Well… what a year it’s been huh? (and that’s putting it lightly)
But hey don’t worry – here’s just the thing to sooth your ravaged mind:
The official London Graphic Novel Network Book Club / 2020 in Review.
(Sounds of wild cheering and applause).
I know right?
For those of you who haven’t played before: Here are the rules:
1. Yep. You can talk about any comic you like
It doesn’t need to have come out this year. You can talk about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four or Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi. Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even have to be something that you liked. If there was a book that you really hated then you can talk about that. Or maybe you felt massively lukewarm about it. The only real requirement is that it’s something that you’ve read in this past year and there’s something you want to say about it. (Also if you want – you’re very welcome to lobby for any particular comic that you feel like we should do in the future).
2. Name the comic in bold at the start of what you write
That way if someone is in the middle of reading it / or they want to read it and they don’t wanna get spoiled then they can just skip over it with no harm done. (Also if you can find some images from the comic and include them – then that would be cool too).
3. Please don’t just recount the plot / instead: tell us what you think
Instead of just writing a synopsis (yawn snooze) try this – Talk about what you liked (or didn’t like) about the comic. But grabbed you / what left you cold. What it did well / what it could have done better. How it made you feel. What kind of things it made you think about. All that good stuff.
4. If someone else has already mentioned a comic then don’t worry – that’s ok
This isn’t a first come / first served thing. If someone else has mentioned a comic then it’s not off the table – you can still write about it all you want. Ideally we don’t just want lots of solipsistic thoughts floating separately from each other so yeah – if someone mentions a book and you have a differing view please feel free to share (just you know obviously – try your best to play nice).
5. If you want to talk about a comic that the LGNN Book Club has already done then that’s cool too
I’ve often been told that three weeks is never long enough. So if we talked about a book this year (or any other past year) and you felt like there was stuff you wanted to say about it that you didn’t get a chance to say (or maybe you didn’t manage to read it in time or whatever). Maybe you only just realised how amazing Locke & Key actually is or there was something you didn’t get around to saying about Sin City? Well – now’s the time to say it… Please feel free to go crazy.
If you’re still a little unsure how it works please check out these fine examples from the past few years:
So. I think that’s it. Hopefully should be fun and interesting and a cool time for everyone (or at least that’s the idea anyway).
The rest is up to you.
East of West
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Nick Dragotta
I started with such high hopes. Reading the first volumes back when they first came out it was like discovering a new type of food. Like finding a comic that felt like it was actually 21st Century rather than just reheated leftovers from the 20th Century or (shudder) like you were reading a pitch for a TV show. There’s some people I know who were turned off by the fact that nothing really made sense – that it throws you straight into the deep end into a world that doesn’t really look or sound like anything you’ve ever encountered before. Although wait that’s not true. All the elements are familiar – and the clue is in the title: it’s a science-fiction western. Crazy futuristic technology melded over a story about good guys and bad guys shooting guns at each other. The East meets the West with a mythical throughline that seemingly sits in the halfway point between both. Some people wanted explanations. Was Death and his siblings some kind of science experiment gone awry? Was this a parallel world or a possible future? What had happened to America? I thought all those kinds of questions weren’t important. For me the thrill was in not knowing and just grabbing tight to the reins as the story barrelled onwards and constantly forward – getting faster and faster with each gallop. A particular highlight was Babylon and Balloon – one of the best metaphors for Ideology I think I’ve ever seen (Zizek would be a fan) and crazy images that seemed like they’d been stolen from a dream. The prison underneath the lake with a million steps. I thought me and Hickmen were twinned – it doesn’t need to make sense: it just needs to be cool.
And then it all came slowly apart. Each new volume was step below the one that came before. Each new part diluting everything that had come before. Like pouring water into a bottle of whisky. All the many geniuses with their masterplans turning into idiots, all the big cool speeches turning into repetitive mush and a host of cliches devouring everything like a plague of locusts and then – the final insult – the whole thing topped with a sentiment about love that I’m guessing Hallmark would have rejected for being too saccharine. When it started I was recommending it to anyone who got too close to me but now if anyone mentions it I think I’m probably just going to feign ignorance. “East of West? Ah – I think I knew a series of that name long ago. But it’s dead to me now.”
It could have been a legend. Instead it’s just… dust.
by Tom Hart (writer & illustrator)
This is a graphic memoir about grief – the author’s daughter died when she was very young. I’ve been in a similar but not identical place, a little while ago. This really rang true for me as a depiction of what that grief feels like, showing something of the darkness while maintaining a lightness of touch and a matter of factness. It doesn’t flinch from a heavy subject matter, nor does it wallow.
Tom Hart teaches comics at the Sequential Art Workshop (SAW). It shows – this book demonstrates a real mastery of the comic form, for example in the way he switches the art style to match the mood. Not in the extreme way you’d see with Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean’s work, though (no disrespect to their pyrotechnics, which I love). Throughout, the book is rendered in a somewhat inky pen+pantone style (reminiscent of Eddie Campbell’s Alec strips more than anything I’ve seen), but it moves between a cartoony and a more muted realist style, and sometimes a bit towards abstraction, as the story demands. See the shift in these five panels above, for example, the cartoony hand of panel 3 and the more real one of panel 4. And that inky darkness in panel 5, which sums up that deadened state of grief really very concisely, in few lines – the dark messy inks, the worn lines on their faces, the tired beginning of a snarl on his lips.
Deep, dark and beautiful.
Akira Book 1
By Katsuhiro Otomo
My Dad woke me up. I think I must have been around 11 years old. He told me that Akira was on TV. I didn’t know what it was. had never heard of it before. I’m pretty sure it was BBC2 because I don’t remember any adverts and BBC2 was the place that showed all of the strange / cool movies back then in a time before Netflix. Before Sky even. I don’t know if he’d planned to wake me up or if it was just a spur of the moment thing but it was all kinda unworldly / kinda unreal – like maybe I was still asleep. And then the movie started.
I remember the noises. That soundtrack that sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. That repeated sound like a giant having a slow motion asthma attack. OH-HA! EE-AH! EE! AH! And the impossibly cool bikes going so fast that they moved faster than the light that they left trailing behind. The epic skyscrapers stuck in one place as everything else moved around them. Giant fucked up Teddy Bears. A nuclear explosion that looked like a black hole. The violence (the whack of a metal pole straight to the face). And bodies slowly coming apart and exploding in a way that makes David Cronenberg look like a snot-nosed little kid with a total and complete lack of ambition. One guy repeatedly shouting out: “KANEDA!” and another guy repeating shouting out “TETSUO!” Oh and of course it’s all in Japanese (dubbing can fuck off obviously) just to heighten that feeling of unreality. And the story keeps growing and growing until everything in the whole universe is exploding. And so partly just kinda thinks like – is this just the best dream I’ve ever had?
If I had to sum Akira then I’d say it’s just a bunch of really cool stuff all mixed together. Bike gangs. Kids with psychokinetic powers. Lasers shot from Satellites. Drugs. Towering architecture. Secret conspiracies. Big explosions. etc. And you know – isn’t that how stories are supposed to work?
For various reasons I’ve never actually read the books all the way through but I thought fuck it – I mean: they’re supposed to be good right? Although I couldn’t help but feel like it was also definitely going to be the case where the film was going to be better than the book… I mean: Akira is all about the colours and the sounds and noise and the speed and everything rushing towards you. Trying to get that same feeling from a book just didn’t seem possible.
Just going from reading the first book this seems pretty accurate. Like – it’s not that it’s bad. I mean holy shit it’s 359 pages long (!!!) and it felt like I read the whole thing in about 30 minutes. Eyes bouncing from panel to panel like it’s on a trampoline and everything getting straight to the point like it’s there’s no time to waste. Even tho there’s so many bits and pages and details where you’re like – holy shit – that must have taken a week to draw. And how is he coming up with all of this stuff? Like it looks like it was drawn from real life but it’s like futuristic sewers and high-tec helicopters and stuff. Like sure I guess he could just make stuff up – but it doesn’t quite seem possible. Everything just has this air of reality to it even if it is all set in 2030AD. (And omg he was drawing this in 1982?? That doesn’t actually seem possible. Like the version of the future they had back then was nowhere near this cool).
Reading it retroactively from the perspective from the film it’s interesting seeing how they streamlined all the plot points. Everything kinda feels messy and slightly unfocused. Like you’re reading a first draft (which in a sense you are). All the elements are present and correct but they’re not as hitting as hard as you know they could. Plus (and maybe this is just the translation / or just reading it straight instead of via subtitles?) but everything is a bit too bouncy? Like in my head this is basically a religious text at this point but the way the book comes across it all feels like it’s a bit too close to being – slapstick? At one point Tetsuo says “Busted!” which – I don’t know – doesn’t feel right? Like the book isn’t taking things seriously enough. But maybe that’s just me?
At the end of the book it says that the whole Akira saga is 2000 pages plus which is frankly – insane. But I’m looking forward to seeing how far it manages to push things. And how over the top it manages to go. For me the movie is the perfect example of a type of storytelling that just keeps escalating and expanding to ever more extraordinary sizes (see also: Moore, Alan) and I’m curious to see if the books follow the same trajectory. Because well – those are the stories that really hit that sweet spot all the way down in the lizard part of my brain.
Also you know – cool bikes and stuff.
The Complete Alan More Future Shocks
Written by Alan Moore
Art by various
I’ve never ever really wanted to write comics and yet I own a copy of Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. I got it because he’s hands down the best comic book writer there’s even been and the prospect of peeking into his mind to understand his thoughts and ideas about how to construct a comic book story seemed like a cool way to pass some time. In this assessment I was proved correct.
I once had a job working in a mental health hospital library (true story) that basically required me to sit around all day doing nothing in front of a computer. Way back then there was a website called something like “Alan Moore Interviews” (sadly I don’t think it exists anymore) that collected every single interview that Alan Moore had ever given (there was also one that did the same for Philip K Dick interviews which lasted me a whole other glorious week or two – and yeah I’ll admit that my whole brain is probably in the place that exists between those two dudes lol). In case you didn’t know this – as well as making good comics Alan Moore also does good interviews and so letting his words infect your brain is something I would definitely recommend. It’s like watering a plant or something (your head being the plant and his ideas being the water).
One of the most interesting parts of Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics is the advice he gives for how to write a story (here we go brace yourself):
We may as well get the more intangible and abstract element out of the way first before processing to the finer and more precise aspects of the craft. A good starting point would perhaps be the aspect that lies at the very heart of any creative process: the idea.
The idea is what the story is about; not the plot of the story, or the unfolding of events within that story, but what the story is essentially about. As an example from my own work (not because it’s a particularly good example but because I can speak with more authority about it than I can about the work of other people) I would cite issue #40 of Swamp Thing, “The Curse.” This story was about the difficulties endured by women in masculine societies, using the common taboo of menstruation as the central motif. This was not the plot of the story – the plot concerned a young married woman moving into a new home built upon the site of an old Indian lodge and finding herself possessed by the dominating spirit that still resided there, turning her into a form of werewolf. I hope the distinction here is clear between idea and plot, because it’s an important one and one ignored by too many writers. Most comic book stories have plots in which the sole concern is the struggle between two or more antagonists. The resolution of the struggle, usually involving some deus ex machina display of a superpower, is the resolution of the plot as well. Beyond the most vague and pointless banality like “Good will always triumph over evil” there is no real central idea in the majority of comics, other than the idea of conflict as interesting in itself.
[…] The nature of the idea isn’t really important, what is important is simply that there is an idea in there somewhere. It can be silly and frivolous, perhaps just a single gag idea, or it can be complex and profound. The only thing that the idea should definitely be is interesting on some level or another – whether as a brief entertainment designed to hold the attention for five minutes or a lengthier and more thoughtful work intended to engage the mind long after the comic has been put down.
Now like I said – Alan Moore’s ideas have infected my head from all the way back when and I imagine this includes the idea that all stories need to be based around an idea. I mean – maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. (A fun little exercise for you to play at home – is it possible to think of a story that’s not based upon an idea?) But I think it’s definitely true that the stories I end up enjoying and returning to the most are the ones that have the most ideas packed in. You know – I like stories that make me think about stuff and get all philosophical about things or whatever. Like – that’s probably obvious at this point right? LOL
But here’s the thing that’s funny – a few weeks ago I thought I’d treat myself to a book called The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks (a book that exists with about four or five different covers probably because I guess it’s a pretty solid seller – Alan Moore being a writer of some renown at this point). What is it – for those of you who don’t know – is a collection of short stories that Alan Moore wrote for 2000AD when he was just getting his start as a writer all the way back in the early 80s. Each story (or “Future Shock” or “Time Twister”) is about 3 or 5 pages long and completely self-contained. It’s basically like reading a comic book of sci-fi short stories where basically every story is a direct hit – each one a little atom bombs exploding in your frontal lobe. I mean I could list each one that would definitely spoil all the fun and it’s a book that I think I would pretty much recommend to anyone. The experience of reading it is basically like eating a whole box of Quality Streets all at once. I mean like it’s obviously not a full meal or anything. But it will give you quite a sugar rush.
The super obvious thing that stuck me reading it was one of “oh my god of course – this totally explains Alan Moore’s whole outlook when it comes to storytelling.” (Please forgive me if you’ve already worked this out). But basically the way that each of these short sci-fi stories work is that they’re based around a crazy sci-fi idea – what if you told the story of someone’s life lived backwards? What if people lived on The Sun? What if you never knew that you changed the past because you kept changing too? etc etc etc. And by the time you get to the end of each story it’s pretty obvious what the idea was. You unwrap the sweet and taste the chocolate. Yum. And it’s very easy to imagine the young Alan Moore (with beard) looking out of his window and coming up with his crazy far-out ideas and then building his stories around them – because well – that’s how these short little sci-fi stories work: it’s all about the idea. And everything else is irrelevant.
What I’m not sure that Alan Moore quite realises is that this method of storytelling has infected everything he’s done since. To the point that well – like he says: every story has to start with an idea. Which is definitely one way to approach storytelling but maybe not the only way. Although speaking as someone who – as I’ve said – was basically weaned on his books: I can’t help myself but think that actually: the idea approach is the best way to construct a story and anything that doesn’t that is – well – disappointing or half-complete (“What was the point of that?” being my common refrain).
But well – maybe that’s just what happens when you spend your childhood reading too much science-fiction? And well yeah – if that wasn’t what you were brought up on then – well: you have my commiserations.
(It must be said: The best thing about this of course is that there’s actually a story in the book about a bunch of people in a spaceship who encounter an alien idea that slowly infects them all which I couldn’t help but read as a perfect metaphor for exactly the process I’m describing here – the idea being that there’s a best way to write and understand a story – although also I couldn’t help but LOL at the fact that brief snippet of this crazy alien idea that you hear in the story “If all time is simultaneous and all events happen in a single instant, then time is but a figment of mind and…” is exactly like something you’d hear Alan Moore espouse himself in one of his later works…).
Akira Book 2
By Katsuhiro Otomo
If Book 1 was defined by an overwhelming franticness where everything seemed to all be happening at once all on top of each other as if there were 100 hours of notes to get through but only 1 hour to teach the class Book 2 is where Otomo really finds his groove and sense of pace (and then some).
Like this sounds kinda crazy and unbelievable but technically speaking you could say that the whole 301 pages is only made up out of two scenes (!?). The first half (pages 1 – 143) is basically all set inside the big cool spooky building where they keep the magical children in their giant nursery and Kanada and Kei prisoner. There’s lots of running around and fun with laser guns and that vague kinda slapstick feeling at points. Then the second half (page 144 – 301) is pretty much set at the secret underground base where they keep… (say it right!) Akira! The flying police buckets make another appearance and basically every character so far all shows up to wreck various kinds of havoc and – check this – Tetsuo gets on the big cool industry life (that I very much remember from the film) and it takes him from page 164 to page 205 to get from the top all the way to the bottom which I think must make it the longest life ride in the history of everything ever.
But it never gets boring. In fact the one thing it reminded me of as I read it was the original Terminator movie where it basically starts on the move and never lets up as all the boring stuff like exposition is handled as things go along. I mean it’s actually kind of magical how Otomo manages to keep you informed as everything spills out and goes crazy and everything keeps exploding. There’s a lot of writers now in all sorts of mediums who struggle to tell a story even when they have their characters sitting around and doing nothing – and this is like doing all the basic stuff about characters and motivations and explanations while moonwalking on the top of a moving train – and he makes it look completely effortless.
Also something I’ve never noticed before but bears mentioning – there’s no real bad guy in Akira. I mean yeah ok sure Tetsuo is a bit of a bad egg / messed up kid and I wouldn’t trust The Colonel to look after my pets but everyone is behaving in ways that make sense. And not because they want to commit somekind of terrible evil (insert bad guy laughter here) but basically they’re all doing what they think is right and justified. There’s no one doing evil things just for the hell of it like in – well – pretty much every single piece of western media ever. In fact there’s not even two opposing sides in Akira – there’s like a various mixture of everything: Kaneda and his bike gang friends, Kei and Rye and the underground rebellion or whatever, The Colonel and the Army, that old Scientist guy dude, Tetsuo (who’s a law unto himself), the rat-faced Nezu dude, Lady Miyako, the creepy guy Kaneda and Kei pick up in the big cool spooky building, the magic kids and of course Akira himself – they’re all conflicting in different ways and are all fighting for their own interests and well yeah: I think that’s kinda cool. Everything doesn’t have to be good versus evil you know? Sometimes it can just be a bunch of humans all fighting it out because they all want different things. And well you know – that kinda feels more healthy in a sense…
Also erm – as a movie watcher I’ve gotta say reading Book 2 is strange because erm by the end it’s basically into the final act of the movie. I mean you’ve got the cool laser satellite and everything which is making me go erm – what are the next four books going to be about? It’s like reading the manga adaptation of Titanic and you’ve already got to the bit where it’s hit the iceberg you know? Like oh shit – where do we go from here? Four whole books of Tetsuo slowly expanding and turning into the epic jelly monster?
I guess we’ll see…
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Jim Baikie
“What if E.T. but in Birmingham?” is the glorious one-sentence pitch behind Skizz and it doesn’t even try and hide it. For those of who were lucky enough to have grown up as 2000AD readers you’ll know that this kind of cheap and straight-to-the-point idea is basically the motivating force behind most of the stories they run (“What if Mad Max but he’s a cop?” “What if a superhero but he’s Morrisery?” “What if the Magnificent Seven but they’re robots?” etc).
If you’re expecting wild and crazy fireworks then you’ll be disappointed. Yes this is basically the first ever long-form Alan Moore story but that doesn’t mean that he’s shooting for the stars. Instead it’s a story that’s mostly defined by how very solid and dependable it is. He’s not really making art here instead he’s showing that he’s a safe pair of hands and can do all the things that he needs to do. Reading it as a kid my attention was mostly drawn to Skizz and Roxy but reading it now the character that jumped out the page was Cornelius and his repeated refrain of “I’ve got my pride.” The story of Alan Moore goes that he packed up his job working as some sort of handyman (I think maybe it was an electrician or something like that?) and decided to go full-time being a comic book writer which – back in the early 80s – seemed like an absurdly crazy thing to do. Especially in light of the fact that him and his partner had just had a kid. But you know – he wanted to live a life that he could be proud of.
Having previously made the point that his Future Shock stories were all powered by ideas it’s funny reading Skizz and coming away with the feeling that there’s no real big idea holding Skizz together. It’s just an adventure with lots of stuff happening – dare I even use the word “romp”? Jim Baikie’s very Englishy looking drawings makes the whole thing feel like the type of thing you’d watch on ITV on a Sunday afternoon wrapped up in your duvet. But I guess the animating emotional idea (which I’ll admit actually made me feel a little tearful at points) is the way that Roxy cares for Skizz and risks everything to make sure that he’s safe and ok. I mean I’m tempted to say it’s about recognising common humanity – but obviously it’s bigger than that word can encompass. Maybe it’s more just universal empathy? Or solidarity.
That’s how you make comics today.
By Simon Hanselmann
In the year that I felt my brain cells and my wallet melting into oblivion, with the attention spam shorter than a hummingbird’s, I found myself in a constant state of dullness.
Don’t get me wrong, many good things happened this year, but since I moved back to Brazil i lost one of my greatest pleasures in life: going to the library. I’d just visit my local library, get a bunch of comics and read, no strings attached, no hassle, easy-peasy. This comes from the fact that I’m not really a comic book collector, I’m a reader. After moving to different homes and countries, you start to think about collecting comics in terms of space and weight, and it this case, the least, the better.
Not mentioning how harder I became to publish and even show the comics I make- but I’m not getting into that. Because of that I had to spend an immense amount of time on Instagram, which I honestly detest. However, through this platform I came across Simon Hanselmann’s page and, oh boy. It’s so good.
A few years ago I read half of Megahex, and despite liking it a lot, I didn’t really connect with the ‘pot culture’ aspect of it. I mean, the guys smoke dope, and well, it’s a specific kind of joke. I wish I had more experience in this field, but I don’t.
With Crisis Zone we have a completely different thing: it’s one of the most corrosive and fierce things I’ve read in a long time. The guy* is merciless. Every panel is packed with information, and most characters are truly disgusting people. You love all of them, but they are so displeasing, rude and clueless that sometimes it’s hard to read.
Simon Hanselmann dismantle the so-called American culture to pieces, he criticizes pretty much everything: cancel culture, black lives matter, liberal capitalism, activism, pop culture, Netflix, media, video games, pornography, health system, you name it, nothing remains unscathed. It’s a six barreled machine gun mincing everything. In these comics you witness the fall and decay of America (and it expands to most of the so called ‘western culture’), with sometimes brutal detail.
And it’s funny as hell. His sense of humor is sharp, and it reminds me a lot Charles Bukowsky, that I used to read when I was (blimey) 17. Bukowsky was the first writer I read to kindly inform the reader that a character farted – It doesn’t add anything to the story, but in the context it shows a lot about the person. Hanselmann is quite similar in this aspect. His characters are often dirty, with sweat stains under their armpits, the kids a gross, the walls are filthy, and so on. People a rude to each other, and they argue and fight, and I was sometimes truly shocked by some sequences.
Hanselmann post one page a day, with ten panels each. He said that he actually draws 12 panels per page, but he cuts 2 before posting. So you have some gaps in the story. It works extremely well: you can read them quickly, but because it’s only one page I sometime read the same thing 2 or 3 times. And I usually think about that single page the whole day.
This means he must keep the beat going, and the jokes are truly hilarious. Imagine doing a page a day and almost every panel have something funny, and each page has 1-2 punchlines. It’s not easy at all. His artwork seems to be simple, but sometimes he fits a lot of characters in a really tiny space. The artwork serves its purpose, it may not be ‘super polished’, but that’s not the point. It’s raw.
It’s been one of the best reads this year, and maybe one of my favorite comics ever. I don’t recall the feeling of reading a comic about things happening now, and this is immensely satisfying. Because it’s yet to be printed and edited, you sometimes even have misspelled words (which Hanselmann gets really embarrassed with), and as a plus he sometimes posts stuff in the Stories that complement the read, showing his process, etc.
And when it gets printed, with the extra 2 panels per page, do you think I’ll spend my hard-earned sweat and tears cash on it??? MOS DEF.
* I obviously know that Simon Hanselmann is a cross dresser, however, as far as I’m aware, he didn’t change his name to Simone. So, yeah, I’m using HE.
Akira Book 3
By Katsuhiro Otomo
Book 3 feels like Otomo taking his foot off the gas.
If Books 1 and 2 were defined by their constant sense of escalation and everything building and building to higher more epic levels Book 3 is (mostly) in some senses a retreat. Everyone kinda disperses to separate locations and does what they can to marshall their forces until they’re all brought together by the end of the book for the big showdown.
As an Akira movie fan – this is where things start to come apart from the movie version of the story. There’s the appearance of the Caretaker Robots who feel very manga-y and there’s the introduction of Chiyoko who’s kinda like the no-nonsense landlady / mother-in-law type who seems to surface a lot in the Asian media I’ve seen (don’t know if I’m wide of the mark on that one tho – I’m guessing my sample size is probably pretty small). These new elements changed the feel of the story so far for me. Up until this point reading Akira was a little like reading a remix of the film: everything that I knew from before was there – only slightly mixed around and with a few different twists and emphasises. But now it feels like it’s becoming a different song altogether (or maybe it’s like a guest rap or something? LOL).
Of course the biggest deviation from my point of view is – oh wow – Akira is actually alive. I mean yeah ok you see him walk around a bit at the end of Book 2 but I guess I kinda assumed that it was his ghost or something? I mean obviously the big twist in the movie is (erm spoilers at this point) after all the big build-up it turns out that Akira basically got dissected to death which is a cool shocking moment when you see it screen but I now realise must have played as an even more / better wtf moment if you’d read the book first. It’s like if you made a Batman movie where everyone was trying to track down Batman and then you get to the end and find out – oh – Batman’s been dead the whole time (or something).
Actually – that sounds pretty cool.
Oh yeah and then there’s the ending where it feels like everything has kinda got a bit small and things are almost resolved and tidied up and the book seems to be fading away (The Colonel even says: “This is the finale!”) and there’s this sense that everything feels a little bit anticlimactic and then HOLY SHIT (“AKIRA HAS AWAKENED”) and then suddenly…
…everything goes proper widescreen massive – almost like you’re listening to a folk song where it’s just someone whispering stuff over an acoustic guitar and then … BAM! An orchestra kicks in with the sound of a thousand guitars and a million drums and some gnarly heavy electronic power drill sounds and everything explodes.
And – well – Otomo puts his foot as hard on the gas as he possibly can.
And well yeah – it’s all the way magnificent.
Even after reading comics pretty much my whole life I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything that has managed to feel so epic and apocalyptic before. The scale of it just feels above and larger and beyond than anything else.
Not sure if it’s going to be able to top this to be honest.
Unbelievable Gwenpool, #0 to #25
Written by Christopher Hastings
Art by Gurihiru (usually)
Gwenpool started as a one-off cover art mashup of Gwen Stacy’s look with Deadpool’s gear. What was effectively a throwaway idea became a runaway hit when cosplayers latched onto the character. Marvel must’ve seen money in this and gave the character her own series.
The series setup is this: Gwen Poole is a young comics fan who finds herself inhabiting the same world as the characters she loves. She therefore knows their secret identities, powers, weaknesses, and hideouts. She wants to be a hero, but takes a reckless approach to the job by treating everyone around her like ‘background characters’, and ends up falling in with a crew of undercard mercenaries for hire.
As with many things, it’s best read without knowing much about it — if it’s of interest, stop reading this and go read the comic.
With that out of the way, here’s what’s great about Unbelievable Gwenpool.
It’s almost the perfect length and pace.
‘Reckless teenage wannabe hero’ could get old pretty quickly, but Hastings lays the groundwork for Gwen to become a more thoughtful person early on, when her actions result in a friend’s death. It’s a compelling enough thread to follow and the story and character development proceeds at a good pace; there isn’t really a dud among these issues.
I say almost perfectbecause there’s an important arc midway through that delves into Gwen’s origins and home life a bit more and kicks off the final third of the series — but that final third really could’ve used an extra issue to explore the implications of her background a bit more and draw the series to a less frantic close.
(But if the choice is between ‘just a hair too short’ and ‘ongoing series with inevitable drop in quality and/or coherence’, I will always choose the former.)
The creative team makes you care.
Diehard fans aside, Gwenpool doesn’t exactly have the name recognition of other Marvel characters. At best, most people familiar with Marvel will surmise the character has something to do with Gwen Stacy and/or Deadpool. (Which isn’t wrong, just misleading.)
I suppose the easiest way to go about writing Gwenpool would be to roll with the familiarity of the characters her aesthetic is drawn from. Give her Gwen’s confidence, Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking, a dose of snark from each, et voilà.
But Christopher Hastings took the challenging route, and created a character with her own personality, powers, motivations, flaws, and fears. Hence ‘not wrong, but misleading’: Gwenpool may have started as a mashup, but Unbelievable firmly establishes her as a fully-formed persona whose similarities to Gwen Stacy and Deadpool end up feeling more coincidental than genetic.
Not only that, the ‘background characters’ are included in a way that asks the reader to give them a little more respect and consideration than they might usually — as though Gwen has to learn this lesson, but it can’t hurt for readers to as well. For example, one issue opens with a cute elderly couple we haven’t met before talking about what to have for lunch. It’s a banal thing, but their brief interaction goes a long way to making you feel a sense of dread when that couple is later facing down the barrel of an enormous gun. There’s even a scene at the start of the series where you are compelled to wonder about a one-line mook who gets pushed into a furnace.
Gwen’s foes-for-hire colleagues get their own treatment. Characters like Batroc the Leaper who in any other book would be relegated to a walk-on role as ‘villain of the week’ to meet a swift and probably embarrassing end (if that) are given meatier roles. I tend to like the underdogs and the characters who sit in a moral grey area; their reactions to situations are usually more interesting and nuanced than the righteous or the wicked. Gwen and her colleagues inhabit this space. Maybe they’ve made questionable choices, but they’re not evil. They’re human and trying to make a living like anyone.
It makes the most out of being a comic.
In the final third of the book, Gwen discovers her fourth-wall-breaking power: she can access the in-between panel space, making this one of the rare cases of a comic that can only exist as a comic. Her power comes with a real risk of deus ex machina, but it features just enough to be interesting, both as a power and as a refuge for Gwen, without being overbearing.
And wow, that art. It’s just so good. The artist team, Gurihiru, has a manga-inspired style that hits exactly the right notes of fun and brightness for this series. Fill-in artists adapt to the style well, so it’s usually cohesive. The depiction of Gwen’s panel-defying ability is handled in a way that new comics readers can understand and old hands can appreciate.
It comments on the unpredictability of low/mid-tier comics runs.
In case the meta design of a character breaking through panels isn’t enough, Unbelievable Gwenpool’s real-world cancellation was folded into the story’s narrative for the last few issues, reflecting on the endless cycles of cancellation-reboot endemic to superhero comics and the way different writers handle characters, from the perspective of one facing a suddenly ending series.
It’s an unusual but effective approach, given the character work described earlier. Gwen doesn’t want to be cancelled and by now you probably don’t want her to be either. After so much delight from the journey they’ve had together, there’s a lot of sadness in knowing that these character depictions are time-limited and won’t appear in the same way again.
Brought to Light / Shadowplay: The Secret Team
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz
What’s that? A lost Alan Moore work? Never republished? Hard to track down? Written in 1988 when (you could argue) he was at the height of his powers? With art by Bill “Elektra: Assassin” Sienkiewicz? I mean holy fucking shit.
Ok. You have my attention. What’s it about?
A potted history of the CIA and their involvement in the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra affair, and their relationship with such fine fellows such as Augusto Pinochet and Manuel Noriega. That erm sounds pretty hardcore. Set in a dark twilight underside dream version of America (which honestly makes me wonder if this is where Garth Ennis got the idea from for his Hellblazer: Damnation’s Flame run). And oh yeah – and it’s all narrated by an anthropomorphic hard-drinking American Eagle talking directly to the reader (Right. Ok. Ok. Makes sense).
Like: as a hardcore diehard Alan Moore fan I’ve been aware of this book since I was little. But seeing how it’s basically a takedown of some of the most powerful people on Earth and their incredibly shady going-ons I assumed my chances of ever reading it were slim-to-none. I mean yeah there’s copies for sell on eBay and stuff but I’m not crazy enough to spend all that money on a single comic. Right?
But hey I fuck it – it’s not like I’ve been going out all that much at the moment anyway.
So I thought I’d treat myself and nab myself the cheapest copy I could find (as I was reading it the pages were literally coming apart in my hand lol). But hey you know what – I think maybe I should have saved myself the money and put it in the 2021 fund you know? Because well – it’s a book that does exactly what it says on the tin. But (at the risk of outing myself as dilettante) I’m not sure it’s the type of thing that’s me. Like as a proud left-winger type I don’t really need to be told that the CIA aren’t the good guys and have got up to an awful lot of dodgy and messed up stuff over the years (to say the least). And the comic is not much more than an itemized list of atrocities and counting up the numbers of dead by how many swimming pools all their blood could fill up.
Some people have an affinity for facts. And Shadowplay: The Secret Team gives you more than enough information to take away and use at your next dinner party or whatever. But – sadly – my mind has never really worked like that. I’ve always found facts to be quite deadening and (dare I say it?) uninteresting. I much prefer the magic of fiction. And you know I understand that maybe back in 1988 maybe people still had a rose-tinted view of the Central Intelligence Agency and this would have been a lot more effective. But for me reading it now it’s a bit like getting a blow-by-blow account of exactly how many people the Evil Empire has killed during the Star Wars films (“10,000 Ewoks on Forest Moon of Endor”) and yeah I get that that’s an extremely crass analogy and speaks of the untold damage that the Military-Entertainment Complex has done to my head but at least I’m honest about it?
Yes. It’s a righteous piece of art. And probably the most political right-on thing I’ve read all year. But I’m not too sure that I actually enjoyed reading it and I don’t know if I’m ever going to read it again. I mean people accuse Promethea of feeling like a lecture – but that’s basically a theme park ride compared to this.
It must be said tho (if you didn’t know this already) that Bill Sienkiewicz is God Tier comic book artist. Like even the way that he draws a cow feels good to my eyes. But yeah – if you’re really looking for buried treasure from these guys then I’d recommend Big Numbers instead… (winky face emoji).
Shadowplay: The Secret Team is more like a scream made up out of numbers and yeah of course I appreciate the sentiment but sadly it felt me feeling unmoved and uninvolved. Some things aren’t worth waiting for I guess?
Akira Book 4
By Katsuhiro Otomo
There were parts in the last book where it felt like Akira was opening up a few new windows and unlocking undiscovered rooms – but Book 4 is where it goes completely off the reservation altogether – every page feels like another step into an undiscovered country where everything is weird and strange.
Although up until now I’d never read Akira – I’ve read Domu a fair few times. For those who don’t know – Domu was the book he made before Akira and it’s basically a little miniature epic about erm (this may surprise you) kids with psychokinetic powers and the types of havoc they cause. For some strange reason there was always a copy in every single Library I went to the late 90s / early 00s (maybe the book suppliers offered a special deal or maybe because it seems like such an obviously cool book especially because it had the “From the Maker of Akira” on the cover). The thing that always struck me about it (apart from all the cool psychokinetic battles obviously) was how obsessive it was in terms of the architecture. I mean – most comic books don’t really care too much about what their background buildings look like and never really bother going into too much detail. But Katsuhiro Otomo is obviously really into buildings. I think I remember reading once that he started out life doing something related to architecture but checking his wikipedia page there’s no mention of it (LOL) so maybe it’s just the sense of reading his books and seeing how much effort he puts into getting every part of his towering skyscrapers just right… but I think it actually goes further that… The big climax of Book 3 after all when Akira lets the monkey out the box and everything goes spectacularly and completely tits up is mostly told in terms of pictures of buildings: the way that the light shines behind them and the way that they twist and buckle and collapse in response to the big epic explosion. Obviously if Otomo was more into drawing cute fluffy animals then he’d be telling different types of stories – but it’s interesting that as he’s big into drawing buildings he’s obviously built this story that lets him draw lots of them (both in standing and in completely destroyed forms). And yeah yeah ok I guess the cultural memory of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasak probably had their part to play too of course (of course).
And yeah a lot of the fun of Book 4 is just the exquisite and gratuitous post-apocalyptic disaster porn. The buildings toppled in on themselves. Picking through the rubble. All that good stuff.
But (whoops) there’s also a sense that everything is kinda a little bit scattered and unfocused. Which well of course does make sense. Neo Tokyo got totally exploded in the last book so yeah of course everything now is going to be people picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of what’s happened but in terms of how it feels when you read it you can’t help but get this itching feeling that you’re reading something that’s never going to end… Which yeah of course is bound to happen when you’re reading something that’s over 2000 pages long but does mean that at one point I was asking myself: how long can a story be before it stops feeling like a story? And instead just feels like – a never-ending serial. Picking it up felt less like reading a book and more like I was tuning into another episode of the Akira show. (If that makes sense?). But I don’t know – maybe this is what happens when you’ve mainly been brought up on western comics which are much better at getting straight to the point while obviously in the east (judging from the number of volumes of most of the manga I’ve seen) they’re a lot happier to be a bit more… discursive.
Book 4 literally ends with Kaneda says “Is it over?” and I’ve gotta admit that was a part of me that felt the same. Plus another part that was like: oh hell no – there’s still another 2 books to go my friend…
Oh well. Onwards and upwards.
Big Numbers #1
Big Numbers #2
Art by Alan Moore
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz
Oh what could have been.
So. For those of you who don’t know – Big Numbers was supposed to be Alan Moore’s magnum opus. Watchmen? Nah. That was just a warm-up. All that superhero stuff was Alan Moore still basically doing work-for-hire. But Big Numbers? Well – that was supposed to be Alan Moore unleashed. It was self-published by Alan Moore’s own imprint (called Big Love) which meant that there was absolutely nobody that could tell him what to do. The sky was the limit. Actually. Scratch that. There were no limits at all.
So what kind of story does he decide to tell? Oh well – nothing special really. Just a bunch of ordinary people doing ordinary people things. The first issue starts off and it’s a woman on a train falling asleep. Then she gets in a taxi. And goes back home. She sees her sister. Has a few phone calls. And then her mum comes back. And in between that we cut around the town she’s in (which if you know much about Alan Moore you won’t be surprised to hear is called Hampton) and see a bunch of people doing ordinary people things. There’s some people on a bus. A kid leaving school. And some people talking about opening up a new fancy-looking shopping centre. And well- that’s it.
For those people who know me and know my taste in stuff you’d think that I’d be making a face at this stuff. Mostly I’m into big crazy epic sci-fi stuff that’s about spaceships a million miles long and galaxies being eaten by giant monsters etc etc etc but truthfully it’s a great little reading experience. I mean yeah partly that’s because of Bill Sienkiewicz who has this way of drawing everything that just makes my eyes go yum yum. I mean even if it’s just a dude sitting in a chair – it looks cool. It’s aesthetically pleasing. Reading it feels nice. It’s like wrapping yourself up in expensive bed sheets. It’s good.
And yeah also every character feels precise and fully honed. It’s like that thing when people who are really into cars talk about how even the way that the door slams shut sounds satisfying. That’s what reading Big Numbers feels like. It feels like you’re in expert hands.
(For example – and this is one for the die-hard comic book nerds who are into the notion of comic book architecture: there’s a page in the second issue where they pull off the fancy magic trick of having the whole page being one place (a kitchen) and each panel being different moment in time. Which needless to say – is pretty damn cool).
Plus – well – there’s that electricity that you get at the start of a really good story. Ok. So he’s moving that pawn there. And he’s put that knight there. And that other pawn there. None of it really means everything at the moment. But because of that everything feels meaningful. Every sentence has a weight and an expectation and it’s cool. You know that it’s going to tell you something about life. It’s going to tell you something about being a human. And – from that title – (and the interviews Alan Moore did around the time) you know it’s going to tell you something about chaos theory too. (Which is maybe a bit played out now I’ll admit but at the time was all the rage).
