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Monday, February 22, 2016

Help Line. Faye Sultan & Teresa Kenny. Fourth Estate Limited (1999)

A very gripping and enjoyable crime thriller that has a satisfyingly bitter undertow. Portia McTeague is a forensic psychologist who is taking a self imposed break from criminal work and running a private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. The very violent death of a local  semi-celebrity and psychic healer catches her attention but does not engage her. Portia is too involved with her own personal affairs, including a relationship with a private investigator and raising her adopted daughter to be distracted. A new patient, who is pursuing an agenda of his own and a worrying call into the Help Line where Portia volunteers start the process that draws Portia into the investigation and down a route that leads to a savage conclusion.
Faye Sultan and Teresa Kenny take an unusual and interesting approach to a well settled crime genre story, a forensic psychologist who is involved in the case of a serial killer. The choose to come at the crimes from an angle rather than head on, the narrative has really major lines with the killer having what is an essentially walk on part. The secondary major thread is the the story arc of an ambitious journalist and his equally ambitious editor-in-chief and their mutual desire to use each other as comprehensively as possible. This duo are a striking study in selfishness and the hunger for power, the similarities that draw them together that also ensure that they could nor remain united. The editor-in-chief is an impressive portrait of a ambitious woman who is determined to achieve her goals and has no concerns about how to do so. What is refreshing is that she is allowed to be herself without any punishment for daring to be an ambitious, selfish human. She is not very nice, she is intensely credible and burns with a fire that the reader can feel. The journalist is equally selfish and determined on his goals, he comes off as weaker than the editor partly because of their relative positions and partly because there is simply less substance in his character.
Portia McTeague follows a very unusual story arc as she steadily moves into the orbit of the killer and realises that she has done so. Portia is bored with the private practice and would like to return to criminal work, while at the same time not wishing to have the pubic pressure that comes with it. She chooses a low profile way to engage with the case and finds herself pulled into it. It is this process that is done very differently, Portia McTeague slowly and steadily burns all her personal bridges as the pressure of the case meshes nicely with her explosive insecurities. Portia is an astoundingly angry charachter, anrgy with her lover, her friends and her therapist as they all stubbornly refuse to see that she is perfectly correct in every way all the time. Her flight from vulnerability is not manipulated by the killer, it lies entirely within Portia's own hands. The collision when it comes is brutal because Portia has arrived at the situation as a free agent, the sheer force of the tragic inevitability of her self destructive actions is all the greater. The fact that Portia is competent, brave and in spite of her refusing sympathy from those around her, sympathetic, makes this a very engaging journey for the reader.
This is a smart, unexpected crime story that uses clever plot mechanics and a superb cast to great effect, a pleasure.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wolf Country 5. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters), Liz Howarth (Editor), Luke Cooper (Cover Art). Planet Jimbot (2016)

A confident and very engaging aftermath issue that manages a very difficult story problem with flair and wit. The vampire settlement is in trouble, the soldiers are torturing Carmichael and the vampire settlers are starving. Natasha, wife of the settlement leader Halfpenny has a physic encounter with Luke, the vampire who has fled to the werewolves. She considers what to do next and makes a decision. In the city Halfpenny finds that trouble is simply getting deeper and Luke finds that life among the werewolves is sweet and very dangerous.
This is a very dense issue, packed with information and establishing the new status quo after the events in the city and the big assault on the settlement. This can be a very difficult story problem to solve, the momentum of the story slows abruptly from the big set pieces and it can be a bit anti-climatic for the reader. Jim Alexander manages the process very nicely by mixing updates with new information and tying them very smartly together to provide a start for the next wave of events. The new information is the reappearance of Luke, the vampire who fled to the wolves, his situation is used to provide information about the werewolves. This gives a necessary balance to the story as they have been seen only from the vampires point of view up to now. The second piece of new information is about what can kill a vampire, this is tied directly to the deaths in the city and the slow starvation being suffered by the settlers.
Both of these pieces of new information add to the increasingly tense and dangerous context for the settlers and Halfpenny in the city, the circumstances are steadily getting worse. The most enjoyable and engaging aspect to this issue is the emergence of Natasha as the de facto leader of the settlers. As fanatical as her husband, Natasha is much more suited to the complex circumstances that have arisen. She is resilient and thoughtful, she sees the complex situation much more clearly than Halfpenny and acts as decisively as he does when she needs to. Jim Alexander has written a entirely credible female character who is just herself, fantastic.
Will Pickering's art has an equally heavy load to lift and does so with ease and wonderful attention to detail. The action is relatively subdued, mostly talking and it has to be delivered without loosing the reader. the way that the panels are used to vary the story pace and the beautiful body language of the cast is astonishing. They draw in the reader to the information and allow the density of the information to be spread carefully so it never feels crowded. A apparently simple sequence where Natasha is having a conversation with some other female settlers is a masterclass in how to make a static setting spring to life. The sequence moves the point-of-view smoothly and each panel is used to great effect. This sequence is where Natasha really starts to come into her own and it is smart work that it is a conversation that provides the opportunity for her to do so.
Jim Campbell's letters continue to subtly and persuasively support the story, the are so easy to read that they slip by, they work with the art to sound just right.
Serial storytelling is tricky, in particular where the events are quiet and a lot of information is presented. This issue is an outstanding example of how showing and telling can support each other to deliver a combination that is truly more than the sum of its parts.
Chief Wizard note: This is a review issue very kindly sent by Jim Alexander at Planet Jimbot. Wolf Country 5 will be launched at Dunfermline Comic Con on Saturday 5th March 2016 To purchase Wolf Country (you can order all five issues at a keen price for the set), and you should, this is an outstanding comic that has a stunning story idea backed by astonishing execution, go to

