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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chew. Taster's Choice. John Layman (Writer & Letters), Rob Guillory (Art ). Image Comics (2011)

A astonishing idea superbly executed with lashings of bitter black comedy and powerful storytelling. Tony Chu is a cibopath, he can get the history of whatever he eats, except for beets. Tony has a brutal encounter with a serial killer and uses his talent to discover the full list of his victims. This episode bring Tony into the FDA, the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world, with a fellow cibopath and a boos who hates him. Tony finds himself investigating a finger found in a hamburger. The case develops in deeply unexpected ways, the reveals are razor sharp and the balance of the story never falters.
John Layman has taken a fabulous idea and developed it in consistently unexpected way, the notion of the secret information of food is explored in a number of different ways and all contribute directly to the force and depth of the story. The cast are a joy, full of spiky life, they are driven and frequently ill tempered and unsympathetic. They are also deeply engaging, well developed never simply defined by their talents, they responded to their circumstance with variety. The single most extraordinary aspect to this story is the balance that John Layman has maintained, there is a manic comedy mined from the central idea, there is also a barely restrained savagery that erupts and never quite goes away.
Rob Guillory's art captures every nuance and possibility in the story and frames them with subtle, outstanding skill. The art is very distinctive, it captures the strangeness of the central idea and normalises it just enough to prevent it from ripping the drama apart. The cast are given a wonderful range of body and facial language, the emotional context is delivered with a flourish and understated grace.
This is a really daring book, taking a idea that could have easily slid down a superheroic route or vanished into absurdist comedy and instead has anchored it with a deeply engaging cast and and strong, bleak drama and burning humour. This is a comic with a tremendous, articulate and individual creative vision being wonderfully realised with artistic risks paying off all the time. Not to be missed.

Kull. The Shadow Kingdom. Arvid Nelson (Writer), Will Conrad (Artist), Jose Villarrubria (Colours), Richard Starkings (Letters) Drark Horse Books (2009)

A very satisfying sword & sorcery story with a great cast and forceful action. Kull has taken the crown in Valusia and is seeking to consolidate his power, trying to establish himself firmly and safely on the throne. He finds that the biggest threat to his life and reign is not from his reluctant subjects but from ancient and evil forces who have plans of their own. The snake cult is a very powerful force in Valusia  and it has very dangerous secrets. Kull has to trust Brule The spear Slayer, Pict and the long time enemies of Kull's people, to  step into the snake pit and survive the process. The reveals are very well staged, the action is exciting and the the story is told with pace and energy.
Arvid Nelson takes full advantage of the possibilities of the story and uses them in interesting and very engaging ways. As a king Kull has his scope for action both expanded and reduced, his natural instinct is physical action, to survive as a king he needs to use his sharp mind as well. Navigating the whirlpools of the court and trying to establish his legitimacy is hard, the struggle with the sinister snake men is much more to his taste, a direct and bloody confrontation. The writing gives scope to both the worlds that Kull moves in and quietly and effectively shows how they overlap and intertwine. Kull is a great character, with enough doubt and anxiety to be dramatic while demonstrating the will and force that made him king in the first place. This is a story with a great deal going on, the balance between the elements is superbly maintained.
Will Conrad's art is a joy, it gives a physical weight and depth to the cast and context that is absolutely vital to the success of a sword & sorcery story. The story needs the action to be vivid and forceful, at the same tome the political currents have to be given depth and life to provide the context for the action. The cast are full of movement, they move through their context with confidence at the same time the subtle body language is never left behind.
Jose Villarrubia's colours are a pleasure to read, they give an extra dimension to the story and bring out the details and texture of the art. The story needs the force and momentum of the action underscored by the quieter menace that surrounds Kull, the colours made the context lush and real, Valusia looks wonderful, worth fighting for.  Richard Starkings letters are subtle, the sound effects are loud and visceral without ever drawing attention to themselves. A great comic.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Abe Sapien. The Devil does not Jest and Other Stories. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi(Writers), Patric Reynolds, Peter Snejbjerg, James Harren (Art) Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

Three wonderful stories featuring Abe Sapien agent of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence. All of the stories have a superb thread of the unexpected and the melancholy, the actions have strong and lasting consequences. Moving from a boy who is not what he seems to a drowned Russian submarine that has a number of secrets to the astonishing title story, all are superbly cast and structured with cunning reveals and dramatic echos that spread beyond the story itself.
One of the significant aspects to the stories is the matter-of-fact way that both the B>P.R.D. and Abe Sapien are presented. A government agency that deals with supernatural activities and problems would seem a natural for a shadowy role in public life, instead it is as visible as the police or the F.B.I. This means that the focus can rest firly on the events themselves rather than on the Bureau, it gives a solid and effective context to the action. That Abe Sapien is a humanoid fish is just taken for granted, he is an investigator for an agency that deals the supernatural, the fact that he is not human is par for the course.
This leaves the room in the stories for all the bits that all too often get squeezed out by an emphasis on the bizarre, the actual cast. It is not the odd business in itself that is interesting it is how the cast respond to and are caught up and changed by it. The stories shine here, they give room for the hammer blows of loss, greed and inescapable force that underlay the action and give it a context that draws in the reader with a much stronger grip than tension or horror alone would.
The art is nicely different for each story and the variety is welcome rather than distracting. They make the separation between the episode much clearer and are subtly matched to the different dramas. Patric Reynolds gives a realistic edge to the story of a haunting that robs a family a second time. It needs a solid context for the true scale of the devastation to be made clear. Peter Snejbjerg has uses a slightly more exaggerated and cartoony style to great effect in a story about the secrets of a drowned submarine. The stories bleak heart is hidden in an unexpected place and the art gets the required mix just right. James Harren wraps the story of a very clever man whose knowledge lead him to dreadful stupidity with  cunning detail and great kinetic energy. The comic thread in the story is a great counter point to the action.
Dave Stewart uses colours that blend in with the art and the story in a seamless way that  refuses to draw attention to the astonishing part they are playing, Clem Robbins letters do the same, both are hugely influential in the discreet way they should be. Great stories, great comics.

Solomon Kane. Death's Black Riders. Scott Allie (Writer), Mario Guievara (Art), Juan Ferreyra (Colours), Richard Starkings (Letters), Dark Horse Books (2010)

After a slightly confusing opening the comic settles down into a great story full of swashbuckling adventure and action. Solomon Kane encounters a group of travelers being attacked by weird creatures in the Black Forest and he comes to their aid. The solve survivor is a Frenchman, Gaston and he and Kane travel to a inn where they shelter for the night. Naturally the inn has troublesome secrets of its own and is later besieged by more of the creatures. The action is fast and furious, the reveals are nicely staged and all the elements are present and correct.
There is nothing new in the story, the pleasure lies in the way that Scott Allie organises it. Solomon Kane is a driven character, a Puritan adventurer who believes he has a mission from God to fight and destroy evil. He is is intense and grim, a significant distance from the usual light-hearted swashbuckling hero and all the better for it. His intensity gives the fight a ferocity and force, this is a deathly struggle and it takes all his force of will to fight. The creatures who emerge from the forest are his equal in intensity and this gives the book some much needed tension. The key question is not if Solomon Kane will win but how narrowly he will win, and in this case the gap is satisfyingly narrow.
The art by Mario Guevara is full of energy and motion, even at rest there is a sense of lurking action waiting to explode. The action, other that in the opening sequence is superb, it has a genuine physical force to it that captures and expresses the enormous force of will that drives it. The colouring by Juan Ferreyra is a little to dark for an action book, the atmosphere is strongly supported, details are slightly lost. With a sword fight, it is very much a character fight and all the details count. The climax does get great boost from the colours, they add to the urgency and the ferocity.
A very enjoyable comic.

