Monday 10 March 2008

Rude words in classic comic strips

Because I’m feeling distinctly puerile today …

So, a kilo-bugger; that must be, what, equivalent to a thousand ordinary buggers?

From Winsor McCay Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays (Checker Book Publishing Group, 2007), originally published under the pen-name Silas in the New York Evening Telegram sometime between 1906 and 1911.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Fun with numbers

I’m not remotely competent to weigh in to the argument about BookScan sales figures begun by Brian Hibbs in this “Tilting at Windmills” column. But one sentence switched my mental points on to another track.

Brian wrote, “As a periodical comic book, the first issue of Buffy seems to have sold at least 158,437 copies.” That figure is icv2’s estimate of sales in the direct market (comic shops) in North America, as supplied by Diamond Comic Distributors. Now, that caught my eye, because Doctor Who Online reported this on 14 February:

Doctor Who Adventures Magazine holds onto its place as #1 Children's Magazine [in the UK]. The latest ABC figures show that the magazine's circulation achieved 154,989 from July-December 2007. This is up 44.1% compared to the same period in 2006, where the magazine's circulation was a respectable 107,577.

So, very similar numbers, then. Except that the UK is a lot smaller than North America. Using UN estimates, the population of the UK is a little over 60 million, that of the USA about 306 million, with Canada adding another 33 million; taken together, about five and a half times the size. In addition, Doctor Who Adventures was published every two weeks in the period measured (it has since gone up to weekly), whereas Buffy the Vampire Slayer was monthly, with slippage, and later issues sold fewer copies.

So, relatively speaking, the best-selling media-tie-in comic in the UK last year sold at least eleven times better than the best-selling media-tie-in comic in North America. Those sales were mostly to children, through non-specialist shops such as newsagents and supermarkets, the market that North American publishers have largely given up in favour of notional adults like me who go to comics shops.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely fair comparison. Doctor Who is currently quite preposterously popular over here. The Christmas episode had the second largest audience of any television programme broadcast in the UK in 2007, while the series as a whole made the top ten for the year. Buffy, on the other hand, was always a marginal show on a minority network, and there have been no new episodes since 2003. So its comic incarnation can hardly be expected to sell as well. We need something that is about equally popular in both countries.

How about The Simpsons comics? The latest figures I have found for the UK edition are from 2006, and show it selling an average of 134, 631 copies every four weeks*. Does the American edition shift the 740,000 copies a month that it would need to match up?

*Update 9 March Average circulation 133,086 copies in July-December 2007, according to the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) figures just posted by Steve Holland.

Doctor Who “Hot Metal” Part 2, script by Christopher Cooper, art by John Ross, colours by Alan Craddock, letters by Paul Vyse, Doctor Who Adventures issue 49, BBC Magazines, 31 January-6 February 2008

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Not adding to the stockpile of puns on the word “canon”

A few weeks ago, Chris Mautner started an attempt to define what might constitute a canon of comics. Timothy Callahan followed up with a longer list. Chris returned to the subject here, and there have been further comments from Heidi MacDonald and John Holbo.

My first reaction on looking at Chris’s and Tim’s lists (somewhat unfairly, as Timothy at least is explicit that he is attempting to set out a canon of American comics) was something along the lines of, “Gad, Sir! How can there be a comics canon that includes nothing by Hergé, Leo Baxendale or Osamu Tezuka?”

Further reflection on my reaction, and the comics I’d be tempted to canonise, leads me to suggest the following definition:

Comics canon Those comics which the commentator drawing up the canon has read and been influenced by, minus a few that he or she finds too embarrassing to mention, plus a few that he or she would like people to think that the commentator had read and appreciated.

At least, that’s how I’d go about it. I suppose that a canon should really arise from debate leading to some sort of consensus, but I don’t think that F R Leavis paid much attention to anyone else’s opinion, do you?

“Canon Fodder” from 2000AD, art by Chris Weston, pinched from 2000AD Online. Oh, damn, it’s a pun!

