Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Indian Comics Scene Part 2

Apologies for not posting much recently, but I have been gallivanting off around the world. Having headed out to Nashville to present the latest titles from the Ilex Gift range, I then popped back to Goa for a few weeks’ break.

While there I learnt about the state’s best-known cartoonist, Mario de Miranda. If that name sounds Latin to you, that’s because Goa was under Portuguese rule until 1961 (some 14 years after the rest of India achieved independence). Subsequently many local Goans continue to have Portuguese names.
Born in Daman on 26 May 1926 De Miranda, came from a privileged Brahmin family background (part of the batkar class), and was a natural born cartoonist and self-taught—“I went to art school for a day only. I didn’t like it, so I left.” He began drawing humorous scenes of Goan life, his trademark to come. Like many Goans his background was a comfortable mix of Hindi and Roman Catholisim and he studied at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and earned money on the side creating postcards. He dropped out of studying archticture and went into advertising for four years before joining The Illustrated Weekly, working as a cartoonist full time. He was soon poached by Current magazine and then the Times of India, where he launched his popular characters, Miss Nimbupani, Bandalas and Miss Fonseca. His work also appeared in Femina and the Economic Times.
He travelled widely in Portugal and the UK (where he lived for five years) and his work appeared in Lilliput, MAD, and Punch. He met Ronald Searle, who mentored de Miranda, and you can certainly see the former’s influence in the Goan cartoonist’s work, “He said, ‘keep cartooning, but stop copying me,’”(!) recalled de Miranda. He also visited New York, meeting fellow cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Pat Oliphant.

de Miranda was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988 and Padma Bhushan in 2002, India’s fourth and third highest civilian honours, and in 2009 the All India Cartoonists' Association, Bangalore, honoured him with a lifetime achievement award
Today is the first anniversary of his death and you can find out more (along with an excellent video interview) on his official websiteHe seemed like a lovely chap and I wish I could have met him.
Above: The 'Cafe Mondegar' in Mumbai features walls painted by de Miranda. His work also appears in train stations in Goa.

As I was leaving Goa I picked up The Herald newspaper (“The voice of Goa since 1900”) and they had an article about collectors of various things including toy cars, salt and pepper shakers, and, of course, comics:

“Most children outgrow comics, but with Gordon Lobo (42) the passion for these graphic novels is undiminished, since he started collecting them at the age of 10. Fascinated by the graphic illustrations, which are akin to watching a movie for Gordon, his collection which numbers around 8,000 feature the Marvel series – Superman, Batman [sic] Spiderman [sic] among others, Frank Millers (Terry Pratchett) [sic], Beano Beagle, Archie, Asterisk, Tintin, Indrajal and many many more. Computer graphics have made it possible for him to read his favourite comics on net, but a hard copy is always a welcome addition to his massive collection at Aldona.”

Ignoring all the inaccuracies in the piece, it strikes me that comic collecting is still a relatively rare and novel thing in India and the article reads like something that might have appeared in the UK press 25-30 years ago. Actually the article reminded me of the one I’d reported on earlier reagarding Aalok Joshi and his collection of 7,000 comics.

Sadly, this trip I missed out on seeing some India creators I wanted to meet, and I didn’t even get the chance to pick up the lastest publications. Ah, well, there’s always next year. Unless anyone wants to invite me to Indian Comic Con on 8-10 February in Dehli or the Mumbai Film and Comics Convention in October!

I did get to visit the Muslim city of Bijapur (see below) and on the train there I was harassed by a fearsome Hijra (male eunuch) demanding money, "YES! YES! NOW!" thrusting her hand out. The experience reminded me of Craig Thompson's graphic novel Habibi, when the eponymous hero is taken in by a group of Hijras:

Another aspect of Bijapur that reminded me of Habibi was Thompson's love of Islamist calligraphy, art and design, and there was tons of this beautiful script all over the various mausoleums and buildings I visited (see below). I was just frustrating that I don't read Arabic.

Bijapur takes an effort to get there (10 hours from Goa by local bus) but is worth it for the architecture, including the world's second largest unsupported dome, with it's own whispering gallery, just like St. Paul's in London. Because of its remoteness I only saw three Westerners, although it's a popular destination for Indian tourists.

It’s interesting to note that the Indian Comics Scene is my most read article on this blog, and is visited predominately by Indians. So to all my readers and friends over there I have an impassioned public plea to you:

Please, please, PLEASE clean your beautiful country up! You have such an amazing land and it is completely ruined by the fact that the majority of you drop your litter everywhere. Not only is it ugly it is dangerous to animals and a health hazard to humans. I saw so much wanton rubbish being dumped in the streets and in wonderful water tanks it was horrific. I know that Bangalore has just started a major recycling scheme and you have to start doing this now, right across the nation, in every state and city.

