Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Batman #3 [The New 52] - DC Comics

BATMAN No. 3, January 2012
Despite an arguably alarming drop of 21,000 copies in sales, Issue Three of “Batman” was still the second best-selling comic book of November 2011 and also managed, in many ways, to depict a Dark Knight far closer to the ‘master sleuth’ portrayed in the character’s first ever story, “The Case Of The Chemical Syndicate”, than the more action-orientated incarnation seen during this current Modern Age of Comic Books.

But that does not mean for a moment that “The Thirteenth Hour” is by any means a disappointing or unengaging read. For Scott Snyder has written a steady pacey detective story, which allows Bruce Wayne to demonstrate not only his keen analytical mind. But also his knowledge and understanding of his family’s great history, and how it helped build, shape and influence Gotham City.

However before the billionaire illustrates why he is also commonly known as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’, the American author gets this magazine off to an exhilarating start by having the caped crusader battle “a Gotham branch of the Ukrainian mob”, armed with machetes and knives, deep down on a functioning underground train line. At first such a heavily outnumbered confrontation actually looks decidedly dodgy for the costumed crime-fighter. Especially as the fight spills out into the path of an oncoming commuter train, and Batman is clearly failing to dodge all of the iron mask wearing fanatics’ bladed attacks. Fortunately a slightly bloodied super-hero manages to cut the fight short by magnetising the train with a handy though miniscule ‘bat-device’, causing his assailants to be whisked away by the speeding engine.

What then follows is plain old-fashioned clue-finding, as the masked vigilante, having studied the nesting methods of the nocturnal owl, searches building after building looking for the criminal Court's numerous secret lairs. A pursuit he is remarkably successful with… that is until the comic ends with the Dark Knight inadvertently triggering a trip-wire and blowing up the entire thirteenth floor within which he was exploring.

With such a predominantly sedentary script a good deal of this issue’s storytelling success rests upon the shoulders of regular artist Greg Capullo, and the former “X-Force” illustrator does not disappoint. His page composition towards the climax of the comic, as Batman explores each ‘hidden hideout’, is especially impressive as the American pencils a foreboding series of rooms all containing a variety of owl-related memorabilia and weaponry… with each panel interspersed with ominous owl-shaped eyes. An excellent touch which eventually leads to the realisation that the detective is being watched and maybe the hunter is actually the hunted.
The variant cover art of "BATMAN" No. 3 by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

Monday, 30 March 2015

Darth Vader #2 - Marvel Comics

DARTH VADER No. 2, April 2015
One of the most appealing advantages to the storytelling medium of comics over motion pictures is the incredible opportunity books provide to project many of a film’s lesser known characters into the ‘spotlight’ and enrich both their personality and history. Issue Two of “Darth Vader” is one such example of this as Kieron Gillen takes the short-lived imperial officer Cassio Tagge, wonderfully portrayed by Don Henderson in the 1977 movie “Star Wars”, and emphatically builds the Grand General up as a man powerful enough to potentially rival the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.

Admittedly it is hard to hear the late British actor’s voice in much of the dialogue. But even so it is clear right from the start that Tagge, placed in overall command by Emperor Palpatine, is an anathema to Vader’s appreciation of ‘vision and action’, with his graphs and mathematical models. This uneasiness and bitter rivalry is best summed up in the words of the Grand General himself as he retorts to his subordinate “My plans may not be as glamorous or grand as yours or the departed Tarkin’s, but they work.”

Disappointingly the actual plot to this second part of the “Vader” story-arc is nowhere near as engaging or entertaining as the interplay between the two imperial adversaries. Indeed it is rather confusing (or open ended) as to what the Sith Lord’s mission within the space pirates’ base actually is. The basic urgent requirement for the Empire to put an end to these supply raiders from the Extreme Edge of the Outer Rim is obvious. As is Tagge’s desire to identify the people behind them. But what is not clearly explained is why Vader risks his life in order to download the pirate’s system data twice? Was his astromech droid’s upload simply the Sith Lord falsely planting evidence of the General’s adjutant’s treachery on the base’s computer system, or did the little robot copy something far more important from the raider’s records? Possibly time will tell considering the destructive lengths Vader goes to in order to ensure any trace of the droid’s work is purged.

What is abundantly clear is how good a creative team artist Salvador Larroca and colorist Edgar Delgado are, for the illustrations within this comic are mesmerizingly good. Whilst the Spaniard’s depiction of Tagge isn’t quite an identical likeness for Henderson, it is extremely close. Whilst Lord Vader is a stunning representation of the black armoured Sith warrior. The former “Fantastic Four” contributor’s pencilling of tie-fighters, corvettes and droids are also very well technically drawn, capturing both the look and feel of George Lucas’ celluloid versions.
The variant cover art of "DARTH VADER" No. 2 by Dave Dorman

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Batman #2 [The New 52] - DC Comics

BATMAN No. 2, December 2011
One of the major differences between publishing rivals “DC Comics” and “Marvel Worldwide” is that the former ‘houses’ the majority of its super-heroes within fictitious cities predominantly situated along the eastern coast of the American continent. Some of these urban settlements, such as Stargirl’s Blue Valley are arguably locations known only to avid comic collectors. Whilst others, such as Smallville and Metropolis are places which are far more widely recognizable to the general public. Gotham City is probably the most famous of all though, a notoriety due entirely to the media explosion surrounding the character of Batman in both film, literature and comic books over the past few decades.

What makes all of these fantasy towns, conurbations and megalopolis’ believable however is the sheer attention to detail the writers of “DC Comics” put into making such places appear real liveable habitats… and Issue Two of “Batman” is a very good example of this, as Scott Snyder weaves a compelling story around Gotham City’s original Wayne Tower; both providing the barbican with a rich architectural history, whilst making it a relevant and a crucial venue within which most of the story’s action takes place.

And pulse-pounding conflict must certainly have been at the forefront of the American writer’s mind when he penned “Trust Fall”. For rarely during its twenty pages does the comic deviate from focussing the reader’s full attention upon the exploits of the Caped Crusader. Whether that be as the cowled crime-fighter himself, smashing his way into the cockpit of a helicopter full of armed robbers or as Billionaire Bruce Wayne, exchanging a flurry of blows with a masked assassin whilst wearing his best suit, this book is all about The Bat. 

Indeed, even when the pace of the storytelling does momentarily pause mid-way through and concentrates upon the corpse of “a genuine mystery man”, all eyes are still upon the World’s Greatest Detective as he conducts an autopsy ‘alongside’ Commissioner Gordon. Admittedly Snyder’s introduction of a virtual photogrammetric scanner in Gotham City’s Morgue is arguably a step too far into the realms of fictional technology, and disappointingly brings an end to the grim traditional charm of the vigilante skulking behind the policeman in the shadows. But such a minor quibble is easily forgotten and forgiven once the Court of Owls takes centre stage and the industrial tycoon finds himself fighting for his life at the very top of Alan Wayne’s Tower.

Fortunately artist Greg Capullo is more than up to the task of illustrating such an energetic series of events, especially giving the fist-fights the sort of raw gusto which is almost palpable. Even when Batman isn’t placing a well-aimed kick towards his opponent’s solar plexus, the former “Spawn” penciller captures all of the super-hero’s menace with some simply wonderful renderings of the Dark Knight’s narrowing eye-slits. Somehow bestowing a plethora of expressions to the figure through such subtle touches. Indeed it is genuinely hard to fathom why, with such a high quality issue, that sales for the title dropped by 16,000 copies upon its publication in October 2011.
The variant cover art of "BATMAN" No. 2 by Jim Lee

Saturday, 28 March 2015

'68 Jungle Jim #2 - Image Comics

'68 JUNGLE JIM No. 2, May 2013
As a horror genre comic book Issue Two of “‘68 Jungle Jim” has an awful lot of monsters crammed within its twenty two pages. But not all of them are the living dead, as Mark Kidwell’s writing focusses upon some of the less savory human warriors of the Vietnam War… as well as the native Cambodian wildlife. Indeed “Hellhole: If We Happen To Be Left Half-Alive” introduces a number of new characters to those following Private Brian Curliss’ “epic quest to find the rotting, undead remains of Sergeant Jim Asher”, and the majority of them have dishonorable or at the very least questionable motivations.

Whether they be a pair of reckless United States Air Force pilots thoughtlessly dumping a consignment of napalm ordnance upon a hapless group of Vietnamese refugees, or a vile sadistic Viet Cong officer leading a murderous band of soldiers and threatening to abduct the orphaned children at the holy Salut Glen Mission. These people really have little empathy for the plight of their fellow ‘Man’ despite the constant threat of them all ‘surviving’ together during a zombie apocalypse.

What this issue does contain however is plenty of gory graphically-depicted action. Straight from the opening there’s a double-splash of a decaying corpse molesting a scantily clad nubile young woman. A troubling start to a scene which concludes with the living corpse having half his face burnt away and ear shot off. However this is simply the tip of an especially disturbing iceberg as Private Curliss wades deeper into the jungle and gets himself surrounded by a decaying hungry horde of zombies. Splattered brains, feasting maggots, bodily fluids and pink entrails all frenziedly follow as the Marine, later accompanied by a tiger, graphically gorge themselves on their undead foe. None of this propensity for violence should come as a surprise though considering the script has been penned by the creator of extreme horror title “BUMP” by “Fangoria Comics”.

The book’s language is equally as colourful and repulsive. Although admittedly on occasions seems entirely appropriate for the predicament the soldier finds himself in. Indeed there are actually a few ‘laugh out loud’ moments as Curliss berates himself for dropping his defences and becoming outnumbered by clawing cadavers, on account of him giving a little girl a ‘jolly fun’ piggyback through the undergrowth. Though the man’s funniest reaction has be when he comes face to face with an incredibly angry Panthera Tigris, having seemingly scampered up a tall tree and reached safety.

Disappointingly the pen and ink work of Jeff Zornow is not especially impressive, and at times is unsettlingly substandard. His figures are animated enough, and it is clear that the artist’s ‘enthusiasm for the Kaiju and horror genre’ has given him a great eye for detail when it comes to drawing zombies. But there are several panels where his line work is indistinct and poor, especially when depicting the faces of his characters.
The regular cover art of "'68 JUNGLE JIM" No. 2 by Jeff Zornow

Friday, 27 March 2015

Batman #1 [The New 52] - DC Comics

BATMAN No. 1, November 2011
This first issue of “DC Comics” “New 52” reimagining of “Batman” outsold every single other comic in September 2011, shifting an impressive 188,420 copies according to “Diamond Comic Distributors”. But whereas some of the publisher’s other titles underwent major overhauls, such as “The Flash” completely erasing the existence of the third Scarlet Speedster, Bruce Wayne experienced little more than a “soft reboot”, with key storylines such as “A Death In The Family” and “The Killing Joke” remaining as part of the Dark Knight’s new continuity.

As a result all of the old familiar ‘Bat Family’ faces abound within this book, such as Commissioner Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, Harvey Bullock, Tim Drake, Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne. But they are all somewhat younger than they’ve been portrayed for a considerable period of time. This is especially noticeable with the Billionaire’s young son, the current Robin, who seems to somewhat jar with the sensibilities when stood alongside a very fresh-faced father, and an adolescent looking Nightwing and Red Robin.

Presumably hoping to launch the series with an action-packed ‘bang’ writer Scott Snyder throws the reader straight into the ‘meat grinder’ as The Bat confronts more than half a dozen of his most popular super-villains at the start of an Arkham Asylum breakout. Unfortunately such a high-octane thrill is inevitably going to prove a cheap disappointment as the American author understandably, but unrealistically, has the Caped Crusader best the majority of his Rogue’s Gallery because they apparently ‘get in one another’s way’. This inevitably means that Batman ‘defeats’ the notable likes of Two-Face, Killer Croc, Mister Freeze, the Black Mask and Clayface within the space of just two pages and rather than appear as the classic formidable threats of yesteryear they instead seem to be little more than colourful but impotent fighting fodder.

