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.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Of Mice and Ducks and Tiger Tim

I've just read the comics highlight of the year, well for me at least.  You take my favourite comic characters, add in one of the best and most original artists working in the medium today and add in six months of anticipation as I've waited for this book to be translated from the original French.

Since I got word it was on the way I've been watching the post box like a six year old on his birthday.  But it arrived today, Lewis Trondheim's "Mickey's Craziest Adventures", and yes, it is a Disney comic. 

The first Rupert Annual I owned.  Long gone this was for sale for almost £400
My fascination with anthropomorphic (Funny Animal) comics started with my very first comic hero.  I was just three or four years old and he was a Bear.  A white Bear in a red pullover with a yellow scarf.  His friends were a badger called Bill, an elephant called Edward, a mouse named Willie and a Pekinese dog with the profoundly non-PC name Pong-Ping.   They lived, together with all manner of other talking animals and mythological creatures, in the idyllic English village of Nutwood.

He was Rupert the Bear, and the 1964 Rupert Annual, collecting colour versions of the daily strip from the Daily Express, was read to me on an almost daily basis for the next year. These were stories of fantasy and magic, of Wizards, Mad Professors and wild adventure in far-away lands.  But all with the certain knowledge that the band of friends would get back to their safe woodland home in time for tea.  Rupert was a phenomenon, popular from his first appearance in 1920 right up to the present day.

But it was the Rupert Annual, which first appeared in 1936, that cemented Rupert's place in the memories of many children.  Although initially created by Mary Tourtal it was Alfred Bestall, previously known as an illustrator for xxx who drew the first of the Rupert Books and whose version became the basis for TV shows, comics and all manner of soft toys.

The storytelling style of the Rupert stories harks back to the comics of the early twentieth century. 
A page from the 1963 Annual 
The illustrations had no speech bubbles or sound effects, instead each panel would have a two line rhyming couplet beneath it, with the story written in more detailed prose at the foot of the page.   Rupert was halfway between a storybook and a comic, the illustrations were superb.  It was work of real quality and the stories were engaging and filled with wonder.  Perfect for the pre-schooler and young primary-school kid.  There was only one problem, there was just one annual a year and, for me at least, that wasn't enough. 

Thankfully, my mother, who was a Primary School teacher, was determined that I would always have something to read.  She arranged that each week a local newsagent would deliver a comic for me.   The first one was called Playhour and I remember nothing about it except that it included a weekly strip called "Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys".

Tim was a tiger, and his friends were elephants and monkeys and Bears.  They lived at Mrs Bruin's Boarding School and were decidedly more badly behaved than Rupert and his pals (nobody had friends, they were always Chums or Pals).  But not so naughty as to be a bad influence on me.

 By the time I discovered Tim, his comic career had been going for almost sixty years.  He'd first appeared in 1904 in the comics section of the Daily Mirror before moving to The Monthly Playbox.  He then moved again in 1914 into the pages of Rainbow, where he would continue to appear until 1956 when Rainbow was replaced by "Tiny Tots".  He'd moved to Playhour in 1959, a few years before I first discovered him.

The strips followed a simplified version of the Rupert style, prose beneath clean illustrations.  The stories were simple, but recognisable as versions of the school stories so popular in the early days of comics, designed for younger kids.  A sort of preparation for Billy Bunter and his pals.    But the strips were often in Black and White and the artwork was not up to Bestall's exacting standards.  Still, I was taken enough with the strips that when Tim and his chums jumped ship to the Jack and Jill comic, my allegiance switched.

I don't think Jack and Jill lasted long in our house.  There were much more grown-up things to read.  The Beano and The Dandy, with more funny animals in the form of Biffo the Bear, Korky to Cat and the superb Three Bears by Leo Baxendale.  Then there was the adventures of The Victor and Valiant and finally, via the Odhams Power Comics line, Superheroes.  That would have been it for funny animals, had it not been for my sister who was getting a Disney Comic called "Donald and Mickey".

I'd read anything, and so I always looked through her comics and I certainly remember reading Donald and Mickey, mainly it consisted of fairly poor reprints of quite dull stories I have a particular memory of not being impressed by an adaptation of the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

But one story kept me coming back week after week.  It was an adventure serial featuring Uncle Scrooge McDuck with Donald Duck and his nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie traveling the world and it was as good as anything I was reading anywhere else.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was my introduction to the work of Carl Barks.  Barks' was well know across the world, to many he was simply the 'good Duck artist".  Disney did not allow credits on its comics but many fans have talked about checking out Disney comics to see if the artist who drew better than anyone else and told better stories was in the title.  Eventually he would be recognised as one of the greats of the industry but for me he was just the guy who kept me interested in Funny Animal comics.

By this stage I was mainly reading American superhero comics and for many years left most British comics behind.  But over the years I'd pick up many of the anthropomorphic titles that would appear from time to time.  There was Howard the Duck, Usagi Yojimbo, the Ronin Rabbit and Critters, one of the best anthology comics ever produced in the US.  There was, of course, Carl Barks' reprints in the various revivals of Disney comics and the work of Don Rosa who continued the superb Duck adventures pioneered by Barks. 

