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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Doctor Who. Time Lord Fairy Tales. Justin Richards (Writer), David Wardle (Art), Adam Linley (Drop Capitals) Puffin Books (2015)

A very enjoyable collection of classic fairy tales set in a science fiction, specifically Doctor Who, context.
Justin Richards has done a great job of being true to the stories while doing more than just giving them a new coat of paint. While the overall standard is very good there are a number of stand outs that just get the new mix exactly right.
Cinderella and the Magic Box manages to insert the TARDIS, cast Doctor Who as a fairy godmother with a wonderful explanation for the glass slipper and a very smart twist on the midnight rule for Cinderella.
The Three Little Sontarans is clever and engaging, the villain is satisfactorily tough and smart, a real problem for the third Sontarans.
Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday juggles the familiar elements with clever details that make for a sharp story.
The Grief Collector is the stand out story in the collection, it does what fairy tales all do, it presents a horrifying idea quietly and directly, there is love and courage and a suitably grim end for the villain.
Justin Richards has not shied away from the sharp edges that fairy stories all have, they are still present and shown off to the great effect in the new context. The use of Doctor Who is are carefully rationed, he is a player in the stories not the central character, prior knowledge is fun but not necessary. These stories stand very strongly on their own considerable merits.
The  black and white illustrations by David Wardle have the look if woodcuts, they capture perfectly the history of the stories while their content is clearly science fiction.
The ornate drop capitals that open each story are a pleasure, a smart nod to an old fashioned style that are decorative and set the mood.
This book has accomplished a very difficult task, the fairy tale style is played up with the art and the stories leap effortlessly into a far future context that shows how strong these stories are. A great read for nostalgic pleasure and a delight in seeing such craft and talent.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Modern Testament Tales of the Ethereal. Vol 2.Frank Martin (Writer), Adrian Crasmary, Igor Chakal, Noreus Teves (Art), Stanislaus Leonov, Laura Ruggeri (Colours), Kel Nuttal (Letters). Insane Comics (2016)

A very engaging and enjoyable anthology that executes a strong idea ,bibilical monsters in a modren context, with force and clarity.
"Schoolyard Monster", written by Frank Martin, art by Adrian Crasmary, letters by Kel Nuttal. The set up for this story is simple, Joseph is being bullied at school and neglected by his parents. The relationship between Joseph and the bully, Rudy, is horribly plausible, Joseph is angry, frustrated and scared, Rudy has a nice line in self serving talk about helping Joseph. That the Golem arises from Joseph's frustrated helplessness is quietly made and the need that Rudy has for Joseph as a victim is well established. The Golem is a tool, a means to an end that Joseph desperately wants and cannot achieve by himself.  Frank Martin can deliver a lot of information and context in a very small pace, the single panel of breakfast with Joseph and his parents captures Joseph's home life with cutting economy and great impact.
The art by Adrian Crasmary is a pleasure to read. The absence of sharp lines softens the look of the story and lets the very harsh intent of the story emerge in its own time. The expressive body language and faces of the cast are in marked contrast to the blankness of the Golem. The contrast between Joseph and Rudy is never overdone, there is just enough of a difference in height to make it clear that malice as much as strength is what Rudy uses to dominate Joseph. The muted colours capture the details of the physical context and shade the faces very effectively. Best of all the Golem never dominates the story with his presence, he is part of the context never overshadowing the real action.
"The Great Hunt" written by Frank Martin, art by Igor Chakal, colours by Stanislaus Leonov. A couple arrive on game reserve looking to hunt a creature that apparently has killed other hunters. Naturally they ignore the warnings from the warden and head out on their way to capture their prey. It does not end well.  Frank Martin includes some details to give the considerably more weight and impact. The reason the couple are hunting the creature is simple and strong and the final pay off effective.The set up seems to deliver stock characters in a well worn situation, the motivation for the trip pulls them directly to life just in time to encounter the Behemoth.
Igor Chakal's art captures the feel of old films about reckless white big game hunters who were lead by arrogance out of their depth in the bush. This is exactly what the straight lines of the story needs, the momentum that leads to the confrontation. When it arrives it is delivered with great force and impact. The details are every bit as bloody and brutal as they need to be. Stanislaus Leonov's colours are a bright and bold as the reserve should be, when the switch comes to night time, the lighting is not dimmed to hide the action. Stanislaus Leonov manages something difficult, the nighttime is important, still the details of the attack have to be vivid and the sequence works without feeling absurd on either count.
"What Is He Good For? (Absolutely Nothing)" written by Frank Martin, art by Noreus Teves, colours by Laura Ruggeri. This is the most substantial story of the three due to the fact that Frak Marshall has solved a very considerable problem and made it look easy. In any story if a member of the cast is one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse the story is very likely to buckle under the weight of this character. They are such  forceful concepts that trying to fit them into a human context without them destroying any dramatic tension is a very significant story problem. Frank Martin does exactly that and  then uses the character is  dramatically satisfying way.
Noreus Teves's art creates the necessary physical context for the story, it has to have a very strong sense of place to support the huge weight of the Horseman, the details have to very strong to allow the human cast a chance. The swagger and well founded confidence exuded by the Horseman is  powerfully displayed and contrasted with the fear and uncertainty of the human cast.
The bright colours used by Laura Ruggeri capture the sunshine of the cruise, the darkness is all in the unfolding events. The vivid colours of the Horseman's outfit is a smart contrast to his usual outfits and provides very effective camouflage.
Kel Nuttal's letters are quietly unobtrusive and natural, they are easy to read and never draw attention away from the art or the story.The tremendous sound effects on the other hand are a out loud joy, they add depth to and weight to the action.
This is a very impressive comic, Frank Martin has something to say and does so without ever unbalancing the stories, the artists bring all the nuances of the stories to the fore without crowding or forcing the reader.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Frank Martin. Modern Testament Tales of the Ethereal. Vol 2. will be available from  insanecomics.com from Monday 20th June 2016.  You should get a copy, reading good comics has been proven to deliver elevated levels of happiness an satisfaction with living.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Untold Stories. Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber. Profile Books (2005)

A very engaging and enjoyable collection of pieces that cover a wide range of topics. Alan Bennett refers to the book in his introduction as an album, a collection on unrelated written pieces that are collected under various headings. The lack of a unifying theme makes this large book easier to read, there is no necessity for the reader to maintain any continuity when reading the sections, they each stand for themselves. Whatever the topic, they range from an autobiographical piece about his parents and a piece of hidden family history, lectures on painting, extracts from his dairies and a wonderful dramatic monologue, the consistent aspect is the voice of the author.
While this could be a problem in the monologue in which the speaker is an elderly woman in a nursing home, reading it in the middle of other items shows the depth of Alan Bennett's talents as a writer. The character emerges vividly from the words, the woman is old but in no way feeble and at the same time very clearly an Alan Bennett character.
The same is true of all the pieces in the book, in particular the autobiographical pieces, Alan Bennett explores Alan Bennett the character with the same care and attention to detail as the writer devotes to his fictional characters in his plays. This is a really good thing, no one's life is really interesting to anyone else, in an unedited, unformed shape it is just a series of mundane events more or less interrupted by something that can be packaged up for the interest of others. The difference is the skill with which it is packaged and in this volume Alan Bennett displays a rare and astonishing skill.
The portrait of his parents is both heartfelt, unblinking and deeply sympathetic to people who would have squirmed at the attention. The details of his mothers steady loss of personality but not physical health and the significantly messy reactions it creates are thankfully not undermined by guilt or structural demands for sympathy from the reader. By casting himself as a character, the writer can develop a required distance from the events to capture the tangle without loosing sight of the fact that the reader is in fact a stranger.
This is true also for the piece about being diagnosed with cancer and his struggle not only to live with it but to manage the eternal aspect of living with cancer without becoming a victim of cancer. The dynamic struggle between an innate reticence and the push for communication inherent in being a writer is nicely made explicit.
The tone of the pieces, including the lectures on delivered as a Trustee of the National Gallery in London is conversational. Alan Bennett is emphatically talking directly to the the reader in his own voice, they are all monologues delivered by a master of the art. The pieces rarely follow a straight line, they turn and wander and return as a conversation might as the performer tries to maintain the interest and attention of the audience. Alan Bennett is conscious that he is requesting something very valuable from the reader, time and attention, and lacking a clear dramatic structure and pay off to reward this has to do so another way. The superbly constructed pieces draw in the reader and reward the time and attention with strong, considered views, excellent jokes and interesting company from a man who is interested in others. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Quest for the Time Bird. Serge Le Tendre (Writer), Regis Loisel (Art), Inanka Hahnenberger (Translation). Titan Books (2015)

A wonderful, sprawling heroic fantasy that takes full advantage of the genre and the possibilities of comics. The aging knight Bragon is contacted by the sorceress-princess Marsa to come out of retirement for an urgent mission. The evil  god Ramor will escape his prison and bring death and devastation to the world of Akbar if he is not stopped. The only way to stop him is to find the Time Bird, this will allow Mara halt time long enough to carry out the spells required to bind Ramor back in his prison. The time to find the Time Bird is short, there are nine days to go before Ramor will be free. Bragon has to find the conch Ramon was imprisoned in then find the Time Bird. The journey takes a long and very scenic route to a final confrontation which has unexpected consequences.
Heroic fantasy is easy to get wrong, the mechanics are considerably more subtle than they appear on the surface, there is a requirement for a degree of overwriting to capture the outsized nature of the context, it has to be carefully disciplined at the same time not to be simply overblown. Serge Le Tendre does not always get the balance right, there is a consistent tendency to tell as well as show, for heroic fantasy in comics less talking usually better. At the same time the overall structure of the story and the wonderful range of locations and the stunning cast are very powerful and engaging. The cast are given the chance to establish themselves firmly before they move to their inevitable confrontations. The story does not rest completely on Bragon's broad shoulders, there is a determined cast all wanting the readers time and attention.Serge Le Tendre treats the story and the cast with the serious care, there is no winking at the audience that everyone know who ridiculous this is. Serge Le Tendre has the professional courage to take the story and the readers seriously and this gives the whole story a vital force and depth that pays off in full at the conclusion.
Regis Loisel's art is a a pleasure to read, the extremely difficult task of making a fantastic context concrete and physically present as a way to ground the action is made to look easy. The range of perspectives used give a sense of the scale of the journey as well as the different regions that exist on the world of Akbar. The details are consistently generous and frame and support the action. The cast move with great force within their context and the action is every bit as forceful as it should be. Bragon's companion the journey, Pelisse, is at first glance  set of over sized breasts on legs, the art reveals her character as much as her cleavage. She is a necessary foil to the weary experience of Bragon while creating room for a running joke that brings some nice comic relief. The colouring is everything that heroic fantasy should be, it is as big and bold as the journey, it bring the details to life and makes the world of Akbar lift off the page.
Inanka Hahnenberger' translation is transparent, while the story has a very distinct non-anglophone flavour, the words never feel other than natural in their context.
This is a feast of a comic, it takes its time to follow the heroic journey, the sweep and scope are given full reign in the art and the conclusion mixes the expected and the unexpected with flair. Wonderful in every sense.