Sunday, 5 February 2017

Epilogue - Stuart J McCune

I'd been waiting for this one.  Epilogue is the final part in a sequence of comics from Northern Ireland artist Stuart McCune and his Millicent Barnes imprint and it was worth waiting for.

An A5, beautifully printed and finished, square-bound book, Epilogue has a stunning cover.  A bold and striking image of the island on which much of the Ghost story contained within its pages is set.   This isn't an easy read, it's probably Stuart's most ambitious story to date, with a theme that only becomes clear at the very end.

His words, mainly a first person narration, are carefully selected and at times have a strange formality to them.  This is a comic that benefits from a re-reading or two.  The ending changes much of what has gone before.  What seemed superfluous, sometimes meaningless dialogue, gains significance and at least one phrase which I took to be a mistake on first reading suddenly becomes an early clue to the twist in the story. 

It is not a one-dimensional piece either, Stuart weaves multiple themes into this comic.  There is the story itself, but then there are little asides about the nature and artificiality of art.  At one point one of the characters insists that sometimes it isn't enough to consider a painting on its own, but that we should look at the actual paint.  An interesting idea in terms of a comic which I find myself picking up to look at individual pages separate from the whole.

None of the 'Millicent Barnes Comics' Stuart's Imprint, make any attempt at 'realistic' art, in some ways they don't look like comics at all.  The closest we get is the geometric formality of his buildings, but in general his work has an impressionistic feel to it.  His faces can jar, having an animalistic, fluid aspect to them and the closest comparison I can make is to the wilder work of Bilal.            

The whole tenor of Epilogue is oppressive, even when the characters are in a boat on the open sea, a dark sky gathers round them closing their world down.  Some of Stuart's previous comics have made great use of open space, with areas of solid colours giving the pages an out-of-doors, open feeling.  Not so with Epilogue.  The colour palate is dark and oppressive, with strong reds and a sickly yellow standing out against browns and other earthy shades Even the decision to print this book at the smaller A5 size seems to add to the feeling of claustrophobia.

I said at the beginning that this was not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one.  As usual, Stuart's art is beautiful and the ideas in his story come through beautifully.  He has said that he sees this as the end of a sequence of books, that he will be starting something new, well this was a good way to end something.

Epilogue was funded through Kickstarter, Stuart's fifth campaign.  As ever, everything was completed on time and perfectly presented.   It's a stunning comic, something very special and I've not done it justice here.

I said in my previous post that the Millicent Barnes books have been among the highlights of my exploration of the self-published scene.  I shouldn't limit my praise, they are among the highlights of my comic reading.  In the eighties, when comics creators, and readers were trying to prove that graphic storytelling was a legitimate art form there was too much pretentious attempts at doing something different.   Most of the attempts were incomprehensible or ugly and boring.  Epilogue achieves all of those artists’ aims by being what it is.

You can buy Millicent Barnes Comics from Comixology or Big Cartel and its worth checking out the Millicent Barnes Tumblr site. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Enniskillen Comics Festival, and other Activity in the Irish Comics Scene.

Splank! has been off the air for a few weeks now.  Other things taking up my time including a huge catch up project reading back issues of 2000AD and a rather nasty winter cold that kept me away from the keyboard.  But back now and hoping to keep up a more regular schedule this year and, with a bit of luck, a few non-blog related Splank! projects.

I'm going to start off 2017, a month late, with a few items on the Irish comics’ scene.

To begin with there is news of this year's Enniskillen Comic Fest which is taking place on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th of May.   Last year's event was something a little bit special.  At a time where it can be difficult to find the comics content in many an event described as a comics-con, Enniskillen was most certainly 'all about the comics' and this year is looking even bigger and better.

The guest list, put together by Paul Trimble and his crew, is excellent for any com, but especially for one taking place in the year of 2000AD's 40th birthday.  From the golden era of the title we have editor Steve MacManus, writers John Wagner and Alan Grant and artist Carlos Ezquerra.  Bringing things right up to date we have a current Judge Dredd writer, Michael Carroll and our very own Glenn Fabry who continues to be one of the most sought after artists in comics.

For Friday night, the festival has taken over the local theatre for its very own 2000AD 40th Anniversary celebrations.   A great guest list and an excellent venue.  Tickets, and more details of the event, can be found on the theatre's web-site which you can find here.

From the world of the Beano, Paul has lined up current Dennis the Menace artist Nigel Parkinson along with colourist Nika and Lew Stringer of Pup Parade.

Nigel has worked in British comics since 1980 on titles like Cor!, Whizzer and Chips, Nutty and the Dandy.  He's been involved in strips featuring Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer and Count Arthur Strong and has set the look of the current Beano with a clean, dynamic style that pleases both the older reader like myself and the kids that Beano is really aimed at.  He and Nika are real favourites at cons and Nigel is a gentleman to boot, a real coup for Paul and the guys and something I'm particularly excited about.

Lew Stringer's most recent self-published title.
Lew Stringer is the author of the Blimey Blog, one of the very best web-sites about British comics and has a long career working in the UK.  Recently he has had strips in Toxic, Doctor Who Magazine, Viz and, of course, Beano.   He is self-publishing reprints of some of older work, including the excellent Derek the Troll and the very funny superhero parody comic, Brickman Returns.  Lew was at last year's festival and is making a very welcome return.      

Just announced is the first transatlantic guest. Canadian artist Yanick Paquette has been working in American comics since the mid-nineties.   He first came to attention working with Roy Thomas on TV-tie-in comics for the short-lived Topps comics’ line before moving on to DC.  In 2000, he was artist for Alan Moore's "Terra Obscura" for ABS and more recently has worked on many of the top titles for Marvel and DC comics.

What is special about this event is that admission to the Festival, which will take place in Enniskillen Castle, is free. That it involves community and last year at least arranged for the guests to visit local schools and talk about comics.  I know from talking to a few teachers in the area that this was really appreciated.

This isn't a money-making scheme, and it’s not about film and TV stars, it’s all about the comics.  It's run by guys with a real passion for their hobby and a real pride in doing a good job.  Last year this was an intimate and friendly festival, with an excellent selection of guests with a real emphasis on the British comics’ scene.  The guys are ambitious to make this as good an experience as possible and this year looks even better.

So maybe something to think about.  You might want to combine a visit to the friendliest Comics Festival around with a longer visit to Northern Ireland.  Take a few days to visit the Lakelands, the Giant's Causeway or the Titanic Centre in Belfast.  Northern Ireland is a great place to visit and if you do make the journey, make sure you let Splank! know you are coming and we can have a coffee at the very least.

Enniskillen Comics Festival, 5th and 6th May, Enniskillen Castle.

Blimey, Lew Stringer's excellent British comics blog. 

Nigel Parkinson Cartoons blog. 

Loman Niblock is the first title I've read from Dubliner John Robbins.  It’s a meticulously produced, A5, black and white comic complete with a colour-it-yourself Dust Jacket.
I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.  It’s warm and personal, funny and thoughtful and beautifully, but simply, drawn.  At its heart it’s the story of how a nervous, anxious childhood impacted on a boy and his younger, more confident sister.   Alternating between memories of Loman growing up and what can only be described as an adult existential crisis, it's a seamless piece of comics writing and quite obviously a labour of love.

John uses little tricks of style, the adult Loman and his family are drawn simply, but realistically.  The kids, however, are more akin to characters from old British humour comics.  They remind me a little of the numbskulls from the Beezer.  Yet the kids' portion of the story is more realistic than that of the adults where things get a little surreal.  A nice twist that works well.

John's depiction of childhood is particularly astute and accurate and you will find it hard not to smile at the pointless arguments over whose turn it is to answer the door.  

For everyone with an evil younger sister - sorry sis!
I can't look at this comic and not comment on John's buildings and geometric patterns.  Every so often you come across a page that stops you in your tracks.  A building that is drawn with great precision, in the style of a high-end colouring book or the page that shows the kids by the Christmas tree which is filled with geometric patterns that seem joyful and magical.  And no, I'm not going to reproduce that, you have to buy the comic to see it for yourself.

I'm not sure if this is a comic I'd have picked up on my own, but it's a real find.  I've complained before about the pretentiousness of some 'slice of life' comics, especially those that appeared in the American scene in the eighties and nineties.   The Fantagraphics era where often, the emperor really had no clothes.  But this, like the autobiographical work of Lewis Trondheim, has substance and charm and to make it even better comes from an Irishman.  

You can buy a copy of Loman Niblock directly from John for €3.50 including postage through his Tumblr page.  

Something a little different.  Our friends at "Back-Pocket Comics” from Portadown in Northern Ireland have taken to Kickstarter again.  This time to fund the printing of their new 100 page Graphic Novel, "Haeman, Takin' the Reigns".  The guys are hugely enthusiastic and ambitious and their previous publications show huge promise.

Haeman looks be a western, but I think there will be a little more to it than that.  I'm hoping to get a wee preview of the comic in the next few days and I'll write more about it then, but in the meantime, please, do check out their Kickstarter andsupport their efforts.

Last, and most certainly not least, this week marks the publication of "Epilogue" from S J McCune's Millicent Barnes Comics, a comic I've been really looking forward to.

Stuart has also released details of his next project, an ongoing anthology title called "The Human Beings".  In Stuart's own words, "With Epilogue, I feel like a huge sequence has closed and now it's time, completely, for the next thing".

Stuart's work has been among the highlights of the last year and my exploration of the self-publishing scene.  His comics are smart, elegant and entertaining and have a unique and interesting style.  I'm sure I'll be writing more about in them in 2017, but in the meantime here is the cover image he has shared for his new project.  I for one cannot wait.

Other titles are available through Big Cartel comics here.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Hardboiled Detectives and a Visit to Halloween Town. Two Proofs of the Worth of the Self-Publishing Scene

Andy Herd is a cartoonist from Fife who now lives in Dundee.    He works entirely digitally, drawing on an Ipad and publishing his work on the excellent Pandyland website.

Mixing short comic stories that cover a few pages with newspaper strip style gags, and moving from colour to black and white this is an excellent web-comic that deserves to be better known.   I was particularly taken with one story, a wordless and really quite touching tale "Light of my Life", which also appeared on the Electric Lit web-page.   After my first reading I did wonder if Andy was a fan of Lewis Trondheim who I mentioned in my last posting, Light of my Life has many of the hallmarks of Trondheim's excellent A.L.I.E.N. book but enough unique touches of its own to be individual.

A quick flick through the strips on the web-page will reveal Tintin pastiches, gag strips, some of which made me laugh out loud - watch out for the one with the frog with a desk job - and some rather brutal woodland adventures.  

But Pandyland is interesting not just for the excellent current work, but because you can look back over Andy's development as a comics artist.  Early strips are rudimentary and functional and look to be little more than experiments, getting used to the technology perhaps.  But as time goes on everything gets better.    The art, the writing, the ideas.  It’s fascinating to see someone stretch themselves, gain more and more experience and understanding of what makes comics work and then put that into practice.  Its rare that a creator lets us see this development and this is one of the best aspects of the site.

Andy, not Skip.
Andy's main repeating character is Skip Tobey, a hardboiled police detective who investigates the most unusual of murder cases.  In a collected edition of Skip's first seven adventures, published, according to the cover at least, by Colman and Spaff, he tackles cases on the International Space Station, encounters cyber-hackers and solves a time-travel based crime before it happens, or after it hasn't.  Something like that.   He has filled the spare pages of the comic with advertisements, a cookery spot and one of the best "how to draw" pages I've ever seen and somehow this material does not feel like filler, its all funny and it all adds to the overall package.  Black and White throughout, the art has the look of some of those books Fantagraphics used to publish by Drew Friedman.   The ones you suspect nobody actually liked but nodded their heads sagely and claimed they were artistic as they regretted not buying an EC reprint or a Carl Barks' Disney comic, or maybe that was just me.  

Andy brings real humour and pace to the stories, there are no double page spreads, or giant action panels, this is a gag strip with a lot of small images on each page and the claustrophobia of the art works perfectly with the denseness of the jokes.  Often humour comics are parodies, which merely exaggerate the various foibles of the target of the satire.  Most of those are not really funny.  Skip Tobey has more than that, it has the parody aspect but it also has proper jokes.  One of the best self-published humour comics I've seen for a while.

Many thanks to Andy for sending me a copy of his comic, I'd be fairly sure than most readers of Splank! would enjoy both the Pandyland web site and the Skip Tobey comic available here for £5.

Pandyland is now on my daily read list and I suspect Andy will be added to my list of must-reads as far as future self-published comics goes.

Jonathan Fisher from Lisburn in Northern Ireland is a 2000AD fan, or at least that's how I've known him until recently.   But he is also the author of two books.  The first, August Always, published five years ago and available from Amazon, is an account of his life, much of it telling a story familiar to many of us in Northern Ireland.  Jonathan writes about what it was like to grow up in the bizarre, abnormal, normalcy of Northern Ireland during the troubles. Accepting daily challenges that would have seemed oppressive to anyone not used to them.  He writes about his passion for comics, of his friends and of his occasionally wicked sense of humour. 

The book would be an entertaining, and enlightening memoir of life during the troubles if that was all it was, but it isn't.  The later portion of the book is a remarkably honest and moving account of Jonathan's struggles with Addison's disease, a disease which continues to limit him physically, but has little or no effect on the range of his imagination.

Which brings me to "Ten Minutes on Mars", this is Jonathan's second book.  A collection of short stories set in and around the environs of Halloween Town.  Halloween Town is a place we all know, but cannot quite manage to see except in the hours of our darkest contemplation.  It’s there in all of our home towns, an underworld, where bright lights have a sickly yellow glow and shops you would never enter because they serve only the Zombie community.  This is a real place seen through a mirror less friendly than the one Alice passed through.  This is Jonathan's creation and it’s filled with horror and honesty, and I suspect 

The stories are told with a love of language and an imagination that obviously belongs to the guy with the wicked sense of humour we met in his first book.  Two stories stand out for me.  "The Long Day and Night of John Callisto" in which we meet one of a number of fictionalised versions of Jonathan himself.  Honest and moving, it was worth the price of admission alone.  The title story of the collection, "Ten Minutes on Mars" was another highlight, a story of terraforming and struggle and with allusions to either Greek mythology or Dungeons and Dragons, I was not sure which. 

It’s impossible to look at any work of art without taking into account the circumstances of its creation.  So much of Jonathan's life and his personality come through in these stories.  There is strength and honesty and a spark of something admirable.  At the book's launch in Lisburn on the 17th November, Dr Robert Crone read his view of his pupil and the book.   He summed up both with his final sentence and I can do no better than to steal it. 

This fine selection of short stories is testimony to and evidence of a Promethean spirit that continues to be an inspiration to all of us.

Jonathan, wrote, published and publicised this book himself. Jonathan is working on having the book made available through Amazon in the New Year but for the moment you can get a copy by contacting him through Facebook and sending your name and address.  As and when it becomes available via Amazon I'll update this page with further details.