Sunday 30 September 2007

Racing Back to the Starting Line

Just over a month ago, I posted a picture Jack Kirby had drawn of Ally Sloper, whom I described as “probably the first recurring comics character”.


Sloper first appeared in Judy in 1867. Poking around the Early Comics Archive maintained by Andy Konky Kru at BugPowder, it is possible to identify several earlier candidates. I was aware of Richard Doyle’s Brown, Jones and Robinson, but had somehow got it into my head that it was only published as a book (like Töpffer’s M Vieuxbois). But no, it was a series published in Punch in 1850 and then collected in 1854.

The Early Comics Archive also has several adventures of one Mr Briggs, by John Leech, dating from 1850 and 1851, more of Leech’s Tom Noddy from 1855, and four stories of Mr Peter Piper by John Tenniel from 1853.

Was any of these the first recurring comics character? I’m not confident enough to say. Anyway, this is reducing art history to the level of the Guiness Book of Records. Appreciate them for what they are. Tenniel’s art on Peter Piper is particularly enjoyable, mixing looser, more cartoony shapes than his Alice illustrations or caricatures with the same meticulous rendering.

But staying at that low level for a moment, John Leech was, of course, responsible for one unchallengeable first: the first time the word “cartoon” was used to denote a humorous picture, rather than a preparatory drawing for a painting, fresco or tapestry. He even labelled it “Cartoon No 1”.

There’s a bit of a shaggy dog story here. It starts when Parliament burnt down in 1834. There was no Guy Fawkes to blame this time. A dry summer had turned the tally sticks – medieval wooden tax returns – stored in the basement into perfect kindling. A stray spark set it all burning.

As the new Palace of Westminster was being built (the one still used by Parliament today), paintings and frescos were commissioned to decorate it. The cartoons – in the old sense of preparatory drawings – were put on display. The magazine Punch thought that there were better uses for the government’s money than spending it on art for the rulers. At the time, the humorous drawings that appeared in Punch were called “cuts”, short for “woodcuts”, from the printing technique. A full page was given over to “the Big Cut”, the principal satirical picture of the issue, and John Leech was the artist designated to draw it. This is what he came up with for the issue dated 15 July 1843.

There were five more numbered “cartoons” in this sequence, and by the end of it, Punch’s staff had renamed “the Big Cut” as “the Cartoon”. The name soon spread to the other humorous cuts, though the earlier term was still common enough in 1890 for Alfred Harmsworth to name one of his new ha’penny picture-story papers Comic Cuts.

The Cartoon – with the definite article and a capital “C” – was a fixture of Punch for the next 150 years. Among Leech’s successors on the Cartoon was that same John Tenniel who drew Mr Peter Piper. When I first read Punch in the 1970s, the Cartoon was the responsibility of Trog, who also drew the comic strip Flook in the Daily Mail and a weekly political cartoon in The Observer. Trog was the pen name of jazz musician Wally Fawkes.

So at least one Fawkes prospered from the destruction of Parliament.

You may now groan.

Ally Sloper “Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount” by Charles Ross and Marie Duval, Judy, 1867, reprinted in Ally Sloper: A Moral Lesson, 1873, and taken here from the Early Comics Archive, which reproduces the full strip and many more.

“How Mr Peter Piper Was Induced to Join in a Bear-hunt” by John Tenniel, 1853, taken from the Early Comics Archive, which reproduces the full strip.

John Leech “Cartoon No 1”, Punch, 15 July 1843, reprinted in William Hewison The Cartoon Connection: The Art of Pictorial Humour, Elm Tree Books, 1977

Self-portrait with Flook by Wally “Trog” Fawkes, from the Camden New Journal report of his retirement


a) Go here.

b) Consider how many such drawings DC had erased while Kirby was working on Jimmy Olsen.

c) Weep a little.

(Yes, I’m linkblogging. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m still in my pyjamas, drinking coffee. The work ethic will kick in later.)

Saturday 29 September 2007

It’s One of Those “Ooh, Look What’s in Previews” Posts

I’m not going to bother with Dark Horse, DC, Image or Marvel, because they’ve already had their solicitations up on Newsarama and Comic Book Resources for weeks. But here is some unexpected and interesting-looking stuff from that section of Previews where it’s easy to miss things, because your eyelids are now getting as heavy as your arms after leafing through the first few hundred pages.

Hill & Wang
Rick Geary J Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography. Although I am always wary of the difficulty of separating fact from reconstruction from imagination in non-fiction comics, I am also always bowled over by the way Geary recounts his Treasury of Victorian Murder stories, and it is good to see him branching out. This is labelled “Not available in Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK.” I suppose it is only appropriate that a biography of J Edgar Hoover should involve curtailing the free movement of information. One for Amazon, then.

Houghton Mifflin
Frederik Peeters Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story. Bart Beaty wrote earlier this year, “For six years when people ask me ‘What is the book that you think most needs to be translated from French to English?’ my answer is always the same: Pilules Bleues, the true story of a young man and his romance with a woman living with HIV.” So this is good news for ignorant anglophone monoglots like me.

Titan Books
Willie Patterson and Sydney Jordan Jeff Hawke Volume 1: Overlord. In the 1980s, Titan published two volumes of this beautifully drawn science fiction newspaper strip, which originally ran in the Daily Express from 1954 to 1975. This volume reprints all three stories from the 1980s Book 1, plus the first story from the 1980s Book 2, so, once again, Titan are skipping over the first thirteen stories in the series. The solicitation art (below right) is a nasty bodge of one of Brian Bolland’s covers from the previous reprints (below left). Let’s hope that they change it for the actual cover. Whatever my gripes, this is still well worth getting for the actual content.

Friday 28 September 2007

Friday Night Fights: Jack-in-a-Grid

The trusty old nine-panel grid can be used to achieve a huge array of effects.

Here, with no variation in panel shape of size, no change in type of shot, and no backgrounds, Jack Kirby forces us to concentrate on the dynamics of the two figures in motion.

(It's a shame that the colourist didn't get the point, changing colours with each panel and building to a deep red two panels before the end of the fight, with nowhere for the intensity to go but down.)

They’re fighting for Bahlactus, and the new bout of Friday Night Fights.

Fighting American “Poison Ivan” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, from Fighting American issue 3 Prize Group, October-November 1954, reprinted in Fighting American, Marvel Comics, 1989

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Peter Pan and the Lost Comics

On the voiceover, Armando Iannucci is talking about comics for adults. But on the screen, there’s a big picture of Judge Death.

Hello, cognitive dissonance!

The overt argument of the third and last of the BBC’s Comics Britannia documentaries, “Anarchy in the UK”, was that comics had grown up. But everything conspired to remind the viewer of how far comics still cling to childhood. 2000AD was originally designed for 12-year olds. Unusually, its readers did not give up the comic in puberty, but went on reading it through their – OK, then, our - teens, twenties, thirties and forties. That allowed 2000AD’s creators to build up the satire and the violence, and eventually to add in a little sex. But the tastes of those 12-year olds formed its foundations and still determine its basic structure.

There’s a similar consideration about most of the other comics featured last night. Viz not only uses the style of DC Thomson and IPC children’s humour comics, but much of its own humour is thoroughly juvenile. Small children would enjoy the fart jokes of Johnny Fartpants, while Roger Mellie is just that boy on the bus shouting “bogies!”, but with a more extensive vocabulary. Much was made of Deadline’s connection to the rave scene, a pop culture movement that rejected adult responsibility and idealised ravers as loved-up children. The featured works of Alan Moore are elaborate and complex stories – but about superheroes and the heroines of classic children’s books.

Mind you, that impression was partly due to the selection of material. In my mind’s eye, I pictured an alternative arrangement that put 2000AD, Warrior and Watchmen into an extended version of last week’s documentary about (in part) boys’ adventure comics. My imaginary new third instalment would, instead, consider how Raymond Briggs had used the techniques he developed in his comic albums for children to address genuinely adult concerns in Ethel and Ernest (by way of When the Wind Blows). It would trace Posy Simmonds’s development of newspaper comic strips – always intended for adults – into works such as Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe. It would cover the undergrounds and Hunt Emerson, the small press scene and Eddie Campbell, the growth of British-produced manga and webcomics. And it could conclude with the two big British commercial successes this year – not just Alice in Sunderland, but also Simone Lia’s Fluffy.

Because, sometimes, there’s nothing more grown-up than a talking rabbit.

Roger the Dodger and his friend Tommy attempt to impersonate an adult. Non-consecutive panels from a story reprinted in Dandy and Beano: Famous Faces from the Comics (DC Thomson, 1992). Art by Ken Reid, I think.

Monday 24 September 2007


Another book that I picked up in the secondhand shops on Saturday was a 1972 collection of John Kent’s satirical comic strip Varoomshka.

The series and its eponymous heroine adapted their name from that of Veruschka, a top model of the period, best known now for her brief appearance in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (she’s the woman being straddled by David Hemmings on the poster), and for being photographed in elaborate trompe-l’oeil body paint.

Varoomshka first appeared in 1969, on the tail-end of a vogue for Candide-like adventures in which scantily- or un-clad young women acted as innocent witnesses to the vicissitudes of contemporary society. Other examples include Little Annie Fanny, Phoebe Zeitgeist and, most obviously, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy.

Compared to these, Varoomshka was relatively mild. Unlike Candy or Barbarella, she was not sexually assaulted repeatedly, nor was she as literally objectified as Phoebe Zeitgeist. Mostly, she merely acted as a decorative witness to the words and actions of caricatured politicians of the day (and to be fair, Kent’s unmodulated line and use of clear open space, matching the style of girls’ comics of the day, can be very decorative). Sometimes, however, she was more completely integrated into the story, as here.

I think we can all guess how that tale turned out.

Artists have, of course, long used allegory as an excuse for producing pictures of naked women. Additionally, British newspaper comic strips have a well-established tradition of undressing their heroines: consider Jane in the Daily Mirror or George and Lynne in the Sun. So which rag ran Varoomshka?

That’s right, it was the Guardian, bastion of British social democracy and cultural liberalism. Little wonder that, according to Kent’s obituary, many of the staff there objected strongly to the presence of the strip. And it wasn’t just the sexual politics that was an odd fit. In this sequence, Varoomshka goes to the cinema, to see a film about an African republic whose leaders are, basically, Prime Minister Ted Heath and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, in blackface.

Sometimes it is sobering to remember that such things were acceptable comic discourse within my lifetime. But it is reassuring to note how many of the politicians in the book are now so thoroughly forgotten that I can’t recognise them at all. The strips remind us, too, of how many discarded options and contingencies litter the path of history, as Kent uses Varoomshka to object to (never fulfilled) plans to sell off BBC Radio 1, or to the prospect of a deal with the illegal white minority government of Rhodesia. Presumably these must have seemed like genuine possibilities at the time.

Kent would go on to produce a number of comic strip political satires for Private Eye, but mostly without the half-dressed women.

Dudley D Sick Boy

What with Comics Britannia and the two documentaries about The Broons and Oor Wullie, I’ve seen this photo of Dudley D Watkins (artist for those strips as well as Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty) an awful lot these last few weeks.

And every time I think, “Jings," (I'm trying to keep with the spirit of the thing,) "He looks like Sick Boy from Trainspotting.”

Is it just me?

Photo of Dudley D Watkins taken from this site about him.
Photo of Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy from this site

Sunday 23 September 2007

Secondhand Supes

I went browsing yesterday in the two remaining secondhand bookshops in Whitley Bay, Bay Books and Oliver’s. One of the books I came away with was the 1983 British Superman Annual, which reprinted the trilogy of stories by Len Wein and Jim Starlin from DC Comics Presents issues 27-29 (cover-dated November 1980 to January 1981) that introduced the alien super-villain Mongul. There’s also a Superboy story by Cary Bates and Bob Brown.

A major selling point was the cover by Brian Bolland. Twomorrows later reprinted it for an article in Draw! about the artwork produced for British DC reprint annuals, but they printed it in monochrome. This allowed them to misidentify the floating head at top left as Darkseid. But it’s not him, or Thanos, either. I wonder if Jim Starlin is throwing himself into the upcoming Death of the New Gods in the hope of getting rid of Darkseid, and so covering up his artistic tracks.

Coincidentally, the illustration on the endpapers is an undistinguished piece by Dave Gibbons, who would go on to draw Mongul in his most memorable outing, “For the Man Who Has Everything”, written by Alan Moore.

The stories are quite fun. One point of note is that, after Superman has screwed up and allowed Mongul to get the key to the star-sized weapon platform Warworld, he turns to Supergirl for “heavy duty super-help”. Supergirl soon demonstrates that she is more level-headed than her cousin.

It’s not a characterisation I expect to see any time soon in the current run of Supergirl.

Pictures and Panels
Superman Official Annual 1983, cover by Brian Bolland, London Editions Magazines, 1982

Superman and Supergirl “Warworld!” by Len Wein (scripter), Jim Starlin and Romeo Tanghal (artists), Ben Oda (letterer), Jerry Serpe (colourist) and Julius Schwartz (editor), DC Comics Presents issue 28, DC Comics, December 1980, reprinted in Superman Official Annual 1983, London Editions Magazines, 1982

Five Superheroes since 1950

Over at the Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon asked on Friday for nominations for five good superheroes created since 1950 and not published by DC, Marvel or Image. Unfortunately, he wanted replies the same day, so I’m going to treat this as a meme instead.

1. Marvelman
Created by Mick Anglo for L Miller and Sons, 1954
Created anew by Alan Moore and Garry Leach for Warrior, Quality Communications, 1982

I admit to having only an historical interest in Mick Anglo’s original (if we can call a knock-off of Captain Marvel “original”). It was crude and ugly stuff even by the standards of its day, and even when drawn by future great Don Lawrence. Moore’s version was something else again, taking Nietzchean claims of transcending morality seriously, examining the social and political consequences of the übermensch, and doing it with meticulous story construction and genuinely literate, if still mannered, words. It didn’t hurt that Garry Leach’s artwork, at once penumbral and crackling with energy, mimetically realistic and convincingly other, made my teenage eyes pop. His successors – even John Totleben – never quite lived up to the start Leach gave the series. If you’ve only ever seen Eclipse’s crayoned-in colour reprint under the name Miracleman, you owe it to yourself to track down the black and white originals in Warrior. Copies are still available cheaply, I think.

Marvelman and its pseudonymous continuation by Eclipse spawned swarms of inferior imitators, who borrowed only the darkness and brutality. It also helped convince the comic industry that “superhero comics for adults” was not an oxymoron, leading to the current climate of rape and dismemberment at DC and clumsily obvious political allegory at Marvel. But to blame Marvelman for Penance, Tony Stark and Superboy-Prime would be unfair. Taken by itself, it is still one of the most interesting works in the genre.

2. Zenith
Created by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell for 2000AD, Fleetway Publications, 1987

In part, this was Morrison’s riposte to Marvelman. Here, the morally serious superhumans who want to reshape the world are the source of danger and disaster. It is Zenith, who just wants to be famous and get laid, and, above all, hippy-turned-Thatcherite Peter St John, who wants to accumulate conventional political power for himself, who emerge as the heroes, alongside brain-damaged robot Acid Archie.

Steve Yeowell has a following, but I'm not part of it, so the pleasure for me here is in Morrison’s writing. It is refreshing to find him treating sympathetically views about the benefits of self-interest more commonly associated with Samuel Johnson or Adam Smith, and indulging in nostalgia for old British comics rather than Silver Age americana, while already throwing out catherine-wheel sparks of mad science and narrative bravura.

3. Jack Staff
Created by Paul Grist for Dancing Elephant Press, 2000

And speaking of British comics nostalgia … In truth, I find Jack Staff the character one of the least interesting in Jack Staff the comic, but that is because it is overflowing with charming, compelling characters like Becky Burdock (Vampire Reporter), the staff of Q, Alfred Chinard and Bramble and Son. Grist draws his cast’s natures with the same deceptively simple elegance that he draws his pictures. Above all, his storytelling, integrating layout and narrative in complex, experimental ways that seem simple and natural when read, makes this not just one of the best superhero comics around, but one of the best comics, full stop. The frequent, smoothly integrated, appearance of characters drawn from 1960s and 1970s British comics and TV is just a particularly pleasing garnish for the ageing Brits among the readership.

Jack Staff is now published by Image, but wasn't created for them.

