methods

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.

Advertisements

resemblance

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

last bus to summer bay

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.

spirit worlds

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.

unfair cops

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 for Valiant 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.

war story

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.

 

Gallery

disassembled

Five comics characters who lost a little something of themselves, via Tom Spurgeon.

living history

gary groth

Gary Groth: a single forty-year bound

No amount of arm-waving can link the appearance of 2000AD and the creation of Fantagraphics too directly, even though they appeared at almost the same moment. 1976 London was not 1976 Vermont, and rebellious insiders are not rebellious outsiders. 2000AD has always had to fit its inherited air of punky rebellion around life as a corporate brand, and hasn’t resisted that obligation for a while; Fantagraphics has gone from being a proper rouser of rabbles to one of the strongest curators of its art form that we have – the ten-year project to translate Guido Crepax is a full-scale cultural intervention – while still being prepared to take an artistic punt on material that might scare the horses.

But both have survived four decades of turmoil, so both feel like living history when you hold the books in your hand. And now both have an official biography, for the libertarian war stories and near-bankruptcies and court appearances and clarifying who exactly threw sharp objects at whom. I read the two books for Tripwire, and as always the termite art is probably where more of the action is. Neither book has any doubts about the value of making art in the first place, though.

(pic)

punks, not dead

cadet_anderson

Cadet Anderson and friend: futures not so bright

Carlos Ezquerra’s art is essentially caricature, which made me lose my bearings when I first saw it, back while obsessed with the slanty panels and alarming trousers of George Pérez. Now the upsides are much clearer, especially when the style gets buoyed up by current production standards and Ezquerra’s recent design habits – those are two serious characters up there, especially the one on the right who has a lifetime of heroism and agony ahead of her. For Tripwire I read the new Cadet Anderson collection from 2000AD, which didn’t make me change my dim view of prequel stories, but didn’t damage my admiration for Alan Grant either.

And: Martians invade and England prevails in Scarlet Traces, leading to a great many Victorian faces caught in flashes of fright, which happens to be one of D’Israeli’s areas of expertise.

And: several months of 1998 Judge Dredd collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 28, some of which is smothered by the year of its creation to the point of oxygen starvation. Retrospective satire is always lumbered with knowledge of all the cyclical failures that followed – barring the odd outlier like Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, which hovers above irrelevance on an updraught of pure dissatisfaction –  so the news that Mega-City One politics includes a Liar Party prompts a muted response in light of all events on planet Earth everywhere at the time or since. On the other hand, John Wagner and Ezquerra’s close look at Judge Galen DeMarco’s workplace dilemmas is timelessly potent. Soap opera with a purpose.

mystic twangs

sam waterston as richard helms

Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast

Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.

And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.

Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.

doctor-strange-concept-art

As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.

If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.

Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.