Double review: Seeds & Strange Skies by Iqbal Ali

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Cover art by Wendy Aguilar, very evocative of D'Israeli's work on Stickleback (2000ad)

I’ve been a fan of indie comics for some time now and it’s always fun discovering new writers and artists in the medium. But the reason why my discovery of Iqbal Ali’s work was all the more special was the fact that he was from a minority community like my self, what’s more, his stories centred around tales of the unexpected and macabre, think of the Twillight Zone, with a smidgen  of Alfred Hitchcock and H.P Lovecraft and you’re right about there.

The first of his books which I read was Seeds. The story is set in Bangladesh, and we open with a terrific few panels showing what looks like a land mass surrounded by the sea. But as we close in a hand reaches in and grabs the ‘land’, after which we realise it’s not land but a body being pulled out of the river.

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The opening panels for 'Seeds'

We see an elderly man called Salim, narrating a story about his childhood. How he and his friend, Ahmed used to come and play in one the caves within the same locality. There is deep sadness in his eyes, it’s as if he is carrying a burden too hard to bear. Could it be related to the cave? And who or what is the fearful apparition which both friends encounter inside said cave? This starts a story where we delve deeper into a troubled man’s psyche, and start to uncover the secrets of the cave, the entity, and importantly, someone close to him.

The last panel is not only chilling in its depiction,  but makes us realise how insignificant we all may be in the bigger scheme of things.

Iqbal’s work is hugely engaging, his language is easy to grasp, and I feel this book would be great for younger readers too. And his artwork is excellent, along with his panel set ups. The cover (by Wendy Aguilar) is eye grabbing, and stylistically, is very evocative of D’Israeli’s work on Stickleback (for 2000ad).

Being a fan of horror and mystery, I really enjoyed this story. It immediately called to mind the work of H.P Lovecraft whose influence can be felt especially towards the end. The feeling of foreboding, and fear of the unexpected is realised not only by Iqbal’s writing, but his artwork too. This book reminded me of the “Terror Tales” and ”Creepy presents” which I  enjoy reading in comics such as 2000ad and Dark Horse, respectively.  In fact, I remember writing on the 2000ad forum once about my desire to see a Terror Tale set in a far off place such as Bangladesh or India, because there is a wealth of stories and folklore which can be mined from such places. So how refreshing is it then, to come across a title such as this one, which is set in such a place?

I wish we can see more stories similar to this in the future!

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Cover art by Iqbal Ali and Dima Blue

Next up is the book Strange Skies. This is a more longer story, coming at a whopping 164 pages. The immediate thought that one conjures up when seeing the cover, is The Twilight Zone, which is no surprise seeing as Iqbal drew inspiration from the show, as well as the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

The story centres around a plane full of people, passengers and crew alike, who wake up under strange circumstances to find that the plane is on an different trajectory, approaching what looks like a storm, albeit with strange cloud formations. Naturally everyone concerned is worried by the events which are unfolding before their eyes. What is going on? What is happening outside the plane? Who is this strange ‘Marshall’ guy? What has become of the pilots? And most importantly,  where have all the people’s shoes disappeared to?

These are just some of the things troubling the people on board. Our protagonist is a stewardess, Catherine, who wakes up unconscious, unable to recall what has transpired. We meet the Air Marshall, who is at first suspected for being the cause behind the hysteria sweeping the plane. And then we meet Catherine ‘ s colleague and partner, Carl, who we take an immediate dislike to. The characterisation is very good indeed, wherein we get a feeling of who each person is and their weakness,  and fears. There’s a lot of paranoia especially from the crew,  murmurs of terrorist attacks are heard. And the Air Marshall conceals a secret which he is too scared to reveal. And then of course,  we have the nature of the weird events unfolding outside. I will not spoil it, but let me just say, the final reveal is simply mind blowing! 

There is a superb depiction by Iqbal of someone or something (I will not say which!) That immediately evoked a panel from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s ‘From Hell’, where we see Sir William Gull looking up at the skies as a colossus figure looms down at him. Upon talking with Iqbal about these particular panels, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had drawn inspiration from Moore’s book! The story also reminded me of an episode of Doctor Who; “Midnight”, where David Tennant’s Doctor is trapped inside a space craft with passengers and crew on an alien world, while a dangerous entity waiting outside, trying to get in. The paranoia fuelled by their fear is terrifying, and I felt the same with this story here as well.

Iqbal’s black and white artwork is very clear, and uncluttered.  His style here reminds me of one of my favourite artists, Steve Yeowell  (whose work on Red Seas still remains my favourite). The grayscaling  is also done to great effect, especially in the latter half and the final reveal.  J.M Ken Niro‘s work on ‘I Kill Giants’ also came to my mind when I saw Iqbal’s terrific work.

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Iqbal's black and white artwork recalls the work of Steve Yeowell

If I did have any criticisms, it would be few and far between. The story seemed to centre more around the crew members and Air Marshall. And although we do have a passenger who plays a part, I felt we could’ve maybe had more from their points of view. But it is understandable to limit the characters in a stand alone book or mini series. And the only weak character in the story I found, was Carl, who seemed unlikeable from the start. There was a point where we get the feeling that he may have more knowledge about the events than we are lead to believe, but we do not follow up on that. But like I said, these are just minor quibbles.

On the whole, Strange Skies is a terrific page turner. The set up is excellent and the pay off is well worth the ride!

I can’t wait to see what Iqbal has in store for us next!

Seeds and Strange Skies are both  available to download from comixology (click on the title)

Or alternatively, direct from Iqbal’s Amazon page.

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