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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wolf Country 4: Cavalry.. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters), Liz Howarth (Editor), Luke Cooper (Cover Art). Planet Jimbot July 2015

Gripping and entraining, the issue has a very clever balance between conflict and aftermath in the city and the settlement as the plot mechanics start to take up the weight of the story. At the settlement the assault lead by the giant werewolf on the Settlement starts. The inhabitants fight back while the soldiers returning from a patrol attack the wolves from the rear.  In the city Halfpenny finds himself surrounded by an angry crown as he leaves the house where Fabian was assassinated. The confrontation is exactly to Halfpenny's liking, it becomes deadly very quickly. The aftermath of the two confrontations are not conclusive, they push open doors to further complications and trouble for everyone.
This issue marks the point where the set up has been completed and the story has to develop by itself and it is doing so with the usual care and attention from Jim Alexander. The question of why the vampires do not simply drink the werewolves blood is definitively answered  and the precarious situation of the Settlement, which has many more enemies than just werewolves is made plain. Suitably in the more complex area of the city Halfpenny enjoys his triumph while still not quite grasping the danger from his apparent allies. Jim Alexander nicely matches the action with the context, more straightforward and direct in the Settlement, dangerously ambiguous in the city.
Will Pickering moves from widescreen action to multiple panel pages to single panel pages with strong control of the pacing and story requirements. Crowd scenes get the space they need to set the context, the action is much more focussed and personal.Conflict is hand to hand and it gets the attention it needs to display the personal aspect to every encounter. The werewolves and the vampires are not simply battling each other, they have to obliterate each other. In the city the clash of faith and politics is no less personal, it just is expressed in slightly different terms. The art captures the forces behind the action and gives the conflict a sharper edge.
Wolf Country continues to be a wonderful comic, a tremendous idea being executed with flair and thoughtful skill leading in unexpected directions and developing a deeply engaging and independent cast. It is a pleasure to see the huge promise made in the first  issue being realised in such a positive and confident way.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. The book is available for pre-order on the new Planet Jim shop hop on-line:  https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PlanetJimbot. You should treat yourself and get it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Maidenstone 1. Chris Robertson (Writer), Scott Beveridge (Art), Andrew Kelly (Cover), LA Baguette Noir Press 2015

An engaging and very enjoyable opening chapter that manages to set up the story very effectively. Lucy Maitland's father has died under mysterious circumstances and the grief has fractured her faily. Her mother does not want to talk about what she is feeling or thinking and her brother, Jamie, is talking far too much about it. Lucy is caught in the middle trying to keep everyone together, including herself. The town where she lives is sharply divided also, the families that have been in the area for generations and families who came for work on the oil rigs off shore. An explosive confrontation after her father's wake leads to Lucy meeting Dylan who is definitely more than he seems.
A set up is a difficult task to manage, a lot of information has to be presented in a short space of time, the cast introduced, the context established and the plot mechanics set in motion all without confusing or drowning the reader. Chris Robertson has managed the process with deft skill and care, the pacing of the set up is wonderful. He takes enough time to introduce Lucy, her family and her town so that when the action arrives it is both natural and feels inevitable. Lucy is a great lead character, she has a clear and distinctive voice, she is someone and she manages to contain all of the forces pulling at her until releasing them makes her vulnerable to kindness. The rest of the cast are full of life and action, they push and shove to get the readers attention and make the context fill with life and vigor.
Scott Beveridge's art is striking, this is Lucy's story told directly by a teenage girl and the art feels like it was drawn directly by Lucy. The way she sees herself when she is in school, making a dress, out with her mother, playing a computer game with her brother. always the same person but also very different. The art makes the story very personal, it is not events happening to someone else, this is not what happened, this is what it felt like was happening. This is really effective as the final panels show the trouble ahead and the reader is not simply observing a character heading for trouble. Lucy has taken a literal and metaphorical beating and that is barely the start, and the reader is pulled right in.
Maidenstone is a great start, the stakes have been raised very nicely and the the promise of the story is substantial.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly send by  Chris Robertson, for more details on how to get a copy, and you should treat yourself to one, you can check here, www.baguettenoirpress.co.uk, or here www.facebook.com/baguettenoirpress.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Blacksad : Amarillo. Juan Diaz Canales (Writer), Juanjo Guardino (Art) Neal Adams & Katie LaBarbera (Translation) Dark Horse Comics (2014)

John Blacksad finds himself on the road across 1950s America, cruising in a golden Cadillac Eldorado west from New Orleans, while taking a much needed rest from the deadly dramas that dog his feline tail-or so he thinks. Before long Blacksad’s hard luck catches up with him, landing him smack in the middle of another murdr and the pursuit of a down-and-out Beat generation writer whose own luck might just have run out.
Beautiful art and engaging writing combine to deliver an entertaining story of a road trip across a mythical, noir, 1950’s America. John Blacksad gets an chance to drive a golden Cadillac Eldorado from New Orleans to Amarillo and hopes for an easy trip. It starts to go wrong when the car is stolen and there is a murder.  As Blacksad pursues the car and is in turn pursued by vengeful FBI agents, a despairing writer finds that his life is slipping further out of control as he tries to deal with falling in love with a woman in trouble and a agent wanting the manuscript he has finished but cannot release. The story threads tie up very nicely to a satisfying conclusion that captures the tone of the book very nicely.
Juan Diaz Canales has taken all the classic elements of the noir genre, and chosen to focus on the most neglected one, the wounded romance between lovers that is doomed by circumstances arising before they meet. This gives the book a less grim tone than it would otherwise deserve as the cast of desperate people swirl around each other all looking for something. One of the astonishing parts of the book is the way that Juan Diaz Canales conjures up an America that never was that still seems true and recognisable. He captures the look and feel from the mythology of post-war America, the Beat generation and the dislocated lives of those locked out of the American Dream.  The anthropomorphic cast fit perfectly into the America that never was, they are never caricatures, and they are vivid and alive, never representing anyone but themselves. There is a big heart beating in the story, it is scarred and bruised but never cold or mean spirited.
The astounding art by Juanjo Guardino is a sensual, luxurious pleasure for the reader, it invites slow reading to soak up the detail and revel in the craft. It is deeply purposeful, the details are never extra, they are there to draw out and support the story and cast. It is wonderfully balanced between so powerful that it could simply crush the story and being severely practical, delivering the context and cast so that the story in clear and explicit. Any panel is a joy in itself, combined they serve sequential storytelling with strict care and pacing to serve the overall purposes of the book. Any artist who is drawing an anthropomorphic cast has a tricky problem, tying not to betray the essential aspects of both human and animal. Juanjo Guardino cast look natural and fit into their shapes with confident ease.The translation by  Katie LaBarbera and Neal Adams is invisible, the dialogue is easy and flowing, the cast speak in distinctive voices that never jar. A glorious comic experience.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hollow Girl. I am No One. Luke Cooper (Writer & Artist) Scar Comics (2015)

Girls, guns, ghosts and gangsters all expertly stirred together by Luke Cooper into an engaging and hugely enjoyable comic. A woman in a white mask is picked up by two men, one takes her to a hotel room where he reveals that he has something nasty in mind. The woman reveals that she too has other plans for the encounter and it all starts to go thoroughly wrong for everyone. A flashback introduces Katherine Harlow who has just killed her parents for pretty much no reason and is put in a psychiatric  unit for observation. When the ghost of a victim of a sexual predator who is coming for Katherine, offers to help Katherine accepts. Using a very well staged time shifting narrative, Luke Cooper cuts between both times as the Hollow Girl delivers revenge for those who cannot.
Starting from the introduction Luke Cooper shows that he is a very smart, sharp writer who takes a wide array of ideas and makes them seamlessly work together. The classic superhero idea of some external agency giving the hero their powers is neatly subverted by the fact that the powers are coming from vengeful ghosts. By themselves they are wisps of unfulfilled anger, give them a willing host and they are ready to exact their revenge. Hollow Girl is the anti-superhero, getting powers to wreak bloody mayhem on others, justice is not included, this is payback with all its force and impact.
Luke Cooper resolves several story problems with wit and sharp thinking, the first and most important being the problem of hollow girl herself. After her astonishing introduction there is nothing more that can really be done with her, Luke Cooper resolves this by doing nothing more with her. Hollow girl is a vessel for those who fill her and the cast who surround her are interacting with the ghosts and the possibilities of that are artfully exploited by Luke Cooper to the full.
The supporting cast are a joy, busting with, frequently malicious, life they are never just convenient blood filled targets. They are ready to return fire and never go down easy. In one panel Caliban, a gang leader explains succinctly what the problem with the situation is and that panel nails the force of the book. All of the cast are driven by something and that means that when they collide they do so with force and real impact.
Luke Cooper's art is distinctive and full of energy. For an action driven book movement is crucial and Luke Cooper is a master of movement, the action has a weight and impact that the story needs. Grounding the story is hard physical action is a excellent counterweight to the wispy nature of the ghosts, it allows the supernatural aspect of the story slide by without upsetting or unbalancing the action. Where required a solidly physical reason is provided for physical skills, the ghosts are not there to provide easy solutions to someone shooting at you. It is a considerable tribute to Luke Cooper's skill that a colour scheme of black, white and grey is just right for the noir tones of the story.
Do not let the title mislead you, Hollow Girl is really is someone.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Luke Cooper, who is running a KIckstarter campaign to fun publication of the book. This is the link to the Kickstarter page,
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/339233852/hollow-girl-by-luke-cooper ,
where digital, softback,  and hardback editions as well as PDFs, posters, sketches and a t-shirt are being offered as extras. Support excellent comics and give yourself the pleasure of reading one, support the Kickstarter.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Poisoned Chalice. Bernard Knight. Pocket Books 1998.


