Review: The Fade Out, Volume 1 by Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweiser

The Fade Out

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ latest collaboration from Image Comics mines familiar territory in spectacular fashion. Set in 1948, The Fade Out is a sprawling and ambitious narrative focused primarily on Charlie Parish, a Hollywood writer haunted by wartime memories, who – true to form – has taken to the bottle in a bid to relieve himself of these vivid recollections, thus irreparably damaging the creative spark necessary to succeed in the business. And if that wasn’t bad enough, production on the noir film he’s working on has stalled because of the death of its up-and-coming starlet. Charlie’s alcohol-imbued mind potentially holds the key to unlocking the mystery of her death; but does he truly want to?

Sleeper, Criminal and Fatale honed Brubaker and Phillips’ partnership; The Fade Out raises their bar to an impossible level. The plot is labyrinthine, and Brubaker utilizes deft third-person narration to drive the story; clunky in the hands of less-talented writers, but perfect here. The story involves an extensive cast of characters – some recognizable faces from Hollywood’s yesteryear – and no doubt some plot threads will turn out to be red herrings. Inevitably the role of any first volume is to entice the reader to continue onto the second: that’s guaranteed, here.

The art alternates stylistically depending on the situation, and it’s a wonder to behold. Few, if any, illustrators operating today guarantee the clean and precise storytelling of Phillips’. He’s truly in a class of his own, and is wonderfully aided by the colours of Betty Breitweiser. Together, they capture the feel of late-1940’s Hollywood exactly as I imagine it.

The Fade Out reaffirms Brubaker and Phillips’ status as the numro uno creative team in comics. For crime and mystery readers, it’s an absolute must.

Review: Criminal, Volume 1 -Coward by Brubaker and Phillips

Criminal CowardEd Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal is a delightfully unpretentious crime series: it unabashedly embraces its noir roots, unembroidered by cheap theatrics or anomalous twists. Its various volumes, now published by Image for the first time in redesigned editions, are imbued with its creators’ regard for the genre, and represent the pinnacle of their respective careers. Coward is our entry into this dark, rain-drenched, graffiti-daubed world; professional thief Leo is our guide.

Leo is a criminal who knows when to walk away – or run, in the worst case scenario – from a job. And because of his proclivity for caution – his determination to survive – Leo has been dubbed a coward. And he’s okay with that – mostly. Because ultimately, he’s still here, while many of his friends are not. So now, five years after his last big heist went terribly awry, Leo works alone, pulling small jobs; enough to get by financially, and support his father-figure’s drug habit. It’s not a happy life, but he’s living, and for Leo, that’s enough. Of course, things soon change when figures from Leo’s past return, bringing him back into the fold: a big job with a massive payoff, surely too good to be true. But Leo should’ve trusted his reservations and walked away. Because there’s nobody you can trust less than a cop on the take; especially one with nothing to lose.

Coward reads like a Parker novel (although Leo isn’t quite as menacing as Richard Stark’s protagonist) – fast-paced, populated with a menacing cast, and punctuated with moments of brutal violence; vicious, but not gratuitous. Brubaker, Phillips, and Val Staples on colours, are operating at their zenith, demonstrating harmony on the coloured page. There is no better crime comic than Criminal; there are few better crime stories than Coward, period.

Image Comics

Review: Starlight by Millar and Parlov

StarlightStarlight is an action-packed throwback to the cosmic swashbuckling adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but with its own unique twist.

Forty years ago, United States Air Force pilot Duke McQueen was inadvertently transported to the world of Tantalus, which is suffering under vicious tyrannical rule. Taking matters into his own hands, he single-handedly rescued the planet from its dictator, Typhon, thereby cementing himself in their lore: an eternal legend in their eyes. Duke returned home, a hero in the eyes of millions – but considered a delusional chump to people back home. Unfortunately our planet doesn’t receive intergalactic media transmissions…

Only his wife believes his stories, but at the very start of Starlight she has recently passed away, leaving Duke alone, with nothing but his fading memories, and two aloof sons. Writer Mark Millar and artist Gorlan Parlov excel at highlighting Duke’s insolation, and his status as the punchline for cruel ‘senile old man’ jokes. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for this unrecognised hero, who doesn’t demand adulation for his exploits: just respect.

Then a rocket ship lands on his front lawn, and a twelve year old boy from Tantalus calls Duke back into action. Turns out he didn’t save the faraway planet of Tantalus when he disposed of Typhon – instead, he left their world free for the taking. But does Duke still have it in him, forty years later, to be the hero the planet needs?

Mark Millar has always excelled at those ultra-cool action-packed moments, but sometimes they’ve come at the detriment of the narrative: all flash, no meat on the story’s bones. With Starlight he takes a different approach, with a tighter focus on character, while still allowing room for those iconic moments, which are spectacularly rendered by Parlov, whose work here eclipses even that of Fury: Max. Duke McQueen is a brilliant protagonist: the archetypal fear-nothing-in-the-face-of-danger tough guy, whose only weakness is his inner turmoil, and his disenchantment with life back home. He’s backed up by some fun secondary characters, and ludicrous villains, who are just begging to be punched in the jaw.

Starlight is just fun. It’s a light-hearted space adventure story with plenty of heart. Bring on the sequel.

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?