So what is the book that set me off on this nostalgic ramble?  Well it’s "Mickey's Craziest Adventure" by Lewis Trondheim and artist Nicolas Kermadias published, at last, in English by IDW books. 

Trondheim is one of the greats of European comics.  Either working on his own or in collaboration with others he produces a wide range of comics that appeal to all ages.   His Dungeon series, is a funny and well-observed parody of fairy tales and role playing games.   The Monster Books for children are funny and beutifully drawn adventures for young, and not so young, kids and his own solo work ranges from the very personal, autobiographical "Little Nothings" series to the wild and funny adventures of would-be space conquerors Kaput and Zosky. No matter what he turns his hand too, he seems to be able to pull it off.

From the Kaput & Zosky Cartoon Show

I was fascinated to see what he would do when he was asked to write one of a series of French graphic novels featuring the Disney characters.   The usual Disney limitations were off the table, the writers and artists were to be given much more freedom that had been granted to anyone before.  Trondheim’s volume is the first to be published in English.

In some ways he's following in the footsteps of Barks' and Rosa.  This is a wild adventure with world-ending meteors heading for the earth, subterranean Mammoths and giant flying mushroom colonies.  He has Donald and Mickey visit the moon, Atlantis and, after being accidently shrunk, spending time in their back garden facing terrifying dangers.  They meet Minnie and Daisy, Gyro and Goofy and none of its makes any sense at all. 

But this is more than simply a rehash of old ideas.   Trondheim is claiming that this is a lost adventure of Mickey and Donald, one only previously printed in a poorly distributed spin-off of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories in the sixties, Mickey's Quest.  Trondheim and Kermadias did not write or draw this, they 'discovered it', or at least they discovered some of it.  What we have is 43 pages of the original starting with episode 2 and finishing with 83.  There are episodes missing all through the book.   Pages are torn or dirty and the art come complete with that pixilated look that you used to see with badly printed old comics.  

The book works on two levels, as the wildest Disney adventure of all time, and also as an elaborate joke and parody of classic Carl Barks Duck tales and of sixties culture in general.   IDW have done a great job, producing it at the same large size as the original French album and with real care taken in the production values.  It may have come late in the year, but I've been waiting months to see this and it did not disappoint.   Possibly, no, probably the best thing I've read all year.  Roll on the rest of the series.

So there you have it, my favourite graphic novel of the year is a story featuring Mickey Mouse and
Alan Moore's version of Tiger Tim
Donald Duck, drawn by a Frenchman with a Danish pen-name.  But it was with Rupert and Tiger Tim that my interest in comics, and especially 'funny animals' began.  I never forgot those first comics and I'm not alone in that.  When, in the early seventies, the underground Magazine Oz turned editorship over to a group of school kids for one issue they choose Rupert as the comic character they would have Robert Crumb draw one of his 'obscene' (The courts said so) strips about.  In his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, Alan Moore featured both Tiger Tim and Rupert as misshapen creations of his version of Dr Moreau, joining all of the other literary heroes that litter than series.

It’s strange to say, but I suspect that both these less than flattering depictions come from a sort of grudging affection for the characters we loved a time long ago when they were important parts of our childhood.

Evil Emperor Penguin from The Phoenix
The Rupert Annual is still produced every year, Usagi Yojimbo is still published by Dark Horse and IDW are the home of Disney comics and while Biffo and Korky have long since left the pages of the D C Thompson comics but a whole new generation of British animal comics can be found in the pages of The Phoenix.  But more of that at a later date.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Hunters, Hardbacks and the Northern Lights - A look at Comics as Craft.

There is a genre of self-published comics that seems to be very far removed from the rest of the scene.  The artists concerned seem to come from a different starting point from many of the creators I've featured here before.  They show little sign of the influence of Marvel, DC, 2000AD or even Manga but owe more to book illustration or in some cases European comics.    I'm never been quite sure how to describe these comics so for want of a better term I'm going to call them Craft Comics.

This group of comics tend to have excellent production values with high-quality printing using paper stock you won't see anywhere else.  When they are good, they are very, very good and are objects to be treasured, but there are occasions where there is a bit of a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes", with form overwhelming content.  I've come across a few of those recently, but I prefer to write about the impressive stuff.

Most certainly in that category is the work of Rozi Hathaway.  Rozi produces beautiful pamphlet-sized, limited edition comics which tell stories that are mythical and simple.  There is no huge story-arc here, these are short stories at most, perhaps only qualifying as vignettes, but they are beautiful and somehow satisfying none the less.

I've bought a couple of her books, from her Etsy shop, (a good source for zines and mini-comics).  Firstly Njalla, issued in a print run of 250, is a story of the Sami people who live in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  It deals with their religion and folklore and more specifically with an Arctic Fox who runs through the mountains, igniting sparks, lightning and fires in the sky with his tail.

Many pages are wordless and in some ways these are the pages which are most successful in storytelling terms.  Rozi's style is illustrative and owes little to any comics I've read before.  The figures look to be drawn in pencil with colour added over the top using inks and Gouache.  The palate is a subtle mixture of blue and green, capturing the essence of both the northern lights, and the long northern night of the Arctic Circle.  The colours used and the shading have a natural, organic look to them and I find myself picking the book up from time to time just to look at a few of pages.

It's not a long read, and it does not have much plot to it, but I've kept coming back to it, and perhaps it’s just that it’s a calming, beautiful thing to look it, rather than I'm getting a deeply involving narrative but that's more than enough.  This is one of the self-published comics I've enjoyed most this year.

I also picked up, Ø.  It’s a short 16-page story Rozi submitted to "kuš! Comics" the highly regarded Latvian international comics anthology.   Ø didn't make it, but Rozi has once again done a beautiful job of printing to book herself.  In some ways this is a companion piece to Njalla.  The same mythic quality, the same swirling colour, the same illustrative style.  But Ø gives the feeling of summer heat, instead of blues and greens the predominate colours here are purples and pinks and there is a final page which would works as a single image on its on and I can't help thinking would make a stunning print.    The theme of the story is friendship and family.  Perhaps its not quite as strong a piece as Njalla, but its still visually quite stunning.  The two books seem to represent winter and summer, I wonder do we have spring and autumn on the way?

Rozi's fairly new to comics, but there is something special about all of her work, it certainly won't be for everyone but please, do take a look at her web-page and her Etsy shop where she sells her comics and "other shiny things"and see what you think.

On the other end of the size scale for what I'm still a bit dubious about calling craft comics is the London Company Nobrow.  Formed in 2008 by Sam Martin and Alex Spiro, Nobrow publishes the work of artists both new and established and from all over the world.  

Their catalogue is extensive, mixing surreal, occasionally narrative free, art comics with beautiful books for children and illustrated biographies of people who have had a real impact on the world.  They sell cards, wrapping paper and sketchbooks, the companies’ whole ethos seeming to come from a design rather than comics perspective.  That isn't to say that they don't understand the requirements of comic creation.  There may not be much in the way of traditional comics coming from them, but I've never failed to find something of interest.

I've probably been most impressed by what they call their 17X23 range.  A set of beautifully printed, highly original comics from some superb creators.

As an example, Vacancy, by Jen Lee, is the story of a domestic dog left alone in a world without mankind.  His purpose gone, he has not dared to leave his yard and has been staring out into the wild woods.  Finally he's cajoled into pairing up with a racoon and a deer.    What follows is a freighting journey for the three new friends as they search for food and strive to avoid the "preds"      Jen Lee's art is stylish, capturing the oppressive atmosphere of the wild beautifully and her animal characters have all the vulnerability of teenagers lost in a dangerous world.

Joe Sparrow's "The Hunter" is a morality tale about a man who has sworn to kill one of every creature alive.  It has the feel of one of a Grimm's fairy tales and I don't mean the cleansed Disney versions either.  This owes more to Edgar Allan Poe than Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.  A thoroughly enjoyable tale.  Joe's art is a delight, deceptively simple and cartoon like, he manages to communicate feelings and fears perfectly in the wordless sections of the book.

Other books in the series worth looking at are "Golemchik" by William Exley, Bianca Bagnarelli's "Fish" and "The New Ghost" by Robert Hunter.   All of the creators have something interesting to say and all of the books are immaculately produced.

The rest of the catalogue is equally interesting.  I've recently read "Einstein" by Corinne Maier and Anne Simon, first published by Dargaud in France, it’s a fascinating biography that sat easily on the shelf with the excellent Logicomix that I reviewed in my previous post.  I'm now looking forward to their companion volumes on Freud and Marx.   2016 also saw the first volume of a trilogy of historical fantasies by Alexis Deacon, Geis a Matter of Life and Death.  A wonderful square bound hardback, which reminds me of storybooks from the forties or fifties.

Perhaps when the next volume comes out I'll write a full post on it, but for now I'll just say that it was one of the most impressive books I've read all year.

Nobrow are an excellent publisher, the material they publish is almost always original and and a huge amount of care is taken over every aspect of their production.  These are books that it is a pleasure to hold , the paper is always of a very high quality, the printing and binding of a quality you don't often see today and their selection of material is always fascinating.   Nobrow remind me a little of Fantagraphics, so long as you ignore the wildly pretentious stuff that the American publisher sometimes brings out, they have great variety in their offering and publish things you would simply not see anywhere else.    Check out their website here.

But just remember, there are many creators like Rozi who are doing it all themselves.  You can find them on Etsy or on Kickstarter and if any of you are reading this then please get in touch with me and I’ll be very happy to mention your comics in Splank!  

The British comics’ scene really is very varied and vibrant and it does not take very much searching to find something a wee bit special.  Now Nobrow, how about talking to Rozi about an addition to your 17x23 range?