Reviews: Slugfest – inside fifty years of Marvel-DC rivalry

Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle Between marvel & DC,

Reed Tucker,

Sphere

Growing up as a comics reader there was often a dividing line for many – are you DC or Marvel? Personally, even as a kid I found that a silly distinction as I read comics from both – and of course in Britain, back then, we had a huge amount of homegrown comics competing for our reading time as well (and they were easier to get hold of than US imports). But for many readers it was a real question, and that rivalry for the attentions of comics readers between The Big Two is the meat and drink (and sometimes spilled drink) of Reed Tucker’s fascinating history in Slugfest.

The comics business has changed enormously since the birth of the superheroes in the 1930s; they’ve survived (well, some have, not all) wars, depressions, civil unrest, the rise of several new media, changing societies, circulation declines and changes in consumption. And in the US the main contenders have, since the 60s, been Marvel and DC. DC, still, even by the 50s and early 60s, a staid, conservative, buttoned-down place, run by old men with pipes and leather patches on their jacket elbows, growing every further out of touch with their young readership. And with the arrival of Stan Lee’s hyperbole and energy they have a competitor they need to fight against for readership. Except the old men in charge refuse to see this new upstart as a serious rival – much to their cost.

It’s the beginning of decades of rivalry and competition – and often sniping at one another, sometimes humorously, sometimes quite nastily. And as the tired old crossover “events” pretty much always say “nothing will ever be the same again!!!”. Tucker takes us through the once-exciting characters now stultifyingly stale at DC and their initial reluctance to change – or even acknowledge change is needed – as the Marvel experiment begins to draw more and more readers and exciting new talents. It’s a heady, exciting time – Kirby, Ditko and more give readers something exciting and new, starting a whole new wave in the medium, with work that has inspired – arguably is still inspiring – new creators who, in their turn, would also explore just what else they could do with comics storytelling. And eventually that would stir changes in DC, elderly staffers finally out, new blood in, and an ongoing exchange between both publishers as one would, inevitably, follow the other on new ideas and innovations (or downright gimmicks).

Comic books were disreputable, and that was fine by me,” Denny O’Neill commenting on being part of the new blood brought in by DC in the 60s in reaction to Marvel.

Some of this will be common knowledge to a lot of comics fans, I imagine – I certainly knew many of the broad brushstrokes of the DC-Marvel rivalry, but what Tucker does here is to fill in far more detail into that picture. He discusses not just the main competition between the publishers over who had the most popular characters and titles, the best circulations, Tucker goes into more depth. Problems such as distribution, interference from the owners, self-censorship with the Comic Code, the decline in sales, the slow death of the newsstands and the establishment of the direct market and the specialist comic shops, the change in readership from mostly youngsters to adults, the rise of the “superstar” writers and artists like Miller, Morrison and others, the slow evolution of the capes and tights to the big screen (from the Superman movie of the 70s showing they could be huge box office for adults and kids through the duds to the current box office domination), the increasingly corporate nature of the Big Two and more.

Crucially Tucker has spoken to a huge number of people who have worked in the industry, and those first hand accounts and personal insights are where the book really sparkles. Writers, artists, editors, Tucker talks to a large array of talent from across those decades, giving a much more personal and relatable inside view, some working exclusively for one publisher or the other, but many going from one side to the opposition, sometimes because they lost their job, or were fed up with their treatment and walked (keeping your talent happy seems to be a lesson both side often ignored, foolishly), more than a few actively poached from one publisher to the other. The larger events here are important and worthwhile reading for anyone with a love of the comics medium, but it is these many personal touches from the numerous creators Tucker talks to which truly makes Slugfest so compelling.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Batwoman – Elegy

Batwoman: Elegy,
Greg Rucka, JH Williams III,
DC Comics

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That bat they shine in the sky… Civilians think it’s a call for help. The bad guys think it’s a warning… But it’s more than that. It’s something higher. It’s a call to arms… I’ve found my way to serve. I finally found a way to serve.”

The New 52 Batwoman has been one of my favourite monthly reads, not least with the first couple of years of the run when JH Williams III was co-writing and doing the artwork. But not long before The New 52 reset the DC universe Williams collaborated with the brilliant Greg Rucka (who has given us so many tales, including the brilliant Queen & Country), and the result was this superb Batwoman story, Elegy. A new character appears, the mentally unbalanced Alice, who seems to be obsessed with Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (leading Batwoman to inform her rather tartly that Gotham already has a Carroll-inspired villain). And this bizarre, damaged character seems set on becoming the new all-high leader of a bizarre cult of crime, a cult which Kate Kane has tangled with before.

