Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Sparkplug Comics Special - Part 1 - Inkweed

Published in 2008 by Sparkplug Comics, Inkweed is the first collected volume of Chris Wright's comics. Weighing in at a healthy 150 pages, the book contains nine short stories, all produced between 2002 and 2007. Inkweed is the first I'd seen of Wright's work and I couldn't help but come away deeply impressed by the sheer depth and expressiveness of his comics.

Wright’s densely crosshatched pages bristle with life and intensity. There's a wonderful energy to his art, which manages to strike the perfect balance between simple fluid penmanship and prickly claustrophobic textures. His characters are also an utter joy to behold, boasting a bizarre almost bestial quality to their construction; stitched together like living patchwork quilts, one step removed from Frankenstein’s laboratory, replete with unruly tufts of facial hair, strange augmented features and outlandish bodily protrusions.

Making good on Inkweed’s immediate visual promise, Wright displays a similar knack for weaving haunting multi-layered stories, laced with gothic overtones and visual symbolism. Opener, 'The Unmerciful Gift' is a case in point and relates the story of Simon Cletus, an aging artist on the brink of unveiling his latest collection of paintings to an expectant art community. Following a protracted absence from the art world, Simon has little more to show than a collection of blank canvases. However, it soon transpires there's more to Simon's latest artistic venture than first meet the eye.

"Have I dealt with the devil?", Simon asks his wife, starting at a blank canvas.

"Did my night brother commission him?"

"What has he dropped in my ear?"

"Whatever alchemy it's inspired has given me my hearts desire... under the most terrible circumstances".

And so the tale begins to unfold, teasing out the mysteries of Simon's 'paintings' as it progresses. On the surface of things, 'The Unmerciful Gift' would appear to deal with the difficulty of expressing genuine emotion in art, particularly when pandering to the whims of the general public. Simon’s artistic vision seems to extend beyond the grasp of his audience, who instantly set about creating elaborate theories to explain the apparent lack of content. When, in a fit of rage, Simon attempts to make himself understood, we learn that his intent cannot be rendered in paint, nor can it be perceived by his peers, for his is a vision of terrible sadness, loss and despair.

Much like Simon’s paintings, there’s far more to Wright’s narrative you might expect, and with each subsequent examination of "The Unmerciful Gift" I came away with a slightly different interpretation. Whilst it’s entirely possible I may have been reading too much between the lines, I found it to be an extremely dense piece of work, stuffed full of subtle visual pointers and prophetic symbolism.

Like H.P Lovecraft and Arthur Machen before him, Wright draws on elements of the supernatural, imbuing his story with the same sense of eerie otherworldliness. During my reading of ‘The Unmerciful Gift’ I entertained many theories, including the notion that Simon had perhaps entered into some sort of Faustian pact, bartering away his creative spark in exchange for his deepest darkest desires. I also wondered at the significance of Simon’s wife Maude, who is frequently set against empty picture frames.

Perhaps Wright’s protagonist, who experiences terrifying visions at the conclusion of the story, has glimpsed too much of the world beyond the veil. An experience he is clearly at pains to communicate to his fawning audience of fellow artists and well to do friends. Whatever Wright’s ultimate intention, this is a wonderfully well crafted comic, one which will no doubt stand up to numerous re-readings.

The remainder of Inkweed proves to be equally engrossing, offering up a superb selection of short stories. Wright charts the dark depths of unrequited love, lust and human folly. His protagonists range from doddering old intellectuals to vengeful gods, all of whom must eventually face their own personal demons. Whilst the tone is generally one of somber intrigue, Wright does find room for the occasional spot of humor, which helps to prevents things from becoming altogether too maudlin.

Suffice to say, Wright’s work is both visually captivating and intellectually beguiling, and taken as a whole, this collection of comics makes for an incredibly rich exploration of his chosen themes. Inkweed has all the makings of a future classic and deserves to be read by a wide audience. If this sounds like your cup of tea, do head on over to Sparkplug Comics and grab yourself a copy.

Review by Matthew Dick.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Behold, the Freakcave!

23 Years ago twelve strange children were born in England at exactly the same moment. 6 Years Ago the world ended. This is the Story of what happened next”.

So begins Warren Ellis’ and Paul Duffield’s ongoing webcomic Freakangels. Since its launch in February 2008, Ellis and Duffield have been posting six pages a week, delivering a regular dose of rich, post-apocalyptic steampunk. For those of you who haven’t stumbled across Freakangels yet, it takes the basic premise of John Wyndham’s novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and uses it as a launch pad. It should come as no surprise then, that Freakangels plays out like some alternate dimension sequel to Wyndham’s novel, had things turned out a little differently. If Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos had survived, this might just have been their story.

Set amidst the ruins of post-apocalyptic London, a group of disaffected young adults inhabit a drowned world, building a self sufficient hermetic community in the crumbling remains of Whitechapel. Of course Ellis’ band of ‘Freakangels’ are no ordinary young adults, as they all possess telepathic abilities and superhuman powers.

Ellis plays his cards close to his chest, giving only small snippets of information about the wider world outside of Whitechapel. The extended cast are introduced one by one and instead of rushing headlong into plot points and drama, Ellis opts for a tantalisingly slow burning pace that gives up just enough new information to keep you coming back for more every single week.

Unfolding with a near real time feel to events, the comic ambles along at a leisurely pace giving both the characters and environments ample room to breathe. This is Ellis at his most decompressed and to my mind, it works very well indeed. What results is a detailed and well realised world that’s genuinely absorbing and believable. Ellis has thought long and hard about the consequences of the catastrophic floods that have engulfed the world, and London’s flooded geography is rendered with the same care and detail as the characters that inhabit its sodden landscapes.

Ellis’ creates an engaging ensemble cast, all skilfully rendered by Paul Duffield and given life via Ellis’ trademark snappy dialogue and acerbic sense humour. All your favourite Ellis-isms are in full effect and as with much of his work, he doesn’t forget to give us a little of the science behind his fiction, with numerous steam based contraptions making an appearance. The limited technology on display fits the world perfectly and there's a palpable sense of the sheer scarcity of resources and the basic necessities of life.

Paul Duffield’s art matches the quality of the writing and does much to bring the cast of Freakangels to life on the page. Despite working to what must be very tight deadlines, his art is always a wonder to behold, jumping with ease from muted ominous hues and violence to vibrant colours and widescreen depictions of Whitechapel. His fluid line and detailed animation studio style panels are the perfect foil for Ellis' often cinematic storytelling.

All in all, this is excellent work and stands as a shining example of the kind of quality webcomics can deliver. If you’re not already reading Freakangels, then what the hell are you waiting for? There's over a year’s worth of accumulated webcomic goodness just waiting to be devoured. If you do enjoy the comic be sure to check out the hard copy volumes published by Avatar. The second TPB is due to be released this week, so give it a look. This stuff looks even better when printed on dead trees.

You can read Freakangels here.

Review by Matthew Dick.

Friday, 3 April 2009

A very special Blossom - Matt Furie's Boy's Club

I’ll bet Aesop never thought it would come to this. Boy’s Club, the comic creation of American artist Matt Furie, is the logical extreme of comics anthropomorphism, a free-for-all melee of hipster attitude and male bonding, all cloaked in a gaudy sheen of post-modern irony and pop culture referencing. The comic details the everyday antics of a quartet of lovable, brightly coloured slackers - hot dog-loving Andy (“my bad, fellas!”), video game addict Brett, pizza fiend Pepe and the ultra-hedonistic Landwolf – who contend with everything from dust mites and infested leftovers to monumentally bad drug trips with no more than sarcasm and a delirious, half-baked grin at their disposal.

There is no narrative thrust or attempt to give these bug-eyed goofballs any context or back story, and all we are given as readers are short bursts of non-sequitur activity occurring in barren interiors. But from these spare elements, Furie creates a vivid and immediate world for his characters. The world of Boy’s Club is gleefully devoid of anything resembling reality, it’s a place where brightly coloured animal hybrids congregate to play video games, read each-other’s t-shirt slogans (my pick is Pepe’s “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian” shirt), feed cereal to stray birds and then sleep off their hangovers. It’s practically a male paradise, a cocoon designed for maximum loafing and entertainment, isolated from any responsibility – the only reason concerns are where the next slice of pizza will come from. This happy-go-lucky world of arrested adolescence might only be diverting for a few moments if it weren’t for the strength of Furie’s writing and deceptively detailed art.

Furie invests each character with a distinct physical presence from Brett’s loose-limbed athleticism to Pepe’s comically splayed hands and feet, without the need for much in the way of commentary. Indeed, the absence of dialogue lends the an air of silent comedy that plays itself out in choice panels of surrealist fun, notably where the others prod Andy in the back of the head with an unfeasibly long hot dog. There is an overall stillness to the comic that allows the reader to dwell upon every page and panel at their own leisure, whether its Brett’s fashion model antics to Landwolf’s semi-naked indoor skateboarding, or Andy’s skin melting off his face in a clear homage to Robert Crumb. The pop culture references from across the two issues are arbitrary and wide-ranging, from the aforementioned Crumb tribute to “The Neverending Story” (Andy transmogrifies into Falkor the Luck Dragon over six expertly drawn panels) to Michael Jackson via Brett’s pelvis dance routines.

These might be lost on younger comic fans and are surely intended for thirty-something readers like myself to enjoy, and are ramped up in issue two to include macabre internet surfing, a brilliant deconstruction of Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” (beating that horse of a song to death never gets old – ever) and a spectacular page of Landwolf drug use that manages to invoke TV sitcoms “Sister Sister” and “Blossom”, one hit wonders Four Non Blondes AND the immortal “My So-Called Life”! (To digress on “Blossom” for a moment: I always wondered what the hell possessed Dr. John to record the theme song for the appalling show. You know, Dr. John, “The Night Tripper”, the piano mage of New in the hell did he end up so down on his luck that he had to resort to hack work like that?!? It’s not as if he tried to write anything lasting or memorable, unlike John Sebastian’s wonderful title song for the TV show “Welcome Back Kotter”. That song was irritating and as smug as Blossom herself. I only watched it for Six, naturally).

My favourite of the bunch is Landwolf, his selfish, drug-fried immaturity is in stark contrast to the wild-eyed exuberance of the others, but he continually gets his come-uppance at the hands of various substances which are the most bizarre aspects of the comic – his transformation into a real wolf in issue is genuinely unsettling. For me, Boy’s Club is ultimately an exploration of male friendships, the seemingly casual interactions and escapades of the characters connote the very real bonds that tie people together, and that have a resonance that is often hard to judge at first glance. We all know what we’re really saying when we use pop culture shorthand or crack a very bad joke to our best friends, we’re invoking an unspoken, secret language that can only be fully understood if you’d spent years in the company of that person. It is this knowledge that gives Boy’s Club its special and universal charm.

Review by Kevin McCaighy.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Unearthing Old Classics - Through the Habitrails

Even though I’m a mere 8 years into my ongoing love affair with comics, I wanted to take a moment to turn back the clock and focus on one particular book that inspired my ongoing passion for the medium.

The book in question is Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails, and whilst it wasn’t the first comic to make a favourable impression on me, it did mark the beginning of a spate of exploration. Habitrails acted as springboard of sorts, spurring me on to investigate small press and self published comics. Armed with a newfound hunger for the unknown, it wasn’t long before I was reading the work of creators like Carla Speed McNeil, Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, Charles Burns and David B.

As these new vistas opened up before me I fell in love with comics in much the same way I’d fallen in love with music as a teenager. The sheer wealth of beautiful, expressive and idiosyncratic work on offer was intoxicating, and it awakened in me the same sense of excitement and adventure that I’d always associated with discovering new music. Like music, there was always some obscure hidden gem just waiting to be found.

What stuck me about Through the Habitrails was its unique blend of the surreal and the everyday. Nicholson’s art is at turns both hallucinatory and grounded, merging the visually metaphorical with a linear narrative that’s flecked with autobiographical elements. Rendered in stylised black and white, the comic charts its protagonist’s journey through a series of short vignettes, most of which are based in or around the workplace.

The illustration firm where much of the action takes place feels like an amalgam of all the worst offices you’ve ever worked in. The employees of which, are quite literally drained of their creative juices via taps inserted into their bodies, dispensing a steady stream of 'creative fluid' used to feed the office gerbils. If this all sounds a little off the beaten track to you, well, it is, but taken as a whole it operates as an elegant metaphor for the subjugation of creativity in pursuit of a wage.

Nicholson’s nameless protagonist suffers through dull office parties, unrequited love and failed relationships. He copes as best he can, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and finding fleeting moments of solace in his own artistic pursuits. When he discovers he can increase his productivity by immersing himself in beer, he fashions a glass tank around his head to keep himself ‘pickled’ 24/7. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the boundaries between reality and fiction begin to blur, culminating in a dramatic life changing face off with the Gerbil King.

For all its bizarre twists and turns, Through the Habitrails remains an incredibly engaging comic, one which almost anyone will be able to relate to on some level. Stripped back to its bare bones, it deals, quite simply with one man’s struggle to achieve his own creative vision, in a world where we are frequently denied the time to do so. Nicholson offers an often bleak, yet realistic portrayal of life stunted by tedious, soul sucking office work. He asks all the questions and struggles to come up with the answers. His is a journey steeped in disappointment and desperation, but not without a little light at the end of the tunnel. Whilst Through the Habitrails isn’t exactly the most upbeat read, it is rendered with such creative passion that you’ll be glad you were along for the ride. Eight years down the line, I still find myself coming back to Through the Habitrails, which should be testimony enough to its enduring appeal.

If you haven't stumbled across Nicholson's work before, I'd urge you to seek out a copy of Through the Habitrails. To this day, I am still indebted to Mark at Page 45 for recommending the book to me in the first place.

Review by Matthew Dick.