4 Kids Walk Into A Bank

It had much promise: a set of well-designed covers, an excellent score on goodreads and a collection of respected writer’s quotes. Sadly, while BKV said “Exploding with ambition and love of the medium”, Rosenberg and Boss’ ambition sadly failed in the execution.

Nice covers, chaps!

Having grown up in the 80s, all three of us have a background in the culture being referenced in this book. We like D&D, we like video games, we like OTT action movies. But right now there’s a proliferation of this stuff in the media; superhero movies are being set in the past for the retro-factor, tv shows are aping the horror tropes of the video nasty and certain writers who have already been mentioned are also drawing on the era and doing it much better. That’s the key sadly: we thought this was a bad comic.

Jake specifically called out the writing of the lead character Paige, a “12 year old girl” who speaks and acts in no way like one. Our group are all fathers to daughters and felt we all knew how a girl would act! By the end of the book she wasn’t even drawn as a girl, and Dan complained that the skin tones used were salmon pink.

Oppressive panel layout

The other 3 kids are rounded out in a typical stereotype fashion although Jake said they had doubled up on geeks. We found the antagonists weird plus the joke of the very little mentioned foreign exchange student just came across as racist.

As I said the creators were clearly were trying to do something clever and each issue is structured with a fantasy sequence at the beginning. But it comes across as very trying. Dan was bothered by the use of facsimiles to real things: “Flight Attendant Roxy” and “Man Him”. He pointed out that in Quentin clear-influence Tarentino’s Reservoir Dogs the side conversation is actually about Madonna.

Spot the toys

Even the book itself makes a joke of the fact its half way done before we see “The fucking bank. Finally!” but we were all well over it already by that point. The action ramps up in the final issue and caught us off guard but we felt it was an ill-advised ending, and the final pages were once again badly executed.

The bank!

I don’t recommend this book at all. Tyler Boss tries his hand at aping Chris Ware’s layouts in places and mostly has an art style reminiscent of Batman: Year One era David Mazzucchelli, but he’s got a long way to go yet. And that’s also a point worth making: this is actually what began as a college project. From what I have heard publishers Black Mask Studios seem less interested in providing editorial guidance and more in simply giving a platform for new creator-owned products. In this case we thought a bit of a helping hand might have gone a long way to moulding the book into a more satisfying finished piece.

Despite our opinions, Rosenberg has gone on to write for Marvel and Tyler Boss has work at both Image and Archie. It’s quite likely they both look back at this book as “something they once did”. For me, it’s “something I once read”.

-Tom ⭐⭐

Tries to walk the line between homage, pastiche and satire but fails to recognise when it’s turned into a circle and tipped over. The coda was bollocks. Have these creators spoken to anyone real recently?
-Dan ⭐⭐

If this book had a really good editor it might have worked. Kids robbing a bank would have worked but this doesn’t. It’s a missed opportunity.
-Jake ⭐⭐

Grandville

It was always going to be about Bryan Talbot’s art.

From Luther Arkwright through Nemesis and Alice in Sunderland, we’ve all been fans of his chunky, muscular and detailed lines. There’s an inherent sense of sweeping grandeur to everything Talbot draws - no matter how intimate a story or how weird the subject.

Nemesis the warlock - 2000AD cover

I can’t help but think of Talbot as an artist first and foremost. To this end it regualrly slips my mind that he cut his comics ‘teeth’ writing and drawing the dense, complex Luther Arkwright saga in the 80s. I loved Arkwright’s underground, punky ‘zine’ feel - the thin, black & white issues felt dangerous and illicit, lacking the production polish of mainstream books. Talbot’s art in Luther Arkwright was simply exquisite.

The artwork in Luther Arkwright is just exquisite

Do stop and look at that panel a little longer before moving on. It’s wonderful.

But what about Grandville?

For me, it’s something of an oddity. I don’t gravitate towards anthropomorphised animal stories - they’re often twee, sentimental and irritating. Only WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely ever hit the spot for me. That was probably down to the general nihilism of the story itself.

