Comics Review – Phonogram : Rue Britannia

Writer: Kieron Gillen ~ Art: Jamie McKelvie ~ Publisher: Image ~ Year: 2006

Phonogram - Rue Britannia Cover - Jamie McKelvie

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: A low-key but surprisingly engaging urban fantasy that blends mythology with the NME, this characterful comics miniseries takes a wonderfully left-field look at pop music and what it does to us.

The Backstory: Everybody knows about Phonomancy, right? The way you can use music to do magic? One of the simplest tricks in the books. Used correctly, music can do anything, touch on any emotions and unlock all kinds of doors…

What’s it About?: It’s 2006 and David Kohl, Phonomancer and egotist, is having a bad day. A one-night stand has come back to haunt him, and now he’s got a mystery to unravel. Someone is interfering with Britannia – the spiritual godhead of Britpop, dead these past ten years – and both his memory and reality itself are starting to alter and unravel…

The Story: Comics can do anything. You want proof? Look at Phonogram, a brilliantly oddball exploration of music and myth that dances along the edge between fantasy and music journalism without ever quite toppling either way. It’s the kind of work that’d feel too slight or too laboured in any other medium, but sits perfectly in comics, taking you on a quiet and characterful fantasy journey through Britpop. One of the best things about it is simply the way it plays the magic and fantasy as completely matter-of-fact and ordinary – because of course it isn’t about the magic, it’s about pop music, memory, and the way nostalgia can be both a comfort and your worst enemy. The word ‘urban’ springs to mind, and Phonogram is a genuinely urban fantasy that, even four years after being first published, does something fresh and inventive with a sub-genre that’s still mired in werewolf-shagging and winsome vampires.

Phonogram - Internal Art - Jamie McKelviePhonogram is something else altogether – a world of memory kingdoms and rituals, where ghosts are still mourning the absence of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards and whole lives can be defined by the music people listen to. Comparisons have been made to the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer (starring breathlessly cynical magician/bastard John Constantine), and there are definite echoes in the landscape and atmosphere of the comic – but Phonogram has a weirdness and a sense of playfulness all of its own. The whole thing was a labour of love for writer Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Gillen has already said in interviews that thanks to making so little money on Phonogram, the chances of any return visits after the brilliant second volume The Singles Club is unlikely), and making a comic-book voyage through the mythic landscape of Britpop is certainly one of those endeavours that qualifies as heroic. Like all the best music journalism, Phonogram flirts occasionally with pretension and isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s also not afraid of throwing in references or unexpectedly mythic cameos that its audience might not get (there’s a detailed four-page glossary in the back of the book for anyone who didn’t live through the Britpop years), and certainly doesn’t go for attention-grabbing tactics of action, sex or gore. This is a late-night wander of a graphic novel, the kind of story that’ll strike a chord with anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a song or experienced that one grand pop passion that somehow sums up a period of your life.

Phonogram art - Jamie McKelvieIt’s also wickedly funny, with the entertainingly cynical Kohl acting as a brilliantly engaging (and occasionally foul-mouthed) protagonist. Gillen’s characterisation here is top notch, creating a rich cast of characters, especially the ascerbic and spiky Phonomancer Emily Aster, and delivering a whole series of finely crafted one-liners. A comic series that knows it isn’t for everyone (and isn’t trying to be), Rue Britannia is a little rough around the edges, but like all good pop, it’s the flaws and imperfections that make the moments of brilliance worthwhile.

The Art: Printed in black-and-white, Jamie McKelvie’s art style here is deceptively simple – he’s got a very clean-lined approach that’s almost the exact opposite of modern-day superhero comic art. Take a single panel, and it might look a little too simple – but place it in context, and you get a gorgeously easy visual ride that guides you through the story. He’s also brilliant at capturing characters – not many artists can handle making lengthy conversations visually interesting – and gives the whole series an off-beat, expressive and unique atmosphere.

The Verdict: Weird. Wonderful. Verging on essential. An excellent example of the kind of strange and unusual territory comics can explore – and the follow-up, The Singles Club, is even better.

[amtap book:isbn=1582406944]

News: X Marks The Spot (X-Men: First Class – The Photos…)

Following on from the Batman post, we’ve also recently gotten our first proper look at upcoming X-Men prequel X-Men: First Class, charting the beginnings of the rivalry between future baldy Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and master of magnetism – and slightly daft helmets – Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Things have been remarkably quiet on the X-Men: First Class front publicity wise, especially considering it’s out this Sunmer – it’s being directed by Matthew Vaughn, who does have a good eye as a filmmaker (although don’t get me started on Stardust), and does at least seem more promising than the frankly borderline diabolical X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but there’s lots to play for, and these first publicity shots… well, they’re not exactly instilling major confidence, but neither are they absolutely screaming “Disaster”.

x-men first class 1

I mean, let’s be honest – group shots of more than about five actors almost always end up looking cheesy. And it might have been nice if they’d gone for something a little more dynamic than “Let’s get them to put their hands on their hips on an empty black set!” Anyhow, here we have (from left to right) Fassbender as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost (and yes, that costume is completely true to the comics), and Jason Flemyng as the terrifyingly coiffured Azazel, a character of whom I know nothing thanks to the mind-buggering complexity of X-Men chronology and mythology (outside the Chris Claremont and Grant Morrison runs, I’m basically lost).

X-Men First Class 2

And here we have Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Havok (Lucas Till), Angel Aslvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, stepping into the skimpy prosthetics of Rebecca Romjin from the original films) and Charles Xavier himself (McAvoy). The one thing I am liking from these shots is the visual approach they’re going for – they’ve set the film in the Sixties (the original setting of the comics, although it doesn’t fit in with the first film’s chronology in the slightest, with X-Men, made in 2000, being set ‘A few years from now’), and they do seem to have embraced the groovy comics vibe (especially with Emma Frost’s costumes). The management at 20th Century Fox have an extremely bad reputation for micro-managing franchise films and ending up with bland messes (X-Men: The Last Stand being a case in point), and there are a lot of characters here to fit comfortably into one movie (with the sheer number of cast members being a constant problem that only Bryan Singer seemed able to handle). I am going to do my best to remain cautiously optimistic – something that even just got near the quality of X2 would make me extremely happy. Of course, whether I’m still feeling like this once the first trailer hits is a completely different story…

And – literally as I finished writing this post, more photos have just hit the net, via this set report online at Hero Complex:

X-Men First Class Emma Frost Sebastian Shaw

January Jones as Emma Frost looking very… well, very Emma Frost, with a sleazy-as-ever Kevin bacon as Sebastian Shaw. Nobody rocks the sideburns quite like the Bacon.

x-men first class xavier magneto

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto in full “Yes, we are having a friendly chess match, but by the end of the movie we shall be BITTEREST ENEMIES!” mode. And is it wrong that I find the carpet in this shot fascinating?

x-men first class - group shot

And a “Let’s do the show right here!” group shot – I suspect that, at some point in this scene, someone will look at an old building and say “Hey- you know, this would make a brilliant school for the gifted with added underground lair and Thunderbirds-style hatches, don’t you think?”

Okay, moderately more impressed now. But we shall see how this all turns out… (*rubs hands together in suspicion*)


(And as a final addition to this post, here’s the first teaser poster. Because nothing says X-Men like… a whacking great Photoshopped ‘X’.)

X-Men First Class Teaser Poster


Okay – via, it seems like Matthew Vaughn didn’t like those shots either. A couple of helpful quotes:

“I freaked out on them yesterday. I don’t know where the hell that came from. I don’t think it’s a Fox image. It’s not a pre-approved image. When I found out, I said, what the fuck is this shit, and Fox is running around trying to figure out what happened as well. I agree. It’s like a bad photoshop, which maybe it was by someone. It didn’t reflect the movie. I was shocked when I saw it. I was like ‘Jesus Christ’…

“I’m a fan of X-Men We’re not bastardizing X-Men, I’m trying to get them back to being whole again.”

“The costumes are blue and yellow as well, because fuck it, lets take it back it the original. Also, by the way, those costumes are hardly in the movie. The main costumes are like these cool 60’s James Bond…”

Plus, from there, a couple of new pictures:

Magneto X-Men First Class


Xavier X-Men First Class


Comic Review – Casanova : Luxuria

Year: 2010 ~ Writer: Matt Fraction ~ Artist: Gabriel Ba ~ Colours: Cris Peter ~ Publisher: Icon

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba cover

[xrr rating=5/5]

