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Friday, July 29, 2016

Death at the Priory. Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England.James Ruddick. Atlantic Books (2001)

A very engaging and enjoyable study of a famous,unsolved, murder in April 1876. Charles Bravo died at his home, The Priory in in Belham, south of London, he had been poisoned and suffered days of agony before he died. The murder could only have been committed by someone in the house at the time, no one was identified, charged or convicted. The death of Charles Bravo has retained the enduring appeal of unsolved mysteries and James Ruddick examines the details of the case and offers a solution.
Florence Campbell married Alexander Ricardo in 1864 , Alexander died in 187 leaving Florence a wealthy widow. Florence married Charles Bravo, a barrister, in  December 1875, he was dead five months later.
James Ruddick carefully fills in the details of the context for Florence Campbell's life as a woman in Victorian England, as a daughter and a wife she was essentially always someone else's property which a very limited say in the control and management of her own life. When her marriage to Alexander Ricardo broke down in 1870 and she returned to her father's house, he insisted that she return to her husband. Control of her money was a key problem in her short marriage to Charles Bravo.In the interval between the death of Alexander Ricardo and her marriage to Charles Bravo Florence had an affair with a very prominent doctor, James Gully, that was discovered and created very considerable social problems for Florence.
James Ruddick then looks at the details of the death of Charles Bravo, he took some days to day and was attended by some of the most famous doctors of the day as well as the inquest which followed his death, which was followed with enormous interest by the public as the scandalous details of Florence's affair with Dr Gully were revealed. No one was found to be responsible for Charles Bravo's murder.
The second half of the book is the investigation that James Ruddick undertook into the case and the conclusion that he came to. The details are very well laid out and the new information that he has uncovered very interesting. The conclusion that he reaches is very plausible and well considered. The only problem with it is the certainty that James Ruddick delivers it with. The events in the murder of Charles Bravo are too far gone to allow for anything more than a decision based on the balance of probability, on that basis his conclusion is very strongly possible and is very persuasive. James Ruddick pushes a little too hard for his proposal, in am imperfect world there should always be room for doubt.
This is a fascinating and very sympathetic account of the life of a very unfortunate woman who found that her limited life choices had very severe consequences, for herself and for others who were trapped by the events at the Priory. The historical and social details of the context are clearly explained and the investigation itself is thorough and intriguing.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chess-Masters 1 & 2. Bradley Golden, Gary McClendon (Writers), Marcelo Salza (Art & Letters), Geraldo Filho (Colours). Insane Comics (2015/2016)

An enjoyable and engaging superhero comic. Chess-Masters are a superhero group from the 25th century pulled back to 21st century New York by a super villain, the Pawn Master. The Pawn Master has set up the Chess-Masters  as invaders and they arrive to a hostile reception, the results of which which nicely reinforces thier status with the 21 century authorities. The Chess-Masters  find a very unexpected host in New York and links to a greater enemy than the Pawn Master. A direct confrontation with the Pawn Master has a very unhappy outcome.
Bradley Golden and Gary McClendon have set up a solid superhero story with a great many possible story directions. The elements of a superhero story have all be assembled  very nicely, a superhero group is pulled out of their native context and face a consequential threat. The time travel element is used effectively to support the story structure, the supervillians are suitably smart and effective, they present a genuine problem to the Chess-Masters. The team themselves diverse enough to give some room for dynamic interactions and any story that uses Excalibur credibly has a strong creative force behind it.
What is missing is the depth of confidence that a superhero story requires to gain momentum, there is a little too much telling instead of showing. The Chess-Masters  are African- American and Bradley Golden and Gary McClendon feel no need to explain their deliberate confident choice. That confidence falters when it comes to the superheroics, they are delivered nicely, they are also glossed and explained by the cast in case the reader does not read the situation. Readers of superhero comics are expert at reading situations like this, what they want is to be trusted to do so. The writers have set up the boundaries of the story with flair, now they need the confidence to unleash stories that put the Chess-Masters  in into situations that test them severely and can be solved only by the thoughtful application of their superpowers. This is the the thrill that superhero comics deliver.
Marcelo Salza's art is a pleasure to read, the panel layouts are used with imagination and care to structure the story beats to maximum effect. There is no modesty about the Chess-Masters  or the Pawn Master, they are larger than life and they act it. They dominate the action when it is required and are suitable to the context in the quiet times. The expressions and body language are slightly exaggerated and eloquent, a superhero comic need a slight exaggerated tone all the time to allow for the crescendo of the action to fit. The art makes the context realistic for superhero action which is a considerably harder task to achieve than it might seem. The whole context has to play to the concept. Marcelo Salza has drawn the superheros and villain as recognisably human forms, they look fit and strong rather than grotesque which strongly supports the story. The lettering is quiet and easy to read, it is so naturally part of the panels that it is almost unseen which is no mean feat.
I love the sound effects, like the sound track to an action film, superhero sound effects are vital and the Chess-Masters  has brilliant sound effects. Big, loud and utterly attention grabbing that swing the action right at the reader with the abandon that superhero action needs.
Geraldo Filho's colours are a match for the story and the art, they are bold and sharp, they bring out the details of the cast and the context giving them a solid physical presence and weight.
The creative team behind Chess-Masters clearly understand the mechanics of superhero comics, if they trust themselves and their readers a little more they will make a very enjoyable comic into an superb one.
Chief Wizard Note: These are review copies very kindly sent by Bradley Golden. Chess-Masters are available from Good comics like Chess-Masters are the clinically proven origin for superpowers of increased joy in living, you should try this for yourself.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Alien Hand Syndrome 2. Justin Capello (Writer & Art) Insane Comics (2016)

An enjoyable and engaging second issue that pushes the story forward very nicely. Jet who broke into the facility was wounded by the super-soldier Twelback and is in a bad way. Twelback is annoyed and intrigued by the break-in and the action and he talks about the situation with two other visitors. Jet, Wheelie and Dr. Polaski fee in their flying Plymouth and Jet has a flashback to the start of their involvement with aliens. This issue has to solve the problem of providing a lot of information (not too much however) to the reader without losing the momentum of the story and it manages this very well.
Justin Cappello solves the problem of talking heads in a comic at the facility by having interesting talking heads and putting some bite into the conversation between the three. The action sequence where the final stages of the break-in are detailed by Twelback are very well done, the figures are a little stiff but the energy is present and the action has clear physical weight and impact on the cast. The very far from heroic previous lives of Jet and Wheelie are nicely caught as the frustration with their lives and limited circumstances start to press on them. A unexpected encounter on a dark forest road clearly marks the start of a new direction in their lives.
A enjoyable part of the story is the way that Justin Cappello hoards the information, clearly there are extensive back stories to to the cast that get alluded to without drowning the reader in information. The story possibilities are very well set up and create multiple possibilities for the future direction of the story.
The black and white art is lovely and a pleasure to read, the cast are distinctive and very expressive, the faces and body language are very strong. The background details are impressive, the problem is that they two do not fully integrate with each other, the cast can look as though they are resting on the background context rather than in it. Personally I find white lettering on a black background to be a bit hard to read, I have to pay more attention to it than I want and it can pull me a little out of the story.
Minor quibbles aside this is greatly enjoyable, thoughtful science fiction that balances action with character development and sets up story possibilities that engage the reader. There is a nice big story here that Justin Cappello is confidently delivering.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Justin Cappello. Alien Hand Syndrome will be available from at the start of August. You should pick up a copy, good science fiction comics are clinically proven to increase happiness and contentment.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Doctor Who. Time Lord Fairy Tales. Justin Richards (Writer), David Wardle (Art), Adam Linley (Drop Capitals) Puffin Books (2015)

A very enjoyable collection of classic fairy tales set in a science fiction, specifically Doctor Who, context.
Justin Richards has done a great job of being true to the stories while doing more than just giving them a new coat of paint. While the overall standard is very good there are a number of stand outs that just get the new mix exactly right.
Cinderella and the Magic Box manages to insert the TARDIS, cast Doctor Who as a fairy godmother with a wonderful explanation for the glass slipper and a very smart twist on the midnight rule for Cinderella.
The Three Little Sontarans is clever and engaging, the villain is satisfactorily tough and smart, a real problem for the third Sontarans.
Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday juggles the familiar elements with clever details that make for a sharp story.
The Grief Collector is the stand out story in the collection, it does what fairy tales all do, it presents a horrifying idea quietly and directly, there is love and courage and a suitably grim end for the villain.
Justin Richards has not shied away from the sharp edges that fairy stories all have, they are still present and shown off to the great effect in the new context. The use of Doctor Who is are carefully rationed, he is a player in the stories not the central character, prior knowledge is fun but not necessary. These stories stand very strongly on their own considerable merits.
The  black and white illustrations by David Wardle have the look if woodcuts, they capture perfectly the history of the stories while their content is clearly science fiction.
The ornate drop capitals that open each story are a pleasure, a smart nod to an old fashioned style that are decorative and set the mood.
This book has accomplished a very difficult task, the fairy tale style is played up with the art and the stories leap effortlessly into a far future context that shows how strong these stories are. A great read for nostalgic pleasure and a delight in seeing such craft and talent.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Modern Testament Tales of the Ethereal. Vol 2.Frank Martin (Writer), Adrian Crasmary, Igor Chakal, Noreus Teves (Art), Stanislaus Leonov, Laura Ruggeri (Colours), Kel Nuttal (Letters). Insane Comics (2016)

A very engaging and enjoyable anthology that executes a strong idea ,bibilical monsters in a modren context, with force and clarity.
"Schoolyard Monster", written by Frank Martin, art by Adrian Crasmary, letters by Kel Nuttal. The set up for this story is simple, Joseph is being bullied at school and neglected by his parents. The relationship between Joseph and the bully, Rudy, is horribly plausible, Joseph is angry, frustrated and scared, Rudy has a nice line in self serving talk about helping Joseph. That the Golem arises from Joseph's frustrated helplessness is quietly made and the need that Rudy has for Joseph as a victim is well established. The Golem is a tool, a means to an end that Joseph desperately wants and cannot achieve by himself.  Frank Martin can deliver a lot of information and context in a very small pace, the single panel of breakfast with Joseph and his parents captures Joseph's home life with cutting economy and great impact.
The art by Adrian Crasmary is a pleasure to read. The absence of sharp lines softens the look of the story and lets the very harsh intent of the story emerge in its own time. The expressive body language and faces of the cast are in marked contrast to the blankness of the Golem. The contrast between Joseph and Rudy is never overdone, there is just enough of a difference in height to make it clear that malice as much as strength is what Rudy uses to dominate Joseph. The muted colours capture the details of the physical context and shade the faces very effectively. Best of all the Golem never dominates the story with his presence, he is part of the context never overshadowing the real action.
"The Great Hunt" written by Frank Martin, art by Igor Chakal, colours by Stanislaus Leonov. A couple arrive on game reserve looking to hunt a creature that apparently has killed other hunters. Naturally they ignore the warnings from the warden and head out on their way to capture their prey. It does not end well.  Frank Martin includes some details to give the considerably more weight and impact. The reason the couple are hunting the creature is simple and strong and the final pay off effective.The set up seems to deliver stock characters in a well worn situation, the motivation for the trip pulls them directly to life just in time to encounter the Behemoth.
Igor Chakal's art captures the feel of old films about reckless white big game hunters who were lead by arrogance out of their depth in the bush. This is exactly what the straight lines of the story needs, the momentum that leads to the confrontation. When it arrives it is delivered with great force and impact. The details are every bit as bloody and brutal as they need to be. Stanislaus Leonov's colours are a bright and bold as the reserve should be, when the switch comes to night time, the lighting is not dimmed to hide the action. Stanislaus Leonov manages something difficult, the nighttime is important, still the details of the attack have to be vivid and the sequence works without feeling absurd on either count.
"What Is He Good For? (Absolutely Nothing)" written by Frank Martin, art by Noreus Teves, colours by Laura Ruggeri. This is the most substantial story of the three due to the fact that Frak Marshall has solved a very considerable problem and made it look easy. In any story if a member of the cast is one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse the story is very likely to buckle under the weight of this character. They are such  forceful concepts that trying to fit them into a human context without them destroying any dramatic tension is a very significant story problem. Frank Martin does exactly that and  then uses the character is  dramatically satisfying way.
Noreus Teves's art creates the necessary physical context for the story, it has to have a very strong sense of place to support the huge weight of the Horseman, the details have to very strong to allow the human cast a chance. The swagger and well founded confidence exuded by the Horseman is  powerfully displayed and contrasted with the fear and uncertainty of the human cast.
The bright colours used by Laura Ruggeri capture the sunshine of the cruise, the darkness is all in the unfolding events. The vivid colours of the Horseman's outfit is a smart contrast to his usual outfits and provides very effective camouflage.
Kel Nuttal's letters are quietly unobtrusive and natural, they are easy to read and never draw attention away from the art or the story.The tremendous sound effects on the other hand are a out loud joy, they add depth to and weight to the action.
This is a very impressive comic, Frank Martin has something to say and does so without ever unbalancing the stories, the artists bring all the nuances of the stories to the fore without crowding or forcing the reader.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Frank Martin. Modern Testament Tales of the Ethereal. Vol 2. will be available from from Monday 20th June 2016.  You should get a copy, reading good comics has been proven to deliver elevated levels of happiness an satisfaction with living.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Untold Stories. Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber. Profile Books (2005)

A very engaging and enjoyable collection of pieces that cover a wide range of topics. Alan Bennett refers to the book in his introduction as an album, a collection on unrelated written pieces that are collected under various headings. The lack of a unifying theme makes this large book easier to read, there is no necessity for the reader to maintain any continuity when reading the sections, they each stand for themselves. Whatever the topic, they range from an autobiographical piece about his parents and a piece of hidden family history, lectures on painting, extracts from his dairies and a wonderful dramatic monologue, the consistent aspect is the voice of the author.
While this could be a problem in the monologue in which the speaker is an elderly woman in a nursing home, reading it in the middle of other items shows the depth of Alan Bennett's talents as a writer. The character emerges vividly from the words, the woman is old but in no way feeble and at the same time very clearly an Alan Bennett character.
The same is true of all the pieces in the book, in particular the autobiographical pieces, Alan Bennett explores Alan Bennett the character with the same care and attention to detail as the writer devotes to his fictional characters in his plays. This is a really good thing, no one's life is really interesting to anyone else, in an unedited, unformed shape it is just a series of mundane events more or less interrupted by something that can be packaged up for the interest of others. The difference is the skill with which it is packaged and in this volume Alan Bennett displays a rare and astonishing skill.
The portrait of his parents is both heartfelt, unblinking and deeply sympathetic to people who would have squirmed at the attention. The details of his mothers steady loss of personality but not physical health and the significantly messy reactions it creates are thankfully not undermined by guilt or structural demands for sympathy from the reader. By casting himself as a character, the writer can develop a required distance from the events to capture the tangle without loosing sight of the fact that the reader is in fact a stranger.
This is true also for the piece about being diagnosed with cancer and his struggle not only to live with it but to manage the eternal aspect of living with cancer without becoming a victim of cancer. The dynamic struggle between an innate reticence and the push for communication inherent in being a writer is nicely made explicit.
The tone of the pieces, including the lectures on delivered as a Trustee of the National Gallery in London is conversational. Alan Bennett is emphatically talking directly to the the reader in his own voice, they are all monologues delivered by a master of the art. The pieces rarely follow a straight line, they turn and wander and return as a conversation might as the performer tries to maintain the interest and attention of the audience. Alan Bennett is conscious that he is requesting something very valuable from the reader, time and attention, and lacking a clear dramatic structure and pay off to reward this has to do so another way. The superbly constructed pieces draw in the reader and reward the time and attention with strong, considered views, excellent jokes and interesting company from a man who is interested in others. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Quest for the Time Bird. Serge Le Tendre (Writer), Regis Loisel (Art), Inanka Hahnenberger (Translation). Titan Books (2015)

A wonderful, sprawling heroic fantasy that takes full advantage of the genre and the possibilities of comics. The aging knight Bragon is contacted by the sorceress-princess Marsa to come out of retirement for an urgent mission. The evil  god Ramor will escape his prison and bring death and devastation to the world of Akbar if he is not stopped. The only way to stop him is to find the Time Bird, this will allow Mara halt time long enough to carry out the spells required to bind Ramor back in his prison. The time to find the Time Bird is short, there are nine days to go before Ramor will be free. Bragon has to find the conch Ramon was imprisoned in then find the Time Bird. The journey takes a long and very scenic route to a final confrontation which has unexpected consequences.
Heroic fantasy is easy to get wrong, the mechanics are considerably more subtle than they appear on the surface, there is a requirement for a degree of overwriting to capture the outsized nature of the context, it has to be carefully disciplined at the same time not to be simply overblown. Serge Le Tendre does not always get the balance right, there is a consistent tendency to tell as well as show, for heroic fantasy in comics less talking usually better. At the same time the overall structure of the story and the wonderful range of locations and the stunning cast are very powerful and engaging. The cast are given the chance to establish themselves firmly before they move to their inevitable confrontations. The story does not rest completely on Bragon's broad shoulders, there is a determined cast all wanting the readers time and attention.Serge Le Tendre treats the story and the cast with the serious care, there is no winking at the audience that everyone know who ridiculous this is. Serge Le Tendre has the professional courage to take the story and the readers seriously and this gives the whole story a vital force and depth that pays off in full at the conclusion.
Regis Loisel's art is a a pleasure to read, the extremely difficult task of making a fantastic context concrete and physically present as a way to ground the action is made to look easy. The range of perspectives used give a sense of the scale of the journey as well as the different regions that exist on the world of Akbar. The details are consistently generous and frame and support the action. The cast move with great force within their context and the action is every bit as forceful as it should be. Bragon's companion the journey, Pelisse, is at first glance  set of over sized breasts on legs, the art reveals her character as much as her cleavage. She is a necessary foil to the weary experience of Bragon while creating room for a running joke that brings some nice comic relief. The colouring is everything that heroic fantasy should be, it is as big and bold as the journey, it bring the details to life and makes the world of Akbar lift off the page.
Inanka Hahnenberger' translation is transparent, while the story has a very distinct non-anglophone flavour, the words never feel other than natural in their context.
This is a feast of a comic, it takes its time to follow the heroic journey, the sweep and scope are given full reign in the art and the conclusion mixes the expected and the unexpected with flair. Wonderful in every sense.