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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Savant. Issue 1.Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Fin Cramb (Colours), Jim Campbell (Lettering) Planet Jimbot (2013)

Chief Wizard Update 03.02.217: Savant has been scheduled to appear in Dark Horse Presents 32-37 March to August 2017.  Dark Horse Presents is the flagship anthology book for Dark Horse Comics and the publishers have always been very particular about how to use the room in the book. It is a tremendous compliment to and recognition of the great work done by the creative team on Savant that they are getting to be included in the anthology. A very large number of new readers will have the pleasure of reading Savant. The team at Planet Jimbot make great comics, it is wonderful to see them getting the opportunity to present their work to a significant worldwide audience.

 First-rate, thoughtful and adventurous science fiction, Savant has a great idea, a well thought out set up which combine to kick the story off in an intriguing and engaging way. The story opens a dive into action before starting off on the main narrative, the pursuit of a war criminal on the planet Hubris. The small group of soldiers and Savant head on their mission across a ravaged planet and find that the trouble is far greater than they could have expected.
Jim Alexander is using a very familiar story framework, the desperate venture by a small, ill assorted, group heading into hostile territory who discover that their worst fears were insignificant compared to the true depth of the threat they face. The pleasure lies in how skillfully he uses this framework to bring his ideas to life and how well he uses the storytelling potential of the framework. Savant, the wild card in the group, has an unusual talent which Jim Alexander neatly reveals at a point where the story logic transforms what could have been an info dump into an necessary explanation for previous events. Savant is the hinge that turns the framework in a interesting direction without compromising it, she  puts the heart into the adventure that draws the reader in and offers the possibility of the happily unexpected.
Jim Alexander has taken a welcome risk in the story, the threat, when it emerges its total, there is no compromise possible and the odds are satisfactorily stacked against the team. To an extent this drains tension from a story as there is no room for escalation, it is already at 11, Jim Alexander is going to have to find a credible way to introduce tension back into the story that rises above the drawn out slaughter of the team. There are simply not enough of them to support a multi-issue story that would be worth reading. Given the the range of ideas already on display I have considerable hopes that a intriguing route lies ahead.
The art by Will Pickering is very good, the cast are well developed, they inhabit their context well, the body language is strong and the faces expressive. Will Pickering has a lovely range, intimate conversations, action, big & small and movement are all comfortable, the ideas are brought to life. At the same time I have a very strong preference for harder edged, more detailed art in science fiction. The greater the weight of the context, the more the story ideas can draw in the reader.
The colours by Fin Cramb have a significant challenge to survive, at one point Savant says "Colour is the language of the universe", this is a  provocative thing to say in a medium where colouring is essential yet should be not attention seeking. The muted low key colours used are effective, they have a melancholy undertone which is exactly what Savant should have. The contrast with the colours of the enemy is strong and effective.
Any first issue has a difficult task, balancing story set up with enough forward momentum to draw in and involve the reader. Savant does it very well, a very engaging and enjoyable read, it leaves the reader happily wondering what will be next.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. Contact Planet Jimbot directly at:

Stop Dead. Leigh Russell. No Exit Press (2013)

An engaging and enjoyable crime story, with a wide ranging cast and thoughtful plot mechanics. A businessman is found murdered and his wife and her lover are the natural suspects. When the victim's business partner is killed in the same way, followed by another murder the case becomes more complicated. The set up is well done, the investigation is thoughtful, the threads of the situation are carefully picked up and the reveals cleverly staged as the deep and bloody roots of the crimes start to become exposed.
One of the striking and enjoyable aspects to this story is the way that Leigh Russell uses minor cast members to introduce the murders and then lets the major cast players take over. She invests enough time and detail in the the walk on parts that the situation they find themselves in feels as disruptive and horrifying as it should, they respond in interesting and credible ways to the shock they receive and this solves a problem in a police procedural. How do you convey the shock of  a murderous assault or finding a murder victim if the cast encounter them as part of their professional lives? Having civilians, who have been given an opportunity to register with the reader first, be the finders gives the scope of the event more weight and depth. The professionals take over and move the case on, the impact of the event has already been established.
The lead investigator Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel, newly transferred to London from Kent, is an attractive lead character. Capable and competent, she leads the investigation with professional care while suffering from a credible dislocation from her transfer.
The supporting cast are well developed with one interesting exception. One of the cast is given a set up that does not play out, it feels like a road not taken. It does not harm the story,  it is a major enough set up that the absence of any follow through is curious. The significant sub plot involving the wife of the first victim and her lover is very nicely done, the stress of the events and the impact of the investigation is well developed. It gives more force to the whole story by capturing the fallout from the events that they find themselves caught up in and reacting to.
The plot is clever, it unfolds carefully and the shifts and twists that never give a sense of being forced in to solve a narrative problem. They emerge naturally and the pacing means that they are very well set. The tone is low key and restrained, this allows the action to stand out when it needs to. Leigh Russell has a gift for quick and effective charachterisation and smart plots, good fun.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Orbital Volume 4: Ravages. Sylvain Runberg (Writer), Serge Pelle (Art), Jerome Saincantin (Translation). Cinebook (2011)

A brilliant piece of romantic science fiction and a great conclusion to the story. The peace conference being in Kuala Lumpur , to mark the end of the Human - Sanjarr war, is being overshadowed by mysterious deaths and the presence of a nomadic group of aliens, the Rapakhun. Caleb, a human and his partner Mezoke, a Sanjarr are responsible for the security of the conference. Caleb is determined to push ahead with conference, Mezoke is increasingly reluctant. Caleb's superiors agree to support him, giving him full responsibility for any failures. The deaths grow and start to include attacks within the city. When the identity of the attacker is established it escalates rather than resolves the situation. Caleb and Mezoke take a desperate action to deal with the problem. The story continues to twist and turn, balancing galactic politics with local affairs and the grand sweep of space opera with small , effective , moments. The conclusion is unexpected and sharp, nicely playing against a readers expectations.
Sylvian Runberg solves the problems of romantic science fiction and space opera with disarming ease, making it all look easy and natural. The wide reaches of space, the romance of the starts and the pull of the future are all present, nicely enmeshed in entirely believable bureaucratic complications and institutional, racial and personal politics. Alien races and humans do not just mingle at elevated planetary levels, they are also co-workers drinking in a bar working to take advantage of an unexpected situation. This gives the story a great context and detailed weight against which the plot can take place. The plot is suitably grand, the threads are pulled from different planets and have to be countered with a great science fiction solution.
The two leads, Caleb and Mezoke work together under increasing pressure from their own private histories and still striving to be professional. The supporting cast, including the smaller walk-on parts are all given an opportunity to shine.
Serge Pelle's art is a consistent joy, it is detailed and creates a solid physical environment that enables the story to fly. From the mangrove swamps to space, the cast get to inhabit a environment which gives their actions context and force. The cast themselves are varied, and full of motion and life. The body language and the physical movements are assured and natural, they interact with each other and their context wonderfully.
Orbital is the real deal, science fiction that takes the unlimited budget of comics and uses it with care, craft and tremendous precision. Not to be missed.

Anothe Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire. Melisa Klimszewski (Editor). Kathryn Huges (Foreword) . Hesperus Press Limited (2008)

This glorious anthology of stories were all first published as a Christmas Special in 1853 by Household Words magazine edited by Charles Dickens. It was a commercial venture, a Christmas edition of short stories by well known authors was a popular move. The stories are not thematically linked to the season, they are stories intended to please the audience of the day.
The Schoolboy's Story by Charles Dickens manages to have a clear voice in the unnamed narrator, a sentimental framing around an extraordinary examination of the brutal and tribal psychology of schoolboys  all working together much as bitter dark chocolate still gives the lift of a sweet.
The Old Lady's Story by Eliza Lynn Linton crams a full length Gothic romance novel into a short story without sacrificing any of the essentials, which is am amazing accomplishment.
Over the Way's Story by George A. Sala is a wonderful mash up of Beauty and the Beast with A Christmas Carol that pulls off that unlikely pairing with wit and flair.
The Angel's Story by Adelaide Anne Procter is rather odd poem about the death of a child. Reading it outside of its native context of high child mortality and strong popular religious observance makes it a little horrifying rather than comforting which was the intent.
The Squire's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell has a get set up, sharp reveal and superbly and credibly nasty lead character. Nothing extra and nothing left out, astonishing craft in writing a short story.  
Uncle George's Story by Edmund Saul Dixon and W.H. Wills is a slight piece that is competently written but feels very dated and a little lackluster.
The Colonel's Story by Samuel Sydney manages a decent plot in a short space without proving a memorable cast or anything else to pull in a reader.
The Scholar's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell and Reverend William Gaskell is a romantic ballad about jealousy, obsession and murder and a good fun read.
Nobody's Story by Charles Dickens is a bitter and bleak piece about the Unknown Citizen, there is nothing sentimental about it, the language is old fashioned , the anger is right up to date.
This wonderful anthology is a tribute to the editorial skills of Charles Dickens as much as anything. That a group of stories written for a very specific context shine as brightly now , for the most part, as then points out his eye for talent and how to gather it together.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man. Daniel Stashower. Titan Books (2009)

A very engaging and highly enjoyable Sherlock Holmes story with a great cast, a solid plot and strong grasp of the essentials. When Harry Houdini is performing in London and gives a private performance for the Prince of Wales he finds himself caught up in a nasty blackmail plot. Sherlock Holmes is drawn into the mystery and with a clever and determined opponent has a genuine problem on his hands. The story unfurls at a nice pace with clever reveals and set pieces that give the limelight to both Sherlock Holmes and Houdini as needed. The final unraveling is clever and ties the plots threads nicely together with flair and substance.
Daniel Stashower takes an unusual approach to writing a Sherlock Holmes story, it is a risky route and one that thanks to his skill and care pays off . A typical and very successful approach is to present Sherlock Holmes with an interesting opponent, this retains the basic dynamic of the Conan Doyle stories. Daniel Stashower takes a different route, he presents Holmes with an ally as energetic and competent in his field as as Holmes is in his. Even more interestingly he allows Watson's affection for Holmes to spill over into admiration and affection for Houdini.
This is delicate ground to tread upon, the Holmes-Watson bond is the beating heart of the Sherlock Holmes universe and it is a delicate mechanism. With quiet skill  Daniel Stashower shows that the same aspects that Watson is drawn to in Holmes are present in Houdini, mixed in a very different way, the core of the two men are similar. Admiration for an extraordinary talent and recognition of the relentlessness focused energy in both men draws Watson and both Holmes and Houdini recognise the tremendous compliment of Watson's friendship.
That this does not stop either of them from using his straightforward loyalty and friendship when required to achieve their aims and the way Watson responds is a key element in the book. By getting this framework spot on the beautifully crafted plot works a treat, it gives space to all the cast to come forward and be seen. The set pieces are cleverly staged, the coils of the plot draw in Houdini so that his presence becomes essential rather than window dressing. Smart and satisfying, a pleasure to read.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Amazing & Fantastic Tales Issue 2. Planet Jimbot . October 2013.

An engaging anthology that nicely mixes genres, prose stories and comics.
Kroom  written by Jim Alexander and art by Glen B Fleming opens the issue with a bang, literally, as a dimension traveling alien and a human companion land on a tower of clothes that hold memories of the previous owners. A sharp encounter with a hostile inhabitant is neatly resolved before the traveling continues. The episode is a sliver of an ongoing story, it has enough content packed into it to give it some grip with a reader, the ideas are well compressed and expressed. The colouring is slightly muted and the lines of the art are soft, leaving the level of detail low. For a compressed story I think harder lines and a bit more detail would work better to drive up the impact for the limited space.
The Last Posse written by Jim Alexander with illustrations by Scott Sackett the second part of a odd Western featuring Wyatt Earp, Belle Starr, Geronimo and the Cisco Kid finding themselves in a very hostile town. The story has a well developed hard edge that is very engaging as the pieces are being pulled together. A strong atmosphere and a convincing cast allow the mystery to grow up nicely.
Happy Slappy written by Jim Alexander  and art by Andrew Docherty is a smart joke that is well set up and delivered. The loose art is just right for the payoff.
Flat Champagne written by John McShane and art by Graeme MacLeod is superb, a science fiction story that captures a mood most unexpected in the genre, disappointment. Science fiction is usually either triumphant or pessimistic, the more delicate notes are not often heard. In this short story the low key realisation is wonderfully delivered.
Point Blank written by Jim Alexander and art by Scott Sackett is the longest comic in the issue. Two boys born on the same day at the same time have a mysterious connection that drives one but not the other. The set up is clever, the plot development is not unusual and the nicely bitter conclusion is both sharp and satisfying. The heavy lines of the art are effective, they give the cast weight and presence. There is a lot of text in each panel and the art needs to be strong to bear it without being squeezed out. In particular the faces of the cast look lived in which is important for the sense of the story to emerge properly.
The Roustabout  written by Lynsey May and Fin Cramb continues a atmospheric story set on an oil rig. In a very short space mood, action, context and a nice reveal are all delivered without haste or loss. A very smart piece of writing.
Any anthology has to find a balance both between the nature of the stories themselves and the substantial constraints of space and continuity over different issues. Amazing & Fantastic Tales manages the balance well, there is a scattering of genres that all sit well with each other and the overall tone of the book is maintained. It succeeds at what an anthology needs to done the most, provide enough to satisfy a reader with the issue and deliver enough hooks to raise an interest in the next developments.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. All Planet Jimbot titles including Amazing & Fantastic Tales#2 are available from UKOnDisplay:  Alternatively contact Planet Jimbot direct on: