Valentina by Crepax: message received
A while ago I called the ten-volume project to bring all of Guido Crepax’ comics output into the English language a cultural intervention, and that still looks like the right label. Crepax’ artistic treatment of an internal fantasy life is vivid enough on its own to make most erotic comics look stuck in tar, but the more of the stuff that Fantagraphics reprints, the clearer it gets that Crepax was trying to get actual tactile sexual sensations down in an ink-on-paper form—critic Matt Seneca wrote about it in those terms, and he was spot on. And it works so well in the Valentina stories that the character—even though she’s always naked or in bondage or just letting it all hang out—never seems to be on the receiving end of male gaze at all. The strips are piled high with sexuality from floor to ceiling, but it’s all Valentina’s view of Valentina’s own, and there’s nowhere for a reader’s voyeurism to fit. It’s simply irrelevant. This is quite the cultural moment to discover that Crepax wanted to achieve that decades ago and worked out how to get the job done.
Every story also has some piece of visual storytelling from Crepax’ 1960s and 1970s output that seems to bubble up from a broad expressionist tradition and inform something more recent. The first volume had a bunch of Frank Miller faces; the latest one has some very Bill Sienkiewicz demon bears. An entranced Valentina receives hypnotic instructions from the witch Baba Yaga via the telephone several nights in a row, worshiping the handset in different poses, and eventually she does the same thing with a wind-up gramophone playing some satanic 78 vinyl. It’s an erotic reverie that Dario Argento would appreciate, but could not match.
I’m going to be at the inaugural Portsmouth Comic Con on Saturday 5th May to chair a couple of panels. One of them will be about the art of Star Wars, from the perspective of both the designers behind the films and the artists who create painted fantasy art and book covers and other graphic designs once the films are out in the culture. The other will be a chat with Dirk Wood about his new imprint from IDW Publishing, and its recent hardback volume of cultural essays and strips called Full Bleed.
Another new print publication about comics and cartoons has started up in the UK, and the launch issue of ComicScene UK includes a piece by me about the animated film Batman Mask of the Phantasm which is now 25 years old. Full-length Batman animated films have chugged on as a cottage industry ever since and wandered far and wide, but the only thing about Phantasm that really shows its age is the flat 2D animation and the lack of colour gradients. Everything else is a story Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams would have been very happy with, and a solid look at Bruce Wayne’s troubled character, including the part of it that gets a kick when Gotham citizens turn the lights on and Batman turns out to have been standing six inches away all the time.
Judge Dredd: no cherubs Dud
All three recent books about the birth of 2000AD point out that MACH 1 was a blatant attempt to make readers think of The Six Million Dollar Man, but since Enio Legisamòn put a very Lee Majors-ish face on the character for page one it was hardly a state secret to anyone reading on the school playground at the time. From four decades down the time tunnel, MACH 1 might be more successful at the comic’s two stated aims – cash in on sci-fi while alarming British adventure comics as much as possible – than most of the other stuff in Prog 1, just by being such an enthusiastic cash-in itself. Rebellion has collected the first year or so in a new volume, where the constant churn of artists and writers doesn’t do as much damage as I remembered – partly since I had forgotten that the strip is utterly nuts. It’s boys adventure comics for boys delirious with fever, or dreaming of receiving six hundred pounds worth of cybernetics from some branch of the Callaghan government and marrying Farrah Fawcett. I reviewed the collection for Tripwire.
Also at the same venue: a review of the latest Judge Dredd Case Files collection which covers 1999 into 2000, and by my sums might be the last to contain stories only published by Fleetway before Rebellion swung in through the window on ropes. Those books mentioned above make it clear that a lot of creators felt the period before that happened was desultory, and of course they should know. But Dredd has always occupied his own tonal niche isolated from properly wayward editorial whims, a niche shaped very much like writer John Wagner. (Dredd’s counterpart, Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson, had the luxury of taking months or years off here and there, and her stories over the same period in the hands of Alan Grant were properly ambitious.) Dredd gets back into humorous mode a few times here, but the book includes Wagner and Henry Flint’s story from March 2000 in which the residents of a city tower block respond to their unsafe building and uncaring politicians by committing enthusiastic mass suicide, which in a current light is practically Swiftian. You would need to be sure of your critical footing to say that a period which put that on the shelves of WHSmith had failed to do its cultural duty.
Kate Felix, NEPD Blue: art by Paul Grist
Tom Spurgeon asked for stand-out issues in favourite runs of serial comics, and inevitably most of mine were from old Marvels by Steve Englehart, who used to throw single pivot-point issues into storylines which were rolling eternally onwards like a man who understood why soap-operas are an art form of their own. Another one was much more recent, the flashback issue of Kane where Paul Grist planted a young version of Kate Felix into the storyline her adult self had been wading through for three years. Paul Grist is a modern comics master and Kane is a spectacular – if incomplete – success, as anyone on the receiving end of my lecture on the subject five years ago will know.
My admiration for Paul Grist’s art is in no way diminished by the fact that I can tell more or less how he made it, but I’m happy to leave the exact chain of events Clint Langley goes through to produce his artwork for ABC Warriors as a mystery. Photo-references and digital manipulation seem to be involved, but beyond that it might as well be sorcery, especially if you go back and look at his earlier pencil and ink work which is recognisably by a kindred spirit but apparently by a completely different hand. I spent years being sniffy about both photo-references and digital manipulation, but it turned out I just hadn’t come across them in the right venue. In 2000AD Langley’s style aligned with the comic’s existing use of painted art and spliced it with a less expected European tradition of sci-fi excess, recalling both but without directly copying either. His first work on ABC Warriors has been reprinted once more and I reviewed it for Tripwire, realising again why the strip has been pretty much roped off from anyone else ever since.
Natalie Portman, via Luc Besson and Dan Brereton
Dan Brereton’s new portfolio book In The Night Studio arrived just as Tom Spurgeon asked for suggestions of great cover artists and also just as I happened to see again the terrific 1999 painting by Brereton of a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in Leon. Brereton loves monsters and a particular strand of gothic horror, but his portraiture is just as individual, going beyond resemblance and into characterisation. He did a painting of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood that makes the sheriff look like an icon carved out of dented hickory, and his versions of comicbook characters work a similar trick. In an earlier studio book there’s a picture of Iron Man as a primitivist golem against a thunderous sky, a ton of implacable matt statuary that might have wandered in from Zardoz, the colours in the armour seeming like seams in rock. All pretty much the opposite pole from the slick silicon techno-cop Tony Stark is usually portrayed as for ease of identification. Brereton’s version of Hela, one of the most striking female designs Jack Kirby ever came up with, has all the formidable otherness of the original but with an added delicious louche sensuality that Kirby never embraced easily, and to say that the Cate Blanchett version in Thor Ragnarok is a pale imitation isn’t the half of it.
Accurate resemblance is more to the point in The Beatles Story, the latest British comic from the past to be spruced up by Rebellion’s archiving project. It spins through the story of the band at a hectic sprint and leaves most of the messy complications out of it, although perhaps that’s fair enough for a strip that appeared in Look-In during 1981. Arthur Ranson’s photo-likenesses were a feature of other Look-In strips too, but most of those were fiction. Here, when he draws Yoko Ono looming out of half a panel’s worth of spotted black, he’s doing it with at least some commentary on real life. I reviewed it for Tripwire, remembering the days when comic strips were part of mass cultural education about things happening over the horizon, not to mention the days when that rescue mission took place in high-street newsagents.
John and Yoko, via Arthur Ranson and the void
Shaky Kane art: good news all round
For Tripwire I read Brink Book One, Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s sci-fi crime story now collected from 2000AD, which dresses an old-fashioned 1980s style police procedural in very modern blazing colour fields with art that owes a good deal to animation. Brightly lighted noir is an under-explored arena compared to the dark and shadowy version, although Abnett opts to underplay the political dimension and element of class conflict to the point where they could almost be optional extras – but most certainly are not.
Abnett also writes 2000AD‘s Grey Area, where issues of migration and cultural prejudice aren’t subtext so much as simply text. But outside of the strips written by Pat Mills – who still hasn’t met a status quo well worth overturning – the comic’s revolutionary instincts have to fit within distinctly mainstream borders these days, and the occasional suggestion from the editorial office that 2000AD still gets all up in The Man’s grill like it’s 1977 are a bit quaint. I recently devoured IDW’s Artisan Edition of Wally Wood’s EC Comics stories, collecting the original pencil art straight from the artist’s boards, and the social stresses of late Fair Deal America and convulsions of the Korean War bubble under every brush stroke of Wood’s sci-fi artwork in ways that its distant descendants in modern 2000AD can’t really emulate. The distinction is even more stark in the war comics created by Wood with Harvey Kurtzman. I had never read Atom Bomb! from 1953’s Two-Fisted Tales #33 before, with its negative-space US-borne apocalypse arriving on page one and a deliberately ambiguous happy ending on page seven that’s so fragile and conflicted the ink still seems wet, but it’s hard to see how a modern culture drenched in irony can possibly approach Thanatos in the same way today.
The trick is to find a different way, and for that there’s Good News Bible, a titanic collection of strips by Shaky Kane from old issues of Deadline so densely personal that it arrives on the page direct from the artist’s laboratory without exposure to the outside air at all. Kane’s recent work has corralled his Kirby-ish power within workable frames and tangible lines, channeling something of EC Comics’ sci-fi intensity, but these old Deadline strips are messy and unruly and quite a handful, the jagged lines generating something close to tangible static charge. David Hine, Kane’s recent collaborator, told The Comics Journal that “the best works of art always leave things unresolved,” and Good News Bible is chimeric in ways that can only come from authentic artistic inspiration and its messy scars, not the blunt calculations of your average savage pencil. Plus Deadline had its own Last Days Of Thatcher axes to grind – “gazing into the abyss that was 1989” says the new frontispiece – and Kane’s strips about the puritanical A-Men, licensed to kick your door in and order you to cease fornicating on the authority of Chief Constable James Anderton’s Turin-style death shroud, are rendered in thick pools of black that you stare into like a suddenly dark room after the lights go out. Then the later strips leave narrative behind, turning to montage and cut-ups and typography, fraught personal investigations of frustration and self-image with which the reader just has to reach an accommodation on whatever terms can be agreed. Throughout, men of principle find those principles to be fragile and riven with fault lines, and often end up slumped against the wall in a characteristic pose. Since not the least bit of knowledge I acquired in connection with the book is that James Anderton is actually still around, Kane’s thumping pencils and their vertiginous density have a suitably modern resonance in an era when honest ambiguity has gone horribly out of fashion. Dannii Minogue is still around too, her Home and Away-era cultural presence having been tipped into Kane’s artistic blender to emerge on these pages once or twice. If the entirely gracious response from her at the time and included here is above board, the younger Minogue has a sense for the tides of underground cartooning much as her sister reads the course of haute couture.
