Featuring new Saga from Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, YA gn Afar by Leila Del Duca & Kit Seaton, the return of Seth’s George Sprott and more!
Velvet Deluxe Edition h/c (£44-99, Image) by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting, Elizabeth Breitweiser.
There are some beautiful books on the market but few more so than this, reprinting all three VELVET softcovers, along with process pieces, the original trailer pages and an afterword by Brubaker on its origins.
Set in Paris, Monaco, London, Belgrade and the States during the 1970s and pulling back even further to the likes of the Bahamas in the 1950s, it is lush with 20th Century fashion from the sleekest sports cars to the slinkiest stealth suits, and wait until Velvet hits the Carnival of Fools, a masque full of masks in Monaco.
By “masks” I mean spies, few more disguised than Velvet.
1973. There is an international espionage agency called ARC-7 so secret that most other ops don’t even know it exists. Its agents are so exceptionally effective that the chances of any of them being taken out in the field are minimal. As the story opens, one of their very finest is taken out in the field.
Immediately an inside job is suspected and all fingers point to agent Frank Lancaster. But Velveteen Templeton, the Director’s secretary, has doubts: she suspects it’s a set-up.
It is a set-up. But what Templeton doesn’t realise is that she’s being set up to believe it’s a set-up and so get set up herself.
What most of ARC-7’s agents outside of the Director don’t realise is that Velveteen Templeton wasn’t always the Director’s secretary: she was one of ARC-7s most effective, deep-cover field operatives for so many years. And that may prove the undoing of whoever has just set her up for treachery, treason and murder.
On the run from her own agency, Templeton has to retrace assassinated Agent X-14’s steps and his contacts across Eastern Europe, criss-crossing the globe while cross-referencing what she discovers with her own substantial and at times painful history in order to work out why X-14 was murdered from within. What had he stumbled upon in America that made him such a threat? Was it the same thing that her husband discovered? Because he too was set up and Templeton took the fall so far for it that she almost didn’t recover.
Brubaker’s internal monologues – in CRIMINAL, FATALE, THE FADE OUT and KILL OR BE KILLED et al – have always been compelling, individualistic and often fucked up affairs – but here you’re almost as much in the dark as Velvet is, learning as she goes along, so you’re even more emotionally invested than usual. Several times I found myself suspicious of what I was being told because it sounded almost too perfect but with the strangest gaps and I wondered if I was missing something.
I was. But then so was Velvet.
During the middle chapters you will have your head whipped round not once, not twice, but three times in swift succession and at exactly the same moment as Velvet’s, because these people she’s up against are so deviously clever, and who is playing whom at any given moment is far from obvious.
I cannot imagine the physical or metaphorical map Brubaker must have drawn to link all these dates and destinations so intricately, but his CRIMINAL can be exactly the same. Here as there he provides a gripping internal monologue as we keep pace with Velvet’s frantic plight in trying to keep one desperate step ahead of those who’ve evidently planned her undoing for ages.
“The suit’s synthetic microfibres stopped my ribs from breaking… that’ll have to be good enough. I’ll just box the rest away. But then, I’m good at compartmentalising. It’s one of the first things you have to master in this field. And not just storing away pain or secrets. It becomes a new way of thinking. A way of surviving. Your mind always running down four or five tracks at the same time. Even now, as I scramble to get away… a quieter part of me is planning an escape route.”
At which point artist Epting inserts a mental map of her potential escape route over the nocturnal ducking and diving which he has choreographed immaculately over the dozen panels accompanying that voice-over. It’s positively balletic throughout.
Finally, with only one lead left alive to follow, Templeton believes she has no choice but to take the fight back to America, even though she knows that the second she sets foot on its shores alarm bells will start ringing. She’s counting on it.
“Every move I make from now on has to be two moves.”
Sometimes you won’t see the second move coming; often you won’t have seen the first move being made.
I love that Templeton is middle-aged and shows it. It’s not just the thick, white streak of maturity in her sable hair, it’s in the eyes that have seen too much and the suggestion of extra flesh around her mouth which put me in mind of Terry Moore’s equally individualistic women in RACHEL RISING. There was an American TV company desperate to sign the series… if Brubaker would just agree to Templeton being in her mid-20s, thereby missing the point and literally losing the plot. This is a period espionage thriller starring a woman with decades’ experience at the agency. It’s this very history that’s revisited which informs her psychological makeup and indeed the whole story.
In addition, so subtly, Velvet’s body language changes when undercover as a temp in Paris, her hair dyed grey to fade into the background. She holds a file modestly and meekly to her chest. When she brings a tray of tea to the investment manager’s desk, she’s slightly hunched in high heels. Successful espionage lies in the details, and the artists reflect this.
Epting and Breitweiser have steeped this series in its period time and place. It’s not just in the fashion of fabrics, though the black bathing suit in VELVET VOL 1 during the flashback to 1950s Bermuda was a masterpiece, its white stripe anticipating the streak which will later appear in Velveteen’s hair. It’s also evident in the hotel room furnishings, the bar tops, aircraft interiors, office spaces, shop windows, fly-posters, the monumental, white-stone, classical facades and balustrades, cars with their polished chrome, and a particularly posh, trans-European train dining car. Another quick nod to the fashion, though, and I almost wept when she had to ditch that exquisitely patterned, knee-length, black and white pashmina cardigan.
I’m very emotional, aren’t I?
As to those Regency facades, there are a couple of early pages I use most often to sell this on the shop floor – on top of the splintering glass shards which Breitweiser electrifies in the first chapter’s cliffhanger – in which the heavens have opened on a comparatively calm London town outside an elitist gentleman’s club, the street lights are reflected on the rain-rippled pavement, and thin streams of water pour with just the right weight from an umbrella as a cigarette is lit and then *pfuff*…
I have no idea how much time two pages like that must take to colour, but it is all very much acknowledged and appreciated.
Later on Breitweiser introduces some of the more expressionistic effects which lit up the THE FADE OUT and helped draw the eye. However, so much of this takes place at night that you may be enjoying the effects without necessarily noticing their cause.
Lastly – and I mention this only as a love song to Steve Epting for I will not be giving the game away – the final chapter of the first softcover includes a reveal which is visual-only and takes the most extraordinary and subtle command of human anatomy to convey. In retrospect Brubaker slipped in one single clue earlier on, trusting Steve Epting to have laid all the groundwork then pull off the punchline to sweet, ambiguous perfection.
Saga vol 7 s/c (£13-99, Image) by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples.
They’re also two-foot-tall, anthropomorphic meerkats whose eyes glisten like chocolate buttons dipped in even more liquid chocolate. One of their youngsters, Kurti, finds a photon rifle in the grass while gathering berries and brandishes it like a toy.
“Reach for the sky…
“Or I’m gonna war-crime you in the face!”
Unfortunately, it’s not a toy. It’s very real and they finally find its trigger by mistake.
In many other hands the scene would be far more catastrophic po-faced, but Vaughan’s already made his point about war zones and live ammunition left where children play, and he and Staples milk the subsequent comedy for all its worth.
“HEY! What the fuck is wrong with you kids?!” shouts a heavily pregnant Alana, narrowly missed.
Kurti, tiny paws clasped to his mouth in horror, whispers in equally tiny letters: “Missus Alana said a cuss.”
As well as love, family, childhood and parenthood, SAGA’s always been about war, but here it comes right to the fore as Alana, Marko and their daughter Hazel find themselves trapped on a violently contested asteroid – for months while their depleted ship refuels from its subterranean resources – along with their resident, supercilious enemy Prince Robot (a walking, talking, bipedal television set) the fractious ex-soldier Petrichor and Hazel’s self-appointed nanny, Izabel.
Izabel, you may recall, was one of the few remaining members of the indigenous species found on the war-torn planet where Alana first gave birth and, like all remaining members of that indigenous species, she is quite, quite dead, floating around as an intangible pink ghost, severed at the waist and dripping entrails exactly as she did when she took her last breath.
She bonded with Hazel, allowing Izabel to travel alongside, but Hazel’s growing up and beginning to wield the magical abilities inherited from her father in the same way some kids wield a magnifying glass over ants.
“Whoa! That fat one blew up real good!” shrieks a delighted Kurti.
“Young lady! What in the world are you doing?”
“Don’t use your angry voice. It doesn’t scare me.”
“I’m not angry, I’m disappointed. You’re hurting innocent creatures? For laughs?”
“They’re just bugs.”
They’re just bugs. The things we learn during war.
And then Hazel says something she will profoundly regret.
Right, so, hello! I always recommend that those who’ve yet to savour the wicked delights of SAGA read my review of SAGA VOL 1 H/C even if you end up buying the softcovers, largely because I made a hash of the first softcover review which bears no resemblance to how I now sell the series on our shop floor. I also recommend you remember that there will be at least One Moment per book when you will be horrified that you leant a copy to your grandmother or began reading it on public transport. Here it slaps you in the face then pokes you in the eye as early as page four.
SAGA is one of the most all-inclusive comics around, Vaughan and Staples taking full advantage of its space-setting to wring as much diversity as possible from its limitless possibilities. Let’s not forget that Alana and Marko are from two separate species – not just races – so Hazel is a major miracle. Just when you think they must have mined the last vein, they come up with something wholly unexpected and fresh. They will never fail to surprise, but that comes with great risk when it comes to your heart because remember (again) war has come to the fore and warmongers do terrible things from many miles away.
Afar s/c (£13-99, Image) by Leila Del Duca & Kit Seaton.
If ever you need reminding of the joyous, unburdening relief in sharing a secret – after days, weeks, months or years of awful isolation and crippling fear lest you be found out – then this original Young Adult graphic novel should do the trick. It won’t always go well, but that’s a whole lot of mental energy eaten up by the effort to continuously conceal that you can more profitably expend elsewhere.
Additionally, if you’re in the market for some gorgeous anatomy, beautifully delineated body language, carefully considered and exceptionally realised, localised costume plus a startlingly wide array of aliens as exotic as the most mythical of beasts, you’re unlikely to be disappointed, either.
Hold on, hold on, although this is emphatically a fantasy rather than historical fiction, most of this takes place in an environment akin to East Africa and, later on, ancient Egypt.
There Kit Seaton conjures up a city surrounded by lush, irrigated agriculture, with palatial buildings, clean, spacious and orderly thoroughfares between marketplaces bustling not just with commerce but theatrical entertainments and leisurely pastimes. All of this in stark contrast to where we kick off: an arid costal town where even fresh water is a much sought-after commodity, then another inland which is high-walled, inhospitable and surrounded by a shanty of shacks. I love the angle there, the weight at the summit, dangling over the edge, contrasted with the faded colouring in the distance down below for maximum vicarious vertigo.
In addition, there are foreboding deserts between them, littered with dangerous relics of a more technological past which has been long left behind and forgotten.
Each of these will have to be navigated by the far from wealthy fifteen-year-old Boetema and her younger brother Inotu if they are to survive when abandoned in each other’s care by their parents for much-needed itinerant work as salt shepherds.
But the siblings have further troubles to contend with. Although picking up a new friend in the form of a feral monkey with whom he develops a vital bond, thirteen-year-old Inotu falls foul both of the local lads when he defends the cornered and cowering animal, then of the long arm of the law which appears to be surprisingly metallic.
Boetema, meanwhile, has been having strange dreams which become increasingly vivid to her and in which she becomes more and more emotionally involved. Oh, it’s not just that they take place underwater or in jungle terrain above which hover luminous, ringed moons…. it’s that she is no longer herself but, for example, a green, four-eyed tiger, mother to a cluster of cubs she could not possibly have sired.
Gradually she realises that she’s not actually dreaming but projecting, travelling and inhabiting these bodies, however temporarily, and it terrifies her. Worse still, in one such manifestation she makes a hasty miscalculation which has fatal ramifications then finds she cannot go back to rectify or atone for her mistake.
