Thursday, 19 January 2012
On "Absalom: Ghosts Of London"
I admire the fact that the creators of Absalom haven't left their readers a great deal of choice about whether they're going to pay attention or not. If, like me, you're really not in the market for yet another dark fantasy structured around the policing of paranormal activity, then my advice is to scrupulously avoid reading rather than just skimming Ghosts Of London. I was fine as long as I was glancing at the story's pages, although "glancing" may well be over-exaggerating the amount of attention I was paying. But writer Gordon Rennie and artist Tiernen Trevallion have adopted a strategy which so many of their fellow creators appear to regularly forget to, and in doing so, they've crafted their work in order to ensure that each and every side of their story is both eye-catching and compelling. In short, they've worked hard to ensure that Absalom stands a good chance of being interesting even to those who aren't predisposed to enjoy either their style or the strip's subject matter. It's a strategy that's falling more and more out of favour on the other side of the pond, where matters such as value for money and transparent storytelling are often treated as being less terminally old-fashioned and more terra incognita. All the easier for the casual reader to stay disengaged, of course, but where Ghosts Of London is concerned, the reader who thinks they've already got more than enough to consume already really ought to beware; there's barbs and snares in place here which will likely keep you reading despite yourself.
There's a markedly individual and effective fusion of craft and inventiveness at play in Ghosts Of London. Of course, neither quality is of any use in isolation from the other where the uncommitted reader is concerned. Inventiveness on its own relies upon the reader being willing to step in and lend a hand with the storytelling on the page, while an undue focus on nothing but craft produces, of course, a stale if efficiently-told tale. Yet Ghosts Of London is constructed so carefully that it's hard for the reader to disengage with it. It can certainly offer the reader a surprise or two, but that's never a trick that's pulled off at the expense of the story at hand. Instead, as you'd imagine would always surely be the case, and is so often sadly not, every single page, with one notable exception, begins with an arresting image matched to an unresolved situation. I didn't notice that at first, because the storytelling was so energetic that I simply read on without being concerned about technique.
Even the quieter panels carry aspects which insist that the reader pay attention, such as the quietly macabre scene showing Absalom pulling worms from a decapitated head. The fact that novelty and spectacle has been woven so productively together with plot means that even impossibly cramped panels such as that depicting the Battle Of Cable Street grab the attention and propel the eye onwards. Because of all that care that's been paid to how each page begins, the single entirely restrained side-opening frame, which concerns a meeting at the London Stone, stands out by contrast as a strangely contemplative moment. Simply by not insisting that the reader be fascinated to a lesser or greater degree, an entirely static and purposefully mundane scene carries a quiet touch of magic. It's an untypical stillness which encourages us to focus upon the relationship between the characters involved as much as the exposition that's being delivered, and it does so because the creators have carved out a space for such a moment to be shown. For although Rennie and Trevallion are careful to ensure that there's a variety of moods and events in each chapter, the central business of writing to the demands of the page as a unit of storytelling is always attended to. Threatening Fascist thugs, the pursuit of Spring-Heeled Jack, the Thames washing thousands of corpse's heads ashore; these are the moments which open and close each side, and it's hard even for the doubtful not to wonder what happens next?
None of this is to suggest that technique is all there is to see in Ghosts Of London to any degree at all. As yet, it's a story of ideas and action rather than of character, and beyond its grizzled old lead, there's little of individual personality that's as yet on show. But both the ideas and the action are undoubtedly extremely enjoyable. While I'm hardly enthused at the idea of another strip concerned with psycho-geography and other Forteana, the tropes that have been chosen and put into play are unexpectedly compelling. I've never been able to understand why more attention hasn't been paid to the British Fascists of the Thirties in comics, and if Spring Heeled Jack is more of a familiar business, then the Iceni-led massacre of Londinium certainly isn't. The dialogue's smart and sharp, there's mysteries galore, and any character who can use the names of historians to show playful contempt for his colleagues is definitely worth paying attention to.
This isn't intended as qualified praise. In fact, I suspect that it's the exact opposite of a polite but essentially dishonest pat on the head and half-whispered "well done". To be arguing that I'm becoming a fan of a strip despite my reservations is surely anything but qualified. Any half-competent fool can play out their work for an audience which is already of a mind to pay attention to it. But it takes a great deal of hard work as well as talent and ambition to convince the cynical. It's something that's as true for Trevallion's art as it for his colleague's scripting. Trevallion's style often relies upon a great deal of shadow and linework, for example, and that tends to be particularly true where the faces of his characters are concerned. To a reader such as myself, who carries a preference for form rather than an accumulation of such details, it's something which can serve as a distraction. Yet that's a question of my own taste rather than any pseudo-objective judgement, and, as is typical with Absalom, Trevallion's skills succeed in quite outflanking my personal doubts. In truth, he repeatedly chooses strategies for depicting his scenes which are unexpected, unorthodox and effective.
Several of a string of notably well-staged examples of Trevallion's art come to mind. The shift from a longshot of Absalom looking upwards into a stairwell to a mid-shot of Hopkins behind a driving wheel, which so misdirects the reader's attention that the landing of Spring Heeled Jack on her car's bonnet comes as a jarring surprise. The quite wonderfully witty panel in which Absalom hangs by his fingertips from a window-ledge while the silhouette of Jack bounds away. The way in which chapter one's penultimate frame is cropped so that we feel that we're part of a mass of gawpers who can't quite see what it is that's floating in the river. The fleeing dog that's stolen a head and the policeman chasing it in the background of a shot of Absalom and Hopkins talking. That's an awful lot to admire in a story that's only seen ten pages published so far.
I'm certainly not a member of the core audience for the high concept of The Sweeney meets The X-Files which has been used by 2000AD to describe Absalom. In the terms of my own preferences - or is that prejudices?- it's not even a story which at first registered as being either written or drawn in a style which would likely appeal to me. But it's a thoroughly good read, and I've a great deal of respect for Rennie and Trevallion's achievements here. By the time the mundane reality of today's London, all Tesco and number 7 buses, has been juxtaposed with burning horses and property-clasping citizens fleeing the Great Fire Of London at chapter two's conclusion, I was sold. To any who find themselves at something of a distance from Absalom and feeling as disinclined as I was, I'd suggest a measure of caution. This is a comic strip which will insist that you read on if you give it even the slightest of chances.
"Absalom; Ghosts Of London" is currently running in 2000AD, which is continuing to provide week-upon-week of excellant fare. The strip began in prog 1764, and Amazon.co.uk states there'll be a collection of it out in this coming June.