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Sunday, February 27, 2011

High Noon. 13 of the Best Wild West Picture Library Stories Ever. Steve Holland (Editor). Prion (2008)


An interesting and nostalgic collection of stories from a period when Westerns were part of the entertainment mainstream. The stories feature such established Western heroes as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson as well as creating their own such as the cowboy foreman, The Kansas Kid and the sheriff Buck Jones. The stories are very straightforward with crooked politicians, rustlers, overbearing soldiers stirring up the local Indian tribes and an assortment of crooks. To a large extent the stories read like episodes of the popular Western serials on television at the time they were published, like "The High Chaparral" or "The Virginian". It is notable that no writers or artists are credited in the volume.
The format of the stories, usually two large panels per page forces a uniform, rather slow, pace to the stories which takes a little getting used to. The artists take full advantage of the extra space to include considerable detail in the stories, the slower pace allows the details to be relished. There is a fair amount of variety with the art styles so there clearly was no house style for the publications.
The writing is a little clunky at times, it can repeat the action of the panel, telling and showing at the same time. It also is a bit more text heavy than contemporary comics and this also slows the pace of the comic. The stories are solid Western adventures, they do not challenge or play with the genre, they are very low on cliches also. It is a good fun collection, the stories are not memorable enough in themselves to survive with some support from nostalgia, the art fares better than the writing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Postillion Struck by Lightning. Dirk Bogarde. Phoenix (1977)


A charming and engaging autobiography of childhood and young adulthood. Dirk Bogarde structures the book in two parts, the first recounts his time in the Garden of Eden, the second his expulsion from it and his progress in a harsher world. The Garden of Eden is rural Sussex where he could wander in the countryside with his sister largely free from adult supervision and interference. The big events are a visit from a relation a few years older who is a burden as she does not enjoy rural life and the campaign to win a canary at a local fair.
The expulsion from Eden was started when another child was born and the issue of Dirk Bogarde's persistent educational failures became pressing. Dirk was sent to Glasgow to stay with middle-aged childless relatives, to study at a technical school there. This was a savage dislocation from his previous life, he did not fit in at school, continued to fail and was a mystery and a concern to his relatives. Finally returning home and trying to evade his fathers efforts to guide him to a place with "The Times" newspaper, Dirk tried to start a career in acting. This is what he really wanted to do with his life as his account of his starting years just as the shadow of the Second World War started to darken.
While Dirk Bogarde is the narrator in this book, it is not centrally about him, the charm and warmth of the book lies in the wonderful cast of family, friends and aquantinces that crowd through the pages. His assertion that he never wished to be a star, rather be an honest and respected actor is borne out in the way he does not hog the limelight. The descriptions of rural Sussex, Glasgow and pre-war London are vivid and the details are sharp and telling. The writing is vivid and direct, he is hardest on himself. This is a hugely enjoyable book, a pleasure to read.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alpha Vol 3. The List. Mythic (Writer), Y. Jigounov (Art), Jerome Saincantin (Translation). Cinebook Ltd (2010)


Fast paced and very enjoyable spy thriller. A high-ranking secret police officer flees the collapse of East Germany with a list of US citizens who had covert dealings with the communist regime. When he offers the list to the CIA in exchange for relocation to the US and safety for his family, the list attracts the attention of a number of competing groups. An Israeli team as well as one of the people named on the list are desperate to get the information and the CIA team, headed by Alpha have a considerable struggle on their hands. The action is superbly paced, the reveals are clever and sharp, the resolution has bite.
To a large extent plot and action dominate over character in the story, not exclusively as the cast are given enough definition to make the action engaging. The plot is very well structured, the action makes sense and the pace is cleverly managed. The cast and their various contexts are introduced in a effective and compressed fashion that sets them up for the turns of the story very well. They never feel like they are plot bound, they are responding to events and trying to get ahead of them with credible vigour.
The art has to carry a great deal of the story and does so beautifully. The panels are nicely designed to vary the pace and to put a lot of information on the page in an unfussy and effective way. The human cast are strongly individual, their body language and expressions pick up the nuances of the story. A first rate story and a great comic.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The House Sitter. Peter Lovesey. Time Warner Books (2003)


