Recommendation: “Gyo” by Junji Ito

Something is wrong. A stench that drove Tadashi and Kaori from their holiday at the sea has followed them to their apartment in the city. A stench that is driving Kaori mad. But as terrible as that stench is, what is about to follow it out of the sea may be more than mankind can handle.

Gyo. A novel you read when you’re fine never to want to look at a fish ever again.

Junji Ito’s work is something that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go. Grotesque and beautiful. He has a masterful grasp of the very essence of horror; taking something normal and twisting it slightly until it becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoy Uzumaki, the first of Ito’s books I read. But being compared to a masterpiece is never fair, and doesn’t mean Gyo isn’t good. It just didn’t quite have the same overall feel of a completed story. There didn’t seem to be as much character, and the ending came out of nowhere and didn’t really feel satisfying. But that didn’t detract from the experience I had reading.

And that’s what Ito’s work is; an experience. Whatever other opinion you may have of his work, you don’t finish this book the same as you went in.

Review: Questionable Content Vol 6

I always love it when one of my webcomics releases their latest print edition. Being relatively quick to read, it’s a simple thing to do a re-read of the previous editions, basically reading the entire comic from the start. Webcomics are always interesting to read like this; a medium designed for to be read in small chunks read daily now available to read through in one sitting.

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Book 6 covers the period where the art style for Questionable Content kind of settled into it’s “final” stage. Like many other webcomics of the same era, Jacques’ art grew and developed as he wrote. Personally, still prefer the slightly more cartoony “middle” style of the comic which spanned the third, fourth and fifth books. That’s not to say I dislike the current art style, it’s just my preference.

As well as the art, Book 6 is where the characters began to settle and grow. The previous years were focused on the main trio; Martin, Faye, and Dora. Other characters were there, but they always revolved around the main group. Now things moved on, bringing in the supporting roles and developing their lives and stories. By this point the comic is more of an ensemble; portraying the life of a large group of friends, rather than more focused story of the original love-triangle.

Essentially, this collection can be considered to cover the period where Questionable Content settled into “Modern QC” rather than “Classic QC”. (Although if I wanted to be wanky about this I could actually call it “Classic Modern” or some ridiculous thing, and I think over the last year or so the comic has shifted again to focus into a new area, and is a little weaker than it once was.)

Questionable Content has always been one of my favourite webcomics. It’s always been either the first or one of the first ones I’ll check updates on when going through my RSS feeds. At this point in its run I still find all of the characters interesting, and while I have my favourites (Hannelore & Raven for ever!) it’s not the reached the point yet where there are enough characters for me to compare unfavourably with those I’ve always loved.

Questionable Content has always been, to me, one of the better webcomics out there over the last fifteen years. The characters are realistic enough to relate to and and just “other” enough from ours to keep it interesting without making it too genre. The fact that this is the latest printed collection and it’s still 7 years behind kind of makes me wish he would hurry up and push out the backlog so I can have the full collection, but I’m happy to wait. Plus, if I get impatient I can just go online and read them there.

Review: Uzumaki

When you’re reading horror, what you want to discover is a book that takes something mundane and everything and manages to make you see in it something new and unsettling that will make you question, if only for a short while, whether those things you’ve always considered safe are truly so.

And so when you find something as deliciously twisted and original as Uzumaki it’s impossible not to love it.

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Uzumaki tells the story of a Kurôzu-cho, a town haunted not by ghosts or monsters, but by a pattern. A Spiral. The books is broken down into episodic stories, each one telling the next stage in the story of how more and more of the population first slowly become obsessed with The Spiral, that pattern that permeates the world. Through the eyes of Kirie Goshima, a teenager seemingly in the centre of it all, we gradually the episodes begin see how something so everyday as a pattern reoccurring in nature can in fact be a sign of something far more ancient and terrifying.

I absolutely loved this story. I’m a total sucker for twisted horror like this, where the everyday world is gradually shifts and reveal that there is no place to hide from the things we thought were safe. Add to this beautifully grotesque artwork that seriously made me double-task several times while I read, and this becomes something you simply cannot put down.

My only quibble was that some of the middle chapters felt a little too stand alone. With some of the stories is was hard to put aside reality when wondering why people in the weren’t reacting more to what was happening to them. Even if it had been something simple like a few lines pointing out that it was strange how little people were reacting, rather than accepting and getting on with their lives.

But as the story continues and all the elements begin to come together this issue fades away. Once you’ve got to the end the way people act makes more sense. I would have just liked the final explanation behind to have been seeded a little earlier to prevent these niggling feelings.

But that minor issue aside I can’t recommend this book enough, and I will be looking for more of Junji Ito’s work as soon as my current reading pile goes down a little bit more.

Recommendation: Chester 5000

My latest acquisition from the world of webcomics via Kickstarter; Chester 5000, books 1 & 2.

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I love Jess Fink‘s work. Both playful and sexy, she manages to capture both the beauty and excitement of the erotic without being overly titivating. Yes, there’s sex in these pages, but it’s always infused with romance. You can see her love for the art and the history she’s influenced by on every page.

Also, I’m a sucker for any artist who can create both story and distinct characters without using any dialogue. Everything is done through the images to the point where you don’t even notice no one has spoken.

I’m not angry, DC, I’m just disappointed

Last week I saw Suicide Squad. I went in with very low expectations, and the film met them. So, I’ve made a decision.

I’m officially giving up on the DC Cinematic Universe.

Making a film isn’t easy. Often I hear people wonder aloud about how bad films get made. The truth is that filmmaking is such a fragmented, compartmentalised process that it can be impossible to get a true image of the final product until it’s too late to change anything. There’s no formula that can be followed to guarantee success.

And while I may bitch about a film being terrible when I leave the cinema, I’m willing to forgive the filmmakers in the long run. They tried, and they didn’t quite succeed, but hopefully, they’ll at least have made enough money to carry on, and learn and do a better job next time. If they make a truly terrible film, then they should try something else. If they make an okay film, they should be given another chance. If they make a great film, then they will be given another chance. It’s an industry and – at least theoretically – a free market one.

What I can’t forgive, and what gets me remarkably angry, is rewarding mediocrity.

Which is what we have with the DC films.

This is the way this should work: you make a film. If it’s a success it gets greenlit for a sequel. If the sequel is a success, and the IP is suitable, the studio can make the decision to continue building until you have a franchise. You can plan for a franchise, but you can’t just decide you’re going to make one happen. Money follows success, and success – at least in a perfect world – follows quality.

But what we have with the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU) is the studio deciding that as franchises make money, they will simply create one. And because they know they have a guaranteed audience, they don’t worry about quality.

(Yes, this isn’t a problem just with DC. It’s an issue pervading the industry as a whole at the moment, but DC is the most obvious culprit right now – and the particular subject of this post – so I’m using them as an example.)

The DCCU has so far given us three films; Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now Suicide Squad, and each of these has been equally mediocre. None of them at bad. I came out of each of them thinking they were perfectly workable films, but nothing worth writing home about. But none of them deserved any kind of sequel or follow-up. If it hadn’t been for this guaranteed audience they would have each been a box-office flop and any plans for sequels would have been quietly swept under the rug.

Remember Superman Returns back in 2006? I didn’t think so. It was a decent but forgettable movie, and justly warranted no follow ups. Man of Steel was no better, yet all those involved will be a major part of the following franchise. The world is a different place than is was in 2006. We live in a world of IP franchises. Now that Marvel has the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating the cinematic landscape, DC can’t afford not to emulate them because (a) it would damage their reputation, and (b) they’ll make money anyway.

I know about the guaranteed audience, because I’ve been part of it. I really wanted these films to be good. I wanted there to be a second MCU, and I was willing to forgive the lack of quality shown in the hope that the later ones would be better. I really wanted DC’s movies to be just as good as Marvel’s. But they’re not. In each case, I could see exactly what DC was aiming for, but in each case, they were widely off target.

And it rankles. It comes across that they don’t care about earning anything from us. If the next MCU film is rubbish, or even just mediocre, I’ll still go and see the next one, as they’ve earned enough trust from me to do I. I’ll have reason to believe that this misstep will be a one off. They started the MCU off slowly, allowing us to get to know each character one at a time. Now we have films crammed with characters, but we’ve got to know them well enough that they can do a lot with the small amount of screen time each gets.

DC don’t seem to care that they don’t have this. Even though I really want the upcoming Wonder Woman movie to be awesome, I no longer trust that it will be. It will do well at the box-office because it will be driven by that guaranteed audience who desperately want it to be something it won’t be. There’ll be the same sense of disappointment followed by DC shuffling their creative team around, doing some reshoots for whichever film is currently in production, and promising that the next one will solve all the problems we had with the last. And even if it isn’t – even if Wonder Woman turns out to be the greatest superhero movie of all time – this would be the anomaly. I still wouldn’t trust that the next one had as much chance of being that good.

I could go into detail as to my opinions on the reasons behind all of this – studio interference, pressure from Marvel’s success, oversaturation of the genre, overused characters – but there is already so much more of that online already I don’t see the need to do so. A quick Google search will throw up more than enough opinions for you.

I’ll just state my own personal decision: I have decided that I don’t want to waste my time anymore.

I’m giving up on the DCCU. I might want Wonder Woman to be the strong, empowering movie it has the potential to be. I might want to see more of Ben Affleck’s older, burnt out Batman. I might want to see these actors – now tied into multi-movie contracts – be able to do something interesting and exciting with their characters. But I don’t think that will happen.

Mediocrity isn’t a crime, but it shouldn’t be rewarded. DC haven’t earned the franchise they’re giving themselves. They’ve just decided they deserve it. Instead, I’m going to invest my time and money on something that I believe might actually impress me. Something that has my trust or something new or interesting that deserves a chance.

I don’t want to judge those of you who actually enjoyed the films, or who still wish to remain part of their audience. This is my own decision, not yours. I just hope I’ve explained my thoughts clearly enough that you at least take a moment to think about whether or not you want to carry on enabling DC to do such a poor job.

So, enjoy the films. I hope they get better. (Spoiler: they won’t).

Recommending… Locke & Key

If I’ve not read something, its new to me. And if I’ve not even heard of it before and can experience it completely devoid of expectations? Well, that happens very rarely.

Everyone has a list of things they intend to read/watch in the future. Things we’ve been recommended or have heard talked about so much we know it’s got to at least be worth a go but haven’t quite yet had the chance to get around to. This is why I love Humble Bundle. It gives me the opportunity to pick up a bunch of books or graphic novels to load onto my Kindle for when I need something to read.

This allows me to try out writers I’ve had on my “must try” list. Recently I finally got around to trying Cory Doctrow’s work, for example. But it also gives me the opportunity to occasionally try out something completely new. Work I’ve never even heard of before. And this creates the opportunity for me to experience something both rare and magical: the once in a lifetime chance to read something brilliant without any expectations or preconceptions.

Such as happened when I downloaded Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s six volume graphic novel, Locke & Key.

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Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family who, after losing their father in a horrific home invasion, move across country to their old family home; The Keyhouse. There they discover a collection of fantastical keys that, used with the correct doors, unlock extraordinary powers in themselves and the world around them. But soon they learn that behind one of those doors is a spirit both ancient and evil, and they discover the history of the keys, the story of their creation and the horrific events that caused their father to work so hard to hide them.

I think the best endorsement of this series is this; I gave up the writing time I get on my lunch breaks to keep reading. I needed to know what happened next. I’m incredibly lucky that all six volumes were included in the Humble Bundle so I could read them all in essentially one sitting. And when I finished, I went out and bought the slipcase collection (which is so pretty). Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 12.57.47This is one of those books that you need to reread straight away, to give yourself the chance to see just how well the story has been plotted out and foreshadowed. Lines and images that seem incidental on your first read are revealed to have so much more meaning the second time around. Hill is a writer who knows exactly where he is going and where he is leading you.

Locke & Key is a Lovecraftian story, but I want to qualify that statement slightly. The word “Lovecraftian” has become a little watered down in many people’s minds. Forgetting the mountains of – let’s be charitable and call it “fanfiction”[1] – out there, there are professional, published, well respected writers out there who don’t quite get what Lovecraftian should mean. But Joe Hill gets it. He understands both the nature of the mythos, and that it comes second to character and plot.

Be warned, horrible things happen to people in this story. It opens with the Locke family suffering a home invasion involving murder and sexual assault, and the story largely focuses on the ways that the characters deal with this. It’s never forgotten or glossed over. A major theme is how our mistakes and bad decisions will haunt us and echo through the rest of our lives. Don’t expect everyone you meet to have a happy ending here.

Lovecraftian stories – and horror in general – are about fear of the unknown. And while a lot of that is embodied by “the monster” or “the powers we can’t comprehend”, there is also plenty of that in real life. Two stories run in parallel here; one about magic keys with a link to an ancient evil from the Plains of Leng, and the other about a family trying to deal with trauma and loss. About children trying to work out their place in the world without their father. About a mother coping with addiction and trying to keep herself together for her children. About that feeling of having no one there to lead us through.

I can’t really critique art in graphic novels. I’m afraid I’m stuck in the “I know what I like” category. But Rodriguez’s art fits in perfectly brilliantly with the writing, filled with character and background detail. Nothing throws me out of story like art that doesn’t fit the work. This one does. He works well with the writer, matching the style of the story and working bring the words to life. That seems good enough for me.

Locke & Key is definitely worth picking up if you’ve not yet discovered it. It ran between 2008 and 2013, so I’m assuming quite a few of you out there are scoffing at me right now for being so late to the party. But better late than never, and if I can direct any other poor souls who, like me, were living in ignorance, then I’ll be happy.

Enjoy.

 

[1] Please note I’m not trying to belittle Fan Fiction here, or the communities that surround it. I’m just trying to find the correct word for writing that enthusiastic but not quite up to – let’s say – a professional standard.