Catch-up Comic Book Reviews – Rivers of London: Night Witch #1

Rivers of London: Night Witch #1 cover

Written by Ben Aaronovitch & Andrew Cartmel
Art by Lee Sullivan
Colours by Luis Guerrero
Letters by Rob Steen
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

The Rivers of London series of books is really terrific, telling the adventures of Constable Peter Grant as he becomes the first new member in years of the Folly, the branch of the Metropolitan police that deals with crimes to do with magic. I’ve been a big fan of it and Ben Aaronovitch since the first book back in 2012; I even went to see him at Manor House library, where he was funny and smart and charming. I was excited to hear that Aaronovitch was bringing the stories to comic books – this is the second mini-series, after Body Works – but this series is of particular interest to fans of the novels because it continues storylines that are the main overarching thread of the series.

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From A Library – Star Wars: Shattered Empire

Star Wars: Shattered Empire collection cover

Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1–4
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Marco Checchetto (and Angel Unzueta and Emilio Laiso)

I didn’t expect to see Rucka writing a Star Wars comic, especially one that starts at the end of the Battle of Endor; what I did expect was that Rucka would write a good comic book, and at least I was right about that. Lieutenant Shara Bey is an Alliance pilot in Green Group, fighting Imperial ships outside the Death Star; she comes close to accidentally shooting Luke Skywalker as he exits the Death Star following his battle with the Emperor. She is married to Sergeant Kes Dameron, part of the Pathfinders team assigned to Han Solo, which is how she ends up volunteering as a pilot for his team when it goes on a clean-up mission after the celebrations. Her adventures in the weeks after see her acting as a pilot for Leia and Luke on separate missions, as she also struggles to come to terms with being a rebel but who wants to settle down with the husband she barely sees and their baby they haven’t seen since joining the rebellion.

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Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: Four Doctors

Doctor Who: Four Doctors cover

Doctor Who: Four Doctors #1–5
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Neil Edwards
Colours by Ivan Nunes
Letters by Richard Starkings/Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

On the planet Marinus at some point during the Time War, the War Doctor is with the Voord, a hive mind race, who are resisting the Daleks; they are worried that the Time Lords will remove what the Voord have become during the war and ask the War Doctor for help. Cut to: Clara Oswald and the Twelfth Doctor, with the word ‘Marinus’ popping in to her head – after a quick recon trip, she goes to a café in Paris, 1923, to meet two other companions: Gabby Gonzalez (would-be artist from Brooklyn who is currently the companion of the Tenth Doctor) and Alice Obiefune (former library assistant from London who is currently companion to the Eleventh Doctor). Clara needs to convince the other companions of an important fact or the universe will be destroyed: their Doctors must not meet … Of course, things don’t work out like that and, as the Twelfth Doctor says, “We’re all going to have some sort of ‘Multi-Doctor … Event’! Whether you like it or not!”

After the Blinovitch Limitation Effect creates a paradox at a fixed point in time, Reapers appear to feed on the energy, so it’s time for our Doctors and their companions to run, where the three Doctors deliberately cause their Tardises to become docked into one, allowing plenty of running down corridors, then going to Marinus when they shouldn’t because it’s obviously a trap, revealing the reason why they’ve been lured there, a continuity bomb, and why the series is called Four Doctors. The story includes references to pivotal moments in the lives of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, lots of in-jokes and references and lovely dialogue (Eleventh Doctor: “Is this what deja vu is like? I’ve always wanted to have deja vu.”), plus some nice moments that illuminate the various Doctors and their respective companions. It’s all set at a frantic pace, with twists and turns aplenty, excitement, adventure and the feel of a story that you would see on the television (there must have been plenty of careful coordination with the various creators so that storylines didn’t get messed up, helped by the fact that Cornell has written for the TV show as well) instead of just a piece of tie-in merchandise.

