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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Strange Stories of Fantasy & Fiction. PW Press (2015)

An anthology of stories by different writers, the art is all by Pete Woods.
What's Not To Like?, written by David Thomas. A man has a debt to the mob and a chance to pay it off. Very short, this is more of an idea than a fully formed story, it is written with care and enough compression to work. The story boils set up and conclusion to the smallest possible space and it does so without loosing anything vital. The stripped down story is all that is needed to capture the idea, it would not support any more weight that is does. The art is vital to selling the idea and it does so very nicely. It is the art that takes the burden of leading the reader and makes the story enjoyable to read again. The captures the nuance that the story needs to come to life and does not depend on surprise to achieve a result. The combination is slender and effective.
Valor & Mettle, written by Michael Consoli, letters by Bolt-01. Starship Captain Steinway has a problem, the new Western Minister of the  Trans-Galactic Union is a dangerous menace who has threatened Steinway's family. A jump from his ship to Shenox's is his chance to deal directly with the problem. A classic set up that neatly develops an unexpected direction, this is smart storytelling. The shift in story gears is not jarring, the transition is nicely signalled by the corresponding change in art and the link between the two is strong, credible and affecting. The art reads better the second time around when the story intentions are known. Before this the art looks a little overblown, when the context is clearer the art become much more effective and the designs much more engaging. There is a subtlety to the art that the reader needs the full context to the story to see, this makes for a more interesting and satisfactory read.
Rouge Trooper: Sniper Alley, written by Tom Proudfoot. This is the most straightforward story in the collection, it is effective while lacking the impact of the other stories. Rouge Trooper is a modified super soldier in an never ending war, working alone with enhanced equipment. He encounters the victim of a sniper attack, the sniper would have to be extraordinary, even beyond Rouge Trooper himself to make the shot. Rouge makes a fateful choice and another choice is also made. The problem the story has is that to work the art has to reveal too much, the reader knows that a choice will have to be made and the likely result of the choice. Given these constraints, everyone works as hard as possible to make the story lift, the writing stages the situation as effectively as possible, the art supports it with care, the sum total is the best it could be, which is a lot better than it easily could have been.
Long Distance Call, written by David Thomas is the best written of the stories, a clever idea with the length to get into the details. A man receives a call from the future, the caller has a proposition to make. David Thomas solves a key problem, the proposition makes sense in both timelines and the validation of the the call is sharp. This is a character piece, no action beyond a phone call, the different locations are nicely set up, all the drama is in the interactions and reactions of the cast. They are very well drawn, the body language and facial expressions sell the situation and give it a solidity the idea needs.
The Last of the Camel Leopards, written by Karl Brandt does not quite work as a story, is has too little detail to come off with the force it needs. A good idea, camel leopards is nicely unexpected, it does not quite explain the conflict that is the context for the story. The art is great, the line work is clear and expressive and  Ms Janet looks fierce, angry and scared all at the same time with a sword to her throat, a panel that delivers her personality in one go.
A very enjoyable selection, the art changes to match the requirements of the stories demonstrating Pete Wood's considerable technical skills and versatility.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Pete Woods who is the artist and the publisher. To purchase a copy, and you should, contact (P.L.Woods (Pete Woods) is a London based comic artist. His work has previously appeared in Zarjaz, Futurequake, Metaverse, and Food Chain.  Food Chain (Planet Jimbot) written by Jim Alexander (2000AD, Marvel & DC) with lettering by Jim Campbell (Titan, Boom Studios, Zenescope) and illustrated by Pete Woods was on the long list for the British Comic Awards 2014 for the "Best Comic" category. He has also been nominated for "Emerging Talent" award at the 2014 British Comic Awards.
please contact 

The Unquiet Bones. Melvin R. Starr. Monarch Books (2008)

A very enjoyable and engaging historical murder mystery. In 1363, Hugh De Singleton the fourth son of a minor knight returns to Oxford from Paris where he trained as a surgeon. When Lord Gilbert is injured outside his lodgings, Hugh treats him and this leads to an offer to become a surgeon at Brampton, one of Lord Gilbert's manors. With a successful operation having established his reputation in the village Hugh becomes involved a mystery when human bones are found in the castle cesspit. Hugh is given the task of discovering the identity of the skeleton and why they ended the cesspit, in particular why they are not the bones of two men who had disappeared some moths earlier. Hugh conducts his investigation with care and attention to detail, the story twists and turns very nicely, the reveals are carefully staged and the unravelling is highly satisfactory.
Melvin R. Starr has solved the two biggest problems involving any historical murder mystery with skill and care, the historical background is presented very naturally without disrupting the narrative with information dumps. The context is allowed to arise  very clearly from the actions of the cast and the context for the story, where needed details are provided without every intruding. The mystery is stitched directly into the historical context, it is not simply resting on it, it could not easily be simply transferred to another context.
The cast are very engaging, lead by Hugh de Singleton himself, part of the minor gentry, educated and needing to earn his own living he is perfectly positioned to move easily across the social barriers and still be an outsider enough to investigate everyone. The first person narrative captures the character of a man who is strongly aware of his situation, is self aware enough to know that he can be mistaken and is tough enough to push forward when needed. He is in love with the wrong woman, knows it and does his best not to fool himself but is still vulnerable.
The rest of the cast are all given the space and time to make their presence felt, Lord Gilbert is a forceful man who wants his holding to be peaceful and prosperous, the villagers are given a chance to show themselves, their voices and choices all ring true.
The plot mechanics are first rate, the initial set up with the surprise that the bones are not those everyone expected them to be is just the first of some very well set up surprises that the story reveals. The investigation is logical and fair, it still travels in interesting directions that never feel forced or simply required to bring the plot in a desired direction. While a simple opportunity is a significant hinge for the story, Hugh de Singleton ruefully acknowledges that an even simpler question would have been quicker. This acknowledgement is a tribute to Melvin R. Starr's craft that it does not undermine the story, it makes Hugh much more credible, hindsight is is stick that beats us all.
Great fun and great company, a hugely enjoyable read.

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,

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 and direct from in December.