REVIEW: Pretty Deadly #1

What, another review so soon!?  As it happens, Image had more than one issue #1 hit comic shops this past week.  For me, at least, Velvet came along with heavier anticipation on my part.  While I’d heard about that from Image Expo and have been looking forward to it ever since, Pretty Deadly first came onto my radar when Image began running that teaser ad in the back of their comics.  I knew nothing about the plot, other than the presumed Western setting, but that striking image of Deathface Ginny, along with my familiarity with the creative team – I really enjoyed the Osborn miniseries a couple of years back, so I was already of the opinion that Kelly Sue DeConnick was at her best when paired with Emma Rios – ensured I would at the very least give the series a try.

But this past week, it seems like Pretty Deadly has had a surge in press and attention, partly fuelled by a retailer-related controversy, that has arguably turned it into a more high-profile debut than Velvet, and so going in I quickly learned more about the premise.  To be honest, I was a little wary, with the “embodiment of Death stalking through a Western setting” putting me instantly in mind of East of West, another new Image series from this year which has tread that territory with great success.  Thankfully, once I actually read the comic, I realised that – ostensive parallels aside – this is a very different book from Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s genre-splicing opus.  If anything, Pretty Deadly shares more DNA in common with The Sandman.  In the lyrical, seeming allegorical opening sequence, Kelly Sue DeConnick seems to be channelling Neil Gaiman’s fascination with the power of narrative, and how the act of storytelling can become transformative for the storyteller; a motif that recurs in various key beats through the first chapter.

By the time I’d finished with Pretty Deadly #1, I found myself intrigued, and certainly keen to check out issue #2.  But I didn’t love it, and I didn’t find it as immediately engaging and likeable a read as Velvet #1, which I’d read just previously.  In comparison, I found Pretty Deadly lacking in urgency, and a bit unclear and confusing in certain places: I wasn’t always sure how one scene connected to another, or what significance certain characters and moments were to one another.  But after dwelling on each comic for a while, it was Pretty Deadly that I returned to for a reread first, later that night.  For whatever reason, there was just something about this comic that simmered away in my mind, and I just had to keep digging into it, trying to unlock it.  At the time of writing this, I’ve now read Pretty Deadly #1 four times, and each time I pick up some new detail, and it becomes a richer reading experience that I appreciate more and more.  And I even understand most of what’s going on, now.  The only bit I still struggle with is how the group of bandits go from shooting at Sissy and Fox to getting shot by them, to suddenly being their compatriots and travelling with them.  I think it has something to do with them actually shooting at the lizards rather than our two protagonists, but it’s still not entirely clear.  But to come back from that tangent, the point I want to make is that Pretty Deadly is a layered comic that rewards multiple readings.

Much of the depth comes from the magnificent artwork of Emma Rios.  There’s so much stuff in here that I just glossed over in my first reading, but when you really focus on the visual construction of this comic, it’s just a weird book.  The rhythm of the comic is so unorthodox, packed with additional panels that draw out moments in ways that don’t often happen in a comic book.  In one memorable sequence, a single 4-word sentence is drawn out over 4 panels, all focusing on the movements of two interacting hands.  And the whole issue is filled with strange beats like this.  It’s not uncommon to find 10-panel pages here, pages densely packed with little window-panels adding additional colour to a scene, be it a close-up of a character’s reaction to what’s going on or a seemingly tangential riff that takes on symbolic power.  If Scott McCloud were ever to release a new edition of Understanding Comics, Emma Rios’ work here could make for an excellent case study on the ways art can shape the pacing of a comic.

One sequence that is already being celebrated for its innovation is our introduction to our two most prominent characters in this first issue: Sissy, a mysterious little girl in a vulture cloak, and Fox, a blind man with possibly-supernatural powers who protects her.  In the sequence, Sissy sings the story of Deathface Ginny, as Fox points to various key images from her narrative on a large painted canvas.  They are acting out “cantares de cego”, viewed by many as an ancestor to what would become the comics medium in how it married words and images to tell a narrative.  And in her intricate two-page tableau, Emma Rios gives us with a delightfully metatextual flourish an exploration of how we read comics.  In illustrating what the gathered crowds are doing as they watch Sissy and Fox’s performance, in the form of ghostly images filling in the gaps between the various pictures Fox is pointing to, Rios is demonstrating how we as comic readers fill in the gaps between the still images on the comic page to create a moving narrative in our mind, so seamlessly we often don’t even realise we’re doing it.

I recently watched Room 237, a documentary on the hidden meanings found within Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining, and in that one of the commentators talked about how the film works on a subliminal level, because just about every scene has an impossibility, something not quite right that you don’t even consciously register, but which nevertheless sets you ill at ease.  And I was put in mind of that with the work of Emma Rios here, which just has this unusual, off-kilter quality that becomes oddly hypnotic, right down to the strikingly offbeat cover.  As a reader, our eyes are so drawn to Deathface Ginny lingering just out of sight above the uppermost boundary of the cover that we might not immediately notice that there are blood-red hands rising out of the depths of the water her face is reflected in.

Assisting in bringing Emma Rios’ visuals to life is ubiqitous colourist Jordie Bellaire, who brings out a different quality to Rios’ art.  When I’ve seen her artwork elsewhere, it has been coloured very softly, giving it a gracious, flowing feeling.  But Bellaire’s coloring here is much more stark and barren, befitting of the Western aesthetic, which gives Rios’ visuals a harder edge, a rough-hewn quality that once again put me in mind of some of the earlier artists on The Sandman. 

As for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing, as mentioned, it is oblique and allegorical, the writer going in directions I’ve never seen her take before.  It doesn’t do what you might expect from the narrative: Deathface Ginny, for example, has a very small role in the narrative, only really showcased through Sissy’s song here.  And it almost feels like it’s only in the last page where things really get going.  But the script is packed with little incidental details and subtle character beats that capture the interest and bring these characters to life in quiet, unexpected ways.  Even figures with smaller roles leave lasting impressions here.  A favourite moment of mine was the conversation between Sissy and the little boy in the house they’re sheltering in.  I loved the dynamic of them both appearing to be around the same age, but Sissy being much more worldly and beleagured than her wide-eyed companion.  To return to the puzzle analogy, it feels like we’re seeing a few pieces of something larger being laid out by DeConnick here, and in a few issues we’re really going to see how it all connects together.

Almost as enjoyable as Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing in the main comic was her afterword, going through her journey to getting Pretty Deadly made.  And it’s quite a revealing piece of writing, almost framing the narrative of her life as a big journey that has all been leading to this comic seeing print.  No pressure or anything!  I didn’t quite warm to the little prose story in the back, though my realisation that the Johnny of that story was the Johnny of the main comic narrative – someone who I assumed would be an incidental figure we’d never see again – suggested to me this might have more relevance than it currently appears to possess.

So, as it turns out, Pretty Deadly #1 has quite a lot to digest.  In truth, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review, you really ought to just go read the thing and make up your own mind.  This is a thorny, difficult book, and it’s not for everyone, but I think if you engage with it, you’ll find a whole lot to admire, including career-best work from both Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.

PrettyDeadly1Pretty Deadly #1 is out in all good comic shops now.

REVIEW: Skybreaker #1

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

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

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

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

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

Skybreaker1Skybreaker #1 is available to buy now from Comixology.

REVIEW: All Star Western #1

Over the past three weeks, amongst making my planned DC New 52 pickups, I’ve also, on a whim, grabbed another last-minute addition that I’d had no intention of buying up until the 11th hour.  These were, respectively, Detective Comics, Red Lanterns and Nightwing.  In each case, I didn’t really feel vindicated for my spontaneity, as in each case my wild card selection was the weakest offering of the week, with me unlikely to come back for issue #2 of any of them.  So, when I was in the store this week, and – with no prior planning – grabbed All Star Western #1 off the shelf and added it to my buy pile, in the back of my mind I had a worry that I would be going 0 for 4 on such decisions.  Thankly, in the case of All Star Western #1, this concern was unfounded.

For a long time, I bought DC’s  Jonah Hex series – also by co-writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti – faithfully each month.  Shoved in a box somewhere, I have the first 50-odd issues of that series in my overgrown and wild comic collection.  But when I was trying to curtail my buying habits and thin down my list of monthly purchases, arguably the biggest strength of Jonah Hex – the largely one-and-done structure of standalone tales each month – became one of the things that made it an easy choice to cut.  And though I came back for the final two issues of that series, that to me felt like my goodbye to the character.  I had no inclination to return to that world with All Star Western in the relaunch.

But reading All Star Western #1, it’s clear that with a new title comes a different approach to storytelling.  The simple, standalone tales have given way to what seems to be a dense, intricate murder mystery, the first chapter in a multi-part saga that very quickly drew me in.  While I still think that Hex is a character best suited to those one-and-done fables, I can’t deny that Gray and Palmiotti make a skillful transition to a longer-form narrative for the scarred bounty hunter.  Aiding in that transition is the shift in locales from the wilderness of the Old West to the burgeoning city of Gotham, where Jonah Hex partners with Amadeus Arkham to discover who has been killing and mutilating prostitutes in a case that bears parallels to Jack the Ripper.  This change of scenery has a twofold effect.  First, it alters the dynamics of the story, so in spite of the title this feels less like a classic Western than it does like a Victorian murder mystery.  Second, it gives us a Jonah Hex story that feels more connected to the current DCU rather than existing in its own distinct historical corner: we even get some references to the ideas and even the characters Scott Snyder has been playing with in his Gotham-based writing.

