Page 45 Comic & Graphic Novel Reviews February 2016 week two

Featuring Emma Rios, Hwei Lim, Sarah Burgess, Antony Johnston, Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Tula Lotay, Stephanie Hans, Leila Del Duca, Brandon Graham, Matt Wilson, Nick Drnaso and more.

Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir h/c (£14-99, St. Martin’s Press) by Tom Hart.

“Looking backwards to our joyous life gone is just horrifying, dreadful.
“Imagining a future without Rosalie, equally horrific, terrifying…
“Your best memories are your biggest torments.”

This exceptionally brave and impossibly eloquent book begins with Rosalie’s favourite image, a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro.

“In a single night, the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.”

From seed to sapling to tree: this is the natural order of things.

Rosalie Lightning, Tom and Leela’s daughter, died late November 2011 without warning, aged just under two. She barely reached ‘sapling’.

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Every parent prays that their children will outlive them: this is the natural order of things. It is so very natural that every parent could be forgiven for assuming it will be so. But within the space of few scant hours Tom went from a proud, loving Dad looking forward to spending his entire life watching his daughter grow up, to every parent’s “worst case scenario”.

This is such a harrowing read that I’ve multiple knots in my stomach merely typing this. It is grieving laid bare in all its desolate candour. It is forthright yet disciplined, immaculately structured and so well worded that one is tempted to quote from every page. You’ll be seeing a great many trees, and it is surrounded by them that this memoir reaches such an extraordinary conclusion mere months later that one might even call it a climax. In poignant contrast Hart recalls how the three other stories featured within, which he shared with his daughter, conclude: the bird revived, the girl found, the girl freed.

That’s not going to happen here. This isn’t a fiction whose outcome can be controlled and adjusted to suit its creator’s desires. And it’s this very finality, its irreversibility, its cold hard fact which hit me so hard, even more so after the following:

“I do my best when I believe she is coming back.”

How often do you awake from a nightmare to the relative relief of real life? Can you imagine having a dream in which all is idyllic then waking to a stark reality like this?

“What do you do when your child dies? …You fall into a hole. … My heart is a desperate, capacious hole.”

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So many sequences end in a gaping black hole. Others are glimpsed from within that black hole as if seen through a cerecloth. There’s a recurring image of Tom and Leela portrayed as more familiar Tom Hart cartoon characters riding a patched-up rubber-ring boat, struggling through rapids, going swiftly nowhere. Water plays a big part throughout, from Ponyo By The Sea to Tom and Leela by the sea with Rosalie’s ashes.

“Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

Awful.

So what do you do when your child dies? I don’t speak from personal experience – I’m not even a parent – but this is what I learned from Tom Hart.

You end up “collecting” a lot of other stories of dead children. You can think about throwing yourself under a bus.

You look for signs and portents even in the weather in case they were warnings. In case behaviour held meaning, in case your child was trying to tell you something or knew something you didn’t.

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Everything takes on new meanings, new resonances: words, phrases, images, dreams, objects, songs.

Hart adopts some of Rosalie’s favourite idioms into his own narrative, while thinking of all the words Rosalie never got to learn, all the experiences they never got to share both way in the future and just before she died. There’s the cruelty of hindsight and missed opportunities; the frustration of a corn maze which Rosalie was so excited about but which was closed or about-to-close on two separate occasions after the family’s arrival was delayed by disasters.

And then there’s that cruelty with which “Your best memories are your biggest torments”. Perhaps because of her love of Totoro, Rosalie collected acorns wherever she found them. Hart shows her foraging in full sunlight, picking up an acorn with her smooth and tiny little hand. It’s immediately followed by Tom doing the same, then holding it at a distance with a grimace which signals utterly destroyed, almost disgust, his face scrubbed with the same black which enshrouds them while Leela is wide-eyed with everything.

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Similarly when it comes to the moon which used to mesmerise Rosalie, Tom can’t bear to look at it.

Obviously this isn’t told in the same style as NEW HAT STORIES et al. Much of it is ragged and jagged and raw. There are a lot of close-ups of Leela and Tom very much alone together, Tom’s hair scruffy, their faces leeched of all life. But there are also some powerful landscapes and beautiful, magical, triangular-leafed trees using Letratone – or a Letratone effect. I notice Eddie Campbell appeared first in Hart’s inspirational thanks, so that makes sense.

As to its structure, it begins right at the nub of it all then pulls back to Tom and Leela’s life in New York City before Rosalie was conceived, their escape back to Florida, their tough time selling their old flat (an early offer was made but you won’t believe the mendacity and greed of the institutions who stymied the sale) and Rosalie’s young life which is where the countdown begins. Time is running out because you know that she dies in late November. I guess that’s what you also do when your child dies: everything recalled becomes your last this, your last that and the other.

Afterwards we follow Leela and Tom’s first five weeks without Rosalie, when “Everything is a message. Everything beautiful is her” and you realise that you’ve no idea what strangers at an airport are going through because no one knows – to look at you – what you are enduring too.

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In all honesty I don’t know if I were a parent of a young child that I would want to read this. I’ve forbidden our Jonathan from doing so. But for those who have been left behind, I believe it will provide as much empathy as Anders Nilsen’s DON’T GO WHERE I CAN’T FOLLOW and especially THE END which celebrate the life then document the death of his fiancée, and the gaping void which she left behind in her wake.