If you don’t sort out your recycling and rubbish problems now, and fast, India will drown under a sea of crap. As one businessman in Bijapur told me, regarding the rubbish problem, “We are about 200 years behind you”. Actually, you’re only about 50-60 years behind the UK, as we had similar issues until the mid-1950s when we introduced the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. India needs a similar campaign and to instil a national pride in clean streets and improved hygiene. And there's money to be made in recycling! Some Indian entrepreneurs are making a good living recycling plastic bottles (one of India's biggest pollutants). 

It’s your responsibility, it’s your neighbour’s responsibility and it’s your friends, family, work colleagues’ and every-single-person-you-know’s responsibility to clean the mess up. Don't wait to be told by the government to do this, be the change you want to see and make your country beautiful again. I only rant because I love your country so much! ;-)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Farewell to a Friend

I was very saddened to hear of the death of one of my old bosses yesterday. Christopher Davis was Deputy Chairman of Dorling Kindersley during my time there (1995-2001). He was a larger than life character in every sense. He was a bon vivant and raconteur of the first order and always held excellent court wherever he went, and especially at the Frankfurt Book Fair every year. He had a genuine warmth and affection, not only for book publishing but for the people who worked under him. No person was too small or unimportant not to be noticed and appreciated by Christopher. Even after both of us had long left Dorling KIndersley, we stayed in touch and he got me work, which was very much appreciated.

In 2009 he wrote an excellent book on the history of Dorling Kindersley: Eyewitness: The Rise and Fall of Dorling KIndersley, which I'd throughly recommend, even if you have an just a mere passing interest in publishing.

It's really so sad to hear one of the DK family has passed on.

Former colleague,—and my old MD at DK Multimedia—Alan Buckingham, wrote an excellent obituary for the Guardian.

Sad day for publishing and he'll be sorely missed by many in the industry.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sex in the Comics on British TV!

I've just discovered (thanks to the lovely Carl Flint) that the documentary I took part in last year, Sex in the Comics, was shown on Sky Arts 1 last Saturday (27 October) and I missed it completely! Bugger! But fear not, if–like me–you missed it as well, you can catch it online here. But hurry, it's only on for another 26 days. So you've got until 26 November. 

It's a great documentary, not because I'm in it, but because it has great interviews with Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Milo Manara and many other excellent "erotic" comic artists. And it's all hosted by Molly "You'll never take me alive, copper!" Crabapple.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Brett Ewins Released

I just got off the phone with former Deadline publisher Tom Astor who told me some good news about 2000 AD artist and Deadline co-founder Brett Ewins. For some of you who have been following this tragic story, Brett was arrested after stabbing a policeman during a psychotic episode (he is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia) The whole event was overly sensationalised in the Daily Malice and better explained  here.

The good news is that Brett is out of prison, as of this afternoon. He has been found guilty of the lesser assault charge (Instead of GBH), and is awaiting sentencing. However, the judge has released him on a form of bail. Having served 9 months on remand, partly unconscious in hospital, and the rest in a standard jail (where he shouldn't have been), it is extremely unlikely that he'll return to prison, as that will count as time served.

Brett is back on medication and under psychiatric care for the forseeable future, and will now hopefully be able to start rebuilding his life again after this terrible incident. I can't go into the details of an ongoing case, but it's my understanding that poor medical provision was the major cause of Brett's breakdown, and this is being investigated.

Tom Astor, Peter Milligan, Alan McKenzie were all in the court at the time.

I know that many people who personally know Brett, or simply love his art, will want to wish him all the best for a speedy recovery. Please spread the good news.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Exclusive Pleece Brothers Interview

If you are a fist time visitor here, just discovering it after seeing my article in The Kemp Town Rag, “Hello, and welcome to my blog!” Glad you got past the content warning OK! There’s a few racy things here but not too much, and generally I just witter on about comics, just as did recently with two fellow Brightonians, Gary and Warren Pleece.

I first met Gary and Warren almost 25 years ago when they came into Comic Showcase hoping to sell copies of their self-published Velocity comic. I recall being extremely impressed by its high quality appearance (glossy and properly printed) at a time when most small press were lucky to have a one-colour photocopied cover. Plus, the stories were unlike anything out there; wry social satire mixed with pure cinematic silliness.

Now, quarter of a century on (boy that makes me feel old!) they’ve had the best of their work collected into one huge anthology, The Great Unwashed, published by Escape Books. We caught up over a pint in a Brighton pub and discussed many things, from how the town influenced their work, football, comics, old Errol Flynn films, and their forthcoming new book, Montague Terrace.
Tim: Let’s start with the obvious question first: What comics did you read as kids?

Warren: When we were little it was Whizzer & Chips, so standard British Seventies comics really. Tiger, sports titles like Roy of the Rovers

Gary: You were into war titles like Warlord, Battle, I was more into the sporty stuff. I was out playing football since I was seven and Warren was stuck in his bedroom drawing and being talented!

