Filler content with pictures

Five reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #58:-

FOUR GRAPHIC NOVELS AND AN ART BOOK

Perhaps more than any other UK independent press, Birmingham based Short, Scary Tales Publications have made a virtue out of diversity, resolutely refusing to place all their literary eggs in the one basket. A graphic novel series is one string to their bow, and a series of art books is yet another, and they seem to be casting the net wide in the search for new (at least to UK audiences) talent.

As an example, take NIGHT SCREAMS FOR MERCY (SST hc/pb, 64pp, £12.95/£4.95), written by Hannu Kesola and illustrated by Jussi Piironen. There’s an international feel to the work – both creators are Finnish, but the story is set squarely in the Italian giallo cinematic tradition, as the American writer Eric Red makes clear in his introduction. The year is 1972 and in a small town in West Italy a maniac christened the Jesus Killer by the media for no better reason than that his first victim was found nailed to a church door is presiding over a reign of terror, murdering women and leaving their naked bodies on display in public places. Narcoleptic detective Claudio Morante is assigned to the case, then removed when his sleeping habits become too much of a problem, but Claudio believes he is the only one who can catch the killer and carries on the investigation in his own time.

Story wise there really isn’t a lot to this. The identity of the killer becomes obvious simply because we aren’t offered any other suspects, but there is a nice touch of irony at the end when we witness his final fate. A puritanical streak, which is really nothing more than a way of making his bad feelings a matter of principle, provides something tangible by way of a motive for the killer’s actions, but other aspects of his psychology felt contrived to me, nothing more than a plot convenience to keep both character and reader in the dark. The real appeal of the book lies in the black and white artwork, with solid blocks of light and dark that work well to bring the story to life. There is an exploitative element, in that all the killer’s victims are beautiful women and their naked bodies are displayed, adding a feeling of prurience to the proceedings, but that is par for the course where giallo is concerned and nobody familiar with the term will be surprised at the acres of flesh on display. Ultimately this is a slasher production, one in which realism is sacrificed to schlock appeal. It works tolerably well and entertains for the time that it takes to read it, but chances are you won’t remember much about the story in a couple of months’ time, though vague memories of the art may linger.

The plan was to make this feature all about non-Anglo creators, but as I have one other read but not reviewed SST graphic book in the pile, it would be churlish not to include it here, regardless of the nationality of the writer and artist (American and Australian, respectively, if anyone is interested). BULLET BALLERINA (SST hc/pb, 40pp, £14.95/£6.95), written by Tom Piccirilli and illustrated by Greg Chapman, is classified by the publisher as a comic rather than a graphic novel, though I’ll pretend it made the cut for the sake of my title for this feature.

Johnny Booze is a vigilante, an ex-army man with a particular set of skills whose family got murdered by the mob, and who now acts as judge, jury and executioner on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. So think Punisher, without the silly name and the embarrassing costume. Into his life comes the feisty Ellie Hankshaw, who wants him to spare mob boss Jojo “The Ganooch” Ganucci so that she can kill him herself. Ellie is a woman who knows how to hold a grudge. She wanted to be a ballerina, and “The Ganooch” fucked it up for her.

In the abstract this is both derivative and with a plot that feels ludicrously unsound, but the author has the sense to play it for laughs (well, pitch black comedy), with noir lite undercurrents and a subtext on the perils of wanting revenge. The slight that Ellie has suffered (Ganucci stubbed her toe) is of little or no importance, but in her mind it consumes her, becomes the nail on which she can pin everything that has gone wrong in her life. It is teenage lack of perspective taken to a whole new level, one that even a ruthless killing machine like Johnny Booze finds hard to credit. Of the three main characters, Ganucci seems to be the most sane, the mobster with a heart of gold (you can bet he never forgets to send the DA a birthday card), someone whose patronage the local restaurants vie for. Along the way there’s some delightful banter about weapons and interludes with street characters trying to shoehorn themselves into the story, while as a coda to the main story we get to see a side of Ellie that suggests she is an embryonic sociopath. Moral of the story: never piss off a wannabe ballerina, as those pumps can be deadly.