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But there’s so much more going on here than a new villain and threat to Gotham; Alice is not just another psychologically bizarre supervillain come to make her mark on Gotham, there’s a deeper connection, a personal one, to Kate herself, although she doesn’t realise this at first, and it will change many things for her. While we have this struggle in the present, Elegy is also intercut with scenes from Kate’s past, from childhood with her twin sister to the death of her mother and sister, then growing up, becoming an outstanding officer cadet, determined to serve in the army like her father, the Colonel, only to have her dream brought to a sudden halt – this was the time when homosexuality was not allowed in the armed forces and Kate, a lesbian, is dismissed. Such is the respect for her dedication to her work her commanding officer offers her a chance to simply deny it and continue to serve, but part of her oath includes not lying, and she won’t break that, not even to save her career. Her father is upset at her losing her chance to serve, but he tells her how much he respect his daughter for refusing to lie to save herself; she lost her chance to be an officer, but she maintained her integrity, her honour, and he is proud of her.

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And this is really the meat of Elegy, not the struggle against Alice, interesting though that is, it is a trigger to these flashbacks, which gives us an insight into who Kate Kane is, what drives her. Despite the violent loss of her mother and sister when she was a girl, it isn’t revenge that drives her, it is this urge to serve something larger than herself. Denied the chance to do this for her country she starts to think of another way, after an attempting mugging (the poor mugger picked on the wrong woman! I’m no helpless victim she rages as she takes him down, I’m a soldier) and a chance encounter with the Batman in a dingy Gotham alley. Kate applies her army training and discipline to this new role, using both intellect and physical prowess. When the Colonel finds out he berates her for playing at vigilante (not to mention purloining an array of weapons from the army base – all non-lethal weapons though). I’m not playing, Kate tells him, I’ve found a way to serve. And he understands – he has his uniform and flag, she now has her symbol and her role, and he decides if she is going to do this, she will do it right and with his help. A masked vigilante is trained by the best to prepare for this new war – and it is a war and she is a soldier, he tells her – and becomes Batwoman.

As origins go it is a brilliant piece, a lovely, emotional insight into what makes Kate become what she becomes, while also showing the price she pays, both physically (the intense training, the risks to life and limb) and emotionally (the cost of loving another woman driving her from the army so unfairly, her secret life as Batwoman at night damaging her new relationship with Gotham PD detective Renee). But again there is more to it, and the relationship between Batwoman, the Colonel and Alice will push to break an emotional dam, and create an emotional, personal abyss which has also informed the Batwoman of The New 52. It’s also hugely refreshing to see a gay character portrayed so well here – her gender and sexual persuasion are part of her, and Kate makes no attempt to conceal it (even, as noted before, to save her own army career), but it’s not a major issue, it’s just part of who she is (and why should it be a big deal? It’s a delight the way we are simply given her as a character to accept like any other, which is as it should be, it should make no difference). The mainstream media made much of the new Batwoman being a lesbian, but to Rucka and Williams’ credit this is just a part of the character, Kate, like anyone of any persuasion, has the same problems anyone else has in relationships, because that’s what happens in human interaction, regardless of your orientation, we all share the same problems and emotions, and of course this makes it much easier to empathise with her, bringing reader and character closer.

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In Rucka and Williams’ hands we are given a fiercely strong, deterined gay female character, and they take us into her world and into her mind and her soul in such a way that she becomes a totally compelling character. This is enhanced by Williams’ astonishing artwork – he has to be one of the finest working in the industry today. Not just the quality of his artwork – which is beautifully done – but in the innovative layouts and structures he uses. This is an artist pushing how a comic looks, how it works, how it can tell a story, and by god it is brilliant, clever, kinetic, powerful. In his run on The New 52 Batwoman Williams would refine this even further. It gives us a perfect fusion of intricate story within a story, origin tale, emotional heart and drive and presented in some of the finest comics artwork and layouts to be found anywhere, and it left me with a deep and abiding love for Kane’s Batwoman.

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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!

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

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

Review: Hinterkind #1 – well-done post-apocalyptic fantasy

Hinterkind #1

Ian Edginton, Francesco Trifogli,

DC/Vertigo

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We click over into October, the leaves are turning, the evening dusk falls more swiftly every night, and we also come to the first wave of this promised autumnal bounty of new titles from DC’s Vertigo imprint that we blogged about some while back. I was quite pleased when DC announced this raft of upcoming Vertigo releases – with the departure of Karen Berger and moving one of the imprint’s most well known (and longest running) characters, John Constantine, to the main DC universe (mostly I’ve not been impressed with that), there was some genuine concern among readers that the much-respected imprint, known for nurturing some of the more unusual works to come out of a mainstream publisher, was about to be done away with, and this new range helped scotch those worries. And the fact that one of the new series was written by one of 2000 AD’s regular (and best) scribes, Ian Edginton, also had me pretty happy.

It’s some (as yet undisclosed) number of years after the end of the world. Or, as the story puts it:

Calling it the end of the world was a conceit. The world kept on ticking just fine, it was humanity that took the hit. Seven months from top of the food chain to endangered species.”

