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.

30 Character Showcase #16: Joe

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

16. JOE

StrangeNation1aCreated by Paul Allor and Juan Romera

Showing up in the first issue of new MonkeyBrain series Strange Nation, Joe is a stirring example of what I like to refer to as a “single service character.”  Namely, someone who serves a particular purpose in a single issue of a larger story, before being set aside once he’s served that purpose and allowed the more enduring characters to progress forward in the narrative.  These often tend to be disposable, forgettable figures, but when they’re done well, they feel like they have rich lives and full personalities of their own that we just don’t happen to be exploring in this specific story, and once they’re gone we’re left wanting more of them.

In the case of Joe, the gut-punch is that we don’t know he’s a single service character until the issue’s end.  Up until that point, he’s a fascinating figure, one he imagine must surely be set to play a bigger role in the story.  His backstory is hazy, but it seems like he began as a gorilla, before having his head grafted onto a human body, and somehow gaining human intelligence and the ability of speech.  He’s been a victim of endless experimentation for his whole remembered life, and doesn’t dare take the opportunity for freedom when presented to him because his relatively comfortable cage is the only life he knows.  When he endangers himself to save the protagonist of the story, we imagine he’ll come back into play later on.  But instead, he is ruthlessly killed off, and it’s the kind of poignant, bittersweet moment Allor and Romera have both respectively executed so well in past projects.

Joe was the standout character for me in Strange Nation #1.  With him gone, it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the ensemble rise up to establish themselves.  Because if a single service character with just a few pages of existence to his name can feel so fully-realised, given a few issues I’m sure the rest of the cast will flourish.


REVIEW: Sheltered #1

Look at some of Image’s recent debuts, and you’ll see stellar examples of how to do a great issue #1.  Comics like Saga, Chew, East of West, Revival, Think Tank and last week’s Lazarus are good examples of opening chapters that create well-realised worlds and immerse us into them.  It’s a tried-and-true formula: you sell the reader on a status quo, make them believe in it, then they will hopefully become invested in that world and its characters, and come back in future issues to learn more about them.  Another, riskier, more challenging approach to doing an issue #1 is to establish a status quo, then almost immediately detonate it, pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet and leave them in a place where they can go back and reread the issue and discover that everything has been cast into a strange new light.  The Manhattan Projects pulled this off with panache last year.  And now we have Revival.  You think you’re reading one story here, but it soon turns into something quite shockingly different.  The end result is one of the most audacious, gripping issue #1s of the year thus far.

Sheltered #1 arrived in comic shops a week early here in the UK, so in writing this I’m aware that American readers won’t get a chance to check this book out until next week, and I therefore have to be careful about how much I spoil.  I fear I’ve already given away too much.  But I won’t delve any further into the specific workings of the narrative, beyond saying that this story centres on the “prepper” subculture.  This is a real phenomenom in America: people who are preparing for the impending end of the world as we know it, be it through catastrophic natural disaster or mass social/political/economic collapse and the anarchy that will inevitably emerge from it.  And so they create makeshift bunkers, live off the grid, accumulate food, supplies and weaponry for the apocalypse: whenever it comes and whatever shape that may take.  It’s a culture I’ve heard about in passing, of course, but I’ve never really studied it in any depth.

Writer Ed Brisson really helps bring it to life, and in a manner reminiscent of what Jason Aaron did with the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in Scalped or what Tim Seeley is doing with the secluded Wisconsin town in Revival, takes a community that’s not often explored and manages to make it feel “alien” and distinctive while simultaneously underlining how instrinsically familiar and American it nonetheless is.  The front cover cleverly bills Sheltered as “a pre-apocalyptic tale,” and really it could be post-apocalyptic, given how we see nothing of the outside world, with it only referred to in vaguely menacing terms.  The preppers live in their own world, but Brisson crafts it in a way that it doesn’t feel “genre,” but rather it is grounded in a reality removed from our own.  He’s ably assisted in this endeavour by the backmatter essay of Ryan K Lindsay which further explores the “prepper” ideology.

