is found worthy, the greatest trial involves the final transformation into a Space Marine.  The Canis Helix, which is implanted into all Space Wolves, bears a dangerous curse, which may turn even the strongest of wills into wild beasts.  Can Ragnar overcome the bestial rage that comes with this awesome gift, or will he lose his mind before he can serve the Emperor?  And what happens with the legions of Chaos arrive upon Fenris?

Space Wolf Cover 2

This was another exceptionally exciting and compelling read from William King, who perfectly starts another epic Warhammer series.  Space Wolf had a very different tone and structure to some of King’s other books that I have enjoyed, and I found myself getting really invested in this intriguing story of survival, self-discovery, and destiny.  Starting with an intriguing glance at the present, Space Wolf jumps back into the protagonist’s past, showing Ragnar’s formative years and the events that led to him being chosen by the Space Wolves.  Primarily told from the perspective of Ragnar, with a few sections told by an antagonistic alternate narrator, Space Wolf quickly turns into a fascinating examination of the intense training faced by potential Space Wolves recruits.  Most of the story follows the various stages of this intense military training and eventual genetic modification, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the changes the protagonist goes through.  While there is a lot of focus on expanding the lore and the character changes associated with it, King tells a concise and powerful story that really dives into the mind and personality of its protagonists.  This extended and brutal training sequence and initiations eventually leads up to the protagonist’s first mission as a Space Marine, which sees him and his team, many of whom you have also come to know, face off against an insidious foe on their own home world.  This last part of the book provides a ton of action, some intriguing horror aspects, and the introduction of a compelling antagonist who will likely show up in future entries in the series.  This final section really brings the entire narrative together extremely well, showcasing what the protagonist has been working towards, while also resolving some great character arcs.  I had a really fun time with this entire novel, and it has definitely made me keen to check out the rest of the series when I get a chance.

One of the most intriguing parts of Space Wolf was the way that it fits into the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Specifically, this novel serves as a particularly good introduction to the legendary Space Wolves Space Marines chapter, who are one of the more popular factions in the extended universe.  King chooses to look at them from a rather unique direction, showing them purely from the perspective of the protagonist Ragnar, an inhabitant of a Norse-esque society with no concepts of space travel, advanced technology, or the wider universe outside of their lands, and whose understanding of the Emperor, the Chaos Gods, the Space Marines and more comes purely from myths and legends.  As such, for much of the novel Ragnar and his fellow initiates have no idea who the Space Wolves are, or what they have been chosen for.  The snippets they continue to get slowly inform them of the wider picture, and it was fascinating to see their blind faith that they were working towards something greater.  Their eventual initiation comes as a great shock to them, and seeing these previously simple warriors become elite Space Marines with knowledge of the wider universe results in some awesome and intriguing scenes.  I found it really fun to see the similarities and differences between the characters when they were normal and when they were Space Wolves, and it was fantastic to witness how their harsh roots results in Space Marines with some major Viking vibes to them (it’s one of the things that make them such a cool chapter).

However, King also ensures that the reader is given some intense insight into the dark side of the Space Wolves.  While their training is often harsh and lethal, and their treatment of the tribes of their home planet is very manipulative, there is something far more worrying lying beneath the surface.  The genetic manipulation that goes into creating them awakens a beast within them, with many losing their sanity or even their humanity entirely, reverting into beastlike creatures known as the Wulfen.  King does an awesome job highlighting the various ways in which the characters are changed, body and mind, throughout the course of Space Wolf, and there are some powerful scenes where they are forced to battle to control their new inner nature.  This really ends up being a particularly fascinating and well-balanced examination of the Space Wolves chapter, and I honestly could not think of a better introduction to this faction.  This cool lore, as well as the Norse-inspired aspects and Nordic-like wild settings, serve to beautifully enhance the entire narrative, and King’s choice to show all events from an uninitiated character’s perspective was just brilliant.  The use of Ragnar as a narrator also ensures that readers unfamiliar with the Warhammer franchise can also easily enjoy this novel, as they can learn about the wider universe at the same time as the protagonist.  Established fans, on the other hand, will get a lot of joy out of seeing the Space Wolves in this much detail, and they will no doubt have fun viewing the myths and unique interpretations that the various Fenris tribes place on the Space Marines and other elements of Warhammer lore.  As such, this is a novel that will really appeal to a lot of different readers, and anyone with interesting in fantasy, science fiction, or even historical fiction, will probably have a great time reading Space Wolf.

Finally, I must highlight how good Ragnar was as a point-of-view protagonist.  Not only do we get the great insights into Space Wolves initiatives that I mentioned above, but there are multiple intriguing personality and mental aspects to his character that come across extremely well in the narrative.  Ragnar starts the book as a young warrior whose life is changed in a single day as his tribe is destroyed by a rival clan, his family is killed, and he himself is killed and then resurrected by the Space Wolves.  Worse, he is resurrected alongside the man who killed him, Strybjorn Grimskull, and is forced to train and work with him, despite their hatred for each other.  This results in a great deal of inner struggle for Ragnar as he is constantly torn between his honour and new responsibilities to the Space Wolves and his desire for revenge against Strybjorn.  Watching these two constantly circle each other through the training parts of the novel is awesome, and their issues get even more intense once they undergo the genetic change and become Space Wolves with bestial urges.  These intense inner issues and rivalries proved to be an excellent central plotline for much of the novel, and I felt that they dramatically enhanced the entire narrative very well, adding in some much need drama, comradery, and character development.  I cannot wait to see more of Ragnar and his fellow Space Wolves in the future, especially after how his first mission turned out.

Overall, Space Wolf was just as impressive and awesome as I hoped it would be.  William King did an exceptional job writing a fantastic introductory Space Wolves tale, and he continues to remain one of my absolute favourite Warhammer authors, especially with the excellent range he showed here.  Readers will love this outstanding dive into the Space Wolves and the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe that this novel contains, and Space Wolf is a highly recommended novel to anyone looking for an action-packed and exciting read.

Space Wolf Cover

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Broken Honour by Robert Earl

Warhammer - Broken Honour Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 22 February 2011)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I look at a cool standalone entry in the Warhammer Fantasy canon with the 2011 novel, Broken Honour by Robert Earl.

Damn it has been fun getting back into Warhammer fiction over the last couple of years, especially as there have been so many amazing and epic recent additions to the franchise.  I have really been having fun with the huge variety of stories associated with these iconic tabletop games, and while I have been mostly focused on the science-fiction based Warhammer 40,000 novels, I have also been dabbling with the Warhammer Fantasy subgenre.  Set in a chaotic and war-ridden world filled with all manner of creatures from classic fantasy, the Warhammer Fantasy novels contain fun and dark adventures, such as the Gotrek and Felix novels (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  I was lucky to recently find several cool Warhammer books in a second-hand shop, and I immediately dived into a particularly fun fantasy novel, Broken Honour, written by a new-to-me author, Robert Earl, who had written various other interesting Warhammer novels.  Set before the 2015 destruction of this setting and the start of the Age of Sigma, Broken Honour was a fantastic and entertaining read with a great story to it.

Chaos has once again invaded the realms of man, this time in the Imperial state of Hochland.  The ravenous beastman hordes are emerging from their deep forest lairs to begin their annual raids of the human settlements to destroy, despoil and feast on the people within.  As the armies of Hochland gather to repel them, they find themselves outmatched and outsmarted at every turn.  A powerful and dangerously intelligent beastman lord has risen to command the herd, and his unusual tactics may spell the end for every human living in Hochland.

As the Hochland baron and his advisors attempt to withstand the new threat advancing towards them, they desperately seek out any fighting men they can find.  Sensing opportunity, mercenary Captain Eriksson, a veteran fighter for sale currently only missing a regiment to command, arrives at the capital.  Keen to take advantage of the current chaos, Eriksson buys the freedom of a large group of prisoners to form a new free company.  Promised freedom and pardons for their crimes if they fight, the prisoners form a reluctant and ill-trained regiment, the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who hope to avoid the brunt of the battle in the back.

However, Eriksson and his troops soon find themselves in the very thick of the fighting, as those above them seek to use his unit to in the very worst ways.  Forced to contend with ravenous monsters, political intrigue, and a villainous lord with everything to lose, Eriksson and the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig will need to come together and hone their skills if they are to survive.  Can this band of rogues, thieves and criminals regain their lost honour and find redemption on the battlefield, or will they find only death and destruction as humanities most bestial enemies come to claim them?

Broken Honour was an awesome addition to the Warhammer Fantasy canon that I had an amazing time getting through.  Earl produced an exceedingly exciting and action-packed read that is essentially The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (it is also comparable to the Last Chancers series from Warhammer 40,000).  Obviously, with a plot like that, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with this book, and Earl really did not disappoint.  While the narrative is a tad by the numbers, it is a pretty cool military fantasy narrative that is worked well into the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The entire story flows really well, with the antagonists introduced up front and the protagonist, Eriksson, and his unwilling soldiers brought in quickly after that.  From there you follow the paroled Free Company as they are dragged from one conflict to the next and forced to contend with overwhelming odds.  As such, the book is loaded with a ton of outstanding action and brutal fight sequences that are guaranteed to keep you entertained.  Earl makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a deep and wide-ranging narrative, and you soon get dragged into several different character arcs, including several surrounding the antagonists.  Not only do you get to see into the heart of the beastman camp, but there are several brilliant sequences told from the perspective of a villainous Hochland noble who is trying to kill the protagonists.  This all ends up being a pretty exciting and fantastic story, and I found myself getting really caught up in the novel, powering through it very quickly.  Everything comes together really well into a great self-contained adventure, although a couple of character arcs didn’t get the conclusions that they deserved, and some storylines are never revisited, despite Earl leaving the story open for a sequel.  Despite that, Broken Honour was an excellent, easy novel to check out, and you are guaranteed to have a great time reading it.