The Sixth Gun: Cold Dead Fingers. Cullen Bunn (Writer), Brian Hurtt (Art & Letters), Oni Press (2011)

A great supernatural western that pushes a really strong plot and has a great cast as well. When the undead General Hume is rescued from a well in a monastery by his living henchmen the search for the Sixth gun  heats up. This gun is vital to Hume's plans and he wants it back, unfortunately the gun is bonded to woman, Becky Montcreif who does not understand the nature of the Sixth gun. Drake Sinclair is also looking for the Sixth gun and he helps Becky for reasons of his own. The story unwinds at a great pace, the reveals are cunningly staged and the climatic shoot out is wonderfully staged.
Culllen Bunn has managed to finely balance both genres, plot and cast so that all mesh without cutting across each other. The plot is very strong, it drives the story with force and depth, it never overwhelms the cast however. Becky Montcreif is a very unusual character, she is a positive female who has spirit and will to act for herself in a context where females are much more likely to to victims than actors. Surrounded by a cast who know a great deal more than she does and who are willing to go to great lengths ton get what they want, she is never weak or stupid. Drake Sinclair is a genre stereotype, a mysterious ally who may or may not be a problem or a threath, he has choices to make and agendas to pursue of his own. Cullen Bunn ensures that he never vanishes into the expected, he comes into his own dark life. It is the villains who provide the force in a story like this and there are superb villains in this story. General Hume is a pillar of raging greed for power and blood, his wife is a more silken version who may be considerably more dangerous. The supporting cast are both suitably grotesque and sharply individual.
The art by Brian Hurtt is a pleasure to read, it captures all the elements of the story with flowing ease. The Western context is used with nice effect, the details are consistently used to hold the story down while the supernatural elements are given full reign. The cast move with ease in the environment and respond to their circumstances with strong body language as well as words. The panel layout is used to give a strong focus on the story and the cast, each decision point is given the weight it deserves. A great substantial read.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Blue Estate: Preserves. Viktor Kalvachev, Kosta Yanev (Story), Andrew Osborne (Script), Viktor Kalvachev, Toby Cypress, Nathan Fox, Robert Valley, Paul Maybury (Art) Image Comics (2011)

A well cast and sharply nasty slice of noir that does not quite land the punch it should. Starting with a classic opening in a private detective's office the story quickly moves to flashback as the set up is explored. The wide ranging cast of thieves and mobsters is introduced and the pieces are put into place. This is also the slight problem that the book has, this volume is all set up, there is no follow through yet. It is hard therefore to assess the relative significance of the various threads and cast members who are introduced and how they will double-cross and be double-crossed in turn.
One of the very significant strenghts of the writing is that the cast, who all could easily be noir cliches, are in fact pulsing with a vivid, dark life, they have a desperate greed for something about them that means that they are all always  on the make or take. There is no peace among this cast, just a bare tolerance or lust and very few are quite what they want to pass themselves off as. The only ones who are confident enough to be up front are the powerful, the gangster bosses and the police, the rest of the cast are trying to find a route to power and money for themselves.
The art is great, spiky and sharp, it captures the jagged tones of the story with great force. The cast have a nicely feral look to them, except for the soft and round look of the private eye, the very image of a prey animal surrounded by restless predators. The colours are used very well to support the atmosphere of the episodes, the seething pulse of greed that that drenches the book.
The various episodes in the story that introduce the cast and reveal the initial story threads are very well done, there is no wasted time or motion, the tone is bleak and violent. The lack of solid story mechanics means that this is a somewhat unsubstantial read on its own,if the follow on matches the dark promise of the set up then it will gain weight and force.

Atomic Robo and The Shadow From Beyond Time. Brian Clevinger (Writer), Scott Wegener (Art), Ronda Patterson ((Colours), Jeff Powell (Letters). Red 5 Comics (2009)

A glorious piece of romantic science fiction, a smart story with lashings of wit, great jokes and a really strong plot to drive it all forward. Opening in 1926, Atomic Robo, created by Nikola Tesla, is disturbed by the arrival of H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Fort seeking Tesla's help to repel an creature who is a threat to the Earth. Previously Tesla had stopped the monster, it had now returned. Atomic Robo manages to avert disaster while discovering that the problem had nor been solved as the monster exists outside of time and thus is everywhere all the time. Which is a considerable problem and as the monster makes a number of reappearances, the final solution to the problem is clever, dramatically satisfying and entirely in keeping with the rest of the book.
Brian Clevinger ability to twist the same basic idea into new and wonderful shapes is astonishing, there are two episodes with breathtaking guest starring roles by H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Fort and Carl Sagan, in each case they are both recognizably themselves and still utterly part of the Atomic Robo universe. The other two episodes with Telsadyne staff as the supporting players are just as smart and funny. The episodic structure is used with great care and the payoff is superb. At the heart of the action is Atomic Robo, one of the few robots with a fully functioning personality. The fact that Robo does not overshadow the rest of the cast is one of the great pleasures of the book, the good lines are shared about and that context just makes the mad science all the better.
The art by Scott Wegener is extraordinary, using just the eyes of Robo and an astonishing grip on body language, Robo is given a vivid life that matches the spirit he is written in. All of the cast age given a chance to shine and their expressiveness is just a the right side of exaggerated to drive the manic situations and extract the most from each one. The fine balance between the absurdly plausible and the nonsensical is held with flair.
Ronda Patterson's colours are the essence of vivid romantic science fiction, the art has energy and depth that capture the sheer joy of scientific adventure stories that involves monsters and explosions. Jeff Powell's lettering is a subtle force in the book, the special effect noises are perfect, they give an extra, very welcome dimension to the story. A great comic, an unalloyed pleasure.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Witch Doctor: Under the Knife. Brandon Seifert (Writer), Lukas Ketner (Art), Sunny Gho, Andy Troy, Jamie Grant (Colours). Image Comics (2011)

Very smart and very funny, Witch Doctor takes a great idea and executes it with flair and wonderful, telling, detail. Dr. Vincent Morrow, working for Mystics Without Borders, takes a medical approach to dealing with the supernatural and is concerned with finding a vaccine for the apocalypse. After a barnstorming opening story about demonic possession, the rest of the stories never let up in inventiveness and momentum. Dr Morrow is aided by Penny Dreadful,  a young woman who is is considerably more than she appears and a new employee, Eric Gast a paramedic who is learning the business. The action is outstanding, the cast hugely engaging and the reveals brilliantly staged.
Brandon Seifert has chosen to highlight the black humour over the horror in the stories and this is a great choice, it gives him much more room develop his cast and use the horror to drive the stories rather than overwhelming them. His initial idea, of dealing with the supernatural in a medical framework is superb, it gives a really strong framework to the stories, it is how he develops the ideas that is wonderful. Why cast a spell when you can take one as a pill and then use it? The remarkably inventive way he uses medical and scientific ideas in cleverly thought out ways to solve supernatural problems is wonderful. The cast is astonishing, Vincent Morrow is bursting with curiosity, life and energy, Penny Dreadful is a very dangerous ally and Eric Gast is a great deal more than a stooge for Dr Morrow.
Of course, as Brandon Seifert notes it is all about the monsters and here the book shines a bloody beacon, the monster are genuine problems and threats, given stunning form in the simply astonishing art by Likas Ketner. He positively disproves the idea that a monster looses any of its force by coming into view, his monsters demand the limelight and deserve every second of it. They are wonderfully grotesque, moving with a natural force that gives them strength, while at the same time capturing the tone of black humour with care and subtlety. All of the cast have lovely physical presence, they interact with each other and their surrounding with energy and the expressiveness that they convey is a joy.
The colours by Sunny Gho, Andy Troy and James Grant are loud and vivid as they should be, this is a big bold story with an unexpected depth of character and the colours give it vivid and expressive life. This is story that glories in the light and avoids dark corners and shadows, the action is right up front and the colouring gives it depth, weight and drama. A great comic that really exploits the opportunities of the medium.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Upside Down. A Vampire Tale. Jess Smart Smiley (Writer & Artist) Top Shelf Productions (2011)