The Nocturnals: nighty night
Kickstarter poses problematic questions about the making of art for both ends of the production line – it fudges the role of risk-taker and the question of whose responsibility the risk actually is at the same time – but when someone like Dan Brereton stages crowd-funding campaigns and they overshoot their targets by a mile, the net good of connecting an artist infrequently spotted in the wild with a fan-base is hard to argue with. It’s also a way for characters like the Nocturnals to return to print, continuing a long-term project of Brereton’s that more or less had me at hello back in the 1990s. The Nocturnals ride again in The Sinister Path, a full length graphic novel which I read for Tripwire, and whose faults I completely forgive for the chance to examine the current version of Brereton’s evolving style of painted art, now a bit more expressionistic and flexible than it used to be, as well as the boho-chic of the ghost named Polychrome. If she can junk the greatcoat learn to smile, so can the rest of us.
At the same place: some words about Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 29, strips which find 2000AD‘s main man looking his city’s social and political forces in the eye. He interprets what he sees differently than anyone reading it, now or then, but that’s because these reprints are from 1998-1999, and writers Wagner and Grant are looking out of the window.
One-Eyed Jack: duck season
Surfacing from the oceans of 1970s British comics as part of Rebellion’s current salvage operation comes police detective Jack McBane, curing New York’s crime problem one .44 Magnum-sized entry wound at a time. John Wagner created One-Eyed Jack
when Judge Dredd
was just a gleam in the writer’s eye, although the conspicuously rigid moral code and ballistic approach to justice makes the connection between the strips too tempting to resist. But One-Eyed Jack
‘s roots are more interesting than its descendants. As well as giving his creation a name adjacent to Ed McBain, Wagner knew the air of enchanted alarm about 1975 New York brewing in British kids who were observing the place through endless episodes of Kojak
, and picturing all American cops as the guy called Dirty Harry
in something too X-rated to get into. Harry would never have squeezed himself into a luggage locker just so he could leap out and shoot the criminal who opened the door; but when McBane does it, it’s cue Lalo Schifrin all the same. I read and reviewed the reissued comic for Tripwire
The Leopard From Lime Street is another reprint in the same series and from a similar era, this time from Buster. In theory the big-hearted boy scratched by a radioactive leopard is a character aimed at a young audience, but the cues that writer Tom Tully takes from Stan Lee include the one about aiming above his readers’ heads and carrying them upwards in the draught.
And at the same place, a quick look at Dredd/Anderson: The Deep End, three comics stories set in the world of the 2012 Dredd film. As it happens I liked Dredd a lot, although it was four and a half years ago and spin-offs from it at this stage might have something to do with keeping the breadth of a live-action Dredd property on display just as a Mega-City One TV show starts to move forward. It’s not as if the comic hasn’t mapped Cassandra Anderson’s early days nicely already, but the character is one of the few that’s rich enough for all the parallel what-ifs to stay appealing.
The Last American: nuclear states
Each era’s flavour of imminent extinction is different, but the sour taste of 1980s nuclear anxiety comes back pretty quickly while reading The Last American, Marvel’s 1990 Epic Comics series just republished by Rebellion. A post-apocalyptic road trip with one human being and one inevitable destination, it’s a howl of unhappiness on the part of its creators, and since they happen to be British it has the same air of brutalised trans-Atlantic complicity that powered other anti-war petitions like the BBC’s Threads half a decade previously. Exposure to a pop-culture that’s operating without an irony safety-net is now an automatic time-warp and alien enough to give you vertigo, and it’s not just the calendar that makes the book feel like art at the end of its tether, or possibly just at a dead-end; but equally, some of the book is performative and caricatured enough to count as war poetry under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. And if humane compassion ever stops being a net positive in art, then we’re all in trouble anyway. I reviewed it for Tripwire and tried to give it its due.
At the same venue: 2000AD gave US superheroes short shrift at one point, its founders inclined to fend off fascistic do-goodery with sticks. A new selection of Judge Dredd’s run-ins with recognisable Ubermenschen of one kind or another shows how views of the superhuman brigade have shifted – towards the favourable, to no great surprise.
And: the Slaine strip has featured great artists before, but Simon Davis is just about the perfect fit.
Five comics characters who lost a little something of themselves, via Tom Spurgeon.