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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Beast Triology. The Dormant Beast/December 32nd. Enki Bilal (Writer & Artist), Taras Otus,Sasha Watson (Translation.). Humanoids/DC Comics (2004)


Piping hot science fiction delivered with outstanding art, this volume is the first two chapters of The Beast Trilogy and a really compelling comic. Nike Hatzfeld is a man who can remember all of his life down to the first days after his birth. He was an orphan in war torn Sarajevo, in a damaged hospital with two other children Amir and Leyla and Nike is looking for them. He lives in a world where memory and knowledge are under violent ass ult from the Obscurantis Order who are determined to reshape the world, Nike's memory is a valuable prize for them. Leyla is a astrophysicist who is involved in investigation a stream of messages from space, Amir is a bodyguard about to start a new contract. The story is dramatic and far reaching, the reveals are superbly staged and the cast very engaging.
Enki Bilal carries of the mix of big ideas and a believable cast and context with flair and energy. The context is a future that has been battered a great deal by some series of conflicts, information is provided as the cast require it not the reader. This is neither frustrating nor confusing as the clarity and momentum of the story is so strong. The plot reveals itself steadily, nicely growing in depth and force as the unexpected twists and turns are revealed. Nike, Leyla and Amir emerge as very forceful characters, linked in subtle and sharp ways. Doctor Warhole is a superb creation, an evil genius with plans for global domination, he provides the controlled menace that drives the story.
The art is simply astounding, it has a dark and almost unfinished look to it as though Enki Bilal drew with chalk and brushed his sleeve lightly over the pages. It gives the physical context of the story a slightly unreal quality, it feels like science fiction art. The technology does not shine, it is all in use and showing it, the grit of the plot is matched by the grit of the art.
The very best thing about this story is that it could only be told properly as a comic, the interplay between story and art, the limitless budget of comics and the frozen timeline of sequential panels do more than frame the story, they allow it to be told. This story exploits the possibilities of comics in a genuinely exciting way, a star burst of controlled creativity, astonishing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Labyrinths of Echo Book 1: The Stranger. Max Frei (Writer), Polly Gannon (Translator). Gollancz (2009)


An exuberant and highly entertaining fantasy with a well thought out alternative world and a very engaging cast. Max Frei, an insomniac and self described classic loser, finds that his dreams have more substance than he imagined. In his dreams he meets Sir Juffin Hully, Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force in the city of Echo. Sir Julian, recognising talents that Max does not realise he possesses, offers him a job as his Nocturnal Representative in Echo. Max travels across dimensions to Echo and takes up his post. His department investigate unusual crimes, activities that are likely to involve the illegal use of magic. Max has cases that range for mysterious deaths in a neighbours house to a haunted prison cell to a case where a cook is converted into a meal.
The book does not have an overarching plot, it is constructed as a progression of episodes that steadily reveal more about the city of Echo, Max's developing abilities and his fellow officers in the Minor Secret Investigative Force. The city of Echo is an nicely developed context, it sidesteps the frequent quasi-medieval stereotypes of a lot of fantasy, and manages to create a lively location for the action. The structure of the book means that the information about Echo is delivered steadily to the reader as Max himself finds it out, the city and its inhabitants emerge in a natural and intriguing way.
The cast are lively and hard working, Max himself is pleasantly calm and ready for adventure, he develops a willingness to become involved in his adopted home which brings the reader very much into the story. The rest of the investigators are given a chance to shine and develop across the episodes and they are strongly varied and vivid. Max's unsurprising romantic entanglement with one of his fellow investigators is given substance by the unexpected handling.
The writing is noticeably not Anglophone in origin, there is a slight formality to the book that suits it very well and marks it is coming from a different context. The episodes are cleverly constructed and enjoyable, the final one trails off a little, not so much as to injure the book, it tries a little too hard. Overall very good fun.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BLACKLANDS. Belinda Bauer. Corgi Books (2010)


Astonishing and utterly compelling thriller that drives relentlessly forward to a white knuckle conclusion. Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor looking for the grave of his uncle who had been abducted and murdered years before by a serial child killer, Arnold Avery. He does so in hope of repairing the damage done to his family by Billy's abduction. Steven finally writes to Avery in prison seeking his help in locating the grave and Avery seizes the opportunity that has come his way to have something new in his life. The story unspools in a very gripping and creepy fashion, the events have a horrible inevitability about them until the final heart squeezing conclusion.
This astonishing book manages to disguise the plot as the natural outcome of the actions and reactions of its brilliantly realised cast to their circumstances. From the very slightest of beginnings, the story moves carefully and calmly through the increasing escalation of events. There is nothing blatant about the progression of the story, it moves without many set pieces, the story is nudged along by wickedly believable actions and collisions. The increasingly uneasy atmosphere conjured up arises almost unseen and gathers paces as quietly as a descending fog on Exmoor.
Belinda Bauer has created a memorable cast and gives everyone, from the principal to the smallest walk on part, the breath of life. The ebb and flow of the story is so deeply entwined with the lives of the cast that the author's breathtaking craft in shaping the story is invisible. Arnold Avery is a triumph, a monster of terribly comprehensible proportions, never sympathetic and utterly engaging, a ruthless mixture of self-discipline and appetite, he still does not quite dominate the book. Steven Lamb, twelve years old, struggling to repair his shattered family and to survive his friends and enemies, emerges as the deep heart of the book. This book is enthralling and is simply unmissable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Empire of Blue Water. Henry Morgan and the Pirates who Ruled the Caribbean Waves. Stephan Talty. Pocket Books (2007)


A wonderfully engaging and informative study of the extraordinary career of Henry Morgan and the pirate city of Port Royal. Henry Morgan and his fellow buccaneers were the last wave of the privateers,private ships and captains with commissions from governments to attack their enemies shipping. They were not pirates, pirates were outlaws with no legal standing, privateers were recognised part of official military and naval strategy. In Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean the privateers fought a war against the Spanish Empire under their own rules, organised as the Brethren of the Coast and with their home in Port Royal, the "richest and wickedest city in the world".
Henry Morgan sailed out to Jamaica in 1654 to make his name and his fortune, the possibilities in the New World were spectacular for the brave and the willing. The Spanish Empire was mining the fabulous riches of South America and shipping them back to Europe. Its was inflexible, unimaginative and deeply autocratic, everything that the Brethren of the Coast were not, and they were to exploit the weakness of the empire in a astonishingly ruthless and effective fashion.
No one did this more effectively than Henry Morgan, the fiercely democratic and open structure of the Brethren suited his talents perfectly. His steady string of successes made his followers rich and allowed his increase the scope and reach of his raids until he his most specular raid on the city of Panama. It was his greatest success and ultimately his most profound failure, it marked the breaking point for social and political structure that allowed the privateers to flourish.
Stephan Talty tells the extraordinary story of Henry Morgan, placing him firmly into his wider historical, political and economic context. He shows how the strengths of the Brethern were closely allied to their weaknesses and how, inevitably, privateers became pirates. This is a superbly written book, Stephan Talty has a glorious story to tell and tells it with tremendous style, momentum and a keen eye for the telling detail. The blazing Henry Morgan is given a fitting stage to stride on, unmissable and unputadownable.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

S.O.S. Meteors. Edgar P. Jacobs (Writer and Artist). Jerome Saincantin (Translator). Cinebook Ltd. (2009)


A very well crafted science fiction adventure. Extreme weather has been plaguing Western Europe and Professor Phillip Mortimer goes to Paris to meet with his friend, Professor Labrousse, the chief French meteorologist. After his taxi crashes, the driver vanished and he nearly drowns, Mortimer finally arrives at Prof. Labrousse's house. Mortimer has some suspicions about the cause of the weather and when he finds himself a suspect in the disappearance of the taxi driver decides to investigate on his own account. Captain Francis Blake of British Military Intelligence is also on Paris on a mission and when his friend Mortimer disappears and his case seems to be related to the weather, Blake finds he has stepped on a hornets nest. The plot is very well set up, the reveals are clever, the action is excellent, the conclusion is thoroughly enjoyable.
The story is very well crafted both as an adventure and science fiction,both elements are cleverly woven together. There is a strong big idea in controlling the weather, the comic book science that underlies the plan is cleverly set up and delivered with the suitable degree of seriousness. It is also hitched nicely to a political agenda which gives it an edge over the the anticipated mad genius trope. The action is superbly choreographed, one of the great pleasures is that no one has it easy, both the heroes and the villains have to fight hard for what they want. Each has hair's breath escapes and face competent and forceful opponents, this makes the struggle considerably more interesting. The end may not be in doubt, the journey is unexpected.
The art is a joy, the detail in each panel is a pleasure, it never overcrowds the story nor slows the momentum, it gives a solid context to the action. There is a sequence involving a flight and fight over Paris rooftops in a rainstorm that is a model of pacing and clarity. The cast are full of life and energy, they are clearly individual, down to the extras, and push the story forward with vigour. There is a little bit of telling and showing in the comic, it is more of a period charm than a distraction. Great fun, first rate comic storytelling.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frozen Tracks. Ake Edwardson. Vintage (2008)


This is a gripping police procedural, a thoughtful plot and a very engaging cast. A number of small children are taken for a drive by a man they do not know and are returned unharmed. The incidents are all reported to separate police stations and the children are not upset by the experience. A number of attacks on college students is being investigated by Detective Chief Inspector Winter, all of them have been struck by an unseen assailant, one being very badly injured. When a student escapes his attacker DCI Winter begins to pick up the threads of the case. After small boy is picked up in a car and found injured, the other cases come to light and the pattern becomes visible. Gradually the two plot lines converge in the same brutal secrets. The reveals are superbly staged, the investigation is thoughtful, deliberate and effective, the resolution is grim and satisfying.
The story is superbly structured, the various strands of the story are expertly woven together and the links are cunningly forged. The professional and the personal context for the police officers is very well drawn, DCI Winter defying expectations by having a stable happy relationship that he is deeply committed to. One of his colleague's has a personal crisis which nicely explores the theme of the story.
The student victims of the assaults and the child kidnapper are nicely ambivalent, they have secrets that they are trying to both embrace and escape at the same time. It gives a welcome and melancholy flavour to the story and a naturally and effective complicating factor to the investigation. A pleasure.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Man with No Name: Saints and Sinners. Christos Gage(Writer), Wellington Dias (Art), Bruno Hang (Colours), Dynamite Entertainment (2009)


A very enjoyable sequel to the film, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" that follows the Clint Eastwood character, the Man with No Name. He is being actively hunted by both Union and Confederate soldiers for different reasons. While trying to evade both sides he is drawn into a siege of the Mission of San Antonio where he had spent some time recovering his health. The mission is under siege from a mixed group of Union and Confederate deserters and The Man with No Name joins the fray with explosive results. The story is very engaging, the back story is filled in effectively and naturally. The action is fast and smart, the story has momentum and pace, the cast are full of energy.
The comic has a very difficult task to complete, it has to pick up the threads from a brilliant film and use them to create a comic that can stand by itself. To a considerable degree it does so, Christos Gage does an excellent job of both linking the story to the film and moving beyond it. The main story stands squarely by itself as a solid western adventure. He sensibly does very little with the title character beyond what has already been established in the films. He uses the surrounding cast to really give the story some depth and push, none are passive observers or victims, they are all driving forward as hard as they can. This gives the story a great texture as they collide in interesting ways. The ending of the story is smart and does point to a way beyond the boundaries of the film.
The shortfall in this comic is the art, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it, it is expressive and clear, it is simply too clean. One of the most notable aspects to the films is the grimy and dusty context, it is a harsh environment and it was as much a character in the films as the human cast. The art does not capture this, it is too polished, the cast look as though their clothes were laundered. This would matter less if the story was not following on so closely from the film, in future stories it will probably matter much less.
This comic is neither insulting to fans of the film nor obscure to those not familiar with it, it is a western that understands the demands of the genre and responds to them with flair and thoughtfulness. The cover gallery featuring the series covers by Richard Isanove is stunning, they grace the story the way the epic score graced the film. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Secret Friend. Chris Mooney. Penguin Books (2008)


A gripping and entertaining thriller with a twisting plot and an engaging cast. When a woman's body is found floating in Boston harbour, it becomes clear that her murder is related to the earlier murder of the daughter of a very rich and influential man. CSI Darby McCormick is assigned to the case and starts working with detective Tim Bryson. The murder kidnaps another young woman, answering the commands of the Virgin Mary to do so, to keep her captive and to be her friend. When Malcolm Fletcher, an ex-FBI profiler wanted for murder himself, appears to be taking a strong interest in the case and elaborate game of hide and seek takes place. The plot threads are developed with care and attention to detail, the reveals are very cleverly staged and the conclusion wholly satisfying.
The kidnapper is the least interesting member of the cast, Chris Mooney works very hard to spin a character out of a cliche and succeeds as far as it is possible to do. He is considerably more successful with the rest of his cast. Darby McCormick is a striking character, smart, confident and competent she is a pleasure to spend time with. Malcolm Fletcher is a wonderfully ambiguous villain,his version of justice has a dangerous attraction. It is Jonathan Hale, grieving father of the first murdered girl, who emerges as the most interesting character in the book. He is trapped in the horrible ripples of grief and his presence places a strong focus on the victims, which adds great weight and depth to the crimes.
The two victims who are given space are allowed to be considerably more than breasts and screams, they fight and struggle to escape and to maintain their independence. Chris Mooney puts his cast through the wringer, the grip of the book comes from the fact that the cast make us care about it. A great read.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rainbow Orchid. Volume Two. Garen Ewing (Writer and Art). Egmont (2010)


This is a very engaging and highly enjoyable comic, a really well done adventure story with a strong plot and an engaging cast.Julius Chancer, Lily Lawrence and Nathaniel Crumpole fly to India in pursuit of the fabled Rainbow Orchid. They need it to win a foolish bet made by Lily Lawrence's father with the very unscrupulous Urkaz Grope. Grope has dispatched Evelyn Crow, along with some assorted thugs, to stop Julius by any means possible. The multiple threads of the plot are explored in more detail, the reveals are nicely staged and the story is advanced in a very entertaining fashion.
The art is lovely, while Garen Ewing has a very distinctive style, he has a great range with his cast, each person is distinct and their actions are clear and crisp. The level of detail is very welcome, the physical context for the action is always very well judged and gives a great depth and weight to the story. The structure of the story is excellent, the plot lines are clearly laid out, the explanations are woven into the narrative in a very natural way.
Julius Chancer is a engaging hero, impulsive and brave, he is given a credible back story and time to have some doubts. He is not a superhero and the story gains greatly from his competent humanity. Evelyn Crow is a wonderful villain, her implacable and stylish energy creates the central tension in the story. None of the others in the cast are shortchanged, everyone is given enough space and content to make an impression without crowding the story too much. Garen Ewing has managed a very difficult balancing act between action and character, speed and plot density all delivered with sparkling art, a pleasure.