Thursday, 10 December 2015

Lisa Cummings and The Five Minute Murder

The Lisa Cummings stories are a short series of comedic mysteries. The first of which was The Case of the Exploding Meat (Part One, Part Two). I'm currently working on a full legnth Cummings novel. In the mean time, here's another short.
                                                                 






Lisa Cummings and the Five Minute Murder
By Jack Harvey

“I'm serious,” said Lisa, twirling the straw in her drink. “Boba Fett is the worst character in Star Wars.”
   
Andy nearly spat out his pint. “Fuck off,” he shot.
   
“No, consider, what does he actually do in the films? Gets hired by Vader, follows Han, and when he catches them in Cloud City he lets the Stormtroopers do the rest. Given that, and his frankly embarrassing death...”
   
Andy held out a hand. “I've got to stop you there. The expanded universe clearly showed that he escaped the Sarlacc pit.”

Lisa shook her head with a smile. “I said, 'In the Movies' Andy. Judging by his appearance on screen alone, no comics, games or books, he doesn't deserve anywhere near the reputation he has, and I'm not even factoring in Attack of the Clones.”
   
Andy took another gulp of beer and folded his arms. “Worse than Greedo?”
   
“Heck, at least Greedo died staring down the barrel of a gun. Fett didn't even get that. I always liked Lobot”
   
Andy pulled a face trying to figure a counter argument, but the damage was done. Lisa put the straw to her mouth and began to finish the rum and lemonade. “Your round,” she said, putting the empty glass in front of him.
   
Andy reached for his wallet. “Suddenly I'm starting to regret using this as an excuse to skip out on Officer Kent's birthday bash.”
   
“Kent the cunt?” Lisa said, laughing. “No you aren't. I don't understand why we couldn't have gone to the The Purple Nighthawk.”
   
Andy stood. “I'm going to have to be in dire straits before I let you drag me into a gay bar Cummings.”
   
“C'mon, it's the modern age. Nobody cares about the heteros anymore,” she joked. “It would be better than this place.”
   
“What's wrong with The Crown?” Andy said, looking offended.
   
Lisa shrugged. “Nothing, if you're like... fifty eight. We're not going to score much pussy here are we?”
   
Andy shook his head and made for the bar.
   
It was a week-night, which wasn't a problem for Lisa, who worked her own hours, but most of her other friends had work in the morning. She had owed Inspector Andy Browning a favour and when he needed an excuse to duck out of a colleague's party she had agreed to join him for a couple of drinks.

Unfortunately there wasn't much going on at The Crown.
   
Lisa glanced over at Andy fumbling with his change at the bar, a loyalty card in his hand. He was probably hoping to get that tenth free pint they owe him.
   
Lisa's phone vibrated, and she checked her recent messages. A bunch from her gaming group, The Bitch Brigade.
   
Ur all going down this weekend suckas. Eat my entire ass. She messaged.
   
A man in a green mac jacket pushed past Andy as he returned with the next round of drinks. A pepperoni and a packet of scampi fries were in his hands.
   
“Where's the cheesy moments?” Lisa asked, disappointed.
   
“They've ran out,” Andy replied.
   
“The fuckers!” she said.
   
Lisa began to suck her drink out of a fresh straw, looking bored.
   
“You sure you don't want to hit the jukebox?” Andy said, trying to console her.
   
“Last time I did that I got side-eyed when Two Become One, came on.”
   
“Hey if you've put the money in nobody's got the right to complain about your shit taste in music.”
   
“Fuck off Andy, I remember your face when that guy put the complete Garth Brooks on during the quiz last month.”
   
Andy threw his hands either side. “You've got a fucking answer for everything don't you?”
   
Lisa shrugged. “I'm a private eye Andy.”
   
“You're a pint sized private eye,” Andy said vindictively. “Besides, you're out of practice.”
   
“Fuck you Rene Mathis I'm at the top of my game. If there was a murder right here, right now, I bet you I'd be able to solve it in like... five minutes.”
   
“Oh you'd bet would you?” Andy said laughing.
   
Suddenly, the man in the green mac had returned from the toilets and made a startled noise at the bar. “What 'appened to me pint?” the man said.
   
“What's up Tony?” asked the tired looking Beryl at the bar.
   
“The head's all gone,” the man called Tony said. “Me pint's dead.”
   
Andy turned and looked at Lisa, mania in his eyes.
   
“I think someone's took a sip out if it!” Tony said.
   
Andy suddenly pointed at Lisa's face. “I bet you a twenty you can't solve this mystery in five minutes!”
   
Lisa frowned, then grinned. “Oh it's on motherfucker. It's on.”

****

Lisa paced the floor surrounding the bar, rubbing her chin. The locals studied her curiously.
   
“Alright,” she said, finally. “Hands up, who's eaten either a pickled egg or pickled onion tonight?”
   
Three hands went up tentatively.
   
Lisa glanced over to Beryl at the bar, her tired eyes betrayed a reluctance to play along.
   
“Well?” Lisa asked.
   
“Well what?” said Beryl sheepishly, rubbing her shoulder with tobacco stained hands.
   
“Is that right? Only these three have been served picked delicacies?”
   
“Oh, yeah, that's right.” Beryl replied.
   
“Okay,” nodded Lisa. “That narrows things down. The only way Tony's beer could have been killed that fast was by the touch of vinegar. Our culprit must have eaten a pickled something before taking a cheeky swig of the beer. Therefore, only one of these three could have been the culprit.”
   
First of the three suspects was Barry, a regular for years who could be a little clingy and irritating after too many pints. Next, there was Joshua, a young friend of Beryl's son who was home from working on the rigs. Finally, there was Linda, the local quiz team leader who had a bit of an abrasive personality at times.
   
“Well it weren’t me becus'...” Barry started.
   
“Not yet.” Lisa held out a hand.
   
Barry stopped.
   
Andy folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. He had a grin on his face as he watched with some amusement.
   
“Okay,” Lisa carried on. “We also know that nobody tried to conceal the fact that they had eaten a pickled delicacy, which suggests that our culprit is confident enough that we won't discover their little altercation. That suggests a careful hand.”
   
“At taking a swig of someone’s pint?” scoffed Linda.
   
“That's precisely the attitude they're hoping we'll take,” Lisa said, walking over to Linda and leaning over by her table. “Precisely the attitude they'd like to foster. Care to confess anything to us Linda? We know how you have a taste for beer, with your Ale Society membership or whatever it is.”
   
“Don't be absurd,” Linda spat.
   
“We'll see,” Lisa said, backing away. “We'll see.”
   
Andy shoved a few scampi fries in his mouth.
   
“Tony,” Lisa said, walking over to the bar. “Is there any one of these three whom you feel may hold a certain disdain for you these days? Anyone that might want to wage a silent protest?”
   