I don’t often mention the editor of the book in my reviews, but I feel compelled to touch on the fact that my eyes lit up when I spotted the familiar name of Paul Allor on the inside front cover credits.  I know Allor as a gifted writer, and have favourably reviewed the likes of Clockwork and Orc Girl in the past.  He specialises in a kind of bruised, bittersweet humanity that should be a smart match for Brisson’s narrative, where even as he has to keep precise motivations close to his chest, the humanity of his characters shines through.

Brisson has also found the ideal artistic partner for this story in the form of Johnnie Christmas.  I’ve never heard of Christmas or seen any of his work before picking this book up, but I’ve quickly become a fan.  He excels here with some complicated layouts, where suitably ambiguous panels and meaningful exchanges of facial expressions can be ready in multiple different ways depending on how much knowledge of the larger plot the reader has.  There are lots of dense pages, with the average panel count per page about 6-7, and Christmas often frames these as quite oppressive angles, edging in uncomfortably close  to his characters.  It gives the whole narrative this kind of edgy, claustrophobic vibe, and as the plot turns and things get increasingly nightmarish, Christmas throws us increasingly off-kilter with his visual arrangements.  And when the art finally opens up into a big spread for the final page, the impact is devastating.  It’s ambitious storytelling, but Christmas is up to the task.  If I have any niggle at all, it’s in his depiction of central character Lucas.  In some panels, he’s drawn looking quite old, while in others he’s quite baby-faced, and though I realise this ambiguity may be on purpose, given how the precise age range of this character impacts how we view him, I’d have liked to have had his appearance nailed down more definitively.  But like I said, that’s only one small criticism in what overall is a very successful showcase.

Rounding out the creative team is colorist Shari Chankhamma, whose contribution proves invaluable.  Given the slightly odd, angular character designs of Christmas, I think it would have been easy for a colorist to go rough and scratchy, or for a washed-out Dave Stewart styled pallette that often compliments the stark imagery of a Sean Phillips or a Dave Aja well.  And that would have been effective enough, but it would totally have changed the vibe of the story, something more along the lines of pulpy noir.  Instead, Chankhamma goes rich and lush, having the flush of a cheek, the texture of skin and the brightness of clothes really pop against the stark white, snowy landscape.  It adds a warmth to the atmosphere, makes the characters feel more human and vulnerable, giving the story an almost fairy tale quality.  It’s amazing how much the choice of colorist can impact your comic.

Amidst the sea of high-profile announcements at the Image Expo, with a bevy of A-list creators well established in their body of Marvel/DC work coming over to launch new Image projects, I’ve seen some people voice concern.  “With all these heavy-hitters making a splash,” they say, “What’s going to happen to that platform for emerging comics talent that Image has long provided?”  Sheltered #1 demonstrates that we needn’t worry.  Here’s a book filled with talented but comparitvely-unknown creators, being given a chance by Image to present something that could cement their reputation as breakout comics talent of 2013.  In my recent Comeback review I talked about how far Ed Brisson had progressed and how primed for success he was.  Since writing that, it’s been announced that he’ll be writing Secret Avengers.  And Sheltered is another leap in quality from Comeback, a book that should put him on the map and show that any success coming his way is well-deserved.  If you only pick up one comic next week, make it Sheltered #1.

Sheltered1Sheltered #1 is out in the UK now and will be available in comic shops worldwide from next week.

REVIEW: Orc Girl

One of my favourite stories from the comic world in 2012 has been the ascension of Paul Allor.  I first met Paul at New York Comic Con 2011 – where I myself was a nervous Scot attending his first major con as a “professional” selling my wares – when he didn’t have a table or any official presence at the con.  He was wondering around with printed out copies of Clockwork, an anthology of short stories he had written, handing them out to various publishers, editors and creators.  He gave a copy to me, and I said I’d review it on my blog.  I got to chatting with him for a while during my trip, and thought he was a very nice fellow, and that made me intrigued to check out his little book of short stories.  But how surprised I was when, far from the “shows promise for a debut writer” platitudes I was expecting to give out, I was presented with a work of immaculate craft, a distinct, polished creative voice that seemed to have been birthed fully formed.  Clockwork remains one of the best comics I’ve ever reviewed for The Creator-Owned Zone.

Fast-forward a year to New York Comic Con 2012, and it seems plenty of other folk have seen what I saw when Clockwork blew me away.  Paul Allor wasn’t just wandering around trying to catch attention with a book anymore.  He came with published credits to his name, haven written for IDW’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.  He was a guest on a panel.  And when I went to chat with him afterwards, I had to wait until he’d finished working through a small queue of people looking for autographs, advice or, in an ironic turnaround, eager young professionals wanting to pass their self-printed comics onto him for his feedback.

But Paul did come armed with a new comic: Orc Girl.  I was fortunate enough to be given a review copy: if his star continues to rise at the rate it is I imagine I’ll soon be having to buy all his stuff with the rest of the punters.  Based on the promotional images and the marketing I’d seen for Orc Girl, I was convinced this would be a departure from Allor’s fine-tuned brand of bittersweet, lyrical melancholy.  This would be a knockabout adventure with fantastical creatures, a fun, cheerful fable!  And, in the opening pages of the story, it seems that is indeed what this story is going to be.  Thomas Boatwright’s sketchy, simplistic art generates a light, breezy atmosphere, one “Once Upon a Time” away from reading like a sweet bedtime story.  We are introduced to Fern, the free-spirited orc girl of the title, and we immediately like her.  Some peril is introduced for her and her brother, Bogar, and we think we know where this story is going.

But then it turns out that this isn’t so much a departure from Allor’s classic style after all.  I was blindsided by the direction the story took us, and Orc Girl turned into something richer, more substantial, and much more poignant than I had been expecting.  I don’t want to give away the particulars, but it left me thinking a good while after I’d finished reading.  Paul Allor surprises me again.

The comic book package features Orc Girl as its primary story, but there is also some backup material.  A couple of short stories I had already read from the original ClockWorks were included.  But then there were another two stories I hadn’t read.  “The Last Flight of Zeppelin 223” has some dynamic art by Koong Koong, and is driven by a clever concept, but I just didn’t warm to the story, personally.  Much more successful, in my opinion, was “Dead Man”, once again drawn by Thomas Boatwright.  This is a simple little short, but it still manages to hit you with a real emotional sucker-punch.  Allor is such a master at being able to wring the maximum amount of impact and emotion out of the minimum number of pages.  I’m keen to see if whatever longform work he tackles in the medium in future will be so precisely paced.

Plenty of people more influential in the comics industry than I are already singing his praises, and I’m sure that soon so many fans and critics will be hailing him as the Next Big Thing that my cries of “But I was hear first!” will inevitably be drowned out.  But Orc Girl once again demonstrates what Clockwork made abundantly clear: that Paul Allor is a creative voice to be reckoned with, a comic writer of real note just waiting to emerge and break out.  Surely one of the most exciting talents I’ve been fortunate enough to “discover” with the diverse multitude of creator-owned comics I’ve got to review over the past couple of years.  He’s already made impressive progress over the course of a year.  I’m excited to see where he’ll be by New York Comic Con 2013.

Orc Girl is now available to buy in print or digitally from the Challenger Comics online store.

REVIEW: Clockwork, Volume 1

Clockwork is a tricky anthology to sell.  There is no succinct elevator pitch you can give to let potential readers know what to expect from the book.  The 12 stories contained within are not linked by any common genre, or even a common theme.  At most, you might argue there is something of a consistent tone running through all the stories, an introspective, character-driven quality that they all share.  But the one unifying element in all these stories is that they are written by newcomer Paul Allor, presenting here what he says is a collection of his first work in the comics medium.  So, if anything, the elevator pitch is “a collection of short stories by Paul Allor,” and that’s a risky position for any writer to take, never mind a new one.  You’re putting yourself front and centre, instead of the genre.  And as a result, the success or failure of your book rests largely on your shoulders, and could be taken as a judgement of you personally.  To be able to shoulder that burden, as a writer you must have a distinctive, compelling enough voice to justify that scrutiny.  Does Clockworks pull off that tricky balancing act?

Thankfully, I can report that this first volume of Clockwork is a huge success.  While every anthology has some stories that are better than others, and having at least one weak link in the collection almost comes with the territory of the format, there’s not a single dud amongst these 12 shorts.  Many of these stories could easily sustain a much longer narrative, with characters that feel lived-in and fully realised despite us only having a handful of pages to get to know them.  It helps, of course, that Allor has chosen an array of highly talented artists to work alongside, each of them bringing their own flavor to the respective collaborations.

The first story, “Another Life”, takes us across numerous planets and the span of a lifetime in the span of 5 pages, without feeling crammed.  That’s because, in spite of the epic, space-faring scope of this story, everything revolves around a simple character arc, condensed into one particular emotional beat that says more about notorious space-pirate The Butcher than pages of exposition could hope to.  Artist Ben Dewey plays a big role in making the world of “Another Life” tangible and nuanced without too much script space needing to be devoted to explaining it.  He populates this world with space monasteries, futuristic architecture and a variety of alien species and human-animal hybrids that very quickly create the sense that this is a thriving universe with a whole variety of narrative possibilities contained within it.  This level of creative ambition, coupled with the bittersweet ending, sets the tone perfectly for all the stories that follow, making it the ideal choice to start the collection.

The diversity of Clockwork is quickly demonstrated in the choice of the second story, “The Hottest Part of Winer”.  With this tale, we jump from the far reaches of the distant future and outer space to the familiar past of the Old West.  One element of this book I really enjoyed is the one-page prose introductions to each story by Allor, filled with interesting insight into the comic that will follow.  In this case, he brings up a great point, that Westerns are inherently about change.  In this case, the change is a very personal one, based on a decision made by our main character.  The more cartoonish art of Carl Peterson works well here, nicely complimenting the more optimistic tone of this piece.

From the future, to the past, to the present, with some slice-of-life human drama in the form of “Reach the Sun”.  This was one of my favourites in the collection, with Allor crafting a story that’s simple, but has such powerful emotional resonance, chronicling the struggles of a troubled teenager to recapture the happiness of his earlier childhood.  A big part of what makes this story work so well is the artwork of Juan Romera, who I must admit I’m becoming a real fan of.  He was a standout in the Tall Tales from the Badlands Western anthology, where he first caught my attention, and I’ve talked at length about how impressed I was by his work on Fabian Rangel Jr’s Fall for 215 Ink.  Here, Romera continues to demonstrate his incredible talent for framing panels and capturing facial expressions and body language in a way that really maximising the emotion of the scene, while showing perhaps greater detail and intricacy than in his other, more stylised work, suggesting he continues to grow and evolve.  He is definitely an artist to watch.

“The Things I See” is perhaps a little on-the-nose with its dialogue in places, which is a departure from the deft subtlety with words Allor displays in most of Clockwork.  But the concept of a blind and deaf woman with psychic powers is a good one, and even as one of the weaker instalments in this collection, there’s still a lot to like here.  Of particular note are the meticulously crafted visuals of Nikki Cook, whose heavy inks give this tale a fluid, almost dreamlike quality.

I was really charmed by “Cage Around My Heart”, a story about a robot called BART who escapes from his creators, hoping to share in human experiences such as love.  It’s a touching story, and a little sad, but its impact utterly depends on how much you buy into BART as a figure to care about.  And we do, thanks to how Jesse Hamm brings him to life.  He has a blank, unchanging robotic face with unmoving eyes and no mouth, and so is incapable of expressing emotion.  So, how then do we see joy, hope, hurt and despair in that face?  It’s all down to how Hamm angles and frames BART, and it’s a credit to his skill that we believe in this robot’s humanity.

In his introduction to “The Day I Go Home”, Allor mentions that it was the first of the scripts he wrote for Clockwork, his first published work.  As such, it’s interesting to see how much of the whole anthology is reflected in this original sci-fi piece.  It has that ambiguous, bittersweet quality to it shared by many of its peers, as well as being intensely character-driven.  I think the art of Leandro Panganiban lets it down slightly.  While his figure work is strong and his scenery is detailed, the lack of textures or grayscaling in the piece leaves the whole story looking quite flat, which is a shame.

With “The End of This Story”, Allor branched out into yet another genre, this time fantasy.  The story, recounting the millennia-spanning war between humans and monsters, is pretty simple and straightforward, but with a poignant wrinkle at the end that makes the story an effective sister piece to the preceding “The Day I Go Home”.  Silvio dB’s art is pretty cool, channelling a real old school Prince Valiant vibeI would venture to say the inks are a little heavy, as in places it muddies the detail of the panels, but that’s a minor gripe.

Skull Buzz is one of the most cleverly-structured of Allor’s tales.  Without giving too much away, it opens seeming very much like one story about a man’s personal struggle, but takes a surprising turn into something quite different.  As was the case with Panganiban’s work on “The Day I Go Home”, the art of Ken Frederick is lacking in any grayscale or texture.  But rather than being to its detriment, in this particular story this sketchiness is a strength, generating an abstract, distant quality that fits well with how the narrative develops.

While I admire the ambiguous elements in other stories, “Mercy Kill” is a little too oblique for my tastes.  I get the ideas Allor is playing with here, but I think the story could have used just a little more meat on the bones, a little more detail on the main character’s experiences, to encourage us to invest in her situation some more.  But this is still a haunting little story, with Brett Weldele delivering the goods with some moody, stylised art and evocative use of grayscale.

“Plutoville” is, according to the introduction, Allor’s ode to monsters in space films such as Alien, albeit with a twist that, though I saw it coming early on, is nevertheless well executed.  The fact that there are several sci-fi shorts in Clockwork, but each one is radically different, is a testament to the diversity of both the sci-fi genre and Allor himself.  The crisp, kinetic layouts of Borch Penya give “Plutoville” a real sense of energy and dynamism.

When I saw the name of artist JM Ken Niimura attached to “Warlord”, I must admit my heart skipped a beat.  Getting to work with the co-creator of modern comics classic I Kill Giants is a big deal indeed.  And while Niimura’s work here doesn’t quite match some of his jawdropping visuals in I Kill Giants, that fine grasp of pacing and emotion remains very evident.  Another one of Allor’s more oblique tales, “Warlord” gives us five different vignettes, showing how various individuals in a feudal landscape have had their lives shaped (and in some cases ruined) by a faceless warlord, before finally showing us the warlord himself.  The very nature of the story – essentially 5 one-pagers – makes it hard to be truly attached to any one individuals plight, but the cumulative effect of their stories gives the finish real kick.  And it’s drawn by JM Ken Niimura!

Finally, we have “X-Row”, which is perhaps Allor’s most narratively ambitious work in the anthology.  It tells the story of a man on death row flashing through various memories of his life as he prepares for death.  As a result, the story is constructed largely as a series of one-panel vignettes, without much linear narrative, but Allor still manages to create a full picture of his main character through this collection of memories, and we are able to piece together a full arc of a life lived and a journey taken from them.  Excellent writing.  The art of Aaron Houston (who is also responsible for the stylish cover) is great too, with his detailed linework and mastery of scene-setting turning each panel into a fully-realised snapshot of a moment in time.  And being able to show our protagonist at various stages in his life and have him go through a wide range of ages (and haircuts) while still being immediately recognisable as the same person is quite a skill.  With “X-Row”, Clockwork certainly ends on a high note.

Not that there’s any significant low note.  I got my hands on this book several weeks ago, and it took me until last night to finally get around to reading it.  But once I started, I breezed through it, engrossed in the contents from beginning to end.  There are a couple of minor issues here and there – Allor can keep us at arm’s length a bit too much sometimes, with even something as small as none of his characters (apart from BART) having names acting as a distancing device – but the good far outweighs the bad.  Allor shows an ability to work in a diverse range of genres, a mastery of pacing and structure, and a real knack for getting to the human core of a situation, even in what might at first seem like more plot-driven genre fare.

At the start of this review, I remarked on how big a gamble it was essentially marketing a book on your name.  But in this case, the gamble worked.  At the back of the volume there is an advert for Clockwork, Volume 2.  Based on the strength of this first volume, I would happily buy it.  And thanks to Clockwork, Volume 1, seeing the name Paul Allor on the cover of a comic would be enough to make me give it a try.

Clockworks is available to buy from the official website of Gov’t Comics.