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Friday, September 18, 2009

Appreciating the Madness of The Bunty

I'm not going to be too unkind here because D.C Thomson has changed significantly over the years. The company that once paid its creators less than IPC's juvenile comics division did, and refused to allow credits on the stories, is no longer that sort of company. In fact, with the publishing of Gary Northfield's creator-owned Derek the Sheep in the Beano, D.C Thomson took a massive leap in support of the creator, beyond any other British comic publication and many American ones. For that they should be congratulated, and in pointing that fact out I hope they will not be too mad about my close-ish reading of this Bunty Summer Special from 1972, that was given away free this week in The Guardian. After all, we need to learn from our past, and it is an interesting historical text.

As you know, my cousin Allan was a big Bunty fan. His sister, my cousin Mary, bought a few D.C Thomson titles and despite a fairly comprehensive slagging-off, he always championed the British titles when we were growing up. I, on the other hand, despite working on a British comic back in the 1980s, was much more into the US titles, and it's actually only over the last 10 years or so that I have woken up to how great the British comics, especially the 'girls' comics, actually were - and are. Having said all that, the fact that we readers have no idea who made these stories is not fair on us or on the creators. I have, I think, some idea who created some of the pages, but it irks me that creators were treated that badly.

Bunty was a weekly British comic for girls that began in 1958. Like most other British titles, it was an anthology and consisted of a collection of small strips sometimes two, sometimes three but hardly ever more than four or five pages long. There were seasonal specials, such as the Summer Special featured below, and Christmas and summer annuals. The stories, usually written by men and illustrated more often than not by men, were about, well, you'll find out when you read the examples below. They were often beautifully illustrated, often by celebrated European artists, and the coloured pages were hand-coloured by a team of women in the Thomson offices.

Most features in the Bunty came and went, but The Four Marys ran for years, becoming the comic's longest running story. Drawn by Roy of the Rovers and Scorer artist, Barrie Mitchell, who also worked for Mandy, Pow, Wham, 2000 AD and other titles, The Four Marys ran for decades from the comic's initial launch in 1958.


The story Tommy the Tomboy, with its ridiculous schooling premise, it's stereotypes and its anachronistic ideas about lady-like reactions makes us laugh for all the wrong reasons today; and perhaps would even have raised eyebrows in 1972, but the art is accomplished and attractive. It may be the work of a Spanish a Belgian an Argentinian an Italian or a British illustrator, I have no idea and I can't, at the moment, find out, but I've looked at the panels repeatedly over the last few days and each time it impresses me more.
The drawing of the strident Mrs Ponsonby, secretary of the 'Feminine Freedom Fighters', is simply perfect. She is constructed as a thick-lined, but not indelicately-rendered, shrew, and you can just imagine her shifting her balls as she moves her weight from leg to leg. By contrast, the delicate rendition of her daughter Tomasina, who is being 'taught' to be first manly and then feminine, is at odds with the text that tells us she has manly-traits.





Class rears its head in The Four Marys. Yet again we are faced with the sharp contrast of a story that is wonderful to look at, but reads like something from the Victorian era of chars and scullery maids held to ridicule.





Emergency 666 is not as weird as it looks at first glance. Again the premise is ridiculous, but there is nothing diabolical about the thing, well, apart from the dialogue that is. The emergency services number in the UK is 999, the number here, 666, is simply a reversal of that. I'm pretty certain it has nothing to do with The Book of Revelation and the number of the Beast. As silly as it is, I love the artwork.



Okay this is here for my benefit; I just love cut-outs.



Now, I have to admit this piece of ridiculous hokum, Peggy the Promette, is my favourite story. I absolutely love the hand-coloured work of some faceless Thomson staffer and I love the quality of the line-work. The story is awful, but it looks fantastic.



You know, sitting down reading 200 episodes of one of these adventures, or even just 10 or 12 of the more fleeting visitors to the pages of the Bunty, would fill me with dread; but I could sit there for hours eyeballing the pages. It's a tragedy that it has taken us (and by 'us' I really mean 'them') this long to appreciate this part of our heritage.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Great Anthologies Create Not So Strange Bedfellows

I love anthologies. If you look over at the piece I did on the Forbidden Planet UK blog on Danny Hellman's Typhon, you'll discover why I love them - in a nutshell, it's the variety I suppose. But I also love new-takes on existing characters, as evidenced here on an earlier Batman post, and Marvel's Strange Tales has both these things going for it, Strange Tales is an anthology-comic, and it has a variety of new-takes on existing Marvel characters; by Peter Bagge (Neat Stuff and Hate) Nick Bertozzi (Houdini: The Handcuff King), Molly Crabapple and John Leavitt (co-founders of the hugely succesful Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School ), Nicholas Gurewich (The Perry Bible Fellowship), Norwegian cartoonist Jason (Low Moon, profiled here), James Kochalka (Monkey versus Robot), Michael Kupperman (Tales Designed to Thrizzle), Junko Mizuno, (Pure Trance). Paul Pope (Batman year 100), Johnny Ryan (Angry Youth Comix), and Dash Shaw (Bottomless Bellybutton).

It's a stellar line-up, complete with cartoonists who have heightened the profile of the artform beyond the pages of publications and the interweb. Japanese artist Mizuno's Gothic-Kawaii drawing style, a mixture of super-cuteness, and blood and syringes, appears on clothes and in gallery shows, and Paul Pope has designed a Pulphope line of clothes for DKNY and Diesel.

As with any publication of this sort, I have my favourites; Paul Pope and Jose Villarrubia's cover is excellent because it takes itself seriously, alerting the reader that although the Marvel Universe will be treated slightly flippantly, it won't be disrespected. This is a very clever piece of marketing which is especially important to a significant band of readers who are not particularly welcoming of indie cartoonists. For those readers, Paul Pope's cover and introductory story will prove a gateway to this comic's tone and Strange Tales #1 itself will surely prove a gateway comic to a world of indie-illustration for the uninitiated comic book reader. And with any luck, it will also establish a demand for more work in a similar vein beyond Strange Tales #1,2 and 3. I love the sub-text of Leavitt and Crabapple's She-Hulk (coloured and lettered by Star St.Germain), and what could easily be a jarring-juxtaposition of artistic styles, between Molly Crabapple's silky-thin, embroidery-like drawings, and Junko Mizuno's solid-lined Spiderman (translated by Aki Yanagi, and adapted by C.B. Cebulski), becomes a delight in the context of this anthology. I just adore Dash Shaw's Doctor Strange, for reasons to numerous to mention, and Michael Kupperman's Namor is equally brilliant. I think of all the stories in this volume though, my favourite is Jason's Spider Man, I read it about 3 or 4 times and each time I read it it seems funnier and more clever.

My only criticism of the comic, and it is a slight one, more a grumble really, or a gripe, and not even a full gripe, more a gr... or an ...ipe, is that a page or two of the work is 'Not Brand Ech-sy'. I mean, don't take that the wrong way, I loved Don Heck's comic at the time, but that style of parody isn't really what an indie-collection is about. What I mean is I don't like the pages that are more a parody of the character, than an indie-interpretation, as much as I do the rest of the comic. So whilst the majority of the illustrators have combined the more cartoony indie-look with a certain amount of psychological depth, one or two have delivered nothing more than a superficial parody. As I have said though, this is an anthology and whilst I might not love all the pages, there is still more than enough great work here to keep me delighted and eager to read the next comic in the series. All told, it's pretty fab.
























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