Snyder does manage to throw in one surprise though, as the street vigilante’s archenemy, the Joker, not only makes a brief appearance from his cell, but seemingly joins forces with the Dark Knight so as to help him trounce the jail breakers even more. Sadly this stunning team-up is simply a ruse and is swiftly revealed to be Grayson ‘sporting’ an E.M.P. mask rather than the genuine Clown Prince of Crime.

What “Knife Trick” lacks in compelling storyline however it more than makes up for with impressive artwork, as Greg Capullo builds upon a competently drawn cover illustration in order to pencil some bone-crunchingly good interior pages. Indeed the former “Quasar” artist especially nails Batman towards the issue’s cliff-hanger, when Wayne has momentarily assumed the role of the World’s Greatest Detective and is investigating the ghastly cadaver of a man apparently used “as a human dart board.” FCO Plascencia’s contribution as colorist is particularly effective at this stage too, as the squalor of the corpse’s rented apartment is wonderfully brought to reeking life with a cacophony of dirty browns, spoilt greens, blues and reds.
The variant cover art of "BATMAN" No. 1 by Ethan Van Sciver

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Invisible Republic #1 - Image Comics

INVISIBLE REPUBLIC No. 1, February 2015
Described by “Image Comics” as “a gritty sci-fi series” Issue One of “Invisible Republic” certainly delivers its co-creators’ vision of the story being both the start of an “epic history” as well as an “intimate scale” tale. For having initially depicted the misery and squalor of a presumably planet-wide evacuation, following the fall of “the Malory Regime”, this book exclusively concentrates on the trials and tribulations of just three individual seemingly low-key characters; two of which lived forty years in the past.

In order to accomplish such an achievement co-writers Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko have clearly learnt from the science-fiction motion picture masters Ridley Scott and George Lucas. In fact, there is a lot of commonality between this title’s opening edition and the feel of both directors’ films. Certainly the squalor, the dirtiness and necessity to seek basic warmth from a bin fire smacks of the seedy, darkly decadent world of “Blade Runner”. Whilst this comic’s oppressive view of the ruling state through the eyes of an innocent young girl, and its depiction as an arrogant authority, simply in charge through sheer force of arms, is classic “Star Wars” storytelling… Even down to the na├»ve farm girl being protected by her bearded elder; a man who will willingly and unreservedly kill in order to protect that which he holds dear.

Most impressive however is Hardman’s skill as a narrator using just his artwork in order to tell the tale of the legendary Arthur McBride, as opposed to any heavy-handed over-reliance upon the printed word to explain to the reader what is happening. This really is one of the strengths of the former “Hulk” illustrator, especially by the time Maia Reveron’s journal begins telling the tale of when she and McBride were almost press-ganged into Commonwealth “soldiering.”

For three pages barely a word is said as the youngster goes spear-hunting for bony fish and Hardman’s pencils and panel breakdowns wonderfully portray the girl’s obvious delight with her catch. Admittedly this peaceful reverie is momentarily broken by the arrival of a ‘recruitment’ sergeant and two sour-faced squaddies. But when their peril becomes clear, and the pair ultimately fight for their lives, barely a word is ushered for a further nine pages until McBride, believing the three soldiers to be dead, calmly turns to his cousin and asks her to “help me feed those fish."
Writers: Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, and Artist: Gabriel Hardman

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Walking Dead #121 - Image Comics

THE WALKING DEAD No. 121, February 2014
When franchise creator Robert Kirkman discussed the “All Out War” multi-issue story-arc with the comic book press just before the ‘major event’ first went to print, he stated that not only would there be “quite a bit going on” but that the tenth anniversary celebratory adventure was “going to be very fast paced.” Unfortunately, after a somewhat promising beginning, there is little of that action-orientated story-telling on display within the twenty-two pages of Issue One Hundred and Twenty One of “The Walking Dead”. What the disappointing comic does contain however are a sequence of dialogue-driven scenes, interspersed by single and double-splash pages, which are both instantly forgettable and presumably employed (once again) to simply make up the book’s quite considerable page-count.

Even the magazine’s start, which at least contains an element of horror and suspense as a lazy ammunitions worker foolishly allows a gang of flesh-eating zombies into Eugene’s work area, proves a rather confusing read at first as there isn’t anything within the text to indicate who these characters actually are or where the action is taking place. It isn't until after the roamers have overrun the building and Charlie Adlard provides an impressive double-page illustration of Negan and his men preparing to gun the undead down that all becomes a bit clearer just as to who these people are.

Doubtless aficionados of the title would have immediately recognised Rick Grimes’ whiskered, pony-tailed arms manufacturer. But for those less familiar with the supporting cast, a simple text balloon would have avoided any disorientation. Especially when the Saviours were last seen high-tailing it away from Alexandria. Thus making it all too easy to wrongly assume that the events depicted were actually taking place back at The Sanctuary, and the homicidal leader had returned to his base just ‘in the nick of time.’

However at least this scene, packed full of panic and terror was entertaining, because what follows, although living up to Kirkman’s determination for the series to tell “a bit of story”, provides very little excitement. Instead it is apparent that the handful of grenades thrown into the community during Negan’s attack caused infinitely more damage than first thought, with “about half” of the settlement’s houses being lost or burnt down... In addition Heath has lost a leg, Ezekiel has lost his nerve and Denise Cloyd has died. Yet Carl, despite having had a grenade explode directly behind him, causing the youth to be knocked momentarily unconscious, is unrealistically fine and feels able to call his concussed father a “wimp.” 

What is impressive, especially considering the sedentary nature of so many of the scenes, is the quality of Adlard’s artwork. Possibly by this seventh instalment of “All Out War”, the illustrator had acclimatized to the accelerated publication schedule and developed a rhythm with Stefano Gaudiano; who had purposely been hired as inker in order to keep the British penciller on schedule. Whatever the reason, the Shrewsbury-born drawer really manages to capture a lot of hurt, pain and pathos in the looks and faces of the characters. And whilst his full-page offerings are competent enough, Adlard’s attention to detail with quivering lips, watery eyes and the haunted features of Rick Grimes and others is stunning.
Writer: Robert Kirkman, Penciller: Charlie Adlard, and Inker: Stefano Gaudiano

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The United States Of Murder Inc. #1 - Icon Comics (Marvel Comics)

THE UNITED STATES OF MURDER INC. No. 1, May 2014
As the brain child of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, the creators of the Eisner Award-winning comic book title “Powers”, Issue One of “The United States of Murder Inc.” promises both plenty of profanities in its dialogue as well as artwork which arguably is an acquired taste for many. But it also offers its 18,474 readership the opportunity to accompany ‘made-man’ Valentine Gallo on a double-sized adventure into the dark murderous underworld of a mafia-run alternative America… and what an edgy atmospheric journey full of double-dealing and blood-letting it is.

Right from the start, as a well-dressed but anxious looking young socialite joins ‘The Family’ and clumsily accepts to meet a Senator on behalf of the organisation, it’s clear that the American writer’s script is going to live up to his aspiration of being “very good crime fiction except multiply it by one hundred”.

The train excursion to Gallo’s rendezvous in Washington D.C. is full of tension and nervous energy, as Don Bonavese’s newest recruit first encounters a group of drunk obnoxious passengers, and then later a mysterious guardian angel called Jagger Rose who appears awfully handy with a firearm. The meeting with Senator Fuller is classic film noir, set within an exquisitely rich “boys only” club, where the uniformed porter immediately ushers Valentine through the foyer upon seeing the Family’s brooch pin fastened upon his suit’s lapel. The exchange is equally as moody and familiar, with the bald congressman doing all the talking, all the protesting, yet seemingly acquiescing to the organisation’s demands nonetheless. It also comes as little surprise that the briefcase left with Fuller soon explodes, presumably killing everyone in the building as well as Gallo’s best friend Dino.

In many ways though Bendis then uses this sequence of predictable events against the reader, providing something of a genuine surprise. As first Mister Tuzzo and Mister Bloom deny any knowledge of the ‘hit’ on the senator, and then, despite her foul-mouthed behaviour at the start of the book, the made-man’s “Ma” reveals herself to be one of three government undercover operatives attempting to infiltrate the Mafia. Somewhat more jaw-dropping however is the fact that the eighteen-year old was also “born an undercover Federal Agent.”

For much of this comic Oeming’s artwork, despite being overly simple and highly-stylized, manages to get the job done competently enough. Indeed his artistic partnership with colorist (and wife) Taki Soma, really helps create a dingy, corrupt and dangerous world within which violence and death can swiftly fall upon the unprepared.

Unfortunately what it is incredibly hard to do is differentiate between the characters of Valentine and Dino. Both are young dark-haired Caucasian men wearing blue-black suits. The only perceptible difference being that Gallo’s friend has slightly wavy hair and wears a pair of shades. So when the Senator is blown up, and the American illustrator produces first a terribly underwhelming double-splash of the building exploding, followed by an equally unimpressive two-page drawing of Valentine being catapulted forwards by the force of the blast as seen through the reflection of Dino’s glasses. It is pretty hard to appreciate that the groggy and bloodied survivor depicted clutching a pair of shades in his hand is in fact the Mafia’s latest acquisition, and that the dead partially mutilated body lying against a railed wall is actually Dino. Indeed it isn’t until the funeral, when Mister Tuzzo point-blank demands “I want to hear it from you, Valentine” that it becomes apparent who has actually died.
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Artist: Michael Avon Oeming, and Colorist: Taki Soma with Javi Pina

Monday, 23 March 2015

Swamp Thing #40 [The New 52] - DC Comics

SWAMP THING No. 40, May 2015
As encouragements to cause a comic book collector to make an impulse buy go, the Jesus Saiz front page illustration to the fortieth and final issue of “Swamp Thing” ‘The New 52’ really does ‘tick all the boxes’. It is a tremendous piece of artwork by the “DC Comics” penciller and inker, which portrays all of the Avatars of the past, even those from Prehistoric times, grimly marching alongside the current incarnation of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s co-creation. Unfortunately though the hopes for the enthralling read such an impressive piece of cover art creates in the mind’s eye are disappointingly dashed, once the first few pages of Charles Soule’s writing have been digested and the elemental entity leads his band of followers out from the watery depths of the Green back to our World.

Admittedly without a cumbersome ‘foreword’ at least providing the reader with a brief summary of past events, picking up the story during the last instalment of such a long-running series is always going to be a tough ask. But actually the New York Times best-selling author manages to do a reasonably good job of ‘naturally’ bringing everyone ‘up to speed’ as Swamp Thing is forced to brief his former selves as to what has previously occurred in order to convince some of them to accompany him in the grand battle against the mechanical Rithm.

Surprisingly it is the American attorney’s haphazard pacing of the climatic confrontation between vegetation and metal itself which causes this book to become so bitter an experience. One moment the “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” is telling his predecessors that they must fly to the North “near the Pole” in order to face the Machine Queen, and then a turn of the page later the reader is faced with a double-splash in the Gobi Desert as the Green’s army charges into that of both the Machine Kingdom and the Rot? Worse there is little in the way of explanatory dialogue provided by the characters concerned for the remainder of the comic, just a lot of flowery poetic prose, which is delivered almost as if it were a soliloquy.

The plot also abruptly halts mid-way through the battle, as Swamp Thing, close to being overpowered by a horde of robots, is suddenly and bizarrely sent crashing through the window of a library in Philadelphia? Besides this turn of events allowing the humanoid plant to become composed entirely of written pages, and the story be progressed by way of a double-page spread consisting of plain text, it isn’t really clear what is going on.

Yet somehow “the Swamp Thing, strengthened by his strange sojourn”, is suddenly transported back to “the battle in the desert against the forces of the Rithm”, allowing Soule to then narrate the briefest and hastiest of conclusions for the fight… as well as the purification of the Rot’s poison from the Grove.

Incomprehensibly, the material’s madness does not end there as having defeated and dismantled the Machine Queen, Alec Holland leaves the remainder of the Rithm’s essence contained within a small robot cat and simply plugs it into a shed wall socket before departing for one hundred years of solitude…

Equally as confounding is a similar departure in quality regarding the artwork of Saiz, who’s standard of pencilling seems to noticeably drop, along with the writing, as soon as the battle starts. Indeed by the time Swamp Thing has inexplicably been whisked away to the Paper Kingdom mid-fight, the artist’s panels have dishearteningly become little more than a pale shadow of the wonderfully rich and detailed drawing style found on the magazine’s attractively illustrated front cover.
Writer: Charles Soule, Penciller: Jesus Saiz, and Inks: Jesus Saiz with Javi Pina

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Gotham By Midnight #3 [The New 52] - DC Comics

GOTHAM BY MIDNIGHT No. 3, March 2015
It is not entirely clear which is the more frightening aspect of “Gotham By Midnight”. This issue's spine-tinglingly good narrative of a soul-sucking shadow creature skulking the dimly-lit corridors of Gotham County Hospital feasting upon whoever it can find, or the fact that according to Diamond Comic Distributors, the book dropped in sales by over six thousand copies to an unsettling 21,300 magazines in January 2015.

Whatever the reason for this disappointing decline in popularity, possibly connected to the news of artist Ben Templesmith’s imminent departure from the periodical, many readers have missed Ray Fawkes pen a superbly sinister and claustrophobic tale which not only offers plenty of modern-day thrills and scares. But also delivers a somewhat engaging backstory as to how Detective Drake and the human host of The Spectre, Jim Corrigan, first encountered one another during an undercover narcotics operation.

In addition the “Batman Eternal” writer also provides forensic specialist Doctor Tarr with some most welcome ‘screen time’ as Szandor steps away from translating endless hours of “gibberish” within Midnight Shift’s precinct house and physically comes face to face with “tall, dark and gruesome.” Indeed the bespectacled expert’s confrontation and subsequent conversation with the “autonomous human shadow with an articulated heart” in ‘Hungarian’ is probably the highlight of “We Become What We Fight”. Certainly it allows for Corrigan to demonstrate his usual dry-wit during a high-pressure situation and stalls the demonic creature long enough for Lisa Drake to destroy the monster with the light from her hand-torch.

Marginally less satisfying, perhaps simply because it concerns a more mundane or rather predominantly ‘non-supernatural’ storyline, are the six pages depicting Jim’s recruitment of the young female cop after she rescues him from the boot of a drug dealer’s car.

Both stories are wonderfully illustrated by the quirky cartoon-like pencils of Templesmith. Although for once the Australian’s panels portraying the flashback scenes aren’t obvious enough not to require repeated re-readings just to ascertain what is happening during the “Skull Dust” bust. Albeit a lot of the difficulty in discerning the Eagle Award winner’s drawings is due more to the predominantly grayscale pages being overly inked and therefore unfathomably dark, than any inability on behalf of the artist to adequately visualise events.
The variant cover art of "GOTHAM BY MIDNIGHT" No. 3 by Bill Sienkiewicz

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Afterlife With Archie - Halloween Comicfest Edition #1 - Archie Comic Publications

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE - HALLOWEEN COMICFEST EDITION No. 1, January 2014
Created in 1941 by Vic Bloom and Bob Montana, the character of Archibald Andrews is something of an American comic book phenomenon, as attested to by his official website receiving “forty million hits a month”; at least according to the late Chairman of “Archie Comic Publications” Michael Silberkleit. The decision to therefore ‘kill off’ the adult red head and end “Life With Archie” in July 2014 was condemned by some fans, upset that his demise, defending a friend from an assassin’s bullet, was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Such an outcry seemed particularly persuasive when it was revealed by Jon Goldwater, CEO of “Archie Comics” that Andrews’ adventures would continue as a seventeen-year-old once again attending Riverdale High School.

The events of “Afterlife With Archie” however occur within a different timeline altogether, albeit the zombie apocalypse it depicts still focuses upon the same town of Riverdale first established within the pages of “Pep Comics” back during the Fifties. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who notably has previously adapted horror novelist Stephen King’s “The Stand” as a thirty-one issue comic series, and noteworthy for being the publisher’s first title to be rated ‘teens and up’, the sheer wealth of backstories to the personalities from Archie’s world who reside within this book could be rather bewildering for the uninitiated.

Admirers of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, whether enthusiasts of the Nineties television series or her more recent ‘chilling adventure’ comic book, will be all too familiar with Hilda and Zelda, and have an appreciation of the girl’s deep feelings for her cat Salem; thus understanding her willingness to try and resurrect a distraught Jughead’s pet pooch. But the likes of Reggie, Midge, Moose, Mister Weatherbee, Miss Grundy, Betty, Dilton and Veronica are probably far less accessible to non-aficionados.

However the basic storyline is simply about an inexperienced witch trying to help out a friend by bringing his dead dog back to life, and getting her black magic horribly wrong. So instead of being reunited with a lively bouncy Hot Dog, a small-town teenager is bitten and infected by a four-legged zombified corpse. What then follows is actually a pretty standard tale of an increasing contagion being spread from person to person by bite to bite.

The biggest thrill by Aguirre-Sacasa is undoubtedly the reader’s excitement as to how once familiar (and beloved) ‘Archie’ characters are going to survive this zombie plague or the anticipation as to how they’re going to gruesomely die. But there is still an awful lot for those ‘not in the know’ to enjoy as well, as the American playwright does a tremendous job in building up the tension as Andrews’ best friend succumbs to the infection, potentially feasts upon his unsuspecting parents and then stumbles into the local high school’s annual Halloween party.

Additionally adding to this apocalyptic atmosphere is the terrific, though singularly stylized, artwork of Francesco Francavilla. The Eisner award-winning penciller’s technique really suits this sort of creepy and kooky storyline. Whilst his page composition, especially at the start of the book when Jughead races to the front door of Sabrina’s home to present her with both his dog’s battered body and a plea for help, actually gets the heart pounding with its sequence of short sharp pacy panels.

