And now... another book that's coming soon.

*EDIT 3/5 10:07 PM: Ok, there were some minor technical difficulties, but my brand-new column is ready and raring to go. This one is a bit more contemplative then usual...

*Very very weird dream last night. I found myself playing an 8-bit NES game based on “The Dark Knight Returns”, except it wasn’t based on the story at all; I simply recognized it as “The Dark Knight Returns” for some reason that only dream logic can explain. I was guiding Batman through some sort of parking garage and fighting enemies. Catwoman was the boss of the stage I was on, except she was in good shape (unlike in the book). There was some subplot about Barbara Gordon taking over the police force and training a covert law-sponsored vigilante group to supplement Batman. It was really nothing like “The Dark Knight Returns” at all, except the visual style (as much as 8-bit dream graphics could supply) and the fact that in the dream I was utterly convinced of what the game was.

Upon completing a stage, Batman would jump up and down with joy. I don’t think he did that in Frank Miller’s work either.


The Long Haul

This one’s an original b&w graphic novel from Oni, written by Antony Johnston and drawn by Eduardo Barreto. It’ll be available in your local comics store this upcoming Wednesday, March 9th, retailing for $14.95.

Even with my extraordinarily limited exposure to Westerns of any style or caliber, I found the plot here to immensely familiar, and I expect you will too. That’s not a fatal flaw by any means, and it’s an entertaining story, mostly well-told, with quickly-sketched members of a large cast brought together for The Big Heist, the details of which are lovingly explored, essentially replacing gunfights or saloon brawls as the set-pieces of the tale.

Roguish Cody Plummer is working out of 1871 Chicago as a small-timer at Shaw Savings and Loan, but it’s a position that affords him far more respect in the community (if a bit less money in his personal coffers) than his past life, knocking off banks from Kansas to Oregon, resulting in a little cooling off at a Utah state prison. But his time in the can wasn’t wasted, as he hooked up with some fine new friends, and when they’re joined with a few associates from his criminal past, they just might be able to confound Plummer’s arch-nemesis, Pinkerton agent Bob Harding, and rob the train he’s guarding, an ultra-secure steam-engine fortress spiriting a cubic shitload of government bonds, the last payment for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, riding way out to California, a very long haul. This’ll buy everyone a little personal liberty, and maybe a better place in the world.

Aside from gentleman bandit Mr. Plummer, we’ve got professional escort Betsy O’Reilly, an old flame of Mr. Plummer’s (but of course). We’ve got embittered banker David Horowitz funding the heist, looking to score some cash and humiliate his old railroad foes. There’s master lock-breaker Luis Cavanos, nebbish technical genius George Wendell, now-settled Native Chief Long Foot, and Virgil, the driver. The first half of this 177-page book is spent gathering the team, with some fun mini-adventures along the way (including a nice little poker match) though there’s not all that much more to the characters beyond the titles that I’ve provided (or even the chapter titles that Johnston provides in the book itself, introducing each new rogue one by one as we progress). Or at least, not much more than you’d expect there to be, given genre convention. Naturally, the reluctant ones who want to put the past behind them will come through in the end to save the day, the scalawags all sport hearts of gold, the lawmen are either starched bastards or easily bamboozled, and freedom and cleverness win the day.

Still, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the characters; they’re fun and their dialogue is crisply written, under Johnston‘s watch, he of all those Alan Moore sequential adaptations, including the current “Hypothetical Lizard”, plus the slow-releasing but entertaining “Nightjar”, both at Avatar, and a whole slew of genre-crossing books at Oni, like “Julius” and “Closer”. Superhero vet Barreto (also of Oni’s past period graphic novel “Union Station”) does some very nice work with the art, his thick-and-thin lines and inky shadows and crosshatching lending the affair a fine, old-fashioned feel, with expressive character art and convincing, detailed period designs. This sort of attractive, clean storytelling can only improve the well-worn plot, making the story seem like more of a friendly old tale than a predictable genre exercise, although it can‘t lend an awful lot of surprise to the activities therein. Still, Johnston holds up his end of the bargain; probably the key to this sort of story is the execution of the heist itself, and it’s a pretty involving one here, filled with sleeping drugs and disguises and seduction and threatening gasses and telegraph tomfoolery. No blood or killings, dear readers - this here’s a clean robbery, with likable robbers! And besides, the element of subterfuge, of slipping away under everyone’s noses, is all part of the fun.

There’s also a healthy dose of race relations, which is maybe the most interesting part of the book. After all, much of the Transcontinental Railroad itself was built through the back-breaking labor of immigrants, exposed to volatile explosives and freezing conditions. The whole works blasted through Native grounds, inciting much bloodshed. There’s little details scattered throughout the book on the racial strife of the period; Long Foot’s narrative as to the troubles facing his tribe is the most explicit mention of this in the first half of the book, but there’s more. Mr. Cavanos is a Spaniard, not a Mexican, but they all look to same to most folk, as we discover. Not that any of Our Heroes are prone to such insensitivities. Indeed, the heist that takes up the latter half of the book depends on quite a bit of prejudice to carry it through, from the inevitable uproar caused by a brown fellow entering a certain dining car, to a general ignorance of what is authentic Native American ritual, and what is just buying time. Through their enlightened states, the crew manage to work their way toward that big prize stashed away within the train’s belly.

So yes, it’s a pretty nice slice of extremely straightforward genre fiction, attractive looking and in possession of an eye for certain details. Those hungry for innovation in their Westerns will have to sit this one out, but it’s an appealing execution of an old story, never boring and pleasant to the end, even if you’re bound to be certain of what that end will entail.