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 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!