June 30, 2017

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What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About Star Wars-- a review of Kieron Gillen and Kev Walker's Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume 1- Aphra

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume 1- Aphra
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Kev Walker, Marc Deering and Salvador Larocca
Colored by Antonio Fabela
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics

In one of his recent email newsletters, Kieron Gillen wrote:

The first Doctor Aphra trade dropped when you were away, where Kevin and I dig (ahahahaha!) into the archeologist hero. While obviously it'll reward anyone who followed her adventures through Darth Vader, it's designed as a clean start. My approach with Star Wars comics has always been to make them Star Wars. They have to feel like the silver screen on paper, in all those immaterial ways. As such, we've tried to find something that merges the Indiana Jones structure with the Star Wars one.
So, yeah, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume 1- Aphra is a Star Wars book and it’s pretty much everything Gillen describes above. Since Marvel’s relaunch of this line of comics, Gillen has written some of the best comics in the Star Wars family. So, recognizing that Killen making this comic Star Wars with a strong belt of Indiana Jones, let’s try to put that information to the side for a bit. Let’s forget that Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) is a thing and look at the comic that Gillen and Kev Walker have put together.

Gillen and Walker’s story is about a daughter who is a disappointment to her father and a father who just can’t understand his daughter. In a galaxy where a mercenary archeologist can find all kinds of ancient artifacts that the right people are willing to pay the big bucks for, Aphra is just enough of a scoundrel to always be on the verge of the next big discovery without being enough of a ruthless criminal to ever land that big payday that would set her on easy street. All that ever really got her was a short walk out of an Imperial airlock after her time of service to Darth Vader at the end of his Gillen-penned series. So as her solo series begins, she’s escaped the choking yoke of a vicious master but gained the unapproving gaze of a disappointed father.

So while Aphra has been on the search for riches since she graduated school as shown here in a brief story drawn by Salvador Larocca, her father has been on the search for history. The elder Aphra has been looking for artifacts and wisdom that could reunite a galaxy torn apart by civil war. That galactic civil war provides the background to this story but Gillen writes a small story about a father and daughter wanting some reconciliation without having the first clue about how to do it. Any loyalty to anyone she has is basically a set of markers to be dealt out to potential allies and anyone she may owe her life to. And the elder Aphra seemingly has no problems blackmailing his daughter to gain her aid. Instead of getting the hugs and warmth of a family reunion, Gillen writes about the transactions that happen in financial and moral ledger books.

While the stories of heroes and villains are taking place elsewhere in this line of comics, Gillen and Walker take the opportunity to tell a smaller, more personal story that really has more stakes to it. Sure, the fate of the galaxy is up for grabs elsewhere but here Gillen is able to write the story of the battle for someone’s soul. Now that’s a heavier statement than what the comic wants to portray. Joining this daughter/father duo is a pair of murderous droids and a scarred Wookie. Gillen and Walker keep the tone light and easy over these heady conflicts between Aphra’s heart and mind.

Bringing a European flair to this familiar universe, Walker delivers just the right mix of action and introspection. His Aphra can be fuming one moment and then realize that she made the biggest mistake of her life in the next panel. Her father is an almost typical dad, saying and doing dad-like things but by blackmailing his daughter, Walker continually depicts a man who is obviously over his head. Walker’s drawings capture these characters at a point where they may feel like they’re at their more vulnerable but there’s always a new bottom that’s ready to drop out where Aphra is concerned.

Walker, inker Marc Deering, and colorist Antonio Fabela walk the fine line of making this book fit in with the larger mythology while giving it its own visual identity. Jumping from ancient temple to spaceships and then to different ancient temples, this balance of grandeur, grubby, and personal moments creates a large tapestry for these artists to create on And it all works for a character who is surrounded by these big, galactic forces but who ultimately is an extremely small speck in this epic story.

Aphra lives in this ambiguous space between good and evil. Looking at other characters that he’s written from David Kohl in Phonogram to Loki in Journey into Mystery and even Darth Vader in Gillen's last expedition into this galaxy, this is a band in the spectrum that Gillen is quite happy to explore. In this comic, Gillen explores where a relatively normal, if not a bit roguish, woman can fit into this grandiose battle of light and dark. With Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume 1-- Aphra, Gillen, and Walker get to take a look at the history of this universe even as they get to tell the personal story of a woman who ultimately is just trying to find a payday.

And murder droids. They get to write and draw stories about murder droids.

June 28, 2017

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No Trick: Black Magick Vol 1 by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott is Spectacular

Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Nicola Scott (with Chiara  Arena)
Published by Image Comics

Rowan Black is a cop that has a secret--she's also a practicing witch. Usually, that doesn't interfere with her work, but when someone looks to link her to extraordinary crimes, she finds balancing her secret life in the occult and working the streets of Portsmouth won't be as easy as she hopes. Now Rowan must solve the crimes in her police role and figure out who is trying to use magick against her in this first volume of a great series that mixes a noir theme with magick, all to great effect.

With the new volume of Black Magick hitting comic stores and digital devices today, I felt it was a good time to go back and review one of my favorite new series, that I'm delighted to see back on the shelves to continue the story that Rucka and Scott started. I know lots of their fans are sad to see them leave Wonder Woman, but I've been looking forward to this for some time now, and I put this review together to talk about why.

June 27, 2017

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #33 (Alice in Wonderland by Leah Moore, John Reppion and Erica Awano)

See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite pieces of creative fiction that I’ve ever read. Its self-styled nonsense and gleeful exploration of what can be possible when you lose sense of narrative cohesion is unparalleled. As it has an innate ineffable quality to it, it lends itself very well to many different kinds of adaptation: movies, TV shows, video games and comics of all shapes and sizes have been cast into the world. However, despite the quality of the source material, some will inevitably fall short.

