Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Big Week for British Comics Part 2 - The Beano

The words "Beano revamp" filled me with fear when I heard that this week's issue would involve a relaunch of the comic along with the new web-page.  This is the last remaining, traditional kids humour comic from the UK.  There are other children's magazines with comic strips, some of them very good, but nothing where the strips are the main course and not fillers between advertising and photo features.  But Nigel Parkinson has been saying for a while that there is nothing to fear so I guessed we'd be all right.

Dennis, Minnie and Roger Team-Up
The first revamped issue came out today and my fears have all been set aside.  In terms of the strips it's almost business as usual.  The main difference seems to lie in the logo and the intention to have one longer story at the start of each issue.

The last few weeks have seen a continued story featuring "Walter the Softie" and his Dad trying to take over Beanotown.  In this issue Dennis, Minnie, and Roger team up to save their home and our comic from the forces of dullness.

In an eight page story by writer Nigel Auchterlounie and artist Nigel Parkinson, that is a sort of Crisis on D C Thompson earth, the three team-up to save us all from boredom and defeat Walter and his Dad.  Its a good, funny story with little bit of parody of other comics just for us oldsters.  If this is the shape of things to come then the comic looks to be in good hands.

Belfast's own Leslie Stannage on Calamity James
Otherwise its very much business as usual.  Belfast's own Leslie Stannage contines to give us Calamity James and Hunt Emerson's strip, where he makes readers the heroes of their own stories, is still on the back page.   The Bash Street kids are still there, the Numbskulls, Gnasher and Bananman all feature.  This is still the comic we know, the logo probably stands out a little better on the shelves but otherwise this is very much business as usual.  Beano is probably still the main gateway drug for kids to get into comics and I can't help thinking that the idea of eight page stories featuring Team-Ups of the best known characters is one that may keep slightly older readers involved for longer. 

Nigel Parkinson's Blog - interesting words on the creation of the logo and cover from the artist on Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx.

Beano is pretty good at rotating strips and that means that some great characters and artists can disappear from the comic for a while.  Lew Stringer's run on Pup Parade has come to an end and is therefore  missing from the relaunch issue.  But Lew's work can still be found in Doctor Who Magazine and Toxic and you can keep up to date on what he is doing on his Lew Stringer Comics Blog.  In addition he has just self-published a collection of a couple of his very early strips.  Derek the Troll, comes from the gaming magazines Warlock and White Dwarf and was published between 1986 and 1987.  This is paired with Space Hero,  Rock Solid from the anthology comic Swiftsure published by Martin Lock's British publishing house Harrier in 1985.  Coming to an end a month before Derek the Troll was published.

Harrier was a part of the black and white boom of the eighties and a lot of titles were published, many of them with badly sub-standard artwork.  Most of the material was Fantasy or Science Fiction and Lew's SciFi  humour strip did stand out as among the most professional looking strips in the line, apart from some of Eddie Campbell's work.  Sadly it only lasted until issue 5 and the character disappeared until this revival.

Lew Stringer Aliens, what could be better?
All of the familiar characteristics of Lew's art are there in both strips.  The attention to detail and the combination of an understanding of his audience and a freedom in his slapstick sensibilities.  Derek the Troll was for gamers and uses the foibles of the gaming world as a target for some very gentle poking.  This is a great collection and a worthy follow-up to the excellent "Brickman Returns".   It's £3.50 a shot, plus £2.00 P&P and can be found at Lew's on-line shop here.  If you are quick you might be able to get hold of a copy of the original Brickman book as I think Lew has a very few copies left.  All well worth reading.

A good week for British comics, the anniversary issue of 2000AD was great and Beano survived a revamp unscathed.  Coming soon a look at the other bastions of the British comic industry, "Commando" and the relative newcomer "The Phoenix".  

Monday, 26 September 2016

Big Week for British Comics

2000 issues for any comic is quite a milestone, even more so in today's market.  Buts its a milestone that has even more resonance when the comic in question is 2000AD.

Issue 2000 will be in the shops on Wednesday, but subscribers copies and pre-orders have already been delivered.  There are two newsagents covers, one by Chris Burnham featuring a recreation of the classic McMahon cover from prog 168 and a Tharg wraparound by Cliff Robertson with a wonderful Glen Fabry version available through comic shops.

Bolland on Dredd, just great.
This is no ordinary issue of 2000 AD, its one for the longtime fans.  A celebration of some of the characters, writers and artists from the past who made 2000 AD the Galaxy's greatest comic.  Single pages from Bolland and McMahon along with Carlos Ezquerra on a Dredd story that features a great guest star, are among the stand-out features, but it was the Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill reunion on Nemesis the Warlock that was the highlight of the issue for me.

I could just as easily be mentioning David Roach's art on the Judge Anderson tale or the reappearace of  Rogue Trooper but I'm not intending this as a full review and don't want to include any spoilers.  Suffice to say this was a real treat for a long-time reader.  So often special issues like this are disappointments, but I think the guys got this just about right.  The right memories are reignited and the stories are all more satisfying than the usual annual or sci-fi special one-offs and none seem forced or overly contrived.

But in case you might think that this whole issue is nothing more than wallowing in the past, the powers that be at 2000AD have also included the first episode of a brand new story by Peter Milligan and Rufus Dayglo, "Counterfeit Girl".  An excellent decision showing that 2000AD is not relying on its illustrious past or aiming at the nostalgia market.   I'd not been reading the title for quite some time. picking it back up a few months ago when I found myself with more reading time.  I'm now catching up with the past few years and really enjoying what is now a properly grown-up comic, that has some seriously good stories but manages to retain the same sense of anarchy and fun that it has (nearly) always had. 

2000AD still has some way to go to catch the Beano.  This Wednesday sees a revamp of the 78 year old classic comic with the publication of issue 3854.  I've no details of what the changes might be except that there is a new logo and the definite article appears to be missing from the comics' title.   A new web-page, which aims to be a safe page for kids to use the net was launched this weekend and the intention appears to drive the Beano brand into the 21st Century.  What this means for the weekly comic remains to be seen, but with creators like Nigel Parkinson, Lew Stringer, Laura Howell and Hunt Emerson all working for the title in recent months its been in a good place for quite a while.   I do hope that the revamp does not mean a move towards the magazine format of so many other kids comics with the subsequent loss of comic-strip material.  Our artists are too good at this stuff for us to lose any more of the comics industry.

If you want more info on the contents of 2000AD prog 2000, I'd suggest you read Colin Noble's full, yet spoiler free review, in Downthetubes.  Or even better (sorry Colin) just go out on Wednesday and get a copy.

Worth mentioning that this Friday sees the regular monthly meeting of Belfast Sector House 13 at the Parlour Bar in Belfast.  With prog 2000 just out this one could be a bit special.   Check out the group at their Facebook page and I can tell you all that my own experience is that they are very welcoming to newbies.  I certainly intend to be there.

The new Beano web-page, with videos, jokes and a few comic strips can be found here.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Best Comic Covers Filler Post Number 1

From the very last issue of Plug's own comic

I've been really busy, and have not posted anything for a while.  I'm discovering that researching for the longer posts takes far, far too much time because I find myself 'researching' about 10 issues at a time when only one is required.  So just to keep the Blog active here is a superb cover to the final issue of Bash Street Kid, Plug's own title.  Plug lasted 75 issues, was printed on good quality paper and was more expensive than the other D C Thompson titles of the time.  Some of the contents were not really up to scratch, but this final cover was a bit special. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Experimental Comics and Cosmic Weirdness - More Kickstarter campaigns.

As promised a look at some interesting recent activity on Kickstarter.  This really does seem to be the place to find new and exciting talent in the comics field.  I'm limiting myself to UK and Irish creators this time round but all of these projects are worth your support.

First up we have the third issue of Stuart McCune's superb Monologue series.   Stuart is one of the creators I've been championing most in Splank!  He writes smart, engaging stories of real depth, and produces elegant and beautiful art that shows a deep understanding of design and colour.

Monologue in particular is an experiment in storytelling, the narrative is not simple and the mystery at the heart of the comic is one that the reader and the female protagonist are staggering towards together.  But this is an experiment that succeeds, that draws the reader in, and keeps them there.  Too often experimental comics are heavy on technique, light on substance.  Monologue is strong on both counts  

All of Stuart's comics are a must for me and this final episode in the Monologue series is no exception.  (Stuart has a few paper copies of the first two issues available and if it suits you better he can also supply e-comic versions of all issues).

My previous reviews of Stuart's work can be found here and here and the Kickstarter for issue 3 of Monologue here.  I cannot recommend these excellent comics too highly.

Atmospheric artwork from Ness issue 2.
I was less enthusiastic than I might have been for the first issue of Ness, and in retrospect I think I was a little hard on writer Chris Welsh.  Now that the second issue is being offered through Kickstarter I hope to be able to put that right.

My only real criticism on reading the first issue was that the comic was too short, that not enough happened.  But perhaps that is the nature of serials and if Chris moves the story on in this issue then I think all previous complaints will be forgotten.  Dublin artist Rob Carey's art in the first issue was excellent, perhaps a little too dark in places, but atmospheric and effective and he captured and told Chris' story perfectly.  And to be fair there is plenty of story to be to be working with here. 

Ness is an "Del Toro/Lovecraft" inspired , giant monster comic set, unsurprisingly, on the shores of Loch Ness.   It has all the elements to be a classic horror story; a group of young. unsuspecting city folk, weird locals, a spooky ritual and a giant, many tentacled sea, or in this case Loch-monster.

My review of the first issue is here, but note that I now think I was a little harsh, and the Kickstarter can be found here.

Shaky Kane print, an extra on the Alex Automatic Kickstarter
Alex Automatic comes from writer Fraser Campbell with art by James Corcoran.  The story came when the two creators were discussing their love of Thunderbirds and Joe 90 and old ITC adventure shows like The Prisoner and the Avengers.   Alex Automatic tries to combine the innocent excitement of those shows with the sinister story of a broken, dangerous government agent who is convinced that he is a robot super-spy battling the evil PRYSM.

Contrasting the fun of sixties sci-fi adventures with the grim and gritty realism of comics like Miracleman and Casanova this promises to something worth a look. 

From the available samples, James Corcoran's art is bold and chunky, with something of a Kirby edge.  Its interesting to see that Shaky Kane has produced a print to go with the Kickstarter campaign as his influence can certainly be seen in the artwork for this comic.  Take a peak at the Kickstarter page here and you can find a link to order Fraser's previous comic, Sleeping Dogs, from Cabal Comics here.  I've not had a chance to read it myself, but it is on order and I'll review it in Splank! once it arrives.


And speaking of Shaky Kane, next on the Kickstarter list is "Last Driver" a 60 page collaboration between the psychedelic punk artist and writer C. S Baker for Dead Canary Comics.  Its the tale of Frank Sudden having a good time at the end of the world with giant mutant monsters, motoring and general mayhem.

The visuals are unsurprisingly, stunning, coming from an artist whose psychedelic punk artwork with Jack Kirby influences, has appeared in the pages of  2000AD, the Megazine, Revolver and Escape and a few years back in the superb Bulletproof Coffin series from Image.  This look like fun with a capital 'F' and you can get a preview of how Shaky and C.S Baker work together in the free online strip Campaign 2079 here.

I've followed Kane's work for years, not always understanding what the hell was going on, but in recent years his style has warped a little, losing the obvious Kirby influence and a little of the visual anarchy.  I'd argue that this has allowed more of the true weirdness of his visuals to shine through and that the Bulletproof Coffin series was among his best work and should have made him a star in the comics world.  Its interesting to see him working for a British small-press publisher and shows even more clearly that there is much to be admired in the self-publishing comic industry in the UK.  

Anything with giant insects, dinosaurs and guns is OK by me, check out the Kickstarter page here for more details.

