Friday, 30 November 2007

Last Dan Dare Post for Now

It occurs to me that, of the list I posted of Gary Erskine’s illustrious predecessors on Dan Dare, the work of Ian Kennedy might not be well known outside the UK.

Kennedy has been a professional comics artist since the 1950s, lately noted mainly for his covers for DC Thomson’s long-running digest-sized war comic Commando. His entry in the Lambiek Comiclopedia can be found here. Below is a page from one of his Dan Dare stories.

That story, and the cover, were Ian Kennedy’s contributions to the Dan Dare Annual 1987 (published by Fleetway in 1986). Dan Dare was appearing in a revival of the weekly comic Eagle at the time. Two other strips in the annual were drawn by Kennedy’s fellow veteran comics artist, and sci-fi illustrator, Ron Turner.

Turner’s style hadn’t changed much since his work on Rick Random thirty years earlier. As a result, his Dan Dare looks less like a 1980s revival than a comic from the 1950s of some parallel world in which Dan Dare was created by an artist with more Vargo Statten than Biggles in his bloodstream. Though Kennedy's comics career had started only four years after Turner's, there seem to be decades between them.

Emulating the Wrong Bit of the 1950s?

Something was nagging at me while reading Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine's revived Dan Dare (which is entertaining enough stuff - a little too much sitting around taking potshots at New Labour's style of politics, perhaps, but Erskine does better than I might have expected in the unfair competition he has to engage in with the memory not just of Frank Hampson's artwork, but with that of Frank Bellamy, Massimo Belardinelli, Dave Gibbons and Ian Kennedy too). Then it struck me.

Everyone is white. Most worryingly, this is true of everyone in Dan's own fantasy idealised England too.

I hope that this turns out to be a plot point, and not just casual sloppiness on the part of Ennis, Erskine and colourist Parasuraman A. It would certainly be an odd assumption given Virgin Comics' Indian base.

Dan Dare issue 1 "Under an English Heaven", script by Garth Ennis, Art by Gary Erskine, colour by Parasuraman A, letters by Rakesh B Mahadik, editor Charlie Beckerman, Dan Dare created by Frank Hampson

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Credit Where It’s Due

Although the adverts in Previews for upcoming issues continue to omit it, the first issue of the new Dan Dare comic has the right credit at the top of the list:

Thank you, Virgin Comics.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Who Plunders the Pirates?

As they were no doubt supposed to do, the teaser photographs from the upcoming film of Watchmen have wafted a warm breeze of reassurance over comics fans. “Look,” they say, “We are being faithful to the comic. Why, there’s even that boy reading Tales of the Black Freighter.”

And yes, that is a detail faithful to the disembodied story. But in the move from one medium to another, much of its meaning has washed away.

You’ll recall that, in Watchmen, two changes from our world have a myriad of consequences, large and small. Because some oddballs actually did become costumed vigilantes in the 1940s, and because one genuine super-powered being appeared in 1960, geopolitics are different, the economics of energy are different – and so are matters of taste in styles of clothes and methods of smoking tobacco.

One consequential change is in comics. In an America with real superheroes, no-one wants to read about them in comic books. So, instead, the dominant genre is the pirate story. This is a particularly effective move on the part of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, because it brings home directly to the reader that the very comic he or she is reading is the product of contingency; that the fact that Watchmen is a superhero comic is itself a product of the odd chances of history; that chance is everywhere in this garden of forking paths.

On film, this direct address must be lost. If cinema had a single dominant genre, then something similar could be done by having characters watch films from a wholly different genre instead. But the first condition simply does not apply, and that news-stand photo suggests that the film-makers have not attempted to find such a parallel.

In addition, time has undermined the choice that Moore and Gibbons made. In the mid-1980s, pirate stories were a moribund genre that never really had been that popular (how many issues did EC’s Piracy last?). A pirate story with overtones of supernatural horror, like Tales of the Black Freighter, was a real oddity that paralleled the strangeness of the superhero story which comics readers so took for granted. But now a mix of pirates and supernatural horror doesn’t seem strange at all. Even the most goldfish-memoried movie-goer will be reminded of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley fighting CGI’d monsters on the Black Pearl. The oddity is lost.

So, in the end, Tales of the Black Freighter becomes a minor piece of set dressing, the equivalent of a poster advertising an unfamiliar perfume. The mere whiff of Nostalgia.

Photograph of Watchmen, taken from Warner Brothers, found via the Forbidden Planet International Blog

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Peter Haining and Spring-Heeled Jack

I read the latest issue of Hellblazer, which features an appearance by the early-Victorian urban legend Spring-Heeled Jack, on the same day that I read that Peter Haining had died. It was something of a coincidence, as the last of Peter Haining’s books that I had read was The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack (Frederick Muller Limited, London, 1977), which I picked up at the Tynemouth book fair a few weeks ago – though, since I have read fewer than twenty of the, roughly, two hundred books that Haining wrote or edited, there may be more to come.

The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack is a typically frustrating example of Haining’s work. It is a non-fiction book, but is hugely unreliable. Several incidents are written up in novelistic detail which cannot possibly have been available in the sources – indeed, as Mike Dash points out here, the incident with which Haining opens the book, an attack by Jack on a barmaid in Blackheath, seems to have no source. He may simply have made it up – it’s hard to tell, as Haining gives no notes, sources or bibliography. He takes third hand accounts – the sort of “friend of a friend” story that forms the very core of urban mythmaking – as solid evidence; and he devotes a lot of attention to the theory that Jack was the Marquis of Waterford, on the familiar assumption that any mysterious figure must really be someone famous or aristocratic, or both, because that is the better story. (Andy Diggle, by the way, uses the same identification in that Hellblazer issue).

And yet there is a lot of material here that would not have seen print without Haining. His discussion of Jack’s place in popular culture, for example, seems sound, and I will be plundering it in an upcoming post about Spring-Heeled Jack’s life in comics.

And so it is with the rest of his work. For every sloppily-compiled anthology of Victorian horror stories with no details about first publication, there is a book about penny dreadfuls which considers publication and authorship in detail. For every collection of otherwise hard-to-find horror and pulp illustrations, there is a scissors-and-paste book about Doctor Who full of popular misconceptions.

The lesson, I suppose, is to handle Peter Haining’s legacy with care. But, by all means, do handle it.

A personal recollection of Peter Haining, and an interview with him, by Steve Holland, can be found on Steve’s Bear Alley blog.

Pictures and panels
Hellblazer issue 238, “The Smoke” by Andy Diggle (writer), Daniel Zezelj (artist), Lee Loughridge (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Casey Seijas (editor), DC Comics, January 2008 (I must have slept through the New Year celebrations)

Cover to Peter Haining The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack, Frederick Muller Limited, 1977, reproducing an illustration from Spring-Heel’d Jack, The Terror of London, Newsagents’Publishing Company, 1840s

Monday, 26 November 2007

Following the Herd

I suspect that this tells you only that I’m using a lot of long words and complicated sentences.

It doesn’t tell you if I’m using them correctly.

(Found via Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist blog. Apparently, they read Erasmus in High School in Australia, or something.)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Depends on How You Look at It

In my review of The Book of Other People, I wrote about the tendency in literary circles to elide prose and comics. Stephen Abell, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, thinks they are both in thrall to moving pictures:

"The prevailing imaginative resource for the modern short-story writer is not literature, but film: A. L. Kennedy’s superb ‘Frank’ is set in a cinema; Daniel Clowes’s tiresome ‘Justin M. Damiano’, a graphic story (what he has called elsewhere a ‘narratoglyphic picto-assemblage’), is about a film critic; Thirlwell’s Nigora can also list her life in terms of ‘all the films which she had seen with her father’; and so on. Moments in characters’ lives are, therefore, described as if they were framed segments from a movie: ‘chemical flare-ups in the brain chemistry, arresting moving images (his analogy came from photographic film)’, as Zadie Smith puts it in her own story. The book can be seen as a sort of literary YouTube, a series of short, revealing clips of its characters."

The complete review is here.

The Spirit “Death by Television” by Darwyn Cooke with J Bone (finishes), Dave Stewart (colours), Jared Fletcher (letters), Ben Abernathy (editor), The Spirit issue 10, DC Comics, November 2007 (not from the book under discussion)

Friday, 23 November 2007

RIP, Verity Lambert

I learned of the death of Verity Lambert, best known as the first producer of Doctor Who, from Tim Chapman’s comment on my post celebrating that programme’s anniversary; and I considered taking the post down as a mark of respect, especially given the lettering on the cake in the illustration. But no: that picture exists because of the pleasure that Verity Lambert’s work gave, and continues to give, to millions of people around the world, and that is what should be remembered.

And it wasn’t just Doctor Who. After leaving that series, she helped to bring us, in one capacity or another, programmes such as Adam Adamant Lives!, The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies, Minder, Widows, Rumpole of the Bailey, GBH and Jonathan Creek (and also Eldorado, but de mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that).

Much is said these days about how diverse and inclusive the new Doctor Who is. But when Verity Lambert started the show in 1963, it was quite the breakthrough for a young woman to become the producer of a BBC drama series – and she followed it up by appointing a young Asian man, Waris Hussein, to direct the first story. Lambert’s subsequent career shows how valuable that breakthrough was.

There’s an obituary here. Read it, raise a glass, and go and watch an episode of your favourite Verity Lambert production. It’s “An Unearthly Child” for me.

Doctor Who is 44 today…

… and I can think of absolutely nothing interesting about the number 44.

