Saturday, 31 March 2007

Doctor Who: The Comics of Doom

Doctor Who returns to BBC1 tonight, for the third series since the programme was revived, the twenty-ninth in total.

If that number impresses, so does the longevity of the official comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine (formerly Doctor Who Monthly, and before that Doctor Who Weekly), which will notch up 28 consecutive years of publication this October. That’s on top of the almost 15-year run of Doctor Who comic strips in various Polystyle Publications titles (TV Comic, Countdown and TV Action), starting in 1964, and the sporadic appearance over the last 40-odd years of comic strips in annuals published by World Distributors, Marvel, Panini and the BBC.

There are currently three official Doctor Who comic strips running – in Panini’s Doctor Who Magazine, in the BBC’s own Doctor Who Adventures and in GE Fabbri’s Doctor Who Battles In Time, a magazine tied-in to the collectable card game.

All three strips have responded to the exuberant tone of the new TV series by throwing in as much wackiness as possible. But they have tended to neglect the accompanying darkness and horror. Doctor Who is probably the most joyful programme on television, but it achieves that by starkly contrasting its embrace of life with what is possibly the highest body count of any TV series ever. And perhaps the merely dead are better off than those who have been possessed, chopped up to repair spaceships, or “upgraded” into Cybermen.

The strip in Doctor Who Magazine tends to have rather stolid artwork, usually by Mike Collins, but most recently by Martin Geraghty. This is perhaps unsurprising. The strip takes up only 10 pages in a 68 page magazine sold more to fans of Doctor Who than to fans of comic strips. They are likely to value fidelity to the surface appearance of the programme above any attempt to use expressive techniques to try to capture its tone.

Doctor Who Adventures is aimed at younger children. John Ross’s art, like that in many modern children’s comics, is clear, bright, uncluttered and unshaded. It is much more lively than the art in Doctor Who Magazine, but, like the scripts, it aims only to capture the light of Doctor Who, not the shade.

I haven’t seen much of Doctor Who Battles in Time. The short cartoon strips seem to aim at a similar tone to those in Doctor Who Adventures, but the ones I have seen are less accomplished. No penciller is credited for the current story.

There’s no reason why at least some of these strips shouldn’t continue for years to come. There’s no sign of a Torchwood strip, and we’ll have to see what happens to The Sarah Jane Adventures. In the meantime, a little more adventurousness in the Doctor Who comics wouldn’t come amiss.

Panels (from top):

Doctor Who “The Warkeeper’s Crown” Part Three, by Alan Barnes (story), Martin Geraghty (pencils), David A Roach (inks), James Offredi (colours), Roger Langridge (lettering), Hickman & Gray (editors), Doctor Who Magazine issue 380, Panini, 28 March 2007

Doctor Who “The Snag Finders” Part One, by Trevor Baxendale (script), John Ross (art), Alan Craddock (colours) and Paul Vyse (letters), Doctor Who Adventures issue 26, BBC, 29 March – 14 April 2007

Doctor Who “Beneath The Skin”, written by Steve Cole, inks by Lee Sullivan, colours by Alan Craddock (no penciller, letterer or editor credited), Doctor Who Battles In Time issue 12, GE Fabbri, 2007

Friday, 30 March 2007

Review: The Spirit 1-4

The Spirit issue 1: “Ice Ginger Coffee” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters), Scott Dunbier (editor), 22 pages of strip, DC Comics, February 2007, US$2.99

The Spirit issue 2: “The Maneater” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters), Scott Dunbier (editor), 22 pages of strip, DC Comics, March 2007, US$2.99

The Spirit issue 3: “Resurrection” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters), Scott Dunbier (editor), 22 pages of strip, DC Comics, April 2007, US$2.99

The Spirit issue 4: “Hard Like Satin” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters), Scott Dunbier (editor), 22 pages of strip, DC Comics, May 2007, US$2.99

If it wasn’t called The Spirit, I’d like it even more.

