Heroes Con 2016!

I’m proud and excited to announce that one week from today, I’ll be attending Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina, having been invited to the show as a guest.  I’ve been looking forward to this all year.  For years now, I’ve jealously followed the Facebook and Twitter feeds of friends in attendance at Heroes, looking at the great time they’re having and all the original artwork they’re getting their hand on.  Heroes Con has long had a reputation as one of the very best comic cons in the world, and I’ve been desperate to have the chance to attend.  So to not only finally get to go this year, but to be invited along as a guest of the show alongside one of the best roster of creators I’ve ever seen united in a single show, is just incredible.

If you’re attending the show, please come see me, say hello.  I’ll be at Artist Alley table 912, planted in between Aaron Conley and the mighty Nick Pitarra.  I’ll be selling collections of And Then Emily Was Gone, Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare and The Standard.  I’ll also have a VERY limited supply of my advance print run of my new horror oneshot, Quilte. 

I’m also excited to report that I’ll be participating in two panels over the weekend:

Horror Comics   –   Friday, 5:30pm, Room 203A

Crime Comics   –   Sunday, 12pm, Room 207CD

I’m really looking forward to getting to Heroes, sharing my books with new readers and hanging out with comics friends.  Are you going to Heroes too?  Perhaps I’ll see you there!  Remember, AA-912!

HeroesCon

Some Thoughts on DC Universe: Rebirth

Some Thoughts on DC Universe: Rebirth

I’ve been excited about DC Universe: Rebirth in a way I haven’t been excited in a comic in a while.  Of course, there have been new series I’ve been excited to check out, and the latest chapters in comics I consistently love, both of which have me eager to get to my comic shop on a Wednesday, but this was a different type of excitement.  This was the kind of anticipation I felt going into the first issues of Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Blackest Night, the best kind of event comics where you know as you start that you’re about to read something huge and epic.  When this was announced, I was certainly intrigued, but it wasn’t until the release was impending that I realised just how ready I was for a comic like this.  And it delivered on my high expectations.

Now, when I went into my local comic shop, one of the staff there I know had positioned himself next to the comic, and was warning passing patrons picking up the comic not to look inside, not to spoil any of the experience contained within.  He said it was better to read this totally fresh, and I wish I had.  I wanted to, but key details were spoiled for me on social media.  I didn’t know the specifics so I was still able to enjoy the execution, but I’d have been knocked out of my chair reading that stuff without any prior knowledge.  As such, I’m containing my very spoilerific thoughts to this review rather than posting it on my Facebook wall and risking sullying anyone else’s experiences.  So, here it comes…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There is plenty I’ve liked about the New 52.  But one of my regrets of the whole thing, five years on, was how much of the DC Universe’s history was lost.  Yes, yes, I know, the comics on my shelf didn’t burst into flames so I can never read them again just because they were no longer canon.  But comics like The Multiversity served as a reminder of how much I loved the DC Universe in all its bonkers complexity, rewritten timelines, legacies and death/resurrections included.  And suddenly this old, lived-in universe with decades of accumulated gravitas was new-car shiny and fresh.  Superheroes had only been around five years, everyone was younger, and a lot of the big events in these characters’ history, along with many of the great friendships, rivalries and romances, had never come to pass.  It was always a controversial decision, but whether you were in support or opposition, I imagine that all DC readers were sad about at least one thing they loved no longer factoring into the stories they would read going forward.

If you felt that way to any degree, this is the comic for you.  It’s not regression, as some feared.  It’s not lashing out against diversity or progress.  It’s not retconning the New 52 out of existence.  This 80-page special (and for $2.99, that’s a hell of a deal!) gets off the ground running with a simple adjustment to the premise, but one with catastrophic implications that, I think, makes the whole thing much better.  The New 52 isn’t just something that happened to us, the readers, at an editorial level.  It is something that happened to the characters, within the world of the story.  This is no longer a case of the characters are just now 10 years younger, and many of the experiences and relationships that defined them never happened.  This is a case of these characters having those years, experiences and relationships stolen from them.  And so, on some level, even if they can no longer remember it, all the stuff that happened to them before still happened.

The agent for conveying all this to the reader is none other than Wally West.  Not the teenage Wally West of the current comics, the pre New 52 Wally West, the former Flash.  This was one of the big reveals of this comic that was spoiled for me beforehand, and I think the commentary about it that I caught took his appearance in the wrong context.  There has been discussion about how the restoration of this old Wally West was about catering to the latent racism of fanboys, that the only possible reason people could want this Wally West back was that they didn’t like the new version being black.  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Oh, of course, I’m sure there are some mouth-breathers out there who hated Wally being made black.  But for me at least, my sadness over the loss of “my” Wally West was much more down to the history I’d shared with him.  It was the Geoff Johns/Scott Kollins run on The Flash – with Wally in the mantle – that turned me from a Batman fan into a DC Universe fan, not to mention making me love the mythos of The Flash.  Barry Allen being restored into the role was a tough pill for me to swallow at first, and really it took a combination of the beautifully illustrated Francis Manapul/Brian Buccaletto run on The Flash’s New 52 launch and the excellence of the TV series and Grant Gustin’s performance in it for me to finally fully embrace Barry Allen back in the role, not to mention Barry being injected with many elements of Wally’s personality.  I love Barry Allen now and am totally down with him as The Flash, but it still made me a bit sad that those original Johns/Kollins comics I had been so fond of now starred a character who no longer existed.

But to get back on point, the return of this pre-52 Wally West works so well because he is an emblem of what was lost with the New 52.  Perhaps more than anyone else he is a standard bearer for the change and legacy the DCU was once known for.  He began as a child, becoming Kid Flash.  He grew into a teenager, becoming a founding member of the original Teen Titans.  He became an adult, and took over the mantle of The Flash.  He grew from cocky young man struggling to escape his predecessor’s shadow to a great hero in his own right, becoming so entrenched in the role in this era of temporary substitutes that, by the end of his tenure, I believe he had actually been The Flash for more years (in our time) than Barry Allen had!  He married Linda Park, they had two children, who grew from infancy to being fully-formed 8-10 year olds with personalities and superpowers of their own.  He lived a full life before us on the comic page.  And then in an instant that was all gone because such a life couldn’t possibly exist in a condensed 5-year timeline.  Reading the four-page montage in this book – masterfully illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver – where Wally chronicles his full history from Silver Age through to Flashpoint, I got chills, seeing all that stuff being referred to in a central DC comic once again.  Who better to be the agent through which the events from before the New 52 are put back on the table?  And that they are.  For example, I never got round to reading Flashpoint, but now I absolutely want to read it, as it feels important and relevant again.  Stories from before the New 52 have teeth once more.

That’s not to say that the New 52 is thrown under the bus.  As I said above, there has been a lot to like in the New 52 as well, and we see elements from various books picked up on here, be it the developments of this week’s issues of Justice League and Superman or references to Swamp Thing storylines from a few years ago.  But in amidst that, new wrinkles are being factored in, more remnants from the world that was being brought back into the mix.  Old and new all forming a ragged yet fascinating tapestry.

And, to go back to more Flash talk, I loved the characterisation of Barry Allen here.  We had a whistlestop tour through a lot of familiar heroes and villains, but I think The Flash was my favourite.  Even the little touches demonstrating his remarkable decency and optimism, how more than any other hero it’s the Fastest Man Alive who takes the extra time to ensure the people he rescues are happy as well as safe.  But on a bigger level, having him be the one figure within the New 52 Universe who can remember everything from before Flashpoint and you knows about a malevolent outside force working against them all puts him in a real centrepiece role within the DCU, poised to be a crucial figure in yet another Crisis down the line.

And yes, about that malevolent outside force… that was the other thing spoiled for me in advance.  It turns out that the figure behind the disruption of the New 52 is none other than Doctor Manhattan, of Watchmen fame.  The characters don’t know this yet, and we are left in the dark about the specifics of how and why, but the world of Watchmen is now somehow in play within the DCU.  That’s going to upset a lot of people, I know.  And I am wary of disrupting that perfect, self-contained clockwork industry of the classic comic.  And yet, I can’t deny that the reveal of that smiley face button in the Batcave got my heart racing even without it being a total surprise.  The sheer audacity of it has sparked my interest, and I absolutely need to know how this is going to play out.  Geoff Johns has successfully implanted a longform mystery into the heart of this DCU rejuvenation, with a conflict not quite like anything we’ve seen before.  And even though we don’t know the specifics, the stakes are laid out: this is a battle between the bright and hopeful optimism of the DC heroes and the bleak cynicism of Watchmen.  We’ll see what happens next!

But in talking about all these fascinating mechanics and intriguing developments, and looking into this as a new beginning, there’s something else that’s worth pointing out.  This is also an ending.  For now, at least.  This is Geoff Johns’ last comic for the foreseeable future, with him transitioning fully into the executive role that has been occupying more and more of his time in recent years.  And in that context, DC Universe: Rebirth reads a lot like a swansong for his decorated comics career.  We are taking a tour across various characters Johns has written for, touching on numerous stories he contributed to.  Wally West as our guide through all this becomes appropriate, given how he was the protagonist of one of Johns’ first major DC writing gigs.  And The Flash’s significance is fitting as Johns has always called The Flash his favourite character.  As a writer known for his big, epic events and in particular his breathtaking setups for those events, it is fitting that his final bow be a setup for the biggest event of all, handing the reigns over to others to see it through.  After giving us a Green Lantern: Rebirth and a Flash: Rebirth, Geoff Johns leaves us with a DC Universe: Rebirth.

 

My Top Ten Comics of 2015

Hello, and welcome to what will be my 6th annual countdown of my favourite comics of the year. 2015 has been another interesting year for comics. It seems to have been something of a transitional year for the Big Two, with both Marvel and DC having big shakeups. In DC’s case, it has involved launching a whole series of new books within the DCU, and more recently under the Vertigo banner too, while in Marvel, it has been a line-wide relaunch. This meant that Marvel’s year seems to have been split between their titles being wrapped up in the first half of the year, and their replacements only really getting going over the past couple of months, which has likely hurt their standing on this year’s list. Scheduling has made a few rankings tricky on this list, going by my usual “a series must have 3 issues released within the year to qualify” barometer. The Sandman: Overture was brilliant, but the staggered release schedule meant that no one year had enough issues released within it to garner inclusion. And on the other end, we’ve had some amazing launches right at the tail-end of the year that have just missed out the cut. Vertigo’s Sheriff of Babylon was one of the best first issues of anything I’ve read in some time, and I think the odds of it ranking in next year’s countdown are very high indeed if the quality remains consistent. Negative Space from Dark Horse is another title which blew me away with its first issue and which may have qualified if we’d gotten more from it this year. Marvel’s standouts thus far in its All-New, All-Different initiative have been Doctor Strange and Invincible Iron Man, but I feel they’re still relatively fresh and I need to see how they settle down before ranking them. Over on the DC side, Midnighter, Martian Manhunter and Constantine: The Hellblazer all get honourable mentions and have proven to be highly successful new launches brimming with ideas for their respective protagonists. And while Image still lead the pack for titles on my list, I’d say my reading has been quite widely spread this year, with me enjoying titles from BOOM!, Oni Press, Dark Horse and IDW – including a binge-reading session of IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run, which is cracking and very nearly made the list! Special mention also goes to Rumble from John Arcudi and James Harren, which was actually on the list at #10 until the last minute when I realised another book I loved but didn’t think qualified as a 2015 release was eligible. But now that I’ve explained away the various comics that didn’t make the cut, it’s time to get down to the books that did…

 
10. BATMAN

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Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s landmark run returns to the list after failing to rank for the first time last year. But really, this team is so finely honed now that they could make a well-crafted adaptation of the phone-book, so even arcs that I might not have been so personally engaged by, like the extended “Zero Year” saga of last year, still have an undeniable level of talent behind them. But my interest was grabbed back with a vengeance with “Endgame,” which was kicking into high gear as the year began. Batman and The Joker are two of my favourite characters in fiction, and so watching them set against each other is always a joy, but this took things to a whole new, climactic level of drama. One of Scott Snyder’s great skills as a writer is that he can take a character like Batman, someone we KNOW is going to be around long after we’re all dead and gone, and ramp up the tension so high that we start to question how the hell Batman can possibly get out of the corner he’s been backed into, how can The Joker possibly be defeated? “Endgame” seems to have had its detractors, but I loved it, for me it played out with all the gravitas we might imagine The Last Ever Batman Story would have. The current “Superheavy” arc has been a fun change of pace, exploring interesting ideas about Gotham without Batman, and Bruce Wayne without Batman, remixing some of the themes Snyder first explored back in his “Black Mirror” story. And of course, Greg Capullo’s visuals are always stunning. Far from resting on his laurels, Capullo uses Batman as a platform to keep pushing the envelope in terms of page construction and what visuals can do to inform the story. Snyder and Capullo have already secured their legacy as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and everything they do going into 2016 is just an extended victory lap.

 
9. DAREDEVIL

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Speaking of victory laps, that’s what these last couple of arcs of Daredevil Volume 4 felt a bit like. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee may not have quite hit the dizzying heights they reached during Volume 3 or even earlier in Volume 4, but they still had a few remaining tricks up their sleeve as they brought their acclaimed run to a close. For me, the biggest ace was bringing in The Kingpin for that last arc. Arguably my favourite Marvel villain, his absence – deliberately enforced, according to Waid – was the one thing Waid’s instant classic run was missing for me. So I relished seeing how Waid and Samnee brought him to life. And really, every chapter of this series was a delight, each issue making me let out a little gasp or chuckle at the cleverness of its construction at least once. I think it came to a rewarding close as well, bringing things full circle and using its closing moments to focus on what we all knew this whole run was about at its core: the friendship between Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson. This was a comic that made me smile, not something one might expect to say about the famously grim Daredevil… but that was its charm. I’m sure Charles Soule and Ron Garney will do fine taking Ol’ Hornhead back into more familiar terrain, but it doesn’t quite feel the same. History will be very kind to what Waid and Samnee did on this series, perhaps remembering their work as fondly as the iconic Frank Miller run.

 
8. SEX CRIMINALS

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Here’s another comic returning to the top 10 after going missing for a year. Back in 2013, based off the first 3 issues, I remarked that this series was so much more than its “lovers who can stop time by having sex decide to rob banks” premise, and that applies even more now than it did then. In fact, the whole “robbing banks” element seems to have at the very least been pushed far into the background. Instead, the book has become this all-encompassing, multi-faceted look at sexuality in all its diverse, strange forms. The second arc saw the famously goofy book turn serious with a poignant look into depression and the impact it can have on a relationship. And the current third arc has saw the series expand its scope, with central protagonists Jon and Suzie giving up centre stage to let a varying ensemble of characters showcase their weird sex powers and, in the process, open up a dialogue about a different aspect of sexuality that many a story might find taboo. In doing so, stereotypes have been busted. For example, the idealistic young girl who stumbled into the porn industry and a world of drugs and debauchery wasn’t destroyed by her experience… nope, she had a good time, learned a few lessons and applied them to a successful academics career. It is also worth remarking that this is absolutely a book that should be bought in single issue format, as the comic experience is much more than just the wonderful main story from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It’s also the best letters page in comics, with Fraction and Zdarsky curating a community of readers and a sense of ongoing, evolving discussion from issue to issue that it feels like an organic extension of the narrative. My only complaint about Sex Criminals is that I wish we’d get it more often!

 
7. NAMELESS

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2015 was the year that Grant Morrison came back with a vengeance. The stage was set in 2014 with The Multiversity and Annihilator starting, but both went out with a bang this year, and then Morrison and his Batman Inc running mate Chris Burnham followed that up with Nameless. Morrison revisits some of his recurring motifs of magic and living fictions and wicked alien intelligences and gives them their darkest possible spin here, weaving a tale that starts creepy and gets increasingly nightmarish as it progresses, deftly transitioning from an arcane Armageddon to Event Horizon, and from there pushes things even further into the realms of demented, relentless fever dream. Morrison and Burnham manage to craft a sense of hell on the comic page. And as much as Grant Morrison is the greatest comic writer ever in my opinion, I have to give special credit here to the artwork of Chris Burnham. I’ve always enjoyed Burnham’s work, but here he just takes it to the next level, pushing the envelope to craft some nauseating, horrifying imagery that will leave you wanting to turn back the page or close the book. And he has the ideal partner in colourist Nathan Fairbairn, who is able to bring just the right amount of grisly texture to Burnham’s visuals. The release schedule tailed off a little towards the end of the year, meaning we didn’t get to see the resolution which might have helped Nameless rank even higher, but this is still superlative work from a writer proving that he’s still a master of his craft and an artist ascending to that level.

 
6. BURNING FIELDS

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For those who read Curse, the previous collaboration between co-writers Michael Moreci and Tim Daniel and artist Colin Lorimer, Burning Fields was earmarked as a comics project to anticipate from the moment it was announced. But I think even the team’s existing fans were surprised by just how great this ended up being, ranking right up there as one of the best titles BOOM Studios has ever put out. What was so excellent about it was how, over its 8-issue run, the series just kept on evolving. Set against the backdrop of Iraq, with the shadow of the war and America’s malign influence on the region hanging over it, this starts off as an offbeat serial killer procedural laced with an astute commentary on the corruption of the private security firms filling up power vacuums and setting up shop in the region. Initially I was reminded of the film Black Rain in its American fish-out-of-water crime trappings – though with that film the location in question was Japan – though by a couple of issues in the tone felt more like Angel Heart as the killings became more occult-flavoured and the layers were peeled back to reveal death cults and demonic presences. Then in its second half the series evolved again into a tense, claustrophobic creature feature, before in its final issues coming full circle and revealing itself to all along be a very human story about our protagonists, Dana and Aban, and how their respective connections to the world around them would determine their fates. Since I’m throwing around film comparisons already, I recently watched Sicario, and that for me captured something of the singular aesthetic established here, straddling the line between war and horror and presenting a foreign country as frightening, alien terrain. I also think there’s something interesting to be written about Burning Fields and two other great comics with a war backdrop that launched this year – Tet and Sheriff of Babylon – and what they all have to say about the conflicts of today. I really hope the team of Moreci, Daniel and Lorimer have something else coming up in the pipeline.

 
5. THE MULTIVERSITY

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Originally, I wasn’t going to include The Multiversity in this list, because I thought of it as a 2014 book, and didn’t think enough issues had been released this year to merit inclusion for a second year running. But upon looking into it more closely I discovered there was enough to make the series eligible as a 2015 entry too – yes, this is the 11th-hour entry that knocked Rumble off the list, sorry! “Thunderworld” came in at the very tail-end of last year, after the publication of my 2014 list, and that was sheer joy, Morrison teaming up with artist Cameron Stewart to make the struggling Shazam franchise seem like the coolest, most exciting and joyful corner of the DCU. I would love that in-development Shazam movie to take this tone, though I sadly doubt it will. This year brought us “Mastermen,” exploring a world where Superman landed in Nazi Germany and was used to create a glorious Reich which still endures to this day, drawn ably by Jim Lee, while Doug Mahnke drew “Ultra Comics,” the infamous “haunted comic” Morrison has spent years talking about through the development of this series – it proved to be as skin-crawlingly unsettling as we might have hoped. Then there was the big blow-up finale which, far from ending the story, seemed to open it up for many more stories to be explored in this sandpit. But perhaps my favourite of all the Multiversity comics released this year was “The Multiversity Guidebook,” even if that might be cheating as it is mostly prose. This book is essentially, “Grant Morrison draws out a blueprint for the whole DC Multiverse and its surrounding celestial bodies,” and is as wildly inventive as that sounds. As well as a comic prologue and epilogue laced with mysteries that would be explored in the ensuing issues, this was packed with detailed diagrams and a heap of universe breakdowns – and accompanying illustrations by a range of great artists – loaded to the brim with various delightful DC Easter Eggs. I swear, I’ve read and reread that comic book more than any other this year, and in fact still have it sat by my computer now so I can grab it and browse through when in need of inspiration. The Multiversity is the kind of story that enriches your imagination and leaves your mind buzzing with possibilities of what new directions the vibrant worlds could expand out into… there are few if any writers that generate this effect in me so well as Grant Morrison.

 
4. EAST OF WEST

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It could be easy to overlook East of West because it’s just so damn consistently awesome with each passing issue… it almost becomes a case of running out of things to say about it other than, “Yep, still great.” But even as the mad sci-fi Western epic blasted into its third year, Jonathan Hickman was still expanding the world and further filling out his sprawling ensemble of significant players. I feel like I would really benefit now from going right back to the start and doing a reread of the whole series just to see how everything connects together, as there are times when a character is absent for too long I’ve near forgotten what they were doing last by the time they re-emerge. But Hickman’s gift is that he ensures that every issue, as well as being a chunk of a larger whole, is in itself a self-contained treat, like a little poem in comics form that paints a portrait of a character, place, idea or key moment. But the MVP of the series has got to be Nick Dragotta, who with each passing month further solidifies his case to at very least be in the conversation for best comics artist active today. His character designs are iconic, the kind of figures you instantly want to have as an action figure on your shelf, or as a piece of original art on your wall. His locations all feel lived in, and his staging of scenes generates a palpable sense of mood and scale. The sun-scorched colours of Frank Martin ably enhance the whole desolate aesthetic being presented, and this is regularly one of the finest looking comics on the stands. Perhaps the best showcase for this dynamic duo was the most recent issue, which was presented almost entirely without any dialogue or narration, the visuals completely carrying the story. I have talked before about Nick Dragotta as an “auteur” artist, and I think that issue underlined what I was talking about. Though perhaps my favourite East of West issues of the year were the ones focusing on Babylon, son of Death, and his manipulative robotic “friend,” Balloon. These managed to run the emotional gamut from horrifying, to funny, to sad and poignant. But this world is rich with stories and characters I’m keen to return to, and I’m very excited to see where things go from here. It may seem at times like it’s going quietly under the radar now, but when it’s all said and done, I’m confident East of West will go down in history as one of the all-time great comics narratives.

 
3. THE SCULPTOR

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The Sculptor was perhaps the new comic release I was most hotly anticipating going into 2015. While most perhaps know Scott McCloud best for his Understanding Comics series, I’ll always think of him most fondly as the cartoonist behind one of my favourite comics of all time, Zot! And yet, decades have passed without McCloud doing a follow-up to his one major work of fiction, with McCloud remarking that he sets such high standards for himself that he doubted he might ever again have a work of such perfection that he’d feel confident in sharing with the world. Which might give you an idea of just how good that follow-up is in the form of The Sculptor. In addition to just really looking forward to it for the longest time and the experience of reading it being a climactic experience in itself, the timing of when I got to read it hit particularly hard, as I had just experienced a bereavement, and it was on a quiet weekend at home leading up to the funeral that I binge-read the book, with some of its ideas and moments hitting me like a sledgehammer. This is a comic that deals with big, heavy issues such as mortality, what we do with our life, how we come to terms with our death or the deaths of those we love, and how we find meaning in it all. And it is tackled by McCloud with such poetry and melancholy beauty that it would be very hard not to get emotional reading it. The craft at work is astounding, McCloud applying all his many years of acquired knowledge about what makes comics work and putting it stunningly into practise, while also experimenting with the medium and seeing just how far he can push it. An immensely powerful work of comics literature.

 
2. HARROW COUNTY

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It was the cover that did it for me. How could a horror fan like me take one look at that deliciously sinister cover – the boneless skin of an arm and hand dangling out of a box, with menacing eyes glowing yellow from the shadows within – and not immediately want to check out the comic it came from? Thankfully, this was an example of it being perfectly okay to just a book by its cover, as the story that unfolded inside was gripping. By turns chillingly frightening and disarmingly poignant, Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook have, over the course of 8 issues, established a rich mythology of witchcraft and haints that populate through the remote rural community of Harrow County. The little backup stories – with the best ones being beautifully rendered by the great Owen Gieni – served to further establish Harrow County as a place where all kinds of weird things happen, but our most gripping thread was our main story, which sees young girl Emmy come of age and start discovering her supernatural heritage and the powers that come with it. Cullen Bunn is a writer I’ve always liked, going back to his breakout work on The Sixth Gun, but with Harrow County you get a palpable sense of a creator truly coming into the height of his powers, in a manner not unlike when a director has a few quality films under his belt then ups his game to wow people with an acclaimed Oscar contender. In lesser hands, the omniscient narrator device Bunn employs might have felt heavy-handed, but with Bunn at the helm this technique is used to enrich the story with chilling wordplay and an arch, Gothic tone. And Tyler Crook, oh man, Tyler Crook. His work here has made him a breakout artist of the year for me. I carried issue #1 around in my bag for weeks just to show people – I’d open it up and be like, “LOOK AT THIS ART!” – and he’s just got better and better. I love the time lapse process videos Crook posts up on Youtube, which just show how lovingly rendered each tableau is. This book is visually stunning. And the whole comic package each issue really is a delight. I mentioned the “Tales of Harrow County” short stories, but each issue also has pinups, and an extended letters page featuring prose ghost stories and spooky recollections from the creators, readers and guest contributors. Everything about this comic is great. It’s no surprise it’s already been picked up for a TV adaptation.

 
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

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Yep, Southern Bastards has done it again. For the first time since a certain other Jason Aaron penned crime saga, the same comic has ranked #1 in my top 10 countdown on multiple consecutive years. Growing out from the pulpy roots of its opening arc in its first year, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have made their hard-boiled Southern noir into a diverse beast that can tackle a number of issues from different perspectives. The second arc, “Gridiron,” came to a devastating conclusion as 2015 began, with us seeing how Coach Boss completed his transformation into the vile human being he is today. But then the series reached perhaps its highest point yet with “Homecoming,” a series of single-chapter stories which provided showcases for various supporting players and new characters, broadening the scope of the world surrounding Craw County. First, we got a closer look at the disillusioned Sheriff Hardy and his story of blighted potential, which did a fine job of immediately placing Coach Boss firmly back in the role of antagonist and voiding out much of the sympathy we’d gained for him. Then, perennial punching bag Esaw Goings took centre stage in a terrifying dissection of toxic masculinity, which chillingly dove inside Goings’ head and found little but more of the aimless rage and futile profanity that characterises his external self. Issue #11 introduced us to perhaps my new favourite character, and another prospective nemesis for Boss to worry about, in Deacon Boone, in a story which eschewed the football focus to look at the South’s relationship with religion and how that conflicted with Boone’s deeds. And then in the most recent chapter we saw series artist Jason Latour switch to writing duties for a trippy tale which checked back in with Tad Ledbetter, a character who I thought was an incidental figure in Earl’s story who we’d never see again but who instead has taken on an intriguing new life. Jason Aaron as a writer is damn near peerless in the comics field. I love all the stuff he’s doing, from Doctor Strange to The Mighty Thor to The Goddamned, but Southern Bastards is his finest work currently on shelves, perhaps his finest since Scalped. The characters are so well realised, their voices so distinctive and real. And Latour’s art just about leaps off the page, his chunky figures feeling stylised and a little cartoonish while never losing gravitas, his staging rich in emotion. And he’s someone else who just seems to be adding more strings to their bow and becoming more refined with each passing issue, the visual style of the series constantly evolving and shifting to adapt the needs of the story being told. Last year, I talked about how Southern Bastards felt like it was building to a catastrophic confrontation, and one year down the line that feeling is still there, the reckoning being brought by the impending arrival of Roberta Tubb still just around the corner. And yet the series never felt like it was spinning its wheels. This, more than any other comic, is the book I’m itching to read as soon as I buy the latest issue, where I can barely make it in the door before I have to rip it on and get my latest fix. It really is the spiritual successor to Scalped, which is about the highest compliment I can give any comic.
And that’s the top 10 down for another year! It was so hard getting this list finalised, as there were so many great comics and it was hard narrowing it down to just 10. But let’s have a look at how the year-end standings now look for each year I’ve done this countdown:

2010: Scalped
2011: Scalped
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards
2015: Southern Bastards

What will 2016 bring? As mentioned above, there are a whole lot of potentially spectacular comics that were just getting going as this year drew to a close, and I’m sure a few of them will be in the mix. There have been some big debuts announced for next year, and I’m sure there will be plenty of others which will take me by surprise. Or will Southern Bastards still reign supreme and make it three years in a row? Find out next year. Thanks for reading!

This Weekend: Glasgow Comic Con 2015!

This coming weekend at the CCA Glasgow, from Saturday 4th July to Sunday 5th July, Scotland’s comics scene will be celebrating one of the highlights of its year, with the milestone 5th Glasgow Comic Con!  I have fond memories of the first Glasgow Comic Con I attended back in 2011.  I wasn’t exhibiting or selling my wares, I was just there as a fan.  But the first issue of my debut comic, THE STANDARD – back when it was just a self-published comic released locally in Glasgow – was nominated for a SICBA, and I’m aware that this show was the first time many people became aware of me as a comics creator, meaning this was the beginning for a lot of the things that have gone on to be a part of my life: from career path to the friends I’ve made.  And with each passing year, no matter if I’m also attending Thought Bubble or New York Comic Con or anywhere else, Glasgow Comic Con always manages to be my most profitable convention, because of the passion and enthusiasm of Scottish comics readers in supporting local talent.

Me with some Glasgow comics pals in 2012. So young, so full of hope...
Me with some Glasgow comics pals in 2012. So young, so full of hope…

And that brings us to this year, where I’ll be returning to the show, with my debut series, THE STANDARD, complete, and my follow-up comic, AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, also complete.  AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE is nominated for a SICBA Award, for Best Graphic Novel.  You can vote for us here.

I’ll be tabling at the show, along with AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE artist Iain Laurie, at the Art Studio venue.  We’re on Level 1, at Table 68:

GCC15Table

But we won’t just be selling our wares and hobnobbing at the SICBA awards ceremony.  You’ll also be able to find Iain and I at the “Owning Your Own Work!” panel on the Level 1 Workshop Room from 1:15pm-2pm, where we’ll be joined by Emma Beeby, Monty Nero, Gordon Rennie and Shaky Kane, talking about our various creator-owned comics projects.

On Sunday, Iain will be participating in the Big Comic Draw event.  I, meanwhile, will be participating in the “GLoW Goes Global” panel at 2:15pm-3pm, where I’ll be joined by my pals Sam Read, Harry French, Colin Bell, Garry Mac and Gary Chudleigh.  We’ll be talking about the writers group that has been running in Glasgow since 2011, of which I was a founding member, and where each of us have gone in our careers since contributing to the collective.

Glasgow Comic Con is always a fun weekend, and I’m sure that will be the case this year too.  If you’re attending, come along and say hello!

GCC2015

6 Tips For Writing Horror Comics

HorrorComic13

Last week, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for The Standard, I ran a special live streaming event exclusively for backers: a talk about the history of horror in comics. One aspect of the talk that went down particularly well was where I broke down the ways that the comics medium can be used to craft fear into six key points, as can be seen here:

I’ve had requests to expand on these a bit, so I thought I’d take each point and explore it in more detail.

1. “Horrifying imagery that repulses on a visceral level.”

Anyone who has seen Iain Laurie’s unforgettable work on And Then Emily Was Gone will see why I view this as crucial. Comics are a visual medium, and so the most instantaneous way to make an impact on the reader is through your imagery. Horror is no exception. Work closely with the artist to craft images that will be seared into readers’ brains and stick with them long after they’ve closed the book. If you can, tap into what I call the “visual gag reflex,” something so nasty it makes the reader recoil from the page when they see it. It has long been said that the advantage of novels is that the reader will read the words and create a picture in their imaginations far scarier than what could be drawn, but a comic artist has the challenge of creating a picture that’s scarier than what the reader could imagine.

2. “Panel layouts and angles that unsettle, put the reader on edge.”

In the post-talk Q&A, one question was what I thought made a good opening in a horror story. I brought up some of the best openings of horror movies: the “killer POV” tracking shot in Halloween, the ominous aerial camera following the car in The Shining, and those horrifying momentary flashes of corpses in the darkness in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What all these have in common is that they immediately put the viewer on the back-foot, make them uncomfortable by throwing them into a situation where they don’t have a full grasp of what’s happening and so are instantly on edge. What is the comic book equivalent of that? In comics, there is a certain visual language, and a conventional understanding of how to frame a scene. But if you play with that – start cutting out establishing shots, or framing characters in stifling close-ups or oppressive low angles – it can create a sense of uneasiness within the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of.

3. “Move away from familiar tropes, enter the unknown.”

One of my favourite quotes about horror comes from Ben Wheatley, the director of films such as Kill List and A Field in England. When he was asked about his top tip for making good horror, he said, “Explain as little as possible.” While the likes of vampires and zombies are enduringly popular because they tap into powerful ideas, and while classic, terrifying horror stories have been told with them and likely will be told with them in future, it’s more difficult to scare a reader with them because they’ve become familiar. Once something becomes a trope of the genre, readers will recognise it and begin to feel more comfortable, thinking that now they know the rules. But what if there are no rules? When readers don’t know what to expect, when they can’t get comfortable, it becomes easier to ramp up the tension.

4. “Don’t pull your punches, take your characters to dark places.”

Too often, horror takes a slump in the third act. Much of the tension comes in the build-up, with the threat lurking in the shadows. But in a lot of horror, even a lot of good horror, once you get into the third act, the antagonistic presence is revealed, we get a bunch of exposition explaining it, and the plot mechanics kick in towards resolving the conflict in a conventional manner. And that can act as a release of tension. By the end, the toys are back in the proverbial box, and either the hero has triumphed over the horror they faced or the wicked have met with an appropriately grim fate. This is horror as rollercoaster, where the scares are fleeting and of the moment, little spikes in the adrenalin to get the blood pumping… and by the end you’re uplifted, feeling a little more alive for having faced fear in a controlled setting and come out the other side. And this kind of horror can be very well executed. But I, personally, prefer horror that lingers after the fact, horror that leaves you ill at ease long after you’ve finished the story. And so, rather than releasing tension in that third act, I’d say go deeper down the rabbit hole, leave things unresolved, hanging ominously overhead. And maybe have the courage of your convictions to make us care about a character and then deny them a happy ending. Horror works best when it’s not just a dark chapter in that safe, established narrative world where good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everything happens for a reason, but rather exists in a world that’s cruel and fundamentally unfair.

5. “Pace your narrative in a way that steadily builds dread.”

Above, I talked about the power of horrifying images in horror comics. But the key to their success lies in more than just the images themselves. Once you establish those visuals once, or if readers are aware of what to expect from the artist telling the story, then a writer can use the tools at their disposal to manipulate that imagery and maximise its impact. Comics can be a fascinating medium for delayed gratification, because the reader can turn the pages as fast or as slowly as they want, and therefore the connection between reader and page feels more intimate and personal. Tease out the reveal of the next horrifying image, build up to it with partial stolen glances or reaction shots. And don’t just write it like a screenplay: remember the tools comics can employ. Plan for your page turns, have your biggest shocking reveals on your even-numbered pages, and spend the preceding odd-numbered pages building to them. The best grip a horror comic can have on a reader is to have them dreading turning the page, but unable to stop themselves.

6. “Tap into basic, universally accessible fears.”

All the previous points will ring hollow if you don’t stick true to this. You can have gruesome visuals, inventive panel layouts and a harsh narrative that pulls no punches, but it’s not going to scare your reader unless they can relate to it. So, no matter how outlandish or fantastical your story may be, if you want it to be horror, try and link it back in your mind to a core idea that scares you – the fear of being alone, the fear of losing loved ones, the fear that there is something awful about the world lurking just beyond your comprehension – and make sure that lies at the heart of your story. If it resonates with you, odds are it will resonate with your reader.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of it. Of course, if you want to explore this in more detail, and hear me talk in detail about how various classic horror comics masterfully employ these techniques, then the best thing to do is watch my full talk. A recording of the full streaming event is available to backers of THE STANDARD Kickstarter, and can be accessed here.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a reading list of all the horror comics I discuss in my talk. Here’s a version for US readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology
Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1 on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology
And here’s a version for UK readers:

Tales from the Crypt
By Various
The EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt, Volume 1

Vault of Horror
By Various
The EC Archives: Vault of Horror, Volume 1

Twisted Tales
By Bruce Jones & various artists
Not been comprehensively collected, but single issues can be found online.

Gore Shriek
By Various, includes “Cottonmouth” by Stephen Bissette
Gore Shriek

Doom Patrol
By Grant Morrison & Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, various
Doom Patrol, Volume 1: Crawling From the Wreckage
Also available on ComiXology

Shade the Changing Man
By Pete Milligan & Chris Bachalo
Shade the Changing Man, Volume 1: The American Scream
Shade the Changing Man #1 on ComiXology

The Sandman
By Neil Gaiman & Various
The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
The Sandman #1 on ComiXology

Saga of the Swamp Thing
By Alan Moore & Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1
Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, “Love and Death”, on ComiXology

Hellblazer
By Various
Hellblazer, Volume 5: Dangerous Habits (beginning of Garth Ennis run)
Also available on ComiXology

The Walking Dead
By Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore
The Walking Dead Compendium, Volume 1
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye on ComiXology

Uzumaki
By Junji Ito
Uzumaki 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition

Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo & Junji Ito
Read online

Powwkipsie
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain
By Iain Laurie
Read online

Echoes
By Joshua Hale Fialkov & Rahsan Ekedal
Currently out of print, available from ComiXology

Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Batman, Volume 3: Death of the Family
Also available on ComiXology

American Vampire
By Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque
American Vampire, Volume 1
Also available on ComiXology

The Wake
By Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy
The Wake
Also available on ComiXology

Severed
By Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft & Attila Futaki
Severed
Also available on ComiXology

Wytches
By Scott Snyder & Jock
Wytches, Volume 1
Wytches #1 on ComiXology

Nailbiter
By Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Nailbiter, Volume 1: There Will Be Blood
Nailbiter #1 on ComiXology

The Woods
By James Tynion IV & Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 1
The Woods #1 on ComiXology

Curse
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer, Riley Rossmo
Curse
Also available on ComiXology

The Empty Man
By Cullen Bunn & Vanessa Del Ray
The Empty Man
The Empty Man #1 on ComiXology

Spread
By Justin Jordan and Kyle Strahm
Spread, Volume 1: No Hope
Spread #1 on ComiXology

Outcast
By Robert Kirkman & Paul Azaceta
Outcast, Volume 1: Darkness Surrounds Him
Outcast #1 on ComiXology

Nameless
By Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham
Nameless #1 on ComiXology

Burning Fields
By Michael Moreci, Tim Daniel & Colin Lorimer
Burning Fields #1 on ComiXology

Harrow County
By Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook
Harrow County #1on the Dark Horse online store

Through the Woods
By Emily Carroll
Through the Woods

And Then Emily Was Gone
By John Lees & Iain Laurie
And Then Emily Was Gone
Also available on ComiXology

Also available on ComiXology

My Top 20 Daredevil Comics!

