Science fiction comics don’t seem to be as big a sell as you would think, even though genre and medium seem a perfect match. Maybe it’s that the superhero genre cherry picks and co opts SF tropes so effectively that most ‘straight’ SF comics feel like old news?
Whatever. Here’s an SF comic that really works. Black Science, by Rick Remender and Mateo Scalera, has a singular vision, a modernised pulp SF that combines two-fisted science heroism, lost worlds, forbidden knowledge and a reality skipping macguffin, then filters it all through a visual sensibility akin to an exceptionally lurid prog album cover.
In a striking first issue we meet anarchist scientist and professional dickhead Grant McKay already out of his depth, lost in a world of barbarous frog people, and the series barely lets up from there, drip feeding in back story as the main plot rolls ever onward.
Remender and Scalera’s collective imagination deliver six issues of varied alien weirdness, with memorable imagery but a less sprawling story than, say, East of West. Where that book has a cast of hundreds, Remender keeps us close to McKay and the people he’s dragged into this world-hopping mess.
While the hard boiled cynicism of the narration and constant conflict between the leads could seem trite in a different series, here it works, that level of bleak ferocity fitting neatly into a story of constant crisis and threat.
Whether Black Science can maintain that intensity without getting wearisome is a question for volume 2, which I eagerly await.
A couple of these warm-up reviews have been about new Marvel comics that have been part of the company’s current wave of All-New Marvel Now issue 1s, All-New Ghost Rider (pictured) and Secret Avengers. But there are #1 issues I’ve bought and not got around to mentioning: Iron Patriot #1, for instance. And ones which predate me doing these reviews, like Loki: Agent of Asgard #1 and Winter Soldier: The Bitter March #1.
Then there’s Marvel series from the last year – and indeed the previous wave of Marvel Now – which I’m still reading, like Mighty Avengers which is only up to #8 and now seems old guard. Or series from that wave like Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man or Mark Waid’s Hulk that I’m trying to keep up with in trade as the single issues flood past.
Now a lot of these are very good, and a lot of Marvel Now/All-New Marvel Now launches are less good, but the one thing the lot of them have in common is that they constitute A LOT of comics. In some ways relaunching often is a good thing – a new #1 is a good try out, and it certainly works with me as the number of #1s I have picked up lately indicates. I like to try new things.
In fact, there are recent issue 1s that I never got around to – last week’s Silver Surfer #1, or Moon Knight #1 or Ms Marvel #1 from the last month or so, all of which just constituted one too many books on the pile for my limited budget. They’re coming so fast that the new #1s aren’t just competing with older books, they’re rolling over each other to an extent my wallet and, frankly, reading time, can’t keep up.
(I passed the ten minute mark here, but sod it, I can’t stop now.)
Lots of good comics are a good thing, but Marvel do have A LOT. And in the case of their bigger titles, they double ship them, so the comics come out 18 or 24 times a year and there’s a new ten, fifteen quid paperback collection out every few months for those of us reading in trade.
And I don’t just read Marvel. I read very little DC, but I keep up with a couple of titles and dabble in the odd one-shot or anthology that seems interesting. More significantly Image are churning out a ton of great new books, which I’m picking up either as singles or trades.
Now, what the competition does isn’t Marvel’s problem and it’s there job to take readers’ money that could be being spent on competitors’ books, but the churn is so relentless now it’s hard to see who could keep up with the new launches without at least dropping slightly older books before giving them a chance. Something has to give, so skip #9 of Mighty Avengers, #3 of Loki or a new #1, or just skip the lot, wait until the trades come out and buy them on the basis of the opinions of people who stuck the course over that first year?
I can’t be alone here, the sole person with limited budget – and I’m certainly far from austere with myself when it comes to buying comics – who is being left behind a bit. It’s hard not to see a currently successful policy of constant #1s becoming self-defeating very quickly – sales dropping off quicker and quicker as readers drop books that have reached the mature age of #5 or #6 in favour of the latest #1, which in turn drops off quicker and quicker… and so on.
Now, I tend to hate the constant fishing for comments with ‘what do you think?’ on news stories that readers almost certainly won’t have an insightful opinion on, but in this case, reader to other readers, I’d be genuinely interested to know – is it just me?
I find myself increasingly disinclined to bother discussing my opinions of Marvel Studios’ movies online. Like Doctor Who, these films are about characters and concepts so embedded into my psyche that conventional criticism, and certainly trying to argue the toss with people who don’t like them, seems a waste of time.