This story works really well as a Doctor Who crossover – it feels organic and connected to the history and reliant on the different characteristics of the different regenerations. Cornell brings the right mix of comic book and television to the mini-series so that it works as a comic book that could be a television episode (well, an extra-length special at the very least) without feeling like it’s simply a storyboard for a show that didn’t get made; it’s a tricky balance to pull off, but Cornell manages the equilibrium superbly. He fills it with detail to show that the book is rooted in details of the series but also gently mocks it as well to create the light touch that drives the current incarnation, mixing humour with adventure that has consequences. So there are lines about the Valeyard looking like something ‘out of a panto’, a sly reference to the fact that the Ninth Doctor isn’t part of the Multi-Doctor Event (‘There was … a problem involving him.’), and the Twelfth Doctor describing the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors as ‘Manic Pixie Dream Doctors’ – a phrase that makes me smile just writing it – and as ‘Baby Doctor’ and ‘Posh Doctor’ respectively. Add in references to Harry Potter, Asterix the Gaul, Bugs Bunny, Star Wars and Carry On films, and you have that beguiling mix of entertainment that is Doctor Who.

Another important factor that makes this book feel like a comic book that is also something that could be on television is the art. Edwards has continued to grow as an artist and he makes this book come alive – not only is his art dynamic with excellent storytelling but he also does really good likenesses, something that can be the bane of comic books that are tie-ins to live-action shows. He perfectly captures the mannerisms and facial reactions of David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, which makes the banter and jokes land so much better. He also copes with the tough task of capturing the feel of the show and the accuracy of the Tardis interiors, which makes the story easier to invest in and go with, because the reader can sit back and let the narrative pull them through without anything taking them out of the story.

Doctor Who: Four Doctors is a fun, action-packed, genuine Doctor Who crossover that entertains and delights and makes you glad you’ve read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and think that you will as well. It’s Doctoriffic.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

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Comic Book Review: The Troop #1

Cover for The Troop #1

Written and created by Noel Clarke
Art by Joshua Cassara
Colours by Luis Guerrero
Letters by Rona Simpson
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

Noel Clarke should stop being so damn capable at everything he tries. In addition to acting, screenwriting, producing and directing films, he’s turned his attention to writing comic books, and he’s created a really good comic book that is interesting and exciting. It’s so frustrating …

The Troop is definitely a comic book with comic book antecedents, which is definitely a good thing – the industry is littered with comic books written or co-written by film/television personalities that are nothing more than thinly veiled pitches for films or television shows, which is a sad indictment on the way that some people view the medium. However, this story is created by someone who loves comic books: the super powers – a woman who can turn rocky, a man who can create fire from his hands, a girl who can manifest diseases in other people – are rooted in comic books, and this first issue is an archetypal ‘gathering the team’ story.

The story stars in Australia, where a young woman is rescued from a paramilitary squad trying to apprehend her by a man who teleports in to help (he also has technology that blurs his face in video footage) – she can turn her body to rock, giving her strength and a degree of vulnerability. Later, the two of them rescue the young man with fire-hands and the disease girl from a man in advanced armour who calls them ‘demons’ and who reports in to ‘your holiness’. This element of religion is also present in the man who saves them – his narration refers to a prophecy that has begun but which he will not let happen. There is also a very brief glimpse of what would appear to be a vampire, so there is a lot more going on in this world and more to explore.

This is a comic book set in the real world with burgeoning super powers and shadowy organisations trying to control them or eradicate them, echoing the likes of Rising Stars or Heroes in its general tone, even though it feels more connected to the X-Men and the world of mutants in general – no explanation for powers, people fear and hate them, an older man saving them to be on his team. However, it does seem to want to aim for a mature-reader level – there is swearing, the violence seems a bit bloodier than normal, and there is full-frontal nudity (of both sexes). There doesn’t seem to be any reason for these things as yet, but perhaps the ensuing issues will justify the decision as it gets further into the story.

If this is Clarke’s first comic book script, he’s achieved a high level very quickly – the book is assured, competent, considered; the plot drives the story, the characters are fully realised and distinct and have precise backgrounds, there is an air of mystery and tension, and it instils a necessity to find out what happens next. This is an impressive achievement in a first issue of any comic book, let alone from an actor who decided to write and direct as well. It’s not perfect – the names of our protagonists are not all revealed in the first issue, the nudity panels seem unnecessary, the locations of events aren’t disclosed, the narration changes between characters but there is no difference in their voices despite their age and gender – but these are not insurmountable. Clarke is clearly a driven individual with strong ideas and the ambition to achieve them, so it’s satisfying to see a comic book that matches that.

I’ve never seen Cassara’s art before but I’m impressed: it is solid comic book storytelling with a nice style that makes me think of a British version of the good Top Cow artists, strong lines with a slightly grungy vibe, distinct character work and very good panel transitions, never losing clarity or pace. The action is dynamic and visceral, the design elements strong, such as the armour, and the right mix of realism and traditional comic book to enhance the tone of the story. The colours help in this regard, with a palette that reflects all settings instead of dominating the pencils with a single muddy palette that occurs frequently in stories set in the real world. The first issue of The Troop is a complete package and sets up what looks like a very interesting series. Damn Clarke and his talent, which doesn’t seem to know limits – I hope The Troop does the same.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review: Crossed +100 Volume 1

Cover for Crossed +100 Volume 1

Crossed +100 #1–6
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Gabriel Andrade
Colours by Digikore Studios
Letters by Jaymes Reed
Crossed created by Garth Ennis
Published by Avatar Press

The mark of a truly great writer is the ability to create work in any genre, even a genre you don’t necessarily enjoy, and surpass the expectations and limitations while demonstrating their skill and craft to open your eyes to a good story. Alan Moore does that here. Working in a zombie-like setting, he creates a new dialect for a post-destruction Earth, examines the nature of the concept and then pulls the rug from your feet while misdirecting you with his talent. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

Crossed is a concept created by Garth Ennis – a pandemic that turns the infected into homicidal psychopaths indulging in murder, cannibalism, rape, torture, who are marked by a rash on their faces in the shape of a cross (Ennis can’t escape his religion-baiting tendencies) but retain the same level of intelligence; transmission is via bodily fluids and is extremely quick, meaning that the world was overwhelmed within weeks. The execution of this idea in the first comic book was so horrific (I read the first issue and my stomach churned at a particularly noxious double-page spread at the end) that I have never read another issue, despite being a fan of Ennis. However, the thought of Moore turning his attentions to this world was too much to resist.

This story is set 100 years since the infection started; there are fewer infected around because they tend to eat their babies and have no care for survival, and humanity is beginning to re-emerge. The book focuses on Future Taylor, a young woman who is the archivist for the settlement of Chooga (formerly Chattanooga). She is with a team investigating local areas for information about the world (books, videos, maps) that will help the survivors continue to thrive, but also to understand what happened (although Future has a predilection for ‘wishful fiction’, i.e. sci-fi stories). During their journey, they come across a family of infected, something Future hasn’t seen before because it’s so rare. She also finds what looks like a small shrine to an uninfected man, which is incredibly strange. She also finds another one in a large (and familiar to us) mansion in Memphis, where they lose a member of their crew to the infection. They return to Chooga to discuss the outcomes with their community, which leads to the crew being sent out to the settlement of Murfreesboro for information and help. She learns from the Murfreesboro archivist that the photo in the shrine is that of a serial killer, and she finds video of what looks like infected being experimented on. It’s only when she’s on another expedition does she learn the full truth …

This is a fascinating book to read primarily because of the language – instead of people in the future using the same words and grammar, Moore has created a believable evolution of English that uses words from today in different but identifiable ways (I believe he similarly created a different language for the first chapter of his novel, Voice of the Fire). So ‘hearting’ is ‘liking’, ‘sexing’ is ‘fucking’, ‘fuck’ is a general emphasiser, ‘movie’ is ‘amazing’, ‘skulling’ is ‘thinking’ or ‘knowing’, ‘opsying’ is ‘watching’ or ‘seeing’, ‘fooded’ is ‘ate’ or ‘fed’, ‘churchface’ is ‘sad’ – linguistically, this book is a delight. The creation of another dialect is impressive, but writing dialogue that is clearly different but that we can also understand at the same time is the mark of a great writer.

Cover for Crossed +100 issue 01The aspect that realises the depth to which Moore has created this world is the detail in the new society, with regards to religion and women and how the community functions. This also takes into account Moore’s influences of stories set in societies recovering from a global disaster – Future Taylor reads various ‘wishful fictions’, such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and mentions for Tolkien and Heinlein – and presumably other influences I’m not sufficiently well read to recognise. This is a work-for-hire job, six issues of genre comic books, set within those constraints and still including the horror and violence associated with the many preceding books in the Crossed world, but which manages to be something more than that.

The real kicker is something that can’t be discussed in a review – and I feel bad for mentioning the existence of it for fear of ruining the reading experience – and that’s the way Moore turns the course of the book in a different direction from what you think you’ve been reading. I can still recall that feeling of reversal, the sensation as my stomach dropped as I began to realise the ramifications of the clues Moore had left for us and what it would mean for the story, the need to read more quickly because I couldn’t wait to find out if the suspicions were true. It was an incredible sensation, something you come across rarely, and perhaps more impressive that it was in a horror comic book that wasn’t even Moore’s own creation.

