Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is an adult graphic novel full of Greek pathos and grit.

Click on the image to purchase from amazon or check it out from your local library

Click on the image to purchase from amazon or check it out from your local library

Astro City comics, by Kurt Busiek,  are at their best when they are telling human, not superhuman, stories.  One of the first stories to really hit home was in Volume 1, Life in the Big City.  Titled "Dreams," it featured a character named The Samaritan most would identify as a superman archetype.  He is completely self-sacrificing and never finds a moments rest while trying to stop all the world’s calamities.  However, we are given a glimpse at just how ordinary his emotions are when we find him lamenting the opportunity to have a moments peace and just enjoy flying.

Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is an even better example of a human story.  It features an ex-con, SteelJack, with plenty of muscle and bullet-proof metal skin, who has just gotten out of prison.  He is trying to go straight; all he wants is work and a simple life.  The story opens with his release, and you immediately understand how simple is going to be difficult for him.  His physical attributes make him stand out. People immediately recognize him, know his past, and are nervous around him.  In addition, he gets a visit from The Samaritan who tells SteelJack that he will be watching him.  As The Samaritan flies off, SteelJack thinks:

“An all I can do is watch him go, soaring off all graceful an’ free like he belongs in the sky, like he’s some kinda—some kinda angel. And I wonder what it would be like. Just once, to do that. To just go, like a dream, like magic, like a miracle—instead o’ being stuck here on the ground, eight hundred pounds of ugly metal nobody wants or needs.”

On top of this, he carries the weight of a mother’s disappointment and a young man’s life on his shoulders; he once shot a kid named Jose.  Out of prison, he goes to visit both of their graves, apologizing to each of them.  He always wanted to buy an angel to put atop his mother’s gravestone, but could never afford one.  He lays on the ground awhile, atop his mother’s stone which has been knocked over, but the ground is even colder for someone with metal skin.  Finally, he gets up and attempts to fix her stone:

“I prop it up, fix it as best I can, but it still looks broken—and I look around at the busted trees, and the scarred-up ground—and I think about what’s on the plate for tomorrow—and the old feelings are still there. I just want to run far and fast, and get away—but I been runnin’ all my life now—and I’m still in the same place…”

SteelJack’s desperation, his desire to escape his life, his place, everything, and start over, is a feeling everyone has had at some point. 

Eventually, SteelJack does find a job within his old neighborhood, Kiefer Square, although it means associating with known felons (a parole violation).  He is hired by the families of other felons, villains, who are being murdered.  Law enforcement really doesn’t care to help since these are known felons, but the families care. They hire SteelJack to find out who is killing them, why, and to put a stop to it. 

However, SteelJack is no Batman detective.  He fails to stop the murders, and doubts he has what it takes to ever make a difference:

“I can’t do this. I’m just muscle and bulletproof skin—there’s nothing inside. No brains, no courage, nothing. I don’t even know what questions to ask, even if people’d listen to me. I head back to Kiefer Square, planning to tell everyone I’m quitting, that I’m not up to the job they gave me. It’s not like they don’t know it already.”

SteelJack with find himself on the wrong side of the law, battling both heroes and villians, and facing more time in prison as a result of his detective job.  He’ll ask for help from both sides of the law, even appealing to the superheroes, angels as he calls them.  Finally, SteelJack comes to understand one thing about the whole situation:

“The angels failed me. Kiefer Square’s got only one chance left. And it ain’t much of one, Lord knows. But I’m all they got. And I’m hundreds of miles away, and it’s all going down tonight. So I better get moving.”

On top of a great story, the art is very well-done in this graphic novel.  SteelJack is drawn so well; the facial expressions are outstanding and weariness around his eyes speaks volumes.  The entire art staff should be proud of this one.  Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is a great read about a former villain, an aging tough, who is trying to do one thing right in a city where all he’s ever done is wrong.

Gods of Howl Mountain is a robust and rowdy read.

Gods of Howl Mountain Cover Picture by andhereads.jpg

Gritty, hot-blooded characters dominate this story and the North Carolina mountains on which they live.  It is a tale to quicken your pulse and have you hoping that a little backwoods justice will be dealt to the deserving. 

Rory Docherty has returned from the Korean War with a wooden leg and a desire to know who attacked his mother and killed her young lover all those years ago, leaving her unable to speak and in an institution.  Rory runs whiskey in his 1940 Ford, Maybelline, powered by an ambulance engine.  Granny May, a former prostitute, is the local folk healer, a wood witch trying to raise her grandson, Rory, and ensure he doesn't succumb to the darkness he saw during the war which still gives him nightmares. 

The book is well-written; the prose is vivid and leaves intense impressions.  Occasionally, you'll bump into a sentence that tries too hard, that may have one too many descriptors or use a word in a way that is just a little too clever, but everyone who has tried to write descriptively has done the same.  

My one word of caution: if the opening chapter is off-putting, ignore the feeling and keep reading.  This chapter isn't indicative of the rest of the narrative; the chapter feels overworked, and the insistent references to Rory's car as "the machine" serves as an example of a section which tries to be too clever and becomes annoying.  

The rest of the book displays Taylor Brown's skill in exposition.  There are many examples of how he uses language to really paint a picture and bring the story to life; one which stands out describes the butchering of a pig.  Brown handles the scene deftly, using just the right language to make something somewhat gruesome verge on, if not quite beautiful, the poetic:

...They dragged the fatted animal across the yard, each holding a leg. They spread the hind-legs and pierced the ankle tendons on the outer hooks of a singletree, then threw a rope over a low-hanging branch and hauled the animal off the ground like they would an engine.
     Granny stepped forward with her razor and sliced the big vein in the neck, just back of the jawbone. She set out a stone jug to catch the streak of blood, life-bright in the gray dawn. She used it for making blood sausage. Once it was bled, they lowered the animal into the near-boiling water of the pot, going to work on the bristles as they heaved it streaming from the water. They dunked it again and again this way, scraping down the hide.
     ...The sun found the bare skin glistening over the wash pot, pink-scalded and ready for the knife. Granny made the cut, a long red vent from nethers to chin, careful not to puncture the organs. She cut the entrails out, letting them fall glistening and ropy in the tub at her feet...They salted the meat white, their red-stained hands leaving little prints on the icelike shapes and hunks...They talked little as they worked, and Granny didn't know if it was the nature of the work or something else.
Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

This is a book twisting with tension.  The action scenes could easily be taken right off the big screen, and will likely be there someday soon (I'd be surprised if this wasn't made into a move; I just hope they get the nuances right).  Something about Rory brings to mind Cool Hand Luke, and the vengeance that burns inside him seems to hint at old-school Charles Bronson violence.

Gods of Howl Mountain is Taylor Brown's third novel, but the first book of his I have read.  Now, I'll need to find his first two books.