Wednesday, 8 April 2009


As part of a longstanding annual ritual, now in it’s second successful year, I’m mini-reviewing some of the comics I picked up at this year’s Web & Mini Comics Thing. Please note that this list offers no pretensions to completeness or even comprehensibility, that the management’s decision is final and that cash alternatives are not offered.

Those wanting to read Part Two of ‘On Toppling Towers’ (aka ‘How Do I Tie All This Stuff Up Anyway?’) probably exist only in my imagination, but it will appear at some point or other.


Though Malcy Duff is certainly one of my favourite British small press creators, please don’t expect anything smart or clever to be spelt out here. For most of the time, I’m in sheer dumbstruck awe about just what he’s up to most of the time – all I can tell you is that I like it! One of the few things I could suggest is that Duff uses the comics page the way surrealist directors such as Bunel or Dulac used the medium of film – with a seizing of the form that involves complete disregard for the medium’s conventions. Duff’s layouts in particular are audacious, frequently setting up a series of almost-static shots with excruciatingly slow progression, then suddenly throwing in an unexpected juxtaposition. A double spread of 4th 4th Bridge shows a sequence of shallow landscape panels of the eponymous bridge in various states of paintedness, a tiny tiny figure scuttling back and forth across it to keep that paint a-flowin’. As the existential tedium of such a task seeps into your brain, you flip the page to find the following spread has just two words – “etc. etc.” Repeat until dead.

His fixation upon form, and consequent almost total lack of interest in words, leads to a minimalism that’s almost abstract. Characters are distilled into a few key motifs, objects frequently reduced into the simplest of symbols, or (when even that starts to feel too illustrational) mere boxes with the object’s name stuffed in them. Frequently a single panel would be meaningless if held isolation, you need the narrative context to make the simplest sort of sense from the codes.

Simultaneously, Duff has a loose and rubbery approach to cartooning that counterbalances the often-sinister tone. There’s a restless playfulness, even a sense of Vaudeville, about his comics which always prevents them becoming some academic ‘avant-garde’ exercise. An earlier release was even called ‘The Banana Skin Joke’! The purchases above perhaps don’t quite rival my favourite ever Duff comic, The Blackest Gnome, but they’re splendid stuff all the same. As Homer Simpson liked to say, can’t get enough of that Duff!

(Disclaimer: I was hoping to meet Duff at the event, but in fact failed to! He left early, presumably returning to Scotland the same day. Which makes the second time I’ve missed him, since I failed to catch his band at the recent Colour Out Of Space festival. (Blogged about here.)The comics reviewed here actually came from Gosh, but they were on sale at the Web & Mini so it’s not too much of a cheat!)

You can also read one of Duff’s strips on the Top Shelf site, or an older onevia Bugpowder

THE CATTLE RAID OF COOLEY No. 1 by Patrick Brown

This one I can honestly say I’ve been waiting for! Like those young people are wont to, Patrick Brown has been serialising this comic online, but us geriatric old-schoolers prefer sit it out until we get the feel of paper in our hands instead of scrollbars. (And decent chunks of episodes over bite-size snippets.)

Brown seemed to wince when I mentioned his earlier comic A Virtual Cricle (all the way from ’94!), as if he saw it as mere juvenalia. I would still rate it, but I also believe Brown has now found his niche and simultaneously hit his stride with this adaption of an old Ulster myth.

One of Brown’s main intentions seems to be authenticity, with one common section excised because he believes it to be mere retconning. In footnotes he mentions his endeavours to get the details (settlements, chariots etc) as accurate as possible. However, this is perhaps mostly achieved in his art style which avoids all the fantasy art clich├ęs. (There is not, I am glad to report, a single Celtic knot in sight while the sole featured Druid looks not one whit like Getafix.) Instead his drawing style is sketchily naturalistic, with Brown particularly excelling at the nature scenes themselves. It also gives the story a sense of versimilitude, like everything is happening in the moment, against the all-too-standard pontificating poses of the Frazetta clones. (Check out his account of his drawing method – you won’t believe it!)

The supernatural moments, when they arrive, are therefore presented completely straightfaced. We’re used to modern horror fantasy where the supernatural arrives to disrupt normality. Yet such legends are more similar to magical realism, where to its characters the supernatural merely occupies a world adjacent to ours, like a neighbouring country whose inhabitants sometimes drop by. A cart arrives pulled by a skeleton crew of horses, but no-one so much as comments on this. When a character’s revealed to be a shape-shifter, the actual transformation occurs off-panel – we merely see the before and after pictures.

The only fault I could find with this comic is some of the dialogue. Brown adopts the Shakesperian trick of giving the chiefs more formalised speech while the commoners talk colloquially. While I doubt that to be historically accurate for the Iron Age, it serves a dramatic purpose and avoids the dreaded faux-poeticism of fantasy writing. Yet he gives his commoners far too modern expressions – “hold on a minute”, “big style” and even at one point “that was mental!” (I also got a little on my high horse over “yeah”, a corruption of the Germanic “jah” which would never have sprung from a Celtic throat.) For a series otherwise so insistent on authenticity, I found these moments could throw you out of the story.

But for all that, this could be a major new series which Brown certainly seems highly committed to. I now also intend to check out the ‘pre-quel’ Ness.

THE RULE OF DEATH (No’s 1 + 2) by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey & Douglas Noble

”Pete Colby doesn't want to die. So he doesn't. And that's where the problems begin.”

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, I can attest to be splendid both as a convention panellist and bar-table raconteur, with an endlessly inventive mind only matched by an unabayed enthusiasm. Whisper it, then, but I have at times been a little lukewarm about some of his actual comics. They can read like the only thing that made it to the page was his inventive mind, like they’re mere diagrams of his ideas masquerading as storylines.

But this series, a collaboration with the ever-excellent Douglas Noble, is involving enough a read to bat away all such reservations. The conceit is that Pete Colby has returned from the dead, but rather than embark on any zombie rampage his mission is simply to take up where he left off. (“I’ve given it some thought. I don’t want to die.”) The story’s told at a suitably languid and unhurried pace, with some sharp black-tongued dialogue. (“Joseph, go fetch Doc Jackson,” Colby asks dryly. “Tell him I’m going to be wanting a second opinion.”) The Wild West setting pitches everything at just the right point, instead of the standard Western borderline between the wild and the civilised we’re placed on the shifting point between science and superstition. (Though the town name, Bethany, is almost Biblical.) Similarly, the comic’s tone balances the blackly comic with the darkly macabre.

As I’d previously regarded Noble as a writer who merely happens to draw (see my review of his Strip For Me here), I’m surprised how well his artwork works on this. This is mostly down to his layouts and storytelling, his main source of strength, though he also serves up some deft characterisations. Colby is mostly shown in silhouette or semi-shade, more echo of man than ghoul.

Two issues in, I find the theme to be social ostracisation. Colby’s shack is placed outside of town before the story even begins and his troubles really start when he tries to venture there. The emphasis on his not needing sustenance stands for his defiance against his non-person status; if he’s treated like a dead man then dammit he’ll be one - merely one that doesn’t obligingly lie down. (However, the ending of No. 2 may suggest new directions emerging.)

For some reason I didn’t avail myself of the following two issues, despite their being on the stall. And those who don’t mind reading comics on-line can follow the weekly updates (for free and in colour) at Serializer.

TOZO THE PUBLIC SERVANT No. 2 by David O’Connell

In this new full-colour fantasy series, you can’t help but first be struck by this series by David O’Connell’s Herge-influenced art. Though interestingly O’Connell says on his website he considers Moebius more of an influence, he even duplicates some of Herge’s eccentricities (such as having characters walk upon the panel’s baseline). A classic of the less-is-more axiom, Herge’s simple-looking ‘clear line’ style is actually a tough trick to pull off – it denies you the chance to cover up any deficiencies in design or drawing and forces you to get everything exactly right. Though I might quibble over the flatness of one or two of the faces, mostly O’Connell is able to pull this style off very well, and it will doubtless turn into a selling-point for his series.

O’Connell’s storyline, however, owes little to either Herge or Moebius. Instead, it’s a palatial intrigue/ detective storyline, too involved for Herge, too sensical for Moebius. This is generally the sort of thing I advise against people starting off with! Alan Moore has often said he was only able to achieve his mega-multi-issue storylines by starting out with four-page minis and working up, yet O’Connell has plunged in straight away with his magnum opus. So it’s with a mixture of envy and frustration that I admit O’Connell manages to pull this off as well! However I still maintain this comic should go out with a Man From Atlantis-style warning – don’t try to swim like it yourself!

O’Connell’s approach to storytelling is perhaps epitomised by his approach to panel composition, focusing on foreground events while suggesting enough clues and murky goings-on round the edges to keep us reading. We’re neither swamped by the background detail, nor ever allowed to forget it. Tap his world and it feels substantiated, yet step back from it and your eyes don’t wash over with bewilderment. If O’Connell manages to keep delivering on the promise of these two issues this will be something to get in on the ground floor for.

(This interview gives a good insight into O’Connell’s mindset and working methods.)

AIRSHIP by Sarah McIntyre & David O’Connell

I was concerned my report on last year’s Web & Mini Comics haul might have given the impression that everything in the scene fell under the heading ‘slight but charming’. This year I’m worried about the opposite, making everything look loftily ambitious and collection-ready. So I’m pleased to report this jam between O’Connell and Sarah McIntyre (creator of ’Vern and Lettuce’ for the late lamented DFC comic) not only wears its ‘slight but charming’ status on its sleeve, it probably wouldn’t work in anything other than small press format. That hand-stitched cover is like a badge of intent!

O’Connell and McIntyre take it in turns to jam a daft story about an airship which kept appearing over London. It was a real sighting, and at first the story could be a documentary account – yet as it carries on, it introduces and then joyfully piles bizarreness upon bizarreness! That said though, one of my favourite pages is an early one – where the shadow of the airship gradually fills up McIntyre’s flat.

You can read the whole thing online, but in addition to my usual warnings note you need to read the tiers from bottom up!

BROWNER KNOWLE no. 3 by Paul Ashley Brown

Let’s start with an admission. These are clearly sketchbook pages masquerading as a comic (even if there’s some run-on between the pictures), and frankly the least interesting element is the text Paul Ashley Brown adds to his drawings to obscure this fact. But the comic’s a must-buy because they’re such good sketchbook drawings. There’s something about his discursive, free-flowing line which might get lost in the transition to finished composition, they have a faint air of flux to them which helps the characters come alive.

Perhaps the highlight for me is the double-spread drunken crowd scene, which reminds me of no less a talent than George Grosz! There’s the same weird mixture of misanthropy and humanism, every figure is grotesque and yet so realised, so individualised, they never look like a pawn pressed into service of a point but a person. These characters don’t need the little storylines Ashley Brown pins them to, each one tells a thousand better stories by the power of suggestion.

(Just when you thought the days of sending self-addressed envelopes were done and gone, it looks like there’s no on-line way to order this! In fact, such is the web quietude that even the illo above is from issue 1 – ah well, it’s all good stuff! Send £4 to Paul Ashley Brown, 15 Wedmore Vale, Bedminster, Bristol, BS3 5HQ, Bristol, England...but presumably more for P&P if you’re not in the UK!)

...there was plenty more good stuff out there but outta time and energy! See you at the next one...

1 comment:

  1. The Cattle Raid of Cooley is an oldest surviving manuscripts date to the 12th century, but there are allusions to it in poems of the 7th century, and elements of it are strikingly similar to things the Greeks and Romans used to say of the Celts.