Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Notes On A Film – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Let’s start with the summary – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best second film of the Marvel studio films so far. It is better than Iron Man 2, obviously, and even better than Thor: Dark World. It manages the trick of bringing out what worked well in the comic books (in this case, the modern espionage/conspiracy style of the recent Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting run) with what works best in film, namely massive action mixed with good acting and snappy dialogue.

The story is a good, modern-day conspiracy thriller, contrasting the post-Snowden whistleblowing world of the NSA spying on us with the 1940s mind-set of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who believes in a world of freedom and purer reasons for fighting. The thrust of the narrative is based on Operation: Insight – SHIELD has three helicarriers that will have the ability to target terrorists before they do anything and eliminate them. Rogers, who works for SHIELD, is not happy, as would be expected, questioning Fury’s decisions; when Fury discovers something that unnerves him and asks for a delay in the operation, his life is targeted by a group pretending to be police and a certain bionic-armed masked villain of the subtitle. When top SHIELD official, friend of Fury and member of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), confronts Rogers about meeting Fury and Rogers doesn’t comply, Pierce orders SHIELD to take him down. Rogers becomes a fugitive with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and turns to recently befriended Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) for help, a vet now offering counselling to combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder but who is a former paratrooper with more to offer – and together they discover a huge conspiracy at the heart of SHIELD …

One of the great things that this film does is showing Captain America as a badass. The fight scenes are really good with great choreography that display his unique fighting style (at the end, the film thanks Kieron Dwyer, which I thought was nice because I always thought he did a great job of drawing Cap’s style of fighting) and which were something new and dynamic – the infusion of Eastern cinema has forced Hollywood to up its game and do something different, and it shows here.

The action in general is great – there are great set pieces all along: the film starts with Cap, the Widow and SHIELD agents rescuing a SHIELD ship that has been taken by pirates (led by Batroc, who still uses savate and manages to look great); there is the murder attempt on Fury; the chase of our three heroes by the Winter Soldier and colleagues; the helicarrier action hinted at in the trailer. The film is over two hours long but it never drags and is an impressive action blockbuster debut from Anthony and Joe Russo, two directors better known for their creative input on Arrested Development and Community. Also because of the Russo brothers, the film is funny – there is sharp banter between Cap and Widow and Falcon (with Mackie getting the lion’s share) and snappy lines.

(A nice shout-out for Community fans: Danny Pudi has a cameo, as does Aaron Himelstein, who played the debate guy from City College.)

The film manages well with the characters in general. The Falcon worked really well, making a slightly goofy-looking character in the comic books look good and a nice updating of the character’s story; Mackie is really good, interacting well with Evans, and it’s great to see the first African American superhero finally on the screens. Black Widow continues work well in the Marvel cinematic universe and Johannson does a great job, mixing sass with vulnerability and action (the film also offers other strong female characters in Maria Hill and Agent 13, so that’s another plus for the film). Evans also does well with Rogers in what is a tough role as the boy scout of the Marvel books.

As a Marvel fan, I loved the references: Stephen Strange is name-checked, which was great; they made Batroc cool; one of the villainous characters is Brock Rumlow, who is Crossbones in the comic books; a well-played Stan Lee cameo; the way the story used elements from Secret War (by Bendis/Dell’Otto), the start of Secret Warriors and the Winter Soldier storyline (although not a Russian agent in the film, because we like the Russians now, but at least they still included a connection to the Black Widow); a lovely mid-credit teaser for Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and a coda scene that comes straight from the Brubaker/Epting comic book.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very entertaining piece of Marvel superhero action with interesting characters, an interesting plot and great action. Although the final third is less complex and has to have a small band of heroes destroy a massive conspiracy in an action scene, it still does it with skill and verve. The writers and directors have signed on for the third film, which would presumably have Cap and the Falcon hunting the Winter Soldier (that’s not really a spoiler, is it?), but the end of the film also has ramifications for the Marvel cinematic universe and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and I can’t wait to see more.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Comic Book Review: The Complete Accident Man

Written by Pat Mills and Tony Skinner
Art by Martin Emond, Duke Mighten, John Erasmus
Published by Titan Comics

A brief history lesson: Toxic! was a British weekly comic book published in full colour in 1991 (it only lasted 31 issues and the publisher went bankrupt shortly after, unfortunately leaving some of the creators unpaid). It was the idea of Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Mike McMahon and John Wager, as an outlet for work that they would own that didn’t fit into 2000AD, because the tone of the book was even more anarchic and violent. This was most apparent in the flagship title – Marshal Law – but it was equally apparent in the breakout strip, Accident Man.

Created by Pat Mills and Tony Skinner, the character of Accident Man was Mike Fallon, a hitman who specialised in making his hits look like accidents, hence the name, but who didn’t take any particular pleasure out of killing people, apart from personal pride in doing a good job. The only thing he was interested in was the money, because he was a shallow New Lad of the nineties: designer labels, high-end gadgets, and ‘all-in wrestling’ with his girlfriend. Fallon is vain, egotistic, sexist, homophobic (describing someone as ‘looking a bit of an uphill gardener’) and not a pleasant chap. Fortunately, the combination of jet-black humour, a satirical edge and over-the-top violence compensated for these deficits, which is why the character endured and why Titan Comics is publishing this collection.

This hardcover brings together all the Accident Man adventures for the first time: the three stories from Toxic!Accident Man from #1–6, The Death Touch from #10–16, and The Messiah Sting from #17–24 – and the three-issue black and white mini-series published by Dark Horse from 1993. The first tale sets the tone (and is, for my money, the best of them) with brilliant art from the late Martin Emond, the New Zealand artist perhaps best known for the four-issue mini-series White Trash (written by Gordon Rennie) and various Lobo one-shots. His punky, cartoony, anarchic style was perfect for the tone: odd angles, strange close-ups, quirky background details (a character tries to feebly kick Fallon, with the movement of his foot transcribed by the extended curl of the ‘c’ of the word ‘pathetic’; the slogans on the t-shirts of some Northerners changing in response to the violence dished out by Fallon) all make for inventive, dynamic, energetic comic books that help you ignore the fact that you are watching a professional killer doing his job. The first story crams in Fallon’s ‘origin’ (he witnessed a hitman doing a job, then spied on and recorded his next jobs and then blackmailed him into teaching him), his latest jobs and then finding out that his ex-girlfriend had been killed by two of his colleagues because of her involvement with a female green movement. It’s a lot more fun than a simple description makes out, honest.

The second story, The Death Touch, was illustrated by Duke Mighten (Emond moved on because he wanted to draw something more violent, according to the foreword by Pat Mills), whose style Mills believes was the definitive Accident Man because it became more ‘GQ Man’, in his words. Mighten’s style is certainly cleaner and sharper than Emond’s, if not as cartoony or anarchic – I always thought that his style was a British version of the Image style so prevalent at the time – and he certainly makes it a comic book of its time. The story is about Fallon’s attempt to get an old kung fu master to teach him Dim Mak, the death touch, in order to become the perfect Accident Man; things don’t go to plan, obviously, and the adventure takes in the Golden Coffin Awards (the awards for professional killers, such as Garry Presley the Yodelling Axeman) and Fallon killing a drugs dealer and his family. The action is sharper if not as over the top, but still infused with humour and a sense of style.

The Messiah Sting is the third story, drawn by John Erasmus, and is a more involved narrative involving statement killings for the green movement his ex-girlfriend was involved with, American agency spooks after him, a sting on the environment minister to admit to the government’s cover ups, and an action chase scene in Amsterdam. It’s a bit more freewheeling than the previous stories, and Erasmus’s art isn’t as tight as his predecessors – his style in places reminds me a little of Dave Lloyd’s work in V For Vendetta, but looser and with the action not as well choreographed.

The final story sees the return of Mighten, albeit in black and white, in a deliberate attempt to make Accident Man more appealing to an American audience for the Dark Horse mini-series, as Fallon goes to America to work for a new government agency, called SAB: Special Assassinations Bureau. The designer angle is amped up (Fallon has his own designer made-to-measure condoms with his name embossed in gold), the sex is amped up, and the over-the-top violence is cranked up as well (Howard Chaykin’s covers, the first of which is the cover for the collection, capture the tone perfectly). His job is to assassinate a senator, but it’s a set-up – he’s been tricked into killing the head of the CIA. After saving him, he owes them one, so he has to kill a mafia godfather, which involves inveigling himself into the family, surviving that and then having to sort out the SAB as well. The story still has a satirical edge to it, as well as a nice sense of humour, but it loses some of the punky attitude that made the first stories spikier and there is a slight softening of the Fallon character so that he’s not a complete prick, but it’s still very entertaining.

This collection is a very enjoyable nostalgia trip for fans of British comics of the early 1990s and it’s lovely to see Accident Man back in print. The only problem I have with the book is the lack of attention to detail – the misspelling of ‘Erasmus’ as ‘Earsmus’ on the cover is a shocking oversight, and it would have been nice to fix some of the typos in the lettering, the most egregious example being in The Messiah Sting, when a character says ‘Your wanted, Fallon’ instead of ‘You’re wanted, Fallon’. If you can overlook that, then The Complete Accident Man is a spiky, filthy, anarchic, violent, funny slice of British comic books.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Comic Book Review: Über Volume 1

Über #0–5
Written by Kieron Gillen
Pencils by Caanan White
Inks by Keith Williams
Colours by Digikore Studios
Letters by Kurt Hathaway
Published by Avatar Press

Germany, April 1945. The war is nearly over: Germany is overrun by the Russian army. However, General Guderian is approached by General Sankt with a different sort of army, the results of Projekt U in a classified location on the Swiss/Austria border, where Doctor Freya Bergen is assisting human experiments … Guderian brings Sankt’s ‘reinforcements’ to the Twelfth Army at Beelitz, south west of Berlin, where he convinces Sankt of the necessity to save the pinned-down Ninth Army; this leads to the deployment of Werner Frei – Battleship Siegmund, First Ubermensch Army. The Battle of Beelitz, 29–30 April 1945, is the first ubermensch engagement and Siegmund annihilates the First Ukrainian Front, saves the Ninth Army and changes the course of the war (in our world, Hitler killed himself on 30 April).

The other super-powered members of the First Ubermensch Army are Markus Jung (Battleship Siegfried), who is at the Reichstag, and Klaudia Hoch (Battleship Sieglinde), who is at the Zoo Flak Tower, west of Tiergarten, Berlin, where thousands of civilians are living. Both use their powers to rout the Soviet troops, with the aid of the Panzermensch, the ‘rank and file’ superpowered army, in the Battle of Berlin that results in one million soldiers surrendering.

Hitler, after being close to suicide, is now back to his manic best: he orders Battleship Siegfried to exterminate the prisoners of war. A Rubicon has been crossed, and the war is now a very different situation. The Battleship Class Ubermensch protect Berlin from daylight bombing, although it does put a strain on Sieglinde – the ubermensch cannot keep going forever and need time to recharge, dependent on how overactive they have been.

Meanwhile, Doctor Bergen has been revealed to be a spy for the Allies – she kills the first Panzermensch in action and blows up Projekt U. When she returns to London, she explains the process by which the ubermensch have been created to Churchill (and us): ‘Woden’s Blood’ is a crystalline compound that takes time to mature before it can be used (she blew up their vats and has stolen most of the German reserves) to transform humans, but only one in five thousand (it kills everyone else). However, it is not new technology; it’s something the Germans found written in an ‘alien’ language, and Stephanie aka Bergen has stolen copies for the code breakers to work out the full process. Bletchley Park is also the site of the testing to discover Allied soldiers who will be able to withstand the process and become ‘Overmen’ (allowing for a cameo for Alan Turing).

The need to develop Allied Overmen is apparent now that Hitler has become even more power crazy: he uses Siegfried to kill General Sankt, the man who brought him the ubermensch (although Sankt expected this because he passed on his notes to his adjutant, Scheele, with orders to taken the notes and herself to General Guderian after Sankt was sent to report to the Fuhrer) and then ignores Guderian’s sensible strategies in favour of ‘opera’. Siegmund is sent to East Prussia; Siegfried is sent to Romania to reclaim German oil supplies; and Sieglinde is sent to Paris to send a message to the world. The Allies are aware of this and the Battle of Paris sees the first enhanced human battlefield with the deployment of His Majesty’s Man Colossus against Sieglinde …

As Gillen mentioned in interviews, this is not the first comic book to have Nazis creating supermen during the Second World War (my first thought was Grant Morrison’s Zenith, for example), but it is perhaps the first to go for the ‘authentic’ approach instead of the traditional comic book approach to superhero stories set during that time. This story has historical figures in it – Hitler, Speer, Churchill, Montgomery – in addition to the other characters, and it is obvious that there has been a lot of research into the timeline and background of the Second World War.

(Interestingly, the idea for the book came from Editor In Chief of Avatar, William Petersen, who brought it to Gillen, who developed the story beyond the scope of the original plot. Also, this is not a creator-owned book, which is unusual for well-known writers working at the company; however, it is obvious that it is an Avatar book because of the level of gore – the artwork does not stint on eviscerations and bodies being destroyed and intestines flying everywhere, which is appropriate to the nature of the reality of war. Caanan White is not an artist I’m familiar with, but he is a solid storyteller with a good grasp of period and action – there are many battles and fight scenes, obviously, and White keeps it clear and straightforward.)

The level of detail and the reportage style mean that the book avoids accusations of exploitation of history (this is not Inglourious Basterds). Gillen has created a surprisingly respectful book that happens to involve German superbeings; he is fascinated by the bad things that people do and the monsters that they become and the terrible things done in the process. The scope of the story that he can tell is huge and he is treating it very seriously, as should be expected – there isn’t much fun in the book, although occasional funny lines squeeze through: when Sankt is asked if what is happening is disastrous, he replies, ‘Not as much as electing an Austrian peasant’. However, this is a very good book that makes you think beyond the simple conceit of ‘Nazi supermen’.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Book Review: Further Encounters Of Sherlock Holmes

Edited by George Mann
Published by Titan Books

BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films – the enduring appeal of one of the most famous fictional characters has never been more evident. You simply cannot have too many Sherlock Holmes stories. This anthology continues this tradition in fine form: all twelve stories are written in the style and idiom of Conan Doyle at the time of the original stories (for example there is a use of a ‘Chinaman’ in one of the tales that is a little out of place to the modern reader), so you feel like you’re reading some undiscovered originals.

The Adventure of the Professor’s Bequest by Philip Purser-Hallard involves letters left by Professor Moriarty after his death to his brother-in-law, which have gone missing and are believed to have explosive repercussions if they are seen by the public; Holmes and Watson are called in to locate the missing letters. The second story, The Curious Case of the Compromised Card-Index by Andrew Lane, which is set before the adventure at the Reichenbach Falls and after the adventure with Charles Augustus Milverton, involves the hardcopy version of Sherlock’s data, which hasn’t been stolen but there is the possibility that a copy exists somewhere …

Sherlock Holmes and the Popish Relic by Mark A Latham is suitably gothic, where an uncle goes missing, presumed dead, a haunted abbey, ghosts monks and rumours of a popish relic … The fourth story, The Adventure of the Decadent Headmaster by Nick Campbell, is about the disappearance of a boy from an excellent public school and the suicide of a teacher at the same school soon after, leading to Holmes and Watson investigating and coinciding with the fact that the story is set in 1899.

The fifth story, The Case of the Devil’s Door by James Goss, relies on the mystery of not knowing anything about 24 Leinster Gardens, London; as a Londoner, I knew the reveal already, but its use in the recent series of Sherlock suggests that it is not a mystery any longer. The Adventure of the Coin of the Realm, by William Patrick Maynard and Alexandra Martukovich, sees Holmes and Watson on a boat returning from America with a group of coin dealers, one of whom ends up dead in a classic locked-room mystery, with the ship as the locked room.

The seventh tale, The Strange Case of the Displaced Detective by Roy Gill, has a fake client vanish from the rooms of 221B Baker Street, which sends Watson out on a search that leads him to a dingy shop: Wells & Co., Retailers of Antiquity & Chronologists of Futurity. This leads Holmes into, basically, facing the idea of the Minority Report. The Girl Who Paid For Silence by Scott Handcock is about the brutal and notorious death of a little girl and the very unusual witness who comes to see Watson, not Holmes, with information about the murder.

The ninth tale, An Adventure In Three Courses by Guy Adams, see Holmes take Watson to a new dining establishment that serves only cold food, where they pass the time by analysing the other diners, which takes a turn for the dark … The tenth story, The Sleep Of Reason by Lou Anders, is narrated by Dr Avery F Wilson, of 177B Bleecker Street, about New York’s famous dandy consulting detective, S Quentin Carmichael, retelling the narrative from a pulseless Carmichael through the medium of Morse code by clacking his teeth together. He relates how he met William Aldebert, author and chronicler of the adventures of Joanna Carson, War Mistress of Mars (or Moosrab, as the Martians call it), and he helped to solve the murder of a Martian ambassador.

The Snowtorn Terror by Justin Richards is the eleventh tale, which starts with a man wanting Holmes to solve the death of his father, but a connection to a railway robbery at the same location means that Holmes gets to solve both crimes. The final story, A Betrayal Of Doubt by Philip Marsh, is narrated by Dr John Watson Jnr – his father has passed away and Holmes is in retirement in his cottage in Sussex; Inspector Bennet of Scotland Yard has called him out of retirement to investigate a locked-room murder with occult overtones (the body was covered in intricate symbols post-mortem). Although Holmes shows signs of old age and deterioration of his mental faculties, he shows that there is still plenty of mental acuity left …

I enjoyed this book. It was more traditional than I thought it would be; I thought it would trend more towards the likes of The Sleep of Reason – a mash-up between Holmes and Edgar Rice Burroughs (like my favourite mash-up, A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman, which mixes Conan Doyle with HP Lovecraft) – but it manages to be bring modern sensibilities and attitude to the stories. There are interesting ideas, intriguing twists on the Holmes/Watson plots, and good prose. I look forward to even more further encounters of Sherlock Holmes

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Comic Book Review: The Absence

The Absence #1–6 by Martin Stiff
Published by Titan Comics

The Absence was originally a black & white self-published series, between 2009 and 2013, but Titan Comics have collected the complete story into a 272-page hardcover. This is a good thing because this is a very good comic book that deserves this treatment, but also because it means you can read the whole thing in one sitting and not have to wait four years for the whole story – waiting for Martin Stiff to finish this dense, atmospheric, detailed, mysterious, absorbing tale must been torturous. I suppose we have to forgive him for the delay – he’s also a busy man as co-director of graphic design studio, Amazing 15.

The story starts in a coastal village in the south of England, 6 August 1945. A priest is woken in the middle of the night by a terrible storm, only for the cliff-side chapel in which he lives to start crumbling around him and he falls to his death as the foundations give way … The first chapter then moves to 20 July 1946; Marwood Clay returns to the village after the war, which has left part of his face missing – his is the face on the cover of the collection pictured above. However, Clay is not welcomed back – the residents, even the local police sergeant, despise him and wish he hadn’t returned (he even gets slapped in The Falling Moon, the local pub, by a mother who lost her sons in the war). The only friend he seems to make is a young boy, Thomas, who doesn’t seem to know or care about the mysterious reason why the village hates Clay.

The second chapter introduces Dr Temple, an intelligent man with an interest in astronomy and an ability to predict things, who is paying local builders to construct an edifice to explicit specifications on Winter’s Hill, just outside the village. He is visited by an elderly and infirm man in an expensive car (Temple describes him as ‘his employer), who tries to coerce Temple to come back and work for the government, or at least purchase something from him that will help the country; Temple refuses. It seems that Temple did things during the war that helped the war effort but have left him scarred and he wishes to move on from that time. Temple and Clay meet, their lives destined to become entwined with each other, and the village, and the people who live there, which is when the young boy, Thomas, disappears on Christmas day …

The first thing that should be said is that The Absence is its own entity – it is a story of intrigue and secrets and the nature of English communities and the effect on personal relationships and people’s lives, told in a captivating manner by someone for whom this was a labour of love and who didn’t let anything get in the way of him telling his story in the way it needed to be told. We reviewers tend to make connections and comparisons, partly because we think it’s clever and partly because it gives us something comforting to rely on when talking about something new, which is why I (and other reviewers) will mention the comparison with Strangehaven, the comic book by Gary Spencer Millidge, which has a similar trace of the weirdness of English villages, as well as black & white artwork. There is some similar genetic material, but they are very different books – for a start, Stiff’s art is more like Eddie Campbell’s style, a scratchier line, a looser feel, an equal assuredness to the storytelling, although the artwork is a bitter rougher in the earlier pages, with faces looking a little odd occasionally, before becoming more confident and consistent throughout the series.

The real draw here is the way that the book pulls you into the story – Stiff has created a narrative that lures you into his world, with intriguing characters and a labyrinth of connections, which slowly pulls you along until you are immersed and have to know more, desperate for the secrets to be revealed but wanting the enjoyment to be prolonged. The story takes place over a year, but the timeline switches back and forth so that we can learn more about specific characters at different points in the past, and the effect that the past has on the present and whether we can escape it. There is more to the story than just the introductory overview I provided, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for people who wish to discover the revelations for themselves – getting lost in this book is the thrill, as it heads into very strange territory. The collection also includes some material about the creation of the story, including details on real village that inspired the village in the story and an excerpt from his grandfather's war diary, which enrich the experience. Stiff has created a compelling tale, and I highly recommend it.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Comic Book Review: It Came!

It Came! #1–4
Created, written and illustrated by Dan Boultwood, Esq.
Published by Titan Comics

Presented as a lost feature from Pinetree Studios (there is also a trailer for another feature, The Lost Valley Of The Lost [‘Based entirely on scientifically dubious fabricated facts’], and tongue-in-cheek adverts for such products as Smoke & Choke’um Cigarettes, Liquid Hair, Johnny Foreigner Engine Oil and Reddy Teddy Gum before the comic starts), It Came! is a loving pastiche of British B-movies from the 1950s, filmed in ‘eyeball-o-rama vision’. Our heroes are Dr Boy Brett, of Space University, and his sidekick, Doris Night, as they discover a giant alien robot bent on destruction in a village near Trumpington Abbey. Brett calls in the army to save the day (with the promise of ‘a pint and a packet of pork scratchings’ to his friend the colonel to achieve it), who look rather a lot like certain actors from a certain British comedy franchise. However, the robot is too powerful, and it heads towards London after Brett and Doris discover its secret: it’s stealing stiff upper lips, the essence of Britishness, to power its onslaught.

This book is hilarious; I could spend most of my review quoting the funny lines. Brett, who constantly chews on his pipe while patronising Doris (calling her ‘old duck’, ‘old minge’, ‘old flange’), which reflects the sexism of the day; Doris is constantly doing her make-up but she’s still clever and sharp beneath that; the essential Britishness that flavours the entire book, including such lines as ‘More tea, vicar?’, ‘Bloody Nora!’, ‘I’ll be mother’. Brett gets a lot of good lines (‘I’m Dr Boy Brett, noted scientist of space and such’, ‘I was being de-bagged at the time’, ‘and that’s why you should never flush a toilet at altitude’, ‘It’s all gone brown in trouser town’, ‘I think this chap is pebble-dashing the Cistern chapel’), but there’s also the general attitude of the whole comic book. The spaceship looks like a classic flying saucer from the films at the time, and even has the string coming out the top, just like the old films.

Boultwood’s love of these old films shines through – it’s obvious that he’s not ridiculing them for easy jokes – and his storytelling transfers that passion across to the reader. He is a wonderful cartoonist and comic book artist – his style is charming and quirky, but clean and amusing; the animation-cel-like drawings allow the characters to shine in a simply rendered English countryside that contrasts with elegant and futurist design of the alien robot. I haven’t seen his work before (on the likes of Baker Street Irregulars and Danger Academy, and he also does a strip for The Phoenix called Haggis and Quail) but that’s something I’ll have to rectify because the ‘misanthropic picturesmith’ (according to his Twitter bio) has got style and skill by the bucketful.

In addition to his fantastic art, the story itself is a delight and Boultwood has a lightness of touch to his storytelling, with a great handle on characters and the quintessential British sensibility that fuels the narrative and the humour. (I read a review for the first issue of this book on one of the big US comic book sites that completely missed this point – their only frame of reference was Mystery Science Theater 3000 and therefore thought It Came! wasn’t funny, totally misunderstanding that this book has nothing to do with that television programme at all, but to do with Carry On films and Ealing studio films and British low-budget sci-fi films that tried and failed to emulate the American films of the time; the reviewer simply didn’t get it: this book is hilarious.)

