REVIEW: Headspace #1

I’ve talked before about the good work MonkeyBrain Comics have been doing, publishing quality projects from some exciting up-and-comic indie comic creators, people who I’ve watched develop and grow as storytellers and seem well placed to benefit from the larger profile MonkeyBrain gives them.  It seems like the next generation of breakout Image comics creators are already doing exciting work at the ComiXology-exclusive publisher.  Headspace is written by another indie creator I was already familiar with: Ryan K Lindsay, perhaps best known for the backmatter he provides for Sheltered and Strange Nation and his academic writing on Daredevil, but also an accomplished writer in his own right with the likes of Fatherhood and Ghost Town, not to mention a short in ComixTribe’s own The Oxymoron.  Here, teaming up with the art duo of Eric Zawadski and Chris Peterson, as well as colorist Marissa Louise, he is getting perhaps his most substantial platform yet.  Does he deliver the goods?

At first, I wasn’t really sure what to make of Headspace #1.  The initial setup, with moody protagonist Shane having an existential crisis as the sheriff of dead-end town Carpenter Cove, didn’t really grab me, and some seemingly non-sequitor scene transitions and shifts in tone left me feeling more alienated from proceedings.  But over the course of the issue, the different strands come together in a way that, while it’s still not entirely clear, feels less confusing than it feels like a mystery waiting to unfold.  With a clever central conceit aided by some nicely hard-boiled narration by Lindsay, Headspace awards reader patience with a strange, unsettling narrative that promises to take us down a rabbit-hole.

Visually, artists Zawadski and Peterson gel together pretty seamlessly.  The sequences in Carpenter Cove offer the best opportunities for memorable imagery, which results in some memorable visuals and character designs.  The thick lines and soft, simple color palette give the book a bit of an Amelia Cole vibe, which can feel a bit strange given how much darker a tale this is than that other, well-regarded MonkeyBrain title.  But for the most part, it works.

This first issue is rounded out by an extended editorial from Lindsay, going into detail on everything from how the project came to be to what the ideal soundtrack to listen to while reading would be.  Throughout it all, his passion for the story is clear, and it’s quite infectious.

MonkeyBrain have been spoiling us with a dense array of quality titles recently.  And while Headspace may not quite place itself on the top tier of that library yet, all the component parts are in place for a story that could grow into something special.  An intriguing opener, and well worth checking out.

Headspace1Headspace #1 is available to buy now from ComiXology.

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REVIEWS – Land of the Rats: Gastrolithicus, Trip, Leftovers #4, Dober-Man, Poop Office #2

Another review round-up!  Let’s get right to business…

LAND OF THE RATS: GASTROLITHICUS

Cartoonist: Mark Nasso

Publisher: The Underground Forest

Price: $4.00

Land of the Rats is something of a visual delight.  Writer/artist Mark Nasso crafts this graphic novel around a series of impressively-structured pages, mostly splashes.  His heavy lines and surreal imagery captures a real Charles Burn quality.  The story isn’t particularly compelling, too often falling into the realm of the inscrutably vague.  But even if Nasso doesn’t yet stand out as a writer, with his work here he manages to mark himself out as an artist of note.

landoftheratsgastrolithicusLand of the Rats: Gastrolithicus is available from the Underground Forest online store.

TRIP

Cartoonists: Walker Farrell and Kelly Matten

Publisher: Ape Entertainment

Price: $15

Trip is a comic that’s pretty light on plot – the whole story boils down to two girls trying drugs at a a party – but in that loose framework it manages to find quite a few nice moments.  In the character of Lou in particular, we get a credible depiction of the anxieties many teenage girls face.  Both Kelly Matten and Walker Farrell’s art is light and accessible, while showing enough flexibility to get suitably weird once the drugs kick in, with some nice layouts that experiment with how the comics medium can be employed to depict the sensory impact of psychadelics.  It’s been done in other comics before, but Farrell and Matten bring it together into a warm, personable tale about youthful experience.