There’s a couple of football related stories in The Great Unwashed [Bovril on the Bridge and Len Shackleswick]…

I was playing for the school and I got to 15 and I realised that everyone was getting bigger, and pushing me around on the field, so that’s where my football career finished. And Gary still plays now. 

I set up a club 21 years ago, so I’m the chairman.

Sunday league?

Saturday afternoon, darling! Much more sophisticated! So I don’t think football is rife in out stuff, but it’s definitely there.

On a Saturday morning we’d play football and used to meet up down where the shops were and pick up a comic and a Texan bar, and that’s when I started reading 2000 AD.

Roy of the Rovers was reinvented in the Nineties. It didn’t quite work, but being asked to write for it was a pinnacle moment. Having read Roy of the Rovers as a kid, and then asked to write for it [with Sean Longcroft on art], we did about 10 series and a double page spread, and that was like a dream come true!

Some stuff we did for [the legendarily abandoned Tundra comic] Glory Glory ended up in Roy of the Rovers and in a really dodgy magazine called The Red Card. But we got ripped off by the latter and had to go round there, confront them and get some money off them.

How did you end up in Brighton?

I moved down to Brighton when I was 18 to Art College to do illustration. We come from Worchester Park near Kingston, south west London/north Surrey. So I moved down in 1987.

I followed Warren down in 1987. We used to not really get on at home—no we did, actually. But once Warren moved down to Brighton I really missed him, so I used to come down to Brighton at the weekends, and one weekend I didn’t go back. We got on better at that point and our tastes started to merge…

…We started doing mixtapes for each other. In the past our music tastes we quite different, and by the time Gaz was coming down we were into similar things. He started writing short stories and I was doing comics after college, so we combined the two together, did some stuff for Escape magazine. I think I did a four-page strip called Native New Yorkers and then we did Bum, which Gary wrote, and both are in the The Great Unwashed.

When I used to come down to Brighton I saw what Warren was sketching out, I saw his end of the year show and the stuff he’d done for Peter [Stanbury] and Paul [Gravett] on Escape. I was getting into stuff like Brute and Viz. I was really influenced by Brute, as you could probably tell by the first few Velocities. So we started working and piecing Velocity together.

So how did Velocity come about?

We were on an Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Half of Brighton was on an Enterprise Allowance Scheme—

It was all down to Margaret Thatcher!

You got £40 a week.

Whereas the dole [unemployment benefit] was £32!

It was an incentive to get loads of young unemployed off the official figures. They said it was to get people into setting up their own business, but virtually everyone did it for a year and then went back on to the dole.

It was hilarious, as they’d come to check your accounts books, and you’d go “Er…They’re unfinished?” and they’d go “Yeah, OK, don’t worry about!”

That was an incentive to do something that wouldn’t look out of place in a good comic or bookshop. We had the stories already, so we thought we’d do something with them.

With high production values...

Gary had a background in print, so we thought, “Let’s get it printed properly.” We didn’t really think about it too much, we just did it. Lots of people came up to us after the second issue and said, “How did you do this?” And we said, “I dunno!” It just felt like a natural process. I think a lot of people who were doing comics at the time felt you had to get signed up by an American company, or you just got a crappy photocopier and just stuck it together. But because we didn’t come from that background of having read every single Spider-Man comic ever written—I actually went through most of my teenage years not reading comics. Weirdly enough it was while I was doing my degree, and I was doing lots of painting, but I was also doing lots of storyboard-type things and sketches, and it was only at the end my tutor said, “Why don’t you do a comic?” I was always influenced by film noir.

That leads me neatly on to who are your artistic influences?

When Paul Gravett saw my work at my exam show in London and said “Your work reminds me of Alex Toth, and the Argentine or Spanish artists,” and I was like, “Who?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. All I knew was 2000 AD, really. Then he showed me work by [José] Muñoz and [Carlos] Sampayo, and I could see the common ground. We obviously both loved lashing on the black ink and the filmic quality. For us, it was a real eye-opener, because we didn’t really know what was going on in this country or Europe. Once we saw them, they became quite a big influence, but the other cinematic influences were already there; from the wide angle and depth of field camera angles; from Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock. I was just really into films, still am.

Describe your working process. Does being brothers make it easier?

When we lived together I used to prance around in my smoking jacket and listen to tinkerly classical music and—No, not really! I was thinking about this and rewinding back to the early days. We used to make up these plays together on cassettes—

This was when we were about 7 or 8…

But if you think about it, the creative catalyst was there. I was mimicking certain genres. And then, leaping forward 10 years on, it was there again. We’ve always shared the same sorts of influences, and they’ve always been diverse, and we’re willing to pay homage to them. That’s why there’s such a range of stories and landscapes. One minute it’s spaghetti westerns; next minute it’s Errol Flynn; war; drama… We wear that on our sleeves, and we’re very clear about that. It’s the opportunity of creative freedom to direct our own versions. But that doesn’t mean that the storyline isn’t submerged by the context. It’s still there, and has its own power. In terms of how we actually do that, generally we bat ideas around together, or I go to Warren with a story. And Warren writes his own stuff, which is great. Or he might say to me “I’ve got this great idea for a story, can you go away and write a script?” So it’s a very organic process.

Sometimes Gary comes to me with a script and I go “Yeah, it’s great.” And I draw it. Other times we actually do a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau and pace around the room and work it out from scratch together. When we originally started I had some ideas and Gary would write a short piece. As it went on, Gary wrote more and I just drew more. All through the Velocity years I’d always do a little bit of writing myself—right up to our latest book, Montague Terrace. That was an idea that was originally Gary’s. We talked about it, he went away and wrote a couple of scripts and left it for ages and eventually came back to it.

I think it helps being brothers. So to answer your question: Yes! [Laughs]

How has living in Brighton affected your work?

We’d be nothing without it, to be honest. We used to go out—around the time of The Escape Club [no relation to the publisher]—with posers at the bar and all that kind of shit. And we’d come back going “Grr!”

Was that because you didn’t have a girlfriend?

Yeah, partly that, “I’m really angry, I’m going to write about this!” [Laughs] Brighton Gas is all about that.

But it was a really inspirational place. We could see the potential. Everyone can see it now, but back then it still had that sort of sleaze culture in it. And we wanted to celebrate that.

The Great Unwashed, that statement, means the left behind, the unheralded, the uncelebrated—

And it’s a celebration of that…Not everyone’s going to make it, so our characters are the 99% of people who don’t make it!

Absolutely. The people you pass everyday. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and sometimes those are much more interesting than some celebrity’s tale.

Those themes continue in Montague Terrace. Although it’s not set in Brighton, it could very well be. I was trying to think of a building to base the whole thing on and I was looking at Marine Court or Embassy Court.

How did you decide what to leave in and out in The Great Unwashed?

That wasn’t really our choice. That was the publishers—Paul and Peter’s choice. There were quite a few stories we’d like to have included, which is kind of a shame, but obviously, when someone else publishes your work, they have the final say. I think the main reason they weren’t included was that they were only 2-3 pages long and they interrupted with the continuity. If we’d be solely in charge the stories might be in a different order, and some of the stories might not have been included. But that’s the way things go. As a whole, it works really well.

We had a view as to what we wanted in there, and they had a view, and we met in the middle.

The anthology starts off quite light and frivolous and gets darker. Do you think your writing and art have got more serious over the years?

You could crystallize that in the first part of Montague Terrace that’s in The Great Unwashed collection, which was obviously influenced by Muñoz & Sampayo, in terms of the look and the style and tone.
That was done in 1996, and in a way become the prototype to what came later. It would’ve been interesting to see what would’ve happened if we’d carried on with that then. It would’ve been a lot different to what we did 15 years later. There’s a story in The Great Unwashed about two hapless characters in a seaside town. Oops! I don’t know which one is which! That was our first attempt at doing a serial. When Velocity wasn’t coming out—we had a five year gap between #5 and #6—that’s when we decided to wipe the slate clean and do something else and that’s how Montague Terrace developed, as a place where we could have lots of different characters and stories, but a more continual storyline. Then we had the scripts ready for Velocity #7, but it never happened because I got more work from DC Comics and we just didn’t have the time or the money to do it. And it’s only really, years later, when I had a gap in the work and I was fed up doing other people’s stories…

[To Warren] You always said you wanted to come back and work with your brother. It’s our best stuff. I’ve seen the stuff you’ve done with other people and it makes me feel…dirty! I should be more open-minded, some of it’s great, but some of that stuff is not quite you, and it’s not how we do stuff.

Your stories often feel quite erratic or simply stop halfway through.

We like to make it interesting for us.

I struggle with plot. I’d rather watch The Monkee’s [stream of consciousness arthouse film] Head, rather than some elaborate storyline that ties up at the end.

Having said that, the short story Scurvy has a beautiful ending, because you don’t see it coming.

The thing about Scurvy is we tried to make it quite authentic, dark and warty. There’s this pirate called the Crimson Cutthroat who’s going around killing people, and he finds out someone’s actually using his name. And then these two Crimson Cutthroats meet and one is a Hollywood representation of the other one. Of course, the Hollywood representation wins and it goes off on a weird fantasy journey around the world. It was taking the piss out of the Hollywoodisation of things.

Things like Errol Flynn in Sherwood Forest. Which is brilliant as well. You watch stuff like that in Technicolor and it’s exciting, but it also shows history completely abused and tortured by America!

It’s a celebration of that, and how ridiculous it all is. We were trying to make that story all really dark, grim and everybody really ugly. And then it turns into something clean…

There’s a certain confidence in our storytelling where if we think something’s funny then everyone else will think it’s funny, or we don’t give a shit.

There’s something to be said for that. Obviously, we wouldn’t put something out if we didn’t think there was something to it. I said to Gary, “I just want to draw a pirate strip.” I really wanted to drawn pirates, that’s all!

I was really into Errol Flynn at the time and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was one of my favourite films.

You use a lot of textual non-sequiturs, mangled language and mish-mashed colloquialisms.

I think that might wash over some people. With Gary’s writing, I wonder how many people “get it” sometimes, because I was proofing this anthology and thinking, hmmm! An example is the spaghetti western spoof we did. And in that some of the language is in question.

With Leone Rider, we were watching those films and there’s really bad dubbing in those Sergio Leone films, things like “What was that? First a crash and then a yell!?” There’s a really rubbish script and badly dubbed and we’re just pissing ourselves, and that’s the story right there. You can just wrap a story around that. And in our early stuff, just don’t take yourself too seriously, because we never have.

Lately though, there’s still humour in it, but our work is a bit darker and a bit less slapstick.

We are getting together to start planning Montague Terrace 2 this week.
We finished the first book in May 2011, but we just missed the publishing schedule, which was a bit of a shame, because by the time we’d finished I was ready to do the second one.

That book is a real echo of early Velocity. Velocity could almost be a fictional place and Montague Terrace IS that fictional place, in a different context, so it’s very much in that spirit of Velocity.

What’s surprising in The Great Unwashed is how well the strips have aged. Everything still feels contemporary and fresh, despite over two decades passing. The country is still in a depression, Tories in are still in charge, and the sleazy nature of celebrity “culture”—with the recent Jimmy Savile revelations, for example.

It’s the cult of celebrity, and the way they “got away with it” in the Seventies, because “It was the Seventies, we’ll just leave that there.” No, hang on!

Despite some of it being written over 20 years ago, it still feels very relevant to the social and political climate we are in, especially with the whole celebrity thing.

With politics, we’ve tended to steer clear from that.

I did work for Crisis, which was very political and people were being hit on the head with “This is wrong! This is right!” and I never had the confidence to say that. I’ve done some political stuff with other people who really know what they’re talking about. Because we don’t! So we’re more political with a small “p.” We’re more about the social commentary.

I’d love to stoke that up a bit! We could definitely come at a certain angle on that. I’d love to use our profile to do something a bit more political. I get quite passionate about it.

What? Let’s do a… I dunno… David Cameron?!

Warren’s worked with other writers—

The slag!

Have you never “cheated” on him?

I have, with the Roy of the Rovers stuff. I was down to the last two writers for Hellblazer. Didn’t get it, but it was very close.

Was that Eddie Campbell that beat you to it?

Yeah, I think so. It was being edited by [the late] Lou Stathis at the time. But, yeah…I’m loyal!

Are you dedicated to living in Brighton? Could you imagine living or working anywhere else?

I lived in Nottingham and the States (Baltimore and Washington D.C.) for a couple of years. But we always keep coming back, we’re happy with Brighton, it’s a great place to bring up kids.

I feel it’s Brighton-lite these days. I’d love to look at the next down-at-heels seaside resort along the coast. Fucking stag parties, it’s ridiculous. Starbucks on every bloody corner, what’s going on?

We used to be the heroin capital of Britain. Where’s it all gone wrong?!

But that rage is the meat and taters of Velocity! Those stag parties are ripe for parody! Saturday night on West Street…

Actually, we should.

Did you ever have much contact with the Worthing crowd (Jamie Hewlett, Philip Bond, Alan Martin and Glyn Dillon) down the road?

There was a bit of banter...

Years later I was talking to Philip about this, and he and Jamie had Atom Tan at the same time as Velocity. We weren’t sure if it was true, but we thought they’d had a dig at Velocity

They’d mentioned a “Fat old Pleeceman,” so in our editorial we called there comic “Fatto Pan”!

We always got on OK.

There was never an arranged rumble down on Shoreham harbour?

No! Years later I worked with Philip on his breakdowns, and he did the covers for Deadenders [Warren’s Vertigo series written by Ed Brubaker].

No, we got on fine!

The Great Unwashed is published Escape Books, £18.99 and is available from Dave’s Comics, 5 Sydney Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 4EN. T: 01273 691012 E: orders@davescomics.co.uk. Montague Terrace is published by Jonathan Cape on 7 February 2013, £14.

You can catch Warren's brilliant weekly Alby Figgs strip here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Garth Ennis' Children's Book

Yesterday I received my copy of the Kickstarter-funded children’s book, Erf by Garth Ennis and Rob Steen. This is the fifth project I’ve backed and only the second actual book I’ve got, and it was of a very high standard. Regulars to this blog will probably know who Ennis is, writer of such brutal and bloody comics like Preacher, The Punisher, The Boys, and numerous horror titles, like Crossed and Stitched. Steen is the more talented half of the team that put the successful Flanimals series of books together (the other half being Ricky Gervais).

