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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dodger. James Benmore. Heron Books ( 2013)

A very enjoyable and engaging story about the return of the Artful Dodger to London. Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, who had been sentenced to transportation to Australia returns to London with a pardon and a plan. He has to find something or will be killed, to find what he is looking for the Dodger has to return to the people he left behind six years earlier. The search proves to be considerably more complicated that the Dodger had anticipated and involves him with a lot of people from his past. They are not always as he remember or imagined and Dodger finds that the past is a problem for his rapidly vanishing present. The set up is great, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion satisfying and sharp.
James Benmore has taken a considerable risk in taking a character created by one of the greatest writers in English and trying to establish him away from the original context in a credible and sustainable way. He succeeds with great flair and with by cleverly using the giant shadow of Charles Dickens sparingly and effectively. They are used as grace notes in the story, they add to the enjoyment without ever being a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoying the story.
Jack Dawkins is a vivid character, brimming over with energy and personality, he drives the story forward at a relentless pace as he tries to assert himself against his opponents and circumstances. He is uncompromisingly straightforward about himself and what he is, a thief, his justifications are very well put forward. The supporting cast are all pushing forward as they should to be seen and heard,n not the least being the city of London itself, Dodger's home turf and playground. When Dodger has to leave London he is somewhat stranded out of his natural context, he still has an impact however.
The plot mechanics are excellent, they create the structure that allows the Dodger to move among his old companions with a credible reason and pushed the action ahead very well. The steady twists that they take are smartly set up and lead to a tremendous conclusion that is very satisfying and forceful.
James Benmore has created a character of his own with an independent life away from his origins and built a great story around him. Dodger is dangerous company and a highly engaging one.

Aeon Flux (1-4) Mike Kennedy (Writer), Timothy Green II(Art), Dan Jackson (Colours), Michael David Thomas (Letters). Dark Horse Comics (2005)

A very enjoyable and entertaining science fiction comic. The city of Bregna is a walled sanctuary against the fiercely encroaching jungle that surrounds it and which is kept a bay by defoliant cannons that fire each hour. Aeon Flux is an agent of the Monican Rebellion who are fighting directly against the rulers of the city. When a new defoliant is developed that would potentially eradicate all plant life outside the walls of the city, Aeon Flux and a partner are given the task of stopping the deployment of the defoliant. The story unfolds at great speed, the action is a joy to read and the conclusion very satisfactory.
The story is so slight it really is more of an extended anecdote, it does not have the dramatic weight of a full scale story. What it does have is great charm and vigor, the context is quickly established and the players and their motives are clearly established so that the conflict makes sense and has enough weight for the reader to care.
Mike Kennedy has created a wonderful character with Aeon Flux herself, there is a very strong sense that the reason she is involved in the Monican Rebellion is because she is massively enjoying the risk taking and the physical struggle of the fight. She is having a ball walking on the edge, getting into danger and pushing herself, she is not stupidly taking risks, she is enjoying exercising her talents, the cause is important but not primary. When she is given a partner, she is not happy since this is effectively a limit on her freedom of action, she is still committed enough to the cause to accept the command.
The politics of the city are neatly set up, the factions in the government and the nicely elusive Handler who leads the Monican Rebellion, both having a greater concern for their own agendas than any of the people they are fighting around. They make Aeon Flux's straightforward but not stupid engagement in the action stand out all the more by contrast.
Timothy Green II's art is distinctive and a pleasure to read, the cast are very well developed, the body language is fluid and the action is superbly choreographed. The various use of panel borders, some have them some do not, and varying panel sizes control the pace and flow of the story without every intruding.
Dan Jackson's colouring is stunning, it is bright and vivid, in particular the colours for the clothes the cast wear are great. The city is bright and crisp as the happy controlled future should be, the darkness is contained in the action and the contrast give the story force and depth. Michael David Thomas's letters are subtly effective, they give a credible emphasis and tone to the dialogue, his sound effects are a pleasure, nailing the moment with precision. Great science fiction from very talented creators.