4. Fighting American
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Prize Group, 1954

Enough with these black-and-white Britons! It’s time for the superhero genre to return to the country of its origin and to its lifelong master and his principal accomplice. Again, Fighting American is a comic in which its lead character is the least interesting, overshadowed by the gallery of grotesques brought to life by Simon and Kirby, like Doubleheader, Hotski Trotsky, Poison Ivan and Rhode-Island Red. As political satire, this is little more than name-calling, but the stories burst with an energetic silliness. I have a very soft spot for the 1950s artwork of Kirby and his studio, which retains the smooth, heavy shading of the 1940s, but in service to more disciplined compositions. I gather that there were several Fighting American revivals by other hands in 1990s, but really, what’s the point of that? The value of the original is in the work of its creators and its response to the times.

5. The Incredibles
Created by Pixar Studios under the direction of Brad Bird for Disney, 2004

This entry is a cheat in two senses: it isn’t a comic, and it covers five superheroes, not one. But Pixar here demonstrated that animation could create cinematic superheroes who suffered from neither the ponderousness nor the camp foolishness that tend to afflict their live-action counterparts. The characters are charming, the story is funny, and you can amuse yourself with the paradox that an argument in favour of meritocratic elitism is being presented in the most lowbrow and populist of genres and media.

Pictures and panels
Marvelman “… A Dream of Flying” by Alan Moore (script) and Garry Leach (art), Warrior, Quality Communications, March 1982

Zenith “1. Dropping In” by Grant Morrison (script), Steve Yeowell (art) and Mark King (lettering), 2000AD prog 536, Fleetway Publications, 22 August 1987

Endpiece from Jack Staff: Yesterday’s Heroes by Paul Grist, Dancing Elephant Press, 2002

Fighting American issue 4 “Operation Wolf” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Prize Group, October-November 1954, reprinted in Fighting American, Marvel Comics, 1989

The Incredibles DVD sleeve by Pixar Studios, Disney, 2005

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Girl Flight! Kitty Hawke and Worrals of the WAAF versus Angela Air Hostess

Speaking on this week’s instalment of BBC4’s Comics Britannia, “Boys and Girls”, Jodi Cudlipp, a former member of the editorial staff of Hulton Press’s comic Girl, had this to say: “I thought from the very beginning that Kitty Hawke was wrong … I said, no, this is not the thing that girls of today want … You want stories about animals, or something like a ballerina.”

Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew was the original lead comic strip of Girl , appearing on the front page in full colour from the first issue in November 1951. Modelled to some degree after Dan Dare, the big hit of Eagle, Kitty Hawke was the story of the adventures of a group of women running a charter aeroplane company in the (then) present day.

Reportedly, it went down badly. Marcus Morris, founder of Eagle and Girl, later recalled, “We had received reports that quite a number of girls were reading Eagle and drew the wrong conclusion: we had made Girl too masculine. We therefore made it more romantic in its approach, more feminine. I worked on the theory that you should be a good deal more personal in your motivation in a girls’ paper. The adventure and the danger can be there but the reason for it must be the search for a long-lost uncle or father. If you can add a fair amount of personal rivalry, jealousy and a very close friendship, so much the better. We applied this theory to Girl and sales picked up. Before long they reached 650,000 and stayed there“ (quoted in Sally Morris & Jan Hallwood Living with Eagles: Marcus Morris, Priest and Publisher, Lutterworth Press, 1998).

Part of the revamp was that Kitty Hawke was dropped. The message seems clear: Cudlipp was right. Girls did not want stories about adventurous aviatrices.

Except that, over the previous decade, Captain W E Johns had written and published no fewer than eleven (prose) books about Flight Officer Joan Worralson of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, starting with Worrals of the WAAF in 1941, previously serialised in Girl’s Own magazine. Like her more famous male predecessor, Biggles, Worrals was a pilot known by an abbreviation of her surname, had a sidekick nicknamed after her physical appearance (“Frecks”, rather than “Ginger”), and showed an alarming propensity to stumble on spy rings while on routine missions. There was no romance, Worrals’s family never showed up, and she acted for King and country rather than personal interest.

So why the difference? Perhaps Hulton Press was wrong to conclude that girls did not want stories of this type – perhaps they just did not like Kitty Hawke in particular. Or perhaps boys were buying the Worrals books.

Changes in society provide a more likely explanation. The last Worrals book was published in 1950, just before Kitty Hawke’s abortive flight. Worrals had made her debut in wartime. The girls who read the books were likely to have mothers or other female relatives serving in the armed forces, while others worked in the factories. These were people to be respected and emulated.

By the early 1950s, demobbed men had replaced many of the women in civilian occupations, and the Treasury was struggling to pay for all the men still in the armed forces – women auxiliaries were well down the list of priorities. Class consciousness reasserted itself. For a woman to go out to work was now a sign of economic necessity for her family, rather than for the country. In the middle classes, and those who aspired to be middle class, it was a stigma for a married woman to work. Significantly, the Hulton Press’s expensive titles were aimed at these middle class families, and were reputedly often bought by parents for their children rather than by the children themselves. The parents knew what values they wanted to nurture.

It was no disgrace for single women to work, but only in supposedly feminine occupations. Girl did eventually produce another flying, green-uniformed heroine. But Angela, Air Hostess was not in charge: she wasn’t flying the plane, or dictating the terms of her own adventures. She was right at the bottom of the pecking order, and preoccupied with romance and jealous rivals.

On the whole, the animals and the ballerinas were probably a better bet.

Panels and pictures

Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew, art by Ray Bailey, Girl issue 1, November 2 1951, Hulton Press, scan taken from the Lambiek Comiclopedia

Uncredited illustration from Worrals Carries On by W E Johns, Lutterworth Press, 1942

Angela, Air Hostess written by Betty Rowland, drawn by Dudley Pout, reprinted in The Best of Girl, Prion Books, 2006

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Kirby Comes Clean

”The dialogue is terrible! But they mean every word of it!”

