Monday, 30 July 2007

Review: Phonogram - Rue Britannia

Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen (story) and Jamie McKelvie (art and lettering), Image Comics, 2007, 138 pages of strip, US$14.99

David Kohl is a phonomancer, a magician whose power is focused in music, particularly, in his case, the Britpop movement of the 1990s. Kohl learns that someone is planning to resurrect Britannia, goddess of Britpop, but in zombified form. As events progress, Kohl finds his memories and tastes changing, putting his very identity at risk.

The first chapter of this story – which was originally issue 1 of the pamphlet series – is a glorious tribute to the power of popular music. It refers at length and explicitly to a batch of singles by Sunderland popstrels Kenickie (who were strangely omitted from Bryan Talbot’s otherwise comprehensive tour of Mackem culture in Alice in Sunderland). But even if you are wholly unfamiliar with “Come Out 2Nite” - a state you should change as soon as possible - you can understand what this sequence means by reference to any pop songs that have ever spoken directly to you.

Then it all takes a turn for the worse. Well, a couple of turns, really. One is in the artwork. Jamie McKelvie’s art has a quiet, clear-line style that is fine for the more mundane parts of the storyline, a visual equivalent of the dry, deadpan voices of Luke Haines (of the Auteurs) or Damon Albarn (of Blur). But as Kieron Gillen’s script turns more to the mystical, McKelvie’s only recourse is to use grey tones instead of black for the more hallucinatory aspects, such as the “Memory Kingdom” where Kohl talks with Britpop idols. It’s a missed opportunity, especially when Blur turn up and you start to wonder what Albarn’s flatmate Jamie Hewlett might have done with this material. McKelvie is also none too strong on likenesses: I spent several pages wondering why Kohl was being guided through the Memory Kingdom by a young Elton John, before realising that this was supposed to be Luke Haines, songwriter and singer of the Auteurs.

And this is indicative of the second wrong turn: Phonogram becomes too specifically about Britpop, and, in particular, about the interpretation of Britpop favoured by Kohl.

For those of you who missed it, in the early to mid 1990s, the pallid boys with guitars in Britain started to produce songs with whistleable tunes and audible lyrics. In part, this was a reaction to the popularity of American grunge a few years earlier. Hence “Britpop” – British, not American, pop more than rock. Hair was shorter, clothes sharp in the mod tradition. For a while, this caught the mood of the public, and Britpop bands, most prominently Blur, Oasis and Pulp, thrived in the record sales charts and the playlists of BBC Radio 1. And then it ended. Fickle public taste moved on; the pallid boys were accused of selling out and decided to make their music more wilfully obscure and difficult; and, most catastrophically of all, the new Blair government tried to co-opt Britpop for political ends. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport even published a book called Cool Britannia. No pop movement could survive that.

Phonogram’s perspective on this period takes its cue from the so-called “inkies” of the time: the NME (formerly the New Musical Express) and Melody Maker, two music magazines published weekly on low-grade newsprint. Their target readership was pop music snobs, more concerned that their record collections should be credible than danceable. I know, dear reader, for I was that snob – but ten or more years older than most readers, so less likely to be taken in by the inkies’ latest round of hype, scorn and scene-building

Much of Phonogram’s plot revolves around Kohl’s attempt to defend this perspective against an assault by a rival group of music-centred magicians called retromancers, who want to produce a simpler version of the memory of Britpop which they can peddle at 1990s nights at clubs and theme pubs. This, it seems, threatens Kohl’s own memory and, indeed, identity. It seems that, in Phonogram, there is only room for one, definitive, memory of the past, and this is something to be contested.

This is where I part company with Phonogram. “But it wasn’t like that. Blur vs Oasis and nowt all else.” Well, indeed, to Kohl and Gillen and me. But possibly not to those who preferred The Sun to the NME, and certainly not to schoolchildren of 1995, shouting the names of their favourites at each other the week the two bands released their new singles simultaneously. And their views are as valid as ours, especially given that one of the defining traits of Britpop was that it was actually popular, unlike so much indie guitar music. I remember once, browsing in HMV, Oasis’ “Wonderwall” came on the in-store radio. Every single person I could see was singing along under their breath. Would they have sung along to the Auteurs’ “Unsolved Child Murder”? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that they misremember Britpop, but that it was always something different for different people. By championing a more complex picture of Britpop, Phonogram favours a less complex picture of culture and memory.

And, for that matter, a less complex picture of the longer-term development of British pop music. Phonogram describes Britpop as “the second flowering of British guitar pop”. So what was the first? The sixties? It’s hard to dispute the claims of the Beatles and the Stones. But, hold on, the first issue’s cover is a pastiche of the sleeve of Elastica’s debut album, which was heavily influenced – to say the least – by 1970s punk and new wave bands like Wire and the Stranglers. Was there no flowering then? And if no further flowerings are to be allowed, where does that leave the current wave of commercially successful guitar pop bands like Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys? (Kohl does at least mention the last of these, though in condescending terms.) It is hard to esacpe the impression that this is just special pleading on the part of a music scene that happens to be the one that meant most to the character.

Several times in Phonogram, Kohl’s fellow phonomancers warn him that it is a mistake to hang his own identity on a long-dead phase in music, and you expect that the resolution of the story might involve him learning and growing past this. But instead, he reaffirms this narrow definition, mellowing only to the extent that he now accepts that he always did like some songs by unfashionable groups like Echobelly and Sleeper. So a story that starts as a hymn to the potency of cheap music become something more crabbed and cliquey, a defence of hipster superiority and a denial of the right of people to enjoy music however they may. Perhaps, when Gillen was writing about those Kenickie singles, he should have heeded the mickey-taking of “Punka” (lyrics taken from Lyrics Download ):

Hey Punka (hey!), how're you doin'?
Hey Punka (hey!), are you staying true to you?
Cos that's what Punkas do.
I wanna be a Punka too.
And if your friends all bitch, you're a Punka (Punka!),
If your life is kitsch, you're a Punka (Punka!).
I'm a Punka too.

Hey Punka (hey!), I've got ambition.
Hey Punka (hey!), my one wish is to
Be as punk as you when I grow up,
If Punkas ever do grow up.
And if your hits all miss, you're a Punka (Punka!),
If you dance like this, you're a Punka (Punka!).
I'm a Punka.

P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Lo-fi songs are great (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
We never learnt to play, cos we're Punka!
I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up if Punkas ever do,
I wanna be
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Underground cliché (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
We always want to stay, hey! (Punka!)
I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up, if Punkas ever do,
And play guitar like

[Guitar break]

P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Lo-fi songs are great (Punka!)
P-U-N-K-A (Punka!)
Don't you want to play, Punka?

I wanna be a Punka too,
When I grow up, if Punkas ever do,
I wanna be like you.

Even so, Phonogram is not a complete loss. Gillen is good at creating simple but memorable supporting characters, such as Kohl’s oblivious friend Kid-with-Knife, or the hermit Indie Dave, who keeps himself warm by burning old seven-inch singles. And there is a major sub-plot about a woman who has given up listening to music, leaving behind as a ghost her old obsession with the Manic Street Preachers and their guitarist and lyricist, Richie Edwards, which is much more touching, humane and uplifting than the main plot. The resolution of the subplot closes the book. If the rest of it had maintained the tone of the first chapter and the last few pages, I would have been much happier.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Uncollected: Heros the Spartan

Over at Yet Another Comics Blog, Dave Carter asks what omnibus editions we’d like to see.

Well, I’m not too keen on omnibuses as such: I’d rather have books that I can hold open without having to undertake a course of weight training first. But there is one comic collection I’d very much like to see but probably never will: Heros the Spartan, written by Tom Tully and drawn by the incomparable Frank Bellamy, the supernaturally-tinged story of a Roman soldier, born in Sparta, posted to a monster-haunted ancient Britain.

One problem with reprinting Heros is its format: it appeared stretched across the centrespread of the tabloid sized Eagle comic, treating the whole area as a single page. The landscape pages of Frank Miller’s 300 - a story and format inspired by Heros - are not much more than a quarter of that size.

(Click to enlarge)

Even so, Bellamy’s work on the Thunderbirds comic strip from TV21, which used the same format, has been reprinted several times, at least in part. But Thunderbirds has a life of its own, as demonstrated by the existence of an ongoing comic even now. Heros never stuck in the popular consciousness like his stablemate Dan Dare. I guess that if anyone was going to reprint the strip, it would have been to cash in on 300, with Frank Miller cover quotes.

Frank Bellamy – The Checklist says that one Heros story, “The Island of Darkness”, was reprinted last year by Douglas Shaw, but my Google-fu has failed to turn up any more information about either Shaw or the reprint. I guess I’ll have to ask.

It would still be nice to see the whole thing. If my quick calculations are right, all of Heros the Spartan would fit on to only about 100 big, wide pages. Even at 360mm by 580mm, that needn’t be a wrist breaker.

Heros the Spartan by Tom Tully (script) and Frank Bellamy (art), Eagle Annual 1966, Odhams Books, 1965

Page of Heros the Spartan downloaded from an art dealer a while ago – I’m afraid that I didn’t note the name or URL

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Grant Morrison Explains It All

Courtesy of the instant drawing functioning of our imaginary correspondent’s iPhone, we present an exclusive comic strip transcription of Grant Morrison’s explanation of his plans for DC’s next big crossover event, Final Crisis, straight from the DC Nation panel at the San Diego Comic-Con.

Any resemblance between these dispatches and panels from Zenith “Phase III/4: Facts and Figures” by Grant Morrison (script), Steve Yeowell (art) and Kid (lettering), 2000AD prog 630, 10 June 1989, is entirely due to polyvalent retrochronicity at an omniversal level. Or copying.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Webcomics by Whedon, Geary and others

Dark Horse is posting comics at MySpace. This first vitual issue of Dark Horse Presents includes new work by Rick Geary, Joss Whedon, Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon, among others. Found via The Beat.

Fun fact: Gerard Way cannot spell "brakes".

New Doctor Who Comic from IDW

Newarama reports that IDW will begin publishing "later this year" a new Doctor Who comic, to be written by Gary Russell (script editor on the TV series, who ran the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays) and drawn by Nick Roche (whose work I don't know - he has, apparently, been working on the new Transformers comic for Titan magazines).

That makes four different licensed Doctor Who comic strips running simultaneously, unless Battles in Time is finished before this one starts. Surely that must be some sort of record?

Update, 28 July There are interviews with Russell and Roche, and a number of Roche Doctor Who sketches, posted on Comic Book Resources.

Reviews: Doctor Who, Crécy, Buffy

Doctor Who Magazine issue 385, “Bus Stop!” by Rob Davis (story), John Ross (art), James Offredi (colours), Roger Langridge (letters), Clayton Hickman and Scott Gray (editors), Panini Magazines, 22 August 2007, 9 pages of strip (out of 68), £3.99

Of the three regular licensed Doctor Who periodicals, Doctor Who Magazine is the one aimed mostly at adult readers. The comic strip runs only to a handful of pages each issue, but this time out it’s worth a look even if you aren’t particularly interested in the articles, because “Bus Stop!” is possibly the best Doctor Who strip published since the TV series returned to the screen.

It’s an inconsequential, one-off story about assassins trying to kill a future president by bumping off his ancestor, the present day Mayor of London. But although slight, it captures the upbeat energy and invention of the modern TV show without either the stodginess of storytelling that tends to weigh down the Magazine strip or the toothless, anodyne feel that usually disarms the strip in Doctor Who Adventures (on which Ross is the regular artist). Despite catching the TV tone, it remains resolutely a comic strip, using devices, such as keeping the Doctor off-panel for the opening page of his conversation with a bus passenger, that would not work on the small screen but which do work on the printed page.

Good stuff. I hope that we see more from this team.

Crécy by Warren Ellis (story), Raulo Caceres (artwork) and Felipe Massafera (cover), Avatar Press/Apparat, July 2007, 44 pages of strip, US$6.99

This is the Anglo-American way of war: stay as far away from your enemy as possible, and kill him before he can get near you. Before the cruise missile, before the Lancaster bomber or the Martini-Henry rifle, the way to do that was with the longbow. Handled by a skilled archer, it had a greater range, penetration and rate of fire than any personal weapon before the twentieth century. Muskets replaced it, not because they were inherently more effective, but because any untrained idiot could fire one, whereas it took years of practice to be a longbowman. At Crécy in 1346, the flower of French chivalry met the longbow for the first time, and died. This was in the early days of the Hundred Years War – in truth, perhaps just a particularly intense stage in the 750-year war that began with the triumph of the Bastard in 1066 and ended with the crushing of the Monster in 1815.

