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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weapon Brown Jason Yungbluth (Writer & Artist), Emil Novak, Gerry Coffey, Jeff Eckleberry (Inking and Lettering Contributions) Death Ray Graphics (2014)

A very engaging and entertaining science fiction noir comic that has an obvious hook that thankfully does not create the problems it could. In a post apocalyptic world a mercenary with a nuclear power robotic arm among other enhancements finds that that a mission leads directly to a confrontation with his one time owners/employers over the future of the planet. A standard story platform that is a standard because it offers so many story possibilities depending on the imagination and discipline of the creative team. Happily for reader Jason Yungbluth has enough imagination and discipline to use this platform in outstandingly creative and inventive ways and applies the genre requirements of both science fiction ans noir fiction to great effect.
The obvious hook for this story is that is is a parody of the US newspaper comic strips, using well known characters in a variety of brutally inventive ways. The problem this raises right away is that a parody relies on prior knowledge by the reader and frequently induces lazy writing and art as the creative team trade on this assumed knowledge. A parody runs the risk of being an inside joke that is meaningless to those outside the magic circle and tiresome to those within it.Thankfully Jason Yungbluth is for too good a writer and artist to fall into the trap, rather he uses the parody element as a bubbling angry subtext for the full tilt ahead, all reader friendly, story that happens to have an extra element for those who care and of no consequence to those who do not.
For any science fiction story the context is all important, and in Weapon Brown the context is simply fantastic,a genuinely destroyed world with clever currency as everyone left fights for the most important thing left, food. The devastated landscape is powerfully and sometimes playfully created and developed in the book. The details are smart and telling and is where the threads from the comic strips are used as superb starting points. Jason Yungbluth is able to provide an rolling context for the action in a very natural way, the actions of the cast provide the information the reader needs. He avoids any info dumps to set scenes, it comes up as required as the cast interact with each other and the extremely hostile environment. Critically the villains are credibly appalling and with a genuinely forceful motivation rather than just being malignant, their opponents are as mixed as they should be given the circumstances. Surviving means that everyone is making brutal choices, the difference lies in degree and the choices made.
The cast are all fighting for every bit of pace and life available and this gives all of them and the book as a whole a tremendous vitality as everyone is demanding and deserving the readers attention. This makes even the smallest action scene come alive and the relatively few peaceful moments have weight and depth.
The art is a joy, the book clearly took time and the art changes and develops as the book proceeds before settling to an extended style. The changes are never disruptive, they flow easily into each other and are clearly the result of the same controlling imagination and artistic intent. This is where the parody element is used to best effect, by having a established gallery of characters to draw upon a huge and varied cast can be created and the artistic possibilities can be extended. The art captures the ideas of the book with tremendous force and clarity, it takes full advantage of the simplicity of the story platform to give room to details that add physical weight to the context and give the action brutal force.
This is a first class science fiction comic, it uses the unlimited budget of comics with thoughtful abandon to develop and surprise with ideas and locations. It is also a great noir story of a wounded hero who finds that, perhaps, his heart has not died and that hope may not be fatal after all.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The Whitechapel Horrors. Edward B. Hanna. Titan Books (2010)

A slightly stodgy historical murder mystery that fails to engage as a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes is involved in the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in London in 1888.
There are two stories involved in the book and one is significantly more effectively developed and executed than the other, there is the actual historical events of the Jack the Ripper murders which is used as a framework to hang a Sherlock Holmes story on. Edward B. Hanna has clearly extensively researched the murders and uses the research very well to lay out the whole context of the murders. He establishes the scale of the shock and outrage caused by the brutal killings and the enormous fear they caused in the ruling class that they would crystallise unrest and frustration among the very have nots. The sense of a settled social order where everyone knew and accepted their place was central to social stability and the maintenance of power and privilege. The murders represented a direct challenge to this as they stirred the destitute in unpredictable ways, ways that could possibly be harnessed by those with agendas directly opposed to those of the current rulers.
That story is well told, the range of characters is developed and the responses revealed as they scrambled to counter the multiple threats that arose from the killings. At times the research and explanation weight a little too heavily, for much the greater part they are well done and informative.
The significant problem is that this is supposed to be a Sherlock Holmes' story in which case history is a set to serve fiction requirements rather than as happens here, the reverse. Sherlock Holmes is trapped in the requirement to be historically accurate and as a result cannot be Sherlock Holmes.
Edward. B. Hanna's historical approach is used in an interesting way as he weaves the details of the original Sherlock Holmes stories into the narrative of the Jack the Ripper murders and uses the spaces available in a creative way. The extensive notes at the end that tie up historical characters and the fictional timelines and details are enjoyable.
Sherlock Holmes stories have strict and very well established requirements, the question for any writer wishing to write a Sherlock Holmes story is to either embrace them or discard them as creatively as possible. They have to be the dominating influence on the story or else it will simply not be a Sherlock Holmes story. In this case another set of requirements was allowed to dominate instead and in spite of a strong effort to bring in the fictional element it fails because of this.
As a matter of personal preference I strongly prefer stories where Sherlock Holmes in not a directly leading character that the narrative follows, I think he is much more suited to being seen from afar as the aloof and essentially mysterious character he is. His humanity is borrowed from Watson and this is the best way to enjoy him. Edward B. Hanna uses Holmes directly and he makes a very credible effort in doing so, I think in this case the problem was that the reader got both too much and too little of Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

GoodCopBadCop Casebook 2. Jim Alexander (Writer), Luke Cooper, Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Lettering), Joel Carpenter ( Cover Art). Rough Cut Comics (2014)

The second outing for the wolf in a police officers skin is even more entertaining and enjoyable that the first, all the heavy lifting of the set up having been done the creative team can concentrate on pushing the story ahead. There are three sections in the book, two comics and a report written by both people who share the identity of Detective Inspector Brian Fisher, all of them work really well.
Tiny Facts of Kindness, written by Jim Alexander, art by Like Cooper, letters by Jim Campbell starts with a small piece of scene setting which sets the tone of bleak humour exactly before moving into the main storyline. When two small time robbers encounter he wolf in a bungled attempt to robs a supermarket the trail leads to a local church. At this point the story actively and consistently diverts away from reader expectations and still keeps within the storytelling boundaries it has set up. Jim Alexander snakes across the possibilities of having the wolf and the implications that his existence is no secret. The presence of one wolf is an indicator of the presence of others and that possibility is used in a very sharp way.
The art by Luke Cooper is confident and his mastery of black and white is astounding. The high contrast art is perfect to give the story the edge and starkness it needs to express the brutal humour and action. The cast are full of force and vitality, they move with power and the tone of  disguise and rage is conveyed perfectly. The distinction between the wolf and his host is balanced really well, they look distinct enough to be different, yet retain a sufficient similarity to maintain the tension between the two.
Twisting the Knife, written by Jim Alexander, art by Will Pickering, letters by Jim Campbell picks up a different thread that has been running through the stories, the view of Detective Sergeant Spencer who works for DI Fisher and knows the wolf is real. She reports her concerns about DI Fisher to the Chief Superintendent, specifically about a case concerning the assault on a woman that takes place after she disturbs a burglar in her home. The woman's family follow the police to find the person responsible and when the wolf emerges he does so much more quietly but just as effectively as ever. The story nicely raises questions without disturbing the flow and creates room for further story possibilities.
Will Pickering's art is significantly different from Like Cooper's and placing a text story between them is a good way to reduce if not remove a dislocating change in style. The line work is gorgeous, the fourth panel on page 1 is a stunning and effective transition. The grey tones for the flashback contrast very nicely with the white backgrounds for the interview. This change works to emphasise the formal tension of the interview and the action in the flashback, in the interview the flashback looks to be slightly absurd.
Separating the two are a number of reports from both DI FIsher and the wolf and they showcase Jim Alexander's talent for bloody, black humour and razor sharp story telling. The reports wander across a number of events, the stand out is a community police lecture at a school where incidents of graffiti spoilers for films has appeared, among other outbreaks. The lecture falls apart as expected in ways that are not as Jim Alexander again nicely shifts out of the way of reader expectations.
Strong plotting, a great cast given the space to establish themselves, fierce action and wonderful art make GoodCopBadCop Casebook #2 a comic to relish.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, The first copies ofGoodCopBadCop: Casebook#2 will be on sale at Thought Bubble (the Rough Cut Comics/Planet Jimbot table situated in New Dock Hall).  It will be distributed through Amazon at www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aag/main?ie=UTF8&seller=A12QVTLFDTVO2U and direct from www.roughcut-comics.com in December.


