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.

REVIEW: Strange Nation #4

For anyone out there who has followed my creator-owned comics reviews from the beginning, Strange Nation must seem like something of a dream team.  It’s written by Paul Allor, a writer I’ve spent quite some time over the past couple of years acclaiming, with my gushing reviews for Clockwork and Orc Girl making it abundantly clear I saw him as a rising creator destined for big things.  It’s drawn by Juan Romera, an artist who I’ve expressed similar admiration of.  He caught my attention with anthology shorts in the likes of Tall Tales from the Badlands and the aforementioned Clockwork, and floored me with the visuals he brought to Fall with writer Fabian Rangel Jr.  It’s published by MonkeyBrain, the breakout comic company of 2013 for me, a publisher whose output I’ve been uniformly singing the praises of for months now.  All these enticing elements weaved together to tell a story of conspiracy theories and the weirdness lurking under the surface of American culture, with the first issue making a statement that all involved were raising their game and giving us something special.

So I think it’s something of a shame that Strange Nation hasn’t received more acclaim.  Those who’ve read it have loved it, but it doesn’t seem to be up there with MonkeyBrain’s most publicized titles.  It could be because, for the first three issues at least, Allor was keeping his narrative cards held quite closely to his chest.  Interesting things were going on and engaging characters were being introduced, but we weren’t quite getting a peek at how it all connected together, with Allor seemingly content to go slow-and-steady with how the strange goings-on started to unfold.  But then we had that highly memorable shocker of a closing page in issue #3, and here with issue #4 we jump into high-gear.  Almost immediately, it’s madness: rioting Sasquatches, UFOS, Elvis mounting a daring rescue mission.  And we get a fuller picture of the larger narrative at work here, with the exposure of a big secret lying at the heart of America’s corridors of power, the ultimate conspiracy story for our journalist hero Norma to pursue.

I worried a bit that, with the first issue, the most compelling character was human/primate hybrid Joe, who…. SPOILER ALERT…. died at the end.  That first chapter worked as a poignant standalone portrait of a life not lived, the kind of thing we know Allor can excel at.  But in subsequent issues, Allor has skillfully fleshed out the recurring ensemble, to the point where we have a rich cast of characters with their own distinct personalities and nuances.  There isn’t as much deft characterization here as the previous issue, which believably depicted Norma’s strained relationship with her parents, her mother in particular.  This issue by necessity is much more plot driven.  But the kindly recluse/alien Dr. Milo was still a refreshingly complex standout.

Romera, as always, excels.  He’s someone who with simple lines can portray a deceptive depth of emotion, a skill that has served him well in the past, and which makes him an ideal partner for Allor’s economic storytelling.  Here, he gets the chance to play more broadly comedic, absurdist notes than he might often get to do, and seems to relish the chance to go wacky.  Some of the reaction shots to a herd of Sasquatches kicking in postboxes are just cracking!  And the bright, flat color scheme gives everything a vibrant, fun feel, so even when things are ominous there’s a breezy, romp-like aesthetic at work.

As is to be expected with MonkeyBrain, the backmatter is a delight.  There’s an enthusiastic letters page, followed by Ryan Lindsay’s recurring column on the cultural impact of the strange phenomena explored in the series, always an engaging read packed with fun trivia.  Then we have a gallery of pinups from artists new and established.  An extra treat for this 4th issue is the original script for issue #1, presented in its entirety.  MonkeyBrain really know how to put the boat out with these ComiXology packages, perhaps better than any other publisher when it comes to value for money.

Strange Nation is a comic most worthy of your attention.  It boasts a quality pedigree of talent involved, and an intriguing story that unveils new layers with each passing chapter.  Most definitely a series you should be catching up on!

StrangeNation4Strange Nation #4 (as well as the rest of the series) is available to buy from ComiXology.

