Fists of Fury

Iron Fist the Living Weapon #1

Kaare Kyle Andrews,

Marvel

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Alright, confession time – I’ve never read a lot of Iron Fist before, so I come to this first issues of the Marvel Now! take on the hyper kung-fu martial art warrior relatively fresh. A colleague recommended it to me and well, since this is a first issue of a new take on the series it does seem like a good time for those relatively unfamiliar with the character to have a peek. And actually I’m pretty impressed.

Kaare Andews has a somewhat unusual opening for a mainstream comic issue, the very first page being pretty much just a head and shoulders shot of Danny, the current Iron Fist, very long series of speech bubbles down the left margin (we soon find out he is being interviewed by a very smitten and flirty journalist) and series of dialogue boxes counterpointing the speech bubble conversation over on the right. One large image and an awful lot of text – not the usual way top open a brand new action series. Ballsy, different and quite interesting, I thought.

There is one smaller element to that main head and shoulders shot, almost easy to overlook actually given the small size and the amount of text distracting the reader’s focus – a small image overlaid on one shoulder of Danny, explorers by the look of them, in parkas tramping through snowy mountains. The following pages follow into that flashback presaged by this tiny, subtle hint on that first page, Danny as a boy, with his mother, father and family friend trekking through storms in the remote mountains, his father so obsessed with his quest he is risking his family.

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There are some fantastic scenes and layouts here, from a one page splash that combines fairly minimal art juxtaposed with big, stark, bold sound effects lettering to denote the start of an avalanche – quite excellent use of art and graphics, more effective than a series of smaller panels depicting the characters being caught up in the moving wall of snow would be, followed by several landscape format panels on the next page, each one becoming slimmer than the last, the black spaces between wider, giving a seriously good impression of being caught in the flow of that avalanche, the noise, sudden movement then white out followed by black out…

Back to the present and Danny musing on his father and his obsession, as well as his business empire, He eats and drinks mechanically, even has sex with the flirty journalist, but again the same lack of emotion on the face, everything is the same to him, he is going through the motions. Outside his apartment window the ruined tower of his father’s former corporate headquarters juts up into the sky, still standing but huge portions gone, mangled, standing in silhouette against a blood red sky like some Freudian symbol of father-son power dynamics.

Of course this is Iron Fist, so we have to have some action, and wouldn’t you know it, helicopters deliver teams of ninjas sliding down their ropes to attack sneakily, but it’s rather hard to sneak up on Danny. And he really hates ninjas…  Again Andrews uses some pretty interesting layouts for the dynamic, unusual looking fight sequence, and the troubled Danny forgets his brooding over his life, his father, his company – a big battle against multiple opponents focuses his mind: “this is just what I needed.” This line is delivered from an uplit, menacing looking facial shot of Danny which reminds me very much of Miller’s The Dark Knight where it clearly acknowledged the dark part of the Batman that liked dealing out violence to wrongdoers, even needed to do it.

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As for the question of why the attack team was sent to ambush him and what is going on back at K’um Lun, those I’ll leave you to discover for yourselves – don’t want to spoil the whole issue now, do we?

I have to say I was very impressed with this, even coming to it with no great knowledge of the character or indeed particular love or interest in it previously, but for a first issue of a relaunch it worked perfectly for someone with that background – I didn’t need to know anything else, this was self-contained (I’m sure old hands will spot references I didn’t, but it all still worked for me). And as I already said there are some fantastic, innovative layouts here, some great use of space, different panels and the like, some of the most interesting I have seen since JH Williams III’s brilliant work on Batwoman, and some wonderfully moody use of colour schemes and shadow. Intriguing first issue plus creative use of art and layout, someone clearly wanting to push and play with how you tell a story in a comic issue, what’s not to love here?

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Climate Changed – science goes graphic

Climate Changed: a Personal Journey Through the Science,
Philippe Squarzoni,
Abrams Comicarts

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Climate change – it’s rarely been far from ours news reports over the last couple of decades, and increasingly so in recent years (freak once in century storms happen repeatedly, is it the climate changing and did we alter it?) and just this week we’ve seen a major UN report on expected climate change and the colossal cost to our civilisation if we don’t actually take action. And that action requires a lot more than people in Western nations changing to energy-saving lightbulbs and doing their recycling more – important though those are. And this month also sees Philippe Squarzoni’s approach to this huge scientific-political-ideological-cultural problem in comics form. In pretty weighty comics form, actually – this graphic science work weighs in at well over four hundred pages. This is not a quick read, nor should it be. We’ve seen an increasing number of graphic works tackling heavyweight subjects in recent years and making them very understandable and accessible to pretty much any reader, in the case of books like this even those with only their basic high school level of science learning.

This is not exactly jumping on the bandwagon though – for starters the book first came out in French from Delcourt a couple of years back, and secondly it is quite clear not just from the length but the detail Squarzoni goes into that this is something he has been working on for years. In fact early one we see that this large, complex work actually grew out of a previous bande dessinee Squarzoni had been working on, a book on French politics. As he researched and drew a section on the environment the author suddenly finds himself coming to a halt. When his partner asks him why, he replies it is because he is using phrases like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘greenhouse gases’. Common phrases these days, we’re all familiar with those terms, right? His partner points this out. Yes, he responds, but what do they actually mean? I’m using these phrases lifted from bits of research and re-using them in my work but I don’t really know what they actually mean, what they involve and what they portend for the future.

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And that is, perhaps, the crux of Climate Changed – many of us know these terms, we even use them sometimes in earnest pub discussions. But how much do most of us really know about the subjects these terms cover (Darryl Cunningham, you are excused this, we know you’ve researched it!)? I mean really understand, not just a vague knowledge assembled from the BBC website articles of the Guardian, but know the various aspects of climate change and how they relate to one another – and there is not just one topic here to get to grips with, this is a real multi-headed monster, a hydra of our own making, and we need, badly need, to understand the problems, and how they interact with one another, before we can even start to consider our response to them. Assuming, of course, we have the luxury of time to formulate a response. And also assuming humanity is wise enough to decide to take relevant action. And let’s be honest, recent events where agreed restrictions on targets like emissions being missed (after already being set fairly low to begin with) or even simply ignored by some nations, that latter part is not looking good right now.

Squarzoni, as you would expect, looks at the science behind climate studies and draws on numerous experts to discuss the observed changes, relating them to historical data gleaned painstakingly from sources such as deep ice cores and tree rings, to give centuries and even millennia of historical context. Because we know the Earth’s environment is always changing – it always has, it probably always will, ours is an incredibly dynamic bio system of overlapping, interacting elements: amount of sunlight reaching the surface, various gases at different altitudes in the atmosphere, currents in the air and the great oceans, the amount of ice at the poles or on glaciers, the amount of vegetation, venting from natural sources such as volcanoes… It’s a massively complex system with each component having effects on the other, which in turn cause further effects, from increased flooding to drought, even to the fabled “mini ice ages” (think of those pictures depicting the ‘frost fairs’ on a solidly frozen Thames). And this is before you factor in human activity…

We’ve started things we cannot control…

Despite the nay-sayers (and there are still many out there, often those with a large financial stake in the status quo of consume more, make more, want more) too many of these scientific studies clearly show large increases in output from human causes which are interacting with this incredibly complex environment’s variables – the charts leap following the industrial revolution really getting going in the 1800s and the post-WWII boom accelerates this at an astonishing speed. And it isn’t just as simple as more power stations pumping out CO2, or too many cars belching exhaust gases into the air – Squarzoni also draws on economic, social and cultural elements to this debate. Advertising imagery crops up numerous times, symbolic of our modern, Western, post-WWII urge to increasingly consume, tied to the cultural ethos of a capitalism that assumes we can endlessly consume, expand, consume more, expand – more production, more buying.

But we live in a finite system, there are only so many resources, and we are using them at an alarming rate. Not just the obvious resources such as fossil fuels being depleted (and increasingly so, with developing nations industrialising) but the simple, everyday items we all take for granted. Shiny new smartphone to replace the previous one – hey, it’s tiny, it’s just me, how much difference does that make? But multiply by the number being marketed and sold across the globe, the resources used to create them (rare minerals, metals), and the energy of mining those resources then that of the factory… And you get the picture. And don’t even get started on people who drive massive SUVs around city centres, the dirty looks Squarzoni gives repeatedly to a large Land Rover parked in the middle of Lyons speaks volumes!

We continue to act like it’s nothing. And the worst thing is … it feels pretty good…”

But this isn’t some anti-capitalist diatribe – as Squarzoni points out neither he or any other person in the West has any desire to cut their use of resources from energy to affordable, plentiful food (and industrial scale agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses), losing our comfortable lifestyle where we have electricity on tap, central heating, easy transport, affordable range of clothing… He doesn’t really fancy cutting his environmental imprint to that of someone living a malnourished life in an underdeveloped nation without clean water, heating, power… And obviously none of us do. But if we can’t believe the lie of endless expansion and ever increasing consumption how do we square that circle of lowering our impact on greenhouse gases and resource scarcity with maintaining a decent standard of living? Especially as, increasingly from the 1980s on a small cadre of oligarchs and super-rich live a publicly indulgent, opulent lifestyle we’re all encouraged to want to emulate (work hard enough and anyone could be a billionaire in a mansion and yacht!). Plus why, he asks, should we ordinary folk decide to cut down on things like flights to cut pollution if the super-rich are swanning around in a Rolls Royce or a giant yacht?

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And then there is the developing world – how do rich nations who created much of the pollution and resource consumption problem tell developing nations, no, sorry, you can’t come up to our standards, the planet won’t take it? He has to wrestle with this personal responsibility when offered a dream post, several months artist in residence in Thailand. But as he is in the middle of working on this book and researching the impact of things such as flying how can he in good conscience accept travelling there? He’d love to, but isn’t that hypocritical of him? But if he doesn’t go, but the guy down the street continues to run round town in his gas-guzzling SUV, what different has his personal sacrifice made? And, as his partner asks him, does that mean that he will never fly again? Does that mean the places they’d love to see together will be off-limits for them? What about green technologies? Are some good or just a bandwagon that some big companies (who have given more than their share of pollutants) a new, image-friendly ‘green’ marketplace to exploit? From large corporate installations to the personal, such as solar panels or wind turbines on the roof of our homes, which are actually effective, which will help do a bit to reduce our impact, and which are really just a salve to our conscience?

It’s one of the aspects of this book that makes it so accessible and easily understandable – for all the expert talking heads (which are frequent, but while slightly repetitive as a method, it is nonetheless a good way of getting information from expert sources across to the reader) talking about the Big Picture – what government, massive corporations and trans-global organisations such as the UN are trying to do (or frequently failing to do, depressingly), the sheer array of different experts required to make sense of it all (climatologists, industrial experts, meteorologists, geologists, disaster relief experts, economic experts and more) he continually comes back to the personal level, both from the personal responsibility side of things (what can we do individually? How do we encourage others to do the same so small change become large differences? Why should we if others don’t?) but it also reminds you constantly that the author himself is not a scientist, that he’s coming to this subject himself as an individual and realising from his research that, just as some of the experts are arguing, this is a subject that requires individual responses and changes in lifestyle, but also collective – this is a global problem and no nation will escape effects.

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Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country where, say, temperature rises from greenhouse gases are mitigated because actually it makes your region a bit nicer to live in during winter months, you will still suffer because resources from oil to container vessels full of food come in from all around the world. And some of those areas may suddenly stop being so productive. Or may even be under rising waters. And then there are those rising waters – with a huge chunk of our global population (including massive Western cities of millions) right by the coast there will be problems. Perhaps catastrophes (imagine millions being displaced as environmental refugees, both in the developing world and even in the rich, Western nations – consider the thousands of poorer citizens left behind to face the waters in New Orleans after Katrina, but on an even larger scale).

On the art front there are, as you might expect perhaps for a thick tome dealing with science, a lot of graphs, and a lot of ‘talking heads’ as a series of experts from different fields – climatologists, energy experts, economists and more – to deliver large sections of information. But to stop these being too repetitive he also uses a variety of other visual tricks – his obvious love of cinema comes in handy, with frequent visual references to the iconography of film, for instance, and advertising imagery is used regularly, while he keeps grounding this vast subject in the personal with scenes from his own life with his partner and dog, as well as flashbacks to childhood (comparing his journey through life to the relentless change of the world). This also leads to a touching scene further in, as the years go past and their trusted old dog passes away we see later scenes where Squarzoni goes walking in the snow, accompanied by a ‘ghost’ dog, just the outline of his old pal by his side, not actually drawn in detail, the memory of his dog by his side. His walks through the French countryside include some quite lovely large scenes – we may be doing something bad to our environment, but it is still a quite beautiful world, he is pointing out. And in a book where there are many small, close up panels of people talking or detailed charts and graphs it’s nice to be able to breathe in the fresh air of a large, beautifully rendered scene of lakes and mountains.

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It can be quite overwhelming reading – to be honest, despite finding it utterly fascinating and compelling I found it best to limit myself and read it in chunks (the layout of sections actually made this quite a suitable way to approach the book), partly not to simply overload my brain with concepts and figures and arguments, but partly also so I could allow myself time to stop and consider what I was reading. And despite what you may think, it isn’t entirely negative or doom-laden (although there is a strong pessimistic bent) – Squarzoni doesn’t restrict himself to covering everything we’re doing wrong as a species, he marshals many of those same ‘talking heads’ of his expert panel to discuss possible changes. All are adamant we have to change, and the science backs this up – despite some very shoddy media reports – as he points out when some opponents used media claims of dissent between scientists to fuel doubt about climate change a study of a decade of appropriate peer-reviewed scientific journals revealed no such disagreement, compared to about half of articles written by journalists which tried to convey there was doubt about human-made climate change – draw your own conclusions from that. And all point out that such changes are best managed incrementally – none of them want to tip the world back into economic chaos by suddenly imposing major changes without planning viable alternatives, and the quicker we start changing and adapting then the less severe those changes have to be (as opposed to head in the sand, wait till last minute then have to take radical surgery instead of holistic long term treatment approach). And all agree that such change can’t simply be forced, the democratic principle has to be used, people engaged in the debate, informed and give consent (and indeed to pressure) to their political leadership for changes.

