Tagged: fantasy

Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison
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Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison

When last we left the Mystery Teens of Tackleford, at the end of The Case of the Missing Piece , they had mostly stopped solving mysteries, and two of the core girls, Lottie and Shauna, had just fallen out. That’s what the title refers to for this final collection: not the supernatural menace that threatens Tackleford (which is quite real and sinister), but the break between two of the main characters.

This is the tenth and last Bad Machinery collection, The Case of the Severed Alliance . Creator John Allison has a short afterword where he says his original intention was to have one case for each term of the Mystery Tweens/Teens’ seven years at school, which would have been twenty-one books. He gives a few reasons why he only made half that many stories, but I think he quietly missed the most obvious one: time. Allison is a creator whose stories take place in time. He sometimes drops back into the past – the Bobbins flashback series, for example, or, in an odd way, all of Giant Days – but time always passes in his stories, things change, and his characters grow older. The Bad Machinery stories came out about two a year, not three a year, and I think his characters just grew up, in his head, faster than he expected.

The Bad Machinery books are a creative peak for Allison – he’s had several; most people are more familiar with Giant Days – with a big cast well deployed, a complex and quirky world for them to live in and explore, wonderful dialogue on every page, oddball supernatural menaces that lurk deep in the story and only emerge fully near the end, and long rambly plots full of interesting incidents and unexpected moments that all come together for bang-up finishes. These can’t have been easy stories to plot, write and draw; my sense is that Allison is more of a plotter these days than a pantser, but any multiple-times-a-week comic is going to morph and change as the individual installments come out, so I don’t think anything quite ended up exactly the way he expected.

In any case: this is the “teens get jobs” storyline. All six of the main cast are about 15-16 here. Lotty works at the local newspaper, partially to have a work-study arrangement (called “P&Q” here, which is some British term that I don’t think is ever spelled out) [1] and partially because she is frustrated with her lack of movement in her preferred solving-mysteries-as-a-teenage career. (Yes, that is a thing in the Allisonverse, with glossy magazines and gala awards and all. See Wicked Things .) And Shauna is working for Amy Beckwith-Chilton, one of the old-time Tackleford characters, in her antiques shop, along with a young man named Romesh who Shauna found and who has a mystical ability to detect valuable antiquities among junk.

But the story is mostly about the gentrification of Tackleford: the main street is filling up with posh, expensive shops, rents are skyrocketing, houses prices are ditto, and an “Inland Marina” is being built where the kids used to swim in the local river. We also meet Sewerman General Johnson, the tough man who keeps the drains of Tackleford running, and the massive, possibly sentient, Tackleford Fatberg that he’s been trying to break up. Amy and her competitors in the very Lovejoy-esque antiques trade are chasing after the fabled cursed Pearl of the Quarter, a gem of immense power that disappeared at the death of its previous owner Tommy Binks, the man who made Tackleford the modern success it is.

Oh, and there’s something going on with Tackleford’s sister town, Wendlefield, which is as run-down and hopeless as Tackleford is shiny and expensive.

Shauna and Lottie work opposite ends of this mystery – do they eventually come to find it is the same mystery? Are they forced to work together? Is there a shocking confrontation in a half-constructed industrial scene? Has the mystic Pearl been incorporated into some weapon that threatens the whole town? Is there a fiendish villain who must be stopped? Do all of the Mystery Teens, and their new powers and abilities – I’ve neglected to mention that Mildred has been learning to drive a car! – come into play at the end? Is Tackleford saved?

Reader: yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and sort of.

I would not start here, if you haven’t read Bad Machinery. Severed Alliance is wonderful and funny and exciting and marvelous, but it works much better if you know the characters. So find the first book, The Case of the Team Spirit , and start there. But Bad Machinery is awesome; you should read it if you haven’t already. And if you read it online (it was originally on Allison’s site but now lives on GoComics ), it might be time to get the books and read it again.

[1] Utterly nonamusing anecdote: on a call with some Brits this past week, I realized that what Americans call an “intern” (college-age person working in a business for a limited period of time, usually tied to and providing credit for their school) is called an “apprentice” in the UK. This, I think, is a similar issue.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands
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Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands

This post may be shorter than my previous diatribes about the wonderful world of Black Hammer, for multiple reasons. One, I’ve said most of the things I could say. Two, this is an odds and sods collection to begin with, so it’s small and random and miscellaneous and will not stand the weight of serious criticism. There may be other reasons as well, but I think those two will do.