TripTrip is available to buy from Amazon.

LEFTOVERS #4

Cartoonist: Jason Pittman

Publisher: Self-published

Price: $3.99 print/$0.99 digital

Leftovers #4 was actually a pretty brilliant comic.  I was a bit wary that this would be another case of a mid-series issue of a comic being submitted where I’d be left feeling lost as to what came before.  But this was completely accessible, feeling like it had everything I needed to appreciate the story contained within and that I hadn’t missed anything.  Upon further reading, it seems this is because Leftovers follows a done-in-one anthology format.  For this particular story, cartoonist Jason Pittman triumphs on every level.  The story was heartfelt and really drew me in, as Kaleb’s battle with an anxiety disorder manifests itself in the form of superhero/supervillain doppelgangers doing battle in his subconscious.  This is visualised in the story by having the real characters and events depicted in black-and-white, while Kaleb’s costumed surrogates are presented in full colour.  Pittman also has a really nice, textured visual style too, understated, but with a real mastery of the small gestures of expression and body language that make a character feel real.  A real attention-grabbing book that has put Jason Pittman on my radar as a creator to watch.  And though I didn’t feel lost at the start, by the end I was left really wanting to read what happens next.

Leftovers4Leftovers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

DOBER-MAN

Writer: Travis M. Holyfield

Artist: Edward Whatley

Editor: Erica J. Heflin

Publisher: GrayHaven Comics

Price: $3.99

Another fantastic read!  This was right up my alley, being a loving pastiche of the old Batman TV series and playfully poking fun at some of its superheroic tropes.  Travis Holyfield’s clever story involves a disgruntled henchman getting wise to the fact that he can make much more money by ripping off the deluded supervillains who hire him than in trying to fight Batman and Robin analogues Dober-Man and Beagle, with many comic setpieces ensuing.  It’s all brought wonderfully to life by the expressive artwork of Edward Whatley, who produces some hilarious character and costume designs.  In particular, the humiliating uniforms the henchmen are made to wear makes for a great recurring gag.  This was a joy to read, and I hope we get more Dober-Man adventures in the future!

DoberManDober-Man is available to buy from the GrayHaven online store.

POOP OFFICE #2

Cartoonist: Ben

Publisher: Naked Grape Comics

Price: $1.99

I didn’t get Poop Office at all.  Everything you need to know about it is in the title.  It’s an office, but everyone in it is talking poop.  So, basically, the whole comic is just repeat vignettes of people having basically straight-faced office-based conversations, only everyone talking is a jobby, and all their names are turd-related puns.  If that description has you splitting your sides, then this is the comic for you, but I was just left scratching my head.  After reading about half a dozen of the skits I started to suspect the whole thing was actually an avant-garde deconstruction of the way we as a society seem to find poop jokes inherently funny, but I fear that’d be be giving it too much credit.  Sorry, this one just wasn’t to my taste.  Or should I say… wasn’t poo my taste?  Oh ho ho!

PoopOffice2Poop Office #2 is available now from ComiXology.

REVIEWS – Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two, New-Gen: New Dawn #4, Diskordia #1, Deathridge #1, Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4, Noctua #2

Sorry for the long absence of these reviews.  Real-world stuff has got in the way of me being able to keep on top of stuff like this.  I can’t promise a return to regularly-scheduled programming going forward either, but I shall try my best to make up for lost time by cramming in as many reviews as possible here:

LIGHTWEIGHTZ: THE ANTHOLOGY, PART TWO

Writer: Justin Martin

Artist: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Colorist: Lya

Letterer: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Publisher: R-Squared Comicz

Price: Pay what you want

This Christian-themed comic about teens with developing superpowers has some novel concepts, though the execution is ultimately lacking.  Justin Martin is clearly a strong idea man, coming up with quite original approaches to superpowers rather than the generic “super strength” or “super speed”, crafting gifts that have some symbolic resonance with the experience of being a teenager, and the experiences of the various characters represented in each vignette.  However, the stories, while solid ideas for tales on paper, fall a little short in the actual writing, with some flat dialogue or – a nitpicky bug-bear of mine – sentences that don’t properly use commas!  The art of Przemyslaw B Dedelis and the colors of Lya are fine, if a bit simplistic and at times staid.  A fine idea and a worthwhile read, even if the final package feels a bit insubstantial.

Lightweightz1Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two is available from the R-Squared Comicz’ official website.

NEW-GEN: NEW DAWN #4

Writers: J.O. Matonti, Abdul H. Rashid

Penciller: Jomar Bulda

Inker: Analiza Chris Agot

Colorist: Sean Forney

Letterer: Matias Timarchi

Editors: J.O. Matonti, Julia Coppola

Cover: Abdul H. Rashid, Edgar Arce

Publisher: A.P.N.G. Enterprises

The New-Gen series from A.P.N.G. Enterprises must be something of a masterclass in marketing.  While seemingly having little visibility in traditional comic news circles, they have built up quite a presence, with a reportedly successful Free Comic Book Day release, nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook, a distribution deal set up with Marvel and a feature film adaptation starring Mark Hamill reportedly in development.  So it’s a bit of a shame that the core comic product doesn’t quite live up to the fanfare.  Reading this comic, the writing felt a bit stilted and inscrutable at points, and if this had been an issue #1 I’d have felt like it wasn’t until the issue’s end that things started to get going.  But this is issue #4 of a 5-issue series!  Given the uneventful nature of proceedings at this stage, I can’t imagine what the writers filled three issues with up until this point, and while it’s understandable that a reader might be confused about what’s going on when coming into a book on issue #4, my confusion was more problematic in that I had no real idea of what the larger story was supposed to be.  Thankfully, New Dawn #4 is redeemed by the stellar art team of Jomar Bulda and Analiza Chris Agot, with colors from Sean Forney.  The art team manage to craft a visual aesthetic that feels reminiscent of John Cassaday’s work on Planetary, giving the book a slick, professional sheen.

NGNDNext-Gen: New Dawn #4 is available from select comic shops.

DISKORDIA #1

Cartoonist: Andrew “Rivenis Black” Blackman

Price: $1.99

I enjoyed this book.  Cartoonist Andrew Blackman, also operating under the pen name “Rivenis Black”, has crafted a suitably fun, surreal world packed with loopy invention.  The main character, Jackal, has a touch of Mary-Sue about them, but the enigmatic Squid Girl has a marvelous character design, albeit one that’s unlikely to become a popular cosplay choice.  But while Blackman presents himself well as a writer, it’s as an artist that his true strengths emerge.  His layouts are dynamic and offbeat, his characters expressive, his colours vibrant, and his imagery suitably mind-bending.  Rivenis is truly a Jack-of-all-trades, with only his lettering falling short at this stage.  I was intrigued enough by the goings-on here to consider checking out the other issues available from the creator’s blog.

Diskordia1Diskordia #1 is available to buy from ComiXology. The series is also available to read for free from Rivenis Black’s blog.

DEATHRIDGE #1

Cartoonist: Ashley Hewerdine

Publisher: FunkyDoodyCool Comics

I wasn’t so keen on this one.  The story Ashley Hewerdine sets up is potentially interesting, with shades of League of Gentlemen, but the comic is let down with its visual presentation.  The artwork is really rough, with a bit of an MS Paint vibe in the linework, though there is the occasional nice image: an amusing silhouette sex scene springs to mind.  The lettering is similarly shoddy, with bubbles at times looking clunky on the page, and the words within sometimes missing full stops amid other technical issues.

Deathridge1Deathridge #1 is available to buy from select comic shops. More information here.

Z-GIRL AND THE 4 TIGERS #4

Writer: Jeff Marsick

Artist: Kirk Manley

Color Flatter: Miguel Marques

Publisher: Studio Z

Price: $5.00

Here we have another issue #4 of a 5-issue mini, but this manages to work much more successfully as a standalone read.  Yes, there was a good deal of “What the hell is going on?”, but the plot still managed to be a whole lot of fun in its own right, with enough of the mythology and the wider stakes at play presented to get my teeth into and make me want to go and get caught up.  The martial arts movie/sci-fi mashup (with zombies!) plays out a bit like a grindhouse-infused mix of Doom and Thundercats, with writer Jeff Marsick keeping the plot chugging along like a freight train, packed with incident, while still finding room for character moments that flesh out his sprawling cast.  Meanwhile, the art of “Manly” Kirk Manley is a delight, with heavy lines and enlarged figures that call to mind the work of Stephen Bissette, or the creature feature comics of the 1970s and 80s. This is one of those occasions where you read a comic and enjoy it so much that you feel it deserves to be playing to a bigger market.   A retro treat!

ZGirl4Tigers4Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.  The previous issues are available from DriveThruComics, priced at $0.99.

NOCTUA #2

Writer: Andrew M. Henderson

Artist: J.C. Grande

Colorist: Eagle Gosselin

Letterer: David Paul

Publisher: Alterna Comics

Price: $1.99

This turned out to be another compelling read.  A crime story about the murky world of human trafficking, with a vampire twist, Noctua builds on the momentum of its first issue with this second chapter.  Here, writer Andrew Henderson displays a real talent for writing truly vile villains, with numerous characters displaying their heinous ways in a darkly inventive manner.  J.C. Grande, something of a regular of these reviews, also crops up with some of his most refined artwork to date, wonderfully complimented by the understated colors of Eagle Gosselin.  I wasn’t too keen on the HIV angle the vampire aspect of the story took in a shoehorned-in flashback, but aside from that niggle, the story being built up here is highly promising.

noctua_2

Noctua #2 is available to buy from ComiXology.

REVIEWS: A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey, Theodicy, Sticky, Zombolette’s Floppy, Life Through the Lens

It’s another review medley this week, as I try to plough through my backlog.  Let’s get right down to business!

A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO DEMPSEY #1

Writer: Thom Compton

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: Free

I should qualify this review by saying that, in general, I hate photo comics.  Just the whole concept of them irks me, and so I find a hard time enjoying them, with rare exceptons.  So any photo comic is going to be faced with an uphill battle to win me over.  But I feel that, even when attempting to set aside my prejudices and judge photo-comic A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey on its own merits, the execution falls very short.  The photography is inconsistent, with creator Thom Compton at points managing some evocative imagery, but too often the actors seem to just be posed in positions that vaguely match the narrative without really doing any acting or emoting to sell it.  Speaking of the narrative, it feels really muddled and unclear, and not in an opaque, mysterious way, but more in a “important information isn’t being conveyed very well” way.  But perhaps the biggest setback of all is the presentation, which is woeful.  In the version I read, at least, many images were squeezed onto the page in a manner that made them blurred or misshapen.  And the lettering was not really lettering at all, looking more like typed-in words put in a text box with a bubble crudely drawn around it… and even then there were instances of misspellings and words being shoddily erased and replacement words crammed into their space.  I was going to skip reviewing this, as I hate writing negative reviews, but I do feel like there’s a good concept here, a kind of anthology series documenting the weird goings on in a small, close-knit community.  But some serious righting of the ship is needed in subsequent issue if the concept is to be redeemed.

VisitorsGuideDempseyA Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey #1 is available to read for free on Scribd.

THEODICY #1

Writer: Chad Handley

Penciller: Fernando Brazuna

Inker: Ryan Boltz

Colorist: Milan Ghibliest

Letterers: John Burton, Jeruvia

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $4.99

I was a bit wary of this going in, as I felt like it was going to be a Dawkins-type “Oh ho ho isn’t religion dumb?” polemic.  But in fact, writer Chad Handley gives us an even-handed, measured depiction of the role religion plays in the world.  His atheist protagonists compellingly lay out their case against God, but they are presented as flawed figures whose conclusions are cast into doubt.  And while for many it has become easy to present religious believers as gullible idiots, in this near-future world plagued with suffering and tyranny, both believers and members of the Church are portrayed sympathetically, with the need for faith presented as understandable, whether or not it ends up being misguided.  Fernando Brazuna and Ryan Boltz’ artwork varies in quality, with some instances of ropey anatomy or dodgy expressions, and the coloring of Minan Ghibliest is a little flat.  But there are some striking images here, and the comic is held together by a compelling, well-realised story by Handley.

Theodicy1Theodicy #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

STICKY #1

Writer: Dale Lazarov

Artist: Steve MacIsaac

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $3.50

I have to confess that this is my first time reviewing a gay erotica comic.  In fact, to my knowledge it’s the first time I’ve reviewed any type of erotica.  I’ve talked about comics that featured sex in them, sure, but those were still primarily about plot and character, with any sexual element used to enhance those.  The “gay comics” of Dale Lazarov, however, are marketed as erotica, with the presumed primary goal being to titilate and arouse.  Nothing wrong with that in theory, though going in I had my doubts about whether the comic medium was best suited to such an endeavour in the internet age.  Of course, the other handicap I had is that, as a heterosexual male, gay porn was inevitably going to leave me cold.  The front cover, featuring a young man licking the nipple of a very hairy older gentleman, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and reading the ensuing comic with cold, forensic detachment just had me asking awkward questions that would probably ruin the erotic mood, “Would an old man really lower his ass onto a dick like that, wouldn’t it hurt his knees?”  “That’s an impressive amount of spunk those two lads just sprayed everywhere, how did they manage to get it on the wall clock?”  I found myself in the reverse of most porn viewers, in that I was keen to fast-forward through the sex and get to the story!  So given that I’m not the intended audience for it as a piece of erotica, and it’s not really fair to judge it through standard perimeters of plot and character, all that remains is to judge it on the quality of the creative team.  And Dale Lazarov and Steve MacIsaac clearly know their stuff.  Lazarov’s script is utterly silent, free of dialogue, but he still manages to convey the differing personalities of both the older and younger lover, and crafts a simple but accesible narrative.  He shows a good deal of trust in MacIsaac’s visuals to carry the bulk of the storytelling, given how much of the interaction and dynamics between the pair is conveyed in the art, and MacIsaac excels here.  It’s actually a very well drawn book, with convincing human anatomy that is not hyper-muscular beefcake physiques as are often seen in comics, but rather lifelike depictions of the male form.  And his heavy inks give the visuals a McKelvie style softness that mean this is a comic with quality production values, where I can recognise the craft behind it even if it’s not for me.

Sticky1Sticky #1 and other comics from Dale Lazarov can be found at his website.

ZOMBOLETTE’S FLOPPY #1

Cartoonist: Scarlette Baccini

Publisher: Bathwater Books

Price: $7.00 AU

Zombolette originally began life as a series of short strips, collected into an anthology released as a graphic novel last year.  This is the first instalment of the character making the leap into the serialised comics format, though rather than the switch in form bringing with it a shift in narrative approach, this issue reads very much like a collection of strips.  This first issue has an episodic structure, made up of three mostly self-contained short adventures for our zombified title character and her giant talking guinea pig sidekick.  Of these, the first is the definite standout, with Baccini displaying a sharp, acerbic wit that puts Zombolette on just the right side of nasty.  The second story is too brief to really go anywhere, but is centred around one admittedly great gag.  By the third part I was feeling a bit tired of the diminishing returns, but by the end Baccini had taken the blackly comic core joke and pushed it to such ridiculously macabre extremes that I was just about won over again by the end.  One thing that remains consistent in quality throughout is Baccini’s lively artwork, her bold, heavy lines and generous ink washes giving her highly-stylised characters a rich, textured feel on the page.  It has its hits and misses, but fans of dark humor and/or intriguingly quirky visuals might want to give Zombolette’s Floppy a look.

Zombolette1Zombolette’s Floppy #1 is available to buy from Bathwater Books’ webstore.

LIFE THROUGH THE LENS #1

Writer: Kent Olsen

Artist: Sabine Ten Lohuis

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $5.50

The climactic scene of Life Through The Lens involves a heated debate between two film critics over the film they’re reviewing, in an exchange that becomes quite evocative of the comic as a whole.  “The film meanders from scene to scene with no real purpose,” says Richard.  His fellow critic, Jerald, disagrees, defining that the film has an “experimental narrative” and “breaks conventions in all the right places.”  Sadly, it seems this comic is an attempt to do something like how Jerald envisions the film in question, but my assessment ended up being more in line with Richard.  The book claims to be a first issue, but the story doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go beyond a oneshot, with an aloof tone that keeps the reader at arm’s length.  But the major positive for me that kept my interest held throughout the comic was the artwork of Sabine Ten Lohuis.  The delicate, wispy lines and light washes give the comic an energetic, fluid feel, reminiscent of a more stylised Dustin Nyugen.  The characters are highly distinctive, and have a particular vivacity about them.  I shall definitely be keeping an eye open for Sabine’s distinctive visuals in future projects.  I do think it’s a shame that only writer Kent Olsen is credited on the cover, though.

LifeThroughTheLensLife Through the Lens #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

REVIEW: D4VE #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW – Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: NeverEnding #1

A few months back, I wrote an article about NeverEnding being my most anticipated new comic of 2013.  I had read all the scripts for this series when writer Stephen Sutherland submitted them to meetings of the Glasgow League of Writers, and it quickly got to the point where I was more keenly anticipating new scripts for the series than I was anticipating most complete comics.  And now, just over a week before it makes its worldwide debut at MCM Expo Scotland, I gained access to an exclusive early preview copy of the first issue.  Does the finished product deliver on the lofty expectations and the promise of those scripts?

In short, I loved it.  Sutherland is such a natural storyteller.  He first turned heads a little over a year back with his debut comic, Taking Flight – a kind of kitchen-sink drama approach to the superhero genre set in a recognisable modern Glasgow – but NeverEnding represents a quantum leap in his writing prowess.  Now, as a reviewer, it’s hard to try and hone in on the appeal of this single issue rather than the whole thing, as this is a story that unfolds like a puzzle box with rug-pulling twists, higher stakes and ever-increasing scope with each passing chapter, and going from that knowledge of what’s coming to focusing on issue #1 alone is like assessing an appetiser when you know the most mouth-watering main course is still to come.  But setting that knowledge aside and analysing this as a standalone comics experience, what instantly grabs me is the pace of it all.  NeverEnding is the story of a girl who never sleeps, never stops, never slows down, and that’s reflected in a script that’s always moving, dense with incident.  There’s no worries about decompression here, as no sooner are our characters and their status quo introduced than it’s thrown awry with our protagonist Olivia’s decision to start fighting crime, resulting in one of the most masterfully orchestrated fight scenes I’ve read in any comic in quite some time.  And we’ve barely got our breath back from that when Olivia is thrown into a new and different kind of danger.

But this is not to suggest that NeverEnding is such a plot-orientated book that it skimps on character.  Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s the characters that are arguably the story’s biggest strength.  Olivia’s father, Daniel, and her girlfriend, Sarah, go on to become at least as compelling as Olivia herself as we learn more about them, and we only get a chilling foreshadowing of the series antagonist here (sorry, there I go applying my knowledge of what comes next again!), so it is left mainly to Olivia herself to shoulder the characterisation here.  Thankfully, she immediately marks herself out as an immensely likeable protagonist.  In my recent review of Bandette I talked about how writer Paul Tobin crafted in his title character a convincing portrayal of a teenager you’d want to be friends with, and you get the same feeling about Olivia.  She’s cool, exuberant, idealistic (perhaps to the point of being naive), and the banter between her and Sarah is suitably endearing.  But what I like best is the aforementioned internal monologue, as it allows us to see that she isn’t just instantly this badass superhero because she decides to fight some drug-dealers.  She’s still a teenage girl who doubts herself, who panics, and who worries she may be in over her head.