We open Hinterkind with a bloody scene, a crackling radio pleading for a response, but none will come as the people lie dead around it, blood staining the floors. We see only the aftermath, not the deaths, the attacker unseen save for a pair of enormous hands moving a chair by a body… And then we cut to what looks like a scene from the African veld, a zebra munching on grasses looks up alarmed, sensing danger – too late as the young girl, Prosper, who most simply call ‘P’, looses an arrow. As she and her companion Angus step out of concealment to claim their hunting trophy the perspective pulls back and we realise the lush vegetation ends in a concrete wall… Further back to realise this wall is pretty high… Then a page turn brings us to a gorgeous double-page spread of New York after the fall, the skyscrapers of Manhattan decked out and roofed in verdant greenery, reclaimed by nature, now the hunting ground of these youngsters.

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It’s a beautiful moment and showcases Trifogli’s art wonderfully, a few scenes and pages effectively telling us much of what we need to know about this world P and Angus are surviving in. Of course it also brings to mind post-apocalyptic movies which have similarly shown our great cities deserted of people and reclaimed by plants and animals (think 12 Monkeys and the big cat hunting the city streets, or the rather mixed I Am Legend). Further ‘wow’ moments follow though – an aerial view of something most of us are familiar with, even if we’ve never been there, glimpsed a thousand times on television and film, Central Park.

Except instead of the oasis of green in a massively built-up city now it is an island of remaining civilisation, a small village and farmland, surrounded by the now overgrown greenery of the city, an inversion of how it is today. Again it is a beautiful piece of artwork, lush and almost charming in an idyllic rural manner, until you remind yourself this isn’t a countryside retreat, this is all that is left of humanity in a city that once was home to millions…

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As the kids return to their village with the spoils of the hunt events are being set in motion. The people of the village are the ones who were trying to reach the murdered victims on the radio on the opening page. Their doctor, Asa, P’s grandfather, determines to hike upstate to try and find out what happened. Given they have no idea of the state of the world beyond Manhattan now and that the few other holdouts they had contact with have gone dark his friends oppose this, but he is determined. It’s the right thing to try and help, he explains, plus it is in their best interests to learn why these other spots of humanity have gone silent.

Meanwhile P learns something about Angus, a new development he has kept secret and which may drive him out of their small enclave. And any trip outside is full of dangers, with humans now likely to be hunted by other big predators, just like their far distant primitive ancestors were. But there are even more dangerous and disturbing things than tigers freed from zoos or collections roaming the land now… And on that point I will say no more as I don’t want to spoil it (suffice to say the duo deliver something disturbing and intriguing and horrific).

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I thought this was a splendid first issue, Edginton and Trifolgi, partaking of both that long-running post-apocalypse strand of science fiction that has endured for pretty much as long as the genre has, as well as often having a distinctly fairy tale feel and look to some of it. Although I say fairy tale here in the nature of the older fairy tales, before they were cleaned up and sanitised for young children’s picture books – this is more like the original tales those derived from, with wonders but also hidden horrors and dark threats. This first issue is extra-sized which allowed for a little more room to introduce characters and set-up, which benefits the series hugely. Edginton and Trifogli make use of this to do a beautifully worked out introduction to this world, using skill and economy, the right few words with the right few pictures, rather than any huge info-dump exposition that some may have resorted to, relying on their skill and the reader’s own imagination to build that devastated world in their mind. Terrific stuff – I’ll certainly be picking up the rest of this series. Fingers crossed the other upcoming Vertigo titles this autumn impress as much as Hinterkind.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Comics: the Wake #1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

The Wake #1
Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy
DC/Vertigo

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Two of the hottest properties in DC’s table, Scott Snyder (some stunning Batman work among others) and Sean Murphy (the brilliant Punk Rock Jesus – reviewed here – and Joe the Barbarian – reviewed here) working together on a new Vertigo title? Yes, I was curious and naturally I picked it up among this week’s crop of new releases. I was not disappointed – The Wake #1 is pretty much what you want from a first issue, intriguing, setting up some scenarios but only giving glimpses and tastes so you know you not only want more, you have to have more…

An opening prologue sees a woman on an advanced hang glider soaring among once towering skyscraper, now architectural islands projecting from the rivers of what were once streets, a drowned city. Landing she confers with a cybernetically enhanced dolphin before it alerts her to an incoming tidal wave which they try to flee…

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And then after those few pages we’re back, some two hundred years previously we’re told, to what looks like our own present, where Doctor Lee Archer is studying whales, in a beautiful scene where one of those magnificent, gigantic ocean mammals surfaced right by her small boat and even allows her to touch him, while her estranged son talks to her on a video communicator. Her ocean studies are about to be disrupted though; through her camera her son can see a helicopter approaching swiftly behind her. Enter Agent Cruz of the Department of Homeland Security.

Archer, it seems, has a previous history of government secret work and they want her services again, despite her previously leaving under a black cloud (at the moment unspecified). She’s told that they picked up a strange sound in the ocean off Alaska, almost whale-like but distorted and odd, so they need someone with Cetacean interests and an espionage background. The carrot dangled is the classic one – help to get custody of her son back. Of course, you know there is a lot more to this than she is being told (Cruz will tell her several times later he didn’t lie to her, he just didn’t mention certain aspects of events).

