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.

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.

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.

The Con Artists


By Luke Healy (Faber)
ISBN: 978-1-91274-008-6 (HB)

In modern times, Stand-up Comedians don’t tell jokes. These days, they are perspicacious social observers, wry cultural commentators and introspective self-examiners, exposing themselves on painfully primal and crushingly candid levels to make points of modern philosophy, or about politics, the world and the human condition. Well, at least the ones I watch do…

As such, their own lives constitute the raw fuel of their craft and product of their efforts. In that respect they mirror that brand of cartoonists such as Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Unlikely, Every Girl is the End of the World for Me), Tillie Walden (I Love this Part, Spinning, A City Inside), Leslie Stein (Eye of the Majestic Creature), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) or Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and R. Crumb (My Troubles with Women). Here, that level of studied, curated introspection and revelation have resulted in a very modern exploration of ambition and trust…

Luke Healy studied journalism, graduated from Dublin University and earned an MFA in Cartooning from the Center for Cartoon Studies (Vermont, USA). His previous published work – such as Americana, Permanent Press and How to Survive in the North – have been awarded prizes and acclaim, and he’s also done gallery shows. His comics for VICE, The Nib, A24, Medium, Nobrow and Avery Hill are really good and he likes exposing himself to ridicule on stage. He has combined all that trauma, weltschmerz and experience into this tale exploring basic big stuff like life, friends, friends who aren’t honest and how to keep your head above emotional water.

Frank is a Stand-Up guy. He’s ambitious, London-based Irish, gay, formerly Catholic (as much as any of us can ever escape the early programming), clinically anxious and helplessly honest. With best mate Ro, he plans to storm it at the Edinburgh Festival before going on to conquer the world of Comedy. He’s getting treatment for self-diagnosed, presumed personal problems but always building for the big day. Suddenly, everything changes after a childhood mate – his best one – calls in a panic. There’s been an accident…

Giorgio was out and proud back at school in Ireland when Frank was still an anguished ball of denial, dragged down by Catholic guilt and repression. His example gave Frank strength and they’ve been buds ever since – although, it must be said, not particularly close or constant ones, even though they both now live in London…

Now there’s been an event and Giorgio is unable to cope on his own. He needs someone to move in and take care of him. You know; simple stuff like feeding and changing him and keeping him stocked in the booze and cigarettes he’s been forbidden to consume with his medication…

Initially willing, Frank obliges, but as days turn into weeks, he sees his own life stall and his plans evaporate into Giorgio’s subtly unforceful, blandly adamant demands and begins to suspect something really isn’t right. Tension exacerbates his own clinical anxiety issues, but while he seeks help, Giorgio brushes off every overture suggesting a change in his self-destructive course.

It all really goes south after Frank finds out how his old pal is making money these days…

However, as he tries to navigate his car crash relationships, Frank knows he’s been made – on every level – an accomplice in Giorgio’s schemes and must now reassess himself for his own safety and sanity… and realises that a life of dishonesty is contagious…

Frank hints that he too tells us what he wants us to know, even while “sharing” the minutiae of his intimately platonic relationship with childhood amigo Giorgio: reluctantly carrying his “best friend” through a moment of extended crisis, aiding him in what turns out to be shockingly unwelcome acts and coming away feeling he’s just been the charmer’s first and longest-serving victim and patsy..

Throughout, capital “H” Honesty is key here. Who is lying to Frank and crucially, How, Where, When and Why is Frank lying to himself? Is he doing things we know we shouldn’t or is it just his conditioned response to Giorgio? Is Giorgio being cunningly manipulative rather than simply secretive?

Deftly playing with the fourth wall and directly engaging his audience at most inopportune moments, the narrator’s linear scenario is intercut with moments from painful past and present stage performances, whilst direct interventions with the reader as cartoon actor “Frank” serve to examine the chains of childhood friendships and contemporary relationships. The laughs are good but it’s clear how life is lived for cartoon actor Frank, and for people like him Love and Trust don’t always go together…

Enticingly introspective and painfully familiar to anyone who ever had a mate who was more Trouble than Worth, The Con Artists is no joke, but is unmissable reading.