Mister Miracle issue 4, “The Closing Jaws of Death!", written, drawn and edited by Jack Kirby, inked by Vince Colletta, DC Comics, September-October 1971, reprinted in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus volume 2, DC Comics, 2007

Monday 17 September 2007

Jonathan Ross Explains the Television License Fee

No, that’s not fair.

Without Jonathan Ross, it is inconceivable that the BBC would have made an hour-long documentary about Steve Ditko, and unlikely that it would have had the same access to interviewees as did In Search of Steve Ditko, broadcast last night.

Inevitably, with Ditko unavailable for interview – which could have been more economically established by a phone call from this side of the Atlantic – the documentary was stronger on how his work was received and read than how it was created. Alan Moore was particularly lucid, though that does not entirely excuse indulging him when he recited a song lyric about Mr A. That sort of fluff, and the constant repetition and trails for what was coming up, gave the whole thing the feel of a half-hour documentary unnaturally inflated to an hour.

It was a shame, too, that Ross used his interview with Stan Lee to concentrate on whether Lee considered Ditko to be the co-creator of Spider-Man. The dispute turned out to be based on different definitions of the term “creator” – Lee favouring the initial idea, Ditko arguing that ideas were commonplace, and that it was the execution that mattered. This was not terribly interesting to me. I wanted to know more about what Ditko was trying to achieve with his comics work and how he went about it, rather than dwelling on office politics.

Still, that aspect was not neglected entirely, with Moore, Mark Millar and Cat Yronwode offering some interpretation of Ditko’s ideas, and Ralph Macchio touching on his working methods. The sheer range of interviewees was impressive: I very much hope that the crew taped some material with Jerry Robinson about his own work, as well as his reminiscences of Ditko as a pupil.

And, for fans of Jonathan Ross/Neil Gaiman slash fiction, surely a growing genre since San Diego, there was plenty of fuel for their fantasies. “I’m Robin to your Batman … Etta Candy to your Wonder Woman," indeed.

Drawing of Jonathan Ross by Steve Bright for “Dennis Meets Jonathan Ross”, BeanoMax issue 1, DC Thomson, March 2007. Views expressed in the captions are none of Steve Bright’s doing, so don’t blame him for them.

Sunday 16 September 2007


This has been bugging me, so please forgive me if I make a meal over what should be a couple of bites.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 6, Brian K Vaughan and Georges Jeanty drop in a couple of references to external fictions, not in the usual pop geek dialogue way, but as if they were real in Buffy’s world.*

Yes, for the moment, I’m going to treat the idea of Alan Moore as a wizard as fictional, even if he believes it himself. (See Scans Daily for an example.)

Now, the first panel posted above doesn’t bother me at all. I scan the image, take in the Doctor and Rose, smile internally, and move on. But the second panel stalls the comic’s engine.

Why the difference?

At first, I thought it might be because one reference is done in pictures and the other in words. And there might be something in that. It’s easy to make an element of a picture unobtrusive. It is much harder with words – unless there is some kind of set-up, common in American Flagg, for example, in which word balloons are used to indicate the fact of background chatter, rather than to carry meaning in the words themselves.

The type of picture and the type of words matter too. The first panel is an establishing shot: the narrative has already slowed down to show the new location, and, in such low gear, it is easy to take in the side reference without juddering to a halt. The second panel is in the middle of a run of dialogue in which Giles explains the plot to Faith: when the need occurs to stop to take in the reference, it’s like slamming on the brakes while still in third.

And you do need to stop. The phrase “the great bearded wizard of Northampton” is not natural speech, and jolts the reader out of the word balloon to wonder why. That it is shaped as a puzzle – albeit a simple one for comics fans – means that you can’t simply drive on into the story until you’ve solved it. Worse, while it doesn't greatly matter if you don't recognise the Doctor and Rose, as you would just think of them as passers-by added to populate the London street and not know that you'd missed anything, if you didn't know who “the great bearded wizard of Northampton” was, you'd still be aware that there was a puzzle that you'd failed to solve.

So that’s that explained. OK, down to neutral, turn the ignition, up into first, and away.

Oh, heck, he said "fall" instead of "autumn". This thing just isn't destined to run smoothly.

*That was rare on the TV show, wasn’t it? The only example I can think of was Dracula’s appearance in one episode.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight issue 6, “No Future For You” part 1, by Brian K Vaughan (script), Georges Jeanty (puzzle), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters), Scott Allie (editor) and Joss Whedon (executive producer – whatever that means)

Saturday 15 September 2007


Following the generally positive reception given to the news that Jim Shooter would be returning to The Legion of Super-Heroes, a title which he last wrote in the 1970s, DC Comics has announced that the new regular writer on Superman will be Otto Binder.

“Otto is one of the most iconic Superman writers ever,” said a spokesman, “and although he died in 1974, we are confident that he will be more productive than Allan Heinberg, Richard Donner or Frank Miller.”

But Binder’s return has already sparked controversy. In an ectoplasmic interview with the frankly non-existent web-site Spiritualists Read The Comics, he said, “I find comics today completely unreadable; and that is not just because my eyes have been eaten away by worms – I have spoken to many top corpses, and they all agree with me about everything. And have you heard that terrible noise youngsters listen to all the time? You can’t call that music. They can’t even dress themselves properly, with their trousers hanging off and their hats on backwards. I blame the editors.”

