Update: Things You Might Like To Read – I

Alright. Just a quick update. I’m working on a review at the moment, but I won’t get it finished for a few days, so I just wanted to throw a couple of recommendations at you.


First, if you haven’t picked up Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s The Autumnlands yet, what on earth are you playing at? Busiek has long been a favourite comics writer of mine and this book from Image is magical stuff. The central premise – a bunch of intelligent anthropomorphised animals living in the distant future reaching back through time to recover a ‘hero’ in order to help them restore magic to the world – is hook enough, but Dewey’s art is just phenomenal. Those animals simply throb with life and pathos; Dewey does an incredible job of bringing Busiek’s thoughtful and often subtle characterisations to life. The Autumnlands is the best Busiek I’ve read in a long long time. (Mind you, I’m not reading his new Astro City at present, so I’m very much open to being corrected.) As is usual with Image books, the first trade is available at a special introductory rate. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, if you haven’t checked out Marvel’s ongoing Epic Collection series, then, again, you probably should. Each volume clocks in at around 450 pages, features extras like editorials and concept art, and aims to present a pretty comprehensive archive of a particular hero or group. I finished reading the first Moon Knight one Bad Moon Rising a few months ago. This was a particularly interesting example of the line. Moon Knight’s origin was not something I was familiar with and this volume collects not only his first appearance as a mercenary-turned-hero in Werewolf By Night but also guest stints in The DefendersMarvel Two-in-One and Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man. As you might expect, the quality is variable, but once the collection begins includmoon-knight-bad-moon-risinging the back-up strips from the Hulk! magazine, creators Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz  really hit their stride and both the character and the storytelling itself start to shine. (The story in which Moon Knight is pitted against his unhinged brother is particularly impressive.) The Epic Collections are coming out at a fair clip. My advice is to choose a character or three and stick with them. You’ll end up with a nice quality collection of reprints of your favourite Marvel characters from the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. If I had the time, I’d give you a complete run-down of the volumes released by Marvel so far, but it’s easy enough to find on the net in any case. Doctor Strange, The Defenders and Daredevil have all had excellent releases this year, though. Again, highly recommended stuff.

Hitch and Miss – Justice League issue 5

The new league’s first big adventure comes to an end in spectacular – and frustrating – fashion.


So far, this series has been something of a disappointment. Like a jigsaw made up of pieces that seem to come from slightly different puzzles, the opening story arc has been disjointed and awkward to read. The League, too, has been presented in a fragmented way, members acting mostly singly or in pairs and communicating with one another only intermittently. Then there’s the threat – or rather threats – with which the League has been dealing.

Firstly, there’s the Purge, a seemingly infinite number of flying, swarming bio-weapons disgorged from much larger ship-creatures that travel through a wormhole from their destroyed, shattered world to Earth. Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz have traveled through the aforementioned wormhole to cut off the flow of bio-weaponry at the source while the Flash takes care of the Purge on the ground. So far, an adequate explanation of either what the Purge is or why it’s attacking the Earth has not been forthcoming. We have, however, had hints. Cyborg is connected to them via some sort of frequency he’s detected and… hacked? Subverted? Commandeered? We’re not really told. What we are told is that the Purge has been doing this sort of thing for some time and the Earth is “screwed” if the League don’t thwart their plan to turn human beings into things that aren’t human. This has been happening all over the galaxy, apparently, for, it is implied, a very long time.

Then, there’s the Kindred. The Kindred are four giant humanoid gestalt entities formed from the bodies of normal human beings. The jury is still out on whether those bodies have to be living at the time of their absorption. It’s entirely possible they don’t. These Kindred are getting together for a good old sing-song, a Fab Four if you like, although without, presumably, the side journey into eastern mysticism and mind-altering drugs. (Mind you, if you want mind-altering, you could do a lot worse than this issue, actually.) This singing will, perhaps, stop the Purge. The Kindred have already started singing apparently, but it’s difficult to tell, because although we get to hear what they’re saying to each other, we don’t get anything other than a visual representation of their song. Wonder Woman is currently inside one of the Kindred and the Kindred have also been responsible for siphoning off the heroes’ powers. Or at least some of them. There have been references to “stolen power” from the Kindred, which seem to tie in with some of the JL’s heroes, whose powers have been fluctuating during the story at inopportune times whenever they’ve come into contact with the Kindred. What happens when the Kindred finish their song is unclear; we suspect it might be good, but it’s hard to be sure. On the one hand, they will stop the Purge. On the other hand, they only really seem to care about doing so just before…

The four doomsday devices at the Earth’s core go off.

Four? Yep. That’s where Superman comes in, pushing those big blank balls of nothing from the Earth’s outer core into the Earth’s inner core. These are the same doomsday devices that set off the quakes in the very first issue and set off a quake “off the Richter scale” last issue. We have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the world but the rhetoric is all about the escalation and the JL barely dealt with the last quake. If Superman doesn’t get to those doomsday machines quickly, then… Hang on a moment. Just how fast can Superman move through molten super-heated magma? No, I have no idea either, but it’d be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

Right. That’s three threats that are connected in ways which we understand only imperfectly. The Kindred want to prevent the Purge, but they are also aware of the “breaking of worlds”. Is this some sort of contingency plan to prevent the Purge taking over humanity? If so, who put it there? And why is the prospect of the Purge’s corruption of humanity so terrible that it would necessitate their installation in the first place?

And then there’s Aquaman and his singing crystals. This is where we come in this issue. Aquaman’s listening to the singing crystals and they’re telling him where he should bury them. The problem is Aquaman’s narration is big on certainty but there is just so little to go on. The crystals say he’s “family”. Erm… okay. If there’s some kind of mind-influencing going on then fair enough. If Aquaman’s so freaked out about the end of the world that he’s desperate enough to take a chance on telepathic crystals that no one has paid much attention to before, then again fair enough. But there is no sense from the narration or the art that either interpretation of his actions is appropriate here. He’s just taking a chance on the voices in his head. And that’s… astonishingly weak.

Anyway, Aquaman plants one of his (four – again!) crystals and then heads off to plant the others. As with Superman, the question of just how quickly Aquaman can traverse the planet springs to mind. We are forced to assume it’s not very long.

We then move back to the Kent Farm, where a shaken Cyborg reveals that… somehow… he’s not just in touch with the Purge but controlling it. Why? How? We don’t know. All we know is that Cyborg intercepted a mysterious signal last issue and somehow used it to take control of a bunch of alien creatures he’s only just encountered.


You’ll be hearing that word a lot this review.

Batman finally gets to do something, boom-tubing with Cyborg to where the Flash is being swarmed by more Purge critters as the four Kindred continue their song nearby. Wonder Woman, of course, is also present inside one of the Kindred. There is yet another page of ambiguous dialogue before she is ejected from inside the Kindred’s body with a promise that, when she works out who she is, then she “will understand”. While this is undoubtedly a reference to the events of Wonder Woman’s own series, the Kindred’s pronouncements are simply too elliptical to have any sort of dramatic weight. As readers, we need to understand things now – not at some unspecified point in the future. If all Wonder Woman is going to do is have a largely pointless conversation consisting of threats, vague but portentous declarations, and a promise that things will be explained later, then what was the point of putting her in there in the first place?


Read the dialogue. Read it again. Read it as many times as you like. It’ll still be rubbish.

The following page features perhaps the single most representative panel of the entire issue. Four JL-ers – The Flash, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg – standing around talking to each other, watching events unfold around them, doing nothing.  The two TV reporters at the bottom of the page only make things worse. “Where are the Justice League?” Well, four of them are in a field somewhere watching the end of the world. Nice.


When in doubt, stand around and pontificate about events you should be trying to understand a heck of a lot better than you’re currently doing.

The following conversation between the heroes highlights the crushing silliness of the last few issues. It is worth reproducing in its full glory below.

Batman’s point is not coincidental. Why hasn’t the League tried to work out what the Kindred want? We’re five issues in and even now it’s not clear.  Where does Wonder Woman get her really rather incredible – and not particularly well thought out – insight about the Kindred and their relationship to the League from? Most incredible of all, though, is the Flash’s sudden revelation that all he has to do to regain his speed is… take it back. Somehow. No ruby slippers to click together, no magic words to say – just a look of determination and a snatch of macho dialogue. Will to power in its purest form. Who needs silly things like plot devices and challenges for the hero?

What follows is nonsensical plot point after nonsensical plot point: the Flash takes his speed back, the most iconic female superhero in the world reduced to the role of cheerleader as he does so; Cyborg continues to exercise his unexplained ability to control the Purge and directs them at the Kindred; Aquaman swims; Superman pushes; Wonder Woman finally does something useful although with still no clear idea that it will be the right thing to do (“think” doesn’t cut it); Simon and Jessica siphon off the Purge from their ruined world, forming a construct tube to funnel them through the wormhole and onto the Kindred. That last bit is actually pretty cool, but, as has been the case throughout this series to date, the wow factor is diminished considerably when the reader isn’t entirely sure what’s going on or why what’s going on matters.

The fast intercutting between characters is meant to provide that sense of breathless desperation that would be entirely appropriate to the finale of a five-part world-threatening epic if the build-up to it hadn’t been so appallingly mismanaged. As it is, we’re left with Superman not having the strength to push the final ball-of-apocalyptic-nothingness into the Earth’s inner core (oh, no!) while Aquaman races to bury his final zodiac crystal in the “final corner of the Earth”, a ‘corner’ which is, appropriately enough, right where the Kindred are.


“Seem”, “maybe”, “mostly”, “might”. We don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on, but let’s act like we do, eh? That’ll be good.

Aquaman saves the world (a good job, because Superman’s failed at this point – not that anyone else knows that yet) – and the Kindred think they get to finish their song. Batman, not being that much of a music lover apparently, has other ideas. To be (maybe too) fair, the final confrontation between the League and the Kindred is pretty dramatic. Batman’s point that the Kindred are made up of people and thus those people need to be saved is an entirely valid one. For the first time in the five issue run, it is made clear that the crystals are also dedicated to stopping the Kindred – providing a counter-song to what the Kindred are doing. That the reader still doesn’t have a clear idea of what the Kindred are trying to achieve renders the whole things less tense and involving than it should be, but Hitch and Daniel together do provide one of the best pages of storytelling I’ve seen in a long while.

Yep. This page is rather special…


This is why comic books are great. Even when they’re not.

A shame then that it’s followed up by a page in which Batman says the worst piece of dialogue in the issue (and that’s saying something) and a double page spread in which Superman unleashes and (somehow) directs the power of an omni-directional doomsday device that can apparently destroy an entire planet at the Kindred, freeing all the people within without killing a single one of them.


Oh, Batman, you didn’t…

Well, you either buy that or you don’t. One of the problems with the entire story is the way the focus has shifted away from the JL protecting civilians in the first couple of issues to dealing with the Kindred and the Purge in the later ones. Rather belatedly, they remember those civilians. “There still may be casualties,” says Flash. May be? Do you think? But, you know what? The final page shows that the League don’t really care too much about that. The Flash flirts with Jessica, Superman and Batman have a conversation that just reinforces the sense that they really didn’t know what they’ve just been dealing with and we end on a nice shot of Lois and John wearing Superman’s cape about them waiting for him to return which, in a better-told story, might have some emotional resonance but here just feels completely superfluous.

So, what to make of all this? It’s clear that Hitch has a long game in play, but it’s equally clear that he hasn’t plotted it sufficiently well to tell a good story while holding enough information back to lead up to the big reveal. I get the impression that he’s aiming for a Hickman style run, but his command of contextual detail is sadly lacking and the story feels far too detached from the wider DCU to have the kind of impact of, say, Hickman’s Avengers run prior to Secret Wars. For an action comic, the League spend a lot of time standing around telling people what they don’t know. Action without context or with barely articulated purpose makes for poor storytelling which is, the impressive artwork notwithstanding, pretty much what we’ve got here.

The frustrating thing is that this could have been better. The notion that the Kindred can affect the entire universe is intriguing, but their background and purpose need to be much better defined than what we get here. Questions that aren’t even asked but desperately need to be addressed include: Who are the Kindred and what is their connection to the JL’s powers? Who put the extinction machines in the Earth’s core? How long have they been there? Why are they there? Are such machines in place in other planets in case the Kindred visit them? What is the Purge? What does it want? How does turning the population into something ‘not human’ disrupt the Kindred from doing… whatever it is they’re doing? What are the Zodiac Crystals? How do they work?

Perhaps more importantly, though, who thought it was a good idea to give DC’s flagship team to a relatively unproven writer with a grand vision but an insufficiently clear idea of how to bring it about?

The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue (part 5)


No direction. Aimless. No certainty.

No time.

A single attenuated moment.


A cocoon of identical instants, each one throbbing with the same warm humming, the same absence of difference, the same…








A tugging. Urgent. Insistent. The eternal moment shatters into discreet instances of raw, unmediated time. The time is now. A demand is made. Action is required. Action is required now.


The word floats in as if from a great distance. He turns his back on it. No words. Not ever again. This word is insistent, however.

“Brother. Not-brother.”

What do the words mean?

“Listen, brother.”

He listens. Despite himself, he listens. This is, after all, the first voice he has heard in… he doesn’t remember…

“I am coming, brother.”

The voice has gained timbre, register – a breathy hushed quivering.


Hunger, desire, slow crooning warmth.

