Reviewed by Peter Tennant

With a full colour wraparound cover by artist Geoff Taylor that put me in mind of the work of fantasy great Frank Frazetta, Murky Depths caught my attention from the off. There's a sense of excitement to the magazine, a willingness to do things differently and stand out from the crowd, as witness the comic book size, instead of the more usual A4 or 5, and the wealth of interior artwork including graphic stories. It may be the new kid on the block, but it's also one of the best looking, taking a leaf out of the TTA Press album and placing as much emphasis on the packaging and presentation of fiction as it does on the stories themselves.

So, looking good, but is there any substance to it? On the non-fiction side of things there's an amiable enough editorial from Terry Martin, followed by a brief interview with Darren Douglas, the creative force behind comic strip Space Dude and to complement this a potted history of Violent comic, all of which was interesting and presented in an eye-catching manner, with an illustration rich layout. The only other non-fiction was an afterword come opinion piece by co-editor Matt Wallace in which he convincingly and passionately sets out the case for cross-genre and cross-media fertilisation.

The fiction kicks off with graphic strip The Art of War by Dave Ryan, which is really nothing more than a flash fiction, with the usual demonic bargain made by an artist who wants to be famous, and the only real surprise his identity. The artwork is excellent, very dark and moody, but in this case I'm not convinced a graphic strip was the right medium, in that the punch line as illustration hits you the minute you turn the page, rendering the actual reading redundant.

Kurt Kirchmeier's story, Duchess Street, is more substantial, though still slightly predictable. The first person narrator, the ghost of a dead prostitute, gets in touch with their inner demons and for a while it seems that another girl on the game is the intended victim, but this is a dummy sell and the eventual target is much more deserving. It's emotively written, with a feel for the sleazy lifestyle touched upon, a nice sense of place and some graphic violence come transformation, but for all that a gotcha piece, with reader satisfaction hinging on seeing the bad guy get a gory comeuppance. Some distinctive artwork by Frankie Wallington complements the text, with Chagallesque outlines against a slum backdrop.

The double page spread by artist Paul O'Connell for With a Whimper, With a Bang takes up as much space as the story, a New Age style collage with a beneficent Mao figure beaming down on a busy populace and inset panels that bring to mind the propaganda posters of Soviet Russia. D. M. Moehrle's story comes almost as an afterthought, a well written but pithy little morality tale of politicians cutting off their noses to spite each other's faces, or something like that, with the real interest in the underdeveloped backdrop to the story, which hints at something much more intriguing than what's going down in the foreground.

A. R. Yngve's Super-Size Security presents a novel take on prison reform, the concept laid out in isolation, with no attempt to justify or explain, and probably all the better for that, a disturbing short that stays with the reader and has slight echoes of Kafka's In the Penal Colony. Yngve also provides the accompanying illustration, a face pressed to the bars of a cell, effectively setting out his stall.

Next up is the magazine's second graphic outing, Luke Cooper's The Dark Gospel, which appears to be an ongoing serial and this the first episode, Tin Man. At nine pages it's one of the longest pieces in Murky Depths, with detective Danny Goulding, Ghoul to the guys down at the precinct, investigating the case of a murdered priest and a stolen book. He has friends to help, specifically a fallen angel with insider knowledge. Cooper's artwork is dark, moody, evocative, in fact ideal for this kind of a story, and he is excellent at conveying character through dialogue, but the story itself seems slightly superficial with some rather dubious reaches. Reading it I get the whiff of a John Constantine wannabe, but it's a promising start to the series.

Yellow Warbler is the best story I can recall seeing from Jason Sizemore. It has a pastoral SF feel to it, bringing to mind Simak, but with a darker slant. The story is set in a post-Apocalypse rural culture of the future, in which enclave style communities are deeply distrustful of outsiders, not least the alien visitors who some hold responsible for their troubles. Sizemore is excellent at describing this milieu, and giving us convincing characters to act out his drama, when the arrival of a 'Shadow' brings on a crisis of faith for the local minister. What occurs is a very sombre piece indeed, as human nature is shown at its worst in our willingness to find somebody else to take out all our troubles on, with Sizemore not putting a foot wrong until the very end, when all that has gone before is exposed as simply means to an end, to facilitate a sting in the tail finale. One to enjoy for the journey rather than the destination. Michael Lomon's artwork captures the feel of the story perfectly, villagers against an idyllic backdrop and with a rustic church central, with cross hatching used to provide depth and contrast.

Martin Deep's sketch of a dancer with unfurling ribbons is neatly superimposed over the text of Bernadette and the Sirens by Hannah Davey, another tale of a rural dystopia, but with far more overtly sinister imagery, as imprisoned men are released to wreak revenge on their captors and the eponymous Bernadette dances. It's a subtle tale, beautifully written and with the suggestion of much more going on than my one quick reading will allow.

Katherine Patterson's The Litter is far more run of the mill, a routine horror outing in which a family come to consider some animals for adoption, only the wee beasties aren't at all what they bargained for, which should come as no surprise to anyone. I kept wondering why nobody noticed people going missing, or why none of them apparently ever told family/friends where they were going. James Fletcher's illustration is superbly sinister, with the family a little bit too happy, rictus smiles almost, a linocut feel to the presentation.

Graphic storytelling steps into the limelight again with part two of Richard Calder's Death and the Maiden. The story is set in the author's Babylon milieu, as was a serialised novella in Interzone a time back, and I loved that, but this didn't work as well for me, perhaps because I missed the first part. Basically nothing much happens; we get the heroine moving from point A to point B, followed by a cryptic conversation, and that's it. If this is representative of the story, then either Calder needs to pick up the pace or Murky Depths need to publish longer instalments. On the plus side, the lush, decadent feel of Calder's prose is hinted at in the illustrations, especially the frontispiece which, with its nude woman embraced by a skeleton, and a shadow image like a photographic negative, has to be the single most striking image in a magazine that has a surfeit of such.

Sarah Wagner's Venus and the Birth of Zephyrus is only one page and doesn't have anything much to it. Near as I can make out it's a spy in the sky satellite being upgraded to Artificial Intelligence status by a woman who resembles Botticelli's Venus so that it will help cover up a crime. Erm... It has some nice writing, but is rather garbled (deliberately so, I'm sure, to convey emerging consciousness) and at the end of the day is nothing more than a 'so what' story. Mark Bell provides an excellent drawing to accompany the text, one that suggests Venus has dirty hands. On the page facing this story is The Last Flight by Silvanus Moxley, a rather jolly poem about space pirates and alien vamps.

Next up is Spoil by Stan Nicholls, which was originally published in 1993 in Narrow Houses, and I can't say too much about that as it's the first part of a serial. Nicholls picks up on the fundamentalist dogma of years back, when it was maintained by some that AIDS was a punishment from God, and then cleverly turns that thinking around with SPOILS, a plague that the religious want to catch, a sign of God's favour, looking at how this influences various sectors of society, such as tele-evangelists, medical researchers, the College of Cardinals etc. It's an intriguing premise and so far he has developed it credibly, with this episode quite effectively whetting the appetite for more. Edward R. Norden's drawing of a tub thumping evangelist and his congregation superimposed on blood corpuscles captures perfectly the mood of the story.

Hair of the Dog by Edward Morris irritated me. It opened with a detailed description of the grim life of street people, carried on in this vein for several pages, inviting me into the world of these people and making me care about them, then pissed all this good work away with an out of left field supernatural end twist. It is flash fiction trying to pass muster as something more substantial, and the pay off simply doesn't reward the time and effort invested in getting there. Timothy Shepherd provides some suitably blurry, blocky artwork to accompany the story.

Firewallburn by Dave Ryan (art and plot) and Dennis Hopeless (words and letters) is the final graphic story and the weakest. It's something to do with the missing son returning to his father's penthouse and trying to kill daddy but getting shot up himself, with lots of blathering about Prometheus and fire and yadda, yadda, yadda. Great artwork. Shame about the story.

Willie Meikle provides one of the highlights of the issue with Phantom Payment. He puts a quite literal spin on the old ghost in the machine saying, with a dead bank employee ending up in the ATM network and sending payouts to his once beloved. The story is told (mostly) from the viewpoint of the IT expert charged with sorting out a small glitch and in the form (mostly) of inter-office memorandums, with only the reader in on what is actually going down. It's clever stuff and great fun, with a happy ending to boot. Or should that be reboot? Good illustration from Ricky Martin to go with the story, dark with cross hatching.

Last story Poppets by Mike Driver is another highlight. It's set on a rundown estate ruled over by a drug dealer and his monstrous dog. Resident Hubert Callow feels that his religion has deserted him and that God no longer cares, so turns to the occult for help, but ultimately reverts to type. The story is grim, one of economic and moral squalor, with Callow's crisis of conscience and faith at its heart, Driver interweaving these various elements with skill. He does bring a twist at the end, two in fact, but these seem to naturally arise from what has gone before, a proper resolution to the story rather than the pretext for it. And he introduces a sliver of hope, showing that even if we cannot alter the course of our own lives the sacrifices we make can be an example to others. The excellence of the story was matched perfectly by the clean lines of Mark Bell's powerful artwork.

Non-fiction aside, Murky Depths brings down the curtain with Church of Saturn by Alex Wilson, which is a twelve line joke masquerading as a poem.

It's obvious that a lot of thought and effort has gone into the making of this magazine, with high production standards throughout, except for the odd typo and a ToC with an entirely different running order to the magazine itself. The emphasis on illustration is welcome and it looks very good indeed, with a wealth of different, albeit not always complementary, styles. But a book, or magazine, shouldn't be sold on its cover and while there are some excellent stories within Murky's pages there are also some very weak ones, where substance has been sacrificed for style. It's early days as yet though, and things can only get better as more people become aware of this publication and want to add it to their credit list.

So, onward and upward.

Murky Depths edited by Terry Martin. Comic book size, 84pp, UK£6.99 or £24/4 (for other countries and payment options see website).

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