Book Club Lockdown / May

Best thing I’ve read recently is a collected edition of Alex De Campi’s first published comic Smoke and its sequel Ashes

Smoke is a tight three-chapter secret agent thriller set in a near-future London, wearing its Luther Arkwright and 2000AD influences on its sleeve. It’s almost too compact – wrapping up very quickly and with the Illuminati-like organisation behind events only glanced at. It’s a little rough around the edges (Americanisms keep slipping into the dialogue of what one assumes are supposed to be Londoners), but De Campi does have a great knack for scripting a riveting action scene.

Ashes was written seven years later and its sensibilities are very different. In the introduction, Kieron Gillen highlights the influence of manga – not so much in the art style but its (not always coherent) shifts in tone and setting. The effect is underlined by the rotating cast of artists within as well as between chapters, whose different interpretations of the characters highlight these changes in perspective, where the villain of the first book is revealed to be a victim in the second. It’s still compulsively readable, with more great action set-pieces. And if the ending comes a little out of nowhere its nonetheless an interesting meta swerve into the characters’ status as ideas, as well as the legacy any person can hope for in the world – which to leave lasting ideas behind them when they die.

The book might be a bit difficult to find, but it’s well worth your time if you come across it.

JOEL Barbican Comic Forum 00000000 / Kraken Brain Teeth

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Will Simpson, Steve Dillon and a few others whose names I forget 

I’ve been on a bit of a Garth Ennis binge recently. First of I did his Punisher MAX run which manages to hit a whole bunch of my sweet spots all at once but left me craving for more. So what the hell I thought – might as well order his whole Hellblazer run off the internet and have that for desert (the actual books thank you very much – none of that digital comics crap for me thanks). 

Hellblazer books (and the Garth Ennis ones in particular) are part of that special class of graphic novels that you tend to find in every single library (well – every single library I’ve been to anyway). Which means that even tho I’ve read all of them multiple times at many various points of my life I don’t think I’d ever actually been able to read them in proper order. So the whole thing kinda existed like a jigsaw puzzle inside my head where I kinda knew what all the pieces were but didn’t really know what the picture on the box / finished thing looked like.

I really wish I could say that rereading them all properly one after the other was a revelatory experience – that it was as good as Punisher MAX or whatever but I’ve got to admit that it did leave me slightly underwhelmed. But then – that’s to be expected right? I mean – this comics are pretty ancient at that point right? I mean flipping nora they started off in 1991 which is basically a foreign country at this point right? I mean John Major was Prime Minister. Plus you know – a lot of the magic of this stuff when it was first around was the fact that (OMG) these were comics that weren’t about superheroes (!!?!?!) which at the time was so remarkable that everyone who talked about it had to remark upon it. Thankfully nowadays our horizons are a bit more expanded (well – for some people at least lol). 

Also (to continue the magic metaphor) it’s a shame but seeing how I’m coming to these books from the exact opposite side of fresh I already know all of their tricks front and back. The very first (best) book Dangerous Habits is a good example – I mean: it’s an amazing work of evil genius but it’s also one of those stories that works best when you don’t know what happens. The first time you read it it’s jaw dropping and then ever time after that it just can’t be as good (oh well). Would 100% recommend it if you haven’t already tho – it’s proper chef kissing fingers stuff. (Think I may have actually said “oh wow” out loud the first time I read it). 

Another good obvious highlight is Damnation’s Flame which is basically “John Constantine goes to America” although it turns out that America is also Hell. Like I know it’s quality story but it’s also one of the few comic books that I actually used to own when I was a kid so every single line and frame has already been burned into my brain through almost endless repetition but if you’ve never read it before the whole thing is quite a trip – America reflected through all sorts of hideous metaphors taken to the nth degree which all seem so obvious but (as far as I know) are all freshly minted by Ennis himself (which you must admit is quite a feat).  

Also politically all the Hellblazer is all very right on (in a good way lol) in a way that you just don’t really see anymore. You know – don’t trust people in power. Accept people for who they are. Try and do right by your mates. And there’s even a female character who’s like fully fleshed out with her own interior life and concerns and everything – who doesn’t stop existing as soon as the main character leaves her (although I’ve gotta admit that there is a small sense of disappointment that comes from picking up a comic that you think is going to be about cool magic stuff and instead just takes you through an average day in Belfast with a bunch of ordinary people – although I guess the moral there is that no one is ordinary really etc). 