Tony pulled a face. “Well, I wouldn't put it past Barry playing silly beggars.”
   
“Ayy, that's not fair, I wouldn’t...” Barry objected.
   
“Not. Yet!” Lisa commanded. She turned back to Tony. “Carry on.”
   
“Well it's just that Linda has too much self respect to do something like that, and I can't see young lad doing it, he's got plenty of money in his line of work.” Tony shrugged.
   
“Oh indeed,” Lisa walked over, eye-balling Joshua. “No reason you'd take a swig at all. Right J?”
   
“No,” Joshua said pleasantly. “It wasn't me.”
   
Lisa quickly turned to Beryl. “Beryl! Is it true or not that both your son and our friend here got in trouble five years ago for swiping peoples drinks?”
   
Beryl looked shocked. “How did you know?”
   
“You come across a lot of interesting stuff in my line of work,” Lisa said, grinning. “You started off fishing for unfinished pints, isn't that right Joshua? Until you started looking for more excitement?”
   
Joshua suddenly looked worried. “Yeah but that was a long time ago. I was at uni, I was short on cash. I can pay for my own drinks now.”
   
“Yes you can,” Lisa nodded. “But maybe from time to time you miss the old excitement? Maybe you wanted one final score?”
   
Barry stood up. “Aye, I can understand that, back when...”
   
“Not yet Barry!” Lisa shot. “We'll be getting to you in a moment.”

Barry sat down, deflated.

Linda piped up again. “Hang on a moment. Tony's always going for his tea at the chippy across the road. How do we know it wasn't the vinegar from that that killed his pint?”

Lisa held up her hand, index finger extended. “A valid question. It is however impossible. Listen.”
   
Everyone around the bar went silent. They were unsure what they were supposed to be listening to. The only sound was the music on the jukebox.

“That's Purple Rain by Price,” said Lisa. “Tony always puts three songs on the jukebox, and Purple Rain is always last. If we factor in that he went to the jukebox before ordering his drink and going to the toilet afterwards then the window between Born to Run and Lawyers, Guns and Money is too small for him to take a sip from the pint.”

The group nodded, impressed.

“Also, I went to the toilet while Beryl was pulling me the pint,” Tony added.
   
“That too,” Lisa noted.
   
Andy took a few big gulps out of his pint to cool his mouth after the first few bites of the pepperoni.

His eyes were still fixed on Lisa.
   
“Well personally I don't think we'll ever solve this mystery,” said Joshua nervously.
   
“On the contrary,” Lisa barked. “I think I'm starting to see things come together now.”
   
Lisa walked over to Linda, a cocky grin on her face. “I think we can count out Linda as a suspect. If she wanted to do something to piss Tony off she wouldn't do it in secret. She'd either say it to his face or bitch about him on the forums.”
   
Linda folded her arms. “How very dare you,” she said, not showing the slightest bit of relief about being exonerated.
   
Lisa walked over to Joshua, putting her hands around his shoulders condescendingly. “Likewise, I wouldn't put it past young J here, but he's not nearly had enough to drink to get him to start that kind of carry on.”
   
“Young?” he said, insulted. “You were only a few years above me in school.”
   
Lisa walked over to the far side of the bar. “That leaves only one possible culprit.”
   
Barry stood, sweating. “Now that's not fair, I haven't even had a chance to...”
   
But before Barry could continue Lisa began talking over him. “Isn't that right, Beryl?”
   
Suddenly everyone looked to the bar. Beryl stood there, looking surprised. “Me?”
   
Lisa marched over to her. “It's no secret that you've been sick of Tony for a long time, complaining about him having the same conversation every night and never changing up the music on the jukebox.”
   
Andy raised his eyebrows.
   
Beryl stood there blushing.
   
Lisa continued. “Who else would have been able to take a sip of that beer without anyone noticing? It was your own little silent protest. If it wasn't for your taste in pickled eggs, the head would have still been there and Tony probably wouldn't even have noticed.”
   
“What's wrong with my taste in music?” said Tony, dejected.
   
“Okay, fine, I'll pull you a new one,” Beryl said to him, reaching over for a new glass.
   
Lisa pumped her fist. “Haha, Yes!” She strutted over to Andy with a shit-eating grin.
   
Andy shook his head.
   
“Come on, pay up sucker.” she said, holding out her hand.
   
Suddenly Barry sat back down. “But I never got to do my bit!”
   
“Shut the fuck up Barry,” said Beryl in frustration.
   
Andy opened his wallet and handed over a twenty pound note. “There's just one thing I don't understand?”
   
“Yeah?”
   
“If I'm Rene Mathis, is that supposed to make you James Bond?”
   
Lisa shrugged. “Clearly Andy.”
   
He got to his feet. “You have such a high opinion of yourself, you know that?”
   
“Hey you know what they say, fake it till you make it.”
   
Andy shook his head one more time. “It's your round then, I suppose, I'm going for a piss.”
   
“Sure thing,” Lisa said strutting over to the bar.  Quickly, she turned to Beryl and lowered her voice. “Thanks for that Beryl.”
   
Beryl shrugged. “Your advice got my daughter a reduced sentence, It's the least I could do.”
   
“Well I'm as sucker for a pretty face,” Lisa said, smiling. “No pun intended.”
   
Beryl raised an eyebrow. “I'm going to forget you just said that. What can I get you?”
   
“Uh, A rum and lemonade and a pint for us. Three more pints for J, Tony and Linda. A babysham and whiskey for Barry.”
   
“I'll have to be quick before Felix Leiter gets back.” Beryl said.
   
Lisa looked confused.
   
“Sorry I thought you were both doing the nickname thing.” Beryl answered.
   
“Yeah but Felix Leiter was white.” Barry said.
   
“Shut the fuck up Barry,” Lisa and Beryl said in unison.
   
Tony started sniggering.
   
“Besides,” said Lisa, “Andy clearly looks more like Anthony Mackie.”
   
“Who's that?” asked Beryl.
   
“He's the guy that played Falcon in the new Avengers films,” said Andy suddenly from behind Lisa.
“But I always remember him from We Are Marshall.”
   
“Jesus,” Lisa said, startled. “Don't sneak up on me like that you fuck.”
   
Andy started laughing. “Who are all these drinks for?”
   
“Nobody,” she said dismissively. “Look, here's yours. Let's go sit back down.”
   
Andy nodded, shaking off his suspicions. The two of them clinked glasses. “Cheers I suppose. At least that was more interesting than doing fifteen Jaeger bombs with Kent and the lads.”
   
The two of them sat back down at their table. “I aim to please,” Lisa said, smiling.
   
Andy couldn't help smiling too. “Okay, so where were we?”
   
Lisa took a sip through her straw. “I was about to say how Jar Jar was a Sith lord all along.”
   
“Okay, now you really can fuck off,” Andy said, spitting out his pint again. “And you can give me that fucking twenty back an' all.”

                                                          
Jack Harvey 2015

Sunday, 6 December 2015

And a Lemonade for the Boy

Just a quick update on what's going to be happening over the coming months.
  • I'm getting a story published by LessThan Three Press. It's been in the works for a while and I'll be going into more detail soon. It's my first paying gig, so I appreciate all the support from those interested.
  • Obscure Comic of the Month is going to be taking a break for December and January to make room for Fallout 4 the coming year's affairs. This blog won't be devoid of content however, as...
  • You'll be seeing a new Lisa Cummings shot story. I've been meaning to follow up The Case of the Exploding Meat, and It's been great to work with the character again. Lisa Cummings and the Five Minute Murder should be landing shortly before Christmas.
  • I've been thinking about starting a webcomic. It's still in the prototype stages at the moment, but I think a weekly, three panel strip should be an achievable target. I'm trying to get back into the swing of things art wise, and should have some conclusive goals by January.
  • It's likely I'll be doing a Stand Up Comedy for charity some time in April. I'll post details closer to the time.
  • I'm back on Twitter, I won't be posting there much, but feel like It would be useful to engage with other creatives. Follow if you're interested.
And that's all for now, hopefully all this stuff will pan out and we'll see a productive year ahead. Thanks for bearing with me.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - Professor Elemental Issue One

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                                       

Professor Elemental Issue One by Paul Alborough and various – 2013



Spoiler Free

Issue 1 features 24 full colour pages featuring two original tales by some of the finest artists in the Independent comic scene, as well as an adaption of ‘The Quest For The Golden Frog’. It also boasts a cover by Mike 'Deadpool’ Hawthorne.

Adapting music to Comics is never easy, but it's clear that the Chap-hop sub-genre is fertile ground for it. An artist is never at a loss to draw something interesting thanks to the zany, steampunk inspired aesthetics, and the source material of tall tales and fantastic voyages.

What of Professor Elemental then? We're not here to talk about his contributions to the world of Chap-hop, though I will say I've long been a fan, on and off. I picked up Issue One and Two of the comic at a con a few years back. We'll only be taking a look at the first of the two today, and examining how it works as a companion piece to the Professor's musical canon as well as an introduction to the series as a whole.

The comics themselves are an anthology series of various tales involving the fictional Professor's exploits. Issue one has three stories, and almost immediately draws you in with the vivid, colours of Noah Rodenbeek which has a psychedelic quality to it. The musical undercurrents are clear here, with what feels like something out of The Beatles Yellow Submarine.



It's not long before we're onto our next tale, however. The change in art teams keeps things fresh, and gives us a different take on the character each time. Professor Elemental is a charming character in these tales, with his long suffering monkey butler Geoffrey appearing for the very first time (He's only ever off screen in the music videos.)

The bumbling idiot who only succeeds by chance however, is far from an original premise. Whether the comic has anything to offer really depends on if it can do anything new with the archetype. It's greatest asset is it's connection to the chap hop scene. Though the first two stories tap into the feel of Elemental's output, Elemental's status as a musician seems to be absent in these stories, and there's nary a musical theme touched upon.

For the third tale we see an adaptation of one of Elemental's actual songs, The Quest for the Golden Frog. It's a great idea and material ripe for the picking, but it's easily the weakest of the three stories in the issue. The Golden Frog strip lacks a zing that it really needs to channel the energy of the music.



Issue one is enjoyable enough, it's first story, on how Elemental and Geoffrey first met, is easily the best, both in terms of visuals and writing, but it doesn't really feel as though there's enough on offer here. The comic itself doesn't really dig enough into the music to offer anything to fans, and the strips themselves are not distinctive enough to appeal to the uninitiated.

Fortunately these are all problems that are resoundingly conquered in Issue Two, but that's a review for another day. All things considered, the anthology series gets off to a bumpy start, but in many respects that's in keeping with the Professor Elemental character itself.

                                                               

Jack Harvey 2015. Professor Elemental (c) Paul Alborough with work by Michael Hawthorne, James Feist, Liam Byrne, Owan Watts, Noah Rodenbeek and Christopher Mole. Images used under Fair Use.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - ES Eternal Sabbath

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                         

ES Eternal Sabbath Volume 1 by Fuyumi Soryo – Del Rey/Kodansha 2002




Contain Minor Spoilers

Ryousuke Akiba calls himself ES, a code name taken from a mysterious scientific experiment. Ryousuke will live to be at least two centuries old and possesses strange mental powers: He can enter peoples minds, discover their darkest secrets, even rearrange their memories so that complete strangers will treat him like family. Ryousuke acts not out of malice but for survival – wandering Tokyo for reasons known only to him. No one recognises him for what he is … until Dr. Mine Kujyou, a determined researcher, meets someone who challenges everything she knows about science – ES, possessor of the Eternal Sabbath gene. But is he the only one?

ES was my first real foray into manga. Up until that point I'd dismissed it as both childish, and needlessly sexualized and over the top. This of course, was a gross generalisation and I knew if I wanted to get the most out of the world of comics I'd have to start reading manga too. I'd read Ghost in the Shell first, having watched and enjoyed the movie, but the manga was a strange beast, made of big ideas with comedic interludes. So ES was an attempt to get into manga at a more baseline level.

ES was a great choice, and a lucky one too, since I pretty much picked it up at random. ES was a good taster for getting into manga. There were no over the top characters, no lengthy action sequences, no ridiculous haircuts. If there was anything I needed to show me that manga could be more than it was stereotyped as, then ES was just the ticket.



The premise itself isn't completely original, but it's focus on just one particular science fiction premise makes it more unique than most. Ryousuke Akiba has the ability to erase and rewrite people's memories and so walks unchallenged and unnoticed by mankind. We're first introduced to him during a short story that would work just as well as a standalone tale.

We see Ryousuke acting as a sort of vigilante as he uses his abilities to punish a murderous high schooler. It's a great introductory sequence, explaining to us the logic and limitations of Ryousuke's powers as well as showing us the kind of mischievous rogue that he is. It also introduces us to some of the series common elements, such as the surrealist visuals used during the mind reading sequences. They're hit and miss at times, with the choice of visuals seemingly being surreal for surrealism’s sake, but they're always interesting.

Still, it's a great intro, and feel in parts very reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. A sort of Sandman light if you will.

It's after this introductory tale that we start the story proper, where we're introduced to Dr Mine Kujyou, our point of view character. Mine is a neurological researcher who take a scientific perspective when looking at Ryousuke's powers. Mine is instantly likeable, curious and intelligent, but also goofy and a bit of a loser. She's quick to ramble about the science behind the mind, especially at inappropriate times, and the story becomes genuinely charming and funny because of her.