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It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking work, well-researched (coming with a good bibliography and list of various experts quoted and other resources for learning more), and the graphical approach makes the task of assimilating the mass of complex material much simpler for the reader. Squarzoni is also to be commended for taking in the large range of industrial, economic, social and cultural aspects to climate change and relating them to one another, in addition to the perhaps more obvious issues of just what sorts of waste we’ve pumped out relentlessly into our own biosphere without thinking about what it was doing. This isn’t a single problem, it’s a series of multiple but interconnected problems, some exacerbated by natural causes, but most from human causes which many simply don’t think about much, beyond the afore-mentioned changing to energy efficient bulbs. But as one expert points out in the book, the Earth has it’s own timetable – change is happening and most consider we’ve gone beyond the point where we can stop even more change coming. But we can adapt to it, we can limit the changes, manage them better, if we’re informed and able to make those decisions (and the drive to see them through – actual action, not just fine speeches from politicians or ads telling us how much giant oil companies care about the environment). And as with many problems, reading about them is a fairly good place to start… Don’t be put off by the size of the book or the heavyweight subject matter – as I said Squarzoni does a remarkable job in putting across the subject and also personalising it (it also arrives bearing plaudits and awards from the European scene), and let’s face it, as arguments erupt already over this new UN climate report out this week, we could all do with being more informed on a subject that affects every single person on the planet.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

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I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

The End of the World – Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise Hardcover (New Edition),
Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean,
Dark Horse

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This is a story about the end of the world, but it’s not a science fiction apocalypse. This is a tale of a dying man, a great director, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness just as he is planning his next film, a story about the End of Days as the Millennium approaches, but not the year 2000, this is 999 AD, and a group of simple villagers are gathering on a mountainside to await the end of the world and God’s judgement on them all.

It’s a film he now knows he will not live to make.

But as he comes to terms with the horror of his own situation, the knowledge that he is facing his own personal apocalypse, he begins to plan his film anyway, in his head, writing lines, blocking scenes, borrowing the faces of people he sees in the street for the cast in his head. To these simple, religious people they know for a fact – just as he now does – that the world is going to end, and they fear it and the wrath of their god for all their sins. Some embrace a late burst of piety, some give away all their possessions, partly because they believe they will soon have no earthly needs any longer, but partly hoping these acts will be seen as selfless and charitable come the Last Judgement, desperately hoping a sudden access of charity in the last days will help them slink into Paradise. Of course, the director knows there is no bargain he can strike with his own disease, no change he can make to his life or offer he can make to appease it.

We know the world didn’t end as 999 became 1000 AD any more than it did come 2000 AD, despite all the millennial doomsayers (who despite being wrong go right back to predicting a new end of the world and someone is always ready to believe it…). But individual worlds… Those, sadly, are always ending. There isn’t a day when some individual and some family somewhere, will not be touched by the spectre of personal extinction. The numb horror of his prognosis is handled with great sensitivity by McKean and Gaiman, and anyone who has experienced loved ones going through the same will recognise the emotional surges and tides that such news brings, and the slow gnawing of disease reducing the person (until at one point he looks into a mirror and seeing his weakened, prematurely older state feels for a moment he is looking not at himself but his old father). We’re in his head with him and his final story and it’s hard not to feel as he does.

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I’m, fifty. That isn’t so old. And I’m thinking about the pain in my chest. And I’m thinking about the end of the world. And I’m thinking… That’s all I see to do. In ten years time I’ll be… (dead) .. sixty.

But this isn’t just about death, about the end of the self. Nor is it really taking the opposite road and “raging against the dying of the light”. Our director may not be happy about his impending end, but he slowly comes to make his peace with it, and his work helps, as he plots out this film no-one will ever see, a film which will only be projected in the private cinema of his own imagination. And that story of the end of the world isn’t really about the End of Days either, not really – it’s about life, and the fact that even in what seems the bleakest times there will always be some sort of life, that the world will keep turning, day will follow night; we go but life, that stays, stubbornly clinging to the surface of our world and defying the cold cosmos with its simple existence. And so he begins to think about his film and how, perhaps, he will not live to make it, but he can still write it, leave it behind him, a last burst of creation before his own end, a gift to his friends he has worked with so often before. Perhaps it may live on after he is gone.

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It’s been three months, now. Today I did something strange. I started to write. There can be no purpose in this. Still, I am writing.”

It’s a beautiful, haunting tale, originally serialised in the late 1980s for the old Face magazine (remember that?) during that sudden burst of media enthusiasm for more mature comics work around that time. It’s a remarkable piece considering it is such an early work by McKean and Gaiman. Not just in storytelling, but also in the artwork and layout – McKean has always been keen to explore and push what he can do with his art, and even in this early work that is clear. There are some pages which take drawn art, photographs and more collaged into unusual layouts – it looks like the sort of thing you’d see when Desk Top Publishing made it much simpler to manipulate elements on your page, but this is pre-DTP, using printers, cameras and scanners to painstakingly build up those layers. It’s far ahead of its time in terms of art and design, and even now with this fine new edition it still stands up as an unusual and beautiful looking piece of work by two now very (and justly) famous Brit creators right at the start of their careers. A beautiful, emotional tale, well told, and one you will only appreciate more as the years pass.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

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It’s the end of the world – but from the perspective of Man’s Best Friend. Everything has suddenly, irrevocably gone wrong with the human world, and like the canine protagonists in this tale we have no idea why, but it has and the people are turning on each other and on themselves, while the poor dogs look on, terrified, upset, uncomprehending as the world falls apart all around them, blood, violence, fire, as their former “feeders” (as the dogs refer to the humans) go insane and destroy themselves.

Ennis and Dipascale drop us right into this, with Charlie, a Collie and a Guide Dog (or Seeing Eye Dog as they call them in America), desperately trying to free himself – his former owner is now a burning corpse on a smashed underground station, others are in a similar conditions nearby, and he is still attached by his lead to the hand of his now dead owner. “I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” he howls in despair – yes, the dogs here ‘talk’, although it seems only they understand one another (and obviously we understand their speech bubbles). Charlie’s shrieks of “I’m a dog!” are clearly, to any human in the story, barks, not words. Once you understand that the rhythm of the dog’s ‘speech’ becomes quite clear to anyone who’s spent time around our four legged friends.