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Civil War, Take One

I’m not sure why there is so much fuss over Marvel’s Civil War issue 1 winning the Harvey Award for Best Single Issue or Story.

After all, it may have been a pretty rotten comic, but it was the one that owed most to Harvey Kurtzman’s own work.

Wait, what do you mean, Civil War wasn’t supposed to be a joke?

“Superduperman!” by Harvey Kurtzman (story) and Wallace Wood (art), Mad issue 4, EC Comics, 1953, reprinted in The Complete First Six Issues of Mad, Russ Cochrane, c 1985

Monday 10 September 2007

Mainstream Driftwood

The broadcasting of Comics Britannia (first episode tonight, BBC4, 9pm British Summer Time) has prompted articles in two of the broadsheets (well, one tabloid and a berliner now, but you know what I mean).

The Times ran an article on British comics by Kim Newman, with some slightly muddled quotes from the documentary (at least, I hope that it is The Times, and not Leo Baxendale, who thinks that Dudley Watkins created Dennis the Menace).

The Guardian trumped that with a three-page history in comic form of British comics, by Bryan Talbot. So, naturally, I missed it, and it doesn’t seen to have been posted on either the Guardian Unlimited website or the official Bryan Talbot fanpage. I am currently on the scrounge among Guardian-reading friends. For the time being, there is a photo of the first page at the bottom of Lew Stringer’s review of Comics Britannia. (Update, 11 September: Rich Johnston has now posted scans on Lying in the Gutters.)

What Guardian Unlimited does have is Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn column about Comics Britannia. I never knew that he worked on Oink!, as both a writer and artist. Unfortunately, he has swallowed and repeated DC Thomson's inaccurate claim that The Dandy is the world's longest-running comic (Detective Comics is several months older).

Sunday 9 September 2007

Review: The Best of Look-In – The Seventies

The Best of Look-In – Junior TV Times – The Seventies, compiled and edited by Graham Kibble White, Prion Books/Carlton Publishing, 55 pages of strip (out of 144), £12.99
Crowther in Trouble by Geoff Cowan (story) and Tom Kerr (art)
Please Sir! by Angus P Allan (story) and Graham Allen (art)
On the Buses by Scott Goodall (story) and Harry North (art)
Catweazle by Angus P Allan (story) and unidentified artist
Michael Bentine’s Potty Time by Robin Tucek (story) and Arthur Ranson (art)
Les Dawson is Superflop by Geoff Cowan (story) and Arthur Ranson (art)
The Adventures of Black Beauty by Angus P Allan (story) and Mike Noble (art)
The Tomorrow People by Angus P Allan (story) and John M Burns (art)
Man About the House by Angus P Allan (story) and Bill Titcombe (art)
Flintlock by Angus P Allan (story) and Bill Titcombe (art)
ABBA by Angus P Allan (story) and Arthur Ranson (art)
The Bionic Woman by Angus P Allan (story) and John Bolton (art)
The Benny Hill Page by Geoff Cowan (story) and Bill Titcombe (art)
Sapphire & Steel by Angus P Allan (story) and Arthur Ranson (art)
Cover art by Arnaldo Putzu, montaged by Alistair McGown

Untidily spilling out of the racks in the children’s comics section of newsagents throughout Britain are publications that combine comic strips based on licensed properties from other media (including television, film and toys) with articles, puzzles, posters and competitions. They are all the spiritual children of Look-In, born in 1971 when its publisher decided to take two pitches – for a children’s magazine about TV and for a comic in the style of TV21 - and combine the two. Whether this formula proved to be the salvation of children’s publishing or cost comics their soul is a matter of opinion.

Whereas the likes of The Simpsons, Doctor Who Adventures and Transformers have a single brand to play with, Look-In had access to almost everything shown on ITV, which was then one-third of all programmes broadcast in Britain. The range of strips reproduced here, wide though it is, is only a selection. Some series were omitted because they were too adult, and one or two were licensed elsewhere. I remember being most put out when I learned that Marvel UK had obtained the rights to Planet of the Apes, because I so much preferred the artwork in Look-In.

Editor Alan Fennell, late of TV21, had hired many of the best boys’ comics artists in Britain, including some of my favourites from Countdown, such as Mike Noble, John M Burns and Martin Asbury, as well as humorous artists like Bill Titcombe, whose work I admired on Dad’s Army in TV Comic. He had also brought with him TV21 writer Angus Allan, whose stories now seem thin and perfunctory, but which appeared to my pre-teen self as being much more faithful to the television originals than the overwrought melodrama of Marvel.

If the writing for these strips doesn’t carry too much appeal for an adult thirty years on, the artwork remains a major draw. Noble, for example, makes Black Beauty a far more dynamic and visually expressive story than it ever was on television.

It’s fun to see the veterans apply their mature skill to these strips. But there is even more interest in watching future stars in development. Here is John Bolton, working chiefly in line rather than his more familiar modelled tones.

Particularly startling is the range of styles deployed by Arthur Ranson, before beginning, with Sapphire & Steel, to develop what would become the highly detailed hatched realism familiar from Button Man and Anderson, Psi Division.

Reproduction is occasionally grainy, and at least some pages have been scanned from published copies (a number of pages, particularly those in black and white, show a tell-tale darkening towards the spine). But on the whole everything looks acceptable.

And what of the magazine content? Well, the articles were always pretty thin at the time. There may be some nostalgic buzz from reading a day’s TV schedule that is no longer being broadcast, working through competitions for prizes that can no longer be won, and gazing at adverts for products that can no longer be bought, but once you’ve skimmed through that stuff once, it becomes clear that it’s the comics that have the greater and more lasting value.

But, then again, I thought that at the time.

Relevant links
Alistair McGown’s Look-In: A Tribute to the Junior TV Times
Bear Alley article about by Alistair McGown about compiling The Best of Look-In
Look-In Picture Strip Archive

Saturday 8 September 2007

Friday Night Fights: Vindicate Away, Mary Wollstonecraft

As Friday Night Fights* enters the last round of the current bout, no-one can escape Bahlactus’s command to fight; not even eighteenth-century political philosophers.

Ouch! Jean-Jacques was born free, but is everywhere in pain.

Action Philosophers: The Lightning Round by Fred Van Lente (writer) and Ryan Dunlavey (artist), Evil Twin Comics, July 2007

* Actually Saturday morning now, but as long as that burglar alarm across the street is ringing, I’ll not be getting to sleep.

Thursday 6 September 2007

Big and Brassy

They may have lost a comic, but it seems that Wallace and Gromit will gain a statue, in animator Nick Park’s home town of Preston, Lancashire.

Putting up statues of cartoon characters is something of a trend. There’s an Andy Capp in Hartlepool (Reg Smythe’s birthplace) and Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx share a metaphorical plinth in Dundee (headquarters of publisher D C Thomson).

Round here on Tyneside, the local heroes are the characters created by Chris and Simon Donald and their cohorts for Viz. So, who do you reckon should be immortalised in the Bigg Market? The Fat Slags? Sid the Sexist? Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles? Or perhaps Finbarr Saunders and His Double Entendres would provide a suitably impressive erection.

Fnarr, fnarr.

Oh, and if you doubt that the Viz folk are of suitable character to be immortalised in bronze, remember that, as Lew Stringer reminds us, Andy Capp was not just a drunken layabout, but also a wife-beater.

Photo of Andy Capp statue by Stan Laundon
Photo of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx statues by Stonefaction

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Review: The Last Fantastic Four Story

The Last Fantastic Four Story issue 1 (!), “World’s End” by Stan Lee (writer), John Romita Jr (penciller), Scott Hanna (inker), Morry Hollowell (colourist), VC’s Joe Caramanga (letterer) and Tom Brevoort (editor), Marvel Comics, October 2007, 48 pages of strip, US$4.99

There is something distinctly morbid about this comic. It’s not the story, which (SPOILER ALERT!) ends with the Fantastic Four alive and well and flying off into the moonrise. It’s not even the cover, with its funereal black edging and sombre serifed type. It’s the feeling that, taken with the recent Stan Lee Meets … series, we are seeing Lee, at the age of 85, taking his leave of the characters who made his name.

Of course, being an old showman, Lee would probably be as happy to make as many farewell appearances and comebacks as Old Blue Eyes himself. Let’s hope that he gets the chance to do so, because The Last Fantastic Four Story would not be a good note on which to end.

The plot concerns a technologically superior power, the Cosmic Tribunal, who decide, on the basis of faulty intelligence, that the human race is worthless: so they decide to invade and kill us all. This may be a stab at relevance – something Lee used to pride himself on – as the parallel with the US invasion of Iraq is fairly obvious. That may be why Lee refers to the members of the Tribunal as “good guys”; because he sees them as analogous to his own country. But in the context of this story, it makes no sense. Good guys do not commit genocide, let alone unprovoked genocide. Worse, in another stab at relevance, the Tribunal is bringing about mankind’s destruction by accelerating global warming, killing lots of entirely innocent animals in the process.

This is not a good showcase for the Fantastic Four. Ben and Johnny's attempts to fight back are wholly ineffectual, while Sue does, quite simply, absolutely nothing throughout. “Invisible Girl,” indeed.

In an attempt to update his style, Lee has dropped a lot of the polysyllabic bombast. He has also attempted to embrace decompression, by cutting up his captions into smaller blocks, spread across more panels. But this lays bare the lack of sophistication in story and sentiment, and leaves the narrative and dialogue to read like an extended issue of Spidey Super Stories.

In one respect, John Romita Jr was a good choice to provide the art for Lee’s valedictory story. Like some of Lee’s favourite collaborators, his father John Romita Sr and John Buscema, Romita Jr is a consummate craftsman, a solid and accurate draughtsman with the talent and skill of telling stories with crystal clarity. But like theirs, I find his work unengaging: these are the Volkswagens of comic art: well-engineered, reliable, but nothing to get excited about. In a comic which will always stand in the shadow of Jack Kirby, that is a problem.

As the story ends, the Fantastic Four are in unconvincing retirement, and so is Stan Lee. Let us hope that he gets the chance to write The Last Spider-Man Story, and that it provides him with a more fitting swansong.

Not Great News, Pals

I think that this is the last issue of The Wallace & Gromit Comic. It doesn’t say so explicitly, but the cancellation had been announced in advance, and there’s a short note at the end “to thank all of our readers for supporting our little comic over the years”.

They did things differently in the old days. If past customs still held, there would be a strapline on the cover reading, “Great News Inside, Chums,” trailing an announcement that, as of next month, you’ d be able to enjoy all your favourite features in the brand new Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit Comic.

But no. The age of comic mergers is passed, and the days of rigidly separate brands are upon us. Ah well, sic transit gloria wensleydale.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Michael Turner Dreams

Here’s the most frightening thought I’ve encountered on the web lately:

Anyway, Kara Zor-El is making her debut on the new season of Smallville. Yep, that's right, the girl who will eventually become Supergirl. And man, did they choose a drop dead gorgeous actress to play her...she looks exactly like one of Michael Turner's characters jumping off the page into real life!”

(link via Blog@Newsarama).

