Nut Ink. Mini reviews of texts old and new. No fuss. No plot spoilers. No adverts. Occasional competency.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Gyo: 2-in-1 Deluxe Edition (2015)

Author: Junji Ito | Illustrator: Junji Ito | Page Count: 400

What the hell is this?

Tadashi loves his girlfriend Kaori, though the reader may find it difficult to feel similarly because her inner-bitch rises to the surface often. One of Kaori's defining features is that she has an acute sense of smell. When the ‘death stench’ first hits Okinawa it’s Kaori that's most affected. What’s causing the stench makes its presence known shortly afterwards, and that’s when things go full Junji Ito. You'll be thanking the olfactory gods that the book isn't a scratch 'n' sniff.

The creatures that live in the sea have evolved in weird ways. Their peculiarities make sense when viewed in their own environment, but on land they're so alien looking that they can be terrifying. Even the ones we're familiar with, such as sharks, would take on a whole new level of terror when making a beeline for some poor sap on a street full of cars.

The full horror of Gyo reveals slowly but the story isn't slow. It gets increasingly bizarre and ridiculous, though, helped along by some black humour and hindered by some school-yard humour. The two things are an odd pairing that for me just didn't fit together comfortably, but the artwork is always spectacular.

The Gyo storyline ends on page 358. It's followed by two shorts. The first is The Sad Tale of the Principal Post, a four-page story that's well-drawn but not very good otherwise. It's followed by what's without a doubt the best thing in the whole book, the thirty-two-page The Enigma Of Amigara Fault. Coincidently. it's one of the first Ito stories I ever read; it hasn't lost any of it's creepy power.

The book collects together both volumes of the Gyo manga into one beautifully bound HB edition. It's the same format and size as Viz's Uzumaki: 3-in-1 Deluxe Edition (2013); I tip all my hats to Viz for that. Uzumaki is the better story, so if you can only afford one book it's perhaps the better choice.

4 gashunks out of 5

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Revolutionary War (2014)

Authors: Andy Lanning / Alan Cowsill / Kieron Gillen / Rob Williams / Glenn Dakin / Brent Eric Anderson / Tom Palmer / Richard Elson  ||  Illustrators: Richard Elson / Dietrich O. Smith / Will Sliney / Nick Roche / Brent Eric Anderson / Tom Palmer / Ronan Cliquet / Gary Erskine / Richard Elson  ||  Page Count: 192

"I'm so tired. I've made mistakes. I wish they mattered."

A revival for a number of original Marvel UK characters after a staggering twenty year absence from the shelves! They first appeared in a bi-weekly anthology called Overkill that dared to go up against 2000 AD. It was a valiant attempt, but they were forced to call it a day after just 52 issues. (I have the original series from way back then. Someday I'll maybe venture into the eldritch wardrobe, unearth them from their resting place of two decades and do a retrospective.)

Seeing them return for an eight-issue miniseries gave me warm fuzzies, but there's a sour downside, a surreptitious reason for their timely return. It isn't just a loving way to mark an anniversary, it was a toe-dip in the water to see if it would be possible to introduce them into the larger Marvel Universe; i.e. The American market. They brought the Overkill heroes back hoping to throw them into a pool of withered storytelling that's overflowing with spandex and fan-wank. That crushing realisation comes in the first few pages and it puts a dampener on the revisit. Damn you, Marvel, for doing what you have every right to do.

The crux of the story: the Mys-Tech Organisation that years before was a thorn in the side of every one of the characters is attempting an aggressive comeback. For Dark Angel that's a deeply upsetting prospect. The debt she inherited as a result of the Faustian deal between Mys-Tech and Mephisto was one written in perpetuity. If the Corporation return they'll upset the dubious balance that she struggles to maintain and the world could become a playground for techno-mage ambition. (That would be worse that the current government?)

The first and last chapters provide a catch-up and resolution to the overall series, respectively. The six bookended chapters wisely narrow their focus primarily to one hero/duo/team. Dark Angel was one of the strongest pillars of the original comic, so it's right that she should feature prominently, but juggling the small in the large is a difficult task for any writer, meaning some of the other interesting characters get criminally overlooked. One or two are absent completely.

If you're a fan of the Overkill comic, be prepared for your reintroduction to be as messy and hurried as many of the other recent Marvel 'events'. If you're new to the whole thing, then it's possible you'll be underwhelmed and slightly confused.

The book contains all eight parts of the Revolutionary War miniseries: RW: Alpha; RW: Dark Angel; RW: Knights of Pendragon; RW: Death's Head II; RW: Supersoldiers; RW: Motormouth; RW: Warheads; and RW: Omega. That's also the order they're designed to be read if you have them as single issue one-shots.

2½ metres below the Museum of Pagan Antiquities out of 5

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Halloween Tree (1972 / 2015)

Author: Ray Bradbury  |  Illustrator: Gris Grimly  |  Page Count: 144

'The wind played a flute in a chimney somewhere; an old song about time and dark and far places. The tall man shut up his smile like a bright pocketknife.'

A new HB edition of Bradbury’s 1972 children's book that has black and white and colour illustrations by Gris Grimly in place of the classic Joe Mugnaini art. Joe's art is much more dramatically menacing, but Grimly's 'darkly whimsical' style is also well-suited to the text, a story of eight friends who go on a journey one magical Halloween night. They're trying to solve a mystery and save a friend who may or may not be feeling quite himself. As they search for one thing they uncover answers to many things, deepening the allure of the season.

It begins in an unnamed mid-west American state with Tom Skelton, aged thirteen, going out to trick or treat with his friends, each one dressed in a different but traditional fright-night costume. But why are they traditional? What do witches have to do with an autumnal festival? Why are bandaged mummies paraded just once a year? As the boys uncover the mysteries of Halloween in an inimitable Bradbury way the reader learns their origin, too. Well, one interpretation of such.

Grimly's inky illustrations are highly stylised, sometimes half a page, sometimes full page. They're well-placed for the most part, but there's one colour plate in particular set before the appearance of the text it relates to. I dislike when that happens. It's almost like having sound and picture not properly synced in a film.

The colour pages are glossy and attractive, so why is the paper stock used for the text such cheap quality? It's not at all what you'd expect to see in a HB edition of an author so well-loved by so many. The publisher probably paid a lot of money for the privilege of republishing, and I realise they likely had to offset costs somehow, but compromising on paper quality is not the best solution. That's an adult concern for what's essentially a children's book, but I stand by it. It matters because if this particular edition is your child's introduction to the story, or even to Bradbury, then they may want to keep and treasure it for years to come.

3 candle constellations out of 5

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Dead Boy Detectives: Vol 2: Ghost Snow (2015)

Author: Toby Litt  |  Illustrators: Mark Buckingham / Gary Erskine  |  Page Count: 160

'I saw my best friend, Rosa, taken by an evil ghost. I was eight.
No one believed me.'

Vol 1: Schoolboy Terrors (2014) left some pretty fantastical threads in need of gathering at its climax. Volume 2 picks them all up and weaves them into a tapestry that has the present represented on one side and the past on the other; Charles’ past, to be specific. I said last time that the boys love a mystery; that’s still true, but for Charles the feeling has gotten more complicated because it’s his family that is the mystery and he’s a piece of the puzzle. He fears what he’ll discover if he starts the digging process, and he fears what he’ll become if he doesn't. The truth can hurt even when you’re dead.