In terms of characterisation, by this stage Gray and Palmiotti could write a compelling Jonah Hex in their sleep.  But, in introducing Hex to a potential new wave of readers here, they take an interesting angle of presenting him from the clinical perspective of an outside observer: in this case, Dr. Arkham.  His evolving insights into Hex’s personality and motivations help to show new readers that there is more to this apparently amoral bounty hunter than meets the eye, while those more familiar with the character will get a kick of seeing how certain comments by Arkham accurately (or inaccurately) allude to Hex’s storied history.

Over the course of their Jonah Hex run, Gray and Palmiotti were fortunate enough to work with a wide range of talented artistic collaborators, and Moritat carries on that fine tradition.  Aided by the muted color palette of Gabriel Bautista, Moritat evocativelly brings 19th Century Gotham to life, right from a breathtaking opening splash page of Gotham train station and the emerging city behind it.  He also provides us with a fine rendition of Jonah Hex, capturing the fine balance between ugly and heroic.  If I had any small complaint to make about Moritat’s work, it would perhaps be that his ink lines are a bit too thick and heavy at points, to the point where it can get distracting.

Another thing worth mentioning is the length of this comic.  This has a bumped-up price tag compared to other DC comics, and my understanding was that this would allow a regular-length main feature, plus a shorter backup.  There is no backup feature here, just the main Jonah Hex/Amadeus Arkham story.  This means we get a whole 28 pages devoted to this opening chapter, letting the creative team go more in-depth with establishing this world and its characters than a lot of comics got the chance to do in their debuts.  You really feel like you’ve got your money’s worth after reading All Star Western #1, a full, dense chapter of storytelling.

So, when it comes to my wild-card selections from DC’s relaunch lineup this month, it seems I’m now 1-3.  I don’t yet know if I’m ready to make another long-term commitment to DC’s weird western world, but for the duration of this storyline at least, ALl Star Western has grabbed my interest, and reminded me why I had such fondness for Jonah Hex in the first place.

 

REVIEW: Zombie Outlaw #1

I’m sure at some point before I’ve mentioned the large shadow The Walking Dead casts over the zombie genre in comics.  With how successful and how critically acclaimed that series has been, any other zombie comic has to have its own niche if it’s going to stand out.  With Zombie Outlaw, a self-published comic by writer Brian J Apodaca and artist B Paul Jordan, the twist is setting the zombie horror against the backdrop of college campus comedy.  It’s definitely different in tone and presentation from Kirkman’s zombie opus, and is very much its own entity.  But is it a good comic?

Well, there’s a lot of good stuff here, at least, even if it doesn’t all quite come together in the end.  Apocada is clearly a skilled writer, bringing his central characters to life with an easy charm, making them instantly likeable (or hateable, if that’s required) within a few choice interactions.  Although this is the kind of surreal world where the key to a long-lost tomb is on the librarian’s keyring, the characters feel credible.  Geeky Matt is the kind of character that is familiar to the teen comedy – picked on by a meathead bully, lusting after the girl of his dreams from afar – without falling too far into bookish, bespectacled stereotype.  And when he first encounters a zombie for the first time, he pisses his pants, which, let’s be honest, is probably a reaction we’d be more likely to have than picking up the nearest weapon and launching into battle.  But stealing the show is suave student mentor Will, channeling the spirit of Ferris Bueller by way of Indiana Jones.

So, on a panel-to-panel basis, Apocada’s writing is strong.  But as a whole, it doesn’t quite  gel into a satisfying, cohesive narrative.  Oddly enough, it  feels like simultaneously too much and not enough happens.  On one hand, it feels like we’ve barely got started on the story before it comes to an abrupt end, with the zombie action just getting going by the conclusion of this first issue.  But on the other hand, I think I might have preferred a whole issue before the zombie outbreak got out, gone more in-depth with the mythology and history of the Zombie Outlaw from back in the Old West, while also giving us more time to get into the friendship between Will and Matt before it’s broken apart.  In trying to pinpoint the central structural problem of the issue, I’d venture to say that there are two good stories here – the zombie curse from a bygone age ready to unleash itself on today’s world, and the college campus romantic comedy – but in trying to rush through the development of each, neither is fully realised.  This might not end up being a problem once the story is complete and we can read it as a whole, but better pacing could be something to take on board for future issues.

