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Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Darkest King 3. Tony Scott Astley (Writer), Paul Anderson (Art). WP Comics (2017)

An explosively enjoyable issue that picks up the story threads and twists them in very engaging ways. Kurt King, ex policeman and vigilante follows a lead to find Mr X, the crime lord of Coldwood, when he meets Mr X there is a lot of trouble for everyone, exactly as there should be.
Tony Scott Astley moves the story with great force and confidence from the point where Kurt finds his willingness to use violence to pursue justice as he sees it and forward to the results of his actions. What drives the Darkest King so strongly is that the two key characters, the King brothers are never passive, they respond and try to control events around them. The similarities between them are striking, Tony Scott Astley uses these to great effect as they cross paths with each other and find that neither are who they thought they were. Action is very neatly mixed with context and explanation so that the story moves very quickly and the same time the cast develop strongly and the stakes of the story increase for everyone. Using the classic noir elements of a wounded hero and a driven villain Tony Scott Astley has developed the story into a very dark and deeply engaging place that smartly places a question mark after the title.
Paul Anderson's art is a match for the writing, it captures and brings out every aspect of the story, giving emotional depth to the events, never losing the cast in the violence. The action is forceful and consequential, words have the impact of a striking fist and the feel it. The colours are wonderful, they frame and emphasise the emotional context for the story. The different parts of the story are given very different colour keys which act to both separate and link them. The lettering is easy and natural, the sound effects are placed for impressive effect.
The Darkest King 3 is a great payoff for the story, the threads are picked up and tied together very effectively the bitter undertow to the story is given full rein and nobody gets away unharmed. Smashing.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Paul Anderson. To purchase The Darkest King 3, which you should to see how very talented creators handle the creative challenge inherent in a smart story, it is available from

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Darkest King 2. Tony Scott Astley (Writer), Paul Anderson (Art). WP Comics (2017)

The second issue of the very engaging and enjoyable noir story moves backwards and forwards to add depth and context to the story. Kurt King, ex-policeman and vigilante is becoming increasingly concerned that his brother Victor is somehow involved with Mr X the crime lord of the city. Having suffered a devastating loss Kurt reflects on his shattered past with his brother. Victor is also making moves of his own to pursue his own interests. When Kurt returns to the hunt for Mr. X he finds much more than he ever expected.
Tony Scott Astley has a sure and confident approach to noir storytelling, he is willing to take the time to build up to a substantial pay off and keep a number of story possibilities open at the same time. Kurt is a classic noir lead character, deeply wounded and channelling his rage into a fight for something worthy, fighting corruption. The fact that his brother maybe implicated in the corruption is a complicating factor that ultimately does not distract or deter him. Victor King, the brother who got away, rich and successful is ambitious at best and very murky at worst. The  looming possibility that Kurt is being deftly played by someone else is quietly set up, nicely stirring the plot possibilities.
Paul Anderson's art is sharp and a pleasure to read, the physical setting is very powerful, the locations have a strong presence. This underlines the huge gulf between the brothers, harsh actions are taking place everywhere, the difference in the settings is vital to the story and context. The way panels and full pages are used to control the momentum of the story is great, in a story where reveals are crucial this is very important .The cast are powerfully expressive, Kurt wears his life on his face, battered and stubbornly determined, Kurt moves forward for his mission with a grim determination and bitter humour. Victor is a smooth shark, moving steadily in for the kill. The supporting cast all move naturally in their context amd give depth and force to the story. The shifts from conversation to action are natural and effective, that both are as dangerous as each other is captured with deft skill.
The colouring is striking and very important, it brings out every nuance in the story and creates and sustains the vital atsmophere of the story. The lettering is quiet and flows naturally with the panels, never distracting the reader, the sound effects are loud and pitched exactly at the right place and volume.
The Darkest King is smart, engaging and confident crime comics storytelling using a genre that is fatally easy to get wrong, a pleasure.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Tony Scott Astley. to purchase a copy of The Darkest King 2, which you should to improve your quality of life as only excellent comics can do, it is avalible from

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Kros: Hallowed Ground. John Ostrander (Writer), Tom Mandrake (Art), Sian Mandrake (Colours), Jan Duursema (Letters). Third Eye Skull (2017)

A very smart vampire story that uses a unexpected (but utterly logical) context to superb effect and adds a genuinely new idea to vampire story ideas. The battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal event in the American Civil War as well as the bloodiest encounter of the war. With bloodshed on that scale , blood calls to those who have a thirst for it. Wounded victims make easy and satisfying prey and who would notice the extra dead among the huge numbers.A hunter whose quarry is vampires would know to look for them where the feeding is easy and so Major Elijah Kros comes to Gettysburg with a commission from President Lincoln that allows him move about as he wishes. An encounter in an alleyway reveals who Kros is and what his mission is, and the story of the multiple battles, small and huge, that take place at Gettysburg unfurls. The reveals are very nicely set up, the action is stunning and the cast are never overshadowed by the colossal events taking place around them. The story shifts naturally and effectively from the small scale to the enormous without ever loosing the thread that ties everything to gether.
John Ostrander has not only developed an engaging context, the cast that move thought it with such determination and vigour are equally memorable. Elijah Kros  is opposed by a suitably competent and dangerous foe, a vampire of strenght, cunning and fierce will to feed and survive. The struggle between them draws in others, living and otherwise and with them come different agendas and priorities. With deft skill John Ostrander brings in the smaller personal conflicts that divide the cast around Kros as the stark differences between them become increasingly apparent. They have to find some possible common ground to be able to survive and combat the threat of the vampires, John Ostrander makes the route to this common ground tension filled and constantly awkward. The brutal loneliness of Elijah Kros is a high price to pay.
Tom Mandrake's art is a extravagant feast of  detail and scope and a substantial pleasure to read and luxuriate in. The level of detail is astounding, the battle scemces are loud, full of movement and never confusing. In particular there is a development among the shattered victims of the vampires who become possessed of the thirst themselves that is just stunning. A brilliant sequence of development and a final configuration that is simply breathtaking. Every nuance and intention with the skillful writing is captured and drawn out in the art. The human and non human cast are given a powerful life and move with purpose and intention, when they clash they do so to the fullest extent possible. The use of panels to control the pace of the story is exact and careful, bring the reader in close or pulling out as needed.
Sian Mandrake's colours are vital to the flow of the action and bring the emotional context of the story fully forward as it needs to be. Thoughtful use of blues and greys flow into the context and constantly support it, sepia and other quietly contrasting tones bring out the details as needed and anchor the reader's eye where it should be.
Jan Duursema's letters are quiet and natural, easy to ready within the panels, the sound effects are a bloody joy, they add the crunch and bite that a vampire comic needs.
Kros: Hallowed Ground is a great read, vastly experienced creators showcasing thier talent to deliver an excellent comic.

Malice. Keigo Higashino (Writer), Alexander O. Smith , Elye Alexander (Translation). Abacus (2015)

A superbly constructed, gripping and deeply engaging cat and mouse murder story. A famous and highly successful writer, Kunihiko Hidaka is found murdered in his locked office. Hidaka was preparing to leave for Canada with his new wife Rie and was visited by a friend Osamu Nonoguchi, a writer and Ms Fujio, a woman who has a problem with a book Hidaka has written. The detective leading the investigation, Kyochiro Kaga recognises Osamu Nonoguchi from a previous job as a teacher in a school where they both taught. Following this classic set up of a locked room murder and a severely limited set of suspects Keigo Higashino delivers a stunning story that constantly sidesteps readers expectations and assumptions right up to the brilliant and satisfying sour conclusion.
The structure of the book is overlapping accounts written by Osamu Nonoguchi and Kyochiro Kaga that competing with each other for control of the narrative. Each of them is pushing a particular version of events from the far past and directly around the murder, each is cunningly constructed and full of hooks and telling details for the reader.
The story is smartly structured as the two leads write succeeding updates that bring in new details and subtly or not so subtly alter the narrative. Osamu Nonoguchi and Kyochiro Kaga are nicely matched, both serious, capable, confident and willing to work very hard to achieve their aims. As the story develops the deeper roots of the events start to come to light and the mutual histories of the principals becomes significant.
Keigo Higashino never takes a short cut or cheats the reader, the accounts are clearly partisan, they are consciously one sided and the reader has to decide how to read them. With persuasive skill each succeeding account leads the reader to a different view of he story, even when a conclusion appears to have been arrived at there is still more depths to be explored. This is a technical tour de force of storytelling that sets up and solves story problems with astounding grace and confidence that never shortchanges the reader. Managing this while creating such an engaging cast and credible context without any visible effort is the work of a hugely talented writer.
Keigo Higashino is very well served by the translation from Alexander O. Smith  & Elye Alexander, it manages to ready smoothly in English while being clearly and audibly Japanese. At a critical moment they deliver different conversations from walk on parts that capture the crucial differences in outlook among the characters.
Malice is a great story and superb crime fiction, wonderful.

Toothville 2- Kickstarter Campaign Kim Roberts (Writer), Denis Pacher (Art), Chris Allen (Colours & Letters). Swamp Line Productions

The second part of this very engaging story with a hugely engaging lead character, a nicely developing villain and a superbly set up story line is now running a Kickstarter campaign.
A fresh and clever look at the work of tooth fairies, featuring the worst tooth fairy in history who is also the most innovate one, who is facing the gravest threat to the existence of tooth fairies that has ever existed. The writing is smart and funny, the cast have vigour and force, emerging as individuals with a sharp edges and tremendous energy.
Toothville 1, which is available as one of the backer bundle rewards, set up the story with wonderful confidence and closed on a suitably gripping cliffhanger. Now the chance to see how the talented and creative team behind Toothville are going to take the story is avalible.
Smart, inventive and engaging comics like Toothville are one of the great pleasures in life, give yourself the chance to enjoy that pleasure by backing Toothville.
Chief Wizard Note: I am a backer for Toothville 2, I would really like it to be successful so that I get to read it.

Black Magick 1: Awakening. Greg Rucka (Writer), Nicola Scott (Art), Chiara Arena (Colour Assists), Jodi Wynne (Letters). Image Comics (2016)

Very enjoyable and engaging set up with a very strong idea and a smart execution. Rowan Black is a police officer in Portsmouth and when she is called to a crime where a hostage taker demand to meet her she finds that he knows far more about her than he should. This is the start of the unravelling of her balance between her two lives, one aspect is brutally intruding into the the other. Rowan Black is a witch, the type that deals with actual magick. Her current situation is just the latest in a long line of public lives that have hidden the real, enduring, private one. She is the object of dangerous interest to serious forces and the events taking place at Portsmouth have attracted their attention. The balance that Rowan Black is under attack from mortal and supernatural forces who wish her harm.
Greg Rucka solves the problems of a set up with graceful confidence and a sharp eye for telling detail, the opening sequence introduces the central idea with wit and the transitions are seamless and effective. The hostage taker kicks off the story with force and very neatly and naturally ties the twin aspects of Rowan Black's life together. The ripples from that event, the obvious and the hidden aspects are carefully revealed and create a gripping and increasingly tense narrative that pulls the reader deeper and deeper into the story.
Greg Rucka proves the essential context details about Rowan Black's real life in a natural way as the need for them emerges from the unfolding events. There is never an abrupt info dump for the reader, the information surfaces through credible action and reaction. The cast are equally credible and natural, they are establish with wonderful economy and then allowed the space to develop and emerge in their own right. Rowan Black is a first among equals, the supporting cast are all strong and vital, this makes the action forceful and consequential. It also gives the supernatural aspects a solid and convincing context, they have an equal footing with the ordinary and they cross each other without breaking the story.
Nicola Scot's art is a pleasure to read, its confidence matches the writing and it captures and brings out every nuance and detail. The cast are memorable for being utterly natural looking, including the deeply unnatural cast members. Rowan Black looks, moves and dresses like a human female adult who has a dangerous job to do. Even standing in her underwear she manages to look composed rather than exposed, she is never undermined by the art.This is critical to the success of the story, Rowan Black has to be a credibly tough opponent for the forces ranging against her to capture and exploit the tension of the coming conflict. Nicola Scott creates a nicely detailed and weighty physical context for the action, this anchors the action when it arrives and when it does it is delivered with tremendous force and impact.
The colour scheme is great, the black, white and gray tones have small explosions of colour at critical moments, they serve nicely to show the layers of the story as they break through to each other under stress and pressure. Jodi Wynne's letters are quiet and natural, they are unobtrusive, changing as the need arises to emphasize a different detail of the story, the transitions are so much part of the context they are not noticeable while being very effective.
Black Magick: Awakening has set up an intriguing story, a serious conflict with a deeply engaging lead charachter and worthy opponents, the possibilities are enticing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood. Robert Hutchinson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2016)

A wildly entertaining and very gripping history of an extraordinary man whose career would strain the limits of fiction. Thomas Blood was a Protestant Irishman who fought for the Parliament in the English Civil Wars and discovered that he had chosen the wrong side with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. He was stripped of his estates in Ireland and effectively impoverished. In response Thomas Blood became one of the most constant and dangerous plotters against the restored regime. He was deeply involved in a plot to storm Dublin Castle, centre of English rule in Ireland and later the astonishing rescue of a fellow plotter being escorted to a court in York. Captured after an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, Thomas Blood carried out his most breathtaking and scarcely credible exploit and continued to be trouble to a lot of people up to and beyond his death.
Robert Hutchinson has a swashbuckling tales to tell and he does it full justice while never loosing the critical perspective of a historian. Thomas Blood was genuinely extraordinary, he was also alive and active in extraordinary times and Robert Hutchinson carefully brings out the man and his context. There is a swaggering bravado about Thomas Blood that would make him entirely comfortable in the Three Musketeers, he never plotted in the shadows, being known for his actions was clearly vital to him. This vanity did not make him any less serious, his basic carelessness did that, a failure to saddle a horse properly nearly proved fatal in an ambush.
Much like Charles II, the Merrie Monarch, who on any closer inspection was a deeply dangerous man who had a gambler's heart and and a set of secret agendas that he pursued with force and steely will, Thomas Blood had a personal charisma that no written account can fully capture. It is visible only by the otherwise inexplicable results and loyalty of others who were not fools or easily fooled. Thomas Blood moved among a groups of bitterly disappointed and revengeful men who were perfectly willing to risk terrible torture to kill the King. These men were naturally secretive yet they embraced the flamboyant Thomas Blood, however much they may have agreed in principal it is hard to see how they would practically cooperate with each other absent some significant personal factor.Thomas Blood was one of the most wanted people in the country yet he was never betrayed while living under different names and in different places. He was never invisible, he was drawing on the unspoken loyalty and complicity of people who knew him and very likely had a strong suspicion as to who he was.
Robert Hutchinson has a wary respect for this charisma, he clearly is hugely enjoying the the exploits of Thomas Blood while not being wholly seduced by the man. This makes the book very readable, the distance that Robert Hutchinson maintains allows for the brutal and nasty aspects of Blood's actions to emerge along side the more cinematic ones.
Thomas Blood is one of the small group of people whom it is wonderful to know at a distance, the safely read about them from the perspective of history. They bring a distanct context vividly to life by their actions and remind us that the forces of history are never impersonal, they always have a beating heart. This book is a deep pleasure.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Modern Testament Issue 4. Insane Comics (2017)

A superb anthology that manages very difficult story problems with tremendous confidence, humour and imagination.
Better the Devil You Know... Frank Martin (Writer), San Espina (Art), Adri Pratama (Colours), Ken Nuttall (Letters). An angry and frustrated man is offered a deal by the devil and he makes his choice. Frank Martin neatly sets up the question, why would you make a deal with the Devil ?, no ambiguity or metaphor intended, the literal devil. In the face of demonic honesty why would you make a deal? San Espina's art is lovely, the devil is a businessman or a horned monstrosity, whatever serves the purpose of the moment. The context of stubborn frustration and anger is stitched into every detail of the context, closing in on the cast as they have their discussion.  The devil is calm, cool and fiercely confident, the best salesman in history letting the customer sell themselves. Adri Pratama's colours capture every subtle nuance in the event and bring them forward without ever upsetting the balance of the story. The dark colours never hide the details, they give them weight and presence. Ken Nuttall's letters are quiet and easy to read, they flow with the story allowing the voices of the cast to be clearly heard.
God Complex. Frank Martin (Writer), Martin Szymanski (Art), Miguel Marques (Colours), Ken Nuttall (Letters). A scientist issues invitations to a conference without revealing the topic, he has enough of a reputation to bring a crowd, he makes a breathtaking announcement and finds that an unexpected attendee has a problem with that. A claim to know everything could annoy someone who does in fact know everything. In a wonderfully bold and unexpected story God is not amused and it does not end well. Martin Szymanski solves a really difficult problem , what does God look like? Martin Szymanski makes an entirely logical choice within the context of the story that confidently strikes out away from the most familiar versions. Cosmic action is delivered with the same attention to detail as a conversation, the move from one to another is entirely natural and controlled. The clever shifts of the story are captured and framed perfectly. Miguel Marques bring bright colours to the story managing to capture the emotional tones and context of the story with pin point accuracy,even at its harshest God's actions will always be full of light. Ken Nuttall's letters make a story with a lot of text light and easy to read.
...Than The Devil You Don't... Frank Martin (Writer), San Espina (Art), Adri Pratama (Colours), Ken Nuttall (Letters). The phrase "The devil is in the detail" is proved to be horribly accurate as the the buyer comes to collect his purchase. The devil has a sharp and clear argument as well as the best tunes, blaming another for a freely made deal is likely to end badly. San Espina is as good at action as he is with a tense conversation, the controlled anger of the devil is captured superbly. Adri Pratama's colours are as dark and dense and the story calls for, there is no redemption or escape here. Ken Nuttall uses the letters to capture the change of tone when it is needed without ever drawing undue attention to the the letters themselves.
At Death's Door. Frank Martin (Writer), Anthony Pugh (Art), Julian Dominguez (Colours), Ken Nuttall (Letters) is the stand out story in this collection, sharp, blackly funny and with a brilliant set up and stunning pay off, it is a serious pleasure. Death is despondent and Cain has been sent to check on him and get him back on track. Frank Martin has taken a wonderfully imaginative and unexpected angle that nicely plays with reader expectations. Anthony Pugh's friendly art sells the story idea with understated confidence, using a very familiar setting to capture and control readers expectations with subtle skill and a wonderfully expressive cast. Julian Dominguez uses the colours to anchor the action with care, amplifying the emotional tones of the story and bring out every nuance the writing and art.
Ken Nuttals letters are natural and unassuming , the sound effects are perfect they give the force required when required.
Modern Testament takes a fresh and unexpected look at ideas that have been used in stories for as long as there has been stories, with entirely deserving confidence Frank Martin and the other creators show that there is always room for more, all that is needed is the huge talent they bring to the work.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Frank Martin. To purchase a copy of  Modern Testament 4, you should to give yourself the guilt free pleasure of excellent comics, it will be available from later this month.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

KRAZY. George Herriman, a Life in Black and White. Michael Tisserand. HarperCollins Publishers 2016.

A hugely engaging and enjoyable biography of George Herriman, who created the newspaper comic Krazy Kat and developed it over an extraordinarily sustained period of creativity that lasted for decades.
There are two major themes in this book and Michael Tisserand does justice to both, the first is the racial context to George Herriman's life and the second is is life as a creative professional. George Herriman was a Creole from New Orleans who spent the greater part of his life declaring and being accepted as a white American, his nickname was George the Greek. George Herriman was committing the single most serious crime that he could carry out in social terms in the overtly racially divided USA of the time, he was "passing". By doing this he was directly confronting and undermining the most important tenant of the racial social creed, that a white person was intrinsically superior to non-white people and that their superiority was written on their skin for all to see. If in fact that skin was telling a lie, appearing to be white when the facts of family were otherwise was to effectively show up the complete nonsense for what it was, a lie put about by one group to support their dominance over others, a simple power play backed by nothing but violence and hatred.
No group responds well to such a direct and unassailable attack on something so precious to the structure of their lives, "passing" had fatal consequences for many, their treatment especially vicious to provide a warning to others.
George Herriman lived his life standing on this knife edge and never faltered, his secret was a secret for years after his death, Michael Tisserand carefully raises the question regarding exactly what George Herriman knew himself, his father had made a choice when George was very small so it is possible that he was not aware of his own heritage. Equally there are pieces of work that can be read without forcing the conclusion that he was aware of a hidden racial identity. Michael Tisserand does not step beyond the evidence, he does provide a very vivid context of the racial forces for forcefully and publicly at work in the USA. If George Herriman was conducting a fully conscious life as a Creole in a White skin then his ability to manage the mental strain and impact throughout his life without betraying himself in the slightest is the only aspect of his life more astounding than his work.
The second theme of this book is the extraordinary creative professional life of George Herriman, newspaper cartoonist. Michael Tisserand places George Herriman directly in his professional context as a member of a wide spread group who illustrated the news first and as photography took over provided comics for newspapers. George Herriman was part of a group of professional cartoonists who were together at the emergence of the art form and ho created many of its most enduring strips. The way that Krazy Kat developed from the desire to anchor a career in a continuing strip is deeply engaging, Krazy Kat was the end result of a lot of other efforts that had varying degrees of success until the star emerged. Having storming success with single strip comics, it was when Krazy was given a full page on a Sunday that George Herriman revealed the unplumbed depth of his creative genius. A simple framework of unrequited love between a kat, a mouse and a dog the confines that would choke another liberated George Herriman.
Krazy Kat in the Sundays never achieved the heights of popularity that others did, still it had a hugely loyal audience, though George Herriman spend his life downplaying his work and fretting that he would loose his employment.
Krazy is a very enjoyable book and a lovely tribute to an extraordinary man whose contribution to the sum total of human happiness is beyond measure.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tomb of Horror. Kim Roberts (Editor). Swapmline Comics (2017)

A very engaging and enjoyable horror anthology that that a has a wide and happy selection of stories that all sit comfortably with each other to create a very satisfying whole. Among the stories in this anthology are:
A Song for Mongrels, Bobby Harris (Writer and Artist), is sharp and smart, an apparently homeless woman screaming at a bus stop may be a nuisance, she may also be a lot more than that. Bobby Harris gathers a lot of story into a short space, clever set up and very satisfactory pay off. The art moves from naturally from open scenes to intense close ups, the cast are strongly expressive and bring the reader into the story.
Harold. John Ramos (Writer), Vince Underwood (Artist) neatly manages reader expectations to deliver a nasty and very satisfying story. Harold Francis Grauseman , husband, father, derelict is lost in his own circumstances until he is noticed by others, it does not go well. John Ramos manages the tone of the story with confident care, the reval is beautifully staged and very effective. Vince Underwood's art is beautiful, deeply expressive and detailed, it catches the nauances of the writing exactly and moves effortlessly from quiet to very , very loud without hesitation. Impressive use of panels to control the story adds greatly to the pleasure of reading.
The Man Who Has Everything. Jack Wallace (Writer), David Newbold (Pencils), Ivan Miranda (Inks), Geys & Letters (Chris Allen). George is the angry, frustrated not-quite fitting in member of staff who has a crush on a fellow staff member. With his boss about to leave the job there are opportunities in the air for George, they arrive on cue and the outcomes is as horrible as it should be. An extended set up is exactly the lead in that the huge pay off deserves. Jack Wallace has amplified a situation everyone who has worked in an office has probably encountered with great force and precision. David Newbold creates a great cast, they have the required physical presence and diversity for the context, George is almost a cliché, his vitality and vulnerability bring him to singular life. Ivan Miranda's inks bring the details into sharp focus allowing the final scene to explode exactly as it should. Chris Allen grey's are subtle and exact, they add depth to the art and catch the nuances of the story, the lettering quiet and easy to read, wearing its craft lightly.
The Supermarket. Marcello Bondi (Writer), Salvatore Coppola (Art), a very simple idea matched with flawless execution makes for a treat to read. A visit to a supermarket leads to a question and a devastating answer. Salvatore Coppola's luminous black and white art propels this story, carefully leading the reader with beautiful detail and movement down to the sharp revelation. Marcello Bondi has paced the story so that it lands with force, a gem.
Virus. Shawn Milazzo (Writer), Cem Iroz  (Art), Nikki Sherman (Letters), short and  to the very sharp point, an excellent black joke. Cem Iroz's art delivers the context with detail and care and nicely creepy detail when required. Niki Sherman's letters are easy to read and unobtrusive, creating the space for an excellent sound effect.
Al the stories in this collection are at the same very high standard as these, there is a glorious variety in the themes and treatments, talented creators working flat to deliver deeply pleasurable comics.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Kim Roberts. SWampline Comics are currently running a Kickstarter for Tomb of Horror,, it is well worth your support to get the thrill that reading really, really good comics provides. . Tomb of Horror will be listed for sale on the Swampline website later in the year.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Sword Interval: Volume 1. Ben Fleuter (Writer and Artist), Natasha Tara Petrovic (Flat Colours & Book Layout) LINE Webtoon (2017)