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As I said at the start this does exactly what a first issue does – introduces main characters and set up (handled with great economy and efficiency), tickles our curiosity with a barely glimpsed mystery and promise of much more to come so you know you will have to pick up the next issue. Murphy continues to be one of the hot new comic artists to watch and I’m increasingly enjoying his style, not to mention some neat little touches, such as Doctor Archer wearing a Flak Jackets cap (Chris’ band from Punk Rock Jesus). This looks like a pretty intriguing new Vertigo title: a bit of mystery, some relationship problems, a touch of science fiction and even a secret underwater base – a good mix! Well worth getting in on the ground floor on this one, I reckon.

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Joe Kubert Presents #1

Joe Kubert Presents #1

Joe Kubert, Sam Glanzman, Brian Buniak

DC Comics

I can still remember when I picked up the issue with the first appearance of Superman. Wish I’d saved that book. Might not have to be worrying about the economy today. Of course, the printing, color and quality of paper was not what it is today. But, then again, it was sixty-four pages of story and art for a dime. Ten cents!

Anywhow, there are certain kinds of stories and cartoonists whose work I admired. Lots of them no longer around. The kind of work I don’t see enough of today. So when I mentioned to Paul [Levitz], he came back at me and said: “Okay, Joe, Tag! You’re it!” Well, that’s not exactly the way it happened. But, Paul did say, “Why don’t you produce the kind of book you’re talking about? An anthology – different stories – presented by Joe Kubert.” Joe Kubert

Among the most recent crop of new releases one stood out for me in this last week: Joe Kubert Presents #1. With a gorgeous grayscale Hawkman cover and Kubert’s name on it, I couldn’t resist picking it up. I mean, it’s Joe Kubert for goodness sake, one of the finest artists the medium has seen, and a hugely influential figure, inspiring and tutoring so many others. As his own words above, borrowed from the issue, explain, he had been chatting to DC’s Paul Levitz about some older works and styles of comics that he just didn’t see much of anymore, and out of that came the idea for a six issue anthology run, with Joe creating the lead story himself and selecting the other creators and their work, which he would then present. Frankly they had me simply at Joe Kubert’s name on the cover…

I have to say right off the bat I enjoyed this hugely. In fact it’s probably the single book I enjoyed most from the most recent releases. It’s Old School. And by that I don’t mean to infer any negative connotations like it being slow paced or static, far from it, by Old School I simply mean that, just as Kubert himself said of the collection, it presented some styles of comics storytelling that I haven’t seen in years, probably since I was a kid (and even back then some of those older comics I was reading were more than likely reprints of earlier works, as was fairly common). And you know what? I loved that. Not that there’s anything wrong with many modern styles of comics storytelling. But for me it was a bit like reading the New 52 take on The Flash – none of the convoluted, multi-layered, multi-referential, post-modern, morally anguished takes on heroes and tales that seems to be run of the mill for the last decade or two, but more of a simple joy, that a comic could appeal to an adult but still give you the enjoyment and thrill it did when you were ten. And, dammit, that’s a wonderful feeling to get again, as well as being a nice change of pace.

(Kubert’s introduction to the concept behind the anthology includes some pencil sketches by his fellows and himself, such as this splendid Hawkman panel)

We get four stories here, two by Kubert himself (Hawkman and also Spit), Brian Buniak’s Angel and the Ape and the USS Stevens by Sam Glanzman. Kubert explains for the leading Hawkman tale he decided returned to this as one of the characters he “cut his eyeteeth on… over sixty years ago.” Back then, he notes, he was drawing to a script penned by some of the best in the business, but for this he wanted to do the writing, art and colouring all himself, for it to be a short Hawkman tale entirely from his own perspective.

(flying over Africa in Kubert’s own Hawkman tale which opens the collection)

I’ll confess Hawkman is not a character I’ve ever really been especially interested in, even as a kid, but I enjoyed this brief tale of Katar and Shayera being summoned by their planet’s council to go on a mission to a backward world called Earth, to investigate the people there who seem beset by many problems – violence, war, pollution, greed – and who are now beginning to experiment with space travel, meaning they could perhaps export their primitive problems to other worlds in the future. The tale has a nice environmental theme to it, appropriate to Hawkman, of course, and the pair begin their journey in the cradle of life, Africa, where they are taken aback at the rich diversity of animal life.

Kubert’s other offering, Spit, is inspired by Moby Dick and where his Hawkman has a very traditional DC superhero look and feel to it, Spit has a very atmospheric monochrome artwork, rough, almost unfinished feeling, quite suitable for depicting an older, harder era, as our wandering, hungry orphan seeks shelter in a port town’s inn. Most of the hard-bitten sailors have little pity or time for the child, but one intervenes to stop another who offers to take him home and look after him because they all know that man has a penchant for abusing children. After his intervention he feels some responsibility and so takes the boy onto their whaling vessel. It’s only a few pages of opening, but the artwork is very atmospheric and different to all the other work in the collection, which I suspect was a deliberate decision by Kubert.