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Stars of page and screen

Last month saw the anniversaries of the first appearances of two major characters from twentieth-century pop culture: 100 years of Billy Bunter, and 75 years of Doc Savage.

There is sometimes a sharp intake of breath from offended comics fans when they catch the likes of Marvel describing its core business as managing trademarked characters and other intellectual properties, rather than publishing comics. But, really, appearing in different media is a mark of cultural success, and always has been. Herakles and Theseus cropped up in poems and plays, as statues and on friezes, on vases and on coins. And, sometimes, versions from other media have swamped the original. Mary Shelly lived to see her philosophical, vengeful creature replaced by an incoherent rampaging monster in stage versions of Frankenstein.

Billy Bunter and Doc Savage first appeared in prose fiction magazines; a species that is now almost extinct (though the death of the magazines did not mean the end of prose fiction, any more that the possible death of periodical comics will mean the end of comics as a form). But I first met Bunter in the comic strip which ran in Valiant from 1963 to 1976, and Doc in George Pal’s 1975 movie version . Although I did later read reprints of some of the original stories from both series, that wasn’t until after I had encountered DC’s 1980s Doc Savage comics.

As well as prose fiction, comics and movies, Doc appeared on the radio; and Bunter on both radio and television. The time for both is probably passed. Doc Savage is altogether too simplistic a hero for modern tastes – Superman without the thrill of flight or the bizarre love triangle. J K Rowling’s Hogwarts revived children’s fantasy, but does not seem to have spawned more stories about mundane boarding schools. Both remain strong images, but are probably fated to remain suitable mostly as knowing references in the likes of Planetary and The Black Dossier.

Pictures and panels

“Billy Bunter”, art by Reg Parlett, from Valiant, IPC Magazines, 3 June 1967

Doc Savage issue 1, cover by Adam and Andy Kubert, DC Comics, November 1987, image taken from the Grand Comics Database

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist), Ben Dimagmilaw (colourist), Bill Oakley and Todd Klein (letterers) and Scott Dunbier (editor), America’s Best Comics/Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2007

Monday 3 March 2008

Frayed ends Buffed up

It would seem from Jo Chen’s cover to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 16 (found via Blog@Newsarama) that Joss Whedon is planning a crossover with his series Fray, which, you will recall, dealt with the adventures of a Slayer in a Blade Runnery far future. This is not too much of a surprise, given that the Big Bad of Season 8 wants to rid the world of magic, while Fray has already told us that it happened. (Click to enlarge, of course.)

But let’s hope that there’s more to it than tying up dangling continuity threads.

Incidentally, what’s Karl Moline up to these days?

Pictures and Panels
Cover to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 16 by Jo Chen

Page from Fray issue 3, created and written by Joss Whedon with Karl Moline (penciller), Andy Owens (inker), Dave Stewart (colourist), Michelle Madsen (letterer) and Scott Allie (editor), Dark Horse Comics, August 2001

Sunday 2 March 2008

A wise fool

Supposedly (though it fits suspiciously well into English idiom), Confucius once said, “A wise man speaks because he has something to say; a fool speaks because he has to say something.”

It would seem that my fit of wisdom is passing. Normal foolishness can now be resumed.

Pictures and panels
An example of the heartbreakingly bleak Garfield without Garfield strips created by removing the cat from Jim Davis’s originals (link via the Ephemerist)

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey Action Philosophers: The Lightning Round, Evil Twin Comics, July 2007

Mother’s Dog

It’s Mothering Sunday today here in the UK (now more commonly called “Mother’s Day”, under the influence of the celebration held in the US and elsewhere in May).

My own mother passed away many years ago now, but I’m feeling sentimental, so here are a couple of examples of her favourite comic strip, Fred Basset.

Fred Basset was created by Alex Graham and started running in the Daily Mail in 1963. Graham died in 1991, after drawing about 9,000 strips, but the series has been continued by other hands, including his daughter. It’s notable for a gentle humour, rooted in accurate observation of canine behaviour (at least if the Jack Russell terrier we kept when I was a boy is any indication). The first strip above is far from representative, but I never could resist a morsel of metatextuality.

