REVIEW: Jonbot VS Martha

This past week, I receieved news that at this year’s Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards, The Standard is nominated for Best Comic, and I’m nominated for Best Writer.  I was of course delighted to hear this news, but I was almost as delighted to see Best Writer recognition also given to my Glasgow League of Writers cohort Colin Bell, and to see his webcomic Jonbot VS Martha also make the Best Comic shortlist.  I have been a fan pretty much since the weekly series began, though I had missed some instalments here and there.  Upon deciding to review Jonbot VS Martha this week, I read the whole thing from the beginning to where we are now, and it made me appreciate anew just how great a job Colin Bell and artistic collaborator Neil Slorance have done.

I could explain the premise, but I think it’s better summuraized via the tongue-in-cheek “opening credits” sequence:

As you can see, Neil Slorance’s art is pretty rough and basic?  But you know what?  It totally works.  Yes, there are some inconsistencies: Martha’s hair color changes so often it surely must be a deliberate running gag.  But behind the simplicity of the characters and locations, Slorance manages to convey a surprisingly diverse range of emotions on those blank faces, crafting expressions that help a comedy beat hit home precisely.  And isn’t that one of the wonders of comic book art?  How, with just a few lines, an emotional connection can be established, and a character with heart and personality can be brought to life?  Take the eponymous Jonbot.  His face is two circles and a line.  But Slorance absolutely imbues those plain features with character, and those 2 circles and a line can convey a wide range of emotion.  A lot could be written about how much of that comes from Slorance himself, and how much of it is us mentally filling in the gaps, but that’s the topic of another piece, not this review.

As a final example of Slorance’s contribution, allow me to point to one of the best chapters of Jonbot VS Martha thus far, a psychadelic dream sequence that takes the form of an artistic jam session, a different artist drawing each panel, including a couple of familiar faces I’m fans of such as Iain Laurie and Dave Stokes.  Some of these images are rendered in far more detail than Slorance’s work, and they look stunning.  But still, it doesn’t quite feel like Jonbot VS Martha, and when Slorance comes back in the following chapter, it’s very much a welcome return.  In the same way that Greg Capullo has done with Batman (this may be the first time that Neil has been compared to Greg Capullo), Neil Slorance has branded this series with his own specific style, making it very difficult to imagine the story told any other way.

But with all this talk about Mr. Slorance, let us not forget Mr. Bell!  It’s quite funny, Colin Bell was at our table at Kapow Con giving out free sample mini-comics to promote the webcomic, and they seemed pretty popular with kids.  Parents would pick one up and be all like, “Here, Sarah, this is a wee comic with a robot in it!”  Oh, those poor children!  Though Neil Slorance’s art is quite cute and almost chibi in places, that is delightfully contrasted with Colin Bell’s caustic brand of humour.  There’s surealism, comedy so black it borders on bleak (“Daddy probably doesn’t have a soul”) and a liberal dose of bad language.  Not for the kiddies, then!

Though I’m sure he would ardently deny it, in person Bell is a bit of a loveable grump, a curmudgeon, and that absolutely comes through in his characterisation of Jonbot, so much so that I found it very hard not to imagine Jonbot speaking in Colin’s voice!  On this note, also bearing in mind how Jonbot’s relationship with his daughter has grown into the emotional core of  the overarching story, and considering that Bell himself is a new father, Jonbot VS Martha is actually a surprisingly personal comic, or at least as personal as a story with robots can be.  This relatable quality is likely what gives the series that added layer of depth beyond the laughs, which emerges at times as an almost poignant quality.

Not that Jonbot VS Martha is short of laughs.  The webcomic is regularly peppered with killer one-liners, and in the early stages of the series Bell showed a real knack for pacing out done-and-one stories around concise, precisely-aimed gags.  More recently, however, rather than resting on his laurels, Bell has experimented with how the constraints of the format and nature of the story can withstand a more longform narrative, with compelling results.  Colin is perhaps best known as a commentator on comics, writing reviews and articles for Newsarama and other sites and blogs, so it’s interesting to see how someone who clearly knows his stuff from an analytical perspective applying that knowledge to making a comic of his own.  I’m definitely keen to  see Colin Bell turn his storytelling skills to more ambitious projects in the future.

Jonbot VS Martha is one of my favourite webcomics, and I for one can’t wait until a bit more material is compiled, and we see it collected in a nice printed edition.  It will most definitely be an addition to my bookcase.  Until then, check out the webcomic for yourself, and see why it’s very deserving of its award nominations.