Kubert had admired Brian Buniak’s work for years and asked him if he would contribute something, so Buniak resurrected his The Angel and the Ape characters, a sexy, sassy female private investigator teamed up with a very smart ape. The story is brief – a businessman requires a bodyguard to protect him from himself as he is trying to kill himself – but Buniak packs in the gags, both in words and images, so it is impossible to stop smiling as you read those pages, from a tremendous fight in the duo’s offices (professional wrestlers, ticked off by the detectives exposing wrestling as being fixed – who would have thought it!) to a classic gold-digging vamp who changes her affections from our supposedly doomed businessman to his brother depending on which has more money. Sheer delight to read.

(Brian Buniak’s take on everyday office life and work in The Angel and the Ape)

Sam Glanzman is semi-retired, but at Kubert’s call took up his pencils and brushes once more, agreeing to create some short tales based around events he witnessed or stories he had told to him by comrades back when he was a young lad serving his country on the USS Stevens, an American destroyer during World War Two. USS Stevens is probably the most old school of all the stories here, with the look and feel of some of those classic war comics many a boy grew up reading, myself included, but this is no gee-whiz, gung-ho, jingoistic adventure tale glamorising combat, this is a solid, gritty story by someone who witnessed it, told fairly simply because the events don’t require embellishments. They’re stories of characters who didn’t get books written or films made about their exploits, they were just a couple of the thousands and thousands who went into service to answer the call, to “do their bit”. And some of them, only young lads as Buniak himself was, never came home. It’s very simple and that suits it perfectly, anything more complex would be a distraction from the events that happened to these men, just a few of the many who gave their all on behalf of generations unborn.

(Sam Glanzman’s powerful recollections of past battles and long lost – but never forgotten – shipmates in USS Stevens)

It’s a lovely collection of work that you simply don’t see much of in comics today, which is of course the idea of it. Sadly we lost Kubert just in August (see here), which means that he never got to see this first issue go to press, never got to see his delightfully old school collection on the shelves. But as with his decades of other comics work, and the generation of artists he mentored (not only old school, but the Joe Kubert School), we lucky readers still get to enjoy his work. As I said this is the sort of comics many of us grew up with – perhaps to some it may be too old fashioned for their tastes, but, nostalgia aside, I truly enjoyed taking in those styles once more and will be picking up the other five issues. What a lovely last present from a giant of the medium.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

DC 52: Flash #1

The Flash #1

By Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato

Okay, simple, one-word review for The Flash? Fun.

That’s my over-riding emotion from this, my first look at any comic of the scarlet speedster in I don’t know how many years: fun. I had a big soft spot for Flash when I was a kid; he wasn’t up there with the big hitters like Superman, Captain Marvel (sorry, I can’t call him Shazam, that’s not his name…) or Batman and I suppose that was part of his appeal. He’s also one of those comics characters who, like Wonder Woman, is a well known and much loved name but one that many writers (including some very talented ones) have struggled with over the years, not exactly sure where to take the character.

Right from the get go this is a fast, vibrant slice of superhero comics fun, right from Barry Allen on a geeky date with Patty at a technical symposium and exhibition which is quickly crashed by a group of masked and armoured mercernaries. As everyone takes cover from the armed intruders Barry makes a swift exit to covertly change into the Flash and in a lovely scene we’re reminding that the Flash isn’t just a super-fast human, he actually vibrates through dimensions, rather than ripping off his shirt in time honoured tradition to reveal his costume he speed-forces his way through, practically vibrating into his iconic red costume and bursting out into the scene with a wonderfully kinetic feel, followed by an utterly joyful, gloriously old-fashioned feeling double page spread where we see Flash tackling the bad guys in frames that are actually giant letters spelling out FLASH in a curving sequence, while the top corner has a short paragraph explaining his backstory in just a few, concise lines (struck by lightning, chemical reaction, the Speed Force). It’s perhaps a little silly, maybe even slightly cheesy and certainly old-fashioned, but oh it made me smile.

After the attack, as Barry returns to his civilian guise and joins Patty to ‘go to work’ as a forensics team for Central City Police, they find one of the intruders is dead – was he killed in a super-speed tussle with the Flash? Barry is understandably worried sick that he may, however accidentally, have killed someone, even one of the bad guys and it seems quite clear the police also want to clear Flash of any implication in the death too. Barry is even more upset when he recognises the body – it is an old, childhood friend of his, Manuel, which triggers a flashback (no pun intended) of the pair of them years before, ironically racing one another. When Barry finds out that Manuel’s DNA has been altered he vows to find out who did it and why, but the last thing he expects is a visit at home from his deceased friend… In a nice sequence, before he can explain what is happening they are pursused by unknown hunters in a scene which mirrors the earlier flashback of them racing one another in their youth, a nice touch.

