Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Secret Six Book 1: Villains United. (Villains United #1-6, Six Degrees Of Devastation #1-6)

"Good day. My loyal, tarnished knights" - Scandal Savage

So, if you ignore part twos, intros and the Sega ads post, this is my one hundreth book covered.  Woo hoo.  And to mark this special occasion I present the first one written by a female writer, the writer in question being Gail Simone.  Actually I had wanted to cover her quite a while back but for ages the stuff I had recommended by her was out of print and going for a fortune on Amazon. Fortunately the series I was most interested in, Secret Six has been reprinted and this volume contaians the original Villains United miniseries which I briefly cover for reason I'll go into later and then the follow up miniseries that ended up leading into an ongoing series collected in later volumes.  Also, I've been following Gail Simone on tumblr and wow, she must be the nicest, most awesome author as a person I have ever come across.  Her dedication to her fanbase is legendary and her commitment to portraying diversity in gender, sexuality, race and disability in her comics puts her way ahead of every other author I have read regarding social justice issues.  Even if I hated her work (which I don't, she's a really good writer) I think I'd still follow her tumblr for all the fun, and snark and cosplay pictures of women dressed as Red Sonja she links to, mmmm. So, I shall skim the first miniseries and cover the second in more depth, both have six issues making this book good value for money as well.

VILLAINS UNITED - When I started buying the original black and white Swamp Thing trades in the mid-to-late 1980's, each volume came with an introduction.  When it came time for the Crisis On Infinite Earth's tie-in to be collected, the intro explained  what the crossover was about and so I wasn't left totally bewildered by it as I only started collecting DC comics in earnest after Crisis On Infinite Earths happened.  The first Grant Morrison Animal Man trade also has an intro that explains the Invasion crossover that had a deleterious effect on Animal Man's powers.  Once again without it, it would be utterly confusing.
Mark One, Cheshire, Catman Ragdoll, Deadshot Parademon, Scandal.
This first six issue mini-series was not only a direct lead in to Infinite Crisis, but it also was based heavily on events sparked off by the previous crossover, Identity Crisis.  There is no helpful intro explaining this, nowhere at all on the trade paperback that explains anything about the larger events this mini was tied to. Now Gail Simone has made a valiant effort to make it understandable in it's own right, but as someone who has read Infinite Crisis I have to say, that if I hadn't I'd be completely confused as to what was going on.  And I am still a little confused because I haven't read all the other tie-ins that preceeded Infinite Crisis.  So that's why I am skimming this miniseries as I'd just end up getting sidetracked trying to explain what was going on elsewhere. 

Basically, the Lex Luthor from Earth-2, Alex Luthor, was disguised as the main DCU earth's Lex Luthor and was using a team of super villains to distract the heroes of the earth while he got on with capturing heroes and villains who had originated from different Earths before Crisis On Infinite Earth's crushed all the Earths into one, with various people from parallel worlds now making their home in the new compacted continuity.  Alex Luthor wanted to strap them to a giant tuning fork to split the earth into multiple realities again and then create the perfect earth.
Even Lex Luthor can't outsmart himself.
Real Lex Luthor secretly recruits his own merry band of villains and anti-heroes, Catman, Deadshot, Scandal Savage, Ragdoll, Parademon and Cheshire, by way of threats to their loved ones to combat Alex Luthor's villains.  The most important things that happen with regard to what comes after was that Cheshire and Catman slept together and Cheshire got pregnant, then she defected to the other side.  But the Secret Six had a spy in the villains ranks too, a woman called Knockout who is Scandal Savage's girlfriend.  The Secret Six put a stop to the other villain's shenanigans, earning the special emnity of Doctor Psycho and when it all kicks off during Infinite Crisis, they leave it to the heroes to sort it out.  Parademon is killed, and now down to five they decide to stay together as a mercenary band based in the abandoned House Of Secrets.

SIX DEGREES OF DEVASTATION - The Six are still down to five as this miniseries begins.  They are Scandal Savage, the lesbian daughter of Vandal Savage (you may remember him from Demon Knights) and their sort of leader; Knockout, one of Darkseid's Female Furies and Scandal's bisexual lover; Floyd "Deadshot" Lawton,  Thomas "Catman" Blake and Peter "Ragdoll" Merkel.  Only Knockout can be said to have superpowers, she is very strong.  Otherwise they are all Badass Normals. One thing you have to bear in mind as you read about them, these are NOT heroes.  They are deeply messed up individuals who do some bad things and some good things.  But in a universe full of goody, goody superteams it's refreshing to be able to pull for these flawed characters and how they navigate their way through the situations they find themselves in.  Simone is very good at giving each character a distinctive "voice" so they don't all blend into one. Anyway, lets begin.
North Korea. Not a fun place to live.
The story begins with in a North Korean camp for political prisoners. A prisoner is telling a man who is bound with a bag over his head the horrifying conditions there and how everyone there is going to end up dead sooner or later. "Do I look like I'm here to help you?" responds the bound up man.  A guard comes and takes him outside with the other prisoner to provide translations.  The interpreter tells the bound man the guard says he'll be his first American kill.

The man in question is actually Deadshot.  The rest of the Six parachute down nearby and hope they haven't been too late.  The North Korean commandant asks who his target was.  Deadshot asks if he knows a "Jip Li-An".  The commandant laughs and says that person was a traitor and died last week.  Deadshot says that he wasn't the target, but his widow is their employer.

Then he kicks the gun in the hand of the guard behind him who fires it in surprise and hits the commdandant in the chest, killing him. The rest of the gang arrive and deal with the guards.  Deadshot grabs a gun and starts doing what he does best.  Soon all the guards are dead.  With none left, the prisoners timidly go and pick up the guns dropped by the guards. As the five drive off, Deadshot remarks that it's only five miles to the Chinese border and some of them might make it.
The big boobed redhead is Knockout the replacement member.
Back at the House of Secrets, Scandal hands out their payments.  Then she warns them that Doctor Psycho is gunning for them and asks Catman to bring in the counter-measure they discussed.

Scandal: "And for everyone else.  Enjoy your vacation.  Eat well, get drunk, make love.. for I intend to do all thre with a complete lack of moderation."

Ragdoll goes to a restaurant for a fancy meal.  Deadshot is enjoying a nice walk in the park with his ex-wife and kid.  Scandal is in Bangkok with Knockout.  Entwined in each other's arms, looking out from their high up hotel roof, Scandal muses:

Scandal: "Thankyou for this, Kay.  I love this city".

Knockout: "Do you?  I must conquer it for you sometime then."

And they kiss.  Man, my girlfriends never promised to conquer cities for me.  I'm sad now.  Anyway, Catman ventures to a mysterious house to recruit their sixth member, who turns out to be The Mad Hatter from Batman's rogue gallery.

Suddenly Ragdoll is attacked by a knife wielding assassin in the restaurant.  Deadshot is accosted by assassins armed with swords, and in Bangkok, a helicopter with a woman armed with an exotic rifle in it fires upon Knockout and Scandal.  It embeds a ticking bomb in Knockout's skin, when she realises what it is, she flings Scandal clear and it explodes.  Deadshot is in trouble without his guns and Ragdoll is also being bettered by his assassin. In the creepy house, meanwhile, The Mad hatter agrees to join up with them.
Knockout tosses Scandal off (sorry)
The next issue begins with Scandal preparing to interrogate "Pistolera" the woman who shot Knockout.  And by interrogate I mean stabbing and slashing a bound prisoner with a knife.  The story then flashes back to the various attacks.  Ragdoll is surviving his in his own, inimitable style:

Ragdoll: "I break more bones than this myself before breakfast, muffin.  If you want me dead you'll have to crush organs."

And he manages to take his attacker out by ramming his arm down his throat. Deadshot is about to be executed by the sword wielding women, when his ex-wife tosses him a gun.  He tells the women to shoo, as he doesn't want to kill anyone in front of his kid.  Scandal floats in the water Knockout threw her in, then climbs out and finds Knockout's horribly burned body.  It is still breathing.  Scandal feels a rush of grief:

Scandal: "I felt only the weight of vengeance.  I felt the desire to visit the full wrath of my family's blood upon the woman who did this to you.  And for the first time I felt my father's hatred of humanity come to roil and fester right behind my eyes so intensely I could barely stand unaided."

And we're back in the present with Scandal getting all Jack Bauer on Pistolera.  Only unlike 24 which shows torture as neccessary and enobling, this shows torture as grubby and degrading for the person meteing it out, more out of revenge than a desire to know the truth.
Horrible, but it's meant to be. Don't piss off Scandal Savage.
Standing outside the room, Deadshot remarks that it's not Scandal in there but Vandal Savage's daughter.  Scandal tells Pistolero they should have attacked Catman, he's the worlds best tracker and found her easily.  Pistolera finally admits that it was Cheshire who arranged the hits and Catman was not to be targetted.

Catman comes in and they discuss what to do with the woman.  Catman says to let her go and Scandal agrees, but then Deadshot shoots Pistolera dead, taking the decision out of their hands.  He then says "Hatter's made some cake.  Who wants cake?"  Scandal tells Deadshot she doesn't know whether to kiss him or kill him.  She decides to kiss him, glad he took the only real decision that could be taken.

With Ragdoll in the hospital for injuries sustained in the attack against him, the rest travel to the Himalayas where Cheshire's base is.  They fight the kung fu monks inside and finally Cheshire appears.  She admits that Doctor Psycho was behind her arranging the hits. Scandal is about to kill her when she shows them something.
Cheshire, Catman and their baby, aww.
It's her baby son that she had with Catman.  He wants to take the baby away from her, but she says that'll activate a huge bounty on his head and he'd be dead within a week. So Catman pleads with Scandal to leave Cheshire alive for the sake of the kid.  Reluctantly Scandal agrees.  Back in the hospital, Doctor Psycho manipulates a nurse into taking him to the sleeping Ragdoll's room, where he intends to be up to no good.

The next chapter begins with Catman visiting Ragdoll in the hospital.  Scandal is busy trying to check Ragdoll out, when the nurse pushes an alarm that alerts the FBI agents to their prescence.  They come to arrest Ragdoll and the other two, because they are all still criminals.  But Catman and Ragdoll crash through a window and escape, meeting up with Scandal who has done the same.

Back at the House of Secrets, they are having a meal.  The Hatter has placed tiny little hats on the fruit in a bowl.  Scandal is sleeping by her lover, who gets up and removes her bandages to reveal she is totally healed.  She takes a shower and then walks into the kitchen area totally starkers, much to the enjoyment of Deadshot and Catman.  Hatter ignores her because she didn't have a hat on.
Ah strategic hair, very handy to avoid a NSFW label.
Scandal has a dream about her father, Vandal Savage.  He tells her that her mother was the only mortal woman he has ever loved.  He wants a grandchild.  She says no can do, but he is insistent, he wants an heir.  Vandal suggests Catman, but she says "no... he is a friend."  Vandal says chose something else, and as he starts to tell her why she will do this, we leave the dream and she wakes with a start and panics because Knockout is gone.

Knockout runs in and hugs her.  She explains she was engineered to "stay presentable even after the most greivous of wounds."  Then Deadshot pops his head round the door and says they have a lead on the women who attacked him.  "Suit up, we're going hunting."
A mind controlled Ragdoll attacks the rest of the Six.
They fly there in a helicopter and Ragdoll gets a phone call.  When he hangs up he starts attacking the others, apologising the whole time.  In the struggle, Knockout is um.. knocked out of the helicopter but manages to hang onto Ragdoll's hand.  He disjoints it off completely and Knockout falls.

Catman: "Last chance Doll, stand down or die."

Ragdoll: "I choose...Death".

They land the helicopter and notice that Hatter is having some sort of seizure.  Scandal says to leave him and search for Knockout.  She finds her unharmed.  Ragdoll appears, now back to normal and explains that he had a post-hypnotic suggestion implanted in his brain by Doctor Psycho when he was in the hospital.  He apologises again and before they can leave, The Doom Patrol appears.
The Doom Patrol arrive, it's them at the back.
I'm not sure which version of the Patrol this is, but as they are back in the DCU it's post Vertigo, and it has Beast Boy, Bumblebee and Mento in the line-up alongside Elasti-Woman, Robotman and Negative Man.  It doesn't actually match up to any line-up listed on the Doom Patrol wikipedia page, although I believe it's meant to be a version created during the Infinite Crisis event, but it's closest to Keith Giffen's version which was version five and who I wrote about earlier this year.  I'm a big fan of both the Doom Patrol classic that we have here and Grant Morrison's crazy reboot one.  Being a bunch of weirdoes and outcasts themselves they're the perfect team to take on the Secret Six. There is another link between the two. Both Secret Six and Keith Giffen's Doom Patrol got cancelled when the The New 52 was launched and no I am never going to let that go DC, despite The New 52 itself finally being retconned away too.

Cheshire and Doctor Psycho meet with Vandal Savage at his Japanese home and he feeds them soup and meat made out of Solomon Grundy, much to Cheshire's disgust.  Back with the Six versus the Patrol, Scandal says maybe they should try to talk to avoid an ass kicking.  However Robotman says they are all wanted by the police.  Catman says, yeah but it's all petty stuff.  Why are the likes of The Doom Patrol after them?

Catman also points out they have people in need of medical treatment.  Robotman says treatment first then jail.  So the Six attack them.  Elasti-woman grows to huge size, and Ragdoll gets a good look up her skirt before downing her by stabbing her in the ankle.  Beast Boy tries to get Mento (his adoptive father) to help her (his adoptive mother).  But Mento just jibbers about random stuff, so Negative Man releases the Negative Spirit upon them.
A mind controlled Elasti-woman chomps Robotman's noggin off.
There is a massive rumble and Deadshot goes to get the Hatter.  He uses his magic hat to attack the Doom Patrol psychically.  He mind controls Elasti-woman into biting off Robotman's head.  She picks up Beast Boy and is about to do the same when Scandal yells at Hatter to stop and knocks his hat off, which brings Elasti-woman back to her senses.  Robotman's decapitated head says:

Robotman: "Hey meatheads.  You can see we're still working the kinks outta this team.  You got lucky.  Get the hell out of here before we take all that away."

Back at the House Of Secrets, Ragdoll has his arm reattached.  Deadshot speaks with his ex-wife saying he can't see her and his daughter anymore but the cheques will still come.  she angrily tells him to "burn in hell" and hangs up.  Knockout comes in and Deadshot and her share a drink. Scandal dreams of her father again.  He says she must do as he commands or he will "take them from you."  Or she can come kill him, whatever.  She wakes up and goes looking for Knockout and discovers her in bed, shagging Deadshot.
Seriously, don't make Scandal mad...
Scandal is understandably pissed off and punches the shit out of Deadshot.  Knockout is confused as to what she has done wrong.  Catman comes in and wrestles Scandal off Deadshot:

Knockout: "Scandal, is it the sex?  Is that why you're angry?  Is that it?  On Apokolips after a battle the survivors always... This man means nothing to me.  Less than nothing.  Kill him if you must."

Deadshot: "Hey!"

Sorrowfully Scandal walks out on them, telling them to burn her things like she was never there.  And not to follow her either.  Deadshot tries to justify himself, but Catman says he "screwed all of us."  Scandal leaves in a plane to go to her father's house.  The rest of the Six have a meeting and Knockout says Scandal didn't leave over the sex, if she was really mad, Deadshot would be dead by now.  Also, Scandal loves her.  This was a ruse.
I like dramatic scenes where everyone is nude.
Hatter says she's gone to Japan to see her father, he knows this because he bugged all their rooms and Scandal talks in her sleep.  They all decide together to "go get our friend back."  In Japan Scandal is greeted by her father.  The Six fly to Japan themselves and when Catman finds out he was tapped to be Scandal's baby-daddy he is somewhat chagrined at being seen as a walking sperm bank.

