Friday 29 June 2007

Grand Finale

This week’s episode of Doctor Who brings the current year’s run to an end. It will be interesting to see what head writer and executive producer Russell T Davies does to try to match the emotional impact of Rose’s exile last year or the Doctor’s death and regeneration before that.

Ah, yes. That regeneration.

Over the last three years, several Doctor Who episodes have drawn on bits of ancillary fiction. This year, the two-part “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” was adapted from a novel, and “Blink” was expanded from a short story. In previous years, “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel” and “Dalek” used elements of a couple of CD audio plays.

But there’s another that I’ve never seen acknowledged (though that could be my lack of observation): “The Parting of the Ways” and the Doctor’s regeneration.

Doctor Who Magazine’s final comic strip story about the eighth (Paul McGann) Doctor, “The Flood”, concerned an invasion of present-day Earth by vastly advanced Cybermen from the future. At the climax of the story, the Doctor merges with a fragment of the Time Vortex, which the Cybermen have been using to power their time machine, and ages the Cybermen to dust in seconds. The story ends with a postscript showing the Doctor and his comics-only travelling companion, Destrii, heading off in search of new adventures.

“The Flood” has recently been reprinted by Panini as part of their paperback collections of Doctor Who strips. The endnotes to that collection reveal that Russell T Davies had originally offered the Magazine the opportunity to show the regeneration of the eighth Doctor into the ninth (Christopher Eccleston) Doctor. Comics writer Scott Gray and editor Clayton Hickman eventually turned down this offer, as Davies also insisted that all ninth Doctor comic strips should feature Rose. Gray and Hickman thought that to jump straight from a regeneration, with Destrii still in the TARDIS, to a Doctor-and-Rose setup would have created too many unanswerable questions about what happened in between.

So, to summarise. The last eighth Doctor comic strip, which Russell T Davies discussed extensively with the Magazine staff, would have ended like this: the Doctor merges with the Time Vortex, ages his enemies to dust, but is destroyed by the Vortex energy and has to regenerate.

The last ninth Doctor TV episode, written by Russell T Davies, ended like this: Rose merges with the Time Vortex and ages her enemies to dust; the Doctor absorbs the Vortex energy from Rose, but is destroyed by it and has to regenerate.

Quite a coincidence. Davies has, generally speaking, been quite open about his borrowings, so I suspect this was an unconscious echo. But perhaps it’s for the best that Gray and Hickman backed off from showing the regeneration, after all.

It’s the end …

This is the last post (until next year, anyway) in a series improvising around the themes of upcoming Doctor Who episodes. So to conclude, I’d like to share with you my favourite Doctor Who comic strip ever, by Richard A Starkings, from the fanzine TARDIS.

(Click to enlarge)

Doctor Who “The Flood” part 8, by Scott Gray (story), Martin Geraghty (pencil art), David A Roach (inking), Adrian Salmon (colours), Roger Langridge (lettering), Clayton Hickman (editor), Doctor Who Magazine issue 353, 2005, reprinted in Doctor Who: The Flood, Panini Books, 2007

Doctor Who by Richard A Starkings, TARDIS: The Quarterly Magazine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society Volume 8 Number 4, January 1984

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Faithful unto Undeath

Dark Horse Comics is publishing next month the first volume of its collected Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus. (Update, 29 June: it actually came out this week.) Here’s part of the blurb:

“The definitive comics collection of all things Buffy starts here. This first massive volume begins at the beginning-The Origin, a faithful adaptation of creator Joss Whedon's original screenplay for the film that started it all …”

The emphasis on “faithful” is Dark Horse’s own. What do they mean by it?

As is well known, Joss Whedon was unhappy with the way the producers, director and cast of the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed his script. It was in part a desire to treat the subject right that led him to respond positively to the suggestion of reworking it into a TV series.

The Dark Horse adaptation, first published in 1999, reversed some of those changes. For example, this version ends with Buffy burning down the gymnasium of her old school, just as Whedon scripted it, and in line with the references in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”.

