REVIEW: Secrets & Shadows #1

I’ve become a bit of a fan of writer Jon Parrish lately.  I’ve read and enjoyed some of his script submissions on ComixTribe’s Proving Grounds column, and now – after some delay and miscommunication, which I must apologise for – I’m finally getting round to reviewing his new comic series, Secrets & Shadows, which is off to a very promising start.

Our story quickly introduces us to Haven City, a metropolis basking in the reflected glory of its beloved resident Black Sun and his superheroic dynasty, and our grudging protagonist, Black Sun’s estranged son, Joseph.  From there, one of the biggest strengths of Parrish’s narrative is that, as the title might suggest, we are bombarded with questions that make us want to keep on reading and immersing ourselves further in this murky world.  What horrible thing happened to Joseph to end his burgeoning superhero career and make him turn on his family?  What terrible secret about the day of the Haven City Massacre is being shared by Black Sun – now retired, and a broken man – and his other son, superhero prodigy Dark Star?  What sinister conspiracy are the city’s superheroes tangled up in that would require them to murder potential witnesses?  And who is the formidable, shadowy figure killing off these superheroes (or “false idols”, as he calls them) in order to “save the city from itself”?  Parrish crafts an exquisite, tantalising mystery throughout this first issue, continually grabbing our inerest and demanding we read more.

One thing I liked about the comic, and I don’t know if it’s patronising to even need to mention this in 2013, is the high ratio of prominent black characters in the book: not just the Shaw family – Joseph, Black Sun and Dark Star – but also master supervillain Marcus Kane.  And nothing about them feels like it’s foregrounding their colour or making it part of their character, it’s just “colour-blind casting” in the book.  And when a comic doing this so naturally is still noteworthy enough that it merits mention, I think it highlights just how much of a disparity there still is in mainstream superhero comics.

The plotting isn’t entirely without fault.  There is the odd instance of dialogue that feels to overtly like speaking to the reader to catch them up on the exposition it’s important for them to know.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I’ve fallen into myself, but perhaps something for Parrish to watch out for in future, particularly as his conspiracy story gets more labyrinthine.  And there are quite a few Starman parallels in the “fictional city protected by a revered superhero who retires after a traumatic incident, and has two grown-up sons, one who followed in his footsteps and another who’s more of a black sheep off stubbornly doing their own thing” narrative.  But that’s forgivable.  Heck, The Standard has a few Starman parallels, and superhero comics these days are always going to ultimately be variations on a theme.  The hallmark of quality is not doing something new, but doing something well, and Parrish seems to have that covered.

More problematic is Marco Roblin’s art.  There are times when it’s very good, evocatively capturing a believable location or a nuanced facial expression.  But at other points the details are quite muddy, hurting the clarity of what’s going on.  At one pivotal moment in the plot, I was unsure of what exact fate had befallen a character because the visuals didn’t make it clear, and I had to rely on the script specifying what had happened to the character afterwards in order to know for sure.  There’s also some awkward scene transitions that made it unclear that we’d switched from present day to flashback and, due to the way some faces were drawn quite similarly, made me confused about what characters were being featured in particular sequences.  There are some odd choices of layout too, where without letterer extraordinare Kel Nuttall carrying the burden of using caption trails to guide my eye along the page in the correct order, I’d have been totally adrift.

One thing worth mentioning is that the comic boasts an ace cover from Dexter Wee.  Apparently, he’ll be taking over interior art from issue #2 onwards, so it’ll be interesting how that reflects in the visuals going forward.

Something else that was noteworthy about Secrets & Shadows was that it has a couple of alumni from The Standard involved.  And before any accusations of nepotism are flung my way, I didn’t even know they were on the creative team until I started the review!  There’s the aforementioned Kel Nuttall on letters, doing as slick and professional a job as ever.  There’s also editor Steven Forbes.  Now, it’s hard to really assess the imput of an editor in any review, as a good editor will render themselves utterly invisible, guiding the creative team to bring out the best in themselves rather than overtly contributing much.  As such, it’s difficult to do more than speculate.  But knowing Steven Forbes’ excellent editorial work first-hand, I would guess that he has some part to play in the ruthless directness of purpose that permeates this script, how everything is functional and serves to push the narrative forward, with work being done to hook us in right from the first page, and every interaction serving a purpose.

Overall, a very promising first chapter.  Visually, it’s solid if not spectacular, but narratively this shows real promise.  Something tells me I’m going to become a bigger fan of Jon Parrish in the future.

SecretsandShadows1

Secrets and Shadows #1 (as well as the next two issues) can be bought online at the official store, or are available digitally for free at Graphicly.

 

 

REVIEW: Fat-Man and Ribbon #0

It seems my regular schedule of creator-owned comic reviews has been thrown out of whack with all the goodies I picked up at Glasgow Comic Con a couple of weeks back.  This week’s offering is Fat-Man and Ribbon #0, another comic from local Glasgow talent, writer Martin Ferguson and artist Andrew Docherty.  As the title would suggest, it plays as a parody of Batman and Robin.  But is there more to this comic than a pithy title?

Plot-wise, not much happens here.  The comic’s narrative basically amounts to a single fight scene, with a possible teaser of the actual plot ready to get picked up with issue #1.  But with an issue marked as #0, a teaser is really all you’re expecting, I suppose.  What Martin Ferguson does give us here, however, is a nice dose of characterisation.  With a fictional city called Metro-Scotia, it’s pretty clear this is a Scottish tale, and Fat-Man and Ribbon do basically come across as a couple of Glesga chaps up for a bit of the banter, only they happen to be superheroes.  I also found it a relief to see just how little of the humor – beyond the name – is derived from directly parodying the Batman mythos.  Instead, Ferguson has the skill to fuel the comedy with slapstick and quips.

But the real revelation here is the artwork of Andrew Docherty.  Brimming with zany energy that keeps the book zipping along nicely, Docherty’s highly-rendered style, with its close-ups of unusual, angular faces, put me in mind of the work of Bernie Wrightson in the 70s or Sam Keith in the 80s, and a few of the contemporaries that they influenced.  It’s a style that’s not so common now, but which gives the book an added charm and uniqueness.  It’s not a style you might commonly associate with a superhero book, and is all the better for it.  Some of his heightened facial expressions are just comedy gold.

If I had any suggestion to make, it might be that the book would benefit from the inclusion of colour.  It’s all black-and-white and grayscale, even the cover, and while I don’t object to black-and-white comics, there’s something about the superhero genre in particular, I feel, that just doesn’t feel quite complete without a splash of vibrant colour.  On the flipside, color might blot out some of Docherty’s lovely rendering, and I wouldn’t like to lose that either.  It’s a dilemma!

Overall, I’d probably say it’s too early to judge Fatman and Ribbon one way or the other.  What we get here is essentially a teaser.  But thanks to Andrew Docherty, it’s a teaser that’s a joy to look at.  I’m certainly sold on sampling what Martin Ferguson has to offer once he starts his story proper with Fatman and Ribbon #1.

Fat-Man and Ribbon is available locally in shops in Glasgow.

REVIEW: Green Lantern

Well, I saw Green Lantern on Saturday. After the barrage of negative reviews, my anticipation for the film had turned to dread, and I went in fearing that I’d be in for a bad, disappointing movie. I watched the movie, and… it was actually pretty good.

I think Green Lantern is a victim of a zeitgeist. A bad zeitgeist. Bad reviews can become like a runaway train, where the more a film gets the stigma of being “bad”, the more other critics review it from the perspective of being a bad film, so bad reviews beget more bad reviews, and the criticisms get more extreme as people take more relish in tearing the film apart, until it’s like sharks at a feeding frenzy. I’ve defended the critics and their validity on this thread, and I still respect their opinions, but I think they’re wrong on this one.

The first thing that needs to be said that, seeing this film in 3D at the cinema, Green Lantern looks GORGEOUS. As a jaded filmgoer, it’s rare for me to just stare open-mouthed and be amazed at the visuals on-screen, but that happened here. I don’t get where the whole “shoddy special effects” angle is coming from, as visually this has splendour to rival Avatar, and I think Green Lantern was far more enjoyable. But that got the 5 star reviews and the Oscar nominations, and this is getting crapped on. See what I mean about zeitgeists?

All the characters are a bit underwritten. But the eminently likeable Ryan Reynolds manages to make Hal watchable and compelling even when his arc is a bit muddied and clumsily handled. His star presence really helps to prevent Hal from being totally cardboard. Blake Lively struggles more with the thin material, often becoming a blank-faced exposition delivery device. Peter Saarsgard makes for an engaging villain, but his arc is muddied and feels out of order. He almost immediately begins his path to big-headed psychodom, and then his shared history with Hal is retroactively worked in later, and never really paid more than the faintest of lip service.

Sinestro is simultaneously the strongest performance, and the one most underserved by the script. Mark Strong is all subtle menace and lip-curling smarm, but balanced with a sense of inherent decency and moral fortitude. The film begins to soar when Hal is on Oa, and has his first confrontation with Sinestro. If the film’s second act had been dominated by Sinestro training Hal, and Hal gradually winning his grudging respect, then his friendship, the film would have been elevated to a whole other level, and made for much better viewing than the meandering second act we get instead. But there’s still good stuff in that second act, and I don’t know how much I’d have taken out to accomodate altered material.

Really, the problem with Green Lantern isn’t that it does anything significantly wrong. All the major touchstones of Hal’s origin are present and correct, the thematic broad strokes, the characters, the mythos. There’s impressive effects, good action. The problem isn’t the film doing anything bad. Just that the stuff that it does good doesn’t get enough breathing space to become great.

There’s a shadow of a great film here, a sense that a tidy-up here, or expanding on a scene there, would have really tightened this up and pushed it nearer the top tier of the genre. Some flaws prevent it from reaching that upper echelon of superhero movies, but it is hardly the franchise-sinking embarrassment that the critics’ narrative is inevitably shaping it to be. It is a perfectly enjoyable mid-level superhero movie, at least as good as Thor and X-Men: First Class, probably a little better. And the sad thing is, you get a sense that the film could act as the building blocks for a much better sequel. But if the reviews lead to box office failure, that won’t happen.

Some Cool Art For The Standard

For the official blog of The Standard this week, I commissioned some original art from series artist Jonathan Rector.  Here’s what I got:

The Black Stripe

For Tuesday, I had this picture of The Black Stripe, a blaxploitation-themed superhero from the 1970s.  The initial concept for The Black Stripe came from Jamie Fairlie (who also colored this image), when he decided that a minor supporting character who shows up in The Standard #3 should have a heroic alter ego.  I loved the idea so much I had Jonathan Rector draw him up, and this is the badass result.  Makes me want to write a whole other comic just for this guy, and give him his own Shaft-style theme tune.

The Skunk

The theme of Wednesday’s blog was supervillains, and I chose a villain close to my heart for Jon to provide an image of: The Skunk.  This character has been in my head for quite a while – in fact, this image is a drastic improvement of my original design for the character – and becomes a prominent player in The Standard from the third issue.  Jon managed to strike the ideal balance between lame and awesome in his design here: just look at that massive tail!

Zachary Zarthos

Thursday’s blog was a spotlight on Zachary Zarthos, the old arch-nemesis of The Standard throughout his 24-year career.  I knew I wanted an image of the diabolical villain to go with my blog, but I didn’t just want a regular pinup like with The Black Stripe and The Skunk.  So I came up with this idea.  I thought it would be funny seeing a mad scientist posing for a police mugshot like some petty crook, and Jon nailed exactly the tone I was going for.  I also like the touch of the broken glasses – which was Jon’s addition.  This could actually be my favorite of the three images.

You can check out all these images in their full-size versions – and the blogs that accompany them – over at thestandardcomic.com!

Welcome to my blog!

Hey everyone,

As if the world needed any more blogs!  I’ve decided to add mine to the heap.  This will be a place where I can post reviews, rants, stories, and updates on my writing projects, such as my upcoming comic book, The Standard.

That’s all for now.  I’ll update with some proper in the not-too-distant future.  See you in the funny pages!

– John Lees