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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wolf Country. Volume 1. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering, Luke Cooper (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters), Planet Jimbot (2016)

A hugely enjoyable and engaging comic that takes a genre staple to very happily unexpected directions with style and force. There is a vampire settlement in werewolf country, the settlement is an expression of religious devotion to the dictates of the vampire god. The werewolves consider the settlement to be sacrilege, the battle between the settlement and the wolves is total, there can be no peace only victory. As the leader of the settlement is recalled to the vampire city he finds that the brutal simplicity of the settlement leaves him dangerously unprepared for the politics of the Kingdom. The settlement has a troop of soldiers from the city arrive and they bring the same conflict with them. There is also the severe problem of the vampire, a (unintentional) hero to the vampires, who arrives at the settlement and does not return from a trip further into wolf country. An apparently straightforward conflict is becoming complex and the settlement will have to work hard to identify their real enemies.
Werewolves fighting vampires is an gene staple for a really good reason, it holds a huge range of story possibilities, Jim Alexander strikes out in a wonderfully unexpected direction with two really smart decisions, the first is to exclude humans from the story and the second was to frame the conflict as a religious war. Without humans the vampires and werewolves have to stand on their own as two self sustaining societies locked in a conflict that cannot be undone. This gives the story a force and focus that it needs it means that werewolves and vampires are not marginal predators in a human society but the mainstream actors in their own.  They get to have a entirely serious conflict with possibilities and complex implications which allows them emerge as really engaging characters involved in a weight and consequential circumstances. Jim Alexander takes full advantage of the story possibilities arising from having outsiders arrive in the settlement and the leader of the settlement be an outsider in the Kingdom to explore the details of vampire society. The details arise naturally from the action of the story and the reveals are sharply set up to explore the divisions as well as reveal assumptions and the structures of the society. A really well developed picture of a society emerges as well as the pressures exerted by the conflict, the multiple dimensions are made clear without ever dropping the tension or slowing the momentum of the story.
Luke Cooper is the artist for the first issue in the volume, Will Pickering is the artist for the other issues. The art transition is noticeable and not distracting, both artists capture the story with force and subtlety. The story makes very severe demands on the art, it has scenes of tremendous action and also very quiet scenes which contain critical information that cannot be simply info dumps for the reader. Luke Cooper places the settlement in an identifiable context, the fort in the hostile American cinematic west, the settlers capture the looks and manner of the settlers in Indian country. This gives the reader an instant footing in the story and allows the fact that it is not Cowboys and Indians but werewolves and vampires to simply not distract from the story. The story gets started right away without any unnecessary distraction about having to explain why werewolves and vampires. Will Pickering takes the story to the big city with Halfpenny, the settlement leader being summoned there. The city context is clearly contemporary, the contrast with the settlement is made clear with every detail.
The cast are drawn by Luke Cooper and Will Pickering with such natural movements and expressive faces and body language that they bring forth all of the implications and nuances of the script without effort. Reading the comic is such a pleasure because so much of the possibilities of a comic are being utilised with such skill, the story is being told by the words and art in such a balance that it is easy to miss just how much of a story is being told.
Jim Campbell's lettering is so unobtrusive as to be nearly invisible, it reads wholly as part of the actions of the cast in the panel and never pulls the reader from the story. His sound effects on the other hand are exactly as eye catching as they should bee and capture the moments with welcome humour. Wolf Country is a big deeply satisfying read, there is a huge story unfolding in a very engaging way that arises directly from its premise, all delivered by an astonishingly creative team.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander. To purchase a copy of Wolf Country Volume 1, which you should do it will provide elevated levels of joy and happiness with the side effect of a greater pleasure in living, you can do so here  Planet Jimbot is delighted to announce that they be launching the Wolf Country Volume 1 at the  Moniaive comics festival, based on the Scottish borders, June 11-12 2016.   In attendance will be writer Jim Alexander.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Wailing Wind. Tony Hillerman. HarperTorch (2002)

A very enjoyable and engaging crime story set in the Navajo Indian Reservation in the US Southwest. Officer Bernadette Manulito of the Navajo Tribal Police finds a dead body in an abandoned truck  and she does not manage the crime scene as carefully as she should have had she finds herself with a problem. Already subject to criticism from the FBI she has some evidence that needs to be returned and explain, a job taken on with some ill grace by her supervisor, Sargent Jim Chee. Jim Chee enlists the aid of the new retired  Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who agrees to help, Leaphorn has an interest in a old case that appears to have connections to the current murder. While Leaphorn is unofficially helping Jim Chee and Bernadette Manulito  he is also hired by the central figure of the previous case to find his missing wife. The threads of the investigation are spun very carefully and they tie up very satisfying and rather bitter conclusion.
This is a very well structured police procedural, the investigation process logically and as the various elements of the two crimes slowly come into light the bleak story that ties everything together emerges into the light. Tony Hillerman's writing is calm and quietly engaging, it hides the sharp edges of the story until they are ready to show themselves, and when they do they are very sharp indeed.
The story really rests on Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manulito and how they work together oscross the investigation. The subdued romantic interest between Bernadette Manulito and Jim Chee is important to the story dynamics and is manage with restrain and humour that lets it flow nicely. Their moment of finally facing the truth is chosen to balance the point when the price that some of the cast have paid for their actions is finally and devastating made clear.
The story setting and context is a dominating character in the story, it is not an overpowering one. The dramatic vastness of the Southwest is carefully evoked, the beauty and the emptiness as well as the sheer hard work making a living. Within this context the importance of Navajo living and thinking is consistent and contrasted with non-Navajo thinking and living. The problems that arise are ones of interpretation and understanding rather then superiority of one way over another, with the considerable exception of the FBI. This agency is seen as being institutionally unwilling to accept any other law enforcement body as remotely equally or sufficiently competent. The friction is not Native American and Non-Native American, it is the political reality of large and small bureaucracies.
One of the great pleasures of this story is the confidence that Tony Hillerman has in his writing, the story unfolds at a nearly leisurely pace, there are very few moments of violent action, the reader is never less than engaged in the action. The cast are welcoming and intriguing, they have have lives outside the cast case that give them strong weight and depth. The there leads are competent and professional, they come at the puzzles with clear thinking and a willingness to trust each other. Tony Hillerman  rests the story squarely on their shoulders and they carry it easily. Smart writing and a real pleasure.

Stand Still, Stay Silent . Book 1. Minna Sundberg (Writer & Artist). (2015)

