Saturday 13 June 2020

Ian Livingstone's Freeway Fighter


Andi Ewington and Simon Coleby

Reviewed by Mark Lain

If you were to choose which entry from all the FF canon had the most potential for either a film/TV or graphic novel adaptation, then it has to be a choice between House Of Hell (which abortively did almost become a film a few years ago until it fell into a black hole of development hell) or Freeway Fighter (which, let’s face it is a rip-off of a film anyway given its striking similarity to the Mad Max franchise). The three Chadda Darkmane novels, with their conventional narratives, are also obvious choices and the first one, The Trolltooth Wars, did indeed get a GN adaptation a year or so before Freeway Fighter, but this was a fairly lukewarm affair made all the more lacklustre by a disastrous Kickstarter campaign that left most backers either totally hacked off or completely disinterested by the time it finally landed. It was initially also suggested that the Freeway Fighter GN might be funded by the Kickstarter route but it was ultimately picked up by Titan Comics and published conventionally over four monthly parts in standard comic book format, followed inevitably by a single combined volume trade paperback.

After the not actually too bad but also not that great experience that was Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars GN, I was wary of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter potentially being a wash-out. The novel of The Trolltooth Wars is brilliant and bounces along as it takes the reader through an assemblage of much-loved FF lore. But the GN is a diluted affair with inappropriate art that does the material no justice at all. The Freeway Fighter gamebook is huge fun, but it is very dumb fun and is a far cry from the deeper fantasy material that FF mostly put out. So, other than a catalogue of mindless violence punctuated by a car driving across a post-apocalyptic wasteland (which would undoubtedly be very entertaining in comic book format) what could we expect from this GN? Well, the fact is that that is exactly what we get with Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter, but personally, other than the lead in to the gamebook (more on this later) I think this is actually what makes this such a winner as it is frenetic, fast-paced entertainment for its own sake. Just like the gamebook, it is straightforward, violent, and does not take itself too seriously, but there is also a lot more going on too in the characterisations.

The plot, such as it is, is the story of Bella de la Rosa, a road drifter, who stumbles across Ryan in the town of Baker, and agrees to take him as close to New Hope as they can get on the fuel they have. Thus we follow their journey together as they get repeatedly harassed by Doom Dogs who want her Dodge Interceptor. And this is the central maguffin of the story, as the real star of the show, and the actual subject of the GN, is the car itself’s backstory, starting in a Prologue where Bella races in it, and finally ending where it is getting souped-up ready for the journey to San Anglo that we play out in the gamebook. Throughout the GN, the car is treated as an entity – Bella chats with it, confides in it, sympathises with it, and cares for it. It is her one reliable constant in a futuristic world gone mad. The primary human characters she meets are mostly unreliable: the Doom Dogs are psychotic hooligans, and Ryan is pretty useless. Bella herself is a great lead. In classic action movie lead style, she is feisty, wise-cracking, very streetwise, but also massively haunted by personal demons and is hugely aware of her own mortality and constantly literally looks Death in the face. Ryan, on the other hand, is naïve, clumsy, nervous, and awkward, but ultimately means well and seems genuinely grateful to have met someone who does not want to kill him. Bella cares little for human company (her car is her only friend), but her humanity prevents her from abandoning Ryan to his inevitable fate.

Alongside these two new characters, and to make this feel familiar and connected, are a number of familiar faces and tropes from the gamebook itself. Spark Plug Pete shows up, The Animal drives the iconic Red Chevvy from the book’s cover, the ever-handy Flat-U-Fix gets put to use, and we meet Sinclair in New Hope right at the end. We even find a wrecked second Interceptor at one point and the wry observation is made that you don’t see many of those about! There are also many Easter Eggs for the eagle-eyed to pick out, some of which have FF meaning, some of which are just social commentary. Amongst these are: de la Rosa’s car is number 44 (this is Ian Livingstone’s “special” number); the helmet on the first Doom Dog that harasses Bella in the opening salvo of the GN has the number 13 on it (Freeway Fighter is FF #13); the keys to the Interceptor are on a four-leafed clover keyring (a Luck symbol); the Red Chevvy is present (as noted above); The Animal is also here; FF mega-collector and one-time Warlock Jamie Fry appears as a Doom Dog (he won a competition to be drawn into the book); and the only food Bella can find in an abandoned empty store is a bar of Trumpish Delight (presumably a wry nod to the pre-Presidency media belief that Donald Trump would start an apocalypse of some sort).

The point of most of the GN is simple violent entertainment, but it is bookended by a beginning and an end that have some real substance. The introductory pre-disaster car racing Prologue ends with the line “This isn’t going to end well” as it cuts into the Interceptor being pursued at high speed by a Doom Dog. This is a very cinematic concept: the opening action sequence that we join part-way through that then cuts to a similar juxtaposition but several years later and far more dangerous. This is a neat segue (and commentary on the whole piece), but the conclusion of the GN has an even neater segue: Sinclair notes that “I do have a use for a good driver. We’re running low on fuel. I need someone to go to the oil refinery at San Anglo for us” and thus, YOU presumably then come along after the GN ends as it leads directly into the gamebook. Equally, the final action scene sees the Interceptor being pursued to the gates of New Hope by the ever-present nuisance of the Doom Dogs. The gamebook tells us that Sinclair was kidnapped in an attack on New Hope by some bikers – the same ones that pursued Bella to NH in the GN perhaps?

Whilst there is a lot of cartoon violence in this GN and the action level and pace is full on, there are moments of quiet pathos too such as when Bella finds a couple who have overdosed on barbiturates. The way she talks to her car and sees it as a friend is a poignant commentary on loneliness and the need for human contact (or a substitute for this). The deep meaning in this is all the more intense as the car is a direct connection for her to her dead father and acts as his substitute too, hence the way she talks to it like it is her only true friend in an utterly lost world.

The Interceptor itself (really the star of the show) is at odds with that in the gamebook, however. The latter version as drawn by Kevin Bulmer is akin to a Lamborghini, whereas the Simon Coleby version in the GN bears a striking similarity to a Dodge Charger (although when I queried this with Coleby he did say that its look is a product of his imagination). Perhaps the I-400 Interceptor is a subconscious development of the Charger that we will one day still see lol. As this story comes before the gamebook, the Interceptor in the GN is nowhere near as tooled-up as the gamebook version, something that makes perfect sense as the gamebook’s Introduction does specifically say that it has been modified to resemble a battle-car.     

On the subject of Coleby’s art, this is key to the success of this GN. His action sequences are full of visible movement and there is a momentum and frenetic pace to his chase and battle images. The counterpoint to this is the way he captures the calm of the few moments of respite. Both of these points demonstrate just how skilled Coleby is in making his images really get across the various tempos of the piece. Coleby’s work for 2000AD always had these features and he has illustrated this GN perfectly in my opinion. The inappropriate Cartoon Network-style Gavin Mitchell art in Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars massively detracted from the effect it should have had. Coleby’s work in Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter however could not be better-suited and the decision to use him was inspired as his interpretation of the various scenes is perfect. Coleby produced the internals for the entire GN (ie all four parts) but, as is always the case with short multi-part comic books, the original individual issue versions came with a plethora of cover variants by numerous artists. However, the four Coleby covers are my favourites by far, again, because of the high octane imagery they portray. As Coleby’s interiors work so well, I find the variant covers by other artists to be rather less successful. To keep the collectors happy, each of Issues 2 thru 4 came with three cover variants. Issue 1 was offered with SEVEN variant covers: the standard A/B/C options of the next three issues, a Forbidden Planet exclusive using the original Jim Burns Puffin cover, a similar version with the Burns Battle Cars cover used on the Wizard reprint, a beautiful movie style poster cover, and a fanboy treat in the wraparound Adventure Sheet cover. There is actually an eighth variant too, but it is only a semi-variant isasmuch as Forbidden Planet offered for presale a version of the Burns red Chevvy cover signed by everyone involved (which annoyingly had one person missing who was late so missed the pre-signing event meaning only those copies where signatures were collected in person at the actual FP public signing event have him on them). Obviously the two Burns covers are fabulous, as is the movie cover. The Adventure Sheet cover is fun for the nostalgia but being just a black and white affair, it is actually rather downbeat. But, as I said before, of all the variants across the four individual issues, the Coleby versions win it for me. There is one particularly odd variant of Issue 1 where Bella has her hand in a dubious place and seems to be interfering with herself! Once the four parts were collected together into a single volume TPB, there were even two variants of this: the standard version uses the Coleby Issue 1 cover of the speeding Interceptor, whilst a FP exclusive uses the Burns red Chevvy cover again. In a neat touch, the Coleby cover TPB has a green spine (the Burns’ spine is orange) and each individual Issue has a green back cover. All nicely on-brand then.

