Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Small Press Roundup

The recent Small Press Day event in Belfast's 'Comic Book Guys' store highlighted a number of creators in a local scene that is becoming increasingly diverse and exciting.
I was there representing the 2000 AD fanzine, 'Sector 13' and searching for writers and artists for both it and my own Splank! comic project.  But the work on show that day was only a portion of the excellent comics available from Northern Ireland creators.

Missing were the guys from Back Pocket comics, an ambitious pair of writers from Portadown who have succeeded in producing a number of manga-influenced graphic novels over the past year or so.   Their most recent publication is ‘Tarik’ a post-apocalyptic graphic novel heavily influenced by martial arts movies and with just a touch of the original Iron Fist story.   
Written this time by Steven Young, Tarik is a step up from the guys’ previous foray into the world of manga-style fantasy, both in terms of writing and artwork.  And while I have a personal preference for the black and white version of the art, the colour version works well and will be preferred by almost everyone else.
The world Tarik is born into is well realised and his struggle with the monsters that destroy his family and the attempt to fit into a new society give the opening of the book an interesting dynamic.  The plot moves along quickly and the storytelling of artist, Sherwin Santiago, is deft and effective.  There is a mythological quality to the story, familiar themes and character archetypes abound, but there is a reason why these elements are so recognisable.  In terms of story they work, and they work because they have a truth to them.  Tarik moves quickly and the plot twists and turns and did not go the way I initially expected.  

I’ve said before in Splank! that Manga is generally not my thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed this from start to finish and am keen to see more.

It’s exciting to follow Back-Pocket comics.  The guys work hard to improve their writing skills and to find better and better artists.  Each book is a step up from the one before.  Their ambition is admirable and their effort shows on the page.  They don’t stint on the quality of production, this is a ‘proper graphic novel’, it’s printed well on good quality paper.

Like most self-publishers, raising the money to keep your publication going is always difficult.  Steven and his partner in crime Richard Davidson, are running a Kickstarter Campaign at the moment for Tarik.   It’s one of the most risk-free campaigns you can find as the book is already published and available and the guys have a track record of delivery.  Please take a look and support an ever-improving couple of comics’ writers who have a passion for their medium that shines through in all of their work.

Also missing was the Northern Ireland master of Kickstarter Stuart J McCune.  Stuart, under his Millicent Barnes Comics banner, has produced a series of comics over the past few years that have been among the best I have read.  Thoughtful and beautiful, unique and with real depth, his Monologue series and the one-off comic Cold Colony were stunning pieces of work.  Stuart’s comics look like no-one else’s and are instantly recognisable.  

The writing is uncompromising and unapologetically complex and self-referential.  There is the feeling of an overall wholeness to all of Stuart’s titles.  That they link in a way more profound than the simple shared universes of Marvel or DC.  Most importantly the linkages are subtle in a way that gives a feeling of achievement when you work them out.  There is something of the same pleasure in reading a Millicent Barnes comic that you get from completing a crossword or working out who the killer is in a really, really good whodunit.

His most recent venture is an ongoing anthology series called Human Beings and it has all of the elements that make these comics special dialled up to nine.  There have been two issues so far with a third waiting in the wings for a fair Kickstarter wind.  I tried to write a review of the first issue but found myself with little I could say. 

Human Beings issue one is a set of short, fascinating vignettes that leave the reader with more questions than answers.  With issue two some of those linkages fade into view, nothing solid just yet, just a hint here and there that not is all quite as it seems.    It’s difficult to say more, partially because in a fundamental way any hints would spoil the enjoyment of the comics, but mainly because I’m still not sure if I can put into words just what I’m seeing yet. 

If you are already a reader of Stuart’s comics you’ll know what to expect, if you are not these are something very different, and very special and I envy you your first exposure to them.

 I should also mention some other small press comics that I discovered or received on or about Small Press Day.   

“Henry Roscoe issue 1”comes from David Louden and his Belfast City Comics.  Darkly funny, it’s an everyday tale of Belfast folk, their drinking, their sex-lives but mostly their favourite pub-quiz and the use of sex-toys as weapons.  Great fun, dark and most certainly not for kids.   

“A Life in Defence” is a fantasy tale set in medieval times and tells the story of a castle under siege from dark forces.  It’s told by writer Seamus Kavanagh and Northern Ireland artist Colin Langan.   The most striking feature on first reading is that Seamus has trusted Colin with a lot of the storytelling duties.  Large swathes of the comic are wordless and Colin manages to keep the tale going with his cinematic layouts and page design.  He’s not the finished article in terms of his artwork but there is a lot to like and a deft touch with storytelling.   Probably influenced by Games of Thrones, it has that mundane fantasy air to it, in that the fantasy is an element in a well-told story rather than being the main point of interest.  

Finally I have to mention new titles from two of my favourite creators.  

Marc Jackson is a cartoonist from Macclesfield with a style all his own.  His “Goons of the Galaxy” is one of highlights of online comic, Aces Weekly and a must for fans of Star Wars and/or any other space-based hero flix.   But his most recent publication is ‘Here Comes Cat Stevens”, a beautifully produced, magazine-sized comic.  Big and bold, this is a big step forward for Marc.  It retains all the zany humour and the odd-ball action of his previous work, but there is something special about some of the pages in this comic.   

There are full-page panels that deliver real impact this time.  Funded by the Arts Council of England, the comic was published for the ‘Lakes International Comics Festival’ but Marc got permission to launch it at the Macc-Pow Comic festival which he organises in his home town of Macclesfield.

Finally, for now at least, is the first issue of Lew Stringer’s Combat Colin strip which reprints the original strips he contributed to Action Force between 1987 and 1988.    Reviewed already on Phil Boyce’s excellent Oink Blog I’ll only add my endorsement to Phil's words.  Lew is one of the best British cartoonists about at the moment and these strips from his early career have a real vitality and energy.  I can’t wait for the next issue as I missed all of these strips first time round.

I’ve so many other comics I have to write about, but real life and other projects have kept me away from the Blog of late.  In a little pile, with some quick notes beside them are Transdimensional from Lisburn man Michael Gordon and T Pub, Jenika Ioffreda’s charming vampire Free Style graphic novel and a bundle of comics from Accent UK including Dave West’s Stephenson’s Rocket and Colin Mathieson’s Moments of Adventure that deserve a posting all to themselves.  

The small press scene on these islands is very exciting, everywhere you look there is quality material and creators working hard to produce the very best comics they can.   In many cases they leave the big publishers behind, support them because this is where the great comic writer and artists of the next few years are going to come from.


Back Pocket Comics' Kickstarter for Tarik can be found here, as I write they are £40 short, show them some support and check out their Facebook page here.

Stuart McCune's Millicent Barnes Comics can be found here.

Henry Roscoe is available from Amazon or by contacting

You can find Marc Jackson on his Patreon site here or on Facebook here.

Lew Stringer has two excellent blogs, Lew Stringer Comics where he writes about his own work and Blimey! where he shares his vast knowledge of British comics of the past.

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