Review time! with some John Lees-written comics!

And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I mentioned in my Emerald City con report that I met John Lees, who wrote the terrific mini-series … And Then Emily Was Gone a few years ago and is a hell of a nice guy (although, as I mentioned in my report, he speaks Glaswegian, so I really hope I understood everything he said to me, especially as the con floor is always loud). I got some of his comics from him, and now I’m going to review them! So let’s go! (All of these comics are published by ComixTribe, by the way, although Sink, at least, is available digitally right now from Comixology.)

Lees’s first comic EVER was The Standard, so we shall start with that. All of the comics I’m reviewing here are published by ComixTribe, in case you’re wondering. It’s just that easy! The Standard is somewhat unfortunately named, even though it makes sense in context – it’s about the first superhero, who is held up as “the standard.” Simple and believable! However, the definition of “standard” has elided into the thing that’s average, because it is, after all, what everything else measures up to. At least in my head it does – if you say something is “standard,” that means too often that it’s the same thing as everything else. Maybe it shouldn’t, but words don’t always do what we want them to do, dang it! But it’s still a decent name, because Gilbert Graham, like Superman, is the mark by which every other hero is measured. So there you have it!

The Standard was a six-issue mini-series, but I got the “Ultimate Collection” from Lees, which I had ordered through Previews a while back and never received, so I was glad to get it in Seattle. It’s mostly drawn by Jonathan Rector, but Will Robson came on late to help, as Lees explains in the backmatter that putting out one issue a year due to outside things Rector (presumably) had to do was not great for the book. Mike Gagnon does the bulk of the coloring, with parts of it done by Ray Dillon, Mo James, and Gulliver Vianei. Kel Nuttall handles the lettering, and Steven Forbes edited it. It’s a big hardcover – it’s 188 pages, including the text pieces, and each issue is 28 pages long. It’s a bit spendy at $35, but you do get quite a bit extra for that.

In many ways, The Standard is a fairly standard superhero story, the kind we should get from the Big Two but don’t because they need to keep properties alive, but one which we’ve seen from other companies – namely, a superhero getting old and passing the torch onto his successor. In this case, Gilbert Graham has passed the mantle to his former sidekick, Alex Thomas, who’s having a more difficult time of it. Lees doesn’t do anything too original here – Graham’s world is a bit more four-color, while Alex’s is more murky, and Alex is trying to find a missing girl while still paying the bills, which he does by allowing a camera crew to follow him around for a reality show they’re making. Even though some of what he’s doing is staged (his manager fakes being a supervillain, the Frying Scotsman, which Lees writes in the back has become inexplicably popular among cosplayers), he still fights crime and he still cares about missing girls, even if everyone just wants to talk about his past (his scene on a talk show where he shows a photo of the missing girl is so straight out of The Golden Child that I really hope it’s a deliberate homage). He’s a decent guy, in other words, who’s a bit out of his depth.

At the end of issue #1, however, something happens that makes Gilbert decide to come out of retirement. Lees does a nice job showing him in retirement – he’s a high school science teacher, and he has a positive impact on students’ lives that way, and he’s devoted to his wife, a Lois Lane analog (even though there’s a secret about her, too). Lees turns some superhero tropes on their heads – the daughter of Gilbert’s arch-nemesis wants nothing to do with evil, she tells Gilbert, although with Pop Culture Rule #1 lurking, we can never be sure about her, which keeps the tension high throughout the book. There’s a Batman analog, of course, and Lees has fun making him even crazier than you might expect, even though he’s on the side of angels. Lees even makes sure that the villains are sympathetic – yes, there’s a lot of killing in the book, but it’s clever that we can’t quite hate the bad guys, even though they’re doing reprehensible things.

Lees does an interesting thing, too – he switches back and forth between the “old days” and modern times. That way he gets to introduce Silver-Agey-type villains who are fairly ridiculous, just to bring some levity into the proceedings. In the present, things are harrowing, so the “looks back” make sense, because the book would get far too dour if Lees didn’t bring those elements in. Some of the villains are reformed, too, so they aid Gilbert in the present. It’s a good nod to “continuity” – these old heroes and villains don’t just disappear, they have lives past their super-powering primes, and Lees makes it clear both how they can grow out of that phase and the toll it takes on them. This, I should note, is in parts a very violent book – I mean, spines getting ripped out of bodies and such – so featuring fairly goofy bad guys like the Skunk and TV Man helps break that up a bit. It’s a nice thick book – not only is each issue a bit longer than usual, but Lees and the artists do a good job using the space – so he can delve into each character a bit, making the rather odd world these characters live in feel a bit more real, so the violence is a bit more shocking.

Lees has good artists working with him, too, which helps. Rector draws most of the book, with Robson coming on to assist on issues #5 and 6. Rector starts off with a thin and occasionally weak line, allowing the colorists to pick up a bit of the slack. It makes the book, early on, look a bit amateurish, unfortunately, although the bloody attack that caps issue #1 is still terrifying. Over the years (it took a while for the comic to come out), Rector’s lines became stronger and he used more hatching, which made the characters look more real and defined. He also altered his style just slightly for the flashbacks (the color scheme alters slightly, too), which helps set them apart and invoke a more innocent age. By the time Robson comes on board, it’s tough to tell where Rector stops and he begins, which makes the assistance fairly seamless. Rector and Robson create some fascinating characters, from the creepy Corpse (the Batman analog) to the Skunk, a villain who has seen the error of his ways in the present. The Frying Scotsman is a joke character, but Rector does a nice job making him look the part, which makes him funnier because he’s trying so hard to be villainous. As this is a superhero book, it’s melodramatic, but both Rector and Robson do a fine job displaying the wide range of emotions that the characters feel, so even though many of the characters’ actions would elicit some reaction from the reader, Rector and Robson make sure to drive the point home. The coloring stays fairly bright, which makes the dark scenes even more disturbing. It’s a nicely done book, with the colorists – after the first issue – working well with the more confident lines of Rector (and later Robson) to make the book look contemporary while still evoking a Silver Age kind of feel.

The Standard is an interesting book. In many ways, it’s a typical superhero story, which is fine and in some ways makes it better, because Lees can twist the superhero tropes just enough so that it’s not completely treading old ground. But we can see Lees’s talent on this book even as he works through it – he has a good sense of plotting and he has some dark humor in the book, enough to leaven a little the horrific goings-on. And, of course, the terrible stuff that happens would lead him to his calling, which is in horror comics (at least so far, that’s his groove). It’s definitely worth a look, though, although some of the comics later in this post are a bit better.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Up next is the trade of Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare, which Lees wrote from his and Tyler James’s story, with art by Alex Cormack, colors by Jules Rivera, and letters by James and Wes Locher. It checks in at $17.99. Oxymoron is a character from the comic The Red Ten, but he was so compelling that we get a spin-off in which he’s the star!

The problem with this book is the same one that plagues mainstream superhero books – it’s tough to kill off popular characters. Oxymoron is obviously a Joker analog, and is a horrific villain, but he’s also starring in another book (one which has taken a long, long time to come out), so Lees can’t really win with this. Either he kills the bad guy off and we know that he’ll survive in the other book, or Oxymoron survives in this book and we get an unsatisfactory ending. I’m not going to tell you which he does, but it does hamper him a bit. It’s a shame, even though, I’m sure Lees will tell you (and if he won’t, I will), the point of the book is not really whether Oxymoron survives or not.

As I noted, Oxymoron is a Joker analog, and Lees is basically writing The Dark Knight, only a lot bloodier. This is a horror comic, and Lees drenches the pages in red. It can get relentless, and I’m usually not a huge fan of this kind of torture porn, but in small doses it can work, and this book is only four issues, so it’s over before it becomes too awful. Mary Clark is the protagonist, and Lees does a nice job with her. She’s a police detective who, at the beginning of the book, has been off the force for a while dealing with her Addison’s disease, which has caused her no small amount of guilt. She knew she was exhibiting symptoms but ignored them, and when her first seizure occurred six months earlier, it was during a pursuit of a suspect and when her partner stopped to help her, the suspect snuck up and killed him. So the other cops don’t like her because they think she’s selfish, she doesn’t like herself because she feels guilty, and the Oxymoron loves her because he thinks he needs a hero to battle. His entire schtick is based around people being contradictions, so he kills the mayor, who skims money from his children’s charity to help finance child prostitution, for instance. The Oxymoron becomes a bit of a folk hero for this, but he rejects his acolytes, and really, who doesn’t have a lot of contradictions inside them? So our villain taunts Mary, hoping that she remains good and true instead of turning into a villain like him. This is, again, the plot point from The Dark Knight, but Lees takes it in a slightly different (and darker) direction, so the true horror of Mary’s situation becomes more and more evident.

That’s really all there is to the plot – Mary gets a new partner, Deborah Deanie, in the first few pages, and Deanie becomes kind of her touchstone for decency (Deanie is overly saccharine, which made me think early on that she was the Oxymoron or at least in league with him, but I won’t say if that’s true) as the Oxymoron toys with her. No one is safe in this book, which is kind of refreshing, as the Oxymoron cares only about making his point – that people are horrible under a thin veneer of civilization, and only Mary is the hero to defend that civilization. Swanstown, where the story occurs, descends into chaos more quickly than Gotham City, but it still seems like it’s too easy. What do I know, though – I’ve never been in a riot. The more interesting plot is just the Oxymoron doing his thing, staying a step or two ahead of Mary (but unlike Ledger’s Joker, he doesn’t seem to have supernatural powers to do it – Lees makes it very clear how he’s doing it), and taunting her until the end, when she finally catches up to him. Lees’s ending, as I noted, can’t but be a bit disappointing, but Mary does make a classic horror story mistake, so that’s a bit annoying. I get that Lees wasn’t completely on his own, but for him to go the route he does is unfortunate.

Cormack does a good job with the art (with a lot of help from Rivera, who probably cleaned out the local Michael’s of red paint!)* He has nice, solid lines and he uses hatching a bit more than you’d expect, but that’s good because it allows for the Oxymoron’s face to be more expressive behind his mask and also shows the strain on everyone as the carnage mounts. He has a slightly cartoonish style, which means his faces are very expressive, which is a good thing when you’re trying to convey so much horror at what’s going on. He uses blacks very well, not necessarily to hide the gore (because that’s often very visible), but to show the murkiness of the world in which these people live. He occasionally shrinks the panels to smaller sizes so we only get a glimpse of what’s happening, which is usually enough. In one sequence, the Oxymoron kills someone on camera, and so Cormack shows us the murder through the tilting and falling camera, so that it’s very disorienting, which is the point. It’s a really nice-looking book, if you can deal with all the bloodshed.

* Yes, I know he probably did this digitally. Let me make my jokes!

Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare isn’t quite as good as Lees’s other horror stuff (some of which is below), but it’s a gripping book nevertheless. It’s actually kind of terrifying, which is the point, and even if Lees isn’t quite as subtle as he could be, it’s still a theme that resonates, even if most of us will never be in a situation where we have to make horrible choices that we might not be able to live with. It’s not a great book, but it’s definitely interesting.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

We move on to Quilte, which Lees worked on with his … And Then Emily Was Gone collaborator, Iain Laurie. Megan Wilson colored it and Colin Bell lettered it, and it was free for the Halloween ComicFest 2016.

This comic is about Dr. Karla Quilte, who claims to be the only “dream therapist” in the world. She can enter people’s dreams – literally – and figure out what’s wrong with them, which we see early on in a short introduction. A couple comes to her to see if she can help their son, Adam, who tried to staple his eyelids to his forehead in order to stay awake. Yeah, that’s a problem. He’s in an asylum, but when they gave him sedatives to make him sleep, he almost had a heart attack. So Dr. Quilte visits him, and she tells him that she’s going to go into his dreams to confront, with him, whatever is scaring him. She and Adam enter his dream, where Dr. Quilte finds that things are very different than she expected. She saves Adam, but not in the way you might think. Lees gives us a short but very creepy story, as Quilte discovers something she didn’t know about and is forced to make an awful decision, one which leaves us very unsettled. It’s not a gory book, like Oxymoron, but it gets under your skin and disturbs you, which is always nice. I can’t say much more about it because I don’t want to spoil anything!

Laurie is a fascinating artist, drawing strange and even ugly people who all look like they belong in his oddball world, but whom he can change just enough when they enter the dreamworld to make it even odder. He uses a lot of hatching to add fatigue to faces and wrinkles to clothing (his closest current analog is Ian Bertram, another very good artist), and he uses blacks very well to heighten the horror in the dreams. Laurie’s “real world” is a bit weird, but when Quilte goes into dreams, he cuts loose, making panel borders ragged, drawing speckled blacks everywhere that resemble Kirby Krackle but are far eviler, and making the landscape almost ooze. Laurie does a good job reminding us that everything in dreams is fluid, as scenes change quickly and even the panel borders seem to flow. His imagination is wonderful, too, as he populates the dreams with a bunch of creepy stuff, but he’s also good enough to create a wonderfully emotional moment without drawing too much attention to it. It’s a well-written comic, but Laurie brings it to terrifying life.

This book, along with … And Then Emily Was Gone, showed that Lees could write true creepy horror rather than just amping up the gore. Of course, he still digs the gore, as we’ll see with his next, and most recent, comic!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Finally, we get to Sink, Lees’s latest comic, another collaboration with Alex Cormack (who also colors it). Bell is back as the letterer, and this first issue was just solicited in this month’s Previews, where you can see an ugly man in an awesome pink shirt say it’s worth your time. But that ugly man also wants to write about it, so here it is!

As an introductory issue to a new series, Sink works perfectly well, despite some problems. The book takes place in Glasgow, and we meet Allan and a few friends, who are at a club extolling the virtues of their native city. The other friends leave and Allan tries to take the bus home, but he just misses it (which is a good thing, as we see). So he decides to walk home to the suburbs, which is when his troubles begin.

First of all, he misses the bus. I already mentioned that, but it turns out to be a good thing, because as he turns away, we see behind him that the bus appears to be piled inside with bodies. Allan’s cell phone’s battery is dead, so he can’t call a taxi and he decides to walk home (it is, of course, imperative in this day and age that he can’t use his cell). He comes across homeless men who issue weird warnings, and then gets chased into a cul-de-sac under an overpass, where a group of crazed men answering to perhaps a religious zealot (he’s called a “witness”) are going to slaughter him. He’s saved by a man wearing a fox mask called Mr. Dig, who does some serious damage to the others with a shovel before telling Allan that he’s basically a dickhead because he claims to be Glaswegian but he lives in the suburbs. He tells him not to ask about a certain gangster and tells him how to get home safely. But then the clowns show up. Oh dear.

Lees is simply bringing the players onto the stage, but he does it in a wonderfully weird and terrifying manner. Mr. Dig looks like the book’s protagonist, a “crypt-keeper” type who takes an active part in the proceedings but also stands outside of things a little (whether that holds up in subsequent issues remains to be seen). Scary clowns are a bit of a cliché (I have never found clowns scary, but your mileage may vary), but Lees does a nice twist on the concept of a clown car. The biggest problem with the issue, and it’s not a very big one, is that Allan is such a douchebag that you really don’t care what happens to him. That’s not really the point of the issue, I know, but when he’s being menaced, all I could think of was “Good.” Because of that, Lees’s story rests solely on the atmosphere he creates, because none of the other characters – Mr. Dig most notably – have much personality. So while it’s a good, creepy debut, it might have been effective if we were invested a bit more in Allan’s plight.

Cormack has grown a bit as an artist since he drew Oxymoron (which wasn’t that long ago). His use of blacks, which was quite good in the previous book, seems to have gotten a bit more subtle, which keeps the sense of doom around the story but allows us to see a bit more. He uses jagged panel borders in one scene to make it scarier, and he experiments a bit with a Zip-A-Tone effect, which is neat. He’s coloring the book, and it’s a bit more drab than Oxymoron, but it’s also more realistic. For all its horror, Oxymoron looks like it takes place in a comic-book world, while Sink feels more like it could be happening in the darkness of Scotland right now. Cormack does an even better job with the gore in this book, as Sink is a very bloody book, and his reds stand out even more than they do in Oxymoron thanks to the coloring of the rest of the book. His creations are bizarre and scary, from the crazed homeless men to the clowns to Mr. Dig himself, who seems (relatively) sane until the final page, when Cormack does some nice work making us doubt even that. He also does a great job showing Allan’s creeping terror throughout the book, making him just the tiniest bit sympathetic, even though he’s still a douchebag.

I don’t know how many issues of Sink Lees has planned, but I guess it’s kind of an anthology series (issue #2, which is out digitally, has very little to do with issue #1, it seems). It’s a keen new book, though, and cements Lees’s place as one of the best horror writers in comics (I still think El Torres is the best, but there aren’t many really good ones).

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

So those are some of the books Lees has written over the past few years. It’s taken me far longer to review them than I wanted, but this real life crap is really time-consuming! If you’re a horror fan, you should check out Lees’s comics, and you can pre-order the printed version of Sink from your retailer right now! Listen to the fat ugly man in the awesome pink shirt!

As usual, if you want to buy this or anything else, might I suggest you use the link below? I can always use the pennies it generates! Have a nice day, everyone!

3 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Funny that you were talking about John Lees and his books and not about Comix Tribe books …

    I was wondering about another book called The Red Ten (I think), was that Comix Tribe book completed yet?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tom: The final issue of The Red Ten just got solicited, but I’m not sure when it’s out. I got the first issue, I think, but the next never showed up, and then its scheduling went to hell, so I’m going to get the (presumed) giant hardcover when it gets offered.

  2. Well, when I contacted John Lees about trying to get that video so we could post it in Flippin’, I may have let the cat out of the bag about this post coming up. I’ll send him the link now!

    And from what it says in Previews, Sink is going to be 5 issues (which I believe is what was funded through the Kickstarter), at least in this iteration. Sounds like he’s got plenty of stories to tell.

    I have a great deal of these comics and yet I am so far behind that I have not read most. I need to catch up!

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