Saturday, February 6, 2016

SinEater 2. JoJo King (Writer), Chase Dunham (Art), Alex Giles (Letters) Insane Comics (2016)

A gloriously confident second issue that pushes the story forward with tremendously engaging force. Cassandra and Nik manage to leave the town and trying to decide where to go. The decide, more or less, and head out on their trek and find themselves in very significant trouble which may well be just an introduction to even more significant trouble to come.
The confidence of the creative team is a joy to red, the art is allowed to do the heavy lifting where required, at other points dialogue is crucial and it is presented in an way that prevents it being a simple information dump, it is smartly dynamic and informative. The action is outstanding, brutal without ever obliterating the story and used to reveal the cast as they respond to pressure.
JoJo King has solved a number of story problems with great skill, the first and foremost how to develop Cassandra into a more robust character. In the first issue she was much more acted upon that in control, in this issue she strides strongly into a more assertive role that she is going to have to have to support the story, she is becoming herself away from the walls of the town. The entity inside Cassandra introduces itself much more fully and introduces a key plot element. This is a hard process to manage, a lot of information has to be delivered to Cassandra and the reader, JoJo King uses a dream sequence to do so. This is a very standard way to solve such a problem, the way that JoJo King uses it neatly displays why it is a standard. Used as well as it is here it gives the room to deliver information without disrupting the flow on the story. Any issue should have enough self contained action to feel substantial in its own right and e able to use that action to propel the story forward, very easy to say, considerably harder to achieve. JoJo King has made it look remarkably easy and natural.
Chase Dunham's art is a pleasure to read, from static scences to frenzied action, the clarity and focus of the art is unvarying. The cast are given enough context form them to be physically grounded all the time, their body language is eloquent. A silent sequence of Cassandra and Nik travelling through the forest is a master class of managing time and compressing action to give the reader the sense of the journey without ever delaying them. The fact that the cast also reveal themselves a bit more in their responses to minor obstacles is just a measure of who well crafted a comic this is. The action sequences are fast and very violent, the details are very well judged, enough to make it have an impact, not enough to stop the story in its tracks with too much information. This is crucial for one particular encounter, it is both horrifying and restrained enough to make a point without revolting the reader.
Alex Giles letters are so easy to read that they just glide by, they never draw attention to themselves, except when they should, they give the entity inside Cassandra a extra edge and clearly mark the difference from the supernatural to the human. The sound effects are used with precision, they mark the moments with the emphasis they deserve.
SinEater 2 is a great comic, it takes the story in the general direction it should and in ways that are happily unexpected.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by JoJo King. To purchase a copy of SinEater 2, which would be a great way to treat yourself to the pleasure a really smart comic go to,

Friday, February 5, 2016

Headhunter. Michael Slade. Book Club Associates (1985)

Gripping, very violent, superbly plotted crime story. A female murder victim is found in Vancouver, the body has no head, when a second victim is found a Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a task force as the murders and the public reaction escalate. The investigation follows several different possible avenues in the US and Canada until the final savage and bitterly satisfying conclusion superbly draws the threads of the story into horrifying focus.
This is a very ambitious story which takes substantial storytelling risks in the structure of the narratives and they all pay off. The story is split across three major threads, the headhunter and victims, the public reaction to the crimes and the police investigation. The major thread is the investigation which in turn is split among various cast members as they pursue leads and attempt to manage the impact of the investigation on their lives. Michael Slade is in no hurry to demonstrate how these threads work together, the reveals are cunning staged to carefully reveal and obscure at the same time so that when they connections are revealed in full they are deeply satisfying and change the meaning of previous events.
The depth of technical skill that Michael Slade displays in shaping and managing readers expectations to maximum impact is simply astonishing. There is no cheating , no plot short cuts to falsely baffle the reader and allow the author to exit plot dead ends without explanation, the structure of the story is used to maximum effect.
The way that the story problem of retaining the momentum of the investigation that is not succeeding is superbly solved by having several different leads play out in full. This constantly moves the focus of the story and the investigation, shows the enormous range of the problem and gives the very large cast room to show themselves off to the reader in meaningful ways. As each lead is tied up the pressure on the investigation is increasing all the time, the tension between activity and failing to find a viable line in the head hunter is maintained credibly. These are competent police officers, they are exerting them selves greatly, they are getting results all the time, just not the results that they need.
The subtle parallel between the escalating anger, frustration and terror of the public at large and the political establishment and the enormous toll being taken on the commander of the investigation is wonderful, it gives a public and deeply private emotional context for the events and the investigation. This context draws the reader into the details of the story and gives it powerful force that pay off with astonishing impact.
One of the most engaging aspects to the story is the role of walk on characters, the ease with which they are introduced, establish themselves as a meaningful presence is a joy. They frequently die under appalling circumstances or else simply wander out of the story, they never at any point feel like plot devices, they have a genuine individual impact on the story and the reader.
Bearing in mind the extraordinary technical accomplishments of the story structure, the enormous and vivid cast and the absolute mastery of plot mechanics it is staggering to find that Michael Slade is in fact thee co-writers, the level of creative co-ordination is extremely impressive. Headhunter is top flight thriller writing, not to be missed.