A Dark Anatomy. Robin Blake. Pan Books (2011)

A very enjoyable historical murder mystery. In 1740, near the town of Preston in Lancashire,  the wife of a local squire is found dead in a forest, she had her throat cut. Titus Cragg, the local coroner has to set up an inquest for the death and also deal with the political and social problems that the death creates in the town. With his friend and colleague Dr Luke Fidelis, Titus Cragg begins to examine the circumstances before encountering a very significant problem. The story unfolds very nicely, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is clever and credible.
Robin Blake uses the historical context very well to frame and drive the story, the investigation is intimately wrapped up in the social and political structures of Preston and they tie very cleverly into the investigation and the death itself. The plot mechanics are woven very thoroughly into the historical context. This allows Robin Blake to present the information about the context to the reader as part of the unfolding story, as interested parties become involved in the case they reveal the information about the town and their place in it without every lecturing the reader.
Titus Cragg is a first person narrator and a very companionable guide to the town as well as a committed and competent coroner. He is aware of the problems that the case is creating and also aware of doing his duty as well as possible. He is not stupid nor willing to unnecessarily antagonise others so he pursues the investigation with thoughtful care.
The supporting cast all emerge from the narration with clarity and are distinct and clearly separate characters. In particular, Titus Cragg's political opponent, the town bailiff develops a considerable presence in spite of having only a small actual part to play. Titus is always aware of him so he looms large, this is a nice way to manage him and give Titus someone who can balance him effectively in the story. Given that constraints of a first person narration it uses the narration to provide a focus on another character without having to break the narrative to introduce him separately. This is particularly striking given that Dr Luke Fidelis, who works with Titus Cragg and is his friend does not emerge with the same force in the story as the bailiff does. A good fun read.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Great Salt Lake. Matt Taylor (Writer & Art). (2014)

A nearly wordless comic that solves the problems being wordless creates with thoughtful skill. A man is adrift in a small boat upon a sea and he remembers times with his wife as he struggles to survive.
The writing is tight and economical, the pacing is very nicely balanced and the variety of situations that Matt Taylor conjurers up from a seemingly very restrictive context is astonishing, the story has a strong momentum and narrative grip.
The art has to do everything in the absence of text and it does superbly, the different forms of danger from the sea are given shape and form that give them weight and force. The mental and physical toll being taken on the sailor by hunger and isolation are made clear. The sailor's expressions and body language are eloquent and his determination to survive palpable.The visualisation of the various threats from the sea are beautifully done, they combine menace and beauty, the sailor's final defiance of the sea is dramatic and very well staged.
The page structures with different panel sizes controls the narrative and story pacing without every being obtrusive, they give the story a variety that it needs as the context is so uniform. The conclusion of the story is somewhat open, the significance of the text on the final page, the only text in the book, passed me by entirely. A slight story really strongly told, Matt Taylor is a significant talent.

Artefacts of the Dead. Tony Black. Black & White Publishing (2014)

An engaging and very gloomy police procedural. A murder victim is found at a rubbish tip in Ayr in Scotland and Detective Inspector Bob Valentine is called in to head up the investigation. DI Bob Valentine is just back on active duty after a near fatal stabbing, and both he and the Chief Superintendent who assigns him to the investigation have doubts about his capacity to manage the task. The investigation is hampered by the heavy presence of the Chief Superintendent and overly well informed press coverage. When a second murder takes place that is clearly linked to the first the problems increase. The story unfolds well, the reveals are well staged and the plot threads are very well brought together, the conclusion is very satisfying.
The most notable aspect to the story is the all pervasive atmosphere of near depression gloom that weights down on everyone and everything. While the centre of the gloom is Bob Valentine, it seems intrinsic to the whole context of Ayr and possibly to Scotland in general. Bob Valentine has serious grounds for gloom, the stabbing has divided his life into two parts, and the post stabbing existence is both precious and somewhat unreal. Actually being actively involved in his own life beyond the limits of job and duty seem like a task too much for Bob Valentine, yet it is one that he worries at with a constant, mirthless persistence. He leads the investigation with the same unleavened weight of duty, demanding that everyone be cautious and serious about the task, recognising that the work of a police officer is hard and essentially harsh.
The chief superintendent is neither stupid nor incompetent, she is much worse than that, she is perpetually aggressive seeking to strike first at all times to ensure that she is  never on the defensive. She is firmly rooted in the context of Ayr, identified as a particular type of female who act in this way. The emphasis is much more on the context of Ayr than on her being female which is interesting. Tony Black is very even handed with the misery and discomfort for his cast. Everyone comes under the lash at some point, victories are muted by the general weight of the heavy weather that rests on everyone.
The plot mechanics have to work very hard to push against the gravity of the cast and context and they do so successfully. The investigation starts to reveal a bigger and very dark story that slowly and credibly draws others into is grip. The wider cast that are surrounding the investigation are strongly drawn and the tangles of the plot are cunningly set up and then drawn together. The investigation is managed in a competent and thoughtful manner and it finally grinds out a suitably bitter conclusion. Heavy going, worth reading.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lazarus Volume 1. Family. Greg Rucka (Writer), Michael Lark (with Stefano Gaudiano & Brian Level) Art & Letters, Santi Arcas (Colours). Image Comics (2013)(

