Perhaps the only thing I enjoy more than people giving me free stuff is people ascribing worth to my thoughts and opinions. And sometimes—just sometimes—I get the pleasure of enjoying both sensations simultaneously. Call it a fringe benefit of being a “pro” in the comics industry that in making comics, you develop some degree of authority on how well others have made their comics. Very recently, I had the honor and pleasure to take receipt of a publicity package for Fraser Campbell and Katie Fleming’s “Heart Of Steal,” ostensibly an amalgam of action, comedy, science fiction and a soupçon of heartache and drama. While it has taken me longer than usual to get around to reading it—I come by the superlative “Most Overbooked Man In Comics” honestly—I like to keep my word on these things.
Mr. Campbell had asked in the offing that I “be gentle” in my writeup of this, his most recent outing. For my own part, gentility really goes without saying. Typically, I try to follow the age old maxim that if one doesn’t have something nice to say, they had best just say nothing at all. Obviously, that ship has already sailed. But unless a piece is provocatively bad or offensive, or a negligent product from a company that has and should know how to produce better, I generally just don’t review those works. Nor do I name them. Sorry.
I’m a big Beatles fan. Odd thing to insert here, right? I bring it up because I’m also a fan of homonyms, so right away, the title caught me pleasantly off guard. “Heart Of Steal,” which sounds the same as “heart of steel,” but that shift in spelling gives us a subtle nod as to what we can expect from this story. The cover image itself reminded me sharply of Ro Stein’s work on Christopher Sebela’s darkly hilarious “Crowded,” which just resumed in its second volume about a month ago. It’s a style that sort of straddles the gap between cartoon and realism but is still western enough not to be mistaken for manga, or a collected newspaper strip. The image itself depicts a young woman repairing some sort of futuristic wrist gauntlet with a brace of comparatively archaic hand tools. The skyline behind her depicts a city that could be the future, but is tinged enough with urban wear and tear so as to be temporally ambiguous.
Now, insomuch as I’m a fan of The Beatles and homonyms, I am not a fan of expository dialog. It is often heavy handed, condescending and is rarely if ever done well. Much of contemporary science fiction, and in particular comic books where there is little enough room to hook a reader as it is, is rife with the stuff. That said, Campbell has done a good job here of stating a bare minimum and letting the story tell itself. We begin with one of those Past v. Present kind of moments where we see our troupe of protagonists as a group of youngsters (Michael, Oscar and Toni), doing as youngsters do and talking about the things they want to do, jobs they want to have once they reach adulthood. Oscar wants to be a cop, and Toni wants to be kind of awkwardly evasive and let the transition into the future reveal that her career ambitions are a bit less noble than Oscar’s. Michael, at this point, is a wild card, however he does turn up in due course, dressed to the nines and sporting an entourage of bespoke muscle. He works for a man called Ray who, we find out, has a mech heart to replace the real one that Toni has just stolen. Not figuratively. Girl’s got herself a jet powered medical ice chest backpack. Would we were all so fortunate. Oscar further informs us that mech hearts are not the in thing at the moment, that Ray will probably want to kill whomever took his more fashionable organic model. Remember what I said about expository dialog a little ways back? Well, this is what it looks like when it’s done right. It’s information given only on a need to know basis, and Campbell does not trip over his own lips trying to over explain the world he’s already busy trying to sell us. Meanwhile, Michael’s and Oscar’s antagonistic friendship—which Campbell has clued us into that very early on—becomes one of dubious alliance as they pool their efforts to take down Toni. I would not be surprised to see more of their personal insecurities presenting themselves as more pointed jabs in future outings for this series. Meanwhile, Toni, their mutual quarry, is absconding with a human heart in a refrigerated medical backpack. Oscar wants her because, well, that shit’s illegal, innit? And Michael wants her because Ray wants his heart back, and the impression we get of Ray is that he’s probably not the kind of guy accustomed to asking twice. In all, the foot, car and motorcycle chases abound in this one, and it succeeded in its most base directive of creating desire for more on my part. Now, let’s talk about the art.
