Thursday, 31 May 2018

G.I. JOE #252: MY DEAR BARONESS



One of these days one of these issues won't be even better than the one before, right?  I mean, surely it's impossible to improve month upon month constantly like this?  Well if these first three issues I've read of IDW's continuation of Marvel's 80s/90s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic are anything to go by I wouldn't hedge my bets!  This issue is the best yet and while we all obviously hope comics keep getting better as we collect them, after the epic #250 and the superb first part of Special Missions in #251 I didn't expect the latest issue to be even better to this extent!  The second of this series of individual stories focussing on one character from the Joes and Cobra sees one of my very favourite classic characters, Baroness, take centre stage and fans of hers simply couldn't have asked for a better issue.


As a young reader I was always fascinated with the Baroness.  Unfortunately at the time there were very few strong female characters in my comics, with any there were only appearing now and again as one-off or recurring guest stars.  I loved the tortured history of computer technician Josie Beller in Transformers and the unique relationship reporter Joy Meadows had with Dinobot Sludge in the same title, but they weren't in it nearly enough.  Later Wildcat brought us the much needed Kitten Magee who was like a breath of fresh air and the Jurassic Park comic obviously contained Ellie Sattler from the movies.  But for the most part we had comics such as The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures where female characters only played supporting roles, or Ring Raiders which contained no such characters at all!

Baroness wasn't the only female lead in the Action Force strips as they were called back then in the UK, but she was by far the most interesting, so I was really looking forward to seeing what kind of story she'd be given for her own issue.  As ever Larry Hama does not disappoint.  In a story which could be plucked right out of the headlines, Cobra is in the fictional land of Darkonia to aid a corrupt regime fight back against rebel fighters.  From the very first panel of the strip it's clear Cobra aren't the two-dimensional "bad guys" (they never were to be fair) of some toy line comics and the parallels between this world and the Syrian conflict are plain to see.


This makes for a fascinating read with Cobra, the worldwide terrorist organisation, showing they have lines they don't cross.  I'd never heard of Saw Viper and Frag Viper (or I can't remember them) but throughout the tale they question why they're helping, what they're doing there and who is it they've allied themselves with.  I do remember Cobra Island in the classic comics having a civilian population and it's been fun to reacquaint myself with the "baddies" who actually have something resembling a conscience and compassion for those who follow them.

As one of the main figures in Cobra, Baroness was at times much more ruthless than her male counterparts, certainly more devious and was also capable of using her looks and sexuality in ways that were new to a pre-teen Transformers reader!  But she was also in love with Destro, weapons manufacturer as well as supplier for Cobra, and treating it in a mature fashion like an actual adult relationship was a revelation for me.  She had a complicated past which the story would give us tantalising breadcrumbs about now and again and she could show real compassion towards innocents caught up in their fight.  This aspect of her character comes to the fore again here when they discover a lone child whose family has been killed by the government strikes.


Needless to say, when one of the government fighters takes the toy off the girl to check it for a grenade he feels the full force of Baroness' compassion!  We get to understand more of her decisions in this story through a series of flashbacks which, unlike Stalker's last issue, are peppered throughout the 20-page strip.  They come very naturally out of the situation Baroness finds herself in, such as the one above which takes us back to her memories of her own favourite cuddly doll as a child and the horrible thing her father did to it.

A later flashback goes into more depth and involves how she first met the man who'd go on to become Destro and her one true love, as well as the original of her "title".  It may only be a few snippets of her past, but as someone who enjoyed the tantalising nuggets of information Larry gave readers back in the 80s this was like a treasure trove of detail!  None of these flashbacks feel forced, each one involving a beautiful transition whereupon on their individual conclusions we see a reflection of the younger Anastasia in the Baroness' glasses.  A neat idea and expertly drawn by David Messina with Elisabeth D'Amico on inking duties.


As I said, the flashbacks never feel forced, nor does the main story ever feel like it's just an excuse for them.  They work perfectly hand-in-hand to tell the main tale of Cobra advising Darkonia's forces and coming under snipper attack, embodying the tale with real, solid character development.  Even as a new reader I felt real emotion behind Baroness' actions and words, real meaning behind everything she chose to do and that's no small feat, but then again Larry has been writing these characters for decades now.  These are his creation more than they ever were Hasbro's in my opinion.  If IDW had managed to keep Simon Furman as the sole Transformers writer maybe we'd be able to say the same about that comic, but as it stands G.I. Joe: ARAH is a unique title and one I hope to be reading for a long time to come.


I'll admit when I first saw David and Elisabeth's artwork I was a smidgen disappointed it wasn't more along the lines of the previous two issues.  Upon my first glance it felt too polished after the rougher outlines of Alex Sanchez and Netho Diaz, but I couldn't have been more wrong.  The style is perfectly fitting for this tale which juxtaposes the gritty modern world with perfect childhood memories and flashbacks to the first days of love.  It's solid, dynamic and most importantly for me it's full of character.  Just look at Baroness herself in these images, she feels like a fully fleshed out person without even reading her dialogue, Alessandra Alexakis' colours lifting it all off the two-dimensional page.

It's a stunning issue from start to finish and I can't sing its praises highly enough, as you may have noticed.  $3.99 in the States (not $4.99 as stated on IDW's website), £3.70 in my local store they produced a huge variety of cover variants at different events and American stores for this issue, although the above default one is my favourite.  Something I haven't mentioned before is the fact each issue has an honest-to-gosh letters page.  Even better than that, it's Larry Hama himself who answers the questions from readers.  It offers a brilliant insight into the creation and development of the comic and characters and is a lovely bonus to have each month.

There's been three issues of G.I. Joe: A Real American hero this month on the blog, the result of getting myself way behind with posting and having to play catch up, but from now on it'll be a monthly affair, hopefully as soon as it's released.  #252 only came out yesterday so that's a good start anyway!  If you ever enjoyed the classic strips then get yourself to a comic store and treat yourself to this little masterpiece.

Monday, 28 May 2018

BEANO: A TRULY EPIC KID'S COMIC

Issue #3936!! An epic run if ever there was one!

It's not the latest addition to my modern day comics and in fact it's one I never collected as a kid either, my brother being the 80's The Beano's regular reader in our household, though I did sneak a read now and again.  Nor am I a fan of Star Wars, the latest spin-off film being the subject of a Roger the Dodger strip and cover, illustrated by the legendary Nigel Parkinson.  So why has the latest Beano wound up here on the blog?  Well, a fellow Twitter user by the name of Dave Bulmer, who I began following on the social media site after a lengthy conversation about 'Pull' exit doors in public loos (which also involved Jamie Smart and Lew Stringer, hence how I spotted it, in case you were wondering!) tweeted out how he was having difficulty in finding a copy of this week's comic, as it seemed to be sold out everywhere he tried.

I offered to send him a copy if I found one in my local Asda and even though he ended up getting one himself eventually, I curiously looked anyway and found they were down to their last copy.  I had no intention of buying it, but Dave's quest and the fact this was the last one in the store were persuasive factors.  The final straw came when someone on Twitter responded to Dave's investigation by stating that he couldn't find it "because maybe the modern day Beano isn't any good".  I replied to this individual to ask how that could be the reason for it being sold out everywhere.  He deleted his tweet.

So anyway, I decided to grab this elusive issue to give it a read over and see how the modern day Beano stacks up and if I liked it I'd write it up on the blog, as I'm always willing to support the UK comics industry and if even one of my readers starts to pick it up that'd be great!  With the post here you can probably guess I thought it was very good and you'd be right, so let's have a closer look at some of the contents and who else could I start off with?


Written by Nigel Auchterlounie and drawn by longtime contributor Nigel Parkinson, it lives up to all those memories I had of the Dennis the Menace strips in my brother's comics and annuals.  I've already covered the unnecessary hoopla around the dropping of the "Menace" part of the name and this particular story was great for someone like me to see what kind of character he is today.  He's still wild and rambunctious and I have to say I did laugh out loud on a few occasions, in particular at his dad's expression above when he's asked to say something for his video, a look of bewilderment that's repeated by others throughout the strip.  A chaotic ending, including a hilarious facial expression from Dennis himself when his friend forgets to hit record make this a priceless strip and should immediately expel any thoughts of the comic not being as entertaining in the modern world.

Beano has moved on, evolved and changed throughout its lifetime.  It has to and it's been successful every step of the way.  As well as Dennis, Roger, Gnasher, the Bash Street Kids, the Numskulls and Minnie the Minx, I was delightfully surprised to see an old favourite return, written and drawn by Leslie Stannage, who does a superb job of imitating the Tom Paterson strips of old with his classic character, Calamity James.


There's other old favourites too like Bananaman (written by Tommy Donbavand and drawn by Wayne Thompson) who I'm glad to see is just as chaotically useless as a superhero as he always was in both The Dandy and the cartoon series, and for the 80th anniversary year Oink!'s own Lew Stringer was asked to resurrect Big Eggo, the character who appeared on the front cover of the very first issue all those years ago.  But I was equally excited to try out some of the new characters and I've included a couple of highlights below alongside the classics.


Written by Hugh Raine with art by Wayne Thompson JJ, a character from the Dennis series, is a super sporty ten-year-old girl and here I particularly liked her strip because it perfectly sums up what I hear every time someone starts talking about a certain TV show.  Betty & the Yeti is a charming little strip, here presented as a half-page story of Yeti being told to not eat the new sofa, and his attempts to do exactly as he's told while also getting his own way.  Written and very endearingly drawn by JJ's Hugh Raine these are just some of the highlights in this issue.

The comic is 36 pages of high-quality, glossy paper, 22 of these packed with 17 strips, many being multi-paged stories.  The rest is filled with puzzles, games, competitions and loads of reader interactions including letters pages (made up of photographs this week) and two strips with readers as the stars.  One lucky reader gets a full-page on the rear of the comic along with Billy Whizz which ends with them going so fast they travel in time and (brilliantly) the last panel is coloured like an old edition of the comic!  The winner of #SOBeano every week gets to star in their own strip and alongside other stars at various points, they choose the star letter and get the chance to read the strips before the issue comes out.  Both ideas are rather ingenious and, alongside the website chock full of content, really represent how Beano is a modern, forward-thinking comic.

My favourite strip out of the whole issue is one I've never heard of before, but then again this is aimed at a completely different audience to me and I haven't read the comic in decades!


Rubi is written by Andy Fanton (a pig pal!) and illustrated by Emily McGorman-Bruce, whose work I haven't seen before but it's just beautiful, especially her colouring style.  Rubi (whose full name is Rubidium von Screwtop) is Beanotown's resident tech genius whose dad runs the town's secret research lab, but I get the feeling it doesn't always go to plan for her!  The punchline here is a classic but I didn't see it coming and it was definitely the highlight of the whole comic for me.  The fact Rubi is a wheelchair user is a great addition and the fact neither the comic nor the website feels the need to point this out shows again how modern the comic is for today's kids.  Brilliant stuff.

Here's a bonus!  A link to a Rubi strip on Beano.com with a lovely nod towards one of my favourite TV shows of all time, Stargate SG-1!

Yes, Beano is a children's comic but it always has been!  Some adults seem to forget children's comics don't grow up along with them and you'll often find them in their dark corners of the internet, bitching and moaning that the kid's titles of today are no good because none appeal to them.  Well, duh!  Now, even though this is very much aimed at younger readers I still enjoyed it and I can't recommend it highly enough for your own piglets.  If you don't have any piglets go buy some issues for the offspring of any friends!  One word of warning, if you subscribe you may get a great saving on the cost but you won't get any free gifts as these are deemed "newsstand promotions only" in order to save on subscription costs.  I thought that was a bit mean, especially as it was hidden away in very, very small print, but it may not be an issue for the young 'uns.

Go grab a Beano, kids today should definitely never be without one!  Any comic that can take a hilarious swipe at comics artists ("Aren't all comic writers failed artists?" asks Dennis) in an advert for a spin-off book should keep all children, young and old entertained for 7 days, no problem.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

GHOSTBUSTERS ATC #5: MORE PLEASE! ENCORE!

<< GO TO ISSUE 4

Cover art by Corin Howell, colours by Russell Badgett

A bittersweet moment this, as here we have a magnificent, not to mention hilarious conclusion to What Dreams May Come, the first story in the Ghostbusters Answer The Call comics series.  Unlike the comics of my own youth, or indeed IDW's own G.I. Joe A Real American Hero continuation, a lot of comics, particularly licenced fare these days tend to come out in short bursts.  They come out and tell one story over several months, then stop, only to reappear with a new story numbered again from #1 a little while later.  While Marvel and DC have continuing issue numbers, they seem to reset them every other month at the moment, so it appears to be rare for a comic to not do so.  It's a shame, as I'd love to get my teeth stuck into an ongoing monthly comic, with different stories lasting various amounts of months then straight on the next, based upon these four women (and Kevin) instead of a start-stop collection.  For now though we'll have to wait and see, hoping sales have been sufficient enough to warrant another series shortly.

With a passionate fan base clamouring for new stories featuring Dr. Erin Gilbert, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, Patricia "Patty" Tolan and Dr. Abigail "Abby" Yates, somehow I think it's already a given they'll be back.  This part starts off the same way as the first and third ones, with a panel for each of the Ghostbusters already in the midst of this issue's story.  I've loved it when they've been presented to us like this before, so I was a very happy fan to see this one more time before the end of this series.


For now though what we have here is probably the funniest issue of the run, which is saying something!  That first page of strip above perfectly sums up the issue in more ways than one.  Exciting, animated artwork from Corin Howell (coloured by Valentina Pinto) alongside humorous captions for each of the 'busters, with Holtzmann's being that bit different.  As always.  After a few weeks away from them, this page will make any fan grin from ear to ear and get them all settled in, ready for the 20 pages of strip and the rip-roaring climax.

Last time the Ghostbusters were experimenting with equipment that would allow them to share the same nightmares.  When they'd gone up against the ghost of Doctor Kruger, aka Schreckgespenst, aka "Schrecky" in the real work they'd found themselves woefully underpowered, then when they tried fighting him in his Nightmarescape they were frozen with fear and discarded by the evil doctor and torturer as not worthy of his attention.  Last issue they discovered a shared memory, one that had frightened them as kids but which was so hidden in their minds they knew Schrecky wouldn't be able to use it against them.  Armed with special head bands that'll allow them entry to his 'scape without detection, they set off to bust him.


What an entrance by Holtzmann!  Kate McKinnon has to take a large amount of credit for the creation of who has become one of my favourite movie characters of all time.  Her skill as a comedian, her timing, ad libs and ingenuity in crafting Holtzmann have won both her and the character a legion of fans.  From that portrayal comes the comics version.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, writer Kelly Thompson does a perfect job of adapting the Saturday Night Live star's comedy to the page, the artwork being that bit crazier for her than the rest too.  I'm really going to miss her!  (It doesn't help SNL has just finished its current season too!)  But let's get back to the story and the plan they spent last month crafting.

Of course it doesn't go as planned, no where near as planned.  It just wouldn't be Ghostbusters if it all went without a hitch, sure it wouldn't?  Very quickly the team find themselves separated and alone in a living nightmare world, just like before.  I don't want to give anything away as it's all very clever in how they eventually regroup and attempt to bust Schrecky again, with a surprise which will thrill fans of this new take on the classic franchise.  Oh how I'd love to show you something, or quote some great lines towards the end of this final chapter but it'd not only spoil the story, it'd also rob you of the laughs I had when you get around to reading it for yourselves.


Speaking of which, if you've missed out so far don't fear, IDW have a graphic novel collecting What Dreams May Come slated for release in June.  For those who have been buying the comic you've got a selection of covers to choose from as always, although I personally just go for whatever my comics store gets in, which is always Cover A.  This means I've a matching set, which you can see below this month's choices.


I really couldn't have asked for more from this series.  In fact, it's far surpassed my expectations.  The anarchic, natural and often ad libbed comedy of the movie couldn't have been easy to transfer to this form and, while I was obviously excited by the launch, I was initially nervous about what that first issue would turn out like.  I shouldn't have worried.  While we got an interesting story with a formidable foe, some spectacular spectral artwork and great pacing throughout, the characters themselves and the comedy of the movie are front and centre.  We even got some unexpected character development, some which were very funny little moments and some which surprised with their depth, in particular for Holtzmann.

But most of all it was a right laugh!  You'll hear the voices in your head as you read their lines and at their pace of delivery, the writing somehow having perfect comic timing, and you'll be giggling away from start to finish.  Perfect.  Just perfect.  Looking forward to more, hopefully much more from these characters and this creative team.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

G.I. JOE #251: THAT'S WHAT I'M STALKING ABOUT



After the excitement of the previous story's concluding chapter, which was my first issue, how could the comic possibly follow that first impression?  With the perfect series of stories for a new reader like me, that's how.  Special Missions was also the name of a spin-off comicbook series by Marvel back when the original run was at its height.  Lasting 28 issues it highlighted the Joes' fight against more conventional terrorists (as well as Cobra) while featuring more intense violence and, according to Wiki "more ambiguous morality than the main title".  Is this going to be IDW's take on that comic, only this time as part of the main run?  Let's see.

I've only got one previous issue so far so I can't really make any comparison on some of those points, but I can say this time Cobra takes a back seat.  G.I. Joe has been called in by the US government to enter Sierra Gordo on a stealth mission to oversee a hostage situation involving American medical students held by the Neo-Trotskyite Terrorists.  I've no idea if these are recurring villains or just a one-off for this story, but either way it works perfectly as a nice character study for Stalker, who has appeared in the G.I. Joe comic since #1 in 1982.


A US Army Ranger and member of a Long Range Recon Patrol, Major R. Wilkinson is a sniper and part of a three-man team sent in to observe the hostage situation from afar.  He, Shipwreck and Zap aren't to intervene unless the lives of the Americans are taken.  The local government wants to negotiate with the terrorists and their special ops teams are on standby, ready to storm the building.  The Joes are across the street watching it all through their scopes, ready to take down the enemy as a last resort, without Sierra Gordo's knowledge of their presence.

Unhappy they've been ordered to only retaliate if a fatal shooting occurs, while wanting to take action before that happens, it all makes for a tense situation as it is.  But then we add on top of that some interference!  This rears its ugly head when terrorists come a-calling and while the others continue to observe it's up to Stalker to cover their backs, making for some great action scenes like the one above, which even include some nice little touches of camaraderie and humour like below.


But this is a character piece and the story actually begins with Stalker's nightmares of losing G.I. Joe teammates on previous missions and of the racial bullying he faced as a kid, all mixed up in his head as one prolonged, horrid vision.  While I've seen these kinds of nightmares on television before it's not something I've read in a comic and while it may include the skeletons of those friends he lost, it still portrays a very real battlefield with a very intense feel to it.  This is only heightened with the visions of the fallen soldiers and Alex Sanchez does a superb job of invoking the terror inside Stalker's psyche, Ronda Pattison's dark purple hues giving both a war zone and horror film vibe all rolled up in one.  Truly breathtaking stuff to start the issue off with.


Normally an action comic may then take us straight into the Sierra Gordo scenes with the hero still battling with his nightmares, but instead here we get a lovely few pages of him talking to a close friend in The Pit (still their headquarters).  It's a quiet moment which allows the reader to process what came before in the opening attack on our senses, while reintroducing another fondly remembered character, Spirit.  In fact, add in Rock'n'Roll and all of the individuals in this issue are ones I distinctly remember from decades ago, so it felt like getting reacquainted with some old friends.  That feeling of nostalgia mixed with the modern day story and art style is something very unique and IDW have nailed it.


If the remainder of the Special Missions issues are as good as this one then I really couldn't have picked a better time to jump on board.  Last issue was the action-packed climax to an epic tale but still Larry Hama's excellent writing put three-dimensional characterisation front and centre.  Now, in an issue designed as an actual character study we've also got plenty of action, some laughs and even a touch of horror.  Again, it's incredible to think this is a toy licence comic.  Larry has said previously he bases each character on people he actually knows or has met in real life and the importance of character shows on every page.

The fact the quieter moments, what some people might call the "talky pages", are just as compelling as the action ones is testament to Larry's grip on the people he's writing and the handle he has on the franchise.  But then again, he's been writing them long enough now so maybe it shouldn't be surprising.  Let's just hope he's not planning on moving on anytime soon.  Or at all actually!

G.I. GO BUY JOE!

It's a stellar issue that really sums up what I loved about the classic Action Force/G.I. Joe strips in Marvel's Transformers so much as a teen, then again about a decade ago when I reread those very comics.  Heck, it even has a wraparound cover like the 80s comics of old!  The next issue focusses on Baroness, my favourite Cobra character so I'm really looking forward to seeing her own story next week (finally that's me caught up) and after that IDW's website indicates it'll be the turn of Duke, so a nice varied selection to come.

If you'd rather jump into a comic when a new story starts then you really can't miss out on this issue, although the following ones could all make excellent jumping on points too.  I bought mine from Coffee & Heroes (for £3.70) in Belfast (find them here) and you can also check out IDW's official page for this issue too.

Monday, 21 May 2018

AUTOBOT LEW STRINGER TO ATTEND TF NATION


Regular readers of the blog will know one of my very favourite comics that I started to collect after Oink! introduced me to the medium was Marvel UK's Transformers, which I'm currently photographing my collection of for Instagram and rounding up monthly here.

One of the constants (also one of the highlights) for most of the whole 332-issue run was a humour strip from Lew Stringer, namely Robo Capers and then later Combat Colin.  His contribution to the comic has huge and this year he's been invited to be a guest at the Transformers convention, TFNation between 17th to 19th August in Birmingham's Hilton Metropole hotel.  Any fans of that classic comicbook, of which there are still many, won't want to miss this and the chance to meet the creator of the Lewniverse!


You can visit the official website for more information on the event, other guests and to buy tickets here:

tfnation.com/2018

In related news the third issue of Combat Colin has been slightly delayed and should now appear no later than mid-July, but I'm sure it'll be worth the wait as always.  Lew has also hinted on his own site there could be one or two special back-up features this time around, so make sure you follow his blog right here to be kept up to date with the latest news.  Also, if you've missed the previous two issues, you can get caught up starting right here.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

SPLANK! #1: A BRAND NEW 'SMASH!' HIT



Inspired by his childhood favourites of Smash!, Wham! and Pow!, the acclaimed Power Comics trio, Peter Duncan set about the task of creating a modern day equivalent.  He hoped to gather together not only the very best in local Northern Ireland talent but also from the wider net of professional UK comics creators.  This was going to be a physical comic too, all lovingly and professionally printed; a modern, smart and funny homage to those classic Oldhams titles.  Not a small task.  But my word has he pulled it off.  In fact, he's pull it off in spades.

Splank! may have started out as an April Fools Day prank blog post, but this has been a very real project and the end result is a product which feels very much like some of those comics which filled the newsagent shelves during my own younger days.  The front and back covers, with its Walter Wonder, His Life's A Blunder by pig pal Marc Jackson, has even been coloured to match the newsprint of the Oldham/Fleetway/DC Thompson comics of old.  A nice touch and straight away it's an indication of the love that's gone into this final product.  Having Marc's talent front and centre doesn't hurt either and is a great start, but he's not the only recognisable name involved here.  Oink! fans will instantly feel at home with the drawing style in this strip for example:


Well okay, "Davy Francis presents" is a bit of a giveaway.  Peter himself has become known as The Grumpy Penguin amongst friends and family (the actual reason can be seen in a short mockumentary by Peter's nephew on the BBC's The Arts Show site) and in Splank! he appears a few times in various strips, the one above being the comic's version of his origin, with the story by Peter and the script and art by Davy.  He makes for a very funny Uncle Pigg-esque character, popping up here and there and I hope we get to see a lot more of this in any future issues.

The legendary Mike Higgs will be a very well known name to readers of the aforementioned Smash!, Whizzer & Chips or Buster and their ilk and the grumpy birdman above appears alongside his creation The Cloak, all written and drawn by the man himself.  But that's not all, there's more adult onesie buffoonery with Ninja Monkey: Origin Story, another story idea by Peter but which Mike then runs with and develops over two full pages.  It's a hell of a scoop to have Marc, Davy, Mike and Nigel Parkinson too on board and hopefully their names can help Splank! reach out and into the hands of people who may not necessarily have purchased a small press comic before.


One thing that's very apparent in a few of the strips is the comic's place of origin, Northern Ireland (where The Oink! Blog and Beyond also resides), with a few local sayings or accents popping up and the occasional local place name.  It's a nice touch to acknowledge this amongst the UK-wide talent pool and adds an air of originality, but without alienating anyone from outside the province.  Peter is also one of the team behind the excellent Sector 13, Belfast's 2000AD fanzine, the third issue of which has just been released and I wrote about it a few days ago.  Some of the contributors have made the jump over to Splank! and I said in that previous post I'd love to see more from the imagination of Glenn Matchett, but little did I know my wish was about to come true so quickly.

Writer Glenn and artist Scott Twells are two such local individuals, who have produced one of the larger strips in the comic.  On the surface of it, this looks like an adventure strip, which was something the Power Comics and early Beano/Dandy and Buster comics would have had in amongst the funnies.  But when you settle down to Greenbeard and the Adventure of the Pirate Princess you soon realise it's more of a comedy story than you thought upon first glance.  That first glance is wonderful though.  The first page is dark, almost greyscale as young girls share pirate stories by torchlight, before it bursts into glorious full colour when we're transported back to the time of the tale, with two sisters narrating across individually coloured captions.


As the girls bicker over the details of the story we see poor Greenbeard being put through the wringer as his situation changes at the whim of the girls' memories.  Imaginatively told with a real sense of fun, the only shame is that we simply don't know when a second episode will appear.  Hopefully there's more to come from Splank!, but if not this is a strip worthy of its own graphic novel.  Yes, it's that good.

Another character I'd love to see more of is Ethel Death, a young girl in a family of, well, dead people.  Hailing from northern England, cartoonist Cat Byrne has also recently drawn a special cover for #1 of Sector 13 for Peter and the team.  An artist and illustrator, it was only in 2016 Cat decided to make the leap into comics and her website has examples of her work so far including Ethel, who has been created for Splank!.


Her artwork is a simply gorgeous style which suits this particular character perfectly.  The two-page strip is basically a family sitting down for a meal together.  The fact they're all dead makes the rather typical dinner table dialogue extremely funny!  It's a genius bit of writing and the skeletons of Ethel and her little sister are incredibly endearing.  As the first strip after the editorial it makes a huge impression on the reader too, as by this stage you're still not sure as to what to expect after the likes of Marc Jackson and Mike Higgs on pages 1 and 2.  From here on in you know it's not just the big name artists who are going to be the stars of this premiere issue.

With family-friendly morbid humour (surely a unique selling point right there), Cat's Ethel Death and co. are already missed and I look forward to further adventures around their family home.

From a skeleton family to a newly found friendship between a snail and a tortoise, courtesy of John Farrelly.  Contributing the excellent artistry of his Flesh strip in Sector 13, which was all realistic dinosaurs and gruesome action, Beans and Tucker is just as gorgeous but couldn't be any more different.  In fact, it's hard to believe this is by the same artist!  Beans is a snail who makes a daring escape from a bag of escargot on its way into a French restaurant, Tucker is a tortoise accidentally thought dead by his owners and buried in a pet grave when he was just hibernating.  They're a fun couple, two very different personalities and the strip itself ends on a couple of sublime gags!


This strip takes up a good few pages at the back of the comic and I was initially left with the same feeling I had when I'd read Ethel's story, that I couldn't wait to see these two in more adventures.  This being the story of how they get together, there's a load of possibilities here and I was impatient to see those come too fruition.  Little did I know these characters have already appeared in several strips from John, which I found on his website.  Brilliant.  After reading them and coming back to this story I had a new appreciation and found it even funnier than the first time around, so I highly recommend you do the same.

Over its 44 full-sized pages, Splank! #1 contains 15 different strips in all, ranging from Nigel Parkinson's private detective called Dresden Q. Otherside, Defective Detective who has all the skills necessary except common sense, to Irish leprechaun Sheena Shenanigans, or how about an actual adventure strip up haunted chimneys in the intriguing story of the beautifully drawn Johnny in the Stacks.  Splank! really does have it all.  In fact out of all of this content there was only one I'd say was average, about a boy called Mouse who can use computer commands in real life.  It starts out like a neat update of strips like Chalky from Cor!!, but he ends up "copy and paste"-ing anything he wishes, including shop stock (theft), or even money (fraud).  Personally it just didn't sit well with me and kind of sticks out as an oddity in a family comic, the art also feeling a bit flat compared to the rest of the issue.  But an anthology comic is never going to hit the spot with every strip for every reader and this is just my own personal opinion.

But one average strip out of 15, with the rest ranging between good and excellent is a stunning achievement and let's finish on another highlight, called Spookytown.  Remember the classic strip Strange Hill from Tom Paterson?  Well this could easily be its (watch out, pun approaching) spiritual ancestor, featuring the daughter of Van Helsing who ends up befriending the kids of all the monsters her famous father banished many years ago to the secretive Spookytown.


This is another faultless creation of Glenn Matchett's mind and is beautifully illustrated by Dave (Beano/Dandy) Windlett too, who has brought a lovely Saturday morning cartoon vibe to it.  The last panel of the strip has Victoria Van Helsing stating her life is about to get very complicated, with her father unaware of her new friends.  I do hope that's the case because I want to see more of this set up.  It just feels like the perfect strip to showcase what Splank! is all about and upon reading it I was reminded of many, many happy Saturday mornings with my Big Comic Fortnightly and Funny Fortnightly comics.  I was swept up in a wave of nostalgia with a brand new character, a brand new setting and a brand new story.  How is that possible?  I don't know, but they managed it and I might go as far as to say these were probably the most enjoyable four pages of an incredibly enjoyable comic.

There's more strips here too, as well as a preview of a new comic called The Cthulhu Kids coming this summer from Peter Duncan (does this man ever sleep?) and Andrew Pawley, creator of the GalaXafreaks comic.  Throw into the mix a spoof article along the lines of that April Fools, about the "original" Splank! and another supposedly forgotten comic and you've got one complete package that just screams quality.  And laughs.

Peter states in his editorial that he's as excited about Splank! now as he was about those trio of Power Comics as a kid.  So should you be.


So how do you get your hands on it I hear you shout impatiently.  Well you can check out the website or if you just want to dive right in (and rightly so) you can order it up for only £7.00 including all postage and packaging via PayPal and this very address: Splank@Boxofrainmag.co.uk.

Outside the UK?  Peter's got ya covered.  The price for the Republic of Ireland and Europe is £9.45, USA and Canada is £10.45 and Australia is £10.75.  Again, all prices include postage and packaging.  If you live anywhere else in the world (hey, you could be reading from Uncle Pigg's tropical island after all) I'm sure Peter wouldn't mind you contacting him through his website.

Get to it folks, don't keep a grumpy penguin waiting!

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

SECTOR 13 #3: LIFE BEGINS AT 40 (PAGES)


One year ago I met Peter Duncan and Mark (W.D. McQuaid) McCann at the Enniskillen Comic Fest and picked up the first issue of Sector 13, a brand new full-sized comic created by a talented group of 2000AD fans.  24 glossy pages full of great strips led on to 36 such pages in #2 last November and now they've rounded that number off at 40 pages for their next issue which was just released last weekend, again at Enniskillen.  A recoloured, slicker logo and a darker tone overall than the previous two issues but does darker equal better?  Well that's what we're here to find out.

First up, while the team have said before (in an interview here on the blog) Sector 13 isn't a Judge Dredd fanzine/comic, that it's very definitely a more general 2000AD one, this is the third time we've had a Dredd movie-inspired cosplayer on the cover, though I do have to say this is definitely my favourite cover so far and really does make you want to grab it and get stuck in!

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION, DINOSAURS!

The issue starts off with another photo strip set in the world of the aforementioned movie and it's bigger in scope than any of their previous stories.  Do you Remember, written by Laurence McKenna and Peter (Splank!) Duncan, with Laurence on art droid duties, takes place over two different points in time and jumps back and forth to tease the reader with the reasoning behind the action of the Judge at the centre of the story.

It's a basic revenge plot but the way it's told adds intrigue and the only real downside this time around is that the artwork on top of the photos, as well as their layouts, don't seem to be quite as exciting as the team is capable of.  There's some really neat touches, like the military-esque craft added in the panels below and the last page is just brilliantly done and looks fantastic, but of course I can't show that and ruin the end of the story.  But overall it seems to lack a bit of the gloss and animated feel previous chapters have brought, but it's not a mood spoiler.


Previously I've talked about how I felt the use of bad language in the comic detracted from the quality of the writing.  I won't bore you with it all over again but you can read what I was wittering on about in the write-up for #2.  I'm happy to say the rest of this issue doesn't use any at all and feels all the more mature for it.  However this Mega City One tale goes overboard with it.  Yes, it's 'bleeped' out, with only the first and last letter of each instance visible, and I know it's set in the world of the '18'-certificate movie, but it still feels out of place in the comic adaptation of that world to me.

The next strip is written and drawn by John Farrelly, another returning member of the team and I have to say the artwork here is just sublime.  This really could be in a professional comic available on the newsstands and the dinosaurs in particular are fantastic.  They wouldn't look out of place in something as high profile as a new Jurassic Park comic!  Seriously, they are that good.


Flesh Alpha Male is based on the Flesh series from very early issues of 2000AD, set in a future where humans have exhausted their animal resources and are forced to travel back to the age of the dinosaurs and hunt them for food.  We were very much not the good guys in trying to dominate these creatures, the human characters often getting eaten and the large companies coming a cropper, with the moral of the stories being that you don't mess with nature.

This is where a bit of confusion comes into play here.  In Alpha Male I found myself rooting for the Tyrannosaur and I hated the main character, Earl Reagan, waiting for him to get his comeuppance.  But it doesn't happen.  I won't ruin the ending for you but by the end I felt sorry for the T-rex and annoyed with the outcome for the Reagan character.  If it were to continue on as a series we may see him get what really should happen to him, but as a one-off complete story I'm not 100% sure the writer got the true meaning behind those classic stories.  Shame, as up until that final page this was an excellent strip and that artwork is still stunning.

UPDATE: John very kindly commented on this post and I thought I'd reprint it here in the actual write-up:

"Hi Phil, thank you for your review about the Flesh story I did for Sector 13.  It was nice to hear my art was appreciated.  Just wanted to clarify something though - I do get the premise of the original Flesh story.  I know it was an ecological fable where man was pitted against nature and the 22nd century cowboys were often portrayed as the bad guys.  I just wanted to do a character study set in that milieu and to make the point that Earl Reagan - a mixture of John Wayne and Jack Pallance's character Curly from City Slickers - was so tough that he was capable of making a T-rex cry!  This showed the young guy who was dissing him that he was not one to be crossed.  That's all - no judgement to be passed upon him, just that he's one tough son of a bitch.  You'd have to be, to herd dinosaurs!  It's not a continuing series, though I am working on a Harlem Heroes prequel called Giant: Feat of Clay for Zarjaz.  It's a six-parter and it should be in Zarjaz throughout 2019.  Thanks again for taking on Sector 13." - John Farrelly

Thanks so much for commenting John, it's very much appreciated.  There you go folks, straight from the mouth of the writer/artist himself.  So those reactions I had feeling sorry for the T-rex were all part of the experience and my reaction to the Earl character would be a natural thing for me given how John conceived him.  Superb stuff.  Another reason to pick this issue up!  Oh and John, loving your work on Splank! too, which I'm finishing the write-up to right now.

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY


Last issue one of the highlights was Ragnarok and here we find a surprising sequel strip written again by Peter Duncan, with artwork by Simon McKnight who contributed his own stunningly drawn 2-page strip last time.  Here his work is spread over 7 pages instead and he rises to the occasion admirably.  Set in the same timeline as the original story, we find ourselves back on earth instead of on a space station, where more of the back story is built up with a good deal of tension to boot.  Gloriously atmospheric, it takes place over a long period of time and ends on a cliffhanger which could easily go on to bring these first two episodes together in a thrilling climax, so here's hoping there's more from this world in future issues.

You can see above an example of Ashman Ragnarok II's superb panels; the writing, artwork and even the novel captions all coming together in perfect harmony to create something truly excellent.  A real highlight of the issue and the time and dedication put into Simon's artwork can't be overstated, though it's high standard does then highlight a couple of shortcomings in other strips.


Terminal Apotheosis is written by W.D. McQuaid, drawn by Patrick Brown and is an interesting tale about the Dark Judges and, while the ending has some dialogue which just seems very unlike anything Judge Death would say, it's a great wee story and one which shows just how desperate things can get when the Mega City's Justice Department finds itself up against these particular villains from another dimension.  Add in the fact this follows their attack from the point of view of a rookie and it's even more chaotic.  Trying to find reason and understanding where there is none, overacting and making rookie mistakes all add up to an inevitable conclusion.  Her journey is an excellent read and just look at that panel above of a Judge's Lawgiver exploding!

It's a spectacular image but unfortunately it's the exception rather than the rule, with the rest of the 5-page story looking decidedly rushed.  In another story, There Was This Irishman (written by Alan Holloway with art by Jawine Westland) I'm still not exactly sure what happens as it's just not clear from what we see.  It's only two pages and on the second one I still don't know what the fourth panel actually is.  After the sublime artwork from Jawine in #2's first Ragnarok chapter I'm really surprised that this one fell short.

FINISHING ON A HIGH

Travelling Companion, written by Glenn Matchett with art by Damien Duncan looks and feels like a classic Future Shock, the likes of which could easily have been published in 2000AD itself.  The set up on the first page will immediately ring alarm bells for any seasoned reader of Tharg's.


You know the phrase "Seems too good to be true"?  Well that perfectly sums up the plot of this great 4-page story with the above leading on to, naturally, a bad accident in which there are many casualties.  We stick with one survivor, who is pinned down and unable to move, fearing for his life.  He's in communication with someone via an audio link, who tries to keep him positive and alive long enough to be pulled from the wreckage.  While I found the juxtaposition between reality and what the company portrays and how they can get away with it more interesting than the actual final panel twist, it's still a good little story and I look forward to reading more from the imagination of Matchett, hopefully teamed up again with the talented Duncan.

A 1-page Strontium Mog spoof strip written by W.D. McQuaid with art by Scott Twells rounds off the issue, with the final page count being filled out with an editorial, a page of photos of the contributors' regular meetings in their regular Belfast pub and a few adverts for future fan creations.  So how does it stack up altogether?

JUDGEMENT

I will say that while this is the weakest of the three issues so far, that's just a testament to the quality of the previous two!  This is still a worthy read and for anyone who is either a fan of 2000AD or just wants some original, compulsive storytelling this is a must buy.  The positives vastly outweigh any negatives and it's a glossy ball of great local talent, a brilliant showcase as always.  Hopefully next time any rough edges can be ironed out a bit more so that once again it'll be right up there with #1 and #2.

In the meantime it's a third unmissable treat from a truly dedicated team of talented individuals!

SNAP IT UP

#3 of Sector 13 is available now priced £7.00 for UK readers including postage costs, £9.45 for the rest of Ireland, or you can grab all three issues for a combined price of £16.70, £20.00 for the Republic.  PayPal details and international costs are available on Peter Duncan's website.

#1 and #2 are also now available with brand new cartoon covers by Andrew Pawley and Cat Byrne respectively, both with a new logo layout so I can only assume #3 will also get the 'second cover' treatment at some point since it's still the older style.  #1 also contains a new strip by Peter and Davy Francis explaining the first print run's cover spelling mistake.


If you're still on Facebook you can search for Sector 13 for the group there, or they're also on Instagram as @sector13_the_fanzine and the group have their own blog too at Sector House 13.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

SPLANK!: 'CLOAK'-ED IN MYSTERY


What's this?  It looks like a classic comic doesn't it?  Like one of the funnies many grew up with in the 70s and 80s and perhaps it's one more from my childhood I've just remembered buying an issue or two of.  Well, check out that date.  That's right, this is a brand new comic.  So brand sp(l)anking new in fact that it received its premiere at the Enniskillen Comic Fest over the weekend.  It's the brainchild of Peter Duncan, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at the Comic Fest last year, then again with the Sector 13 team to discuss the creation of #2, the 2000AD fanzine produced here in Belfast which Peter also works on.

Editor (and Grumpy Penguin) Peter at the Enniskillen Comic Fest 2017

I bumped into Peter while walking the grounds of Enniskillen Castle last year where the con was set, and he recognised me from this very blog.  The Oink! Book 1988 I was carrying was a bit of a giveaway.  We stood and chatted at length about Oink!, Judge Dredd, Sector 13 and classic comics, before he showed me some preview pages of Splank!, a new comic he was working on himself.  Straight away I was impressed with the quality of the work and the names he'd managed to attract as contributors.

Growing up, Peter was a huge fan of the trio of 'Power Comics', that is Wham!, Pow! and Smash! and his favourite strip was by far Mike Higgs' The Cloak, a spoof spy adventure strip.  Commissioning a strip by Mike which featured both The Cloak and Peter's own alter ego The Grumpy Penguin for himself personally, it led to Peter thinking about creating an actual modern day version of those trio of classic titles.  It all began with an April Fools Day post on his blog back in 2016 about a "forgotten" comic called 'Splank' from the 1960s and from there the project just grew and grew.


I hope fellow pig pals recognise the top-right panel's style, it being from the pen of Davy Francis!  That's right, Cowpat Count and Greedy Gorb creator Davy has contributed a full page to the comic and you may recognise the character there too.  If not, go back up and read this post from the beginning.

Davy isn't alone obviously and the talent gathered for this comic is simply spectacular!  As well as some stunning work from local Northern Ireland cartoonists, expect to see strips from the likes of Mike Higgs himself, Nigel Parkinson and fellow pig pal Marc Jackson who has featured on the blog before and has the honour of the cover strip to Splank!

Expect to see a full write-up later this week, but first up will be the highly anticipated third issue of Sector 13!  What a great time for new content, showcasing the very best from Northern Ireland!

In the meantime you can also check out Peter's website for news on all his projects, including Splank! and I'll be back to speak to you real, real soon.

Monday, 14 May 2018

G.I. JOE #250(!): JUMPING BACK INTO THE PIT



First up, not only is this a brilliant idea from IDW Publishing to continue the 80s/90s Marvel series of comics (IDW has their own reboot series plus this continuation, which started in 2010 with #156) but it's also refreshing to see an ongoing series that doesn't feel the need to reset to a "first issue" every other month.  Call me old fashioned.  IDW's own Transformers comics started like this but after a few years went the way of having various interlinking titles instead of one long ongoing series.  Ghostbusters Answer the Call also seems like its going to be various mini-series too, rather than one comic with different stories which is a shame, but it's great to see G.I. Joe sticking to its guns (pun very much intended).  While back at the time of the original comic both this and Transformers from Marvel had a couple of special series, those were to compliment the main run and they did the job really well so I'm happy to see IDW following that lead here.

This milestone 250th issue is actually part five of the Dawn of the Arashikage story which focuses on the new Snake Eyes, a gifted high-school athlete by the name of Dawn Moreno.  I was gutted to discover the original Snake had died at some point in the story, as he was a favourite character of mine in the original Transformers UK comic's backup strip; even though he couldn't talk the writers and artists had a brilliant knack of embodying him with so much character.  But that was always one of the great things about those classic stories for both the GIs and the Transformers, knowing anyone could die at any time and no one was safe (unlike the cartoon versions of both) added to the tension and drama.


Time does indeed move on and why shouldn't a new Snake Eyes be female?  I was already excited for this new development and the way this has been set up is intriguing and very original.  Dawn's unique physical abilities made her a target for Cobra Commander, who forced her through intense experiments to see if she'd be of any use to him.  However, one of Dr. Mindbender's experiments saw him accidentally implant Snake Eyes' memories into her fragile teenage mind, pushing her psychological limits and resulting in her going on the run.  Struggling against visions from his past, Dawn gained assistance from the Arashikage Clan of the title, Snake Eyes' ninja comrades, and soon found herself up against Cobra's Firefly.  But that fight ended with him fleeing instead of facing defeat against this newly awakened ninja foe and so this is where I found myself at the start of #250, my first issue.


The catch-up on the editorial page was in-depth enough I felt I was on top of everything and I ended up really enjoying this snippet into the creation of this new character.  There were a couple of surprises along the way with certain Cobra characters working alongside the Joes, which has only heightened my desire to read up on the complete original series through the graphic novel collections.  For now though this tale plays out as one long action sequence on top of a moving express train in a Japanese city, but don't be thinking this means it's light on characterisation.  Alongside some quick wit and tense dialogue there's a flashback belonging to the original Snake Eyes, referred to as an example of him remembering.  This idea of Dawn's mind being home to those memories is fascinating and I'm just sad I didn't get to see more of these by missing out on the first four episodes.


Despite the fact I'm only reading the final chapter there appears to be real character development in the 24 pages of strip on display here, so I can only imagine how gripping the full story was.  For now anyway.  I'll get caught up!  Original writer Larry Hama hasn't lost any of his brilliance for great storytelling and just like when I re-read those 80s/90s instalments about a decade ago it's hard to believe this is a series based on a toy licence.  Netho Diaz and his team of inkers bring a real grittiness to the proceedings, embodying Dawn with a real sense of presence here even with her face covered by a familiar looking mask.  The same goes for Storm Shadow and Firefly, the latter of which you can see below in a particularly tense moment in the action aboard the speeding carriage.


There's a whiff of Herb Trimbe in the artwork, the original main artist of the series who has guest-drawn for this continuation before now.  Whether this familiarity is deliberate on the part of Diaz or not, or whether the artists were chosen by IDW for this reason I'm not sure, but either way it's a perfect fit. There's few non-action scenes in this issue but that's to be expected given the circumstances, but the quieter moments we do get have some wonderfully deep and satisfying dialogue, such as when Dawn finds herself on the Huey helicopter surrounded by her new teammates for the first time.  The art in this scene is just as rewarding, a golden colour edging its way over the characters very subtly, until we get a simply gorgeous final panel showing the sunset and lens flare glittering over the chopper and the city.  Kudos to colourist Milen Parvonov in particular there.

While this is the final part of a story I felt it was a great jumping on point.  As with the lengthy Transformers UK series, or in an even bigger way with 2000AD, it's fun to be part of a milestone issue such as this.  The few extra pages of strip really seem to have given the team time to flesh out the players here enough for me to care about the outcome of a story I wasn't previously privy to.  In fact the only criticism I could level at this issue is the fact it was billed as a bumper sized issue on IDW's website, yet it's only 8 pages bigger and half of that is just extra adverts.

But that's neither here nor there, because since I bought this issue I've now purchased and read the next and I can say with certainty I'm here for the foreseeable future.  Unlike other comics titles I've read in the past, or movies based on such properties, this final act of an epic tale didn't sacrifice story and character content for action and that meant the world to me.  I didn't think I'd be able to tell if I'd be on board until I read some new stories from their beginning, but #250 of A Real American Hero really did prove me wrong.

If you can track it down by ordering it from your comics store make sure you do.  A little bit of comics history and, for this blog anyway, the start of a bright future.