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Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Sword Interval: Volume 1. Ben Fleuter (Writer and Artist), Natasha Tara Petrovic (Flat Colours & Book Layout) LINE Webtoon (2017)

A very enjoyable and entertaining set up for a smart supernatural story about a monster hunter who is searching for the undead warlock who killed her parents.Fell Barros arrives in the town of Titanfolly and encounters David Shimizu a retired monster hunter who wants nothing to do with the spate of missing people in the town. Fell is really interested and starts to investigate and finds herself pulled into trouble. The story unfurls very nicely, genre staples are used carefully and shaken up equally nicely, the reveals are very well staged and the layers of the story are cleverly set up so that by the end the story possibilities are enticing.
Ben Fleuter has used a classic story framework, a woman on a personal mission of vengeance is assisted by a powerful agency that has an interest in her quarry and perhaps an undeclared interest in the woman as well. The woman is aided by another who has enough experience to sense the hidden currents and still has a commitment to helping the woman. The story possibilities are huge and Ben Fleuter has the talent to exploit them.
Giving the framework a supernatural element is great dimension, it creates a range of possibilities that Ben Fleuter takes full advantage of. From the opening episode to the steady unfurling of the background that brought Fell Barros to begin her hunt, the supernatural element is integral to the story. It is not used to solve difficult plot points, it is the context that binds all the layers of the story together.
Fell Barros is a great character, she is full of angry energy and focus, what she does not have is enough experience to survive without assistance. David Shimizu is a genre staple, the overly experienced hunter dragged back into the game to protect someone else. Instead of being a walking cliché, he has a nice humanity and a wary appreciation of the scale of the risks that Fell does not see. Pairing an inexperienced female with a much more experienced male always runs the risk of diminishing the female role, Ben Flueter sidesteps this problem very nicely, Fell gets to establish herself before and after she meets David, she is clearly the lead character, this will be her story. She will be standing , learning and fighting for herself.
The villains are great, from the cause of the problems in Titanfolly to the Atlas agency and the Hierophant they are substantial threats to Fell and David. they have mixed motives and agendas which make them hard to deal with and are very determined to achieve their goals. The struggles that Fell has are consequential, she is never given an easy way out, to win she has to be willing to fight hard and not back down.
The total mix makes The Sword Interval a very engaging read, Ben Fleuter has great confidence in his story telling and is willing to take the time to set up events with sufficient detail that when the action arrives it has a genuine impact. The complicated backstory that brings Fell to Titanfolly is really delivered.
The art is friendly and moves naturally from action to conversation, the supernatural creatures are given a life and energy that makes them both otherworldly and ferocious. One of the substantial pleasures of the book is that Fell looks like a female human, fit and strong with exaggeration, she as well as the rest of the cast are expressive and move naturally in their context. The low key colouring by Natasha Tara Petrovic is perfect for the tone of the story, matching the matter of fact presence of the supernatural in the world.
The Sword Interval Volume 1 solves the problems of a set up with confidence and clever detail, the story possibilities opened in a very inviting way and I look forward to the road ahead.

Drive: Act One Dave Kellett (Writer & Artist). Small Fish Studios Inc (2017)

Wonderfully engaging and hugely entertaining space opera that is seriously funny, gripping and thoughtful. The Second Spanish Empire rules a widespread area of space thanks to its control of the ring drive that makes interstellar space travel possible. The empire has a very significant problem, the Continuum of Makers who created the drive want it back and this is a war that that the Empire is going to loose. When an alien who can see gravity pilots the drive ship the equation changes, provided that the empire can find enough of these aliens to pilot their ships. The problem is that the alien has completely lost his memory and all his records were destroyed. Then it becomes clear the Continuum of Makers is not the only major threat to the empire, in addition to the infighting within the ruling family there is a rising threat from another quarter that could destroy the empire.