The plot wastes no time getting started, and Fuyumi Soryo feeds us with enough actual knowledge for the science parts to ring true. Ryousuke is enough of a magnificent bastard at times that it's a pleasure to see him just do his thing, and his past is mysterious enough to keep us interested without feeling asinine over hiding away too much back story.

The volume ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, with the reveal of how Ryousuke came to be, and the danger posed by another who has similar powers. It's one hell of a set up, and really feeds the reader enough knowledge to stop them feeling as though they're being strung along. It's such a great set up in fact, that I’m genuinely temped to re-read the rest of the series in earnest.

A few notes on the artwork then. Fuyumi Soryo is a great fit for the story, and every character has a charisma to them that makes you want to keep reading. The artwork is generally realistic with just a touch of manga sensibilities to make it feel expressive. It's probably also worth noting that there's a mild degree of female gaze going on with Ryousuke, he's traditionally good looking from a woman's perspective and his choice of clothes appear to be designed to accentuate this appeal.



That's not a bad thing by the way, if anything I found it rather refreshing. It's also worth pointing out that the chapter breaks have some very sexy artwork for what is otherwise a straight faced mystery series, setting early the subtext that would appear in later volumes.

Given that it was one of the first mangas I read, I was expecting ES to have aged badly after years of stuff like 20th Century Boys and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. But I'm pleased to say it reads as fresh as it ever did. It's a shame the series, and Fuyumi Soryo herself, doesn’t appear to have a bigger following.

Highly recommended if you're looking for a serious, hard science fiction series with a little bit of mystery and romance.

                                                         

Jack Harvey 2015. ES (c) 2002 Fuyumi Soryo and published by Del Rey/Kodansha. Images used under Fair Use.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Correction One of...

When you start writing about stuff on a regular basis you're bound to make mistakes, miss important information or just not have access to certain facts. So here is the first of what hopefully won't be too many corrections.

In my piece on Maxwell Strangewell, I noted that I hadn't seen The Fillbach Brothers produce anything since 2009. Well, the Brothers themselves got in touch to let me know that they've actually been working on several books under First Comics (Who coincidently also released Necessary Monsters, a book I'll be taking a look at in a future column.). I also said that Strangewell was a good foundation to build on, so Cadaver Dogs of Winter and Lives look like particular stand outs.

Thanks for that guys, I'll be sure to check those out, and I encourage my readers to do so too.

In other news, that important thing I mentioned won't be much longer I swear.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month Special Edition - Dynamite's Pathfinder

This column has been taking a look at obscure comics for five months. For every every sixth month, instead of taking a look at a comic that nobody talks about, this special edition will take a look at a comic I feel not enough people talk about.

                                                             

Pathfinder by Jim Zub and various artists – Dynamite 2013 to present


Contains Mild Spoilers

I love the fantasy genre. I love made up languages and made up lands. I love ancient prophecies and mystical powers. I love elves and dwarfs and orcs and dragons. I love deconstructions, reconstructions, but most of all I just love straight po-faced don't-give-a-shit high fantasy. I loved it after my mum guilt tripped me into reading The Hobbit as a kid and I loved it playing the Baldur's Gate series through my teens.

I also love comics, but one thing that had never really crossed over to my love of comics is my love of the high fantasy genre. Fantasy, when it comes to comics, has always come from a different heritage than that of the sweeping sagas of Tolkein and Lewis. This heritage instead is that of Burroughs and Howard, gritty, bloody tales of in your face violence and unbridled testosterone.

For comics, the faces of the fantasy genre were that of Conan and Slaine and Valiant. Occasionally there were offbeat, quirkier entries like the Pini's Elfquest and the scene was no stranger to the occasional Forgotten Realms comic, though these were few and far between, and rarely considered classics.

Novels were home to the high fantasy setting. They were scene setters, world builders. Comics didn't have time for all that. That was a medium of action, and rarely could the marriage work. I tried reading a comic book adaptation of one of Salvatore's Drizzt books, it bored me to tears. I thought I'd never find a high fantasy comic that I could really enjoy.

It remains to be seen if things have changed, but here's hoping we're on the cusp of a golden age. Roger's Dungeons and Dragons series (now sadly on hiatus) really set the bar, and has been joined by Legends of the Sword Cost, Demon Knights and the wonderful Rat Queens, as well as Rucka's upcoming Dragon Age: Magekiller. Of all the series that have hit the stands however, it is Dynamite's Pathfinder that I love most of all.

Pathfinder isn't the best of the bunch, D&D takes that spot, and it's not the smartest either (hello Rat Queens!) but it's got a hell of a lot of heart, and a hell of a lot of charm. Jim Zub is better known for series like Skullkickers and Wayward, but he's still firing on all cylinders here. He manages to introduce us to an intricate fantasy world without losing momentum, and how he does that, quite simply, is by trusting his audience.

 Art By Sean Izaakse

Jim Zub knows that he doesn't need to waste time introducing us to this wild and wonderful world. If you're a Pathfinder player, then you already know the setting, and if you're a new reader then you can pick it up as you go along. If you've seen Lord of the Rings, played Warcraft or took even a cursory glance at a Magic: The Gathering card, you know the difference between an orc and a goblin. You're going to be okay.

What's smart is that Zub uses this audience familiarity in order to cut to the chase. There are six heroes that our story follows, stock archetypes all, but we don't need complex motivations and back-stories for each. Warrior Valeros is there to smash things and quote one liners, dwarf Harsk is there to complain and mage Seoni is there to shake her head while giving aside glances. While these characters are far from two dimensional, they're not the real focus of the plot, and are more there to serve as catalysts for the other three more interesting characters.

Valeros is here, he gets some cool moments, but Zub knows audiences would tire of the same old warrior protagonist fast. Instead we get more detail into the lives of flighty rogue Merisiel and her constantly fluctuating loyalties, while Cleric Kyra serves as an audience surrogate of sorts as she struggles to understand the customs of her companions.

By far the most interesting character though, is Ezren. At first glance he appears to be the age old sagely wizard, but instead the rug is pulled from under us. Ezren is in fact the least experienced member of the group. His tale is that of a man only becoming and adventurer in later life, and trying to prove that he's more than a pathetic old dreamer. His story is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, and an excellent fit for the cast.

The plot flies along quickly and comfortably. Each arc lasts about five to six issues and there aren’t many dangling plot threads or mysteries left over at the end of each. Pathfinder finds inspiration in the tabletop game that it's based on. As players, we don't play these games because we want to defeat the villain or stop the prophecy, we play because we like spending time with our friends.



 Art By Jack Bilbao

There's the real appeal of the book. The plot is merely there to facilitate spending time with these characters. It's not a massively complex multi-layered plot, and that's because it doesn't have to be. We're hear to see Ezren and co roll with the punches and support each other more than we are to see them stab a cyclops in the eye.

The rotating artists do wonders with the script too. We know how sleazy Valeros is from the moment we see him. Ezren's internal doubts are betrayed in each and every worried look he gives. The lead up to Meri and Kyra's relationship is communicated through subtle expressions and the body language they have around each other.

Like I said, the book trusts it's audience, It doesn't need to signpost every piece of world building and character development and that gives it room for some real drama and to occasionally pepper us with titbits about the setting.

I'm not going to talk about Pathfinder's reputation as an LGTB friendly IP, though believe me, I could talk for hours about it if I wanted to. What I will say though is that the tradition continues in this series, and dealt with rather well I feel. Kyra and Meri's relationship unfolds naturally and is depicted sweetly with minimum fanservice.



Art By Leandro Oliveira

Speaking of fanservice though, if Dynamite's Pathfinder has one downside, it's the design decisions. See, I was surprised to find that the Pathfinder RPG only launched in 2007, since the character designs feels more reminiscent of 1997. A lot of the characters look as though they've stumbled through a Devonshire antique shop. While they're hardly terrible, the character designs lack a clarity and cohesion that a fantasy setting really needs to reinforce it's identity.

By far though, the worst offender is Seoni. Dressed in what little fabric she has, Seoni looks as though she's one gust of wind away from a wardrobe malfunction. Of course, the problem isn't with Seoni's design as much as how it contrasts with her personality.

See, when you dress a character in revealing clothes, it communicates to the audience that there is a sexual element to the character. In X-Men, Emma Frost is a character very much in control of her sexuality and how she uses it, so it makes sense that she dresses that way. In Dragon Age, Isabela is always ready to jump in bed with someone at the drop of a hat, so it makes sense that she'd not wear any pants.

But Seoni? She's the straight faced one. She's the team mom. She's the de-facto leader and the voice of reason. There's nothing sultry or seductive or sensual about Seoni's personality. The only reason she is dressed that way is because that's how the original RPG character sheet depicted her, and the only reason for that was fanservice. The contradiction is palpable, and the story suffers for it. Valeros and Harsk look and act consistently, but Seoni is a paradox that the story struggles to find a place for.

It's a minor kink though (no pun intended) and one I hope subsequent volumes will iron out. As of writing the series has hit three volumes (not counting the prequels and spin offs), meaning it looks to last longer than the IDW D&D series did. This is great, I've enjoyed what Zub and the team have done so far, and I look forward to seeing where they take it in the future.

All things considered, Dynamite's Pathfinder is everything I could have wanted from a high fantasy series. All the tropes and cliché’s from Tolkein to Brooks, a diverse and quirky cast on par with the best of the tabletop and computer RPG's, and colourful and stylish art that I can drink up like I'm there.

If we are on the cusp of a golden age, I can only hope it's a long one.

 Art By Leandro Oliveira

                                                                 

Jack Harvey 2015. Pathfinder (c) 2007 Paizo Publishing, published by Dynamite Entertainment and written by Jim Zub. Images used under free use.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - Red Warrior: Assassin for the Thieves World

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                           

Red Warrior: Assassin for the Thieves World by Jeff Amano and Andy MacDonald – Image Comics 2006



Contains Major Spoilers

Agent Tolik Kalinchenko convinces Elena – a Russian Mafiya leader's daughter – to seduce an old flame that may be connected to a secret combat system called “Bespredel” (Russian for “without limits”). Elena risks her life for her country, Mother Russia, the world, but most of all, for Tolik. In a race against the clock, Tolik must destroy Bespredel's Red Warriors in time to save Elena, who has been discovered as an informant. But when war has no limits, where can love hide?

Red Warrior was another book that I picked up on the cheap from Worlds Apart Liverpool when I was at University. It was in the bargain bin for about two pounds, and it's cover not only had a skull but also a HAMMER AND AK SYMBOL! How could I possibly turn that down?

Unfortunately, Red Warrior never lives up to it's cover. The story is a mash up of serious espionage and more fantastical super hero elements, about a covert team of Russians working in the US. As a premise, that's real fertile ground to build something unique and stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, Red Warrior foregoes any opportunity to build upon those unique areas and instead chooses to give us something far more generic.

The story, for what it's worth, is not particularly complex. Tolik, a Russian spy with superpowers, is tasked with seducing a mobster's daughter for his agency's war against the Russian Mafiya. Elena, falling hard for Tolik, has to do the same to another mobster, in order to get the names of those involved in the secret Red Warrior program.

Tolik oversteps his authority and gets reassigned to Texas, where he comes across the creator of the Red Warrior program. In a “shocking twist,” Tolik is revealed to have been a Red Warrior all along. He kills his creator, heads back to New York, only to find that his boss has been wounded and Elena killed. With her dying breath she gives him the names, and the story ends with him setting off on a path of revenge.

As stories go, a simple narrative is no bad thing, it gives plenty of room for scene setting and world building. If Red Warrior has one sin though, it's that it decides to tell the audience absolutely nothing. The whole nature of Tolik's organisation is barely discussed, the superpowers are poorly defined and the actual stakes in their war against the Mafiya are unclear.

 

Is Tolik's organisation affiliated in any way with US services? Are superpowers common knowledge? Are the Mafiya a foreign crime family or have they integrated into American society? We never find out. All the way through, Red Warrior takes no time to fill in any of the gaps. There isn't even an American character in this American set story. They're all either Mafiya this, or Spetsnaz that, and we never get any real sense anything that sets them apart.

This lack of clarity kills the story dead. The reader has no concept of the stakes whatsoever. Without establishing the specifics of what the powers of a Red Warrior are, it ultimately renders the twist meaningless. We spend so little time getting to know Elena that we have no emotional investment in the race against time. We're never given a reason to root for Tolik, nor boo the Mafiya, nothing is established, no themes are reinforced.

But what's more frustrating is how Red Warrior squanders such a promising premise. The story could have given us a taste of what the life of a Russian immigrant in the US must actually be like. Or it could have explored what place the new Russia has on the world stage. Hell, it could have at least been an interesting take on a spy drama with the introduction of superpowers, but their relevance to the plot is completely superfluous and is barely featured in the actual story.

Instead, Red Warrior is more interested in telling us it's generic spy tale full of generic stock characters and tropes. It's so generic that you could erase all mention of the characters being Russian and it wouldn't change the plot one iota.



I haven't talked about Andy MacDonald's art yet and that's because there's not really that much to say. It's serviceable, but he's not really given much to do and his art doesn't really elevate the source material much. His scrappy, gritty art style works well enough for the spy stuff but doesn't do much for the action scenes.

So Red Warrior is a generic spy story that doesn't live up to it's promise, but that's not quite the end of it. See, once our story is concluded, we're treated to an article by Kat Amano about Mixed Martial Arts, followed by a bunch of adverts for Judo training and the like. Not what I expected to find in the back of an Image graphic novel about Russian spies.

See I think... and I've looked, but found nothing online to verify this... but I think Red Warrior is supposed to be some kind of MMA spin-off. There's a big deal made in the text about Tolik knowing all these different kinds of martial arts, and the fight scenes, sparse though they are, look as though they might be influenced by actual techniques.

 It's like Charles Atlas never left us.

If this is true, then it's all the more damning for Red Warrior. When it comes to spin-off's you can get away with a throwaway plot if you're just there for some themed action, but if Red Warrior is indeed some kind of MMA comic, then it's a bad one at that. The fights are few and far between and lack any focus on the moves. It's not an action comic, it's an espionage comic. An odd fit if it's supposed to have an MMA connection.

Ultimately, if you're a fan of spy comics, I can't really recommend Red Warrior, go and read Greg Rucka's Queen and Country instead. If you like MMA, well I can't really recommend it either. Red Warrior isn't bad, but it so generic you'd be hard pressed to remember the comic mere hours after reading it.

                                              

Jack Harvey 2015. Red Warrior (c) 2006 Image Comics and Beckett Entertainment Partners LLC, Jeff Amano and Andy MacDonald. Images used under Fair Use.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - The Prisoner: Shattered Visage

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                          

The Prisoner: Shattered Visage by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith – DC Comics 1988


Contains Major Spoilers

Spies and secret agents were the courageous champions of the 1960's. The glamour, the gadgets, and the beautiful femme fatales were inseparable from the weighty implications of their daring assignments. It was a time when espionage seemed exotic and even heroic.

In 1968 one television show challenged that notion. Indeed, it even questioned the nature of an individual's relationship to society. That show was THE PRISONER.

It was the story of a man who, after resigning from a top secret government agency, finds himself the prisoner of an unknown power in an ominous wonderland known as The Village.

Now, twenty years later, in an era where the morality of covert operations is no longer taken for granted, we again find ourselves in The Village. It's fate and significance are, at last, about to be revealed.

Shattered Visage is far from what can be considered truly obscure, but for a licensed comic, and indeed The Prisoner's only licensed comic, it goes almost unmentioned by many. I once asked Chris Sims from Comics Alliance about his thoughts on the book, and he confessed he couldn't really remember much about it. So, since nobody else felt up to the task, here is The Prisoner: Shattered Visage.

One can never understate the importance of The Prisoner. It was the first TV series, truly the first, that insisted the viewer engage the story as a whole. Though each episode was mostly self contained, it demanded that viewers tune in every week to pick the story apart for clues. You can almost see the through line with it's legacy today. Without The Prisoner there would have been no Twin Peaks, no X-Files, no The Wire, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.

Shattered Visage is a strange book, even by it's source material's standards. It seeks to be many things. A continuation of a long finished TV series. Both a re-visitation and deconstruction of it's themes. An explanation of it's final mysteries. That Shattered Visage would set it's goal so high, is almost certainly undermined by the fact that it is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

The story is packed with call backs and references. Conversations and lines of dialogue are taken almost verbatim from the original series and uttered in a new context. The art repeatedly uses visual cues to reinforce it's 'prisoner' theme, using panel frames as prison bars being one such example.



By and large a lot of this stuff hits its mark. I first read Shattered Visage about three months after finishing the TV series, and I lapped up all of the fanservice. It's only looking back now that I realise that the book is all style and no substance. It's actual narrative has very little to add or say about the series on which it is based.

Our story is split mostly into two parts. Alice, a former secret agent, has her round-the-world boat trip sabotaged and ends up stranded in The Village, crossing paths with a now deranged Number Six. Her ambitious husband, Thomas, also a secret agent and the one responsible for the sabotage, scrabbles around the halls of power trying to unravel The Village's mystery.

Practically nothing happens for most of The Village segments beyond nods to the series, and instilling a cathartic tone at seeing the previously sinister landscape brought low. The Whitehall segments have significantly more meat, but don't give us anywhere near enough answers to feel fulfilling. Nor do the Whitehall segments feel like The Prisoner at all.



In many respects Shattered Visage feels as though it was written too early. That the writers didn't have enough hindsight to truly deconstruct The Prisoner. It's worth mentioning that overturning nostalgia was still a new trick back in 1988 (Watchmen was published only a year earlier.)

It's main theme, the idea that The Village was merely a prototype for Western Civilisation is a great pay off. Though it would be a lot more cutting now in a world of mass surveillance, media outreach and cult of celebrity. The warnings of The Prisoner now are a hell of a lot more harrowing than they were in 1988.

The story finally starts kicking into gear towards the climax, with Number Six and Number Two finally having a showdown and the British Government moving to take The Village and it's secrets. But it's all over far to quickly, with little to give us a satisfying conclusion and it's pessimistic predictions given little foundation to build upon.

It's frustrating in a way. A lot of the written dialogue has the wit and sharpness of the TV show at it's best, yet we're never really given the great stakes for it to rise to. Motter's art too is great, but some weird design choices, like giving Number 6 a massive beard and rendering him almost unrecognisable, rob the book of that classic Prisoner identity.

When it comes down to it, Shattered Visage is fan fiction. It may be classed as an authorised sequel and headed by a major publisher, but under all of that it's still fanfic. Motter and Askwith themselves know as much of Patrick McGoohan's secrets as you or I do. What conclusions the book gives us are little more than their own theories.

McGoohan, for what it's worth, said something along the lines of “Reasonable enough, I suppose.”

Ultimately, if Shattered Visage had committed fully to at least one of it's goals then maybe it would have been a success. Sadly, it's not nearly trippy and psychedelic enough the feel like a continuation of the series, nor does it provide any satisfying answers to the mysteries that the series left. It wants to make it's mark on The Prisoner canon, but spends most if it's time reiterating things from the series. At one point a character utters “There's something of Number 6 in all of us,” as though it is deep and meaningful. It isn't.


There's a lot of good in Shattered Visage. The numerous references, both texual and visual, will please any fan of the series. But it's undercooked. Shattered Visage hasn't the time to make any grand statements on the human condition, and was written at a time that lacked the perspective to give them.

For most comics, that might still be enough, but when you propose to be a sequel to one of the most important pieces of art the 20th Century has given us, you are held to a higher standard.

Be seeing you.

                                                

Jack Harvey 2015. The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (c) 1988 DC Comics, Dean Motter and Mark Askwith. The Prisoner was created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein and produced by ITC Entertainment. Images used under Fair Use.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - The Mire

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                       

The Mire by Becky Cloonan - 2012



Spoiler Free

Dedicated to those of you with crushes on your characters.

Becky Cloonan has made quite a name for herself on the comics scene, but I confess that I'm very under read when it comes to her work. My reason for picking up The Mire was not, as you may suspect, an effort to rectify this. In actuality I didn't even know she was the writer until after I had purchased it. I picked up The Mire during a trip to Newcastle in May. I'd planned on grabbing a couple of small press comics but The Mire was the only one that really caught my eye.

The comic is, as you would expect, one issue long. It tells the story of a young squire called Aiden sent on a mission by his mentor Owain. Right from the get go the story is deeply rooted in fairy tale tradition, but Cloonan uses this to her benefit. When you've only got twenty two pages to tell a story, you can really save a lot of time by relying on archetypal characters like Aiden and Owain.

One of the things I like about The Mire is it's whole hearted embrace of the classic fable structure. Cloonan makes use of a great deal of clever narrative tricks to tie the whole tale together. When Owain gives Aiden a message to deliver near the beginning he says “This letter means the difference between life and death.” Of course, it's not until the end of the story we realise who's life, and who's death, Owain is referring to.

Likewise, the line “We all have ghosts who haunt us.” could be described as the central theme of the story, with several characters haunted figuratively, and literally by elements of their past. The story reminds me a lot of the short, standalone Hellboy stories, which likewise were heavily inspired by classic folklore. Even Cloonan's art, which can be bright and cutesy at times, is channelling full Mignola here, with heavy use of inking and an emphasis on the grotesque.

The Mire is short, sharp and to the point. It's hardly telling a new tale, but it's a quality comic that doesn't waste your time trying to be frivolous or quirky. 




The final page finishes with the message “Self Publish or Perish.” It's worth remembering that Cloonan didn't write this for a big publisher. She wrote it because she wanted to. Self publishing is the cornerstone of the comic book community, and it's comics like this that are a great reminder of that. Especially inspirational for someone like me who's been considering self publishing for a long time.

On that final note it's worth mentioning that I got The Mire for five pound, which is a little pricey for something the size of a single issue. While that shouldn't be held against the comic, (It was great, and everything above still stands) it should serve as a reminder of what goes in to self publishing in the first place. Small press creators don't have the luxury of being able to charge a couple of pound for their work, so it's really important to support them when you can, even if you're tempted to say it isn't worth the cost.

Because at the end of the day, if we as fans don't support them, then they won't be around for long. That would be a real shame, and The Mire is evidence of that.

                                     

Jack Harvey 2015. The Mire (c) 2012 Rebecca Cloonan. Images used under Fair Use.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Semi Big News Coming Shortly

I've got a big announcement to make soon, but the full details haven't been finalised yet so I won't be going into details. Suffice to say, it's something, so watch this space.

In other news, I've been putting a lot of work into the possibility of starting a self published Modern Realms series. They'd be short, comic book sized novellas, each one illustrated by a different artist. I haven't asked any yet, but I have a few in mind. If anyone is interested in helping out or has any advice on the self publishing side of things please feel free to contact me. You can get me over on my Tumblr or Deviantart, or just leave a comment here.

Semi related, as a bit of a prototype I'm planning on remastering and expanding the Modern Realms short stories I've done here and selling them as an ebook omnibus on Amazon. This'll involve both expanding the stories and re working some of the art. It'll be a one time thing only, I don't plan going the full Amazon ebook route but I figured I've nothing to lose by doing it.

So that's three things to keep an eye out for. Updates will be here as you'd expect and Obscure Comic of the Month will continue as normal.

Cheers for reading.

Jack

Monday, 25 May 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - War-Fix

Obscure Comic of the Month is a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

                                                                   

War-Fix by David Axe and Steven Olexa – ComicsLit/NBM 2006



Contains Mild Spoilers

Weened in his youth on scenes of war in the evening news, a small town journalist named David discards life as he has known it to report on the war in Iraq. But what outwardly appears to be nothing more than a dangerous job is in reality a strange personal quest, where David is both a voyeur and participant in the condition which intrigues, frightens, excites and consumes him – violence.

War-Fix is another book I picked out of the indy section of Worlds Apart Liverpool back in the day. It looked pseudo-intellectual and was cheap, perfect for my developing tastes. I'd never even really heard of Joe Sacco at the time (And to be honest I still haven’t looked into enough of his stuff), so this was my first tastes of what could be described as the war journalism genre.

Unlike Sacco and his contemporaries however, War-Fix is a purely fictitious tale. It's plot is immediately familiar to anyone who's seen the film The Hurt Locker, though following a journalist rather than a bomb disposal expert.

It's a story about war addiction and the disconnect from reality it provides. Despite appearances the book is very short. Pages tend to contain no more than five lines of dialogue apiece. Some pages none at all. You could get through the book in less than twenty minutes. That's isn't a flaw though. The story is more concerned with communicating it's point through visuals that it is through words.



Steven Olexa's art is very similar to that of Vertigo mainstay Jock. For most of the book he disregards more traditional panel structures, tending to let one scene melt into the next. This is all part of the stream of consciousness storytelling on behalf of the book's main character David. David isn't particularly complex, you know who he is and what he wants right from the get go, but instead he serves to communicate to us our social, and by extension personal, obsession with war.

War-Fix manages to avoid becoming dated by exploring war as a whole. While it takes place during the occupation of Iraq it'll also touch on other conflicts. Croatia, China during WW2 and the medieval battlefields of the past. Indeed, it also takes a nuanced look at some of the lesser known participants of the war, such as Nepalese contractors or Georgian irregulars. The story may take place in one specific war, but in it's way, it is about all wars.

The storytelling includes quite a lot of nice touches. There is heavy use of visual symbolism and juxtaposition with the text. One stand out moment near the end involves David taking photographs of civilian casualties, where for one panel he's portrayed holding a gun rather than his camera. This shows him, and indeed ourselves, to be just as complicit in these crimes as the soldiers and combatants.

It's not all perfect however. Most of the text is rendered in a faux-handwritten font, making it difficult to read at points. It's a head bangingly stupid decision that damages what is otherwise a tight delivery.

War-Fix gets in, makes it's point and finishes up without outstaying it's welcome. I think it cost me about a fiver at the time and it's hard to argue with that price for what you get.



NBM Publishing is still going strong, apparently, and David Axe likewise is still keeping himself busy. Couldn't really find much on Steven Olexa though. They're still selling a wide range of comics, War-Fix included. It's a little bizarre to say the least, I've been to quite a few cons and expos over the years now and I've never seen them promoting. I remember checking out the ComicsLit range back in the day. I'd kind of assumed after all these years they'd probably have gone bust.

So War-Fix is a nice little ditty with an important point to make. General fiction comics tend not to have so wide an audience and it's kind of easy to get buried under the giants of the genre. It's hard to say if War-Fix deserves any recognition for that, but it is a moving read. It'd be great in a classroom or school library.

And in the end, it also kind of got to make a point three years before Hurt Locker did.

                                                                

Jack Harvey 2015. War-Fix (c) 2006 David Axe and Steven Olexa. Images used under Fair Use.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - Maxwell Strangewell

This is the first of a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at an obscure entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.
                                                              

Maxwell Strangewell by The Fillbach Brothers – Dark Horse Books 2007



Contains minor spoilers for the first third of the book.

Photographer Anna Gilmour discovers a ten-foot-tall alien immediately after his fall to earth. He can't speak, but communicates through telepathic empathy, and Anna introduces him to her father as “Max.” Their home is soon beset by a sea of beatific Tibetan monks, alien assassins in disguise, and heavy weapons fire! Max might not know who he is, but a lot of others sure seem to. Before the final act, Anna and Max encounter a prophecy, the man in the moon, an entire race of alien accountants, and the Revolver - an innocuous-looking jogger responsible for keeping the world spinning.

I first picked up Maxwell Strangewell during my final year of university. It was around this time that I had finally decided to take my interest in comics seriously. To really explore the medium I'd fallen in love with. Up to this point I'd only really experienced Cape Comics, 2000ad and a few Vertigo titles.

I really wanted to explore further afield, didn't really have a starting point. Instead, exploring further afield mostly meant digging through the indy section of Worlds Apart Liverpool and going with my gut. Maxwell Strangewell was a promising prospect; a standalone story by creators I'd never heard of. Even better, it was about the size of the Alien vs Predator anthology I was buying at the same time, but twice as cheap.

It was a joy to read, and once I finished it all I could think was “Why does nobody ever talk about this? Why does nobody know about Maxwell Strangewell?”

It's been years now, and I never found my answer. But my repertoire of graphic storytelling has grown exponentially since then. It's hard to look back at something like Maxwell Strangewell without wondering if it's all rose tinted glasses now. That's what made me pick for the first of this series of columns.

So what of the book itself? Well, our first page starts with a quote by Robert Frost. Yes, it is that one about the road not travelled. So far, so predicable. Softening the blow is another quote, this time by Douglas Adams. It's fitting that the book should start with an Adams quote, considering how reminiscent the story is of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The book owes a great deal to Adams, being a spiritual successor of sorts. It's not the only influence though. The story opens immediately with an homage to the light tunnel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.



It's interesting how quickly the story hits the ground running with it's fantastical elements. Anna finds Max, (A character that seems to be one part Morpheus from Gaiman's Sandman and one part David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth.) and she and her father immediately accept that he is an extra-terrestrial. It's refreshing, and a good thing too, since the story has a lot of diverging plot lines to get through. Doing the whole ET thing would have stifled the story's momentum.

Before long the plot follows Anna and a pair of monks on their way to find out what Max really is as a bunch of evil alien factions fight to obtain his power. Anna's dad is separated from her and instead teams up with rogue FBI agent Jerkins and a moon man. There's a lot of plot going on at any given time, but each is following it's own thread, so never feels overcomplicated. It also gives you more bang for your buck. You can never get bored since it'll jump from one thing to the next before you get the chance.

Let's talk characters. Max's design is a little uninspired to be honest, but he's more of a mobile MacGuffin than anything else. Ironically this makes him the least interesting part of the cast. During an early part of the story, he's flipping through TV channels, reacting to different visuals. He reacts badly to Adolf Hitler, and fondly to Charlie Chaplin. The duality is notable, but decidedly non-committal.

It's hardly interesting to see a character react unfavourably to Adolf Hitler of all people. What would Max have thought of George Bush I wonder? (He would have been in office at the time remember?). Indeed, the whole story lacks any kind of strong moral or allegorical statement, instead leaving us with a generic 'love everyone message'. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with a story that owes so much to writers like Douglas Adams, it certainly takes the bite out of it.

Anna too is pretty much white bread. She's the nicest character in the cast, and her arc mainly consists of getting over her mother's death. Pretty much all the characters are archetypes, but that's okay, it serves the humour and the visuals. There are a few weak links as a result though.

Two characters, Jerkins and Ringo, are cut from the same cloth. They're both 'no nonsense badasses who need to get over themselves'. I think it's worth noting that there's a bit of gay subtext between Ringo and his partner Phelp. They're represented as nothing more than 'buds' in the story, and I don't think they were supposed to be read as gay, but it's a massive oversight that could have helped differentiate Ringo from Jerkins more. There are a lot of moments like this. Missed opportunities that could have added a more interesting dynamic to the characters.

Easily the best character is Lobscrum, the tiny, one eyed, foul mouthed alien pilgrim. He's mostly there for comic relief, but damn it if the comic isn't worth reading for Lobscrum alone.

The plot has a lot of high concept stuff going on. It's about coming to terms with death, mostly, but also about the nature of love, greed, pettiness and war. It's no massive philosophical text, but it wants to speak about higher truths in, once again, the same way Douglas Adams did.

It's mostly successful at it too, having an almost filmic quality to the work. (The Fillbach brothers are credited as 'directors' at the end.) The art is clean, functional, and expressive. It's perfect for the story being told and it reminds me a lot of Paul Grist and a lot of 2000ad Future Shocks. The artwork alone gives you a whole cavalcade of wild and interesting aliens. Not a single page is wasted, each giving you something a new and mind boggling spectacle of alien ships and weird dimensions.

I'm happy to say it is still a joy to read. And it's ending hit me in exactly the same way it did all those years ago.

Why then, is Maxwell Strangewell not regarded as a modern classic?

Maxwell Strangewell was published under Dark Horse Books, not Dark Horse Comics, which probably meant it didn't get the promotion you'd otherwise expect. The Fillbach Brothers have a fairly small back catalogue and haven't produced anything since 2009. It sucks, because Maxwell Strangewell feels like a great foundation to build from. Maybe they'll surface again with something that does, who knows.

The answer is simple in hindsight. Maxwell Strangewell is a great comic, but there's just nothing that interesting about it. It lacks a central conceit with which to make it noteworthy. It owes too much to Douglas Adams, and it doesn't do anything to build on that inspiration.

Maxwell Stangewell is a book I love. I'd never sell it, and I'll likely revisit it again in years to come. But it's a book that truly struggles to find an identity and stand out. Why talk about Maxwell Strangewell, when there are so many wilder, greater, weirder comics out there?

It's an obscure classic. No more, no less.

                                                                 
Jack Harvey 2015. Maxwell Strangewell (c) 2007 Matthew Fillbach and Sean Fillbach. Images used under Fair Use.