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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4. Planet Jimbot (2014)

Another instalment in the engaging and very enjoyable anthology, this continues the mix of continuing stories and one-offs in prose and comics.
"Karoom" part 4, written by Jim Alexander, art by Glenn B Fleming continues the story of the dimension travelling alien and the woman from Earth who has joined him. The stage is set for a final confrontation with a slight reveal just adding to the questions. The art continues to use soft lines and colours to draw in the reader, the body language and expressiveness of the cast is first rate. This is a quietly intriguing story that continues to charm.
"Cold Blooded" written by Ed Murphy is a smart story that appears to be following one route before smartly switching. Maria grows up in India under the strict care of her father in India, chosen for the freedom he has to raise the child as he wishes. Maria develops a deep and abiding interest in reptiles, when her father is murdered in a burglary she heads off to a life of her own. Later in her life she is in a abusive relationship with a gangster in Peru when things start to change. The story is slightly predictable right up to the moment when it is not, clever and crafty, reader expectations are caught and skilfully thrown.
"Pipe" written by Jim Alexander, art by Graeme MacLeod, letters by Jim Campbell, edited by Eli Winter, is a wryly optimistic story that uses tight compression to great effect. A life and a death in 9 panels, that is entirely complete and satisfactory is a considerable achievement. The writing is tight an focussed, the tone is just right and the unexpected conclusion exactly right. Graeme MacLeod's art is detailed and subtle, in each panel the details and mood are balanced carefully against the words or lack of them, the flow is sympathetic and deeply engaging. The lettering by Jim Campbell draws no attention to itself, but subtly supports and embellishes the story. Compression is difficult and editing a single page story into a coherent and convincing whole is a significant task successfully achieved by Eli Winter.
"Don't Read This" written by Luke Cooper manages one of the essential tasks of a supernatural story that most do not, it leaves the reader thinking, "I am sure it is not real or true but why take the risk?" The tone of the story is pitch perfect, the passive aggressive hook that holds the reader and appears to let them go but still has a lingering touch. To say more would spoil a lovely treat.
"Bad Tooth" written by Jim Alexander, art by Eva Holder, letters by Jim Campbell and Edits by Eli Winter combines a very clever idea and a truly terrible joke in a surprisingly successful mix. Chris wakes up with a raging toothache and discovers that the zombie apocalypse has also arrived at the same time. After four days of fighting zombies Chris decides to ask one of his companions to do an extraction, the results are unexpected. The smart black humour of the story and the swift and effective character work is very enjoyable, the supremely lame joke that it leads to is groan worthy. It is a significant tribute to the overall craft of the creative team that the joke does not sink the story. Eva Holder's art is strongly expressive, zombie killing looks dangerous and exciting and the cast (living section) emerge clearly and strongly. The lettering as ever with Jim Campbell is quietly effective and supports the story.
"The Last Posse, Part 4" written by Jim Alexander continues the story of classic Western heroes caught in a mysterious town, the situation becomes a little clearer as the fight is started only to lead to the possibility of greater trouble to come. The mix of western and understated horror continues to work very well.
Any anthology carries the possibility of a range of quality, Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4 has a very high standard throughout with two stand outs.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, for more detail on how to get Amazing & Fantastic Tales #4 please contact planetjimbot@gmail.com

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Spider Volume 1: Terror of the Zombie Queen. David Liss (writer), Colton Worley (Art), Simon Bowland (Letters). Dynamite Entertainment (2013)

An engaging and entertaining update of a classic pulp star. Richard Wenthworth is the Spider, a masked vigilante who fights spectacular criminals in New York. When New York comes under threat from a woman calling herself Anput launches chemical attacks than turn people into zombies, the Spider becomes involved. The struggle with Anput draws in his family, friends and the woman he loves before the final revelation.
A costumed crime fighter who is working to prevent his home city from falling further into corruption and ruin and who is incidentally a rich man is not exactly an original story idea. It was not one when the Spider launched in the pulps, still it was a good hook then and it remains, in the right hands, a good hook now.
David Liss takes everything that makes the Spider the same as everyone else and mixes them very effectively with everything that makes him different. The primary difference is the fact that the Spider kills his enemies, he has none of the scruples that his superhero peers have. This is explicitly presented as a choice that the Spider makes when he decided on his path, his enemies deal in death and so does he. This is ultimately the least interesting difference in the story set up as it makes the smallest difference in dramatic story terms. There are much more significant differences and all are related to the dual identity of the Spider and his role in the dynamics of the city.
Richard Wenthworth does not vanish inside the Spider when he dons the cape, it is very clearly the same person, the cape is the uniform for the job no more than that. This gives the problems that Wenthworth has in dealing with his actions as the Spider some more depth and heft, he pays a price for his on violence.
Much more interesting that this is the web of knowledge, explicit and assumed about Richard Wenthworth being the Spider. Wenthworth's ex-girlfriend knows that he is the Spider, her husband the police commissioner who feels that the Spider is useful in the city and may suspect Wenthworth and does not want to know for sure, Joe Hilt, a detective who is sure that Wenthworth is the Spider but cannot prove it and Ram Singh, Wenthworth's lawyer who does know.
This is a nice tangle that gives the story of the Spider context and depth and allows for numerous dramatic possibilities, David Liss makes uses of a lot of them. They nicely complicate the straight extortion of the Zombie Queen as the struggle whit her draws in the cast and their relationships to Wenthworth become important.
I have a very strong preference for drawn art, the art by Colton Worley is too great a mix between drawn and near photographic, the elements do not blend into a cohesive whole for me. The art tends to distract and push me out of the story rather than pulling me in and along.  The colouring is excellent, in particular the Spiders cape.
Simon Bowland's lettering is very well done, it quietly and effectively makes the difference between the Spider's narration and the conversations among the cast, it gives Richard Wenthworth as the Spider a voice of his own. This is a very well written comic with strong distinctive art, well worth reading.

Gary Gianni's MonsterMen and Other Scary Stories. Gary Gianni (Writer & Art), Sean Konot, Todd Klien, Clem Robbins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

Astonishing black and white art and great ideas combine to deliver a smart and very engaging update of the classic ghost story. Starting at the foreword in which Garry Gianni risks using one of the the most beaten down cliches in supernatural stories and manages to get away with it, the tone of the stories is set and then expectations very nicely undermined by the abundant imagination and sharp writing that follows. The stories are linked by the cast, Benedict dressed in a tuxedo and a knight's helmet is a member of the Guild of Corpus Monstrum, a group dedicated to fighting monsters, Lawrence St George, a film maker and ghost fighter, the reporter Sunset Lane and the increasingly mangled and malicious Crulk.
The opening story "Silent As The Grave" opens with a suitably dramatic cry for help and then circles around through a very clever introduction to film maker Lawerence St George, Crulk, Sunset Lane and Benedict before trouble arrives in the shape of a very large winged demon. The threads are neatly tied together with an old Hollywood murder and undying hatred, envy and revenge.
"Autopsy In B-Flat" is a strong piece of story construction that using fragments of two stories , nestled within each other to great effect, it also features squid headed pirates.
"A Gift For The Wicked" is a joyous entry in the great tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Featuring a haunted room and in a anstrectral mansion it showcases Gary Gianni's talent for understanding and updating the genre requirements.
"The Skull and The Snowman" is a virtuoso piece featuring a struggle for a demonic skull in the Himalayas, the return of Crulk starts race to prevent the recovery of the skull of the demon Lord Gooseflesh. The showdown in the snowy mountains which includes the assistance of the Yeti and quick thinking are a delight.
The final story "O Sinner Beneath Us" opens with a crash as Benedict and Summer Lane find themselves dropped down underground in a room where Crulk, even more mangled than before, knocks on their door. This time Crulk has a very dangerous item with him which leads Summer Lane into significant danger and Crulk to well served justice.
The art is very formal, it strongly echoes the illustrations used in pulp magazines, it captures the deliberately old fashioned style and structure of the stories. The details are astonishing and they slow the pace of reading the stories, each panel needs to be relished and absorbed. The cast are given strong and clear personalities, the page layouts are varied and clever, the strong design of pages call attention to themselves without overbalancing the stories.
At the end of the book, there are stories by William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and Perceval Landon. This is a huge risk by Gary Gianni, deliberately setting up a comparison with masters of the craft, and one that pays off for him. The final stories point out how well the spirit of the classic short ghost story has been captured, updated and extended by Gary Gianni. His work stands comfortably, shoulder to shoulder with the work of the genre masters.
With such eye catching art, the lettering by Sean Konot, Todd Klien and Clem Robins is every more self effacing than usual, it proves vital dramatic emphasis when required and a great range of sound effects which  play nicely with the dry humour in the stories. A great collection.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Five Ghosts Volume 1: The Haunting of Fabian Gray. Frank J. Barbiere (Writer), Chris Mooneyham (Art), Lauren Affe, S.M. Vidaurri (Colours). Image Comics (2014)