(Has anyone ever done the Garth Ennis = Secret Feminist thing? I mean: there’s lots there if you want it…)

I’ve always thought about setting Hellblazer as an actual LGNN Book Club Book Club although I’ll admit that I’m kinda stumped as to which one book would be best as the starting point. Dangerous Habits maybe? Although the thing with John Constantine is that one hit never really feels like enough and there’s never really been one book that stands out as the proper seminal Hellblazer tale. Maybe it’s just that he’s too tricksy for that? As soon as you think you’ve got him pinned down – he’s off and away and doing something else. Or you know – maybe this is just the problem with seralised comic books that never really end? LOL

I mean – there’s a lot of writers out there who are a lot more fancy and get a lot more love but the more Ennis I read the more taken I am with him. Like: I think Preacher and The Boys and all of those other adolescent books that he seemingly never gets enough full of gross-out humour and extra-violent gruesomeness (see more recently: Jimmy’s Bastards) have had the unfortunate effect of making him seem much less serious. His rep make it seem like he’s like the Blink 182 of comic book writers you know? Someone who’s mostly writing stuff for teenagers. Plus the fact that he never really puts on a serious face to write something Important or whatever like he’s Alan Moore or whatever not to mention all of the hundreds of war comics he does (the dude likes war it must be said) and how everything else he writes fits firmly into the category of good old fashioned Pulp (which I’m guessing he would take as a compliment and to sure – I’m definitely not saying it as a pejorative) and yeah ok he has his obsessions and stock figures and characters (mostly Good Old Manly Bloke Doing What He Knows Is Right versus Various Forms of Tossers and Toe Rags) but everything he writes is so def and sure and solidly constructed that I can’t help but doff my hat and be like: well shit – the guy knows what he’s doing. And even tho he’s not that fancy he always writes stuff which is engaging and interesting and as sharp and as hot as a cigarette burn in the middle of your eyeball. 

By Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield

I like Warren Ellis. He feels like he sits on the fault line between lots of my favourite writers. He’s like Alan Moore with a few extra doses of steam punk. Garth Ennis if he was more into sci-fi. John Smith but slightly less weird. Grant Morrison if he was less full of himself LOL (don’t actually know if I’d say that Grant Morrison is one of my favourite writers – but whatever). A Warren Ellis book always has this slightly… earthy texture to it (rubs fingers together). His books always feel like something you’d find in a squat – and I think I mean that in a good way. He’s not counter-cultural because it’s a pose but because that’s just who he is deep down. I just checked his wikipedia page because I was convinced it was going to say that he was born in Glastonbury because it seems like he’s one of those types of people – the type of dude that Michael Caine played in Children of Men. Unfortunately it says he’s born in Essex although it does say that “Before starting his career as a writer, he ran a bookstore, ran a pub, worked in bankruptcy, worked in a record shop, and lifted compost bags for a living” which I think is absolutely perfect (I told you he had an earthy texture to him! LOL).

If I was going to recommend a perfect book for the slow motion apocalypse we’re all living through right now I think it’d be FreakAngels. It’s set in a London that’s partially underwater where something very bad happened 6 years ago but no one is in a hurry to say what. Also it’s set in Whitechapel which is basically where I live so that’s cool too and adds to the slightly dreamlike atmosphere of reading it – like kinda remembering a dream or something. It’s almost touching on something real – but not quite… 

There was a thing when A.I. by Steven Spielberg came out in 2001 about how there was a scene set in a flooded New York that kinda read like it was an inadvertent tribute to 9/11 (I do believe someone said something cheesy about how it was like the city had drowned in tears or something) and I feel the same kinda way about FreakAngels – the water thing feels like a good unintentional metaphor for life now. It’s not safe out in the streets. Everything is too deep. Better to stay inside. Although maybe it’s worth mentioning that one character has a sky bike that would definitely come in handy right about now…

I’ve often been tempted to set it as a book club book because I think it’s something that most people like and well – it is set in London after all. It’s also kinda interesting in that it’s one of Warren Ellis’ longest series (6 volumes all in all) but it doesn’t feel like a major work. The whole thing is kinda relaxed and chill and takes it’s own sweet time getting to the point (the first 2 volumes don’t even end with any type of cliffhanger) which paradoxically makes it feel like that should get more attention. It’s an ambitious comic that’s not afraid to be small if that makes sense?

Also unlike lots of other Warren Ellis comics it doesn’t feel that male you know? Like: the one book he’s most known for is Transmetropolitan which is obviously very shouty and has the main character swinging around very phallic chair legs a lot and so. FreakAngels by contrast feels way less penisy LOL. The type of thing both boys and girls could enjoy. Maybe related – there’s something about the whole thing that makes it feel like it would be a really good Manga. Maybe it’s the sky-bike, or the telepathy or the fact that most of it is just people standing around talking amongst lush scenery – but it’s a very different feeling to most other typical western comics. Almost like the creators just swiped the idea from a Japanese thing somewhere and then set it in London (apparently there’s an animated series that’s coming out soon which actually does just turn it into a manga so you know – lol). 

There’s a very large cast of characters but hey credit where it’s due – both writer and artist do a pretty good job of keeping them distinct. Although – ha (is this just me?) most of them feel like the type of people you’d find in a squat (that earthy smell thing again). And as they’re all early 20-somethings I’m guessing some older people might find them a little bit annoying… And I’m not quite sure if I agreed with it’s philosophy of retributive justice but maybe I’m in the minority when it comes to that? Like it’s very interesting how the book kinda swings from a whole Lex Luthor at the end of All Star Superman vision of things (“Like it’s all just us in here together and we’re all we’ve got”) which is my basic moral stance to something which is a bit more – punitive let’s say. But then I guess that’s stories for you. Can’t just have peace and harmony and forgiveness all the time – people will get bored. 

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