Steen & Ennis have worked together before on a few projects, most notably Chronicles of Wormwood: The Last Enemy for Avatar, but this is a departure for Ennis. I suspect that many would expect the writer to have penned an ironic adult twist on kids’ book, with ulta-violence and sex scenes told in a picture book manner. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Set at the very beginning of life, we’re introduced to four friends, Figwillop, The Blooper, KWAAAH! and Erf, who live in the sea. All have various, obvious talents, apart from the rather small and ineffectual, Erf, and it’s easy for children to identify with the tiny pea-like creature. Steen is in familiar territory here, as the early proto-creatures are reminiscent of his Flanimal drawings.
In many ways it’s a Darwinian parable, a suitable dig at Creationists as the primordial creatures develop lungs, leave the sea and explore a strange new island. But danger awaits in the form of The Colossux, who threatens to eat them all unless they make a very difficult choice. However, it's at this point the story veers from Darwinism and "survival of the fittest" to something far more noble.

You can see the dénouement coming eight pages away, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. It’s rare to see children’s books these days promoting old fashioned values like loyalty and self-sacrifice (two traits Ennis holds dear, as many of his comics espouse these same ideals) and Erf has more punch because of that. In fact it made me proud and honoured to call him a friend.

Interestingly, looking at the names of the backers at the end of the book, a few comics-related people leapt out at me including fellow writers Jason Aaron and Brian K. Vaughan, writer/editor StuartMoore, and Vertigo boss, Karen Berger.

Genuinely moving and heartfelt, it would be great to think that Erf might get a picked up by a publisher, or that the duo print additional copies, so that it could reach a wider audience beyond it’s original Kickstarter backers. It deserves it, and so do you.

UPDATE: I've just discovered that it's listed on Amazon.com but is currently sold out. Demand yours today!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Comic Art: Where Comics and Art Meet!

Last weekend, while the majority of UK fandom were up at Northampton for the N.I.C.E. convention, I went and visited two Brighton art exhibitions in the nick of time before they closed.
The first was the MA Sequential Design/Illustration show at Brighton University. There was a plethora of rising and existing talent that knocked my socks off including Dominic Evans (art below)...
...Ellie Crane and Sophy Henn. Then there was Phil (I didn't catch his last name)'s Parallel Universe Switch and accompanying graphic novel, which promised a better life at the push of a button. Apparently, I'm already living in the luckiest universe, which is handy.

Apart from the fact that the show centres around sequential art (in it’s multifarious forms – not just obvious comics), I was there to see the work of two friends, Rory Walker and Woodrow PhoenixRory is a former Brightonian and regular attendee of Cartoon County. For this course he made a beautiful paper theatre telling the story of Sinbad. The theatre was made exquisitely with some really neat technical touches using magnets. He talks more about constrructing paper theatres here.

Woodrow (above) has been a stalwart of the UK comics scene long before I’d discovered there was a “scene” and I’ve known him so long he had a different name when I first met him. More importantly, he’s been continually pushing and experimenting with the medium for decades with cutting edge graphic novels like Rumble Strip and being one half of the creative geniuses behind the graphic anthology Nelson. His coursework for his MA is no less impressive. She Lives is a vast, silent graphic novel that pays homage to The Bride of Frankenstein. When I say vast, I don’t mean in page count, but rather surface area. In the video below Woodrow explains a little bit about the project as he turns the pages:

So that’s almost a meter square book (over 2.5 ft sq), that not only has all the original artwork in it, but Woodrow also bound and made the book himself. It’s impossible to get the sense of scale in a video or photograph and it’s a book that has to be experienced "in the paper."
If comics like The Authority and The Ultimates are supposedly “wide-screen comics” then She Lives is an IMAX experience, as the book fills your peripheral vision, giving the reader the sense of entering the paper universe. This is the closest you’ll get to “immersive comics” without all that digital nonsense.

Woodrow said he wanted to get back to that feeling of being a child, when comics and picture books felt enormous in one’s tiny hands. He’s succeeded magnificently. Currently a "work in progress" Woodrow hopes to finish it before the end of the year and whether this ever gets published at this size (and anything smaller would be doing it a disservice) time will tell. Meanwhile, look out for it, as it’s bound to be on tour shortly. It’s a great big beautiful beast of a book.

On the way home I popped into David Blandy’s solo show.
Blandy has taken all my preoccupations of my (and his) youth; anime, action figures, computer games, lego and Japanese culture in general, and created a parallel universe where his own creations—including variations of himself (as above and below)—are filtered through these media.
Simultaenously derivative and intriguing, the show was hit and miss for me. Some elements, like the two films Anjin 1600 and Child of the Atom, work best. The first is a homage to the classic anime, Ulysses 31, with the character Anjin (Japanese for "pilot") lost in space trying to either find his way home or to the mythical planet of Edo. The story is also based on the incredibly true tale of William Adams who became the only Western samurai (as fictionalised in James Clavell’s Shogun novel). 

Child of the Atom was a powerful meditation on Hiroshima, as a docuemtary with Blandy wandering the city with his toddler daughter, as she narrates it as an adult from the future. This was all interesperesd with Akira-inspired animation.
The whole exhibition felt like an otaku’s genuine affection for this material sifted through the commercial filter of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Perhaps that latter element left me feeling slightly uncomfortable, particularly as a large portion of the artwork was actually created by talented Brighton-based manga artist Inko (who contributed to the Spirit of Hope anthology). Blandy wears his influences on his sleeve, but I fear he’s more of a conceptual artist, and while many of his pieces will impress the less knowing—and raise a wry smile among manga and anime fans—it will be nice to see where he develops in the future. Hopefully in more unique and original areas.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Grant Morrison Under the Microscope (Dublin Conference Report)

Despite sequential art having been around for over a 100 years it’s only in the last 5-6 years that universities and academics in the UK have really been taking comics studies seriously and more and more scholarly events—like the one I just attended—have been happening. Last weekend I was in Dublin attending the Grant Morrison and The Superhero Renaissance conference. Suitably sounding like a Prince concert, the event was held in the very modern (and Swedish sauna feeling—lots of bare wood) Long Room Hub of Trinity College.

As Chris Murray from Dundee University (the only university in the UK currently with a Comics Studies post-grad course) pointed out—with a quote from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994)—we are now exactly at the point in history that cultural elitist Bloom feared, “What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed ‘Cultural Studies’ where Batman comics… will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton [and] Wordsworth…” For me, this is no bad thing!

There were at least 25 academics at the conference, who had travelled from Europe, USA and Australia to present their papers. Organised by Kate Roddy and Darragh Greene of Trinity College, it was more fun than sitting in a room full of lecturers trying to decipher the coded texts of a softly spoken Scot should have a right to be.

Unfortunately, I was late, so missed the first three papers (which was very annoying) but just some of the many talks that leapt out for me were:

The incredibly fast speaking Keith Scott (from De Montfort University) whose Let me Slip into Someone more Comfortable: Fiction Suits, Semantic Shamanism and Meta-linguistic Magic made some excellent comparisons between Morrison, Philip K. Dick and Ken Campbell— specifically the latter’s quote, “I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books.” Scott is very obviously a huge Invisibles fan and his knowledge was as extensive as it was enthusiastic.

Kate Roddy’s Screw Symbolism Let’s go Home: Morrison and Bathos opened up Alexander Pope’s concept of Bathos to me, and cleverly applied it to Morrison’s work.

Chris Murray gave the keynote speech, I Made the World to End: The Immersive/Recursive Worlds of Grant Morrison, which, again, was an insightful overview of the writer’s oeuvre.

David Coughlan’s intriguing examination of The Filth in From Shame to Glory made me want to reread the series in a new light, while Roy Cook’s look at the writer and The Writer: The Death of The Author in Suicide Squad #58 was a fun dissection of the metaphysical murder of Grant by John Ostrander.

There was an attempt to hook up live with Schedel Luitjen in Texas, which sadly feel victim to tech problems, but his Final Crisis, The Return of Bruce Wayne and Neoplatonic Demonology was eventually read out by Darragh, and Schedel managed to answer questions by instant messager.

I also really enjoyed Will Brooker's The Return of the Represssed: Grant Morrison's Batman RIP where he talked about Morrison's revival of the old multiple versions of Batmen from the 1950s. Will knows a thing or two about The World's Greatest Detective, as he did his PhD on Batman and has just written Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman.

My own talk (Transvestism, Transgenderism and Transformative Personalities in the Life and Work of Grant Morrison) seemed to go down well.

I haven’t gone too deeply into the specifics of each paper here as there’s the possibility that some of them maybe gathered for publication in the future. There were so many others, and you can read the abstracts here.

Given the narrow scope of study (Grant Morrison renaissance superhero comics) there was considerable overlap in the papers with favoured texts including All Star Superman, Batman RIP, Zenith and Final Crisis, yet no one discussed the New X-Men.

Also, as the majority of the speakers came from English or Philosophy departments, no one discussed the artwork. After all, as I pointed out, comics are generally a collaborative effort and the bulk of Grant’s visions and stories are told through the filter of an artist’s hand. How that artist interprets Morrison’s work invariably effects the final message of the comic strip. A case in point I made regarding the transvestite, Lord Fanny, from The Invisibles, who can look anything from a gorgeous woman to a slightly ropey bloke in a dress, depending on the artist drawing her. I suggested that any future conferences on comics MUST include examinations of art in relation to the text as they are indivisible when in comes to comics. Indeed, the blending of text and visuals is one of comics’ USPs.

Chris summed up the conference “Perhaps we haven’t gotten much closer to discovering who he [Morrison] is, but hopefully we have got a bit closer to exploring his techniques and his work… And maybe we’ve got a little closer to explaining why he’s such an ongoing fascinating figure.” When the group was asked what has been Morrison’s contribution to modern day superhero comics, it was generally agreed that he brought hope, fun and positivity to what was once a dour, bleak and grim genre wallowing in post-Eighties nihilism. Further, that he has brought external influences, texts and knowledge to comics—an industry that is notorious for self-referentialism and navel-gazing. Although he does that as well!

Ironically, just as the conference started, Grant announced in an interview for the Spectator that he’s moving away from superheroes after his forthcoming Wonder Woman graphic novel and a few other projects. As he says, “Yeah, it just felt like I’d said a lot, you know.”

If there were any criticisms laid at Morrison’s door, it was that perhaps he was too much of a dilettante who never went into his subjects with enough academic rigour. Others defended this saying that perhaps we need more multi-disciplinarians and I pointed out that if he spent that much time studying, say linguistics, then surely he’d just be a linguist, and not a writer. Writers have to be, by their very nature, dilettantes. When those of us that have met him asked what we thought he would’ve made of the event, I replied, “Appalled, bemused, flattered and amused. All at the same time.” Ultimately all agreed he was, suitably, a renaissance man!

Personally, I can’t think of many comic book writers (apart from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) who could elicit this much attention and analysis from academics, and that alone speaks volumes.

And if you can't get enough Grant Morrison (and let's face it, who can?) he'll be at his own Morrisoncon in Las Vegas in 10 days time; then on 11-14 October he'll be appearing at the New York Comic Con; and finally, on 28 October, there's the Dundee Comics Day dedicated to Grant (organised by Chris Murray and the Dundee Uni crowd). Phew! He's like a media shark—he never stops moving forward!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Unbound Utopias and 20 Years of Tripwire

Until Kickstarter get their act together in the UK, there's another crowd-funding organisation that's doing great things for authors at the moment: Unbound.
I currently have two friends who have projects with Unbound at the moment. The first is "Dr." David Bramwell's excellent The No.9 Bus to Utopia. Based on his popular stage show, this is a must buy. It only has 3 days left to go and only has a quarter of it's funding. You'd be an idiot not to fund this project. I'm not and that's why I'm backing it, and so must you. Now!!
The other important project that's about to close—unless you get off your feckless arses and put your money where your mouths are—is the 20th Anniversary edition of Joel Meadow's Tripwire magzine. For 20 years Joel has doggedly been publishing what has become a stalwart of the British Comics industry. From an annoying little toe-rag with an oversized mic and a popensitity for pissing off just about everyone in the comics biz, to being a respected comics journalist with two decades of bridge-building back under his belt, Joel as been at the forefront of some of the industry's most interesting stories. I'd go so far as to say that he probably knows more people in the biz then me, and I know a LOT! In fact, this is what the impressive line-up for the book looks like:

Mike (Hellboy) Mignola, Alan (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) Moore, Frank Quitely (All-Star Superman, Batman & Robin), Grant Morrison (Batman Inc., Joe The Barbarian), Peter Milligan (Hellblazer, Justice League Dark), James (Starman, The Shade) Robinson and more. Also, it will feature a lot of brand new material like a selection of features looking at the key trends and issues of the past twenty years like the best and worst comic and genre movies 1992-2012, the twenty comic creators who have come to prominence over the last twenty years and topics like digital comics, the rise of the independent graphic novel and much more. It will also include a gallery of images, a selection of rarely seen and new for the book, from a stellar line-up of the best comic artists and illustrators in the business including:

Howard Chaykin, Dave Dorman, Garen Ewing, Duncan Fegredo, Henry Flint, Phil Hale, Jon Haward, Michael Kaluta, Joe Kubert, Roger Langridge, David Morris, Mike Perkins, Walter Simonson, Drew Struzan, Dave Taylor, Ben Templesmith, and Chris Weston.

As Ian Rankin said, "Still the coolest magazine on the planet, and helping young and old alike fritter away their lives with the best coverage of comics, film, TV, and games. All hail, and here's to the next 20!" 

You should follow the links and pledge as much money as you can immediately. Remember you get your cash back if they don't make their funding so your money's safe, but your life with be spirirtually poorer if the projects don't happen, so spread the word and get your friends, family, pets and complete strangers to pledge as well. If you do, I'll even chuck in some goodies if the books make their targets!

Further information and videos are on the Unbound website. This is the future of publishing. Now go be a part of it.