Before I begin in on this, I would like to issue the following disclaimer that I am, myself, a professional comic book artist and, in addition thereto, also teach Figure Drawing for Animation at Cal State Fullerton. I don’t say those as bragging points, only to point out that my opinion of comic art can sometimes reflect an unconscious bias toward the way I would have done things under the same circumstances and, as a teacher, I am a stickler for gesture, form and anatomy. I had said at the beginning that the cover art reminded me of Ro Stein’s work on “Crowded,” and I stand by that comparison. Katie Fleming has very obviously put a lot of time and effort into her art, and there are areas of strength that truly shine. However, there are some areas where a change in camera angle or clearer staging would have led to less confusing action. I’m specifically referencing the catalyst for the major chase scene at the end where Toni drops down on Michael from above. Her sudden appearance doesn’t convey a clear sense of direction in terms of where she is dropping in from. Additionally, there are a number of panels that would have benefitted greatly from having the background, or some sort of atmospheric perspective drawn in. Dropping the background from a panel is by no means a capitol offense, and can have a profound effect on the impact of a scene when its absence is used to highlight a key action happening with one or more characters. Coming from an art background myself, as I have said, I can certainly attest to being all too painfully aware of my areas of strength and areas of weakness. Backgrounds are bloody hard sometimes, and tedious pretty much at all times. They are at their best when they become a character in the story, which is not an easy thing to do. While Fleming’s delivery on this last is inconsistent, there are some panels throughout that I found absolutely stunning. In particular, page 9 panel 5, which gives us a birds eye view of the chase sequence: Superb. Also page 18 panel 4 show’s Fleming’s talent for conveying a huge amount of action information with a bare minimum of line work. It almost looks like a rough thumbnail or early layout drawing but it just…WORKS. And it does so magnificently. This is an artist I will be keeping an eye on, as what I’ve seen here shows great promise of things to come.
Last but not least, there is the lettering category to address. Any time I see Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (Hass OE, as he is known on his indescribably awesome YouTube channel, “Strip Panel Naked”) I know I’m in good hands. Hass is a very busy man, it seems, doing up letters not only for “Heart Of Steal” but also the wonderfully dark “Killer Groove” from Aftershock in addition to a robust list of other clients, maintaining his now Eisner winning publication “Panel X Panel” and recording/editing new episodes of the aforementioned “Strip Panel Naked.” For all that, his SFX lettering in the chase scenes leaves very little VROOM for criticism. Hass knows how to make the SFX serve the action and the story and pulls off the written pacing and verbo-visual elements with aplomb. I would argue the best thing that can be said for any letterer of comics is that they’re at their best when the letters go almost entirely unnoticed. Good lettering should feel like you’re hearing the words more than reading them. There should be no struggle to identify one letter over another, and the surrounding balloons (if any) should leave enough space for everything to fit comfortably without seeming either claustrophobic or isolated. In that regard, Mr. Otsmane-Elhaou delivers yet again.
Like I said in the beginning, if I don’t like something, I simply won’t write a review of it. Typically I won’t say anything at all except, perhaps, to mention the book in polite company or warn a friend or collaborator from wasting their money on said book. While “Heart Of Steal” feels unmistakably indie in its execution, I believe that that is entirely the point. In summary, I would give this book a solid 8 out of 10, based out of the above statements and observations. “Heart Of Steal” is set to run a proposed four issue length, which I look forward to seeing more of as they become available. If you see this one pop up in your Twitter feed, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw support its direction. I’ve known Mr. Campbell long enough to identify him as a kindred spirit, one who has a deep and abiding love of all things comics. I think he’s got a good team on his side and I can only see this book getting better from here, and this was by no means a bad start. “Heart Of Steal” is seeing its way to release through the Cabal Comics imprint, and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more as they become available.