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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Complete Maus. Art Spiegelman (Writer & Artist). Penguin Books (2003)

Extraordinary and gripping, this is a mixed memoir about Art Spiegelman's parents experiences as Polish Jews caught in the Nazi led genocide and his own fractured relationship with his father. Art Spiegelman has resolved several very significant story problems with astonishing creativity and a very striking use of the possibilities offered by comics.
The single biggest problem that anyone writing about the Nazi led efforts to annihilate Jews and many others identified as undesirable is that the scale of the effort makes it practically impossible to comprehend. On the other hand individual stories struggle to capture the extraordinary scale of the process and the colossal bureaucracy required to drive it. Art Spieglman's first and most important creative decision is to use an anthropomorphic cast, Jews of every nationality are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs. The whole conflict changes into a literal game of cat and mouse, no explanations are needed for why cats chase and kill mice, the focus can stay on how the mouse tries to elude and survive. At the same time a mouse among pigs is still a different species and the death of a mouse is not likely to be very significant to a pig, so the extraction of the Jews from Polish and other European societies is made a lot more comprehensible.
Vladek Spiegelman tells his own story to his son Art and the story starts with how he met his wife, Art's mother, courted her and married her. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and the couple had every prospect of a comfortable life, the growing threat to them as Jews started to become clearer and clearer as the Nazis and their allies grew in political and social power. Valdek managed to stay ahead of capture for a long time but was finally found and sent to Auschwitz. He survived the camp and was re-united with his wife and finally emigrated to America.
This is a mixed memoir, it is a much the story of Art Spiegelman trying to come to terms with his father as it is the story of how his father survived the institutional efforts to murder him and his wife. This means that the narrative is consistently switching from Vladek telling Art about his experiences to Art dealing with his father as a difficult, aging parent. This is the second very significant story problem that Art Spiegelman solves, how to place the nearly unimaginable experiences of his parents into the context of a life that continues long after those experiences and whose life is much more than just those experiences.
By cracking the narrative into different parts, having Vladek be the narrator of his own experiences and also be contrasted as the difficult person Art knows as his father with the agile and forceful young man determined to survive the whole mixed and jumbled life comes into view.
Maus was originally published in two books and the opening of the second book is a reflection on the reception and reaction to the first. Art Spiegelman is a character in a book written by Art Spiegelman taking directly to the reader, a situation that could be horribly self serving or just intrusive. Instead it is very natural and deeply engrossing, Art Spiegelman has been as unflinching with himself as a cast member as he is about his father, the similarities between father and son are much deeper than the fact fact that both are drawn as mice. Both have a tough fiber in their characters, although Art seems to have inherited some of his mother's fragility. Creating Maus from the fabric of his own family life is a significant artistic achievement, it takes considerable courage and tremendous dedication as well as talent to turn shards of history into a  satisfying narrative whole, let alone something as imaginatively bold and engaging as Maus.  An astonishing comic from a towering talent.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Alien Hand Syndrome #1. Justin Cappello (Writer and Artist). INSANE COMICS (2015)

A very enjoyable set up for a science fiction adventure story. After a battle in space a severely damaged alien ship arrives on earth with the crew in hibernation while the ship repairs itself after hiding inside a mountain. Thousands of years later a break in at a 'abandoned' military base in Montauk, New York reveals that the base has more life than advertised and certainly many more secrets than had been expected.
Any set up has a number of difficult story problems to solve, the story has to provide enough context and momentum to involve the reader and create enough story possibilities to bring the reader back , all this to be done without revealing too much and reducing the dramatic tension. Justin Cappello has solved these problems rather neatly by splitting the set up into two parts, the space battle and the break in at the military base. Both events are clearly related, both are given the time and space to be interesting in their own right as well as quietly raising questions about the connection that can be fruitfully explored later. The space battle is rock solid space opera, a desperate maneuver that brings victory at a huge cost, the break in is a very nicely set up heist sequence that goes as wrong as it should. The story has enough possibilities to entice the reader to return and see how it will follow on.
The cast are a great science fiction selection, a very clever artistic choice for the aliens ensures that while they are clearly not human, their body language can easily be read and understood. The human cast are nicely varied, only one of them gets much real time, he is an engaging action hero without being a superhero.
The art is very distinctive and a pleasure to read, Justin Cappello can manage a wide screen space battle and hand to hand combat nicely, while the hand to hand combat is slightly stiff, the cast are developed well enough to give the violence weight and force when they collide. The sequence where a severed head is used to open a door is a a piece of smart black humour that gives the story a nice lift.
Context is crucial for science fiction, the look and visual feel must quietly support the science fiction elements of the story and they do so strongly in Alien Hand Syndrome. The interiors of the space ship and the military base are used very well to support and carry the story.
The lettering is easy to read, well positioned in the panels to inform and not distract, the sound effects are a simple joy.
Comics are a natural medium for science fiction with an unlimited budget available for special effects, smart science fiction in any medium is hard, smart science fiction in comics is a substantial pleasure. Alien Hand Syndrome is a smart science fiction comic.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Justin Cappello. If you would like to buy a copy of Alien Hand Syndrome, you should treat yourself to it,it can be purchased at the INSANE COMICS webpage at Copy - $1.49, -Physical Copy - $3.50 .Visit for updates and some behind the scenes information.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Killing Winter. Tom Callaghan. Quercus (2015)

A violent and very gripping noir crime story set in Kyrgyzstan. A women is found horribly mutilated in a public part in Bishkek and
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is assigned to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as as the daughter of a very power politician the Inspector Akyl Borubaev finds himself under significant pressure. When another body is discovered with similar mutilations the investigation starts to move in very dangerous directions and Inspector Akyl Borubaev is left unsure who his friends and enemies really are. The plot unfolds with tremendous force as the dangerous possibilities begin to emerge and the brutally bitter and satisfying conclusion is reached.
Any writer who chooses to write a story in a non native location faces a serious problem from the outset, how to ensure that the location and context chosen are integral to the story rather than set dressing for a story that could as easily have been set in the writers native location. Tom Callaghan solves this so completely it never arises as a question for the reader, the whole context and the ferocious landscape of Kyrgyzstan is a fully developed and vital character in the story. The plot is tightly woven out of and into the context of the country, its people and their tangled history. That also solves the second problem a writer faces, how to provide enough information about the context for the story for a reader to understand the details of the context so that the story can deliver without being interrupted by information dumps. Tom Callaghan provides all the necessary details so naturally and smoothly that they work to increase and extend the flow of the story rather than slow it down.
The plot mechanics are superb, the action is brilliantly staged to reveal and to hide the true outlines of what is going on until they are dragged into daylight. The investigation is set up hampered, threatened and doggedly pursued in a very credible way as the forces at work collide with each other. The mechanics are really tightly drawn, the plot does not give way at any point to any action that is needed to rescue it from a dead end. The stunningly brutal action is always serving a point in the story and the action is driven by a tremendously well drawn cast.
Inspector Akyl Borubaev is a great leading character, he is the first among equals in a large cast all of who muscle their way into the readers attention and demand to be taken account of. Inspector Akyl Borubaev is also a superb noir character, an accomplishment that is considerably more difficult to achieve that it may appear. He is a ruined romantic, badly bruised and scarred by life and circumstances, he still has a heartbeat and a ultimately a care for others that pushes him to know and act. His small spark of light is happily surrounded by a cast of truly horrendous, utterly credible and human, selfishly dangerous and violent characters. The contrast is vital to make a noir story work, the tension between the Inspector and the rest of the cast springs from his difference to them, he is willing to care. This apparent weakness is the deep strength that he needs to drive to the bitter conclusion.
The book is also graced with an outstanding female cast member who is allowed to be female, dangerous, clever and with phrase used to describe her that is elegant, funny, precise and not in the slightest demeaning or degrading. Of all the story problems that Tim Callaghan has solved so enjoyably, this character may be the striking, she is simply allowed to be who she is just as much as Akyl Borubaev  and the story, and the reader, benefit greatly from this simple choice. A smart, great read

Saturday, October 31, 2015

AntiChris 2. Writer: Jojo King, Artist: Manuel Mezquita, Letters: Ken Reynolds.Insane Comics (2015)

A sharp and engaging second issue that neatly solves a number of difficult problems. When the warden at St Jude's Home for the Wayward decides to demonstrate her satanic capabilities by summoning a demon she finds out that summoning a demon is by no means the same as commanding a demon. The resulting mayhem involves zombies, a very big demon, a vampire werewolf and a group of teenagers. The results are surprising, cleverly set up and supported throughout with pitch black humour.
Any second issue faces a serious obstacle, the set up has been done and the underlying idea has been established, the second issue has to effectively deliver on the promise of the set up and, ideally, opening up story possibilities for the reader and the creative team. Jojo King has solved this problem with considerable flair and has taken a number of story risks which have paid off very well. The action in the second issue is very nicely framed and managed with a very dark humour this allows JoJo King to pile up the gore, which he does to entirely satisfactory levels, and at the same time not drown the story in blood. The humour gives the cast the room to stand out in the action and balance the horror and the cast requirements.
This is particularly important because of the nature of the cast, they are mostly well established horror staples and teenagers, managing to have this cast work effectively with stumbling into cliche is a significant task. The black humour gives all the cast a chance to be themselves as well as either a monster or a teenager, they become identifiable cast members and the whole outbreak gains weight and substance. This is a significant achievement and Jojo King deserves considerable credit for threading the needle with such smart writing. The multiple story possibilities that have been set up mean that the story can pretty much go anywhere it wants without breaking its own rules or promises to the reader.
Manuel Mezquita's art captures the balance of the story with tremendous energy and force, it does not lean too heavily on either the laughs or the violence, it switches exactly as required and can deliver both together when required. One of the outstanding pleasures of the art is the way the younger characters are drawn, they look and move like teenagers, rather worn down and battered by life teenagers at that. Given the temptation presented by a teenage female werewolf vampire delivering credible confusion and angry vulnerability along side real force in action, the scratchy lines Manuel Mezquita uses so well are a great choice to have made.
Ken Reynolds letters are subtle and telling, they delivery without ever being obvious, the sound effects are a treat.
A second issue that more than fulfills the promise of the set up, a greatly enjoyable comic.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Jojo King. You can purchase AntiChris 2, and you should treat yourself to this smart comic,  at,

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bottom Liner Blues. K.C.Constantine. The Mysterious Press (1993)

A glorious book that uses the bare ghost of a crime story to explore the lives of astonishing cast in a decaying, post-industrial town in Pennsylvania. Mario Balzic is the Chief of Police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, a town whose decaying industrial past hang heavy over its uncertain future. On patrol due to staff shortages Mario answers a call about a woman who wants to talk to a police officer. The woman is concerned that her partner intends to violently attack another man and she wants to head off the trouble before it begins. This plot thread and the unexpected outcome are the explicit crime elements to the story and are one of the smallest elements in the book. They are not neglected by K.C. Constantine, they are savagely played out in an unexpected and deeply engaging way. It is that they are not the heart of the story in the way that might be expected.
K.C. Constantine has made a absurdly difficult story problem appear easy, with deceptive skill he has developed a cast that speak with truly individual voices and clearly articulated accents  who are never just a range on mouths on legs. They have a physical presence, subtly drawn in to anchor their talking in a real world context. Rocksburg is given the room to emerge as the broken context for the lives of the cast and the decline of the town is a force that binds them together. Nothing is said in a vacuum, the setting is as vital as the words that swirl around it.
The heart of the book is Mario Balzac and the astonishing cast that surrounds him and more importantly, the way that they talk. At one point a cast member asks the question "How do you know you are alive?" The abundant answer provided in a glorious, astonishing, and utterly compelling way is by talking, the cast talk. The cast pour out words by the yard, they reveal, hide, reveal, confuse and discover themselves and each other in an astounding torrent of talk without ever uttering a single superfluous word. Mario Balzic has a life changing conversation with his wife which never falls into mere dialogue, it is a heartfelt attempt to communicate across the wide spaces that separate us. This need to communicate, to be understood is the force behind the taking in the book. No one wants to simply be heard, they want to to be understood and recognized for who they are. Each member of the cast gets an opportunity to reveal themselves and they take it with both hands and give it the best they can. They are not babbling, they are carefully and eloquently taking the reader into their confidence and speaking up for themselves.
Everyone in the book is under increasing pressure and trying to manage it, they all choose different ways and as they collide with each other, as they attempt to explain why they are the generous and steely sympathy that K.C. Constantine has for his cast shines through all the time. No one is let off easy, actions have sharp consequences, everyone gets their chance to explain themselves.
Holding his cast  and the reader with graceful care, K.C. Constantine has written a compelling book that rings true on every page and delivers a consistently unexpected delight and pleasure.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Maidenstone 2.Chris Robertson (Writer), Scott Beveridge (Art), Andrew Kelly (Cover Art), Angie Smith (Editor). Baguette Noir Press (2015)

A very engaging and enjoyable comic with a stand out lead character. Lucy Maitland has lost her father in an accident and her brother and her mother are crumbling in the aftermath of the death. Lucy is trying to hold everyone together while coming under significant pressure from fellow pupils at school. When she meet Dylan, a friendly stranger who helps her Lucy finds that she is falling for him. As the story continues in this issue it becomes clear that Dylan is not entirely what he appears to be and Lucy's problems with the other pupils become significantly worse. Lucy's brother Jamie is becoming aware that something strange is swirling around them but is unable to express it clearly or forcefully enough to be properly heard. Lucy gets a dressmaking commission which may become the opportunity that Dylan was looking for.
This is Lucy's story and she deserves the spotlight. She is a great character, Chris Robertson has done something remarkable, written a teenager who feels like a teenager. Unfortunately most teenager characters are so buried in cliches that the reader cannot hear their heartbeat. Lucy is vital and strongly herself, she is massively distressed, confused and horrifyingly vulnerable, she is also resilient, aware and determined. Lucy engages the reader forcefully by being herself and this is what makes the story work. Lucy is increasingly in danger and the tensions exists because the reader has the opportunity to care about her. The rest of the cast are equally varied in themselves and have a strong claim on the reader. The chief bully who spearheads the trouble at school for Lucy is not given any extra dimensions, the sheer force of her attacks give her powerful and nastily credible life.
Scott Beveridge's art is a pleasure to read, it captures the atmosphere and the subtle moves of the story with force and vivid expressiveness. The gray tones of the art capture the pervasive sense of loss and anxiety that hang on everyone, the emotions are loud and sharp, anger is always just waiting to explode. The quiet time with Dylan is a relief and frightening at the same time. Each member of the cast is distinct and at the same time share strong resemblances. Nicely done to capture the sense of a small town with a strong local population that has not changed much over time as well as being Lucy's perspective.
The creators have delivered another intriguing episode in a strongly individual story with a confident and forceful style. They are taking advantage of the medium to push the story and capture the reader, making it look easy and unforced. A pleasure to read.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Chris Robertson. To buy a copy of Maidenstone 2, and you should give yourself the pleasure of reading a strong, thoughtful and original comic, it can be purchased at  Forbidden Planet and Plan 9 in Aberdeen, and on our Big Cartel site. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Gabriel. Jim Alexander (Writer), David Hill (Art), Mick Trimble (Art), Nate Pride (Letters), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2015)

A wonderfully confident and unexpected comic that neatly avoids the inherent problems that comes with the subject matter.
The Devil is Everywhere. Jim Alexander (Writer), David Hill (Art),  Nate Pride (Letters). In 2015 Glasgow is a Christian,perhaps Catholic, theocracy and Gabriel Stewart is trying to deal with the last stage of a failed marriage. At the same time something is cutting a very bloody swathe through the city and is being pursued by the Saint Templar, the the forceful arm of Church security. Gabriel and the killer cross paths and find themselves tied messily in a knot together. The story unfolds across a very cleverly splintered narrative that gives multiple views of the story that finally arrives a neatly and satisfyingly uncertain ending.
Religion, like any topic based on belief is a problem for fiction, it is either obvious or stupid depending on perspective and neither allow for creative tension which is the heartbeat of fiction. Jim Alexander has threaded this needle with craft and a very engaging element of uncertainty. The dominant church is based on certainty, it is the source of truth therefore anyone and everyone else by definition is lying. Not simply lying but actively denying the truth of the church and therefore an enemy. The enemies of the church are demons and demons need to be dealt with harshly, the Saint Templars are theretofore entirely correct in their violent and brutal actions against the enemies of the church.
The demon who is killing his way around Glasgow is sure of what he is doing, the moment that certainty is shaken is a fatal mistake. Gabriel is pretty much alone in not being sure of anything excerpt that he is still in love with his wife. It is this ambiguity that Jim Alexander uses to move past the problems of certainty and create room for engaging fiction that allow the whole cast , context and story come into life on their own terms. There is no slashing satire at the stupidity of credulous believers being lead by hypocritical and corrupt divines. Believers are granted their beliefs with all its various shades, honest brutality is still brutal. Gabriel brings the shadows to the black and white and allows the reader to read the story without feeling boxed into a settled point of view. Jim Alexander has built a story arc that bends very nicely away from reader expectations that are equally cleverly set up at the start.
David Hill's art is a pleasure to read, detailed and fluid, the cast are full of life when resting or in violent action. The cast are all delivered with telling detail, the walk on parts are given as much attention as the main cast. This gives the whole story a depth and strong presence that is really important. The action scenes where the demon is busy with killing are stunning, the demon is always horrifyingly calm while still in deadly motion. The physical details of the buildings and the clothes the cast wear are superb, they are never obvious, they are just right and give the story real physical weight and presence.
Nate Pride's lettering is so effective as to be virtually invisible, it is set up with care so it is just read naturally as part of the story, it never snags the readers attention while it is always clear and effective. A considerable achievement.
"I am the Resurrection"Jim Alexander (Writer), Mick Trimble (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters)  is a sort of epilogue to the main story and one where Jim Alexander takes an entirely logical and huge storytelling risk and resolves it with sharp humour and an very satisfying dash of optimism. A man in a Stone Roses t-shirt appears interrupts a street race, washes a prostitutes feet and gets really angry at a market and is arrested. He tell a priest a strange story and greets Gabriel Stewart. The fallout from these actions is smart, unexpected and happily optimistic.
Mick Trimble's art is friendly and engaging, the art feels full of light, there is very little shadow in the work. This is perfect for the story, it is about the place for optimism, not denying anything but dealing with it and getting on. The art has a light, subtle good humour even when the scenes turn violent, it never loses its touch. Jim Campbell's lettering is an example of how to put a lot of information into a speech bubble without making it crowded or obtrusive.
Unexpected and very engaging, Gabriel is strong comic by a very talent group of creators, a great read.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly send by Jim Alexander. To buy a copy of Gabriel and you should give yourself the pleasure of reading an excellent comic by doing so, you can purchase it for £5 plus P&P at the Planet Jimbot online shop at: