My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
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What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

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

Phonogram Volume 1: Rue Britannia,

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie,

Image Comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achingly beautiful new fantasy comic: 8house: Arclight

8house #1: Arclight,

Brandon Graham, Marian Churchland,

Image Comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

An ancient classic re-imagined: ODY-C

Ody-C Volume 1,

Matt Fraction, Christian Ward,

Image Comics

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There are certain stories that are, essentially, immortal, which will be told and retold for as long as humans tell each other stories. The Norse Sagas, the Ramayana Cycle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and, of course, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey; these stories and characters have been passed down through the millennia, they remain in our shared, collective imagination and dreams because they speak of very human elements that we 21st century types still share with our Bronze Age ancestors, of human pride, arrogance, love, hate, of the whims of fate and the struggles of life. And, simply, because they are bloody good stories. And as such they are also endlessly open to re-interpretation in every medium, because their basic elements can be refitted and interpreted to each new generation. And here, as you may infer from the title, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are taking the Odyssey, the epic Classical tale of Odysseus (also sometimes known as Ulysses), the crafty warrior of Trojan War fame, and the voyage of his vessel home after that decade of war, a voyage wrecked by capricious gods and fates, turned into a long trial of endurance.

Leaving behind the last century, leaving behind all their dead and their loss: Paris the coward and killer and thief. Here where Keles last stood. Here brave Hekta was bodily disgraced in death. Here where so many great women died. Three ships leave Troiia’s remains. Three adventures now start. Three great heroes begin their last odyssey…”

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Except here Fraction and Ward transform Homer’s epic into a great space-faring, science fiction tale, but an SF version of The Odyssey which is also gender-swapped: this is an epic of great women heroes and goddesses. And so instead of the crafty Odysseus we have “cunning Odyssia” and her fellow Achaeans at the sack of the siegeworld of Troiia, the only male visible being He, now on a collar like a dog, “thousands of swiftships once launched in his name”, now but a spoil of war for the victorious captains. The final ships make their sacrifices to the gods – again all female, save for the “mother-father” who partakes a bit of both genders in this female-centric universe – for a safe voyage home after their long, long war. But those familiar with the Odyssey will already know that this is not a voyage that will go smoothly…

Well, Olympians? What say you now? The war is over. Where shall we find our entertainment?

Yes, Fraction and Wards’ gods of the stars are as capricious, malicious – and downright mean and childish – as those ancient Greek gods of Homer’s day, less interested in helping mere mortals, more in using them as playthings. The war over, how shall they find their diversions now? Well, there’s this long voyage home, a lot could happen, and these gods are quick to take offence and equally swift to deliver revenge for slights, imagined or real (never hurts to be able to justify your violent actions, even if you’re fooling nobody, a sexed-up dossier is still useful for justifying your actions, eh?). One reprimands the Mother-Father, telling her it is vulgar to find pleasure in creating new tortures for great women like Odyssia, while another declares “why should we let these bloodthirsty wanderers roam our spaceways so freely?” and more talk of punishment for their hubris (and as is often the case in Greek myth, when the gods argue about human arrogance, pride and hubris they epically fail to see that they themselves are displaying exactly the same qualities. Never trust a god). It is quite clear that any excuse will be taken by some of these petty gods to inflict suffering and misery.

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I don’t want to spoil the story too much here – yes, it does generally follow the line of the Odyssey’s arc, so if you know your Homer you will already have a fairly good idea where this is going. But that’s part of the joy of it for those of us forever in love with the great Classics, in seeing how Fraction and Ward will tell their version of this ancient tale, of the clever re-imagining and re-workings of those events and characters, such as the gruesome encounter with the vile Cyclops, or the dream-like lure of the lotus eaters. Those not so familiar with the original though, are still in for a treat – there is a reason this story has stayed with us for over two and a half thousand years, after all – and after reading it you really should seek out the original Odyssey, one of the cornerstones of world literature.

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The gender and science fiction components of Fraction’s version of the epic are intriguing, a fresh take on an old tale, well-told, and it’s interesting to see crafty Odysseus of legend still being the same clever, devious and brave figure as a woman, a reminder that the both the heroic aspects and our not so fine behavioural traits are not confined to one gender or the other. And Ward’s artwork? Oh, but Ward’s artwork is utterly sublime here, from the curving swiftships (mentally linked to their captains and crews) to the various bickering gods, from scenes of carnal sensuality to cannibalistic horror and vistas of distant stars. And on top of this some quite remarkable use of colour, giving some scenes an amazing, vibrant intensity, sometimes almost a visual cacophony, an overload, like being on a trip, as if someone had taken Brendan McCarthy’s innovative palette and thrown a Psychedelic Bomb into the paint, a riot of colours, forms and unusual page layouts adding to the otherworldly feel of the story and inviting the eye to linger and drink it in – a wonderful reading experience.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

That’s Because You’re a Robot – Quantick & Kane’s fun, colourful ride

That’s Because You’re a Robot,

David Quantick, Shaky Kane

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I was intrigued to pick up this one-shot, partly because of the involvement of David Quantick, best known in the UK for his music and comedy writing, but I must be honest, mostly because of the art of Shaky Kane. The story in this one-off is light and simple, but fun – Jeff and Matt, two gung-ho American cops are partners, all ready to rock the world of law enforcement, except the pair of them keep making cock-up after cock-up. Then, right at the start, on the first page no less, their sergeant drops a bombshell on them – one of the duo is a robot. Unfortunately he doesn’t know which of them is robotic and which is the real human cop…

This leads to endless wrangling between the pair as they get assigned to different tasks (and make a mess of them), arguing between themselves over which is the real person, which the robotic fake, constantly pointing out behaviour that might prove robotic origins, until they get taken off their case and put on a stakeout. Which they then proceed to bungle as well. Or do they? Was there more going on here than they realised, were they – human and/or robot – really part of some larger scheme?

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To be honest it really doesn’t matter – the story is fairly silly, although I mean that in a positive way; it’s enjoyably silly stuff, gleefully taking common tropes from American cop shows and parodying them (and a bit of enjoyably silly is good for you as part of your reading diet). What really keeps your eyes moving over the pages is Kane’s artwork. I’ve loved Shaky Kane’s art since the Deadline and 2000 AD days, Looking at it here it is a wonderfully clear-edged display of movement and bright, primary colours, taking in, for my money, anyway, all sorts of elements, from 60s Marvel comics to parts that remind me (in the good way, not derivative way) of Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy, mixed with a vibrant Pop Art sensibility. It’s gorgeous, it’s pure fun, especially some of the larger splash pages or a cool double-page spread. Light, fast, fun and oh so damned good looking! Smile-inducing stuff.

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Velvet: Brubaker and Epting’s superb take on the superspy genre

Velvet Volume 1 : Before the Living End
Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting,
Image Comics

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There are some genres that never truly go out of style, and the superspy tale is one. When the Cold War was over many thought the genre would fade away, but it’s adapted to an ever-changing world and new creators have come along to put their own unique twist on it. And when those creators come in the shape of Captain America team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, you know you should be paying attention. And you should, because with Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have crafted a superb, edgy, sexy, intriguing superspy tale with real 60s/70s style and swagger, not to mention a powerful, assured, intriguing female central character.

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There are the tropes we expect in the genre – the oh-so-cool car (rather familiar looking model, of course with “all the usual refinements”), the glamorous locations, swish parties in Paris, New York, chilled champagne on ice, impeccable evening wear, superbly capable, ruthless but charming secret agents, conspiracies to investigate, sudden death and, naturally, sex. And the coolly reserved secretary to the chief, efficient, calm, flirting with the boyish secret agents, perhaps even falling for them, the eternal Moneypenny type…

Except Velvet is far, far more than a secretary to the chief of the agency, and yes, while she’d had her head turned by some of those charming, suave secret agents who risk life and limb for democracy, queen and country (and the thrill of it), while they think she has fallen for them they don’t realise she’s arranged the trysts and the sex on her terms. And each of them thinks they are the only one she has fallen for. These agents may be at the top of their spy game, but they have the emotional depth of a petulant schoolboy… And they have no idea that before taking her desk job Velvet did the same job they did, but she did it better, equally able to use a knife or gun or her sexual appeal as a weapon to get the job done (on the latter she can’t help but comment “men are so easy” as she uses her charms rather than gadgets or violence to find out what she needs for her mission. Take notes, boys, the female of the species is often deadlier than the male!). The opening skillfully sets up a James Bond style male spy hero only to bring him crashing down shortly afterwards – it is not a story about him – it is Velvet’s story.

