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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wolf Country 3. Jim Alexander (Writer), Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2015)

After two issues that set up the extraordinary context, in this issue the plot gears begin to engage in both the Kingdom and the Settlement. In the city, Halfpenny, the leader of the vampire settlement in wolf country is drawn into the work of the Department of Purity, asked to speak to vampire who may have something to say to a zealot he would not say to a bureaucrat. The interview does not go well, and a superbly staged assassination suggests that there are strong forces colliding in the kingdom. At the settlement, the full moon heralds an assault, the soldiers from the city head out on a patrol and question the limited effectiveness of the settlement. The promise of the moon comes true.
Once again Jim Alexander has moved the story in multiple ways without tipping his hand as to the actual direction it will go in. Clearly there is a significant change in the city regarding the value and purpose of the settlement, there seems to be lines being drawn between zealots and others who would achieve the same goals by other means. There is a nicely dangling thread that the apparent goal may not be the real end in sight.
Halfpenny's rigidity provides strength in straight fight with a werewolf at the settlement, outside of that context he is not able to read the situation well. His determination to reduce everything to the satisfying black and while of kill or die is leaving him open to management by others. Back at the settlement the intrusion of the soldiers has had an unsettling effect, they do not share the bonds of zeal or survival that the people who live at the settlement do. They upset the balance of the fort and may weaken it dangerously when the assault comes.
Nothing is settled, there is a satisfying sense of story lift off and the possibilities have been thrown open, the wonderful set up is leading somewhere.
Will Pickering's art is spare and clear, the focus is the cast and they emerge with force and determination. There is very little extra detail beyond that required to set the context, the dram is in the cast, their powerful body language and facial expressions. They interact with each other directly and fiercely, the passion that drives them is clear and sharp.
Jim Campbell's lettering is, as usual quietly effective, the sound effects are big and loud, the dialogue is easy to read and feels natural in the panel.
This is a very satisfying comic, the conflict has arrived and it was worth the wait.
Chief Wizard's Note:  This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, Vampires v Werewolves in a wild west setting - and a lot more' continues, having been shortlisted for Best British Comic (b/w) at the Eagles/True Believers award; longlisted at the British Comic Awards and voted as a Top 10 book in last year's London Super Comic Con. For more information or to order a copy, which you should do, please contact,  planetjimbot@gmail.com

Friday, February 13, 2015

Flash Boys. Cracking the Money Code. Michael Lewis. Allen Lane (2014)

This is a gripping and exciting book about two potentially dull topics, stockbroking and technology. Stockbroking, shares something in common with technology, there seems to be no space to be sort of interested. Either someone is really interested and dives into the details or you see it as a series of boxes that produce more or less desirable results from processes that are brain drainingly uninteresting. It is a measure of Michael Lewis's skill as a writer that he can find and present a context which makes them gripping while never excluding any relevant technical details.
Michael Lewis has a fantastic story to tell, how computers have made the apparently simple business of selling and buying shares into a nearly risk free money making process for s select group of companies. At the heart of the process is a very simple idea, if you know someone is going to buy something, they have placed an order for it, and you buy it before they do and you sell it to them you have the opportunity to make some risk free money.
The problem is that up to a certain point in time the technology used to tell a seller about an order from a buyer meant that everyone knew more or less at the same time. Any third party got the same information at more or less the same time, too short a space of time to intervene in the process for profit.Then computers were introduced and the matter of speed became much more relative, the technology meant that the time taken to communicate an order could be accurately and effectively sliced into fantastically small divisions, and technology could use the relative speed of the different computers in the process to create a space to intervene.
This unimaginably small space is a crowed place where a wonderful cast of people try to understand what is going on and for some do something about it. Michael Lewis has used a superb structure to explain a technically complex problem that has all the appearances of a "victimless crime". People are buying and selling shares on a stock exchange, they are not being held to ransom, someone is making money from the process, the biggest problem that Michael Lewis has to overcome is the simple question of "So what?"
They way that that question is answered is deceptively simple, Michael Lewis lets the people concerned talk for themselves and the reader follows along as they discover exactly what is going on and why they care about it. The reader in effect is taken on the shared journey of discovery that the cast follows, this allows the reader to be informed at a comprehensible rate. Where specific details are needed to make something plain, they are provided in the shortest and clearest form, they never interrupt the drama.
There is lashings of drama as the sheer scale and scope of what is going on becomes clear and the determination to do something about it develops.Some of the greatest pleasures in the book are the incidental details it reveals about Wall Street as an financial industry. One of my favourites was when Michael Lewis remarked about a very prominent bank that when it wanted to find out what its competitors were up to the followed a plan, they interviewed people from that competitor for jobs with themselves. Later he remarks that in an era when organisations are becoming ever more paranoid about the security and secrecy of their data their employee loyalty was falling at an equal rate.
Greed is a wonderful motivator of ingenuity to exploit any possible marginal advantage that any unintended consequence of a  process change may create. It is also a spark to others to oppose it, it is this classic human friction that Michael Lewis explores so grippingly. A great read.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weapon Brown Jason Yungbluth (Writer & Artist), Emil Novak, Gerry Coffey, Jeff Eckleberry (Inking and Lettering Contributions) Death Ray Graphics (2014)

A very engaging and entertaining science fiction noir comic that has an obvious hook that thankfully does not create the problems it could. In a post apocalyptic world a mercenary with a nuclear power robotic arm among other enhancements finds that that a mission leads directly to a confrontation with his one time owners/employers over the future of the planet. A standard story platform that is a standard because it offers so many story possibilities depending on the imagination and discipline of the creative team. Happily for reader Jason Yungbluth has enough imagination and discipline to use this platform in outstandingly creative and inventive ways and applies the genre requirements of both science fiction ans noir fiction to great effect.
The obvious hook for this story is that is is a parody of the US newspaper comic strips, using well known characters in a variety of brutally inventive ways. The problem this raises right away is that a parody relies on prior knowledge by the reader and frequently induces lazy writing and art as the creative team trade on this assumed knowledge. A parody runs the risk of being an inside joke that is meaningless to those outside the magic circle and tiresome to those within it.Thankfully Jason Yungbluth is for too good a writer and artist to fall into the trap, rather he uses the parody element as a bubbling angry subtext for the full tilt ahead, all reader friendly, story that happens to have an extra element for those who care and of no consequence to those who do not.
For any science fiction story the context is all important, and in Weapon Brown the context is simply fantastic,a genuinely destroyed world with clever currency as everyone left fights for the most important thing left, food. The devastated landscape is powerfully and sometimes playfully created and developed in the book. The details are smart and telling and is where the threads from the comic strips are used as superb starting points. Jason Yungbluth is able to provide an rolling context for the action in a very natural way, the actions of the cast provide the information the reader needs. He avoids any info dumps to set scenes, it comes up as required as the cast interact with each other and the extremely hostile environment. Critically the villains are credibly appalling and with a genuinely forceful motivation rather than just being malignant, their opponents are as mixed as they should be given the circumstances. Surviving means that everyone is making brutal choices, the difference lies in degree and the choices made.
The cast are all fighting for every bit of pace and life available and this gives all of them and the book as a whole a tremendous vitality as everyone is demanding and deserving the readers attention. This makes even the smallest action scene come alive and the relatively few peaceful moments have weight and depth.
The art is a joy, the book clearly took time and the art changes and develops as the book proceeds before settling to an extended style. The changes are never disruptive, they flow easily into each other and are clearly the result of the same controlling imagination and artistic intent. This is where the parody element is used to best effect, by having a established gallery of characters to draw upon a huge and varied cast can be created and the artistic possibilities can be extended. The art captures the ideas of the book with tremendous force and clarity, it takes full advantage of the simplicity of the story platform to give room to details that add physical weight to the context and give the action brutal force.
This is a first class science fiction comic, it uses the unlimited budget of comics with thoughtful abandon to develop and surprise with ideas and locations. It is also a great noir story of a wounded hero who finds that, perhaps, his heart has not died and that hope may not be fatal after all.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The Whitechapel Horrors. Edward B. Hanna. Titan Books (2010)

A slightly stodgy historical murder mystery that fails to engage as a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes is involved in the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in London in 1888.
There are two stories involved in the book and one is significantly more effectively developed and executed than the other, there is the actual historical events of the Jack the Ripper murders which is used as a framework to hang a Sherlock Holmes story on. Edward B. Hanna has clearly extensively researched the murders and uses the research very well to lay out the whole context of the murders. He establishes the scale of the shock and outrage caused by the brutal killings and the enormous fear they caused in the ruling class that they would crystallise unrest and frustration among the very have nots. The sense of a settled social order where everyone knew and accepted their place was central to social stability and the maintenance of power and privilege. The murders represented a direct challenge to this as they stirred the destitute in unpredictable ways, ways that could possibly be harnessed by those with agendas directly opposed to those of the current rulers.
That story is well told, the range of characters is developed and the responses revealed as they scrambled to counter the multiple threats that arose from the killings. At times the research and explanation weight a little too heavily, for much the greater part they are well done and informative.
The significant problem is that this is supposed to be a Sherlock Holmes' story in which case history is a set to serve fiction requirements rather than as happens here, the reverse. Sherlock Holmes is trapped in the requirement to be historically accurate and as a result cannot be Sherlock Holmes.
Edward. B. Hanna's historical approach is used in an interesting way as he weaves the details of the original Sherlock Holmes stories into the narrative of the Jack the Ripper murders and uses the spaces available in a creative way. The extensive notes at the end that tie up historical characters and the fictional timelines and details are enjoyable.
Sherlock Holmes stories have strict and very well established requirements, the question for any writer wishing to write a Sherlock Holmes story is to either embrace them or discard them as creatively as possible. They have to be the dominating influence on the story or else it will simply not be a Sherlock Holmes story. In this case another set of requirements was allowed to dominate instead and in spite of a strong effort to bring in the fictional element it fails because of this.
As a matter of personal preference I strongly prefer stories where Sherlock Holmes in not a directly leading character that the narrative follows, I think he is much more suited to being seen from afar as the aloof and essentially mysterious character he is. His humanity is borrowed from Watson and this is the best way to enjoy him. Edward B. Hanna uses Holmes directly and he makes a very credible effort in doing so, I think in this case the problem was that the reader got both too much and too little of Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

GoodCopBadCop Casebook 2. Jim Alexander (Writer), Luke Cooper, Will Pickering (Art), Jim Campbell (Lettering), Joel Carpenter ( Cover Art). Rough Cut Comics (2014)

The second outing for the wolf in a police officers skin is even more entertaining and enjoyable that the first, all the heavy lifting of the set up having been done the creative team can concentrate on pushing the story ahead. There are three sections in the book, two comics and a report written by both people who share the identity of Detective Inspector Brian Fisher, all of them work really well.
Tiny Facts of Kindness, written by Jim Alexander, art by Like Cooper, letters by Jim Campbell starts with a small piece of scene setting which sets the tone of bleak humour exactly before moving into the main storyline. When two small time robbers encounter he wolf in a bungled attempt to robs a supermarket the trail leads to a local church. At this point the story actively and consistently diverts away from reader expectations and still keeps within the storytelling boundaries it has set up. Jim Alexander snakes across the possibilities of having the wolf and the implications that his existence is no secret. The presence of one wolf is an indicator of the presence of others and that possibility is used in a very sharp way.
The art by Luke Cooper is confident and his mastery of black and white is astounding. The high contrast art is perfect to give the story the edge and starkness it needs to express the brutal humour and action. The cast are full of force and vitality, they move with power and the tone of  disguise and rage is conveyed perfectly. The distinction between the wolf and his host is balanced really well, they look distinct enough to be different, yet retain a sufficient similarity to maintain the tension between the two.
Twisting the Knife, written by Jim Alexander, art by Will Pickering, letters by Jim Campbell picks up a different thread that has been running through the stories, the view of Detective Sergeant Spencer who works for DI Fisher and knows the wolf is real. She reports her concerns about DI Fisher to the Chief Superintendent, specifically about a case concerning the assault on a woman that takes place after she disturbs a burglar in her home. The woman's family follow the police to find the person responsible and when the wolf emerges he does so much more quietly but just as effectively as ever. The story nicely raises questions without disturbing the flow and creates room for further story possibilities.
Will Pickering's art is significantly different from Like Cooper's and placing a text story between them is a good way to reduce if not remove a dislocating change in style. The line work is gorgeous, the fourth panel on page 1 is a stunning and effective transition. The grey tones for the flashback contrast very nicely with the white backgrounds for the interview. This change works to emphasise the formal tension of the interview and the action in the flashback, in the interview the flashback looks to be slightly absurd.
Separating the two are a number of reports from both DI FIsher and the wolf and they showcase Jim Alexander's talent for bloody, black humour and razor sharp story telling. The reports wander across a number of events, the stand out is a community police lecture at a school where incidents of graffiti spoilers for films has appeared, among other outbreaks. The lecture falls apart as expected in ways that are not as Jim Alexander again nicely shifts out of the way of reader expectations.
Strong plotting, a great cast given the space to establish themselves, fierce action and wonderful art make GoodCopBadCop Casebook #2 a comic to relish.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, The first copies ofGoodCopBadCop: Casebook#2 will be on sale at Thought Bubble (the Rough Cut Comics/Planet Jimbot table situated in New Dock Hall).  It will be distributed through Amazon at www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aag/main?ie=UTF8&seller=A12QVTLFDTVO2U and direct from www.roughcut-comics.com in December.


Charles Dickens. My Early Years. Peter Rowland (Complied and Edited). Aurum Press (1997)

Given Charles Dickens' fascination with himself and his towering talent it is notable that he never wrote a full scale autobiography. He wrote a fragment which he gave to his friend and first biographer, John Forster, wrote a disguised version of his childhood in David Copperfield and wrote and spoke of his early adult life in letters, articles and speeches. Peter Rowland has doe a great job of assembling the fragments into as continuous a whole as could be managed.
Charles Dickens writing about Charles Dickens is as wonderfully engaging and astonishing as Charles Dickens writing about any of the cast that swagger through his astounding novels. That is the vibrant pleasure and deep frustration of the writing, it is clear that the person being spoken about or written about is essentially a character in a narrative, a beautifully crafted narrative of course.
Dickens is as funny, acute, charming and sentimental about himself as he is about any of his fictional children, he can freely deal with himself once the topic  never strays near to the open would of his childhood that never healed. When he writes of the events that he thought would prevent him from ever achieving the greatness he felt he could and should achieve everything changes. There is no distance to the past, no careful staging of the events for maximum effect, there is only raw fear and pain.
It is very easy to see a colossal overreaction to a short lived event that arose from very ordinary circumstances and was finished for very ordinary reasons. Dickens'parents, his father in particular, was a man who loved to spend money, his own and any he could borrow from others. He spent in on being social and convivial, entertaining friends and being a gracious host. He lead his family from relative security in a government job to poverty and debt, living a life of hiding from creditors and constantly moving to different cheaper lodgings. Dickens mother had a relative who had a shoe polish business and she got Charles a job there, some time later after a row his father removed Dickens from the factory and put him in school.
Hardly a story of slavery and abuse, it scorched a hole in the life of Charles Dickens that never went cold and he was  haunted and tormented by it for all of his life.
Charles Dickens always has a very powerful sense of his own innate talents, a sense that he would be someone, that others would recognise and acknowledge his talent, something that they would never do based on his social circumstances. Talent alone would be the path to success, social and financial and he knew that he had the energy, will and talent to succeed. Dickens felt that being sent to work in the shoe polish was closing the door on that prospect and keeping him locked in the life his parents were leading. He was right on both counts and this was inflamed by his powerlessness in the face of the actions of adults.
Charles Dickens did have a burning talent and the will to realise it, if he had remained in the factory he would have had essentially no chance of doing so, the leap up to social acceptable literary life from that point was too great. Dickens never forgot that it was chance that his father took him out of the factory and that his mother wanted him to be sent back.
The pieces, skilfully complied and edited by Peter Rowland in this book reveal Charles Dickens as he wished to be seen and as he never wished to be be know and they make a moving and wonderful partial self portrait of one of the monumental writers in history.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4. Planet Jimbot (2014)

Another instalment in the engaging and very enjoyable anthology, this continues the mix of continuing stories and one-offs in prose and comics.
"Karoom" part 4, written by Jim Alexander, art by Glenn B Fleming continues the story of the dimension travelling alien and the woman from Earth who has joined him. The stage is set for a final confrontation with a slight reveal just adding to the questions. The art continues to use soft lines and colours to draw in the reader, the body language and expressiveness of the cast is first rate. This is a quietly intriguing story that continues to charm.
"Cold Blooded" written by Ed Murphy is a smart story that appears to be following one route before smartly switching. Maria grows up in India under the strict care of her father in India, chosen for the freedom he has to raise the child as he wishes. Maria develops a deep and abiding interest in reptiles, when her father is murdered in a burglary she heads off to a life of her own. Later in her life she is in a abusive relationship with a gangster in Peru when things start to change. The story is slightly predictable right up to the moment when it is not, clever and crafty, reader expectations are caught and skilfully thrown.
"Pipe" written by Jim Alexander, art by Graeme MacLeod, letters by Jim Campbell, edited by Eli Winter, is a wryly optimistic story that uses tight compression to great effect. A life and a death in 9 panels, that is entirely complete and satisfactory is a considerable achievement. The writing is tight an focussed, the tone is just right and the unexpected conclusion exactly right. Graeme MacLeod's art is detailed and subtle, in each panel the details and mood are balanced carefully against the words or lack of them, the flow is sympathetic and deeply engaging. The lettering by Jim Campbell draws no attention to itself, but subtly supports and embellishes the story. Compression is difficult and editing a single page story into a coherent and convincing whole is a significant task successfully achieved by Eli Winter.
"Don't Read This" written by Luke Cooper manages one of the essential tasks of a supernatural story that most do not, it leaves the reader thinking, "I am sure it is not real or true but why take the risk?" The tone of the story is pitch perfect, the passive aggressive hook that holds the reader and appears to let them go but still has a lingering touch. To say more would spoil a lovely treat.
"Bad Tooth" written by Jim Alexander, art by Eva Holder, letters by Jim Campbell and Edits by Eli Winter combines a very clever idea and a truly terrible joke in a surprisingly successful mix. Chris wakes up with a raging toothache and discovers that the zombie apocalypse has also arrived at the same time. After four days of fighting zombies Chris decides to ask one of his companions to do an extraction, the results are unexpected. The smart black humour of the story and the swift and effective character work is very enjoyable, the supremely lame joke that it leads to is groan worthy. It is a significant tribute to the overall craft of the creative team that the joke does not sink the story. Eva Holder's art is strongly expressive, zombie killing looks dangerous and exciting and the cast (living section) emerge clearly and strongly. The lettering as ever with Jim Campbell is quietly effective and supports the story.
"The Last Posse, Part 4" written by Jim Alexander continues the story of classic Western heroes caught in a mysterious town, the situation becomes a little clearer as the fight is started only to lead to the possibility of greater trouble to come. The mix of western and understated horror continues to work very well.
Any anthology carries the possibility of a range of quality, Amazing & Fantastic Tales 4 has a very high standard throughout with two stand outs.
Chief Wizard Note: This a review copy very kindly sent by Jim Alexander from Planet Jimbot, for more detail on how to get Amazing & Fantastic Tales #4 please contact planetjimbot@gmail.com