“Soon you will be free.”



Gordon forced his voice to remain even, pushed back against the panic gathering in his gut.

“They… they have made contact…” Forster whispered, her eyes loose, unfocused. She wasn’t plugged in, Gordon noticed. This was raw psi-spill, mediated only by Forster’s language and the hermeneutic power of her imagination. “The child understands… On a very basic level… the child understands…”

“Sir! Incoming!”

Tearing his gaze away from his communications officer, Gordon stared at the holo-tank. The Kalaz’an ship had, at some point in the last few seconds, unfurled perhaps a dozen thin appendages from its aft bulk and now they stretched across the void towards them. The panic was at his chest now. Gordon could feel it reaching for his vocal cords. He swallowed. Like every other officer on the bridge, he knew what these things were and he knew what they meant.

“Gunnery stations,” he ordered, flipping the intercom. “Address those feeding tubes now!”

He was dismayed to recognise the high-pitched taint of alarm in his voice, but his officers either failed to notice or at least had the good grace not to acknowledge it.

A few tense moments passed during which all the bridge crew could do was watch the thin, organic appendages continue their painfully slow journey towards the Valiant.

But then a salvo of beams and plasma erupted from the Valiant’s batteries, obliterating the first few metres of the tubes entirely and, in the case of a few of the more developed tendrils, igniting the foul mix of acids that they contained, gutting their entire length. These tubes would be unmoored from the Kalaz’an ship in the next few minutes and new growths would replace them. The tubes that had already been deployed and survived the bombardment would regrow on their own.

Gordon licked his lips, glanced over at his gunnery officer. “Damage?”

“Four of the tubes destroyed completely, the remainder will grow back in approximately three minutes, sir.”

“Gunnery strength?”

“Recycling now, sir. 15% charge currently.”

“And in three minutes?”

Hunched at his station, Ensign Schofield paused for a second. “Approximately 38%, sir.”

Gordon nodded. That matched the quick calculations he’d made mentally. He turned to Parkinson at the helm.

“Take us three points to starboard and a further seven points yaw down. One-tenth iss[1]. Gunnery stations, concentrate fire on the enemy’s aft section. Tachyon burst only. On my mark.”

Schofield looked up sharply. “We’re about to deploy the maintenance drones, sir.”

Gordon scowled briefly. “How are we looking in the affected areas?”

“Hull integrity in 12-D is down to 51%. The observation blister on 13 has been space-sealed. It’ll be open in approximately four and a half minutes.”

His fingers stabbing at the controls set in the small touchscreen in front of him, Gordon called up the relevant schematics file and noted with satisfaction that evacuation of the area had been completed a full two minutes ago.

“Fine,” he said. “Complete the manoeuvre and then release the drones. We won’t be moving for a while anyway. It will take the Kalaz’an a while to plot alternative vectors.” He refrained from adding the phrase ‘I hope’ to his final statement.

Dismissing the schematics with a flick of his finger, he returned to the tactical display in the holo-tank, watching ShipMind plot the course he had just given to Schofield and feeling the gentle lurch as the ship began to move with almost comical serenity to its appointed position. By the time the Valiant had completed the manoeuvre, it would have moved closer to the Kalaz’an ship and achieved a position that would make it much more difficult for the Kalaz’an feeding tubes to reach them while still giving the batteries a clear shot at the alien vessel. For its part, the Kalaz’an ship was reduced to extremely limited manoeuvrability. As arcane and terrifying as their weapons and defences were, the strange squid-like creatures did not engage in the kind of space combat favoured by races like the Qissenti and The Crimson Shadow, preferring instead to anchor a large portion of the physical mass of their battleships in the non-Euclidean space that remained a maddening mystery to Earth Fleet scientists and from which the Kalaz’an derived much of their strange technology. Their phase shield technology rendered them virtually invulnerable. Or at least invulnerable enough for the time needed for their offensive weapons to do their work.

Receiving acknowledgements from both the firing deck and the helm, Gordon watched the holo-tank alertly, straining to see any movement from the Kalaz’an ship as the Valiant slowly changed position.

And, not for the first time, he wondered how his captain was faring eight decks below.

[1] Iss: in-system standard speed

Hitch’s Brew – Justice League issue 4

In which our heroes continue to do pretty much all the things they were doing last issue. No, really.


We start this issue with our rookie GLs who are still trying to prevent alien space critters (the Purge) travelling through a wormhole towards Earth. And already on the first page we have a curious conversation in which Simon (sort of) admonishes Jessica for (sort of) suggesting that the Flash isn’t up to his self-appointed job of clearing the Earth of the aforementioned critters before (sort of) agreeing with her that they do indeed need to keep the wormhole clear of them. Simon realises the broken planet below is somehow producing the Purge and goes down to investigate leaving Jessica (lest we forget a rookie GL who still doesn’t have full control over her construct-building abilities) to deal with the remaining Purge creatures. While I understand that Hitch is going for the ‘one hero demonstrating her heroism against a swarm of smaller creatures’ approach, this requires a suspension of disbelief that’s difficult to pull off.

But that’s okay, because we shift back to the Kents’ farm where… Cyborg is doing pretty much exactly the same thing. Except this time Cyborg, through the wonderful power of technology, gets to find out what’s going on. This being the Justice League, though, does he tell Batman (and us) straight away? No. Of course not. Instead, he simply tells Batman that the entire planet is “screwed” and we return to the four Kindred who are standing facing out to, I assume, the four compass points and speaking cryptically to themselves. Or possibly to Wonder Woman who’s still trapped inside one of them, not that you’d know that at the moment.

What the Kindred are saying is potentially interesting. Their presence on the Earth has significance for the whole universe, not just the planet. There is reference to the breaking of worlds (presumably the doomsday – no, not him – devices buried deep under the Earth’s crust) and there is reference to the song the Kindred must sing “before this planet shatters”. There is no indication that singing the song will save the Earth either. Interestingly, the Kindred view the JL as their protectors.

I wonder if the JL see things the same way…

Aquaman’s still under the sea. Well, that makes sense, I suppose, but it’s the only thing in this section that does. Aquaman’s function here is to gather up the zodiac stones, singing (not that anyone else can hear them) crystal artefacts from some time in Atlantis’ distant past. The problem with this section is that Aquaman is receiving instructions from a song (the same song the Kindred want to sing?) that only he can hear. Having surrendered any scepticism or critical thinking in service to the plot, Aquaman just does what the song tells him. Aquaman asks, “Why can I hear it, understand it?” This is not only a reasonable question for the character to ask, but an absolutely vital one for the reader to get answers to. So, obviously, we don’t.