The chidish glee with which I responded to The Avengers, for instance, the absolute delight of watching those superheroes interact on screen, simultaneously defies both justification or refutation, and to be honest I tend to want to protect that simple feeling from the usual internet slanging matches.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier also holds further sentimental attachment by being based on one of my favourite superhero comic runs of the last decade or so, Ed Brubaker’s (along with Steve Epting and a lot of other artists) run on Cap.
Nevertheless I’m doing these warm up reviews so I’ll have a go, with only a couple of minutes to spare:
I’m not sure whether this is one of the best Marvel Studios movies – I think Iron Man 3 might edge it, and The Avengers itself remains top of the pile – but, at least partially for the reasons above, it’s one of my favourites. While crafting it’s own spin on the material it stays true to the feel of Brubaker’s comics, adding a twist of Jonathan Hickman’s sprawling conspiracies and transferring it to the screen as a superheroic take on the military conspiracy thriller.
The Russo Brothers bring a clean, sharp look to proceedings and aren’t afraid to draw in influences from the last few decades of this kind of film – a car chase through Washington DC has a pleasingly old school feel, and the presence of Robert Redford adds weight. Captain America stories often work best with a sense of history, and The Winter Soldier does that, making the film feel more substantial than an action movie rooted entirely in the now.
It’s also really, really entertaining, and The Winter Soldier himself is still very cool in terms of both concept and execution.
I rarely recommend comics purely on the basis of the art. While art is intrinsic to any comic, of course, and I’ve bought plenty of comics from my two or three favourite artists that didn’t have the most stellar script beneath the hood, usually I at least need to have a really strong story hook to carry me along, no matter how good the visual storytelling is.
Well, All-New Ghost Rider is a comic worth buying for the art alone. Tradd Moore has fused the motion lines and fluidity of manga with the digital sharpness and detail of a current big two title to create a comic that doesn’t look quite like anything else. While a lot of the current superstar artists turn out – Finch, Reis, Lee – turn out pages that are richly detailed snapshots, moments in time, Moore is all about motion, about speed of action, which is perfect for a comic about a demonic race driver. He’s able assisted by eye-popping colours from Nelson Daniel and Val Staples which create a neon drenched effect reminiscent of, but wilder than, the excesses of recent speed fuelled films and videogames.
So it’s worth a look because of the looks, which is not to say that All-New Ghost Rider has nothing going on in terms of script, just that it doesn’t get far into the story and doesn’t provide much of a plot hook to carry the reader on to the next issue. What writer Felipe Smith gives us here is an origin story with a lot of questions, which is pleasingly archetypal Marvel in its troubled protagonist with a heart of gold without feeling dated.
That troubled protagonist is Robbie Reyes, the new Ghost Rider by the end of the issue (in circumstances for now unexplained), and he’s stuck in the kind of predicament Peter Parker could relate to – he’s short of money, and has a bullied disabled younger brother to look after. He’s a good kid who, in wanting to elevate his family from a bad position makes an unwise decision, ‘borrowing’ a car from the garage he works in and driving it in an illegal street race, offering the stolen car as stakes in the hope of winning the cash he needs.
It’s a very clean start, and Robbie is sympathetic. Smith’s script clips along and Moore’s art then turbo charges it. It’s not flawless – aside from the slow pace, which builds character but delivers very little plot, younger brother Gabe is a cliched optimistic disabled mini-saint, cheery in the face of adversity and little more than a motivating device to drive Robbie. He’s as two-dimensionally good as Robbie’s boss is as flatly sleazy, both insubstantial characters who do nothing apart from nudge Robbie in the direction the plot requires.
It’s a beautiful book, then, but will need to gain depth as well as speed if it’s going to develop into a comic that’s as interesting as it is good looking.
OK, I’ve got a cold so this is going to be an even blurrier and less coherent ten minuter than usual.
The Fuse. the first two issues of which are out now from Image, is an SF police procedural comic set on a space station in the not terribly far future. Detective stories in fantasy or SF settings can be hard to do, as it can be difficult to rule any possibility out of the mystery if the rules of that imaginary world aren’t clear.
Writer Antony Johnston (Wasteland, lots of other things) solves this problem by presenting an utterly grounded future where we can be pretty certain from the off that teleports and psychic powers aren’t going to turn up.* The Fuse, a vast space station where humanity has colonised every open space between the working areas, feels like a real, practical place, with a society and problems that are its own but not unrelatable.
At the centre of the story are the two detectives, a white, slightly androgynous Russian woman who is the senior of the two and a black, German man who is a newbie to The Fuse. Although the latter, Dietrich, is our nominal viewpoint character both are intriguing and clearly have secrets, and their dynamic is vital to the appeal of the comic. Although Johnston has had this story in mind for long before the TV series The Bridge came along, there’s something of that show’s mismatched central partnership here, and a similar strong sense of place.
Justin Greenwood’s art is fantastic, with colours by Shari Chankhamma. The Fuse feels real and nuanced, and the characters are distinct and full of expression. You get where this fits on the genre spectrum with a glance at the page, which is vital for this kind of story.
In a golden age of Image launches this is one of the strongest.
* This is not a guarantee, so don’t complain to me if an esper teleports in on page 2 of #3.
I’ve got PS Plus (thanks, person who got me it as a gift, and yes I will make that call), Sony’s subscription service for PS3/PS4/PSVita users that, along with other perks, includes two or three free games to download every month, and which keep working until your subscription lapses.
It’s about £40 a year, and if you can’t get it as a gift (thanks again, benefactor), it’s well worth getting as, if you’re not bothered about getting titles as soon as they come out, the Instant Game Collection provides pretty much as many triple A and smaller games as you could ever want, certainly more than I actually have time to play.
It also exposes you to smaller games you may have overlooked, which is how I ended up playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Brothers is an adventure game in which two brothers (obviously) travel through a fantastical kingdom, working together to solve puzzles to travel and get help for their ailing father.
In many ways it’s a kind of more mainstream, less spiky take on my beloved Ico: the beautiful fantasy landscape, twinkly music, sense of co-operation and Pingu-like gibberish dialogue are all reminiscent of that game, albeit in a watered down form that’s closer to How To Train Your Dragon than Ico’s solitude and weirdness.
Unlike Ico, you don’t play one character and pull the other along. Neither do you switch characters, like in Resident Evil Zero, or have another player on board like any co-op game. Instead the play style is what might be called single player co-op – controlling both characters at once, one with each stick on the controller.
While the style of the game was charming and the puzzles fun, I found that the control system, trying to use both thumbs to control separate entities in some kind of coordinated fashion, felt like having some weird kind of seizure where parts of my brain felt dislocated and contradictory. I felt I was losing control of my faculties, and a little ill.
So nice idea, but not for me.
The first series of Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s BBC2 cops-investigating-cops drama was a good show with some great character writing and shocking moments. It was a pleasant surprise to discover it was getting a second season.
Along comes the second series and the whole thing goes stellar, to the point where tonight’s final episode is getting the full no-clips-in-the-trailers locked box treatment. It’s a show that has gained tremendous momentum over its five episodes, the ratings rising as the word-of-mouth drives people to catch up on iPlayer then start watching the episodes on broadcast. I suspect it’s clearly going to be massively influential on how BBC2 approaches drama, especially with BBC3 drama disappearing in the near future.
So why the big deal? There are a few easy things to point to – a career elevating BAFTA worthy performance from Keeley Hawes, playing the polar opposite to the sympathetic lead roles she’s often played before, making DI Lindsey Denton a terrifying, determined bruiser who you absolutely would not want to fuck with. The rest of the cast are great, and the whole production is slick and fast moving, very well-directed.
But at the base is a stellar script that throws in massive plot twists and shocks while still being rooted in the believable. Mercurio’s specialty as a writer is that, as an ex-doctor, he has an instinctive and detailed understanding of what it’s like to do a big, serious public service job where lives are in the balance. He understands the internal tensions of the characters, and he understands the bureaucratic framework that drives, constrains, frustrates and occasionally protects the people who work in that system. Line of Duty has the same feeling of researched authenticity that The Wire had, but without breaking that grounded feel it also has big thriller moments. People do bad, desperate, very violent things but the story never descends into an action fantasy shootout.
9pm, BBC2 tonight. See you on the other side.
There may be better films this year, but it’s hard to imagine that one will come out that provides such utter, simple pleasure as The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a hot chocolate in a hot bath, a cocktail in a quiet bar with good company. Every aspect of the film, from visuals to performances to the soundtrack, is fine tuned to be a joy to take in. It creates a whole Alpine world you just want to sink into and spend time in, a world that could never exist.
This is what I go to see Wes Anderson films for. There are doubtless directors who make greater films, more serious films, deeper and more nuanced films. But Anderson delivers a whole experience in his films, highly stylised worlds full of charming, eccentric characters that are just, just close enough to some exotic part of reality that your brain is tricked into thinking you might be able to visit them.
Which is not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel is a purely aesthetic appearance, a charming series of flippant comic turns in a visually stunning world set to nice music. It’s 1930s setting is not chosen for pure retro, and an underlying sense of characters orphaned and traumatised by one world war surviving as the next one looms, a resilience that lies between the desire to preserve the hotel of the title as an oasis against barbarism to come. In it’s light, heavily fictionalised way it manages to evoke something of the real past in a way that a more straightforward, historically accurate film might not.
I’ve read a good few issues of previous incarnations of Secret Avengers, and while some of those were fun it has always seemed like one of those Avengers books that only exists because ‘Secret’ is a cool word to append to the mother franchise.
The broad intent with the varied incarnations of the title has been to make it the espionage/black-ops Avengers team, a concept that recurs all the time in superhero comics even though ‘superhero black-ops team’ is a TERRIBLE idea because there’s no real room in a supehero universe for head-murdering people because, goddammit, it needs to be done.
(I don’t think there’s any reason in the real world, either, but that’s another story.)
This new incarnation of the book is written by Ales Kot, writer/creator of the superlative Image superspy book Zero, and drawn by Michael Walsh, a superstar artist in the making who has done great work on IDW’s X-Files comic as well as drawing the first issue of Zero. You might reasonably expect this Secret Avengers to be a Marvel U version of Zero – bleak, political, harshly violent.
Instead, Secret Avengers #1 is a far nimbler beast that squares the superhero/espionage circle, making the two elements gel better than I’ve ever seen before. Rather than diving into the murky, frowny end of the espionage genre and trying to impose a faux ‘realism’ on the Marvel U, Kot and Walsh emphasise the SUPER in superspy, with a cleanness and craziness that owes more to the wilder Moore Bonds and Man from UNCLE than Le Carre. It’s a fun concoction that blends beautifully with the Marvel universe at its broadest and most fun – AIM agents, space stations, some popular cybernetic villains in interesting plot roles.
It’s bright, poppy and smart, with the smudgy likeability of Hawkeye – Clint here is straight out of the Fraction/Aja book, and some of the tropes of that title are pleasingly played with – and some clever character subversions. An attempt by two characters to out-poetry-quote each other is sheer joy.
Kot and Walsh are talents to watch, and they’ve made Secret Avengers WORK at last. Great work all round, and one of the best All New Marvel Now books I’ve read.
Most of them were rubbish, utter garbage. A couple were good. Only one was *really* good.
That was the first issue of Martin Stiff’s ‘The Absence’, then a self-published mini-series. Now Titan Books have collected the whole six part series as a lovely, not too-expensive over-sized hardcover, and I highly recommend it.
‘The Absence’ sees Marwood Clay, a Second World War veteran with hideous facial scarring (see cover image) returning to his home village, which is not keen on his return. The village is scarred not just by the loss of young men through the war, or the traumatic events that led to Marwood’s departure, but a deeper malaise – people are leaving, disappearing in the night. Are they just fleeing this miserable dump, or is something more sinister or supernatural going on?
Marwood’s return is paralleled by the arrival of a newcomer, a wealthy scientist determined to build a mysterious ‘house’ in the village, and the stories of these two outsiders – the outcast and the incomer – entwine as the two collaborate and conflict while trying to solve the village’s mysteries.
This is a great book, an intriguing mystery with involving characters that has fringe, fantasy-tinged elements but never descends into a supernatural pot boiler. Stiff writes well, and writes better as the book goes on, and his black and white line art has a scratchiness that melds reality and cartooning in the best Eddie-Campbell-esque way.
‘The Absence’ kept me guessing as to what was going on, and how it would end, all the way through, without ever cheating the reader. Mysterious small towns, from Night Vale to Sleepy Hollow, are big right now, and this is a bracing British equivalent to those American locations. Go get it.
* I’m going to try and write a review or blog post a day as a warm-up exercise. You can probably guess the time limit I’m setting myself.