Friday, 30 August 2013

Review: Chin Music #1 & 2 - Monsters, Mobsters, and Mystics

I have been following Tony Harris' Twitter feed with an incessant eagerness for weeks.

There was only one kind of post I cared about: Instagram links with the barebones Tweet "Tony Harris just posted a photo". That's it. Click the link, and voila! I'd get pages and panels and fragments of work that I didn't understand. I didn't actually know what I was looking at, I just knew that it was beautiful. And then I read something, somewhere, and it clicked. I tweeted at Harris on a hunch, "Really damn curious to know what these pages that keeps posting as he draws them. That's a comic I want to read. Chin music?". "Yes", was the response. Man of few words.

I shot an email off to the manager of my neighbourhood shop, who had the first two issues already in stock because he's amazing like that. I needed to read this comic. I'd fallen a little bit in love with Harris' pencils when I started Ex Machina, the series he did with Brian K. Vaughan. Superb work, with panel composition done through staged photographs that Harris used as reference material (as I write this blog he's posting photos of his studio, with shelves full of props and costumes...go figure). The result was an incredibly lifelike cast of characters. Chin Music (Image comics), Harris ongoing project with writer Steve Niles, is a distinctly different stylistic road.

Chin Music lies somewhere on a stretch of broken asphalt between Brubaker's Fatale and the 1987 gangster flick The Untouchables. Our protagonists are: Eliot Ness (Costner's character for those of you familiar with the aforementioned movie), a federal agent tasked with bringing down Al Capone; and Daniel Shaw, not officially introduced until most of the way through issue #2, a mystical being of sorts who first appears as anachronistic roadkill. By the end of that second issue Niles has promised us a wild ride through prohibition-era gangland fueled by a heavy dose of the occult, on the rocks, with a splash of noir, and Harris' artwork has risen to the task. It's bold and dark, sultry even. It's bizarre at times, sensually so, twisted and terrifying and fascinating. Everything pops. Figures are outlined in thick ink, silhouetted, backlit, outined twice sometimes. And compositionally...I've never seen anything like it. Every page's layout becomes part of the scene's setting. Panel borders become set pieces. We see Capone standing in the Lexington Hotel, and the Art Deco panel borders are more a part of his environment than the background furniture of Harris' illustrations. We witness a scene in the Far East framed by borders that might have been found on a tablet dug from beneath the sands of ancient Egypt. It's brilliant set dressing by Harris.

Niles has done something brilliant with this bit of crime drama. He hands us an alternate history, and then makes us wonder just how alternate it is. Which sounds confusing as hell, until you read it. Which you should do, because you'll get no spoilers from me. Suffice it to say that Niles has set up the narrative thus far in such a way as to keep me increasingly intrigued. I look forward to seeing what direction this comic takes in the coming months; dark, macabre, and sexy, without a doubt. Sounds like a good bit of reading to me. Cheers.

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