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Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Homeland Directive. Robert Venditti (Writer), Mike Huddleston(Art), Sean Konot (Letters) Top Shelf Productions (2011)

Very gripping and enjoyable paranoid thriller that solves a serious plot problem really well. Dr Laura Regan is a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and finds herself kidnapped after a speech in New York. She is the target of a lethal operation being organised by the Department of Homeland Security, thought neither she nor her kidnappers know why. Laura's has been snatched by three government employes of thee different agencies who suspect that there is a serious conspiracy afoot and that Laura is both a target and a key. They are proved to be correct and the conspiracy is cleverly constructed, the reveals are very well staged, the action is pointed and sharp with a well thought out context.
The Homeland Directive follows a fairly well trodden path of paranoid, political thrillers with a conspiracy being hatched in a dark corner of government to achieve a expedient objective. What matters is the way that the action is staged and how it is resolved and Robert Venditti delivers a smart story that sets up problems as cleverly as it resolves them. The most important problem is how do a number of fugitives hide from the coordinated efforts of the law enforcement and security services of the USA? How can a story make the David versus Goliath aspect work without making Goliath a bumbling idiot and thus drain the tension from the story? Robert Venditti has a very clever answer, three of the fugitives used to work for Goliath and know how to hide and how to assess the stages of the hunt, this gives credibility to the way they stay free long enough to penetrate the conspiracy. In addition the mechanics of the plan are unexpected and also allow for a equally unexpected route to fight it.
In addition to very well thought out plot mechanics the cast are varied, fallible, responding to stress and the knowledge that they are ultimately only delaying the inevitable confrontation rather than escaping it with believable and individual reactions. The only slightly off note is provided by a pursuer who is marginally more of a plot necessity than a character, this is not surprising as he has a vital if narrow function. Otherwise the cast overall are everything they should be.
Mike Huddleston's very distinctive art is a great asset in keeping the book off the beaten track of political thrillers. The art styles varies considerably throughout the story depending on the cast, location and plot requirements. The apparently random use of colours breaks up the story without ever interrupting it. The art is frequently spare and scratch for the cast with different page backgrounds helping change context and tone. Rober Venditti and Mike Huddleston take the classic and necessary ingredients of a political thriller and shake them up into a great story that follows the rules of the genre while making it fresh and unexpected.

I.R.$. Volume 3: Silicia, Inc. Stephen Desberg (Writer), Bernard Vrancken (Artist), Luke Spear (Translation), Imadjinn (Letters). Cinebook (Ltd. (2009)

An enjoyable and engaging crime story. Larry B. Max is an investigator for the IRS who finds a link in a public corruption  case he is pursuing with the death of a ex-president of an unnamed Asian country in France. The link starts with an ex-US Army officer and leads to a bank in Aruba, it also leads a very competent assassin to track Larry in parallel. The reveals are cleverly staged, the lines of the plot are drawn together well and the set up for the second half of the story well established.
Larry B. Max and the assassin are well matched, both excellent at their jobs and both very committed to doing them. The slightly unusual angle taken by Stephen Desberg to use the IRS as the agency and be following money trails pays off. It gives a nice sense of the pervasive nature of money laundering and gives Larry Max's action hero moments a nice, slightly unexpected twist. Larry is given a interesting personal life, which proves to be a useful route for an enemy to attack him. The assassin is mostly a cipher, simply ruthless and very competent, she is properly shadowy as she needs to be. 
One of the nice aspects to the story is the way the extra details are werapped around a very simple story and give it a greater depth and context. The US Senate hearings into ex-President Neruda Sumadayo's relations with the US and how that may have spilled out further into an Iran-Contra situation is nicely proposed.
Bernard Vracken's art is clean and forceful,  the panel lays out are varied and allow the different parts of the story to cross over each other without any confusion. The cast are given room to act and do so with vigor, the body language is expresive, the action is explosive or quiet exactly as required.
This is a low key story that works with quiet details that steadily move the story forward, packing more of a punch than it looks.

B.P.R.D. The Devil's Engine & The Long Death. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers), Tyler Crook, James Harren (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

This book has two long stories, The Devil's Engine which is enjoyable and The Long Death which is excellent. In the Devil's Engine a B.P.R.D Agent, Andrew Devon and a physic crust punk, Fenix are taking a train back to Denver. Fenix had shot Abe Sapien in a previous episode and was turning her self into the B.P.R.D., Agent Devon had witnessed the shooting and done nothing to prevent it and this event forms an uneasy knot between them. Fenix has a premonition about danger on the train which turns out be to accurate and herself and Devon face a long journey back to Denver when they encounter some very large and very, very hungry monsters. The action is well staged and the interaction between the cast in nicely judged. The climax is smart and effective. In the Long Death Johann Kraus leads a team to investigate an incident in the Northwest woods. Johann has an agenda he does not share with the rest of the team which leads to significant trouble and then to a superbly staged double confrontation and conclusion.
What marks the difference between the two stories is the strong sense that the second story matters, it has deep roots in the continuity of the B.P.R.D series, it tackles a trailing plot line in a powerful and effective fashion. Even as doors are closed more are opened, the cast behave in unheroic but very characteristic  ways, make terrible mistakes and struggle credibly to deal with the extraordinary events that surround them. On the other hand in the Devil's Train the neither Fenix nor Devon have the same depth of time in the continuity, they take a starring role very late in the series without their being sufficient evidence anywhere why the reader should care. It is highly unlikely that any reader is coming to this volume cold, the extensive cast have been around for quite a while and the rather abrupt positioning of two relative unknowns center stage is odd. The second thread in the story is a door opening exercise typical of the series, it looses some impact because it is not surrounded by a story that could lend it more significance or tension.
The art by Tyler Crook on The Devil's Engine is superb, Devon and Fenix are given the chance to move through a lot of different situations and emotions and be believable in them all. The deeply nasty monsters are creepy and and never look as thought they have been forced into the surroundings. The action is vivid as are the reactions.
James Harren's art on The Long Death is outstanding moving from a gripping opening to two extended fight scenes which are messy, brutal beat downs , which considering who is involved is exactly what they should be. The snowy Northwest woods forms a great back drop, it never overshadows the cast it just puts them in perspective as the monsters circle about them. With a larger cast there is a opportunity for small slivers of interplay that are one of the joys of the series as minor characters get to make a mark.
Dave Stewart colours both stories with his usual level of astounding craft and subtle brilliance, in particular the second , mostly silent fight in the Long Death, the colours make the action flow  and give the details the order they should have. Clem Robins uses letters with understated care and energy to give the cast deeper tone and provides sound effects that anchor the moment.
The Devil's Engine is a good story, The Long Death makes this a comic worth getting.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Athos in America. Jason (Writer & Art), Hubert (Colours), Kim Thompson (Tanslation). Fantagraphics Books (2011)

