Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Dylan Williams of Sparkplug Comics needs your support!

As many of you may already be aware, Dylan Williams who runs Sparkplug Comics has fallen quite seriously ill. Unlike the UK, where we have a free state provided health care system, Dylan is based in the USA and will have to pay medical bills. He's but a humble cartoonist and underground comics publisher, and could really use your support. Lucky for you, you can do this by buying comics directly from Sparkplug.

Why should you care? Well, Sparkplug are one of the finest examples of an underground publisher doing what they do for all the right reasons. Dylan isn't out to make buckets of cash, or publish fancy tomes for your coffee table; he's far more concerned with publishing comics that push honest self expression. If ever there was someone doing it out of pure love of the medium, it's Dylan.

I'd like to urge you to please go buy some comics from Sparkplug, even if you buy just one thing it'll be a massive help. I've made a quick 'Top 5 personal favourites' list with links to reviews of the books we've featured. All of the below are absolutely essential for any discerning comic book fan and can be purchased from Sparkplug Comics here.

1. Inkweed by Chris Wright

What we said: "Haunting multi-layered stories, laced with gothic overtones and visual symbolism".

2. Eschew (1-2) by Robert Sergel

What we said: "The beauty of Sergel's work lies in its careful use of layout and timing; in its formalisation of the everyday, transforming the mundane into a series of taught parallel lines and carefully crafted geometric forms".

The Heavy Hand by Chris C Cilla

What we said: "The Heavy Hand embraces a skewed feverish dream logic, spewing forth puzzle pieces that point towards some unfathomable truth just beyond the reader's grasp".

4. Reich (1-8) by Elijah Brubaker

What we said: "Elijah J. Brubaker’s elegant and investigative biography of the notorious Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich".

5. Asthma by John Hanckiewicz

What we said: Well, not an awful lot, but the buzz around this book has been incredible. I'm off to pick up a copy myself. Right now...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Broadcasts from beyond the Rim - Decadence Comics round up

In early November last year I stumbled upon some truly exceptional comics by Bristol based creator Lando. He had a table at Thought Bubble comic con in Leeds, and I can confidently say that nothing else I saw that day came close to the quality of his comics. My only regret is that it’s taken me this long to get round to writing about his work and his 'Decadence Comics' imprint. At the time, I remember beings pretty burned out on comics. Very little had grabbed me in the months running up to the con, so I was looking for something to re-invigorate my interest in the medium. Coming across the Decadence Comics table was a welcome slap in the face, and a poignant reminder that the UK has some truly outstanding underground comics talent.

Lando’s work draws heavily on European sci-fi comics, most notably the comics of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) circa 1970-80. He explores the same kind of progressive vision that Giraud and France’s Metal Hurlant magazine were championing thirty-six years ago; tracing out the barren landscapes of frontier sci-fi with a distinct visual flair. Lando's largely silent comics deal in alien worlds and cultures, with no concessions given to those not versed in alien tongues. In his 'Untranslated' series of comics, exchanges between characters are represented with glyphs and streaks of telepathic energy. Body language and strong visual cues get the job done, without the need for large swathes of unnecessary dialogue. Lando’s style is open and loose, almost skeletal at times, but with an eye for sweeping landscapes peppered with detail.

His stories read like interplanetary news broadcasts; a parade of monochrome footage beamed back from war torn worlds beyond our galaxy. There are flashes of Joe Haldeman's classic sci-fi novel 'The Forever War', as worn out soldiers face off against an alien enemy they barely understand. Elsewhere, a tribe of shaggy creatures wage war against a giant godlike floating head, think a parallel universe Zardoz and you're half way there. The devastated vistas of Lando’s fantasy worlds are comparable to those of our own and could have just as easily been lifted from news coverage of Afghanistan or Iraq. In all three issues of ‘Untranslated’, the ravages of war are painfully apparent, but most of all, it’s the futility of armed conflict that Lando drives home with great eloquence.

Stathis Tsemberlidis is another like minded artist published by Lando's Decadence Comics imprint. Stathis creates sumptuous surrealistic sci-fi comics that draw form the same melting pot, but with a thoughtful philosophical bent that recalls Jodorowsky's films of the same period.

In his comics 'MOA-192B' and 'ALPHA', death and rebirth are played out in the most inhospitable of environments, where astronauts explore desolate worlds in search of something greater than themselves. His depiction of space exploration is steeped in wonder, but is tempered in brutal fashion by the crippling physical forces of space that are brought bear upon his characters.

Many meet with death but are always reborn in other forms, becoming part of the ecosystem that ensnared them or journeying onwards to higher planes. Behind the often unsettling psychedelic web of imagery, Tsemberlidis' focus seems to be on the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. There’s a striving towards an unseen higher force that his character never quite reach, instead returning to the physical world to be begin over again.

I’ve always felt there was distinct lack of intelligent sci-fi in modern comics, especially for a medium where practically anything can be depicted, no matter how fantastic or alien. Whilst I’ll happily concede that there are a number of creators currently writing excellent independent sci-fi, it’s still worth acknowledging that this is but a very small piece of the bigger comics pie. With this in mind, it’s reassuring to see such strong talent emerging from the underground to champion the all too often denigrated science fiction genre.

Review by MD.

Quick Links:

Decadence Comics
P.S. Here's Lando's utterly killer animated music video:

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Pride comes before a fall - Reich #8

Elijah Brubaker’s superb comic exploration of Wilhelm Reich’s remarkable life and work comes to perhaps its most critical stage, when his scientific efforts came under the scrutiny of both the American press and its government in the late 1940s. The benign, almost complacent figure that Reich cuts on the sepia-toned cover gives no clue to the chaos that is about to engulf him; it acts as a final moment of safety before the world descends on him.

Brubaker chillingly conveys Reich’s wariness of the press and its invasiveness in an exchange with the journalist Mildred Brady:

Reich: “Much of my trouble in Europe was caused by the press and I have no urge to see my name in print outside my own publication”

Brady: “I assure you doctor, you have nothing to worry about.”

As Reich continues to outline his postwar experiments - into cancer research, his 'discovery' of 'bions' and later development of 'Orgone energy accumulators' - he is at pains to explain himself fully, and corrects Brady when her inevitable sensationalist instincts manifest themselves. As if his pride came before the fall, Reich cannot seem to recognize the danger he has placed himself in.

We as readers sense immediately that he is about to become the victim of a monumental hatchet job by Mildred Brady, via scathing articles in Harpers and The New Republic in 1947. As ever, pride comes before a fall. The panels devoted to how the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration first came to hear of Reich’s activities bring the restrictive measures of US postwar policy into very sharp focus, reducing Reich to nothing but a “quack” even before they deign to investigate him.

Brubaker’s marvelously evocative artwork manages to convey a dazzling array of scientific detail and biographical exposition with skill and economy, especially the page recalling his arrest and imprisonment under the auspices of the FBI during the Second World War. So much ground is covered, from the birth of his son Peter (later the author of “The Book of Dreams), his reconciliation with his daughter Eva, and his ill-fated association with Albert Einstein, whose conclusions regarding Reich’s breakthroughs with bions were less than encouraging, and deeply damaging to Reich.

The celebrated doctor’s intransigence with members of his own family, with the visit of Eva and their fractious conversation regarding his former wife and friends-turned-enemies brilliantly demonstrates just how isolated Reich is, and how unprepared he is for what will follow. The arrival of FDA agents at his front door in the issue’s final panel coldly prefigures the storm of controversy that will undoubtedly be the focus of issue nine.

That issue is awaited with baited breath and whitened knuckles.

Review by Kevin McCaighy.

Quick links:

Elijah J Brubaker
Sparkplug Comics

Friday, 5 August 2011

Cosmic Rays from Across the Universe

And... we're back.

After a somewhat protracted absence, I'm slowly getting things back on track here at Exquisite Things. To get things rolling again, I’ve got a wonderful selection of comics courtesy of Emix Regulus and Frater Alarph of Microcosmic Comics. Frist up is, 'Deadtime Stories' which collects together a number of short comics and a prose piece by Frater Alarph. The opening comic, 'You Find Yourself Standing on a Lunar Beach' has a free flowing narrative quality; slipping from frame to frame in dream like fashion, etching out those liminal moments between sleep and wakefulness with a graceful fluidity. Nothing is boxed in, with panel boundaries existing only as a wash of brush strokes; suggesting scenes far removed from reality.