Qualms about Hussein Hussein apart, Darwyn Cooke’s revived version of The Spirit is an expertly crafted series of light adventure stories, mixing humour, thrills and quirky characterisation. Its writing is surefooted, amusing and well-paced, and its artwork serves the stories perfectly: technically competent, expressive and smoothly-flowing. More comics should be like this.

But The Spirit was a strange candidate for revival for any reason other than protecting a trademark. There is nothing compelling or striking about the lead character. As the script for Cooke’s first issue put it, he is “a big blue average”, brave, handsome, affable – but not very interesting. To be sure, well-adjusted heroes are a rarity in American comics, but there is nothing here to make an author declare, “I must make stories about this character”.

The same is true of the other elements of the strip. Central City is an undistinguished urban space. The supporting characters are colourful, but Cooke has chosen to change them significantly. P’Gell has lost her casual amorality to become a woman with a committed and tragic past; Silk Satin has lost her criminal background, family complications and British nationality to become a professional CIA agent. They might as well be new characters – well-drawn, entertaining characters, but in no need of those old names.

What was unique and compelling about The Spirit was not its component parts, but the way that Will Eisner used them. It may seem strange to emphasise the importance of Eisner personally, when The Spirit was the product of a whole studio. But look at how the strip read when Eisner was not paying attention – while he was away on military service in World War 2, or when he left the writing to Jules Feiffer and the art to Wallace Wood in 1952. It is almost a different series altogether. Even if he was just overseeing scripts and polishing art, Eisner’s influence completely dominated The Spirit in its heyday.

That heyday certainly saw a lot of light-hearted adventure stories in the Cooke mould. But it also emphasised two characteristics of Eisner’s work throughout his career: a compulsion to develop new techniques and to push the boundaries of his craft; and a fascination with the lives of ordinary men in the street, and how destiny, fate or chance can bring catastrophe to them. Both characteristics are on display in these opening pages of “The Fly”:

In contrast, Cooke has so far concentrated on his lead adventurers, with little room for bystanders. Furthermore, his strip reads like the work of a master craftsman working within the limits he has already staked out for himself.

The main piece of experimentation has been Cooke’s use of double-pages splashes. For the most part, these have not been successful: neither the images themselves nor their place in the story have justified their size. An exception is the splash for issue 4, which conveys something of the environment in which Satin and the Spirit have found themselves.

Otherwise, Cooke has confined himself to the odd little trick like this multiple image of Dolan from issue 1 …

… or these flashback images from issue 2 …

..and issue 3.

The issue 3 flashbacks are a good example of Cooke working within his comfort zone. The use of full page width panels and geometric colour blocks (derived from modernist advertising graphics of the 1950s and 1960s) serves to differentiate the flashback sequences from the present day scenes. But Cooke had already used both techniques in The New Frontier and his issue of Solo.

Still, it is perhaps better that Cooke makes The Spirit his own than that he should fall victim to the self-conscious pastiche that often results when comics creators try to be Eisnerish. Take this example from Alan Moore and Rick Veitch’s Greyshirt.

It is clever and effective, but also forced and arch.

There is, of course, one other big difference between Eisner’s Spirit and Cooke’s. In four months, Cooke has produced four 22-page stories. Over the same period, Eisner would have produced seventeen or eighteen 7-page stories, giving him much more scope to play with new ideas. Perhaps, as he gets into his stride, Cooke will start stretching his muscles. I certainly intend to hang around long enough to find out.

Panels from the issues under review, plus:

The Spirit “The Fly” by Will Eisner, The Spirit section for 10 March 1946, reprinted in The Spirit Archives volume 12, DC Comics, 2003

Greyshirt “How Things Work Out”, by Alan Moore (script), Rick Veitch (art), Todd Klein (letters), David Baron (colours), Scott Dunbier (editor), Alan Moore’s Tomorrow Stories issue 2, 1999, reprinted in Alan Moore’s Tomorrow Stories Collected Edition book 1, America’s Best Comics, 2002

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Pickings from Previews

The End of the World is Nigh
In the TV series Whoops Apocalypse, the new British Prime Minister, Kevin Pork, bases his defence policy on his belief that he is Superman. This is part of the chain of events that leads to global nuclear holocaust.

