Thursday, 31 January 2013

On "Babble", with an interview with its creators Lee Robson & Bryan Coyle

As keen as I am to avoid seeming to be biased, I'd struggle to recommend that you avoid reading Bryan Coyle and Lee Robson's Babble. For even given that I've always found both Bryan and Lee to be excellent company when it comes to swapping words over the blogosphere, I can't affect a dubious critical objectivity and pretend that I didn't find their debut graphic novel both enjoyable and intriguing. *1) It's a smart-minded book which succeeds in merging an indy, slice'o'life fascination with a unique take on a horror-genre staple that I'd never dream of giving away. An hour or two spent in the company of Babble is unlikely to be time ill-spent, and if I tell you that I received a PDF of it prior to its publication and still went on to buy the softbacked version, you'll understand my regard.

*1:- Occasional visitors to TooBusyThinking's comments may know Bryan as the "Brigonos" who's never intimidated by the thought of expressing an honest - and even incendiary - opinion.

In some ways, Babble reminds me of an auspicious wave of British graphic novels and strips by relatively unknown creators which arrived in the later, post-Watchmen years of the eighties. For the likes of James Robinson and Paul Johnson's London's Dark, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Violent Cases and Mark Millar, Daniel Vallely, and Nigel Kitching's Saviour also seemed to appear out of the blue, the products of creators who'd yet to establish any considerable commercial reputation, energetically rough-hewn in a few places and yet quite obviously deserving of attention. After its own fashion, and according to the particular talents of its creators, Babble's similarly informed by a distinctly this-side-of-the-Atlantic sensibility which fuses everyday drama with elements of more dramatically pulse-quickening fictions. It may also herald a couple of notable comics careers. I'd like to think so.

In the interview which follows, I tried to concentrate on the long road which separated Bryan and Lee's awareness that they'd like to create comics with the publication of Babble. There's been a good few interviews with them elsewhere which focused in part on other matters, and so I thought it would be interesting to learn more of what it takes to get as substantial a piece of work as Babble into print. It's a protracted and challenging slog from "I'd like to do that" to "Look at my new graphic novel", and I thought it might be illuminating to get the pair of them to discuss that. That it's a fairly long interview is entirely my fault. I was curious to know, and so I kept asking. My thanks to Bryan and Lee for their time and good will.

The Babble homepage can be reached with just a click here. You'll find everything from reviews - from the likes of CBR, Bleeding Cool and Starburst Magazine - to preview pages and ordering information.


1.  I know that you two didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, complete with all the skills that you'd need to produce a graphic novel! So where can your previously published work can be found?

Bryan:-  My very first work was either Binmen of the Apocalypse for Michael Molcher's The End Is Nigh magazine, the self-published Pony School, or a three-pager for FutureQuake that one of the editors described as being so bad that if he'd known what the art would look like he'd have not bothered letting me draw it.  They all sort of came at the same time, but I'm reasonably certain Pony School came out first.  After that, it was various small press titles for several years, short stories where I learned to draw better and build a reputation - good or bad.

I appeared in the End Is Nigh a couple more times, and the first couple of issues of MangaQuake and Something Wicked, then tried more self-publishing, dabbled with webcomics for about ten seconds, more self-publishing, Paul Scott's Omnivistascope annuals, the Accent UK graphic novel anthologies, more self-publishing, the odd FutureQuake one-off, and Zarjaz.  Solar Wind was in there somewhere, as was Sancho, Puny Earthling, Lost Property, and a brief flirtation with doing an OEL manga, God help me.

Lee:- There's not much to tell, really. I’ve largely been a contributor to FutureQuake and the titles that fall under their umbrella (Something Wicked, Zarjaz and Dogbreath); my first published work with them – and my first published comic strip - was Box, with Lonny Chant. There’s been a few more acceptances – and rejections – from them, too, as well as stuff in the Accent UK anthologies (three of those in collaboration with Bryan) and Stacey Whittle’s Into The Woods, as well as several comics that never saw the light of day, which is probably for the best. But, like Bryan, it’s been the small press that I’ve learned the craft and tried to build a reputation, good or bad.

2.  How was the journey from your first appearances in print to Babble? How difficult was it to get from there to here?

Lee:- Nothing like a nice easy question…

It’s been…interesting, let’s say.

