Friday, 23 November 2012

Cancertown 2 - Blasphemous Tumours

Review by Colin Taylor

When discussing something I’ve enjoyed reading I often use superlatives like:


Now when it comes to ‘Cancertown 2 - Blasphemous Tumours’ none of those seem appropriate. At all.

I don’t think the creators would thank me for using them either. Rather its ugly and depraved, grim and dirty, challenging and uncomfortable and you know what, I think that’ll make them happy. I should add its never anything other than gripping, a real page turner.

For those of you that don’t know ‘Cancertown 2’ is the sequel to... well ‘Cancertown’. In this second book our... I’ll not use the word hero, our protagonist, Vince Morley, seemingly riddled with disease and convinced he’s dying, is drawn back from ‘our’ world into the eponymous netherworld, that exists across the darker edges of ‘ours’. There, as he degenerates, piece by piece, body part by body part, before our eyes, he has to rally the forces he needs to defeat a terrible new menace, Headrush, who’s ripping apart this grim world and its inhabitants. In the very opening scene Headrush literally tears apart a character called Corpsegrinder. This perfectly sets the scene and tone for the rest of the story. The stakes are high.

While Morley is attempting to save Cancertown he barely manages to retain what little is left of his grip on both world’s he inhabits. An entire world is at stake and the only thing that can save it is a man seemingly powered by anger and self recrimination alone. This isn’t light reading!

At first glance you’d be forgiven for wondering why Morley would want to save Cancertown and “players” who live there. The place really is some hellish landscape, scarred and scabbed over. The “players” who are harsh and perfectly hideously designed, are all filled with bile and bitterness. None of them seem to like each other and most of them seem to want to wreck vicious vengeance on Morley. They are restrained only by the prospect that Morley apparently is a being of great power in their world.

As the tale unfolds and Morley revisits many of the denizens of this bleak and soul crushing place, you begin to understand its power and honesty. Its not pleasant, but it exists, it reflects our work and its taken the creators courage to explore it.

The story by Cy Dethan, is really engaging, bold and thrilling but not perfect. The overarching plot can sometimes get a little lost, as we (re)meet and greet Cancertown’s inhabitants one by one. Many of the grudging conversations Morley has with them run over similar ground. How the particular ‘player’ he is talking to, really should be a greater danger to Morley than they seem to be. None of them like him, but they provide him with revelations about his relationship with the realm he is apparently so ‘powerful’ in. Yet they all leave enough enigma in what they say to keep Morley and the reader guessing and wanting to learn more, which drives the story forward.

Each of the ‘players’ gets an individual font for their speech, to emphasize how different they sound. A Letters’ job is to go unnoticed, well most the time, they are the great unsung heroes of comics. Their craft is to help the reader move around the page and absorb the story without really drawing attention to their work. The first half is of this is managed well here by Nic Wilkinson. The second half less so. The use of too many fonts (and to be fair I have no idea if this was dictated in the script?) was pretty distracting and given the scripting was strong enough and the dialogue well crafted enough, to grant each character its own voice, its unnecessary too.

While we’re on visuals the art by Graeme Howard, coloured by Peter Mason, grows throughout the story. At the start it can be awkward and the storytelling slips at times Pretty early on these problems are sorted out and before you know it Mason is doing a fine job. It is, throughout, gritty and ugly, but its meant to be. It looks entirely appropriate for the story and the art sets the atmosphere perfectly. Characters have a diversity that means everyone is easy to identify and while the script doesn’t always call for great emotional range, people are angry A LOT, desperate and menacing, occasionally scared, but that’s about it, all of this the artist conveys perfectly well.

Before reading Cancertown 2 I was warned, by one of the creators no less, that I’d need to read the first book beforehand, or risk getting lost. Stuff and grimy nonsense I say. This is a sequel, but its structured in such a way as to introduce you to all the characters, settings and workings of Cancertown, perfectly well. In fact I’d suggest that Dethan does an excellent job of this. Important events have clearly happened before and I understood that if I’d read the first book I’d know more about the specifics of the moments referred to, but everything you need to enjoy... well be grabbed, by this story is given to you.

It does worry me these days how people expect to know everything about every story in front of them. I’m more than happy to accept that the characters in a story have existed before and may well do so after its finished, in fact its the sign of a good story, characters should feel as though they have lived beyond what we read and Cancertown 2 does this very well. Letting you know what you need to naturally and fluidly, without upsetting the balance of keeping things moving on at the same time.

I chose not to read the first book after the warning, though I was offered it, as I think its important that a book of some 140ish pages, should bloomin’ well stand up by itself and I’m glad to report it does. Sure reading this made me want to go back and read the first, but out of curiosity not necessity.

The fact that Cancertown 2 is so grim and ugly is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. It has a tone and atmosphere that’s entirely appropriate for the story and themes explored. The book stands out as a bold exploration of the things that rot people, both physically and mentally. Its meant to be hard and its meant to be difficult. Which is of course also its biggest weakness, there’s little variance, its relentless and unswerving. Given its aims and themes that’s understandable, but can make it unpleasant to read, that’s not to say its not gripping, but unpleasant all the same.

I kind of think that’s exactly how the creators want you to feel.

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