Two of the three comics I’m reviewing this month are from last year’s Melksham Comic Con – the next of which is taking place in a fortnight. It’s a wonderfully passionate little convention and Geoffery Crescent and I will be there with The Psychedelic Journal.
Edited by Richmond Clements & Bolt-01
The twentieth issue of the superlative small press fanzine from (the last?) Bristol Convention in May 2014. As always, like its inspiration, it is a varied anthology – it’s A5, black and white and lettered ably throughout (unless otherwise stated) by editor Dave “Bolt-01” Evans.
Cover – Mick Cassidy
The wraparound normally by a bona fide droid is this time by Family Guy character designer Mick Cassidy/blackmocco. I gather this was due to a sudden schedule change and so Cassidy was brought in at very short notice. This is not at all evident as the Bad Company image on show here is one the strongest and boldest in the fanzine’s formidable catalogue. The design is brilliant, the colouring edible – I’m a huge fan of massively close-up faces and Kano’s morose mug here is an absolute winner. With covers like this Cassidy should not only be a regular fanzine fixture but a genuine 2000AD one as well.
Bad Company – From Mud to Murder (Shaun Avery & David Broughton)
I’ve (heretically) not read Bad Company for many moons so the narrative-bustin’ significance of this story is partially lost on me. The pacing is strong though and the ending is an absolute belter. Worthy of first-story placement and cover coverage. Broughton’s black and white art won my heart long ago and this small press titan’s strengths are discussed at length in my review for Martillo (see link below). Here he is on top form – his intricate dense lined shadows are a particular favourite.
Judge Dredd – Dead Soldiers (Karl Stock & Tom Bonin)
This creepy tale of a forgotten Cold War bunker has a healthy chunk of exposition and a brisk pace but the logical holes are a little too large to prevent this from being a classic but a solid ending and some stellar simplistically effortless yet engagingly gritty artwork from Australian Tom Bonin helps this from becoming entirely forgettable.
Downlode Tales – Sewer Side (Tom Proudfoot & George Coleman)
Downlode Tales are not the most exciting thrill to draw from in the 2000AD canon but this brisk and action-packed tale from beneath the streets of Mother ‘Lode is elevated to ‘highlight of the issue’ status by the breathtaking artwork of George Coleman, a small press mainstay and serious eye-popping sequential talent of the highest order. Completely stunning, has to be seen to be believed.
Judge Dredd – Collector’s Market (Lee Robson & Stephen Downey)
A gruesome tale of collectors-gone-too-far that’s surely more than a sly wink to us NERDS. Possibly the strongest illustration in the issue from the formidable Stephen Downey of Jennifer Wilde fame – all tasty washes of tone and nicely physical brushes. There’s not a weak panel here. For the small press this is truly superlative stuff.
Mongrol – Handful of Smush (Mark Hobby & James Newell – lettered by the artist)
A tale of Mongrol that fills in a tiny continuity gap in Mongrol’s history that wasn’t necessarily keeping me awake at night and that doesn’t particularly inspire great narrative leaps as the beginning and end are already known to the reader but is nevertheless quite a lark and a nice Zarjaz appearance from Job Dun writer Mark Hobby (for whom Bolt-01 also letters).
The art by James Newell is gobsmackingly dense with oodles of minuscule detail that is engrossing but quite indecipherable in the A5 format. Newell’s work is astonishing though and if he could harness his stamina for energy into narrative clarity he’d be a prog shoe-in.
Tales of Mega-City One – Megway Blues (Umar Ditta & Nathan Webb)
A hallucinatory meg-based road and ‘splosions caper from Umar Ditta that functions perfectly well and builds well to a solid finale. The art by Webb is more energetic than I’ve previously seen him but still rather inconsistent. A near-copy of Frazer Irving’s Judge Death visible in the background of one panel is quite jarring.
M.A.C.H. 1 – Mach of Lies (Mark Howard & Matt Herbert)
An example of a tale slotted into a continuity gap that actually adds some intrigue to the original story – which is tremendously welcome. I love M.A.C.H. 1 and the Comp-banter is spot on here – the story fast and thrilling. A close contender for cover-story perhaps – and a strong second favourite in the issue as a whole. Herbert’s artwork is, as-ever, nicely muted and more action-oriented than I’ve seen him before, and although he’s not exactly a style-match for M.A.C.H. ‘s 70s Spanish roster it works tremendously well and makes me yearn for another tale of our favourite compu-puncture hyperpowered man from this team.
