REVIEW: Ghosted #1

Image Comics are on quite the killer roll when it comes to series debuts, aren’t they?  Two weeks ago, we had Lazarus, then last week (at least in the UK, where it was shipped a week early), we were treated to Sheltered.  And this week we have the marvelous Ghosted #1, from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Goran Sudzuka.  I originally had no interest in picking this up, for the most embarrassing of reasons, which I shall now confess.  I got Joshua Williamson, writer of comics like Masks & Mobsters, mixed up with Kevin Williamson, screenwriter of Dawson’s Creek, the Scream films and the risible TV series The Following.  And I thought, “Pffft…. another TV bigshot thinking they can slum it in comics, no thanks!”  But after reading some glowing reviews, and hearing that the artist was Goran Sudzuka, whose work I greatly admire, I decided to grudgingly check out the first issue, only learning of my error after the fact.  And I can say now, what a tragedy it would have been if that mistake had caused me to miss out on this comic treat!

Before I get into the story, I want to first pay my respect to the incredible artwork of Goran Sudzuka, as when I was in the comic shop and on the fence about picking this title up, it was a glance through the pages at Sudzuka’s work that tipped the scales in favour of me giving it a shot.  I initially became a fan of his with his work on Y: The Last Man.  Everyone thinks of Pia Guerra as the artist of Y: The Last Man, and yes, she was the co-creator and primary artist on the series, doing fantastic work.  But a sizeable amount of fill-in issues and arcs were handled by Sudzuka, who did a fine job, but perhaps he didn’t quite get his due as he did such stellar work in recapturing the spirit of Guerra’s visuals and crafting a sense of visual consistency rather than really letting his own style shine through.  But with Ghosted, Sudzuka gets the chance to shine.  The opening page splash is as immediately arrresting an opening image as you’ll find in any comic, instantly marking out Sudzuka as an artist of superstar quality.  And he’s definitely given some superstar moments, with a couple of jawdropping double-page tableaus popping up in the book, though he equally excels in the quieter moments of character interaction where the heart of the story truly emerges.

There’s a real trend towards roughness in art these days, and overall I really enjoy it.  Artists like Fiona Staples, Nick Pitarra, Riley Rossmo, Iain Laurie, Jeff Lemire and Rafael Albuquerque have emerged as some of my favourites in recent years with a sense of looseness and fluidiity that gives their imagery an unorthodox, vibrant energy, whereas the safer Big Two “house style” of much of the artistic A-list is starting to leave me a little cold.  But standing out against this more abstract trend emerging in comics (particularly creator-owned comics), Sudzuka’s meticulously crafted and structured figures and locales with their clean, thick ink lines feel strangely refreshing, like a throwback to an earlier age of storytelling while at the same time feeling utterly modern and relevant.  It’s a blend of the old-school pulp of a Darwyn Cooke with the pop vibrancy of a Mike Allred, while still very much being its own distinctive aesthetic.

But credit should also be given to colorist Miroslav Mrva, whose colors blend so organically into Sudzuka’s art that it’s difficult to distinguish the two.  But the colors are crucial for establishing the mood of the comic as the genre hopping (which we’ll get to in a bit) continues apace.  The cold, clinical blues and greens of the opening sequence put us into the bored, despairing mindset of Jackson T Winters in that early part of the narrative, then once things take a turn for the strange and fantastic proceedings seem to become drenched in a psychadelic red wash, which at some points reminded me of the effect Brian Bolland achieved in the original colouring of The Killing Joke.  Then once we get to the Trask Mansion, it’s like all color is just sucked out of the story and we’re plunged into a world of dreary, foreboding grey as the narrative takes a darker turn.

And what of the writing of Joshua “Not Kevin” Williamson?  Quite simply, he plays a blinder.  This is a superb story, build around a delicious high concept I wish I’d thought of: I actually had thought of something quite similar, but this covers that territory so well I now feel like I’d be as well abandoning the idea.  In short, this is about a heist in a haunted house, resulting in a genre mashup that’s equal parts Ocean’s Eleven and The Haunting.  If that doesn’t make you go “Ooooooh!” and make you want to go pick up this comic immediately, I seriously fear there’s something wrong with you.

