REVIEW: Southern Dog #1

It’s interesting how quickly something topical becomes something historical.  Take this first issue of Southern Dog, by writer Jeremy Holt and artist Alex Diotto, as an example.  With its references to Obama’s recent inauguration, and the impact this has on a select few racists from the Southern states, this is a story that feels very much wrapped up in commentary about the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and the undercurrents of ingrained racism driving some of those who participated in it.  Of course, it seems that ideas of racism and ignorance in society are going to remain ever-topical for a long time yet, so the story is not entirely dated.  But still, I have a feeling that Southern Dog may enjoy increased success given a few more years of seperation, when readers can look back on it as a snapshot of a particular moment in American history.  With added werewolves.

The story itself seems to be your basic “protagonist gets bitten by a werewolf and finds himself turning into one himself” narrative, but Holt gives it color by setting it against this backdrop of racial tension, and the spectre of past bigotry that can at times seem to hover over the south.  Some of the writing can be a bit on the nose – the convenient timing of the teacher happening to be doing a project on the American Civil War, or characters (white and black) just being overtly vile and transparently racist when in reality these sentiments might be expressed with more subtlety – but Holt does a commendable job of demonstrating how regular people can be horrible in little ways, and the cumulative effect that has.  I also think it says a lot for the strength of his world-building that the werewolf “A-plot” progresses very little in this first issue, but this still feels like a substantial, rewarding read based on the characterisation and the establishment of the stifling status quo.

Visually, Southern Dog is a treat.  The first thing that greets you upon picking up the comic is the dramatic, eye-catching cover from Bedlam artist Riley Rossmo.  But though Rossmo doesn’t handle the interiors, what we get instead is far from a disappointment.  Instead, young newcomer Alex Diotto could be the book’s biggest revelation.  Aided by the bright, crisp colors of Adam Metcalfe, Diotto’s simple yet expressive lines give each page real bounce and energy.  20-year-old Diotto seems to have an intuitive knack for dynamic page layouts and shot angles that many artists take years to learn.  Everything feels tightly framed around Jasper, our protagonist.  Look how often we get close-ups, or the border of the panels pressing against his shoulders.  It all adds to this feeling of him being trapped in this life, with a family he feels himself growing apart from and a local culture he is at odds with.  Skillful storytelling.

Overall, Southern Dog #1 is an intriguing debut, using political commentary to add spice to its genre trappings.  It will be interesting to see how the balance between these two aspects shifts as the series progresses.

Southern Dog #1 is available to buy now from the 215 Ink store.

REVIEW: Love Monster

The friend zone sucks.  You know how painful it can be, when you really have feelings for a girl, but she just views you as a friend, so you stay her friend because that’s better than admitting your true feelings and risk getting knocked back and losing that friendship?  Christopher Howard Wolf does, it would seem.  And, with Love Monster, he takes that experience many sorry guys go through, and plays it out on a massive scale.  This is the story of Bob, stuck in the friend zone with Pearl and left feeling like he’d be better for her than any of her ill-advised choices of boyfriends.  Though in his case it’s not simple resentment: Pearl’s taste in men is particularly ill-advised, as she keeps on falling for serial killers and hideous, mass-murdering monsters.

Longtime readers of these reviews will remember Christopher Howard Wolf from way, way back when I first started reviewing creator-owned comics.  His graphic novel reimagining of Nosferatu was one of the first comics I reviewed, and at the time I remarked on Wolf’s knack for believable characterisation and convincing dialogue helping him to put his own individual stamp on well-worn source material.  I greatly enjoyed that graphic novel, and now Wolf is back with this new project, this time collaborating with the consistently-strong indie publisher 215 Ink.  His offbeat, blackly humourous creative voice remains intact, and in fact resonates even stronger here when unfettered by adherence to a classic pre-established story.

I’ll admit, initially I was a little wary that the story was an elaborate expression of “nice guy syndrome”.  To clarify, “nice guy syndrome” is when a man’s unluckiness in love calcifies into them having a chip on their shoulder as regards the opposite sex.  They start rationalising that they are a nice guy, that they are gentlemanly and considerate, and so if this doesn’t get them a date and/or sex it means that girls must prefer creeps and jerks, the “bad boy” fantasy.  From our outside perspective, it’s hard to see the appeal in Pearl.  Bob fawns over her, but she’s a distinctly unlikeable character: utterly inconsiderate of Bob’s life and feelings, selfish, and utterly delusion and beyond all reason in her justifications for falling madly in love with the psycho-killer de jour.  She reads like the case study a sufferer of “nice guy syndrome” would use to demonstrate why women suck.

But as the story progresses, and things get increasingly surreal – probably from around the time giant octopus-like alien despot Armageddon shows up as a jilted suitor – I stopped worrying about any real-world implications and saw this for the mad farce that it was.  Pearl isn’t a rant against women in comic form; she’s an utterly mental character in a cast full of utterly mental characters.  This is, after all, a world where a character can walk around carrying their own severed head in a paper bag.  Love Monster is sheer bonkers fun that escalates into new heights of craziness with each passing scene.

One thing I remember pointing out about Nosferatu is that the more comedic aspects of set-pieces that could very easily have been portrayed as dark and horrific in a straight horror were brought to the fore by the cartoonish art.  The same applies for Love Monster, so much so that originally I thought it might have been the same artist, Justin Wayne, working on the book.  But no, the artist this time round is David Tomas Cabrera.  His odd, beady-eyed figures fit wonderfully into the madcap aesthetic of the story, their cartoonish, expressive features helping the gore and mayhem to be played broadly and with relish.

Love Monster is a highly enjoyable book, and at a mere 99 cents – the eventual print release will still only be $2.99 – you’re getting a complete story of extended length with a beginning, middle and end.  And then there’s even a neat Aquaducks backup story thrown in for good measure.  Come on, a dollar, what have you got to lose?  Give it a try!

Love Monster is available to buy now digitally from 215 Ink’s official shop.

REVIEW – Igor: Occult Detective #1

Sorry for the lack of a review last week.  I was so busy last week that it was Sunday before I even remembered I was supposed to have written something.  I’ll try not to let it happen again.

We return from our review hiatus with Igor: Occult Detective #1, a new series from the ever-dependable publisher 215 Ink, written by spellcheck nemesis Kyle J. Kaczmarkczyk and drawn by H. Crawford.  This chapter re-establishes Igor as a kind of Sherlock Holmes of the paranormal world, with Frankenstein’s Monster recast as his trusty Watson.  In this done-in-one tale, we see investigate the discovery of a secret lab in an old house, and what the owner believes to be a haunting, though things turn out quite differently…

It’s an interesting idea, though one that slightly suffers from the portrayal of its title character.  To me, a story like this is going to soar or fall based on how compelling its lead is – House without Hugh Laurie’s performance is just another medical drama – and I don’t think Kaczmarkczyk quite imbues his Igor with enough personality to make him stand out, with us getting a sense that he’s a bit gruff, but not much else.  He’s more successful with Frankenstein’s Monster, here just referred to as “Mr. Frank”. Mr.  Frank is portrayed as a pensive, philosophical soul, suitably different from, say, the Frankenstein of the DCU.

The story itself is good, and works well as a self-contained yarn.  In the age of decompression, it was nice to get setup, reversal, big shocks and a satisfying resolution all within the space of a single issue.  But on the flipside, such complete resolution doesn’t leave us with a hook for issue #2.  In a way, this feels a bit more like an issue #0, a prologue introducing us to these characters and this world, rather than the start of anything larger.  However, if the title is to be a series of standalone cases, that too could make for a refreshing dynamic.

I actually really enjoyed the artwork of H. Crawford.  I was expecting something really dark and Gothic from the title, and though the heavy blacks in the inking and the colour scheme do give something of that vibe, the art itself has a nice cartoony touch that lends a lightness to the world.  There seems to be a certain softness and looseness to the lines here, giving the book a fluid, flowing aesthetic.  And later on in the issue, there are a couple of splash pages with tentacled monstrosities that Crawford hits right out of the park.

Less successful is the lettering.  It has been said that good lettering is invisible, and it’s only when lettering goes wrong that you notice it.  And in the lettering here, done by both Kaczmarkczyk and Crawford, that seems to be the case.  The very way they’re placed on the page is quite jarring.  I mentioned above how soft and flowing the art was, but that’s contrasted with heavy, solid speech bubbles that really do just look patched on rather than feeling like they fit seamlessly into the fabric of the page.  And there are a few occasions of confusing layouts, where I got mixed up about the order I should read the bubbles in a conversation, or awkward links in a bubble between panels.  Again, lettering is a discipline where you don’t really notice the subtle craft behind it, but if something is done incorrectly, it can very quickly take you out of the page.

Minor niggles aside, however, I found Igor: Occult Detective #1 to be an enjoyable debut.  It compares favourably with Image’s Witch Doctor, which treads on similar territory.  Another solid entry for 215 Ink’s creator-owned pantheon.

Igor: Occult Detective #1 will be available to buy in 2013.

REVIEW: Deadhorse #1

I actually got sent the first issue of Deadhorse for review a while back, but it must have somehow slipped through the cracks.  But it’s resurfaced, now under the banner of indy darlings 215 Ink.  Anyone who reads my reviews know that I’ve been a fan of a lot of the quality work being published by 215 Ink, so their association with Deadhorse helped make bumping this title to the front of my review queue a priority.  But does it deliver?

In terms of story, what writer Eric Grissom gives us is pretty slight.  We have an ominous flashback to the past, and then the very early stages of setting up a main plot for the present, with a whisper of an antagonist, and our protagonist only just getting round to starting on their quest by the time the first chapter wraps.  In a strict narrative sense, there isn’t too much of a hook to bring readers back for the next instalment.

Fortunately, Grissom more than compensates with his characterisation.  Our unlikely hero is William Pike, a neurotic shut-in who seems to have difficulty leaving his apartment, never mind dealing with even basic conflict.  Not the most likely choice to be handed the keys to a Macguffin of Fearsome Power.  But that’s what makes him so fun to watch, and gives the rudimentary plotting enough spice and color to become invested in what happens next.  William already feels like a compelling underdog figure, quite clearly out of his depth when it comes to the action hero stylings of fighting bad guys and leaping from burning buildings.

It’s not just William who enjoys some nice development, though.  The highlight of the issue for me was the extended sequence where William visits the apartment of the Vogels, a friendly old couple who live down the hall from him.  This sequence becomes increasingly surreal as the old couple’s behaviour becomes ever more bizarre, and one moment made me literally laugh out loud.

The artwork of Phil Sloan is pretty interesting.  At first, I thought I was getting a Gabriel Ba/Fabio Moon Casanova vibe, but as the story went on I ended up picking up a more unexpected reference.  It seems like Sloan is taking some visual cues from the art of Tintin.  I could be reading into something that’s not there, but in a few ways Deadhorse does feel a bit like a twisted reimagining of an old Tintin adventure, what with the secret keys, old mysteries and such.  David Halvorson’s sepia-toned coloring further enhances this strange effect.

Overall, I enjoyed Deadhorse.  I’m not sure if this first issue gave me enough of the story to make me want to rush to read chapter 2, but I like the characters enough that I’d certainly be opening to revisiting them should this story eventually be collected as a graphic novel.

Deadhorse #1 will be released through 215 Ink next month. To pre-order it online, go here.

 

 

REVIEW: Fall

I always feel like I’m late to the party when it comes to discovering the hot new talents of comics.  I became a fan of Jeff Lemire thanks to Sweet Tooth, when those in the know were already heralding him as one of the next comic greats in the wake of Essex County and The Nobody, for example.  But one of the good things about my review work becoming a bit more prominent and more creators getting in contact with me is that I now might get the chance to be there from the start, and watch a creator grow and mature into a master storyteller.  I think that might just be the case with one Fabian Rangel Jr.

Several months ago, in my review for the second issue of 215 Ink’s werewolf caper Extinct, I said that Rangel Jr was “a rising star to watch in the comics world.”  Well, if his latest effort – Fall, an original graphic novel, also from 215 Ink – is anything to go by, that star has risen.  Extinct was a series I enjoyed, with clever writing from Rangel Jr and some quality artwork from Jethro Morales, but Fall is a superior work.  It covers some similar themes – the isolation of high school, nostalgia for a bygone era (this time the ’90s, rather than the ’80s), and a mix of humor and horror.  But Fall has heart as well as wit, and in spite of the sci-fi elements, feels like a deeply personal tale.  The execution of the narrative suggests a writer who has grown in confidence as well as skill, his voice emerging as he gains a surer grasp of the medium with experience.

To offer a plot summary, Fall is about a lonely boy called Josh who befriends an alien called Russ.  Only it’s about so much more than that.  It’s about the strength of childhood friendship.  It’s about seeing the beauty in a world we float through and all too often take for granted.  It’s about the harsh realities of growing up, and putting away childish things.  This is a story steeped in such earnest emotion that it would take a heart of stone not to get caught up in it.  The narrative may not be set in the ’80s anymore, but that’s the decade the story seems to draw its influence from, reminiscent of such great childhood fables as Stand By Me and, of course, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  But it’s not all sentimental and saccharine, with an emotional gut-punch at the end that gives the warm glow that precedes it a bittersweet aftertaste.

Amidst all this praise for writer Rangel Jr, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fine work of artist Juan Romera.  I’ve praised Romera before, noting him as a standout amongst the stable of artists working on the Western anthology, Tall Tales from the Badlands.  In his story for that book, A Thousand Deaths, I noted a similarity to the work of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and the visuals for Fall have a certain Daytripper vibe to them.

Romera’s style is very simple, but that very much works in the graphic novel’s favor, given that dreamy, fable-like quality the story strives for.  The art strikes just the right chord of emotional resonance at all the key moments, from the stunning beauty of the autumn leaves in the eponymous Fall (it’s a title that works on so many levels, but I’ll leave it to you to mull  over them once you’ve read the comic yourself) to the big, round, expressive eyes of Russ.  I should note that Romera’s biggest triumph is the design of Russ himself: he’s suitably cute, cuddly and toyetic, but the battle armor and sharp edges to his features also suggest a little edge, giving him an added cool factor.  The rich, sepia-toned colors aid in enhancing that aforementioned warm glow of nostalgia, and Ed Brisson’s diverse lettering helps to give Russ a distinct voice.  Overall this is a very nice looking graphic novel.

215 Ink have progressed a lot this year, and I’ve watched their development with interest.  They seem to have placed their faith in an intriguing crop of emerging talent, providing for them an open community within which to grow roots.  And now, as a little time passes, we see some of that crop develop into big, impressive… creator trees (to exhaust that metaphor), with 215 Ink reaping the benefits of gaining the loyalty of these folk they saw potential in.  In finding a story to compare Fall to, the first one that springs to mind is Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Zot!  And people who know me and the mad love for that story will know that such a comparison would not be made lightly.

As a final illustration of just how much Fall blew me away, let me relate this anecdote: I have read many comics sent to me for review purposes, I’ve enjoyed most of them, and I’ve found a few to be genuinely great.  But Fall is the first one that I’ve read, then checked out the Previews code (it’s SEP111247, by the way), and seriously considered contacting my LCS about ordering it so I can buy a physical copy to own.  It’s that good.  And you should all be seriously considering doing the same thing.

REVIEW: The Price

“What the #$%@ is going on here?!”

This is an exclamation made by Erin Wheeler, protagonist of The Price, in the wake of one particularly distressing encounter.  It might also be a question shared by the reader.  This latest offering from publisher 215 Ink, written by Glenn Arseneau and drawn by Allen Byrns, is very reminiscent of the works of David Lynch, not just in its eerie, dreamlike atmosphere, but in its refusal to spoonfeed us with clear answers as to what exactly is going on.  The Lynch comparison is perhaps appropriate, given that The Price takes place across its own stretch of “lost highway”, and much like Lynch’s brilliantly baffling neo-noir, here the dark, barren stretches of road serve as a symbolic backdrop to a crisis of identity.

I think the overarching theme of my reaction to The Price is being turned off as an initial knee-jerk response, but really coming to appreciate the craft involved upon closer inspection.  In terms of Byrns’ artwork, I initially found it quite jarring and distracting.  The backgrounds and locations evoke the grubby, hyper-real stylings of Ben Templesmith, but the actual characters are very sketched-out and cartoony.  Adding to this feeling of inconsistency was the strangely realistic and textured noses occasionally put on these simplistic figures.  But when revisiting these images and taking a closer look, I realised that those “photo-realistic” noses were actual photographed noses superimposed over the drawings, which helped me to realise that the jarring, alienating effect created by the art was very much deliberate.

Throughout the graphic novel, Byrns engages in some very experimental art techniques to enhance the ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere of the story.  In an early sequence in a seedy bar, it appears the panels have actually been drawn on a wrinky paper bag to enhance the dirty vibe.  Elsewhere, effects such as blurring or a faint superimposing of images are also used to create a more immersive, surreal experience.  One particular diner-set scene later on in the book is a standout, using a mash-up of these visual tricks to evoke a nightmarish effect.  So, while it may not be an art style for everyone, I really came to appreciate Allen Byrns’ contribution to The Price, making it a comic unlike anything else I’ve read.

Similarly, I found myself put off by Arseneau’s writing initially.  Upon first reading, it felt like we had a strong opening laced with tension, but then everything began to fall apart as twists and revelations were clumsily stacked on top of one another.  And even upon repeat reading I still have some issues with the pacing of the story – for example, in the sequence where she is riding in a truck with the enigmatic Marcus Curry, Erin seems to go very quickly from being shocked and in hysterics to being the career-driven woman fretting over missing an important meeting.  And after a tantalising slow boil and a steady escalation of gnawing dread, the actual conclusion feels disappointingly rushed and perfunctory.

But again, upon closer inspection, what initially seemed haphazard is in fact quite carefully constructed, with the seeds sown for the impending strangeness even in the earlier sequences, and plenty of foreshadowing subtly hidden within the art.  And when things might not be clear in a literal sense, the drama is still carried along with a kind of dream logic (Lynch again) where an emotional resonance carries us through.  It’s hard to talk about Arseneau’s storytelling in any real detail in a review without getting into plot spoilers, but I will say that it’s a story that is open to interpretation, and can be read in different ways.  It’s not an easy read, and it times it’s a bit cluttered, but Arseneau is working with some big ideas here, and has an ambition with his storytelling that’s really admirable.

The Price is an unusual mystery/horror whose innovative, off-kilter approach to art and story are both its biggest strength and setback.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think those who do like it are going to like it a lot.  Both Glenn Arseneau and Allen Byrns are talented, creative folk who I will be watching with interest.  Check out The Price if you’re up for something a little different from the usual comic fare.

The Price is available to buy from Graphicly.

REVIEW – Jesus Hates Zombies: Jurassic Kinda Life, Volume 1

I like Stephen Lindsay.  He’s a standout writer on the indy comic scene, one I’ve praised at length before.  Massive Awesome was my introduction to his work, and it’s a hilarious, surreal, insane romp brimming with invention and nuttiness.  More recently, I read the first issue of Buck, and was impressed by the increased maturity and nuance of Lindsay’s writing, and was intrigued enough by the set-up that I still find myself anxiously awaiting the second instalment.  But for the longest time, I never got around to reading any of Lindsay’s most famous work, the series that first made his name: Jesus Hates Zombies.

Which brings us to Jurassic Kinda Life, the latest series released under the Jesus Hates Zombies banner.  And I’m disappointed to say that I wasn’t too impressed.  Lacking the increased mastery of storytelling reflected in Buck or the frenzied, madcap innovation of Massive Awesome, this feels like something of a regression for Lindsay.  There really doesn’t seem to be much to the story beyond the high concept of “Jesus VS zombies”, save for also throwing Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and Elvis Presley into the mix, and now adding dinosaurs as well because they’re the new hot thing.

It all feels like a contrived effort to be quirky and “out-there”, which is all the more frustrating given how effortlessly Lindsay has pulled off quirky and out-there in his other work.  I think the problem is that, while the crazy high concept might attract people’s attention, you then need something more substantial to hold that attention.  And Jesus swearing a lot isn’t a gag with enough mileage to do that.

One thing that isn’t dampened in Jesus Hates Zombies is Lindsay’s knack for snappy back-and-forth banter in his dialogue, making the friendship between Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln feel naturalistic and down-to-earth against the odds.  At other points, he manages to slide in hefty chunks of exposition (worse, exposition about time travel) into concise chunks of speech that still manage to feel like believable dialogue.  This is an important skill for a comic writer to have, yet one that is sometimes lacking even with high-profile creators.  So, kudos to Lindsay on this front.

I also had some issues with the artwork of Rob Croonenborghs.  Technically, the art is good.  The cartoony style has plenty of energy, giving the pages an exciting, kinetic feel.  My problem comes with the renditions of the main characters.  Given my issues with the plot of the book, and the lack of meat in the gags, a lot of damage control could have been done simply by nailing the appearances of these famous characters. But because, with Croonenborgh’s art, you don’t really get a clear, immediate sense of these characters as actual historical figures, this becomes a sorely missed opportunity.

To explain: take Ethan Nicolle of Axe Cop fame.  He can draw a brilliant Abraham Lincoln, that remains cartoony and in the Axe Cop style while at the same time totally working as a recognisable caricature.  If you had an Abraham Lincoln as detailed and instantly recognisable as that in this story, riding a Velocorapter, slicing the heads off zombies – that’s an instant hit gag right there.  You could show that panel to someone on the street out of context, and they’d get a good laugh right away, because it’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN riding a raptor and killing zombies.  But as it’s drawn, it’s just a guy with a beard riding a raptor and killing zombies, and so you’d have to explain to this random person on the street that it’s Abraham Lincoln, by which time the visceral impact of the gag is lost.

There’s also the odd issue of clarity: for example, when you have zombies and dinosaurs in the same story, the idea of a ZOMBIE DINOSAUR showing up becomes irresistable.  But when it finally happens, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that the dinosaur in question was a zombie, until Jesus brings it up in dialogue a couple of pages later.  Niggles like this aside, though, Croonenborghs has a fun, breezy style that helped the pages stylishly flow by.

With the news that this is being adapted into a film by Six Feet Under actor Eric Balfour, slated for release next year, I suspect Jesus Hates Zombies: Jurassic Kinda Life could be set to get a major boost in profile, and in turn a sizeable increase in sales.  I hope this does happen, that this comic becomes a surprise cult smash, and the creators see lots of money from it.  But most of all, I hope that Jesus Hates Zombies becomes successful and popular enough that more people decide to seek out Stephen Lindsay’s other work, and get to see the quality stories he’s really capable of.

REVIEW: Vic Boone #1

It’s been a real pleasure seeing 215 Ink grow over the past few months.  I’ve been excited about their ever-growing lineup of quality comics, and it seems more people are starting to recognise that.  Vic Boone in particular is a series that has had quite a bit of buzz around it, perhaps the most I’ve seen for any 215 Ink book thus far.  I was pleased to see that the first issue even got a (very positive) review in IGN’s weekly round-up.  I think this is a big deal, because in my personal experience at least, there have been several occasions where a highly positive IGN review has convinced me to try a comic I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.  Now, I’m no IGN, but having read the first instalment of this new series by writer Shawn Aldridge and artist Geoffo, I’m eager to join the chorus in singing its praises.

Shawn Aldridge knows his noir.  Here is a story seeped in the classic tropes of the genre: the beaten-down gumshoe hero, the mysterious and possibly dangerous femme fatale client, one case serving as a bridge to a much larger, nastier one, a collection of seedy underworld figures with a grudge against our hero.  All present and correct… only we’re in the future, hover cars buzz around a futuristic metropolis, and the population is peppered with aliens, robots and talking gorillas.