Charles Dickens. My Early Years. Peter Rowland (Complied and Edited). Aurum Press (1997)

Given Charles Dickens' fascination with himself and his towering talent it is notable that he never wrote a full scale autobiography. He wrote a fragment which he gave to his friend and first biographer, John Forster, wrote a disguised version of his childhood in David Copperfield and wrote and spoke of his early adult life in letters, articles and speeches. Peter Rowland has doe a great job of assembling the fragments into as continuous a whole as could be managed.
Charles Dickens writing about Charles Dickens is as wonderfully engaging and astonishing as Charles Dickens writing about any of the cast that swagger through his astounding novels. That is the vibrant pleasure and deep frustration of the writing, it is clear that the person being spoken about or written about is essentially a character in a narrative, a beautifully crafted narrative of course.
Dickens is as funny, acute, charming and sentimental about himself as he is about any of his fictional children, he can freely deal with himself once the topic  never strays near to the open would of his childhood that never healed. When he writes of the events that he thought would prevent him from ever achieving the greatness he felt he could and should achieve everything changes. There is no distance to the past, no careful staging of the events for maximum effect, there is only raw fear and pain.
It is very easy to see a colossal overreaction to a short lived event that arose from very ordinary circumstances and was finished for very ordinary reasons. Dickens'parents, his father in particular, was a man who loved to spend money, his own and any he could borrow from others. He spent in on being social and convivial, entertaining friends and being a gracious host. He lead his family from relative security in a government job to poverty and debt, living a life of hiding from creditors and constantly moving to different cheaper lodgings. Dickens mother had a relative who had a shoe polish business and she got Charles a job there, some time later after a row his father removed Dickens from the factory and put him in school.
Hardly a story of slavery and abuse, it scorched a hole in the life of Charles Dickens that never went cold and he was  haunted and tormented by it for all of his life.
Charles Dickens always has a very powerful sense of his own innate talents, a sense that he would be someone, that others would recognise and acknowledge his talent, something that they would never do based on his social circumstances. Talent alone would be the path to success, social and financial and he knew that he had the energy, will and talent to succeed. Dickens felt that being sent to work in the shoe polish was closing the door on that prospect and keeping him locked in the life his parents were leading. He was right on both counts and this was inflamed by his powerlessness in the face of the actions of adults.
Charles Dickens did have a burning talent and the will to realise it, if he had remained in the factory he would have had essentially no chance of doing so, the leap up to social acceptable literary life from that point was too great. Dickens never forgot that it was chance that his father took him out of the factory and that his mother wanted him to be sent back.
The pieces, skilfully complied and edited by Peter Rowland in this book reveal Charles Dickens as he wished to be seen and as he never wished to be be know and they make a moving and wonderful partial self portrait of one of the monumental writers in history.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4. Planet Jimbot (2014)

Another instalment in the engaging and very enjoyable anthology, this continues the mix of continuing stories and one-offs in prose and comics.
"Karoom" part 4, written by Jim Alexander, art by Glenn B Fleming continues the story of the dimension travelling alien and the woman from Earth who has joined him. The stage is set for a final confrontation with a slight reveal just adding to the questions. The art continues to use soft lines and colours to draw in the reader, the body language and expressiveness of the cast is first rate. This is a quietly intriguing story that continues to charm.
"Cold Blooded" written by Ed Murphy is a smart story that appears to be following one route before smartly switching. Maria grows up in India under the strict care of her father in India, chosen for the freedom he has to raise the child as he wishes. Maria develops a deep and abiding interest in reptiles, when her father is murdered in a burglary she heads off to a life of her own. Later in her life she is in a abusive relationship with a gangster in Peru when things start to change. The story is slightly predictable right up to the moment when it is not, clever and crafty, reader expectations are caught and skilfully thrown.
"Pipe" written by Jim Alexander, art by Graeme MacLeod, letters by Jim Campbell, edited by Eli Winter, is a wryly optimistic story that uses tight compression to great effect. A life and a death in 9 panels, that is entirely complete and satisfactory is a considerable achievement. The writing is tight an focussed, the tone is just right and the unexpected conclusion exactly right. Graeme MacLeod's art is detailed and subtle, in each panel the details and mood are balanced carefully against the words or lack of them, the flow is sympathetic and deeply engaging. The lettering by Jim Campbell draws no attention to itself, but subtly supports and embellishes the story. Compression is difficult and editing a single page story into a coherent and convincing whole is a significant task successfully achieved by Eli Winter.
"Don't Read This" written by Luke Cooper manages one of the essential tasks of a supernatural story that most do not, it leaves the reader thinking, "I am sure it is not real or true but why take the risk?" The tone of the story is pitch perfect, the passive aggressive hook that holds the reader and appears to let them go but still has a lingering touch. To say more would spoil a lovely treat.
"Bad Tooth" written by Jim Alexander, art by Eva Holder, letters by Jim Campbell and Edits by Eli Winter combines a very clever idea and a truly terrible joke in a surprisingly successful mix. Chris wakes up with a raging toothache and discovers that the zombie apocalypse has also arrived at the same time. After four days of fighting zombies Chris decides to ask one of his companions to do an extraction, the results are unexpected. The smart black humour of the story and the swift and effective character work is very enjoyable, the supremely lame joke that it leads to is groan worthy. It is a significant tribute to the overall craft of the creative team that the joke does not sink the story. Eva Holder's art is strongly expressive, zombie killing looks dangerous and exciting and the cast (living section) emerge clearly and strongly. The lettering as ever with Jim Campbell is quietly effective and supports the story.
"The Last Posse, Part 4" written by Jim Alexander continues the story of classic Western heroes caught in a mysterious town, the situation becomes a little clearer as the fight is started only to lead to the possibility of greater trouble to come. The mix of western and understated horror continues to work very well.
Any anthology carries the possibility of a range of quality, Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4 has a very high standard throughout with two stand outs.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, for more detail on how to get Amazing & Fantastic Tales #4 please contact planetjimbot@gmail.com

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Spider Volume 1: Terror of the Zombie Queen. David Liss (writer), Colton Worley (Art), Simon Bowland (Letters). Dynamite Entertainment (2013)

An engaging and entertaining update of a classic pulp star. Richard Wenthworth is the Spider, a masked vigilante who fights spectacular criminals in New York. When New York comes under threat from a woman calling herself Anput launches chemical attacks than turn people into zombies, the Spider becomes involved. The struggle with Anput draws in his family, friends and the woman he loves before the final revelation.
A costumed crime fighter who is working to prevent his home city from falling further into corruption and ruin and who is incidentally a rich man is not exactly an original story idea. It was not one when the Spider launched in the pulps, still it was a good hook then and it remains, in the right hands, a good hook now.
David Liss takes everything that makes the Spider the same as everyone else and mixes them very effectively with everything that makes him different. The primary difference is the fact that the Spider kills his enemies, he has none of the scruples that his superhero peers have. This is explicitly presented as a choice that the Spider makes when he decided on his path, his enemies deal in death and so does he. This is ultimately the least interesting difference in the story set up as it makes the smallest difference in dramatic story terms. There are much more significant differences and all are related to the dual identity of the Spider and his role in the dynamics of the city.
Richard Wenthworth does not vanish inside the Spider when he dons the cape, it is very clearly the same person, the cape is the uniform for the job no more than that. This gives the problems that Wenthworth has in dealing with his actions as the Spider some more depth and heft, he pays a price for his on violence.
Much more interesting that this is the web of knowledge, explicit and assumed about Richard Wenthworth being the Spider. Wenthworth's ex-girlfriend knows that he is the Spider, her husband the police commissioner who feels that the Spider is useful in the city and may suspect Wenthworth and does not want to know for sure, Joe Hilt, a detective who is sure that Wenthworth is the Spider but cannot prove it and Ram Singh, Wenthworth's lawyer who does know.
This is a nice tangle that gives the story of the Spider context and depth and allows for numerous dramatic possibilities, David Liss makes uses of a lot of them. They nicely complicate the straight extortion of the Zombie Queen as the struggle whit her draws in the cast and their relationships to Wenthworth become important.
I have a very strong preference for drawn art, the art by Colton Worley is too great a mix between drawn and near photographic, the elements do not blend into a cohesive whole for me. The art tends to distract and push me out of the story rather than pulling me in and along.  The colouring is excellent, in particular the Spiders cape.
Simon Bowland's lettering is very well done, it quietly and effectively makes the difference between the Spider's narration and the conversations among the cast, it gives Richard Wenthworth as the Spider a voice of his own. This is a very well written comic with strong distinctive art, well worth reading.

Gary Gianni's MonsterMen and Other Scary Stories. Gary Gianni (Writer & Art), Sean Konot, Todd Klien, Clem Robbins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2012)

Astonishing black and white art and great ideas combine to deliver a smart and very engaging update of the classic ghost story. Starting at the foreword in which Garry Gianni risks using one of the the most beaten down cliches in supernatural stories and manages to get away with it, the tone of the stories is set and then expectations very nicely undermined by the abundant imagination and sharp writing that follows. The stories are linked by the cast, Benedict dressed in a tuxedo and a knight's helmet is a member of the Guild of Corpus Monstrum, a group dedicated to fighting monsters, Lawrence St George, a film maker and ghost fighter, the reporter Sunset Lane and the increasingly mangled and malicious Crulk.
The opening story "Silent As The Grave" opens with a suitably dramatic cry for help and then circles around through a very clever introduction to film maker Lawerence St George, Crulk, Sunset Lane and Benedict before trouble arrives in the shape of a very large winged demon. The threads are neatly tied together with an old Hollywood murder and undying hatred, envy and revenge.
"Autopsy In B-Flat" is a strong piece of story construction that using fragments of two stories , nestled within each other to great effect, it also features squid headed pirates.
"A Gift For The Wicked" is a joyous entry in the great tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Featuring a haunted room and in a anstrectral mansion it showcases Gary Gianni's talent for understanding and updating the genre requirements.
"The Skull and The Snowman" is a virtuoso piece featuring a struggle for a demonic skull in the Himalayas, the return of Crulk starts race to prevent the recovery of the skull of the demon Lord Gooseflesh. The showdown in the snowy mountains which includes the assistance of the Yeti and quick thinking are a delight.
The final story "O Sinner Beneath Us" opens with a crash as Benedict and Summer Lane find themselves dropped down underground in a room where Crulk, even more mangled than before, knocks on their door. This time Crulk has a very dangerous item with him which leads Summer Lane into significant danger and Crulk to well served justice.
The art is very formal, it strongly echoes the illustrations used in pulp magazines, it captures the deliberately old fashioned style and structure of the stories. The details are astonishing and they slow the pace of reading the stories, each panel needs to be relished and absorbed. The cast are given strong and clear personalities, the page layouts are varied and clever, the strong design of pages call attention to themselves without overbalancing the stories.
At the end of the book, there are stories by William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and Perceval Landon. This is a huge risk by Gary Gianni, deliberately setting up a comparison with masters of the craft, and one that pays off for him. The final stories point out how well the spirit of the classic short ghost story has been captured, updated and extended by Gary Gianni. His work stands comfortably, shoulder to shoulder with the work of the genre masters.
With such eye catching art, the lettering by Sean Konot, Todd Klien and Clem Robins is every more self effacing than usual, it proves vital dramatic emphasis when required and a great range of sound effects which  play nicely with the dry humour in the stories. A great collection.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Five Ghosts Volume 1: The Haunting of Fabian Gray. Frank J. Barbiere (Writer), Chris Mooneyham (Art), Lauren Affe, S.M. Vidaurri (Colours). Image Comics (2014)

An enjoyable and engaging pulp adventure story, Fabian Gray can channel the abilities of Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Ogami Itto and Dracula thanks to the pieces of the Dreamstone embedded in his chest. The opening episode demonstrates all of their abilities as Fabian robs a castle of a jewel he hopes as supernatural powers. An explosive fight in a bookshop in Barcelona and information about a temple in Africa push Fabian off on his quest to find a cure for his sister who was locked in a coma since the event with the Dreamstone. Fabian is being hunted, thought he does not know it by someone who wants the powers he has and when Fabian and his friend Sebastian arrive in Africa to a very hostile reception the adventure kicks off into high gear.
Frank J. Barbiere has set the story in the 1930's hey day of the pulp adventure story and uses the genre with tremendous confidence to drive the story. Setting up the story premise is the easy part, using it in an interesting and engaging way is considerably more challenging.  Fabian Gray has an uneasy relationship with his ghosts, they have been brought together by force not choice and there is an internal struggle going, at the same time these ghosts make him a target and he needs their abilities to survive. This is the basic problem that the story sets up and the problems are resolved in interesting and engaging ways. Frank J. Barbiere uses literary references in unexpected and clever ways to frame and add texture to the story and he never betrays the story logic that underpins the plot.
Chris Mooneyham's art is strongly expressive, the action is fast and serious, the cast move with physical force. I find it a little too stiff and angular to be very appealing, it is too sketchy for my taste, the cast are not quite rounded enough. The art pushes me a little from the story and reduces my enjoyment a small amount. The colouring by S. M. Vidaurri and Lauren Affe is very dark, this works well for the story and the intent, it fits very well with the art but seems to be a little at odds with the bright adventure of the story. There is a very minor disconnect between the overall art and the story that prevents the comic being a complete success.
This comic is well worth reading, smart writing and strong art, a excellent set up for a story with very interesting possibilities.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl. Faith Erin Hicks (Writer & Art), Cris Peter (Colours). Dark Horse Books ( 2013)

Wonderfully charming, funny and engaging, a different view of superhero comics sparkles with affection and wit. Superhero Girl is a starting her career in super-heroics and finding that establishing a personal and professional life are both hard work. The absence of significant supervillians, other than King Ninja, the less than awed response from the public and the need to pay the rent all make life complicated. Superheros Girl's adventures as she starts on her career are clever, very funny and always with a strong emotional undertow that brings them to glorious life.
Faith Erin Hicks has developed a character with superpowers who is also a twenty something trying to make a independent life in the face of a mix of mundane and extraordinary problems. The balance between the two is a very fine one, Faith Erin Hicks maintains it with  deft skill and great sympathy for her cast. A skeptical onlooker is a greater menace than a fire breathing alien, a disastrous foray into knitting is cunningly mixed up with success at capturing criminals.
The razor sharp writing is superbly economical, the problems are cleverly set up and unexpectedly resolved in ways that are usually very funny but never undermine Superhero Girl. The struggles she is having are all too understandable and her determination to forge a life in her own name is very attractive. One of the very many pleasures of the book is the spot on family dynamic that Superhero Girl has with her, much more successful superhero brother, Kevin. Kevin is the shadow she is trying to step out from and Faith Erin Hicks nicely reveals the heart inside his arrogantly confident, older brother facade.
The art is a cartoony joy, the cast are expressive as well as being just exaggerated to the right degree to makes super heroics plausible. The action is great, the interactions among the cast effortless natural and engaging. Faith Erin Hicks proves that taking super hero comics seriously does not mean the requirement to be serious or grim in a story, there is a relaxed and humorous atmosphere to the book that never compromises the quality of the narrative or the impact of the story.
The colours by Cris Peter are perfect super hero colours, bright and powerful, they bring out all the tones of the art and capture the varying moods with subtlety.
This is a wonderful comic, an astonishing statement about the possibilities of the super hero genre in the hands of talented, willing and imaginative creators.

