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Great British Comics Now:

Part 3

A British theme again and a British review round-up, because this week’s programme of free or ticketed, bookable 2010 Comica Festival events elegantly straddles the wide gamut of Great British Comics. Monday’s Laydeez Do Comics gathering includes a talk by me on Escape Magazine, then and now. On Tuesday there is the launch party and exhibition of original Dan Dare artwork for Alastair Crompton’s new artbook Tomorrow Revisited on Frank Hampson. On Wednesday, there’s the rare opportunity to hear Bryan Talbot and Steve Bell in conversation about their lives and comics and signing their brand new Jonathan Cape books at the ICA. And Thursday celebrates the publication of Gonzo by Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith, also reviewed below, at the London Print Studio. To tie in with this I’ve decided to review some related publications below. Be sure to check out the Comica Festival conversations, launches and exhibitions bubbling around London over these coming days.



Solipsistic Pop Vol 3
edited by Tom Humberstone
Solipsistic Pop
£12

All power to Solipsistic Pop which in many ways is continuing the role of the original Escape Magazine of the Eighties, which I co-edited and co-published with Peter Stanbury, by providing a high-class showcase for British small pressers to present their work. ‘Wonder’ is the theme of the third issue of this semi-annual anthology, edited, designed and published by Tom Humberstone in an eco-friendly-produced edition of just five hundred copies. It’s interesting to see the various ways the 26 artists respond to this theme. Several come from the perspective of childhood, whether authentic or fanciful, a time when our capacity for awe and amazement seem to be more resilient. Hence Tom’s design decision to incorporate the nostalgic style of the old-fashioned Beano in the logo, cover, interior second colour red, and the tradition of free gifts, in this instance a free SP Pencil and a full-colour activity sheet and a set of stickers by Philippa Rice of My Cardboard Life. Unlike the Beano, however, not every comic in SP is out solely to raise a smile or chuckle. Here, with each different strip presented here, from one to five pages maximum in length, we as readers have to tune in to the approach of storytelling, its tone, its worldview, and interpret whether it might be true or fictional, satire or poetry, bizarre or poignant, cynical or sincere, or perhaps a mixture of some or all of these. Certain ideas seem to recur, such as boredom, the antithesis of wonder, and the myth or fairytale, sometimes narrated in rhyming couplets. At times I empathised with the barman in Edward Ross‘s fable who sighs, “Why does it always have to rhyme?”. 

A strong opener, Adam Cadwell‘s (presumably) genuine memoir of a special day he spent as a boy with his Dad at a Games Master Live show in Birmingham NEC is warm without being sentimental, as he adjusts his normally realist style to draw his child self almost as a Beano character among cameos by Beano favourites, and even The Bash Street Kids’ headmaster.

A highpoint for me, Rob Davis in The Torturer’s Garden also riffs off the Beano in this variant viewpoint of a ‘Softy Walter’ type who is constantly menaced at school but finally becomes a menace himself, part of a delinquent gang of troublemakers - “I am hate on a stick.” Dennis the Menace’s distinctive black and red stripes are interwoven as a motif, as Davis expands this anti-bullying springboard to cleverly critique the whole menace culture we live in and to repeat one solution to end this violence: ‘“Use your imagination”.

Faz Choudhury revives another longstanding British comics trope, the humanised elephant character, from Thomas Maybank’s Uncle Oojah and Rupert’s pal Edward Trunk, and blends this with a sort of Nero Wolfe investigator who helps a mother find her “mislaid” son without leaving his ever leaving his home. This too touches on classroom traumas, as ‘The Elephant of Surprise’ recalls his difference making him unheard and unseen in school, becoming invisible - “And, strange as it may seem, I found myself envious of the poor children that were bullied.”

The risk of tackling boredom is to be boring yourself. Luckily, Octavia Raitt in Molly Vs. The Wondertaker offers a refreshing cautionary moral tale about a monster who, if we’re not careful, can steal our ‘sensowundah’. Her layouts and cartooning also surprise, although the mechanical capital lettering, mostly justified and sometimes stretching across almost the full width of the page, can jar at times.

David O’Connell‘s bored squire to a brawling barbarian is oblivious to the sword and sorcery mayhem around him and dreams of being a D.J., and being comics, his dream comes true, while Mark Oliver celebrates “precious boredom” in his sinuous shimmerings of sky-souls and bird spirits conveining for “the best tea-time ever.”

I had read John Cei Douglas‘s Living Underwater before, coloured more aptly in aquatic blue, but it really stands up to re-readings as an affecting metaphor for finding a possible path out of (literally) deep depression.

There are plenty more delights here, and only a few mild disappointments, mostly caused by that toughest of challenges, coming up with a good ending. Warwick Johnson Cadwell for instance, is clearly a vastly gifted illustrator and in Fruits Delamer taps into his daytime ferryman job to chart a sea captain’s escapades in search of delicacies from the ocean’s depths. I laughed out loud at his sequence where the sailor consumes electric eel vindaloo and had a terrible time afterwards “in the the ship’s privvy”  - “Gaww, my blessed port ‘ole” - but his punchline really lacks punch, sorry to say. His artistic chops are already top-class, his writing skills can hopefully catch up.

Elsewhere, my only production quibble is the way some texts are swallowed up into the spine, making the pages trickier to read in places. Overall, SP3 is a lovingly crafted collection of graphic short stories which demonstrates once more how vibrant and diverse the current scene in UK independent comics truly is. 



Tomorrow Revisited: A Celebration Of
The Life & Art Of Frank Hampson

by Alastair Crompton
PS Art Books
£29.99

Frank Hampson, the creator of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future and the photogravure-colour cover-star who sold millions of copies of Eagle starting in 1950, died twenty-five years ago this year. In that same year, 1985, lifelong Dan Dare enthusiast Alastair Crompton wrote the first version of this book, The Man Who Drew Tomorrow. In his introduction to this new sequel, Crompton explains that his initial book now appears to him as “a slightly fourth-form hagiography, showing my subject through rose-coloured glasses”. Tomorrow Revisited gives Crompton a chance to revise and revisit the tumultuous lifetime of this hugely gifted strip cartoon storyteller and balance and enhance it because he can now get a few more answers and insights, for example from Hampson’s sister Margaret and son Peter, and from his further researches and interviews.

Luckily, during Hampson’s final years, Crompton had been able meet with his artist-hero five times and out of this evolved the 1985 book, but these encounters progressively turned, as he puts it,  “from sweet to sour”. It is clear that Hampson’s spirit had never really mended from the shattering, shabby treatment he had received from the Mirror Group, “The Gangster of Fleet Street”, which culminated in 1962 in his messy, compromised departure from Eagle and final separation from the space-voyaging alter-ego he had conceived and developed into a best-selling icon. Crompton tackles this injustice and the toll it took, head on and in detail, with names, dates, quotes, including Hampson’s directly related and fortunately failed suicide attempt. The evidence mounts up into a damning indictment of corporate greed and callousness.

Crompton is also unafraid to ask some questions about Marcus Morris’s role, acknowledging his positive encouragement and financing of Hampson’s comics creativity, while also questioning the Reverend’s “lack of diligence in allowing the copyright of Dan Dare to be vested in Hulton press and its successors.” There is no whitewashing here about the tensions that arose in the relationship between these two highly driven men, nor about the summary, unceremonious firings of several vital studio assistants who dared to question Hampson’s painstaking production system and obsessive workaholicism. Considering the cavalier treatment Hampson later received himself, these dismissals seem surprisingly ruthless. Evidently, creating these two pages in Eagle showing the future in such spectacular, utterly convincing hyper-realism came at considerable price.

This handsome monograph combines the meticulous and entertainingly written narratives of each chapter with page after page of sumptuous, high-quality reproductions of Dan Dare comics, sketches and reference sheets shot from Hampson’s originals, and numerous rare and unseen photographs, including numerous shots of Hampson’s father and studio members acting out panels of Dare stories for photo-reference.  In Chapter 10 Crompton chronicles Marcus Morris’s little-known, still-born plans in the early Seventies for a new children’s comic, christened Lightning, and speculates why he never called on Hampson to contribute.

Also presented here in Chapter 12 are restored samples from seven ‘lost’ Sixties characters which Hampson created, several for the Mirror Group, but which they never seriously considered for publication. I had seen some images of Peter Rock, lean and blond in white T-shirt and jeans, his proposed newspaper strip for the Daily Herald. Set in 2264, this is an earthbound SF hero whose boss is a black woman named Laura. In his notes, Hampson explained, “The sociological ain behind this strip is to attack the colour bar by ignoring it. We present a future state in which a person’s colour is immaterial.” Other characters I had never seen before include: Monogram, a suave secret agent with an eye-patch, who discreetly works for the Queen; Raff Royal, leader of a team of NATO fighter pilots, intended to be “as technically accurate as the famous Terry and the Pirates in the USA’ (Hampson hugely admired Caniff); and another pilot, ‘Birdy’ Boyd, dogfighting in the skies of World War One. In another register, Hampson also devised a boyish travel agent-cum-adventurer named Birney as well as a woman detective or lawyer named Mary Lee and a Dark Ages historical drama in full colour entitled Martin Mere, Knight of the North. Could any of these have repeated the phenomenal impact of Dan Dare? Two further newspaper strips shown here are The Chalmers, a family strip commissioned in 1963 by the National Coal Board advertising solid fuel central heating, and his unsuccessful ‘auditions’ to draw Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, which certainly lack the essential sexiness and deadliness of Jim Holdaway’s interpretation.

A happy note is struck in Chapter 11 by the account of Hampson’s recognition in later life, sparked at the Lucca Comics Festival in Italy, where he had been taken by historian Denis Gifford (and tantalisingly, Crompton mentions four audio tapes of an interview by Gifford of Hampson, of which only one seems to have survived). At least Hampson’s winning of the new ‘Prestigioso Maestro’ or Lifetime Achievement prize at the Lucca Festival’s Yellow Kid awards in 1975 led to the press and media in Britain rediscovering Dare’s creator and a belated period of well-deserved acclaim. That acclaim continues today through successive generations inspired by Hampson’s oeuvre, from Dave Gibbons to Adam Brockbank (I interviewed some of his admirers here). And of course thanks to Tomorrow Revisited, which stands up as about as definitive and lavish a biographical tribute and artbook as any we are likely to see. You can view some sample pages here.



Grandville: Mon Amour
by Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape
£16.99

Britain’s pre-eminent graphic novel pioneer Talbot is in his prime here, firing on all cylinders as only one year later he serves up a sizzling sequel to his 2009 steampunk science-romance success. We’re back in the alternative retro-future in which Grandville, aka Paris, is the capital of a world dominated by France, and we rejoin his anthropomorphic Holmes & Watson, alias the blue-eyed badger Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, equal parts brawn and brains (in one panel he is pumping iron with one hand and reading Voltaire in the other), and his cohort, the street-smart monocled rodent, Detective Roderick Ratzi. This fresh episode allows us to dig deeper into the back-story and psychology of LeBrock and get beneath the black-and-white fur to the badger within. We first discover him collapsed on the floor of his wrecked apartment from drowning his sorrows in drink after failing to save the love of his life, Sarah Blaireau. Not long after, furious at not being assigned the case to hunt down the escaped extremist Mastock, a ruthless terrorist in the infamous Angry Brigade of the British resistance movement, he quits the force and sets out with his rat accomplice to hunt the mad dog down across the Channel. As the chase escalates, Talbot weaves in revelations about LeBrock’s own part as an adolescent in the Resistence movement and the killing of his father by French forces in the Brick Lane Massacre. Though billed as “A Fantasy”, there is a whole other level at work here, offering us parallels to our own past and present, from Northern Ireland to Jack the Ripper, and suggesting that we contemplate what the differences might be between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter, or between a hero and a traitor.

While obeying plenty of the traditions of the cop-drama and conspiracy-caper genres as the trail of corruption leads all the way to the top, literally atop Westminster Abbey itself, Talbot subverts and surprises by introducing a new love interest for his hirsute hero in tragic lady-badger-of-the-night Billie, as well as another helping of delightful clins d’oeil references: a feline version of Manet’s famed painting The Absinthe Drinker; cameos by both Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge; and two Parisian “doughface” (ie human) toughguys based on bande dessinée legends, Franquin’s Gaston LaGaffe and Margerin’s Lucien. Talbot always cleverly casts animals appropriate to their roles, like an elderly sheep as a pastor, a busty, Divine-esque hippo as the madam of a brothel, or a Churchillian bulldog as Resistance hero and future President, Harold Drummond. He makes no distinctions here between people speaking French or English, although from the opening shot in front of Big Ben it’s clear that the advertising on the side on the tram is French, as is ‘Le Londinien’ or Londoner newspaper dated October 24, 2010. He also avoids any distracting third-person narrative captions whatsoever, propelling this fast-paced thriller entirely through action and speech, adeptly balancing between dialogue-rich scenes and explosive outbursts of arterial sprayings. In two almost silent pages, Mastock’s first brutal slaying of a Paris prostitute is pitch-perfect, foreshadowing the out-of-view climax by showing the woman chopping meat for her pet cat and adding the symbolic detail of a bright-red ribbon tied around her neck. This welcome return trip to the weird and wonderful world of Grandville had me in its grip from page one and wouldn’t let me go. Watch the Grandville: Mon Amour trailer.



Gonzo:
A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

by Will Bingley & Anthony Hope-Smith
SelfMadeHero
£14.99

SelfMadeHero’s graphic biography collection got off to a cracking start last year with Reinhard Kleist’s Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness. Ahead of two further Euro-comics buy-ins early next year -  Kiki de Montparnasse from France by José-Louis Bocquet and Catel in February and Baby’s In Black: The Story Of Astrid Kitchherr & Stuart Sutcliffe by German creator Arne Bellstorf in March - comes this impressive, all-original, all-British production about the great American iconoclast, outlaw, hedonist and writer Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005). Whether you are an avid admirer of Thompson the man and his writings or, like me, not deeply knowledgeable about either of them, Bingley and Hope-Smith provide an accessible, compelling record of his complexes and complexities, which does not skirt around his at times thoroughly unlikeable, anti-social sides. At the same time, they challenge the received clichés that he was simply and solely ‘The King of Gonzo’, crazed, disturbed, drug-and-booze-addled and self-destructive. This popular mythology might seem cool and transgressive, a role model for wannabe anti-heroes, but, as his editor Alan Rinzler underlines in his foreword, “Hunter in his prime had been in fact a very serious, hard-working writer who cared deeply about every carefully chosen word, labouring over each sentence and its content, the layers of meaning, the rhythm, the inimitable voice, the humour and ferocious impact.”

Bingley too writes carefully, sparingly, even sparsely here, on a few occasions quoting Thompson, but mainly conveying his voice and viewpoints with power himself. Pages are punctuated by lean first-person narrative in wide, thin, horizontal captions cutting into the images, while shifts of locale and era are marked by TV-style typewritten indicators. He tops and tails this lifestory with the contrasting deaths of two US Presidents, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the stroke which led four days later to Nixon’s demise, spanning an era of huge social and political turbulence. The roots of Thompson’s lifelong rebelliousness are traced back to his part in the destruction of a mailbox when he was nine. When Federal agents investigate but had to withdraw their threats due to a total lack of evidence, the young Hunter learned a crucial lesson: “In a caged society, a man’s liberty is the meat of his master’s power. But even in a world of jailers, no truth can trap an honest liar.”

In a partnership and style reminiscent of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hope-Smith complements Bingley’s texts with strong brushwork and predominantly widescreen compositions. The team make good use of the gaps between what is said and what is shown to create irony and counterpoint. Theirs is the perfect language to evoke Thompson’s fierce, angry intelligence that made him one of the modern world’s most outspoken and courageous commentators and defenders of liberties. As those same liberties still come under threat these days, let’s hope that it will be Thompson’s no-bullshit attitude to hypocrisy and authority and his persistent search for truth that inspire rebel readers and writers to follow his trail. That is a legacy even he might have been proud of.

Posted: November 29, 2010

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Anthony Hope-Smith
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Frank Hampson
Great British Comics Now
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