Scandal tells her father that he has won and that he must not hurt her friends.  He says that if he was to lose her, he'd lose everything of the only woman he ever loved.  As she refused to shag Catman, he has picked a mate for her, Doctor Psycho.  Ew.  The Six's plane touches down outside and they come out fighting, taking on Vandal's ninja guards.
Opening a can of whoop-ass.
Meanwhile Scandal grabs a pair of chopsticks and buries them deep Vandal's his neck.  Doctor Psycho goes outside and tries to mind control them into killing each other, but Hatter overrides his psychic abilities.  Hatter gloats, which is suddenly cut short due to a poisoned knife in his back courtesy of Cheshire.

Hatter has a trippy dreamlike vision where he sees Cheshire as the Cheshire Cat and Doctor Psycho as the White Rabbit telling him to jump into a hole that is his grave.  Scandal brings him round, she says she can close the wound but he needs the antidote fast.  She shoots Catman a significant look and he obdiently goes after Cheshire.
What did I say about pissing off Scandal?
Inside Vandal has been impaled via two katanas to a post by Scandal.  As he frees himself, he says she is "willful, like her mother".  There is a chaotic fight going on outside, CHeshire tells Catman that if he wants the antidote, he'll have to have sex with her.

Catman: "Cheshire, your womb is the most Godammned dangerous weapon I've ever faced.  Worse than that... I can't believe I'm considering it."

Cheshire says he better make his mind up fast, so they disappear somewhere secluded.  Knockout and Scandal deal with the zillions of mooks and Hatter disappears to chse after Doctor Psycho.  Vandal Savage stands on the roof of his house and challenges Scandal to a one-on-one fight.  She agrees but tells Knockout that this house is his favourite and he despises disorder. "Displease him for me won't you?" she says, and they kiss.  Then Scandal climbs up to fight her father.
Dr. Psycho and Hatter grapple, while Scandal fights her dad.
Hatter catches Psycho trying to leave and they both fight each other.  Catman reappears with the antidote and Deadshot keeps the pressure on the masses of guards.  Scandal and Vandal battle, the house shaking as Knockout trashes the inside.  Catman finds Hatter next to the dead body of Doctor Psycho and gives him the antidote.

Vandal stabs Scandal through the hand with a katana, but then as Knockout makes a particularly big dent in his house, he and Scandal are knocked off the roof.  Scandal is left hanging on by her good hand, while Vandal dangles off her leg.  Vandal says he suddenly has no more desire to take her down and lets go, smashing on the rocks below.  Hatter then appears and goes to stab her through the hand she is hanging on by for the crime of knocking his hat off.
How fluffy and nice...
However Ragdoll appears and makes an appeal to him saying "we're your friends".  Hatter apologises and Scandal climbs up to safety.  She leaves Ragdoll and Hatter up there discussing friendship, Hatter says he will be a good friend to them.  Then Ragdoll pushes him off the roof saying thats as maybe but "there is only room for one dandy freak on the team".  He then strolls back to the plane where the others are waiting, telling them Hatter decided to stay.  So down to five again, they return to the House Of Secrets.

Once back there, Scandal thanks them for coming to help her, she says she plans on getting her tubes tied to prevent her father, who will come back alive again, from trying the same stunt again and she has no desire for kids.  She also tells Deadshot if he tries it on with Knockout again, she'll turn his testicles into earrings.  And the miniseries ends with poor old Mad Hatter left behind, with the only thing in life he can truly trust.  His hat.
You can always rely on a hat.
This second minseries is basically what makes this collection worth it.  It was good enough to land The Secret Six an on-going series following on from it, that I shall be covering over the next few months.  If I was in charge of putting the trades together, I probably would have given the Villains United one a miss if I wasn't planning on adding an explanatory page at the start.  And either released Six Degrees of Devastation as a six issue trade, or placed it in a larger collection like this with the first story arc of the on-going.  Six Degrees of Devastation is excellent though, while the art by Jimmy Palmiotti and Brad Walker is fairly standard but decent superhero mainstream stuff with some confusing action scenes in places, the writing is very strong.  Gail Simone strikes me as a very humane writer, able to find sympathy in even the most messed up characters, and having a strong lesbian couple at the centre of events who openly express affection for each other is something I enjoyed very much as well.  It gets very dark in places, but there are also funny jokes and surreal interjections and also it was nice to see The Doom Patrol again too. A worthy one hundreth book for this blog.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Mouse Guard: Autumn 1152 (#1-6)

"We will fight and defend all that is ours" - Gwendolyn

You know, looking at what I have covered this month, it's been kind of bleak.  Rape and incest.  Mass machinegun massacres. Weird alien sex. A future where humanity is almost extinct and those who aren't are mind-slaves.  Undead walking fish and an apocalyptic stench. A village wiped out by those helping to defend it. A colony wiped out by madness, death and alien zombies, yes it's all got kind of depressing.  So it is to Mouse: Guard 1152 that I turn in the hope for something a little more uplifting - it has adorable anthromorphic mice in it 'fer chrissakes it's got to be more cheerful.  Mouse Guard: Autumn 1152 is the first miniseries featuring the titular guard, written and drawn by David Peterson and first published in 2006. The Mouse Guard are soldiers dedicated to protecting ordinary  mice from the dangers of the world they live in. This volume follows the investigation by three members of the guard - Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon - of the possibility that there is a traitor in the ranks. The artwork is beautiful, seriously good stuff, the mice are wonderfully expressive and the threats they face everyday marvellously depicted.  The dialogue is fairly sparse as Peterson lets the images tell the story and the whole thing, bound in a lavish hardcover, feels a lot like a childrens storybook, which is no bad thing. So let's continue.

Each chapter starts with a text page.  Chapter one starts with an introduction to the Guard.  The Mouse Guard was formed and after the "weasel war in the winter of 1149 the territories are no longer trouble." The Guard are escorts, pathfinders, weather watchers, scouts and body guards.  The keep the borders safe and lead shipmets from one town to another.

Narration: "Hail those who are able, any mouse can, any mouse with, but the Guard will prevail."

Then the comic begins with an old mouse pulling a cart of grain.  He stops for a while in a wood, then someone or something approaches unseen and he disappears.  We then cut to Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon investigating his vanishing.  Saxon climbs a tree and spots the cart.  There is no blood by it and it is getting dark so they make camp and take in turns to stand guard. 
Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon, our main characters.
The next day Saxon finds a trail of grain, however it leads to a large snake.  Our mice here are the same size as normal mice so a snake is very dangerous.  They try to attack it but it is too much and they retreat to a hole in a tree until it is safe to leave.  Saxon says reproachfully that they could have taken it. Kenzie responds that they couldn't have and "it's not what you fight for but who you fight for."

They venture back out and find a nest of snake eggs which they enthusiastically smash.  But then the snake reappears.  Lieam allows the snake to start swallowing him and once half inside it's mouth he stabs his sword up through the snakes head and kills it.  "We turn around and you're inside a snake" chides Saxon as he and Kenzie pull him out of the snakes mouth.

They slit it open and find the missing grain merchant inside.  They then head to "Barkstone" and Kenzie reveals that the grain merchant was a traitor and was delivering Mouse Guard secrets to person or persons unknown.
Lieam proves his worth.
The next chapter begins by telling us that Gwendolyn, Head of the Mouse Guard has sent to word to Sadie who watches the shoreline and asks her to make contact with a missing Guard member called Conrad who is incommunicado.  So Sadie heads to his shoreline dwelling Calogero.

She sits in a leaf and rows her way to Calogero.  She finds messages from the Guard hidden outside and footprints leading away that can't be Conrad's as he has a peg-leg.  She goes into Calogero and think it abandoned, then Conrad appears behind her and holds a fish-hook to her throat saying "speak if yeh wish to keep your life."  Sadie says Gwendolyn sent her to find him and Conrad relaxes, saying Gwendolyn must know about the traitor.
Conrad surprises Sadie.
When Sadie queries this, Conrad says he'd recognise the voice, but then wobbles and collapses, passing out.  He comes around a few hours later, Sadie has built a fire and made some soup.  A grateful Conrad drinks some up.  He starts to tell her he suspected a traitor "a season ago".  He tucked himself in the ceiling of Calogero with only a bottle of booze for company and saw a merchant mouse pledge his service to one who was shrouded in shadows, and was handed a map of Lockhaven.

He was going to follow but Sadie arrived and he needed to check her voice to make sure she wasn't the shadowy mouse.  Sadie says they will make for Lockhaven the next day.  They wake up and it is mid-morning but the windows are dark, they discover that it is because Calogero is covered in crabs.

They break out through the thatched ceiling but it looks like they crabs won't allow them to go.  Conrad uses his hook and thread to attack and confuse them, Sadie attacks another but loses her daggers in the process.  She is grabbed by one, but Conrad manages to climb on top of it and squeeze it's eye stalks and it lets her go.  He tells her to run as a crab grabs him, they crowd round and we hear but are thankfully spared the sight of him being crunched apart.  "Goodbye brave friend" says Sadie to herself as she runs away in tears.
A nasty case of crabs.
Hey, no!  I loved Conrad.  Thanks mainly to the art I gave more of a damn about him in less than one chapter than I did for the seven main characters in Demon Knights volume one.  A peg-legged, alcoholic, badass mouse?  Awesome.  Conrad, you were only around for a few pages but you made your mark most excellently.

Saxon, Kenzie and Lieam head to Barkstone.  They do not know who the traitor is and don't know what information Sadie has nor about the death of Conrad.  They decide to take the subtle approach in Barkstone. "Saxon knows not from 'subtle'" snarks Lieam.  They cross paths with a black mouse called Midnight who greets them as fellow guards.  Lieam starts to tell him about the traitor, but Kenzie stops him, saying just that the merchant was eaten by a serpent and they were too late. 
The Midnight affably leaves, and Kenzie says they don't know who to trust right now.  They enter Barkstone, a small town full of mice and surreptiously search for leads but come up empty.  Then Kenzie says they have been followed:

Kenzie: "This is not open country.  We are not the law here.  We have no authority"

He then says he has a diversionary plan.  Saxon calls out to the townsmice that there will be a fight between two guard members, a crowd quickly gathers and they start laying bets.  Kenzie and Saxon fight, giving Lieam a chance to anonymously slip off his cloak and sword and get away unseen.

He goes to the map shop and inquires after a detailed map of Lockhaven.  "Come to join the Axe, eh?" says they shopkeeper.  He says he expects delivery of it shortly but that it has been delayed.  He says he has heard there are Guardsmice in the town but with or without the map "We march at dawn".  Upstairs Lieam spots some mice changing into black armour.
Kenzie and Saxon playfight a little too seriously.
Outside Kenzie and Saxon are still battling, suddenly they are captured and subdued by black clad mice using lassos.  They are dragged out of the town and we next see them in a house in a tree.  They are hung upside down in a room with a mouse smoking a pipe in front of the fire.

We find out that Lieam is hiding out in the ranks of the black clad militia, the "Axe". and the old mouse is called Celenawe who dragged Kenzie and Lieam into his house after the guards left them outside the town for dead, "and a dark plot quietly grows."

Celenawe heats a poker and demands to know what "you little theives have done with my axe?" Kenzie says the Guard are not theives.  Celenawe says the axe "stood for all I stood for, what the old Guard stood for."  It was the "Black Axe".  Saxon manages to free himself and he and Celenawe fight.

Still hung upside down Kenzie says Barkstone is corrupt and hiding a plot to over throw Lockhaven.  He frees himself and shows Celanawe the map they took from the dead merchant's cart.  Maps of Lockhaven are not supposed to leave the town's walls.  The fight has caused a fire to break out and Kenzie makes a plea to Celenawe:

Kenzie: "A group is plotting against the Guard.  I believe they have also stolen your axe.  If the guards ancient champion the Black Axe lives, let him help us.  Else, the guard may perish."

The army of black clad mice with Lieam still disguised in their midst are on the march to join up with the rest of the army of the "Axe".  Lieam tries to sneak away, but as he takes off his disguise, he is confronted by two of the Axe.  They attack him with spears but he breaks the ends off.  They beat him with the sticks instead and one grabs him in an armhold and they take him to their commander who is lurking in the darkness of the back of a hollow log.
Lieam is captured.
The mysterious unseen mouse promises to spare Lieam if he agrees to join their attack on Lockhaven.  "No" says Lieam simply.  After threatening to behead him when they reach Lockhaven as a gift for Gwendolyn the Mouse Guard leader, the voice then says to tie up Lieam and bring him with them.

Meanwhile Saxon, Kenzie and Celenawe have escaped the burning tree-home.  Kenzie says they will recover Celenawe's legendary axe.  Saxon points out a muddy trail where the army of the Axe passed through towards Lockhaven and they start to follow it.

Lieam: [thinks] "The Guard has been betrayed.  Midnight, the Guard's weaponsmith revealed himself as commander of the army, the 'Axe'".
Midnight armed with The Black Axe.
Lieam is securely tied up, it's pouring with rain and the army of the Axe draws closer to Lockhaven.  Midnight says he will approach the gates alone and when they open them they'll coquer the fortress together.  Midnight tells Lieam that the Guard is useless, only pawns of the towns and cities:

Midnight: "The territories need one sole leader who can offer peace and prosperity.  One who is not afraid to hunt down our predators.  One who is more than a mere Guard mouse."

And he brandishes the stolen Black Axe, saying he will command every creature with it.  There are then some text pages filling in the history of The Black Axe.  It was taken up by a mouse of Lockhaven, his true name kept a secret, "he took the name of his weapon, The Black Axe."

We then cut to Kenzie and Saxon following Celenawe at a distance.  Kenzie wonders if he could be the legendary Black Axe, but Saxon says he is not old enough.  They also wonder why if he was the Black Axe he gave no help in the Winter War.  "My assisstance was given.  Because you failed to notice it does not mean it did not exist."

Celenawe heads to higher ground and points out a place where he stashed some weapons near Lockhaven.  They find two rusted swords, which Celenawa gives to Kenzie and Saxon saying he will be fine without.
Sadie warns them just in time.
A mouse enters through the main gate of Lockhaven and turns out to be Sadie.  She gives her superior, Rand, the information that a map of Lockhaven has was handed to a traitor.  Rand orders a lockdown and places the Guard on high alert.  They brace the main gate and put archers in the windows.

Midnight: "Our suprise is lost.  Prepare for an all out assault!"

Saxon, Kenzie and Celenawe lurk in the bushes and Saxon makes a plan; kill the leader, save Lieam and conquer the army.  But Kenzie thinks the plan suicide and Celenawe agrees saying three against one-hundred is poor odds.  He then tells them of a secret passageway into Lockhaven that won't be sealed.

Outside, Midnight calles for Gwendolyn or he'll kill Lieam.  The Axe then break down the front door and a group including Midnight and Lieam rush inside.  But then the rusted portcullis is snipped by a mouse and drops down behind them meaning the rest of the army can't yet follow.  In the confusion of battle as the first mice guards start fighting the Axe, Lieam manages to sneak away still tied up.
Ah the Bees, my eyes, my eyes!
The Apiary Keeper is asked if he'll allow his bees to be used as weapons against the Axe and he agrees and the bees start attacking the army outside.  Some of the Guard want to take Gwendolyn somewhere safe but she says "no" she will make her stand with them.  Lieam manages to free himself and grabs a sword and dagger.  He then metes out some payback on some of the Axe in the stronghold.

Midnight confronts Gwendolyn, he accuses her of being a puppet.  He wants to rule everywhere.

Gwendolyn: "Villages and towns will remain free to do as they please, and the Guard will not stand down."

Midnight: "Then they will be forced to comply under the authority of The Black Axe."

Celenawe suddenly appears, followed by Saxon and Kenzie from a secret passage that lead to Gwendolyn's office.  He says to Midnight he has come to claim what's his.  There is an epic fight and finally Celenawe wrestles the Black Axe from Midnight.
Celenawe takes down Midnight.
He is about to kill him when Gwendolyn yells "Stop!"  She doesn't want Midnight to become a martyr.  Midnight is banished instead and the main story comes to an end.  But there is an epilogue that takes the form of Gwendolyn writing in her diary.

She worries about distrust of the Guard and how the one hundred or so warriors of the Axe, simply went back to their old lives.  Sadie has been reassigned to Lockhaven and been denied the retrieval of Conrad's remains.  Kenzie and Saxon remain the best of friends and rivals.  Young Lieam is being mentored by Celenawe who's identity as The Black Axe is being kept a secret.  She winds up by noting that winter is coming and they are dangerously low on supplies and so this miniseries ends.
Gwendolyn wraps things up.
How fantastic is this indie comic?  A great cast of characters, a believable world sketched out in broad detail with everyday creatures shown to be epic threats.  The autumnal quality a prescence all the way through.  An exciting story with cool fight scenes and just beautiful, beautiful art.  There are  more books in the series, Mouse Guard: Black Axe is a prequel.  Mouse Guard: Legends Of The Guard is a series of one-shots and the one I am most interested in reading is the direct sequel, Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, which for some unfathomable reason is out of print and going for stupid amounts of money on Amazon.  I can only offer a plea to whom it may concern to put it back in print so I can enjoy more adventures of the badass little mice (RIP Conrad).  This is also a book I intend to put into use getting my young nephew into comic books.  Although it's not a "kids comic" by any manner of means, it is "kid friendly" and with so few comics nowadays being suitable for children it's nice to have one that can be used to instill a joy of comics at a young age.  Any fan of comics that are a little bit different should have this on their shelves and I absolutely love it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dead Space (#1-6, Dead Space Extraction)

"I just find it incredible that a bunch of blue-collars like this can get so swept up over a rock" - Bram Neuman

Time for the videogame game tie-in of the month, this time it's the prequel comic to the superb action-horror Xbox 360/PS3 game Dead Space.  In fact this is actually a prequel to the prequel anime-style cartoon "Dead Space: Downfall", both of which roundout the somewhat sparse storyline of the still excellent original game.  That game saw you as a space engineer called Isaac Clarke, whose ship is damaged after it receives a distress call from the "Planet Cracker" mining ship the Ishimura. He is sent aboard to repair the Ishimura and get it moving again while both investigating the disappearence of the Ishimura's crew (and the colony on the planet below) and simultaneously fending off mutated, alien zombie creatures.  It turns out those alien zombie creatures are the crew, resurrected and deformed by an alien artefact called "The Red Marker."  This Marker is also the focus of a particularly zealous religion called Unitology who worship it as a means of bringing them together in peaceful coexistence, while it actually causes madness and death to those close by, and finally brings those dead back to life as homicidal "necromorphs".  The prequel anime and the short comic "Extraction" at the end of this collection deal with the necromorph outbreak on board the Ishimura, the game that told that story - Dead Space: Extraction on the Wii - didn't sell very well, so it was obviously felt that the story would be fresh to the majority of Dead Space fans who didn't own a Wii (ie: most of them). The main part of this comic deals with the outbreak on the planet after the Marker was unearthed so lets deal with it first.

DEAD SPACE - Before the story starts we are given text introductions to the various characters.  Normally I'd come down quite hard on this as characters should be revealed through the story.  But in the case of a prequel, I'll let them off.  We know these characters are boned right from the start, the real purpose of this comic is to fill in the backstory of the Markers and Unitology that cause Isaac so much grief in the three main games.  The characters in the comic are merely plot functions at this point, it even opens with a  page of the main character, Bram, saying everyone's dead or fucked or both before events spool back to what caused all the havoc.  So a bit of extra detail on the characters is unneccesary but I'll accept it as adding more lore to the games's universe.
Bram, the main character tells it like it is.
Also a quick note on the art by Ben Templesmith.  I have to say that I like it a lot, it's nicely styalised and paced and does a lot of the heavy lifting in a story by Anthony Johnson that's somewhat weakly scripted.  Yes it is very brown and grey, but that's being true to the game in question which is without doubt the second brownest game I have ever played (Morrowind on the Xbox being the most brown). I also like the uses of limited palettes and faded colour washes over thin ink lines, it's a good look.  So thumbs up for the art.

Now introducing the characters, we have: Hardboiled ex-cop and head of colony security, Bram. Cortez, security officer and Unitologist. Control Op Marla, who has a casual relationship with Bram. Natalia, engineer. Abbot, head of the Vehicular Transport and Mechanical division of CEC, and Unitologist. Sciarello, Chief Medical Officer. And Carthusia, Project Manager and Head of the colony, also a Unitologist.

The story begins with Bram recording a message to try and warn people away from the colony. Saying that is the listener is planetside they are already dead and should just order the place nuked for the sake of humanity.  Then we travel back to five weeks ago.  We join Bram asking Marla out on a date which she refuses due to her workload.  Suddenly on her vidscreen appears a strange, twisted black artefact with red markings on it.  The people excavating outside have found a Marker, the mythical centre of the Unitologist's beliefs.
The Red Marker, source of the shenanigans
When questioned as to why it is red rather than black, Cortez who is a believer, says that there might be more than one type of Marker and more might be known if the original hadn't been stolen from a man called Altman who founded the religion around the Black Marker two hundred years ago. Bram, who lost his wife to the Unitology cult can't believe Cortez, his partner, is a "Marker-head".  There is an argument in the mess hall between Unitologists and non-believers that he breaks up.

Time moves on. CMO Sciarello is starting to get cases of extreme insomnia, twenty in the past three days. Ever since the Marker was found.  In the colony main square Abbot is preaching the word of Unitology to a crowd. Saying the discovery of the Marker proves the church was right.  When Bram responds mockingly, Cortez says "Damn it, this is my faith!".  Abbot then mocks Bram in return for dissension in the ranks.  Bram responds:

Bram: "There is no godamn Marker! Sure that thing out there is some weird shit.  Maybe it isn't even human!  But in case you haven't already noticed, we already conquered heaven, and guess what?  God wasn't home!"

Bram throws up his hands and leaves when Abbot says his God is in evidence.  Out at the Marker site the workers say Carthusia has ordered a tramline be built between the Marker and the colony.  Later Bram and Cortez are called to an emergency at the surgery.  Sciarello is being held hostage by one of the insomniacs, who has cut his nurse in half.  Bram and COrtez manage to subdue him.
Doctor Sciarello, taken hostage.
Carthusia is told by a mysterious man over sub-space communications that his top priority is to protect the Marker at all costs.  Carthusia who is "vested" in the Unitology religion agrees.  Later Abbot and a team take an unsceduled trip to the Marker.  Standing in awe, they all suddenly have visions of dead people talking to them.

We jump forward to Sciarello holding a wake for the dead nurse, Katie. As he tells the assembled how Katie saved his life by calling security, he sees a vision of her in the crowd and stumbles away from the podium.  Bram goes to pick up Cortez, but she decides to take a sick day as she is suffering insomnia.

In his office Carthusia dresses Abbot down for going to the Marker.  Then he is visited by Sciarello who tells him the incidents of depression and insomnia are getting out of control. He wants them investigated and the Marker as well.  Carthusia says it's just stir crazy colonists and as Sciarello leaves, enquires if the have a morgue.  When he is told they do, he says "interesting".
The sinister Carthusia.
By the Marker, Natalia and others have been told to stand guard. Others show up to worship with Abbot nearby.  Bram and Sciarello drive out to the Marker where Bram finds Cortez with the pilgrims.  He blows up at her saying she is risking her job, she says "some things in life are just too important".  Bram tries to drag her away for a psyche eval, but the others stop him.  Bram and Sciarello leave.  Sciarello, who was scanning the Marker says he has found nothing out of the ordinary about it, much to Bram's disbelief.

Carthusia gets a message letting him know about the doctor's trip.  The person reporting this says there have been outbursts of aggression amongst the guards and pilgrims alike.  Bram goes to see Marla, who is examining video footage of the Marker, she thinks the symbols are a code or language.  When Bram says that the Unitology church has been trying to decode the Black Marker for centuries, Marla says maybe a "fresh perspective" might help.
Bram and Marla.
Carthusia sends another security team to take over guarding the Marker because he believes the guards there leaked the video footage of it.  But when they try to take over Natalia shoots one of them.  The others manage to talk her down, and she gets a punch in the face for her troubles.  Bram appeals to Carthusia to leave the Marker alone now people are dying. Carthusia brushes them off saying in four days time it will be transported up to the Ishimura.

Bram and Sciarello leave.  Bram is bewildered by the effect the Marker is having.  Sciarello says he is a sceptic and an atheist but if he was a spiritual man, he'd be praying about now.  Then he goes to see Natalia who has been confined to a cell.  She says she dreams of killing all the time and attacks Sciarello and tries to choke him to death but security rush in and knock her out.

At the main square all the Unitologists have gathered to hear Abbot preach.  He says it's time to ascend and become one with their God.  Bram tries to pull Cortez away but she says "you can't escape your fate" and they all take out a gun each and kill themselves, all fifty of them.  Carthusia tells this to his church superior who appears to be the Captain of the Ishimura.  He says he wants the corpses kept well on ice.
Cortez goes out with a bang.
Bram is now down in one of the colony vents, a worker shows him a strange sort of fleshy growth coming out of one of the grills.  When Bram pokes it, it reacts as if alive.  Elsewhere the Marker has been bought into the main colony base.  Carthusia goes to inspect it:

Carthusia: "Is it true?  Do you hold the key to life... and the journey beyond death?"

Sciarello is called to an apartment.  The husband of the woman who called him has been scrawling words and symbols all over the walls.  He then attacks the doctor but his wife knocks him out with a hypodermic Sciarello dropped.  Bram visits Marla who is still trying to decode the Marker.  Bram says the Marker is "evil".  Marla says it could be evidence of alien life.  She accuses him of getting emotional:

Bram: "People are dying Marla.  I can't think of a reason not to get emotional."

Bram pleads with Carthusia to stop the planetcrack, but Carthusia says he is no longer in charge of the colony, the captain of the Ishimura is.  The Marker is taken up to the Ishimura but it's baleful effects still can be felt on the colony.  Sciarello and Bram go and visit Natalia who has started scrawling words and symbols all over her cell walls.  Bram gets a call from the supervisor who alerted him to the flesh fungus in the vents, it's spread out all over the colony underbelly.
A futile plea from Bram to Carthusia
The Captain of the Ishimura talks with Carthusia who is to send the bodies of the suicides up to the ship.  But he refuses to allow Carthusia to come up as well and intends to place a no fly zone over the colony.  So Carthusia angrily says he'll have to come down and get the bodies himself.  Bram takes Marla to see Natalia, ostensibly to try and warn Marla from being so obssessed with the Marker.  Then he shows Carthusia footage of the flesh fungus and says they need to abort the planetcrack and evacuate.  But Carthusia ignores him.

Marla thanks Bram for taking her to visit Natalia, she's close to cracking the Marker code and it has something to do with DNA.  Bram departs in annoyance.  The planetcrack takes place and the Ishimura blasts a huge hole in the planets crust where it can be mined from.  But something goes wrong.  All the colony's power goes off and the communications go down.
The planetcrack in progress.
Down in the vents the supervisor is attacked by something unseen that turns him into red mist.  Bram manages to find Marla, she says she found something out about the Marker, but Bram hurries her along saying they need to get to HQ.  Unfortunately once there they find everyone dead and the vent flesh in evidence.  Marla tells Bram she discovered the Marker was instructions for DNA:

Marla: "Recombinant. A DNA that mutates genes at a cellular level, like a cancer or virus.  But soon it spreads through through a specific target vector...Necrotic flesh Bram!  It infects dead bodies!"

And after this revelation, Carthusian is horribly murdered by a now revealed necromorph, while praying to Altman.
A Necromorph takes out Carthusia
Back with Bram and Marla, something bursts out of one of the bodies and goes to infect the others.  Bram shoots it while they receieve a crackly distress call from another part of the base.  We get a glimpse of what's going one there, they are all being massacred by necromorphs.  Bram tries shooting the necromorph that has formed but it's immune to bullets (in the game necromorphs are like the Black Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, you have to use cutting tools to de-limb them until they can't hop after you.  Even the standard zombie fighting tactic of shooting the head off won't work). They squish it behind a desk, but it breaks in half and keeps coming after them.  Bram smashes its head in with a fireaxe.  They decide to make for the shuttles despite there being a no-fly zone.

Sciarello heads for the med-lab, he wants to be there for the injured.  But when he gets there he finds it empty, bar the necromorphs on the ceiling and he dies courtesy of a spike to the forehead.  There is a crowd of people trying to get on the shuttles.  Meanwhile Natalia has escaped her cell and his making her own way elsewhere.

Bram and Marla pick up a group of people heading for the shuttles.  Their way is blocked by a roomful of dead and a necromorph maker.  Bram says if they are quick they can make their way through, but end up confronted by a necromorph.  Theyy flee with Bram smashing necromorphs out of the way with his axe.  They make it through the door and Bram fires into some canisters behind him that blow the persuing necromorphs up.
Bram gets handy with a fire axe
Bram and Marla are now in the shuttle bay, one of the shuttles has manages to take off but it is overloaded.  It ends up falling out of the sky and crashing into the shuttles on the ground destroying them all.  Marla says that they might be able to contact the Ishimura for help via the comms tower.  Bram is dubious that it'll work but Marla says she doesn't want to "sit on my ass and wait to die."  Meanwhile Natalia has driven out to the planetcracked hole in the ground and dives in saying "make me whole."

Bram and Marla get to the comms tower and find the whole place covered in the flesh fungus.  Some of the stuff has human faces embedded in it, one of which Bram recognises as Cortez.  Then more necromorphs appear and chase them.  Bram gets to a safe room, but Marla is grabbed and killed. 
And so it ends, all of them dead or tranformed.
Shut in the room, Bram is left alone and despairing.  We then join him where we started the book, finishing up his tale of what happened as a warning to others.  Then he walks out of the room to his certain death and the story ends with a male and female face stuck in the wall-flesh.  Marla and Bram? It may very well be.  And so it ends.

DEAD SPACE: EXTRACTION:  This is just a short comic recapping what happened on the Ishimura for those who either didn't play the Wii Dead Space game nor watched Dead Space: Downfall. It stars the Nicole, the girlfriend of the game's protagonist Isaac Clarke who makes a cameo at the start saying goodbye to her as she takes up her post of Chief Medical Officer aboard the Ishimura as it heads to the benighted colony to "planetcrack" it. 
Nicole, Isaac's erstwhile girlfriend.
Unfortunately when they get there taking the Marker aboard has the same effects as it did on the colony, people fall ill, there is an outbreak of suicides and murder and finally necromorphs are created.  She valiantly tries to combat them by thinking she has cracked the Marker code and can reverse engineer a viral cure.  But she may have hallucinated it as she quickly gives up and records her final message to Isaac which we see in full at the end of the first Dead Space game when (SPOILERS) she turns out to have died along with everyone else aboard.

So overall as videogame tie-in's go, this is one of the better ones.  The Dead Space universe is yet another transmedia one, and I think that this hopefully might save the videogame side of the franchise after Dead Space 3 flopped critically and commercially (Dead Space 2 is one of the greatest games ever made, Dead Space 3 took me four attempts to finish and I swear I spent more time opening doors than fighting monsters in it) in spectacular fashion.  This comic builds tension nicely, so even though you know what's coming the comic still finds time to explain the reasons why and fill in the history of the Unitology cult and how the Markers are linked to the necromorphs.  The art makes good use of colour to convey mood, and the more cartoony nature of the figure drawing isn't something I would have expected but I also welcome it and it's got me curious about seeking out more stuff by Ben Templesmith. I can't imagine anyone not already versed in the Dead Space games would pick this up, but it does actually make a pretty good, self contained sci-fi "zombie" horror story.  But if you are into the Dead Space games, have watched the cartoon, read the books and worn the T-shirt, this is well worth a look.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Demon Knights Book 1: Seven Against The Dark (#1-7)

"Your greatest tests are about to begin" - Merlin

Demon Knights was a New 52 launch title, written intially by Paul Cornell.  Mr.Cornell has carved out quite a name for himself in the last few years as a comicbook writer.  But he has had a long career including writing three of the best nuWho episodes ("Father's Day" and the "Human Nature/Family Of Blood" two parter) and a before that he also kicked the 90's Virgin New Adventures of Doctor Who series up the arse and wrote most of the best regarded books in that line.  But I think I'll always like hims best for his wonderfully shit stirring articles in various Doctor Who fanzines of the early 90's.  Anyway, I've been a fan for a good while of the man, so combining him with comics should be gold for me right?  We-ell,  I have to admit apart from the marvellous Knight and Squire miniseries (more on that at a later date), I've found that while politically I am drawn to what he writes, the end result is somewhat unsatisfying narratively speaking.  I was disappointed with his Captain Britain and MI-13 series, and while I think Demon Knights is better, it still feels thin and underwritten in places.  Still as an attempt at creating a superteam that exists in an entirely different century from most of the rest of the DCU it is somewhat successful, despite some underwhelming and confusing art.  So, let's have a closer look at volume one shall we?

Before we do, a quick note about how I'm going to refer to one of the characters.  Sir Ystin who you might remember from Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory that I covered in February is back as Shining Knight, but instead of being a woman who dressed as a man in male drag and when she found out she no longer needed too, decided to keep a female identity, as the series go on we discover that this Shining Knight is much more what in the modern parlance would be called transgendered.  So although Sir Ystin is referred to by other characters as "her", I feel it's only polite and fitting to respect Sir Ystin's gender identification and will be using "he" and "him" when referring to him.
Merlin casually ruins Jason Bloods life.
The story starts four centuries in the past, at the fall of Camelot.  An unknown character laments to loss of Arthur and holds Excalibur.  Some hooded women on a boat are taking Arthur's body to Avalon.  The unknown knight hurls Excalibur into the water and one of the women called "Xanadu" jumps off the boat after it.  Then we cut to Merlin with the non-rhyming demon Etrigan.  Jason of Norwich appears and Merlin bonds Etrigan to Jason's soul.  Now with a simple rhyme, Jason can summon Etrigan from hell to take his place for a while.

Then we jump forward four centuries to The Dark Ages which is when this comic is set.  A man hands over a baby to The Questing Queen whose forces have come through his village in the hope no one more will die.  Her companion Mordru uses the baby to read their immediate future but it explodes before it can tell them much.  Their goal is the city of Alba Sarum, but before they have to go through a mountain village called Little Spring.
Fortune telling possessed baby.
Jason O' Th' Blood and "Madame" Xanadu also arrive in Little Spring, just in time to see fellow immortal Vandal Savage break down the taveern door to get a drink.  They sit with him and he says he is jealous of them being their at the fall of Camelot.

Over in the corner sits Sir Ystin.  He says in his own language that he remembers none of them being there are Camelot.  Then in their common language introduces himself as Sir Ystin, "Shining Knight".  The others are dubious about the "Sir" part, then there is a commotion at the bar as Saracen Al Jabar is being refused service.  A very tall and muscular lady grabs the barman and introduces herself as Exoristos and starts to intimidate him.
Sir Ystin meets Xanadu, Jason and Vandal Savage
Outside, outriders of The Questing Queen attack a villager and get themselves shot full of arrows by the mysterious Horsewoman.  More outriders get to the tavern and start attacking those inside.  Jason says:

Jason Blood: "Concealed within the form of man, release the demon... Etrigan!"

Etrigan appears and takes his place and has a big snog with Xanadu who says she prefers him to Jason.  They join in the fight against the outriders.  Meanwhile Mordru says he has detected magic use in the area, The Questing Queen replies:

Queen: "We find the source of the problem and we throw dragons at it."

The pub now somewhat wrecked a horde of dragons appear.  Our "heroes" throw themselves into the fighting with gusto.  Al Jabar uses his scientific bomb thing to kill some and Xanadu uses up her prepared magic, but more appear to attack them, things look grim then Vandal Savage kills the dragons about to attack.  Etrigan blows off the head of the biggest dragon much to the annoyance of The Questing Queen.
Vandal saves Al Jabar and Xanadu
She says they have no chance but to "contain and destroy" the fighters in the village "nothing leaves".  The immediate danger passed, The Horsewoman rides in and says they should evactuate.  Exoristis and a young villager called Audofleda chat:

Audofleda: "You were amazing..."

Exoristos: "Thanks.  I'm Exoristos.  You can call me Ex"

Audofleda: "...but you dress like a tart."

Exoristos: "Again thanks.. Is that some kind of pastry?"

The headman of the village refuses to evacuate at first.  Vandal Savage reveals that in the past he was part of The Questing Queen's Horde and they will sweep through and take everything, even the young for their army.  The headman changes his mind and says they will evacuate.

Etrigan flies Xanadu away even though she wants to stay and help.  They run into some more sky dragons while more appear on the ground.  As they attack Theod the village priest asks how they can spit fire. "Magic probably" says Sir Ystin.  I don't believe in magic says the priest, Al Jabar agrees but also says he believes there is science they don't yet understand.  Shining Knight mounts his flying horse Vanguard and starts killing the sky dragons so Etrigan and Xanadu can try something.  The Questing Queen orders a full on giant fireball be launched at the village.
Etrigan tries to take Xanadu away from all this.
Xanadu sacrifices her life energy to cast a protection spell upon the village, massively aging herself in the process.  The fireball rebounds on the horde.  Etrigan flies Xanadu back down into the village with her and grabs the face of the priest and burns him saying they have temporarily saved the village but "at what cost?".  Vanguard gets caught in the fire, but Ex puts her out.  The Horsewoman is unable to get through the pass to Alba Sarum to get reinforcements and returns to the village, somehow able to get through the forcefield.

Xanadu says it will hold for another few hours so they can prepare.  The Horsewoman agrees to join forces with them.  The Queen and Mordru spy on the village, while Etrigan who grows weak in the human world returns to hell and Jason Blood comes back.  Weakly Xanadu says to him:

Xanadu: "My love.. I will.. always urge the demon to depart.  I will... always want you to return."

Ex says her double dealing "does no credit to our sex" to Sir Ystin who responds with "our?" and laughs.  They get back to work reinforcing walls and building a seige engine under the tutuledge of Al Jabar.  He goes to find the priest and finds the burn on him is killing him and he dies, his soul unjustly sent to hell.
Ex and Sir Ystin.
Vandal Savage surveys the fighting force of the village noting "barely an arm that can swing a sword."  He finds the whole prospect of death here hilarious.  Outside The Horsewoman tells Sir Ystin that Vanguard is strong and loves him.  A young female villager called Audofleda asks Ex if all women are a big as her where she comes from.  Ex says she was "raised tough".

Audofleda says she knows the shepard trails out of the village and could sneak out and get world to Alba Sarum of their plight.  "Go to it sister!" urges Ex.  She then asks Sir Ystin what brings him here.  He says a quest, a vision and hunger in him.  Then they here the sound of horrible torture, they look over the village wall and see Audofleda has been captured, tortured and decapitated, the man responsible holds her severed head up to show to the shocked onlookers.

In a rage Shining Knight starts to have a sort of fit.  Ex grabs him while Sir Ystin points widly at "him?!".  He starts having a vision of Merlin, who tells him he won't understand everything he is going to see now.  He shows Sir Ystin the Holy Grail.  Then takes Sir Ystin back to when they last met.  Ystin was injured on the battlefield and Merlin made him drink from the Holy Grail and made him immortal.
Sir Ystin and Merlin in a vision.
The Grail is the source of Sir Ystin's hunger and after the fall of Camelot he spent many years searching, in many battles, becoming more of a warrior than a knight.  He saved his horse Vanguard by using his blood and made her immortal as well.  Sometimes they would sleep underground for many years.  One day they slept under the tree that the world turns around and started having the vision he is having now, being outside of time and space.

The others try to wake Sir Ystin but the vision continues.  Marlin notes that Ystin's "heart is pure, but you are complex."  Merlin also says Ystin has the best chance of finding the grail.  Merlin hid it in a container of his own devising and threw it into a volcano confident he could find it again in a few decades, "old fool that I was."

Sir Ystin thanks Merlin for giving him the burden of finding the grail.  "For reminding me what puts weight in my steps."  Then he snaps out of his trance yelling "Demon Knights!".  Jason asks if that refers to them, but Ystin doesn't know.  Back on the walls of the village, The Horsewoman fills the killers of Audofleda with arrows then fires one at a celebrating Ex.
Don't piss off The Horsewoman.
An angry Horsewoman says Ex sent a child to do an adults mission and "you killed her." The arrow she shot her with wasn't meant to be fatal, just to prove a point.  Jason starts to help staunch the blood, but then Al Jabar punches him for Etrigan killing the priest.  Xanadu breaks up the fight saying they can't start fighting amongst themselves.

Inside a building Xanadu tends to Ex's wound and Ex apologises for judging her. Ex says women are weak in this world, to which Xanadu snaps:

Xanadu: "We face greater danger!  That's why the Horsewoman shot you.  Dung, I can see why you were exiled". 

 She leaves and Ex sighs that this world is a complicated "hell" for her.  Then Mordru's projected form appears to her and says would she like to be able to go back home?  We find out later that Ex is an Amazon exiled from Paradise Island.

The projection of The Questing Queen notes the prescence of Sir Ystin, then changes her appearence to that of Merlin and approaches Jason Blood.  She offers to lead him out of the village to safety but she just provokes him into changing into Etrigan.  "Merlin" turns back into the Queen and once again offers him and Xanadu safe passage.  But Etrigan says "I'll rip you and your army apart" and slashes her projection.

Mordru tells Ex he could change her identity and her crimes would be forgotten.  But Ex refuses saying she wants to go back as herself and walks away from him.  Mordru then tries to persuade Al Jabar, saying joining the Horde would allow him more scientific discoveries.  But Al Jabar turns him down.
Mordru fails to tempt Al Jabar.
A way aways a young boy discovers Vandal Savage sneaking out of the fence.  Accusing him of desertion he starts to raise the alarm, but Savage kills him.  Mordru offers the Horsewoman the ability to walk again ( this is the first time we discover she is disabled).  She responds by firing an arrow into the real Mordru and Questing Queen's camp.  Angrily the Queen says they'll attack at dawn.

That morning, the six heroes left brace themselves for the attack.  Meanwhile Vandal Savage has reconnected with his mates in the Horde and he snogs the Questing Queen saying he hopes to serves.  Then he says it's time to take the village out and the attack begins with large rhino-like things called "wallbreakers" charging the village.
Rhino Smash!
Ex leaps over the wall and before the wallbreaker can hit the fence, she smashes its head in with her huge mallet like weapon.  Vandal then sends in dragons.  Meanwhile Xanadu finds an elderly man lying defenceless on a bed, she says if she sacrifices him she can get her beauty and power back, but in the end can't bring herself to do it.

The Horsewoman calls out to all the horses in the area to come help, which they do, including Vangaurd.  Using the horses to protect her (not Vangaurd though who insists on riding with Sir Ystin), she makes a break for Alba Sarum.  Ex valiantly kills dragons left, right and centre.  She gets injured and a reluctant Etrigan goes and flies her out of harms way.  Xanadu has a plan, Etrigan needs to communicate a message to Jason Blood in hell.  He has to find the priest condemned there earlier by Etrigan and see him break from his hellish torture.

The Horsewoman and horses keep on their way to Alba Saurm.  The Horsewoman is knocked off her horse but luckily her saddle is magic and she can remount.  The Horde finally manage to make into the village proper and the four fighters charge them in response.
A huge battle erupts in the village, destroying much of it as the Headman looks on in dismay.  Vandal and a group of men from the Horde loyal to him from his past service, go and plunder the Horde's baggage train. Meanwhile the Questing Queen and Mordru discover that The Horsewoman has made it past the dragons and will be at Alba Sarum within the hour.  Then they observe Vandal's men attacking the baggage train and see that the men attacking the village are breaking away and returning to protect their wages and supplies instead.

Etrigan turns back into Jason Blood briefly and has in his possession the item needed to power up and restore Xanadu - the tears from an innocent in hell.  Thus revitalised she starts laying into the attackers with her magic.  The Horsewoman arrives at Alba Sarum and tells them to immediately send their cavalry to help.
The Questing Queen makes it personal.
The Questing Queen arrives in the village and challenges Sir Ystin to a duel.  Savage reappears fighting on their side again, saying his plan was totally to disrupt the Horde and of course he didn't betray them.

Etrigan: "Ha! We'll never know how much of that is true.  Sometimes you humans can be brilliantly deceitful!"

Sir Ystin and The Queen fight, The Queen gets knocked down and hurls a poisoned dagger at Sir Ystin, temporarily paralysing him.  The Queen says the riches she was promised has turned out not to be Alba Sarum's but the Demon Knights who she will sacrifice to find the Grail.  But before she can kill Sir Ystin, the cavalry, lead by The Horsewoman arrive and the Horde, now out-numbered and out-gunned, scarper.  Another leader of the cavalry stands in the middle of the burning, wrecked village:

Cavalry Guy: "Be joyful, you have protected our nation and it's people.  Here today you have won a great victory."

And that concludes this first volume, I'll be looking at the second, next month.
The cavalry arrive, just in time.
So there we are.  I think my issues with the book so far are two-fold.  First of all the pacing.  My favourite authors like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Dave Sim and Hiromu Arakawa are all experts in controlling the pace of their stories.  Speeding you and slowing you down using the number of panels and their arrangement to lead you through the story at a rate they specifically dictate.  This book pretty much runs at the same, four panels per page rate with rather too many splash pages to break things up (and yet the one place a splash page would have been welcome which is at the end, we don't get one).  This sucks all the drama out of the narrative and combined with a rushed and abrupt ending makes the whole experience feel somewhat flat (lest you think maybe he's been ill-served by the artists here, I have the exact same problem with his Captain Britain run as well).  The second issue I have is I didn't feel I got to know the characters hardly at all, by throwing the seven right into a prolonged battle situation there was no time to learn about them as individuals.  Throw in the fact they all basically speak with the same "voice", you have seven major characters it's hard to care about, even as fire-forged friends, they don't convince.  With the art not really filling in for the inadequecies of the writing, overall you have a book that is bland, turgid and almost totally free of the flights of fancy I'd expect from a writer who gave us characters like Saul The Sentient Church, The Hoothi, Bernice Summerfield and took us on a Dante like journey through The Doctor's psyche.  As a long-time fan of Paul Cornell, I wish this was much better.  I can't tell you how disappointed I am that it isn't.