The Ripper Legacy. Jim Alexander (Writer), Mark Bloodworth (Art) Claiber (2014)

A suitably gruesome, rather thoughtful and very engaging excursion into a crowded field, the Jack the Ripper murders in London in 1888. In present day Boston (2008) a series of murders that match the details of the Ripper murders from 1888 are committed and a different suspect has been arrested for each one. The suspects all have knowledge of the murder that the public could not know, still there are very awkward questions regarding the suspects. The Raven Group, lead by ex-FBI Special Agent, Adam Busura are called in to  assist with the investigation. With another murder and a new suspect caught at the scene the story takes an interesting turn as unexpected links are revealed and the full meaning of the Ripper Legacy are revealed. The climax is nicely unexpected and still true to the central idea.
Jack the Ripper, the first serious celebrity serial killer presents a significant problem to any writer, he carries such an accumulation of cultural luggage that he presses down on any story like a gravestone. Jim Alexander makes some bold story choices that both embrace that dead weight and then use it to shift the focus to another direction. Jack is still Saucy Jack, drawing attention to himself as the charismatic destroyer of women, he is not the central character, that is played by an idea and it is the way that idea mixes up with the rest of the cast that gives the book its edge. The rest of the cast are what drives the book, they may be standing in the shadow cast by Jack, they still make an impression on their own merits. The plot gives everyone a chance to be seen and heard and the cast seize their moments.
The art by Mark Bloodworth is horribly vivid and looses nothing by being uncoloured, not black and white, his mastery of tones is much more subtle than that. The cast are nicely drawn and very expressive and individual, the best part about it is that it is not overwhelmed by the slightly overwritten script. It would have been easy to show and tell, instead Mark Bloodworth finds spaces inside the script for the art to fill so that it draws out the ideas and explores them rather than repeating them.
This is a happily surprising book, the thoughtful way that Jim Alexander confronts the weight of cliche that Jack the Ripper inevitably brings with him and anticipates and manages readers expectations is great. The art follows by seeming to initially relish the gore before proving to have a deep sympathy for the complicated lives of the living.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Jim Alexander. The Ripper Legacy is available as a download from Drivethru, http://comics.drivethrustuff.com/product/129746?src=newsletterDTCRight051414, and will be available on Amazon soon.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice. Brandon Seifert (Writer), Lukas Ketner (Art), Andy Troy (Colours) Image Comics ( 2013)

A great cast, clever plot and gorgeous art all combine to deliver deliver a superbly engaging and entertaining comic. Dr Vincent Morrow finds himself in considerable trouble after a night with a woman he met in a bar. She was not quite what she appeared and Morrow is neatly caught in a trap set for him by a mysterious figure who want something very precious from Morrow. After trying and failing to solve the problem by himself, Morrow decides to face the problem head on and the story takes off in unexpected directions and reaches a brilliant finale.
Dr Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor of the title is a astonishing creation, bursting with life and arrogant confidence that make the moments when he is overwhelmed even more effective. He is wonderfully competent without every being overly so, he makes colossal mistakes and deals with them in smart and unexpected ways. One of the very many pleasures of the book is the way that Brandon Seifert gives Morrow problems that are actually severe enough to test him and have to solve them in line with being a witch doctor. The supporting cast are no slouches either, Catrina Macbrey, a pathologist and witch doctor is capable of providing head to head competition for Morrow, while  Penny Dreadful , Morrows haunted assistant who eats monsters has unexpected depth. Eric Gast, the ex-military paramedic supporting Morrow and still feeling his way into the world of medicinal magic balances Morrow and Penny and the rest of the cast are all full of life and vigour and demanding and deserving the readers attention.
The wonderful cast hide just how tightly plotted the book is, the action is very cleverly set up and nothing is wasted, the reveals are carefully staged and nothing is wasted. There are so many ideas that the book feels as if it is barely contained within the covers, the very funny, pitch black humor gives considerable bite to the action.
Lukas Ketner's art is so exact and purposeful that it too hides its craft in plain sight. The cast, human and otherwise, are just so confident and expressive and they move through such a detailed and exact physical context that it all just seems normal. The expressiveness of the cast, their fluid actions bring out every nuance of the story and make the emotional context visible and unobtrusive.
Andy Troy's colours are astonishing, they are subtle and explosive when required, they add depth and draw out the details of the art, they are so natural that they are invisible and worth savoring in their own right.
This is a great comic by a really talented team.

Danubia. A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. Simon Winder. Picador (2013)

Engaging and unexpected, Simon Winder meanders through the astonishing history of Central Europe via the Habsburg family and the Empire they collected, managed and finally lost. The sub title is a very accurate pointer to the structure and intent of the book, essentially following a chronological structure, the book follows the highways and byways that Simon Winder finds interesting rather than formally following any more distinct structure or historical thread. This really is a guided tour lead by a very knowledgeable and frequently funny guide who is never short of an opinion or afraid of expressing it.
The dominant themes of the book are, in no particular order, music, architecture, geography, the astonishing luck of the Habsburgs, writers and their works and the appalling and continuing cost of the disintegration of the Empire they improbably assembled and ruled.
One of the very many attractive aspects to this book is the constant focus Simon Winder keeps on the the fact that Habsburg Europe was full of people who bore the burden of history while never being recognised by it. He has a tremendous sympathy for the populations who were constantly trying to simply live and if possible thrive in a constantly rippling and absurd entity. Central Europe was never truly peaceful, there was always some powerful ethnic, religious and political currents combining together to mean that some of the spinning plates on the Empire were under threat all the time. Simon Winder consistently finds the space and time to acknowledge in telling ways the people who were caught and frequently smashed by these currents.
The power and understated importance of geography is given its full due in the book, Central Europe has borders but it does not have barriers,n neither mountains nor seas provided protection from its succeeding range of invaders. The most important of which were the Ottomans, the importance of whom as a stabilizing force was only fully apparent after they stopped being the dominant problem. The nature of the threat they posed, taking whole towns and cities capture, not to keep but as a source of booty and slaves, the immense length of the border and worst of all the time they could take between attacks is made clear.
The story of how the Habsburgs arrived at running the empire and how they remained running it is tragic, hilarious and frankly completely unbelievable if it were not actually true. It passes by any credibility on its way to insane excess, inbreeding and preposterous levels of luck and inertia. Simon Winder does full justice to the deadly serious ridiculousness of the whole process.
As much as people, places built by people are a vital expression of the wishes, desires, plans and dreams of any population. Simon Winder has traveled to an astonishing array of castles, barracks, towns, and used to be somewheres and gives vivid and feeling descriptions of what they are still declaring to the world. This gives a strong physical sense of the ways Central Europe changed, in particular as the historical and current names and locations are given which are little capsules of the eye opening transitions that have taken place across Central Europe.
This is a wonderfully enthusiastic history by someone who wants to share his fascination with the subject, it could easily have descended into a incoherent mess of details and opinions, Simon Winder's discipline and careful control of the material have delivered a luminous and deeply engaging book instead.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. Tony Cliff (Writer & Art). First Second (2013)

Tremendously entertaining adventure story. Delilah Dirk is a globetrotting adventurer and Erdemoglu Selim is a lieutenant in the  Turkish Janissary Corps with dreams of a quiet life. When Delilah Dirk rescues Selim form being executed, a situation that Delilah Dirk caused in the first place this wonderfully entertaining, swashbuckling adventure leaps off and continues with tremendous energy to the pitch perfect conclusion. Delilah's plan to rob the Evil Pirate Captain Zakul, for revenge on his attacks on her uncle, goes as well as might be expected and the action is fast and superbly staged. The whole story is delivered with outstanding craft and attention to detail that allows the great cast to be balanced beautifully with the swordplay.
The two lead characters are superbly developed, Selim gets more time and attention as the core of the story is really his development as the adventures push him further and further out of his previous life, Delilah is wonderfully competent, confident and smart. She has less room to grow and change as she knows clearly what she wants and is going about getting it. Selim has hard choices to make and the way he makes them is unfailingly credible and natural.
Tony Cliff has made a number of really smart choices in this story and each of them contribute to the success of the book. The first one is the time and location of the story, it is set in 1807 in the Ottoman Empire, moving across Greece and Turkey. This is just the heartland for adventure, close enough to be identifiable far enough away to be exotic and dangerous. The clash of cultures is  nicely understated, the adventurous Englishwoman, tired of the constraints of her life at home and the Turkish soldier longing for the constrains of his previous life crossing a multi-cultural landscape are never used as signposts for anything.
Tony Cliff has written a story featuring a female and a male lead without the slightest hint of sexual tension between them and this very strongly supports and benefits the story, in particular for Delilah. As a female lead character sexual politics are a minefield and they inevitably change the options for the character and frequently for the worst. By simply ignoring them completely Delilah is allowed to simply be herself, pursuing adventure on her own terms without every being anything other than female.
The astonishing art is a particular benefit here, Delilah is full of energy and movement, her skirt and her hair flow in the action consistently emphasising her femininity without ever being used to slow her down. The astonishing range of facial expressions and eloquent body language for all of the cast is a joy to read. This means that the supporting cast are more than scenery, they create a deep context for the action.
Tony Cliff has put the spark back into adventure, the joy of the unexpected and the pleasures of travelling companions who have chosen the road together. A tremendous pleasure.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Finders Keepers. Belinda Bauer. Corgi Books 2012