A wonderfully engaging and enjoyable comic that gives a science fiction staple an unexpected and very welcome twist. An epidemic has devastated the world population, with the remaining human settlements concentrated in Iceland and small parts of Scandinavia. Technology has not vanished, it has been diminished somewhat and a strong belief in the old gods of region has returned. 90 years after the outbreak an expedition is planned into the Silent world, where animals who have also been greatly affected by the plague live in horrifyingly changed forms, knows as trolls. A group of five explorers have been hired to venture into the Silent world to explore and report on conditions as well as to fulfill the secret reason for the expedition. The story has three parts, the first is the start of the outbreak, the second the setting up of the expedition and the third the first major encounter of the expedition with the inhabitants of the Silent world.
Minna Sundberg has taken one of the most familiar story ideas in science fiction, a post apocalyptic world and using an expedition to explore the world and the changes that have been wreaked upon it and brilliantly changed what had always been a central element. The whole idea is inherently a gloomy idea and has a strong natural tilt to pessimism, the destruction of the physical and social framework of humanity leading to a barely contained battle for survival among those left behind. Minna Sundberg takes a different route, humanity has taken a substantial, but not fatal, beating and have found ways to accommodate this and still retain the collective will to sociability and mutual organisation that are inherent in humanity. This allows her to launch her story into an hugely engaging and unexpected direction with the focus being on the cast and how they are responding their
The three sections to the story mean that there is sufficient time for the the context to be established and for the cast to move naturally within it before the expedition into the very dangerous unknown takes off. The outbreak is managed with great subtlety as it captures the movements and reactions of people who are intentionally or otherwise escaping from it. They are aware to different degrees that a huge event is developing around them , there are far more concerned with their own immediate situation and circumstances. The very large cast that is involved from each of the regions that will have surviving populations are given the opportunity to be much more than symbolic versions of various strands of humanity. They are utterly and fearlessly themselves, as  individual as they should be and they demonstrate Minna Sundbergs extraordinary strength as a writer. They are presented with warmth and humour without every being mocked or undermined. The most awful events and requirements for survival are presented with thoughtful care so that the second part of the story feels like a natural evolution rather than an abrupt transition. An expedition is planned and approved in a sequence that shows that humans and bureaucracy will always intersect in familiar ways. The gathering of the team is presents an opportunity, taken to the full, to introduce the cast and to nicely mix up everyone's motives and expectations. When the expedition launches the momentum of the story shifts to a greater balance between action and relationships between the team, with the action being strong and compelling and having a direct impact on the team.
The art is a pleasure to read, the cast are individual and have a thankfully wide variety of body shapes and dimensions, they look like a diverse set of humans. They move through their context with assurance, they are clearly part of the physical world , it is not just a background. The panels  are used with great variety and definition to control the pace of the story, moving from widescreen to intimate with speed and never loosing the thread of the story. The colours are both eye catching and so natural that they work on all the required levels. There are strong tones for each episode which provide a clear emotional key for the events, within the dominant tone the shades are used with subtlety to draw out the details which give the panels depth and weight. The extremely difficult problem of drawing the trolls to be frighting and not absurd is solved, taking the idea of evolution from their original forms , they remain suitably organic and also properly chaotic.
The information sections in the book which includes an astonishing language tree, are not intrusive, they are placed just right to add to the depth and pleasure of the story.
Stand Still Stay Silent is an outstanding comic, making the task of plausible world building look easy while meeting and renewing genre requirements is natural and unforced. Something substantially new that hides so comfortably in the shape of something old is a delightfully welcome troll in its own right.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Other Child. Charlotte Link (Writer), Stefan Tobler (Translator). Orion Books (2012)

A gripping and very engaging crime story. In the English seaside town of Scarborough a young student is murdered on her her way home. The case goes cold before a second murder, that of an elderly woman, is committed. Detective Inspector Valerie Almond leads the investigation into both murders and seeks a connection between the two. The second murder has a significantly different context to the first and the investigation throws up too many suspects instead of too few. Steadily the sins of the past start to be brought into the light and the power of the past to warp the present become horribly clear.
The structure of the story is masterfully set up and controlled by Charlotte Almond, there are a lot of moving parts to the story and a big and varied cast are involved. Everyone gets the space to make their presence felt and the interactions between the cast are vivid and sharp, in particular as the finger of suspicion starts to point very clearly in one direction.
The narrative is cleverly split among the past and the present and among the cast as past decisions came back to haunt everyone as they struggle with a very messy and uncertain present. One of the pleasures of the book is the way each of the cast are entangled in their own past actions before they combine and find themselves caught in a much bigger and messier briar patch from an unexpected quarter.
The story is very much an English village murder, a group of disparate people brought together through a variety of circumstances to a remote rural location where a highly charged event leads to a nasty conclusion. Everyone has a just enough of a fractured history to summon up a plausible possibility , with one person in particular having an outstanding motive. The skill that Charlotte Link brings to setting up reveals that nicely muddy the waters is a joy to read. The story from the past that slowly and steadily casts a shadow over the present is very carefully controlled. The repercussions of actions from decades before do not become fully clear until a razor sharp conclusion that arises with horrifying logic from the story.
At the same time Charlotte Link allows that the harrowing events may also be the force that was required for the survivors to finally forces them to their own circumstances and start to acknowledge a future rather than be tethered to a life sapping past. This is a welcome balance from the unflinching and very restrained descriptions of casual cruelty and astonishing selfishness that warp the lives of so many and seeps out to destroy others who are even marginally involved.
Stefan Tobler's translation is wholly transparent, the cast and the setting are never handled clumsily, it reads like a English story in every sense.