By Olly MacNamee.
A monthly review spotlighting the best titles the UK indie press has to offer.
Christopher Marlowe and the Bards of Nementon (Markosia)
Nero Sphinx: Back In The Game (Future Quake Press)
Writer: Jasper Bark
Artist: Mick Trimble
Set against a depressing, crime-riddled 1930’s where organized crime rules the streets of Atros City and the face of organized crime is made up of the zombie hordes of the undead, Bloodfellas fuses crime-noir with 1950’s ECC horror sensibilities to create a crime story that’s filthy, decaying, corrupt reach stretches into Heaven itself tragically touching the lives of many along the way.
We are introduced to some rather unsavory characters throughout this story of crossroads, crossed lives and double-crossing, as the Zombioso’s godfather, Papa Sang, a failed priest and one of the few humans within the organization, plans the mother of all land grabs using every despicable trick in his bag to achieve the impossible.
This is an imagined America wherein 1920’s Prohibition gave rise not just to The Mafia (or rather, the Zombioso) and illegal liquor but also to the rise of the macabre mob’s number one seller, the illegal drug Ascension, which takes its users to a literal high, transporting even the worst of sinners momentarily to Heaven itself. But, this momentary buzz is nowhere near enough for Papa Sang, who wants an absolute assurance that he can eventually enter through the Pearly Gates himself, an eventuality he can only see being created, ironically, in the form of further sinful, criminal acts.
In his way stands any number of people, from the incorruptible District Attorney to disloyal undead enforcers in his own ranks, and, of course, the all-important ‘dame to kill for’, the sister of Atros City’s incorruptible DA, Samantha. To kidnap the former, Papa Sang ensured that his undead underlings literally lay in waiting, buried beneath the ground awaiting the DA and his sister’s attendance to a funeral. That’s some forward planning. Papa Sang is most definitely a man who plans ahead, meticulously and murderously. But, as with all best laid plans, this one goes awry all too quickly and it is not too long before Sang’s number one hit man, Slackjaw, falls in love with Samantha and the wheels are set in motion that will eventually result in a showdown like no other I have ever seen in a crime-noir. But then, this is a horror story too, and while God doesn’t like to tinker in our lives, others are not too ashamed to get their hands dirty.
Like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, this horror-noir thriller relates the tales of several Atros City citizens whose lives cross over in seemingly unrelated ways throughout the narrative. But then, when your characters include the Heavenly hordes themselves, surely God’s Will cannot be too far away.
The theme of crossroads and choices that face our would-be protagonists is ever-present and one can often be left wonder whether these choices were for the best, or even free choices at all. And, just as in Pulp Fiction, when the disparate threads weave together there is no guarantee of a happy ending. But then, this is both a horror story and a crime thriller with shady, sinful behavior from many of the cast. What else could one expect, given not all the characters are morally dubious to begin with?
A great, original concept for a graphic novel, that draws from both the history of the time, as well as from grassroots Blues legends, such as the ‘crossroads’ stories of that era that weaves itself skillfully throughout the narrative giving it a meaningful, well thought-out structure that resonates throughout the book and gives it a further layer of meaning once you have read the dramatic conclusion. Hats off to writer, Jasper Bark for creating a multi-layered narrative that encourages the reader to interact with this book and flick backwards and forwards throughout the graphic novel once another interesting intersection between two or more characters is revealed. Combined with the artwork of Mick Trimble, who captures both the horror and noir atmosphere – the shadows and the gore – of a corrupt, crime and zombie infested city and the ‘old-school’ four colour print style adopted by colourist, Aljosa Tomic (at times to better differentiate between the here and the now and the flashback sequences essential to the slow reveals noir stories rely upon to further the story) and you have a high-reaching crime-story with horror at its heart; the screaming bastard son to horror and crime comics of the past that successfully captures the 1950’s vibe it homages.
