Comics Review: The Week in Comics (31/08/11) – Flashpoint #5, Locke and Key: Clockworks #2, Secret Avengers #16, Angel & Faith #1

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Flashpoint 5 cover Andy Kubert Geoff JohnsFLASHPOINT issue 5
Writer: Geoff Johns ~ Artist: Andy Kubert ~ Publisher: DC Comics

Hard as it is to believe, there were other comics than Justice League #1 published this week – like Flashpoint #5, the finale to the timeline-altering crossover miniseries which has never quite managed to be as interesting as all the tie-in Elseworld-style action going on around it. Naturally, it all comes down to family, and Geoff Johns ends the story in a way that will surprise nobody who’s ever seen a ‘Dangers of altering time’ tale, but does at least provide the right levels of colourful melodrama. It’s an average comic that doesn’t really deserve the weight of being the final comic published by DC as part of the ‘regular’ universe (although the big change happens here) – Flashpoint #5 isn’t actually bad, but it also isn’t quite the world-shattering conclusion that we might have expected, even if the often-used promise that ‘things will never be the same again’ does at least seem to be partially true now…

[xrr rating=3/5]

locke and key clockworks issue 2 gabriel rodriguez joe hillLOCKE AND KEY: CLOCKWORKS issue 2
Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artists: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Publisher: IDW Comics

Another Locke and Key issue, another home run, and another example of what’s probably the most consistent and inventive comic currently being published. It’s a kooky, deliriously twisted mix of dark fantasy, emotional drama and outright horror that’s continuing to excel – this is one of the quieter instalments, but one which builds to a powerful finale, as Hill starts pulling all the storytelling strands together. There’s still time for some gorgeous visual moments and off-kilter wit, while one particular revelation arrives a hell of lot sooner than I expected. There’s only ten issues of the overall story left following this, and while I don’t know where Hill is taking the characters, I’m sure it’s going to be (a) traumatic and (b) unmissable.

[xrr rating=5/5]

Secret Avengers 16 cover John Cassady Warren Ellis Jamie McKelvieSECRET AVENGERS issue 16
Writer: Warren Ellis ~ Artists: Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson ~ Publisher: Marvel

Now, that’s the kind of creative team that gets me reading a comic simply to see what they’ll do, and it doesn’t disappoint. Ellis does fast, whip-smart action combined with sarcastic one-liners better than anyone, and combine that with Jamie McKelvie’s clean, crisp artwork and you’ve got a witty, wild and hugely entertaining romp. Okay, I barely had an idea of what had gone before in the series (which follows Steve Rogers and various other characters on ‘black ops’-style missions), but by the end of it I was having so much fun that I didn’t care. Worth it, simply for lines like: “Relax. I’m too borderline psychotic to feel pain.”

[xrr rating=4/5]

Angel and Faith cover issue 1 Christos Gage Rebekah Isaacs Joss WhedonANGEL & FAITH issue 1
Writer:
Christos Gage ~ Artist: Rebekah Isaacs ~ Publisher: Dark Horse

Biggest surprise of the week was how much I enjoyed this – the first issue in the next phase of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s comics-bound afterlife. The 40-issue long Buffy Season 8 was fun in parts, but arguably got out of control and certainly went on a bit too long; now that Dark Horse has the rights to Angel back from IDW comics, they’re now going to be running parallel series dealing with the new Buffyverse reality, where the world’s been sealed off from magic (thanks to Buffy’s actions at the end of season 8), and where Angel is now having to deal with the repercussions of his actions as Twilight, including the murder (while he was possessed) of longtime character and ex-Watcher Rupert Giles. Briskly written, entertaining and packing a hell of a lot into its 22 pages, this is everything you’d want from a spin-off comic, while the art from Rebekah Isaacs carefully rides the line between cartoony and capturing decent likenesses of the cast. It’s no classic, but it does look like this latest arrival from the Buffyverse is going to be worth keeping up with…

Comic Review: Locke and Key – Keys to the Kingdom

Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos ~
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2011

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: The fourth collection of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s dark fantasy is the best yet – a pitch-perfect example of horror storytelling combined with inventive concepts, brilliant characterisation and yet more jaw-dropping artwork.