A mixed collection of stories , crime, science fiction, horror and apparent autobiography and drama, some of which work more effectively than others.
The art and layout of the stories is very distinctive, a four panel grid is used for every page and all of the cast are animal  or bird headed humaniods. The effect of the page layouts is to give equal significance to each panel, the normal ways that panels are used to suggest the passage of time or to give a additional dramatic context to the story are missing here, the content of the panel has to carry all the weight of the story and intent. Due to this the more successful stories have very strong plots that give the content the force needed to make the most of the restrictions Jason imposes on himself.
A Cat from Heaven, a story that features the messy  breakdown of a relationship and its aftermath of a comics creator called Jason who is identified in the story as the creator of several of Jason's own books is not served well by the storytelling process. It is too slow and even, it does not give greater emphasis where it is need to give the story a lift or give the conclusion some weight. The flatness imposed is not lifted enough by the content. The same applies to the title story, Athos in America where Athos, from the Three Musketeers has a conversation in a bar. The action has happened off screen and is being reported in the conversation, the layout does not give the room needed to involve the reader very much.
The other stories all have the virtue of clever, frequently very nasty plots, to drive the action and use the layout to lift the story.
The Smiling Horse is a very pared down story of the results of a kidnapping and it uses the enforced pace of the panels to superb effect, the inevitable gains weight and force as it creeps up to the conclusion.  On the other hand The Brain that Wouldn't Virginia Woolf , a horror love story mixes mad science and love with care and melancholy. The structure of the story is superb, nicely teasing the readers expectations.
Tom Waits on the Moon  does not quite work, the idea is clever and the structure is excellent, it just does not quite give the cast enough of a connection to make the finale come off as it should.
So Long, Mary Ann is a gem, hard edged and flinty it works on every level. A criminal escapes from prison and is going to seek out an old confederate to get his share of the loot. The story features a theatrically violent gangster and has a true noir spirit of damaged romance. The heightened content works because of the restraint of the art and layout , it packs a considerable punch.
A striking and enjoyable collection of stories.

Blacklung. Chris Wright (Writer & Artist). Fantagraphics Books (2012).

Interesting and ultimately unsuccessful pirate story. A teacher and a violent gangster find themselves kidnapped and taken on board a pirate ship where the gangster joins the crew and the teacher becomes a scribe for the captain. The captain is trying to commit as much evil as possible so that he is sure of joining his wife in hell while his crew, including a homicidal maniac, are along for the blood, cruelty and treasure. The story unfurls steadily and finally ends, some of the cast survive, some do not.
The structure of the story up to the point everyone is on board the ship is interesting and unexpected. The story of the gangster is told through the actions of others as friends and enemies talk about him and plot against him. It is an interesting way to introduce him, before he is a significant presence before he actually appears and so when he does he already has menace and weight. Unfortunately he is then quickly moved to a context where he is not the most dangerous person in the place, which is what he was being set up as, he cannot capitalise on the set up he was given.
The teacher on the other hand is the central character of his introduction, emotionally constipated and severely dutiful about his pupils, caring for them only as far as teaching them within the confines of the school and timetable are concerned he is deeply unsympathetic.
It would be possible to anticipate a story that followed a development of the characters of the teacher and the gangster as they are faced with the deliberate brutality and cruelty of the pirate ship, something that revealed more of who they are. Instead the story effectively comes to a halt on the ship and the balance of the book is a slow set of non-sequiters as the captain, the first mate, the homicidal maniac and others talk, maim, kill and die. The two main action set pieces are well staged but appear to be straining to mean more than just being action. It is not at all clear what the extra dimension might be as Chris Wright does not actually commit himself that far beyond the captain's mission to secure a route to hell. The story ends rather than concludes in any way.
The strikingly individual black and white art adds and subtracts from the book. Chris Wright has a very strong style, it is not at all naturalistic, the cast look a lot like hand made puppets rather than humans and while this makes the horrific violence easier to read it also distances the reader from the story. It is hard to engage with the cast, the physical cues that would normally come from body language and facial expressions are blurred by the artistic choices. At particularly at a critical point in the story where the captain is telling of what has lead to his choices the page design becomes difficult to read, if I had sufficient interest in the cast or story this would not have been a problem. As it was I was no longer willing to put in the effort to decode the pages and simply moved over them.
This is a comic that a reader will completely get or will not, I can recognise the talent in the writing and the art without every being engaged by it.

Borderline Volume 3. Carlos Trillo (Writer), Eduardo Risso (Art), Maria Barrucci (Translation), Zach Matheny (Letters) Dynamite Entertainment (2009)

Pitch black dystopian science fiction, stripped down to the barest essentials for the story and illuminated by astonishing art. In the shattered ruins of a future Earth two groups fight for dominance, the Commune and the Council both struggling to capture the market for their competing mix of drugs and salvation. Ex-lovers, Emil and Lisa are employed on each side of the struggle.  Emil racked by guilt at having sols Lisa to organ harvesters to pay for drugs works for the Commune while Lisa, now known as Crash works for the council, to pay for restored organs. Her hearing and speech were not restored and remain scrambled, she can communicate freely only with a doll, Lara.
The longest story in the book concerns the search for a woman, a mutant who can sense future events. Such mutants are vital to the plans of Marshal Saki who rules both the Commune and the Council from his base on the moon. He uses the pre-cogs to know what his enemies are planning on and to stop them first, with the last one in his power dying the search for a replacement is urgent. The search pulls in both Emil and Lisa as the woman is hunted by combined forces of both the Commune and the Council. The best story in the book is a short episode where Lisa's doll is stolen by a virtual walking skeleton for an astonishing reason and in a clever and bleakly humorous episode Lisa's deafness is used as a weapon against a significant threat to the existing structure.
The stories are as bare bones as possible, sometimes there is extra information provided to make sense of the actions, Emil explains about his relationship with Lisa because the it will become important a little later. Otherwise there is the minimal amount of information provided, just enough to set the scene and give enough depth to the context so the cast are not actually moving through a vacuum. The cast of grotesques that race, rage and kill and sometimes rest are get all the attention, they are given a surprising degree of depth while all operating with very narrow emotional ranges. Carlos Trillo has managed to give them more than enough humanity to really pull in the reader and give the ferocious melodrama a considerable punch.
Eduardo Risso's luminous black and while art is breathtaking. It is genuinely black and white, there is no shading in the art, the definition and detail is provided only by direct contrast. This extreme approach is perfectly suited to the extremity of the story and the context, this is the end of the world, down in the ruins there is no room left for anything except the most explicit actions and motives. The cast are a range of astonishing grotesques, some human males and absurdly beautiful women who are more frequently undressed than not.  Eduardo Risso avoids the kind of sleazy coyness epidemic in comics by simply having half naked women because he wants to. This straightforward approach means that the female cast are not undermined as characters by having breasts, they are very much part of the character rather than being the character.
Using melodrama to shelter subtle points and unexpected character depth this is a great comic.

Kull: The Hate Witch. David Lapham (Writer, Gabriel Guzman (Art), Marino Taibo (Inks), Dan Jackson (Colours), Richard Starkings (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2011) (

Enjoyable sword and sorcery story. Kull is visited in Valusia by an old enemy from Atlantis, the Hate Witch. She is the last survivor of an ancient race that ruled in Atlantis and she sees Kull as the key to her revenge on humanity. Kull is forced to chase her back to to Atlantis, where he is a hated enemy and exile, and where the Hate Witch can fulfill her plans. The reveals are smart and the action is fast and sharp.
Sword & sorcery is by its nature a straightforward genre, dealing in big ideas and loud action, it is possible to be too straightforward and this book is an example of that. Kull is a barbarian king of an old empire, ruling a restive population that do not fully accept him and surrounded by the constant possibility of revolt. Diplomacy is not his strong suit and the administrative aspect of ruling bores him. The opening of the book takes advantage of this as the Hate Witch starts to murder people to draw Kull into her plans. The existing fractures in Valusia are put under great pressure forcing Kull to return to Atlantis and deal with the threat.
Once on Atlantis the story looses its nice complexity and become a very straightforward hunt and kill, the return of an exile stirring up memories and more. Unlike the situation in Vaslusia where there is a nicely complex web of loyalties and jealousies simmering all the time, the action in Atlantis is just too simple.
The fact that Kull is exiled from Atlantis does not have enough present significance for the situation in Valusia for it to really matter much, so a story where it is central feels like a detour from the main action. While it does give some background and the Hate Witch is a first rate foe it is just too far from the central premise of the whole Kull saga to have much weight.The art by Gabriel Guzman and Mariano Taibo is lovely throughout the book, action or court dispute are given care and detail that make them a pleasure to read. For a story where physical presence and action is vital the cast move with in the context with force and energy. The facial expressions and the body language are clear and engaging, the cast are individual and feel like they are really on the adventure. The colours by Dan Jackson are superb, they draw out the details of the art without ever drowning it. Richard Starkings provides great sound effects and letters that give the words nuance and tone.
A minor well told Kull story is still a pleasure.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rainbow Orchid. Volume 3. Garen Ewing (Writer & Artist). Egmont (2012)

Clever and very satisfying conclusion to the story, the cast and plot are excellent, the whole story executed with great style and flair. Julius Chancer, recovering after the savage attack on his group by Evelyn Crow that lead to the death of Nathaniel Crumploe decides to abandon the search for the Rainbow Orchid. As Julius amnd Lily Lawerence are about to return to their camp to search for Nathaniel's body, he appears along with Julius's boss Sir Alfred and Mr Dubbin from the Empire Survey Branch. The search for the orchid is resumed and the journey to the hidden valley where it may be located started. Evelyn Crow, displaying admirable commitment to her task of stopping the party continues in pursuit. At the same time in England the plot involving Urkaz Grope and why he wants to win the Trembling Sword of of Tybalt Stone becomes clearer. In the mountains a forgotten civilization is found and twists and turns of the story continue. The reveals are very clever, the action dramatic and the conclusion entirely satisfying.
Garen Ewing has managed to subtly update the adventure stories of the British Empire without ever loosing or compromising the elements that make them distinctive. The quest by Europeans for a plant that has critical importance to a hidden civilization, the return of a native that opens old political and romantic wounds, the secret agenda of an agent of empire and most of all a really committed, effective and resilient villain are deftly woven together with a light touch. The expectations that the form sets up are neatly and satisfyingly undercut as good more or less triumphs and evil more or less is defeated but triumph and defeat are mixed.
The art is outstanding, suitably old fashioned it captures the spirit of the story and at the same time is entirely contemporary in its story elements. The cast look the part, they fit the historical context and the genre ideas with ease and carry off the sharper modern action with force.
Clever, engaging comic storytelling of the highest order, the whole Rainbow Orchid saga is a treat right to the nicely biting end.

Is That All there Is? Joost Swarte (Writer & Artist). Johannes Van Dam, Art Spiegelman, Frabcoise Mouly, Kim Thompson (Transalation). Fantagraphics Books (2012)

A (nearly) complete collection of the comics of Joost Swarte. This is a curious and engaging collection of comics that are striking, individual and frequently funny. Joost Swarte has a deliberately anachronistic art style that sets up expectations that are neatly confounded and confronted by the actual content of the comics.  "Waiting for Reinforcements" is a story of the destruction of a small force lead by a white European by the Berbers, short, violent and funny it raises some interesting questions. The images of the Berbers, similar to all the non-European characters in the stories are grotesque caricatures. It is entirely a part of the art style of the early 20th century that Joost Swarte uses, in a contemporary context the art  has a distinctively different impact. Artists make choices and so do readers about how to interpret those choices, in this case I think the images can never escape their racist roots and cannot be cleaned or recycled with any amount of irony.
Some of the stories feature Jopo De Pojo, a man wearing Tintin trousers and a fabulous, gravity defying mohawk. Jopo is never lucky, his adventures move in odd directions, often swirling around him without his noticing. In "One Chance in One Hundred Thousand" Jopo becomes unwittingly involved in faked kidnap plot, and finds that rewards are not all they seem.
"Goodbye" is about a police investigation of a rash of suicides, it is consistently unexpected, funny and very sharp. "Babel Revisited", a science fiction story is my favorite in the collection. It is clever, nicely set up and has a great mad science idea all delivered with restrained art that makes the the most of the ideas.
The range of stories is impressive, from long awaited revenge to a crime story about the return of a criminal overlord to the adventures of a used condom.
What unites the collection is Joost Swartes's beautiful art and astonishing design sense. The old fashioned art is done with commitment and care, it is clearly a wholehearted artistic choice. What elevates the art is the way that each panel is filled with details that never crowd out the space or dilute the intended impact of the panel. The way that the art is designed within each panel, the panels designed together and the pages work as a whole is unobtrusively brilliant. All of the elements, other that the visible story elements, do not call attention to them selves, yet they all add depth and clarity to the content, giving strong physical contexts for the action. A whole world is comprehensively conjured up in a single panel at the start of "The Clock Strikes" , the cast at the nightclub are expressive and complete in themselves. It creates exactly the right  tone for the shifting tones of the story that unfolds.
Joost Swarte is a superb comic creator, this collection is a pleasure to read, linger over and savor in spite of some very questionable choices.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Valen the Outcast. Volume 2: Death Eternal. Michael Alan Nelson (Writer), Matteo Scalera (Art), Archie Van Buren (Colours), Ed Dukshire (Letters), BOOM! Studios (2012)

Superb conclusion to a story that puts heart into sword and sorcery without ever compromising on the action. Valen Brand, undead ex-king of Oakhaven is on a journey to recover his soul from the necromancer Korrus Null with his companions Zjanna and Alexio Cordovan. After an encounter with Furies who hate trespassesr on thier seas and a battering meeting with the ghost of his wife, Valen and the other finally make landfall. Their troubles, of course are only starting as the threats they face, including a skulk, a group of women warriors who Zajanna used to belong to, are nothing to the danger they face when they arrive at the court of Korrus Null.The action never flags, the reveals are clever and meaty, the finale surprising and very fitting.
What had started out as a great sword and sorcery action story with a smart plot, engaging cast and tremendous action develops in a most unexpected and satisfying way. The action is as fast as ever, what changes is that as the plot reveals itself it also adds depth and force to the cast, giving them a more resonant context for their actions and reactions. The story becomes more than straightforward recovery and revenge, love,loss, grief and the depths of friendship all come to the fore without every being plastered onto the the story. They arise naturally from the cast and the way choices they make under dreadful circumstances.
Sword and sorcery trades in simple big stories and concepts and Michael  Alan Nelson has a confident sure grasp of this, at the same time he has realised that action give you the room for more subtle moments that add force to the swordplay.
Matteo Scalara'a art is angular and explosive where required and great at the detail as well, This range means that the full scope of the story can be shown, the action when it comes is not just physical, it is a reflection of the character and their choices. The is a great deal of interplay between the cast that gets the sly detail of face and body language to get right and Matteo Scalara provide it.
Archie Van Buren's colours glow and are simply fantastic, they give an extra dimension to the whole story, they highten the contrast where needed, the pick out details and give definition to the context. They capture the heightened  and deliberately alien context that sword and sorcery works best in. Ed Dukeshire's letters are unobtrusive and effective when required and smashingly effective when just the right sound effect is called for.
The women of the skulk are dressed in the usual skimpy garments that are absurd for any fighter, there is minimal protection and maximum exposure. In a small and very telling moment a smart explanation is provided for it. The whole combined story resonates with this kind of thoughtful respect for the reader, small details that take the cast and the story seriously enough so that the reader is taken seriously too. A great story and a wonderful comic.

The Cup of Ghosts. Paul Doherty. Headline (2006)

Wonderfully confident and engaging historical murder mystery. Mathilde of Westminister comes to England as the confidential servant and friend of Princess Isabella, daughter of Phillip of France and wife of Edward II. Mathilde entered Isabella's household as a safe place to hide, her uncle and mentor was a leading member of the Knights Templar who were destroyed by Phillip who wanted their treasures.Isabella needed someone she could trust and Mathilde, with her life threatening secret was the right person. With an uneasy and unstable peace between England and France, the marriage of Isabella and Edward was a sign of peace and reconciliation. When Mathilde discovers a merchant and his household murdered it is the start of a series of murders that will lead to the cup of ghosts. The reveals are very well staged, the context vivid and the cast are sharp and full of life.
The story is a first person narrative which can be hard to manage in a historical context, enough information has to be provided so the cast look and act naturally in their context with out drowning the reader in information or reading like a guided tour of the period. Paul Docherty has the confident knowledge and talent to make it look easy. Mathilde is moving through a world in severe transition, the world she is talking about is already history for those in her present, and she moves as a stranger into the French court and then to England. She has the perfect reason to explain what is new to her and provide both the required details and explanations as a essential part of her narrative.
Mathilde is a great guide through the murky and murderous world of high politics of the period, she has trained to be observant and to draw conclusions from her observations as pas physician, she is close enough to the heart of power to see what is going on and distant enough to allow the plot mechanics operate successfully. The rest of the cast emerge very much as Mathilde sees them, Isabelle as a seriously underestimated woman who has a burning wish for revenge on those who abused her, Edward as a mercurial man who is cursed to never forget or forgive an insult. Gaveston, Edward's favorite and tool used by Edward to cut at the great English aristocracy who had fatally wounded his pride. All stride through the story will steely determination to gain their aims, unaware that that there were others who had plans and the willingness to use any means to achieve them.
The mix of history, motive and plot mechanics is superbly done, costumes change, lust for power and greed for dominance never ages.
Other Voices, Other Views:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The City of Shifting Waters. P. Christin (Writer), J.C. Mezierers (Art) Jerome Saincantin (Translator). Cinebook Ltd. (2010)

Engaging and enjoyable action science fiction about time traveling agents of the Terran Empire in the 28th century. Valerian and Laureline work for the Spatio-Temporal Agents Service which prevent unauthourised time travelers from interfering in history. Valerian is sent back to New York in 1986 to capture Xombul, a dangerous megalomaniac. New York is in ruins, the ice caps have melted as a result of a nuclear explosion and the city is steadily drowning. Valerian encounters a gang of looters in his search for Xombul and is rescued by Laureline. The story has great pace, the reveals are nicely staged and the finale clever.
One of the very nice aspects to the story is that neither Vaerian or Laureline are standard issue action heroes, they use their brains to adapt to the circumstances as they encounter them. They have no prior knowledge of the era as there were very few surviving details, this gives them a chance to be surprised by the conditions and makes their responses sharper and fresher. The rest of the cast are as well thought out, Sun Rae the leader of the looters in New York  has a keen eye for the possibilities that Valerian & Laureline bring with them. The details of the the drowning city are clever and thoughtful, the plot has nice twists that keep the inevitable at bay for as long as possible. The story avoids a lot of the headaches that come with time travel stories by simply ignoring them in favour of pushing ahead with the adventure.
J.C. Mezieres' art is nicely cartoony, the cast are well define and fit well into the context. The details of the drowning city, deserted by those who could get away and being reclaimed by water and plants is done with care. In particular a storm that brings the final destruction of the city is done very well.
The comic was written in the 1970's and feels a bit text heavy, this does not distract or detract from the story once you get used to it. The straightforward nature of the narrative serve it well, the adventure has no sub-text about the past, it is simply an opportunity to create an interesting context for a genre staple. Doing the straightforward well is very hard, there is no where for the writer or artist to hide if the make a mistake or lose momentum. The care and craft that went into this book is hidden behind the success of the story, lighthearted adventurous science fiction delivered with precision.
Other Voices, Other Views:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Eerie Presents El Cid. Budd Lewis, Gerry Boudreau, Bill Bubay, Jeff Rovin (Writers), Gonzalo Mayo (Art) Dark Horse Books (2012)

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid, an eleventh century military leader who lead both Christians and Moors into battle, is one of the greatest heroes in Spain. The El Cid of this book is a towering sword & sorcery warrior who travels through a mythical version of eleventh century  Spain fighting, trolls, wizards and demons. Taking the legend of El Cid as a departure point these extraordinary stories push the boundaries of the genre in all the right ways.Whether  El Cid is fighting a troll, a wizard to find a missing royal spy or the seven curses of a a dying enemy, he is flamboyant, cunning, thoughtful and unmatched with a sword.
In a genre where purple prose is a requirement Budd Lewis' words are rich and ornate, they need to be savoured as much as read. The language is a decoration that helps define and elevate the project beyond a run of the mill dragon and wizard slaughter fest. El Cid is a Spanish nobleman and his language reflects this, it is as much part of him as his sword.
Gonzalo Mayo's incredible art, dripping with detail requires and repays time and attention. Each panel needs to be read closely and the interaction between the words and the art is critical, each strongly reinforces and reveals the other. If either were less overwrought the balance of the comic would fail.
One of the remarkable aspects of the comic is how it requires the reader to slow down and positively read the action. The density of the art and script means that it a comic that requires patience to read and enjoy to the full.
The creative tension between the historical context for the stories and the requirements of the genre are fruitful, they give the stories a solid context that can be one of the hardest aspects of the genre to achieve. The politics of the court and the Spanish/Moorish conflict are used with considerable effect and balance the shifts into fantasy very well. El Cid always feels like a human hero even as he battles wizards, he is never outsize or absurd. The loyalty of his followers has a genuine ring to it as does his willingness to use his brain as much as his sword.
An unusual, unexpected and delightful comic.
Other Voices, Other Views:

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Manhattan Projects. Volume 1. Jonathan Hickman (Writer), Nick Pitarra (Art), Jordie Bellaire (Colours). Rus Wooton (Letters). Image Comics 2012

A Catherine wheel of mad science science fiction, throwing off ideas that sparkle brightly while following a spiral story path of its own. Robert Oppenhheimer is recruited into the Manhattan Projects, the building of the atomic bomb is camouflage for the real work being done in absurd physics and impossible science under the guidance of General Leslie Goves. The story unfolds in a extraordinary fashion, the reveals are breathtaking and the ideas are a constant delight and joy.
With a cast that includes President Roosevelt having a post life existence as an artificial intelligence system, Albert Einstein locked in contemplation of a stone object, Wernher Von Braun with a robot arm and a story that bends and folds like sentient origami that gets a fleeting mention the book is in constant danger of crumbling under its own weight. That it does not do so, that it in fact it steadily gathers pace and momentum as the pieces start to line up together is amazing. Jonathan Hickman has a steely discipline that keeps all the moving parts precisely moving in harmony. This harmony is not apparent on the surface and it takes a while for it to become clear that the story is very considerably more than a random collection of ingenious mad science ideas.
As the  plot mechanics start to engage the sharp edges of the story start to become clearer and the hints and apparent non sequiturs become links in the story chain. The cast are deeply engaging, never simply useful shorthand for ideas, they have strong personal voices and personalities. They move through the strange landscape of the story bringing their own histories with them that add depth and humanity to the bizarre and unexpected. This is vital as the story unfolds the strange humanity of the cast gives force and dark edge to the events.
Nick Pitarra's art is so good that it is impossible to imagine that any other version would capture the delicate balance of the story without tilting it a little too much in one direction or another. The human cast are astonishing in their expressiveness and physical presence in the context. They teeter on the edge of caricature and never become it, reflecting exactly the tension of the story.
The colours by Jordie Bellaire are a full scale character in theior own right, the give the tone of the book and art an extra dimension that is so natural that they almost vanish from recognition. They are exactly the colours of mad science and scientific madness. Rus Wotton's letters are subtle and effective, giving extra expressiveness to the cast. Amazing, exhilarating science fiction, a joy.
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Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Man Called Hawken. Ben Truman (Writer), Tim Truman (Artist). IDW (2012)

A gripping and engaging as well as fiercely violent Western. Kitchell Hawken is on a mission to extract the maximum revenge on The Ring. The organisation scalped him and left him for dead, which was terrible mistake as he was not actually dead. Driven by burning thirst for revenge and with a lifetime's experience of killing to draw on Hawken is systematically killing his way to the top. Followed, encouraged, mocked and berated by the multitute of ghosts of those he has killed Hawken follows the trail to find John Gallis, his ex-employer who ordered his murder. The action is brilliantly choreographed, the cast are never cliches and the pace is as relentless as Hawken's quest. The reveals are superbly staged and the finale satisfyingly grim.
A book that opens "Once there was an old man. He rode a blind mule on the trail called "El Camino De Murte"...The Road of Death" is setting itself a very difficult task to complete in a satisfactory fashion. It has to remain true to a very narrow vision of the reverger coming to claim his due and create enough of a wider story to draw in and keep a reader. The premise is age old, finding an interesting way of telling it is very hard. Ben Truman succeeds with flair and tremendous storytelling by multiplying the circles of revenge that enmesh the cast. Kit Hawken wants revenge on his would-be murderers, the ghosts of his victims want revenge on him, John Gallis wants revenge for the destruction Hawken is causing his criminal empire, Sombre a deformed physocitic killer wants revenge for failing to kill Hawken the first time and Shanghai Mary wants revenge for her husband.
This multiplication does not simply pile up confusion, the cast are too well developed for that, each of their journeys is different which gives each encounter its own particular flavour. The smart pacing  that Ben Truman uses, there are breaks between the outbursts of violence that give the cast a chance to reveal more of themselves that the one dimensional aspect that violence shows. The wonderful, rancid and ornate dialogue that is used gives the cast a chance to emerge as living people before they are brutally killed. Although Hawken is the lead character, the rest of the cast demand the readers attention and create a great context for the story.
The beautiful art by Tim Truman captures the spirit as well as the action of the story, Hawken is a scarred strip of leathery rage and hatred. Everything else has been stripped out of him and he wears it in every line, Sombre is repulsive and impressively competent at his task, he has a contained glee at the cruelty he inflicts and a happy satisfaction at his own nature. The ghostly retinue that crowd around Hawken, each bearing their death wound make a astonishing varied chorus, as distinct in death as they were in life.
There is very little to surprise a reader in this comic, though there are a few, there is a very considerable amount of pleasure from a grim story told with such care and relish .
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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lobster Johnson. The Burning Hand. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers), Tonci Zonjic (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

Great period adventure and action story that mixes the supernatural with gangsters to great effect. Investigating an attack by low level thugs painted up to look like ghostly Native Americans leads reporter Cindy Tynan directly into the middle of a confrontation between major criminal Arnie Wald and mysterious vigilante, Lobster Johnson. Arnie Wald is working to acquire property in the area that will be ripe for re-development as New York expands, Lobster Johnston is fighting to stop him. When a direct assault Arnie by Lobster Johnson fails, Arnie calls in some unusual and very deadly allies and the fight escalates. The reveals are cleverly staged, the action is forceful and the mix of the elements tightly controlled to create the maximum impact.
One of the problems with trying to write a pulp story is that the surface details are so obvious that they distract from the structural elements that actually drive the story. It is a considerable tribute to Mike Mignola and John Arcudi that they have created a story that is both true to its roots and happily contemporary. They get the two most important elements exactly right, the period and the cast. The story is set in the the late 1920s against the rise of organized crime after the the introduction of Prohibition and their need to expand and diversify. The cast feel natural in the context, in particular Mr Isog who is clearly based on Peter Lorre who acts as a subtle key to giving the period atmosphere needed.
The plot mechanics are striking and effective, a relatively straightforward struggle between a very resourceful villain and a masked vigilante is given a lift and a twist by clever details and an engaging cast. Cindy Tynan is a capable and confident reporter who is concerned about the story and her career, supporting cast around Lobster Johnson and Arnie Wald are also capable and confident. Mercifully none are stupid, they resourceful and willing to act creating a smart and very satisfying climax.
Tonci Zonic's art is lovely, it quietly suggests the details of the period without forcing them, the supernatural actors are given a great presence, they move through the context easily and naturally, they do not conflict with it. The action is loud, bright and fast, everything it should be, ambiguity has no place in a story like this, the lines have to be clearly drawn and observed. The mystery about Lobster Johnson and the resourcefulness of Arnie Wald are a nicely judged updating of the formula .
Dave Stewart colours with unassuming flair and a keen eye for detail that serves the story without ever drawing attention to itself, Clem Robins delivers sound effects that are pleasure to read.
A great pleasure to read, a comic that wears its considerable craft with easy assurance.

Revival. Volume 1: You're Among Friends. Tim Seeley (Writer), Mike Norton (Artist), Mark Englert (Colours), Crank! (Letters). Image Comics (2012)

A stunning idea realised with astonishing execution, Revival is clever and deeply engaging. One day in rural central Wisconsin, the  recently dead came back to life, not as cannibal zombies rather as confused people looking to return to their lives. Placed in a quarantine by the federal government the people, living and revived, of the the area struggle with the unexpected and inexplicable return of dead family and friends. With  pressure outside the limits increasing as everyone scrambles to understand what has happened inside the revival zone the pressure is intense. Officer Dana Cyrpess is appointed the Revitalized Citizen Arbitration Team, who will try and manage the problems that arise.A major plot line concerning the activities of a local exorcist who sees that his moment has comes provides the structure, while the ripples from the event are examined. The reveals are clever and thoughtful, there are excellent on-going story hooks and a deeply engaging cast.
The cast is one of the greatest surprises of the book, all of them have been created with care and attention, even the smallest walk on part is given depth and shape. Avoiding the well worn cliches of the zombie genre in favor of a much more gripping approach, the living and the revived are given a chance to fail in individual ways to cope with the extraordinary events that have occurred. The revived are who they were only different, the living are changed by the fact and presence of the revived, if death is nor true what is?
The cast are uniformly and recognizably human, female or male, local or outsider, living or revived, in that order which neatly cloaks and heightens the tension at its core. Reality has cracked the cast have not, yet.
Tim Seeley is too good a dramatic writer to simply run the reader's noses in the facts of the situation, leading with Officer Dana Cypress, the extraordinary is explored through the ordinary. People still have to manage the business of living, as well or as badly as they always did, the fracture lines of their lives have not changed just intensified.
Mike Norton's art is simply gorgeous, the cast are individual, the body language and shapes, are expressive and varied. They have the breath of life in them, capturing and expressing all the the nuances of the story that the art needs to capture. The context , snow bound rural landscapes are a treat to read. The action scenes are full of energy, the low key scenes are equally filled with subtle action as the cast react and respond.
The colours by Mark Engelert are so natural and effective they nearly glide by without notice, they clothe the art so unassumingly that they hide the astonishing skill and thought that they bring to the project. The same can be said for the letters by Crank!, easy to read, unobtrusively giving layers of context and force to the comic.
A great comic that works because it exploits the possibilities if a comic to the full.
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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The IPCRESS File. Len Deighton. Panther Books Ltd ( 1962)

A low key and very engaging spy story. The unnamed narrator joins a sub-division of the UK Intelligence Services and become involved with a situation where top scientists are vanishing. The most likely suspect is Jay, a very well connected information broker without any particular ideological alliance beyond money. The narrator find himself identified as a probable Russian agent and gets trapped in a murderous plot. The reveals are slowly let out and very effective when they arrive, the action is nearly all verbal, the tension is held steady by the consistent uncertainty that surrounds the situation. The resolution is bitterly satisfying and entirley true to the tone and intent of the book.
This is a book about the shabby and dangerous bureaucracy of spying and the the atmosphere of betrayal and distrust that it naturally breeds. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the story as does the Cold War between East and West. There is no heroics just small opportunities for profit, power and possible advantage. The most dangerous person in the story is not armed with a gun but with a statistical analysis that shows the importance of information and the ability to manage it effectively.
One of the striking things about the book is the fact that the use of a computer and the possibilities it offers is the cornerstone of the power for the sub-section that the narrator works for. There is an enjoyable and very English taste for class warfare in the book. The narrator is a outsider in the Establishment circles that he is involved in, he gets to be troublesome because of his competence, a significantly better connected cast member is barely more than a caricature of an upper class twit, in their position because of his social network.
The coils of the plot take some time to emerge and they do so quietly and very effectively, nearly hidden by the low key narrative, when the scope of the betrayals and their consequences break into action is is sharp and effective. This really is a quiet, shadowy struggle that has no heroes, only survivors. The story is drenched in a weary cynicism that never grates as it is off-set by the narrators humor and fundamental belief in what he is doing. From fighting a very visible enemy to a secret one the war continues. The story never feels outdated or old fashioned, Len Deighton has created a cast that are alive and credible, engaging in a natural and gripping way.
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Monday, March 4, 2013

