Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell – ‘Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.’

Back at the end of April the Guardian ran an experiment to see what would happen if real writers were involved with comics, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect, ranging as they did from the mediocre (Dave “David” Eggers’ ponderous buffalo comic) to the merely gorgeous (Frazer Irving’s whatever the hell it was that Frazer Irving drew) by way of the profoundly functional (Dave Gibbons and Gillian Flynn’s clockwork deconstruction of vigilantism).

As a showcase for a variety of semi-respectable comics art styles it was a success, but as a pop culture moment it lacked a sense of novelty or excitement.

The exception was Thursdays, Six to Eight pm, a modern romance comic with a faint hint of the gothic to it.  A man and woman are in love and they get married, but she can’t stop worrying about why he wants two hours to himself every Thursday night.  For his part, he keeps quiet about the details, so Ellen does what we all do unless we’re sinister enough to work for the NSA already: she calls in some spies.

The result of a long-distance collaboration between Audrey Niffinegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and Eddie Campbell (all the best comics), this strip stood out from the others by virtue of the fact that both of the involved parties contributed to the art. Well, according to the contents page Dave “Dave” Eggers was “collaborating with himself” but this does no damage to my argument: the lines on Eggers’ pages were the work of only one artist, while the Campbell/Niffenegger strip bears the mark of two “primary” artists.

According to Niffeneger’s write-up, she drew the Charles – the guy doing the proposal in the above panel – and the two spies his wife hires to investigate him, while Campbell drew Ellen, the suspicious wife and protagonist on the right hand side of the same frame.

Even though Campbell apparently modified Niffenegger’s line work to make it look of a piece with his own, my eyes mostly confirms that these characters are not made out of the same materials.  This plays into a classic romantic conceit, suggesting as it does that while these two characters may share their lives with each other they’ll always be fundamentally distant.  Charles’ thin, defiantly two-dimensional features provide an impermeable barrier between the contents of his mind and the blown out, fuzzy world he lives in with Ellen – being an Eddie Campbell character, she is made out of the same fuzz and clutter as everything else.

The fact that Campbell was also responsible for the lettering and page layouts will be immediately obvious to anyone who is familiar with his autobiographical comics.

This comment from Niffenegger struck me so forcefully that it left me with a mental scar I’d now swear I was born with:

Eddie always begins with the lettering, so there was an early stage of panels and lettering but no images, which I found intriguing. He letters by hand, and already the pages looked like a true Eddie Campbell comic.

More than any other comics artist I can think of, Campbell makes a casual mockery of the idea that the manner in which comics combine words and pictures needs to be policed to maintain the purity of the form.  While works such as Bacchus and From Hell shows that Campbell is perfectly comfortable telling a story visually, in a comic like Alec - how to be an artist the continuity of the narrative can be found in the prose, with the visuals reacting to and reiterating the words in exactly the way we’re told they shouldn’t.

More modern comics magic after the cut.

Read some thoughts on what David Lynch and American movies of the 90s have to do with the return of Stray Bullets after the cut!

Cerebus Ten Years On

March 31st, 2014

“What do you think he’ll do now, then?”
“Kill himself, I suppose”.

Those were the words I heard, between the man behind the counter who was ignoring me, and the customer leaning on that counter, when I went to Forbidden Planet ten years ago to purchase my first Cerebus trade, High Society, after reading good things about it in Neil Gaiman’s Adventures In The Dream Trade and… strange things about it on Andrew Rilstone’s website. I didn’t realise at the time, but they were talking about Dave Sim, the writer, artist, letterer, and publisher of the comic I was buying, who had just released the 300th and final issue of Cerebus, cover-dated March 2004.

That is the kind of coincidence upon which Sim, who is thankfully still alive and well, would build a whole cosmology. He’s not a man who believes in coincidence. It may, in fact, be the only thing in which he doesn’t believe.

There are only two opinions anyone holds about Sim’s magnum opus. Either they think it’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, or they haven’t read it.

This is literally true. But it’s not as uncritical an endorsement as it may sound. Put simply, Cerebus is a work that does everything it can to put readers off, so the only people who’ve managed to get to the end of the story (which takes place over the whole three hundred issues) are those who are predisposed to like it.

There are many reasons for this. One is the sheer daunting size of the thing. It’s six thousand pages of comics, all telling a single story. That’s a *massive* work. That’s Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four, plus Sandman, plus Watchmen, plus Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, plus From Hell, plus all the Alec comics. It’s the length of every Judge Dredd strip in 2000AD up to about 1997. And it’s all the work of two men — Dave Sim doing pencils, inks, writing, lettering and publishing, with, for the last 225 issues, background artist Gerhard (who draws possibly the most exquisitely detailed photorealistic line art in comics history).

On the other hand, it’s less than six months’ current output of DC superhero titles. So, you know, it’s not that much more of a commitment than many comics fans are willing to make.

The second and third problems are really the same problem. It’s a man’s entire life’s work (Sim has since done 26 issues of Glamourpuss, a short work of graphic non-fiction called Judenhaas, a couple of jam strips and some covers for IDW, but Cerebus is what he devoted his life to), but it’s one story. Reading it is rather like being told one has to listen to all the Beatles’ records in order, from the very first recording of John singing Puttin’ On The Style at a village fete in 1957, through all the stuff on the Anthologies as well as the released records, through to Paul, George and Ringo recording I Me Mine in 1970. Fascinating, no doubt, but one would quickly want to just skip to Revolver and leave the recordings made in Paul’s room for another day.

The first few issues of Cerebus are painfully amateurish — they look like the kind of stuff that kid in your class at school who was quite good at drawing and really liked Dungeons & Dragons would draw, because that is to all intents and purposes what Sim was at that stage. But they’re part of the story and you’re meant to have paid attention, because Sim is going to expect you to *remember* in issue 151 that in issue 4 Cerebus picked up a gem but later dropped it into a sewer. So there’s a tendency to just bounce off before you get to the good stuff.

Then there’s the fact that no two Cerebus storylines are anything alike. It contains parodies of Spawn and Preacher, a potted biography of the Three Stooges, potshots against The Comics Journal, fantasy sequences with Woody Allen appearing in Bergman films, and a close, line by line, reading of the first five books of the King James Version of the Bible. And that’s all just in one of the sixteen books. If you like one aspect of Cerebus that’s no guarantee you’ll like the rest.

The way I recommend people approach Cerebus is one I got from Andrew Rilstone — start at the beginning, and keep reading until you hit two volumes in a row you don’t like. Once you hit two you dislike, you’ll probably not like any more. But if you just hit one, the next one might be different.

If you don’t like the love-triangle domestic drama you might like the non-fiction account of the last days of Oscar Wilde’s life. If you don’t like the barbarian story with a funny animal protagonist you might like the Marx Brothers pastiche political satire. If you don’t like the blokey comedy set in a bar where 60s pop icons mix with 90s indie comic characters, you might like the three-hander about the schizophrenic having religious visions. If you don’t like the vicious parody of Sandman you might like the long diatribe about how women are evil leech-like creatures who exist only to sap all the creativity from men and leave them hollow husks…

Ah.

Yes.

Here we get to the third, and biggest, obstacle to people wanting to read Cerebus. Sim himself.

The usual one-word summary of Sim is “misogynist”, but that’s not strictly true. He *was* a misogynist, for a while, in the early 90s, but his views are now far, far stranger than that. Put simply, he believes that all women, all LGBT people, anyone who holds any post-Enlightenment views whatsoever, people like Wahabist Muslims who hold the wrong *pre*-Enlightenment views, his parents, his sister, the Canadian government and press, the comic industry, atheists, liberals, socialists, and all major Christian denominations, are all, mostly consciously, working for an evil trans* demiurge called YooHWHoo, who lives in the centre of the earth and who caused the 2004 tsunami because she was angry that Sim had revealed the truth about this in his comic.

