By Olly MacNamee
Mac's Books: A monthly review spotlighting the best titles the UK indie press has to offer.
This column includes:
Silicon Hearts No.1 (self published)
Escape From Jesus Island No.2 (Wisdumb Productions)
The Psychedelic Journal of Time-travel Journal No.5 (UK Comics)
Escape From Jesus Island No.2
Writer: Shawn French
Artist: Mortimer Glum
Secret experimentations on isolated islands using the extracted DNA from Jesus Christ himself, mutant monstrosities, insane, obsessed jailers and a corrupt Catholic Church, Escape From Jesus Island No.2 is a horror comic that isn't afraid of putting noses out of joint or stirring up controversy. So, is it any good or just a good title?
With every possibility that shady scientific research and defense contractors, RegEn, have cloned the body of Christ on the secretive island, Malsum, there seems to be no limits to the interested parties wishing to either invade or investigate this atoll of atrocities and uncover the truth behind ReGen and their desire to bring cloning to the masses. And the body count is only just beginning if this issue is anything to go by.
Cleverly including a mock magazine interview with the heads of the family business, wife and husband, Anna and Cameron Thorne, we are given a concise but comprehensive backstory to the company's past (where we learn that like the likes of Hugo Boss and Volkswagen, ReGen were also happy to work and profit from the Nazis during WWII). We learn of their experimentations in the field of cloning their interest in excavating DNA samples from archeological digs, as they would have the reporter of the interview believe, to make the world a healthier place. Like any great piece of PR puff, the real truth behind their digs is all too clear. In a day and age when big corporations do hid behind misinformation and PR guff, it is no surprise that a purely fictional corporation would hid behind the same tactics. And, it makes for great exposition set out in such a way that it looks and reads like a real magazine feature.
Springing from this is the comic itself; a freak show of failed experiments on human lab rats who either died from the process, or were mutated and left to fester on this hellhole. Wonderfully captured by artist Mortimer Glum, who seems to be applying a mixture of what seems to be some photographic reference and heavy, lush digital paint, he revels in both the beautiful and the grotesque throughout the comic. This is best illustrated in one scene early on in the comic which presents the reader with the now mad Anna Thorne (a widow in the timeline of the comic hell-bent on continuing her husband's experiments no matter what the cost) making use of artificial aging on a baby who turns on his nurse, all sharp, clawing teeth gorging on her cheeks as the beautiful but deadly Thorne looks on unemotionally. In all the years at this game, Thorne is not only insane, but also clearly desensitized to the death and decay she is responsible for creating to on a daily basis.
But, even the cavalry – in this instance a Vatican Black Ops team – is anything but pure in it's intentions. If you're going to give your comic such a provocative title, then any passing reader should realize even before reading the book that there will be no sacred cows. The gnarly, aging Pope only has selfish, sinful designs to elongate his own life and he isn't afraid to use up the resources at his disposal. One of the Black Ops team, and a bit of a greenhorn it would seem, justifies their actions with a simple philosophy: having died for our sins 2000 years ago, if they saved Jesus now, as they naively believe they are doing – 'we should be even'.
In the cast of mutant cast-offs that we are introduced to, we are once again reminded that you should not judge a book by it's cover and in coming issues I suspect these members of the underclass to play an important role. All this and still no sign of Christ; be he the savior of mankind, or something far worse as the pin-up page at the back of this issue would suggest.
This second issue ramps up the Intrigue and mystery surrounding the island and all written by Shawn French in a style that shocks while also playing fast and loose with the Bible as a source of inspiration, which were always my favourite kind of horror stories anyway. At times, it is clear that Shawn's tongue is firmly in his cheek, but then even the blackest of horrors need some lightness. This ain't your daddy's Omen, that's for sure.
With the perennial themes of corrupt corporations and corrupt religious figureheads we are encouraged to witness the action from a street-level viewpoint as we witness the men and women following the orders of megalomaniacs. Whether they survive beyond the next issue is something I wonder, given the fate of the student protesters from No.1. Like in The Walking Dead, you get the feeling that no one is safe. This is an intriguing comic and without the presence of the Big Guy yet, I am intrigued to know what happens next. I have been promised that issue three is just round the corner, so hopefully the wait won't be a long one, certainly not as long as the second coming of Christ, anyway.
If you dare buy a copy, look no further than here to order your own.
Silicon Hearts No. 1
Writer: Sam Roads
Artist: Kat Nicholson
Hot off the press comes the first issue of this promising, earthy, post-modern day love story of two adolescent neighbours who share a lot in common and begin to fall for each other soon after new boy Rho has moved onto the street where January lives with her family. The different to this Romeo and Juliet romance is that Rho is a synthetic human, an android. Both, however, are treated as outsiders by their classmates, both for different reasons but resulting from the same endemic problem we can all relate to: prejudice. This may be a story set in the near future (2045) but like a lot of science fiction it deals with modern day problems, whether it is January being bullied at school, or whether it is Rho – a clear allegorical character who could be substituted for any minority – because he is an artificial intelligence.
As Rho and Jan find that they have a lot in common (both are Firefly fans, albeit it in this future a Whedon-less reboot is Jan's fave) their friendship is quick to grow and blossom into something else, even with the odd hurdle or two that tests January's friendship of Rho.
Both Rho and Jan are likeable and human; the Scarlet Witch and The Vision but without the spandex and superhero melodramas. They are young, different, and Rho could easily be further castigated from the jocks because he is a practicing Hindu. All the time, Nicholson's choice of light, warm colours creates the sense in the reader's mind of a somewhat utopian society. Yes, there is theme of adolescent bullying and the sense of absolute exclusion, but the colour palette takes the edge off this, giving us a false security perhaps? All the more fool me then for taking this future Welsh community in which the story is set at face value.
Scratch the surface and look around this seemingly civil suburban society and prejudice is only one of the worrying signs that all is not well. And it's these added background touches that point to a dystopian future lurking below. Why do Rho's adopted parents not have children of their own? Why not adopt a human child? And, what is the reason behind Jan's one and only friend, Poppy, disappearance? But, there is an even more sinister side. Young people are encouraged to join the New Model Army to wipe out their debts. If this is not a frightening enough vision of the future, the small print informs the applicant that, should they wish, they could keep you in servitude indefinitely. In the UK where it can cost as much as £9,000 a year to study at university youth debt is a hot topic and a corrosive government initiative which at best could very well create a whole generation of post-graduates who need to worry about getting out of debt before even worrying about the bigger society. Lumbering the next generation with such large debts could well create a selfish mindset that cannot be good for any society. Add this to the increases in youth unemployment under this current government and one could imagine a New Model Army approach being adopted by some of our more right-wing politicians should the unimaginable happen and we are faced with such a government. My god, it's right wing enough as it is already. It could get worse though, as history teaches us.
The story unfolds and with friendships tried and tested throughout the issue, both are stronger by the end of this first issue. Roads covers a lot of ground in this first issue, but sets the scene wonderfully by the end of the book. But, is this a false optimism I wonder? With the reliance on crowd funding to get the next three proposed issues out later this year, both Sam and Kat have my support. I want to know what happens next to these likeable, relatable young-lovers and by supporting these guys in the future, I can hope to read what next for these two in the face of adversity.
Sam Roads raises enough questions to intrigue the reader while deftly establishing both January and Rho as friends and as developing relatable characters. We are introduced in this first issue to a society that looks not too dissimilar to our own, but with shadows lurking in the corners and ready encroach into further issues. Look out for their forthcoming Kickstarter campaign for the funding and production of future issues.
The Psychedelic Journal of Time-travel Journal No.5 (UK Comics)
Editor: Owen Watts
Focusing purely on time-twisting tales of humour, this 39-page predominantly black and white anthology packs in a whopping 10 different stories around the one theme; time-travel, and it is to the editor's credit (Owen Watts) that there is no repetition throughout this fifth issue. Hidden behind an impressive, colourful and – yes – psychedelic cover depicting guitar god Jimi Hendrix lost in a purple hazed time stream, lies some great little strips from a variety of different creators. Of course, in an anthology there will always be a varied level of success, with some narratives outshining the accompanying artwork at times, and vice-versa, as one would probably expect from an endeavor like this. But, it is an anthology that encourages new writers and artists to submit their work for inclusion and if this is a starting point offered to such voices, then that should be celebrated. What a great way to break into comics.
I am sure if you pick up this issue you will find your own favourite stories, like I did, and I put down the issue feeling entertained. Like the best of 2000AD, the strips that work the best are those that parody tried and tested sci-fi tropes, codes and conventions, such as in 'Time Tunnels' (writer: Mike Lynch, artist: Scott Twell) which gives us a glimpse into a day in the life of the time tunnel boarder patrol forces as they question, probe and check time-travelling tourist willing to risk it all in order to risk smuggling illicit good across time. A funny tale that anyone who has travelled abroad can relate to, only in this future world it is not exotic species that are being smuggled across boarders but extinct species from the Neanderthal era. At only three pages long, I felt this had legs to be developed as a longer story maybe and in a later issue I hope.
Further inspiration in other strips can come from the strangest of places. Who new that tea could be used to allow Buddhist-like monks to time-travel (Tea Cubed)? That is until one is unfortunate to deviate from the righteous path and drink caffeine rich coffee instead. What about an ordinary plastic shopping bag offering the ability to travel back to ancient Egypt, or maybe not (Bags of Time). What of an automated future, that peers back in time only to identify the wrong person (An Untimely Message)? What do these stories tell us of our own hang-ups and reliance on machinery? There is a wide selection of voices and art styles on offer in this comic book and if you are interested in trying the latest issue and dipping your toe into the time-stream, then you can get a copy here. If you're a budding writer and/or artist, then I recommend you take a look at the quality of storytelling on offer (comedy is hard to write at the bets of times) and have a go yourself.
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.