An enjoyable and engaging pulp adventure story, Fabian Gray can channel the abilities of Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Ogami Itto and Dracula thanks to the pieces of the Dreamstone embedded in his chest. The opening episode demonstrates all of their abilities as Fabian robs a castle of a jewel he hopes as supernatural powers. An explosive fight in a bookshop in Barcelona and information about a temple in Africa push Fabian off on his quest to find a cure for his sister who was locked in a coma since the event with the Dreamstone. Fabian is being hunted, thought he does not know it by someone who wants the powers he has and when Fabian and his friend Sebastian arrive in Africa to a very hostile reception the adventure kicks off into high gear.
Frank J. Barbiere has set the story in the 1930's hey day of the pulp adventure story and uses the genre with tremendous confidence to drive the story. Setting up the story premise is the easy part, using it in an interesting and engaging way is considerably more challenging.  Fabian Gray has an uneasy relationship with his ghosts, they have been brought together by force not choice and there is an internal struggle going, at the same time these ghosts make him a target and he needs their abilities to survive. This is the basic problem that the story sets up and the problems are resolved in interesting and engaging ways. Frank J. Barbiere uses literary references in unexpected and clever ways to frame and add texture to the story and he never betrays the story logic that underpins the plot.
Chris Mooneyham's art is strongly expressive, the action is fast and serious, the cast move with physical force. I find it a little too stiff and angular to be very appealing, it is too sketchy for my taste, the cast are not quite rounded enough. The art pushes me a little from the story and reduces my enjoyment a small amount. The colouring by S. M. Vidaurri and Lauren Affe is very dark, this works well for the story and the intent, it fits very well with the art but seems to be a little at odds with the bright adventure of the story. There is a very minor disconnect between the overall art and the story that prevents the comic being a complete success.
This comic is well worth reading, smart writing and strong art, a excellent set up for a story with very interesting possibilities.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl. Faith Erin Hicks (Writer & Art), Cris Peter (Colours). Dark Horse Books ( 2013)

Wonderfully charming, funny and engaging, a different view of superhero comics sparkles with affection and wit. Superhero Girl is a starting her career in super-heroics and finding that establishing a personal and professional life are both hard work. The absence of significant supervillians, other than King Ninja, the less than awed response from the public and the need to pay the rent all make life complicated. Superheros Girl's adventures as she starts on her career are clever, very funny and always with a strong emotional undertow that brings them to glorious life.
Faith Erin Hicks has developed a character with superpowers who is also a twenty something trying to make a independent life in the face of a mix of mundane and extraordinary problems. The balance between the two is a very fine one, Faith Erin Hicks maintains it with  deft skill and great sympathy for her cast. A skeptical onlooker is a greater menace than a fire breathing alien, a disastrous foray into knitting is cunningly mixed up with success at capturing criminals.
The razor sharp writing is superbly economical, the problems are cleverly set up and unexpectedly resolved in ways that are usually very funny but never undermine Superhero Girl. The struggles she is having are all too understandable and her determination to forge a life in her own name is very attractive. One of the very many pleasures of the book is the spot on family dynamic that Superhero Girl has with her, much more successful superhero brother, Kevin. Kevin is the shadow she is trying to step out from and Faith Erin Hicks nicely reveals the heart inside his arrogantly confident, older brother facade.
The art is a cartoony joy, the cast are expressive as well as being just exaggerated to the right degree to makes super heroics plausible. The action is great, the interactions among the cast effortless natural and engaging. Faith Erin Hicks proves that taking super hero comics seriously does not mean the requirement to be serious or grim in a story, there is a relaxed and humorous atmosphere to the book that never compromises the quality of the narrative or the impact of the story.
The colours by Cris Peter are perfect super hero colours, bright and powerful, they bring out all the tones of the art and capture the varying moods with subtlety.
This is a wonderful comic, an astonishing statement about the possibilities of the super hero genre in the hands of talented, willing and imaginative creators.