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Those secret action days are behind her now, and almost no-one knows about them, but when the agency’s top spy is killed on a mission she is suspicious. Doing a little digging into the records she starts to come to the conclusion there may be a connection between his death and someone high up in the agency – a mole, a traitor? Before she can take it further she finds that for her troubles she has been framed for just that role, set up as the Oswald to take the fall.

Forced on the run, Velvet’s old training kicks in, and an entire team of younger agents finds themselves hopelessly outclassed by this mature woman with the streak of grey, a woman who sat calmly at her desk for years while they undertook dangerous missions, and here she is showing them what a real superspy is. And Velvet is going to need those old skills and connections if she is to find out the truth behind the murder and clear her own name – assuming her own side don’t kill her first.

Velvet is a superbly stylish, well-paced, tight tale of spies, conspiracies, betrayals, action, sex and death – everything you want from that Bond-style 60s/70s superspy story. But here very much from the female perspective, and for a genre which has so often treated women as disposable (literally) eye-candy characters for the main chauvinistic hero it is refreshing to see not just a female lead, but such an elegant, powerful lead. She’s simply better than the boys, faster, better reflexes, she know all the tricks they do but she did them before they ever started in the business, and she did them better. Determined, resourceful, beautiful, lethally efficient.

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Velvet has its cake and eats it, gleefully enjoying using those 60s superspy tropes – the gadget filled car, public school bully boy yet charming secret agent, even the chilled ’45 Rothschild on the balcony bar, the glamorous locations and action – but at the same time acknowledging the strong streak of misogyny that ran through many of them and giving it a damned good kicking from Velvet, who can easily stand alongside Black Widow or Emma Peel. Epting’s art is, as always, superb, and he is as deft in depicting glorious aerial night shots of Paris, or swanky rooftop bars in Manhattan as he is dark, close, intimate scenes, lit only by the slatted light coming in the blinds as spies trade theories in darkened rooms. Velvet herself he depicts as elegant, physically attractive but not overly sexualised; fit and toned to be sure, but still realistic, not the unbelievable physiques often used for superheroines (and superheroes, come to that).

Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.). All of this plus the always-fun convoluted conspiracy to unravel, the action, sex, travel and a genuinely cool heroine you’ll warm to quickly – no wonder the first few issues of this made my Best of the Year back in December. If you missed those issues here’s your chance to catch up with the first collected volume.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

One of the most intriguing & unusual reads in current comics: Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals Volume 1
Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
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It felt so amazing that…

… that I was terrified. I was confused and terrified. How could anything feel so good? How could anything make everything get so quiet?

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Yes, I am recommending a book with that title. No, I have not sunk finally into a pool of my own degeneracy (well not too much). Yes, I expect you to want to read a book with that title on the cover. Why? Simply put because Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is one of the most unusual and fabulous works to come out in comics recently. The quote above? That’s from Suzie, a rather nice librarian, who is explaining about her first sexual awakenings. Everyone’s been there – hey, what is this, how comes this feels so nice, what’s that – oh. Is that normal? Does everyone do this? Why does nobody talk about it? And the half-blind maze of semi truths picked up from other kids at school and the precious little real information about what’s happening to your changing body and what it is all about. Confusing, fun, bit scary, but so want to know a bit more (except isn’t that being bad and dirty?). And here’s Suzie in this quote looking back at her first teenage orgasm and male or female we can all identify with the competing emotions she experiences. But the “get quiet” bit? Ah, didn’t I mention? When Suzie is at peak arousal time stops for her. And no-one can tell her why.

Doctor, what happens after you have an orgasm? I’m asking for a friend.”

Usually fall asleep, Suzanne.”

No, not metaphorically, not one of those “magical moments that felt like it went on and on” type of deals. Time stops and a wonderful show of swirling lights and patterns envelops her. Like going into an altered state but instead of meditation or mind-altering drugs it’s sex. Growing up and finding out about your sexuality is difficult enough, but when you seem to be different from everyone? First sex, always a mix of worry and wonder, finally it is happening and… Okay, time stopped, here are the colours and your partner, well, he is frozen in time while you go wandering off in your own state of sexually induced temporal grace. So, not the easiest thing to come to terms with, but despite it Suzie seems like a pretty nice, pretty together young woman, in love with her library, which she is desperately trying to stop from being closed down, like far too many public libraries (and rather sweetly trying to ‘rescue’ some of the doomed books). And then she meets Jon at a party, and at their own personal, intimate party afterwards she finds out Jon can do what she can do – to the mutual shock and delight of both of them. Finally they’ve both found someone like them.

