2013 Preview: And Then Emily Was Gone

I’ve had quite a bit of fun this week, laying out my various upcoming comics projects and sharing a selection of awesome artwork I’ve received from my talented collaborators.  For today’s final entry in my little 2013 Preview series, I’ve got something special for you.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of artist Iain Laurie.  A hero of the Scottish comics scene, Iain Laurie has blown me away with his unique, visionary artwork on the likes of Roachwell, Mothwicke and Horror Mountain (the latter ranking at number four on my list of the top 10 comics of 2012, up there alongside the best of DC, Marvel and Image), and I’d rank him as one of my favourite artists: not a patronising “one of my favourite indie artists”, but one of my favourite artists in comics, full stop.  Well, in 2013, I shall be ticking one of the items off my comics bucket list and doing a comic with Iain Laurie!

Initially, the two of us were scheduled to collaborate on a different project, something large-scale that still must be kept top secret.  That project is still in the mix with a major publisher, but is in something of a holding pattern at the moment, and could be for some time.  So, rather than just waiting for that to materialise and for us to finally get the greenlight on that, Iain and I decided to come up with something else to work on together in the downtime.  Iain fired three great story ideas my way, one of which was called And Then Emily Was Gone and revolved around the mystery of a missing girl on a remote Highland community.  I loved all three ideas, and due to my vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself, I decided to combine elements of them all into a single intricate narrative, taking the title from the aforementioned story outline.  From this, And Then Emily Was Gone was born.

AndThenEmilyWasGonePromoGreg Hellinger was once a brilliant detective, specialising in finding missing people who had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth.  But five years ago, he started seeing monsters.  Plagued constantly by nightmarish visions he is unable to comprehend, Hellinger left the police and has retreated into a life of squallor and seclusion, slowly being driven mad by the demons that haunt him.  But one night, a teenage girl shows up at his door, asking for help.  The girl is called Fiona, and she has fled from her home on the Scottish island of Merksay, in Orkney.  Her friend Emily has gone missing, but what happened to her?  Is she a runaway, as the authorities believe?  Has she fallen victim to an ancient supernatural evil, as Fiona fears?  Or is it a monster of the human variety that lies at the heart of this mystery?

Mystery.  That’s the key word that is at the core of And Then Emily Was Gone.  I’m a huge fan of Twin Peaks: there’s a strong case to be made for it being the greatest TV show of all time, and I think it’s fascinating to look at the phenomenom created around that shows central mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  I think the serialised nature of the comic medium makes it a perfect place to present such an ongoing mystery, and I would love to emulate that with And Then Emily Was Gone.  I talked yesterday about how Bad Sun could be my most narratively ambitious project yet in terms of its scale, but And Then Emily Was Gone could in fact be just as ambitious in its scope.  While I do have a 6-issue arc in mind to introduce us to this dark, eerie world, this is a mystery that could easily unfold over 10, 20, maybe even more issues, depending on just how deeply I want to explore its various dark, murky corners.

Not that the homage to Twin Peaks ends with the mystery element.  I remember seeing not just Twin Peaks, but other works of movie maestro David Lynch – the likes of Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway – in relatively quick succession, and they just blew my mind and changed the way I thought about storytelling.  And while my approach to narrative has been mostly straightforward since branching out into comic, I’ve been very curious to experiment with something more off-kilter.  One of my favourite quotes regarding Lynch’s work was how it could exist “in the twilight realm between the crime and horror genres,” and that’s where I see And Then Emily Was Gone existing.  More recent British output such as Kill List and Utopia has also been chucked into the melting pot of influence, hopefully resulting in a comic that’s going to feel deeply strange and unsettling, with even innocuous interactions laced with an impalpable menace and a cloud of dread hanging over the narrative.  Or it’ll just be crap.  Either way, at least it’s going to look stunning!

Iain has been bombarding me with fantastic character sketches and designs, but I simply can’t wait to start seeing his sequentials.  The first issue script is written, and it’s going to me amazing seeing Mr. Laurie bring it to life.  As is the case with Bad Sun, the plan is to compile a submission package and shop And Then Emily Was Gone out to publishers.  But, as is also the case with Bad Sun, there is also a plan in place to get the first issue of this series ready to launch at Glasgow Comic Con in July.

Which brings me to an announcement.  I am now confirmed for Glasgow Comic Con on 13th-14th July, at the CCA in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.  I’ll be in attendance, sharing a table with both Chris Connelly and Iain Laurie.  This is very exciting news for me, as – and I was shocked to discover this – Glasgow Comic Con 2013 will mark Iain Laurie’s first ever official appearance at a comic convention!  So, rush in your droves to our table, get sketches, get copies of his other fantastic comics, and pick up And Then Emily Was Gone!

UPDATE: I’m now able to share with you guys a sneak peek at a couple of mind-blowing interior pages for the first issue, as drawn by Iain Laurie.  Take a glimpse inside the nightmarish world of Greg Hellinger…

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REVIEW: Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain

Surely one of the great injustices of the comics industry today is that Iain Laurie isn’t given the recognition he deserves.  A veteran of the Scottish independent comics scene, Laurie has spent many years plying his craft and developing an eerie, unique art style that seems to channel the essence of Cronenberg and Lynch onto the comic page.  Those in the know are already avid fans – the testimonials on the back cover of this most recent work include gushing praise from the likes of Frank Quitely and Jeff Lemire – but Laurie’s work has yet to catch onto a wider readership.  Some might speculate that it’s because the work is too dark, too twisted, too unusual, but I disagree – I’m of the belief that quality rises to the top, regardless of style, and that there is absolutely a big audience in the comics world for Laurie’s brand of art.  No, I think it’s just a matter of exposure, and Laurie being given a platform big enough to expose more readers to the amazing work he’s been doing for ages.  All I can say is that, since I discovered his work a year ago through Roachwell – the gloriously mental comic written by Craig Collins – Iain Laurie has become one of my favourite artists.  And I don’t mean that in a condescending, “One of my favourite up-and-coming indy artists” way, either.  I mean one of my favourites, full stop.

As a result, anything he works on is pretty much a guaranteed read from me from now on, and so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain at Glasgow Comic Con.  Here, the Edinburgh-based creator transitions from artist to full-blown cartoonist, taking on scripting duties as well. and the result is perhaps his most Laurian (Laurie-ish?  Laurish?) project yet.  A collection of gruesome short stories, filled to the brim with fascinatingly ugly people, cancerous growths and hideously deformed creatures with multiple eyes, the apparent use of  stream-of-consciousness plotting creates the sense of being given an express ticket into Laurie’s warped subconscious.

As you’d expect from a book called Horror Mountain, some of these twisted tales are rather unnerving, poking at deeply-routed psychological gag reflexes and making us recoil at the seething body horror and soul-crushing bleakness.  But what you might not be prepared for is how hilarious some of it is.  With titles such as “Fuck Off, Space Monkey” and “A Dinner With Captain Tits” brandished on some of the shorts, it’s clear that Laurie isn’t taking himself entirely seriously, and a strong vein of savage dark humour can certainly be picked up on running through the book.  The comedic highlight for me was “Jamestown”, about a small community of tortured souls that can only communicate with one another through the slogans used in junk mail and annoying banner ads.  “Teen XXX need spanking,” sobs one devastated old man into his drunk.  A sympathetic friend places a hand on his shoulder and says, “You have received an invite to fuck hard.”

While with Horror Mountain, Iain Laurie proves to be a talented writer who does not lose direction without the macabre vision of a Craig Collins or a Fraser Campbell guiding him, the highlight remains his beautiful art, if “beautiful” is a word that can be used to describe such horrific tableaus.  I’m not the most knowledgable person in the world when it comes to critiquing art.  I’m a writer, and so I can go into some detail with relative ease when discussing the writing of a comic in my reviews, but when it comes to the art I too often resort to saying what famous artist the artist in question is reminiscent of.  That’s very hard to do with Iain Laurie, as he has developed a style unlike anything else on the shelves.  He’s almost become a genre unto himself, and it created a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum for me where I wondered if his deranged art was dictated by the maniacal scripts he was illustrating, or if said scripts were shaped with Laurie’s distinct style in mind: a question further complicated by this example of what happens when Laurie is left to his own devices.  Still, I find myself very curious indeed to see what Laurie would come with were his stylings applied to something more mainstream, what kind of fascinating middle ground would emerge?  That’s right, I want to see Iain Laurie draw Batman.

The very limited print run of Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain has surely sold out by now, but you can still order the book online for $3.  That’s right, you can have your third eye opened for a measly 3 quid!  I can’t recommend this book, or indeed all of Iain’s work, highly enough.  Check it out now… if you dare!

Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is now on sale via Graphic Eye.

REVIEW: Batman #5

It goes without saying that Batman #5 is the best issue yet of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on the comic.  I must look like a total pushover with a reviewer, as I started with gushing praise for Batman #1, and have had to stretch to new heights of hyperbole for each subsequent instalment.  But more than that, Batman #5 is in my opinion the best comic from any title to be released by DC since the relaunch, and could very well be one of the best single issues of a Batman story I’ve ever read as a new-release floppy.  This is the comic I’d hand to people, not just to win them over on trying the relaunched Batman series, but to comic fans who think stories with major superheroes like Batman can’t match creator-owned or indie titles for creativity and ambition, or even to comic cynics who think Batman is just for kids.  In short, Batman #5 blew me away.

To offer a catch-up on the plot, last issue ended with Batman’s investigation into the Court of Owls – a shady organisation that could be tied into the very fabric of Gotham since the earliest days of its history – leading him to the sewers of Gotham, where he was ambushed by the Talon (the Court’s mysterious assassin) and dropped into an underground labyrinth.  As we begin this issue, Batman has been trapped in said labyrinth for over a week, with no food and only water that is probably drugged for him to drink, with no escape in sight.  And he’s starting to lose his mind.

In my review for issue #4, I talked a little about how Capullo’s art was showing touches of horror amidst the classic superhero action.  Well, here, we’re taken right over the edge of that cliff, as Snyder gives us a story that is pure horror, arguably scarier than anything he’s written for Swamp Thing or American Vampire.  Snyder has talked about horrors such as Jacob’s Ladder and The Shining acting as inspirations for this issue’s script (in particular, there is a truly horrific sequence that owes a lot to the latter’s notorious “Room 217” scene), but what Batman’s twisted journey through the labyrinth most reminded me of was the terrifying conclusion to Twin Peaks, the extended sequence with Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge.  “The owls are not what they seem,” indeed.  Both tap into that primal fear, that common nightmare of being lost in a strange place, getting increasingly panicked as every attempt to get out takes you back to where you were before…. and you realise you’re not alone, that’s something’s in there with you, chasing you.

This setup alone would be chilling enough, but I think it’s all the more unsettling in that the victim is as beloved a pop culture icon as Batman.  This is Batman, who can get out of anything with prep time, the ultimate escape artist, who Grant Morrison triumphantly showed us is capable of outwitting the greatest of masterminds and even coming back from apparent death and a journey through time unscathed!  We’ve seen him lured into so many death-traps that it’s old hat, that we see it as little more than a mild inconvenience for him.  Snyder gleefully erodes that notion, letting us see Batman struggle to apply that famous logic to his situation, only for it to slip through his fingers and for him to descend into hysteria.  As the chapter progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Batman is acting like a crazy person.  And it’s upsetting!  Seeing Batman ranting and raving, screaming and sobbing, tearing at his flesh and digging his fingers into the floor… it almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed.  But by dancing on the fringes of what you can get away with in a mainstream superhero property – capped off with a truly shocking cliffhanger – Snyder has injected a sense of genuine “how’s he gonna get out of this!?” peril into a genre that is too often accused of predictability.

Though the bulk of the issue takes place within the labyrinth, acting as an enthralling character dissection of Batman, we do get brief bookends showing how his absence his affecting the supporting cast.  I enjoyed this glimpse of the wider Batman universe, particularly the use of Robin, capturing Damian’s pomposity, but also showing the vulnerability of a child whose lost his father.

Snyder has claimed that he feels this could be the best comic script he’s ever written, and I might be inclined to agree with him.  For some time now, I’ve come to take Snyder’s name on a book as a guarantee of quality, but here he takes his storytelling to a whole new level, and years from now I imagine people will still be ranking this amongst his best work.  This is Snyder’s “Anatomy Lesson”.

Capullo also ups his game, giving us some of the most innovative, experimental visuals I’ve seen in a comic in quite some time.  As Batman’s mind fractures, and he’s plagued by ever more nightmarish visions, that sense of the very fabric of reality coming apart is enhanced by the artwork.  The pages twist and turn from portrait layout to landscape, and eventually spinning upside down, forcing us to abruptly start reading from right-to-left.  We’re left as dizzy and disoriented as Batman.  And look at how the page layouts steadily dissolve from neat, regimented grids to haywire, crooked little windows crammed into the page.  This is a visual representation of going mad.

I love the way Capullo draws Batman here too.  One small touch – the visor on one side of his mask being broken, exposing his eye – speaks volumes throughout the issue.  Firstly, it’s a humanising factor, showing us the man, the Bruce Wayne behind the Batman mask, the vulnerable human in this situation.  But as the story progresses, that eye gets more dilated, more bloodshot.  When Snyder’s script has Batman’s voiceover announcing that he is in control, that he can defeat this enemy, that wild, frantic eye makes a liar out of him. Capullo also makes creepy physical alterations to Batman.  Subtle at first, with his cape shifting and changing size and shape from panel to panel.  But by the end sequence, we descend from Lynchian horror of the mind to wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror.  Capullo’s been doing superstar work since issue #1, but issue #5 could be his best showcase yet.

The team of inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO have lots to do as well.  There is a reversed dynamic at work here, where its the darkness that offers safety and shelter, and harsh, blinding light where the horrors await.  And it’s through the efforts of these two that this works so well.  The light really does feel harsh, the colors saturated under it.  Moments like the scene with the minature city really make you appreciate what an atmospheric, textured comic this is.

Batman #5 is a triumph on every level, with the whole creative team delivering astounding work.  If you haven’t been reading Batman, this is where you should jump on, and even if you have no plans of reading Batman monthly, I’d recommend buying this issue in particular, as I imagine it’s going to become a hot commodity before long.  If you have been reading Batman, you should feel vindicated.  I’ve been enjoying this title immensely, and I already said with last issue that it has become my favourite DC book.  And yes, I’m aware it’s been widely critically acclaimed.  But I’ve also seen quite a bit of, “Not quite as good as The Black Mirror, but…” type comments.  This was in positive reviews, and it’s fair enough, as The Black Mirror has already entered the canon of all-time classic Batman stories.

With Batman #5, this story has now topped The Black Mirror.  If Snyder can keep up the quality, we’re looking at another all-time classic.  I’m expecting Batman #6 to finally break this streak of this title constantly outdoing itself, because I genuinely think you can’t top a comic as good as Batman #5.  But all the same, I expect it to be great, and the third week of February can’t come fast enough.

 

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.