In any case, I have written a bunch about the previous Black Hammer books – the most recent was the flashback Black Hammer ’45 , and that one links further back in turn. And, frankly, how much background do you need? This is a pastiche superhero universe, with mixed DC and Marvel influences (Legion of Super-Heroes here, New Gods there), and anyone who knows superhero comics from the second half of the 20th century will find all of it deeply recognizable.

So this is Black Hammer: Streets of Spiral . It was the ninth collection of the series, and the one that gathered all of the loose bits of string to that point: one “Giant-Sized Annual,” in case you thought it wasn’t on-the-nose enough about its obsession with ’70s comics; a one-shot called Cthu-Louise; The World of Black Hammer Encyclopedia, a very “Who’s Who”-style compendium of superhero details; and a short story from the Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day issue for 2019. The Encyclopedia was written by Tate Brombal with series-creator Jeff Lemire; Lemire and Ray Fawkes wrote the short story; Lemire wrote the rest solo. Art is by a large number of people:

  • Nate Powell, Matt Kindt, Dustin Nguyen, Fawkes, Emi Lenox, and Michael Allred for the Annual
  • Lenox with Dave Stewart (who provided colors for nearly all of these pieces) for Cthu-Louise
  • Fourteen different people for the Encyclopedia, including many of the above
  • David Rubin did full-color art for the short story
And what are these individual stories?

The Annual is one of those standard multiple-artists, multiple-heroes “special” stories, which could be assembled piecemeal, showing the whole team dealing with Problem X individually. As was the case with its models, it doesn’t add up to a whole lot in the end. There is a sub-Starro the Conqueror eyeball/squid thing, which appears repeatedly out of the Random Mystical Zone and which has to be punched back out of the normal world. It is, repeatedly – this is a superhero story, after all.

What what does it all mean, ask our heroes in the end?

Well, probably nothing. In a regular superhero universe, it’s either space-filler or a set-up for a crossover. In Black Hammer, it’s just yet another kind of indulgence.

Cthu-Louise is very familiar; the character (and her father, the former supervillain Cthu-Lou) have appeared at least once before, and the plot beats here are very similar. Louise is a teenager with a alien-god squid head, which makes her unpopular, and she wants to fit in. Eventually, she does.

The Encyclopedia is a collection of pages on all of the major characters that have appeared in the various Black Hammer comics to this point, with first appearances and power levels and known family and all that bumf. It is much odder when it’s about a world created by one guy, in one series of stories, over only three or four years.

And the short story is the most forgettable, functioning mostly as a teaser – well, it was in a FCBD comic, and that’s the whole point of the thing – for both past and (I assume) future Black Hammer stories.

If you like Black Hammer, this is a bunch of minor Black Hammer. If you like vaguely ’70s-esque, vaguely Big Two-ish comics, you will like Black Hammer. And god knows there are more of you out there than I want to believe.

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Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Enigma: The Definitive Edition by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo
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Enigma: The Definitive Edition by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo

There will probably be spoilers. If you worry about such things on a thirty-year-old obscure Vertigo comic, well, I wonder how you manage to live in the modern world, but go off and read something else on the Internet instead.

I don’t think I read this the first time out. I think I’d remember it. But it also is very much the kind of thing I was reading in 1993: I followed nearly all of Vertigo, and was a fan of Peter Milligan’s writing. So I both don’t know how I missed it and can’t figure out how I could have read it and utterly forgotten it.

I’m talking about Enimga: The Definitive Edition , a spiffy new-ish edition of an eight-issue comics series from those heady early Vertigo days, when it was “superhero comics with adult themes” and not “HBO-style shows in comics form.” Ah, were we ever so young! It was written by Peter Milligan, in the middle of his Shade the Changing Man run, and drawn by Duncan Fegredo with colors by Sherilyn Van Falkenburgh.

And, to be reductive, it’s the story of an sociopath. A mass-murdering sociopath, who either has never been socialized at all or is the usual pulp-fiction mutant who is better than humanity and so entitled to treat us as we treat ants. (Or, perhaps, both.) We think he’s a superhero, throughout most of the story, because he wears a funny costume, because someone very much the same was in an old comic book, and because he seems to be killing villains. But we learn – and, if we’re any good readers at all, we suspected this much earlier – that he made every one of those villains, and so is both directly a murderer and someone who has deliberately created mass-murderers. I don’t think there’s even a word for that. 

We are supposed to be on his side, because He Is Sad, and because he has a sexual relationship with the narrator. I say “has a sexual relationship,” clinically, because I doubt he feels anything like “love” – I’m pretty sure he feels no human emotions of any kind – and the guy he has sex with is in love with him for those same manipulating-humans powers that he used to create mass-murderers.

Yes, I’m talking about Enigma: our title character. This is the story of a young man with fabulous powers and a bizarrely impossible upbringing, whose interactions with the outside world are about 95% murder, but, on the other hand, he’s a tall attractive man with cool clothes. And apparently that is enough to make a mass-murderer into a hero.

I don’t even want to get into whether this was a positive or negative depiction of a gay man. (Wait. Am I kidding? A mass-murderer who literally turns another man gay to love him? I would struggle to find anything positive there, other than “it was 1993, and a gay man existed in comics. Yay!”)

OK. It is stylishly written, and even more stylishly drawn. Fegredo starts out scratchy, maybe even shaky, but he settles down, and the style suits the story very well. It is full of mysteries, and the reader does not realize how horrible Engima is until said reader is near the end of the book.

And our viewpoint character is, thankfully, not a mass-murderer. Michael Smith is instead one of life’s small losers: not very important, not very interesting, not very memorable. But he’s at the scene of a murder by a bizarre villain, and remembers that villain from his old childhood Enigma comics, and that sets off the whole plot, as he starts to think he’s central to all of the craziness. He’s not wrong

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, but he’s not exactly correct, either.

As I said above, he does find Enigma – the live person now using that name, as well as the crusty old writer who made the comics stories twenty-five years earlier – and fucks the former. He learns that Engima has massive, bizarre powers, but none of us learn why. Perhaps just because it was 1993 and this was a DC comic book; there had to be someone with superpowers in it.

This is a well-crafted, smart, intricate story that seems, at this distance, to be an apology for an appallingly horrible person. Enigma would be a villain in any other comics story, and rightfully so. A pitiable villain, and one that could potentially be redeemed, but, still, the mass-murder thing is hard to overlook.

I’m not sorry I read this, but all of the praise as a “lost classic” seems vastly overwrought to me. It was an attempt to have gay men in comics, yes, and it was not entirely a failure. I do have to say that, of the three gay men here, one is a middle-aged alcoholic failure, one is a mass-murdering sociopath, and the third was turned gay against his will by the sociopath – and that strikes me as not entirely a positive and loving and realistic depiction.

Such is Enigma. Consider yourself entirely spoiled.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon by John Allison
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Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon by John Allison

As I type this, my post on the first volume of Steeple was written close to a month ago but has not yet gone live. So I am trying to space things out on this blog, but I may not be spacing them quite far enough for my own systems to work well. (Let’s hope I remember

, once that post does go live, to drop in a link here somewhere.)

In any case, this is a sequel to the first Steeple , which was written and drawn by John Allison with colors from Sarah Stern and letters from Jim Campbell. The first collection also appeared first as a five-issue series of floppy comics.

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon , by comparison, appeared originally on-line at Allison’s site , and is an all-Allison joint. (There is a cover by Max Sarin, presumably in an attempt to draw in the Giant Days audience.) This one collects two somewhat discrete stories, and I can even link you to those stories online, on the cheekily-titled steeple.church site: The Silvery Moon and Secret Sentai . I just noticed they were (still) there; I haven’t been as good at keeping up with Allison’s new comics there over the past couple of years as I vaguely searched for a copy of the first Steeple book to read first.

Anyway: this is set in a different corner of the Scarygoround -cum-Giant Days-iverse

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, down in the Cornish town of Tredregyn, where Rev. David Penrose upholds the glory of the Church of England by battling invading mermen every night (and doing essentially nothing vicaresque besides that) and the Magus Tom Pendennis does what he wilt at the Church of Satan down the lane, and what he wilt is generally sneaky and not always nice, but it tends not to be what one would actually call evil.