A space opera has a number of requirements to take flight and Dave Kellett delivers on all of them with gorgeous confidence and sharp humour. The first requirement is size, a space opera should have a huge context, the conflict should be interstellar, crossing planets and star systems with an inclusive and credible sweep. Drive has the wide expanse it needs, space is huge, made accessible by the ring drive, it is still huge and this is woven into every part of the story. The scale of the empire is staggering, so are the problems it faces. From the simple problem of actually administering such a huge organisation and maintaining the ruling family, as well as the huge problem of maintaining control over the drive ring technology on which everything depends, the scale is enormous. Dave Kellett match the problems facing the Empire with a similar scale, the Continuum of Makers have a smaller population that the Empire, their technology easily bridges that gap. The second group have a recruitment method that is simple and implacable that makes compromise of any sort impossible.
Against this scale the cast have to stand out and capture the reader, the problems are epic in size, the actions have to be human sized to engage the reader. The huge cast of Drive are a joy to spend time with, they strongly individual, they all act with such vitality that they demand time and attention from the reader. At the heart of the story is a middle aged, divorced, perennially grumpy female drive ship captain who has the task of saving the empire. She carries the story with forceful ease allowing the whole immense context to develop and be detailed without ever loosing focus on the central narrative.
The art is friendly and a pleasure to read, it is expressive, the cast are never static their body language is loud and constantly balanced against their words to deliver sharp humour that never undercuts the serious intent of the situations they find themselves in. The art moves confidently from the intimate to the expansive without ever loosing focus, the panel design controls the pace of the story with considerable discipline. The non-human cast are alien without being too alien, they key issues of their non-human status is clear. In any comics space opera sound effects are very important, Drive has great sound effects, they are used to add extra depth to the situation.
Drive is a huge story, packed with detail and a strongly controlled and cleverly developed narrative, a deeply engaging cast. Comics are a natural fit for science fiction, with Drive , Dave Kellett demonstrates how to use the possibilities of comics to deliver superb space opera. A triumph and a joy to read.
There are a number of short stories set in the drive universe included in this volume.
Your Distant Homeland.  Dylan Meconis (Writer and Artist). When a proud Veetan of the Planet Veeta finds himself in Moscow and becomes involved with a bakery who specalise in Piroshki dumplingsthe results are funny, engaging and finally deeply heartfelt.
Cute Things. Christopher Hastings (Writer and Artist) , is a superb and original twist on the Alien story concept, hugely funny and accurate.
That Time The Veetans defeated the Tesskans Forever!.  Ryan North (Writer), Tony Clifff (Art). When the most pacifist race of beings in space is threatened by the most violent there should be only one outcome and there is, it is just a superbly set up and delightfully surprising one.
The Esteemed Gentleman Alonso Who Came From The Stars. Evan Dahm (Writer and Artist) The consequences of the Empire finding you can be sadly different to expectations, sad,funny and truthful.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tales of the Fractured Mind. Roddy McCance (Writer), Rolands Kalnins (Art). (2017)

A wonderfully and deeply engaging anthology of stories about the impact of mental mental health issues on the people who directly suffer and those around them. Roddy McCance's deeply felt and sympathetic writing and Rolands Kalnins' stunning art make an outstanding difficult problem look easy. They present the problem and the person as related to each other, neither drown out the other and the balance brings the reader closely into the issue and the lives in a way that only fiction can. Mental health issues are frightening in a way few other problems are, they strike directly against the self that we all carry with us, they are a theft of our , literally, most personal possessions and fear of such loss makes cowards of nearly all of us. As this anthology makes clear with confident compassion is that those on the other side of the abyss are just as frightened and considerably more lonely.
The Persistence of Depression. Jay talks to someone about what it is like to be depressed, the internal, mental hellscape that he has to travel that he wants to exit from. Roddy McCance captures the enormous weight of depression, they all encompassing way that is keeps someone in its grip and every attempt to escape is another chance to be a failure. Rolands Kalnins's art captures the extraordinary range of the ways that someone can feel bad about themselves, they way that a hell constructed by yourself is always inventive. The colouring is magnificent, it captures the shifting shades of the emotional tones and pulls up the details of the art and the writing.
Clock of the World is a startling lucid and utterly compelling explanation of Bi-Polar Disorder that explains it as a matter of time, fast time, slow time and the need to control time. The inherent extremities if Bi-Polar Disorder make it hard to grasp the connections between the two. Roddy McCance solves that problem with creative insight and subtle confidence.  Rolands Kalnins takes the central idea and makes it explicit, weighty and utterly compelling. The struggle to manage the physical mechanics of a giant time machine, a clock, that shifts modes from fast to slow and the impact of fast and slow time is captured with powerful, telling detail. The colouring is powerfully used to differentiate the time modes and underscore that it is always the same person.
Just Like Everyone. A apparently simple question, what do you see when you look in the mirror, is an agonizing, overwhelming matter for some. The ordinary desire to fit in is a huge dilemma as they try to match the perfection of others with the shapeless features they see in the mirror. Roddy McCance writes a very short and intimate story that captures the struggle, Rolands Kalnins' intimate , close up art captures the nuances of the story with precision.
War on Reality. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a direct assault on the notions that mass organised violence is based on that  truly acknowledging is effectively impossible, it is a very often burden to be borne, sometimes shamefully, by the individual. A father and son, both military veterans, find that they can share an understanding, lubricated by country music, and find room to support each other. Following the spine of a song and using two vivid flashbacks, the story is quietly set up and forceful in its impact. Rolands Kalnins' takes two men who are not hugely expressive and shows the deep bond between them , the beautiful colouring is used to provide the deep context for the things that are never said.
Our Song. The terrifying loss of self that dementia brings as one person slowly recedes from any shared life with others is traced with deep sympathy. Standing on the shore and watching his wife float further and further away into a new life as the life line of  'our song'  slowly frays is heartbreaking. Art for a story where essentially nothing happens is hard to do, there is no action to carry the reader along, instead the quiet subtlety of changing details match and captures the depth of the story.
Mountaineering. Having a body that mocks your gender identity is a hugely public and private problem, being out of step on such a taken for granted issue is climbing a mountain every day. The struggle to be yourself and seen by others as yourself is brutal and fraught. Writing an extended metaphor is always a risk, it can simply not bear the weight or become so convoluted as to become meaningless. Roddy McCance, proving again that there are no rules for talent, makes it look easy and natural. Rolands Kalnins does the same for the art, carefully mixing up the metaphorical scenes with other ones that never break the story idea. Smashing colouring as usual.
Caitlyn. This is a very difficult story to read, the impact of bullying is not always fatal, it is always hugely destructive. The hammer blows of abuse that steadily shatter confidence and self belief are captured with horrifying clarity and the retreat from the onslaught is wretchedly credible. The utterly dominant colour scheme is vital to the story, the washed out colours of memory against the stark white boxes of the abuse display the  power relationship all too clearly.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Roddy McCance, Tales of the Fractured Mind started on Kickstarter and should be available on Comixology in a month, you should get it to see how passion, craft and talent combine to create a work of art.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cognition Issue 1. Ken Reynolds (Writer & Letters), Sam Bentley (Art). (2016)

Very enjoyable and engaging steampunk supernatural investigation story with a great context and cast. The British Occult Secret Service (B.O.S.S.) are called in by the grieving brother of a man who has killed his children and himself. The man had been severely affected by the death of his wife the year before and his brother thought that his grief has lead him to strange and dangerous activities,. The B.O.S.S. team including Cal the stem robot and Sigma the demonic mouse investigate. The story unfurls very nicely, the reveals are very well set up and the conclusion is what it should be.
One of the substantial pleasures of this story is the way that it becomes clear that the Victorian era context is not simply set dressing. The social constraints and rituals of the time are central to the story, the much more contemporary voice of Sigma does not conflict with them, rather they mingle naturally to create a very convincing context.
The dynamic relationship between Cal and Sigma is displayed and demonstrated through the action in the story, the two very distinct personalities and attitudes emerge clearly. Ken Reynolds has developed the idea behind Cognition very nicely, the cast have emerged more clearly and the context had gained additional depth. One of the noticeable elements in the story that serves it very well is the way that Cal and Sigma, a steam robot and a talkative mouse are very much public figures, they present themselves as themselves to the people around them. Doing this means that they can function easily and naturally in the world, they are not oddities, they simply are agents of B.O.S.S. and accepted as such.
Sam Bentley's art is a deep pleasure to read, the multitude of details that emerge from the stark black and white is remarkable. The physical context is solid and grounds the action, the cast are wonderfully expressive. Humans and demons, all are allowed a range of actions and expressions, the confidence in the art is a pleasure. Both Ken Reynolds and  Sam Bentley are so confident in the delivery that the reader has the opportunity to simply soak happily in the story, there is no effort to convince the reader, it simply unfurls as it should.
What the Butler Saw, Ken Reynolds (Writer & Letters),
Ben Peter Johnson (Art) is a short story that gives a different perspective on the B.O.S.S. team. Ben Peter Johnson art is radically distinct from Sam Bentley's and this is a great benefit for the story, the view from the outside deserves a different approach. The butler in the B.O.S.S. offices is writing a letter and included in it are reflections on the B.O.S.S. team. There is nothing new in the reflections, the butler's voice is distinctive enough to gave them a sense of a different perspective.
Cognition is a smart story idea being engagingly developed by seriously talented creators, it has wonderfully enticing possibilities and is a deep pleasure to read.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cognition Issue 0. Ken Reynolds (Script & Letters), Sam Bentley (Art). (2016)

A very engaging and enjoyable comic that introduces the agents of the Victorian era British Occult Secret Service (B.O.S.S) in three short episodes.
They Never See It Coming.  A couple are attending a séance to contact a dead relative, at the same time a shadowy figure is having a sarcastic commentary on the event. When the medium is exposed it becomes clear that two of the agents of B.O.S.S. are highly unusual, one is a steam driven, small robot named Cal the other a mouse, Sigma. When they encounter a second medium it becomes clear that the robot and the mouse are more than a novelty act.
The Devil's Fishing Hole, a haunted marsh is actually haunted by something very dangerous. When Cal and Sigma encounter it, Cal has to take a significant risk with Sigma to solve it.
Frame Breakers reveals that there are people who are more than willing to traffic with demons in order to get what they want.
Ken Reynolds has managed a number of difficult story tasks in this issue with flair and considerable confidence. The idea of a steampunk occult secret service is a genre staple at this point, getting a new way to imagine it and exploit the strength of the idea is tricky, Ken Reynolds makes it look easy and natural. The weight of the idea rests on Cal and Sigma and they carry it with ease, the bond between them is tricky, they each need the other and are frustrated at the limits this imposes on them. At the same time they have a clearly effective working relationship that allows them the space to  cooperate and to manage. Ken Reynolds has nailed the critical odd couple dynamic that makes they engaging and compelling.
The progression of the stories introduces the cast and each carries a reveal that shows more of the central situation between Cal and Sigma. The information needed to created the set up and establish the cast and the context has been very nicely divided up so that it never just an info dump for the reader. The set up is developed very naturally and the cast given a chance to demonstrate who they are and what they are fighting against.
The lettering for Cal and Sigma is used to clearly differentiate the two, this is very impressive as white letters on black are used for both. There is no confusion between the two due to Ken Reynolds' subtle mastery of the process, the links between the two and the differences between them are clear without ever being obviously declared.
Sam Bentley's astounding black and white art is a pleasure to read, the human cast are all strongly individual, their faces are expressive and their body language is clear. They fit into their context with ease, they never look like supermodels or superhero's, they look like humans going about their work. Cal and Sigma are equally expressive, Cal looks like a steampunk robot should, Sigma bristles with attitude. The art is comfortable with quiet dialogue and explosive action, the panel layout is cleverly done to control the pace of the story.
Cognition 0 is a great fun comic by very talented creators, the story idea is developed in engaging and happily unexpected ways. 

How To Plan A Crusade. Christopher Tyerman. Penguin Books (2015)

A hugely engaging and enjoyable book about the work that was needed to be done in order to get the various crusades launched and maintained. The crusades have developed impressive layers of mythology around every aspect of their intentions, operations, importance and historical impact. The fact that they were overtly a religious enterprises launched from Europe to protect, recover and maintain Christian sites from the grasp of Islamic rulers they have always been deeply convenient fodder for the enduring "clash of cultures" outbursts.
Christopher Tyreman gracefully sidesteps most of this historical quicksand by concentrating on a less attended to aspect of the crusades. The fact that they were enormous examples of international military, diplomatic and political cooperation that needed to be thoughtfully and systematically organised to take place at all. The particular crusade myth that Christopher Tyeman wishes to remove is the idea that they were spontaneous events arising off a popular religious wave that swept up populations and sent them to unplanned war. Getting large numbers of troops to any location requires concerted planning, getting troops from different countries to a distant location with all of the logistics and supply problems that incurs at any time in history, required a very significant level of coordinated international planning. It is the components of this international, coordinated planning that is examined with telling detail and engaging critical analysis in this book.
The book examines the planning for the crusades under 5 headings, Justification, Propaganda,Recruitment, Finance and Logistics. Each is traced as they developed and responded to the results of previous crusades. The enormous energy and demands that establishing and launching a crusade required created dynamic changes that had long term implications far beyond the crusades themselves.
One of the most engaging aspects to this book is that Christopher Tyerman is actively pursuing an argument with the reader. The purpose of the book is to persuade, backed by a wealth of historical evidence and  analysis, the reader that the crusades and their context are considerably more grounded in rational investigation and considered practical planning than religious mania. The book has to stand or fall on the extent to which the argument is successful both in the way it is presented and the extent to which it convinces the reader.
I think that Christopher Tyerman has succeeded brilliantly on both counts, the organisation of the book is superb and the argument is clearly delivered and compelling. The single most important thing that Christopher Tyerman does in the book is to place the efforts so completely within the context of the times they took place, he shows very clearly how the justification and the propaganda were intrinsic to the social and political structures of the Middle Ages, and how both were considerably more fluid than is often assumed.
Personally I found the sections on finance and logistics to be the most engaging as I have a deep professional interest in both and to see how extremely familiar problems were solved with strikingly similar processes to today was intriguing.
This is a great book, it wears it very considerable learning lightly, the relevant details are provided in a clear and thoughtful fashion and the central argument is made isn a compelling fashion. It is a pleasure to read and think about.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology. Issue 6. Ken Reynolds (Editor).Ken Reynolds Design (April 2017)

A very engaging and enjoyable anthology that takes a happily generous view of "Slice of Life" as the central theme for various comics in the collection. The wonderful diversity in the stories is never confusing or distracting, they comfortably sit along side each other.
Killing Action Man, Martin Feekins (Writer), Jonathan Scott (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), very sharply captures a moment in childhood when we fear that an attempt to evade consequences will be uncovered and the trouble doubled. Talking Action Man suffers in action and the pervasive fear and guilt that follows are conjured up with precision and detail, as is the outcome. The low key tone of the story captures the moment with rueful compassion for the terrors that no one else could see. Jonathan Scott's art is is perfect for the moment, it captures the look of comics from the time , 1968, without trying to copy them. The colours are a joy, they capture the nostalgia essential for the story to work. Ken Reynolds' letters are natural and easy to read, the sound effects are precise and perfectly placed.
7ER MONNEN, 7ER MONNEN: Narrative-Shmarrative , 7ER MONNEN IM NISCHT, Daniel Ableev, are three one page comics that feature a solidary stick figure in different contexts. The first one, 7ER MONNEN is a neat joke, strong colors and strong timing make it work. 7ER MONNEN: Narrative-Shmarrative is a second 4 panel comic that teases the reader to impose a narrative on the panels by developing the context in each one. Daniel Ableev is clearly enjoying himself and the reader gets to do the same. 7ER MONNEN IM NISCHT, is the third 4 panel comic and I did not get it at all, whatever the intent of the the creator it has evaded me completely.