Richard had a look at this on Friday and also seems to have enjoyed it (see here), although noting that there wasn’t a huge amount going on. I’d go with that too – it does indeed feel a bit slight and a little light, perhaps, but although normally I’d consider that a criticism here I’m really not bothered at all. It cracks along, approriately enough, at a fast pace so you don’t really notice the light plot at the time and frankly it has so much simple joy and pleasure in doing so, not least because of Francis Manapul’s lovely art (some of the most enjoyable Flash art since the great Infantino?). When I was a young boy, around 8, 9, 10 years of age, there wasn’t a handy comics shop, but there was a newsagent near my grandparent’s home that often had big piles of DC comics and I’d cycle up to it and rummage through for whatever I could get with my pocket money and devour them alongside my regular, weekly diet of British comics. And I loved finding them and I loved reading them, curled up somewhere in my grandparents with my stack of four-colour goodness and a big smile on my face. You know what the Flash did? It made me feel that way again. No, no deep, twisted psychological take on a troubled hero or multi-layered, multi-referential, postmodern tale either. Just a great, simple, hugely fun superhero tale that I romped right through. A bit light? Sure. Straightforward? Yes. But just damned enjoyable? Oh yes.

I really didn’t expect much from this but picked it up on a whim, wondering how the New 52 would approach Flash; I certainly didn’t expect to come away feeling utterly delighted and pleasantly reminded of my boyhood dalliances with DC comics. How that will translate into ongoing reading I’m really not sure – will that simple pleasure keep me reading or wane after a few issues? I can’t answer that right now, but I do know I’m looking forward to the second issue…

DC 52: I, Vampire and All Star Western

Another couple of reviews of the massive reboot of the DC universe which took place through September with 52 brand new issue 1s being published as the whole of the mainstream DC Comics continuity was rebooted, originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

I, Vampire #1

By Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino

Fialkov and Sorrentino’s I, Vampire has a bit of an odd feel to it – like All Star Western #1 (see below) it seems on first inspection to be a strange bedfellow for the rest of DC’s massive New 52 relaunch as both pretty much scream DC Vertigo rather than the mainstream DC Universe which is the bedrock of the New 52 that has so dominated the last four weeks of monthly releases. But on looking closer there are connections into the main DCU, although I’d still say both titles feel they owe more to Vertigo’s influence, but that isn’t a bad thing in my book since I’ve always had a soft spot for Vertigo. Besides the DCU, even a freshly rebooted one still building itself, is a big place and allows for this kind of diversity.

I found the cover a bit generic and weak, to be honest – not actually bad, just not terribly impressive or eye-catching – but Andrea Sorrentino’s art inside is far, far better and much more appropriate to the feel and style of this intriguing series, often murky, and muddy in certain scenes, which suits a tale where the morality is never entirely clear. There may be an obvious Evil Threat but the defence against it isn’t exactly on the moral high ground either. In that respect I, Vampire remind me somewhat of the clouded morality of the excellent Ultraviolet series from Channel 4 several years back (which is high praise as I thought that was a hugely compelling bit of drama).

There’s a stong opening on a dark, rubble-strewn cityscape and it isn’t clear to the reader exactly what is going on. An accident like a gas explosion, a terrorist attack, natural disaster? We’re not sure and the uncertainty is a part of this story, an important part, I think, we shouldn’t have a clear picture right away here but slowly be lead into a dark maze of loyalties and conspiracies. We see bodies all over the wreckage of buildings and cars, while a lone figures stalks across it all. He finds one body still moving and rather than attempting a rescue he swiftly stakes the survivor then beheads him; a vampire killer? Who is he and why are there multiple vampire bodies littering a damaged city street?

Cut to a pair of slender figures by a lake, a man and a dark-eyed, Fey-like woman, Mary. She is asking the man about history – does he remember the Revolutionary War? Yes. Does he still remember what they fought for exactly? This is not that war, the man, Andrew, answers her. She shakes her head:

Why Not? We’ve been oppressed. I’m Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Ben Franklin all in one,” she argues.

You kill people.”

I kill livestock,” she retorts emphatically.

