Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Here's my review of the rather excellent comic collection, 'Orc Stain', written and illustrated by the multi-talented James Stokoe. Great stuff!

Front cover art for the collection by James Stokoe.
Orc Stain Volume #1 is a a 168 page collection, written and illustrated by James Stokoe, and published by Image Comics. Collecting the first five issues of the ongoing series of the same name, the story takes place in a fantasy setting, in a world overrun by hordes of fractious orcs. Immediately chafing at any sort of authority, drawn to looting and 'punch-ups', the orcish horde is divided into many different factions, and may declare 'Poxa-Gronka' (an all out war of revenge against any orc that has slighted the individual) at a moment's notice. Knowing that the orcs are divided in nature, the rest of the world has fortified themselves behind strong walls, and have bided their time, hoping for the hordes to eventually kill themselves off. The strategy, while not a winning one, has admittedly kept the other races from being swallowed up. Unfortunately for them, this is all about to change...

Interior art by James Stokoe.

A new force has risen in the far south, and the self-appointed Orc Tzar has managed to do what none of his predecessors have ever managed... Namely, to unite a great number of the various factions of orcs into a cohesive army, growing in number by the day. His goal is to unite the whole of orcdom, and rule over the entire world as lord and master, but first he needs to claim an elusive treasure to seal his mastery of the world. As his fractious hordes decimate city after city, he finally comes across an aged seer, who relates to the Tzar a prophecy... That, although possessing the location and the land that the treasure is contained within, the Orc Tzar lacks the key to open the treasure's prison. The key to obtaining what he seeks is a one-eyed orc, currently abroad in the realm, who also will become the Tzar's nemesis. Cursing all prophecies, the maddened orc rips her head from her shoulders, and sends his most trusted agents out into the world to gather all of the one-eyed orcs that they can find. One way or another, he will find the key that he needs, and he WILL become ruler over all of the realm.

Interior art by James Stokoe.

Into this mess of a world steps the rather literally named One Eye, an orc whose utmost talent is being to crack any puzzle, any prison, with but a blow of his hammer. With his single eye, he can see the various lines that tie physical objects together, and identify the true weak spot of the structure. A wanderer, who values loot more than fame won in battle, and the vengeance that is the price of fame, One-Eye is a most singular orc. One that seems to almost grasp the difference between right-and-wrong (gasp!), and as such, someone that stands apart from the large amount of his species. Initially, he is introduced as searching for loot, with his newly acquired (untrustworthy) partner, Pointy Face. After he is double-crossed by his partner, and sentenced by the local orc hetman to have his gronch (An orc's junk, part trophy, part coinage. It is what it is...) chopped off to pay his debt, One Eye uses his talent to escape, pay back his duplicitous partner, and ingratiate himself with the aforementioned hetman. Unfortunately, by not killing Pointy Face, he opens himself up to the vendetta of the Poxa-Gronka, and unknowingly plays right into the hands of the Orc-Czars agents, who eventually capture him and haul him off to meet his fate. One-Eye's future doesn't seem so bright, does it? Add in a pissed off swamp rumba, Pointy Face following close behind and swearing to cut off his gronch, and the challenge of the ultimate heist, and all bets are off on his ability to remain among the living...

One-Eye reflecting on orcish society. Interior art by James Stokoe.

James Stokoe's original idea for this story came about after a long conversation, with a number friends, about the rather one-sided portrayal of orcs in The Lord of the Rings series. His thoughts drifted across such concepts as, do the orcish hordes only act as they do because they know nothing else, and if there was a different path revealed to them, would the orcs embrace this new way of living?
Is their way of life more of an issue of the environment that they exist in, one in which there is no other demonstrable alternative path to take, or are they inherently evil beings? Out of this conversation came the original 10 page short which, eventually, morphed into this excellent ongoing series.

Art by James Stokoe.

Stokoe's story of a decidedly odd orc, one that seems to have developed a rudimentary moral code of conduct, who shuns the never ending brutish cycle of his fellow orcs, is a great deal of fun. On another level, it is also quite thought provoking, as One-Eye is basically a stranger in a strange land, a man (orc) who can see in a land of the blind. The story is full of action, dark humor (you have no idea how many times I laughed out loud while reading this), and more action than you can shake a gronch at (yes, I went there)! Double and triple-crosses are abundant, the story is rife with mysterious undercurrents, and you get to see orcs behaving as only orcs can... What's not to like, I ask you?

Art by James Stokoe.

One-Eye is the central character of the story, but supporting characters, and antagonistic ones, such as a sociopathic swamp rumba, the local bad man (orc), Pointy Face, and the mysterious would be emperor, the Orc Tzar, are not given short shrift. The characters grow into themselves as the story moves along, as Stokoe builds on their inherent personality traits, expanding on the depth and breadth of each of his main players. As the story progresses, the setting also expands, as the author continues to open up his unique world. Shifting between multiple character's perspectives, the pace varies between the dynamic and a more moderate flow, as it accommodates itself to the overall needs of the plot. All in all, some very good stuff,

Art by James Stokoe (magnificent, isn't it).

Let's get to the artwork, shall we? Stokoe employs a highly intricate style, both in his character work and, especially, in his detailed and crowded background art. While being uniquely his own, a point of reference for readers would be a number of the artists of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine, especially later works by Jean Giraud and the works of Philippe Druillet. The exquisite detail is highly appreciated, and is what drew me to this release, initially. Stokoe's depiction of the action is equally intricate, and flows along organically. His panel placement and overall layout of the story is inspired, while the outre colors of the release dazzle the reader's eye. Really outstanding work, which ranks up there with some of the best work by Giraud, Druillet, Corben, and Nino. Absolutely love it...

Interior art by James Stokoe.

When it comes down to it, this is a highly original, well executed fantasy collection, with both story and art working at a higher level. Stokoe's tale of an outcast in a world that he did not make, or ask to be a part of, resonates on many different levels. Humorous, action-packed, and a entertaining read, Orc Stain has become one of my favorite fantasy comics, and one of my favorite comics, period. Just don't let the kids get a copy, as there is a decent amount of nudity, violence, and gronch chopping. Highly recommended to adults of all stripe, and I hope you enjoy this release as much as I did. Happy reading! You can pick up the release here. Swing by and pick up a copy of this excellent release!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

My review of 'The Infinite Horizon' by Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto. An exceptional, powerfully told graphic release...

Cover art for the collection by Phil Noto.
The Infinite Horizon is a 184 page graphic collection published by Image Comics, which was released in April, 2012. It collects Gerry Duggan (story) and Phil Noto's (art) Eisner-nominated miniseries, in its entirety. The release is a modern retelling of the story of Odysseus, set in a world which has gone through a cataclysmic collapse. Stranded on the far side of the world, an unnamed soldier struggles to make his way back home to his waiting wife and son.

An unnamed soldier leads his men against enemy fighters in Syria. He has come to realize that he is doomed to always survive each encounter, win through each battle, but still lose everything, in the end. His men know this, but the brass and the politicos are deluded into thinking that the war can still be won. Heading back to base, his disgust with the entire situation overwhelms him, and he loses control, mercilessly beating a civilian contractor that accosts him. Given no choice by his actions, his superiors are forced to lock him in the brig. When he is finally released, the story truly begins...

Interior art by Phil Noto.

Human society has suffered a world wide collapse, and soldiers are being recalled from around the world. America is under martial law, and the unnamed soldier and his men are needed to deal with the unrest at home. They are firstly tasked with holding the airport while civilians are evacuated from the war zone. As the last transport leaves, the men realize that they are on their own, and will have to make their way back home by any means that they can. They begin to make their way across the desert, leaving behind the first of many dead companions, swallowed by the desert sands.

Thus begins the long journey home for the companions. Along the way, they will help those that they can, fight a cyclops, defeat the siren's call, and lose many of their number. Will they survive, and if they do, will there be anything left for them after their return to their homeland? It matters not, for in the end, they would rather die on the journey than never attempt it. And so they press forward, moving stolidly towards their goal, journeying forever onwards and seeking the end of the infinite horizon...

Interior art by Phil Noto.

The story by Gerry Duggan takes a classic tale, turns it about, and sets it on its feet in modern times, in a setting that feels close enough to touch. The unnamed protagonist has been used as a tool by others for too long, and has been burned to the quick by the violence that he has both witnessed, and participated in. The futility of it all has come to him, finally, and he realizes that there will be no end to the killing. All he want is to get himself and his men home, but that wish proves to be a more daunting task than they ever imagined.

On the home front, events are even worse than abroad. Flooding, disease, and the collapse of the societal infrastructure has led to mass panic, and worse, as neighbor turns against neighbor. The strong feel free to prey on the weak, now that society's chains have been shrugged off, and everything that man has built is collapsing around them. Duggan takes his character's and tosses them into a raging fire; those that emerge have grown stronger, and become more complete beings. Along the way, many good people die...

Interior art by Phil Noto.

Duggan effortlessly moves the story's focus from the soldiers on their long trek home, back to events in their homeland, showing the travails that their loved ones are undergoing. He creates a number of sympathetic characters for the readers to focus upon, and then leads them through hell. The story is less about the horrors and futility of war, and more about how humanity, in general, react to the overwhelming violence that surrounds them in the story. Some see the futility of it; others see it as an opportunity; and some, out of fear and/or hate, choose to support the machinations of evil men. The story, while not enjoyable, in a 'fun' sense, is powerfully written and engaging. The events are not for our amusement, but stand as a possible warning of what might come to be. By the time that you reach the end of the journey, your hands will be shaking, your eyes will be burning, and you will vow to yourself to not read this again... Until the story calls you, once again, and your hand creeps towards the book, opening it of its own volition...

Cover art for issue #5 by Phil Noto.

Phil Noto's art is depicted in a clean, spare style, with a minimal use of shading. His dynamic action sequences and the emotive facial features of his characters are exceptional. The line work is strong and clean, while his panel composition definitely propels the story forward. His character designs give us, instead of fantastic heroes that are fated to save humanity, just normal human beings. The great unwashed mass, the average joe, the neighbor next door... Perfectly suited to this story, his art is the finishing touch that takes the release to another level. It shows us as we are, and reminds us that, although their are villains amongst us, heroes may reside in places all unlooked for. A face is just a face, its what lies behind it that truly matters.

This story really hit me hard, on many different levels, and, initially, I was convinced that I would only read it once. The events were just too plausible, in today's world, and I didn't think that I could deal with them again. Until I reread it, and reread it again... As I alluded to before, this is not a 'fun' story, but one that is powerfully told, one that will stick with the reader over time. If you're like me, you'll be coming back to it, seeking to glean answers to unasked questions, hoping to find something that you may have missed within the narrative. Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto have combined to create a singular release, one that will haunt the reader, and one that is highly recommended.

Pick up a copy of the release here.