Alex Graham entry at the Lambiek Comiclopedia
Fred Basset on Wikipedia
Gallery of Fred Basset collection covers
Toonhound entry on Fred Basset
Toonopedia entry on Fred Basset
Latest Fred Basset strip

Fred Basset strips by Alex Graham from the Daily Mail, 1977, reprinted in Fred Basset: The Hound that’s Almost Human No.27, Associated Newspapers, no date given

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Dandy surprise

As a random purchase this week, I picked up a copy of the current issue of The Dandy (no 3439, 31 January - 15 February 2008, D C Thomson), and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was almost entirely restored to being a traditional comic, with only half-a-dozen pages of non-comics material. However, it’s described on the cover as an “Awesome Mega-Comix Special”, so this may not last. This issue is only on sale for another day or two, so rush out now and inflate the sales figures!

The highlight is a two-page guide to drawing comics by Jamie Smart.

A slightly less rigorous analysis of the form than that offered by Thierry Groensteen, but fun nonetheless.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Gone from a world he never made

Steve Gerber has died, aged only 60. His was one of the most distinctive voices in comics, and he did more than most to expand the range of what letterpress, mass retail comics could cover in the days before the opportunities and disappointments of the direct market. Tom Spurgeon has an obituary.

“Cry Turnip!”, written by Steve Gerber, illustrations by Frank Brunner, inking by Steve Leialoha, lettering by Tom Orzechowski, edited by Marv Wolfman, Howard the Duck issue 2, Marvel Comics, March 1976, reprinted in Essential Howard the Duck Volume 1, 2002

Monday 4 February 2008

Manhattan on Mars

Crater on Mars, photograph reproduced from The Daily Telegraph web-site, 2008:

Crater on Mars, panels reproduced from Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, 1987:

It’s either a coincidence or a quite remarkable marketing effort for the upcoming movie …

Update, 5 February Oops. It seems that I have been misled by the Telegraph running that story a little late. Over 20 years late, in fact. (See the comments section.)

Next on Gad, Sir! Comics!, the startling news that it looks like there is a man in the Moon. And, hey, don't those stars form a line that's a bit like a plough?

Is he dead, then? Poke 'im with a stick to find out

Hhrmmhm! Oh, sorry, I must have dozed off. Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, Judy Drood, girl detective.

(panel from Mad Night by Richard Sala, Fantagraphics Books, 2005)

In issue 287 of The Comics Journal, Bill Sherman writes of Judy Drood in his review of The Grave Robber’s Daughter that “her name evokes both Nancy Drew and ancient Celtic rituals”.

It took that issue of The Comics Journal a month to cross the Atlantic, and it has taken me a few weeks to get around to reading it all, so by now Bill Sherman is probably fed up with people reminding him of Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished, novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

So far as I know, Dickens made up the name “Drood”. Certainly, if you Google it, you’ll find no real people in the first couple of hundred hits. His manuscript notes show that he started with the name “Brood”, and played with variants such as “Brude” and “Drude” before settling on “Drood”.

None of which means that Sherman (or Sala, for that matter) can’t come up with his own associations, of course.

Incidentally, the cover illustration reproduced above is probably more pored-over than any other picture drawn to accompany any of Dickens’s works, in the hope that it might provide clues to how Dickens would have finished the story. It is by Luke Fildes, who shortly thereafter gave up illustration work to concentrate on portrait painting, ending up as a member of the Royal Academy and a Knight to boot. But I have to say that his illustrations are generally very stiff and bland, and hardly deserve to be considered alongside the work of his predecessors on Dickens’s novels, Cruikshank and Phiz. Indeed, next time you find yourself wondering why a first-rate comics writer like, say, Grant Morrison, is so often lumbered with second-rate artists, remember that it happened to the most successful novelist of the nineteenth century, too.

Friday 18 January 2008

My makeup is dry and it clags on my chin

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable,” said Dr Penny Curtis from the University of Sheffield, who conducted a study of the best way to decorate children’s wards in hospitals. (BBC News story)

Judy Drood, girl detective, knows how to deal with frightening, unknowable clowns.

And it’s just about time for Friday Night Fights too. Won’t someone help Bahlactus to take off his crown?

Richard Sala The Grave Robber’s Daughter, Fantagraphics, 2006

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Hoot, Crowd!

“New British Comics”. Now, there’s a phrase that I don’t get to type often enough.

The second series of Torchwood, the anagrammatic skiffy-in-Cardiff TV show spun-off from Doctor Who, begins tonight on BBC2. Maybe this year there will even be some episodes which don’t involve one member of Torchwood betraying the others to get hold of an alien artefact for the benefit of his/her current boy/girlfriend. Then, next week (according to Down the Tubes) or next month (according to Titan’s own website), Titan launches a new Torchwood magazine, to be issued every 4 weeks, making 13 issues a year. It’ll mostly be articles, but there will also be a comic strip, initially to be written by Simon Furman and drawn by S L Gallant. Down the Tubes has details of other upcoming contributors. Cover image taken from the FPI blog.

Sadly, it looks as though Steve Holland is right that Wasted will be made up of drug humour comics. But they’ll be drug humour comics overseen by Alan Grant (he of 2000AD, the best uncollected run of Batman stories and assorted Scottish literary adaptations), so they may not be quite as tedious as usual. Nice cover by Frank Quitely, too, demonstrating that he can draw people who don’t look like Marlon Brando. Sometimes.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Review: Teen Titans Lost Annual, JLA Classified, The Spirit

Last week was retro week in American comics, or at least it was in those periodicals that I bought.

Teen Titans Lost Annual Issue 1 (how many of these do they have lying around?), “President Kennedy Has Been Kidnapped!!” by Bob Haney (writer), Jay Stephens (pencils), Mike Allred (inks), Laura Allred (colours), Gasper Saladino (letters), Dan Raspler & Steve Wacker (editors), cover by Nick Cardy, coloured by Dave Stewart, 48 pages of comics plus 6 pages of sketches by Nick Cardy, US$4.99, DC Comics, March 2008

In 1962, the Teen Titans learn that John F Kennedy has been kidnapped by aliens and brainwashed by them into acting as their war leader.

This story – neither lost nor an annual, but an Elseworlds special which DC initially decided was unsuitable for publication – was the last comic to be written by Bob Haney before his death in 2004. Haney has become something of a cult figure among comic bloggers, who have mined for humour the preposterous illogicalities of his plots, the inconsistency of his portrayals of characters with those of other writers, and, above all, his clunky attempts to write hipster dialogue. For this special, Haney consciously pastiched himself, playing up those aspects of his old work that have been the target of so much ridicule. In that way, this is his very own All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder; only, blessedly, over and done with in one go. There is something dizzying about watching an old man trying to caricature the way that his middle-aged self hoped to write like a teenager for the entertainment of children: all the ages of man in one pamphlet.

Stephens and Allred capture the spirit of 1960s DC art all too well: tasked with drawing such self-consciously absurd ideas as mods in outer space and flying hairy rockers, they give us designs as dull and flat as anything that Curt Swan or Sheldon Moldoff would have produced.

JLA Classified Issue 50, “High Frontier: That Was Now, This Is Then” Part 1 by Roger Stern (writer), John Byrne (penciller), Mark Farmer (inker), Rob Clark Jr (letterer), Allen Passalaquia (colourist) and Mike Carlin (editor), cover by Joshua Middleton, 22 pages of comics, US$2.99, DC Comics, Early March 2008

A big, arrogant monster attacks the JLA Watchtower on the Moon and beats everyone up. No, really, that’s all that happens.

