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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.