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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.

The Book of Souls. James Oswald. Penguin Books (2013)

A very engaging and enjoyable police procedural that has a supernatural element carefully woven into the story. A woman is murdered in a way that mimics the work of a serial killer who was caught twelve years previously. That man has been killed in prison and the new victim creates very difficult questions as the match between the previous and current murders is too close to be coincidental. For Detective Inspector Tony McLean the case has a significant personal element, the last victim twelve years ago was his fiancee and it was McLean who found the killer. Now he has to find out if he made a mistake. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are very well staged and the plot mechanics are excellent. The conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
James Oswald takes a tremendous risk with the story and manages it with great flair and skill, a supernatural element in a story tends to dominate the story, it throws all the rules out the window by its presence which is a problem for a crime story where the rules are vital. What James Oswald has done so well is to use the supernatural element as a nicely complicating factor for events that slot nicely into a police procedural format. They supernatural is never in the foreground, it contributes effectively to motive which allows the action of the story to be firmly inside the genre requirements. This is first class mash up writing, the rules for both genres are respected and both are strengthened and illuminated by the other.
Detective Inspector Tony McLean is an engaging and interesting character, he lacks the dysfunctional traits that are often used and instead has a stubborn awkwardness that contributes to his effectiveness as a police officer while acting on a drag to his career progression. This is a very effective way to create the slightly solitary police office required to balance both elements of the story. Detective Inspector Tony McLean has the room to absorb something out of the ordinary and still be a functioning and competent police officer.
The rest of the cast are lively enough to stand by themselves, in particular a kidnap victim who proves that being down is very far from being out. The major intrusion of the supernatural is very cleverly set up, the reveals make it entirely satisfying and nicely unexpected.
A very vividly established context in Edinburgh gives the story a very strong physical anchor, the format of the police procedural gives it straight lines that James Oswald uses cleverly to bring in the unexpected and give the strength and atmosphere. Clever and unexpected, great fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Scarlet Traces: The Great Game. Ian Edginton (Writer), D'Israeli (Artist) Dark Horse Books (2007)

Decades of war are consuming the British Empire made strong by Martian technology. The endless conflict is draining the resources of the Empire and its guiding force, Prime Minister Spry is struggling to retain control. Photo journalist Charlotte Hemming finds herself pulled into the secret struggles to retain order and meets Robert Autumn, a man with an astonishing piece of information and a more astonishing proposal to make. Charlotte Hemming is given the chance to travel to the far off front lines of the conflict to see what is really going on. When she does so she finds a greater and mote dangerous conflict that she could have imagined. The reveals are superbly staged and the plot moves with force and precision as the secret plans of all concerned collide in unexpected ways.
Ian Edginton takes the story of the Martian invasion from H.G. Well's War of the Worlds and pushes it into unexpected and superbly thought out directions. The plot mechanics are deeply satisfying, the stakes are satisfying high and the action smart and sharp. The greatest pleasure of the book is Charlotte Hemming, a woman with the astonishing super power of not being stupid, instead she is inquisitive and capable of thinking and acting in a credible fashion. As a photojournalist in an increasingly oppressive society, she is tough enough to recognise trouble and willing to take a risk for a story. At the same time she is not a professional agent or soldier, she has a strong preference for using her mind rather than a gun and that serves the story really well.
Ian Edgintion delivers a familiar context, a society slowly being crushed under the weight of a war that cannot allow any room for dissent. The reasons for the war are long past any relevance, the story is about the spillover and the slowly emerging fact that there may be a genuine threat beyond the simple facts of a conflict that appears to have no point and no end. Ian Edgintion respects the readers enough to give all of the cast enough intelligence to be convincing and convinced about their actions, the conflict of agendas is substantial not simply brave individuals against a faceless bureaucracy with no interest beyond its own preservation. One of the wonderful aspects of the book is that Ian Edgintion knows how to end a story as adroitly as he starts one.
The art by D'Israeli is an object lesson in how science fiction comics can utilise the limitless budget they have and still anchor a story in crisp relevant detail. The cast move in a natural way through the context, they body language is as eloquent as the dialogue. The technology is never obtrusive, it is clearly different while part and parcel of the ordinary working and living lives of the cast. The colouring is fantastic, it supports and extends the mood of the story, subtle where needed and vibrant at just the right times. Brilliant science fiction from confident and hugely talented creators.