Vampires, sweets, witches allied with smart energetic storytelling, distinctive art and lashings of clever ideas make this really enjoyable comic. Harold is a young vampire who lives inside a piano and loves sweets, which is a problem when he visits the dentist. Vermillion is a wonderfully nasty witch  who manages to become the sole surviving witch in the world and has plans for world domination, plans that depend on getting her hands on a formula created by Professor Adams. A cunningly staged plot follows as Harold tries to stop Vermillion, save his parents and be a vampire without teeth.
The story is straightforward and takes readers of any age seriously enough to believe they deserve first rate plot mechanics. Vermillion is a truly splendid villain, enough malice to be dangerous and durable enough to be a genuine problem for Harold. The story has a an abundance of clever ideas and sharp turns to make a very satisfying read. Among the cast are vampire frogs which are not only a fantastic idea in their own right they way they emerge is a really nice piece of storytelling logic.
The bold and energetic art is a joy, using just three colours it never feels restricted or underpowered, instead Jess Smart Smiley uses really strong shapes and outlines to make the most of the possibilities. The action is fast and furious, the emotions are conveyed with force and clarity. The art has a very satisfying homemade look about it, this strongly supports the bold lines of the story and the overall personality of the book. It looks like someone in particular drew it, it gives it a happy personal touch.
Jess Smart Smiley has taken a storytelling standard, a child trying to escape a problem finds themselves in trouble and has to be a hero to save their parents and given it a charming and very entertaining twist, keeping within the basic structures but giving enough new flavour to the story to capture why it is a standard in the first place. A seasonal treat that would be good any time of year.
Here are some Halloween activity sheets to test your spooky skills on.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stoned Ape Society : The Rise of Blue Eyes. James E. Roche (Writer), Rudi Sucipto (Art), Michael Syrigos (Colours), Brant W. Fowler (Letters). www.jameseroche.com/stoned-ape-society (2011)

A clever idea and great art are held back a little by sometimes clunky writing. A pre-human group of apes in particular one ape with blue eyes, witness the impact of a meteor in the clearing where they live and pay not attention to the event. They are preoccupied with the daily struggle to get enough to eat. Frustration leads the blue-eyed ape to discover a dark garden of mushrooms, eating one unlocks some of the potential of his mind. The blue-eyed ape becomes able to plan and trap prey and trains the others how to do the same. When the prey animals flee the clearing blue-eyes is left with a significant problem. How he resolves it and what he realises when he does so it the footing for the continuing story. The story threads are very well set up and the dramatic possibilities are clear.
The theme of the story is not new, the rise to power and then the struggle to maintain it have been staples of dramatic fiction for a very long time, what matters is how the story is told. James E. Roche has chosen a very interesting and unexpected context for the story, the point of human evolution and the underlying cause of it. The stoned apes, their minds altered by the drugs in the mushrooms develop a new way of seeing the world and with it the complex emotional responses that are essentially human. The novelty of the situation in the world is a great storytelling asset, the rise of the apes is reliant on an external factor, control that and you control the emerging society.
The slight failing in the writing is James E. Roche's tendency to show and tell at the same time, he does not rely enough on the superb art to convey the story to the reader, he will add words to underscore the point. This means that the reader is reading the panel twice and not getting something new for the effort, where he does allow the art to do its share and uses to words to add to it the story lifts strongly. The reader is invited into the space between the words and the art and has a chance to become involved.
Rudi Sucipto's art is a joy, slightly cartoony it gives the community of apes great expressiveness and the body language is very strong. There is a welcome variety with the panel placing and sizes, it gives the story a considerable tempo. In particular the close-up shots of the faces are full of life and expression, they give the personality of the character.
The colours by  by  Michael Syrigog are fantastic, bright and sharp they give depth and definition to the the cast, the context and the action. There is a moment when Blue-Eyes stands in the mushroom patch in a shaft of sunlight that captures some of the main themes of the story in a subtle and very effective way.
Brant W. Fowler manages the difficult job of lettering with care and skill, providing emphasis and effect without attracting attention to itself.
It is a pleasure to see a creative team working on an interesting idea as well as they do with Stoned Ape Society, the comic is available as a download from the website listed above and is well worth getting.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Midwinter Sacrifice. Mons Kallentoft. Neil Smith (Translator). Hodder (2007)

Superb Scandinavian crime story with a engaging and likeable lead character and a satisfyingly chilling story. A body is found hanging from a tree in a frozen deserted plain outside of the town of Linkoping. That it is not a suicide is clear from the outset and Inspector Malin Fors has a difficult case on her hands. The investigation is managed with care and thoughtfulness and steadily gains a focus. A second murder adds to the urgency and the final unraveling is as bleak and savage as the winter itself.
Malin Fors is a great charachter, she is an effective police officer, forceful and determined and also a credible divorced single mother. She is not burden with the genre cliches of being a loner with a no real existence outside of the work. She has an active and plausibly stressed private life that she does her best to manage without being stupid. Her relationship with her teenaged daughter and her ex-husband are full of complications and distractions and they give her a very strong context from which to work.
She is surrounded by a vivid and lively cast that are all pursuing their own agendas and as they overlap and sometimes clash the friction generate very enjoyable heat and light. The plot threads entangle the cast and the reveals are cunningly staged. The way that historical ideas of sacrifice, human and otherwise, are used and abused by contemporary worshipers of long gone gods and spirits is nicely explored.
The narrative is broken up among the cast to very good effect, it gives the story a greater depth and weight as the reader sees  the cast act in their own right both involved directly in the investigation and otherwise. The community that surrounds the investigation is revealed and the wider context for the killings and their impact is made clear
The horrifying truth at the root of the killings is slowly revealed and is sad and desperate with a great may victims and a cruel and vicious act leading to cruel and vicious consequences long after the event. The plot mechanics are subtle and very effective, the steady accumulation of evidence and the increasing focus of the investigation force the pace of the action. In the end an incomplete and brutal justice may have been done and that may the best that could be hoped for.
The translation is happily transparent, it is clearly a Swedish story, the language never jars or suggests anything else, it bring out the frozen majesty of the Midwinter with care and force. A great read.

Dead Men's Dust. Matt Hilton. Hodder (2009)

A gripping and very enjoyable macho thriller with an engaging cast and first rate plot mechanics. Joe Hunter, an ex-Special Forces operative, is assisting his ex-sister-in-law who is having a problem with a local gangster. Joe discovers that his half-brother is in trouble in the USA and heads over to help him. With the assistance of an old friend Rick, Joe starts to track his brother who has been publicly identified as a serial killer called the Harvestman. As Joe tracks his brother the plot twists and turns in a very nice fashion and the cunningly staged reveals  move the story in happily unexpected directions. The action is both furious and well thought out, the climax is satisfyingly bone crunching and very well played.
Joe Hunter is a really engaging character, violence is his stock-in-trade and he is very good at it, at the same time his is aware its limits and works to use it as tool rather than being consumed by it. The competent thoughtfulness he brings to the business of hunting his brother through a series of violent encounters gives the action a sharp edge. The action is always loaded with consequences, some foreseen most not and Joe is attractively quick on his mental and physical feet.  The tension about the possibility that his brother is a serial killer and what action he will take when they meet is threaded with care through the story.
Tubal Cain is a very dedicated killer and the way that Matt Hilton ties him into the story is clever and plausible and conflict between two highly competent and dedicated hunters is gripping. Matt Hilton manages to resolve one of the most serious problems facing any writer wanting to use a serial killer in a story. How to make them deranged enough to want to kill others, be smart enough to be hard to catch, creative enough to provide colour to the book and not be a supervillian at the same time. Matt Hilton manages this by deftly using a very black and dry humour to describe Tubal Cain's plans and exploits. This gives him just the space he needs to bring the character to vivid and bloody life. This really pays of as the story reaches it climax and in less skillful hands the climax could have become overburdened with Gothic flourishes, instead they are recognizably true physical expression of the mental landscape of Tubal Cain.
The plot mechanics are superb, the story is carefully set up to appear to be heading in a fairly well trodden route before sliding away in an unexpected direction and then slipping away like an eel when it should. This care in plotting gives the cast a strong context to act in and they make the most of it, it draws cleverly on the back story of the cast without drowning them.Thoroughly gritty without ever being needlessly grim, this is a great fun read.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Die With Me. Elena Forbes. Quercus (2007)

An engaging cast and a well judged take on the police investigation makes this a very enjoyable story. A young girl meets a man at a small church in London and later is found dead, it looks like suicide. As it becomes clear that it may not have been suicide after all Detective Inspector Mark Tartaglia suspects that it is not an isolated incident and his investigations reveal that there may be other victims and that an unsuspected serial killer is at work. Having a new senior officer put in over his head to manage the investigation creates tension and discontent within the investigative team and the killer continues to pursue his victims. The reveals are very well staged and the structure of the book allows the plot threads to be given time and attention. While the conclusion does not quite have the desired bite, the book is gripping and enjoyable.
Elena Forbes refreshes the story of a clever serial killer and the investigation by giving the investigation a nice layer of internal conflict that is grounded in the cast themselves. When Detective Chief Inspector Steele is put in charge of the investigation she is not sure if she is being set up for success or failure, the bad start fractures the investigation from the outset. With this Elena Forbes manages to generate considerable stress and tension within the investigation without having to rely on genre stand-byes like an incompetent superior, much more effective motives like hurt pride and poor communication give a better result. When trouble strikes at the heart of the investigation, the results of the personal friction adds a bitter edge that sharpens the outcome very much.
The killer is given space to develop and emerge, not as a brilliant killer rather he is a predator on the lonely and the vulnerable, he is clever only because his careful choice of victim makes him so. It is hard to give any serial killer a genuine depth due to the fact that they are naturally monotonous, their focus is on killing and they do not have much of an emotional range or context. In this case the killer's process is very well thought out and has a nasty believability to it.
The wider supporting cast are very well drawn, they have clear individual voices and emerge as fully fledged characters. With the killer using suicide as a cover, Elena Forbes looks at why suicide was plausible and deals with care and compassion with the topic and does not use it as a handy prop only.
The story stumbles at the conclusion, it is not glued on, it does arise naturally from the story it just needed to be a little less well trodden. Very well written and entertaining.

Prime Time. Liza Marklund.Ingrid Eng-Rundlow(Translator). Simom & Schuster UK Ltd (2002)

A very enjoyable Swedish crime story with a great central character and an clever plot. At the end of the filming of a series of television programes the shows host is found murdered. There are twelve possible suspects, the other people at the location and involved in the filming. Annika Bengtzon is a reporter for a struggling tabloid just returning to work after maternity leave and one of the suspects is a good friend of hers.  Annika has trouble with her partner and is being drawn into a power struggle at work while trying to pursue the story. The story twists and turns gracefully, the reveals are very well staged and the final revelation is superbly managed.
While the undoubted star of the book is Annika Bengtzon, she is spiky and uncertain as well as fiercely competent and determined, she is surrounded by a wonderfully developed supporting cast. Liza Marklund avoids cliches and stereotypes, the cast are full of vigor and each has the pulse of life within them. The three main threads of the story are cunningly juggled, they bump into each other rather than overlap, still they do not crowd each other and the book has a nice unity to it.
Thomas, Annika's partner is annoying, for a lot of the story he is awash with self-pitying frustration about the fat that the choices he made have not given him the life he wants. Liza Marklund pulls off the very difficult task of making it possible that such a strong woman as Annika would tolerate let alone feel grateful for the attentions of such a man. The dynamics of their relationship do develop in an interesting way across the length of the book, overall it remains the least appealing aspect of the story. The power struggle at the newspaper where Annik works is superbly staged, the newspaper is struggling due to incompetence at the top and frustration pushes a senior manager into action. The route he takes and the way he stages his battles is great, office politics rarely are described as well as they are here. The friction between personality and business requirements is subtly and effectively drawn out. The fight is not life or death, it is not any less intense however.
The core murder story is excellent, a great set up is not wasted in any way. A remote location, a clear list of suspects all of who had a reason to wish the victim ill, the mechanics are managed with considerably skill. The plot is unraveled at a considered pace, there are no explosive action scene, the final confrontation is as tense as any gun battle and prove that words can be dangerous.
All told, a very enjoyable read with a sharp edge of humor and a hefty punch, well worth reading.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

At The Mountains of Madness. H.P. Lovecraft (Writer), I.N.J. Culbard (Writer & Art) Sterling. (2010)

A hugely enjoyable adaptation of H.P.Lovecraft's novel of an expedition to Antarctica and the horrible discoveries that are made there. The framing device for the story is that the leader of a previous expedition, Professor Dyer is revealing the truth about what he discovered to prevent another expedition going to the same place. Professor Dyer's team had a biologist, an engineer and a physicist as well as various graduate students, assistants and engineers. The expedition went well and a base was established, the first indication of something unusual was a collection of slates with curious marks on them. Some of the team headed off on a sub-expedition to investigate further, they discovered a cave and something astonishing within it. The story follows the consequences of that discovery, including the discovery some something even more unexpected and very much more unwelcome. The reveals are nicely judged and the mix of horror, science and speculation is wonderful.
The heart of the story is H.P. Lovecraft's ideas about per-human inhabitants of Earth, visitors from elsewhere who colonized Earth and had a part in the evolution of humanity. The relics and echos of these creatures, who are hibernating rather than being departed or deceased are found in remote locations like the Antarctic. The clash of a hard-headed scientific expedition with the unimaginable is superbly done, the collapse of certainty is the motor of horror as the dreadful truth emerges.
I.N.J. Culbard has adapted the story very well into a comic, it is not an illustrated version of a prose story. The panels, splash pages and backgrounds are used inventively, in particular the page backgrounds that the panels are laid upon. The art is distinctive and effective, the cast are expressive and mobile, they interact with each other very nicely. The colouring is used to to shape the tone of the story, it shifts with the scenes and underscores the tension and developments.
The story has a great deal of exposition in it, it never feels like a static info dump, it is delivered at a nice pace and with force.A really effective, atmospheric comic about the unsuspected histoty of the world.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mystery in the Minster. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (2011)

A hugely enjoyable, cleverly plotted medieval murder mystery. In 1358 the Cambridge college of Michaelhouse is is dire need of funds so a bequest from the Bishop of York is very welcome. A group travel from Cambridge to York to settle the issue, the bequest is being strongly contested by a group in York. In York Matthew Bartholomew and the other from Cambridge find the city rife with tension from concerns about French spies, conflict with various religious orders as well a mystery surrounding their bequest. After they are directly attacked, Matthew and his friend Brother Michael have to investigate a tangled trail of murder. The reveals are very well staged, the context used to great effect and the conclusion very satisfying.
Susanna Gregory uses the historical context with care and skill to develop and engrossing story that cunningly weaves several plot threads into a clever whole. Critically the context is vital to the story, it is not just a backdrop to a story that could be as easily presented in any time period. The motives and actions of the energetic cast arise naturally from the times and this gives the story anchor. The setting is lightly and effectively supplied in the course of the story, there are no lumpy info dumps to set the scene. York is presented as a active and thriving place, it is also very small, the closeness of a medieval city is nicely explored.
The plot is smart and happily unexpected, it is not forced onto the cast, it arises very naturally. The clever overlapping of the threads of the story are used very effectively and the reveals staged to inform and distract most enjoyably. It is very striking that continuity is used very lightly, for a book that is part of a very long series, it is very successfully self contained and with enough subtle context to satisfy both series and new readers.
The greatest pleasure of the book is the cast, they are bursting with life and vitality. Matthew Bartholomew is happily surrounded by a jostling crowd all of whom demand notice from the reader. There is a easy humour to the writing that makes the conversations spark and gives each member of the cast a sharp individuality. There are no generic monks, nuns or merchants in this book, they fill their robes with flesh, blood and life. A great read.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Real Bluebeard. The Life of Gilles De Rais. Jean Benedetti. Sutton Publishing. (1971)

On October 26 1440 Gilles De Rais was executed and the legend of Bluebeard began, while Bluebeard killed his wives, Gilles De Rais was a sadistic child abuser and killer. Jean Benedetti traces the extraordinary arc of his life from being one of the richest men in France, if not Europe, a respected and successful soldier to a tasty morsel for ruthless and ambitious men who used his crimes as the cover to to gain what was left of his lands.
Gilles De Rais was born to be the solution to a knotty problem of inheritance, he was the heir to three very significant fortunes and the resolution to to struggle over their future. The most significant figure in Gilles De Rais' early life was his grandfather, Jean de Craon, the man who engineered the complex transactions that lead to Gilles being the final heir to three fortunes. Gill raised by his grandfather after the death of his parents, as a typical French aristocrat. The Hundred's Year war was raging between France and England and France was not a nation in any meaningful sense, it was a collection of frequently feuding regions with no effective centre.
Gilles De Rais fought with Joan of Arc at Orleans, he was an ardent follower of her at the time, they both favoured aggressive action against the English. He did not pursue a career as a soldier or political leader, rather he retreated into a secret life that revolved around kidnapping, abusing and killing children.This gradually consumed his life and his fortune until his erratic actions provided the excuse needed to arrest him and seize his remaining lands. Gilles made a detailed confession at his trial and was hanged and his body burned.
Jean Benedetti places the life and actions of Gilles De Rais into the context of his times and does so in a gripping and very thoughtful way. Gilles was born into power and privilege and never had anyone seriously challenge his right to do whatever he wanted. he was alive, his grandfather was a limit on him,mostly to prevent Gilles spending the fortune Jean de Craon had so painstakingly created. With his death the last effective restraint on Gilles was removed. His child abusing and killing was not his greatest crime for his fellows, it was the reckless way he reduced his fortune and betrayed the requirements of inheritance.
This book is written with confidence and a sharp turn of phrase, the section on Joan of Arc is thoughtful and happily considers her in the political context of the time and gives her the full due of erratic importance she deserves. The spiral into obsession and debt that marked the second half of Gilles De Rais life is traced and assessed with care. Jean Benedetti is clearly intrigued by Gilles De Rais but never overwhelmed by him. This is a vivid and very enjoyable book about a dreadful man, thoughtful and never sympathetic it tries to explain but never excuse. A great read.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nifft the Lean .Michael Shea. Panther Books ( 1985)

