Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ex Occultus & Indego Blue - Reviews

Small press publisher St James Comics asked us to take a look at a couple of their books. To that end I've read Ex Occultus: Badge of Langavat and Indego Blue #1. Both are written by Robert James Russell. These aren't corporate behemoths trying to trick you into buying a bunch of tie in crap to some allegedly universe changing story that invariably results in no more than the status quo or some cosmetic changes that are soon ignored when a new writer joins the fray.

On the other hand, they're largely what would have been fan publication in days gone by. They show the importance of a good editor in bringing a polished, well finished work to light. I like small press and hope they do well, but if they want to last long, they've got to put some more into the work.

I'll start with Ex Occultus: Badge of Langavat, which came out over the summer. This is a black and white book, and fairly well drawn for most of the story, but there seems to be something of a fascination with feet and hands close up shots. By my count there were about 8-9 instances of close shots on either feet or hands. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, this was used to suggest long periods of walking, but other times it was just sort of there. Like a lot of new artists, Sandra Lanz does better with the stills than with the action. There's good detail work throughout but when it comes to movement, there's a lot of awkward positioning and stiff feeling to it. It feels like a young artist who needs a bit of polish. As the story progressed, I don't think the art was always showing what was going on, and as the writing didn't over do the verbiage, I sometimes lost the flow of what was happening.

As far as the writing, there was a lack of explanation in the story. Now, I don't want a heavy paragraph of explanatory exposition, either from a character or as a side bar, but I think a more practiced writer would fluidly bring out the elements of the story using both words and pictures. A prime example of how the comic was missing in its background is a page that comes after the story that is supposed to flesh out some of the terms. Because this isn't a scholarly treatise's end notes, if this device was going to be employed, it should at least be at the front end of the story, giving the reader a heads up. Even with this explanation, I really had no idea who our two protaganists were or what they were about. One was a Scot in a kilt with a full beard and the other was not. The story is set in Scotland in 1864, but that's the only set up you get when you start reading. The two are trying to rescue some children who have been kidnapped. The villagers who witnessed the kidnapping say the kidnappers were lupine. Ok, seems like a werewolf story to me. That could be good. This bit of background all comes from the guy in the kilt talking to the other guy. Apparently the other guy came to help his kilt clad buddy without any idea what the mission was.

This is a very different werewolf story, though. That should be good, too, but it so contradicts the more familiar werewolf story lore, and sometimes just has extraneous differences that have no impact in the story, that I really felt like I only got part of the idea the writer had in his head. For instance, these werewolves are dead. Not in the "now they're harmless" sense but in the zombie sort of incarnation. This is interesting, but they act just like regular werewolves, so I don't see the point in making them zombie werewolves.

Here's what I gleaned of the set up. There's an indeterminate number of werewolves all of the same family. They were Romans back in the days of empire. Or descended from Romans but were a Scottish clan. I'm not really sure. Scots are Gaelic, not Roman, so I don't know how a clan would have descended from Romans. Hadrian's Wall pretty well saw to that not happening.

The leader of the family tried to take the bride of a Druid. This is an odd statement by one of the protagonists. Tried to take? The implied meaning seems to be that he tried to take her for a bride of his own, but it could as easily be read as tried to take her to clean the stables. Furthermore, writing it that way leaves the reader in the dark as to just what happened with this woman, and nothing else is said about it. Did he stop by the Druid's place and try to entice her with higher pay? Did he ride up with his boys, grab her and make off? Did he pull a knife on her but have to flee without her when Druid daddy came home? There's nothing at all to tell me why the Druid is so pissed that he proceeds to go kill off the entire family, who are the Langavats, except the children, who are kidnapped. Then, for good measure, the Druid curses the dead adults so that they'll be werewolves if anyone disturbs their graves. No explanation of whether anyone ever did disturb the graves, either. And considering that when our two heroes go to rescue the kidnapped children of the nearby town, they have to take a boat to a remote, dilapidated castle that has no entrance but one found by the use of fairies as divining rods, I don't know who would have disturbed the graves, which appear to be located within the castle.

Then the writer throws in that the base for the zombie werewolves is a desecrated church within the castle where there's an up-side-down cross lodged in an alter. Huh? I thought we were operating in an era that was pre-Christian when these guys got potentially werewolf zombiefied. Besides, at no point thereafter does the desecrated church have any bearing whatsoever on the story. From there we proceed to fighting, with the usual silver elements to protect our heroes from the werewolves (remember, zombification seems to have had no change in the werewolf iconography). Up to this point I followed along well enough, but the fighting involved too much movement for the artist to adequately keep me abreast of what was happening.

We end up somehow in a cave with the ghost children of the Langavats, who directed one of our heroes to a silver badge/pin whose central element is a fleur-de-lis, further deepening my confusion about the history behind this story. How'd the French get in here? Anyway, that badge, when jammed into the chest of the lead werewolf, turns all the werewolves back to dead humans, who are greatful for this. Huh? If that's all they wanted, why'd they kidnap the town's children for some magical, fatal rite? Why not just get someone to pin the badge on the leader? Hell, why not just do it themselves? Surely the momentary pain of picking up the badge can be withstood long enough to stick the leader with the badge so they can all die peacefully.

Like I said, there was a kernel of a good idea here. Zombie werewolves in 1864 Scotland is a good place to start, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.

And then there's Indego Blue #1. I'm going to assume the spelling of Indego instead of Indigo has a reason, but it's not stated in this issue, which is the first part of 6. This too is a black and white book. Because this is just part one, it's harder to comment on the story. It may all end up very well. Right now, though, it's part Dark Angel (TV show that brought us Jessica Alba, in case you don't know), part the Island of Dr Moreau and part Pops's dystopia. It starts with a multi-page exposition by the eponymous star, who's a dog headed man. The exposition posits a future where the government has taken over, so I thought for sure Pops should be reading this one, but then it contradicts itself and creates a black market society. Not that those have to contradict, but when you first say that the government controls the populace right down to its DNA, it seems too much a contradiction to then say the technology for DNA splicing went out on a trend driven black market.

But that's not all in our contradiction problems. The results of the splicing are now hunted by the government, which apparently wants to use them in more testing. Of course, the government is hunting the hybrids because the hybrids were dumped in the "anals" of society. Now, this is a prime example of the need for copy editing, which is present in Indego Blue but was not in Ex Occultus. I think our author was trying to say annals, society not having a literal ass to dump people in, after all. Even if it said annals, though, it doesn't work. The word means organized historical records. The end result is that I'm lost in what the author was trying to say and distracted by the effort. That the hybrids were spit into these anals only created an image of a sexual practice I'm almost certain was not intended.

Back to our regularly scheduled contradiction. If the government wanted these hybrids for further experiments, and the fact that the author says they were dumped to the fringes of society implies that the government, which, after all, is omnipresent, had them in its power at some point, why did the government just loose them on the world in the first place? Maybe further developments in future issues will help resolve some of this.

More problematic for the story is the art by Howard Russell. It's way too light in tenor for the dark story that's supposed to be told. Indego Blue's appearance is humorous, like Under Dog, so that the dialogue doesn't match with the image. Worse, the Under Dog like head is on the body of a buff, shirtless man. That only makes it more humorous in appearance than a straight up Under Dog would have.

The art also presents at least one contradiction in the story. The guy chasing the hybrids (whose troops appear to be entirely robotic) has a conversation with the corporate/government guy who's his boss, after failing to capture a hybrid rescued by Indego Blue. That conversation indicates that he wasn't so much after that one guy as he's after all hybrids so the hybrids can be experimented upon somemore. However, in the opening sequence where the chase of the eventually rescued hybrid starts, there's a whole city street full of other hybrids who are just standing around, easy pickings for the chasing guy. And why does one of the hybrids have three pairs of eyes and two pairs of floppy dog ears? What kind of splicing results in that?

Which brings up another something in the story. Now, this may be developed in future issues, but just how is DNA splicing resulting in a human being transformed into a part human, part animal hybrid? Because that's what I'm getting out of the story when it says people were using the splicing as a trendy thing to alter themselves. As far as I know that's not how gene splicing works, in the real world or in the logic of science fiction. Gene splicing is done to an embryo, resulting in the birth of a child who's altered. Adding foreign DNA to an adult? Maybe some odd hair growth or death, but changing a person's entire bone structure? I don't know how that would happen.

I may be coming across as rather harsh on these two works, but that's not my intent. Rather, I hope I'm pointing out areas for the publisher to address to tighten what seem to me to be good bases for story ideas that are falling a bit short in the execution. There's potential here, and it's always good to see more publishers attempting to get more stories out there. None of these small press guys are going to dislodge Marvel or DC, but I like to see stories told that aren't dependent on fitting into a corporate directed universe, that are instead the product of the writer's and artist's imaginations. Nonetheless, story and copy editing shouldn't be forsaken in the journey to publication. Aiming for what Vertigo (admittedly a DC imprint) accomplishes in so much of its product is what the small press should be looking to achieve.

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