June 26, 2017

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Bitch Planet: Triple Feature #1 Shows the Perils of Collaboration

Bitch Planet: Triple Feature #1
Windows by Cheryl Lynn Eaton (words) and Maria Frolich (art)
Without and Within by Andrew Aydin (words) and Joanna Estep (art)
The Invisible Woman by Conley Lyons (words), Craig Yeung (line art), 
and Marco D'Alfonso (color art)
Published by Image Comics

While the main arc and creators of Bitch Planet takes a behind-the-deadline break, a rotating cast of creators steps in to tell stories from within the world created by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro which are every bit as harrowing, and feel like they're a razor's edge from being a part of our reality, not science fiction.

When Bitch Planet began, it was obviously meant to be a statement about what could happen if women were basically reduced to property. My biggest critique of the series, which I generally liked, was that sometimes it felt just a bit too unsubtle in its presentation.

Then we elected a sexual predator as President, and have a Congress hell-bent on making women's lives miserable, to say nothing of the States, which are amazingly even worse. Bitch Planet has gone from being a cautionary tale to something that feels like we're one more Republican wave election from bring into reality, albeit with camps here at home instead of in space.

That's why I think the stories in Bitch Planet: Triple Feature #1 really resonated with me as I was reading them. Based mostly here on Earth, they feel very much like stories of things that could actually happen instead of fiction. While there is still some speculative elements that put them squarely in the world created by DeConnick and De Landro, there's not a lot separating what's happening here to what we could read about now, in 2017.

Take the first story, Windows. A woman works in a position dominated by men, and uses her position to put other women in their place. As soon as she runs afoul of a man, however, she's knocked down. She'll never be equal to a man. What I really appreciate about Eaton's and Frolich's story is that instead of merely focusing on how the protagonist was wrong, we also see her realize this and take action accordingly. It's both cautionary tale and a story of empowerment. I do wish there had been more motion in the art, however. I liked some of the perspective choices (placing the reader's eye at different spots instead of the standard views, for example) and the decision to use eyes as a focal point, but too often, these aggravated and aggressive figures are just standing around. It dulls the impact of the story a bit, at least for me.

From Windows
Continuing the theme of what happens to those who try to fit in in a world that's completely evil (are you listening, people who say both sides are equal?), Without and Within, written by John Lewis's aide, Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Joanna Estep, focuses on a political moment. While there are multiple women making sure the men are successful, it's clear that they are to be completely subservient. And when one man's needs are the busy female assistant, she's powerless to do anything, all while her male boss looks great for the camera. This was easily my least favorite of the three stories, because there's no agency for the young woman. She's shown as being powerless and having to agree to whatever the men decide. It's also the story that is least-tied into the world. You could tell this story as part of the current Congress, for example, and not have a single change, except for the drone reporters.

From Without and Within

On the other hand, I did like the way Estep chose to place almost every panel at an angle. When doing a story that features a lot of talking heads, it requires some effort to keep the art flowing. As there's no real action here--even the pass at the secretary is mild--Estep has to use her ability to show strong emotions on the characters' faces and find other ways to ensure the reader keeps turning the page.

In the final story, focusing on what it's like to work in an office where there are no rules about sexual harassment, a young woman does her best to get a promotion at work by getting a ridiculous haircut, in the hope that it will land her a promotion. Lyons, Yeung, and D'Alfonso hammer her with reality, doing it with some amazing visual work that makes this the highlight of the issue for me. From the opening where her absurdly large hair has the word RESPECT around it, which is only one of the times where Yeung plans a panel around the lettering. There's a strong desire to play with the visuals, combined with the same sort of panel manipulation that Estep uses, making this story easily the one that stands out the most from an artistic perspective. We don't need the dialogue to see how the main character changes her views, which is always a great thing to see in a comic.

From The Invisible Woman

Despite a few hitches here and there, Bitch Planet: Triple Feature continues in the same vein as the main series, allowing others to tell stories in this horrifying world that's not very far separated by our own. It's not perfect, but it's still a must-read comic, and the message of "Don't try to fit in when the world is broken, break it back until it's fixed" is one that everyone needs to be following today.

June 23, 2017

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The Search For Calmness in Gabrielle Bell's Everything Is Flammable

Everything is Flammable
by Gabrielle Bell
published by Uncivilized Books

In her comics, Gabrielle Bell finds these moments of humanity in the mundane. Most of her new book Everything Is Flammable is about the aftermath of her mother’s isolated home burning down. Instead of showing her mother in the midst of a burning home, watching everything she owns go up in flames, Bell’s book begins a day or so later when she gets a phone call about the event. The book isn’t about the loss of a home but about the day after that and then the days, weeks and months that follow. It’s about finding a replacement pre-built house or even the right wood-burning stove to heat that house. In these big life changing moments, Bell finds the relatable details of everyday life.

Bell’s travels and adventures would be the focus for other cartoonists and autobiographers. And while her books begin with those travels, Bell doesn't focus on the grandness of the adventures but on the small, personal details. Instead, Bell fills her book with anecdotes about her garden and the damages it takes in a storm, shopping for a pre-fab house to replace her mother’s destroyed home, and unwanted neighbors who become reluctant friends and confidantes. In these large and life-changing events, Bell finds the moments that make these moments small, personable, and relatable.

Reading these small moments could almost feel like a drag as if Bell doesn’t provide any kind of escape from our daily lives in the pages of her comics. Honestly, as autobiography, Bell’s life doesn’t look any better or any worse than any other person’s. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bell’s goal is not to tell stories that define our differences but look at the similarities in all of our lives. Sure, some of the details may change. Maybe you’ve never had to experience losing your house a fire but most of us have had to deal with the idea of looking for a place to live or with having to find furniture for a room. Or with dealing with someone who just sort of wandered into your life and then just never left.

This normalizing of our similar experiences are captured in Bell’s unwavering comic lens. With a fairly consistent perspective to all of her drawings, the voyeuristic quality of visual narrative keeps that audience at a steady distance from Bell and her characters. There’s no closeups and very few establishing shots in her comics. She keeps her characters and her moments at an arm’s distance. Using a basic six grid page and panels that are all viewed from a similar perspective, Bell’s cartooning lets you see have a window into her life without ever allowing you an intimate glimpse into it.

So it’s odd when Bell lets us have an intimate view into her personality and thoughts. While so much of Everything Is Flammable is a search for normality in what should be times of crisis (and if a house burning down isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is,) Bell has these moments of vulnerability as people either assume a closeness to her or she considers ways of settling down which seem like they may make her life less chaotic. It’s in these moments where Bell lets her character engage with the world other than just chronicle it.

Gabrielle Bell’s cartoonist’s eye captures the world around her, finding these times of humanity amid the chaos and noise of life. Everything is Flammable is about dealing with her mother’s loss of her home but it’s also about just dealing with her mother and this strange, unique life that she has. It’s about Bell trying to help her mother while also trying to find peace and contentment with her own life. While telling stories about her trips and her own life, Gabrielle Bell presents the moments between the big events where she and her world are vulnerable to everything that’s going on in the world around her.

June 21, 2017

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Nailbiter (Series Review)

Written by Joshua Williamson
Illustrated by Mike Henderson
Colors by Adam Guzowski
Letters & Book Design by John J. Hill
Edited by Rob Levin
Published by Image Comics

Nailbiter is one of those stories for people (like me) that don't think they like horror. Actually, more to the point, it's the horror/crime/mystery/psychological thriller/buddy cop/comedy-drama that you've been waiting for. I love genre mashups, and Nailbiter is a great one. There's some gore (though not an excessive amount), and there are plenty of scares, but there's also a ton of human insight, genuinely funny moments, and terrific dialogue, courtesy of writer Joshua Williamson, and the art team of illustrator Mike Henderson (Henderson is a co-creator of the series) and colorist Adam Guzowski. The final arc was recently collected in a trade (the series was 30 issues, collected in 6 trades), and so the story is available from start to finish. Nailbiter is not for the squeamish, but I thought it was a terrific page-turner of a series with a strong ending that felt right for the book.

Buckaroo, Oregon has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of 16 different serial killers over a period of years. The most recent of them is Edward Charles Warren, a/k/a "The Nailbiter" due to his tendency to bite his victim's nails (I wasn't kidding, there are definitely some parts of the book that are not for the squeamish).  Warren was captured by FBI agent Eliot Carroll, who 3 years after Warren's capture reaches out to his friend Nicholas Finch, an interrogator for the Army. Carroll is on the verge of uncovering something huge about Buckaroo and its serial killers, when he disappears. Finch, who's dealing with his own significant issues, makes his way to investigate. There he meets up with Sheriff Shannon Crane, and the two of them decide to work together to piece together Carroll's disappearance. Along the way they discover that there's more going on than they realized, as every answer opens up several more questions. 
What makes Nailbiter as successful as it is has to be Williamson's partnership with two fantastic artists in Henderson and Guzowski. They remained a consistent art team throughout the series' 30-issue run (which makes sense given that Henderson is a co-creator of the series). That kind of continuity is so important to a series; I've come to expect frequent art changes in superhero comics, but it can be more jarring in independent books where it's less the norm. Thankfully the art team not only maintained a consistently high standard but they improved throughout the series; the art started off strong to begin with but it really felt like the team grew together. 

So, what makes the art in Nailbiter work as well as it does in telling the story?  Henderson is a very talented visual storyteller that puts great detail in bringing this disturbing world to life. Buckaroo, Oregon is a weird place that I wouldn't want to visit, but it's a fully realized world. Exterior shots of the town feel realistic and consistent throughout the series. Buildings feel like they have weight and substance to them. Interiors (such as Warren's kitchen depicted below) feel realistic and lived in.  I find that if an artist hasn't done a great job in establishing a real sense of place, it's harder for me to step into the reality of a story. Thankfully, Henderson and Guzowski do this exceptionally well.

Henderson also has a terrific sense of character design, including body language, personality and facial acting.  Henderson has a style very much his own, but every once in a while, when I look at one of his characters (particularly Sheriff Chase), I see a little Darwyn Cooke (something about the eyes) though in a much more gritty and realistic, less stylized way. Each character feels like they've been given a distinctive look and personality. Chase is strong but also exasperated, along with coming across like someone who feels like she's got something to prove in her role (given her own past with Warren, which I'll let you discover). Finch comes across as a hard man (his face has a stony, chiseled quality); he's stoic except when his temper comes up, and in that case you see that the stoicism is just a front and he's got a ton of emotion just below the surface. And Warren, he's meant to make the reader uncomfortable and the art team really accomplishes this. He smiles in situations where he shouldn't and you kind of wish he wouldn't, he's relaxed when he should be tense, but sometimes he lets his true emotions out (or are they his true emotions?) and Henderson conveys that change in personality effectively through his facial acting.  The costume and clothing design in the story is also first rate, from drab police wear to the incredibly scary costume that one recurring character wears, to the convincing look that Henderson gives to one precocious, badass teenager.

