Monday 31 October 2016

The Flash, Season 1, by Andrew Kreisberg and many others (Warner Bros Television) | review

The Flash is a name that has been used by a series of DC Comics characters: Jay Garrick in the forties, Barry Allen from the late fifties, Wally West from the late eighties, and probably a couple more since. The Flash of this television series is Barry Allen, a police scientist who is struck by lightning and becomes the fastest man alive. Before that happened Barry appeared in episodes of Arrow, and so, like the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow and Vixen animated series this is part of what’s sometimes called the Arrowverse. Gotham probably isn’t a part of this continuity, nor was Smallville, nor are any of the planned DC films, but Supergirl is in a nearby dimension, and Constantine was added after-the-fact once he had appeared in Arrow. That’s quite the little universe that has grown out of Arrow, a show with such unpromising beginnings. The Flash gets off to a much better start than its big brother. The big change from the comics (or at least the comics I’ve read) is that the lightning storm is brought on by an explosion at STAR Labs, after Harrison Wells turns on his particle accelerator against the advice of his colleagues. This explosion acts much like the meteor crash in Smallville, providing an origin for most of the superpowered beings we meet in the programme. (One whose powers don’t come from there is Captain Cold, played brilliantly by Wentworth Miller in several episodes.) Wells, along with high-flying assistants Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), helps Barry to master his powers, as step by step he becomes the Flash we know and love. Grant Gustin is likeable as Barry Allen, determined to clear his father for the murder of his mother (he saw red and yellow blurs flashing around her in the room that night...), and in love with journalist Iris West, daughter of the police officer who became his guardian once dad was in jail. There is so much to like about the show: its confident handling of story arcs and mysteries, its excellent special effects, the speed with which it builds up a roster of great supporting characters, the diversity of its cast and characters, and how it draws on all the riches of the character’s history. This is Barry Allen, but there’s a lot of the Wally West stories in here too: fingers crossed for Chunk in season two! For those who have read Flashpoint, the risk that this Barry might create that dark universe looms over the season’s events. The main villain is properly scary, with his glowing red eyes and readiness to kill. I could live with less mooning over Iris in season two, but the programme originates on The CW so that rather goes with the territory. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 28 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 4: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, and José Marzań, Jr (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker

Yorrick Brown is left alive after a plague killed every other man in the world – and every male creature but one, his monkey Ampersand. In this fourth book, collecting issues 18 to 23 of the original series, he is still travelling across America with Dr Allison Mann and Agent 355. They hope to reach Mann’s lab and figure out his immunity, and find a way for the human race to start reproducing again. That’s the long-term plan, but right now Ampersand is ailing from the cut he picked up in the previous book. While Agent 355 and Dr Mann go off to get medicine, they leave Yorick with one of 355’s retired colleagues, Agent 711. His experiences in her log cabin are eye-opening, to say the least, and we learn that Yorick isn’t quite the happy-go-lucky type we had imagined. In the book’s second story, “Widow’s Pass”, the interstate route is blocked by a small but heavily-armed militia, convinced the government is behind the plague and ready to beat any government employees to death until they confess. It’s another terrific volume of this series. The story is gripping, both in the day to day events and the ongoing mysteries. The artwork and colouring is perfect, the action always totally understandable without giving up any dynamism. And this book gives us many more layers to Yorick’s character, as we learn more about his life both before and immediately after the disaster. Best of all is the thoughtful storytelling of the sort that gives us Dr Mann explaining which animal species will die out first, because of their short life cycles: the apocalypse isn’t yet over. Very good indeed. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday 26 October 2016

The Hounds of Hell, Book 1: The Eagle’s Companions, by Philippe Thirault and Christian Højgaard (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

During the sixth century CE, the Emperor Justinian reigns in Byzantium, but dreams of reclaiming the western Roman empire, which has fallen to the barbarians. Angles and Saxons here in the UK, Vandals in Corsica and North Africa, Visigoths in Spain, and Ostrogoths in Italy: Theodoric, king of the Goths, has been named imperial regent. Justinian’s young wife, Theodora Augusta, a worshipper of Pluto, sets in motion a plan. Epidamnos, the warrior-magus, also called Avian, is tasked with reuniting his colleagues, the most fearsome band of mercenaries to ever exist. Or at least those of them that survive: there was a reason they split up. Camarina the Panther, deposed princess of Thrace; Triada, an Amazonian archer (called here the archeress); the Eagle, a scarred general: he summons them all by means of their Edessa stones. Khorsabad Three-Hands he recovers from a prison in the district of thieves. Their mission: to recover the treasure offered by the Roman emperors to the old gods as an apology for ditching them in favour of Christianity. Or at least that’s what they think. This digital album is the first in a series of four (all of which are also available in a single paperback collection), and it does a good job of drawing the team together, showing us what is special about each of them, and getting them started on their adventures, as well as dipping back into their histories. There’s some unpleasant sexual violence, but otherwise it’s an exciting, intriguing adventure that is impeccably drawn and coloured. ***

Monday 24 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr (Vertigo) | review

Every man and boy in the world starts throwing up blood and drops down dead, all at the same time. Is it because the Amulet of Helene has been taken out of Jordan, bringing on an ancient prophecy of catastrophe? Or because Doctor Mann gave birth to her own clone? Or because Yorick Brown proposed to his best friend with a ring he bought in a magic shop for half the money he had? The only man who might find out is Yorick himself, because he’s the only man to survive (at least so far as we know from this book). All the male non-humans died too, except for his capuchin monkey Ampersand. Others might have seen the resulting situation as a golden opportunity for a healthy young man, but not Yorick, he’s in love with Beth, and she’s in Australia, so like James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff that’s where he’s heading, whatever else distracts him in the meantime. It’s a dangerous world for a man, where anyone he meets could want to sell, kill or enslave him, but his mother asks him to go with the awesome Agent 355 to find Dr Mann – together they might be the best hope for the world, especially if they can figure out why Yorick survived. This is an excellent book. It has a great premise, and this volume begins to explore the ramifications of that premise in fascinating ways. For example, Yorick’s mother is a representative in Congress, and because the Democrats have more female representatives there than the Republican, they become a majority when the men die. Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr’s art is perfect, reminiscent in its clarity and structure of Steve Dillon’s work on Preacher for the same publisher, but with character all of its own. The book’s weakest link is probably Yorick himself, who isn’t half as interesting and charismatic as the female characters that surround him. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 21 October 2016

Jessica Jones, Season 1, by Melissa Rosenberg and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Jessica Jones is a private eye, and she’s down on her luck, doing jobs for a shady lawyer that don’t always bring out her best side. Traumatised by having fallen under the mental control of a powerful psychic for a long period, and the things he forced her to do during that time, she’s drinking too much and not looking after herself. She has a couple of things going for her: superstrength (though no more invulnerability than is required to punch people very hard without breaking your own arm) and a good friend, former child star Patsy Walker. (Their friendship and its history is one of my favourite things about the programme.) Sadly, we’re not joining Jessica at the point where things start to pick up for her. She does meet a new guy, Luke Cage, who seems able to deal with the worst drunks in Hell’s Kitchen without taking a scratch, but it’s not one of those relationships built on mutual trust, at least at first. And she’s beginning to think that Kilgrave, her psychic tormentor, might be back, and it’s impossible to make anyone believe her when he can just order people to forget that they’ve ever seen him. He is back (and played with a gleefully childish lack of conscience by David Tennant), and he’s going to cause a lot of trouble before the thirteen-episode series is over.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics) | review by Rafe McGregor

In issue forty-nine I reviewed Thomas Ligotti’s The Spectral Link (2014) and described him as the most accomplished practitioner of weird fiction today. As such, it is satisfying to see that he has finally been admitted to the canon of twentieth century horror fiction by inclusion in the Penguin Classics series, which has recently taken an interesting turn with the publication of relatively obscure works of classic pulp horror fiction, like Clark Ashton Smith’s The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (2014). This is particularly satisfying in Ligotti’s case as although he is in his fourth decade of publishing to great critical acclaim, he has failed to achieve mainstream success – understood in terms of mass market paperback sales. I think there are two reasons for this: although he has published sixteen books to date (excluding the Penguin release, but not The Spectral Link), they have all been collections of short stories, short novellas, or poetry rather than the novel so beloved by commercial publishers. Second, there is the – and I know no better term – weirdness of the stories themselves, which I imagine will not have an appeal beyond horror aficionados in the way that, for example, Stephen King’s work does. Ligotti has nonetheless remained a firm favourite of a limited audience and I was lucky enough to pick up Volume 9, Number 1 (1989) of the long-abandoned Crypt of Cthulhu magazine, with nine short pieces by him, at a recent book fair. The price was very reasonable – too reasonable – and I wish there was more demand for his work.

Monday 17 October 2016

Doctor Who, Season 9, by Steven Moffat and friends (BBC) | review

Peter Capaldi returns for a second season as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman for a third as Clara, and Steven Moffat for his fifth as head writer. Not a surprise then that this feels like the work of people who really know what they are doing with these characters. The Doctor at first is travelling alone, having the party of his life in medieval times because he knows there’s trouble up ahead, while Clara is teaching at Coal Hill, where it all began. They are brought back together by Missy, Davros and the Daleks, and by the end of the year they’ll have encountered Odin, the Zygons, ghosts in an undersea base, an immortal girl running a sanctuary for aliens, and the creatures that grow from the sleep in your eyes if you leave it unwashed for too long. They’ll travel to the very end of the universe and back, while ending every other episode on a cliffhanger.

Friday 14 October 2016

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 1, by Robert Kirkman and chums (AMC) | review by Stephen Theaker

Travis Manawa (played by Cliff Curtis) and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) are a married couple trying without much luck to blend a family. He is divorced, she is a widow. Travis has a son who lives with his ex and doesn’t want to see him at the weekends, Madison has a son, Nicky, who loves heroin and a daughter, Alicia, who hates long trousers. When Nicky wakes up in a drug den to find his girlfriend eating someone’s face, he thinks he’s gone mad, and so does his family, but it won’t be long before everyone is caught up in that madness. When a riot breaks out in the city centre, Travis and his son take refuge in a hairdressers with a family of three, emigrants from El Salvador, not realising that from now on, all refuge will be temporary.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton) | review by Rafe McGregor

A Song of Shadows (464pp, £3.85) is the thirteenth “Charlie Parker thriller”, as the series is described by Hodder & Stoughton, first published in hardback in 2015. First and foremost – and quite possibly because of rather than in spite of the criticisms I shall make – the series is extremely successful, regularly ranking high on various bestseller lists and regularly receiving rave ratings from the most trusted crime fiction reviewers. I must confess to not having read all of Parker’s cases, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999 (and was, as an example of my previous claim, the L.A. Times Book of the Year), but I have read the first two and most recent two and can confirm that there has been no fluctuation in quality. Connolly is not one of those writers who rests on his laurels, resorts to repeated uses of the same formula, or tires of his protagonist. My gripe, and I think it is more than mere whimsy on my part, is the idiosyncratic mix of crime and horror Connolly has weaved around Parker.

Monday 10 October 2016

Trials Fusion Awesome Max Edition, by RedLynx (Ubisoft) | review

The Trials series of games are, to the casual glance, so simple that they could have been made on a Spectrum, and, indeed, pretty much were, as fans of Codemasters’ ATV Simulator will remember. You’re just driving a bike along a straight line that sometimes goes up, sometimes goes down, while you lean back and forth to keep it balanced. It’s like the old TV show Kickstart, except you can’t even turn the handlebars. And yet that’s just on the surface. The Trials games put that simplest of ideas into a world built with individual objects and subject to physics, where the slightest nudge here or there can make the greatest difference, and where your rider dies horribly at the end of each level. On some levels it’s a thrill ride, hurtling down a snowy mountain like you’re chasing James Bond, while on harder levels it’s the world’s toughest platformer, as you take a hundred attempts to get over one gnarly jump. And since the levels (once you get the hang of them) only take a few minutes to complete, the games are endlessly replayable in search of a better time. This Xbox One expansion of Trials Fusion improves upon the Xbox 360 version to the extent that it’s well worth a separate purchase. It includes all the DLC, so immediately has an immense range of tracks to ride on, from deserts and ski resorts to various distant, destroyed futures. To cap it all there’s a series of incredible levels where you play as a cat riding a unicorn! These were so popular with my children that one suspects an entirely equestrian spin-off could be very popular – they also liked being able to create a female rider for the regular levels. Another improvement is that loading times are much improved. Part of the appeal of Trials HD was the way you could rattle through half its levels in a half hour lunch break, something lost in the slovenly Xbox 360 version of this game. The checkpoints in Trials Fusion are much closer together than they were in Trials HD, making it possible to muddle your way through hard levels in a way that would have been impossible before. At first this seems disappointing, a sop to lightweights, but it’s as hard as ever to set a good time, and it’s easy to understand why the game’s makers would want lots of players to see all of the cool stuff they have created. And for anyone who misses the real teethgrinding challenges of old, the extreme difficulty levels here are as hard as ever – I’ve yet to pass the first checkpoint in any of them. The game also includes a brilliant local four-player multiplayer mode (allow bailout finishes for maximum fun), a level creator and online game modes, including tournaments where you post your best time and then wait to see where you came, prizes being awarded to those who reach certain positions. I’ve yet to mention what a pretty game it is, but it is, and it really shines with the higher definition of a next-generation console. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 7 October 2016

