Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blank Slate, Blazing a Trail

I started out to write this by grabbing a couple of books from the bookshelf: The Piers Plowman Tradition, ed' Helen Barr, Theory and Cultural Value, Steven Conner, British Writers of the Thirties, Valentine Cunningham, and Modern Literary Theory, eds Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh. I was going to include ideas about the notion of dangerous literature, the way "graphic novels" are viewed as cultural artifacts rather than works of art, publishing cliques, and the literary Canon, and literature as an ideological form, and how all these ideas relate to graphic novels today. Then I looked at my collection of Blank Slate books, and thought about the scans of the artwork from inside those books, and I realised that if I started going on and on and on about all that "stuff", we just wouldn't have the opportunity to enjoy the books themselves. Which really defeats the entire exercise, doesn't it?

So let us start with what matters; the books themselves; the covers, the work on the page, the drawings, the paintings, and the words. And the differencse between the individual books. The difference between the works Blank Slate is producing is very important. The eclectic mix of their books puts me in mind of, and it might just be because the stark black and white cover of Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales puts me in mind of the logo, Stiff Records, during the birth of Punk. Although, having said that, I don't think it's just a superficial resemblance, to me Blank Slate is part of a Punk movement; they are, arguably, the Sex Pistols or the Clash of British publishing.

My main fear for graphic novels in the UK was, as I made clear in this blog-post in 2007, that the creative talent here in the UK would have to continue to go abroad, or self-publish, or create comics rather than books, because the gatekeepers of literature in Britain have no idea what this new artform, the "graphic novel" is. Oh, they are perfectly happy to reprint successful graphic novels like Persepolis, or Ghost World, but they are not really prepared to encourage new talent over here. And that, as I recall from my time as a DJ, is a situation analogous to the music scene in Britain in the late 1970s when the major music labels and the BBC music shows and chart compilers (there were 2 number 1s and the BBC didn't play punk) just didn't "get it".

And what is it they just "don't get"? Well, it is, apparently, the often symbiotic nature of words and pictures in a graphic novel, and the possibility of the continuing movement of narrative and description through, sometimes, the illustrations alone.

Which brings us neatly to the work of Oliver East. I have to admit that to someone used to just reviewing or reading words on a page, looking at Oliver's books might be something of a culture shock. His pages sometimes look like Medieval English tapestries, the panel borders hinted at with trees or fences or roof tiles or dialogue or leaking into one another. It is often a landscape one second civilised and the next primitive, as his story continues its movement of narrative and description through the words, word and picture combinations, and even through illustrations alone.

Like most works of art, East's stories can be enjoyed on a number of levels, but if you are willing to make the effort, they can be very rewarding indeed. I like to speed-read on my first run at a book, and what struck me when I first flashed through East's work was, as I have mentioned, the tapestry-like look of the work, it's autumnal colours often merging town and country into one landscape. It also reminded me of allotments, of cities and towns, viewed from the windows of a train flashing through the countryside - occasional blinding me as the sunlight made me look away. This is, I think, where a book like East's Proper Go Well High, for instance, works so well, there is such momentum in the visual narrative, that the train journey is almost a stream of consciousness, playfully distorting the pace of the written words, slow then fast, then trailing off. I think I've read this book about six times and counting.

I've mentioned the "differences" in Blank Slate's range of books; of course there is a range of titles with traditional mainstream publishers, but that range is more genre than anything else - typed words are typed words, after all. But traditional large mainstream publishers do generally publish a wide range of illustrated or picture books, and that is often not the case with independent publishers who publish graphic novels. Some independent graphic novel publishers insist that all their titles look like they've been drawn by Frank Frazetta, or by some superhero comic artist, so whilst they may publish a range of titles, they publish a range of titles that all look alike. I can think of a number of independent publishers who would not have published Darryl Cunningham's Psychiatric Tales simply because of the way it looks (like me he draws very flat) and I'm betting there are more than a few who would have been too timid to publish it because of its content. But it is proving to be a solid ambassador for Blank Slate because it is a little gem of a book.

I like Darryl Cunningham's drawings. As you can see from my terrible lo-res scans they are legible even at this tiny blogger-friendly size - that's not easy to accomplish - and it is something that will become increasingly important as this book is ported to other mediums. The drawings, black and white line with solid black used as a colour, are tremendously effective and I don't know if it was a conscious decision (rather than a financial one) to use this format to illustrate the often black and white issues around mental illness; but it was undoubtedly the right one.

This is a thoughtful and tender work, sometimes at odds with its less than tender subjects. I love the page above, one panel of which is being used for the cover of the US edition of the book, it pulls back from its subject making him small and human as it does so.

I think that is what is at the core of this book; is its humanity. It's a study, and not simply a superficial one, of a difficult subject, handled with care and despite the fact that black and white artwork can often be brutal, with tenderness. Psychiatric Tales will, I think, one day, be seen to be as important a graphic novel as Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies.

In addition to publishing new work, Blank Slate are introducing some established overseas cartoonists to Britain. The story of Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician, by German cartoonist Mawill, is incredibly silly, but great fun. Mawill makes no excuses for a world where the central character is an electrician who happens to be a Hare, and nobody seems to notice, except to crack the odd joke about his funny looks and his lack of height. There aren't enough little quality pocket books like Sparky O'Hare around; it's a marvelous little book.

I remember, a few years ago, that Patricia Storms asked the question "why are graphic novels so bleak, obsessed with autobiography, and so lacking in humour?". When we tried to put our heads together and come up with an answer, the best we could do was suggest this was maybe an attempt to establish the artform as "serious"; especially in the eyes of those who regarded graphic novels as picture books. It was, and remains, a very good question. It must look to outsiders as if cartoonists really are a bunch of whiny bitches; too insecure to lighten up and have some fun. Although it is worth bearing in mind that the cartoonists are not publishing the work, they are simply producing what the publishers are willing to publish. It would seem to be the publishers themselves who are insecure about the work.

I think printing Sparky O'Hare shows that Blank Slate have no such insecurities; they love comics and it shows. There is no better example of that than Nigel Auchterlounie's Spleenal comic. This collection, in a book for "over 18s" is a joyous little foul-mouthed smut-fest that delivers a thick compendium of the sort of comics one used to find in the old skin-mags. It's uproarious fun. It's not Nigel's "Ulysses", but it's a great read and its full of marvelous drawings. There just isn't enough of this stuff being printed.

I'm delighted beyond mere words that Blank Slate has reprinted Belgian cartoonist Randall C's Sleepyheads in its original format. It's a gorgeous production, and a marvelous book. The comics, stand-alone and also linked by themes of dreaming and the sea, and by a story that comes and goes like the tide itself, manages to combine both the playful qualities that Blank Slate are not afraid to embrace, and a deeper level of meaning. Each chapter, or vignette, like "The East", printed below, is like a little masterclass in cartooning. The position of the text, the shape of the word balloon tails, and the body language of the actors, controlling the languid pace of the story:

I could go on filling this page with scans, but I'd urge you buy this book and see it for yourself. There is, for instance, a page in chapter two of Sleepyheads, The Sea, where the protagonists are discussing that song of clouds that for me boarders on the sublime. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

European Comics and the British Renaissance

I don't think it's an exaggeration to describe the publication of some recent comic books, or graphic novels on this side of the pond, as at least a sign of the possible beginnings of a British Renaissance; with publishers Blank Slate Books and Self Made Hero blazing the trail. With the release of Ian Culbard's adaptation of doyen of horror H. P. Lovecraft's story At the Mountains of Madness, Selfmadehero has added another title to its library of graphic adaptations, and to Culbard's personal triumphs, which include a complete set of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels, and Wilde's Dorian Gray. With Culbard's distinctive style, which looks like a cross between ligne claire and Batman anime, Selfmadehero are producing work that, I believe, would sit comfortably alongside some of the best Bande Dessinee.

Another adaptation that will soon swell the Selfmadehero ranks, and will surely fatten the section allotted to them on our personal bookshelves, is be Rob Davis's adaptation of Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes.

You'll know from my previous blog-posts on adaptations here, that I have some pretty strong views on graphic-adaptations, and I'm very pleased to say that Rob really is my kind of illustrator. That is to say, one who is really interested in, and is familiar with, the text he is interpreting - to say nothing of his endless agonising over line and colour. Indeed, his Dinlos and Skilldos blog and his Twitter feed are a testament to the amount of work he is putting into the delivery of the novel. That attention to the text, and constant theorising about the craft, is also a facet of Ian Culbard's work, and he spoke about it here, on Selfmadehero's site.

Over at Blank Slate Books, the emphasis is on new original material, and their stable of creators includes European cartoonists Mawil and Randall C. At the moment, many of Blank Slate's titles are more Marcinelle school than Ligne Claire, but that is probably down to happenstance rather than design. Like Selfmadehero, as their catalogue grows, they will no doubt publish a mixture of styles. A statement of their artistic intent, and vision, I think, was their decision to publish Randall C's Sleepyheads in the same oversize edition that was printed in Holland.

What I hope for from Blank Slate (who by the way make Fantagraphically-beautiful books), and Selmadehero, is that they will one day be custodians of a catalogue of work as varied as that of Cinebook in France. The French company has grown to the extent that it now publishes somewhere in the region of 40 different titles. In mainland Europe, and in France in particular, there is an enormous range of Bande Dessinee, in a huge variety of styles and genres.

This often comes as a surprise not just to those who were previously only aware of Tintin and Asterix, but even to those more knowledgeable souls aware of Blake and Mortimer, Adele Blanc-Sec, Largo Winch, and Black Sad. Whilst it is true that Bande Desinee are not as all-pervasive in French culture as manga is in Japanese culture, you won't find Bande Dessinee about fishing, for instance, comic books are regarded with great affection as the 9th Art and the sheer amount of titles is still a real eye-opener.

One of the great strengths of the comic book market in France, is that from spy thrillers to vampire tales, and from zombie stories to historical dramas, there is a bande dessinee title for almost every reader. In this respect the French market is almost as varied as that of Japan, and it is in this area that we in the west, in Britain in particular, are sadly lacking either the vision, the scope, or just the imagination, to create fiction that doesn't have some autobiographical basis. While the Franco/Belgian market has the Bourne Identity-inspired XIII, created by Belgium's Jean Van Hamme and William Vance for Spirou before earning its own BD. And while Japan has Takao Saito's Golgo13, serialised in Shogakukan's Big Comic Magazine before making the move to its own massively popular manga title, we in the Britain have only the memory of old Modesty Blaise strips (which French BD readers love).

Of course unlike France and Japan we have no studio system in Britain, and we have no anthology publications like Spirou and Big Comic to attract a readership and create a demand for the single titles. That will make a difference, but unfamiliarity with the weekly serials does not necessarily deter the avid comicbook fan. Titles like The Chimpanzee Complex will appeal to fans of comic books and science fiction, even if those readers have never read the stories in serialised form.

Another reason for publishing modern contemporary fiction in a graphic format is that when a genre, like horror, and like vampires and zombies in particular, becomes popular enough to attract major funding from movie and TV studios, a Britain creator, studio, and publisher, will actually have a product that makes money. Worthy as some of our autobiographical tales are, they are unlikely to attract the sort of audiences The Walking Dead or 30 Days of Night bring in. No doubt though, part of the problem for British creators is where exactly do they try to place a graphic novel, let alone a series of graphic novels, about vampires. Currently, the only answer, it seems, is "in the US".

I have always believed that large mainstream publishers in the UK would avoid graphic novels like the plague, because of the way the businesses are run. They will probably be happy too reprint success stories from other shores, but they won't break the habits of a lifetime and invest in new product. With luck, the new independent companies that are bravely stepping in to fill the void will publish some daring new fiction alongside the re-imaginings, adaptations, and autobiographical works - making the new British scene more like the French, with no "mainstream comic book/indie comic book distinctions. And with luck they will be rewarded with some monster hits and monster pay-days.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Words and Pictures


I'm a little behind again. It irks me because I have two projects I want to begin. Meanwhile, I want to finish Johnny Morte. Well, as much as I can, definitely #1.

I just finished the art for a short story. I sort of crammed it into 11 pages - could maybe have used 15, but it has a lot of talking heads and I was getting itchy feet; or fingers. These things always take longer than you expect. My advice would be, if you are doing all the artwork on your own, to allow one day per page.

The writer, Anthony Abelaye, didn't intend it as a graphic story, so it's big on atmosphere and short on action; but don't be fooled, it still took some drawing. Writers and illustrators take note, the shortest story, or poem, can take some drawing as the ideas are uncondensed - a sentence like, "he looked across the vast expanse of the alpine landscape" takes only a couple of words but a lot of drawing. Actually, the computer-related simile that came to mind was that stories are like Zip files, made smaller, and tighter, for delivery to the reader's brain - where of course the reader supplies the pictures. An illustrated version is like that story unzipped, expanded, and laid-out for all to see. Of course you need to edit sensibly, imagine drawing a passage of running Orcs from Lord of the Rings, you could potentially fill an entire book with just Orcs pounding around the Shire.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Turf Wows

Turf (Image Comics) by Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards, was always going to be well drawn. Tommy Lee Edwards is the western equivalent of the very best mangaka - he draws like an angel. Whether or not it would be well-written was open to question, despite Jonathan Ross's love of comics and his extensive comic book collection, Wossy was very much an unknown quantity in that respect.

So if you haven't picked up Turf yet, and a lot of you have as each issue sells out pretty quickly, let me put your mind at ease; Turf is as much fun to read as it is to look at; and that's saying something. Note to self: do not, do not, ever, look at Tommy Lee Edwards artwork while you are drawing a project yourself you will only become as depressed as Salieri looking at a handwritten Mozart score.

Make no mistake, Ross has written something pretty special here, at times verbose, occasionally clich├ęd (seemingly, but that's part of the joke), it is a story that teases and tantalises and even dares the reader to spot the joke, or to consider the juxtapositions too, too, coincidental.

Set in Prohibition - era New York complete with bent coppers and the Holland Floral Company -this tale centres on virtuous, intrepid female reporter, Miss Susie Randall, Society Reporter for the Gotham Herald and her sidekick, photographer, Dale.

Told in dialogue, in illustrations, in the yellow-coloured exegesis of the omniscient narrator, and in the thoughts of the protagonist, sometimes all at once, Turf makes some other comic books out there look like they are grid-locked in the slow-lane with the "special" kid taking the wheel for the first time.

Right from the start it is clear that the narrator knows more than he or she is telling, or the drawings are subverting the narration and exposing what the narrator is not saying (both of which are pretty fucking sophisticated possibilities for a comic book). The story of the "disappearing" Hancock family, who "sell" their stately home to the leaders of the Dragonmir Clan, and who we can clearly see being buried in shallow graves, sets the tone for the playfully macabre narration.

While all this is going on, Tommy Lee Edwards is drawing up a storm. The vintage cars and clothes and architecture are a delight, of course, but what astonishes me is how he captures the noise of the period, the industry, without resorting to in-your-face sound effects. There is one panel where a beer, or Canadian blood, shipment is being unloaded, and you can just sense the noise. And then there's the flying, that is noiseless, it is a gentle raising in the manner of Peter Pan and his Lost Boys - these are masterly effects that appear effortless, though doubtless are not..

I absolutely love the page where The thoughts of Susie Randall take over the narration, a point only made clear by the position of her in the centre of the page - and only crystallised upon turning the page as this wandering thought joins the think balloon above her head. This is a perfect example of the writer and the illustrator working very closely.

Throughout, there are little authorial conceits that tease and please, when Susie Randall chastises Dale with "you might as well be drinking blood" we can see Stefan surveying the scene with a drink (more than likely blood) in his hand. And the words "...outer space" actually cut to a "meanwhile in outer space" scenario where a spaceship is about to collide into this vampir/gangster epic as the bootlegging Squeed, fresh from stealing from the more civilised Mantii, crash into the story.

Make no mistake; this writer will take your feet from under you, if he needs to. The clever titles all appear to have layers of meaning, Turf #2; Aliens with Dirty Faces, is clearly a play on the title of the gangster epic Angels with Dirty Faces, and perhaps also a play on the theory in some circles that the biblical Angels might have been aliens.

This tale of the sibling rivalry at the head of the Dragonmir Clan, as one brother vies to wrest control of the City from the mob, is a glorious blood fest. It is a tale of the tearing off of heads, with "...who the fuck are you gangsters" juxtaposed with "...the heck are they reporters". This is sassy writing; it is a His Girl Friday for the modern era. I mean, come on, the gangster Eddie Falco helps the aliens who help him by blasting the vampirs, and meanwhile, "The Old One" mentioned in the vampir prophecy is awakened and is clawing his gnarly way out of the ground, and we hope, against hope, that the truly vile beast O'Leary gets wacked -- that's bang for your buck, mate.

It is slightly unbelievable, I admit, that in this tale of vampires and aliens that nobody is a simple cipher, that they are all characters made with fleshed-out words and pictures, but it is true. And if you want to see some masterly drawing to match the masterly script, look no further than The cutthroat razor scene - that is a page full of tension, for the reader, who can see more than the central characters as the scene unfolds- how the hell did Tommy Lee Edwards do that?

Turf #3 Badfellas will be out later this month, and I can't wait to see just what the hell is going to happen next.
Turf, copyright, 2010, Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards.