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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lucky Penny. Ananth Hirsh (Writer), Yuko Ota (Art) Oni Press (2016)

A charming,engaging and great fun romantic story delivered with a light touch and quiet humour. Penny Brighton looses her job and her apartment on the same day, she find alternative employment (her boss is eleven and a half years old going on 55) and very alternative accommodation thanks to her ex flatmate. When Penny meets Walter at the local community centre (she had been searching for a free place to shower) it looks like she might been having an upturn in her luck and life. Smooth sailing is not Penny's forte and there are a lot of obstacles ahead, not least an very strange turn of events at the launderette where she works.
The female lead of a romantic comedy presents some very serious story problems for any writer, there is a requirement for them to be a little off centre but no so much as to be actively weird. They should be attractive without being wildly beautiful, they are an undiscovered jewel after all. The male lead recognises the qualities that she does not and brings then out for the audience. Ananth Hirsh takes this challenge and makes it look absurdly easy, Penny fits all the requirements and then does something extra, she is actually likeable. There is an appreciable difference between lovable and likable, creators frequently demand that we love their characters because they do and they are  just so lovable. Penny is much more interesting, she is likable and good company for the reader, she does sabotage her own life with flair, she is also genuinely unlucky. This creates an entirely unforced sympathy that is never traded upon, it is used to give her the space to fail and triumph with humour and charm.
Youko Ota'a art is a pleasure to read, the cast are expressive and full of life and energy, they respond vividly to their circumstances. Penny and Walter's  essential good hearted natures of  are evident without being flaunted, the art is both bold and consistently subtle. It bring out all of the aspects of the story and makes everything just exactly the right amount larger than life. There are frequent details that are a joy to read, I particularly love Penny's reaction to the realisation that she has packed away the car keys. It is just one of many treasures to be found. It is extraordinary how much detail Youko Ota has managed to include without ever cluttering any panel. The details proved an essential solidity to the story, they make the physical context very solid and frame the actions perfectly.
A romantic comedy is a tricky story to pull off, there are significantly more opportunities to loose the reader and there is very little cover for the creators. It is essentially a soap bubble, it takes very little to destroy it. With Lucky Penny Ananth Hirsh and Youko Ota have showed that they have the surest, lightest touch needed to produce glorious, charming and engaging soap bubbles that also have depth and subtle strength.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Zombie Ranch. Clint Wolf (Writer) Dawn Wolf (Art) Lab Reject Studios (2015)

A stunning idea backed by superb execution make for a hugely engaging and enjoyable comic. After the Great Zombie Plague had passed its peak and humanity was slowly recovering to the new equilibrium, zombies have moved to being a valuable commodity. Zombies are farmed on ranches out in the Wild Zones, a very dangerous process that is now the subject of a reality tv show  being filmed on the Z ranch.The Z ranch is owned and managed by Suzie Zane and her crew comes under the scrutiny of the flying camera robots of ClearStream. An accident at the ranch has ferocious consequences and Suzie and the staff at Z ranch find that they are under siege from a vengeful family. A classic western story idea is used with care and thoughtful skill to frame an very intriguing story that is never afraid of big ideas and smart action.
Clint Wolf has given himself a very considerable story problem to lift off the ground and he does with with engaging confidence, skill and unexpected willingness to be true to all of the elements he brings to the comic. Using a Western story framework, an embattled rancher isolated from outside help having to fight off  determined attackers is a solid start. This framework is a classic because it works, it offers a writer considerable scope to move a story in a large number of directions. Having the it be a zombie ranch, where the products are a constant threat in themselves is a wonderful spin on the zombie story idea, it slots amazingly well in with the western framework. Wrapping the whole concept up with a reality tv gives the whole match up room to breathe as they give the reader a chance to be an observer as well as offering a direct link to the greater post Zombie Plague wider world.The detailed, and remarkably unobtrusive, world building that Clint Wolf does is a joy. The balance and contrast between the protected zones and the wild zones is set up artfully and frames the situation at the ranch very clearly.
The sheer density of the story idea could easily become a problem, instead they work together to build a credible stage for the wonderful cast to perform on. Suzie Zane is a deeply engaging character principally because she does not set out to be, she is strongly focused on making a living from the ranch, the tv camera are revenue not publicity for her. Her deliberate competence and willingness to accept decision making are a pleasure and she is blessed in having really, really excellent opponents to test her. Clint Wolf has neatly set up the different layers of threat to Suzie and the ranch, the most visible being the least dangerous, the depth of the situation is slightly known by the reader and is a great story hook. The rest of the cast are singular and individual, they demand attention and are never quite what might have been expected.
The art by Dawn Wolf is equal to the enormous demands the story places on it, the requirement to be realistically fantastical is achieved with the same level of confidence as the writing. There is a clear development in the art across the length of the volume as Dawn Wolf hits her stride with the cast and the ranch. The sheer emptiness of the wild zone is subtly conveyed, the landscapes are not given in detail, they are almost abstract. This strongly contrasts with the vivid body language and motion of the cast, alive and dead, the wild zone is every meaning of wild. The colouring is classic western colouring, it catches the light of the big open desert vistas just as it should. It finds the story tones and nuances and brings them forward without forcing them.
This is a really ambitious comic, a huge story that is carefully unfolding in a deeply satisfying context with a smashing cast and creative confidence. The creators have solved a considerable technical problem, the comic translates seamlessly from a page a week updating web comic to a physical book. The fact that both mediums work so well is a considerable tribute to the strength and depth of the story management talent that Clint and Dawn Wolf bring to Zombie Ranch. This is an outstanding comic, what a pleasure to read it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Reapers. Issue 2. JoJo King (Writer), Adrian (Art),Lou Frontier (Letters) Insane Comics (2016)

Nicely completing the set up, this issue sets the stage for the main story to unroll in an engaging and unexpected way. After a nasty encounter at the house continued from the first issue, Mary, and Violet head off one way and Victor goes another. Both end up with considerably more trouble than they expected and it is clear that the stakes for everyone have been raised considerably.
What is particularly engaging about this issue is the smart story choice that JoJo King makes about the events that involve Victor and the two women. Victor's troubles are well set up by not hugely surprising, they follow on both from the first issue and a more general comics storytelling. They are necessary to set up what is to come, well done and to an extent exactly what should happen.
The much more intriguing events involve Mary and in particular,Violet as she returns to some unfinished business to find that business has not finished with her either. The business is effectively nasty, the engaging part is the way that Violet comes out from her protective anger and the reader gets to see the real character. Violet has been beaten down to literal death, come back and is finally finding her own life, Mary proves that she is no pushover, friendship has meaning. The emotional context for the action is very strong and gives the whole episode a considerable force and feeling that draws in the reader. When Victor reappears and is clearly ready to make life considerably more difficult for Violet and Mary, the reader has been give a proper introduction to them and now the situation has much more scope than a very enjoyable supernatural action story.
Adrian9's art is bleak and scratchy, there is always much more left out than put in. The big fight with the Grim Reapers is nicely done, it is a little stiff at times. The events in the house where Violet and Mary meet someone very unpleasant are superb. The tone of the events is overlaid by Violet's anger, fear,determination and pain.  The action does not hide the malignant atmosphere that is the real problem and that is a considerable achievement. Adrian9 brings the action and never looses the impact of both the past and the present.
Lou Frontier's letters have a lot of work to do, there is a surprising amount of words in the comic, surprising because the lettering makes them easy and natural to read, the art gives them context and all of it work very well together. The letters quietly and effectively sit in the panels, without drawing attention to themselves. I particularly the stabbing sound effect.
The issue does considerable heavy lifting and makes it look easy, the introductions have been done, the main event can start and I am greatly looking forward to it.
Chief Wizard Note:  This is a review copy very kindly sent by JoJo King. To get a copy of Reapers 2,  and you should reading good comics is scientifically proven to be good for your health, you can get it from www.insanecomics.com.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Breakout. Richard Stark. Mysterious Press. (2002)

A gripping and entertaining criminal procedural that uses variations on a central idea with considerable confidence and skill. Parker and others are arrested during a botched robbery at a warehouse and put in a holding facility. This is where prisoners are held before their trial and likely transfer to a long term prison. Identified under an alias and facing extradition to California Parker needs to break out of the facility. He does so and finds himself in a series of situations from which he has to breakout in turn.
Richard Stark has written an amazing book, a view of the world as a professional, career criminal, meeting problems that arise from being a career criminal and solving them by being an experienced career criminal. Parker approaches each problem in a cool, analytical way, deciding what needs to be done and getting on with it. He is the calm center of the story, pushing steadily against the circumstances and people that stand in his way. He is essentially a shadowy character, too calm and collected to really engage the reader or to set a story on fire, he does anchor it very effectively however. He consistently provides a strong contrast to the rest of the cast allowing them to emerge more strongly and they provide all the necessary emotional and human dimensions for the story.
The plot mechanics are superb, the details of the initial breakout are stunning, the plan is credible and sharp, the subsequent problems arise naturally from the previous step with a forceful logic that traps Parker in the area when he should be long gone.
Richard Stark introduces a considerable number of characters, all are given economical time and space to develop and engage the reader. All are tied directly into the plot events and just how they interact is very smartly set up and followed through. No cast member is wasted, they are carefully used to maximum effect. None of the cast, with the possible exception of Parker, is ever simply a plot device even though they are so tightly woven into the circumstances of the story. The writing is so economical and spare that there should be no room for any of the cast to be vivid above the serious demands of the plot.
Richard Stark is a serious writer and has the talent and skill to ensure that the cast embody the plot to such an extent at they are driving it, Parker, is caught in the problems because the rest of the cast are all too human. The sheer professionalism of the criminals contrasts consistently with the civilian cast, they have a utterly different way of looking at and dealing with the world. They move through the world with a severely different perspective and bank of knowledge, the crucial difference being how stupid and greedy they are. The real professionals are never greedy, they are willing to take risks to get what they want, they avoid stupidity.
While Parker is utterly competent, knowledgeable and willing to kill if necessary Richard Stark nicely avoids the temptation to make him an all conquering superman. The element of luck is allowed a pay and this, perhaps more than anything else, opens up the story to the reader and increases its impact hugely. The random is possibly the smartest and most unexpected plot device in the book and the way it is deployed is the surest sign of Richard Stark's extraordinary talent and confidence as a writer. Brilliant crime writing and brilliant writing, a book to relish.