More proof that you can’t go home again comes from this story by Roger Stern and John Byrne, which recaptures the style of their work in the early 1980s, before superheroes ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge proffered by Miller and Moore. A straightforward beat-em-up story, with plodding dialogue in which heroes explain their powers as they use them, characterisation is by thought balloons, and there is even one of those big round-shouldered creatures with which Byrne used to fill the pages of Alpha Flight and Superman. But enough decompression has set in to make this more inconsequential than, for example, any of the issues of Captain America that Stern and Byrne did together. Nothing much happens here: the villain attacks and knocks out most of the League, and J’onn J’onzz thinks he remembers him; and that’s it. Perhaps it will read better when all the parts have been published, but at the moment, this seems like half a 45 RPM record playing at 33 and a third (hey, I can be retro too).

The Spirit Issue 12, “Sand” by Darwyn Cooke (script, pencils and flashback inks), J Bone (inks), Dave Stewart (colour), Jared K Fletcher (lettering), Ben Abernathy (editor), 22 pages of comics, US$2.99, DC Comics, January 2008

The Spirit meets his long-lost childhood sweetheart, Sand Serif, now a hardened criminal.

Darwyn Cooke bows out of the Spirit revival with what Will Eisner would have called a “refry” of Eisner’s two-part story from January 1950. That, in itself, was a salvage job on the lead story from Eisner’s abortive comic book, John Law, Detective, and replacing Law with the Spirit produced a rather unconvincing retcon at the time. Cooke’s story, appearing only 12 issues into the run rather than 502, does less violence to the existing backstory, and the page-to-page and panel-to-panel flow is better than Eisner’s cut-and-paste job. But Eisner realised something that Cooke seems to have ignored. For we readers to care, we must not just be told that Denny Colt loved Sand Serif, we must ourselves see something in her that could justify that love. So Eisner made her an ambivalent character, with a ruthless shell but a conflicted conscience. Cooke makes her hard throughout. A telling example: in both versions of the story, Sand’s associate Dr Vitriol kills a man. In Eisner’s version, Sand deducts $50,000 from Vitriol’s share of the loot “for the widow of the cop you shot last night”. In Cooke’s version, she withholds payment altogether and keeps everything herself because Vitriol’s killing of Hussein Hussein of Interpol may have “brought down [heat] on us”.

What makes this issue affecting, though, is not so much the story it tells, as a touch Cooke uses in the telling of it. In the flashback sequences, he (and colourist Dave Stewart) beautifully evoke the feel of Eisner’s later works: the fluid, whole-page layouts, the misty cityscapes, the loose strokes of thickly-brushed hatching, and a muted brown colour-scheme to recall the sepia-on-cream printing of A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. This was the way that Eisner looked back on his own life, and it is a fitting way to end a series that could never help recalling him.

Monday 14 January 2008

Fougasse on the phone again

While I still have that book out, here's some more mastery of body language (and facial expression too, this time) from Fougasse. Same source as yesterday. Click to enlarge, of course.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Delay in communication

Sorry about the blogging silence. My brain cells have been so swamped by common cold germs that I've been about as able to communicate effectively as the man in this finely observed and beautifully cartooned strip by Fougasse (originally from Punch, I think, and reproduced here from William Hewison The Cartoon Connection: The Art of Pictorial Humour, Elm Tree Books, London, 1977).

Monday 7 January 2008

Comeback of the Year So Far

(Well, the year is only a week old.) From the generally rather adorable Teen Titans Year One:

The Flips previously appeared in Teen Titans back in 1965.

With a classy act like that, how could they ever have been forgotten?

Teen Titans Year One issue 1, “In the Beginning …” part 1, written by Amy Wolfram, art by Karl Kerschl, Serge Lapointe and Steph Peru, letters by Nick J Napolitano, edited by Eddie Berganza, DC Comics, March 2008

“The Return of the Teen Titans”, story by Bob Haney, art by Nick Cardy, originally published in Showcase issue 59, DC/National Comics, November-December 1965, reprinted in Showcase Presents Teen Titans volume 1, DC Comics, 2006

Sunday 6 January 2008

Don’t remember him for this

So far as I know, the only connection that the writer George MacDonald Fraser, who died last week aged 82, ever had with comics was that he co-wrote the script for the 1985 movie adaptation of Red Sonja. Not his finest hour, though he never disowned the film.

