Nightmare Carnival


By various, edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-6165-5427-9

Here’s a somewhat rushed review because the reading copy arrived late but I’m still determined to get it out in time for Halloween.

Apologies to all involved for my uncharacteristic brevity…

Dark Horse are best known for their comics and graphic novel efforts but they occasionally slip into old-school legitimate book publishing as with the astounding 2009 release Lovecraft Unbound.

The creative force behind that cosmically unsettling chronicle was Ellen Datlow, the prestigious, multi award-winning editor whose past endeavours include being fiction-editor at Omni, compiling The Best Horror of the Year series, books such as Lovecraft’s Monsters, Darkness: Two Decades of Horror and many more. She spends her quiet moments sourcing short fiction for Tor.Com.

Here she has assembled a chilling coterie of prose parables set in the fertile literary field of unearthly travelling shows as previously exploited by such luminaries as Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dean Koontz in Twilight Eyes or Katherine Dunn in Geek Love.

This last luminary contributes an atmospheric Introduction to this selection of shockers set in and around circus life, atmospherically restating why the Wandering Show biz is such a bastion of terror tales, whilst Datlow’s Preface offers a more personal view of the Three Ring Experience.

The cavalcade commences with ‘Scapegoats’ by N. Lee Wood, which makes us look at elephants in a whole new way, after which Priya Sharma’s ‘The Firebrand’ balances passion, murder and revenge on the tip of a burning tongue and ‘Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip’ from Nick Mamatas describes an aging wrestler’s ultimate battle against a weird new freak…

A.C. Wise recounts an ex-cop’s problems with a missing family case in ‘And the Carnival Leaves Town’, before Terry Dowling describes in ‘Corpse Rose’ how, when Jeremy Scott Renton was , a bizarre circus ran away to join him and (sadly recently deceased) Joel Lane offers a disturbing insight to the nasty, shabby-chic British experience via a paean to lost love in ‘Last of the Fair’

A brush with eccentric academics and hidebound college customs draws an unwary new tutor into ‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’ (Glen Hirshberg) and the near-loss of everything she was, whilst ‘Hibbler’s Minions’ (Jeffrey Ford) harks back to the Dustbowl depression of 1933 and a twitchy time with a circus of astoundingly well-trained fleas, after which Dennis Danvers’ ‘Swan Song and Then Some’ explores the amazing resilience and bitter wishes of a songstress who just won’t stay dead.

‘The Lion Cage’ by Genevieve Valentine focuses on the welcome fate of a animal trainer more bestial than his benighted living props, whereas the fun-loving kids in Stephen Graham Jones’ ‘The Darkest Part’ only want to fulfil their hearts desires – to kill as many clowns as humanly possible – whilst Robert Shearman (yeah, the Dalek writer from Doctor Who) takes a lonely insignificant balloon-animal maker on an incredible trip to ‘The Popping Fields’

According to Nathan Ballingrud, monsters and ghouls have their own festive places of fun and in ‘Skullpocket’ he invites our participation in a most inventive game and spectacle, after which Livia Llewellyn dictates the terms of unnatural desires and weird shopping in ‘The Mysteries’ before Laird Barron carries us to the big finale in ‘Screaming Elk, MT’ with his compulsive trouble-magnet Jessica Mace falling with eyes wide open into some gruesome difficulties at the more-than-it-seems Gallows Brothers Carnival. Naturally, as soon as she settles in the bodies start piling up…

Harsh, seductive, shocking, spooky, funny and winningly suspenseful, Nightmare Carnival is a bombastic program of perilous passages and macabre moments to amaze and amuse the most jaded fear fiend.
All contents © 2014 their individual originators and owners. All rights reserved.

George R.R. Martin’s Skin Trade


Adapted by Daniel Abraham & Mike Wolfer (Avatar Press)
ISBN: 978-1-59291-233-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Dark Delight for a Winter’s Night… 9/10

George Raymond Richard Martin has been selling stories since 1970 and winning major awards for them since 1975. As well as his stunning output of dark, emotive, melancholic multilayered novels and short stories in a variety of genres, he has also successfully pursued a parallel career in television (and movies) and even finds time to teach.

His series A Song of Ice and Fire became the TV sensation A Game of Thrones.

Born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1948, Martin was active in early comics fandom and studied journalism at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). He remains close to the funnybook and sci fi fan scenes to this day.

At the top of his form he is one of the most potent fantasy voices in the business, with short stories and novels that are witty, compulsive, imaginatively dark, tinged with wry black humour and always uniquely nuanced and atmospheric.

In 1988 his captivating yarn Skin Trade appeared in the fantasy anthology Night Visions 5 (a series he was editing which numbered Steven King, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell amongst the contributors) offering a decidedly fresh and different interpretation of one of the most hoary (not a misprint) bête noires in fiction…

Now that tale (which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1989) has been adapted as a miniseries by scripter Daniel Abraham and illustrator Mike Wolfer and subsequently collected into a slim and sinister trade paperback to delight another generation of fear freaks who loving feeling their own skins crawl…

Randi Wade is a private detective with a lot of baggage. Not surprising when you think of how her cop dad died years ago. In circumstances still not fully explained, Frank Wade was torn to pieces by some kind of animal at the local meat-packing plant…

Still not over it, she divides her time between bread-and-butter cases whilst investigating the historic killing off the books. Her best friend is effete ineffectual asthmatic Willie Flambeaux – as a repo man, he’s even in the same sort of business – and one night he offers insights regarding a particularly brutal contemporary murder which change Randi’s life forever…

Willie knew the deceased and, assuming Joan Sorenson’s horrific demise will be covered up by the investigating officers, asks Randi to get involved. He was supposed to meet the victim on the night she died and might be suspect but the real problem is what his own snooping has uncovered.