What’s it About?: Their father was murdered, and the Locke children have returned with their mother to the old family home of Keyhouse. There, they’ve discovered a whole collection of magical keys with bizarre and unearthly powers – and they’ve also come under threat from the creature that used to be trapped in the Keyhouse well. Unfortunately, they don’t know that the creature is now posing as their school friend Zack Wells, who’s starting to lose patience in his quest to find the mysterious Omega Key…

The Story: Ah, expectations can be a killer. Tell a longtime comics fan that his favourite series’ next six-issue outing will consist of four one-part stories and a two-parter, and disappointment will almost immediately set in. Modern-day mainstream comics (especially superhero stories) often seem structured more as six monthly chunks of the final graphic novel than instalments in their own right, and often don’t even work on their own terms as a single instalment. Single issue stories – they’re supposed to be the exception, not the rule. Aren’t they?

However, Locke and Key is a different matter. Ever since volume 2, Head Games, the series has placed just as much emphasis on the character-centric single issue stories as on the bigger, pacier tales (like the three-part Crown of Shadows adventure in volume 3), and while volume 4 does mainly consist of character-driven single done-in-one stories, this is a long way from being filler – in fact, it’s the most inventive and adventurous collection of Locke and Key to date, advancing the story in a number of critical ways, giving us a whole selection of new keys, all while building up to a shocking climax and a mother of a cliffhanger.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 3 Cover 'February'A tremendously skilled writer, Hill continues to serve up outstanding characterisation, adding nuances to character with carefully chosen details, and paying off emotional plotlines with massively affecting consequences. Of course, to anyone who’s read his fiction this is no surprise (Hill’s second novel, Horns, remains the only novel I’ve ever given up on part-way through simply because I knew it was going to upset me too much), but one of the most impressive things about Locke and Key is that, unlike some novelists who end up writing comics (and who often end up producing fine work), Hill really does understand how comics work as a medium, and that they let you do things you simply can’t do anywhere else.

There are points in Keys to the Kingdom where Hill cuts loose with a more daring and experimental approach (from the brilliantly compressed storytelling of ‘February’ to the wonderful and utterly unexpected Calvin and Hobbes homage in ‘Sparrow’), all the while understanding when to let the visuals tell the story. Locke and Key is a comic with a really distinctive identity, and the tonal shifts between off-beat dark children’s fantasy and outright horror just get more and more effective and disturbing. Indeed, it’s incredible exactly how much plot Hill manages to cram into these six issues, while he also gradually cranks the tension up to almost unbearable levels and shows no compunction in going for genuinely horrific violence when it’s required.

Hill’s already declared that Locke and Key will be ending in twelve issues, and the first issue of the fifth miniseries ‘Clockworks’ will be appearing in comic book stores soon – but while the story may be heading towards it’s end, it’s obvious there are plenty of shocks and surprises to come. The long-awaited TV adaptation may have failed to get beyond its unaired (and highly acclaimed) pilot episode, but Locke and Key remains one of the most well-crafted and compulsively readable comic books currently being released.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 2 Incentive Cover 'White'The Art: He started strong, and has been getting better and better through every series, but Keys to the Kingdom sees Gabriel Rodriguez go even further than before. His controlled, cartoony yet distinctive style is still as sharp as ever, as is his design work (virtually every one of the Keyhouse keys is a genuine work of art), but here he also takes on some serious challenges, whether it’s the brilliant war comic homages in chapter four, or the daring and wonderful Bill Watterson homage in chapter 1. Each one of these he pulls off with a major amount of style, while also matching Hill’s script in terms of portraying the character’s emotions (especially in the wonderful third chapter). Combined with Jay Fotos’ gorgeously creative and subtle colour work, and Locke and Key remains a seriously good-looking bit of comic art.

The Verdict: If you like dark fantasy or horror, and you’re not reading Locke and Key, get a move on and catch up with the story so far – you won’t be disappointed. One of the best comic series currently being published is going from strength to strength, and looks to be powering its way towards one hell of an ending.