One of the most significant of the aforementioned threads was the one that connected to the Neitherlands. Events there run concurrently with events back on Earth as Charles and Edwin make some new friends. The new characters have a significant role to play, and even though they're dropped into a story that's already under way, they're well-rounded (i.e. well-written) enough to hold their own, even the two feuding philosopher kittens.

I enjoyed Ghost Snow a little more than I did Schoolboy Terrors, but it was largely due to having a solid background already in place, and I suspect that when I go back and re-read them both in one sitting then the collective score will be at least equal the one given below, or perhaps even higher.

Sadly, it concludes the short run of the revived series. Like many of the Sandman offshoots it didn't outstay its welcome, it left me wanting more. (Shut up, wallet!)

The book collects together Dead Boy Detectives issues 7-12 (The End... for now?).

4 faithful poppets out of 5

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Hellbound Heart (1986)

Author: Clive Barker  |  Page Count: 128

'Everywhere, in the wreckage around him, he found evidence to support the same bitter thesis: that he had encountered nothing in his life—no person, no state of mind or body—he wanted sufficiently to suffer even passing discomfort for.'

The novella that became more famous for being filmed as Hellraiser (1987) by Barker himself is a fine example of how good an author he used to be. His prose effectively blends the fantastical with an exploration of the common from an uncommon perspective. In Frank Cotton Barker created a character for whom hedonistic desire has exceeded earthly pleasures, forcing him to cross an unseen border into the realms of the unknown: a meeting with the Order of the Gash.

The Cenobites, as they're more often referred to, are creatures for whom dealings in pleasure are a currency and a privilege, but their definitions of what pleasures of the flesh entail long ago exceeded the human sadomasochistic scale.

There are only four main characters. Unlike Frank the other three aren't as seasoned or as inherently obsessive in their pursuits. Their world is smaller. They're regular people with regular needs. Part of what makes them interesting is that, while each person's desire is different, they're tangled up together: two are in a loveless marriage, while the third is dealing with feelings of unrequited love. Everyone, including the antagonist Frank, craves something that only exists outside of themselves, and some of them dare to reach for it.

As first chapters go it's one of his more repulsive ones. The calculated grossness continues in the same vein throughout. You get the feeling that Barker has visualised the scenes so completely that he was able to move around within them, see them from all angles and even, on occasion, smell their vileness.

The Pinhead character that has become the hideous figurehead of the film series isn't in the book, or rather isn't the same as the one film fans will be familiar with. Putting his image on the cover was a cheap lure by Harper Collins. But I do love the unifying border design they used across all their early Barker books.

4 perverse logics out of 5

Monday, September 14, 2015

Terror of Godzilla (1988)

Author and Illustrator: Kazuhisa Iwata  |  Translators:
Mike Richardson / Randy Stradley  |  Page Count: Approx 30 per issue (176 total)

“...conventional weapons only seem to make him angrier!”

A six-issue miniseries set thirty years after the events of the first Godzilla film (1954). Japan has been free of kaijū trouble since then, but a natural volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean changes that. It's time to suit up, JSDF.

The first thing you ought to know is that the English language edition published by Darkhorse is the original manga translated but it's been coloured (the original was B+W). I'd have preferred it left as it was intended, but in all fairness it's not a bad job and the upside is we get it on better paper stock than Japan did. I'm going to take the optimistic stance and say that it could've been much worse, truly.

Artwork is Tezuka-inspired. Issue one is occasionally gruesome, but subsequent issues are less interesting. There’s not much emotion conveyed through facial expressions and it bothered me that the plucky hero, reporter Goro Maki, was drawn with his mouth open most of the time, surrounded by dramatic lines that did little to increase the actual drama of the scene. He gets himself stuck between two G's, the Government and Godzilla, but with help from a Professor of bio-physics named Hayashida he's determined to see the story to the end.

The story itself does everything you’d expect it to do and a few more things besides. The creature—referred to as male—puts the fear of G into the people of Japan. He and his man-boobs get at least a half dozen two-page spreads, often dialogue-free, that are impressive, effectively showing the scale of the problem.

America and Russia get involved in a secondary capacity, having commentary on atomics pinned to their inflated chests. During one such scene it succinctly puts into perspective the attitude that men of war have toward nuclear weapons and the bombing of cities into just three small panels. It shows how justification for such action is balanced against proximity to home soil (i.e. how far from home). A human error can be even more terrifying than Mother Nature's.

The quality takes a dive with the addition of a clichéd, hysterical female calmed by male rationality, in turn followed by male heroics and female sensitivity. Oh, dear. And finally, to punctuate the gender inequalities further, it ends with a daring act of male chivalry! You’ll see it coming from a mile away. The same story was handled much more competently in the film version, The Return of Godzilla (1984). The post-explosive ending is definitely memorable, though.

2½ instances of THOOM! out of 5

Note: You can find spoiler-free, mini-reviews of some of the many Godzilla films (and some other other kaijū eiga films) on our sister site, In a Nutshell.

Monday, September 7, 2015

True Grit (1968)

Author: Charles Portis  | Page Count: 227

You go for a man hard enough and fast enough and he don’t have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him.”

Though it won't matter very much to anyone reading this, I've been a fan of the Western film genre for almost thirty years (thanks, mom ♥) but until picking up True Grit for the first time last week I'd never actually read a Western novel.* The reason I mention that at all is to point out that an enjoyment of one isn't dependent on a love of the other. The book and its characters are so well-written that they would stand head and shoulders above thousands of similar types no matter what year or setting they were placed in.

It's the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who sets out to avenge the murder of her father. The murder happened before the book begins, so that's not a spoiler.

The narrative is first person, told by the girl, Mattie Ross, in a conversational style. Mattie's a young woman in a man's world, but she's not the stereotype. She's strong-willed and of the view that her education puts her on equal footing and deserving an equal amount of respect to that of her elders. Her elders, for the most part, are men of low virtue who see the world very differently to her.

And then there's Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn who knows first-hand the cruelties and hardships that await anyone who undertakes the kind of endeavour she sets in motion. Cogburn's badge gives him licence to act the way he does, but he'd do the same even without it. He's a man of principals; ones unique to himself.

Mattie occasionally gets lost in the telling, jumping ahead of herself to give an account of things that happened years after the novel's main story. It effectively conveys her feelings about what constitutes justice, often vindicating her strong opinions about things. She likes to say 'I was right,' as much as the next man.

The dialogue is of the era (1880-ish) but never difficult to read. There's some excellent comedy moments that had me howling even though they're sometimes played straight. Portis kept the momentum thundering along from beginning to end. There wasn't a single moment when I wasn't eager to turn the page and keep on reading. His final chapter is simply astonishing.

5 measures of people out of 5

*Unless you count Stephen King's Dark Tower series, but the magical realism aspects of it complicate any kind of straight-up classification.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dead Boy Detectives: Vol 1: Schoolboy Terrors (2014)

Author: Toby Litt | Illustrators: Mark Buckingham / Gary Erskine | Page Count: 160

'...He always treats us like royalty, it's just... sometimes it's the red carpet... and sometimes it's the guillotine.'

Of all The Sandman secondary characters that could've been revived for an ongoing series the Dead Boy Detectives wasn't high on my list of wants, but Toby Litt has changed that. The previous incarnation (2001) is acknowledged and respected but Litt has taken a different approach to the storytelling. He doesn't reinvent what's already in existence, he rejuvenates it, making everything feel more vital and a lot more entertaining.