It’s more like a football rivalry than a battle for the soul of the town, honestly: the locals line up with their rooting preferences, and it seems like Satan is well in the lead, maybe because he always has the best tunes and dancing.

Our main characters are Billie Baker and Maggie Warren; the trainees in the two churches. Billie came to town for the CoE, but, through some odd events at the end of the first book, the two have switched roles, with the lusty, motorcycle-riding Maggie now assisting Rev. David and energetic and immensely good-hearted Billie now organizing community outreach for Satan.

Allison, as usual, has a decent-sized central cast, who are interestingly quirky. I don’t think these folks have gotten quite as defined as the Giant Days crew or his best Bad Machinery characters (Lottie Grote, for example), but they’ve had fewer pages to do so to date.

In any case: this is two more adventures of Billie and Maggie, one with a werewolf and one with a Japanese guy in a funny costume. They are both Allisonianly quirky and fun, and he’s filling out the details of this corner of his world nicely as he has more pages and time to do so.

I’ve said it many times: Allison is one of the most entertaining, and most distinctive, comics-makers of his generation, and his stories are always fun and always different from what anyone else is doing. How can you not want to read that? 

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa
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The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa

Endings are harder than beginnings: any story-teller will tell you that. So if I quibble that The Golden Age doesn’t end as well as it begins

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, I’m largely saying that it’s a story, and that’s what stories do.

Reading the second half

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, though – the graphic novel or bande dessinee The Golden Age, Book 2 , written by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, and drawn by Pedrosa with some coloring support from others – there were several times my editor’s pen itched to make notes. I don’t know if these would have made the story better, but if I were involved in the creation, these are the things I would have asked.

First, Book One follows Tilda, the older child of the now-dead king of Antrevers. The beginning of Book Two looks like it might follow her younger brother, who finally gets a name (Edwald) for what I think was the first time at the very end of this book. Edwald does not become our viewpoint at any time here; this is still Tilda’s story. And maybe it had to be. But for a story about political factions and civil war, about opinions on how the world is supposed to be, about noblesse oblige and the democratic impulse, about the battle for the soul of a kingdom, something wider than just Tilda and a handful of advisors as viewpoints would have been useful. As it is, Edwald’s side is basically an evil caricature, with nothing good or positive about them, not even stability or continuity, and that feels like a lack.

Second, both books begin with the same group of peasants, standing in for the whole population of Antrevers, the ones who will be affected by all of these battles and decisions by nobles and kings. It looks like those people may be important to the action of the story, as thematically they are important: The Golden Age is the story of a transition from autocracy to something like democracy, in a very simplified sense. But they really aren’t. The masses are there to fight against each other, while the Important People stand in the center of panels to declaim and fight each other, to do the Important Things. The Golden Age says that it’s about them, but like so many supposedly-democratic works of the fantastic, the strong single person is more interesting, easier to work with narratively, than a mass of “just ordinary people.”

I like parallels; I like books to set things up and then knock them down; I like guns on mantlepieces to be taken down at just the right moment and fired. Golden Age does not quite do those things; it instead is caught up in a vague supernatural element that seems to inherently corrupt all of the autocratic rulers of Antrevers and a possibly prophetic old book of political philosophy (or is it mean to be religion? It’s presented in the manner of a religious text

, but its matter is political). Golden Age seems to want to say this mystical book is the Law of the Universe, but the actual operation of the magical things here is deeply obscure: are they set up by a god or gods? were they the embodied power of the ancient kings who stole power from the masses? were they self-generated somehow? are they actually operating against each other, as they seem to be, or is there some deeper balance underneath them?

So, anyway, there’s a magical box and a magical book. The book is supposed to be in the box, but the box seems to be the source of all the bad stuff and the book the source of all the good stuff, so thematically, locking the good stuff inside the bad is a weird metaphor.

I should be clear, after going so deeply into the weeds: this is the subtext, and only occasionally reaches the level of text. The story here is that Tilda’s tired, mostly unpaid, deeply fragile army is besieging Edwald’s castle, and not doing well. Tilda has had a vision of victory, and is utterly uncompromising in that vision, but does not seem to notice ways that the actual world does not line up with her visions. Meanwhile, another army loyal to Edwald is on its way: Tilda’s forces need to win quickly, or will lose forever. And she’s already shattered most of their strength in repeated pointless assaults on a portion of the curtain wall she is sure her forces can break.

