Graphic Eye Store: Iain Laurie's Horror Mountain

Our debut publication! Buy it now at our store, or read about the method behind our madness here.

Review: Only Skin by Sean Ford

Family, loneliness, ghosts and murder in this impressive debut graphic novel.

Review: The Moon Moth by Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim

A classic science-fiction tale gets a new, comics adaptation.

Feature: Taste-testing the Apocalypse, part 4

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel drunk.

Weekly Reviews: The Secret Service #2 and The Manhattan Projects #3

Reviews of the better offerings from the spinner racks.

26 February 2012

Review: Sacrifice by Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose

Sacrifice – Sam Humphries (w) Dalton Rose (a)
Self-published, $3.99, six-issue miniseries

While self-publishing comics is nothing new, self-distributing is an altogether ballsier move.  Sam Humphries showed that he knew how to work the system, though, with last year’s one-shot Our Love is Real — a story about people having sex with dogs and vegetables.  Puerile subject-matter aside, what was shocking about that comic was how successful it became without any reliance on Diamond Comic Distribution.  Instead, the creators sold direct to comic shops, and with some viral marketing and a little help from hyperbole-addict Rich Johnson’s Bleeding Cool website, it sold out of its first printing…and its four other subsequent printings.  While that put it at a little over 1,000 copies sold, for a book about zoophilia, that’s not bad.

Humphries has returned with a longer series, Sacrifice, which carries a more serious tone, but retains the same business model.  It seems to be working and the first two issues have sold out of their first printings, with the book keeping momentum with a regular bi-monthly schedule.  But the main question is, beneath all the hype, is it any good?

From the first three issues, signs would point to yes.  Humphries is certainly a writer of imagination and the set-up for the series is elegant, yet intriguing.  Hector is a young Joy Division fan (he wears an Unknown Pleasures t-shirt throughout the series) who is suffering from epilepsy, and as a possible result of a tattoo he has, he finds himself travelling in time to an ancient Aztec civilization.  Whether this is real, or is simply a by-product of his condition, is one of the series’ central enigmas.  But surrounding Hector’s time-travelling antics are his domestic issues with his family who are struggling to cope with his illness, and his own teenage existential dilemmas.

In Dalton Rose, Humphries has discovered a raw new talent and a worthy collaborator.  His angular, clear lines are slick enough to suggest the contemporary sheen of now, but he’s also not afraid to steep his pages in pools of black to really bring out the mystery and malevolence of the Aztec scenes.  There’s clear influence from Paul Pope and Mike Allred in his work, yet he has a strong grasp of body language and action that it never feels swiped or too derivative.  In fact, in some of the book’s trippier sequences, we begin to see a real distinct voice emerging, and it’s a real joy to see a young artist cut their teeth on something so unique, rather than rehashing genre tics that have been played-out countless times before.

Selling a book based on the Aztecs and Joy Division was probably not the safest move in comics, especially with such a risky distribution method.  However, that shows the conviction that Humphries and Rose have in their work — this isn’t a shock-tactic gimmick that might get some curiosity purchases, nor is it a model than can ride the speculator train indefinitely.  So, it’s just as well that the content justifies their reputation.

-- Gavin Lees

Review: iZombie, vol 3: Six Feet Under and Rising

iZombie: Six Feet Under and Rising – Chris Roberson (w) Mike Allred (a)
Vertigo, $16.99, 978-1-4012-3370-9

Chris Roberson seems to be living a charmed life in comics at the moment.  From seemingly nowhere, he appeared, working on a Fables spin-off, and a few months later, brought out this creator-owned series with Mike Allred.  With such a high-profile illustrator behind him, it comes as no surprise that Roberson is a talented writer and that iZombie is quickly becoming a tent-pole of the Vertigo imprint.  In Gwen — the beautiful, amnesiac, undead protagonist — he has crafted a unique, sympathetic and entertaining spin on the zombie archetype.

One of the problems with reverence of Universal horror in recent years has been the attempts to make these old, hackneyed concepts dark, modern and “relevant.”  Roberson and Allred get this and instead turn their love of monster movies into something fun.  Gwen’s world is rife with B-movie goofiness that seems to grow with each story arc, introducing us to were-terriers, skeeball-playing mummies, vampire paintballers and one character’s grandpa reincarnated as a cigar-chomping chimpanzee.  It’s a timeless blend of the modern and the retro, with Allred’s flair for costume on display in the endless fashion parade of the characters’ outfits, and the clich├ęd horrors deployed with a knowing wink.

This latest volume sees Gwen uncover more secrets of her past, and find that she’s been a pawn in some aeons-spanning occult plot.  Add some mindless, marauding zombies and a team of government secret agents run by a reanimated Abe Lincoln, and you have an idea of the level at which the creators are playing.  Yet, Gwen’s enigmatic background allows Roberson to temper his funny-bone and give us a central character that we want to see regain her humanity and not succumb to her brain-munching tendencies — for once the zombie threat becomes an emotional, rather than physical one.

Allred’s art, naturally, captures the world to a tee and the fact that it’s set in his native Eugene, Oregon gives it a unique authenticity (he’s even taken to mountain climbing to reference the landscape properly.)  Of course, he’s well renowned for his pop-art stylings (aided in no small part by the colours of his wife and long-time collaborator, Laura Allred) and they are vital here to giving the book its kooky aesthetic.  What’s often ignored about Allred, though, is his influence from Charles Burns in his inking — the intense, overly-rendered brushwork that brings such a bold and iconic look to his work.  This pitch-black edge means that, when needed, he can still bring the horror and the grotesque.  When Gwen lapses into her zombie instincts, her face becomes a twisted parody of its former self, emphasizing that emotional punch of her existential angst.

This is not a work of high aspiration by any means, but as an encapsulation of the imagination-driven verve and excitement that comics can still deliver, it’s perfect.

-- Gavin Lees

Feature: Taste-testing the Apocalypse, part 2

Elysian Rapture

To celebrate the impending apocalypse (or just a very old calendar finally running out) Fantagraphics have made a strange alliance with fellow Seattleites, Elysian Brewery, to release a series of 12 speciality beers with label art by Charles Burns. The beers are being released at a rate of one per month, with this month's brew being “Rapture” which, unlike its namesake event -- much to Harold Camping's chagrin -- arrived bang on time this month. Rapture is a heather ale, made with pale, Munich, and Patagonia Especial malts.

Out of the bottle, Rapture delivers exactly what we'd expect from a heather beer, with lively fizz, a rich orange hue in the ale and healthy head. It's an altogether sunnier affair than its Scots ancestor, Fraoch, with lighter colouring and more aggressive carbonation -- an optimistic way to usher in the changing of the season. Its aroma has a strong presence of caramel, which overpowers the more delicate notes of pine and herbs. Those Magnum hops really push the flavours out there, pleasing even the least-sensitive of palates.

With such a potent nose, it follows that Rapture's flavour is simple and direct. The hops provide a bitterness that's heavier than expected and lingers languorously on the tongue. There's some butteriness that comes through after a fashion that aspires to a smoothness that never really materialises.

Like last month's Nibiru, Rapture is a potent brew, with 7% ABV, which is perhaps too strong for an ale that really demands to be light, floral and refreshing. With such simple flavours, too, it doesn't feel particularly special for a high-profile, limited release like this, and lacks the imagination that marked Nibiru out as such a success. Much like its namesake, Rapture promises more than it actually delivers.

-- Gavin Lees

05 February 2012

Feature: Mark Long and Jim Demonakos talk about The Silence of our Friends

First Second have recently released The Silence of our Friends, a semi-autobiographical tale about growing up in the middle of civil rights movement in the USA.  To celebrate its release, and the beginning of Black History Month, writers Mark Long and Jim Demonakos gave a presentation about the book's creation and historical origins.

This video was filmed at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, 4th February 2012:

04 February 2012

Feature: Taste-Testing the Apocalypse, part 1

Elysian Nibiru

To celebrate the impending apocalypse (Roland Emmerich made a film about it, it must be true) Fantagraphics have made a strange alliance with fellow Seattleites, Elysian Brewery, to release a series of 12 speciality beers with label art by Charles Burns.  The beers will be released at a rate of one per month, with January’s debut brew being “Nibiru” — named after a planet-sized object that is predicted to collide with the Earth sometime this century.  Nibiru, the beer, is a Belgian-style tripel ale, made with Yerba Mate holly.

When poured, Nibiru has a slight creamy head, one that quickly fades to leave a candyfloss texture on the beer’s surface.  The beer itself is a light amber colour, with crystal clarity that really shows-off its small champagne-like bubbles — a signature sign of the Belgian yeast.  On the nose, there’s an instant hit of honey, the sugary sweetness of which is nicely complemented by the undertones of cider apple and citrus.  Although light on the yeast, the aroma is heavy on the hops — the American Amarillo variety used here is practically a trademark of Northwest beers and is native to Washington state, giving a uniquely local spin to the Belgian style.

The taste of Nibiru holds a few surprises.  When served chilled, there’s a delightful sherbet fizz on the tongue that gradually dissipates as the beer warms up.  The initial flavor is that same honey-sweetness from its aroma that nicely complements the slick mouth-feel of the beer.  Afterwards, the Yerba Mate begins to reveal itself with a flavor that’s part cask-wood, part herbal tea, giving Nibiru a zing that’s largely absent from other tripels.  It’s also a nice way to round off the last days of winter with a final relishing of such characteristically-Christmas flavours.

At 7.6% ABV, Nibiru is a beer that doesn’t pull any punches, but its potency is disguised by the refreshing herbal and citrus flavours on offer.  Like its European cousin, Duvel, its light enough to be easy-drinking, but the intensity of alcohol mean that it’s a beer that demands to be savoured.

-- Gavin Lees

Review: Hector Umbra by Uli Oesterle

Hector Umbra — Uli Oesterle (w/a)
Blank Slate Books, £18.99, ISBN 978-1-906653-16-3

Blank Slate have been doing yeoman’s work of late, bringing both new British talent into publication and translating some foreign-language gems into English for the first time.  Hector Umbra falls into the latter category.  The work of German artist Oli Oesterle, it made a lot of noise when it began serialization in his native country back in 2003, and now finds itself the subject of much hype for its English-language debut.  It’s also the first of Blank Slate’s books to be distributed through Diamond, opening up the US to the British indie publisher.

That Hector should be Oesterle’s entry to America is entirely fitting as the book is practically dripping with the influence of his trans-Atlantic counterparts.  The story is an off-kilter neo-noir that places a hard-boiled, no-nonsense protagonist (the eponymous Umbra) in the centre of a mystery that grows increasingly weird and fantastical.  After his friend — the DJ Osaka Best — vanishes, Hector’s search for him leads him through the afterlife, a world of invisible aliens and more than one encounter with psychotic Jehovah’s Witnesses at an apocalyptic club-night.  All this is set against the backdrop of modern Munich and filtered through Oesterle’s thick, chiseled line-work that isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.

With so much resistance to superheroes in Europe, it’s curious to see which aspects of the American comics landscape are reflected back at us and how discerning, yet egalitarian Oesterle’s choice of influences are.   Littered around the backgrounds of the panels, we see copies of Dan Clowes’s Eightball, David Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Paul Pope’s Heavy Liquid.  It’s hard to think of three other comics that could sum-up Hector Umbra’s bizarro crime-world of high-octane dance music quite so succinctly.  Add to that a strong Mike Mignola aspect to the art, and you have a comic that manages to take everything that’s right with American comics and amplify it.

As with any noir piece, a huge ingredient of its success is in the language, and nailing the idiosyncratic rhythms and cadences of real-world speech.  For a translated work this poses a problem, as the nuances of the original German will be lost, and translating to a traditional noir American dialect would jar with the book’s Euro setting.  Translator Iz Rips’s solution is to render the characters with regional British accents which, for the most part, feel authentic and appropriately urban.  The one pitfall is in the voice of Lester Birmingham — a supposed black, house-DJ, who’s revealed to be just a fat Glaswegian with a bad tan — whose overly-stilted Scots is nothing less than cringe-inducing.  It might have been forgivable, were Blank Slate not run by a Scotsman.

Even with these translation misgivings, it’s not enough to spoil the overall quality and energy of Oesterle’s work.  As Hector Umbra’s plot thickens and grows increasingly surreal, there’s always a feeling that the cartoonist is writing himself into a corner and getting carried away with the possibilities of the world he has created.  Thankfully, though, its denouement is a satisfying one and manages to honour the conventions of both its crime and sci-fi roots, tying all the various plot strands together neatly.  Hector Umbra is a bold way for Oesterle to enter the international stage, and it’s a wonder that with material such as this, which is so deeply rooted in American tropes, that he is only just arriving.

-- Gavin Lees

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