A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman returns to the Sandman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Coffin Hill

Coffin Hill #1

Caitlin Kittredge, Inaki Miranda

DC/Vertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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

Hinterkind #1

Ian Edginton, Francesco Trifogli,

DC/Vertigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Comics: the Wake #1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vertigo

I was lucky enough to get a copy of the new Vertigo Encyclopedia from Dorling Kindersley. For those of you who don’t know your comics, this is the imprint of DC Comics which not only published ‘mature’ titles (a general, catch-all term often used in comics publishing, basically it means comics aimed squarely at an adult audience) but contributed much to making them acceptable in mainstream circles, helped not a little by the works of Alan Moore and of course one of my all-time favourites, Neil Gaiman and the Sandman series. If you’re familiar with DK books it won’t surprise you to learn that its a very well illustrated volume as they have a very good name for visual design in their adult and children’s works.

The book has large section on the major Vertigo titles such as Hellblazer, Sandman, Preacher, Lucifer and so on, with a synopsis of the main plot points, character guides and more important information on each series – makes it very browsable and easy to dip into. The one-off titles and mini-series are also pretty well served considering the space restrictions. I started by looking up some of my favourite series, then checking out the smaller entries which gave me a nice little memory rush as they reminded me of quite a few I’d read and enjoyed years ago and which had slipped my mind (I hadn’t thought of the gorgeous Moonshadow in ages, for instance). Good Xmas gift if you are looking for ideas in a few weeks. A contact at Dorling Kindersley emailed me at work to say they had made a video about the creation of the book, which they’ve put up on YouTube: