When Jonathan Ross, king of the chat show and master of controversy, announced his intention to start writing comics, interest was high and expectations were low – perhaps a little unfairly, given that Ross is a self-confessed comics nerd and the lucky husband of the successful comic film writer Jane Goldman, but celebrity writers are a mixed bag.
Fortunately for readers, the nourished geek within has triumphed with this beautiful and madcap debut. The setting of prohibition-era New York is clearly one for which Ross has a lot of love; the period details are lavish and the characters hit all the key clichés, from the bad-guy-turned-good to the plucky female reporter. The accompanying traditional brush and ink artwork of Tommy Lee Edwards cannot be faulted, and lends the entire book an atmospheric edge; the violence all the more shocking for the nostalgic style.
With gangsters tearing the city apart, illegal booze flowing through the suburban veins and good time girls on every corner, a casual glance could easily lead one to mistake the book for straight noir fare. But beneath the surface, a sense of unease soon spreads. The stirrings of a monstrous mash-up of pulp genres begin when vampires enter the fray of a turf war, fighting among themselves while feasting on human flesh. Evidently, these are not vampires of the sparkly persuasion.
Forgive, if you can, the Igor-speak of one elder vampire, and enjoy instead the spectacle of the fanged beasts sitting amused through the opening night of Dracula on Broadway, or of a lone brother tearing through a room of succulent gangsters. To criticise the opening chapters for being too text-heavy would be to buy into the current comics trend of minimal word balloons and boxes. That said, the balance between words and art improves as Turf progresses and Ross gets to grips with this most immediate of art forms.
In one turn of the page, the scale of the story expands to intergalactic dimensions, as a spaceship screams across the sky, reminiscent of one son of Krypton falling to Earth. An unholy union of mobsters, creatures of the night and giant aliens sounds like a recipe for overblown disaster, and yet the various plot strands are neatly tied together without disrupting the pace. The cast may be varied but the theme is consistent: the connections between people, and the decisions we make under pressure, as to whether to give in to our baser immoral instincts or to rise up as champions of our time.
A hint of the quirky, film-loving Jonathan Ross we all know slips through in his puntastic chapter titles: "Fangs of New York", "Aliens with Dirty Faces", "Badfellas", "Once Upon a Time in Harlem", "The Bloodfather". For the most part however, Turf is played straight, which is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Ross might be back on television, but his future looks bright in comics.
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