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Open Road Media are doing an Sword and Sorcery Genre Spotlight and the following links are well worth checking out.
A brand new mini documentary on Sword and Sorcery and Brak the Barbarian featuring amazing footage from old films. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqA_ydQhWSs.
A short story to read for free! http://www.scribd.com/doc/98228262/The-Girl-in-the-Gem-by-John-Jakes 
Vintage photos of the books that included cigarette ads! httpp://openroadmedia.tumblr.com/post/26724295135/can-you-imagine-this-happening-today-cigarette 
Tons of new infographics: http://openroadmedia.tumblr.com/swordandsorcery that explain what the genre is and who would like it
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This is a great set of stories about an adventurous thief. As benefits a master thief none of the exploits are simple smash and grabs or easy burglaries,they are involved and intricate.They require nerves of steel and a willingness to go to hell and back, literally, to achieve the goal. Michael Shea has created a wonderful world, full of sharp action with an forceful cast that grab the reader and do not let go.
The first story,Come Then,  Mortal - We Will Seek Her Soul is a blistering introduction and shows the strength of the book from the start. Nifft and his companion Haldar accept the task of bringing a living man to the Underworld in return for the key to a fabulous hoard.The details of the Underworld are smart and nasty and the conclusion very satisfying. The Pearls of the Vampire Queen is much more straightforward, a carefully wrought caper story. The Fishing of the Demon-Sea is a very smart story, set in the realm of demons, it has force and weight as well as a very black sting of humour. The final story The Goddess in Glass takes a slightly different approach and shows how greed has consequences, even if they are long delayed they can be brutal.
Michael Shaea takes a very typical swords & sorcery cliche, the master thief, and gives him force and personality within a beautifully crafted context. The world that Nifft moves in is fabulous and dangerous, it rings true at every touch. In particular the two other worlds that Nifft moves through, the underworld of the dead and the demon world are created with a telling detail and breath of invention that are a pleasure to read. Both are greatly aided by Michael Shea's restraint, he does not go for the grand phrase nor the purple prose so common in the genre. He is much quieter and more forceful and this gives his stories a sharper edge.
Nifft himself is a great character,indeed the entire cast are a full of energy and determination. One of the great pleasures of the book is Nifft's competence and capacity,he is a master thief and he proves how he is so by his actions. He is willing to take a risk for a reward as well as to think and plan to avoid stupid mistakes as well. This gives a different flavour to the stories, they are really semi-heroic fantasy where a sharp mind is as important as a sharp sword. This book is very well written, great fun and a happy reminder of the breath and depth of the genre.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Carter of Mars, Volume One. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Disney Editions (2012)

A classic of romantic science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels are feast to read. This collection includes the first three books in the series, A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars which are effectively one extended story. John Carter, a ex-Confederate soldier from Virginia finds himself transported to Mars after a weird encounter in an Arizona cave. Mars, Barsoom as its natives call it, is a dying planet filled with different races all constantly fighting each other for the scarce resources of the planet. John Carter finds that the lighter gravity of Mars gives him exceptional agility and strength, which would be useless if not backed up by his sheer joy in combat. Carter finds himself caught up at first in the unceasing wars of the Martians, then falling in love with Dejah Thoris, a princess of the  human like Red Martians starts to take a more active role. He find himself shunted back to Earth and then returned to Mars which has become his true home.
The engine of the story is the efforts by John Carter to rescue Dejah Thoris from danger as she is kidnapped by his enemies. The heart of the story is the progression he makes across the red planet, fighting a wonderfully vivid series of opponents to get Dejah Thoris back and enjoy the rush of battle.
The construction of the books is simple and extremely effective, John Carter find himself moving from one dangerous situation to another with little rest or respite. This could easily become repetitive and contrived , that it is neither is a glowing tribute to the energy and inventiveness of Edgar Rice Burroughs writing. One of the striking aspects to the stories is the solid context that Edgar Rice Burroughs creates with Barsoom. He uses the fact that the planet is dying to create the basic conflict that underlies the series, everyone on Mars is in direct competition with everyone else all the time for resources of life. This is translated into the constant conflict between all the races of Barsoom and within them as well. In this conflict John Carter shines like a star, with his extra agility and love of fighting he fits in very naturally into the context.
Using this as a springboard  Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces continually inventive new situations which add new twists to the conflicts. In particular the second book, The Gods of Mars, has a very clever structure of predators that John Carter must battle to regain his bride. 
One of the great pleasures of the series is that there are no easy victories, every step is a struggle, John Carter has to use his brains and his sword arm to win through and victory is as likely to be snatched away at the last moment as not. The compelling vigour and breakneck pacing of the action pushes the reader along nicely past the occasional  clunky piece of exposition or dangling plot thread. Reading the three stories back to back makes the short cuts used a bit more obvious, they are very minor flaws in a great flood of superbly realised action.
This is muscular, romantic science fiction at its most pulpy glorious and it is an enduring treasure and a joy.

Shatter the Bones. Stuart MacBride. Harper (2012)

A brutally compelling and engrossing thriller. Plunging into the story right from the opening down to the flinty and unforgiving conclusion this story never slows down. A mother and daughter, rising stars of a televised talent show, are kidnapped and the ransom demand is posted on the internet. The police are left with no clues and increasing public and professional pressure. Detective Sergeant Logan McRae and his colleagues are facing a very public and dangerous failure. As the the pressure mounts McRae find that the results of a botched drugs raid are becoming very nasty. The story, laced with the blackest gallows humour, moves at speed, the reveals are cunningly staged and the the truth is always much worse that it it appears at first. The plot leaves no-one unscathed and the innocent pay the greatest price.
The bleak plot is  gripping, it is still less of an attraction than the vigorous and fantastic cast that boil with energy, frustration and the unmistakable pulse of life. Logan McRae has to work very hard to keep up with the rest of the cast, most particularly the specular DI Steel, who bursts off the pages with a foul mouthed glory. The whole cast of police officers, with a single sorry exception, are satisfyingly diverse and free from genre cliches. They feel like a team under fierce pressure and responding badly while trying to do the job properly. The exception is a surprisingly false note struck by an ambitious and frankly stupid officer from an outside agency. He is a straw man constructed for no clear reason other that to give a face to the bureaucratic pressure the team are under.It is a serious flaw in the book that is written with subtly and care for all the cast no matter how small their role. The walking cliché trips up the reader and throws the reader out of the flow of the story. 
Happily the overall force of the book is so great that it is possible to get back into the swing and enjoy the very savage world that Stuart MacBride has created. The clever manipulation of the easily roused public, entranced by the drama of the kidnapping and enjoying the participation invited by the kidnappers is not heavy handed. The temptation to preach about televised talent shows and the manufacturing of  stars is avoided, the opportunities it presents for brutal exploitation are well presented. The villains are well organised and suitably ruthless, they make the plot work because they are never easy prey. A sub-plot about a the fall out from a drugs raid gives Stuart MacBride plenty of room to create a very memorable cast of shattered and desperate people who are gripping without ever being sympathetic. Using humour to undercut despair this is a superb thriller.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Gaston Leroux. Wordsworth Editions (1907)

A classic locked room mystery, gripping and highly entertaining. A young woman is violently assaulted and left for dead in a room that has no windows and has been locked from the inside. When the door is broken open the only person in the room is the victim, how could it have happened? Both police detective Fredric Larsen and a young reporter Joseph  Roulteabille are determined to find out. Roulteabille is an extraordinary man, strongly observant and gifted with a powerful logical, deductive talent he sets about resolving the mystery. The story twists and turns in a very happy way, the plot drives with great force and leads to a deeply satisfying conclusion.
One of the major structural problems with a locked room mystery is the importance of the central plot mechanics, it has to be carefully engineered so that the unlocking of the mystery is both credible and satisfying. Balancing this requirement with a cast who are more than mere putters to the plot is a very difficult task, Gaston Lereroux manages it with a flourish. The cast are very engaging and their actions never feel like plot requirements. Indeed one of the great pleasures of the book is the way they are revealed to have driven the plot rather than the reverse.
Gaston Leroux uses a potentially tired formula in the book, having the story narrated by Roulteabille's friend Sinclair, who is very muxh a Watson to Roulteabille's Holmes. Structurally this is effective as it keeps the mystery alive as we see it from Sinclair's view and he is baffled by it, dramatically it works because Sinclair is an engaging and thoughtful character. Roulteabille is much more palatable by being filtered through the friendly eyes of Sinclair than he is in undiluted form. The section in the book taken directly from his notes is effective because it is limited. The human tangle that lies at the heart of the plot is carefully and subtly set up by the author, the impossibility of the events that occur is a generous challenge to the reader.
Any locked room mystery is going to stand or fall by the quality of the central mystery, how did it happen and will the explanation do more than explain the mechanics, will it be fair? In this case the conclusion is breathtaking, both bold and credible, it takes the threads laid in the story and weaves a stunning picture out of them. A great crime story.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Warlord of Mars, Dejah Thoris. Colossus of Mars. Arvid Nelson (Writer), Carlos Rafael (Art), Carlos Lopez (Colours), Marshall Dillon (Letters) Dynamite Entertainment( 2011)

A  hugely enjoyable pulp science fiction story set on Mars or Barsoom as it is called by those who live there. The story is set 400 years before the arrival on Barsoom of John Carter and deals with the life of the woman he fell in love with, Dejah  Thoris, Princess of Mars.
Greater and Lesser Helium are constantly fighting each other for supremacy and just as victory seems to be in sight for Lesser Helium, lead by Dejah Thoris's grandfather Tardos Mors, the overlord of both Lesser and Greater Helium, the Jeddak of Yorn intervenes to stop the conflict. He wants Dejah Thoris to marry his son, something she accepts as her duty as a princess of Helium. The marriage turns out to be a cover for a much more significant action by the Jeddak of Yorn and Dejah and her family find themselves caught in a trap. The story esclates very nicely, the reveals are very good, the battles superbly staged and the cast are vigorous and very engaging.
The worst part to the book is the stripper costume given to Dejah Thoris, while everyone on Barsoom wears very little clothing a full bikini would have served considerably better than the thong and tear-drop nipple covers she is inflicted with. This creates a unnecessary tension within the story, Dejah Thoris is no passive heroine, she is a active, skillful fighter. Her clothing dramatically and consistently works against this, she is constantly on the verge of being ridiculous, something she manifestly is not. Avrid Nelson gives us a full blooded action hero, she is fast and forceful, a recognised leader and the equal of any. The writing is consistently excellent throughout, it has all the forward motion that the adventure needs, the action is big and loud, the set pieces are a joy, the cast are never overshadowed by the explosions. The cast come strongly forward and it is clearly they who are driving the action and not the reverse, this gives the story real weight and grip.
The art by Carlos Rafael is everything that romantic science fiction should be, it is lush and detailed. The cast are given great physical presence, they look like they fully inhabit the space and respond to each other with nice range and subtly. Included with the volume is a great step-by-step view by the extraordinary Joe Jusko of how he painted one of the covers for the series. The colours by Carlos Lopez are vibrant and give the story the bright light it needs, the colours are not subtle they are matched instead to he loud drive of the story and the wild context of Barsoom. The lettering by Marshall Dillon is nicely varied, it gives depth the voices of the cast and the sound effects are great. Great pulp, comic adventure, well worth reading.

The Beast with Five Fingers. W.F. Harvey. Wordsworth Editions (2009)

A great collection of stories, some supernatural, some crime and others from a unjustly neglected English writer. The mix of stories is very nicely judged by the editor David Stuart Davies, they show the breath of W.F. Harvey's writing. From the supernatural stories in the collection, the title story is a very enjoyable and straightforward story of a supernatural menace. The tension is nicely created and swiftly built upon, the climax sharp and to the point. A much more oblique story, "August Heat" uses a technique that W.F. Harvey liked, the conclusion is left strongly implied rather than delivered. The reader is not cheated, the climax is the least aspect of the story, the careful set up is the reason and it is done with such care and skill that it can carry off an open conclusion.
"The Man Who Hated Aspidistras" is more of a sliver than a story, it is not even an anecdote, still it slyly satisfying as a slightly bitter joke. on the other hand "The Fern" is savagely bitter, beautifully paced and the biting open conclusion offers no refuge for the cast or the reader. To show off his astonishing variety "The Angel of Stone" manages in three pages to remind the cast and reader that time is precious and small pleasures are among its greatest joys.
One of the stand out stories in the book is "A Middle-Class Tragedy", with a cruel economy and precision it skewers its leading character. The writing is beautiful, not a word is out of place, the conclusion is heartbreaking in its entirely justified smallness. A section in the book is titled "Twelve Strange Cases", these are stories narrated by a middle-aged nurse and are about some of the cases she has attended at. The greatest pleasure in these stories, each of which has a clever plot, fully realised and with very well judged reveals, is the narrator herself. Her personality sparkles off the page, she draws the reader in with the pleasure in the storytelling. She is given enough space to emerge as a serious, competent, curious and forceful personality. This is critical as the stories work because she is such a strong character, the plots draw their force because of her strength. The stories moreover are peppered with her salty observations on her patients, fellow nurses and hospitals, she has a cheerfully biting turn of phrase.
All in all this is a really enjoyable collection of stories, a pleasure to read.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Warlord of Mars. Fall of Barsoom.Robert Place Napton (Writer), Roberto Castro (Art), Alex Guimaraes (Colours), Simon Bowland (Letters) Dynamite Entertainment (2012)

A hugely entertaining and enjoyable comic, a prequel to the Edgar Rice Burrrughs' Barsoom stories, it is set 100,000 years before John Carter arrived on Mars. Barsoom is slowly and steadily dying, the oceans and the atmosphere are ebbing away leaving the Orovar, who ruled a great empire based on trade across the oceans facing extinction. Tak Nan Lee is a Orovan scientist who is struggling to complete a project that might keep life on Mars, building a great factory to produce breathable atmosphere.  General Van Tun Bor is leading the defense of the Orovar empire against the ravages of the giant, four-armed Green Martians. Xan Mu Xar is the Jeddak of the Orovars and has just ended an alliance with two other Martian races, the Okarians and the First Born to secure the survival of the Orovars. The story takes these three plot lines and deftly twists them into a great, pulpy stoy. The reveals are very well paced, the action is fast and compelling and there is a solid emotional and dramatic core to the story.
Robert Place Napton has done a superb job of picking up the threads from the John Carter stories and creating a story that effortlessly stands on its own feet. The cast are engaging and driven by the unfolding extremity that faces them. The responses by the leading players are nicely varied and layered, the unexpected possibilities are set up and exploited with thoughtful care. The story had great detail and texture, the balance between information for the reader, action and plot is exactly right.
Roberto Castro's art is a joy, it has the detail necessary in a story like this where the need to create a convincing physical context is critical, along with a cast who move comfortably within it. All of the various races of Mars, including the Green Martians, are give a great physical presence, they move in natural ways. The battle scenes are full of movement and life, the natural tension of the circumstances is conveyed very well in the quieter scenes as well.
Alex Guimaraes colours are vivid and subtle as required. This is a big loud story and the colours allow it to breathe and to be seen. Where needed they give the tone to the moment where words are not used, Mars is the Red Planet, it is a dying but vibrant place. Simon Bowland's letters are unobtrusive and effective, they are a pleasure to read.
Ignore the terrible cover, the story is much, much better than it implies, this comic is a wonderful slice of romantic science fiction.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hellboy. The Storm and The Fury. Mike Mignola (Writer), Duncan Fegredo (Artist), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters) Scott Allie (Editor). Dark Horse Comics (2012)