So the story is about the siege, and the fight, and who lives and who dies, and how they kill each other. The big ending includes the book and the box, and whatever magics they have. And, as I said, it works pretty well but feels not quite as crisp as it should be to me.

Pedrosa, though, gives us another set of absolutely gorgeous pages, striking in their vibrant colors and stunning in their energy. That makes up for any gaps in the themes: the book powers over any possible quibbles through pure visual power, culminating in a stunning phantasmagorical conclusion. 

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Trese, Vol. 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo

Trese, Vol. 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo

I feel like I did this already, but that was a decade ago, so maybe I need to do it again.

Also, and probably more importantly, the last time I talked about this book, it wasn’t actually available at my end of the Pacific at all, which made my praise slightly beside the point for most people. But, luckily, the Trese books are now coming out from Ablaze: the third volume hit in January and the fourth (which is beyond where I saw the first time around) is coming in May. 

But, here we are with Trese 2: Unreported Murders , collecting what were four issues of the floppy-comics series of the same name, originally published in the Philippines sometime in the mid-Aughts. (See also my post from last year on the first book in its Ablaze edition.) Trese is our main character: Alexandra Trese, who runs a bar in Manilla and also is called in by the police on “weird” cases.

This is an urban fantasy, of the common subset that assumes every folkloric or imagined creature is real – they’re all out there somewhere, and they interact with each other and mankind in complicated and often violent ways. Sometimes they need to be dealt with, or just figured out. That’s what Trese does, and what – as we get some hints in these stories – her father did before her.

On a base level, Trese is just good urban fantasy: taut, exciting, full of action and mystery and strangeness. For Filipinos, there’s the added frisson that the fantasy creatures are all part of their folklore – this isn’t yet another story full of the same old boring werewolves and vampires and tedious brain-eating zombies. For non-Filipinos, I think that’s an even better point: these are strange creatures. I don’t know what they are, what they might do, how they connect to the world, what their powers and concerns are. Fantasy all too often falls into the familiar; Trese has no truck with that.

And even more than that, Trese has the secret weapon of KaJo Baldismo’s art. Writer Budjette Tan gives him a lot to work with, true – all of those strange and frightening creatures, all of the odd corners of urban life where they lurk – but Baldismo’s pages, more often with black backgrounds than white, are gloriously detailed and atmospheric, moving from sketchy figures obscured by mist to tight close-ups on detailed faces quickly and confidently. And don’t get me started on the creatures he draws: Baldismo draws the details of horror as well as anyone since Swamp Thing-era Steve Bissette

, creepy and specific and dark and ominous and startling. And, these days, they’re easy to find in the USA, so there’s no excuse not to read them.

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Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Steeple by John Allison with Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell

Steeple by John Allison with Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell

I have two theories about John Allison’s best stories, or maybe two versions of the same theory. One goes that his best works are organized around triumvirates – I should perhaps say triumfeminates – such as Bad Machinery  and Giant Days , which allows the three main characters to bounce off each other in complicated ways. This theory goes on to say that the more straightforward, less convoluted Allison works are more likely to have two main characters (q.v., By Night ) who contrast each other in a more obvious way. [1]

The other theory is more straightforward: in every generation of Allison protagonists, there is a female character who embodies chaos, around whom reality itself sometimes bends, who is a force of nature, who both the complications of the narrative and the audience love. Shelly Winters, Charlotte Grote, Esther De Groot – that kind of character. The Allison stories that feature one of those characters are the best ones.

Steeple  is a contrasting-two-people story, and neither of them (yet?) have risen to the level of an Allisonian Chaos Magnet. So I might perhaps say at this point that it’s not quite as zany as his best work, but that might also be said, in a different way, that it’s more accessible and less likely to hare off in random directions for no obvious reasons.

This story is set in the same universe as Tackleford – though, like Giant Days, it touches other parts of that world only very lightly. We are in the small town of Tredregyn, Cornwall  – that’s in the far Southwest of England, for those geographically challenged, about as far you can get from Tackleford’s Yorkshire and still be in the same country. In Tredregyn, there are two churches. And, in each of those churches, there’s a young woman with good intentions.

Just arriving at the local parish – I think it’s CoE

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, and I think it’s St. something-or-other’s that only gets mentioned once in the book and which I can’t find now – at the beginning of the book is the new parson Billie Baker, to help out the Rev. David Penrose.

On the other side of town, there is a Church of Satan, run by Magus Tom Pendennis and Warlock Brian Fitzpatrick – though I had to look up their full names online; they’re just “Tom & Brian” in this book – where Maggie Warren does what she wilt as the whole of the law when she’s not slinging pints at the local pub. (First lesson: God pays better than Satan. Maggie needs a side job; Billie does not. Who knew?)

Billie and Maggie meet cute when Billie arrives in town, and become friends, even though their lives are deeply opposite to each other.

So that’s one major conflict: they’re friends but they work for (to put it mildly) competing organizations.

The other major conflict is weird supernatural stuff, as it often is in Allison: Tredregyn is in danger from a race of aquatic monsters who want to drag the town and surroundings back beneath the sea whence it came, and apparently they could be successful in this if the local priest doesn’t spend his nights punching said monsters in the cemetery. Penrose keeps asking for strong, burly assistants to aid him in biffing the salty foe, but his superiors keep sending him thin and weedy types. Like Billie, for example.

Now, those sea monsters are said to be sent from the devil, but they don’t seem, at least in this first storyline, to have any connection to the Church of Satan. So it may be that the devil has legions who know naught of each other, or perhaps the sea beasties are actually the spawn of Cthulhu or Belial or some different evil entity. Or perhaps the Church of Satan is the modern, free-living kind of Satanism, and has mostly or entirely sworn off actual evil in the sense of conquering the world and dooming souls to eternal torment and suchlike.

This first volume of Steeple stories – it doesn’t have a “Vol. 1” anywhere on it, though a second volume has since appeared, and a third is coming this summer – collected five comics issues, written and drawn by Allison with colors by Sarah Stern and letters by Jim Campbell. Each issue is basically a standalone story, mostly along the lines of Giant Days, so my assumption is that the hope was to do a few issues, assess, and then do more issues for years and years. That did not actually happen; subsequent Steeple stories have appeared on Allison’s webcomics site , so my guess is that the American comics market continues to Be Difficult.

As I said, both Billie and Maggie are pretty sensible

, though they are in one of those weird Allisonian towns. I could wish for a bit more mania and craziness from both of them, to juice the stories up, but these are early days yet. These five adventures are quirky and fun, and the status quo gets upended pretty seriously at the end, which I hope will lead to odder, stranger stories for the next batch. So far

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, I’m counting this as solid B+ Allison, with signs that it could ascend to the top tier quite easily. And it’s entirely standalone, thus being a good entry point for new readers.

[1] Potential counter-argument: what about things like Bobbins and Scarygoround, which have larger casts around whom the plots circle? How do they fit into this schema? There I pull out a timeline, and argue that the count of Allison’s central characters for a given story tend to diminish over time, and so, therefore, in about 2030 he will publish a comic featuring no central characters!

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch by Dorkin, Thompson, Dyer, Dewey, Mignola and others

Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch by Dorkin, Thompson, Dyer, Dewey, Mignola and others

It’s an odd thing: while actually reading a Beasts of Burden book, it’s entirely plausible – my disbelief is reasonably suspended. But both before and afterward

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, in retrospect, it all seems silly and I struggle to write about it in a non-dismissive way.

If that tone sneaks in, I don’t really mean it. But there is something inherently goofy about the whole series, and I do have to acknowledge that.

As seen previously in the original Beasts of Burden  (later subtitled “Animal Rites,” har de har har), and seen later in the follow-up series Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men , all animals can talk to each other and some animals have magical skills and abilities.

I don’t know if series creator Evan Dorkin meant it this way, but domesticated animals (dogs and cats so far) are on the side of Good, and wild animals (rats, corvids, some more exotic monsters) are on the side of a quite Lovecraftian Evil. The forces of Evil are led by the usual extradimensional entities in the final extent, but usually an evil human (alive or currently dead) in the immediate situation. [1]

The Good animals do coordinate with humans, some of the time, and there’s a long tradition of partnership, man and dog, but the dogs are fully capable of battling eldritch menaces without the aid of opposable thumbs. So the Beasts of Burden stories are mostly about dogs running around the woods around Burden Hill, Pennsylvania, barking at and biting monsters to save at least this small corner of the world from the Many-Angled Ones. I should add that they do have mages as well: a couple of the animals here can cast spells, but most of them are just the standard somewhat-stronger-tougher-and-longer-lived-than-normal.

Neighborhood Watch  is the miscellaneous collection of the series; it gathers all of the smaller and shorter series that came out in between the original series and Wise Dogs. So we have a couple of single-issue stories, a two-part epic, several anthology stories that were later stuck together into one comic book, and a crossover with Hellboy.

Hm, I may have discovered why I’m having trouble taking this seriously. When Hellboy wanders through one of your stories and puts a main character in his pocket

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, showing that what are massive supernatural threats to you are no big deal to him, the overall universe loses a certain amount of tension. Sure, these dogs might fail to stop any particular nasty thing, but that just means Hellboy or one of his crew will have to come in and quickly mop up. Sad, but not apocalyptic.

Anyway, these are miscellaneous stories, about (mostly) the same main cast as the other stories. Dorkin wrote or co-wrote all of them; Mike Mignola co-wrote the Hellboy story (semi-obviously), Sara Dyer co-wrote one other story. Art is by either Jill Thompson, the co-originator of the series, or Benjamin Dewey, who took over for a lot of this stuff and then did Wise Dogs. Lettering is credited to Jason Arthur and Nate Piekos: I don’t think they worked on the same stories, but I can’t tell you if it lines up as neatly as Arthur lettered Thompson and Piekos did Dewey.

And, as I said up top, I enjoy reading these stories even though I am in no way an animal person, particular a domesticated animal person. I suspect the people who really like them are much more heavily invested than I am, but that’s fine: we all like and react differently to different things. If you want comics about dogs fighting supernatural evil, I don’t know of any better option.

[1] Thinking far too deeply about it, I would love to see a series with the opposite premise: dogs and cats are the villains, because they have been tainted by human evil, and badgers or foxes or opossums or maybe raccoons are the heroes. Actually, yes, raccoons, maybe with corvids as advisors: that’s the one I want.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Golden Age, Book 1 by Roxanne Moreil & Cyril Pedrosa

The Golden Age, Book 1 by Roxanne Moreil & Cyril Pedrosa

The title is ironic. Or maybe more than ironic: this is not the story of a golden age

, but there is a book in this fictional world called “The Golden Age.” So it is, perhaps, a story called “The Golden Age” that centers on another story called “The Golden Age.”

The back cover says The Golden Age, Book 1  takes place in the kingdom of Antrevers: the narrative never gets that specific. It is a medieval kingdom

, somewhere vaguely Western European. Given that the creators – co-writer Roxanne Moreil and writer/artist Cyril Pedrosa – are French – you could call it a fantasy version of France, and not be far wrong.

In the manner of fairy tales, there is no wider world: we don’t know what countries border Antrevers, and it doesn’t matter. This kingdom is the world of the story; everything will happen within it.

Antrevers has been getting poorer and life harder for a generation or so. Crops are not as fertile, life is not as easy. Again, trade and development are left unmentioned: this is a single kingdom in a static, medieval world. The nobles have been increasing taxes to maintain their position; the peasants have been complaining, and starting to rebel, in turn. Repression of those peasants has been ramping up, under Louys de Vaudemont, one of the most powerful nobles.

The old king has just died. If his name was thrown out, I didn’t catch it. He leaves an aged wife – also left unnamed, and her exact title after his death is vague, too – and two children. There’s a younger son, but his older sister, Tilda, is expected to inherent – this is not a world with a Salic Law, I suppose.

Tilda is our main viewpoint character: a bit headstrong, determined to use her authority and power to make life better for the entire kingdom, to reverse the downward slide of all of Antrevers. To that end, she has been talking about shaking up the power of the nobles – not eliminating that power, probably not even curtailing it that much, but putting some royal limits on what nobles had gotten used to doing unfettered. She is young and energetic and sure she is right. She will learn others are equally sure of their rightness

, believing entirely different things.

We enter this world like diving into a pool: Pedrosa’s first few pages are full-bleed, with bright colors, single images in an illustrative, almost impressionist style filling our vision. He mostly settles down to bordered panels after that, but breaks out the full-page art for major moments: this is a visually stunning book. He brings all of the fairy-tale energy and life of his earlier Three Shadows, combining it with the mastery of color and space he showed in Portugal .

