Monday, 29 November 2010

Father of the Empire

Today brought the sad news that director Irvin Kershner has died at the age of 87.

The director of arguably the best sequel in cinema history 'The Empire Strikes Back', Kershner's legacy in science-fiction has been huge. He has also had a massive impact on the childhoods of millions of kids, myself included. It seems that I was hard-wired to swing around tree-branches and make buzzing sounds by blowing air through my teeth. Snow-days also meant missing school and spending the whole day on the frozen planet of Hoth.

I wouldn't be writing without those films. Thank you and rest in peace.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Stuff of Legend review

“But the years came and went without bringing the careless boy; and when they met again, Wendy was a married woman, and Peter was no more to her than a little dust in the box in which she had kept her toys. Wendy was grown up.”- Peter Pan

Stuff of Legend is a comic book about adult dangers imposed on the world of childish things. The book ties into a long tradition in literature and film, in which the objects of imaginative play are imbued with human personalities, wants, and desires; where fantasy is given a reality. Most notable examples are the movies The Pagemaster ,Toy Story and The Neverending story (itself a children's novel.) These works often form an effective metaphor - Toy Story concerns being replaced and unloved; The Neverending Story is about the collapse of imagination and child-like hopes.

The effective element in The Stuff of Legend is its period setting. The decision of writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith to set the book during World War II is an important one in showing that the marvellous events of the book are a direct expression of one little boy's perception of a conflict his father is absent fighting. This gives the book a dark, hopeless edge that raises it above most stories of its ilk in which the main players' motives are selfish and altruistic. Here the toys fight to save a boy, the opening 'Battle at Brooklyn Creek' hinting at Omaha beach landings. This is subversive stuff for a book about a stuffed bear in a bowtie. The complex Percy - the boy's piggy-bank - is a fascinating character. Unique among the company in that his loyalty will be rewarded when the boy "breaks me", his allegiance is always in question. In another character, the fearless soldier 'Colonel', we see the boy's most unfettered desires to see his father realized. This is a book about loyalty to friends, a boy, a country.

The art of Charles Paul Wilson III is wonderfully whimsical and traditional in the opening section, recalling a melancholy storybook. Brilliantly, the crude, expressionless toys are replaced with living, dynamic counterparts when they enter The Dark (surely a fantasia version of Nazi-occupied Europe). The artwork evokes early James Jean and Dave Hitchcock, artist of Madam Samurai.

That this is a great, great book, is perhaps most evident in its simplicity. I enjoyed it but was not blown away once I closed it. The more I considered what it was saying and where it could potentially go (the next chapter 'The Jungle' is currently shipping) I understood what a rare find it was. Get 'The Stuff of Legend Book 1: The Dark now. There is nothing like it on the stands.

For fans of: The Neverending Story, Fables, Toy Story.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Retro Review: Champion of the Worms

Mike Mignola is now so famous as the mind behind what feels like the first truly classic modern creation in comics - Hellboy. The right hand of doom is now so recognizable and mainstream, appearing in every media from animation, video-games and two blockbuster movies directed by Guillermo del Toro, that many forget Mignola's earlier work.
Amongst these ventures, though, are some great comics that have since been almost entirely forgotten in the wake of the great BPRD franchise. In short, Hellboy is like McDonald's now...he's everywhere. I find it refreshing to take a look at Mignola explorer darker and quirkier paths on his road to superstardom.

Champion Of The Worms was released in 1997 (in fact after hellboy was created) by Dark Horse comics. This is a retro comic tale in the style of old EC horror comics and concerns a Hyperborean mummy (Azzul Gotha), who sets about sacrificing mankind to ancient worm gods...and that sounds freakin' cool. A heroic team of adventurers and scholars try to stop him, all set in an anonymous European city.

Mignola is on fine form, clearly revelling in the gothic, Lovecraftian universe that he would soon turn into his biggest property. This is European gothic fused with modern american macabre. That it all feels effortless is a sign of Mignola's visionary thumbprint. He has clearly always been comfortable with this material.

This rag-tag bunch of wierdo's and freaks fighting an equally bizarre enemy has clearly had an influence on modern comics like The Umbrella Academy (also by Dark Horse). Also Pat McEown proves a joy on art - reminiscent of Herge throughout, his Aztec flavoured decor and octopus hat (you heard me) are worth the price of admission alone.

This is such a fun, weird little book,that it really deserves your attention - especially if you're a Mignola fan. After this I need to hunt down The Amazing Screw-On Head.

for fans of: Hellboy, The Umbrella Academy, EC Comics.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Avengers: Children's Crusade #1 review

In April 2005, Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung's Young Avengers hit the comic scene like an atom bomb. Fresh, exciting and energetic, it introduced the world to a new team of teen superheroes desperate for a chance to prove they had what it takes to stand beside Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in the pantheon of Marvel greats.

When writing his invented (gasp: new characters!) team, Heinberg employed pitch-perfect characterization, snappy witty dialogue and daring, young voices. Cheung's clean, crisp but hyper-detailed artwork was a perfect match for the story. These elements all helped propel Young Avengers into the A*list.
Another element that probably generated interest - for good or ill - was the controversy sparked by featuring a gay pairing in the roster. Interesting and thought provoking, the letters column at the end of the comic was as enjoyable as the story itself (a rare thing in comics.) For me, the joy of Young Avengers was that it came out of nowhere and punched us all in the gut with a teenage smile plastered on its face.

Unfortuately, Avengers: Children's Crusade comes saddled with the weight of unfair expectations. You can almost hear the fanboys holding their breath. Chronicling the hunt for the Scarlet Witch - Wiccan and Speed's long-lost biological mother - the scope of Children's Crusade is exponentially widened. This is a blessing and a curse. Thankfully, Heinberg's characterization and spunky dialogue is present and correct; Cheung's artwork still as refreshing as ever. On the surface, Children's Crusade is as exciting as its predecessor. In my opinion, however, Children's Crusade is too self-aware of it's earlier endeavors to fully take off. This is most clearly exposed by the pushing of Teddy and Billy's relationship; originally just a part of their characters and mainly conveyed through hinted, quiet moments, it is less obvious this time around (Teddy kisses a homophobic criminal to provoke him as early as page three). What was once a charming and unique foot-note is now a selling-point of the series.

It's not that Avengers: Children's Crusade is a bad comic - I enjoyed it a great deal, but I do feel what it has gained in grandness it has lost in intimacy.

For fans of: Perez Teen Titans, Young Avengers, Blue Beetle

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Fall of the Wolfmen review

The trick to writing a sequel is not to write a sequel. Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a high-octane adventure movie - faster and leaner than it's predecessor which in many ways owes more to slasher horror than the action genre. The very best sequels expand the world built in the first installment, introduce new characters without forsaking the principle players, and ADD to the mythos with something new and fresh to say about a property we are familiar with.
So it is with Fall of the Wolfmen. The second part of Dave West and Andy Bloor's Wolfmen trilogy, published by Accent UK and unveiled at Whatever Comics in Canterbury of October this year.
If it were at all possible, West and Bloor have created a more muscular comic than their first effort. This is about acts of revenge, a natural evolution from the 'heist movie gone wrong' in book one. Packing it with more action and emotion, they have widened the scope to insinuate that the Wolfmen are not only following you down the street but are instead in all places at all times. They are inescapable. It is a nice choice of Dave West's in a book that is about the consequences of revenge, and the risk of retaliation. That retaliation comes when Grey's wife, Jenny, is embroiled in the plot(as a side note: it is nice to see a female character take such a large role in the noir comic, always considered a man's world.)

There are places in which a let up in pace, a little breathing room, would have been welcome, but it is a minor quibble with a book that competes in quality with the american industry. One might argue that Andy Bloor's bulky gangsters unrealistically rendered, but I think this misses the point. This is a question of style. Andy's characters are a perfect fit for the story being told. The Wolfmen are too big and mean to fit inside his panels, too unrestrained.

Fall of the Wolfmen is an ambitious comic, one that the UK small press needs because it reaches for something higher and is not held back by it's humble surroundings. Get your paws on it now.