Guzowski does a lot of strong, distinctive color work in Nailbiter.  It's skilled, versatile work, as Nailbiter calls for a lot of different coloring styles in a lot of different situations.  Interrogation rooms can be cold and sterile, but also have color that shows their wear (or the occasional blood spot).  Much of Nailbiter takes place in darkness, either because it takes place during the night or because the book is taking place in dark locations (either literally or figuratively). Guzowski has a great grasp on the coloring of those scenes, as there's a variety to them. He realistically captures the characters in low-light scenes without ever making the action difficult to distinguish (something I really appreciate, and which shows the partnership between Guzowski and Henderson). Guzowski also does something else really specific in those scenes set in the dark that adds to the realism of the story, which is that he has a really good grasp on where the light is coming from in a particular scene. Where there's light and shadow, the art really conveys that the light is coming from somewhere, which isn't always necessarily the case in comic art generally. 

As just one example of Henderson and Guzowski's partnership with each other and with Williamson, there's a lot of great sequential storytelling in the kitchen scene below.  Henderson fills the scene with great enriching details (the backsplash, the older corded phone on the wall) and moving the reader along in the panels, from a scene of the 3 main characters (where Finch can't help but watch Warren cook), to just Finch and that pot, and finally to the visceral, disgusting boiling pot that has caught Finch's eye, back to Finch and Warren (where their faces are studies in contrasting emotions, Finch's disgust and Warren's sociopathic charm) and over to Chase who indicates that the action is going to move along.  Guzowski's color details, from the realistically bland color of the cabinets and the fridge are contrasted with the splatter of blood on Warren's apron and seeping out of the pot, and the contents of the pot (on which we actually stay for only one panel) are visceral and expressive in a way that the rest of the page is not.
This more visceral and atmospheric coloring is sometimes used by Guzowski to show what's going on in characters' heads. A change from a less intense to a more intense color sometimes indicates a character's change in emotions. Along these lines, there are times where a character might experience murderous thoughts or fantasies, and at those moments the panel might be just saturated with red as the character thinks bloody thoughts or has an overwhelming series of violent emotions. 

The "saturation of red" leads me into one other thing that's really well-done in Nailbiter, and that's the disgusting, horrific violence that characters perpetrate on one another. There's no getting around it, Nailbiter is at times a disgusting book. Characters are stabbed, shot, burnt alive, have limbs chopped off, have their mouths sewn shut, have their fingernails chewed off, and are beheaded. There's blood and limbs and viscera everywhere. Thankfully, this isn't every page or even most pages of the comic, but it's there, and as long as you're ready for it, Henderson and Guzowski bring the violence to disgusting life on the pages of Nailbiter. I won't say it isn't gratuitous (because it occasionally is), but I don't actually think it's excessive for the storytelling, and it adds to the storytelling rather than detracting from it. This is a horribly violent town, and Nailbiter doesn't shy away from this.

The crazy violence is one place where the terrific lettering work from Hill comes across. There's (not surprisingly) a lot of screaming in Nailbiter, along with a lot of gory sound effects that help bring to life a lot of the gory happenings in the story.  Hill's general lettering work and particularly some of the larger-than-life sound effects lettering really help sell the horror of these scenes.

Nailbiter is great, engaging comic storytelling.  One of the specific things I like about Williamson's work here in Nailbiter (and elsewhere) is his fondness for genre mashups.  For example, Birthright is like "family drama meets epic fantasy", and Ghosted is like "horror meets Oceans 11 or a Guy Ritchie movie". Nailbiter is a story that's legitimately disgusting and extremely scary at times, as good horror should be. But it's also a story about a woman acting as sheriff in a small town full of mysteries and her time investigating these mysteries with the proverbial army officer who is a man on a mission who plays by his own rules. I do get a little bit of a Lethal Weapon vibe, which is absolutely a selling point for me. So Nailbiter balances huge conspiracies, weird small town drama, procedural/mystery stories, all with an element of wit and humor throughout. It's a tough balancing act but I think Williamson and team pull it off.

I've been a fan of Williamson's work for a while now, on books such as Ghosted and Birthright. I think he has a really strong, clear, distinctive storytelling voice, and an interest in telling stories that are rooted in emotion and also highly entertaining genre fiction; I think he's just really clear in getting at his character's actions and motivations. When I met him a few years ago, I mentioned that I thought he had a really good handle on the parenting aspects of the storytelling in Birthright, and at the time he wasn't a parent but he just really got some subtle points about the interactions and sources of tension between parents. 

Similarly here in Nailbiter, there's a number of different voices and characters whose story Williamson is telling, and I think he paints clear, distinctive voices for each of their characters and also focuses on the fundamental question of "what does this character want"?  In the case of Finch, he wants clarity on what happened to his friend Carroll, and sees this as a chance to make amends for some terrible things he's done in his own life. Chase wants to prevent murders in her town, but she also wants to (similar to Finch) make up for some bad choices in her past. The question of what Warren wants is a little murkier, much like his character is murky. He's one of the central mysteries in the story - not whether he committed a whole bunch of murders (he did) but what kind of person is he? Is he driven by some uncontrollable urges, is he capable or change, is his cool demeanor just an act? There's a lot of questions, but it's clear he wants to be in Chase's life and he likes being useful, along with possibly having mixed feelings about his fame/infamy.

So this all sounds dark, right? It's not, and that's part of Williamson's skill as a writer. He brings wit and humor to what could otherwise be a plodding and overly self-serious psychological thriller. There are strong psychological elements here, but the humor comes from all sorts of places, such as devoting an entire issue to having well-known comic writer Brian Michael Bendis show up in town and attempt to learn about the Nailbiter and other serial kills and then think better of it. There's also a lot of astute commentary about the media and capitalism and the many enterprising and disgusting ways that people can find to capitalize on the infamy of Buckaroo, Oregon. There's also some terrifically dark humor that comes from the historical serial killers themselves. Like the serial killer who killed people who talked during movie showings, and other darkly funny or ironic killers. 

And in addition to being a compelling mystery and psychological horror-thriller, Nailbiter is also about a more fundamental question that really seems to echo throughout the series and all of its main characters. That question is - are we fated to become something? If all the signs point to our life going a certain way, is it inevitable? Can we control our own destiny? It's a theme that all of the main characters wrestle with throughout the book to varying degrees, and a pretty universal question. Now, most of us are not (hopefully) wrestling with the question of "am I fated to become a serial killer" but the concern is real and relatable nonetheless.

Nailbiter asks these questions not only at the individual level, but at the community/town level as well. The townspeople are afraid that either they may turn out to be the next serial killer, or their friend or neighbor, or someone they don't like. This fosters an attitude of distrust, as people are quick to accuse others of being the next serial killer (kids use this as a way to taunt other kids). The story shows that this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as kids seem to either run away from or embrace the idea that they could be the next killer. There are some interesting ideas here that the creators put forth, with respect to the way that (more generally) if people in a community are told that they're destined to be a certain way, it makes it a lot harder to escape that fate. Nailbiter ultimately does some interesting things with these questions of fate and destiny (about which I'm not going to say very much in order to avoid spoilers), and ties them into the idea that no matter what we think our fate might be, we still bear responsibility for the choices in our lives.

So if you're not turned off by blood and gore, and you're interested in a smart, highly entertaining and engrossing (pun intended) read full of murder, mystery, weird conspiracies and interesting ideas on the nature of free will, I highly recommend Nailbiter.

June 20, 2017

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Heartthrob Season 2 Doesn't Miss a Beat

Written by Christopher Sebela
Line Art by Robert Wilson IV
Color Art by Nick Filardi
Publshed by Oni Press

What do you do when you've broken up with the man who lives in your heart while on the run from the authorities? Hide in Canada and get a normal job, of course. But once crime is in your bloodstream, it's not so easy to let go of, as Callie soon finds--especially if you're still living with hockey-themed crooks. Who is Callie, really? It's time to find out as Heartthrob returns in its second volume.

I really enjoyed the first volume of Heartthrob, because the concept is just so much fun. What if, by some weird stroke of science fiction, the essence of the heart donor remained inside of it, and only you, as the person with the organ inside you, could sense them? Better yet, what if they physically manifested for you, giving you a very exclusive romance?

That in and of itself would have been a fun story to read. But then Sebela and Wilson IV add a new wrinkle--what if the donor had been a master criminal, and what if you worked for an evil corporation that denied people their benefits? Now it's a Robin Hood Romance with heists and hijinks and a support crew with their own quirks. Set in the 70s so Robert can really have fun with his fashions (and Sebela can avoid too many high-tech surveillance issues), the first Heartthrob was a ton of fun, and one of my favorite comics of 2016, had I ever gotten around to making a list.

As we left the first volume, Callie was trying to separate herself from her "partner," and that's where we find her in the new series. While her crew is still pulling nickel and dime jobs (almost literally), Callie is going straight.

Sort of.

Most of the issue is Callie warring with herself (for a change), trying to figure out what parts of her criminal actions were hers organically, and while came from Mercer. Is she really ready to give up the thrills that came with her new heart and go back to a normal life? Once you have that adrenaline rush, can you just bury it, the same way she's trying to bury Mercer from her mind?

Given that she's living with the getaway driver Scout and the people who helped her sneak into Canada, I think you know the answer already, but that doesn't stop Sebela and Wilson IV from pacing this issue just right, showing that Callie's actions and beliefs don't occur in a vacuum. Her decisions--or lack of them--impact on those around her.  By the end of the issue, Callie is ready to take action, but there are two main questions that loom over this new series (Did her realization come too late? Can she really keep Mercer repressed?) and I can't wait to discover how the creative team reveals the answers.

That last sentence might be one of the best things about Heartthrob as a series. I've opined on Twitter repeatedly that a lot of creators don't understand how single-issue comics work, because they've got their eye on the Trade. If I have to hear, "This will read better once you've read the whole thing" one more time, my eyes will roll so far back I'll look like something from Creepy. If you are going to write in the single-issue style, you need to find a way to make both the individual issue interesting, while also keeping the reader going. That's exactly the case here. This issue is the story of Callie going straight, and that mini-story feels complete, while opening us up to the larger story and setting up the plot of the next issue. Nothing about this makes it impossible to read in trade form, but it does ensure anyone who wants to read issue-by-issue is getting their money's worth. I can really get into that, and I say that as a person whose reading is almost all graphic novels and trades these days.

I can also get into Robert Wilson IV's art, but that's no surprise to any of our long-time readers. He has a very distinctive style that's easy to spot, with large, square eyes that shoot daggers at both the other characters and the reader, thick ink lines (which are particularly well-suited for bell bottoms, let me tell you), and a willingness to play with perspective that really makes some scenes stand out. A good example of this (sadly, not in the preview pages I'm allowed to share) finds Callie thinking about stealing from a fellow classmate. The panel is drawn in such a way that Robert makes it feel like Callie is actually reaching out to us in the real world, all without sacrificing clarity of scene. At other times, like the below panel with the speeding car, only seeing a small hint of the car instead of it in full view, allows our eyes to really imagine the motion of the vehicle in a way that a long-shot look wouldn't allow for. 