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As we got the story of Suzie’s awakening we now get Jon’s, and it is funny and embarrassing in equal measure – like Suzie he finds out about the colours and time stopping, trying to work out what’s going on, realising the reason no-one else talks about it is because it doesn’t happen for them. Finding he can use this power, become aroused, enter this timeless state and actually go out and explore the city while everyone is frozen around him (of course at one point his arousal dips and he appears starkers in a shop. Oops). But this starts to give them both an idea – if they can both stop time together during sexual arousal, and go outside and do things while time is frozen, could they use this power to, let’s say, rob a bank? Not for personal gain per se, but to help fund Suzie’s library. Why not rob the bank that wants to take the library for redevelopment? Poetic justice! Sex as a cultural-economic weapon! But if there are two of them who can do this then isn’t it possible there are others? And some of them may be tasked with making sure no-one misuses those abilities?

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But apart from the story of trying to save the library, this really is more about relationships, love, friendship, coming of age (take that anyway you want in this context), exploring who you are. And yes, a big part of that is s-e-x. The confusions, the worries, the sheer bliss. It’s all part of that weird old thing we call life, and Sex Criminals tackles the subject wonderfully. In fact charmingly. Yes, hard to believe, but I am using the term ‘charming’ to describe a book entitled Sex Criminals. Because, well, simply, it is. Both leads come across as very genuine, it’s so easy to like them, so easy to identify with elements of life they deal with because we all have had similar (okay, perhaps not stopping time, but the rest of it). That opening chapter with Suzie telling us about her younger life is an utter delight – imagine in this medium that has, sadly, not always had the best attitude to women, a story where a young woman is front and centre and her sexuality the core of it. And imagine it being handled with humour, grace and charm and warmth. It’s not sleazy, it’s not exploitative, it is warm, delightfully human, emotional without being schmaltzy.

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It’s different, unusual and utterly addictive, drawing you into these young people’s lives, making us identify with them, laugh with them, share embarrassment at lack of knowledge, smile at them finding one another. Zdarsky’s art handles it all effortlessly, managing to be naturally sexy without being too much or seeming to be simply there for voyeuristic effect (I suppose the difference between pornography and erotica), also doing a great job with the facial expressions of the characters which mirrors the back and forth dialogue perfectly. And those trippy colour scenes in “the quiet” as Suzie calls it, up there with the sort of cool colouring effects Dan Goldman and Brendan McCarthy might use (which is high praise).

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All in all it’s just a uniquely unusual and wonderful story, it’s picked up a pile of critical acclaim and frankly it deserves it. One of the best works in comics right now. And as a bonus there’s a scene where Suzie sings Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls (including donning Freddie Mercury’s iconic yellow jacket), but they didn’t get the rights sorted in time, so the speech bubbles are all covered with post-it notes explaining what’s going on, which is just a cracking bit of playing with the medium and winking to the reader about part of the process of making the issue, while still creating a great scene. How can you not love it?

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

Image

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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

Review: Ghosted #1

Ghosted #1

Joshua Williamson, Goran Sudzuka, Miroslav Mrva

Image Comics

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We open with a man in prison, Jackson T Winters. Right from the first page (a full page depicting Jackson walking past one cell as a huge, violent inmate forcibly violates another and threatens him with more of the same) we can see this isn’t the cosy crook-nest of Porridge, this is a brutal prison, where fellow prisoners turn on each other frequently. Jackson is biding his time, but not, as you’d expect, dreaming of freedom – he carries guilt from his last crime job, and in his mind as he thinks about how awful it is within those walls and bars is “the only thing that gets me through this is the reminder that someday I’m going to die…”

Not a happy bunny then, even by prison standards. When a full scale blooody riot breaks out Jackson soon discovers it is a jaibreak – for him. Enter Anderson Lake, a woman clad in black and festooned with weapons which she seems to have an uncanny ability with, like a cross between the Punisher and Black Widow. She frees him but knocks him out – when he comes to he is in a opulent manor, full of arcane curios, the collection of a rich eccentric interested in the occult – a nice double page spread packed with some interesting details for eagle-eyed fans to watch out for – such as the ‘muscle’ armour helmet from Coppola’s Dracula, the puzzle box from Hellraiser or the arm-shaped candle sconces from Cocteau’s achingly beautiful La Belle et le Bete.

