SD/RM 25/08/2008 – Stickleback, Short Strokes And The Small Press

All comics this week, and a bit of a rush job, thanks to my keyboard having a fit and breaking on me in the middle of last night.

Stickleback – England’s Glory by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli

Stickleback is the twisted tale of the fictional Pope of Crime who rules over a steamypunky version of Victorian London. Originally published in weekly segments in 2000AD, this book collects the first two stories featuring the deformed master criminal, and also features some lovely back-matter, put together by D’Israeli and featuring various production sketches of the cast.

I’m a confirmed fan of D’Israeli’s work, stretching back as far as his (I think) earliest published strips in Deadline – Timulo was always one of my two favourite stories in that magazine, and it has left it’s mark on me, to the extent that I have always tried to follow the man’s progress.

Because of that, I’ve been watching with interest as he has posted progress reports on his work on Stickleback on his blog. Progress reports isn’t entirely accurate, actually – D’Israeli has always been very generous with his working process, and the blog posts that he has done have always been more like a director’s commentary than anything else.

Due to the protracted publishing schedule of having a strip in 2000AD, it has felt like a really long wait for the story to come out in paperback, but last week it finally did!

The first thing you notice is that this is a gorgeous book. For some reason, the publishers went with a paperback from the off – previous books by Edginton and D’Israeli, such as Leviathan and Scarlet Traces have been presented in gorgeous hardbacks first, so this is a bit of a departure. The printers have done quite a job, though – the image above doesn’t really do it justice. A lovely matte cover, and great glossy but sturdy paper throughout mean that you instantly feel quality when holding the book.

The story itself is intriguing. The first story arc, “Mother London”, is a very mature and intricate mystery, which isn’t without twists and turns, and introduces the unpredictable and truly evil lead who stays in the shadows for much of this arc, but whose presence is felt throughout. This very English horror, taking as it’s centrepiece an idealistic and complex police detective who stumbles into the web of deceit, plots and secret societies, sets the scene for the much more visceral and action-oriented follow-up, “England’s Glory”.

Edginton’s writing here is, as always, good throughout, and shot through with authentic dialogue and some brilliant moments. The twists aren’t telegraphed but make sense, and the idea-per-page ratio is high, here, which goes for the writing as well as the art.

If there are any problems with the plot, they are mostly down to format – something I’ve noticed with the pair’s previous work is that the story tends to unfold carefully and solidly up to a point, but the final act often seems a little rushed, as if the writer has suddenly found themselves shy of space, and has to force things to cram the end in. I want to see what Edginton can do when given as much space and time as he needs to let a story breathe.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that this is a problem I’ve noticed with most mini-series or short story arcs in comics in the last five or ten years, so may just be down to me!)

D’Israeli’s art doesn’t suffer when the story starts to trip over itself – it is, in fact, gorgeous throughout. One thing I’ve noticed over the last few years, as I have read and seen more and more of his work, is that what I had thought of as a distinct and clearly defined style actually changes noticeably from strip to strip – at his blog, D’Israeli goes into some detail explaining the decision making he has done, and what his influences on each work are. In an industry where most artists devolve to the style that they find easiest to replicate, his efforts to keep his work fresh are admirable – moreso because plenty of his readers wouldn’t mind if he phoned it in, he’s that good.

In Stickleback, he’s gone for a very brave expressionistic style, heavily influenced by Alberto Breccia but with a seam of his own characteristic attention to detail through it, and it makes for a truly unique piece of work. For the most part, as well, it is brilliant and inspired, suited perfectly to the subject matter which is at times grotesque and ornate, but always picturesque. Very occassionally, when there is lots of action on the page, the chosen style breaks just a little bit and it becomes a little difficult to see exactly what is going on, but when this happens Edginton’s writing usually gives clarity to the scene. The two have worked together a lot, and it makes for exhilarating storytelling, so overall, I have to say the experiment is a success.

Further to that, the second story in the book has hopping Chinese vampires, a great spin on the Jason And The Argonauts Hydra’s teeth scene, and a whole bunch of questions raised about the titular character, with suggestions of what future stories might hold – so consider me hooked in for future books.

Short Strokes Vol 2 by Richard Moore

There really is no getting around it – This book is essentially pornography.

I’ve been a fan of Richard Moore’s beautifully rendered cartoon style since first picking up “Far West” many years ago, and ever since have eaten up anything I’ve been able to find by him. I’d like to feel bad or apologetic about the fact that around half of that output is, like this, sexually explicit and quite, quite untempered, but I can’t bring myself to muster up the regret.

Because Moore’s comics are fun. They are fun in the playful art style, and they are fun in the bizarre plotlines, and they are fun in the never-quite-fetishised cutesy fantasy environments and anthropomorphic characters he depicts.

His women are objectivised, but then, so are his men. The scenes shown are often shallow and fit the same basic formula as much of the porn one might find on the internet, but Moore makes it all so pretty, and does it with love. In fact, despite the idealised nature of his characters, he doesn’t stick to depicting one type – in fact, quite the opposite. Moore doesn’t even stick to one species, let alone one body shape or race.

And I’m not going to try and flim-flam you with the label “erotica”, because only one story in here would really fit that bill – two at a push.

What this book is is funny and pretty, even when it isn’t sexy. It opens with what I suppose is a bit of an epic, and perhaps is meant to be the centrepiece, which is an alternate, absolutely filthy version of “The Wizard Of Oz”, but this one claims none of the artistic validity of the also explicit version of the story by Moore’s more famous namesake.

It is, however, much funnier. And that’s the justification, if Moore needed one, for this book, and this area of his portfolio – In Moore’s imagined world, sex is crazy, extreme, unlimited, and funny. It’s a good place to visit.

But if you lived there, the horny munchkins might be a bit much.

Hazy Thursday by Oliver Smith

We had visitors over on Sunday, which meant a bit of a frantic tidy-up.

I enjoy doing this every now and then, because it always turns out that I’ve got piles of interesting reading material hiding out in the spare room.

This time, I found a bunch of the mini-comics that I picked up at Bristol. I may have mentioned some of them before, but I read them again, so you’re going to hear about them – that’s the deal…

First up, “Hazy Thursday” by Oliver Smith. Smith is a bit of a evangelist for mini-comics in the UK – at least, that is what I’ve heard. I’ve also heard that Comics International love him, for what it’s worth. He’s also featured in the wonderful “West”, by Andrew Cheverton and Tim Keable.

I’ve met Oliver a couple of times, now – he is a big personality, in that he has a big personality, and it was with some interest that I picked up this book – he’d already made an impression on me.

And it’s good. It’s a short memoir of some merit, describing a day in the life of the young Oliver, as his idealistic mother takes him on an adventure to explore an alternative lifestyle. There’s dissapointment or cynicism shot through that I can relate to – it took till my early twenties before I really had the new-age/hippy bubble properly burst for me, but when it happened it happened decisively, and there’s a thread of that in here.

Smith’s storytelling style, and his art, give the tale a slightly delirious, misty and vague air, which is fitting for a story played out in childhood memory, and the gentle touch here belies Smith’s often bombastic public face.

There is a growing and pervasive reaction to auto-biographical comics at the moment, with many valid criticisms that they are often self-indulgent, and without real narrative worth. This book skates close to setting off some of the inner alarms I’ve developed, on hearing those arguments – but Smith has done a great job of balancing out the different elements here, so that it is never so sparse that it seems empty, or so twee that it is irritating.

I’d like to see something a little longer, and a little denser, from him, because this book shows great potential – it stands up to re-reading, and the art gives more with each viewing.

Oliver Smith’s website is here.

The Everyday Volume One by Adam Cadwell

If Oliver Smith risks accusations of self-indulgence with “Hazy Thursday”, Adam Cadwell flies in the face of them with his semi-regular diary comic, “The Everyday”. Childhood memories still get a bit of leeway by still at least reflecting the structure of a “story”, but a diary comic is, by definition, unfiltered, unedited, and therefore more like the author saying “look at me, everything that happens to me is important”.

(I say all of this with an uncomfortable hunch to my shoulders, ready to flinch – I’m aware that blogging carries the same self-importance, but without the added bonus of nice pictures…)

When the more moderate critics complain about auto-bio comics, they tend to allow exceptions for quality. James Kochalka’s “American Elf” diary comics, for example, often get a pass, for the skill of the artist’s line, and the almost zen clarity that his brevity brings to the table. Jeffrey Brown’s confessionals are also sometimes allowed, by virtue of the mixture of schadenfreude and existential horror that they evoke in the reader.

Cadwell wouldn’t count himself alongside Brown or Kochalka – in fact, he says as much when discussing Brown in this mini collection of his even more mini-comics. But to a degree, he’d be wrong.

Cadwell is one of the more aesthetically pleasing cartoonists working in mini-comics today, if this volume is anything to go by – his art is more attractive and thoughtful, and his storytelling far and away better than Brown’s. That isn’t enough to make strips like this interesting – the subject has to either be interesting, or have interesting things to say – and while Cadwell’s in-book persona is humble and reflective, he is good at picking out only the more interesting or telling snippets of his day-to-day experiences.

Ironically, the only thing holding these comics back from being truly great, and standing shoulder to shoulder with the work of his hero Brown, is Cadwell’s self-deprecating, witholding stance in them. The fact doesn’t seem lost on the artist – he refers at one point to not being able to be as soul-baring as Brown without feeling/appearing whiney. Some of the material he gets out of this central problem with his comic diary is interesting, going as far as to create a tiny alter-ego who baits him with his own feelings of inadequacy, but this is a familiar trope, and it only has so much mileage.

Where Cadwell does best is when he doesn’t notice that he is giving stuff away, and his art really is almost too refined to be restrained to tiny comics that only a few people get to see. It’s sometimes reminiscent of David Lapham, with the thick lines and the skillful use of black and white – you can see it most in the cover gallery at the back of the volume.

This book was lots of fun, and nice to read, but I’d like to see Cadwell shift towards a less self-conscious mode, either worrying less about what his comic isn’t and applying himself to the cataloguing of his daily experiences, or more openly documenting his actual thoughts and feelings without us seeing the lens of his thoughts about sharing them. Or better still, I’d like to see him channel all of these things into a longer work, maybe a fictional narrative, where he can talk about things without worrying about what he’s saying.

Adam Cadwell’s “The Everyday” website is here.

Video Nasties by Chris Doherty

Of all of the mini-comics I’ve talked about today, Chris Doherty’s “Video Nasties” is the most ambitious, and the most likely to have commercial appeal.

Where Smith and Cadwell have opted for, and admittedly excelled at, the quite small scale and narrowly focussed auto-biography, Doherty has gone another route entirely.

Set in a contemporary school, “Video Nasties” is a layered and interesting story about – well, about lots of things.

This is ostensibly a nicely rounded slice-of-life narrative, following the central character Evan as we learn that he has developed a sleep-depriving addiction to horror movies, has the ubiquitous unrequited school crush, and that he has a colourful assortment of convincingly written school friends, as well as an adult acquaintance in the local video-rental clerk.

However, what quickly becomes apparent is that there is more to this story. We hear about the dissappearance of two schoolkids ten years before – a mystery that has clearly affected the way that the school’s character has developed over the decade. And Evan is pushed into a working relationship with the object of his lust, but it doesn’t go that smoothly.

The whole thing is handled with great restraint, and beautiful art that reflects that of Bryan Lee O’Malley but has a confidence and eye for composition that makes it stand out as it’s own. The reader is given lots of themes and parallel plots to absorb, but at no point does the delivery of that information feel forced, which is a great achievement.

Because of the school setting, and perhaps also due to a slight pacing glitch at the midway point, you’re introduced to one or two too many supporting characters in a short space of time, which can lead to a bit of confusion when parsing the better-populated scenes. However, the key players are always easily distinguished and the story beats fall in the right places, more often than not.

I’m looking forward to more of this comic – it promises lots more intrigue and is pretty cool to look at.

Chris Doherty’s website is here.

If you’ve read any of these books, or would just like to discuss what I’ve written, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments…