Desert Island Comics – Episode 34 – James Lovegrove
Here at FPI, we have a series of islands somewhere in the Pacific (and you thought the International in the name was just because of the New York branch) that we’re slowly populating with various people associated with the comics medium.
Of course, we’re not monsters, we’ll give them all the essentials for life on the island, but most importantly for the FPI Blog we give them a choice of 8 of their favourite comics. You may accuse us of ripping off the idea from a long running radio show. We couldn’t possibly comment.
The latest victim of our dastardly plan is author James Lovegrove, author of novels, short stories, and books for children and young adults.
His work includes the recent Pantheon series, standalone military-SF featuring high-tech hardware and ancient Gods from around the world, the most recent of which, Age Of Aztec was published earlier in 2012, whilst the next, Age Of Voodoo is due to be published in spring 2013.
He has also written the first two volumes in a trilogy of novels about a policeman who tackles vampires and vampire-related crimes —Redlaw and Redlaw: Red Eye.
His most recent book for children is the first in a proposed series Ford & Keane; The Black Phone, published August 2012.
He’s also working on a new Titan Books release; Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff Of Nightmares, due for publication in autumn 2013.
As well as his fiction writing, he somehow finds the time to review fiction (especially children’s, SF, fantasy, horror and graphic novels) for the Financial Times. And many of you will be reading and enjoying his excellent contributions to Comic Heroes, where he writes a column judging “criminally crappy comics”, among other things.
Desert Island Comics – Episode 34 – James Lovegrove
I could populate this entire list with Alan Moore titles, just as I could populate an entire list of Desert Island Discs with Bowie tracks. Promethea just edges out Watchmen and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen by virtue of its being strange and experimental and at the same time comprehensible and utterly compelling.
The issues where Promethea travels through the Tarot and the Kabbalah, learning as she goes, must have looked like commercial and critical suicide to the editors at America’s Best Comics, but in fact they’re beautiful artefacts – thanks in no small part to the brave, intricate artwork by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray – and about as succinct and engaging an examination of mysticism as you could ever hope to find. Moore uses sequential art in ways that nobody has before, for instance the double-page-spread Möbius strip in #15, where two characters walk in an infinite loop engaged in a dialogue that might begin and end anywhere during their journey, or the way #12 fuses anagrams, the Major Arcana and a joke told by Aleister Crowley into a single image spread across 24 pages. Comics’ greatest writer is here testing the medium to destruction and beyond, to produce something breathtakingly new.
It shouldn’t work: a series of private-eye tales set in 1950s America and using anthropomorphic animals. At the very least it should be a comedy. But with Blacksad, Spanish creators Juan Díaz Canales (script) and Juanjo Guarnido (art) instead turn in a beautiful, dark set of stories, full of the pathos, violence and tragedy that we have come to expect from the noir genre. That the characters happen to have the heads and temperaments of various different species of animal is almost incidental.
Canales uses the conceit to subtle but brilliant effect. Blacksad himself is – literally – a cool cat, a loner who’s always ready for a scrap and usually lands on his feet. In one volume, Arctic Nation, there’s a cunning dissection of far-right racist politics where the white supremacists are all arctic creatures.
Guarnido’s watercolour illustrations are a joy to behold, detailed and lush, with an unparalleled use of colour and shadow. His women are achingly sexy, his storytelling impeccable.
I came to Kirby’s Fourth World saga only recently. Like many, I dismissed the King’s post-Marvel Revolution work. I truly hated his mid-70s return to Marvel, the soapily slick drawings and the contorted dialogue on titles such as Black Panther, Eternals, and (ugh) Devil Dinosaur. Back then, I almost forgot that this was the man who a few years earlier had brought us the FF, Thor, Hulk, the Avengers, the whole pantheon of Marvel greats, single-handedly drawing almost the entire output of what was then the world’s greatest comics line.
The Fourth World was truly Jack’s baby. No Stan Lee putting words in the mouths of his brainchildren. No compromises on the art (except where Curt Swan had to redraw Superman’s face to bring it into line with the DC house style). This was Kirby unfettered, mainlining his own prodigious imagination to bring us a galaxy-spanning epic, a mature, multifaceted saga, an Iliad and Odyssey for the modern era whose ultimate destination was known to its author alone, and perhaps not even to him.
It remains unfinished, of course, cut down in its prime by poor sales and a muted, confused reception from the critics and fans. But at its best the Fourth World is a brilliant exploration of the possibilities of the comic form in an era when restrained conservatism, especially at DC, was the order of the day.
As a rule war comics are dull – gung-ho, reactionary, forever wailing about the hellishness of war while revelling in the gunplay, the explosions and the bloody “Aiiieee!” deaths. Blazing Combat, all four issues of it, published by Warren Comics in the mid-1960s, overturned the clichés. It showed the carnage, the futility of battle, the nightmarish relentlessness of war, in grim black-and-white. It saw nothing noble in the act of killing but still found nobility in the sacrifices made by ordinary soldiers down through the centuries, fighting for freedom or ideology or simply because they were told to. Its cynical realism was such that it was banned from sale on US military bases and the American Legion pressured wholesalers into not stocking it – hence the scant four issues.
Every single story was written by Archie Goodwin, and the list of artists reads like a roll-call of the greats: Angelo Torres, Gray Morrow, John Severin, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Russ Heath. The settings range from the American Civil War to Vietnam, and there isn’t a dud or a clunker among them.
Steve Gerber’s writing did much to change the face of Marvel during the 70s, adding literary lustre to its sometimes baffling and bizarre Bronze Age B-list roster of antiheroes and monsters. Man-Thing was certainly his most lauded title, a horror comic whose main character was as much walk-on part as protagonist, a swampy deus ex machina whose fiery touch usually brought an end to a serious-minded tale of corporate greed or human vanity.
Howard The Duck, however, was a much lighter-hearted affair, contriving to satirise contemporary mores, politics and superherodom. This was our world as seen through the eyes of a cigar-chomping, semi-dressed talking mallard whose sanity and common sense were in marked contrast to the madness and venality of the “hairless apes” he found himself surrounded by. Often laugh-out-loud, and never boring, Howard The Duck was a genuinely comic comic, enlivened through almost its entire run by the ever lustrous pencils of Gene Colan, who seldom seemed to be having more fun than he did here.
One of many great collaborations between Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, We3 could have been a horribly preachy diatribe against the evils of animal experimentation and vivisection, but it isn’t. In fact it’s a terrific prison-break thriller in which a trio of power-armoured critters – dog, cat, rabbit – go on the lam, trying to avoid recapture by the very authorities who have turned them into living weapons. They communicate in crude monosyllables and yet each has its own distinct personality and inherent heroism. It’s an SF take on The Incredible Journey, laced with a palpable disgust and anger.
Quitely’s artwork is a thing of beauty, fine-lined but with huge power and heft to it. His use of sequences of multiple tiny panels to convey an animal’s-eye fractured, holistic view of time and space is ingenious, and his depiction of Weapon Four, a maddened, ferocious cyborg Rottweiler, is the stuff of nightmares.
It can’t be denied that at times this was a very bad comic. There are many feeble issues where the creators involved seemed to be on autopilot, with their eyes on nothing more than the deadline and the paycheque. The scene in #28 where Hercules tows Manhattan Island back into place after it has been stolen by alien baddies is justly famous as one of the all-time dumb moments in comics.
At its best, though, Marvel Team-Up had some great runs. Early issues boast sterling pencils from Gil Kane and Ross Andru, and Chris Claremont and John Byrne joined forces to produce top-notch work between #57 and #75.
What was appealing about the title, as about any team-up comic, was the shifting roster of guest stars who appeared month after month. The “next issue” announcement at the end of each issue was often inaccurate, but even when it wasn’t, the pleasure lay in the anticipation. The leading man of the show – mostly Spider-Man, occasionally the Human Torch – could be paired with someone well-established such as Daredevil, Iron Man or Captain America or, just as easily, someone left-field and little-known, some random waif or stray such as Brother Voodoo, Deathlok or Werewolf By Night. Like the proverbial box of chocolates, you never knew who you were going to get, but it was bound to be tasty.
The adventures of the indomitable Gaul and his village of anti-imperialist malcontents were books I read, re-read and re-re-read as a child, and still adore to this day. Rich in humour and broad-stroke characterisation, Goscinny and Uderzo’s creation has true all-ages appeal. Kids love the knockabout gags and the fighting, adults appreciate the sly satire and the snook-cocking disrespect for authority. The stories may have traded in ethnic stereotypes and repeat jokes (such as the luckless band of pirates who invariably fell foul of our heroes whenever they encountered them at sea) but the fun-poking was always gentle and unlikely to cause offence. Indeed Asterix In Britain, where we Brits are portrayed as insular, uptight and garden-loving, is one of the funniest of the series.
Uderzo’s art marries loose brushwork with an eye for detail, and Goscinny’s plots never lose inspiration, even if the magic potion which gives the Gaulish villagers their superhuman
strength does sometimes make it difficult to create a palpable, dramatic sense of threat. The English translations by Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell preserve the pun-filled richness of the original scripts but add an extra layer of Latin allusion, making Asterix an intelligent read as well as a delightful one.