                                                                                                                                                        
A breathtaking comic that pulls together some many carefully laid plot threads into a stunning climax that clears the way for a new route for the story. Hellboy is in England where the Queen of Blood has gathered her army to start the a final war on all humanity. The drumbeat of the war is very loud, loud enough to literally wake the dead and a rival army starts to assemble. Hellboy has reached the end of his wandering and decided that the time has come to stop hiding in a bottle and to accept the weight that has been put on him. This finally leads him to striking a very hard bargain with an old enemy to get closer to a new one. The reveals mount up at a carefully controlled speed and the titanic clashes between the massed hordes and the real battle in the tower are  a joy. The climax is brutal, unexpected and wholly fitting, a true measure of the depth and breath of the creativity that has infused the whole Hellboy story from the start.
This is volume 12 of the Hellboy series and would be a completely confusing story to anyone not familiar with the back story. There is a series of interlocking conclusions for cast members from all over as they move towards a dreadful possibility, they come face to face with the real consequences of their actions. No one is spared, there is blood, malice and destruction enough for everyone. As ever in the Hellboy stories the consequences are here to stay, they do not fade away with the morning light. The whole Hellboy cycle is an extraordinary piece of extended,disciplined creativity. Mike Mignola has developed a comic that uses the form in a very traditional way, serial sequential storytelling with a light-handed mastery that is an enduring pleasure to behold.
Duncan Fegredo's art is bold, subtle and intensely moving. He can give depth and life to a small moment and energy and drama to a fearsome confrontation. The cast occupy the space with clarity and physical presence, the body language is consistently eloquent.  Hellboy has stopped drinking and the time to be serious has arrived, he seems smaller, not diminished, more focused. Each fight has a desperate edge to it that is beautifully shown. Never has bitter, fruitless regret been stamped so clearly on every cell of a creatures body as on the pawn who set the events in motion. In particular there is a single panel that picks a detail from a previous one, a detail of a wall hanging, that should by rights should be overkill and instead shot me to the heart.
Dave Stewart's colours are just so much part of the warp and weave of the story and the art that they are nearly invisible. They convey the mood and sharpen the detail at every turn, never simply decorating they reveal and and reinforce the story. Clem Robbins simply shows how lettering is an essential aspect to making a successful comic, with variety, clever emphasis and unerring judgement he gives a voices to the cast that are clear and resonant. A fantastic comic with a punch to the heart like a blow from the Right Hand of Doom itself.

The Unlucky Lottery. Hakan Nesser (Writer), Laurie Thompson (Translator), Mantle (2011)

A slowly unfurling crime story that quietly builds up to a very satisfactory and biting conclusion. Four elderly men win some money on a lottery in Sweden. That night one of them is savagely murdered in his bed and another disappears and Detective Inspector Munster is assigned the case. It proves to be very difficult to find out anything beyond the fact of the murder, there is no real threads to grasp and pull in the case. When a neighbor of the murdered man disappears and a most unexpected person confesses to the murder it appears to have been solved. Inspector Munster is not convinced and continues to try to understand what really happened. The story has a slow steady pace, the reveals are cunningly set up and the very nasty secret at the heart of the mystery is carefully unwrapped.
The strengths of this book are in the cast rather than the plot which is a bit too slight to take the extended weight of the story. A great deal of time is spent on the investigation slowly grinding to nowhere and the trial of the person who confesses to the murder. While it is time well spent, the cast are very engaging, it does submerge the other aspect of the story. When the details do start to emerge there is a superbly structured third act which showcases Hakan Nesser's wonderful talent for crime fiction. The balance of the story has been lost by then however and the impact has been diminished.
The cast have to carry the story on their own merits as people a reader would be happy to spend time with and happily they are. Inspector Munster is feeling the weight of the job and wondering if his marriage is loosing something. He is not a genre staple of a unhappily married policeman, more wedded to the job than to a wife, rather he is a man who has been worn a little by the concentration of malice his job exposes him to. He retains a fundamental desire to understand that drives him to pursue the case beyond what would appear to be a satisfactory resolution. His fellow officers share the same basic competence and commitment to doing the job properly. They respond to the pressures of the case in very distinctive and individual way and the space they are given is well used.
The real weakness of the book is the villain, they do not get enough time to really create the context for the action. This absence reduces the impact of the plot, the critical reveal is superbly done and the devastating logic of the results is all to credible. There is a hole at the center however that is not filled, a tie that bound all involved with such force that its breaking created a wave of violent, fatal action. We see the aftermath, it would have been good to have seen the dangerous calm in more detail too. Enjoyable but not gripping.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

King's Gold. Michael Jecks. Simon & Schuster (2011)

A very enjoyable crime story with a great cast and a very successfully explored historical context. Late in 1326 the civil war in England has ended with Edward II deposed by Parliament and his son crowned King in his place. This created a very difficult and unstable situation, the old King, now Sir Edward of Caernarfon remains a potent figure for those still loyal to him. He was a prisoner, dangerous both alive or dead. After an attempt is made to fee him, he is moved to a new prison at Berkley Castle, home of one of the strongest supporters of the new regime. Caught up in this process are Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his friend Simon Puttock and both of them find themselves investigating a the murder of a carter. The murder overlaps with a major plot to free and restore the king and the plots threads neatly and cleverly weave together in a very satisfactory fashion. The story is very well structured to give the large cast room to move and develop, the reveals are cunningly staged and the conclusion very well judged.
Finding the balance between context and plot in a historical novel is tricky, Michael  Jecks makes it look easy. The story takes time to reveal itself, that time is taken by introducing the cast and placing them firmly into the context of a war ravaged and uncertain England. Taking this time lets the plot mechanics work much more successfully as both a well drawn cast and the social fractures that surround them are critical to the plot. It arises very naturally from who they are and where they are rather than feeling like it has been imposed on them. The period details are not intrusive, they flow along with the thrust of the story and draw the reader further in rater that getting in the way.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the very large cast, the book is nicely structured to ensure that they all get a chance to be seen and heard and to create a very welcome confusion of possible motives and actions that are resolved with care and skill. One of the stand out cast member is Sir Richard de Welles and hard drinking good natured knight who is revealed to be considerably more with extraordinary economy at a critical point. The reveal is simple and devastating, it does not change the knight, it simply opens a new window on him and provides a strong example of Michael Jecks' control of the story.
The story is widespread but never sprawling, it respects the conventions of crime fiction while weaving them into a context that needs a lot of detail to make it work. The actions have to make sense within the historical context and to a modern reader, they do both with with care and skill. Self assured and confident, this is a great read.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Killing the Messenger. Thomas Peele. Crown Publishers (2012)

This is a heartfelt, superbly structured and beautifully written book about why a journalist was murdered on the 2 August 2007 in Oakland, California. The story is a wide ranging history of a radical religion, fraud, the hideous results of racism, greed, incompetence and the bottomless well of human malice, desire for power and dominance.
Thomas Peele places the killing of Chauncey Bailey in its context of the dreadful history of violent racism that runs through American history. Chauncey Bailey was killed because he was a journalist and he was killed to prevent a story being published. The fact that he was an African-American and was killed by a member of the Black Muslim sect in Oakland is just one of the sad and horrible facets to this case that Thomas Peele  illuminates.
There are four broad threads to the narrative, the first is the response to the attack on the freedom of the press that the murder of Chauncey Bailey represents and that Thomas Peele as a fellow journalist wants to forcefully respond to. The next broad thread is the ugly and murderous history of racist  repression and oppression that was rampant in American society throughout the last century. The third broad thread is the miserable history of Oakland, referred to memorably as the "shitbox of the west". Finally there is the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of the Nation of Islam, a cold-hearted fraud that violently traded on the rage and deep despair of African-Americans to benefit a small number of staggeringly corrupt men. In a carefully researched, artfully structured book, Thomas Peele shows how each of the these threads slowly wound across each other and finally lead to the murder of Chauncey Bailey.
The vicious depths of the fraud carried out by the Nation of Islam and its breakaway sect in Oakland are laid bare in all their sordid and mean details. The exploitation of the rage, sorrow and dislocation of fellow African-Americans is a sad and moving story. The actions of the chief fraudsters themselves are eye watering in their depravity, malice and destructiveness. In particular Yusuf Bey, the patriarch of  the Black Muslim sect in Oakland and founder of Your Black Muslim Bakery, which was the linchpin of his criminal enterprise was an appalling man. A serial child abuser on a very significant scale he ruined the lives of an uncountable number of people in the pursuit of power, vanity and money.
Yusuf Bey flourished in Oakland due to spectacular incompetence, indifference and civic apathy that has dogged Oakland throughout its history. All of these factors played direct contributing parts in the murder of Chauncey Bailey.
Thomas Peele tells a very specific and particular story, rooted firmly in a location that quietly and effectively casts a revealing light across a dark slice of  current history. This is a griping book, easy to read and chilling in its revelations. Journalism may be the first draft of history, this is is simply superbly written history.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Batman. The Black Mirror. Scott Snyder (Writer), Jock, Francesco Francavilla (Art), David Baron, Francesco Francavilla (Colours), Jared K. Fletcher, Sal Cipriano (Letters) DC Comics (2011)