And right there we see some difference between Andrew and Mary – it looks like he may have been the one responsible for bringing her across and while he feel guilts for vampirising her and for the other blood he has spilled across the centuries and seeks to atone in some way for it Mary is clearly the opposite. She revels in her vampire abilities, her eternal life, immense strength and sees killing humans as no more morally troubling than the average meat-eating human does the killing of cattle for food. And yet with the greater numbers humans are masters of the world while the more powerful vampires have to hide in shadows and myth to be safe. Mary wants an end to this, she wants a war against the human world, to take it by force so the vampires will rule. It isn’t just the massed ranks of human though, Andrew points out – how does she and her ‘soldiers’ expect to stand up against someone like Superman? Some Green Lanterns? Wonder Woman? They will be wiped out by the superheroes, Andrew points out, a massacre. There is no need for such risk when they can remain covert and co-exist with humans. But hidden co-existence is not enough for Mary…

I really enjoyed this issue – while the idea of vampires being tired of hiding in the shadows and deciding to take over is far from new to the genre it is still intriguing and straight off from the first issue it has me wanting to follow on to the next issues. Elements remind me of other vampire series I’ve enjoyed – as I said the moral ambiguity is reminiscent of Ultraviolet (especially a later scene where the vampire killer in the ruined city finds a woman and tries to kill her while she scream wait, you just turn up, tell me I was attacked by a vampire and expect it is okay for me to let you just kill me? As with Ultraviolet’s vampire killers you are made to question if the vamp slayers are also immoral killers too), while the relationship between Mary and Andrew reminds me a little of Nick and Jeanette in Forever Knight, he tired of his vampire state and trying to reclaim his humanity by atoning for centuries of misdeeds while she clearly has no such qualms and actually enjoys being a vampire and has no wish to be ‘cured’. And yet, like Jeanette with Nick, despite these differences she clearly still has strong feelings for Andrew. It is, as I said, very Vertigo, but the mention that her vampire army, if it rises, will have to face the caped heroes, ties it into the DCU continuity, albeit a much darker, supernaturally tinged area of it, and it will be interesting to see where it goes; with centuries of plotting I’d imagine Mary has considered facing superpowered opponents at some point and I’m intrigued to see how she plans to deal with them.

All Star Western #1

By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat

And to another of week four’s New 52 releases and another that seems to have strolled in from the Vertigo side of DC’s world: All Star Western. And as with I, Vampire, there is, though, a link to the main DCU, albeit a historical link since this is set in the 19th century, opening with a beautiful view of late 1800s Gotham City, old Western style steam locomotives (with those distinctive large chimneys and the cow catchers) pulling into a raised station while the harbour in the background is a forest of masts from tall ships. It’s a nice set up, quickly establishing the era in one, large splash page. Disembarking from the train is a grizzled, scarred, familiar face – Jonah Hex, leading his horse off the train, clad in his trademark Confederate uniform. The Old West has come to the expanding big city, it seems, but even in the urban setting there are still bushwhackers to beware of and a gang in a dingy back alley make the mistake of trying to rob the passing cowboy…

You shouldn’t be in Bandit’s Roost alone!” yells one of the gang”

Ah ain’t alone…” Hex mutters, pulls his pistols, “Ah got two friends with me.”

As you might expect the would be muggers are swiftly disabused of their notion of easy, small town rube as prey in the big city as Hex simply guns them down. Open plains or the more uncomfortable (for him), closed in environs of a rapidly expanding big city, Hex is not a man to be messed with.

Across town Doctor Doctor Amadeus Arkham has been summoned to a grisly crime scene by Gotham Police detective Lofton, much against the wishes of Chief Cromwell, who is arguing with Lofton in a blood-splattered room, over the body of a butchered prostitute. On the walls is scrawled in blood ‘Metus’; Arkham translates this as ‘fear’ and it quickly transpire that several other prostitutes have been found, similarly carved up and with a word in a different language painted on the wall in their blood. Someone is sending a message. At this point Hex turns up, also called for by Lofton who wants to use his unique bounty hunting skills. The Chief is firmly opposed to both Arkham and Hex, so Arkham proposes he and Hex investigate privately and turn over any information – and the kudos for any subsequent capture – to the police.

Hex prefers to work alone but grudgingly takes the doctor with him as he trawls dive bars and back streets in search of information on the Gotham Butcher. There are some nice little details even in these short scenes, such as a clearly visible bridge under construction in the background of one street fight, quite obviously Gotham’s equivalent of New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge, being built, another nice detail setting the period and showing a bit of care by the artist. In one bar/bardello Hex disentangles himself from Arkham’s attempts to psychoanalyse him (the doctor is almost as curious about Hex’s mental landscape as he is that of the serial killer) when he recognises one prostitute as an old accquantance, who he approaches for information. When a would be client hassles her Hex reacts predictably and wallops him, leading to a good, old-fashioned bar-room brawl, with Arkahm watching from below a table and re-considering his initial analysis of Hex’s pathology in light of the fact he does display certain moral codes, such as protecting his lady friend and his desire to bring in the killer.

