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