My Top Ten Comics of 2020

It’s been a strange year, in many ways. And one such way is that it has upended how a lot of entertainment has been consumed. The most obvious change this year has been with film, where the experience of going to the cinema has largely given way to watching stuff at home on streaming services or after purchasing from iTunes. But even with comics there has been changes, with me barely getting out to the comic shop this year, instead getting stuff sent to me by mail at my LCS. And as such I’ve shifted a bit in my reading tastes, becoming less connected to the weekly new comics haul (since even my new releases arrive at a slight delay with shipping) and inclined more towards catching up on older stuff and reading OGNs/collections. But with being at home for so much of the year, I’ve still managed to read A LOT of stuff.

A regular reminder that my qualifier for eligibility is that the comic is either a graphic novel released in its entirety this year, a foreign language work released in English for the first time this year, or if it’s an ongoing/limited series, that at least 3 issues were released this year. For 2020 in particular, that’s disqualified quite a few things, as it feels we had some major players like Sea of Sorrows and Home Sick Pilots only have one issue out at the time of writing this list. But they’ll be books to watch out for in next year’s rankings to be sure!

10. PULP

Much has been made of the format of Pulp, the Western/noir mashup from the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Long champions of the single issue format, their choice to lean into the OGN model sparked much chat about this increasingly being the future for comics. But aside from that discourse, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the comic contained within these hardcover pages is great. A story about a former Wild West outlaw, now an old man living in1930s New York struggling as a writer, selling pulp story reworkings of his own life and experiences, it’s another pristine exploration of pained humanity and bad decisions that this team does so well. I’ve not read Reckless yet, though, saving that for Christmas, and that might knock this out of the list!

9. KILLADELPHIA 

This was an early lockdown standout for me. It seems buzz on this was quite quiet during its initial single issue run, but particularly on the build-up to the release of the Volume 1 collection, it started picking up more buzz and momentum. And with good reason. It’s a smart new spin on vampire lore, using a vampire narrative as a prism through which to interrogate heirarchies of class and race. And Jason Shawn Alexander’s art is just next level good, be it in the immersive, intimate detail of the human characters or in depictions of the vampires that are proper frightening and monstrous. I can’t wait to read the second volume, and am a little sad I have to wait until 2021 for it!

8. WICKED THINGS

Giant Days has become one of my all-time favourite comics. But I was always behind the curve on that series, reading it in collected volumes. I still have the last volume to read, actually. And so with Wicked Things, the new miniseries from John Allison and Max Sarin, set in the same universe and seeing the supporting character of improbable child detective Charlotte Grote spinning off into her own yarn, I wanted to be right in at the ground floor with the single issues. As it happens, my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it IS a miniseries, as I already feel like I could happily read 40+ issues of Charlotte’s adventures, digging deeper into the quirky world of celebrity detective culture that this series opens up. It has that Giant Days comedy brilliance, but Allison and Sarin also do a great job of setting up genuine stakes and peril to up the ante of the drama.

7. REDFORK 

I’ve talked before about this top notch Appalachian horror from Alex Paknadel, Nil Vendrell, Giulia Brusco, Ryan Ferrier and James Maddox feels like a thematic cousin to Mountainhead. Developed separately and simultaneously, but with many similar ideas and plot turns, and then you factor in the fact that in both cases it’s writers from the UK looking in from outside to comment on strangeness in the American (or, in my case, Canadian) heartland. But where Redfork really excels is in how it brings this community to life, digs into the factors that have blighted the place and the people within it, doing what a lot of the best horror these days does by getting to the monstrous stuff from the angle of real life darkness that’s relevant to the lived experience of many. Alex has had a strong couple of years with the output he’s been delivering, but this may be his best work yet.