Valen the Outcast. Volume 1:Abomination. Michael Alan Nelson (Writer), Matteo Scalera (Art), Archie Van Buren (Colours, Ed Dukeshire(Letters), Trevor Hairsine (Cover Art). BOOM! Studios (2012)

A classic sword and sorcery story with a really strong idea driven by first rate execution. Valen Brand, once king of Oakhaven is killed and resurrected by Korrus Null as his undead slave. With the help of an old friend Valen breaks the hold that Korrus Null had on him and sets off to reclaim his soul from the necromancer. Oakhaven has splintered after his death as rival fight each other for power, all are united in their hatred and disgust for the undead ex-king. This makes his journey across Oakhaven rather difficult and his needs the help of Zjanna, who helped him escape the leash on Korrus Null and a drunken smuggler, Cordovan.The action is forceful and sharp, the reveals are very well staged, there are enough nicely set up lose ends and story hooks to give the story depth and force.
Originality is not a major requirement for sword and sorcery, it is the execution that carries the weight and in this case Michael Alan Nelson executes the story with tremendous flair and conviction. The twist that the hero is a self-aware zombie looking to recover his soul and exact his revenge on a wonderfully nasty villain is great. It gives the rest of the story a slightly off-kilter edge that is never squandered or, thankfully, overused. The rest of the classic pieces are all in place, the beautiful female witch warrior and the drunken outlaw who is handy enough in a fight, they too are given a chance to be characters as much as cliches. The whole cast is lively and vigorous which is vital in a story like this, there is very little room for ambiguity in such a straight driving narrative, what is needed is that the cast have a relish for their roles. Best of all Valen himself is given the opportunity to show why he was genuine leader in his living days, the same force of character and ability to inspire loyalty is still there. This gives his quest a nice bite against the the repulsive Korrus Null.
Matteo Scalera's art takes a little getting used to, his page layouts are not always obvious, they do have an energy that captures the and amplifies the momentum of the story. The cast are given individual identities and move with menace and grace as required. The colours by Archie Van Buren are astonishing, they gather the story and the art and raise everything up to fever pitch. This is a story that needs to be told at full volume and the colours give it that, from blinding lights to cunning shadows, the world gets a feel that is dirty, hard edged and dramatic in all the right proportions. Ed Dukeshires letters are a subtle and enjoyable pleasure, they never obscure the action while they give added depth to the cast.
Wonderful fun. The quote on the cover suggests an "Undead Conan", a great idea which this comic has no need to try and use, it has its own splendid, bloody life and deserves the credit for it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Prophet . Volume 1. Remission. Image Comics 2012

Wonderful science fiction that greatly benefits from a range of writers and artists to deliver a gripping opening to a very ambitious story. The first 3 chapters written by Brandon Graham & Simon Roy, art by Simon Roy, colours by Richard Ballerman and  letters by Ed Brisson set the scene with tremendous energy and a cloudburst of ideas. A long buried capsule breaks to the surface and John Prophet emerges in a hugely different Earth with a mission to complete. The first stage is to meet someone who will provide further details of the mission. Prophet crosses a mysterious planet that is full of alien life and soft echos of a human past. He finally meets his contact and receives his mission, to awaken the Earth Empire. The requires a further journey before it can be accomplished. The remaining three chapters written by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple and Giannis Milonogiannis. Art by Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, Brandon Graham, colours by Richard Ballerman, Joseph Bergin III, Brandon Graham. A backup story with words and art by Emma Rios complete the package.
The book does exactly what an introduction should do, it is a really strong hook for what will come next, the set up is deeply intriguing and enough potential story telling doors have been opened to make the next step inherently unpredictable and highly anticipated. One of the very best things about the book is the confidence shown by the creative team in the readers, they feel no need to explain everything, instead they simply take a lot for granted and pursue a single story line in each section. This gives the sections a strong element of internal coherence and gives room for the astonishing context in each case to be taken over by the reader.
Too much detail or explanation would have burdened the slender story and possibly drowned it, creating a functioning context for the action with the cast simply getting on with their lives is gripping. There is just enough information to suggest a huge back story which frames the mission the John Prophet is following and the subsequent ripples from his actions.
A multitude of artists and writers can easily create a lost of conflicting and clashing voices and visions, here the multitude is used to suggest the sheer enormity of the Prophet project, the enormous distances and the staggering range of locations is glowing science fiction. The book is full of causally placed ideas that are simply there " One of McCall's children, trying to follow his father by becoming a planet" with art that captures the idea is just a passing moment in the book. The writing has achieved a delicate balance between mystery and momentum without ever becoming obscure or obvious. The arc of the book closes on a great note with a cunning return to the epic simplicity of the opening, a man on a mission has returned and there will be consequences.
The art is a  joy, it changes with each section and never fails to give the story the lift and heft it needs, it fills in the space that the words cannot reach with astounding ideas and dramatic moments that underline the strangeness of the universe. Science fiction thrives on the detail of the moment as well as the giant vistas of space and time and the art captures it all with vigor and clarity. The artists, colourists and the letterer take the possibilities for disciplined freedom that the story offers and take off, they are firmly anchored in the story and they push it far beyond what it could have been.
Smart science fiction comics are a deep pleasure and this is a really smart science fiction comic.
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