Stormwatch Team Achilles: Book One – Micah Ian Wright

There two schools of thought with fighting games. Firstly that you dutifully learn the combos, practice the moves and judiciously use your techniques. The other is that you mash all the buttons at once as fast as you can. That’s what happens here. And it appear to work.

A new Stormwatch is being put together with none of the original team (they are all off in the Authority and the Monarchy) and not using any super powered members either. It’s the A-Team or the Dirty Dozen taking down super-powered terrorists across the globe. There is no Skywatch HQ anymore and no Secret Security Council. This is down and dirty ass-kicking.

Stormwatch were due to move into the New York UN HQ but the building has been taken over by terrorists before becoming operational. The new team have to take back their building Die Hard style, literally bare handed. This is a great introduction scenario as all the new members are called in early to lend a hand and we get a chance to meet them as they arrive to the chaos. At the end of each issue there is an in-character dossier on each of the new members written by a vile US government spook so we get to know that person and are reassured that the familiar bad guys are still as rotten as ever.

The new Weatherman is completely badass and Ellis would be proud his legacy is in safe hands. There is a lot of political back-story and contemporary explanation about what is happening in the world today. There is an Authority crossover and whilst it doesn’t feel gratuitous you do get the feeling that if Stormwatch were crossing into an Authority book the results would be different.

There are some very likable characters. You wouldn’t want to meet any of them but you certainly can’t help smiling at their actions. There is a lot of dialogue but where possible it is used for character building rather than exposition. There is also some quirky narration that pops up to explain various items of military hardware and techniques that this non-super team uses.

The art just goes berserk. Every technique from unusual angles, striking colour palettes, unconventional panels, computer screens, mocked up dossiers, actual satellite photos, white backgrounds, crazy layouts, is here. There is a low light scene that instead of the usual murkiness changes the colour scheme to purple and green like some weird video effect. Once you get used to it, it’s very effective.

This is a long read both in the amount of pages and the amount of dialogue but it just feels like you are getting a lot of value for your money. This is good stuff. It is the Boys before the Boys was ever thought of. The new Weatherman is very Butcher. It is friendly to the new reader but you will definitely get more out of it if you have been following Stormwatch or the Authority. For throwing everything but the kitchen sink this gets a Double Thumbs Up!

115/250.

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Team Achilles: Book Two – Micah Ian Wright

Stormwatch Volume Five: Final Orbit – Warren Ellis

This is an odd volume. It has a three part story that kills off just enough characters to prepare for the launching of Ellis’ Authority series but the second is an interruption by a WildC.A.T.S/ Aliens crossover.

Part one is a promising start. We are dealing with the fallout of the parallel world story and there are some interesting questions, about how much you should interfere in things outside your backyard, on the table. Then a mysterious asteroid turns up and we get a feeling of dread. It is nice to see Molly Perkins continue her rise from background character to foreground star.

Part two takes the best bits of the Scott and Cameron Alien films and pastes them into the DC universe. Lone female survivor of an Alien attack, not sure if she is infected, macho hero types underestimate alien danger, spookily lit corridors, you get the picture. Literally replace deserted LV427 with deserted Stormwatch; and Colonial Marines with WildC.A.T.S. It works but only because two great filmmakers are being ripped off wholesale. If you don’t know who these WildC.A.T.S are then you won’t get to know them as there is no attempt to introduce them or give them meaningful characterisation.

Part three is the loose ends. Funerals, the disbanding of Stormwatch, and an encounter with Henry Bendix. Ellis has lost all interest in the property at this point. He told his two amazing stories and now he washes his hands of the property before cherry picking the good stuff for his next project.

The art is good but quite murky in places. Part two has a different artist and it is nice to see a more open, cleaner style at work before it all descends to spooky corridors.

I want to give it a thumbs up I really do. If you are a fan of Stormwatch, the WildC.A.T.S or Aliens you should check it out. But it isn’t Ellis or Stormwatch at their best. No Thumbs today sadly.

114/251

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Team Achilles: Book One – Micah Ian Wright

Stormwatch Volume Four: A Finer World – Warren Ellis

This volume has two stories. In A Finer World we are introduced to The Midnighter and Apollo. Both part of a secret team Bendix was raising on the quiet. Through jumping about in the timeline we see their origin and learn about their discovery by Stormwatch. This has an incredible beginning and is an exceptionally well crafted story.

The second story, Bleed, is a parallel universe story much beloved of Star Trek. We start off in the alternate universe and both enjoy and are confused by all the subtle differences. We also get to see a different Weatherman. This again is a masterfully told tale that captivates you and ratchets up the tension before a thought-provoking conclusion.

The art runs to keep up as best it can and does it well. The book’s paper is a matt newsprint quality that makes everything appear much darker. This is a shame as there are some great at colour techniques that are swallowed up by the cheapness of the stock.

Both of these are excellent and original stories about the Stormwatch universe that make the most of the characters. There is brilliant pace and excellent dialogue. This is definitely a very high Thumbs Up!

113/252.

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Volume Five: Final Orbit – Warren Ellis

Stormwatch Volume Three: Change or Die – Warren Ellis

After the slow meanderings of the last volume someone really kicked Ellis up the arse and made him produce his finest Stormwatch yet. The conclusion of this current run is a spectacular piece of writing. It is a high concept sci-fi, all-action, morally ambiguous, dramatic fury that twists and turns like a bucking bronco.

It seeks to answer that age old question of if you were superhuman why would you be foiling bank robberies and other petty crime when you could be bringing humanity to your own ideals. There is a strong Superman reference and we get to poke into those thorny moral issues that plague comics’ history.

The art too pulls out all the stops with black and white, period, digital and every other trick used to try and keep pace with the frenetic action. By the end nothing will ever be the same in Stormwatch.

In addition to this closing story we see the opening of Stormwatch volume two. Ellis is still at the helm but there is another shakeup and the characters are reintroduced. There is a slower pacing and much more defined evil enemy at work. Everything has become a lot less subtle and we descend into the usual super team story although with a more political axe to grind. The art has settled down to a competent and workable level but it looks like they started hand lettering halfway through which makes everything look messy.

The sandwiching of all these stories together means it is only as good as its weakest tale. But this is still a Thumbs Up! 

112/253.

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Volume Four: A Finer World – Warren Ellis

Stormwatch Volume Two: Lightning Strikes – Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis continues his run on Stormwatch, slowly bending and shaping it to his will. He also persists with his technique of stand-alone issues. The part focuses solely on Jack Hawksmoor. Although it gives us more of an insight into his nature the story isn’t very Stormwatch. There is a Battalion story with the same problem and a Jenny Sparks story which does provide a very revealing catalogue of her past and a mini-mystery. The Rose Tattoo one only features her for about two pages as the rest of the team goes on a multinational pub crawl but serves to help us get to know the other characters. Finally there is a Stormwatch mission that references monsters from before Ellis’ tenure but feels like a Planetary prototype.

None of the stories are bad but they certainly aren’t as Stormwatch focussed as the previous volume. You could replace the characters with other superheroes and they would work just fine. It seems like Mr Ellis had some stories and some jokes to tell and these people got caught up in it. He is flexing his literary muscles though as each issue uses a different storytelling technique. Narration, internal monologue, dialogue, retrospective journalising are all here and chosen appropriately.

The art is really good and seems to have had more of a polish than the last volume. There is a lot more detailing in the panels, the figures look sharper, the angles and lighting are more imaginative and the layouts have a bit more novelty to them. The star of the show is the Jenny Sparks story. As she talks us through the last century the art style changes every decade reflecting how comics were drawn in that period. We go from 50’s Superman to 80’s Watchmen (complete with parody cover) through Dick Tracy and more. This is inspired and superbly executed – a real genius touch.

It doesn’t seem to have the energy or cohesion of the previous volume and although Bendix’s master plan is hinted at the overall story-arc does not move forward. This feels more of a spinoff or even an introduction, an issue zero, than the next part of an ongoing storyline but it is certainly worth reading. Thumbs Up!

111/254.

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Volume Three: Change or Die – Warren Ellis

Stormwatch Volume One: Force of Nature – Warren Ellis

Other than the new DC reboot this is probably going to be most people’s jumping on point for the Stormwatch franchise. Although we are 36 issues in, only the arrival of Warren Ellis as the new writer prompted the release of graphic novels.

This is a good point to join the story as the aftermath of a big crossover event and a change of writer shake things up. Ellis does a great job of introducing everyone giving a lot more characterisation to this large cast than you would have thought time for. There is a lot of jargon and unexplained references and you are not sure if this is to do with what has gone before, foreshadowing things to come or just world-building. It never leaves you lost or alienated just wanting to know more.

The premise is that the UN has assembled and funded a super-team to deal with international threats. Due to the recent passing of a comet a dormant human gene has given a select few super powers. Stormwatch makes sure these people (and any other despots) don’t get out of hand. Everyone lives on a big spaceship and waits for the alarm to go off.

The structure reminds me very much of another Ellis work, Fell. Each of the issues within this volume are self contained, introducing and neatly wrapping up the crisis of the week. As the issues pass by you get a peek into a wider world and go deeper into each character’s personal details. It works very well, particularly as Stormwatch is split into smaller teams and so not everyone needs to go on every mission.

Part of the Ellis shakeup is introducing new heroes. These aren’t just fast, strong, flying people but complex anomalies. Jack Hawksmoor has an empathic connection with cities. They talk to him and show him what they see hear and feel. Jenny Sparks is the “Spirit of the Twentieth Century” having been alive and a superhuman since 1900. Even the Monster-of-the-week is the embodiment of Nietzsche’s philosophy or the summation of Japan’s self-identity crisis after WWII.

The art is classic Image Comics fare. The contrasting colours and ever-present outlining make the characters pop off the page. It does have a rapidly drawn feel with some of the figure work looking a little quirky. The characters are well differentiated and you never lose sight of who is who. The layout and lettering are enthusiastic but definitely play second fiddle to the rapid pace and great dialogue.

There is a lot going on in this book. Big ideas, bold characters, twisting drama, and solid laughs are all delivered at a cracking pace. The single-minded leader of Stormwatch, Henry Bendix, drives the narrative forward at a hell of a tempo but it never derails, just makes you hang on tighter for a great ride. Definitely a Thumbs Up!

110/255.

Tomorrow: Stormwatch Volume Two: Lightning Strikes – Warren Ellis

Video Clips – Gaetano Liberatore

This unusual work is seven short stories by different writers commissioned and drawn by a single artist. Gaetano Liberatore is a well respected name in Italian comics, even branching out into Album covers (including Frank Zappa’s The Man From Utopia), and art directing for films.

This work from 1985 features seven separate stories, one of which Gaetano wrote himself, much like 2000AD’s future shocks. They are brief, weird and some cases quite inspired.

There’s an alien invasion where the aliens disguise themselves based on a Clarke Gable film, the thoughts of a paralysed man, and a nice twist on the ten-little-Indians whodunit.

Three stories are in colour the rest are in totally different styles of monochrome. You do get to see he has quite an artistic range and his monochrome work is unlike anything I have ever seen.

The whole thing has a weird 80’s sci-fi edge to it and that is what he is best known for. It was strange and in some places quite clever but sadly over too soon. Thumbs Up!

109/256. Tomorrow: Stormwatch: Force of Nature – Warren Ellis

Incognegro – Mat Johnson

There are some stories that are important and that need to be told. This wonderful book proves that you can do that in an entertaining and engaging manner.

The protagonist is a reporter in 1930’s America. Although an African-American his pale skin colour permits him to pass for white allowing him to go undercover to expose lynchings and injustice from within. It is partly inspired by the similar actions of civil rights activist Walter Francis White.

The covert reporter is a great tool to introduce the audience to the prejudice of the period, and as he may be exposed at any moment there is a dramatic tension throughout the whole book. If this were the entire story it would be good enough but our hero gets caught up in a murder mystery and by playing detective places his life in even greater jeopardy.

The mystery is a brilliant one that really has you guessing, and as well as enthralling you it also has a lot to contribute to the themes of the book. This isn’t just a “To Kill a Mockingbird” rehash, it is a lot more complex.

The dialogue and setting feels authentic. You learn by watching and reading and pretty soon become immersed in the past. Other than some shocking statistics at the beginning this isn’t a polemic or a wailing lament. The author is far too sophisticated to bludgeon his message into you. Often the small, unexpected details of the period prove most memorable.

The art is hard black and white with solid black inking. Without the tools of colour or shading the artist really shows his skill as a superb illustrator. The panels are mostly three, sometimes four, rows and always dead straight. There are a lot of full page spreads and even dramatic double pages at key moments.

The hardback version has a fine chocolate brown cover with plain embossing. It is a nice, almost square, size different to the traditional graphic novel. The dust jacket is made to look like a period newspaper with faded sepia tones and realistic layout. This is a quality labour in every aspect and a pleasure to read.

The last page is probably the most incredible reveal ever and for that sucker punch it must be a Double Thumbs Up!

108/257.

Tomorrow: Video Clips – Gaetano Liberatore

Yuri’s Day – Andrew King

This book tells the story of Russia’s first steps into space and the man they chose to take them. It is more of an illustrated textbook than a graphic novel.

Starting in 1933 it has a lot of ground to cover so there is a plenty of jumping about, with a single page often covering a year or more. Large blocks of narration, whilst necessary, are spaced out as much as possible, with the later and better documented events being told through dialogue.

Despite being a true story chock full of facts it isn’t a dry read. There is a lot of emotion under the surface; from the horrors of Stalin’s gulags to the beauty of the first moment Earth is glimpsed from space. There is humour too, mostly from the underfunded and overworked Soviet technicians.

The art is black, white and gray and resembles a newspaper strip style. There are very few backgrounds and fine details except when it comes to the rockets and other space hardware. The panelling is great and very confident with almost no parallel borders and speech and objects regularly migrating across the page. The lettering is crisp and clear and a lot of the factual information looks like it has been done on an ancient typewriter or telex machine, adding a period authenticity to it.

This is a well thought out approach with generous background details and an easy to read format. It’s not a propaganda display and is highly, yet gracefully, critical of the failings of that period in history. You learn a lot more about the man and the political machine that controlled his destiny. Thumbs Up!

107/258.

Tomorrow: Incognegro – Mat Johnson

Seven Miles a Second – David Wojnarowicz & James Romerger

David Wojnarowicz was a writer, painter, photographer, filmmaker, performance artist and activist who died of AIDS in 1992. This work, much of it completed posthumously, is an insight into his life, his emotions and his psyche.

Sometimes straightforward recollection and sometimes surreal dreamscape this is a powerful and visceral connection with another human being. From an abusive childhood to a lingering, medicated death we see the whole spectrum of Wojnarowicz’s short existence. Through his skill as a writer and his poetic prose we also get to feel his life as well.

It has the brutal honesty of Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year; the highly bizarre imagery (both verbal and artistic) of Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance; and the tangible suffering of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. This isn’t here to entertain or inform it is to make you feel what it is like to be alive. It jangles your emotions like a stick dragged along a fence.

The art is superb with Daliesque fever dream butting up against traditional realism. Imagine Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the graphic novel and you get a sense of how mind-bending a visual feast this can be. As well as the subjects illustrated the panel shapes and layouts are all used to maximum effect. The colours are superb with the whole thing a hyper-chromatic neon explosion. Lots of white backgrounds pull figures or objects out of time and thrust them to our attention. And while garish and impossibly oversaturated the colours still allow exemplary use of light and shade to create depth and texture.

This is primal, this is visceral, and this is a Thumbs Up!

106/259.

Tomorrow: Yuri’s Day – Andrew King