I’ve been rhapsodising about the writing because I’m a Moore fan, but I should mention the art – Andrade does sterling work here, creating a thoroughly believable portrayal of civilisation after disaster and trying to cling on to existence, as well as the horrific scenes (I always feel sorry for artists, having to take the descriptions of repulsive acts and transform them into visible reality, and I worry for their sanity). He also manages the tough job of working from a Moore script, notorious for the detail and density of information, while creating beautiful panels in the middle of carnage or pits full of skeletons, showing humanity at extremes in the middle of a tightly plotted script and giving depth to the fully realised characters that Moore has created.

If this review seems overly fulsome in its tone, it’s because I wasn’t expecting to be so blindsided by the experience, coming in with low expectations of the genre and having them revealed as shallow on my part. I hope you enjoy some of the same experience when you read this book.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1

Cover for Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1

Written by George Mann
Art by Emma Vieceli
Colours by Hi-Fi
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

Josephine ‘Josie’ Day is painting in an empty cottage in a Welsh village when she’s disturbed by a noise, then a man: ‘I’m the Doctor, and I’d very much like to know what you’re doing in my house?’; her life isn’t going to be the same. The man is the eighth Doctor (as played by Paul McGann for one film, over a decade of audio adventures and recently wonderfully revived by Steve Moffat in Night of the Doctor), ‘a romantic soul wandering the universe in search of culture, companionship and adventure’, as accurately described on the inside cover.

The Doctor has returned to his home on Earth – it’s been several decades since he was last in the cottage – and he’s looking for a book. He thinks it’s important because someone left it for him – himself, ‘The other me. Old one, white hair and frills.’ – a copy of Jane Eyre (‘It’s one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century! Don’t they teach you anything these days?’). He’s distracted by Josie’s paintings, which have very unusual subject matter, only to be disturbed by a neighbour with a story of being attacked in the pub by a monster (‘I’m the Doctor – and I love a good monster story.’), a monster that was just like the one in Josie’s painting … When the monsters turn out to be Witherkin, creatures of living starlight that fashion bodies from fragments of drifting asteroids, and animated ones created by Josie because she is covered with Animae Particles (I do like a good pun), it’s up to Josie to save the day and finish the story …

I’d read a novel by Mann before but none of his comic books; he does a good job of capturing the voice of the Doctor in his eighth incarnation, the quest for culture and adventure, and the story is very much in keeping with the current approach to Doctor Who stories – quick to action, peril without heavy danger, humorous, a resourceful companion. It’s good to see this version of the Doctor getting a chance to shine in comic books, a good medium for the adventures because it has the necessary limitless budget. Vieceli is a good storyteller – the art flows naturally and dynamically – but the approach to likeness is more impressionistic than realistic; there are times where the art reminds me of Mark Buckingham and sometimes when it reminds me of Mike Deodato, particularly the late ‘80s, early ‘90s style, with less emphasis on background detail and more on the characters in the foreground. It has a charm that matches the Byronic tone of the Doctor and the adventure – light, breezy, playful, dashing – that overcomes any slight inconsistencies. The same playful and breezy tone is developed in the colouring, which channels the pastel end of the spectrum, taking it further away from the photorealistic style and placing it firmly in the cartoonier arena, almost with a hint of old-fashioned children’s book illustrations. It sounds like it shouldn’t come together, but it does in that wonderfully strange way that Doctor Who does. This comic book is a done-in-one story, setting up further adventures for the eighth Doctor and Josie as they investigate the strange circumstances behind Josie’s Animae Particles and her knowledge of unusual Doctor Who villains, which sounds like a perfect recipe for this particular time-travelling team. A good start to the mini-series.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review: Johnny Red #1

Johnny Red #1

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Keith Burns
Colours by Jason Worde
Letters by Ron Steen
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

Tony Iverson is a young, wealthy man (he made his money in the dot com boom) who has come to Vintage Flyers in Suffolk so that they can restore P7089: the battered and beaten airframe of a Hurricane plane (‘the plane that won the Battle of Britain while the Spitfire got the credit’). It has a strange history and the wreckage was recently found in Eastern Germany – for more details, Iverson will have to go to Russia to make further enquiries with a specialist contact. The contact in Russia locates a veteran of ‘the Great Patriotic War’ who says he knows Iverson’s plane, a former sergeant called Rodimitz. After laughing himself silly at the price Iverson paid for the Hurricane, Rodimitz (‘I would been happy to burn that worthless, stupid, obsolete English shitbox to the ground’) tells Iverson that he was Chief Mechanic of the fighter squadron the Hurricane flew with, and proceeds to tell him the ‘secret’ story of that time.