He also believes that he, and he alone, can see the true message in the Bible and Koran, from which he has created his own syncretic religion, and that women were psychically spying on him when he masturbated.

He is, in short, quite obviously mentally ill, and while that illness initially seemed to fixate on women, it has widened to encompass everyone in the world who isn’t named David Victor Sim.

(Oddly, Sim seems quite friendly with all these groups of people who he thinks are working for the most evil being in the universe. He’s said that other people’s immortal souls are their own business, and is quite happy to consort with the evil creativity-sucking infidels).

And this can definitely put people off from reading Cerebus — understandably so. Had I known about Sim’s views before starting to read it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But I did, and ten years later it’s still one of those works that make up a large chunk of my mental architecture, whether in little ways like additions to my stock of phrases (“your other left, most holy”, “you can get what you want and still not be happy”, “Capostrophe! Calumnity! Catachresisclysm!”, “”One less mouth to feed is one less mouth to feed”, “Mind your manners, son! I’ve got a tall pointy hat! Status, boy! You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with status!”) or in larger ways (I can honestly say that reading Jaka’s Story did more to make me something approaching an emotionally mature adult than any single other experience I’ve ever had).

So over the next few months, I’m going to look at each volume in turn, and try to persuade you of the opinion I hold, the one that everyone who’s read the whole of Cerebus holds. On the way, we’ll take a lot of digressions — we’ll talk about comic creators’ rights, the black and white boom of the 80s, 1930s comedians, an unfinished Beach Boys album, Warner Brothers cartoons, Philip K Dick and more.

Or at least, that’s the plan. No plan survives contact with the enemy. After all, when Dave Sim got the plan for the 300-issue Cerebus story, he was a self-described atheist feminist. But then, as Suenteus Po said, “The more worthwhile the Road, the more seductive will be those paths divergent from it.”

Harvey Pekar’s and Joseph Remnant – Cleveland

It’s hard to think of this as anything other than epitaph, given its status as a posthumous release, but the question remains, is this a memorial for the man or the city he lived in?  Neither, as it happens - Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a book full of and about life, with both the city and its people being given ample space to breath on every page.

Pekar’s Cleveland has traditionally been an overbearingly crowded place, with even the most casual walks around town populated with an abundance of word balloons, thought bubbles and interjecting faces that threatened to black out the sky.  That abundance of words and opinions is still present in this book, but even when the text is at its densest it’s always carefully contained at the top of the panel, leaving the environments depicted underneath gloriously un-squashed.

The city and denizens of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland are every bit as rich with opinion and story here as they ever were, but I can imagine some people finding the first half of the book a little bit plain, filled as it is with broad historical overview rather than the crooked, close quarters detail at which Pekar has always excelled.  Pekar’s generosity and his sense of interest manifest themselves differently in the first stretch of this narrative, where they are implicit in the amount of space city and artist are given to establish themselves in concert with each other.

Remnant  – his name far too apt for the job - renders Cleveland with an adherence to architectural detail that echoes the work of Eddie Campbell and his assistants in From Hell:

Here, as in that great book, buildings have a life of their own on the page – part of the environment Pekar and co exist in, but rendered with a solidity that rises above mere background detail:

Let us think of these places as being real; perhaps they are!  Remnant’s background players have a similarly suggestive definition to them.  Sometimes they add a lot to a simple scene – take the bit players in these panels for example:

 

The guy in the front of the first panel looks like he wants to cudgel himself to death rather than keep on contributing to Cleveland’s economic well-being, while the guy behind the ballot box in the second frame doesn’t look best pleased to feature in this particular historic moment.

Pekar’s history of Cleveland takes up the first forty or so pages, and while it draws a generally progresses in a straight line it does jump back and forth a bit on its way to the present. This detailed tour through the city would be enough to make Cleveland a quiet pleasure, but things gets a lot louder when Pekar arrives on page 42, breaking the story in half as he does so.

From this point onward, the reader is in the more familiar position, walking and talking with Harvey as he makes his way through the city he lives in:

It’s not all entirely straightforward though - certain details and anecdotes repeat themselves, sometimes with new details sometimes almost verbatim, forcing to reader to ponder whether these are stylistic choices or examples of wonky editing.

Take the story about how John T. Zubal’s used bookstore used to be a Hostess Bakery for example. On page 51 we’re told that “Even now, years after John acquired it, it’s possible to eat the Twinkie filling safely.  It was all chemicals and didn’t deteriorate.”  This story recurs again 44 pages later, prompted by its appearence on a TV show hosted by Antony Bourdain.  On this occasion we’re told that the Twikie filling “had been there 10 or 15 years, but the the stuff was all chemicals and didn’t rot after all that time.  It was still edible, and Bourdain tasted it on the show.”

Glitches like this make it clear that the history you’re reading the by-product of a slightly dysfunctional, human memory.  The title says it all, I guess – this is Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and its most striking details and points of interest are therefore likely to be the ones that kept Harvey coming back after all those years.

Reading through the book again, I’m struck by the way that Pekar’s trademark hunched stride seems to be shared by all of the denizens of his Cleveland.  More than his particular outlook on life, with Remnant’s help Pekar gives everyone in this book – even the baseball stars – something of his physical manner:

It’s no wonder the people of this town stoop so much, given the amount of history that’s piled up on them – history that is here present in almost every panel in the form of Pekar’s narration.  The buildings may stand un-bothered by the running commentary, but Remnant’s human characters show evidence of this strange gravity in their every motion.

Sometimes it’s as though the barely contained agitation of Robert Crumb’s illustrations has been pushed downward into the characters’ feet by the weight of Pekar’s words:

Rather than adding up to a portrait of a defeated man or a defeated city, however, this adds to the sense of defiance that runs through the book.  Pekar is plenty familiar with the many economic and social problems that have effected in the city, and he’s careful to qualify his more optimistic impulses while filling the reader in on these issues, but that optimism is still there.  It’s not for nothing that the book open’s with Pekar telling the reader that he’s “had plenty of good days.”

The book ends on a vision of a Cleveland free of people, free of Pekar, free of life:

The trick is to remember that they’re not in here for a reason.  They’re out there, in the world, struggling against the weight of their own stories one footstep at a time.

Read more reviews of comics by Moogs Kewell, Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Ulli Lust after the cut!

Was There Blood on the Sheets?

February 28th, 2014

(This article was originally posted to Vibrational Match on Saturday 29 August 2009)

The first thing I think of whenever I see the cover for Darwyn Cooke‘s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter

…is this page from Frank Miller, David Mazzuchelli and Richmond Lewis’ Batman – Year One:

Wanna know why? Click here to find out!

Edney and the Sheep

February 27th, 2014

A few years ago I drew a little strip for no discernible audience. Thought I’d put it here. Click on the images to enlarge them. Cheers.

CLICK HERE IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ IT!

Now available:

C&B004

28 b+w pages, colour cover

After it’s debut at this year’s Thought Bubble, Cindy & Biscuit no.4 is finally available. 28 pages, comprised of all of the Cindy & Biscuit one-pagers, Cindy & Biscuit and Mr Andrews, as well as the brand new strip ‘Cindy & Biscuit in Abominable’.

I’m super proud of this work – it’s the densest, most formally playful work I’ve ever done, but still includes plenty of hitting and smashing. Don’t forget that Cindy & Biscuit were also nominated for Best Young Person’s Comic at this year’s British Comic Awards!

You can buy them right here, or head over to the Milk The Cat Shop

UK & Europe- £2.50 ( + £1.50 p&p)

CLICK HERE TO BUY

US & International – £2.50 (+ £2.00 p&p)

CLICK HERE TO BUY

Special offer: Buy all 4 Cindy & Biscuit comics for £11.00!

UK & Europe- £11.00 ( + £3.00 p&p)

CLICK HERE TO BUY

US & International - £11.00 ( + £4.50 p&p)

CLICK HERE TO BUY

Check out some sample images after the break:

Read the rest of this entry »

One of the strange blessings of the internet is its ability to serve as an external memory system.  Thoughts that would once have been lost to time if they were even lucky enough to have made it out of your head are now preserved for an indefinite eternity in places over which you have little to no control.

For example, if I want to know how I felt about Brendan McCarthy’s Doctor Strange/Spider-Man comic Fever after the first issue came out in 2010, a quick google search will turn up this flouncing defense of the book, written in response to a review by Sean Collins:

Say it Vibrational Match style: Where you see “inert physicality”, I see a Spider-Man who’s all harsh angles and elbows being squashed, flattened out, and a Doc Strange who’s at home with the harsh geometrics McCarthy conjures up.

Where you read flat pastiche, I read Spider-Man as a jerk who gets shut the hell up by the story (his words like jutting elbows –> drooping limbs), and Doc Strange as a badass who can turn exposition into information with the right gestures (verbal, physical).

Also: the mystic spider dialogue is genuinely fucking creepy, for reals, when combined with the images, yes?

In lesser hands this would be mere set-up, but this issue had a whole lot of “?something else?” working for it — that creepy wee arachnid bastard, crawling up the Vulture’s back, fr’instance!  Like something from Seven Soldiers, only (yes!) far more unsettling.

I saw the biggest, most bulbous-assed spider of the year last night, sitting on my windowsill. I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to these wee beasties, but last night, after having read Fever? I tell you, I wanted to kiss the wee fucker!

The “hey, I’m a black guy!” dialogue was a bit cringey though, pastiche or no.

Looking at the book this week, I find myself agreeing with every point but the last one.

It’s not that I don’t find the dialogue McCarthy gave to the African-American comedy character cringe-inducing anymore – I do! – but that Brendan McCarthy’s recent Facebook comments on race make me feel ashamed the structure supporting that final sentence.

Sure, I agreed with Sean Collins’ assessment of the embarrassing nature of McCarthy’s throwback characterisation, but I did so in a tossed off, casual way, after five paragraphs of flame flecked enthusiasm. The implicit message being that everyone should just chill out about this racist after taste and enjoy the “septic salsa” of the comic itself.

In 2010, the story of McCarthy was that he was that of the hero freshly returned from the wasteland, ready to save the kingdom from itself.  His new work confirmed his status as a trinity of psych-pop ghosts, the faces of Brit comics past, present and future combined.  What interest could a couple of dodgy panels hold against all that?  Solo #12 remains McCarthy’s late period masterpiece, but even in lesser books like Fever there are moments of astonishing beauty.  The scene in the second issue where Spider-Man steps through a portal and into a crunchy insect killing field still burns bright in the light of its own toxic logic:

 

Who could argue against that sort of artistic firepower? Not me back in 2010, apparently. Click here to see how I get on in 2013!

CINDY & BISCUIT in ‘PESTS’

October 8th, 2013

Here’s a brand new Cindy & Biscuit strip for you. I’m doing these on a semi-regular basis here on Mindless Ones. Check them out here.

Also, Cindy & Biscuit no.3 has been nominated for the Best Young People’s Comic award in the British Comics Awards, amongst some very talented company. I am, needless to say, extremely chuffed. Cross your fingers, toes and everything else people…

Also, also…don’t forget to get yourself a copy of the brand new 56 page  Cindy & Biscuit no.3 from my shop at Milk The Cat. You can pick up my other comics while you’re there.

 

Here’s a brand new Cindy & Biscuit strip for you. I’m doing these on a semi-regular basis here on Mindless Ones. Check them out here.

Also, don’t forget to get yourself a copy of the brand new 56 page  Cindy & Biscuit no.3 from my shop at Milk The Cat. You can pick up my other comics while you’re there.