Tomorrow, Daredevil launches on Netflix, and I’m ridiculously excited for it.  Daredevil is my favourite Marvel superhero, and I’ve been anticipating his arrival in the MCU ever since Marvel announced they’d got the rights back from Fox.  When, from there, we got news that Daredevil would be adapted as a Netflix series my hype grew, and has steadily been building and building to critical mass with each new casting announcement, picture, trailer, and glowing review.  So, with one day to go and me sat here feeling like it’s Christmas Eve, I thought I’d immerse myself in my love of Daredevil a little more by sharing my top 20 comics starring everyone’s favourite blind lawyer/superhero.

I got the idea from Comic Book Resources.  They’re running a Top 50 Greatest Daredevil Stories feature right now, and for that I came up with a Top 10 list when voting.  In doing that, I realised how easy it would be to stretch that out to a Top 20.  That in itself speaks to the strength of Daredevil as a character: I don’t think there’s any other Marvel hero I could come up with a Top 20 favourite stories list for.  I should note that, in any entry on my list taken up by a story from Mark Waid’s run, the title is made up by me, as Mark Waid didn’t give his stories titles.  For shame!  You’ll also find that my list both skews modern, and has some key exclusions.  For example, there is nothing from Ann Nocenti’s run.  Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr’s work on Daredevil made up some of the first Daredevil comics I can remember reading, but since with most of them it’s been near 20 years since I read them I don’t think I can remember them well enough to fairly rank them.

But enough preamble.  Here’s my list!

Honourable Mention: PunisherMAX, by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon

I absolutely love this story, and as a comic in itself would likely rank it above a few of the entries in my top 20.  So why is it not in my top 20?  Well, the title gives it away.  It’s not a Daredevil comic, and Daredevil himself never appears.  But it’s worth a mention because it takes some key figures from Daredevil’s supporting cast – The Kingpin, Bullseye, Vanessa Fisk, Elektra – and reimagines them as charactes to fit into the MAX universe inhabited by Garth Ennis’ aging-in-real-time Punisher.  The result is that Aaron and Dillon give us the most visceral, monstrous depictions of The Kingpin and Bullseye seen in any comic in recent years, making the series a must-read for any fans of the iconic Daredevil villains.

20. The Damned (Daredevil Vol 1, #180) by Frank Miler & Klaus Janson

This issue seems to be one of the less acclaimed of Frank Miller’s landmark run on Daredevil, but it’s one that I will always remember fondly, perhaps because I have memories of reading it very early as a young comic fan.  But even looking back at it now, I think it boasts some of Miller and Klaus Janson’s most striking imagery, from Daredevil hobbling around with his leg in a cast to Daredevil and Ben Urich plunged into murky water with an alligator swimming towards them from the depths.  In this issue, Ben Urich discovers that Wilson Fisk’s wife Vanessa – thought to be dead – has been trapped in a subterranean society, and Daredevil must rescue her.

19. The Purple Children (Daredevil Vol 4, #8-#10) by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee

I know this is a very recent addition to the Daredevil canon, but it made such an immediate impression that I think it very quickly earned this spot so high up in my estimations.  The Purple Man was reinvented in Alias as one of Marvel’s most terrifying villains, so on the surface it may have seemed an odd fit for him to return to his old stomping grounds in Daredevil in its current upbeat phase.  But the transition works, and The Purple Man remains as frightening as ever, as he gathers the various illegitimate children he’s had over the years and discovers they have powers of persuasion to surpass even his own.  But what really sets this storyline apart is how it peels back the scab that’s been quietly growing at least through Mark Waid’s run and arguably longer, and directly tackles the notion of Matt Murdock as a sufferer of depression in a really potent, moving fashion.  I think this is all the more powerful in light of recent news stories that have served to stigmatise mental illness, showing that it can afflict superheroes too.

DaredevilDepression

18. Hardcore (Daredevil Vol 2, #46-#50) by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev

In a way, this is a bit like Daredevil’s version of a story like Knightfall or Hush where Batman is forced to go up against multiple enemies back-to-back.  After a lengthy absence after an attempted assassination, The Kingpin has returned to New York City to reclaim his criminal empire.  To keep Daredevil occupied, he hires the services of both Typhoid Mary and Bullseye, leading to a gauntlet where Daredevil must go through both of them and finally The Kingpin himself.  As someone who ranks these three as Daredevil’s three greatest foes, this was fun reading for me!  What was also clever was that, in light of Matt Murdock being outed to the press as being Daredevil earlier in the run, it upended the way these foes come after him.  Typhoid Mary attacks Matt on a busy street in broad daylight.  Bullseye sneaks into his bedroom at the dead of night and nearly kills his girlfriend, Milla Donovan.  And in the final confrontation between Daredevil and The Kingpin, Bendis throws another shocking status quo change at us.

17. Date Night (Daredevil Vol 3, #12) by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee

This is a low-key little done-in-one in Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, but like the entirety of that run, it is a delight.  Here, after a year of flirting and coyly dancing around one another, Matt Murdock and Kirsten McDuffie finally go on a date.  And in an issue spent entirely out of costume, we just get to enjoy spending time with Matt Murdock as a person, making this issue a wonderful showcase for how Waid has managed to bring out the character’s likeability.  Running through the issue is also an enjoyable flashback to Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson in law school, highlighting an episode where their lasting friendship was cemented: something that takes on a poignant note given future story developments in the run.  This issue is also noteworthy for being the first drawn by Chris Samnee, who would go on to become “co-storyteller” with Waid and establish himself as one of the best ever Daredevil artists.

16. The Murdock Papers (Daredevil Vol 2, #76-#81) by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev

This is the climactic arc of the lengthy Bendis/Maleev run, and it really does have this crushing weight of finality behind it.  Bendis manages to bring back just about all the key players and plot points from the duration of his run, throwing them all into the mix here to create this overwhelming feeling of chickens all coming home to roost, and the noose inevitably tightening around Matt Murdock’s neck.  Also, after “Hardcore” seemed to serve the purpose of undercutting The Kingpin as a threat for this new, darker, tougher Daredevil, “The Murdock Papers” is very much about showing that The Kingpin still has teeth, and it’s right at the moment when you start to underestimate him that he could be most dangerous.  In the story, a captive Kingpin plans to make a deal with the FBI to give them irrefutable proof that Daredevil is Matt Murdock, with the search for this proof setting the stage for a grand battle royale between Daredevil, his friends and his foes.  But all is not quite as it seems.  The cliffhanger finale perfectly sets the stage for Brubaker and Lark to come in and hit a slam-dunk as they took over from Bendis and Maleev, and they would of course do just that.  More on that later…

15. Devils (Daredevil Vol 1, #169) by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Bullseye is one of my favourite comic book villains, has been for a long time.  And it’s thanks to Frank Miller that he was elevated from a throwaway costumed crook to being such a memorably wicked thorn in Daredevil’s side.  This issue here was one of the key issues that helped to cement Bullseye’s reputation as an A-list baddie.  In the story, Bullseye is suffering from a brain tumor, which makes him start to imagine everyone as Daredevil.  He reacts as you might imagine Bullseye would, resulting in a killing spree through the streets of New York City.  One of the best things about Miller and Janson’s acclaimed run on Daredevil were their masterfully executed fight scenes, and it seems that none were more hard-hitting than when Daredevil matched up with Bullseye.  We get one such memorable fight here.  Though, of course, there were more to come.

BullseyeDevils

14. Senseless (Daredevil Vol 3, #14-#16) by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee

Certain actions by Matt Murdock in the first year of Daredevil, Vol 3 have angered the authorities of Latveria, and so in this storyline, Daredevil find himself kidnapped and held prisoner in Dr. Doom’s dominion.  The story gets really interesting when the Latverians subject Daredevil to a chemical that slowly neutralises his other senses, causing his radar sense to vanish, and for him to gradually go deaf and be unable to smell, taste or touch.  Waid and Samnee do a great job of making us feel the horror of Daredevil’s plight, going from someone who has turned his disability into a strength into someone rendered truly helpless.  It’s a nice foreshadowing of the grisly fate that would be revealed for Bullseye later in the run.  But the way Daredevil’s senses start to attempt to compensate becomes another visualisation of Daredevil’s true greatest power: his ability to always come back and keep fighting, no matter how low he has been laid.

13. Return of the King (Daredevil Vol 2, #116) by Ed Brubaker & David Aja

“Return of the King” is actually a 5-part storyline that built up to the finale of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s run in the renumbered Daredevil #500, and it’s a good storyline.  But for this particular list, I’m highlighting the opening issue that serves as the prelude, drawn by guest artist David Aja, in which our focus is entirely on Wilson Fisk.  It’s a fascinating exploration of his character, what makes him tick and his complex relationship with Matt Murdock.  In the story, Fisk has once again attempted to retire from his wicked ways, moving to a quiet village in Spain to start a new life.  He has met a woman with a young child, and they have become a surrogate family to him.  But then Lady Bullseye tracks him down with hopes of making him become The Kingpin once again, and tragedy unfolds.  Brubaker uses some clever narration here, having Fisk not in 1st person but in 2nd person, “You shouldn’t have done that, Wilson,” etc.  While the 1st person narration often employed by Matt Murdock makes us relate more to him, this 2nd person narration distances us from Fisk, and it also underlines an accusatory, self-loathing tone.

DaredevilKingpin

12. Gang War! (Daredevil VOl 1, #170-#172) by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Another great Kingpin story here, with this being particularly significant in that this is where Frank Miller transformed The Kingpin from an outlandish Spider-Man villain into Daredevil’s arch-nemesis.  Wilson and Vanessa Fisk had been living in quiet retirement in Japan, but when they plan to put behind their criminal connections for good by turning state’s evidence against their former affiliates, Vanessa travels to Hell’s Kitchen to seek the legal counsel of Nelson & Murdock.  But things go wrong when The Kingpin’s former underlings kidnap her to draw Fisk out of hiding.  When he does indeed return, it’s far more than they bargained for, and we see just how ruthless The Kingpin can be when what he loves is threatened.  Bullseye enters the fray as well, switching allegiances from Fisk’s opponents to The Kingpin himself, and having another memorable battle with Daredevil.  But the storyline is most significant in how it lays out the template that would establish The Kingpin as arguably Marvel’s best villain.

11. Wake Up (Daredevil Vol 2, #16-#19) by Brian Michael Bendis & David Mack

Before Brian Michael Bendis’ great run on Daredevil with artist Alex Maleev began proper, he penned this 4-part storyline brilliantly drawn by Dave Mack.  Daredevil himself doesn’t show up until late in the story, with our key protagonist instead being reporter Ben Urich.  Loser villain Leap-Frog has gone missing, and his young son is in a catatonic state, drawing violent pictures that seem to involve Daredevil.  And as Urich pieces the story of what really happened together, it reveals a harrowing tale of abuse that brings up flashes of Urich’s own childhood.  When Daredevil eventually does enter the story, the gentleness and compassion he shows the troubled child are truly touching.  And it’s all portrayed in stunning fashion by Mack, who uses oblique, psychologically-representative tableaus that you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a mainstream superhero comic.  A further showcase of just how versatile a character Daredevil can be.

10. Daredevil: Yellow, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, the team behind one of the greatest Batman comics ever, The Long Halloween, reunite for this retelling of Daredevil’s early years of crime-fighting.  The narrative is pretty basic, revisiting some of the early villain encounters from the first few issues of Daredevil from back in the 1960s, but with a more character-driven focus on the love triangle between Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page.  But the romantic happenings are given an undertone of immense sadness with the framing device of a present-day Daredevil – grieving the now-dead Karen – writing letters to her to help come to terms with her loss.  The true highlight here, though, is the beautiful visuals.  The comic looks stunning, with Tim Sale’s distinctive character design and ink washes making each page into a breathtaking work of art.  Also look out for a clever connection which puts this story into a shared universe with The Long Halloween. 

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9. The Man Without Fear, by Frank Miller & John Romita, Jr

Years after his celebrated run on the character, Frank Miller returned to write one more Daredevil story, this time giving us a retelling of his origin which was apparently originally intended as a treatment for an abandoned film adaptation.  It may not quite be optimum Miller, with him repeating a few beats from his iconic Batman work, but there’s a joy in seeing him slip back into writing Matt Murdock like one slips into a comfy old pair of slippers.  The art is provided by John Romita Jr, and I’d venture to say this could be of the finest work of his storied career. In particular, the scene where he breaks up the child trafficking ring in a black tracksuit (which has gone on to form the basis for the “proto-costume” in the Netflix series) is a triumph of badass visuals.  This story is very much a Matt Murdock story, with him not appearing in the famous Daredevil costume until the final page. But anyone wanting a definitive account of how Matt Murdock became the hero he is today need look no further than this.

8. A New Beginning (Daredevil Vol 3, #1-#3), by Mark Waid & Paulo Rivera, Marcos Martin

After the entirety of Daredevil Volume 2 took Matt Murdock on an ever-deepening spiral of despair, this Volume 3 relaunch was tasked with starting a whole new era for Daredevil.  And Mark Waid and Paulo Rivera do so in style.  Right from the first issue, the tone is wildly different.  We have fun and adventure, we have outlandish villains like The Spot, we have Daredevil smiling!  Paulo Rivera gives us crisp, clean lines, accompanied by the bright, bold colors of Javier Rodriguez.  It really does feel drastically different from the moody, murky crime thriller the title had become.  And yet, Waid makes sure that despite the radical surface change, the character’s history is still acknowledged and respected.  In a wonderfully-drawn short by Marcos Martin contained within this opening storyline, Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson have a conversation in which Matt lays out his new approach to life, closing the door in all the awful things that have happened to him and making a conscious decision to move forward.  And it’s a decision that Foggy doesn’t necessarily think is healthy, marking the first signifier of the underlying darkness this run doesn’t always get credit for.  I rank this opening 3-part story, in which Daredevil clashes with Black Panther villain Klaw, so highly because it’s the story that sets the tone going forward, and – after being a Daredevil fan for many years who ranked The Kingpin and Bullseye as his favourite characters – it was Waid’s grasp of Matt Murdock’s personality here that cemented Daredevil as my favourite character in his own book.

7. The Trial of the Century (Daredevil Vol 2, #38-#40) by Brian Michael Bendis & Manuel Gutierrez

As celebrated as Alex Maleev’s work on his Daredevil run with Brian Michael Bendis has become, funnily enough, one of the best stories in that run was drawn by fill-in artist Manuel Gutierrez.  Here, forgotten hero the White Tiger finds himself wrongfully accused of shooting a police officer while attempting to thwart a robbery, and Matt Murdock must represent him in court.  What follows is perhaps my all-time favourite story of Matt Murdock as a lawyer.  Daredevil barely shows up at all in the storyline, with his lengthiest appearance being when he shows up in costume to meet Luke Cage and Iron Fist and they’re all like, “Umm, actually we were looking for legal advice.”  No, this story stands primarily as compelling courtroom drama.  With Matt Murdock himself recently being publicly unmasked as Daredevil at this point, that weighs heavily on the story, both in terms of Murdock’s own feelings about the White Tiger and on taking his case, and in terms of how the public and the media turn on costumed vigilantes.  It’s infuriating to see the legal system steadily let down a good man stage by stage, and we feel Murdock’s growing frustration, but also recognise he’s maybe partly responsible for stirring up these nasty feelings against costumed heroes for which White Tiger is primed to suffer.  The ending is heartbreaking.

6. The Devil in Cell Block D (Daredevil Vol 2, #82-87) by Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark  

Earlier in the list, I talked about how the departing Bendis and Maleev set up a slam-dunk for incoming replacements Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark.  Well, here’s the slam-dunk.  The climax of the previous run left Matt Murdock in prison, alongside many of the enemies he put there, awaiting trial for his activities as Daredevil.  Brubaker immediately establishes a hard-boiled tone here, making this feel like he’s turning his patented noir stylings to a prison drama, only with Daredevil characters.  And there really is a lot of Daredevil characters.  Murdock is joined in prison by The Kingpin, Bullseye, The Owl, Gladiator, Hammerhead, Black Tarantula and The Punisher, with the various parties gradually converging as the narrative unfolds, building and building like a melting pot that eventually explodes.  The dynamic between Murdock and Fisk is interesting here, as they find themselves as unlikely, grudging allies in a prison full of inmates out to get them both.  And yet, Fisk still remains the devil on Daredevil’s shoulder, trying to bring out the worst in him and make him compromise himself, because Fisk believes everyone will compromise themselves given the right amount of pressure and Murdock’s refusal to do so continually defies him.  All this is ably presented by Michael Lark, who’s understated, moody pencils are the perfect compliment to Brubaker’s writing.

5. Ikari (Daredevil Vol 3, #23-#27), by Mark Waid & Chris Samnee

For me, this 5-part storyline was the climax of Mark Waid’s work on Daredevil, and just about everything that’s followed has felt like an extended victory lap.  Here, the themes and ideas Waid had been laying out come to a head, and the mysterious villain who has been acting against Daredevil from the shadows since the very beginning of the run is finally revealed: it’s Bullseye, but much changed, left crippled since his last resurrection with all his senses but sight utterly nullified.  But with his body useless, his mind has worked on coming up with a most personal way of destroying Daredevil.  Enter a great new villain for the Daredevil pantheon in the form of Ikari: a killer drenched in Daredevil’s history, given powers in a careful recreation of the accident that gave Matt Murdock his, and draped in an obscene repurposing of Battlin’ Jack Murdock’s boxing robes.  It’s a triumph of design from Chris Samnee, who is brilliant and firing on all cylinders throughout the story, particularly in the central Ikari/Daredevil fight scene that takes up most of the penultimate chapter.  Ikari is designed to provoke Daredevil, and it works.  Bullseye wants Matt Murdock to feel fear, with all his loved ones placed in danger.  But while in the last volume, this kind of story development would have been used to show that friends are a weakness for Daredevil and only leave him open to more pain, the resolution we come to here underlines just how different the mission statement for this run is.  And perhaps what I love most about this storyline is the subplot with Foggy Nelson, who has been diagnosed with cancer.  Watching Matt Murdock see his friend through his treatment creates a really touching picture of their friendship, highlighting that the relationship between Matt and Foggy is at the heart of Waid and Samnee’s run.  The whole run is a classic, but this storyline deserves to be recognised as a classic within a classic.

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4. Last Hand (Daredevil Vol 1, #181) by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Quite possibly the most famous Daredevil story of all time: the death of Elektra.  I think enough time has passed for this not to be a spoiler, yeah?  I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not that big an Elektra fan.  I’m more in the camp of viewing Karen Page as Matt Murdock’s true great love, and I enjoy Typhoid Mary more as an antagonistic foil.  And so “The Elektra Saga” as a whole didn’t resonate with me so much as other aspects of Frank Miller’s seminal run.  But I cannot deny the power of this chapter, when Bullseye murders her, resulting in a bruising final confrontation between Daredevil and Bullseye that leaves Bullseye paralysed.  And yet, much of Matt Murdock’s outpouring of grief over the loss of his love would come in the following chapter.  I actually view this most as a great Bullseye story, probably the greatest Bullseye story.  He narrates the issue, and he crafts a picture of obsession and bitterness, with all the little slights and humiliations from his earlier clashes with Daredevil through the run weighing on him, all informing the monstrous actions he goes on to commit here.  He also figures out Murdock is Daredevil, way before his identity would go public… and no one, not even The Kingpin, believes him.  Of course, Elektra would later be resurrected, but the death as depicted here still has power to distress.  This is a piece of comics history which still manages to feel fresh and vital.