The two boys, Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, were born decades apart but they share a passion for solving mysteries. Where there’s a mystery it follows that there’s almost always danger; doubly so if the occult is involved. When the two friends decide to help a young girl they find themselves in the deep end of personal history, surrounded by terrors unique to them. It's a place where being already dead is no guarantee of safety.

Something I don’t think I've mentioned before is the work of Todd Klein, the finest letterer in the business. If you're new to comics you might think that it’s just text and any fool can do it, but no, not like Todd. His text boxes, bubbles, etc, complement Litt's dialogue by being written in different fonts and presented via different mediums, each one chosen specifically to accentuate the traits and unique personalities of the character from which they originate. Edwin was born in the 1900s, so you'd expect his vernacular to reflect that, but so too does his lettering. Likewise, Charles is a child of the 1990s, his analytical approach to things is more hard-boiled and so his lettering reflects that.

If you pay attention not just to what you read but to how it's written then you'll discover many more examples. Hopefully it'll open the way for you to appreciate the other unsung heroes in comics, such as inkers and colourists, too.

The book collects together Dead Boy Detectives issues 1-6; and stories from Witching Hour issue 1; Ghosts issue 1; and Time Warp issue 1.

3½ French exchanges out of 5

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892)

Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman  |  Page Count: 55  |  Publisher: Penguin

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

If you hear the name Charlotte Perkins Gilman spoken outside of critical circles then it'll more than likely be in reference to The Yellow Wall-Paper. Her most famous work, it constantly overshadows all the others. It's a short but deeply engaging first person narrative from a woman who—in the eyes of her physician husband—has fulfilled her main role as wife. Being of the weaker sex means she should quietly do as she's told for her own well-being. Confined to an attic room, with nothing to occupy her sharp intellect, her state of mind deteriorates.

Her husband’s cure for her sickness, one that he believes is of her own making, does more harm than good. Left alone she reads, writes and draws comparisons that wouldn't have existed had she been allowed to walk free. The patterned wallpaper is ever-present; its influence is inescapable.

Gilman’s unnamed protagonist is a sympathetic character whose journal entries get more hurried and feverish as subsequent days pass, a written account of the truth she hides from her husband. Her silence speaks of a strength that the model, meek wife ought not to have. Gilman had a very real insight into the workings of her character’s mind, having suffered from postpartum psychosis herself. Making such thoughts public, in a fictional but undeniably semi-autobiographical manner, shook the restrained sensibilities of nineteenth-century readers.

The pictured edition includes two additional short stories. The first of them, Rocking Chair, was published just one year after TYW. It's a creepy tale, also a first person narrative, about two friends that together find lodgings in the same house. The text explores the tensile nature of the bond they share, and how it's affected by the introduction of a female presence. It reminded me of Poe's work at times, being concerned with an impulse that partially conceals itself from the person it moves. Again, it's an excellent short, proving Charlotte's mastery a second time.

The final story, Old War, first published in 1911, is the weakest of the three but still superbly written. Both it and Rocking Chair illustrate how well Gilman was able to write both sexes. A mother who wants for her daughter the romanticised love that she never had, a practical young woman who wants none of it, and a poet suitor representing everything that's false about the poetic method all dance around each other, neither one prepared to admit failure.

5 provoking forms out of 5

Friday, August 14, 2015

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Nemo: River Of Ghosts (2015)

Author: Alan Moore | Illustrator: Kevin O'Neill | Page Count: 56

"It was the piranhas mostly. They can be spiteful if they're in yer trousers..."

Eighty-year-old Janni gathers together a crew (one of whom would've certainly been worthy of League membership in an earlier time) for one last sailing of the Nautilus into the heart of darkness; i.e. up the Amazon. Her ultimate goal is to put to rest someone who ought to have been dead years before, someone we've met before and for whom death was initially a long time coming.

She’s wizened and determined, with a face that looks like it’s been carved out of wood. Many of the crew think her mad, but she’s knows the truth.

It’s not usually until my second read-through that I'm able to appreciate the intricacies of the League books. I'm too busy trying to spot extraneous references and getting lost in the backgrounds during the first read. But I enjoyed River of Ghosts on the first pass. Either Moore has finally found a suitable level of outside influences being pitched inside, or I simply overlooked a ton of them. Either way, it was a more fluid experience, enabling me to get caught up in the yarn easily.

The aforementioned crew member is Janni’s bodyguard. He's an amalgamation of more than one fictional/legendary character, and more than once he steals the show with his actions; at one point he even does it while having lunch.

The ending is abrupt, but the entire thing had been leading organically up to it, so in the overall scheme it’s simply punctuation that serves a dual purpose. If you've followed the journey up until now then there’s no reason not to step aboard for the conclusion to the trilogy. If you've been hesitant because of how it was split over time, as was the case with Century it'll likely get a collected edition sometime in the future with new O'Neill cover art; an option is to wait for that.

3 broken lady parts out of 5

Friday, August 7, 2015

George's Marvellous Medicine (1981)

Author: Roald Dahl  |  Illustrator: Quentin Blake  |  Page Count: 96

'She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered-up mouth like a dog's bottom.'

I can barely remember what I did yesterday afternoon, but I can recall easily the first time I read about George Kranky's Marvellous Medicine. I was aged ten. It was a long time ago. Four separate classes in the school I attended (and loved) were gathered together in one room for an important presentation. I never did find out what was so important because soon after arrival I shuffled my way to the back left corner of a sea of cross-legged children on the floor, hid myself within the maelstrom as best I could, opened up the book and started to read. None of the teachers noticed and after a few minutes I forgot they even existed.

It's a short book with a simple plot. George's mother goes to town, leaving the eight-year-old at home with his grandmother. George hates his gran, but being the only one other than her in the house means he's now responsible for administering the old girl's daily dose of medicine. Instead of her regular brown medicine in a boring bottle, George decides to make his own concoction.

The adult part of me was screaming about how irresponsible it all was, especially when he reached the garden shed, but the part of me that still enjoys that kind of freedom was rubbing his hands together wickedly and sniggering way too much.

If you've ever wanted to write for children then there’s no better teacher than Dahl. Marvellous Medicine certainly isn't his best work, but he doesn't waste a single word and once the story really kicks off it doesn't stop, so there's still something to be learned from it.

George's father is a fun character. I'd never really considered his point of view before. Nor that of the chickens. I felt sorry for them. They get a bad enough deal as it is having a tiny brain, not being able to fly and being tasty when cooked.

Young children will have a blast picturing all the weird ingredients, while adults will recognise how significant events change everyone who partakes or witnesses them, even the people that don't take the medicine.

3 spoonfuls of alternative sugar out of 5

Saturday, August 1, 2015

WitchCraft: La Terreur (1998)

Author: James Robinson  |  Illustrator: Michael Zulli  |  Page Count: 72 (24 x 3)

“…nothing is for nothing.”

La Terreur translates to The Terror, referencing a period in France’s past (also known as The Reign of Terror) in which a bloody revolution took place as people tried to turn the political climate from a Monarchy into a Republic. Wikipedia has more details if you want to brush up on the cultural and political happenings around which the story is set (HERE).

It’s the second series of three, being a sequel to WitchCraft (1994), but you don’t need to have read the previous books because the only returning characters are The Hecate, three witches previously seen in the Sandman universe, and it doesn't continue the same story. It’s a new adventure with them taking less of an active role. Instead, they're more of a catalyst. It's also a lot less enjoyable.

