Oculus


By Luke Melia, Vincent Smith, David Anderson & various (Tabella Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-50276-589-5                  eBook ASIN: B00IC4EQJ2

As I’m sure you know by now, I’m a huge advocate of comics creators with the drive and dedication to take control of their own destinies. Late last year I reviewed a superbly written graphic horror tale called The White Room of the Asylum by Luke Melia and a coterie of artists which utterly amazed and impressed me.

Now with a chameleonic, Iain Banks-like shift of genres the indie artistic entrepreneurs are back – specifically writer/letterer Melia, illustrator Vinny Smith and colour-artist David Anderson – with a distinctly disturbing sci fi cop drama that is every bit as gripping and smart…

By 2027 the world has been completely altered by a social media innovation of astounding power and devastating simplicity.

Oculus sells an implanted chip which allows users to record and/or share in real-time whatever they’re seeing and hearing. The service connects with any or all other possessors of the implant and the company claims that to comprise most of the planet.

Live streaming intimate moments of an individual’s everyday life can be with one person, a selection of friends and acquaintances or the entire world. The facility has completely changed every aspect of society.

It has especially transformed the law and policing. It’s really hard to claim innocence if the victim has shared you committing the crime with thousands of viewers and the Oculus mainframe has a record of you doing it…

Police forces are more tech resource teams, video researchers and IT bods than boots-on- the-ground coppers – except for the bellicose, tooled-up, OTT tactical teams designated SABU (Special Armed response and Bomb disposal Unit) – so feckless young graduate Shane Edwards’ first day in the Major Crimes Department of the New Oxford Constabulary is something of a letdown.

He’s already having a tragic life. Despite his being the son of the Mayor – who had to very blatantly pull strings to get him into the police – his best friend (he so wants her to be more) and Oculus intimate Emma Hudson is going through hell because her sister is going to jail.

It’s not official yet but Lauren was observed killing her cheating boyfriend in full view of an enrapt and aghast global audience…

After meeting department boss Alan Campbell and the shockingly small team of detectives, Shane is swiftly dubbed ‘Another Girl in the Office’ by astonishingly abrasive colleague Jane. Dogsbody Chris seems okay but the new kid doesn’t even meet old lag Jeff who is supposed to be his mentor and partner…

That introduction only comes in the middle of the night when the grizzled and rather unconventional old plod turns up on the doorstep to drag him to a crime scene emergency. He won’t even let Shane change out of his pyjamas and slippers…

Incident reporting has also been revolutionised by Oculus. Why wait for a scream or a phone call when most crimes are seen by somebody somewhere as they happen; be they perp, witness, victim or even police officer…?

This particular “Shout” is for a grotesquely bloody murder picked up all over the Oculus network, but by the time they arrive on scene, the story is already staring to unravel.

For starters, the girl seen being repeatedly stabbed, screaming her lungs out and expiring is Isobel Bendis, who slashed her wrists and died weeks earlier – and Jane should know: she was the officiating officer and attended the funeral a fortnight previously…

Ascertaining that the broadcast was faked, Jeff employs a particularly cool piece of kit called a Repeat Torch which illuminates the outlines of living bodies on solid objects such as walls… just like electromagnetic Luminol…

The hazy blue rays show two living persons – presumably the grisly, prankish fraudsters – manufacturing the body dump. Following the ghostly trail leads Shane and Jeff through the sewers and into the underground transit system, where the gobsmacked coppers realise at last that they been played from start to finish by some very clever individuals…

The startling events of Oculus are rendered in full colour and cunningly augmented with a wealth of satirical ads for such items as the voyeuristic ‘Extreme Jobs’ site, ‘Wild-Sight’, ‘The Oculus Cloud’, ‘Life in Third Person’ and decision-making app ‘Indie-Sysiv’ – all concocted by Luke & Vivienne Melia, Vinny Smith, David Anderson, Michael Kennedy, Christian David Navarro, Jenna Kyle, James Smith, Bobby Peñafiel and Roel S. Palmaira.

Key background information is provided by a series of faux magazine interviews with the social revolution’s inventor Alan Jensen (designed and illustrated by Ephraim Zev Zimmerman) and following the first of these – ‘The Origins of Oculus’ – the saga resumes with the entire Major Crimes unit – all five of them – reviewing events.

Cliff has established that the “murder” broadcast was recorded, not live, and sent from the username “Dolos”, tagged with a large variety of terms such as “Free”, “Sex”, “Star Trek” and “Anime” all cunningly designed to catch the eye of the widest possible audience…

Unfortunately due to budget constraints Campbell can’t sanction a costly activity report from the Oculus Corporation for what looks like a nasty student prank. Still smarting from looking like a fool and being seen trudging through sewers in pyjamas and tiger slippers, Shane vigorously disagrees. He argues that whoever did this is organised, meticulous, capable of fooling everybody who saw into believing it was real… and live. Dolos also had no problems digging up and stealing a corpse to carry it off…

Campbell relents and agrees to let Shane and Jeff continue to work on it as long as costs stay down: after all, these days there simply isn’t that much work for detectives to do…

Jeff has been in the force for a very long time and knows lots of strange people. Thinking one of them might have a handle on the matter, he drags his excitable understudy to a basement flat to meet inventor and hacker Bentley, a most peculiar individual clearly long off his meds and living in a wonderland of paranoia and bizarre hand-made devices…

‘0.4% Chance It Could Destroy The World’ sees the first lead found as the batty boffin suggests back-street Oculus implants and breaks into the high security Oculus Corporation database records.

Armed with Dolos’s account inception date and the enigma’s Friends List, the dynamic duo hit the quiet streets of New Oxford where Jeff suggests trying a far more traditional method of finding things out…

Fat Maisey is a low-level street rat and if anyone knows about illegal Oculus implants he will. Sadly the chase after the little weasel only leads our heroes into an armed ambush and ultra-violent counter-operation involving the gun-toting gung-ho grunts of SABU…

Barely escaping with their lives Shane and Jeff head back to the station whilst elsewhere two conspirators bicker and agree to speed up the pace of their plan…

Still felling out of his depth, Shane talks things over with “just friends” Emma before going out on a date with old college acquaintance Anna Rice. They end up in bed but since Anna’s idea of having a great time is being seen getting off by hundreds of strangers, close friends and especially herself, Shane’s night does not have a happy ending…

Following another Jensen interview (‘The Origins of PADs and Broadcasting’) the next chapter ‘How Could I Ever Truly Respect Her?’ opens with the boy wonder getting some well deserved ragging from his mentor.

Even Shane’s mum tuned in to the open broadcast and he is – for the third day running – the laughing stock of the New Oxford Constabulary. At least Jeff is amused enough to share some of his own tragic personal history, but inexplicably Emma seems furious with the bewildered newbie…

Events suddenly overtake the mental self-flagellation when Campbell calls them all in to a meeting which also includes members of Operations and Counter-terrorism divisions. All assembled are advised to tune in to a certain Oculus Drive path where Dolos is again broadcasting.

Definitely live this time, the mystery prankster is loading a gun in a public toilet somewhere in New Oxford…

As the frantic law officials follow the progress of the gloved perpetrator through his – or her – own eyes, Shane recognises The Francis Castle Shopping Centre. Dolos, now sitting at the central fountain pretending to read a newspaper, adds more Tag-terms to the live feed: words like “Francis Castle”, “massacre” and “hundreds dead”…

The bigwigs freak out and SABU are dispatched, but Shane uses his own Oculus system to link with a stranger shopping at the mall. Convincing Gabrielle to walk over to the fountain, the police use her eyes but see that no one is there, even though Dolos’s open channel shows the chilling conundrum staring right back at the baffled teenager over his paper…

When the enigma’s eyes show him unwrapping a bomb and scrawling the word “Kaboom” on a wall, full-panic mode kicks in and masked-and-armoured SABU officers storm the centre, frantically evacuating the citizens and using the Dolos view to trail him to the bomb.

