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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

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.