Writer Andi Ewington is no newcomer to comic books and had written several before this piece came about. The whole thing is clearly a labour of love for Ewington and his attention to detail to make it consistent with and interconnecting to the gamebook is very apparent. The dialogue is snappy and suitably hard-boiled, and there is a sparcity to speech that suits the piece nicely. Dialogue plays second fiddle to action and the limiting of the speech bubbles allows the art to speak for itself and drive this through. I remember when the individual Issues first came out, that reading Issue 1 with its very limited amount of dialogue, really did make it feel like a pre-credits sequence, which it sort of is, as the real Mad Max-style violence, explosions, and converted road vehicles kicks in from Issue 2. A real credit to Ewington is that the GN works equally as well as a comic book for its own sake, as well as a FF fan confection, and there is definitely an intended market beyond the niche of FF fans as there is nothing here to alienate a reader with no knowledge of the source gamebook. For me, obviously, the pleasure is in getting another part of the FF cannon and growing the world, especially as this is a non-Titan set book and these generally get ignored in the overall world-building in FF.

The individual Issues and the combined GN included some additional material too, which is always welcome as it expands our understanding. In Ian Livingstone’s introduction he admits what we all suspected (that he deliberately cribbed from Mad Max) but he makes an odd remark when he says that the GN is “[an] adaptation of the interactive book as a linear narrative” which it quite simply is not. It is the Prequel and a completely different part of the story arc to that found in the gamebook. Generally though, IL’s intro is very useful and gives us an early history of FF for those readers who are not already familiar with it. There is also a nice and very heartfelt tribute to the original gamebook’s artist Kevin Bulmer, written by his ex-partner. This is actually very revealing and shows just how involved Bulmer was in video gaming in particular. His work with Jeff Wayne on War Of The Worlds is interesting to read and learn about too. Also included is a nice potted overview of Freeway Fighter itself by Jonathan Green and a few pages of Coleby’s concept art and prelims which are interesting to see. In other words, all of the “Special Features” (if this were a DVD) are worthwhile and add to the experience for those who want to know more beyond simply reading the GN.

And it is a good job that we do get this added value material as, if I have one criticism of this GN (and I really can only think of one) it is its brevity. In episodic format, each Issue is over in a few pages just as it gets going and, whilst this does leave you itching to read the next instalment, these are rather too short as comic books go. Indeed, even in its combined volume format, I reckon this takes no more than 15-20 minutes to read from cover to cover. On the one hand it can be argued that the shortness maintains its relentless pace and means there are no lulls or pointless filler parts. However, it would have been nice if it were longer as it does leave the reader feeling a little bit short-changed, especially compared to most TPBs I have read. But, as I said, this is literally the only issue I can take with this and it is otherwise very good indeed and hugely enjoyable.

For collector interest, in addition to the seven versions of Issue 1 and the three versions each of Issues 2 thru 4 (giving a total of 16 covers for the collector to get hold of), plus the two cover variants of the GN version, Forbidden Planet also produced a pair of exclusive 18” x 24” giclee prints of the two Burns covers, each limited to 25 units signed and numbered by Ian Livingstone and Jim Burns. Further promotional paraphernalia was also produced in the form of a set of two double-sided art postcards that were given away at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2, an A5-sized print signed by Livingstone that was exclusive to OK Comics in Leeds, plus the Burns variant of the collected TPB version also came with a print signed by all interested parties. Titan Comics (and indeed Forbidden Planet) rarely miss an opportunity to bankroll comic books nowadays meaning there is plenty out there for the completist to gather together.

The first attempt at a FF-based GN (Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars) was not a success overall. It suffered from misguided planning on many levels, was the work of largely untested creators in PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell, was marred by a farcical Kickstarter campaign to fund it, and is unlikely to appeal (or make any sense) to the non-FF fan reader. This second offering though from the talented creative team of Ewington and Coleby is very impressive and definitely does justice to its own concept as well as being very respectful to the original gamebook. The lead into the gamebook is smooth and effective, the action is breathtaking, the art is fantastic, and the whole thing just works brilliantly. OK, it is undeniably short and is light on plot but these are greatly made up for in its many positives. I have read it umpteen times and will continue to re-read it whenever I want a quick fix of mindless futuristic violence whilst feeling a bit of sadness for the average person who is just trying to eek out an existence in a collapsed society. I could sit and enjoy Coleby’s art in this GN for ages without even reading the text or following the story and therein lies, for me, the sign of a successful comic book: the art can stand on its own, the plot can stand on its own, and the whole thing meshes beautifully. There was talk at one point of Ewington producing another FF-based GN in the form of Deathtrap Dungeon, but sadly this project fell through, which is a huge shame as I would have loved to see more FF comics from Ewington as his first is really great stuff.

Saturday 6 June 2020

Scholastic Reissues: Schedule 3


Reviewed by Mark Lain

After two tranches of Scholastic editions, each containing six books, the third batch slashed their output in half and offered a rather stingier three titles. However, there was no wastage in this smaller batch, which gave us a third brand new title (#15 Assassins Of Allansia) and two more key reprints in #13 Caverns Of the Snow Witch and #14 Khare: Cityport Of Traps. Khare is a necessary release given that its predecessor appeared in the previous Scholastic batch, and CotSW is the only non-sci-fi Jackson/Livingstone book from Puffin’s first ten FFs that had not been reissued by Scholastic thus far, so these are natural choices. As with my discussions of Schedules 1 and 2, I will only be covering the reissued titles in this post, the new book will be reviewed in its own right.

Caverns Of The Snow Witch is not a book that I particularly like. It is massively unfair with its umpteen fights with over-powered opponents, very limited opportunities to restore Stamina, far too many Luck tests, and a pointless post-Snow Witch kill coda that just seems to ramble on forever. OK, I realise that this started out life as a 200-section Warlock magazine effort, but in doubling its length, Livingstone simply padded it out endlessly after the Warlock version’s conclusion rather than adding any interesting additional material earlier in the book. Indeed, up to the point where the Warlock version ends, the two are completely identical – it is only beyond this point that the additional 200 sections-worth of material kicks in, which does make it all feel a bit forced. However, what the Puffin/Wizard version has that works massively in its favour is the unique woodcut-style internal art by Gary Ward and Edward Crosby. This was their only work for FF and it stands out with a visual style entirely of its own and I am a big fan of this book’s illustrations. Naturally, this made me a little cautious when approaching the Scholastic edition as the book, in play terms, is pretty awful, and, without the Ward-Crosby art, would have little to offer me anymore.

