Monday, 10 June 2019

Rebellious Youth

Hello again!

May usually proves to be a hectic month for me and this past one was no exception. I got out of step with my webcomics, but they're now back on a regular schedule: Multum in Parvo and The Box. I haven't completed work on any other projects, unfortunately, although ideas have been coming thick and fast. It's been one of those periods where ideas just seem to keep generating themselves, faster than I can write them down, and whenever that happens, it's always surprising and wonderful. I should certainly be all right for cartoon material for a while now.

In the meantime, I've also been reading quite a few comics and have some thoughts to share (though not enough for a full review of anything), so let's jump in feet first with:

Cor!!Buster Humour Special and 2000AD All-Ages Prog 2130. Both on WHSmith's shelf at the same time, these caught my eye so I gave them a go.

First, 2000AD. I've tried dipping in to 2000AD now and again over the years, but to be honest, I find it a little impenetrable. My tastes and its tone don't very readily correspond, but I did find things to enjoy in this Prog full of one-off all-ages stories. The quality of writing and art was very high, I have to say, and the stories that landed best with me tended to be the original creations and not the adapted versions of long-running 2000AD series (although I liked the Judge Anderson story, which was pleasantly removed from the cynicism that can pervade the comic). It was definitely worth checking out, and I found Eduardo Ocaña's art on Full Tilt Boogie very beautiful.

The Cor!!Buster Special is an anthology of different humour strips featuring characters from the history of those two titles (and some more besides, I think), with which I have absolutely no history. I was coming in cold. All the strips are new, and for the most part have writers and artists who've never worked on these characters before, with the very notable exception of Tom Paterson who bookends the comic with new Sweeny Toddler and Grimly Feendish stories. This one really is a mixed bag; I think maybe twenty-five percent of the strips worked for me. Aesthetically and tonally it's all over the shop. Lots of the strips suffer from having a conceit that's dated badly (or wasn't particularly inspired to begin with), not that that means they can't work. Take Gums, for example - how relevant is a Jaws parody today? However, Lizzie Boyle and Abigail Bulmer's strip gives it a new visual identity and shifts the focus to environmental issues while playing out the (presumably already established) character dynamics for successful laughs. I'd also like to single out the central strip by John Freeman and Lew Stringer, which feels like the one story that absolutely hits the light, witty, self-aware tone the comic needs, and is preceded by a neat introduction to the characters also by Lew Stringer.

As a child, I never really took to the traditional British humour comic you'd have found at the newsagents - admittedly, they were dying out at the time I would have read them - but I was never one for The Beano or The Dandy, say. I never really saw the appeal. I was reading Asterix, or collections of Peanuts or The Perishers by way of humour comics then. Even now, I find the sense of humour that was prevalent in them - like that in the aforementioned Sweeny Toddler and Grimly Feendish, as brilliantly as they're drawn - rather alien. It still bewilders me that Buster started off as the son of Andy Capp and still dresses like him. I get some kind of cognitive break thinking about it.

I think there's so much room for a good kids' humour comic - or an adults' one for that matter. I'm not sure which The Cor!!Buster Summer Special is trying to be. I know WHSmith has its own problems with shelving, but Cor!!Buster was sat next to 2000AD amongst the adult sci-fi and film magazines rather than the plastic-coated children's comics, and I'm not sure that wasn't the best place for it. While absolutely child-friendly, it plays to its history and seems most relevant to the nostalgia crowd. I think they would get the most out of it. The 2000AD Regened Prog, on the other hand, probably would be a good thing to sit next to, say, The Phoenix, for younger new readers to discover, but the hitch there is that there's nowhere for them then to go unless they can immediately make the leap to the adult comic with its half-dozen already-in-progress serials. Nor can I imagine an all-ages special being particularly relevant to the regular adult readership who are midway through their usual programming, except perhaps as a curiosity. It does seem to be another symptom of mainstream comics being in a weird half-way house between an established (aging) audience and trying to attract a new readership.

That was actually quite a long thought, wasn't it? Let's speed things up. I'm kind of reluctant to start this one, but...

Hilda by Luke Pearson. I have to confess I don't enjoy Hilda as much as I'd like to.

I have reservations about the visual style. It's in that post-manga bring-back-rubber-hose-design rounded-edges Cartoon Network sort of vein - but doesn't really seem to work out across the whole. Some of the more geometric character designs, e.g. Woodman, Tontu, the trolls, really don't work for me. Eyes do some really weird things that make me feel a bit ill (and are typically out of step with the cartooning used in the majority of each story), and there are moments of exaggerated expression that feel like they're directly out of manga, but don't seem to work terribly well with the more naturalistic approach to character Hilda is trying to take. The panels and pages flow really well - in fact, to its very great credit, it's easier to keep reading a Hilda book than to put it down. I do have issues with how space is depicted (and contiuity thereof) in the panels.

Some of the humour lands with me, some of it doesn't. I don't think it's all rooted in a consistent world, which I think a story involving mythical creatures and magic really needs. Above all, I find something missing in the story department. I can see what Hilda is aiming at: each book is typically plot-light, but it has a point and wants to get to that subtext and those moments of nuance that carry the "real story" through some surface action. A perfectly valid approach, but both levels need to be working fully to get the whole effect. I think often the plot element lacks the dramatic structure necessary to drive the nuance home - there's not a lot of incident or consequence before you're at the end, which also helps to make Hilda such a quick read. For example, I think of how much more interesting I could've found Hilda and the Black Hound with changes such as the character of Tontu being motivated to investigate his situation rather than accept it passively, and the reader then spending as much time with him as with Hilda. I think the series is at its best so far in Hilda and the Midnight Giant - I'd recommend anyone interested try there. It's the soundest dramatically, it has two strong plot strands and, despite missing a third act and just wrapping up peremptorially, does something at the end that is quite delicious. I also prefer this moment in Hilda's visual evolution where Pearson draws more like Joann Sfar than Hayao Miyazaki.

Jo, Zette and Jocko. A less-well-known English-translated series from Tintin creator Hergé. Drawn in that famous ligne claire style, these books chronicle the adventures of an engineer's son and daughter and their mishap-prone pet chimpanzee. I read the Stratoship two-part story comprised of Mr Pump's Legacy and Destination New York. It's a really wordy story, more so than usual from Hergé, with lots of exposition from people on radios and telephones, and didn't flow terribly well throughout most of the two albums. I've come to conclusion that the value of Hergé really lies in the technique: the economy and expression in relatively simple line and colour. Other than that, he is good with broad humour, broad characters (plenty of stereotypes which work for his books in some ways and not others) and hitting good adventure beats. That said, I must say I've yet to read a satisfying mystery in a Hergé book, and he has an attic full of dusty assumptions about the world that don't sit very well with me today.

Awesome Comics. I'm a listener of the small press-championing Awesome Comics Podcast, and was intrigued to read this four-part anthology comic created by its hosts. It features three different stories told across all four issues, as much influenced by horror, action and exploitation film (and TV) as anything else. I'd single out great layout choices in Vince Hunt and Daniel Marc Chant's Murder Road, some horrifically amusing dialogue in Dan Butcher's Vyper and the impressive flexibility of tone and line in Cockney Kung Fu by Tony Esmond and Nick Prolix.  In short, I really enjoyed the whole thing. My main comment would be that I was left wanting more - I wished the stories could have been longer, to give more time to the characters, breathing room for the plots, and develop the subtext a little. Cockney Kung Fu particularly felt like just one part of an ongoing serial and it was the one story I had a really specific suggestion for after reading; there's a framing device that starts with a close-up of main character Soho Red's eyes - I wish it had ended with the same panel again - to provide circularity and close out that story.

Fred the Clown in The Iron Ducess by Roger Langridge. This is my first exposure to the work of Roger Langridge and he's already become something of a hero of mine. I came in expecting an homage to great silent film comedies and some good old-fashioned cartooning, but was delighted by a lot more when Langridge stitches up lots of nods to Buster Keaton and Universal horror films only to comprehensively subvert everything; dramatic and social conventions, gag structure. What's so delightful is that everything that is set up is paid off, but not how you might expect, even Fred the Clown's unique physiognomy, and not everything that pays off you, at first, realise was set up. The book is available to read free online, but I bought the print copy and loved it, because I'm that way inclined.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I've read my first Calvin and Hobbes in earnest, having seen the odd strip here and there in the past - and am now proud to say I love it. I love the idiosyncracies of character, the gentle warmth, the formal conceit of Hobbes, the playful form and genre bending and all the layers of meaning. I don't know which newspapers Calvin and Hobbes appeared in in the UK but they didn't register in my consciousness until my teens, I think, (though as previously mentioned, I'd been a Peanuts enthusiast in earlier childhood), a time when I wasn't particularly primed to engage with the strip. At least I have it now!

Dragonball. I've been reading some more Dragonball, perhaps the opposite of Hilda to me: I feel like I probably shouldn't enjoy it, but I do. The cartooning is typically very good, the serial storytelling is fast and effective and it's really at its best when it puts its continually swelling cast to good use as big, silly character comedy that consistently undercuts its own massive dramatic stakes. Its sexual politics are crazy though.

Webcomics I've been enjoying: whim by glytxh, primarily posted on twitter but also archived here. It's deconstructing the three-panel gag strip with characters called whims, and is drawn in MacPaint. It's conceptual and referential, sometimes rather obscure, but I love the experimentation; the execution is always spot-on and what I love most about it is that behind it all is a massivef sense of wonder.

I'm also catching up on Nancy by Olivia Jaimes, way behind the rest of the internet, I'm sure, and enjoying it greatly. It's gentle, idiosyncratic, shrewd, engaged with contemporary concerns and idioms in an accessible way and, above all, genuinely funny.

I think that's it! Thank you for reading. See you soon.

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