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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,, 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.