3. Out (Daredevil Vol 2, #32-#37) by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev

For me, “Out” is the dizzying high-point of the consistently excellent Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil.  In this storyline, Matt Murdock gets outed as Daredevil to the tabloid press, and his life is turned upside down.  What immediately strikes you reading this is just how ballsy it is.  You read it, and you’re thinking, “Okay, how is the genie going to get put back in the bottle here?  This surely can’t actually be happening to Matt Murdock.”  And then they keep pushing it further and further, and you realise there is no putting this genie back in the bottle.  This is an audacious upending of Daredevil’s status quo damn near on a par with “The Anatomy Lesson” in Swamp Thing, and Bendis and Maleev do great work exploring the consequences of a superhero with a secret identity being publicly exposed, and the impact such a catastrophe would have not just on the hero himself, but on those closest to him.  There’s also some potent commentary on rolling news and how the media would make a feeding frenzy out of this.  “Out” is a thought-provoking exploration of what the cost of being a superhero in a world like our own may be, and the ripple-effects of this particular storyline are still being felt in Daredevil comics now a decade later.  Hugely influential.

2. Snow-Blind (Daredevil Vol 3, #7), by Mark Waid & Paulo Rivera

Matt Murdock is volunteering at a school for the blind over the Christmas holidays, and is taking a group of blind kids on a trip.  But their bus crashes, killing the driver, and leaving Daredevil stranded in a snowstorm with a group of scared, blind children who he has to lead to safety.  There are no supervillains, no fights, no high-stakes save the world or even save the city narratives.  Just Daredevil and these kids.  And yet Daredevil has rarely felt like so much of a hero as he does here.  It’s a rousing read watching Daredevil fight to bring these kids to safety, even when fighting against his injuries and his own growing panic.  And most touching of all, we see that the kids themselves have strength and heroism of their own.  Paulo Rivera’s art here is simply beautiful, finding detail and nuance even against the stark, snowy backdrop.  This here is the high-point of Mark Waid’s Daredevil, which is itself the high-point of superhero comics in recent years.

1. Born Again (Daredevil Vol 1, #227-#233) by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli

One year before the creative team of writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli created “Batman: Year One”, regarded by many as the greatest Batman story ever, they teamed up for “Born Again,” an equally excellent (perhaps even a little better) 7-part Daredevil saga. Matt Murdock’s old love, Karen Page, has become a heroin addict, and has sold the secret of Daredevil’s secret identity. That information has found its way into the hands of The Kingpin, who uses it to systematically destroy Matt Murdock’s life, piece by piece. The first half of the story is that of a downward spiral, as Murdock’s life falls apart and he drifts deeper into the depths of despair as he loses everything. The second half of the story is a tale of rebirth, as we see Murdock rise from the ashes and piece the ruins of his life back together in a struggle to find the strength to be a hero once again. The Kingpin is terrifying here, elevated from intimidating gangster to a primal force of corruption, a force of nature like the sea, endlessly chipping away at all areas of weakness in people of all kinds, his malign influence spread throughout Hell’s Kitchen and far beyond.  It’s one of my favourite depictions of any villain in any comic. Ben Urich, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson all also get their moments to shine, each given their own long, dark night of the soul and the chance to triumph over it. But this is Matt Murdock’s journey. Again, there’s very little Daredevil here. It’s another shining example of how Daredevil may be the costume, but it’s Matt Murdock, the man, who is the true hero. The greatest Daredevil story ever, and quite possibly the best Marvel comic ever.

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So, those are my favourite Daredevil comics.  What are yours?  Let me know!

This Weekend: Edinburgh Comic Con!

Hey everybody, and happy 2015!  It’s been a while since this site got updated, but now seems like a good time to get the ball rolling again, as convention season is about to start rolling again for me!

This Saturday and Sunday, 11th-12th April, at Potterrow in Bristo Square, I’ll be at Edinburgh Comic Con, tabling with my pal and co-creator of And Then Emily Was Gone, artist Iain Laurie.  This con is particularly exciting for me as it’s the first time I’ve not just exhibited at a convention, but been an invited guest.  They even have my profile up on the website and my name on the poster!  We’ll be selling copies of And Then Emily Was Gone and The Standard and doing sketching (well, Iain will be doing sketching: I’ll do a sketch if you want but it won’t be very good!) in the Lower Hall, at tables L20 and L21.

But that’s not all!  In addition to having a table at the show, Iain Laurie and I will also be taking part in a special And Then Emily Was Gone panel on Sunday at 1pm.  For anyone who has enjoyed the series, or has any questions about how it was made, this should be a fun panel you might want to check out!

Edinburgh Comic Con is the start of 2015’s convention calendar, which is currently looking like this:

Edinburgh Comic Con: 11th-12th April

Glasgow Comic Con: 4th-5th July

MCM Expo Scotland: 27th-28th September

New York Comic Con: 8th-11th October

Thought Bubble: 14th-15th November

But it all starts with Edinburgh this weekend!  So, if you plan on attending the event, do stop by and say hello!  For more information, visit their official website.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #2 Debuts at Thought Bubble!

coverAnd Then Emily Was Gone is a dark horror-mystery that tells the story of Greg Hellinger, a man who sees monsters. A former detective driven to the brink of madness by terrifying apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Orkney Islands, where strange and terrible things are happening…

Since its launch in local markets here in Glasgow back in July, the first issue of And Then Emily Was Gone has enjoyed great success.  It got nominated for 4 SICBA awards at this year’s Glasgow Comic Con, the only comic to get nominated for every category.  And upon making its US debut at this month’s New York Comic Con, And Then Emily Was Gone #1 completely sold out at the show!

The comic has enjoyed a wealth of positive reviews:

Forbidden Planet

Big Comic Page

Broken Frontier

Comic Booked

The Off-Panel Podcast

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It’s even had some very nice testimonials from ace comics creators:

“This is a weird comic, but in a wonderful way. Best of all, it’s a comic with its own vision, a unique and bold vision.”

– Michael Moreci, Hoax Hunters, Skybreaker

“This was a wonderful, twisted little surprise. A David Lynch air throughout, it made me feel itchy and uncomfortable, which is the highest praise I can bestow. John Lees’ script is tight and mysterious, with a few curve-balls that really add to the sense of hyper-reality. The off-kilter energy. The real stand-out is Iain Lawrie on art duties. Equal parts Paul Pope, Nick Pitarra and Morgan Jeske (this reminded me frequently of Jeske and Ales Kot’s Change). Despite the content raw as a picked scab, the presentation and print quality is supremely professional. Extremely impressive. Find a copy.”

– Owen Michael Johnson, Raygun Roads

Super awesome, super creepy, super good. I really love the work of everyone involved on the book…”

– Nick Pitarra, The Manhattan Projects, The Red Wing

“This book is amazing, the first issue was ultra creepy.”

– Riley Rossmo, Proof, Green Wake, Cowboy Ninja Viking, Bedlam, Drumhellar

“It’s a masterclass in comics. it’s literate and the art? The art NEVER fails to impress. You just got to find out what happens next… BONNIE SHAW? GREG HILLINGER? THE BOX? What the fuck? It’s a movie for the mind ***** FIVE STARS.”

– Shaky Kane, The Bulletproof Coffin

“…reads really well, the artwork is just fantastic, intriguing premise, quirky and atmospheric and claustrophobic as I would expect – really impressed!”

– Frank Quitely, All Star Superman, We3, Jupiter’s Legacy

And now, the And Then Emily Was Gone bandwagon will be rolling into Leeds in time for the Thought Bubble comic convention on Saturday 23rd-Sunday 24th November.  Not only will the acclaimed cult hit first issue be available for the first time in England, but making its worldwide debut will be And Then Emily Was Gone #2!

Emily2CoverIn this second chapter, Hellinger and Fiona begin to investigate Emily’s disappearance on the island of Merksay, with its highly eccentric locals and terrifying hidden places.  Plus, we find out what’s in the box!

Both writer John Lees (that’s me!) and artist Iain Laurie will be at Thought Bubble, selling copies of And Then Emily Was Gone #1 & #2.  You’ll be able to find us at Royal Armouries Hall, Table 2.  Iain will be signing and sketching throughout the weekend, and I’ll be relentlessly shilling And Then Emily Was Gone, along with my other comics: The Standard, Bad Sun and Black Leaf.  Letterer Colin Bell will also be in attendance at the show, I believe tabling with creator Neil Slorance at Table 69 in New Dock Hall.

If you haven’t yet been exposed to the unique visual stylings of Iain Laurie, here’s a couple of snippets of artwork from the first issue:

Page3Page7And for those who missed them last time they were posted, here are some character profiles shared previously on this blog:

HELLINGER

Once, Greg Hellinger was a rising star of the police Missing Persons Bureau.  Gifted with a brilliant analytical mind, Hellinger had the inate ability to find the thread left behind by people thought long gone, and track them down.  Solving a series of high-profile disappearances gained Hellinger some degree of fame and noteriety, and it seemed like his reputation and legacy was secure.

Then, five years ago, Hellinger started seeing monsters.

Plagued constantly by nightmarish apparitions that follow him wherever he goes, terrifying visions he is unable to fully comprehend, Greg has lost just about everything: his career, his family, his reputation, and even his sanity is barely intact.  Medical experts have no explanation for these visions, other than them being hallucinations caused by some unspecified massive nervous breakdown.  Now, Hellinger lives a life of seclusion, a haunted, broken man.

But one more case is waiting to be solved, Hellinger’s greatest challenge yet.  The disappearance of a 17-year-old girl called Emily Munro.  Can he solve this mystery, and in the process find answers to what is happening to him?  Or will Greg Hellinger discover that, as far as he has fallen, there are greater depths of horror and madness for him to plummet into?

Hellinger3FIONA

17-year-old Fiona Tulloch has lived her whole life in Merksay, a small island community in Orkney.  A bright, inquisitive girl, Fiona has always felt like she never really fit in with the isolated, sheltered existence of the Merksay islanders.  Save for her best friend, Emily, Fiona has never really connected with other people, preferring to lose herself in the world of her detective novels and dream of a more exciting life.

But when Emily goes missing, Fiona begins to see Merksay in an unsettling new light.  She starts to believe that perhaps that her difficulty in fitting in wasn’t something wrong with her, but rather something deeply wrong with the island and its people.  The more she delves into Merksay’s history, the more unsafe she feels: terrible things are happening in Merksay, and have been for some time.  And so, armed with her quick wit and many years worth of learned experience from trashy crime fiction, she decides to escape, fleeing the island and heading for the Scottish mainland.

But Fiona knows she can’t run away forever.  She needs to go back to Merksay.  She needs to find Emily, or find out what happened to her.  She needs someone to help her do it.  She needs Greg Hellinger…

Fiona1VIN

Vin Eckland is what some people may charitably refer to as a “hipster douchebag.”  His favourite pastimes include ironically watching Saturday morning cartoons, knitting novelty animals and playing quirky tunes on his tiny little ukelele.  He lives a life of leisure, often accompanied by Louise: his best friend since childhood.  He’s still recovering from the bad breakup of a long-term relationship, but has recently started dating again.

Vin has an interesting job.

VinEckland2BONNIE SHAW

There’s no such thing as Bonnie Shaw…

BonnieShaw1And Then Emily Was Gone #1 & #2 will be on-sale at Thought Bubble in Royal Armouries Hall, Table 2.  For more updates and information, keep reading this blog, and follow the creator on Twitter: John Lees (@johnlees927), Iain Laurie (@IainLaurie), Colin Bell (@colinbell) and Megan Wilson (@MeganEngiNerd).

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: Bandette #1-5

In my recent review of Theremin #2, I talked about how my enjoyment of that series had prompted me to sample more comics from the MonkeyBrain library.  I tried a couple of issue #1s, one of which was Bandette #1, the story of a young thief in Paris and the adventures she gets into by writer Paul Tobin and artist Colleen Coover.  Soon afterwards, I had ingested issues #2-#5.  Bandette is, quite simply, a delight: charming, clever and, most of all, fun!

Bandette1

A big part of that fun comes from the aesthetic created by Colleen Coover’s artwork.  The first thing that drew my eye to this book on MonkeyBrain’s Comixology menu was the covers.  Bandette herself was an immediately engaging presence, with her simple yet striking costume design, and that winning smile.  More on smiles and their significance later.  First, I want to note how much of a triumphant invention Colleen Coover’s Bandette is.  She’s just this bubble of pure energy bursting off the page.  Note how rare it is for her to maintain the same position for more than one successive panel.  She’s always striking a dynamic pose, engaging in some acrobatic antic, or even in quieter scenes in her home, making dramatic flourishes with her hands, usually while talking to herself.  And as mentioned, the costume design is inspired in its simplicity: it’s the kind of costume women or even girls (which can’t always be said for female comic characters and their revealing attire) could easily cosplay as at a comic-con and I at least would immediately know who they were supposed to be.  Indeed, there’s one scene in issue #4 where girls and boys alike engage in some Bandette cosplay!

Colleen has an impressive skill for imbuing personality into a character before they even say a word.  From the stern angular features of rival thief Monsieur, to the bulbous, rounded head and massively enlarged ears and nose of Inspector Belgique, to the goofy mannerisms of lovestruck Daniel, a lot is conveyed with quite minimal linework.  This skill extends to location, as we are quite quickly immersed in a very bohemian, picture-postcard Paris with lots of interesting nooks and crannies, drawing on enough real locales to ground us in this being a real place while also crafting a Colleen Coover Paris not quite like anything in the real world or in other depictions of the city in fiction.  One of the biggest compliments I can give is that, without looking at the creative team, you could quite easily think this was a European comic in the vein of Herge’s The Adventures of Tintin adapted for the English language by MonkeyBrain, so authentic does it feel in recreating that vibe.

Herge and European artists of that style are probably a good barometer to use, as that unique quality to the artwork makes it tricky to really compare with any other American comic artists out there at the moment.  In terms of tone, it evokes the light-hearted whimsy the likes of Chris Samnee and Michael Allred are bringing to their respective superhero titles right now.  But in execution, Colleen is quite different.  While Samnee and Allred are all tight lines and careful construction, Coover feels much looser, more reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke at his most abstract.  This feeling of looseness is aided by the approach to coloring the book, with what almost feels like a brushstroke/water-colour effect.  It may mute detail and act against having highly-rendered linework, but what it gives us is a soft-focus, sepia-toned world which perfectly captures the upbeat mood of the story.

But let’s get back to Bandette, and the aforementioned smile.  This is a story about thieves, criminal organisations, murder plots and assassins.  Executed in a different manner, this could quite easily be a dark, edgy crime thriller.  But no matter what situation Bandette finds herself in, she almost always has that big grin on her face.  And thus the dangerous situations she’s faced with don’t feel so dangerous, they feel fun.  Drawn a different way, you could almost see Bandette being presented as a book for teens and upwards.  As is, though, it feels all-ages, something I’d give a young reader – male and female alike – to show them how enjoyable comics can be.  It feels almost like animation, and I could see this story and its visual style being quite seamlessly adapted into an animated series or even film.  It goes to show what kind of impact the art and can have in shaping the narrative.

Of course, it’s not just Bandette’s smile that showcases her upbeat attitude in the face of peril, it’s her voice, and writer Paul Tobin does an excellent job in this regard.  Bandette is presented as someone who never takes anything too seriously, and always seems to have every situation completely under control.  Tobin imbues her with such an earnest enthusiasm for everything and an infectious joie de vivre that the thought of her being a criminal barely even registers in your brain.  Even most of the police in the story give her a free pass because she does good deeds to make up for her thievery and, come on, she’s adorable.  She’s the kind of character that young readers would want to be, or with the inclusion of the “urchins” – a network of children and teens around Paris who assist Bandette on her adventures and hang out and eat candy with her – the kind of character they could imagine being friends with.  Hell, I’m a grown-ass man, and reading these issues gave me a nostalgic pang and had me wishing I was a kid again and got to be an urchin in Paris.  Really, Bandette could be my favourite new comic character of the past year.

Tobin surrounds Bandette with a well-realised cast of multi-faceted characters who are all more complex than they may first seem.  The Monsieur could easily have just been presented as a foil for Bandette, a grim rival to her self-claimed title as “the world’s greatest thief.”  Instead, he is also thoroughly likeable, more straight-laced than Bandette but still with a mischevous glint in his eye.  And you would be forgiven for thinking that Inspector Belgique, as presented in the first couple of issues, would be nothing more than an incompetent buffoon there for comic relief, but in the recent issues he has been revealed as a figure of quiet, grumpy integrity and emerged as one of my favourite characters in the cast.  Even his assistant in the Special Police – who could just have been a background extra – is given her own subtle little arc where she has romantic feelings for Belgique and he’s totally oblivious to it.

Beyond the characters, the writing is an exercise in economic, accessible plotting.  Every issue is dense with incident, and simultaneously builds on a larger story while being centred around a single action set-piece that makes the comic a rewarding read in its own right.  Issue #1 boasts a frenzied motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris.  Issue #2 has a daring bank robbery and the even more audacious plan to foil it.  Issue #3 has the atmospheric first confrontation between Bandette and Monsieur in the iconic Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise cemetery.  Issue #4 features an issue-long fight scene between Bandette and assassin Matidore.  Issue #5 is the only installment that seems more focused on the overarching plotline that will shape the narrative moving forward and setting the pieces on the board to prepare for that, but even that is all very interesting and rich in character moments.

If I had to pick out one of these chapters for particular praise, it would be issue #4.  Every issue is a joy, but this for me was the best, one of the finest single issues of any comic released this year, and the epitome of everything that makes Bandette so great.  With the inclusion of matador-themed villainess Matadori, it gives us another colorful inclusion into the ensemble cast.  It is constructed around a well-orchestrated fight scene where Bandette never really loses the upper hand, but which nonetheless remains compelling largely due to the playful interplay between the two characters.  Even as Bandette fights for her life and Matadori tries to kill her, they still have time to compliment each other’s clothing and chat about what tailors they visit, with both flashing that trademark grin as they do so.  The Monsieur’s meeting with the mystery lady employing him sets the stage for the larger story further fleshed out in the following issue.  Belgique and his assistant get a wonderful little scene together.  And Bandette makes her most ingenious use of the urchins yet, just when it appears she might be in danger, once again demonstrating she always has the upper hand in any given situation.  And it all ends in a delightful exchange between Bandette and Monsieur which serves to reiterate that same point.

Now that I’m all caught up, I’m sure the wait for issue #6 is going to be unbearable.  But for now, all I can is most heartily recommend Bandette in the strongest possible terms.  Colleen Coover’s artwork is enchanting, Paul Tobin’s writing is charming, it may be scientifically impossible to read this comic without a big dopey grin appearing on your face.  For print purists, there’s a hardcover graphic novel collecting the first 5 issues being released by Dark Horse in November that I have a feeling may be my Christmas gift of choice for quite a few friends.  But for those willing to embrace digital, each issue is available for a bargain price of 99 cents, or 69p!  This is one of the best comics around, seriously.  What do you have to lose by giving it a try?  You’ll thank me!

Bandette3Bandette #1-5 are available to buy now from Comixology.