But this is all stuff I new already.  The real test transitioning from script to comic was seeing how the art would work.  Gary Kelly was someone I’d met and seen some pinups from, but I had no real experience seeing his sequential work, so he was something of an unknown commodity to me going in.  Upon finishing the issue, I was pleased to report that for the most part he did a great job.  The opening double-page spread montage of Olivia’s daily routine is an instant attention-grabber, packed with lots of neat detail and really hammering home that kinetic sense of constant motion that we’re supposed to get from how Olivia lives.  Olivia herself is designed very well.  I knew early on that you couldn’t have cheesecake art for this.  With such a sensitively-portrayed heroine, having some impossible beauty supermodel with massive boobs and tiny hips and that weird 90s-infused anatomy would really undermine that portrayal.  But though Kelly’s work does have a bit of a ’90s/early ’00s vibe, at times feeling reminiscent of a rougher early-day Ethan Van Sciver, that doesn’t transfer into how he portrays women.  She’s build more like an athlete, with a toned body and a touch of a Jessica Ennis six-pack, and she isn’t drawn in a way that feels like sexualised, objectified male gaze, even in moments such as her taking a shower or kissing her girlfriend.  It feels a bit reductive pointing out the insulting things that aren’t done here, but maybe that’s a sad commentary on the industry that the absence of such things is still noteworthy.

Outside of Olivia’s portrayal, the visuals are solid, though I feel like they’d be enhanced by some colour to add depth and texture here and there.  But where the artwork really comes alive is in the fight scene I talked about above.  As a reader, it can be easy to skim-read past a fight scene, but not so here.  Similarly to Michael Lark’s largely silent opening fight scene in Lazarus #1, you feel every punch here, and want to dwell on every strike depicted on each panel.  Here, Kelly soars, adopting all kinds of neat tricks, such as showing a trail of residual images of Olivia as she hops about the page, creating a sense of her crazy-fast movement, or jumping into a crazy Olivia POV shot as she hurtles towards one foe, only to then switch around to have it feel like she’s leaping out of the page at us to whack the next opponent.  It’s a blast of adrenaline, and it feels wild and messy and chaotic, but at the same time clarity is always maintained.  It’s a fine tightrope to balance, but Kelly pulls it off with aplomb.  Like I said, it’s the best fight scene I’ve read in a comic in ages, and even if everything else wasn’t as great as it was, that fight alone would be worth the purchase price of this comic.

Sadly, as we get nearer the end of the issue, deadlines must have been looming, and the artwork starts to feel a bit rushed in places, with Kelly losing some of the precision that made his earlier layouts so impressive.  Just the odd unnatural face here, or clumsy page composition there, and the last page, which I get the sense should have been a big “OOMPH!” to leave us on a cliffhanger, doesn’t quite land as well as it could because of that slight untidy quality.  But the positives far outweigh the negatives, and if this marks Kelly’s debut onto the comic scene, I think it’s a sign to expect great things from him in future.

So, my eager waiting as at an end, and I have finally got to see NeverEnding #1 complete its journey from first draft script to finished comic.  And boy does it deliver the goods, packed with engaging characters and fun, thrilling, snappy storytelling that can hold up to any comic on the shelves right now.  I’m certainly onboard for the series as a whole, and already can’t wait to see the remaining issues brought to life.  There has been a wealth of quality comics to emerge from the Glasgow indie scene this year, but this could very well be one of the best.  If you’re from around these parts, be sure to check this out as soon as you can!

NeverEnding1aNeverEnding #1 will make its debut at MCM Expo Scotland on September 7th.