Once again there is nothing there, and the baffled cops are just turning to go when a colossal detonation rocks the building…

After Jensen’s ‘How Oculus Changed the Entertainment Industry’ a telling flashback of Shane and Emma at college leads to gloom and despondency in the present as the NOC reel in the aftermath of a disaster that has left 35 dead and hundreds injured.

Brain-fried from constantly reviewing the impossibly divergent Oculus recordings, Jeff and Shane go book-shopping to clear out the nonsensical but inescapable theory of an invisible maniac being behind all their woes…

The second-hand tome is for Jeff’s friend Bryce: a very smart lady who owned a research company which dabbled in camouflage and stealth technologies – although her real area of expertise was human cloning. ‘Oh, And By The Way, There Are Six Of Them’ sees Shane astonished to meet a sextet of his partner’s pal as they pursue the assorted blind alleys regarding becoming unseen…

However, as they all congregate to review the combined synched footage of numerous victims, one of Bryce does identify an anomaly who might just be an accomplice of Dolos…

As Shane tries to re-establish a personal life free of shame and snickering rozzers, the wheels of modern police procedure roll on and soon the mystery man in the recordings is identified and arrested… but only after a little illicit assistance from Bentley…

The next Jensen feature deals with ‘Education and the Workplace’ after which Jeff and Shane conduct their first interview with terrified Rhys Ennis who, after literally spilling his guts, does so metaphorically and explains how the anonymous Dolos hired him…

The kid is clearly just a pawn and the NOC eventually let him go. It’s only later as Jeff tells his protégé about Bryce that Shane realises in a burst of exasperated inspiration the simple trick the terrorists devised to cheat a system the entire world believes cannot be fooled…

As the police swing into action Shane heads home for much needed sleep, but is soon awakened by a live cast from Emma. From under her bed she – and Shane – can see a man with a gun stalking murderously through her house…

Jeff arrives ahead of his partner and chases the assailant off and by the time Shane arrives there’s nothing to do but comfort the distraught Emma. His mentor however has cornered the intruder and with Shane scrupulously tuned in goes down in a hail of bullets in ‘You Can’t Unsee Shit Like That, No Pun Intended’

Bracketed by Jensen interviews ‘Oculus Health Implications & the Law’ and ‘The Future of Oculus’, the incredible truth behind a devilish and misconceived scheme finally comes out in ‘So What Went Wrong?’

However even as Jeff’s colleagues arrest Dolos and sweat the incomprehensible truth out of the last person Shane ever expected to see, events conspire to prove that nothing is as it seems and nobody can really be trusted…

Originally released as an eBook in February 2014, this full-colour printed trade-paperback edition is now available (complete with cover gallery by Anderson) delivering a superbly imaginative, compelling and suspenseful future crime yarn no lover of whodunits will want to miss.
© 2014 Luke Melia, Vinnie Smith and David Anderson. All rights reserved.

Greenberg the Vampire – a Marvel Graphic Novel


By J.M. DeMatteis & Mark Badger (Marvel)
ISBN: 0871350904                 ISBN-13: 978-0-8713-5090-9

During the 1980s and following the organic development of a Direct Sales Market, the American comics industry was transformed by a magical proliferation of new titles and companies.

With publishers now able to firm-sale straight to specialist retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised shops, the comics biz was able to support less generic titles whilst creators were able to experiment without losing their shirts and even to own the concepts and characters they invented.

In response Marvel developed a line of creator-owned properties and concentrated a lot of resources into the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing said creator-owned properties, licensed assets such as Conan the Barbarian and new proprietary Marvel Universe tales launched in extravagant over-sized packages (286 x 210mm rather than the now standard 258 x 168mm, in imitation of the European format albums of the times) which always felt and looked like far more than an average comicbook no matter how good, bad or offbeat the contents might have been.

Even the regular comicbook line upped its game, searching for material which would appeal to a broader customer-base than the provably false traditional marketing concept of an “average” teenaged boy…

From 1986 comes a quirky Marvel Graphic Novel line (#20 if you’re counting) which mixes horror fantasy with the unique comedy of New York’s Jewish community, cannily crafted by Thinking-Man’s funnybook scribe J.M. DeMatteis and lavishly painted by the inimitable Mark Badger.

Oscar Greenberg is a famous writer of horror novels and something of a recluse. He is also, since a night of diligent research went slightly awry, a vampire.

Attending a Satanist’s meeting in search of useful material, he picked up a beautiful, eager and very willing lady who later, in a fit of overly-amatory passion, gave him the wrong sort of bite and ended his life. They’ve been together ever since…

Don’t get Oscar started on Bram Stoker. For every fact the “expert” got right about vampires he got three wrong. For a start, although they all need a certain amount of blood to survive, the undead much prefer animal to human and only the deranged go around deliberately biting people – and then only until the aberrant’s night-living kin can catch and stop them.

Vamps are highly shy, deeply spiritual, intellectual folk who don’t want to be bothered or be a nuisance: it’s the only way they can face themselves in the mirror in the evening. Yes, they do reflect and you can photograph them: something Oscar has been ducking paparazzi to avoid for over a decade…

The modern-day literary hermit is in a stable, loving relationship with Denise Keaton, the bitey lady who accidentally “turned” him and most of his loving family know about his condition – all except poor frail, often confused Mama, whom he’s sure couldn’t stand the shock of learning her beloved boy had predeceased her, even if he still comes calling every chance he gets…

Oscar even hired his obnoxious wannabe-journalist nephew Morrie as his assistant, but the lad hasn’t got that much to do since Uncle Oscar is not having a good time lately. As the city reels and writhes under the escalating terror of a bloody serial killer dubbed the “New York Ripper” the master of gory fictive horror is suffering the cruellest, most long-lived bout of writer’s block ever recorded…

The frustration is killing him, so after another explosive, typewriter-trashing bout of petulance, he takes a welcome break by attending a full-family feast at Mama’s (vampires eat and drink – even garlic – the blood-drinking is strictly for medicinal purposes).

However, en route in a heavily screened limousine, Oscar spots a streetwalker who sends his mind racing back to the day of his Bar Mitzvah…

On that day in 1954 as he rehearsed for the life-changing ceremony to come, a beautiful woman appeared and made him a man in a much more pleasant and supremely physical manner, before vanishing with a promise that they would meet again…

Back in the now the dinner is going well, and doting, oblivious Mama is in her element until she has some sort of fit, screaming at a darkened window and swearing that “she” can’t have “him”. Before passing out Henrietta Greenberg’s final whispered word is “Lilith”…

Later, as young Morrie waits in a bar for his latest flame Arlene, she becomes the latest gory incident in the Ripper’s campaign. The crushed and despondent youth is utterly unaware how the killing is connected to his own close-knit family…

Oscar meanwhile has been pushed to the edge of insanity by his inability to create and in desperation accepts a longstanding offer to write the screenplay for one of his old stories. The entire family visits the set of “The Blood of Mrs. Morris” where unctuous producer Thad Turkel introduces his captivating ingénue discovery Evie Adams and assures them all of astounding future success…

Oscar is instantly beguiled by the waif and his fall from grace is confirmed. His temperament changes: he’s angry all the time, avoids Denise and all he can think about is the starlet. He doesn’t even notice when Morrie goes crazy and Mama recognises that her grandson’s been possessed by a Dybbuk

She may be senile sometimes, but Mama Greenberg knows things and has never been a fool. Instantly shelving a decade of maternal disapproval she aligns with “Shiksa” Denise and takes Oscar’s true love into her confidence, revealing how when her baby-boy was just a baby she managed, through love and prayer and ancient rites, to drive off an ancient evil known as Lilith as she tried to steal the child.

The profane First Woman and Mother of All Monsters laughed as she left, promising to possess him one day. Clearly that moment has arrived…

Elsewhere Oscar is fully under the spell of the sorceress who has earmarked him to provide the creative spark she needs to make the world her own, beguiling him body and soul. However as Lilith discards such old worn out toys as the Ripper and concentrates on dominating her glamoured writer, humanity’s last hope is marshalling her own forces…

With her son’s soul on the line, Henrietta Greenberg has dropped all pretence and gathered Denise, her faith and her family about her. Not even the eternal forces of rage, greed and lust will keep a son from his mother…

Poignant, moving, funny and exceptionally entertaining, Greenberg the Vampire is at once a superb light-horror parable and sardonic but sincere paean of praise to the unshakable power of Family expressed through the happily inexhaustible well of literature known as “Jewish Voices”.

As such it compellingly taps into the Jewish-American experience most famously represented by authors as varied as Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller or Michael Chabon and comedians/entertainers like Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks and even Lenny Bruce.

Most enticing, though, is that it easily rests within the small but constantly growing sub-genre of graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing, The Big Kahn, Hereville, Maus and most clearly the epic and astounding canon of semi-autobiographical tales such as A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, The Dreamer and Will Eisner’s New York the Big City.

An enchanting tale of timeless relevance to all people who love happy endings.
© 1986 Marvel Comics Group. All Rights Reserved.

Orbital volume 3: Nomads


By Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-080-1

The truest thing that can be said about French science fiction is that it always delivers amazing style and panache even when the underlying premise might be less than original. In Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg’s beautiful Orbital series a seemingly-mismatched pair of Diplomatic Peacekeeper agents are deployed to quell incipient brushfire wars and mediate internal pressures within a vast pan-species intergalactic alliance, but the hoary “buddy-movie” format is a mere skeleton for eye-popping missions, star-spanning intrigue and intense personal interactions which are always are handled with deft wit and great imagination, never failing to carry the reader along in a blaze of fantastic fun…

What you need to know: after decades of pariah-status galactic exclusion, Earth in the 23rd century has finally been allowed to join a vast Confederation of interstellar civilisations, despite grave and abiding concerns about humanity’s aggressive nature and xenophobic tendencies.

A militant “Isolationist” faction on Earth had moved from politics to horrific terrorism in the immediate run-up to formal induction, committing atrocities both on Earth and distant worlds where mankind had developed colonies and mining bases, but ultimately they failed to prevent humanity’s inclusion in the pan-galactic union.

One particular Confederation worry was the way humans had treated the alien civilisation of the Sandjarrs, whose world was invaded in Earth’s all-consuming drive for territory and exploitable resources. The subsequent atrocities almost exterminated the stoic, pacifistic desert creatures…

Interworld Diplomatic Office operatives are assigned in pairs to troubleshoot throughout the galaxy, defusing crises before they can become flashpoints of violence. IDO’s first human recruit Caleb Swany had been surprisingly teamed with Sandjarr Mezoke Izzua, a situation clearly designed as a high-profile political stunt, as was their initial mission: convincing an Earth mining colony to surrender a profitable planetary mining industry back to the aliens who actually own the moon Senestem it was situated on…

Moreover, even though Earth is a now a member of the Confederation, with humans well placed in all branches of interstellar service, the Isolationist cause is still deeply cherished by many, needing only the slightest spark to reignite…

Orbital: Nomads is the third epic album published by Cinebook (originally released in 2009 as ‘Nomades’), and picks up soon after Caleb and Mezoke’s hard-won solution was implemented.

The Galactic Great-and-Good have arrived on Earth to very publicly celebrate and affirm the end of Human/Sandjarr hostilities in a series of spectacular Reconciliation Ceremonies, but the political glad-handing looks to be upstaged by another interspecies crisis…

One of the greatest benefits of induction into The Confederation has been the infusion of alien technologies which have cleansed and reinvigorated the ecosystem of long-abused and much-polluted Earth.

Now however an incident has occurred in the newly restocked, abundant seas and mangrove swamps around Malaysia, with the sudden death of millions of fish leading to a bloody clash between local fishermen and an unsuspected enclave of a race of nomadic space-gypsies called The Rapakhun

In Kuala Lumpur Caleb is reminiscing with his old mentor Hector Ulrich – instrumental in brokering Earth into the Confederation and Swany into the Interworld Diplomatic Office – when news arrives of the trouble.

This will be tricky: much of mankind is still anti-alien, and locale economies are fragile, whilst the Rapakhun are no innocent angels. Many space civilisations despise them: the stellar nomads are flighty wanderers who go where they please, refuse to be represented in or on Confederation Councils and worst of all, practice cannibalism…

Many Confederation races despise them and by the time Caleb and Mezoke arrive on scene events have escalated and tensions heightened to fever pitch as a committee of human fishermen face off against Rapakhun spokeswoman Alkuun.

The ancient tries to explain that the problem was an escaped Elokarn. The wanderers’ gigantic domesticated aquatic beasts have all been excessively agitated since arriving on Earth…

With the Diplomatic Agents assuring all parties that tests are being undertaken to ascertain not only why the Elokarn went crazy but also why the fish are dying off again, the situation seems contained, but when Alkuun invites the human guests to join in their holy consumption of a still-living and eager Rapakhun male they are physically revolted.

No amount of explanation that the willing, deeply spiritual and hugely prestigious sacrifice is meant to strengthen and invigorate the gods of Earth can offset the grisly sight…

Returning to Kuala Lumpur, Mezoke and Caleb are anxious. Although the Malaysian Navy are policing the area, the IDO agents know full well the tenuous trust humans place in any alien species, but their attention is unfortunately diverted by the sudden arrival of Caleb’s old friend Lukas Vesely.

The scrawny teen of his youth has become a hulking, good-natured member of Ulrich’s security force and seems very keen to relive the good old days. Caleb, of course, has no idea of Lukas’ usual duties, which include brutally and mercilessly dealing with any isolationist protests which might give visiting aliens the wrong impression about Confederate Earth…

In the mangrove swamps fish are still dying and when another group of fisherman get too close to the agreed-upon neutral zone Ulrich’s forces overreact and vaporise them, outraging many watching members of the Malaysian Navy…

Caleb and Mezoke are otherwise fully occupied as the delegation of Sandjarr dignitaries have arrived. The aloof and stand-offish nature of the guests of honour provoke Mezoke to surly silence, and reports from Senestem take the shine off their supposed triumphant solution whilst test results from the mangrove swamps all prove inconclusive. No contamination of any sort has killed the fish: the culprit is some unknown form of energy…

Caleb attempts to downplay and even suppress the concatenation of bad news in hope of keeping the Reconciliation Ceremonies alive over Mezuke’s objections until she reveals a shocking truth about her life before joining IDO…

The death of the fishermen meanwhile has reached the populace and a “patriotic” clique in the Navy peacekeeping force has colluded to look the other way if the fishermen want to deal with the nomads once and for all…

By the time the IDO agents learn of the incursion the appalling bloodshed has ceased and, wading through a site of unspeakable carnage, Caleb and Mezuke decide to split up. The rapidly destabilising situation on Earth must be carefully managed but most crucial is to send an urgent investigation team to the last world the Rapakhun visited and find out exactly what the wanderers are really capable of…

To Be Continued…

Fast-paced, action-packed, gritty space-opera with delightfully complex sub-plots fuelled by political intrigue and infighting elevates this tale to lofty and exotic heights, proving Orbital to be a series well worth watching…
Original edition © Dupuis 2009 by Runberg & Pellé. All rights reserved. This edition published 2011 by Cinebook Ltd.

Dirty Pair: Dangerous Acquaintances


By Toren Smith & Adam Warren (Manga Books)
ISBN: 978-1-900097-06-0 (UK edition)

In the fast and furious future of 2141AD, intergalactic proliferation of human civilisation has led to a monumental bureaucracy, greater corruption and more deadly criminals preying upon the citizens of the United Galactica.

Thus the constant need for extra-special Trouble Consultants: pan-planetary private paramilitary police employed by the 3WA (or Worlds Welfare Work Association) to maintain order in hotspots across the (sort-of) civilised universe…

Kei and Yuri are team #234, officially designated “The Lovely Angels” after their sleek and efficient starship. They are lethal, capable and infallible. Whenever they are deployed, they strike fast and hard and never fail…

However, the collateral damage they inevitably cause is utterly unimaginable and usually makes client worlds regret ever asking for their aid in the first place….

Much to the crisis agents’ disgust and chagrin, the ever-present media have dubbed them “The Dirty Pair” and any planetary government unlucky enough to need them generally regards them less as first choice and more a last resort …

The concept was originated for light novels by Japanese author Haruka (Crusher Joe) Takachiho in 1985 before making the jump to TV, movie and OVA anime. Oddly there was no comics iteration until over a decade later. This situation prompted Adam Warren and Toren Smith of manga translation company Studio Proteus to approach independent publisher Eclipse Comics with an idea for a US comicbook miniseries…

The result was Biohazards; a riot of light-hearted, manic murder and monstrous mayhem which was then swiftly collected in a brash and breezy graphic album. The reprintings from US franchise inheritor Dark Horse (and Manga Books in the UK) heralded a blistering run of wry and raucous adventures that still read as well today as they did when the Japanese comics experience was seen as a rare, quaint and exotic oddity…

In the follow-up Dangerous Acquaintances – originally released as a 5-issue miniseries from Eclipse between June 1989 and March 1990, before first being gathered into a trade paperback in 1991 – the catastrophically unlucky private sector peacekeepers are enjoying a spot of well-deserved downtime on planet Rocinante – a world riotously celebrating its 25th year of independence – when soused-to-the-gorgeous-gills Kei spots an unwelcome but very familiar face…

‘Things Past’ explains that although free, single and over 21, the planet is in turmoil due to the imminent arrival of a host of dignitaries on experimental super liner “The Lyra” (one of only three vessels capable of jumping to warp within a planet’s gravity-well) and the increasingly desperate outrages of terrorist cell United Galactica/Free Rocinate.

None of that means anything to the drunken danger girl: all she can think about is getting her hands on a woman who once betrayed and nearly killed her…

Back when she and Yuri were mere trainee cadets they were constantly and humiliatingly surpassed in every discipline by Shasti. Their rival was a bioroid built by 3WA to be the ultimate Trouble Agent: a tetrad possessing a perfectly designed body and, thanks to multiple uploaded personalities, able to shift instantly between being the ideal warrior, detective, spy or social specialist, amongst others.

She never failed on any mission but there were worries that her schizoid mind-menu might have made her crazy…

Back in the present Kei refuses to calm down and chaotically pursues her target through massing crowds with the constantly complaining Yuri hot on her heels. As ‘Dangerous Acquaintances’ opens, they track Shasti across town and Yuri casts her mind back to their last mission with her, when they were all assigned to bring in a deadly sociopath named Lacombe

On present-day Rocinante the totally-tanked pursuers catch up with the oblivious target at a shopping plaza in time to see her trading a briefcase with a suspicious-looking bearded stranger. Unfortunately, when they confront her, Shasti has lost none of her combat advantages…

As the bioroid orders her accomplice to flee, Yuri’s mind flashes back to the mission when Shasti’s instability kicked in and she inexplicably proclaimed her love for the lethally compelling Lacombe…

The reverie is shattered as the planet’s Special Police storm in, brutally arresting the Trouble Agents whilst letting their meek-seeming “victim” go, and ‘Unquiet Zone’ finds the furious, sober and mortally hung-over operatives sprung simply because the cops need their cell for more provably-crazy UG/FR fanatics.

As Kei and Yuri hit the streets their fragile ears are bombarded with a public broadcast announcing the imminent arrival of the dignitary-stuffed, treasure-laden “Lyra” and, horrified, they realise where Shasti will strike, even if not what exactly she’s after…

Whilst the determined pair are planning to sneak aboard the wonder-ship, in an opulent hotel room their despised foe is giving her band of revolutionaries a final inspirational pep-talk, but her minds are focused on the moment long ago when she and her team of Trouble Agents cornered Lacombe.

The mission was going perfectly until she switched sides, joining the insanely seductive terrorist and murdering all her comrades. Or so she thought…

On the Lyra, Yuri and Kei have endured all manner of hell, (barely) dressed as hospitality hostesses constantly groped by the great and good of many civilisations. The ruse has however allowed them to find Shasti’s inside man and after a little “enhanced interrogation” he reveals his freedom-loving leader’s plan.

Except, of course, Shasti has been lying to the UG/FR all along. Now in control of the prototype ship, the bioroid activates the lockdown protocols and sealing everybody in. Whilst the still oblivious rebel cadres carve a bloody swathe through the imprisoned plutocrats, she undertakes her true goal: stealing the entire experimental warp section right out of the super-liner…

Locked cabins and robotic security lasers are no match for angry Angels and in ‘One of My Turns’ the apparently unkillable agents bust out and, tooling up with ballistic ordinance from the Lyra’s museum exhibit of ancient weapons, go hunting…

As the suddenly engine-less Lyra plunges to fiery doom at the ‘Ground Zero’ of Rocinante’s capital city, in deep space the engine section module reappears and Shasti waits for a rendezvous with her murderous beloved. She has no idea that the women she betrayed, almost murdered and unforgettably humiliated have made the jump with her and are hungrily approaching to take a decade’s-worth of bloody vengeance…

At once incredibly information-dense and astonishingly addictive, these deliciously daft yet cool, light-hearted cyber-punk space operas offer a solidly satisfying slice of futuristic fantasy to delight all fans of tech-heavy blockbusters. Also included is a pastiche-packed, behind-the-scenes farcical feature as Adam Warren shockingly reveals ‘Just How the Dirty Pair Gets Done!!’ to leaven all that savage comedy with some outrageous silliness…

The digest-sized (210x150mm) UK editions have the tag line “in the tradition of Red Dwarf” and that assessment is not a million miles from the truth – as long as you factor in sexy death-dealing ingénues, sharp socio-political commentary, incomprehensibly skimpy costumes and utter oodles of cartoon carnage.

Brutally wry, explosively funny, hilariously action-packed and extremely spectacular, this is a truly stellar romp to get every sci fi aficionado panting for more.
The Dirty Pair © 1994 Haruka Takachiho. English language version © 1994 Adam Warren and Studio Proteus. All rights reserved.

Avengers World: Ascension


By Nick Spencer, Al Ewing, Marco Checchetto, Stefano Caselli, Dale Keown & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-629-8

Post-Infinity, the reshaping of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into an unbeatable legion of justice continued in new title Avengers World which became the core title from which all other associated series would derive direction. Of course, that’s pretty much irrelevant if all you want is high stakes, high octane Fights ‘n’ Tights fun in the traditional Summer Blockbuster manner…

During the Origin Bomb bombardment by planetary sculptor-turned-probationary Avenger Ex Nihilo (see Avengers: Avengers World and The Last White Event), large parts of the planet were subjected to forced, random and rapid evolution. It was just the start of a season of extraordinary and escalating crises…

The most recent outbreaks brought an Avengers stealth team consisting of Shang-Chi, The Falcon, Black Widow and Wolverine to the Pacific island of Madripoor to investigate a hyperfast civil war. On arrival they discovered the entire place had been stolen.

Mystic ninja clan The Hand, at the behest of new chief The Gorgon, had enacted a ritual whose collateral effects enflamed the populace but whose true purpose was to awaken the unbelievably vast dragon the island rested upon. The heroes were too late to stop it taking flight wearing Madripoor as a hat and were trapped upon it as the Wyrm flew towards mainland China.

High over Southeast Asia, Shang-Chi challenged The Gorgon to single combat only to be cruelly beaten and tossed over the edge into the void…

Simultaneously Nightmask, Hawkeye, Spider-Woman and Starbrand were dispatched to Velletai in Italy. When the town’s entire population vanished a Continental super-team was deployed, but soon after arrival contact was lost. Exactly the same thing happened with the Avengers team, too.

Under Velletai, the American squad found a City of the Dead where the restless departed all screamed inside Starbrand’s head…

At S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ Bruce Banner had deduced that the newly autonomous nation A.I.M. Island was the crux of the cluster of contemporary crises. He also realised the rogue state’s landmass was changing shape and size so Captain America sent in relative neophytes Bobby “Sunspot” Da Costa, Sam “Cannonball” Guthrie and alien hybrid Izzy “Smasher” Kane (latest Superguardian of the Shi’ar Empire and granddaughter of Golden Age Earth hero Captain Terror) to investigate.

They were quickly captured and Smasher suborned to A.I.M.’s cause…

Scripted by Nick Spencer, Ascension collects issues #6-9 of Avengers World and Avengers #34.1 (spanning July to November 2014) and opens as a back-up team consisting of powerhouses Thor, Captain Marvel and Hyperion are teleported into A.I.M.’s capital city Barbuda by freshly recuperated new recruit Manifold. Illustrated by Marco Checchetto and colourist Andres Mossa, the action commences as a wave of A.I.M. warriors attack…

It is a bitter moment for Hyperion who was plucked from inter-dimensional limbo by the secret society’s Scientist Supreme Andrew Forson to spend an immeasurable time as an agonised guinea pig in the futuristic citadel. However it’s not his torment there that troubles him but the memory of having survived the death of two worlds and his new role as father-figure to a new race which developed in the distant Savage Land as the result of the recent Origin Bomb bombardment…

As the battle intensifies distracted Hyperion blasts his way into the heart of Forson’s lab to find the Scientist Supreme again ripping open doors between dimensions and is astounded by the incredible offer the maniac has the sheer audacity to make…

Before he can respond, however, the mind-warped Messenger (nee Smasher) intercepts and physically throws him off the island, with Thor and Marvel unceremoniously ejected in similar manner soon after…

Stefano Caselli illustrates the next chapter as attention switches to Madripoor where Falcon, Wolverine and Black Widow are helpless to save the rioting population from their own destructive panic. The Airborne Avenger soars off to find the missing Shang-Chi but is lured off the steadily progressing dragon-island and meets a most unlikely band of allies…

Smooth operator Xian Zheng rescued the defeated Shang after The Gorgon threw him off Madripoor with an astounding flying fortress dubbed The Circle but he is only the point man for a new direction in crisis-management by the Chinese Government…

The People’s Republic has formed its own covert peacekeeping force – S.P.E.A.R. – in response to S.H.I.E.L.D., but now employs a team of super-champions to deal with strictly Chinese problems…

As an army of mystic warriors riding small dragons attacks The Circle, the spy chief activates The AscendantsWeather Witch, Saber, Vector, Devastator and Sun Wukong, the Monkey King: demonstrating to Falcon and the watching world that the new China will take a back seat to no one…

Checchetto returns to limn the third chapter set far below Velletai. When the mission went dark, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill circumvented the Avengers’ lack of mystic resource by seconding neophyte wizard Sebastian Druid to find out what was going on.

He divined that the site was a “spirit trap” built by Entropy-worshipping Cult of Yagzan but now being used by a being of malign power, and as the tale resumes the kidnapped Starbrand meets it head on…

Control of the Dead City has been usurped by infernal Avengers’ arch-foe Morgan Le Fay and, as she crows over her immensely powerful juvenile captive, elsewhere Hawkeye, Spider-Woman and Nightmask battle revenant legions until fortuitously rescued by the team they came to save…

Despite being cut off from the surface Euroforce was able to stay alive and gather intel for a counter attack and, although Swordswoman, Tumult, Sliver, Tiger and Mikhail Zamorska, the Baby Killer are strangers to the Avengers, their leader is not.

Black Knight Dane Whitman is an honoured past member of the World’s Mightiest Heroes who combines high tech weaponry with ancient magic. His take on the situation is crucial to the counterattack but despite the combined teams’ best efforts Le Fay makes her move and opens the doorway to doom in Zagreb, Munich, Madrid, Athens and Paris…

The ongoing series of extinction events reaches critical mass in #9 as Caselli illustrates ‘Operation Bar Fight’ which initially returns to Barbuda where Avengers Sunspot and Cannonball are being cosseted and feted by the A.I.M. in a vain – and expensive – attempt to “turn” the mutants into willing adherents.

Everything changes when, aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Agent Phil Coulson finds a captured robotic Jocasta unit has spontaneously reactivated and begun dictating a message from the future…

Forson’s incredible technological breakthroughs are the result of collaboration with a faction of A.I.M. based decades ahead of now and Tomorrow’s Tech Terrorists are funnelling future advancements to today for reasons S.H.I.E.L.D. can only guess.

Hill risks destroying Sunspot and Cannonball’s cover, contacting and ordering them to find Forson’s time machine and use it to glean useful data from the future.

Hill has always been worried by the young mutants’ cavalier attitudes and frat boy silliness, but never more so than now when the fate of humanity is in the hands of two hormonal idiots with no sense of self-preservation…

Luckily she has no idea just how serious the mission is as the lads materialise in a fantastic alien-populated metropolis where master assassin Taskmaster is waiting for them…

The killer might not need to do anything as the two goons hit a bar for a quick drink and manage to start a riot. Thankfully the time-linked Jocasta unit is there to save them and amidst a fusillade of blaster bursts she drags them to meet the real reason for their temporal jaunt.

Now all the danger-loving buffoons have to do is rescue five extremely dangerous and rebellious kids: the children of today’s greatest heroes collectively known as The Next Avengers

To Be Continued…

The chronal chronicles take a pause here, but the Fights ‘n’ Tights furore doesn’t end as this titanic tome closes with ‘The World in His Hands’ from Avengers #34.1 by Al Ewing, Dale Keown, Norman Lee & Jason Keith; taking a long hard look at extra-dimensional superman Hyperion…

Wrapped up in the tense search for a young boy abducted by a minor-league super-villain, the twice tragic history unfolds of a hero who is the last survivor of not only his ultra-advanced birthworld but also the alternate Earth which subsequently fostered and reared him…

More a collection of tantalising set-ups, introductions and prologues than an actual narrative adventure, this light confection of action and spectacle will nonetheless intrigue and astonish lovers of cosmic Costumed Dramas, and the tome also offers a potent covers-and-variants gallery by Neal Adams & Paul Mounts, Mark Brooks, Gabrielle Dell’Otto, Ryan Stegman & Edgar Delgado, Keown& Keith and Chris Bachalo.

Promising a stupendous clash and climactic conclusion (sometime, somewhere else) this is a book best appreciated by dedicated fans rather than occasional or casual readers, but if you’re a consumer with a little patience the eventual payoff that follows this collection will certainly be worth the wait…
© 2014 Marvel. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Scared to Death volume 1: The Vampire from the Marshes


By Mauricet & Vanholme, with colours by Laurent Carpentier and translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978- 1-905460-47-2

There’s a grand old tradition of scaring, empowering and entertaining kids through carefully crafted horror stories with junior protagonists, and this occasional series is one of the better modern examples.

Conceived and executed by journalist Virgine Vanholme and youthful yet seasoned illustrator Alain Mauricet, the Mort de Trouille series of albums was launched by Casterman in the year 2000. There have been seven sinister sorties so far…

Whilst I’ve not been able to find out much about the author, the artist is rather well travelled, having worked for CrossGen, Image and DC in America as well as on a wide variety of features in Europe.

He’s also to be seen in David Lloyd’s magnificently wonderful digital delight Aces Weekly

Born in 1967, Mauricet originally inherited the comic bug from his parents and, after studying at the Academy of Fine Arts under legendary creator Eddy Paape, began his own career aged 20 at Spirou.

From spot cartoons he graduated to strips, creating superhero parody Cosmic Patrouille with Jean-Louis Janssens and Les Rastafioles with Sergio Salma. Following the aforementioned stateside sojourn he resumed his Franco-Belgian efforts with the strip under review here, as well as basketball comedy Basket Dunk (with Christophe Cazanove) and Boulard (with Erroc) and others.

He now lives in Brussels, and also designs for computer games whilst working on a more personal graphic enterprise entitled Une Bien Belle Nuance de Rouge

Back in early 2000, though, he was detailing the first of a sequence of spooky yarns starring studious Robin Lavigne and boisterous overly-imaginative Max Mornet, a couple of lads with an infallible instinct for ferreting out the weird and uncanny…

In 2008 Cinebook picked up Mort de Trouille: Le vampire des Marais and invited British and American kids to solve the mystery of The Vampire from the Marshes, which began when the boys first snuck a peek at forensic scientist Dr. Lavigne’s locked files…

The well-travelled medic has been called in to examine a body found in rural Deadwater Swamp: a corpse stinking of booze, drained of blood and completely covered in hundreds of tiny triangular bite marks…

His son Robin and especially horror-story obsessed Max are fascinated by the case and the latter envisions all manner of ghastly and vivid vampiric scenarios, despite his more prosaic pal’s protestations…

All too soon the lads are invading the (still potential) crime scene, recording their own findings and suppositions. They are quite freaked out when they find a strangely slaughtered bird but completely terrified when they disturb a poacher who chases them off with murderous curses…

Unbeknownst to all involved, their prying has also alerted and disturbed a clan of far more dangerous and unnatural creatures…

Soon the boys are being constantly shadowed by an uncanny, cloaked figure who even breaks into the Lavigne home as it strives to preserve its anonymity and ancient secrets from the eyes of prying, violent mankind. It is noisily disturbed as it closes in on the boys and they can only thank their lucky stars that the household cat is such a noisy and vicious beast when stepped upon…

Events peak to a cursed crescendo next day after Max falls into his own hastily dug vampire trap and is taken by the noisome Nosferatu. Whilst Robin anxiously and urgently searches for his missing friend, Max is learning the tragic secret history of the bloodsuckers.

His oddly ambivalent abductor is Janus and seems rather reluctant to bleed him as a proper vampire should. The creature has, however, no problem leaving him – and the freshly captured Robin who stumbles upon them – to drown in a deep well…

Next morning Dr. Lavigne and the police are frantically searching the swamp for the missing boys and only find them thanks to some unknown person leaving Max’s camera on the rim of a well…

As the frightened boys are pulled to safety, Robin’s dad questions them and goes ballistic when he learns they’ve been looking through his confidential files. He also utterly trashes their ridiculous theory of vampire killers, patiently explaining the true and rational – if exceedingly grim and grisly – cause of death of the drunk in the swamp…

Chastened but undaunted and sharing an incredible secret no adults will ever believe, the boys are taken home whilst deep in the wooded mire an ancient family of incredible beings pulls up stakes and moves restlessly on to who knows where…

Deliciously delivered in the manner of Goosebumps and Scooby-Doo, this is a superb slice of all-ages spooky fun in the classic mould that will enthral and enchant everyone who’s suffered from “father knows best” syndrome and loves tall tales with devilish twists.
Original edition © Casterman, 2000 by Mauricet & Vanholme. English translation © 2008 by Cinebook Ltd.

Avengers: Infinite Avengers


By Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerardo Alanguilan & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-637-3

Following an unending string of universe-shattering crises, Iron Man Tony Stark and SteveCaptain America” Rogers swallowed old animosities and reunited to reshape The Avengers into a planetary defence-force more formal militia than voluntary association. Their new model army soon had more than twenty active members – human or alien and even some things less clear cut – whose specialities ranged from stealth and counter-intelligence to sheer, blockbusting stopping-power.

The posture and attitude also changed as the new group actively sought out potential disaster points rather than waiting for trouble to start…

Collecting Avengers volume 5 #29-34 (covering April to October 2014), the ongoing Big Picture series, as scripted by Jonathan Hickman with art by Leinil Francis Yu & Gerardo Alanguilan and additional colour work by Sonny Gho & Matt Milla, picks up a long-unfolding plot-thread and concludes an epic time-bending story-arc which also serves as an integral component of the vast Original Sin crossover event…

As previously established, Reality is composed of discrete entire universes – from the near-identical to the radically different – all held apart by an infinite crimson underspace dubbed the Superflow. In recent times that immemorial barrier somehow began fragmenting, with the timeless celestial engineers who maintained it helpless to curtail the carnage. Now whenever an Earth drifts into contact with one of its doppelgangers the result is the destruction of at least one and usually both…

On our Earth (Reality 616, if you’re counting) the world’s greatest minds – Stark, Reed Richards, Stephen Strange, Black Panther T’Challa, Inhuman king Black Bolt, HenryThe BeastMcCoy and Namor the Sub-Mariner – joined as a clandestine Star Chamber dubbed The Illuminati; devising and stockpiling weapons to ensure when and if such an event occurred, our world would the one to survive.

They invited Steve to join their council but when the unimaginable finally happened, his inflexible moral code baulked and he stopped his fellows deploying their planet-shattering ordnance against the intruder Earth.

Instead he used the incomprehensibly powerful totems known as the Infinity Gems to avert the crisis, but destroyed them in the process…

Knowing another incursion would inevitably occur, the cabal of geniuses returned to their original plans and, when the Sentinel of Liberty again objected, Stark had Dr. Strange tamper with his memories before kicking him out of the smart guys’ club…

Now as ‘Infinite Avengers’ opens Rogers is suffering a plague of nightmares and begins to remember those Illuminati meetings he “never attended”…

He recalls the power of the Infinity Stones pushing the invading Other-Earth back and ending the incursion. He sees them shatter again and experiences the fury of the other Illuminati but also notes something he missed then: the Time Gem did not shatter – it simply vanished…

Awaking with his memories restored, the furious and morally-outraged Star-Spangled Avenger recruits Hawkeye and Black Widow and goes seeking redress. He is soon joined by Thor, Hyperion and newest member Starbrand who follow him without question as he tries to arrest Stark for treason…

When justifying his position fails Iron Man resorts to physical resistance but, whilst the battle escalates, everything suddenly stalls as the Time Gem suddenly appears and finally shatters, yanking everybody 48 years into tomorrow…

The drama resumes ‘Fifty into the Future’ as the time tossed former team-mates materialise and start fighting again. It takes the sudden intervention of a squad of contemporary superheroes including aged iterations of Hawkeye and Hyperion and a young female Starbrand to stop the war…

The oldest members of the Avengers Union have urgent advice for their earlier selves and the ancient archer also has a secret message for Steve which the dotard delivers before attempting to kill Stark in a fit of righteous fury. As the heroes pull him off the wounded technocrat, fragments of the Time Gem reappear, drawing Stark and the young Hawkeye back to their original time whilst pushing Cap, the Widow, Thor, Starbrand and Hyperion ‘500 into the Future’

Earth 422 years from their origin point is a disturbingly alien place but once again the unwilling chrononauts are greeted by a new and callously arrogant iteration of Avengers, including an aging Thor who is no longer worthy to hold the magic hammer Mjolnir.

Easily overcome, the time-travelling team are quickly imprisoned and that era’s Captain America cruelly taunts the icon he has been compelled by The State to mimic.

Steve is horrified to discover that implacable Avengers enemy and prime Artificial Intelligence Ultron infests every aspect of this forlorn tomorrow and cannot resist as his counterpart implants some appalling weapon within him, intended to attack the future.

No sooner is it buried within him than the Time Gem again draws its victims back into “Fractured Temporal Space”, dispatching Thor and Hyperion back whilst propelling Steve, Starbrand and Black Widow ‘Five Thousand into the Future’

Awaiting them in paradisiacal gardens 5045 years from their own time is super-psionic Franklin Richards (immortal son of the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman).

The sweet boy they all know has become a near-omniscient being and reveals to them the astounding changes in the solar system and humanity itself. He also has the answers to the Earth-incursion crisis and some crucial advice to solve the 21st century team’s internecine strife…

Franklin then asks Cap for the message Hawkeye had given him so long ago, but before the Avenger’s further questions can be addressed the Gem returns, hurling the Widow and Starbrand back and pushing the solitary last avenger ‘Fifty Thousand into the Future’

In an incredible automated revolution the planet has become a sentient whole: a Worldcore which questions and challenges the time-lost primitive before attempting to inhume him into their perfect community of “Ideology Made Action”.

As Captain America valiantly resists, a battalion of distressingly familiar conceptual Avengers manifest and the electronic infection implanted within him in Planet Ultron’s era activates. As a result the coldly perfect tomorrow dies and, aware that his life is now over, the Sentinel of Liberty slips unresisting back into Fractured Temporal Space but is saved by the last person he ever expected…

Or at least a distant descendant, as ‘The Last Avenger’ sees the teenaged Young Avenger Kang – clad in Iron Lad armour – brings the weary warrior to the end of time to join the boy’s older selves Kang The Conqueror and Immortus. All three products of chronal multiplicity, temporal divergence and fractured time are claiming to be Earth’s last Avengers…

After extracting and capturing the wildly reacting Time Gem they give the unyielding Super-Soldier the answers he’s been seemingly forever looking for, but when they demand that, after Steve returns to his time, he allow the Illuminati to destroy any Earth caught in an incursion, they make a fatal error…

Captain America will always find a noble, ethical solution and after escaping back to his origin era he begins to implement it by declaring war on the smartest heroes on Earth.

To Be Continued…

Cosmically complex, conceptually challenging, confounding and ultimately cataclysmic, this collection also offers a plethora of astounding covers-and-variants by Frank Cho & Jason Keith, Leinil Yu & Gho, Stephanie Hans and Paulo Manuel Rivera plus a potent portion of digitally-diverting extra content for tech-savvy consumers courtesy of AR icon sections all accessible through a free digital code and the Marvel Comics app for iPhone®, iPad®, iPad Touch® & Android devices at Marvel’s Digital Comics Shop.

Vast in scope, suspenseful, compelling and superbly illustrated Infinite Avengers is the kind of comicbook blockbuster aficionados adore but its only fair to warn that casual readers might be best served by reading previous volumes before taking in this particular Fights ‘n’ Tights Celestial Conundrum…
™ and © 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 Phoenix Presents: The Pirates of Pangaea Book 1


By Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-08-7

Why are pirates so mean? I don’t know, they just AARRRR…

In January 2012 Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched a traditional anthology comics weekly aimed at girls and boys between 6 and 12 which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and content.

Each issue still offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read it…

The Phoenix was voted No.2 in Time Magazine’s global list of Top Comics and Graphic Novels and is the only strip publication started in the UK in the last forty years to have passed the 100 issue mark. It celebrated its first anniversary by developing a digital edition available globally as an app and is continually expanding its horizons.

It is, most importantly, tremendous fun, offering not just comedic comic capers, but games, puzzles, “How-To…” pages and even adventure strips.

Crafted by Daniel Hartwell (Urban Beasts) and Neill Cameron (Mo-Bot High, How to Make Awesome Comics), by far the most engaging thriller so far featured is a sublime combination of classic endeavour and enticing fantasy which blends bold buccaneers, boldly brilliant kids, suspenseful swashbuckling escapades and gloriously gigantic dinosaurs.

The alternate-history lesson begins with twelve year old Sophie Delacourt voyaging out from England in 1717 to join her Uncle Silas, the newly appointed Governor of the lost land of Pangaea.

The huge island-continent is reputed to be the oldest land on Earth and a place primarily inhabited by colossal reptiles of the land and air. Master Bosun William takes a paternal interest in the girl, explaining the wondrous nature of the place, but nothing prepares Sophie for the experience of a colossal “long-neck” which dives under their vessel and lifts it bodily into the air.

The interior of Pangaea is a vast shifting ocean of long grass afflicted and infested with fast and deadly predators no man afoot could survive or escape, so all ships are picked up out of blue Caribbean waters then carried upon brobdingnagian beasts’ backs between the rocky high points and plateaux where humanity has built its dwellings and settlements.

The big beasts are kept docile and compliant by the administration of a herb dubbed “Snuff” and piloted by the skilful class of inland mariners known as “Snuffmen”…

Sophie has never seen anything so wonderful in her life but, as Snuffman John guides the magnificent Bessie and her formerly-seagoing burden towards the Governor’s capital city, the amazed girl catches sight of the ever-present peril which besets this latest outpost of empire.

Through the shifting verdure comes a pirate ship strapped atop a terrifying black Land Leviathan and soon the voyagers are fighting for their lives in an ‘Ambush on Pangaea’.

Sophie is locked in her cabin as the corsairs’ devastating attack pillages the vessel and, when the insanely cruel Captain Brookes cries victory, making the crew walk the plank to their deaths, she is the only survivor…

The second chapter opens with the Governor’s niece imprisoned on Brookes’ land-ship, a potential goldmine in ransom for the greedy maniac. Furious and defiant Sophie is slowly befriended by brute’s cabin boy Timothy Kelsey. The lad is the tormented last survivor of a previous foray which saw the murder of his mentor and master Dr. Shaw; a naturalist who had come to the lost land to catalogue the ‘Indigenous Fauna of the Pangaean Land-Mass’.

After witnessing Brookes’ cruelty, Sophie agrees to join in the boy’s desperate plan for escape but as they make their move to fly off on the ship’s captive “Great Wing” lizard, they stumble over the Captain’s first mate.

Ten Gun Jones is also engaged in fleeing on the “Razor Beak”, but the noise of their stumbling over each other rouses the ship and the three are forced to flee together into the night amidst a hail of musket fire…

Soon the trio are hopelessly ‘Lost in the Sea of Green’ as their gravely wounded pterosaur expires just short of a high-projecting stony pinnacle. With deadly “Land Sharks” and “Belly Rippers” closing in on them all hope seems lost until an even deadlier beast pounces.

The “Tyrant” makes short work of the circling velociraptors, but its ravening hunger remains unsated. Only sheer terror carries the three fugitives to the relative safety of the rocky islet and, frantically scaling the igneous tower with the horror snapping at their heels, they all tumble into a cave to find themselves inside an abandoned pirate den…

The dusty lair has weapons, lamps, water, liquor and even brontosaur jerky; everything they might need to outwait the roaring giant outside, but after a sleepless night with Ten Gun less than forthcoming about why he was deserting Captain Brookes, Sophie conceives a dangerous idea.

After feeding the monster chunks of the dried meat liberally doused in the Snuff she found in a barrel, in an act of seeming madness Sophie drops onto the horror’s head and soon has it – or rather her – acting like a very dangerous steed…

The fearless lass then explains how an elderly servant in England taught her the secrets of horse-whispering before christening her scaly new pet “Cornflower”. Timothy is elated that they can use the Tyrant to safely cross the lethal Sea of Green to civilisation but Jones has other plans…

The enigmatic pirate’s guarded directions soon bring them to an active volcano which is in truth the neutral port used as a safe-haven by all the freebooters plying the grassy deeps. In a tavern the children learn the ‘Secrets of Raptor Rock’ and are introduced to bombastic Captain Ford, who previously planted Ten Gun in Brookes’ crew to secretly secure the second half of a disputed treasure map…

With both pieces secure the privateer immediately sets to emerald sea, but Ten Gun insists on bringing Sophie and Tim along. They have barely left the rock before Cornflower breaks out of her pen and doggedly follows…

The children are put to work and Sophie soon makes friends with Iwakian Snuffman Tak: a native Pangaean who steers the buccaneers’ bombastic brontosaur Gertrude

The exploratory voyage comes to a sudden end after crossing the eerie “Longnecks Graveyard” when they hove into view of the fantastic plateau known in legend as “The Forbidden Isle”…

An expeditionary party is soon driving inland to a ancient temple in ‘Quest for the Golden Skull’ but upon entering, the greedy pirates are astounded to discover that the invaluable artefact they’re hunting is not a gilded human head but actually a full size tyrant’s skull cast in precious metal…

That’s when ferocious native defenders – the Kron Iwakia – ambush the party, driving them back to the relative safety of Gertrude, but the rapidly retreating raiders have no idea of what’s happened in the meantime.

Young Kelsey, resentful of being enslaved again has – more by accident than design – blown up the ship and stampeded Gertrude off into the Sea of Green just as maniacal Captain Brookes arrives intent on reclaiming his map and slaughtering everyone…

Even though the enraged Iwakians vanished when the ship began to burn, Ford’s rattled crew are no match for the nautical newcomers and things look bleak and bloody. Sophie and Kelsey desperately head back to the temple chased by Brookes’ men and death seems imminent until, from nowhere, Cornflower hurtles into action and eagerly despatches the pursuing pirates.

This prompts the Kron Iwakia to emerge from concealment to guide Cornflower and the kids back to the temple. The natives worship Tyrant lizards and after a strange ceremony deem Sophie and her reptile holy. That’s when Tim realises that the Golden Skull is not a mere ornament but battle armour for a tyrannosaur Chosen One…

With the Iwakians in close support the valiant children return to the ongoing pirate war to settle a number of old scores before taking control of their own destinies…

Superbly engaging and utterly enthralling, this astounding all-action romp is a riotous delight of astonishing adventure and this fabulous first compilation also includes many maps and crucial fact pages on the assorted dinosaurs from Dr. Shaw’s ‘Indigenous Fauna of the Pangaean Land-Mass’ – specifically ‘Sauropoda’, ‘Pterosauria’, ‘Dromaeosauridae’ and ‘Tyrannosauridae’ – all scrupulously crafted, corrected and annotated by erstwhile cabin boy and greatest living expert Timothy Kelsey…

Bright, breezy furious fun for the entire family, so don’t miss this unburied treasure…
Text © Daniel Hartwell 2015. Illustrations © Neill Cameron 2015. All rights reserved.

Cyclops: Starstruck


By Greg Rucka, Russell Dauterman, Carmen Carnero, Terry Pallot & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-624-3

When mutant genius Henry McCoy learned he was dying, he used time-travel tech in a last-ditch attempt to give his life meaning. Seeking to prevent a species war, he brought the young, naive X-Men of his own youth into the future to reason with his radicalised former comrade Scott Summers, praying the still idealistic and hopeful teens could divert Mutant Enemy Terrorist No. 1 from his path of doctrinaire madness…

The gamble paid off in all the wrong ways. Rather than shocking Cyclops back to his senses, the confrontation hardened the renegade’s heart and strengthened his resolve. Moreover, after the younger McCoy miraculously cured his older self, he and the rest of the X-Kids were trapped in their own future and began gradually defecting to the fundamentalist team…

Eventually the temporally misplaced First Class all ended up living with the elder Cyclops’ crew, but everything changed after Gladiator of the Shi’ar realised that Jean Grey AKA Marvel Girl – and future host of the cosmic force known as the Phoenix – was back. The alien overlord rashly attempted to abduct and execute her for the crimes of her older self…

The insane pre-emptive punishment plan was foiled by an amalgamation of X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy and intergalactic buccaneers Hepzibah, Ch’od, Raza and bizarre medical wizard Sikorsky – collectively known as The Starjammers.

During the cosmic conflict 16-year-old Scott met his believed-dead dad Christopher, now called Corsair and undisputed leader of the cosmic privateers and, when the mutant heroes returned to Earth, he chose to remain in space with the father he had spent most of his brief life assuming killed in a plane crash…

Scripted by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Russell Dauterman, Carmen Carnero & Terry Pallot, stellar saga Starstruck collects issues #1-5 of Cyclops: (July-November 2014), following the chronal castaway to the ends of the universe and even further into uncharted emotional territory…

The story begins as the still shell-shocked teen spends some time in hard vacuum with his dad’s exotic paramour Hepzibah. Together they are testing his new spacesuit which allows him to fire his fearsome optic blasts safely through his helmet. That and reminiscing about how he got here and revelling in the sheer majesty of the intergalactic firmament, of course…

For most of his comicbook career Scott Summers has been capable and competent but also dour, grim, despondent and simply no fun at all. Here, however, we get to see the incredible hero he always was, but also follow a nervous, unsure kid hungry for affirmation and still capable of ingenuous wide-eyed wonder.

That’s never more ably demonstrated than when his attempts to write a letter to Jean (the girl everybody from the future tells him he will marry and lose) are interrupted by an attack on the starship.

The Starjammers are wanted by almost every empire in the universe but this ambush by the scurrilous Brotherhood of Badoon is easily repulsed and only results in the pirates capturing their attackers’ vessel primarily intact…

Not so easily handled is the growing gulf between Scott and Corsair. The boy simply cannot accept why his father would allow him – and indeed his future self – to believe he was dead for decades…

The grizzled star-pirate thinks he has a solution. Giving Scott a sword liberated from the vessel (apparently a crucial piece of kit for any space-farer regularly indulging in close combat) Christopher Summers suggests a father-and-son vacation: a few months tooling around the galaxies in their newest prize, just getting to know each other…

At first the grand tour is all mind-bending exploration and eye-popping alien encounters but eventually Scott begins to see a disturbing pattern to his dad’s actions and comes to a horrifying conclusion. Corsair is a drug addict and their numerous stopovers in quirky cosmic bazaars and seamy sidereal marketplaces are simply opportunities to restock his personal pharmacopoeia…

One such jaunt introduces the boy to unlikely barkeeper and crimelord Baroque and leads Scott into a potentially life-changing VR encounter with a svelte and sexy alien temptress named Vass. Unfortunately anything he might have learned is promptly forgotten when a multi-species band of merciless bounty hunters corners the father and son team.

The wily thief-takers are utterly unprepared for Cyclops’ optic blasts however and the displaced humans get away relatively unscathed… except for Corsair’s fresh stash of drugs…

The next crisis occurs soon after as the Badoon ship catastrophically malfunctions and shipwrecks them on an isolated planetoid. Painfully scouring through the wreckage some time later, Scott discovers a tracking device – now destroyed – and finally confronts his father about the drugs.

He is doubly appalled when Corsair shamefully reveals that rather than buying narcotics, his dad has been visiting every criminal dive in creation “scoring” proscribed nanite technology: the only thing currently keeping him alive…

Stranded on a primitive mudball filled with predators all becoming increasingly less cautious and more hungrily curious, Scott at last learns of his unsuspected brother Vulcan, a mutant who once seized control of the Shi’ar Empire, sparked an intergalactic war and killed their father…

Of course, his devoted comrades refused to leave Corsair dead and petitioned the enigmatic creatures known as the Shrouded to restore him. The cloaked wonders succeeded but the cure requires constant and illicit maintenance…

Days pass and as the last dregs of the contraband drugs are used up, fading father and son grow closer, even to the point where they unite to turn the tables on the horrific bird-things stalking them.

As Corsair impatiently tries to teach his son everything he’ll need to know to survive the decades he might be alone on the planetoid, the boy derives a desperate scheme to save them both. The first step is to repair the tracking device and lure the certainly still interested bounty hunters to their current location…

Everything goes according to plan and the hunters become the hunted, but at the critical moment Scott, seemingly swayed by the blandishments of the mercenaries’ female slave, sells his own dad out…

What happens next proves the boy hero’s astonishing tactical genius and saves everyone’s lives – if not necessarily their honour…

Heartwarming, thrilling, funny and astoundingly action-packed, Starstruck combines cosmic intrigue and dashing derring-do with solid characterisation and wild blue yonder wonderment, and comes with a covers-&-variants gallery by Alexander Lozano, Greg Land, John Tyler Christopher and Paul Renaud as well as AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) for access to story bonuses once you download the free code from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.

What more could any wide-eyed, entertainment-starved child of the wondering stars want?
™ & © 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.