REVIEWS

Well, wet your whistle on this, pardner. This review was originally posted at Newsarama, November 18, 2009:

REVIEW: THE WINTER MEN

“The Winter Men” is a patchwork quilt of observations and red herrings that takes the spy thriller to new heights of eccentric fun. It’s one of those stories that starts out about being one thing and ends up embracing everything. Meet Kris Kalenov, the main character in “The Winter Men,” he is your guide into the underworld and beyond. It’s a new world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Kalenov is no longer a star player in a Soviet secret weapons program. He has become a Moscow cop, usually full of vodka and, at the start of this tale, is keeled over drunk on a sidewalk covered in snow.

I did not discover “The Winter Men” when it was a comic book but, considering its production delays, including its switchover from Vertigo to Wildstorm, it’s understandable that it somehow slipped by me. Luckily, I did not have to experience any long waits between issues and got to read this new collected trade in one sitting. This is a good read anytime and anywhere but I also see it as perfect inflight reading. Aren’t spy thrillers very popular in airport bookstores? I believe this to be so. It’s because you’re out of your element and open to adventure.

One big thing about “The Winter Men” is that it gets you way out of your element. It’s like “Goodfellas,” one of the best movies about gang life, all about wiseguys and getting whacked. “The Winter Men,” is all about Russia’s new Mafiya and its biznessmen and getting under the right roof. There’s also something akin to “Watchmen” going on in the background, a uber-man that was once the pride of Mother Russia, but it’s Kalenov and his rough and shady bunch, that will have you delight over this convoluted plot as you would in, say, an Elmore Leonard novel.

“The Winter Men” has a real attitude about it too. It promises the world, heroically keeps up with its ambition and, if it falters, shrugs like a good world-weary Russian. Kalenov, our drunk Moscow cop who once was so much more, would prefer to just live quietly and make do with his less than perfect marriage. But too much has happened in the past and it can’t be ignored. “We once filled the sky with heroes…but now they’ve fallen to earth…” That is an intriguing refrain that is looped throughout the book. Within the span of the first few pages: hints of the Soviet super-hero program, a woman is shot, a child is kidnapped and Kalenov is picked up from the snow and enlisted to solve the crime of the century, although he doesn’t know that yet.

All this reminds me of any number of very good television series that, from the narrative, the characters and the production value, are clearly a cut above. And these shows usually make big promises and it’s okay if they don’t deliver on all of them since it’s the world that the characters inhabit that’s most rewarding. I think of shows like, “Life on Mars,” at least the American version, or “Life” or “Dollhouse.” In fact, it’s interesting to consider if these shows would have done better in finding an audience if they were less about process and more about results but, then again, these shows are primarily about attitude. The promises they make, real or not, can be legitimate fuel for the story’s engine.

Another connection to “Watchmen,” I think, is the group of heroes that Kalenov originally belonged to. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the line-up is recalled by Kalenov in a regular loop throughout the book: Drost, the soldier; Nikki, the gangster; Nina, the bodyguard; Kalenov, the poet; for a total of four, or five, if you include The Siberian. There’s even a sepia toned photograph of the gang in much happier times: Nikki has just told a joke and it has The Siberian in stitches. Along with the irony, it’s those details, the atmosphere and texture that this book thrives on.

There are a couple of scenes that come to mind. And, like everything else here, the writer and artist team of Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon tackle it with gusto. One has Kalenov and Nikki creating a disturbance in a McDonald’s so that they can unbolt from the floor a plastic table and chairs console to take home. The employee desperately tries to convince an irate Kalenov that the mayonnaise does adhere to city regulations with “well above the forty percent fat requirement.” Another good one has Nikki in the middle of a full-on turf war with other soft drink vendors. Informing the mayhem and murder are quotes from a self-help best-seller like, “Lose Control to the Maximum.”

Perhaps your reading of “The Winter Men” will find it keeping to all its promises and even holding the answer to the meaning to life. God knows, it is certainly within its reach. If you find fault, some blame, maybe a good bit of it, can go to the fact the series was cut from a promised eight issues down to six. There are parts to the story that do appear truncated. And the ending does seem to come all too quickly. However, the fact remains that this comic is really about the quirk and it’s all there for you to enjoy.

“The Winter Men” collected trade releases on November 25.

Hope you enjoyed this installment of Comics Grinder and I welcome you back for more. You can always check in too at the Comics Grinder site.

And here’s another quirky title, very much up my alley, that I enjoyed from way back. This review was first published at Newsarama on August 12, 2009:

Wildstorm-Red-Herring

Best Shots Extra: WildStorm’s RED HERRING #1
by Henry ChamberlainDate: 12 August 2009 Time: 05:55 PM ET 0 0Reddit0Submit0

Red Herring #1
Writer: David Tischman
Pencils: Philip Bond
Inks: David Hahn
Color: Guy Major
Lettering: Rob Leigh
Published by DC Wildstorm

Reviewed by: Henry Chamberlain

In Stores Today, August 12, 2009

Well, it’s true, as David Tischman says in a recent Newsarama interview, Philip Bond knows how to draw sexy women. So does David Hahn. That’s how we lead into Wildstorm’s latest cool caper comic, Red Herring. A young woman in a lacy bra has just slipped into a pump while chatting on her cell phone. Her languorous pose is surrounded by little bits of intimate narration: “It’s been crazy-busy at the office and talking to your mother calms you down.” We proceed a few pages as Maggie MacGuffin tries to find the right outfit while keeping in mind, as the story title suggests, “Blue Makes Her Look Fat.”

With such a stylish beginning, we smoothly move through what is a top-notch sly and sexy story. One goal of this opener is to connect Maggie MacGuffin with male lead, the titular Red Herring. As characters, they could not be more different. They seem to only share the fact that their names represent literary dead ends, false clues in a mystery, but they prove to be very much alive. They are not meant for each other but that could be fun too.

I haven’t had quite as much fun with a comic since another Wildstorm series, Mysterius the Unfathomable. This is a totally different scene, the world of high rollers and espionage in Washington D. C., but it’s definitely got a similar ultra-cool and clever style. Where Mysterius was very good with details about magicians, Red Herring provides the right balance of insider dealing and conspiracy theorist satisfaction.

We already know that things are never quite as they seem so it makes perfect sense to spice up the ambiguity by having fate bring together a party girl with a conscience, Maggie MacGuffin, and an earnest gumshoe secret agent, Red Herring. Couldn’t make matters any worse, could do it? Well, maybe so. Did I mention there is a possible alien subplot and people are already trying to kill Red before he kills them? Yeah, things could get very messy.

This first issue is probably chock full of MacGuffins and red herrings. As for the details that add texture, they build up quite nicely. The narrator mocks Maggie as she struts her way to Capital Hill. “Compromise is the ESSENCE of politics. That’s what your AP History teacher said.” Maggie works down in the lower levels of Congress “where the offices are small and the salary’s even smaller. Two weeks barely pays for a good pair of shoes.” At first, we see Maggie filing away papers but then we come to find out this meek office worker is actually the lover of a high powered Congressman.

The tempo slows down for some procedural scenes with the no-nonsense Red Herring. So far, Red is proving to be a little too dry for his own good. But he has this thing about his glass eye and so he may prove to have some interesting issues. . Red is supposed to be about ten years older than Maggie and the plan, according to David Tischman, is to keep these two platonic. That could be a pity. Or maybe it’s a red herring.

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