Joan was found mutilated and might even have been partially consumed by her attacker… just like Randi’s dad…

Willie has not told his friend everything however and later starts calling a few old acquaintances: men like financier Jonathan Harmon, the dark, wealthy untouchable powerbroker whose clan has been secretly running the city forever…

Randi taps her other sources, questioning Barry Shumacher, Editor of The Courier and one of her father’s oldest friends. He tells her there’s no connection to the new killing but she knows he’s lying…

Convinced she’s on to something Randi then storms into police HQ for a conversation with her dad’s old partner and discovers Chief Joe Urquart reviewing files from the missing persons case Frank Wade was working at the time of his death.

It seems the suspect put away for the crimes is out again, but Frank always felt they had the wrong guy anyway. Rather than big, simple-minded poor kid Roy Helander, he favoured the frighteningly strange son of Jonathan Harmon as the perp behind a spate of child disappearances…

Willie meanwhile has been summoned to the Harmon home for an audience with the patriarch and his just-not-right heir Steven

The case takes a disturbing turn after Randi and Willie compare notes. Joan’s death is apparently unconnected to the cold case as she was chained in silver and flayed before the killer made off with her skin. What Randi doesn’t, disclose is the fact that in Frank’s old files she found a note from prime suspect Roy which simply said “It was a werewolf”…

And then a friend on the force informs her that there’s been a second killing. Someone else close to good old Willie has been skinned alive, and Randi arrives at a terrifying, inescapable conclusion…

All of that is mere scene-setting for the shocks, twists and surprises still in store for Randi as two 20-year mysteries are finally resolved, appalling ambitions and dark desires uncovered and apex predators become cowering victims for something which preys on monsters…

Accompanied by a fifteen-page gallery of covers-&-variants, this splendidly effective blend of crime caper and supernatural thriller is a pure visceral delight no lover of spooky chills can dare to miss.

© 2014 Avatar Press. Skin Trade and all related properties ™ and © 2014 George R. R. Martin.

Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-711-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: unmissable comics for fans of classic blockbusting adventure… 9/10

Modesty Blaise and her lethally adept, compulsively platonic partner Willie Garvin gained their fearsome reputations as top-flight super-criminals before retiring young, rich and healthy. With their honour intact and their hands relatively clean, they cut themselves off completely from a career where they made all the money they would ever need and far too many enemies.

When devious British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant sought them out they were slowly dying of boredom in England. The wily old bird offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. They jumped at his offer and have been cleaning up the world in their own unique way ever since …

From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the dynamic duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a perpetual storm of tense suspense and inspirational action for nearly forty years…

The inseparable associates first appeared in The Evening Standard on May 13th 1963 and over the decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown) produced a timeless treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero (and, occasionally, others) assumed the art reins, taking the partners in peril to even greater heights.

The series has been syndicated world-wide and Modesty Blaise has also starred in 13 prose novels and short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play, an American graphic novel and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures until the strip’s conclusion in 2002.

The tales are a broad blend of hip and cool capers combining espionage, crime, straight adventure and even – now and again – plausibly intriguing sci fi and supernaturally tinged horror genre fare, with ever-competent Modesty and Willie canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallible human defenders of the helpless and avengers of the wronged…

Reproduced in stark and stunning black & white – and quite right too – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulous serial re-presentations of the ultimate newspaper troubleshooters continue here with O’Donnell and Romero offering a chilling trio of tales spanning November 1992 to February 1994, each prefaced with informative prose introductions from devotee and historian Simon Ward.

The rollercoaster ride begins with eerie thriller ‘A Present for the Princess’ (originally seen in The Evening Standard from November 3rd 1992 to April 8th 1993) with Garvin deep in the emerald mining region of Montelero, near Colombia.

He is in search of raw materials to create another of his outrageously over-the-top gifts for Modesty and is prepared for trouble from the thugs and bandits who inhabit the region, but not his own partner and guide Ramon who is, after all, a former pal from their long-defunct crime combine The Network

In England Modesty takes it easy whilst entertaining psychic researchers Steve and Dinah Collier – truly gifted individuals Tarrant wants to employ – who are happily on hand when Blaise has a nightmare premonition that Willie is in trouble.

As usual Garvin has told no one of his plans or destination and when Ramon attacked him had no hope of ever being found. However, the indomitable survivor escaped the ambush – barely – only to be washed up more dead than alive miles downriver. He was then nursed back to health by poor peon Rima: a young woman who looks astonishingly like Modesty.

Willie doesn’t recognise the fact though. The brutalised, battered Englishman has lost his memory…

Although his history is denied him Garvin’s deadly skills are intact and he jumps to the obvious conclusion that he is some kind of criminal. His actions disprove this notion, efficiently saving Rima from an abusive landowner and his thugs.

Although she has fallen for him the native girl knows his clouded mind is obsessed with another woman and she treks with him to the capital city Toccopina to obtain papers and possibly passage back to Britain…

At home, with Willie long overdue, Modesty has employed the Colliers and another psychic to search for him. Their endeavours have narrowed the search to the selfsame South American city. They have also resulted in an enigmatic prophecy…

Willie’s gift for card-playing has meanwhile won the wanderers a nice nest-egg but dropped him clueless amongst the city’s criminal element, most of whom have good reason to despise him.

After an old enemy recognises him, Willie is befriended by the wily conman and unknowingly “sold” to local mob boss Senor Strobel, who cunningly convinces the lethally talented amnesiac that he is an evil man wanted for murder who would only be safe if he rejoins the gang as a hit-man…

By the time Modesty arrives, Willie is safely tucked away in a fortress-like nest of bandits, where his inner self rebels from the acts he’s expected to perform. Naturally she has a plan to save her brother-in-arms and make all the guilty parties very sorry indeed…

Following that spectacular and explosive resolution, the tables are turned somewhat for ‘Black Queen’s Pawn’, a riotous African adventure yarn (April 13th – September 10th) which begins in 1834 when Ranavalona, autocratic and utterly insane queen of Madagascar, obtains a treasure guaranteed to make her immortal. She then hides it away from the eyes of mankind and, just to be sure, has every person who knew of it slaughtered…

Now one hundred and sixty years later hard times have befallen the island, as is clearly observed by veterinary surgeon Greg Lawton who has been commissioned by government officials to find a giant fossil egg.

