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Saturday, February 6, 2016

SinEater 2. JoJo King (Writer), Chase Dunham (Art), Alex Giles (Letters) Insane Comics (2016)

A gloriously confident second issue that pushes the story forward with tremendously engaging force. Cassandra and Nik manage to leave the town and trying to decide where to go. The decide, more or less, and head out on their trek and find themselves in very significant trouble which may well be just an introduction to even more significant trouble to come.
The confidence of the creative team is a joy to red, the art is allowed to do the heavy lifting where required, at other points dialogue is crucial and it is presented in an way that prevents it being a simple information dump, it is smartly dynamic and informative. The action is outstanding, brutal without ever obliterating the story and used to reveal the cast as they respond to pressure.
JoJo King has solved a number of story problems with great skill, the first and foremost how to develop Cassandra into a more robust character. In the first issue she was much more acted upon that in control, in this issue she strides strongly into a more assertive role that she is going to have to have to support the story, she is becoming herself away from the walls of the town. The entity inside Cassandra introduces itself much more fully and introduces a key plot element. This is a hard process to manage, a lot of information has to be delivered to Cassandra and the reader, JoJo King uses a dream sequence to do so. This is a very standard way to solve such a problem, the way that JoJo King uses it neatly displays why it is a standard. Used as well as it is here it gives the room to deliver information without disrupting the flow on the story. Any issue should have enough self contained action to feel substantial in its own right and e able to use that action to propel the story forward, very easy to say, considerably harder to achieve. JoJo King has made it look remarkably easy and natural.
Chase Dunham's art is a pleasure to read, from static scences to frenzied action, the clarity and focus of the art is unvarying. The cast are given enough context form them to be physically grounded all the time, their body language is eloquent. A silent sequence of Cassandra and Nik travelling through the forest is a master class of managing time and compressing action to give the reader the sense of the journey without ever delaying them. The fact that the cast also reveal themselves a bit more in their responses to minor obstacles is just a measure of who well crafted a comic this is. The action sequences are fast and very violent, the details are very well judged, enough to make it have an impact, not enough to stop the story in its tracks with too much information. This is crucial for one particular encounter, it is both horrifying and restrained enough to make a point without revolting the reader.
Alex Giles letters are so easy to read that they just glide by, they never draw attention to themselves, except when they should, they give the entity inside Cassandra a extra edge and clearly mark the difference from the supernatural to the human. The sound effects are used with precision, they mark the moments with the emphasis they deserve.
SinEater 2 is a great comic, it takes the story in the general direction it should and in ways that are happily unexpected.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by JoJo King. To purchase a copy of SinEater 2, which would be a great way to treat yourself to the pleasure a really smart comic go to,  http://www.insanecomics.com/the-insane-comics--store.html

Friday, February 5, 2016

Headhunter. Michael Slade. Book Club Associates (1985)

Gripping, very violent, superbly plotted crime story. A female murder victim is found in Vancouver, the body has no head, when a second victim is found a Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a task force as the murders and the public reaction escalate. The investigation follows several different possible avenues in the US and Canada until the final savage and bitterly satisfying conclusion superbly draws the threads of the story into horrifying focus.
This is a very ambitious story which takes substantial storytelling risks in the structure of the narratives and they all pay off. The story is split across three major threads, the headhunter and victims, the public reaction to the crimes and the police investigation. The major thread is the investigation which in turn is split among various cast members as they pursue leads and attempt to manage the impact of the investigation on their lives. Michael Slade is in no hurry to demonstrate how these threads work together, the reveals are cunning staged to carefully reveal and obscure at the same time so that when they connections are revealed in full they are deeply satisfying and change the meaning of previous events.
The depth of technical skill that Michael Slade displays in shaping and managing readers expectations to maximum impact is simply astonishing. There is no cheating , no plot short cuts to falsely baffle the reader and allow the author to exit plot dead ends without explanation, the structure of the story is used to maximum effect.
The way that the story problem of retaining the momentum of the investigation that is not succeeding is superbly solved by having several different leads play out in full. This constantly moves the focus of the story and the investigation, shows the enormous range of the problem and gives the very large cast room to show themselves off to the reader in meaningful ways. As each lead is tied up the pressure on the investigation is increasing all the time, the tension between activity and failing to find a viable line in the head hunter is maintained credibly. These are competent police officers, they are exerting them selves greatly, they are getting results all the time, just not the results that they need.
The subtle parallel between the escalating anger, frustration and terror of the public at large and the political establishment and the enormous toll being taken on the commander of the investigation is wonderful, it gives a public and deeply private emotional context for the events and the investigation. This context draws the reader into the details of the story and gives it powerful force that pay off with astonishing impact.
One of the most engaging aspects to the story is the role of walk on characters, the ease with which they are introduced, establish themselves as a meaningful presence is a joy. They frequently die under appalling circumstances or else simply wander out of the story, they never at any point feel like plot devices, they have a genuine individual impact on the story and the reader.
Bearing in mind the extraordinary technical accomplishments of the story structure, the enormous and vivid cast and the absolute mastery of plot mechanics it is staggering to find that Michael Slade is in fact thee co-writers, the level of creative co-ordination is extremely impressive. Headhunter is top flight thriller writing, not to be missed.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good Cop Bad Cop Casebook 3. Only Pigs and Horses Part 1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Aaron Murphy (Art), Chris Twydell (Art Assist), Jim Campbell (Letters), Luke Cooper (Cover Artist).Planet Jimbot (2016)