The Ripper Legacy. Jim Alexander (Writer), Mark Bloodworth (Art) Claiber (2014)

A suitably gruesome, rather thoughtful and very engaging excursion into a crowded field, the Jack the Ripper murders in London in 1888. In present day Boston (2008) a series of murders that match the details of the Ripper murders from 1888 are committed and a different suspect has been arrested for each one. The suspects all have knowledge of the murder that the public could not know, still there are very awkward questions regarding the suspects. The Raven Group, lead by ex-FBI Special Agent, Adam Busura are called in to  assist with the investigation. With another murder and a new suspect caught at the scene the story takes an interesting turn as unexpected links are revealed and the full meaning of the Ripper Legacy are revealed. The climax is nicely unexpected and still true to the central idea.
Jack the Ripper, the first serious celebrity serial killer presents a significant problem to any writer, he carries such an accumulation of cultural luggage that he presses down on any story like a gravestone. Jim Alexander makes some bold story choices that both embrace that dead weight and then use it to shift the focus to another direction. Jack is still Saucy Jack, drawing attention to himself as the charismatic destroyer of women, he is not the central character, that is played by an idea and it is the way that idea mixes up with the rest of the cast that gives the book its edge. The rest of the cast are what drives the book, they may be standing in the shadow cast by Jack, they still make an impression on their own merits. The plot gives everyone a chance to be seen and heard and the cast seize their moments.
The art by Mark Bloodworth is horribly vivid and looses nothing by being uncoloured, not black and white, his mastery of tones is much more subtle than that. The cast are nicely drawn and very expressive and individual, the best part about it is that it is not overwhelmed by the slightly overwritten script. It would have been easy to show and tell, instead Mark Bloodworth finds spaces inside the script for the art to fill so that it draws out the ideas and explores them rather than repeating them.
This is a happily surprising book, the thoughtful way that Jim Alexander confronts the weight of cliche that Jack the Ripper inevitably brings with him and anticipates and manages readers expectations is great. The art follows by seeming to initially relish the gore before proving to have a deep sympathy for the complicated lives of the living.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. The Ripper Legacy is available as a download from Drivethru, http://comics.drivethrustuff.com/product/129746?src=newsletterDTCRight051414, and will be available on Amazon soon.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice. Brandon Seifert (Writer), Lukas Ketner (Art), Andy Troy (Colours) Image Comics ( 2013)

A great cast, clever plot and gorgeous art all combine to deliver deliver a superbly engaging and entertaining comic. Dr Vincent Morrow finds himself in considerable trouble after a night with a woman he met in a bar. She was not quite what she appeared and Morrow is neatly caught in a trap set for him by a mysterious figure who want something very precious from Morrow. After trying and failing to solve the problem by himself, Morrow decides to face the problem head on and the story takes off in unexpected directions and reaches a brilliant finale.
Dr Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor of the title is a astonishing creation, bursting with life and arrogant confidence that make the moments when he is overwhelmed even more effective. He is wonderfully competent without every being overly so, he makes colossal mistakes and deals with them in smart and unexpected ways. One of the very many pleasures of the book is the way that Brandon Seifert gives Morrow problems that are actually severe enough to test him and have to solve them in line with being a witch doctor. The supporting cast are no slouches either, Catrina Macbrey, a pathologist and witch doctor is capable of providing head to head competition for Morrow, while  Penny Dreadful , Morrows haunted assistant who eats monsters has unexpected depth. Eric Gast, the ex-military paramedic supporting Morrow and still feeling his way into the world of medicinal magic balances Morrow and Penny and the rest of the cast are all full of life and vigour and demanding and deserving the readers attention.
The wonderful cast hide just how tightly plotted the book is, the action is very cleverly set up and nothing is wasted, the reveals are carefully staged and nothing is wasted. There are so many ideas that the book feels as if it is barely contained within the covers, the very funny, pitch black humor gives considerable bite to the action.
Lukas Ketner's art is so exact and purposeful that it too hides its craft in plain sight. The cast, human and otherwise, are just so confident and expressive and they move through such a detailed and exact physical context that it all just seems normal. The expressiveness of the cast, their fluid actions bring out every nuance of the story and make the emotional context visible and unobtrusive.
Andy Troy's colours are astonishing, they are subtle and explosive when required, they add depth and draw out the details of the art, they are so natural that they are invisible and worth savoring in their own right.
This is a great comic by a really talented team.