Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

Step Aside, Pops! A Hark! A Vagrant Collection,

Kate Beaton,

Jonathan Cape (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (Canada/US)

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Oh, where to start with this wonderful collection… Those of you who read our blog will have already seen us praise Canadian creator Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant work over the years – as well as a previous collection, Kate generously posts a huge amount of her work online for all to read, and we’ve absolutely loved it. It’s mostly short-form cartoon strips, just a few panels (although she also does quite a few linked together in a series), but Kate packs an enormous amount into her short strips, she’s a tremendously skilled comicker. I don’t just mean in the technical sense of her ability to draw (although her artwork alone frequently cracks me up – just the cover alone for this book had me smiling hugely, I so want that on a T-shirt), but in the way she can use just a few, short panels so damned cleverly. It’s far too easy to have a good giggle and them move on without thinking too much about the effort that went into those four panels, but with a lot of Kate’s work they lodge in your brain and leave you thinking about them long afterwards, they’re not just funny, they’re funny-clever, and that tickles me just right.

Kate’s subjects range all over the place on her site and here in this collection too. There are strips drawn from worries and incidents in real life, or modern concerns (several linked strips see parents having to chase bizarre militant scary feminists from their children’s bedroom like some strange modern fairy tale creatures), others draw on popular culture, like her take on famous comics characters – in a series on Lois Lane she pokes fun at the way the whole Lois-Clark Kent-Superman relationship has been depicted over the years. As Kate adds in her footnote “don’t give me those comics where Lois is a wet blanket who can’t figure out the man beside her is Superman. If Lois isn’t kicking ass, taking names and winning ten Pulitzer Prizes an issues, I don’t even want to know.” Following this comment with a strip which shows Clark Kent in full nudge-nudge, wink-wink mode:

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

Well, I have a secret too. Psst, come here…”

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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It’s not just the final gag, it’s the whole short build-up, her art showing Clark so pumped up with a sense of himself he’s radiating smugness and is too clueless to pick up on Lois’ body language which is clearly saying if he doesn’t stop hassling her, she’ll stick a lump of Kryptonite where the sun doesn’t shine… Or a bystander asks Wonder Woman why she isn’t chasing a bad guy who is running away, “Girl, I’m wearing a strapless bathing suit and high heel boots, what would you do?” And then there’s her pretty prickly persona for Wonder Woman…

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A running theme with Kate’s work, for which she’s rightly become both loved and respected, are her delightful – not to mention frequently damned clever – strips which riff on classic literature or on historical figures. Sometimes it can be a very well-known historical figure, such as her series of “Founding Fathers in a Mall”, some loving this modern shopping experience while others like George Washington go and sit on a bench, despondent and complaining this is worse than Valley Forge… Sometimes it can be a historical figure new to you – one I hadn’t heard of before was Doctor Sara Josephine Baker (known to her friends and patients as “Doctor Jo”), a pioneer and campaigner in hygiene and in children’s health, Kate poking fun at the way some things we take for granted today weren’t known back in the day, so we get the lady telling her that her baby is sick. Doctor Jo looks, takes the child and rights him, commenting “you baby is upside down” in a perfectly timed piece. I’m impressed that Kate also got a couple of strips in on Catalonian inventor Monturiol and his remarkable early submarine, a historical curiosity I’ve always found fascinating but few folk seem to have heard of, so I was cheered to see her covering him and his amazing machine in this collection.

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Classic literature proves a rich and fertile seam for Kate’s pen and wicked sense of humour – the Brontes being a particularly happy hunting ground (“Next time on Wuthering Heights – no-one is lonely in a graveyard” complete with raving mad Heathcliff clutching Cathy’s bones). Or in another Byron and Shelley discuss their dreams, Shelley being sure a dream of a naked child rising from the seas was a portent of his death by drowning, Byron more interested in hey, when you say kid, you mean like who cares or more like eighteen and naked, as he pervs away oblivious to Shelley’s worries. “You know, I don’t like it when they call us pariahs,” adds Shelley. “Yes you do,” replies Byron… Or Pride and Prejudice gets reworked but this time with a whole “house full of Mulders”. Yes, our favourite “I want to believe” FBI man, but lots of him, all catching the eyes of the ladies at the local ball (except for “Miss Scully” who is less than impressed). Some old Broadsides woodcut images from the Bodleian Library’s online collection also prove great starting points for Kate to go off on her own tangent (one classic one ruminating on mortality shows a woodcut of three skeletons, leading into Kate’s strip where one complains about their expressions: “ok, so we’re skeletons, but do we have to be sad skeletons?”).

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Ultimately it’s hard to really get over in words just how effectively these strips work, you really have to read them for yourselves to get the full effect, from the artwork and the brilliant expressions Kate gives so many of her characters (I was frequently in kinks of laughter just from the art and expressions alone) and the beautifully observed timing of the frames of each strip (and so much of comedy relies on that innate good timing). And while we all enjoy a good laugh at a decent “gag strip”, there is so much more going on in the world of Hark! A Vagrant – the literary references for some strips are knowing but not elitist, anyone can get them (and they show a love for the original books while still poking fun), the historical strips are funny but also rely on actual knowledge, which just makes them both funny and also clever, the asides on everyday life and pop culture are well-observed (and frequently make a quiet point that will linger in the mind afterwards, more effectively than any amount of soap-boxing might have done).

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The amount of laughter this generated between me and colleagues all demanding to know what I was laughing at, only to be reduced to guffaws themselves when they looked… It’s a real pleasure to read so much of Kate’s work in one big hit like this, it’s truly smile-inducing work. If you’ve already encountered Kate Beaton’s work then you’re probably already ordering this; if you haven’t then go check her Hark! A Vagrant online and I’m sure you’ll soon be wanting to give her money by purchasing her books too.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: If You Steal

If You Steal,

Jason,

Fantagraphics

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Norwegian comicker Jason has carved an impressive reputation among lovers of Indy comics over recent years, and deservedly so, consistently offering up some truly wonderful comics with lovely, (deceptively simple) clear-line art, stories that can offer both humour and tragedy (often in the same tale) and which, with a fairly minimal sequence of panels, totally engage the reader. He’s also one of those great creators who “collaborates” with his readers, offering just enough intimation of the narrative (often wordless, or at least with very little dialogue) and respecting his readers enough to trust them to fill in what happens between those panels, or to draw their own conclusions from a “silent” sequence, which I find hugely satisfying.