Funnily enough, I think B Paul Jordan’s artwork has a similar problem to Apodaca’s writing, with the whole “strong on a panel-by-panel basis but problematic when taken as a whole” analogy.  I’ll begin with the positive: I love his art style.  It’s a style that’s instantly distinct, with his characters’ massive forearms and weird inversed eyes with black whites and white pupils.  With the unusual body shapes and knack for visual gags, Jordan actually reminds me of Rob Guillory’s work on Chew.  Like Guillory, he’s an artist perfectly suited to comedy.  It is very hard to make comics funny, and much of it depends on the right artist, someone who can capture a quirk of facial expression or body language that sells the moment just right.  But Jordan pulls it off, hitting home some genuine laugh-out-loud beats in the comic.

However, I think he needs to work on his layouts.  Save for a couple of impressively orchestrated zombie sequences in the latter half of the book, much of the layouts are quite unremarkable, and in the early pages in particular there is a noticeable amount of dead space.  The storytelling can be a bit off in places as well, with characters jumping from one massive, overblown pose to the next with little cohesion between them.  It veers dangerously close to one of those manga parodies, with someone eyes bulging out of their heads with a crazy zoom-in as they cry, “OH NO! I FORGOT TO BUY MILK!!!!”  However, Jordan has an instantly appealing style, and if he hones his skills a bit more, I could see him being an artist in real demand in the future.

As a first issue, Zombie Outlaw #1 has some flaws, but it is still an enjoyable comic, I was never bored while reading, and there’s enough groundwork put in place that you get the sense subsequent issues could be better.  Both Apodaca and Jordan are talents with real potential – with a little refining here and there, I think they could do some really good stuff down the line.

You can buy Zombie Outlaw #1 from Comixpress.  If you’re attending the ComiKaze Expo in Los Angeles on November 5th/6th, you’ll be able to get the book there too.  For more info, check out www.zombieoutlaw.com.

REVIEW: The Sixth Gun #13

In the past, I’ve spent quite a bit of time singing the praises of The Sixth Gun.  This supernatural Western series from Oni Press, written by Cullen Bunn and drawn by Brian Hurtt, was one of the best new comics of 2010.  The first storyline, “Cold Dead Fingers”, was a pulpy rollercoaster ride that served as the perfect antidote to the “deconstruction” of many contemporary comics, with more packed into each single issue than you’ll find in 6 issues of many Marvel titles.  The second arc, “Crossroads”, showed an impressive change of pace, Bunn demonstrating that he was equally adept at the slow boil in a more horror-tinged tale seeped with atmosphere that showcased a steadily escalating sense of dread.  And all the while, as each issue provided a full and satisfying reading experience in its own right, the overarching mythology of the series continued to be built upon and the characters continued to be developed.  Now, as The Sixth Gun enters its second year, can it maintain the high quality?

Unfortunately, it would seem that The Sixth Gun #13 and this current arc, “Bound”, aren’t quite up to the level of what has come before.  This is something I’ve never had to say about a chapter of this series before… but it was a very quick read.  One of the things I’ve loved about The Sixth Gun thus far is it felt like every issue took us to some new and exciting place or situation.  But the entire body of this issue is just a continuation of the fight that began last issue.  And while the comic normally gives us gasping cliffhangers, this time round I literally turned the page to make sure there wasn’t more story I was missing, because the issue just ends, practically mid-conversation.  “Is that it?” is not my normal reaction to reading an issue of The Sixth Gun.

However, I don’t want to come down too hard on Cullen Bunn, as there is plenty he does right.  One of his biggest strengths with his work on this title has been his ability to continually add strange and interesting new characters to the mix, effortlessly building on his ensemble and making even bit-part players and single-service heavies feel rounded and compelling enough that they might be featured stars of extensive sagas in some lost world.  That trend continues this issue, with the further development of last issue’s new arrivals: sinister necromancer Eli Barlow, and Asher Cobb, a hulking mummy who may have more complex motivations and connections to the history of the narrative than we first believed.

Bunn also continues to do well with his established central cast, particularly our enigmatic protagonist Drake Sinclair, whose development takes a surprising turn here.  The final page may not have been a cliffhanger, but my anticipation over finding out what comes next for Drake will be more than enough to bring me back for issue #14.

One area where this issue certainly isn’t lacking is the visuals.  The action setpiece that dominates the issue revolves around zombies (and the aformentioned mummy) laying siege to a train, in a monster-mash homage to the classic “train robbery” setpiece of many a classic Western tale.  And the illustrations of Brian Hurtt, combined with the lush colors of Bill Crabtree, perfectly bring this to life.  Hurtt’s panel layouts emulate the sense of rapid movement one might get in a runaway train, with his cramped panel layouts suggesting the confined space of a train carriage.  The visuals put us right in the heart of the drama.

This may not be one of the better issues of The Sixth Gun, but even a weaker instalment of this excellent series is better than much of the comics on the market.  And I’ve built up enough faith in Cullen Bunn’s storytelling abilities to feel confident that, in the end, “Bound” will all come together just as nicely as “Cold Dead Fingers” and “Crossroads”, and The Sixth Gun will continue to excel in its second year.

REVIEW: Tall Tales from the Badlands

The subject of today’s review is Tall Tales from the Badlands, a Western anthology written by brothers Sean and Seamus Kevin Fahey and drawn by a variety of artists.  I’ve already spoken of my love for Westerns in earlier reviews, so I’m always happy to read more comics within the genre.  This isn’t the first anthology I’ve reviewed for this site either, but what sets this particular one apart is that, rather than each story being by a different person, it is a collection of individual stories shared out between the same writing duo, with Sean writing three and Kevin writing the remaining two.  Does this unity of vision bring with it a consistency of quality that anthologies can often lack?

Thicker than Water

 

The anthology starts off promisingly, with Sean Fahey providing a cracking short story called Thicker than Water, aided by Lisandro Estherren on art.  Estherren’s art is sparse, with heavy blacks abstracting much of the detail of individual characters.  But it works, with these shadowy figures placed against beautifully-rendered locations, with the combined effect creating an evocative sense of a near-mythic wilderness.  The sharp, simple art is the ideal compliment to Fahey’s script, equally sharp and simple.  You get a sense of a much larger story in the backdrop, but Fahey grinds it down to the bare bones here, the story of a retired bandit forced to sell out his old partner to save his brother’s life whizzing by like a machine while still feeling complete and satisfying.  In a short space of time, we quickly come to care for Nathan Miller, who feels fully-realised with a story we’ll only get the briefest glimpse of.  A gut-punch of an ending cements Thicker than Water as a high-point from which to launch the anthology.

It’s a shame then that this high-point is followed by arguably the low-point of the anthology.  The set-up of Abigail sounds engaging – a housewife must protect her home and her children from invaders in her husband’s absence – and the writing of Seamus Kevin Fahey is solid enough.  But the art of Jose Holder really lets the side down in this one.  The early pages showcase some great visuals, with Holder skilfully portraying both the intimacy of private outpourings of emotion and the epic scope of an Old West landscape.  But once we get into the action of the story, everything begins to fall apart.  With cramped, muddled panel layouts and characters becoming indistinguishable from one another, even after multiple readings it’s hard to follow exactly what is going on in the main body of the piece.  As a result, much of the tension and sense of peril Fahey builds up with his script is dissipated under a cloud of confusion.  But on the plus side, the last panel is a showstopper.

J.C. Grande is quite a prolific artist on the indie comics scene.  I wasn’t aware of him before I started doing these reviews, but since I have, his name has popped up on quite a few of the projects that have been sent my way, most notably in Jamie Gambell’s quality horror comic Omnitarium.  Grande is clearly a hard-working guy, and I hope that pays off with increased recognition in the near future.  The story he illustrates in this anthology, The Runt, is perhaps the best showcase I’ve seen of his work so far.  He’s left to do most of the heavy-lifting with the storytelling, as much of Sean Fahey’s script is devoid of dialogue, focusing on a grizzled old dog caring for the body of his recently-deceased master.  Grande more than rises to the challenge, delivering crisp, stylised art that suffers from none of the lack of clarity that sometimes troubled Omnitarium.  This story was always going to soar or sink based on how effectively the art could humanise the dog and make us feel sympathy for him, and thankfully Grande is up to the task.  Fahey effectively wraps the tale up with another emotional kick in the nuts, but it is the art that truly makes this story work.

A Thousand Deaths

Impressive art is also brought to the table in the next story, A Thousand Deaths, this time by Juam Romera.  Romera’s character designs are reminiscent of the work Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon provided for Casanova, with the unusual body shapes creating a kind of fluidity that enhances the sense of motion on the page.  Seamus Kevin Fahey is once more on writing duties for this tale of a fatalistic gunslinger, but unlike with Abigail, here the art compliments his work.  The result is a story that’s up there with Thicker than Water in contention for best of the bunch.  The writing here is a masterful exercise in misdirection.  Through the detached narration of our protagonist, we are drawn into the drama of the moment and the psyche of the character.  It makes for a compelling experience.  But once you are greeted with another well-calculated twist ending, I’d recommend going back to the start and rereading.  You’ll get a totally different experience from the same narration, the whole drama unfolding in a different light, and even the title taking on fresh significance.  Expert storytelling.