So, instead, here’s a lovely drawing by Roger Langridge from the 35th anniversary comic strip, published in Doctor Who Magazine issue 272 (Marvel UK, 1998), and reprinted in Doctor Who: The Glorious Dead (Panini Books, 2006). It’s worth clicking-to-enlarge for all the figures in the crowd. I particularly like the Sontaran impersonating Grimly Feendish.

Happy anniversary, Doctor Who!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure

So called because Fantastic Four: The Held Back To Use As A Spoiler For Kirby’s DC Debut And Then Mutilated Before Publication Adventure wouldn’t fit on the cover.

Still, I’m glad that Marvel are publishing it. This is the story that Kirby pencilled for Fantastic Four issue 102, but which Marvel held back for publication in issue 108, to coincide with Kirby’s first issue of New Gods (the story that Kirby intended for issue 103 appeared in issue 102 instead). As published in issue 108, however, Kirby’s story was badly cut up and rewritten. John Morrow managed to reconstruct most of Kirby’s pencils (and explain what had happened), and published them in The Jack Kirby Collector. Marvel has since reprinted his reconstruction in volume 10 of Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, and will be reprinting it again here, along with a version newly completed by Stan Lee and Joe Sinnott.

I hope that Lee manages to recreate more of the feel of his late 1960s scripting than he did for The Last Fantastic Four Story, and that the panels missing from the pencils are filled in sympathetically. But am I feeling maudlin, or does this seem like another case of Stan Lee tidying up the loose ends before he takes his leave?

Cover picture taken from Comic Book Resources

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Sod’s Law sub-clause 304(b)

No sooner do I pontificate about mainstream book reviewers being interested in theme, plot and character, not technique, than John Mullan posts an article for The Guardian about how Alasdair Gray’s cover and illustrations for his own novel Lanark: A Life in Four Books illuminate his work (in more senses than one). A whipped dog, I shall growl only that it has taken twenty-six years since publication for the press to notice.

Curiously, my copy of Lanark, a 1987 Paladin paperback edition, has a completely different cover, also by Gray, and taken from the title page to Chapter 4. Perhaps the nude lady was too much for Paladin's editors. It obviously draws on the imagery of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, but it has been too long since I read the book for me to comment otherwise.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Review (of sorts): The Book of Other People

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith, covers by Charles Burns, Hamish Hamilton, 2007
Features (alongside prose stories): “Justin M Damiano” by Daniel Clowes
“J Johnson: A Writing Life” by Nick Hornby and Posy Simmonds
“Jordan Wellington Lint to the Age 13” by Chris Ware
19 pages of comics, plus a 5-page illustrated story (out of 296 pages), £16.99

The Book of Other People is a collection of stories and descriptions of new fictional characters, complied by Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth) and sold in aid of Dave Eggers’s charity 826 NYC, which helps children to write. It contains a number of stories by current luminaries of Brit Lit and the McSweeney’s crowd (such as AL Kennedy, Adam Thirlwell, Eggers, Jonathan Lethem).

It also contains two comic strips and an illustrated account written by Nick Hornby and drawn by Posy Simmonds of the life of a writer, told through his books’ author bios and author pictures. This is neatly done and amusing, and only a little sad (true, he does end up ghosting non-books by talent show winners, but he seems to have a rich family life). Hornby steers him through career changes that are perhaps too sharp, but Simmonds superbly captures both the author's ageing and his changing attitudes.

Daniel Clowes’s “Justin M Damiano” is a typically acute but sour piece about a self-righteous self-appointed film critic, while Chris Ware’s “Jordan Wellington Lint” also stays well within its author’s usual emotional range – at the end which encompasses sadness and despair, rather than disgust and self-contempt.

Smith’s introduction draws no attention to any differences between these and the purely prose offerings of the other contributors. But although the theme of the book is “making people up”, there are no attempts to do this in other ways which could be reproduced in print: no poems, for example, or portraits, except for Charles Burns’s cover drawings. Similarly, an anthology called War Without End, published by the Stop the War Coalition and United for Peace and Justice, and which happened to be shelved near The Book of Other People at Blackwell’s bookshop, places non-fiction comics work by Joe Sacco alongside prose journalism (and nothing else) without comment.

This is of a piece with the tendency for newspapers to lump reviews of graphic novels in with the book, and particularly fiction, reviews. It is sometimes remarked upon that critics in these mainstream outlets rarely discuss the artwork in graphic novels, but, then again, they rarely discuss the effects of the use of language in prose fiction either. They dine on the three courses of theme, plot and character, leaving the critics of visual arts and poetry to gnaw on the use of image and word.

Is this a fair treatment? Are Clowes and Ware essentially doing the same things as prose writers? Reading “Justin M Damiano”, it is tempting to think so. Clowes gives us a portrait of self-deceiving self-absorption, delineated by a particular sequence of events. There are a couple of comics techniques here that could only be paralleled clumsily in prose – Clowes shows Damiano’s lack of attention to what others are saying by obscuring their speech balloons behind his captions, and makes a point about fantasy and memory by having Damiano cast a waitress who he has just seen as his ex-girlfriend in an imaginary movie. But on the whole, the same story could be told in prose with a minimum of adaptation.

Ware is something else again. He is not attempting anything straightforwardly mimetic. His abstracted, diagrammatic approach to baby Jordan’s earliest encounters with language, for example, surely bears little direct relation to the nature of a small child’s sensory experience or thought processes. And yet it lays bare the experience in a clear and strangely affecting way.

If this highly structured, evocative, yet non-literal approach has any close relation in the land of only-words, it is surely poetry, not prose (though it would be one hell of a job to translate from one medium to the other). And yet poetry lies outside The Book of Other People’s ambit, while Ware’s comics work does not.

One last note: this book is published in aid of a charity established by Dave Eggers, the man behind McSweeney’s. It was in an issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon raised his standard against the dominance of “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth, revelatory story”. But that is, on the whole, what The Book of Other People provides. Chabon is not among the contributors; nor are any of his collaborators on The Escapist comic books. I don’t recall that there was any poetry in them, either.

The Unread Thing

I gather that The Book I Cannot Acquire includes a pastiche Cthulhu story in the style of PG Wodehouse.

This has, of course, been done before, in Scream for Jeeves by PH Cannon. Let Bully tell you all about it.

Friday, 16 November 2007

“The Standard Comic Sign …”

Every Friday, the British newspaper The Independent runs a full page article about some work of art. This week, it’s the painting “The Big Night Down The Drain” by Georg Baselitz (pictured in a scan from the paper). Not coincidentally, the Indy is currently sponsoring a Baselitz exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Tom Lubbock writes, “… the cartoony elements of the picture – the wanker’s big head, his tight little spot of a mouth, his tiny, upturned eyeballs (the standard comic sign of a masturbator in ecstasy) – all contribute to the feeling of low farce.”

Hold, on, there’s a standard comic sign of a masturbator in ecstasy?

You know, I really don’t want to check up on that proposition.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Doctor, Doctor

On Friday night, BBC1 will broadcast “Time Crash”, a seven-minute Doctor Who episode, as part of the annual Children in Need charity telethon. The rest of the evening will no doubt be given over to the usual mix of showbiz backslapping and maudlin handwringing. But the Doctor Who episode is likely to be worth a watch and a donation: it is by Steven Moffat, who has written some of the very best episodes of the revived series: “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”. The hook is that Peter Davison will be reappearing as the fifth Doctor, alongside David Tennant’s tenth Doctor.

There’s something about charity appeals that brings multiple Doctors running. True, the last Doctor Who contribution to Children in Need, two years ago, was Tennant’s first solo outing. But back in 1983, “The Five Doctors” was broadcast as part of the appeal, and in 1993, the then-dead series was brought out of retirement for the night of Children in Need with the bizarre runaround “Dimensions in Time”, which was sunk under the weight of its gimmicks. Not only did every surviving Doctor appear (plus truly tasteless waxwork busts of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton), but so did as many of the old supporting cast as could be found, and every monster suit that could be dredged up. And it was a crossover with the popular soap opera EastEnders. And it was filmed in a new 3-D technique that required constant horizontal motion across the scene. Little wonder it was rubbish. But it probably raised some money.

The BBC’s other regular telethon is Red Nose Day, held every two years for the charity Comic Relief. Doctor Who cropped up in 1999 with “The Curse of Fatal Death”, an extended spoof which achieved the rare double of being both funny and faithful to the original, largely because it, too, was written by Steven Moffat. And this one, agin, featured multiple Doctors – all-new ones, this time, played by Rowan Atkinson, Jim Broadbent, Richard E Grant, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley.

Appropriately enough, Comic Relief has occasionally spawned comics. In 1993, Fleetway published The Comic Relief Comic. This too featured multiple Doctors, in a two-page crossover with Dan Dare, drawn by John Ridgway, a long-term artist on the comic strip for Marvel UK’s Doctor Who Magazine.

But more than that, the amount of crossover and collaboration on this comic beggars belief. The next few paragraphs are simply lists, because I can think of no better way of getting across the scale and scope of the thing. Remember, this was all in sixty pages, including covers.

The plot was by Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and a Funeral), Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. The editors were Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman and Peter Hogan.

The script was by (deep breath) Dan Abnett, Mike Collins, Richard Curtis, “the Dandy and Beano team”, Al Davison, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Dick Foreman, John Freeman, Neil Gaiman, Melinda Gebbie, Bambos Georgiou, Dave Gibbons, Igor Goldkind, Lenny Henry. Peter K Hogan, Alan Martin, Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Paul Neary, John Smith, Si Spencer and “the Viz team.

And then there were the artists: Jeff Anderson, Jim Baikie, Simon Bisley, Philip Bond, Robin Boutell, Dougie Braithwaite, Mark Buckingham, Dondi Cox, Steve Dillon, D’Israeli, Hunt Emerson, Phil Gascoigne, Melinda Gebbie, Dave Gibbons, Martin Griffiths, Jamie Hewlett, Graham Higgins, David Hine, Bernie Jay, Paul Johnson, Nigel Kitching, Barry Kitson, David Lloyd, Mike McKone, Steve Parkhouse, Edmund Perryman, Sean Phillips, Warren Pleece, Arthur Ranson, John Ridgway, Will Simpson, Bryan Talbot, “the Viz team”, Phil Winslade and Steve Yeowell.

Had enough yet? Tough, ‘cause here’s a list of the celebrities and characters featured (at least the ones I recognise): Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly, Lenny Henry (as himself and as Theophilus P Wildebeeste), Jonathan Ross, Griff Rhys-Jones, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Drake, Edmund Blackadder, Judge Dredd, Dan Dare, Captain Britain, Desperate Dan, Bruce Forsyth, the Teenage Mutant “Something” Turtles, Michael Caine, Dawn French, Ben Elton, Cliff Richard (the singer, not the Buffy artist), Alf Garnett, Anneke Rice, Thunderbirds, Digby, the Mekon, Treens, the first seven Doctors, Ace, Leela, Susan, K9, Ice Warriors, Cybermen, Draconians, the “Rover’s Return” pub from Coronation Street, Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, the Bash Street Kids, Esther Rantzen, Noel Edmonds, Terry Fuckwitt, the Fat Slags, Sid the Sexist, Johnny Fartpants, Biffa Bacon and family, Spoilt Bastard, Buster Gonad, Billy the Fish, the Pathetic Sharks, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner), Thor, Daredevil, Swamp Thing, Captain America, Blue Beetle, Fire, Iron Man, Batman, the Silver Surfer, Wolverine, the Young Ones, the Spanish Inquisition (Monty Python version), Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Lurcio from Up Pompeii!, Sid James and Barbara Windsor, Mr Humphries, the cast of On the Buses (God help us!), Tony Hancock, Vic and Bob, Norman Wisdom, Morecambe and Wise, Basil Fawlty, Sybil Fawlty and Manuel, Dick Emery, Buster Keaton and WC Fields.

So, with all that, was it any good? Well … no, not really. Too many cooks, and too many ingredients make for an indigestible mess.

But, hey, like it says on the cover, “all proceeds to Comic Relief.” And it is certainly a curiosity.

There’s no statement about where the proceeds were to go from sales of this year’s Comic Relief tie-in, Beano Max Issue 1, and it’s tempting to conclude that publishers DC Thomson had cynically bought a license as an exercise in promoting the launch of their new comic, a monthly spin-off from the Beano. Notably, there is no collaboration with other comics publishers here. Jonathan Ross and various other BBC presenters appear, but the only fictional characters to be seen who are not owned by DC Thomson are Wallace and Gromit, who share a poster with Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, and, yet again, Doctor Who. In “The Invasion of Bash Street”, Class 2B is menaced by a Dalek teaching assistant. The Dalek is overcome when the kids force-feed it school dinners (bringing it out in red nose-shaped boils), and the Doctor drops by to pick it up.

Despite my suspicious grumbles, this is a much more enjoyable read than the Comic Relief Comic. It’s a good, solid, straightforward children’s humour comic with a few guest stars.

The lesson of all this? Even if it is for charity, keep it simple. Don’t go overboard on the crossovers.

Unless you’ve got Steven Moffat writing.

And now, a message from

"Hello from

We're writing about the order you placed on [details removed]
(Order# [details removed]). Unfortunately, the release date for the item(s) listed below has
changed, and we need to provide you with a new delivery estimate based on the new release date:

Alan Moore (Author), Kevin O'Neill (Illustrator) "The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier" [Hardcover]
Estimated arrival date: 12/03/2007 - 12/13/2007

We apologize for the inconvenience caused by this delay."

Got that? That book you all bought yesterday and have been reading and blogging about? It doesn't actually exist yet, according to Amazon.

The phrase "adding insult to injury" springs to mind.

Update, 17 November Still, things could be worse. Oh, hold on ...

Hello from

Unfortunately, an unexpected delay from our supplier may prevent us from delivering some items in your order placed on [details removed] (Order# [details removed]) by December 24. Other items that may be in stock will still ship separately, with no increase in your total shipping charges.

Alan Moore (Author), Kevin O'Neill (Illustrator) "The League of
Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier" [Hardcover]
Estimated arrival date: 12/10/2007 - 12/28/2007

... Yes, they are worse.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Astonishing or Uncanny?

I’ve noted before that Joss Whedon is giving a distinctly X-Men flavour to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 comics, but this cover to issue 11 is the most straightforwardly superheroic yet.

Leaping across urban rooftops?* They’ll all be in yellow spandex by the end of the series, you mark my words.

* Admittedly, that’s more like Batman than the X-Men. Is anyone up for All-Star Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Her Army of Girl Wonders?

Cover to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Issue 11 by Georges Jeanty, taken from the Dark Horse Comics February 2008 listing posted at Comic Book Resources

Monday, 12 November 2007

Highly Critical Language

The latest “Everyone’s A Critic” column on Blog@Newsarama asks whether comics critics shy away from discussing art because of a lack of an art-critical vocabulary, and whether the language of comics criticism needs specialised terms of its own. Unfortunately, I cannot now get Blog@Newsarama to load, so here is what I had prepared for the comments section.

Is criticism of art in comics inhibited by ignorance of art-critical vocabulary? More likely, it reflects a lack of engagement with, and sensitivity to, drawing and colour. Much of the vocabulary of art criticism simply takes straightforward concepts and gives them an Italian label. If I write of Alex Toth’s chiaroscuro, or the challenge of inking Gene Colan’s sfumato pencils, I gain nothing over writing of Toth’s organisation of light and dark on the page, or of Colan’s hazily shaded pencilling. Of course, there are also many terms that have no direct use in comics criticism. There is not much call for discussions of the support or of the impasto of the paint.


Colour theory is a little harder to express in concise English, but that is not, I think, why I tend to neglect colour when I write about comics: rather, I am not very sensitive to colour, and tend to have little interesting to say about it. But if I did witter on about “complementary colour” or somesuch, at least a hypothetical confused reader could look the term up in the dictionary and find a definition that applies precisely.

Dangers emerge when we borrow terms that do not make a perfect fit with comics, and either carry misleading overtones or change their meaning as a result. This is particularly true of the language of film criticism. If we talk about “camera angles”, we imply the existence of an objective mechanism recording something that already exists, which is, generally speaking, not a good description of a comics artist. If we talk about “cutting” and “panning”, we get tangled in the different relationships that cinema and comics have with time. For example, in a film, a pan must be a movement through both time and space. In a comic, a sequence of panels showing physically adjacent parts of a scene need not have any fixed chronological pattern.

Now, there are many comic books that seem to want to be second-rate impersonations of cinema – I have even seen “it looks like a storyboard” used as praise – but I doubt we can put the blame for that onto intellectual limitations fostered by an inappropriate and limited critical vocabulary. Limited ambition for, and understanding of, the medium, and abasement before the most pervasive and financially successful means of telling stories of our age, are much more likely culprits.

Do we need a comics-specific language of criticism? As suggested already on the Blog@ thread, we already have some terms, such as panel, gutter and word balloon. But if I were to start using entirely different terms – frame, space, speech container – it wouldn’t take long for an alert reader to catch on. It might, however, suggest to that reader that I was not be familiar with what I was writing about. But a specialist vocabulary is often used to exclude outsiders as much as to aid rapid communication among insiders, which does not seem to me to be desirable for a marginal and disreputable artform like comics. Our criticism should be accessible to outsiders, on the rare occasions that they encounter it.

I have yet to read Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (it is in the queue behind a couple of huge books, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Hogarth and Vic Gatrell’s more general account of eighteenth-century English satire, so it may be a while before Groensteen gets his turn), but I am instinctively dubious of the need to indulge in a sudden orgy of neologism. If terms are needed, they will no doubt emerge, but it is surely better if they do so organically.

Having said that, I do sometimes wish for a term which, like “cinematic” or “poetic” suggests a medium which is making the most of its own resources. “Comic booky” is used to insult productions in other media by suggesting that they are silly, gaudy and shallow. But, then again, “prosaic” and “theatrical” are usually used as insults, and both prose and theatre manage to stumble on somehow.

Update, later that day: Added link to the original post, now that I can load Blog@Newsarama again.

The Critics by John Fardell, Viz, 2000, reprinted in Viz: The Bag of Slugs, IFG/Fulchester Industries, 2002

“Zzutak: The Thing that Shouldn’t Exist!!”, script by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, originally published in Fear issue 3, reprinted in Monster Masterworks, Marvel Comics, 1989

Review: Paris

Paris, written by Andi Watson, drawn by Simon Gane, SLG Publishing, 2007, 128 pages, US$10.95

Juliet, an American art student in Paris in the 1950s, is hired to paint a portrait of Deborah, an English debutante. The two girls fall in love.

With a plot outline like that, you probably have a good idea of where this is going: either Juliet and Deborah will defy society, but end up living happily ever after, with Juliet recognised as an artistic genius; or they will defy society but be crushed by stifling bourgeois conformity, possibly with one of them dying. It all depends on whether the switch is set to “romance” or “tragedy”.

Actually, the story takes a rather different tack. Juliet’s portraits are not recognised as great art by anyone, and when she switches to the dominant American mode of abstract expressionism, that isn’t a great artistic success either, though it serves to reunite her with Deborah. Deborah, in turn, seems to acquiesce in an arranged marriage of convenience, which will leave both her and her husband free to pursue their own romantic interests. It seems to be a story of finding happiness through accommodation with an unsympathetic society, rather than through rebellion, which is a refreshing change. This point is, however, ambiguous: Deborah’s decision is not shown, and thereafter she is drawn with gloves, so that we cannot tell if she is wearing a ring. If you prefer the heights of romance, you can read the story as if she rejected the marriage and ran off to America to find Juliet. But that would be so much less interesting.

The main themes of the book are nicely anticipated by Watson and Gane in the opening sequence. Juliet walks through boulevards packed with mid-century Parisian clichés, all marked by sprays of small, sharp, pointed leaves.

Then we get our first sight of Deborah. She is wearing a bodice decorated with patterns of flowers with short, sharp, pointed petals, connecting her visually with the leaf motif we associate with Paris and Juliet. Her aunt then tells her to cover up her underclothes (and thus, to conceal her relationship-to-be).

A drawback of the book is that neither Juliet nor Deborah comes across as a strong, distinctive character. The supporting characters – Deborah’s ghastly traditionalist aunt and louche brother, Juliet’s bohemian friends – come across more powerfully: they are one-dimensional, but their single dimensions are clear and familiar.

But the strongest character is the one in the title: Paris itself, as limned by Gane’s quirky, blocky line. There are frequent splash pages in which Gane suppresses perspective, giving all the bustle and activity of the city equal status with the action of the lead characters. The lettering, too, reinforces the line and mood of the drawings.

So strong is the association of drawing style and location that it actually becomes something of a liability in the final chapter, in which Deborah returns to England and Juliet to America. Boxy, modern Manhattan, in particular, looks wrong laid out in the crooked lines of the Old World. But this is a small price for the visual pleasure provided by the book as a whole.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Wishing for a Better 'Ole, 2007

Here is probably the best known cartoon of the Great War. (Click to enlarge.)

Here is its less well-known sequel, first published between the Armistice, 89 years ago today, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Less well-known; less funny; more desirable a reflection of reality.

Fragments from France by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, reprinted in The Best of Fragments from France, compiled and edited by Tonie & Valmai Holt, Phin Publishing, 1978
(Apologies for the slightly blurred second cartoon: a few pages in my copy of this book are printed off-register)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Short Attention Span

This is a belated addition to the argument about whether or not trade paperback (or hardback) collections of comics series should be brought out hard on the heels of their original serialised publication. It was begun by Brian Hibbs, who worries that too prompt or certain a collection damages periodical sales. His position was opposed by, most clearly, Christopher Butcher, who does not think that potential sales of collections should be inhibited to artificially protect the periodicals.

Now, unlike Brian and Chris, who are both successful retailers, I have little knowledge of consumer behaviour. I only know my own, which may well be untypical. But I do know that I am much more likely to buy a collected edition of a series that is still fresh in my mind, whether or not I read it in serialised form. Leave it too long, and my attention will have wandered over to the latest shiny object.

Some confirmation that this is not too unusual comes from another medium. Over the weekend, there were two prestigious new feature-length productions broadcast on British television: on the BBC, the latest play by Stephen Poliakoff, Joe’s Palace; on ITV, a new adaptation of A Room with a View. DVDs of each were on sale in high street shops on Monday.

Prestigious or not, neither of these is likely to have been rushed out to beat the pirates, who have bigger, Hollywood, fish to fry. More probably, the marketing men have realised that their best option for maximising sales is to make the programmes readily available to those who saw the broadcasts and decided they’d like a copy to keep, and to those who missed them, but read about them in the next day’s newspapers, or heard about them from friends. Even a short delay, and they’d just be two more anonymous titles on the classic TV racks.

Nothing in comics is quite that immediate, though a lot of it is timebound. For example, it would be wise of DC to rush out a collection of the two-page origin strips from 52 and Countdown rapidly, while they are still current. Because, attractive as many of them are, there is no way I am buying the rest of Countdown in order to get them.

Spoilt Bastard, reprinted in Viz: The Bag of Slugs, IFG/Fulchester Enterprises, 2002

Monday, 5 November 2007

“Bang!” Goes Another Fifth of November

As the whizzes, pops and bangs scare the seagulls on another Bonfire night, either celebrating or lamenting Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the King and Parliament*, here are some panels that have probably popped up on more than one blog today. I’m sorry to break up the layout, but they are, at least, in gloriously stark black and white, as artist David Lloyd intended.

That the clock tower apparently blows up in silence, and that the fireworks are accompanied by no whizzes, pops or bangs, is a reminder of another of Lloyd’s intentions. As he put it when interviewed for the Comics Britannia TV series:

”The idea of getting rid of thought balloons and sound effects was motivated by me wanting to get people to read comics who didn’t normally read comics, because one of the things that often puts people off is the “Bam! Pow! Zap!’ stuff. Everybody knows that when a gun goes off it goes ‘Bang!’, so you don’t actually need to tell them, not if they’re intelligent adults. And thought balloons were a kind of artificiality that you don’t get in any other kind of entertainment.”

We’ll leave aside for the moment the question of whether people who don’t normally read comics were ever likely to pick up Warrior issue 1, with its gaudy cartoon cover. In the longer run, many such people probably have read the collected paperback V for Vendetta.

We’ll also leave aside the dismissal of thought balloons, save to note that novels also frequently recount their characters’ thoughts, and that many a dramatist or screenwriter who has had to resort to soliloquy or voiceover must have envied comics having so neat a device to let readers into their protagonists’ heads.

For the moment. let’s stick with sound effects. Lloyd’s collaborator on V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, carried the aesthetic of omitting thought balloons and sound effects forward into Watchmen, one of the two comics most influential on subsequent anglophone adventure stories. The abolition of thought balloons proved to be a very successful meme, partly because Moore, and Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, simultaneously provided an alternative: the first-person narrative caption box. But sound effects have proved harder to eradicate, even though, as Lloyd notes, they are at the heart of the easy mockery sub-editors pour into every mainstream headline about comics. Why?

In part, it is because Lloyd is surely wrong about sound effects being unnecessary. What if that gun went off in the next room or was hidden inside a bag? What if the point the cartoonist wanted to convey was how loud (or how soft) it sounded to the characters? What if what is being shown in the pictures is not a familiar action? Nothing is as simple and effective as writing down the sound, and it is, on the face of it, no more artificial than writing down in a word balloon the sounds the humans are making.

And yet, sound effects often do seem silly. We tend to blame memories of the 1960s Batman TV series for the derision heaped on “the ‘Bam! Pow! Zap!’ stuff”. Yet there was a reason why the TV producers singled out sound effects for the on-screen treatment. After all, they didn’t put up intertitles to display Adam West’s dialogue in word balloons. The reason, I think, is that onomatopoeia is naturally funny. Consider how much less amusing it would be if Thurber’s references to Walter Mitty’s “ta-poketta-poketta” were all replacing by descriptions of a jerky, rhythmic sound instead.

So we seem to be at an impasse. Sound effects are often needed, but may be inherently risible. I wonder, though, if some clues to a way out could be presented by manga?

Manga, as presented in the USA, are often published in a half-translated form. The aspect of this most remarked upon is that they generally retain an orientation that requires reading the page from right to left. But it is also common practice to leave sound effects in situ but untranslated.

The effect, at least to a non-reader of Japanese, is that the panel alerts the reader to the fact that a sound is being made, but leaves us to decide for ourselves what that sound is. This can be remarkably effective (your idea of how the sound of a zipper or an approaching train should best be rendered probably differs from mine – here we can each interpolate our ideal), and though it lacks specificity, it avoids the onomatopoeia trap. I’m not suggesting that anglophone cartoonists should letter their sound effects in Japanese, but perhaps some literally non-literal approaches might be suggested by the manga effect.

Anyway, the whizzes, pops and bangs have now died down outside my window, so I’ll take advantage of lack of sound effects to get some sleep.

* For a reminder of what Robert Catesby and his stooge, the real Guy Fawkes, were trying to do to the Palace of Westminster, click here.

V for Vendetta Chapter 1 “The Villain” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, Warrior Issue 1, Quality Communications, March 1982 (Cover: Laser Eraser and Pressbutton drawn by Steve Dillon)

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 3 by Eiji Otsuka (story) and Housui Yamazaki (art), English-language edition published by Dark Horse Comics, 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

More about The DFC

I had forgotten, when I posted about The Guardian's comic section strip Robot Girl being a feature of an upcoming comic called The DFC, that Rich Johnston had posted about it in Lying in the Gutters back in September:

"David Fickling Books, publishers of Lyra's Oxford, are publishing a new anthology comic. Called The DFC, it will be subscription only and feature a mix of genres. One named is Robot Girl, another is by His Dark Materials' Phillip Pullman."

A bit more poking around turned up this thread on the Google Group "Graphic novels in libraries UK", about a presentation David Fickling gave in July about his plans. The main additional information is that political cartoonist and children's book illustrator Chris Riddell is also a contributor.

Which leaves one more question.

Is it really a good idea for David Ficking Books to use stylised male genitalia as a logo?

Friday, 2 November 2007

The First Hundred Years are the Hardest

Happy 80th birthday, Steve Ditko!

From a story reprinted without title or credits in Doctor Who Weekly issue 39, Marvel UK, 1980, art by Steve Ditko