The main protagonist is Isadore Hibbert, aged seventeen. Circumstances leave Isadore with a problem and a limited time in which to deal with it. If she isn't able to increase her intellectual, spiritual and magical growth before it's too late then there'll be additional blood spilled on the cobbles. She’s a likable lass, but her story lacks flourish or any kind of identifiable uniqueness; it feels rushed, and any depth that might have been is a casualty of the short page count.

Zulli’s sketchy lines suit the mood and he gets creative with panel borders once or twice. The finery of the nobles gives him an opportunity to add some colour.

2½ unfettered times out of 5

NOTE: The picture at the top of this post is an amalgamation of Michael Kaluta's cover art of all three issues. You can see a much larger version by clicking HERE, or if you prefer to see each individual cover: ONE // TWO // THREE.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Tragedy of Macbeth (c.1599-1606)

Author: William Shakespeare  |  Page Count: 128

"Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." 

The Tragedy of Macbeth (aka simply as Macbeth) is one of the easiest of Shakespeare's Tragedies to get to grips with for a newcomer, and of the ones I've read is my personal favourite, but not for the same reason. It's because despite its short length it packs in a ton of good stuff, including the supernatural, prophecy, blood, murder, gender, guilt, conflict, reversals, paranoia, insanity and metaphor.

Though given less time than her husband, the real star is arguably Lady Macbeth, a woman for whom ambition is so all-consuming that she willingly steps into a world of terrible consequence while fully aware that what she does is deserving of retribution. For Lady Macbeth, failure is a greater sin than murder; 'bitch is crazy' in modern parlance. Her famous soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 5 highlights it.

The "fair is foul, and foul is fair" comment made by the witches is an instruction on how best to approach the events that follow, and exploring whether or not the prophecy was self-fulfilling is an easy way to get marks on a term paper, but if you wish to go deeper into the narrative you could compare how the lifeblood of man relates to the lifeblood of Scotland; the death of a leader with the death of moral values; and even what role Christendom plays in the resolution, if any?

There'll always be arguments among scholars about the intended meaning of the many subtexts that Shakespeare added, but one thing everyone who reads the work can agree upon is that visitors always call at the worst possible time.

4 brainsickly thoughts out of 5

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dream Fossil (2015)

Author: Satoshi Kon  |  Illustrator: Satoshi Kon  |  Page Count: 426

"Ten years from now, you'll look good holding manilla envelopes."

Fifteen short mangas by Satoshi Kon arranged mostly chronologically from the years 1984-89. Having them presented that way enables a reader to chart the evolution and clarity of vision that bordered the path to peculiarity he walked, a path that led the author into the role of revered anime director.*

Of the fifteen, only about one third of them are what I'd call memorable. Furthermore, with the exception of an opening story that could make a really interesting short film, the better stories don't come until halfway into the book.

Fans of Kon's films will recognise seeds of ideas that he'd develop further and more successfully later in his career. My favourite story, Joyful Bell (1989), reminds me very much of his Tokyo Godfathers (2003) anime, ironically my least favourite of his films and the only one I'm not sad isn't available on blu-ray.

Also notable are the stories Kidnappers (1987), Guests (1987), and Beyond the Sun (1988). The latter is the one where I most felt the music of Susumu Hirasawa as an influence. Coincidently, the book includes a short interview with the musician. Far from being filler, it offers an insightful glimpse into the simpatico the two men shared as it refers to their frequent, creative collaborations.

It’s published by Vertical, who also handled Kon’s Tropic of the Sea (2013) manga. You’d think they’d have had the good sense to make it the same size so that the two can be comfortably shelved next to each other. But no; Dream Fossil is bigger. They did the same with their Makoto Shinkai books. That pisses me off.

The increase in size wasn't accompanied by an increase in paper quality. Looking at Fossil and Tropic side by side I'm half-convinced that it's even lower grade than before. I'm extremely grateful and supportive of Vertical taking a chance on this type of thing, sincerely, but please don't skimp on the presentation. Strive to be the best you can be and I'll happily give you my money time and again.

2½ weathered serials out of 5

*You can find short reviews of Satoshi Kon's films on our sister site, In a Nutshell.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 (2014)

Author: J.B. Morrison  |  Page Count: 304

'He already had his free TV licence and bus pass.  Even though there was nothing on television and nowhere to take the bus to.'

J.B. Morrison is Jim Bob, who at one time was half of the phenomenally semi-successful music act Carter USM. I admit it was entirely due to my love for the band’s music that I checked out Frank Derrick. The clever word play in the title made me wonder prior to reading if we would see a return to the fiery satire of Jim Bob’s lyric writing style, or if it would more closely resemble the deeply poignant feelings of abandonment that 'Granny Farming in the UK' gave rise to. The text is neither; or rather it’s both but filtered through a more subtle and sensitive screen door. It's comedy with a thoughtful slant that's sweet but never artificial.

Frank of Fullwind-on-Sea is a cynical duffer with a healthy distrust of others. He's an active sort who frequents the charity shops and buys crap he doesn't need. He looks upon the curtain-twitchers in his neighbourhood with disdain, but often his vantage point is from behind his own twitching curtain. When an accident lessens Frank's independence some home-help is arranged. He resents the idea completely, fearing the worst: she'll treat him like a child; she'll steal his life savings! But Frank had been wrong about people before. Who's to say...?

Jim Bob's style is descriptive and wry. His sentences frequently take lengthy strides when a shorter, more direct approach could've conveyed the same information more succinctly. They're rambling, some might say, but I'm a rambler, too, so it wasn't a problem for me. I actually liked it; it showed that he was being honest with himself and his readers, not trying to mimic another's style. He wisely litters comedy throughout, instead of always holding back for a killer punchline.

The only thing I really disliked was the half a dozen movie spoilers. They were old movies and their inclusion was relevant to Frank's tragic situation, but that's no excuse. They were spoilers no matter how you spin it. Speaking of which, if the book was to be filmed it would most likely be an indie, suitable for the likes of HandMade Films, and in a perfect world it would star Michael Caine.

3½ mantelpiece giraffes out of 5

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WitchCraft (1996)

Author: James Robinson  |  Illustrators: Peter Snejbjerg / Michael Zulli / Steve Yeowell  |  Page Count: 135

"The fires of madness burn at a gentle heat, stoked by grandiose delusion."

The Hecate, also known as Maid, Mother and Crone, are three aspects of the same ancient Greek deity. Likewise, the three parts of the book represent three different eras, each one more aged than the last, structurally mimicking a part of the content. The individual chapters tell their own story while also being a part of the same, larger story. Each has its own prologue wherein we’re privy to the Hecate’s thoughts and hopes for what eventually follows.

It begins with a brutal act of violence against a young priestess whom the Hecate show favour to. Her aspect and that of her tormentor are reincarnated over and over throughout the ages so that she can meet him again and again, until she’s able to sate the Hecate’s need for bloody revenge. The witches aren't going anywhere. Their longevity means they can play the waiting game for as long as it takes.

The different eras are suitably well-realised, with the language taking cues from the years in which the drama is set. Even though time advances as normal for the main story there are instances where the reader is pulled back to an earlier time within the smaller framework, showing us the reincarnated priestess’ upbringing and education. One such example is Faith Armitage aged seventeen, a product of her teachings, is contrasted with Faith Armitage, orphan aged seven, a malleable child with a mind waiting to be filled. There's not enough time to go deep into the nature vs nurture debate, but it's there to some degree.

Author James Robinson (sometimes credited as James Dale Robinson) shows us the lecherous nature of mankind that, if left unchecked, could become an all too familiar occurrence. In this case it's a fictional deity that steps up to the line, but even then it's only because they felt they were wronged or robbed of something valuable. Not putting a stop to something is not the same as sanctioning it, but sometimes just looking the other way can itself be perceived as an unjust act.

The book collects together the entire first miniseries, WitchCraft issues 1-3.

3½ rotations of the wheel of fate out of 5

Thursday, June 18, 2015

God Emperor of Dune (1981)

Author: Frank Herbert  |  Page Count: 454

'To those who dare ask why I behave as I do, I say: With my memories, I can do nothing else. I am not a coward and once I was human.'
-The Stolen Journals of Leto II

Book IV ventures further down unpredictable avenues, more so even than the reversal of reader expectations that was Book II. Whereas the previous volumes each had identifiable influences, actions reminiscent of classic tales (Muad'dib as Aeneas, etc), God Emperor isn't so easily relatable. It stands apart, exploring the mind of a man become a god—changed in more than just the figurative sense.

Leto II's current condition grants him an insight into the human condition that had never existed before. It also paradoxically distances him from fully empathising with the people he's closest to. Empathy is a process dependent on memory. Being Atreides means Leto has access to an almost infinite store of memories from countless lives but they're each shaped by the era in which they were formed. His only experience of a society held in the grip of a God Emperor for millennia is from the side of the ruler, not the ruled. His outlook is invaluable but one-sided.

Arrakis is changed, too. No longer just a place to train the faithful, it's the predicted centre of the universe. The Bene Gesserit, Guild and Ixians are diminished but still around, slaves to the planet's resources, biding their time.

It's impossible to know for sure but I suspect the voice of the author is split between at least two of the main characters. With his knowledge of atavistic characteristics and myth structures Leto is, of course, one of them. Using the poetic or prosaic as the situation demands; teaching on an active level, not through repetition; forcing the listener (and reader) to apply what they know as fact and extrapolate into the equation what they think they know in order to fully understand the lesson is an idealised version of an author/ teacher.

As usual, the introduction to each chapter is a commentary on more than just the individual parts, extending instead to the whole. You should also have recognised by now how Frank orchestrates situations for the sequels to follow up on. God Emperor delivers on that. It has a proper ending so you can stop the series afterwards if you want to, but there's still more to the story of Arrakis.

5 reassuring dimensions out of 5

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Toy Instruments: Design, Nostalgia, Music (2010)

Author: Eric Schneider  |  Page Count: 192

It makes me see angels, drifting through space, touching the stars and bringing the light.  Just with one finger.’

You can’t put a price on the warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies nostalgia. It’s like an all-singing, all-dancing ferret has crawled inside you (a supernatural ferret, let’s be clear on that), but in publishing you can put a price on a picture book designed to encapsulate and encourage the ferret. In the case of Toy Instruments it's an extortionate one. RRP is £13.95 for a 16.5 x 16.5 cm HB book with content that’s ninety-nine percent pictures. I paid 99p in a clearance sale, but for what it’s worth I sincerely hope Eric Schneider still gets his percentage.

As the titles suggests, its focus is instruments from a bygone era that were targeted at children. If you had a toy that went plink-plink, peep-peep and maybe even ting-ting then you might find it displayed within the thick, quality pages. I got lucky at the starting gate, having owned a little wooden piano like the one featured; it was the same colour and even had scuff marks in the same places!

The items aren't the only attraction. Often they pale when next to the treasure for the eyes that is box art. Many of the products are from China and Japan and even back then their box art was the best! But was it really necessary to crop the pictures to fit the square format? Wouldn't it have been better to show, oh, I don’t know, the entire box that each toy came in? A crazy idea, huh?

The change from a traditional wooden styling to bulky electronic to branded plastic tat that made you sound like a voice from beyond the grave or Optimus Prime's weaker brother with a robotic bronchial infection offers a fascinating glimpse into the attitudes of toy makers in each distinctive era.

Brief captions below images give the manufacturer’s name, the item’s full name, date of release and country of origin where known, but some of the text is difficult to read being white on 70s gray, orange and pink backgrounds.

It's not something that many people will reread, but like I said at the beginning it warms the cockles, so it has merit outside of its presentation and those feelings may well encourage some folks to at least revisit its charms from time to time.

2½ battery powered sonic strings out of 5

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Clive Barker's Nightbreed: Volume 1 (2015)

Authors: Clive Barker / Marc Andreyko  |  Illustrator: Piotr Kowalski  |  Page Count: 112

"Midian calls to all of her children. No matter where we are..."

Given the choice, I’d rather have had a sequel novel than a prequel comic book, but a comic version of Nightbreed that's canon is better than nothing at all, I guess.

It’s a story set in the present, broken periodically with flashbacks to years before. To confuse matters, the 'present' is the year the film is set, so, yes, you'll need to have viewed the film prior to reading, and the flashbacks are from a number of different perspectives, each one telling the story of how a particular member of the collective lived prior to finding the safety of Midian.

I had a secret hope that the series would do what the film failed to do: flesh out the inner-workings of Midian and deepen the concerns of the creatures, warts and all beyond just: we may be ugly on the outside but humans are morally uglier on the inside. With that in mind, it begins badly. Presenting Peloquin as a kind of monstrous version of Wolverine was worrying. Thankfully, his story is just one of many spread out over the years with each era given its own visual look.

The histories continue in a similarly bland fashion until the end of issue three. Without going into detail, an unexpected element is introduced that may (fingers firmly crossed) turn out to be a pivotal happening further down the line. There are a number of different routes it could take and I'm guessing that most—if not all—of them end in bloodshed. The only question is whose blood; Natural or Nightbreed?

The cover art by Riley Rossmo is excellent but misleading. Only about half of those shown actually feature in the first volume. I didn't feel cheated because squeezing any more in would've made the story seem even more piecemeal than it already is, but it's worth mentioning, nonetheless, in case one of those pictured is your favourite and you were really hoping to find them inside.

The book collects together Clive Barker's Nightbreed issues 1-4 (of 12).

2½ learned behaviours out of 5

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Sandman Presents: Petrefax (2000)

Author: Mike Carey  |  Illustrator: Steve Leialoha  |  Page Count: 88 (22 x 4)

"I had fallen in love with a dead woman.
I asked myself if this was irony or merely an occupational hazard..."

A four issue miniseries that follows Petrefax, the apprentice undertaker from the necropolis Litharge, who first appeared in The Sandman: Vol VIII: Worlds' End (1994).  He's now a journeyman, seeking life experience in the wider, weirder world.  His travels take him to the bustling Malegrise, a place that brings to mind England of centuries gone by; the biggest difference being that 18th Century England wasn't home to sorcerers and demons (as far as we know).

I'm glad it was Carey that was given the job of writing the miniseries.  It suits his talents perfectly.  He was sole author of the ongoing Lucifer series at the same time Petrefax was published, but there's no evidence that he was stretching himself too thin.  In fact, the reverse seems to be the case.  He must've been on a creative high, because both works are excellent.

It's not just the undertaker's tale.  It's also the story of the people he meets, among them a spirited, overconfident, beautiful woman and a vulgar, powerful Lord.  Each one adds something unique to an adventure filled with death, love, jealousy, problem-solving, stupidity, surreptitious behaviour and much more.

Text boxes take the form of an ongoing letter penned by Petrefax and addressed to his master, Klaproth, the man, you may remember, to whom he was apprenticed in Litharge.  It’s both a commentary on events from the journeyman’s own point of view and an insight into his thought process.  As such, it's safe to assume one of two things: that for Petrefax the story has already ended and we’re reading about it afterwards, or that the meeting of present happenings (image) and future reflection (words) passed onto the reader is simply a literary device giving us a fuller picture with the added benefit of hindsight, something that was denied the protagonists at the time.

4 funerary arts out of 5

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Book of Lies: Liber CCCXXXIII (1912)

Author: Frater Perdurabo (Aleister Crowley)  |  Page Count: 200

'The more necessary anything appears to my mind, the more certain it is that I only assert a limitation.'

To give it its full title, 'The Book of Lies: Which is also Falsely Called BREAKS. The Wanderings or Falsifications of the One Thought of Frater Perdurabo, which Thought is itself Untrue. Liber CCCXXXIII', is perhaps the most accessible of Crowley's published works. The deeper, hidden meanings relating to his magickal philosophies are there to be deciphered and will, no doubt, be recognisable to members of the A∴A∴ and O.T.O., but there's enough disclosure in the footnote commentaries (added later but included in most current editions) to explain certain things to the uninitiated, to enable even a complete newcomer to follow many of the Qabalistic threads and understand that structure is as important as content.

It's a fascinating read even if you've no intention of taking the study further. He was aware of his reputation—at times he even orchestrated and encouraged it—but what may surprise people is how sharp a sense of humour the ‘Great Beast’ had. The title is an indication, but there are numerous instances within the book.

Also of note is Crowley's ability to use words as succinctly and beautifully as the poets did. There’s no doubt he was well-read in philosophy and theosophy, etc, but he also shows an impressive disposition for poetry. There's some awful rhyme included throughout, but its clearly intentional. I believe that had he wished it, had his life taken a different path, he could've excelled in a different kind of art.

If you do want to connect more dots it's necessary to have a copy of The Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis) (1904) nearby, but know that doing so may raise more questions for the inquisitive mind than it provides answers.

5 epigrammatic forms out of 5

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Satoshi Kon's OPUS (2014)

Author: Satoshi Kon  |  Illustrator: Satoshi Kon  |  Page Count: 384

"It's like I was flying forever... but then somehow ran out of forever."

OPUS focuses on a stressed-out writer/artist named Chikara Nagai. His current project is a serialised manga titled Resonance. It's nearing its end but Nagai’s having trouble with some of the characters, they don’t want to go where he needs them to be in order to advance the story. It’s a common problem for fiction writers of lengthy works: the characters either get written into a corner or take on a life of their own and become problematic. In Satoshi Kon’s hands that notion exploded into a wild, spiralling metafiction wherein the pressured creator ends up closer to his creation than he ever thought possible.

It begins with pages from the Resonance manga, meaning our first exposure is both an (almost) ending and a beginning. There are even adverts for previous Resonance volumes, helping to sustain the illusion that it’s a real product. It has its own unique story with purposeful clichés working in tandem with originality, but it's the larger story that'll draw you in a lot more.

There’s no doubt that Satoshi would've used his own experiences within the profession as a basis for the work. Some of the events in Nagai’s life have even been documented as happening in Satoshi's, so it‘s fair to assume that it’s at least partially autobiographical in nature. Most of the best stories are.

NOTE: You ought to know before deciding whether or not to pick up the collection that it’s not finished and it never will be. Sadly, Satoshi Kon passed away in 2010 leaving the anime/manga world a less colourful place. The 2014 Dark Horse edition contains all of Volumes I and II written in 1995-96 but not previously translated into English. Volume I is filled with mind-bending action. Volume II continues in the same vein but also goes to some very dark places.

The DH edition also has a never-before-seen chapter that in some ways eases the ‘no ending’ situation. I like to think that Kon would be pleased it was discovered and included; you'll understand why I say that if you read it.

5 P-MODEL albums out of 5

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Children of Dune (1976)

Author: Frank Herbert  |  Page Count: 426

'When you believe something is right or wrong, true or false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments.  Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.'
-The Open-Ended Proof from The Panoplia Prophetica

More than twenty years have passed since Duke Leto Atreides of Caladan first set foot on the arid landscape of Arrakis. Much has changed in that short time. The descendants of Leto are now children of Dune.

In a manner similar to how the ducal signet ring has passed to more than one successor in that time, so too has an important part of the story’s focus. While the planet is always the largest concern, it's arguably the characters that make any book worth reading, so we have the twins, now aged nine. They explore their origins while their aunt goes ever-deeper into the political and religious realm, for reasons that she keeps secret, scheming how best to make even the most desperate situation an advantageous link in the chain of practical eventualities.

Herbert’s presentation of the twins is amazing. Their heritage gifts them with certain talents and knowledge that belies their age, accentuating the almost magical bond that exists between a brother and sister born from the same womb only seconds apart. Each is able to instinctually know what the other is thinking, or, at the very least, make an informed judgement call on how their sibling would respond to any given situation, to anticipate reactions and even to allow for the unknown. When confronted with a problem, familial or otherwise, they've more than one perspective to draw on. When they debate it’s like one mind questioning itself, excising the incorrect assumptions to leave only the correct path. However, it's a situation filled with just as many dangers.

For a time the book is heavily-weighted towards the women. The Reverend Mother role of the old religion never really went away; like everything else it changed and adapted to fit the political climate.

Previously we had a voice from the ‘outer world’ bringing change. Now there’s a voice from Dune itself, a figure from the planet’s past known only as The Preacher, passing judgement on the present situation, on the religious beliefs of the Fremen, on the ecology and on the state of rule.

I've chosen to highlight only a small part to avoid spoilers, but there’s a lot more to be discovered. For example, most of us will know how easily the mind slips into romanticising what’s past after change has occurred; the effect that has on larger concerns can be immeasurable and remain unseen by the populace who are a integral part of it. Remember also that the ‘Children’ of the title is more than literal and can be applied in a broader sense to more than just the twins.

5 divergent motives out of 5

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night (1998)

Authors: Terry LaBan / Peter Hogan / Alisa Kwitney | Illustrators: Peter Snejbjerg / Steve Parkhouse / Michael Zulli  |  Page Count: 208

The likeliest hypothesis we’ve come up with is that we're dead.  Everything else seems too far-fetched.”

The first regular offshoot of The Sandman.  It lasted an impressive 60 issues, most of which have unfortunately never been reprinted.  Besides the one you’re reading about, the only other available TPB is Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory (1999), and there’s a single issue included in The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales (2003).  The rest are only obtainable by seeking out the original single issue publications and that’ll likely cost a lot more than they were originally worth.  I wish I could say that I have them already, but I don't.

Beyond the Shores of Night contains three stories all set in or around elements of the Dreaming.  Does it have any Sandman characters?  Yes.  It’s much too difficult to skirt around which ones exactly because they’re prominent in all three, so I'm just going to go ahead and say.  It’s what most people want to know, anyhow.  If you’re not one of those people, then please don’t read any further.

01. The Goldie Factor:
A three-part tale about Abel’s pet gargoyle, Goldie, whose origins have hitherto been shrouded in mystery.  All we'd been told previously is that, in an uncharacteristic gesture of niceness, Cain gave her to Abel while she was still an egg.  Even the little winged creature doesn't know where she came from.  But all that is about the change.  It’s not the most exciting adventure and some of it's clearly filler to get it across three issues, but the ending is memorable and it’s good to see the sad-faced gargoyle get something meaningful to do.