Interestingly this Halloween Comicfest (reprint) edition has been produced in a black and white format, and therefore forgoes the experience of the original magazine’s vivid orange and blue-grey interior colouring. But in many ways this version’s grayscale may actually be preferable and considerably adds to the comic’s overall feeling of bleak eeriness and menace.
Story: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Art: Francesco Francavilla, and Lettering: Jack Morelli

Friday, 20 March 2015

Uber #2 - Avatar Press

UBER No. 2, May 2013
Writer Kieron Gillen, almost as a postscript, mentions in this comic’s ‘afterword’ that he would be “concerned” if readers felt the “interesting” contents of this title sat within “their comfort zone.” Considering the absolutely horrific language, mind-numbingly detailed mutilations and unbelievably high body-count contained within Issue Two of “Uber” that must surely be a massive understatement.

The magazine’s ‘wraparound’ variant cover alone, which depicts the three German ‘battleships’ gleefully tearing their foe’s torsos from their legs, or simply disintegrating their heads with baleful energy attacks, is violent enough to sicken and perturb many a spontaneous buyer. And if that doesn’t manage to deter the casual reader, then the cringing profanities of a foul-mouthed English strumpet on the first interior page would surely do so. 

But what this title lacks in good noble sensibilities it admittedly makes up for in tension, excitement and action, as the plot predominantly follows the flight of British secret agent Stephanie (formerly known as Doctor Freya Bergen) as she attempts to cross into Allied territory whilst transporting the secret formula of the Nazi’s Ubermensch. Initially waylaid by starving refugees, and then pursued by motor-cycle riding German super-soldiers, the pony-tailed “Limey” proves a particularly tough target for the Third Reich to capture. Especially when she seeks the assistance of an American tank team to help dispatch the seemingly invulnerable Panzermench, Rudoph Gelt, and all manner of body parts and brain matter begin to fly across the pages.

Disturbingly the comic’s secondary storyline of Sieglinde and Siegmund defending Berlin from a US Air Force bombing raid, is no less harrowing an experience for any unsuspecting mild-mannered bookworm. Especially as it provides artist Caanan White with a splash-page opportunity to show off his excellent flair for drawing Allied aircraft as well as a talent for sketching the gruesomely disgusting dismemberment of the aircrafts’ crew; with severed arms, legs and heads, complete with flowing gore trail, proving especially prevalent. Indeed from the moment Stephanie encounters the American reconnaissance unit, the professional penciller does not stop illustrating hapless soldiers having their vital organs exposed and shredded in as blood-curdling a manner as is possible within the medium of a comic book; the deaths of the tank crew and then shortly afterwards Gelt, being especially ghastly, grotesque and unsettling.
The regular cover art of "UBER" No. 2 by Caanan White

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Altered States: Vampirella #1 - Dynamite Entertainment

ALTERED STATES: VAMPIRELLA No. 1, March 2015
Advertised as a parallel reality in the vein of “Elseworlds” by “DC Comics” and “What If?” by “Marvel Worldwide”, this line of one-shot books promised to imbue familiar heroes with ‘new’ unknown identities and have them explore “strange and terrifying new worlds.” Promisingly for this particular narrative “Dynamite Entertainment” turned to Forest Ackerman and Trina Robbins’ 1969 co-creation Vampirella, a character to which the publisher acquired the rights in 2010, but disappointingly they have produced a somewhat garbled reimagining of the superheroine’s origin. One which frankly appears to have far more in common with the vampire purportedly being an alien from the planet Drakulon, than the more biblically-inspired creation later invented by “Harris Comics” and published in “Vampirella Lives”.

Dishearteningly, whilst the Billy Tan cover appears so full of promise, depicting an anxiously lost-looking ‘Vampi’, donned in space-suit, being surrounded by a coven of medieval-looking blood-drinkers, Nancy A. Collins’ actual storyline is a massive disappointment. Indeed the American short-story writer’s tale is best described as an abominable amalgamation of Gene Roddenberry’s original Sixties “Star Trek” television series with Edgar Rice Burroughs; “John Carter Of Mars” novels.

The book’s only horror being that events are solely based upon the hapless female lieutenant crash-landing on a planet where the inhabitants’ veins run rich with water, whilst the world’s streams, lakes and showers freely flow blood. As a result, disorientated and parched, space explorer Ella Normandy seeks refreshment in the only way she can by momentarily attacking one of the local males in a half-hearted attempt to drink his… water!?! Thus being burdened with the terrible title Vampire Ella. Such a woefully unimaginative tale is strangely reminiscent of some of the early low quality monster fad magazines Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would regularly ‘churn out’ during the Fifties for “Atlas Comics”.

Depressingly, Francesco Manna’s artwork is just as easy to criticize and dislike as Collins’ substandard writing, with the Italian’s illustrations appearing lifelessly flat as a result of them lacking much detail. Indeed it is almost as if the artist, perhaps best known for his run on “Crossed: Badlands” by “Avatar Press”, was simply going through the motions of using his drawings to tell this story, rather than actually trying to attract the reader’s eye by providing, the characters with any dynamic vigour.

Admittedly Manna’s humanoid bat-creatures appear suitably menacing and imposing. But even these large purple-skinned goggle-wearing monstrosities soon become lost amongst the uninspiring and impotently coloured twenty pages of artwork which make up this comic book.
Writer: Nancy A. Collins, Illustrator: Francesco Manna, and Colors: Viviane Souza

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Dredd: Uprise #2 - Rebellion

DREDD: UPRISE No. 2, November 2014
Shifting just 3,561 copies, almost a thousand books less than the title’s first issue, this second instalment of “Dredd: Uprise” definitely creates the aura of a disappointing conclusion upon its first read. But this perception of a rushed or abbreviated ending is almost certainly due to the lead story simply containing a significantly lower page count than its predecessor, and that in order to ‘bulk up’ its size, “Rebellion” have included “a bonus Judge Dredd story from Rob Williams and RM Guera.” Indeed, as the total length of the main storyline is actually fifty pages, then this subconscious feeling of somehow being ‘cheated’ could arguably have been avoided if the adventure had simply been published as two twenty-five page periodicals instead.

Psychology aside, Arthur Wyatt’s writing certainly picks up the pace with Judge Darryl being revealed as the Justice Department traitor. Joseph Dredd’s character also suddenly takes centre stage as the square-jawed lawman mentally picks his way thought the events of the past few days, courtesy of a splendid ‘recap montage’, and grimly realises that rookie Judge Conti is actually a “levelheaded… good Judge.” Throw in the revelation that shadowy citizen Wallace is in fact an undercover street Judge and before the reader knows it John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's co-creation is up to his visor battling rogue robots and turbo-boosting his lawmaster across flaming sewers packed full of more of the murderous machines.

Somewhat frustratingly, there is no confrontation between Mega-City One’s most feared Street Judge and the portly conspirator Darryl. But the overweight villain’s demise at the hands of his rookie Conti is a somewhat satisfying alternative. Disappointingly the involvement of the Chief Judge behind the entire ‘uprising’ is left open-ended, as the story actually finishes with Dredd informing a recuperating Wallace that she “is promising an investigation at the highest level.” However this does mean that there is plenty of opportunity for a subsequent tale of corruption at the Justice Department’s highest level to be penned in the future; after all this title was being advertised as an “ongoing comic-book sequel”.

Paul Davidson’s artwork, with his clean line-style, really suits this sort of action-packed adventure. Especially when his illustrations are so remarkably well coloured by Chris Blythe. Certainly those who criticised his choice as a replacement for fellow British comic book artist Henry Flint, must have wondered why they were making such a fuss.

The bonus story “The Man Comes Around” seems an odd choice to package alongside this 2012 ‘realistic film version’ of Judge Dredd. Unfortunately this displeasure doesn’t just stem from the fact it features the comic book character, all huge shoulder pads and full-eagle, as sadly the tale's plot, a suicide bomber trying to kill off as many of his accommodation block’s residents before he himself dies, is a rather tried and tested one these days.

In addition, whilst RM Guera’s pencils are reminiscent of an early Mike McMahon, they jar horribly when compared to Davidson’s far more disciplined and polished drawing technique. As a result readers must have been left thinking that with over three hundred issues of “Judge Dredd Magazine” to choose from, “Rebellion” could surely have picked something more appropriate or enjoyable than a reprint from Issue Three Hundred and Forty Four.
The regular cover art of "DREDD: UPRISE" No. 2 by Boo Cook

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Walking Dead #120 - Image Comics

THE WALKING DEAD No. 120, January 2014
Whilst far from the “five-minute read” earlier chapters in this twelve-issue story-arc have been criticised for being, this sixth instalment of “All Out War” still arguably just provides the illusion of an exciting action-packed comic book. For although the storyline concentrates exclusively upon Negan and his men surrounding and subsequently attacking the Alexandria Safe-Zone, not a great deal of death and destruction actually takes place… and with the exception of an extremely short-lived biter rampage by a zombified Holly, there isn’t much attention paid to the living dead either.

Indeed as sieges go, the entire operation appears to be a half-hearted seemingly lack-lustre effort by the Saviours’ leader, as he orders his subordinates to just stand outside the settlement’s perimeter and throw grenades over the enclosure’s fence. Admittedly such a tactic catches Rick Grimes’ people momentarily off-guard, costing former supply-runner Heath a limb and knocking Carl senseless. But other than that, casualties are actually few and far between until the beleaguered community starts fighting back, greatly assisted by both the betrayal of Dwight and the arrival of Maggie Greene and some heavily armed survivors from the Hilltop Colony.

Even then, so swift is Negan’s ‘retreat’ back towards The Sanctuary that there is little opportunity for much more to happen before the book’s conclusion; and a real head-scratcher of a cliff-hanger Robert Kirkman has penned as well. For despite having suffered some presumably significant losses as a result of Maggie’s involvement towards the tail end of the ‘battle’, and his seemingly ineffective attempt to ‘blow’ Rick Grimes’ community to pieces, the psychopathic tyrant still seems utterly convinced that the settlement is finished and his adversary defeated. Clearly the neighbourhood has been damaged by the explosions, and is aflame as a result. But it is hardly the definitive end Negan claims it to be. 

The American writer’s removal of Carl to the infirmary is equally as illogical, bearing in mind it is currently being managed by an infected Denise Cloyd. Initially providing the dazed child with a bed there may well seem like a reasonable course of action but the former police officer knows his son’s carer could be about to turn into a zombie. So why when the youngster is hurt and vulnerable would you leave him groggy and defenceless with such a person… unless you were clumsily trying to cause the reader to be concerned that the general practitioner might try and bite Grimes’ boy in a future plot twist?

Visually Charlie Adred provides some solid competent pencilling to all these happenings, with inker Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn on gray tones really adding some extra depth and life to the drawings. The British comic book artist genuinely excels at depicting action, and as a result his illustrations of Dwight mercilessly gunning down his fellow Saviours and the Hilltop colonists’ arrival ‘guns a blazing’ are both vivid and energetic, even if somewhat gory.
Writer: Robert Kirkman, Penciller: Charlie Adlard, and Inker: Stefano Gaudiano

Monday, 16 March 2015

Nameless #2 - Image Comics

NAMELESS No. 2, March 2015
Whilst it would be easy to criticise “Image Comics” for purposely printing the “Rated M/Mature” warning on the back cover of this issue instead of the front where many would expect it to be, Chris Burnham’s grisly depiction of a headless human torso complete with Threescore Stone dripping blood onto the neck stump clearly illustrates that this book is going to prove to be a disturbing read… and “The Double Headed Horror At The Door” genuinely is too, as Grant Morrison replaces the numerous vague dreamscape meanderings of this mini-series’ first instalment with an entirely more horrific, solid and relatable terror, in the form of a homicidal woman on the loose within a lunar space base.

Indeed any reader who missed this brilliantly bizarre title’s previous edition could easily ‘pick up’ the story here instead, as the foul-mouthed occult specialist Nameless lands at Serenity Base and encounters the white chalk-lined scene of “the first murder on the Moon.” 

Admittedly there are an awful lot of new characters thrown at the reader towards the start of this magazine, but as the stony-faced adventurer forgets “half the names after hearing them once” himself, it soon becomes evident that the Scottish writer never meant for anyone to know all of Paul Darius’ crew anyway. Especially as the psychopathically deranged Andrea Blackstone swiftly starts to stalk those astronauts who remain behind to staff Mission Control as opposed to boarding the spaceship White Valiant.

In doing this Morrison creates a genuine dual atmosphere full of foreboding and suspense as the reader becomes torn between wanting to know what mysteries are to be uncovered by Nameless and his team-mates as they approach the structure built onto the surface of asteroid 626000, and what horrific spine-tingling deaths lie in store for the unsuspecting technicians coordinating the space landing, once Blackstone get her murderous blood-drenched hands upon their necks.

The Number One New York Times Bestselling Artist of “Batman Incorporated” really appears to be at the top of his artistic game for this issue with his terrifically dark and detailed drawings only amplifying the ominous feeling of dread and menace. Whether Burnham's pencils are depicting space missiles launching, Nameless feverishly ranting about the primal conflict between Angels and Demons, or the clearly cannibalistic madness of Darius and Blackstone, all are troublingly pleasing to the eye with bucket loads of blood intermittently thrown into the mix for good measure.
Words: Grant Morrison, Art: Chris Burnham, and Colors: Nathan Fairbairn

Sunday, 15 March 2015

King: Mandrake The Magician #1 - Dynamite Entertainment

KING: MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN No. 1, February 2015
Despite heroically confronting gangsters, mad scientists and even extraterrestrials since he was first created by Lee Falk in 1934, the newspaper strip character of “Mandrake The Magician” has arguably struggled for any sort of comic book success since the Seventies and is probably best known since that time for his 1995 mini-series written by Mike Barr; albeit even then “Marvel Comics” only ever published two of the three planned issues of “Mandrake”. However following his significant role in the events of the 2013 “Kings Watch” five-issue story-arc by “Dynamite Entertainment” the popularity of the extraordinary hypnotist has enjoyed something of a revival.

Indeed the captivating conjurer’s contribution to Jeff Parker’s modern-day re-imagining of ‘Defenders Of The Earth’ proved such a success that the American publishing imprint of “Dynamic Forces” have now provided the mesmerizing magician with his own title under its “King” imprint; the first of four issues dedicated to portraying the illusionist as a solo adventurer.

Unsurprisingly Roger Langridge’s storyline for this mini-series picks up straight after Emperor Ming’s failed incursion of the planet, and finds Mandrake moodily remembering the fateful day his wife, Princess Narda of Cockaigne, betrayed his love and joined forces with his bitterest foe, the Cobra. What then follows is a basic straightforward yarn which sees the “false wizard” perform a charity gala in order to generate relief funds so as to help those “hit hardest by the recent invasion”. Naturally the aid event is a huge success but it also permits a female thief to break into Mandrake’s occult chamber in Xanadu and release the evil spirit Acheron. Bearing in mind that his long-time associate, Lothar, the World’s Strongest Man, has since become the latest incarnation of the Phantom, the emergency benefit also provides the conjurer with a replacement ‘sidekick’ in the guise of the African magic-user Karma.

What isn’t quite so simple to comprehend however is CEO Nick Barrucci’s choice of artist for this book being Jeremy Treece. The Detroit-based illustrator’s cartoony drawing style, whilst highly animated and furiously detailed, fails to provide any sense of mystic foreboding or sinister skullduggery as his pencils appear far too fun, jovial and light for such a story. Indeed there’s a splendid agelessness to the freelancer’s zanily bouncy characters which just jars with the serious undertones of the script, and genuinely seems better suited to the “Mandrake” cartoon strips of yesteryear than this comic book.
The variant cover art of "KING: MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN" No. 1 by Ron Salas

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Dredd: Uprise #1 - Rebellion

DREDD: UPRISE No. 1, October 2014
When a motion picture only earns just over $41,000,000, a demoralizing four million dollars less than what it reportedly cost to actually make, and despite some generally positive reviews as to its visual effects and acting, overall receives little critical praise, then there is not much chance that a second feature film will occur. No matter how popular its home media sales are or that it is subsequently ‘awarded’ cult hit status. Unless… the 2012 science fiction movie in question is based upon the popular “2000 A.D.” comic strip “Judge Dredd”, and the ‘official’ sequel is actually a two-issue mini-series scripted by Arthur Wyatt and drawn by Paul Davidson.

Interestingly though, even this thirty-page publication by “Rebellion” steers away from the rather insular and claustrophobic narrative of the film and instead of just showing Joseph Dredd (and Cassandra Anderson) bottled-up battling local criminals, portrays the entire Justice Department combating what initially appears to be the machinations of a seriously organized crime syndicate known as Uprise.

Indeed the future lawman is far from being the central character for much of the story, and predominantly just appears to push the main plot along. It is only when the seasoned veteran takes disgraced rookie street Judge Conti under his wing in order to search the “old Richardson building” for a suspected sniper, that Dredd is shown at his no-nonsense and dry-humored best. Instead, the British writer drip feeds the reader with a succession of one or two page long scenes, which quite quickly introduce a potentially overwhelming array of different characters to the Mega-City One uninitiated.

Most noteworthy however has to be Judge Darryl, “some old judge, probably hanging on to the job past the point he should have retired.” This portly double-chinned lawman is as violent as he is vindictive, and it is somewhat predictable that he is revealed to be the corrupt link in the chain of events which concludes the first instalment of “Dredd: Uprise”.

Unsurprisingly for such an evidently well-made and gloss-finished magazine, the artwork of Davidson is rather nicely done. The freelance illustrator’s Judge uniforms are especially representative of their ‘big screen’ counterparts. Whilst his impressive cityscapes are wonderfully detailed and sweeping as well. The man definitely has a style reminiscent of the late “Rogue Trooper” legend Brett Ewins, especially in his design of Oemling’s robot auxiliaries. Chris Blythe on colours must also take some credit for the lavishly rich look to the book’s drawings though, providing the comic with a suitably squalid overall feel despite incorporating a hint of red or green whenever the opportunity arises.
The regular cover art of "DREDD: UPRISE" No. 1 by Ben Willsher