By Azhur Saleem, James Boyle and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell
Published by TMU Workshop ISBN 978-1-5262-0117-1
Reviewed by Spencer Hill
Comic art, or to give it a more grown up title; sequential illustration, has always had a link to film for me. I read it and produce it as if I am watching or directing a movie, and I view the printed form as storyboards without all the camera directions etc. So when I was asked to review The Marionette Unit, I was not surprised to discover that writers Azhur Saleem and James Boyle are film makers. It just makes sense. When you then add the artistic skills of the prolific Warwick Johnson-Cadwell to the mix, you can expect something very special.
The Marionette Unit describes itself as a ‘thrilling and terrifying mystery’, and is the story of Beatrice Shaw’s search for her missing sister in the dark, steampunkesque world of an alternate universe Victorian workhouse. The writers confess that they hadn’t really encountered steampunk before they wrote this story, and it isn’t a full on example of that genre anyway. So don’t expect rocket boots or steam rifles or large goggles in this volume. What you get is a dark and grimy story which isn’t trying to lift your spirits, but it is told well and with the pace of a film you very quickly find yourself at the end. They say you should always leave your audience wanting more, and I was definitely disappointed when I turned the last page and realised there was a lot more story to come, but I wasn’t getting it in this volume. I suspect (and hope) this is the first part of a series. The writers have delivered a strong cast to tell their story, with the heroine Beatrice facing up to the fiendish, heartless Captain of Industry Dupre, and in this encounter she doesn’t seem to be his match. No, I’m not giving anything away, you should discover it for yourself. There is nothing worse than a plot spoiler!
Artistically Saleem and Boyle hit the jackpot by securing the services of Warwick Johnson-Caldwell in their first ever graphic novel. This is the artist behind Tank Girl, Gungle and Nelson amongst much more, and he has that enviable ability to seem to be able to draw everything. His style fits this story really well, and he may hate me for drawing the comparison, but it’s as if he channeled L S Lowry to forge the artistic connection to the workhouse culture which dominates the book. Colours have clearly been carefully considered to set the mood and indicate changes of scene, and the action and detail sweep you through to that ending I mentioned in a flurry of page turning. I will be honest and admit I prefer the fuller style he used in Tank Girl to the art in The Marionette Unit, but it in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the book.
The cherry on the cake for me is the inclusion of some behind the scenes bonus material at the back. This is what I hope for as an illustrator; a chance to see some original pages of writing, then sketches, then the finished article. There are also character sketches too, and for me this will ensure the book remains in my collection. I believe we can all learn so much from studying the sketchbooks of fellow illustrators and peeking over their shoulders as they work. I am really pleased they had the consideration to include this.
To conclude; two experienced film makers have written a dark Victorian sci-fi novel and landed the services of one our top illustrators to bring it to life. I recommend you check it out.
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