Fortunately, even with a terrible wardrobe and apparently photoshopped boobs, actress Laura Vandervoort does not look exactly like a Michael Turner drawing. She isn’t deformed or emaciated, and she appears to have feet.

But, still, the idea of Michael Turner drawings coming to life: that’s going to haunt my nightmares. Much more frightening than anything in Marianne Dreams.

(No offense meant to blogger Blankie of It’s Thursday, I’m in Love– my brain just had a spasm of literalism.)

Monday 3 September 2007

Nostalgia Squared

The Forbidden Planet International blog reports that Nostalgia and Comics, the Birmingham comics shop, is thirty years old.

That means that it must have been about four when I started shopping there. Now, Nostalgia – as everyone I knew called it – is just around the corner from Birmingham New Street railway station; and my school was just across the road from Coventry station. Trains from Coventry to Birmingham took twenty minutes (express) or thirty minutes (local). So there was just enough time to dash out of school at lunchtime, catch a train, make a hasty purchase at Nostalgia, and still be back in time for the bell for afternoon classes.

Completely against school rules, of course, and wholly reliant on trains being fast, frequent and reliable. Golly, and I thought that I spent too much time wallowing in Nostalgia then.

Nostalgia and Comics as it was - the sign has since been replaced with one using FPI's corporate branding. Photo found on Yahoo Travel.

Sunday 2 September 2007

Zero Credit Rating

If you look through the adverts in the latest Previews catalogue for upcoming publications by Virgin Comics, you’ll see that before the writer and artist credits, there is usually a creator credit. So we have Seven Brothers “created by John Woo”, Snake Woman “created by Shekhar Kapur”, Voodoo Child “created by Weston Cage and Nicolas Cage”, and so on.

But there is one glaring exception.

It’s a shame – yes, I think “shame” is the right word – that the phrase “created by Frank Hampson” appears nowhere on that advert. Not that he has been credited on previous revivals, but the context makes his absence all the more stark.

Saturday 1 September 2007

Before Comics Britannia

Anyone with a specialist interest must have mixed feelings when the mass media turn their attention to it: however welcome the exposure might be, the risk of misrepresentation and mockery is high.

The BBC has now filled out most of the web-pages on the site supporting the upcoming BBC4 series Comics Britannia (thanks to the FPI blog for pointing this out).

Taking those pages with the fuller descriptions of what is in each of the three parts posted by Lew Stringer on his Blimey! It’s Another Blog About Comics, and with the review Rich Johnston wrote for his Lying in the Gutters column, based on preview discs, it would seem that the BBC has actually produced an accurate and balanced series of programmes about British comics, which is not something I’d ever have expected. I’m very much looking forward to the broadcasts.

But I still think it’s a pity that, like Keith Robson’s exhibition at the Museum of Hartlepool, the BBC has chosen to start with the publication of The Dandy in 1937 (though the captions to some of the gallery images, such as the note about Dudley Watkins’s artistic debt to Tom Browne, do lend some reassurance that earlier material will not be entirely written out of history).

I can understand why this is a tempting starting-point for a TV programme aimed at a general audience: mention The Dandy and The Beano to anyone under the age of 80, and you’ll provoke instant nostalgia. Mention Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips and you’ll get blank looks. But it seems to me that a series about British comics should attempt to consider the ways in which the British variety is distinct from those in other countries, and some significant distinctions had already taken form by the 1930s. Of course, each of these is shared with some other countries: it’s the combination which creates the unique flavour.

Short, weekly anthology formats were already the norm. This would mean that British comics would continue to concentrate on stories that could be told in one or two pages, or in one or two page instalments, unlike the longer formats favoured in the USA or Japan. Collected reprints would allow European comics, which also favoured short anthologies, to break out of this restraint, but that did not happen in Britain.

Comics were wholly for children. The older line of comics for adults, such as Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday was dead. Unlike Japan or Belgium and France, an adult readership for mass market British comics would not emerge in the post-World War Two years. The contrast with other countries would be even stronger if the growing adult readership of comics in the USA had not been nipped in the bud by the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Comics based on other media were common. They dated back at least as far as Dan Leno’s Comic Journal of 1898, and their place in the market had been cemented by the success of Film Fun and its imitators in the 1920s. Now they make up the majority of periodicals published for children. Apart from the success of Disney, I don’t think this has been true in other major comic-producing countries, where it has, if anything, been more common for other media to borrow from comics (US television and film; Japanese anime) than vice-versa.

Common themes, stereotypes and tropes were already in place. For example, it was common for humour strips to feature people of low status (such as children or tramps) opposed to authority: contrast The Bash Street Kids, where the children of Class 2B are in conflict with Teacher, with Archie, where the pupils of Riverdale High are mostly in conflict with each other.

It may be that Comics Britannia will fill in some of this backstory once it has got viewers’ attention with more familiar comics. Whatever, when it comes to what is actually in the documentaries rather than what is not, I feel a lot less apprehensive than I did when the series was announced.

Front page of Film Fun issue 254, artist and writer uncredited, Amalgamated Press, 22 November 1924, reprinted in Alan and Laurel Clark Comics: An Illustrated History, Green Wood Publishing, 1991

The Troublesome Tribbles

Link blogging
Across the universe
On the starship
Under Captain Kirk …

There can’t be many people reading this blog who haven’t already encountered this link on Blog@Newsarama or The Beat, but for the benefit of those few: inspired by a newspaper article which revealed that Edward Gorey was a fan of Star Trek, Shaenon Garrity has produced an adaptation of “The Trouble with Tribbles” in a spot-on impersonation of Gorey’s style.

Funniest thing I’ve seen on the web in ages.