A very engaging and cleverly plotted crime story. A woman is found murdered on a beach, full of people not paying any attention to each other. The case becomes complex when the victim is identified as a top police profiler who had been working on a highly sensitive case for the National Crime Faculty. The question of whether the profiler was killed by the person she was hunting is one of the cleverly woven plot strands in the story. The complications of joint enquires, especially when one of the parties is reluctant to share information is nicely played out. The reveals are very well staged, the action is thoughtful and brisk and the conclusion sharp and very satisfying.
The dual pleasures of this book are the plot and the cast, the structure of the plot is first rate, the motives are clever and credible, they unfold in logical and surprising ways that move the story with subtle force. The cast are not slaves to the plot, they spring to strong and considered life, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond in particular is hugely engaging. A competent , professional police officer, forceful without being a bully, fond of his own way and right often enough to warrant it. Sharing an investigation is not natural to him and to do so on two counts pushes his diplomatic skills to their limits.
Henrietta Mallin who is leading the investigation into the murdered profiler is smart, competent and tough, she is not at all overshadowed by Peter Diamond. The politics of a high profile case are nicely drawn in, the tension between the various police agencies is made clear. Most enjoyably, one character who appears at first to be a satirical swipe develops into a funny and genuine person, with much more self aware sharpness than might have been expected. This is a very clever and highly entertaining book.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Chronicles of Solomon Kane. Dark Horse Books (2009)


This volumes collects the six issues of The Sword of Solomon Kane (1985/1986) and two issues of Marvel Premiere (1976) originally published by Marvel Comics. The Marvel Premiere issues were written by Roy Thomas, all six of The Sword of Solomon Kane were written by Ralph Macchio.
One of the enduring pleasures of comics is seeing the different approaches creative teams take to the same story. The two Marvel Premiere issue and the first issue of The Sword of Solomon Kane adapt the Robert E. Howard story, "Red Shadows" in strikingly different ways while sticking to the same central story. Roy Thomas writes a two part story, with art from Howard Chaykin, colours by Dan Jackson and letters by Jom Novak, neatly splits the story into its two halves. Howard Ckaykin's art is sharp and angular, carefully paced with panel layouts driving the pacing. The writing is lush and overgrown, a delight to read and matching the drama of the art.
Ralph Machhio with art from Steve Carr & Bret Blevins, colours by Dan Jackson and letters by Steve Dutro compresses the story to a single issue and the art has softer edges and greater depth. Solomon Kane is a more human figure, Howard Chaykin delivers him as stripped down to the fierce drives that push him on, Steve Carr & Bret Blevins, show a deeply focused and committed man. Both capture the driven action and the determined pursuit of the story, weave in the supernatural elements with skill and deliver the conclusion with the savage judgement and force it needs.
The stand out story from the rest of The Sword of Solomon Kane issues is an original story , "the Prophet" with art by Mike Mignola & Al Williamson, letters by Steve Dutro and colours by Dan Jackson. Solomon Kane, a Christian fundamentalist with an unshakable belief that he is doing his god's business encounters a Muslim who has the same sense of divine mission. The encounter is superbly staged, with trails of treachery coiling around both. The conclusion is grimly satisfying, if it tilts to Solomon Kane it does not play down the price that is paid by those implementing a divine project.
The other stories "And Faith, Undying..." is another original story with art by Bret Blevins, colours by Dan Jackson and letters by Steve Dutro is a sharp story of faith, friendship and werewolves. "Blades of the Brotherhood" art by Bret Blevins and Al Williamson, colours by Dan Jackson, letters by Steve Dutro sees Solomon Kane back in England and entangled with ruthless pirates. Both "Hills of Blood" art by John Bogdanove and Al Williamson and "Wing in the Night" with art by John Ridgway and Al Williamson, colours on both by Steve Dutro and letters by Dan Jackson, are set in Africa. This is the mystical Africa of the pulp stories of Robert E. Howard and the stories make the most of it. This is an excellent collection of highly enjoyable stories, that do justice to the original Howard stories and critically to the wonderful character of Solomon Kane himself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Robin Hood. Ridley Scott (Director) Universal Pictures (2010)


A brilliant action film, with a solid story and superb acting from a stunning cast. Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) returns to England to deliver a crown to new king and a message from a dying man to his family. In Nottingham he encounters the man's wife (Cate Blanchett) and is persuaded to impersonate the dead man for a few days. He is drawn into the life at Nottingham as well as national concerns as French soldiers ravage the country in a prelude to an invasion. The ensuing struggle becomes one for freedom from English tyranny as well as French invaders. The story is very well structured and balanced, the set pieces are outstanding and the cast are outstanding.
This is not the classic Robin Hood story arc, it is concerned with how Robin Hood came to be. The story threads are crisp and clear, they weave together very nicely to deliver a strong narrative that firmly sets up Robin hood, the outlaw legend. The film is a joy to watch, the action set pieces are amazing The mixture of close up action and soaring views bring you right into the fighting and provide a understandable context. There is exactly the right balance struck between the necessary dirt to give the feel for the times and the romantic sense of the legend in the making. The story bears the political aspects easily and effectively, they are natural to the story of Robin Hood and are given their correct place here.
Russell Crowe is simply magnificent, he carries off the ferociously competent man of action with a understated macho assertiveness, allied to a subtle and engaging sense of the man looking for a home and his roots. Cate Blanchett is formidable as Lady Marion, married for a week before her husband leaves for 10 years never to return, she has the steely core and expressive charm required. There is a genuine screen chemistry between the two that feels like a meeting of equals that gives the romance real depth and strength.
A hero is defined as much by their enemies as by their actions and in Oscar Isaac's King John, Robin Hood has a suitably formidable and capable enemy. This is a silkily venomous performance, King John is a sincerely dangerous man. This film is a triumph, a joy to watch.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't look Back. Karin Fossum. Felicity David (Translator) Harcourt Books (2002)