A gripping and enthralling thriller that builds a atmosphere of increasing unease into a savage and climax and a satisfying and unexpected conclusion. A girl is kidnapped from a car and a note saying "You don't love her" is left behind and this is just the start of a number of similar kidnappings that happen in the area. Detective Inspector Reynolds leads the investigation into the kidnappings, he has a older unresolved set of murders in the village of Shipcott and the sole surviving victim PC Jonas Holly to deal with as well. As the kidnappings increase and the pressure increases on everyone the threads from past events start to twist into the present and draw everyone into deeper trouble than they can imagine. The investigation is carefully set up, the very large cast are wonderfully developed and the plot moves with superb menace.
This book is the third of a trilogy and Belinda Bauer uses continuity with deft care to give the bigger story a very satisfying continuation without ever sacrificing the current story as a self contained event. Where needed the necessary details from prior events are supplied in a very natural way that gives the context for the cast.
The cast is one of the astonishing strengths of the book, there is huge and very diverse cast and the narrative focus shifts quickly and seamlessly from one cast member to another. It is never confusing or confounding, each character comes to vivid life and earns their place in the reader's attention without loss to the plot mechanics or of tension in the story. The big cast effortlessly creates the community that the horrifying events are taking place in, the various reactions of those directly, indirectly and investigating the kidnappings are woven together to create a panorama of the crimes. The moving focus in the story allows the subtle and not so subtle impact of the crimes to be traced and to give the assorted victims space to be heard.
Belinda Bauer takes a breath-taking risk with the plot at the centre of the story, a move so outrageous that it should by rights fall into absurdity or just stupidity, due to her astonishing control and the careful set up it is neither of these, it is horribly, plausibly sad instead. The low key approach increases the tension as the situation starts to unravel, it allows those caught up in it to emerge as much more than handy body parts in the service of the plot.
The conclusion is a wonderfully unexpected as the enormous investment in the cast pays off and the final justice is served as it needs to be. This is superb crime writing that takes huge risks that are all entirely justified and provides the readers with something fresh, vital and vividly entertaining.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prophet 2: Brothers. Brandon Graham, Simon Roy,(Writers) Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis, Brandon Graham, (Art), Joseph Bergin III, Charo Solis (Colours), Ed Brisson (Letters). Image Comics (2013)

Wonderful science fiction that full advantage of comics unlimited budget and special effects to throw off extraordinary images and ideas on every page. Old man John Prophet, the long term enemy of the Earth Empire has been restored to life at the same time as the Earth Empire itself. He starts on the journey to find those of his allies who may still be alive and willing to return to the fight, he finds some and encounters new ones and the first major assault by the Empire is launched.
The storylines is severely simple, a man looking for others to join his struggle, this leaves all the room for the astounding interstellar context and the fireworks display of ideas and extraordinary detail to come to the fore without having to support a plot.
The sheer inventiveness of the writers and artists is staggering, each page is bristling with ideas that fill out the extraordinary vision of a crowded space filled with the remnants of a previous war. The scope of the ideas is captured in a great double page spread showing the dismembered remains of a giant, his remains serving as the basis for a thriving mining industry into his flesh and active trading post, with an entity delaying becoming a planet to wait by his companion.
The most plot significant section of the book follows how John Prophet, cloned servant of the Earth Empire, became its most persistent enemy. The gorgeous art by Farel Dalrymple is one of the highlights on the book, the story and the art work superbly together in a unified way.
Elsewhere the art transition is so severe that I thought the book had some pages missing, it took a bit a re-reading and careful attention to pick up the story threads from one chapter to another.
One of the strongest aspects to the story is the lack of explanation that is provided, the context is what it is, there is no time spend proving any more that enough detail to identify the components before the reader is moved on to the next starburst of ideas. This works really well for a huge space opera like this story, the reader is taken along for the ride by the relentless push of ideas as the sheer scope of the story and the enormous story possibilities are unfolded in front f them.
The glorious confidence of the writers and artists in their work that they can be sure that the reader will follow along frees them up to pursue the project to astonishing directions and still find room for a toilet joke. Ambitious science fiction is delivered in all its glory in this great comic.

The Black Beetle. No Way Out. Francesco Francavilla (Writer & Art), Nate Piekos (Letters) . Dark Horse Books (2013)

Very entertaining and enjoyable crime story with a costumed (but not super powered) crime fighter and a nice hint of something supernatural going on at the margins. In 1941 Colt City is a city with gangsters, crooked cops, Nazis and mysterious crime fighter, The Black Beetle. After a smart set up that introduces but does not explain the Black Beetle, it hints at an international background in more than simple crime fighting, the main story kicks off.
After a planned meeting of two powerful gang leaders end with an explosion, the Black Beetle investigates who is gaining by their deaths. When a visit to the local island, high security prison ends badly and a visit to the site of the explosion is nearly fatal, the Black Beetle follows a new line of investigation. The story moves fast, the action is physical and very well set up, the climax is satisfyingly loud.
This is very specifically a mystery , crime story with a detective as the lead, he follows clues and conducts an investigation both in costume and in disguise. The emerging enemy, Labyrinto, is also costumed with the intent of being disguised as well as sending a clear message. The mystery is nicely developed, it does not give itself away easily and is given the attention it needs. When it is resolved the threads from the opening section are picked up again as the lead in to a new mystery.
The art is very clearly the result of an individual talent and it unifies all the aspects of the book, the page layouts are dynamic and the panel shapes are varied to suit the story requirements. The colouring sets the key tone for the story, it is dark and very deliberately gives the sense of shadowy noir goings on. The figures are fluid and move through the physical context with confidence and clarity , the details are chosen carefully to drive the intent.
What Francesco Francavilla's art also does is to soften the story a bit too much, it does not give the hard edge that it needs to succeed on the terms it sets out. One of the key elements of noir is a harsh , sharp edge brutality that plays up the undertones of the actions of the cast. The lines of the art a just g side on the wrong side of fluid for this. If the story does not quite rise to meet its own ambitions it is a pleasure to read a comic that has the ambition in the first place, and it does go a long way to meeting them.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Godzilla. The Half-Century War. James Stokoe (Writer & Art), Heather Breckel (Colour Assists), IDW Publishing (2014)

Stupendous art drives a thoughtful story with outsize monsters trampling the world to bits as they fight each other and humanity are just, squashed bystanders. James Stokoe takes a very familiar story, the monster born from the atomic bomb dropped on Japan and creates a griping and unexpected story. In 1954 Ota Murakami encounters Godzilla when he first emerges to tear up Tokyo and this marks the start of a 50 year struggle with the monster. Across the decades the struggles takes place in different locations and the escalation in the struggle is both cleverly explained as is the developing relationship Ota feels with Godzilla. The climax is fitting and suitably explosive.
The simply astonishing art and vibrant colouring are nearly overwhelming, James Steokoe manages to get a number of critical elements just right. The first is the distinctly magna feel to the art, this is a Japanese story at its heart and the art acknowledges this without every being subservient to it. The cast have the expressive emotions and wonderful technology that magna can deliver so well, along with the astounding level of detail that anchors the story in a physical world.
When dealing with Godzilla there is always a problem of scale to be solved, to give Godzilla its due means that the human cast would have to be insignificant, the art manages to balance both giving the monsters the size and the humans the room they need to interact in a meaningful way. The range of monsters is great and the tremendous destructive force of their encounters is superbly delivered.
Probably the most important element that is right is that this is not a story about Godzilla, despite the title. This is the story of Ota Murakami and his entirely one sided relationship with the utterly unknowable Godzilla. By keeping the story focus on Ota James Stokoe solves a crucial problem, how to sustain a story about a monster that cannot communicate in any way with humanity other than through rampaging destruction. There is very little scope to drive a story forward no matter how creatively destruction is displayed.
The colouring in the comic is as vibrant and detailed as the art it lifts and celebrates. The colouring is used to draw attention, add feeling and create a vital extra layer to the story, it provides an strong and effective emotional context for what is going on all around the cast. It never hides the details, it gives them room to be seen without being overwhelmed.
The passage of time is carefully captured and very effectively used as Ota grows old in this war and the space for humanity steadily gets less and less. The shattering consequences are captured by the aging Ota as he reaches a final accommodation with a creature who has stolen his life and his world. The move from anger to reluctant acceptance of the real impact of Godzilla on his life is he core of the book and it gives it a grip every bit as powerful as one of Godzilla's claws. A great comic that finds room for the humans amongst the feet of monsters.

Lobster Johnson. Satan Smells a Rat. Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (Writers), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters). Dark Horse Books (2014)

Hugely enjoyable and entertaining collection of stories featuring the pulp hero from the Hellboy universe, Lobster Johnson. The stories all capture the elements of the pulp stories and use them in interesting ways. They never feel like rehashes of old ideas, there is a committed energy and drive to the cast and the plots that make them stand on their own.
Caput Mortuum, art by Tonci Zonjic opens the collection with a clear deceleration of intent that the rest of the stories follow through on. A couple of young men out for a little trouble get more than they expect when some melts on them. From there is is really a short distance to a airship and a suitably demented plot that also draws nicely on the pre-World War II American context. The art has tremendous force and drive, the action is fast and feels physical, the Lobster is the sharp and direct.
Satan Smells a Rat, art, colouring and letters by Kevin Nowlan is the most pulpy of the stories, a man fins a rotting corpse in his hotel room and more steal his car. He is pursued by Lobster Johnson and at the same time a mysterious man in a wheelchair is getting a treatment from a doctor. The neat tying up of the plot threads is a joy, the way that justice is served in the final panel is perfect. The art is clean and detailed, the cast are full of energy and the bright colours make the whole story lift off the page.
Tony Masso's Finest Hour , art by Joe Querio is a move into the supernatural that is always lurking in any Hellboy related story. It is also a very smart and sharp black joke about being very, very careful what you ask for. Getting it can prove to be a bit of a problem.
A Scent of Lotus, art by Sebastian Fiumara is the longest story in the collection and it makes the most extensive use of the context and the regular supporting cast. The USA was not involved in a war, there were a lot of others who were and they were small proxy struggles going on in the shadows in the USA. There is also a nice reminder of the very adversarial relationship that the Lobster has with the police, he is no tolerated vigilante, he is a target. The tightly wound plot plays out with great timing and juggles all the elements nicely. The art is tremendous, the need to have the utterly bizarre intrude into the concrete concerns of the time is handled with flair, the threat is both forceful and wonderfully off the wall.
The Prayer of Neferu, art by Wilfredo Torres is a very enjoyable bow to one of the enduring themes of the pulp stories in their hey day, the allure of Ancient Egypt and the mysteries of their numerous gods. A theft from a museum develops into something very considerably more sinister as the anticipated, illicit unwrapping of a mummy becomes a way to open a door to ancient power. This proves to be a very, entertainingly, bad idea. The clean art is just what the story needs to allow the cast be insane without every being stupid, and the living mummy is everything it should be.
Throughout all the stories it is extraordinary how Dave Stewart matches the tone and intent of the stories with his colouring, it gives the necessary extra push to the stories that need to be bright and bold as well as shadowy and mysterious to be successful. The lettering by Clem Robins is so natural that it is possible not to see the skill and craft. A great collection by a creative team who have taken care to honour the spirit of the originals and still be fresh and contemporary
.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Snowpiercer.Vol 1: The Escape. Jacques Lob (Writer), Jean-Marc Rochette (Art), Virginie Selavy (Translation), Gabriela Houston (Letters). Titan Comics (2014)

Enjoyable  not entirely successful dystopian science fiction. The Snow Piercer is a train with one thousand and one carriages that travels ceaselessly around an Earth that has suffered a climate catastrophe, it is a perpetual polar winter all over the world. Proloff is a refugee from the last carriages of the train, desperate to escape the hellish conditions. He is captured by the military guards that patrol the corridors and is arrested. Adeline, a member of an aid group finds herself unexpectedly caught up with Proloff as they are both escorted up the length of the train to meet with the train's leaders. The journey, the meeting and its consequences are beautifully illustrated by Jen-Marc Rochette in vivid black and white, the story itself is too schematic and trapped by its context to really break free and take flight.
Dystopion science fiction is a very difficult genre to pull off successfully, pessimism is a slippery tool to use to engage and draw in readers. When there is no possibility of relief from despair, cruelty is just baked into the process then getting a reader to invest in any character is uphill work. They can easily be just puppets with the the whole weight of the story resting on the inventiveness of the context and the lengths to which the cast will go before their inevitable defeat.
Jacques Lob has two additional significant problems, the very restrictive context for the story and the overly familiar social structure and both work together to reduce the impact of the story.
Having someone from the rear of the train being escorted to the front is a nicely creative way of moving through the train and revealing the society, it solves the problem of how someone could make the journey as a fugitive all the way. The problem is that a train is a very narrow context, everything has to be crammed together and there is no room for unexpected views or action to develop on a wider stage. Everything has to take place pretty much in sequence and in a narrow space, the very most is always made of the opportunities, there is still a sense of the action being cramped and without room for the unexpected.
This lack of expansiveness is also present in the social structure on the train, the free feasting elite at the top, the desperate and brutal underclass at the back with a somewhat naive middle carriages uneasy in their privileges in the middle. Within these restrictions the plot does its best, it still feels allegorical at all the wrong times, the plot is subservient to a purpose and lowers the tension in the story to dangerous levels.
What rescues the story is the cast, wonderfully realised by Jean-Marc Rochette and given a surprising degree of humanity by Jacques Lob, they struggle against the placards that are hung around their necks and assert themselves when and where they can. The narrowness of the context and the wholehearted hostility of the external world highlights the stubborn will to survive that gives the cast a lift out of their boxes. The balance of creativity is enough to make the book worth reading.

The Rising. Brian McGilloway. Pan Books (2010)

An engaging and enjoyable Irish police procedural that takes full advantage of its location in the Irish borderlands. A call out to a burning barn develops into a murder inquiry for Inspector Benedict Devlin when a body is uncovered. Later Devlin gets a call from an ex-colleague regarding her missing son, a situation that causes domestic tensions for Devlin. At the same time a community group called The Rising are making headlines and trouble for the police by very visible actions against local drug dealers. The accidental discovery of another body complicates the investigation and the tangle of leads spread across both sides of the border and threaten to pull Devlin's family into the morass. The plot manages the various threads very well, slowly and carefully weaving them together in a sharply satisfying climax.
Brian McGilloway has sidestepped the majority of the genre fixtures regarding police officers pursuing tricky investigations, Ben Devlin is cranky and a little unsympathetic but he is not a grousing loner with a near addiction to alcohol or with any balancing odd hobbies. He is a hard working, committed and competent professional who is suddenly faced with a domestic crisis that is entirely credible. This willingness to give space and time to developing a believable domestic context for Devlin is very important in increasing the impact of the story. As the lines between professional and personal move closer the response from Devlin rings true as he tries to be a husband, father and police officer at the same time when all are under pressure.
One of the strongest aspects of the story is that for a first person narrative the rest of the cast emerge as strongly as Devlin himself, they are diverse and speak strongly in their own voices. All the cast are given a chance to stand out and even the smallest walk on part is given a chance to have an impact. This means that Devlin does not have to carry the weight of the story himself and this adds strongly to the story. The plot is cleverly tangled and with a strong cast it is never obvious where it will lead nor how anyone will respond.
The physical location is a major character in the book, the border between South and Northern Ireland is a deeply ambiguous place with a considerable number of competing histories all still active and needing to be negotiated. No activity is simple, it will always have layers, intended or otherwise that make policing difficult, the cross border movements. legal or otherwise are a constantly complicating factor.
Easter is about resurrection, rising from the dead in Christian theology, Easter rising has a important other meaning in Irish history and Brian McGilloway uses all the meanings in a very nicely understated and effective way in the story. The drawing together of the plot and thematic threads is managed very deftly and they play off each other to create a very enjoyable knot.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Amazing & Fantastic Tales#3. Edited by Elinor Winter. Produced by Jim Campbell. Planet Jimbot (2014)

A very enjoyable anthology with a mix of illustrated prose stories and short comics. There is a consistent balance of tone throughout the collection which binds together the very diverse stories.
"Karrom" part 3, Jim Alexander & Glen B. Fleming. A human woman has been taken on a wild ride across space and time by an alien before they find time for introductions. The chance to see home for an instant is grasped and harsh truth is made clear. The art is bright and soft, it drives the slight story very well giving depth and context where it is needed. The weight of the story rests on the cast and they are given the chance to express themselves fully.
"The Last Posse" Part 3, written by Jim Alexander, art by Graeme MacLeod. The two preceding parts of the story pull together and snap sharply into focus. The Last Posse is together, all called to the strange town for different reasons and now ready to act together. A clever team-up of classic western heroes with a very satisfactory dry as dust feeling. The portraits by Graeme MacLeod are full of life and fit in with the dislocated tone of the story
"Love & Asbestos",  written by Jim Alexander, art by Will Pickering, letters by Jim Campbell, edited by Eli Winter is smart and funny. A simple set up, a single character narrating a story, the pacing is wonderful and the pay off good fun. The whole thing is as light as gossamer and the smallest false note would ruin it. The apparent simplicity of the story hides the strength required to pull it off, the pacing is perfect, the action slight, carefully varied and draws the reader along at exactly the right tempo. No excess and nothing left out, wonderful craft made to look easy.
"Paradise Lost" written by John McShane, art by Graeme McLeod. The longest story in the collection this is very enjoyable piece of science fiction. The first half has a very tight focus on the crew member of a spaceship, there is no overall context for their presence or purpose, it is focused on their interactions. The pared down details work as the actions and reactions of one of the crew provide just the right amount of information to engage the reader. The second half follows a slightly more familiar arc that uses the same minimal detail to drive the narrative up to the nicely bitter closing.
"The Bounty Hunter" written and art by Luke Cooper is great fun. Luke Cooper's high contrast art is perfectly suited to the story, it allows the action and the intent to balance with each other perfectly. Things may not be what they seem and where that is used as smartly as Luke Cooper does it then a great comic is the result.
"The Roustabout" part 3 written by Lynsey May and Fin Cramb has the most difficult task to perform of all the stories in the collection. A straight up horror story it had to manage to deliver enough force in a very small space and still have a strong continuity to hold it together. It succeeds on all counts, the action has weight and force and the story has a strong cold and wet grip.
Anthologies are very difficult to manage, they have powerful structural problems as they have to deliver sufficient variety without compromising on the internal balance between the stories in terms of lengths, tone and content. If the stories are too diverse they clash as a reading experience, too close together and they blur into each other. Amazing & Fantastic Tales#3 manages to solve the problems very enjoyably, mixing prose and comics breaks up the reading very well and overall there is a unity of tone that ties the whole volume together. Also the cover by Graeme MacLeod is a knockout.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, for more detail on how to get Amazing & Fantastic Tales#3. contact planetjimbot@gmail.com


The Further adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The War of the Worlds. Manly W.Wellman & Wade Wellman, Titan Books. (2009)

A very enjoyable mash up between Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger and the Martian invasion from H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. There is a nice touch that has this book being part of a plan by John Watson to correct H.G. Well's version of the events.
Sherlock Holmes comes into possession of something which leads him to consult with the greatest scientific mind of the day, Professor Challenger. The two of them realise that the object offers a view of a far off world and thus they are somewhat more prepared when the Martian invasion begins. The narrative splits between the adventures of Holmes and Challenge as they leave London and discover the size of the problem and decide how to deal with. The final section has them both back in London and is narrated by Watson as the final showdown with the Martians takes place. The story is enjoyable and mixes up all the elements nicely and gives plenty of room for both Holmes and Challenger to display themselves.
Manly W.Wellman & Wade Wellman take a very interesting approach to Holmes, he is sizeably different to the original while still recognisable. The biggest difference is that Holmes has an active romantic interest, this is a nice departure for the character. It also allows the authors to have Holmes take the lead for a section of the book without being a problem for the readers. Holmes is nearly always seen through the eyes of Watson, this gives a cloak of humanity to an otherwise slender charachter. Dressed in the affection of Watson he is lent a humanity that makes him attractive.
Giving him a romantic relationship gives Holmes the dash of humanity he needs to be palatable without having to sacrifice any of his power of cutting observation.
The problem with this move is that it creates a major false note in the story, one that really should have been better managed by the writers. John Watson is oblivious to the relationship that Holmes is having and that just does not work without fundamentally destroying the character.  Watson is keenly aware of women and likes them, assuming that he would miss something so close to his heart is just a distraction and a poorly used plot device.
Professor Challenger is a near monster of ego and can be very hard company for the reader, he is saved by his overwhelming energy. He strides through the story amazed that his brilliance is not as obvious to others as it is to himself, he also is willing to act decisively when needed. The pairing of the two has a clear possibility of becoming a loud clash of egos, Holmes is played in a slightly minor key and that makes for harmony.
The overall framework of the invasion is nicely handled, the panic that follows the realisation of the dander and the exodus from London is very well done. The later action in the nearly deserted London is fast and sharp, the finale is very well set up.
Overall this is enjoyable, the idea is smart and the execution is thoughtful, a different view of Sherlock Holmes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Food Chain Issue 1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Pete Woods (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2014)

A clever and intriguing start to a story that opens up a lot of very interesting possibilities. Marc Finch is under pressure and it is beginning to tell. As the top salesman he sees himself as top of the food chain and is determined to stay there. Clients are elusive and it is getting harder to land a contract, Marc needs to find a way back to success. Marc makes two mistakes, he falls asleep after having sex with a woman he meeting in a bar and finds that his all important smartphone has gone with the woman. The second mistake is to answer the question "What do you want?" It is very likely that Marc is about to find out that getting what you want can be a very unpleasant experience.
This is a smart new take on a very old story, its age does nothing to reduce its power or possibilities in the right hands. The breezy confidence that Jim Alexander brings to the story is great, Marc Finch is unsympathetic but not unlikeable, his swagger is who he is. The intrusion of something into a very solidly realised modern world is so matter of fact that it just flows by, the story has room for something very dangerous without ever loosing its balance.
Pete Woods art is substantial pleasure, the cast move naturally through a very strong physical context, the weight of the deals can be felt, the pressure on Marc is sharply captured. The colours are bold and very sharply defined, they give the art an edge that serves it very well and creates room for the mundane and the ferocious. Marc is given a tremendous range that captures the the movement of the script, different situations that effectively give a rounded picture of the man.
This comic does everything that an introduction should do, create a credible situation with a strongly realised and recognisable lead character, a understated cracking of the context to allow in something that does not look too frighting until it is all far too late. The layers of the story are opened like the jaws of a trap that are going to hold Marc in a very close embrace, it will be very interesting to see just how he responds to the deal he has unwittingly made. Smart, sharp and inviting, a first rate start.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, for more detail on how to get Food Chain 1 contact planetjimbot@gmail.com

Friday, February 14, 2014

5 is the perfect number. Igort (Writer & Art). John Cullen (Translation). Jonathan Cape (2004)

A highly enjoyable and engaging Italian crime comic that nicely mixes betrayal, murder, new beginnings and  grief without ever dropping out of the genre requirements. Peppino Lo Cicero is a retired mafia assassin, fishing and making shirts for his son who has taken the same job. After Peppino's son is murdered he goes looking for revenge with the assistance of two old friends. The story stylishly sidesteps the cliches of the genre and the unexpected is delivered with thoughtful force. The conclusion is happily sharp and cleverly approprite.
The astonishingly fluid and dynamic art is the first pleasure of the book. Using three colours, black, white and blue, Igort creates a detailed world where violent action has severe consequences and the cast all eagerly seize every bit of space they have on the page to makes their presence count. Instead of this descending into confusion, the balance betweeen the panels and the cast work strongly together to present the story in a vivid and intense way. The clean lines of the art, which always delivers just the right level of detail, are a pleasure to read. They have to deliver a lot of information and they do so with a subtle and understated grace.
The story, the second pleasure of the book, makes itself felt at a leisurely pace, it does not rush to action, when action comes it is brutal and weighty. The story  comes up through the art to snag the reader with deeper ideas and complexity that is anticipated. Igort realises that every end is a beginning with fresh choices to be made and the choices Peppino makes as he returns to his past are unexpected and frequently moving. The old assassin has a chance to look again at his life and does so, revisiting old choices and taking a different turn this time. The cast who do not have the strength or care to make new choices find that they frequently have made a fatal error.
One of the additional pleasures of the book is that the story is so completely not American or English, the translation is transparent, the cast are clearly and fully Italian speaking expressive, credible English that never undermines their essential identity. Also the explanation for the title is smart, funny and memorable.
An outstanding comic.

