Ex Machina: Tag – Brian K. Vaughan

This continues the same format begun in the first volume with the pre and post-election storylines alternating every few pages. You have clear headers so you don’t get confused but you have to try and keep them separate in your head. It is defiantly worth flicking back to the first volume to remind yourself who is who.

This contains a complete story with a resolution at the end and also some tantalising titbits of the bigger picture. Plus a huge dollop of politics, ethics and New York City history which you should really take the time to Google – but you probably won’t

The art is still great with a lot of effort put into differentiating the scenes through solid colour and lighting work. There are a couple of sketch pages at the back allowing you to see what a talent the artist has for pencil shading which goes unseen in the colour pages.

Another great nugget of originality to chew on. Thumbs Up!

236/129

Tomorrow: Ex Machina: Fact v. Fiction – Brian K. Vaughan

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days – Brian K. Vaughan

There is a reason Olympians are given medals. There is a reason people go to the ballet. There is a reason to buy comics. Talent. Brian K. Vaughan of Y: The Last Man fame crafts an incredible work in what may be the most sublime execution of the storyteller’s craft ever.

The world’s first and only superhero gives it all up to go into politics, becoming mayor of New York, and inherits a whole new set of problems. The story skips forwards and backwards in time showing you both his career as a superhero and that of a newly elected mayor. This gets you straight into the action and gives you twice as much excitement at the same time.

There is politics, racism, current affairs, ethics, as well as mystery and excitement. Both the story and its method of delivery are top notch. There is a diverse range of believable characters as well as a large dollop of social commentary. This is American and the international reader may have to Google a couple of the contemporary and historical figures being bandied about. It is a clever and intelligent work that makes you jog to keep up but won’t leave you to fall behind.

The art is solid stuff but the colouring is bizarre. It has been digitally graded and each scene has a particular coloured tint to it. Sometimes the whole page is done and sometimes just the background making the characters pop out and giving depth to the whole thing. In isolation this looks peculiar but as a whole this tonal wash is very effective with some wonderful blue-green night scenes.

There are seven pages of behind the scenes art showing that each panel is posed by actors, photographed, pencil traced, inked and then coloured. This is quite an unusual process and a real learning experience to view.

Because I can’t find fault with it, and can clearly see why it won a whole bunch of awards, this get the coveted Double Thumbs Up!

235/130

Tomorrow:  Ex Machina: Tag – Brian K. Vaughan

Ptolus: City by the Spire – Monte Cook

Fiction tends to work best when based on original ideas. Creating works from existing films or games constrains imagination. Even a roleplaying game setting isn’t as open as you might think. With just a few short issues to cram in an entirely new fantasy world with gods, magic, steampunk, conspiracies, and monsters there isn’t as much room for strong story or more importantly character development as there needs to be.

The art is fair with some genuine attempts at a cinematic style. The colours are rich and vibrant and used intelligently. The whole thing does seem a bit too processed in places and is probably all digital. You can see different artists were used for different issues but it doesn’t spoil the read.

This isn’t bad, despite clunky dialogue and indistinct narration, and there are some fresh ideas here, but it just feels like a second-hand account of someone’s Sunday night D&D game. If you are familiar with the setting, or alternatively you would like to be, then this gets a Thumbs Up!

234/131

Tomorrow: Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days – Brian K. Vaughan

Crossed: Wish You Were Here – Simon Spurrier

This is the latest stand-alone work set in Garth Ennis’ “Crossed” setting, where humans are all succumbing to a plague that turns them into sadistic psychopaths. Written by a British writer and set on a remote Scottish island this title has a different flavour than the other works and appears closer to Ennis’ original vision.

It is actually a print version of the free webcomic that appears weekly at Crossedcomic.com. This open-ended format allows it to take a much more leisurely pace, similar to that of Walking Dead or the original 10 issue Crossed. It can sometimes meander or change direction unexpectedly as Spurrier re-plots on the fly but there is a definite goal in mind that we are heading towards.

The art is by Javier Barreno who illustrated Crossed: Psychopath and whose work appears almost identical to the original Jacen Burrows style. It is very detailed with no skimping on the backgrounds or faces. When there is a lot of text it appears on a solid black panel which does not overtax the artist or slow down the pace. There are a lot of tonal variations used for flashbacks, memories and daydreams helping to keep the narrative clear and distinct. The nocturnal scenes are dark but not murky too.

The isolated setting is good, the flashbacks to London falling are nice to see and a British writer penning dialogue for British characters makes a world of difference. The slow pace allows for a lot of musing on the nature of humanity and civilisation. There are some wonderfully subtle references that will make the UK reader smile too. The Crossed are used sparingly but after so many volumes they have lost their terror for the long-term reader unfortunately. That doesn’t mean the humans can’t provide some dramatic shocks however.

This is a very good offering, closer to the original genius than any of the other spin-offs has been. There is an afterword by the author and a rundown of the people on the island as journal entries by the protagonist with accompanying art. A Thumbs Up!

233/132

Tomorrow: Ptolus: City by the Spire – Monte Cook

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai – Stan Sakai

Created to celebrate the 25th Anniversary this is a brief, stand-alone tale that has the unique distinction of being in colour. This is a hardback book with some very high production values and features an interview about its creation with Stan Sakai.

Usagi works very well in black and white with its line drawings adding an historical authenticity as well as a simple artistic beauty. The thought of a whole volume in colour as anything more than a curiosity might be hard to stomach. But as 25 years of colour covers proves this is not the case and art is wonderful.

This book is the same size as the normal volumes but the panels are bigger allowing the colour textures to really shine. It is pencilled and inked as normal and then hand painted with watercolour. Even with a brush Stan is able to pack in a lot of detail and really give depth to the images.

The story is simple enough but has the usual (if predictable) twist at the end. It is accessible to the non-Usagi reader although the Yokai (monsters, demons and spirits) of the title appear most bizarre to the Western eye. A Thumbs Up!

232/133

Tomorrow: Crossed: Wish You Were Here – Simon Spurrier

Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday Book Two – Jim Lee

After the first volume you want to know how it all ends don’t you. This book continues and ends the story of Max Faraday. As well as a twisting, turning action-adventure there are some complex issues up for discussion too. Sci-fi, philosophy, theology, ethics, and the nature of free-will are all themes present here. Unfortunately they are obscured by the fact that in order to sell comics you have to pack as many named Wildstorm characters in as possible. Granted this is the end of the world so this does give them a reason to show up but if you aren’t familiar with them then they only serve to detract from the main storyline.

The whole work is bold and the art particularly so. The first two issues are told entirely in landscape format, something virtually unheard of in comics. The format doesn’t add to the storytelling and little use is made of the wider page other than for bigger panels but it does make you sit up and take notice. There are lots of other unusual artistic decisions and plenty of double page spreads that really bring a “widescreen” sensibility to this work. You certainly get the feeling you are experiencing a world shattering event and all the stops have been pulled out. There are a lot of black pages however, possibly where adverts have been removed from the single issues and this becomes quite intrusive.

This is a likable work unfortunately hampered by being part of a shared world that intrudes for commercial reasons not narrative ones. Having said that there is enough to get your teeth into and if you have read the first volume then you will want to see how it all ends. A Thumbs Up.

231/134

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai – Stan Sakai

Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday Book One – Jim Lee

Creativity. Innovation. Total Chaos. Opening this book brings forth an explosion of ideas. It unleashes a story that unfolds at breakneck speed with layers of concepts and more characters that you can shake a bucket of sticks at. You have little idea of what is going on and who everybody is but the pace is so frenetic you have no time to stop and care.

Lovable slacker Max Faraday accidentally downloads something from the internet that gives him vast power. Forces infernal, divine, and terrestrial all want a piece of the action. This has a brilliant start but comes to a grinding halt when it must take on-board a bus load of characters from the rest of the Wildstorm Universe. It then picks up at the end with a sweet little love story. It’s like an inverted bell curve of excitement.

The art is positively hyperactive with garish colours, unusual borders, chaotic layouts, strange lettering, and digital effects. It is like watching kid’s cartoons on fast-forward. It is too much but in a spectacular way. There is a lot of talent here but it is overshadowed by the bombastic nature of it all.

This swings wildly between the best and worst aspects of comics but I am curious to read volume two and so it just scrapes in at a Thumbs Up!

230/135

Tomorrow: Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday Book Two – Jim Lee

Mr Punch – Neil Gaiman

This is a part remembered, part imagined childhood memory. It beautifully illustrates the fog of youth created by the uncertainty of recollection and the mystery of adults. There is something important and possibly tragic going on in the world of grown-ups yet the small boy who witnesses it won’t comprehend what he sees until he grows up.

The accompanying art does not seek to illustrate the tale faithfully but invoke the spirit of a childhood remembered long after the fact. There are photographs, collages, drawings, models and script all smeared into a fantastic reminiscence of the past.

This does a great job of portraying how memory works. How small details dominate events and become larger than life. And also how much of the real world is retained unconsciously as a child only to be deciphered later in life.

Thumbs Up!

229/136

Tomorrow: Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday Book One – Jim Lee

Batman: Castle of the Bat – Jack C. Harris

This is part of DC’s extensive Elseworlds series that relocates familiar characters to different settings. This work transposes the Bat-man into the classic story Frankenstein.

For the most part this works well. There are enough gothic trappings in the Batman mythos for him to fit right into a genuine gothic novel. It is fun seeing Alfred become Alfredo the hunchbacked Igoresque manservant: likewise with Bürgermeister Gordon. The Mary Shelly story is strong enough to hold the whole thing together and it proves more than a forgettable novelty. You can also see the 1931 Boris Karloff movie influence woven in too.

The art is soft watercolour. The subdued tones are perfect for evoking the misty horror of nocturnal business and period Europe. The lighting and poses echo the early Universal Pictures cinematography from the early monster movies and the whole thing works well.

This isn’t just a Batman rehash, there is a whodunit and some powerful moral questions for those who chose to look for them. It is certainly a Thumbs Up!

228/137

Tomorrow: Mr Punch – Neil Gaiman

Powers 13: Z – Brian Michael Bendis

This is undoubtedly Bendis’ toughest gig. He got rid of one of our dearest characters and introduced someone we don’t know well enough to care about yet and must press on with a new WWII themed storyline. We are really hurting but we must remember to have faith. We have never been let down yet so there is no reason to doubt the master plan. It is hard and just as we are aching so too are the characters we love. Just as we think one loss is too much our other lead is really put through the wringer. Can things get any worse?

As readers we are in a low place, there is a solid and interesting storyline but are we grieving too much to let it engage us? What doesn’t seem to work are the out of place pop culture digs, poor jokes and extra gore. It seems Bendis doubts himself and needs to keep us around till the payoff using cheap tricks. But there is indeed a payoff. That final page blows us away and makes everything rosy in the Powers universe once more.

The biggest surprise here is the art. I had to check it was still Oeming but apparently it is. Either he has broken his wrist or his lower paid evil twin/ dark apprentice has taken over. It doesn’t seem to have the polish of his earlier volumes. There is no breath-taking colour, no innovative technique and the whole thing seems blocky and murky. This was a noticeable disappointment.

If this is the first Powers you read then you would find it a solid and interesting story. If you have been with it from the beginning you will find it a rocky road but with an incredible payoff. The next volume will certainly be the most eagerly anticipated in Powers history as you can’t wait to see what Bendis will do next. A Thumbs Up.

227/138

Tomorrow: Batman: Castle of the Bat – Jack C. Harris