Propaganda Reviews: Not even my own sacred cows are sacred anymore
I’m Richard Bruton; ex of Nostalgia & Comics Birmingham, currently blogging up here (or down there to me! – Joe) in Yorkshire at Fictions. And this is Propaganda; a regular series of reviews of whatever I’ve been reading over the last few weeks. This time around; Bryan Talbot’s greatest work (up until April 2007), Magical rebirths with Buffy & Hellblazer, proof that writing is in the Moore genes and the unthinkable happens as I find myself not liking something by Grant Morrison.
The Tale of One Bad Rat
Bryan Talbot became known for Luther Arkwright & his sci-fi, vertigo fantasy work. I particularly love the original Adventures of Luther Arkwright; it’s a spectacular piece of comic storytelling, absolutely revolutionary for it’s time and was certainly influential on the writing of many, many great British writers. But for a time it seemed like Bryan was stuck in a single style, a single genre. Granted, he did it magnificently well, but there was a feeling that Arkwright was his career highpoint.
(cover for the second issue of the Valkrie edition of Luther Arkwright, from Bryan’s official site gallery)
It was only really with the publication of The Tale of One Bad Rat it became obvious he was capable of an entirely different tale.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is the beautiful and moving story of Helen; a young runaway, abused by family, beaten and broken by life. She has just two good things in her young life; her pet rat and a love of the books of Beatrix Potter. These two things carry the young, injured Helen through an abusive home to dismal squats in London until taking her finally to the landscaped splendour of the Lake District. It is here where she has to come to terms with her shattered life.
Talbot creates both real beauty and real sadness within the book as he takes the reader along with Helen on a journey to find a home, a sense of place & true happiness. Talbot’s art rose to another level with this book, his highly detailed pencils were allowed to flow a little more and the artwork becomes more fluid and expressive, ideal for this touching, human story.
If you don’t know Bryan Talbot’s work this is a great place to start; if you’re an Arkwright fan, this is a wonderful deviation from what you’ve come to expect and whoever you are, existing fan or not, this is a perfect example of the sort of story comics should be telling. Quite marvellous and until now, this was the undoubted pinnacle of Bryan’s career.
But Bryan’s latest work; Alice in Sunderland is out now and is looking like a good bet for book of the year based on the write ups I’ve seen so far. I’ve not been back to Nostalgia & Comics to pick up my copy yet, but I’m looking forward to clearing a huge chunk of time when I get hold of it to properly enjoy it. (you can read an interview on the blog where Bryan discussed One Bad Rat and Alice in Sunderland here – Joe)
Plot: Alan Moore,
Script: Leah Moore & John Reppion
Art: Shane Oakley, George Freeman
When this was announced I got a little nostalgic buzz of excitement; Alan Moore writing the classic British superheroes from Lion, Valiant, Vulcan and the rest of the IPC comics I never was old enough to read as a kid. The solicitation for the first issue had me wondering how good it was going to be:
“Britain never had any super-heroes. It had something much stranger: a collection of paragons, monsters, and clowns that vanished a quarter century ago, never to be seen again. Who were Robot Archie and the Steel Claw? Who was Captain Hurricane, or the Spider? And where have they been for 25 years? Find out in the spectacular and historic first issue of Albion!”
Of course, when more details came out about it, it suddenly started to look a little less promising. Alan was only providing the plot as a fatherly favour to his daughter and partner-in-law who were doing the actual scripting. It had all come about because of the deal DC comics did with IPC. IPC were looking at a way to get their characters published again, DC wanted the same, Shane Oakley had long been a huge fan of the characters and had a word with Alan Moore, Alan and DC were still talking back then and it seemed Alan had a few ideas about a quick series.
And that’s when I quickly lost interest. It seemed like it was to be yet another quick idea series. Like all of those Avatar reprints where they take one line of Alan Moore dialogue and get a 64 page square bound book out of it. But after reading a few people’s good reviews of the book I decided I should pick up a copy of the collection and give it a go.
And I’m very glad I did. It’s certainly no Watchmen but it has definite touches of Alan Moore’s style about it. However, it’s Leah and John’s book, and their writing style works really well on what is obviously a labour of love for all concerned, a chance to play with some fantastically strange characters and whatever faults are there on the page can simply be put down to either beginners nerves or a little bit of stage fright.
(page of Art for Albion by Shane Oakley – check his interview on Down The Tubes for more)
The simple premise is that all the old IPC characters, with the daft names and slightly strange, slightly disturbing powers and abilities, are all real and have been at large for many years on this Albion Earth. But 25 years ago most of them went missing, shipped to an isolated castle full of super beings and their incredibly dangerous weapons. Young Danny, a comic-loving waster, and Penny Dolmann; daughter of one of the interred find themselves locked into a mission to find out what has become of Britain’s forgotten heroes.
It’s a wonderfully entertaining romp through British superhero history structured like a good heist story always is; with the setup, the planning, the break-in at the castle and the resulting chaos all handled with style. If there’s one criticism of the book, it’s a common one with these sorts of heist stories, once the plotting and set-up is over and the actual action takes place, it loses something and almost peters out towards the end.
But Albion is exciting in the same way that Shaun of the Dead was or, if you want a comic reference, it really smacks of Grant Morrison’s lost epic for 2000AD: Zenith. Full of manic characters and a fast paced story with nice twists and turns and great touches of dialogue.
Of course, Shane Oakley’s art is a major part of the enjoyment here. Shane’s one of those artists who we all thought had just left comics. His art is gorgeously, expressively angular and was never to everyone’s taste but I’ve loved it from way back; he first lit up my eyes with his wonderful work on the second volume of MrX from Vortex comics back in 1989 and I’ve long wished he’d do more comics work. Of course, at this point I should run a bit of Shane’s work, but I did that earlier so I’m going to abuse my position and post my favourite ever comics cover to MrX#1 (below). Okay, so it’s by Brendan McCarthy and not Shane but what the hell, isn’t it lovely…?
Hellblazer # 230
Writer – Andy Diggle, Art – Leonardo Manco
Since the very earliest days, John Constantine (the Hellblazer of the title) has been a character imbued with a unique sense of Britishness. He’s a cockney wide-boy magician and his nature, his essence is his unique voice; he’s the shadowy figure on the sidelines, controlling the action, manipulating the players and never really revealing either his feelings or his motivations. He may be one of the most powerful magicians on the planet or he might just be a talented con artist. The trick is that you never really know.
And for many years he was well served with talented British creators; Alan Moore created Constantine in Swamp Thing, writing him as an occult Sting type, Jamie Delano continued in a very similar style writing some fantastic stories that are only just being collected again. And following Delano came Garth Ennis with possibly the best damn Constantine story there has ever been: Dangerous Habits. This is the defining Constantine book for me and undoubtedly the one you should start with. Constantine, the swaggering magician gets news that he’s going to die, not through something glamorous and arcane but by something as mundane and normal as lung cancer. But as this is Constantine, his solution to this problem is a stunning, audacious game with the Devil. From this point on Garth Ennis took a great character and made it into a classic.
But from then on, every writer to take the character on seemed to fail. It just didn’t read right, especially when written by a non-Brit. One of the strongest aspects of Constantine’s magic was its link to Britain and specifically London. And given Alan Moore’s high ranking in wizarding circles the possibility of some psycho-geography type spell linking Constantine with London is not out of the question. Mike Carey’s recent run was alright, but the stand out issues in the last few years were in the all too short Warren Ellis run. He instantly brought the character back to greatness, with a fag on the go and a cheeky yet dangerous “Alright, Guv.”
(cover to new edition of Delano’s Hellblazer: the Devil You Know, art by Glen Fabry)
Which brings us to issue #230, which, shockingly, is nearly 150 issues after Garth Ennis’ run on the book. Thank god for Andy Diggle. The writer of the great Vertigo series The Losers takes over as writer and immediately puts a little spark back onto the title.
(cover to the first volume of The Losers: Ante Up by Andy Diggle, art by Jock)
From the gorgeous Lee Bermejo cover onto the first page establishing shot of Big Ben and the Thames it becomes pretty obvious that Diggle plans to re-establish Constantine as the great character, the great British, great London character he’s always been. On the basis of this first issue, the character is in safe hands. About time too.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1
Written by Joss Whedon
This is the first issue of the much hyped new Buffy comic, written by Joss Whedon and continuing the Buffy mythos from where the TV series finished. It’s billed as Season 8 and has sold out all over the place.
So far, 2007 is turning into a good year for crossover comics; those comics that actually succeed in reaching beyond the existing comics audience and getting new readers to venture into the shop. Of course, this only really works if the comic isn’t so awful that it instantly puts the new reader off comics for life. And, unlike the last crossover comic I reviewed; the absolutely awful Dark Tower (reviewed earlier here), Buffy isn’t all that bad.
Of course, because it’s season 8 it’s almost completely inaccessible to readers who aren’t already fans of the show, which is a little self-limiting. Luckily for me I got into Buffy a few years ago when my little girl was littler and had colic. All I could do was lie on the sofa with her perched on my chest and let her cry and cry and cry (and cry). Her colicy time coincided with Buffy on BBC2 which was the perfect distraction for me, something completely easy on the brain and on the eye.
(preview page of the first issue of the new Buffy from Dark Horse’s site)
Which, co-incidentally, is exactly how you could describe this first issue of the comic book. The story itself isn’t quite what you may be expecting if you’ve followed the series. Whedon has embraced the limitless potential of comics and gone big budget in a way he never could in the series. So we have a skydiving Buffy heading her revolutionary army of Slayers, backed up by an impressively high tech support network, headed up by Xander, doing his best Nick Fury impression. Willow is nowhere to be seen, which is unfortunate, because Dawn is stuck as a 30ft giantess owing to a disagreement with some magical creature or other.
Essentially it’s a series opener, with all the introductions and exposition this entails. Of course, with the rather faster pace of comics, the issue actually reads like the first 10 minutes of the average Buffy episode, but it’s a very good 10 minutes. Unlikely to set the world alight, perhaps. But still a fun little read particularly for Buffy fans.
The Authority # 1 & 2
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Gene Ha
Back in November 2006, just after moving up to Pocklington, Authority #1 arrived as part of a lovely Nostalgia & Comics care package. Writing at the time I had this to say:
This is the set up issue to beat them all. The only glimpse you get of the Authority is the cover. And that is a good thing. There’s a disaster in the Norwegian Sea, a sub goes down and the rumour is that terrorists are on board. So it’s up to poor Ken and his mates to dive down and figure out what’s gone on. Ken and his mates are expecting lots of bodies. But they’re not expecting an almost empty ship, a bright glowing door type thing and another, rather large, ship to be down there.
And that’s it.
Issue 1 over with. Of course, we all know that this other ship; 50 miles long, 20 miles high is the Carrier. The Authority’s ship somehow stranded on Earth.
But what’s going to set this one apart is when Grant gets round to showing us which Earth they’ve come down on. I’m expecting great things of this one. All the reviews I’ve read online are really rather scathing about it, but they seem to be missing the point. It’s an issue to set up the story. It’s necessary to really build up the tension for the inevitable huge reveal next issue.
That was back then. Issue 2 has been delayed and delayed and eventually arrived a little while ago. I have no idea whether script or art is the reason for the lateness, but I was genuinely looking forward to reading it.
(cover to the Invisible Volume1: Say You Want a Revolution by Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson et al)
At this point I should really point out that I have a critical blind spot where it comes to Grant Morrison. He is the Sacred Cow I mention at the start of this Propaganda. I freely acknowledge that I have a blind devotional love of his work (hard to blame someone for that – Joe). As far as I was concerned there wasn’t a thing he could write that wouldn’t be worth reading. In fact, much of his work remains some of my favourite comics work ever; Invisibles, We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. Classics all. He’s long been one of my favourite writers and I can’t really bring myself to find fault with anything he’s written. Until now.
The Authority issue 2 took an interesting concept and just blew it completely. It’s a badly written mess. The simple concept of taking the Authority and stranding them on our Earth is a lovely idea, but it just fails to work. The pacing seems rushed, yet the dialogue seems static and flat. Maybe I need more issues; maybe I should wait until the book comes out to judge. But on the evidence of issue 2 I’m not going to be picking up any more issues to see if it improves.
(cover to the Authority: Relentless by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary)
I think some of the problem is that Warren Ellis’ 12 issues on the title, collected as Relentless and Under New Management are as perfect as you’re going to get when it comes to this sort of high concept, widescreen action superhero book. With the Authority, Warren Ellis created a clever, ultra-hip, summer blockbuster of a comic. It’s all fight scenes and snappy dialogue, incredibly fast to read, pure brain candy, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless. Everything since then for these characters has been a complete let down. Perhaps this is the one book Grant shouldn’t have touched?
But the very worst thing about the book is the art. What the hell has happened to Gene Ha? His work on Alan Moore’s Top 10 was expressive, flowing and made each of Moore’s perfectly paced pages a visual delight. Here, Gene Ha is unrecognisable. The art is static; his figures are just horrible pastiches of real people and honestly look worse as the comic goes on. Page after page of increasingly badly drawn figures mostly drawn against non-existent backgrounds. Given that this book is over 4 months late I would have expected it to look a little less like Gene Ha had done the whole thing in a couple of days. There’s something horribly wrong with the production on the art and colours as well, pages washed out, pages of blacks rendered with too much contrast. The whole art package on the comic is a complete mess.
I’m sure I’ll look in on this again when it gets collected, but until that reappraisal, I’m a very disappointed Grant Morrison acolyte.