For those of us who aren’t parents at all or have adult children, it can open up a whole new understanding. This, above all, caught me completely off guard.

“Three weeks ago – wasn’t I a father?”

SLH

Buy Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir h/c and read the Page 45 review here

The Summer Of Blake Sinclair vols 1, 2 and 3 (£12-55 each, Zetabella Publishing) by Sarah Burgess.

     

“Stop obsessing over things that aren’t going to happen…”

Oh, Blake, how very disappointing and dismissive of you.

During this astutely observed romance Sarah Burgess doesn’t once disappoint. Its open elegance almost belies the keen understanding and complexity of what lies and lingers beneath.

Blake Sinclair, however, will prove quite the frustration. Oh, he is pretty and dippy and o’er-brimming with infectious enthusiasm! He’s that oh so casual, free-roaming spirit, friend to all and declared enemy of the fake. He’s culturally well informed, confident in his opinions, comfortable in his skin and utterly oblivious to cause and effect.

He is, as Adam Ant once sang, “Young, dumb and full of it”.

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Perfect in pale peach and lemon yellows, the pages here glow like a summer sunrise or a glass of Bellini with the early evening light pouring through it. They are as tangy as a citrus fruit fool with bits of lemon peel left within.

Until the rain hammers down in volume three.

It begins with Blake Sinclair up bright and early and cheerful as anything, prising open the bedroom window to soak up the sunshine and leap barefoot into the day. He’s young and dashing in a gangly, tousled-hair kind of a way and, oh, how he loves the ladies! He’s just spotted a new one with tufted white hair, up on a balcony, called Blythe. Unfortunately he’s also left one behind in that bedroom whose window he’s now clambering back through. Daisy is just waking up, punctuating her sweet-smiling words with love hearts.

““So, what are we going to do today?”
“Nothing.”
“…What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t want to do anything with you. You’re very attractive, but I never said I liked you.”

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It’s a brilliant Blake and Burgess moment of which there will be many more. Blake may be a little in love with himself (“I just like to sit in front of the mirror sometimes” – talk about self-regarding!) but he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He is completely open and honest – by which I mean blunt and careless and inconsiderate. But he never said he liked Daisy and if the night before was anything to go by, why would he want more of the same? Daisy dominated the entire conversation, force-fed YouTube down him all night, got plastered then groped him. It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t a date and, to be honest, Daisy’s a melodramatic brat.

Ruthie, however, is not. Ruthie is genuine and affectionate and, when she sees Blake call Daisy’s friends on their tedious, insincere gossip, she summons the courage to follow him home to discover they share the same building. They also share similar interests and swiftly bond, but Ruthie is tentative and fragile and far from ready for Blake’s casual behaviour and his complete inability to communicate when it matters the most…

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We’ve only just touched the tip of the romantic iceberg, as you’d expect with three substantial volumes.

Firstly, Blake’s chilled and worldly-wise friend Janey comes to stay for the summer and they haven’t seen each other for a year. Initially intimidated by Janey’s confidence and misreading Blake’s adoration of his friend, Ruthie finds the arrangement difficult. But Janey may be just what she needs to understand Blake. As for Blake, what he probably needs is a dose of his own medicine and you remember I mentioned balcony-borne Blythe? I think he may have finally met his match.

There’s so much to celebrate here, for it isn’t just about romance but friendship as well. Blythe comes with her own entourage – flatmates Sasha and Gareth – and Burgess understands the initial, wary culture clash of different scenes converging, in this instance punks and indie kids. There are multiple misunderstandings, presumptions and a whiff of judgemental hypocrisy in the tribal pigeonholing. But there are also timely mirrors being held up and the joy of discovering completely new territory and traditions. Book three, for example, may begin back at the same window, this time during a thunderstorm, but it will open onto a completely fresh thrill when Blythe, Gareth and Sasha appear at the door and invite Janey, Ruthie and Blake to a party in the park round a roaring bonfire even though the rain is torrential. Cartoon theme tunes are belted out and new, confidence-boosting bonds are formed between unexpected individuals.

Back in book two, however, Burgess visually nails the isolation and insecurity of feeling lost and lonely at a party where everyone else is jabbering away and gesticulating wildly and you simply don’t feel the same connection or enthusiasm. An essay in timidity and uncertainty, on one page Ruthie is hugging herself defensively before glancing awkwardly around. It’s followed by a full page on which the revellers are coloured in both background and foreground in a warm glow, whereas poor, pale Ruthie, right in the middle, is surrounded by more space than you’d think possible in a crowd.

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There is so much space in all three graphic novels – more space perhaps than in any other comic I’ve read. The forms are all as lithe as you like, the clothes and bed sheets hanging off them with a perfectly judged weight depending on texture, while quite often the panels are free-floating and borderless.

As to the body language, few can use shoulders as well as Sarah. And here’s an interesting thing: instead of orbs for irises, Burgess uses a lot of angled hearts. It’s a way of drawing the natural highlight on an eye, but in Sarah’s hands it also emphasises both sparkle and affection – especially in Janey – and vulnerability and bewilderment in Ruthie.

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Unlike Daisy, Ruthie is far from needy, and I want to give her a great big hug. I want to give Gareth a peck on the cheek, Janey a pat on the back (err, mostly) and Blake a great big slapping for what he does in book two.

There will be drama and laughter, maybe a few tears and an occasional awkward introduction. There will be frank discussions, eruptions of anger and a little lewd behaviour as well. Oh yes, the gossip: I love how the gaggle of friends venting their “tut-tuts” on the very first morning are only partly overheard because half of their sentences are lost outside the word balloons. Same for when Blake walks into a room to find Sasha enthusing about colours. It’s clever like that.

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Speaking of clever, I refer you to Blake’s outburst at the top of this review.

He’s not addressing any of the ladies who hanker after his careless heart. He’s talking to male punk Sasha who’s been in love with Blythe since before Blake ever came onto their scene. I’m afraid that it’s unrequited. Sasha knows this, Blake knows this. But the context is that they’ve been playing an RPG of Blake’s choice in Blake’s own territory with his own friends, and relative outsider Sasha has been good enough to gamely join in. Blake triumphantly declares he has won and although Sasha protests not unreasonably, Blake bursts out with…

“Look, don’t get pent up just because you can’t accept that the treasure is mine!”

Ouch.

SLH

Buy The Summer Of Blake Sinclair vol 1 and read the Page 45 review here

Buy The Summer Of Blake Sinclair vol 2 and read the Page 45 review here

Buy The Summer Of Blake Sinclair vol 3 and read the Page 45 review here

Beverly (£16-50, Drawn & Quarterly) by Nick Drnaso…

“I don’t know.
“I’ve had about all I can take of them. If they wanna have a big nostalgia love fest, leave us the fuck at home, ya know?
“We could rent one of those movies. I might go back down to the pool soon enough.
“Are you hungry? I could eat, but I could wait.
“Wanna order room service?
“Would you please say something?
“Mom and Dad might be able to pretend nothing is wrong, but I don’t think you’ve said one word on this whole trip.
“What’s going on with you?”

He really hasn’t, you know – said a word, that is – Tyler, Cara’s younger brother. I flipped back to the start of that particular story and checked and, sure enough, Tyler has been entirely mute for the duration of his family’s road trip to Cape Cod, to revisit the exact spot where his still loved-up father proposed to his mother twenty-five years ago.

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That’s probably the least weird thing about him, though, as we’ve gained a very good idea of what’s going on with Tyler from his hallucinations – if that’s what they are. If not, they are some seriously disturbed fantasies. Tyler, I feel, may well be a serial killer in the making… The holiday therefore unsurprisingly goes pear-shaped when Cara walks in on her brother doing strange things with a pillow dressed in her used bra and knickers whilst their parents are off having a romantic dinner…

Billed as “a darkly funny portrait of middle America seen through the stunted minds of its children” I would have to say that has pretty much nailed it, actually! There are six stories here whose characters overlap, including a reprise for Tyler as a young man in a perturbingly understated finale, where the kids find themselves caught up in some typical teen dramas like house parties, underage drinking and unwanted pregnancy, plus some atypical malarkey such as kidnapping, rape and a fatal car crash.

Through it all Nick Drnaso paints his peculiarly uncomfortable portrait of dysfunctional kids living these tragically hopeless lives. Aimless and aspirationless, the best they can probably hope for after community college, if they even go, is a dead-end job stuck in an indentikit bland town in the middle of nowhere, filled with fast food joints and little else. Middle-aged spread and medicated lethargy, prescription or otherwise, is all that almost certainly awaits…

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This is exactly like parts of America I have personally seen. Whereas in tiny old Britain we have sink estates, the good old USA has entire sink States. Like Middlesborough scaled up to the size of Mississippi… Not full-on inner-city deprivation, but perhaps more uncomfortably real for its mere one step remove from the life of the average person. You can’t imagine any of the characters here experiencing any great degree of upward social mobility in their lives, nor indeed perhaps downwards, but then I’ve always believed the desire for change, any sort, has primarily to come from within.

Nick’s cast of characters, however, seem content to simply be part of the fabric of small-town society and be swept along by the tidal undercurrents of malaise present there. They can’t think big. Well, except perhaps for Tyler, and that’s purely in terms of body count. And yet, even when we find out what’s become of the littlest psycho, in the final story, it’s clear even his grand visions haven’t amounted to much. I wonder how many budding, genuine teenage psycho-killers find their lust for life so easily thwarted? Or maybe he’s just been biding his time, the one resident of Beverly with a long-term career plan…

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Art-wise, I can see several partial comparisons. The slightly pastel palette and general art style strongly minded me in some panels of Rutu EXIT WOUNDS / THE PROPERTY Modan. Particularly when arms are swinging about or faces are three-quarters on. I can also similarly make a case for some stories in Tomine’s OPTIC NERVE. Also, and I think it is the dot eyes, Raymond Briggs, and also even Ernie Bushmiller’s classic strip NANCY, particularly when characters are face-on. The relative simplicity of the style further allows the excruciating interactions between the various characters to take centre stage. For it’s those which are the atrophied, diseased, fat-clogged beating heart of these stories…

JR

Buy Beverly and read the Page 45 review here

Mirror #1 (£2-25. Image) by Emma Rios & Hwei Lim; Hwei Lim & Emma Rios.

“Humour me… mirror 1 coverTell me how a little rat will succeed where so many mightier have failed?”
“I don’t know if I will, sir. But if I don’t even try, I’ll have already failed.”
“Ah, well. You can only lose as much as you were hoping to gain.”

I’m not sure that last bit’s true.

This is a story which will hit you hard in your heart.

A bright and beautiful comic full of fresh, Spring colours, to read this is like being given glimpses through an ornate window.

There’s no hand-holding, no unwieldy exposition, just key conversations overheard about dominion, control, captivity and aspirations to escape which you may wish to rewind multiple times in order to discern precisely what’s at stake.

The window aspect is emphasised by the arched panel frames on the very first page (third illustration down), then Emma Rios’ illuminations of Hwei Lim’s script for the parallel back-up feature called ‘The Hand That Holds The Leash’ (second illustration down). It is daubed in purple-blossom washes along with a landscape overlooking the cathedral-like Esagila compound at the heart of the young Irzah Colony. From a distance it looks as though it could have been fashioned from glass.

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Come to think about it, Kazbek too is painted by Rios to resemble shards of glass, reflecting the sky’s lilac colours as he sits calm and relaxed in the open-air gazebo or porch surrounded by the greenery of a substantial garden. Set around page four of the main feature, Kazbek is being instructed by Elena to get rid of the dog once it’s recaptured. It’s a dispassionate match of verbal sabres:

“She is much more than a dog.”
“Why do you say so?”
“She truly loves the boy.”
“Heh… nothing knows true love better than a dog…”
“If you think so highly of dogs, why would you have me get rid of her?”
“If you think so highly of dogs, why do you try so hard to make them human?”

There follow the final sentences of the first chapter:

“Yes, I’m being selfish. I’d rather be human and selfish than the noblest of dogs. The hand that holds the leash, not the neck wearing the collar. What about you?”

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Our first encounter is a mere 5 years after the colony’s formation. This prologue is called ‘The Boy And His Dog’. And you would be forgiven for imagining that Sena was a dog to begin with, for young Ivan’s at cheerful play with her. But we’re already fast-forwarding through time as the towering Kazbek interrupts school class, stick clasped behind his back.

“My apologies. I’m in need of Ivan’s assistance again.”

As Kazbek approaches outside, Sena’s delighted bark turns to a growl.

“Come. It is time.”
“Do we have to? She’s not fully recovered yet… “

Notice the cages and lab coats on the very first tier!

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In keeping with the comic itself, I’m loath to give much more away, except that there will be more cages, more mistreated “animals”, more inhumanity. Seemingly reasonable Kazbek will remain dispassionate throughout. That’s part of what makes him so infuriating. While an adult Ivan now seeks to study nature, Kazbek is meddling with it, manipulating it, experimenting with it. Colonists are only visitors, you know…

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Lim’s colours for the main event are less impressionistic than Rios’ but equally lambent. Both artists employ a great many arches and curves in the exquisite architecture, and even rat-monkey Zun’s descent to Ivan’s room is choreographed like a helter skelter ride. Like every 8HOUSE title, you can tell how much time has been spent and how much fun has been had coming up with designs for this society’s fashions. The lettering appears to be species-specific. Love the animal-orientated circular frame.

SLH

Buy Mirror #1 and read the Page 45 review here

The Wicked + The Divine vol 3: Commercial Suicide s/c (£10-99, Image) by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Kate Brown, Tula Lotay, Stephanie Hans, Leila Del Duca, Brandon Graham.

The most contemporary comic imaginable, inclusivity is its middle name.

“A documentary about public grief can never show too many crowds of people freaking out about people they’ve never met.”

Previously in THE WICKED + THE DIVINE:

You know how the likes of Bowie and Kylie are referred to as pop gods and pop goddesses? Turns out some of them really are.

“You are of the Pantheon.
“You will be loved.
“You will be hated.
“You will be brilliant.
“Within two years you will be dead.”

Every 90 years a Pantheon of a dozen gods is born anew, activated by ancient Ananke who finds them in young individuals previously oblivious to their fate. She helps them shine brightly for their brief two years. If they’re lucky. Because some of those lights have been snuffed out already.

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It’s a brilliant conceit. Of course the Pantheon’s role in this modern age would be as those most worshipped today, and Gillen takes the opportunity to examine journalism, fame, fandom, aspiration, envy, competitive back-biting, fear, mortality and manipulation. Some are putting ideas into other people’s heads.

Please don’t imagine we’re treading water in these six short stories focussing on individual members of the Pantheon. If anything, events are escalating in the hunt for the killer. Prepare to drown in dramatic irony.

Since McKelvie was on sabbatical while he drew PHONOGRAM: IMMATERIAL GIRL, his chapter starring Woden is craftily composed entirely of panels repurposed from THE WICKED + THE DIVINE volumes one and two. Which itself involves a substantial amount of time and no small degree of artful judgement. Enhanced with colour filters by Matt Wilson which partially reflect their original source (explained in the extensive process-piece back-matter), it’s so successful that if you have no idea that it’s a collage you’d barely twig. Having this foreknowledge, each page made me smile, and I imagine some soul with enough time on their hands spent an entire afternoon identifying each panel’s specific source.

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What’s particularly clever, however, is that the remix / reconstruction is entirely apposite since it’s Woden recalling a side of the story you never saw in volume two after that gun was put to his head and he ran back to Mummy to tell tales. By ‘Mummy’ I mean Ananke, and this may make you want to re-read the whole series with fresh insight from the start. There’s a very funny sequence in which Luci and Baal’s actual exchange in volume one is replaced by satirical overdubs. There’s also an awful echo of the previous chapter as Woden comes clean about his sexual proclivities:

““How can I do it?” It’s easy. You take women and just forget that they’re people. It’s not hard.”

No, it seems appallingly easy given the deluge of mob-mentality male hatred thrown like so much repugnant, foul-smelling shit across the internet at female comics’ and especially games’ journalists like Leigh Alexander simply because they are women. Gillen pulls no punches in reproducing its sexually explicit venom here as social-media men-children bombard pop goddess Tara with a barrage of Tweets whose infinite, incessant, babbling inhumanity is represented by a final full page of these cold, callous rectangles receding into the distance and disappearing off the edges.

I cannot show you any of those pages – as in, I won’t. But, trust me, nothing has been exaggerated for the sake of sensationalism.

They’re presaged by Tara’s treatment by men long before she could sing – the casual sexism and worse which is faced by women walking the street or in bars – and presented in stark contrast to Tara’s softness, vulnerability and individuality as a human being, the flesh on her face drawn so warmly by Tula Lotay along with the pain and tears in her eyes.

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It’s an individuality no one was ever interested in, only her looks. Her fans hate it when she puts on the mask, depriving them of their pleasure, or sings anything she wrote herself.

“Fucking Tara.” It becomes a mantra of sorts.

Individuality is exactly what each artist offers here, and after you’ve read each chapter you won’t be able to imagine them being drawn by anyone else. For sheer, unbridled fury Kate Brown takes the biscuit and I’m not just talking about the line art, either – there’s a cacophony of colours and you too will see red. What Brandon Graham brings could hardly be more different. His Sakhmet is sexual, sybaritic, reclining like a cat, hunting like a cat and disinterested too. Her performance is phantasmagorical.

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Individuality is also what you’ll enjoy more of here as we learn a lot more about some of the Pantheon and their lives both post- and pre-activation. Plenty of revelations, all of which make perfect sense, particularly and at times hilariously the Morrigan and Baphomet drawn by Leila Del Duca. Heritage also comes up for combative review before artist Stephanie Hans draws Amaterasu going nuclear in the skies above Hiroshima.

“You are a literal artificial sun above Hiroshima! Fuck! Are you even aware of how offensive this is?”

We’ve not seen much of Minerva until now. She’s the Goddess of Wisdom, aged twelve. Out of the mouths of babes etc, I’d say she’s one to watch. I certainly wish they would listen.

SLH

Buy The Wicked + The Divine vol 3: Commercial Suicide s/c and read the Page 45 review here

Scorpia: An Alex Rider Graphic Novel (£11-99, Walker Books) by Anthony Horowitz, Antony Johnston & Emma Vieceli, Kate Brown.

“Gentlemen, please. Mr Grendel has wanted to retire of a long time. We must respect his wishes. As my late husband used to say, before his unfortunate fall from a seventeen-storey window, “All good things must come to an end.”

At which point I roared with laughter.

I love a villain so confident in their impregnability that they’re that outrageously brazen and deadpan to boot. Scorpia’s Julia Rothman is just such a woman.

Of course you know that Mr Grendel is not long for this world. I give him six panels, max. But then if you are stupid enough to resign from a wealthy cabal of international terrorists during a meeting in which it’s been declared that thousands of children will die at your hands, you’re going to be stupid enough to believe you’ll survive.

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I love Julia Rothman’s femininity: her long skirt, long hair and make-up. You’ll find few clichés here, though you will be lulled into expecting them by the first, action-packed third: that this is going to be a butter-wouldn’t-melt, Blonde Boy Triumphant book. 14-year-old Alex Rider is preternaturally resourceful, preternaturally capable and preternaturally pretty. He’s been trained by and worked for the British government, and the dying words of Yassen Gregoravich, intimating that his father was a killer, have led him to Venice and almost immediately into the lair of Scorpia which is plotting a massacre on British soil. Go get ‘em, Alex!

But it’s way more complicated than that, and unexpectedly harsh. There will be hard choices, wrong choices but at all times understandable choices as Alex discovers he’s been lied to by MI6 for a very long time about the most personal details imaginable.

Then there’s Scorpia’s plot itself using its newly developed Invisible Sword. Firstly, its end goal isn’t death in itself, but the severing of ties between Britain and America. How? It isn’t as asinine as by making America look responsible for the attack, something which would be discredited immediately. Secondly, there’s its means: by slaughtering thousands of children, specifically twelve and thirteen year olds spread throughout London at exactly the same moment, en masse. How could you be that specific? It’s not a big bomb, I promise you.

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The Alex Rider novels and so graphic novels are of course aimed squarely around the twelve-to-thirteen age range, so that’s very clever. It’s a highly successful brand but I’m not going to claim for one second that this is a Young Adults or Young Readers series which will thrill adults equally like HILDA, AMULET or MOUSE GUARD. It’s not a VELVET of spy thrillers is what I’m saying, but I will tell you that this graphic novel throws everything age-appropriate that it’s got at those early teens, plus a big slab of geopolitics, and I would anticipate edge-of-your-seat nerves, cheers and also tears.

More than anything, however, regular Alex Rider adaptor Antony Johnston (THE FUSE, UMBRAL, WASTELAND and THE COLDEST CITY) has chosen his cohorts well, for the line art by Emma Vieceli (BREAKS, two AVALON CHRONICLES, three VAMPIRE ACADEMY books and her own DRAGON HEIR) and the colour art by Kate Brown (TAMSIN AND THE DEEP, FISH + CHOCOLATE) is beautiful. It is clean and pristine and perfectly captures Italy’s spirit of place.

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Those colours glow on the glossy page whether outdoors midday in Venice, overlooking Venice at midnight from across the lagoon or during an emergency meeting in the Cabinet Office. There’s still lots of light coming in through those windows, and the best description I can think of for the overall palette is summer, late afternoon.

Vieceli, meanwhile, fills the pages with big, bold forms with lots of close ups including, somewhat alarmingly, a Siberian Tiger right in your face. She has enormous fun with Alex’s hair flopping vulnerably across his face, and it’s always the face of an early teenager. His build’s somewhat buffer but the boy’s been trained to peak physical condition so, you know, fourteen-year-old Tom Daley…? Exactly.

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There’s an instinctive use of geometry going on outside of the panels – additional vertical blocks, strips and inlays which add extra movement, both temporal and physical – while all kinds of diagonals are let loose for the climax.

SLH

Buy Scorpia: An Alex Rider Graphic Novel and read the Page 45 review here

The Ultimates 1 Ultimate Collection s/c (£25-99, Marvel) by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch.

A damning indictment of American neo-imperialism rammed with military geopolitics, this is my favourite superhero series of all time. Completely self-contained – you need know nothing before – it’s now collected into two seasons, each containing two of the original softcovers. There’s very little interior art online, but I’ll do what I can!

The Ultimates vol 1:

The world is changing. Threats are emerging that conventional armed forces may be unable to deal with. Last year a terrorist calling himself Magneto single-handedly tore into the Whitehouse and stripped the President naked. The Commander In Chief of the most powerful nation on this planet happened to be saved at the last minute by a couple of rogue mutants, but it could all have been very different. Ah yes, then there’s those mutants… If you were the U.S. Secretary of State, and you wanted to maintain American military supremacy, what would you do?

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General Nick Fury is given 50 billion dollars to build The Triskelion, a military base in the Upper Bay of Manhattan, and a twelve-digit budget to commission a renowned geneticist to replicate the serum that once created Captain America, the World War II human military hardware who went missing after saving Washington from a nuclear rocket decades ago. He hires two other scientists, who claim they have been able to develop a hormonal process which brings about instant height division, to work on other potential enhancements like height multiplication, enlists the trusted brand which is billionaire industrialist womaniser, Tony Stark, and sets about creating The Ultimates, a force of few to take down the many or the unthinkable.

Unfortunately the unthinkable lies within them, for the name of the geneticist – the lonely man whose personal insecurities are compounded by romantic rejection, demotion and failure to come close to recreating a Supersoldier – is Dr. Robert Bruce Banner. He’s tired of feeling small, and is about to do something very, very stupid.

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Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch deliver a summer blockbuster which will blow your brains out long before the main event. Until recently Bryan’s art eclipsed all modern cinematic special effects (I say it still does), and his sense of scale is going to take your breath away. When the rain pours onto the streets of Manhattan, the excess skids across the road, and when lightning strikes you may well begin to believe in Norse Gods. Millar’s successfully taken one-dimensional characters from the Legoland that is the Marvel Universe, shuffled them about, given them rounded (and occasionally split) personalities, then thrown them into the real world of media courtship, self-promotion, political self-justification, and national security.

Gone is the altruism, the gaudy costumes and quaint old supervillains; they’re replaced with bloody big paychecks, functional kevlar, fucked-up relationships and inferiority complexes on prozac. Who in their right mind would want to risk their lives fighting beings that could crush your skull like an empty eggshell? Thor…? Nope:

“Go back to your paymasters and tell them that the Son Of Odin is not interested in working for a military industrial complex who engineers wars and murders innocents. Your talk might be of super-villains now, but it is only a matter of time before you are sent to kill for oil or free trade.”
“Oh, for goodness sake. How can you people just sit there and listen to this “Son Of Odin” garbage? You’re not the New Messiah. You’re just a crazy ex-nurse who had a nervous breakdown three weeks short of his thirtieth birthday and spent eighteen months in a lunatic asylum. You might make a fortune from your lecture tours and trashy self-help books, but you don’t fool me for a second, Mister; I’ve got your secrets right here.”
“And I have your secrets right here, Doctor Banner. Have you told Betty Ross that you cry yourself to sleep every night, or are you too busy fantasising about hurting the Pyms for stealing your old job?”

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The entire first issue is a prologue devoted to the World War II events which robbed the world of Captain America and robbed Steve Rogers, the man behind the mask, of his chance at a happy marriage. When he’s found again in the early 21st Century his relatives are all dead, and the only friend Rogers has left has been married to his old fiancée for nearly sixty years. He’s dying of cancer and she can’t bare for him to see her enfeebled body. As for the rest of them, General Fury is a convincing recreation for a modern age with all the charisma of Samuel L. Jackson, Betty Banner is a self-centred, superficial P.R. guru, Jarvis the faithful butler is now a petulant old queen, and the Pyms have more than one secret which will out by the end of the book. As for Tony Stark, he may be a happy-go-lucky, lady-chasing, booze-guzzling flirt, but if he’s living life to the full it’s because the gauge is almost empty. Still, tomorrow’s just another day.

“Vodka and Orange? It’s only 10 am, Tony.”
“Not in Moscow, old boy. Cheers by the way.”

The Ultimates vol 2: Homeland Security (minor spoilers for vol 1):

When was the last time you saw an action film that was perfect? I mean, completely and utterly perfect: compelling performances, mesmerising special effects, jaw-dropping plotting, and the pithiest and wittiest of scripts. I’ve never seen one. Well, apart from Alien and maybe the very first Matrix. Even with the best, something is always slightly disappointing – a niggle here, a niggle there, an insult to your intelligence, or a ham actor in a vital role. All that money, all that talent and they rarely hit the jackpot, often through underestimating their audience.

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Welcome to THE ULTIMATES: I cannot fault one single second of this on any front whatsoever. If you are amongst the record-breaking numbers to have already snatched up volume one, this knocks its teeth to the back of its throat then pulls them out the other end. The Black Widow’s and Hawkeye’s impossibly spectacular double-act above the streets of New York; the brutal reprisal meted out on Hank Pym for abusing his wife; the running gag about Quicksilver seemingly doing nothing (“Actually if you slow down the building’s security tapes…”Liar.”); that tellingly treacherous little scene between the soldier and the boy, once Stark has been persuaded to rejoin the fray. These and twenty-five other sequences vie with each other for “finest ever seen in a superhero comic to date”.

Did I say “superhero” comic? I wouldn’t mind for once if this won the Eisner.

As we rejoin the series, the band of the few created to take down the many or the unthinkable have, by the skin of their teeth, just scraped through the latter, but at a staggering cost to the population of Manhattan, the dignity of Dr. Banner, and the self-esteem of their resident goliath and biogenetic fraudster, Hank Pym. Banner, whose sex-crazed rampage as the insatiable Hulk caused such loss of life, now lies sedated and captive at the heart of the Triskelion, the Ultimates’ multi-billion dollar military complex. Pym, having beaten and poisoned his wife to within an inch of her diminutive life, is about to find out what it feels like to be on the receiving end from a very, very angry soldier.

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And evidence has now been uncovered of an invasion force of shape-shifting aliens, which has been regrouping since the Second World War, and about to begin their final strike.

Time to go pre-emptive with the biggest airborne fleet of almighty carriers and jets you cannot begin to imagine until you’ve seen Hitch’s panoramas.

Won’t do them any good I’m afraid: they’ve been outmanoeuvred. In a finale which makes the first book’s look like an 18th century picnic in a 16th century park, Plan A is a catastrophe, Plan B proves useless and Plan C runs right out of time. I guess that leaves Plan H, then. How big is your “appetite” for war?

SLH

Buy The Ultimates 1 Ultimate Collection s/c and read the Page 45 review here

The Ultimates 2 Ultimate Collection s/c (£25-99, Marvel) by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch.

I promised you military geo-politics and American neo-imperialist lies.

In lieu of spoilers (umm, mostly), a montage:

“You promised the public that the super heroes would only be used domestically.”

“Forget this little street theatre they’re numbing your brains with. Our primary concern should be the rumours of the Ultimates being deployed in Syria and Iran. Because that’s what’s coming up if we don’t get our act together, Bob. This team wasn’t put together to stop burglars and bank robbers.”

“And when did I become one of the bad guys?”
“Around the time you took part in that pre-emptive strike against a Third World country.”
“A Third World country with nuclear weapons.”
“I think you’ll find that the only nation that’s ever used nuclear weapons against other human beings is the one you pledged an oath of allegiance to.”

“This isn’t a nation I believe in anymore. I never asked for Homeland Security or Guantanamo Bay… You should have seen their faces today, Hank. They were terrified of us.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Haven’t you seen the news? Oh, Hank. It’s been on every channel… we crippled a nation this morning.”

“Tell your boss he has a wolf in his fold.”

The great thing about speech balloons is that they have no regional accents. The great thing about straight prose is that is has no visuals. The great thing about this book is that it boasts the best speeches, the best characterisation, and the best visuals in any superhero comic.

At this point everyone is doing something behind someone’s back except for Captain America and Thor. Shame that everyone thinks that Thor is a basket case.

Thor told them exactly what would happen from the moment he refused to endorse American expansionism by officially joining the team. He warned them kindly, aided them loyally, and they repaid him with cynicism, violence and incarceration whilst the real traitor remained hidden. Now they’re in the Middle East, shutting down a nuclear facility America doesn’t like.

Never has a climax to something like this satisfied me so thoroughly. They reap what they’ve sown as America and its innocent civilians finally learn for themselves what it’s like to be invaded, immolated, and subjugated by a foreign power. It just gets bigger, then even bigger. You’ve never seen an eight-page, gatefold spread like it.

“Shouldn’t have left my fingernails in, dummy.”

“Get the hell away from my girlfriend.”

SLH

Buy The Ultimates 2 Ultimate Collection s/c and read the Page 45 review here

Arrived, Online & Ready To Buy!

Reviews already up if they’re new formats of previous graphic novels. The best of the rest will be reviewed next week while others will retain their Diamond previews as reviews.