I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly charmed by this book: Boultwood has created a sharp, quirky, witty, snappy, laugh-out-loud, loving homage to bygone cinema and Britishness. The attention to detail he brings to it is great: in addition to the covers at the back, there are also fake IMDb-like pages for the two lead 'actors', behind-the-scenes photographs, cigarette cards, one-sheets for other films from Pinetree Studios, and even a police report on the escapades of Dick Claymore, who plays Boy Brett. The taste-makers at Titan Comics have picked another winner – this is another great book and you should do yourself a favour and check it out.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Comic Book Review – Chronos Commandos Volume 1: Dawn Patrol

Chronos Commandos #1–5
Created, written and illustrated by Stuart Jennett
Lettered by Andrew James, Donna Jennett, Gabriela Houston
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

Jennett worked on a few issues of Marvel UK’s Warheads and 2000AD in the early 1990s, before the comic book crash closed down Marvel UK and he became a concept artist in the games industry, even setting up his own company, Alien Apple Studios, with his wife. However, comic books never left his blood, and Titan Comics gave him the chance to develop this story, originally as a five-issue mini-series, now collected in this cracking hardback.

In his introduction, Jennet mentions his influences/passions (stop-frame monsters/dinosaurs, Second World War action movies, violent 1970s comics, pulp novels), and they explain the simple yet exhilarating concept: American soldiers fighting Nazis in the Cretaceous period, fighting for the survival of the future because both sides have developed time travel. There’s no real explanation of why or how, but it’s not needed – this is a deliriously violent, wonderfully enjoyable boys’ own adventure that has part of the Second World War being fought in the presence of Tyrannosaurus Rex and velociraptors. If you need more explanation, then don’t really get comic books … One of the great aspects of comic books is that something as outrageous and over the top as this will be accepted without reason – it’s fun, crazy, exciting and accessible, and it is what it is.

We meet the Chronos Commandos, under the command of the nameless Sarge, known only as ‘Sarge’, a traditional cigar-chomping, take-no-mess, get-the-job-done type of soldier, as they exit their time pod in a ‘stinking lizard-infested jungle’ sometime in the distant past, hunting Nazis (there is a nice little reference to Ray Bradbury when the squad comes across a lot of butterflies). Then things start to get messy – this is a visceral comic book, with decapitation and dismemberment and heads being shot and bitten off; there are massive dinosaurs, giant spiders, enormous crocodiles, all with a taste for human flesh, it seems. And then there are soldiers shooting each other with machine guns, with the German unit headed by Captain Richter (who looks a lot like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger). Jennett draws this all with relish – his digital art style is vivid and rich and detailed, but dynamic and atmospheric as well; it reminds me of Colin MacNeil’s style, which is a good thing, and it displays his enthusiasm for the story and the fun of drawing Nazis and dinosaurs.

There is more to the story, which involves time paradoxes and a professor (who looks like Einstein) at the US base and infiltrating Nazis who steal the core to the chronosphere and escape back in time and that the Sarge has to retrieve, and the narrative has been put together well. It feels like an old 2000AD story, which is another good thing, but there is also set up for more stories, and there is a lot of thought put into ‘soldiers fighting dinosaurs in the past’ and the consequences. Jennett has created a really fun, action-heavy comic book drenched with blood, with strong characters – Sarge is a bit like Sgt. Fury, but with a bit more humour; the professor is like a gung-ho Einstein with attitude – and a sense of humour.

The collection is packed with extras – classified documents about the Sarge (redacted), the Watchmaker project of the Black Star Initiative, blueprints for the time pods, old serial posters, the covers, sketchbooks and designs for some of the characters – to make up a solid package in addition to the comic books themselves. Chronos Commandos is the sort of comic book that there is not enough at the moment, and it’s kudos to Jennett for writing and drawing it and to Titan Comics for publishing such a variety of material and not trying to do the same thing as all the other comic book publishers are doing.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.