If You Steal is a collection of short stories by Jason, covering a variety of topics and emotions, from drama and tragedy to gleefully humorous homages to other artforms and cultural pursuits. Some, like the eponymous If You Steal, which opens the collection, are melancholy in tone, allowing the reader to observe a man on a downward slide – gambling his money away, owing more to criminals, having to commit crimes to pay his debts, trying to earn enough to clear himself, to treat his girlfriend who he loves and yet who he also turns against in his rage and sense of helplessness as his life spirals out of control and everything he tries to make it better simply makes it worse and worse.

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Again we have that very minimal approach, Jason using mostly three or four panels a page, like excerpts from the story – for instance, in just four panels we see the man leaving a card game, having lost a lot of money, walking down the stairs to the street, then suddenly running round the corner to be physically ill at what he has done. The whole sequence is only four panels, only one of which has dialogue (a whole two lines at that). Masterfully done and a perfect example of the skill of Jason as a cartoonist.

While the despair and desperation and loss permeates that opening story, this collection is no gloom-fest, it is in fact quite a nice mixture, from outright humour to fun-loving homages to delightfully surreal elements. In Karma Chameleon, for example, Jason is clearly having fun paying homage (and poking fun – lovingly though) at the great 1950s sci-fi B movie creature feature. We start in fairly traditional B-movie mode with people going around their everyday lives before looking up startled, only to be dragged off by an unseen menace, before the authorities step in, the local sheriff, the eccentric academic called in as expert (complete with attractive young daughter for the small town hero to fall for), the reveal of a giant version of a regular creature (here a chameleon) wreaking havoc and, of course, threatening the scientist’s daughter and leading to a showdown in the desert with the US Army. Being Jason though he can’t help but add in some cheeky humour of his own, not least the professorial expert having a strange compulsion to talk about masturbation to everyone.

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There’s more delightful homage work with Night of the Vampire Hunter, which mixes up the Gothic vampire slaying holy man with (classic film fans will be unsurprised to hear) Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter film (right down to the preacher having “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles). Lorena Velazquez pays tribute to another form of film, those wonderfully bonkers Mexican horror movies in which a masked Lucha Libre wrestler is the hero taking on staples of the horror genre instead of a Van Helsing character. Of course Jason starts this one like so many of those generic (yet fun) Mexican horrors, the masked wrestler hero breaking into the grim castle to rescue the beautiful maiden from the scheming, hooded villains. Except Jason then turns the dial up to eleven – as soon as he beats the robed, hooded villains he is attacked again before he can free Lorena, this time by a Dracula figure. Defeating him again he finds the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, mummies, aliens and… Well, you get the picture. It’s a brilliantly mad overload of an already fairly mad (in the good way) sub-genre and left me with a huge, huge grin (it may have been my favourite in the collection)

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We veer back to crime fiction with Polly Wants a Cracker, following a female assassin, seemingly a quiet, unassuming lady but on a job a ruthless and deadly killer, albeit one who adores and loves her parrot. Ask Not takes an entirely different tack, starting with druids at Stonehenge sacrificing animals for a glimpse into the future, then seeing that future evolve, leaping to Nostradamus dreaming a prophecy of a young president shot down in his prime in an open top car as his wife screams, through to the Twin Towers, a few minimal panels taking us from pre-history through to the modern day but all of it controlled and manipulated by a shadowy group of conspirators in a nice twist on all those tales of the Illuminati and other secret societies who are supposedly behind every big historic event. It’s funny but also a thoughtful piece.

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Jason changes gears again for the final story, Nothing, where we see an elderly lady, Emma, struggling – as she tries to eat her food a very creepy black-eyed character snatches her fork from her hand. As she looks on perplexed a nurse asks her what’s wrong. “They took the… to eat with.” “A fork?” “Ah, yes. A fork,” Emma replies and suddenly the fork is in her hand again. As the story progresses we see these same disturbing, black-eyed characters trying to remove other items – they take a painting from the wall, Emma confused points to what to her is now a blank wall, only for her son to ask if she is looking at the painting. As soon as she hears the word the painting re-appears, and slowly it dawns on us that she has Alzheimer’s or a similar degenerative disease, the dark-eyed characters are her mind’s way of seeing the disease slowly robbing her of her senses and faculties and memories. It’s incredibly clever and also terribly poignant, not least when her daughter comes to visit and the dark-eyed character holds his hand in front of her face – now Emma can’t recognise her own daughter, although there are small victories such as the black-eyed characters attempting to carry off something else, but she looks them in the face and names it, and Jason imparts such a sense of triumph on her face as he realises one small victory.

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If you haven’t read Jason yet then this new collection of short stories from Fantagraphics is an ideal introduction, while for those of us who are already fans it is a welcome addition to Jason’s oeuvre, offered up in a handsome small hardback volume. There are some sad, touching moment, some very emotional scenes, but also some brilliantly funny scenes, to make you sad, to make you laugh, to make you think, and all with just a few brief panels and hardly any dialogue, the accomplished work of an absolute master of the comics form. Superb.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jessica Jones: Alias

AKA Jessica Jones : Alias Volume 1,

Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos,

Marvel

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You’ve all been watching the new Jessica Jones TV series over the weekend, right? A companion piece of sorts to Netflix’s superb Daredevil series, it follows Jessica Jones, formerly the superhero Jewel, now retired from the capes and tights and running her own private investigation agency, Alias. Created by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos back in 2001, the original volumes have been getting reprinted recently ahead of the new TV series, and that makes it a pretty good time to draw attention to them for those who missed them first time round, or for those who read them years ago and are feeling the urge to revisit them (you should, they stand up very well).