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Suddenly through the flames comes Red, perhaps not the brightest canine in the pack (as his friend notes later, he sometimes has to sit and let this ‘thinks’ fill up a bit first) but loyal in that wonderful way that so many dogs are, charging in, leading his friends Rover and Max to help Charlie. Max, a rather up-himself pedigree German Shepherd decides Charlie is doomed and runs off to save himself, while Red and Rover strain with Charlie to bite through the lead and rescue their friend. Fleeing the burning remains of the station the dogs pause on their flight to safety as Red is very worried about his bottom and absolutely has to stop for a few seconds while a reluctant Charlie has to sniff it and make sure it is okay.

This piece of doggy etiquette out of the way they emerge onto the city streets, wondering what is going on, only to find the big picture is worse than they thought, the entire city aflame, humans everywhere going mad (save one who in a desperate last act tries to save the dogs, knowing he himself is as doomed as the other humans). A human confronted with this sudden destructive madness wouldn’t comprehend what was going on, so imagine the mind of a dog trying to grasp what’s going on… The poor animals are desperate to find a friendly ‘feeder’ who hasn’t gone mad, they will look after them, tell them what to do…

This could be a very cheesy, schmaltzy tale, but actually, given it focuses on ‘talking’ animals (well, we understand their ‘speech’, as I said it’s clear they aren’t actually talking in English) and has a buddy-movie feel to it, it is actually fairly light on the cheese. This is not one of those Disney ‘incredible journey’ stories. The decision to let us understand the dogs’ growls and barks via speech bubbles works well, allowing us to share their point of view of events, but it also works because Ennis nails the rhythms and structure so well, not to mention focusing on what you expect would be a domestic dog’s concerns (friendly owner to look after them, feed them, pet them, tell them when it is time to go somewhere) that you find yourself thinking yep, this is pretty much how I’d expect a dog to be thinking.

Of course that reminds me of the talking dog in Morrison and Quitely’s superb We3 (“bad dog, bad dog…”) but there the comparison ends with that story.  This is an unusual take on the end of the world, seen from the perspective of three dogs who are best friends – a buddy movie at the end of the world, but with canines (and what better friends can anyone, human or dog, have than a good dog?). The three main dogs are all clearly defined with their own characteristics, while Dipascale’s art manages the tricky combination of having to show human violence and mass destruction on city streets with believable dog poses and movements, and he manages this very well. The animals comes across very believably – the movements, the little stances with the eyes opened up big and head titled just so are familiar to anyone who has been around dogs, and of course to any animal lover it evokes that response that just makes you want to take care of them, and this digs us further into the story emotionally – the scene where a mad human attacks another dog is especially heartbreaking, somehow more shocking and sadder than the human on human violence, especially as Charlie barks “Feeders don’t hurt dogs! Feeders don’t hurt dogs!” as it happens, unable to understand how their friendly feeders have become suddenly crazed and violent.

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In some ways it is like a child’s perspective if the adult population went into destructive madness like this but young children didn’t, what would they make of it, how could they begin to comprehend what would confuse and terrify a full adult mind? They seem so vulnerable having to suddenly cope not only on their own but in a world gone so dangerously insane, and again this ties us even more emotionally to the story and characters. Non animal lovers probably won’t get the same levels of emotional investment in it, but those sorts of people clearly need to go out and stroke more warm, furry tummies anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect from this at all when I picked it up and here I found a rather charming, engaging read. One of the more unusual new comics releases.

Review: Winter’s Tales

Winter’s Tales.

Metaphrog

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Here’s a lovely little piece from Metaphrog, a couple of graphic short tales with a distinctive fairy tale feel about them (indeed the second story, The Little Match Girl, is inspired by the story by the immortal Hans Christian Andersen). The Glass Case takes place only a few moments from where I am sitting as I write, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we see a school outing to the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile (well worth a visit). Each of the kids is instructed by their teacher to pick something from one of the displays and draw a sketch of it.

For some reason young Sam feels compelled to sketch an old toy doll called Molly; predictably enough some of the other boys make fun of him for being a ‘sissy’ and picking a ‘girl’s doll’ as his subject. Sam doesn’t seem to care though, he clearly feels drawn to this small toy figure in her museum case. Home life is far from happy and Sam soon finds he is drawn back to the museum to see Molly again, and a strange sort of relationship begins to form.

Given the brevity of the story I won’t ruin it by revealing anything more, save to say it is rather lovely – if also tinged with sadness – and, quite rightly I think, Metaphrog never make it clear what is real, what is fantasy here. Are some of the events actually happening or just the imagination of a lonely young boy’s mind desperately seeking escape to somewhere better? It’s up to the reader to decide when they finish the tale, and that’s how it should be. There are also some lovely scenes – a view of the ancient city from the rooftops captures that magical feel of this old place wonderfully, so much so I will forgive them for getting the geography of the city slightly wrong!

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In the Little Match Girl the eponymous lassie is on a bitterly cold winter street, shivering in the snow; dusk is falling, she is cold and hungry but frightened to go home as she’s not made a single sale all day and she knows her father will be angry. She desperately wishes for light and warmth, not just the physical attributes of those qualities but the emotional light and warmth which none of us can really do without, least of all a child. It’s one of those stories that is beautifully sad, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, and the art cleverly manages to convey that 19th century Victorian cruel street and the hapless waif upon it while also inferring that actually this isn’t the Bad Old Days when children were left to suffer cold and alone on the uncaring city streets, it may well be today. And given how many children do go hungry or sleep with a pavement for a pillow around the world (an abomination in this century for which the adult world should forever be ashamed) I suspect this is a deliberate device.

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Winter’s Tales is a lovely little item – a small, landscape format limited edition Metaphrog are selling this month. At only £3.50 it would make for a lovely and unique little Yuletide gift for someone, but there are only a couple of hundred, so you better be quick!

Time to Shine,

Metaphrog

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Richard has already blogged a bit about this – it’s an interesting project Metaphrog have done in conjunction with Creative Scotland, as part of a government scheme to encourage younger Scots in the creative arts. I know how busy a schedule Metaphrog’s duo maintains when it comes to library and school visits and workshops where they never fail to get the kids excited about creating their own stories, so I think they were a perfect choice for this subject.

The story follows kids at Greenvale high school, an everyday secondary school where the kids have the usual problems any teen deals with, about discovering who you are, where you fit in (especially when sometimes it feels like you don’t), what you want to do and how to articulate what you feel as all these changes and pressures on your young life build up (and we do put some much weight on young shoulder – hey, you, 13 year old kid, get those grades, pick the correct courses to follow so you can get the correct college course later and then the right career, decide now how the whole rest of your life is meant to be! What a thing we do to kids, sometimes…).

