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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Prince. Rory Clements. John Murray (2011)

An engaging and enjoyable historical thriller. In London in 1593 there is considerable discontent at the influx of Dutch (Protestant) refugees fleeing Spanish (Catholic) armies and likely death. The refugees are a disturbing element in the city, they are a focus for discontent and a series of gunpowder bombings occur that are clearly targeted at the refugees. One of the bombings kills the wife of intelligence agent John Shakespeare, however he is directed away from investigating the bombings to investigate an equally potent but much subtler threat to the peace of Elizabeth 1’s kingdom.
 A Spanish nobleman appears to have information which would be very important to the English government and Shakespeare is sent to negotiate for it. He continues to investigate the bombings as well and finds that they may have very dangerous connections. The story unwinds very neatly, the elements draw together very smartly to deliver a very strong conclusion.
Rory Clements uses the context for more than set dressing, the political and social circumstances in England and Europe in 1593 when the struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain was fierce as Europe started to divide across religious lines that directly threatened existing political structures, is crucial to the story. The plot arises directly and naturally from the conflict and is very cleverly structured to capture a very wide range of the forces at work.
John Shakespeare has  been given a problem, a very tight and consuming story problem, a direct conflict between his personal desires and his professional requirements. This is a staple of the genre because it offers tremendous story possibilities, if used as well as Rory Clements does. The difficulty is that the character becomes a function of the plot rather than the plot being driven by the actions of the character. John Shakespeare is a strong enough character that he is not overshadowed by the plot, the anger he feels at his loss and his genuine loyalty to Protestant England provide strong enough motivation to be the driver of the story.
The way that the various strands of the story play out, the hunt for the gunpowder plotters, the Spanish nobleman’s secret and the murder of Christopher Marlowe all are used is very impressive. The supporting cast, with one significant exception is compelling and full of life. The villain of the piece is clever, competent and very committed, he is a genuine opponent for John Shakespeare and this benefits the story greatly. There is one cast member who is a simple plot requirement, they are used to solve some plot requirements and cannot escape to independent life. Rory Clements does his best to disguise the problem but the character is trapped by the plot.
Rory Clements supports the genre requirements with care and force and uses the context to give the story addition and very welcome substance. A really good read.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Shadow Woman. Ake Edwardson (Writer), Per Carlsson (Translation) Penguin Books (2010)

A gripping and very engaging crime story that executes a brilliantly simple idea to astonishing effect. A woman is found murdered in Gothenburg and Inspector Winter leads the investigation. There is a simple and devastating problem for the investigation, the identity of the victim remains elusive. Lacking an identity for the victim the investigation is stuck in neutral gear as all the obvious lines of inquiry are locked without a clear identification. The investigation becomes a problem as the lack of a clear focus put increasing pressure on the team and Winter in particular. As the information is painstaking gathered a second story starts to emerge and the awful weight of the past returns to inflict damage in the present.
 Ake Edwardson takes a very bold step by placing a hole in the centre of the investigation, as much as it distracts and distorts the investigation it has the potential to distract and distort the flow of the story. This does not happen because Inspector Winter retains a powerful and credible focus on identifying the victim and establishing what happened to her. This focus is what provides the momentum for the story that would otherwise be provided by the natural activity of the investigation. The space created by the lack of an identity is not wasted, it is filled by the rest of the cast who have identity related problems of their own, in particular rising racial tensions in the city.
Inspector Winter is a very engaging lead character, committed, very competent and facing a crucial life choice that he would much rater evade, he refuses to abandon the anonymous victim to her fate. Crucial information is allowed to emerge in understated ways that slowly start to pull a picture into focus and make sense of a fractured narrative that finally gives considerable force to the the deeply sad and inevitable resolution.
The plot mechanics are superb, quietly building up to a gripping conclusion as the threads of past crimes start to knit with present ones and a tangled story emerges. The pieces are very carefully arranged and delivered as the scattered information starts to clearly lead in a single direction. Without fanfare Ake Edwardson develops the story in unexpected directions that never seem to be there just for the plot, they all tend to the final end.
Per Carlsson's transparent translation is invisible to the reader. The story is clearly and consistently Swedish, the English never distances the reader from this essential aspect to the story, the ebb and flow of the story are completely natural.
Understated crime is very hard to manage successfully, the possibility that the dramatic tension will drop is always present, Ake Edwardson provides a masterclass in how to to be quiet and deeply engaging at the same time while never loosing sight of the genre requirements.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Deputy. Victor Gischler. Tyrus Books (2010)

A very gripping and highly entertaining modern Western that updates and uses a classic Western story framework with tremendous skill and biting black humour. Toby Sawyer is a part-time  deputy police officer in the very small town of Coyote Crossing, Oklahoma who is hoping to be moved to a full time position to help him support his wife and baby. On a night that starts with him being assigned to stand guard over the dead body of a local troublemaker, Toby finds that there is no situation so bad that it cannot very quickly become much worse. A sharply building escalation that finally leads to a classic Western confrontation leaves Toby with nothing to depend upon but himself, something he has strenuously avoided all his life. The action is superb, the reveals are cunningly staged to reveal and conceal at the same time as the superb plot mechanics drive the story forward.
Victor Gischler makes a number of very smart story choices that allow him use a Western  story structure without  breaking it, in this way he can use the tremendous strengths of the framework to deliver the story. The first and most important aspect to get credibly right is isolation, in a classic Western setting this was easy, communication was essential limited and by simply cutting a telegraph wire, isolation was achieved. These days isolation is considerably more difficult to credibly pull off, Victor Gischler has done so with considerable and nicely understated flair. Coyote Crossing is a small town far from any major centre of commerce or communication, far enough away and small enough that it does not have mobile phone coverage. By staging the action at night in a small town that does not give its residents may reasons to be active at night and isolation arises naturally and effectively. Toby is increasingly forced to rely on himself as the already limited resources he has become steadily compromised and the requirement to grasp control rather than just respond become more urgent.
The second problem is the villain of the piece, in a small town in the middle of nowhere what could be a big enough problem to drive the story with enough credible momentum? A very neat solution is revealed, cleverly unexpected and very credible it is serious and dangerous enough to drive the action that is unleashed. This is critical as the cascade of violence that takes place over the course of the night needs a very serious motive to make it more than set dressing.
The whole story rests squarely on Toby Sawyer and he comfortably carries it as he slowly becomes himself across the events of the night. Somewhat trapped in Coyote Crossing and struggling to do his best with the situation, Toby is really uncommitted to his life, the most significant relationship in his life is to his baby son. Toby is living on the hope of better things rather than actively working for them, he is conscious of the increasing need to do so. As events drive him into a corner and he has to actively participate or die Toby finds himself considerably more resilient and determined than he thought. One of the consistent pleasures of the book is the undertow of surprise that Toby experiences as he finds himself rising to desperate challenges rather than drowning in them. Toby is not transformed, he simply asserts himself.
Toby is a likable character, quietly engaging and constantly credible and happily surrounded by a vivid cast of walk-ons and truly memorable villains. The chief villain may not be biggest reveal in the story, they do fulfill final story requirement for a Western. They are a genuine opponent for the lead character, they pose moral and physical problems for the hero, they capture the truly corrosive nature of greed. The Deputy is great fun, a great Western and a equally compelling contemporary crime story, a wonderful mix and a pleasure to read.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Complete Maus. Art Spiegelman (Writer & Artist). Penguin Books (2003)

Extraordinary and gripping, this is a mixed memoir about Art Spiegelman's parents experiences as Polish Jews caught in the Nazi led genocide and his own fractured relationship with his father. Art Spiegelman has resolved several very significant story problems with astonishing creativity and a very striking use of the possibilities offered by comics.
The single biggest problem that anyone writing about the Nazi led efforts to annihilate Jews and many others identified as undesirable is that the scale of the effort makes it practically impossible to comprehend. On the other hand individual stories struggle to capture the extraordinary scale of the process and the colossal bureaucracy required to drive it. Art Spieglman's first and most important creative decision is to use an anthropomorphic cast, Jews of every nationality are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs. The whole conflict changes into a literal game of cat and mouse, no explanations are needed for why cats chase and kill mice, the focus can stay on how the mouse tries to elude and survive. At the same time a mouse among pigs is still a different species and the death of a mouse is not likely to be very significant to a pig, so the extraction of the Jews from Polish and other European societies is made a lot more comprehensible.
Vladek Spiegelman tells his own story to his son Art and the story starts with how he met his wife, Art's mother, courted her and married her. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and the couple had every prospect of a comfortable life, the growing threat to them as Jews started to become clearer and clearer as the Nazis and their allies grew in political and social power. Valdek managed to stay ahead of capture for a long time but was finally found and sent to Auschwitz. He survived the camp and was re-united with his wife and finally emigrated to America.
This is a mixed memoir, it is a much the story of Art Spiegelman trying to come to terms with his father as it is the story of how his father survived the institutional efforts to murder him and his wife. This means that the narrative is consistently switching from Vladek telling Art about his experiences to Art dealing with his father as a difficult, aging parent. This is the second very significant story problem that Art Spiegelman solves, how to place the nearly unimaginable experiences of his parents into the context of a life that continues long after those experiences and whose life is much more than just those experiences.
By cracking the narrative into different parts, having Vladek be the narrator of his own experiences and also be contrasted as the difficult person Art knows as his father with the agile and forceful young man determined to survive the whole mixed and jumbled life comes into view.
Maus was originally published in two books and the opening of the second book is a reflection on the reception and reaction to the first. Art Spiegelman is a character in a book written by Art Spiegelman taking directly to the reader, a situation that could be horribly self serving or just intrusive. Instead it is very natural and deeply engrossing, Art Spiegelman has been as unflinching with himself as a cast member as he is about his father, the similarities between father and son are much deeper than the fact fact that both are drawn as mice. Both have a tough fiber in their characters, although Art seems to have inherited some of his mother's fragility. Creating Maus from the fabric of his own family life is a significant artistic achievement, it takes considerable courage and tremendous dedication as well as talent to turn shards of history into a  satisfying narrative whole, let alone something as imaginatively bold and engaging as Maus.  An astonishing comic from a towering talent.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Alien Hand Syndrome #1. Justin Cappello (Writer and Artist). INSANE COMICS (2015)

A very enjoyable set up for a science fiction adventure story. After a battle in space a severely damaged alien ship arrives on earth with the crew in hibernation while the ship repairs itself after hiding inside a mountain. Thousands of years later a break in at a 'abandoned' military base in Montauk, New York reveals that the base has more life than advertised and certainly many more secrets than had been expected.
Any set up has a number of difficult story problems to solve, the story has to provide enough context and momentum to involve the reader and create enough story possibilities to bring the reader back , all this to be done without revealing too much and reducing the dramatic tension. Justin Cappello has solved these problems rather neatly by splitting the set up into two parts, the space battle and the break in at the military base. Both events are clearly related, both are given the time and space to be interesting in their own right as well as quietly raising questions about the connection that can be fruitfully explored later. The space battle is rock solid space opera, a desperate maneuver that brings victory at a huge cost, the break in is a very nicely set up heist sequence that goes as wrong as it should. The story has enough possibilities to entice the reader to return and see how it will follow on.
The cast are a great science fiction selection, a very clever artistic choice for the aliens ensures that while they are clearly not human, their body language can easily be read and understood. The human cast are nicely varied, only one of them gets much real time, he is an engaging action hero without being a superhero.
The art is very distinctive and a pleasure to read, Justin Cappello can manage a wide screen space battle and hand to hand combat nicely, while the hand to hand combat is slightly stiff, the cast are developed well enough to give the violence weight and force when they collide. The sequence where a severed head is used to open a door is a a piece of smart black humour that gives the story a nice lift.
Context is crucial for science fiction, the look and visual feel must quietly support the science fiction elements of the story and they do so strongly in Alien Hand Syndrome. The interiors of the space ship and the military base are used very well to support and carry the story.
The lettering is easy to read, well positioned in the panels to inform and not distract, the sound effects are a simple joy.
Comics are a natural medium for science fiction with an unlimited budget available for special effects, smart science fiction in any medium is hard, smart science fiction in comics is a substantial pleasure. Alien Hand Syndrome is a smart science fiction comic.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Justin Cappello. If you would like to buy a copy of Alien Hand Syndrome, you should treat yourself to it,it can be purchased at the INSANE COMICS webpage at Copy - $1.49, -Physical Copy - $3.50 .Visit for updates and some behind the scenes information.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Killing Winter. Tom Callaghan. Quercus (2015)

A violent and very gripping noir crime story set in Kyrgyzstan. A women is found horribly mutilated in a public part in Bishkek and
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is assigned to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as as the daughter of a very power politician the Inspector Akyl Borubaev finds himself under significant pressure. When another body is discovered with similar mutilations the investigation starts to move in very dangerous directions and Inspector Akyl Borubaev is left unsure who his friends and enemies really are. The plot unfolds with tremendous force as the dangerous possibilities begin to emerge and the brutally bitter and satisfying conclusion is reached.
Any writer who chooses to write a story in a non native location faces a serious problem from the outset, how to ensure that the location and context chosen are integral to the story rather than set dressing for a story that could as easily have been set in the writers native location. Tom Callaghan solves this so completely it never arises as a question for the reader, the whole context and the ferocious landscape of Kyrgyzstan is a fully developed and vital character in the story. The plot is tightly woven out of and into the context of the country, its people and their tangled history. That also solves the second problem a writer faces, how to provide enough information about the context for the story for a reader to understand the details of the context so that the story can deliver without being interrupted by information dumps. Tom Callaghan provides all the necessary details so naturally and smoothly that they work to increase and extend the flow of the story rather than slow it down.
The plot mechanics are superb, the action is brilliantly staged to reveal and to hide the true outlines of what is going on until they are dragged into daylight. The investigation is set up hampered, threatened and doggedly pursued in a very credible way as the forces at work collide with each other. The mechanics are really tightly drawn, the plot does not give way at any point to any action that is needed to rescue it from a dead end. The stunningly brutal action is always serving a point in the story and the action is driven by a tremendously well drawn cast.
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is a great leading character, he is the first among equals in a large cast all of who muscle their way into the readers attention and demand to be taken account of. Inspector Akyl Borubaev is also a superb noir character, an accomplishment that is considerably more difficult to achieve that it may appear. He is a ruined romantic, badly bruised and scarred by life and circumstances, he still has a heartbeat and a ultimately a care for others that pushes him to know and act. His small spark of light is happily surrounded by a cast of truly horrendous, utterly credible and human, selfishly dangerous and violent characters. The contrast is vital to make a noir story work, the tension between the Inspector and the rest of the cast springs from his difference to them, he is willing to care. This apparent weakness is the deep strength that he needs to drive to the bitter conclusion.
The book is also graced with an outstanding female cast member who is allowed to be female, dangerous, clever and with phrase used to describe her that is elegant, funny, precise and not in the slightest demeaning or degrading. Of all the story problems that Tim Callaghan has solved so enjoyably, this character may be the striking, she is simply allowed to be who she is just as much as Akyl Borubaev  and the story, and the reader, benefit greatly from this simple choice. A smart, great read

Saturday, October 31, 2015

AntiChris 2. Writer: Jojo King, Artist: Manuel Mezquita, Letters: Ken Reynolds.Insane Comics (2015)

A sharp and engaging second issue that neatly solves a number of difficult problems. When the warden at St Jude's Home for the Wayward decides to demonstrate her satanic capabilities by summoning a demon she finds out that summoning a demon is by no means the same as commanding a demon. The resulting mayhem involves zombies, a very big demon, a vampire werewolf and a group of teenagers. The results are surprising, cleverly set up and supported throughout with pitch black humour.
Any second issue faces a serious obstacle, the set up has been done and the underlying idea has been established, the second issue has to effectively deliver on the promise of the set up and, ideally, opening up story possibilities for the reader and the creative team. Jojo King has solved this problem with considerable flair and has taken a number of story risks which have paid off very well. The action in the second issue is very nicely framed and managed with a very dark humour this allows JoJo King to pile up the gore, which he does to entirely satisfactory levels, and at the same time not drown the story in blood. The humour gives the cast the room to stand out in the action and balance the horror and the cast requirements.
This is particularly important because of the nature of the cast, they are mostly well established horror staples and teenagers, managing to have this cast work effectively with stumbling into cliche is a significant task. The black humour gives all the cast a chance to be themselves as well as either a monster or a teenager, they become identifiable cast members and the whole outbreak gains weight and substance. This is a significant achievement and Jojo King deserves considerable credit for threading the needle with such smart writing. The multiple story possibilities that have been set up mean that the story can pretty much go anywhere it wants without breaking its own rules or promises to the reader.
Manuel Mezquita's art captures the balance of the story with tremendous energy and force, it does not lean too heavily on either the laughs or the violence, it switches exactly as required and can deliver both together when required. One of the outstanding pleasures of the art is the way the younger characters are drawn, they look and move like teenagers, rather worn down and battered by life teenagers at that. Given the temptation presented by a teenage female werewolf vampire delivering credible confusion and angry vulnerability along side real force in action, the scratchy lines Manuel Mezquita uses so well are a great choice to have made.
Ken Reynolds letters are subtle and telling, they delivery without ever being obvious, the sound effects are a treat.
A second issue that more than fulfills the promise of the set up, a greatly enjoyable comic.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jojo King. You can purchase AntiChris 2, and you should treat yourself to this smart comic,  at,

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bottom Liner Blues. K.C.Constantine. The Mysterious Press (1993)

A glorious book that uses the bare ghost of a crime story to explore the lives of astonishing cast in a decaying, post-industrial town in Pennsylvania. Mario Balzic is the Chief of Police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, a town whose decaying industrial past hang heavy over its uncertain future. On patrol due to staff shortages Mario answers a call about a woman who wants to talk to a police officer. The woman is concerned that her partner intends to violently attack another man and she wants to head off the trouble before it begins. This plot thread and the unexpected outcome are the explicit crime elements to the story and are one of the smallest elements in the book. They are not neglected by K.C. Constantine, they are savagely played out in an unexpected and deeply engaging way. It is that they are not the heart of the story in the way that might be expected.
K.C. Constantine has made a absurdly difficult story problem appear easy, with deceptive skill he has developed a cast that speak with truly individual voices and clearly articulated accents  who are never just a range on mouths on legs. They have a physical presence, subtly drawn in to anchor their talking in a real world context. Rocksburg is given the room to emerge as the broken context for the lives of the cast and the decline of the town is a force that binds them together. Nothing is said in a vacuum, the setting is as vital as the words that swirl around it.
The heart of the book is Mario Balzac and the astonishing cast that surrounds him and more importantly, the way that they talk. At one point a cast member asks the question "How do you know you are alive?" The abundant answer provided in a glorious, astonishing, and utterly compelling way is by talking, the cast talk. The cast pour out words by the yard, they reveal, hide, reveal, confuse and discover themselves and each other in an astounding torrent of talk without ever uttering a single superfluous word. Mario Balzic has a life changing conversation with his wife which never falls into mere dialogue, it is a heartfelt attempt to communicate across the wide spaces that separate us. This need to communicate, to be understood is the force behind the taking in the book. No one wants to simply be heard, they want to to be understood and recognized for who they are. Each member of the cast gets an opportunity to reveal themselves and they take it with both hands and give it the best they can. They are not babbling, they are carefully and eloquently taking the reader into their confidence and speaking up for themselves.
Everyone in the book is under increasing pressure and trying to manage it, they all choose different ways and as they collide with each other, as they attempt to explain why they are the generous and steely sympathy that K.C. Constantine has for his cast shines through all the time. No one is let off easy, actions have sharp consequences, everyone gets their chance to explain themselves.
Holding his cast  and the reader with graceful care, K.C. Constantine has written a compelling book that rings true on every page and delivers a consistently unexpected delight and pleasure.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Maidenstone 2.Chris Robertson (Writer), Scott Beveridge (Art), Andrew Kelly (Cover Art), Angie Smith (Editor). Baguette Noir Press (2015)

A very engaging and enjoyable comic with a stand out lead character. Lucy Maitland has lost her father in an accident and her brother and her mother are crumbling in the aftermath of the death. Lucy is trying to hold everyone together while coming under significant pressure from fellow pupils at school. When she meet Dylan, a friendly stranger who helps her Lucy finds that she is falling for him. As the story continues in this issue it becomes clear that Dylan is not entirely what he appears to be and Lucy's problems with the other pupils become significantly worse. Lucy's brother Jamie is becoming aware that something strange is swirling around them but is unable to express it clearly or forcefully enough to be properly heard. Lucy gets a dressmaking commission which may become the opportunity that Dylan was looking for.
This is Lucy's story and she deserves the spotlight. She is a great character, Chris Robertson has done something remarkable, written a teenager who feels like a teenager. Unfortunately most teenager characters are so buried in cliches that the reader cannot hear their heartbeat. Lucy is vital and strongly herself, she is massively distressed, confused and horrifyingly vulnerable, she is also resilient, aware and determined. Lucy engages the reader forcefully by being herself and this is what makes the story work. Lucy is increasingly in danger and the tensions exists because the reader has the opportunity to care about her. The rest of the cast are equally varied in themselves and have a strong claim on the reader. The chief bully who spearheads the trouble at school for Lucy is not given any extra dimensions, the sheer force of her attacks give her powerful and nastily credible life.
Scott Beveridge's art is a pleasure to read, it captures the atmosphere and the subtle moves of the story with force and vivid expressiveness. The gray tones of the art capture the pervasive sense of loss and anxiety that hang on everyone, the emotions are loud and sharp, anger is always just waiting to explode. The quiet time with Dylan is a relief and frightening at the same time. Each member of the cast is distinct and at the same time share strong resemblances. Nicely done to capture the sense of a small town with a strong local population that has not changed much over time as well as being Lucy's perspective.
The creators have delivered another intriguing episode in a strongly individual story with a confident and forceful style. They are taking advantage of the medium to push the story and capture the reader, making it look easy and unforced. A pleasure to read.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Chris Robertson. To buy a copy of Maidenstone 2, and you should give yourself the pleasure of reading a strong, thoughtful and original comic, it can be purchased at  Forbidden Planet and Plan 9 in Aberdeen, and on our Big Cartel site. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Gabriel. Jim Alexander (Writer), David Hill (Art), Mick Trimble (Art), Nate Pride (Letters), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2015)

A wonderfully confident and unexpected comic that neatly avoids the inherent problems that comes with the subject matter.
The Devil is Everywhere. Jim Alexander (Writer), David Hill (Art),  Nate Pride (Letters). In 2015 Glasgow is a Christian,perhaps Catholic, theocracy and Gabriel Stewart is trying to deal with the last stage of a failed marriage. At the same time something is cutting a very bloody swathe through the city and is being pursued by the Saint Templar, the the forceful arm of Church security. Gabriel and the killer cross paths and find themselves tied messily in a knot together. The story unfolds across a very cleverly splintered narrative that gives multiple views of the story that finally arrives a neatly and satisfyingly uncertain ending.
Religion, like any topic based on belief is a problem for fiction, it is either obvious or stupid depending on perspective and neither allow for creative tension which is the heartbeat of fiction. Jim Alexander has threaded this needle with craft and a very engaging element of uncertainty. The dominant church is based on certainty, it is the source of truth therefore anyone and everyone else by definition is lying. Not simply lying but actively denying the truth of the church and therefore an enemy. The enemies of the church are demons and demons need to be dealt with harshly, the Saint Templars are theretofore entirely correct in their violent and brutal actions against the enemies of the church.
The demon who is killing his way around Glasgow is sure of what he is doing, the moment that certainty is shaken is a fatal mistake. Gabriel is pretty much alone in not being sure of anything excerpt that he is still in love with his wife. It is this ambiguity that Jim Alexander uses to move past the problems of certainty and create room for engaging fiction that allow the whole cast , context and story come into life on their own terms. There is no slashing satire at the stupidity of credulous believers being lead by hypocritical and corrupt divines. Believers are granted their beliefs with all its various shades, honest brutality is still brutal. Gabriel brings the shadows to the black and white and allows the reader to read the story without feeling boxed into a settled point of view. Jim Alexander has built a story arc that bends very nicely away from reader expectations that are equally cleverly set up at the start.
David Hill's art is a pleasure to read, detailed and fluid, the cast are full of life when resting or in violent action. The cast are all delivered with telling detail, the walk on parts are given as much attention as the main cast. This gives the whole story a depth and strong presence that is really important. The action scenes where the demon is busy with killing are stunning, the demon is always horrifyingly calm while still in deadly motion. The physical details of the buildings and the clothes the cast wear are superb, they are never obvious, they are just right and give the story real physical weight and presence.
Nate Pride's lettering is so effective as to be virtually invisible, it is set up with care so it is just read naturally as part of the story, it never snags the readers attention while it is always clear and effective. A considerable achievement.
"I am the Resurrection"Jim Alexander (Writer), Mick Trimble (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters)  is a sort of epilogue to the main story and one where Jim Alexander takes an entirely logical and huge storytelling risk and resolves it with sharp humour and an very satisfying dash of optimism. A man in a Stone Roses t-shirt appears interrupts a street race, washes a prostitutes feet and gets really angry at a market and is arrested. He tell a priest a strange story and greets Gabriel Stewart. The fallout from these actions is smart, unexpected and happily optimistic.
Mick Trimble's art is friendly and engaging, the art feels full of light, there is very little shadow in the work. This is perfect for the story, it is about the place for optimism, not denying anything but dealing with it and getting on. The art has a light, subtle good humour even when the scenes turn violent, it never loses its touch. Jim Campbell's lettering is an example of how to put a lot of information into a speech bubble without making it crowded or obtrusive.
Unexpected and very engaging, Gabriel is strong comic by a very talent group of creators, a great read.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly send by Jim Alexander. To buy a copy of Gabriel and you should give yourself the pleasure of reading an excellent comic by doing so, you can purchase it for £5 plus P&P at the Planet Jimbot online shop at:

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Salvation of a Saint. Keigo Higashino (2008). Alexander O. Smith, Elye J. Alexander- Translation (2012). Abacus (2012)

Clever, engaging and hugely enjoyable locked room murder mystery. In Tokyo a man is found dead in his house, when it is established that he was poisoned the investigation lead by Detective Kusanagi find that they have a locked room mystery on their hands. The victim was alone in the house and there were no signs of a struggle or break in and the most likely suspect in a domestic murder, the wife, was in another city at the time. Kusanaagi finds himself having a complicated response to the victims wife, Ayane,  a reaction that leads another detective to enlist the aid of Professor Yukawa to see if he can provide some insight into the case. The story unfolds with great care and the reveals are cunningly staged and the possibilities of a locked room mystery are skilfully used.  The solution is credible and satisfying and happily unexpected.
Keigo Higashino has managed to solve the biggest problem with a locked room mystery with grace and flair, how to balance the requirements of plot mechanics with an engaging cast without loosing either. He manages this by credibly and thoughtfully aligning the motive and the plot mechanics so that the action is driven by the cast as they respond to the circumstances they find themselves in.
The cast are great, all of them are given the time and space to express themselves and engage the reader. Kusanagi is a competent, committed police officer who is finding an attraction  to  the victims wife creates a increasing pressure to protect her conflicting with a equally powerful duty to find the murderer. The way the conflict is managed is very smart, Kusanagi is aware of it as is his junior officer Utsumi who becomes concerned that it will undermine the investigation. In a wonderful piece of narrative control and direction it becomes an important part of the finding the thread that does finally lead to a solution.
Professor Yukawa is the way that the vital plot mechanics can be kept in view while not getting in the way of the cast. He takes a scientific interest in the case due to its apparent impossibility, his research is a clever way to establish the dimensions of the locked room mystery and close out each possible solution as it comes up without interrupting the parallel work of the investigation into the cast and context for the murder. He has information that ultimately is useless without the human element provided by the investigation.
The Japanese context is integral to the story, cast and plot mechanics and the transparent translation by Alexander O. Smith, Elye J. Alexander is vital to ensuring that details are not lost. The nuances and niceties are very important and they are all delivered without feeling clumsy or intrusive, the story flows in a very natural way.
Locked room mysteries are very tricky to deliver successfully, the solution must be credible without being too mundane, the perpetrator has to be as well disguised as the means used to kill the victim. This calls for a really strong control of the story to deliver s story that does not finally have to cheat the reader to gain the required effect. Keigo Higashino has managed it wonderfully, a great read, satisfying on every count.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Gone in Seconds. A.J. Cross. Orion Books (2012)

A very enjoyable and entertaining crime story. With the discovery of human bones in a woodland near a motorway the Unsolved Crime Unit of the West Midland Police are involved in an investigation. When the remains prove to be a teenager who had gone missing five years earlier the unit start to look at the case. The investigating office in that case now leads the UCU and that creates a problem for the team. As forensic psychologist Dr Kate Hanson and the UCU team investigate they start to realise that there may more victims and a much more difficult and dangerous situation than they had realised. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are well staged and the conclusion is unexpected and very satisfying.
The cast and context are very well developed and the pressures of the investigation, professional and personal are given time and space and add strongly to the weight and grip of the story. The cast are full of vigour and life, they engage the reader and the impact of the events are demonstrated with horrible clarity. One of the strong aspects to the story is the way that A,.J. Cross shows the long term impact of unsolved crime, in particular involving the unsolved disappearance of someone, on those left behind. The significant damage done by uncertainty and guilt are powerfully drawn, the responses are different they are all taken seriously by A.J. Cross.
The investigative team are a great cast, Dr Kate Hanson is competent, profession and very committed, as well as being enjoyable spiky and slightly abrasive. With an entirely accountable confidence in her analysis, backed by a willingness to  change her mind when faced with more information, she is slightly at odds with the restrictions imposed on the time by the requirements of police work.
A.J. Cross has rung a small but effective change on the genre favourite of the less than competent police superior officer, being career minded and possessing a strong sense of the bureaucratic  importance of budgets can make a manager less flexible and more defensive that is desirable. This is a more interesting conflict that is usually developed in the genre between a team and the management.
The plot mechanics are smart and sharp, they full range of the situation emerges slowly and the threads are cleverly misleading and snake back on themselves in a very satisfactory way. They way that they are gathered together as the pressure increases on the UCU team and the pattern linking current murders and past ones becomes clearer and finally start to become frighteningly close to home is superb.  Balancing a great plot with an engaging cast and strong sympathy for those outside of the investigation that have been nearly destroyed by the crimes this is a very enjoyable read that cleverly manages a fresh look at a serial murder story.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Hanging. Lotte & Soren Hammer. Ebba Segerberg (Translation). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. (2013)

A very gripping and engaging crime story with stunning plot mechanics and a great cast. Five men are found mutilated and hanging in a school assembly hall. The men have had their faces and hands removed which hinders identification which gives the investigation lead by
Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen a significant problem to begin with. The problems become significantly more acute as the motive behind the killings become clear and a very carefully considered plan starts to bear fruit. The plot unfolds with superb timing, the reveals are very well staged and the depth and range of the plot emerges with force. The conclusion is smart, credible and satisfyingly bitter.
Lotte and Soren Hammer use the plot mechanics in a very engaging and unexpected way, the five murders are not the conclusion of something that is investigated by the police team, it is the start of something that deliberately is running alongside the investigation. This means that the investigation is constantly having to deal with new events that complicate their work and create tremendous pressure on all the members of the team. The people who are running the events leading out from the hanging are under severe pressure also, for very different reasons. The plans they are managing are hugely ambitious and need considerable concentration and work to manage, having started an avalanche they are trying to ride it.
This dual track means that there are three main groups of people involved in the events as they unfold, the police team, the people responsible for the hanging and crucially the public at large. The way that the actions and responses of all three groups overlap and interact is deeply engaging and gives the very large cast room to make an impression on the reader without the focus of the story ever being lost.
DCS Simonsen is a great character, deeply competent and determined he finds that he has a personal stake in the investigation which challenges his professional training very nicely. He is counterpointed by his ex-boss Kasper Planck, who is included in the investigation and whose semi-detachment from the police force and the investigation proves to be vitally important.
The group behind the hanging are given the room to individually emerge as characters, they share a common motivation and plan but respond to the tremendous forces they have unleashed in very different ways. They are not masterminds or super-villains, they have had the time to plan and the willingness to act and they know that the investigation will be focussed on the dead men they will have a space to implement their true plan.
The greater context is vital to the story and Lotte and Soren Hammer have managed to develop a horribly effective picture of how public opinion can be captured and directed, how this goes from mass events to much more small scale ones, all driven by the dangerous power of outrage.
With a great framework that alows them handle serious issues without ever compromising the genre requirements, this is a superb read. The translation by  Ebba Segerberg is transparent, the Danish context is clear all the time without any stumbling or word choice that would throw the reader out of the story.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Casebook of Carnaki: The Ghost Finder. W.H. Hodson. Wordsworth Editions Limited ( 2006)

A wonderful set of ghost hunting stories, some of which reveal ghosts some of which expose other forces at work. The framework for all the stories is the same, Carnaki invites a number of friends to dinner and tells them about some investigation he had carried out. Carnaki is an investigator of the possibly and actually supernatural, curious, skeptical and very competent. He is always aware of the possibility that human agency is at the foot of the problem while being prepared for other explanations. His scientific approach to the investigations and his credible fear in the face of considerable threat makes the stories gripping and enjoyable. He manages to bring the supernatural within the bounds of credibility by a scientific approach without ever stripping it of its essential mystery.
"The Thing Invisible" is the first story in the book and concerns a haunting in a chapel attached to a castle which always had the reputation of being haunted, with a near fatal attack on the butler, it was becoming dangerous. Carnaki's investigation is smart and thoughtful, the explanation is effective.
"The Gateway of the Monster" has Carnaki called in to investigate a haunted room, he does so by staying the night and the account of what passes is gripping and sharp. The menace is superbly built up and the precautions that Carnaki takes to protect himself and how they are used are very effective details. The monster is serious and dangerous, the whole story is pleasure.
"The House among the Laurels" is a very smart piece of storytelling, the set up is great and the unfolding of the events economical and forceful. A clever and intrepid piece of investigation.
"The Whistling Room" is the stand out story in a great collection. The tone of the story moves very naturally from the apparently foolish to the darkly dangerous without ever loosing its footing. The  problem as it becomes revealed is nasty and very creepy, the source and cause of the trouble is suitably bleak. The whole story is a masterpiece of effective compression, a great deal happens in a very short space without any confusion or loss of focus in the story.
"The Searcher of the End House"  is the closest to a standard ghost story in the collection.
"The Horse of the Invisible" highlights the force of Carnaki's scientific thoughtful process of investigation and that there can be more than one process at work behind a supernatural event.
"The Haunted Jarvee" is a haunting at sea and gives the room for W. H. Hodson to describe trouble at sea and the sheer helplessness of sailors in the face of a storm.
"The Find" is a smart little puzzle that uses clear thinking to solve a problem.
"The Hog" is the weakest story in the collection, the story tries to hard and is overwhelmed by the details, the tension and foreboding essential to the story get swamped by the process that Carnaki is using. There is just too much going on that has the be explained for the story to maintain its moment.
W.H.Hodson is a master of the ghost story, even the lest story in this collection has force and tension galore, the best are simply astonishing. The mix of scientific inquiry and supernatural is creatively used to bring the reader further into the atmosphere, the threats have weight and force and Carnaki is a great guide, willing to take a risk and never too stupid not to be afraid. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Opera Ghost (1-2). Steven P. Jones (Writer), Aldin Baroza (Art), Caliber Press (1994)

An engaging and very enjoyable Sherlock Holmes mash-up. Dr Watson, sorting his life after the death of his wife has visitors from France. The new managers of the Paris opera are having a problem with the Ghost of the Opera and the Compte De Chagny is concerned about his brother, concerns tied directly to the Opera. In the absence of Sherlock Holmes , Dr Watson travels to France where he is witness to a very strange scene and is lucky to survive it. Sherlock Holmes who had been investigating the case from a different angle joins again with Dr Watson as the pursue the Ghost to his home beneath the Opera. The story is very well set up and and the action is suitably operatic, the conclusion is both a credit to Holmes and to Watson.
Steven P. Jones gets a number of critical elements exactly right in this story, he maintains the balance between Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost of the Opera without undermining either. He gets the essential aspect of any follow on Sherlock Holmes story perfectly, Dr Watson is pitch perfect, he is crucial to the story without ever taking anything from Sherlock Holmes, he provides an essential context for the story. The Opera Ghost is given due room to be someone, he is brilliant and demented and also fatally in love. He is given enough space and consideration to become someone other than the Ghost, the conclusion does him sad justice.
Aldin Baroza's scratchy black and white art is very engaging, it suggests details with shadows and outlines and when required delivers action and tension. The cast are very well defined and move through the context with confident assurance, the principals, Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost are both given classic looks that they wear very nicely. The scenes set below the opera are superb, the sense of a separate kingdom blow the floorboards is created, big enough and wild enough to be suitable for an operatic Ghost and mastermind.
I have a very strong dislike of lettering designed to mimic handwriting  such as Aldin Borza uses here. This time it does have the virtue of being more readily legible than it often is. I do understand why it would be used, any Sherlock Holmes story is supposed to be from the journals of Dr Watson and the handwritten style of lettering draws on that. I find it distracting to read, it takes too much effort and pulls me out of the story rather that allowing me to sink into it. In this comic it worked reasonably well, my reservation remain.
This is a smart, enjoyable Sherlock Holmes story, well worth reading.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dodger. James Benmore. Heron Books ( 2013)

A very enjoyable and engaging story about the return of the Artful Dodger to London. Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, who had been sentenced to transportation to Australia returns to London with a pardon and a plan. He has to find something or will be killed, to find what he is looking for the Dodger has to return to the people he left behind six years earlier. The search proves to be considerably more complicated that the Dodger had anticipated and involves him with a lot of people from his past. They are not always as he remember or imagined and Dodger finds that the past is a problem for his rapidly vanishing present. The set up is great, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion satisfying and sharp.
James Benmore has taken a considerable risk in taking a character created by one of the greatest writers in English and trying to establish him away from the original context in a credible and sustainable way. He succeeds with great flair and with by cleverly using the giant shadow of Charles Dickens sparingly and effectively. They are used as grace notes in the story, they add to the enjoyment without ever being a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoying the story.
Jack Dawkins is a vivid character, brimming over with energy and personality, he drives the story forward at a relentless pace as he tries to assert himself against his opponents and circumstances. He is uncompromisingly straightforward about himself and what he is, a thief, his justifications are very well put forward. The supporting cast are all pushing forward as they should to be seen and heard,n not the least being the city of London itself, Dodger's home turf and playground. When Dodger has to leave London he is somewhat stranded out of his natural context, he still has an impact however.
The plot mechanics are excellent, they create the structure that allows the Dodger to move among his old companions with a credible reason and pushed the action ahead very well. The steady twists that they take are smartly set up and lead to a tremendous conclusion that is very satisfying and forceful.
James Benmore has created a character of his own with an independent life away from his origins and built a great story around him. Dodger is dangerous company and a highly engaging one.

Aeon Flux (1-4) Mike Kennedy (Writer), Timothy Green II(Art), Dan Jackson (Colours), Michael David Thomas (Letters). Dark Horse Comics (2005)

A very enjoyable and entertaining science fiction comic. The city of Bregna is a walled sanctuary against the fiercely encroaching jungle that surrounds it and which is kept a bay by defoliant cannons that fire each hour. Aeon Flux is an agent of the Monican Rebellion who are fighting directly against the rulers of the city. When a new defoliant is developed that would potentially eradicate all plant life outside the walls of the city, Aeon Flux and a partner are given the task of stopping the deployment of the defoliant. The story unfolds at great speed, the action is a joy to read and the conclusion very satisfactory.
The story is so slight it really is more of an extended anecdote, it does not have the dramatic weight of a full scale story. What it does have is great charm and vigor, the context is quickly established and the players and their motives are clearly established so that the conflict makes sense and has enough weight for the reader to care.
Mike Kennedy has created a wonderful character with Aeon Flux herself, there is a very strong sense that the reason she is involved in the Monican Rebellion is because she is massively enjoying the risk taking and the physical struggle of the fight. She is having a ball walking on the edge, getting into danger and pushing herself, she is not stupidly taking risks, she is enjoying exercising her talents, the cause is important but not primary. When she is given a partner, she is not happy since this is effectively a limit on her freedom of action, she is still committed enough to the cause to accept the command.
The politics of the city are neatly set up, the factions in the government and the nicely elusive Handler who leads the Monican Rebellion, both having a greater concern for their own agendas than any of the people they are fighting around. They make Aeon Flux's straightforward but not stupid engagement in the action stand out all the more by contrast.
Timothy Green II's art is distinctive and a pleasure to read, the cast are very well developed, the body language is fluid and the action is superbly choreographed. The various use of panel borders, some have them some do not, and varying panel sizes control the pace and flow of the story without every intruding.
Dan Jackson's colouring is stunning, it is bright and vivid, in particular the colours for the clothes the cast wear are great. The city is bright and crisp as the happy controlled future should be, the darkness is contained in the action and the contrast give the story force and depth. Michael David Thomas's letters are subtly effective, they give a credible emphasis and tone to the dialogue, his sound effects are a pleasure, nailing the moment with precision. Great science fiction from very talented creators.

A Dark Anatomy. Robin Blake. Pan Books (2011)

A very enjoyable historical murder mystery. In 1740, near the town of Preston in Lancashire,  the wife of a local squire is found dead in a forest, she had her throat cut. Titus Cragg, the local coroner has to set up an inquest for the death and also deal with the political and social problems that the death creates in the town. With his friend and colleague Dr Luke Fidelis, Titus Cragg begins to examine the circumstances before encountering a very significant problem. The story unfolds very nicely, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is clever and credible.
Robin Blake uses the historical context very well to frame and drive the story, the investigation is intimately wrapped up in the social and political structures of Preston and they tie very cleverly into the investigation and the death itself. The plot mechanics are woven very thoroughly into the historical context. This allows Robin Blake to present the information about the context to the reader as part of the unfolding story, as interested parties become involved in the case they reveal the information about the town and their place in it without every lecturing the reader.
Titus Cragg is a first person narrator and a very companionable guide to the town as well as a committed and competent coroner. He is aware of the problems that the case is creating and also aware of doing his duty as well as possible. He is not stupid nor willing to unnecessarily antagonise others so he pursues the investigation with thoughtful care.
The supporting cast all emerge from the narration with clarity and are distinct and clearly separate characters. In particular, Titus Cragg's political opponent, the town bailiff develops a considerable presence in spite of having only a small actual part to play. Titus is always aware of him so he looms large, this is a nice way to manage him and give Titus someone who can balance him effectively in the story. Given that constraints of a first person narration it uses the narration to provide a focus on another character without having to break the narrative to introduce him separately. This is particularly striking given that Dr Luke Fidelis, who works with Titus Cragg and is his friend does not emerge with the same force in the story as the bailiff does. A good fun read.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Great Salt Lake. Matt Taylor (Writer & Art). (2014)

A nearly wordless comic that solves the problems being wordless creates with thoughtful skill. A man is adrift in a small boat upon a sea and he remembers times with his wife as he struggles to survive.
The writing is tight and economical, the pacing is very nicely balanced and the variety of situations that Matt Taylor conjurers up from a seemingly very restrictive context is astonishing, the story has a strong momentum and narrative grip.
The art has to do everything in the absence of text and it does superbly, the different forms of danger from the sea are given shape and form that give them weight and force. The mental and physical toll being taken on the sailor by hunger and isolation are made clear. The sailor's expressions and body language are eloquent and his determination to survive palpable.The visualisation of the various threats from the sea are beautifully done, they combine menace and beauty, the sailor's final defiance of the sea is dramatic and very well staged.
The page structures with different panel sizes controls the narrative and story pacing without every being obtrusive, they give the story a variety that it needs as the context is so uniform. The conclusion of the story is somewhat open, the significance of the text on the final page, the only text in the book, passed me by entirely. A slight story really strongly told, Matt Taylor is a significant talent.

Artefacts of the Dead. Tony Black. Black & White Publishing (2014)

An engaging and very gloomy police procedural. A murder victim is found at a rubbish tip in Ayr in Scotland and Detective Inspector Bob Valentine is called in to head up the investigation. DI Bob Valentine is just back on active duty after a near fatal stabbing, and both he and the Chief Superintendent who assigns him to the investigation have doubts about his capacity to manage the task. The investigation is hampered by the heavy presence of the Chief Superintendent and overly well informed press coverage. When a second murder takes place that is clearly linked to the first the problems increase. The story unfolds well, the reveals are well staged and the plot threads are very well brought together, the conclusion is very satisfying.
The most notable aspect to the story is the all pervasive atmosphere of near depression gloom that weights down on everyone and everything. While the centre of the gloom is Bob Valentine, it seems intrinsic to the whole context of Ayr and possibly to Scotland in general. Bob Valentine has serious grounds for gloom, the stabbing has divided his life into two parts, and the post stabbing existence is both precious and somewhat unreal. Actually being actively involved in his own life beyond the limits of job and duty seem like a task too much for Bob Valentine, yet it is one that he worries at with a constant, mirthless persistence. He leads the investigation with the same unleavened weight of duty, demanding that everyone be cautious and serious about the task, recognising that the work of a police officer is hard and essentially harsh.
The chief superintendent is neither stupid nor incompetent, she is much worse than that, she is perpetually aggressive seeking to strike first at all times to ensure that she is  never on the defensive. She is firmly rooted in the context of Ayr, identified as a particular type of female who act in this way. The emphasis is much more on the context of Ayr than on her being female which is interesting. Tony Black is very even handed with the misery and discomfort for his cast. Everyone comes under the lash at some point, victories are muted by the general weight of the heavy weather that rests on everyone.
The plot mechanics have to work very hard to push against the gravity of the cast and context and they do so successfully. The investigation starts to reveal a bigger and very dark story that slowly and credibly draws others into is grip. The wider cast that are surrounding the investigation are strongly drawn and the tangles of the plot are cunningly set up and then drawn together. The investigation is managed in a competent and thoughtful manner and it finally grinds out a suitably bitter conclusion. Heavy going, worth reading.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lazarus Volume 1. Family. Greg Rucka (Writer), Michael Lark (with Stefano Gaudiano & Brian Level) Art & Letters, Santi Arcas (Colours). Image Comics (2013)(

Very engaging and enjoyable dysopian science fiction. The world is strictly divided between the Families who control the wealth and resources and those who work for them and the Waste, the rest of humanity. Conflict is epidemic between Families and between Families and Waste, each Family has a super soldier, their Lazarus who protects them and fights for them. Enhanced to recover from fatal wounds, the Lazarus is the sword and shield of the family and Forever is the Lazarus for the Family Carlyle. When a conflict develops between the Carlyle and Moray families Forever is sent on a mission to manage it. The roots of the conflict lie within the Carlyle family and Forever has bigger problems than she realises. The story moves fast, the action is terrific and the plot neatly and sharply drawn.
Greg Ruck does something quite amazing, he takes and tells a fairly common story idea very well and then reveals the bleak cold heart at the centre of it and makes the whole story move to a different level. The context is nicely set up, it really is the Godfather writ large in a devastated world world. There are gangs who run things, and layers within those gangs, the small related group who run things and employees and then there is everyone else. Some a gangs themselves others are just the prey the gangs oppress for profit and fun. Conflict is completely inherent in this context, conflict between the gangs and the prey, conflict within the gangs between the inner and outer circles and most importantly, conflict within the inner circle.
Greg Rucka takes this context and uses it very well within its own terms. The cast are well developed and the cross currents between them credible and forceful. The work of the Lazarus as the final enforcer for the family and their necessarily ambiguous stature within the inner circle is very well detailed. Greg Rucka lulls the reader into a slight sense of familiarity and then reveals that there are dangerous depths that should have been seen and they give the story a bitter context that subtly alters everything that has gone before.
Michael Lark's art is a pleasure, the cast move and respond with force and vigour, the non-enhanced cast move naturally. The Carlyle family members all have a constant element on tension that arises directly from their context, they are all constantly moving on the edge of conflict as the pressures and demands of their position pull on them. They all have to manage their relationships with Forever carefully and with each other even more carefully. The only calm presence is the father and leader of the Carlyle family, a man very comfortable with using and keeping violent power. The fight scenes are stunning, Forever is a hand-to-hand fighter so the action is always up close and personal. The Lazarus effect is using sparingly and effectively to underscore the action rather than deflate.
Santi Artcas colours capture and express the emotional tones of the story with subtle grace, they give depth to the cast and the context, the mostly muted tones echo the general devastation and the desert colours are wonderful. A great story really well told by very talented creators.

Eeny Meeny. M.J.Arlidge, Penguin Books (2014)

A very engaging crime story with strong plot mechanics that slightly overshadow the cast. A couple are kidnapped, held without food or water and given a choice, one must kill the other to gain their freedom. The survivor is released and tells the story to the police. Detective Inspector Helen Grace heads up the investigation into the incident and finds the circumstances a little to fanciful to be true, until it happens again. The body count rises as the investigation struggles to find the killer. The reveals are very well staged, the action is sharp and brutal and the conclusion as brutal as the required.
There is a very large cast in the story, a lot of whom die horribly. M.J. Arlidge gives the space to the victims as much as the investigation so that the full weight of the terror and despair felt by the victims is clear. The survivors are given space after the event so that the further consequences are revealed. This gives the investigation a forceful context and adds greatly to the pressure that they are operating under.
DI Helen Grace is a great character, she is is driven, competent and fiercely focused. It is these strengths that also prove to be weaknesses as she makes a credible mistake and has to deal with the consequences. All of the cast, with one exception, are given the space and time to strongly come forward and engage the reader. When they become caught in the coils of the plot their situation has weight and impact as they are established with the reader before the hammer falls on them.
The problem with the story is that there is too much plot, it overwhelms the cast and finally is a little exhausting. The gears of the plot mechanics are very well put together, the investigation has problems cleverly set up and the murder plot is savagely effective, there is a problem with the villain. To achieve what they do would require essentially superhuman planning skills and significant resources. Up to a certain point I was very willing to go with the flow of the story, then overload arrived and I was just uncomfortable with the sheer scale of the crimes. The why was very satisfactory, it was the extended range of how that frayed the story a bit. To cram in that much plot the cast had to be pushed a little aside and that left the plot mechanics a bit too exposed. Events occurred that appear to be just plot mechanics because plot mechanics were wanted, the purpose to the events was not  strongly enough linked. The problems that beset the investigation are much more tightly and ultimately, effectively, managed. That shorter space creates a greater impact.
M. J. Arlidge uses short chapters to great effect, they add to the momentum of reading the book and allow for frequent changes of scene which keeps the readers attention fresh and moving. A very solid story that would have benefited from being somewhat more compressed.

App-1#1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Eva Holder, Conor Boyle, Iella (Art),Jim Campbell (Letters), Planet Jimbot.(2015)

A clever and engaging set up that neatly solves some story problems that are inherent with superhero stories.
"Tounge Lasher" written by Jim Alexander, art by Eva Holder, letters by Jim Campbell. Three children out playing encounter an old man who places all of them in danger. In a very short space Jim Alexander provides the context for the present, there are monsters about and they are deadly. By setting up children who are flirting with the danger and an old man who invites it, the information needed is delivered in a natural and effective way. Monsters are a story problem, how to balance threat with credibility is always tricky, Jim Alexander does it with black humour that establishes the threat without having to be gory as well.
Eva Holders art is just right, it is soft and slightly cartoony, it makes the context very clear without ever being too explicit. The cast are great, the three children look young, determined and frightened, their energy contrasts very well with the fatal resignation of the old man. They want to come right up to the edge, they do not want to cross over it. The bogey is a triumph, a fish like creature that has a malicious presence and a real force.
"Above Us Only Sky" art by Conor Boyle, letters by Jim Campbell and written by Jim Alexander introduces APP-1 and shows him flexing his superhero muscles. An initial encounter with a young fan and a problem with a flaming super-sphere falling from the sky frame APP-1 very nicely, attentive to a fan and effective against a threat. There is a glimpse of the person inside the costume as well.
Conor Boyle's art is captures the superheroics strongly, APP-1 in flight relative to his fan on the ground is great, it places APP-1 in a human context before he is placed in a superhero context with the flaming super-sphere. The action is very well done, it takes an effort and work to manage the super-sphere. APP-1 has to extend himself to deal with the problem which makes the problem all the more interesting.
"The Scorch Interview" written by Jim Alexander, art by Conor Boyle is a short text piece that does a lot of heavy lifting. The interview takes place at a book signing by APP-1 promoting his book "Look to the Future". The questions are exactly what an interview for a magazine aimed at teenagers would be, mostly puff and with some unexpected grit, it is the frighteningly sincere answers that are the dark joy of the piece. APP-1 takes the questions seriously and answers them directly and they uncomfortably revealing.
"Scout", Letters by Jim Campbell, art by Iella and written by Jim Alexander provides a missing and crucial piece of information that ties the whole set up together. The difference between having superpowers and coping with having superpowers is a fruitful story idea and Jim Alexander uses it with skill as unintended consequences make themselves felt. Iella's art is striking different from the previous two sections and this works strongly for the story. It is much harder and less detailed that the others, the figures look stressed and tired. The cast are not heroic, they are human and trying to solve a superhuman problem.
Happily this is not something new in superheroics, it is much better than that, it is something thoughtful and considered in superheroics. Frequently the least interesting charachter in a superhero comic is the superhero, the story fails to give the superhero a problem that is interesting and challenging to solve, APP-1 has a widespread cast all of who share a interesting and challenging problem to solve and APP-1 is rightly at the heart of it.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. To purchase a copy of APP_1, which would be a good thing to do, it's available to buy at the Planet Jimbot shop:

Friday, July 24, 2015

Talking to the Dead. Harry Bingham. Orion Books ( 2012)

An entertaining and enjoyable crime story. When a woman and her young daughter are murdered in a flat in Cardiff, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths is involved in the investigation and finds that threads from another, apparently unrelated cases, start to lead back to the murder victims. The investigation  unfolds with thoughtful care and a very nasty story emerges that arrives at a very satisfactory and brutal conclusion. This is a first person narrative by Fiona Griffiths and is as much concerned with her as it is with the crime, the two story threads weave together very naturally and the conclusion of the personal story is as satisfying as the criminal one.
Harry Bingham place Fiona Griffiths very much front and centre for the story, all the rest of the cast are as seen by Fiona. This works because Fiona is a very engaging character, there is a nice self-awareness as well as a mix of confidence and self-doubt that makes the narrative just a little unreliable and all the better for it. Fiona's judgement of others are contrasted nicely with their actions so the reader is given a chance to assess the rest of the cast a bit more on their own terms. No other cast member emerges quite as clearly as Fiona, they are still vivid and full of life, demanding attention from the reader. In particular the victims get an opportunity to reveal themselves much more than might be anticipated and in a very credible way within the context of the story.
The investigation is competent and effectively managed by a senior officer who is capable and observant, Fiona's fellow officers are professional and thoughtful. The plot mechanics are nicely revealed and the way that the threads are pulled together is sharp and effective.
What is most striking about the book is the way that the balance between Fiona's story and the demands of the crime story are so well balanced. Fiona is living at a remove from the normal context of living, the impact of this on her work and relationships wraps around the investigation without ever compromising it. The reason for this situation is carefully revealed and handled. The distance is an advantage and a disadvantage at different times in different contexts and the depth of the story. Fiona, having a fractured life can grasp the fractured lives of others a bit more closely.
A thoughtful crime story with a very memorable lead character
that does not sell either short, well worth reading.

