Thor: Vikings


By Garth Ennis, Glenn Fabry & various (Max Comics/ MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1175-7 (TPB)

It’s the anniversary year of Marvel’s thunder god. Here’s a strange saga sparked during that time that will delight some and annoy the leather pants off others. Still, in my fathers’ Valhalla there are many mansions… unless the drunken warriors have wrecked them…

In the middle of 1962, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby launched their latest offbeat superhero creation in anthology monsters-and-mysteries title Journey into Mystery #83. The tale introduced disabled American doctor Donald Blake who took a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion fleet.

Fleeing in terror, he was trapped in a cave wherein lay an old, gnarled walking stick. When, in helplessness and frustration, the puny human smashed the cane into the huge boulder obstructing his escape, Blake’s insignificant frame was transformed into the bold and brawny Norse God of Thunder, Thor!

The series grew from formulaic beginnings battling aliens, commies and cheap thugs into a vast, panoramic and breathtaking cosmic playground for Kirby’s burgeoning imagination. Anthological Journey into Mystery inevitably became Mighty Thor where, after years of bombastic adventuring, the inconsistencies of the Blake/Thor relationship were re-examined and finally clarified to explain how an immortal godling could also be locked within a frail short-lived mortal.

That startling saga took the immortal hero back to his long-distant youth and finally revealed that the mortal surgeon was no more than an Odinian construct designed to teach the Thunder God humility and compassion…

As decades passed the series underwent numerous reboots and re-imaginings to keep the wonders of fabled Asgard appealing to an increasingly jaded readership. An already exceedingly broad range of scenarios spawned even greater visual variety after the Thunderer’s introduction to the pantheon of cinematic Marvels with his ongoing triumphs making him a bona fide blockbuster movie star. To be frank, there were always comics ventures that allowed for some fairly broad interpretations of the god and his universe, such as this rousing yarn…

In this scintillating gore-spattered traditional fantasy yarn – collecting Thor: Vikings #1-5, which originally ran from July- November 2003 – scripter Garth Ennis  and illustrator Glenn Fabry indulge their inner barbarians with a yarn strictly not for the young or sensitive…

In 1003 AD, pitiless reiver Harald Jaekelsson has just finished destroying the village of Lakstad when its shaman curses the lawless raiders who have destroyed his family and friends.

Maybe, if Harald hadn’t butchered him at that moment, allowing the elders’ blood to feed the runestone he held, the sadistic killer’s ship and crew would not have spent the next thousand years crossing the ‘Endless Ocean’ to the New World…

On finally arriving in the port of New York, the undead accursed monsters set about their old ways of rapine and slaughter, before their rampage is briefly halted by a challenge from the sky as Thunder God Thor demands their surrender…

Sorcery-stained zombie lord Harald is unimpressed and as his undead crew grotesquely devastate Manhattan, he savagely beats the god nigh unto death. With his longship now sailing the skies above the city, the northman basks in carnage in his new-won ‘Kingdom of Iron’, unaware that the Thunderer still lives and has been joined by Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange

As Harald builds his throne on the city’s highest tower, the magical medic sees to Thor and marshals resources to battle a foe that outmatches him in mystic might. ‘Time Like a River’ finds the embattled heroes exploring chronal echoes, seeking a solution to the old wise man’s curse… and finding it in the blood he spilled casting it.

To counter Harald’s horde, Strange searches history for the old man’s bloodkin, and plucks them from their own times to battle the rapacious revenants. Outcast and frustrated Viking battle-maiden Sigrid, Teutonic knight Magnus of the Danesand disillusioned Luftwaffe Ace Oberstleutnant Erik Lonnroth arrive in the ravaged city just after the Marines are slaughtered and Mighty Avengers admit defeat and regroup.

Horrified by the atrocities being perpetrated, the time-strayed trio determine to ‘Fight the Good Fight’, suitably enhanced by Strange’s sorceries…

As Jaekelsson squats on his high seat, the heroes go to work with a will, and soon the Viking lord is compelled to join the battle. Once more easily outmatched by the ruthless reiver, the outraged god needs all he’s got to win the day and save his people in ‘See You in Valhalla’

Although shocking at the turn of the century, the Asgardians and greater Marvel pantheon have by now fully integrated into our movie-led culture, and contemporary readers won’t be taken aback at the themes and uncompromising action scenes so lovingly crafted here. Thor: Vikings is bold and brutal, filled with action and leavened with dark, dark humour and well worth any thunder follower’s time and attention.
© 2021 MARVEL

Ronin – the Deluxe Edition


By Frank Miller with Lynn Varley & John Costanza (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4895-6 (HB)

I always feel a bit daft reviewing stuff that everyone already knows about, but I’m constantly being reminded that even though somebody talks about the classics of our art-form it doesn’t mean they actually have read them. Moreover, the great thing about comics is that they’re meant to be re-experienced, over and over and over…

So here’s a quick look at Frank Miller’s breakthrough epic: a canny blending of East and West, ancient and futuristic, mythical and technological, all used to scrutinise the unchanging nature of human passion, readily available in a number of versions including Black Label and Absolute Ronin. This edition – available in hardback and digital formats – is a simple Deluxe tome, released in 2014…

Set mostly in a near future where society has irretrievably broken down (just look out of your window, if you still have any of those), our story actually opens eight centuries earlier in feudal Japan, where a beloved, noble lord and his youngest, most untried samurai are besieged by the forces of a terrible demon named Agat who craves the sacred, mystical sword the old daimyo protects.

