The Lighthouse


By Paco Roca, translated by Jeff Whitman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-056-0 (HB/Digital edition)

Francisco Martínez Roca was born in Valencia in 1969: a time when Franco’s fascist regime still controlled every aspect of Spanish life. Roca was part of an artistic explosion that benefited from the dictator’s death and a return to liberalising democracy, with his earliest efforts appearing in La Cupula in 1994.

As Paco Roca, he contributed (with Rafa Fonteriz) erotic strips featuring Peter Pan and Aladdin to Kiss Comics and – with Juan Miguel Aguilera – devised experimental 3D series ‘Road Cartoons’ for El Vibora.

Roca’s earliest serious works dealt with aspects of Spanish culture and history: El Juego Lúgubre in 2001 (his fictional yarn about Salvador Dali) and 2004’s Spanish Civil War tale El Faro. These were followed by internationally acclaimed works Hijos de la Alhambra and 2007’s multi-award winning Wrinkles – adapted into equally celebrated and critically-rewarded animated movie Arrugas.

More wonderful stuff you’ll want to see includes Las Callas de Arena (Streets of Sand) and semi-autobiographical Sunday newspaper strip Memorias de un hombre en pyjama from Las Provincias and El invierno del dibujante, about comic creators working for the Bruguera magazine Tio Vivo in the 1950s.

When not astonishing folk with his mastery of graphic narrative and grasp of human nature, Roca makes animated films and hosts his own radio show in Valencia.

After the success of Wrinkles it was only a matter of time before his other works started being translated into English, so bravo to NBM for picking up this sublime, elegiacally esoteric little gem…

The Lighthouse is a digest-sized (234 x 157 mm) duotone hardback – or eBook if you’re digitally inclined – celebrating the solace of imagination, which recaptures the hope of liberation in a beguiling black, blue and white wave of perfectly sculpted images.

Spain: as the Civil War staggers to its end, wounded Francisco flees for his life. The victorious fascistas are gathering up the defeated foe and this wounded youngster has no intention of being interned… or worse. After a bloody and eventful flight, he makes it to the coast and, after passing out, finds himself bandaged and rested in someone’s bed. He is in a lighthouse, crammed with fascinating remnants and artefacts…

After some cautious poking about, Francisco finally finds a garrulous old lighthouse keeper on the beach, joyously hauling ashore flotsam, jetsam and assorted treasures torn from unfortunate vessels during the last storm.

Telmo is a jolly giant, constantly quoting from his favourite books about the sea, although Francisco – a soldier since he was sixteen – barely understands what the old man is talking about…

The elder’s good humour is infectious and gradually infects even battle-scarred Francisco. Soon the boy-soldier is helping the incessantly cheerful senior maintain the great lamp and sharing his only anxiety, about when – if ever – the light will shine again. The government have been promising a new bulb for years and Telmo is convinced now peace reigns again, that moment will be any day now…

To pass the days, the old man combs the beaches for useful finds and tends to his special project: building a fabulous boat to carry him across the waters to the impossibly wonderful island of Laputa

Gradually, sullen Francisco – perpetually bombarded by the lighthouse keeper’s wondrous stories – loosens up and starts sharing Telmo’s self-appointed tasks and dreams, but that all ends when the boy finds a letter and accidentally uncovers a web of lies…

However, just when the idyllic relationship seems destined to founder on the rocks of tawdry truth, the tirelessly-searching soldiers arrive and a tragic sacrifice in service of those endangered once-shared dreams is required…

A potently powerful tale delivered with deceptive gentleness and beguiling grace, The Lighthouse is both poignantly moving and rapturously uplifting and is supplemented here by a lengthy prose postscript.

Roca’s ‘The Eternal Rewrite’ – packed with illustrations, model sheets, production art and sketches – reveals how the author is afflicted with Post-Release Meddling Syndrome, constantly editing, amending and reworking bits of his many publications, each time a new or fresh foreign edition is announced.

This short, sweet story about stories and imagination is a true delight and a perfect introduction for anyone still resistant to the idea of comics narrative as meaningful art form… or just read it yourself for the sheer wonder of it.
© 2004, 2009 Paco Roca. © 2014 Astiberri for the present edition. © 2017 NBM for the English translation.

Taproot: A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost


By Keezy Young (The Lion Forge/Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-941302-46-0 (Lion Forge PB/Digital edition) ‎978-1-63715-073-3 (Oni Press PB/Digital edition)

I’m ending our meagre contributions to this year’s Pride Month with a heads up/timely reminder for a superb, upbeat love story in the sincere hope that one day we won’t need a specially appointed time and space for queer people, or women, or black and asian ones or in fact any person not white and “naturally” hetero-male.

It’s all just stories, folks. Why can’t we just share them out fairly?

Back in 2017, queer, non-binary artist, author and storyteller Keezy Young (Never Heroes, Hello Sunshine) created a supernatural romance that garnered lots of critical attention, accolades and awards. Young resides in Seattle and has used art to tell tales since able to hold a crayon in a fist, so it’s no surprise how good they are at it now. They specialise in creating YA comics and stories about being young, adventurous and LGBTQIA.