With that, the story flashes back to Stalingrad during the Second World War, where millions of Russians have died and those who remain survive and fight, and all planes were drafted to drop supplies so that the Russian defenders could continue the fight. However, the better German planes with their better pilots were always waiting … Fortunately, there was one plane that even the German fighter pilots recognised, a British plane flown by an Englishman leading a Russian squadron of which there is no record due to the story Rodimitz is going to tell Iverson …

Ennis is a fantastic writer of war stories (in my thoughts on Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge, I mentioned that the prose extracts of a factual book about the war were fantastic and that I would read non-comic-book war stories written by Ennis) as well as a huge war geek, as he has demonstrated in his various collections of his war comics. He is also a huge fan of Johnny Red, so this must be a dream come true for him. This comes across in the writing – he cannily starts the book in the present day so that he can slip in his war-buff knowledge before making the transition to the original era, but it also allows him to set the story up in a way to draw in a modern crowd, highlighting the unusual setting of a British pilot fighting with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The material at the back relates how a real event was the inspiration for the original Johnny Red stories (although the unfortunate typos take away some of the gravity: ‘… or make for distance [sic] Russian. He sensibly opted for the later [sic] …’); although this is fiction, Ennis grounds it in the reality of the war and all the horror it involved.

Ennis also uses the build-up technique before the reveal, which is a nice touch and works even though the reader knows that the character is Johnny Red – the deliberate hiding of his face in various panels until the final page reveal (where he is corrupting a 17-year-old boy: ‘It’s time you started smoking.’) is a handsome way to introduce and set up the protagonist. The art by Burns is a fine assist in this regard: using different camera angles to delay showing Johnny Red’s face while still making that seem natural and telling the story at the same time is a tough trick to pull off, but Burns does so with aplomb. There’s a certain rough line to Burns’ style, particularly in the faces, but his attention to detail when it comes to the aeroplanes is anything but rough, something I’m sure was important for Ennis in this collaboration. The aeroplane battles are also impressive, dynamic and vibrant yet clear and easy to follow.

I continue to be impressed with how effortless Ennis’ writing appears – each timeframe has wonderfully natural dialogue that advances the story while dropping in important information and maintaining different styles between the different eras, as well as identities for the different nationalities without needing linguistic tics to achieve it. I have read (and reviewed) some of the previous Johnny Red stories, so I know a little of what to expect, and this new comic book feels exactly in the same vein as the original material. I hope the modern comic book industry has room for a boys-own adventure, because Johnny Red is off to a flying start (and I don’t apologise for that terrible pun).

Disclosure: this book was provided in PDF form for review purposes.
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From A Library: Mystery Society

Mystery Society

Mystery Society #1–5
Written by Steve Niles
Art by Fiona Staples

How did I not hear about this comic book before? I like to think I keep abreast of the comic-book world, and particularly for comic books that appeal to my tastes, but I completely missed this mini-series when it came out in 2010. I didn’t know anything about it until I saw a copy of the collected edition in the library, attracted by the Fiona Staples art (she is deservedly a big star thanks to her fabulous work on Saga), and now I’ve found something that I adore, even though it’s unlikely to be gracing the world with any more issues.

In an interview at CBR to promote the subsequent one-off, Niles describes the pitch for the Mystery Society: what if Nick and Norah from The Thin Man ran the X-Men? That’s a great idea on its own, but what’s better is that he’s also managed to achieve that goal in the execution of the comic book. In this case, Nick and Norah are Nick and Anastasia Mystery (they changed their name), a loving married couple – always great to see a functioning relationship in entertainment, where dysfunctional relationships or how relationships start are the norm – who won the lottery and created the Mystery Society in order to uncover the world’s paranormal secrets. He is charming, handsome (he’s drawn to look like Errol Flynn) but with heart in the right place; she is smart, beautiful, and more than capable of taking care of herself. Together, they are still madly in love with each other and with the idea of revealing the truths of the secret world. This trade paperback is essentially the ‘getting the band together’ story.

We meet Nick as he is about to start a prison sentence; he decides to tell the assembled press the story of how he came to be going to prison. It starts with his breaking out Project X2X from Area 51: actually, Sally and Nina (aka the Atomic Twin) twin black girls in their teens, kept in a suspended animation by the US military. The reason? Well, they have superpowers: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy … Meanwhile, back at Mystery Society headquarters, Anastasia is visited by the Secret Skull – actually a young woman called Samantha who was bitten by a ghoul, so now she’s invincible, forever young and very dead (and also a character Niles created about five years previously for another comic book). Samantha wants to join the Mystery Society.

Nick has escaped with the twins and returned to headquarters, only to be framed for attacking and killing soldiers and millions of dollars of property damage. Then the brain of Jules Verne in a robot body crashes through the skylight, telling them that he wants to help. Because COMICS! The military arrive to arrest Nick, so it’s time for the Mystery Society to escape and split into teams, in classic superhero style: the Skull and Jules Verne go to find Edgar Allan Poe’s skull (it has been stolen and the Mystery Society has been asked to retrieve it), while Nick, Anastasia and the girls try to clear Nick, which unfortunately involves breaking back into Area 51 and stealing the unedited footage of what really happened …

I really liked this comic book. I liked the two main characters (although I prefer Nick without the moustache, but that’s just me) and their interplay, I like the concept, I like the scope for unlimited stories, I like the art, I like the humour, I like it all. I haven’t read much by Niles because I’m not a huge horror fan, so this was a pleasant surprise – the snappy banter, the playfulness, the diversity of the group. The only sad thing is that not enough people liked it so there won’t be any more. Part of the appeal is in the Staples art, which is great: her soft yet angular anatomies and faces are a delight, she draws great action but also does a wonderful job of the facial reaction in the comedy (there’s a lovely panel of Anastasia and the twins sharing a telepathy joke that is all in the faces). It’s not as polished as her Saga work, but that’s not a problem. Interestingly, Niles relates in the CBR interview mentioned above that when he found out IDW weren’t going to continue the book, he got a call from Brian K Vaughan looking for an artist and he recommended Staples because she wouldn’t be drawing any more Mystery Society, and a new superstar artist was born.

Mystery Society is fun, sexy, spooky and charming – Niles and Staples have created a great little book that should have been bigger. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it sooner and try to help it out.

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Comic Book Review – Heroes: Vengeance #1

Heroes: Vengeance #1

Written by Seamus Kevin Fahey and Zach Craley
Art by Rubine
Letterer Jim Campbell
Published by Titan Comics

This is an unusual comic book in that it’s not the start of a mini-series – the cover calls it a ‘prelude’ to the new TV series, Heroes Reborn; the accompanying text for the preview copy talks about it ‘revealing secrets about key characters in the show’; the inside front cover explicitly states the identity of the central character: Oscar Gutierrez, a mechanic who lives in downtown LA troubled by gangsters, is secretly El Vengador. This issue, despite reading as if there is some mystery as to the identity of the character, doesn’t have mystery because everything is explained; instead, it aims to be a combination of back story and current story.

We first see El Vengador coming to the aid of a young man being attacked by four members of a local gang. El Vengador is dressed in a Mexican wrestling mask but with a more military-styled version of the full-body suit of a wrestler. One full-page spread of him jumping from a rooftop transitions to the same pose of a Mexican wrestler (with the same mask) jumping in a wrestling ring in 1994 East LA. A younger Oscar and his little brother Carlos are watching the original El Vengador; Carlos still believes in the truth of the wrestling bouts but Oscar doesn’t. We see several panels of the two fights paralleling each other down the page before returning fully to the present day to see our super-powered El Vengador take down the gang members with efficiency, speed and strength (there’s a nice panel of a face being punched, a look of shocked pain on the face of the gang member as his teeth fly out his mouth). El Vengador tells the intended victim to leave town; the victim wants more help, but El Vengador doesn’t want to give him any more help – he wants to leave before the police arrive. He persuades the man to leave town before going back home to his wife and son.

This doesn’t feel like a complete story, even though it tries to provide a sense of a complete narrative with the modern-day action and the flashbacks. There is an inner monologue that accompanies much of the book, questioning what it is to be a hero and why a hero is needed, but it seems dry and plodding on the page (Fahey is a producer on the television programme and Craley is a writer of Heroes comic books, but it seems as if it might have worked better as an actual voice-over). The flashbacks to Oscar’s youth are supposed to inform his character, but you don’t get a real sense of who Oscar is as a person – he beats up bad guys and he’s a husband/father/brother, but nothing much else. I guess that because each issue will concentrate on a single character, the issue isn’t about creating a narrative tension that will require the reader to return for more – the point is that the issues will provide more details, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying first issue.

The two timeframes are delineated by a difference in art styles – Rubine uses a softer, cleaner line to draw the 1994 scenes, which is looser and warmer, suggesting the rose-tinted view of the past and youth; the modern scenes are drawn in a tighter, harsher photo-realistic style that is grittier and more in keeping with the tone and appropriate for a vigilante fighting in alleyways. Rubine’s art is good, although I prefer the sharper, darker art of the present-day pages (I was reminded of Alex Maleev and Tony Harris in places, which is a compliment), and he manages a consistent facial likeness in what presumably must be in keeping with the actor playing the part of El Vengador, although I haven’t seen any of the new series to be able to tell, a talent that is hard for some artists to pull off in other comic books.

This comic book works fine as a backgrounder on a character the audience already knows, but doesn’t succeed as a complete comic book in its own right. If you are a fan of Heroes Reborn and want to know more, you will probably get more out of it than I did.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review – Assassin’s Creed: Trial By Fire #1

Assassin's Creed: Trial By Fire #1

Written by Anthony Del Col & Conor McCreery
Art by Neil Edwards
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Colours by Ivan Nunes
Edited by Lizzie Kaye
Published by Titan Comics

1852. Great Basin Desert. California Gold Rush. A young woman in cowboy gear attacks a stagecoach to reclaim gold for the Maidu people who mined it. But this isn’t the genetic memories of a past life, as would be expected if you know anything about Assassin’s Creed – it’s a computer game, played on a virtual reality set by Charlotte de la Cruz, who prefers playing as the Brotherhood instead of the Templars because has an affinity for the Robin Hood vibe. She’s in San Diego for a job interview with World Share, some sort of global financial company, but she walks out when she can tell that the interviewer prefers a nepotistic solution to the job vacancy. She channels her anger into performing a bit of Robin Hood-style money transaction at the bank where she works, to help out a poor old lady in need, so it comes as something of a surprise to find two people, claiming to be from the Brotherhood, in her apartment. Not as much as surprise as when people crash through her door and try to kill her – the Brotherhood save her from these Templars and take her to their hideout. They inform her that the Helix System, the game she was playing and which was created by Abstergo, the world’s largest conglomerate, who sell it cheap so they can harvest all the data – sound familiar? – was a testing system, using actual memories instead of stories in the game, to find people with ancestral connections. The Brotherhood need Charlotte to access the memories of her ancestor from 1692, in Salem during the witch trials – a white man who doesn’t seem to have the same values as Charlotte, which she discovers rather nastily as she is violently de-synched from the Animus, the machine that allows the access of a person’s genetic past. However, this doesn’t hint at how dangerous it is for someone to try to change the history of an ancestor …

I really enjoyed Kill Shakespeare, the comic by Del Col and McCreery that made their name, and I’ve read a few Assassin’s Creed comics, but it was still a surprise at how much I enjoyed this comic. They have created a very intriguing protagonist in the form of Charlotte, a capable and intelligent woman who can let her passions get the better of her but who has a sense of right and wrong. The premise allows for a conflict for the character in the current political and financial climate, and I hope this aspect continues to thread its way through the rest of the series, and to see the development of Charlotte, who is a truly well-rounded character.

As well as the writing, the art deserves praise – Edwards conveys three separate timeframes with aplomb and draws realistic human beings in the modern world as well as the past. He manages to hold attention in scene-setting panels as well as the more flashy dynamic pages – the fact that the word ‘Assassin’ is in the title should be a suggestion that there will be violence, and there is some visceral action (I’ve still got the image of a throwing knife protruding from the front of an assailant’s skull in my memory, but in a good way). His artwork has come on a lot since I first saw it over five years ago (and didn’t think much of it), and I’m glad it was in the service of a well-written comic. Del Col and McCreery have crafted a very good first issue: it sold the premise, introduced a great new character, and I want to see how this tale continues. Recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

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