The book is in full colour throughout, with artist Greg Chapman providing some sterling illustrations to bring the text to life, giving his characters an almost mythic quality even as he reveals how very human they are, his images in perfect counterpoint to Piccirilli’s words. As bonus material there are some sketches showing how the cover and some of the internal artwork was put together. Bullet Ballerina is not a classic by any definition, but it was a lot of fun and worth checking out.

PARTNERS (SST hc, 88pp, £24.95) is written by Norwegian Glenn Møane, with illustrations by Elias Martins and colouring by Russell Vincent Yu. Ed Gorman and Rick Sprague provide introductions, placing the work in the noir/true crime arena.

Lombardo and Vaveli are NYPD detectives, the partners of the book’s title. And they are also as bent as fuck. During the day they investigate the case of a serial killer who murders children, and at night they act as executioners for mob boss Angelo. They reconcile the compromises in their lives by pleading poor pay and that the people they off deserve what they get. Inevitably there comes what Burroughs referred to as “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”, and for the partners it triggers a crisis of conscience, when they have to decide how much shit they can shovel and still sleep at night.

This is a grim and gritty story, one that tugs on the heartstrings with its child killings, weaving these into a story of corruption and amorality. Møane’s snappy dialogue has the sound of authenticity to it, capturing the camaraderie of his two protagonists, and he manages to give the detectives enough depth that we can almost understand why they are the way that they are. Lombardo is the intellectual of the two, thinking up ways to justify how they behave, but will his pragmatism falter when confronted with the reality of what they are covering up? Conversely, family man Vaveli seems more susceptible to guilt and resentful of those who have put him in this position, but he has also has far more to lose through exposure and defying the mob. It is a cleverly judged and psychologically acute rendition of the two men, mirror images of each other in so many ways, but different in the ways that really count, and the conflict between them is compelling. With full colour artwork throughout, images that bring the violence to graphic life on the pages, this is a book that entertains with a gripping and action packed story, but also makes you think about such things as loyalty and betrayal, and ask at what point do the compromises we all make accumulate to the point where we are buried beneath them. I liked it a lot, and think that it would make a splendid film, albeit a bit bleak for mainstream Hollywood sensibilities.

Vincent Sammy provides the cover illustration, but Italian writer and artist Mauro Padovani does everything else in BULLET & JUSTINE: THE END AND THE BEGINNING (SST pb, 100pp, £16.95). There’s a lot going on here, rather more plot than the page count can contend with, and at the conclusion enough loose ends to weave a hanging basket and put flowers in it, all of which suggests to me that this volume is the first in a series.

Killer for hire Bullet sets off on his last job, before retiring with the lady love of his life, only to find that he has been set up. Badly wounded and running for his life, he nevertheless stops to help a woman who is about to be butchered by a man with a big knife. It turns out that she is a vampire who has lived for several hundred years and her name is Justine (the inspiration for the Marquis De Sade’s novel). Justine turns Bullet and the two become allies in their mutual quests for revenge, along the way explaining to him the intricacies of vampire politics and the demands of his new lifestyle. Parallel with all this, the bloodsuckers who secretly rule the world are feeling threatened by a rogue vampire, a priest who slaughters indiscriminately and whose actions could expose the existence of their kind. Drastic measures are called for, and the two cops assigned to the case are probably not up to the job. Elsewhere, a young woman is enlisted into the ranks of an organisation descended from the Teutonic Knights and dedicated to slaying vampires.

It’s an entertaining story, though lots of the elements feel familiar – the hitman set up, the vampire elite, the rogue vampire etc. The most interesting components have to do with the character of Justine, which I found intriguing, though I think a good deal more needs to be shared before we can know if she is worth the effort, particularly as regards her relationship to De Sade, which here is simply name dropping. There’s also the interplay between the two detectives, the older John, a former soldier haunted by guilt at what he did in combat, and the younger Ray, who has to deal with homophobia on the force. Their relationship is unabashedly sexual in nature (and kudos to Padovani for showing one of them as rather shopworn instead of buff), and offers a different slant to the material, with Ray having to deal with prejudice and Johnny coming to terms with his own nature, adding depth to both of them. What happens with regard to Bullet is mostly background filler, showing how he got to where he is now, and setting the stage for whatever comes next. Similarly the preacher is shown simply as an agent of bloody carnage, with no clues to his mission. In the abstract, with his ravings he reminded me somewhat of the Anthony Perkins character in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion – a similar vibe, rooted in his obsession with Justine and religious fervour twisted into an unrecognisable shape, and with outsize incisors in lieu of a giant sex toy.

Padovani’s artwork, black and white with judicious use of red for effect, is strong and provoking, though he does hold back somewhat – we get blood but no wound detail, bum and boobs but no bits, all of which merits a 15 rating rather than 18 and at times felt a tad too restrained. I enjoyed the book for what it was, but to be truly satisfied I need substantially more – this is just testing the temperature of the blood, checking it is room warm and fit for (non)human consumption. The title says it all – an end and a beginning.

Previous entries in the Short, Scary Tales art book series, which brings back fond memories of the Paper Tigers of yesteryear, have featured Daniele Serra, Keith Minnion, and Vincent Sammy, and now we have THE ART OF TOMISLAV TIKULIN (SST hc/pb, 130pp, £31.95/£23.95). For just over ten years Croatian artist Tomislav Tikulin has been making his mark in the field of fantasy and science fiction illustration, garnering an enviable reputation among his peers and becoming a firm fan favourite. This book, which comes with an introduction by David Morrell, offers us an admirable window into the imagination of the artist and a superb showcase for his work.

Most of the Tikulin’s work has been in the SF & F genres, and that is where the bulk of the material reproduced here comes from, with full colour layouts that place Tikulin firmly in the tradition of artists like Bruce Pennington, Chris Foss, Peter Jones, and Mark Harrison. The quality that informs nearly all of Tikulin’s work is that elusive sense of wonder, so beloved of science fiction aficionados. Spacecraft and other objects of extra-terrestrial origin race across magnificent, star strewn backdrops. Giant planets loom on far flung and alien horizons. Mighty thewed kings and warriors pose in some dying world’s last radiant gloaming. Even when he portrays the apocalyptic, Tikulin takes your breath away – yes, the Earth may be doomed, but don’t we get some magnificent sunsets by way of compensation. There is beauty here, and delight in the splendour and variety of the natural world.

Similar qualities inform his work in the horror and suspense genres, which take up the last third of this volume’s page count, though Tikulin is not unaware of the requirement that very different emotional responses should be solicited by the artwork. Figures are not as clearly defined or have about them a minatory quality, while the backdrops against which they appear are shadowy, tenuous, captured in muted tones. There are no gratuitous displays of gore and the openly monstrous, but instead frozen moments that leave us poised in the second before the atrocity show begins, that time when things could go either way, but our natural instinct is to expect the worst, and Tikulin plays on that instinct, inviting us to be afraid. Unlike his science fictional worlds, these are not destinations we would choose to visit except through the medium of fiction. At least a couple of the paintings will be familiar to Black Static readers – the cover of James Cooper’s Strange Fruits collection and that of the mini-anthology Visions Fading Fast edited by Gary McMahon, and Tikulin provided the cover for Darkness Whispers, which I review in the feature on Richard Chizmar’s work below. Others will know Tikulin courtesy of the covers he’s done for Stephen King reissues, mainly from Cemetery Dance and PS Publishing. In the pages of this book you will find double page spreads that portray Christine driving out of a cloud formation shaped like a grinning skull, and Carrie standing tall against a backdrop of flames. You don’t need to know the titles of the books to recognise the artwork – Tikulin has created illustrations that are almost as iconic as the works of fiction that inspired them. This book has about it a little something of the marvellous. But don’t take my word for it – you can check out his art for yourself at tomtikulin-art.com.

I’ll add a couple of caveats before bringing the curtain down on this feature. For each of these titles I have only seen PDFs, so I can’t speak to the production values of the books, though other work that I’ve seen from this publisher would suggest that they will be of the highest quality. And before deciding to buy from Amazon or elsewhere, you should check out the publisher’s website (sstpublications.co.uk) as they have various bonus features and special offers to look out for, such as signed copies for anyone purchasing direct, and in some cases there are links to digital editions available from comiXology.

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