A very engaging police procedural murder mystery set in a small Norwegian village. A girl is found on the edge of a lake, it is established that she has been murdered. The girl was well liked within the small village she came from and no obvious motives are apparent for the crime. Inspector Sejer quietly and steadily probes the life of the victim and the lives of those who knew her to find out who killed the girl and why. The pace is deliberate, the investigation is pursued in a logical, thoughtful fashion as the repercussions of the death are felt by the people who knew Annie. The reveals are carefully staged and the conclusion is surprising, credible and satisfying.
The large and engaging cast are well developed and strongly individual, they respond to the crime and the investigation in interesting ways.Inspector Sejer is quietly determined, conscious of the impact of the crime and needful of the need to press forward to find the truth. The twin narratives that moves from the investigation to the rest of the cast that knew Annie in some way is handled with care and subtly, the force of the investigation is as disconcerting as the crime itself.
The central mystery that drives the plot is very carefully constructed, it drives the story with a quiet force. Without overwhelming the cast it provides an effective context for their actions and the investigation. the victim is very clearly a presence in the story, her death gives her a greater presence in the lives of the cast. Karin Fossum weaves a very enjoyably tangled web about her cast that happily ensnares the reader as well. A pleasure.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Low Moon. Jason (Writer & Artist). Kim Thompson (Translation). Fantagraphics Books (2009)


This collection of stories features very strong story ideas, deadpan delivery and sharply bitter outcomes combining to from a great set of comics. "Emily says Hello" is a tale of revenge, murder and sexual favours. What is left out is as important as what is included and as you read the story the absences draw you into the narrative as you imagine the back story for yourself."Low Moon" is a brilliant re-imagining of "High Noon" with a game of chess rather than a gunfight at the heart of the story. "&" is a twin track narrative about the lengths people will go to achieve their goals and the slippery nature of such goals. "Proto Film Noir" plays off "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in the story of a drifter and a woman who murder the woman's husband with very unexpected results. "You are Here" which about an alien abduction and its consequences is the strongest story in the collection, while still very harsh it gives it cast more depth and feeling.
The initially most striking aspect to the stories is the art, all the cast are anthropomorphic, with dog and bird like heads on human shaped bodies. The body language and facial expressions are very expressive and they are as far as possible from "funny animal" drawings. The use of a regular four panel grid for all the stories means that the layout offers no cues about the narrative, this deadpan delivery draws the reader in as you have to decide for yourself what the emotional speed of the story is.
The colouring is restricted and flat which sits comfortably with the layouts, the cool tones are easy to read and flow beautifully. With so little direct support from either the art, the layout or the colouring the writing has to work extremely hard to be effective. The ideas have the necessary strength and apparent simplicity to fit with the structure and are executed with such spare and detailed exactness that they shine. The stories have a crisp momentum that is a pleasure to read, the content is sharp and bitter, the skill in the writing is such that they are a pleasure to read. This is an extraordinary comic, it exploits unexpected minimalist possibilities superb effect.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Arctic Chill. Arnaldur Indridason. Bernard Scudder & Victoria Cribb (Translators). Vintage Books (2005)


A compelling police procedural set in Iceland. A young boy is found stabbed to death in the playground of his housing complex. The son of a Thai immigrant, the question as to whether it was racially motivated dominate the investigation. Detective Erlendur and his colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg pursue the investigation with care and thoroughness. Erlendur has a second case, that of a missing woman and the lonely dying of his police mentor on his mind as well. The reveals are very well staged, the investigation is thoughtful and very well structured, the conclusion is sharp, unexpected and horribly credible.
In the same way that a racially motivated murder colours the investigation it poses a significant problem for the story also. Arnaldur Indridason has to find a way to complex and social and political issue dramatically convincing without reducing it to blandness or polemic. For the most part he succeeds, while some of the cast are essentially mouthpieces required to provide a point of view, they are in the distinct minority. The non-police cast are given points of view and personalities that work on all levels.
The sub-plots provide a nice counter point to the main story and they give the cast some dramatic elbow room to develop more as characters and to provide a greater depth of context for the story. The setting in integral to the whole story, Reykjavik and Iceland itself are key aspects to the story. The writing is low key, Erlendur and Sigurdur Oli emerge as very engaging principals, they have interesting and unstreotypical private lives that gives them depth and weight. Deeply satisfying, a pleasure to read.