Heartthrob is a comic that truly has a flow to it, because the linework is designed to show us movement, rather than the freeze-frame panels that show up too often in comic work. Comics are their own medium--they aren't movies or television shows broken down frame by frame. While other artists might opt to draw a scene perfectly realistically or find a way to balance a panel, Robert understands that often isn't best to make the comic work. He'll show you things from the corner of Callie's eye, for example, pushing the star of the book out of the way to get a better view. He's not afraid to use traditional panel construction at all, or even standard positioning of the characters. But what makes his art--and Heartthrob as a book--something I want to drop everything and write about is that he's perfectly willing to do layouts that would challenge others. Sometimes, they even challenge him, but I prefer that over those that take a safe route. Art like this makes me stop and linger, and that should be the goal of every comic.
Another goal should be finding a color scheme that matches what you're trying to do with the comic. I remember Nick Filardi's colors as being more vibrant in volume one, but that's on purpose here. Callie is back to trying to fit in, so wearing jarring clothing wouldn't make sense. Neither would having bright backgrounds, as they'd clash with the overall theme. He also does a great job with recreating the god-awful 70s color choices of most homes. (I'm just old enough to remember those, thanks very much.) I'm completely speculating that the more muted color choices are intentional, and one of the things I'll be looking at from the art is if we remain with those or if they chance to match Callie's mindset.

It's not easy to top a good first mini-series, but Sebela and Wilson IV are off to a great start. I can't wait to read the next issue. If you're new to the series, you don't have to go grab the trade of Volume 1 (but you should!), either. Thanks to a clever recap-via-diary and immediately engaging characters, this is a book you can pick off the spinner rack and read. I have a feeling it'll steal your heart, the same way it's taken mine.
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All-Ages or Small-Ages #32 (Samurai Chef by Mayamada and Pinali)

See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

“Originality” is a word that gets thrown around and overused by many people as the Holy Grail of properties of a piece of media. Another common lament that you’ll hear from people is that originality is dead; all of the ideas in the world have been used up and that there are simply no others left. To these people, I would point them towards Samurai Chef.

Samurai Chef is one out of a series of manga-inspired books that have created by the publisher Mayamada. Each volume follows a different television show that exists in-world as part of the same television network. This particular entry follows the on-stage and off-stage rivalries that occur in your standard reality show but, instead of a singing competition, the show pits the physical strength of a monkey chef against each of the meals that are presented to him; food is not judged on flavour, but on their defensive capabilities. Straight off the bat, we have anthropomorphism and animated food; it’s the perfect recipe for entertainment.

What needs to be emphasised immediately is that if you are coming into this book expecting anything else, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It has the repetition of concept that makes each fight remarkably easy to picture as a short 10 minute animation that would be part of a larger children’s TV show. There isn’t any subversion of that initial idea, but that’s honestly admirable. Mayamada has crafted scenario after scenario where you're enraptured by a monkey fight with a sword against variously animated food and, thanks to artist Pinali, the book is rife with both energy and enthusiasm.

Mayamada writes in a subplot that follows one of the chefs rebelling from his original team, but doesn't attach any nuance to the character. Painted as a shriveling, desperate person, the chef strikes out into the reality cooking show underworld to recruit the worst of the worst. Subsequently, it's difficult to assign any motivation beyond narcissistic glory and it falls slightly flat. However, there is some humour to be found in the irony between how edgy and shadow-struck the gathered team are in Pinali’s art and how wholesome and creative their cooking ends up.

This is a comic that doesn’t hold your hand and charges on forwards into its concept without stopping for breath, which speaks to its maturity. Granted, the concept is simple enough that it may sound that it doesn’t need to but, nevertheless, there are never any conversations about the mechanics of how the world works and that was a detail that I really appreciated.

It might already be apparent from the appearance of anthropomorphic main characters, but suspension of disbelief will be your best friend when reading this book. It functions almost entirely on cartoon logic, where a little sprinkle of a “Secret Ingredient” is enough to raise a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs into life.

One particular highlight is the confrontation that demonstrates that Mayamada's forethought about the variety of fights that would take place in this universe. As the aim is simply to best The Chef, it makes sense that some teams would attempt a more subtle approach that is based in misdirection instead of brute force. The team in question, the Cherry Kitchen, create a "big ol' taffy cake" that bounces around the room and relies on hallucinogenic icing to subdue its aggresor, creating some genuinely hilarious moments.

However, there is a slight lack of purpose, beyond the obvious, to the story that makes it difficult to recommend to an older audience. It perfectly suits young readers, with them able to relish in the simple joy that comes from the fighting itself as well as the various animals that make an appearance. The background storyline with Kamu is a step in right direction, but is simply not pervasive enough to make up for everything else.

Based on its creativity and uniqueness alone, this is a comic that you should read, if only because you’ll never be able to get it out of your head. It has the simultaneous bizareness of the characters, the confrontations and the context; on top of that, the fact that this is a televised event in-universe is very engaging. Unfortunately, it is difficult not to fly through this completed volume. 

The Chef might have to stop for breath between fights, but you’ll be able to get to the end of this in a single one.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mcdickson101@gmail.com or head over to check out the podcast that I co-host You Know What I Like...? on SoundCloud.

June 19, 2017

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A Study in Legends #4 (A Link to the Past by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, The Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

Previous "Legendary Edition" volumes have followed one overall story, though some contained two separate adventures. This third entry into the series contains two distinct stories from two antithetical video game eras. The resulting volume creates some fascinating comparisons between the two, highlighting both the weaknesses and strengths of adaptations as a whole. However, as they each require their own analysis, it will be split into two parts; if you haven't read it yet, you can find the first part here.