REVIEW: Prime-8s #1

It’s been a little while now since Skybreaker introduced me to both MonkeyBrain Comics and the work of Michael Moreci.  Since then, I’ve read a wide range of MonkeyBrain comics and I’ve been very impressed by their diverse lineup of titles.  And I’m currently working my way through Moreci’s Image series Hoax Hunters and enjoying it a good deal.  So it’s nice to see the two come together again with Prime-8s #1, the first issue of Moreci’s new MonkeyBrain series.  And as much as I liked Skybreaker, I feel I can safely say this is a sizeable improvement!

One thing to notice right away is that, while I pointed out how elusive a first issue Skybreakers #1 was, holding its narrative cards close to its chest, Prime-8s #1 has no such concern.  We beginning with an explosive, dynamic action sequence that plays a bit like a pre-credits scene in a Bond movie, which also manages to give us a super-concise origin story for our heroic monkeys boiled down to a series of captured images and concludes with a highly inventive visual trick that caught me by surprise.  From there, we launch into a whirlwind of economic character introductions, Moreci and Hoax Hunters co-writer Steve Seeley establishing a rich selection of distinct personalities.  It’s a strange world Moreci and Seeley have created with Kyle Latino – a kind of Fantastic Four with monkeys where a group of 8 primates were sent into space and ended up with superhuman powers… and the ability to walk, talk and think like humans – but by the end of the first issue it feels fleshed out.  It helps that the page length is a generous 24 pages, considering I’ve noticed quite a few MonkeyBrain titles have a more conservative page count of 14-16.

What Prime-8s put me in mind of – and I mean this as a compliment – is one of those insanely toyetic ’90s Saturday morning cartoons that emerged in the wake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the likes of Biker Mice from Mars or Street Sharks, where all the major characters were animal/human hybrids and there were teams of good guys and bad guys alike.  But Kyle Latino’s loose, energetic art captures a retro tone that also filters in the atmosphere of old Jack Kirby comics or ’70s adventure movies.  The whole comic just feels like a cocktail of wide-eyed childhood glee.

But it’s not all pastiche.  Moreci and Seeley manage to work some heart into their storytelling too, with a little exploration of how time can erode friendship, and the impact of celebrity.  These are retro heroes trying to hold onto a heyday that has long gone, grasping to recapture the old glory through various diminishing returns.  For some, the empty artifice of recreation weighs on their souls, while others keep on fighting the good fight but struggle to remain as effective without all their teammates by their side.  It’s all a strong set-up for the “getting the gang back together” phase that’s sure to come.

Between this and Dungeon Fun, this has been a real treat of a week for fans of masterfully executed all-ages fun and adventure.  Kyle Latino gets a real showcase for his craft in world-building here, while Moreci and Seeley follow up Hoax Hunters with another worthy collaboration.  Yet another success for MonkeyBrain Comics, one well primed to become their trademark comic.  You could even say it puts the “monkey” in “MonkeyBrain!”

Prime8s1Prime-8s #1 is out now to buy from ComiXology.

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: Knuckleheads #1-#3

As many of my recent reviews have suggested, I’m really enjoying MonkeyBrain’s output right now.  The first book of theirs I reviewed was the first issue of Skybreaker, which I enjoyed, and which has got better with each passing issue: plus, IDW recently announced they would be releasing a full-colour graphic novel collection of the series.  The first two issues of Theremin thoroughly knocked my socks off, leaving me breathlessly anticipating more.  I also read and liked an issue of Amelia Cole, and have plans to pick up IDW’s graphic novel release of that.  And I positively gushed with praise for the first 5 issues of Bandette, which has been one of the comic highlights of the year thus far for me.  So, given such a pedigree, Knuckleheads was a very easy sell, and I was keen to see if it followed the trend of quality set out by its stablemates.

As far as the narrative goes, Knuckleheads isn’t quite so densely-packed with storytelling goodness as the likes of Theremin or Bandette, where each issue leaves you exhausted and feeling like 40 pages of story has just been crammed into a 14-page bag.  I’m glad that I was able to read issues 1-3 in quick succession, as while the first issue alone didn’t quite have enough meat to grab me, the first 3 issues in tandem worked together to tell a satisfying story that I found highly enjoyable.  Writer Brian Winkeler punctures the monster-battling dramatics with a wry humour, with comedy diverse enough to range from witty banter to dependably-hilarious puke gags.

This is very much a character-driven story, with Winkeler quickly establishing a small cast of well-rounded characters with distinct, credible voices.  With his leading man Trevor K. Trevinski – a slobbish layabout granted a highly powerful alien weapon, but who would rather use it for cheating on video games than for superheroics – Winkeler wisely eschews an origin story (which would risk turning Trevor into a guy something happens to and thus foregrounding the mechanics of the story at the expense of his personality) and instead jumps straight to Trevor doing what he does best: sitting on the sofa, shirking responsibility.  And he doesn’t really grow or mature over the course of his first adventure when he’s finally forced into action either, which is refreshing: his motivation for overcoming his natural “I’m gonna turn and run away as fast as I can” reponse to seeing a giant monster seems to be the chance to impress a hot girl.  But seeing his clumsy, unconventional transformation into a hero is all the more entertaining as a result.  Equally effective in supporting roles are Trev’s friend Lance and the poor soul only known as “Pizza Guy”, who provide a running commentary for Trev’s monster battle over the course of these early issues.

The art of Robert Wilson is a good match for Winkeler’s story, with the cartoonish vibe an apt match for the story’s madcap tone, giving everything a sense of fun.  He has a knack for facial expressions, with some of the biggest laughs of the series coming from panels with perfectly-pitched silent reaction shots.  Some of the figure work is a bit inconsistent, with the crisp, clean lines that characterise Wilson’s work at its best giving way to rough patches on occasion, or with a facial expression that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Thankfully, one area where Wilson is absolutely consistent is in his realisation of the monster Trev and co must face, known in the script as “the big alien dog.”  This is a fantastic design, not so gruesome so as to upset the lighthearted tone, but still suitably menacing.

And worthy of special mention are the colors of Jordan Boyd.  Detly switching from a bright, cheery pallette to an ominous blue glow at the key points when Trevor taps into his power, Boyd’s colors give Wilson’s art a slick, professional sheen that brings everything together into a polished aesthetic.

But as enjoyable as the main stories were for me, I may have actually found the backmatter to be the highlight of each individual issue.  These blurbs offer some fascinating insight into the creative process behind the book, from recounting the story of how the creative team released a black-and-white version of this comic three years back but decided to redraw the whole thing (including redesigning the monster) when it came time to do a color version through Monkeybrain, to some thought-provoking analysis of how to create eye-catching covers for the digital comic market: and it should be noted that the covers are indeed gorgeous.  I love when comics have stuff like this included in the package, it really makes you feel like you’re getting more bang for your buck.

Overall, Knuckleheads may not be quite the resounding triumph of MonkeyBrain’s best titles, but it doesn’t let the side down either, emerging as a fun, entertaining romp in its own right.  Brian Winkeler and Robert Wilson IV make a great team, ably assisted by Jordan Boyd and letterer Thomas Mauer, and I’m keen to see what Trev and friends get up to next.  According to the teaser, it involves pancakes.

Knuckleheads3Knuckleheads #1-#3 are now available to buy from Comixology.

REVIEW: Bandette #1-5

In my recent review of Theremin #2, I talked about how my enjoyment of that series had prompted me to sample more comics from the MonkeyBrain library.  I tried a couple of issue #1s, one of which was Bandette #1, the story of a young thief in Paris and the adventures she gets into by writer Paul Tobin and artist Colleen Coover.  Soon afterwards, I had ingested issues #2-#5.  Bandette is, quite simply, a delight: charming, clever and, most of all, fun!

Bandette1

A big part of that fun comes from the aesthetic created by Colleen Coover’s artwork.  The first thing that drew my eye to this book on MonkeyBrain’s Comixology menu was the covers.  Bandette herself was an immediately engaging presence, with her simple yet striking costume design, and that winning smile.  More on smiles and their significance later.  First, I want to note how much of a triumphant invention Colleen Coover’s Bandette is.  She’s just this bubble of pure energy bursting off the page.  Note how rare it is for her to maintain the same position for more than one successive panel.  She’s always striking a dynamic pose, engaging in some acrobatic antic, or even in quieter scenes in her home, making dramatic flourishes with her hands, usually while talking to herself.  And as mentioned, the costume design is inspired in its simplicity: it’s the kind of costume women or even girls (which can’t always be said for female comic characters and their revealing attire) could easily cosplay as at a comic-con and I at least would immediately know who they were supposed to be.  Indeed, there’s one scene in issue #4 where girls and boys alike engage in some Bandette cosplay!

Colleen has an impressive skill for imbuing personality into a character before they even say a word.  From the stern angular features of rival thief Monsieur, to the bulbous, rounded head and massively enlarged ears and nose of Inspector Belgique, to the goofy mannerisms of lovestruck Daniel, a lot is conveyed with quite minimal linework.  This skill extends to location, as we are quite quickly immersed in a very bohemian, picture-postcard Paris with lots of interesting nooks and crannies, drawing on enough real locales to ground us in this being a real place while also crafting a Colleen Coover Paris not quite like anything in the real world or in other depictions of the city in fiction.  One of the biggest compliments I can give is that, without looking at the creative team, you could quite easily think this was a European comic in the vein of Herge’s The Adventures of Tintin adapted for the English language by MonkeyBrain, so authentic does it feel in recreating that vibe.

Herge and European artists of that style are probably a good barometer to use, as that unique quality to the artwork makes it tricky to really compare with any other American comic artists out there at the moment.  In terms of tone, it evokes the light-hearted whimsy the likes of Chris Samnee and Michael Allred are bringing to their respective superhero titles right now.  But in execution, Colleen is quite different.  While Samnee and Allred are all tight lines and careful construction, Coover feels much looser, more reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke at his most abstract.  This feeling of looseness is aided by the approach to coloring the book, with what almost feels like a brushstroke/water-colour effect.  It may mute detail and act against having highly-rendered linework, but what it gives us is a soft-focus, sepia-toned world which perfectly captures the upbeat mood of the story.

But let’s get back to Bandette, and the aforementioned smile.  This is a story about thieves, criminal organisations, murder plots and assassins.  Executed in a different manner, this could quite easily be a dark, edgy crime thriller.  But no matter what situation Bandette finds herself in, she almost always has that big grin on her face.  And thus the dangerous situations she’s faced with don’t feel so dangerous, they feel fun.  Drawn a different way, you could almost see Bandette being presented as a book for teens and upwards.  As is, though, it feels all-ages, something I’d give a young reader – male and female alike – to show them how enjoyable comics can be.  It feels almost like animation, and I could see this story and its visual style being quite seamlessly adapted into an animated series or even film.  It goes to show what kind of impact the art and can have in shaping the narrative.

Of course, it’s not just Bandette’s smile that showcases her upbeat attitude in the face of peril, it’s her voice, and writer Paul Tobin does an excellent job in this regard.  Bandette is presented as someone who never takes anything too seriously, and always seems to have every situation completely under control.  Tobin imbues her with such an earnest enthusiasm for everything and an infectious joie de vivre that the thought of her being a criminal barely even registers in your brain.  Even most of the police in the story give her a free pass because she does good deeds to make up for her thievery and, come on, she’s adorable.  She’s the kind of character that young readers would want to be, or with the inclusion of the “urchins” – a network of children and teens around Paris who assist Bandette on her adventures and hang out and eat candy with her – the kind of character they could imagine being friends with.  Hell, I’m a grown-ass man, and reading these issues gave me a nostalgic pang and had me wishing I was a kid again and got to be an urchin in Paris.  Really, Bandette could be my favourite new comic character of the past year.

Tobin surrounds Bandette with a well-realised cast of multi-faceted characters who are all more complex than they may first seem.  The Monsieur could easily have just been presented as a foil for Bandette, a grim rival to her self-claimed title as “the world’s greatest thief.”  Instead, he is also thoroughly likeable, more straight-laced than Bandette but still with a mischevous glint in his eye.  And you would be forgiven for thinking that Inspector Belgique, as presented in the first couple of issues, would be nothing more than an incompetent buffoon there for comic relief, but in the recent issues he has been revealed as a figure of quiet, grumpy integrity and emerged as one of my favourite characters in the cast.  Even his assistant in the Special Police – who could just have been a background extra – is given her own subtle little arc where she has romantic feelings for Belgique and he’s totally oblivious to it.

Beyond the characters, the writing is an exercise in economic, accessible plotting.  Every issue is dense with incident, and simultaneously builds on a larger story while being centred around a single action set-piece that makes the comic a rewarding read in its own right.  Issue #1 boasts a frenzied motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris.  Issue #2 has a daring bank robbery and the even more audacious plan to foil it.  Issue #3 has the atmospheric first confrontation between Bandette and Monsieur in the iconic Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise cemetery.  Issue #4 features an issue-long fight scene between Bandette and assassin Matidore.  Issue #5 is the only installment that seems more focused on the overarching plotline that will shape the narrative moving forward and setting the pieces on the board to prepare for that, but even that is all very interesting and rich in character moments.

If I had to pick out one of these chapters for particular praise, it would be issue #4.  Every issue is a joy, but this for me was the best, one of the finest single issues of any comic released this year, and the epitome of everything that makes Bandette so great.  With the inclusion of matador-themed villainess Matadori, it gives us another colorful inclusion into the ensemble cast.  It is constructed around a well-orchestrated fight scene where Bandette never really loses the upper hand, but which nonetheless remains compelling largely due to the playful interplay between the two characters.  Even as Bandette fights for her life and Matadori tries to kill her, they still have time to compliment each other’s clothing and chat about what tailors they visit, with both flashing that trademark grin as they do so.  The Monsieur’s meeting with the mystery lady employing him sets the stage for the larger story further fleshed out in the following issue.  Belgique and his assistant get a wonderful little scene together.  And Bandette makes her most ingenious use of the urchins yet, just when it appears she might be in danger, once again demonstrating she always has the upper hand in any given situation.  And it all ends in a delightful exchange between Bandette and Monsieur which serves to reiterate that same point.

Now that I’m all caught up, I’m sure the wait for issue #6 is going to be unbearable.  But for now, all I can is most heartily recommend Bandette in the strongest possible terms.  Colleen Coover’s artwork is enchanting, Paul Tobin’s writing is charming, it may be scientifically impossible to read this comic without a big dopey grin appearing on your face.  For print purists, there’s a hardcover graphic novel collecting the first 5 issues being released by Dark Horse in November that I have a feeling may be my Christmas gift of choice for quite a few friends.  But for those willing to embrace digital, each issue is available for a bargain price of 99 cents, or 69p!  This is one of the best comics around, seriously.  What do you have to lose by giving it a try?  You’ll thank me!

Bandette3Bandette #1-5 are available to buy now from Comixology.

REVIEW: Theremin #2

Just recently, I gave a glowing review to the first issue of Theremin: the MonkeyBrain Comics digital series from writer Curt Pires and artist Dalton Rose.  After that first instalment so thoroughly rocked my socks, of course I was going to give the second chapter a go.  Which brings us to Theremin #2.  Do the creative team managed to maintain or even build upon the momentum they built up in issue #1?  

I would say the answer to that is a resounding “yes.”  One of the few mild criticisms I had about the previous issue was that Curt Pires’ plotting was a bit opaque, tossing us headlong over the precipice into alternate history time-travel lunacy with little in the way of established equilibrium to ground us.  I also said that I trusted the story to settle into its own strange logic, and I think that’s what happens here.  Our narrative is much more linear this time round, giving us more breathing room to immerse ourselves in Leon Theremin’s life as head of the Science Killer Squad, a team of Russian time-travelling assassins operating under the instructions of Lenin as he tries to reshape history to his liking.  We meet some supporting players, and the antagonistic threat against Theremin that will likely drive the series going forward more clearly emerges, calling back to the opening of issue #1 in a chilling way that suggests a shifting predator/prey dynamic of one’s actions forever determining the other’s in an oroboro-like cyclical manner. 

But if the chronology settles to allow us to get better acquainted with this world, that in no way means this issue is any less crazy than the first.  If anything, it’s more crazy!  Talking, telekinetic, chimpanzee death-Buddhists… need I say more?  The Manhattan Projects has shown us that giving cherished historical figures guns and turning them into unconventional action heroes can be a neat shortcut to crazy-awesome, but Theremin is bustling with enough brutal invention to carve its own niche in the slowly-growing “FUCK YEAH SCIENCE!” sub-genre.  

Once again, a crucial component in marking out Theremin as an odd, distinctive gem of the current comics scene is the offbeat visuals of Dalton Rose.  There’s a shift in his artwork here from the first issue.  It feels a bit rougher, looser, less meticulously crafted.  One delightful tableau in Theremin’s bedroom makes delightful use of various small, window-like panels in a manner that recalls the ambitious layout of that showstopping fourth page in issue #1, but generally the work here is more dialled back, simpler.  But I don’t think it loses any of its storytelling power.  The looseness and the lighter linework that is emerging is reminiscent of the work of Garry McLaughlin – an artist I greatly admire – and when combined with Rose’s delicate colour palette, it creates a real softness in the aesthetic.  This creates an effectively jarring contrast with the flashes of extreme violence that permeate the narrative.  And Rose doesn’t pull his punches here.  People don’t just get shot in the world of Theremin: bullets punch chunks through their body, blast out brain matter, blow off fingers.  In one particularly gruesome framing choice, one panel gives us a view of a character through the cavity in an enemy’s head they’ve just created, complete with dangling chunks of bone and brain.  So, a light touch, but with a hard edge.  

Are there any negatives to remark on?  I was all ready to complain about the length of this second issue.  In my review of issue #1, I commented that 14 pages really felt too short for a full issue of a comic, though I largely let it slide.  This issue is even shorter, at a mere 10 story pages: half of what Marvel/DC these days consider to be the standard length of your average comic book!  I’ve actually written what were considered “shorts” for anthologies that clocked in at 8-9 pages.  When combined with a slightly less robust selection of backmatter this time round, you could argue that the package is more markedly insubstantial, even though it’s still good value for money at the bargain 69p/99 cents price tag.  However, to play devil’s advocate, I should comment that I was actually shocked the story only had 10 pages after I counted it, because when you read the comic, it’s absolutely PACKED with incident and it feels like loads has happened.  It’s hard to be too angry at a comic for having half the number of pages of your average Marvel/DC single issue when it manages to cram in over twice the story that they typically have.  And I think that’s one of the advantages of a digital package: there’s no need for uniformity.  You can deliver as many pages as the story needs for that particular chapter.  One chapter might be 14 pages, another 10, another might be 30 for all we know.  The digital comic allows for more flexibility in this regard. 

So, another home-run for the creative team of Theremin.  Length quibbles aside, this is pretty much your textbook example of how to do an issue #2.  If the first issue sells you on the concept, the second issue fleshes it out and makes it more real.  Both Curt Pires and Dalton Rose are getting into a good groove with their respective disciplines, meshing into a narrative delight that shows promise of becoming a comics cult classic.  This should be considered a crown jewel in MonkeyBrain’s impressive roster of comics, and based on the strength of this, I feel inclined to give more of their books a try.  Amelia Cole, here I come!

Theremin2Theremin #2 (as well as #1!) is currently available to buy from Comixology.

REVIEW: Theremin #1

I should start this review out with a “thank you” to my friend Colin Bell, letterer of my comic And Then Emily Was Gone and writer of acclaimed webcomics Jonbot VS Martha and Detective SpaceCat.  It was him who literally jammed a copy of LP into my hands and told me I had to read it, and it was him who lead the chorus of highly vocal praise for Theremin that has been filling my Twitter feed and piquing my curiosity for the title.  I only knew two things about the comic, aside from the fact that people whose taste in comics I respect recommended it highly.  Firstly, I knew it was a title from MonkeyBrain Comics, an upstart publisher who are very quickly marking themselves out for their library of finest-quality material, with the likes of Amelia Cole and Masks & Mobsters garnering cult acclaim, and me personally being won over by Skybreaker and Gabriel Hardman’s delightful Kinski.  Secondly, it’s the new comic from Curt Pires, the writer who wowed me with LP: a highly inventive comic that in my review of it I talked about setting the bar for all other comics to come in the year ahead (it was the first comic I reviewed in 2013), and the title responsible for introducing me to the work of Ramon Villalobos, one of the most spectacular artistic talents to emerge in the last couple of years, and a comics-superstar-in-waiting.  Those two points alone, without knowing anything about the actual plot or content of the comic, were enough to justify me giving it a try.

But if it was Curt Pires’ name that drew me in, it was the jawdropping art of Dalton Rose that first grabbed my attention once I started reading.  His elongated figures with their clean, minimally-rendered faces and his vivid sense of motion remind me of equal parts Gabriel Ba and Marcos Martin, and the light, watercolour like colours he adds gives everything an animated vibe, resulting in a compellingly unusual visual flair throughout.  This is widescreen comics, with the majority of this issue’s panels spanning the width of the page, giving everything an epic, sweeping feel – as well as being perfectly-attuned to an iPad held in landscape format!  Credit here is also due to letterer Ryan Ferrier, who seems to have acquired a knack for placing his balloons and captions at the sweet spot in the panels that make them look even bigger!

But it’s in Leon Theremin’s journeys into the time stream – known here as The Red – that the visuals really take off.  Pages 3-4 for me was the standout sequence of the book, where I went from enjoying the comic to thinking, “THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME!”  Here, that clean, meticulously-crafted widescreen layout gives way to crazed psychadelia, first with a dizzying splash page that creates a sense of the characters leaping out of the comic panel and into some whacked-out headspace that exists beyond the borders of the comic page.  Even the ambitious low-angle shot of three different characters plummeting from the sky that Rose attempts gives the page a 3-dimensional feel, like these guys have leapt out of the comic page and are hurtling towards us.  This metatextual quality is heightened by Theremin’s narration remarking, “My life flashes by like panels in a comic book.”  And it’s true!  As we plummet through the time stream, the various portals to moments in Theremin’s history hovering around us float on the page like comic panels, existing simultaneously as a narrative flashback device for us and as physical artefacts in The Red that the characters are floating past on their downward journey.  It’s audacious stuff, touching on Grant Morrison’s fascinating theories of the nature of time in comics and how every moment of a comic character’s life exists in time simltaneously waiting to be accessed at any point with the turn of a page.  And it all culminates with Theremin leaping into one of the panels… and back into a conventional comic.  All marvelously executed: Curt Pires sure has the most impeccable taste in artistic collaborators!

And what of Pires himself?  Narratively, it’s interesting how this can be seen as a kind of spiritual cousin to LP.  Both have music as a motif, with that book exploring a grim future of modern music and where it could be headed, and Theremin taking a sideways glance at one of the innovators of modern music as we know it today.  As was the case with LP, Pires brings an elusive, opaque quality to the plotting of Theremin.  Strange things are happening, but we don’t quite get the full answer as to why or how.  We’re kinda just thrown in the thick of it and left to connect the dots.  As would be expected in a story about time travel, this results in some leaps in chronology that proved a bit disorienting and confusing.  When compared to, say, Comeback, which opened with a very straightforward, accessible, ground-level entry into its time travel technology and what its rules were, before getting progressively more insane as the narrative progressed, Theremin makes no such concessions, immediately going off the deep-end by launching us right into time-loops and paradoxes and altered histories without a clear answer to how it all connects just yet.  It can be a bit frustrating if, as a reader, you need everything to be crystal-clear right away.  But if, like me, you trust things to settle into its own strange logic as the narrative progresses and are happy to just let the weirdness of it all wash over you, the manic freeform energy of the plot is quite exhilarating.

With only 14 pages of story, I was left feeling like I wanted more once I got to the end of the first issue, especially with a narrative so gripping I soared through the pages that were here.  However, I was more than compensated for the lack of comics pages with a veritable wealth of backmatter from Curt Pires, what amounts to an extended essay on the inspirations and influences that informed the creation of Theremin, as well as insight into the process of its production.  Of particular interest is a behind-the-scenes look at the script for the aforementioned page 4, which gives us an impression of what elements Pires added and what elements Rose added.

As far as first issues go, Theremin is a home-run for all involved.  It’s the best comic I’ve read from MonkeyBrain thus far, which given their impressive lineup is saying something.  There are currently two issues of Theremin available.  I know I shall be purchasing issue #2 post-haste after having my socks well and truly rocked by this thrilling first chapter!

Theremin1Theremin #1 (as well as #2!) is currently available to buy from Comixology.

REVIEW: Skybreaker #1

Before Skybreaker, I had never actually read a MonkeyBrain comic.  I’ve heard many good things about the digital-first lineup, and have been curious to give Chris Roberson’s upstart publisher a try.  This latest addition to their growing lineup is this dark Western tale written by Michael Moreci of Hoax Hunters fame, with art from FUBAR alumni Drew Zucker.  Does Skybreaker #1 serve as a good introduction to the MonkeyBrain brand?

In all honesty, I’m not quite sure.  Skybreaker remains a quite elusive entity in this opening chapter, with Moreci showing us some disparate jigsaw pieces that manage to hold some level of intrigue in isolation, even if we don’t quite yet know how they will fit together.  This becomes immediately apparent in the issue’s opening sequence.  As a prologue, it gets the ball rolling in style, as our enigmatic protagonist fights his way out of his own grave and kills his assailants.  There’s some well-framed action here, but Moreci and Zucker come at this scene from an unusual angle, beginning with an elegiac rumination on death and loss, with some quite abstract establishing shots that don’t establish much, leading to us finally transitioning via match cut into a close shot of the aforementioned grave.  We don’t know who this man in the grave is when we meet him, or why these other men are trying to kill him.  We only get his name at the very end of the scene, the “Skybreaker” where the title comes from.

From there we make a radical shift to a different locale and a different set of characters – all with relationships and motivations quite mysterious in their own right – as Swearengen-like community leader Mr. Cutter is confronted with numerous threats and challenges to his settlement.  Only in the latter stages does the story from the beginning lurch into the mix, presented as yet another problem for Cutter to worry about in amidst the encroachment of Indian “savages” and US marshalls.  We still don’t know much about the eponymous Skybreaker by the end, though the conclusion leaves us with some intriguing hints about his history.  There’s an admirable bravery in just launching your reader into the world of the story, throwing them right in the deep end with the dead bodies dropping and the threats flying without worrying about slowing things down with context or exposition, though the narrative could be a bit too opaque for its own good.  Based on the quality of Moreci’s writing, I’m confident that this is all going to come together into a highly impressive whole, but at this early stage I can imagine some readers thinking they don’t have enough meat on the bone to bring them back for issue #2.

Drew Zucker’s art is a little less polished than Michael Moreci’s scripting.  There are some very well-realised visuals, such as the previously-discussed opening graveside battle, or the depictions of Cutter’s town, but there are other bits that feel a bit untidy, with the occasional awkward face that threw me off.  Still, one big plus I want to remark on is the measured use of grayscale, escaping the pitfall that many black-and-white indie comics fall into of having the art feel untextured and incomplete.  This doesn’t feel like a comic that’s missing color: the black-and-white feels like a pulpy stylistic choice.

So, Skybreaker #1: intriguing, unusual, often disorienting.  Would I come back for issue #2?  I’m not sure, but the nagging questions that the story tantalisingly dangles over our heads would incline me to lean more towards “yes” than “no.”  If this is an indicator of the quality of comics MonkeyBrain is putting out there, then the positive buzz is well deserved.

Skybreaker1Skybreaker #1 is available to buy now from Comixology.