REVIEW: Prime-8s #1

It’s been a little while now since Skybreaker introduced me to both MonkeyBrain Comics and the work of Michael Moreci.  Since then, I’ve read a wide range of MonkeyBrain comics and I’ve been very impressed by their diverse lineup of titles.  And I’m currently working my way through Moreci’s Image series Hoax Hunters and enjoying it a good deal.  So it’s nice to see the two come together again with Prime-8s #1, the first issue of Moreci’s new MonkeyBrain series.  And as much as I liked Skybreaker, I feel I can safely say this is a sizeable improvement!

One thing to notice right away is that, while I pointed out how elusive a first issue Skybreakers #1 was, holding its narrative cards close to its chest, Prime-8s #1 has no such concern.  We beginning with an explosive, dynamic action sequence that plays a bit like a pre-credits scene in a Bond movie, which also manages to give us a super-concise origin story for our heroic monkeys boiled down to a series of captured images and concludes with a highly inventive visual trick that caught me by surprise.  From there, we launch into a whirlwind of economic character introductions, Moreci and Hoax Hunters co-writer Steve Seeley establishing a rich selection of distinct personalities.  It’s a strange world Moreci and Seeley have created with Kyle Latino – a kind of Fantastic Four with monkeys where a group of 8 primates were sent into space and ended up with superhuman powers… and the ability to walk, talk and think like humans – but by the end of the first issue it feels fleshed out.  It helps that the page length is a generous 24 pages, considering I’ve noticed quite a few MonkeyBrain titles have a more conservative page count of 14-16.

What Prime-8s put me in mind of – and I mean this as a compliment – is one of those insanely toyetic ’90s Saturday morning cartoons that emerged in the wake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the likes of Biker Mice from Mars or Street Sharks, where all the major characters were animal/human hybrids and there were teams of good guys and bad guys alike.  But Kyle Latino’s loose, energetic art captures a retro tone that also filters in the atmosphere of old Jack Kirby comics or ’70s adventure movies.  The whole comic just feels like a cocktail of wide-eyed childhood glee.

But it’s not all pastiche.  Moreci and Seeley manage to work some heart into their storytelling too, with a little exploration of how time can erode friendship, and the impact of celebrity.  These are retro heroes trying to hold onto a heyday that has long gone, grasping to recapture the old glory through various diminishing returns.  For some, the empty artifice of recreation weighs on their souls, while others keep on fighting the good fight but struggle to remain as effective without all their teammates by their side.  It’s all a strong set-up for the “getting the gang back together” phase that’s sure to come.

Between this and Dungeon Fun, this has been a real treat of a week for fans of masterfully executed all-ages fun and adventure.  Kyle Latino gets a real showcase for his craft in world-building here, while Moreci and Seeley follow up Hoax Hunters with another worthy collaboration.  Yet another success for MonkeyBrain Comics, one well primed to become their trademark comic.  You could even say it puts the “monkey” in “MonkeyBrain!”

Prime8s1Prime-8s #1 is out now to buy from ComiXology.

REVIEW – Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1

Here’s a case of a comic turning out to be something quite different than what you thought it was.  See, when I first heard about Wraith, I thought it was going to be Joe Hill’s follow-up to Locke & Key, a new original comic series in for an extended run.  It was only in preparation for writing this review, with doing a little further reading, that I discovered Wraith is in fact an adaptation of a prose short story by Joe Hill, a prequel to a horror novel he wrote called NOS4A2, and that this run is only going to be a miniseries.  This was a bit of a disappointment to me, as I read the actual comic comparing it to Locke & Key #1 and thinking of it as an introduction to a brand new comics universe.  And it actually works incredibly well in that regard.

There’s something of a throwback quality to Wraith, with its lurid presentation and verbose panels, that puts me in mind of old horror comics of a bygone era.  Not quite way back to Tales of the Crypt type stuff, but maybe more reminiscent of the early work of the likes of JM Dematteis or Stephen Bissette, in that it actually manages to be scary.  It is difficult to make genuinely scary horror, especially a genuinely scary horror comic.  But Joe Hill’s story manages to illicit some bona fide chills here, touching on some raw nerves that I find frightening in a story.  For example, right from the very beginning the idea of child endangerment is brought into play, and more particularly the notion of a child being stolen and taken far away from home, with the possibility of return looking increasingly remote.  And the story as a whole touches on an even more intimite, primal fear: the idea of an evil within, of something happening that makes you not you anymore, replacing you with something perverse and monstrous instead.  Underneath the pop culture ubiquity that has gnawed away at their ability to frighten, it’s the core idea of what originally made vampires or zombies frightening.  And it’s channelled to particularly unnerving effect here.

Our narrator and “protagonist” (if we can call him that) here is Charlie Manx, who we see at the beginning at his most monstrous.  And from there we go back to get his “origin” story, to see how he ended up this way.  It’s a narrative deftly weaved by Joe Hill, as Manx undeniably had a hard, difficult life, and Hill courts our sympathy just enough only to pull back and have Manx do something awful that reminds us of who we’re dealing with here.  Manx’s personality shines through strong throughout this issue, with the narration of his backstory seeped with his voice, immersing us in the rhythm to the point where we can just imagine his hypnotic drawl in our heads, with a grating over-use of exclamation marks that suggests a false, heavy-handed cheerfulness that he likely imagines is charming while in fact it is creepy.

If there is any flaw in Wraith #1, it is perhaps that Hill luxuriates a little too much in Manx’s narrative voice.  There are extended sequences of the book quite densely packed with narrative  captions, so much so that Shawn Lee and Robbie Robbins’ lettering has to be shrunk down to eye-straining tininess to cram it all in.  But in the long run this probably ends up being more of a blessing than a curse, as it makes this an unusually dense, detailed comics read.  One might on average breeze through a comic in around 10-15 minutes.  I spent a good half hour on my first reading of this, due to both the level of story packed into each page and the way I had to go back and reread sequences to see how shock revelations were set up earlier in the narrative.  As I alluded to before, it makes this a highly immersive read.

But perhaps the true hero of Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 is artist Charles Paul Wilson III.  Best known as the artist of Stuff of Legend, and with a well-deserved reputation as one of the true gentlemen of comics, his work here could see Wilson enjoy a big boost in his profile.  It feels different to anything he’s done before, with the graceful, storybook quality of Stuff of Legend replaced with rough, queasy linework.  Jay Fotos’ washed-out color scheme enhances this sense of palor, with the combined effect being the aesthetic of a rotten, curdled world, one where nothing is quite as it should be.  And some of the imagery Wilson crafts is pure nightmare fuel.  A young Manx happily lying in his coffin bed next to a decaying corpse.  The most terrifying snowmen since that shitty Michael Keaton, all gaping black-hole mouths in endless screams and grasping branch-arms that silently lurch forward in a manner reminiscent of the Doctor Who weeping angels.  Manx himself, with his pasty-white skin, clawed fingernails and rotten teeth.  And perhaps most horrifying of all, the sight of little girls with beady, soulless eyes and a shark’s mouth crammed full of pointed razor-teeth.

I think the reason I’m so disappointed about this being a short-lived miniseries rather than a new Locke & Key sized opus is because the world introduced here (to me, at least, for the first time) is so rich and packed with horrid detail that I want to spend a lot of time in it – even if I most definitely wouldn’t want to spend any time in Christmasland!  At the very least, the excellence of Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 makes me want to check out Joe Hill’s novel N0S4A2.

Wraith1Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 is out now in all good comic shops.

REVIEW: D4VE #1

Ryan Ferrier is a writer who first made a name for himself with his self-published series Tiger Lawyer, and who first entered my radar with gritty ’70s-style exploitation revenge thriller The Brothers James.  And now he’s back with a new series from the increasingly prestigious MonkeyBrain Comics, D4VE, paired up with artist Valentin Ramon.  The first two issues of The Brothers James impressed me, but if those were an example of an emerging creative voice still refining itself, then D4VE #1 stands as Ferrier’s most polished work yet.

