A review of the limited comic series /graphic novel “The Wake”

This review is for an advanced reader’s edition uncorrected e-proof.

“The Wake” is a comic limited series, available now in graphic novel form, that tells the story of a group of scientists and specialists pulled together to study a strange life-form discovered at the bottom of the ocean.  Dr Lee Archer has studied Whale calls and associated marine phenomena, and soon suspects that the creature and it’s call is of significant importance.  What follows is a rapidly developing story that expands over a larger and larger canvas.  The creature gets loose and decimates the population of the rig before calling a huge papa creature and loads of mates.  These turn out to be the harbingers of a wider apocalypse on mankind, as cities flood, and the creatures invade.  The second part of the story follows an enigmatic young woman called Leeward and her Dolphin pal, inhabiting a post flood apocalypse continental mass that still centres on a remnant of American military power.  Leeward find a piece of radio transmitter and picks up a signal, seemingly from Dr Lee Archer, which may hold the clues not only to humanity’s salvation, but to its origins.

If this seems to hold a massive amount of imaginary conceit, it does.  Whether it holds together this ambitious narrative into an integral whole is debatable. The story begins with riffs on ‘Alien’ and sundry other “team of scientists investigate and then are pursued by a new horror” stories, whilst also channelling H.P Lovecraft’s “Shadow over Innsmouth” and his other stories of a terror from the deep.  It has also that Lovecraftan emphasis on monsters that can control and turn the human mind, and are reptilian, cold and utterly alien.   A word here on the creatures, the “Mers.”  Their design is one of the most successful components of the series.  Shadowy echoes of the Mermaid myth, they are a fast, deadly combinatios of razor claws and teeth, with a haunting whale like cry and abilities to shoot out a substance from their eyes that can cause people to hallucinate.

So from the “Alien” like first quarter we move on to a greater threat of numbers and a larger parent creature as with “Aliens,” before a huge change of gear that plunges us into post apocalypse drama, before referencing “Chariots of the Gods” and some very high concept science fiction.  For me the last sections were not wholly convincing, way too much of a stretch, and not entirely clear.  But still, it is good to be stretched and challenged and not dumb down.  But there is a sneaking suspicion it does not add up, or make sense.  But this is far outweighed by the massively entertaining ride of the story as a whole.  Scott Snyder’s writing powers the story along and is as immersive as its ocean setting.  Sean Murphy’s artwork and Matt Hollingsworth’s colours conjure a world of dark, cold underwater spaces and also in other sections, a shimmering, almost washed out quality to the colouring, as if the pages had been retrieved from the sea.  It makes the whole thing dream-like, as if things are always not quite in focus, which fits with the stories understanding of the human predicament.  The style also gives the Mer’s a shadowy menace, as if you are catching them out of the corner of your eye, a feeling the first ‘Alien’ film established so well.

This is an ambitious ride of turbulent imagination.

“Star Wars: Tarkin”by James Luceno: a review

This review is for an advanced copy/uncorrected proof

Ever since Peter Cushing entered the set of Star Wars “holding Vader’s leash” with his thin lipped sneer and Patrician angular features and manner, he has been a lynch pin in the imaginative universe of Star Wars.  His “You may fire when ready” signalling the doom of Alderran is one of episodes IV’s most memorable moments.

Here we get a splendid slice of space opera that describes Tarkin’s early years and upbringing, his rise both in the Republic and Imperial militaries, and his political advance.  Tarkin has learnt a Darwinian survival of the fittest code in the deadly jungles on his home world, having to survive a trial by ordeal surviving and hunting in the wild as an ultimate rite of passage.  From there he learns his own brand of vicious ruthlessness, which he applies to defending his home world from pirates and criminal gangs.  He sees that only the most brutal public executions will deter others from a similar course.  It is rule be fear, which of course finds its ultimate apotheosis with the Death Star.  He then joins the Republic military and fights in the Clone Wars, where he fights alongside one Anakin Skywalker.  He meets Chancellor Palpatine who hints at political greatness for him.  And following the events of Order 66 and the slaughter of the Jedi, he becomes rising star of the Empire.

With this backstory, that draws together the worlds of the classic Star Wars films, the prequels, and the Clone Wars cartoon series in a neat continuity fest, the novel also tells the tale of a hijacked Imperial Corvette and its band of rebel freedom fighter (a dynamic not unlike “Blake’s 7”), as they attack a string of Imperial targets whilst trying to avoid the tightening net of Tarkin and Darth Vader’s pursuit.  The pairing of Tarkin of Vader plays a big part of the story, and their relationship is well done, bringing added depth and dimensions to the team the played in episode IV.

The Emperor and his Cabal also features strongly in the story, and the descriptions of him moulding and shaping events whilst sensing in the Force the beginning of the Rebellion are very well done.

The book is great fun, a fast paced space fantasy and adventure that works in its own right, and a logical connector between various points in the Star Wars universe.  It is very far from the inconsequential filler between the main stories that I feared it may be.

“Are you not entertained?” A review of Darren Shan’s ZOM-B Gladiator

Warning, key spoiler to the ZOM-B series follows. Don’t read on unless you have at least read the first book in the series, ZOM-B.

B Smith is recuperating with Dr Oystein and the group of thinking, talking undead named the ‘Angels,’ that she can’t quite bring herself to call her friends, for fear of the violent loss she keeps experiencing.

Then, on a routine scavenging mission, it all goes wrong, and she is captured by “The Board,” perhaps the biggest monsters yet of the series by virtue of being human and consciously, deliberately evil.  They are the Bullingdon Club of the apocalypse, a collection of the rich and privileged who plan to become the worlds’ masters again, and who seek entertainment through Gladiatorial combat between the living and dead;  news of the thinking, talking, ‘Revitaliseds’ has reached them and they want one for their sport,  hence B’s capture.  Their numbers include a hideous child killer with undersized sailor outfit, and protruding belly,   an evil grotesque like Mr Dowling and Owl Man, but again made worse by virtue of being human and having chosen the sickest path imaginable.

The writer is good at linking these instalments into a coherent hall, and there’s fun to be had as characters and locations from previous books return here in a new perspective.  So we meet again here human hunters Barnes and Coley, and we find out why there was so much shooting from the HMS Belfry in ZOM-B City.

B’s journey and development makes a satisfying path here as she learns to live with the tension between friendship and fear of loss.  It’s the combination between a fast paced narrative and enjoyable, well rounded characters, monsters and humanity, which makes this such an addictive series.  I continue to recommend it.

“Mummmmmeeeee!” A review of “ZOM-B Baby” by Darren Shan

Warning: Spoiler alert. Read ZOM-B before reading this review. Massive spoiler contained.

B Smith has found a home; a leader with a mission from God; A mentor to teach her kick-ass fighting skills. And allies just like her, revitaliseds, zombies with a mind and conscience.

Or has she? If the ZOM-B saga has an over-arching message, it is, find your own way. Do the math. Do the spade-work. Get your hands dirty. In other words, don’t accept answers, or a world-view, on a plate. Test-out. Think. Work it out. If you arrive at a philosophy or faith or political side or world view by your own thinking, by your own testing with mind and heart, well then, you have been true to yourself, and your beliefs should serve you well. Accept on face value the sales patter of another, however, and then you risk integrity, and more.

This message started with the principled teacher Burke in ZOM-B as he challenges B’s racism. It is developed further here, as B wonders whether Doctor Oystein is madman or Prophet.   He claims to know the origin of the zombie plague and be on a mission from God to help eradicate it, against the satanic incarnation of the Hellish clown Mr Dowling and his hoodie mutants. B would like to believe him, but Burke’s words, and lessons from her own past, make her leave the Doctor’s safe refuge and strike out again across Zombie infested London. Can she trust what she has been told? B needs to see more of what is out there, and test it out. She will meet old friends; meet new ones, and the titular un-dead baby, who does not in fact make an appearance until the closing chapters of the book.

In this instalment there’s a big focus on religion, or faith. Doctor Oystein has it. Timothy the mad artist has it. B is not sure. She listens, but needs to think it out for herself, test it out in the crucible of a Hellish apocalypse. No answers are served for us in a plate. There’s an ambiguity to it all that keeps you hooked, and is in keeping with the theme of thinking it out for yourself.

As usual the writing is brisk and effective. There are some great set pieces. A race up the London eye, the appearance of the ZOM-B Baby, an attack on an art gallery; these are held in a swell paced narrative that uses its 12 book story arc to maximum effect. You can slowly deepen some mysteries whilst rapidly progressing others.

I don’t know which side the writer will land. I hope he doesn’t, and manages to sustain this tension. This is good, intelligent stuff, all the better for not flying a particular flag. Shan resists the temptation to go all Dawkins or all St Paul on us. His end message, conveyed so well to us by his be-clawed and be-fanged un-dead is, do your own homework.

A review of Darren Shan’s “ZOM-B Angels.”

Warning: spoiler alert; do not read if you have not read the first book of the series.

Becky Smith finds herself with a group of “Revitaliseds,” speaking, thinking undead creatures like her. We first met Revitaliseds in “ZOM-B Underground.” They are all teenagers (the reason for which we learn later, and it isn’t because the target demographic for these books is young adults!) under the tutelage of a Dr Oystein, a dapper, cultured adult Revitalised who seems to be on the side of the angels (indeed he calls his group of undead teens “Angels”). He is accompanied by characters from previous books in the series, mainly “Underground;” Reilly the bunker guard, Mr Burke the teacher, and Rage, who B loathes and distrusts after he killed a scientist and left his Revitalised compatriots for dead in “Underground.”

Together they are on a mission shaped and defined by Dr Oystein, and as B trains as an Angel in how to conduct gathering, scouting and rescue missions in London, and in martial arts under the determined Master Zhang, she begins to learn some of the origins to her condition and that of the apocalypse that has ravage the world.

This has less gore and action set pieces than its counterparts (although it has its moments), and concentrates on filling holes in the back story, bringing established characters together, and introducing us to pivotal new ones. Instead of a huge gory show down, the closing chapters relate the horror of the origins of the apocalypse. We finally learn the origin of this plague, the mutants and Mr Dowling (although only on the word of the Dr Oysetin), and it’s a satisfying piece of exposition. How far you buy into it will depend on how much you have invested in the series so far.

It’s a good and gripping read and really propels the story arc forward. As yet we do not know the origins of “Owl-man” but I have my guesses. I am definitely hooked and will carry on with this inventive and fun take on the undead.