Similarly, Moreil and Pedrosa introduce us to a group of peasants first: our story may be mostly among the powerful, but it’s about all the people of this kingdom. From there, the narrative makes its way to court and Tilda, as she meets faithful retainer Lord Tankred and the young swordsman Bertil, who may also have been a childhood playmate of hers. The three of them are soon traveling together, for reasons I don’t want to spoil, but you can guess at how the old nobles are reacting to Tilda’s impending coronation.

Tilda looks to gather allies: we’ve heard a lot about “the Peninsula,” and she heads there, to rendezvous with Lord Albaret, who she knows is loyal to her. They will find other places along the way, particularly a hidden community of women – something like a secular nunnery, or sanctuary – as the story circles around the ideas of governance, power, and noblesse oblige. Tilda has good intentions, but do revolting peasants want any Queen, even a fairly benevolent, forward-thinking one? And can Tilda conceptualize a government without someone like her ruling it by decree?

On top of all that, this is a fantasy story. There is some power that Tilda will find, at the end. She also has visions throughout: visions that make her weak, shattering her normal life and making her collapse, visions of war and fire and danger, in which she is an imposing, commanding figure.

This is Book 1. It ends on a cliffhanger, after more than two hundred pages. But the story, I’m told, ends in the second book, which is out now. I can’t tell you about that book yet – I need to find it now, myself – but I can tell you the first one is compelling and gorgeous and all-enveloping and amazing.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Joshua W. Cotter

The memory of a book is not the same as an initial assessment

, or a re-read. Looking back, when starting to write about Joshua W. Cotter’s excellent graphic novel Skyscrapers of the Midwest , I see that I read it at almost the same time as Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole. At the time, I said Skyscrapers was my favorite, but I’ve thought about Swallow much more often in the past decade, and returned to Powell’s work in a way I haven’t for Cotter.

So which of the two is “better”? 2008 Andy thought it was Skyscrapers. The default Andy of about 2010-2020 would probably say Swallow if asked to choose between the two. And today, after I’ve just re-read Skyscrapers?

Today I think I’m going to say picking between two books by completely different people is a silly game, that books are not in competition with each other in any sense other than for attention in the moment. The world is wide; there’s room for everything. There’s especially lots of room for strong books.

But today I have just re-read Skyscrapers. And I seem to be avoiding writing about it directly – maybe because what I wrote in 2008 is still entirely applicable and I don’t really have anything to add to that. This is the story of a boy who probably is a semi-fictionalized version of Cotter himself

, at the age of 10 in 1987. I wrote about a lot of the impressive elements of the story a decade ago, and I only have a few things to add to that.

There’s a subplot here about a young man – eighteen or twenty, I guess – who looks a lot like the young protagonist and is in a bad relationship (almost entirely because of him) with a woman of the same age. Reading Skyscrapers this time, I wondered if that was supposed to be a flashforward, the same boy a little older. I don’t think so: the rest of the book is set in 1987, and there’s no transitional elements to imply that shift in time. More importantly, he interacts with the main plot once, so he must be a different person – maybe similar, maybe a warning of what the protagonist could become.

There’s also some fake-nonfiction elements as part of the package – the letter column is answered by a cowboy named “Skinny Kenny,” as the biggest example, but there are also some fake ads and similar stuff. This is loosely incorporated into the overall story, since “Skinny Kenny” replies to letters that, at least in one case, is clearly by a character in the story and is about the story.

But those are the only major pieces I didn’t mention in my old post: otherwise, I agree with what 2008 Andy said. This is impressive, and it still struck me in 2021 as a lot like a more humanist, less formalist version of a Chris Ware story: similar elements about a similar childhood, with the story heading in a different direction and with a very different art style. In Ware, the story is about how a boy is irreparably broken – whether because of comics, or just adjacent to comics isn’t really important. For Cotter, the hermeticism of a boy’s imagination is both positive and negative, like so many things in life, and his characters need to have other connections, especially to family, to get through those tricky years.

We do sense that this boy will get through; he won’t be broken like a Ware character. And I’m reminded that I’ve lost track of what Cotter has been doing for the past decade, so I really should see if he’s done anything else this strong.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.