A very enjoyable and entertaining set up for a smart supernatural story about a monster hunter who is searching for the undead warlock who killed her parents.Fell Barros arrives in the town of Titanfolly and encounters David Shimizu a retired monster hunter who wants nothing to do with the spate of missing people in the town. Fell is really interested and starts to investigate and finds herself pulled into trouble. The story unfurls very nicely, genre staples are used carefully and shaken up equally nicely, the reveals are very well staged and the layers of the story are cleverly set up so that by the end the story possibilities are enticing.
Ben Fleuter has used a classic story framework, a woman on a personal mission of vengeance is assisted by a powerful agency that has an interest in her quarry and perhaps an undeclared interest in the woman as well. The woman is aided by another who has enough experience to sense the hidden currents and still has a commitment to helping the woman. The story possibilities are huge and Ben Fleuter has the talent to exploit them.
Giving the framework a supernatural element is great dimension, it creates a range of possibilities that Ben Fleuter takes full advantage of. From the opening episode to the steady unfurling of the background that brought Fell Barros to begin her hunt, the supernatural element is integral to the story. It is not used to solve difficult plot points, it is the context that binds all the layers of the story together.
Fell Barros is a great character, she is full of angry energy and focus, what she does not have is enough experience to survive without assistance. David Shimizu is a genre staple, the overly experienced hunter dragged back into the game to protect someone else. Instead of being a walking cliché, he has a nice humanity and a wary appreciation of the scale of the risks that Fell does not see. Pairing an inexperienced female with a much more experienced male always runs the risk of diminishing the female role, Ben Flueter sidesteps this problem very nicely, Fell gets to establish herself before and after she meets David, she is clearly the lead character, this will be her story. She will be standing , learning and fighting for herself.
The villains are great, from the cause of the problems in Titanfolly to the Atlas agency and the Hierophant they are substantial threats to Fell and David. they have mixed motives and agendas which make them hard to deal with and are very determined to achieve their goals. The struggles that Fell has are consequential, she is never given an easy way out, to win she has to be willing to fight hard and not back down.
The total mix makes The Sword Interval a very engaging read, Ben Fleuter has great confidence in his story telling and is willing to take the time to set up events with sufficient detail that when the action arrives it has a genuine impact. The complicated backstory that brings Fell to Titanfolly is really delivered.
The art is friendly and moves naturally from action to conversation, the supernatural creatures are given a life and energy that makes them both otherworldly and ferocious. One of the substantial pleasures of the book is that Fell looks like a female human, fit and strong with exaggeration, she as well as the rest of the cast are expressive and move naturally in their context. The low key colouring by Natasha Tara Petrovic is perfect for the tone of the story, matching the matter of fact presence of the supernatural in the world.
The Sword Interval Volume 1 solves the problems of a set up with confidence and clever detail, the story possibilities opened in a very inviting way and I look forward to the road ahead.

Drive: Act One Dave Kellett (Writer & Artist). Small Fish Studios Inc (2017)

Wonderfully engaging and hugely entertaining space opera that is seriously funny, gripping and thoughtful. The Second Spanish Empire rules a widespread area of space thanks to its control of the ring drive that makes interstellar space travel possible. The empire has a very significant problem, the Continuum of Makers who created the drive want it back and this is a war that that the Empire is going to loose. When an alien who can see gravity pilots the drive ship the equation changes, provided that the empire can find enough of these aliens to pilot their ships. The problem is that the alien has completely lost his memory and all his records were destroyed. Then it becomes clear the Continuum of Makers is not the only major threat to the empire, in addition to the infighting within the ruling family there is a rising threat from another quarter that could destroy the empire.
A space opera has a number of requirements to take flight and Dave Kellett delivers on all of them with gorgeous confidence and sharp humour. The first requirement is size, a space opera should have a huge context, the conflict should be interstellar, crossing planets and star systems with an inclusive and credible sweep. Drive has the wide expanse it needs, space is huge, made accessible by the ring drive, it is still huge and this is woven into every part of the story. The scale of the empire is staggering, so are the problems it faces. From the simple problem of actually administering such a huge organisation and maintaining the ruling family, as well as the huge problem of maintaining control over the drive ring technology on which everything depends, the scale is enormous. Dave Kellett match the problems facing the Empire with a similar scale, the Continuum of Makers have a smaller population that the Empire, their technology easily bridges that gap. The second group have a recruitment method that is simple and implacable that makes compromise of any sort impossible.
Against this scale the cast have to stand out and capture the reader, the problems are epic in size, the actions have to be human sized to engage the reader. The huge cast of Drive are a joy to spend time with, they strongly individual, they all act with such vitality that they demand time and attention from the reader. At the heart of the story is a middle aged, divorced, perennially grumpy female drive ship captain who has the task of saving the empire. She carries the story with forceful ease allowing the whole immense context to develop and be detailed without ever loosing focus on the central narrative.
The art is friendly and a pleasure to read, it is expressive, the cast are never static their body language is loud and constantly balanced against their words to deliver sharp humour that never undercuts the serious intent of the situations they find themselves in. The art moves confidently from the intimate to the expansive without ever loosing focus, the panel design controls the pace of the story with considerable discipline. The non-human cast are alien without being too alien, they key issues of their non-human status is clear. In any comics space opera sound effects are very important, Drive has great sound effects, they are used to add extra depth to the situation.
Drive is a huge story, packed with detail and a strongly controlled and cleverly developed narrative, a deeply engaging cast. Comics are a natural fit for science fiction, with Drive , Dave Kellett demonstrates how to use the possibilities of comics to deliver superb space opera. A triumph and a joy to read.
There are a number of short stories set in the drive universe included in this volume.
Your Distant Homeland.  Dylan Meconis (Writer and Artist). When a proud Veetan of the Planet Veeta finds himself in Moscow and becomes involved with a bakery who specalise in Piroshki dumplingsthe results are funny, engaging and finally deeply heartfelt.
Cute Things. Christopher Hastings (Writer and Artist) , is a superb and original twist on the Alien story concept, hugely funny and accurate.
That Time The Veetans defeated the Tesskans Forever!.  Ryan North (Writer), Tony Clifff (Art). When the most pacifist race of beings in space is threatened by the most violent there should be only one outcome and there is, it is just a superbly set up and delightfully surprising one.
The Esteemed Gentleman Alonso Who Came From The Stars. Evan Dahm (Writer and Artist) The consequences of the Empire finding you can be sadly different to expectations, sad,funny and truthful.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tales of the Fractured Mind. Roddy McCance (Writer), Rolands Kalnins (Art). (2017)

A wonderfully and deeply engaging anthology of stories about the impact of mental mental health issues on the people who directly suffer and those around them. Roddy McCance's deeply felt and sympathetic writing and Rolands Kalnins' stunning art make an outstanding difficult problem look easy. They present the problem and the person as related to each other, neither drown out the other and the balance brings the reader closely into the issue and the lives in a way that only fiction can. Mental health issues are frightening in a way few other problems are, they strike directly against the self that we all carry with us, they are a theft of our , literally, most personal possessions and fear of such loss makes cowards of nearly all of us. As this anthology makes clear with confident compassion is that those on the other side of the abyss are just as frightened and considerably more lonely.
The Persistence of Depression. Jay talks to someone about what it is like to be depressed, the internal, mental hellscape that he has to travel that he wants to exit from. Roddy McCance captures the enormous weight of depression, they all encompassing way that is keeps someone in its grip and every attempt to escape is another chance to be a failure. Rolands Kalnins's art captures the extraordinary range of the ways that someone can feel bad about themselves, they way that a hell constructed by yourself is always inventive. The colouring is magnificent, it captures the shifting shades of the emotional tones and pulls up the details of the art and the writing.
Clock of the World is a startling lucid and utterly compelling explanation of Bi-Polar Disorder that explains it as a matter of time, fast time, slow time and the need to control time. The inherent extremities if Bi-Polar Disorder make it hard to grasp the connections between the two. Roddy McCance solves that problem with creative insight and subtle confidence.  Rolands Kalnins takes the central idea and makes it explicit, weighty and utterly compelling. The struggle to manage the physical mechanics of a giant time machine, a clock, that shifts modes from fast to slow and the impact of fast and slow time is captured with powerful, telling detail. The colouring is powerfully used to differentiate the time modes and underscore that it is always the same person.
Just Like Everyone. A apparently simple question, what do you see when you look in the mirror, is an agonizing, overwhelming matter for some. The ordinary desire to fit in is a huge dilemma as they try to match the perfection of others with the shapeless features they see in the mirror. Roddy McCance writes a very short and intimate story that captures the struggle, Rolands Kalnins' intimate , close up art captures the nuances of the story with precision.
War on Reality. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a direct assault on the notions that mass organised violence is based on that  truly acknowledging is effectively impossible, it is a very often burden to be borne, sometimes shamefully, by the individual. A father and son, both military veterans, find that they can share an understanding, lubricated by country music, and find room to support each other. Following the spine of a song and using two vivid flashbacks, the story is quietly set up and forceful in its impact. Rolands Kalnins' takes two men who are not hugely expressive and shows the deep bond between them , the beautiful colouring is used to provide the deep context for the things that are never said.
Our Song. The terrifying loss of self that dementia brings as one person slowly recedes from any shared life with others is traced with deep sympathy. Standing on the shore and watching his wife float further and further away into a new life as the life line of  'our song'  slowly frays is heartbreaking. Art for a story where essentially nothing happens is hard to do, there is no action to carry the reader along, instead the quiet subtlety of changing details match and captures the depth of the story.
Mountaineering. Having a body that mocks your gender identity is a hugely public and private problem, being out of step on such a taken for granted issue is climbing a mountain every day. The struggle to be yourself and seen by others as yourself is brutal and fraught. Writing an extended metaphor is always a risk, it can simply not bear the weight or become so convoluted as to become meaningless. Roddy McCance, proving again that there are no rules for talent, makes it look easy and natural. Rolands Kalnins does the same for the art, carefully mixing up the metaphorical scenes with other ones that never break the story idea. Smashing colouring as usual.
Caitlyn. This is a very difficult story to read, the impact of bullying is not always fatal, it is always hugely destructive. The hammer blows of abuse that steadily shatter confidence and self belief are captured with horrifying clarity and the retreat from the onslaught is wretchedly credible. The utterly dominant colour scheme is vital to the story, the washed out colours of memory against the stark white boxes of the abuse display the  power relationship all too clearly.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Roddy McCance, Tales of the Fractured Mind started on Kickstarter and should be available on Comixology in a month, you should get it to see how passion, craft and talent combine to create a work of art.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Cognition Issue 1. Ken Reynolds (Writer & Letters), Sam Bentley (Art). (2016)

Very enjoyable and engaging steampunk supernatural investigation story with a great context and cast. The British Occult Secret Service (B.O.S.S.) are called in by the grieving brother of a man who has killed his children and himself. The man had been severely affected by the death of his wife the year before and his brother thought that his grief has lead him to strange and dangerous activities,. The B.O.S.S. team including Cal the stem robot and Sigma the demonic mouse investigate. The story unfurls very nicely, the reveals are very well set up and the conclusion is what it should be.
One of the substantial pleasures of this story is the way that it becomes clear that the Victorian era context is not simply set dressing. The social constraints and rituals of the time are central to the story, the much more contemporary voice of Sigma does not conflict with them, rather they mingle naturally to create a very convincing context.
The dynamic relationship between Cal and Sigma is displayed and demonstrated through the action in the story, the two very distinct personalities and attitudes emerge clearly. Ken Reynolds has developed the idea behind Cognition very nicely, the cast have emerged more clearly and the context had gained additional depth. One of the noticeable elements in the story that serves it very well is the way that Cal and Sigma, a steam robot and a talkative mouse are very much public figures, they present themselves as themselves to the people around them. Doing this means that they can function easily and naturally in the world, they are not oddities, they simply are agents of B.O.S.S. and accepted as such.
Sam Bentley's art is a deep pleasure to read, the multitude of details that emerge from the stark black and white is remarkable. The physical context is solid and grounds the action, the cast are wonderfully expressive. Humans and demons, all are allowed a range of actions and expressions, the confidence in the art is a pleasure. Both Ken Reynolds and  Sam Bentley are so confident in the delivery that the reader has the opportunity to simply soak happily in the story, there is no effort to convince the reader, it simply unfurls as it should.
What the Butler Saw, Ken Reynolds (Writer & Letters),
Ben Peter Johnson (Art) is a short story that gives a different perspective on the B.O.S.S. team. Ben Peter Johnson art is radically distinct from Sam Bentley's and this is a great benefit for the story, the view from the outside deserves a different approach. The butler in the B.O.S.S. offices is writing a letter and included in it are reflections on the B.O.S.S. team. There is nothing new in the reflections, the butler's voice is distinctive enough to gave them a sense of a different perspective.
Cognition is a smart story idea being engagingly developed by seriously talented creators, it has wonderfully enticing possibilities and is a deep pleasure to read.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Cognition Issue 0. Ken Reynolds (Script & Letters), Sam Bentley (Art). (2016)

A very engaging and enjoyable comic that introduces the agents of the Victorian era British Occult Secret Service (B.O.S.S) in three short episodes.
They Never See It Coming.  A couple are attending a séance to contact a dead relative, at the same time a shadowy figure is having a sarcastic commentary on the event. When the medium is exposed it becomes clear that two of the agents of B.O.S.S. are highly unusual, one is a steam driven, small robot named Cal the other a mouse, Sigma. When they encounter a second medium it becomes clear that the robot and the mouse are more than a novelty act.
The Devil's Fishing Hole, a haunted marsh is actually haunted by something very dangerous. When Cal and Sigma encounter it, Cal has to take a significant risk with Sigma to solve it.
Frame Breakers reveals that there are people who are more than willing to traffic with demons in order to get what they want.
Ken Reynolds has managed a number of difficult story tasks in this issue with flair and considerable confidence. The idea of a steampunk occult secret service is a genre staple at this point, getting a new way to imagine it and exploit the strength of the idea is tricky, Ken Reynolds makes it look easy and natural. The weight of the idea rests on Cal and Sigma and they carry it with ease, the bond between them is tricky, they each need the other and are frustrated at the limits this imposes on them. At the same time they have a clearly effective working relationship that allows them the space to  cooperate and to manage. Ken Reynolds has nailed the critical odd couple dynamic that makes they engaging and compelling.
The progression of the stories introduces the cast and each carries a reveal that shows more of the central situation between Cal and Sigma. The information needed to created the set up and establish the cast and the context has been very nicely divided up so that it never just an info dump for the reader. The set up is developed very naturally and the cast given a chance to demonstrate who they are and what they are fighting against.
The lettering for Cal and Sigma is used to clearly differentiate the two, this is very impressive as white letters on black are used for both. There is no confusion between the two due to Ken Reynolds' subtle mastery of the process, the links between the two and the differences between them are clear without ever being obviously declared.
Sam Bentley's astounding black and white art is a pleasure to read, the human cast are all strongly individual, their faces are expressive and their body language is clear. They fit into their context with ease, they never look like supermodels or superhero's, they look like humans going about their work. Cal and Sigma are equally expressive, Cal looks like a steampunk robot should, Sigma bristles with attitude. The art is comfortable with quiet dialogue and explosive action, the panel layout is cleverly done to control the pace of the story.
Cognition 0 is a great fun comic by very talented creators, the story idea is developed in engaging and happily unexpected ways. 

How To Plan A Crusade. Christopher Tyerman. Penguin Books (2015)

A hugely engaging and enjoyable book about the work that was needed to be done in order to get the various crusades launched and maintained. The crusades have developed impressive layers of mythology around every aspect of their intentions, operations, importance and historical impact. The fact that they were overtly a religious enterprises launched from Europe to protect, recover and maintain Christian sites from the grasp of Islamic rulers they have always been deeply convenient fodder for the enduring "clash of cultures" outbursts.
Christopher Tyreman gracefully sidesteps most of this historical quicksand by concentrating on a less attended to aspect of the crusades. The fact that they were enormous examples of international military, diplomatic and political cooperation that needed to be thoughtfully and systematically organised to take place at all. The particular crusade myth that Christopher Tyeman wishes to remove is the idea that they were spontaneous events arising off a popular religious wave that swept up populations and sent them to unplanned war. Getting large numbers of troops to any location requires concerted planning, getting troops from different countries to a distant location with all of the logistics and supply problems that incurs at any time in history, required a very significant level of coordinated international planning. It is the components of this international, coordinated planning that is examined with telling detail and engaging critical analysis in this book.
The book examines the planning for the crusades under 5 headings, Justification, Propaganda,Recruitment, Finance and Logistics. Each is traced as they developed and responded to the results of previous crusades. The enormous energy and demands that establishing and launching a crusade required created dynamic changes that had long term implications far beyond the crusades themselves.
One of the most engaging aspects to this book is that Christopher Tyerman is actively pursuing an argument with the reader. The purpose of the book is to persuade, backed by a wealth of historical evidence and  analysis, the reader that the crusades and their context are considerably more grounded in rational investigation and considered practical planning than religious mania. The book has to stand or fall on the extent to which the argument is successful both in the way it is presented and the extent to which it convinces the reader.
I think that Christopher Tyerman has succeeded brilliantly on both counts, the organisation of the book is superb and the argument is clearly delivered and compelling. The single most important thing that Christopher Tyerman does in the book is to place the efforts so completely within the context of the times they took place, he shows very clearly how the justification and the propaganda were intrinsic to the social and political structures of the Middle Ages, and how both were considerably more fluid than is often assumed.
Personally I found the sections on finance and logistics to be the most engaging as I have a deep professional interest in both and to see how extremely familiar problems were solved with strikingly similar processes to today was intriguing.
This is a great book, it wears it very considerable learning lightly, the relevant details are provided in a clear and thoughtful fashion and the central argument is made isn a compelling fashion. It is a pleasure to read and think about.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology. Issue 6. Ken Reynolds (Editor).Ken Reynolds Design (April 2017)

A very engaging and enjoyable anthology that takes a happily generous view of "Slice of Life" as the central theme for various comics in the collection. The wonderful diversity in the stories is never confusing or distracting, they comfortably sit along side each other.
Killing Action Man, Martin Feekins (Writer), Jonathan Scott (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), very sharply captures a moment in childhood when we fear that an attempt to evade consequences will be uncovered and the trouble doubled. Talking Action Man suffers in action and the pervasive fear and guilt that follows are conjured up with precision and detail, as is the outcome. The low key tone of the story captures the moment with rueful compassion for the terrors that no one else could see. Jonathan Scott's art is is perfect for the moment, it captures the look of comics from the time , 1968, without trying to copy them. The colours are a joy, they capture the nostalgia essential for the story to work. Ken Reynolds' letters are natural and easy to read, the sound effects are precise and perfectly placed.
7ER MONNEN, 7ER MONNEN: Narrative-Shmarrative , 7ER MONNEN IM NISCHT, Daniel Ableev, are three one page comics that feature a solidary stick figure in different contexts. The first one, 7ER MONNEN is a neat joke, strong colors and strong timing make it work. 7ER MONNEN: Narrative-Shmarrative is a second 4 panel comic that teases the reader to impose a narrative on the panels by developing the context in each one. Daniel Ableev is clearly enjoying himself and the reader gets to do the same. 7ER MONNEN IM NISCHT, is the third 4 panel comic and I did not get it at all, whatever the intent of the the creator it has evaded me completely.
Old Plymouth. Eric Gaghan (Writer), Gregory Floch (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), is the most conventionally "slice of life" of the the comics in the anthology. A father who is ill is talking to his son, telling old stories and memories that have shifted and changed in the telling. Maybe the father broke his nose in a boxing match or in a terrible car crash, maybe he met his wife in a casino or a run down pub it does not really matter. It is the telling and the listening that counts and Eric Gaghan writes with sympathy and humour about the telling. The care for the cast gives the stories a warmth that invites the reader into the listening. Gregory Floch's art brings out all of the nuances, told and untold in the stories, the expressive cast respond to each other, the smiles of the father and mother for each other are a treasure. The blue tone saturating the memories/stories gives the memories a soft focus while the action retains it force. Ken Reynolds' nicely differentiated lettering allows the layers of the story to sit next to each other without confusion.
Dreamscape 1: Nightmare. J.M.Bryan (Writer and Art) is a standout even in such powerful company. Writing a comic about dreams is a fantastically difficult problem to solve, the nature of dreams and dream logic is virtually impossible to express convincingly. There are no rules for talent, using abstract art and cunning placement of text J.M.Bryan creates the sensation of a dream in a comic without ever compromising either. Words, pictures and colours are used with disciplined simplicity and powerful effect.
Psychedelic Entropy. Kyle Huston (Writer), Caleb Lindley (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters), fabulously overboiled writing that is heard as much as read follows the possible disintegration of a mind trying to cope with reality. The wonderful grandeur of the words come right up the limit of parody or outright pretentiousness, they never cross the line because they are anchored so firmly by the stunning art.  Caleb Lindley manifests the words in the art that holds the slippery ideas so firmly that the intent is allowed to be revealed. There is a joyous tension between the flight of the words and ideas and the huge physical weight of the art, the balance is a substantial pleasure to read. Ken Reynolds' letters are hiding their craft in plain sight, they never draw attention to them selves while to bind the whole comic together.
Child Gunther. Bob Schroeder is wonderful, the strongly expressive and dominant art is astonishingly stylised and completely engaging. The story of how a picture of a child was used for years on Kinder chocolate bar, steadily modified over the years is captured with great force and expressiveness. The lettering is as forceful as the art, big blocks of text compete with and try to crowd out the art. The reader is forced to choose one or the other concentrate on at a time. The competition works because the art is so expressive and powerful, it can tolerate the force of the text and incorporate it into the overall scheme. A intriguing story that is served by the powerful artistic imagination of Bob Schroeder.
Without You. Kim Roberts (Writer), Denis Vermesse (Art), Ken Reynolds (Letters) takes an unexpected perspective on a delicate issue. Getting a diagnosis of cancer is such an all encompassing moment that capturing it without without over or underplaying it is extremely difficult. Kim Roberts manages this by taking a deeply unexpected view that reveals the impact, the struggle and outcome with a honest and understanding eye. The art by Denis Vermesse is carefully set up to capture the progress of the story, the passage of time and the ebb and flow of the cancer. The panels control the timing of the story, the overlays capture the rest. The combination is wonderful, the reader is pulled in and along without ever being delivered to false sentiment, the art amplifies every delicate nuance of the writing. Ken Reynolds's letters give the voices clarity and shape, allowing everyone to be heard.
In addition to the comics there is a review of Sticky City, a graphic novel by Joe Bloch. The preview pages of Sticky City are great, strongly expressive, highly disciplined art that looks spontaneous and is clearly the result of deliberate artistic consideration.
Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology lives up to its title, the comics are outstanding, made by creators who understand the potential of comics and have the talent and creative muscle to achieve their ideas.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Ken Reynolds. To get a copy of Sliced (Quarterly). An Experimental Comic Anthology. Issue 6, and you should because wonderful, creative comics are a reminder of the joy of living, it is available from

Wolf Country 7. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2017)

There is a sense of tectonic story plates shifting in this issue of the gripping and hugely entertaining story. Halfpenny, the driven leader of the vampire settlement in the Wolf country has been recalled to the Kingdom, the vampire city. The ambiguities of living in the Kingdom have grated on Halfpenny, while a swirl of politics surrounds him. Finally he manage a direct confrontation with a werewolf, the results are not as conclusive as Halfpenny hoped as the jaws of a trap finally close around him. Halfpenny is a sharp blade, this issue starts to reveal the hand that hopes to direct that cutting edge.
Jim Alexander has given the story an interesting structure, there is a brutal fight which has an unexpected consequence, Halfpenny drifts close to a vision of hell that is really his heaven before being recovered to the fantastically more dangerous reality. Halfpenny has been expertly played, it remains to be seen if those who hope to grasp the blade can hold it safely or not.
Will Pickering's art is more that equal to the varying demand of the story. The fight with the werewolf is punishing physical , the close up bring it home, the quiet aftermath leads into the vision of hell or heaven as Half penny makes a stand that aligns him with the vampire god. Swing back to the Kingdom and the brutal calculations of political power the action lies in the contained body language and savage words of the cast. The brutal assessment of Halfpenny the asset by those who intent to exploit the asset have an impact equal to the physical fight with the werewolf.
Wolf Country shows with extraordinary confidence and thoughtful detail the layers that exist in every struggle for power. What has been increasingly fascinating as Wolf Country has developed and extended is just how seriously the creative team take the story and their readers. Moving from a brilliant premise the story has moved deeper and deeper into the structures and plans that entwine the apparently straightforward struggle. The story possibilities become increased as the weight of the actions of the cast become increasing meaningful and dangerous.
The crucible of religious motivation and power politics never produces unmixed or happy results, the scale that Wolf Country is steadily building to is enthralling,  the cast are being backed into various corners, when they start to move out of them it is likely to be astonishing.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander, to purchase a copy of Wolf Country 7, you should and issues 1-6 as well to see exceptional comic storytelling unfurl, it is available here,

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mistress of the Art of Death.Ariana Franklin. Berkley Books (2008)

A hugely enjoyable and engaging medieval murder mystery that juggles plot mechanics, cast and context with confident ease. 1171 in Cambridge and four children have been murdered and the local Jewish community have been identified as the killers. This is a significant problem for Henry II, the Jews are a crucial source of revenue and they cannot provide any trapped within Cambridge castle. To investigate the case The King of Sicily has sent the only female doctor trained at the famous medical school of Salerno, Adelia, a woman who can read a corpse to understand why the person died. Travelling with two others, one of whom is a castrated Moor, Adelia investigates the deaths as quietly as she can, while navigating the weather and customs of a foreign country. The reveals are cunningly staged, the plot mechanics are very well delivered and the grim justice of the conclusion is harrowing.
For any historical  story the context looms large, it has to be credible and understandable which is a very difficult balance to achieve. The cast must inhabit it naturally and be accessible to a reader, too little or too much information are equally bad. Ariana Franklin creates the context via the landscape and the cast and does so with utterly convincing confidence. Cambridge, set in the marshy fens and prosperous trading routes on the river Cam, the potent fears of outsiders as the source of trouble, the political tides of monarchy and church are all carefully woven into the story that is brought to life by the wonderful cast.
Adelia is an outsider from birth, rescued from exposure on the slopes of Vesuvius, a female doctor and now in England understanding disease much better than humans. Simon of Naples and Mansur her companions who see Adelia for who see is and create the space for her to live as she needs to. The rest of the cast are vividly loudly alive and  demanding attention from the reader, in particular the voracious predator who stalks in the shadows of the story slowly coming forward into the light. The suspects are plentiful and credible, with great skill one investigation crosses with another and the tension between the two becomes personal and professional.
Most impressively Ariana Franklin develops a credible romance between two adults that respects the context and the cast equally, it never robs the characters of their hearts or their brains. Their responses to the developing situation increases the depths and engagement of the characters and the way they manage is very satisfying.
This is first rate crime fiction set in a superbly imagined and credible context with a great cast that are all fighting all the time to be the leads in their own lives. Fantastic.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Ghostly Tides: The Curse of Witch Island (Kickstarter). Kim Roberts, Chris Allen, Denis Pacher . Swamp Line Productions

Swamp Line Productions are running a Kickstarter campaign  for a pirate comic, Ghostly Tides: The Curse of Witch Island. Finn, having failed in the annual pirate trials is open to the suggestion of a witch that he travel to witch island to meet up with the greatest, most fearsome pirate in history The Black Pirate. It is fair to assume that this will not end well for Finn. The sample pages posted on Kickstarter show that the creative team are bringing all the required energy, smart detail, humour needed to make a pirate story.

The cast are full of energy, they are wildly expressive as they should be, this is high order melodrama everything needs to be at full blast. The decorative details in the art are a pleasure and add greatly to the story. The balance, hard to achieve between charm and genuine threat has already been established, the Black Pirate is no lightweight.  The project captures the possibilities of pirate comics with flair, since I would like to see the whole story I am backing this project, a visit to the Ghostly Tides: The Curse of Witch Island Kickstarter page will demonstrate why.

Anna Galactic. Christopher Baldwin (Writer & Artist). Good Port Publishing (2016)

A wonderfully engaging and enjoyable romantic science fiction story. On board a stranded ship on an alien planet Foxglove Muriel defies the rules to search outside the ship, actions which bring her into direct conflict with security officer Dilvan Ceylon. Foxglove is sure there is something suspicious about their circumstances, Dilvan is trying to enforce the rules. When they cross paths with Anna Galactic, a young woman who parents are arrested , all three flee the ship along with Anna's nannybot, Pewter. They start on a journey to locate the energy source required to power the flight of their ship off the planet and find that the planet is full of surprises and dangers. The action is smart, forceful and frequently very funny, the reveals are cunningly set up and the conclusion is smart and satisfyingly unexpected.
Christopher Baldwin has embraced the challenge of presenting an unknown world with great energy and thoughtful detail. The variety of N.E.B. (Non Earth Beings) is nicely set up so that there are a limited number of different NEB's and the interactions with each are significant. They way the human cast respond to them and the N.E.B.s respond to the humans is always revealing and develops the themes of the story with deft wit. There is always a nice edge of incomprehension that makes the responses and actions ambiguous, every interaction has multiple possibilities, there is a consistent variety in the outcomes to keep the reader engaged.
The journey is not just about the outcome, it is as much a process whereby the human cast get to demonstrate themselves and question what and why they act the way they do. Dilvan and Foxglove are mature adults with established life patterns that they fall back on in trouble. They are also self aware enough to consider different ways of responding even if they are not always able to follow a new path. Anna Galactic is a young woman who is emerging into a entirely new life where she has to be more confident in herself and decide if what she is doing is what she wants to do. This process is very happily complicated by the presence of Pewter whose advice is consistently sharp, awkward and voices the happily unheroic at every turn. This nicely undercuts the more tortured thinking of the human cast and ensures that it never becomes pretentious.
The art is wonderfully friendly and welcoming, the cast are very expressive and move through their context with physical weight and impact. The N.E.B.s are varied without every being too fantastic, they fit into their context as comfortably as the human cast do. Christopher Baldwin sets the imaginative bar very high, knitting crabs should be a ridiculous point that blows up the story, instead they are a terrific and in context entirely credible event.  The art is never angular, its softer lines are complemented perfectly by the colouring. It is slight muted and brings out the details of the expressions for the cast and the details of the physical context with subtle care.
There is a great deal going on in this story and the various elements never trip each other up, smart ustilisation of the story framework allows Christopher Baldwin to effectively and dramatically follow the human drama without ever sacrificing the genre requirements for action and close escapes.
Anna Galactic is thoughtful, smart science fiction, a deep pleasure.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cold in Hand. John Harvey. Arrow Books (2008)

A very engaging and enjoyable UK police procedural. In Nottingham Detective Inspector Lynne Kellog is involved in a fatal shooting, and finds herself being publicly blamed for the death by the victim's father. Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, Lynne Kellog's partner, is called in to lead the investigation into the murder and has to manage the conflict of interest smartly exploited by the victim's father. Lynne Kellog on return to duty finds that a previous murder case at a sauna she was involved in is starting to take a very awkward turn and she has to manage two critical witnesses. DI Resnick's investigation finds itself stranded when a possible lead emerges, Lynne Kellog has to deal with some unwanted attention from a colleague involved in sauna murder. When a new murder shakes up everything, the investigations start to collide personally and professionally before they are driven to messy and horribly credible conclusions.
John Harvey has a masterful control of the plot mechanics , the cast and above all the context of the story. The city of Nottingham is seen from the police point of view as a constantly simmering cauldron of violent crime, carried out by people who are not exactly career criminals, more that they simply live lives where violent action and the willingness to take what they want is as natural as breathing. This context keeps bleeding into the story with apparent news flashes of crimes peppering the story, that slowly become entangled into the greater context of the investigation. This context is vital to the story as it makes the isolation of credible suspects fantastically difficult and the work that has to be done to find them all the more engaging.
John Harvey delivers great plot mechanics, a simple case proves to be extremely difficult in part because of the simplicity, a victim shot in public in front of a group of people who have absolutely no interest in revealing anything to the common enemy, the police. A grieving father who understand how to to use words to cut as effectively as any blade and direct his anger and guilt. A complex plan to smuggle a large number of guns into the country that is really the story of modern slavery. Surrounding, colliding with and desperately trying to influence these events the vivid cast that are bristling with life and all working really hard to get what they want. Charlie Resnick who is coming to the point where could retire if he chose handling a case that centrally involves his partner Lynne Kellog. Balancing the personal and professional is never easy, Resnick is given the room to manage it well while accepting the strain. Lynne Kellog is smart , competent and deeply wounded by the accusations of the victims father. Never distracted enough to loose sight of the implications of the sauna murder as she finds them. Detective Chief Inspector Karen Shields drawn into the investigations after another murder is dedicated, capable and forceful. All of them are surrounded by a cast of sharply drawn supporting players who assist and interere as they see the advantage to doing so. The dense and wide ranging cast make the work that Charlie Resnick, Lynne Kellog  and Karen Shields do more difficult and considerably more credible. None are superhuman, they are experienced and sometimes lucky, they know how to capitalise on luck.
This is top flight crime writing, it develops a whole community for the action to take place in, the plots pulls the cast and the cast force the pace of the plot. It is bleak and harsh,the cast have a weary resilience that allows them to continue and provides enough lift for the reader to engage and enjoy this excellent book.

Fredrick The Frost Gnome. Troy Vevasis (Writer), Tyrell Deaver (Art), Nikkki Sherman (Scripting). WP Comics (2017)

A charming and engaging comic that completes a nice set up and pay off in a single issue. The ice sculpture of the Frost Gnome king is vandalised by Ice Goblins who also leave a message about returning for the Frost Gnome King's crown. This naturally leads to a declaration of war though Fredrick is concerned that there may be more going on. As events unfold Fredrick proves to be cool under pressure as well as rather smart and the conclusion is nicely set up for more trouble.
Troy Vevasis, thankfully, does not take the view that writing for children means that a story should be any less well developed than for any other audience. The presentation is more light handed than it would be for a more adult audience, the plot mechanics and the story development would not be changed. The conflict is presented with a considered level of serious intent that the story and the audience deserve.
Tyrell Deaver's friendly art is a pleasure to read, the gnomes and the goblins are strongly differentiated, the Goblins are clearly green skinned villains, the are visibly angry and frustrated. They are going to be tricky opponents. The Frost Gnomes are altogether friendlier, they are peaceful but should not be taken lightly. Fredrick is every inch the hero, loyal and resourceful.
The action is delivered with just the right amount of force and weight, there is no blood but there is plenty of actions and reactions from the cast to bring home just how serious the problem is. The reader is never shortchanged in the story or the art, it is a rock solid action story.
Nikki Sherman's scripting is natural and easy, the lettering blends into the panels without ever drawing attention to itself. The sound effects are sparing and very well used, they give just the extra emphasis that is needed and at the end loudly and suitably underscore the situation.
Writing for an all ages audience with a particular emphasis on children is a seriously difficult matter, all of the distractions and short cuts that can be used for a more adult audience are not available and children are very critical of any attempt to shortchange them. Troy Vevasis and Tyrell Deaver make it look easy, talent has that effect.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy, very kindly sent by Troy Verasis, to purchase a copy of Fredrick the Frost Gnome, which you should because good comics are always a great purchase, you can do so here, WP Comics.

COBRA. Deon Meyer (Writer), K.L. Seegers (Translation). Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (2015)

A gripping and very entertaining South African crime story. Four people are killed and another is missing after an attack on a guesthouse at a South African wine farm. The Hawks, an elite South African Police Service squad are given the case, the Hawks team is lead by Benny Griessel, a recovering alcoholic and very capable detective. The missing man quickly becomes a mystery and the bullet cases found at the scene, engraved with the image of a spitting cobra hint at flamboyance at odds with the precision of the attack. In Cape Town Tyrone Kleinbooi, a pickpocket is struggling to find the money to pay his sisters university fees. A deft piece of work goes spectacularly wrong and Tyrone finds himself running for his life. Benny Griessel finds that the missing man is of great interest to the intelligence services and the bullet cases have international links. As the investigation becomes more and more entangled with powerful agencies with agendas of their own and Tyrone's situation becomes more desperate, the plot threads wind together very cunningly to reach unexpected and very satisfying conclusions.
The plot mechanics are superb, the reveals are staged with great skilll to reveal and hide as they should, the pressure is maintained and increased very credibly as the story winds steadily to the conclusion.
Deon Meyer has achieved a wonderful balance between the plot and the cast, they collide with each other with sufficient force to create tension and with enough room for the unexpected to work really well and the cast to actively influence the sequence of events.
Benny Griessl is a great lead character, he was a policeman who took to alcohol to blunt the compromises that working under apartheid rules imposed on him and is still paying the price as a police officer in the new South Africa.  The impact of his drinking is nicely used , the problem he is dealing with is credible and harsh without distorting his competence as an investigator. Benny is widely experienced and thoughtful, he leads to investigation with care, as it becomes increasingly difficult to conduct the investigation he includes his team openly and they respond vividly.
Tyrone is a great counterpoint to Benny, a pickpocket who is trying to support his sister's studies while hiding how he gets the money. Tyrone is a competent, skilled operator who is under severe pressure and when the pressure becomes deadly does not give in. Tyrone is resourceful, he has to be to survive on the streets as he does, he is capable of making and executing smart plans against cunning enemies. He is never supernaturally or extravagantly clever, he is highly motivated and focused as well as having the advantage of being on his home ground.
The story moves between Benny and Tyrone with care and craft, the reveals that pull the threads closer together are very carefully set up, they reveal more to the reader than the cast and this is used to increase the tension in a very smart way. There is a very welcome thread of hard won compassion for his cast in the story, Deon Meyer pushes them very hard, he never needlessly punishes them for being who they are.
K.L. Seegers translation is transparent and clever, the story is littered with Afrikaans works which need no translation, the meaning is clear from the context, they add greatly to the flavour of the story bringing the context vividly home for the reader. Smart crime writing, an engaging cast this is a pleasure to read.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Lost Child. Camilla Lackberg (Writer),Tina Nunnally (Translation). Harper (2013)

A very enjoyable, engaging and somewhat strange Swedish crime story. A man is shot in the entrance hallway to his apartment with no apparent motive. The investigation lead by Detective Patrick Hedstrom finds that Mats Severin was an intensely private man who did not seem to have any enemies who had recently returned to the seaside town of Fjallbacka as the council's financial director. Mats school sweetheart, Nathalie has also returned to Fjallbacka, she had moved to Graskar Island, known locally as Ghost Island. The investigation is thoughtfully managed and starts to focus on the event that preceded Mats return to Fjallbacka and when separate investigation in Stockholm starts to intersect with the one in Fjallbacka the satisfying sour conclusion is arrived at.
The plot mechanics of the main story are impressive, the reveals are carefully set up to hide as much as they show and the story moves in wonderful directions before convincingly coming back to a bitingly credible conclusion. The very large cast are energetic and full of life, Camilla Lackberg has a tremendous gift for concisely introducing and then developing her cast. She does not depend too much on continuity to support the series regular cast, they are given the space and time to make a full impression on any reader who is coming to this book cold. One of the very nice things about the book is the way that a genre staple, the incompetent police chief, is given significantly greater depth and humanity than usual. He may be incompetent, impulsive and largely lacking insifgt or foresight, he is also loving and vibrantly alive.
Critically this is a story about a number of relationships, some of which end with violent death, others of which are savagely damaged by past events and others of which are resilient and positive.
What makes The Lost Child somewhat strange are the ways that these relationships, some of which have a direct link to the major story line, some of which are essentially completely independent, are handled. There is an inescapable of judgement, harsh judgement, in the way some of these relationships are played out. Camilla Lackberg has a sharp and deeply critical eye of character weakness that leads to terrible decisions, the results of those decisions are never managed with forgiveness, grim justice is delivered to punish the weakness that lead to bad actions. It is weakness that is punished rather than deliberate malice, while that does get some measure of punishment. the greater load is carried by the weak.
While egotistical self importance does get a savage comeuppance, it is the more subtle weakness of the heart and mind that get the harshest weighting in the balance and the heaviest punishment. The weakness are not trivial, nor are the results of those weaknesses, still there is a steely lack of compassion in their treatment that is striking. There is a slight element of the supernatural in the story, Ghost Island has earned its name and it is used with care and subtle emphasis that never distracts from the harsh reality of the events.
Tina Nunnally translation is transparent, there is no sense that this story is anything less than entirely Swedish in its context, cast or atmosphere nor is there any sense that it was not in fact written directly in English. The translation allows the cast and the story emerge completely and forcefully.