[amtap book:isbn=1600108865]

TV News: Comics No More (Wonder Woman and Locke and Key bite the dust…)

Wonder Woman 2011 TV Pilot Production Adrianne Palicki

So, the much-kicked, much-derided Wonder Woman pilot has, in the end, not been picked up by NBC. In certain ways, this isn’t surprising – the network initially passed on the script, and it’s fairly clear that it only really got through to production because of the fact that it’s a well-known and recognised property, meaning NBC were dipping their toe in the water but with no commitment to diving all the way in. Naturally, there’s lots of victorious braying from certain areas of comics fandom, convinced that this project was a guaranteed disaster from the start, but I can’t quite work up the same enthusiasm and relief I did when Robert Zemeckis’ ill-advised motion-capture remake of Yellow Submarine got tanked. That’s mainly because Wonder Woman is a character where there’s so much manuevering room that you can do different takes on her (especially in a network TV show, which was highly unlikely to go the ‘Amazonian Goddess fights mythological beasts every week’ route). Now, I was never entirely convinced by what I heard about Kelly’s WW concept – it sounded like the kind of thing which could either work fairly well, or end up embarrassing – and some of the casting had me raising question marks (Liz Hurley as the main bad guy? Really?), but there was enough there to at least have me intrigued, and I was willing to give the project the benefit of the doubt until I’d actually seen it. And, from reports of people who’ve seen the pilot, the episode isn’t a disaster and has some strong elements (quotes used have been ‘ambitious’ and ‘well-crafted’), but the focus-groups and execs weren’t convinced.

Now, however good or bad lead actress Adrianne Palicki was as Wonder Woman, the series isn’t going to happen, and yet another version of Wonder Woman has failed to make it into becoming a genuine commercial spin-off. Fans may be breathing a sigh of relief, but this is likely to make another Wonder Woman project a lot less likely to happen for while, if only because producers may be slightly uneasy about a fandom that’s going to lash out with a borderline insane amount of venom unless they get a version of Wonder Woman that’s exactly like the comics in every conceivable way. And as we’ve seen plenty of times in recent years – sticking exactly with the comics isn’t always a good thing. Like I’ve said before, Wonder Woman is a tricky character to get right in a manner that will appeal outside comic-book fans – there’s a reason why so many WW film projects have failed to get off the drawing board – and it’ll be interesting to see if anyone can ever solve the Wonder Woman problem…

Locke and Key Cover Art Gabriel Rodriguez Joe Hill Issue 6 Head GamesThe WW pilot misfire is, of course, the big TV news – but the one that’s made me a lot sadder is that Fox have passed on the pilot episode of Locke and Key, an adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s brilliant dark fantasy comic (which is slowly approaching the end of its run). With a brilliant cast and an absolutely corking director for the pilot (Never Let Me Go helmer and music video supremo Mark Romanek), it was top of the list of shows I wanted to see happen – although I was a little concerned that Locke and Key is pretty damn dark, a pitch-black twist on a traditional ‘kids adventure’ tale, and it felt like the kind of work that would fit much better somewhere like HBO or AMC than on a mainstream network (added to which, Fox have not exactly always been kind to genre shows). Added to which, word is that the pilot episode is really, really good – but it’s fallen victim to being viewed as ‘too complex’, and in a showdown between Locke and Key and new JJ Abrams-produced mystery Alcatraz, Abrams was the winner. There’s always the vague chance it might get shopped to another network, but I’d be surprised – five years ago, Locke and Key would have stood a much stronger chance as a TV show, but mainstream US TV seems to be largely moving away from long-form mysteries and complex arcs (leaving it more for the pay-on-demand HBO crowd). Seems very likely that Locke and Key is going to be left as yet another fascinatingly incomplete footnote in SF/Fantasy TV History, worse luck…

TV News: Preludes and Nocturnes (Or, the Disappearing and Reappearing TV Adaptation of The Sandman)

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News

Scarcely have I stopped talking about how happy I am that the mo-cap Yellow Submarine remake isn’t happening, when another project that I’m slightly concerned about starts hovering in the Schrodinger’s Box of Cancelled/Not Cancelled reality. In this case, it’s the potential TV adaptation of one of the most successful and well-known graphic novels of all time – Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News Cover ArtA 75-issue series that started out as a top-down remix of an old DC Comics character and went on to redefine much of what you could do in comic books, all while delivering stories that were dark, melancholy, funny, twisted and utterly distinctive, The Sandman is a hell of a comic book. One of the most high profile successes in the comic industry over the last twenty five years, Hollywood has been circling it for a very long time – but the distinctive style of The Sandman is also the thing that makes it incredibly hard to adapt. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories are lyrical and odd in construction, often using fairy tale logic or confounding the reader with deliberately anti-climactic endings, while the protagonist,  the moody and aloof immortal being known as Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, is often more of a background presence. There are very few genuine villains in The Sandman’s world, and even the ones that are there don’t function the way you expect them to (or don’t actually receive any come-uppance), and the whole thing is about as far from Hollywood storytelling as it’s possible to get.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Sam Kieth TV Adaptation News ArtThere have been attempts since the early Nineties, but none have ever come to fruition – Roger Avary, Gaiman’s collaborator on Beowulf, came closest to managing a fairly faithful adaptation, but even his attempt eventually floundered, and ever since it’s seemed that there’d never be a way of reconciling The Sandman’s deliberately offbeat storytelling with the money it would take to actually make.

Then, in the middle of last year, rumours of a TV series started to circulate. Given The Sandman’s deliberately long-form storytelling structure, a TV adaptation isn’t an insane idea, and would certainly give the concept much more room to breathe. Plus, there’s much more potential to acheive something closer to the comic’s unique flavour on TV, rather than trying to do such a kooky story in the increasingly homogenised world of Hollywood Blockbusters. In an ideal world, a Sandman series developed by someone like HBO would be ideal – the original comic wasn’t afraid to go in some very dark, graphic and adult directions, and a series that was just as free to explore that kind of territory (along the lines of the recent AMC TV adaptation of The Walking Dead) could be a genuinely promising prospect.

Unfortunately, it seemed that Warner Bros were actually hoping for a replacement for their absurdly long-in-the-tooth ‘Young Superman’ series Smallville, and the Producer who was possibly going to transfer Gaiman’s work to the small screen was Eric Kripke, the creator of long-running fantasy/horror show Supernatural. This didn’t fill me with confidence – I’ve only seen one episode of Supernatural (and that was a long time ago) so I can’t judge Kripke’s suitability or not, but the idea of aiming The Sandman at mainstream network TV seemed, well, odd to say the least. It’s not impossible that such a project could work, but the potential for massive compromises and creative disaster was pretty damn strong, and it went down as something that I wouldn’t be upset about if, as with so much in the long history of proposed Sandman adaptations, it came to nothing.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Marc Hempel The Endless TV Adaptation News ArtSo, when I woke up this morning to find the internets ablaze with the announcement that Kripke had announced that it didn’t look like The Sandman was happening “at least for this TV season”, I have to admit I breathed a small sigh of relief. A TV version of The Sandman would be massively risky, and I’d far rather see it not happen than for a watered down, diluted version to shuffle its way onto the screen. The Sandman does strike me as one of those stories that, like Watchmen (despite all of Zack Snyder’s efforts) works best as a comic – its structure, its weirdness and its limitless imagination is simply ideal for the comics medium, and crowbarring it into another form risks breaking what makes it special in the first place.

However, it looks like I spoke too soon. DC’s Creative Chief Officer and Head Writing honcho Geoff Johns went on Twitter today, and tweeted: “Correction to world: The Sandman is AWAKE! Psyched to be working with @neilhimself on developing one of the greatest series ever!” It’s especially interesting, considering that according to Kripke, he had talked to Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) about the project, but wasn’t actually working directly with him. Of course, this could be general PR just to prevent people mistakenly thinking the project was actually dead, but for the moment it looks like the project is certainly active. Which means I get to keep being mildly concerned. Oh, hooray…

Of course, one interesting factor is whether or not a similar project makes it to the screen. Joe Hill’s brilliant dark fantasy comic book Locke and Key has been developed into a TV series – a pilot episode has been shot (directed by music video supremo and Never Let Me Go helmer Mark Romanek), and if it gets the green light, it’ll be going to a full series for the September 2011 TV season. If a project as dark and interesting as Locke and Key gets onto TV screens still with its weirdness and character intact, then I’d say the possibility of getting a Sandman TV series will definitely go up – but I’ll still remain to be convinced that this isn’t going to be anything other than yet another disappointing comics adaptation…

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]