Wednesday, 31 October 2007


From ghosties

and ghoulies

and long-leggedy beasties

and things that go bump in the night

good Lord protect us.

(First published by Walter de la Mare as an old Scottish prayer in Come Hither, 1923)

My Dead Girlfriend Volume 1 “A Tryst of Fate” by Eric Wight, Tokyopop, 2006

Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles, art by Simon Donald, I think, reprinted in Viz: The Sausage Sandwich, John Brown Publishing, 1991

Daredevil “Stilts” by Frank Miller (scripter/storyteller), Klaus Janson (penciller/inker/colourist), Sam Rosen (letterer) and Dennis O’Neil (editor), Daredevil issue 186, September 1982, reprinted in Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller Volume 3, Marvel Comics, 2001

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2 by Alan Moore (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist), Ben Dimagmaliw (colourist), Todd Klein (letterer) and Scott Dunbier (editor), America’s Best Comics, 2002-2003

Review: Eduardo Risso’s Tales of Terror

Eduardo Risso’s Tales of Terror
Features eleven stories written by Carlos Trillo, art by Eduardo Risso, translation by Maria Barrucci, lettering by Jason Ullmeyer, no original publication details given, Dynamite Entertainment, 2007, 154 pages of comics, US$14.99

At first, it seems unfair to put only Eduardo Risso’s name above the title, as every one of these stories is written by his frequent Argentine collaborator Carlos Trillo. But then again, it is probably not the stories themselves that will lead anyone to buy this book. They are efficient little shockers, of the school of EC Comics, with ironic O Henry twist endings, but without EC’s air of moral retribution. Most of the characters are pretty nasty, and many of the set-ups are clichéd (a marriage between a vampire and a werewolf, for example). The most affecting tale concerns a mummy’s boy forced by his mother into becoming a torturer’s assistant – and I’m sure you’ve already guessed who he will end up having to torture.

No, it is Risso’s art that provides the best reason for buying this book. It is an art that thrives on the tension between fluid shapes and precise delineation, between fine line and solid shadow. When Risso draws a wobbly line, we know that it shows not uncertainty, but the clear edge of a wobbly shape. The composition contains the same dynamic pull. Sometimes, Risso uses a simple grid, but the panels are out of balance, their contrasts of dark and light, weight and emptiness spinning the reader giddily across the page. More often, the panels float more freely, but they are always perfect rectangles, anchoring the moment.

All of this benefits enormously from being reproduced in crisp, unadorned black and white. Something of the strength of Risso’s draughtsmanship is diluted in the colours of 100 Bullets or Batman. But here, he can show his mastery of chiaroscuro, with displays such as this page, on which an invisible woman performs a striptease.

So perhaps calling it Eduardo Risso’s Tales of Terror is only fair after all.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Reading the Reads

There seems to be an opinion at large – evident in the comments section of Heidi MacDonald’s infamous “whither storytelling?” post at The Beat - that anglophone comics are split into the polar opposites of superheroes and autobiographical art comics. But looking at the list of the ten most recent comics I’d read which I posted yesterday, I see that none of them falls into either category (except possibly Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, depending on how you define “superhero”). The dominant genre, if there is one, is social comedy.

As it happens, that list was atypically light on periodicals. If I expand the list to include the floppies I bought and read last week, that adds one fully fledged superhero title (X-Men First Class), but also horror (Hellblazer), TV sci-fi spin-off (Doctor Who Adventures), rude adult comedy (Viz) and satire (the comic strips in Private Eye).

Limp conclusions? First, that there’s a wide diversity of comics material available, even if it doesn’t always get the sales or recognition it deserves (though Doctor Who Adventures and Viz are, I think, in first and third places in the UK comics sales charts). Second, that I’m lucky, at least from a comics-reading perspective, to live in the UK, where I can get almost everything published in North America and domestic products as well. Third, that I buy far too many comics.

Posy Simmonds True Love, Jonathan Cape, 1981

Monday, 29 October 2007

Recent Reads

Once again, I’m going to use a subject suggested by Tom Spurgeon’s Five on Friday feature as an excuse to throw together a random mix of observations, each too inconsequential for a post in its own right. Plum pudding or mess of potage? You decide.

I’m going to expand the theme of “the last five comics you read, good or bad” to the last ten.

10. Posy Simmonds True Love
Eddie Campbell blogged about this book and wrote, “In a better world, you'd read my affectionate recollection and immediately go out and buy a copy.”

I’d like to think I’m making the world a little better.

9. Jules Feiffer Jules Feiffer’s America: From Eisenhower to Reagan
I have long underestimated Feiffer as a draughtsman. Based on my memories of reading his Village Voice strips (published over here by The Observer), I had categorised him alongside Thurber as a writer who also drew a bit, rather than as a cartoonist. But there is some very fine drawing and cartooning here, with solid and effective composition and a particular understanding of the uses of repetition. Feiffer gets a remarkable amount of weight out of his nervous lines, particularly in his gnarled caricatures.

8. Andi Watson Glister Issue 2: “House Hunting”
Somehow, when I reviewed the first issue of Watson’s charming children’s fantasy, I failed to notice how reminiscent his drawings were of the work of the classic children’s illustrator Edward Ardizzone, especially in the quality of line. So I’ll mention that here instead.