The mesh of pulp genres alone would be enough to give Vic Boone a hook, but Aldridge doesn’t simply rely on that.  He writes with an authority of a writer much more experienced than a relative newcomer like him, with hard-boiled narration and punchy dialogue evocatively bringing the eponymous protagonist to life.  He’s in turns cold, callous, principled, quick-witted, dumb, resourceful, and plain funny.  Speaking of funny, it should be noted that among the highlights of this issue are the occasional detours into the ridiculous.  Take, for example, Vic’s meeting with his tiny man-fly drinking buddy, or even better, his showdown with the magnificently unthreatening Raygun Radicals, who are totally going to kick Vic’s ass once their boss is done grocery shopping for his mom.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the humor that gives Vic Boone its niche.  Blade Runner ostensibly beat Vic Boone to the punch with the whole “noir against a sci-fi backdrop” idea, but in execution the tone is so different that Vic Boone never feels like it suffers in comparison to the classic.

Not that this is solely a showcase for Aldridge’s quality writing.  Far from it, the stylish art of Geoffo deserves equal praise.  The character designs are reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke by way of the loose pencils and free-flowing, sketchy style of Gabriel Ba.  The parallels to the latter are heightened by Aldridge’s often-psychadelic color scheme, which bring to mind the funky palette of Casanova back in it’s original two-toned run at Image.  Much of the art is simplistic, but Geoffo has a knack for boiling an image down to its starkest key components, allowing for maximum impact.

Perhaps my favorite page of the whole issue is the love scene between Vic Boone and the aformentioned femme fatale, Nina.  It’s almost entirely shadow, yet still Geoffo conveys all the important information, while at the same time artistically framing the page, crafting a tableau that, even without Aldridge’s strong scripting, would tell a compelling story all on its own.  The evocative use of silhouette reminds me of Frank Miller.

It seems that, in praising Geoffo, all I can do is compare him to other artists.  But Geoffo is not just a copycat.  Like the story itself, there are a lot of influences at work, but Geoffo’s art melds them all together into something individual that’s very much his own singular style.

Aldridge takes his time with this first issue, focusing on dipping our toes into this world and introducing us to our cast of characters, all while meticulously setting the pieces of the plot into place.  But by the shock finale, the stage is set for business to pick up in future issues.  A stellar debut, with this first issue Aldridge and Geoffo have given us a comic to watch in Vic Boone.

REVIEW: Extinct #2

I don’t know about you, but I find that first issues of a comic series are rarely the best.  With all the world-building and setting the stage that needs to be done in that opening issue, it seems that usually it’s the subsequent issues where we start to get into the characters a bit more and the story truly finds its rhythm.  Such is the case for Extinct, the werewolf series from 215 Ink.  I reviewed the first issue last month, and though I was very positive in my opening impressions, I concluded with “the jury’s still out on how successful this story will be.”  Well, with Extinct #2, the jury have returned a decisive verdict, and we can see that this is clearly a comic worth following through to its conclusion.

Something that becomes clearer in this second issue is how funny the story is.  Fabian Rangel Jr’s smart scripting vividly brings to life our trio of teenage protagonists as they bicker amongst themselves and try to come to grips with the enormity of the surreal situation they have found yourselves in.  Funnily enough, the impression I got reading this issue was that Extinct does for werewolves what Fright Night did for vampires: tackling a classic monster through the perspective of young characters familiar with all the classic tropes, making the story work simultaneously as a humorous twist on the old cliches as well as an earnest homage to the genre.

It’s not just the kids that Rangel Jr effectively brings to life, however.  The primary antagonists – the nasty principal and his bullying jock son, both introduced in the previous issue, but here emerging as full-blown werewolf Big Bads – are further fleshed out, as they take turns “fleshing out” helpless victims in some blackly comic death scenes.  This vein of dark humor carries on through the subsequent conversation father and son have.  “Dad,” asks young Scott, having just turned into a werewolf and feasted on human intestines for the first time, “What’s happening?”  His father looks on in solemn silence for a beat, before answering with, “Scotty, I think it’s time we had a talk.”  It’s that awkward father/son puberty discussion, rendered absurd by the fact that it’s two gore-splattered werewolves having it.  Just replace a wet dream with gutting the school doctor.

There was a lot of mystery in the first issue, and there remain unanswered questions, but through the arrival of Jimmy’s father James and his werewolf-killing sidekick, as well as the monologuing of our aformentioned evil father/son combo, we start to see the werewolf mythology of this particular narrative take shape, and get a sense of what the larger plot will be moving forward.  But having said that, you still get the sense that there isn’t much story crammed into the issue.  With few pages having more than 3 or 4 panels, this is a very quick read, perhaps lacking in detail in some spots.

