REVIEW: Bandette #1-5

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

Bandette1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Theremin #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Theremin #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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