• This and all the latest issues of Zarjaz – Issue 24 – are available from the Futurequake Press online store
• For the latest news on Zarjaz, check out the titles’ blog at: http://thequaequamblog.blogspot.co.uk (also home to the Strontium Dog-inspired title Dogbreath)
Afterlife Inc. Volume 3: Lifeblood
Jon Lock & Ash Jackson
Jon Lock’s Afterlife Inc series hits its third softcover installment – and despite the gap between my readings of the first two, a plunge back into the world of Jack Fortune and the Empyrean is both rewarding and refreshing. Fellow small press dervish Nich Angell’s introduction describes a feeling of “pure excitement” on reading and really it’s hard to top that as a description. There’s a giddy breathless enthusiasm to Lifeblood that’s both infectious and awe-inspiring. The world is almost instantly and brilliantly smashed apart – and you get a real sense of a creator having a hell of a time with toys of his own making. It’s very rare in the small press to have this manner of longform beginning-middle-end stories present in vibrant and imaginative universes and the sheer heady joy of the whole thing is an impressive and enviable achievement. Believe the hype!
Ash Jackson’s artwork is as versatile as it is variable – flexible and cartoony it has a kinetic animation type feel that flows tremendously well. Jackson can move between action sequences and large show-stopper style flash panels with tremendous ease and despite the occasional anatomical awkwardness or likeness slippage he’s an understandable and excellent choice for the story. The artwork is marvellously held together by the inks and colouring of Nathan and Taz Ashworth (possibly ‘the colouring assistant’ credit applied to Taz is for flatting services but a good flatter is always worth mentioning!) – the colouring throughout is tremendous – the glowing greens and blues look gorgeous and the rich sunrise that bathes the final scene is really very impressive. The lettering is by the exceptional Mike Stock – one of my favourite small press letterers and his excellently integrated SFX are a joy to behold.
Lifeblood is another Afterlife Inc triumph – and read with the earlier stories in one go (in the enormous and glorious white hardback “Book of Life” for example) it forms one of the best creator-owned achievements in small press comics. The mind boggles at where it could all lead.
• Afterlife Inc. and other Big Punch publications are available at: www.comicsy.co.uk/members/bigpunch
Dead Roots – The Anthology
Edited by Mike Garley
I was aware of the Kickstarter for this way back in 2013 – and finally got a chance to purchase the full volume at the Melksham comic convention a year ago. It’s a beast of a thing – a big black chunky volume, sixty-odd contributors – a zombie themed anthology. Boy, do I love a themed anthology. It’s a bit of a struggle managing twenty or so people in this way so full credit to editor Mike Garley for putting out a volume of singular stylish consistency.
It’s an anthology – so not everything sticks but pretty much all of it is memorable in some way. A hell of an achievement and a definite worthwhile purchase in the canon of themed anthologies. The lettering for all stories is done (unless otherwise stated) by the brilliant Mike Stock.
Head of State (Ned Hartley & Gavin Mitchell)
The first story of the issue is the single most high-profile incident of Dead Roots‘ zombie apocalypse and gets a pleasing recurring mention in other stories in the issue. Ole’ Cameron has been bit… and a terse claustrophobic tale unfolds. Mitchell is no stranger to zombies (see Stiffs) and his charismatically comic artwork makes this bitingly (whoops – first zombie pun) funny story a great starter for the anthology.
Consumed (Jason Arnopp & Sarah Gordon)
Matters become more domestic here as a bereaved couple seek solace from a medium. Gordon’s graceful artwork and nicely subdued palette are grand but the tale is a tonally confused one – not quite managing the balance between darkness and flashes of silly humour.
Noteworthy (Jody Houser & Jack Tempest – lettered by the artist)
A pleasant two-pager that sees the Zombpocalypse from a fresh little perspective. Something that’s always nice to see in themed anthologies – Tempest’s lovely delicate artwork is the first in the anthology to play with monochrome which it does very nicely.
Monster (Tim Clague & Conor Boyle – lettered by the artist)
A multi-part story split up throughout the issue. An isolated doctor tries desperately to find a cure… it’s a soul-searching strip that’s quite melancholic and very effective thanks to the extremely suitable Boyle’s washed-out sombre artwork and “torn notepaper” lettering. However with this and especially the other multiple parter I think it would benefit in the single omnibus volume to fuse them together as the other longer form stories function well as a solid chunk and the division of “Monster” particularly created a long build-up that left its subtly unsettling final panel feeling a little anti-climactic.
The Conversation (Mike Garley, Wynn Ryder & Andrew Richmond – lettered by ?Rider)
Similarly, this bafflingly split-up two pager loses some of its narrative strength in the division – Wynn Ryder’s blocky bold artwork combined with Andrew Richmond’s bold colours reminds me of the legendary Shaky Kane and lends this short sad tale – split between a surgeon and a boss’s lifestyle – a vibrant nineties air that’s very appealing.
Boxes (Samuel Read & Leonie O’Moore)
A zombie outbreak at a mortuary. There’s a bit of time-skipping in the narrative which may have been employed to make it seem less linear that it is. It doesn’t though – and I think in Boxes we unfortunately have the weakest story in the anthology for me. Alongside O’Moore’s nicely physical but statically awkward artwork the tale is a brief blip in the largely consistent Dead Roots.
One of the boldest and most brilliant stories in the anthology. Typo is the tale of an indifferent and destructive mother looking to reconcile with her daughter during the Zombpocalypse. It’s an effective character piece and the final twist is expertly done and stunning. Tempest’s art is intricate and beautiful – reminding me slightly of children’s laureate Chris Riddell. Ashworth – whose colouring I adore – is on top form here and the play of monochrome and full colour for the time difference is deeply effective. I’d gladly welcome a longer story from this creative team! Give them a graphic novel!
@Zombify (Paul Alexander & Martin Simmonds)
A smart and slick ‘nerd do well’ story about Zed Fry’s twitter interactions during the zombpocalypse – briskly paced and pop-cultury without being heavy-handed and it has a genuinely very uplifting ending which is rare in the zombgenre. I’ve previously raved about Simmonds’ art and here it is no different than how I’ve seen it before – beautifully painted, absorbingly realistic and easily on par with some of the top-tier digital painters working in mainstream comics today. A talent beyond measure.
The Carers (William Salmon, Rachael Stott & Nathan Ashworth)
A very sombre story of a retirement home caught up in Zombpocalypse. It’s frustratingly linear without much of an ending but the nicely detailed art from Stott and mournful washed-out tones of Ashworth lend it a genuinely atmospheric and sombre atmosphere that pulls it into memorability.
Duty Bound (Chris Rowson, Joe Ward, Tom Parrish & Nathan Ashworth)
A hard-edged soldier standing his ground. A gritty tale that feels a little longer than its three pages but isn’t well served by the solid but cartoony linework (although Ashworth’s colouring is brilliant). A nice story albeit with a fairly unremarkable conclusion.
The Job (Mark Cowling, Gary Crutchley & Nathan Ashworth – lettering by ?Gary Crutchley)
A heist goes wrong. ZOMBIEWRONG. Again, this is a case of a fairly linear tale that repeats the beginning at the ending in an attempt to combat its straightforwardness. The art is also quite inconsistent and Ashworth’s largely-grey palette turns the tale from gritty to unfortunately slightly bland.
Repeat Business (Doimonic Evans, Mike Bunt & Nathan Ashworth)
This tale of an existentially troubled fella who may or may not be a contract killer (or is just addicted to murdering) is a rare example of complete tonal disparity between Dead Roots collaborators. Whereas in other hands the story might have a creeping (albeit vague) uneasiness to it – Bunt’s hugely variable cartoonish art (especially on the two stylised female victims who can’t seem to retain the same face for any one panel) turns it into a queasy cheesecake murder fest. Ashworth’s subtle palette only forces this into sharp relief, pushing Bunt’s cartoony-ness away from pulp and into po-faced awkward exploitation. All three creators are mismatched here and it’s easily one of the least likeable efforts in the book. A serious shame.
The Problem With Longing (Kimberley Newey & R H Stewart)
Visually an incredibly impressive story – with a palpably physical collage-style approach that wouldn’t look out of place in a 90s Vertigo book. The script (ostensibly about a dancer) seems at first like it would be more at home in a more underground comic than here, being as it is more metaphorical than strictly narrative but… it has something. The combination of the art and words turns the baffling into the haunting and it works very well in the anthology format. Not for me particularly – but I’d not have Dead Roots without it.
Saving the World (David Scullion & Si Clark)
A rather straightforward two-pager about skydiving (spoiler: into zombies) that could have been much shorter even but the grim and densely textured-yet-also-cartoony artwork of Clark is a real draw here. At times awkward and undynamic but gloriously coloured.
Wheels (Paul Alexander & Sally Jane Thompson)
One of the best stories in the anthology – a poignant and very human tale that unfolds with tremendous precision and leaves a genuine lasting feeling. Thompson’s thick-lined and subtly-coloured art is a slice of pure underground magic. A Dead Roots masterpiece.
Relentless (Damien McKeating & Michael Lee-Graham – lettering n/a)
This silent and almost entirely kinetic POV zombtale must have been baffling as a script – but Lee-Graham does it such breathless justice. The art is loose but hugely effective as a vibrantly coloured living family is pursued by a monochromatic zombie. Here I think the linearity is perfectly pitched – the pursuit is endless. An utterly top-tier bit of graphic storytelling.
Siege (James Henry & Kathryn Layno)
A besieged family stand defiant in their corner shop. A sturdy tale of rare positivity rendered beautifully by the delicate lines and warm palette of Layno. The panels are maybe a little sparse at times but (perhaps overthinking it) I took it as a reflection of the deceptively simple but potent dynamic of the situation. Either way – the colouring alone is bloody marvellous.
Game On (Daniel Clifford, Joe Ward, Mike Bunt & Nathan Ashworth)
A directionless gamer guy facing the zombpocalypse. It’s quite a downer of a story and works well in the same book as “@Zombify” – the twist in the tale is well served well by the solid collaboration of Ward & Bunt and although it works well enough this is Ashworth’s third story in “washed-out sepia” mode and is a bit much given what he’s capable of. Although…
A Mother’s Love (Ailsa Scott, Patrick Walsh & Nathan Ashworth)
An effectively tragic story with a nicely weighted ending here. Walsh’s art is a little sketchy but works well enough – Ashworth appears to have gone full saturation which is comparatively a little jarring, I kept having to double-check it was the same colourist. I wonder what order these stories were completed?
The Easy Way Out (Paul Kane, Jack Tempest & Nathan Ashworth)
A simple one pager that feels like it should have more to it – the ending is strangely framed and doesn’t quite work as a cliffhanger. Or even an ending. Tempest’s art is beautiful as always – with some lovely soft greytones from Ashworth.
Underground (Jon Lock & R H Stewart)
Things go to shit on the subway. An effective use of the “end at the beginning” formula here – a stunningly atmospheric story and I only noticed on re-reading that this is the same Stewart who drew the abstract “The Problem With Longing” here coming out with a narratively sound bit of sequential brilliance – thin etched lines daubed in heavy textures and a muted palette that sells the claustrophobia and grimness of the tale. Really very good.
‘Til Death (K. Lehane & D. Beattie)
A yarn with an obvious ending but a solid and fun three pages made deeply enjoyable by the singular art of small press maverick Dean Beattie. Excellently stylised and beautifully coloured, it has the demented feel of a kids book gone bad and it suits the story perfectly.
Hide & Seek (Bhairavi Patel & Jack Davies)
At first glance, I wasn’t enamoured with the densely-inked bobble-eyed cartoony artwork of Davies here – but it takes on an effective Burtonesque quality when combined with Patel’s dark script focussed on two children during the Zombpocalypse. The spidery handwritten font used for the internal thoughts is a touch unreadable but suits the story well.
War Games (Jody Houser, Eric Canete & Nolan Woodard – Lettering by Jody Houser)
A tremendously slick and solid eight pager about a bereaved girl that’s stunningly well presented. It’s not at all surprising to see that Woodard is a Marvel colourist as the confident lines and beautifully rendered. Quite the coup for the anthology – but nicely placed here as a “mainstream looking” exception rather than as a dull constant.
Force Majeure (David Bishop, Matt Rooke & Josh Sherwell)
A really nice character-based story about two office workers caught up in the Zombpocalypse – it ends effectively but there’s a jarringly heavy-handed pop culture visual gag that threatens to tip the pleasant “realistic” nature of the script overboard. Shame really. With the scratchy (Steve) Parkhousian artwork and nice flat colours of Rooke & Sherwell adding an understated tone the story it’s really close to being brilliant. bilan mitigé.
Eleventh Plague (Darren Ellis, Martin Newman & Nathan Ashworth)
The Zombpocalypse through self-righteous religious eyes. A darkly fascinating angle and well paced – gradually building to a genuinely haunting ending that raises some interesting questions about personal morality. The art by Newman is simple and quite shaky but fits the story well enough, Ashworth is back in washed-out sepia mode (I can’t stop seeing it now) but it works here. An unnerving one.
Blame (Lizzie Boyle & Nathan Ashworth)
A sparsely told story of a lost child returning home – so sparse is this story in fact that there’s no real answers to any of the many of the vague questions raised. The stirrings of the Zombpocalypse in the background is the only definite thing in it and even that could just be a nearby kerfuffle. I genuinely had to re-read it several times to see if I’d missed something. I’m still not entirely sure that I haven’t. Here we also see regular Dead Roots colourist Ashworth’s artwork and it’s a thin slight-manga style that’s a trifle stiff but (needless to say) beautifully coloured.
Black, White and Red (All Over) (Corey Brotherson, Andy W. Clift & Nathan Ashworth)
A veteran journalist barricaded in his office writes one final cynical blog. Another moralising tale like “Eleventh Plague” – the ending on this one was a genuine delight. The lead Carl Mallory is brilliantly realised and I found myself wanting more by the final page. Clift’s art, with the use of focus blurs, feels very much like stills from a flash animation. Coupled with Ashworth in sepia mode I felt like I was seeing a lost Monkey Dust sketch. Not a bad thing at all.
Many Happy Returns (James Moran, Rebecca Morse & Nathan Ashworth)
Two parents deal with the zombification of their son. The dark comedy is strong with this one – and it unfolds with a sick brilliance that is genuinely both disturbing and entertaining. Easily one of the strongest stories in the anthology helped by the utterly superb artwork of Morse whose tremendous design sense and expressive faces are completely fantastic and a joy to read. Ashworth’s colouring undergoes a spellbinding gradual desaturation as the tale darkens. This is Dead Roots firing on all cylinders. Flawlessly executed.
A hard-hearted tabloid journalist gets caught between a rock and ZOMBplace. If you catch my drift. This tale is as grimly British as you can get – the foul-mouthed and amoral Journo facing an undignified end in a grotty council estate. Carter’s art here is profoundly bleak and fits the script like a glove – the colours are oppressively dulled (the zombies are entirely monochrome) and his figures are both realistic and tremendously dynamic. A hell of a story, this one.
The Garage (Andrew Ellard & George Zapata)
A wife laments her husband’s obsessive collecting. This put me in mind of a 2000AD “Terror Tale” and is a brilliantly emotive three pager. Akin to “Wheels”, it is sweetly characterful and plays on the dynamic of couples coping in the Zombpocalypse.
Zapata’s art fits the story very well and has a really nice physicality to it – with an effective use of monochrome and colour. Warm reds and browns for the comforting past – stark grey with jarring halftone dots for the horrifying now. Neatly thought-out, a deceptively clever little story.
Go (Graham McEntee, Jon Scrivens & Josh Sherwell)
An intimate character story about the friendship between a prisoner and a prison guard. The conversation is good and sets the scenario up well, but the ending is a bit of an inevitability, albeit a convincingly melancholy one. The artwork does not help – Scrivens has an awkward and ungainly style that Sherwell’s flat colours fail to elevate. A shame, as this is one of the better character-based stories in the book.
Kickstarter (Mike Garley & Martin Simmonds)
A paramedic surrounded by chaos attempts to save a life – a story that builds excellently into a rousing and superb finale. A vibrant tale and a great end to the anthology. Simmonds art is less polished here than I’ve ever seen it but it suits the story well and even loose and sketchy and with simpler texture-heavy colouring he’s still got a brilliant command of the medium. Would like to see more of him this freehand actually, it’s quite compelling.
There’s a healthy glut of extras in the back of the anthology as well – including the covers for the individual issues by Luke Butland. His angry linework is quite unnerving but the strongest design is the one they chose to front the anthology, a two page ‘atmosphere setting’ comic (by editor Mike Garley and Rebecca Morse – the lettering is weak but Morse’s work is beautifully painted and sets up the monochrome/colour dynamic some of the stories used so well).
There’s also a ‘The Gallery of the Dead’ – nine pin-ups from some anthology artists as well as Nich Angell, Chris Askham, Emily Gilbert & Anna Fitzpatrick – some of the art is inspired by the stories, some not. The highlight for me is a Dean Beattie ‘zombie waiting room’ image that is glorious. (I’D BUY THAT PRINT).
Exhausted Conclusion: BUY DEAD ROOTS – IT’S GOOD.
• Dead Roots is available form: mikegarley.com/store