6. DAREDEVIL 

By this point I believe I am well established as a fan of Daredevil, but I’ll admit that following the conclusion of the seminal Waid/Samnee run, I drifted away from the comics. But this run from Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checcetto, among other artists, has brought me right back, emerging as arguably the best title Marvel is currently producing. It was already noteworthy last year, where I remarked on how it was a series being slept on. But one year down the line and that is even more the case, as the story has gone from strength to strength, with Zdarsky giving us some compelling exploration of what’s going on inside Matt Murdock’s head, as well as prime fodder for The Kingpin and other members of the supporting cast. I feel it’s starting to get more recognition now, but here’s hoping that 2021 is the year where even more of us acknowledge how consistently great this run has been.

5. UNDONE BY BLOOD 

In many ways, Undone By Blood works as a nice double-bill with Pulp, which featured earlier on the list. Both are comics that play with a two-pronged narrative, one featuring an old hard-boiled Wild West tale, with another presenting a harsher reality at a later point in the 20th Century. In this case, the latter-day strand is set in the 1970s, and the connective tissue of the two threads is that the protagonist of the 1970s arc (Ethel Grady Lane, an instantly compelling character) is reading the Wild West story as a novel, which we experience in both comic and prose form. And given how great Pulp was, it’s not lightly that I say that Undone By Blood is the superior of the two. The all-star creative team of Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Sami Kivela, Jason Wordie and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou are firing on all cylinders here. Sami’s work has never been more beautiful and evocative. Zac and Lonnie display a master of wordsmanship in those prose entries that makes me feel like I ought to pack in this whole writing lark as clearly I’m an amateur. This comic pulls off the trick of making me love both storylines equally, where whenever we cut to one, I’m anxious to get back to the other, while still being gripped by what I’m reading. Quite possibly AfterShock’s best ever comic.

4. BLUE IN GREEN 

I’m at a disadvantage in talking about Blue in Green here, as having already talked at length about the comic when writing about the work of Ram V, I don’t know how many more ways I have left to say that it’s brilliant and essential reading. Back when I first heard about the release of a new comic from the creative team of Grafity’s Wall, a horror comic at that, this became my “event comic” of 2020. It certainly delivered on expectations. Frightening, and not in the way you might expect, getting under your skin and giving voice to the unspoken anxieties and insecurities you have buried deep down (or that I have, at least). In fact, though the plots are completely different, in a lot of ways Blue in Green felt like a fitting comics medium companion piece to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in the particular bad vibes it evoked. The whole creative team shines, here, with Ram V giving us some immaculate writing and some of the most resonant internal monologue I’ve seen in a comic in forever, Anand RK displaying a whole new facet of his talents with a breakout performance and some of the most distinctive visuals of the year, and Aditya Bidikar flexing his muscles with a masterclass in just how creative a force in a comic the letterer can be when it comes to shaping mood. A haunting comic that lingers long after you’re done reading.

3. VENUS IN THE BLIND SPOT 

I initially wasn’t sure about including this one, These are mostly old Junji Ito stories, including a couple which I have read previously through unofficial translations. But this is their first time collected in this volume, the first time officially translated into English for most of them, and with new color pages and elements to make this collection a new, distinct product from Viz. Contained in these pages are some of the greatest Junji Ito short stories ever, including Enigma of Amigara Fault, The Human Chair, Billions Alone (formerly known as the catchier Army of One) and The Licking Woman. All intensely disturbing tales with truly horrifying imagery that will stay in your brain. But possibly what I enjoyed most in this collection was a story that’s not scary at all, an autobiographical comic called Master Umezz and Me, chronicling Junji Ito’s lifelong love for the work of mangaka Kazuo Umezz. Here, we get so much insight into Junji Ito himself, as well as some nice commentary on the appeal of horror and chasing entertainment that scares us.

2. THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH  

This comic kicked my ass. Built on a killer premise – what if we live in a world where things become more true the more that people believe in them, and that thus in this age of conspiracy theory reality is in greater danger than ever before? – the execution is even more frightening and compelling than you’d imagine. The first issue was a pristine establishment of the concept, but then each subsequent issue has hit like a haymaker, shining a light on something that makes me angry or upset then making me afraid of it too. James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds and Aditya Bidikar have gifted us with a comic that feels truly essential, where every chapter is a must-read and something you immediately want to talk to people about. If anything, even though it’s clocking in at #2, if anything this could be underrating it. And that’s because, at just three issues in, this series is just getting rolling. And if it keeps on going at this level of quality and building momentum as it continues to unfold, this could ultimately emerge as one of the great comics of this era. It already has that vibe of something really special about it. We’ll see where things go next year!

1. SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN 

This comic ranked very respectably last year based just on the first few issues. And then, after that, I let the issues build up in my to-read pile, me buying them without actually getting round to reading them. Eventually, I had a little stack piled up and decided to do a catch-up one nice, sunny day. I blasted through them, and the reminder of just how fantastic this series is hit me like a mack truck. This might be my favourite Superman-related thing in any medium I’ve experience since All Star Superman. Jimmy Olsen is my favourite superhero of 2020. I love Steve Lieber’s fresh, modern take on the character (while still capturing some of the traditional quirks), while writer Matt Fraction manages to make him goofy and likeable and still the kind of exciting adventurer that Superman would want to be his pal. The comic is laugh-out-loud hilarious, with each issue containing at least a couple of guffaw moments, but that shouldn’t distract from how intricately plotted this all is, too. I bought the whole thing in single issues, but I’ll confess: I bought the graphic novel as a gift for a friend, and part of me wanted to clutch on it myself, just to have it in my bookcase. Because perhaps more than anything in the last several years, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen feels like it could become an all-time canon great book for DC, something they ought to keep in perpetual rotation.As always, here’s the annual tally of the best-of-the-year winners, from 2010 through to now…

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon
  • 2017: Batman
  • 2018: The Immortal Hulk
  • 2019: House of X / Powers of X
  • 2020: Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen

And that was 2020 in comics! 2021 is already loaded with exciting comics, and a few potential front-runners for next year’s top prize. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out!

REVIEW: Five Ghosts #6

Not too long ago, I talked about being blown away by Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, a 5-part miniseries that proved so monumentally successful that Image Comics opted to upgrade the title into an ongoing series.  And thus we now have Five Ghosts #6, which is tasked from transitioning Frank J Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham’s magnificently-realised world from something self-contained and finite into a more longform narrative.  Of course, anybody who read The Haunting of Fabian Gray will be overjoyed to get more of the story, but there are questions about whether something originally intended to be 5 issues long has enough fuel in the tank to sustain an extended narrative.  Thankfully, if Five Ghosts #6 is anything to go by, all signs point to that first arc being no flash in the pan.

But one big question mark that immediately pops up is the realisation that Chris Mooneyham is not on art duties.  If you recall my earlier review, you’ll remember I spent some time talking about how central Chris Mooneyham’s dynamic visual flair was to the success of the comic, with how he skillfully balanced this channelled essence of old-school pulp with a highly modern sensibility for pushing the boundaries of inventiveness on the page.  After reading the first 5 issues of Five Ghosts, it was nigh-unthinkable to imagine anyone else drawing the book.  And other Image comics like Saga and now Lazarus have popularised the notion of, “No fill-in artists here, the primary artist is worth the wait, so we’d rather take a break in between arcs rather than have anyone else drawing this comic.”  So, Garry Brown – perhaps best known for his work on The Massive – comes in faced with something of an uphill battle.  So it’s perhaps the best compliment I can give Garry Brown that by the third page of this story, I no longer missed Chris Mooneyham.

The style is noticeably different from Mooneyham’s, yes.  Mooneyham has more of a wild, energetic vibe that leaps off the page, whereas – save for the occasional flourish – Brown’s style is more rigid and structured, bringing more of a quiet confidence to his storytelling.  But Mooneyham and Brown take different approaches to achieving the same commendable goal: transporting the reader back in time and making them feel like they’re being immersed in an old adventure tale from a bygone era.  In particular, Brown’s understated style here is refined to read like an homage to Jim Aparo.  While there was a broad range of pulp/pastiche reference in Mooneyham’s visuals, Brown’s aesthetic feels laser-focused into recreating the vibe of a 1970s Batman book, to the point where I half-expected Ra’s al Ghul to show up.  And with Lauren Affe’s luscious colors, the tone all manages to feel consistent with what came before.

Something else that remains consistent is this title’s ability to seamlessly transition from adventure to horror, as Brown shows an aptitude for some quite horrific creature designs, from the tentacled creature that spies on Fabian and old flame Hisano through their window to the Mistress of the rival clan they intend to strike: she is wearing what appears to be a dress made out of skin!  Not that Brown skimps on the adventure side of things either.  As the climax descends into a massive fight scene, Brown meticulously frames the choreography of the battle, making the whole sequence feel very hard-hitting.

Frank J Barbiere continues to deliver the goods on the story front, too.  I remarked how dense and packed with story content each individual chapter of the first arc was.  Well, that is heightened even further with a tale that is completely self-contained, save for a few ominous references to a larger threat looming in the background.  If you have held off on trying Five Ghosts – for shame! – I think this works as an accessible jumping-on point for new readers, right down to how Barbiere concisely re-establishes Fabian Gray’s unique powers.

I think the real narrative triumph of this issue, however, is that it reaffirms that this is a story driven by character.  With the breakneck pace of The Haunting of Fabian Gray, one would be forgiven for thinking this was an incredibly plot-driven book.  But here, much of the trappings of the previously-established narrative are removed, and we are given Fabian Gray in a whole new setting, travelling to Japan to aid an old flame from his past.  It establishes that Gray is a figure with a rich and storied history to draw from, and it’s his magnetic presence that’s going to carry us forward from arc to arc.

The first 5 issues of Five Ghosts were one of my comic joys of 2013.  So I’m glad to see that the standard has been maintained through the comic’s transition from miniseries to ongoing.  Barbiere continues to craft compelling, action-packed stories, anchored by one of the best new protagonists to emerge in any medium this year.  And though I’m eager to see Chris Mooneyham return to the series, Garry Brown did a stellar job filling in, and I would be very keen to see him return for future guest spots.

FiveGhosts6Five Ghosts #6 is available in all good comic shops from tomorrow.

REVIEW – Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Doc Unknown #1

It’s been a while since I read anything from Fabian Rangel Jr.  His werewolf miniseries Extinct was one of my earliest creator-owned comic reviews, where I first noted Fabian as a developing comic book writer worth keeping an eye on.  Then his graphic novel Fall followed through on that initial promise, a poignant tale of childhood, friendship and the loss of innocence (and aliens!) that remains one of the best comics I’ve ever reviewed here.  But since Fall I haven’t had the pleasure of reading anything new from Rangel Jr.  I know he’s had projects, but I haven’t had access to them here in Scotland.  Thank goodness then for Comixology, from which I was able to download the first issue of his latest project, Doc Unknown – or, to give it its full title, Doc Unknown in the Museum of Madness.  It’s been a while, but thankfully it was worth the wait!

In his afterword, Fabian describes Doc Unknown as a mash-up of everything he loves about comics, crammed with everything he would want from a comic as a reader.  And that unbridled excitement and energy is certainly reflected in the pages contained within this first chapter.  Doc Unknown is a pulp hero in the vein of Doc Savage or The Shadow, a throwback to the proto-superhero adventures of the early 20th Century.  Tributes to such figures certainly have an established history in the comic books their exploits helped inspire, with Tom Strong one of the most acclaimed, and The Black Beetle the one I read most recently.  But while I found Francesco Francavilla’s pulp throwback to be beautifully-drawn but ultimately uninvolving, leaving me too cold to bother returning for a second issue, Doc Unknown felt in a lot of ways like The Black Beetle done right, taking not just the mould of the protagonist from that earlier era of storytelling, but also the simplicity of plot and denseness of incident and storytelling that made those tales so popular in the first place.

Doc Unknown #1 is not a comic that you could accuse of being decompressed.  In the first issue alone, we are introduced to an interesting villain – Killer Croc like gangster Snake – and given his backstory, while also setting up his evil scheme involving stealing a mystical artefact from a museum.  We’re also introduced economically to Doc Unknown, not by learning his alter ego – which remains a mystery as this first issue ends – but by seeing him kicking ass in action.  We get an elaborate fight scene between the two that involves Doc Unknown battling reanimated mummies and T-Rex skeletons, before culminating in some fisticuffs that see the confrontation resolved.  We’re then allowed time for aftermath and various plot threads to be resolved, as well as a supernatural element introduced with Doc’s ability to see and communicate with the ghost of a murder victim in the museum.  All while setting up a larger overarching plot of a Court of Owls type Illuminati of the rich and powerful out to get Doc because of a MacGuffin that comes into his position.  And we get another major new villain for him to contend with introduced too.  All in the space of a single normal-length issue, when you could imagine this amount of narrative getting dragged out across multiple issues these days.  All this, and we also get a 5-page backup story from the same creative team.  You’re getting more than your money’s worth in terms of content packed into one issue.

One of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is that he doesn’t feel the need to announce his greatness.  He’s shown some real diversity in his output as he allows himself to take a backseat and let the story do the talking.  He proved more than capable of writing snappy dialogue and quickfire exchanges in Extinct, and showed some impressive narrative tricks for drawing out emotion in Fall, but here it’s all very pared back, minimal panel counts per page, and dialogue snipped back to bare minimum.  Doc Unknown himself is a taciturn figure, not really knowable, though what sense of his personality we do get suggests a more compassionate soul than the steely, hardened vigilante we might be used to, someone who seeks to comfort the loved ones of innocents killed in the crossfire, and even reaches out to understand the motivations of the bad guys he throws in jail.  But Rangel Jr doesn’t make a big song and dance of explaining that in poetic fashion.  It’s mostly implied.

I’ve talked about this as a pulp adventure tribute, but I’ve not used the term pastiche, as I don’t think this feels like an old-fashioned comic.  One of the downfalls of many comics that try to pay homage to eras past is that, even if in some form they succeed, they end up feeling like they’re of that era, and not particularly relevant to readers of this era unfamiliar with that past generation.  Not so with Doc Unknown, and I think that’s thanks to the dynamic artwork of Ryan Cody.  This is a book that never feels stuffy or old, with Cody’s slick, exciting imagery and bright, bold colouring making the whole aesthetic of the comic feel fresh and of-the-moment, something new that you could imagine a kid picking up and falling in love with.  Those minimal panel layouts I mentioned above really work in Cody’s favour, as he makes every page have this widescreen, expansive feel, the action almost spilling out of the page.  I felt the need to read this comic on my iPad horizontally, even though the pages are in portrait format, as each of Ryan Cody’s expansive story beats played out on a scope that demanded they be viewed in that way to appreciate them.  Another of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is his keen eye for choosing great artists that perfectly fit the tone of the book in question.  And Ryan Cody joins Jethro Morales and Juan Romera on the list of his excellent artistic collaborators.  Mr. Cody now most definitely has a new fan in me.

Maybe it was the circumstance: I got to read this comic on my iPad sat outside on an uncharacteristically sunny day here in Glasgow (it started pouring with rain a couple of hours later, restoring balance to the universe), with “Giorgio by Miroder” from the new Daft Punk album playing on my MP3 player.  It all just felt right.  Maybe it was the fact that I’m already a supporter of Fabian Rangel Jr, and his name on the cover alone is enough to convince me to try a comic.  Whatever it was, I have to say I loved Doc Unknown #1.  A hugely fun breath of fresh air, appealing to readers young and old.  It’s deserving of a much bigger audience than it may get as a Comixology Submit product, and that’s a shame.  In my humble opinion, a savvy publisher would be looking at this as an undiscovered gem and scrambling to pick up the print distribution rights.  But for now, I’m glad I have Comixology, and that I’m able to sample treats like this and have access to burgeoning creators whose work I greatly admire.  It wasn’t easy to recommend his earlier work, great as it was, with its relatively limited availability.  But the digital marketplace is global, so I’m able to most heartily recommend this.  If you like good comics, check it out – it’s only 99 cents, what do you have to lose?

DocUnknown1Doc Unknown #1 is available now from Comixology.

REVIEW: Vic Boone #1

It’s been a real pleasure seeing 215 Ink grow over the past few months.  I’ve been excited about their ever-growing lineup of quality comics, and it seems more people are starting to recognise that.  Vic Boone in particular is a series that has had quite a bit of buzz around it, perhaps the most I’ve seen for any 215 Ink book thus far.  I was pleased to see that the first issue even got a (very positive) review in IGN’s weekly round-up.  I think this is a big deal, because in my personal experience at least, there have been several occasions where a highly positive IGN review has convinced me to try a comic I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.  Now, I’m no IGN, but having read the first instalment of this new series by writer Shawn Aldridge and artist Geoffo, I’m eager to join the chorus in singing its praises.

Shawn Aldridge knows his noir.  Here is a story seeped in the classic tropes of the genre: the beaten-down gumshoe hero, the mysterious and possibly dangerous femme fatale client, one case serving as a bridge to a much larger, nastier one, a collection of seedy underworld figures with a grudge against our hero.  All present and correct… only we’re in the future, hover cars buzz around a futuristic metropolis, and the population is peppered with aliens, robots and talking gorillas.

The mesh of pulp genres alone would be enough to give Vic Boone a hook, but Aldridge doesn’t simply rely on that.  He writes with an authority of a writer much more experienced than a relative newcomer like him, with hard-boiled narration and punchy dialogue evocatively bringing the eponymous protagonist to life.  He’s in turns cold, callous, principled, quick-witted, dumb, resourceful, and plain funny.  Speaking of funny, it should be noted that among the highlights of this issue are the occasional detours into the ridiculous.  Take, for example, Vic’s meeting with his tiny man-fly drinking buddy, or even better, his showdown with the magnificently unthreatening Raygun Radicals, who are totally going to kick Vic’s ass once their boss is done grocery shopping for his mom.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the humor that gives Vic Boone its niche.  Blade Runner ostensibly beat Vic Boone to the punch with the whole “noir against a sci-fi backdrop” idea, but in execution the tone is so different that Vic Boone never feels like it suffers in comparison to the classic.

Not that this is solely a showcase for Aldridge’s quality writing.  Far from it, the stylish art of Geoffo deserves equal praise.  The character designs are reminiscent of Darwyn Cooke by way of the loose pencils and free-flowing, sketchy style of Gabriel Ba.  The parallels to the latter are heightened by Aldridge’s often-psychadelic color scheme, which bring to mind the funky palette of Casanova back in it’s original two-toned run at Image.  Much of the art is simplistic, but Geoffo has a knack for boiling an image down to its starkest key components, allowing for maximum impact.

Perhaps my favorite page of the whole issue is the love scene between Vic Boone and the aformentioned femme fatale, Nina.  It’s almost entirely shadow, yet still Geoffo conveys all the important information, while at the same time artistically framing the page, crafting a tableau that, even without Aldridge’s strong scripting, would tell a compelling story all on its own.  The evocative use of silhouette reminds me of Frank Miller.

It seems that, in praising Geoffo, all I can do is compare him to other artists.  But Geoffo is not just a copycat.  Like the story itself, there are a lot of influences at work, but Geoffo’s art melds them all together into something individual that’s very much his own singular style.

Aldridge takes his time with this first issue, focusing on dipping our toes into this world and introducing us to our cast of characters, all while meticulously setting the pieces of the plot into place.  But by the shock finale, the stage is set for business to pick up in future issues.  A stellar debut, with this first issue Aldridge and Geoffo have given us a comic to watch in Vic Boone.