Review: Keeper by Greg Rucka

9780553574289Greg Rucka is an unsung genius of thriller writing, whose debut Keeper still sparkles more than 20 years after its publication. His professional bodyguard protagonist, Atticus Kodiak, has as much brio as Jack Reacher; but his heroics are packaged in adventures anchored by dynamic characters, and a willingness to dive deep into social issues without forsaking the vitality of the narrative. In this case, it’s America’s abortion debate, which remains salient today, more than four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and two decades since Keeper landed in bookstores, with opponents and supporters of abortion rights are still arguing over the issue.

In Keeper, Kodiak is hired to protect the director of a Manhattan abortion clinic whose life has been threatened by militant pro-lifers lead by a zealous charlatan, Jonathan Crowell. Kodiak, whose girlfriend has just undergone an abortion herself, is personally committed to Felice Romero and the safe-guarding of her daughter, Katie, who has Down syndrome. So when his protective details fails to stop a particularly heart-wrenching murder, Kodiak doubles-down on protecting his charge, and uncovering the identity of the killer, and putting them in the ground.

Rucka, whose prose has echoes of Robert B. Parker and Chandler, maintains a rapid pace, steadily increasing the tension as the narrative builds to its cinematic climax at a cemetery. The ingredients are familiar, but in Rucka’s hands, the recipe is fresh and exciting.

ISBN: 9780553574289
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 332
Imprint: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc
Publish Date: 5-May-1997
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.

Boom

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

Review: Stumptown, Vol. 2 – The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case

Stumptown 2 coverThere is no more satisfying sight than a creative team improving on their previous output. The first volume of Stumptown set the bar astronomically high; The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case surpasses it.

When rock star Mim Bracca walks into the office of Stumptown Investigations with a seemingly open-and-shut case involving her missing ‘baby’ – her prized guitar – Dex Parios is quick to accept the job. After the events of The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini), which saw Dex take on crime lord Hector Marenco, Portland’s dogged investigator’s list of prospective clients has halved. Quite frankly, whatever the job, she’ll take it. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems – especially not for Dex, who quickly learns it’s not just the guitar that’s gone missing. Several opposing forces, including the DEA and amped-up skinheads, are looking for the guitar and its precious addition, and once again Dex is in the middle of it.

The highlight of The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case is the high-speed chase between Dex, a couple of skinheads, and the Portland police. While Matthew Southworth’s art isn’t as refined as it was in Stumptown: Volume 1, the diminution of its overall detail is worth it for the vehicular pursuit alone. Perfectly choreographed and perfectly paced, you can feel the acceleration and adrenaline on the page. A long time ago I was told it’s almost impossible to pull off car chases in comics; Greg Rucka and Southworth have put that argument to bed.

Dex winds up the case in routine but satisfying fashion. The journey towards its conclusion, however, is fantastic. There’s no doubt, Greg Rucka is writing the best crime series in comics.

Review: Stumptown, Vol. 1 – The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini)

Stumptown Vol 1Crime fiction is littered with private detectives, but few have punctuated the genre like Dex Parios. Oh, sure, the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations hasn’t yet achieved the resonance of Rockford, Spade, Spenser or Marlowe – but give it time. Thanks to her incorrigible knack of landing herself in hot water, showcased in the opening pages of Stumptown: Volume One, when she is ruthlessly gunned down by a couple of thugs, Dex is destined to earn a place among that echelon.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) introduces Dex as a talented investigator, but a screw-up in just about every other aspect of her life. She owes the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast’s casino almost eight thousand dollars; and with her credit cards maxed out, and less than a hundred bucks to her name, she’s in no position to pay it off, or negotiate when the casino’s manager offers an opportunity to clear the debt. Seems the manager’s granddaughter has gone missing – maybe run off with a boy, maybe not – and Dex’s particular set of skills could be of use in discerning her whereabouts. Unfortunately for Dex, Charlotte’s whereabouts requite a detour through Portand’s seedier districts.

Rather than implementing the stereotypical noir-soaked first person narrative readers might expect, writer Greg Rucka avoids captions entirely, leaving artist Matthew Southworth to carry the heavy load of portraying Dex’s emotions and hinting at her thoughts. It’s a wise move – Southworth is up to the challenge. Stumptown is a comic that necessitates artistic excellence in the quieter moments, as a large portion of the narrative involve non-violent confrontations. Southworth effortlessly renders these scenes, choreographing conversations for maximum readability.  His fellow colourists, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi, also deserve massive credit for their chosen palette, which is stultified, but never anything less than evocative.

The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini) sets an astronomically high bar for future volumes of Stumptown, but given Rucka’s track record, few will doubt his capacity for betterment. Bring it on, Dex.

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.

Review: Lazarus, Vol 2 – Lift by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Lazarus Vol 2Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s LAZARUS takes place in a future conceivably (and worryingly) not too far away. The world is no longer divided by political or geographical boundaries; wealth now defines territorial borders, and that power rests with only a handful of families. 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 left to fend for themselves: they are known as Waste.

The first volume of the series introduced Forever Carlyle, the Lazarus – or genetically engineered protector – of her family. Uniquely talented and skilled with a variety of weaponry, we witnessed the first cracks in Forever’s commitment to her cause despite a lifetime of programming. I expected LIFT to widen those cracks, and tighten its focus on Forever and her actions – and while it does, it also expands the world previously established, and introduces the Barrett family: Waste who lost everything in a storm, and who know their only hope of survival lies with Lift selection in Denver. Their story parallels Forever’s investigation into a possible terrorist attack on the day of the Lift, and coalesce expertly in the final act.

It’s always difficult assessing individual volumes of an ongoing story. By their nature, these stories are ‘in progress,’ so it’s difficult to have the perspective to properly critique it. LIFT seems less focused on Rucka and Lark’s over-arching series narrative, and instead exists as a standalone story, a perfect snapshot of this world they have created. The character moments sprinkled throughout are memorable for their severity: we glimpse flashbacks to Forever’s youth, and the physical and psychological challenges she endured, all in a hopeless quest to earn her father’s love. And the Barrett’s gruelling journey to Denver doesn’t come without loss. Whether we’ll see the Barrett’s again in the series is indeterminable at this stage – I have a hunch they’ll disappear for a while and return in a later volume, rather than become part of the regular cast.

LAZARUS is the kind of sci-fi I love; grimy and gritty, in the dirt rather than in the skies. Lark’s artwork is perfect for the tale. Nobody executes such perfectly choreographed action scenes in all of comics, and Rucka knows better than to clutter these pages with captions or dialogue. Indeed, that’s the script’s greatest strength: Rucka refrains from obnoxious captions and inner-monologues. The reader is left to ascertain character motivations from dialogue and facial expressions alone. More writers need to have faith in their readers.

If FAMILY hinted at it, LIFT confirms it: LAZARUS is one of the finest comics on the shelves, two creators working in perfect harmony to produce something very special indeed. I’ll see you in around six months for Volume 3.

Review: Bravo by Greg Rucka

Greg Rucka BravoBRAVO reads like a Tom Clancy novel on speed. Pared down and raw, unlike many of Clancy’s padded efforts, BRAVO is the apex in Rucka’s espionage writing career; the second in the Jad Bell series, and surely not the last.

I wasn’t wholly satisfied with ALPHA, the first Bell novel, despite some exhilarating moments, and the pulse-pounding scenario of a hostage situation in a theme park. I criticised it for leaving too many dangling threads; I appreciated it was intentionally written this way, but felt it didn’t stand alone as a potent addition to an overcrowded genre. I admitted, however, that my opinion was likely to change after reading the second installment, and taking into account the overarching narrative (which doesn’t entirely wrap up in BRAVO, either).

Let me put it this way: after reading BRAVO, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for ALPHA, and together, these two novels represent the finest espionage and thriller fiction I’ve read in years.

BRAVO follows on from the events of ALPHA – beware, newcomers; you’ll want to read this series in order. Bell and his crack team are tasked with bringing in the Uzbek – the man organizer behind the Wilsonville terrorist attack. Of course, this task isn’t as simple as it seems – the Uzbek’s employer, an enigmatic figure dubbed The Architect, has plotted another attack on American soil, this one more devastating than the last – and worse still, it appears shadowy figures within the American government are funding the plot.
On paper, this sounds very formulaic, and to some extent there is a smidgen of familiarity to the narrative. But Rucka makes some intriguing decisions with his prose that really pay off and pushes BRAVO firmly into the A-grade. Rucka implements a distinctive third person viewpoint in the present tense, and he shifts between characters and moments with a deftness only capable by a master of the form. The characters are layered; their self-doubt mingles with the arrogance required of elite soldiers and deep cover operatives. In ALPHA, Bell felt one-dimensional and somewhat plastic: in BRAVO, a story that has far more breadth, we see him for what he truly is, wrinkles and all, and a fine addition to espionage fiction’s highest echelons of characters.

So, read ALPHA, take a moment, then read BRAVO. But take your time. Savour the novels. Because then, like me, you’ll be on tenterhooks waiting for Rucka’s next.

My thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for providing a review copy of BRAVO.