With the third installment of the story of the wolf in the police officer the story substantially shifts a gear, all the introductions have been done and the context is firmly established, now the story can really take advantage of the brilliant premise. Two police officers respond to a call and are killed, one of them is also savagely mutilated. The nature of the mutilation leads Detective Inspector Brian Fisher to have a conversation with an inmate in Barlinne Prison that may give him a lead.
Jim Alexander solves a very difficult story problem with considerable confidence and skill, the problem is how to build a story that stands by itself and at the same time advance the premise of the series without compromising either. Structurally the solution is very clever, the story is pushed forward by a series of shorter , action filled scenes, the Good Cop Bad Cop premise is pushed forward via two extended sequences that are based around very different conversations that DI Brian Fisher has.
In the first conversation DI Fisher provides an voice over to the action which sets the context for the scene and hints at an on going accommodation with the wolf. In the second conversation DI Fisher explicitly acknowledges the wolf and shares part of the way that he shapes the dual lives. Crucially this information is woven into the current plot as well. The expert way that all the necessary plot mechanics are kept in motion is very impressive, the reader has a chance to relax into the story and enjoy every bit of it  since the writer clearly knows what they are doing.
Aaron Murphy's arts is a pleasure to read,  a sequence talking heads in a static medium like comics is fantastically difficult to maintain a reader's full attention. The details are always subtly shifting from panel to panel so the reader is getting different information each time without ever disrupting the flow of the sequence. The action scenes are full of force and the splash page is a joy to behold.
As usual there is a very strong thread of pitch black humor in the story, the shopping scene is a little jewel of knocking over reader expectations, Aaron Murphy captures all of the humour in the art and the combination of the two is what makes reading comics such a pleasure.
Jim Campbell's letters are unobtrusive and essential, they slip into the story easily and carefully except when they make the reader stop and stare, the combination lettering/sound effect at the explosion is a smart, funny treat.
It is fascinating to read how the premise never overwhelms the story nor is it left behind as being too awkward to maintain. The thoughtful skill and craft the creators bring to the process is astounding, the balance is tightly maintained all the way and a sharply provocative crime story is steadily unfolding. Something new and unexpected is rare in crime fiction and equally rare in comics, it is a serious satisfaction to see it unfurl before us in these pages.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly send by Jim Alexander. To get a copy of Good Cop Bad Cop 3, I strongly recommend that you give your self a treat and do get it, it will be available at the book launch  at the Geek-aboo comic mart (74 High Street, Glasgow) on 23 Jan 2016.  In attendance will be writer Jim Alexander and Editor and Publisher Ed Murphy.    Alternatively you can order the book online from the Planet Jimbot shop:  https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/261656580/goodcopbadcop301

Friday, January 15, 2016

Night Rounds. Helene Tursten. Laura A. Wideburg (Translation) Soho Press (2012)