© Luke Healy, 2022. All rights reserved.
The Con Artists will be published on June 2nd  2022 and is available for pre-order now.

Welcome Home 


By Clarrie & Blanche Pope (Minor Compositions) 
ISBN: 978-1-57027-394-0 (PB)  

Comics are cheap and primal: easy to create, disseminate and understand. That’s why (after music) they are the most subversive and effective form of revolutionary art. To see what I mean just check out straightforward polemical texts such as The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free, Fight the Power, Speechless, Wildcat Anarchist Comics, Willie & Joe: Back Home, or subtler cartoon sagas that couch their message in terms of an ostensible entertainment narrative like Brought to Light, Puma Blues, The Stringer, or Pogo. Welcome Home fits comfortably into the latter category, as creators Clarrie & Blanche Pope concoct a contemporary soap opera cast to carry their observations about the way society is heading and the disturbing questions that path leaves unaddressed and unanswered. Like most of that noteworthy list cited above, the sisters drew from and referenced personal experience whilst cunningly employing humour and pathos to hone their scalpel-like investigations: trusting to the familiarity of shared context to make their point.  

Haven’t you wondered what and who occupied your space before you did? Don’t you dread the fading of your memories and the loss of the places that punctuated your time on earth? And who hasn’t had a mate or relative who was more Trouble than Worth? 

Having both been young, squatters and care home workers, the creators weave a rowdily rousing, frighteningly authentic yet engagingly upbeat yarn of activism riding piggyback on modern need and ingrained privation that begins when a disparate band of acquaintances and old friends break into an empty flat.  

The place is in a tower block that has been condemned, where tenant families wait powerlessly for rehoming and the building’s demolition. The squatters range from die-hard believers in a cause to friends and lovers who can’t afford rent, united in a mission to rouse the entire block and organize resistance to the destruction of homes and a community that only needs a little financial care and attention.  

Sadly, before the final page comes, romance, passion (so NOT the same thing), ambition, confusion and the distractions of everyday life are going to play hob with their good intentions and grand dreams… 

The story is told primarily through the actions of Rain, a professional care worker who can’t make ends meet despite being worked to death with compulsory extra shifts at the Fairview home that was built as part of the original housing estate. Its post-privatisation owners Who Care and on-site manager Julie are positively Dickensian in their blindly self-indulgent hypocrisy, but at least by talking to residents like dementia-afflicted Dottie/Doris – whose vacant flat they now illicitly occupy – Rain gradually builds up a potent picture of the generational community the imminent demolition will finally end.  

Ultimately, the young/old bond will also allow the fraught and confused protagonist to sort out her own feelings and stop looking for love in all the wrong places… 

Shortlisted for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Prize, this bleak yet beguiling monochrome study of urban dissolution societal safety nets, relationship triangles, generational cultural continuity, dementia and the disempowerment of the old, young, different, nonconformist and poor is peppered with ferociously barbed faux ads drenched in the contemporary Thought Speak used by Local Councils, Cabinet Ministers, social engineers and gentrifying property companies who constantly find nonsensically bland and comforting ways to restate “you’re the wrong colour, too poor, and love the wrong sort to live here anymore”. 

Welcome Home is an enticingly introspective and painfully universal saga that should appeal to anyone who ever had a moment of monetary despair and emotional outrage at what we’ve allowed ourselves to become. It will not appeal at all to many of the societal predators listed at the end of the last paragraph, but they should be made to read to too. Or maybe hit with it: It’s a free country, after all, if you’re prepared to accept the consequences of your actions… 

© Clarrie & Blanche Pope, 2022. 

The Eldritch Kid™ volume 2: Bone War 


By Christian D. Read, Paul Mason, Justin Randall & Wolfgang Bylsma (Gestalt Publishing) 
ISBN: 978-1-922023-92-6 (TPB/Digital edition) 

Felt like a scary western today. Dug this one up… 

There was a time, not so very long ago, when all of popular fiction was bloated and engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians. As always happens with such periodic populist phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties’ Super-Spy Boom, the Vampire Boyfriend or recent Misunderstood Teens vs Corrupt Adult Dystopias trends – there was a goodly amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few spectacular gems. 

Most importantly, once such surges peter out, there’s also always a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn the passing and resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad… 

After World War II, the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the rapidly burgeoning television industry – were comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West: at that time already a firmly established standby of paperback publishing, movie serials cinematic blockbusters and low-budget B-feature films. 

I’ve often ruminated on how and why, simultaneously, the dark, bleakly nigh-nihilistic and left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome rip-snorting range-&-rodeo revolution, seemingly only for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but perhaps that’s a thought for another time and a different review. 

Even though comics encompassed Western heroes from the get-go (there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both New Fun and Action Comics and even Marvel Comics), the post-war boom years saw a vast outpouring of titles with gun-toting heroes ousting the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men. True to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling… 

Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, Western strips have largely vanished from funny book pages: apparently unable to command enough mainstream support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and furiously seductive futures. 

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some extremely impressive work, before France, Belgium and Italy made the genre emphatically their own by the end of the 1960s. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world for an avid audience unashamedly nurturing an appetite for them… 

Fantasy and Horror stories, on the other hand, have never really gone away and this utterly outrageous and supremely entertaining sequel sagebrush saga from Australian raconteur Christian Read his latest visualiser Paul Mason (with colourist Justin Randall and letterer/editor Wolfgang Bylsma) superbly blends time-honoured tropes of the wild west with sinister sorcerous sensibilities to create a bewitching alternate reality where dark bloody deeds are matched by dire demonic forces and decent guys called upon to combat them have to dabble in the diabolical too… 

Once upon a time in the west, the world changed and magic – although always real and rare – became part and parcel of everyday life… 

Without preamble the adventuresome action opens with a gunfight against an extremely unpleasant and grudge-bearing witch…  

Our narrator is an urbane and erudite Oxford-educated shaman detailing his life following his return to the land of his birth. His recollections began in the previous volume and began in Spring 1877: the great Indian Wars were over. Custer was dead but so was Crazy Horse. The Whites were greedily covering the entire country and an educated man with the wrong skin tones was reduced to playing scout for a bunch of barely literate morons wagon-trekking across the plains to California. They need him but regard their supremely capable guide with suspicion, disdain and barely-disguised disgust… 

Wicasa Waken, outcast Shaman of the Oglala Lakota – AKA Ten Shoes Dancing of the mighty Sioux and lately graduated Master of Arts and Literature, Oxford, England (1875) – always knew devil magic when he smelled it, but – since his teachers taught him to treasure human life – he remained faithful to their training and always sought to do good. That got a lot harder after saving a strange white from five-headed snakes and zombies … 

Once recovered, the “victim” eagerly joined the fight: his accursed guns making short work of the ravening Heyokas and Ten Shoes Dancing realised he had made the rather prickly acquaintance of a modern Western Legend and celebrated dime novel hero – The Eldritch Kid. 

Sadly like most heroes finally-met, he’s a surly, taciturn, creepy freak. basking in hero-worship, hot vittles and wanton female attention… 

It’s not just this becoming-nation America that is awash with blood and wickedness. The entire world is swamped with boggles, spectres and far worse, but since the War Between the States, the Kid had achieved a certain notoriety for dealing harshly and permanently with all things supernatural and predatory. 

