It’s been sufficiently long enough that I can no longer be accused of being current or timely if I talk about some of the books that I bought at the Bristol convention last month.
The Sea #1-3/Flower Eater – Will Kirkby
Will Kirkby’s “The Sea” sneaks up on you. Each book is a cute, horizontally bound half-sized mini-comic, allowing the story to unfold in the three-panel chunks normally reserved for joke-centric funnies or webcomics, and indeed the first few strips in each follow that micro-delivery formula pretty well, although the joke set-up is used to deliver an immediately pretty macabre story.
This, for example, is the first page:
The simple, expressive cartoon lines, often taking a fixed view of the main character through each micro-chapter, adds to this sense of a fairly basic story, about a man adrift at sea with his somewhat troubled past – a claustrophobic monologue carrying us along.
However, as the story continues, what appear to be isolation-fuelled hallucinations reveal themselves as a much deeper mythology, steeped in allegory and half-revealed mysteries.
Kirkby’s linework, often reminiscent of Scott Morse – which he can take as a massive compliment, if he likes, because I love Morse – gets across a lot of information in not a lot of space, primarily because it is so simple and stylised. I see further Morse similarities when we get to the next book, and the third one, each of which dealing with a whole new character and situation that follow their own paths, until eventually weaving back into a broader narrative, opening up and deepening the mythos as they go. One of my favourite comic series of all time, Scott Morse’s “Soulwind” took the same approach, but Kirkby is the first person I’ve seen doing it mini-comic style.
In the later installments, Kirkby’s style becomes more simple and at the same time more ambitious, with lovely compositions like this one:
This refinement of Kirkby’s composition is a welcome thing, as well, because it makes the subtle complexities in the narrative easier to parse – the one complaint I have about the first book is that at times there is a persistence of line that means scenery, props and characters flatten against each other, and Kirkby’s beautiful visual caricature-style characterisation became problematic for me when in that same book, a second character is introduced who looks so similar to the first that I thought it was just him having a funny turn.
It’s gorgeous, though, and if there’s no immediate sign that a collection is coming, you should definitely go over to Kirkby’s Livejournal account and pick up each issue right now.
Slightly less involved, but a lot more fun, is Kirkby’s attempt at a 24-hour comic, “Flower Eater”.
A bit of a martial arts fantasy story, “Flower Eater” is a flighty mix of Yuen Woo Ping style fights, and surreal fantasy elements, such as the fact that the characters gain power and insight from the consumption of petals with magical properties – an idea that I remember and love from Jeff Noon’s books, but that might well be sourced from somewhere else.
Not as coherent as “The Sea”, and with much looser (and sometimes not as easy to read) art, “Flower Eater” is more of an item to pick up if you happen to have a couple of quid extra in your pocket, but it’s a cute curiousity, and I love that cover.
Harker #1-3 – Robert Gibson/Vince Danks
Concerning itself with the gently eccentric investigator Harker, and his long-suffering assistant Critchley, as they freelance murder investigations for the English police force, the comic gets its hands dirty in some pretty dark places – this first story involves a gruesome murder with the possibility of light showers of satanic worship and cults later on – but it never dwells too much on the horror and bleakness of the human condition.
Instead, the outlook of Harker is one of tired indulgence, playing off against the more exuberant and enthusiastic Critchley. The feel of the book is heavily reminiscent of another Morse – Inspector Morse, that is – and when Harker admonishes Critchley for what he sees as flights of fancy, it’s difficult not to think of Morse’s withering dismissal of his partner Lewis.
Come to that, the dialogue is sharp and witty, while notably not particularly gritty, and in a genre where loosely researched forensic or procedural fetishism gives rise to the sort of earnestly delivered techno-babble we’re more used to seeing on an episode of “Star Trek TNG”, it’s refreshingly human.
Gibson and Danks have done a really good job, here, striking a great balance between writing and art – hard to do, because Danks’ artwork could be show-stopping. Beautifully detailed environments and great linework… it seems obvious to these untrained eye that a lot of reference work has gone into these pages, but rather than treacling up the acting or layouts, Danks uses some great composition to create really impressive scenes and sequences, with dramatic expressionism worthy of Eduardo Risso, but linework that gives the page great depth. Compare the splash page in miniature, which could be straight out of “100 Bullets”, with the full size image!
But Danks never showboats, and he knows when the dialogue needs room, which is a distressingly rare trait in a comic artist. For his part, Gibson writes charming-as-fuck characters, and delivers detective work with just enough detail to let you know what’s going on and create a layer of authenticity, without sweating the quantum level stuff.
The pair only really make one misstep for me – there’s an exercise in experimental storytelling in the third issue, with a sequence of splash pages set in a pub as the pair brainstorm the case so far. The framing is identical throughout the scene, and it looks like it’s intended to firmly place the characters in their location, and create a sense of moment-to-moment progression – reminiscent of an Alan Moore scene where interesting stuff is going on in the background for the engaged reader – but there’s something off about the actions going on behind them, which aren’t really interesting enough to get the real-estate, and some of it even seems to run out of sequence. It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood the scene, though, and it’s a tiny gripe over an otherwise excellent three-issue run.
All issues of “Harker” can be bought in comic form, or as a cheaper PDF download, from the Ariel Press site, here. Rarely for a small-press comic, the plan is for “Harker” to come out on a monthly basis, which is awesome.
Urban Beasts #1 – Daniel Hartwell/Anna Rubins & Karen Rubins
I first saw the Rubins sisters work on an ambitious and unusual small-press series called “Dark”. It was a great piece of work, with raw and expressive art, and an allegorical story that showed a hell of a lot of promise, and only tailed off a little in the final act.
I’ve seen Karen Rubins art in various places, as her art style has evolved and she has aligned herself with a keen manga aesthetic, though thankfully never losing her endearing rough edges, but I didn’t know what Anna Rubins had been up to until picking up “Urban Beasts”.
Set in contemporary Oxford, this first issue concerns itself with introducing the series, primarily a socially out-of-practice guy called Milo who suddenly starts seeing the people around him as animals, and the beautiful and confident Caipora, who plays with animal totems with a shamanistic vigour.
Beyond establishing these two characters and their unique situations, this first episode shows a city in the middle of a volatile protest, with Caipora heading toward the middle of it. There isn’t room for much more, but there’s enough here to be thinking about. The comic shows rather than tells, so you don’t really know where it’s going until you’ve picked it apart for yourself – a process that’s aided by the fact that unlike many Western artists, Karen Rubins has picked up more of the storytelling techniques of Japanese comics than the superficial ones.
Where “Dark” was an arthouse comic, rooted in the poetic rather than the narrative, “Urban Beasts” is a much more accessible book, and the higher production values on it mean that with very little polish it could fit pretty neatly into the Vertigo stable. Not that it needs to, you understand – it’s a perfectly lovely comic, sitting where it is.
You can pick up the first issue of “Urban Beasts” at the Itch website, which is here.
Leek & Sushi’s Manga Show – Various
There’s a peculiar framing sequence, introducing the strips in the style of a variety show hosted by a leek, representing Wales, and by extension the UK, and some sushi, from Marks & Spencers. Or, well, Japan.
The content of the strips, as well, is very variable, ranging between styles and genres seemingly randomly, and across a broad range of experience on the part of the creators – one story, for example, was contributed by a 16 year old boy.
The whole thing should be a mess, really – it’s put together in such a ramshackle way, the conceit of the framing bits is a little lame, and perplexingly the cover design is oddly crass.
But what actually happens is that, aside from the cover, it all comes together to create a pretty fun book. The Leek and Sushi segments quickly win over the most cynical of readers – me – because at a really basic level, their cynicism-free dialogue is adorable, and their comedy beats verge on surreal – and some of the contributions in the book verge on the awesome.
Even when the strips aren’t great – some stories carry their imperfect art, and the art on some stories papers over some not so good writing – I don’t think any of the stories are worthless, and even when they are derivative, the exuberance and enthusiasm of the overall book predisposes the reader to be forgiving. There’s a general feeling of random energy – like a grass roots manga version of “The Muppet Show”.
At £6 for a little over 200 pages, the book is an oddity, but a cheap and diverting one that serves as a nice showcase of creators just beyond the boundaries of pro comics, and it’s another book that you can pick up at the Itch website.
Mephistos #1 – Naniiebim
One of the first things one noticed, walking into the small-press main hall at Bristol, was Naniiebim’s table. This was partly because it faced the main entrance, but mainly because the designwork on the two comics on display, as well as the promotion material, was stupidly eye-catching.
If you take nothing else away from what I say about Naniiebim’s book, you should take this: These items are the most perfect expression of the technique that Frank Miller started fidgetting around with way back in 1994 with “The Babe Wore Red”, when he started adding the highlight colour to the starkly black-and-white “Sin City”, that I’ve yet seen.
Still, I walked past without succumbing to temptation a couple of times, because, well – despite the books I picked up at the convention this year, I have always been a little suspicious of Western Manga comics, most especially because they always seem to require that additional “-style” to describe them properly, and that sort of “culture at one remove” thing confuses and confounds me.
When I formed the prejudice, it was a valid one – backwhen, artists drawing in a Manga style were similar to the creators in the same generation who were drawing in an “Image” style – copyists first, artists second – and reading their work made for a quite empty and unsatisfying experience, because it was little more than an aesthetic shell over untrained, middle-of-the-road storytelling.
However, now the style has been around for long enough that a generation of talented artists, for whom Manga has been a staple rather than a novelty, and who have been paying attention to the ways in which the style presents its stories, as well as the way it looks, have started drawing comics – and many of these creators are kick-ass artists and good instinctive storytellers who could make a comic work regardless, but have made a considered choice to use Manga tropes and techniques.
All of which is to say that “Mephistos”, which is apparently part of the “Here Be Demons” series – though not knowing that series doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment – is a confidently told and nicely presented romantic comedy, about a shy woman and the mysterious stranger next door, and what happens when they meet.
There’s a pleasing looseness to the linework here that at times can make for confusing sequences, but really pulls together for the character work. The writing, as well, has a vagueness to it that does create some uncertain ambiguity in the earlier scenes, but all of that becomes irrelevant once the reader gets a clearer sense of what is going on between these two characters, which happens pretty quickly.
The characters, as well, are so likeable, with the girl, Maria, having a shy elegance, and the guy, Meths, who is gruff and rakish and oddly rugged. Though not a lot happens in this first issue, the chemistry in the book is pleasingly reminiscent of one of those old movies, where Audrey Hepburn meets Cary Grant and they bicker and flirt their way into an affair.
There are some beautiful bits of presentation art in the book as well, that set a more smouldering scene than the slapstick of the events displayed. I got the impression that Naniiebim and Will Kirkby are stable mates or collaborators of some description, and though his comics and art style seem a million miles away from Manga, some of the posters that the two were given away, showing a mixture of their art, were perfectly complementary. Both are worth keeping an eye out for.
There are samples of the book and details on where to buy Naniiebim’s work right here.
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And that’s that… finally done. It’s taken me a stupid amount of time to write these books up, and this doesn’t even include the Fantagraphics bundle I got at the same time – which probably deserves it’s own post.
These are small press, though, and as such each issue will probably still be in circulation once you read this. Support the creators by going and looking at their work, and if you like it, buy it. And give them love. Comic creators love the love!