A very engaging and enjoyable Swedish police procedural. A nurse is killed in a small, private Swedish hospital and the only witness claims to have seen the hospital ghost doing her rounds at the time of the murder. Inspector Irene Huss is assigned to the case and has to try and establish what actually did happen at the hospital. When it becomes clear that a second nurse is missing the investigation becomes much more complicated. The investigation steadily uncovers a unexpected history that is linked to the hospital and to the ghost, that finally lead to a very well staged confrontation and happily unexpected conclusion.
Detective Irene Huss is a great lead character, thankfully Helene Tursten is willing to allow her to be a competent, capable police professional, surrounded by mostly, equally competent colleagues and with a stable home life. This means that the story can move comfortably between Irene Huss at work and home without any melodrama and with credible tensions in both that drive the story forward and engage the reader.
The supporting cast are equally engaging, they are all given the time and attention needed to get the readers attention and they emerge strongly in thier own right. None of them feel like plot devices, the action of the story involves them and is driven by them rather than the reverse.
Helene Tursten skillfully provides two sub plots , one professional and one personal that run neatly alongside the main story thread. The professional sub plot is concerned with sexual harassment at work and the way it is responded to on an organisational and a personal level. The event itself feels a little to staged, the ripples and consequences are very credibly and sharply described, the personal and professional trade-off that are revealed are relevant and make a forceful point without stepping outside the bounds of the story.The domestic events are handled with equal skill allowing for family dynamics that are complex and durable.
The plot mechanics for the main story thread are excellent, the investigation moves very thoughtfully and the reveals are very well staged. The reader is lead carefully from one possibility to another without being force fed plot points.
Laura A. Wideburg's translation is wholly transparent, the story is entirely Swedish and the language feels natural and direct. A very smart crime story, well worth reading.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Prince. Rory Clements. John Murray (2011)

An engaging and enjoyable historical thriller. In London in 1593 there is considerable discontent at the influx of Dutch (Protestant) refugees fleeing Spanish (Catholic) armies and likely death. The refugees are a disturbing element in the city, they are a focus for discontent and a series of gunpowder bombings occur that are clearly targeted at the refugees. One of the bombings kills the wife of intelligence agent John Shakespeare, however he is directed away from investigating the bombings to investigate an equally potent but much subtler threat to the peace of Elizabeth 1’s kingdom.
 A Spanish nobleman appears to have information which would be very important to the English government and Shakespeare is sent to negotiate for it. He continues to investigate the bombings as well and finds that they may have very dangerous connections. The story unwinds very neatly, the elements draw together very smartly to deliver a very strong conclusion.
Rory Clements uses the context for more than set dressing, the political and social circumstances in England and Europe in 1593 when the struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain was fierce as Europe started to divide across religious lines that directly threatened existing political structures, is crucial to the story. The plot arises directly and naturally from the conflict and is very cleverly structured to capture a very wide range of the forces at work.
John Shakespeare has  been given a problem, a very tight and consuming story problem, a direct conflict between his personal desires and his professional requirements. This is a staple of the genre because it offers tremendous story possibilities, if used as well as Rory Clements does. The difficulty is that the character becomes a function of the plot rather than the plot being driven by the actions of the character. John Shakespeare is a strong enough character that he is not overshadowed by the plot, the anger he feels at his loss and his genuine loyalty to Protestant England provide strong enough motivation to be the driver of the story.
The way that the various strands of the story play out, the hunt for the gunpowder plotters, the Spanish nobleman’s secret and the murder of Christopher Marlowe all are used is very impressive. The supporting cast, with one significant exception is compelling and full of life. The villain of the piece is clever, competent and very committed, he is a genuine opponent for John Shakespeare and this benefits the story greatly. There is one cast member who is a simple plot requirement, they are used to solve some plot requirements and cannot escape to independent life. Rory Clements does his best to disguise the problem but the character is trapped by the plot.
Rory Clements supports the genre requirements with care and force and uses the context to give the story addition and very welcome substance. A really good read.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Shadow Woman. Ake Edwardson (Writer), Per Carlsson (Translation) Penguin Books (2010)