He’s brought old chum Modesty with him, but when they reach the poverty-stricken village of Mandofo they find the place has been taken over by ruthless thugs on a treasure hunt.

The leader Koch has crossed swords with her before and convinces his murderous underlings not to kill the westerners out of hand. If she dies, nothing could stop the absent Willie Garvin hunting them down. Far better to keep her alive and on her best behaviour by holding innocent villagers hostage…

Forced into unwilling neutrality, Modesty and Greg befriend local missionary Father Brienne and discover the savage invaders are seeking Ranavalona’s legendary lost hoard for mysterious millionaire paymaster Salim. As the cleric is also Koch’s unwilling translator of ancient documents, he provides clues which enable Modesty to deduce where the treasure actually is…

The suspenseful standoff continues until Willie – acting on his own uncanny instincts – surprisingly joins the party, but with Garvin now here in front of them instead of lurking unsuspected at their heels, Koch and Salim decide to arrange a little accident.

However with the deadly détente effectively negated their targets know full well all bets are off and, after brilliantly locating the treasure for the gangsters, go on to prove just a bit smarter and more efficient in settling scores…

The addictive action concludes in a classic murder mystery which sees Modesty take a rare personal interest in a news sensation as Britain is gripped by a series of bizarre, baroque and flamboyant murders by a macabre psychopath signing himself ‘The Grim Joker’ (September 13th 1993 – February 9th 1994)…

The killer apparently devises convoluted, extremely public executions for sheer amusement but such callous slaughter for pleasure disgusts reluctant professionals such as Blaise and Garvin.

Soon they have made themselves prime targets for the maniac, unaware that the Grim Joker is not what he seems. The insanely Machiavellian exploits are in fact a cunning blind concocted by a trio of greedy brats eager to expedite an eventual inheritance.

Brothers Matthew and Mark Goodchild, along with their shared girlfriend Prudence, originally set up the crimes to divert suspicion after they decided to bump off their rich uncle, but as they carried out the string of publicity seeking murders, the thrill of achievement affected them.

Prudence especially has become intoxicated with the undertaking, and begs for more before topping their true target and retiring. Her wish is granted after Willie publicly ridicules the Grim Joker on television and arouses the righteous indignation of the brothers.

It’s all a cunning plan by the ex-Network leaders. After consulting old friend Police Inspector Brook, Modesty and Willie have correctly deduced that the crimes are the work of a team not a lone maniac, and Garvin has offered himself as a too-tempting follow-up target.

Relocating to an isolated Scottish island “for a holiday”, Willie makes himself available for his unknown foes, with Modesty concealed waiting to spring their trap.

Unfortunately they’re keeping watch for a couple of strong men, not the frail helpless girl who first washes up on the desolate death trap…

What follows is smart, chaotic and shatteringly thrill-a-minute excitement, before the dust finally settles and the final tally is taken…

These are incomparable capers crafted by brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the sheer perfection of an iconic creation. Unforgettable romps packed with sleek sex appeal, dry wit, terrific tension and explosive action and, these stories grow more appealing with every rereading and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.

Modesty Blaise © 2014 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Wolverine and the X-Men: Tomorrow Never Learns


By Jason Latour, Mahmud Asrar, Mateo Lolli, Pepe Larraz, David Messina, Massimiliano Veltri, Marc Deering & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-610-6

Wolverine is all things to most people and in his long life has worn many hats; Avenger, Teacher, Protector, Punisher.

As leader of covert black ops (and frequently wetworks) unit X-Force he was responsible for executing many maverick mutants but experiences misplaced guilt and shared responsibility for sparing reborn mutant nemesis Apocalypse when he should by all rights have put down his kind’s ultimate foe…

Now that confused child of terrifying potential resides at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning where even his fellow students find it hard to believe that love and a good education can overcome the legacy of death latent within the boy now called Evan

Collecting issues #1-6 of Wolverine and the X-Men volume 2 (May – September 2014), this fast and furious saga finds the diminished mutant everyman abandoning his preferred role as trainer of the next generation in ‘Tomorrow Never Learns’ to drag old X-Force comrade Fantomex back from a self-imposed exile of torture and unending combat…

While he’s gone many of the latest class of students are undergoing a wave of communal angst prompted not just by Evan’s proximity and existence. Also adding to the tension is the chilling realisation that former fellow student Quentin “Kid Omega” Quire has been revealed (by a batch of X-Men from the future) to be the destined host of supernal cosmic ravager the Phoenix and by the simple, sobering fact that being an X-Man is tantamount to receiving a death sentence…

As Logan returns with Fantomex the next crisis commences in ‘Storm Chasers’ as a global ad campaign co-opting the image of the Phoenix lures Quentin into a devious trap. The mind behind the Phoenix Corporation has employed time-displaced warrior Faithful John to psychically destabilise the already troubled Omega mutant and even the late arriving Storm and Wolverine are unable to overcome the Tomorrow Soldier’s mental assaults and sheer physical prowess…

In ‘True Believers’, as John escapes the adult heroes and turns to attacking their school, Quentin is hotly debating his possible future with disciple of destruction Edan Younge who worships the Phoenix and only wants to help the true host live up to his cataclysmic, universe-rending potential…

Happily Quentin’s feisty not-girlfriend Oya is made of sterner stuff. With Wolverine out of action and whilst Quire brutally rebuffs Younge, she leads a squad of classmates against rampaging zealot John despite a wave psychic strikes which decimate the youthful defenders.

Kid Omega uses the opportunity to run for unlikely help ‘In the Land of the Blind…’, recruiting ideological opponents Cyclops and his Extinction Team to the battle, but even as Younge gloatingly discloses his ancient connections to the Phoenix to a dying Wolverine and hints of a hand guiding his own, Evan and the still traumatised Fantomex make their own off-kilter move on Faithful John in ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ before the shocking revelation of mastermind behind everything exposes the actual motivation behind the attacks in ‘A Fate Far Worse’

Non-stop visceral action, smart characterisation, hilarious interplay and shocking suspense propel this explosive yarn from high-octane start to explosive finish and the frantic Fights ‘n’ Tights School Daze delights is complimented by a beautiful gallery of covers and variants by Asrar, Marte Gracia, Mark Brooks, Jenny Parks, Art Adams, Jorge Molina and Michael Del Mundo.

Also upping the entertainment ante are added extras provided by of AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) which give access to story bonuses once you download the code – for free – from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.

™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

The White Room of the Asylum


By Luke Melia, David Anderson, Zev Zimmerman, Bobby Peñafiel, Kat Farjado, Omaik Neiv & Vinny Smith
ISBN: 978-1-50035-876-1

What really happens in our mental institutions?

Who really knows what occurs within troubled minds sequestered for their own good and too frequently at their own request?

Some answers are too appalling to stomach but thankfully political ideology, fiscal neglect and societal disinterest play no part in this inspired dark fantasy of pristine pale reflection…

As I’ve frequently proclaimed, I’m a huge fan of creators with the drive and dedication to take control of their own destinies and that’s never been more splendidly affirmed than with the chilling collaboration between writer (and letterer) Luke Melia and his six illustrative collaborators in this inventively macabre and movingly spooky psycho-drama.

When the police are called to a suicide in a quiet house, it’s just another day for most of them. However for Officer Bardy, tasked with checking the contents of six old audio cassette tapes left with the sad old geezer’s farewell note, the case soon starts to resonate and she finds herself drawn into an incredible story impossible to let go of…

The contents of each tape forms a chapter in a terrifying testament (every one uniquely rendered here by a different artist) and the fantastic voyage begins with David Anderson in ‘The Wicked Relative of the Dreamer’ as the policewoman hears recently deceased Steve describe how he was sectioned in 1982 and admitted to Soraberg Asylum displaying symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

Steve recounts dreams of being chased by a ferocious, distinctly female monster down an endless accusatory corridor and the relentless waking hours spent mixing with or avoiding the other strange residents.

Terrified of facing the horror again, Steve began hurting himself to stay awake but therapist Maggie stepped in and forced the issue and his inevitable return to sleep…

The tone abruptly changes as the recently deceased describes an incredible, impossible phenomenon.

One night when Steve once more found himself pursued by the monster, he was saved by a superhero who revealed himself as taciturn, unfriendly Ralph. In the outside world he was the weird, standoffish cove who had committed himself to Soraberg and spent all day playing chess with withdrawn Julia

In the dream space Ralph became open and amiable and as they conversed both realised that the featureless limbo was a resource which they could visit at will: a communal landscape to be reshaped by every fleeting whim. Further discourse led them to conclude that the environment was the subject to a cumulative effect: the more you slept, the easier it was to access.

Steve however, as the first to discover it, harboured a strong sense of possessiveness for his “White Room” and didn’t want to share it with any other inmates…

The second tape continues the record with ‘The Suppressed Desires of the Depressive’ (with art by Zev Zimmerman) as idyllic nights of joyous shared adventure in the pale playground were disrupted by the arrival of John the Vegetable who was as loquacious and smart inside as he was comatose and inert in the physical world…

The newcomer was accommodated into the dreamscape but everything changed when Ralph created a simulacrum of Julia as a sexual plaything. After “harmlessly” slaking his desires with the construct in the White Room, the astonished and ashamed Ralph was attacked and nearly killed in the actual asylum by furious Julia, who had somehow experienced every agonising moment of his assault on her proxy…

‘The Relentless Taunting of the Saviour’ (Bobby Peñafiel), begins with another inmate finding his baffled way into the dream world. Persecuted Tim suddenly saw himself in a strange place and able to talk to Steve. The shocked newcomer recounted how Julia suddenly, inexplicably attacked Ralph but was more concerned that here at least he seemed free of the brutal incarnation of Jesus that dictated his every move in the real world: a vicious, man-sized, foul-mouthed, priapic tyrannosaur with impulse issues and a propensity for extreme violence…

When Ralph joined them from his distant hospital bed things seem to settle until Julia suddenly materialised threatening to tell the carers what Ralph had done. In a fit of fury Steve then attacked her for threatening his White World and in the real world her sleeping body died…

‘The Flawed Operation of the Condemned’ (Kat Farjado) found Steve in complete denial as more and more inmates begin continually leaking over into “his” dream world. Soon suppressed hostilities began to manifest, and after John defeated Steve in a spectacular duel of imaginations, the furious schizophrenic threatened to kill the vegetable’s immobile physical form when he went back to the real world.

The act resulted in a schism in the White Room. As everyone else avoided him and played, Steve made plans to escape Soraberg, using the psychoactive landscape to construct a facsimile asylum to practise in…

His big mistake was working with Minefield Frank whose aggressive imagination kept changing the set-up, but before he could get away everything changed again as the first member of staff made his astounded way into the fantasy zone…

With Omaik Neiv handling the art, ‘The Uncertain Conclusion of the Thinker’ saw Steve tortured by helplessness as the medical professionals took charge; methodically transforming the plasmic wonderland into a vast therapeutic environment. Despite his furious insistence that they were all trespassing on his property, the staff began an accelerated program which quickly reaped immense dividends amongst the troubled detainees.

With everyone against him Steve had no choice but to strike back in ‘The Broken Opportunity of the Vegetable’ (illustrated by Vinny Smith), but even against such a remorseless, merciless adversary some of the inmates were not willing to go down without a fight…

Available as a trade paperback and in a kindle edition, the startling events of The White Room of the Asylum are judiciously rendered in a range of palettes from full colour to black & red to overwhelmingly stark monochrome, uniting to highlight the moody power of the narrative and the mesmerising power of the shocking mystery’s conclusion.

Gripping, compulsive and unforgettable, here is a terrifying tale you’d be absolutely crazy to miss.

© 2014 Luke Melia. All rights reserved.

Sock Monkey: Into the Deep Woods


By Tony Millionaire & Matt Danner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-746-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a new classic to add to the “Every Kid Must Read” list… 10/10

Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey first appeared as a Dark Horse comicbook in 1998. Since then the cast of characters within have achieved a bizarre notoriety as adored favourites of gentle lovers of whimsy and the degenerate darlings of clued-in cynical post-moderns.

Confused? Then by all means read on…

The original tales (recently repackaged in a sumptuous 336 page hardback) featured a lovable handmade simian puppet, a toy crow with button eyes and a much repaired doll in multiple award-winning, all-ages adventures published as occasional miniseries between 1998 and 2007 as well a couple of hardcover storybooks Millionaire created in 2002 and 2004. He later recycled and repurposed the durably distinct stars for an adult-oriented (by which I mean surreal and clever, not tawdry and titillating) newspaper strip…

Tony Millionaire comes from a dynasty of exemplary artists, loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, the acme of children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and George Herriman.

His own creative endeavours – words and pictures – seamlessly blend their styles and sensibilities with European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket.

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as definitive formative influences. That is particularly obvious from the range of stunning pictures in this latest work starring his inimitable plushy paragons in a winning and memorable collaboration with animator, screen writer and director Matt Danner (whose past credits include Ren & Stimpy, Loony Toons, Monster High and The Drinky Crow Show).

With a variety of graphical strings to his bow such as various animation shows, his own clutch of books for children – particularly the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts series – and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies (which details the aforementioned, riotously vulgar, absurdly surreal adventures of an nautically-inclined Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and fellow über-alcoholic and nautical adventurer Drinky Crow: grown-up world iterations and mirror universe equivalents of the sweet and simple stars herein), every Millionaire project seems to be a guarantee of endless excitement and quality.

This one certainly is and may well push the featured creatures into the rarefied atmosphere previously inhabited solely by such esteemed and established children’s favourites as the Moomins, Wonderland, The Velveteen Rabbit and the assorted chronicles of Oz

A prose tale scripted primarily by Danner with ideas, contributions and 46 stunning monochrome illustrations (in a variety of media from soft pencil tones to crisp stark pen & ink) from Millionaire, the sublime saga details how one day in a Victorian House by the sea, an old Sock Monkey named Gabby and his constant companions Crow and dilapidated, oft-repaired doll Inches discover that their beloved guardian Ann-Louise is missing and presumed taken by the recently discovered monstrous beast dubbed the Amarok

Determined to save her, the ill-prepared trio plunge into the terrifying Deep Woods, armed only with maps and a compass from the library of Ann-Louise’s grandfather Professor Rimperton. Braving all manner of terrors – and with the occasional assistance of strange creatures such as the wood-elf Trumbernick, a partly digested sea captain and an undersized bear carpenter – the toybox heroes defeat, or more usually narrowly escape, such threats as Venomous, Triple-Spiked, Hog-Faced Caterpillars, stormy seas, a Sea Serpent, horrid Harpies and the unpleasantly ursine Eastern Mountain Guards of Bear Town, until they find her.

However even after the dauntless searchers have finished dodging pursuers, roaming the wilds and soaring the skies to be reunited with Ann-Louise, there is still one final trial as the remorseless Amarok tracks them to the beloved little girl they would lay down their lives for…

Like the very best children’s classics, this is a book that isn’t afraid to confront dark matters and actively embraces fear and sadness amidst the wonders in an effort to craft a better story.

Compelling, beguiling and visually intoxicating, this latest Sock Monkey yarn judiciously leavens discovery with anxiety, heartbreak with gleeful imaginative innocence and terror with bold triumph.

Millionaire has described his works as intended for “adults who love children’s stories” but this collaboration with Matt Danner may just have turned that around by concocting a tall tale of adult intent which is one of the greatest kids’ books of modern times.
Sock Monkey: Into the Deep Woods © 2014 Tony Millionaire & Matt Danner. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books.

Springheeled Jack


By David Hitchcock (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-129-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: an Xmas scary story in the Grand Tradition… 9/10

Britain can lay claim to impressive and ingenious achievements far too numerous to mention, but the ones I’m honing in on here are our prodigious appetite for inventing myths, our gift for telling scary stories and our plucky tendency to want things done right and thus often Doing-It-Yourself…

In 2005 cartoonist, antiquarian and fright fan David Hitchcock (Spirit of the Highwayman, Whitechapel Freak, Gothic) crafted an intense and beguiling small press yarn in three chapters which went on to win the Eagle Award for Favourite Black & White Comic Book.

Originally released under the Full Circle banner, Springheeled Jack was subsequently released as a collection from Black Boar Press and is now available in a luxurious oversized (295 x 222mm) definitive monochrome hardback from Titan Comics.

The astounding suspense is handily preceded by the author’s introduction, recapitulating the historical reports of the original Urban Legend from the first sightings and police reports in 1838 in ‘At the Heels of the Devil’ before the dark graphic enchantment opens in 1861 with an arcane monstrosity roaming the foul, begrimed rooftops of London to the accompaniment of excerpts from the journal of Sir Jack Rackham.

Although still not without influence, the esteemed Sole Benefactor of Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum has been a broken man since his beloved Evelina was snatched from his helpless arms one foggy night by a monstrous insectoid fiend from Hell…

The thing’s depredations still continue but the authorities scoff at the administrator’s suppositions and ignore his protestations, leading the nigh-deranged Rackham and the few allies he has made to take matters into their own hands.

Although the red-eyed thing primarily snatches women, its malevolent, toxic influence, unbeknownst to all, has seeped into the highest echelons of the empire and the monarchy itself is currently in the greatest peril imaginable…

One person Rackham believes he can count upon is Dr. Henry Jekyll, whose own incredible metamorphic discoveries also stem from encounters with the beast – or, as they speculate, perhaps some being from beyond the stars – but when the physician visits his old comrade he is appalled to se how far Sir Jack has fallen into despair and madness.