There are obvious parallels to the infamous murders of Jack the Ripper here – the victims all prostitutes, all butchered and mutilated rather than simply murdered. But the psychoanalytic angle of Arkham and the rough justice approach of Hex bring a new angle to it. One of the more famous myths surrounding the Ripper murders was that it was all covered up by a Masonic conspiracy involving senior Masons who were all leading figures in society, and here we have a mystery suspect identified only by a silver skull ring, which we soon discover (at a society party where Hex’s Confederate uniform causes great offence) that a large number of Gotham’s movers and shakers wear just such a ring and belong to secret society. Is the killer one of them? If so is he operating with their sanction? Or a rogue killer that they are covering for? Hex quickly realises they in over their head at this gathering and he and the doctor withdraw to reconsider their approach in light of this revelation. Meanwhile a very personal message is sent by the murderer to try and discourage Hex and get him to leave, but the killer clearly doesn’t know Hex, who grits his teeth and declares if the killer wants to make it personal then he’s fine with that. You know he isn’t going to stop…

A really enjoyable entry into the Jack the Ripper re-imagined sub genre, nicely crossing the Victorian detective yarn with the Old West and a hint of possible supernatural or conspiracy (or both) lurking behind these murders, while the mention of the Wayne family and the introduction of a certain Mayor Cobblepot link this historical fiction to the main DCU, although again with a lengthy detour through Vertigo country. Compelling stuff and like I, Vampire it certainly did the job of making me want to read more, in fact I am actively looking forward to the next issue.

DC 52: Wonder Woman

Another of my FP blog reviews of the major DC Comics relaunch of 52 series re-starting at issue 1:

Wonder Woman #1

Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang

DC Comics

The new skyscraper skyline of Shanghai is our opening scene as a rich businessman on a penthouse balcony plies three attractive women with drink and impresses them with his pedigree, telling them he is the son of a king. Actually he tells them he is the sun of a king, which is the first hint that the new Wonder Woman is going to delve back into Classical mythology. There’s a feeling something bad is going to happen, and I’m not just talking about a sleazy rich man hitting on women, there’s something else going on here, he’s not interested in them for sex and so it proves when he callously works an enchantment to to use the women as a form of oracle, not caring what this will do to these mortal women he’s co-opted.

On the other side of the world, in rural Virginia a female figure, naked save for a cloak of peacock feathers, approaches a dilapidated farm and enters the barn. The horses react violently to her presence – they are right to be afraid of her. She crosses to the wall and removes a scythe from its holder before turning to one stall and, in a frankly disgusting, vile scene, decpaitates the horse; the remaining headless body shudders and from the ruined neck a new figure emerges… Meanwhile inside the farmhouse a young woman, Zola, is arguing with a strangely garbed man; he is trying to tell her she is in danger and must flee but, understandably she is rather more concerned with a strange man being in her home uninvited. When a pair of centaur assassins strike, shooting him with an arrow she realises he was telling her the truth, a little too late. In desperation he throws her a key which magically transports her to another place.

Zola finds herself in a woman’s apartment in London (cue the sight of Big Ben to visually confirm the location). She is a little thrown from the sudden transportation across several thousand miles. Cautiously, nervously she approaches the only occupant of the room, a sleeping woman, who wakes instantly and demands to know who she is and why she is there. Zola explains, at least as much as she can given the odd circumstances. I’m Diana, the woman tells her, getting out of bed and crossing to her wardrobe, stripping off bedclothes as she goes, opening the doors to reveal Amazonian battle gear. “You’re… Wonder Woman?” gasps Zola. Our Amazon fixes her with a stare: “Diana,” she answers emphatically, leaving me wondering if in this new continuity she has either stopped using or been told to stop using the Wonder Woman name…

Diana plans to use the key to return to the Virginia farm, but Zola grabs her arm and is transported with her – she’d decided she’s safer alongside our heroine. On their return they are set upon right away by the pair of centaur assassins; despite telling Zola to stay near her they become separated, with Zola running, pursued by one hunter while Diana fights the other. Of course our heroine overcomes them, just in time, and protects Zola. They find the critically injured man from earlier still in her home, he calls Diana over and she realises he is Hermes, messenger of the gods and that there is a lot more to this than she yet knows… And no more than that, don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice to say there’s a revelation that is quite in keeping with the eternal soap opera antics of the Olympians.

Overall I found this a reasonable read but for some reason not a brilliant one and I’m not sure why – I’ve had a deep love of Classical myth for decades and while I appreciate the return to the mythological roots I still wasn’t quite sucked into the events here; perhaps I will be if I pick up the next issue. And the fact Diana prefers Diana to Wonder Woman is possibly telling of how she sees herself in this new continuity. But it still felt that there was something lacking somewhere – Wonder Woman, as many have said, is difficult to write for as the character deserves, and although this is solid enough it felt like it was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, but perhaps that will come as the series unfolds? Cliff Chiang’s artwork is nice, working well and clearly without showboating and it is nice to see a superheroine depicted as physically attractive, athletic – sexy even, in the almost nude bedroom scene – but not ridiculously over-developed (thank you). My main quibble, though, was with the awful scene in the barn and the equine decapitation – that’s a personal thing, mind you, some will just see it as part of the story, a nasty thing by the bad guys, but I can’t abide even fictional violence against animals and I’m really not sure we needed to see that event depicted as graphically as it was shown. Other than that, as I said not bad but I’m not quite convinced yet, although I would certainly be willing to give it more time with another issue or two.