Jonbot VS Martha can be read online here.

REVIEW – Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies #11

Today, I read Alpha Girl #1, the latest hyped-up new Image issue #1 to be released on the year of the publisher’s 20th anniversary.  It often seems like a new series from Image gets an automatic buzz around it, but I’d venture to say that Alpha Girl was only the second best “teenage girls VS zombies” comic I read this week, with first place going to this 11th issue of Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies, from writer B. Alex Thompson and artist Kewber Baal.

I get a lot of indie issue #1s sent to me for review, but it’s more unusual for me to get an issue #11.  I think that alone is commendable: that this is a concept that creator Thompson has kept running for a whole 10 issues already, with no end seemingly in sight.  Getting a miniseries off the ground is ambitious enough, so taking the ongoing approach is extra-ballsy.  Even more ambitious is the fact that Thompson has also woven in a crossover with Dogwitch, another title from publisher Approbation Comics.  Bearing all this in mind, it’s also a big point in this comic’s favor that, despite issue #11 being my first exposure to Chaos Campus (or, indeed, Dogwitch), everything felt very accessible to me, and as a first time reader I felt like I was quickly caught up on everything I needed to know.  Not just in terms of a handy collection of character bios in the opening title/credits page, but in terms of characters reflecting on events that happened previously and demonstrating their personalities and relationships through their interactions with each other.

The story is pretty lightweight and goofy, but I think that’s the point.  In spite of serious peril in the form of zombies, axe murderers and assorted magical beasties, Thompson keeps things light, zipping along at a fun pace with another one-liner or sight gag never too far away.  It’s a shame that Violet – apparently, the guest-star from Dogwitch – is apparently only onboard for this issue, as she steals the show here, with some pithy put-downs and a surreal blend of humor that’s akin to my tastes.  The other girls are fun too, though, particularly Paige, who I got a real “Willow from Buffy” vibe from.

Kewber Baal does a good job with the art.  Each character is distinctive enough, and the locations are well rendered.  There is a slight tendency towards cheesecake at points – which I suppose is to be expected from any comic with “sorority girls” in its title – with one upskirt ass shot proving especially audacious.  But, I guess this is a compliment, the cheesecake isn’t as ridiculous as it could have been, or what you might have been led to expect from the cover.  And some of it’s so over-the-top – take the extended “Oh no, my clothes have disappeared!” sequence – that we have to assume it’s being played for laughs rather than titillation, and is supposed to be a parody of comic book cheesecake.  It’s not like some comics I’ve read, where I’d be embarrassed if a female friend caught me reading it.

Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies, may not be the most deep or profound read you’ll experience from a comic, but if you were expecting that with this title then you need to have your head examined.  This does what it says on the tin, providing action and laughs, and made for a brisk, enjoyable read.  Here’s to the next 11 issues!

Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies #11 is available to buy from IndyPlanet, or read the whole story as a webcomic at chaoscampus.com.

REVIEW: Zombie Outlaw #1

I’m sure at some point before I’ve mentioned the large shadow The Walking Dead casts over the zombie genre in comics.  With how successful and how critically acclaimed that series has been, any other zombie comic has to have its own niche if it’s going to stand out.  With Zombie Outlaw, a self-published comic by writer Brian J Apodaca and artist B Paul Jordan, the twist is setting the zombie horror against the backdrop of college campus comedy.  It’s definitely different in tone and presentation from Kirkman’s zombie opus, and is very much its own entity.  But is it a good comic?

Well, there’s a lot of good stuff here, at least, even if it doesn’t all quite come together in the end.  Apocada is clearly a skilled writer, bringing his central characters to life with an easy charm, making them instantly likeable (or hateable, if that’s required) within a few choice interactions.  Although this is the kind of surreal world where the key to a long-lost tomb is on the librarian’s keyring, the characters feel credible.  Geeky Matt is the kind of character that is familiar to the teen comedy – picked on by a meathead bully, lusting after the girl of his dreams from afar – without falling too far into bookish, bespectacled stereotype.  And when he first encounters a zombie for the first time, he pisses his pants, which, let’s be honest, is probably a reaction we’d be more likely to have than picking up the nearest weapon and launching into battle.  But stealing the show is suave student mentor Will, channeling the spirit of Ferris Bueller by way of Indiana Jones.