The killer is this: the sister and brother aren’t confiding in each other. For fear of scaring the other, each is going through their alienation alone.
And I’m afraid it may prove the death of them.
I wish I could end this review with a bombshell like that because this book made me smile in so many ways – I’ve fallen in love with another artist new to me – but honesty dictates that I have to put my hand up in order to declare one major problem: in this self-contained graphic novel one gigantic plot thread dangled above us so enticingly – and repeatedly in order to catalyse two narrative trajectories – is never resolved, that of Inotu’s encounter with the cyborg. It’s not resolved in any sense at all: not in his existence, his nature, his intention nor his success or failure in whatever scheme(s) he might have had in mind.
This is an editorial oversight. I don’t normally go casting stones in that direction except that – uniquely as far as I can recall – the editor is credited on the cover.
Yeast (£3-99) by Stanley Miller…
Teenage comics guerrilla surrealist Stanley Miller returns with, as requested, a sequential-art based narrative following on from his pair of gag-strip rib ticklers THINGS I THINK ABOUT SOMETIMES and WIZARDS N STUFF. Here we have the story of three psionically powered errr… entities… that live in a very non-descript hole in the ground and fervently worship a nut. They love nothing more than levitating said foodstuff up to their excitable eye level with the pulsating power of their prayer. It appears, to my snack-savvy senses, to be a partially opened giant pistachio, but I wouldn’t bet a bag of pickled walnuts on it.
But then, disaster strikes, and the object of their adoration is abducted by, well, an even stranger faceless being. Confused and distraught, our trio seek solace and advice from Old Man Gribble. His random suggestion above might seem like a completely crackpot approach to establishing diplomatic relations, but his shamanic ways could just hold the key to retrieving their talisman intact and uneaten. Or simply be as bonkers as it sounds and not remotely help at all…
Stanley once again deploys his trademark David Shrigley-esque art style but the story seems like, plucking two flavours from my mind, a bemusing blend of Anders BIG QUESTIONS Nilsen and Hans FOLLY, THE CONSEQUENCES OF INDISCRETION Rickheit. Thus a curious combination of the sweetly profound and the farcically preposterous which just works. It left me feeling rather uplifted, actually! Sure, it’s not reinventing the pictures and words in beautiful unison wheel, but it’s certainly another step in the remarkable evolution of this undoubted future comics genius.
Do you like nuts, by the way? Particularly hot nuts so fiery that when you pop them in your mouth they make your eyes water? I do. If you do too, I can’t recommend The Notts Nut Shack highly enough. Their Garlic & Habanero and their Scotch Bonnet nuts, rocketing up the Scoville scale to the levels of 350,000 & 400,000 Scovilles respectively, are some serious tongue-tingling taste-delivery dynamite. If you’re city-centre-based you can purchase them at the Brew Cavern in the Flying Horse Arcade where I also fulfil all my extensive beer needs! And trust me, these bad boys are so hot, you will feel like your head is levitating off your shoulders and want a nice beer handy to slake your blistering mouth afterwards.
Which weirdly, rather synchronously, brings us full circle to the inexplicable title of this mini, as no yeast, no fermentation, no beer… Is it opening time yet?
Doom Patrol Book 3 (£31-99, Vertigo) by Grant Morrison & various.
In which everything and everyone falls apart as one of our resident freaks and misfits discovers that none of them were the results of accidents, but a single experiment, carefully choreographed very close to home.
There’s an agonising chapter devoted entirely to Cliff helplessly enduring an increasingly horrific explanation of what has gone before, his deactivated robotic body housing his very human brain, straining to express his mental agony. It’s all about Catastrophe Curves and unpredictable events. There’s another one coming.
But let’s not forget all the fun. Morrison packed DOOM PATROL with outlandish inventions, and here the Chief comes up with molecular-sized processors held in colloidal suspension, which are able to “interact in a way that simulates the electrical activity in the neurons of a human brain” to create the most powerful neural net ever assembled.
“The Think Tank is the future of artificial intelligence.”
And it looks just like a swimming pool.
It’s always entertaining to blaze out with an apocalypse, and this concluding chapter in Morrison’s ode to insanity comes with not one but two. The first of these is catalysed by Dorothy letting The Candlemaker out of her head. It’s not the first time she’s done that, either, her chief childhood bully paying the bloody price.
A product of her willpower and imagination, The Candlemaker’s apocalypse is likewise one of ideas, setting out to destroy the anima mundi – the world’s soul:
“Listen: if you want to destroy a people, first destroy its dreams.
“Generations of missionaries have lived by that noble creed.
“Modern man has successfully razed the imaginative landscapes of primal peoples the whole world over. Kill the gods first, slaughter the sacred animals, rewrite the mythologies, and build roads through the holy places. Do all this and watch the people decline. Without souls, they soon die, leaving dead shells, zombie cultures, shambling aimlessly toward oblivion.
“We’ve been experts at this kind of thing for centuries…”
Also: the ultimate incarnation of Rebis, some more bodywork for Cliff, the emergence of Sane Jane from Crazy Jane, and a massive expansion of everyone’s favourite stretch of sentient, semi-detached, but foundation-free housing, Danny The Street. Who needs planning permission when you can teleport? Bona to vada, Danny!
This whole series was about ideas and wonder and strangeness, Morrison’s own imagination running wild, and it ends on a deliberately ambiguous note which may cause you to rethink everything you’ve read after a distressing post-script in which a doctor determines to kill Crazy Jane’s: her imagination, her ideas, her wonder and strangeness.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies DOOM PATROL’s world better than a scene deep in the subterranean bowels of the Pentagon as a plot is hatched to unleash a homicidal maniac on the screamingly insane Presidential candidate Mr. Nobody and his Brotherhood Of Dada:
“Didn’t this ‘Brotherhood Of Dada’ transform a police officer into a toilet in France a couple of years back? What happened to him, Ms. Roddick?”
“As far as I know he’s hanging in the Beauborg Gallery.”
At the bottom of the page we discover that the military commander and Ms. Roddick are bouncing down the midnight corridors on animal-headed Space Hoppers. It’s a joke that’s revisited in different ways time and again.
Finally, as an added bit of fun – and I mention this partly as a warning, because I wouldn’t want you to think you still had thirty more pages of DOOM PATROL left to read – the DOOM FORCE one-shot parody of Marvel’s height of infantilism, the original X-FORCE, is tucked on at the end, each artist lacerating Rob Liefeld’s art as ably as Morrison nails the wretchedly piss-poor dialogue.
New Stock Discovered!
George Sprott 1894-1975 s/c (£16-99, Jonathan Cape) by Seth.
Thank goodness we have discovered fresh stock, for this was once made Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month!
For sheer, immediate and arresting beauty this has to be one of the most magnificent books we have ever stocked. The cover alone takes my breath away with its silver and blue-foil titles embossed on an enormous, thick, antler-grey card and a black-cloth spine. Open it up and you’ve got the most indulgent double-page landscapes of snow and ice; painted, three-dimensional cardboard recreations of individual buildings significant in the strips; and the meticulously composed, delicately coloured vignettes themselves which together form the life and times of George Sprott.
Former Arctic explorer, lecture-hall regular and local Canadian television celebrity whose weekly series Northern Hi-Lights has long run its 22-year-old course, George Sprott is tired. He’s tired and old and past his time, and this evening, on October 9th 1975, his life will to come to an end.
“Tonight, of all nights, George is preoccupied with death. Mind you, not his own. If you recall, this morning George read of the death of an old flame. This sparked a rather regretful mood in him. At this moment he is thinking of the death of his mother. Back in 1952. George has always considered himself a loving son. In fact, he’d prided himself on the depths of his tender feelings for his mother. Not much of love was ever said between them. Yet he had felt secure in the unspoken bond they shared. It was only as he sat by her deathbed that it occurred to him. As she lay gasping, he realised he had not visited her in two years.”
So well written.
As the various vignettes accumulate – the recollections of his former colleagues, Sprott’s own troubled dreams and memories, and indeed the narrator’s occasional insights (Seth is in very mischievous mode: “As your narrator I must apologise for beginning yet another page with an apology.”) – it becomes increasingly apparent that George is a bit of a sham and his life, when he can bring himself to think about it clearly, has been a disappointment not least to himself. His Arctic adventures weren’t all that he made them out to be, and therefore the two careers he built upon them as lecturer and broadcaster are to some extent a lie. As to his time in a seminary, well, the dates (1914-1918) are as interesting as the episode there is telling. Here’s one short interview that speaks volumes, with Fred Kennedy, the local TV channel’s afternoon-movie host:
“George Sprott was a good friend of mine. I was with him at CKCK from the very beginning. God, we tied on a few together. Believe it or not, he was popular with the ladies. And I didn’t mind picking up his discards. And yes, he could talk. But always about himself. He never asked you a goddam question. Ever! I hate to say it, but George was a crashing bore.”
Seth’s always been one to dwell: to dwell on the past and concern himself with memory itself. Here mortality and indeed legacy come into play, for George hasn’t left one: his broadcasts were all junked by the station, he’s barely remembered and he doesn’t even know his own daughter. Given how he treated his wife, he’s lucky to have the affections of his niece…
Seth’s previous book, WIMBLEDON GREEN, was a similar exercise in composite collage and thoroughly enjoyable it was in its own right, but if that was an exercise then this is the finished performance, far more grounded in reality and set in a very specific time and place now long past. Like Eisner in DROPSIE AVENUE it’s the cityscape itself which is of equal interest to those inhabiting it, Seth charting the history of individual buildings as time and circumstance like the Second World War dictate their evolution, their rise to prosperity and fall into dilapidation. Mark would have swooned at those cardboard constructs and indeed at every one of the pages here which give ample space to the magnificent art inside.
My favourite work from Seth to date, with plenty for you to ponder. Great little epilogue too: a throwback to WIMBLEDON GREEN in a way, which neatly ties together a few loose threads as we meet Owen Trade, collector/scavenger/thief.
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.
Adventure Time Comics (£10-99, Titan) by various including Tony Millionaire, Box Brown, Marguerite Sauvage
Arthur And The Golden Rope h/c (£12-99, Flying Eye Books) by Joe Todd Stanton
The Far Side Of The Moon – The Story Of Apollo 11’s 3rd Man h/c (£14-99, Tilbury House Publishers) by Alex Irvine & Ben Bishop
Lumberjanes vol 6: Sink Or Swim (£13-99, Boom! Box) by Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh & Carey Pietsch
We Stand On Guard s/c (£13-99, Image) by Brian K. Vaughan & Steve Skroce
Superman vol 2: Trial Of The Super Sons s/c (Rebirth) (£14-99, DC) by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason & Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke, various
Batgirl And The Birds Of Prey vol 1: Who Is Oracle s/c (Rebirth) (£14-99, DC) by Julie Benson, Shawna Benson & Claire Roe, Roge Antonia
Green Arrow vol 2: Island Of Scars s/c (£14-99, DC) by Ben Percy & Stephen Byrne, Otto Schmidt, Juan Ferreyra
Mighty Avengers By Bendis Complete Collection s/c (£35-99, Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis & Frank Cho, Alex Maleev, Stefano Caselli, Mark Bagley, John Romita Jr., Khoi Pham, others
Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor vol 6: The Maglignant Truth (UK Edition) s/c (£12-99, Titan) by Si Spurrier, Rob Williams & I.N.J. Culbard, Simon Fraser
The Ancient Magus Bride vol 1 (£9-99, Seven Seas) by Kore Yamazaki
Goodnight Punpun vol 5 (£16-99, Viz) by Inio Asano
I Am A Hero Omnibus vol 3 (£17-99, Dark Horse) by Kengo Hanazawa
One-Punch Man vol 11 (£6-99, Viz) by One & Yusuke Murata
We may have reviewed THE WICKED + THE DIVINE extensively. It’s ever so wicked. And divine.
Wasn’t that trailer excellent?
That’s it, really. I’ve run out of time!