It’s a fairly compact tale but we’re still introduced to the school and a range of characters, teachers and students alike, recognisable types to anyone, the quiet, shy one, the loud annoying older sibling, the ‘bad boys’ who act big and menacing to hide their own worries and insecurities. This isn’t stereotyping though, more, I think, making sure in a short work that these are characters the target audience – secondary school age students – can recognise and empathise with (and that’s no easy task, given secondary covers from around 11 or 12 through to 17 or 18 years of age).

When an idealistic new teacher proposes a school talent show (to the usual sighs from older, more cynical teachers) the kids find themselves being inspired, suddenly realising that they all have talents they can nurture and express, be it on the stage performing or using other skills behind the scenes to make it all happen. Even the ‘bad boys’ get drawn into it eventually when the teacher shows them that their spraycan wizardry can be put to more artistic uses than defacing school buildings.

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The artwork has a very manga feel to it, appropriate enough given that’s a style many younger readers are more familiar with in their comics reading. I took part in a lot of various school shows (some by choice, more than a few I was ‘volunteered’ into doing) and I thought the story caught that atmosphere of excitement mixed with nerves that goes along with doing anything like that, but also that feeling of triumph when it all works and the way that builds confidence in young hearts and minds that they will need as they go on. And that’s really what Metaphrog and this arts project from Creative Scotland are trying to do, to encourage kids to explore their artistic side, to be creative.

I’m sure some old cynics will make the usual chorus of “waste of money” at this project, but they can go and eat their family sized bag of Bah Humbug because not only does engaging younger people’s imaginations and creative sides make them happier and more productive students (a bonus in education) it also, if we want to be pragmatic about it, contributes considerably to our economy – think on the writers, singers, game creators, artists and more we produce who go on to bestride a global stage (and you never know when one kid who is inspired by this may grow up to be a new JK Rowling-like success, do you?). And we know from first hand experience how comics can engage with young minds so successfully, so I am delighted at Creative Scotland asking Metaphrog to use the medium to help inspire a new generation – perhaps in a few years we may even be reviewing some comics from some youngster who picked this up. I do hope so.

The graphic novel is being distributed to school students and is also available through various government agencies, or you can read the online version for free right here.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Dungeon Fun!

Dungeon Fun Book One,

Colin Bell & Neil Slorance,

Dogooder Comics

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This is the story of a girl and her sword.”

We open on a pretty standard scene for Dungeons and Dragons influenced fantasy – a lovely, big splash page of a large, multi-turreted castle, surrounded by an incredibly deep moat and a single bridge spanning the gap. Before it stands a proud knight errant, ready for the quest. There are Great Deeds to be Done, Monsters to be Vanquished, Princesses (presumably lovely, of course) to be Rescued! Our shining knight presents himself, a great speech prepared to announce his virtue and bravery… And that’s right when Colin and Neil, with what I suspect was great delight, pull the rug out on the generic tropes of fantasy tales. For starters out poor knight is cut off in the middle of his impressive announcement speech by a rather irate bridge troll, who is less than happy to be addressed as “bridge troll”, pointing out he does, in fact, have a name (and a nametag). Going through a pretend ‘metal detector’ he is asked if he has anything metallic on him – well, er, armour, sword… Sorry, have to leave those behind, bridge security!

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And this farcical encounter soon directs us to the world of Deepmoat – yes, there is an entire village living down in the very deep and muddy moat which circles around the castle. And those pesky bridge trolls, messy pups that they are, have a dirty habit of throwing anything and everything down there, sometimes right on top of the unfortunate inhabitants. Our knight’s sword among them…

And that takes us into the world of Deepmoat where we find not just objects but even people get chucked in the pit by the trolls above, including a very young girl. Fortunately for her she is adopted by a nice couple of creatures who live in Deepmoat and they raise her as their own, Fun Mudlifter. But when more falling junk from the trolls kills them Fun decides it is time things changed and that the trolls above were taught a lesson. Of course she isn’t sure how to do this, or even how to get up there, but needless to say in this kind of genre it will involve a lot of adventuring, dungeons, monsters, trials and more.

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I’ve got to confess I absolutely loved this; in fact I sat with the largest grin on my face throughout, laughing repeatedly. Colin and Neil have taken all sorts of elements and references from the fantasy genre, from games like Zelda to well-worn tropes familiar to any of us who have sat up to 4am battling through Dungeons and Dragons or Tunnels and Trolls. And they they have clearly had a lot of fun taking many of those generic elements and playing with them and twisting them around. There is a good adventure story here, but it is also a delightful romp served up with lashings of wickedly funny humour. And it looks fantastic too.

Regular readers will know I loved Neil’s previous solo, semi biographical works (reviewed here) and while I can see some of his other art style in the characters here it is much lighter and with the fantasy rather than real-world setting he can indulge himself in flights of fancy (although still with a lovely cartoony style). And there are lovely touches – the lettering, too often an afterthought for some creators, is cleverly done in many places, using different sized speech bubbles appended to main ones and changes in font sizes to denote changes in volume and pitch of speech, and these are matched nicely with the expressions drawn on the character’s faces as they speak, the elements all work together beautifully. There are other nice touches like the simple device of inserting an arrow into an early dialogue box then again to a much later one to help tie different events together and show how connected they actually are.

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It’s an absolutely wonderful read, inventive, funny, warm, charming and so funny I am still smiling just at the thought of it. Dungeons, moats, monsters, wicked queens, castle, knights, quests, brave girl on a mission, prophecies, I mean really, it has it all. And Sandwiches. Can’t wait to see the next book. Meantime go give Colin and Neil some money for this, you will love it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny #1

Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni

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It is 1804, and the United States of America is still a new, young nation, striving to create it’s own identity, expand and find its “manifest destiny”. When President Thomas Jefferson (one of the Founding Fathers of the nation) commissions the new Corps of Discovery he is already looking westward, as so many Americans and the great waves of immigrants who would pour into the new nation in the 1800s would do. Lewis and Clark have instructions to cross the vast, largely unknown continent from the new Louisiana purchase lands westwards, to explore for evidence of rivers which may offer effective transport routes across to the Pacific coast, map the territories, establish relations with native tribes, gather scientific measurements and specimens of animals and geology as they travel and, the more secretive but to Jefferson vital part of the mission, to help establish US claims to these lands in the west in the face of other powers such as Spain or the British Empire.

Manifest Destiny, however, is not a simple retelling of that expedition – one of the great voyages of exploration of an era of great explorations, and certainly the most famous of American expeditions. This is a slightly different history from what we are used to, there is a hidden aspect to all of this, and not just Jefferson’s geo-political shenanigans and schemes. In Jefferson’s vast library on previous explorations of the continent are not only records – and sometimes misleading rumours or exaggerations – of previous voyages, but also myths, stories and legends of darker things, hidden places, strange creatures, monsters…

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This Lewis and Clark are embarking on the same historical trip we know, but with the added element that they have been secretly tasked to locate and eliminate these monsters, if they truly exist, as Jefferson believes they do, to clear the way for the young nation to expand from one shining sea to the other. This aspect of their mission is known only to the two officers, however, not the soldiers who have volunteered to join the Corps and certainly not the extra hands in the form of condemned criminals promised a presidential pardon if they protect the expedition to its conclusion…

In this first issue though nothing unusual has been spotted and Lewis is confiding in his journal that he is relieved they never told the men, because after sighting nothing untoward they would have assumed they were madmen, and notes so far the only real problem has been the boredom encouraging a lack of discipline among the criminal mercenaries, which Clark deals with, but which you know is going to figure again later in the story. Of course by the end of the first issue things start to take a more peculiar turn, as a great arch of greenery – an obvious nod to the famous Gateway Arch memorial to Westward Expansion which has towered over St Louis since the mid 1960s – is spotted by the river and the Corps disembark to investigate. Is this some weird natural structure? Man made? If it is artificial then who made it? Surely, they muse, not the ‘savages’? And why such an odd structure… Who put it there, what use did they intend and… where are whoever, or whatever, those who constructed it…

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The idea of having a secret, hidden history to our own real-world historical events is not new, of course – science fiction has an entire and often intriguing sub genre of alt-history tales, from Neal Stephenson’s enormous and richly detailed works to slimmer but fascinating classics like Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. But it is always an area ripe for further harvesting since it offers such juicy potential, taking already interesting historical events and people then adding a fictional spin to them, in the case of Manifest Destiny a supernatural take.

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That also works well for this particular tale, given the real expedition did indeed have covert purposes as well as the publicly stated aims (we see Lewis writing two journals, one secret for the president, the other a public one for Congress), so adding another secret aspect to their mission sits quite well within the real history. And of course to many in the new nation, most of the citizens of European descent, the lands beyond the original colonies were in some ways full of mysteries and monsters, a deep, dark, unknown land full of who knew what amid vast forests, great rivers and fast-flowing, mighty rivers not yet mapped. The artwork is executed in a nice, clear style, showing off these almost untouched, vast landscapes but also taking care to give each of the characters’ faces distinctive looks, helping the reader to learn who is who in the first issue, but it also deals with a sudden action scene towards the end rather well too, switching from widescreen landscape to close up, darker, more full of sudden movement and menace.  And I appreciated how Roberts made the mysterious structure no only a nod to the modern Gateway Arch memorial but also infers a gigantic tentacle like appendage, hinting at Lovecraftian monsters lurking in wait for the expedition. It’s an intriguing concept and while this first issue is a fairly sedate introduction it is a nice set-up for what looks to be a series worth following.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

5 – 4 -3 -2 -1 – Thunderbirds Are Go!!!

Thunderbirds: the Comic Collection Hardcover

Frank Bellamy, John Cooper,Graham Bleathman et al,

Egmont

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Ah, Thunderbirds, perhaps the most loved of all of the late, great Gerry Anderson’s ground-breaking science fiction shows, one of those shows that continues to capture the imagination of new generations time and again. I’ve always loved Gerry’s shows, they were pivotal in shaping the imagination of so many of us growing up, and his groundbreaking, superbly detailed Supermarionation creations like Stingray, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet offered us high adventures and beautifully realised science fiction futures. Probably fair to say none more so than Thunderbirds, with a whole family dedicated to saving lives in disasters with International Rescue, using the most astonishing fleet of craft, all their own creations, all intricately crafted by Gerry’s team, so much so that kids (and us big kids) still lust after the toy versions today.

Gerry Anderson was determined to widen the access to and appeal of his shows and TV Century 21 – later simply TV21 – would become a fondly remembered part of a now largely vanished era of British comics history, when every single week kids, literally by the million, picked up their new comics, read them swapped with siblings and friends for other comics – we devoured them. Anderson being Anderson though he was not content to have anything less than the best, so TV21 used superior (for the time) printing techniques and top-flight artwork to showcase his creations in comics form (remember this is the man whose model work was so good Kubrick wanted him to do effects work on 2001; Anderson turned him down, too busy with his own shows).

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And it shows that higher production value in this lovely hardback volume from Egmont, which is a total must-have for anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson shows, or indeed who just admire some very fine British comics. The fact this was aimed at a young audience didn’t mean they skimped on quality, so in came one of the most legendary artists in Brit comics, the great Frank Bellamy. The technical aspects of the superb quality of Bellamy’s art has been discussed by those far more qualified than me, but suffice to say it is simply beautiful, beautiful work. Freed of the constraints of 60s television effects and budgets Bellamy’s imagination could run free and create scenarios for International Rescue that simply couldn’t have been executed on the small screen at the time, even with Anderson’s skilled team – this is Thunderbirds unlimited, the comics form freeing the imagination of the creators so we can go from giant earthquake machines and shattering cities to deep jungles in South America, crashing spacecraft, giant aliens running amok, we soar through space, underwater, and Bellamy’s strength is not just in the artwork itself but also in his experimentation with how to lay out the panels on a page to increase the atmosphere and vibe of a story (something some modern artists like JH WIlliams III do so well too), and that experimentation is all the more impressive looking back and thinking this was the mid 60s and in a kid’s comic!

This is what science fiction adventure is all about for a young reader (and those of us who never quite lost that quality as we got older) – the sheer sense of wonder and excitement, but also carrying a message, just like the television shows. That there are good people, heroes we can look up to, who do the right thing for no other reason than it needs to be done. Yes, that may be a bit of a naive, even simplistic approach to a hero figure to today’s more cynical, media-aware eyes, but, dammit, sometimes you just want that simpler hero, the firm-jawed, Dan Dare inspired British hero, uncomplicated, resolute, determined… And I don’t think there is anything wrong in yearning for that sometimes – and, simpler or not, those sorts of characters are, I think, good for young readers especially; it’s perhaps not who they can ever be, real life, they will find, is more complicated, but it gives them something to admire, to aim for, an ideal standard, and that’s not a bad thing. And along the way they enjoy hugely inventive tales of great daring and adventure.

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Bellamy’s glorious work is joined later on by John Cooper, different from Bellamy but still terrific stuff, especially remarkable for a kid’s comic of the period. And as an added bonus Graham Bleathman’s wonderfully intricate and detailed cutaways of the Thunderbirds are included, lovely double page spreads showing inner details of those magnificent machines. I’ve loved those cutaway illustrations since I was a boy and they still draw my eye today. In addition to the main Thunderbirds strips from the 60s and 70s this handsome collection also includes the Lady Penelope series too.

In some ways these comics, like the show which inspired them, is very much of its time. An era when humans were just starting on the road to the stars, the dawn of the Space Age, that huge optimism that after the Second World War now we would turn our inventive minds to using our rapidly growing scientific knowledge for good, that new technology and science could – and would – cure all problems, feed the world, heal the sick, deal with disasters and reach out to take us to the stars themselves. We’re more cynical today, we live in an age far more technological than even those 60s dreamers could have imagined, where most of us have a phone in our pocket with more computing power than the Apollo programme had, but although we use it every day we are far more wary of the pitfalls of technology and we have seen that science, like any human activity, can be used for ill as well as good.

