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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Runners, Book 1: Bad Goods. Sean Wang (Writer & Artist) Serve Man Press (2005)

A superb space opera with a solid plot, great action, a superb context and a very engaging cast. Roka Nostaco and his crew are smugglers-for-hire, runners, en route to make a collection when they find that the space ship they are due to meet is under attack. They beat off the attack and rescue the ship and most of the cargo. Complications follow when that take a woman they found on the cargo ship on board and find that they have a bounty on their heads. A visit to a huge space station for repairs and rest proves to be very difficult. The action is sharp and fast, carefully balanced with information, back story and dry humour. The conclusion is satisfying and open ended enough to provide a platform for new stories.
Sean Wang has taken a very familiar template of footloose adventurers getting caught up in action that pulls at their wallets as well as their residual sense of right and wrong and gives it fresh and focused momentum. He is faithful to the genre requirements for a diverse, bickering crew, very competent in action if preferring to avoid it with a nice slice of back story to give them hard knock experience. The quality of his writing means that the requirements do not slide into cliche, the cast are lively, individual and very engaging. The situations they find themselves in are superbly set up, logically sequenced and give the cast a opportunity to shine individually and collectively.
The art is equal to the writing, it strongly expresses the story and provides a glorious space opera context. The cast are expressive and individual, the space ship hardware is given enough detail and functional thought to ground the action very firmly. The big scenes of space conflict are loud and impressive, close quarter combat is fast and intense. This is a very thoughtfully constructed comic that wearing its considerable craft lightly, it is so good it makes it look easy. A pleasure to read, re-read and savour, wonderful.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Case Histories. Kate Atkinson. Black Swan (2004)

An interesting mix of a book that does not quite catch fire. Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman now private investigator working in Cambridge becomes somewhat haphazardly involved in three case histories. The first and most significant is the disappearance of a very young girl from the garden of her home. Decades later two of her sisters find her favourite toy in their recently deceased father's desk. They hire Jackson to investigate Olivia's disappearance. The second case is the 10 year old murder of a young woman in her father's office. Theo, Laura's father is determined to understand why his daughter was killed and hires Jackson to find out. The third case involves a young woman who murdered her husband, her sister hires Jackson to find the woman's daughter. The cases snake around each other without connecting, the reveals are nicely staged and the conclusion is generous and compassionate.
This story is a character drama for crime fiction fans and a crime story for character drama fans, it balances both very well without quite developing into a forceful,unified entity. The murders at the heart of the three case studies are smart and thoughtful and they do propel the drama in an effective fashion. The long echo from the disappearance of the young girl and the murder of Theo's daughter on the survivors is acutely drawn. The criminal element is much more muted in the third case and feels somewhat unfinished,the drama is considerably sharper and significantly more unkind to the cast.
The cast are given plenty of room to breathe and develop, they do not quite come off the page. They feel constrained by the framework of the violent actions that have marked them, at the same time the investigations lacks the force and focus to drive the narrative. All of the major characters are facing profound challenges which are forcing them into changes and choices they would rather avoid. The strength of the book is the way these changes are used to reveal the cast, the wide spread of focus within the book means it does not quite get to grips enough with any one thread to really engage the reader.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes. Soul of the Dragon. Northstar Press (1995)

This is an anthology of three short Sherlock Holmes stories within a framing sequence all written by Joe Gentile with a different artistic team on each story. All the stories are black & white. The framing sequence shows Holmes granting Watson permission to publish some more cases from his records. The first of these is "The Much Maligned Musician", art by Dave Ulanski & Bill Halliar,in which a very talented and egotistical musician commits suicide after being publicly revealed as gay. Sherlock Holmes finds that the evidence points to murder.In "Man of Medicine:Doctor of Despair", art by Alison McDonald, Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in an unusual kidnap case that uncoils nicely into something more. The final story "The Assassin's Lament", pencils by Pav Kovacic, inks by Lynda Licin, Kate McCoole and Joe Gentile starts with Dr.Watson assisting a woman and leads to murder and links with Professor Moriarty. All the stories are neatly constructed, capture Holmes and Watson effectively and give the great detective a chance to shine.
The art in the three stories varies very considerably and does not equally serve the story in each case. The art in the first story has clarity and depth, it is too rounded and clean to be entirely successful. The figure work is slightly static and feels a touch overdrawn. Dave Ulanski & Bill Halliar do have a very strong design sense and the variety of angles used in the panels is distinctive and effective.
With "Man of Medicine:Doctor of Despair" Alison McDonald's art is too flat, it illustrates the story without illuminating it. The style does nit capture the dynamic action needed by the story, it slows the narrative down too much and there is too much line work in the panels to allow them to breathe.
The art in "The Assassin's Lament" is the only one to try to actually exploit the possibilities of black & white, using the contrasts very assertively to create mood and action. The cast are the most individual and developed and the action is sharp and forceful. All told these are enjoyable stories created with interesting artistic choices and strategies which provide mixed results.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hollywood Station. Joseph Wambaugh. Quercus (2007)

Very engaging and frequently laugh out loud funny police story. A mosaic of incidents and anecdotes slowly coalesce around the story of two couples, one a set of armed robbers the other a pair of tweakers, crystal meth addicts. The very large cast is expertly shuffled and reshuffled as the story threads emerge and knot together in a brilliantly staged, brutal and very unexpected fashion. The reveals are superb, surprising, frequently funny and always perfectly judged to reveal the character in the situation.
That this book is not a meandering mess is due to Joseph Wambaugh's skill in structuring and writing the narrative. The action is episodic and apparently random, following the large cast as they pursue their legal and criminal activities across the area covered by the Hollywood Station. Joseph Wambaugh is passionately in favour of the patrol staff of the LAPD, without being in any way sentimental about them or their work. He captures exactly why a police office would start and remain in the job in spite of the extraordinarily difficult conditions they work under. The most difficulties coming from their own organisation.
The cast are memorable, vital and all demanding the readers full attention as they live life at full speed, the dialogue sparkles and crackles with energy and bite. The structure of the book captures the chaotic life of the police and their opponents and the story of disastrous collision between the armed robbers and tweakers gradually comes into focus. The criminals are given as much time and care as the police and the action arises naturally and forcefully from the characters themselves. Joseph Wambaugh's romantic and heroic vision of police work is tempered by a vivid sense of the harsh and violent reality of Hollywood, they combine to make a superb book.