Eventually, its unrelenting attacks succeed and Lord Ozaki is compromised and murdered. Shamed at his failure and maimed by the shape-shifting demon, the neophyte samurai becomes a masterless warrior: a Ronin forced to wander the Earth until he can regain his honour…

Meanwhile in the 21st century, New York City – and indeed the entire planet – are dying, destroyed by economic, industrial and societal abuse. However, at the heart of the dystopian nightmare, a small team of free-thinking and idealistic scientists are pioneering a scheme to save humanity from itself.

Technological wizard Peter McKenna has invented self-replicating “bio-circuitry” that feeds itself from the polluted earth to grow clean buildings and even new prosthetic limbs. His greatest achievement is the Aquarius complex, a self-staining habitat governed by a benevolent Artificial Intelligence dubbed Virgo. Peter’s wife Casey runs security for the complex, whilst their friend Taggart runs the corporation they jointly founded, selling their world saving tech – and message – to the rest of humanity.

Maternal Virgo is increasingly becoming the fourth member of the team: making autonomous decisions for the benefit of all. She works closely with Billy Challas, an extreme congenital quadriplegic with latent psionic powers. His hidden mental abilities have enabled Virgo to make huge leaps in replacement limbs, but recently his dreams have been disturbed by visions of Ozaki, Agat and the Ronin. Virgo is troubled by how historically accurate the nightmares are…

In ancient Japan, the Ronin has wandered for years, continually defending the holy sword from Agat’s forces, until in one self-sacrificing final duel, demon and hero are both killed by the eldritch blade…

When Virgo’s researches uncover the dream Katana in a junk shop eight centuries later, she accidentally causes an explosion which decimates portions of Aquarius, releasing Agat into our world again. Mercifully, the Ronin’s spirit simultaneously enters Billy, who uses his submerged mind-powers to reconfigure deformed flesh into the form of the ancient warrior.

Lost, dazed and confused, the Ronin wanders through the horrific landscape of post-civilised New York: encountering a debased and corrupted populace whilst Agat possesses Taggart and begins to subvert the pacifist, redemptive mission of Aquarius.

As chief of security, Casey McKenna digs (quite literally) into the problem and with Virgo’s help tracks down Billy/Ronin, but rather than saving the lad she is incomprehensibly drawn into his mystical confusion. Meanwhile, as “Taggart” retools the complex into a munitions super-factory, Peter begins unravelling the mystery: discovering nothing is as it seems, and that there are far more sinister threats than debased gang-mutants and ancient demonic creatures. The entire world is under imminent threat and the clock is ticking…

This tale was not well received when it debuted: the heady mix of manga influences (particularly Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s stunning and epic Lone Wolf and Cub which permeates and guides this tale like a ghostly grandfather), science fiction, social politics and supernatural ultra-violence was clearly not what the superhero-reading fans had expected.

Although some thematic overtones remained, this was clearly no continuation of Miller’s landmark Daredevil run at Marvel: those issues were returned to in successive DC epics The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One

However, Ronin did alter American comics forever, allowing adult sensibilities (that had flourished in Europe and Japan for decades) to finally gain a foothold in the dogmatically juvenile American comics market. Of course it wasn’t alone, but with American Flagg! and a few precious others, it was at the vanguard of the zeitgeist that put style and mature content above Fights, Tights and empty frights…

Oppressive, exhilarating, terrifying and mystifying – supplemented here with An Introduction by Jennette Khan; a Ronin Gallery comprising contemporary promotional material; concept sketches; retail posters; original art and pages previous editions’ cover art – Ronin is truly spectacular: a visual tour de force that reshaped what we read and how we read it. As a fan you have a divine obligation to see it for yourself…
© 1983, 1984, 2014 Frank Miller, Inc. Introduction © 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Y: the Last Man volume 5


By Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka, José Marzán Jr. & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3051-7 (HB) 978-1-4012-6372-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Treat and Salutary Warning All in One… 9/10

When an apparent plague killed every male on Earth, student Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand survived in a world instantly and utterly all-girl. Unexpectedly and unwillingly a crucial natural resource, the wilful lad was confiscated by the new government – his mother – as a potential solution to the problem. Even with a government super-agent and a clued-in geneticist escorting him across the unmanned American continent to a Californian bio-lab for research purposes, all the boy could think of was re-uniting with his girlfriend Beth, trapped in Australia since disaster struck.

With his rather reluctant companions secret agent 355 and Dr. Allison Mann – also deeply invested in solving the mystery of his continued existence – the romantically determined oaf trekked overland from Washington DC to California, getting ever closer to his fiancée… or so he thought.