And Hitch’s script makes things worse. You can get away with a fair amount of ropey plotting if your actual writing is entertaining and interesting. “They can fix it. The crystals. They can fix the world!” fails on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to start. While the fragmented language is probably meant to convey excitement, it simply comes across as incoherent. Using a word like ‘fix’ instead of something like ‘mend’ or ‘repair’ (or, even better, ‘restore’) means an opportunity to lend this dramatic moment some gravitas has been passed up, if not actively undermined. And are we really meant to believe that a bunch of obscure crystal statues that we’ve never heard of before is somehow meant to provide the solution to a problem that threatens to destroy the whole world and this failsafe relies on Aquaman obeying voices in his head?

Never mind. At Clark and Lois’ farm, Batman continues to not do very much while Cyborg explains the plot. Sort of. Well, not very much at all, actually. We finally get confirmation that the wormhole-traversing space critters are the Purge and that their purpose is to transform humanity into something “not human”. That, according to Cyborg, is the “important bit” – so important he can’t actually explain it properly. The quake things are a failsafe to destroy the world. How this is related to the Purge, the Kindred or anything else that’s happening in this comic remains maddeningly unclear.

If you, like me, at this point want to screw the comic up into a ball and launch it at the nearest unsuspecting family member, you might be advised to go ahead and do so now. Who knows what you might be tempted to do once you’ve read the next section. Superman is at the Earth’s core being rubbish. But that’s okay, because the creative team are also being rubbish. Apparently, the best way to portray ancient prehistoric doomsday devices implanted in the Earth’s outer core is… not to bother. Superman’s efforts to stop the quake-inducing devices are meeting with failure, but not as much failure as that displayed by Hitch’s imagination. Because these epic potentially planet-fracturing machines are, apparently, big balls of blanks space. When Hitch ends this page on the word ‘nothing’, he is being surprisingly and horrifyingly honest. ‘Nothing’ is what this page has been, in the end, all about.


Nothing to see here.

Then we’re back with Batman and Lois who, almost as if she knows her husband’s in the process of failing his big JL Rebirth audition deep below her feet, tries to convince Batman not to give up on Clark. (That said, I’d love to know what his other plan would have been!)

The Flash, meanwhile, is single-handedly defeating the Purge when he comes across the four Kindred staring up into space, their mouths still resolutely shut. (Maybe they’re just waiting for that big intro.) Once again, he finds his speed stolen, though. We finally get some Diana inside one of the Kindred. It’s always nice to see Diana, but it would be nicer to get some answers, or at least more solid hints to them. We get more grand verbiage instead – “The Eternal Return”; reclaiming “stolen power”; “we are a memory of so long ago”. It’s clear at this point that Hitch is building up to something big, but it’s equally clear that that something big is not going to be revealed – or even clarified – any time soon. If the entire run of the JL so far is simply set-up for something else, then Hitch (and, by extension, DC itself) is expecting readers to take an awful lot on trust. At this point, I just don’t know that I can give it.

At the Earth’s core, Superman hits on the idea of pushing the doomsday device into the Earth’s inner core, despite the toll it’s taking on his body. His heroism would be impressive if we had a clear idea of what he was actually doing, but we don’t. Jesus Merino’s art is good (as it has been all issue, to be fair) but can’t really disguise that there are some pretty significant problems here. It’s notable, for example, that the only time the doomsday device gains any sense of detail is when it’s being collapsed by the pressure at the Earth’s core. Superman realizes he’s going to have to destroy the other three devices to make sure the Earth is saved. Well, at least they’ll be easy to spot. There can’t be that many spheres of nothingness down there, can there?

We lurch and stumble towards the end of the issue with Diana ranting and threatening, the Flash falling and failing, Batman deciding that now would be a good time to get Lois and John somewhere else, Cyborg having some sort of fit and, finally, Simon and Jessica on the alien half-planet being confronted with a horde of aliens that all look suspiciously like Cyborg. Which should be a cool way to end the issue, but instead feels like yet another curveball thrown at us to fool us into thinking that something exciting might be going on. And, as any baseball fan will tell you, if all you throw is curveballs, eventually you’re going to be found out.


He can’t hear you, Diana, and even if he could, you’ve got nothing to tell him.

To say this issue is frustrating would be an understatement. The big questions have (mostly) still not been answered and, while the League members have moments of individual heroism, the whole story is too disjointed to provide the context necessary to make that heroism really stand out. The only possible exception to this is Superman who does, to be fair, seem to be facing a genuine challenge. The cover by Fernando Paserin and Brad Anderson is actually pretty awesome. The problem is that it portrays a unified League that simply doesn’t appear in the comic. There’s still too much fragmentation of focus, too many ‘massive’ threats that the League members are facing singly or in pairs instead of doing what most people have probably bought this book for in the first place – coming together to pool their talents and resources against a formidable, credible foe. Perhaps that’ll come next issue. Who knows? In the meantime, this issue continues to present a messy, somewhat incoherent storyline that remains big on spectacle but frustratingly short on explanation.


Tomb of Dracula: Throne of Blood (2011)

A blood-drenched Japanese tragedy with plenty of bite, this one-shot from 2011 is worth seeking out.


Now that is a cover!

I must confess that I know very little about the current state of the vampire clans in the Marvel universe. I’m currently working my way through the Wolfman/Colan Tomb of Dracula on Marvel Unlimited and I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Hulk vs Dracula Fear Itself mini (also written by Victor Gischler) a few years ago. I am also aware that Dracula is (although perhaps not anymore) dead, if the title of the Death of Dracula trade paperback collection on my shelf is anything to go by. Beyond that, it all gets a little sketchy.

The decision to make the literary figure of Dracula a part of the Marvel universe and then give him his own comic series must rank as one of the strangest but most richly productive decisions made by the company’s editors in the 70s.  Dracula has gone through a number of revisions and iterations in the intervening years until we see him now as almost a supernatural supervillain reigning over his kingdom through sheer power and the careful political balancing act of managing the ambitions and expectations of a number of rival vampire clans or sects.

This is the situation at the start of Throne of Blood, when Dracula is approached by a member of Claw Sect for background information on Raizo Kodo, a renegade vampire who has somehow escaped the Claw Sect and whom the clan want killed. What follows is Dracula recounting Raizo Kodo’s origin story precisely as Kodo has, at some earlier point, related it to hm. It is a tale which is, as both the title and cover suggest, set in feudal Japan and steeped in both blood and tragedy.

It’s a bold move naming your story after an Akira Kurosawa film based on perhaps Shakespeare’s most violent play, but both writer Victor Gischler and lead artist Guran Parlov are more than equal to the task.

