Originally presented as a five-issue mini-series published by Image Comics, this new, collected hardback edition of “TURF”, published in the UK by Titan Books, sees major TV personality and self-confessed Über-geek Jonathan Ross, swapping his place behind the desk of his prime time talk show on British TV, and taking on the somewhat unexpected mantle of cult comic book writer. He’s teamed up with Tommy Lee Edwards, the comic industry’s acclaimed illustrator for “Marvel 1985” and storyboard artist for the Hughes Brothers’ “The Book of Eli” (among many other various and varied illustration-related projects) for what surely must look to the uninitiated to be a potentially gruesome car crash of a vanity project just waiting to happen.
But anyone even passingly familiar with Ross’s output across TV and radio over the years will realise the baselessness of this worry, though: the garrulous broadcaster and host of numerous chat shows, and formerly the host of the BBC’s premier film review series, has always made his deep love and encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of comic books (and of many other areas of popular culture for that matter) readily apparent, expressly through projects such as his recent documentary for BBC4, “In Search of Steve Ditko”, which was all about the Marvel Comics supremo who originally helped create Spider-Man. Within the 192 bustling pages that make up the often wordy, gaudily elaborated but still rather brief debut that is “TURF”, Ross the avid comic artwork collector proves he’s every bit the creative, pop-culture imbibing obsessive, while Edwards provides consistently inventive, busily inked images ladled with vivid, eye-catching brushwork dripping an explosive fireworks-display-cocktail of colour from each and every page. Edwards’ striking panel imagery often delivers in a style closely reminiscent of the classic Golden Age of Marvel Comics; while almost every other page and panel, besides providing a home for Ross’s sometimes almost overpowering clutter of scene-setting text squares and dialogue bubbles, produces work that looks like it could easily have rendered garish cover imagery for a classic issue of Carlton Comics’ 1950s ‘weird tales’ series “The Thing!” during the time Steve Ditko worked for it. This is an immediately striking, high-concept genre splice, mixing gangster iconography, Gothic horror imagery and science fiction tropes in equal measure -- and the resultant mixture is a surprisingly frothy delight which, if anything, leaves you wishing there was a little more of it still to come.
The setting is prohibition era New York, specifically the year 1929. The opening pages of part one provide a fluid, nicely researched summery of the era from Ross (who is a history graduate, after all), accompanied by lurid snapshots by Edwards illustrating a violent gangland culture, police shootouts amid automobile-teeming streets, and brutal backstreet gang violence. The warring mafia families busy fighting for their share of the bootlegging racket, aided and abetted by the usual compliment of hangers on, crooked cops and corrupt politicians etc., are suddenly starting to wind up victims themselves -- massacred in ferociously violent mass bloodbaths that have left the remaining gangster outfits paranoid and suspicious of each other. The players in the ensuing drama, which Ross writes relatively straight despite the idiosyncratic genre mash-up it engenders and the frequent crafty, semi-obscure film culture references (there’s an Italian mafia don called Mario Bava, for goodness sake!) are a broad bunch of misfits who take up various sides in the fight against a lethal, evil enemy intent on subjugating and destroying all mankind.
There’s a suave but disillusioned lower east side gang leader called Eddie Falco; a brutish corrupt cop by the name of Pete O’Leary who goes in for a spot of prostitute killing on the side; and there's an ambitious bob-haired society reporter named Suzy Randall who dresses like Louise Brooks but looks like a Bridget Jones era Renée Zellweger, out to make it big in the city while looking for stories in the backstreet speakeasies of Manhattan. Oh, and then there’s Squeed – an interplanetary smuggler, part insect, part swamp thing -- who crash-lands on Coney Island after his cargo runner is brought down by intergalactic pursuers who aren’t best pleased to have their space storerooms raided. This disparate bunch are connected by the sinister activities of an ancient East European clan of Strigoi (that’s chisel-cheeked, floppy-haired vampires who look like they’ve just capered out of the pages of an Anne Rice novel, to you and I) called the Dragonmirs, who reside in a forbidding Gothic mansion and have recently provided new business for the gangs who usually smuggle stolen booze across the Canadian border by employing them to steal Canadian blood from hospitals and deliver it to the back gates of Dragonmir Mansion instead.
There’s a power struggle going on within the Dragonmir family though: Gregori wants to continue to hide the true vampirish nature of the clan and to continue to operate in the shadows, infiltrating the world of humans by integrating with New York high society. His brother Stefan meanwhile is busy secretly plotting a takeover, wiping out the gangs who currently run the city and preparing for the day when the gargantuan, bat-like, Lovecraftian beastie called the Old One that’s interred deep below earth on the grounds of their mansion, awakes to lead them in an apocalyptic route of the human race.
Stefan’s treacherous activities are the catalyst for the battle lines to be drawn up in strange and unusual combinations, as old rivalries and hostilities must be set aside to fight the menace he poses: bootleggers must stand side-by-side with honest cops and feisty cloche hatted flappers unite with cast-out aristocratic vampires. The bringing together of so many genres is the perfect metaphor for the all-inclusive message of the story, which delights in the unexpected groupings of characters Ross’s imagination throws up. The key relationship is between violent, spiritually corrupted gangster Eddie Falco (pictured at the start of the story indulging in gruesome Mr Blonde-like razor blade business in a dockside warehouse) and the insectile, Swamp Thing-like alien Squeed, who performs a mind-meld type operation on Eddie early on after the death of his partner and soul mate Prinn in the cargo ship crash. The two turn out to have had similar upbringings despite being separated by light years: Eddie’s tough childhood on the streets of New York led to him finding an early role and a safe haven for himself through membership of a street gang, while Squeed’s clan enforces rigid survival of the fittest principles on a planet where there is no word for love – yet he and Prinn came together anyway.
This insight into the mind of an alien creature, able to defy its societal and biological destiny for a connection with another, is set to transform the understanding of a man whose life has been shaped by a violence that has left him cold and remote from those around him. Melting pot alliances forged by unlikely bedfellows and the transformations that can result becomes the main theme of a plot which progresses at breakneck speed towards a resolution that must obviously involve a giant monster rampaging against the skyline of a 1920s New York!
Ross provides all the genre mashing material and deliciously bloody set-pieces one could wish for, from levitating vampires in dinner suits, vampire mansion cellars full of blood-ripe humans waiting to be milked, and a succession of violent confrontations between vampire fascists, machine gun-toting gangsters and a hulking alien/man hybrid wielding a battery of futuristic armery; but it’s Tommy Lee Edwards’ artwork which makes it all come alive on the page. The plot involves heaps of violence: razor blade slayings, stabbings, shootings, decapitations and grisly vampire massacres – all delivered by Edwards in vividly inked period detail against a brooding Gotham backdrop. The art looks raw, dynamic, yet blossoms with colour -- an evocative array of browns, purples and bloody oranges screaming off the pages. The fashion for sparse wording is not something that evidently appeals to Mr Ross in his storytelling; thus this strip is propelled by a flurry of words which some more versed in the modern style might find off-putting but which is perfectly in keeping with the rapid-fire approach being employed here. The only real downside is that it all seems to come to an abrupt end just as things are really getting going. The sizable cast of characters have only just been introduced to each other it seems, and it’s suddenly all over in one big showy battle. It can only be a testament to the potential richness of the material that one feels there should’ve been a bit more of it, though.
The hardback collection of all five issues of “TURF” is published with a gallery of issue covers and pin-ups at the back of the book featuring the work of comics legends Jim Steranko, William Stout, Michael Kaluta, Dave Gibbons, Duncan Fegredo and others. There’s also an illustrative layout of the original planning sketches and even a photo gallery of images of a model of Squeed’s ship that was built as a project for Edwards and his two children. This is a promising start to what could easily be a fulfilling comics writing career for Ross if he so chooses, and Edwards’ classic style gets full rein. This is well worth seeking out.
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