And yeah – and it’s definitely going to have something to do with that ominous (but obviously very cool looking) shopping centre too.
In the interviews from around the time (before it all went tits up) Alan Moore has said that it was only around Issue 4 or 5 that things were going to start kicking in and people would get a sense of what it’s all about. And well yeah at the risk of stating the complete obvious – it’s incredibly sad and dispiriting that only 2 issues were ever published. I mean there are lots of “What ifs” scattered around every artform. The albums that were never finished. The films that were never made. But hell if I could choose one thing to get completed then I think it would be Big Numbers. Not only because I’m certain it would have been an utterly fantastic read but just to see how it would have affected Alan Moore’s future work and how it would have affected the comics industry at large. The least of which is – imagine if Alan Moore had his own publishing house?! Imagine what kind of creators and what kind of comics that might have produced. And think about how that would have changed our very ideas about what a comic could be.
And man – just the whole unfair tantalising nature of it all. Like both issues are all in black and white. Apart from one signal moment in the second issue when there’s this sudden splash of colour. And it’s like getting a small glimpse of a land that you know you’ll never be able to get access to. Never be able to properly visit. Always just existing just out of reach.
I remember “Big Numbers” coming out, Joel. An amazing sense of what was possible in comics, and all that. Roughly the same time that Cages was coming out – big arthouse comics in unusual aspect ratios about ordinary but weird people. And yeah, two issues in, it hadn’t really done much more than get started. I remember the few pages with the poem written by one of the characters, something about “a sharp bit of science”…
Quick christmas pressie for you – here’s a leaked, lo-fi copy of issue 3, that seems to be the genuine thing. https://glycon.livejournal.com/11817.html (IIRC,most of the art for this issue was done by Al Columbia, Bill Sienkiewicz’s understudy).
Ho ho ho 🙂
So… why hasn’t it been finished? Surely there must be someone who’d throw money at Alan Moore to see what he’d do? Hell, he could crowdfund the thing in a few seconds, right?
Alan Moore is just too good for comics these days. Here’s a recent interview in which he’s embarrassingly ‘old man yells at cloud’ about modern comics: https://deadline.com/2020/10/alan-moore-rare-interview-watchmen-creator-the-show-superhero-movies-blighted-culture-1234594526/
“Several years ago I said I thought it was a really worrying sign, that hundreds of thousands of adults were queuing up to see characters that were created 50 years ago to entertain 12-year-old boys. That seemed to speak to some kind of longing to escape from the complexities of the modern world, and go back to a nostalgic, remembered childhood. That seemed dangerous, it was infantilizing the population.
This may be entirely coincidence but in 2016 when the American people elected a National Socialist satsuma and the UK voted to leave the European Union, six of the top 12 highest grossing films were superhero movies. Not to say that one causes the other but I think they’re both symptoms of the same thing – a denial of reality and an urge for simplistic and sensational solutions.”
A couple more unexpectedly fun reads for me this year:
Writen by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely
Colours by Jamie Grant
I generally find Grant Morrison’s writing difficult to get on with and I don’t care about Superman, so I was surprised that I enjoyed All-Star Superman as much as I did. I wrote about this in the April lockdown thread, so rather than repeat myself, here is the link: https://londongraphicnovelnetwork.com/2020/05/01/book-club-lockdown-april/
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Richard Case
After a surprisingly positive experience with All-Star Superman, I thought I’d have a go at Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, since the first volume was free to read on [popular but evil internet megastore] and I was in the market for something weird.
It turns out this comic is the perfect playground for Grant Morrison to explore his most brain-melting ideas. The basic premise is that a group of misfits, many with starkly unusual physical appearances, band together to tackle the more bizarre threats to the world. That the group is led by a brilliant man in a wheelchair makes the whole thing feel like an alternative X-Men fuelled by fever dreams or frequent doses of psychedelics.
Not all of the ideas stick. Some outstay their welcome, some are half-baked, and some are pretentious (or any/all of the above), but it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer number of them and their unparalleled weirdness within comics. Here’s just a selection of characters and a collage of more for good measure:
– A germophobe who has every superpower you haven’t thought of- A sentient street which can relocate to anywhere in the world and communicates by manipulating signs and other features within the urban environment- Scissors who cut people out of reality- Assassins who talk only in anagrams- Villains who eat the words on the tip of your tongue and convert them into electricity
Villains range from camp to menacing to terrifying, and the scenarios Doom Patrol finds itself in are just as captivatingly bizarre as the characters. For example, the Brotherhood of Dada traps Paris in a painting; Flex Mentallo tries to use his muscle-flexing ‘muscle mystery’ power to turn the Pentagon (where agents move around via slides and space hoppers) into a circle; a teenage girl conjures a nightmare into reality… The whole run is relentlessly unpredictable and unhinged.
It’s one thing for Grant Morrison to come up with a bunch of bonkers stuff, but another entirely to translate that to the page — what a feat for Richard Case to do that, and to do that with layouts and colours and styles that make these comics feel ahead of their time. He shifts styles depending on what the story needs and throws in panels that are just as unexpected as the plotlines. Even when Morrison’s ideas don’t quite land, the comic is still a real feast for the eyes.
Throughout, there’s individual character and team-relationship building which brings a somewhat more grounded, human element to it all. It’s difficult to read in big chunks as a result; arc by arc (i.e. 2 to 4 issues at a time) is best to avoid the fatigue that comes with trying to parse all of the stuff going on in this comic.
[Also worth pointing out this article, which gives a really good rundown of some of the concepts in Doom Patrol — particularly with regard to what would’ve been pretty radical representations of race, gender, and sexuality at the time (and in many ways still are!) — but contains spoilers.]
Confession: I am such a sad and devoted Alan Moore fanboy that one of my Christmas presents to myself involved buying not one, not two but three books of Alan Moore interviews. Yep. That’s right. Just pages of Alan Moore talking about stuff. Reality. Art. Magic. Language. Sometimes comics (but not too much lol).
Honestly I can say that it’s probably one of the best and most interesting things I’ve read all year and I would not hesitate to recommend you all checking it out. If you’d like a small taste then I’d say you should go and have a read of this absolutely mind-blowing conversation he had with Dave Sim around about the time From Hell was completed: http://momentofcerebus.blogspot.com/2015/09/correspondence-from-hell-part-1.html
Like yeah I probably shouldn’t build it up too much but it might just change your mind about everything you’ve ever thought of (one of my favourite bits: the guy who decided to see what would happen if he started to believe that Noddy was God).
But yeah this means that I have the inside scoop on why Big Numbers is always going to remain incomplete from the man himself. Take it away Alan…
“No, no it’s never going to be published now, I’ve had two artists just run screaming into the night, and it becomes increasingly difficult to resurrect as a comic book with each one. I’ve written the scripts up to issue five. But what do you do? Do you get a new artist in? Do you start running it again from issue one and promise the readers that this time we are going to finish it. And what happens if the artist leaves halfway through again? I wonder, is it me? Is it me doing this to these poor boys?”
There was talk at some point about it being turned into a TV show but it looks like nothing ever came of that. (But you know – that would have felt a bit like a consolation prize. “Oh you wanted a groundbreaking work that would probably have been one of the pinnacles of the comic book medium? Oh well – here’s a TV show instead…”)
And as for the old man yells at cloud stuff. I mean: like I said I’m an Alan Moore fanboy. And even tho I don’t think he’s really making comics for me for quite a while (I’m not really big into Lovecraft and prefer comic books to Classic Literature which means that I’m basically locked outside the house futility knocking on the door while I hear all the party noises coming from inside) I still think that he’s an incredibly smart guy with a mind like a drawer of sharpened knives. And well yeah – in the nicest possible way I don’t really see what you guys are taking issue with in terms of what he said (?). You don’t think mainstream culture is kinda (looks at all the Marvel movies / Harry Potter films / Star Wars spin-offs) … infantilizing? You don’t think that the stories people read affect how they see the world? You don’t think that there’s been a marked increase in recent years terms of splitting people up into goodies and baddies? Like yeah before there was a choice between Team Edward or Team Jacob but nowadays it’s a choice between Team Good or Team Evil but erm yeah – I’m sure that none of that has anything to do with the culture that we consume…
And well yeah as seeing as Alan Moore was one of the prime-movers of the movement that I’m pretty sure that he would absolutely hate me calling “Comics aren’t for kids anymore” Crew it makes sense that he’s turning around and going – erm: excuse me there’s better stories that you guys could be telling.
Like I know that she doesn’t really write comics but Ursula K. Le Guin (best writer ever) makes the same point:
We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and there is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill… So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth- telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
And well yeah – if this Book Club is about anything (and maybe it’s not? I don’t know) then I’d like it to be about intellectual and ethical complexity and uncovering better stories that do take risks and try to push things a little further and – hell yeah – yelling at clouds. LOL
“I don’t really see what you guys are taking issue with in terms of what he said” I was posting that quote in complete agreement, I can’t stand the marvel cinematic universe homogenised pap.
Amanda, yes, I totally agree about Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, as one of the best things he ever did. Perfect balance of big ideas and silliness. And it had space for the characters too, Cliff/Robotman and Crazy Jane especially I felt like I had some emotional stakes in as people.
Joel, about Big Numbers, you’ve got me thinking over the last week or so. That’s an interesting point, that it would be outstanding as a comic book, but unremarkable as a TV show. It’s “Alan Moore does Coronation Street”. Which is apt, but doesn’t do it justice at all – and I’m trying to figure out why. Disclaimer – I don’t follow Corrie, or any TV soaps.
It’s not that Big numbers rises above TV soap. Yes, it does tackle some big themes, it has technical elements of “high art” running through it, like the use of colour planned across the whole series, the entire page of panels making a complete scene thing that you highlighted, the conversations between the model railway people used as a window into one of the character’s aspirations. It leans into some dark areas – the traumatised cabbie, the woman talking to her husband in the iron lung, the dark inner thoughts of one of the “care-of-the-community” mentally ill characters (oh dear, it’s an Alan Moore comic, is there going to be some unpleasant sexual violence somewhere down the line.)