Very engaging and enjoyable dysopian science fiction. The world is strictly divided between the Families who control the wealth and resources and those who work for them and the Waste, the rest of humanity. Conflict is epidemic between Families and between Families and Waste, each Family has a super soldier, their Lazarus who protects them and fights for them. Enhanced to recover from fatal wounds, the Lazarus is the sword and shield of the family and Forever is the Lazarus for the Family Carlyle. When a conflict develops between the Carlyle and Moray families Forever is sent on a mission to manage it. The roots of the conflict lie within the Carlyle family and Forever has bigger problems than she realises. The story moves fast, the action is terrific and the plot neatly and sharply drawn.
Greg Ruck does something quite amazing, he takes and tells a fairly common story idea very well and then reveals the bleak cold heart at the centre of it and makes the whole story move to a different level. The context is nicely set up, it really is the Godfather writ large in a devastated world world. There are gangs who run things, and layers within those gangs, the small related group who run things and employees and then there is everyone else. Some a gangs themselves others are just the prey the gangs oppress for profit and fun. Conflict is completely inherent in this context, conflict between the gangs and the prey, conflict within the gangs between the inner and outer circles and most importantly, conflict within the inner circle.
Greg Rucka takes this context and uses it very well within its own terms. The cast are well developed and the cross currents between them credible and forceful. The work of the Lazarus as the final enforcer for the family and their necessarily ambiguous stature within the inner circle is very well detailed. Greg Rucka lulls the reader into a slight sense of familiarity and then reveals that there are dangerous depths that should have been seen and they give the story a bitter context that subtly alters everything that has gone before.
Michael Lark's art is a pleasure, the cast move and respond with force and vigour, the non-enhanced cast move naturally. The Carlyle family members all have a constant element on tension that arises directly from their context, they are all constantly moving on the edge of conflict as the pressures and demands of their position pull on them. They all have to manage their relationships with Forever carefully and with each other even more carefully. The only calm presence is the father and leader of the Carlyle family, a man very comfortable with using and keeping violent power. The fight scenes are stunning, Forever is a hand-to-hand fighter so the action is always up close and personal. The Lazarus effect is using sparingly and effectively to underscore the action rather than deflate.
Santi Artcas colours capture and express the emotional tones of the story with subtle grace, they give depth to the cast and the context, the mostly muted tones echo the general devastation and the desert colours are wonderful. A great story really well told by very talented creators.

Eeny Meeny. M.J.Arlidge, Penguin Books (2014)

A very engaging crime story with strong plot mechanics that slightly overshadow the cast. A couple are kidnapped, held without food or water and given a choice, one must kill the other to gain their freedom. The survivor is released and tells the story to the police. Detective Inspector Helen Grace heads up the investigation into the incident and finds the circumstances a little to fanciful to be true, until it happens again. The body count rises as the investigation struggles to find the killer. The reveals are very well staged, the action is sharp and brutal and the conclusion as brutal as the required.
There is a very large cast in the story, a lot of whom die horribly. M.J. Arlidge gives the space to the victims as much as the investigation so that the full weight of the terror and despair felt by the victims is clear. The survivors are given space after the event so that the further consequences are revealed. This gives the investigation a forceful context and adds greatly to the pressure that they are operating under.
DI Helen Grace is a great character, she is is driven, competent and fiercely focused. It is these strengths that also prove to be weaknesses as she makes a credible mistake and has to deal with the consequences. All of the cast, with one exception, are given the space and time to strongly come forward and engage the reader. When they become caught in the coils of the plot their situation has weight and impact as they are established with the reader before the hammer falls on them.
The problem with the story is that there is too much plot, it overwhelms the cast and finally is a little exhausting. The gears of the plot mechanics are very well put together, the investigation has problems cleverly set up and the murder plot is savagely effective, there is a problem with the villain. To achieve what they do would require essentially superhuman planning skills and significant resources. Up to a certain point I was very willing to go with the flow of the story, then overload arrived and I was just uncomfortable with the sheer scale of the crimes. The why was very satisfactory, it was the extended range of how that frayed the story a bit. To cram in that much plot the cast had to be pushed a little aside and that left the plot mechanics a bit too exposed. Events occurred that appear to be just plot mechanics because plot mechanics were wanted, the purpose to the events was not  strongly enough linked. The problems that beset the investigation are much more tightly and ultimately, effectively, managed. That shorter space creates a greater impact.
M. J. Arlidge uses short chapters to great effect, they add to the momentum of reading the book and allow for frequent changes of scene which keeps the readers attention fresh and moving. A very solid story that would have benefited from being somewhat more compressed.