There isn’t much forward plot motion in this first issue.  There is a little, but it’s ominous strains going on in the background for the most part, seeds waiting to flower down the line.  But what we do get is backstory, world-building, and character, character, character.  The dominant force in this first issue is our title character, D4VE.  Ferrier gives us a fully-realised character, incredibly relatable, who ironically enough feels like one of the most recognisably human comic protagonists of the past year, given that he’s a robot.  Once, he was a world-saving hero, but now he’s an office drone, beaten down by a bullying boss, a nagging wife and a son he can’t relate to.  It all feels like a bit of a parable for how a creative personality can be worn down by the mundane realities of life, which strikes a chord for a starving writer such as myself!

In a wider sense, Ferrier seems to have a few interesting things to say about the human condition, using non-humans to illustrate his point.  This robot master race that conquers Earth, then the cosmos, ultimately chooses to settle into mediocrity and the mundane, blind consumerism, because they feel it is expected of them, because it’s what humans would do.  There’s this real poignancy in the imagery of the robots – formerly warriors, or explorers – shuffling down the unemployment line looking to be assigned a cushy office gig, or sitting across the breakfast table with a bride they have nothing in common with, doing all this stuff that crushes them just because it’s what is done.  It feels like a really bleak Charlie Brooker style commentary on empty consumerism and our ultimately unfulfilling lives.

Of course, a big part of D4VE’s personality is conveyed through his “acting”, or how he’s brought to life by artist Valentin Ramon.  And Ramon does a fantastic job.  D4VE has no face, and yet Ramon is able to project onto that blank canvas joy, sadness, confusion, boredom, frustration, despair.  Just in general, it’s one of the coolest character designs of the year: the bashed, scuffed metallic exterior of a robot clothed in rumpled, not-quite-fitting human work clothes.  Across the board, Ramon excels in doing things with his almost entirely robotic ensemble cast to make them come across as expressive and engaging – the expression of one open-mouthed patron at a robot strip club in particular is a hoot!

As far as the world-building goes, once again, Ramon delivers the goods.  The whole aesthetic of this opening issue feels reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: that’s the touchstone that kept on popping up in my head.  Just the idea of this overblown metropolis juggernaught filled with whirring cocks and gears and endless work quotas – cast in stark contrast to the rich dream life of its downtrodden protagonist – put me in mind of that movie classic, and it’s always a good thing to be compared to!  Together, Ramon and Ferrier have created a nuanced, compelling world, with an intriguing history and a highly likeable character at the centre of it all.  Everything is well positioned to have us well invested as the plot gears click into place in issues to come.

Ferrier deserves major kudos for D4Ve #1.  From Tiger Lawyer to The Brothers James to this, he’s always upping his game, and he seems to be on a career trajectory that should comfortably take him to fronting his own Image book within a couple of years, should he choose to go that route.  But perhaps the real discovery of this first issue is Valentin Ramos, whose slick visuals are laced with character and emotion.  Both creators are on my “to watch” list, as is this series.  Another win for MonkeyBrain!

D4VE1D4VE #1 is available to buy on ComiXology from next week.  Pre-order it here.

REVIEW: Drumhellar #1

I’m facing something of a dilemma right now, as regards my reviewing of creator-owned comics.  I do try my utmost to review everything that is sent my way, eventually.  But I get sent quite a lot of comics, and it seems like the backlog is getting longer and longer, because rather than drawing from this treasure trove of comics submitted for my attention by talented new writers and artists, I instead find myself drawn to gush about new releases that have caught my eye, more often than not from Image.  I would love to get back to that backlog of awesome indie comics, really – there’s a new Tall Tales from the Badlands awaiting my attention, for crying out loud! – but these past few months have just been too damn good, with just about every week offering some exciting new debut.  It’s a veritable onslaught!  And this week, Image debuts the launch I’ve been looking forward to arguably more than any other in 2013: Drumhellar, drawn and co-plotted by artist extraordinaire Riley Rossmo and scripted by Alex Link.

Riley Rossmo is an artist who’s been on my radar for a few years now, going back to his highly distinctive work on Green Wake.  That dark, horror-tinged noir from Image marked him out as a highly unusual artist worth keeping an eye on, and stellar, diverse turns in the likes of Bedlam and Wild Children solidified his status in my eyes.  Rossmo has a remarkable craft for both showing considerable range in shifting his style to meet the demands of the story he’s telling, and for always giving us comic book art that’s unmistakably his.  Whether  it’s the harsh, scratchy quality of Green Wake or Bedlam or the light, fluid bounce of Wild Children or Proof, his work has this loose, free-flowing energy that gives his comics an offbeat rhythm, creating a sense that anything could happen.  Rossmo is superstar material in my eyes, and I firmly believe he has all the tools to be the biggest artist in the comics world one day, should the right project pop up.  And Drumhellar might just be that project.

The best way to describe Drumhellar would be “The X-Files meets The Big Lebowski.”  It tells the story of Drum Hellar – possibly a paranormal investigator, possibly just a guy who weird things happen to – who uses psychadelics and various other unusual methods to see strange, possibly prophetic visions.  And something he sees takes him back to one of his old haunts: a small town in South Dakota, where Drum has to deal with bisexual werewolves, ancient bogmen and a resentful ex.  Oh, and his best friend is a talking, ethereal purple cat called Harold who may or may not be imaginary.  And yes, this first issue is just as odd as that synopsis would suggest.

A big part of the success of this world-building is down to writer Alex Link, who similarly co-plotted and scripted unorthodox horror Rebel Blood with Rossmo.  Link’s ear for naturalistic dialogue grounds all these bizarre happenings with believably nuanced characters, with the verbal sparring between Drum and his ex Padma working as a bedrock of credibility that helps us to invest in the world as it spills into the increasingly surreal.  Even small characters like diner waitress Wanda are given voices laced with personality.  Thanks to Link’s skillful writing, no one ever feels like a solely functional cog in a plot machine, but rather a rounded character who the events of the plot happen around.

But the true superstar showcase here comes with the visuals of Riley Rossmo.  Right from the striking, entirely silent opening page that leads into one of the most memorable, intensely weird opening scenes of any comic in 2013, Rossmo’s trippy artwork demands your attention.  Crazy opener aside, though, Rossmo actually dials things back in the beginning, presenting an aesthetic of eerily familiar Americana that only gradually slips into unhinged psychadelia over the course of the issue.  Because the various locales feel such like real, tangible places (likely informed by Rossmo’s travelling he reportedly did as research for the series), the appearance of a giant purple triceratops feels all the more unusual when it happens.  And it’s in the quieter work that Rossmo truly shines for me.  If Link’s finely-crafted voicework goes a long way towards bringing characters like Drum and Padma to life, Rossmo’s knack for naturalistic body language and facial expression more than finish the job.  Rossmo’s figures never feel like they’re posing for a comic panel.  He’s long had this ability for capturing natural, relaxed gestures and postures that feel like what characters might make in between the big dramatic motions of a typical comic book panel, and here that’s combined with some of his most refined work on subtle shifts in facial expressions to present characters who feel like they could be real people, even when they’re talking to floating purple cats and fishing ancient corpses from swamps.  All these factors combine to make Drum immediately emerge as one of the most likeable new comic characters of the year.

But more than just the drawings themselves, Rossmo excels in storytelling technique.  Throughout Drumhellar #1, breaks all kinds of conventional rules of pacing: key scene transitions happen in the middle of a page, or shocking, pivotal moments occur in small panels, among other quirks and ticks.  It gives the whole book this strange, stacatto heartbreat, where you’re kind of put on the back-foot as a reader and drawn in for reasons you might not consciously realise on first reading, until you really dissect the panel construction.  The colouring is marvelous, too.  I didn’t even need to check the credits to confirm Rossmo was also the colorist, so seamlessly do they connect with the luscious aesthetic of the linework.  It’s telling that Rossmo also co-plotted this book, as visual innovation here shapes the narrative, and is integral to our comprehension of this world.

I’ve already read through the entirety of Drumhellar #1 several times.  It reminds me a lot of Pretty Deadly #1 from a couple of weeks back, in that it feels packed with little Easter eggs, and demands rereading and detailed examination.  As my first exposure to Alex Link, it wins me over on his abilities as a writer.  And as far as the art goes, it stands as perhaps Riley Rossmo’s finest work yet.  This is a comic destined for cult adoration: get in on the ground floor now!

Drumhellar1Drumhellar #1 is out now in all good comic shops, or you can get it on ComiXology here.

REVIEW: Five Ghosts #6

Not too long ago, I talked about being blown away by Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, a 5-part miniseries that proved so monumentally successful that Image Comics opted to upgrade the title into an ongoing series.  And thus we now have Five Ghosts #6, which is tasked from transitioning Frank J Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham’s magnificently-realised world from something self-contained and finite into a more longform narrative.  Of course, anybody who read The Haunting of Fabian Gray will be overjoyed to get more of the story, but there are questions about whether something originally intended to be 5 issues long has enough fuel in the tank to sustain an extended narrative.  Thankfully, if Five Ghosts #6 is anything to go by, all signs point to that first arc being no flash in the pan.

But one big question mark that immediately pops up is the realisation that Chris Mooneyham is not on art duties.  If you recall my earlier review, you’ll remember I spent some time talking about how central Chris Mooneyham’s dynamic visual flair was to the success of the comic, with how he skillfully balanced this channelled essence of old-school pulp with a highly modern sensibility for pushing the boundaries of inventiveness on the page.  After reading the first 5 issues of Five Ghosts, it was nigh-unthinkable to imagine anyone else drawing the book.  And other Image comics like Saga and now Lazarus have popularised the notion of, “No fill-in artists here, the primary artist is worth the wait, so we’d rather take a break in between arcs rather than have anyone else drawing this comic.”  So, Garry Brown – perhaps best known for his work on The Massive – comes in faced with something of an uphill battle.  So it’s perhaps the best compliment I can give Garry Brown that by the third page of this story, I no longer missed Chris Mooneyham.

The style is noticeably different from Mooneyham’s, yes.  Mooneyham has more of a wild, energetic vibe that leaps off the page, whereas – save for the occasional flourish – Brown’s style is more rigid and structured, bringing more of a quiet confidence to his storytelling.  But Mooneyham and Brown take different approaches to achieving the same commendable goal: transporting the reader back in time and making them feel like they’re being immersed in an old adventure tale from a bygone era.  In particular, Brown’s understated style here is refined to read like an homage to Jim Aparo.  While there was a broad range of pulp/pastiche reference in Mooneyham’s visuals, Brown’s aesthetic feels laser-focused into recreating the vibe of a 1970s Batman book, to the point where I half-expected Ra’s al Ghul to show up.  And with Lauren Affe’s luscious colors, the tone all manages to feel consistent with what came before.

Something else that remains consistent is this title’s ability to seamlessly transition from adventure to horror, as Brown shows an aptitude for some quite horrific creature designs, from the tentacled creature that spies on Fabian and old flame Hisano through their window to the Mistress of the rival clan they intend to strike: she is wearing what appears to be a dress made out of skin!  Not that Brown skimps on the adventure side of things either.  As the climax descends into a massive fight scene, Brown meticulously frames the choreography of the battle, making the whole sequence feel very hard-hitting.

Frank J Barbiere continues to deliver the goods on the story front, too.  I remarked how dense and packed with story content each individual chapter of the first arc was.  Well, that is heightened even further with a tale that is completely self-contained, save for a few ominous references to a larger threat looming in the background.  If you have held off on trying Five Ghosts – for shame! – I think this works as an accessible jumping-on point for new readers, right down to how Barbiere concisely re-establishes Fabian Gray’s unique powers.

I think the real narrative triumph of this issue, however, is that it reaffirms that this is a story driven by character.  With the breakneck pace of The Haunting of Fabian Gray, one would be forgiven for thinking this was an incredibly plot-driven book.  But here, much of the trappings of the previously-established narrative are removed, and we are given Fabian Gray in a whole new setting, travelling to Japan to aid an old flame from his past.  It establishes that Gray is a figure with a rich and storied history to draw from, and it’s his magnetic presence that’s going to carry us forward from arc to arc.

The first 5 issues of Five Ghosts were one of my comic joys of 2013.  So I’m glad to see that the standard has been maintained through the comic’s transition from miniseries to ongoing.  Barbiere continues to craft compelling, action-packed stories, anchored by one of the best new protagonists to emerge in any medium this year.  And though I’m eager to see Chris Mooneyham return to the series, Garry Brown did a stellar job filling in, and I would be very keen to see him return for future guest spots.

FiveGhosts6Five Ghosts #6 is available in all good comic shops from tomorrow.

REVIEW: Pretty Deadly #1

What, another review so soon!?  As it happens, Image had more than one issue #1 hit comic shops this past week.  For me, at least, Velvet came along with heavier anticipation on my part.  While I’d heard about that from Image Expo and have been looking forward to it ever since, Pretty Deadly first came onto my radar when Image began running that teaser ad in the back of their comics.  I knew nothing about the plot, other than the presumed Western setting, but that striking image of Deathface Ginny, along with my familiarity with the creative team – I really enjoyed the Osborn miniseries a couple of years back, so I was already of the opinion that Kelly Sue DeConnick was at her best when paired with Emma Rios – ensured I would at the very least give the series a try.

But this past week, it seems like Pretty Deadly has had a surge in press and attention, partly fuelled by a retailer-related controversy, that has arguably turned it into a more high-profile debut than Velvet, and so going in I quickly learned more about the premise.  To be honest, I was a little wary, with the “embodiment of Death stalking through a Western setting” putting me instantly in mind of East of West, another new Image series from this year which has tread that territory with great success.  Thankfully, once I actually read the comic, I realised that – ostensive parallels aside – this is a very different book from Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s genre-splicing opus.  If anything, Pretty Deadly shares more DNA in common with The Sandman.  In the lyrical, seeming allegorical opening sequence, Kelly Sue DeConnick seems to be channelling Neil Gaiman’s fascination with the power of narrative, and how the act of storytelling can become transformative for the storyteller; a motif that recurs in various key beats through the first chapter.

By the time I’d finished with Pretty Deadly #1, I found myself intrigued, and certainly keen to check out issue #2.  But I didn’t love it, and I didn’t find it as immediately engaging and likeable a read as Velvet #1, which I’d read just previously.  In comparison, I found Pretty Deadly lacking in urgency, and a bit unclear and confusing in certain places: I wasn’t always sure how one scene connected to another, or what significance certain characters and moments were to one another.  But after dwelling on each comic for a while, it was Pretty Deadly that I returned to for a reread first, later that night.  For whatever reason, there was just something about this comic that simmered away in my mind, and I just had to keep digging into it, trying to unlock it.  At the time of writing this, I’ve now read Pretty Deadly #1 four times, and each time I pick up some new detail, and it becomes a richer reading experience that I appreciate more and more.  And I even understand most of what’s going on, now.  The only bit I still struggle with is how the group of bandits go from shooting at Sissy and Fox to getting shot by them, to suddenly being their compatriots and travelling with them.  I think it has something to do with them actually shooting at the lizards rather than our two protagonists, but it’s still not entirely clear.  But to come back from that tangent, the point I want to make is that Pretty Deadly is a layered comic that rewards multiple readings.

Much of the depth comes from the magnificent artwork of Emma Rios.  There’s so much stuff in here that I just glossed over in my first reading, but when you really focus on the visual construction of this comic, it’s just a weird book.  The rhythm of the comic is so unorthodox, packed with additional panels that draw out moments in ways that don’t often happen in a comic book.  In one memorable sequence, a single 4-word sentence is drawn out over 4 panels, all focusing on the movements of two interacting hands.  And the whole issue is filled with strange beats like this.  It’s not uncommon to find 10-panel pages here, pages densely packed with little window-panels adding additional colour to a scene, be it a close-up of a character’s reaction to what’s going on or a seemingly tangential riff that takes on symbolic power.  If Scott McCloud were ever to release a new edition of Understanding Comics, Emma Rios’ work here could make for an excellent case study on the ways art can shape the pacing of a comic.