I might have cried at the end of WE3. But don’t tell anyone that.

I can’t say that Grandville made me shed a tear. I’m not sure it made me feel anything to be absolutely honest. Which is a bit sad really.

Grandville hardback cover complete with textured moiré effect

Grandville is a far more pulpy and populist take on weaponised fauna than WE3. Somehow it manages to be both adult in theme and vaguely childish at the same time. I’m not quite sure how to take it.

Talbot’s approach to anthropomorphism is basically to wedge a proportional animals head on a human torso, chucking in the odd tail or appendage where necessary.

The resulting chimeras are gently disturbing, awkward and, in some cases, uncomfortably sexualised. The lead character - a (man)badger (badger(man)?) called LeBrock <groan> - is all glistening torso and coiled muscle hidden under a Victorian great coat.

It’s like Beatrix Potter on steroids and seemingly aimed at those who found Mrs Tiggywinkle ‘strangely attractive’.

Mexican stand-off

A little bit of idle research on the interwebs reveal that Talbot drew artistic inspiration and, indeed the series name, from the 18th century French caricaturist Jean Ignacio Isidore Gerard. Gerard was most commonly known by the pseudonym J.J. Grandville. Grandville (the artist) created exquisite caricatures depicting the same chimeric creations as Talbot’s almost 150 years later. Grandville the comic book is a very obvious homage to Grandville the artist.

Caricature by J.J Grandville

There’s poo everywhere but no pets. Who’s pooing in the street?

Tom

And how I wish Talbot had stuck firmly to his Grandville-aping and retained the detailed line art. The launch of the first volume of Grandville in 2009 sees Talbot smack in the middle of his digitally-enhanced art phase. We were all a bit sad that his typically gorgeous line work had been smothered with digital colour and splashy PhotoShop effects. There’s a gaudiness to it all that feels slick and inelegant. Worst of all, it feels cheap. But not in a good way.

Tom felt that things improved at the point a colour ‘flatter’ was brought in (about half way through the run). Jake, being a diehard Talbot fan, could see the positives and relished the scenes where Talbot’s steampunk sensibilities, honed on Nemesis and Arkwright, ran free.

Less Tarantino more Guy Ritchie

Jake

The story itself is thin and full of ham-fisted cultural references that fall completely flat more often than not.

Jake was particularly uncomfortable with the obvious attempt to link 9/11 with a similar terrorist atrocity in the book by using the phrase ‘ground zero’. It’s a heavy-handed trick and almost totally unsuccessful. We all would’ve preferred the story to stick closer to it’s pulpy roots and just tell us a damn good tale.

Tom made it past the problems with the story and could enjoy the book for what it was. It did remind him of other ‘FuzzPulp’ books on the market such as Blacksad, which, with heavy heart, he stated was ‘probably better than this’.

Tom’s Blacksad reference is an interesting one as we all agreed the book feels like a European comic - something from a specialist Italian or French publisher. The casual violence, overt sexuality and weird pacing, especially the denouement that wraps up a huge global conspiracy in 2 pages of tightly-packed WTF, all contribute towards the sense that the book’s English translation was sorely lacking.

Everyone in this book hates the English. I can totally understand that.

Dan

So, long story short, it’s a disappointing but enjoyable romp. Tom and I won’t be buying any more of the (rather pricey) hardbacks in the series but Jake might give the rest a go.

And yeah, it’s another one of my choices with a red and black cover. I guess I have ‘a type’ after all ;-)

Credo!

Glad I’ve read it. Won’t read any more.
- Tom ⭐⭐⭐

Did he just cut off a chimpanzee priest’s ear with a flick knife? Yes, yes he did.
- Dan ⭐⭐⭐

It tries to be like Alan Moore and fails
- Jake ⭐⭐⭐

Rock Candy Mountain

Happy New Year from The Comic Book Club! My last choice of 2018 was Kyle Starks’ eight issue miniseries Rock Candy Mountain from Image Comics. I knew nothing about the series going in; I liked the title as it made me hum the tune featured in O Brother, Where Art Thou? whenever I read it. Pretty quickly I realised Starks was also the creator of Sexcastle, a book The Club had read on the side at my suggestion before. Sexcastle was very much a one man creation whereas Rock Candy Mountain has the addition of colours by Chris Schweizer.

gun-chucks!

