Monday 28 February 2011

Axe Cop, Volume 1, by Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle – reviewed

The introduction to Axe Cop is by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Kevin Murphy, which makes perfect sense: the last time I laughed so much was watching their version of Mitchell. (Oh, alright, maybe when I watched The Love Guru, but if I admitted that you wouldn’t take the rest of my review seriously...) I laughed so much reading this book that I frequently had to put it down, my eyes sore from a literal stream of tears.

Axe Cop is the story of a policeman, Axey, who has a life-changing experience: “One day at the scene of a fire, the cop found the perfect fire axe. That was the day he became Axe Cop.” The axe is perfect for chopping off the heads of baddies, and much decapitation ensues. At night he dresses in a catsuit and sneaks into baddies’ houses to kill them while they sleep. (A motivational poster in his kitchen says, “You know what time my job is? ALWAYS.”)

As the strip progresses he accumulates an incredible army of friends, including Flute Cop, Uni-Man, a dinosaur with machine gun arms, Baby-Man, Lobster Man, Dinosaur Soldier, Sockarang and the ninja vampire wolfmen Moon Warriors.

So far, you might think, so Image Comics c.1994!

What gives Axe Cop its wonder and brilliance is that it was written by a five-year-old boy, but drawn by his grown-up brother from another mother, who knows exactly when to play it straight and when to play up the insanity. This is a world where unicorn horns make wishes come true, where there’s an appropriate store for anything a hero might need, and where getting splashed with swordfish blood gives you swordfish powers.

The book also features a series of Ask Axe Cop strips.
As the fascinating notes by the older brother explain, Malachai Nicolle didn't sit down to a typewriter and write a series of scripts. Rather, the stories are the product of roleplay, the younger brother explaining the characters and their motivations as the games played out, a scenario anyone with children will recognise.

The difference here is that the wonderful, weird nonsense the child invented has been brought to life, treated with the respect a child’s ideas deserve, and shared with the world, first as a web comic, now as a book.

And so Axe Cop reminds us of all the joy and freedom of childhood imagination, the disregard for consequences and verisimilitude, the sheer pleasure of play.  Robert Rodriguez draws from the same well in his films for children, the Thumb-Thumbs of Spy Kids having been invented by one of his kids. The one adult author I’ve read who captures that feeling is Rhys Hughes: Twisthorn Bellow and Axe Cop could easily be best friends.

I can’t recommend this hilarious, inspirational book highly enough. And for extra laughs show it to a child: they will enjoy the stories, but they won’t find it funny at all. This is how all storytelling seems to them.

Axe Cop, Volume 1, by Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle. Dark Horse, tpb, 144pp. Amazon US. Amazon UK. The Axe Cop web comic can be found here.

Sunday 27 February 2011

David Tallerman on the small press, Peter Tennant on ebooks

TQF contributor David Tallerman has begun a series of blog posts on Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, beginning with Part 1: Non-Grudging Acceptances. Well worth a read. I can guarantee that I'll have made every mistake David goes on to list, if not with David himself, then with someone else for sure!

David contributed "Imaginary Prisons" to Theaker's Quarterly #29, which I read as a satire on the mind-numbing pervasiveness of prophecies in fantasy, and "Friendly" to Theaker's #31, a terribly serious story about overcoming cultural differences.

Elsewhere on the web, Black Static's other book reviewer, Peter Tennant, has contributed a post on ebooks, Random Thoughts by a Random Reviewer, to a Grand Conversation on the subject being hosted on the blog of Shane Jiraiya Cummings. As ever Peter has some extraordinarily sensible things to say.

Monday 21 February 2011

Valérian et Laureline, L’Intégrale, Volume 1, by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin – reviewed

This book contains four stories previously published as three: Les Mauvaises rêves, La Cité des eaux mouvantes, Terres en flammes, and L’Empire des mille planètes, the two in the middle having previously been truncated and published in a single volume.

First a disclaimer! Reviewing something that I have read in French presents a certain difficulty: I can’t always be sure that I have understood it properly. Of course that concern applies to books in English too, but I apologise in advance for any really bad mistakes made here.

Les Mauvaises rêves (“The Bad Dreams”) introduces Valérian, a space-time agent working out of Galaxity, a far-future city in which most of the population happily sleeps away their lives. After villain Xombul steals a time machine Valérian pursues him to the 11th century. There he meets adorable, tough, capable Laureline, at first his guide and in later stories his partner and girlfriend. (Her name has been retrospectively and laudably added to the title of the series. I hope Obelix isn’t too jealous.) This first story is notably more comedic than the rest of the book, but even here the comedy is more in the art than the writing.

In La Cité des eaux mouvantes ("The City of Shifting Waters") the two agents follow Xombul to the drowned New York of 1986. The story meanders a little, but there’s a grandeur to the illustrations, and the mood becomes oppressive as the situation worsens. By Terres en flammes (“Land in Flames”) the survival of the planet itself is in doubt, and despite the light tone there’s a profound hopelessness to their journey across a USA that is waiting to die.

L’Empire des mille planètes takes Valérian and Laureline to the empire of a thousand planets, of which we only really see one, the capital: Syrte-la-Magnifique. A mysterious cabal has seized control and the time-space agents are persuaded, step by step, to do something about it. By this stage the strip feels not unlike sixties Who with an unlimited budget, though Val has no reservations about using his time machine to get an edge in space battles.

I treated myself to this book and two others (La Conjuration de l’Opale and Blake et Mortimer: Le Secret de l’Espadon), choosing them very nearly at random from Reading any French album still feels like a very special treat to me, but this book was something more than that: it quickly became clear that this was something I had been missing out on, a comic strip perfectly tailored to me.

Admittedly, my first impression was one of slight disappointment: I’d expected a slightly more realistic art style, but it didn’t take long to warm to the artwork. It’s bursting with colour (supplied by Evelyne Tranlé), detail and joie-de-vivre, making even the bleakest moments a treat for the eyes.

From start to finish it was a pure joy to read. This kind of space adventure is exactly my favourite kind of thing to read, and these stories are created with the care and attention that is so typical of bandes dessinées. If you could promise me an endless supply of books like this I would happily forego all others.

The following four volumes have all gone straight onto my Amazon wishlist, my birthday is coming up, and they’re all marked highest priority, so with luck I will soon be reporting on subsequent adventures. There’s a world of brilliant comics over the channel: don’t let your GCSE in French go to waste.

Valérian et Laureline, L’Intégrale, Volume 1, Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin. Dargaud, hb, 156pp. Amazon UK. Amazon FR. The truncated City of Shifting Waters is available in translation here, and The Empire of a Thousand Planets here.

Monday 14 February 2011

Doctor Who: The Runaway Train – reviewed

"Farmland? Do I look like a landowner? I live in a blue box, for goodness' sake!" roars the Doctor at a would-be employee, the story capturing from the off the eleventh Doctor's particular brand of oddness. He might need a bit of help digging up an alien artefact, but "that is hardly a job that merits a farmland-based reward!" Matt Smith gets some lovely dialogue to work with in this Wild West audio adventure and throws himself into it with glee. It's unfinished railroads, Confederates and Yankees, and alien McGuffins, giving Smith the chance to try his hand at several accents, with more than decent results. I confess to a peculiar fondness for his version of Amy Pond, sounding as it does so very much like Sylvester McCoy.

I never feel qualified to comment on the quality of Doctor Who stories since I believe, on a fundamental level, that any story featuring the Doctor is by definition better than one that does not. But even through rose-tinted glasses this seems like a good one. The Doctor has lots of fun, Amy gets a good slice of the action, and the adventure is topped and tailed by the kind of timeline tricksiness that is very much a part of the current era. Readers with children may be encouraged to learn that the story doesn't have quite the ominous – nay, terrifying! – tone of many Who audio adventures: for once my youngest got all the way through without asking for a change of CD. Overall, a good story told with infectious enthusiasm.

Doctor Who: The Runaway Train, by Oli Smith, read by Matt Smith, BBC Audio, 1xCD, 65 mins. Amazon US. Amazon UK.

Monday 7 February 2011

Strangers: Starlock – reviewed

Like the previously reviewed Strangers: Homicron, this is a translation from the archives of Editions Lug, and it begins in a very similar way, although Major Nick Thaler's life-changing alien encounter takes place on Mars rather than the moon. His excavation of a half-buried extra-terrestrial artefact awakens the ancient entity within, and their atoms are "fused together". Back on Earth, Nick feels out of sorts: an eclipse then lets a mysterious lunar crystal transform him into Starlock, who looks like Nick, but bigger. He's super-strong and super-tough, can bend humans to his will, controls the oceans, creates cosmic fields, and (perhaps least usefully) can make food rot in seconds.

Major Ted White became little more than one of Homicron's memories, but Nick Thaler is still alive, and often wakes up to find himself in uncomfortable situations. Homicron was a decent sort; Starlock is not terribly nice: "Nick Thaler might care about mankind... but I don't!" When dawn breaks the moon crystal's spell Nick begs a friend: "You've got to kill me while you can, Nate! That damned alien is ready to blow up the planet to build his spaceship!" There are obvious parallels with DC's Eclipso: both feature men transformed at inconvenient times by a crystal on the moon.

The story that follows their initial bonding is an action-packed serial similar to something like Doomlord from the resurrected Eagle or Invasion in 2000AD, and could easily have been drawn from the pages of those magazines. Starlock tears semi-randomly around the world in his efforts to avoid capture and build a spaceship; he steals jets and submarines, throws tanks around like toys, gets ensnared in the web of S.P.I.D.E.R. (the Society for the Pollution, Infestation and Destruction of Energies and Resources), and inadvertently brings the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon. All good fun.

Despite the cover, Starlock doesn't appear in costume until page 222, in the sequel, "The Return of Starlock". In these later pages Starlock becomes a more traditional and slightly less interesting cosmic hero. He gains an origin, but Nick Thaler is retconned to death, and it's a slightly scrappy end to an enjoyable if unremarkable book. It's the original stories that make this volume worth reading. They aren't exceptional, and don't stand comparison with more carefully created BD, but they make for simple, undemanding entertainment.

Strangers: Starlock, by Claude J. Legrand, Luciano Bernasconi, et al, Hexagon Comics, pb, 256pp. Reviewed from print review copy.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Books received for review – February

Lots more books received for review in the last few weeks. Some I will devour as quickly as possible, others I will nuzzle from time to time, some I will forget about entirely and a year later say, "That was by Stephen King; I didn't realise!" (Expect my review of One for the Road quite soon.)

I love this moment, when reviewer and reviewed are for once completely at peace; publishers and authors proud of their books, reviewer looking forward to reading them.

Ventriloquism, Catherynne M. Valente (PS Publishing, 352pp). A new writer for me, but I'm really glad to see PS putting out more books by female writers; not least because it gives us more books by female writers to review in TQF. What a wonderful cover that is – the art is by Rima StainesOrder the book here.

Diversifications, James Lovegrove (PS Publishing, 250pp). I've just reviewed and very much enjoyed his Age of Ra; this looks rather more experimental. Order it here.

The Lives of the Savages, Robert Edric (PS Publishing, 142pp). A new take on Bonnie and Clyde, but is it fantasy, crime, horror? I'll let you know when I've read it. Order here.

Christmas With The Dead, Joe R. Lansdale (PS Publishing, 30pp). As a general rule, the shorter a book is the more likely I am to review it! Last year's PS Christmas booklet, The Night Cache, was very good, although I still haven't written up my review. Order here.

Transparent Lovers, Scott Nicholson (PS Publishing, 78pp). "A paranormal noir". Order here.

Homeschooling, Carol Guess (PS Publishing, 128pp). Order here.

The Broken Man, Michael Byers (PS Publishing, 64pp). Order here.

The Sorcerer's House, Gene Wolfe (PS Publishing, 308pp). Order here.

Stonewielder, Volume 1, Ian Cameron Esslemont (PS Publishing, 264pp) and Stonewielder, Volume 2, Ian Cameron Esslemont (PS Publishing, 366pp). I thought Steven Erikson's Malazan novellas were quite brilliant, and I'm intrigued by the idea of two writers working in the same world; not in a sharecropping sense, but as true collaborators. Looking forward to this a lot. What a fantastic cover! Order it here.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #45 (132pp) is an earlier issue of our Australian competitor. In all honesty I probably won't review this – I didn't manage to finish a single multi-author anthology or fiction magazine during the whole of 2010; it's too much of a busman's holiday – but it's good to know Andromeda is still going.

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children, Brendan Connell (Chomu Press, pb, 266pp). The newest book from Brendan Connell and Chomu Press. I've previously reviewed The Translation of Father Torturo and Unpleasant Tales by the same author, so reluctantly (because I'm very keen to read it) I've passed this one on to John for review, to give readers a different perspective on this very exciting writer.

Point. Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot)

Point, Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot). Having signed up for electronic ARCs via the Angry Robot website, we've now got our first batch of books from them. I have to admit that Angry Robot haven't really been the kind of publisher I expected, given their launch statements about connecting with younger readers via new technology and new publishing approaches: their books on the whole seem to be fairly traditional paperbacks. But that aside, they are publishing books by some interesting writers.

King's Justice. by Maurice Broaddus (Angry Robot)

King’s Justice, Maurice Broaddus (Angry Robot).

Death's Disciples. J. Robert King (Angry Robot)

Death’s Disciples, J. Robert King (Angry Robot).

Harbinger of the Storm: Obsidian & Blood, Book 2

Harbinger of the Storm, Aliette de Bodard (Angry Robot). Jenny Barber interviewed Aliette for Dark Horizons #57, and I've been looking forward to reading her work ever since. I'm very impressed by the idea of a French writer working in English, having tried the reverse once or twice myself with unimpressive results!

The World House (Angry Robot)

The World House, Guy Adams (Angry Robot). I worked with Guy on the BFS and FantasyCon committees, so I might have to leave this one to John to review. But this is a guy (literally) whose emails are worth reading for the skill of their writing: I don't doubt his novels will be rather special.

Vegas Knights

Vegas Knights, Matt Forbeck (Angry Robot).

City of Hope & Despair: City of a Hundred Rows, Book 2

City of Hope and Despair, Ian Whates (Angry Robot). I've struggled a bit with the collection A Gift of Joy, but the novels have picked up some good notices, and I'm keen to read this.


Embedded, Dan Abnett (Angry Robot). This looks very much like my cup of tea. And I love tea. My wife recently called me "the Imelda Marcos of tea mugs". My current favourites are a nifty red-striped Marks and Spencers number and a Super Dudes mug from the Disney store.

Morlock Night

Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, K.W. Jeter (Angry Robot). From the writer of Blade Runner 2, 3 and 4, the first two of which I've owned for years without reading; to be honest even seeing their spines on my shelves makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. But these look interesting.

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, Lavie Tidhar (Angry Robot). I reviewed and enjoyed A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults, edited by Lavie Tidhar, but haven't read any of his fiction yet. He's a writer very close to the top of my "must read soon" list.

Iris Wildthyme: the Panda Book of Horror, ed. Stuart Douglas and Paul Magrs (Obverse Books, 224pp).

A Revelation of Cormorants, Mark Valentine (Nightjar Press, 16pp)

The Beautiful Room, R.B. Russell (Nightjar Press, 12pp).

Old Order

Old Order, Jonathan Janz (Untreed Reads, ebook, 30pp).

The Middle Prince

The Middle Prince, Ivor Randle (self-published, ebook).

Dead Man's Eye

Dead Man's Eye, Shaun Jeffrey (Deschca Press, ebook, 2727ll).