Each of his minders harbours dark secrets: Dr. Mann fears she might have actually caused the plague by giving birth to the world’s first parthenogenetic human clone, whilst lethally competent 355 has old allegiances to organisations far-more far-reaching than the American government….

Also out to stake their claim and add to the general tension are renegade Israeli General Alter Tse’Elon and post-disaster cult “Daughters of the Amazon” who want to make sure that there really are no more men left to mess up the planet. Further complications include Yorick’s occasionally insane sister, Hero – stalking him across the ultra-feminised, ravaged and now utterly dis-United States – and the inexplicable-once-you’ve-met-him attraction the boy exerts on numerous frustrated and desperate women they encounter en route to Oz…

After four years and some incredible adventures Yorick (a so-so scholar but a proficient amateur magician and escapologist) and crew reached Australia, only to discover Beth had taken off on her own odyssey to Paris. During the hunt, Dr. Mann learned the inconvenient truth: Yorick was only alive because Ampersand (an escaped lab-specimen) was immune and had inoculated his owner via his disgusting habit of chucking crap which Yorick didn’t always avoid. He didn’t keep his mouth closed enough either…

Available in hardback, paperback and digital editions, this concluding volume – reprinting issues #49-60 of the award-winning series – opens with 4-chapter saga ‘Motherland’.

Illustrated by Pia Guerra & José Marzán Jr., it finds Yorick and his minders in Hong Kong, following a trail to the true architect of the plague, only to be captured by the cause of all the world’s woes – a deranged biologist cursed with genius, insanity and a deadly dose of maniacal misogynistic hubris.

Just before a breathtaking denouement wherein Yorick and Allison learn the incredible reasons for the global extinction, Agent 355 and turncoat Australian spy Rose clash for the final time with the ninja who has been stalking them for years, before the scene switches to France where Hero has successfully escorted baby boys born in a hidden Space Sciences lab to relative safety… although General Tse’Elon is not a pursuer easily avoided or thwarted…

Even after the plague is demystified, the villain dealt with and the world teeters on the verge of coming back from the brink of extinction, there’s still more stories to be told…

‘The Obituarist’ (limned by Goran Sudžuka & José Marzán Jr.) focuses on the murder of Yorick’s mother by Tse’Elon. The aftermath takes centre-stage in a divertissement which hints that the planet is already fixing itself before continuing with ‘Tragicomic’ (Sudžuka & Marzán Jr. again) as the lunatic land of Hollywood stages its own comeback: making trash movies, spawning bad comicbooks and splintering into a host of territorial gang-wars…

The end was in sight and even with the series’ overarching plot engine seemingly exhausted there was still one last string of intrigue, suspense and surprise in store from writer Brian K. Vaughn. The last of Y the Last Man proved to be the best yet but that’s an unmissable tale for another time…

Things came to a final full-stop in ‘Whys and Wherefores’ wherein various cast members all rendezvous in Paris. As well as Yorick and 355, his sister Hero is there, having successfully escorted the baby boys born to the City of Lights. She also brought Yorick’s baby daughter and the determined would-be mother who raped him to conceive her…

Still on scene and hungry for blood is General Tse’Elon with her dwindling squad of Israeli commandoes. They’re rapidly diminishing because of their leader’s increasing instability and habit of killing anybody who crosses her.

At long last, the Last Man is reunited with his long lost true love, only to find that she actually never was…

Tragically, his actual one-and-only is forever lost to him when Tse’Elon captures him and the babies, leading to a shocking final confrontation…

For the last chapter ‘Alas’, the action switches to Paris 60 years later. Thanks to cloning and gene manipulation, the human race is secure and other species are returning too. Men are still rarer than hen’s teeth though, as the women seem to prefer girl babies…

The geriatric Yorick is saviour of humanity, but since he keeps trying to kill himself he has to be locked up and constantly guarded. In a desperate attempt to cure his seeming madness the leaders of the matriarchal new world – which suffers just as much from most of the problems and stupidities of the old – have brought in the best of the Last Man’s seventeen viable doppelgangers to talk him round and find out what’s bugging him. The intervention doesn’t go as planned and the old escapologist has one last trick up his straitjacketed sleeve…

Illustrated by Pia Guerra & José Marzán Jr. these concluding adventures are packed with revelation, closures and disclosures plus some moments of genuine painful tragedy, so keep tissues handy if you’re easily moved. Some sense of disappointment is probably unavoidable when an acclaimed and beloved serial finally ends, but at least there’s some tangible accomplishment to savour and if you’re lucky perhaps a hint of more to be said and an avenue for further wonderment…

Also included here is Vaughn’s full script for issue #60 to provide one final treat. The last of Y: the Last Man is as controversial and challenging as ever it was: perfectly providing an ending to everything; lifting you up, breaking your heart and still leaving the reader hungry for more. And that’s just the way it ought to be…

© 2006, 2007, 2008 Brian K Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

 

GWAR – The Enormogantic Fail


By Matt McGuire & Matt Miner, Jeff Martin, Katie Longua, Matt Young, Liana Kangas, Lukasz Kowalczuk, Clay Henss, Matt Harding & various (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: -978-1-98890-351-4 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-364-4

Fancy a bit of scary dress-up?

GWAR have played loud, fantasy-themed heavy metal music since 1984. The ever-shifting band roster comprises of an excessively theatrical rock combo performing as mythological Sci Fi personas, delivering raucous, rousing good times as well-defined yet fluid fantasy characters. They are happy to shock and might well offend your nan – unless she’s like my nan was…

Operating under the umbrella designation Slave Pit Inc., they should more correctly be assessed as an arts collective of musicians, artists and filmmakers. You should check them out, especially if you’re the sort of reader who was weaned on the anarchic glory days of British comics like 2000 AD and The Beano

Their brand and output is soaked in rude, crude satire, ultra-violent and sexualised imagery and a deliciously deviant sense of fun…

Shock Rockers GWAR positively encourage sidebar story projects and ventures. This graphic novel is their second starring vehicle (the first was in 1998), craftily capturing the spirit of the performances through the lens of comic combat as pawns and agents of rival galactic archetypes The Master, the Destructo Brothers and Cardinal Syn.

Crafted collaboratively by writers Matt McGuire & Matt Miner, and finishers Jeff Martin, Katie Longua, Matt Young, Liana Kangas, Lukasz Kowalczuk, Clay Henss, Matt Harding and others, this rocket-paced, rollicking yarn exposes the very origins of humanity after the daft but doughty warrior-scumdogs go on trial for their many failures – and failings – in pursuit of the much-desired Jizmogoblin.

Tragically, and as per normal operating conditions, there’s far more going on than these simple berserker grunts can fathom…

Wild, rowdy and manically cathartic, this exuberant romp is heaped high with fun and sly commentary, masquerading as simple cosmic cartoon carnage. Think Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on steroids mating with Red Dwarf’s disinherited half-brother, scored by Cradle of Filth and catered by Slipknot and you won’t be far out… but will be much amused.

Or you will be utterly shaken, outraged and appalled, and reinforced in your views that the modern world and its sundry entertainments are further confirmatory proof of the end of days. You be the judge…
GWAR The Enormogantic Fail © Slave Pit Inc. 2019.

The Marvel Art of Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian


By John Rhett Thomas, Roy Thomas, P. Craig Russell, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Walter Simonson, M.W. Kaluta, Tony DeZuñiga, Richard Corben, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Joe Jusko, Michael Golden & many & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2382-2 (HB)

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority. This body was created to keep the publishers’ product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang pulp icon Conan the Barbarian, via a little tale in anthology Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore no little thematic resemblance to the Cimmerian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry (now Windsor-) Smith: a recent Marvel find, and one who was gradually breaking out of the company’s all-encompassing Jack Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic book adventures of Robert E. Howard’s brawny warrior soon became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world boom in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, and despite being fully owned by CPI (Conan Properties International), the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel in 2019 and made himself fully at home. As well as his own title and in-world spin-offs, many collections celebrating “the Original Marvel Years” – due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers – have been released. This one is indubitably the most pretty to look upon.

The first time around, Conan broke many moulds, including being able to sustain not just his general audience boutique of titles and a newspaper strip, but also easily fitting Marvel’s black & white magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own monochrome title. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995.

Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things Robert E Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages.

All of that is covered by legendary Hyborian Scribe Roy Thomas in his Introduction and the page-by-page annotations of compiler John Rhett Thomas, but what’s really of interest is the painted covers, pin-ups, portfolios and extracts of story sequences by a stunning pantheon of internationally acclaimed artists which include John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuñiga, Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Mike Zeck, Walter Simonson, Tim Conrad, Val Mayerik, Richard Corben, Steve Leialoha, Vicente Alcazar, Dick Giordano, Gene Colan, Pablo Marcos, E.R. Cruz, Rudy Nebres, Kerry Gammil, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chan, Gene Day, Pat Broderick, Bill Sienkiewicz, Armando Gil, Gary Kwapisz, Adam Kubert, Dale Eaglesham, Dave Simons, Mike Docherty, Rafael Kayanan, Andrew Currie and P. Craig Russell, who also provides a picture-packed Afterword and appreciation of the mighty magazine and it’s star. I’m sure there are plenty more artists I’ve missed here, but you get the picture. Everyone and his granny wanted a shot at Conan…

Cover artists providing pulse-pounding paintings include Buscema, Adams, Starlin, Conrad, Sienkiewicz, Mayerik, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Bob Larkin, Joe Jusko, Joe Chiodo, Michael Golden, Steve Hickman, Doug Beekman, David Mattingly, Dorian Vallejo, Nick Jainschigg, Ovi Hondru, Michael William Kaluta, George Pratt, Julie Bell and more, making this bombastic compilation a must-have bestiary of how to have cathartic fun and get paid too…

Groundbreaking, gripping, graphic wonderment, this astounding hardback and digital delight is every fantasy fan’s dream come true – and you know gift-giving season is just around the corner, right?
Conan the Barbarian published monthly by MARVEL WORLDWIDE INC., a subsidiary of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Conan © 2020 Conan Properties International LLC.

Problematic: Sketchbook Drawings 2004-2012


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-594-5 (HB)

Some creators in the world of comics just defy description and their collected works are beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate or encapsulate. Some are just so pedestrian or mind-numbingly bad that one simply can’t face writing about them. Others are so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

At the apex of that tricky funnybook pyramid is Jim Woodring: a position he’s maintained for years and appears capable of holding for years to come. Woodring’s work is challenging, spiritual, philosophical, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. And, even after reading that sentence, you will have absolutely no idea of what you will be seeing the first time you read any of it.

Moreover, even if you have scrupulously followed cartoonist, animator, Fine Artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance Man James William Woodring through an eccentric career spanning his first mini-comics in 1980; groundbreaking Fantagraphics magazine series such as Jim (1986), notional spin-offs Frank and Weathercraft, Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things, Congress of the Animals or more mainstream storytelling such as Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse, you’ll still have no idea how you will respond to his work.

Woodring delivers surreal, abstract, wild, rational, primal cartooning: his clean-mannered art a blend of woodblock prints, Robert Crumb style, wry humour and eerie conviviality, Dreamscape, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria. His works form a logical, progressional narrative pockmarked with multiple layers of meaning but generally devoid of speech or words, magnificently dependent on the intense involvement of the reader as a fully active participant.

So you can imagine what his first formative thoughts, passing observations and moments of wild unfettered graphic whimsy must be like…

This stunning hardback or digital compilation opens the gates of dream just a crack wider than is safe, offering selected graphic snippets from the artist’s sketchbooks covering a superbly productive period following the millennium and offering a few choice views of other graphic avenues he might have pursued if the world of harnessed hallucinations had not exhibited such a strong hold…

In his ‘Introduct’, Woodring describes his abandonment of traditional graphic tomes for diminutive “Moleskine” doodle-pads: using the flimsy palm-sized books to capture ideas roughly, quickly and with intense immediacy. The gimmick clearly works. The material collected here – mostly enlarged 140% up from the originals – simply buzzes with life and energy….

Many Frank regulars show up, including the eponymous Krazy Kat-like ingénue himself, and there are absolute torrents of bizarre, god-like household appliances, vulture-things, frog-things, rhino-things, plant-things and unspeakable Thing-things, all resident in the insanely logical traumic universe of his sensoria.

There are snippets of reportage, plenty of designs and even roughs and layouts from finished stories. Woodring also proves himself a pretty sharp pencil when it comes to capturing the weird moment of reality we all experience, a keen caricaturist and a deliciously funny “straight gag-man”, glamour artist and capturer of friends in idle moments – just like all of us sad art-school escapees who break into a cold sweat whenever we realise we’ve left the sketchbook at home and there’s only beer-mats and napkins to draw on….

Woodring is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – for starters, his drawings have a distressing habit of creeping back long after you’ve put the book down and scaring the bejeezus out of you – but he is an undisputed master of the form and an innovator always warping the creative envelope.

As such, this welcome peek into his creative process and conceptual/visual syllabary offers encouragement and delight to artists and storytellers of every stripe, as well as being just plain wonderful to see.

All art-forms need such creators and this glorious hardback monochrome tome could well change your working and reading habits for life.

Go on, aren’t you tempted, tantalized or terrified yet? What about curious, then…?
© 2012 Jim Woodring. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Hope and Hell’s Flaw – Shame books 4 and 5


By Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton & Todd Klein (Renegade Arts Entertainment)

ISBN: 978-1-98782-548-0 (Hope TPB) ISBN: 978-1-98890389-7 (Hell’s Flaw TPB)

Comics are unequivocally a visual medium and that’s never more ably demonstrated than in a seductively bewitching allegorical fable from writer Lovern Kindzierski, painter John Bolton and letterer Todd Klein.

The story began with three Original Graphic Novels released between 2011 and 2013, before the entire epic was housed in its proper setting: a lavish and sublime full-colour hardback tome, liberally garnished with beguiling bonus features and all the usual digital equivalents.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably with all the doors locked and windows covered, let’s begin with a swift reprise…

Once upon a time in Conception a benevolent but homely witch named Mother Virtue spent all her days doing little favours and grand good deeds for the ordinary and unfortunate, and for these kind actions she was beloved by all. Spiritually, she was probably the most perfect woman in the world, but as for her looks…

She lived life well, growing old and content, but one day, after decades of joyous philanthropy, a single selfish thought flashed idly through her mind: a momentary longing for a daughter and wish for it to be true, that she might be a mother in fact as well as name…

The weak moment was instantly exploited by malign Shadow of Ignorance Slur. Through dark magics, he impregnated the champion of Good with a vile seed of evil, bragging to the wise-woman that her wish-made daughter would be a diabolical demon deserving the name Shame

Deeply repenting that selfish whim and dreading horrors yet to come, Mother Virtue transformed her idyllic cottage in the woods into a floral prison; a Cradle reluctantly repurposed to isolate and eventually contain the thing growing in her belly. The miserable matron-to-be also assembled Dryads to care for and guard the baby. Once Virtue finally births Shame, she leaves the devil’s burden to be reared in the mystical compound, where it grows strong and cruel but so very beautiful…

After much concentrated effort, however, minions of Shame’s sire breach Cradle’s green ramparts and school the child in vile necromancy to ensure her dire, sordid inheritance. With malefic potency, Shame refashions her guardians into something more pliable and appropriately monstrous…

As the devil’s daughter physically ripens, Slur himself comes to his evil child and through him Shame learns the terrifying power of sex. With the aid of an infernal incubus which has stolen seed from many men, she quickens a child in her own belly and eventually births a beautiful baby girl.

Into that infant Slur pours Mother Virtue’s soul; gorily ripped from the despondent dotard’s aging carcase at the moment of her granddaughter’s delivery. Even the nunnery Virtue had locked herself within was no proof against the marauding Shadow of Ignorance…

With her despised mother now her own child, securely bound within the floral penitentiary, Shame goes out into the world to make her mark…

Pursuit took up the story sixteen years later. Infant Virtue has grown strong and lovely, despite every effort of malformed, mystically mutated Dryads and Shame’s own diabolical sorcery toiling constantly but to no effect in a campaign of corruption, making every day of her young life a savage test of survival. This daily failure makes Shame – now elevated by her own evil efforts to queen of a mortal kingdom – furious beyond belief.

When not burning witches and wise women who might threaten her absolute domination, or having her armies ravage neighbouring realms, the haughty hell-spawn spies upon her offspring/ancestor with infernal devices, but is always bitterly disappointed and enraged….

Elsewhere, a valiant knight lies dying and mournfully bids his afflicted son Merritt farewell. With his last breaths, the swift-failing father dreads how his foolish, naïve, beloved boy will fare in a world ruled by the Queen who has ended him…

The hopeless dreamer is stubborn above all else and – when Merritt discovers the vegetable hell-mound of Cradle – stories his mother told him long ago run again through his head. Odd, inexplicable yearning compels him to overcome appalling arcane odds and break in. He liberates the beautiful prisoner… although she actually does most of the work…

Freed from Cradle, Virtue’s mystic might blooms. Far away, Shame reels. Slur cares little for his daughter but much for his plans: disclosing Merritt is Destiny’s wild card: a Sword of Fate who could reshape the future of humanity. Of course, that depends on whose side he joins…

The young heroes near the capital but are ambushed. After a tremendous mystic clash, Merritt awakens in a palace with a compelling dark-haired vision ministering to his every need and desire. Meanwhile, far below in a rank, eldritch dungeon, Virtue languishes, patiently adjusting plans…

This eldritch esoterically erotic epic concluded with Redemption as Merritt fell deeper under the sultry sway of the dark queen, devolving into her submissive tool of human subjugation, whilst Virtue languished in fetid squalor, weaving intricate magic with the paltry, debased materials at hand…

In the Queen’s arms, Merritt remains a child shaped by his mother’s bedtime stories. When Virtue contacts him, he readily sneaks down to her cell, dreams of nobility and valiant deeds filling his addled head…

With a final confrontation between mother and daughter imminent, Virtue sends Merritt to Hell on a vital quest to recover the Hope of the World. His triumphant return saves the kingdom and redeems the downcast…

As with all great fairy tales, justice is delivered and the world is set right side up again, with Shame dead, Slur confined to the Pit and pure reborn soul Hope in charge…

But what actually happens on the first day of “Happy Ever After”? The answer comes as the initial trilogy is extended via a second tranche of Original Graphic Novels, with Kindzierski & Bolton picking up their eldritch tapestry again in Hope

The day after Shame’s dismemberment and descent to Hell, chaos and uprising grips the kingdom, forcing Merritt and rebel wisewoman Miss Grace to escort bewildered Hope to safety outside the castle. The war has been won but evil cannot die and the rioting crowds are almost as much a danger as the Queen’s remaining stooges and free-roaming satanic spirits. Moreover, the child’s unschooled mystic force makes her a danger to herself and all around her…

Transporting her to the peaceful countryside fills Merritt with memories of his childhood and reveals what happened to his own mother, subsequently provoking Grace to review her own chequered past. Both have suffered grievously from Shame’s actions, and have no idea that the monster is still active in Hell, manipulating ghosts and demons to effect her return to Earth using the infernal contamination that used to be Cradle…

In the forests, Hope sees visions of forthcoming atrocity, which confirmed by Grace’s scrying, force the caravan to divert towards the once-green hell and meet the threat head on…

To Be Continued…

Fifth volume Hell’s Flaw resumes the epic quest, as Shame marshals her forces to secure the pathway from Hell to the living world, while the wary, weary band of heroes struggles to the verdant hellmouth.

Their way is blocked demonic forces too horrible to bear, but Grace has learned to tap Hope’s raw magic to fight them off. Slowly though, she becomes more controlling, her promises to teach the child somehow never materialising, although her need for her as a living battery constantly increases. Eventually, however, during a truly formidable assault, Hope asserts herself to save Merritt and the entire course of the quest changes…

In Hell, Shame’s own cunning endeavours have borne black fruit and she is ready to return…

To Be Concluded…

Epic and fanciful, the fairy tale trappings mask a most mature examination of Good and Evil, and the shimmering photorealistic expressionism of John Bolton’s lush painting transforms the familiar settings of fantasy standards and set-pieces into visions truly bleak and bizarre, perfectly complementing the grim, earthily seedy meta-reality of Kindzierski’s script.

Dark and nasty yet packed with sumptuous seductions of every stripe, the salutary saga of Shame is every adult fantasist’s desire made real and every comic fan’s most fervent anticipation in one irresistible package…

Hope, Hell’s Flaw and Shame: the series conceived and written by Lovern Kindzierski. The story, characters, world and designs are © Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd.

Chicago – A Comix Memoir


By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-878-6 (HB)

One of the things comics can do better than almost any other medium is autobiography. Words are immensely potent, but when wed to the images a confessor wants you to see and has devised especially for that purpose, the response is always immediate, visceral and permanent.

Cartoonist, illustrator and editor Glenn Head (Hot Wire, Snake Eyes, Weirdo) studied under Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Art in the early 1980’s but bided his time in commercial illustration for publications like Advertising Age, Screw, Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, and with comix such as Guttersnipe and Head Shots before releasing his first graphic novel in 2015.

It was worth the wait…

In monochrome hardback Chicago – available in sturdy hardback and trustworthy digital formats – Head turned a harsh, stark spotlight on his own life, literally baring all and detailing how a troubled teenaged virgin from New Jersey turned his back on the American Dream and his own personal hopes and aspirations before touching bottom and courting madness to reach his current (still tenuous) state.

Following an incisive Introduction from Phoebe Gloeckner, the history lesson begins in a graveyard in the Garden State. “Glen” is nineteen and troubled, but not necessarily unhappy: he’s just painfully aware that he doesn’t fit in.

It’s the summer of 1977 and he’s obsessed with the cartoons and paraphernalia of the hippie Counterculture then experiencing its death-throes. Dad works on Wall Street and desperately wants to understand why his son seems at such a loss. The boy doesn’t even seem happy to be going to Art School in Cleveland, even though he claims that’s what he wants…

What Glenn actually wants most is Sarah: his best friend and a girl appallingly emotionally scarred by the treatment she has received from her Holocaust-Survivor parents. She’s already well down the road to dissolution though: pregnant, a runaway and being used to turn tricks by her latest scumbag boyfriend…

The season turns and Glen reluctantly reports to the Cleveland Institute of Art, his intolerant, abrasive attitude winning him few friends amongst staff or students. There’s something indefinably wrong inside his head and before long he drops out and starts panhandling to survive.

A casual conversation with another student attains the status of a sign from God and Glen – who we’re starting to think might suffer from bipolar disorder – abruptly hitchhikes to Chicago, determined to sell cartoons to Playboy magazine…

And thus begins an intense period of privation, hallucination, harassment by hustlers, constant danger and creeping horror, all punctuated by unexpected kindnesses from strangers, rejections, connections and moments of incomprehensible good fortune as chance meetings with Muhammad Ali and Robert Crumb begin turning the street-meat’s life around…

‘Decompression’ sees Glen in January 1978, back in comfortably suburban Madison, N.J. thanks to his amazingly understanding yet still-uncomprehending father. Although the threat of imminent starvation and murder have faded, the boy is still at risk – from his own actions after a telephone conversation with idealised inamorata Sarah’s manic mother and his own father’s poorly hidden handgun…

The final section of this diary occurs in 2010 as Brooklyn-dwelling single-dad Glen gets an email one morning. Sarah, the one that got away, the great missed opportunity, has tracked him down and wants to meet up. Is this his chance to stop being that painful, pathetic, unresolved 19-year-old virgin at last?

Breathtakingly candid, intoxicatingly forthright and irresistibly visually exhilarating, Chicago is a startling examination of the power of obsessions and memories: a potential roadmap to finding your own identity… as long as you have the nerve and stomach to try…
Chicago © 2015, Glenn Head. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Can’t Get No


By Rick Veitch (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1059-5 (TPB)

The terrorist atrocity of September 11th, 2001 changed the world and in our own small corner, generated a number of graphic narrative responses of varying quality, not to mention deep emotional honesty. Rick Veitch’s 2006 entry Can’t Get No was as powerful and heartfelt as any, but benefited greatly from a little time and distance.

Chad Roe’s company sold the world’s most permanent and indelible marker pen, the “Eter-No-Mark”. Everyone was flying high but then the lawsuits hit all at once. A cheap, utterly irremovable felt-pen is a godsend to street-artists and the most virulent of vandalistic weapons to property owners…

As his universe collapses on him, Chad goes on a bender, picks up two hippie-artist-chicks in a bar and wakes up a human scribble-board, covered literally from head to toe in swirling, organic, totally permanent designs.

Even then he tries so very hard to bounce back. A walking abstract artwork, he is ostracized by mockery, unable to conceal his obvious “otherness”, and neither self-help philosophies, drugs, nor alcohol can make him feel normal again. Defeated, reviled and eventually crushed in spirit, he’s trapped in a downward spiral. He meets the pen-wielding girls again and finds solace and uncomplicated joy in the artist’s world of sex, booze and dope.

Lost to “normal” society, Chad goes on a road-trip with the women, but they haven’t even left the city before they’re all arrested. It is morning on September 11th and as the girls violently resist the cops an airplane flies overhead, straight towards the centre of Manhattan…

With no-one looking at him, just another part of the shocked crowd, he watches for an eternity, and then no longer anything but another stunned mortal, Chad drives away with an Arab family in their mobile home.

And thus begins a psychedelic, introspective argosy through America’s philosophy, symbolism and meta-physicality. With this one act of terrorism forever changing the nation, Chad is forced on a journey of discovery to find an America that is newborn both inside and out. His travels take him through vistas of predictable cruelty and unexpected tolerance, through places both eerily symbolic and terrifyingly plebeian, but by the end of this modern Pilgrim’s Progress, both he and the world have adapted, accommodated and accepted.

Born in 1951, Rick Veitch is a criminally undervalued creator who has lived through post-war(s) America’s many chimeric social revolutions. He has a poet’s sensibilities and a disaffected Flower-Child’s perspectives informing a powerful creative consciousness – and conscience. Can’t Get No is a landmark experiment in both form and content which deserves careful and repeated examination.

Black and white in a landscape format, and eschewing dialogue and personal monologues for ambient text (no word balloons or descriptive captions, just the words that the characters encounter such as signs, newspapers, faxes etc.) this graphic narrative – in paperback and digital editions – screams out its great differences to usual comic strip fare, but the truly magical innovation is the “text-track”, a continual fluid, peroration of poetic statements that supply an evocative counterpoint to the visual component.

Satirical, cynical, strident: Lyricism is employed for examination and introspection, in perhaps occasionally over-florid, but nonetheless moving and heartfelt free verse and epigrams don’t make this an easy read or a simple entertainment. They do make it a piece of work every serious consumer of graphic narrative should attempt.
© 2006 Rick Veitch. All Rights Reserved.

Desolation Jones: Made in England


By Warren Ellis & JH Williams III & various (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1150-9 (TPB)

Los Angeles is a dump and a dumping ground. Personal opinions aside, that’s the premise of this deep, dark espionage thriller from comics wunderscribe Warren Ellis and graphic illuminator JH Williams III. When MI6 screw-up MichaelJones is no longer capable of doing his job, he’s offered a comfy testing role as his ticket out. No-one in their right mind should ever trust security service types, but that’s the point – the burnt out, alcoholic agent just isn’t all that anymore.

After years of unspeakable atrocities ostensibly intended to create better operatives – up to and including the bizarre and inexplicable Desolation Test, the ravaged remains of Michael Jones are consigned to the reservation provided by the West’s Intelligence Agencies for retired, rejected and discarded agents plus all the experiments that didn’t measure up: Los Angeles, USA.

There they can live out their lives as they see fit, but can never, EVER leave the city. There’s no pension scheme but the dregs can do whatever they need to make a living as long as it’s within city limits.

Jones is a mess, both physically and mentally. He can’t drink, won’t sleep and takes too many drugs. He avoids daylight, regularly hallucinates and is numb to all sensation and emotion. In “the Community” he freelances as a private eye/fixer: sorting out problems that can’t be resolved through legitimate methods.

In this first compilation (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #1-6 of the WildStorm comic book) that problem is a retired NSA spook who’s being blackmailed by new members of the Community who have somehow stolen the Holy Grail of pornography. The ravaged Colonel Nigh wants Adolf Hitler’s homemade porno back and will do anything to get it. Unfortunately, so will all the other filthy rich deviants who populate Tinseltown.

However, something just isn’t right. Jones may not feel, but something deeper is hiding behind all the subterfuge and depravity…

Sardonic and rather bleak, this caustic, tension-soaked, trauma-packed action caper dwells on the nasty side of the espionage genre: a thriller with plenty of twists and a solid mystery to intrigue the most jaded reader. The content is strictly adults only – and by that, I mean that the subtext of duty, love and honour are assaults on the traditions of the hero-spy in as brutal a manner as the sex and violence underscore the dark side of the American Dream-town.

This is a story for cynical adults, not horny kids with appropriate IDs. Great stuff beautifully conceived and magically limned.
© 2005, 2006 Warren Ellis & JH Williams III. All Rights Reserved.