Nevertheless, he’s a mean, mercenary bastard and a tough man to like for the philosophically inclined, poetry-loving Ten Shoes, but circumstances keep them together. Faced with daily mystic mayhem, the mismatched heroes bond even after the Lakotan learned his personal patron god Lord Hnaska was deeply troubled by the cold, dark deity sponsoring the magic-guns toting Kid. Of course, the Great Spirit was far more concerned with the crawling things that hungered for human morsels, and allowed a loveless alliance to be forged. Eventually, the Kid finally opened up enough to share the history that made him the most feared gunhawk in the West. 

In 1865 Camp Elmira, New Jersey held Confederate prisoners.. The detention centre was a hellhole even by human standards, but when a demon began taking inmates, one of the terrified, beaten, sitting duck captives was offered a deal by an ancient northern god. Odin, grim King of Death, was unhappy with beasts and night things increasingly infesting Earth and offered a trade: power for service… 

After a suitably painful and gory “offering” the prisoner was given just enough of a supernatural advantage to kill the monsters – human and otherwise – and escape. Wielding a brace of Rune-Pistols, he’s been doing his Lord’s work ever since… 

That mission continues here as the Diabolist Duo inconclusively clash with bounty hunting old enemy Jacinta Gun-Gunn, and in the aftermath are recruited by former palaeontologist Mr. Othniel. He wants them to steal back his greatest discovery, the full and bejewelled skeleton of a lost prince of a civilisation that perished millions of years previously.  

The astounding artefact was swiped by his rival “Doc” Drinker, but theirs is not a regular scientific dispute. Othniel is a necromancer who survived his own decapitation and now resides a head in a jar, and Madam Drinker travels with a coterie of witches and unruly women. Both parties clearly have secret agendas but Ten Shoes Dancing and the Eldritch provisionally accept the generous commission because of the most pertinent fact: the skeleton has come back to arcane unlife and recalled revenant subjects from its long-fallen, mystically malign dinosaur empire of Tzenshaitchan to raise fresh Hell across the Badlands… 

Thanks to timely assistance from the Lakotan’s Frog-God patron, our heroes are made aware of the true situation and switch sides when  a better offer is made, but they are still bushwacked by Drinker’s presumed ally the Ani Kutani Witch Tsintah who has her own sinister scheme in play and even nastier masters to answer to… 

With dinosaur skeletons tearing the countryside up, the gunslingers are kept too busy to stop Othniel building himself a newer and more deadly body and the witch summoning the almighty horror called the Priest King and restoring an even earlier age of bloody sacrifice and life-extending butchery… 

And as the battle intensifies and all the arcane ages of terror converge to create a charnel ground of warfare, humanity’s deity Odin arrives… 

Ragnarok, anyone? 

The tantalising conclusion is supplemented by a cover/chapter break gallery by Nichola Scott, Douglas Holgate, Emily K. Smith & James Brouwer; original art pages from Mason and Read’s original script pages.  

Rowdy, rousing, purely bonkers and spectacularly action-packed, The Bone War is a sharp, satisfying and mordantly funny yarn to delight lovers of genre fiction and witty mash-ups. Black hats, white hats, lost worlds, haunts and horrors, stunning visuals and macabre twists – what more could you possibly ask for? 

Apparently, another sequel, so hopefully I’ll be getting to that too in the fullness of time… 
© 2017-2019 Christian Read, Paul Masan & Gestalt Publishing Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. 

Gothic Tales of Haunted Futures


By Trina Robbins, Anne Timmons & Scott A. Ford; Letty Wilson; Luz Bianca & Kaylee Rowena; Mikaela Lucido & Jade Zhang; Leizl Buenaventura & Saida Temofonte; Cameron Lucente; Jamie Isfeld; Cait Zellers; Sztehlo; Leonie O’Moore & Skylar Partridge; Arlo Everett, B. Sparks & Paul Coy; Allison Pang & Irma ‘Aimo’ Ahmed; Matt McGrath & V. Gagnon; Joyce Chau; Skylar Kardon; Merissa Mayhew & Lyndon Radchenka: edited by S.M. Beiko (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-989754-03-0 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-989754-04-7 (digital)