What’s it about?: Casanova Quinn – liar, bad seed and international scoundrel. He’s leading a life of crime, enjoying the hell out of disobeying his father Cornelius Quinn and the forces of E.M.P.I.R.E… but then, he’s abducted out of his own timeline and taken to another. Here, he’s enlisted by his sister Zephr and bandaged villain Newman Xeno to become his own evil twin and destroy E.M.P.I.R.E. from within…

The Story: “How can a bunch of stupid comic books compete with drugs and girls that let you take off their clothes?” It’s a damn good question (asked during the second story in this collection, ‘Pretty Little Policeman’), but if there’s one comic that stands a pretty good chance of competing, it’s the mad, brain-expanding and sinfully sexy Casanova. The brainchild of comics writer Matt Fraction, a man who’s carving out a selection of highly acclaimed stories in the mainstream Marvel universe (including an acclaimed run on The Invincible Iron Man), Casanova is the kind of full-tilt, love-it-or-hate-it, packed-to-the-brim-with-invention story that thumbs its nose at normality, convention and good taste. Instead, what we get is a gorgeously hyper-lurid blend of sci-fi, pop art spy thriller and twisted family saga, as if someone had taken cult sixties adventure Danger Diabolik and mashed it together with Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and a heavy dollop of Grant Morrison-style insanity.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Panel issue 1Originally published back in 2006, Casanova was first issued in smaller-formatted 15 page instalments (and in a simply coloured green/black/white style), and Fraction made every page count by cramming a jaw-dropping level of invention into each one. In the first instalment alone, we get horny fembots, psychic combat, drugged-out sex and a helicopter-driven supercasino – and that’s only in the first twelve pages, shortly before our hero gets torn out of reality and things get really strange. It’s a demanding read, one that hurls concepts at the reader as fast as they can take it, and while the broad ‘Bond on Acid’ style is fun, energetic and wonderfully sexy, the world of Casanova is also a weird, disturbing and downright brutal one. If it isn’t the torture, it’s the nude male wrestling deathmatch. If it isn’t the robot orgies, it’s the worryingly flirtatious nature of the relationship between Casanova and his alternate, not-technicially-in-a-quantum-way-related twin sister Zephr.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Zephr QuinnFraction knows how to mess with our preconceptions, and spins a series of tales that up-end traditional pulp fiction assumptions (especially in ‘Coldheart’, where Casanova investigates a savage island of tribal warriors), twisting the narrative into interesting and mindbending shapes. It’s not just a romp, though – at the heart of Casanova, there’s a dark and troubling story of a tangled family, and what happens when reality collides with comic-book insanity. The sheer level of invention is boggling, and this isn’t a collection that’s easy to take in one sitting, but in today’s world of decompressed comics where whole fight sequences can stretch over multiple issues, a comic as packed full of goodness as Casanova is something to be applauded. Combine that with Fraction’s crackling dialogue and truly demented sense of humour, and you’ve got a turbo-charged dose of craziness that repays multiple re-reads.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba panelThis Icon collection reprints the original series from 2006, but it’s been spruced up with new colouring (creatively done by Cris Peter, and still referencing the green look of the comic’s first outing) and new lettering, along with a selection of fresh extras at the back of the book, including the new 10-page story ‘I Think I Almost Loved Him’, which fills in some of the gaps in the story around the character of the Night Nurse. Also, Icon is currently reprinting in issue format the also-recoloured and never-before-collected second Casanova run Gula, with an all-new Casanova story coming later in the year. Don’t hesitate – get onboard now with one of the most entertaining, challenging and genuinely offbeat comics out there.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Zephr QuinnThe Art: Brazilian artist Gabriel Ba is better known for his work on offbeat fantasy comic The Umbrella Academy, but Casanova was the first work to get him serious mainstream attention, and it’s no surprise – this is stylish, distinctive and wonderfully sexy stuff. Dynamic and graphically interesting throughout, he’s brilliant at laying out pages and grabbing the reader’s attention. He also draws women like nobody else on Earth, managing a style that’s simultaneously over-the-top ludicrous, characterful, and utterly drenched in sultry sexiness (especially when it comes to Zephr Quinn in the ‘Pretty Little Policeman’ carnival sequence). There’s barely a crazed idea Fraction can come up with that Ba can’t pull off, and it all adds up to the kind of characterful and utterly unique comic art that’s easy to get lost in.

The Verdict: Like a particularly demented night out on the town, you may not remember everything that happens by the end of Casanova, but pretty soon you’ll be hungry to go through it all over again. It’s certainly not for everybody, but lovers of the cult, the strange and the sexy should buckle up for this ride as soon as they possibly can.

[amtap book:isbn=0785148620]

Comics Review – Locke and Key : Welcome to Lovecraft

Writer: Joe Hill ~ Art: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2008

Locke and Key - Welcome to Lovecraft Gabriel Rodriguez

[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: The first volume of a major work of dark fantasy from the acclaimed author of Heart-Shaped Box, this is a gripping and superbly crafted comic book (currently being adapted for US television) that will have you genuinely gripped and hungry for more.

What’s it About?: Their father has been brutally murdered. Now, the Locke children and their mother are living in the old family home outside the town of Lovecraft, and trying to piece their lives back together. Problem is, their house has secrets. There are the keys that open doors in weird and magical ways – turning you into a ghost, letting you go anywhere, and many, many others. And there’s monstrous evil lurking in the shadows, waiting for the chance to find the key to the Black Door…

The Story: A piece of advice – if you’re ever looking for a place in the country to recuperate after a devastating personal loss, don’t even think of moving to somewhere called Lovecraft. Of course, the characters in this opening instalment to the dark fantasy saga Locke and Key don’t know their 1930s pulp horror authors, leading to a whole heap of trouble and one of the most distinctive comics of recent years.

What’s most surprising about Locke and Key – especially in this opening six-issue arc – is how it takes incredibly familiar fantasy/horror tropes and makes them feel fresh, new and accessible. Scriptwriter Joe Hill (author of horror novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, and also son of Stephen King) isn’t afraid to use a very traditional setup to tell what turns out as a surprisingly characterful and layered story. Locke and Key is, in many ways, a typical kids adventure story filtered through a brutal, adult perspective – there’s magic and weirdness to be discovered, but at a cost that’s traumatic, often bloody and leaves a difficult aftermath in its wake. The Locke kids each have to deal with their loss in different ways, and the story is just as much about them gradually coming to terms with their father’s death as it is about magically empowered keys. Hill’s characterisation work here is exceptional, giving every character depth and layers, making us care for them while slowly ratcheting the suspense up as the story marches inevitably towards a tense and violent conclusion.

Locke and Key page art - Gabriel RodriguezIt also helps that he’s got a great understanding of how comic storytelling works. Writers best known in other mediums don’t always get comic books, and will often make them over-wordy or rely too much on narrative caption boxes for comfort, but Hill gets the pacing and rhythm of the story exactly right, and also knows the kind of tricks you can pull off with the comics medium – creative flashbacks, juxtaposing scenes, and manipulating time in a number of creative ways. He’s able to be inventive, while keeping the drive of the story going, and the end result is a collection that’s extremely hard not to power through in one sitting.

This isn’t the full story, of course. Welcome to Lovecraft is a scene-setter, a suspenseful curtain-raiser for the slightly more slow-burning but still brilliantly crafted main event, the long-form story that continues through the following volumes Head Games, Crown of Shadows, and Keys to the Kingdom (still being published in issue format). Hill has a big story to tell, and he’s willing to take his time – there are only hints of the bigger picture here, but they’re all intriguing enough to almost guarantee you’ll be hooked by the end of this story. Horror comics very rarely manage to be genuinely scary, but Locke and Key pulls it off thanks to brilliant characterisation, sharp storytelling, and a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Locke and Key - issue cover - Gabriel RodriguezThe Art: Plus, there’s the simply awesome artwork from Gabriel Rodriguez. Showcasing a stunning level of design and detail, Rodriguez has a really interesting visual style that’s almost like a cross between Frank Quitely and Richard Corben, cartoony yet rooted in a very firm and physical sense of realism. The nuances and body language of the characters are all incredibly well portrayed, while he also throws himself into the darker, more horrific material with serious gusto. From full-page splashes to some eerie dream sequences this is great, atmospheric stuff that’s fully supported by some artful and delicate colour work from Jay Fotos. It’s massively impressive, attention-grabbing work – and, amazingly, in comparison to his work on the later volumes, this is just the warm-up act…

The Verdict: An enthralling mix of dark fantasy and horror, this is a characterful and gripping piece of comic-book storytelling that will have you instantly hooked. Yes, there’s a US TV adaptation in the works, but do yourself a favour and get reading the original as soon as is possible.

[amtap book:isbn=1600103847]