So it is then that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the internal art for the first time. Firstly and foremostly, Scholastic has finally parted company with the awe-inspiringly talentless Vlado Krizan, meaning cover artist Robert Ball is now also on internal art duties in his place. Well done Scholastic, perhaps fan response has finally been acknowledged. All we had seen up until now though of Ball’s work was the rather cartoonish cover illustrations of Batch 1 and the more effective and unsettling, but microcosmic “porthole” imagery of Batch 2. Batch 3 sticks with the porthole layout and with the more frightening imagery which is especially apparent with CotSW as the blue-hued yeti bursting through the porthole is really very effective. I also like the claw scratches that cut through Livingstone’s name which adds an element of animation to the piece. The internals are the aspect that really interests me with this book though and we get Ball’s interpretations of these section’s images:

26 dark elf with bow, 37 night stalker, 59 crystal warrior, 83 zombie, 96 dead dwarf, 106 neanderthal and gnome, 125 prism man, 154 banshee, 180 centaurs, 190 yeti, 212 snow wolves, 223 white dragon, 235 sentinel, 288 frost giant, 297 Shareela, 328 pegasus, 348 birdmen, 365 brain slayer, 398 man-orc

Which leaves these images now missing that were illustrated in the original versions:

Background Big Jim, 13 hill trolls, 50 wild hill men, 75 healer, 88 frozen orc, 115 elf, 168 man in hut, 198 idol worship, 254 goblins, 262 zombified elf and dwarf, 278 old man, 319 birdhead rock, 374 barbarian

The decision to excise images for two key plot points (background and 262) seems illogical and I am sure other images that have survived could have been left out to make space for these two (106 or 398, for example). Obviously, many of the images that remain are those that emphasise the snow theme and a lot that is now missing are from the snooze-fest coda but this also makes it feel unbalanced now in terms of what areas of the book are illustrated. Overall, this leaves me a bit unsatisfied.

But, of what we do still have, a lot can be said and, as I rate the Ward-Crosby takes so highly, I am going to talk briefly about every image and compare them: the first Ball internal that we see (if we go through the pages in linear order) is section 26 and this version has a really nice composition which is a very promising portent of what Ball’s versions of this book’s art might offer; 37 is no longer in extreme close-up and is now very frightening; 59 is now far too busy and the original version was too iconic for Ball to realistically be able to compete with; 83 is now much more realistic and has far more horror in it as a result; 96 just isn’t my idea of how a dwarf should look and is more akin to a Pictish warrior or such-like; 106 is now less in your face but manages to have more threat for this; I do not like 125 now – it seems to be an over-busy mess whereas Ward’s version had more control; 154 is vastly inferior and has lost all the visceral hideousness of the original; 180 is a really interesting take and gives the centaurs an almost American Indian appearance; 190 is one of the best of the Ball versions – the yeti is now huge and dominates the frame resulting in an image with far more threat; ditto, 212 also now contains more threat and the savage nature of the wild dogs is very evident; 223 goes for a more regal approach whereas Ward’s version was about the imposing and threatening nature of the dragon – both are interesting takes and are equally effective in their own ways; 235 is another Ball image that is now just too busy, whereas the original was a masterpiece that probably could not be bettered; 288 looks more like an ogre now than a giant and has lost the intensity of the original; 297 is too dark: Ward’s Shareela was brilliant for its mixture of allure, sexiness, and sheer terror – Ball’s is just a bit boring; the Pegasus in 328 though is truly beautiful in Ball’s version; 348 is another interesting alternate interpretation in the same way as the dragon – both versions have their plus points and neither is better than the other; the brain slayer in 365 was another truly iconic Ward image and Ball botches his very inferior version by just not having enough focus on the brain slayer itself now; the original version of 398 was one of the few misfires in my opinion and was cluttered and confusing whereas Ball’s take is more obvious and clear even though it is ultimately nothing special really.

Clearly then, Robert Ball’s interior art is far superior to Vlado Krizan’s and at times compares very favourably to Ward and Crosby’s masterful originals in this book. Finally, we are seeing images in Scholastic editions that have detail and there is even enough of it now to warrant close study of the images. A huge leap forward is that the greyscaling that made VK’s art so utterly uninteresting is gone and Ball’s versions are (appropriately) very bright and favour the white end of the light and dark spectrum. Ball produces some very interesting and worthwhile versions of these familiar illustrations and I would be interested to know if he had actually seen the originals as these are definitely not Krizan-style tracings. Instead they are alternate visions which hold up well in their own right. This is a great thing to see and shows that there is hope now rather than the grim spectre of more awful Krizan art that totally destroyed the purpose of art in FF books.     

A worthwhile point to note here is that, with the Ball versions, there are now three completely different versions of the internal art for CotSW: the original Ward-Crosby woodcut style of the Puffin/Wizard editions, the full colour more fantastical/fairytale illustrations in the Tin Man Games app version, and now the Robert Ball interpretations. I still favour the Ward-Crosby versions overall, but Ball has produced some very worthwhile images in his versions and these make the Scholastic edition of what I personally consider to be a sub-par book play-wise into a very worthwhile investment and my fears are allayed. That said, I can only imagine how I would have reacted to the Scholastic version had Krizan still been in the equation!

I am conflicted over the decision to change the internal artist for Khare. Part of the flow and coherence of the original editions of the Sorcery! epic is the consistency in using John Blanche to illustrate all four (both for the covers and the internals). The first problem this throws up is that I prefer Blanche’s work in The Shamutanti Hills to that in Khare as I find his art in the second book often quite hideous or simply incomplete as there are some images which are mostly just a blank page with a hand or whatever in the middle, which seems a bit of a waste to me. Also, I am overall not a fan of Blanche’s manic often scruffy style, even though I realise that I am in a minority with this. The second problem is an enormous one as maintaining visual consistency from Book 1 to Book 2 would involve having to impose more of Vlado Krizan’s terrible internal art on us all. Overall, I would rather suffer a change in visuals than more of Krizan’s anti-art so I am just going to have to accept this as a necessary move in terms of improving the overall look and reputation of the Scholastic editions.

Khare is a very very difficult book to complete as Jackson employs his unravelling a puzzle approach rather than the more conventional linear true path of a Livingstone book. For all that it is very hard though it is also very brilliant and compels the player to keep revisiting and trying to solve it. After the relatively straightforward approach SJ employed with the first Sorcery! book, Khare can come as a bit of a shock, but it is a brilliant book however you look at it. Khare as a location is lethal but utterly weird which does mean that Blanche’s original internal art, for all that I do not really like it, suits the truly bizarre nature of its setting. Ball’s art in CotSW was essentially fairly traditional fantasy art in style and is certainly not in any way outré like Blanche’s. With this is mind, how then does Ball’s attempt at portraying the sheer weirdness of the city of Khare fair?

For the record, the following sections have art in both the original and Scholastic editions:

11 living corpse, 33 wrestling, 77 slime eater, 98 pixie-sprite fight, 122 Idol of Courga, 143 elvin, 153 mantis man, 164 crypt, 176 artist’s hut, 198 town square, 213 fish, 240 Cabinet of Fortune, 269 dwarf and bear, 285 harpies, 300 orclings, 324 gnome shop, 336 sage, 365 goblins, 511 city gate

…and we no longer have illustrations for:

Map of Kakhabad, 1 approach to Khare, 23 smoking black elves, 43 flayer, 56 Wheel of Fortune, 66 chainmaker, 89 fork with statue, 110 Watfarer’s Rest, 132 street scene, 187 chapel, 227 guillotine trap, 254 hut interior, 311 ship interior, 411 giant, 464 zap spell, 504 pebbles  

Very excitingly, Scholastic is once again doing its only occasional thing of giving us a newly-illustrated section and in this case it is a real winner in the form of the highly unusual sulphur ghost in section 412. Given Blanche’s style, this would actually have made an ideal unusual subject for him to illustrate and I would have liked to be able to make a comparison but, as it stands, Ball’s is the only barometer we have for a sulphur ghost and it is a very interesting and horror-filled take on a very rare creature. In other words, for the first time, Scholastic has added a new image that does actually genuinely ADD something to the overall set of images within a book. So that’s another good sign with Batch 3.

As I said before when discussing The Shamutanti Hills, the removal of the map of Kakhabad is a stupid decision as we need the global context of this quest to help get deep into the settings. I also do not understand why section 1’s approach to Khare image was excised when it literally gives us a lead in to the piece. I am very pleased at the removal of the two spell effect images though (464 and 504) as these were just white voids with a tiny central image and were frankly a waste of space and seemed lazy to me. I find it incomprehensible that the guillotine trap image is now gone (227) as I always use the picture to negotiate this stage and the loss of 110’s illustration is a shame too as I like FF tavern vistas and feel they are a cornerstone of what urban set FF is all about. It seems that as the series progresses the choice of internals to remove is making less sense, initially it was largely incidentals that were gone, but it is getting a bit less focussed and logical now.

As regards what we have new interpretations of, for the opposite reason to my wanting to do this for CotSW, I am again going to cover every image present but this time because I disliked Blanche’s on the whole so much that I am hoping the Ball versions will be an improvement: 11 had more context in terms of background in the Blanche version but it is more unsettlingly human-like in the Ball – neither is great but they both do the job; there is more animation to Ball’s version of 33, but the Blanche version has the classic look of his work when he gets it right and successfully mixes the weird with a compelling image; 77’s slime eater is now less cluttered and I prefer it as do I prefer Ball’s cover to Blanche’s as JB’s just seems to be a technicolour nightmare; 98 is now more intricate and detailed where Blanche’s looked incomplete with too much white void; both versions of 122 are equally good and both are very effective; Ball’s elvin in 143 looks more devious and it is nice to see Scholastic illustrating these Sorcery! stalwarts as, for some reason, none got drawn in the first book; 153 actually is now recognisable as mantis-like whereas the original looked like it had been burned; there is now more horror in 164 but I do still like Blanche’s whispy emerging spirit in the original; I do not understand how 176 made the cut and neither image inspires me at all; 198 is now way too dark and the original was far better and more absorbing in terms of making you feel like you are there; both versions of 213 are basically the same; 240 is an interesting one with two equally valid interpretations: Blanche’s goes for weirdness, Ball’s highlights the sinister; Blanche’s version of 269 is typical cluttered Blanche mayhem that confuses the eye so I do prefer the more controlled new version; the original harpy image in 285 was truly macabre and it has the edge over the very eye-centric new version; both versions of the orclings in 300 work equally well and both are fun images; Ball’s gnome in 324 seems far too old but his version also has more atmosphere than the original; similarly, Ball’s ogre in 336 seems more atmospheric; there was pretty much nothing to the original version of 365 (just a white space) so the Ball can only be an improvement, which it is by virtue of there actually being an image of any consequence there; the city gate in 511 works well from both perspectives and is essential to round the book off properly (if only section 1’s image had not been removed as these two illustrations literally bookend the piece).

I really do like what Ball has done with this book, especially as I was never happy with the Blanche effort. The Scholastic trademark geyscaling is creeping back in Khare but it is not detrimental and is not causing any loss of detail or interest. Plus, its absence from CotSW suited that book’s subject matter whereas it is less vital to use a lot of whites in Khare, plus it is night time at points in the latter book. Something good and very encouraging is happening with Scholastic’s internal art finally as the Khare images in particular stand up very well and fare often even better than the sometimes empty or scruffy Blanche versions. And we finally have a worthwhile additional image that really adds something.

Ball’s work in both of these books is well worth taking the time to study and compare to the originals as his takes are very worthwhile and he is doing something really interesting by rethinking the images instead of just copying them badly. Vlado Krizan’s internal art hardly warranted looking at at all, but the Ball material is actually really good and we are seeing signs of a return to the less childish style of the original books rather than VK’s disastrous work in the first twelve Scholastic offerings. It is a shame that Scholastic only stretched Batch 3 to three titles and this seems a bit half-assed but, as Robert Ball produced the covers and the internals for all three this time, perhaps the amount of pressure on one single artist was a factor this time around. I can hope that another reason was a quality consideration rather than rushing the art out, but who knows. There are still several medieval Livingstone titles for Scholastic to put out and I would be curious to see new internal art for Freeway Fighter and Starship Traveller as the originals for both of these were very unsatisfying, although the sci-fi books were never as popular so perhaps Scholastic does not want to take this risk. But we can only guess at what Batch 4 will bring…