Warren Ellis’ story is a monologue by an English longbowmen, anachronistically aware of the 21st century readership he is addressing. His language is foul, and so are his attitudes, but his blunt, coarse honesty keeps the reader on side as he explains why and how the English are fighting in France, while the humour, scatology and xenophobia keep things from getting too schoolmasterly. His account is reasonably accurate, if you discount a far more complete sense of national identity than existed in the fourteenth century, and it is both informative and cruelly entertaining.

In keeping with Avatar’s house style, Cacares’ artwork suggests that much more time has been spent on elaborate rendering than on composition, but it is serviceable.

In comparison with Crécy, the old-school true war stories reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics seem bloodless in more senses than one.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight issue 5, “The Chain” by Joss Whedon (script), Paul Lee (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), cover by Jo Chen, Dark Horse Comics, August 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99

A new Slayer is recruited to impersonate Buffy, going underground (literally) to intimidate a demon lord with the power of Buffy Summers’ reputation. “There’s always a name … The name can inspire terror, awe, sometimes great things…”

The name on the credits is Joss Whedon. So … how do we know that he actually wrote this?

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Better than Supergirl (2)

Along with lots of work by other artists, Comic Art Community has a huge collection of convention sketches by Adam Hughes. As you might guess, 99% of it is cheesecake (the other 1% is mostly Star Wars). But what is really impressive is the way his strong sense of design permeates even these rush jobs.

This Super-Lois is a fine example. You could almost imagine it as a Fleischer cartoon title card (if those were vertically oriented), with a spot on Shuster-styled face and more than a hint of Rosie the Riveter. The heart-shaped emblem also reminds me of the St Trinian’s school badge, but that must be coincidence.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Mary Marvelman Makes Me Feel Old

So, to recap: 1954 saw the end of L Miller and Sons’ supply of Captain Marvel and Marvel Family comics to reprint for the British market. They turned to Mick Anglo to come up with a substitute, the Marvelman Family.

Anglo replaced Captain Marvel with Marvelman, and Captain Marvel Jr with Young Marvelman. His biggest change was to replace Mary Marvel with a boy, Johnny Bates, Kid Marvelman.

So perhaps it is only appropriate that Mary Marvel is now recapitulating the character development Alan Moore devised for Johnny Bates when he revived the Marvelman strip.

The thing is, Marvelman came back in 1982 – a quarter of a century ago. Countdown and the Mary Marvel plotline are drawing not just on that, but on other developments in superhero comics that all date back to the 1980s: structurally (the company-encompassing crossover, pioneered with Crisis on Infinite Earths; weekly publication, as attempted with Action Comics), thematically (darker and gloomier plotting and characterisation supposed to appeal to older readers) and even technically (the page as a stanza, the replacement of thought balloons and third-person narration by first person caption boxes).

Go back another 25 years from 1982 and you’re in 1957. Even the journeyman superhero comic book writers of the 1980s had ambitions beyond merely emulating the work of Gardner Fox or, for that matter, Mick Anglo. They had absorbed the developments made by Lee and Kirby, Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart, among others, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Alan Moore said that the purpose of his America’s Best Comics imprint was to reassemble superhero adventure comics, after deconstructing them in Marvelman and Watchmen. Grant Morrison seems to share that project, especially in All-Star Superman, and I’d guess that it was also the intention behind DC’s One Year Later plan. But too many writers seem to have gone back to taking inspiration from their well-thumbed copies of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and – if they’re lucky enough to have them - Marvelman.

That’s the rationalised version. The original, stream-of-thought version of this post ran, “Christ, Moore's Marvelman started twenty-five years ago? Where did the time go? God, I feel old. And everything was better when I was young. Bah!” So my ramblings may be a little skewed by self-pity and nostalgia today.

