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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.