I really liked how well Broken Honour slotted into the established Warhammer Fantasy setting, and this was a great addition to the overall canon.  Earl focuses his narrative around two particularly intriguing factions from the game here, the villainous beastmen and the human armies of the Empire, specifically from the state of Hochland.  I loved the insight into both, especially the beastmen, and the author really brings them to life in exquisite detail.  You can really feel the monstrous power, the Chaos infused evil and the beast-like mentalities contained within these creatures, and they prove to be excellent and brutal antagonists for the entire novel.  At the same time, there are some awesome insights into the soldiers of the Empire, and I loved the various depictions of their battle tactics and the various regiments.  While Earl does dive into these various Warhammer factions throughout Broken Honour, readers don’t need to know too much about them to enjoy the series, as the author does an amazing job introducing them and explaining what they are, and any fan of fantasy or dark fantasy would have a great time with this book.  Indeed, Broken Honour would serve as an excellent introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy canon for those readers unfamiliar with its details, as the story encapsulates the constant struggles and battles that occur within it, as well as the fun and larger-than-life characters it focuses on.  As such, this is a really good and entertaining Warhammer novel that will really appeal to both established fans and potential newcomers.

I really must highlight some of the great characters featured within Broken Honour, as Earl has come up with a wonderful and compelling group of figures to set the story around.  Most of the plot naturally revolves around the members of the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who are formed to face the threat within it.  Made up of over 120 former criminals, you don’t get to know all the members, but most of the ones who are featured are extremely fun and very memorable.  The leader, Captain Eriksson, proves to be a canny veteran who can manipulate events and his superiors in his favour to field a force in the war and get a lot of money.  Despite his mercenary attitude, Eriksson proves to have a conscious and builds up a fair bit of loyalty to his men, and this character growth really helps endear him to the reader.  Most of the other named Free Company members are a rather interesting and cool.  The drummer boy, Dolf, for example, proves to be an excellent human MacGuffin in the narrative as political plots revolve around his survival.  Other members of the Free Company that stood out to me include the tired veteran Sergeant Alter, the possibly mad former warrior priest Gunter, and the wily quartermaster Porter, whose moneymaking schemes and remarkable survival ability rounds out the character dynamics extremely well.

While I had fun with these protagonists, the best characters within Broken Honour are easily the baddies, with several great antagonist figures really coming together perfectly throughout the book.  The most prominent of these is Beastlord Gulkroth, who leads the beastman armies in the book.  Empowered by dark magics which have enhanced him even further than the rest of his kind, Gulkroth proves to be an intimidating and compelling figure in the novel, especially as his grasp of strategy, tactics and patience are highly unusual amongst his race.  Gulkroth spends the bulk of the novel balancing this newfound intelligence against his bestial nature, and it proves extremely interesting to see both sides of his personality come into conflict, especially as it impacts how his army attacks.  While Gulkroth is a fascinating figure, the best antagonist is Viksberg, a cowardly noble who was the sole human survivor of the first battle in the book thanks to his spinelessness behaviour.  Despite this, he manipulates the situation to make him appear as a hero and gets promoted as a result, killing anyone who knows the truth of his actions.  This eventually forces him to contend with Eriksson’s regiment, as one of them is a witness to his crimes, and he tries to get all of them killed on multiple occasions.  Viksberg’s continued attempts to kill the protagonists through indirect means really adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the entire novel, and it was exceedingly entertaining to watch his various plots unfold.  Earl really goes out of his way to make Viksberg as despicable as possible, and you end up really disliking the entitled bugger, especially as he gets better characters killed.  You end up rooting against Viksberg in the hope that he’ll get his just deserts, only to be disappointed when he manages to survive to fight another day, which is both frustrating and extremely fun.  These brilliant antagonists, and all the other characters, add so much to the overall plot of Broken Honour, and I really appreciated the work that Earl put into his various characters.

Overall, Broken Honour by Robert Earl was an awesome and deeply entertaining Warhammer novel that I had a delightful time with.  The straightforward story is very exciting and contains some impressive character arcs that unfold to produce a riveting tale, while also providing all the action and bloodshed I could ever want in the iconic Warhammer Fantasy setting.  While I am a little disappointed that Earl didn’t write any additional novels featuring the characters in Broken Honour, I still had an awesome time with this book and it’s a great read for both Warhammer fans and those general fantasy readers.  Highly recommended!

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 August 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take another look awesome book from the Star Wars Legends range, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.

As I mentioned last week, I have been going out of my way to read some of the older Star Wars Legends tie-in novels, especially after all the fun I had recently reading and reviewing Darth Plagueis.  Despite no longer being considered canon since the Disney buyout, the Star Wars Legends range contains some cracking reads, including the awesome horror read Death Troopers, the brutal prison novel Maul: Lockdown, and the fun heist novel Scoundrels.  I have been meaning to check out some other great Legends novel for a while, but the one that I have been particularly excited to read is the 2013 novel, Kenobi.

Kenobi, which was one of the last novels released as part of the Legends line, is an intriguing read that follows Obi-Wan Kenobi in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith and follows his early adventures on Tatooine.  Not only does this book have an intriguing plot, but the upcoming release of the new Obi-Wan Kenobi television series has got me more curious about this novel and I really wanted to see what differences occur between it and the show.  I was also drawn to fact that Kenobi was written by the supremely talented tie-in author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is a great author, who has written not only some intriguing Star Wars books but also some fantastic Star Trek novels, including Die Standing, which was particularly awesome.  As such, I was pretty sure I was in for an outstanding time reading Kenobi, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 2

These are dark days for the galaxy.  The Republic and the Jedi have fallen, and the Empire, along with its Sith masters, has risen in its place.  All hope looks lost, except for an orphaned baby boy, now living on Tatooine, and watched over by a solitary protector, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  After failing to save his fallen apprentice, Obi-Wan has retreated to the wilds of Tatooine, determined to hone his abilities, protect his charge, and wait for the day that hope is ready to return to the galaxy.  Sticking to the outskirts of the planet, Obi-Wan has taken on a new persona of Ben, a mysterious bearded and robed stranger, living alone in the desert and hiding from his past.  However, despite all his attempts to blend in, Ben is still a Jedi, and trouble follows him wherever he goes.

A deadly conflict is brewing in the deserts of Tatooine as enterprising moisture farmers clash with desperate Tusken Raiders.  The settlers are terrified of a new and ruthless Tusken war chief who has leading raids against their farmsteads, resulting in series of brutal retaliatory attacks.  When the fight seeks to engulf some of Ben’s new friends, he is again dragged into a war he never asked for.  Discovering a grave injustice as innocents are killed for a matter of greed, Ben will once again call upon the powers of the Force to ensure justice is done.  But can he achieve his goals without revealing to the entire planet that he is a Jedi, or will his greatest secret be uncovered along with the galaxy’s last hope?

Wow, this was a pretty impressive and captivating Star Wars novel from Miller that does a wonderful job showing a unique period in an iconic character’s life.  Featuring a brilliant and surprising story, set in the iconic backdrop of Tatooine, Kenobi is an excellent read that I had an amazing time getting through.

I must admit that I was a little surprised with how this story turned out.  With a name like Kenobi, you would assume that the narrative would be primarily told by Obi-Wan as he tried to settle in and survive on Tatooine.  However, Obi-Wan isn’t even a point-of-view character in this book, instead the story revolves more around some of the local people of Tatooine as they encounter Obi-Wan (or Ben, as he is known to them).  While on paper this might sound weird, it actually works really well and Miller tells a taught, powerful and compelling narrative that perfectly utilises its titular character as a mysterious and somewhat unknown figure.  Focusing on a growing battle between Tatooine settlers and the Tusken Raiders, the story shows the impact of the arriving Ben on these long-standing communities.  Miller does a great job of introducing several excellent and impressive new characters who become connected to this early version of Ben Kenobi.  Their story soon devolves into a fast-paced, character-driven adventure as Ben finds himself caught between the opposing sides.  The growing war between them takes some interesting turns, including monsters, gangsters and hidden Jedi, and introduces a fantastic villain with some clever motivations.  Miller does a great job of working the desolate setting of Tatooine and the excellent characters into this story, and you soon become attached to both as they enhance the overall the story.  Everything comes together into a captivating and moving conclusion that is exciting, emotional, and a little dark in places, bringing everything together in a satisfying way.  This intriguing story proves to be exceeding addictive and I really love the distinctive tale that Miller came up with.

This proved to be a particularly good entry in the Star Wars Legends canon, and Miller does an outstanding job of tying this story into the wider universe.  Set right after the final scene of Revenge of the Sith, you get some intriguing views of the new galaxy under the Empire, as well as Kenobi’s early attempts to settle into obscurity on Tatooine (including the answer to the question: why did he keep the last name Kenobi? The answer may surprise you).  Thanks to Miller’s excellent writing and the close relationship to the third prequel film, Kenobi is an easy novel to get into for anyone who has seen the films, and most readers will really appreciate the cool story it contains.  There are multiple references to all three prequel films and A New Hope in this book, and I know a lot of people will appreciate seeing how several of these events impacted the wider Tatooine community in surprisingly ways.  Miller also makes sure to provide a ton of compelling references to some more obscure Star Wars Legends elements, including multiple characters and events from certain comics, such as Outlander arc of Star Wars: Republic and the Star Wars Legacy series.  Some references are pretty ingrained in certain part of the Tusken Raider character’s backstories and motivations, although readers can probably get away without knowing too much about them as Miller does summarise the most relevant details.  As such, there is a lot here for the hard-core Star Wars and Legends fans to enjoy with this book, and most readers will enjoy seeing how it ties into the former canon.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 3

I have to say that I was quite impressed with how Miller utilises the barren and desolate planet of Tatooine as a setting in Kenobi.  This book serves as a particularly good guide to Tatooine in the Legends canon, and you are soon immersed in the various cultures and landscapes of this deadly planet.  Not only are there multiple breathtaking and powerful depictions of the unforgiving desert landscape that the characters are forced to survive on but there are some fantastic looks at some of the creatures, monsters and threats that exist in the desert, most of which are encountered by the protagonists at some point.  The readers are also treated to an intensive look at some of the main groups of people living on Tatooine, particularly the moisture farmers and the Tusken Raiders.  I loved the depictions of these two different groups, with Miller amping up the resemblance to old West settlers and Native Americans in their cultures, disbursement, and conflict (the phrase “dancing with Tuskens” was used at one point).  I learnt a surprising amount about moisture farming in this novel, which was pretty fun, and it was really interesting to see some of the outcasts and settlers who take up the hard lifestyle.  However, the best depictions involve the Tuskens, who are featured pretty heavily thanks to the use of supporting character A’Yark.  You get some fascinating looks at the tough and often unexplained Tuskens throughout Kenobi and end up coming away with some compelling looks at their culture and lifestyles, as well as some mentions about their most distinctive members in the Legends canon.  I really appreciated the way that Miller portrayed them as a desperate people, thanks to several distinctive events from the films and the comics, and this becomes a major part of their motivations for fighting the settlers and coming into contact with Obi-Wan.  You really get a deep look at this entire setting and its people throughout the course of the story and I am extremely glad Miller featured them so heavily

Unsurprisingly, considering the title of this novel, the reader gets quite an intriguing look at the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This version of Obi-Wan is recently arrived on Tatooine, only just removed from delivering baby Luke to his aunt and uncle, and now trying to find his place in the new, darker universe.  I really enjoyed how Obi-Wan was portrayed in this novel, especially as Miller made the interesting choice not to use him as a point-of-view character.  Instead, you see him purely through the eyes of the rest of the cast as the mysterious and weird hermit, Ben.  This actually works really well on many levels, providing at times a distant view of the protagonist that is reminiscent of Ben’s initial introductions in A New Hope.  I really enjoyed the other character’s impressions of Ben, especially as the character is trying to hide his Jedi abilities, and the fun reactions to his apparently odd actions are quite entertaining at times.

Despite Kenobi not being a point-of-view character, you do get some quite detailed impressions of his current state of mind, and it soon becomes apparent that Obi-Wan is emotionally raw after the events of Revenge of the Sith.  The other characters are quick to notice his apparent sadness, especially through certain noticeable reactions to particular topics, such as his past or the state of the galaxy.  While these other characters may not understand their significance, the reader certainly does, and Miller does a good job of showcasing his deep pain.  This troubled emotional state is also highlighted by several interludes that feature Obi-Wan’s attempted conversations with Qui-Gon Jinn in the Force, which summarise some of the recent events from Ben’s perspective while also examining his state of mind.  As the novel continues, certain events and revelations start to push Kenobi’s buttons, especially the actions of the book’s antagonist.  This eventually leads up to a big emotional outburst from Ben as he talks to one of the other characters about his failings in his past.  Watching him beat himself up for Anakin turning to the Dark Side, as well as the fall of the Jedi and the death of all his friends, is pretty heartbreaking, and it makes for the best scene in the entire novel.  I found it fascinating to see all these emotions unfurl as the plot continue, and the use of other character’s as the primary witnesses and interpreters of this, did a surprisingly good job of exploring the character’s mental state and showcasing just how alone and damaged he truly was.

While Obi-Wan does get a substantial amount of focus throughout Kenobi, the story is primarily told through the eyes of three separate point-of-view characters who Obi-Wan interacts with in different ways.  All three characters are pretty fascinating in their own right, and Miller sets up some brilliant and clever storylines around them.  My favourite of these is probably rancher and businessman Orrin Gault, who has an impressive and captivating character arc in Kenobi.  Initially portrayed as a compassionate, generous and ambitious moisture farmer who has set up the settler militia to oppose the Tusken Raids, Orrin appears to be a decent and noble figure.  However, Orrin has a dark side brought on by hidden motivations and dealings, and it soon becomes clear that many of the issues impacting the other characters are the result of his machinations.  Miller slowly reveals the full extent of Orrin’s misdeeds throughout the course of Kenobi, and he eventually turns into quite a conniving and distinctive antagonist.  The author provides some outstanding and powerful moments for Orrin throughout the book, and there are some interesting similarities between his fall and that of Anakin Skywalker.  I deeply enjoyed the full extent of his powerful arc in Kenobi, especially as Miller comes up with a particularly dark end to his story, and his inclusion really added to overall impact and strength of this book’s narrative.

The other major human character is Kallie Calwell, a store owner who runs the local watering hole and supply shop with her children and who has a close relationship with Orrin Gault.  Kallie ends up becoming one of the leading figures of the book after she and her daughter are the first settlers in the area to encounter the mysterious Ben and are instantly enthralled by his mysterious persona.  Kallie serves as a good narrator for a large portion of the novel and ends up being the central point of view figure for most of the interactions with Ben due to her romantic interest in him.  While I must admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kallie’s character (she was a bit too one-note and her constant family issues got tiring), she did have some intriguing scenes, especially when she interacted with Ben.  She ended up getting the most out of him emotionally, and her connection got him to open up at times to discuss his issues.

The other major point of view character was the deeply fascinating figure of A’Yark, the leader of the Tusken Raiders who have been raiding the local settlements.  Given the title of Plug Eye by the locals due to only having one mysterious red eye, A’Yark stands as a hard and uncompromising figure, determined to save their dying tribe without losing their traditions and sense of honour.  Thanks to A’Yark’s powerfully written scenes, you get a real sense of what it is to be a Tusken Raider, and they serve as captivating figure in comparison to the other characters in the book.  A’Yark has great story arc in this novel, and the intriguing growth, as well as their ability to adapt to certain situations, made them particularly fun to watch.  They also have some interesting connections to Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order, thanks to their former brother-in-law, and this results in some compelling scenes as A’Yark knows what Kenobi is and what he can do.  All these characters, and more, add some fascinating elements to the Kenobi novel, and I really appreciated the powerful and complex story that Miller wove around them.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 4

I doubt anyone would be surprised that I checked out Kenobi’s audiobook format, as I have a great love of the Star Wars audiobook format.  Naturally this worked out very well for me as the Kenobi audiobook was pretty damn awesome.  With a run time of just over 13 and a half hours, this was a relatively easy audiobook to get through and I managed to power through it over the course of several days.  Like most of the Star Wars audiobooks, Kenobi featured a great selection of iconic Star Wars sound effects and music with which the producers use to produce an atmosphere and help listeners visuals all the cool things going on.  Both were really good throughout Kenobi, with the sound effects in particularly being put to great use.  I did think that the use of John William’s epic score was a little more subtle here than in other books, but it still ended up enhancing some key scenes throughout the novel and giving them some extra emotional power.

I was also very impressed by the narration of the Kenobi audiobook, especially as the producers made excellent use of one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Jonathan Davis.  Davis is a brilliant narrator who has lent his epic voice out to multiple Star Wars productions over the years, including Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and the Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama.  He does another exceptional job with Kenobi, perfectly portraying all the characters of this novel with real aplomb.  He does a pretty good job with Obi-Wan, making himself sound as much like Ewan McGregor as possible, and I loved how intense he became during some of his more dramatic scenes.  Davis also provides distinctive voices for all the new characters in the novel, which I felt did a great job portraying their relevant personalities.  I particularly loved the scratchy and coarse voices of the various Tusken Raider characters, such as A’Yark, and you got a real sense of their rage and despair they have at their current situation.  This epic voice work really added to the quality of the Kenobi audiobook, and when combined with the usual awesome Star Wars sound effects and music, ensured that this was an absolute treat to listen to.

Overall, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller is a brilliant and powerful Star Wars novel that did an outstanding job of examining this complex and pivotal figure.  Perfectly examining the early days of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life on Tatooine, this impressive Star Wars Legends novel contains an intriguing, character driven novel that provides an interesting perspective on this hidden Jedi master which I deeply enjoyed.  Making full use of some great new characters and the desolate desert setting, this was a compelling and addictive narrative that is really hard to put down.  Highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, Kenobi is a great entry in the Star Wars Legends range and I look forward to seeing if any elements from it are used in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television show.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 10 January 2012)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 14 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In my latest Throwback Thursday I look at one of the more interesting novels from the Star Wars Legends universe, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.

With Star Wars day on the horizon, I have decided to go back and check out some of the key books in the now defunct Star Wars Legends universe.  While no longer canon, there are still some amazing books in the Legends range, including some that will no doubt serve as an inspiration for some future shows or movies.  I have already enjoyed several Legends books, such as Maul: Lockdown, Scoundrels and Death Troopers, but there are still more epic reads that I really want to check out.  Probably the one I was most interested in reading was the epic Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.  Luceno, who also wrote the fantastic novel Tarkin in the current Disney canon, is a very talented author, and I was very excited in checking out his take on the elusive and mysterious Darth Plagueis.

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?”

Throughout the long and bloody history of the Republic, many Sith lords have risen to threaten the peace and order maintained by their hated rivals, the Jedi.  While some have put complex and deadly plans into effect, few have reached the pinnacle of power, influence or mastery of the Dark Side of the Force as the mysterious Darth Plagueis, whose malign guidance shaped the galaxy in terrible ways and introduced a great darkness.