Pictures and Panels

Marvel Family issue 3, cover by CC Beck and Pete Constanza, Fawcett Comics, July 1946, taken from the Grand Comics Database

Marvelman Family issue 1, L Miller and Sons, October 1956, cover taken from Superbrits

Mary Marvel issue 9, cover by Jack Binder, Fawcett Comics, February 1947, taken from the Grand Comics Database

Marvelman Family “Marvelman Family and the Invaders from the future” by Mick Anglo (script) and Don Lawrence (art), Marvelman Family issue 1, L Miller and Sons, October 1956, reprinted in Marvelman Special issue 1, Quality Communications, 1984

Marvelman “When Johnny Comes Marching Home …” by Alan Moore (writer) and Garry Leach (artist), Warrior issue 3, July 1982

Countdown issue 47, cover by Ed Benes, DC Comics, June 2007, taken from the DC Comics website

Monday, 23 July 2007

Portrait of Mademoiselle X

Jo Chen has provided a series of striking and beautifully finished covers for Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight comics, and all I’ve done is poke fun at Buffy’s apparent height, or Willow’s strange wardrobe.

So I thought that I’d point out the virtues of the latest Chen cover to be posted, as part of Dark Horse’s solicitations for October. The composition’s a little awkward, but Chen has caught the faces perfectly, applying just the right amount of exaggeration to Faith’s hooded eyes and cynical mouth (and perhaps a little more exaggeration to her bust). But what I really like is the way that, for a story about Faith infiltrating high society, Chen has nicely evoked the spirit of John Singer Sargent in the black dress and dark pearly background. Classy stuff. Or possibly extreme kitsch. You decide.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Review: Tiny Tyrant

Tiny Tyrant by Lewis Trondheim (writer) and Fabrice Parme (artist), translated by Alexis Siegel, First Second Books, 2007 (from original stories published 2001-2004), 120 pages of strip, US$12.95

This is a collection of a dozen stories about Ethelbert (Adalbert in the original French), a little boy who is absolute monarch of the pocket-handkerchief kingdom of Portocristo. He is spoilt, selfish and greedy, an untrammelled id who generates absurd chaos all around him, but who somehow never loses the sympathy of the small child inside the reader.

The tone is that of an animated cartoon, with the bizarre Looney Tunes logic of Trondheim’s stories matched by Parme’s cartooning, which is reminiscent of the modernist animation of Gene Deitch crossed with the decorative impulses of Ronald Searle. Free-form, borderless panels are anchored by coloured page backgrounds, and in this edition the art is given a miniaturist delicacy by the size of the paperback – about half the dimensions of the standard European album page for which Parme presumably drew these strips.

The translation is pretty much seamless, although the much-used phrase “Miss Prime Minister” sounds odder to British ears than it would to French or American (a tip: should you ever meet a British PM, just say, “Hello, Prime Minister,” not “Hello, Mister Prime Minister”).

Tiny Tyrant is playful and inventive, and frequently very funny. It’s also exquisitely pretty. Another little gem from First Second.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Review: The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics

The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics, edited by David Kendall, approximately 500 pages of strip, Constable & Robinson, 2007, £12.99
Features: “I Saw It!” by Keiji Nakazawa, translated by Project Gen
“The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman” by Raymond Briggs
Charley’s War, first instalment, by Pat Mills (writer) and Joe Colquhoun (artist)
“Snow” by Askold Akishin
“Desert” by Carol Swain”
“Lone Hawk” by Archie Goodwin (writer) and Alex Toth (artist)
“The Landings in Sicily” (uncredited)
“Landscape!” by Archie Goodwin (writer) and Joe Orlando (artist)
“The 5.56 Blues” by Don Lomax
“Souvenirs!” by Archie Goodwin (writer) and John Severin (artist)
“A Bullet for Me” by Darko Macan (writer) and Edvin Biukovic (artist)
“Combat Zone” by Darko Macan (writer) and Edvin Biukovic (artist)
“The Legion of Charlies” by Tom Veitch (writer) and Greg Irons (artist)
“You Only Lose Once”, art by Sam Glanzman
“Breakout at St Lô”, art by Sam Glanzman
“Pearl Harbor”, art by Sam Glanzman
“Your Luck Just Ran Out …” by Alexey Malakhov
“Last Day in Vietnam” by Will Eisner
“The Casualty” by Will Eisner
“The Road to Glory” (uncredited)
“Sand” by Marc Chadbourn (writer) and Nathan Massengill (artist)
“Long Distance Runner” by Danijel Zezelji
“A Bowl of Rice” by Ilya
“Slaughterhouse Safari” by Fabian Goranson
“School Essays of Berlin Kids About the Year 1945”, adapted into comics by Ulli Lust, translated by Kai Pfeiffer
“Casting Stones” by Eric Drooker

I was tempted just to leave this review at the contents listing. I mean, 500 pages of comics including complete works by Will Eisner, Alex Toth, Archie Goodwin, John Severin, Raymond Briggs (author of When the Wind Blows), Eric Drooker (of Flood) and Keiji Nakazawa (his first-hand account of the Hiroshima bombing, which he later expanded into Barefoot Gen)? It’s not a hard choice, is it?

There is a wide range of material here, from American, British, Japanese, German, Russian and Croatian writers and artists. Many of the stories deal with the Second World War or Vietnam, but others cover conflicts from the Great War to modern Burma. Styles range from Goranson’s autobiographical art-comics approach to an encounter with FARC guerillas in Columbia to Briggs’ caricatured satirical fable of the Falklands War and Veitch and Irons’ bizarre underground tale of Vietnam veterans possessed by the spirit of Charles Manson, by way of the high-calibre mainstream US comics story-telling of Archie Goodwin and his cohorts from Warren magazines.

The main mode of war comics omitted here is what you might call the “war is fun” school, exemplified by Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos in the US and Captain Hurricane in Britain. Several publishers are not represented, presumably because they were unwilling to have their stories reprinted here. They include DC Thomson, so there’s nothing here from Commando or Warlord, and also DC Comics and EC Comics, so there’s no Kubert, Kanigher or Kurtzman (although the cover of the book has obviously been borrowed from an issue of Frontline Combat). Some Tardi or Hugo Pratt would have been welcome, too, but you can’t have everything.

Reproduction is generally good, but some of the material originally intended for US magazines or British half-tabloids suffers from reduction to 15.6 by 23.4 cm pages. The second of the long (and rather dreary) representatives of the British “picture library” format appears to have been scanned from a rather muddy published copy, as have the three Sam Glanzman stories which are the other weak point of the book (pedestrian stuff, with no narrative drive or fluidity of panel-to-panel progression), but which hog all of the available colour pages. I would rather that Briggs’ “The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman” had been reproduced in the colours in which its author painted it.

But all this is quibbling. This is a varied, thoughtful collection. As a one-volume survey of an entire genre of comics, it is hard to imagine it being done better. It is also heartening that Robinson has taken a second step into market for big comics anthologies, after its Mammoth Book of Best New Manga last year. Perhaps we can hope for a Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics or Horror Comics or Romance Comics or …

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Can the Batusi be far behind?

See here for the original (link via the Absorbascon).

The Brave and the Bold issue 5 “The Lords of Luck” Chapter 5 “The Batman of Tomorrow” by Mark Waid and George Pérez (storytellers), Bob Wiacek (inks), Tom Smith (colours), Rob Leigh (lettering) and Joey Cavalieri (editor), September 2007, DC Comics

Better than Supergirl

Ladies and Gentlemen, Beryl the Peril is …

Beryl, art by Steve Bright, Dandy Summer Special 2007, DC Thomson

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Review: Trains Are … Mint

Trains Are … Mint issue 1, by Oliver East, Rolling Stock Press, 2006, 36 pages of strip, £4.99

Trains Are … Mint issue 2, by Oliver East, Rolling Stock Press, 2006, 36 pages of strip, £4.99

Enough with the boffo yuks. No more flying people in tights for now, or men with guns, or car chases. Here instead is an illustrated account of a walking tour of local railway stations in Northern England.

No, wait, come back!

This small press comic is worth a look, if you are in a certain mood. There’s a third issue, too, but I haven’t seen that yet.

Oliver East’s Trains Are … Mint is an odd fish. For one thing, there are no trains, mint or otherwise. (“Mint” is a term of approbation, by the way.) Instead, East shows us his path as he walks from one small railway station to another. There’s no story as such, just a sort of illustrated diary. Nothing much happens, and though East is sometimes favourably impressed by the dull suburban stations he visits, it is hard for the reader to feel the same.

The artwork is sketchy and naïf, finished, I think, in marker pen and watercolour. Almost everything shown is urban landscape. People, when encountered, are simplified down, sometimes shown only as their hollowed out clothes. The lettering approximates to handwriting.

Colour, pacing and use of space all build up a sense of drizzly Sunday melancholia. There is an acuteness of observation, and an occasional asperity of humour, that lends these two comics a very specific feeling of place and culture.

Sometimes, on a grey day, you just want to sit and watch the raindrops trickle down the window, drinking milky tea and eating a slice of battenburg cake. This is a comic for those times.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Reviews: Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun, Martha Washington Dies

Deadpool/GLI Summer Fun Spectacular issue 1, written by Fabian Nicieza and Dan Slott, lettering by Dave Lanphear, editor Nicole Boose, cover by Paul Pelletier, Dave Meikis and Will Quintana, 39 pages of strip, Marvel Comics, September 2007, US$3.99
Features: Squirrel Girl, art by Kieron Dwyer, colour by Pete Pantazis
Deadpool and the Great Lakes Initiative “Drunk with Power”, art by Nelson, colour by Giulia Brisco
Big Bertha and Deadpool “A Date with Density", pencils by Paul Pelletier, inks by Dave Meikis, colour by Will Quintana
Flatman and Deadpool “Fight or Fold?”, art by Clio Chiang

It’s nice to see that that, although so many of its core super-hero titles are being bound ever tighter into cross-continuity big events, Marvel continues to publish titles that provide lighter-toned stand-alone stories: not just the Marvel Adventures line, but the likes of Spider-Man Family, Hulk and Power Pack, X-Men: First Class and the occasional special about the third-rate super-heroes from the Great Lakes, of which this is the latest.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. A major problem is the presence of the repulsive psychopath Deadpool. It is possible to make casual, amoral slaughter funny, but it’s hard and requires a careful balance of tone. Deadpool’s repeated killing of Mr Immortal raises a laugh, because we know Mr Immortal will recover (the clue is in his name), and because repetition of an absurdity is an old comedy standby. But the gratuitous killing of a passing character called Grasshopper right at the end is just plain nasty and leaves the book with a bad aftertaste (but see the comments section for more on this - added 16 July).

“Drunk with Power” is the weakest thing here, laboured and stolid in plot, dialogue and artwork. “A Date with Density” is nimbler on all counts, but still rather pedestrian.

“Fight or Fold?” is lovely little throwaway piece, with light, dancing artwork from Chiang.

But the best thing here is the Squirrel Girl sequence. Nicieza and Slott skewer the dark, gloomy, adolescent tone of the Civil War period Marvel comics, but still provide a coherent story about a delightful, upbeat character that works for those of us who haven’t read the Civil War books. Dwyer’s compositions are clear and fluid, finished with a rough, energetic line. It’s a shame about the ending, but otherwise, these two stories easily justify reading this comic.

Oh, and a message to toy manufacturers: please tool up a model Squirrel-A-Gig right now. Well, when you've finished with those librarian figures, anyway.

Martha Washington Dies by Frank Miller (writer), Dave Gibbons (artist), Angus McKie (colourist), Diana Schutz (editor), 17 pages of strip, Dark Horse Comics, July 2007, US$3.50

In which Martha Washington dies, surprisingly enough; in a blaze of light, at the age of one hundred, after speechifying a bit. No man-eating badgers are involved.

Miller provides an uneventful coda to the Martha Washington series, with touches as unsubtle as the previous episodes (“And now the barbarians sing their chants and set off their bombs and pray for the Armageddon we’ll never let them have”), but without the jokes. Gibbons’ artwork is as meticulous as ever.

I have seen some online criticism of Dark Horse for publishing something so inconsequential. But this chapter will serve a purpose by providing a definitive end to the upcoming omnibus The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century. For those who already have the preceding stories in one form or another, this separate publication is surely a positive and helpful thing, staving off the Hobson’s choice of expensive duplication or incomplete story.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Oh, Now Why Isn't This For Real?

(Click to enlarge)

From Rex Libris: I, Librarian by James Turner, SLG Publishing, 2007

Friday, 13 July 2007

We Interrupt This Blog ...

... for possibly the most remarkable statement ever issued on behalf of the British Army:

"We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area."
Major Mike Shearer, Basra

Nothing at all to do with comics, of course. At least, not yet. Perhaps we'll see a story inspired by it in Commando Picture Library one day.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Next, the Electronux

The Guardian reports that police in England and Wales are to be issued with helmets equipped with digital cameras, so that they can record the incidents they are called to.

Just like Johnny Alpha, then.

Reports that Gordon Brown has offered an advisory post at the Home Office to Nelson Bunker Kreelman are as yet unconfirmed.

Strontium Dog “Death’s Head” part 2, by John Wagner and Alan Grant (writers), Carlos Ezquerra (artist) and Steve Potter (letterer), 2000AD prog 179, c1980, reprinted in Strontium Dog: The Early Cases, Rebellion, 2005

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Dandy Downer

Lew Stringer has spotted that the subscription page for The Dandy - home of Desperate Dan and Beryl the Peril - now lists it as appearing fortnightly, down from weekly.

Presumably, publishers DC Thomson plan to sell more of each issue by keeping it on sale twice as long. The risk, of course, is that The Dandy will lose visibility and momentum, leading to falling sales. Let’s hope that the former is the outcome.

It’s a sad state of affairs. The Dandy is due to turn 70 this December, and is Britain’s longest running comic still in production. Indeed, even globally it is, I think, beaten only by Detective Comics in the USA (first published earlier in 1937) and by TBO in Spain (first published in 1917) – if the latter is still going. The Dandy had a major revamp in 2004 aimed at aligning it with the tastes of modern children while keeping it as a comic, rather than turning it into a children’s magazine. It would be a pity if that turns out to have been in vain.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Shiny shiny

Christina Strain’s rich, silky colours on Runaways, particularly the second set of panels (featuring Karolina) that I posted yesterday, kept reminding me of someone’s work, but I couldn’t remember whose. Then it struck me: Ron Embleton.

I don’t imagine that there was any direct influence. More likely, they were both thinking of someone like Titian. But any pretext to post some pretty pictures is fine by me.

Plate by Ron Embleton from Caesar’s Legions: The Roman Soldier 753 BC to 117 AD by Nicholas V Sekunda, Simon Northwood and Michael Simkins, illustrated by Richard Hook, Angus McBride and Ron Embleton, omnibus edition published by Osprey Publishing, 2000

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, by Angus P Allan (writer) and Ron Embleton (artist), TV 21 issue 143, 14 October 1967, reprinted in Action 21 issue 2, August 1988

Monday, 9 July 2007

Reviews: Black Canary, Runaways

Black Canary issue 1 “Living With Sin” part 1 by Tony Bedard (writer), Paulo Siqueira (penciller), Amilton Santos (inker), ILL (colourists), Pat Brosseau (letterer) and Mike Carlin (editor), 22 pages of strip, DC Comics, Early September 2007, US$2.99

Black Canary ponders Green Arrow’s marriage proposal while she and the little girl, Sin, who she is looking after are drawn by Canary’s ex-husband into a plot by the League of Assassins.

This is a perfectly competent slice of super-hero soap opera. Bedard’s script and Siqueira’s pencils tell an easily followed, coherent tale. Bits of backstory are provided painlessly. You could pick up this issue without any familiarity with the characters involved and still understand how they relate to each other and what is going on. Only the assassin Elvises in a flashback sequence have much zing to them, but this is still a solid and quite entertaining piece of work.

The only problem is that the nominal heroine of the piece, Black Canary, comes across as by far the least distinct personality here. Green Arrow, Sin, Canary’s ex, even Batman in a five panel cameo, all are delineated in a more lively manner than Black Canary, who comes across as a rather generic goody. It is of a piece with this that the lead villain is obsessed with Green Arrow, not with the supposed star of the show. That’s a particular pity, as this mini-series is Black Canary’s last outing before she is relegated to sidekick status in Green Arrow’s book. But perhaps it is also an indication of why.

Runaways issue 27 “Dead-End Kids” part 3 by Joss Whedon (writer), Michael Ryan (penciller), Rick Ketcham and Jay Leisten (inker), Christina Strain (colourist), VC’s Joe Caramanga (letterer) and Nick Lowe (editor), cover by Jo Chen, 24 pages of strip, Marvel Comics, August 2007, US$2.99

The teenage Marvels find themselves stuck in New York in 1907, where they encounter rival super-powered gangs called Wonders.

Whedon’s story is pretty straightforward, with amusing enough dialogue and some nice touches such as the appearance of the Yellow Kid himself. The attempts to parallel present day Marvel, especially a character who appears to be a direct counterpart to the Punisher, are perhaps a little overdone.

But even more appealing is the artwork by Ryan, Ketcham and Leisten, with sympathetic colouring by Strain. This is lushly detailed and rendered, but still clear and focused on its storytelling purpose.