Sean Fahey takes the reins again for the final tale in the collection, Easy Livin’.  Here, we follow the exploits of a lone trapper carving out a living on the American frontier… and that’s about it.  The story isn’t bad by any means: I get where Fahey was going with it, it makes a clever point, and after the onslaught of grim misery we’d been subjected to up until this point it was quite nice to end with a more upbeat tale.  But with the other stories built around such clever twists or powerful closing moments, I read through Easy Livin’ waiting for something to happen, and it never did.  Thankfully, we’re once again treated to some lovely art, this time by Borch Pena.  With a story that is built almost entirely around the wonder and romanticism of a trapper’s life on the frontier, it is essential that the visuals give us a stirring sense of place.  Mission accomplished on this front, as Pena brings a variety of locations convincingly to life, really giving us a sense of this world.  As a final note about the art through the anthology in general, I’d like to remark that the absence of color was never really felt for me.  The art – for the most part – is beautiful and effective in black-and-white.

The issue of some stories being better than others is still here in this anthology, as I imagine it is in just about all anthologies produced.  But with the brothers Fahey collaborating on the whole anthology between them, the stories contained within feel a lot more like they’re part of the same world than, say, 8: A Steampunk Anthology.  This is a harsh, morally strained world, where happiness is hard-fought, and often in peril, and both the Fahey brothers excel at bringing that world to life in Tall Tales from the Badlands, thanks largely to the contributions of a talented crop of artists.  Definitely worth a look.

Tall Tales from the Badlands is available in print for $2.50 from IndyPlanet, and digitally for $0.99 from DriveThruComics, Wowio and MyDigitalComics.

REVIEW: The Sixth Gun: Cold Dead Fingers

In a recent review on this blog, I mentioned how impressed I was by The Sixth Gun #7.  I commended it for how much of a satisfying read it was in its own right, how much plot and character it squeezed into its 22 pages, and how based on the strength of that issue I would be seeking out the graphic novel collecting the first 6 issues.  Well, after picking up this graphic novel, Cold Dead Fingers, I was surprised to discover that issue #7 is actually what passes for a quiet, uneventful installment in this inspired supernatural Western series.  For as far as opening arcs go, the first 6-issue storyline of The Sixth Gun is a belter.

A widely circulated trend in comics these days is comics that read like they’re tailored for trade-waiters.   You know the feeling.  When put together in a 6-12 issue chunk you feel like you’re getting a whole story, but on an issue-by-issue basis you feel like you’re just treading water.   Not a problem for The Sixth Gun.  As much as I like the graphic novel package (the matte-finish paper stock on the cover gives the book a nice feel) I kinda wish I’d been getting the single issues from the start.  Most of the six chapters included in here are jammed with enough content and narrative progression to make up a six-issue arc of their own in a typical comic in this age of decompression.  Every second chapter boasts an issue-long fight scene, and even the “quieter” chapters in-between have their fair share of bloodshed, as well as extensive world-building and character establishment.

That’s not to say, however, that the story at any point feels rushed.  Writer Cullen Bunn gives us with Cold Dead Fingers a meticulously plotted and structured book.  Much like that other great Western/supernatural hybrid comic to debut in 2010 – American Vampire – every issue adds to the greater mythology of the series, while at the same time serving as a worthwhile standalone package that a new reader could use as a jumping-on point.

The comparison with American Vampire is perhaps apt, as The Sixth Gun can be seen as an intriguing companion piece to Vertigo’s latest breakout hit.  While American Vampire is a comic that is very much looking forward, viewing the frontiers of the Wild West as the fountains upon which the bloody secret history of 20th Century America was built, The Sixth Gun is a story more preoccupied with looking back, with its contemporary Wild West setting the tip of the iceberg in a saga that delves into ancient magic spanning back centuries.  This is an uncharted world, still fool of unexplored corners with myths and mystic things, and the old-school pulp adventure heightens this aesthetic.  You get a sense that the Wild West is perhaps the last era a story like this could be told in, before the science and industry of the modern age stamped out fantasy once and for all.  While American Vampire paints the canvas of the Wild West as a beginning, you get a sense with The Sixth Gun that is used to mark an ending, the last flourish of a now-lost time.

But amidst all the plot mechanics and ideas, it’s the characters that truly draw us in and make us want to keep reading.  And the character at the core of Bunn’s tapestry is compelling anti-hero Drake Sinclair.  This is a character who is at times hard to like, and indeed our feelings for him shift as his history and motivations are gradually peeled back in layers.  We first interpret him as the grim lone rider with a heart of gold in the Clint Eastwood vein when we first encounter him, but it quickly seems Sinclair has a much more cynical, selfish bent to his personality – such as when he leaves a dying man in the desert for the buzzards to eat – painting him as something considerably darker.  But as the story goes on, we begin to question if maybe he does have that heart of gold after all, just very well and deeply hidden.  The story cleverly places him in situations where his reactions can be ambiguously read as either altruistic or self-serving, and though by the end of Cold Dead Fingers he seems to be more settled on the heroic side of things, we get a sense that we still have much to learn about Drake Sinclair’s murky past.

Less successful is the other core character, Becky Montcrief.  While she is given the important position of being owner of the eponymous “sixth gun”, right now we’re in a position where there is little to define her other than that weapon, aside from generalities of being “brave” or “strong-willed”.  While Drake Sinclair is a masterful example of a character shaping the progression of the plot, Becky Montcrief too often serves as an unfortunate example of the plot solely defining the character.  I wouldn’t call Becky a lost cause yet, though.  Throughout the graphic novel there are flashes of her innocence corroding, and her growing attachment to this cursed gun in issue #7 hints that there could be dark times – and with it, meaty character exploration – lying ahead.

The supporting cast of goodies is rounded out by aging bounty hunter Billjohn O’Henry – whose grumpy sidekick role becomes a lot more interesting in the book’s second half when it takes on a poignant, fatalistic twist – and escaped prisoner Gord Cantrell, whose hulking frame makes him one of the more visually engaging characters in the series, but who at this early stage remains something of an enigmatic blank slate awaiting further development.

But I’d argue Bunn’s biggest success in characterisation comes with his depraved roster of villains.  I call stories like The Sixth Gun Metal Gear Solid stories”.  Not because the video game was the first by any means to set up such a dynamic (Die Hard and Robocop are notable cinematic precursors), but simply because it’s one story that stands out in my mind at doing it particularly well.  What I mean is a narrative that sets up multiple villains – a “Big Bad” and a selection of other “bosses” working under him – then is subsequently constructed around how these formidable foes get taken out one by one.  Telling a “Metal Gear Solid story” is a kind of artform in itself: getting all the dynamics right, making each villain distinct and memorable in their own right, the craft of making the second-in-command or “Mini Big Bad” stand out from the other villains in their own right while still not overshadowing the main antagonist.  But Cullen Bunn pulls it off with panache in Cold Dead Fingers.

The towering devilry of this graphic novel, and the figure who will likely stand as the ultimate enemy of The Sixth Gun as a whole, is General Oleander Hume, at one time one of the most feared strategists and wartime leaders of the Confederate army, now a rotting undead zombie attached to his coffin by magic-tinged chains, shouting abuse at anyone within hearing distance.  He’s certainly visually striking, as far as villains go, and he’s built up as a soul-crushingly evil menace as much by the terrified testimonials of others as by his actual on-panel antics.  Interestingly, while undoubtedly evil and despicable in his words and deeds, you can’t help but develop a grudging sense of admiration for the crazy old coot – too stubborn and hateful to even let death do more than slow him down, we see him facing down mythical creatures and seemingly insurmountable odds in a manner that we have to acknowledge as bravery, of sorts, particularly when considering that in one instance he does so to protect the men under his command.  And there are even brief, fleeting moments where it seems General Hume might have a warped sense of honor lurking within his black heart.

The Revolver Ocelot of our story, to continue the analogy, is Missy Hume, the General’s scheming widow, and the first visible face of evil in the opening chapter before the more overtly supernatural enemies are revealed.  Of course, as we later discover, Mrs. Hume resides within the realm of the supernatural herself: able to heal from any wound, and apparently immortal and eternally young, making her a nice contrast to her zombie husband.  Missy Hume is so vile that she almost upstages her husband in the villainy stakes, and does so with apparent relish – while the General is on a quest for power and conquest, we get a sense that Missy is driven largely by the sheer exhileration of being bad.  She’s also at the centre of one of the graphic novel’s most gruesome set-pieces, examining the consequences of her gun-toting hand being amputated.  All this, combined with the great way Brian Hurtt draws her – look at the way her cheekbones give her a kind of Glasgow smile, as well as those sinisterly expressive cat eyes – make her possibly my favorite character in the book.

The rest of the rogues gallery is populated by Hume’s four henchmen – each wielding one of the six guns – who seem to reference the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the nature of their guns’ respective supernatural powers.  Each of these characters has their own singular design to make them stand out, and as noted above, much of the narrative’s forward thrust comes from their undoing.