Jekyll can do nothing for his friend, however, as he has been summoned as a matter of utmost urgency to the side of the mysteriously ailing Prince Consort…

In an attempt to keep pace with the monstrous leaping travesty of nature, Rackham has constructed a bat-winged suit which allows him the glide after the beast when he eventually finds it, and now he waits for his opportunity.

In Windsor, upon examining Prince Albert, Jekyll sees something which shakes him to his soul and the doctor consequently dashes back to Rackham to join in his pursuit.

The thing has been going about its secret purposes incessantly, and its influence now even extends deep inside Rackham’s troubled Bedlam Hospital where confined savant Professor Graham claims to have discerned all there is to know about the threat…

That night Jekyll and Sir Jack rendezvous in a graveyard and lay a trap for the horror. The plan apparently works and they follow it to its lair, discovering the shattering secret of its depredations. They set to derailing its plans, but in the struggle a hero is infected and a shocking mutation begins to take hold…

The saga then kicks into ghastly high gear as a game of cat-and-mouse finds the police unjustly hunting the wrong “man”, as all over the capital nature itself rebels from the hideous and almost completed incursion…

The tension rises to fever pitch in ‘The Last Chapter’ which sees a final desperate roll of the dice and a good man is seemingly lost forever before ‘Transmogrify’ finds humanity itself on the verge of its greatest triumph or defeat…

Also included in this titanic tome is a copious 22 page ‘Sketchbook’ section which comprises roughs, layouts, previous covers, physical models and constructions, plus an exploration of Hitchcock’s unique art style which involves preliminary pencils, full inks and a final layer of moody, mediating pencil tones on top of it all to capture the grimy sooty atmosphere of Victorian London.

Stark, gripping and chillingly compelling, Springheeled Jack is a grand, old-fashioned fearsome fantasy no lover of dark tales can afford to miss.

Springheeled Jack © 2014 David Hitchcock & Black Boar Press.

Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying


By the Original Writer, Mick Anglo, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Don Lawrence, Steve Dillon & Paul Neary (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-621-2

I got my start in comics as the most junior of juniors on Warrior and it was an incredible learning experience. However, producing arguably Britain’s most influential comic magazine was a tense, fraught, high energy, cauldron-like existence and some of those comrades in arms barely talk to each these days.

That’s part of the story behind the fact that the incredible author of most of the stories in this premier compilation doesn’t want his name anywhere near it.

As that’s the case I’m happy to respect his wishes. It is a shame, though, as this is a work which changed the shape and nature of superhero comics forever, even if during the latter days of it in Warrior we all thought the bloody thing was cursed…

If you’re interested in rumour, speculation and/or ancient history, there are plenty of places online to visit for other information, but today let’s just discuss one of the very best superhero stories ever crafted…

This British premier hardback from Marvel/Panini UK is a lavish, remastered re-presentation of the original A Dream of Flying trade paperback, stuffed with extra story content and page after page of lush behind the scenes material, production art and more.

Just in case you weren’t aware: the hero of this tome was originally created by jobbing artist and comics packager Mick Anglo for publisher L. Miller and Son in 1954 to replace a line of extremely popular British weekly reprints starring the Marvel Family as originally generated by US outfit Fawcett.

When a decade-long court case between them and National/DC over copyright infringement ended at the same time the superhero trend nosedived in America, Fawcett simply closed down most of its comics line, overnight depriving the British firm of one of its most popular reprint strands.

In a feat of slippery brilliance, Anglo rapidly retooled defunct Yank heroes Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel into Marvelman, Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman; detailing their simplistic , charming adventures until 1963, when falling sales and changing tastes finally caught up with them all and they vanished into comicbook limbo.

In 1982 the characters and concepts were picked up by Dez Skinn for his proposed new independent and proudly British venture and eventually magic was created…

The second end began when a certain US comics publisher started suing Warrior for using the word “Marvel” even though when Marvelman was created they were still calling themselves “Atlas”.

A truism of modern life is that money trumps fact every time…

This volume opens with ‘Prologue 1956: The Invaders from the Future’ (originally created by Anglo and the great Don Lawrence but subtly tweaked by our unnamed “original writer”) as a scene-setting foretaste of what might have been before the deconstructionist main event opens.

In that idealised past epoch, invulnerable time-travellers from 1981 are beaten back by the intrepid trio of superheroes before the real story begins in the drab, humdrum and utterly ordinary world of Thatcherite Britain, circa 1982…

Over-the-hill freelance journalist Mike Moran is plagued by ‘A Dream of Flying’ (illustrated by Garry Leach) as a godlike gleaming superman before being blown up by atom bombs…

This morning, however, he can’t let it stop him getting to the opening of the new atomic power station at Larksmere, even if his concentration is ruined by another of his crippling headaches and the agonising, frustration of a word he’s forgotten lurking just beyond the tip of his tongue…

The press launch is an unmitigated disaster. When a band of terrorists attack the site Mike collapses and while he’s being dragged off something happens. That word comes back to him and, in a catastrophic salvo of heat and light and noise he transforms into the creature of his dreams before comprehensively dealing with the gunmen and flying off into space…

In ‘Legends’ the glittering paragon returns to Mike’s wife and attempts to explain the impossible events and his restored memories of being a superhero in Fifties Britain. Liz Moran cannot help but laugh at the canon of ridiculous absurdities this incredible creature spouts even if to all intents and purposes he is her husband. After all, if his restored memories are correct, why has nobody ever heard of him?

The insane situation is exacerbated next morning ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’. Technological guru and self-made billionaire John Bates calls and Mike remembers the amiable little lad with superpowers who was caught in the same atomic blast which eradicated his own memories.