Raizo’s story starts with him and his brother Ryuhei approaching the camp of Jakkaru, a mysteriously powerful warlord who has grown in influence and now threatens the Kodo clan. In the first page of the story proper, Gischler uses dialogue and first person narration economically to set up the fateful confrontation that is about to take place as well as make clear the mutual respect the two brothers have for one another. What is striking, however, is the art which portrays the brothers’ progress through the bucolic landscape in wide swathes of yellow and light brown. When the conversation moves on to the second page, we are presented with a two-thirds of a page image of the brothers looking down on Jakkaru’s camp. It is impressive, not just for Parlov’s art, which presents the sheer size of the camp and thus the scale of the task facing the two brothers, but also for Lee Loughridge’s colouring of the camp in a lurid yellow, punctuated only by thin, wavering white wisps of camp smoke. The colour yellow is, of course, a strangely ambiguous one, associated with value and brightness but also sickness and corruption. While the yellow here could represent golden corn fields, the productive farmland of the Kodo clan which Jakkaru is threatening, the sense of interpretative uncertainty remains.

Disguised as peasant farmers, Raizo and Ryuhei infiltrate the camp but get challenged by Jakkaru’s elite guard when they try to enter his tent. The resulting combat is short but entertaining. On entering Jakkaru’s tent, however, both the mood and the colour palette changes. Gone are the bright yellows and greens of the external camp setting. Instead we are given dull reds, dirty pinks and muted midnight blues. Jakkaru is considerably more formidable than his guards. The ensuing combat is powerfully drawn and narrated. The brothers have to work together and it is Raizo’s reckless bravery that provides the opening for what should be a final killing blow.


That probably smarts.

But, of course, it isn’t, because Jakkaru is a vampire and, although sticking your katana through someone’s chest is generally a great idea, unless it’s made of wood in this instance, it won’t make a bit of difference. With a grim sense of inevitability, we see Jakkaru rise from the ground and bite Ryuhei in the neck. If the combat that preceded this moment was desperate, what follows it is downright grim. In a nice serendipitous twist, Raizo is so freaked out by what’s happening that he grabs a wooden practice sword from the rack by mistake and, noticing that it actually seems to have some effect, rams it through Jakkaru’s back and out the other side. While Jakkaru is… ahem… dismayed by this development, Raizo decapitates with him with a normal sword, thus ending his threat to the Kodo clan for good.

Readers who have been paying attention, though, will be worried about that bitemark on Ryuhei’s neck. And with good reason.

Ryuhei is weakened and Raizo manages to get himself and his brother on a horse and escape the camp evading the arrows of Jakkaru’s enraged minions along the way. The dialogue between Ryuhei and Raizo on their homeward journey is brief but it is enough to make clear the close friendship between the two of them. That it takes place in the context of panels whose yellows are more muted than those on the outward journey hints at the sickness already taking root in the family. The brothers’ final approach to their family home is beautifully rendered by Parlov and Loughridge. The brothers are in the foreground and their home is laid out before them in a valley that looks wonderfully bucolic. But the yellow is in the foreground, almost as if threatening to engulf the two brothers, and its vigorous but subtly sickly colour is considerably more vibrant than the dull greens and browns of the valley. The sense of threat, of inundation, is palpable.


This is just a lovely image. Absolutely lovely.

Over the next few pages we are introduced to Raizo’s family and servants, all of whom come across as well-rounded and well-scripted characters – although, for purely plot reasons, Raizo’s father is far too dismissive of everyone’s fears about Ryuhei and his mysterious listlessness. Time passes and things become more tense. We meet Suzume, Raizo’s betrothed for whom he clearly has strong feelings. But his desire to get to the root of what is happening in his family leads him to leave it and embark upon a three day ride to Jakkaru’s castle.

These panels are yellow-drenched works of art, eerily atmospheric and positively throbbing with foreboding. Gischler’s narration is suitably gothic, too. Raizo says he feels an “oily dread oozing over [him]” as he makes his way through the deserted village on his way to the castle. He is not, of course, wrong. On entering the castle (a sequence that is suspenseful in a wonderfully economical way), Raizo is attacked by Jakkaru’s erstwhile servants, a pathetic bunch whose unwillingness to act on their suspicions about their master is presented as being as immoral as their lord’s depraved violence. We get an intriguing reference to a Dutch trader which suggests that the curse of vampirism is imported to Japan rather than flowering there independently, but Jakkaru’s origin story is not really the main focus of this section. Instead, it is Raizo’s understanding of what must be done that is important in carrying the story forward. Jakkaru’s servants act as a stark warning to him of the perils of inactivity, of the failure to grasp the nettle of duty no matter how painful it may be.


Again, lovely artwork.

And so we move on to the comic’s final act. Raizo, still wrestling with the obligation that has been made clear to him in the last few pages, prepares for his final visit to his ancestral home, determining to start his assault in daylight.

What follows is some wonderfully atmospheric art. The panel featuring Raizo’s mother and father waiting for him in the blue-grey light of the house’s dim interior is genuinely chilling; the moment in which Raizo kills both his undead parents is shockingly kinetic by contrast, all parallel lines of speed and force, punctuated by simple almost abstract splashes of red. Raizo’s decision to set fire to the house means that the yellow returns with a vengeance, this time angrier and somewhat darker. Its ambiguity remains, though, and, although Raizo is surprised by Suzume’s sudden appearance and biting of her lover, the reader most assuredly is not. Raizo dispatches Suzume quickly enough, the beheading rendered in silhouette and thus giving it a distinctly surreal air. The following confrontation between Raizo and Ryuhei, though, is considerably more brutal and grounded.


We’re going all Def Leppard now.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Raizo/Ryuhei fight resolution. To be fair to Gischler, having established vampires as a more physically powerful foe, it makes sense to have Ryuhei stopped from killing Raizo by a falling beam of burning wood. The subsequent decapitation is satisfying enough, but, by this point, almost a formality. Now that Raizo himself has been bitten, what happens to him is actually more important.

And Gischler portrays that very well. Raizo sits under a tree, about to kill himself with a stake through his own heart and finds he simply cannot do it. The opportunity for ending the curse passes as the vampirism takes hold of Raizo’s body and mind and the legend of one of the more important members of the Marvel vampiverse is born.


Today’s lesson is… don’t procrastinate! (Or you might turn into something truly horrible.)

There’s a nice coda to finish off the framing sequence with Dracula himself authorising Raizo’s death, while a few panels later opining that it will be very difficult to enact. It is to the credit of Gischler, Parlov and Loughridge that surely very few readers will disagree with his assessment. The comic does an excellent job of introducing Raizo Kodo and presenting his tortured background in both an exciting and sympathetic way. Topped off by a simply magnificent, brutally visceral cover from Bryan Hitch, the comic is highly enjoyable in its own right. Vampires may be a relatively obscure corner of the Marvel Universe, but they are more than capable of producing compelling, dramatic and thoroughly involving stories. This is most certainly one of them.