But TV in the last couple of decades has been as bold in its experiments (Doctor Who has had some damn weird episodes, like the one composed entirely from unreliable CCTV footage), as quirky and unconventional (I don’t watch Coronation Street, but I’ve heard that both Vic Reeves and Ian McKellen played parts in it for a while), and soaps lean into dark places too these days, from what I hear.
I think a large part of the excitement was that nobody had done anything like this as a comic. Comics is a small industry. The story you related about Alan Moore’s hunt for another artist is telling – Jon Muth, Dave McKean and… that’s about it. (Did he ask Kent Williams or George Pratt?) A handful of people who could make art that would segue from Bill Sienkiewicz’s style without jarring, and he – arguably the biggest creative name in the industry at the time – had to concede defeat, even with the financial backing of Kevin Eastman, who’d lucked out in the comics to hollywood lottery. And we’re still picking over the bones twenty-odd years later. Imagine if this was film. Not big studio tentpole film, but successful arthouse visionaries – say, Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Edgar Wright, Martin Scorcese. Let’s say that <insert your favourite film director>’s cameraman on <their best film> had taken fright halfway through, and there were only three-and-a-half other people in the world who knew how to operate film cameras, none of whom wanted to do it, so it was abandoned halfway through. (Hmm, does that make Terry Gilliam the Alan Moore of film?!)
Looked at the other way round, a big part of Bill Sienkiewicz’s schtick was to draw influence from mainstream commercial art styles – plus the way he orchestrates his styles on top of that. With a half-decent arthouse film budget, Moore or Big Love or Tundra could have paid Sienkiewicz to art-direct, or art-directed himself, and got a studio of say, 10 competent professional graphics-for-hire knocking out the pages, without the weight of the world on their shoulders. (Which is what Katsuhiro Otomo did with Akira, from what I’ve heard – all those gorgeous 100-page sequences of collapsing buildings, he didn’t draw it all himself.) The process Sienkiewicz describes, of borrowing friends as models, doing the art himself then hiring a single understudy, the financial worry around managing that process, it’s miles away. Comics was and is a cottage industry, even for the big names like Moore and Sienkiewicz. In the English speaking world at least.
I’ll let Grant Morrison/Lex Luthor sum it up – if you ignore the first speech balloon! 🙂
I’ll give a massive shout at at this point to Hannah Berry, who as comics laureate for 2019/20, did a great job of tackling this issue, doing surveys, helping to establish a fledgling support model for comics professionals.
Lest this sound overly glum, I also recognise that there’s a lot to celebrate in the cottage industry model, and many people figuring out ways to make it work for them, and make excellent stuff.
Thanks for listening.
I agree Dave. Comics is a small industry and it’s pretty much all been precariously perched right at the edge of the cliff edge (and whoops – with everything that’s happened this year I wouldn’t be that surprised if it’s now actually gone completely over and into the sea).
At the risk of sounding like a crazy ranting leftie (cough) I think a big part of this is down to the way that the comics industry and the fact that for the vast majority of the population that when you say “comics” they immediately think “superheroes.” And yeah obviously there’s been a billion words dedicated to that already but one of the ones that gets overlooked is the way that this leads people to think of comics in terms of characters (eg oh I don’t know – Batman) rather than creators. And I think it’s notable that even doing the Barbican Comic Forum most of the times the conversation slides into discussions about characters and intellectual properties owned by giant corporations rather than – the human beings making them.
Alan Moore is actually a great example of this. I mean this is the guy who’s given both comic books and superhero comic books more life and energy than anyone else alive and the way he was treated by DC comics was so disgusting and abhorrent that he’s basically disowned the vast majority of his old works. Like – that’s crazy. I mean this guy wrote one of the most artistically and commercially successful comic books of all time. If DC had any fucking sense at all then they would have given him a fair deal and let him continue making money and art for both of them. But no – they ripped him off so badly and left him feeling so hard done by that he had to cut off all contact with him.
And this is why it pisses me off when people make comments that he’s a “grumpy old man” or whatever. I mean fuck – if you’re reading and enjoying wstern comics in the 21st Century then I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’re benefiting from the hard work that he did to help rise the medium from an empty mindless distraction for children into – well – an actual artform.
Also he was such a big force pushing forward the idea of Creator ownership in comics that the wikipedia page has an entry that’s dedicated just to him.
But yeah obviously (at the risk of throwing myself directly into hot water) nowadays I guess the notion of ownership and creator’s rights isn’t really what people are concerned with – it’s more about the importance of Diversity and Representation which yes of course is important and has parts to recommend it but (as I’ve said a few times before) it is worth pointing out that those values aren’t really much of a threat to the powers that be: in that they can easily incorporate them into their business models and keep powering forward (aka Batman is black now – hooray).
(But yeah – I’ve kinda touched on this kinda stuff before).
Still – maybe I’m just being bitter because yeah I think it’s been a while since I’ve read a new comic that really impressed me and felt like it was actually new and worthwhile and smart and interesting. But hell maybe those aren’t the values that are important nowadays? LOL. That being said – I’ve ordered myself The Unbelievable Gwenpool from my local library so erm fingers crossed?
But yeah if anyone wants to recommend something of recent vintage that’s actually good then I’d be interested to hear. Otherwise you know – I guess I’ll just have to content and comfort myself with these old Alan Moore books…
” I mean fuck – if you’re reading and enjoying wstern comics in the 21st Century then I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’re benefiting from the hard work that he did to help rise the medium from an empty mindless distraction for children into – well – an actual artform.”
I feel like this is ignoring a lot of non-american comics history – Moebius was doing this comics-as-art well before Alan Moore came along, and he wasn’t the first. What Moore did was to make American-style superhero comics into art. American comics (and to a lesser degree British ones) had become simplified and dumbed down by the Comics Code, and Moore pulled them some way back from that, but there were wholes swathes of the comic world that ignored the CCA and were art (rather than pure product) well before Moore.
I think you guys might have persuaded me to give Doom Patrol an umpteenth shot. I keep getting a hold of it and making myself read it, but so much of the art is so difficult to look at. There’s a sketchy blandness to it. It’s hard to see what the point of engaging with a deliriously psychedelic world is if it’s also dull to look at (“Hey kid, you wanna try this pill that makes everything a bit dull and irritating to look at? ………….Why not?”). That said, there are some pretty cool art examples that you guys have posted that might push me back onto the wagon. The ideas in early Grant Morrison (and from what I read of Doom Patrol) were usually his most thought provoking, so it’s a shame that so much of that work is filtered through a prism I’d rather not look at. It’s probably why I loved Flex Mentallo so much, a rare example of Morrison’s early mad ideas matched up with an artist of Frank Quietly’s calibre – like trippy ships passing in the night.
Also on Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone – can’t believe I hadn’t clocked how much of an influence Bukoswki casts over Hanselmann. It’s definitely the series I’ve read the most religiously over the past year – in no small part because Instagram sends me a reminder at 1:30am every night that there’s a new post. Waking up to the myopic adventures of the Megahex crew, in even more pallid colours than usual (the main series is water colours, to neck out strips on a daily basis, Hanselmann seems to have switched to pencils), sums up the tone of this year. I do think as a read, Crisis Zone might be on the weaker side of the Megahex volumes. While it starts off incredibly well, focusing on lockdown as a Fawlty Towers-esque excuse to force every character into the house at the behest of an Owl that loses his shit with every uninvited guests arrival, it eventually just becomes an exhausting loop of blockbuster events that don’t make me cackle like the series usually does. Part of this is Werewolf Jones – the Superhans-esque catalyst of plots in Megahex. Where both Peep Show and Megahex usually just have their catalyst turn up to wreak hell for the majority of episodes, Crisis Zone saw his shadow loom over everything – to the point of Werewolf Jones that he was less a catalyst for the series than the series itself. Then again, perhaps a repetitive boot loop of nonsensical events is apt for a year like this. Crisis Zone may well become the comic worlds contribution to the time capsule that we’ll try to bury 2020 in. A pale loop of despair and dark humour with diminishing returns.
On the whole, Instagram has dominated my comics reading this year. While I was once loath to have allowed my eyeballs to be mind-jacked by Zuckerberg’s patented image sorting machine (apparently powered by fragments of our own identity), it does have it’s uses. It’s really good at introducing you to new artists and creators that you’ll likely to love. In fact as a result of it, this year my comics diet has been less trade paperbacks and more zines (though the postage costs during Covid have led to some brutally surprising bank statements). It’s turned me onto a succession of incredible creators who are often more interested in the visual element of comics, rather than simply wanting to find someone who can draw muscles correctly that they can then overlay with “writing”. So yes, Zuck has dominated my comic taste this year, but without libraries and shops – i’ll trade finding new indie creators to pay directly than window shopping via Bezos.
I could write a lot about these guys, but I thought a rapid fire introduction to some highlights might be a fun way to go instead:
What would happen if Questionable Content stepped out of it’s innocent, utopian bubble and acknowledged what the last decade had wrought? Aged characters, regret, explicit sexuality, police brutality and a doomed economic enterprise all wrapped up into a slice of life like no other. Graham trades her lush, surreal floral dog paintings for a black and white diary-esque comic that took over interest for me whenever Crisis Zone started to lag.
The second dog person as ennui pick. Sami’s narrative work veers between the late stage capitalism slice of life sub genre that Graham occupies and more abstracted New Yorker style humour. It’s got a much more cartoony core to it, with Alwani happily letting his central figure veer off into a sad stoner smile.
- Max Huffman
I just really, really, really love the way this guy draws things. It’s equal parts sharp geometry and cartoon goofiness – and it’s all so smoothly done. Kandinsky talked about how you knew art was great if it achieved the principle of inner necessity – that by simply witnessing it the audience felt some great spiritual release. No artist has quite achieved that through their style in the way Max has this year for me. Punch that in with a grounded Looney Tunes sense of humour and what else could you ask for?