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In some ways though that adds to the nostalgic, warm glow of this collection, the desire to enjoy again that simpler time and simpler heroes who used their incredible inventions to save lives. It is so very easy to let yourself be lost in that world again for a few enjoyable hours. And let’s face it, when our 24 hours news brings reports of some awful disaster, earthquakes, fires, floods, is there any of those of us who grew up on these tales wish, deep down, that there was really a Thunderbirds cadre of craft who would ride out to the rescue? Impossible for some of us to hear that distinctive Thunderbirds theme and not want to be with those heroes, doing great deeds. It still works on the inner kid in the adult reader, and I think it will still work that most special of things, the sense of wonder and adventure, for the younger readers, just as the show still captures the imagination of new kids today. And even leaving that warm nostalgia aside these are simply terrific adventures for all ages, executed with some amazing artwork.

And as we’ve noted on here before, we’ve seen a lot of classic American comics given the deluxe treatment with handsome hardback archives, but sadly not so much for our rich British comics heritage, so that makes this a special treat, a handsome collection of some wonderful, classic Brit comics. On a related note Egmont have also released some more classic Brit comics fun at the same time, the three boxsets of postcards drawing from Brit comics, with a set from Battle, a set from 70s Girls’ Comics and yes, of course, there’s a set of Thunderbirds postcards as well. As with the book all looking rather good for the gift idea for a certain big seasonal event in a couple of months…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Neil Gaiman returns to the Sandman

The Sandman: Overture #1
Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III
DC/Vertigo

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(above: variant cover art for Sandman Overture #1 by Dave McKean, below: below cover art by JH Williams III)

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We blogged months ago about the raft of new titles coming from DC’s acclaimed Vertigo imprint this autumn. We’ve already seen the first issues of Hinterkind and Coffin Hill, which I very much enjoyed (reviewed here and here, respectively). But with no disrespect to those fine creators I (and I suspect many of you) have been waiting most impatiently for this week’s Vertigo release, nicely timed for the Halloween week, when dark things are allowed to leave the imaginary realms to walk the waking world, a series which is synonymous with the Vertigo imprint – The Sandman.

To say Neil Gaiman’s return to arguably his greatest comics creation comes loaded with anticipation is an understatement. And as Neil himself pointed out during his talks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, he was keenly aware of that. As he put it, when he first wrote Sandman few folks knew who he was and they were in a position to try what they wanted and push the sort of storytelling they wanted to try in the comics medium. This time though, it comes long after the original comic run, then the collected editions which introduced Sandman to a new and wider audience, and which are still introducing them, because there is always a reader who will be coming to it as a new discovery, because books are wonderful that way, they wait patiently for us to pick them up and they don’t care if you were one of the first to pick that book up or if you came to this author many years later, the book will welcome you in with open pages. But yes, Neil said he felt that all that much larger audience were, in a sense, there, looking over his shoulder, all with their own expectations. It’s the flipside of success and quite a burden on a writer. Thankfully Neil is one of our finest spinners of tales, and clearly he still loves the Dreaming…

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As many of you will know Overture will take in events that preceded the first Sandman story arc, where a Crowley-like magician summoned and captured Dream (although he was trying for Dream’s older sister, Death). We know from that tale that Dream was returning from some great trial in a vastly distant galaxy, tired beyond endurance (one reason he was captured so easily by simple summonings), but we never knew what those earlier events were. Here we open with a distant world peopled by different lifeforms, including sentient, carnivorous plants (Dave Stewart is, as always, to be commended for his colouring work, especially on this opening page); as one plant sleeps it dreams, and as it dreams it behold a strange plant, dark faced, black-leaved – Dream in one of his aspects. He feels something is wrong with the Dreaming on this world, although everything on the surface looks fine, but his sense of wrongness increases until suddenly it ends in shrieking and fire…

We cut to Britain, during the First World War, a pale man with a sinister smile and dark glasses pays a visit to a handsome young clerk in a store, telling him he has information on his brother, missing for some time after one of the battles on the Western Front and offering to meet him later. Regarding the man’s dark glasses the clerk asks “Sir? Your eyes? Were you hurt in a gas attack?” “Something like that,” replies the man, “You will find out all about my eyes tonight…” It can only be the nightmare, the Corinthian, and in a touch fans will love the panels from this scene are viewed through frames shaped like teeth, a hint to the Corinthian’s rather grisly habit and his endless hunger, as well as a nice visual nod to his nature by Williams.

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Neil also manages to slip in appearances from several other favourite characters in this first issue – Destiny and Death (looking wonderfully like a Gothic Mary Poppins) discuss those distant event we glimpsed at the start and what ramifications they may have for Dream, and we briefly see Merv Pumpkinhead talking with Lucien in the Library of Dreams (where Merv is delighting in telling how he put ‘Siggy’ – the inference is Sigmund Freud – ‘right’ about his cigar). These are worked into the events rippling out as a consequence of what we glimpsed on that distant world rather than simply pushed in to make the fans happy, although I am sure there would have been an intent to show some of the old characters for that reason too.

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I don’t want to spoil the whole issue for you, so won’t continue to the later pages here; suffice to say the Corinthian’s activities in the Waking World draw Dream’s attention (a rather natty Edwardian-era Dream visiting his London Office, satin cloak and top hat), but as he does so those ripples set in motion right at the start of the issue and which Death and Destiny had discussed are starting to reach this aspect of Dream and he feels that things are about to be set in motion…

Alright, I am biased, Sandman is my favourite comic series and one I still delight in returning to every now and then, so I may be a little biased in my desire for this to be good. Although as someone who read it right from the start you might also argue I may be more critical of new material. I can honestly say I tried to approach this without either of those old-hand fan filters on; I came to it, at least as best I could, as someone who simply likes a good tale well-told, and I was not disappointed. In a few pages Neil not only re-introduced characters he set up the first inklings of an event which will have huge ramifications for Dream, and does so with a structure that, like the original series, is a beautifully constructed narrative.

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And, as you might expect, JH Williams III’s artwork is simply beautiful, and more than that, as with his work in his quite excellent Batwoman run or with Moore in Promethea, he exhibits a wonderfully inventive flair for interesting layouts and page designs (including a terrific double-page spread which folds open to reveal a stunning four page scene). Never just to be showy, but perfectly integrated into the service of the story and atmosphere, pushing the ways in which our beloved medium can carry a story and draw in the reader’s imagination, a perfect fit for Neil and Dream alike. I’ve said it before and will say it again here; I think Williams is one of the finest artists working in the medium today. A beautiful, elegant piece of work and a first issue which is, if you will forgive the weak pun, something of an overture to the story of Overture.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Reviews: Velvet #1, superb old school superspy thriller with a twist

Velvet #1

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting

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There are some sub-genres that never go out of fashion, and the spy thriller is one of them. Brubaker and Epting’s Velvet gives us all the trappings of a proper, old-school spy adventure yarn, very 60s/70s in feel, the handsome but cold and ruthless, incredibly able super-agent in immaculate evening wear, parties in expensive locations in cities like Paris or New York, the oh-so-cool car (naturally with the ‘usual refinements’), sudden death, conspiracies and, of course, sex – not to mention the panting secretary at the agency that is so secret most other spy agencies think it is a myth, if they’ve heard of it at all that is. The eternal Moneypenny type, efficient, prim, always in love with the daring secret agents who risk life and limb against impossible odds for Queen, Country and World Security (and a chilled bottle of ’45 Rothschild, naturally).

But that’s not Velvet at all – yes, as I said these are the trappings, instantly recognisable from the stories and movies of the 60s and 70s spy tales, but this is not about the super X-operatives agents, not really. This is about that secretary who adores the handsome young men who go on those missions. And she’s not at all what most of those men – supermen in terms of their spy abilities but overgrown schoolboys when it comes to emotional depth – think she is. Oh yes, she’s fallen for an agent and slept with him. But as one agent finds out she’s done that with numerous operatives, each one fooled into thinking he was the only one she doted on. The sex here is purely because of her choice and played her way. And there is much more to Velvet than the hidden sexual side. A whole side most of the department would never dream of…

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We open with a great scene in early 70s Paris, a tuxedo-clad assassination in an expensive restaurant, the daring escape through night-time streets to the waiting car (an Aston Martin, naturally) and… A trap. Bang and our superspy able to escape everything is simply taken by surprise and shot. Just like that, no coming back from this, the man we thought was being set up as our main character is gone within a few pages, his death the trigger for what comes after. The department is woken in the small hours for the news and secretary Velvet Templeton is both upset (she actually liked this particular agent) and shocked – despite the extreme danger of their missions, X-operatives rarely get killed in the field. And not in a common ambush like this. Someone must have known his escape route – there is a mole…

Questions are asked, the entire department turned upside down, and soon a suspect is named, a man seemingly once above suspicion and yet there is some evidence that hints he may well have been the perpetrator. Velvet is not convinced though, she knows the man and also finds something amiss in the records she researches. Has this older agent really turned on them, or is there a deeper mole than thought, someone with the ability to manipulate the department, set someone up? And if so, what does she do – not to investigate means ignoring a security breach, digging further may turn attention to her…

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I won’t blow the ending to this first issue by going any further, but suffice to say, as we learn in flashbacks then in the present, Velvet has not always been a secretary, and while she may be up against unseen opponents using her own department colleagues unknowingly, she has abilities most of those younger agents have no concept of…

This is a rollicking read – it has its cake and eats it, with the old-school superspy set-up, the public school bully boy mentality macho male agents, the gadgets and glamorous locations and sex, but it also has a clever, powerful, extremely able female lead, up there with Mrs Peel in her ability to look like the refined, middle-class lady one moment and the unstoppable super-agent the next. It’s a great combination, both paying homage to those older superspy tales while also tacitly acknowledging their sexist streak and playing against it, glorying in the glamour and devices yet showing how all the gadgets in the world don’t help when someone simply blasts a shotgun at you from a few feet away.

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Epting’s art is suitably dark – dimly lit meeting rooms at the headquarters, some wonderful night-time scenes in major cities (some lovely, atmospheric colouring work there too by Elizabeth Breitsweiser, which deserves a shout out). Tense, sexy, intriguing and with a powerful female character cutting through those 60s style Boy’s Own superspy conventions, plus the always-fascinating and compelling nature of a good conspiracy, it all adds up to a cracking and quite cinematic debut issue. Well worth picking up.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Coffin Hill

Coffin Hill #1

Caitlin Kittredge, Inaki Miranda

DC/Vertigo

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The Coffins brought nothing but blood and misery to everything we touched.”

Coffin Hill is another of the raft of new Vertigo titles launched this autumn, and as with the first issue of Hinterkind (reviewed here) it is an “extra-sized” issue, which seems to me a good idea for a first issue where you have to pack in introducing the characters, some set-up and background etc in addition to getting on with telling your story. It also continues the strategy of approaching successful novelists to write comics for Vertigo (artist Inaki had previously worked on Fairest: Hidden Kingdom for Vertigo with novelist and Arthur C Clarke award winner Lauren Beukes, reviewed here).

Caitlin is especially known for her dark, urban fantasy and strong female characters, and this serves Coffin Hill very well, I think. This opening issue starts in Boston in the present day, a serial killer caught by a rookie cop, Eve Coffin. We don’t stay in the present for too long though – after leaving the celebration party for her collar quite early and clearly upset Eve goes home and walks into a major domestic disturbance. And by major I mean her flat-mate ahving a gun pointed at her by her drug-peddling psycho boyfriend… The gun goes off, Eve takes the hit and is rushed to hospital. As surgeons battle to save her life fractured memories of her earlier life slash across the page jaggedly, Inaki using a central scene of her on the operating table surrounded by these broken shards as his layout, the art cleverly suggesting the damage and turmoil in her injured brain.

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And then we’re back ten years previously to Coffin Hill, Massachusetts, the Coffin family manor – proper New World Old Money – Caitlin describes them as “the holy trinity of New England royaltyL old blood, old money, old secrets” which beautifully sums the family  and its history in the area up. Oh, and of course they are cursed. Their scheming, decadent lives have produced all manner of secrets, and part of that seems to be linked to witchcraft and dark magics, the woods by their estate brooding and haunted, known in local lore as a place not to go, a place where bad things happen even centuries after the Salem witch trials, the dark atmosphere hangs over it, poisoning the area and the family.

And it’s this dark legacy that attracts Eve, purloining a forbidden old tome from a study in the family manor while an extravagant party takes place and the wealthy bicker and argue and intrigue while wearing false razor-blade smiles at their societal gathering. Meeting her Gothy friends in the dark woods it seems young Eve is determined to do more than play at being dark, she and her friends plan a ceremony, and it’s becoming clear that something she did during these events is what has haunted and changed her all the way to the present day ‘hero’ cop life she leads in Boston.  It’s an intriguing, nicely dark and disturbing opening issue that leaves me wanting to learn more about this secret history and the effects it has had on that decade of Eve’s life that we haven’t seen yet. Caitlin creates an interesting lead in Eve, from the damaged, haunted, older woman we see as a police officer in Boston now to the rebellious rich daughter doing what she wants to annoy equally spoiled parents and flirting with something she doesn’t fully understand.

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Inaki’s art moves from dark, grayed tones for the present day urban police setting to brighter, clearer images of the richly dressed socialites of Coffin manor or the alluring, sexy (but not sleazily so) young Eve and her friends, while over it all there hangs a dark pall, like something from the House of Usher or other works by Poe. Intriguing, I will be picking up issue 2.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog