November 12th, 2015
The following post was written as a response to The London Graphic Novel Network’s discussion of From Hell.
when I read [Moore's] stuff I get the feeling is that nothing has been lead to chance and everything is designed for very definite and exact reasons you know? If other comics are a little jelly and playful and “make your own mind up!” – Alan Moore in a labyrinth of cold hard steel: arranged in such a way that the only possible stance you’ll allowed is that of a mouse – desperately trying to find its way to the piece of cheese at the end.
And here’s my response:
Joel, the way you describe Alan Moore’s work there makes it sound hugely unappealing. I don’t think your account of how his art works is fundamentally untrue, mind, but it makes his work sound awful, tyrannical even – “Imagine being held in the iron grip of The World’s Mightiest Beard… FOREVER!”
And yet… the sense of total control is undeniably part of Moore’s appeal, always has been. It’s there in the famous grids of repeating imagery in Watchmen, in From Hell’s attempts to draw together an occult history of murder, in Promethea’s attempt to overlay scientific theories on Judeo-Christian creation myths. It’s even in the carefully synthesised pulp that fuels relatively Thrill Powered works like V for Vendetta and Halo Jones and (why not?!) Crossed 100.
It’s also the aspect that can curdle his attempts at humour, the thing that sometimes makes his self-consciously light and playful comics feel like anything but, the… oh shit, is this why he always crams those bloody songs into his comics? Is it the final test of his mastery, the compunction to try and make you hear music in a comic? Will he manage it one day?
Maybe. Or maybe he just read too much Pynchon and smoked a little too much Tolkien before going to bed last night.
February 19th, 2015
February 16th, 2015
SARAH HORROCKS – BRUISE (self-published, 2014)
From the cool blue risotone colour to the grey static hiss of the prose, Bruise is heavy on the cyberpunk stylings:
The comic itself follows up on that initial promise, coming on almost like a young William Gibson who’s got too lost in the poetry of his own thoughts to ever force them to fit a form as traditionally satisfying as a “novel”. Actually, scrap that “almost” and focus on the real novelty here, achieved through jagged collage of familiar tropes. Include the squinting cool of the front cover and the miraculous map of the back (as you must) in the run time and you’ve got one hell of a joyride here:
December 10th, 2014
Frank Quitely, Grant Morrison and Nathan Fairbairn – Multiversity: Pax Americana #1
It’s here that our story begins: in pieces. Many, many authors have shot at this target and missed, preferring not to recognize that in truth this is what we really know, and what we really believe, about the forces that create and shape our lives — preferring not to see that what science and philosophy describe is the branch from which our lives’ dramas depend, and not just convenient intellectual set-dressing for them.
We should remember that murder mysteries are always just local expressions, of a grander philosophical struggle — someone is killing capes, and who’s next? Well, after the scientists the answer is, we are: as the stunning profusion of interlinked symbols that fills Pax Americana’s pages ceaselessly intimates to us the unavoidability of that final, bitter realization of entropy. War, and death, and chaos…
…Or, what is perhaps worse: not chaos, at all, but order.
An implacable order, that we can’t resist. A pattern we’re trapped in, that we can’t see.
December 4th, 2014
There comes a point in every Mindless gathering where the correct amount of alcohol has finally been consumed for the conversation to turn to Final Crisis, with a special focus on the hastily squandered horror of the fifth issue. Thankfully, we’ve started to bring friends along to help identify the reason for this boozy recurrence:
Yes, that’s right – the crushing banality of the morning aftermath is rank rotten enough to haunt its own bacchanalian origins, and when it does so it wears Darkseid’s face. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The spirit of this wretched, queasy moment inevitably seeps into the comics I buy at Thought Bubble when I try to read them on the train home. This petty, remorse-tinged meanness tried to curdle my appreciation of the Decadence comics I brought home with me last year, but it struggled to find shelter in their sparsely populated mindscapes. The darkness found a more suitable hiding place in Spandex, Martin Eden’s LGBT-friendly, Brighton based superhero strip.
Like his previous serial adventure The O-Men, Spandex mixes everyday drama and garish unreality with ease. Brother Bobsy mentioned Paul Grist as an obvious reference point when he discussed the collected Spandex on SILENCE! and there’s definitely something to that: like Jack Staff or Mud Man, Spandex is humorous without ever seeming parodic, and it manages to generate a sense of low-budget romance from its seaside drama. The debt to the X-Men is also undeniable, both in Eden’s commitment to chronicling the adventures of a group of emotionally combustible super-friends, and in his clean, brightly coloured artwork:
November 25th, 2014
NEW IN STORE at MILK THE CAT!
CINDY & BISCUIT vol 1: WE LOVE TROUBLE
Collects CINDY & BISCUIT issues 1-4, and features 2 new stories ‘Long Hot Summer’ and ‘Dinner For Three’, plus the never re-printed full colour strip ‘What We Did At The Weekend’.
184 pages, 16 full colour. Full colour cover, squarebound. First printing limited to 100 copies.
“Heartwarming. Like a flamethrower” according to Kieron Gillen
“I think I may be slightly in love with Cindy & Biscuit” said Si Spurrier
“Cindy & Biscuit is great stuff” is the opinion of Brandon Graham
So what are you waiting for? Get buying!
Click HERE to buy a copy.
May 30th, 2014
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.
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…
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.”
March 5th, 2014
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.