However, any sacrifice in depth is more than compensated for in the drama that Jethro Morales brings to the table with his art (assisted once more by the vibrant colors of Juanmar Studios).  The cartoonish yet expressive character designs really enhance the black comedy vibe I’m getting from the book, but when the moment calls for it, he can get menacing with the werewolves, making masterful use of shading and perspective to make these oh-so-familiar monsters feel enigmatic and menacing.  In this regard, I can’t really fault Rangel Jr with his “less is more” approach to plotting: the large canvas he gives Morales on each page to depict his dynamic visuals are a big part of what makes this such an immersive reading experience.  Like all the best writer/artist collaborations, Morales has put his creative stamp on Extinct just as much as Rangel Jr.

Let me also take a brief moment to salute both Rangel Jr and Morales for that last page spread.  Werewolf basketball players?  Surely an homage to the ’80s Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf.  Genius!

215 Ink are putting out a wealth of quality material right now, but with issue #2, Extinct puts itself right up there with the very best.  Both writer Fabian Rangel Jr and artist Jethro Morales are both rising stars to watch in the comics world.

REVIEW: Breakneck #3

There’s something I call “The JJ Abrams Effect”, given how often it seems to happen in his shows.  You’re chugging along quite happily with what seems in itself to be a perfectly good setup for a story, when all of a sudden the rug is pulled out from under you, and you end up with a quite different story from what you were expecting, often something that provides a devilish twist on those expectations.  In this, the third issue of this cracking supervillain series, Mark Bertolini puts this JJ Abrams Effect masterfully into use.  Spoilers ahoy!

I thought I had a grasp of what this series was about.  A lone supervillain on the run from all of the world’s superheroes.  Great fodder for a miniseries.  But that narrative thread is brought to a shockingly abrupt halt by the events of this issue, and shockingly we end the chapter with lovable loser Ethan Shade finding himself no longer the world’s most wanted supervillain, and instead part of the world’s most beloved superhero team.  And while the initial setup is a great high pitch for a miniseries, what we have now is an idea that could easily sustain an ongoing, if Bertolini chose to go that way.

The first couple of issues have been quite a thrill ride, but I feel it is with this issue that we really get into the characters and this world.  The opening sequence serves a clever dual purpose of setting up the various key figures in superhero team The Elder Statesmen, while also establishing Dr. Winter’s low opinion of Ethan Shade, and in turn tells us more about Shade himself.  Shade is someone who just doesn’t belong, someone who will always be (fittingly, given his name) overshadowed by others with bigger personalities.  Taking this into consideration, James Boulton’s indistinct design for Shade now seems like a deliberate artistic choice.  I still couldn’t tell you what the guy looks like, and I think the characters in the book would tell you the same thing.

It’s a shame that this issue sees Dr. Winter get killed off, in the same issue where we discover he wasn’t already dead.  I really liked Bertolini’s depiction of  this character, as much put-upon and world-weary as he was evil and vindictive.  This is a character who I feel had the potential of being fleshed out and explored further, and his demise leaves a void in that antagonist role, one that will be more necessary than ever given Shade’s switch in allegiance.  But the sting of his death is dulled by the fact that his gory off-panel demise – and Shade’s reaction to it – gives us possibly Boulton’s most beautifully-arranged page yet.  Well, about as beautiful as a page with vomiting can be.

Perhaps the best element of the issue is the final scene, where Ethan Shade is dismissed and relegated to getting food and drinks for his teammates by the heroes, just as he was by the villains in the opening scene.  The bookending sequences at the start and end of the comic highlight what I think is emerging as a key theme of Breakneck: that all that really separates the heroes from the villains in this world is the public’s perception of them, or as Foreverman would put it, their “PR”.  For Ethan Shade, it doesn’t take some swelling up of internal goodness or inherent decency to go from monstrous supervillain to Elder Statesman – all it takes is a press conference.

This series gets better with every issue.  And with Breakneck #3, I’m left with no clue where the story goes from here.  But whatever direction it takes, I’m sure as hell eager to read it.