The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue (part 4)

Like the rest of the ship, the Genetics Research Suite was bathed in red emergency lighting. Here too, archipelagos of dirty white chemical foam stood out from the dark flooring. Streaks of the stuff glistened on nearby workbenches and analysis stations.

Marris and her men scanned the area. Wherever the Kalaz’an missile had struck it wasn’t here. This was the GRS’ hub, a large atrium, in which the research team had met, shared data and findings, and monitored the remote experiments taking place in other parts of the suite. There was no sign of impact nor of any of the dozen personnel that had been stationed here.

Marris felt a twisting in her gut. The notion that the Kalaz’an had known not only exactly what they were looking for, but also exactly where it was, was beginning to become an ugly and disturbing certainty in her mind. Had she been set up? Were she and every crew member on this ship merely pawns in a wider game? She prayed not, but had to concede at least the possibility. Only she and the research team had known the full implications of what was hidden down here. Even Gordon and Garrison hadn’t been told everything.

Marris glanced across at the tall, stoop-shouldered science officer and felt a pang of envy. How pleasant to be ignorant…

“No sign of impact…” Garrison’s helmeted head swung her way, the flashlights embedded either side of the faceplate blinding her for a split second before the reactive plastiglass of her own helm darkened. “Hang on.”

But, Marris’ infofeed, displayed to one side of the helm’s visor, had already alerted her.

“Phased particles,” she snapped. “Over there. Just enough to form a trace.” There were five doors leading out of the atrium, including the one through which they’d just entered. The Kalaz’an missile had phased through the atrium wall just a few centimetres away from one of the security doors leading into the inner recesses of the suite. Marris was unsurprised to see that that particular door opened on a corridor that would eventually lead to a laboratory that did not officially exist. A laboratory which housed a project on which the hopes of an empire rested.

“Hendrickson, Gomez…” Marris nodded to two nearby security officers. “Through there.”

She, Garrison and the other four guardsmen watched as Hendrickson overrode the security code with his keywand and the heavy metal door began to slide upwards. The space behind the door was shrouded in shadow. There was no emergency lighting active in that part of the suite, no lighting of any kind.

Crouching low, Gomez took a step forward, her phase rifle parallel with the floor. Hendrickson was a couple of steps behind her, standing taller, so that his plasma gun had an unobstructed field of fire over her shoulder. Their helmet beams criss-crossed each other, dispersing the shadows, illuminating an empty corridor, its identification markings picked out in bland, official blue and red script.

Centimetre by centimetre they made their way down the corridor.

“Looks clear,” came Gomez’ voice. “Hold on. There’s something…”

Both the audio feed and the two security officers’ helmet lights cut out at the same time. The darkness returned with a vengeance. To Marris and the others, it appeared that the two officers had simply been swallowed by the shadows.

There was a moment of shocked silence.

“Gomez?” Marris said, taking a tentative step forward towards the shadowed entrance.

With a fizzing hiss, the audio feed snapped back on. And then the screaming started.

Arkon-tastic! Aaron and Del Mundo Bring Weirdworld To Life

weirdworld-2015-001-000There’s little doubt which of the big two comic book companies won the battle of the universe-changing crossovers in 2015. With its long, patient build-up, its glorious hype and its sumptuous artwork, Marvel’s Secret Wars kicked aside DC’s Convergence with an effortlessness bordering on contempt to claim the coveted crown. To be fair, the two events were conceived in very different ways. Convergence only happened to facilitate the company’s move from New York to Burbank and it was never going to have the impact of Secret Wars or, for that matter, the company’s own Crisis On Infinite Earths. For DC, Convergence was an adjustment rather than a straight reboot. Secret Wars, on the other hand, was epic. Not only was the main series compelling in its own right, but the numerous spin-offs and ancillary titles that accompanied it afforded creators the opportunity to indulge their imaginations in some pretty wild ways.

Which is why we’re talking about Weirdworld issue 1.


This is the opening splash page. It only gets weirder from here.

Weirdworld has its origins in the black and white 70s comic magazine Marvel Super Action and it popped up in various anthology and showcase titles over the years. This iteration of the setting is interesting because it features Arkon, a character who predates Weirdworld by a few years, having first made his appearance in Avengers #75. Arkon is one of those characters who’s appeared as a guest star (or villain) in various comic titles over the years. He’s a barbarian type, a science fantasy hero in the mould of John Carter or Eric John Stark, albeit not one originally from Earth. Here he is still ruler of the world of Polemachus but he is stuck in Weirdworld and has no idea of how to get back to his lost kingdom – despite his crudely drawn (and hilarious) map.


That’s a heck of a map right there. And “Where Is Polemachus?” indeed! Remember that question. It’ll become important later on.

In the first few pages of issue 1, we see Arkon fight off an attack from something that looks like a cross between a shark, an octopus and a packet of liquorice all-sorts. The splash page tells you everything you need to know about a comic that is essentially a head trip through the imagination of both writer and artist. Arkon battles valiantly against a huge squidshark that towers over him, while one of its fellows waits for a piece of the action in the background. The surreal details of the leering monster – particularly its pink crystal teeth – provide ample warning that this is not going to be your average comic book.

And so it proves.

Although Aaron’s opening dialogue gambit (“I will find it.”) indicates that the story is going to be a fairly straightforward quest narrative, the art tells an entirely different tale. There is nothing straightforward about Weirdworld.

And, while Aaron’s script understandably takes something of a back seat to Del Mundo’s astonishing art, it still manages to throw us genuine surprises. Shortly after realising that he’s actually on a floating island, Arkon either attempts to commit suicide or at least genuinely considers it. His despair is, despite the bright colours around him, palpable. Only the sudden arrival of an escaping dragon, dragging its would-be captors behind it, saves him. There then follows an extraordinary sequence in which Arkon attempts to ride the beast while dispatching its ogre handlers (who are, to be fair, just hanging on for dear life at this point) and avoiding anti-aircraft fire from their comrades on the ground. It is an artistic tour de force; Del Mundo’s art is breathtakingly kinetic and, if Arkon’s line “Arkon has come and death flies with him!” is a just a little melodramatic and hackneyed, I’m not particularly prepared to castigate Aaron for getting carried away. It is a genuinely blood-stirring moment.


Dragons. The only way to get round Weirdworld, really.

The moral centre (if that’s the right term) of the book is made starkly clear as Arkon throws his sword through an ogre’s head. “I will not give in to a world of monsters. Even if I must become one.” This may be a quest narrative, but it is not one concerned with the niceties of higher ethics, but rather with the almost primal desire to return to the familiar, where one is safe and reality is both knowable and, to some extent, predictable. It is an Odyssean quest for home and, despite the gorgeous artwork and rich colour palette, it remains a grim one.