The notices of Fraser’s death (such as this one in The Daily Telegraph) have largely concentrated on his Flashman novels, in which he placed the villain of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, still a cowardly bully, but now also a lecherous cowardly bully, at the scene of numerous events of the nineteenth century. They are well worth reading – the sort of fiction that doesn’t require you to use your brain much, but also doesn’t require you to have it removed from your head and locked in a cupboard in another room in case it protests while you’re reading.

Although Fraser became a full-throated reactionary in later life, the Flashman books started as very much a product of late-1960s sensibilities, exposing the self-serving hypocrisy of earlier generations, with added sex and a wardrobe that customers of “I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet” would kill for. Or, at least, run away red-faced and pretend to have killed for. But if Flashman was a cousin of Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, Fraser’s work was also a clear descendent of Sir Walter Scott’s. Ivanhoe, too, presented a cracking new adventure story as being the product of recently uncovered historical papers, and mixed established fictional characters with new creations and actual historical people and situations. Fraser may have had less impact on the world than Scott, but at least he got his history straighter.

Entertaining though the Flashman stories are, my favourite books by Fraser are not part of any series.

Quartered Safe Out Here is Fraser’s book of war memoirs. They are unusual in that they reflect the life of a private soldier in front-line service, but one who was also a fine professional writer. They also deal with a relatively unfamiliar front of the Second World War: Britain’s campaign against Japan in Burma (reconquering the British Empire is not as popular a subject as, say, defending western civilisation against its own worst monstrosities).

The Hollywood History of the World is a lavishly illustrated account of what the American film industry, and its British tributary, has collectively got right and wrong in its portrayals of world history from One Million Years BC to Full Metal Jacket. While he has a lot of fun with mistakes and distortions, Fraser’s basic position is that, “There is a popular belief that where history is concerned, Hollywood always gets it wrong – and sometimes it does. What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right, and the immense unacknowledged debt which we owe to the commercial cinema as an illuminator of the story of mankind.”

The Pyrates is a vastly silly romp, which throws together every imaginable cliché of pirate stories, with copious anachronisms and a narrator who likes to point out the conventions of stories like these as he goes along. This is Fraser’s funniest book. He tried to repeat the trick with what is, presumably, his last novel, The Reavers, which is set in Anglo-Scottish border country in the Elizabethan era, and draws upon the research that Fraser, a native of Carlisle, undertook for his non-fiction book The Steel Bonnets and his earlier, more serious, novel The Candlemass Road. The glaring flaw is that there aren’t any clichés and conventions to border reiver stories, because the subject matter is neither clichéd nor conventional; so The Reavers doesn’t really measure up to The Pyrates.

By the way, that’s the pirate queen Sheba on the cover, described by Fraser as looking “like something out of Marvel Comic”. Singular. Not really his field, then. Did Flashy ever read Comic Cuts, I wonder?

Brigitte Nielsen in Red Sonja (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1985)

Cover illustration by John Rose to the 1984 Pan Books edition of The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser

Tuesday 1 January 2008

A New Year’s Resolution kept for one day, at least

I promise not to bother you with stuff like this too often, but one of the resolutions I made this year was to get back into the habit of drawing. I bought the BBC’s Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare on DVD as a Christmas present to myself this year, so here’s a sketch I made of Anthony Quayle as Falstaff while watching Henry IV Part 2 this evening. Not too bad given that I haven’t held a pen or pencil to do anything but write since April, but I definitely need to improve the way I draw hands.

Happy New Year, A’body (Snore)

Oor Wullie, art by Dudley D Watkins, The Sunday Post, 30 December 1945, reprinted in The Broons and Oor Wullie, 1936-1996, DC Thomson, 1996