There's No Bath In This Bathroom. Joe Decie (Writer & Artist). Commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (2015)

A very engaging and enjoyable fragment, there is not really enough structure to qualify as an anecdote, about a visit to a pizza shop in Toronto. Joe Decie was at a comics festival in Toronto in 2014 and met some other comics creators, called his son from Toronto, went to a pizza shop and avoided staying in the student hostel where he had attempted to sleep the night before.
It is hard to beat as a summary of nothing in particular and in less conspicuously talented hands would have been just that. Instead it is amusing and engaging, light as a feather and hiding the considerable skill in plain sight.
The gray wash of the art is soft and inviting, it provides just enough detail to give a strong context without ever being too specific. The panels are carefully done so they look a little like photographs, some of the cast are drawn with detail, others are a bit looser. It is a nice way to deal with memory, people who are better remembered appear with greater clarity than those who are just passing by.
What is striking is how artfully Joe Decie uses the slimmest of threads to create an engaging moment, a visit to a dark and very grimy toilet, an interaction with a man in a car park. None bear any real weight in themselves, it is all in how they are told. The editing and pacing of the story does all the heavy lifting and the pleasure in the book is how well it is done.
The balance between the captions and the panels and the use of panel sizes to control the pace of the storytelling are beautifully done. Joe Decie has created a rarity, a friendly comic that charms and amuses without overstaying its welcome.

Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up. Mary Beard. University of California Press (2014)

An engaging, unexpected, thoughtful and smartly argued book about a possibly absurd question, what made ancient Romans laugh?
Laughter is an involuntary response, it is unruly and uncontrolled, "polite laughter" is a deliberate response to a attempt to make someone laugh rather than leave someone stranded without the hoped for response. Genuine laughter comes from us without any conscious intervention, something has struck a response, laughter is there a dangerous activity, making a joke of someone or something is to rob it of power. In ancient Rome, power was vitally important, power and respect were central to the functioning of the society and laughter by its unruly nature was a problem. Mary Beard looks at what made ancient Romans laugh as a way to get closer to understanding how ancient Romans lived, what was safe to laugh at and what was not.
People like to laugh, therefore getting people to laugh is a route to profitable creativity, people will pay to be made to laugh. Playwrights, songwriters, performers and writers have all worked at making audiences laugh, the problem is that anything more sophisticated than basic slapstick depends on a shared context to explode the joke. A joke is probably the worst traveler in the world, a joke out of context is less than unfunny it is puzzling, why is that funny? Given the gulf in time and cultural assumptions and context between us and the ancient Romans there is very little chance that any joke designed to make a Roman audience laugh will resonate today.
Mary Beard tackles this head on with an examination of a Roman comic play to see what was designed to tickle the audience and if possible why. Mary Beard manages an astonishingly difficult task, she makes examining the entrails of a joke absorbing and engaging. The focus is on the joke in the context and the historical exploration of the context is fascinating. Romans at play reveal themselves much more than in the carefully constructed histories and biographies, Romans as people emerge more clearly.
One of the great pleasures of the book is the way that Mary Beard looks at a a Roman joke book and traces the emergence of the independent joke, not part of a play or performance, and the structure of the jokes. The ancient jokes are recognisable as jokes today, not always funny but clearly intended to be, Mary Beard makes a case that the Roman joke book is the direct ancestor of jokes today, setting a pattern that is still in use.
This is an academic work, there is a great deal of deliberate argument regarding the points and propositions that Mary Beard wishes to make. Due to the fact that Mary Beard is an engaging and very talented writer I enjoyed the arguments and followed the critical examinations with interest rather than feeling locked out. A enjoyable, informative and engaging look at ancient Romans at play.

Black Sheep. Arlene Hunt. Hodder Headline Ireland (2006)

A very gripping and engaging story about the disastrous consequences of a murder. A witness to a murder in Dublin has his own reasons for keeping quiet, the victim's brother however wants to know what really happened and hires investigators John Quigley and Sarah Kenny to find out. The investigation quickly becomes much more serious after a visit to the victim's house crosses with a burglary and the story unwinds steadily and cleverly down to a very satisfying and rather bitter conclusion. The story has tremendous momentum as actions have unintended consequences which lead to more actions and more consequences. The ebb and flow of the action is strong and credible, the events never appear to be simply required by the plot , they flow with a gripping inevitability from the actions and reactions of the cast.
The wide and very diverse cast are the core of this book, Arelne Hunt has managed to avoid cliche and gives each of the cast a credible voice and context, they are pulsing with life and as they interact with each other create sustained tension and demand the attention of the reader.There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, john Quigley and Sarah Kenny are the only ones really, the rest of the cast are more or less unpleasant, selfish and criminal, all are strongly alive and engaging.
Arelene Hunt has the talent to choose a cliche and write the truth that made it a cliche. A teenage criminal from Dublin who fancies himself as a black American gangster, Sharpie draws his inspiration for life from gangster rap and dreams of being a hard core street warrior. What could easily be a badly drawn cartoon is instead a forceful and dangerous character who is living a dream. Sharpie has the strength and intelligence to take an image and fill it with fierce anger and a deadly will to violence. The friends riding the crest of the Celtic Tiger boom are given equal opportunity to step through the details of their aggressive success and concern for status ans wealth. Each one is given the room and context to reveal themselves and the strange bonds that friendship that form.
The plot mechanics that link the cast together are simple and brilliantly effective, they are directly rooted in the cast and the context, they have not been simply overlaid on to them. The action of the story is driven directly by the credible responses of the cast. There is an additional layer to the story that involves Sarah Kenny's family that is unrelated to the action of the book. It explores a strong family tension in a sharp and uncomfortable way and adds greatly to the depth and impact of the story by extending and developing the context for the action. A great read, thrilling, involving and finally moving.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Should You Be Laughing At This? Hugleikur Dagsson (Writer & Artist). Michael Joseph (2006)

A collection of  brutal cartoons that are shocking and very funny, this is comedy without humour. Each carton is a confrontation for the reader, a single fierce idea presented with the minimum context required to sell it and set up to jolt a laugh before the reader can stop themselves.
The ideas themselves are deliberately provoking, they read like the statements a child would make to an adult to get a reaction. They are not serious decelerations, they are carefully formulated to shock and push the boundaries of the acceptable. In and of themselves they are not funny, they are not really anything in fact. Just a string of unrelated ideas that are unattached to anything and would be rapidly become just noise by themselves.
The art is slightly developed stick figure work, there is not attempt at any real detail or form. There is just enough shape to give the reader enough clues to identify what is required.
When Hugleikur Dagsson combines the two very unpromising elements he creates a very sophisticated and  thoughtful comedy. The art provides a context that just tips the words over from being empty talk to having some concrete impact, they are now part of an action or a situation. The idea now has some impact, it can be seen in action and sounds, they gain a voice. In this way they are read very differently, they are heard as much as read and get straight to readers bump of comedy. This is the part of the brain that find the unexpected and the normally unspeakable funny, shocking but funny too.
Achieving this balance where the art and the words support each other without distracting from either is a stunning talent, the simplicity of the art rests exactly against the extremity of the ideas and removes the dangerous violence that could easily be there. These become comedy rather than unreadable smears of bile, in answer to the reasonable question of the title, yes you should,out loud.