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Friday, April 29, 2016

Ghost 1. An Obscure Origin. Wade Price & Brian Berg (Writers), Bob Raigen (Art). Kage Comics

A very engaging and enjoyable first issue that manages the difficulties of setting up a story with great confidence. Crescent City in Lousiana is a layered city, the bottom layer is the Tarare Ward which is a deprived slum and the stamping ground for the Carriers gang and their leader Plague. A group of Carriers are out working and filling in a new recruit on how the it really works in Crescent City when the encounter a very significant problem.
Any first issue of a new story has very considerable problems to solve, the details and context of the story have to be established and at the same time sufficient story momentum has to be created to keep the readers on the hook for the next installment. Wade Price and Brian Berg solve these problems with wonderful confidence and smart details. The story opens with a crisp and to the point info dump that provides enough information for the reader to orient themselves before it dives straight into the action. By having a new member in the crew there is room to explain the details that are needed without every having break the narrative flow of the story. The gang gets to, literally, flex their muscles and show off for the new member and so for the reader as well. The action carries the explanations when the pace slows down it does so in an entirely natural manner.
The set up for Ghost is artfully done, the gang explain that Ghost is a significant problem and that they are worried for good reason, the reasons become entirely clear, when Ghost appears and delivers just as he should. His reputation is entirely justified.
One of the pleasures of the book is the time Wade Price and Brian Berg take to give the Carriers room to establish themselves as more than just thugs in masks. The conversations they have have a nice , sharp with and bravado, they enjoy the power they have and at the same time have a real fear of Ghost. By the time Ghost shows up and trouble really starts they have established themselves and the impact of Ghosts actions is much greater, they are not just convenient props to be killed. In particular he new gang member is given the opportunity to reveal himself. There is sufficient ambiguity created about the "good guys" who are attacking the "bad guys" to make the story lift nicely and offer interesting  possibilities as the story progresses.
The art by Bob Raigen is striking and a pleasure to read. The panel s are used very well to control the tempo of the story, the action sequences are fast and engaging, the quieter moments are equally well done. The body language of the cast is very well conveyed and they are expressive and individual. The art is in a manga style and is nicely and very effectively exaggerated, this is just right for the story, it captures the heightened drama. The art is more than strong enough to carry the story by itself where it needs to and the creators have made smart decisions about where it should. The colouring is bright  which matches with the story lines. I really like the sound effects and the dialogue lettering is as unobtrusive as it should be. Some of the caption boxes, in particular on the opening page look a little out of place, they do not merge as fully into page, they appear to have been laid onto the artwork. This means they slightly distract the reader as a separate element on the page and draw attention away from the art.
Overall a smart, engaging comic that delivers an interesting set up that leaves enough questions and possibilities to make the reader look forward to the next step in the story.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Wade Price. If you would like to purchase a copy of Ghost (you should do so, the side effects from reading good comics include increased joy and happiness) it is available from insanecomics.com and comixology .

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Samurai. Jim Alexander (Writer), Luke Cooper (Art), Jim Campbell (Letters). Planet Jimbot (2016)

