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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Blacksad : Amarillo. Juan Diaz Canales (Writer), Juanjo Guardino (Art) Neal Adams & Katie LaBarbera (Translation) Dark Horse Comics (2014)

John Blacksad finds himself on the road across 1950s America, cruising in a golden Cadillac Eldorado west from New Orleans, while taking a much needed rest from the deadly dramas that dog his feline tail-or so he thinks. Before long Blacksad’s hard luck catches up with him, landing him smack in the middle of another murdr and the pursuit of a down-and-out Beat generation writer whose own luck might just have run out.
Beautiful art and engaging writing combine to deliver an entertaining story of a road trip across a mythical, noir, 1950’s America. John Blacksad gets an chance to drive a golden Cadillac Eldorado from New Orleans to Amarillo and hopes for an easy trip. It starts to go wrong when the car is stolen and there is a murder.  As Blacksad pursues the car and is in turn pursued by vengeful FBI agents, a despairing writer finds that his life is slipping further out of control as he tries to deal with falling in love with a woman in trouble and a agent wanting the manuscript he has finished but cannot release. The story threads tie up very nicely to a satisfying conclusion that captures the tone of the book very nicely.
Juan Diaz Canales has taken all the classic elements of the noir genre, and chosen to focus on the most neglected one, the wounded romance between lovers that is doomed by circumstances arising before they meet. This gives the book a less grim tone than it would otherwise deserve as the cast of desperate people swirl around each other all looking for something. One of the astonishing parts of the book is the way that Juan Diaz Canales conjures up an America that never was that still seems true and recognisable. He captures the look and feel from the mythology of post-war America, the Beat generation and the dislocated lives of those locked out of the American Dream.  The anthropomorphic cast fit perfectly into the America that never was, they are never caricatures, and they are vivid and alive, never representing anyone but themselves. There is a big heart beating in the story, it is scarred and bruised but never cold or mean spirited.
The astounding art by Juanjo Guardino is a sensual, luxurious pleasure for the reader, it invites slow reading to soak up the detail and revel in the craft. It is deeply purposeful, the details are never extra, they are there to draw out and support the story and cast. It is wonderfully balanced between so powerful that it could simply crush the story and being severely practical, delivering the context and cast so that the story in clear and explicit. Any panel is a joy in itself, combined they serve sequential storytelling with strict care and pacing to serve the overall purposes of the book. Any artist who is drawing an anthropomorphic cast has a tricky problem, tying not to betray the essential aspects of both human and animal. Juanjo Guardino cast look natural and fit into their shapes with confident ease.The translation by  Katie LaBarbera and Neal Adams is invisible, the dialogue is easy and flowing, the cast speak in distinctive voices that never jar. A glorious comic experience.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hollow Girl. I am No One. Luke Cooper (Writer & Artist) Scar Comics (2015)

Girls, guns, ghosts and gangsters all expertly stirred together by Luke Cooper into an engaging and hugely enjoyable comic. A woman in a white mask is picked up by two men, one takes her to a hotel room where he reveals that he has something nasty in mind. The woman reveals that she too has other plans for the encounter and it all starts to go thoroughly wrong for everyone. A flashback introduces Katherine Harlow who has just killed her parents for pretty much no reason and is put in a psychiatric  unit for observation. When the ghost of a victim of a sexual predator who is coming for Katherine, offers to help Katherine accepts. Using a very well staged time shifting narrative, Luke Cooper cuts between both times as the Hollow Girl delivers revenge for those who cannot.
Starting from the introduction Luke Cooper shows that he is a very smart, sharp writer who takes a wide array of ideas and makes them seamlessly work together. The classic superhero idea of some external agency giving the hero their powers is neatly subverted by the fact that the powers are coming from vengeful ghosts. By themselves they are wisps of unfulfilled anger, give them a willing host and they are ready to exact their revenge. Hollow Girl is the anti-superhero, getting powers to wreak bloody mayhem on others, justice is not included, this is payback with all its force and impact.
Luke Cooper resolves several story problems with wit and sharp thinking, the first and most important being the problem of hollow girl herself. After her astonishing introduction there is nothing more that can really be done with her, Luke Cooper resolves this by doing nothing more with her. Hollow girl is a vessel for those who fill her and the cast who surround her are interacting with the ghosts and the possibilities of that are artfully exploited by Luke Cooper to the full.
The supporting cast are a joy, busting with, frequently malicious, life they are never just convenient blood filled targets. They are ready to return fire and never go down easy. In one panel Caliban, a gang leader explains succinctly what the problem with the situation is and that panel nails the force of the book. All of the cast are driven by something and that means that when they collide they do so with force and real impact.
Luke Cooper's art is distinctive and full of energy. For an action driven book movement is crucial and Luke Cooper is a master of movement, the action has a weight and impact that the story needs. Grounding the story is hard physical action is a excellent counterweight to the wispy nature of the ghosts, it allows the supernatural aspect of the story slide by without upsetting or unbalancing the action. Where required a solidly physical reason is provided for physical skills, the ghosts are not there to provide easy solutions to someone shooting at you. It is a considerable tribute to Luke Cooper's skill that a colour scheme of black, white and grey is just right for the noir tones of the story.
Do not let the title mislead you, Hollow Girl is really is someone.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Luke Cooper, who is running a KIckstarter campaign to fun publication of the book. This is the link to the Kickstarter page, ,
where digital, softback,  and hardback editions as well as PDFs, posters, sketches and a t-shirt are being offered as extras. Support excellent comics and give yourself the pleasure of reading one, support the Kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Poisoned Chalice. Bernard Knight. Pocket Books 1998.

This is an engaging and enjoyable historical mystery which uses the medieval setting very effectively. December 1194 in Exeter and the newly created coroner, Sir John De Wolfe is called to a local village regarding a shipwreck. A question has been raised about the fate of the sailors who were washed ashore. A more complicated question arises with the rape of a well born young woman; the uncertain jurisdictional lies between the Sheriff and the Coroner make the crime much more complex to investigate. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the Sheriff is John de Wolfe’s brother-in-law and the thoroughly dislike each other. When woman is found dead and apparently attempting to have an abortion the clamour against a local silversmith turns serious. The story unwinds carefully, the reveals are very well staged and the resolution satisfying and complete.
Bernard Knight deftly uses the investigations inside and outside Exeter to explain the new created role of coroner and the political and social structure of the period without ever just dumping information on the reader. With Crowner John involved in an investigation over which he has undisputed control and in one where every move he makes is disputed by the existing authority in the shape of the sheriff, the structures and political pressures of the times are revealed very naturally. This structure leaves the cast the space to be themselves and not have to carry ant weight of exposition, which is great as they are a loud rowdy lot who are all, happily jostling for the reader’s attention.
Connected as he is to the top of Exeter society by his job and marriage, Crowner John is connected to the other side of the city by his Welsh, innkeeper mistress, Nesta. This structure allows the whole of the city to be involved without feeling that it has been shoehorned in for effect. The very small size of medieval life is nicely conveyed, social distances were much greater than physical ones could be and the friction is captured well.
The plot mechanics are excellent, the threads of the plot are very well set up and as the investigation continues the questions are neatly raised and answered in surprising and engaging ways. The sharp bend at the end is thoughtful and effective; it comes directly from the story yet is suitably unexpected. The mystery and the setting are well stitched together, the action is not simply laid over a picturesque setting, it depends on the dynamics of the context to work. A good fun read.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

50 Witch Stories. Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert A. Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg (Editors). Goodwill Publishing House

A hugely entertaining and engaging collection of witch stories that is extraordinary in their variety and the skilful selection.  This anthology no duds and a satisfyingly large number of very good stories and a surprising number of stand out. Below are some thoughts about the stories I liked the best.
Gramma Grunt written by Donald R. Burleson is the first story in the collection and it announces the quality to follow with flair and a nicely darkening tone. Messing with a witch is rarely a good plan and Jason Mitchell finds out that a witch can have a very long memory and an even longer reach.
The Fit written by Ramsey Campbell is a very dark mix of sexual awareness, family and a vengeful witch. The oppressive atmosphere of the context is beautifully conjured and the witch sharply malicious. It is the way that the currents of the story are guided together into an multi-layered confrontation is a wonder of economical, biting writing.
The Mandrakes written Clark Ashton Smith is a joy, the wonderful language that seems archaic without every creaking, a sharp plot and fierce outcome all managed and controlled with seemly effortless mastery of the form and content.
The Only Way to Fly written by Nancy Holder looks at a witch flying to a retirement home on an aeroplane who has a chance to think hard about the choices she has made. Nancy Holder carefully set up the question of , how late is too late and delivers an unexpected and very satisfying answer.
Of Time and Space written by Hugh B. Cave is a gripping story of poisonous gift and the festering memory of a wrong. While the main character is unsympathetic and as the reveal shows has earned his fate, the process is neatly done and the reader is drawn in as much as Victor Dalbin is into the grip of the plot.
A Matter of Honour by R. K. Partain is charming, funny and smartly unexpected, marrying a witch means having a mother-in-law who has a large range of ways of making her displeasure felt. An old fashioned solution is proposed and the outcome is perfectly judged and executed.
Cerile and the Journeyer written by Adm-Troy Castro and The Wich of the World's End written by Darrell Schweitzer benefit greatly by being placed together in the sequence, Cerile first then the Witch of the Worlds End. Both are similar in that they are strongly flavoured by fairy and folk tales while both are strongly individual and very different to each other. They have loss and longing as central themes captured and unfurled in different ways, reading them in sequence allows echoes and contrasts arise that increase the pleasure from both.
The Devil's Men by Brian Stableford and The Caress of Ash and Cinder written by Cindie Geddes are another set of stories that share a theme with very different treatments that work very well as individual stories and as a pair. Both are concerned with the clash of politics and witchcraft leading to horrible public deaths, both capture the relentless cruelty of power ever so willing to sacrifice others for its own aims. Bleak and painful, the stories never falter and have a melancholy strength to their writing.
Suffer a Witch written by Mike Baker is a very black comedy about the consequences that follow being a good witch, a witch dedicated to using witchcraft for good and being in the most pejorative version of the term, a do-gooder. The set up is superb and the pay off horrifying and satisfying.
This anthology has great stories and a smart and thoughtful sequence that balances individual stories as well as creating a consistent variety.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Amazing & Fantastic Tales 5. Jim Alexander (Writer), Glen Fleming,Paulina Vasseliva, Jon Howard (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters) Planet Jimbot (2015)

This is the final instalment in the very engaging and enjoyable anthology series and the standard is maintained all the way.
Kroom 5 & 6, (Written by Jim Alexander , art & colours by Glenn B. Fleming)  shifts the story into high gear as a confrontation between Kroom, the dimension travelling alien, Ellie the human he picked up from Earth and some very hostile aliens leads to a revelation about Kroom. A second crisis brings a question of life or death and leads to the nicely open ended finale. A lot of story is packed into the pages, it never feels rushed or choppy, the connection between Kroom and Ellie has depth and strenght, the choices made feel natural .
Glen B. Fleming's art is stronhly expressive, in a panel that shows Kroom's face as he realises his decision is wonderful, the following panel is very nicely explosive and final. The art is very stripped down, it gives the clear centre stage to the cast, other than a short and intense burst of action the drama is in the connection between Kroom and Ellie. Glen B. Fleming brings out that connection and provides a rock solid context for it in the expressive body language and gestures of the cast.
The Last Posse 5 & 6. (Written by Jim Alexander , art by Paulina Vasseliva).  Jim Alexander shows the truth of the saying "It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of  the fight in the dog that counts" The posse are facing off against the whole town, they have found the epicentre of the trouble and they step right into it. The action splits over three separate locations and the depth of the horror in the town become finally clear. Jim Alexander uses classic Western set ups with the scenes, each has a very nice twist that maintains the essential mix of Western and horror without loosing the balance of either. The third set up very explicitly uses the mix as the reason for the Posse arriving in the town and the cause of the horror in the town become clear.The dry-as-dust humour of the ending is entirely fitting and satisfying.
Paulina Vasseliva's sketches capture the spirit of the posse, their sheer stubborn courage and finally the deep thirst that a desert trek can give a man.
Facts of Life (Written by Jim Alexander, art by Jon Howard, Letters by Jim Campbell) is a smart, unexpected and slyly funny story that very nicely subverts readers expectations. A fierce religious mother uses goldfish to explain the fact of life to her son, a set up that leads very entertainingly, if slightly unsurprisingly to a very awarded encounter and very surprisingly to a very clever conclusion.
Jon Howard's art is a gorgeous, detailed delight and a feast to read. The story works so well because the art embodies the shifting tone so completely, the reader is neatly and happily suckered. The art takes all the room that the slender story provides and uses it to fill it out completely, the drama is realised with a light touch that hides the craft and care that have been used is building it.
Any anthology runs the risk of variations in quality, tone or subject jarring the overall impact and intent of the book. Once again Amazing & Fantastic Tales shows that it is possible to have an astonishing variety that delivers an engaging and harmonious whole.
Chief Wizard Note:   This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot. A&FT#5 will be officially launched in Glasgow on Thursday 7th May 2015. For more information or to order a copy, which you should do, please contact,

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Battling Boy. Paul Pope (Writer & Artist), Hilary Sycamore (Colours), First Second (2013)

A superhero coming-of-age story that I did not find engaging, the writing, art and colours are all excellent, the combined package did not capture me. In the city of Arcopolis monsters roam kidnapping children for unknown purposes. Haggard West is a genius vigilante who is trying to protect the city, until he is murdered by the monsters.This leaves the city and his daughter Aurora shocked and grieving and the monsters celebrating. On another plane of existence a 12 year boy, just ahead of his 13th birthday is send to Arcopolis to help the city. Battling Boy as he becomes known is celebrated as a new protector for the city which places him in the cross hairs for the monsters and Aurora West. The story unfolds in unexpected ways, the reveals are very well staged and the action is superb.
Paul Pope has taken an unusual approach to a superhero story, it is an origin story of sorts, Battling Boy finds himself in an overwhelming situation and how he will resolve the problems is left open. He may become the help that Arcoplis needs or he may fail, the story leaves the possibilities open. Aurora West is a compelling character, having lost her father she considers his legacy and position to be rightfully hers only to see some stranger step into the space instead. Her coming-of-age is just as disorientating as Battling Boy's and  conflict between them seems inevitable, at a time when acting together might be what Arcopolis needs. Paul Pope gives the supporting cast a lot of room to develop and make their presence felt, from Battling Boy's parents to the monsters and the besieged Mayor of Arcopolis they all allowed the space to establish themselves.
The art is vivid and fantastically expressive, the cast fit into their contexts naturally and all of them move with wonderful physical force and grace. The action is dramatic with a careful use of long shots and close ups to frame the action and draw the reader in. The quiet moments work just as well with the body language of the cast providing a clear extra dimension to the words.
The colours by Hilary Sycamore are bright and vivid, they give the city and cast depth and solidity, the damage that the monsters do feels forceful.
The mysterious spark between a reader and a comic that draws in the reader and gets them involved in the story never happened when I read this comic, I admire it, I did not enjoy it as I hoped to do. The story has enough of the elements that I have enjoyed in other stories and look for in stories to have made it a strong candidate for me. The fact that I did not catch it is no criticism of the strongly talented creators, it is just one of those things. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Copperhead Volume 1 . Jay Faerber (Writer), Scott Godlewski (Art), Ron Riley (Colourist), Thomas Mauer (Letters) Image Comics (2015)

A very engaging space western that manages the difficult task of both setting up the situation and cast and nailing the genre requirements with flair.  Clara Bronson is the incoming sheriff in the miles-from-nowhere mining town of Copperhead. The deputy sheriff is a non-human who is both resentful at being passed over for the job and from a species on the losing side of an earlier conflict with humanity while the local mining tycoon is used to being listened to by the sheriff. With an incident at a hillbilly residence out of town and Clara’s son behaving like a boy the story gathers momentum and moves steadily down to the closing hook for the next arc. The action is great, it is cleverly used to introduce and reveal the personalities of the cast and fill in the context for the story.
The story bones of a Western are easily transplanted to other contexts, the problem is to make sure that the balance between both is maintained without losing something essential for either. Jay Faerber makes it look easy in Copperhead, the details fit so closely that it just look completely natural, from Clara’s arrival in town which nicely establishes her credentials as someone not to be messed with, to the Natives, the hostile original inhabitants of the planet that Copperhead is located on. Add non-human hillbillies, a drunken town doctor, an overbearing mining tycoon and war veterans who are also artificial life forms and the mix of genres is set. Jay Faerber makes the fantastically difficult task of ensuring that none of the cast are clich├ęs but are recognisable with deceptive ease, they emerge with individual voices and demand the reader’s attention in their own right. Add the difficulty of getting everyone and everything in place without boring or baffling the reader and the strength of the writing can be grasped. All the tasks are completed in a compelling fashion, with a nicely snarky humour that gives the story an extra edge.
Scott Godlewski’s art matches the cast with the dusty landscape, they fit into the context just like they live there. The human cast are very expressive; in particular Clara Benson is given an interesting look. She is allowed to look tense and irritable without ever being undercut for being so. Clearly she has had some problems and she wears them as anyone might, it gives her manner an edge that changes when she is talking to her son. The styles non-human cast are restrained, their body language is very clear and they are different enough to be alien without being so different that they are a jarring in the context.
Ron Riley’s colours capture the sun beaten atmosphere of Copperhead, it is an industrial town in a hot dusty spot, the colours are somewhat faded, they give the town a lived in look. The colours also nicely play the Western card, it is a frontier town and the colours echo quietly and effectively the colours of Western frontier towns from films. Thomas Mauer’s letters are unobtrusive, they blend in with the art while always being distinct. A hard balance and another that is made to look easy and natural. Copperhead is a great genre mash up that delivers the pleasures of both without having to compromise either.