After he and Liz visit the mogul, Mike realises with horror that his fawning kid partner never changed back but has been slowly using his gifts to dominate the world for the last eighteen years…

Rumbled, Bates ferociously attacks in ‘Dragons’, using abilities which have grown and evolved in two decades of constant if covert use to beat the recently returned Miracleman near to death. The appalling supra-normal duel devastates much of London, only ending in ‘Fallen Angels, Forgotten Thunder’ when the smugly overconfident former Kid Miracleman accidentally defeats himself…

The first inklings of the truth begin to emerge in ‘Secret Identity’ (pencilled by Alan Davis with Leach inking) as Sir Dennis Archer of mothballed, clandestine organisation “The Spookshow” despatches his top assassin to find and sanction a threat he’s thought eradicated in a flash of atomic fire decades past.

Mike and Liz meanwhile head for Dartmoor to test Miracleman’s abilities in private.

Their marriage has suffered since the initial transformation, especially as Mike insists he and his alter-ego are two different people and Miracleman has got Liz pregnant…

Davis took over all the art chores with ‘Blue Murder’ as highly capable hitman Evelyn Cream tracks down and brilliantly takes out Mike. By the advent of ‘Out of the Dark’ the enigmatic killer has inexplicably switched sides, aiding Miracleman as he seeks out the truth of his origins in a top secret military bunker which contains deadly defences, another, lesser superhuman and more.

‘Inside Story’ reveals recovered and reversed engineered alien DNA technologies, cruel and callous genetic experimentation and a deranged, debauched scientist who grew supermen and programmed them to compliance using comicbook fantasies in ‘Zarathustra’

To Be Continued…

The remainder of this stunning collection is rounded out with intriguing snippets and sidebars from Warrior’s then-gestating shared universe beginning with ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ – illustrated by Davis as a framing device from the Marvelman Special – which originally featured a number of classic, remastered Anglo-era adventures (sadly not included here) and a fascinating peek into what might have been in A Glimpse into the Future

Warrior #4 was sold as a summer special in August 1982 and led with a bold fill-in set three years in the then-future. The long-term plan had been to create a “Justice League” of Warrior characters and ‘The Yesterday Gambit’ – with art by Davis, Steve Dillon and Paul Neary – starred two of them in an interlude from their final battle with an ultimate nemesis.

The plot involved trans-dimensional teleporting alien samurai Aza Chorn ferrying Miracleman through time to battle himself at different stages of his career and harvesting the expended energies of the combats to use against their unstoppable future foe…

Following that tantalising and portentous introduction The Warpsmiths eventually received their own 2-part tale, reproduced here in captivating full colour and introducing the bizarre and exotic realms the militaristic peacekeepers are sworn to defend.

Tragically the unending, extended conflict with their cosmic antithesis The Qys results in constant, deadly politicking and here innocent kids and two members of their own Warpsmith cadre are sacrificed to expediency in as ‘Cold War, Cold Warrior’ (gloriously rendered and hued by Leach).

The nomadic multiplanar policemen returned in ‘Ghostdance’ (originally published in A1 #1, October 1989) in a direct continuation of that story as the surviving dutiful sentinels grieve and move on in their own uniquely inexplicable manner…

With the story portion concluded, this bonanza chronicle devotes the remaining 59 pages to ‘Miracleman Behind the Scenes’, offering an wealth of pre-production work: sketches, design roughs, pencilled panels and complete original art, colour-indications, pertinent ads, pin-ups and covers by Leach and Mick Austin.

Finishing off the show is spectacular covers and variants gallery of the 26 new images by Joe Quesada, Danny Miki, Richard Isanove, John Cassady, Paul Mounts, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Laura Martin, Skottie Young, Mark Buckingham, D’Israeli, Jerome Opena, Dean Dean White, Leach, Steve Oliff, Neal Adams, Frank Martin, Davis, Mark Farmer, Arthur Adams, Peter Steigerwald, Mike Perkins, Andy Troy, Mike McKone, Paulo Rivera, Mike Deodato, Rain Beredo, J.G Jones, Javier Rodriguez, John Tyler Christopher, Gerald Parel and Bryan Hitch for Marvel’s 2013 relaunch.

One of the greatest superhero comics sagas ever. There’s nothing else to say…
© 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Set to Sea


By Drew Weing (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-771-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Alluring, Tantalising and totally Satisfying… 9/10

Graphic novels have been around long enough now that certain subdivisions have developed.

Many are superhero sagas stuffed with visual Sturm & Drang, others canny crime capers, haunting horror stories or quirky comedies. Age targeting and other demographics apply too, with some books intended for mature readers whilst others are designed to appeal mostly to youngsters.

Happily there are still those others which defy simple categorisation: the heartfelt results of earnest, talented creators letting themselves go where their unfettered imaginative minds take them. Sometimes they’re simply a good strong tale, beautifully told and universally appealing.

Such a craftsman is Drew Weing, who currently delights with his web-comic The Creepy Files of Margo Maloo, but first came to notice with a subversively mesmerising tale of maritime fortitude in 2010.

Now that sublime and out-of-print yarn is back as a deliciously handy, pocket-sized softcover reissue that will – if there’s any justice – finally make him a household name amongst lovers of tall tales and comic treasures.

This beguiling, irresistibly stirring salty saga follows an indigent poet and aspiring barfly with a taste for maritime verse whose lack of true inspiration is dramatically cured when he is press-ganged aboard a Hong-Kong Clipper and forcibly learns the true life of a globe-girdling mariner.

Initially resistant to a life afloat, a terrifying brush with death and battle against rapacious pirates opens the poet’s eye and forces him to accept the only life he could ever truly enjoy.

As the years and a myriad of exotically different lands pass by he even manages, whilst traversing the world for joyous, raucous decades, to satisfy his artistic leanings into the bargain and finally discover where his heart truly lies…

Magically circular in structure and beautifully drawn in a worshipful blend of Elzie Segar, traditional woodcut prints and, I suspect, a touch of Jeff Smith’s Bone and Tony Millionaire’ wonderful confections (see Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury) this superbly rough ‘n’ tumble monochrome epic collects the impressive original online comic into a salty, panel-per-page paean to the value of true experience over romantic fantasy, and even manages to be a telling examination of the role of the arts in life.

A true graphic odyssey which any lover of a dream-life must see, this eternally fresh yet solid entertainment is a genuine “must read”.

Captain’s Orders…
© 2014 Drew Weing. All rights reserved.

Lego Ninjago – Masters of Spinjitzu volumes 1 and 2


By Greg Farshtey, Paulo Henrique & Laurie E. Smith (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-192-1 (volume 1); ISBN: 978-1-78276-193-8 (volume 2)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal, cheap & cheerful Stocking Stuffers… 9/10

Toys, games, licensed characters and products have been profitable fodder for comics for the last half-century at least. Since the 1980s children’s television has been just another showroom for an increasingly strident pantheon of robots, dragons, dinosaurs and the like.

However, whatever your opinion of that fact, what can’t be denied is that most of those shows carried in their wake tie-in comics, many of which have been a new generation’s gateway into the world of graphic narrative… and I deem that a Very Good Thing.

One of the biggest multimedia franchises on the planet at the moment is Lego – which has steadily grown from the inspirational bundles of building bricks I used to jam into ingeniously spiky missiles to lob at my little brother – into a vastly expansive, nigh-infinite canvas of characters, settings, scenarios and story potentials with which youngsters and adults can while away the idle hours.

The savvy chaps behind the ubiquitous über-toy have also commissioned proprietary universes for their product, such as the world of Lego Ninjago – Masters of Spinjitzu where the dramas and memes of martial arts movies have been reconstituted into a winning heroic formula for fun and action loving kids…

As any Fule Kno… the ebullient fantasy concoction launched in 2011, following on from an earlier ninja-based iteration, subsequently releasing hundreds of themed characters and toy sets, vehicles, monsters and dragons, video games, apps, a board game, a TV cartoon series, music album and lots more, all supported by an official website.

…And a series of kid-friendly graphic novels.

Published by Papercutz in the USA and Titan Comics in Britain, the splendidly engaging comic strip romps are complete mini sagas scripted by Greg Farshtey, drawn by Paulo Henrique and coloured by Laurie E. Smith, offering light-hearted adventures to delight and charm the young at heart.

Volume 1: The Challenge of Samukai!
Debut volume The Challenge of Samukai! opens with a stunning gallery of star pin-ups and a handy map of feudal wonder-world Ninjago before cunningly recapitulating past events in ‘The Wager Part One’ as Samukai, Lord of the Underworld muses on his current unhappy situation.

His rule is being undermined by wicked, formerly mortal interloper Garmadon. The vile newcomer is also interfering with the underlord’s plans to conquer the surface world. Their seething rivalry is about to result in open warfare when they decide on a last-chance bet to settle the situation…

Reviewing the history of his enemy in ‘Origins’, Samukai again sees how the brother of noble teacher and paragon Sensei Wu tried to steal the puissant Four Golden Weapons only to be defeated and banished to the underworld for millennia.

During that time Wu hid the weapons and led a valiant, honourable life devoted to the martial discipline of Spinjitzu, but when Garmadon eventually escaped hell to attack him with an army of skeleton warriors the elderly sage was defeated.

Retrenching, Master Wu recruited and trained four young men to be his assistants and agents. Cole, Zane, Jay and foolish, headstrong blacksmith Kai (plus the rowdy last disciple’s sister Nya) eventually carried on for Wu and ensured the Golden Weapons remained out of Garmadon’s clutches.

Now the evil rivals are wagering sole rule of the underworld and Ninjago to the one who defeats the young warriors and finds the hidden auric artefacts…

The struggle begins in ‘Turn About’ as red ninja Kai is lured into a mystic trap and ensorcelled so that he appears as a skeleton monster to his brothers in arms.

Thankfully his speed and wits are enough to counter the ploy just as Samukai ambushes black ninja Cole, forcing him to face ‘A Choice of Dooms’. Observational and deductive skill prove far more effective than his super-speed fighting style…

The Four Ninja are undergoing one of Sensei Wu’s elucidatory tests when they fall into ‘The Trap’ but soon turn the tables on gloating Samukai who is sent fleeing back to his drear kingdom where ‘The Wager Part Two’ sees him face down the triumphant Garmadon and narrowly secure a new and precarious détente…

Volume 2: Mask of the Sensei
The non-stop rollercoaster thrills continue in volume 2 as Mask of the Sensei – after some more pin-ups and maps – finds Kai and his sister Nya called to the scene of an accident in their village. Mighty Sensei Wu has been hit by an ox cart and lies dangerously ill…

Thanks to their dutiful ministrations he slowly pulls through but as he quits his sickbed they notice that he seems a little out of sorts. The venerable sage has had a vision. In order to best protect Ninjago, his four students must conquer the world and rule it under him…

Worrying that the head injuries have deranged Wu, Kai dispatches Nya to fetch his warrior comrades whilst he keeps an eye on the Master. The aged savant is charming and plausible as he begins a program of strange improvements, such as fortifying the village and harshly taxing the peasants, deflecting their complaints with beguiling stories of future riches for all, but Kai knows something is very wrong…

By the time the other ninjas arrive Kai is gone “on a special mission” and Wu has equally mysterious tasks for all of them, with the fate of the world at stake.

Soon the heroes are ranging far and wide to recover impossible treasures such as “dust from a raging river” and a “snowball from the Great Desert” whilst in a deep underground cave Kai and the real Sensei strive to free themselves from an impossible trap…

Even once they are free and the Four Ninjas reunited, how can they possible defeat the malign shape-shifting foe who has escaped from the darkest regions of the underworld to take over the world with his equally appalling army of identity stealing cohorts?

Fast, funny, smartly plotted and expertly accomplished, this brace of tales is sure to enthral boisterous youngsters everywhere and, as surely by now every kid gets Lego for Christmas, why not get yours a version that they can read over and over again …and perhaps even develop a notionally quieter collecting bug with?
LEGO & Ninjago are ™ the Lego Group. © 2014 the Lego Group. All rights reserved.