So it’s a little worrying that DC Comics is bringing out a Superman doll that looks like Gordon Brown.

It seems that Norm Breyfogle is, after all, working on comics. He’s listed as one of the creators of the new Guardian Line range of Christian super-hero comics from Urban Ministries Incorporated.

A Thousand Pardons, Mist’ Spirit Boss

A rightly-praised feature of Darwyn Cooke’s revival of The Spirit has been his rehabilitation of Ebony White. In his later life, Will Eisner regretted that, when he created Ebony in 1940, he conformed to the contemporary stereotypes established by Stepin Fetchit and Amos & Andy. In appearance, voice and disposition, Ebony represented the racial prejudices of his age.

Of course, Ebony had hidden depths, and frequently proved himself both resourceful and invaluable to the Spirit. But even so, when we read reprints of the original Spirit sections, we have to make embarrassed allowances for the times in which they were produced.

Cooke’s version of Ebony is drawn in the same style as the Spirit himself, with no racial caricature. His speech patterns are much the same as anyone else in Central City, and his relationship with the Spirit is one of easy familiarity, not subservience.

And so, our tolerant, inclusive society progresses. It is no longer acceptable to present members of ethnic minorities as stereotypical caricatures, as representatives of popular beliefs about their race, rather than as individuals. Comic books treat everyone as worthy of respect.

Except Arabs.

Meet Hussein Hussein …

Of course, Hussein has hidden depths, and has proved himself resourceful and … But we’ve been down this road before, haven’t we?

Panels from:
The Spirit “The Black Queen” by Will Eisner, The Spirit section for 16 June 1940, reprinted in The Spirit Archives Volume 1, DC Comics, 2000

The Spirit “The Maneater” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters) and Scott Dunbier (editor), The Spirit issue 2, DC Comics, March 2007

The Spirit “Hard Like Satin” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared Fletcher (letters) and Scott Dunbier (editor), The Spirit issue 4, DC Comics, May 2007

Wednesday, 28 March 2007


In their quest to retain viewers’ interest, producers of historical documentaries have increasingly turned to the bastard genre of the drama-doc. Neither full-fledged historical drama, which viewers know to treat as possible fiction, nor sober account of the sifting, weighing and analysis of evidence, drama-docs’ third person voice-overs and talking heads sequences lend unjustified authority to the passages of dramatised reconstruction. Combined with a traditional realistic, mimetic style of dramatic presentation, this creates a spurious impression of accuracy and precision and a false sense of confidence in what is, in fact, at least partly speculative.

Comics can have the same effect. Will Eisner’s last book was The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which traces the depressing story of how the repeated unmasking of the Protocols as fraud and forgery has failed to prevent their continued acceptance by fanatics. Eisner’s book is sincere, and seems thoroughly researched. But take a look at a typical page (click to enlarge this and other images):

Here the reader might reasonably assume that Eisner has combined a real clipping from The Times with a speculative reconstruction of a conversation between two journalists. But, in 1921, the front page of The Times was still given over to small ads. The story cannot have appeared below the masthead like that. Eisner has presumably combined the text from an interior page with the masthead, so that the story can be clearly identified as having run in what was, at the time, widely seen as the world’s most authoritative newspaper. Given the subject he is discussing, this sort of mixture of artifice and truth seems ironically unsatisfactory.

Combining text and comic-strip narrative can, however, have quite the opposite effect. Terry Deary’s enormously successful series of children’s books, Horrible Histories, combines text with comic-strip sequences and single cartoons drawn by Martin Brown. Here is a sample page from The Vicious Vikings:

Here, the cartoony style and jocular tone make it very clear to the reader that what he sees should not be taken as literally true and accurate. But he learns something, too, about the stories Vikings told about themselves.

