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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hellboy. The Crooked Man and Others. Dark Horse Books (2010)

A great collection of short Hellboy stories, all written by Mike Mignola with art by different artists, Dave Stewart does the colouring for all the stories and Clem Robins the lettering. A nicely varied collection that all have the strong ideas and clever inventiveness that are typical of Hellboy stories.
The title story, The Crooked Man, has striking art from Richard Corben and a wonderful setting in the Appalachian mountains. In 1958 and Hellboy meets Tom Ferrell who has returned to the area after twenty years. They travel together to find a local witch and when they do they find themselves entangled with The Crooked Man, a man returned from Hell to do evil in the area. The plot is straightforward, the details of the narrative are superb. There is a siege of a church by The Crooked Man as his band of witches that is horrifying and astonishing in how it creates a logical and utterly unexpected assault. The conclusion is sourly satisfying. Richard Corben's art draws the atmosphere tightly around the story, the locations are grim and hard, the cast look like they belong and the The Crooked Man himself is grasping and malignant.
"They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships" co written by Joshua Dysart has art by Jason Shawn Alexander is a great pirate ghost story. Blackbeard was decapitated and his body tossed overboard. When the skull is stolen from an antique store the story of a very strange reunion unfolds. The threads of the story are very nicely woven together and the conclusion is superbly staged. The art is dark toned and dramatic, it captures the flavour of the story perfectly, mixing the romance and fierce reality of pirates in just the right way.
"In the Chapel of Moloch" has art by Mike Mignola and is a nice little story, it is a very distilled Hellboy story. The way that the supernatural lays hold of someone, who the supernatural force is are both done with economy and outstanding skill. How a hidden history of the world is suggested is a joy, the sheer mater-of-fact way Hellboy acts are all reminders of why Hellboy is such a pleasure to read.
The final story "The Mole" with art by Duncan Fegredo answers a most interesting question, if Hellboy had a nightmare what might it be like? Creating a credible dream for a creature like Hellboy, whose business is dealing with nightmares is a tricky task and this story does it with a sharp wit. For once having someone realise that it was a dream is not an easy exit from a narrative trap, it extends the character instead.
A really enjoyable collection requiring no knowledge of Hellboy continuity to read with pleasure.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Preacher. Camilla Lackberg.Steven T. Murray(Translator). HarperCollins (2004)

A simple and superbly orchestrated plot and a large, active and engaging cast make for a gripping and hugely enjoyable thriller. In the small Swedish town of Fjallbacka, the discovery of the body of a young woman and the two skeletons marks the start of a very difficult case for Detective Patrik Hedstrom. While the case draws in a local and bitterly divided family, the Hults, the lack of clues makes progress agonisingly slow. When a second young woman disappears the the pressure on everyone involved grows to dangerous levels. The reveals are cunningly staged and the cast are given plenty of time and space to establish themselves. The conclusion is fiercely sad and fitting.
The shifting viewpoints among the large cast that allow the reader to see each cast member from their own point of view and from that of others creates a rich and varied context for the mystery at the heart of the story. The cast have independent lives beyond the mechanics of the mystery and as they reveal themselves the grip of the story intensifies. The actions of the cast as they respond to the crimes and to other pressures in their lives gives the crimes a depth and proportion. The increasing levels of collateral damage created by the old and new crimes is steadily revealed as the cast are forced to confront their own actions.
One of the very enjoyable aspects to the book is that the strongest feature of the police investigation is simple, unrelenting persistence. The obstacles the investigation encounter are incompetence and indifference much more than any clever criminality. The messy lives of the cast are sympathetically dealt with, with flashes of sharp humour that are a pleasure to read. A big generous story that is subtly disciplined and controlled, a great read.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. Mike Mignola, Katie Mignola , Dave Stewart, Clem Robbins,Pat Brosseau, Dark Horse Books (2010)

A great collection of very funny stories that are also wonderfully imaginative adventures, quite brilliants comics too.The first story features one of the most remarkable action heroes I have ever encountered,Screw-On Head is an agent for Abraham Lincoln. A mysterious document fragment has been stolen from by Emperor Zombie, it possibly shows the whereabouts of a jewel that gives monstrous power to whoever possess it. Screw-On Head heads out to prevent disaster, encounters Emperor Zombie and his evil assistants, a demon intending to destroy the world and manages to be funny, thrilling and amazing. The story conclusion is terrific.
The second story is a clever and sharp version of Jack and the Beanstalk that takes the elements and shakes them up in a most unexpected way. The third story "The Magician and the Snake" is by Mike Mignola and his young daughter Katie. The background is provided in the notes at the back. This is a touching and heartfelt story of friendship and magic.
"The Witch and her Soul" is an extended joke, the set up is very well paced and the punchline is funny, unexpected and exactly right. "The Prisoner of Mars" is my favourite, if only because it is by far the cleverest and the funniest riff on H.G.Wells "War of the Worlds" it has been my pleasure to read. It is packed with great ideas, absurd gags and one of the very best endings I have ever read.
The great pleasure of the book is the way that these slight stories are treated with such care and attention to detail. The art is uniformly a pleasure to look at, Dave Stewart's colours subtly support the stories and give them a glowing life. The lettering by Clem Robbins and Pat Brosseau is both unobtrusive and strongly expressive.
When a comic has no intent beyond straightforward entertainment and does so with the confidence, craft and sparkling talent that this one does, it shines. A reminder of the tremendous pleasure to be had from reading a comic.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

9. Shane Acker (Director). Focus Features (2009)

Brilliantly animated, imaginative story of a post-human world. After a brutal conflict between humanity and insurgent machines, humanity is wiped out. A small creature made from sacking, a zip and some electro-mechanical bits comes to consciousness and sets out to explore the devastated world. Number 9(Elijah Wood) finds another, number 2(Martin Landau) who gives him a voice and when number 2 is kidnapped by a skeletal mechanical cat, a mission. This mission brings him into direct conflict with some others, in particular number 1(Christopher Plummer) who wants to avoid trouble or conflict. 9 leaves with number 5(John C. Reilly) and after being rescued by number 7(Jennifer Connelly), inadvertently resurrects the chief machine. A struggle for survival and the future of the world follows.
Packed with stunning visuals, frequently clever ideas, brilliantly staged action sequences, great characters and a nice touch of bittersweet optimism the film is a treat.The ruined city where the action takes places is astonishingly realised, the ruins and the wreckage are depicted with care and attention, the details give it depth and solidity. They deliberately hark back to the ruins and battlefields of the First World War, the machines have an antique futuristic look that works very well.
The cast of dolls are lively and distinctively individual, the voice talent is superbly matched to the animation to imbued them with real personality. Christopher Plummer gives number 1, the cautious seeker after safety a querulous and honest determination, Jennifer Connelly as the action hero number 7, wearing a bird's skull and never willing to back down for anyone is superb.
That the film shows how a electro-mechanical animated puppet would get high in a credible and funny way as well as creating a genuinely nightmarish mechanical caterpillar and these are just two of the many delights is wonderful. Thoughtful, with the minimum levels of sentimentality, a pleasure.