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Great British Comics Now:

Part 1

It’s nearly four years now since Peter Stanbury and I celebrated A Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes in the third of our copiously illustrated references, Great British Comics. One of our goals with each chronological chapter was always to end on a positive note. We wanted to counter the prevailing mindset that comics in Britain have gone ‘down the tubes’ and will never enjoy a Golden Age again. This downbeat message largely came across, for example, in the BBC documentary series Comics Britannia, despite my input as a consultant and bow-tied ‘comics brainiac’ interviewee. Enough of this doom-and-gloom nay-saying!

The reality is that there’s a genuine vibrancy and variety to British comics today, although not enough people seem to know this. That may be why, when I am abroad, as I was recently in Sweden, Switzerland, France and Denmark, I often get asked by people whether there’s much going on in Britain when it comes to comics. Big names like Moore or Gaiman aside, there’s apparently a certain invisibility to what’s being produced here among those outside our shores.

In fact, the current state of homegrown, UK-originated comics is encouragingly robust and rambunctious, from solo self-publishers to general book companies who are releasing new hand-made zines, silkscreened friezes, free newspapers, American-format comic books, squarebound magazines, academic journals and graphic novels, whether modest or major. And don’t get me started on webcomics, a developing medium in its own right, a testlab, seedbed and hothouse of some standout achievements. I’ll have more to report on them in Part 2 of this ‘state of the art’ survey.

So I thought I’d look around at a selection of recent releases proving that in 2010 people are making some Great British Comics! You can check out the works from several of these small and indie presses in their paper form in the Reading Room at this summer’s Rude Britannia exhibition at Tate Britain and at the first Summer Comic Comiket on Sunday August 22nd at the Pump House Gallery, Battersea Park, as part of the Hypercomics exhibition which I am curating. You see, comics in Britain really are getting everywhere!

The Sign Of The Four
adapted by Ian Edgington & Ian Culbard

‘Here’s a pretty business.’ I wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who would have been 150 last year, could believe how his great detective has lived on and permutated after him. And now he is thriving in 128-page colour graphic novels. This is the third of four Sherlock Holmes books being adapted by Edgington & Culbard, who first conspired on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Both Homes and Gray have been sexed and revved up recently in a superficial, flashy Hollywood remake for mall kidults, whereas this graphic novel stays mostly respectful to the original. To be honest, as I started this, I couldn’t stop the familiar Jeremy Brett TV version of this story from playing through my mental cinema, but I was soon won over. Edgington avoids compromising Doyle’s language and retains period phrases like a ‘mare’s nest’, a ‘chaplet’ or a ‘valetudinarian’ which would probably not survive a more crass editor’s red pencil. Edgington divides the tale into ten sections, each opening with a white title on a black panel and refining the original narration and dialogue astutely. Culbard betrays his animation background by delineating the players as personable facial types in bold brushy lines. He may add some relief shading to their faces, but they stand out as foreground figures, with barely a hint of texture to their clothes or hair. In contrast, he enhances interior and exterior locations in the background with grainy photo-adapted buildings, ornately decorated furnishing and wallpapers, intensely cross-hatched stairwells and textured views of the River Thames at night. In a ‘Brookers’ shopsign on page 73, I spotted a discreet nod to fellow illustrator Matt Brooker, alias D’Israeli. Culbard always colours with an intelligent eye for setting and mood, from the sickly green of Thaddeus Sholto’s Eastern tobacco to flashbacks tinged in dusty sepia. As for Holmes himself, there’s no deerstalker or pipe here, and his injecting of a ‘seven per cent solution’ is not hidden but opens and closes the book.  Some may have trouble adjusting to Culbard’s Holmes, mostly due to his very large caricatural chin, which pushes his mouth half way up his long head, reminiscent of Rian Hughes’ revamp of Dan Dare. But there have been, and it seems always will be, innumerable Sherlock Holmes’s as Guy Ritchie and Mark Gatiss have proved, and Edgington and Culbard are crafting a distinctive portrayal all their own. 

Harker Vol 2: The Woman In Black
by Roger Gibson & Vince Danks
Ariel Press
£12.95 / $21.99

Holmes also haunts the second six-issue story arc in this self-published series in the 24-page American comic book format pritned black-and-white inside. Not only does Book Two climax on the moors with a monster pooch straight out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the Holmes and Watson double-act continues in gruff Detective Chief Inspector Harker and his sharp younger assistant, Detective Sergeant Critchley. They also hark back to classic television police partnerships like Morse & Lewis, Dalziell & Pascoe or Barnaby & Troy/Scott/Jones. What often shines here is the bristling banter which writer Gibson given them. It pulses through this latest case of multiple homicide, when a holiday in Whitby is interrupted by the murder of mystery authoress Agatha Fletcher (a play on Christie and Jessica in Murder, She Wrote). Along the way, Gibson & Danks drop in a black-clad Goth Weekend and a football match between the local newspaper and ‘Real Gothic’. Harker: Book Two is perhaps more derivative and knowing than their striking debut, collected as The Book of Solomon, but it’s confidently entertaining. Some might want more from their crime comics, but many will find this not unlike watching a good undemanding British cop drama on the telly, helped by Danks’ clear layouts, crisp linework and photo-referenced style with added tones. Gibson & Danks will soon take Harker to a broader public, now that Titan Books have picked them up and will issue their trade paperbacks, with a third on the way.


Madam Samurai Volume 1
by Gary Young & David Hitchcock
Scar Comics

In a parallel dimension to ours, David Hitchcock would be a fêted graphic novelist hailed the world over. As it is, he’s so far mostly self-published some superb Gothic period fantasies. Madam Samurai started as a film project, a blend of Japanese influences like Lady Snowblood (as homaged by Tarantino in Kill Bill) with Hitchcock’s speciality, palpable, pulpy Victoriana. For this first part (a second is emerging from his drawing board), most of the action is set in feudal Japan in a flashback ‘origin’ bookended by a Jack the Ripper-style murder as our titular heroine arrives in London. Hitchcock handles this unfamiliar oriental setting with a looser finish, perhaps inspired by manga classic Lone Wolf and Cub. Acts of terrible cruelty fuel a seething desire for vengeance which Madam Samurai brings with her, pursuing her parents’ killer with a tell-tale facial blemish to the seedy streets of London. Why wait for the film when you can be swept up in this gripping genre mash-up? 

by Ben Newman

Jeff Job Hunter
by Jack Teagle

Nobrow Press
£8.50 each

It’s not always easy for illustrators, often picture-people leery of text and besotted with refining single images, to become comic storytellers, where pictures serve a story. The Nobrow publishing team have emerged from the worlds of illustration, screenprinting and printmaking, arenas adjacent and overlapping with comics yet quite distinct. They are now running their own studio, printshop and gallery and have quickly established a noticeably high level of design and production quality on their titles. They have begun to spin off from their visually pleasant, less story-based imagery in the oversized, themed anthology Nobrow (a third helping just arrived) to publish solo projects with an increasing emphasis on sequential narrative. It seems they are finding more of an appetite and audience to tap into for visual books with some storytelling to them than mish-mashes of assorted pictures. So it’s exciting to see illustrators start grappling with and reinventing the language of comics to their own ends. Nobrow has initiated a much-welcome launch-pad collection, 17 x 23 after the booklets’ centimetre proportions, giving relative novices a vehicle for 24-page graphic stories: ‘17 x 23 is a new graphic short story project designed to help talented young graphic novelists tell their stories in a manageable and economic format. The hope is that, while the series encourages artists to write one-off stories, 17 x 23 can act as a springboard for more ambitious projects.’

Picking up their first two releases, you can’t help noticing the intoxicating inky whiff of the printing, the nice card stock and folded flaps and especially the alluring, unconventional mixed three- or four-spot colour palettes, which the Nobrow chromaticians actually painstakingly finetune for the artists to use and to maximise their charm. I met Ben Newman down in Bristol and he kindly gave me his first ‘proper’ comic Ouroboros. Now Ben is self-evidently a very gifted illustrator and designer, in that sort of retro-cartoon, edgy-cute vogue, and his tale bounces along merrily enough like an animation storyboard without any words or too many ideas, beyond stealing eyeballs, space monkeys, rayguns and giant monsters. It all eventually and inevitably circles back on itself, like the titular dragon/snake myth, eating its own tail/tale, to start all over again. Saves having to come up with an ending. Jack Teagle’s ‘Jeff Job Hunter’, the collection’s second release, collides the pressures of the job centre with the tropes of a fantasy computer game, when our hapless job seeker has to ‘retrieve the skull of the half-man, half-beast from the Dungeon of Terror’ or lose his benefits. It has one or two laughs en route but wraps up very predictably and flatly. Both of these booklets show talent and promise, but are barely memorable. I can’t help wondering, had they been printed on standard paper in black-and-white, whether their content and technique would stand out all that much. Production values, confectionary colouring and tactile stock cannot totally disguise the fact that these are very much early efforts, baby steps, eye-catching geegaws. Let’s not be too harsh on these relative newcomers to putting pictures (and perhaps words) together into stories. Everyone has to start somewhere. There’s hope that these youthful debuts, though rather slight and not entirely convincing, may well lead to richer offerings from Newman, Teagle, and others to come.

Birchfield Close
by Jon McNaught
Nobrow Press

Birchfield Close belongs to another Nobrow format, small A6 28-page hardbacks than hark back wistfully and aptly to the Ladybird children’s books of my youth. A tactile book-as-object, Jon McNaught’s evocation of one long summer day in a suburban childhood, as shadows lengthen leading to a balmy moonlit night, is coolly composed, precise, self-consciously remote. McNaught avoids close-ups of actual faces apart from a few panels of a TV soap opera, and also human dialogue, the only words issuing from a radio, TV or in-flight movie. But this is far from silent, as balloons fill with sound effects floating up from the video game that two friends are playing with in a back garden, from birdsongs and passing cars, from inside houses which almost look the same but not quite. An expert printmaker, McNaught has chosen two attractive shades, a bluish grey and a sunset orange-pink, which combine to make a darker blue, and certainly understands how to vary the panel formations and relations from page to page, using some whole-pages, others subdivided with as many as 26 panels. While channelling aspects of Chris Ware, especially his birds in Jimmy Corrigan, and Tom Gauld’s penchant for abstracted head-to-toe figures and meticulous patterning, McNaught is arriving at something personal here although not too personal. He keeps a certain detachment, and keeps the reader/viewer at a distance too, as he allows us to observe how time and place can unravel freely and almost at random. What begins as a pleasant exercise acquires a power to conjure strong personal associations and evoke more and more with each re-reading. Nobrow deserve credit for nurturing this work and this artist.  From this 5-page flavour of his next opus, Pebble Island, McNaught is proof of the enriching effects of bringing print-making artist-storytellers, or to use Steve Braund’s term ‘authorial illustrators’, into the comics medium.

Cross No 1
by John A. Short & Jason Dennis
Kult Kreations

I’d run across Short & Dennis’ Reverend Abigail Cross in ‘You Only Die Twice’ in The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga 2. The Vicar of Dibley she is not. But if you’re after a Church of England lady vicar from the sleepy Dorset village of Sunnybrooke who is under orders from the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘licensed to kick demon ass’, Abby is for you. This is high-adrenaline, slam-bang craziness bursting off the page as she runs into an army of reanimated nazi zombies in the Bavarian Alps. And yes, she does get to shout ‘Say your prayers!’ Everything is almost too fast and furious here and the short back-up, ‘If Looks Could Kill’ is no different, with a sassy twist as the plummeting Cross saves herself by using a high-heel shoe to absail down a telephone line: ‘I should dress to kill more often.’ Dennis’s art has an energetic slickness which reminded me of The Pander Brothers. This introductory issue in American comic size offers just 28 pages of Short & Dennis’ promising Bible-punching shero. It’s all frantic and frenetic, and over rather quickly. Let’s hope (and pray?) she gets the chance to unfold over more pages and issues to enrich her story and character. Amen!

Tripwire No. 54
edited by Joel Meadows
Tripwire Publishing Ltd
£6.95 / $9.99

Comics International may be long gone, but Britain still has a range of comics-related magazines, some on newsstands, others available mainly or only through comic shops. You’ve got to admire Joel Meadow’s enthusiasm and sheer perseverance, clocking up 54 issues and getting this latest annual issue out at a lower price than last year’s and still packing plenty of content into its 128 glossy pages, printed this time over here in Enfield, Middlesex. And he’s got copies going out to Tesco Metro stores and other high-street outlets. As publisher, editor and principal journalist, Joel knows how to balance the British, American and international, and the all-ages and more adult, as well as the ‘comics, film, TV and more’. He blends topical, sometimes rather advertorial short interviews, which tend to date as puff pieces for this month’s superhero revamp, with more substantial, in-depth focuses. This issue’s British comics highlights include a 7-page chat with Michael Moorcock, including his precocious break at age 17 to become editor of Tarzan Adventures, and an 8-page dialogue with Dave McKean, reduced to teeny-tiny type to fit it all in. There are also shorter conversations with Roger Langridge on his Muppets success, Garen Ewing on Rainbow Orchid, and the team behind Madam Samurai. Weaker though are Andrew Colman’s skims through 70 years of Captain America in 3 pages and 75 years of DC Comics in 4 pages, and a dry, overtechnical 8-page puff on digital effects for Iron Man 2. With a once-a-year schedule, there is always the challenge of features being very timely but tending to date quite quickly. Still, from Futurama revival and movie poster legend Drew Struzman to Belgian Jean Van Hamme’s Largo Winch or TV pilot Pulse coverage, Tripwire ticks lots of ‘genre’ boxes, while making room for other features on Hilary Helstein’s Holocaust documentary ‘As Seen Through These Eyes’ and novelist and comic book art collector Glen David Gold.  For dessert, the closing ‘Stripwire’ section serves up some quality comics. Joel has plans for a digital Tripwire - Tripwired? - but let’s hope he continues to publish his annual print-edition fiesta.

Crikey! The Great British Comics Magazine #15
edited by Glenn B. Fleming
Sequential Media Publishing

I like to think that it was more than a happy accident that Crikey! debuted not long after our Great British Comics was published. It’s gone through a number of permutations but this latest number continues to offer a broad range of coverage of our nation’s comics heritage across 52 A4 pages, the middle eight in colour. The fierce, arresting cover is by the late John Hicklenton, whose often misunderstood and underappreciated art and career are insightfully appraised by his writer on Dredd, Third World War and other prorjects, Pat Mills. This highlight of the issue is all the more moving as it also serves as a tribute to Hicklenton, who chose to take his own life rather than continue to endure multiple sclerosis and have to “lie in a bed, with my tendons cuts, being fed through a straw like a baby.” Pages from his graphic novel ‘Here’s Johnny’ confirm that this will be an almost unbearably raw memoir of how he “embraced the monster.” On a lighter note, Crikey interviews Peter Maddocks, witty cartoonist behind the surreal daily strip ‘Four D. Jones’ in the Daily Express from 1955 to 1965. Nostalgia runs deep here, of course, from both versions of Eagle to the bonkers Nazi-bashing Captain Hurricane and Darkie’s Mob in Battle, plus another homage, this time to the late Peter O’Donnell, famed for creating Modesty Blaise. A special favourite of mine is the ‘Nutty Notions’ feature reminding us of some of the far-out concepts that have appeared in British weeklies, this time: ordinary family The Wheelers whose holiday gets spoilt when they are kidnapped by aliens and become ‘Castaways on Planet Doom’ or football farago The Lost Team from Eterna, who return from 20 years’ forced training in the South American jungles to save the day. 

Solipsistic Pop Vol 2
edited by Tom Humberstone
Solipsistic Pop

This is a carefully considered, lovingly crafted and utterly covetable compendium, a confirmation of the pleasure of comics in printed inks on quality paper stock. In flexible, changeable formats from issue to issue, the second offers a 64-page softback printed inside in black and light-blue second colour, with lovely gatefold, double-flap cover by Luke Pearson, plus a 12-page ‘Funnies’ supplement folded in two and tucked inside the back flap, and free tote bag, all housed in a plastic bag, and in a limited, numbered edition of 500. Hence the slightly steep but totally justifiable price tag. I’ve enjoyed revisiting these short but rich comics by a roster of the current wave of emerging UK talents. They’re all working each time to a one-word brief from editor Tom Humberstone - this time ‘Middle’, after ‘Broken for the first volume and ‘Wonder’ for the third, to give the artists a starting point and to make sure the book has a more coherent and curated throughline. The role of the editor is vastly underrated in comics and make a huge difference especially to an anthology title like this. Tom has an unerring eye for promise and nurtures good work from artists who realise the opportunity and showcase SP affords them.

Stephen Collins, hailed on BBC Radio 4 by none other than Alan Moore, contributes two first-rate pieces: Jumble, a brooding character study of a suicidal collector entranced by a Freddie Mercury with Wolves leather jacket at a jumble sale, the trigger for a whole new collecting mania; and three tight, barbed humorous strips on the cover of ‘The Funnies’ supplement, top notch stuff.

Underlying many of the book’s short strips is the sort of poetic reflection on small everyday moments, sometimes tinged with magical realism or surrealism, which remind me at times of the spirit of the 1980s UK small press revolution in Fast Fiction and Escape Magazine which grew out from that. Certain Escape Artists, such as Eddie Campbell on ‘Alec’, may be an influence, but there are clearly also more recent exemplars inspiring these newbies, such as Yanks like Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes and Brits Tom Gauld and Simone Lia.

I could single out several fine comics included here: Jack Noel’s Sweet Mystery taps into all the parental paranoia about children’s safety and suggests how it can disastrously distort two brothers’ world-view; in The Tears of Tommy Cooper Adam Cadwell confirms himself further as simply one of our most acute autobiographical stripwriters currently active; Octavia Raitt’s Ware-ian ‘Kept’ shows real invention conveying the numbness and quiet desperation in a care home; and Daniel Locke’s ‘1987’ recaptures the feelings of freedom and discovery as boy when he ‘broke in’ to his own home, undetected, exploring his home through a different eyes.

Don’t have any second thoughts about purchasing this. A third issue is in the works to launch at Comica and Thought Bubble this November. Meantime, there’s an SP2 exhibit of original art at Orbital Comics Gallery, London through August.

Posted: August 1, 2010