Rock Candy Mountain is about hobos, hobo life and one hobo’s quest to find the titular mountain. See, he knows the way. It is very much a comedy book with some fantastic laugh out loud moments, crazy characters and artwork that falls squarely in the ‘cartoony’ category. Starks packs a huge amount of content into his issues and the action keeps on chugging along throughout, picking up pace in the second collected volume as we learn more about the protagonist Jackson and why he is on his quest.

Everyone knows Jackson

Dan was apprehensive about the book and found the art off-putting. Cartoony really isn’t his thing and he took a particular dislike to Jackson’s nose which annoyed him intensely. He read volume one without paying much attention but luckily came out thinking he’d enjoyed it! He thought the brown colour scheme was very much the colour-way of the Deep South, matching that found in Jasons Aaron & Latour’s Southern Bastards. When your overall theme is Sweaty Brown it’s easy to make things pop with other colours such as token non-hobo Pomona Slim’s blue suit and the burning reds of The Devil. Yes, The Actual Devil features in this comic.

The Actual Devil

Jake said the book was a quick read too and had time to return to the first volume after having completed the second. He found Starks’ portrayal of ultra-violence didn’t mesh with the style of the art and also had an issue with Jackson’s nose. He thought the set pieces in book two worked better but overall wasn’t too interested in the quest aspects of the story. He would have liked to have seen more of Pomona Slim and for his arc to have been rounded out better.

Mulligan Stew

For me the cartoony art is bang on the money and I see a touch of Pixar artist Scott Morse’s style in Stark’s drawings. The storytelling is clear and the comedy right-on. The only aspect I didn’t like falls into spoiler territory so quit reading now if you’re looking to read yourself: la de dum de dee filling a line with junk just to make sure you don’t accidentally read the next section de dum de doo. The flashback section which opens the second book was a great way of filling the character’s backstory but I feel using Hitler and the Spear Of Destiny is rather old hat and has been seen lots of times before. Here it’s a mcguffin and the Deus ex Machina which gives Jackson a way to defeat his foe. Maybe that’s just Starks’ writing style - play off the recognisable in a humorous way. It certainly worked in Sexcastle, which was the most nineties action movie ever.

Fist-fights aplenty

“A great romp. Funny, bloody & satisfying.”
-Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Enjoyable! The brownest book since Rust (other colours are included).”
-Dan ⭐⭐⭐

“I Loved the trains; I’m happy I got to read this.”
-Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mage: The hero discovered

Like a fair few of my comic book reading brethren, my first experience of Matt Wagner’s work was through his epic Grendel saga.

The ever-changing rota of artists, including Wagner himself, lent Grendel an unpredictable, underground aesthetic that veered from precise black and white to day-glo 80s futurism and dark, disturbing surrealism.

It was while reading Grendel, first published by Comico and later by Dark Horse, I saw that Wagner had another long-term project simmering away on a back-burner. Ads in the back of my Grendel monthlies had some bloke in a neat lightning icon t-shirt waving what looked like a glowing, magical baseball bat. The book was called Mage. I was curious, and that t-shirt was awesome, but not enough to follow it up. As the years passed I continued to hear bits about Mage, often couched in glowing terms like ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘the single greatest comic book about magic baseball bats ever printed’.

I figured I’d probably give it a go sooner or later. It took 20 years but here we are.

The ultimate 90s collection from Starblaze

Not really knowing what I was buying into I ended up with a couple of rather garish and cheaply printed US collections sourced from EBay. This may have been a shrewd fiscal decision on my part but the overall quality was pretty shabby. They smell like the 90s too…

Tom actually had the whole run of single issues re-printed by Image in the early 00s. They weren’t the best quality, printed on stiff, crunchy paper and oddly bound. They were also digitally re-coloured using a sharper, more acid palette than the originals.

Jake had never heard of Mage before and hedged his bets by going digital. His digital versions fell somewhere inbetween Tom’s gaudy 00s floppies and my shiny 90s softback volumes.

Artistic values

So, I open up the first volume, take an involuntary mouthful of air and think:

“F**king hell! This looks awful!”

I was really rather broadsided by how loose, scruffy and unpolished Wagner’s art is in Mage. It’s clear that this is right at the very start of his comics career and that, although obviously talented, he’s still finding his way with composition and pacing.

Tom was onboard with the raw styling but bemoaned the dodgy digital colouring in his reprint editions. The cheap shiny paper in my collections exacerbated some rather eccentric colouring decisions in the earlier versions too. Jake wasn’t too fussed either way. The art style seemed vaguely familiar and he really enjoyed the expressive hand lettering throughout.

American mythic

The story itself is a bizarre mash-up of Arthurian myth and blue collar Americanisms. While fairytale whimsy isn’t really my thing, I’m a sucker for people smacking trolls with magically-imbued sports equipment so I tried to get on board with it. The disparate pieces didn’t quite come together for Jake - the fantastical parts sitting too jarringly at odds with the grittier real world elements.

There’s also a heck of a lot of exposition gumming up what should be a relatively simple story. Wagner tries to flesh out his characters beyond their clichéd fairytale roots but it doesn’t quite get there. Where a more experienced storyteller might have made something more dynamic, Mage starts to drag and never quite escapes its own self-importance.

Character assassination

Aside from the main protagonist - Kev Matchstick - a couple of the supporting characters drew mixed opinions. Tom and I found Mirth, the magical hippyesque Merlin-figure, excruciatingly annoying in his language, mannerisms and general smugness. Jake was a little kinder, citing Mirth as the only thing actually pushing Matchstick onwards towards some kind of character development.

Not Mirth the effort?

Kev’s ‘Foxy Brown’ blaxploitation sidekick Edsel, the initial wielder of the magical baseball bat, comes across as a clumsy anachronism and rather out of place in this day and age.

Who is Kevin Matchstick?

And what of Kevin, the titular Mage himself? It’s been suggested that Mage is intentionally autobiographical and that Kevin is, to all extents and purposes, Matt Wagner. They certainly look alike.

Matt Wagner or Kevin Matchstick?

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Mage is just Matt Wagner’s life with some added Pendragon. Jake really couldn’t warm to Kevin, finding him an unpleasant character who acts like a spoilt teenager throughout. Lets hope Jake and Matt never meet in person.

Rounding it all up there’s a seriously weird bit at the end of volume 1 where Kev confesses to Mirth that he killed a dog. It’s an uncomfortably personal anecdote that feels like a genuinely guilty confession used as a narrative device. Given the autobiographical nature of Mage it leads me to wonder whether Wagner actually did kill his own dog.

Jeez, that’s a horrible thought. I still want a Mage t-shirt though. They’re mint.

Why can’t he draw necks?
- Tom ⭐⭐⭐

Did Matt kill his own dog?
- Dan ⭐⭐⭐

Wagner doesn’t do enough to earn the right to play fast and loose with all these mythological tropes
- Jake ⭐⭐⭐

Extremity

It’s fair to say that when I’m looking for a book to pick, I look to the art first. In the case of Extremity I was looking to Daniel Warren Johnson’s (DWJ) Instagram posts and in this case I was blown away. He had some fantastic fan art of Transformers and Star Wars, two franchises close to my heart! He has even drawn a mini-comic called Green Leader that you can read online for free and as of yet he has not been sued by Disney. It’s that good.

Transform and roll out!

