Ken Games

My relationship with digital comics has soured of late. In early 2013 I bought my first iPad and, after my LCS chastised me for not collecting my pull-list every week, I embraced digital completely. I enjoyed the instant hit, the promotions, the access to vintage back-catalogue with Marvel Unlimited. But then I began to find it was just too much screen. Like many of us I spend all day staring at a monitor and our phones are constantly in our hands, so I felt the draw back to paper comics, and mainly TPBs as well. When I was recommended the book we are reviewing this month back in 2017, the fact it was digital-only made me hesitate.

The publisher Europe Comics takes books popular in the Franco-Belgian market and translates them to attract an English language audience. They strive to show off the variety in European comics, both the titles themselves and the creators working on them, and to drive them into the market where superheroes are no longer the be-all and end-all. There is content for everyone, assuming of course you like digital comics. And yes, some of the books have found print publishers off the back of the extra exposure and that’s what I was holding off for with Ken Games. At the time of writing this still hasn’t happened, but the revival of Augie De Blieck Jr.’s comics podcast Pipeline brought the title back to mind and I thought it was enough waiting!

Three books, three stars, three colours, three puns

So: Ken Games. The name was peculiar enough, but no mention of Barbie’s platonic male friend was to be found. Instead, the in-story explanation for the title tells us the name refers to Sansukumi-ken: East Asian hand games of three gestures and its most popular form Rock, Paper, Scissors. Look, right there, the three books in the series have those subtitles as well. And, oh my, the lead characters from who’s perspective they are written have nicknames to match. This cleverness from the writer was bollocks to us.

And the negative opinions didn’t stop there, sadly. Jake was very pleased he’d managed to snag it via a digital tryout, not having to spend any pennies and Dan only read the first of the three books. For the most part they took against the subject with Jake disliking poker, Dan not a fan of boxing and neither thinking the way the story handled Luc Besson style assassins being very successful. They also didn’t care about the characters and found the sexual violence dirtying. That final point caused some debate as both Jake and Dan had read a particular scene one way and I another. On reflection I’m pretty sure we all agreed I was right, but there’s no denying the sexual content of the books, not least of which the moment we learn the reason the girl is know as Scissors.

Colours set the tone

I was right to have tried waiting for a physical edition as reading what would be oversized artwork in the European market on an iPad4 was a struggle. Toledano packs a lot of panels into the pages and has fun with variations of panel shapes to match the story. Chess sequences have the rigid square panelling of the board and boxing sequences are choppy, breaking the page bleed to match thrown punches.

Toledano’s characters are quite stylised with Dan noting a bit of Frank Quitely and a bit of Tony Moore. I quite liked that though, and the sense of space and timing of the panel progression worked well. Strangely, a fourth zero issue put out sometime later uses a much different art style, focussing on a secondary character before the plot of these books (none of us read that).

The mood shone through in the colouring with appropriate palettes for each character and although shaded it was less like the harsh sculpting you tend to see in Big Two comics. There’s also some fun with the lettering in the fight, game and assassination sequences showing off each of the character’s skills.

Jagged panels and sums

The plot threads through each of the character’s lives as the story progresses and is pretty brutal to the leads and supporting cast as well. There are standout moments in each book, particularly the conclusion to part two but I enjoyed the third part least; it all came apart somewhat in the conclusion.

I felt overall it was a solid read and pretty easy on the eyes. I’ve been a bit down in this writeup, but really if you come across this series in a digital sale or as part of a subscription give it a go, especially if you like boxing, poker or the afore mentioned Luc Besson movies!

-Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Strange and utterly Euro, I won’t burn it, but then it is digital. We’ve read worse.
-Dan ⭐⭐

Bizarre and little bit boring. Not the Barbie fantasy I was looking for.
-Jake ⭐⭐

Doomsday Clock

WARNING! There might be a few spoilers for the original Watchmen series below. If you haven’t read this seminal classic graphic novel then more fool you!

The one-word summary review

A special one-word review of Doomsday Clock part 1.

  • Dan: Arse ⭐⭐
  • Jake: Uurgh ⭐⭐
  • Tom: Wank ⭐⭐

If you’re still not 100% sure what we thought of this travesty then please, dear reader, continue onwards to …

The full review

So, it appears that DC are determined to strip-mine Alan Moore’s Watchmen opus for all it’s worth. A few years back we had the dull and redundant Before Watchmen prequels focusing on key characters from the original 12-part series.

Now DC are using Doomsday Clock to kick off the process of tying the previously discrete Watchmen universe into the larger DC continuity.

The actual DC doomsday clock

I’ll be honest here - I’m not really familiar with the ins-and-outs of current DC continuity, nor do I particularly care for the convoluted mish-mash of ever changing origins. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Rebirth, New 52, Flashpoint or any of the other multiversal crisis’ that shook our favourite heroes to the core.

Of the three of us, Tom was most likely to know how things stand in the DCU. He knows a fair bit about the various continuity shakeups at DC. In contrast, Jake has been experiencing hero-fatigue before and has fallen out of love with DC.

Who’s watched the Watchmen?

Before talking about Doomsday Clock we need to acknowledge the long shadow cast by the original series. Jake, Tom and I had all read the original Watchmen at least once before. I don’t think that any of us wanted to take on the job of reviewing Doomsday Clock without a refresher of the source material.

I’d hope you don’t need me to tell you quite how good Watchmen really is. It can be quite a challenging read thought and Tom had originally found it a bit of a chore to grind through the 12 issues, complete with detailed back-matter. Jake embraced Watchmen’s inherent complexity and has always held it in high esteem.

“For me, this was sunk by the fact that the TV series is really, really good” — Jake

Over the years I’ve bought a fair few copies, only losing them to loans (“You have to read this!”), floods, fires and general forgetfulness. It has shaped my comic book reading to this very day and will continue to be somewhat of a high-water mark for comic book quality.

Tick Tock goes the Doomsday Clock

The first thing that struck all of us was the cover to this collected edition - it’s proper awful. It’s peculiarly uninspiring cover that, unfortunately, sets the tone for what’s to be found inside.

That’s not specifically an art thing - Gary Frank’s complex, Gibbons-aping detailed line work is one of the high points of the whole shebang. Mr Frank had been sharing panels and pages on Twitter and I was really enjoying his detailed lines and tight compositions.

Some lovely line work from Gary Frank

It’s pretty clear that Frank was picked for this gig as his work bears a superficial resemblance to Dave Gibbons’ beautiful art work. It’s not quite as distinctive as Gibbons though - there’s a lack of personality, charm and individuality there. Frank is a very good DC house artist and, from that perspective, he’s the perfect penman for this project.

New blood

Although some original Watchmen characters appear in this volume, the narrative is led by two new characters - Mime and Marionette. These two are small time criminals from the Watchmen universe, sprung from incarceration to serve some larger nebulous purpose.

Marionette and Mime

I can’t say I’m a fan of their design and there are suggestions of certain… abilities that don’t tally with the WU. Tom thought Marionette was a little too close to Harley Quinn in both design and personality but quite enjoyed her arc. Jake thought they were both a bit rubbish.

“Well that was as bad as I expected it to be” - Dan

Sidenote: I wondered whether Mime and Marionette had been mentioned in the original Watchmen, in the copious back matter or some offhand reference. Turns out this is not the case. However it appears that they are, like the original Watchmen cast before them, updates of old Charlton characters.

So, points for effort there, just not for execution.

You have to earn your keep

And this is the case throughout. Nothing really feels earned. Geoff Johns goes out of his way to try and shoehorn as much of the original in but it feels like lip-service and clunky homage.

Doomsday Clock borrows everything from character designs and script beats to whole layouts (Hey there claustrophobic 9-panel layout ol’ buddy!). It even goes so far as to replay whole key sequences shot-for-shot, panel-for-panel.

Ronch Ronch

The original Watchmen cast get a bit of a DC makeover too. There’s a new Rorshach in town, complete with iconic ink blot mask and a backstory so shoddy you have to wonder how anyone thought it would be a good idea. There are flashes of snappy dialog from Nu-Rorschach that almost capture the WU vibe, particularly when they’re interacting with Batman/Bruce Wayne. Jake thought Nu-Schach was OK, Tom not so much.

The original Rorschach

The new Rorschach

Ozymandias is also still knocking around although his character has undergone some rather radical personality changes. I wasn’t buying it. Tom was fairly certain Viedt had died in the original book and was surprised to see him return. His weird lynx pet thing, Bubastis, also makes a comeback after being disintegrated at the end of Watchmen. As a cat-person I was pleased to see Bub back up and running.

Unsurprisingly we see very little of the only real superhero in the Watchmen universe, Dr Manhattan. It appears Doc is/was being saved for the second half of the series. It makes sense that DC would save the big guns for later on as it’s already been made clear that Doc M’s omnipotence is the catalyst for the next reshaping of the DCU.

Dr Manhattan - He's in it for a bit but not much

The Comedian’s in it a bit too. He’s still a proper bastard but it’s nice to see him again.

Old faves and greatest hits

And it gets worse once the story dimension-hops to the DC side. Johns rolls out the same old faces that we see in every big DC spectacular and, to be perfectly honest, it’s incredibly dull.

I don’t think that I can articulate quite how bored of The Joker I am - it’s time to let that clown go. Similarly Lex Luthor’s constant reinvention is running thin. Yes, I can see how Luthor and Veidt might be considered mirror-images of one another but it’s just tired, uninspired comic book writing.

Jake was pretty quick to make the point that this is most definitely a DC book with some Watchmen characters wedged in. And therein lies another hefty problem - the two universes just don’t mesh. Moore’s world was a deconstruction of the superhero myth and a place where there was but one omnipotent super being. The DC universe is full of ‘em.

“This is the lift muzak version of Watchmen” — Tom

All of this is basically in service of a story that’s just designed to stuff some fo the greatest comic book characters into a world they were never meant to inhabit. I can’t help but sense a cynical, money-driven exercise, creatively bereft and devoid of any reason to exist other than to wring more money of Big Al’s legacy.

It gets precisely nowhere in trying to make the DC universe more relevant, cooler or more important.

Oh, and Doomsday Clock. DC. The clue’s in the title.

Bone Vol 1

In the CBC we try to steer away from reading anything too familiar.

It forces us to steer away from the easy options and the old favourites when we are running short of ideas. It’s in the rules.

So I can definitely say that I’ve never read Bone before.

Bone tired

Then I started reading Bone volume 1. And I started remembering.

Way back in the day I’d purchased a ‘Banned Comics’ Humble Bundle (You do Humble, right? If not you really should do - there’s some great stuff on there!). It appears that the first volume of Bone was included in that pile of comics alongside more obviously spicy stuff like Black Kiss! Weird.

Here’s the Comic Book Defense leagues run down of why Bone was banned in several schools in the US

Anyway, I digress. It turns out I have read Bone before. Or, more accurately, I have tried to read it before. I didn’t get very far. Which is why I thought I hadn’t read it in the first place. Oh dear…

Bone-headed

Bugbear number one: The names - Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, Bone, Boneville. I’m annoyed just thinking about them. Tom and Jake weren’t quite so irritated by this as I was. Apparently Smith started writing/drawing this when he himself was a kid which could explain a few things.

I don’t really get the Bonevillians either. The cartoony look just puts me off straight away. Are they Moomins? They sure look like Moomins. Maybe we can just leave it at ‘inspired by’ and be done with it.

Character design based on shapes made by used chewing gum?

Jake rather liked the styling stating that ‘cute things under threat is basically my thing’. Tom loved the look too as it plays to his strong animation sensibilities.

The colour version is for those who can’t cope with black & white books

Tom

I’m starting to feel like a grumpy old fart at this point.

Bone dry

So I’m not a fan of our cast, how about the script?

Most reviews seem to consider Bone a stone cold classic. The book comes laden with plaudits left, right and centre.

I couldn’t help but feel that it was pretty thin gruel laddled over the top of some cutesy, twee croutons. It’s a mish-mash of epic tales such as Lord of the Rings and American newspaper cartoon strips such as Peanuts or Garfield.

Jake wasn’t quite certain where it was all headed during volume 1 but didn’t feel like reading it was a chore. He wondered whether Smith had a plan at all or if things would just continue on as a series of vignettes with some vague backstory tying it all together.

It’s a fluffy work of some depth

Jake

Tom, however, was well aware of exactly where the story would go. It turns out Mr Evans is a Bone superfan and brought all 9 volumes of Bone to the meetup. Tom was of the impression that the story became a bit more cohesive in the later volumes and that Smith definitely had a plan for where it was going to go. Jake confirmed that things came together a lot more, story-wise, after the cow race.

It’s got a cow race in it (I don’t consider that a spoiler BTW). That should tell you all you need to know about what I thought of the story. Feel free to skip to my score if you’ve had enough of my moaning.

A land of adventure spread out before them

For something that falls squarely into the category of ‘funnybook’ not many of the jokes hit home for me. There’s a handful of clever visual gags - a mysterious enemy who’s speech bubbles disappear underneath their heavy cowl - and a couple of (married?) rat creatures who indulge in some amusing banter.

I was vaguely interested in what the big bad wanted with the ‘one with the star’ but not enough to actually bother reading past the first book. In that, I was the only one as both Jake and Tom devoured the entire run (books 1-9) with gusto.

Just me then? Yup.

A Thorn(y) problem

So, there’s one final thing I’d like to talk about. Early on in volume 1 we’re introduced to Thorn, a human girl, who lives with her grandma in a cabin in the woods. So far, so classic fairytale setup, amiright?

From the moment they meet Bone is clearly infatuated with Thorn. Initially Thorn appears oblivious to Bone’s fawning and awkwardness around her. Then Smith introduces some weirdly sexualised elements that sit at odds with the cartoony nature of the book. It’s almost subtle - a slim outstretched leg, a hint of cleavage, bare shoulders shrugging off a blanket.

Maybe I'm just getting old but this is weird

By ‘normal’ comic book standards it’s all very innocent. But I couldn’t help but find this coquettish behaviour uncomfortable and out of place.

Once again Tom and Jake were quick to point out that, as expected, Thorn does become a key player in the story. I’d like to think that she becomes more than just a stereotypical ‘girl-in-the-woods’.

TL;DR

Everybody loved it apart from me. No change there then :-)

Completely biased. I already have an ingrained love of this book
- Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Is Bone always naked?
- Dan ⭐⭐

You have to respect the single-mindedness behind it
- Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Snagglepuss

Of late our choice of books had been steering very much away from Big Two books and I wanted to see if we had missed anything, without stepping too deeply into the ongoing plots of shared universe comics. Back in 2016 DC Comics started an initiative called Hanna-Barbera Beyond, where they took characters like Scooby Do, The Flintstones, Wacky Races and Johnny Quest and reimagined them as modern, edgy characters. It sounded like a huge disaster waiting to happen, and yet three years later word was there had been some true gems.

Two hits, two misses?

I plumbed for one of the shorter series: Snagglepuss. He was a character I remembered as an ensemble show second stringer, possibly on Yogi’s Treasure Hunt but Hanna-Barbera made so many cartoons it’s impossible for me to be sure. But I certainly recalled Mr Puss’ catch phrase Heavens to Murgatroyd! and the way he finished sentences with …even!

I really didn’t know what to expect with this book and it’s certainly not a comic for children. Russell has taken the point at which Snagglepuss started appearing on TV in 1959 and worked backwards in the real history of the United States, focussing on the political paranoia and the prejudices towards gay culture. Jake found the McCarthyism plot and the way Puss had been turned into Tennessee Williams a little heavy handed but is more familiar with that period than I and liked the references. He was able to get it all without the full glossary found at the back of the collection. For me that was a nice touch!

Snagglepuss attends the final performance

Dan also rather enjoyed the story. He was pretty upset by the section on the Stonewall Riots, I realise now we were actually discussing the event almost 30 years to the day. The book positions Puss as an important figure within the LGBT community of the time but he is not present when the police raid begins. Sadly other characters in the story are not so lucky. The book’s plot really comes together afterwards and comes to a satisfying conclusion, which is to be expected when that is the point Russell began!

Huckleberry Hound at the Stonewall Raid

None of us were too enamoured with the art. Dan called it vanilla, like a whole series drawn by a fill in artist and Jake took particular dislike to the depiction of Marilyn Monroe. At least Feehan can draw horses well! But the series covers and even the short story that begins the book are much more to my liking. The proportioning up of standard cartoon aesthetics, particularly in the groinal region, do not help matters either.

Overall, this is a successful book and one that will resonate more with American readers or those with an interest in US culture of the 1950s. Mark Russell also wrote the Hanna-Barbera Beyond Flintstones series, which Jake had read. He thought that book did a more elegant job of grafting social tension to the original cartoon. It also has Steve Pugh on art, which is a win for me.

-Tom ⭐⭐⭐

Here we see how subversion in art gives society direction, as art must be subversive or it dies on its feet. We need the freaks and the weirdos, else we live in dullness.
-Dan ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The LGBT aspect was handled nicely, which you can’t often say. A well-constructed arc with good character voices.
-Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Beasts of Burden - Animal Rites

Another talking animal book Dan? Yup. Get over it.

Once again, we’re back on the realms of me trying to find new CBC picks from random internet lists of ‘The 17 best comic books you’ve never heard of’. Beasts of Burden came up a few times and the premise sounded intriguing. I was never going to turn down the opportunity to read a mashup of Lassie and the X-Files.

One (very positive) review also mentioned that they believed Beasts of Burden vol 1 contained the single most affecting panel in comic book history. That’s quite a claim. I want to see this panel. I mean, I think I want to see this panel. Maybe I don’t.

We’ll come back to it a bit later. Skip to the end if you just want to know about that.

WAIT!I've written a whole review!

Still here? Good. Lets talk Beasts of Burden!

It’s written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Jill Thompson. I’d heard of Dorkin’s Milk & cheese but never read it as it looked too… cartoony for my particular tastes. Tom had the same vague recollection as I about M&C ads in the back of 90s Dark Horse books. Jake had never heard of the guy or anything to do with a talking milk carton and a block of sentient Gouda. That’s probably for the best.

Jill Thompson is most well-known for her work on Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman series. Jake wasn’t a fan of Thompson’s line-led Sandman stuff and cam in with fairly low expectations. Tom and I knew the name but couldn’t really conjure up any real opinion one way or another.

So it was a genuine pleasure to discover that Thompson’s art in BoB is really rather lovely. Her dreamily watercolour panels capture the essential daftness of the books premise while still maintaining a sense of unexpected gravitas. The animals - dogs, cats and others - are beautifully portrayed, treading a fine line between photo realism and subtle cartooning.

Jill Thompson's animal art is rather beautiful

The few human’s that appear in the book don’t fare quite so well under Thompson’s brush - they often feel rushed and just a bit… wonky. However the focus of this book are the animals and it’s there that Thompson’s art shines.

Hits the sweet spot between hyper-real and cartoony

Tom

Dorkin’s stories that underpin the visual spectacle has its moments too. Both Jake and Tom felt that it dragged a little at the start. Jake complained of an overly wordy first few pages giving him ‘the fear’ for the rest of the volume. However, once issue one’s mcguffin is revealed things quickly pick up and the volume rattles along nicely.

Or should that be ‘nastily’? For a book that feels like it should/would sit squarely on the YA shelves Beasts of Burden goes to some pretty dark places. Of particular note are a pack of zombified dogs, rendered in disgusting detail. For Tom, these undead canines played on his childhood fear of dogs and made this chapter a bit tricky to get through.

Lovingly rendered zombie canines!

Jake referred to the structure as following a ‘storybook’ approach - short, sharp chunks of story with bite. The formulaic approach of intro, setup, investigation, twist and denouement felt right given the intended audience and established themes. The shocks and twists were genuine and (mostly) earned which made all three of us old dogs happy.

Still, just like the A-team, nothing stays dead in the world of BoB. Our various protagonists frequently appear to have been sent to the great kennel in the sky only for it to be later revealed they somehow survived. Nothing is permanent in Beasts of Burden. Nothing really sticks.

Or maybe it does. I think it’s about time I talk about that panel.

I stared at this beautiful, horrifying image for a good 5 minutes. It genuinely stopped me in my tracks. Dead. I love it and hate it at the same time.

It was, is, a genuinely astonishing piece of art that gives me pause every time I think about it. The first time I saw it I had to gather my thoughts of the floor before I could move on through the book. That’s quite an achievement in a pulpy funny-book about talking animal detectives.

I don’t believe either Tom or Jake had quite as strong a reaction to it as I but they were both struck by the power and elegance of Thompson’s execution.

A hidden gem
- Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I far prefer animals to humans so this works for me
- Dan ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Joyful, surprising and really quite funny
- Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