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The house and the collection belong to Markus Schrecken (another horror reference, an obvious riff on Max Schreck, the original Nosferatu actor) and he is indeed both rich and eccentric, with an eye for collecting supernatural items. He has had Lake bust him out because he is the best thief he can think of and he wants him to assemble a team to steal something to be the crowning glory of his collection – an actual ghost. From a multiple muder home which will soon be torn down, no less.

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The rest of this first issue is taken up with Jackson’s reluctant agreement but on his own terms, and the ineviable putting together of a team of folk with different specialities that any good heist plot requires. And despite the supernatural overtones, this is a heist plot, a classic one really, the con offered a shot at escape if he comes through on a peculiar and extremely difficult last job. And the team handle it with the swagger and smoothness this sort of plot requires – despite having been beaten and just broken out of prison Jackson still plays it oh so cool, naming his terms (which include a 50s style hand-made suit “something Sinatra would have worn – class!) and wanting to pick his own team before their first planned scouting of the supposedly haunted mansion.

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It’s a hugely enjoyable read, think Ocean’s Eleven meets the world of Mignola’s Hellboy, and while it may (in the first issue anyway) be largely following the standard Great Heist script, that’s what it needs to do and in any case it’s what the reader wants it to do at this stage. Fun and interesting, and certainly has me wanting to read the second part, which is always the mark of a good first issue.

Review: Great Pacific Volume 1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

Great Pacific Volume 1 : Trashed!
Joe Harris, Martin Morazzo
Image Comics

Chas Worthington, the mega rich young heir to an enormous oil fortune, known for his womanising, his extreme sports hobbies and other wealthy pastimes. The Great Pacific Gyre, a rotation of currents that creates a relatively stable spot in the vast ocean currents, where gargantuan amounts of (mostly plastic) garbage flushed into the seas slowly accumulates over years. What does this rich young man and a gigantic, floating garbage patch have in common? What about claiming it as a new sovereign nation?

Chas may lead the playboy lifestyle expected of someone in his position, but behind the scenes he has been deviously out-manoeuvring the treacherous board of directors of his own firm (who want to take more control from him following his father’s death), funnelling vast funds into a secret tech project to do with altering the physicality of plastics and planning to get necessary equipment to the garbage patch, while also making contacts in various governments with strong UN presences who he can ask to help international law recognise his claim to set up the floating plastic continent as a legal country with sovereign state rights.

In lesser hands this could be a pretty straightforward (and clichéd) tale of rich boy who has guilt because his inherited wealth came from hugely polluting industry and wants to make amends. Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo, however, offer up a more complex and satisfying tale. Chas is not a stereotype – yes, he has done the ‘rich kid stuff’, yes, he feels guilt over his wealth coming from polluting exploitation of the world’s resources, but he’s no eco-warrior. He has multiple reasons for what he is doing, only some of which start to become apparent in this first volume. Some are indeed driven by ecological concerns, although he has seen enough of the big corporate world to know they will only back necessary changes if there is a lot of money to be made in it, hence his secretly developed new tech. Other reasons may well include the need to stand out and be his own man, make something by and of himself, not what was handed to him as a rich heir. And he’s not always likeable either, cutting others short, assuming his best friend and assistant will follow him (and not thinking too much about how much he is asking him to risk, without really telling him why) and he is impulsive, his Texan blood making him perhaps too quick on the trigger (which will have consequences).

It’s not a simple plan though; however much he thinks he has prepared and done all the relevant research, this is still something no-one has ever attempted, after all. And then there are complications you don’t expect – pirates seeking hidden WMDs, the intervention of the US government, both legally and militarily, a mysterious group of Pacific islanders who seem to have settled somehow on the garbage patch. And then there is a gigantic Octopus, which the islanders think may be a sort of god, with which he starts to form a strange relationship. The massive floating garbage patches in the gyres of the ocean were first predicted in the late 80s and are now scientific fact (see here for more), although Harris takes some science fictional liberties with it for dramatic purposes, such as making it large and solid enough to walk on and even build upon a little (very carefully!).This also allows Morazzo’s art (which at time reminds me, in a good way, of the Luna Brothers) to depict some spectacularly weird, alien landscape.

But it’s a fascinating premise, a driven and complicated young man playing at both ecology and international politics and corporate business at the same time, in a setting which only exists because of our civilisation’s own wastefulness of material and uncaring methods of disposing of our unwanted rubbish. Clever and intriguing, drawing on several contemporary global concerns, not least pollution of our environment, exploitation of dwindling resources, divisions of wealth, power and influence and corporate-goverment interests and powers (or abuses thereof). This took a very different path from what I originally thought it might be, which pleased me no end (I love when a storyteller throws me a curve ball and hits be some something I wasn’t expecting) and I’m looking forward to the second volume. Plus, y’know, it had pirates and a giant (and perhaps intelligent and aware?) octopus, what’s not to like?!

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy #1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Jupiter’s Legacy #1

Mark Millar, Frank Quitely

Image Comics

There’s been a huge amount of buzz on various comics forums and twitter in the run up to the first issue of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s creator-owned new series from Image, Jupiter’s Legacy. The first issue hit racks this week – was it worth all that eager anticipation?

I suppose the answer to that is going to vary depending who you talk to – some of my colleagues loved it, where I would give it a more cautious thumbs-up. Which is to say I certainly enjoyed it, but no, I wasn’t blown away by it and to be honest some elements are a bit familiar to regular capes’n’tights readers, with elements of Tom Strong, Kingdom Come and Authority springing to my mind as I read the first issue (which is not to say there is no merit here, as I said, I did enjoy it after all).

Starting in 1932 we see a failed financier, wealthy family ruined in the crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression. But he is less concerned with the loss of wealth and power than with what the Depression has done to his beloved America, a country now lacking confidence, unsure of its self, many unemployed, homes being repossessed, people literally on the bread line. And in a dream he is called to a mysterious island which promises some form of salvation. Gathering a group of friends who unquestioningly believe his vision, they manage to travel halfway across the world to an island on no charts. We don’t see what happens there, but when they return to the world they are changed, garbed in strange costumes, with awesome abilities and powers which they pledge to use for the betterment of humanity, to help…

Fast forward to the modern era, and the lazy, indolent, self-indulgent children of that first generation of superheroes. They too are superpowered, but more interested in the trappings of fame that come with their powers – money, sponsors, drugs, easy sex, superheroes for the me-me-me, 24 hour celeb-watch media, than in fighting evil (as one smirks, hey, most of the good villains are gone anyway, the older generation lived in a golden age for those kinds of battles). Into this crashes – literally a huge battle with a tremendously powerful being which takes a whole assembly of the older heroes to take down (with little to no help from their offspring, despite requests for aid).

In the aftermath one declares that he is tired of fighting villains – the world they served for the last few decades has again slipped back into economic chaos and moral quagmire, people again stand in line to beg for charitable food help. Perhaps they should be using their powers directly, getting involved in actually trying to change things and organise them at the political leadership level. Or should they remain ‘servants’ of the people and ignore the urge to take charge and try and fix a broken system which repeats the same errors to huge human cost every few decades?

It’s certainly interesting enough (and it boasts that lovely Quitely artwork of course, never  a bad thing), and taking element of today’s world problems and comparing them to similar ones from history gives it some relevance, while also working as a mirror to the simpler way superheroes were back in the old days, compared to today’s heroes. But as I said I kept feeling too many elements were familiar – the political aspects of the Authority and Kingdom Come for instance, or the celeb superheroes of X-Statix, as well as the obvious schism between generations which Kingdom Come did so well.

That said I still found it enjoyable enough, if not exactly gripping – and most superhero tales by their nature use and re-use elements of earlier genre tales, so I can’t hold that against Jupiter’s Legacy, really (and it is using some of them to comment on the changing nature of how we want our heroes). Besides it is the first issue and so it is early days – the question is what Millar and Quitely will do with those elements and how they mix them up into something new and uniquely theirs. I may not have been totally blown away with it (and to be fair it had too much hype to live up to, which is a bit unfair to be laden with so much expectation), but it did what a decent first issue should do: it introduced the set up (in a compact but efficient manner, no dawdling), the main characters, already set up some forthcoming lines of conflict and, most importantly, yes, it does make me want to read the next issue and see where the guys take this, and that’s what a first issue should do.