Upon killing his master and obtaining all the power he ever desired, Darth Plagueis set out to continue his order’s greatest goal: destroying the Jedi and claiming the Republic as his own.  Using his position as a powerful member of the Banking Clan, Darth Plagueis worked to manipulate the Republic into chaos and slowly lead the Jedi to a war they had no hope of winning.  However, even a Sith as powerful as Darth Plagueis is unable to do everything on his own, and he soon seeks out a powerful Force user to take on as his apprentice, a talented politician from Naboo known only as Palpatine.

Renaming Palpatine Darth Sidious, Plagueis begins manipulating events to ensure that his apprentice becomes a major power in the Senate, planning to elevate him to the role of Supreme Chancellor while also destroying those opponents who threaten their plans.  However, despite the importance of their plan, Plagueis’s main desire is not the defeat of the Jedi but of a far older enemy, death itself.  Diving into the mysteries of the Force, Plagueis will explore avenues of power not seen for millennia as he attempts to become the immortal master of the galaxy.  But his obsession with endless life could yet be his greatest undoing.

Wow, Luceno did not disappoint with this fantastic Star Wars novel.  Darth Plagueis is an impressive and captivating read that perfectly tells the story of a particularly elusive figure.  Bringing in some heavy Star Wars elements from the extended lore, Luceno has crafted a brilliant character-driven story that I had an extraordinary time listening to.

Luceno has come up with an interesting story for the Darth Plagueis novel that achieves several goals at once.  Not only does it tell the complete story of this legendary Sith Lord but it provides some interesting context for other pieces of Star Wars fiction, while also containing a powerful story of intrigue, betrayal and darkness.  Set over a period of roughly 35 years and told from the perspectives of Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious (with a few scenes seen from other characters, like Darth Maul), this brilliant novel does an excellent job of exploring the primary characters while also showing their malicious actions across various theatres of the Star Wars universe.  While the novel starts off a little slow, you soon become engrossed in the story as you encounter multiple layers of manipulation and politics as Plagueis attempts to control the galaxy and make his major plans.  The story is broken into three distinct periods, the first showing some of Plagueis’s early movements as a Sith Master and his initial meeting and recruitment of Sidious.  The second part of the book, set 20 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, showcases Sidious as he becomes established as a Senator as Plagueis contends with some dangerous opponents and plots as he sets up the earliest stages of his master plan.  The final third of the novel is set in the lead-up/during the events of The Phantom Menace, where you see many of the storylines come together, as well as the final chapters of the relationship between Plagueis and Sidious.

I had a really great time with this compelling story, and it is one that I feel will appeal to a lot of Star Wars fans.  While I was a little surprised at the suddenness of some of the time skips, I felt that all three major parts of the novel were really good, and I loved how well they flowed together to create one coherent and fantastic read.  The three separate time periods allow for a massive story, while also featuring some of the key moments of the main character’s lives.  Featuring a ton of intriguing and heavy bits of Star Wars lore, parts of the story do drag a little in places, especially as there is a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel.  However, I found all the politics, machinations and expansions of the Star Wars lore to be extremely fascinating, and there is a brilliant story hidden in there.  The story is also not completely bereft of action, and there are some pretty cool fight sequences scattered throughout the book, including some that show off Plagueis’s full, terrifying abilities.  This story had an excellent tone and pace to it, and I feel that everything came together extremely well and I was pretty enraptured by every damn moment of it.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 2

This was a really good Star Wars novel, and it is one that will appeal to a wide range of fans, especially those who enjoyed the Legends range.  While Darth Plagueis is technically no longer canon, Luceno really went out of his way to connect it to the wider Star Wars canon, which is something I really appreciated about this book.  In many ways, Darth Plagueis serves as the ultimate companion to the prequel films as Luceno attempted to fill in some plot holes and unexplained bits of the movies, by exploring the entirety of the Sith’s rise to power.  Bringing in a ton of obscure lore, you get an unparalleled view of how Plagueis and Sidious manipulated events in the Legends canon to lead to the events of the films, and this really helps to fill in some gaps.  Luceno also includes multiple moments from The Phantom Menace film throughout the story, and it was pretty fascinating to see why parts of the antagonist’s plot came together like they did, as well as some excellent alternate views of certain key scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed how Darth Plagueis tied into a ton of other pieces of Star Wars Legends fiction, including books, comics and games.  Multiple prior novels are mentioned or connected to this novel in some way, and I felt that Luceno did a really good job of inserting elements from the already massive extended universe into his book and connecting the stories together and giving all of them more context and interest.  All these connections helped to create a novel that is particularly compelling and intriguing to dedicated Star Wars fans, who will love seeing the events of this book unfold.  While those fans who have only seen the movies will probably be able to enjoy this book easily enough (with only some minor confusion to some of the more obscure parts of the lore), this is a novel best enjoyed by readers who have checked out some other Star Wars Legends books and will appreciate how it fits into that wider version of the canon.

I did like a lot of the universe-building that Luceno did in this novel, as the author explored some fascinating parts of the Legends universe.  Not only does the reader get to experience a lot of obscure elements of Star Wars lore, including aliens, technology, locations and other cool things, but this also serves as one of the most impressive looks at the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  Due to the deep examinations of the Sith and its history by Plagueis, as well as other elements contained in the training of Palpatine, the reader is flooded with knowledge about these Dark Side users and their ways, which proves to be quite intriguing.  I had a brilliant time learning more about these deep elements of lore, especially as the characters talk about practicalities as well as history.  The difference between various forms of the Dark Side are very cool, as you see some comparisons between Plagueis’s more scientific based usage of the Force and the Dark Side sorcery preferred by Sidious.  I also found the characters’ own description and assessment of the Sith and the Force to be surprisingly deep, as the characters see themselves as more of a necessary force there to save the galaxy and the Republic from the Jedi.  Darth Plagueis also contains some fantastic detail about the history of the planet Naboo, which I also found really fascinating.  Darth Plagueis goes out of its way to explore the history of the planet and the reasons why it became a political and economic factor in the Republic in the lead-up to The Phantom Menace, and I loved seeing the political strife and manipulation that led to this initial war, as well as the rise of characters like Palpatine and Amidala.  These brilliant pieces of lore are so much fun to learn about, and I had an incredible time finding out more about the Sith in this canon.

Of course, one of the best bits of the lore that Luceno examines in this novel is the role that Darth Plagueis had in the Star Wars universe.  First mentioned in that iconic monologue in Revenge of the Sith, Plagueis remained a mostly shadowy and unknown figure until the release of this book, which serves as the ultimate guide to the character and his history.  Luceno, who at this point had been planning a Darth Plagueis story for years, does a brilliant job of telling the full story of this great character, and you get an outstanding focus on his entire life, especially his time as a Sith Master.  Plagueis, a Muun also known as Hego Damask, is portrayed as a thoughtful, powerful and manipulative being with a surprising nobility and dignity to him.  Fitted with an intriguing backstory and motivations, you see him grow into an extremely powerful Sith Lord throughout the course of the book, and it was fascinating to see all his plans and machinations.   The most significant part of the character’s motivations is his hunt for immortality through the force.  As such, you get a fantastic look at his obsessive experiments and research, as he tries to uncover this ultimate secret.  I felt that Luceno did an incredible job of working this mysterious character into the wider Star Wars canon.  There are some great moments throughout this book that show this shadowy figure manipulating key events from the shadows to bring about the events of the prequel films.  I particularly loved how Luceno fit Plagueis into some scenes from The Phantom Menace, and it is very fun to imagine him watching these moments from just outside camera shot.  This really was an incredible examination and exploration of this character, and I had so much fun finally finding out who Darth Plagueis was and how he was connected to the wider story.  Despite this story no longer being canon, this novel is really the only guide to Darth Plagueis, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is used as the primary source material for anyone wanting to introduce him in a future film or television series.

While this book does tell the story of Darth Plagueis, in many ways it is just as much about Palpatine as it provides readers with an outstanding look at his early history.  Essentially set during the time he was Darth Plagueis’s apprentice, you get some amazing insights into who Palpatine is and how he turned to the Dark Side of the Force.  Portrayed as manipulative and insidious since birth, you get to see Palpatine at his most evil and dangerous as he learns about the Force and the Sith.  I loved how you get to see various stages of Palpatine’s early life, from his teenage years where he first learns about his powers, to his middle age where he becomes a young ambitious senator and apprentice, to his time as an experienced manipulator and Force user just before coming Supreme Chancellor.  I had a brilliant time seeing Palpatine grow as both a Sith and a politician throughout this book, and you get some fantastic views of his early interactions with key players in the Star Wars canon.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing his intriguing dynamic with Darth Plagueis.  In pretty much all his other appearances, Star Wars fans only ever see the confident and controlling Palpatine who has no-one above him.  However, in Darth Plagueis, you see a somewhat more subservient Palpatine who is forced to bow to the will of one more powerful.  Watching working under another is an interesting change of pace, although some reveals towards the end of the book (and in some other novels, such as Maul: Lockdown), show that he is never as loyal as Plagueis believes.  This truly was an outstanding depiction of Palpatine and it was so awesome to see more about our favourite soon-to-be emperor.

Aside from Plagueis and Palpatine, the Darth Plagueis novel is loaded with a ton of interesting supporting characters, many of whom had roles in the films, animated series or other pieces of Legends fiction.  These intriguing characters help to create the novel’s rich tapestry of politics, intrigue and betrayals, and all of them served some fantastic roles in the book.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the inclusion of other Sith characters like Count Dooku and Darth Maul, especially as this novel serves as a bit of an origin story for both, as you see Palpatine obtaining and training Maul as well as Plagueis and Palpatine manipulating Dooku to leave the Jedi.  I also enjoyed the intriguing look at Plagueis’s own master, Darth Tenebrous, whose brief role showed a whole other aspect to the Sith as he had his own distinctive style.  I did think that the crowd of supporting figures with their own story elements slowed the pace of the novel down a little in the middle of the book, but I ended up having a brilliant time enjoying the story set around the awesome main characters.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to Darth Plagueis on audiobook rather than seeking out a physical copy of this excellent novel.  I naturally had a very fun time listening to this version of the book, which not only featured a brilliant narrator but also made excellent use of the typical Star Wars audiobook production elements.  Darth Plagueis is loaded with cool sound effects and awesome Star Wars music, all of which add to the ambiance of the story in various ways.  I particularly liked the use of John Williams’s iconic scores throughout this audiobook, which did a great job of enhancing several scenes and increasing their emotional impact.  This was particularly true for some of the darker moments in the book, as some of the music associated with the Sith, the Dark Side and death/destruction, are blasted at full volume during some key moments, such as Palpatine discovering his destructive abilities for the first time, or during a couple of massacres.  This awesome music was so cool to hear during these scenes, and you really got an increased sense of the powerful emotions and dark deeds that were going on.

I also deeply enjoyed the epic narration, as this fantastic audiobook features the vocal talents of actor Daniel Davis (whom audiences of taste will recognise as Niles from The Nanny).  Davis gives a powerful and commanding performance here, bringing some major gravitas to the role and the characters.  His voice work for the titular character, Darth Plagueis, is really good, and you get a fantastic sense of the character’s power and wisdom as the novel continues.  Davis also does a brilliant job of voicing multiple characters and species from the Star Wars films, sounding quite close to their original actors.  I loved the voice work for Palpatine, capturing much of the villain’s iconic voice, while also giving it a youthful tilt for the earlier parts of the book.  Other characters, such as Count Dooku and Darth Maul, are also expertly portrayed here, and I particularly liked Davis’s take on Christopher Lee’s amazing voice.  This outstanding voice work, combined with the sound effects and music, helped to turn this into an exceptional listen that I deeply enjoyed.  With a run time just under 15 hours, this is a descent sized Star Wars audiobook, but listeners can power through it in no time at all.  This format comes highly recommended and you will have an outstanding time listening to the Darth Plagueis audiobook.

Overall, Darth Plagueis is an impressive and addictive Star Wars Legends novel that I had an incredible time reading.  James Luceno really excels at telling complex narratives that examine character origins, and Darth Plagueis did a wonderful and comprehensive job of expanding on a mostly unknown figure.  I loved learning everything about this awesome Star Wars figure, and Luceno wove an outstanding tale of intrigue and power around him and his apprentice.  An absolute must read for all fans of the Star Wars extended universe, I cannot wait until they finally introduce this complex figure into the current canon.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 3

Throwback Thursday – Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair.

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

It is fair to say that the early to mid-2000s was one of my favourite periods of comic books, with some truly cool and epic ongoing and limited series being released.  This was particularly true for DC Comics, who produced some of their best work during this time, many of which rank amongst my all-time favourite comic series.  This easily includes the exceptional and brilliant crossover event, Identity Crisis, which to my mind is one of the best limited series ever written.

Made of seven issues, Identity Crisis combines the unique writing talent of thriller author Brad Meltzer with the artistic stylings of veteran DC Comics collaborators Rags Morales and Michael Bair.  This ended up being a near perfect combination of talents and skill, and I have a lot of love for the exceptional story, which absolutely hooks me every time, and its outstanding associated artwork.  I particularly impressed with the addition of Meltzer, who, despite his more literary background has written some of the absolute best and most human comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading, including Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest and the two Justice League of America storylines, The Tornado’s Path and The Lightning Saga.  However, his story in Identity Crisis is particularly powerful and thought-provoking, and it ends up being a comic that completely changes everything you knew about your favourite heroes.

For years the members of the Justice League of America have protected the world from all manner of evil and destruction, always prevailing no matter the odds.  But who can protect them when someone goes after those closest to them?  And what if they actually deserve the punishment being visited upon them?

On an unremarkable night, a mysterious attacker breaks into the home of long-serving Justice League associate, Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and commits a terrible crime, the murder of Ralph’s beloved wife, Sue Dibny.  With no evidence about who the killer is and no idea how they breached the Dibnys’ impressive security, the superhero community rallies behind their bereaved friend and seeks to find the killer by any means necessary.

As the rest of the heroes seek answers at any potential suspect within the supervillain community, the Elongated Man and a small group his closest friends hunt for a minor villain, Dr Light, whose secret connection to the League’s darkest moment may hold the answers they seek.  However, when a second attack occurs on another publicly known relative of a superhero, Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, it soon becomes clear that someone else is targeting the heroes and their loved ones.

Identity Crisis #1b

As Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and others attempt to get to the bottom of the case, cryptic threats to one hero’s relative reveal that whoever is targeting them knows all of the League’s secrets, including their hidden identities.  As even more tragedies befall the superhero community, dark secrets from the League’s past are brought into the light and no-one will be prepared for the terrible truth behind these brutal murders.  Can the League weather this latest attack, or is this the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest heroes?

Damn, no matter how many times I read this comic, the tragic and powerful events of Identity Crisis still really get to me.  This exceptional comic contains one of the most impressive narratives I have ever seen in a limited series, taking the reader on a captivating and emotional dive into the world of your favourite heroes.  Perfectly combing a dark, mysterious narrative with incredible character work and some truly amazing artistic inclusions, this comic gets an extremely easy five-star rating from me.

For Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer really went to the well, producing an insanely compelling and moving story that relentless drags you in and introduces you to a completely new side of your favourite heroes.  Utilising his experience as a crime thriller writer, he produces a powerful, character driven superhero narrative with detailed crime fiction elements to create an exceptional and unique story.  Identity Crisis has an amazing start to it, which not only carefully introduces several key figures but also installs some dark tragedy, as the wife of a superhero is killed off.  The subsequent investigation into her murder by the enraged superhero community is extremely compelling and intense, as the emotional heroes turn over every rock and stone, much to the horror of the villains.  However, it is soon revealed that several members of the Justice League are harbouring a devastating secret, one that could reveal the identity of the killer.  This secret becomes one of the most important parts of the first half of the series, and it leads to an epic, action-packed fight sequence against a particularly dangerous foe.

Identity Crisis #2

The story starts to go in a bit of a different direction at this point, with the above secret not really panning out regarding the investigation.  However, other superhero relatives, both public and secret, are targeted, resulting in pandemonium around the characters.  I loved the narrative’s move to a more classic investigation at this point, as the heroes start following every lead they can, while more character development and big moments are explored.  This all leads up to the defining moment when another superhero loses a loved one and the identity of the killer is seemingly revealed.  However, this turns out to be a bluff, as the real killer is still hidden.  The reveal of who did it and why are revealed pretty suddenly towards the end, with some curious and clever motivations exposed.  This leads to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, as more secrets are revealed, dangerous lies are uncovered, and several characters leave the story more broken and destroyed than ever before.  You will be thrown through the emotional wringer as you check this comic out.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Meltzer told Identity Crisis’s excellent story, especially as it quickly and effectively engrosses the reader and ensures their undivided attention.  The author utilises a mass-character narrative that follows a substantial collection of heroes and villains, many of whom have distinctive or semi-separate storylines.  This works to tell an intriguing, rich narrative that not only has some clever dramatic components but also allows for some intriguing and compelling retcons and expansions to the already elaborate DC universe.  It is very cool how the story developed into more of a murder mystery/thriller story as the comic progressed, and this really played to Meltzer’s strengths.  The investigation is handled very well, and I liked how the superhero elements altered and enhanced it in some clever ways.  The mystery itself is complex and clever, with Meltzer adding in some great twists, false leads and compelling surprises to keep the reader guessing.  The twist about the actual killer is pretty good, and Meltzer did a great job layering in hints and clues throughout the rest of the story while also introducing a few good alternative suspects.  While the motivations and complexities surrounding the killer’s actions are great, I did think that how the protagonists worked it out was a little abrupt, and it might have been a little better if they worked it out from some earlier clues.  The use of female characters wasn’t the best either, especially as most of them are there simply to be victims in one shape or another.  Having a long-established character getting both raped and murdered in a comic as a plot device is pretty unfortunate, and some stronger female figures might have helped balance this out.  Still, this ended up being an awesome read and I deeply enjoyed how it turned out.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Identity Crisis is the interesting examinations that were included as part of the plot.  Meltzer and the artistic team obviously had a lot of fun exploring or introducing some cool aspects of the DC Universe in this series, especially when it comes to the secret or hidden lives of superheroes and supervillains.  I particularly loved the in-depth examination about how both groups are officially or unofficially organised, and there are some very intriguing views of them socialising or working together.  The inclusion of a highly organised superhero death investigation squad, made up of a range of random heroes (the Ray, the Atom, Animal Man, Mister Miracle and two of the Metal Men) is particularly clever, as is the way the various heroes organise into a vengeful posse to question potential suspects.  The deep dive into the importance of a superhero secret identity also becomes an important part of the story, especially as the loss of the secret brings pandemonium thanks to the killer stalking them.  I also loved the counterbalance look at organised villainy, and there are some excellent scenes that see the villains gathering to socialise or talk shop.  Having an organising force like the Calculator, as well as a secret space station hangout, is pretty elaborate, and the deeper look at the villains of this universe, definitely gave Identity Crisis a compelling and intricate edge.

Identity Crisis #3

However, easily the most groundbreaking and compelling new inclusion to the universe is the reveal about the unofficial league within the Justice League who have some dark secrets.  Made up of heroes Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna and Atom, as well as the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, this group of heroes apparently operated separately of the main Justice League during their classic Silver Age adventures, acting as their clean-up crew.  This retcon by Meltzer provides an interesting explanation for why villains never remember the secret identities of the heroes they switch minds with or whose dreams they invade, namely they have their mind erased by Zatanna’s magic after being captured by this inner-League.  While this is already a dark move by these established heroes, it gets even worse when they are forced to reveal that they intentionally destroyed Dr Light’s brain to make him less of a threat.  This and other revelations, acts to make many of your favourite heroes appear much more morally grey and fallible, and it was a particularly impressive and monumental inclusion, that will have grave consequences down the line for the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly for something written by Meltzer, Identity Crisis contains some insanely complex and impressive characters who form the heart of the tale.  Due to the way the story is told, Identity Crisis follows a massive cast of comic characters, including several obscure or underappreciated figures.  Meltzer does a brilliant job of utilising all these established characters throughout his story, with nearly every major cast member getting a moment to shine in some way or another, and multiple figures who were underutilised or unappreciated before this comic were given brilliant and defining second chances here.  While the use of multiple focus characters had the potential for a scattered narrative, Meltzer was able to direct the flow of the story around all these various protagonists and antagonists perfectly, and you still get a tight and concise story, which also takes the time to dive into each of these figures and showcase them to their greatest degree.  As I mentioned before, there is a real focus on highlighting the darker side of the superhero characters throughout Identity Crisis, and you end up really seeing these fantastic figures in a whole new scary light.

Let’s start with Ralph and Sue Dibny.  I must admit that the very first time I ever read Identity Crisis, many years ago, I honestly had no idea who Elongated Man and his wife were, as they were a little obscure.  However, Meltzer really goes out of his way to feature them in this story (even adding in a few retcons) and you are given a great introduction to them at the start.  In just a few panels, you understand who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the other superheroes, as well as some unique characteristics and relationship quirks.  This excellent introduction makes you start to care about them just as Meltzer brings the hammer down and kills Sue.  The subsequent grief, rage and despair from Elongated Man is just heartbreaking, and you go through the rest of the comic seeing him attempt to recover from these terrible events.  This amazing use of characters at the start of the comic has a great flow-on effect to the rest of the story, and you become exceedingly invested in finding the killer as a result.

Identity Crisis #4

From there, a lot of the superhero focus goes to the surviving members of the Justice League who formed the league within the League I mentioned above.  There is some exceptional character work around some of these team members, especially as they come to terms with the decisions they made in the past and how they are impacting them now.  I loved seeing them attempt to justify their actions to the other heroes, even their darkest decisions, especially as you can understand why they did what they did, while also feeling disappointed in them.  You really get a sense of determination and shame from them as the story continues, and you see all of them go through a lot in both the past in the present story.  Despite multiple differences, this team are still friends and comrades, and watching them come together to brawl with some of the most dangerous characters is pretty heartwarming, even if darker elements lie just beneath the surface.

While there is a focus on these inner-Leaguers, some of them are utilised a lot more frequently than others, particularly the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen.  Green Arrow is an excellent figure in this comic and is probably the closest thing to a heroic narrator/central protagonist the story has.  His unique perspective on the events acts as a good foil to many of the other characters, such as Batman and Superman, and he proves to be a calm, if potentially vengeful figure for much of the story, organising many of the League actions and forensic investigations.  He also proves to be the voice of reason for the inner League, calmly justifying many of their actions and serving as a bridge between this existing group and the newer Flash and Green Lantern.  Despite his belief that they are doing the right thing, you can see some real emotion and regret in his face, especially when the further revelations about Dr Light and Batman come out.  I also appreciated the deeper look into his antagonistic relationship with Hawkman, which partially originated in the past events mentioned here, and it is interesting to see how the events of this comic impact future Green Arrow storylines.

Aside from Green Arrow, other members of this secret League who get an intriguing focus include the Atom, Ray Palmer, and his ex-wife, Jean Loring.  Due to his status as another public hero, Atom and Jean are also targeted throughout the story, and you end up getting a rather intense and fascinating look at both.  Watching their failed relationship rekindle is a nicer part of most of the comic, although eventual reveals and tragedies naturally ruin it and smash everything around.  Still, their complicated emotions and issues surrounding their fractured relationship make for some of the best parts of the comic.  I liked the interesting look at Zatanna throughout the comic, especially as she is largely responsible for some of the worst moments of this group of heroes, as she clearly feels guilty about her magic messing with the villain’s minds.  I also need to highlight the younger Flash, Wally West, who finds out about the actions of the other characters during the current events of the comic.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to see Wally learn that his mentor and predecessor, Barry Allen, was not as perfect as he imagined, and actually participated in some of the team’s worst events.  The distress he exhibits with every subsequent reveal is showcased through the comic’s art extremely well, and his subsequent guilt as he is forced to keep it secret from other Leaguers like Batman is quite noticeable.

Identity Crisis #5

As you can expect from any major DC Comics crossover event, members of DC’s Big Three are strongly featured throughout Identity Crisis.  While Wonder Woman only has a few intriguing scenes, in which you get to see both her ferocity and her kindness, there is much more of a focus on Superman and Batman.  Superman gets some great sequences throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team sinisterly focus on his family and friends, all of whom are potential targets.  Watching Superman slowly get frustrated with the investigation, especially when Lois is threatened, helps to enhance the seriousness of the story, and he has some powerful moments here.  I did appreciate the way in which Meltzer attempted to paint the big blue Boy Scout in a darker light, as it is revealed that even the supposedly righteous Superman is not as innocent as you’d believe.  It is subtly implied that Superman always knew what the inner League was up to (yay for super hearing), and chose to ignore it for convenience.  This brilliant and dark suggestion that even Superman isn’t infallible is a pretty weighty one that  helps to enhance the weight and power of Identity Crisis’s narrative.

Batman is a lot more involved in the story and leads his own investigation into who is behind the killing.  Even though he does not actually appear until halfway through the comic, he is a heavy presence throughout Identity Crisis, both because of his brusque, loner ways of trying to solve the crime, but because of the dark shadows of the past.  There are multiple moments that revisit his childhood and the death of his parents, which parallels some of the other losses in Identity Crisis, and you get to see the human side of grief impacting this usually stoic character.  Batman’s storyline gets even more intense when it is revealed that part of his memory was erased by his fellow Leaguers to cover up their actions surrounding Dr Light, which is a very haunting inclusion.  Meltzer makes this even more intriguing by having Green Arrow suggest, mostly out of guilt, that Batman likely has done something similar in the past, while also acknowledging that he has likely already deduced that his memories were erased.  This really makes you consider Batman’s relationship with the rest of his heroes, and it certainly has a big impact on future Batman storylines.

The Batman impact on this story is also felt through the great focus on the current Robin, Tim Drake, who plays a surprisingly big role in the events of Identity Crisis.  At the start of the comic, Tim is one of the few members of the Bat-family who still has a father, which puts him at odds with Batman and the Robin predecessors.  As his father has only just discovered his dual identity as Robin, he becomes one of the more interesting protagonists, as the comic explores the stress of the superhero lifestyle on family.  Tim’s storyline ends up being extremely tragic when his father is murdered.  Watching Robin talk to his father over the phone as he’s about to die is just damn horrific, and your heart can’t help but break during that epically drawn-out scene where he and Batman arrive too late.  The subsequent parallel between him, Bruce Wayne and previous Robin Dick Grayson during this moment is particularly poignant, and it results in a whole new chapter of this amazing incarnation of Robin.

Identity Crisis #6

While there are a few other interestingly featured heroes in Identity Crisis, I’m going to start talking about the villains, as many of them have a brilliant role in this comic.  Thanks to Meltzer’s fantastic writing, Identity Crisis proves to be just as much about the villains as the heroes, as many of them are deeply impacted by the events disclosed here.  While I won’t reveal the identity of the killer here (I’m keeping some spoilers locked up), I will say that their motivations are pretty fascinating and provide a compelling insight into the super lifestyle.  The rest of the villains in Identity Crisis are fair game for discussion, though, and I deeply loved the creative team’s excellent examination of them.

Easily the villain I need to talk about the most is Dr Light, an old school Justice League villain who had not been really utilised in recent years.  Mostly known before this comic as the Teen Titans’ punching bag, Meltzer completely revitalised the character in Identity Crisis and, with a stroke, turned him onto one of the most deranged and dangerous figures in the entire universe.  It is revealed throughout the comic that Dr Light used to be an extremely powerful villain, but after invading an empty Watch Tower and raping Sue Dibny, the League brutally took him down, erased his memory of the event and then magically lobotomised him.  This resulted in him becoming the moronic and weakened villain who was routinely taken down by the teenage heroes and other embarrassing foes.  This entire reveal is pretty damn epic and horrifying at the same time.  Not only does Dr Light seem excessively evil and deranged in the flashback scenes, but the shocking revelations of his actions immediately make you hate him.  Meltzer’s explanation for why he turned into such as pathetic creature (aside from the real reason of capricious authors) really hits home hard, and even though Dr Light is a terrible person, you can’t believe that members of the Justice League went so far.  The subsequent scenes where Dr Light regains his memories and his powers feature some of the best artwork in the comic, and while he doesn’t do much here, the scenes with him brooding and plotting hit at his returned and future malevolence.  I deeply appreciated how much Meltzer was able to morph this villain, and while the reliance on rape for antagonist purposes is a bit low, he succeeded in making him a very hateful and despicable figure.

Aside from the killer and Dr Light, several other villains hold interesting and significant roles in Identity Crisis, and I deeply enjoyed how they were portrayed.  This includes Green Arrow villain Meryln, who serves as an interesting shadow to Oliver Queen throughout the comic (more so than usual).  While Green Arrow provides the superhero community’s viewpoint on events, Merlyn’s narration examines the supervillain community and their various reactions.  I loved his fun insights into his fellow villains, and he ends up being an interesting inclusion to the cast.  The same can be said for the Calculator, a formerly silly figure who has turned himself into a non-costumed villain who acts as an anti-Oracle, providing the villain community with tech support and intelligence by charging them $1,000 per question.  I loved this interesting revamp of this minor character, especially as this suave, behind-the-scenes information broker became his default look for years.  Calculator’s conversations and business dealings offer some compelling insights into the superhero community, and I loved the occasional jokes about his old costume.  Meltzer also makes exceptional use of one of my favourite villains, Deathstroke, who once again shows why he is the DC universe’s ultimate badass.  Hired by Dr Light to protect himself from the League, Deathstroke takes on an entire team of heroes single handily and essentially spanks them.  I love how the creative team not only showcase his insane physical abilities, but also his tactical knowhow, as he expertly takes down major heroes in brilliant ways (he takes down the Atom and Hawkman with a laser pointer, true story).  His scene in the centre of the comic is the best action sequence in Identity Crisis, and it perfectly showcased this awesome villain (seriously, give this man a movie), while also hinting at some future grudges.

Identity Crisis #7

The final character I want to talk about is the lecherous and always entertaining Captain Boomerang, who has a major role in the plot.  I absolutely loved the exceptional story that Meltzer wrote around this infamous villain, and it is easily one of his most defining depictions.  Captain Boomerang has always been shown as a bit of a joke, but this comic shows him as a fat, washed up has-been, who leaches off his fellow villains and is generally looked down upon by them.  However, he gets a very intense and emotional story in this comic, as he meets his long-lost son and starts to develop a relationship with him.  The father/son moments add a rather interesting and nice edge to the main story and seem slightly disconnected from the rest of the plot.  That is until the final killing, when it is revealed that Captain Boomerang has arrived to kill Robin’s father.  The implied suggestion that Captain Boomerang of all people might be behind the killings is pretty iconic, and I loved the split panels that contrast his phone call to his son with the phone conversation between Robin and his father.  The subsequent results of the attack, as well as the reveals in the aftermath are pretty awesome, and I really appreciated the fun second chance that Meltzer and the artistic team gave to this iconic, old-school villain.

While I have gone a lot about story elements and characters, I also really need to highlight the incredible artwork featured in Identity Crisis.  The artistic team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair did an outstanding job in this limited series, producing some of the absolute best artwork from this era of DC Comics which perfectly enhances Meltzer’s epic storytelling.  There are so many impressive and memorable artistic moments and sequences throughout Identity Crisis, and I loved the various ways in which the artists convey movement, action, and emotion in their detailed and captivating panels.  There are so many brilliant action sequences in this comic, with my favourite being the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight I mentioned above, although a few others are also very cool to see.  I also loved the character designs featured throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team took the opportunity to seriously reinvent several heroes and villains.  The streamlined look of the Calculator is particularly fun, and I also loved the balding and fat version of Captain Boomerang.  While I didn’t love how a couple of characters looked (what was with the hair on Connor Hawke?), most of it was pretty exceptional, and I love how it was later reutilised by other artists.

There are multiple truly brilliant and eye-catching artistic highlights of Identity Crisis that I must highlight, including the massive and powerful funeral sequence that takes place in the early part of the series.  There is an incredibly elaborate double-page public funeral spread that shows every single emotional superhero in attendance, with the various heroes organised by team or connection to the grieving family.  The use of the multiple heroes and associates is pretty awesome, especially as there are a range of character-appropriate reactions, and I loved seeing the whole costume crowd surrounded by members of the press and public as they mourn.  You also get also some excellent and heartfelt sequences in the subsequent scenes which show the eulogies, especially when Elongated Man starts to literally deteriorate due to his grief, which is just so powerful.  Other great examples of the artist’s work include the fun flashback scenes that allowed them to draw events in various classic comic styles, that offer a little bit of simplicity compared to the darker modern spread.

I particularly loved some of the brilliant sequences that are set around Dr Light, as not only do you see him at his most dangerous in the past but you also have some outstanding scenes when he regains his memories and powers.  The excellent parallels between the Justice League’s takedown of Dr Light and their attack on Deathstroke are incredible, and the subsequent massive panel of blinding light around Dr Light’s face is perfection.  However, the absolute best-drawn sequence in Identity Crisis must be the panels leading up to the death of Robin’s father.  Watching the insane amount of emotion on Batman and Robin as they realise that Robin’s father is about to die is so damn moving, especially the anguish on Robin.  The most moving of these panels is the one that focuses on Batman’s face after Robin begs his mentor to save his father.  The look of pure dread, fear and despair on Batman’s face takes my breath away every single time I look at it, and it perfectly conveys all of Batman’s repressed feelings as he realises that history is once again going to repeat itself.  While there are some other great scenes, the above are easily the cream of the artistic crop and definitely make this comic stand out.  I have so much love for the artistic work of Morales and Bair here, and it markedly enhances the already exceptional story, turning Identity Crisis into a true epic classic.

Well, that’s pretty much everything I have to say about Identity Crisis here.  As you can no doubt guess from the excessive way I have waffled on, I have a lot of love for this exceptional comic and I’m not afraid to show it.  The brilliant creative team behind Identity Crisis did an incredible job with this comic and they really turned out something special.  Perfectly bringing together a deep and clever story with impressive artwork, amazing characters, and so much damn emotion, this comic has something for everyone and is so very highly recommended.  I deeply enjoy everything about Identity Crisis, especially how it leads to some other epic comic books (the continuation of the mindwipe stuff in Justice League of America, Green Arrow, Teen Titans and more is particularly good).  One of the most distinctive and amazing comics ever and a must read for all DC Comics fans.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

Throwback Thursday – X-Factor: Volume 1: The Longest Night

X-Factor - Volume 1 - The Longest Night

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 7 March 2007)

Series: X-Factor (Vol. 3) – Volume One

Writer: Peter David

Pencils: Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero

Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger & Dennis Calero

Colour Art: Jose Villarrubia

Letters: Cory Petit

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this Throwback Thursday I look at the start of one of the best comic series I have ever had the pleasure of reading, with The Longest Night, the first volume in Peter David’s impressive and incredible X-Factor series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 2 Cover

There are many awesome comic series that I have a great appreciation for, but to my mind one of the most entertaining, clever and captivating series I have ever had the pleasure of reading has to be the third major version of the X-Factor title that ran between 2005 and 2013.  This series span off the limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice, with its entire run written by Peter David, with a rotating team of talented artists.  Also known as X-Factor (Vol.3) or X-Factor Investigations, this long-running series focused on a team of mutants who formed a detective agency after the events of House of M.  Calling themselves X-Factor Investigations and led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, this series followed the team as they investigated mutant related crimes, protected the area of New York formerly known as Mutant Town, and did general superheroics, often for a fee.  Despite its odd-sounding plot, this was an incredibly good series, and it is one of my all-time favourite comic series.  I have recently done a bit of a re-read of this series and thought that it would be a good time to talk about it on my blog, starting with this first volume, The Longest Night.

X-Factor is back, and this time they are in business for themselves as X-Factor Investigations, the weirdest and only mutant run private investigative agency in New York.  Led by Jamie Madrox (the Multiple Man), made up of the ragtag group of heroes including, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Siryn, Rictor and Monet, X-Factor investigates the cases no-one else will, especially if it helps current and former mutants.  However, X-Factor are about to find themselves investigating the most sinister case of their brief tenure, when a new client walks in the door, accompanied by the mysterious Layla Miller.  Following the breadcrumbs given to them by Layla, X-Factor begins looking into the rival organisation, Singularity Investigations, who have dire plans for the future of all mutant kind.  At the same time, X-Factor finds itself in the middle of the deteriorating conditions in Mutant Town, as they start their own investigation into what really depowered most of the mutant species.

As their investigations continue, X-Factor find themselves encountering crazy events and dire obstacles from all sides.  Forced to protect their client from being arrested for murder, as well as the deadly attentions of Singularity Investigations, X-Factor struggles to solve the case before it is too late.  However, their actions have awoken a dangerous enemy whose knowledge of time could prove disastrous.  Can X-Factor succeed and become the team the world needs, and what role will Layla Miller play in their future, especially as she actively attempts to hide the events of House of M and Decimation from her new friends?

X-Factor - Vol3 - 3 Cover

The Longest Night is a brilliant and intense comic volume that serves as the perfect introduction to this outstanding X-Factor series.  Containing issues #1-6 of X-Factor (Vol. 3), The Longest Night contains an incredible and epic story by Peter David that expertly introduces the new team and sets up many of their future adventures, perfectly accompanied by the excellent art of Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero.  This incredible comic will really start your fall towards X-Factor obsession.

To start this amazing series off, David has come up with an impressive narrative that not only introduces the team but also contains several clever mysteries and dangerous threats.  The Longest Night starts off in a very interesting way, with Madrox attempting to save the life of a suicidal Rictor, while other members of the team find themselves under attack from sinister forces.  The story quickly develops, with new player Layla Miller directing X-Factor Investigations towards the mysterious Singularity Investigations, while also implementing her own mysterious agenda.  This sets the X-Factor team down a dark path as they contend with the corrupt and deadly Singularity employees as well as other malicious threats that pop up.  I deeply enjoyed the main storyline, especially as the protagonists are forced to intervene in a murder case to prove that their client is innocent, despite dangerous interference from their competitors.  This leads to some dark consequences, as one of the team is attacked and then kidnapped in scenes that strongly remind you of a dark thriller.  The new villains of this early part of the series, Singularity Investigations and their management team the Tryps, prove to be pretty sinister, and I liked some of the unique storylines that are started up around them.  There are also some impressive and clever sequences that explore the aftermath of the Decimation, as well as the current mental states of the various team members, which is extremely powerful and deeply moving.

I loved the cool style that this comic had, especially as the creative team were trying to give it a classic noir detective vibe at times.  While some of the best themes from the X-Men comics are featured within this volume, such as prejudice, dual self-hatred and love of mutant abilities, and the fallout from the House of M limited series, this comic really stands on its own, and I loved the combination of mutant issues and crime fiction.  There is a certain dark edge to many of the storylines, with the character dealing with brutal murders and attempted killings.  While much of the focus is on the darker and more mature vibes, this comic also has a wicked sense of humour behind it which I deeply enjoyed.  All the characters are pretty fun, and there are some dark and clever jokes sprinkled throughout the story, especially when it comes to group clown Madrox and resident mystery girl Layla Miller.  This combination of superheroics, dark humour and crime fiction makes for quite an impressive read, and I always find myself getting really drawn into it.  Due to how many times I have read this series of the years I also really respect The Longest Night as a first entry in the overall X-Factor (Vol.3) series.  While all the best elements haven’t been introduced yet, this comic is still off to a brilliant start, and I loved all the hints and brief mentions of the events yet to come.  Multiple storylines are perfectly set up here, and there are some great references to upcoming events and some key moments from recent comics.  This proves to be an exciting and impressive first entry in this series, and I love how it spawns so many awesome moments in the future.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 4 Cover

One of the things that has always impressed me about this version of X-Factor is the excellent cast of characters featured.  The team is an intriguing combination of some of the more unique and enjoyable characters from the various X-Men comics.  The initial line-up featured in The Longest Night is a great example of this, as David has featured several previous X-Factor members alongside some interesting new choices.  There is a real mismatched feel to the characters, as not only are they angry and discontent, but there is some thinly veiled antagonism going on between them, despite them all being on the same team.  On top of that, they end up being some of the most damaged and complex figures you can expect to find in Marvel comics, as they are all dealing with unique personal issues.  This results in some major personality clashes and great internal struggles that really enhances the drama of the narrative and results in some brilliant storytelling.

The main character of this series is team leader Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man.  Jamie is a very interesting figure in this series, due to the many divergent and tragic issues that result from his ability to create duplicates of himself.  Attempting to be a grounded and calm figure for the team, Jamie often finds himself undermined, not only by his time but also by his own dupes, which proves to be both entertaining and occasionally emotionally powerful.  A lot of these great elements are explored in The Longest Night, and you get a great sense of who the character is and his complex feelings, even if you haven’t read the lead-in limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice.  Jamie cuts a great figure as a noir-inspired private detective leading a team of misfits, but in reality, he is scared and emotionally drained, even before the series starts.  Jamie ends up spending most of this comic battling his own inner demons and indecision, while also having difficulty controlling his team.  While in many ways Jamie is a tragic figure, he also serves as one of the main comic reliefs, and his smart-assed comments and dark jokes add a lot to the narrative, while barely hiding his struggles within.  I really liked how this comic spent significant time exploring Jamie’s power to create duplicates, as well as the many problems associated with it.  What makes this power very unique is the way that each of his dupes has their own personality, most of which are a manifestation of his own fears, internal struggles, inner dark side and more.  While this is often played for comedic effect, especially as his crazier dupes say some very random stuff, certain dupes show off a real mean side, such as one who pretends to be Zen, but is actually Jamie’s unpredictable side, his “X-Factor”.  This was an overall incredibly impressive introduction to Madrox, and it serves as a brilliant base to his various follow-on storylines that are such an impressive feature of the rest of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 5 Cover

Aside from Madrox, the team is made up of former X-Factor members Julio Richter (Rictor), Guido Carosella (Strong Guy) and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), as well as X-Factor newcomers Theresa Cassidy (Siryn, daughter of Banshee) and Monet St. Croix (M from the Generation X comic).  I really liked this great blend of figures as it produces some awesome and entertaining team dynamics, such as having the arrogant party girl, Monet, getting into various disputes with the other characters.  All five of these characters have some interesting moments in this volume, such as Strong Guy and Wolfsbane’s interference against an anti-mutant riot, or Monet’s brief emotional breakdown after telepathically experiencing the murder of a young woman.  However, I the best moments of this volume probably occurred with Siryn and Rictor.  Siryn, who serves as a bit of a second-in-command, has several key storylines around her, and she ends up being the one most obsessed with the actions of Singularity Investigations.  The subsequent brutal attack and creepy hostage situation she suffers from is pretty horrifying, and the resultant mental and physical damage makes for some harrowing moments.  Rictor also has a great storyline in this series, as he is the only character on the team who lost their powers in the Decimation.  This leads him to some serious depression, especially as the first scene in the comic involves his attempted suicide, which is only just stopped by the rest of the team.  The author’s compelling and thought-provoking dive into Rictor’s feelings of loss and uncertainty is pretty heartbreaking, and I loved this complex look at the terrible impacts of the Decimation.  Despite his lack of powers, Rictor still serves as a great member of the team, and his involvement in saving Siryn from a terrible situation is extremely cool and very intense.

However, my favourite member of this new version of X-Factor had to be the young and mysterious Layla Miller.  Layla was first introduced as a unique character in House of M, as she could remember the real world and bring the memories back to the various heroes.  She reappears in this volume right in the first issue, walking into office, providing information and declaring herself a member of the team.  Despite the confusion of the other people on X-Factor and the fact that she’s a child, Miller manages to stick around on the team, mainly due to her uncanny insights into the future.  This results in some brilliant and hilarious moments, especially as she can manipulate everyone around her and change events to match what she wants.  Her sarcastic manner and funny reactions really help to enhance the humour of this entire comic, and I loved seeing her change future events in the most amusing ways.  The cloak of mystery and uncertainty that David brilliantly builds up around her is very impressive, and you have no idea the real reason why she is there or what she can do, with her only explanation to that being her favourite saying: “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Despite this secrecy, the reader ends up getting some interesting reveals about her, such as her past in the orphanage, her secret mission to stop X-Factor finding out about House of M, and her tragic self-description as the Chaos Theory butterfly, which are pretty cool, even if they result in more questions than answers.  I really loved how dark the creative team made her at times, especially in that brilliant scene where she kills a Singularity Investigations assassin by simply taking screws out of a bath.  Her confession about her motivations to the assassin just before he gets killed is pretty heartbreaking as you can sense she’s revealing a deep secret that is eating her up.  The subsequent conversation as the assassin lies dying is just so damn dark that I love it, especially as she follows up the dying man’s question about who she is with another grim “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Throw in that final scene where Rictor confronts Layla about her manipulations, only to completely miss her bringing a dead butterfly back to life, and you have such an impressive sequence of character moments.  I have so much love for this brilliant character, and while the rest of the team is good, Layla Miller is the real X-Factor of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 6 Cover

The cool story and awesome characters are very well supported by the incredible artistic work of Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero and their team.  These great artists give The Longest Night a darker feel that fits into the noir-inspired narrative extremely well.  There are brilliant examples of shading and shadow throughout the comic, and you get a real sense of the dingy nature of the story and the depressed location of Mutant Town.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character designs featured throughout The Longest Night, especially as there is an interesting combination of new styles and classic looks from other X-Men comics.  You get a real sense of the dark emotions hiding within many of the different characters, especially around the various duplicates of Madrox, who run the gauntlet from depressed, to scared, to utterly insane.  However, I felt that the best artwork was utilised around Layla Miller, and perfectly helped to capture her true nature.  I particularly loved that brilliant scene where she killed the assassin in X-Factor headquarters, especially the final few panels.  Due to her machinations the power is out, resulting in her lighting the scene of the dying man with a torch.  The first appearance with her face completely black is just so fitting, especially given her death proclamation to the killer in the panel: ‘Your heart’ll give out in about five seconds.  Your mother will mourn you … but your wife won’t”.  The following two panels with her face in the light highlights her dark expression, followed by a perfectly set up final black panel that could either represent her turning the torch off or the death of the assassin.  I also loved all the panels focused on Layla in issue #6, especially it shows her at her most emotionally compromised as she tries to describe her various issues.  Throw in the reoccurring butterfly that is both dead and alive, and you have an excellent bit of art that emphasises just how complex this figure is.  The villains of this comic are also perfectly shown in this cool artwork, and I was especially impressed with how sinister and disturbed they made the crazy kidnapper in fifth issue.  I deeply enjoyed this and so many other aspects of the art in the volume, and I think it perfectly emphasised the darker nature of this incredibly cool comic.

Overall, The Longest Night was an incredible comic that I would strongly recommend.  The awesome team of Peter David, Ryan Sock, Dennis Calero and the other artists did a fantastic job combining exquisite storytelling with outstanding characters, darker themes and wonderful artwork.  Not only does it stand on its own as an excellent read, but it also works to introduce this superb run of X-Factor and its crime-fiction related storylines.  I have so much love for this series, and I will always appreciate the way in which The Longest Night sets everything up, especially its brilliant characters.  This first volume (and indeed every volume in this series) gets a full five-star rating from me and it comes very highly recommend to anyone wanting to find a unique and powerful comic series to get into.