A superb Batman story that uses the story possibilities of Dick Grayson becoming Batman in Gotham City in the absence of Bruce Wayne to the full. The plot is very nicely structured as Dick Grayson does more than don the costume, he becomes Batman and Jim Gordon confronts the possibility that his son is a murderer. A violent incident at a school leads to a trail of a man who holds very specialized auctions, where the lot are from crimes that are from some of Bruce Waynes's most personal cases. This is followed by an extraordinary crime at a Gotham city bank that is owned by someone who has a very close connection to Dick Grayson's past. Along side these cases Jim Gordon is faced with a terrible problem, his son James has come back to town and Jim Gordon has to establish if his son is a merciless killer or not. Both story lines neatly overlap and intertwine and finally come together with a bloody and very satisfying climax.
Among the numerous wonderful aspects to this book is the multiple ways that Scott Snyder uses the possibilities of a new person taking on the role of Batman. With Bruce Wane there is always the sense that the civilian identity is merely a shallow mask, the real substance lies behind the mask. In this story there is a much more complete and complex character who puts on the costume rather than being defined by it. Dick Grayson has a long history and it is used to wonderful effect as he struggles to become Batman and not loose himself in the process. He makes mistakes and has to struggle very hard to be successful, at the same time he is competent and very effective. A nice mix that give real life and force to the costumed action and give the narration a very satisfactory bite. It is also a great pleasure to have opponents whose motivation is greed and the lust for cruelty, the simplicity makes them considerably more dangerous.
The James Gordon story is beautifully paced, a carefully set up series of reveals that push and pull the reader as much as the cast. When the die is finally cast the story continues to move in unexpected directions and use the brutal possibilities with skill and determination. There is a distracting sub-plot featuring the Joker, it is a considerable tribute to the combined talent involved in the book that the intrusion of such a threadbare sequence does not deflate the whole book.
The art by Jock on the Batman  sections and Francesco Francavilla on the Jim Gordon sections is a joy to read in each case, both a distinctive and neither clash nor confuse. Jock's art is angular and sharp edged, it gives a great sense of the razor edges that surround Dick Grayson all the time. The cast are full of energy and force, there is a restless energy in them even when they are still. Francesco Francavilla has much softer edges for his cast, the real action is most often clearly revealed body language that shows the tensions that wrap around everyone. The intense calm of James Gordon may be good news or very bad news. There is a very welcome horror aspect to the story that the art bring out to the full without every loosing it footing in superheroics.  The colouring by David Baron and Francesco Francavilla is virtually a full blown cast member, it is prominent and outspoken while always lifting the story.  The lettering by Jared K. Fletecher and Sal Cipriano manages to be so attuned to the story that it is virtually invisible while giving weight and timbre to the words. A brilliant comic and even better a brilliant Batman story.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Inspector and Silence. Hakan Nesser (Writer), Laurie Thompson (Translation) Pan Books (1997)

A slow building crime story that quietly and forcefully builds to a strong and bitter conclusion. A young girl is reported missing from a Christian group in rural Sweden, the local Acting Chief of Police calls on Chief Inspector Van Veeteren for help. The Christian group, decline to co-operate with the investigation and there is an open question about the truth of the disappearance in the first place. When the body of a young girl, raped and murdered is discovered, the investigation gains a clear point of focus. The members of the sect, both adult and the young girls cling to silence and Inspector Van Veeteren has to try and understand what he is not being told. The investigation is seriously hampered by a lack of direct evidence and the unwillingness of the group members to co-operate. The case breaks in an unexpected fashion and finally comes to a grim and satisfying conclusion.
This is a very deliberately paced book, the investigation is a study in frustration as the team try to discover something new from scant evidence and uncooperative witnesses. The tensions of the investigation are very well drawn, as the ever present threat of another murdered child is faced with each passing hour. Running along side this are Inspector Van Veeteren's on thoughts about retiring from police work. One of the pleasures of the book is the way that Hakan Neser has avoided the cliche of a policeman afraid to retire as they have no life outside of police work. Van Veeteren is thinking about leaving without agony or severe loss, it is a matter more of having  run the course. It is a natural and difficult process and it is presented in a natural way, it overlaps with the investigation as a child murder is hard to bear.
The rest of the cast are drawn with a wry sympathy that is greatly appealing, everyone is handling a life as well as an investigation and trying to make it all work. The Acting Chief of Police Merwin Kluuge, expectant father and feeling horribly out of his depth with the investigation finds that he has to cope and manage in circumstances he could not have imagined. The way he responds and develops is very nicely written, the character is given the room to grow and develop.
There is a strong editorial voice in the story which adds to the pleasure, the cast are framed a bit by the comments, it does not intrude or act to try and force the reader to respond in a particular way. It is more of an aside that strikes off the situation. The pace of the story does not change when the final deductions are made and the murderer comes directly into the story, it is still a slow pace, the deliberate pacing makes the situation ever more horrible. The murderer is presented with care and restraint, the appalling actions that have been committed and may be committed are left to be realised by the reader and this adds to the force of the situation. This is a great crime drama that never forgets the victims are not just the dead.

Friday, March 9, 2012

WitchFinder: Lost and Gone Forever. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers),John Severin (Art) Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters). Dark Horse Comics 2012

From the classic Western opening through the superbly crafted story that neatly side steps cliches to the sharp finale this is a great comic. Sir Edward Grey, WitchFinder for the Queen of England is in Utah tracking a man from England. After some trouble he meets up with Morgan Kaler who helps he get out of town. They encounter a young white woman, Eris, who is preaching to the Paiute Indians. Morgan Kaler says that Eris is a witch and using her powers to influence the Paiute. A little later they encounter the man Grey has been tracking and find that he is now a zombie and the story moves in unexpected directions from there. The reveals are cunningly staged, full use is made of the possibilities of the Western setting and Grey being out of his normal element.
With the opening scenes of the book when a stranger arrives in town and asks the wrong questions the sense of the mythical West of the Westerns is superbly established. The rest of the story diligently undermines that prospect as the supernatural threads are pulled together. One of the strongest aspects to the story is the unexpected and clever use of zombies, which are a rather threadbare now. In this story they have a purpose beyond hunger for brains, they are part of a larger plot driven by malice and greed. There is a subtle confidence to the storytelling that makes it a pleasure to read, there is one particularly bold stroke involving the local preacher which could easily have gone horribly wrong. Instead it has a genuine force and subtle agony that gives depth and force to the story. The dignified and easy handling of the Paiute is a joy, it is nice to see them being treated as humans without guilt robbing them of the chance to be as confused as the rest of us.
The cast are first rate, Edward Grey is trying to hold on as events and context conspire against him, Morgan Kaler is wonderful. Sharp, colorful and brimming over with energy he is exactly the right Western hero. Eris is a  dangerous woman who has dark plans and the fierce will to bring them to fruition.
John Severin's art is an undiluted pleasure. He has such a complete mastery of comic art that his work is just an deep pleasure to read and linger over. It never calls unnecessary attention to itself, it serves the story with care and wit , at the same time the depth and detail that fill the pages are just a treat. They give the cast a force and presence, the body language is eloquent. The cast fill the spaces with vitality and physical presence, they relate naturally to the context and the action is staged superbly.
Dave Stewart's colouring is so sure and subtle that it nearly passes by without attention, it works for the story, adding tones and notes to the action.  It illuminates the art and gives it the palate it needs to reveal its power. Clem Robbins lettering gives the shadings of conversation without ever intruding.
Everything in this comic is there to serve the story and it does so with conviction and flair. Each element is worth savoring in its own right as it is the work of a very talented and creative artist, separately and combined they show why comics are the wonder that they are.