So, on a panel-to-panel basis, Apocada’s writing is strong.  But as a whole, it doesn’t quite  gel into a satisfying, cohesive narrative.  Oddly enough, it  feels like simultaneously too much and not enough happens.  On one hand, it feels like we’ve barely got started on the story before it comes to an abrupt end, with the zombie action just getting going by the conclusion of this first issue.  But on the other hand, I think I might have preferred a whole issue before the zombie outbreak got out, gone more in-depth with the mythology and history of the Zombie Outlaw from back in the Old West, while also giving us more time to get into the friendship between Will and Matt before it’s broken apart.  In trying to pinpoint the central structural problem of the issue, I’d venture to say that there are two good stories here – the zombie curse from a bygone age ready to unleash itself on today’s world, and the college campus romantic comedy – but in trying to rush through the development of each, neither is fully realised.  This might not end up being a problem once the story is complete and we can read it as a whole, but better pacing could be something to take on board for future issues.

Funnily enough, I think B Paul Jordan’s artwork has a similar problem to Apodaca’s writing, with the whole “strong on a panel-by-panel basis but problematic when taken as a whole” analogy.  I’ll begin with the positive: I love his art style.  It’s a style that’s instantly distinct, with his characters’ massive forearms and weird inversed eyes with black whites and white pupils.  With the unusual body shapes and knack for visual gags, Jordan actually reminds me of Rob Guillory’s work on Chew.  Like Guillory, he’s an artist perfectly suited to comedy.  It is very hard to make comics funny, and much of it depends on the right artist, someone who can capture a quirk of facial expression or body language that sells the moment just right.  But Jordan pulls it off, hitting home some genuine laugh-out-loud beats in the comic.

However, I think he needs to work on his layouts.  Save for a couple of impressively orchestrated zombie sequences in the latter half of the book, much of the layouts are quite unremarkable, and in the early pages in particular there is a noticeable amount of dead space.  The storytelling can be a bit off in places as well, with characters jumping from one massive, overblown pose to the next with little cohesion between them.  It veers dangerously close to one of those manga parodies, with someone eyes bulging out of their heads with a crazy zoom-in as they cry, “OH NO! I FORGOT TO BUY MILK!!!!”  However, Jordan has an instantly appealing style, and if he hones his skills a bit more, I could see him being an artist in real demand in the future.

As a first issue, Zombie Outlaw #1 has some flaws, but it is still an enjoyable comic, I was never bored while reading, and there’s enough groundwork put in place that you get the sense subsequent issues could be better.  Both Apodaca and Jordan are talents with real potential – with a little refining here and there, I think they could do some really good stuff down the line.

You can buy Zombie Outlaw #1 from Comixpress.  If you’re attending the ComiKaze Expo in Los Angeles on November 5th/6th, you’ll be able to get the book there too.  For more info, check out www.zombieoutlaw.com.

REVIEW – Attackosaur: Robot Dinosaur Police Force #1

I’ve noticed that, in the comic world at least, dinosaurs are becoming quite trendy.  The resurgence in their popularity seemed to begin with Axe Cop, and a supporting cast that not only includes shape-shifting sidekick Dinosaur Soldier, but fan favourite Wexy, a giant, flying, fire-breathing T-Rex.  Then came Super Dinosaur, Robert Kirkman’s attempt to break the all-ages comic market, starring a talking, cybernetically-enhanced T-Rex.  And most recently, we’ve heard about Grant Morrison writing a comic (and the screenplay for the movie adaptation) called Dinosaurs VS Aliens.  Now, joining the trend is Attackosaur: Robot Dinosaur Police Force, a self-published effort by Welsh cartoonist Martin Smith.

Being a talking Tyrannosaur with cybernetic implants, the main character could easily be compared with the lead of Robert Kirkman’s new series.  But Rex is more caustic in his choice of vocabulary and surly in his demeanour than his Super Dinosaur counterpart, the “grizzled veteran cop” archetype in a dinosaur’s body, helping him to shine as a protagonist in his own right.  The reader-POV access character he’s paired up with is vacuous actor Dan Chance, on Mars to research his latest film role, unaware he’s caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate “The President of the World”.  Yes, the story takes place on Mars, meaning that not only do we get dinosaurs, we get Martians!

This alludes to the major strength of this first issue of Attackosaur: Smith effortlessly weaves in such high concepts as “robot dinosaur cops on Mars” into a coherent narrative that flows naturally and dabbles in the surreal without alienating us readers.  The dialogue is suitably snarky and flippant throughout, and while a couple of the one-liners fall flat, they come at such a rapid pace that the memory of a dud is sure to be quickly replaced by another gag drawing a smile.  If there’s any misstep in the scripting, it probably comes with the introduction of the Dan Chance character, who we first see in the form of a trailer for his latest film, Wolf Cup Final.  In the context of the issue as a whole, I get what Smith was trying to do here, but the way it was paced in the comic itself was a bit jarring and uneven.  I’d say it was more a cinematic technique than one that fits easily into a comic book narrative.

Unfortunately, Smith’s art fares less well than his writing.  He’s actually really good at drawing the dinosaurs – one visual gag with a T-Rex squeezed into an elevator is a particular success – but his human figures are sorely lacking.  Their anatomy is sloppy, and the faces are quite bland and largely expressionless.  While there are a couple of good location shots, for the most part the lack of detail stops us from getting a sense of place, all the more unfortunate given how delightfully idiosyncratic the setting of this story is.  It’s a shame, because I think a stylised, cartoony artist of the Rob Guillory mould could have really brought Smith’s off-the-wall ideas to life and made them jump out of the page.  Smith himself acknowledges that he’s more a writer than an artist, and I think that’s clear with this issue, as while the writing shows much promise, the art is competent but inconsistent.

It has its flaws, but the first issue of Attackosaur: Robot Dinosaur Police Force is a charming little comic.  If you like dinosaurs, robots, Mars, or robot dinosaurs on Mars, or if you just like quirky, offbeat fare, then this may be a comic you want to check out.

You can buy Attackosaur: Robot Dinosaur Police Force #1 from attackosaur.com.

REVIEW: The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit

The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit is a collection archiving the first 13 stories of Ian McDonald’s Bruno the Bandit webcomic.  The series is a fantasy parody, following the exploits of feckless crook Bruno and his mini-dragon sidekick Fiona – along with a recurring ensemble of oddball supporting characters – on various misadventures.  How does the episodic webcomic translate into a more substantial collected edition?

Both written and drawn by Ian McDonald, it has a visual style reminiscent of Hagar the Horrible (who is indeed referenced a few times in the stories), with simplistic, cartoonish, yet wonderfully expressive figures that one might expect to find in a newspaper strip.  The newspaper cartoon strip format is definitely what sprang to mind reading The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit, as from what I gather, originally these stories were published in 1-line, 4-panel segments, with each one built around its own little punchline, making it work as a self-contained read in addition to being part of a larger story.  This (largely unvarying) layout translates into most pages of the book reading as a dense 16-panel grid, which feels cluttered at first.  In the early stories, the constant cycle of set-up/gag combined with a very simple story that best allows each line to stand on its own creates a feeling that what works in small doses as a webcomic may be less effective when all put together in one mammoth read.

However, as the collection progresses, and McDonald finds his narrative footing a bit more, the stories become a bit more ambitious and satirical.  The most common theme is the idea of celebrity and fickle fame, with several stories revolving around Bruno stumbling into fame or notoriety, basking in it briefly, before suddenly losing it and finding himself back where he started.  But McDonald also uses Bruno to take swipes at topics as diverse as home shopping, referendums, political correctness, the fashion industry and – perhaps best of all, in “Assault” – JFK conspiracy theorists.  This is where Bruno the Bandit really shines, using the fantasy backdrop to lampoon more contemporary social and political issues.

But while I really enjoyed this satirical content, the downside was that the actual character of Bruno almost becomes interchangeable, with McDonald coming perilously close to losing sight of the supposed central conceit of the series.  In “Elfquestion” the character barely appears.  “The Whistle of Time” almost comes as a shock to the system, because we get back to Bruno actually being a bandit.  The stories where McDonald gets the balance right between making a satirical point, while also having Bruno getting in some kind of trouble and going on a morally questionable crusade with Fiona, are the ones that tend to be the most successful.

As a comedy, it’s more likely to encourage smirks than induce full-on belly laughs, and the fantasy aspect isn’t always evident.  But Ian McDonald does good work on both the scripting and art, and if you’re a fan of humour strips, you might want to check The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit out for yourself.

Buy The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit in print from Amazon, or digitally from Wowio, DriveThruComics and MyDigitalComics.