7. Ilya (ed) The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga Volume 2
Sadly, I am coming to the conclusion that I don’t really like the most obvious elements of manga – the pacing, the melodramatic “acting” of the characters, the graphic devices used to convey emotion, and, above all, the ubiquity of pointy-faced goggle-eyed androgynes. There are manga that I do enjoy a lot (Lone Wolf and Cub, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Ranma 1/2), but that is probably despite their common stylistic ticks, rather than because of them. Volume 2 in Constable & Robinson’s series is, on the whole, more faithful to the surface elements of clichéd manga style than Volume 1, and I found less to enjoy in it. It is probably no coincidence that by far my favourite comic strip here is Laura Howell’s The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan, which may render its characters in a style somewhere pitched between chibi and Rumiko Takahashi, but which does so on top of a structure that is pure Leo Baxendale.

6. Rick Veitch Army@Love Volume 1 The Hot Zone Club
There are some good satirical side-swipes here, and a solid handling of narrative. But just as a million and one books, films and comics about the Vietnam war pay no attention to the Vietnamese, Army@Love treats America’s wars in the Middle East as being entirely about Americans. The natives of the fictional country of Afbaghistan appear only as targets and set decoration, except for a small family whose supporting role is to disrupt the marriage between two more important (because American) characters. There’s a huge flaw in the central conceit of the comic: the army is using a hedonistic lifestyle as a recruitment tool, but it is also trying to keep it secret. How do you use a secret in your recruitment ads? But look at this panel which addresses the desire for secrecy.

The implied belief – which may be the character’s, but which may also be Veitch’s own – is that what was shocking about Abu Ghraib was the embarrassment caused by the lack of self-control among Americans, not the torture and humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners. There’s a difference, and its an important one.

5. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Severin, Jim Steranko and others Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Volume 1

4. John Aggs Robot Girl

3. The Beano Issue 3404
Something of a relaunch, with a higher price, all of 99p, a Dennis the Menace strip that ends on a cliffhanger, and two new series: London B4 12 (is that a pun on the lost Lon Chaney silent horror movie London After Midnight, and if so, how many 11-year olds will get it?) and Tales of Johnny Bean from Happy Bunny Green, which uses twee stylings, including the return of the libretto, recounting the whole story in narrative captions, to tell a tale of juvenile delinquency. The art is by the versatile Laura Howell, looking quite different here from her manga. She also provides inks to Hunt Emerson’s pencils for Ratz.

The inside front page provides quite a break from publisher DC Thomson’s tradition of leaving the comics’ creators in anonymity: it lists “top stories” (six out of fifteen this issue) and actually credits the artists. That leaves nine strips uncredited, and the writers’ names are still nowhere to be seen, but at least it’s a step out of the nineteenth century.

2. Scott Adams Dilbert
The first book I ever read about cartooning was The Cartoon Connection by William Hewison, then art editor of Punch. He came up with several categories of cartoon humour, one of which was “Recognition Humour: Recognition Humour at its most humble is straightforward reportage heightened very slightly by a dash of theatricality; here the cartoonist plucks at our sleeve and points to an ordinary everyday event, and as we are looking he flashes a beam of torchlight at it. The edges become sharper, the shadows darker, the action a little more exaggerated – we see that this very familiar thing is suddenly more significant.” Most days, Dilbert shines that torch with precision. (On the other days, it goes to Elbonia.)

1. Andy Riley Roasted

Sometimes Wishes Come True

Reviewing The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics, I wrote, “Perhaps we can hope for a Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics or Horror Comics or Romance Comics...”

The introduction to The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga Volume 2 says, “Joining Best New Manga on the shelves is War Comics, Horror Comics and very soon Crime Comics: all of them thick as a brick with tons to read.”

The tense suggests that The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics should be out already, in time for Hallowe’en, but Constable & Robinson’s ad in The Bookseller gives a release date of 24 January 2008 (with Crime Comics following in June). But so long as the nights are still long and dark, I’m not complaining.

The blurb at - I take no responsibility for its accuracy - says, “In over 500 pages, this book collects the finest tales of terror from the past sixty years of comic book publishing. It encompasses all eras of the genre, from the 'weird menace' horror of the perennially popular 1950s pre-Code comics published by EC, to the dark modern gems of the 90s and 2000s. Discover the tales that drove the American youth of the 1950s into a frenzy and resulted in legislation to put an end to their gruesome content - the pre-Code comic book macabre that was Dark Mysteries, Chamber of Chills, Weird Terror and Journey into Fear. Contributors from these early years include Bernie Wrightson, master adapter of Lovecraft, Mary Shelley and Stephen King; Mike Kaluta, the man behind The Shadow, Metropolis, and The Spawn of Frankenstein; and Rudy Palais, the EC artist responsible for such twisted works as Marching Zombies. Modern contributions include Pete Von Scholly's The Graveswellers (the man behind The Shawshank Redemption, The Mask, and The Green Mile), David Hitchcock's self-published Immortal - A Vampire Tale (creator of the Jack the Ripper comic Whitechapel Freak), Thomas Ott's G.O.D. from Greetings from Hellville (acclaimed Swiss noir artist), L” – yes, it breaks off suddenly at the initial letter L, presumably interrupted fatally by some shambling thing from beyond …

Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics cover by José Muñoz taken from The Bookseller

Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics Cover taken from the Constable & Robinson web-site

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Review: Marvel Masterworks – Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Volume 1
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Man for the Job!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist), Dick Ayers (inks), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Find Fury or Die!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts), John Severin (art), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Prize Is … Earth!” by Stan Lee (story), Jack Kirby (layouts), John Severin (art), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (layouts), John Severin (art), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Brave Die Hard!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (layouts), Joe Sinnott (art), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The End of Hydra!” by Stan Lee (story), Jack Kirby (layouts), Don Heck (pencils), Joe Sinnott (inks), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Operation: Brain Blast!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (art), Frank Ray (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Who Strikes at – SHIELD?” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (pencils), Mike Demeo (inks), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “To Free a Brain Slave” by Stan Lee (story), Jack Kirby assisted by Howard Purcell (art), Mike Demeo (inks), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Day of the Druid!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (designer) Howard Purcell (pencils), Mike Demeo (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (designer) Don Heck (pencils), Mike Demeo (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Captain America “Them!” by Stan Lee (words), Jack Kirby (art), Frank Giacoia (inks), Artie Simek (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “When the Unliving Strike!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) Don Heck (pencils), Mike Demeo (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Enemy Within!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) Don Heck (pencils), Mike Demeo (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Death Before Dishonor!” by Jack Kirby (script and layouts) Don Heck (pencils and inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The End of AIM!” by Jack Kirby (layouts), Denny O’Neil (script), Ogden Whitney (art), Artie Simek (letters), Stan Lee (editor)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Hydra Lives!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) John Buscema (pencils), Frank Giacoia (inks), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “Overkill!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) Jim Steranko (art), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Power of SHIELD!” by Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) Jim Steranko (art), Sam Rosen (letters)
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD “The Hiding Place!” by Roy Thomas (script), Jack Kirby (layouts) Jim Steranko (art), Sam Rosen (letters), Stan Lee (editor)
Fantastic Four “The Hate-Monger!” by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist), George Bell (inker), Artie Simek (letterer)
reprinted from Fantastic Four issue 21 (1963), Tales of Suspense issue 78 (1966) and Strange Tales issues 135-53 (1965-1967), 281 pages of comics (including cover reprints), Marvel Comics, 2007, US$54.99

That’s a huge and cumbersome contents listing, but the credits bring home two things: first, that Nick Fury went through a widely fluctuating set of artists in its first two years, and, second, that Jack Kirby never gave up on it, always proving layouts, sometimes providing full pencils, and once even providing the script (in a reasonable pastiche of Stan Lee’s style, rather than the fractured dignity of his scripting and text pieces of the 1970s). Kirby had been happy enough to pass the parent series Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos over to other artists, just as he had done with so many others. Was there something in SHIELD that he wanted to nurture? As things turned out, he hung on until the most worthy of his replacements on any of his series was available.

Colonel Fury the spy was introduced as a CIA agent in the Fantastic Four issue for November 1963, two months after OSS agent Reed Richards had cropped up in Sgt Fury. That story appears at the end of this volume, though it is omitted from the index. At this stage, Fury has two eyes and no gadgets. It’s tempting to see this version as a response to Connery-era Bond, while most of the volume takes its cue from the slightly wilder tone of The Man from UNCLE, and Steranko is, by the end, just starting to nudge in aspects of his exercise in style which we can see as a response not just to pop-art and op-art, but to The Avengers. That’s The Avengers where the long hair is worn by Mrs Peel, not by the Mighty Thor, of course.

Steranko’s version is what dominates our image of SHIELD nowadays, but this volume kicks off with a very different look, with the solidly realistic draughtsmanship and lush but controlled linework of John Severin as the first artist to work over Kirby’s layouts. Fury, Tony Stark, Dugan and their cohorts never looked more at ease in ordinary street clothes and on ordinary streets. But Severin only lasted three issues, and the rotating teams of artists who succeeded him never managed to give the strips a character of their own.

The stories floundered too. After a strong start with SHIELD’s initial confrontation with Hydra, things just got silly. Exuberantly daft inventiveness can be one of the glories of comics, but it is harder than it looks. When subterranean druids start attacking their enemies with flying mechanical eggs, the result is as clunkingly unamusing as a fourth series Monty Python sketch. Things perk up a little with the AIM plotline, but it is uncomfortably close to a rerun of the initial Hydra story.

Steranko turns up for the last three stories here, but is constrained by working over Kirby’s layouts and to scripts by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas. With the next issue, Kirby would be gone and Steranko would take over plots and layouts and, soon after, scripts, turning Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD into one of the most distinctive and memorable pieces of entertainment of its times. But that’s a story for subsequent volumes.

Reproduction in this volume seems fine, crisp and clear. Colouring uses flat tones. I don’t know how faithful they are to the original colour guides, but certainly the Steranko issues look more consistent and coherent than they did under the rather overwhelming modelled computer colour of the 2000 reprint volume of his Strange Tales run. Marvel is to be commended for including not just the Fantastic Four Fury story, but also the Captain America crossover which forms part of the AIM storyline.

Unexpected Comics: The Observer

Just a quick note, while it’s still on sale, to point out that the magazine section of today’s edition of The Observer contains a four-page comics story spun off from the regular single-tier strip Roasted by Andy Riley.

I couldn’t find it on The Observer website, but, then again, I can never find anything on The Observer website.

Roasted “Markings” by Andy Riley, The Observer Magazine, 28 October 2007

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Happy Birthday, Leo Baxendale

I’d have missed this, if it wasn’t for the Comics Reporter: today is the 77th birthday of Leo Baxendale, the brilliant and influential comics artist who created (among others) Little Plum, The Three Bears, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids, Grimly Feendish, the Badtime Bedtime Books and Baby Basil, which was another of The Guardian’s forays into comic strips. Together with writers whose names I still don’t know, Baxendale was responsible in one way or another for getting on for a quarter of all the reasons I started reading comics in the first place.

So, happy birthday, Mr Baxendale! This blog is largely your fault!

Minnie the Minx, art by Leo Baxendale, The Beano, 1950s, reprinted in Dandy and Beano: Famous Faces from the Comics, DC Thomson, 1992

The Guardian’s The Comic

Now this looks promising: a new comics section in The Guardian, the UK national newspaper that regularly employs such luminaries as Posy Simmonds, Steve Bell and Martin Rowson (and, less regularly, a range of interesting cartoonists from Biff to Tom Gauld), and whose sister Sunday paper, The Observer sponsored the Comica short story competition alongside Britain’s leading mainstream graphic novel publisher, Jonathan Cape. Of course, below the fold, the front-page blurb explains that “The Comic” is intended for kids, but even so, that’s a good track record.

What you actually get is the single centre sheet of The Guardian’s “Family” section, folded twice to make eight half-tabloid pages. Five of those pages are used for competitions and other child-friendly filler. The remaining three pages contain a comic strip, Robot Girl versus the Universe! episode 1, by John Aggs. It is drawn in an anime-inspired style - and yes, I do mean “anime”, not “manga”: it looks like a series of screenshots. It tells of a United Earth spaceship being overrun by Robot Girl’s robots – and yes, again, I mean “tells”, because we see almost none of this: most panels just show the bridge crew shouting things like “We’re under attack,” or “The shields are failing.” We don’t see the robots overrunning the ship at all. Actually, it’s a little difficult to make out even the spaceship or the bridge crew, as the colour work is too dark and over-rendered for newsprint, and everything comes out muddy (I’ve punched up the brightness and contrast for the panel below). It looks a lot clearer as a series of PDFs at The Guardian Unlimited website, which I found after I'd done the scans.

Overall, quite The Disappointment

Update, later that day Lew Stringer reports that Robot Girl will be part of The DFC, "a new weekly anthology comic coming soon" - now, that's a phrase you don't see too often these days.

Robot Girl versus the Universe! episode 1 by John Aggs, The Guardian 27 October 2007, “The Comic” section

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Something in their Form that Dooms them

Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean was reviewed in brief in the Times Literary Supplement last week by Jon Barnes, a novelist. Here’s an extract.

“Despite the medium’s burgeoning seriousness and respectability, it has a quality which seems to lend itself to colourful heroics, something innate in the form that persuades it to return to caped melodrama.”

“A quality … something innate”. Not very rigorous analytically, is it? It is a singularly odd innate “something” that fails to persuade capes to manifest in comics in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Argentina. Indeed, it seems to be a “quality” only of comics from the United States of America. One might even think it was a product of some historical contingency, such as, to pick an example entirely at random, a self-censoring Comics Code that neutered all genres other than superheroics. But that is far too concrete. Let us fall back upon airy metaphysics instead.

Now, I won’t deny that comics is a medium that does lend itself to colourful heroics, but it has that in common with, oooh, every other narrative medium and quite a few non-narrative ones too. Better, perhaps, to conclude that colourful heroics have a quality that appeals to the human imagination, sometimes.

I wonder if, had he been given a book to review that drew largely on examples from British comics, Barnes would have concluded that there was something innate in the form that persuades it to return to monochrome slapstick?

I expect better than this from the TLS.

Lewis Trondheim demonstrates something innate in the form that makes it return to black and white autobiographical meditations using funny animal tropes, while discussing artists whose work can rarely be described as colourful heroics, “At Loose Ends” part 1, Mome issue 6, Winter 2006-07. Original French edition 2004, I think.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Nearly Men

As usual, I was way too late to contribute anything to Tom Spurgeon’s call to "Name Five Near-Versions of a Character You Like, At Least a Little Bit" for his “Five for Friday” feature at The Comics Reporter. His original list (Wonder Tot, Bizarro, Calvin’s Clones, Gaard and Captain Marvel’s Squadron of Justice – Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel and Hill(billy) Marvel) is here, and responses of nimbler folk in the Blogosphere are here.

Some comics creators love this sort of stuff. Consider Grant Morrison, who gave us Acid Archie, the loved-up version of Lion comic’s stalwart Robot Archie, a mundane set of New Gods (subsequently ignored by DC Comics like the rest of his work on Seven Soldiers except, curiously, his new version of Klarion the witch-boy), and these guys, who featured in just a few panels of Animal Man, but who have always stuck in my mind.

Who needs a Justice League when you can have a Love Syndicate?

Then there’s Alan Moore, with his multiple versions of Tom Strong and Supreme, and a whole multi-verse full of analogues of Captain Britain. One of those even got his own spin-off strip in Mad Dog, a special issue of the 1980s ‘zine Dogma. Meet the hero of Oceania, Captain Airstrip One, in a story largely written in Newspeak.

Paul Grist is another serial offender. It seems that every other character in Jack Staff has an analogue in old British comics or TV. Or, in this case, a comics writer with a fondness for creating multiple near-versions of his characters.

Did it just get recursive in here?

(Yes, I know that’s only three. I missed the train, so why worry about the terms of the ticket?)

Animal Man “Crisis” by Grant Morrison (writer), Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood (artists), John Constanza (letterer), Tatjana Wood (colourist) and Karen Berger (editor), Animal Man issue 23, DC Comics, May 1990

Captain Airstrip One by Alan Moore (writer), Chris Brasted (pencils), SMS (inks), SMS, Quill and Simon Meacock (letters), Dogma 10: Mad Dog, Oddmags, 1985

Jack Staff volume 2 issue 10 by Paul Grist (writer/artist) and Craig Conlan (colours), Image Comics, May 2006

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Flogging a Horse that is Not So Much Dead as Absent Altogether

Coincidence strikes. No sooner do I make one (erroneous) post about comic strips in Playboy that I find this when sitting down with a copy of Jules Feiffer’s America - From Eisenhower To Reagan (edited by Steven Heller, Alfred A Knopf, 1982):

"In 1958, my first collection of cartoons was published, on the basis of which Hugh Hefner offered me $500 a month to draw for Playboy. Since the [Village] Voice still did not pay contributors, it was the first regular money I made doing the work I cared about. My attitude was often non-Playboy or anti-Playboy. Rather than object, Hefner suggested ways of making my points stronger. In addition to his better-known qualities, he was a wonderful cartoon editor, the best I’ve ever had."

That last encomium seems all the more remarkable when we remember that Feiffer’s very first “cartoon editor”, back when he was working on Clifford for The Spirit Section, would have been Will Eisner. But, then again, I assume that Feiffer would have been paid for Clifford and his Spirit scripts, so this may just be a case of conveniently ignoring a professional pre-history which wouldn’t fit with the marketing of Jules Feiffer’s America as a 25th anniversary volume. Or maybe Hefner really was a better cartoon editor than Eisner. Perhaps he could have had a second career at the Kubert school of cartooning if the whole porn-mag-and-men’s-clubs empire had failed.

Hey Look What Isn’t There

The other day, I picked up a copy of Harvey Kurtzman’s autobiography, My Life as a Cartoonist.

It’s a small, slim book with a few notes about his working techniques and an account of his life and career that puts a positive face on everything and skates over the difficult bits, such as the reasons for his departure from Mad.

And it doesn’t mention Little Annie Fanny at all.

Now, My Life as a Cartoonist was published in 1988, by which time Kurtzman had been working on his contribution to the “undressed girl as Candide” genre for a couple of decades. How long exactly? I decided to check the Wikipedia entry on Harvey Kurtzman.

And it doesn’t mention Little Annie Fanny at all.

(Update, later that day: Yes, it does, in the opening section. Let this post stand as a monument to my sloppy reading. My apologies to Wikipedia and its authors.)

Fortunately, there is a separate Wikipedia entry on Little Annie Fanny itself, which confirmed that I hadn’t dreamed up Kurtzman’s strip, and both Lambiek and Denis Kitchen’s web-site were more thorough. Kurtzman had produced Little Annie Fanny for Playboy for even longer than I had thought, from 1962 to 1988. It was, by far, the longest cartooning gig of his career.

So why the reticence?

It may be that the wiki-author was embarrassed that his artistic hero had laboured so long on a girly strip for a porn magazine. Mr Wiki also seems to set great stall by the Comics Journal’s collective opinion of Kurtzman (his five strips in their top 100 of the twentieth century are cited with pride). Perhaps the fact that Kurtzman chose to break with the Journal-approved practice of working as a lone cartoonist at his drawing board, instead setting up a studio to produce Little Annie Fanny, also puts it beyond the pale.

It shouldn’t. The finished Little Annie Fanny may have been the work of many hands, and the fingerprints of, say, Will Elder can be seen in the modelling, or Jack Davis in the caricature, but the storytelling, pacing, rapid-fire gag cracking, layout and movement are all pure Kurtzman. Aesthetically, it’s as much his as any Hey Look strip, and probably more so than some of his EC work.

It’s harder to think why Kurtzman himself should have been quiet. He was certainly happy to talk to Will Eisner at length about his working methods on Little Annie Fanny in an interview in 1981. Perhaps he intended his autobiography for a family audience and didn’t think that Little Annie Fanny was an appropriate subject. Or perhaps it is more than a coincidence that My Life as a Cartoonist came out in the same year that Little Annie Fanny ended. The strip-specific Wikipedia entry says that “Kurtzman ended the strip in 1988 when he felt he had run out of story material,” but perhaps there were some more awkward circumstances that Kurtzman didn’t want to talk about. Does anyone out there know?

Pictures and panels
Cover to Harvey Kurtzman My Life as a Cartoonist, Byron Preiss Visual Communications and Minstrel Books, 1988. Photograph by Ben Asen with drawings by Kurtzman

Little Annie Fanny pencil rough by Harvey Kurtzman, 1968, published in Will Eisner’s The Spirit issue 31, Kitchen Sink Comix, October 1981

Little Annie Fanny by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder with Jack Davis and Larry Siegel, Playboy, June 1968, reprinted in Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny, Volume 1: 1962-1970, Dark Horse Comics, 2000

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Big Red One

I read somewhere that the producers of the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk briefly considered painting Lou Ferrigno red rather than green, on the grounds that red was the colour of rage.

In the end, they decided that changing the Hulk’s colour would be a step too far. Perhaps fortunately, they did not follow through the logic of their emotional colour-coding. “Please don’t make me envious; you wouldn’t like me when I’m envious.” It just doesn’t sound right. does it?

Anyway, the new red Hulk unveiled in Marvel’s solicitations for comics on sale in January should at least provide some new variants for the toy manufacturers. Just one thing, though. If green Hulk always wore purple trousers, shouldn’t the standard comics rule (secondary colours with secondaries; primaries with primaries) apply, so that red Hulk wears bright blue?

Cover illustration to Hulk issue 1, Marvel Comics, January 2008. Art by “Edex”, which is Ed McGuiness on pencils and I can’t remember who on inks. Scan pinched from Comic Book Resources

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Hungry for More

One of the more interesting news stories of last week was DC’s press release about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume 4, which can be found on Newsarama.

It seems that this volume will include both “Even Gods Must Die” from the Baxter paper New Gods reprint series issue 6 (1984) and a restored, 24-page version of what eventually became the graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, newly inked from Kirby’s pencils by his preferred collaborator of the 1970s and 1980s, Mike Royer.

This may prove quite a challenge. As set out in issue 6 of The Jack Kirby Collector (TwoMorrows, July 1995), the sequence of events in the mid-1980s was something like this:

• DC commissioned Jack Kirby to write and pencil a new 24-page story to conclude their new reprint of New Gods.

• DC did not like the story that Kirby gave them (call it “version 1”, though it apparently had the title “On the Road to Armagetto”), supposedly because it was too final, at a time when DC was planning to license out the New Gods as toys. They told Kirby to rework it, and at the same time commissioned a graphic novel to follow it.

• Kirby reworked “On the Road to Armagetto” and sent it to Royer, who inked and lettered it. Call this “version 2”.

• DC now changed their minds, and decided to fold “On the Road to Armagetto” into the graphic novel itself. Kirby reused 23 pages of the earlier story, but not necessarily in the original order, and built another 38 pages around them. Royer was unavailable, so the extra pages were inked by D Bruce Berry.

At the time, DC and Marvel believed that, to be respectable, graphic novels would have to follow the format of the European graphic album (much as they now believe that they can reach the manga readership with Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures if only they shrink the pages to match). Bizzarely, rather than enlarge the Kirby/Royer pages, Kirby and Berry were given the originally sized pages and told to fill in the margins to fit the new format.

The whole package was handed to Greg Theakston to colour. Theakston decided that Royer’s and Berry’s inks were incompatible, and reinked the lot as well. The resulting hodge-podge was published in 1985 as The Hunger Dogs. Call it “version 3”.

Here is the only page that I have in multiple versions: Kirby’s pencils, Royer’s inks, and the final published version. Note how the expanded area of the picture weakens the force of its composition, tips the explosion from "impressive" into "over the top", and turns a crowd into a queue. Note, too, how Royer's inks preserve the thoughtful expression on Darkseid's face, while Theakston's obliterate it.

• Meanwhile, DC still needed something to finish off the reprint New Gods issue 6, so they commissioned yet another 48-page story, “Even Gods Must Die” to fill in the gap, and to lead into The Hunger Dogs.

Which leaves a few questions.

First, which version of “On the Road to Armagetto” will DC be publishing – version 1 or version 2?

Second, “Even Gods Must Die” was written to fit with version 3. Is it compatible with version 1 or version 2?

Third, if DC are planning to publish the 24 pages of either version 1 or version 2 how will they make either fit with the rest of version 3, which will apparently also be in the Omnibus? Are we effectively seeing the creation of a version 4 for volume 4 of the 4th World?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Volume 4 will apparently also feature the entries that Kirby drew of his Fourth World characters for Who’s Who. Ironically enough, several of these are variants he redesigned for the very toy line that scuppered “On the Road to Armagetto”, and which would later form the basis of two mini-series called Super Powers which Kirby would pencil but not write, in possibly the artistic nadir of his entire career.

Super Powers is not included in the Omnibus, leaving those two series as the only stories about the New Gods that Kirby worked on not to be collected. Still, perhaps that's for the best.

Pictures and Panels
The Hunger Dogs, DC Graphic Novel number 4, 1985, cover by Jack Kirby and Greg Theakston

New Gods “On the Road to Armagetto", written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, this page first published in The Jack Kirby Collector issue 6, TwoMorrows, July 1995

New Gods “On the Road to Armagetto", written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked and lettered by Mike Royer, this page first published in The Jack Kirby Collector issue 6, TwoMorrows, July 1995

The Hunger Dogs, DC Graphic Novel number 4, 1985, written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer, D Bruce Berry and Greg Theakston, coloured by Greg Theakston, Bill Wray and Tony Dispoto, lettered by Mike Royer, edited by Joe Orlando

Saturday, 13 October 2007

More on Robin Hood

Lew Stringer seems to have been particularly disappointed with the BBC’s new Robin Hood Adventures magazine, accusing it of dumbing-down horribly. Since Lew is normally inclined to defend the current state of the British comics industry, seeing evolution where others see decay, this is pretty damning.

He is particularly puzzled by the huge divergence between the style of the comic strip (comedy) and the style of the TV show from which it is spun-off (melodrama). It is indeed a particularly stark example, but changes of tone are common in transition between the media. I have noted before that the Doctor Who Adventures comic strip, while it captures some of the zest and energy of the television programme, has none of its darkness or romance. The reasoning is presumably that these elements are not suitable for children – but the children are only reading the comic strip because they like the TV programme of which those elements are a part. This puzzled me when I was a boy, and it puzzles me now. (I suppose there are some cases where a child aspires to watch a television programme which is indeed unsuitable for him or her, and makes do with a comic adaptation as a substitute, but that is unlikely to be the case with Robin Hood or Doctor Who.)

Something similar affected a previous adaptation of a TV Robin. In an interview with Look-In: A Tribute to the Junior TV Times, writer Angus P Allan recalled, “My relationship with the comic ended slowly. It began with the increasing editorial pressure to diminish and finally ban all violence, at whatever level. I cannot now imagine why Look-In continued to pay for the rights to A-Team while forbidding me even to show a pistol in the strip. Insane. And when the editor bought Robin Of Sherwood and asked me to write it without bows and arrows … well! The ensuing argument resulted in getting my own way, but I had to promise to use arrows only to send messages or convey climbing lines to castle battlements. What a nonsense! It was at that time that Look-In began to fall heavily in circulation, and no wonder. I don't agree with blood and gore and mindless violence at all, but kids love a bit of mayhem, and God knows there's enough of the real thing around.”

The reasoning of editor Colin Sherbourn is set out in this interview on the same site.

I’m sad to note that Angus Allan died last month. There’s an obituary at the bottom of this page.

Anyway, enough with this! I’m unlikely to spend £1.99 for another two pages of Robin Hood comic strip per issue. Instead I’ll be saving my pennies for the Book Palace’s forthcoming collection of all the Frank Bellamy-drawn Robin Hood strips from Swift, as announced by Steve Holland on his Bear Alley blog.

Panels and pictures
Illustration by Paul Cemmick from Robin Hood Adventures issue 1, BBC Magazines, 10-23 October 2007

Robin of Sherwood, script by Angus P Allan, art by Mike Noble, colour by Arthur Ranson, Look-in, scan taken from The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History

Robin Hood and his Merry Men, from a page of Frank Bellamy artwork from Swift circa 1956, scan downloaded from an art dealer’s page so long ago that I can so longer remember where it was

Friday, 12 October 2007

Friday Night Fights: Back on the Grid

More nine-panel fretwork, but whereas last time out Jack Kirby gave us the classic fluid moves of superhero “action”, Eddie Campbell here conjures up an ugly little scuffle, in which narrator and focal character Alec MacGarry ends up trading no blows at all.

I’m not sure that the switch from the appropriately confused jumble of viewpoints in the first four panels to the static point of view in the next four is entirely effective, although the change probably makes the joke of Alec’s lack of involvement in the actual fight rather clearer. And I love the hands on the end of the looping caption pointers.

It’s more violence for Bahlactus, whose appetite is never sated.

Alec – Love and Beerglasses: More Episodes from the Life of Alec MacGarry by Eddie Campbell, Escape Publishing, 1985 (strip dated March 1983)

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Well, It Can’t Be Worse Than The TV Show

In case anyone was wondering whether the polybagged first issue of the BBC’s new Robin Hood Adventures magazine might contain a comic strip … yes, it does, but only two pages' worth.

The strip is produced in an out-and-out humorous style by Craig Donaghy ("words") and Paul Cemmick ("illustrations"). It is obviously aimed at a very young readership, right down to numbering the panels in sequence, but seems a competent and lively piece of work.

The magazine also contains several photo strips retelling bits of television episodes using captured frames. Judged as fumetti, these are clumsy and awkward, but that is only to be expected when the source pictures were not intended for this use.

Addendum, 12 October The combination of that art style and the subject of Robin Hood seemed awfully familiar, and now I realise why: Paul Cemmick also drew the cartoons and comic strips for the spin-off books from Tony Robinson's children's comedy series Maid Marian and her Merry Men (1989-1994). Has the BBC got the two confused? Can we expect a cross-over? Crisis in Infinite Sherwoods!

That cover image taken from Capricorn Books, which has several others too. Samples of Cemmick's artwork for the comic strps inside can be found at his own web-site (scroll down).

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Tales from The Chap

Stop me if you already know about this one.

The Chap is an odd little magazine (17cm by 24cm – shouldn’t it be in some imperial size?) ostensibly published for tweedy, pipe-smoking gentlemen to read while sinking back in a leather armchair at the club, in between expeditions to the Congo or the North Pole. Its tone is very much tongue-in-cheek. Articles in the current issue (no 35, September-November 2007) range from a straightforward appreciation of the television series Adam Adamant Lives! to a faked-up set of instructions for assembling an Ikea gothic folly.

Curiously, it would seem that one unexpected aspect of chappishness is an appreciation of comics. Not only does regular feature “Am I Chap or Not?” include a photograph of Alan Moore at his wedding, but the caption writer clearly assumed that The Chap’s readers would be well aware of Moore’s claim to fame, and did not need an explanation of his profession. So much for the Daily Telegraph’s “peculiarly unsung triumph”.

More significantly, The Chap devotes three pages each issue to a comic strip, The Chronicles of Mordecai Villiers, story by Donald Twain, art by the suspiciously named Borin Van Loon. This is produced by collage, from old book and magazine illustrations.

I can’t claim that Villiers is an unalloyed success. The humour is rather forced and arch, much like the rest of the magazine, and the writing is sufficiently disjointed to compound the problems of panel-to-panel continuity inherent in the collage approach. But, still, I can’t think of anyone else currently working in the space between Max Ernst and Biff; so, if that sounds appealing, do give it a look.

On the subject of Max Ernst, my belated thanks go to my friends Phil and Janie for sending me a copy of the Dover Books edition of his Une Semaine de Bonté, a story told entirely in surreal collages, which Ernst described solely as a “roman” (novel). I’m sure that Eddie Campbell would appreciate the absence of a qualifier there.

I was amused to note that Ernst first published Une Semaine de Bonté as a series of five pamphlets, in 1934. Just like a real comic book! But anyone waiting for the trade would have been disappointed, as Dover’s 1976 edition claims to have been the first collection.

Pictures and panels
Covers to The Chap issues 34 (June-August 2007) and 35 (September-November 2007)

Page from The Chronicles of Mordecai Villiers “The Luxuriant Toupée of Sir Elton John” part 1, The Chap issue 34 (June-August 2007)

Cover to Max Ernst Une Semaine de Bonté, Dover Books, 1976

Sunday, 7 October 2007

So See-More-Able

Thanks to a flurry of evening meetings for work, I’m a bit behind with matters blog-related, so I only just read this entry on Blog@Newsarama:

"Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and Disturbia director D.J. Caruso are teaming up to adapt Max Allan Collins’ Johnny Dynamite for television.

Variety reports that the series will employ the same green-screen technology used for the movie 300 — a first for network television, should the show be picked up."

A first for US television, perhaps, but Brits with long memories may recall the BBC’s 1982 adaptation of the Daily Mirror comic strip Jane, a comedy about a woman who continually loses her clothes while foiling German spies in World War Two.

Green-screen – or Blue-screen, or Chromakey, or Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), call it what you will – had been used by the BBC ever since they adopted colour video cameras. It was used to insert pictures behind newsreaders, and it was used for special effects on series such as The Goodies and Doctor Who. The results were not always impressive. In 1978, about a third of the Doctor Who serial “Underworld” was recorded by inserting live actors into model caves, reputedly because the set designer had blown his entire budget on a single spaceship control room. Bits of the actors disappeared in the process, and they all had yellowish lines surrounding them.

By the early 1980s, the problem of successfully isolating the foreground image from the flat coloured background had been solved. But there was still no way of creating realistic imaginary backdrops cheaply. Matte painting was an elaborate and slow process, modelwork always looked like modelwork, and the modern standby of computer-generated imagery was not yet available.

Jane solved this problem by embracing it. The backdrops, and even some of the props, were high-contrast line black and white drawings, with a little added spot colour. The action was framed as if taking place within comic-strip panels: sometimes with two or more panels onscreen at once. Common devices from comic strips, such as sometimes putting figures in plain black silhouette (originally intended to lend some variety to a three-or-four panel tier) are replicated. Batman-style written sound effects were eschewed, but thought balloons were used to show us how Jane’s pet dachshund, Fritz, reacted to events.

Jane was made in five episodes of ten minutes each. Ideal for YouTube, you might think, and, indeed, you can find the first series starting here. Although that’s a QuickTime-sized image of an off-air VHS recording with Danish subtitles, it does give a reasonable idea of how the programme looked on-screen.

Unless you have a particular fetish for mid-twentieth-century ladies’ underwear (or for lead actress Glynis Barber, who shot this in-between her roles in Blakes 7 and Dempsey and Makepeace), you’ll also find that, even in ten minute chunks, the serial gets dull rather quickly. It is probably one of the most faithful strip-to-screen adaptations ever, being an amalgam of two wartime stories from the Daily Mirror, “Hush-Hush House” (January-April 1940) and “Jane’s Rival” (October 1940 – May 1941), but what had seemed funny and racey to readers in the 1940s appeared rather quaint in the 1980s. Given the artificiality of both the plot and the way it was presented on screen, it is hard even to get too worked up about the series’ blatantly sexist and exploitative premise.

Even so, the series seems to have struck a chord. At the time it was made, the comic strip had not appeared in the Daily Mirror in decades. But over the next few years, there was a second TV serial (sometimes called “Jane in the Desert”), a theatrical movie, Jane and the Lost City, which was filmed on conventional locations and was, generally speaking, as complete a waste of celluloid as could be imagined, and, in 1985, a revival of the comic strip itself, apparently at the insistence of the Mirror’s new owner, the well-known crook and bully Robert Maxwell.

The combination of live-action and line-drawing backgrounds wasn’t repeated, so far as I can recall, outside of children’s programmes such as Jackanory. But it was a worthwhile experiment, and, taken on its own terms, produced an effect rather more charming, and rather less bumptious and overwhelming, than its present-day CGI successors.

(The title of this post, by the way, comes from the theme tune to Jane, written by Neil Innes, late of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the Rutles. He rhymes it with “You’re adorable”.)

Glynis Barber in Jane, BBC, 1982

Jane “Jane’s Rival”, script by Don Freeman, art by Norman Pett, Daily Mirror, February 1941, reprinted in Jane At War, Wolfe Publishing, 1976

Saturday, 6 October 2007

There’s No-one Quite Like Grandma

I posted a while back about the statues of Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx and Andy Capp, and the proposed statue of Wallace and Gromit. The comments section turned up two more examples of comics character statues: Andy Gump in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and Lobey Dosser in Glasgow. Jeremy Briggs also posted about the Lobey Dosser statue at Bear Alley.

Here’s another one I missed: a statue in Ipswich of Carl Giles’ Grandma character, from his long-running series of large single panel cartoons in the Daily Express (overseas readers may recognise her as Red Sophia’s mother from Cerebus, the character being another of Dave Sim’s appropriations).

This one was mentioned by Brendan McGuire on the Comics UK Forum, and I found that photo via Google on Ian Knight’s web-site A Celebration of Giles. Ian has more photos and a lot more information about the statue and its setting (outside a pub called The Giles Tavern). Lots of Giles cartoons, too - go treat yourself.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Seminal Sputnik

It was fifty years ago this day that the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, began that long-ago and fantastical era we called “the space age”. It was a time of imagination, of engineering marvels, and, eventually, of bored disillusionment.

The Sputnik programme would go on to give us exciting new ways of killing dogs, and the United States’ panicked reaction began a space race in which the Soviet Union and the USA competed to produce projects that were often dazzling, sometimes useful and sometimes monumentally wasteful. One such project was led by Dr Reed Richards.

Always remember: no Sputnik, no Fantastic Four.

And no cosmic-powered apes, either.

Fantastic Four issue 1, “The Fantastic Four!” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with inks and letters by Art Simek, Marvel Comics, November 1961, reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Volume 2: The Fantastic Four, reprinting Fantastic Four Nos 1-10, Marvel Comics, 1987

Fantastic Four issue 13, “The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes”, story by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby, inking by Steve Ditko, lettering by Art Simek, Marvel Comics, April 1963, reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Volume 6: The Fantastic Four, reprinting Fantastic Four Nos 11-20, Marvel Comics, 1988