02. The Lost Boy:
A four-part story featuring a returning Sandman secondary character that I don’t have to name.  Yay.  Unfortunately the person speaks with an accent and is written to reflect that, meaning it’s as irritating to read as Abel’s dialogue was in the previous work.  Again, the story is longer than it ought to have been.

03. His Brother’s Keeper:
A one issue tale that’s much closer to the kind of storytelling found in the original Sandman series.  Perhaps the previous two stories were an attempt to get away from it—it is a separate title after all—but it doesn't change the fact that His Brother’s Keeper is by far the best of the three.  It begins as an unscheduled meeting in the House of Mystery and develops into something much darker.

Overall, it could be a lot better than it is, but revisiting the Dreaming, even in a lesser way, is still an enjoyable way to spend some waking time.

The book collects together The Dreaming, issues 1 - 8.

3 personal hells out of 5

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)

Author: Oscar Wilde  |  Page Count: 152*

"In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

The events in Oscar's play about a 'Good Woman’ occur over a twenty-four hour period in Victorian London. It's a short work, divided into four Acts: the time spent by Lady Windermere and her husband before a coming of age birthday ball hosted by the couple; the party itself; the aftermath; and the resolutions of the following morning/afternoon. That's ample time for drama and scandal to erupt.

The ball is attended by a select gentry, but strip away the mannered social standings and tailored suits and it's like every party everywhere, filled with two-faced gossip, hypocrisy, nonchalance, indignation and unwarranted observations by caustic people who would chide a speaker for doing the same. The self-indulgent concerns of rich-folks could've been a real bore if not for Oscar's piercing wit to spice it up; he made the verbal meanderings of dull people seem exciting. Under attack are the conventions of marriage, among other things.

The juxtapositions and sarcasms that Wilde enjoys so much aren't just decorative flair, they serve a deeper function whereby reversals act as commentary on the characters from which they originate, and as a singularly reflective study of a particular stratum of society as a whole. It highlights that quite often judgements designed to protect us are secretly used to elevate us in status. Within that is also the notion that impressions can (and often do) be wrong.

His skill at both staging and critiquing his own content evolved in later works, but there's no denying that LWF is an excellent piece when viewed in isolation.

It's been said by some critics that in many of his works the 'voice' of the author overshadows all other concerns, and in LWF it's so obvious that you'll spot it without needing any help. Personally, I don't have a problem with it happening.

3½ late lessons out of 5

*Kindle ebook edition, but page count will vary greatly depending on the publisher.  I've seen editions for sale with as little as 52 pages.  As long as you have all four Acts of the play then you're golden.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dredd: Urban Warfare (2015)

Authors: Arthur Wyatt / Matt Smith  |  Illustrators: Henry Flint / Paul Davidson  |  Page Count: 96

'From the gleaming tower, he watches the sector burn.'

I rated Underbelly (2014) less than average on a comic book Dredd scale, but I was still planning on buying the second tie-in, a two-parter titled Uprise (2014), simply to show support for the franchise and keep hope alive for a second film. However, by the time I was ready to pony up the cash, details of Urban Warfare had already appeared online. Seeing as how it collects both the previously mentioned works and adds a third story, telling of Ma-Ma’s origins, it seemed the more logical choice to go for. Plus, it’s a hardcover. The three stories are:

01. Top of the World, Ma-Ma (2012)
A violent prologue to the Dredd movie (2012) that shows us a little of Ma-Ma's past, most of which was mentioned briefly in the film's script. It foreshadows certain events, too, which was a nice touch. It really is just a prologue, so don't expect anything more than that and it'll deliver the goods.

02. Underbelly (2014)
I read it again, but even with adjusted expectations my feelings towards it are unchanged. You can read the previous post HERE. The page size is returned to what it should've been, not the US comic size, and for that I'm grateful.

03. Uprise (2014)
Yes!  The best of the bunch. The story is less of a rehash of the film and more like something that would fit snugly into the comic. I realise they're two different aspects and should remain as such, but there's nothing wrong with attempting to meet the Megazine's standards.
There's a declaration of ownership from a sector within the Big Meg, a direct defiance of the system that Dredd represents. It's a threat that needs put to rest fast, lest it spread virus-like to other areas, so Dredd rolls in and busts heads.
It uses the 'riot happening alongside clue-uncovering' scenario, but it's done well and it doesn't wimp out. It also places itself firmly after the film by referencing something from it. It feels like an ongoing story, not just an adapted one.

I'm disappointed they chose to reuse the cover art of Underbelly. There’s no shortage of artists waiting in line, willing to draw Dredd. They could've at least used one of the lesser-known variant covers that were featured on the Uprise single issues. Grud knows variants aren't of use for anything else.

3 pacification units out of 5

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dune Messiah (1969)

Author: Frank Herbert  |  Page Count: 222

'Between depriving a man of one hour from his life and depriving him of his life there exists only a difference of degree.'
-Addenda to Orders in Council, The Emperor Paul Muad'dib

The first sequel to Dune (1965) is almost half as thick as the one that came before, but that’s not the only difference.  When you begin reading you'll discover a significant shift in reader-sympathies.  Herbert didn't lay a lengthy groundwork, because he already had the characters where he needed them to be.  Instead, he jumped straight into an exploration of what happens after the war is won and the tyrant vanquished.  When the new order has replaced the old, what then?

He also studies what happens when a thing is set in motion—a thing that takes on an impetus of its own and branches into other avenues.  The one who set the ball rolling from a historic perspective gets blamed for every nuance, more so when the beliefs of the people who act in the name dictate that it be deified and that the religion should spread as far as possible throughout the stars.

The sects and orders that Muad'Dib subjugated were forced to publicly shuffle to their respective corners with their heads bowed, but pride demands redress, so the enemy of my enemy scenario becomes an option.  Of course, when you consider that the most powerful players in that wounded collective include the likes of the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild then you have to also factor in the secret goals of each and acknowledge them in every decision made.

For Muad'Dib there's compensation for the hard choices he must make, but the balance is cruel.  Being aware that the crutch of prescience his every waking hour relies upon is both what he needs and what he fears doesn't help.  Life is hard.

In some ways Messiah feels like a belated epilogue to the first book set twelve years after.  Likewise, the second half feels like a lengthy prelude to the third book, Children of Dune (1976).  Knowing that doesn't lessen the enjoyment of a reading but it should help prepare you for being assailed by an overpowering need to go direct to the following volume upon reaching the final page.

5 honest answers to difficult questions out of 5

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Sandman Presents: Thessaly - Witch for Hire (2005)

Author: Bill Willingham | Illustrator: Shawn McManus | Page Count:  96

"I refuse to be destroyed by something I've never heard of."

WFH picks up the story of the last of the Thessalian witches two years after the end of The Thessaliad (2002), a four issue miniseries that you can also find collected together in the Taller Tales (2003) TPB.  If you haven’t read it there’s some catch-up text at the beginning to get you up to speed.  If you have read it you’ll maybe remember the big unanswered question surrounding the supporting character.  Bill Willingham remembers it and expands upon it.

Fetch is back, like a bad smell carried by an ill-wind, with a complement of ideas above his station (his station being that he’s dead—that's not a spoiler for The Thessaliad).  He’s still lusting after the aeons-old witch, but his courtship methods are far from traditional.  Nevertheless, he persists, undeterred by the fact that what they both want from the ‘relationship’ differs greatly.

The ending could just as easily be seen as another beginning leading into a regular series, but that didn't happen.  Maybe the readership had grown tired of the Sandman spin-offs, or the writers had?  I don't know, but if the Dead Boy Detectives can make a comeback then there’s hope for Thessaly.

The book collects together all issues (1-4) of the second miniseries, The Sandman Presents: Thessaly - Witch for Hire.

3½ client confidentialities out of 5

Monday, March 16, 2015

Silent Hill — Past Life (2010)

Author: Tom Waltz  | Artist: Menton3  |  Page Count: 88

"Postmaster? But…you’re a negro."
"Ha! I am that, ain't no lie. Funny thing about Silent Hill…it don’t worry much ‘bout what’s on the outside of folks."

The four issue Past Life miniseries is a prequel of sorts to Silent Hill Downpour, but its intrinsic value is somewhat questionable. One of the game’s writers (Tom Waltz, who also penned Anne’s Story) sets this particular tale in a time close to the origins of the town, and while this is something I have often wished would occur, its focus only treads lightly on the periphery of its digital descendent.

Past Life’s story structure is unquestionably the most basic I've borne witness to in the franchise. Jebediah Foster and his wife Esther have come to Silent Hill to begin afresh, cut all ties with their pasts.  I'm not claiming that some of the games aren't predictable, but even when they are they’re still a good deal more subtle in pacing and execution and there is enough doubt present in the set-up and unravelling of the thread to make them compelling. That’s not so, here.

To Anne’s Story’s credit, it at least brought something to the table significantly relevant to the incarnation of Silent Hill that houses Downpour’s narrative. Even if its events can be inferred, they’re still presented well in terms of art and dialogue flowing from legitimate ancillary characters. Rather than simplistically spotlighting Jebediah, a better use of resources could have been a miniseries about Howard Blackwood, the town’s postmaster, who appears here, in the game itself, and later in Book of Memories on the Vita. Regrettably, one fact worth knowing is revealed for fans of the game. To save those respectable folks time and money, I will gladly share that information HERE.

If there’s anything overly positive worth noting it’s that Menton J. Matthews III’s artwork is systematically inconsistent, veering between sloppiness and startling precision. In this framework, I do see that as a strength, especially the nearly scrawled lettering and mystic-flavored HUD that surrounds certain panel-esque areas. A worn, zealot-inscribed Jarvis for a witch-powered Iron Man.

If you’re looking for a diaphanous jaunt into Silent Hill you can admittedly do worse when it comes to comics. In perspective, the level of connection to Downpour could easily be considered finespun and appropriately vague if Jebediah’s story was handled with nuance. It isn't and I feel justified in criticizing it for falling short in both of its intended purposes.

2 Unsuccessful Henshins out of 5

Nutted by NEG.

Note: You can find spoiler-free, mini-reviews of some of the Silent Hill games, including Downpour, at our sister site, Nut Load.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (1789-1794)

Author: William Blake  |  Page Count: approx 50 

Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care, but for another gives its ease, and builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.” 

The book, as it’s collected here, was originally written in two parts: Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, with Songs of Experience following in full five years later.  The first is closely tied with the conventions of Romanticism; the second is dependent upon the same but for very different reasons.

It’s unknown if Blake always planned to have Experience follow Innocence, or if it was a result of Innocence failing to sufficiently shake the system, heightening his need to push further buttons.  Either way, the two books work in tandem to express an opposition to each other and to cement an idea.

The relationship between the unity and harmony that’s evident in Innocence is contrasted with a breaking away from unity in Experience.  The resultant fall from grace and abandonment of harmony giving rise to the social inequalities and human injustices of the day.  The contrast is evident not just in the poems’ titles but also in the imagery depicted within them and the illustrations that accompany each one.*  A reader wanting to attempt an understanding of the work needs to appreciate all of those aspects, and be aware that it'll require repeated readings before you're versed enough in the antithetical devices to give a proper critique.

The poet remarks on the things that used to connect us, saying they've become the very tools that others use in order to control us.  In that respect, you can’t fail to notice the political stance he took in regards to work practices of the era, highlighted by his use of children, themselves often cited in literature as an enduring epitome of innocence.   Indeed, the concerns of the first book seem initially childlike, the presentation simplified, but within it are darker moments telling what could happen should the state be abandoned.  Likewise, the second book has moments of beauty reminding us of what we've lost.

You could argue that Innocence is nothing but idealism and self-sustaining naivety; its opposite being Experience, with the woollen blanket pulled back the harsh truth of the world is revealed.  You're free to make that choice.

It seems there are some benefits to being perceived as a madman.  You can give a voice to a way of thinking that others fear to even admit to, lest they attract the attention of the very men responsible for the cruelty that Blake condemns.

4 immortal hands out of 5

*If you want an example, The Ecchoing Green (sic) is positioned third in Innocence, whereas The Clod and the Pebble takes that same spot in Experience.  There are many, many more examples with varying degrees of opacity.  Discovering them for yourself is part of the fun.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Dune (1965)

Author: Frank Herbert  |  Page Count: 562 (605 inc. Appendices)

What do you despise?  By this are you truly known.”
-From 'Manual of Muad’Dib' by the Princess Irulan

Frank Herbert's Dune Saga is the story of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, upon which is found a rare and valuable resource that every Great House in existence depends upon.  Without it, interstellar trade would end.  Even the Emperor of the Known Universe would be rendered mostly powerless in all but name.  Whosoever controls the retrieval and distribution of that specific resource will be a formidable foe in a never-ending, far-reaching power struggle.

The first book concentrates on the rise of a reluctant messianic figure from not-quite-humble beginnings towards something he never expected to be.

The two things are connected but are each only a small part of what the novel contains.  There’s a staggering amount of depth beneath the surface, exploring everything from petty feuds and familial concerns to the basic needs of evolution, ecology, society and the intersection of religion, politics and power.

Don’t expect to find what’s great about Dune solely by reading the words on the page.  Doing so may lead to disappointment, especially in the early stages when the descriptive language is sometimes stiff and the dialogue unnatural.  No, the real treasure only reveals itself if you delve between the lines and identify the nuances and implications of the situations that Frank engineers.

He calls upon the reader to recognise what’s required of them, to engage with the layers of meaning.  Character responses are tailored to the person making the enquiry, dictated by the speaker’s relationship to the recipient and the calculated balancing of full or limited disclosure.  How they behave in different situations or in the presence of different people is itself a guide that teaches how we as readers ought to be analysing it.  New ways of seeing are gradually revealed to the protagonists and we must adopt the same approach or be left behind.

It eases you into the concept slowly.  The structured opening sets the base level and then builds upon it until you’re second-guessing every action and wondering at more than just the moral implications of every decision.  If you’re able to get into that mindset then reality can get swept away; nothing exists except the book and its world.  Texts are supposed to do that, but Dune consumes me, utterly.

A word of caution if you have the 40th Anniversary Edition:  Frank’s son Brian mentions in his afterword that he’s aware for some people the book they’re holding is their first experience with Dune, and yet he deems it acceptable to put in spoilers for Books II and III.  If you want to avoid those, either don’t read it at all or wait until after you've read Children of Dune (1976).

5 plans within plans within plans out of 5

Note: The book was adapted into a feature film and a TV miniseries, neither of which were wholly successful but deserve praise for making the attempt.  You can read about the miniseries HERE on one of our sister sites, Nut Box.