Having gained a mount (and a frighteningly impressive one at that!), Arkon lets his guard down to “enjoy the view”. Needless to say, Weirdworld punishes such laxity and his dragon is hooked by a lure shot up from beneath the ocean’s surface in a suitably bonkers inversion of traditional fishing. The book almost ends with both dragon and rider trapped beneath the waves in a huge net, menaced by intelligent apes wearing breathing apparatus. It is a fittingly bizarre and disturbing image. Del Mundo’s art is fantastic here, the out-of-focus net reinforcing the sense of helplessness as the apes move forward menacingly. (And the lead ape has mismatched eyes, too. Which is even creepier.)


These guys mean business.

This being an ongoing comic book, though, the last word is left to the villain revealed on the final page – none other than Morgan Le Fay, whose brooding, scheming arrogance is portrayed beautifully by Del Mundo. The comic leaves us, then, with a taciturn hero in mortal danger and the main villain finally revealed. It’s effortlessly engaging stuff and leaves this reader, at least, desperate for more. To use a cliché, the art is worth the cover price alone, but, really, the whole package is captivating and compelling both in its single-minded hero and its, well, weirdness. Highly recommended.


Hitch Me Baby One More Time – Justice League 3 review

After last issue’s escalation of events, we’ll finally start getting some answers this issue, won’t we? Erm…

rco001_w_1471425070Say what you like about Justice League (and believe me, I will), but you can’t fault the art. That cover is ludicrously impressive for a start and the internals are similarly magnificent. Tony S Daniel does a simply phenomenal job of depicting the events of this issue, whether it’s Wonder Woman confronting a giant creature that is effectively a composite of hundreds of human beings or the Green Lanterns finding a half-destroyed world at the end of a wormhole or another giant composite creature emerging from the ocean, his work is simply faultless.

The same cannot, sadly, be said of the story as a whole. We start with that aforementioned confrontation between Wonder Woman and the first of this issue’s Kindred, the giant creature made up of lots of merged people. The problem here is the characterisation and, to some extent, the dialogue. Is Wonder Woman so freaked out that she forgets to think? Possibly. Having demanded that the Kindred release the people it’s absorbed, she then attacks it with her thunderbolt. Which, if she was going to be successful (she isn’t), would surely have injured, if not killed outright, at least a few of the people who comprise the Kindred’s form.

The dialogue is portentous but short on detail. The Kindred says, “Our purpose was within all people so we would emerge from them wherever they would be. On any world. At any time, We would come to end forever.” Okay, I get that Hitch is going for something perhaps metaphysical on an epic scale, but that first sentence is clunky and raises far more questions than it answers. Is the Kindred some kind of accumulation or synthesis of a life force that is in fact common to all worlds everywhere? Does that, by implication, mean that every life in the universe is cut from the same cosmic ‘cloth’? The fact that the questions are fairly intriguing is only more frustrating because, having raised them, Hitch seems to show no interest in answering them. Instead we get a lot of bluster from Wonder Woman and the scene ends with Diana being absorbed into the body of the Kindred herself. Which probably should be deeply disturbing on some level, but feels much more of a relief than anything else. (At least we don’t have to hear any more of her dialogue…)

We briefly see similar Kindred in Japan and Australia before we cut back to the GLs dealing with yet more flying bio-missiles. (If you remember from last issue, a whole ton of them were heading towards the Earth.) Flash helps them out but his dialogue (“I’ll go state to state…”) suggests that they’re dealing with a US-only situation when the artwork from last issue suggested that it was a much more global problem. Having prompted the two GLs to get on and do the job for which they’re ostensibly trained, Flash takes care of the incoming alien creatures while we see Cyborg do the same with those creatures infesting the Watchtower.

This is fine, up to a point, but we’re about to hit a problem with balance very similar to the ones encountered last issue. I can just about handle the quick cutting between League members, but the GLs’ trip through a wormhole, the discovery of a largely wrecked alien planet and their decision to start cleansing the nearby ships orbiting the planet needs far more space and explanation than what we got. Then we’re back at the Kent farm where Batman is (still) talking to Superman in an attempt to get him to go to the centre of the earth. I like character moments as much as the next man but at this point I’d happily swap a couple of panels of dialogue here for a little more explanation elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great moments. The silent panel of Clark removing his cape and handing it to Lois is beautifully drawn; John offering Batman a cookie after his mother has just made it clear that she holds Batman responsible if anything happens to Clark is comic book gold. On the whole, though, this section slows the action right down and does so in a pretty unnecessary and unproductive way, although the sight of Cyborg getting swamped by a swarm of flying alien creatures is visually impressive if nothing else.

Structurally that Batman-Lois-Clark encounter (Cyborg shows up later too) is the heart of the issue, but the rest of the story is only loosely connected to that moment. While Superman’s boom-tubed to the Earth’s core (and instantly starts to suffer for his pains), Aquaman is still in Atlantis dealing with a Kindred of his own and mumbling something mostly incomprehensible about those singing stones from last issue. Despite the impressive meeting of the four Kindred (and it is beautifully drawn), precisely how they are connected to the bio-missiles, the doomsday machines at the Earth’s core or the temporary loss of some of the heroes’ powers remains maddeningly unclear. Heroism demands context to be emotionally affecting and here the context is simply too loose, too vague, to deliver the emotional punch that Hitch is so obviously striving for.

Perhaps the cherry on this particular cake of mediocrity is Wonder Woman’s conversation inside the Kindred which is as informative as it is dramatic. That is, not very. The Kindred seeming to take issue with Wonder Woman’s presence in its body could have been interesting but shouting the same thing over and over at her is assuredly not the way to make it intriguing.

The issue ends with arguably a betrayal of both the Superman character and the League as a whole. The last line of the issue, spoken by Superman, is “I don’t know what to do.” It’s meant to build up tension and give us a clear sense of things getting worse, but it mostly serves to remind the reader that this is a version of the League whose characterisation is markedly off.

This issue as a whole, then, is pretty to look at – big on spectacle and moments of gorgeous artwork, but short on an involving, engaging unfolding plot. Arguably the heart of the JL is teamwork and, although we do get to see Flash and the GLs work together, those aching for an issue that shows the JL working to combine their powers against a particular threat will be sorely disappointed.

For me, the issue is disappointing – full of bombast and ominous spectacle but lacking anything that would give the reader something to get his or her teeth into.


The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue part 3

The bridge of the Valiant was dominated by a holographic tank that bulged out of the wall directly in front of the Captain’s chair, currently occupied by Lieutenant-Commander Sam Gordon. Updated constantly by an unending stream of data from sensors on the hull and within the superstructure of the vessel, the tank was currently displaying the state of combat between the Valiant and the Kalaz’an ship. The Valiant was pummelling its enemy with a tachyon broadside from its starboard batteries, while the Kalaz’an battle cruiser hung in space silently absorbing the impacts with – in the holographic recreation at least if not in reality – pink, orange and, occasionally, red flares of light blossoming on its screens, a representation of the likelihood of phase shield overload. Gordon found the enemy ship’s calm inscrutability profoundly unsettling. This was not the first time he had served on a vessel engaged by a Kalaz’an ship, but being part of the thirty-strong liberation fleet in the Battle of Von Bek’s World or running anti-incursion patrols on the edge of Earth Fleet space were completely different propositions to what he was experiencing now.

Gordon shifted in the command seat, biting down on the urge to ask Schofield for a situation report; the situation was blindingly obvious to anyone willing to cast even a cursory glance at the holo-tank.

He turned to Forster. The comms officer’s shaven head gleamed in the blood-red lighting and shadows pooled in her sunken cheeks. Her eyes were open but unseeing. Her lips moved subtly – pursing, twisting, relaxing. Mantras, catechisms, psycho-mnemonics that he couldn’t hear and wouldn’t be able to understand in any case animated them.

“Forster…” Gordon stopped himself. Interrupting a comms officer in communion was not an inherently dangerous thing to do, but it still felt… sacrilegious. “Forster!” Sharper this time. More authoritative. More like Marris. “Any breakthrough?”

Forster’s eyes remained closed, but her voice was clear and steady. “We remain outside beacon range. I have asked ShipMind to broadcast distress signal eight-alpha as a broadband transmission. It will take some time for response and even longer for the arrival of in-system reinforcements. I will continue to attempt to establish an independent beacon. It will take time.”

Gordon’s scowl deepened. “How much time?”

“Unknown.” Her voice softened a little. “I would suggest you leave me to it, sir. I will inform you if breakthrough is made.”

Resisting the urge to swear, Gordon turned his attention back to the holo-display. He zoomed in on the area of the hull currently shielding deck 13. A patch of discoloured, mottled polyferrocrete was visible, perhaps six or seven metres across. It didn’t look like much, just laser or plasma damage. But the analysis that was being currently updated alongside the holographic image told him that it was slowly but surely weakening the integrity of the hull in that area of the ship.

His finger stabbed down at the intercom.

“Damage control. How are we doing with those drones?”

The voice of Delacourt, one of the engineers responsible for shipboard maintenance, drifted faintly from the small speaker in the command chair, as if it were being transmitted from some distant facility in-system rather than from a mere three decks below him. Gordon frowned.

“… first batch ready in… minutes…”

“Repeat. I say again, repeat.”

“… say again… ten… in… we’re… breaking…”

The speaker hissed and popped for a moment and then went dead.

Gordon’s frown deepened.

Behind him, Forster broke her connection with the Valiant’s ShipMind with an anguished, drawn-out sob. Gordon whirled round to stare at her.

“The child…” she gasped, her eyes struggling to focus on him, her scalp gleaming with perspiration. “The child… is… awake.”

The Kalaz’an Conspiracy – Prologue (cont)

The gangways of Deck Fourteen were ankle deep in fire retardant foam, the ship’s automatic emergency procedures having evidently activated in the moments following the Kalaz’an torpedo’s impact. The Valiant was not adequately prepared for phase-shift technology. None of the old Vanguard-class cruisers were. Shiftshields and harmonic scramblers were for the newer ships of the line in the Galactic Defence Fleet, those that had been designed and constructed years after that first and disastrous contact with the Kalaz’an at Tau Ceti.

As she sloshed her way through the dirty residue of chemical slush, Marris scowled. Even in the uncertain light cast by the recessed emergency beacons, it was clear that there was very little evidence of fire damage; the ship’s response to the foreign object lodged in its bowels had, as had been the case at every stage of this encounter with the Kalaz’an battle cruiser, been almost laughably ineffective.

“They’ve made a mess of the hydroponic floors.” Even muffled in her ear, Garrison’s voice exuded bitterness. “It’s going to take weeks to sort them out.”

Do you think we’re going to have weeks?

Marris refrained from expressing the thought. Instead, she glanced over her shoulder. Six security officers followed her in a loose formation, keeping close to the walls, plasma and phase rifles at the ready, the weak lighting turning their polished black armour the colour of old blood.

“Reconnaissance pattern five,” she said, her voice sounding hollow in the confines of her helmet. “Slow and methodical.”

She didn’t feel slow and methodical. As she watched the guardsmen move past her, it took an immense amount of effort not to sprint past them, towards The Incubation Suite, the lab within a lab, the heart of the ship. Its very raison d’etre.

A series of shudders shook the ship and she almost slipped on the slick flooring. This was not the ghostly unreal touch of an out of phase missile bypassing the Valiant’s shielding. This was something else.

“Report.” The guardsmen ahead of her had halted their advance towards the Genetics lab, their leader turning to look at her. She urged them forward with a sharp jerk of her head. And then promptly forgot about them as Gordon’s voice crackled in her helm.

“Not entirely sure, but it would seem that the Kalaz’an had launched some sort of bio-munition prior to the phase torpedo strike. They’re small. Perhaps two or three millimetres across. Our shields have been calibrated to keep all matter out, but a few of them must have passed through in the torpedo’s wake. Not impossible if the phase field was extended widely enough.” Gordon paused. “When they came into contact with our polyferrocrete hull, they started expanding, apparently. Quite dramatically.” She could hear chatter in the background. Schofield perhaps. Or van der Vyne. “Er… apparently, it’s also highly reactive.” She could hear Gordon swallow. “It’s a metal-eater. Outer hull integrity is already down to 73% in the affected areas. Decks 11 and 12, rear to mid sections. What we felt just now was ShipMind trying to shield the affected area from further attack. And failing.”

Marris absorbed the new information for a moment. She had fought the Kalaz’an before, but this was new. She felt a horrible, desperate uncertainty twist in her gut.

“All right,” she said finally. “Damage control to the affected hull. Use the ceramic-plated drones…”

“They’ll need to be repurposed. They’re currently set up for…”

“I know. Just make it happen. Quickly. In the meantime, keep the affected areas clear of personnel. Have we started firing?”

“Affirmative. Their shields are holding, but the tachyon cannon is disrupting their offensive capabilities. We’re still in this.”

Marris bit her lip. Whether they were ‘still in this’ or not depended on a number of things of which Gordon was not fully aware. She watched as, ahead of her, the first of the guardsmen ducked into the laboratory complex. She spoke as she briskly walked towards them, Garrison behind her.

“I want our laser and plasma batteries primed for instant salvo if and when their phase shields fail.”

“They’re out of effective plasma range and…”

“I don’t care at this point, Sam. Do it anyway.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Clicking off the intercom, she followed her guardsmen into the Genetics Lab.