A gripping and very engaging crime story that executes a brilliantly simple idea to astonishing effect. A woman is found murdered in Gothenburg and Inspector Winter leads the investigation. There is a simple and devastating problem for the investigation, the identity of the victim remains elusive. Lacking an identity for the victim the investigation is stuck in neutral gear as all the obvious lines of inquiry are locked without a clear identification. The investigation becomes a problem as the lack of a clear focus put increasing pressure on the team and Winter in particular. As the information is painstaking gathered a second story starts to emerge and the awful weight of the past returns to inflict damage in the present.
 Ake Edwardson takes a very bold step by placing a hole in the centre of the investigation, as much as it distracts and distorts the investigation it has the potential to distract and distort the flow of the story. This does not happen because Inspector Winter retains a powerful and credible focus on identifying the victim and establishing what happened to her. This focus is what provides the momentum for the story that would otherwise be provided by the natural activity of the investigation. The space created by the lack of an identity is not wasted, it is filled by the rest of the cast who have identity related problems of their own, in particular rising racial tensions in the city.
Inspector Winter is a very engaging lead character, committed, very competent and facing a crucial life choice that he would much rater evade, he refuses to abandon the anonymous victim to her fate. Crucial information is allowed to emerge in understated ways that slowly start to pull a picture into focus and make sense of a fractured narrative that finally gives considerable force to the the deeply sad and inevitable resolution.
The plot mechanics are superb, quietly building up to a gripping conclusion as the threads of past crimes start to knit with present ones and a tangled story emerges. The pieces are very carefully arranged and delivered as the scattered information starts to clearly lead in a single direction. Without fanfare Ake Edwardson develops the story in unexpected directions that never seem to be there just for the plot, they all tend to the final end.
Per Carlsson's transparent translation is invisible to the reader. The story is clearly and consistently Swedish, the English never distances the reader from this essential aspect to the story, the ebb and flow of the story are completely natural.
Understated crime is very hard to manage successfully, the possibility that the dramatic tension will drop is always present, Ake Edwardson provides a masterclass in how to to be quiet and deeply engaging at the same time while never loosing sight of the genre requirements.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Deputy. Victor Gischler. Tyrus Books (2010)

A very gripping and highly entertaining modern Western that updates and uses a classic Western story framework with tremendous skill and biting black humour. Toby Sawyer is a part-time  deputy police officer in the very small town of Coyote Crossing, Oklahoma who is hoping to be moved to a full time position to help him support his wife and baby. On a night that starts with him being assigned to stand guard over the dead body of a local troublemaker, Toby finds that there is no situation so bad that it cannot very quickly become much worse. A sharply building escalation that finally leads to a classic Western confrontation leaves Toby with nothing to depend upon but himself, something he has strenuously avoided all his life. The action is superb, the reveals are cunningly staged to reveal and conceal at the same time as the superb plot mechanics drive the story forward.
Victor Gischler makes a number of very smart story choices that allow him use a Western  story structure without  breaking it, in this way he can use the tremendous strengths of the framework to deliver the story. The first and most important aspect to get credibly right is isolation, in a classic Western setting this was easy, communication was essential limited and by simply cutting a telegraph wire, isolation was achieved. These days isolation is considerably more difficult to credibly pull off, Victor Gischler has done so with considerable and nicely understated flair. Coyote Crossing is a small town far from any major centre of commerce or communication, far enough away and small enough that it does not have mobile phone coverage. By staging the action at night in a small town that does not give its residents may reasons to be active at night and isolation arises naturally and effectively. Toby is increasingly forced to rely on himself as the already limited resources he has become steadily compromised and the requirement to grasp control rather than just respond become more urgent.
The second problem is the villain of the piece, in a small town in the middle of nowhere what could be a big enough problem to drive the story with enough credible momentum? A very neat solution is revealed, cleverly unexpected and very credible it is serious and dangerous enough to drive the action that is unleashed. This is critical as the cascade of violence that takes place over the course of the night needs a very serious motive to make it more than set dressing.
The whole story rests squarely on Toby Sawyer and he comfortably carries it as he slowly becomes himself across the events of the night. Somewhat trapped in Coyote Crossing and struggling to do his best with the situation, Toby is really uncommitted to his life, the most significant relationship in his life is to his baby son. Toby is living on the hope of better things rather than actively working for them, he is conscious of the increasing need to do so. As events drive him into a corner and he has to actively participate or die Toby finds himself considerably more resilient and determined than he thought. One of the consistent pleasures of the book is the undertow of surprise that Toby experiences as he finds himself rising to desperate challenges rather than drowning in them. Toby is not transformed, he simply asserts himself.
Toby is a likable character, quietly engaging and constantly credible and happily surrounded by a vivid cast of walk-ons and truly memorable villains. The chief villain may not be biggest reveal in the story, they do fulfill final story requirement for a Western. They are a genuine opponent for the lead character, they pose moral and physical problems for the hero, they capture the truly corrosive nature of greed. The Deputy is great fun, a great Western and a equally compelling contemporary crime story, a wonderful mix and a pleasure to read.