Rendered in bright pastel colours and big, welcoming images, Taproot is the story of Hamal; a gentle young man who loves plants and growing things. He always has time to chat and offer advice on plant care, even though his boss at the flower store is a bit of a tartar about unnecessary customer service.

Mr Takashi would be even more surly if he realised that many of the people Hamal talks to are dead. Unable to understand or explain his gift, Hamal is not afraid: gathering a small band of ghostly regulars who spend much of their time with him. There’s moody teen April, effervescent grade schooler Joey and Blue. a good looking older teen who spends too much time trying to fix up Hamal’s love-life. If Blue knows who Hamal really pines for, he’s good at covering it up…

They’ve been close for a year now. The aimless revenant just followed Hamal one day and was astounded when the living doll stared into his invisible face and asked him why. No longer isolated and cut off from existence, Blue stuck around and other wandering spirits gradually tagged along.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though. Recently, something dark and strange has begun slowly unfolding. The plants aren’t thriving, and increasingly the spooks are being sucked into a ghastly spectral forest realm of doom and decay. It would be really frightening if they weren’t already dead…

It all comes to a head after Blue is drawn to the forest and confronts a monster who knows what’s really going on in creation. Terrifying and predatory, it recognises what Hamal really is and has plans for both the living and the dead. Worst of all, it has a way to fulfil Blue’s most heartfelt desire… if the ghost boy will play along…

Thankfully, that’s just the beginning of a whole new life for the would-be lovers and a novel existence for Hamal, as the story takes on fresh life via some captivating plot twists that every romantic who loves happy endings can see just by tapping this…
© 2017 Keezy Young. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2007 NetComics.

Lonesome volume 1: The Preacher’s Trail


By Yves Swolfs, coloured by Julie Swolfs; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-80044-000-5 (Album PB/Digital edition)

In comics, Western skies are at their most moody and iconic when seen through European eyes.

On the Continent, the populace has a mature relationship with comics. They collectively recognise what too many here still dismiss as “kids’ stuff” as having academic and scholarly standing, as well as meritorious nostalgic value and the validation of acceptance as a true art form.

Myths and legends of the American Old West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunfighters. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees of cowboy culture and stand at the forefront of the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series. These range from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry, Comanche and Lucky Luke, and tangentially even children’s classics like Yakari or colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s superbly evocative Indian Summer.

Lonesome: La piste du prêcheur debuted in 2018, the first volume of a gritty, historically-grounded drama with supernatural overtones, similar in tone and mood to Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter.

It is crafted by veteran Belgian taleteller Yves Swolfs, who was born in April 1955 and – like most kids of that generation and geographical location – probably grew up surrounded by imported and home-generated cowboy culture.

He studied Literature and Journalism at Brussels’ Saint-Luc Institute before joining Claude Renard’s Atelier R comics studio, in 1978. His first stories were published in the studio’s own Le Neuvième Rêve magazine before stepping out into the field of commercial design and illustration. His first success was a western: Durango was published by Éditions des Archers in 1980 and ran for four decades, under various publishers. The feature was inspired by cinematic spaghetti westerns of the 1970s and served as  a staple source of income as Swolfs experimented with other genres: French Revolution-set historical drama Dampierre (1987); horror fantasy Le Prince de la Nuit (1991); dystopian sci fi thriller Vlad (2000) and contemporary thriller James Healer (2002).

Always busy, in 1999 Swolfs scripted western Black Hills 1890 for illustrator Marc-Renier and in 2003 wrote and drew medieval fantasy saga Légendes, amongst a host of other comics projects. He relaxes by playing in a rock band.

The Preacher’s Trail opens in 1861, with a solitary rider trekking through snow-enveloped wastes in the savage period of mounting tensions leading to the American Civil War. Newly-created territories Nebraska and Kansas have been a proxy battleground for the North and South since 1854, with slave-owners’ agents and radical Abolitionists clashing and stirring up the citizens for religious, political and commercial reasons. Blood has been spilled by anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” and Missouri’s “Border Ruffians” indiscriminately and the entire region is a powder keg waiting to explode.

Into this disaster-in-waiting rides the determined searcher. He’s hunting a proselytizing preacher, and easily overcomes the murderous bushwhackers Abolitionist Reverend Markham stationed in an isolated saloon to deter his enemies. However, before the last gunman dies, the stranger touches him and is granted a vision of where his target is heading…

In nearby township Holton City, the Reverend – surrounded by an army of gunslingers – stridently entreats the people to join his crusade against the abomination of slavery. Many are not roused or fooled, but all are keenly aware that the holy man care nothing for their lives…

The town banker/Mayor Harper may be throwing his support behind the rabblerouser, but local newspaper publisher Marcus has been doing some research and has reached a dangerous conclusion…

