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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 70 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: Graphic Novels

29th Jul, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, though I'm not sure my double review of these two books issued by Titan way back in 2013 will quite stretch to the two thousand word mark.

RAZORJACK (Titan Comics hc, 106pp, £14.99) is the brain child of artist John Higgins, who is credited as creator, writer, penciller, and colorist, everything in fact except script, an honour accorded to Mike Carroll (and the small print reveals a few other worthies, but we'll put that to one side). Higgins' back catalogue includes work on Watchmen, Judge Dredd, and Batman, among others.

Razorjack is a female entity ruling over the Twist, "an infernal dimension of molten pain, terror and screaming torment". Only a being known as Lady Helen can resist her. To destroy Lady Helen, Razorjack must come into our world and to do so she needs somebody willing to house her in their body. Charged with preventing such a thing are homicide detectives Ross and Frame (and the latter, post-death, has bonded with Lady Helen), who must tackle the various cults intent on helping Razorjack. So far, so Lovecraftian, with a demonic female entity in lieu of Cthulhu and a spiritual female entity for the Elder Gods, oh and a soupcon of police corruption to move things along, plus echoes of Barker's visionary horror in the Twist.

The storytelling all felt a bit rushed to my mind - one minute Ross is in hospital, then a page later she's back on duty, with no real sense of seguing easily from one scene to another - and with various strands to the tale that feel like a matter of convenience or coincidental. The concepts however grasp the imagination and, even if the pace at times feels a bit frantic, the storytelling and main characters hold the reader's attention. Frame and Ross are larger than life, but only pale shadows of the main baddies, with a wonderful buddy buddy act from men in black Mr. Jones and Mr. Kahn. Best of all are the visuals, with a wonderfully effective muted colour scheme and images that crash out of their panels and almost jump into the reader's head.

There are a couple of bonus stories. 'Deadfall' has Frame as a trans-dimensional detective dealing with a demonic entity, Ross helping out in the end game. Again it's the visuals that compel, with the story in this case nothing more than filler. 'A Glimpse of Summer' is set in feudal Japan and has a female demon carving her way through the country's samurai elite in pursuit of a small band of fugitives. At the end we have a connection with Frame and Ross in the present day. It's a nice piece, like a variation on Terminator as the demon attempts to kill one of Ross' ancestors. Finally the book is rounded out with a series of sketches and finished artwork, showing John Higgins' thought processes and working methods, making this a very attractive package (and a bargain when bought second hand on Amazon).

Contrary to the heading above, MONSTER MASSACRE (Titan Comics/Atomeka Press hc, 160pp, £17.99) is an anthology of graphic stories edited by Dave Elliott rather than a novel. The cover illustration with its depiction of a woman who would make most exotic dancers look overdressed, suggests that this book is pitched at teenage boys whose parental controls forbid them access to genuine porn so they reach out to comics instead. It's an unfortunate choice of illustration as, while some stories share a similar ambience, the majority of the material contained within the covers of this book has a broader, dare one say more adult, appeal.

Opening up the proceedings is a quote from H. P. Lovecraft about the wonders of dreaming, after which we get 'The Angel of Death' by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in which a rural community is menaced by a creature released from a fossil by archaeologists. The idea is hardly original, and probably wasn't even when the story was first published, which judging from the quaint style of artwork was back in the 1960s or earlier. It's a nice touch of nostalgia, looking back to see where we have been, before moving on to other things.

Other things in this case is 'Ira Gershwin Monster Puncher' by Andy Kuhn, which is set in 1930s America and has Gershwin earning money on the side by punching monsters, though of course there's a twist which I suspect everyone will see coming. It's harmless enough, but hardly exciting, with Kuhn's bombastic art style and borderline monochrome colouring the main appeal. 'Pair of Rogues', written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Tom Raney, has a roughly similar narrative schemata, but is set in a fantasy land and with a slightly different twist at the end. As a story it doesn't offer any surprises, but the artwork is delightful, with an ethereal feel to the imagery and vibrant use of colour.

Eponymous muscleman 'Sharky' joins forces with a female iteration of Thor dressed as a porn star on the last lap before the money shot, and the two fight a big, ugly green something for reasons that never really get stated. Editor Dave Elliott's story feels like an episode from something larger, while Alex Horley's artwork takes the worst elements of work by artists like Frazetta and Corben, pushing them all to the foreground and ignoring everything else including practicality in matters of battle costume. There follows a gallery of Horley's paintings, which suggest a greater range than the story implies, though the influence of Frazetta remains obvious and most of the women depicted are body builders in posing pouches.

'Little Monsters' was my favourite story in the book. Set in an idyllic and wonderfully off kilter version of utopia that put me slightly in mind of Le Guin's Omelas, it shows how the perfect life can so easily be undermined through simple lack of forethought. A subtle and pointed story from Ian Edginton, with strikingly different artwork from D'Israeli. From Kendrick Lim we have a one page painting of 'Valkyries', and that's followed by 'El Zombo' in which a selection of musclemen in spandex straining costumes fight assorted monsters, including female warriors in metal bikinis or less, with again the feeling that this story from Dave Wilkins is an episode from something else, and the most interesting feature the comedic banter of the homicidal Mr. Monster.

More interesting is 'Seasons' in which the four elements battle for control of the biosphere, Mark A. Nelson's script carefully worded to capture a sense of monumental actions taking place and a mood of fatality underlying it all, while his black and white visuals convey the feel of classic Irish mythology. From Mike Elliott we have the anthology's one prose offering, 'The Thing in the Surf', which is the most Lovecraftian of what's on show, as a scientist summons a tentacled terror, to borrow from the story's sub-heading. It's okay, but I've read better, and so have you.

'Monkey Business: A Tale of Hitch on the Road' is set in a post zombie apocalypse reality and re-enacts a scene from The Wizard of Oz with a zombie biker in lieu of Dorothy. It's as gleefully oddball as it sounds and the visuals are a delight, with black and white panels effectively ushering us in and out of the full colour action as well as conveying a sense of the transference between worlds, while the splash panels seem to strain against the boundaries of the page with their sheer exuberance and invention. Kudos to Dave Dorman for breathing life into this weird beauty.

'Deep Six' is as close to standard comic book fare as it gets, with deep sea divers encountering a monster on the sea bed and various subplots regarding the plight of an offshore oil rig. Like other stories here it suffered from "part of something bigger" syndrome, with various redundancies of plot and characters wandering in and out of the action for no good reason. The artwork by Jerry Paris and a somewhat restrained Arthur Suydam was more than up to the demands of the story, though there were moments when I felt the panels were a little top heavy with speech bubbles. There follows a 'Steve White Gallery' with some gorgeous black and white and colour illustrations from an artist with an interest in dinosaurs.

'Daikaiju' is set in a Japan menaced by a giant dragon and concerns the quest for a magical weapon to defeat the beast, though the trajectory of the story seems aimed at illustrating a Nietzsche quote (you know the one - about fighting monsters). Vito Delsante provides story and Javier Aranda supplies visuals, but I don't think either will linger in the memory for very long.

Finally we have 'Bandits', a simple tale of a desert ambush, with the delight of the story in the irony of what happens and the striking artwork, which if I had to guess I would have said was down to Arthur Suydam, but was in fact Mark A. Nelson having a second bite of the cherry and showing another side of his considerable talent.

After each work are informative biographies of the relevant creators.

And as a bonus feature, scattered throughout the book are one page paintings of classic monsters, or their most famous counterparts - Boris, Elsa, etc. - by Rex Edwards, evocative portraits that capture the essence of those they portray.

There's a lot to unpack here, and I doubt that anyone will either like or hate all of this book. Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a taster volume, a way to decide which creators and characters you wish to see more from.

Titan issued a follow up anthology in 2014, Monster Massacre Volume 2 and judging from the cover the success of its predecessor meant more money could be allocated to the wardrobe department, though not that much more.

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