The clockwork universe: Edginton & Culbard’s beautiful Brass Sun

Brass Sun #1

Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard

Rebellion

brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-cover

Regular readers will no doubt have heard several of us on here mention Brass Sun, a wonderful science fiction series created by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard for the mighty 2000 AD. Have you ever, as an adult or a child, been entranced by the simple beauty and wonder of an old clockwork orrery? A seemingly perfect little moving model of the solar system, all the worlds and moons orbiting around the sun, driven by clockwork, representing each world’s distance from the mother sun and length of rotation and orbit relative to its fellows, an intricately fashioned device. Our understanding of celestial orbits and dynamics has increased enormously since those models were first fashionable and we know the universe to be far more complex than we ever dreamed of when first the craftsmen took Newton and Keppler’s laws and applied them so lovingly to these brass representations of the heavens.

And yet the orrery remains such a beautiful piece of work, conjuring dreams of wonder, a marriage of the craftsman’s art, as precise as a hand-built clock, with scientific learning; engineering and art and imagination all in one lovely device, for some a demonstration of what Sagan called “the magnificent machinery of nature”, for other’s proof of a benign deity, a magical clockmaker in the heavens. Now imagine there were real worlds, little realms actually on such an orrery, all living on their little realms rotating around that central sun on their brass wheels. A “wheel of worlds” set by a blind watchmaker… That’s the set up for Brass Sun, which several of us on the blog have been loving in the weekly 2000 AD, but now as part of the ongoing expansion of 2000 AD series (especially to the North American markets) the series (so far, it is still ongoing in the weekly Prog) is being collected into US-style comics of 32 pages, starting late in May, a perfect way to get into it if you missed it in 2000 AD.

brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-01 brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-02 brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-04

Frankly I have to say the Ians had me at that simple but beautiful and wondrous concept alone. And oh, it is beautiful, achingly beautiful – Culbard does wonderful close-up character scenes but he’s also a master of the magnificent splash page, and our first glimpses of this clockwork solar system is a glorious piece of comics art, tapping into that most precious of sensations that science fiction – in both graphic and prose form – does pretty much better than any other genre in literature: the sheer sense of wonder.

But wonder alone isn’t enough – a story requires narrative drive, it requires characters, and we’re in the hands of two of the UK’s very best here. We meet young Wren and her grandfather – he has been committing a dangerous heresy in a very religious and orthodox world, studying the skies with his telescope. He knows he will be noticed and reported, that the guards will come for him, that he will face burning at the stake for his heresy. But he has gained knowledge from old papers, secret papers, and with his scientific study of the sky applied to this he knows that the seemingly relentless icy winter which is pushing into their world, killing all before it, is no accident but a sign of something wrong in the very system of their wheel of worlds. He equips his grand-daughter Wren, entrusting her with information and a ‘quaycard’ and sends her off, knowing that he himself will be dragged before the religious authorities. Indeed we now find out he was once a bishop himself but what he learned turned him from orthodoxy. Now beaten and in chains he argues with the religious leader:

I was like you – I did as the Cog commanded – but the ice still came. Our people freeze and starve by the million. Prayers and persecution cannot hold the inevitable at bay. There must be another way.”

Faith! Faith is the only way!

brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-05

It’s not hard to see these scenes alluding to the persecution by the church of early astronomer’s for daring to suggest that their observations and calculations showed the progression of the heavens to be different from what the religious authorities of the day said, threatened with torture and worse for daring to speak what we now know is commonsense truth. And it’s not a major leap to see these scenes also as a commentary on some zealots today who refuse to acknowledge rational debate and scientific evidence (think on demands to give creatonism space on a school curriculum alongside evolution). But the world doesn’t care what blinkers people put on and what fables they tell themselves are true, it will do with it will, and in this case it seems the wheels have been slowing for centuries, but religious dogma has chosen to ignore this. Now Wren is sent away from her doomed grandfather, beyond her own world and into the spaces beyond armed with his journals. He hopes she can escape, but more than that, perhaps she may be able to do something to help the people of her world, of the other worlds…

brass-sun-1-edginton-culbard-rebellion-06

And so we get a wonderful melding of different story types, the science fiction with a hint of Steampunk for the clockwork solar system, the medieval religious mind meeting the early scientific thinking and then the classic young but determined hero (or heroine) being forced onto a dangerous quest. All of this is set up within this first issue, a terrific bit of storytelling from both writer and artist – introducing such a lovely concept for a world (or series of worlds), characters and quest, all within 30 odd pages, but then again as both are used to working with four of five pages in a weekly Brit anthology comics format those are skills in economy of storytelling you have to hone to work well in that format.

I was totally taken with the first runs of Brass Sun in the weekly 2000 AD and am delighted to see it being offered in this new format so more readers get a chance to experience it (same US comic book format as was used for the recent, highly successful Dredd movie sequel tale), and it is also a great way to wave the flag to a wider reading audience for some of the fine works that still come out of the House of Tharg and from our top Brit comics creators. A gorgeous, intoxicating story, beautifully illustrated and carrying us on a tide of wonder. Brass Sun #1 is published late May and is available to pre-order on our comics subscription site.

This pen 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

royals-masters-of-war-1-williams-coleby-cover

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:

royals-masters-of-war-williams-coleby-03

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. ..

royals-masters-of-war-williams-coleby-01

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…

royals-masters-of-war-williams-coleby-02

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

The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

Avatar

red-rover-charlie-1-ennis-dipascale-avatar-cover

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

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

red-rover-charlie-1-ennis-dipascale-avatar-01

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

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

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

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

red-rover-charlie-1-ennis-dipascale-avatar-02

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

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

gravity movie poster

I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

GRAVITY

What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

gravity movie 02

And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

gravity movie 04

I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

gravity movie 03

And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

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

Thunderbirds: the Comic Collection Hardcover

Frank Bellamy, John Cooper,Graham Bleathman et al,

Egmont

thunderbirds-complete-collection-egmont-cover

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

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

thunderbirds-complete-collection-frank-bellamy-01

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

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

thunderbirds-complete-collection-frank-bellamy-03

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

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

thunderbirds-complete-collection-John-Cooper-01

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

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

Hinterkind #1

Ian Edginton, Francesco Trifogli,

DC/Vertigo

Hinterkind-1-edginton-trifogli-cover

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.

Hinterkind-1-edginton-trifogli-03

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…

Hinterkind-1-edginton-trifogli-01

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).

Hinterkind-1-edginton-trifogli-02

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

The Department of Monsterology #1

Dept of Monsterology #1
Gordon Rennie, PJ Holden,
Renegade Arts

department-monsterology-1-rennie-holden-renegade-cover

Starting in October Renegade Arts kicks off a new mini series from Gordon Rennie and PJ Holden, two creators well known on the UK/Irish comics scene, especially for their 2000 AD work. Dept of Monsterology will be a four-part mini-series, which sees field groups from Dunsany College’s Department of Cryptozoology, Mythological Studies, Parapsychology and Fortean Phenomena.

We first meet Dunsany’s ‘Team Challenger’ on board the Derleth, in the South Pacific. While Professor Javier De Tovar, on loan from the University of Salamanca, and Victor monitor from the ship their field expert Amelia Court dives below, investigating some ruins but finding most have fallen into a deep undersea trench; quite possibly a lost civilisation, but is it the type they are interested in? And are they able to explore further before some rather peckish looking humanoid/piscine hybrids decide they are the human equivalent of sushi…

department-monsterology-1-rennie-holden-renegade-01 department-monsterology-1-rennie-holden-renegade-02

The second half of the issue deals with ‘Team Carnacki’, where young Samwi flits her lithe form easily over the roofs of nocturnal Budapest, guided telepathically by Belasco, Doctor Jan Sonam (an Oxford and Stanford scholar now but a former Ghurkha Rifles veteran, so handy in a physical struggle too) and Doctor Calvary. What looks like some ‘wire-fu’ style flitting across roofs is actually Samwi’s spirit form – her body back at base while her spirit form explores a building for a mysterious stolen consignment from China. But on finding the space where the goods are hidden she finds broken rubble and the dead bodies of the thieves – they are too late, something is loose…

department-monsterology-1-rennie-holden-renegade-03

This is a cracking supernatural adventure yarn; as you’ve probably already garnered from some of the names – Challenger, Derleth, Dunsany and more – this is a series which is very well aware of its influences, and also realises most readers will be too, and plays to them very well. There are all sorts of elements at play here, influences from the classic – Lovecraft, Conan Doyle and more – to the modern – notably Mignola’s wonderful Hellboy. Rennie has never been one to simply riff on popular genre elements though, he’s always been good at referencing other works genre readers will know and love but making them quite his own (as he did with the excellent Absalom, for instance). PJ, as ever, crafts some lovely art to accompany the script, pitching it nicely somewhere between Mignola meets European adventure tale bande dessinee.

Structurally I was surprised at the two-part approach, especially in a first issue. First issues are always very much about introducing characters and the initial set up, as well as hooking readers into wanting to read the following issues. Splitting a first issue into two halves dealing with two groups seemed like an odd choice to me – it can be hard enough to do justice to characters and narrative in a single first issue, after all, without doubling the trouble. But then of course Rennie and PJ are both schooled in the classic Brit comics weekly anthology school, where you have to make episodes of only three to five pages work well, so having thirty odd pages is a luxury for them, no doubt, and the necessity of economy in characterisation and narrative learned in that Brit weekly publications like 2000 AD pays dividends here as the pair skilfully fit these two halves of an introductory set-up into the issue in a very satisfying manner: the initial set-up revealed, the main characters introduced and some of what they can do shown and the lingering ‘what next’ thread dangled enticingly. All in one issue. Damned good comics storytelling, if you ask me.

department-monsterology-1-rennie-holden-renegade-04

I’m looking forward to the rest of this series – it’s in pre-orders right now and I hope you’ll give it some support, it’s ideal for those of you (like me) who love a clever work with Mignola and Lovecraftian tones. The first issue is in the current issue of Previews and us due for publication  in October, it can be pre-ordered via our comics subscription site now.

This review was originally penned for the (shiny new-look!) Forbidden Planet blog

Alt-history steampunk adventure: Clockwerx

Clockwerx,
Jean-Baptiste Hostache, Jason Henderson, Tony Salvaggio, Izu
Humanoids

clockwerx-cover-humanoids

Wapping Harbour, London, 1899, when the city was still one of the greatest ports in the world and the Thames a sea of masts. But something is not right in the docks of London – as three workers make their way through night-time streets they are accosted by an enormous mechanical figure, which retreats with one of them after the intervention of a mysterious man who is stalking the nocturnal streets. Our hero turns out to be a former police detective, framed and disgraced, investigating the rash of disappearances in the area of the docks. Meanwhile a fiery young engineer, Molly Vane, and her crew struggle on a steamship caught in a dreadful storm, threatening their precious cargo of ‘Clocks’ (clockwork robotic devices operated by a pilot) and their lives. They save the ship but at the cost of some lives and Molly’s left arm, before limping into the docks at London, just as our mystery man, Matt Thurow, takes a job as a docker to continue his investigations. When he narrowly averts a disaster in the unloading of the Clocks he comes to the attention of Molly and we know it won’t be long before their paths converge.

clockwerx-01

 

clockwerx-02

So the stage is set for a classic reluctant team-up, as Molly’s renegade machinists recruit Matt into their ranks. He’s reluctant at first, but when he discovers that Molly stole her Clocks from Lord Oak and his associates Matt is convinced to throw in his lot with them – Oak, he is sure, is behind his unfair disgrace, having set him up for a financial embarrassment that ruined his career in the Yard and which also lead to the incident that has left his sister in a coma ever since. The quick-tempered Molly has taken the Clocks she once worked on for Oak after discovering he and a shadowy international cabal plans to use them and a rare mineral, Lucifernum, found in rare meteorite deposits, as the ultimate power source, the combination of enormous mechanical devices and intense energy source giving them pretty much irresistible power over any nation on Earth.

Some elements such as the reluctantly forced together partners (complete with growing romantic interest) and the wrongfully disgraced copper out to clear his name and get revenge are pretty familiar tropes, but handled well and the characters quickly grow on you. Besides, they are there mostly to set up a cracking Steampunk science fiction adventure yarn in this alternate-history Britain, drawing on elements of classic 19th century Boy’s Own adventure tales (appropriately enough given the setting) with Steampunk elements. The story cracks along at a good pace, with plenty of peril for our intrepid heroes, who soon find that the vanished workers, Matt’s framing and the ulterior plans for the Clocks Molly created (then stole) are all related. In time-honoured tradition the odds are against them, but they’re going to try and save the day regardless.

clockwerx-05

Accompanying this tale though is Hostache’s artwork, which is simply glorious in places. Hostache seems equally adept at close up, intimate moments focussing on the character’s expressions as he is at depicting major scenes. And oh boy are some of those major scenes simply gorgeous to behold, be it night over the docks of Victorian London, the Thames and rooftops shimmering in silver moonlight, or scenes with the huge Clocks, lovingly detailed pieces of imaginary Victorian tech, like Steampunk versions of the giant manned mechas so beloved of Japanese science fiction comics (and used to spectacular effect in the recent Pacific Rim film).

clockwerx-03

The intricate detail of the Steampunk machinery and the beautifully rendered Victorian cityscapes will delight those who loved Bryan Talbot’s lavish artwork in his Grandville series, and indeed I think Clockwerx would make a good companion to that series on your shelves. This really is beautiful art and fabulous creations that you just want to pore over and drink in, all framed around a classic adventure yarn. I’m also pleased to see a female lead character who, like Adele Blanc-Sec, is in there for her own ingenuity, bravery and resolve, not as some impossibly physiqued eye candy, and even after her accidental maiming and loss of an arm Molly remains the real driving force of events throughout, the equal of any of the men here (and their superior when it comes to her mechanical skills). A cracking, beautifully illustrated adventure in the best European comics tradition and a real pleasure to read.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The Bone Season – a seriously compelling debut from a new talent

The Bone Season (Scion 1) hardback

The Bone Season (Scion 1) Kindle

Samantha Shannon,

Bloomsbury

Bone-Season-Samantha-Shannon-bloomsbury-cover

It’s 2059, and the United Kingdom – and the rest of the world – of this future is not just different, it has evolved rather differently from the history we know. In this world Queen Victoria was the last ‘good’ monarch, but her son is reviled as the Blood Prince, who dabbled in ‘unnatural’ practices using those with psychic gifts (known as voyants) which drove him into murderous acts (playing on the long-running legend that Jack the Ripper was actually a mad member of the royal family). Britain changes, becoming the Scion, a sort of Puritan totalitarian government (with echoes of Moore and Lloyd’s Norsefire regime in V for Vendetta), virulently anti-voyant in almost religious tones, with decades of propaganda from Scion largely persuading much of the population that all voyants are evil and must be arrested and dealt with. Secret police and uniformed patrols are all over the place, especially in the Scion heartland citadel of London, where the fortunate voyants have been recruited into criminal gangs which use voyants of different psychic abilities (from seeking information from the minds of normals – aumorotics – through to those who can channel ghosts, including even the spirit of a famous dead painter to create new works to sell). The unfortunate ones ‘busk’ in the streets, and like anyone living on the streets they are vulnerable, especially to the vigilant eyes of Scion.

Paige Mahoney, a nineteen year old Irish girl, is secretly a voyant – the daughter of a highly-regarded scientist for the regime she must keep her growing abilities hidden not only from the government and general population but even her own father. He despairs his darling daughter left school and won’t go on to college despite his entreaties, not realising she knows at college she would be too visible and it would only be a matter of time until her abilities were spotted for what they were. So instead he thinks she holds a low level job in an Oxygen bar (the good old fashioned British pub has gone under Scion, who seem to share Cromwell’s attitude to people having fun) that she travels across the city too, but actually she’s in the employ of Jaxon Hall, a mime-lord, one of those who run the voyant gangs around the city. Jaxon isn’t just some underworld figure though, he’s voyant himself and he’s spent a lot of time researching the subject and categorising the abilities and classes of psychic abilities. Paige has abilities, including being able to project herself right out of her body and into the aether (although this leaves her physical body vulnerable and in need of life support). But Jaxon is sure she has much more to her abilities, more than she knows herself yet…

It’s a far from ideal life, but given the circumstances of Scion society (a credo which is spreading to other nations) Paige is relatively content with her alternative ‘family’, despite having to always look over her shoulder for the secret police of Scion seeking out Voyants to send to the Tower and despite missing her native Ireland (now crushed under the Scion heel too, in another echo of Cromwellian times). But Paige’s settled if precarious existence comes crashing down when she is caught by a random police check on public transport and uses an ability she didn’t know she had to fend them off, an ability that puts her onto the radar of the authorities… And others…

When Paige is finally hunted down and taken she finds herself not under arrest by the voyant-hating Scion, however, but by something quite possibly worse – the Rephaites. Large, strong humanoid creatures with a strong connection to the aether and an interest in collecting voyants with skills they can use, they have been in partnership secretly with Scion since the time of Lord Palmerston, a dirty secret at the heart of the state. Supposedly in return for a supply of voyant prisoners and equipment – and the use of the sealed off, lost city of Oxford – they are protecting humanity from incursions by a vicious breed of creatures which only they, with voyant help, can combat and prevent from over-running Scion then the rest of the world through breaches in the Aether made by so many voyants interacting with it. The Rephaites despise humans and treat their prisoners brutally as they train them, discarding those who fail, ruthlessly using the ones who pass their nasty tests. Paige, with her suspected hidden talents, is taken on by Warden, a Rephaite of some standing who has never taken on a human before. Life and training in Oxford at Reph hands is vicious and brutal, most of the humans treated dreadfully, save for a few who seem to take to the life and basically become collaborators. But all is not as it seems – the Reph may have a deal with Scion but they also appear to have their own agenda, while some of the Reph may be a bit different from others, but how can Paige discern friend from foe in this secretive, brutal, closed society, and even if she can, will it be enough to help her survive?

I’m not going to potentially spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. However on the quite wonderful style and craft of words Samantha displays I really cannot heap enough praise – it is remarkably self-assured writing, most especially for a debut. This was one of those remarkable reads where within a few pages I felt totally drawn into the world the author drew around me. It’s an intoxicating mixture of elements – personal growth, struggle for freedom (in quite a few ways – from the puritan, authoritarian Scion regime, the vile Rephs, even her ‘family’ of criminal voyants is a form of forced control), they way society view the ‘other’,  with good use of fantasy and science fiction elements in a tight, gripping narrative that pulls us right along the journey with Paige. The settings too, from this authoritarian future London ‘citadel’ to Oxford, sealed off for centuries, it’s ancient buildings and streets still lit by gas lamps like the ghost of the Britain that was before the Blood Prince scandal and the rise of the Scion, while that setting also reminds the reader, in the good way, of Pullman’s excellent Dark Materials novels, a fully and well-realised world. It’s not difficult after reading this to see why such a new and very young author has Bloomsbury very excited, and why it has already been sold on into quite a few other countries, while Andy Serkis has taken out a film option on it. I get through a lot of books and comics, but I can say this is the most engrossing read I have had so far this year and frankly the most absorbing and compelling debut I’ve read since the superb Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Hugely recommended.

Review: Frankenstein’s Army

Frankenstein’s Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst

Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang

frankenstein's army poster

I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.

World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…

frankenstein's army 01

Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human

We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.

I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.

Richard Raaphorst at the Edinburgh Film Fest 02
(director Richard Raaphorst – in the loud shirt – on stage introducing Frankenstein’s Army at the UK premiere in the Filmhouse, during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.

frankenstein's army 02