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Loves Little Lesions

Alice #1-3

Here is a fifteen-year flashback to the late Nineties and my review of a daring new experimental British anthology. You have got to admire Simon Henwood for his sheer persistence. After his efforts with the magazine Purr (five issues, 1993-1995), you might have expected him to lose some of his commitment, but here he is, bouncing back with an even more ambitious-looking magazine. The 1997 debut number of Alice is subtitled: JUVENALIA. PARENTAL IMBALANCE. ANGRY CANDY. TOT PSYCHOTICS. BAD TOYS.
The first thing that strikes you is its sheer size, A3 (about 16 by 12 inches or 42 x 30cm) and its production values, slick paper and printing. Of course, size isn’t everything, but it gives it a deliberately Raw-style, arthouse impact. Like Purr, this is not a comics magazine but a magazine with comics mixed with writings and art. Disturbing evocations of disturbed childhoods lend some thematic cohesion to Alice, unlike the rather mixed bag of Purr, but a lot of it backfires by trying too hard to be dangerous and meaningful. If the words are so important, they could have been proof-read more closely, as several typos slip through, undermining its literary pretence.

Purr #1-5

Simon’s cover image is starkly confrontational, however, especially in the current climate of fear, here and elsewhere, about children’s sexuality, paedophilia, child abuse, etc. He shows a naked Little Red Riding Hood, with one artificial, doll-like arm and nestling in her cut-away stomach a redmasked baby fox foetus. She stands "full frontal" against a blank white backdrop, staring with limpid green eyes, with a faintly quizzical, sad expression. It is arresting and effective, rather more so than his four pages inside that open the magazine, of "Loves Little Lesions", cut-away, girls-in-underwear paintings, whose accompanying captions struggle to be deep.

by Simon Henwood

Alice feels it needs big names, cult names, art names, women’s names, above all the right names, on the cover to sell it to the name-spotting culture vultures. Cover billing includes Paula Rego, but all she ends up giving are a few comments in a profile page and one reprinted half-toned image. Text by Michael Gira, ex-Swans, luxuriates in naughty-boy, eat-your-mother birth violence. Still, he’s an underground name to some - would anyone else who sent in this sort of verbiage get printed, I wonder? Of course, grey typeset text does permit the sort of provocative images that, if they were shown in a comic, could get Alice banned immediately. Jennifer Jennifer’s short story did impress me much more. She also gave a powerful performance "reading" at the magazine’s launch party on Brick Lane. There are some more full-page paintings and drawings of kids but do these really stand up to more than one look though? There is even an introductory piece by Todd McFarlane. No, not Mr. Spawn, but a psychotherapist based in Manchester!

So what about the comics? All three are at least interesting and one of them is remarkable. Laurie J. Proud‘s three-page Revelations is well-drawn, in Mu&ntild;oz-like monochrome, and wordless, its silence adding to the sinister dreamlike quality. This stays with me, because the images make me work to connect and interpret their ambiguous flow of sexual malaise. You can see more of his comics and illustrations on his website, and in 2012 he released Peepholes, a handsome gatherum of his short stories through Blank Slate Press.

100 Ruined Cities
by Laurie Proud

Kevin O’Keefe‘s two-page 1940 is a surreal romp about a Dutch girl who chases after a runaway horse, panicked by wartime bombing. It’s all a bit daft and playful and referential.

Illustration by Kevin O’Keefe

But the tour de force is by Deryk Thomas. De Bosch, to my mind, fully justifies Alice‘s existence, and possibly its price (£10). Across 21-pages Thomas sets cute toy animals from our childhoods in a peculiarly English landscape of pubs, lonely flats and a depressing housing estate, swarming with murdering, raping human policemen, while God just looks on, powerless, meaningless.

De Bosch
by Deryk Thomas

Thomas’ drawings are unremittingly bleak, intensely rendered, almost engraved, recalling Bosch, Gillray, Scarfe, Doury and Richard, combined with William Hogarth’s (and Will Elder’s) excess of extra "sight gags" and symbolic details (paintings, posters, books advertising) to build up the dark, desperate commentary. On several pages, he inserts cryptic "source" notes and stabs of marginalia. He puts his sweet children’s characters, teddy bears, bunnies, lambs, in desperate adult crises, suffering loveless sex, brutalised by wealthy decadents, sliced up in an alley. Our lovelorn everybear looks like Sooty, a TV glove puppet many British kids grew up with, except that this one is depressive, masturbates, cuts himself and has the most traumatic nightmarish visions, reminiscent of Al Columbia’s more recent terrifying toons.

De Bosch
by Deryk Thomas

The narrative text switches from his anxieties and failed relationship to an emphatic protest at "the timelessness of oppression and the order of power", hammered home in large, mock-chiseled capitals. The idea of "funny" animals in adult situations is hardly revolutionary (look at Fritz the Cat or Maus). Thomas, however, has used it for an outpouring of deeply felt, overwhelming impotence, a "modern moral subject" for 1997, the 300th birthday year of Hogarth. I am stunned.

Subsequently, Thomas completed Debosch as a portfolio of 100 pages in a (presumably sold-out) edition of only 25 copies from TypEditions (above). I would certainly like to see and read a ‘trade’ edition of this opus please, it deserves a far wider audience. Continuing to paint and illustrate, Thomas joined writer Michael Begg in 2001 recording and performing as Human Greed, most recently in June at the Abnomalie festival of performing arts and visuals in San Massimo, Italy, where his Debosch prints were exhibited.

As a whole, Alice throws up the fundamental problem with putting together this sort of serious, prestige anthology that is not intended to be ephemeral entertainment: the need for sound, tough editing. The stuff you choose just has to have real strength and lasting quality, something to draw readers back to it again and again. Alice does this better than Purr, though not always rigorously enough. Those childhood themes remain ripe with possibilities.

As a present-day footnote, Simon Henwood published three issues of Alice. Still an uncompromising, multi-media creator, he continues to publish intriguing new publications today as The Henwood Library and exhibited his latest paintings in Paris early in 2012, opening with a reading from his first novel, Black Arc.

Posted: August 5, 2012

This article originally appeared in Comics Forum Magazine (1997).


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Simon Henwood
Johnny Pumpkin
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