Old Plymouth. Eric Gaghan (Writer), Gregory Floch (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), is the most conventionally "slice of life" of the the comics in the anthology. A father who is ill is talking to his son, telling old stories and memories that have shifted and changed in the telling. Maybe the father broke his nose in a boxing match or in a terrible car crash, maybe he met his wife in a casino or a run down pub it does not really matter. It is the telling and the listening that counts and Eric Gaghan writes with sympathy and humour about the telling. The care for the cast gives the stories a warmth that invites the reader into the listening. Gregory Floch's art brings out all of the nuances, told and untold in the stories, the expressive cast respond to each other, the smiles of the father and mother for each other are a treasure. The blue tone saturating the memories/stories gives the memories a soft focus while the action retains it force. Ken Reynolds' nicely differentiated lettering allows the layers of the story to sit next to each other without confusion.
Dreamscape 1: Nightmare. J.M.Bryan (Writer and Art) is a standout even in such powerful company. Writing a comic about dreams is a fantastically difficult problem to solve, the nature of dreams and dream logic is virtually impossible to express convincingly. There are no rules for talent, using abstract art and cunning placement of text J.M.Bryan creates the sensation of a dream in a comic without ever compromising either. Words, pictures and colours are used with disciplined simplicity and powerful effect.
Psychedelic Entropy. Kyle Huston (Writer), Caleb Lindley (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), fabulously overboiled writing that is heard as much as read follows the possible disintegration of a mind trying to cope with reality. The wonderful grandeur of the words come right up the limit of parody or outright pretentiousness, they never cross the line because they are anchored so firmly by the stunning art.  Caleb Lindley manifests the words in the art that holds the slippery ideas so firmly that the intent is allowed to be revealed. There is a joyous tension between the flight of the words and ideas and the huge physical weight of the art, the balance is a substantial pleasure to read. Ken Reynolds' letters are hiding their craft in plain sight, they never draw attention to them selves while to bind the whole comic together.
Child Gunther. Bob Schroeder is wonderful, the strongly expressive and dominant art is astonishingly stylised and completely engaging. The story of how a picture of a child was used for years on Kinder chocolate bar, steadily modified over the years is captured with great force and expressiveness. The lettering is as forceful as the art, big blocks of text compete with and try to crowd out the art. The reader is forced to choose one or the other concentrate on at a time. The competition works because the art is so expressive and powerful, it can tolerate the force of the text and incorporate it into the overall scheme. A intriguing story that is served by the powerful artistic imagination of Bob Schroeder.
Without You. Kim Roberts (Writer), Denis Vermesse (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters) takes an unexpected perspective on a delicate issue. Getting a diagnosis of cancer is such an all encompassing moment that capturing it without without over or underplaying it is extremely difficult. Kim Roberts manages this by taking a deeply unexpected view that reveals the impact, the struggle and outcome with a honest and understanding eye. The art by Denis Vermesse is carefully set up to capture the progress of the story, the passage of time and the ebb and flow of the cancer. The panels control the timing of the story, the overlays capture the rest. The combination is wonderful, the reader is pulled in and along without ever being delivered to false sentiment, the art amplifies every delicate nuance of the writing. Ken Reynolds's letters give the voices clarity and shape, allowing everyone to be heard.
In addition to the comics there is a review of Sticky City, a graphic novel by Joe Bloch. The preview pages of Sticky City are great, strongly expressive, highly disciplined art that looks spontaneous and is clearly the result of deliberate artistic consideration.
Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology lives up to its title, the comics are outstanding, made by creators who understand the potential of comics and have the talent and creative muscle to achieve their ideas.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Ken Reynolds. To get a copy of Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology. Issue 6, and you should because wonderful, creative comics are a reminder of the joy of living, it is available from