Category Archives: comics

Thought Bubble 2011 Reviewed

Last month I went up to Thought Bubble, the Leeds-based comic convention. It was my first time at an event like this; the draw for me was a combination of seeing artists and writers I liked, meeting up with people I was internet-acquainted with, and check out some more under-the-radar comics. And, of course, spending a bit of time back up in Leeds.The event was held across a couple of convention halls down at the Armouries, with some other venues drafted in for talks and other events. While it wasn’t the easiest of layouts to navigate, all the staff and volunteers on hand were absolute pros and ever ready to help out attendees.

From the initial rush of people at the start of the first day, things slowed down to a constant gentle press; the place was crowded, but never oppressive. And there were plenty of things to see. The convention was was very mixed in its setup, so “professionals” and self-publishers would have tables alongside each other. The atmosphere was very friendly and non-exclusive.

When I didn’t have anything specific to get to, I was happy to wander around looking at the independent comics on sale, and watching wonderful artists like Sean Phillips, Cameron Stewart and David Aja doing sketches. (I often forget how calming and relaxing it is just to watch someone draw.) I also had the pleasure of meeting up with Dan White, Andrew Hickey and Illogical Volume, of the excellent UK comics blog collective Mindless Ones, and chatting with them about comics and other assorted nonsense.

I also happened to pick up some very good comics while there, the majority of which I would never have heard of otherwise. Some reviews below:

Cindy and Biscuit in: What We Did At The Weekend
Dan White (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Milk The Cat Comics

Dan White’s latest Cindy and Biscuit entry is in the best tradition of “kid’s comics”, in that it perfectly sums up what it means to be a kid; the instant switching between wide-eyed innocence and bloodthirsty attack mode, the value in discovering something all your own, and the inevitable bump as you’re brought back down to earth after yet another intrusion from the adult world.

The art means a lot here. Biscuit is drawn as the Platonic essence of dog; constantly either alert or in motion, his whole body converging to the sharp point that is his nose. And Cindy is all knobbly knees and elongated limbs, the perfect representation of the gangly awkwardness of childhood. This self-contained story of a girl and her dog fighting off an alien invasion is in full colour, brilliantly used to heighten the encroaching weirdness. It’s got action, comedy, and maybe even a little bit of poignancy too. Highly recommended.

Jack Teagle (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Nobrow

I first found out about Teagle when I picked up his comic Jeff Job Hunter (also from NoBrow) earlier this year. A fun satire about a young jobseeker tasked with questing through an underground dungeon full of monsters in order to collect his JSA, it struck a sour chord with my experience of being out of work.

Fight! is the first of an occasional series, beginning with two wrestlers fighting as analogues of God and the Devil. Lou, the “Devil” character, is tired of his red skin and horns stereotyping him as the “heel”, and sets out to discover what happened to his famous wrestler father.

As with JJH, the simple, cartoonish art creates a pleasant blend of the surreal and the mundane. Teagle packs in as much as possible, with a back-up story on the inside cover and fake ads on the back. It’s decent, but I’d recommend Jeff Job Hunter over it.

Filmish #3: Technology and Technophobia
Edward Ross (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Chiaroscuro

This series of minicomics offers straightforward introductions to various aspects of film theory. They owe a great debt to Scott McCloud’s books – as in Understanding Comics and other works, a cartoon version of the author appears on each page to explain concepts to the reader and interact playfully with the contents of the panels. This issue looks at the way technology has been represented and criticised in films, from Chaplin’s Modern Times to Videodrome, Jurassic Park and Primer. There are cited quotes from academic texts, and a bibliography at the end for further reading. A neat idea, executed well.

Hitsville UK
John Riordan (Co-Writer/Artist), Dan Cox (Co-Writer)

A spectacular technicolour pop-comix blast of greatness, Hitsville UK is a comics about the sense of romance that you get from all great music, and especially from stuff you stumble across by accident. The conceit of the comics is to profile several bands grouped around one start-up record label, allowing Riordan to take a different art style for portraying each act. The skipping between each different band and their various troubles gives the comic an excellent sense of pace, like it’s a bunch of old-school 2-page strips crammed together.

The off-kilter kookiness of the art and colouring suggest a world at right-angles to our own, where all the romance and promise of music still holds absolutely true. It’s pretty much perfectly designed to hit someone like me in their sweet spot, but don’t let my blatant bias put you off – it’s actually really good!

I Got Comics #1
John Miers (Writer/Artist)

An large-format collection of art-comics stories where form reflects function. Contrast is a constant here; black versus white; colour vs space; the art playing out scenarios of antagonism, thesis and antithesis. Whether illustrating a philospohical debate, a family argument, or the story of the Tower of Babel, the stories suggest conflict as the essential stuff of the artists’ life. The tour de force here is the closing story “Ink Vs Paper”, a black-and-white fight scene taking place in a Japanese castle, between combatants who use the material of the comic against each other. It’s Spy vs Spy with a fourth-wall-breaking conceit.

Pope Hats #1 and #2
Ethan Rilly (Writer/Artist)
Publisher: Adhouse

The first two issues of this series by Canadian cartoonist Rilly (released in 2009 and this year, respectively) are wonderful-looking, really well-constructed comics. Pope Hats follows Frances, a young law clerk who has to deal with the trials of her workplace and her flighty, hard-drinking actress roommate. Better critics than I have listed the artistic influences on display here, but I was taken with how much Frances looks like Tintin, sharing the button nose and black dot eyes of Herge’s boy reporter.

There’s a bit of Adrian Tomine in its portrayal of ennui among educated young people, and something of Dan Clowes in its static angles and deadpan realism. But Rilly avoids the worst tendencies of both writers (self-indulgence for Tomine, misanthropy for Clowes) by focusing in on the little moments when people my age stop and picture life passing them by. It’s hard to explain the appeal of this comic other than that it makes you feel for the characters. They’re drawn small, navigating a landscape of grids and straight lines, while trapped in their own thoughts, talking at cross purposes, unsure of how to break through to each other.

The two issues include one or two back-up stories, which is mainly a chance for Rilly to do some smaller vignettes. Along with the well-designed cover, it gives each issue a feel of being a more complete package; of it being a comic in a proper physical sense.


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Comixtime: “This is a Russian story”

The Winter Men (Six-issue series)
Brett Lewis (Writer), John Paul Leon (Artist), Dave Stewart (Colours), John Workman (Letters)
Publisher: Wildstorm

There’s a P D James quote about how the detective story isn’t really about murder; it’s about the restoration of order. That’s true for a lot of crime stories. But there’s another kind: one that uses the disruption of the established order to lift the lid on what has been accepted as normal, to show the rottenness and insanity of a system that operates from day to day without being questioned. The best thriller writers – Hammet, Le Carre, Ellroy – write stories like this. Crime stories, spy stories – stories about what “order” really means, and what that does to people who know about it.

The Winter Men is a mixture of crime story and spy story, set in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when economic liberalisation created a new capitalist state ruled by criminals and spies. The main character is Kris Kalenov (who seems to spend the whole of the book wearing at least one plaster over his battered face), a veteran of a Soviet super-soldier program who’s fallen on hard times in the new Russia. He and his former comrades are just getting by, working as mercenaries, bodyguards, gangsters. Then he gets entangled in a case involving a missing girl, and becomes caught up in a conspiracy reaching from the mafiyas on the streets to the ex-Soviet spooks and oligarchs who control the levers of power.

The superhero stuff never threatens to overwhelm the story or take the reader out of the narrative, but on the other hand it never becomes a metaphorical gloss on the story. The Winter Menis about what it means for people who served as symbols of Soviet power to keep on living after that system has collapsed.

It’s a dense comic – there is a lot on each page to take in. It doesn’t rely on splash pages or “cool” moments, it doesn’t hold your hand and point out every element. There are significant visual and verbal cues that I completely missed the first time round.

A lot of this density and cohesiveness comes from it being a comic where everyone is working at the top of their game to the benefit of the finished work. Brett Lewis’ writing is excellent, but his collaborators make it work within the comics medium.

John Paul Leon is part of that Sean Phillips/Michael Lark school of pencilly, shadow-heavy art that’s usually used for “gritty” street-level spy/crime comics. He’s seriously good, and in this comic he gets a chance to flex his muscles, staging talky sequences and shootouts and car chases with equal aplomb (and anyone who reads comics should know how hard it is to do a car chase in the medium. Lewis and Leon pull it off brilliantly). It’s because his art isn’t glossy or fantastical. And that means you feel every gunshot, every punch, every instance of shattering glass and spurting blood. And the moments where the characters sit around talking are staged and drawn just as well, the excellent use of body language drawing you in to the noirish atmosphere.

Dave Stewart’s colours help with this, giving the proceedings an appropriately muted tone. And John Workman’s lettering adds so much to the finished package. Where lettering is usually seen as an afterthought in comics, here it’s obvious how essential it is. Russian and English dialogue is rendered differently, leading to some excellently subtle communication of plot points that hinge on knowing who speaks both languages.

There’s a unique quality to the dialogue and narration. It reads like it was originally written in Russian, then translated to English. There are odd moments where English phrases seem to be mistranslated, or metaphors are used without explaining the context. Just as in the wider narrative, you’re thrown in, and have to catch up.

There’s an argument to be made that this series approaches the status of The Wire of comics. I think a comic that matches The Wire in sheer density would be something like From Hell, but The Winter Men, while not as huge and in-depth,  has that Wire-esque look at the structures that maintain a
deeply broken society – from the power players at the top to the foot soldiers at the bottom. Unsparing in its portrayal of how many people suffer, bleed and die to keep the established “order” in place.There’s an issue in the back half of the book where Kris and his gangster pal Nikki spend a day driving around the city, attending to police business and Nikki’s criminal enterprises. It’s a low-key slice of life story, with little to no connection to the main plot. But you’re still riveted, because Lewis, Leon and their collaborators have created an entire world, where the lives of the characters seem to be independent of the demands of the story. That would be great in literature. It’s doubly great in comics.

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