Last but not least is another Splank! regular and one of the few who can rival Shaky Kane at the psychedelic weirdness.  Andrew Pawley is back with the fourth and final issue of GalaXafreaks Dark Vibes.  I'm running out of ways of describing this comic.  Its got the wildness of sixties acid trip art, combined with a cosmic, quantum story-line.  There is artwork that will thrill, if it doesn't burn out your retinas first, and a script that sounds like professor Brian Cox has been caught imbibing some bizarre mushrooms from the garden. 

This time round the evil Fuzz-Muff has absorbed the Higgs Boson baby that contains the GalaXfreaks universe and corrupted and deformed reality.  To find out if Meeko and the GalaXafreaks can defeat Fuzz-Muff and bring harmony to the polyverse you need to buy this issue.

If you want to understand what the hell I've just said you probably need to buy all four issues.  Lucky for you Andrew still has all of them available through this campaign.  I'm a fan, have been since the first issue I saw.  Still not sure if I've understood any of it and don't really care.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Splank! - Back from Holiday Catch-up

Just back from a few days by the sea in St Ives, the only place I ever been to which can rival Northern Ireland for the number of bakeries per square mile.

I was interested to see that Cornish Pasties, which are for sale in each one of those bakeries, have achieved Protected Geographical Status under EU law, meaning that only pasties made in Cornwall are deemed worthy of the name.   Have to say though, I'm not totally sure just how traditional a Thai Green Curry Cornish Pastie is?

My holiday reading was almost all comics based and included 'The Mighty One', by former 2000 AD editor Steve MacManus.  The book, available as a limited edition pocket-sized hardback or as a standard paperback, is an account of his career to date with a special emphasis on his time as editor of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic.  While most of the attention has been on his account of his 2000AD years I was fascinated by the early part of his time with Fleetway.  Steve worked on Valiant and was a major part of the introduction of Battle, which was one of the first step towards the rebellious and vaguely anti-authority tone that eventually allowed 2000AD to come from what had become a staid and old-fashioned British comics scene.  Steve is direct and honest throughout and his writing is skilled and concise.  He manages to be very direct and makes his feeling clear about some of the writers and artists he worked with in just a few sentences.  His commentary adds a new dimension to many strips and now that I'm home again it has sent me looking at old issues of Valiant, Battle and 2000 AD in a slightly different light and will, I think, lead to a few posts on Splank!  Not as lavish as the official history of 2000AD in Thrill-Power Overload this is a better read and almost certainly closer to the truth.

Amazon link to the paperback edition of The Mighty One.

While I was away the mighty Paul Trimble officially announced the dates for the Enniskillen Comic Fest in 2017 along with details of some of the guests.   There is, once again, a real emphasis on 2000 AD with John Wagner, Carlos Esquerra and Alan Grant being among the first guests announced along with the excellent Colin MacNeil.

The Fest was one of  comics highlights of the past year for the (very small) Splank! team.  A really friendly atmosphere that was reminiscent of fan gatherings of old.  It was also a con where the emphasis was on comics, and British comics at that, not so much on TV and movies.  What's more, Paul and his team made this a festival for the general public, not just for the die-hard comic fans.   Visits of writers and artists to local schools and art contests for local children made this an event that spread the word about the joys of comics rather than excluding newcomers. 

I know that there are some more great guests to announce and can't help but think that this would be an excellent excuse for some British creators to take a wee trip to Northern Ireland, perhaps visit the Titanic Centre, visit some of the countryside from Game of Thrones and try out some of the really excellent Irish Whiskey that is now available, I can help with that.

Maybe take a table at the con as well?

The weather will be great, I can almost guarantee it, after all it never rains in Enniskillen in May, never. (Looks towards the heavens with trepidation  as he waits for lightning bolt).


Finally I have to mention the launch of Andy Luke's book "Axel America and the U.S. Election Race" which I reviewed just before I went off.  Andy has been working hard promoting this book so take a look at his blog with its pictures of the launch event or watch his YouTube video here which sets the scene for the novel.  The book is a distillation of some of the more frightening aspects of  American politics into an acerbic and funny novel that is all the more disconcerting because so much of it rings true.  Channeling the style of the underground movement of the sixties into the politics of the present day, this is strong stuff that is as likely to offend as it is to entertain, and all the better for that.

Now available on Amazon, please take a look and see what you think yourself.

Over the next couple of days I'll be catching up on some Kickstarter Projects that I think you might find interesting and starting work on a couple of longer 2000 AD based posts. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Axel America and the U.S. Election Race

I've not covered novels in Splank! before, and I don't really intend to make a habit of it but when a Belfast creator of adapts one of his titles into prose form I'm going to pay attention.

Andy Luke is a writer and  "maker of comics", he has contributed to the superb, double Eisner nominated anthology, "To End All Wars'" and produced a series of titles of his own including 'Gran', 'Absence' and 'Bottomley'.  His prose has appeared in a number of anthologies including Tense Situations from Orb Books and Horrified Press' book "12" a collection of Doctor Who fan fiction with a story set in West Belfast.  He hosted and co-produced "Invisible Artist" for Belfast community TV station NV TV, a documentary on self-published comics and their creators in Belfast.

Andy thinks about comics, and how they can be used to communicate and educate and its easy to see that he has poured a huge amount of that thought and effort into his latest venture.

"Axel America and the U.S. Election Race is his first novel, an adaptation, or perhaps more accurately, an amplification of his collection of short comics "Hold the Phone its Alex Jones".  Its not easy to describe, at first glance it appears to be a vicious parody of the American political scene, viewed through the eyes of some of the extreme conspiracy freaks that seem to be becoming more and more mainstream at the moment.   Alex runs his own TV station, bringing his truth to the American people.   The novel is the story of Alex and his family as Presidential Candidate Morgan Rump and Faux News attempts to make use them for their own purposes.

The book is funny and the prose frenetic capturing the fury of a group of people who have lost all trust in the political and business class and the mainstream media which supports them.  At first glance the sheer volume of different fears and conspiracies that Axel and his family believe in seems outrageous, but a quick visit to a few alternative media web-sites is enough to see that Andy is not creating, but condensing, the madness of some of the conspiracy theorists into one place.   

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think of the Underground press of the sixties.  Andy's prose, whether he is aware of it or now, has similarities to that of writers for OZ or International Times in the mid sixties, carrying the same energy, directness and belief.  

A good read and one to make you think.  Andy is launching the book in Belfast on Monday 5th September in the Black Box at 7:00pm.  As I write that is tomorrow, so I'd better get this on-line as soon as I can. 

You can buy an e-book version of the book on Amazon right now via the links below and if you want to find out more about Andy and his work check out his web-page

Friday, 2 September 2016

Tharg Future Shocks Steve Ditko

Ditko's men in hats.
Before there was Spider-Man or Doctor Strange, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko specialised in a very special sort of science fiction strip for the pre-Marvel Atlas line.  The Ditko stories were smarter and to me at least, more interesting than the Kirby monster tales that seemed to always be the cover feature.

Stan Lee, initially at least, seems to have seen Ditko's work as filler to pad out books led by Kirby stories and as a result often let Ditko do whatever he wanted, from one of Lee's famous one line story descriptions - obviously.  Once Steve had completed the strip, Stan would add his trademark dialogue and another strange masterpiece would be born. 

Ditko's ideas tended towards odd little morality plays, which would often stress the 'reds under the bed' paranoia of the time and feature hidden aliens living among us.  But his stories had twists, often pointing out the arrogance of the time, challenging the prevailing view that science and technology would provide answers to everything, that mankind was in control of the world.  Arrogance was a huge crime in a Ditko story and it was one that would normally be punished and punished severely.
Typical Ditko Morality Play from Amazing Adult Fantasy 7

These stories stood out from everything else in those old Marvel monster books, not only were they a little off-beat, even slightly anti-establishment, but Ditko's art was distinctive and quirky.  He was the artist who drew men wearing hats long after hats had more or less disappeared, his characters always waved their hands about expressively and he was a master of faces lined with emotion, age or alien skin.  
Expressive hands and faces from Ditko

Eventually, in 1961, Ditko was given a title all his own "Amazing Adult Fantasy".  Taking over the numbering from Amazing Adventures with number 7, it lasted all of eight issues.  The final issue dropping the word 'Adult' from the title and featuring the very first appearance of Spider-Man, and that was just about it for these very special little five page stories.  From then on Ditko was drawing Spider-Man or Dr Strange or even, for a while, the Hulk.

I was too young to remember the original comics, even if they had been imported into the UK and if I'd been old enough I wouldn't have bought them anyway.   I was too fond of Superheroes as a kid and would not have bothered with them.  But I did buy the British reprint comics from publisher Alan Class. 

Alan Class comics Creepy Worlds

The Alan Class books were strange black and white reprint comics with name like Creepy Worlds, Sinister Tales or Out of this World.  They mixed stories from almost every US publisher (other than DC) in a smaller, squatter, almost square package printed on soft pulpy paper that often felt a little damp.  There was no attempt at to continue features from issue to issue, each edition of each title appeared to be randomly put together.

You could find Flash Gordon or the Phantom as the cover star of one issue of Creepy Worlds and the rest of the book made up of ACG mystery strips.   The next issue might have the Tower Comics "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" mixed with Charlton science fiction strips or the adventures of The Fly from Archie Comics.  But most importantly for me, up until about 1968 there would often be adventures of Marvel Superheroes.

There was usually just one Spider-Man or Avengers story, the rest of the 68 pages being made up of pre-marvel atlas tales.   I remember reading a lot of Kirby and Don Heck stories, but the Steve Ditko shorts were the ones which really stuck in my mind. 

It was only years later, when Marvel produced a lavish, oversized reprint edition of Amazing Adult Fantasy, that I realised that most of the stories that had stuck with me came from that title.   But opening that book every page was like an old friend.

I guess the same was true for somebody who worked on the "Galaxy's Greatest Comic".

Splash page from 2000AD 627
2000AD Prog 627, cover-dated 20th May 1989 was a pretty special issue.  Not only did Zenith meet Acid-House Archie, one of the greats of British comics, but there were two self-contained "Tharg's Future-Shocks".  The second, appearing under the title "Unlikely Tales Presents - He Met the Moonman" was an obvious pastiche of the old Lee - Ditko stories.

In terms of the artwork "Steve" Marshall, who signed the page as "P Diptoe", got it just right.  There were men in hats, aliens and those weird expressive Ditko hands all over the place.  There was an arrogant space emperor, Bing Ban Boom, and a short, bald, foreign guy (probably a communist) who got his comeuppance at the hands of the good-guy at the end of the story.  In terms of how the story looked it was a really good and quite funny parody.  He even had a badly designed superhero take on an army of Ditko style monsters, although the battle did take between pages.

On the other hand the script badly missed the mark.  It had all the right elements, but none of the inventiveness of a Ditko tale.  Indeed, it seemed to have missed the point of a Ditko tribute and used the very cliches that Steve himself avoided.  And I'm not sure that it would have worked for the core readership of the comic at the time.  Without those readers being aware, very aware, of the Atlas comics that were being parodied, this story must have seemed like a very strange inclusion in a comic featuring Slaine and Zenith and a very good one-off Judge Dredd story.  Its a little ironic that as some of the very best of the Future Shock's seemed to have borrowed from the best of the Ditko stories, when a Ditko parody appeared it wasn't quite up to standard.

Ditko-style Bald foreigner and space emperor await their fate.

 Sadly I think that the Amazing Adult Fantasy oversized reprint book is currently out of print.   Amazon appear to have some for sale at about £40 from time to time.  But there are two excellent series of hardbacks reprinting some of Steve's work still in print.   The Fantagraphics "Steve Ditko Archives" reprint some early and very atmospheric Ditko stories from his days at Charlton and Yoe Books, under Craig Yoe has produced two volumes of Ditko Monster Books featuring his work on Gorgo and Konga for IDW. 

As I was finishing off this post I got an e-mail, letting me know that another new Ditko comic was on the way.  Part of his '32' series and featuring his own ideas on morality and philosophy it will be accompanied by another comic reprinting stories from "Out of this World".  Available through Kickstarter you can find the page to make a pledge here.