The G File. Hakan Nesser (Writer) Laurie Thompson (Translation) Pan Books (2003)

A woman is found dead in an empty swimming pool, there is nothing to suggest foul play and nothing to suggest an accident either. There is just a body and a location. The complicating factor is the woman's husband, Jaan G. Hennan, a man Chief Inspector Van Veeteren has an unhappy previous knowledge of. An investigation fails to advance beyond the bare facts of the case. Fifteen years later  private investigator, who had been involved in the initial case, is reported missing by his daughter. Evidence suggests that he has solved the problem of of how G murdered his wife, and Van Veeteren emerges again from retirement to assist with the investigation into the disappearance. The story is moves through the two investigations as the first one haunts the second,the reveals are cunningly staged and the plot unfolds quietly right up to the entirely satisfying conclusion.
This book is much more about the cast than the mystery, although the mystery is a brilliantly designed one, action is never to the foreground. The cast are all given a lot of time to think, act and reflect on the investigations they are involved in as well as their lives. This gives the story an expansive and unhurried feel that allows the simple plot to naturally draw in the cast and never feel to frail.
The structure of the book is smart, each section is relatively self contained, they are centered on episodes fifteen years apart but the same cast grapple with a murder in each case and the ghost of the first investigation hangs heavily over the second. Hakan Nesser neatly deals with the weight of unfinished business and the effects of multiple pieces of unfinished business between Van Veeteren and Jan G Hennan complicates matters.
Van Veeteren is a great character, cranky and determined, he is both inside and outside of the investigation, an ambiguous situation that reflects the route of the investigation. There may have been a crime or not, the investigation may be chasing something  or it may be just trying to recover from past failures, when the situation is neatly and nastily resolved Van Veeteren is at the centre of the events. What Hakan Nesser does really well is to show how the rest of the cast are never that far behind Van Veeteren, they are getting to the same place just a little more slowly and the sense that the book is never a one man show. The extensive supporting cast are capable, competent and very engaging. The conversational style of writing that Hakan Nesser uses allows for the cast to sprawl across the investigation and include their wider lives without feeling that the book had lost a focus.
The translation by Laurie Thompson is transparent, this is very clearly a Swedish story, the use of Swedish terms is beautifully judged to support the Swedish nature of the story without ever locking out the reader. Thoughtful, deeply engaging crime fiction at its peak, a pleasure.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Scarlet Traces. Ian Edginton (Writer), D'Israeli (Art). Dark Horse Comics ( 2003)

A brilliant follow on from H.G.Wells, "War of the World's" showing the impact of the Martian invasion of Earth on a massively invigorated British Empire. The invaders from Mars were defeated by microbes, their technology has transformed the world, in particular the British Empire which has used it ruthlessly to establish its global dominance. When a relative of his man servant, Archie Currie, goes missing Robert Autumn starts to investigate the case. Autumn used to work for the secret service of the British government until he was effectively made redundant by the new technology. He takes on the case as a chance to be doing something, and quickly finds that there are very unpleasant forces at work just below the polite surface of the Empire. The plot unwinds in expected and unexpected ways as the full legacy of the invasion is revealed for the winners and the losers.
Ian Edginton has taken a stunning leap forward from the original story as the implications of the technology used to travel across space an invade Earth is taken over and used by the survivors of the invasion. Being able to make a gigantic leap forward on the back of Martian technology would give those in control of it a fantastically dominant position. If that group was already a rapidly industralising and stratified society, they they would be quick to grasp the technology and equally quick to retain the stratification. Ian Edginton does very nicely with this aspect of the story, how the impact of the technology is used to entrench existing social structures even further as the gap between those who benefit from technology and those excluded by it grows ever wider. He does even better with the very nasty secret at the heart of the story, it rings true to the possibilities arsing from the original context mixed carefully and skillfully with a bleaker modern sensibility. Matching a meaty plot with a clever way to bring readers into the story context Ian Edginton never betrays the original while delivering a sharp update.
The art by D'Israeli is stunning. Science fiction relies strongly on a clearly realised physical context that establishes the shape of the unknown world. The seamless mixing of Edwardian England with alien technology so that they look natural is an impressive task, adding a cast that move within that context with weight and force is  jaw dropping. D'Israeli has delivered the feel of a James Bond film, with huge sets and global plots driven by shadowy figures and opposed by lone agents and cast it in a new way. Instead of being an unholy mess, an interesting mess all the same, it all logically coheres with the story and acts to deliver it with an unexpected heartbeat.
That is the most surprising and engaging aspect to the story, the way that the human element, the motives of the cast, from the most personal to the most grandiose all spring from credible characters and never feels forced. This gives the story a powerful emotional context that frames the action and gives it a real grip on the reader. A great comic from astounding talented creators.

Silent Voices. Anne Cleeves. Macmillan (2011)

An enjoyable and entertaining crime story. When a woman is found murdered in the sauna of a hotel, Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope leads the investigation. The victim was a manager in social services and was connected with a very high profile case where the social worker directly involved in the case had just relocated to the same village where the victim lived. The investigation digs into the connections arising from the case and find that it has threads with the victim that add to the mystery rather than resolve it. The story unfolds very nicely, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is sharp and heartfelt.
Vera Stanhope dominates the book, not to the extend of excluding the rest of the cast, she is the driving force of the story and the investigation, everyone else is essentially pulled along in her wake. Anne Cleeves has developed a character who can take on the task and relish it, Vera Stanhope dominates because that is absolutely who she is. The investigation ignites her, it is the thrill of the hunt that pushes her and that  fierce energy puts her center stage in a very natural way. Ann Cleeves gives Vera Stanhope an almost ridiculous reversal of the physical style and shape of most female leads in crime fiction. She is probably overweight, she has eczema and the drinking and personal habits more frequently associated with lone male counterparts. All of which allow her vibrant, fantastically cantankerous personality shine out all the more, Vera does not have to worry about any aspect of femininity, her looks are never a problem.
The rest of the cast all shine a little less brightly by comparison, none are simply convenient sketches, all of the cast are given care and attention, all given the chance to be themselves. In particular Ann Cleeves has given convincing life to two women who could easily have been shadows, pulled into the life of a tower of selfishness, instead in a nicely understated way both are given voices and hearts of their own that lead them to unexpected directions.
The plot mechanics are excellent, the threads nicely obscure and then pull together to reveal a nasty line of connections and reactions that in turn create their own connections and reactions. The cast outside of the investigation are caught so closely in the plot that they are in danger of just be puppets, Anne Cleeves manages to balance the humanity and the plot effectively enough so that the motives spring from the cast rather that via them.
This is a one woman show, happily the star is more that capable of bringing it off, Vera Stanhope is well worth spending time with.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The PreHistory of The Far Side. A 10th Anniversary Exhibit. Gary Larson (Writer & Artist). Warner Books (1992)

A very enjoyable and engaging book that allows Gary Larson the room to talk about his comics and other topics as well as presenting a gallery of Far Side cartoons.
The first section is the origin of the Far Side, including picture from young Gary Larson's life that are as clever and sharp as any Far side panel. The steady development of the perspective that came to flower in the Far Side is nicely laid out, the same humour is evident, its really  form that developed rather than the content.
The second section is a fascinating look at the various processes that Gary Larson used to develop a Far Side panel. Gary Larson tackles the most absurd and important question that any creator gets asked, "Where do your ideas come from?". For all of us with our noses pressed against the wrong side of the window from the creative process this is heartfelt, we can see what the creator sees after it is shown to us. We participate but do not create, and it is entirely fair to wonder "How did you see that?", see something that is crystal clear after it has been pointed out and completely, cosmically invisible beforehand. Gary Larson does not answer the question anymore than anyone can, what he does do is generously share the visible steps in a process that lead to a panel. Most importantly for any Far Side fan it includes the Cow Zero panel, the first Far Side panel featuring a cow, and happily it is a joy as well.
A Sketchbook Sampler and Stories are just what the titles say they are, random jottings that Gary Larson insists have no relevance or significance, except for the fact that they are the random sketch book of the creator of the Far Side and feel like roads not taken, directions that could have been followed if the Far Side format not established itself as creatively satisfying.
Mutations (Mistakes, Mine & Theirs) is a section about elements of a panel that Gary Larson now regrets or dislikes and mistakes made in the publishing process. Subtle Things is a detailed process look at some of the elements of some Far Side panels, why they work or did not.
One of the most fascinating part of the book is Public Response, complaints about Far Side panels from newspaper editors and readers. The range of complaints is very wide and all to take a single panel cartoon much too seriously.
The final two sections of the book are Rejected Cartoons, and the Exhibition, a selection of Far Side panels that Gary Larson has chosen form from the previous 10 years of work because he liked them.
Single panel cartoons are astounding difficult to pull off, everything has to be clear all at once so the carton explodes like a firework. Gary Larson manages to cram so much unseen context into a simple subtle panel that each cartoon unfolds in the reader's imagination at the speed of light. Whatever the idea he sees it in a way that is entirely , colossally obvious and hilarious after you read it and utterly mysterious before that. Probably the most astonishing aspect to the whole thing is that each time I read them, they are still new and dazzlingly funny, the creative force burns each time.  A great book that happily explains noting about an extraordinary talent but shows it off to wonderful effect.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Reviver. Seth Patrick.Pan Books (2013)

An enjoyable story that takes too long to fully engage the plot mechanics.Jonah Miller has a talent for reviving the newly dead, a talent used to allow murder victims testify about their deaths. When Jonah has a disturbing encounter with a murder victim, he believes it to be a hallucination. When a revival involving Daniel Harker, the man who revealed the existence of revivers has very unexpected consequences, Jonah finds himself pulled into a secret war. The story unfolds effectively, the reveals are well staged and the plot, once engaged, works well.
The story idea is excellent and the possibilities are properly explored, just in the wrong key. Seth Patrick devotes a lot of time to establishing how revivers moved from the fringes of society into the mundane middle, working for law enforcement and insurance companies. This is very nicely done, the process is accepted at large and opposition is a fringe activity.
When it becomes clear that revivers may be opening a door to more than just the dead, the tone and momentum of the story do not shift sufficiently. The story has moved definitively out of the established context and it needs more momentum to deliver it, the stakes in the conflict are raised without raising the temperature as well. It is not the ordinary that is important, it is the extra ordinary that should explode from the story that is important. How the surface tension of the revivers hides a nasty web of ambition and mistaken confidence about forces that would like to emerge from the shadows does not catch fire the way it needs to.The low key approach does work really well for the human aspect to the struggle, including a very well set up haunting, the cosmic scale of the threat never really comes into view.
The cast are very well set up, Jonah is complex and competent and mercifully rarely stupid, the supporting cast are given the space to emerge in their own right and engage the reader enough to make then care. The motives are clear and credible, Seth Patrick can deliver a nasty edge when required. Overall an enjoyable book, it is a pistol shot when it needs to be a cannon blast.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Silenced. Kristina Ohlsson (Writer) .Sarah Death (Translation).Simon & Schuster (2013)

A gripping and very enjoyable crime story that mixes a large cast and sharp, biting plot mechanics to great effect. A special investigation in the Stockholm police have two possible cases to look at, a murder suicide and a hit and run. They have to decide if either bear further investigation or should they be referred to other units, as they investigate them it becomes clear that both are more complicated than they appear. As the investigations progress the more complicated the crimes become and slowly unexpected connections start to emerge. The story is very well constructed, the various narrative strands start to bind together as the ice cold heart at the centre starts to become revealed. The resolution is as unforgiving as frostbite and sourly satisfying.
One of the two major strengths of the book is the cast, in particular the principals of the special investigation team. Kristina Ohlsson gives them the time and space to establish their award, very messy private lives and their focused competent professional lives. The gap between the two is a consistent source of tension in the story that runs in parallel to the investigation. None are stereotypical flawed police officers, they do not have substance abuse problems or incompetent superiors, they do have significant relationship problems all of which are carefully rooted in their different personalities and domestic context's. The exploration of the cast's lives never feels like a distraction from the action in the book, they are very engaging and strongly motivated characters. Their lives very naturally extend beyond the investigation and draw the reader with them.
The supporting cast are all treated with care and attention, they are given enough space and time to establish themselves before a merciless plot catches up with them. The plot mechanics are the second major strength of the book, they are superb. They are cunningly set up and the the reveals are superbly set up and the twists are very thoughtful and have real force. When the full scale of the plans become visible the staggering impact of profound selfishness is revealed. The plot details are credible and nasty, they work because they are rooted in all too tangible motives and cloaked with self deception. The sole reservation I have is the use of sexual violence as a plot point, the impact is unexpected, I still strongly disagree with it, it always feel like a lazy way to resolve a problem.