The protagonist finds herself on the moon overlooking a lunar sea populated by hundreds of doppelgangers, appearing as both younger and older incarnations of herself, her many faces pasted onto amorphous black bodies. Each has a unique voice of its own, a lifetime of memories forming a sea of opinions that threatens to swamp her. Only when these separate entities begin to merge back together, becoming one with the observer, does she finally find the peace that she seeks.

This phantasmagoric, mystical tone is something that emerges very strongly in all of Emix's comics. Her work ranges from quasi-serious deliberation of spiritual matters to outright silly flights of cosmic fancy. 'Oryza Sativa', for example, sees the author awaken as a grain of rice amongst a bag of 'starchy brethren'. As one grain amongst many, she struggles to assert her individuality but when this is finally achieved, she ends up being cooked into a bowl of rice pudding.

The tone is light and humorous but the end result is strikingly similar to that of the opening comic. Both conclude with the individual finding some sense of unity, even if it is in form of rice pudding! It's thoughtful, sometimes abstracted material, but that should hardly come as a surprise when ‘Deadtime Stories’ deals primarily with dreams and the afterlife.

Frater Alarph contributes a prose piece 'Psychic Club', which relates his experience of attending a psychic group whose aim is to make contact with the dead. Alarph, like Emix draws on similarly ethereal subject matter, but does a fine job of contrasting it with the cold realities of the material world. His bleak urban bus journey to the club, set alongside his ghostly experiences thereafter does much to highlight the strange intersection of inner life versus the outside world. The story is a heady mix of the observational and the haunted, told in a conversational and honest tone that reads like a personal journal. It ads weight and variation to an already accomplished collection of work.

Next up is 'Textrs', a beautifully presented little package of seven miniature illustrated cards. A collaborative effort by Emix and Frater, it’s intended as “a symptomatic and acausal machinery to remove ego-self from the constant flow of time”. Each separate card is a different pattern or texture to get lost in. Many of the cards bearing mandala like designs, inviting subconscious exploration and self induced trance states.

There are subtle nods to Austin Osman Spare’s system of sigilisation, but more than anything 'Textrs' is a visual invitation to clear your mind and do a little inward exploring. Like any artefact of this sort, it’s imbued with a certain power as a result of the artist’s intent. Whether or not you ascribe to this particular aesthetic will depend greatly on your own magickal leanings, but even if you don't connect with these aspects of 'Textrs', you still have six very pretty pieces of card to marvel at.

On the more humorous side of things, Emix's solo comic ‘Strassman Forever’ is just as beguiling as her other work. The presentation is beautiful, with an ornate wrap around cover concealing equally well rendered comics within. 'Strassman Forever' chronicles the adventures of an immortal fabric toy named ‘Strassman’ who transcends the physical form, explores the horrors of the internet and quests on an inter-dimensional Manta Ray to save the Spirulina Crystal.

Emix's art is loose and flowing yet highly detailed, with some truly exceptional forays into the realms of dense fractal forms and symmetrical patterns. In much the same way that her art veers from free flowing to taut symmetrical forms, so too does the content of 'Strassman'. Emix weaves in strands of her own life in the form of short autobiographical snippets. It's equally off kilter stuff, but gives the reader a valuable insight into the overactive imagination that spawned Strassman's adventures.

These mini comics are first class examples of small press publications with high production values, but what makes them really interesting is their preoccupation with the internal world. Behind the flights of fancy and off kilter humour, there's an engaging emotional core at the heart of everything. Whether it’s Strassman’s spiritually tinged high adventure or 'Textrs' sidelong glance at sigil magick and meditation, there’s an ongoing interest in finding spiritual peace in an increasingly chaotic world. Both Emix and Frater strike a good balance between fiction, autobiography and humour. Their comics are insightful and honest, delighting in the absurdity of life and reveling in the little mysteries that sit outside of conventional wisdom and rational thought.

These are deeply lovely early offerings and I sincerely hope there’s something more expansive waiting in the wings that will offer a more prolonged glimpse into their beguiling internal worlds.

Review by Matthew Dick

Related links:

Microcosmic Comics