But Dark Horse have made their own changes to the original script. Buffy is 15, not 18. She doesn’t get menstrual cramps when vampires are near. The vampires can’t fly (probably – a couple of panels are ambiguous, and I have half a premonition that the feet hanging over the demon stronghold in the recent comics story “The Long Way Home” might turn out to belong to the origin story’s villain, the ancient vampire Lothos). So it’s not exactly an accurate representation of - not really faithful to - the screenplay.

There are also whole scenes here that weren’t in the movie script. Two are adapted from the flashback scenes in the TV episode “Becoming, part 1”. So is The Origin faithful to the TV series first, and to the movie screenplay second, where that isn’t in conflict? Well, not really, because those scenes are changed. Buffy gains some extra dialogue to explain references to two different boyfriends in the two different sources, and her first fight with a vampire is totally different. A tag scene involving Buffy going to Las Vegas has no source in either the movie or the TV series, but serves as a hook on which Dark Horse could hang further “Year One” adventures (though it took them a few years to get round to that).

Is there anything wrong with Dark Horse making these changes? Not at all. They were valid choices when trying to make a coherent comic book out of disparate sources from different media. It’s the marketing I object to. The blurb on the original trade paperback collection just calls it an adaptation of Whedon's original script, with no spurious claim to fidelity.

Still and all, The Origin does score points by including the very primal Buffy scene, the idea from which Joss Whedon started, before he worked it up into a character or a story: a stereotypical blonde victim walks into a dark alley, is attacked by a monster, and kicks its ass.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin issue 1 “Destiny Free”, issue 2 “Defenseless Mechanisms”, issue 3 “Disco Inferno” by Joss Whedon (original screenplay), Christopher Golden and Daniel Brereton (Script), Joe Bennett (Pencils), Rick Ketcham, Randy Emberlin and J. Jadsen (Inks), Jeromy Cox and Guy Major (Colors), Ken Bruzenak (Letters), Scott Allie and Ben Abernathy (editors), Dark Horse Comics, January – March 1999, reprinted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin, Titan Books September 1999

Tuesday 26 June 2007

“Anne Francis Stars In …”

Another female adventure character from the 1960s, another one-off Gold Key comic.

The TV series Honey West lived and died in the shadow of The Avengers. ABC television had evidently noticed the success of The Avengers in the UK, and wanted their own version. It ran for just one season (1965-66), before being cancelled to make way for the real thing. Honey West star Anne Francis reckoned that this was because The Avengers, having recouped its production costs in its home market, could be bought more cheaply. But it seems likely that ABC’s executives were also belatedly responding to the wave of anglophilia set off by the Beatles.

They may also have noticed that Honey West wasn’t all that good. Its half-hour episodes about the escapades of a Los Angeles private eye, her disapproving partner, and her pet ocelot are light and breezy, but they creak with the burden of middle-aged script writers trying desperately to be hip. Personally, I find that rather appealing, but The Avengers was constructing part of 1960s pop culture, while Honey West was just looking in.

Even so, Honey West offered a type of heroine that had probably never been seen before on US TV: confident, proficient, armed, and capable of throwing men around in a fight. And unlike Charlie’s Angels, producer Aaron Spelling’s next show about women detectives a decade later, Honey was clearly the boss.

Spelling’s source material was a series of novels by the semi-pseudonymous GG Fickling (“Fickling” was real, “GG” was fake), but all he kept were the name and the basic idea of a female PI. Fickling’s books were an attempt to write Mickey Spillane type thrillers with Marilyn Monroe in the role of Mike Hammer, but they are desperately crude in all senses of the word.

There’s a good site about the books here, and one about the TV series here. The entire series is available on Region 0 PAL DVD.

Gold Key’s comic book adaptation was produced in 1966. It contains two 16-page stories, “The Underwater Raiders”, about a jewel robbery on board a ship, and “The Fall Guy”, about an attempt to fix a wrestling match.

The Grand Comics Database attributes both stories to Paul S Newman (script) and Jack Sparling (art); but I suspect that there may, at least, have been different inkers at work. Here are a couple of extracts from “The Underwater Raiders”.

And here are some panels from “The Fall Guy”.

Some of those later panels remind me of Dan Spiegle. The likenesses are better, and the inking style is reminiscent of his work on Nemesis in The Brave and the Bold, but the compositions aren’t up to his standard.

The comic can best be described as “functional”. By Gold Key standards, that’s pretty good, but still hardly worth seeking out.

Update, 27 June 2007 Added two more scans.

Pictures and Panels
Honey West issue 1, Gold Key/KK Publications, 1966

Monday 25 June 2007

The Other Cyd Child

One of the tidbits of information in the extras included in Titan’s series of Modesty Blaise reprints is that original artist Jim Holdaway had a set of reference photos taken to help him with the fight scenes, modelled by European women’s judo champion Cyd Child.

Child also worked as a stunt artist, and often doubled for Diana Rigg in The Avengers. So, stretching a point, you could say that she played both Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel, which is quite an achievement.

The history of The Avengers in comics was covered in an article by Ian Wheeler, John Freeman and Dez Skinn in Comic International issue 201, and is the subject of a fine web-site, The Avengers Illustrated.

Among my pitifully small collection of issues of TV Comic is issue 720, from October 1965, which marked the start of a seven-year run of The Avengers, off and on.

(Is it just me, or should those dialogue balloons be read manga-style?)

Some of the TV Comic strips were reprinted for the American market by Gold Key. Although the indicia name the single issue they produced as The Avengers, the cover carries the title John Steed, Emma Peel, presumably to avoid confusion and trademark conflicts with Marvel’s super-hero team. The Avengers Illustrated shows the photographic covers, but here is how the newly-coloured interior art appears.

By far the best comic strip version of The Avengers ever put into print was the mini-series Steed and Mrs Peel (which also features Tara King), published by Eclipse Comics and Acme Press between 1990 and 1992, and written and drawn by Grant Morrison and Ian Gibson, perhaps the most perfect combination of creators and subject that I can think of. Confusingly, the back-up strip, about Mrs Peel’s reunion with her husband, was also drawn by Gibson, though it was written by Anne Caulfield. The back-up is quite amusing, but not a patch on the main feature, “The Golden Game”.

Again, The Avengers Illustrated only shows the covers, so here is a sample of the interior.

“The Golden Game” is a clever and witty story, and deserves a trade paperback if anyone can get the reprinting rights.

The Avengers, first instalment, art probably by Pat Williams, TV Comic issue 720, 2 October 1965

John Steed, Emma Peel “The Roman Invasion”, art probably by Pat Williams, from The Avengers issue 1, Gold Key, 1968, reprinted from TV Comic

Steed and Mrs Peel book 1, “The Golden Game” part 1 “Crown and Anchor” by Grant Morrison (writer), Ian Gibson (artist), Ellie de Ville (letterer) and Dick Hansom (editor), Eclipse Comics and Acme Press, 1990

Sunday 24 June 2007

Review: Modesty Blaise – The Inca Trail

Modesty Blaise: The Inca Trail by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Enric Badia Romero (art), Titan Books, May 2007, 118 Pages of strip, £11.99
Features “The Reluctant Chaperon” (first published in the Evening Standard, 26 March – 14 August 1975)
“The Greenwood Maid” (first published in the Evening Standard, 15 August 1975 – 2 January 1976)
“Those About to Die” (first published in the Evening Standard, 5 January – 28 May 1976)
“The Inca Trail” (first published in the Evening Standard, 1 June – 20 October 1976)

I am always slightly amazed at how well a good daily adventure strip can read in collected form. Surely, it is a hard enough task to tell a story in over a hundred tiny daily instalments over the course of several months, coping with readers who might start part way in, or miss a couple of weeks’ instalments while on holiday, or just not really remember how the story started by the time they reach the end. For it also to read fluidly in a collected format that was never intended by its authors is quite remarkable.

In this eleventh volume of Titan Books’ chronological reprints, Modesty Blaise reads so smoothly that it might have been written as a graphic album with an eccentrically restrictive panel grid. And Modesty Blaise was a very good daily adventure strip indeed. For once, I can say that about an old British comics series without fear that my judgement is being distorted by nostalgia. The Evening Standard is a London local newspaper, and it was not readily available where I grew up. I had read one or two of the novels, but I didn’t encounter the comic strip until Titan’s previous attempt to reprint the series in the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, Modesty Blaise, which ran from 1963 to 2001, was a contemporary crime and adventure strip.

No, honestly, it was.

Modesty herself had established a criminal empire in the southern Mediterranean while still in her teens. She had then retired, but, together with her sidekick Willie Garvin, was forever being drawn back into trouble.

The Modesty Blaise stories generally followed one of two templates. In the first, Modesty becomes aware of some nefarious activity by accident, or is informed of it by one of her old criminal associates, or by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence. She and Willie plan to defeat the baddies. Something invariably goes wrong, and Modesty and Willie have to improvise their way to victory. In the second formula, someone with a grudge targets Modesty or Willie. They learn of this, work out a counter-plot (which usually goes wrong) and, again, improvise their way out.

The joy of the stories is in the variations that O’Donnell plays upon these themes, the convincing and ingenious details he adds from his research, and, above all, in the characters of Modesty and Willie, confident, competent, and displaying utmost faith in each other, but never superhuman. They make mistakes, are injured, are sometimes even out-thought or out-fought. Their victories always seem earned by effort, ingenuity and skill.

Right from the start, Modesty was also a rare female lead character of the period who was intelligent, tough and decisive, on a par with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. But whereas Steed generally had the upper hand in The Avengers, nobody is ever in any doubt that Modesty is the dominant partner in her relationship with Willie (and, indeed, with anyone and everyone else). O’Donnell had rapidly dropped her tendency to become weepy at the end of a “caper”. The only remaining charge of sexual stereotyping that could be levelled at the character is the authors' willingness to use show her using sex to her advantage, as in the occasional tactic she calls “the nailer” – going into combat topless to distract the enemy. But even that is handled with a matter-of-fact humour that is typical of the series.

Of the four stories in this volume, three follow the first template. In “The Reluctant Chaperon”, Modesty is looking after the teenaged daughter of a friend when they witness an attempted Mafia hit, as part of an attempt to take over organised crime on Malta. In “The Greenwood Maid”, Modesty and Willie agree to help an old associate recover the proceeds of a bank robbery so that it can be put into a charitable trust for aiding drug addicts (it’s hidden in a castle where a Robin Hood pageant is being staged – hence the first of the two anachronistic panels earlier). In “The Inca Trail”, Modesty encounters the children of the deposed President of a South American state while trekking across country to meet Willie. “Those About to Die” follows the second template, as a dying billionaire kidnaps various combat specialists and forces them at gunpoint to take part in gladiatorial games.

Neither “The Greenwood Maid” nor “Those About to Die” is prime Modesty: stories with costume gimmicks often suggested that O’Donnell was bored. But “The Reluctant Chaperon” and “The Inca Trail” both benefit from commentary on the lead characters by various callow young things, and “The Inca Trail” has a particularly neat climax involving crossing a ravine with no bridge.

When I moved to London in the late 1980s, I was finally able to start reading the strip on a daily basis. I formed something of a dislike for Romero’s art at the time. Although it told the stories clearly enough, his characters all looked like they would be more at home in a Barcelona disco in the 1970s than wherever the story was set in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

That’s hardly a complaint I can level here. These stories are set in the 1970s, after all, and Romero’s types look quite at home in stories set in Malta, an unnamed Mediterranean island and a country in South America. Reproduction is patchy: clear in most places, but sometimes prone to losing fine lines and blotchy spreading of thicker ones. I’m not sure why this should be the case, as Titan presumably has access to Peter O’Donnell’s collection of tear sheets. But since the strips were originally drawn to be printed by letterpress on newsprint, they are quite robust, and comprehensible even when poorly reproduced.

Peter O’Donnell contributes short introductions to each story. There is also a reprinted interview with him from 1973, which covers his early work in comics (did you know that he wrote the venerable Weary Willie and Tired Tim for Comic Cuts at one point?), his move into newspaper strips, and his writing techniques for Belinda, Garth and Tug Transom.

Overall, if you have any interest at all in thriller or contemporary adventure stories told in comic strip form, Modesty Blaise is pretty much indispensable. Pick any album. This one will do.

Saturday 23 June 2007

A Carefully Considered Procurement Decision

UNIT says ...

... "Oooh, that looks nice. We'll have one of them. But add on another couple of runways, just in case."

(Note: Sorry, this only makes sense if you have seen the Doctor Who episode "The Sound of Drums". Trust me, you'll understand when you do.)

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, written by Angus P Allan, art by Ron Embleton, TV Century 21 issue 148, 18 November 1967, reprinted in Action 21 issue 6, March 1987

Friday 22 June 2007

Present Enemy

So, the Master.

The villainous Time Lord had been almost ubiquitous in the television series since the start of 1971, but his first appearance in comic strips, in TV Action in March 1973, coincided with his last appearance on the screen. The Master would make two more comic strip appearances that year, in a Doctor Who Holiday Special which I don’t have anymore, and in the Doctor Who Annual 1974. But, by then, Roger Delgado, the actor who had brought him to life, had been killed in a car accident. The Master would not appear in the comics again until after the TV series ended.

For the TV Action story, Dick O’Neil concocted a daft but enjoyable tale in which the Master impersonates Bonnie Prince Charlie in order to lead a bunch of time-displaced Jacobite highlanders to seize a nuclear submarine. Gerry Haylock’s art really shines here, in what was, I think, his last Doctor Who strip to be run in full colour throughout.

But look at these pictures of the Master.

Notice how many of them have the right eye in shadow, just like that Radio Times cover at the top of this post. Haylock evidently had very little by way of photographic reference for Roger Delgado – a common problem for comic strip artists in the days before home video.

Steve Livesey, who drew the comic strip for the Doctor Who Annual 1974 seems to have had even less to draw on. He achieves good close-up likenesses of the Doctor, but the Master, like Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, is shown only at a distance and seems not quite right. Apparently lacking good photographs to work from, Livesey relies on strong visual signifiers to make these characters readily identifiable – the Brigadier’s uniform and moustache, and, for the Master, his widow’s peak, moustache and goatee beard.

So strong were those visual cues that when the part was eventually recast on television, Anthony Ainley was obliged to dye his hair black and wear a false beard. The same signs recurred in the Master’s most recent comic strip appearance, a solo, Doctorless, story called “Character Assassin”, in which the Master travels to the Land of Fiction to destroy Professor Moriarty. In his commentary in Panini’s reprint edition, writer Scott Gray notes of Adrian Salmon’s character designs that “the Master started off as the Delgado version, but morphed into a more iconic incarnation” pitched somewhere between Delgado and Ainley.

That strong image could be misleading. This character, from the Countdown Annual 1972 (published in 1971) is not the Master, but a mad botanist called Rayner, who is eaten by his killer plant a few pages later. Artist Jim Baikie had presumably just made use of a stereotypical set of sinister facial features.

Doctor Who Magazine has run a few other strips featuring the Master’s image over the years. In one, a cardboard stand-up is being used as a target at a UNIT training site. In another, a teacher who disapproves of Doctor Who bears a strong resemblance to Roger Delgado. The Master himself made an unambiguous appearance in “The Man in the Ion Mask”, a rather crudely drawn story about his attempt to escape from imprisonment in between the TV serials “The Daemons” and “The Sea Devils”.

“Flashback” seems to have been intended to be read as an origin story of sorts. In it, the seventh Doctor shows Benny Summerfield a holographic record of how the first Doctor fell out with a fellow Time Lord called Magnus over a cruel and potentially catastrophic experiment. Magnus is shown as arrogant and callous, but perhaps not yet irredeemably evil – symbolised by the fact that he has grown a moustache, but not yet a goatee!

Of course, the last three television Masters – Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi and John Simm – have been beardless. Doctor Who Magazine’s eighth Doctor stories “The Fallen” and “The Glorious Dead” featured a version of the Master who was not only beardless, but bald, after another bout of body-hopping (in the same way that he had absorbed the forms of Nyssa’s father Tremas in “The Keeper of Traken” and a human ambulance driver in the TV Movie). This version of the Master applied for the soon-to-be-vacant post of God, but lost out to another applicant.

And what of the John Simm version? We shall see over the next two weeks if there is room for him to cross over into the comics. Even without a beard.

Pictures and panels

Radio Times cover, 2-8 January 1971, taken from The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Doctor Who “The Glen of Sleeping” by Dick O’Neil (writer) and Gerry Haylock (artist), TV Action issues 107-111, 3 March – 31 March 1973, Polystyle Publications, reprinted in Doctor Who Classic Comics issue 20, 25 May 1994, Marvel Comics UK

Doctor Who “The Time Thief”, art by Steve Livesey, Doctor Who Annual 1974, World Distributors, 1973

“Character Assassin” by Scott Gray (writer), Adrian Salmon (artist), Roger Langridge (letterer), Alan Barnes & Clayton Hickman (editors), Doctor Who Magazine issue 311, reprinted in Doctor Who: Oblivion, Panini Books, 2006

Doctor Who, art by Jim Baikie, Countdown Annual 1972, Polystyle Publications, 1971

Doctor Who “The Man in the Ion Mask”, script by Dan Abnett, art by Brian Williamson, letters by Helen Stone, editor John Freeman, Doctor Who Magazine Winter Special, Marvel Comics UK, 1991

Doctor Who “Flashback”, by Warwick Gray (script), John Ridgway (art), Alan O’Keefe (letters), Gary Russell (editor) Doctor Who Magazine Winter Special, Marvel Comics UK, 1992

Doctor Who “The Glorious Dead” part 10, by Scott Gray (story), Martin Geraghty (pencil art), Robin Smith (inks), Roger Langridge (lettering), Gary Gillatt & Alan Barnes (editors), Doctor Who Magazine issue 296, reprinted in Doctor Who: The Glorious Dead, Panini Books, 2006

Thursday 21 June 2007

A Rhetorical Question

If John Constantine is no longer part of the DC Universe, but in a Vertigo world of his own ...

... why is he cowering from the Joker on this cover?

(Note: I have read the issue, so I do know what that image is supposed to represent. But the white, elongated face and green hair still seem awfully familiar.)

Hellblazer issue 233, cover by Lee Bermejo, DC Comics/Vertigo, August 2007

Wednesday 20 June 2007

F.A.B. … ish

Heidi at The Beat seems surprised that there are still Thunderbirds fans. I suppose it never did take off in the USA the way it did in Britain and Japan, among other territories.

In Britain, there is still a Thunderbirds magazine. Well, I say “still”, but this version, from Redan Publishing, only began publication in 2000. Redan claims to distribute about 45,000 copies an issue – remember, the UK market is about a fifth the size of the US, so that’s not at all bad, especially given that the final episode of the TV series first aired in 1966, and the last of the original source material, the movie Thunderbird 6, came out in 1968. (The magazine is explicitly based on the 1960s TV series and films, not the 2004 movie or, for that matter, the Thunderbirds 2086 anime series from the 1980s.)

Having said that, the magazine is thin pickings for us older geeks. In the issue I have before me, there is a fumetti recreation of a TV episode’s story which would once have delighted me, but is less of a thrill now that I have a DVD player with a freeze-frame facility.

There is also a comic strip, running to 5 pages, which looks like this.

It seems a far cry from the glory days of the TV Century 21 strip, when a typical page might look like this. (As with the other pictures in the post, except the cover, click to enlarge - but this one is most worth it, by the curse of Irzan!)

To be fair, anyone’s comic art is likely to suffer from a comparison with Frank Bellamy’s. And according to The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History, Redan has aimed its magazine at 4-7 year olds – probably about 4 years younger than the intended readership of TV21. Simple, empty, brightly coloured, shadow-free art seems to be what editors think young children want these days.

So, the Thunderbirds strip has survived by evolving. I am no longer its natural habitat, but I hope it continues to survive in its niche.


Thunderbirds Magazine issue 85, Redan Publishing, 2007. Cover art possibly by Lee Sullivan; photos from the 1966 Thunderbirds TV episode “Ricochet”; strip Thunderbirds Are Go “Ghost Ship”, uncredited, art possibly by Lee Sullivan

Thunderbirds, part 1 of a story attributed to Scott Goodall, art by Frank Bellamy, TV Century 21, 30 September 1967, reprinted as “The Earthquake Maker” in Thunderbirds … to the Rescue, Ravette Books, 1992

Tuesday 19 June 2007

DC's First Lesbian Wedding

Here's the cover for the upcoming JLA Wedding Special.

How sweet to see Black Canary marrying Wonder Woman. I haven't been paying much attention to their books lately. How long has this romance been going on?

What's that? Canary's marrying Green Arrow? No, no. Black Canary and Wonder Woman are clearly separated from the other figures, foregrounded while everyone else looks at them. If anything, the cover's focus seems to be Wonder Woman's butt. Green Arrow isn't there at all.

No, it can't be Black Canary's hen night. It's got to be the reception: there's a large wedding cake in the background.

You think Superman's supposed to be bursting out of the cake, like a stripper? No, the artist would have made it look more like he was rising dramatically, rather than hovering. He wouldn't have been so silly as to fill the picture with other flying figures who would confuse the point. And he wouldn't have been foolish enough to obscure the bits of flying cake by putting confetti all over the background. Anyway, who throws confetti on a hen night?

What's that? You think DC should institute remedial art classes for its artists and editors, and tell the latter to pay more attention to supporting and enforcing minimum standards of craft, rather than concocting bad crossover stories? Well, we can agree on that, at least.

Cover to JLA Wedding Special Issue 1, art by Ed Benes. Due to go on sale in September 2007. Taken from the list of new DC solicitations at Comic Book Resources

Monday 18 June 2007

Review: Crikey!

Crikey! The Great British Comics Magazine! issue 1, edited by Brian M Clarke, cover by Mike Kazybrid, Sequential Media, 2007, 48 pages, £3.99
Features: “Nutty Notions” by Brian M Clarke, “Fiendishly Interesting: A Terrifying Tale of the British Horror Comic” by Bob Norton, “My Comicy Saturday” by Brian M Clarke, “Ken Reid” interviewed by David Britton, “The Terrible Toys of Dr Droll” by Tom Sweetman, “My Comic Hero: Frank Bellamy” by Glenn B Fleming, “Play Misty For Me” by Tom Sweetman, “Wham!: The Funniest Comic in the World” by Brian M Clarke, “The Devil in the Shop” by Tom Sweetman, “Um letters”, “Jackie Who?” by Helen D Bennett

After reading about this on the web, I was pleasantly surprised to find it in a bricks-and-mortar shop, Travelling Man in Newcastle. Crikey! is a new fan magazine about British comics from the 1950s to the 1970s. I’d guess that those dates (“from TV Comic and Eagle through to the end of Smash and Valiant” as it says at the Crikey! website) were picked not so much because of any trends in comics or society – say, from the end of paper rationing to the arrival of the first home computers and mass-market video recorders – but because that was when the authors were children. The tone of the magazine is mostly and unashamedly one of nostalgia rather than comics scholarship.

So there are a couple of articles on Brian M Clarke’s comics shopping habits in the 1960s and Tom Sweetman’s pleasure at spending a night at the local newsagents. The article about Frank Bellamy is about how inspirational Glenn B Fleming found his work, rather than about Bellamy’s career as such (newcomers would be better off with the essay about Bellamy in the TwoMorrows volume True Brit). And while it’s nice to see that girls’ comics are not neglected, Helen D Bennett’s essay about Jackie is rather odd, as it’s a comic she claims not to have read.

This nostalgic approach is fine as far as it goes. There is always some pleasure to be derived from reading about what makes writers happy (though the website sometimes crosses into rather dubious “my childhood was better than yours” territory). But rather more to my taste are the more historically minded account of how Leo Baxendale founded the new humour comic Wham! in 1964, the overview of girls’ horror comic Misty and the 1979 interview with the late Ken Reid, one of the great humour cartoonists of his day. The article on the horror comics scare of the 1950s which led to the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 – still on the statute books, I believe – would have been of more interest to me if I hadn’t already read Martin Barker’s book on the subject, A Haunt of Fears, but the bibliography here makes me realise that that book came out 23 years ago, so there’s plenty of justification for going over the ground again.

Like Lew Stringer, I would have liked more facts and figures, although, unlike Lew, I am not knowledgeable enough to supply corrections. Since British comics so rarely ran credits in those days, I appreciate that the names of writers and artists may not be available, but it would be helpful if the issue numbers and dates of the comics scanned for illustrations were given. And while it is a great pleasure to see so much vintage comic art, I am not wild about the approach of printing thin slivers of pages, with only fractions of some panels showing.

Still, this was an entertaining and, in places, informative read, and I’ll certainly be getting the next issue.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Reviews: Franklin Richards, Re-Gifters, Tank Girl

Franklin Richards: World Be Warned issue 1 “Gravity Depravity!”, “Bully Breakdown!”, “Monkey Talk!”, “Build a Better 'Bot!” and “Frank Smash!” by Chris Eliopoulos (story, art and letters), Marc Sumerak (story and script), Brad Anderson (colours) and Mark Paniccia (editor), 25 pages of strip, Marvel Comics, August 2007, US$2.99

The cover suggests that this is going to be a parody of Marvel’s current “World War Hulk” cross-over storyline. This turns out not to be the case, which is lucky for me, as I tend not to read the mainstream Marvel titles and would probably have missed most of the jokes. Instead, it’s business as usual: Reed and Sue Richards’ young son Franklin getting into various wild scrapes, usually as a result of stealing some of his father’s gadgets, to the exasperation of his robot babysitter, HERBIE, while the Fantastic Four remain mostly oblivious.

The Hulk does appear in one of the five short tales here, but it is in his classic, infantile state. Reed has promised him a candy bar in return for taking part in some tests. Cue Franklin.

The Franklin Richards series continues to live in the shadow of Calvin and Hobbes, to which it owes much of its style and tone, although Franklin’s adventures are real (within the context of the story), not imaginary. Eliopoulos suffers most from the comparison, his art looking flat and empty compared with Bill Watterson’s remarkably accomplished and inventive draughtsmanship. But this is still good-natured and funny stuff.

Re-Gifters, written by Mike Carey, art by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, grey tones by Jesse Hamm, lettering by John J Hill, 144 pages of strip, DC Comics/Minx, 2007, US$9.99

Re-Gifters tells a story that conforms to a familiar pattern: Girl pursues The Wrong Boy, and in doing so neglects Her Real Self (represented here by taking part in a Hapkaido martial arts contest). When she reconnects with Her Real Self, she achieves self-respect, acclaim and The Right Boy.

Carey, Liew and Hempel may be following a formula of teenage fiction, but they do so in a lively way, with a well-paced story with lots of humour and quirky detail. For example, the title refers to a unique statuette, which the Girl (Dixie) gives to The Wrong Boy, who then gives it to the girl he’s really interested in it. The statuette passes through various hands before being given back to Dixie by The Right Boy. It’s a neat narrative macguffin which helps crystalise her disillusionment with The Wrong Boy.

Being every bit as much a white-middle aged Englishman as the writer, I have no idea if the portrayal of the Korean-American community of Los Angeles, from which Dixie springs, is authentic, but it feels convincing.

Liew and Hempel provide artwork that is loose, fluid and expressive, and which lifts every page. Notice here how the warped shape of the auditorium mirrors the heroine’s agitation and confusion.

Well worth a read, even if you are not one of the teenage girls at whom DC’s Minx line is aimed.

Tank Girl: The Gifting issue 1 “The Dogshit in Barney’s Handbag”, “Kill Jumbo!”, “The Gifting”, “Haiku”, “The Funsters Will Play”, written by Alan C Martin, art by Ashley H Wood, letters by Robbie Robbins, editor Chris Ryall, 22 pages of strip, IDW Publishing, May 2007, US$3.99

When Tank Girl first appeared in Deadline back in 1988, it seemed like a breath of fresh air (though Tank Girl herself probably never smelled particularly fresh). Creators Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett either were or seemed young, and irreverent and hip, and their mix of sniggering humour, violence and spontaneity struck a cord with readers who also wanted to think of themselves as young, and irreverent and hip.

Tank Girl: The Gifting presents much the same mix as before: Martin’s crude jokes packed into barely-structured squib stories told in the wild art of a hot artist. But Hewlett is gone, and Ashley Wood has taken his place. Where Hewlett seemed to be making it up as he went along, Wood’s seems to be a carefully-planned wildness. And the thought kept nagging at me that, surely, Alan Martin must have grown up at least a little bit in the last 19 years. Is this just a pose? Was it just a pose back then?

So there is an air of calculation to this issue that makes it seem not quite right. It’s still amusing, in a puerile sort of way, and it’s strikingly drawn, but I’d hate to see Tank Girl become the oldest swinger in town.