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Phantomland by Maaria Laurinen perfectly captures the experience of being tossed into a new job head-first and feeling completely out of their depth. Notwithstanding that in this case, the job is joining an elite law enforcement unit that appears to only employ people who have already died.

This is a webcomic that clearly takes inspiration from the “big coat” fashion of Fullmetal Alchemist – just look at these jackets!

Yet that influence isn’t just aesthetic; it manifests in the impeccable paneling, expressive characters and equally expressive inking. The drawing skill on display is remarkable, as well as Laurinen’s grasp of composition and pacing.

Technical proficiency comes paired with characters the creator loves dearly. Chie is relatable as an apprentice who, underappreciated and underutilized, can’t deal very well with her insecurities on top of the amnesia that’s fundamental to becoming part of the “ghosts.” Jon is a grizzled veteran who hides trauma beneath a veneer of indifference and has no desire to be a mentor. Both are typical archetypes for a buddy cop story like this one, but they’re realized well and play off each other into a broader team dynamic as we’re introduced to other ghosts.

It’s obvious I really like Phantomland. It’s aims, at this point, seem simple – give readers a fun romp – but it’s executed so delightfully well I think more people need to read it.

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No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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Rasputin’s Bastards (2012) has a promising start with a giant dying squid. It’s a squid-filled novel, though David Nickle does not go the expected route and delve into the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, his imitators, and the other tentacle-obsessed. Rasputin’s Bastards centres on much more personal horrors of being unable to grasp your own identity and humanity.

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I wonder what it even means to review this book in 2019. You won’t find The Perennial Apocalypse: How the End of the World Shapes History (1998) in stores or online shops. The author, John. J. Reilly, passed away in 2012 and much of his work has disappeared in the years since. The publisher, Online Originals, was one of the first ebook-exclusive publishers and shut down some time ago, taking their whole catalogue down with them. The only way to get hold of it is if someone who has the PDF happens to share it with you – and that’s the only reason I’m able to write about it now.

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A while back I wrote an article about how The Secret of Kells told a medieval Irish story through the idiom of medieval Irish artwork, and how this acts as much more than an aesthetic exercise.Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of that sort of historicized film-making in animation since then. Cartoon Saloon’s follow-ups Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner do not reconstruct their worlds in this way; the only other example I can think of in the years since is Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Kaguya is in many ways even more impressive – Isao Takahata putting in a stupid amount of work to give the film the character of a traditional Japanese brushwork brought to life. And, see, I get it: approaching historical and cultural material this way requires a whole lot of careful attention to detail, especially because you’re tapping into a visual language that by necessity you need to teach your audience as you go along since its outside their lived experience. It is not easy to pull off and I’m sure there are examples I haven’t seen because they never gained the attention that would ensure I’d hear about them, or failed to connect to their source material.

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Martha Wells has a talent for crafting a perfect first paragraph.

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It has been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure. (9)

That passage encapsulates the main character of All Systems Red (2017) far better than any summary I could give. (more…)

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Some points of interest from the past month: up this time are a novel, a webcomic, a cartoon.

All you need is…to take a break from video games

51djxql872l-_sx326_bo1204203200_I got Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill with the intention of writing a full review, but after breezing through this it just didn’t stir much in my brain. There little more to it than the core premise: a soldier in a future war gets the ability to loop back in time and is reborn to the same morning whenever he dies, eventually using what he learns to become an unstoppable seasoned combat savant. There is a level of personal horror inherent in this what if but Sakurazaka only touches on it lightly. The main inspiration for the novel, its main obsession, and its central metaphor is video games. That’s not a bad thing; the experience of playing video games has become an immense part of some peoples’ lives and shouldn’t be dismissed. But Sakurazaka mainly skims off the surface, and it becomes uncomfortable when he imports the culture of online multiplayer deathmatches as manifesting in both the behaviour of the Japanese soldiers and the main character’s relationship with the only other character of note, the “Full Metal Bitch.”

There are a few moments of meditation in the face of destruction and some melancholy pieces near the end, but in this (thankfully) short novel those end up drowned in the noise of combat as filtered through a flickering screen. (more…)

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