A Link to the Past is the adaptation of the SNES game of the same name. To understand some of the complexities of this story, it is important to disambiguate the various official timelines that exist as part of the Zelda continuity. As mentioned in previous entries into this column, Ocarina of Time sits as a crux point for continuity. The timeline that A Link to the Past takes place in is, officially at least, the one in which Link of Ocarina of Time fails to defeat the epitome of evil, Ganondorf. Subsequently, the land of Hyrule falls into ruin, with discontent and unrest spreading across the land like a plague.

This bleak tone is one that intially seems relatively unsuited to the franchise as a whole. Most of the recent games in the franchise have this overarching story about the optimism and heroism that fill everyday life when a hero’s arrival is not only predetermined, but inherently cyclical; the people of Hyrule often know that whenever evil begins to rear its head, a hero will subsequently rise up to strike him back down. 

However, this is a world where, not only did that hero fall, but the side of the angels was decimated. The Sacred Realm was sealed off by the remaining sages, with Ganon still inside, leaving him to insidiously leak his essence into the ether, all because there was no other option. This sequence of events reveals another type of story that is just as important, if not more, in times like these: what to do when you’ve already lost.

The version of Link that we see in this story feels the most fully-formed that we've seen so far. He is portrayed with arguably the purest heart, with the aspirations of a farm-boy that simply desires to possess the greatest apple farm in the land. While humble beginnings are a classic component of The Hero’s Journey™, there is something inherently inspiring about seeing a boy that could acquire so much, but desiring so little.

Video games released during the 80s and early 90s aren’t generally known for their magnificent storytelling and, while they may hint at rich worlds, can only do just that. This gives Himekawa the space that they require to pick out the elements of the story that they need and run rampant with them; from the smallest of seeds, the greatest trees can be grown.

For instance, the villain of the piece, Agahnim, is originally one of those antagonists who falls somewhere between “evil for the point of being evil” and “ultimate power”. While that is admittedly his role for a large proportion of the manga too, Himekawa gradually peel back the curtain and reveal the very desperate, very scared, man that sits behind the facade. It ties the entire story together beautifully, resolving a conflict that is introduced very early on, and makes his position not sympathetic, but eminently understandable.

There isn’t much doubt in the reader's mind that a Zelda story is going to have a, if not positive, then hopelessly optimistic ending. Without delving too much into spoiler territory with the specifics of why, the way that this book subverts your expectations in that regard was extraordinary. Far too often, popular franchises can hue too close to an established formula and, while the format in which this story was originally released was decades ago, it goes to show that Takashi Tezuka, the director of the original game, was willing to take the story wherever it needed to go.

Previous Legend of Zelda adaptations have skirted around the lack of dungeons with mixed results. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask both contained abbreviated versions of the confrontations and skipped almost immediately to the final boss; this not only creates a disjointed narrative, but it leaves the reader feeling slightly cheated. An alternate approach was that seen within Oracle of Seasons/Ages, which cut that aspect of the game almost entirely and subsequently fared slightly better.

A Link to the Past takes a unique approach and converts all of the dungeons into a very clearly marked montage, dedicating no more than half a page to each fight. It’s understandable that changes will need to be made to make a story work in its new format and Himekawa finally trust the reader to be able to come to that realisation themselves. By not hiding a montage behind the facade of scenes that are quickly cut short, it’s easier to understand that the focus of the narrative has instead been placed on the characters themselves and reduces the need for prolonged confrontations.

Throughout his conquering of the dungeons, Link is joined by Ghanti, a highway robber that he meets near the start of his quest. The character of Ghanti has been created whole-cloth for the manga and falls into the oft-required role of companion. She initially finds common ground with Link due to their outlaw status from the corrupt monarchy, but their relationship blossoms into something far more intricate and engaging.

For those without any experience with the original game, there is a point at which Link journeys into a dark version of Hyrule - the "Upside-Down" Hyrule if you will. Here, people’s true selves are brought to the forefront, often manifesting in some kind of animal transformation as a commentary on the animalistic side of people that they usually keep hidden.

Ghanti portrays herself as a heartless bandit, roaming the world in search of treasure for self-fulfillment, but the prolonged contact with someone as inherently kind and giving as Link changes her for the better. It reverses the pessimistic viewpoint of the world that the game has presented so far and tells you that, while it’s the more difficult approach in dark days, there is always something to be gained by leading by example. There is one particular panel towards the latter portion of the book that epitomises this adventure for me and I applaud Himekawa for making this story feel so worthwhile.

This isn’t a story that has as climactic an ending as other games in the franchise. The world is saved, sure, but there’s no parade through the capital and no presentation of medals. Link returns to the life that he previously knew, battered and bruised, but doesn’t stake his future and his fortune on continuing on as a hero. There’s something slightly heartbreaking about reaching the end of a game with a child protagonist and see them dedicate themselves to the beleaguering Hero’s Journey™; it’s refreshing to see this version of Link choose a different path.

It’s difficult to compare the two stories in this third Legendary Edition evenly. One reeks of lost potential, stripping down a pre-existing game, while the other builds a surprisingly timely, yet optimistic-as-hell world from the bare-bones of a narrative. Overall, this is the most uneven of volumes so far, but the bleak, yet inspiring world contained within A Link to the Past feels so extraordinarily timely that I'm finding it difficult to put down at the moment.

June 14, 2017

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Drachein by Allen Watson and Danny Curtin (Kickstarter Announcement)

High fantasy stories are everywhere; plug and play your white male protagonists and save the world. This is due, in part, to their over-reliance on the European landscape that was popularised by creators such as Tolkien and Martin and, while not inherently bad, have certainly been told before. Drachein has risen up in response to this trend, dragging the focus back across the Atlantic and placing it in the lap of a young woman named Aliyana.

The Kickstarter for Drachein went live on Kickstarter today. I was fortunate enough to get ahead of the crowd and talk to series artist Allen Watson, with Danny Curtin sliding in where required, about his artistic influences, his views on the inclusion of violence in a fantasy book and the importance of providing another angle on the fantasy genre.

Mark Dickson: What is the quick elevator pitch for Drachein?

Allen Watson: Drachein is an American fantasy epic set in an eponymously named vast continent. Drachein is a nation made of many tribes, collectively known as The Drachein who are divided by their endless differences, yet united in their stand against the mighty Second Empire.

With their enemy initially vanquished, the Drachein fell when their internal differences grew too tall. The malevolent survivors of the Second Empire regained strength in the cracks of the divided nation of Drachein and, with a final blow, destroyed the remnants of this once mighty people. Hence forth, the nation of Drachein was nothing more than ruins and empty memories.

Aiyana, just a young girl, faces the aftermath of this conflict, not knowing that she is the last of the Drachein royal bloodline. Living as the protégé to Kanna, Aiyana must overcome her obstacles and reunite the Drachein once more.

How did you the two of you meet each other and who approached who with the idea for Drachein?

Allen Watson: I met Danny Curtin freshman year of high school and we’ve been best friends ever since. Together, we created a heavy metal band called Drachein. A lot of the basic ideas of the world of Drachein were created in the band and were basically all that we talked about in our songs. As time went on, we stopped playing music to focus on our artistic careers. A few years later I graduated from Pratt Institute for Illustration and we both decided to pivot the story of Drachein from music and song to a comic book medium.

Drachein pitches itself as an alternative to the well-known fantasy titles such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Are you drawing any conscious influences from those worlds?

Danny Curtin: I would say most well known fantasy works draw their influence from the mythological traditions of Europe, and Drachein expands on this inspiration. Our story is informed by our environment: the US north-east and to a greater extent, North America. While it also takes cues from Indigenous American, African, and European folklore, Drachein reflects the complicated history and diverse cultural landscape that surrounds us while delivering the epic drama familiar to the fantasy genre.

When Drachein begins, the world has already gone through countless years of history that has torn the world to pieces. How did you deal with building a new world from scratch, given that its prominent history has already passed by?

Danny Curtin: Our young heroine, Aiyana, having been raised in isolation until now is just as unfamiliar with the world of Drachein as someone first opening this comic book. All of Aiyana’s adventures, curiosity, mistakes and lessons learned, provide us with an opportunity to reveal bits and pieces of the long history of Drachein. Both Aiyana and the reader will have to put these pieces together in order to understand why the world is the way it is, and what her place is.

Can you tell me a little bit about the protagonist, Aiyana?

Danny Curtin: Aiyana is a young 11 year old girl who has been raised in isolation by her friend and mentor, Kanna. Kanna wants nothing more than than to shield Aiyana from the evil that she knows exists in the world. Yet, much to Kanna’s chagrin, Aiyana is energetic, curious, and easily finds herself in all sorts of trouble. The world of Drachein is vast, and filled with all kinds of people. It's political situation is complex and precarious, so Aiyana will need all her wits as she navigates both friends and foes.

Are you drawing from any inspiration with her character?

Allen Watson: In creating the look and personality of Aiyana, I looked to my three nieces as inspiration. They are all extremely confident, independent, intelligent, beautiful girls that inspire me to be the best person I can be everyday.

Also, as creators of a new fantasy epic, Danny and myself were more interested in giving people of color the spotlight and telling a adventure from a perspective that we rarely see in most Euro-centric fantasy tales. We aim to change that up a bit as we tell our new tale from a point of view that’s more reminiscent of North America and its diverse history.

What has been your favourite place/character/story beat to draw?

Allen Watson: My favorite thing to draw so far has been Kanna and Aiyana and their interactions with each other. It’s really a fun challenge to illustrate just how much those two care for each other. Oh and definitely Kanna’s fight scenes. She’s a beast with those axes.

Your art does not shy away from graphic detail when it comes to the appropriate moments. How does that affect the tone of the book?

Allen Watson: I’ve always liked to draw the gorey details of things, while also aiming to add a certain amount of grit to my work; my main focus is to give the reader something they can really feel on the page. So with Drachein I wanted to be very tasteful about the gore, but make sure it retains a sort of realism; nothing too over the top. Our goal is to create a fantasy tale that stills hits like a solid adult graphic novel, but could still be enjoyed by young adults.

Who do you count as your artistic influences?

Allen Watson: There’s just so many good artists out there right now. I would have to say the the artists that I always look to for inspiration are Brian Stelfreeze, Greg Capullo, Jerome Opeña, Olivier Coipel, Sean Murphy and Stuart Immonen. Those guys are all masters and can do no wrong.

Oh god, also Bilquis Evel;, she perfectly blends that classic look with the modern style and it’s just too damn good.

Everyone has a memory of the first comic that got them hooked on the medium. What's yours?

Allen Watson: I think it would have to be Batman: Hush. I fell out of comics for a couple years in junior high but then Jeph Leob and Jim Lee’s Hush came out and I just couldn’t put it down. Lee’s art was so cinematic and the story managed to work in all of Batman’s best villains, I was hooked. At that point I was old enough to really make a conscious to chase my dreams of drawing comics.

Drachein is live on Kickstarter right now and will be for the next 30 days. Head on over and give what money you can and you won't regret it. Drachein looks absolutely fantastic and you're going to want to be on the ground floor for a project like this.