As the rider beds down for the night, his thoughts go back to the Indian medicine man who raised him after his family were murdered and he ponders his eerie gift. At that moment elsewhere, farming family the Colsons are being butchered by the Preacher’s acolytes. Markham has judged them to be immoral sinners, but the atrocities he personally inflicts upon the woman prove it’s no God driving his campaign of terror…

Next morning the rider stumbles across the massacre. By now, he’s fully conversant with the Preacher’s methods and ignores the faked “evidence” of South-supporting Border Ruffians, but is astounded and delighted to discover a survivor…

Taking the child to Holton, the stranger is unsurprised to see his accounts of the crime and description of the perpetrators ignored. He knows Markham always finds influential supporters like bankers and local politicians. The townsfolk are shaken though. First the newspaper office burns down and Marcus vanishes, and now a massacre…

After ignoring an unsubtle warning to mind his own business from Harper’s hired gun Clayton, the rider’s breakfast is interrupted by Sheriff Abel. He’s more inclined to believe stories about the Preacher, but knows who runs things, if not why…

When the rider leaves town in the morning, it’s with new knowledge gained through his strange gift and furtive conversations with bargirl Lucy, an ally of Marcus. Well versed in the brutal whims of men like Harper and Markham. Unfortunately, her allegiance is uncovered and she pays a heavy price after the stranger leaves…

On the trail, the stalker meets fugitive Marcus and hears what the idealistic journalist has uncovered of an international plutocratic plot to instigate war, but his sole concern is catching the Preacher. Debate distracts them and almost costs their lives when Clayton’s gang ambushes them after they stop at a friend’s cabin. The shootout leaves the stranger with Marcus’ notebook and the psychometrically derived knowledge of what Harper and Clayton did to Lucy, as well as a fierce determination to fix things in Holton before resuming his pursuit of Markham… and this time, the rider will be the one dictating how and where the final clash takes place…

Dark, uncompromisingly gritty, diabolically clever and lavishly limned in a style reminiscent of Jean Giraud’s Blueberry, this is as much conspiracy drama as revenge western with an enigmatic figure slowly discovering himself whilst derailing a plot to change the world. Here the inescapable war that’s looming is not due to a crusade of opposing beliefs but a devious scheme by commercial interests to foment war for profit and their own gain.

Before publication by Cinebook, Lonesome was initially released in digital-only English translation by Europe Comics, so if you don’t want to wait for later Cinebook editions, you can satisfy your impatience that way. Regardless, this is a superb example of a genre standard done right and if you like your west wild and wicked you won’t be sorry…
© Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) 2018 by Yves Swolfs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2020 Cinebook Ltd.

Stumptown volume 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)


By Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth & various (Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-93496-437-8 (HB) 978-1-62010-440-8 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-62010-068-4

Plenty of superhero, supernatural and sci fi comics make the jump to TV and movies these days, but not so many straightforward down to earth crime sagas. One that did came from the ever-entertaining, prodigiously prolific, multi award-winning Greg Rucka: a screenwriter (The Old Guard) and novelist (Atticus Kodiak crime sequence, Jad Bell series and half a dozen general thrillers).

Rucka has also crafted astounding graphic thrillers like Whiteout, Queen & Country and Lazarus and excelled working on prime properties and characters Star Wars, Superman, Batman, Gotham Central (co-scripted by Ed Brubaker), Wonder Woman, Grendel, Elektra, the Punisher and Wolverine and been a major contributor to epic events such as 52, No Man’s Land, Infinite Crisis and New Krypton.

One of HIS most engaging concepts features a private eye barely getting by in the writer’s own backyard: Portland Oregon – AKA “Stumptown”…

The series launched in November 2009 as a 6-issue miniseries from Oni Press, with modern day Portland locales a vibrant and integral part of the story. A huge hit, the series was indefinitely extended and ran until #19. The TV show launched September 25, 2019 and was equally entertaining and initially successful, before dying after one superb season during the worst days of the pandemic.

Preceded by Matt Fraction’s Introduction ‘On Stumptown’, and illustrated by Matthew Southworth (Savage Dragon, Ares, Infinity Inc.) with additional colour from Lee Loughridge & Rico Renzi, ‘The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)’ introduces Dexadrine Callisto Parios, private detective and sole owner of Stumptown Investigations.

She’s struggling with bills, two mortgages, a gambling problem, and dangerous impulses whilst looking after dependent brother Ansel and ignoring other people’s constant grief because of her bisexuality – or more likely her attitude to them shoving their noses into problems she doesn’t want to confront yet…

Here, things kick off with Dex being executed by two low grade thugs before we spin back 27 hours to the Whispering Winds casino, where her latest binge and sky high tab have won her a face-to-face meeting with the owner Native American matriarch Sue-Lynne Suppa.

The bosslady also has problems. Wayward granddaughter Charlotte has gone missing – probably with a girl this time – and Dex’s unique skillset, unusual connections and urgent need makes her the perfect hunter to track down and bring home the truant. In return, the casino will forgive the PI’s entire debt.

Its easy to decide what to do if you’ve got no choice…

However, as soon as Dex finishes checking out Charlotte’s apartment, she’s roughed up by moronic thugs Dill and Whale, who also want to find the missing bad girl. Message delivered, the idiots drive off, and Dex is immediately abducted by far more professional goons working for hugely wealthy (don’t ask how he made his pile) Hector Marenco.

Hector has pressing family problems too, but he’s not talking about his sexually-predatory firebrand daughter Isabel or ambitious idiot son Oscar. He needs Charlotte found too, and is willing to pay twice what Sue-Lynne’s offering… but only if Dex tells him first when she finds the lost girl.

Checking in with Ansel (Rucka’s superbly positive and inclusive take on a neuro-atypical character – he has Downs Syndrome but is a realistically rendered, sensitively realised actor who fully participates in the stories), Dex gets a late call from a terrified Charlotte and cautiously arranges a secret meeting…

The staggered flashbacks catch up to now as Dex’s body is dragged out of the river. Her foresight in wearing body armour pays off in more aches, pains and arrest by the Portland Police Bureau, but at least now she knows how serious Charlotte’s problem is and has a good idea who’s involved, if not why…

Diligent research provided by close friend police detective Tracy Hoffman – and an unpleasant but mercifully brief reunion with precinct captain Volk – gives Dex the identity of one of her would-be killers, but as she doggedly proceeds, ambush interviews with the evermore intrusive Marenco siblings lead to a big break. At least it’s not a missing persons gig anymore…

Now helplessly enmired in a federal crime scenario and escalating civil war within a ruthless family trapped in centuries-old bigotries, face-saving and macho posturing, Dex has to negotiate her way out and keep her meagre supply of friends safe as ancient prejudice and modern crime meet head-on and a father ruthlessly resolved to maintain his position and defend the old ways goes into merciless clean-up mode.

Thankfully, Parios is tough, thinks fast and has a gift for making plans on the fly…

A superbly stylish thriller perfectly exploiting changing society and the nature of Oregon myth and culture, this initial yarn was originally collected as a hardback in 2011 with subsequent volumes in both luxury and trade paperback editions. All are available digitally.

Winningly, there are also wonderful extras included in this first tome, starting with Artifacts of Stumptown – a photo feature of cool promotional objects (“tchotchkes”) released to market the series. There was an 8-page monochrome promo micro-comic (printed at the size of a business card and packaged with a magnifying glass) reprinted at full size here as ‘Dex Parios of Stumptown Investigations in “Mustang Ranch”’; t-shirt designs; art prints and a poster mimicking a yellow pages ad for Stumptown Investigations deigned by Eric Trautman.

If you love crime drama, detective fiction, strong female role models or just bloody great storytelling, you need to pay a visit to Stumptown.
Stumptown ™ & © 2011 Greg Rucka & Matthew Southworth. All rights reserved.

Heathen volume 1


By Natasha Alterici with Rachel Deering (Vault Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-939424-18-1 (TPB) ISBN: eISBN: 978-1-939424-19-8

The creation myths and heroic sagas of Scandinavia are part of a global grand storytelling heritage: classic epics of paragons that have been constantly retold and reinvented for more than a thousand years, subtly reshaded to suit every generation. Here’s one that’s boldly innovative and very much in tune and in demand at this moment in time.

In 2017 Natasha Alterici (Gotham Academy, Women of Marvel) began retelling those myths through a lens of female empowerment in an age still too much mired in gender subjugation. There are still talking beasts, fantastic beings and big brawny warriors aplenty and some of them are women, but here we get a look at what the consequences of a maiden bearing arms meant and what any act of female independence actually cost…

Modern iterations of historical/fantasy scenarios are rife with glamorous women warriors, but whether the goal is prurient pandering (and what idiot believes skimpy chainmail bikinis and saucer-encased boobs count as armour?) or a well-meant attempt to balance scales of omission with the Sword & Sorcery equivalent of “colourblind casting”, the truth is that that very few women fought beside male combatants in any combat. Against, most definitely, but that’s a wholly different scenario with their struggles being more in the nature of a violently resisting prize or momentary diversion from the macho business of butchery…

Okay, maybe some pirates and legendary queens have been recorded as having joined in physical fighting, but traditionally, most women in combat were reduced to side roles or forced to disguise themselves AS MEN to even have a chance of surviving the attentions of their own allies and comrades…

A far more reasonable and rational scenario underpins this vivid reworking of the Valkyries’ legend, with fugitive Norsewoman Aydis riding out on a most private mission. Capable and doughty as any male, she shares with her horse Saga how Godking Odin created the fierce and beautiful Choosers of the Slain to escort men’s souls to Valhalla …if they fell in battle. She also relates how their leader Brynhild once disobeyed micromanaging, conniving, petty Odin and was punished by exile and compelled to marry a mortal.

Crafty Brynhild thought she had the last word, convincing her creator to allow her to test her suitors’ mettle. This was done by confining her atop a mountain behind a wall of magic fire, where only the bravest, strongest and most worthy would dare to go…

Aydis is inspired by this tale as she hunts a deer and meets again Liv, reexperiencing the moment they kissed and how it changed both lives. Their act of deviancy could only be expunged by death or marriage, but while Liv’s father married her off immediately, Aydis’ sire had apparently opted to execute the degenerate fruit of his loins…

Now, the almost-lovers meet over a slaughtered stag and ruefully ponder what might have been and how it might feel to not be man’s property. They are interrupted by a rampaging bull…

Aydis easily defeats the maddened beast only to find it is shapeshifting trickster god Ruadan who lets slip that he is watching her on behalf of an intrigued god and that immortals live cyclic lives, reliving the same stories over and again…

Aydis is resolved her existence will break the eternal mould. Bidding farewell to Liv, she fashions a warrior helmet from the stag and sets out to free Brynhild and chart the course of her own life…

This initial collection gathers the first four issues of Heathen, and chapter 2 opens with wolf gods Skull and Hati idly debating food, entertainment and ending the world until one sibling steps into a metal trap he cannot break. Happily, Saga – whom they were disinterestedly stalking – is a most unique special steed and frees the godling’s paw, even as high above them all, Aydis clears the flame wall and rouses Brynhild.

She does not seek to marry the Valkyrie, but rather prove her own bravery and liberate a fellow captive of fate from male-ordained doom, but it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is…

When they reach solid ground again, Brynhild reveals a shocking secret about Saga just as other Valkyries arrive, led by their new chieftain – love divinity Freyja. The scheming immortal takes one look and kidnaps Aydis to her heavenly citadel…

The saga diverges here as Aydis becomes a guest of hedonistic Freyja, leaving the defrocked Chooser of the Slain and Saga to roam the Nordic lands, seeking allies to help them challenge the gods in their own kingdom. More secrets are shared and Aydis learns hard truths in heaven, winning an ally in mute mortal Shannon, even as on Earth, Brynhild experiences the unjust status and roles women must endure. Eventually, she reunites with a tragic hero. Centuries previously, Sigurd was the last man to free her from the flames and in these new times, he still lives, thanks to wily Odin’s divinely pedantic curse…

The final chapter sees an end to Aydis’ time in heaven, while on Earth, her would-be rescuers wander into another savage situation caused by humanity’s hidebound rules on who and how to love. This situation is further exacerbated by a new sect called Christians, who not only frown on “unnatural” love, but will not tolerate wise women and witches dispensing potions and advice. Typically, Brynhild has a most forceful and fast-acting resolution to a growing hostage situation and building riot…

And for Aydis and Shannon, a Rubicon is crossed as the outcast warrior declares war on the father of the gods…

Thrilling, compelling and beautifully illustrated, Heathen ran to 3 volumes (now available as a Complete Omnibus edition since a movie adaptation imminently looms), but here the epic concludes with a gallery of the original wraparound covers rendered by Tess Fowler & Tamra Bonvillain, with variants from Alterici, Jen Bartel and Nathan Gooden sweetening the deal.

A delicious and wry alternate take on primal heroic myths, this book offers fresh ideals and a fair shake at last while proving the Good Fight can be fought by anybody for everybody.
© 2017 Natasha Alterici. All rights reserved.

Operation Liberate Men volume 1 & 2


By Mira Lee (NetComics/Ecomix)
ISBN: 978-1-60009-231-2 and 978-1-60009-232-9 (Tankōbon PB/Digital editions)

Authored by Mira Lee (Land of Silver Rain), Operation Liberate Men began in the late 1990s: a challenging comics concept released in a country where female roles in society were still painfully hidebound, and the concept of the “Ideal Woman” was a very real anchor to freedom of expression and lifestyle. The wild fantasy ran for 9 volumes before going on hiatus.

Now controlled by South Korean publisher Ecomix, episodes are available online with the promise of resumption and a conclusion after Lee concludes her current comics projects.

In volume 1, Sooha Jung is sixteen and an officially inadequate woman. For her whole life, she never fitted in, and has now failed the High School Admissions Exam. In achievement-oriented, socially-conservative, gender-orthodox South Korea, it’s damaging enough just to be a tomboy who prefers fighting to preening, primping or dating boys, but now she must add mediocre student to her list of failings.

Then, all of a sudden, the ethereally beautiful and androgynous Ganesha literally bumps into her…

Sooha is unsure if the lovely but weird foreigner is boy or girl, but quickly realises that it’s not as relevant as the fact that the stranger is completely crazy, claiming to come from another dimension – the Para Empire – where men are slaves and sex objects dominated by sadistic, domineering women. Disbelieving yet inspired by the thought of a world where women are in charge, she humours Ganesha, agreeing to travel to the Para Empire. Unfortunately, the story is completely accurate and she’s soon trapped on a very alien and dangerous world. Moreover, when they first met, Ganesha had assumed she was a ferocious male – the perfect man to lead the downtrodden males of Para to freedom!

Embroiled in a civil war in a fantastical primitive place, Sooha bolts, but soon realises the genuine need of the oppressed in the ruthless, savage society. She also discovers Ganesha has a secret. As the most beautiful man in the worlds, he’s not only a secret freedom-fighter but also the cherished, pampered plaything of the utterly diabolical Supreme Ruler: a woman called The Emperor…
Malevolent schemers, Court intrigues, broad humour and a remarkably progressive take on gender discrimination elevates this old, old plot, whilst healthy doses of supernatural conflict, countered by Sooha’s Bull-in-a-China-Shop temperament, make this tale an unexpected treat.
It’s nice to see a less-than-deferential, plain girl as lead character for once and the cliffhanger the first volume concludes on ensures readers will return to see what happens next. Give it a go and perhaps you’ll feel the same way too…

Operation Liberate Men volume 2 steams straight in with the next step in the campaign of sexual revolution, as Sooha Jung reviews her position. It was hard enough to get by as a mannish young girl, better at fighting than dating, and a poor student too, in modern society, but when you’re so ashamed that you make a foolish decision and end up trapped in a parallel dimension where sadistic, autocratic, bullying women have enslaved men, it’s almost too much to bear.

When you compound all that with the shameful fact that the oppressed men who expect you to deliver them from bondage are all completely oblivious of the fact that you are actually female, you can see why the teenager thinks she might have made a major mistake in travelling to this magical realm to liberate the men of the Para Empire.
Grudgingly accepting command of the Laharshita (“Male Liberation Army”) she now falls foul of the brutal women – also unaware of Sooha’s gender – leading to a savage battle in which rebel conspirator and undercover Boy-Toy Ganesha is near-fatally wounded.

Desperate and on the run, Sooha is soon captured and imprisoned and, as events in the rebel hierarchy proceed without her, suddenly realises that this is not her first contact with the male denizens of the Para Empire. There was an incident so long ago, back when she was just a little girl…

A touch of Aubrey Beardsley and the occasional flurry of Charles M Schulz in the dreamy artwork is so effective in elevating this compelling manhwa (Korean for manga or comics) fantasy. Ending on another cliffhanger, this war story will grip readers in fevered anticipation for that hopefully imminent conclusion…
© 1997, 2001 Mira Lee. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2007 NetComics.

Artifice


By Alex Wolfson & Winona Nelson (AMW Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-9857604-0-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Deacon sits in a featureless cell. He doesn’t look like much but has caused a lot of trouble and his two guards are each reacting in their own way: one with mounting aggression and bluster and the other with fear for his job and his life. When the taunting bigotry and disgust-fuelled bravado reach a tipping point, the immobile captive finally shows them both why they have every right to be scared…

Later, Deacon is debriefed by an interrogator. Dr. Maven is a highly qualified therapist highly ranked at NoNeCo: tasked with and determined to find out what went wrong on the mission to Da Vinci Four. It is crucial that she learns the truth. The Corporation has spent unimaginable sums building and programming Deacon and his four siblings, and can’t afford to casually scrap them. They were a highpoint in synthetic servants: stronger, smarter, faster than humanity and therefore the greatest potential threat to Man’s dominance ever encountered. Thus, he cannot be permitted further existence if what is reported to have happened there is even partially true…

When the puritanical colony needed pacifying, Deacon and his super-soldier kin eliminated all but one human being. The last battle left the other artificials destroyed in a trap. Now, Deacon explains how he allowed one organic – “Jeff” – to live because the colony systems were inoperable by synthetics and he needed to remain functional until relief arrived. Only organics could operate the rechargers supplying the artificial man with energy and life.

Deacon claims it was simply strategy. The young man was already an outcast, shunned and despised because of his genetic abnormality, and easy to psychologically manipulate. Deacon simply played on his uncorrected homosexual flaw to sustain his own existence until a scheduled follow-up mission landed four months later.

Deacon claims everything he subsequently did with Jeff and to the rescuers was simply to complete the mission, but the doctor isn’t fooled. She realises this android is even smarter and more devious than anyone imagined, but allows one final meeting with Jeff to test her theory… and discovers to her cost just how human and well-constructed the synthetic is, and how powerful is the outdated concept of love…

Alex Wolfson (The Young Protectors) writes a smartly compelling drama about intolerance and forbidden love overcoming all odds, whilst Winona Nelson (If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving) provides bleak, regimented and powerfully understated realism to the art that makes it so very believable.

A dystopian fable that ends on a note of hope and promise of a sequel, Artifice began life as a webcomic serial dealing in forthright manner with violence and sexual situations in service to a superbly engaging and enthralling drama that would already be a major motion picture if close-minded, parochial movie producers could get past the fact that it depicts guys snogging.

Thankfully, you aren’t so emotionally stunted and can enjoy the tale which closes here with ‘Reader Questions’ answered by the creative team, ‘Writer’s Notes’ by Wolfson describing the project’s genesis and ‘Artist’s Notes’ from Nelson, plus a fully illustrated run-down on their collaborative ‘Process’ and even faux press releases and reader response from evil mega-corp in ‘NoNeCo Responds’.