- Max Baitinger
Another example of loving the way this guy draws things. The detached composition, blobbed spots of colour and a wry, understated sense of humour. Less an example of great storytelling and writing and more satisfying as a sequence of striking visuals to behold. When cinema tries this, it seems doomed to veer between the blotchy, blockheaded antics of Michael Bay or esoteric arthouse schtick. Baitinger instead offers sequential storytelling that manages to comfort you as often as it unsettles you.
Some more names but I’m out of words:
Akira Book 5
By Katsuhiro Otomo
What if the Force but too much?
So yeah as far as I can work it out that’s basically the one sentence pitch behind Akira. What if typical teenager Luke Skywalker discovered the force that flowed through all things and instead of using it to fight the forces of Evil he decided to settle a few scores and lash out everyone he thought had wronged him (“Who’s getting cocky now?!”) before his body expanded with the Force flowing with him and he became an evil ever-expanding blobby baby.
Cut to: “I’d buy that for a dollar!” gif.
Of course our western media is nowhere near that cynical when it comes to power. For us power is a good thing that should be actively seeked out and gained. Yeah yeah sure – it comes with great responsibility but mostly that responsibility is to beat up the bad guys whilst both looking and acting extremely awesome and saying lots of cool shit.
That’s not the only notable difference between media of the west and media of the east. I know I’ve remarked upon this elsewhere – but it certainly seems notable that lots of American media seems to end with a big massive explosion that very much feels like a GOOD THING (cut to: Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger kissing in front of an atomic bomb blowing up) compared to Japanese media which seems to open with a massive explosion that very much feels like a BAD THING (cut to: Godzilla and well – Akira). But then obviously I guess that’s what happens when one side experiences dropping atom bombs as the thing that wins you the war and the other side – well – experiences dropping atom bombs.
Of course that’s not to say that Akira forgos all the pleasures of the flesh. Like Book 5 climaxes with what might be the coolest sequence of the entire saga where Tetsuo and Kei face off on an American battlecruiser throwing fighter jets around like it’s a fantasy sequence from Calvin and Hobbes given the widescreen treatment. That is to say – it feels solid and real and extreme in a way that most comics just can’t reach. Like yeah part of it is because it’s – what – over a 1000 pages into the story which means everything has this weight behind it you know? And but also because is super detailed and lovingly rendered it also feels like it has a physical weight to it too. When a fighter jet crashes into part of the ship you get a sense of the physicality of it but also that wonderful sensation that only comes from a comic where you’re like – oh wow – that’s only like a single instance of time frozen for a split second but it feels like it must have taken so long to actually be drawn.
As a whole it doesn’t really feel like Akira is expanding my mind that much. Like I think I’ve already said the actual philosophical content is low. And it’s all basically just cool adventure stuff fun time. But you know – for this human – it feels a lot more healthy and invigorating than Star Wars. Reading it doesn’t feel like it’s rusting my soul.
The collected Toppi, vol 1 – the enchanted world
Sergio Toppi was making comics in Italy from the early 80s onwards. He was a big influence on the likes of McKean and Sienkiewicz, apparently, although his finish is quite different. His artwork is masterful, mostly done in black and white (thankfully all the stories in the book are, colour doesn’t improve his stuff). He balances areas of dense black, clear whites and incredibly detailed linework, plays with negative space, and verges towards abstraction. I’m struck by a number of repeated motifs here, tiny figures almost lost on the horizon of huge landscapes, or cowering before huge monsters.
The stories are short, typically with a twist, and vary in quality immensely. The first one, featuring an unpleasantly aspirational family being turned into trees by a witch and then rapidiy blown up by a passing military airplane (?!), is probably the worst. Highlights are one about a lighthouse keeper succumbing to madness, written as a medical case history, and another about an esquimo hunter having his name stolen by a vengeful god.
Buy my goodness, that art. It’s like the visual equivalent of an earworm. When I took my dog out for a walk today, in the nearby woods, I couldn’t help but see the branches against the sky, and the twisting old tree trunks as Toppi illustrations. Not many artists do that to me. I’m in awe of his craftsmanship.
Couple of quick samples here – shipwrecks from the lighthouse keeper story, and some landscapes from another one about seal hunters (also with a typical “future shock” style twist ending – classic Toppi figure on the horizon on the right!)
Oh hell yes, I own the same volume, and entirely for the art. I mean, there are stories, but that’s not why I’m reading. His shading style is just gorgeous, I’m a massive fan. Thanks for reminding me to re-read that and ‘learn from’ his style. I enjoyed the name-stealing story as well.
I’ve had a monumentally shitty crimbo (you know it’s a good time when you wake up and go ‘huh, guess it wasn’t sepsis then’), but one of the few rays of light has been this:
“EX mag”, a genre-themed comic anthology magazine. This one is cyberpunk, but what I’ve read is fairly loose with that themeing. It arrived in amazon-style packaging just before christmas, and I still have absolutely zero idea where it came from. Asked everyone, and no-one’s owning up. Nothing on or in the package to give me a clue. Maybe I bought it for myself and it just happened to arrive around christmas? I looked it up online, and the main result is Kickstarter. Thing is, I moved recently, so it can’t be one of those “backed this a year ago and forgot” things.
It’s an absolute mystery, and it’s so cool. I really needed something to look forward to, and this is totally it. It’s sat next to my bed just waiting for me.
Re: Doom Patrol art: You could just… skip the first volume. The second gives you a fun Brotherhood of Dada arc back-to-back with an interesting Crazy Jane mini-arc, both of which you should find more digestible art-wise. If these two arcs (among the best in the series imo) don’t do it for you, you can shelve the comic forever, safe in the knowledge that it just wasn’t for you.
Sneaking in one more:
DIE, Vol 1 to Vol 3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Die initially reminded me of Wicked + Divine, but for middle-aged nerds. Instead of beautiful, brooding teenagers transformed into gods, you get estranged 40-somethings sucked into a fantasy role-playing game and transformed back into the wish fulfilment characters they once created as teenagers. But while I found the art in Wicked + Divine exciting, I never really got on board with W+D — no fault of Kieron Gillen, it just wasn’t the story for me.
In the past few years I’ve often feel nostalgic for that bit of my life between 18 and 22: first time in university, living in a new city, emboldened by youthful arrogance and a small group of best friends. I gloss over the bad times. I think about how nice it would be if I could be back with those friends now (I left 13 years ago). I forget we all have jobs and partners and hobbies and commitments that would mean things wouldn’t be like they were, and I ignore the reasons why I left in the first place. Die’s characters being faced with the decisions of their younger selves and having to acknowledge how their ambitions, priorities, and personality have morphed over time is eerily resonant and absorbing.
Art-wise, instead of Jamie McKelvie’s crisp lines and Matt Wilson’s glowing neons, you get a more muted, painterly approach from Stephanie Hans, a style which fittingly looks like it could grace the cover of a Warhammer guide book. Reds, browns, and blacks create a sense of gloom and danger in the early issues, and while colour palettes shift throughout later issues, they remain just as moody. Obviously most comics use colour to set mood, but it feels more deliberate, or perhaps more obvious, in Die. The whole thing is very, very rewarding to look at.
As you might expect for a Kieron Gillen creator-owned comic, there is the usual meta-critical commentary on a slice of pop culture — in this case, the consumptive power of fantasy. Coincidentally, Die comes at a time when fantasy RPGs are having a resurgence. People who played things like Warhammer or D&D as kids are rediscovering those and other games, and new players are joining in. The people who will get the most out of this comic are probably going to be the ones who are familiar with fantasy as a genre and tabletop RPGs, but there are enough common fantasy tropes and narration pointers to guide less-familiar readers.
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Melinda Gebbie
My friend brought me Lost Girls for my birthday (I think? Or maybe it was Christmas?). I was really excited to read it. Being a devoted Alan Moore fanboy and the kind of nerd that reads his interviews it was a book that I’d heard a lot about over the – what? – 16 years (!) of it’s long gestation.
If you haven’t heard of Lost Girls before and don’t know the idea behind it then well it goes a little something like this: Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie both thought that it was a bad thing that there was no such thing as work of art that was also (unapologetically) pornography. The thinking was that most pornograhy was grubby and sordid and not very nice (in all sorts of countless ways) and that it might be a cool and wonderful thing to create something that didn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Something that was beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and artistically rich and insightful but that was also very much about sex and fucking and all that stuff. After all there are countless works of art that are about violence and people being killed and all sorts of awful things happening to the human body – but why are there no works of art that cover doing the nasty? Something that encapsulates the idea “Make Love Not War” and then gets into all sorts of lovely graphic detail. The thinking was that that would be something that would be good and worthwhile and – god knows – maybe even socially useful. A society that saw sex has something that could be discussed about openly rather than something that should be kept hidden and underwraps might be a society that was a bit more spiritually healthy you know?
Lost Girls is basically a comic that doesn’t want to be a work with art with pornographic elements. Instead it wants to be pornography that is also a work of art. If that makes sense?
I hope I’m getting all this right. Actually – what the hell – here’s Alan Moore being interviewed by Paul Gravett:
One of the reasons why we wanted to do Lost Girls was that we wanted to come up with a form of pornography that actually transcended what pornography was supposed to be about, a kind of pornography that had got artistic and literary values, that were so high, that there need not be that sense of guilt and shame accompanying the reading of it. If we could create a work of sufficient worth and sensitivity, it might begin to redefine pornography as a kind of beautiful, safe arena in which our sexual ideas could be openly discussed. Because I feel that leads to a healthier society.
(I’d recommend reading the whole thing. It’s good!)
Why then I have I only read it one and a half times since I first got my copy all the way back in – what? – 2006?
Well here’s the thing: for a book that’s supposed to be a proud work of pornography… it isn’t really all that sexy. (Whoops).
And gosh I realise that I’m kinda taking chances by saying something bad about Melinda Gebbie here seeing how she’s Alan Moore’s wife and he might put a curse on me (Another quote from him: “I’d recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a 16-year elaborate pornography together. I think they’ll find it works wonders.”) but while her artwork is incredibly detailed and delightful it’s not really all that – hot?
Obviously different people get turned on by different things and your tastes may vary but I think the main thing for me and trying to put my finger on it (so to speak) is that the whole book is coloured in pastels (I think?) which gives the whole work this kinda stilted almost Victorian feeling. Like when you read it you can almost smell the patchouli oil in the background. It definitely creates a certain type of ambiance but I’m not sure it’s the one for me. In fact even tho I don’t think I’ve ever actually read an old-fashioned book of erotica – that’s kinda what it reminds me of you know? Something frilly with lots of lace. And yeah it’s not just the art – it’s also the writing. And the setting. Like – I know that 1913 was very important historically and all that. But I don’t know – it was one of the options on a porn drop down menu I’m not sure I’d click on it you know?
But then you know – maybe that isn’t so surprising? According to my calculations both Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie were comfortably middle-aged when they created Lost Girls and I think it’s pretty obvious that your attitudes to sex and arousal shift as you get older. And well yeah – maybe obviously that a work of pornography made by one couple will always be unqiue to them and a refraction of their own particular tastes and kinks and what have you. I mean Lost Girls is very much a conscious attempt to cover lots of different areas and (ahem!) flavour but I think a work of pornography that had universal appeal might even be beyond the reach of the world’s greatest comic book writer (sorry Alan. Please don’t hex me!)
But then yeah – there’s always been a lot of sex in Alan Moore’s work (everyone remembers that issue of Swamp Thing right?) but then it’s always been something that feels more (how to say this?) artistic rather than actually – you know – sensual. Like it feels like sex with Alan Moore would involve lots of candles and joss sticks and maybe a CD of monks chanting. Which I’m sure is very fun but isn’t really what I’m into…
Although it does make me think which comic book artists and writers I would choose to write something that was a lot more… sexually appealing. But I’d probably be giving far too much of myself away. But hey you know: it’s a fun little game you can play with yourself at home. So to speak.
Akira Book 6
By Katsuhiro Otomo
And so we come to the end.
The weird thing about doing Akira backwards (watching the movie and then reading the books) is that it completely messes up your sense of how it works / what it is. Looking at it the right way round it’s this big crazy epic manga that throws about a dozen elements altogether and smashes them like a blender with 10,000 volts pumped through it. Yeah it’s a wild and unpredictable and constantly exhilarating ride that’s always mutating into something new. That’s the joy of it.
Then – as far as I can work out from reading stuff on the internet – a bunch of moneymen approached Katsuhiro Otomo and said “hey – this Akira of yours is really something. How would you like to make a movie out of it?” and he thought about it and was like: well ok. Why not? That could be kinda cool.
Of course then came the question of how to condense 2000 pages into the size of a movie (I would say that it seems like it would have been a lot obvious to make it into a TV show but then oh what do you know: it looks like that might be happening anyway). I mean at the risk of stating the complete obvious – they did a most excellent job of taking the spirit of the books and translating the best parts into a film that probably still light years ahead of anything else out there. And – unlike lots of other films based on books – when you watch it you don’t feel like there’s anything missing you know? It feels complete. (So much so that I guess I always just figured that the books were just like the movie except without all the cool lights and sounds – which yeah is obviously pretty far from the truth).
The thing is tho – seeing how the movie was basically the books distilled into pure cinematic form coming at them from movie to books you get the whatever-the-opposite-of-distillation is. Everything is a lot wider and spread out and diffuse. And instead of everything getting straight to the point you get this behemoth that kinda wanders and meanders around and yeah it’s epic in all sorts of ways but with the movie kinda sitting there in the back of your head you can’t help but feel like: erm – is all this really necessary? (Which is probably not what you should be thinking right?)
But yeah none of this is to say that the Akira (the books) isn’t absolutely stunning and glorious. Interestingly the one other comic that sprung to mind when I was making my way through it all was (and this was strange even to me)… Tintin. Trying to make sense of that I think it’s mostly because the whole book is such a big non-stop adventure in a way that I haven’t really encountered since… well… back when I was reading Tintin as a kid. Just that cool sense of stuff constantly happening and building one thing on top of another with no idea how it’s going to end. In fact well yeah – it does kinda make me wish that I had read it as a kid although with everything that happens it feels like maybe there would have been a good chance that my head would have literally exploded.
But hell yeah for anyone who’s ever been tempted to take the plunge – you should give it a go. It won’t disappoint you. Even if I wish that – I don’t know – it had an ending that was as wild and mind-expanding has everything that came before. Like maybe it’s just me but it kinda felt like it all wrapped up in a way that was a little bit too… conventional? (Oh and a final weird last minute side-step into Japanese Nationalism. You know. Like you do). But then again I mean – I don’t know – maybe after 2000 pages there’s very little way to put a capstone on things that’s going to feel just right. LOL
All hail Lord Akira anyway.
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Eddie Campbell
There’s a pretty tedious never-ending debate about the best name for the medium – the top two choices being “comic books” and “graphic novels.” For various reasons I’ve always preferred calling them comics (even tho yes it’s called the London Graphic Novel Network – but I didn’t actually name it – but that’s a whole other story LOL) but then there’s lots more interesting things to talk about rather than trying to decide what something is called (do people who are into cinema have discussions about deciding whether they should be called movies or films?)
That being said – if you wanted to take the idea seriously I think the number of comic books that would actually deserve the accolade of “novel” is (for my money) probably quite a small one. Your mileage may vary but for me calling something a “novel” is actually a mark of distinction. In fact I would say that not even every (non-comic) book deserves the title. There’s a certain sense of sophistication and complexity and craftsmanship that you need to reach in order for the word to fight you know? Ulysses is a novel. The Dispossessed is a novel. Catch 22 is a novel. Most other things are just… books.
And it’s the same with comics. Most of them (even the good ones) are just… comics. As much as I’ve trumpeted my love for Scott Pilgrim over the years – calling it a novel is a bit much and kinda does it a disservice. It’s a comic book. And it works like one. And it’s pleasures are the pleasures that you get from a comic book. Same with Akira. Same with Nimona. Same with Batman. Same with Judge Dredd. etc Calling them novels just seems… wrong.
But From Hell? From Hell is a novel.
I’ve kinda been going round the houses a bit on this thread and taking shots at lots of Alan Moore books which I can understand might have given you the idea that I don’t think his work is really all that. Like maybe I think that he’s a little overrated or something. I’d like to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. From the position of my subjectivity he’s hands down the best comic book writer there has ever been (and maybe ever will be) and From Hell is one of his pinnacles in a career that’s had so many peaks that it looks like the Himalayas (most other comic book writers in contrast look kinda more like… the Lake District LOL).
We did From Hell for the Book Club a while ago (and hopefully I’m not repeating myself here) but I reread it a few nights ago. Ingesting the whole thing in one sitting (and probably no doubt dislocating my brain a bit as I did so). But the effect was rich and hypnotic and almost trance like. There was a point when I was about 4 chapters from the end and thinking maybe I should go to sleep now – but the thought of actually putting the book down seemed like a bad idea. Not when I’d come this far. Not when it was working such a spell inside my mind.
Interestingly when From Hell is mentioned in the Barbican Comic Forum it’s usually with a dismissive wave. There’s been a few people at least who’ve said that they read a few chapters in and then gave up on it. Mostly they say that they gave up when they get to the chapter where Gull and Netley go galavanting around London like a Victorian Iain Sinclair and his trusty sidekick (You realise that I only share these private thoughts in recognition of your lack of cognisance?” “Why, thank you, sir… I can’t say what that means to me.” “Ha Ha Ha. Why, of course you can’t. That is precisely why I trust you.”). And well yeah you know what? I get it. I remember the first time I read From Hell. It’s a bit like jumping directly into the middle of the ocean. Everything just comes in from all sides and overwhelms you. It feels like you don’t get it and you don’t understand what’s going on. There’s no hand holding and everything is weird and strange.
But then. Slowly. Ever so slowly. Things start to fall into place. And they start to make sense. And the bits join up. And you start to work out what’s going on. And the story takes shape around you. And the effect is… well… it’s magical.
Rat made the comment previously that “Moebius was doing this comics-as-art well before Alan Moore came along, and he wasn’t the first” and while yeah I take the point that in the history of comic books there’s been plenty of forerunners who’ve made comics that could easily be considered and counted as works out of art I would strongly argue (hopefully without sounding too much like a dick) that there haven’t been many creators who’ve ever made comics that have approached this level of depth and sophicaition. Like Moebius draws very cool pictures. But when you read From Hell – it’s a very different experience than what most comics can give you.
I mean even now where comics have “grown up” and get lots of good reviews in the Guardian the number of books that can match From Hell are very few and far between. Like just because someone wants to write about stuff that’s really happened and do it in black and white – it doesn’t really mean that they’re making something that can summon up the same sort of power in much the same way that me filming something with a black and white filter on my phone doesn’t make me Orson Welles – you know?
And yeah – I get it. This book definitely isn’t for everyone. And if you’ve spent most of your time reading most other comic books then trying to tackle a book like this is a little bit like climbing into a rocket when you’re only used to riding bikes. But I don’t know – if comic books are a medium you’re into then I would recommend From Hell one hundred percent. Yes. It’s difficult. Like climbing your way up a treacherous mountain through scary bushes full of thorns and needles and sheer rock faces and vertiginous drops that will make you scared to look down. But. The view from the top is amazing. And the effects and the feelings and the emotions it will give you will not be found anywhere else.
Because well yeah – it’s a graphic novel (and all that that implies).
And in much the same way that reading a good actual novel will change you – From Hell will change you too. It will show you things you’ve never seen before. And your brain will come out the other side slightly warped and damaged and strange. And you know – that’s actually pretty much the highest recommendation I can possibly make.
If you haven’t read it. You really should.
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