Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

MyHeroesHaveAlwaysBeenJunkies-1.pngMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies — set in the world of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ long-running Criminal opus — is a gripping, heart-rending and ultimately tragic graphic novella about Ellie, a denizen of an upscale rehab clinic, who tests the elasticity of morality in a dog-eat-dog world where the roles of hero and villain are seamlessly interchangeable and equally immaterial.

It was purely coincidence I read this right after finishing Mark Brandi’s The Rip, which also stars two drug addicts, albeit in a Melbourne setting, and in the form of prose rather than a graphic novel. The books handle the topic of addiction very differently. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies presents the romantic idea of substance abuse as Ellie repeatedly name-drops a bunch of famous musicians who used pills and needles to (Ellie believes) fuel their imaginations and thus their capacity to create great art. Ellie doesn’t want to be rehabilitated; she’s stimulated by the idea that “drugs help you find the thing that makes you special,” even though there are occasions when the reader will wonder whether that viewpoint is starting to fracture. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies never actually presents the darker side of addiction which is precisely where Brandi’s The Rip resides as it explores characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies opens with Ellie standing on the beach, reeling from the fateful decision that forms the climax of the text. The narrative flashes back, detailing the events that lead to Ellie’s walk along the sand using Brubaker’s trademark storytelling method of the internal monologue. Ellie is a patient at the Infinite Horizon rehab clinic, locked in a schedule of tedious meetings with other patients only too happy to over share. The only like-minded soul in the place is a handsome young man named Skip, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship which quickly blossoms into a full-blown, but doomed romance. Everybody is someone’s fool, and while Ellie’s fondness for Skip is genuine, it’s complicated by the skeletons in her closet. The story builds toward two questions: whether Ellie and Skip will live happily ever after (which deems doubtful from the very start) and whether Ellie will accept the toxicity of her addiction.

Brubaker’s writing is greatly enhanced, not for the first time, by the artwork of his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips. Previous volumes of Criminal have been punctuated by moments of violence, but My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is far more nuanced, and Phillips excels at the quieter moments, capturing the emotion of a scene with unparalleled clarity. Brubaker and Phillips remain an iconic duo of the contemporary comics scene.

ISBN: 9781534308466
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 72
Published: 16th October 2018
Publisher: Image Comics
Country of Publication: US

Review: Huck, Book 1: All American by Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque

Huck_vol1-1.pngThere is a unique sweetness and optimism to Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque’s Huck so rarely seen in superhero comics these days. It makes for a refreshing change of tone from what we’ve become accustomed to, and besides Albuquerque stunning artwork, is what makes this otherwise fairly old-style superhero caper truly shine.

I say “old-style” because of its simplicity. Nowadays simplicity is frowned upon; character histories have got to be convoluted; plots have got to be expansive, and are generally overwrought. Huck benefits from its streamlined narrative. It’s straightforward and uncomplicated – delightfully so. Huck is an orphan, left at a stranger’s doorstep in small town America when he was a baby. He’s grown up to make a living as a gas station attendant – and has earned a reputation as the town’s do-gooder. Huck’s got superpowers – incredible strength, the ability to leap – not fly, definitely leap – tall buildings in a single bound, and he uses his powers to benefit the town, who in return, keep his abilities secret. So naturally, when a newcomer exposes his secret, the life Huck has constructed for himself falls apart very quickly.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe Huck was written by the writer responsible for the bloody and violent Nemesis and Kick-Ass, which I suppose demonstrates Mark Millar’s range. Five or six years ago, I was turned off by his output – too one-note and violent for my tastes, – but since then, following the publication of Starlight (possibly my favourite sci-fi comic ever) and Jupiter’s Legacy, Millar’s turned himself into one of my must-read writers. Which shows, I suppose, that a reader should never totally dismiss a creator’s output based on what has come before. Millar writes Huck as a dim-witted good guy; who sees the world in black and white, and struggles when the greys expose themselves. Huck’s not bright, but he’s so damn likable; he’s the friend we all need in our lives, not for the scintillating conversation, but because he can distil our troubles into a manageable form.

Albuquerque is the true star here, though. Already a megastar, his work on Huck takes the artist to a whole new level. His style of cartooning is so unique and expressive, able to capture the emotional moments as well as the blockbuster heroic moments. And he’s coloured brilliantly here by Dave McCaig, whose work adds an almost watercolour-like quality to Albuquerque’s pencils. It’s quite possibly the work of their careers, but you wouldn’t put it past them to outdo themselves; perhaps in Huck’s second volume?

A fun, rip-roaring yet poignant superhero tale. There’s not enough heart in superhero comics being published today. Hopefully Huck rubs off on some of the capes and cowls crusading in the pages of Marvel and DC and reminds the Big Two that we want more than fisticuffs and explosions.

ISBN: 9781632157294
ISBN-10: 1632157292
Format: Paperback (275mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Pages: 160
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 26-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Black Magick Vol. 1 – Awakening by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott

9781632156754Part police procedural, part supernatural thriller, the first volume of Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott’s Black Magick is a standout on every level — possibly the best work of their careers — and will leave readers eagerly waiting the follow-up.

Rowan Black is a detective with the Portsmouth Police Department — and a practicing witch. Not the type that dons a black hat and flies on a broomstick; no, contemporary witchcraft is a tad subtler than that. Still, Rowan has always struggled to keep both aspects of her life separate, and when she becomes the target of a mysterious organisation with a keen interest in the supernatural, everything she holds dear comes under threat.

Nicola Scott’s art is the true highlight of Black Magick — which takes nothing away from Rucka’s script, his characterisations, or the overarching plot, all of which are truly stellar — it’s just … wow. Superlatives are reserved for work like this. Scott utilises a unique grey wash, with only slight traces of colour, to great effect; and her panels are hyper-detailed, and her pages effectively constructed, to make this a real pleasure to read. It’s hyperbolic sure, but there’s no question: these pages confirm Nicola Scott’s status as the best artist working in comics.

A gripping page-turner from beginning to end, Rucka and Scott’s first instalment in their “witch noir” series is an absolute blast. They might not have created a new genre, but they sure as hell have redefined it. Forgive the pun, but Black Magick is absolutely spellbinding, and one of the best things I’ve read all year.


ISBN: 9781632156754
Format: Paperback
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 3-May-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Injection, Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey

Injection.jpgThe superstar Moon Knight creative team of Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey reunite for an ambitious, genre-bending Image Comics series.

Years ago, five agents of the British government – each a genius in their specific field – created something called the ‘Injection.’ In doing so, they poisoned the world – reality itself – and are now dealing with the horrific consequences of their experiment. Bizarre, toxic aberrations are forming on our planet; these people are our only hope.

Blending elements of folklore, technology, history and science fiction,Injection is part sci-fi epic, part procedural. In typical fashion, Ellis presents plenty of theory and cool concepts – fantastically depicted by the super-talented Shalvey – but doesn’t offer a full explanation for transpiring events; that will surely come, later. For now, this first volume hooks the reader with stunning art, dangling plot threads – a hint of grander danger to come – and the five protagonist’s unlikely allegiance. As brilliant as they are – super-smart, extraordinarily talented – they aren’t infallible. Each of them possess demons, not all of which are explicated in this volume, but suggests saving the world won’t be run-of-the-mill. Indeed, their damaged psyches might prove their greatest obstacle.

Shalvey’s art deserves superlatives; all of them, in fact. He is unrivalled, stylistically; and partnered with colourist Jordie Bellaire, his illustrations have never been so striking. He is a perfect artist for Ellis; equally capable of keeping readers’ eyes glued to the page during character conversations, as he is blowing minds when he’s able to cut loose and portray the deadly aftereffects of the Injection.

Its first volume suggests The Injection will earn a place in Ellis’ Greatest Hits. There’s a long way to go, of course – lots of loose ends to tie together, characters to develop further. But what a launch!

Review: Southern Bastards, Volume 2 – Gridiron by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour

Southern Bastards Vol 2 coverThe first volume of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards (There Was a Man) introduced us to the seedy, corrupted Craw County and its most feared resident, Euless Boss, who quite literally took matters into his own hands when returning resident Earl Tubb started brewing trouble. When Tubb stumbled back into town and witnessed the sheer brutality of Boss’s reign, he tried to take matters into his own hands and deal with the trouble head on. That decision had fatal consequences, and demonstrated the unabashed sadism of the town’s high school football coach. But such savagery isn’t implanted in a man’s psychosis from birth; it needs to be cultivated and fine-tuned; sharpened like a stick, ready to stab. Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron delves into Coach’s Boss past and explores the troubles that played him as a young boy; how a warped love of football turned him into the monster we know he’ll become.

While my interest in football (unless it’s of the round ball variety) is infinitesimal, I can appreciate a man’s love of sport, particularly that of a school senior, who mightn’t have the natural talent to guarantee a college scholarship, but has the guts and determination to overcome that lack of guile. Young Euless Boss is mocked from his very first try-out. Quite simply, he’s not very good, but his body is a weapon, and he is willing and very able to throw it around for the benefit of the team – not that anyone’s thankful for it. Boss has clearly had a tough childhood; a criminal father, no friends, no real aspirations beyond success on the football field. It would appear he’s on the fast-track to nowhere; fate has signed, sealed and delivered his beginning, middle, and end. But Euless Boss doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Losing’s never been an option.

Jason Aaron doesn’t make Boss a sympathetic character – having witnessed his actions in There Was a Man, that would be impossible – but he does mould this beast into something that is at least recognizable; a tangible facsimile of mankind at its worst. Gridiron is comprised of several key character moments, some outrageous but the majority are subtle, and Jason Latour illustrates these with style, utilizing a red colour palette to absolute perfection. His characters are ugly, which is apt for the landscape, and his storytelling ability panel-to-panel is top notch. By design it’s not pretty to look at, but the workmanship is of the highest quality.

Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron maintains the quality of the series’ first volume and adds essential context to its grand antagonist. With it out of the way, Aaron and Latour are free to explore the consequences of Boss’s actions at the end of Volume 1. It’s going to be bloody. It’s going to be great.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152695
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 12-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Velvet, Volume 2 – The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet CoverRocked by revelations about the worst night of her life (see Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End), super-spy Velvet Templeton returns to London to unravel the mystery behind the murder of one of ARC-7’s elite operatives. Naturally, things promptly go ballistic.

Thus far we’ve seen Velvet pivot and weave her way out of most confrontations. Before the Living End presented her as an uber-talented, though rusty from years behind a desk, ARC-7 field operative. She has demonstrated her tactical mind, expert hand-to-hand and small-arms combat, and the ability to think quickly on her feet. Like James Bond, when Velvet Templeton is faced with impossible odds, we expect her to escape. When all seems lost, we expect her to find her way, because that’s what the heroes of spy thrillers do.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men is so impressive because it plays with our expectations. As the story opens, Velvet is certain she’ll be able discover who has turned the agency against her. She has a plan, and as she sets about enacting it, readers feel confident in her ability. That is, until things go awry, slowly at first, then with a swiftness that’s impossible to rectify. Velvet’s seamless scheme suddenly reveals itself to be full of holes. Perhaps our hero isn’t quite the superstar we’d been lead to believe; or rather, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency, and Velvet’s assuredness might actually be a weakness.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men throws Velvet’s quest for answers into a tailspin, and Epting takes full advantage of the grandiose action set-pieces sprinkled throughout Brubaker’s script, while also maintaining his impeccable standards in the quieter moments. The plot is convoluted, but not opaque – Brubaker is the master of dangling plot threads while keeping them from knotting, and a sense of urgency is impressively maintained throughout these pages.

Nobody else in comics is capable of turning in a tighter-plotted and faster-paced thriller than Brubaker and Epting. Velvet continues to be a masterclass.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152343
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy Volume 1 by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely

Jupiters LegacyJupiter’s Legacy explores the daunting challenge faced by superheroes in their quest to use their abilities for the betterment of mankind. It’s one thing to combat intergalactic threats – a few optic blasts, a couple earth-shattering wallops with indestructible fists – but what about the other challenges facing humankind; the ones that can’t be solved with violence? Take the Global Financial Crisis as an example. Where does a superhero’s responsibility begin and end?

In 1932, following the devastating loss of his business in the Wall Street crash, Sheldon Sampson and a select group of family and friends venture to an unmapped island west of Cape Verde, guided only by the lingering memory of Sheldon’s vivid dream. What they discover turns the group into a superheroes, henceforth dedicated to staving off the supervillain threats we’re accustomed to. Sheldon is adamant: their obligation is to mankind’s elected leaders. They’ve no right to overstep those boundaries just because of their enhancements. But there’s a growing resentment towards this outlook within their own camp, and as the story rockets forward to the current day, the focus to the generational conflict behind the scenes; the YouTube generation of heroes don’t feel the same obligation towards mankind as their predecessors, content to live out their lives as part-time superheroes, full-time sponsors for whoever’s willing to pay the money. So how will they respond when traitors within the family depose of Sheldon as their leader?

Jupiter’s Legacy Volume 1 is further evidence of Mark Millar’s renaissance; not that the quality of his work ever truly dipped, just that his stories – Kick Ass and Nemesis, specifically – were so bombastic and extravagantly violent, they often overshadowed the core narrative. That’s certainly not the case here, no doubt partly because of his collaborator, superstar artist Frank Quitely, who excels at the smaller moments, and perfectly captures the mannerisms and emotions required to layer the story with gravitas. Of course, when it comes to blockbuster action – and there’s plenty of it – Quitely is profligately dynamic, as always. These scenes are flawlessly storyboarded, and Millar wisely gives his artist the space he needs.

As Marvel and DC Comics continue to circle the superhero drain, Millar and Quitely’s Jupiter’s Legacy is a refreshing take on a well-trodden genre. It’s unfortunate that we’re in for such a long wait until its second volume, but hey, it just provides an excuse for a re-read.

My thanks to Image Comics for providing a digital copy of Jupiter’s Legacy.

Review: The United States of Murder Inc. Vol. 1: Truth by Bendis and Oeming

United States of Murder IncThe Eisner Award-winning team behind the mega-hit Powers have reunited for The United States of Murder Inc., an ultra-violent alternate history crime story in which the five families of organized crime never lost their stranglehold on the United States. The nation is effectively split down the middle, and co-exist uneasily, a brittle truce between both sides. Expectations were naturally astronomically high for Bendis and Oeming’s new series, and the first volume of The United States of Murder Inc., Truth, delivers in spades.

Truth opens with Valentine Gallo becoming a ‘made man’ of the Bonavese family. Following a decadent celebration – booze, women, and whatever else we weren’t privy to off-panel – Valentine is handed his first task. He is to deliver a package – a seemingly innocuous briefcase – to a United States senator at The Ambassador hotel in Washington D.C. Of course, in fiction there is no such thing as an innocuous briefcase…

Indeed, moments after he steps out the door, a fireball erupts from The Ambassador, reducing the building to rubble. The uneasy truce that has existed between the United States Government and its corrupt opposite is suddenly under threat. Now both sides want Valentine to pay. His only ally is the trigger-happy hitwoman, Jagger Rose, who demonstrates an alarming propensity for killing Valentine’s friends.  But following an earth-shattering revelation from his mother, the newly made man finds it increasingly difficult to separate friend from foe.

The dialogue crackles, as we’ve come to expect from a Bendis scribed comic; but more than, the plot zips along at a fantastic pace. At times, especially in his late-Avengers work, I felt Bendis occasionally treaded water – six issue story arcs could be reduced to four or five – but there is no sign of that here. In The United States of Murder Inc. he packs each chapter with new characters, locations, and reveals; and Oeming renders them with dynamism only he is capable of. Truth is violent and bloody, but Oeming’s artwork – about as far away from realistic as you can get – ensures these moments are palatable rather than gratuitous.

The first volume of The United States of Murder Inc. sets up an incredibly vibrant world, and ends with the kind of cliffhanger that’ll make the long wait for its next installment excruciating.

Review: Kinski by Gabriel Hardman

Kinski - LargeThe uncomplicated premise of Gabriel Hardman’s Kinski belies its underlying depth. On the surface it can be read, and enjoyed, as a fast-paced quirky crime story, about one man’s plot to abscond with a dog, Kinski, after he discovers it walking alone, seemingly abandoned, in the desert town of North End.  The rigmarole involved in this plot, which soon switches to returning Kinski to its rightful owners, makes for a rollercoaster plot, with plenty of action and intrigue. But at the root of this compelling drama is a simple question: why is Joe so determined to ‘rescue’ this dog? What’s the driving force behind this quest that has so unhinged him?

We don’t know much about Joe. Hardman, working dual duties as both writer and artist, resists the urge to relay Joe’s history through clunky narrative captions. Exposition in Kinsky is entirely non-existent, making for a truly immersive and cinematic experience. Joe lives the nomadic life of a travelling salesman. He carries an aura of the unloved: no real family to speak of (none mentioned, anyway) and while his two co-workers are affable, their interactions are professional, and don’t carry much warmth. Joe is aloof until he lays eyes on Kinski, when something in his mind snaps into place – love at first sight, with a canine twist – and he becomes infatuated with the well-being of the dog. He decides to take the dog home with him, consequences be damned – and the events that transpire from that moment spotlight Joe’s unbalanced personality. Importantly, he’s not malevolent – Joe’s not out looking for revenge, or seeking violence on those who seek to take Kinski away from him – there’s just something not quite right about him. There’s a screw loose somewhere, which fell all the way out once Kinski came into his life.

Gabriel Hardman is a long-time movie storyboard artist and comics illustrator, so it’s hardly surprising that he nails the beats of his story, expertly breaking down the action, and portraying the emotions of his characters. Kinsky is a black-and-white comic, but the colour isn’t missing; the artwork was rendered with this colour scheme in mind, and it’s so successful, it’s hard to imagine it with a vibrant palette. And while the dialogue is sparse, it’s apt; like a true storyteller, Hardman knows when silence will suffice, and when a couple words say as much as a dozen. In all aspects of the tale, he is in top form.

Kinski is a fun crime story starring an innocent dog caught up in human dilemmas.  It is a quick read, but such an immersive one. Hardman has one-upped himself. Whatever’s next, I’ll be there from the off.

Review: Lazarus Vol. 3 – Conclave by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Lazarus Volume 3Conclave is the third volume in Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s sci-fi epic Lazarus, and the series continues to fire on all cylinders, seamlessly blending fascinating world-building with character development, and a labyrinth plot. There’s been a resurgence of science fiction in recent years – Black Science, Copperhead, Saga, to name just a few – but Lazarus is in a class of its own.

For those who came in late, Lazarus takes place on a world divided by wealth rather than political or geographical boundaries. Sixteen families control various locations; some are allied, others have uneasy alliances, while some function with outright hostility. Those who provide a service for a family are protected and ‘lifted’ to the status of Serf, which guarantees them, and their loved ones, a level of comfort and care unattainable for the rest of the population, who are left to fend for themselves: thus their designation, Waste.

Forever is the genetically engineered protector of the Carlyle family – their Lazarus – who, following events in the series’ first two volumes, is beginning to question her familial alliance, and at an inopportune time, too, as the first conclave between the world’s 16 families has been called in order to repair the seemingly irrevocable conflict between the Family Carlyle and the Family Hock. The families meet on the luxurious Triton One, where negotiations quickly descend into violence, and Forever is forced into undesirable action against a fellow Lazarus. In the past, that wouldn’t be a problem: she is the Family Carlyle’s sword, it is her duty to fulfil her father’s wishes. But does Forever still believe in the veracity of her obligation?

Rucka and Lark are again in fine form. One quickly runs out of superlatives in this reviewing business, but these creators deserve them. Rucka’s an expert at removing all exposition and letting his artist portray what needs to be, and Lark never disappoints. Conclave is yet another display of their brilliant partnership. However long Lazarus lasts, it won’t be long enough. I want this team together for the long haul.

Maintaining its nuanced approach, Lazarus, Vol. 3: Conclave maintains the series’ momentum. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you haven’t jumped aboard the Lazarus train, you need to. We’ll be talking about it for the next few decades as it secures placements in umpteen “Best Of” lists. Don’t miss out.