Review: Wild’s End #1 – Wind in the Willows meets War of the Worlds

Wild’s End #1
Dan Abnett, Ian Culbard
Boom! Studios

wilds-end-1-cover-abnett-culbard-boom-studios

When I see Dan Abnett and Ian Culbard’s names on a new comic, frankly even before I know what it is about, that’s sufficient to make me want to take a look. Add in the fact that we have an anthropomorphic fantasy take on one of the first great classics of science fiction, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (with a touch of the Archers thrown in for good measure) and you have my undivided reading attention!

We open under a clear night sky in the countryside, away from street lights, a great glowing, indigo firmament specked with sparking stars and a great moon, whose silvery glow lights the way home for Fawkes (a fox person) and his drouthy companion Bodie (a weasel), good naturedly arguing over their bottle of booze as, from the looks of it, they are walking home from a good evening’s poaching. Until they are stopped in their tracks by the sight of an astonishingly bright shooting star describing a great, flaming arc across that wonderful fairy tale night sky. Before they can even wish upon that falling star – still marvelling at how bright it was – the sound of its impact reaches them and they realise it didn’t just burn across the nocturnal heavens, it’s crashed to earth, not far from their quaint little village. Excitedly Fawkes starts out for the site, followed grudgingly by Bodie.

wilds-end-abnett-cublard-boom-studios-01 wilds-end-abnett-cublard-boom-studios-02

The clear day after the night before and all is peaceful and as it should be in Lower Crowchurch; Mr Slipway (a dog) is very carefully painting his new home, a very traditional thatched cottage, about as picture postcard rural England as you can imagine, having just moved to the village, retiring from a life in the Navy. Two of his new neighbours, Gilbert Arrant and Peter Minks, stop to greet him in a friendly manner, although it is also clear that covertly Arrant (a pillar of the village and, one suspects, the type who likes to know the inside scoop on everyone else’s business) and Minks (a local journalist) are trying to pick away and see what they can find out about Slipway’s past. They invite him to join them in the pub later as the village fete is coming up and a group are meeting to discuss who will do what (although it is fairly apparent this is almost a formality as the same people do the same things each year in this little hamlet – tradition, charming or stultifying, delete as is your taste for such things).

And it’s during this rural chat that Fawkes makes his re-appearance, dishevelled and rambling and ranting about a dangerous light they found in the woods, a light which is deadly. But as a known drunk and poacher none believe him, except Slipway who comments “I’ve seen enough young men gripped in terror to know what genuine fear looks like” and he decides to investigate. But they may be late in checking the veracity of the errant Fawkes’ tale, someone, or something may be starting to investigate their little, peaceful domicile too…

This is a charming piece of work, a sort of blending of Wind in the Willows with HG Wells, and I found the idyllic, rural setting was enhanced by having anthropomorphic animal-people as the characters – they combine, with Culbard’s beautiful artwork, to create that fantasy, picture-postcard view of the idealised countryside English village that probably never really existed quite like that even before the modern world rudely pushed its way in, and yet it’s an image we all know and frequently have great affection for (perhaps not where many of us would choose to live, but certainly to take a peaceful sojourn in). This is only a first issue (of six), but already we’re introduced to several main characters and between Abnett’s dialogue and Culbard’s artwork their characteristics are pretty well established in the reader’s mind.

wilds-end-abnett-cublard-boom-studios-03

I found Culbard’s approach to depicting Slipway especially effective, not just the way he delineates the facial features, but the angle and pose of the character speaks silently of his mysterious past that Arrant would like to tease out of him, a man who has seen much, done much, some of it, one suspects, the sort of tasks he doesn’t want to dwell on, while his depiction of Arrant is again wonderfully spot-on, the oh so friendly, fine chap who is actually the village gossip and always using his bonhomie to dig out everyone’s secrets and ensure his own place in the local society. Naturally they bring to mind other prominent anthropomorphic characters, such as Bryan Talbot’s Grandville cast, but these creations stand on their own and any comparisons I might make from Wild’s End to Grandville are entirely complimentary. That so much of their character comes through simply from the art is a testament to Culbard’s ability. Matching that with Abnett’s script and dialogue and you have something wonderful. Much recommended.

wilds-end-abnett-culbard-map

(I can’t resist including this image of Culbard’s map of the village and surrounding countryside – as a friend commented during the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, there’s always something delightful about a map with your fantasy tales, and he’s right, there is)

This review was originally posted on the Forbidden Planet Blog

Insurrection

This review was originally written for the Forbidden Planet blog in December 2011:
Insurrection Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil 2000 AD/Rebellion Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry. Mining Colony K-Alpha 61, a mineral working remote space outpost for Mega City One. Except the colony no longer considers itself a colony of the distant Big Meg. The colony has declared independence and renamed itself Liberty. And the Judges are not happy about it. Abnett and MacNeil set up the backstory very quickly, economically and efficiently, with a single page showing the senior Judge Marshall for the colony, Karel Luther delivering his statement of intent and the reasons for this radical – especially for a trained Judge – move: An alien species invaded and when despite repeated requests for help from Earth no assistance arrived the Marshals knew they needed everyone on the colony to fight the vicious Zhind, not just Judges and citizens, but also the large underclass which the majority of the workload – vital to the Big Meg’s industries and economy – relies on, the mutants, sentient robots and genetically uplifted apes, to take up arms. As these being have no real rights under Mega City Law (we’ve known since Dredd’s earliest days how the law disparages the Mutie and the robot) why would they fight for the colony? The Marshals have been granted leave to confer full rights of citizenship on them, giving them the same rights and freedoms of any other person in the colony. And just as the freed black slaves flocked to join the Union banner after the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War this underclass is not only willing to join up and fight, they are if anything more determined than anyone else to prove themselves, even at the cost of their lives. Then when the desperate struggle is won with no help from Mega City One word comes from Earth, well done, now the threat is over you can go ahead and revoke their citizenship. Luther and fellow Marshals like Freely are trained Judges, it is against all they believe in to rebel even against such a tyrannical, immoral order. But their first loyalty, Luther explains, isn’t to the law it is to justice. And to go back on the citizenship deal after so many fought and died for it would be unjust. So he tells MC-1 where to go, knowing full well this time they will come out to the colony that they failed to help before. And in a force that he knows he cannot beat, but there comes a time when a person has to take a stand, regardless of the odds, for what they believe in… It’s a great set up, the struggling underdogs, heroic and with right on their side but with little chance of success, up against an unjust, inflexible, greater power; not the first time the Dredd universe has painted the Judges as complete fascist bully boys, of course, but it works so very well and it means we get some serious future space-war combat action thrills but as it comes with a strong moral-political imperative we can enjoy the spectacular action (and MacNeil gives us some cracking big scenes, from a fleet of vicious judicial starships to ground action as the Special Judical Squad – the feared SJS who deal with other Judges – come in force) and feel no guilt over the violence. (all art in this post by Colin MacNeill, (c) Rebellion) Of course one long fight on Liberty against the odds could become a bit repetitive, and it is to Abnett’s credit that he anticipates this, so the doomed fight for Liberty is only the opening third of the tale. From the start the Marshals know that no matter how hard they and their ragtag army fights this is one battle they simply cannot win; it is clear that the SJS would be quite prepared to blast the entire colony from orbit and wipe it out if the assault fails. So when massive civilian casualties are threatened Luther has no option but to offer a surrender; he has given the SJS the biggest bloody nose it ever took in its history, he made a point, made a stand. And although Liberty has fallen under their jackboot the struggle itself goes on. Other colonies are slowly hearing about this, other worlds with their own large underclasses of robots, muties and uplifts, not to mention humans that MC-1 care nothing for really, as long as the raw materials are shipped back to Earth. Why should they be beholden to a power that doesn’t protect them, doesn’t care for them, doesn’t even recognise many of them in law with any rights? And so a few of them escape the surrender to carry on the new war, the ideological war – and another colony starts to turn, renaming itself, in honour of the French revolution, Fraternity, to stand morally alongside Liberty… Now I won’t go on into this second part of the book because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you that is is, if anything, even more gripping than the first half. Abnett and MacNeil move on to a classic guerilla campaign for freedom and also a war of ideals. But it isn’t entirely straightforward good freedom fighters versus evil imperial power, Abnett is too canny and experienced a writer for that, and he mixes in some shades of gray too. Although I suspect most readers will still predominantly have their sympathies on the side of the rebels, the guys introduce some other elements, not least the SJS leader’s argument to Luther as to why not just MC-1 but the entire Earth desperately needs the colonies as they are, which does muddy the formerly clear moral waters a little. It’s a fine combination of science fiction, war action, morality, ideology and heroism that makes for a gripping, absorbing tale that draws you right in, deftly weaving in references to other fights for freedom, such as the French and American Revolutions as well as more recent history (you could read part of it as a comment on fighting foreign wars largely based on the chance to exploit the natural resources of another land, dressed up in ideology to mask naked greed). And throughout Colin MacNeil’s art is superb. The Dredd Megazine has, like its 2000 AD parent, been fortunate in having had a roster of extremely fine artists over the years and MacNeil has long been a fan favourite. I’ve admired Colin’s art for many years myself, not least for his ability to create quite different styles to suit different tales – he’s a brush jockey who can go from the very cartoony to the highly stylised to the realistic as the story he’s working on demands. And here he has created a visually stunning wash of monochromatic art that is as at home depicting epic starship fleets as it is individuals, giving real character to the human and the uplift, mutie and robots alike, while also treating us to some brilliant large splash pages showing vast colonial landscapes and action scenes. The monochromatic nature of the art suits the story perfectly, both visually stunning and clear and yet still moody and atmospheric at the same time. I look forward to more of this intriguing new aspect to the expanded Dredd universe.