Christopher Marlowe and the Bards of Nemeton
Writer and Artist: Meirion Jones
And so onto one of the most bizarre of titles I have ever come across, with a rather grand but opaque title at that, suggesting that the hero of this sumptuous graphic extravaganza is none other than 16th century playwright and author of Dr Faustus, the enigmatic Christopher Marlowe, infamously murdered in a pub in Deptford in strange and unsolved circumstances. Well, that he is, and the story he becomes entangled in is one Hell of a ride to say the least, taking in elements of Marlowe’s own rather rebellious life story, unfortunate early death, as well as time and dimensional travel too. Oh, and a shadowy time lord like organization – The Bards of the Nemeton – made up of some of the greatest minds and storytellers from history, including amongst their numbers Shakespeare himself as well as Nietzsche and Jung, who battle it out for Marlowe’s powers; the ability to turn anything he can imagine into reality, just as he channeled this imagination into his few, magnificent plays before his untimely death back before Shakespeare’s meteoric rise in the vacuum left on the London stage by the murder of Marlowe.
As a huge fan of Anthony Burgess’s hard to find novelization of Marlowe’s life, A Dead Man in Deptford, I was always going to be drawn to this book, and was blown away by the unfolding story and art from the talented debut by Meirion Jones, mild-mannered management consultant by day, consummate comic book creator by night, especially the art. A highly realistic style with touches of Bernie Wrightson as well as the imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch guiding his brush, especially in the muscle-work and monsters found in the more macabre scenes, Jones has created a very polished and professional book that takes the reader on the head-trip of their life as Marlowe is thrown into a chaotic, time and dimension travelling caper that sets the Renaissance playwright as the world’s savior in a metaphysical war for humankind’s very consciousness itself. And, as such, it often lurches from one magnificent, surreal scene to another, leaping through time, dimensions and space to take on the feeling of free thought, unbridled and unfettered imagination. There is most definitely a beginning and an end, but what lies between the doors – or rather the pages – of perception can often be narratively loose, but I rather think that’s the point.
The journey to get to the summit is not always smooth or narratively cohesive, like a stream of consciousness. Our imaginations can be unruly and immense and it is in the artistic execution of this epic battle, orchestrated by Jones, which is the true delight to be had. Full-blown pages depicting Marlowe battling with gods and monsters are both awesome (in the true gothic sense of the word) and beautifully savage with a story that is as much part of the literary tradition of yesterday (with it’s main thrust taking place on the plains of the imagination just like Dante’s Inferno or even Chaucer’s Medieval dream vision poem, Parlement of Foules) as it is an embracing of the contemporary literature too, with strong elements of pure sci-fi added to the druidic cauldron in which Jones creates his heady potion. The language is in keeping with the Elizabethan brogue that Marlowe would have had, and which is mimicked in Burgess’s novel, himself being somewhat the linguistic magician too, as well as here and is often the source of the humour to be had in this epic tale, as Marlowe is not averse to the odd foul-mouthed rant or two, all delivered in the language of the day.
A book then that wants you, dares you, to return to re-read it, to pour over each and every page and feast your eyes on a phantasmagoria of shifting bodies, dimensions and diverse characters, from the descendants of Walsingham – Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster – who’s initial contact with Marlowe at the moment of his death causes him to make his first leap into his far flung future – to the demi-gods and deities who seek to attack Marlowe and the unchained power he possesses unknowingly. Like the Druids of the Nemeton themselves, Jones has brought his wild imagination to the fore and created a lucid, literary powerhouse of a graphic novel that does not patronize its reader, but rather challenges them and borrows from many different mythologies from around the world to create a rich, dense, illuminating canvas that is a wonder to behold. This reads at times like a long-lost chapter from the imagined history of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but with more pagan allusions. So, if you are a fan of Alan Moore’s wilder ramblings, you should undoubtedly check this out either here in the UK, or here in the US.
Nero Sphinx: Back In The Game
Writer: Daniel Whiston
Artists: Johnny McMonagle, James Kircough, Dave Thomson
Finally then for this month, a black and white collection of strips first published in the UK sci-fi anthology title, FutureQuake, that follows the comings and goings of con-man from the stars and eponymous titular anti-hero, Nero Sphinx, as he weaves his way through both fortune and misfortune while the galaxies around him start to fall apart and are plunged into a new dark age.
The story starts ten years in Sphinx’s past, where it is revealed he is part of a government sanctioned scavenger hunt through space in the hope of stumbling upon any helpful alien technology that can help them in their fight against alien forces, which are clearly on the ascension across the galaxies. Times must be desperate if the governments of the world are employing con artist to do their dirty work. But, Sphinx’s seemingly cozy position amongst more morally centered group does not last long, and fast forward ten years and we have a much more desperate, but stilling cunningly sharp, Nero Sphinx, minus his memories.
While each story does well to stand on it’s own merits and gives the reader a done-in-one reading experience, writer Daniel Whiston clearly has a master road plan for con-artist Nero Sphinx and as one reads through each chapter, a larger story – and Sphinx’s part in that bigger tapestry – is hinted at. A story of a universe on a course for absolute destruction, but only now as Sphinx’s memories begin to come back to him does he begin to have a inkling that he is destined for bigger and better things. Although, he has to be encouraged to take up the challenge as his own travels through space sees him reconciled with past colleagues he doesn’t initially recognize; Griffin, a spacefaring psionic powerhouse in a crisp, white business suit, and Fenris, an Amazonian humanoid (mostly) who is found by Sphinx in the very first story in mysterious, Prometheus-like circumstances, while looking for useful alien tech.
The artwork, from three very distinctly different artists, remind me at times of early 2000AD, with a roughness in some chapters that often befits the rundown, rotten scum-bucket planets the down-on-his-luck Sphinx often ends up on. Planets such as the inhospitable frozen planet, Kumeiijma, currently suffering from a 12,000 year ice age, where Nero is sought out by the enigmatic Fenris, here going by the name Ms Black and seemingly comfortable with his lack of memories of the past, or of her. Why she is now seeking him out is unclear at this point and helps add to the growing mystery that surrounds him and found me slowly drawn into this anti-hero’s adventures.
Clearly, while Sphinx’s part in this saga is something to be revealed at a later date, and in a further volume given the cliffhanger ending served to the reader in this collection, there is enough in this book to cause the reader to want more by the end. We are witnessing the long, slow death of a galactic civilization that is already on its knees in the first chapter, ten years in Sphinx’s past, but we are witness to it on a grounded level and through the eyes of a man who really doesn’t care for the greater good, but where his next payday is to be had, as he cons his way through misadventure after misadventure adding a humour to the title also reminiscent of the best 2000AD strips. On the whole, the victims of Sphinx’s cons deserve it and, like in Judge Dredd, the bad guys have to be worse than our man with a plan for us to like him.
He hasn’t asked for this burden, indeed he is a rather self-centred, selfish, aging man – hardly the hero model that the likes of Joseph Campbell wrote about – he should not be likeable, but then in a universe full of ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’, he’s the least worse.
Nearer the end of this collection, we are re-introduced to the clean line artwork of Dave Thomson, who first introduces Nero and the other central characters and for me it is Thomson who helps create a definitive look and feel to both Sphinx and his companions as well as the universe he travels through. Away from the more abominable worlds Thomson offers a crisper, tech-savvy vision of the future more in keeping with Sphinx’s re-entry into a more civilized, technologically advanced future society. There is something to be said for consistency.
Collecting these together is a smart move, as we are only given peeks at the larger story, but these clues to a more epic scale story would surely be lost on a month-by-month publishing basis and collectively, the reader gets a better sense of Nero Sphinx and his suggested role in the possible salvation of the universe.
His story is only just beginning, but clearly Whiston has an end in sight. Sphinx has already seen his best years and is now an aging, penniless chancer who has won and lost fortunes and would no doubt continue on this self-destructive road if not for the salvation offered him by Griffin and Fenris. He is like a space-faring Conan, who himself aged to become king of Cimmeria, his homeland. Whether this is a fate destined for this con man is one I want to know and for that to happen, I need to patiently wait for the next collection and the next chapter on Nero Sphinx’s life story.
If you’re looking for a copy, click here and be transported to the FutureQuake shop.
That’s my recommendations for this month.
Be seeing you.
Olly MacNamee teaches English and Media, for his sins, in a school somewhere in Birmingham. Some days, even he doesn’t know where it is. Follow him on twitter @ollymacnamee or read about his exploits at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or don’t. You can also read his articles fairly frequently at www.bleedingcool.com too.
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