Review: Outcast by Kirkman and Azaceta

OutcastAt some stage, years ago, I fell out of love with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. It was an “it’s not you, it’s me” scenario: the long-running series simply lost traction with me and I let it slide. Which means, for a long time now, there has been a Kirkman-sized hole in my reading list. Then the first volume of Outcast landed on my desk: a supernatural horror story, which sees Kirkman partnered with artist Paul Azaceta. And it blows The Walking Dead out of the water, because it takes everything that series encompasses and refines it.

Whereas The Walking Dead juggles a large cast of characters, Outcast has a tighter focus. Kyle Barnes lives in solitude, and for good reason: since childhood, his loved ones have fallen victim to demonic possession. He’s not exactly content with his isolation, rather he wallows in it. In the back of his mind, perhaps he thinks he deserves his fate. But when a reverend, schooled in the art of demonic exfiltration, comes to Kyle for assistance, he decides it’s time to seek an answer to the question that has haunted him throughout life: why him? Why his loved ones? And where did his anomalous ability to dispel these evil forces surface from; why does his mere touch wither the darkness?

Outcast is a comic oozing in atmosphere. It’s creepy and unsettling, both artistically, and in terms of Kirkman’s storytelling choices. Compared to The Walking Dead, which excels at its peak violent and gruesome moments, Outcast takes a subtler approach, and is all the better for it. Blood splatters these pages, sure – but effectively rather than excessively.  The dialogue is nuanced, with most of the characters true motivations still shrouded in mystery, even at the conclusion of this first volume, which offers more questions than answers: but that’s its obligation, providing plenty of impetus to return later in the year for the second volume, or ideally start reading the series monthly.

Outcast is a proper horror comic. It is genuinely unnerving, forming knots in the readers’ stomachs as the story unfolds. If you loved The Walking Dead, you’re already reading this. But if you’re not, check out the first volume. It’s Kirkman and Azaceta performing at their peak. Long may it continue.

Review: Southern Bastards Volume 1 – Here Was a Man by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour

Southern BastardsThere is something rotten in the air of Craw County. There was decades ago, when Earl Tubb left for Vietnam: a football hero, and the son of a father famous for his skirmish with a crew of assailants, armed only with a baseball bat. Back then, Earl ran away; not his problem, and even it was, he wasn’t the solution. But things have changed, and this time Earl has identified the core of the degradation: the enigmatic football coach, who casts a long, dark shadow over the down. This time, Earl doesn’t run away. And the consequences are catastrophic.

SOUTHERN BASTARDS presents the south exactly as its feared. It’s dirty, gritty, and unwelcoming to outsiders; both in appearance, and its populace. Collaborators Jason Aaron and Jason Latour play up the stereotypes without dipping into parody. It’s a fine line. The characters are all gnarled and grizzled, scowls permanently etched on their faces, even when they’re smiling. But there’s a beauty to that ugliness, Latour’s talent on full display as he depicts these characters and their world. You’ll never want to set foot in Craw County, but you won’t be able to look away from it.

The plot seems formulaic at first: a man enters a small town, spots injustice, and ends it. Seen it before, a hundred times, right? But there’s more to it than that. Much more. And by end of this first volume, THERE WAS A MAN, readers will understand SOUTHERN BASTARDS is set to be as epic in scope as Aaron’s SCALPED, if not more so. And as s far as last-page reveals go, this is one of the best in recent memory. Kudos to the best Jason’s working in comics. I’m along for the ride.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy

Review: Dancer by Nathan Edmondson & Nic Klein

DancerAs Alan Fisher sits down for a meal with Quinn, his ballerina girlfriend, he notices incongruities in the environment only a retired assassin would spot. Then the bullets starts flying, innocent bystanders taking headshots from an unidentified sniper, and Alan and Quinn are stalked through Milan, all the way to his apartment, where we catch our first glimpse of their hunter. Somehow, impossibly, it’s Fisher; a younger, fitter, deadlier version. And negotiation is clearly not an option.

You know what you’re signing up for with a Nathan Edmondson comic. Continuing his revival of the espionage genre in comics, DANCER checks off all the boxes with style, if not actual inspiration. All present and accounted for: European setting? Check. Underdog superspy facing off against a younger, better-equipped, and more lethal foe? Yes sir. His lover’s life in the balance? Yup. Vehicular chase scene? You betcha. Pulse-pounding final confrontation? Naturally. A final twist in the tale? Of course. What more could you want from a spy story? DANCER has everything espionage aficionados expect.

Which is, in part, the problem. DANCER lacks the flair of Edmondson’s testosterone-fuelled WHO IS JAKE ELLIS? and the thrillers of THE ACTIVITY. Those series brimmed with innovativeness: a sparkle that set them apart from their competition. While DANCER is stylishly executed, with Nic Klein taking full credit for the art, colors and design, there’s little in this story we haven’t read before. It’s a hodgepodge of stale and dated ideas, which benefits greatly from Klein’s simple illustrations and muted color palette. His panel-to-panel transitions are fantastic, particularly towards the story’s climax, which flits back and forth between both Fisher’s. Edmondson’s script is sparse, allowing the art to handle primary storytelling responsibilities: no caption boxes or lengthy exposition scenes here, to its credit.

Familiar and fleeting, but precision-made, DANCER is a fine addition to Edmondson’s stable of espionage comics.

Review: Comeback by Ed Brisson & Michael Walsh

ComebackCOMEBACK by Ed Brisson Michael Walsh is fast-paced action-packed time travel story; a thriller, with time travel as its central mechanic.

Mark and Seth are agents for the illegal agency Reconnect – for an inflated price, they’ll go back in time to save people from their untimely demise. But the FBI have noticed the anomalies they’ve created, and are on the hunt – which coincides with the spectacular failure of their most recent mission, and the decision by their employers to burn the whole operation to the ground to protect themselves.

It’s a convoluted plot, but writer Brisson keeps the narrative on the straight-and-narrow by avoiding soliloquies about time travel technology, and the dangers of it, and instead keeps the focus on the two main characters, the rocket-fast plot; there’s no time for monologues, there’s a story to tell, dammit!

Although the plot flits back and forth between past and present, and there’s no subtle change in colour palette to mark the transition, we’re never questioning which timeline we’re viewing – and when we do, it’s intentional, and for the sake of a dramatic reveal.

Walsh is the perfect artist for a project like this; his pencils are rough and gritty, but his storytelling ability is superb. His work would be perfect for a crime comic, but just as suitable for a street-level sci-fi comic.

COMEBACK is a short, but very sweet, thrill-ride. While there is room for deeper character exploration, maybe the elongation of certain moments, it’s great seeing a creative team tell the story they want to tell, then pull away; always leave the reader wanting more, they say. To that, I ask: when do we get a sequel?

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: Dead Body Road by Justin Jordan and Matteo Scalera

Dead Body RoadThe murder of his wife during a botched heist thrusts Orson Gage into a quest for vengeance, and entangles him in a world of villains, violence and duplicity, where the line between friend and foe is blurred. DEAD BODY ROAD is unabashedly derivative of works Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark. The premise could be ripped from the minds of both those authors. It is not especially innovative, and it’s not ‘genre defining.’ It’s simply a great crime comic; a love letter to the grandmasters of crime fiction, and an artistic tour de force. Which is enough to make it one of my favorite comics of the year.

Gage is not a likeable protagonist. He is not a good man, and there is nothing chivalrous about his mission. He attacks his enemy with brutal intensity and determination. He is not seeking redemption through his actions. Gage understands and accepts the fact that his quest for vengeance will likely lead to his death. With his wife gone, revenge has become the single thing he lives for. So he investigates and targets the men involved in the heist that got his wife killed, cutting through the posse like a hot knife through butter, asking each of individual the same question: “who killed my wife?”

Revenge tales are a time a dozen, but very few have the benefit of Matteo Scalera’s artwork. Already a fan from his work on BLACK SCIENCE (which I reviewed recently), DEAD BODY ROAD is exactly the type of story perfect for Scalera’s talents. Amidst the scratchiness and unique flamboyance of the art is a layer of realism necessary to ground the story. Car chases rarely work on a static page, but Scalera pulls off a scene with aplomb, capturing the pace and adrenaline of an equivalent scene from a blockbuster film. The visuals alone make DEAD BODY ROAD worth the price of admission. It really is a treat.

But take nothing away from the writer, Justin Jordan. He doesn’t try to hide his story’s influences, instead makes sure he hits the high notes of his predecessors and contemporaries. DEAD BODY ROAD is not a blatant facsimile of single story we’ve read before; instead it massages a multitude of stimuli into its final product. It’s a perfect salute to the genre’s greatest writers.

And it’s a darn fine one.

Review: Velvet, Volume 1 – Before the Living End by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet Before the Living EndBesides her most recent incarnation in Skyfall, the Miss Moneypenny who has existed in more than 60 years of James Bond continuity has been entirely deskbound; a pining secretary, who absorbed 007’s innuendo and traded witticisms with the licensed-to-kill agent. For the most part, the character has been entirely disposable, save for the occasional stinging rejoinder at Bond’s expense; moments to saviour, for they were few and far between. But what if there was more to Moneypenny than the insipid qualities she routinely brandished? Skyfall opened the door to an alternative take on the secretary, and we’ll see where that goes in the franchise’s next installment – but Ed Brunaker and Steve Epting latch onto that notion and run with it full throttle. The result, this first volume of their monthly comic series Velvet, titled BEFORE THE LIVING END, is a fantastic spy-thriller, with shades of Ian Fleming’s inimitable protagonist, but stands comfortably apart on its own pedestal.

The creative partnership of Brubaker and Epting resonates in comics. Together, the writer and artist redefined Captain America, and their long run on the title has become definitive; for the foreseeable future, every creator’s take on the shield-wielding patriot will be paralleled to theirs. But VELVET allows Brubaker and Epting to break from the confines of corporate characters – there’s no holding back. Storytelling choices, both artistic and regarding script, are executed in magnificent tandem. The plot unravels with the deftness of a John le Carré novel, but punctuated with the adrenaline-fueled bursts of a Robert Ludlum or Matthew Reilly thriller, while Brubaker keeps the dialog succinct, his trademark noir vibe permeating the necessary exposition. Epting’s artwork has never looked better, his layouts carefully considered, allowing for a seamless reading experience. Character interactions are embellished with incredibly detail; emotions play across their faces with unparalleled finesse. And the action is choreographed to perfection, whether it’s hand-to-hand combat or a 007-esque car chase scene, you won’t find better execution elsewhere in comics.

BEFORE THE LIVING END throws all the elements of a successful spy story into the mix, but it never feels overtly derivative, beyond the connotations Brubaker and Epting purposefully highlight.  Set in 1973 (but with plenty of flashbacks) Velvet Templeton is an ex field agent (or “X-Operative”) turned personal assistant to the Director of the clandestine agency ARC-7. When one of the agency’s top X-Operative is killed in Paris, Velvet sits in on the debrief, and decides to personally investigate the murder – which ends up seeing her marked as the killer and a traitor. Velvet flip-flops from inactive to active in the space of twenty pages, and BEFORE THE LIVING END is propelled by her determination to find out who set her up and murdered her fellow agent.

Velvet is not the young buxom blonde one might associate with a super-spy heroine. For one thing, she’s older than that stereotype suggests – closer to her forties than her twenties – and she’s not infallible. Despite the theatrics – and there are many – Velvet is a normal-bodied agent, out of touch, and slower than she once was. As the story flits from present to past, the changes in her body and mind are demonstrated through Epting’s art. Velvet remains beautiful throughout, but the slight changes highlights the attention to detail this creative team has taken with this project.

VELVET is a fantastic new series from Image Comics, and merely the foundation of something brilliant from Brubaker and Epting. This volume’s finale has me waiting with baited breath for the next; in the interim, I guarantee I’ll enjoy more than a few re-reads of BEFORE THE LIVING END.

Review: Zero by Ales Kot

ZeroZERO is an espionage thriller that purports to be something deeper than an artistic tour de force of dynamic action set pieces and spectacular violence. In this first volume, AN EMERGENCY, writer Ales Kot teams with five distinctive artists to explore war, violence, love and loss amidst the eclectic chaos of our protagonist’s profession.

A sense of melancholy and inevitable doom pervades ZERO. The narrative flits through time, providing glimpses into Edward Zero’s past, present and future, demonstrating the effect decades of trauma has had on his soul. Edward has been trained from childhood to be a cold, professional killer. His mandate is simply to get the job done, whatever the cost. Edward is a tragic figure, brutally moulded into a weapon, to be used and abused as his masters see fit until his inevitable expiration.

ZERO mines elements from the best war and espionage fiction, but Kot’s approach is distinct – there is not another comic like this on the market, executed meticulously, with tangible consideration for each page and panel. Each chapter is illustrated by a different artist, whose styles bear no resemblance to each other. It’s a unique approach, and in a medium that lauds artistic consistency, it’s a remarkable feat. Tradd Moore’s chapter, in which a young Edward is tasked with his first assassination, is the standout artist amongst his esteemed collaborators, but nobody lets the ball drop; Michael Walsh, Mateus Santoloucu, Morgan Jeske and Will Tempest are operating on top form, and aided by Jordi Bellaire’s striking colors. Kot intersperses text pieces at the end of ZERO’s chapters, which prove essential reading, rather than gratuitous additional content.

ZERO introduces various sci-fi elements into its narrative, including bio-modified terrorists and portals, but these fit the story’s tone, and add to the series’ grandeur. While readers seeking a gritty, real-world approach to their espionage fiction might blanch, it adds spice to Kot’s tale, and AN EMERGENCY’s finale suggests these paranormal components will play a vital role in the series moving forward. ZERO is a hybrid, and is on track to be an incredibly successful one.

Framed as an espionage thriller, ZERO is so much more. It’s a wonderful example of ingenuity on the page, and of a writer weaving a tale with delightful creative abandon in tandem with a fine selection of collaborators. ZERO is not to be missed.

Review: Lazarus (Vol 1) by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark

LazarusGreg Rucka’s run on DETECTIVE COMICS in the early 2000s was seminal, and his subsequent work on titles such as THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, WOLVERINE, THE PUNISHER and WONDER WOMAN pushed him into the highest echelon of mainstream comic writers. His independent comics work – QUEEN & COUNTRY and STUMPTOWN in particular – accentuated his status, and early signs indicate that LAZARUS is going to cement him there for ever.

Versatility is an underrated quality in a writer and Greg Rucka has it in spades. Not only is he a master of two mediums – check out his  Atticus Kodiak prose  series if you’re looking for some Jack Reacher-esque action – but his narratives, despite often sharing similar themes (a strong female lead chief among them) there’s a clear disparity between each one. LAZARUS is nothing like Rucka’s other comics work – but it nevertheless feels very much like a Rucka-penned tale, which is definitely a positive.

Volume One of LAZARUS introduces us to the new world. We don’t when this is taking place or how the world came to be so messed up – perhaps that information will trickle down over time, perhaps not, it’s not really the point – but what we do know is that the world is now divided by financial power players. Wealthy families define geographic boundaries, and in each family there is a Lazarus – a warrior – who is a tangible representation of the each family’s financial capability. LAZARUS is the story about the lazarus from the Carlyle Family. Her name is Forever – and from the very beginning we discover she has doubts about her imposed destiny; doubts that will likely fester throughout the series (the length of which is so far undetermined, readers beware; you might be in for five volumes or 35!).

Rucka is partnered by an art team consisting of Michael Lark and Santi Arcas, who have worked in tandem to create something very special indeed. Lark has a realistic style, which makes LAZARUS easily digestible for those unfamiliar with graphic storytelling. The page layouts are simple but effective – this might be some of Lark’s best work since his run on DAREDEVIL for Marvel Comics in the mid-2000s.

This first volume of LAZARUS serves as a solid introduction to the chief characters and the world they inhabit, and comes highly recommended.