Ash vs Evil Dead, by Ivan Raimi and chums (Starz/Virgin Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

Ash Williams is a sexist jerk with an unfortunate tendency to unleash the forces of hell upon the world. Thirty years ago he found a Necronomicon while on a trip to a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, and ended up having to squash her head in a vice and cut off his own hand with a chainsaw. Neither has forgiven him. As this ten-part series starts, the Deadites have been quiet for a while, but he still keeps a boomstick in his mobile home. It proves handy after the idiot gets high with a sozzled friend and reads from his Necronomicon… The evil dead return in force, and so Ash, reluctantly, gathers friends to help in the fight. It’s all a bit daft – the spirits seem to be able to take over anybody whenever they like, so the only reason Ash survives is presumably because they like playing with him – but it doesn’t quite reach the stark raving lunacy of Evil Dead II. There are lots of good jump scares, some excellent monsters and one-liners, and it is refreshingly gory. The half hour format works well for the show – it would be hard to keep up the intensity for an hour. Ash’s boorishness and the misogyny of the language used when female characters are possessed is partly balanced by a diverse cast. Ash develops an appealing relationship with Special Agent Fisher, an African-American cop who seems to like him for the idiot that he is, and the scenes with his two likeable protégés are always watchable – they’re a bit like the Doctor, Rory and Amy, if the Doctor were a buffoon and Rory worshipped him anyway. ***

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Innerspace, by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser (Warner Bros. et al.) | review by Jacob Edwards

Dir. Joe Dante. 1 July 1987 (Amblin Entertainment). Genre: SF Comedy. Ratings: 81% (Rotten Tomatoes) 6.7 (IMDB).

Obstreperous test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteers for a miniaturisation experiment that should see him and his ship injected into the bloodstream of a laboratory rabbit. Instead, thanks to some industrial espionage gone badly wrong, he finds himself inside hypochondriac no-hoper Jack Putter (Martin Short). Aided by Pendleton’s ex-girlfriend, journalist Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), and guided from within by Pendleton himself, Putter must overcome his inhibitions, thwart the villains and recover the microchip necessary to extract the ship before Pendleton’s oxygen runs out.

Monday 3 October 2016

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming and friends (DC Comics) | review

A 488pp black and white collection of comics, mostly from the mid-eighties. The bulk of it comes from two mini-series, Ambush Bug (1985) and Son of Ambush Bug (1986), plus a couple of specials, his story from Secret Origins, and earlier guest appearances in Superman titles. Ambush Bug is the costumed identity of Irwin Schwab, who knows he’s in a comic, talks to his writers and artists, and doesn’t necessarily go from one page to the next in the usually accepted order. His best friend and adopted child is Cheeks the Toy Wonder, a stuffed toy, and his greatest foes are the Interferer, who messes with comics continuity because he can, and Argh-Yle, a sock from a spaceship that got squashed by a radioactive space-spider, came to life and became a supervillain, and now tries to conquer the world with living socks from a chest of drawers (The Bureau) orbiting the planet. Reading that back, it’s hard to understand why I didn’t like it very much. It sounds like a lot of fun, and Deadpool has had great success with a similar shtick. But I laughed only three or four times in the course of all these pages (the best being when Keith Giffen’s famous nine-panel layouts are said to be inspired by Celebrity Squares). Maybe it’s the lack of colour in this edition, which makes all the busy, busy pages a bit hard to read, or that there’s so much frantically packed in, which might have worked better taken in single issue doses. A lot of the humour is aimed at comics and controversies in the field from the mid-eighties, and though I’ve read enough of those to get the gist, I didn’t find them funny. Maybe the clue is in the panel five pages from the end where Ambush Bug declares “I hate British humour”. Though I do appreciate the cleverness there of spelling it with a U. Stephen Theaker **