Monday, 23 May 2016

Space Captain

By day mild-mannered Chris Baldie and Michael Park work together for Glasgow design company Papertank, but by night they become the dynamic creative team behind one of the very best self-published comic about at the moment, "Space Captain".

The comic is full colour printed at half US comic book size and running to 40 odd pages.  It's a intelligent, funny and genuinely moving science fiction story about the last human in the Galaxy, stranded on a distant planet and his quest to find his way home.  The first issue, there have been two so far, introduces us to our hero.  A middle-aged paunchy spacer, with one of the greatest moustaches in comics, and the universe he finds himself in.   This is a dirty, lived in future with aliens who are just a little different from humans and surroundings that look familiar and real.  

In other hands the slightly cartoony style of the art could work against the tone of the comic, but Chris handles things superbly.  Its amazing how well he can depict emotions with that moustache and a pair of thick, but very mobile eyebrows.  he seems to have similar tricks for many of the other, less human, characters.        

The storytelling is superb, the first five pages use a few words to set the scene, but everything story-wise is told through a sequence of wordless panels that are easy to follow, dramatic and paced superbly.  The rest of issue one captures the claustrophobia of life on a outpost on a distant planet, while issue two has the look and feel of the western frontier, with wide open spaces and lawless inhabitants.  I'm constantly reminded of scenes from very good films from the 40's and 50's (I saw them on TV - I'm not that old) and that is not meant as any sort of criticism, quite the contrary.

This is not the science fiction of 2000AD.  Its less frantic and rebellious, more thoughtful and cerebral.  There is no lack of action or adventure but that is mixed with more poingent moments that add to the impact when the action occurs.   Space Captain is not a space hero, he's an ordinary bloke in an extraordinary circumstance.  The reader comes to care about him and understand the quest that drives him very quickly.  Chris and Michael have done a superb job with the writing and the art, and in blending to the two together - often the biggest fault of self-published comics.      

If it sounds like I'm gushing, its because I am.   I'm a big fan of European comics, the albums produced by Cinebooks and occasionally Fantagraphics.  I could easily see Space Captain being published in that format and to that audience.   It looks good enough and it reads just as well.  There are no allowances to be made for this this being a self-published comic, nothing about the energy and enthusiasm overcoming slightly sub-standard art or scripting.  Judged against all of the comics I've read in the past couple of years, from both established publishers and small-press outfits, Space Captain is among the things I've enjoyed most and I can't wait for the next issue

Issue one came out in November 2014, issue two almost exactly a year later and the guys are working on issue 3 at the moment.  They have been kind enough to share a few sketches of work in progress that are scattered around this posting.  If you like what you see please take a look at their shop, you'll be hit instantly with the cover to issue one and that fantastic tash.  They even have those great first four pages up for you to see (leaving out the big reveal on page 5) if you do decide to buy, tell them Splank! sent you and let me know what you think.

Space Captain Shop - click here.  

I'm aware that all of my reviews at the moment are tending to be very positive.   I guess that's because  I'm writing about what I like.  i do have a pile of small press comics to get to and I'm sure that things will change.   But in the meantime this is really a very good comic that deserves to be seen far and wide.      

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Kickstarter Update - Monologue and Renegade Pilot

A couple more interesting Kickstarter projects from this side of the Atlantic to talk about.  They show the real variety of comics that creators are using the crowdfunding system to finance.  From ambitious 'artistic' comics to things that resemble fan fiction or the type of strips that used to appear in fanzines and the like.  It also shows creators in different parts of their comics career.   In today's example we have a contrast between an experienced visual artist and someone who, I think, is just starting out.  Its fascinating to get the chance to see these contrasts and through crowdfunding to support the diversity of creators in the comic medium.    

To start with this time round we have second issue of Monologue from Stuart John McCune.  Stuart is a visual artist from the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland who has been exhibiting in galleries across the province since at least 2009.  At the same time he has been making his comics available through Comixology under the Millicent Barnes comics imprint..   His latest Kickstarter project is for the second issue of his Monologue comic.


Monologue issue 1 came out last year and was one of the first projects I backed through.  An incredibly striking comic, his use of empty space and block colours is the first thing you notice.   Each page, no matter the content, is 'elegant' in its design, a word I am drawn back to time after time as I work my way through this issue.  This is graphic design as storytelling, there is something of modern magazine layout to every page. It has a different look and feel to that of most of the comics I read and that adds to the story Stuart is telling.   The plot is, as the title suggests, told through the internal monologue of the main character.  She is acting as a, perhaps unreliable, narrator of incidents that may be happening to her or may occur only in her mind.  As I moved from page to page I was drawn into the story and into the mind of the lead character  Often comics where the visuals are as different and as strong as this are lacking something in terms of story, a case of style over substance.  But that isn't the case here.   I'm really looking forward to the next issue and have no problem at all recommending this. In terms of Stuart's influences, I can't tell, I was put in mind of an episode of Breaking Bad written by Philip K Dick but that could well be me bringing my likes to the comic.   

If I had one complaint it would be that its been too long between issues.  The Kickstarter campaign still has a few days to run and has already reached its target.  Both issues are available as rewards or you can pick up the first issue on his web-site.  I've included the link for the Kickstarter page and you can find your own way to his other sites from there.

Monologue Kickstarter


Something very different is Matt Clarke's Renegade Pilot.  A space epic, which appears to take its inspiration from Manga and perhaps role playing games.  This Kickstarter is to pay for the production of the third issue, but he is offering copies of all three issues as rewards.   Matt was kind enough to send me a review copy of the first issue.

Its an all action affair, with a kidnapping and a space dog-fight between retro-style space-fighters.    Its full of energy and the plot moves along quickly.  I think Matt needs a little help with the scripting, even someone to talk through the dialogue with before he finalises it.  Some of it is a little awkward and there is a bit of jarring repetition that slows down the action from time to time.

The artwork is typical of this type of Manga fan-art, perhaps not professional standard, but with good storytelling and easy to follow action.  I'm not the target audience for this and Matt seems to understand this style of comic very well, if you like this sort of Manga inspired space stuff, with a bit of a mystery element then this could be just the thing for you.  I'll read and, I think, enjoy all three issues but it not really my thing.

Matt has been working hard to add  some interesting extras, including posters, tee-shirts and 3d printed models of the featured Space craft.   

Renegade Pilot Kickstarter


Its great to see so many British and Irish creators making use of Kickstarter, it seem to be one way to support an industry that has shrunk over the past few years.   I'll keep searching for interesting projects and bringing them to your attention, anyone out there who wants me to mention them on the blog, please contact me at the Splank e-mail address.  I'll always give a totally honest assessment.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Enniskillen Comic Fest Part 1.


So May 2016 is seeing Northern Ireland having two comic conventions within a week of each other? 
Well, sort of.

This past weekend saw the first "Enniskillen Comic Fest" organised by Paul Trimble and a group of dedicated assistants and this Saturday and Sunday coming Belfast hosts the "Film and Comic Con" run by commercial company Showmasters.  But with the commercial show having exactly zero guests from the comic industry, apart from the word Comic appearing in the name of each event there are not really any similarities.

Paul and the team from Enniskillen put on a festival with top British talent as guests.  They turned it into a community event, heavily involving local schools with visits to classrooms and events for aspiring writers and artists.  What's more the whole thing was free.  I was only able to be there for a few hours, but the atmosphere was comfortable and friendly.  I hope they got the numbers they were after but for me at least this seemed like a huge success.

With most of the professional guests best known for their work in 2000AD or the Beano, it was good to see the level of interest that there still is for the comics scene in the UK. and I was particularly taken by some of the home grown Irish talent on show.

Danny McLaughlin of Revolve Comics was there with the first issue of his new epic fantasy comic "Solstice".  I can't help thinking that "Zombies Hi" writer Danny has been inspired just a little by Game of Thrones, as the story begins in a long, long winter that appears to have no end.  But from there the story goes on a more mystical path than the political manoevuring of Westeros.

Artist Nathan Donnell's work is atmospheric, coloured mainly in blue and white, a beautiful first page gives way to stylised and impressionistic illustration.  This is neither the ultra realism or the big-foot cartoon style that seems to dominate comics today but no less effective for that. 

Nathan's use of red in one particular scene is both telling and dramatic.  

Writer Danny could, perhaps, do with an editor on his dialogue which is sometimes sometimes telling us what Nathan has already very effectively shown, but that is a very minor point and this is a very nice first title from a new publisher.  I do wonder why they don't seem to have included credits in the comic, its only from meeting them that I knew who was the writer and who was the artist and neither struck me as exceptionally shy, especially if he'll forgive me for saying this Danny.

The Collins Press from Cork used the festival to launch a new Graphic novel about Ernest Shackleton and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.   I first became aware of the story of Ernest Shackleton through comics when the much missed Look and Learn, featured him on the cover.  I've been fascinated by the ill-fated voyage ever since.  Writer Gavin McCumiskey was at hand to show off and discuss his book "Shackleton, The Voyage of the James Caird".

The story Gavin tells us is an incredible one.  Trapped in the ice, their ship destroyed Shackleton and his crew fought for survival against the power of nature and the frailty of their bodies and their minds.  The graphic novel captures the enormity of the task Shackleton and his crew faced as they challenged the ice and the sea.  Something of a cross between a traditional comic and an illustrated prose piece, this tells the full story of what Gavin himself describes as "the greatest feat of leadership and survival ever recorded".   Shackleton has always been a real hero of mine, a man who accepted responsibility for the men under his command and through skill, determination and sheer force of will  kept them alive in the worst of conditions.   I knew the story well, I've read other comic adaptations fairly recently but I read this 90 page re-telling in a single sitting and I'll probably read it again.


Finally it was a great pleasure to meet and chat with Patrick Brown.  Patrick had a range of comics on sale all of which are available through the Comicsy web-site (see below), I picked up the first three issues of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, a retelling of the longest of the traditional tales of the Ulster Cycle.

These are hard-copy reprints of Patrick's long running web-comic, one I'm ashamed to say I had not followed before now and tell the stories of some of the earliest tales in Irish literature.   These are the stories of Celtic Ireland, of the struggles between the Kings and Queens of the time.  Patrick is meticulous about the accuracy of his work and includes detailed notes on the History of the manuscripts and the sources he uses for the design of roundhouses, chariots and the like.  There is much to learn from this series, but you won't notice you are learning.  

This is so obviously a labour of love.  Again we are looking at something that is not like anything else we see in the comics market.  Paddy's art style is deceptive.  At first glance it looks simple, perhaps even (and I really don't mean this the way it sounds) childish.  He draws in red ink with sparse or non-existent backgrounds, his figures are equally simple but his characters have real faces and expressions and boy can he draw animals and birds.

I just loved these and the rest of the set have already been ordered from Comicsy.  Maybe when I've had a bit more practise at this reviewing business I'll come back and do them proper justice.

There is too much to say about the Enniskillen Comic Fest for one post so I'll be back with another post shortly.  Suffice to say Paul and the guys organised something special and I hope to see them back again next year.

In the meantime check out these links.

Revolve comics

Shackleton A graphic Account - Publisher's

Shackleton - Amazon link.

paddybrown.co.uk  

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Madeline Smith, First Day Covers and Buster's Haircut

While not directly related to Comics, the names of Phil Stamp and Madeline Smith may be familiar to some fans in the UK.  What links them is one of the most interesting comic artists to work in British comics from the sixties through to end of the century.

Jack E Oliver is best known for a long running strip in the music newspaper Disc (later Record Mirror) that featured a strange mixture of characters.  He mixed his own creations, the Invisible Man and a talking dinosaur, Fresco-Le-Ray, with characters suggested or invented by readers and real people, mostly celebs who featured in adventures that, it is claimed, had John Lennon and Yoko Ono as fans.

One of the celebrities featured most frequently was actress Madeline Smith, with whom he appeared to have an unhealthy obsession, well-known from Hammer Horror films and adding glamour to TV shows like The Two Ronnies, Doctor at Large and as Erotica in Frankie Howard's Up Pompeii,   Smith, who had started her entertainment career as a model after working at the famous Biba Boutique, complained that Oliver's frequent depiction of her went beyond the bounds of taste and almost certainly felt that it was more than a little creepy.


Oliver, typically, made his reply through the strip.




In 1977 Record Mirror, which had absorbed Disc, cancelled Olivers' strip.  His work being seen as too old fashioned and out of touch with the music scene of the time. (If my memory serves me correctly that was something that could be said of Record Mirror in general).

He found work with comic publishers IPC mainly working on Buster and Whizzer and Chips and worked there until  Buster finally closed its doors in January of  2000.  Buster had been the last of a long line of traditional British comics from IPC/Fleetway, having absorbed many of the other titles along the way.   Oliver can be said to have been the artist who locked the door and switched out the lights on the IPC comic division, providing the only non-reprint artwork for the final issue of Buster.

His strip provided a single panel ending to all of the stories running in Buster at the time and was the only non-reprint material to appear in the final issue.  Tony Broke and Ivor Lott find themselves in new circumstances with the Broke family winning the lottery and the Lott's losing their shirts on their bad investment in the Buster comic.   Bobby, from the Bobby's Ghoul strip has grown old and his ageless ghostly girlfriend splits up with him as a result.

Finally, on removing his hat, Buster, the cover character throughout the comic's 40 year history (1960-2000), reveals that his hair style is exactly exactly the same as that of Dennis the Menace. It was a nice return to Oliver's irreverent ways from his Disc strip, the freedom of this being the last issue shows in his ideas.


Lew Stringer's Phil Stamp cover. 
With the demise of Buster, Oliver started looking for other work.  He produced newspaper strips and,  along with his cousin, Steve Oliver hit on the idea of producing specially printed first day covers for new British stamp issues and so Phil Stamp Covers was born.   Beginning in January 2000 and issued in limited editions of up to 70 sets, they produced 170 different covers featuring Oliver's character Phil Stamp.  Initially drawn by Oliver with occasional guest artists, including Mike Higgs and Lew Stringer, Hunt Emerson took over after J Edward died and was the main artist until Steve Oliver wound the business up at Christmas 2010.

J Edward Oliver had a varied and productive career in comics.  A web-site,jeoliver.co.uk/, contains scans of most if not all of his Disc/Record Mirror strips and the stamp covers continue to grow in value. He came late to the world of traditional british comics and for me at least it is his Disc strip that is the most interesting, But to hold the distinction of being the man who drew the last strip for Buster, arguably the last real rival to the Beano, is quite a distinction.