Proving yet again that there’s absolutely no appreciable difference in sexual orientation when telling wonderful stories of heroes, villains and lovers, Artifice is a lost treat you will definitely delight in, whoever you are and want to be.
© 2011, 2012, 2013 Alex Wolfson. All rights reserved. All characters, distinctive names and likenesses and all related elements are trademarks of Alex Wolfson and AMW Comics.

Lifelike


By Dara Naraghi & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-122-9 (HB) 978-1-60010-286 8 (TPB)

We do it for fame, we do it for fortune (or at least to pay bills), we do it for fun and the very best of us make comics because we absolutely have to. Every story we hear, every event we see provokes the reaction “how would I break that down into panels? How many on a page?” All data – from shopping lists to bad TV – is taken in, panned like gold nuggets through an internal grid and then we worry about how we’ll draw that damn thing one day…

All creative people are a little bit chained to their art-form, and Dara Naraghi apparently more so than most. As well as his own celebrated BigCityBlues and Persia Blues comics, he keeps busy adapting licensed properties such as Robert Patterson’s Witch & Wizard novels, Terminator: Salvation, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Ghostbusters into graphics narrative form, writing for DC, Image and IDW whilst running his own publishing house Ferret Press. He also scripts (and occasionally draws) utterly sublime tales covering every aspect of the human experience from wild fantasy to chilling slice-of-life in a splendid series of webcomic features.

Wonderfully expansive in narrative scope and illustrated by an astounding gathering of talented artisans, an exemplary bunch of these brief delights was compiled into a fabulous compilation. Every yarn in this anthology comes from the webcomic and are written (and lettered) by Naraghi, complete with commentary and context on the illustrators interpreting each piece.

The wonderment begins with ‘The Long Journey’ illustrated by Irapuan Luiz, following the dramatic escape of a disillusioned Iranian soldier determined to leave the Iran-Iraq War behind him forever. Naraghi is Iranian (born in Tehran in 1971) and his own journey to the west would make pretty interesting reading, although probably without the telling sting in the tale embedded here…

‘Imaginarians’ – winningly crafted by award winning Tom Williams – takes a barbed look at how the media deals with artists on the promo circuit, whilst equally lauded Marvin Mann’s atmospheric ‘Double Cross at the Double Down’ proves that even if crime doesn’t pay, stories about it certainly do.

Rendered by Neil Errar, ‘Art/Life’ is a feel-good fable about a comics creator we all concur with, and Jerry Lange’s moody, misty paint-and-Paintbox (showing my digital age there) treatment examines the exquisite pain of unconditional love lost with ‘Remembrance’, after which Stephen Spenser Ledford opts for monochrome ink washes to recount a particularly trenchant tale of crime and ‘Punishment.’

Sex and booze and rock ‘n’ roll form the basis of cheeky dating vignette ‘Intermission’, illustrated by Andy Bennett, whilst Jerry Lange’s watercolour expertise displays a different arena for the relationship dance in ‘Crush’ and Tim McClurg’s ‘Comeback’ describes a meteoric fall from stardom for one has-been actor.

Marvin Mann displays his artistic versatility in ‘Smoke Break’: a heart-warming peek at modern life and ‘The Routine’ by Steve Black touchingly reminds us that even small victories count in our work-a-day world, whereas the stunning drawing of Adrian Barbu’s gritty thriller ‘Rooftop Philosophy’ adds acres of edge to a dark tale of criminal Darwinism. Tom Williams then astounds again with ‘Skin Deep’, a charming semi-autobiographical shaggy-dog story before our pictorial programme ends on a heartwarming high note in‘Repair’ as Shom Bhuiya treats us to a view of the common man at his very best…

The 14 tales assembled in Lifelike demonstrate the sheer breadth and depth that comics can and should cover: a book that opens up all of human experience and imagination to the cartoonist’s particular skills and insights. Now it’s up to the rest of us to respond and react…
Created and © 2007 Dara Naraghi. All artwork © 2007 by its respective artist. © 2007 Idea and Design Workshop. All Rights Reserved.

Black Knight volume 1


By Kai Tsurugi (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59816-522-7 (TPB)

So, it’s Pride Month and not all comics are about genocide or racial slaughter. Here’s a lost gem long overdue for another run in the sun – or at least a new English language revival on paper or in digital form…

Japan’s vast comics industry is formally sub-divided into discrete categories to avoid dithering and confusion. This is a fine historical example of a Yaoi story – a romanticised fantasy relationship drama starring beautiful young men in love. The genre was devised for female audiences: like Shounen-Ai (stories of two young men, but with more erotic content) although very mild – to the point of chaste gentility – by that standard.

As Kuro no Kishi, the serial first appeared from August 2003-October 2005 in Magazine Be x Boy, before filling 4 subsequent tankōbon tomes. These were translated via TokyoPop’s Blu Manga imprint and released between July 2006 and February 2009. There’s no English language digital editions that I know of, but the physical copies are still readily available.

This lyrical, sexually explicit fantasy opens by introducing wayward hero Zeke O’Brien: a trainee mercenary of lower class origins who rises to the rank of Black Knight by saving the life of a lovely young Prince targeted for assassination by the hidden enemies of the King of Aran.

When the royal neophyte is assigned to train as a Black Knight, Zeke thwarts every attempt to murder the elfin Prince Chris, but falls hopelessly in love with his charge. He is delighted to discover the feeling is mutual and furtively, frequently, passionately reciprocated. However, the King’s enemies are many and the trials for the young lovers are only just beginning in this splendidly Ruritanian Romance of intrigue and melodrama.

Lavish, ostentatious, beautifully illustrated and inoffensively charming, this initial volume carries an additional, modern tale of boy-on-boy romance that might upset some readers, but not for obvious reasons.

‘Deadly Sin’ tells of the intimate (and naturally, graphically explicit) affair between a young priest (a son of IRA terrorists who subsequently murdered the SAS killers of his parents) and an athlete/poet he meets on holiday. Despite being well written and drawn, this type of material is bound to offend devoutly Christian, sectarian and/or conservative sorts (note the small ‘c’) so if you are the type hanging around waiting to be outraged, please save us all some grief and don’t read it.
© 2003 Kai Tsurugi. English text © 2006 BLU Inc. All rights reserved.

Bootblack 


By Mikaël, translated by Matt Maden (NBM) 
ISBN: 978-1-68112-296-0 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-297-7 

Certain eras and locales perennially resonate with both entertainment consumers and story creators. The Wild West, Victorian London, the trenches of the Somme, and so many more quasi-mythological locales instantly evoke images of drama, tension and tales begging to be told. In these modern times of doom and privation, one of the most evocative is Depression-era America… specifically the Big City… 

Perhaps because it feels so tantalizingly within reach of living memory, or thanks to its cachet as the purported land of promises and untapped opportunity, America has always fascinated storytellers – especially comics-creators – from the “Old World” of Europe. This inclination has delivered many potent and rewarding stories, none more so than this continentally-published yarn by multi-disciplinary, multi award-winning French-born, Québécois auteur and autodidact Mikaël (Giant; Junior l’Aventurier; Rapa Nui, Promise)  

Published in Europe by Dargaud in 2018, Bootblack originated as twin albums before being released as a brace of English-language digital tomes courtesy of Europe Comics. It now manifests as an oversized (229 x 305mm), resoundingly resilient hardback edition that gets the entire story done-in-one. 

We open in Germany in 1945 where a weary G.I. pauses on a corpse-covered, crow-ridden battlefield to reflect on how he got there. Once upon a time, his given name was Alternberg: after the German village his family fled to America from. One day in 1929 – even before his tenth birthday – the boy rejected that name and his family; running away from his New York City ghetto hours before tragedy erased it, making him forever an orphan of the streets. 

As “Al”, he grifted and grafted with other homeless kids, mostly making money by shining shoes. His best pal was James “Shiny” Rasmussen and he adored from afar shopkeeper’s daughter Maggie. That ambitious, self-educated go-getter had no time for him, but her mute little brother William – whom everyone else called Buster – was readily accepted by the street kids who eked out a precarious living. 

Their scavenging for every cent was punctuated by clashes with rival kid gangs whose members had grown up as peewee versions of their nostalgically nationalistic, backward-looking elders. Al’s guys considered themselves True Americans, with no ties to some former “old country” that had no time or place for them…  

Al’s life changed again in 1935 when charismatic boy-pickpocket Joseph “Finger Joe” Bazilsky moved into the district. Soon after, Al became Al Chrysler and shoeshine shenanigans grew into errands – and worse – for local hood/entrepreneur Frankie… 

Throughout those years, Al pursued Maggie, gradually wearing her down and building a rapport with his constant promises of a dream trip to Coney Island. However, just when he got close enough to learn what made her tick, another clash with the “German” bootblack kids caused the death of someone they all loved.  

Al and Maggie never really had a chance, not with her home life and Joe always somehow in the way at the most inopportune moments… 

Ultimately, the increasingly hostile situation escalated into crisis, inevitably drawing every player into a tragic confrontation prompting more bad decisions and wrong choices, leading to betrayal and a destiny-drenched denouement in a field that could never have been Al’s homeland… 

Told in a clever sequence of overlapping flashbacks – like Christopher Nolan’s Memento – everything about this stylish Depression-era drama is big, powerfully mythic and tragically foredoomed in a truly Shakespearean manner. Packed with period detail and skilfully tapping into the abundance of powerful, socially-aware novels, plays and movies which immortalised pre-WWII America, this collection also includes a gallery of stunning art tableaus at the back of the book.  

Bootblack is moving, memorable and momentous, another triumph of graphic narrative you must not miss. 
© 2019, 2020 Dargaud-Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) – Mikaël.    

Boot Black is scheduled for UK release May 19th 2022 and is available for pre-order now. 
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com.