This is an engaging and enjoyable historical mystery which uses the medieval setting very effectively. December 1194 in Exeter and the newly created coroner, Sir John De Wolfe is called to a local village regarding a shipwreck. A question has been raised about the fate of the sailors who were washed ashore. A more complicated question arises with the rape of a well born young woman; the uncertain jurisdictional lies between the Sheriff and the Coroner make the crime much more complex to investigate. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the Sheriff is John de Wolfe’s brother-in-law and the thoroughly dislike each other. When woman is found dead and apparently attempting to have an abortion the clamour against a local silversmith turns serious. The story unwinds carefully, the reveals are very well staged and the resolution satisfying and complete.
Bernard Knight deftly uses the investigations inside and outside Exeter to explain the new created role of coroner and the political and social structure of the period without ever just dumping information on the reader. With Crowner John involved in an investigation over which he has undisputed control and in one where every move he makes is disputed by the existing authority in the shape of the sheriff, the structures and political pressures of the times are revealed very naturally. This structure leaves the cast the space to be themselves and not have to carry ant weight of exposition, which is great as they are a loud rowdy lot who are all, happily jostling for the reader’s attention.
Connected as he is to the top of Exeter society by his job and marriage, Crowner John is connected to the other side of the city by his Welsh, innkeeper mistress, Nesta. This structure allows the whole of the city to be involved without feeling that it has been shoehorned in for effect. The very small size of medieval life is nicely conveyed, social distances were much greater than physical ones could be and the friction is captured well.
The plot mechanics are excellent, the threads of the plot are very well set up and as the investigation continues the questions are neatly raised and answered in surprising and engaging ways. The sharp bend at the end is thoughtful and effective; it comes directly from the story yet is suitably unexpected. The mystery and the setting are well stitched together, the action is not simply laid over a picturesque setting, it depends on the dynamics of the context to work. A good fun read.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

50 Witch Stories. Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert A. Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg (Editors). Goodwill Publishing House

A hugely entertaining and engaging collection of witch stories that is extraordinary in their variety and the skilful selection.  This anthology no duds and a satisfyingly large number of very good stories and a surprising number of stand out. Below are some thoughts about the stories I liked the best.
Gramma Grunt written by Donald R. Burleson is the first story in the collection and it announces the quality to follow with flair and a nicely darkening tone. Messing with a witch is rarely a good plan and Jason Mitchell finds out that a witch can have a very long memory and an even longer reach.
The Fit written by Ramsey Campbell is a very dark mix of sexual awareness, family and a vengeful witch. The oppressive atmosphere of the context is beautifully conjured and the witch sharply malicious. It is the way that the currents of the story are guided together into an multi-layered confrontation is a wonder of economical, biting writing.
The Mandrakes written Clark Ashton Smith is a joy, the wonderful language that seems archaic without every creaking, a sharp plot and fierce outcome all managed and controlled with seemly effortless mastery of the form and content.
The Only Way to Fly written by Nancy Holder looks at a witch flying to a retirement home on an aeroplane who has a chance to think hard about the choices she has made. Nancy Holder carefully set up the question of , how late is too late and delivers an unexpected and very satisfying answer.
Of Time and Space written by Hugh B. Cave is a gripping story of poisonous gift and the festering memory of a wrong. While the main character is unsympathetic and as the reveal shows has earned his fate, the process is neatly done and the reader is drawn in as much as Victor Dalbin is into the grip of the plot.
A Matter of Honour by R. K. Partain is charming, funny and smartly unexpected, marrying a witch means having a mother-in-law who has a large range of ways of making her displeasure felt. An old fashioned solution is proposed and the outcome is perfectly judged and executed.
Cerile and the Journeyer written by Adm-Troy Castro and The Wich of the World's End written by Darrell Schweitzer benefit greatly by being placed together in the sequence, Cerile first then the Witch of the Worlds End. Both are similar in that they are strongly flavoured by fairy and folk tales while both are strongly individual and very different to each other. They have loss and longing as central themes captured and unfurled in different ways, reading them in sequence allows echoes and contrasts arise that increase the pleasure from both.
The Devil's Men by Brian Stableford and The Caress of Ash and Cinder written by Cindie Geddes are another set of stories that share a theme with very different treatments that work very well as individual stories and as a pair. Both are concerned with the clash of politics and witchcraft leading to horrible public deaths, both capture the relentless cruelty of power ever so willing to sacrifice others for its own aims. Bleak and painful, the stories never falter and have a melancholy strength to their writing.
Suffer a Witch written by Mike Baker is a very black comedy about the consequences that follow being a good witch, a witch dedicated to using witchcraft for good and being in the most pejorative version of the term, a do-gooder. The set up is superb and the pay off horrifying and satisfying.
This anthology has great stories and a smart and thoughtful sequence that balances individual stories as well as creating a consistent variety.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Amazing & Fantastic Tales 5. Jim Alexander (Writer), Glen Fleming,Paulina Vasseliva, Jon Howard (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters) Planet Jimbot (2015)

This is the final instalment in the very engaging and enjoyable anthology series and the standard is maintained all the way.
Kroom 5 & 6, (Written by Jim Alexander , art & colours by Glenn B. Fleming)  shifts the story into high gear as a confrontation between Kroom, the dimension travelling alien, Ellie the human he picked up from Earth and some very hostile aliens leads to a revelation about Kroom. A second crisis brings a question of life or death and leads to the nicely open ended finale. A lot of story is packed into the pages, it never feels rushed or choppy, the connection between Kroom and Ellie has depth and strenght, the choices made feel natural .
Glen B. Fleming's art is stronhly expressive, in a panel that shows Kroom's face as he realises his decision is wonderful, the following panel is very nicely explosive and final. The art is very stripped down, it gives the clear centre stage to the cast, other than a short and intense burst of action the drama is in the connection between Kroom and Ellie. Glen B. Fleming brings out that connection and provides a rock solid context for it in the expressive body language and gestures of the cast.
The Last Posse 5 & 6. (Written by Jim Alexander , art by Paulina Vasseliva).  Jim Alexander shows the truth of the saying "It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of  the fight in the dog that counts" The posse are facing off against the whole town, they have found the epicentre of the trouble and they step right into it. The action splits over three separate locations and the depth of the horror in the town become finally clear. Jim Alexander uses classic Western set ups with the scenes, each has a very nice twist that maintains the essential mix of Western and horror without loosing the balance of either. The third set up very explicitly uses the mix as the reason for the Posse arriving in the town and the cause of the horror in the town become clear.The dry-as-dust humour of the ending is entirely fitting and satisfying.
Paulina Vasseliva's sketches capture the spirit of the posse, their sheer stubborn courage and finally the deep thirst that a desert trek can give a man.
Facts of Life (Written by Jim Alexander, art by Jon Howard, Letters by Jim Campbell) is a smart, unexpected and slyly funny story that very nicely subverts readers expectations. A fierce religious mother uses goldfish to explain the fact of life to her son, a set up that leads very entertainingly, if slightly unsurprisingly to a very awarded encounter and very surprisingly to a very clever conclusion.
Jon Howard's art is a gorgeous, detailed delight and a feast to read. The story works so well because the art embodies the shifting tone so completely, the reader is neatly and happily suckered. The art takes all the room that the slender story provides and uses it to fill it out completely, the drama is realised with a light touch that hides the craft and care that have been used is building it.
Any anthology runs the risk of variations in quality, tone or subject jarring the overall impact and intent of the book. Once again Amazing & Fantastic Tales shows that it is possible to have an astonishing variety that delivers an engaging and harmonious whole.
Chief Wizard Note:   This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot. A&FT#5 will be officially launched in Glasgow on Thursday 7th May 2015. For more information or to order a copy, which you should do, please contact,  planetjimbot@gmail.com