A engaging and entertaining stripped down story about revenge and choices. A Samurai returns to his village after being called to war to find that it has been destroyed by marauders have ransacked the village and killed everyone in it. He seeks revenge for this and then encounters a lone survivor from another attack and they continue together.
This is about as slender a story as it is possible to create a cohesive narrative with and this creates interesting story problems which Jim Alexander solves with thoughtful care. The motivation for the samurai is a genre classic, away at war he returns to death and destruction. He turns to revenge as all that he has to now live for. This is a classic because it does the job very efficiently, a understandable motive to propel the character into action. The first story problem is with the villains who have caused the destruction, are they both awful enough to be deserving of the revenge and dangerous enough to pose a problem to the revenger. An additional problem, frequently ignored in the genre is are they interesting enough that when trouble does come they fight has some weight beyond the physical?
With remarkable economy Jim Alexander solves all the problems and adds a smart twist that lifts the story out of the ordinary. The marauders, left behind by the end of the war and their side's defeat are given the time and space to register with the reader. They crave death and destruction as much as the samurai and they violent battle is superbly staged. Then Jim Alexander moves the story and the entirely unexpected appears and shows that one of the pleasures of genre conventions is artfully upsetting them. The samurai then continues and makes a choice that shows that revenge is not the only response he has left to the world. Again a unexpected move is made and the final road is opened for the samurai to travel with company this time.
Jim Alexander has made really good use of he compression to play with reader expectations while being entirely faithful to genre requirements. With so little space any story misstep or mistake would be fatal, none are made. The story works as a self contained fragment, it hides the very considerable craft needed to be able to do that.
The art by Like Cooper, black, white and gray is as lean and economical as the the story and it captures all the aspects with flair and drama. The art provides the action and the force that the story needs to work, the samurai's assault on the  marauders is a one page panel of extraordinary force and compression, it strips everything down to rage, blood and revenge. The unexpected event that follows is a lesson in how to unhesitatingly go for an idea and deliver it with just the right edge of bitter black comedy.Luke Cooper delivers the spaces between the action just as well as the action, the choices made are not made lightly and the characters clearly show this.
Jim Campbell's letters are clean, unobtrusive, his sound effects are smashing. They are just the perfect way to convey the action in the
loud way that is needed. They bring the drama of the action to the fore giving the action a physical contact that it demands.
An entirely satisfying, smart comic that packs a bigger punch that would be expected.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy that was kindly sent by Jim Alexander of Planet Jimbot. The Samurai will be launched at Birmingham Comics Festival (Edgbaston Stadium) on Saturday 23rd of April 2016. If you want to buy a copy, you should comics have been clinically proven to promote good health and visibly increase reader happiness, then The Samurai can be purchased from the Planet Jimbot shop: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/273712752/the-samurai

Max Overacts Volume 1: Hold on to Your Stubs. Caanan Grall (Writer & artist) Occasional Comics (2010)

Strongly developing a central idea Caanan Grall has created a deeply engaging, funny and warmly charming comic that matches tremendous art with smart writing. Max Fogarty is the pivot for the comic, a young boy who is convinced of his own acting genius, in (unrequited) love with a classmate and in a perpetual struggle with his older sister Andi.
The extensive cast has two layers, those who are present to provide dramatic and very funny conflicts with Max, this includes his classmates, neighbors and teachers. These characters are all given space to react to and with Max, they are in a large sense his true audience. They observe and  respond but do not shape his theatrics. They do respond very vividly, the reviews of the school play starring Max as Pinocchio delivered by his classmates are minor masterpieces of compressed venom. When they are given the opportunity they are every bit as expressive as Max.
The second layer includes Max's mother, his sister, and Janet who is the object of Max's affections and rightly annoyed by them. They are given the room to be more than just responding to Max and they create a generous wider context for the story. Each of them is as spiky and individual as Max, they stand out clearly in their own right and Max responds to them as much as they do to him. Mixing up the two layers of the cast gives the stories considerably more room to develop and depth for the interactions between the cast.
The writing is one of the distinct pleasures of the book, it is not economical as it frequently is in comics, it is rather lush and expressive. It does more than set up or execute the jokes, it is a extra level in the book, the conversations feel full, they are the conversations you wish you could have, the rhythms and fullness of the language is a joy. It gives the cast much more depth, they speak as if they had interior lives rather than just being vehicles for very funny jokes. The jokes emerge in a context that reveal the characters as much as the punchlines.
The art is stunning, it is a pleasure to read and provides countless details to attract and draw in the reader. The cast are full of life, in rest or in motion have a steady energy that is really attractive. They body language is consistently and artfully supporting or counterpointing the language, the combinations are finely judged and deliver strongly. There is one outstanding aspect to the art which is the way that Caanan Gall draws clothes, in particular dressing the female cast. They all get varied and interesting clothes to wear that suit them, they look well. Caanan Gall has not gone for the shorthand of giving a character a uniform and sticking to it, the cast have an extensive wardrobe and use it. This detail is really significant, the cast get an opportunity to dress differently and this gives them much more scope and depth. They are given personalities that are reflected in their clothes, like living people do. The bright colours give slightly exaggerated feel of cartoon which serves the stories well, they are serving Max's desire to be larger than life.
The lettering is very smart, using word balloons in frequently allows the words to merge more easily and freely into the panels. The changes in emphasis in the dialogue is well done, it gives tone and colour to to the words.
This is a smashing comic by a seriously talented creator, a pleasure.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Hero Busine$$: Season One. Bill Walko (Writer & Artist). theherobiz.com (2015)

Very entertaining, funny and consistently sharp and clever view of the superhero comic industry. Taking one of the most resonant phrases in superhero fiction and giving it a sharp twist the whole set up for the story is nicely laid out: "With great power comes great Marketability. The Hero Business is a personal management agency for superheros, they are image consultants, agents and managers for people who have fantastic powers and need a revenue stream to maintain themselves. Season One introduces the staff of the Hero Business, gives them some nice marketing problems to solve as well as having a story running that nicely ties everything together.
Superhero parodies are fatally easy, the sheer absurdity of the whole genre means that it is no effort to make them ridiculous, happily Bill Walko has chosen to go a different and for more interesting route. Much more interesting that mocking superheros is looking at the industry, the whole ecosystem including fans,that has developed around superheros. In the first pages of the book Bill Walko neatly spears the questions of superheros apparently dying and then undying and the possible back office management that the process requires. He also does a smart origin story that manages to sidestep all of the obvious pitfalls and focus on the actual marketing business that surrounds a self aware (too self aware) origin for a superhero.
 There is a story bubbling under that comes into its own when it should, it is necessary to give the whole idea more structure and some dramatic shape and focus rather than being a series of very enjoyable digs at the industry.
An idea like the Hero Business is going to lean very heavily on the cast, they have to manage the business of superheroics without being superheroic themselves. It is a great story problem and Bill Walko solves it with flair, detail and a strong sense of when something more than just being smart about the industry is enough. The mix of office work and super heroics is a difficult balance to pull off and Bill Walko does by having very recognisable office types that come to independent life by their vitality and commitment to the industry. Everything that is ridiculous about superheros is simply a matter for business management, opportunities to be exploited or minimised as required. By credibly working, using process that any reader has probably encountered at some point in a working life, they emerge as themselves. They are doing work that they really enjoy,they have careers in an industry that they want to be in, this makes the former enemies, a superhero now working for the business as a super consultant and a super villain as the Head of R and D much more integrated into the story. There is a solid context that allows the jokes to flourish without overcoming and smothering the essential balance of the story.
The art is cartoony, friendly and very inviting. The colours are bright and optimistic, they cover the very sharp points that Bill Walko makes about the industry. Bill Walko has found a way to be a superhero comics fan and to recognise the wheels of industry that support it without ever letting one upset the enjoyment of the other. This is a very smart love letter to comics by a perceptive fan that any comic fan would enjoy. A tonic and a cure for the days when comics have worn you out, a reminder of why you fell in love with them in the first place.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Deep Fried. Volume 1. Jason Yungbluth (Writer & Artist). Death Ray Graphics.

An slightly uneven anthology collection, the extremely strong stories outweigh the less successful entries.
Beepo and Roadkill feature in six episodes and all have the same problem, the rather aimless generalised anger and rage with everything and everybody that drives the stories is just too geralised and unstructured to hit the any target with force. As Roadkill notes the effort required to be outrageous increases greatly and effectively shocking anyone is getting more and more difficult. This essentially backs the stories into a corner that they fail to emerge from. They have funny moments, Beepo and Roadkill never engage with anything so everything they do is just so theatrical that it  lacks any impact. The art is great, it is energetic and forceful, the best parts of the stories are all visual, the sheer energy of the pages and the layouts is extraordinary.
Henderson Saves Face, when Henderson is insulted in a incident in a office car park he exacts a wildly over the top revenge on his co-worker. A two page story that is stretched at that length and without any impact or actual force. There is a sort of joke lurking very far within the excess, it might have been funny at much shorter length, or it may simply to be too slight to have survived any treatment at all.
The Salt Lake City Avengers  and No Justice, No League, are two superhero parodies that are worth reading only for the concentrated venom that Jason Yungbluth has for the genre. Most parodies have their roots in affection, it is very different to read ones that arise solely from bile.
Waiting for Planetary-a comic tragedy in 15 panels,  plays off Waiting for Godot and works ok if you have some sense of the play.
A Peanut Scorned (inks by Emil Novak & Gerry Coffey) is a fantatsic slice of science fiction noir that uses the cast of Peanuts in a astonishing way. Happily no knowledge of Peanuts is required to enjoy this bleak and fierce story, in a post apocalyptic wasteland a man with a robot arm searches for his kidnapped girl friend. The story is not new, the context and drive is, the whole set up is just a dark joy. The art is powerful and gripping, the wasteland of the world is conveyed with telling detail and enormous physical solidity. The story provides a solid framework and focus for the rage and energy that moves through all the stories in the book, captured by a story that can really use it the energy animates the whole story. The cast all come strongly to life, the fierce struggle to survive in the wasteland rings true, the utter hostility of the environment is manifest in every line.
Clarissa is a sexually abused little girl who features in three stories, two long and one a single page. Clarissia is introduced in a single page story that does not quite come off, the punch from the last panel does not balance well against the rest of the page.  Re-reading the story makes it much more effective as the knowledge is vital to understand the set up, the punch line then gets the necessary weight.
The two longer stories are pretty much flawless horror stories that are very nearly unbearable to read. The restrained art and tone of the stories allow the content to come forth without any obstacle. They are low key masterpieces of despair and hopelessness that grip the reader pull them in without mercy. The absnce of graphic detail is creates the room for the reader to fill in the spaces and to complete the context and events themselves. Clarissa is not sympathetic or pathetic, she is simply vulnerable and watching her be preyed upon is wrenching.
Jason Yungbluth is a significantly talented comic artist and writer when he has a strong story to deliver, in this volume there is more than enough of that talent on display to make it worth reading. It is a very bitter brew and a welcome reminder of the power of comics in the hands of talent.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lucky Penny. Ananth Hirsh (Writer), Yuko Ota (Art) Oni Press (2016)

A charming,engaging and great fun romantic story delivered with a light touch and quiet humour. Penny Brighton looses her job and her apartment on the same day, she find alternative employment (her boss is eleven and a half years old going on 55) and very alternative accommodation thanks to her ex flatmate. When Penny meets Walter at the local community centre (she had been searching for a free place to shower) it looks like she might been having an upturn in her luck and life. Smooth sailing is not Penny's forte and there are a lot of obstacles ahead, not least an very strange turn of events at the launderette where she works.
The female lead of a romantic comedy presents some very serious story problems for any writer, there is a requirement for them to be a little off centre but no so much as to be actively weird. They should be attractive without being wildly beautiful, they are an undiscovered jewel after all. The male lead recognises the qualities that she does not and brings then out for the audience. Ananth Hirsh takes this challenge and makes it look absurdly easy, Penny fits all the requirements and then does something extra, she is actually likeable. There is an appreciable difference between lovable and likable, creators frequently demand that we love their characters because they do and they are  just so lovable. Penny is much more interesting, she is likable and good company for the reader, she does sabotage her own life with flair, she is also genuinely unlucky. This creates an entirely unforced sympathy that is never traded upon, it is used to give her the space to fail and triumph with humour and charm.
Youko Ota'a art is a pleasure to read, the cast are expressive and full of life and energy, they respond vividly to their circumstances. Penny and Walter's  essential good hearted natures of  are evident without being flaunted, the art is both bold and consistently subtle. It bring out all of the aspects of the story and makes everything just exactly the right amount larger than life. There are frequent details that are a joy to read, I particularly love Penny's reaction to the realisation that she has packed away the car keys. It is just one of many treasures to be found. It is extraordinary how much detail Youko Ota has managed to include without ever cluttering any panel. The details proved an essential solidity to the story, they make the physical context very solid and frame the actions perfectly.
A romantic comedy is a tricky story to pull off, there are significantly more opportunities to loose the reader and there is very little cover for the creators. It is essentially a soap bubble, it takes very little to destroy it. With Lucky Penny Ananth Hirsh and Youko Ota have showed that they have the surest, lightest touch needed to produce glorious, charming and engaging soap bubbles that also have depth and subtle strength.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Zombie Ranch. Clint Wolf (Writer) Dawn Wolf (Art) Lab Reject Studios (2015)

A stunning idea backed by superb execution make for a hugely engaging and enjoyable comic. After the Great Zombie Plague had passed its peak and humanity was slowly recovering to the new equilibrium, zombies have moved to being a valuable commodity. Zombies are farmed on ranches out in the Wild Zones, a very dangerous process that is now the subject of a reality tv show  being filmed on the Z ranch.The Z ranch is owned and managed by Suzie Zane and her crew comes under the scrutiny of the flying camera robots of ClearStream. An accident at the ranch has ferocious consequences and Suzie and the staff at Z ranch find that they are under siege from a vengeful family. A classic western story idea is used with care and thoughtful skill to frame an very intriguing story that is never afraid of big ideas and smart action.
Clint Wolf has given himself a very considerable story problem to lift off the ground and he does with with engaging confidence, skill and unexpected willingness to be true to all of the elements he brings to the comic. Using a Western story framework, an embattled rancher isolated from outside help having to fight off  determined attackers is a solid start. This framework is a classic because it works, it offers a writer considerable scope to move a story in a large number of directions. Having the it be a zombie ranch, where the products are a constant threat in themselves is a wonderful spin on the zombie story idea, it slots amazingly well in with the western framework. Wrapping the whole concept up with a reality tv gives the whole match up room to breathe as they give the reader a chance to be an observer as well as offering a direct link to the greater post Zombie Plague wider world.The detailed, and remarkably unobtrusive, world building that Clint Wolf does is a joy. The balance and contrast between the protected zones and the wild zones is set up artfully and frames the situation at the ranch very clearly.
The sheer density of the story idea could easily become a problem, instead they work together to build a credible stage for the wonderful cast to perform on. Suzie Zane is a deeply engaging character principally because she does not set out to be, she is strongly focused on making a living from the ranch, the tv camera are revenue not publicity for her. Her deliberate competence and willingness to accept decision making are a pleasure and she is blessed in having really, really excellent opponents to test her. Clint Wolf has neatly set up the different layers of threat to Suzie and the ranch, the most visible being the least dangerous, the depth of the situation is slightly known by the reader and is a great story hook. The rest of the cast are singular and individual, they demand attention and are never quite what might have been expected.
The art by Dawn Wolf is equal to the enormous demands the story places on it, the requirement to be realistically fantastical is achieved with the same level of confidence as the writing. There is a clear development in the art across the length of the volume as Dawn Wolf hits her stride with the cast and the ranch. The sheer emptiness of the wild zone is subtly conveyed, the landscapes are not given in detail, they are almost abstract. This strongly contrasts with the vivid body language and motion of the cast, alive and dead, the wild zone is every meaning of wild. The colouring is classic western colouring, it catches the light of the big open desert vistas just as it should. It finds the story tones and nuances and brings them forward without forcing them.
This is a really ambitious comic, a huge story that is carefully unfolding in a deeply satisfying context with a smashing cast and creative confidence. The creators have solved a considerable technical problem, the comic translates seamlessly from a page a week updating web comic to a physical book. The fact that both mediums work so well is a considerable tribute to the strength and depth of the story management talent that Clint and Dawn Wolf bring to Zombie Ranch. This is an outstanding comic, what a pleasure to read it.