When we open this first volume we meet Jessica, in her small PI’s office, having an argument with a less than happy client. A lot of PI work involves morally messy stuff – spouses who suspect their partner is cheating on them, paying Jessica to find out and then, if their suspicions are confirmed, turning their anger on her in a “shoot the messenger” style. And that’s what this fairly seedy looking bloke in the “wife beater” vest does when she shows him the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. Despite the fact he paid her to investigate his wife and find this evidence, he turns his anger on Jessica and curses all women as the same (how could his wife cheat on such a charmer, muses Jessica), then he gets violent… And oh boy, has he picked the wrong woman to get violent with. She may be much smaller than he is, but Jessica was a superhero. In the next scene the man is flying through the glass window on her office door (and yes, they did borrow this for the start of the TV show, and it works great there too). I know violence rarely solves anything, but also have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a violent creep like this being taught a lesson by someone he thought was “defenceless” and weak…

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It’s clear from the start that Jessica is a damaged character, bitter, a little self-destructive, in many ways a classic 40s/50s private eye character that Raymond Chandler might recognise, carrying mental scars from her past experiences, although where those classic Noir gumshoes were all mentally scarred by what they saw in the war, with Jessica it is events during her time as a cape. When asked by various people why she gave up being a superhero her normal answer is that she didn’t quite fit into it, she was never going to be as good as the A-list heroes, that she didn’t have that drive they have. And some of that may be true, but as the series unfolds we find out there is a much more complex, emotional (and upsetting) core to why Jessica left the superhero line.

But it doesn’t leave her. Although she runs a regular detective agency, given her past and abilities it’s hardly surprising that the world of the capes intrudes into her life whether she wants it to or not. Sometimes in good ways – she’s maintained a friendship with Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), although in true Jessica fashion she can be a bit of an arse about it, pushing away those who like her and want to help (of course this just makes the reader feel for her all the more and become more emotionally invested in her). Or her on-off relationships with Luke Cage or Scott (Ant-Man) Lang.

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And some of these scenes really work oh so well, they ground that fantastical world of superheroes – we see Jessica and Cage hanging out in a bar, or her and Carol doing lunch and enjoying a good gossip about which superhero is seeing who and how Luke Cage is a bit of a “cape chaser” according to Carol. I thought he was a good guy, protests Jessica (who has had close relations with him herself). He is, Carol opines, but he just can’t resist superpowered women. It’s the everyday, social stuff that you don’t see so much of in the main superhero titles (although to be fair Marvel has always had an element of the everyday life for many characters included in stories). And it lends a realism to the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe to have such ordinary events like two girl chums chatting over lunch.

Naturally there is more going on here, and even in this first volume Jessica finds herself being manipulated by shadowy forces, pushed into an investigation that just happens to include spying on a woman who it turns out is covertly dating a major superhero, an iconic figure. Who takes off his mask while she is filming the tryst. She had his secret identity on tape and panics – of course she doesn’t want to air it, in fact her first instinct is to destroy it so it can’t be used against an upstanding superhero.

Then she thinks about it and realises she has been set up. But who knew this hero was going to see this woman and why did they want her to film it? If she destroys it she might throw away something that could protect her later. And then when a murder is thrown into the mix Jessica finds herself implicated (and rather thankful that Luke Cage asks a certain Matt Murdock to go in as her lawyer and demolish the shaky cop case). But that still leaves a very shadowy conspiracy going on that Jessica has unwittingly been drawn into…

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It’s hugely compelling and immensely well-written, as you would expect from Bendis, delivering both a good introduction to Jessica Jones and her world and troubles and juggling both larger story arcs (which will reveal much more about Jessica’s past experiences as the volumes progress) and the much more believable, personal, human level. And that is just so profoundly satisfying; it also means that the creators really manage to hook the reader totally into Jessica and her life in a very effectively emotional level.

Gaydos’ art manages the trick of portraying a woman who can be incredibly powerful and strong or can be lost, emotionally hurt and damaged, and again as with Bendis’ script this makes Jessica a much more believably human, three-dimensional character. Gaydos also uses some nice visual tricks – rapid, multiple small panels for a police interrogation scene, hinting at the bewildering speed of events as the detectives try to get her off balance, or a visit to Avengers Mansion being shown from a low perspective behind her, the imposing gates towering over Jessica, suggesting her emotional state of mind on a visual canvas.

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It’s an unusual side-on view of the world of Marvel superheroes that makes it all feel more realistic and believable, delivering a good, twisting detective story with added capes now and then, and a very engaging emotional core. All centred around a female lead who is neither impervious strong hero or emotionally ravaged victim to be saved, but, like most people, has her good and bad days, days where she may just want to break down and run away from it all, or days where a boasting “man mountain” gets the hell kicked out off him by a very strong and angry woman. She’s not a glowing heroic icon of perfection nor is she a damsel to be rescued, but sometimes she has elements of both, which is much more true to life (and also much more compelling for the reader). Jessica is no cipher or archetype, she’s a wonderfully realised, complex human character, with flaws and good points, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and conflicting emotions, and that may be the single best thing in this engrossing series, just how human Jessica feels.

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With Marvel reprinting the series in larger collections (this first volume has nine issues-worth of material, a great way to get into it) and the TV series making a good impression on viewers over the last week, it’s a good time to revisit Jessica Jones and find out why she deserves a place in your classic comics collection.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,

SelfMadeHero

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Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.

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Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.

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Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.

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Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.

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It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

Hellboy and the BPRD 1952

Hellboy and the BPRD : 1952,
Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Alex Maleev, Dave Stewart.
Dark Horse

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Anung un rama…

With Mignola’s most recent mini-series seeing Hellboy not only dead but now in Hell (a new arc starts this very month), Hellboy and the BPRD 1952 is a welcome diversion, taking us right back to his earliest days and his first field mission for the BPRD. We open in a hospital in newly-liberated France in 1946, where Professor Bruttenholm is recovering from injuries. He is visited by a charming young girl who the nurse assumes is his niece, but it’s soon clear that she’s something rather more than the little girl she appears to be. She brings the hospital-bound Bruttenholm news he has been waiting on regarding some of the supernatural experiments the Nazis had embarked on in the dying days of the war, desperate for some magical weapon to turn the Allied advance back. More specifically he wants to know all he can about how Hellboy was brought into the world and why.

Of course some of this is professional and academic curiosity – he needs to know as part of his role in this new Bureau for Paranormal Defence and Research, set up to counter such threats. But much of his line of questioning stems from something far more basic and far more emotional and human – a paternal instinct. The girl tells him about Project Ragnarok, about how the mad monk Rasputin still lives decades after his supposed death and how he summoned Hellboy, destined to grow up to wear the flaming crown as destroyer of all things, the ending of worlds. But, she chides the injured professor, you know this already, and yet you’ve adopted the boy, while others see the danger he poses, they argue for killing him, you treat him like a son… And that fatherly theme is a strong element here. Yes, Bruttenholm is no fool, he knows what Hellboy could be, he has nightmares about it. But like any good father he sees good in his son as well, and believes firmly that if he nurtures the good, brings him up with love and respect, that he can make him something else, something better – not the doom of the world but its hope.

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Cut to 1952, and Hellboy is now fully grown (his body matures quickly), and chafing at the restrictions of always living in the BPRD headquarters. The nascent BPRD is spreading its wings internationally, not just in the US, and a request for help investigating mystery deaths by a supernatural creatures in a village in Brazil elicits a response. As the professor briefs his team for their trip, he also adds that he wants them to take Hellboy. Some are unhappy – he isn’t qualified and the professor himself forbade untrained agents in the field after a previous tragedy. I know, he replies, but I made the rule so I can break it when I think it is right to do so. Some of the experienced agents worry about this, a couple, including Archie, the leader, think it a good idea for the boy to get experience in the field, one seems to object less about the lack of experience and more because Hellboy isn’t human.

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Prejudice rears its ugly head (and there’s more to this than simple bias, as we will find out later). But the professor has decided, and that is that. But there’s more than just letting Hellboy get some experience and letting him out of his confinement in the base here. After the team leave he turns to his assistant, not the head of the BPRD but a father trying to guide a son, feeling, knowing that he needs this experience, that he will instinctively try to fight the monsters, protect the innocent, and that fighting the good fight is what will make him the good man he believes he can be:

Out there, Margaret, only out there can he become a man.”

The slow-burn of the opening takes its time establishing the mood and scene nicely, before the tempo moves up a notch as the team arrive in Brazil. It’s never an easy task to come to illustrating Hellboy after two decades of Mignola’s art, but here we have the excellent Alex Maleev, and he steps up to the plate – one of the first scenes in Brazil is a nice, simple but utterly lovely character piece, Maleev showing Hellboy smiling, happy simply to be out of his usual home in the base, he’s outside, in the world, smelling the trees as they drive down a road in Brazil and this simple pleasure has him grinning. It’s soon business though, as they learn of the deaths and disappearances around a small village, which in best Gothic tradition, is located near a semi-ruined old castle with an evil reputation. Once it has ceased being a fortress it became a prison, but after mass deaths there it was abandoned. Now a rather creepy film crew has set up there, and you just know there’s going to be a connection between them and the mystery creatures – the question is what is that connection, what are they really up to and will the team figure it out in time, especially when playing nursemaid to a rookie Hellboy?

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I’m not going to spoil it too much for you by going into what they find, but suffice to say of course the locals are right, it’s not simple superstition, there is indeed a monster (perhaps more than one) and a young, inexperienced Hellboy will have to decide how he deals with them. Naturally there are dark goings-on in the semi-abandoned castle, and it will not surprise you – especially given the cover art clearly shows a nazi swastika flag – that it involves some of the “boys from Brazil”: escaped Nazi war criminals (and HB is always wonderful when it involves monsters and mad Nazis!).

The story manages the fine trick of being it’s own tale, a coming of age story in some ways, of a young Hellboy, but it also manages to combine that with multiple references to Hellboy history we’ve seen over the years, weaving them into this early story, some as nods to previous stories, some actually expanding a bit on elements of HB history we’ve seen hinted at before. It’s all very, very satisfying for the long-time reader (although a new reader can still enjoy this as an origin tale and they will pick up some elements of HB history along the way which will work nicely if they follow it up with reading previous volumes).

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The nods to Hellboy history also includes his first encounter with a memorable villain we’ve seen several times now in Hellboy volumes – I won’t blow the surprise, but will say I was delighted when I saw who it was and I think many of you will be too. Maleev, as I noted earlier, does sterling duty, making the art his own while working within a style that doesn’t jar with Mignola’s oh-so-iconic art for HB, aided in no small manner by the excellent Dave Stewart and his atmospheric colour palette (an element always important in HB’s visuals) – a fight in a local church lit by candles is all washes of sickly orange and bright red, night scenes in blues and purples (including a memorable image of a priest by a standing cross, looking up to see one of the monsters perched on the cross-beam, silhouetted against the dusk sky).

It’s a terrific romp, it offers more connections to other parts of Hellboy’s established history and, frankly, it’s just huge fun to see such a young Hellboy on his first outing (and how the world reacts to him too – after all, unlike later volumes where HB is well-known, here most people will have no idea who he is and never have seen anything like him). But beneath the action-adventure romping fun there’s that father-son story, which lends it a deeper emotional core and also gives that Hellboy history a more personal note. This isn’t just the story of how Hellboy went from being Rasputin’s tool for the apocalypse to being the noble hero, it’s the personal, emotional, family level of it that really works so well here, an adopted father who knows the responsibility he bears to bring this boy up the right way. Any father worries about such matters, about making sure they instil in their child not just love but respect for others, the instinct to do the correct thing, and while most dads don’t have to worry about their child growing up to be the beast of the apocalypse, on an emotional level it’s the same struggle, the same hopes and fears of a father for his boy.

“All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us…”

Phonogram Volume 1: Rue Britannia,

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie,

Image Comics

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Since the dawn of humanity, magicians, shamans, the Clever Man, the Wise Woman, whatever you want to call them, have been aware that words carry power and that music and rhythm can induce altered states, altering, changing, expanding perspective. Little wonder then, that popular music, marrying both those rhythms and melodies with the words of the lyrics can exercise such power on so many of us. Not just to induce mental states of delirious happiness or moping despair as we listen to a particular album, but the way those songs, usually the product of their times, the zeitgeist, the happening cultural trends that rise and fall like waves in the ocean and that we all try to surf for at least a while, especially when young (go on, admit it, we all did, and why the hell not, it’s what we’re meant to do, especially in that everything-seems-new flush of youthful energy and experimentation). And that brings us to revisiting this modern classic by a team – Gillen and McKelvie – who have gone on to become major names in the international comics community. This was one of their signature calling cards, just a few years ago, and despite the river of work they’ve done, both together and separately, since then, it still holds a fascination, just like a much-loved pop song. You still want to take it out the sleeve and put the needle in the groove again and just go with it…

Pop music is one of the defining socio-cultural experiences of the modern era, it can be light, frothy fun, it can be the howling agit-prop anger of early Manics, and all shades in-between, and like the comics it’s a medium that is seemingly transient, ephemeral, trends and characters come and they go, and sometimes they come around again, and even if they don’t though, they somehow remain lodged inside us, tied not just to memories of when we first loved that single or album, but everything going on around us at the time. In the same way they say a smell can evoke rich memories, so to the music we love, and the music we loved when first discovering music, oh boy does that have power over us, singly and in groups (how many of us bonded with others, friends and total strangers, over that shared musical experience at a certain place and time in our lives?). And while all pop draws from – or sometimes powers – the zeitgeist, the phenomena we now call Brit Pop really seems to capture that 90s “Cool Britannia” period in the way the Beatles capture the Swinging Sixties.

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Or does it? That’s part of the question in here, as we meet David Kohl – how much of that Brit Pop era are we collectively remembering correctly, how much is ‘remembering’ all the labels applied posthumously to it by commentators and others after it had been and gone? It’s an important question for Kohl – not only is he a phonomancer, a magician who draws on music for his tricks, his own identity is bound up in that era and it’s music. The goddess Britannia who shone for those few years is gone, but her influence on what makes Kohl himself is still there, and he can feel things changing, and if they change then so will he – he may even no longer be a phonomancer or even remember what he was before he changes, perhaps being altered into just another guy with a mortgage, settling down (yes, not hard to detect that slightly older twinge here, how different from other generations we would be when we were older, as we danced, powered up on that music, and then years later realising we grew up much the same). And after an encounter with the main aspect of the goddess of music Kohl is compelled to look into Britannia – another aspect of that goddess – and her life and her death.

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I find it quite brave that Gillen and McKelvie decided to give us such an unlikeable, self-obsessed, self-serving central character – that could easily backfire, but they take this arrogant bastard and still make us give a damn (there are even hints of hopes for redemption hidden in his acts). There’s more than a hint of the John Constantine about Kohl – the constant smoking, the cool pose, the hidden knowledge, the casual use of that knowledge and others for his own selfish ends, and a feeling of a much larger, darker, mysterious world around him. Maybe if Constantine had come of age in the 90s this could have been him. McKelvie’s artwork is beautifully clear black and white work here, some panels looking like they could have been stills from a 90s Japanese animation, and he captures some of the characters superbly – Kohl, trying to get back into a mindset of the music of his formative years, depicted wearing the make-up his younger self used to sport, beautifully done in crisp B&W, and instantly bringing forth memories of trying different looks in the mind of the reader (again, go on, admit it, we all tried, and even those who got it down so stylishly right look back now and think oh, what was I thinking? But it was cool at the time…).

Or the way showing a beautiful young female musician-singer in one panel, and then almost exactly the same image in the next panel, but now with jet-black eyes, works as a brilliant “jump” moment (also reminds me of the oh-so-eerie all-black eyes on Joanna Lumley in an old Sapphire and Steel episode. Creepy and disturbing), as she reveals herself to him as not just a singer-songwriter, but a major aspect of the goddess herself…

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Ultimately, for me anyway, Phonogram is as much about memory and identity as it is magic and music. It’s about how we defined ourselves, and often how we continue to define ourselves, by musical tastes, gigs we were at, the people we sang along with at a certain time and place, and how that process creates part of our selves, part of our own self-image, how we see ourselves. And how that process is dynamic, rarely static, because even years after that period, even after Britannia herself has been and gone, both individually and collectively, we rewrite part of that period, and with it how we see ourselves again. And the odious Kohl, who has great taste in music in place of a moral centre, that’s part of his problem – he wasn’t just defined by the music of that era and scene, he still is. Other phonomancers have moved on, the somewhat sad retromancers cling to the old music in revival sessions to tap some magical energy, but he’s still trying to be just what he was then, and it just doesn’t work that way, not for an individual, not for popular culture, it’s a constant state of change and even the past can be redefined.

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It’s a gorgeous piece of work – not just a compelling story and good hook (music is magic, magic is music, we make and experience both), but it also comes freighted with that bittersweet nostalgia and memory that makes you both laugh in shared recognition but also wince in embarrassment (did I really like that back then??) or even sigh over old regrets (we danced all that night to that music, why did I ever let you slip away…). Phonogram manages all this while looking oh-so-cool and stylish while conjuring all these competing, contrasting emotions in the reader – and a strong urge to listen to some old favourites…

Achingly beautiful new fantasy comic: 8house: Arclight

8house #1: Arclight,

Brandon Graham, Marian Churchland,

Image Comics

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Shine like an arclight,
Sing like a bird might sing,
When he was higher than heaven,
Higher than every other thing,
Some kind of arclight,
Sparks in the street,
I know that you’ve no answers,
All I need is for you to shine.” Arclight, The Fat Lady Sings

Short review: the most gorgeous looking comic I’ve seen in this week’s releases.

OK, for those who want slightly more than that… It’s the start of another new creator-owned series from Image, and as I’ve noted a a bunch of times recently, they’ve had an impressive record in interesting series over the last few years. And then there was that lovely fantasy cover artwork, an androgynous (almost young Bowie-like) figure in a costume that partakes of bits and pieces from real history but which just screams elegant fantasy. I think I liked this before I even opened the pages, truth be told, between that cover and the familiar old bookseller’s Spidey-sense I sometimes get that just tells me I need to read something even though I know nothing about it.

And then I did open those pages… And oh my… Eschewing the usual inner cover page where all the copyright and publisher and creator information is normally printed, and indeed what would normally be page one of the actual story also not marked by lettering for the writer and artist’s names, this literally opens with a glorious double-page spread, right from the inside cover page, a gorgeous hilly landscape tinged creams and browns and rust and orange and red from the lowering sun. Right from the opening two-pager we’re being immersed into a fantastical realm, and that’s no bad thing. In my book a good fantasy has to win over the reader, make them feel this alternative world, so they feel like they can touch it, feel it, smell it – again I return to using the word “immersed” because, simply, that’s something the best fantasies do. It’s like weaving an enchantment.

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We meet Sir Arclight and the robed, hooded Lady, who have travelled far over those hills and mountains and on into dark forest lands (there should always be some dark forest lands in fantasy and fairy tales, they’re a powerful part of our shared dreamlands), sensing something wrong, something alien, passing through their kingdom. Whatever it is, “it shaped the trees as it passed. It’s big,” observes Arclight, regarding a line of trees bent over to form a tunnel of their branches. Finding a dying border creature the Lady works a spell to keep it alive in the hopes it may reveal something of the strange and unknown magical creature that has passed this way; if they find they have to take action against it, obviously it makes far more sense to have foreknowledge of any potential adversary. They return to the city, Arclight happy, being an urban person, the Lady less so, but it is where she needs to be, so they set off.

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And again we are treated to some wonderful fantasy art from Churchland, with a vast stone bridge spanning a valley, with great stone staircases to lead one up or down from it, the design seems to hint at an overland cousin to the great stone stairs and bridges inside the Mines of Moria, while the straightness and length recall the marvels of the mighty Roman aquaducts. And then another double-page spread, Lady and Arclight on this great, straight stone line of bridge, the landscape below and beyond spread out and the walled city with towers and spires and domes rising from the plains, the sun hanging behind. I remember back when I would pick up each monthly issue of The Sandman, and how even though I was eager to read quickly through the next part of the tale after waiting for a month I would still often be brought to a halt by certain scenes, the art just so beautiful my reading would pause and I would simply drink it all in, feasting like an art-vampire who hungered for paints instead of blood. And it’s a truly wonderful feeling when that happens.

It’s also very hard to articulate exactly why some pages can stop you like that and leave you simply wallowing in an emotional warm state. It’s like when you read a perfectly crafted stanza of poetry, or a prose line that was shaped just right, or hear certain lyrics, they stop us because they have an emotional resonance above and beyond the cognitive aspect of reading and understanding, yet they are an intuitive component of reading, and they richly compliment the more logical parts of our brains which are interpreting the actual narrative, the story’s rhythm, perhaps, to its melody, neither part whole without a feeling, a grasp of the other. You can try to say why exactly certain pieces do that to you, and talk of the phrasing, the colouring, the imagery, but really it is simpler than all of that, the part of your mind which is where stories and storytelling dwell (and humans are creatures of story, our language makes us so, even though many seem to let that remarkable gift atrophy), it chimes at such moments, in sympathetic resonance; you just know and feel it.

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The pace of the story here is slow, almost languid, and that suits it perfectly – this shouldn’t be rushed, we should be slowly immersing ourselves into this world as we would into a cool pool on a hot day. We only find out fragments here, hints more than anything, of what may be going on that has piqued Lady and Arclight’s attention, and also who and what they are, with small glimpses of their lives in the city to hint that they may not be all that they once were, but we don’t know the bones of any of it yet. And that suits me just fine – there is nothing wrong with packing a whole lot into an opening issue and I’ve read many terrific series that started that way and left me impressed with how much they accomplished in a small space of pages. But this feels like it needs to go more slowly, let the reader breathe, absorb colour and feeling and fuller understanding and explanation will follow. I think it is also a mark that Graham and Churchland are treating their readers as intelligent, that those who get it will understand the pacing, that this beautiful but slow opening is just a precursor, an overture to the great symphony to come, and it’s always rewarding as a reader when you feel the author and artist are colluding with you, that they expect your interpretation of their pages to be an important part of how a tale will look and feel.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Pastoral scene of the Gallant South: Jones & Waid’s Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit #1,
Mark Waid, JG Jones,
Boom Studios

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“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

This first collaboration between two highly respected creators, JG Jones and Mark Waid, caught my eye on the racks this week. Actually it caught my eye earlier than that, truth be told – I saw it the day before as colleagues were unpacking and preparing the new releases to go out on New Comic Book Day (best day of the week, of course!), and was drawn to it right away, partly because of the creators but largely that cover art and that evocative title grabbing my attention, the allusion to that darkly bittersweet song by the great Billie Holiday, oh so beautifully sung in her distinctive, sultry, emotional voice, yet the lyrics detailing a scene of horrific racism, violence, even lynching. Given some of the issues highlighted worldwide by the multitude of highly suspect police shootings of people of colour and the furore around them, and the backlash from certain groups against the Black Lives Matter campaign, some might say that race relations in the US have not improved as much as we had all hoped from Billie’s time, and it means Strange Fruit arrives laden not only with historical baggage, but with an awful lot of contemporary resonance (a scene with thugs in those ludicrous KKK pointy-headed costumes in a car festooned with Confederate battle flags feels like it leapt out of the newspapers of the last few weeks, although this art would have been painted long before those events).

Opening in rural Mississippi in 1927, the first of this four-part series offers up a setting drenched not only in relentless rains and floods, but with Jones’ use of colour, especially his background skies, all dark but pale blues and greens, or by evening bruised purples, giving the sense of storms gathering, his art even catching that reflective quality the puddled ground water takes on, even at night, moonlight or car headlamps bouncing off the standing water in silvery brightness. A group of cars full of very angry looking and armed white men pulls up outside a wooden shack cafe with a sign declaring it caters to coloured people, one man cautioning his young boy, riding in the back of the truck with his dog, to stay there or go play with his dog, but not to follow him because “this ain’t no place I ever wanna see you in.” Before they enter we see a flashback to the same man talking to a very dapper black gentleman in suit, bow tie and boater hat, epitome of 20s style. The black man is an engineer sent from Washington to help beef up their flood defences – the rains, he explains, have already breached many levees further up-river, flooding entire towns.

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The white man is less than impressed to be talking to a black man who is clearly far more knowledgeable and articulate than he is. The engineer’s explanation is interrupted by a single panel, wordless, of the white man glaring at him, until the engineer adds “sir” to any sentences addressed to him, a tiny moment but one which speaks volumes. As the engineer continues to outline possible contingency plans he also describes the problems they face. “Our problem is that we got too many n*****s ’round here wearin’ suits,” is the reaction of the white man. In a later scene we find that even though he is clearly a loathsome racist, he’s actually one of the more restrained of his group, holding back one of the others who pulls a gun in the cafe for coloured people as they force them occupants back out into the rainy night, insisting they continue with the levee reinforcements. As one black man in the cafe points out, this isn’t a job – sure they are paid for the work, but poorly, even less than on the plantations, and besides they were forced into it, coerced, slavery in all but name, “let that ol’ man River take this whole damn delta” is his response. Unfortunately this leads to exactly the sort of scene you might think, a bunch of angry, white redneck bigots grab their white sheets, shotguns and ropes to pursue him out into the rain-filled night.

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But something is about to happen – more than rain is falling from the skies (warning, possible spoilers), as a fireball streaks across the night, crashing, of all places, right into the already strained levee, causing a breach. As the men rush to try and plug the gap with sandbags, the lynch mob pursuing the black man who dared to stand up to them in the cafe are about to find out what that fireball contained, in a scene with obvious and heavy connotations to the origins of a certain much-loved comics figure, something that even their baying hounds will shy away from (you see why I warned of spoilers – I debated not mentioning this at all, but it’s an important part of the first issue so I thought it had to be covered, with appropriate spoiler warning alert first).

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The atmosphere here is beautifully handled, the entire issue is permeated with that sense of the time, the place and the issues, to the extent you can almost feel that uncomfortable mix of humidity and heat as the rains keep pouring down on the land, and as I noted earlier the colouring is especially effective in helping conjure that scene, used as diligently here are a cinematographer would frame and light a scene for their camera. Jones once more employs fully painted artwork, and it is gorgeous to behold, even when depicting scenes of awful events unfolding, detailed, realistic, beautifully posed, lit,coloured, just wonderful to look at, and it doesn’t hurt that Boom have decided to publish this with a card cover instead of paper, adding to the quality feel. I’m interested to see where this goes in its four-issue run, and also interested to see if it helps plant more thought in readers’ heads about the issues it confronts, issues which should damned well be in buried in the overgrown cemetery of history but which sadly still keep raising their ugly heads even in the supposedly more enlinghtened, advanced society of the here and now.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.

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Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…

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But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.

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You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.

Love, life, family, fantasy – Asaf Hanuka’s The Realist

The Realist,

Asaf Hanuka,

Archaia

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I first came across Asaf Hanuka’s work several years ago when he worked with respected Israeli writer Etgar Keret on a graphic novel adaptation of one of Keret’s short stories for Pizzeria Kamikaze (the same story was also adapted into the delightfully quirky film Wristcutters) and he was also a contributor to the compelling animated documentary Waltz With Bashir (which I reviewed several years ago here). In between those works and his lecturing and commercial illustration work he has been producing his series The Realist online. An old maxim teaches us we should “write about what we know”, and like many an Indy cartoonist Hanuka does just this, drawing (literally as well as metaphorically) on his own life to produce a series, usually of fairly short, one-page strips (sometimes longer, sometimes though just one single, large panel on the page – economical but very effectively done, a nice display of real skill), giving us a view of little vignettes of his family life, often peppered liberally with flights of fantasy.

Some of the tensions and problems in his life are, thankfully, ones most of us probably don’t have – for example as he and his wife have to knuckle down and start discussing the stressful matter of trying to get a mortgage and buy a place Hanuka intercuts their family finances discussion with the news on the nearby television warning of Iran’s plans for nuclear power and new missile technology and what this could mean for everyone living in Israel. It’s a clever riff on how daunting steps like taking a mortgage can be in your life, but it’s also perhaps alluding to the impermanence of everything; we view mortgages and buying a home as something so solid and lasting, but here he is thinking perhaps what is the point of this stress to buy a home that may be reduced to radioactive ash in a couple of years? This feeling of threat is found in a number of strips, such as when Hanuka notes that many of their friends are moving abroad “till things settle down” (for a war which as he observes, hasn’t actually started yet).

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Most of the everyday events and problems here though are ones pretty much every person encounters: life, love, kids, parents, work, money, health… The difference being that most of us when we do vocalise our problems it tends to be in the pub with a good friend, but Hanuka puts it out on display, opening up his head, several times almost literally, using the imagery of opening his own skull or reaching into himself to pull things out, or visualising the little sudden daydreams and fantasies that run through all our heads every day. Oppressed by the mortgage talk and having to move out of their first family home he walks into his young son’s room, gazing at him sleeping contentedly, feeling that terrible responsibility and then looking at his kid’s toy and imagining himself as one of them down there on the floor, a momentary retreat from the relentless pressures of adult life into infancy. Although even childhood isn’t always a warm, welcoming place either, as one flashback to young Hanuka shows, as he gets his eyes tested, reading one of those charts in the opticians where the letters get progressively smaller, except this eye chart tells the boy “Life Isn’t What You Thought”.

Although he is quite self-critical about his own perceived faults or failings, I don’t want to give the impression this is a bleak collection, because it really isn’t, and in fact even when he is being hard on himself (too hard, perhaps), Hanuka regularly twists it so that there is a welcome dose of humour throughout most of this collection. His regular flights of fancy or daydreaming, the kind of thing we all do, add colour and humour as well as pathos – Hanuka as a superhero, cape, tights, but a bit dishevelled, workaday hero, carrying the grocery bags home, or in one particularly inspired one, trying to imagine himself as a better man. Not just a better man, better husband, better father, better artist, the whole package re-invented, and here visualised with Hanuka in Steve Jobs pose as if launching a new Apple product – bigger, better, sleeker, faster! It’s the new “iSAF”! Even as he imagines this much upgraded, improved version of himself as if he were a lifestyle product, the faces of family and friends appear around the edges of the daydream, not convinced that his new version is really going to do all it promises on the box (what about that memory upgrade so you can remember things like errands and anniversaries, eh?). The aspirations and dreams we’re sold and think will fulfill us (just like that!) falling short in the face of reality.

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Some stories eschew the daydream elements and offer up problems I’m sure so many have encountered, such as taking his wee lad to school. I don’t want to go, daddy, no, daddy, don’t leave me here, daddy, don’t leave me… Tears, wailing, upset child, parent trying to explain they have to do this, it’s for their own good and feeling utterly, wretchedly guilty as their child cries watching them walk away. Cut to the boy two minutes later happily running around with friends at school playing with Lego, the trauma already forgotten for him as he plays, meanwhile unaware of this his father gets to work, sits at his desk, looks at the photo of his wee boy and cries with guilt for leaving him. The emotional hold others can have on us, most especially kids… Or explaining to his son why daddy is darker skinned and mummy is lighter skinned. I’m of Iraqi descent, she’s from Poland he tells him. But why are you different colours? Why am I white like mummy? You’re half white, half coloured, Hanuka tries to explain. His son looks at one of his toy animals, oh, you mean it’s like a zebra, right, as if to say duh, dad, why are you making this issue so complicated in that way only kids can…

And away from the introspection or self-criticism there are also little moments of pure joy – in grown-up mode Hanuka lectures his college class on this history of art, all serious, heavyweight, telling them off for their frivolous approach, that this is a serious subject they are approaching. Then as soon as he gets home he delights in reverting to a happy five-year old scribbling colourful doodles for the sheer pleasure of it because you can only be serious about Big Art for so long then need to remember it is meant to be fun. Or nice little touches comic fans will appreciate, like a visit to the great Angoulême comic art festival in France and observing many other creators and the fans interacting with them, including a lovely cameo by one of my favourites, Guy Delisle, with Delisle drawn in his own distinctive cartooning style.

