Monday, 27 March 2017

Bear Alley Books Sale - Part Two "Arena".

There is less than a week to go before two volumes of reprints of classic D.C Thompson adventure strips disappear from the market.  They are published by Steve Holland's Bear Alley Books and the license Steve obtained for them is about to expire.

As a result the remainder of the stock is for sale, until the end of March, at a 25% discount, after which the books will disappear altogether.  In my previous post time I wrote about, the "Frontline U.K." book, a strip taken from the seventies title, Bullet, this time I'm going to look at "Arena".

Arena, a science fiction strip set in the distant 21st century, was the opening story when the first issue of The Crunch appeared on 20th January 1979.  Described as D.C. Thompson's answer to 2000AD, it was, in reality, more akin to another attempt to emulate the Mills/ Wagner titles from IPC.  It was an edgier, more modern version of D.C Thompson's other variety titles Victor and Hotspur which by now were beginning to show their age.  As such it can perhaps be seen as Bullet Mk II, the previous title having merged with Warlord just over a month earlier in December 1978.

The Crunch did feature science fiction stories heavily throughout its 54 issue run, but only as part of a mixture of genres.  There were football stories, spy adventures and strips which were clearly influenced by the gritty cop shows so popular at the time.  But it was Arena which was given the honour of opening the first issue. 

Written by Dave H. Taylor and with art by the Argentinian, Enrique Alcatena, the strip told the story of a dystopian future where freedom of speech had all but disappeared.  The hero, Mark Sabor, a journalist found guilty of writing anti-government material, had his citizenship revoked and was sentenced to fight for his life in, The Arena.

Taylor's future is one where countries are secondary to corporations, where hidden authorities rule from behind layers of secrecy.  This background allows the strip to avoid the 'opponent of the week' cliché that would have been so easy to fall into, and gave it more substance than might be expected from a quick glance at the rest of the comic.

Arena from The Crunch 1
Taylor was a long-time science fiction fan, he’d published an influential Science Fiction Fanzine, nebula, before becoming a writer for D C Thompson.  He’d started his career with “The Witchfinder” in Bullet and would go on to work for almost all of the Dundee publisher’s boys’ comics of the seventies.  He has said that he was ‘irked’ that, unlike with 2000AD, no writer or artist credits were included on his strips. So he had a habit of inserting himself and his friends into strips.  A keen runner, he wrote himself into a ‘Tough of the Track’ strip as Alf Tupper’s opponent in a race.
In Arena he is clearly enjoying himself, playing with a mixture of themes popular in SF at the time.  The oppressive regime echoes Orwell's 1984, while the idea of televised, brutal 'sports' had been popularised by the Rollerball and Death Race 2000 movies.  The idea of rule by corporations had been common in science fiction since the fifties and while not science fiction, I can't help but wonder if the Spartacus movie acted as something of an inspiration for the plot of the first series.  

Early episodes are, perhaps, overly wordy with Alcatena's art crowded and compressed into small panels by the sheer volume of words in the scripts.  The quality of paper used by D. C. Thompson for their comics didn't help either, much of the printing looked muddy and indistinct and it’s only with the publication of Steve's reprint book that it’s been possible to see the quality of the artwork.

Alcatena was a prolific artist.  His work appeared regularly in Skorpio, an Argentinian weekly for whom he would draw ‘Ulster’ an unfinished adaptation of the Cú Chulainn legend in 1996.  I’ve not seen any of this, but am certainly on the search.  A comparison to other adaptations of Irish myth might be very interesting.   

In the US he is best known for two excellent graphic novels, Moving Fortress and its sequel Subterra published by 4winds Publishing and for working with Tim Truman on Hawkworld and The Spider.  He drew strips for Marvel’s black and white magazine, Conan the Savage and had worked on Batman and Green lantern strips.  In the UK he had entries in D C Thompson’s Starblazer and worked with Alan Grant on Makabre for Toxic.  Following the closure of Skorpio in 1996 he contributed to a number of different magazines in Argentina and until 2014 maintained a Blog where his artwork was displayed, including a stunning Dr Strange tribute.      

Arena ran for two series.  The first in issues 1-13 came to what looked like a final ending to a self-contained strip.  But in issue 35 Arena returned, sharing the limelight with a new character, Starhawk, who would become a fixture in a number of D C Thompson weeklies for years to come.  That run, apart from a two week break, would see 'The Crunch' thought to its final issue, cover dated 26th January 1980.

Cover to the final issue of The Crunch featuring Ebony
The Crunch had lasted just over a year.  It had introduced Starhawk who would go on to be featured in Hotspur, Victor, Buddy and Spike along with three Starhawk issues of the long running science fiction picture library, Starblazer.  It had featured a character who was probably, the first female action hero to lead a strip in a British boy’s comic in the shape of the less than subtly named Ebony.  (She was black).

There had been a number of memorable stories, including 'Hitler Lives' and 'Mindstealers', but it suffered from the same faults that early episodes of Arena had clearly demonstrated.  The pages are often crowded and unappealing and much of the art is simply sub-standard. 

 Arena stood out because of Alcatena's skilful and stylish drawing.  His page design comes into its own late in the run where Dave Taylor seems to have realised that 'less is more' in terms of scripting.   Even then it is only with this book published by Steve Holland, that the quality of the art becomes clear.   

It’s fascinating to compare Arena with the early years of 2000AD.   The contrast between the Mills/Wagner approach to SF and that of D C Thompson is shown very clearly and it is easy to see why 2000AD is still being published.  Even Arena, the best of the D C Thompson crop has a feeling of a different time, of looking back to the science fiction of the fifties and sixties.  Mills and Wagner were looking to what was going on around them.  To the movies that were popular at the time.  Perhaps that’s why 2000AD is still being published and there is nothing left of D C Thompson's sci-fi output?   

That being said, this book is a worthy addition to Steve's stable of reprints and it’s a huge shame that it will be going out of print.   You can read what Steve has to say about the book himself and buy a copy of Arena on his excellent Bear Alley blog here. 

A page from The Crunch 51, the peak for Arena.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Bear Alley Books Sale - Part One "Frontline UK".

Fans of old British comics have been delighted by the news that Rebellion, 2000AD owners, are to reprint some of the best strips from the IPC archives.  But over the past few years other strips have been reprinted by enterprising fans and individuals.  One of those is Steve Holland, a professional magazine editor, journalist and the man behind the excellent Bear Alley Blog.

I've just seen news that the license on two of his reprint books is about to expire and, until March 31st, he is selling the remainder of the stock at a 25% discount.   The books reprint a couple of excellent D.C. Thompson adventure strips from the late seventies and very early eighties and are well worth a look.

The first of the books, Frontline UK, dates from September 1976 and comes from the pages of boys adventure weekly Bullet.  Bullet was a more contemporary looking comic than its stable-mates, The Victor and The Hotspur.  Page layouts were more dynamic and the stories were, perhaps, a little more hard-hitting.  It's often overlooked because of its IPC rival which started at almost the same time.  Both Bullet issue one and the first edition of Action are cover dated Feb 14th 1976.  Bullet would last a little longer than its rival, finally merging into Warlord in December 1978, but there is little doubt that it was Action which had a longer lasting and more profound impact on British comics.

Bullet had the usual mixture of genres for a boys comic, with war and football strips to the fore, but there was a different 'feel' to the new title.  There was less humour and more hard-hitting action.  There were also one or two excellent strips. 
Ian Kennedy art from the opening Episode of Frontline UK

Frontline UK, originally intended for Warlord, was certainly among these.  It first appeared in issue 31, dated September 11th, as part of some much needed promotion for the title.  A free gift, of "2 super clip-together models of veteran cars" was displayed on the cover along with the promise of three 'tough new stories'.

Issue 31 of Bullet
Opening the issue was the William Corderoy scripted story of Sergeant Sam Strong and the crew of his Scorpion Tank with art by Ian Kennedy.  Based in 1976 it tells the story of our heroes as they lead resistance efforts against the invading "Yellow Moon".

As Steve Holland makes clear in his excellent introduction, the strip was part of a long tradition of 'invasion' tales in British comics and story papers and can also be seen as part of the yellow peril tradition.  Indeed within a year Kennedy would find himself drawing yet another tale of a small band of British heroes battling an invasion from a fictional Asian army, 'Invasion' in 2000AD?

D.C. Thompson editor Bill Graham identifies the older stories that inspired him to come up with the idea for Frontline UK.  This allows Steve to reprint the opening episode of "The Yellow Sword" from New Hotspur in 1962 which Graham has identified as one of the key inspirations.

The strip had two stints in Bullet, the first from issue 31-45 and then again just over a year later in 85-99.  The final episode, in the December 31st 1977 issue, saw Britain liberated and the tank crew driving off into the sunset in a brand new Scorpion tank.

Stories are compact and until the last few episodes tended to be complete in each issue.  Art was uniformly excellent, with some of Ian Kennedy's pages being as good as anything he has ever done.  His attention to detail in drawing military hardware is always excellent and there is something special about his faces.  Somehow he manages to give the impression of great detail, with very few marks on the page.  His replacement, Clemente Rezzonico, drew in a slightly different style, less crisp and defined but with the excellent story telling ability needed for these compressed tales.   

Final Episode of Frontline UK
A comparison with the Invasion series from 2000AD shows the revolution Mills and Wagner brought to comics in the late seventies.  But 'Frontline UK' remains an excellent reminder of the D. C. Thompson style of war comic from the same period and stands up well by itself.     

With articles on the comics work of the writer, and each of the artists this book is a lot more than just a good adventure yarn to be enjoyed.  In all of his books Steve Holland adds real value with his knowledge and the research he does.  His production values are high, the work of the artists looks better than it did on first publication with bigger pages, better reproduction and higher quality paper.   At 128 pages, A4 size and perfect bound this is a bargain at £10.49 plus P&P.

Go to the Bear Alley Books Web-Page here to buy a copy before they are gone forever.

And check out his excellent blog here.

Next Splank! post will be on the second of Steve's books that are about to go out of print, the science fiction adventure, Arena.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Three of the Very Best

Interior Art from The Human Beings Number One
I've been remiss recently in reporting on new comics projects.  The past month or so has seen three of the very best creators pitching their self-published comics on KS.

Cover to issue one of the new Andrew Pawley series.
To begin with we have Andrew Pawley's latest GalaXafreaks project, Timesongs.  This time his story features "Captain Yeah" investigating the disappearance of an intergalactic rock star, and a few star systems.  We get to, "visit planet Basshead and get down with the Bass Heads as they freakout at the galactic gig of the eon!" in another retina-assaulting melange of colour and mind-bending text that mixes freak-out rock speak with the vocabulary of quantum physics.

Andrew is one of the most original cartoonists in the UK, his work looks like nobody else's and it always looks great.  I've compared him to the psychedelic underground comic artists of the hippie era or to Beano on acid, but while both comparisons say something useful, they only tells part of the story.  In the end Andrew's work looks like Andrew's work.  There is very little else you can say

It's interesting that every time he puts a project on Kickstarter it seems to take less time to reach its target.  It appears that once readers get a taste for his comics they keep coming back for more, he has built up a very loyal group of fans.

I'm too late to promote this campaign, it ended on 1st March, but it was fully funded within the first 24 hours and I'm sure that by contacting Andrew now you will be able to order some of his mind-blowing comics and get your name down for the next mini-series.  What’s more, by signing up to his e-mail feed you can read two of his comics free as downloadable pdf files.  

Another creator building an equally enthusiastic and loyal following has his latest Kickstarter
Stuart McCune's new ongoing series.
underway.  Stuart McCune is a Northern Ireland based creator, a fine artist and the self-publisher I've probably rattled on most about over the past year.  His work is elegant, challenging and very beautiful.  He understands comics as a storytelling medium and is not afraid to use it to tell slightly difficult stories which reveal more with each re-reading.

These are the comics we wanted in the eighties, when we were trying to persuade people that the medium was on a par with literature and cinema as an art-form.  There is real depth to the storytelling and a fascinating use of architectural design, figure work that is fluid and free and an often muted, but effective, colour palette.  Beautiful and memorable comics that deserve to be supported.

The new title, the first in an ongoing, linked, anthology series, is called The Human Beings.  It’s to be published in American comic book format.  His previous books have been an absolute delight and I can hardly wait for this one.

To encourage new readers, Stuart is offering a pdf version of the first issue of Human Beings for just £1.  A great price, but I will just say that the care and attention taken with the printing makes the physical editions of Stuart's comics something a little special. 

A montage from issue four of Space Captain.
The same goes for the next comic.  I've just noticed that the Kickstarter for "Space Captain" issue four has also been launched.  Space Captain, by Michael Park and Chris Baldie, was another one of the highlights of my reading last year.  A Science Fiction adventure yarn with humour, emotional depth and expressive and effective art.  The comic produced by Michael and Chris is A5 size and '41' pages long - I'll be interested to see how that works out in the physical edition.

The first three issues are still available and are available through their campaign.

Three comics that could not be more different.  The wild psychedelic adventures of Andrew Pawley's  GalaXareaks, the elegant, sometimes obtuse but always intriguing mixture of words and images that Stuart McCune delivers and the smart, intelligent and emotionally mature science fiction adventure from Chris and Michael

Of all of the titles that I've read over the past year writing the Splank! blog these are the ones that I've gone back to most often.  These are the creators that have built the most loyal followings, whose Kickstarter Campaigns seem to reach their targets most swiftly.  Quality tells, and these are probably three of the best self-published comics I've read over the past year, or at any time, so here's to more from all three of these superb creators*.

*Sorry Chris and Michael, I know its four people but I'm counting you as one for the purposes of this sentence.


GalaXafreaks webpage.

Stuart McCune's Kickstarter for Human Beings Issue one.

Space Captain issue four Kickstarter.