This mix of text and cartoon isn't confied to non-fiction. Before he hit the big time with His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman used it in two of his books for children: Count Karlstein, or The Ride of the Demon Huntsman and Spring-Heeled Jack, a Story of Bravery and Evil. Both were based on school plays he had written, presumably while he was a teacher rather than a schoolboy.

Of the two, Count Karlstein presents the more interesting comic strip elements. The story is a cross between Northhanger Abbey and Hammer horror – two young orphan girls see the world through the filter of gothic romance, but their uncle really has sold his soul to the Demon Huntsman. The tale takes in long-lost heirs, Italian conjurers-cum-conmen-cum-spies, and indomitable English schoolmistresses. The artwork, by Patrice Aggs, is reminiscent of period prints by the likes of Gillray and Rowlandson in its cross-hatching, style of lettering and balloon placement. It is not always clear why Pullman makes the choices he does about which parts to present in prose and which in comic-strip, but he does use the latter to pull off some tricks which would otherwise be difficult to achieve, such as the running commentary on events by assorted inanimate objects.

Occasionally, Pullman and Aggs create some interesting effects, such as the double-page spread below. The left-hand page recounts Miss Davenport’s arrival at the Jolly Huntsman inn. The right-hand page describes Sergeant Snitsch’s investigation there. A single panel running across the bottom of both pages draws events together.

Spring-Heeled Jack is less interesting. Jack was a genuine Victorian adventure character, and you can read about him in Jess Nevins’ magnificent Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Victoriana. Here, he helps a group of children escape from a wicked orphanage superintendent and find their long-lost father. But the comic strip parts, draw by David Mostyn, have little period flavour, and contain few interesting storytelling devices.

All the same, both books are great fun, and the mix of prose and picture-strips can hardly fail to interest anyone who reads illustrated blog entries like this one.

Picture sources (from top):

Will Eisner The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, WW Norton, 2005

Terry Deary Horrible Histories: The Vicious Vikings, illustrated by Martin Brown, Scholastic Children’s Books, 1994

Philip Pullman Count Karlstein, or The Ride of the Demon Huntsman, illustrated by Partice Aggs, cover by Peter Bailey, Corgi Yearling, 1991

Philip Pullman Spring-Heeled Jack, a Story of Bravery and Evil, illustrated by David Mostyn, cover by Peter Bailey, Corgi Yearling, 1989

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

The World Has Grown a Little Dimmer

Rest in peace, Marshall Rogers.

(Report by Heidi MacDonald on The Beat.)

Panels (from top):
Batman “The Laughing Fish” by Steve Englehart (writer), Marshall Rogers (penciller and colourist), Terry Austin (inker), Bed Oda (letterer) and Julius Schwartz (editor), Detective Comics issue 475, February 1978, reprinted in Batman: Strange Apparitions, DC Comics, 1999

Daughters of the Dragon “Safe Streets” by Chris Claremont (writing), Marshall Rogers and Bob McLeod (art), Lynn Graeme (editor), Bizarre Adventures issue 25, Marvel Comics, March 1981

Batman “Sign of the Joker” by Steve Englehart (writer), Marshall Rogers (penciller and colourist), Terry Austin (inker), Bed Oda (letterer) and Julius Schwartz (editor), Detective Comics issue 476, March-April 1978, reprinted in Batman: Strange Apparitions, DC Comics, 1999

Howard the Duck “Ducktective Comics” by Bill Mantlo (script), Marshall Rogers (art) and Lynn Graeme (editor), Howard the Duck magazine issue 8, Marvel Comics, November 1980

The Batman Portfolio No. 1, Plate 3, by Marshall Rogers, SQ Publications, 1981

Monday, 26 March 2007

Into the World Below

So, if I don’t like the way Shawn MacManus drew undersea scenes in Aquaman, how do I think it should be done?

Here are some good examples by Ron Embleton …

… Frank Bellamy …

… and Jack Kirby.

Bubbles and swirls, bubbles and swirls.