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It’s a lovely collection – if you’ve read some online there is still much more enjoyment to be had in sitting back with this nice hardback edition Archaia have produced, and if you are new to Hanuka’s work then this is a fine introduction to his work. There are so many beautifully observed little moments and clever use of the comics medium to show his thoughts and feelings in a way that other mediums simply cannot do, and also some fourth-wall breaking, as he and his wife argue, Hanaka retorts “at least I am real” as we cut to a pen drawing him, or another scene where he muses on views from their apartment then the view the window cleaner gets and how “he sees everything from the other side, just like you do now.” I thought several times of other creators who do the “slice of life” approach mixed with such well-observed humour (the humour often less the outright joke variety, more the organic humour that just happens, because, well, life is often quite silly in so many ways), notably it put me in mind of the likes of Joe Decie, which is a high compliment as I rate Decie’s work very highly. It can be funny, it can be a little maudlin or introspective, it is a slice of life that we can all recognise; it’s wonderfully, warmly human, wrapped up in some lovely, clever cartoon art.

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God of Thunder (and rock and roll*): Thor, the God Butcher

Thor, God of Thunder Volume 1 : the God Butcher,

Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic,

Marvel Comics

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893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…

As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.

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We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…

Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…

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The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).

The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?

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It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.

In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.

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(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“With a Rebel Yell…”

Rebels #1,

Brian Wood, Andrea Mutti, Jordie Bellaire,

Dark Horse

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It’s 1775 and the world, as one commentator of the time noted, was being turned upside down. Revolution is brewing among the colonists of the thirteen British colonies in America, a gathering storm that will not only take in the military (with spectacular wins and blunders by both sides) but the political and ideological (not just freedom from imperial rule but democratic, republican rule – well, for the men, anyway, not the women or the slaves, but that’s another historical discussion). Something new in a world which has often known turmoil, and out of this will eventually rise an enormously powerful nation, stretching from “sea to shining sea”.

But as Rebels starts no-one could predict that destiny. Some are protesting British rule and taxes, others only want the tax regime altered but remain a loyalty to the crown (a loyalty the crown doesn’t seem to reciprocate), others are in open revolt, even men who only a few years before willingly fought against the French with the British troops in North America, here now taking up arms against those same redcoats. And others are remote from it, like young Seth Abbot, working on his family farm, seen in flashbacks in the opening pages, where he comments how his father almost never spoke more than a couple of words to him at a time. Until one day he takes him into the woods with a group of other men, teaching him woodcraft and hunting skills, how to see in a mass of trees and other vegetation and pick out his target. In this case British redcoats, sent to remove them and neighbouring farmers from their land. It’s a pivotal moment for the young Seth and symbolic of how some militia groups on the revolutionary side combated the superior power of the British army with their intimate knowledge of the countryside (some with great efficiency, their tactics still studied at military academies to this day).

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Moving forward a few years we see Seth, now in the company of his best friend, Ezekiel, who by coincidence had been the young messenger boy among the redcoats Seth’s father attacked in the earlier scene (the young lad was spared since he wasn’t a soldier doing anything to them, he promptly follows the rebels instead). “He was one of us now. A New Hampshire man. And a brother to me,” Seth recalls in his adult years. Returning from a mission they pause on the edge of the Tucker’s farm where we’re introduced to Mercy Tucker, who will be important later on in Seth’s life, a farm lass who’s not afraid to pick up a musket herself. They learn from her that the crown has been forcing more unwanted attentions on the locals and her father has had to sign away his land, becoming a tenant on what was his own property, living in shame but unable to do anything about it. Seth and Ezekiel promise to get the document back and visit the local town of Westminster’s courthouse, only to find redcoats stopping any more citizens going in, while a group of disgruntled farmers, there to protest the taking of their land, are trapped inside. Violence is in the air and it’s clear that soon blood is going to be spilled…

I’ve admired Brian Wood’s work for a number of years, especially Demo, DMZ and Channel Zero, and it is interesting to see him taking a historical slant on some of his regular themes such as politics here. Especially given how radical and important some of the political ideas that came out of the revolution would be. In a nice move he’s not going for the grand moments and big players of the wars of independence here, he’s deliberately showing us local events that had global importance and effects, and how everyday, ordinary people were caught up in those events, often the most unlikely people to become revolutionaries, but time and circumstances can put us all through changes. And while we remember the big names like Washington or Ben Franklin, it’s that citizen army and the civilians who backed them who actually did the dirty spade work of changing the course of world events. Ordinary people, people just like the rest of us, forced into extraordinary times and actions, Mutti capturing the everyday with the sudden bursts of action, his art contrasting the local rural population with the uniformed, disciplined redcoats.

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Wood explains in the first issue that some of the settings come from his memories of his own Vermont childhood, playing in similar woods and the history he was taught at school filling his head. Although I should add he mentions at the start that he may take some odd liberties with the actual history to make the stories in Rebels work – but this is a story, not a history book, albeit a story steeped in American history (for those of you with a yen to learn more about this fascinating period, which helped shape the world we live in now, I commend the exceptionally fine Revolutions podcast, which has an entire series on the American Revolution). I’ve a deep love of history, and as an aside I enjoy a decent foray into historical fiction too, if done right, and here it is done right, Wood and Mutti portraying the way much of the American situation was escalated from formerly loyal subjects to all out war not so much by grand strategy leading to an inevitable conclusion, but but endless, foolish rules and unfair pronouncements, building up resentment after resentment until boiling point was reached, with enormous consequences. An interesting introduction, done on a personal level that gives us our empathic ‘in’ to huge events happening around our characters.

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this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog