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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Battling Boy. Paul Pope (Writer & Artist), Hilary Sycamore (Colours), First Second (2013)

A superhero coming-of-age story that I did not find engaging, the writing, art and colours are all excellent, the combined package did not capture me. In the city of Arcopolis monsters roam kidnapping children for unknown purposes. Haggard West is a genius vigilante who is trying to protect the city, until he is murdered by the monsters.This leaves the city and his daughter Aurora shocked and grieving and the monsters celebrating. On another plane of existence a 12 year boy, just ahead of his 13th birthday is send to Arcopolis to help the city. Battling Boy as he becomes known is celebrated as a new protector for the city which places him in the cross hairs for the monsters and Aurora West. The story unfolds in unexpected ways, the reveals are very well staged and the action is superb.
Paul Pope has taken an unusual approach to a superhero story, it is an origin story of sorts, Battling Boy finds himself in an overwhelming situation and how he will resolve the problems is left open. He may become the help that Arcoplis needs or he may fail, the story leaves the possibilities open. Aurora West is a compelling character, having lost her father she considers his legacy and position to be rightfully hers only to see some stranger step into the space instead. Her coming-of-age is just as disorientating as Battling Boy's and  conflict between them seems inevitable, at a time when acting together might be what Arcopolis needs. Paul Pope gives the supporting cast a lot of room to develop and make their presence felt, from Battling Boy's parents to the monsters and the besieged Mayor of Arcopolis they all allowed the space to establish themselves.
The art is vivid and fantastically expressive, the cast fit into their contexts naturally and all of them move with wonderful physical force and grace. The action is dramatic with a careful use of long shots and close ups to frame the action and draw the reader in. The quiet moments work just as well with the body language of the cast providing a clear extra dimension to the words.
The colours by Hilary Sycamore are bright and vivid, they give the city and cast depth and solidity, the damage that the monsters do feels forceful.
The mysterious spark between a reader and a comic that draws in the reader and gets them involved in the story never happened when I read this comic, I admire it, I did not enjoy it as I hoped to do. The story has enough of the elements that I have enjoyed in other stories and look for in stories to have made it a strong candidate for me. The fact that I did not catch it is no criticism of the strongly talented creators, it is just one of those things. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Copperhead Volume 1 . Jay Faerber (Writer), Scott Godlewski (Art), Ron Riley (Colourist), Thomas Mauer (Letters) Image Comics (2015)

A very engaging space western that manages the difficult task of both setting up the situation and cast and nailing the genre requirements with flair.  Clara Bronson is the incoming sheriff in the miles-from-nowhere mining town of Copperhead. The deputy sheriff is a non-human who is both resentful at being passed over for the job and from a species on the losing side of an earlier conflict with humanity while the local mining tycoon is used to being listened to by the sheriff. With an incident at a hillbilly residence out of town and Clara’s son behaving like a boy the story gathers momentum and moves steadily down to the closing hook for the next arc. The action is great, it is cleverly used to introduce and reveal the personalities of the cast and fill in the context for the story.
The story bones of a Western are easily transplanted to other contexts, the problem is to make sure that the balance between both is maintained without losing something essential for either. Jay Faerber makes it look easy in Copperhead, the details fit so closely that it just look completely natural, from Clara’s arrival in town which nicely establishes her credentials as someone not to be messed with, to the Natives, the hostile original inhabitants of the planet that Copperhead is located on. Add non-human hillbillies, a drunken town doctor, an overbearing mining tycoon and war veterans who are also artificial life forms and the mix of genres is set. Jay Faerber makes the fantastically difficult task of ensuring that none of the cast are clichés but are recognisable with deceptive ease, they emerge with individual voices and demand the reader’s attention in their own right. Add the difficulty of getting everyone and everything in place without boring or baffling the reader and the strength of the writing can be grasped. All the tasks are completed in a compelling fashion, with a nicely snarky humour that gives the story an extra edge.
Scott Godlewski’s art matches the cast with the dusty landscape, they fit into the context just like they live there. The human cast are very expressive; in particular Clara Benson is given an interesting look. She is allowed to look tense and irritable without ever being undercut for being so. Clearly she has had some problems and she wears them as anyone might, it gives her manner an edge that changes when she is talking to her son. The styles non-human cast are restrained, their body language is very clear and they are different enough to be alien without being so different that they are a jarring in the context.
Ron Riley’s colours capture the sun beaten atmosphere of Copperhead, it is an industrial town in a hot dusty spot, the colours are somewhat faded, they give the town a lived in look. The colours also nicely play the Western card, it is a frontier town and the colours echo quietly and effectively the colours of Western frontier towns from films. Thomas Mauer’s letters are unobtrusive, they blend in with the art while always being distinct. A hard balance and another that is made to look easy and natural. Copperhead is a great genre mash up that delivers the pleasures of both without having to compromise either.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery. Kurtis J. Eiebe (Writer), Roc Upchurch (Art), Ed Brisson (Letters), Image Comics (2014)

This is a very engaging, entertaining and frequently very funny update of the sword and sorcery genre. The Rat Queens are a gang of female mercenaries based in the city of Palisades, they and other assorted gangs are causing considerable problems due to brawling in the city. They are all given tasks by the mayor to get them out of the city, the tasks turn out to be rather different than expected. The Rat Queens return to the city to discover who had set them up and the story unrolls wonderfully from there right down to the unexpected and nicely dark hook for the next story arc.
Kurtis J. Eiebe has captured one of the essentials for a sword & sorcery story, the book fizzles with energy, the entire cast are all loud and vital, each demanding and rewarding a slice of the reader’s attention. The Rat Queens themselves are everything they should be, loving a fight, deeply loyal to each other and trouble for everyone else. They jump off the page with fully formed characters and distinctive approaches to the problems of killing assassins or trolls. They are warrior women who breeze past all the clichés that stand in their way to capture the essence of sword and sorcery and make it their own. They do so in a vividly realised context with a supporting cast who push forward as much as they can, the balance between them all is a joy to behold.
Roc Upchurch’s art is simply stunning, an astonishing combination of very strong character work and very clever panel lays outs that drive and draw out the nuances of the story. The cast move and interact with their context very naturally, the action is fierce and wildly over the top, but never stupid. It is catches just the degree of exaggeration that the genre requires to allow the cast be the larger-than-life characters that they are. Friendship is critical to the story and the expressive art brings it out without ever forcing the issue.
One of the great strengths of the book is Ed Brisson’s lettering and sound effects, this is a really loud book, the action is big and loud and the lettering brings it up to the readers notice without ever intruding. The quieter moments are delivered with the same thoughtful care.This is a great fun book from very talented creators who know what they are doing and doing it very well.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Amongst the Stars. Jim Alexander (Writer), Mike Perkins (Art), Scott Martyniuk (Letters), Will Pickering (Art). Planet Jimbot (2015)


Update from the Chief Wizard (19.06.2015):
'Amongst the Stars' has made the Scottish Independent Comic Book Alliance (SICBA)  short-list for Best Graphic Novel 2015.  The winners will be announced in  Glasgow on the July 4 2015. To celebrate Planet Jimbot put together a PDF sampler of the book, which features 5 pages of the story.  This is absolutely free to everybody. 
For the Amongst the Stars PDF sampler, click on the following link:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/1mcab4gr8utanu7/ATS_SICBA_Sampler.pdf?dl=0,  
Also, the book is on sale at the Planet Jimbot online shop for a special SICBA price of £5.50 plus P&P  https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PlanetJimbot
For details of how to vote check out the official SICBA site:http://www.sicba.org.uk/.
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A very engaging and unexpected story about alien contact that uses a very clever idea to drive the plot. The inhabitants of the planet Tchalling have developed a group consciousnesses, enveloped in The White, a crafted environment that surrounds and supports them. When they reach out and encounter the individual consciousnesses of Earth the shock is tremendous. The smart bit is that the inhabitants of Earth are only vaguely aware of the presence of the of the alien, the impact is massively asymmetrical. The story  unfolds in unexpected ways and with the presence of a disabled academic who bears a strong resemblance to a very famous disabled academic with a strong interest in space and time is just one of the nicely unexpected routes the story follows.
The strongest aspect to the story is the hard boiled optimism that Jim Alexander displays, the future for everyone is hard fought, it is also worth the fight. There is no drop into easy pessimism or deeply cynical destruction for all involved. Rather there is a nicely messy possibility that life is a challenge that should be accepted and pursued. Jim Alexander has neatly found a path through the extremes of an alien contact leading to  future sunny uplands of a shared galactic future for humanity and a remorseless destruction for the natives due to contact with alien ideas, technology and germs. Framing the contact asymmetrically is a great way to create a viable alternative path, the craft that Jim Alexander uses to exploit the opportunity is a pleasure to read.
Mike Perkins art resolves three problems with flair and subtle humour, the alien planet smother in the white dome is featureless, the alien nature of the locaton lies in its blankness rather than the detail. The Tchallins themselves are drawn in very restrained terms, very close to human looking, they look a little like elongated and slightly emaciated punk rock fans with an odd mix of  Mohicans with pony tails. The mastery of body language that Mike Perkins displays prevents them from being just silly and they are strongly expressive and confusion and fear they experience is palpable. The second problem is the bridge the distance between one plant and other in a way that shows the physical as well as the emotional distance. They way that that problem is solved is simple and brilliantly satisfying.
The Earth sequences are full of details, lots of shadows and background. They appear crowed and full compared to the empty scenes on Tchalling, they give weight and solidity to the cast who have been contacted and are affected by it but do not grasp exactly what is going on. There is no significant action for Mike Perkins to go wild with, the biggest set piece is a wedding, the action is much more subtle and low key. It is astonishing how much the art brings out all the nuances in the cast, they are so strongly expressive and still individual. They are not simply signposts, they are given depth and weight which is crucial to the story and the  slingshot finale.

Growing Pains, written by Jim Alexander, art by Will Pickering and letters by Jim Campbell uses pitch black humour to great effect. When the police are called to deal with an incident at a block of flats the outcome is very unexpected and very well set up. Pacing is everything in a story like this where the balance between the set up and pay off has to be very carefully set. Will Pickering's art is uncluttered, it gives the cast the chance to come out strongly, the action and reaction has to be carried by the cast in a very confined space. Jim Campbell's lettering are so effective as to be nearly invisible, they arise so naturally from the cast and story they just speed the reader on to the climax.
Great science fiction and a extra treat, a pleasure.
Chief Wizard's Note:  This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot,  For more information or to order a copy, which you should do, please contact,  planetjimbot@gmail.com

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lamentation. C.J.Sansom. Mantle (2014)

A gripping and greatly enjoyable historical mystery set London 1546 in the last months of Henry VIII's reign. As Henry is declining the political and strongly related religious currents in the country begin to swirl very violently as the the Protestant and Catholic factions at court struggle for dominance. Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer is called to the to the Queen, Catherine Parr, who has written a book which has been stolen. The book is a religious tract which potentially could anger the King and threaten the Queen. Shardlalke agrees to search for the book and finds that he is not the only one searching for the book and that he has been drawn into a very dangerous situation. The story unfolds at a steady pace, the reveals are very well staged, the action is sharp and the conclusion satisfying, surprising and very sharp.
One of the major strengths of the book is is the way that C.J.Sansom  has confidence in his own writing and uses a very simple plot and is willing to let the mix of historical circumstances and characters  drive the story. At a time of highly increased political uncertainty it does not take much to cause ripples and the S.J.Sansom takes full advantage of this, the slim story line is all that the cast need to propel them through entirely believable danger and stress. The rolling sub-plot regarding a disputed inheritance is nicely set up to draw in the danger that surrounded everyone at the time.
The cast are more than equal to the task they have of sustaining reader interest across a long narrative, Matthew Shardlake, the narrator is a man who has discovered doubts about the religious fires that burned in him in his younger years. This, in addition to being physically different, make him a outsider and therefore both a problem to those in power and a useful tool. Shardlake has a wry appreciation of the contradiction and struggles to keep his feet, head and loyalty in slippery circumstances. He is thoughtful, humane and deeply engaging, he is at enough of an angle to the times to be an excellent point of entry for a reader. His need to carefully read his situation all the time provides the extra information a reader needs without ever interrupting the flow of the story.
The supporting cast are loud and noisy, demanding and rewarding the readers attention as they move through the story. Each of them is given the time and attention to emerge as themselves, even through the veil of a first person narrative. From Shardlake's steward to the Queen, the individual voices and responses to stress and danger reveal the cast as developed characters.
The unifying theme of the book is about loyalty, how is it earned, used and abused and the most affecting aspect to this is the friendship between Shardlake and an Catholic ex-monk Guy Malton, another outsider. Their friendship is tested and strained by the choices both make, and Shardlake's feelings about the impact on his relationship with Guy is drawn with subtle care.
This is a first rate political thriller about the dangers and opportunities that arise around a transition in power, the setting is safely far away in time, the mechanics are all too relevant to today.