Time to catch up on a large variety of genre-related comics that have come my way.
Octobriana: Samizdat Edition, by Steve Orlando, Chas Truog and Thomas Mauer. This is a new story about the controversial public domain character allegedly created by a group of dissidents in the USSR but was actually perpetrated as a fraud by a Czech writer who stole commissioned artwork. The writer of this ashcan edition wrote a thesis paper on the subject and decided to try his hand at writing a character who's appeared in any number of places (including Brian Talbot's classic The Adventures of Luther Arkwright). In Orlando's take, the title character is a Russian "goddess of passion" created by a group of pagans who had sex with the corpse of a dead goddess. It feels like a story in the vein of a Grant Morrison or especially Allen Moore, given that sex and sexual energy are keys to the storyline--especially in how they are repressed.
Some of the more interesting ideas regarding the story are only touched on briefly, like her quest to be accepted by the other gods, her sexual relationship with Anubis, and her friends the Torn Warlock. That's a sect of mystics who all happen to be children of Rasputin doing as many good deeds as possible before they die so as to spite their father. Most of the story is spent on Octobriana hunting down a woman with psychic abilities who's taking people at the point of orgasm and turning them into savage killers. Despite the nature of the sexually charged violence in this comic, it's all pretty straight-ahead in terms of the storytelling. In fact, it's overwritten at times, strangled a bit by the multiple narrators in addition to dialogue that also explains what's going on. Orlando drops the reader into the middle of Octobriana's own story and tries to get them to catch up (with success), but he overdoes it a bit and telegraphs what's going on with the villain of the piece. The edition of the book I received was a black and white galley; the book's publisher (Poseur Ink) tried a Kickstarter campaign to print the book in color, which did not take off. I enjoyed the roughness of Truog's (best known for his run on Animal Man with Morrison) art, as it had a sturdiness in its structure typical of old-school superhero illustrators but was a tad more on the grotesque side in this comic. It would have been interesting to have seen this book in color and with a bit more polish (and perhaps a bit more editing).
Pang The Wandering Shaolin Monk, by Ben Costa. This is another heavily-researched comic that's a bit clunky in spots but picks up steam along the way. Costa's approach to telling the story of a rotund monk named Pang is reminiscent of Eric Shanower's reworking of the Trojan War in Age of Bronze: picking and choosing from history in ways the make the most sense to him. The story is heavily footnoted, which slows it down considerably at the beginning as Costa opts to plunk the reader straight into the middle of Pang's story, filling in background details by way of flashback. This book is the first volume of a larger epic and so it takes its time in establishing its hero and his world. We learn a lot of details about Pang's life in a Shao-Lin monastery, how the politics of the time conspired against the continued existence of his temple and how he set out to find a couple of his brother monks as they were all called upon to preserve key texts of the temple. Pang, who's sort of the Sad Sack of Shao-Lin kung fu fighters, manages to escape an ambush by the skin of his teeth as his entire world disappears before his eyes when the temple is destroyed.
Dream Scar by Adam Jakes (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). This is the fourth issue of "The Continuing Chronicles of Floid" and a strange place to be plopped into as a first-time reader, as Jakes maintains a tight sense of continuity. He provides a breathless recap page that took me a couple of readings to parse, as it involves subconscious manifestations that emerge separate from their host, a corrupted super-assassin and the brother who loves her, brutal conflicts and a timely resurrection. This comic isn't what I would call good, per se, but it is relentlessly strange and seems to be a pretty direct expression of the artist's creative will. The art in particular is fascinating: a sort of cross between Todd McFarlane's use of black wispy lines and monsters, Rob Liefeld's love of cyborgs and strange costumes, and the slightly stiff naturalistic poses of a Tony Harris. Throw in wonky panel formatting mixed in with moments of beautiful stillness, and you have a comic that's truly all over the place. The story is a standard quest as the now-recovered assassin is looking for the person who corrupted her, traveling the globe with her friends and family. This is somewhere between a superhero comic, a horror comic, a fantasy comic and something that feels deeply personal on the part of the artist. While the comic is frequently a mess and threatens to unravel at any given moment, it's certainly never boring and it's sort of entertaining, so long as one is willing to accept the ride that the artist is offering.
Inner Sanctum, by Ernie Colon. This can only be described as a vanity project by the longtime comics veteran known for his work at Harvey and various adventure/fantasy comics. He adapts a number of stories from the titular 1940s radio show and does his best to convey the creepiness that those shows created with their outstanding voice actors. The problem is that most of the stories are pretty silly and light on actual scares or tension, especially for a modern audience. Some of the stories are much better written than others, like the zombie tale "The Voice On The Wire" which is more of a murder-mystery tale than a horror story (which helps it succeed). Others, like the Lovecraft-influenced "The Horla" don't really make much sense, while "Death of a Doll" (about the physical manifestation of the devil) is just plain silly. What is undeniable is that Colon draws the hell out of these stories. He mixes a beautifully fluid, clear line with a wonderfully scribbly quality, going heavy on the inks in some stories while seemingly shooting straight from his pencils in others. He takes an otherwise stupid story like "The Undead" (about a woman who thinks her husband is a vampire) and turns it into something sexy, stylish and creepy. He imbues "The Voice On The Wire" with bigfoot humor to match it against the sexy sophistication of its protagonist. He turns a predictable story in "Mentallo" (about a magician who double-crosses a rival after he threatens him) into something that seemingly could only work as comics, as he brings us a page of horrific transformation of the villain at the end. I would have loved to have seen Colon paired up with a good horror writer for this sort of project, because he's obviously only gotten better as a draftsman. It's certainly worth a look for fans of the artist.
Necropolis, by Frank Hudec, Spike O'Laochdha, and Crystal MacMillan. The slick art of O'Laochdha bears a lot of promise, as it has flashes of personal eccentricities that are otherwise buried in the typical naturalistic horror style and the overheated color choices of MacMillan. Unfortunately for him, Hudec engages in "tell, don't show" storytelling as he tells the reader the backstories of the protagonist, his sister and their city on the first page but starts the comic as though this is all a mystery. The result, about a man who can see the past of any place or thing by touching it, feels simultaneously anticlimactic and cliched. Rather than feel like an individual comic book with some real meat on it as a single issue, it feels like a fragment--and a padded one at that. There are some other technical things that bothered me. For example, the lettering job was badly bungled, as many of the word balloons are far bigger than necessary on several of the pages, resulting in either a few words in a huge word balloon, or letters that are far bigger than necessary. That sort of thing would have been forgivable if the reader was given any reason to care about the characters, but the comic has more mood than substance and seems more an excuse to mash up genres as a high-concept exercise than a compelling attempt at creating characters that are emotionally believable in a fantastic world.