As far as first issues go, this is remarkably dense, and feels packed with content and narrative incident.  I felt like I’d really got my money’s worth and got a good chunk of story here.  As opposed to say, Guardians of the Galaxy #1, where I closed the book feeling like I was really very little the wiser to these characters and their world after reading and that we had progressed very little into the story, Ghosted is marvelously paced, covering a lot of ground and, indeed, spanning multiple genres.  As we open, we’re in a prison story, and it’s in these early pages that we get to know Jackson T. Winters.  While the prison segment is over with pretty quickly, Winters carries that with him, and in that we can see how damaged an individual he is.  From there, we slip briefly into Hammer horror territory, with sinister older gentlemen in red smoking jackets in lavish mansion studies, and supernatural doings afoot.  In this sequence, the plot is truly set into motion, as Winters is employed by enigmatic millionaire Markus Schrecken to “steal a ghost” to add to his collection of mystical artefacts, pointing him in the direction of the notorious Trask murder house.  After that, we make the seamless transition into the most giddily fun sequence of the narrative, as we slip into the heist caper genre.  Here, we see Winters recruiting his team, an oddball band of misfits who in their brief introductions all quickly establish their own personalities and interesting wrinkles, making me think this will be a fun band to watch interact.  And just when we’re thinking this is going to be a fun, cool adventure, we take all these crime characters and pop them down firmly into the horror genre, with Williamson quickly crafting a sense of dread as the ensemble enter into the Trask mansion, menacing even in daylight hours.  I just recently said in conversation with someone that the haunted house genre is considered nigh impossible to pull off in comic form, so I’m keen to see how the creative team manages as we progress into the next issue.

In summary, Ghosted #1 is quite simply a delight.  Readers in America will be fortunate enough to have both this and Sheltered #1 hitting shelves at the same time.  These are very different books, but they have a few things in common.  For one, even against the murmurs from fans about Image becoming more and more of a playground for the biggest names in comics rather than the proving ground for the stars of tomorow as it has been before, both titles demonstrate that Image is still a great platform for emerging talent to present comics that deserve to be breakout successes.  And, of course, both are excellent.  In a week where both Batman and Superman Unchained came out, its these two Image titles that I would mark out as the essential purchases for savvy comics readers.  If you’d told me when I first read it that the fantastic Lazarus would be my least favourite of July’s Image debuts, I would have laughed you out of the room, but Image are going from strength to strength.  If you like comics with great ideas, backed with stunning art, there should be no reason not to give Ghosted a try.

Ghosted1Ghosted #1 is available in all good comic shops now.

REVIEW: Comeback

Let’s get this bit over with  early.  For a while now, it seems like the Looper parallels have loomed large over Comeback.  Both bring a grungy, low-tech, noir-tinged approach to time travel, placing it within a grounded sci-fi mythology more recognisable to our own world, and both debuted around  the same time.  I know when someone first mentioned Comeback to me, they compared it to Looper.  But there are some key differences, namely that while Looper applies its black market time travel tech to the business of taking lives while Comeback applies it to saving them, on the surface, at least.  But I happened to like Looper, and so my curiosity was piqued about checking out a similar tale with Comeback.  I never did get round to reading the single issues, but I was pleased to pick it up this past week as a collected graphic novel.  And upon devouring the whole thing in a single sitting, I realised it really isn’t all that much like Looper after all beyond those surface details.  If anything, it reminds me more of the time travel in Timecrimes – people meddling with something they quite clearly shouldn’t be, resulting in increasingly head-spinning changes and tinkering within a relatively confined timeframe – and the atmosphere generated by quietly sinister British conspiracy thrillers like State of Play or Edge of Darkness.  So, writer Ed Brisson and artist Michael Walsh’s Image miniseries is very much its own thing, and more than capable of being assessed on its own merits.

The backmatter in this collected edition of Comeback makes for some inspirational reading, with Brisson delving into how he and Michael Walsh made a vow to get themselves picked up by a major publisher within the space of a year, and how, after 8 months, they did it.  Not by nurturing a single idea, but by bombarding with pitch after pitch, coming up with as high a volume of ideas as they could to increase the odds of honing in on that one killer concept that would capture an editor’s imagination.  The successful pitch for Comeback is included in this volume, and what a high concept it is.  In a world that is not really recognisably sci-fi at all (indeed, it’s referred to as “The Present” in the captions), there is a company called Reconnect.  For a lofty price, they will reunite bereaved people with their lost loved ones, by travelling back in time into the recent past and plucking the deceased out of the timeline shortly before their death.  Reconnect will then perfectly restage that death with another body so as not to meddle with the fragile timeline, and the reunited loved ones are taken off to live a new life with new identities far away elsewhere.  Of course, as is the case with such tales, all is not as it seems!

I first became familiar with Ed Brisson through two avenues.  First, as a ubiqutous letterer on the indie comics scene, who has applied his considerable skills across a wide range of creator-owned titles I’ve reviewed over the years.  And second, as a promising emerging writer on 215 Ink’s gritty crime oneshot, Black River.  But with Comeback, Brisson steps up to a whole other level.  Trying to get around the mechanics and paradoxes of time travel is enough to make my penis bleed, but Brisson makes it all feel very straightforward and accessible.  Things get a bit mental in the later chapters, with history getting rewritten and re-rewritten at an increasingly frenzied pace, but it works so well because we gradually ease into it, starting with sporadic, surgical incisions into the timeline before steadily escalating to this craziness in a way that feels organic within the story.

But one of the smarter plays Brisson makes is not getting too wrapped up in the mechanics of time travel and the mythology of this world, instead narrowing the focus and giving us a character drama.  Mark, our ostensive lead character, has an interesting journey, going from fastidious company man to uorthodox action man and rebel.  But for me the most fascinating figure in Comeback is Mark’s partner, Seth.  I can’t go into the role he plays in the narrative too much without delving into spoilers – and the less you know about the specifics of the plot beyond the initial setup going in, the better – but it’s through him we most clearly see the physical and spiritual toll that meddling with time can take.  I also really liked the character of Owen, a blue-collar heavy who exudes a kind of understated menace.  The only person who really seemed to get short thrift to me was potential car crash rescuee Kelly, whose motivations are erratic and, without further contextualisation, make her seem pretty unlikeable.  Brisson himself notes in the back pages that one of his big regrets was not having the space to flesh her character out further.

Michael Walsh’s art is interesting.  When I first flipped through a single issue of Comeback (I think it was around the time issue #3 was released), his style initially didn’t really geab me.  But though it’s not flashy or immediately eye-catching, once you get into it there’s a lot to like.  His characters have this real lived-in feel about them, where you read so much into the personalities of even relatively minor figures based on the way they stand or the nuance of expression on their faces.  The minimalist linework is reminiscent of the likes of Chris Samnee or Dave Aja, and feels like a suitable fit for the crime genre leanings of the tale.  More than suitable, I think it’s Walsh’s muted approach that grounds everything, and really sells the believability of the concept without making it feel too futuristic and alien.

Also worth mentioning are the colors of Jordie Bellaire, who is fast establishing herself as one of the most versatile colourists in the field.  As a demonstration of her diverse range, would you guess that the person who coloured The Manhattan Projects also coloured this?  While that is all bright acid pop, with those bold red/blue washes, here the pallette is much more restrained and washed-out, save for the odd flourish of nightmare-red in moments of violence.  The ambient lighting is handled very well throughout, with early morning, daytime and night all identifiable at various points of the story, and best of all one apartment scene bathed in neon-purple lights from outside signage that put me in mind of Nicholas Winding Refn psycho-pulp.  Jordie and Walsh make for a good visual team.

It seems like, every year, there emerges a breakout talent in the comics world that seems poised to strike out into the next level.  With his upcoming Image series Sheltered looking highly promising, and this lovely graphic novel release of Comeback collecting the story for the trade-waiters, it seems like Ed Brisson could be the breakout creative voice of this year poised to leap to the next level.  His talent for coming up with those killer ideas, paired with an ability to realise those in compelling stories with perfectly-chosen artistic collaborators, definitely marks him out as someone with the tools to make a splash in the field in years to come.  Unlike the characters in the story, the creative team of Comeback certainly seemed poised for a bright future!

ComebackComeback is available now from all good comic shops.

REVIEW: Fatale #1

Image has been doing some heavy marketing for the slate of big-time new releases headed by major creators due out in 2012, the year where the 3rd-biggest American comic publisher celebrates its 20th anniversary.  They’ve helped create a real sense of buzz around the world of creator-owned comics, and first out of the gate for what Eric Stephenson calls Image’s “rocket ship into the future” is Fatale, the latest collaboration by the powerhouse pairing of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips.

Now, don’t throw bricks at me, but I’ll admit that up until recently I haven’t been the biggest Brubaker/Phillips fan.  That’s not to say I didn’t like them.  I had read the respective first volumes of Criminal and Incognito, and I could respect each as cleverly plotted, stylishly drawn comics.  But while I approved of the craft on an intellectual level, I wasn’t really grabbed on an emotional level enough to feel compelled to read either story beyond those first volumes.  Recently, however, two things changed my mind, and had me eagerly anticipating Fatale.  First, there was the preview for Fatale that ran in the back of Image comics last month.  While many comic previews are just the first few pages of the first issue, this teaser took an almost cinematic approach, peppering brief sequences from the comic with critic’s quotes, giving (like the best film trailers) little sense of plot but providing a strong sense of atmosphere.  Impressively, it showed that a comic can be sold on the strength of the creative team, rather than on the concept or the character’s involved, with the Brubaker/Phillips pairing presented as a kind of badge of quality.  Second, I read the latest Criminal volume, The Last of the Innocent.  It was one of the best comics of the year, and demonstrated that Brubaker and Phillips had refined their collaborative powers to a whole new level.

The stories of Fatale #1 already being a sell-out smash hit suggest that it is a triumph of marketing, but does the comic itself succeed?  Overall, I’d say yes.  The opening is excellent.  We get an atmospheric intro that immediately raises intriguing questions, before launching into a bare-knuckle action sequence that leaves you breathless.  But the pace then slows down for the second half as we flashback to 1956, and if I have any nitpick about the plot, it would be that the ending is a bit low-key rather than offering a more exciting hook to draw people back for issue #2.  However, there is still plenty of mood and mystery on display throughout this first chapter, and even if it is a slow-boil, I’m already compelled enough to keep on reading.

I get the sense that Brubaker is carefully laying out the first pieces of an intricate puzzle, and that this will all make sense as part of a larger tapestry.  For now, though, it feels like we’re dipping our toes in a dense, multi-faceted mythology.  The structure is quite ambitious, with Brubaker splitting up voiceover duties between four different characters over the space of a single issue.  But the central figure appears to be the enigmatic Josephine, the femme “fatale” of the title.  She seems to be eternally young and beautiful, with the power (or, as she seems to view it, the curse) to make any man fall madly in love with her with as little as a glimpse.  It’s early days, but so far I like this idea of Josephine being equal parts victim and threat: should make for a compelling character.

It cannot be emphasized enough just how much Sean Phillips brings to these collaborations.  The distinct aesthetic Phillips provides is such a perfect compliment to the noir-tinged writing of Brubaker that it has certainly become one of the definitive partnerships in comics today, so much so that Brubaker’s most successful collaborations in his Marvel work have been with artists like Michael Lark or Steve Epting, who are somewhat able to channel that Sean Phillips vibe.  Phillips is undoubtedly the quintissential Brubaker artist.

I love the way Phillips lays out his panels, with a meticulous, grid-like structure that puts one in mind of Dave Gibbons’ masterful structure in Watchmen.  Though he can lay out a splash page when the moment requires it, typically his pages have 6-9 panels, and each one is deceptively packed with detail, which makes for an immersive reading experience.  A single issue of a Brubaker/Phillips comic never feels like a quick read, you feel lke you’re getting your money’s worth.  But what I’ve noticed with his more recent work is that Phillips is open to experimentation.  He had a hard-boiled style which worked perfectly well, but with The Last of the Innocent we saw him toy with a faux-Archie style to reflect the rose-tinged memories of the past.  And here he seems to channel Darwyn Cooke a little, bringing a subtle sense of ’50s pastiche to the past-set sequence.  And his art looks even better when paired with the muted pallette of colorist Dave Stewart, which bursts into flashes of alarming vibrancy in moments of high drama or dread.

I mentioned above that it feels like you get your money’s worth from a single issue of a Brubaker/Phillips comic.  That goes beyond the density of plot and detail of art, however.  The wealth of floppy-exclusive backmatter provided in their single issues has become something of a trademark, and that tradition carries over to the first issue of Fatale.  As well as an afterword by Ed Brubaker, we have a fascinating essay by Jesse Nevins on the legacy of H.P.Lovecraft on the horror genre.  Speaking of Lovecraft, the eye-catching, tommy-gun wielding monster on the cover (who, sadly, doesn’t feature in this first issue outside of a single fleeting appearance) should totally be called Cthulhu-Face.  Make it happen, Brubaker!

It’s certainly holding some cards tightly to its chest in an understated opening chapter, but Fatale is off to a strong start.  If this is any indicator of what’s to come, Image is set for a very good 2012.