Love And Rockets (Palomar & Luba vol 6): Comics Dementia (£14-99, Fantagraphics) by Gilbert Hernandez

Love And Rockets: New Stories #8 (£10-99, Fantagraphics) by Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez

Nod Away s/c (£18-99, Fantagraphics) by Ernie Bushmiller

The Tipping Point h/c (£22-50, Humanoids) by Boulet, Eddie Campbell, John Cassaday, Bob Fingerman, Atsushi Kaneko, Keiichi Koike, Emmanual Lepage, Taiyo Matsumoto, Frederick Peeters, Paul Pope, Katsuya Terada, Naoki Urasawa, Bastien Vives

Crickets #5 (£4-99) by Sammy Harkham

Gardens Of Glass (£14-99, BDP) by Lando

Gunnerkrigg Court vol 3: Reason s/c (£12-99, Archaia) by Tom Siddell

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 10 vol 4: Old Demons (£14-99, Dark Horse) by Christos N. Gage & Rebekah Isaacs, Megan Levans

Y – The Last Man Book vol 4 (£14-99, Vertigo) by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra, Goran Sudzuka

The Eltingville Club h/c (£14-99, Dark Horse) by Evan Dorkin

Batman: Dark Knight Returns (30th Anniversary Edition) s/c (£14-99, DC) by Frank Miller

Constantine: The Hellblazer vol 1: Going Down s/c (£10-99, DC) by Ming Doyle, James Tynion IV & Riley Rossmo, various

Injustice Year Three vol 2 h/c (£18-99, DC) by Brian Buccellato & Mike S. Miller, Bruno Redondo

Secret Six vol 1: The Secrets Of The Six s/c (£10-99, DC) by Gail Simone & Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham

Armour Wars: Warzones! s/c (£12-99, Marvel) by James Robinson & Mark Bagley

X-Men: The Age Of Apocalypse vol 3 – Dawn s/c (£25-99, Marvel) by various

Blue Exorcist vol 14 (£6-99, Viz) by Kazue Kato

Giganto Maxia (£10-50, Dark Horse) by Kentaro Miura

News!

ITEM! In-depth study: The Making Of Daniel Clowes And A Golden Age Of Comics.

Daniel Clowes’ new, original graphic novel PATIENCE is available for pre-order at Page 45.

ITEM! Dan Berry’s Hourly Comic Day 2016 is now in full colour and free to read online. What are the forces that conspires to save our Dan from doom?

1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 Dan Berry hourly comic

ITEM! Equally astounding is Joe Decie’s Hourly Comic Day 2016, full of his customary wit and swoonaway portraiture. “Daddy! Spillage in the village!”

Pop both of those creators in our search engine for many more comics, each one reviewed by silly old me.

Comix Creatrix photo

ITEM! The Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics exhibition has launched and Sarah McIntyre as always has all the details and all the best photos! Dozens of them with creators identified!

McIntyre also covers the context, including details of the Angoulême Festival’s ignorant dismissal of women, including not one female creator in its recent list of 30 nominations for a lifetime achievement award.

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I got rather angry about that and for the first time ever I’ve seen my Twitter off-the-cuff outburst collected together by SALLY HEATHCOTE SUFFRAGETTE‘s Kate Charlesworth.

Comix Creatrix Page 45 Twitter

ITEM! Paul Gravett interviews his co-curator of Comix Creatrix, Olivia Ahmad.  (Poster by Laura Callaghan.)

Comix Creatrix poster

ITEM! TAMARA DREWE‘s Posy Simmonds is interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about women in comics, chauvinism in comics, dismissal of women at Disney and picketing Punch magazine.

Speaking of, some photos of the only Page 45 window I’ve ever created for when Posy Simmonds signed with us:

Page 45 Window 7

 

Page 45 Window 4

 

Page 45 Window Centre

ITEM! Most excellent interview with comicbook creators Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Kelly Sue DeConnick on modern comic trends and Things That Matter. Extensive article and everyone is most eloquent indeed. Example:

“[THE WICKED + THE DIVINE] has won praise for its racially and sexually diverse cast, including mainly female characters, a bisexual R&B star, a trans character whose storyline isn’t dictated by her sexuality, and a Bowie-like female Lucifer. “It does weird us out when we’re called a feminist comic book,” says McKelvie. “It feels like we’re getting a cookie for what should be the bare acceptable minimum.”

“We read and advocate a lot of feminism,” adds Gillen, “but we wanted the book to look like London and reflect all the people in our lives. That writing women this way is seen as a feminist act is probably more depressing than anything.”

THE WICKED + THE DIVINE VOL 3 reviewed above!

ITEM! Nottingham’s National Video Arcade is hosting its first LGBT night for Gaymers. February 18th.

See what they did there?

Gaymer Night

ITEM! Wise words from Una on communicating traumatic events, and avoiding violence visually when critical of it. Please see Una’s BECOMING UNBECOMING.

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ITEM! John Scalzi writes about Impostor Syndrome with which I completely sympathise and have felt myself – “felt”, mind, which is a different thing altogether than believed. Everyone has doubts, do they not?

“Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud.”

I’m not sure than I have any status, but our achievements here are no fluke! This shit takes some planning, you know, by which I mean the whole shop. There’s a 2009 Page 45 15th Anniversary interview in which I explain the whole thing.

However, our Jonathan has just given another interview to be published in a couple of months’ time in a very prestigious non-comics magazine, which is one of the most impassioned things I’ve ever read. I anticipate whoops of empathy all round for our beloved medium of choice and a great many wide very eyes when you discover exactly which household name is our new co-conspirator / ally for 2016 and thereverafter.

New word: thereverafter.

– Stephen

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