One sequence that is already being celebrated for its innovation is our introduction to our two most prominent characters in this first issue: Sissy, a mysterious little girl in a vulture cloak, and Fox, a blind man with possibly-supernatural powers who protects her.  In the sequence, Sissy sings the story of Deathface Ginny, as Fox points to various key images from her narrative on a large painted canvas.  They are acting out “cantares de cego”, viewed by many as an ancestor to what would become the comics medium in how it married words and images to tell a narrative.  And in her intricate two-page tableau, Emma Rios gives us with a delightfully metatextual flourish an exploration of how we read comics.  In illustrating what the gathered crowds are doing as they watch Sissy and Fox’s performance, in the form of ghostly images filling in the gaps between the various pictures Fox is pointing to, Rios is demonstrating how we as comic readers fill in the gaps between the still images on the comic page to create a moving narrative in our mind, so seamlessly we often don’t even realise we’re doing it.

I recently watched Room 237, a documentary on the hidden meanings found within Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining, and in that one of the commentators talked about how the film works on a subliminal level, because just about every scene has an impossibility, something not quite right that you don’t even consciously register, but which nevertheless sets you ill at ease.  And I was put in mind of that with the work of Emma Rios here, which just has this unusual, off-kilter quality that becomes oddly hypnotic, right down to the strikingly offbeat cover.  As a reader, our eyes are so drawn to Deathface Ginny lingering just out of sight above the uppermost boundary of the cover that we might not immediately notice that there are blood-red hands rising out of the depths of the water her face is reflected in.

Assisting in bringing Emma Rios’ visuals to life is ubiqitous colourist Jordie Bellaire, who brings out a different quality to Rios’ art.  When I’ve seen her artwork elsewhere, it has been coloured very softly, giving it a gracious, flowing feeling.  But Bellaire’s coloring here is much more stark and barren, befitting of the Western aesthetic, which gives Rios’ visuals a harder edge, a rough-hewn quality that once again put me in mind of some of the earlier artists on The Sandman. 

As for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing, as mentioned, it is oblique and allegorical, the writer going in directions I’ve never seen her take before.  It doesn’t do what you might expect from the narrative: Deathface Ginny, for example, has a very small role in the narrative, only really showcased through Sissy’s song here.  And it almost feels like it’s only in the last page where things really get going.  But the script is packed with little incidental details and subtle character beats that capture the interest and bring these characters to life in quiet, unexpected ways.  Even figures with smaller roles leave lasting impressions here.  A favourite moment of mine was the conversation between Sissy and the little boy in the house they’re sheltering in.  I loved the dynamic of them both appearing to be around the same age, but Sissy being much more worldly and beleagured than her wide-eyed companion.  To return to the puzzle analogy, it feels like we’re seeing a few pieces of something larger being laid out by DeConnick here, and in a few issues we’re really going to see how it all connects together.

Almost as enjoyable as Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing in the main comic was her afterword, going through her journey to getting Pretty Deadly made.  And it’s quite a revealing piece of writing, almost framing the narrative of her life as a big journey that has all been leading to this comic seeing print.  No pressure or anything!  I didn’t quite warm to the little prose story in the back, though my realisation that the Johnny of that story was the Johnny of the main comic narrative – someone who I assumed would be an incidental figure we’d never see again – suggested to me this might have more relevance than it currently appears to possess.

So, as it turns out, Pretty Deadly #1 has quite a lot to digest.  In truth, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review, you really ought to just go read the thing and make up your own mind.  This is a thorny, difficult book, and it’s not for everyone, but I think if you engage with it, you’ll find a whole lot to admire, including career-best work from both Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.

PrettyDeadly1Pretty Deadly #1 is out in all good comic shops now.

REVIEW: Velvet #1

Sometimes you know you’re going to love a comic from the second you first hear about it, and so I’ve been anticipating Velvet ever since news of it broke at Image Expo.  Although I had been aware of his work beforehand, and even read and enjoyed stuff like Batman: The Man Who Laughs, I think what truly made me a fan of Ed Brubaker was the work he did on Captain America with Steve Epting.  Reimagining the mythos of Captain America – a superhero I’d never found particularly interesting – as a kind of spy thriller with shades of 1970s conspiracy pics like The Parallax View, Brubaker and Epting crafted a dark, dangerous world that leapt off the page, feeling utterly distinctive from the rest of the Big Two’s superhero output, even the good stuff.  Spinning out from that, I became an enthusiast for Brubaker’s work, which meant that long after I drifted away from Captain America, I was seeking out Incognito, then Criminal, and now Fatale.  The more I read of Brubaker’s excellent works with his most prolific collaborator, Sean Phillips, the more I specifically began to identify Brubaker specifically with that Phillips style.  When Brubaker works with Phillips, it brings out a certain style in his writing that fits Phillips’ visuals: cool, detached, a quiet accumulation of dread slowly bubbling to the surface.  And that’s a style that works very well.  But as soon as I saw that preview art, it was like scales dropping from my eyes, and I remembered that before I loved the work of Brubaker/Phillips, I loved Brubaker/Epting.

So, I’ve been anxiously awaiting Velvet, so keenly that it in turn reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brubaker’s Fatale.  But then something funny happened: out of nowhere, Zero came along and emerged as one of the most dazzling debuts of the year.  Here was another Image spy comic, one that handled the genre incredibly well in a manner that felt fresh and exciting.  Had Ales Kot and co stolen Velvet‘s thunder?  I have to admit that was in the back of my mind as I picked up Velvet this week, but I needn’t have worried.  Velvet is a very different comic from Zero, approaching espionage in the classic James Bond/George Smiley mould as opposed to the sci-fi tinged “wetworks” of the latter that seems to draw more from the likes of Nikita or the Hitman games.  It’s too soon to say if Velvet is better than Zero, as Zero has set the bar very high, but its definitely established itself as very much its own thing.  I think there are two things in particular that set Velvet apart.  One of these is the 1970s period setting, which as we’ve seen in the likes of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or TV’s The Americans allows us to explore a more low-fi approach to espionage, even if there is the occasional nifty bit of tech.  The other, the comic’s biggest secret weapon, is Velvet Templeton.

As far as protagonists go, Velvet is instantly engaging.  First off, there’s the fact that she’s a middle-aged woman, the kind of character who sadly doesn’t get to be the star of many comics, certainly not action thrillers.  Beyond that, though, Brubaker injects her with a fascinating personality: hardened, self-assured, and with just enough touches of ambiguity to make us question the reliability of her narration.  She’s a senior secretary for secret spy agency Arc-7, and so at first it seems like we’ve got a story of Moneypenny having to deal with the death of James Bond, which as far as elevator pitches go would be interesting in itself.  But as we learn more about Velvet, it becomes clear there is more to her than at first meets the eye, that she has a past that is going to come rushing into the present of the narrative.  And under Epting’s pen, she is lovingly rendered.  Whether she’s twirling her glasses in her fingers, puffing out cigarette smoke, or making what quickly becomes her trademark facial expression of the gears silently grinding in her mind as she pieces together an intricate puzzle of clues… Epting imbues her every motion with an iconic quality, where she feels like a larger-than-life character walking through the story in the same way that Captain America did in that series.

Admittedly, at this early stage at least the rest of the ensemble aren’t particularly interesting.  But as far as lead characters go, Velvet Templeton is already one of the best new creations of 2013.  Brubaker has given her a distinctive, credible voice, Epting has given her a gravitas and physical presence, and together she is a rock-solid foundation upon which to build this new world.  I for one am incredibly excited by the prospect of the creative minds that so reinvigorated the world of Captain America now turning their minds to crafting a new world, one that exists within a similar genre and promises a similar tone, but which will be totally fresh, totally shaped by Brubaker and Epting.

I’ve written positively about Fatale in the past, and I still buy it monthly, but even in my positive reviews, I’ve talked about Fatale as a book that withholds its dark pleasures, Brubaker adopting a pace where he keeps his narrative cards gripped close to his chest and only gradually reveals his horrific hand.  I’ve found it rewarding, but those who may have deemed it too slow will have no such qualms with Velvet.  Here, we launch into action from the very first page, and the first issue is a very brisk read.  Not in terms of being light in content, it’s actually quite dense in that regard, but in terms of how the intrigue and quickly-escalating pacing carries you through the comic.  This is an immersive world, and by issue’s end the stakes have been dramatically raised in a manner that sets the stage for a wild issue #2.

Epting’s art, meanwhile, is just a delight.  The luscious cover put me in mind of the sepia-toned quality of Epting’s art when paired with the colors of Frank D’Armata in Captain America.  But Elizabeth Breitweiser’s darker pallette – with its cool blue washes interspersed with seedy orange hues – brings out a more biting, sinister quality in Epting’s visuals here, a world that’s more treacherous.  But Epting’s gift for beautifully-rendered characters remains a constant, thankfully.  There was more than one occasion while reading the comic that I just stopped and thought, “This is a beautiful book!”  I think the framing of the page layouts is interesting as well, as for the most part this is a very restrictive comic for the characters dwelling within its panels.  Lots of long, narrow panels, mixed in with a few tall, thin ones, with most pages averaging 5-6 panels.  It creates a tense, stifling atmosphere, with the occasional moments where characters or objects pop out of the border generating little sparks of excitement.  It’s an arrangement reflective of how stifling Velvet finds her situation, which could be part of why the last page works so well.  Just as Velvet goes off on an unexpected new direction, we open up into an expansive 2/3 page splash, and it looks like Velvet crashing out of the confines of those narrow and thin panels and into something wild and new.

Overall, Velvet #1 was a resounding success.  Of course, I expected it to be.  Image is really spoiling us in 2013 with this ridiculous number of quality comics.  It seems like near every week there’s a new noteworthy debut from the company, with more and more high-profile creative teams launching exciting new projects with them.  I’m starting to think we’re in the most exciting time for comics since the proto-Vertigo of late 80s DC with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing paving the way for the likes of Hellblazer, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol relaunches, and The Sandman.  

Velvet1Velvet #1 is available now in all good comic shops. 

REVIEW: Zero #2

I never did get round to writing a full review of Zero #1, the highly-acclaimed new espionage series from Image Comics, but it made a strong impression on me.  For starters, based on the strength of that opening chapter, I picked up writer Ales Kot’s earlier Image comics: Wild Children and Change.  I also nabbed the first volume of Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, as I now found my appetite whetted for further morally murky comic book spying exploits.  The concept of the series, for those unfamiliar, is that Ales Kot would forego a highly-serialised narrative in favour of a series of oneshots – standalone episodes linked by their title character: British super-spy Edward Zero – each drawn by a different artist.  The first chapter was a deft piece of storytelling.  Going in many might have been expecting some high-octane James Bond action, but while they were treated to one of the most brutal fight scenes to show up in a comic in quite some time, this wasn’t James Bond, it wasn’t even Bourne.  It presented the spy as ghost, hovering silently on the edge of the action movie stuff and waiting for the right time to silently, efficiently strike and retreat.  But what I perhaps admired most about issue #1 was the comic itself as a physical artefact, packed literally cover-to-cover with narrative, with even the inside cover sleeves serving as story pages.  So I was a bit disappointed when that ended up not being the case for this chapter, which has a more conventional comic book layout – save for the credits being bumped to the back cover.  My disappointment was short-lived however, as Zero #2 managed to not only live up to the high standard set by issue #1, but totally eclipse it.

Let’s make this clear: Michael Walsh is no slouch.  He was the artist for Zero #1, and if I’m honest, it was my familiarity with his work on Comeback that drew me to that debut issue more than Ales Kot, who I’d heard of but never read anything from.  And he did a killer job of it, crafting a slick, minimalist style that instantly made the bleak, cynical world of the story associated in my mind with the visuals of Walsh.  So imprinted was Walsh’s approach in my mind that I went in fearing Tradd Moore wouldn’t be a natural fit.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Tradd Moore.  I loved The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, thanks largely to his spectacular artwork, but it was his very resounding success in that series that made me think Tradd Moore was your go-to guy for crazy, bombastic action with a dose of gore-slapstick.  Now, the grindhouse madness of Ghost Rider, that seemed like a natural fit for Tradd Moore to me!  But moral decay and disillusionment? The quiet mechanics of a trained killer?  Tradd Moore is a very different artist from Michael Walsh.  But, as it turns out Zero #2 is a very different story from Zero #1.  And Tradd Moore rises to the occasion with the finest work of an already-decorated young career, uncovering all new dimensions and nuances to his craft.

Zero #1 presented a Zero at the height of his powers, already a ruthless, lethal operative.  Zero #2 takes us not forward from there, but back, presenting us with Zero as a child, taking us through his harsh training in the mysterious academy – serving as home, school and indoctrination centre all in one – and ultimately building to his first mission.  And when Moore’s trademark enlarged heads, big expressive eyes and cartoonish figures are applied to the design of children, it conveys a highly potent sense of innocence, an innocence all the more poignant due to the inevitably of it being crushed, as the previous issue already indicates.  While the more muted style of Walsh was the ideal match for a tale where any emotion was deeply repressed, this is an incredibly emotional, moving story, and Moore just absolutely nails the heartbreak of it all: the blighted sweetness of Edward spending time with fellow student Mina, the doomed happiness of Zero’s intended victim, the tragedy of what young Zero must become.  It’s all in the eyes.  Throughout the issue, look at Zero’s eyes, and the amount of emotional wallop Moore gets from his drawing of them.  They go from vulnerable, to lonely, to happy, to scared, to determined, to devastated, and finally, to dead and cold.  And then we quite powerfully don’t see them at all.

While the Luthor Strode series is very much “widescreen comics”, with lots of grand splashes, the average page here is a 12-panel grid.  and that results in a very different pacing from Moore.  Our eye is drawn right in to the minute details of a scene: a component of a room, or the flicker of emotion on a face.  And the violence is much more unusually paced, the exuberant carnage of Luthor Strode replaced with this quiet dread, with one page in particular – a frantic search for a gun juxtaposed with repeated shots of an empty doorway we know a gunman is sure to appear at any moment – ramping up the tension.  And Moore pulls off some truly masterful layouts: the page with young Zero in training, locked in a box underwater, is sure to be one of the most striking pages of comic art we’ll see all month, if not all year.  This is just a book dense in content, one that rewards close reading and then rereading.

The artist may shift with each issue, but the colorist is set to remain consistent, and on this front Jordie Bellaire is triumphant once again.  As I’ve said before, she has quickly emerged as one of the most talented, diverse colorists in comics.  And while I knew from Comeback that she could provide understated, grainy tones to ideally compliment Michael Walsh’s style, the revelation this issue is the crisp, clipped pallette that ensures Tradd Moore’s lines have never looked better.  I look forward to seeing Bellaire bring out the best in each artist that steps into the book going forward.

Of course, Ales Kot also deserves a lot of credit for, in each issue of Zero thus far, crafting a story perfectly tailored to the skills of the artist he’s working with.  In the case of issue #2, there is a certain weight of inevitability to what must happen before the chapter is complete, but Kot still manages some shocking wrinkles and surprisingly cruel additional twists of the knife.  But while the first issue was very plot-driven, and was dominated by the scenario established by the high-stakes mission, the focus here is much more heavily on character.  And so Zero, who was something of a ghost haunting his own book in issue #1, here becomes more fully-formed under Kot’s pen.  Particularly potent is his relationship with Roman Zizek, his Agency handler.  It’s an intriguing, thorny relationship, as Zizek is something of a surrogate father figure for Zero, but the nature of his official role as partains to Edward and what Edward is expected to be enforces a certain awkward distance, in spite of a suggested need for that familial intimacy in the relationship from Zero and even (perhaps moreso) from Zizek himself.  Zizek comes across as a conflicted figure, going off on a big rant about rabid dogs around the issue’s halfway point where it seems unclear – least of all to Zizek himself – whether he’s talking about the target, Zero, or himself.  Based on his presence in the first issue (making him the only recurring character other than Zero himself) and the focus of this issue’s backmatter, it seems that Zero/Zizek is being primed as the relationship at the core of the whole series, at least in these early stages.

Which brings me to another point: much has been made about Zero foregoing a serialised structure and being a series of stanalone one-and-dones that can operate independent of one another.  But I actually feel like we’re being hoodwinked by Kot on that front, as I can definitely feel an overarching narrative already taking shape.  It might not be immediately apparent in a strictly chronological/serialised sense, but it feels like we’re getting pieces of a puzzle.  There are threads connecting these first two issues: if the ending of the first issue featured the pivotal moment where Zero’s long-dormant humanity resurfaced, here we see the pivotal moment when his humanity was first cast down a deep, dark hole.  I feel like there’s something being said about childhood as well, as the dehumanisation of children seems to be popping up again and again.  There was the child killer sent to kill Zero at the beginning of issue #1, a lot like Zero himself is sent to assassinate his first target here.  Issue #1 also had the dead child caught in the crossfire, which provoked such a strong reaction from the seemingly detached and mission-focused Zero.  Issue #2 juxtaposes Edward the Agency trainee and would-be child killer with the children of Kieran Connelly and the happier, more “normal” family life they live.  It’ll be interesting to see how any overarching threads continue to develop with subsequent issues.

I considered Zero #1 to be a great single issue, but Zero #2 cements this comic’s status as a great series.  Ales Kot’s vision for Edward Zero and his world is more fully taking shape, and Tradd Moore floored me with heart-rending, career-best work.  Is issue #3 out yet?  Is it?  IS IT?

Zero2Zero #2 is out in all quality comic shops now.

REVIEW – Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray has been haunting me for a while.  In this internet age where every book is announced and solicited months in advance and the next “sleeper hit” comic is seemingly pre-ordained by early buzz long before it actually hits shelves, it’s admittedly rare for my first exposure to a new series to be getting taken aback by an ad in a comic and go, “Ooooh, what the hell is this?”  It was in one of the other Image titles I buy, and there was that awesome half-page ad they ran for Five Ghosts that concisely put forward  the delicious high concept of an adventurer possessed by five literary ghosts and gaining access to their powers.  I was immediately intrigued.  But the creators were totally unknown to me, and I’d heard zero word on the project before seeing the ad.  The release of the first issue came and went without any reviews popping up from the sources I usually go to for such things, and the only feedback I’d heard was some whisperings on my social media network about the title being a disappointment: looking back after the fact it turned out those people were talking about the similarly-titled Five Weapons, which I’ve never read and can’t comment on myself.  A few issues had been released before I started getting wind of the acclaim for Five Ghosts, and when it came, it was like a tidal wave.  Suddenly it seemed like all my comics friends who know what’s what had this on their pull lists.  Then Image Expo announced that what had originally been planned as a 5-issue miniseries was getting extended into an ongoing.  And the impending release of the graphic novel collecting those original issues became something of a big deal, at least in my neck of the woods.  So, despite going into the book not really knowing anything beyond that initial half-page ad selling the concept, by the time I finally sat down to read The Haunting of Fabian Gray, I’d built up some quite hefty expectations.  I can start this review by saying those expectations were utterly blown out of the water.

This seriously is an absolutely incredible comic.  I was utterly hooked right from the first chapter, which is the finest example of comic book world-building I’ve encountered since Saga #1, or maybe The Private Eye #1.  Like that jawdropping opening issue of Saga, Five Ghosts #1 is double-sized, and that was an inspired decision.  Because while each subsequent chapter is like an adrenaline shot that the reader just ingests in a frenzy, that first issue really lets you luxuriate in this world, immerse yourself in the mythos being introduced to you, and it feels like a rich, full, satisfying read in its own right.  Reading it, I got this powerful notion that I was reading something truly original, probably the best new idea I’ve encountered in any medium this whole year; a feeling that only continued to grow with each passing chapter.

Now, this whole review could just become directionless, waffling hyperbole: there are 5 issues’ worth of comic goodness contained in this first graphic novel, after all – that’s a lot of ground to cover!  So, I’m going to try to organise my thoughts a bit, and look at each member of the creative team in turn, and examine what each of them brings to the table to enhance this unique, exhilerating comic experience.

First up, there’s writer Frank J. Barbiere.  As I touched on earlier, this is my first encounter with his work, but it’s a hell of a first impression.  With Five Ghosts, Barbiere displays an incredible gift for invention, and nowhere is that more profoundly clear than with the eponymous Fabian Gray himself.  In a culture saturated with countless superheroes it feels like every kind of superpower has become variations on a theme, but Fabian’s gift/curse feels so inspired and fresh.  He is possessed by five “literary ghosts” – five primal archetypes of fiction from which countless stories are derived – and by tapping into their essence he can channel their power.  If called upon to exhibit a feat of spectacular marksmanship, he calls upon The Archer, inspiration for Odysseus and Robin Hood.  If required to perform an act of magic, he channels The Wizard, spiritual father of Merlin, Prospero and Gandalf.  If needed to become a master swordsman in combat, he taps into The Samurai, the figure that has created enduring heroes of Eastern fiction such as Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub, who is also relevant to famed swordsman of Western stories like Hamlet or Zorro.  If he needs to use remarkable deductive reasoning to work his way around a problem, Fabian turns to The Detective, whose mystery-solving prowess has informed such brilliant fictional minds as C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes and Batman.  And if all else fails, and Fabian is pushed into a desperate plight where the only option left is to tap into the deepest, darkest recesses of his soul and unleash violent destruction on all around him, he resorts to The Vampire, the primal, monstrous force who has emerged in the public consciousness in the shape of Dracula, Lestat and…erm… Edward Cullen.

It’s a fascinating concept that becomes thrilling in execution, as the action sequences (of which there are many!) become a kind of interactive exercise in which he try to guess what combination of acquired skills will get Fabian and friends out of the fix they’re in, with the frightening presence of the vampire – the spirit channelled least often – lurking in the periphery and creating a tantalising “When is Gray going to have to use the vampire again?” question.  But Gray himself is no blank-canvas swashbuckler who is only made interesting by his skill-set.  We see from early on what toll these powers are taking on him, and his journey over the course of this storyline becomes a quest to not only get these powers under control before they kill him, but to atone for something terrible that happened as a result of his past greed and arrogance.  The Haunting of Fabian Gray refers not just to the literary ghosts, but to his own personal demons that he must conquer.

Around Fabian Gray, Barbiere builds a world that, as noted, feels breathtakingly fresh and original.  But, appropriately given the story’s central conceit, this original world is in fact a patchwork of various forms of fiction.  When I first started reading, the immediate comparison that jumped to mind was Indiana Jones.  It has the adventurer element, the 1940s setting with the Nazis as the baddies, and has a serial-like opening sequence which plays like the end of a previous mission.  But it quickly became apparent that a darker heart lies at the core of Five Ghosts, with an aesthetic that put me in mind of 1960s/1970s Brit film institution Hammer Horror: Hammer horror at its best, the Devil Rides Out era Hammer Horror, when it struck just the right balance between Gothic chills and high camp.  Those were the two big touchstones that leapt out at me, but there’s a wide range of literary influence too: obviously, the pulp fiction of the early 20th Century, like Doc Savage, or the horror fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.  There’s even a certain debt owed to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, what with the whole aspect of a realm of pure imagination where all stories come from: it’s even referred to as The Dreaming.  This almost feels like it could be an unofficial spinoff from The Sandman, with even its 1940s period setting falling into the canon of Neil Gaiman’s text as during the era when Morpheus was in captivity and aspects of the dream realm were manifesting in our own in unusual ways.

Talking about the pedigree of its influences is all fair and good, but that would mean little if the comic itself wasn’t top notch on its own merits.  And thankfully, Barbiere has crafted a stripped-down, relentlessly-paced machine of a plot here, with no room for filler or decompression.  While all 5 issues are part of a single larger story, each chapter takes us to new and exciting places and is densely-packed with content.  The first issue is a globetrotting affair that introduces us to Fabian, his ghosts, his friends, his foes, gives him a new quest and hurtles him into an edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger.  Issue #2 we have murderous tribes and giant spiders.  Issue #3 turns into a 1970s martial arts movie with mystical islands, oh, and a dragon.  Issue #4 enters psychadelic fantasy/horror territory.  Issue #5 brings it all to a climactic head.  There’s no issue that’s content with just “Oh, more of what we got in the last chapter.”  Barbiere is always throwing something new at us, always shifting the status quo and raising the stakes.

But what really hammers home the pulp dynamic are the absolutely stunning visuals of artist Chris Mooneyham, in a turn that marks the emergence of a new comics superstar.  I initially thought that this was also my first exposure to him, but after looking at his back catalogue I realised I’ve been impressed by his art before.  Some time ago I read the first issue of Anathema.  Interesting story, but what really jumped off the page for me at the time was the moody, stylised art, reminiscent of Mike Mignola.  Turns out the artist was Mooneyham.  But he’s refined his style since then, toning down the jagged horror elements (though they’re still there when called for) and honing this real old-school vibe which nevertheless never feels like pastiche.  Mooneyham employs ambitious, densely-panelled pages with bold, innovative layouts composed of daring, unconventional angles.  It’s not so much aping a Jim Sterkano comic of the late 1960s as it is capturing the spirit of the kind of visual experimentation Steranko would be employing if he was making comics now.

Now, S.M. Vidaurri is listed as doing “color assists,” which to me suggests that Mooneyham was also involved in coloring his own art.  Whoever took on the bulk of the coloring, they made a great job in advancing the whole aesthetic.  The pallette is very washed out, almost monochrome, with a lot of blue and orange hues.  It has this faded, washed-out tone, which means that, even if you’re reading it on glossy paper or on a computer screen, it feels like you’re reading it on old newsprint.  It’s all working towards selling this experience of reading a lost pulp adventure from a bygone era.

On this subject, Dylan Todd is credited for graphic design.  Now, if this means he’s involved in crafting the covers and the title pages, that guy deserves a medal.  These are packed with all these authentic little touches that could convince you that you were reading a Marvel comic from the 1970s, or the kind of books Denny O’Nell and Neal Adams were doing for DC at the same time.  On every level, the creative team overwhelmingly succeed not just in selling their story, but in selling an experience to the reader.  Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray is the “that” in “They don’t make comics like that anymore.”

Now that I’ve finally read the comic, the decision to turn this from a mini-series into an ongoing feels like a total no-brainer.  The ultimate arc of The Haunting of Fabian Gray is one of self-discovery, and Fabian Gray coming to terms with who he has become, but that personal journey is set against a much larger backdrop, a wide, weird world just asking to be further explored.  There’s enough story here to sustain us for a long time, and Image would be mad not to want to see that story told.  In a year where Image has been spoiled with a veritable heap of fantastic new series debuts, Five Ghosts might just be the best.  Frank J. Barbiere has instantly marked himself as a major talent to watch, and Chris Mooneyham has already shot high up into the rankings of my favourite artists working today.  A resounding triumph on every level.  If, like me, you didn’t jump on this series right away, amend that grevious error and go buy the Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray graphic novel now: it gets my highest possible recommendation.

FiveGhostsGNFive Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray is in comic shops now!

REVIEW: Batman #23

Hey, I’m nothing if I’m not topical!  This hot-off-the-presses review comes over a month late.  I’ve started to write it a couple of times, only to change my mind and disregard it, wary that it would be a long rant, and one not many would likely be inclined to read.  Now, several weeks have passed since the release of Batman #23, third chapter of the “Zero Year” saga currently dominating the title, and I’ve now read the comic three times, mulling over what I want to say and how I want to say it.  Well, if you’re reading this, it means this attempt at formulating an opinion is the one I actually finished.  A warning, at the start it’s going to feel like a bit of a downer, but hopefully it’ll end on a positive note!

But first, the downer bit: I hated “Zero Year” from the moment I first heard about it.  Seriously, it was a sea-change moment.  From very early on, Batman was easily my favourite comic in DC’s New 52.  I wrote many a gushing, in-depth review of “The Court of Owls”, a comic which has already earned its place in the canon of all-time great Batman stories.  And “Death of the Family” was fantastic, a horror-tinged approach to my favourite villain, The Joker, as he embarked on a suitably chilling masterplan.  After those two epics, I was waiting with baited breath for the announcement of the next big story coming from the Snyder/Capullo dream team.  But when that announcement turned out to be “Zero Year”… my heart sank.  And for the first time I found myself seriously questioning the creative direction of a title I’d loved so vocally since its inception.

My hatred for the very idea of “Zero Year” is twofold.  First, I hate it on a practical level, where I feel like Batman has set up so many intriguing issues in the present I’m keen for them to develop – the breakdown of the Bat-family in the wake of The Joker’s mindgames, where things are going with Harper Row – that to suddenly go, “Hey guys, we’re just going to take a break from our A-story for a FULL YEAR and go on a jaunt through the past,” it felt like a crippling halt in forward momentum.  And given how thoroughly Batman’s early years have already been covered in ironclad classics such as Year One and The Long Halloween, retreading Batman’s early days felt painfully redundant and unnecessary, especially when 11 issues of the primary Bat-title were being used to do it: Year One did a perfectly respectable job of telling Batman’s origin with 4 issues.

The second reason for my hatred was a lot more nebulous and irrational, but no less pressing: the emotional fanboy kneejerk aversion.  The continuity-hound in me has found more and more frustrations with the tinkering of the New 52, but I could comfort myself in the knowledge that Batman was largely untouched.  “No one is going to touch Year One,” I could whisper reassuringly to myself in the night, “Scott Snyder said so himself in all those interviews!”  And I’m sure Snyder meant it when he said it, but circumstances change, and as plot holes open up they need to be closed in some manner or other, so I don’t blame the guy for rolling with the punches.  But as a passionate fan of stories that were now being rendered out-of-canon, I was gutted.  Just after Grant Morrison has spent years crafting a wonderful vision of Batman where everything that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and it was all important in informing his character, I hated the idea of the New 52 making giving us a new version where nothing that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and none of it is important in informing his character.

So here I was, in danger of becoming the very kind of “hater” I can’t stand.  If there was one reason I didn’t immediately drop the title, it’s the creative team.  The superstar pairing of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have, for my money, positioned themselves right up there alongside the likes of Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Doug Moench/Jim Aparo and Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and so had more than earned the benefit of the doubt to at least give “Zero Year” a try.  And it was that rich bedrock of accumulated goodwill that got me through the first two chapters.  I was torn: Snyder and Capullo continued to excel themselves, with Capullo in particular doing some of his most jawdropping, ambitious work ever.  I’d marvel at the meticulous, beautiful construction of pages, or find myself smiling at the deft skill with which Snyder weaved in a character grace note or an unexpected turn in the narrative.  But still, for me it felt like one of the best creative teams working today magnificently executing a story I had no interest in reading.  And so, Batman #23 was the last chance I was giving the story to win me over.  Dropping Batman was unthinkable.  But I was at the very least considering taking a break for the “Zero Year” storyline and coming back once it was over.

Okay, so after near 1000 words of doom-and-gloom preamble, let’s get into the actual review of the comic itself, and this is where the negative turns positive.  As it was with this third chapter that everything clicked for me.  After being unable to see past the redundancy of retelling this origin story, it’s with this issue that I realise “Zero Year” has, in one way at least, managed to trump the mighty Batman Year One.  For, while that is an incredible Jim Gordon story, “Zero Year” has spent the first three issues carefully setting the stage for this to be a definitive Bruce Wayne story in a way that even Year One – which kept Wayne himself relatively elusive – couldn’t do.  James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuquerque’s backups hav be served their role here too, giving us glimpses at the ways Bruce has moulded himself physically.  But it falls to Snyder and Capullo to complete the metamorphosis, and show how a Bruce Wayne with all the individual component parts puts it all together to become the Batman we know and love.

The first two issues were careful place-setting, establishing Bruce Wayne himself and finding new wrinkles in his history – the thorny relationship with Alfred, the return of his Uncle, Philip Wayne – to establish him as a vital presence in the comic even before he dons the cowl, the way Nolan did with Christian Bale in Batman Begins.  But it’s with Batman #23 that it all pays off, the whole issue serving as an ode to Bruce, and a showcase for the final intangible qualities that will make him Batman: determination, resilience, and a touch of madness.  Escaping from a burning building and trekking across a city to Wayne Manor, after getting the hell beaten out of you, with two bullets in your gut, is an incredible feat, and Capullo really sells the struggle with his visuals: lots of tight, bonecrunching impact shots during the confrontation with the Red Hood, and lots of ominous long shots and aerial shots to really hammer home the sense of distance and isolation to make sure you feel every pained step Bruce takes.  And then there’s that crazy finale, an inspired new interpretation of the iconic, “Yes father, I shall become a bat” moment.  We’re all waiting for that line, we all know it’s coming.  But the build-up to it is bold and transformative, presented as the wild, psychadelic fever dream of a man suffering from a concussion.  Batman becomes something nightmarish, borne out of a place no level-headed man would go to.

Really, it’s G: reg Capullo who’s the dominant presence here.  With more of those immersive layouts and stunning splashes, you really get the feeling of Capullo pushing the envelope further and further, cementing his status as an auteur of comic art.  It’s not just the grand flourishes: it’s the little touches, like the way we can see the iconography of Batman gradually forming around Bruce.  There’s the fact that Wayne Towers looks like the silhouette of Batman, as has already been noted elsewhere.  And there’s also the closing silent image from when Alfred’s done patching Bruce up and Bruce is walking away, with his sweeping dressing gown looking eerily like Batman’s cape.  That page also gives us what could be the first glimpse of Batman’s naked butt, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of course, I’ve always loved Capullo’s work on the book, but as I reread Batman #23, I found myself wondering what it was that was making his work have more impact on me than ever, to the point where I was thinking this could be his finest work on the title yet.  And then it hit me: the famed Batman first-person narration captions were nowhere to be found.  We’ve become so used to seeing those in Batman comics, that even when their absence isn’t immediately noted, it creates a very different vibe.  Especially when the missing narration would have been provided by a wordsmith as eloquent as Snyder.  With no such captions, a wealth of the captions here are silent, and it is Capullo who really shoulders the bulk of the storytelling.  And he more than rises to the challenge, giving us a visual narrative masterclass where every page is both a work of remarkable aesthetic beauty in itself and dense in narrative in a way that rewards multiple readings.

How do the rest of the art team perform in assisting Capullo here?  Very well, I’d say.  I’ve had a hard time warming to inker Danny Miki.  This is through no shortcomings of his, as his light touch has given the characters renewed spark and kinetic energy that makes them pop from the page.  But I can’t deny that I’ve missed Jonathan Glapion, who inked Greg Capullo’s pencils from Batman #1 right up to the “Death of the Family” conclusion.  So much of the ominous, horror-infused tone of the series came from Glapion’s rich, heavy linework and heavy blacks, giving everything this sense of weight and dread, picking up on and enhancing the odder, more uneasy aspects of Capullo’s stylised figure work.  But here, Danny Miki shifts from his more polished approach to apply some oddness of his own, with Capullo giving him more of an opportunity to relish in the gloomy and astmospheric than he’s had since joining the team.

And colorist FCO Plascencia continues to be one  of the most underappreciated geniuses working in comics.  I’ve been pleased to see colorists getting more acknowledgement of late, but Plascencia’s name has rarely been brought up in the conversations about what colorists bring to a book.  It should be, as from the very beginning, Plascencia’s skillfully-applied pallette has given the book an aesthetic all its own.  He’s not a flat colorist.  Everything he colors feels textured, like it has mass and depth.  I think he handles skin particularly well, in a way that has really helped Capullo’s distinctive faces leap from the page.  Here, Plascencia gets a big-time showcase, as he establishes a color scheme for each of the two narrative strands running through the book.  In the attack on Bruce’s penthouse apartment, it all feels very hot: lots of oranges, yellows, and red (The Red Hood, the recurring imagery of pooling blood), and as the fire blazes Plascencia bathes the characters in a swelteringly convincing depiction of the heat.  In the aftermath, both as Bruce struggles his way back to Wayne Manor and dwells in the mansion afterwards, Plascencia goes cold: lots of blues and grays.  As the book jumps back and forth from one strand to the other, often on the same page, the colors become a shorthand for not only the change in scene, but for Bruce himself.  Gotham and its criminal element are red: panic, terror, chaos and Bruce is in danger of being consumed by it.  Bruce Wayne is blue: calm, cool. a force of order to rise against the chaos.  And the first image of the book is a young, blue-tinged Bruce set against a blood-red circle.

Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Scott Snyder has hardly taken a vacation and left the artists to do all the heavy lifting.  He too has a place to shine, and for him it’s in the showcases given to our two villains.  First, The Red Hood, who at this point we are to assume is a prototypical Joker.  He is granted a great monologue about how the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne shaped him as much as it did Bruce: “Because at the end of day (I think that should be end of the day, but it would appear letterer Nick Napolitano made a typo), what people are afraid of is the nothing of it, Bruce.  The randomness. The empty center.  Stare into it and try to find meaning.  You’ll go mad.  All you can do is fear, and survive.”  Even now that his run is done, it would appear that Grant Morrison’s “hole in things” continues to haunt the Batman mythos.

Later on we get another delightful scene with Edward Nygma, who has been a standout character throughout this storyline thus far.  Between this, and the fantastic Riddler Villains’ Month oneshot from last week, The Riddler is emerging as one of my favourite characters in the New 52 Batverse.  Here, we get our first glimpse at vulnerability from the ice-cool master planner, as Philip Wayne taunts him with his one weakness: that because of his shady, undisclosed past, he must always operate under his alias, and so he can never truly take the credit for his works of genius.  With both The Red Hood and Edward Nygma, we get this great sense of them being primal ideas waiting to be born: the ingredients for The Joker and The Riddler are in there, but they need that spark of Batman coming into existence for the touch-paper to light and for them to emerge from the dark in response.

So, where does all that leave us?  I had my misgivings about “Zero Year”, and to a degree I still do.  But this underlines the power of a fantastic creative team firing on all cylinders.  It’s almost easy to make a great comic out of a surefire, can’t-miss high concept.  But to take something as contentious and divisive as this, and make something incredible out of it?  That’s an achievement.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are absolute MVPs that DC should be doing everything in their power to keep on Batman forever, with the freedom to tell whatever stories with Batman they want.  Will the next chapter build on this momentum, and will “Zero Year” as a whole emerge as a resounding success that can stand proudly alongside Year One without appearing sorely lacking in comparison?  Or in the end will Batman #23 prove to be a stunning single artefact in an unremarkable larger narrative?  I’m not sure, but Batman #23 sealed the deal for me, and made sure I’m onboard to the end to see for myself.  I’m glad I gave these guys the benefit of the doubt.

Batman23Batman #23 is out in comic shops now.