I’ve touched upon it a few times throughout the review, but I should give specific mention to the massive contribution made by Brian Hurtt to the book’s success.  Comics are a visual medium, and so a big part of a character’s success is how distinctive and identifiable their appearance is here.  On this front, Hurtt delivers the goods, with his designs doing just as much (and at times more) to establish these characters as Bunn’s skillful writing.

As mentioned in my review of issue #7, Brian Hurtt is an artist with an incredible sense of place.  And that trend is readily apparent throughout Cold Dead Fingers, with our characters journeying through multiple locations, and each one rendered in detail to give it its own distinctive atmosphere.  For example, note Chapter 5.  We start the chapter in the early morning, and as the narrative progresses we are taken through daytime, then sunset, and end the chapter in the dead of night.  This is not done obviously or with attention called to it, but it’s there in the background, subtly enhancing the sense of building dread and impending doom.  The Sixth Gun is as much a triumph of aesthetic as it is a triumph of ideas.

So, I’m all caught up with The Sixth Gun now, and I’m surely onboard for the long haul.  I have to commend Oni Press for this cracking series, one which skillfully juggles genres while expertly utilising the potential of the comics medium.  I regret that I wasn’t reading this book when I compiled my Top Ten Comics of 2010 list, as I believe it may have ranked quite highly.  As it stands, I’m very excited for where The Sixth Gun is headed in 2011, and if you like good comics, you should be too.

REVIEW: The Sixth Gun #7

I love me some Westerns.  There Will Be Blood and Once Upon a Time in the West rank up there among my all-time favourite movies.  Red Dead Redemption was one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.  I’m currently searing through the Deadwood complete series DVD boxset that was surely my best Christmas present this year.  And though I eventually had to drop it when trimming my pull list, for a long time I faithfully picked up the Jonah Hex comic by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.  There’s just something about that period of American history that fascinates me.  I think much like sci-fi, westerns can explore the idea that, out on the extremities of the frontier, we can often get a unique perspective into human nature.  While sci-fi often comments on where we could be going, the western at its best often examines how we came to be.

Given this interest in the genre, for a while now I’ve had a yearning to try writing a Western comic myself, despite being an outsider looking in as regards that most American of genres.  So when I started hearing good things about The Sixth Gun, the new series from Oni Press – with many industry creators citing it in a recent mass interview feature on Comic Book Resources as one of the best comics of 2010 – I wanted to check it out for myself to see what it was doing right.  As it turns out, the answer is “a whole lot”.

I was originally intending  to get the graphic novel collecting issues #1-#6 of the series, get myself caught up.  But due to a shipping problem here in the UK I couldn’t get my hands on the book last week.  So instead, I picked up #7 and decided I’d use this issue to get a feel for the series, and see if it was something I wanted to invest in further.  This can be a risky strategy, as when I can I prefer to start a series from the beginning and read chronologically.  But it was not a problem for The Sixth Gun, with the introduction on the inside cover getting me caught up on the key characters and plot points.

Reading the comic, it soon becomes clear this is not your typical Western.  Writer Cullen Bunn has skillfully blended the Western genre with elements of fantasy and horror.  Even a new reader like me is quickly immersed in the expansive mythology Bunn has crafted with this story, with Western archetypes like the cocky gunslinger and the treasure hunter seamlessly interacting with golems and spider-demons, neither world being given short shrift.

It helps massively that the setting of this issue is New Orleans, known for its rich and varied history.  And artist Brian Hurtt does a commendable job bringing New Orleans to life and conveying its unique atmosphere, from the architecture of the old buildings to the shadow-drenched menace of the swamplands.  While location too often feels interchangable in comics, this is a comic that’s drenched in a sense of place.

Speaking of Hurtt’s art, as well as the illustrations he is also responsible for the lettering, making him the chief architect of the book’s visuals – though the crisp, vibrant colours of Bill Crabtree should also be commended.  The way Cullen Bunn writes the narrative captions, it’s like the telling of a weird western tale, an old folk story that might have been the subject matter of pulp fiction back in the days of the Wild West.  And in his presentation of these captions with his lettering, Brian Hurtt totally captures that vibe too.  But it’s Hurtt’s pencils and inks that are the major contribution, providing a cartoonish vibe that contrasts nicely with some of the dark subject matter.

So, a very strong introduction for me into the world of The Sixth Gun.  Certainly enough for me to pick up that graphic novel containing the first six issues.  This is a comic that not only shows how the familiar iconography of the west so associated with classic film can be adapted into other mediums, but also how the genre can be subverted and used as the basis and grounding for a quite different type of story.  This is a book to keep an eye on.