Panels from: Stingray “Atlanta Kidnap Affair” by Alan Fennell (story) and Ron Embleton (art), TV21, Century 21 Publications, reprinted in Stingray … Stand By For Action, Ravette Books, 1992

Garth “People of the Abyss” by Jim Edgar (story) and Frank Bellamy (art), Daily Mirror, 1972, reprinted in Garth Book Two: The Women of Galba, Titan Books, 1985

New Gods “The O’Ryan Gang and the Deep Six”, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Vince Colletta, New Gods 4, DC Comics, August-September 1971, reprinted in Jack Kirby’s New Gods, DC Comics, 1998

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Reviews: Aquaman, Hellblazer, The Brave and the Bold

Aquaman, Sword of Atlantis issue 50: “Cold Water” by Tad Williams (writer), Shawn McManus (penciller), Walden Wong (inker), Todd Klein (letters), Dan Brown (colours), Joey Cavalieri (editor), cover by Mario Alberti. DC Comics, May 2007, 38 pages of strip, US$3.99.

I hadn’t encountered Aquaman since Grant Morrison’s JLA. But Scipio at The Absorbascon has a list of fun things from this issue, and with a new writer and a new art team starting here, I thought this might be a good jumping-on point. I was wrong. Oh, there’s lots of good humoured silliness and oddity, particularly involving King Shark and the new version of Topo, but the story is highly confusing. There are no fewer than four leading characters who are either amnesiac or living under assumed identities, or both. At least two of them might be Aquaman. What I take to be the new plot – about a nasty underwater church – seems to be tangled with untucked threads from early issues that are not adequately explained.

Shawn McManus’s art is clear and expressive, but Walden Wong’s inks seem to have robbed it of the texture and character I remember from McManus’s fill-in issues of Swamp Thing. Most oddly, whole pages go by without anything to remind the reader that the action is supposed to be taking place underwater: characters stand rather than swim and talk without breathing out air bubbles. Several have long hair, which resolutely refuses to billow around in the water.

A curious feature is that all the intelligent sea creatures have human bodies, albeit topped with heads derived from marine life. Topo, for example, is no longer an octopus, but a humanoid with a squid-like head. Presumably, the authors either find it impossible to maintain sympathy for beings that look too odd, or they expect their readers to feel that way.

Overall, a disappointment. Despite all the welcome humour and invention, I don’t think that I’ll be back for issue 51.

Hellblazer issue 230: “In at the Deep End” Part 1 by Andy Diggle (writer), Leonardo Manco (artist), Lee Loughridge (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Casey Seijas (editor), cover by Lee Bermejo. DC Comics/Vertigo, May 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99.

This was another return to a character I’d neglected for some time, facilitated by the arrival of a new writer. Unlike Aquaman, this really works as an issue for new readers. All you need to know to follow Andy Diggle’s debut issue is that John Constantine is a supernatural expert mixed up with low-life, and that is explained within the story itself. This is a modest vignette, about how Constantine found himself tied to a pier support waiting to drown, and how he gets out of it, but it makes confident use of flashback, with solid characterisation, and a slow reveal of the plot. The cockney hard-man dialogue is perhaps a little overdone.

Leonardo Manco’s art seems perfect for this series: it is dark and gritty, and shows a particular talent for realistically varied faces.

Overall, this issue is spot-on, both as an entertaining story in its own right and as a hook for the continuing series.

The Brave and the Bold issue 2: “The Lords of Luck, Chapter 2: Ventura” by Mark Waid (writer), George Pérez (penciller), Bob Wiacek (inks), Tom Smith (colours), Rob Leigh (lettering), Joey Cavalieri (editor), cover by Pérez. DC Comics, May 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99.

Oh, dear, this is an unpleasant surprise.

The first issue of the revived Brave and the Bold was light-hearted superhero fun. But this issue, telling of Green Lantern and Supergirl’s attempt to recover the Book of MacGuffin from the gambling-mad planet of Ventura, is dominated by teenage Kara’s blatant passes at Hal and his response.

Significantly, we are given Hal’s internal monologue, but not Kara’s; a clear signal that we are intended to identify with his viewpoint. Unfortunately, this seems to be same opinion held by puritans of assorted religions – that women are temptresses who inflame innocent males to lusts which they must manfully resist.

The whiff of antedeluvian sexual politics becomes stronger when Hal tells Kara that she’ll never get a boyfriend, because no man wants a woman who is stronger than he is. This proves to be the inspiration for Supergirl’s decision to flush out the man with the Book by hiding the big red “S” under a four-year old’s impossibly short pink dress and pigtails.

Yes, really.

Illustrating this distasteful tale, Pérez, as usual, portrays his hero and heroine with the looks of Ken and Barbie, though Supergirl is drawn with a genuinely young and animated face. The art team manage to convince us that they are giving an accurate portrayal of a crowded and gaudy planet, rather than just producing crowded and gaudy pictures. Tom Smith’s colours, in particular, are appropriately bright, and help ensure that no images dissolve into confusion.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

The Singer, Not the Song

The Singer Not The Song is a very odd western, in which priest John Mills tries to persuade bandit Dirk Bogarde to give up his evil ways and join the Christian communion. Dirk seems to be wavering, but it seems clear that it is a personal attraction to the priest, not a spiritual attraction to the gospel, that tempts him: he wants to embrace little Johnny, not the Church.

Which brings me to Posy Simmonds, only without the tumbleweed and leather-trousered eroticism.

Simmonds is a very skilful comics creator, whose work has been appearing in The Guardian newspaper since 1977. The Guardian is currently serialising her latest book, Tamara Drewe . I was reminded of her by an online poll for favourite woman comics writer, being held by Loren at One Diverse Comic Book Nation , and by a two-page spread on her book Gemma Bovery in Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life .

Gravett rightly praises Simmonds’ craft, noting her skill at using different voices, and her precise observation of social mores. Unfortunately, what she observes is the life of the self-absorbed upper middle classes, agonising over second marriages and second homes. This was fine in her one-page gag strips, but these people become intolerable over long stretches. Worse, Simmonds’ two major sustained narratives are arch retellings of novels I didn’t like in the first place, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (no doubt a breakthrough in its time in the realistic portayal of individual psychology, but rather tiresome now) and Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, an author I have never forgiven for blighting my schooldays with enforced reading of his poetry.

So, for me, appreciating Posy Simmonds is very much a case of the singer, not the song, and I have to choose carefully from her (graphic) albums. Here is an extract from my favourite, Literary Life, in which the spirit of Jane Austen considers returning to the world to bask in her current celebrity:

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Reviews: Buffy, Hunter & Painter, Jack Staff, Viz

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, issue 1: “The Long Way Home”, part 1 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters), Scott Allie (editor); cover by Jo Chen. Dark Horse Comics, March 2007, 24 pages of strip, US$2.99

Yes, it’s Buffy by Whedon, so you already know if you like this recipe or not. This is setting up a 4-issue story, and has the pacing, incident and patter you’d expect. The only drawbacks – Great Muppety Odin aside – are Whedon’s use of homebrew-phonetic spelling for some of the Slayerettes (after some pondering, I decided to read Leah as Irish and the other girl as Danish, but who knows?) and the return of the “US military versus Buffy” trope. Because the Initiative didn’t give us quite enough hours of dullness back in Season 4, I suppose.

What I really want to draw attention to is Georges Jeanty’s artwork. His compositions are spot on: there were no occasions anywhere in reading this issue when I felt myself having consciously to decide where my eye should go next, either within a panel or across a page. He has managed to incorporate likenesses of the TV actors without making them either unrecognisable or obvious tracings of photographs. A good test is that the one new character who gets significant face-time, General Voll, looks neither more nor less real and fully-rendered than Buffy, Xander and Dawn. Jeanty has a solid command of anatomy, facial expression and perspective; and with inker Andy Owens he provides craggy lines and shadows that give bite to the finish. Top stuff.

Dark Horse lets the package down a little by printing a Jo Chen cover which depicts Buffy as at least six feet tall, and by putting four successive pages of adverts in the middle of an action sequence.

Hunter & Painter by Tom Gauld. Buenaventura Press 2007, 18 pages of strip, US$4.95

The eccentricities of this little booklet start with its format – 24cm wide by 10cm high, bound on the short side – but don’t end there. Gauld gives us the story of a caveman who has hunted every animal he knows, and a caveman who has painted every hunting scene he can think of. The tone is mundane, mixing the cheerful and the melancholy. The art is as lumpy and stylised as cave art itself. Here is Painter, trying something new:

But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. A very engaging oddity.

Jack Staff volume 2 issue 13 by Paul Grist (writer/artist) and numerous colourists. Image Comics, February 2007, 27 pages of strip, US$3.50

This is an all-cliché issue: a parallel world where the good guys are bad guys, characters stepping outside the panel borders, a chimp, undead versions of British sit-com characters (what? that isn’t a cliché? Well, it should be!); but Grist handles proceedings with his customary grace, charm and good humour, and the chimp has his own theme song, so I’m happy enough.

Viz issue 163, with contributions by Alex Collier, Simon Ecob, John Fardell, Robin Halstead, Jason Hazeley, Alex Morris & Joel Morris, Paul Palmer, Cat Sullivan, Barney Farmer & Lee Healey, Christina Martin & James MacDougall, Will Freeman, Tony Coffey and Robert Doyle. Dennis Publishing, March 2007. 21 pages of strip (out of 52), £2.60.

Viz has now been around long enough to be easily overlooked – and, indeed, sales have fallen from its million-plus heyday to a circulation of about 150,000 or 250,000 depending on who you talk to. But Viz’s contents have a consistent reliability about them: it’s the same mix of crude sexual and scatological humour and sharply topical social and cultural references, served up in the style of Beano-esque comic strips and pastiche tabloid articles.

The highlight of this issue is “Jack Black and the Crack Continuum”, in which Jack and his dog Silver spend their summer holiday in the countryside, helping Aunt Meg defend her class-A drug dealership from an unwelcome intruder. Pedallos, a submarine, a bullet to the head and almond and sultana cake all feature in this parody of cozy boy’s adventure stories.

Empty Spaces

Marvel Comics is content to present its trade paperback collections as what they are: collections of stories that originally appeared in shorter periodicals, complete with covers, titles and credits. DC, on the other hand, wants to pretend that it is producing proper books. Covers are relegated to the back of the volume, along with other supporting material like concept sketches and author interviews. And, nowadays, titles and credits are deleted from splash pages.

Mostly, this is merely ugly and irritating. Sometimes, it is worse. Take, for example, the opening page of “Frankenstein in Fairyland”. Above is how it first appeared in issue 4 of Frankenstein. Below is how it appeared in Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume 4.

So, instead of the narration building to the climax of “Can you imagine … Frankenstein in Fairyland,” we are given instead the dying fall of “Can you imagine…” And we are left to wonder what it is that we should imagine.

Presumably not an imaginary story. Because this is what the editors of DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore have done to the opening page of “Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?”

Whereas the Frankenstein omission could have been an oversight, here we can only conclude that someone at DC thought that it was worth sacrificing this …

… for an expanse of yellow space.

These are some of the worst examples that I have noticed. But there are plenty of stories that I have read only in trade paperback collections. So who knows what I have missed?

Panels: “Frankenstein in Fairyland” by Grant Morrison (writer), Doug Mahnke (artist), Nathan Eyring (colourist) and Phil Balsman (letterer), Frankenstein 4, DC Comics, May 2006.

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” by Alan Moore (writer), Curt Swan and George Pérez (artists), Gene D’Angelo (colourist) and Todd Klein (letterer), Superman 423, DC Comics, September 1986.