Sometimes, it’s all about enthusiasm and the urge to create and collaborate. Here, I suspect someone said “there’s not enough romance comics” and someone else said “I like scary stories” and another person chipped in “what about science fiction?” and the next thing you know, there’s an entire anthology of spooky, futuristic love stories all mashed-up for discerning comics tastes, just waiting to be kick-starter-ed…

The result is utterly wonderful…

Following an inspirational Foreword by editor S.M. Beiko, we take off for the future with veteran cartoonist Trina Robbins in collaboration with Anne Timmons, Scott A. Ford & Lyndon Radchenka, who reveal a patient devotion that outlasts the grave on the ‘Ghost Planet’, after which a moody illustration from Mika segues into Letty Wilson’s ‘Glasshouse’, which finds an unexpected bountiful blessing from a passing stranger delivered to a strange community in dire need of renewal…

Luz Bianca & Kaylee Rowena recount a fateful chance encounter ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’, before Mikaela Lucido & Jade Zhang update the old chestnut of party kids and dangerous dares in ‘Bloody Mary and the Smart Mirror’, after which Leizl Buenaventura & Saida Temofonte detail how a doomed astronaut finds a spectral reason to live after a visitor helps him go ‘Home’..

‘Under the Bed’ depicts a grim battle between life and death by Cameron Lucente, and following a moody spot illo from Katie Fleming, an unexpected down side to social media relationships is highlighted by Jamie Isfeld’s ‘@LissaTruLuv’…

Alaire Racocot’s monochromatic night illustration leads to Cait Zeller’s colourful tale of ‘The Lichtenberg Lady’ lighting up the lonely nights of a solitary lightning strike survivor, after which a lonely soul rediscovers past passion through musical recordings in ‘Ghosting’ (by Sztehlo) whilst – following a chaotic clinch courtesy of Kielamel Sibal – Leonie O’Moore, Skylar Partridge & Lyndon Radchenka find love for an ancient creature at the bottom of the sea in ‘Sunken Scream’…

A hard science veneer burnishes quasi-spiritual romp ‘Slow Orbit’ by Arlo Everett, B. Sparks & Paul Coy, as an aging computer exorcist looks for an exit strategy that will keep her breathing in deep space and finds love is the answer, before more potent pictorial moments of madness – by Caeles and Seren Krakens – convey us to ‘A Certain Tea House’ where Allison Pang & Irma ‘Aimo’ Ahmed reveal the regrets, ruminations and revenge of an aged spaceport courtesan who repays an old debt with her last breaths…

Matt McGrath, V. Gagnon & Lyndon Radchenka then detail the First Contact repercussions of ancient civilisation ‘The Crowned Ones’ as they impinge on the life of a lost human explorer, after which Joyce Chau reveals how a certain ‘Gap’is closed when a space scavenger awakens a long-depowered and rather clingy automaton, and Skylar Kardon & Lyndon Radchenka’s ‘New Blood’ details how even in Tomorrow’s City of Lights, the erotic allure of a vampire is more than some mortals can withstand…

Merissa Mayhew ends the emotional narratives with a story of hope sustained and finally fulfilled in ‘Until One Day’ as frustrated Josephine endures constant death and rebirth to finally be with the woman of her dreams…

Topped off with a brace of (possibly cover?) illustrations from Nicholai Avigdor Melamed and Cameron Lucente; full ‘Creators’ biographies, and list of ‘Backers’ who contributed to this book’s publication, Gothic Tales of Haunted Futures is a delicious compote of dark passions, sinister fancies and sardonic experiences, perfect for stirring passions and pleasing the eyes.

Gothic Tales of Haunted Futures © 2020 S.M. Beiko. Individual © belongs to each creator in this book. All rights reserved.