Ocean Waves. Tomomi Mochizuki (Director). Studio Ghibli (1993)

A very charming and engaging teenage romantic drama.Taku is a student at a local school in a small seaside town who is shaken up by the arrival in school of Rikako, who has transferred from Toyoko. Rikako has a big city air about her, a sense of a world beyond Kochi. She does not fir in easily to her new life, she had moved following her parent's divorce, she does capture the attention and the romantic attention of  Taku. The film follows the lives of the students throught thier last year in school as they attempt to establish who they are.
The film does not have a plot in any active sense, events take place that lean against each other rather that following on, the emphasis is on allowing the cast demonstrate who they are and how they respond to the events as they happen.
The slow charm of the film comes from the lack of whining by the teenagers, they are full of energy and want to be much more in control of their lives than they are. They are conscious of being in a transition and are not sure about what to do next. In a pivotal sequence Rikako decides to go to Tokyo to see her father and Taku ends up going with her. Rikako's collision with the reality of the divorce is handled with care and subtley as is Taku's response.A post graduation reunion creates the promise of happy endings which are very much in line with the tone of the story.
The animation is soft and quietly engaging, the cast move with a easy naturalness and struggles they have are treated with care and sympathy. The film is a light as a feather, the astonishing skill that it wears so easily is kept in the background as the cast is allowed to shine. A wonderful film that is kind to its cast and spellbinding for a happy viewer.

The Black Box. Michael Connelly. Orion Books (2012)

An enjoyable crime story with excellent plot mechanics and a deeply unsympathetic lead character. On the twentieth anniversary of the Los Angles riots of 1992 and unsolved cases are to be reviewed by the Open and Unsolved Squad of the LAPD. Detective Harry Bosch requests a specific case, the murder of a journalist, Anneke Jespersen, a case he was involved when it happened and is very unfinished business for him. Harry Bosch encounters bureaucratic resistance to his investigation, founded on solid bureaucratic reasons, and finds himself under investigation by the Internal Affairs division. This does not prevent him from pursuing the investigation and the story uncoils with very enjoyable twists and turns as the bigger picture slowly comes into focus. The reach of the past into the present is very well developed and the conclusion is forceful and satisfying.
The problem with the story is the lead character, Harry Bosch he is unsympathetic and fundamentally irritating. This would not be a problem is he was cast as an anti-hero, doing something worthwhile in spite of his general tendency to be unpleasant. Michael Connelly wants Harry Bosch to be a heroic hero, pursuing justice in the face of opposition from his rather duplicitous superiors and the perpetrators. Harry Bosch has heroic qualities, a tenacious sense of obligation to the victim to find those responsible and a strong competence as a police officer. None of which is enough to balance against the fact that in his ongoing interactions with everybody else Harry Bosch is a snot.
The plot mechanics are superb, the investigation is really well developed and the reveals are staged with smart timing and impact. The way that the murder is tracked through the chaos of the riots and leads to danger in the present is seamless and credible. The neat trick at the climax is a pleasure, a clever set up and play on the reader's expectations.
Entertaining but not engaging, worth a read for the smart plot.
 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wolf Country# 2. Jim Alexander (Writer,) Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2013)

A clever pick up from issue 1 with glorious art. Halfpenny, the leader of the  Settlement, a vampire outpost in werewolf country, is transported back to the Kingdom for a meeting with the High Executor while a trio of soldiers go to the settlement for an audit. Using this framework Jim Alexander starts to expose the fault lines in the Kingdom, between the sternly religious group in the settlement and the more pragmatic groups back in the kingdom.
The disappearance of Luke in issue 1 may be the opportunity that some have been looking for to ask questions about the value of the Settlement and the way the sacred mission is being managed. Very neatly and effectively blood is used to make a point both at the Settlement and the City Chambers, the points are very different and set up the depth of the potential conflict.
Halfpenny in the City Chambers and the soldiers in the Settlement are out of their preferred contexts and the tension is building nicely. The rigid purity of Halfpenny and the Settlement mission is subtly contrasted against the more ambiguous activities in the city, it will be interesting to see if rigidity is a strength or a weakness. The reveal at the end is typically clever and very well staged.
Will Pickering's art is beautiful, the lines are fluid and expressive. The cast are strongly presented, the tensions are captured by body language as much as the words. Halfpenny's ritual at the City Chambers is astounding, the look on his face as he makes his deceleration of faith reveals the ferocious depth of his devotion. The cover by Graeme MacLeod is great.
The story is developing in very interesting ways, gripping and highly entertaining.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander, To order a copy of Wolf Country# 2 please contact planetjimbot@gmail.com

Why Socrates Died. Dispelling the Myths. Robin Waterfield. Faber and Faber (2009)

Socrates' trial and death gave Western philosophy its first martyr, the problem with martyrdom is that the act itself obliterates the context it occurred in. In this very engaging and well written book Robin Waterfield rescues Socrates from this fate and makes the event both much more ordinary and far more interesting. As a martyr Socrates moved beyond ordinary comprehension to a very extreme location that is removed from history. Instead of being an event taking place within a web of human social, cultural and political events and forces, it is a pristine event.
This is remarkably convenient for anyone who wants to use the event to pursue their own agenda, the martyr is such an abstract that they can be usefully adapted to pretty much any purpose. Robin Waterfield manages to place Socrates back into his historical context and in doing so makes the event much more comprehensible and meaningful.
Over the course of Socrates life Athens underwent a protracted and very violent transition from a self-confident, aggressive empire to a severely humbled and insecure city state and it is this development that forms the missing context for the trial and death of Socrates. As Robin Waterfield makes clear Socrates was a political philosopher, he was deeply concerned with the best way to organise a society as the means to develop the best humans. At a time of colossal political upheaval, in particular upheaval that leads to destruction, loss of prestige and social uncertainty being a political philosopher can be a dangerous profession.
The other aspect of Athenian life that is nearly impossible to understand at this distance is the fundamental importance of religion, so fundamental that it was effectively invisible as much as air is. A key part of this belief was the favour or disfavour of the gods as an explanation for major or minor events. The string of disasters that Athens had suffered would have been understood as a clear sign of divine displeasure, and divine displeasure had to have a cause.
Robin Waterfield makes a very persuasive case that Socrates, by his own determined actions and choices was very well positioned to be identified by a nervous and deeply unsettled Athenian society as a source of political, social and divine trouble making and that his trial and death sentence were the direct result of that. By dispelling the myths of martyrdom Socrates is rescued as a fascinating figure from a pivotal time in world history. Clear, articulate and very thoughtful this is great read, clearing away myths to show the far more engaging history.

The Holmes Affair. Graham Moore. Century (2011)

Clever and gripping, with a very smart narrative structure and strong central idea this is an unusual and very engaging story.  Harold White is an obsessive Sherlock Holmes fan who at the moment of his greatest triumph finds himself thrust into a murder mystery that has distinctly Sherlock Holmes connections. In the second narrative Arthur Conan Doyle, having killed off his troublesome character finds himself, very unwillingly, drawn into a real murder case. The twists and turns of each case are cleverly set up and the connections between them emerge carefully and lead to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
Rather that actually featuring Sherlock Holmes himself, Gordon Moore uses his very long shadow to drive his cast to ask "What would Sherlock Holmes do now?" to great effect. In both cases Sherlock Holmes is both an inspiration and a taunting presence to both Harold and Conan Doyle, a fictional character that appears to have a greater reality than either his creator or his fan. One of the strengths of the story is that Gordon Moore does not use this as a chance to undermine the cast, rather it is the way that they struggle with it that gives them depth and force.
Thankfully Gordon Moore never forgets the importance of a good plot and the mechanics of the story are very well played out, the murders that Conan Doyle is investigating are laced with enough political and personal complications to present a genuine conflict for Conan Doyle. In a typically smart move, Conan Doyle's colleague in the investigation is Bram Stoker, another writer frequently lost in the enormous shadow of his most famous creation. The interplay between them captures the differences and the similarities as men and writers which add a nice dimension to the story.
Harold moves from being a near cliche of the obsessive fan, unable to manage the burden of other people and retreating into a safer domain to finding a way to actually apply his knowledge and make rather than avoid decisions. The this is a development not a transformation greatly helps, Gordon Moore moves his cast carefully within the bounds of credibility and the intense pressure they come under make them more of themselves rather than someone else.
Creators and fans can have very strong and contradictory relationships with the characters that they are involved with, both have a stake in the character and it is a situation that seems tailor made of sharp edged mockery. Gordon Moore has a keen sympathy for both, no creator wants to be enslaved by a character they have created, fans can want to bury the creator to give more light to the character. Gordon Moore uses a fan's sensibility to create the climax of the book and as a fan I was shot to the heart by it. A treat to read and relish.