30 Character Showcase #10: Drum Hellar

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.

10. DRUM HELLAR

Drumhellar1bCreated by Riley Rossmo and Alex Link

It seems like I’ve talked a lot about the excellent Drumhellar this past week (with the stellar first issue hitting comic shops this past Wednesday), so I’ll try to keep this entry brief.  Drum Hellar is a former paleobotanist – now, possibly a paranormal investigator, possibly just a guy who weird things happen to – who uses psychadelics and various other unusual methods to see strange, possibly prophetic visions.  And something he sees takes him back to one of his old haunts: a small town in South Dakota, where Drum has to deal with bisexual werewolves, ancient bogmen and a resentful ex.  Oh, and his best friend is a talking, ethereal purple cat called Harold who may or may not be imaginary.  And yes, this first issue is just as odd as that synopsis would suggest!

He’s presented as a bit of a deadbeat, but one with a strange kind of charm and appeal.  I think a big part of what makes him so likeable is how he’s wonderfully brought to life through the art of Riley Rossmo.  He has this downtrodden, worn-in vibe to him, and he just has these great deadpan reactions to all the weirdness going on around him, perfectly complimented by the wild, effusive motions of his sidekick Harold in the background.  I’ve used the “X-Files meets The Big Lebowski” description for Drumhellar a few times now, and if that is the case Drum is most definitely The Dude. Maybe with a dash of Columbo to him as well, because as dopey and schmucky as he might come across, you get a subtle sense that Drum’s a whole lot smarter than he’s letting on.

Thus far there’s only been one issue of Drumhellar, and so other characters in this month-long showcase have maybe had more time to be more fully developed.  But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else on this list so immediately likeable as Drum.

Drumhellar2

REVIEW: Drumhellar #1

I’m facing something of a dilemma right now, as regards my reviewing of creator-owned comics.  I do try my utmost to review everything that is sent my way, eventually.  But I get sent quite a lot of comics, and it seems like the backlog is getting longer and longer, because rather than drawing from this treasure trove of comics submitted for my attention by talented new writers and artists, I instead find myself drawn to gush about new releases that have caught my eye, more often than not from Image.  I would love to get back to that backlog of awesome indie comics, really – there’s a new Tall Tales from the Badlands awaiting my attention, for crying out loud! – but these past few months have just been too damn good, with just about every week offering some exciting new debut.  It’s a veritable onslaught!  And this week, Image debuts the launch I’ve been looking forward to arguably more than any other in 2013: Drumhellar, drawn and co-plotted by artist extraordinaire Riley Rossmo and scripted by Alex Link.

Riley Rossmo is an artist who’s been on my radar for a few years now, going back to his highly distinctive work on Green Wake.  That dark, horror-tinged noir from Image marked him out as a highly unusual artist worth keeping an eye on, and stellar, diverse turns in the likes of Bedlam and Wild Children solidified his status in my eyes.  Rossmo has a remarkable craft for both showing considerable range in shifting his style to meet the demands of the story he’s telling, and for always giving us comic book art that’s unmistakably his.  Whether  it’s the harsh, scratchy quality of Green Wake or Bedlam or the light, fluid bounce of Wild Children or Proof, his work has this loose, free-flowing energy that gives his comics an offbeat rhythm, creating a sense that anything could happen.  Rossmo is superstar material in my eyes, and I firmly believe he has all the tools to be the biggest artist in the comics world one day, should the right project pop up.  And Drumhellar might just be that project.

The best way to describe Drumhellar would be “The X-Files meets The Big Lebowski.”  It tells the story of Drum Hellar – possibly a paranormal investigator, possibly just a guy who weird things happen to – who uses psychadelics and various other unusual methods to see strange, possibly prophetic visions.  And something he sees takes him back to one of his old haunts: a small town in South Dakota, where Drum has to deal with bisexual werewolves, ancient bogmen and a resentful ex.  Oh, and his best friend is a talking, ethereal purple cat called Harold who may or may not be imaginary.  And yes, this first issue is just as odd as that synopsis would suggest.

A big part of the success of this world-building is down to writer Alex Link, who similarly co-plotted and scripted unorthodox horror Rebel Blood with Rossmo.  Link’s ear for naturalistic dialogue grounds all these bizarre happenings with believably nuanced characters, with the verbal sparring between Drum and his ex Padma working as a bedrock of credibility that helps us to invest in the world as it spills into the increasingly surreal.  Even small characters like diner waitress Wanda are given voices laced with personality.  Thanks to Link’s skillful writing, no one ever feels like a solely functional cog in a plot machine, but rather a rounded character who the events of the plot happen around.

But the true superstar showcase here comes with the visuals of Riley Rossmo.  Right from the striking, entirely silent opening page that leads into one of the most memorable, intensely weird opening scenes of any comic in 2013, Rossmo’s trippy artwork demands your attention.  Crazy opener aside, though, Rossmo actually dials things back in the beginning, presenting an aesthetic of eerily familiar Americana that only gradually slips into unhinged psychadelia over the course of the issue.  Because the various locales feel such like real, tangible places (likely informed by Rossmo’s travelling he reportedly did as research for the series), the appearance of a giant purple triceratops feels all the more unusual when it happens.  And it’s in the quieter work that Rossmo truly shines for me.  If Link’s finely-crafted voicework goes a long way towards bringing characters like Drum and Padma to life, Rossmo’s knack for naturalistic body language and facial expression more than finish the job.  Rossmo’s figures never feel like they’re posing for a comic panel.  He’s long had this ability for capturing natural, relaxed gestures and postures that feel like what characters might make in between the big dramatic motions of a typical comic book panel, and here that’s combined with some of his most refined work on subtle shifts in facial expressions to present characters who feel like they could be real people, even when they’re talking to floating purple cats and fishing ancient corpses from swamps.  All these factors combine to make Drum immediately emerge as one of the most likeable new comic characters of the year.

But more than just the drawings themselves, Rossmo excels in storytelling technique.  Throughout Drumhellar #1, breaks all kinds of conventional rules of pacing: key scene transitions happen in the middle of a page, or shocking, pivotal moments occur in small panels, among other quirks and ticks.  It gives the whole book this strange, stacatto heartbreat, where you’re kind of put on the back-foot as a reader and drawn in for reasons you might not consciously realise on first reading, until you really dissect the panel construction.  The colouring is marvelous, too.  I didn’t even need to check the credits to confirm Rossmo was also the colorist, so seamlessly do they connect with the luscious aesthetic of the linework.  It’s telling that Rossmo also co-plotted this book, as visual innovation here shapes the narrative, and is integral to our comprehension of this world.

I’ve already read through the entirety of Drumhellar #1 several times.  It reminds me a lot of Pretty Deadly #1 from a couple of weeks back, in that it feels packed with little Easter eggs, and demands rereading and detailed examination.  As my first exposure to Alex Link, it wins me over on his abilities as a writer.  And as far as the art goes, it stands as perhaps Riley Rossmo’s finest work yet.  This is a comic destined for cult adoration: get in on the ground floor now!

Drumhellar1Drumhellar #1 is out now in all good comic shops, or you can get it on ComiXology here.

Coming Soon: And Then Emily Was Gone #2!

Since its launch in local markets here in Glasgow back in July, the first issue of And Then Emily Was Gone has enjoyed great success.  It got nominated for 4 SICBA awards at this year’s Glasgow Comic Con, the only comic to get nominated for every category.  It has enjoyed a wealth of positive reviews:

Forbidden Planet

Big Comic Page

Broken Frontier

Comic Booked

The Off-Panel Podcast

Comics Anonymous

It’s even had some very nice testimonials from ace comics creators:

“This is a weird comic, but in a wonderful way. Best of all, it’s a comic with its own vision, a unique and bold vision.”

– Michael Moreci, Hoax Hunters, Skybreaker

“This was a wonderful, twisted little surprise. A David Lynch air throughout, it made me feel itchy and uncomfortable, which is the highest praise I can bestow. John Lees’ script is tight and mysterious, with a few curve-balls that really add to the sense of hyper-reality. The off-kilter energy. The real stand-out is Iain Lawrie on art duties. Equal parts Paul Pope, Nick Pitarra and Morgan Jeske (this reminded me frequently of Jeske and Ales Kot’s Change). Despite the content raw as a picked scab, the presentation and print quality is supremely professional. Extremely impressive. Find a copy.”

– Owen Michael Johnson, Raygun Roads

Super awesome, super creepy, super good. I really love the work of everyone involved on the book…”

– Nick Pitarra, The Manhattan Projects, The Red Wing

“This book is amazing, the first issue was ultra creepy.”

– Riley Rossmo, Proof, Green Wake, Cowboy Ninja Viking, Bedlam, Drumhellar

“It’s a masterclass in comics. it’s literate and the art? The art NEVER fails to impress. You just got to find out what happens next… BONNIE SHAW? GREG HILLINGER? THE BOX? What the fuck? It’s a movie for the mind ***** FIVE STARS.”

– Shaky Kane, The Bulletproof Coffin

“…reads really well, the artwork is just fantastic, intriguing premise, quirky and atmospheric and claustrophobic as I would expect – really impressed!”

– Frank Quitely, All Star Superman, We3, Jupiter’s Legacy

 

And after a sellout of our first print run, artist Iain Laurie and I are restocked and ready for our next convention: Thought Bubble in Leeds, on 23rd-24th November.  But it won’t just be more of issue #1 we’ll be bringing.  Nope, issue #2 is now finished, and ready for the show.  Here’s a sneak peek of the cover, drawn by Iain and colored by the magnificent Megan Wilson:

Emily2Cover

In this second chapter, Hellinger and Fiona begin to investigate Emily’s disappearance on the island of Merksay, with its very strange locals and terrifying hidden places.  Plus, we find out what’s in the box!

REVIEW: Southern Dog #1

It’s interesting how quickly something topical becomes something historical.  Take this first issue of Southern Dog, by writer Jeremy Holt and artist Alex Diotto, as an example.  With its references to Obama’s recent inauguration, and the impact this has on a select few racists from the Southern states, this is a story that feels very much wrapped up in commentary about the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and the undercurrents of ingrained racism driving some of those who participated in it.  Of course, it seems that ideas of racism and ignorance in society are going to remain ever-topical for a long time yet, so the story is not entirely dated.  But still, I have a feeling that Southern Dog may enjoy increased success given a few more years of seperation, when readers can look back on it as a snapshot of a particular moment in American history.  With added werewolves.

The story itself seems to be your basic “protagonist gets bitten by a werewolf and finds himself turning into one himself” narrative, but Holt gives it color by setting it against this backdrop of racial tension, and the spectre of past bigotry that can at times seem to hover over the south.  Some of the writing can be a bit on the nose – the convenient timing of the teacher happening to be doing a project on the American Civil War, or characters (white and black) just being overtly vile and transparently racist when in reality these sentiments might be expressed with more subtlety – but Holt does a commendable job of demonstrating how regular people can be horrible in little ways, and the cumulative effect that has.  I also think it says a lot for the strength of his world-building that the werewolf “A-plot” progresses very little in this first issue, but this still feels like a substantial, rewarding read based on the characterisation and the establishment of the stifling status quo.

Visually, Southern Dog is a treat.  The first thing that greets you upon picking up the comic is the dramatic, eye-catching cover from Bedlam artist Riley Rossmo.  But though Rossmo doesn’t handle the interiors, what we get instead is far from a disappointment.  Instead, young newcomer Alex Diotto could be the book’s biggest revelation.  Aided by the bright, crisp colors of Adam Metcalfe, Diotto’s simple yet expressive lines give each page real bounce and energy.  20-year-old Diotto seems to have an intuitive knack for dynamic page layouts and shot angles that many artists take years to learn.  Everything feels tightly framed around Jasper, our protagonist.  Look how often we get close-ups, or the border of the panels pressing against his shoulders.  It all adds to this feeling of him being trapped in this life, with a family he feels himself growing apart from and a local culture he is at odds with.  Skillful storytelling.

Overall, Southern Dog #1 is an intriguing debut, using political commentary to add spice to its genre trappings.  It will be interesting to see how the balance between these two aspects shifts as the series progresses.

Southern Dog #1 is available to buy now from the 215 Ink store.

REVIEW: Bedlam #1

Bedlam was actually a comic I first heard of thanks to ComixTribe.  Tyler James wrote a column about the series, laying out why he thought it had the potential to be the next big creator-owned comic success, and just the description of the high concept alone was enough to make me want to read this first issue: what if The Joker got treatment, was rehabilitated, and decided to use his unique insight into the criminal mind to help the police hunt serial killers?  Sold!  Take my money!  On top of that, looking at the creative team – written by Nick Spencer of Morning Glories and Thief of Thieves fame, with art by Riley Rossmo, who crafted some really intriguing work for Green Wake – told me this book had a strong pedigree of talent behind it too.  Plus, as I’ve said a few times lately, Image seem to really be on a roll with their new titles.  With all that taken into consideration, plus the great reviews and word of mouth I’ve been reading about it, and Bedlam found itself propelled to the top of my reading list for the week of its release.  I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this book!

After finally getting to read it, I have to say it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I was expecting it to be.  Perhaps it was a case of over-hype setting my expectations too high, as I feel that if this comic had taken me by surprise, I would have found it to be a solid debut.

I think it may be best to get what I didn’t like out of the way, so I can dwell on the multitude of positives available to discuss about this fascinating first chapter.  While the narrative has its share of genuinely great moments, largely surrounding the vile deeds of the villainous Madder Red, I think there are some problematic plotting issues in this first issue.  There are issues with clarity over exactly what is supposed to be going on at a couple of crucial plot beats that repeat reading didn’t do anything to alleviate.  Now, it could be that the ambiguity is deliberate, creating a mystery that will be revealed in future, but it didn’t feel like that to me.  It felt like I was generally supposed to know what happened, but the hows, whens and whys of that didn’t mesh together in palpable fashion, making it feel a bit clumsy.  I’m sorry for being vague in this, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but hopefully when you read the issue  yourself you’ll see what I mean.

Another issue with the plotting is that it lacks urgency.  Or rather, that most of the high stakes and tension comes from the flashbacks, rather than the present-day “A-story”.  I’ve talked about how great a high concept Bedlam has, how that alone sold me on the comic.  Well, by the end of issue #1, it feels like we’ve only got as far as that elevator pitch, what we already knew about the book going in, without being given any additional hook to lure us back for issue #2.  It’s like if Morning Glories #1 had just ended with the kids stuck in the big school: we knew that would happen already from the synopsis.  Instead, there the first issue had the kids getting stuck in the school…. THEN you got hit with an additional monstrous twist that left your jaw on the floor and had you feeling you needed to see what happened next.  I think Bedlam #1 could really have used a beat like that to close.

But I don’t want this review to appear overly negative, as my overall impression of Bedlam was a positive one.  There was plenty to like about this first issue, most of all the fact that’s it all anchored around an incredibly compelling main character.  Madder Red is an excellent supervillain, with an instantly iconic design, and a personality reminiscent of The Joker: equal parts trail-of-consciousness lunacy of the comics and cynical dismantling of authority of the Dark Knight movie.  Only this is The Joker without the restraint of being published by DC, violently murdering children with wild abandon.  You can tell that Nick Spencer just has a ball bringing this horrifying individual to life, crafting his malicious and sometimes blackly comic monologues with pure relish.

But just as effective is the characterisation of Fillmore Press, Madder Red’s alter ego.  When we meet Fillmore, 10 years have passed since his killing spree as Madder Red, and in the intervening decade he has been locked in an asylum and been subjected to radical, behaviour-altering treatment to “cure” him, before being released back out into society to live a “normal” life.  In contrast to the loud, charismatic Madder Red, Fillmore Press is timid, withdrawn, a deeply damaged shell of a man.  He’s quite clearly mentally ill, but that manifests itself in drastically different ways than it did during his time as Madder Red.  Spencer plays a deft hand in managing to make this character oddly likeable, even after showing us the horrific things he’s done in the past.  I’d say that thus far, this is the big hook that is going to bring me back for issue #2: the chance to learn more about this most unconventional of protagonists.

Riley Rossmo’s art is a delight.  His distinctive visuals were the highlight of Green Wake for me, and marked Rossmo out as a talent waiting to break out with the right project.  Sadly, the early demise of Green Wake meant that wasn’t to be the vehicle to do that, but Bedlam just might be.  If anything, Rossmo’s work is even better, capturing the ethereal mood of his earlier work, but bringing with it more polish, managing to appear cleaner while still capturing that rough, offbeat spirit that characterised his work before.  And as mentioned before, the design of Madder Red is a triumph.  Rossmo is ably assisted by the colors of Jean-Paul Csuka, not just in the stark grayscale/red pallette of the flashbacks that most reviews seem to be raving about, but in the washed out, Seven-style aesthetic of the present day.

So, in closing, is Bedlam the next breathtaking creator-owned comics sensation?  Not quite yet.  However, there are enough promising elements in the mix here that, given time, it could very well develop into it.  Definitely worth a read.

Bedlam #1 is available to buy now in all good comic stores… if it’s not sold out already!