I heard of his webcomic Space Mullet via the 11 O’clock Comics Podcast, who did a great interview with him prior to working on Extremity (here), and was keen to see if his storytelling matched up to his artistic chops. Space Mullet I decided would be a harder sell to the group, not least because it is incomplete: the Dark Horse Edition is only half the story and due to his paid endeavours he is yet to wrap up the online serialisation. I was fortunate that the timing of my choice coincided with the release of the second Extremity TPB so the option was there for people who wanted to read the whole thing in that format. Dan it turned out had read the first issue before as part of a Humble Bundle, but had very little recall as it was jammed in with a whole bunch of other stuff from that deal. Jake was lucky enough to find a comixology sale in time for our meetup so he was able to complete the story as well.

Travels through space, has a mullet

Reading the book it’s immediately clear how strong DWJ’s handle on the medium is. There’s no rules to his page layouts; he knows when to work a grid, when to go dense and when to open up for a grand reveal. And oh those splash pages are gorgeous to behold! All of which is rather sickening when you realise he only started working in comics earlier this decade.

Did I say it was gory? Well, yes it's gory

Jake and I were waiting for Dan to cite the Paul Pope influence on the art style and although he did, it was as a compliment. He loved the grungy character designs, especially Jerome with his Death Spade and mask of teeth. Jake pointed out that Pope’s Batman 100 featured a mask of teeth as well. I called out the manga influence in the speed lines and character faces but later also learnt that specifically Appleseed is a big influence for him. The technique of rendering in a distorted manner can be seen in that Manga. I found that particular touch to be a visual boon on top of DWJ’s ability to draw just the right moment in each panel, emphasising weight, impact and reactions in the characters. There’s also a fantastic use of drawn sound effects on almost every page, be it a small toss as a book is discarded, the WH-TONG of a knockout hammer to the head or SPLUTCH as a monster is cleft in two. It’s just another part of what makes this a real comic-booky read.

No arachnophobia here

In this book DWJ has built a fantastic world. It appears to be a long distant future of our own, and there are some nice Easter Eggs that show this to be the case. Dan thought it was a labour of love. Just the creator with his excellent colourist Mike Spicer putting together this tight twelve issue story with no fat and a whole lot of unique touches. Jake saw echoes of Mortal Engines with its Steampunk cities. Extremity is definitely a Post Tech world. Despite his usual dislike of giant robots, Jake thought this story earned its use here. The robot is just one combattant in the over-the-top action, joined by flying lizards, battering ram sky ships and other creatures from the depths of legend.

I read the two volumes on full tilt, it is very easy to follow the flow and get caught up in the action. By the time I got half way through the second volume though I was in need of going back and starting again. There is so much good stuff it would be a crime to miss it! Dan was concerned that the ending came around too quickly. He knew the final moments were upon him due to the length of the book but thought there was still much more that could be said. Jake thought there was lots of opportunity for other stories in the same world. Maybe DWJ would return for more spin-offs after his next project. Perhaps a Tales Of… with other creators drawing their own versions under his guidance.

KA0BOOM!

*I am giving this book full marks due to the sheer exhilaration of the read. As a fan of science fiction, coming of age stories and rampaging monsters I can barely fault it. I will be looking immediately to DWJ’s next project: MURDER FALCON!
-Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“This is the definition of what creator books are. Making the thing he wanted to do, all fun, double page spreads, throwing Krull, Star Wars and Game Of Thrones all into the mix. More comics should be like this, just end it when it’s right and do something else. He should be very proud of what he’s made.”
-Dan ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s a full-on fantasy thing. I rarely read books a second time but I will in this case, there’s so much to discover. It lacks humour and for that I won’t give it 5 stars but this is not a photocopy of something else, it’s a bunch of indulgence.
-Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author’s note: While formatting this article it occurred to me I completely forgot to mention the fact we have a female lead here. I tend to gloss over the specifics when I write reviews but wanted to point to this aspect in particular given the number of action heroines appearing in SF today. Thea is a complex character coming into leadership with conflicted turorship from her grieving father, and a brother who appears to be forging his own path. She is a girl whose story is worth following!

Thea at rest