Publisher: Art Heroes
Writer: Daniel Clifford
Artist: Lee Robinson
Colour Assists: Shaun Balbirnie
Release Date: 15th November 2014 (Thought Bubble)
Endangered and More Strange Stories is the latest project from the fine folks at Art Heroes, creators of the terrific Halcyon and Tenderfoot and organisers of a series of extremely successful comic workshops where they help teach children some of the basics of storytelling and comic creation. Rather than revisiting the superhero premise of their previous series however, and with their creative juices bubbling over, Daniel and Lee have opted to go for an anthology this time around, cramming four full-colour stories into this impressively polished collection.
Before I get into the stories themselves, I wanted to point out that artist Lee Robinson’s visuals are everything you could ever hope for in an all-ages comic. Exaggerated features and fluid movement, mixed with a great deal of expression and – of course – bright, vivid colours. As a bit of a ‘bonus feature’, Art Heroes have included some of the guide sheets they use in their comic workshops as part of this anthology, and it’s interesting to see how Lee’s artwork mirrors the advice he gives youngsters. Using figures made up of simple geometric shapes, each with their own distinctive silhouette, he manages keep the visual side of the comic constantly interesting, with no two characters looking alike.
The first story, Endangered, introduces us to college student Tatiana, whose career path gets more than a little side-tracked when she seizes with the opportunity to become a time-travelling vet. Yeah, you heard me. The mission of the company she finds herself working for is to travel through time and extract various endangered and extinct species before bringing them back to the present to help find a better place for them to survive. Starting off as a fun slice of escapist fantasy, it soon becomes clear that there’s a deeper message at play here, a message which bubbles to the surface during a surprisingly emotional page near the end as Tatiana delves back into her memories to help overcome the situation she finds herself in. Of all the stories in the anthology, this is the one I could most see expanding into a full series, so strong and engaging is Tatiana as a character. Fingers crossed, anyway.
The second story, ‘Outlaw’ is probably the weakest of the four. However, given the impressive company it’s keeping, that’s not necessarily a slight. Basically an extended Wild West action scene, it features a ‘Lone Ranger’-style hero and his sidekick robbing a train filled with corrupt crooks to help a town overcome its dire financial situation. Don’t get me wrong, the action is undeniably fluid and suitably cartoony, there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of meat on these here bones. Aside from a few neat visual gags along the way, there’s no real message, no real ‘hook’, and the main character isn’t anywhere near as strong as the leads in the other stories. Perhaps in a different context Outlaw would be a little more engaging, but with it being sandwiched between two such impressive stories, it really struggles in the comparison. Not ‘bad’ by any means, but definitely the weak link here.
The third story, ‘The Monster Book’ is another strong offering that could almost – like Endangered – be viewed as the first chapter in an ongoing saga. Introducing us to a group of children on a school trip to a castle which may or may not be both cursed and haunted, this tale sees Art Heroes channelling their inner ‘Scooby Doo’, with impressive results. Each of the children are distinctive (both visually and in terms of personality), and writer Clifford does a stellar job of introducing and identifying them without the need ham-fisted exposition. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the details of the story itself, but suffice to say that the execution here is absolutely spot-on as Daniel and Lee combine to create a vivid, exciting world which I can see any child reading this dying to be a part of. This is an offering that perfectly sums up the innate appeal of Art Heroes – bright colours, simple characters, ample amounts of humour and a sense of enthusiasm and excitement that gives their stories that little something extra. If it weren’t for that one flashback page in ‘Endangered’, this would definitely be the standout story. As it stands, it finishes a very close second.
The final story, ‘Birds of Pray’ is a one page gag that sees a church staffed by birds trying to overcoming their dwindling flock. Simple, punchy and silly, this is likely to raise a smile from all but the most cynical of readers, and serves as a fond farewell to what has been a brilliantly upbeat anthology.
Overall, Endangered and More Strange Stories serves as a perfect showcase of everything that Art Heroes are about. If their mission is to create fun, engaging stories that will draw youngsters into wanting to create comics for themselves, then this anthology can only be considered a massive success. Older readers may not necessarily get as much out of it, although there are some undeniably humorous moments along the way (as well as – and I hate to harp on about it – that flashback scene from the first story), and it’s difficult not to get drawn in my the boundless enthusiasm and passion that Daniel and Lee have for creating comics. If you have a child of your own, or a niece or nephew, or if any of your friends have children, then you really need to either buy them a copy of this book or get them along to one of Art Heroes’ workshops. This is comic making viewed through excited, un-cynical eyes, something which is absolutely fantastic to see.
If you’re at Thought Bubble this year, you can grab yourself a copy of Endangered & More Strange Stories from Art Heroes at Table 60 in the Royal Armouries Hall, priced just £3.50. It’s also available online from ArtHeroes.co.uk