I made the conscious decision to learn how to write comics by concentrating on short stories, which proved to be a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it really did help me learn storytelling and how to script comics (I think it was Kieron Gillen that said – and I’m paraphrasing here - actually seeing your scripts drawn by an artist was invaluable, because you could see what works and what doesn’t in a way you can’t see in a script), and actually being paired up with the artists for FutureQuake was a Godsend for me because I didn’t really know anybody at the time and had even less idea what to do when it came to self-publishing (although, credit where it’s due: Ed Berridge was a huge help in getting those early scripts into shape, Steven Finch – pre-Fonografiks – put me onto Digital Webbing and my friend Ian Cairns was a huge supporter and taught me a lot about sequential narrative – and, of course, Dave and Rich at FutureQuake have been brilliant and supportive from day one).

But on the other hand, just doing shorts with artists assigned to a script I’d written proved to be an incredibly difficult way to build working relationships as everything seemed to be over and done with so quickly, sometimes with little or no communication (although, personal relationships came much easier – especially with the rise of social media). I was pretty lucky that I hit it off with Bryan and we could move on to do something more than just our initial FutureQuake collaboration.

The Accent UK anthologies gave us the chance to work together more (and get ourselves noticed: the amount of people who recognised us from Western still surprises me), and we started talking about doing something longer – although, some of those early ideas I pitched, I think, are probably best left in the bottom drawer, never to see daylight again. Eventually, I shoved the original short story of Babble under his nose and asked him about it; it felt like this was right thing for both of us to do at that point and, thankfully, Bryan agreed. So, we started re-building the script into a full length story and refining the pitch for it while doing other small press work. I started writing the script without realising how much of a challenge it would be to go from five or eight page stories to something that was over a hundred. I just went into assuming it would be pretty easy, but I ended up learning the hard way that it’s best to break down scripts to the nth degree, so I know everything that happens on each page before I start typing it up.
Once the pitch for Babble was ready, it went everywhere. It went to publishers of varying sizes on both sides of the Atlantic and came back with the same response each time: “thanks, but no thanks”. It was disheartening, I’ll admit, but, at the same time, it was a pretty invaluable learning experience. I mean, I’d literally never tried to pitch a comic series in my life; I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I, stupidly, dived straight in feet first, thinking that publishers would snatch it up and make us both stars overnight. Which, of course, they didn’t. I think that kind of wake up call did me good, really. It made me more determined to make this succeed, anyway.

We were turned on to Insomnia Publications, who, at the time, looked liked an exciting new kid on the UK scene. They signed Babble pretty much straight away and we started work on it in earnest until… Well, the company break up’s been pretty well documented, so let’s not dwell on it, other than to say we were left in legal limbo for a long time, and we moved on do other small press stuff to keep ourselves busy (that was around the time I started pitching to Zarjaz, as it goes). We started to talk about pitching Babble somewhere else and eventually took a shot in the dark submitting what we had to Com.X. I’m still not sure why they wanted to take it on, to be honest, but they did, and, once we were free of our contracts, they signed the book immediately, and, I think, surprised a lot of people in the process.

From there, work progressed steadily, health and technical problems came and went [Bryan may fill in more on that front] and we got to where we are now. A mere three years after we started working on it.

I guess this is all a stupidly long winded way of saying, I’ve learned a lot about the creative side of the comics world through the process, and a little about the business side of things. Most of it was learned the hard way, and I’m pretty sure there are more mistakes to be made along the way. It’ll be fun figuring them out, I suppose.

A Robson/Coyle Judge Dredd tale for Zarjaz.
Bryan: I don't know that it was difficult in that it was a slog or anything because I was obviously enjoying doing it (or I wouldn't have kept doing it) and the UK small press scene is very encouraging of creatives, especially the lads at FutureQuake and Michael Molcher when he was putting together The End Is Nigh rated enthusiasm as the main requirement for submissions, but it was certainly difficult in that I had to learn to draw along the way.  It's a nurturing environment, so it hasn't been terribly difficult to keep going - I mean, it's not like DC where they get interns to make the freelance talent cry for their own amusement or anything.

Since leaving school, my only art experience was doodling rude cartoons as I watched telly at home or drank tea at work, which was great if you wanted a picture of your boss having sex with a gorilla under the words JIMMY GOES APE FOR JUNGLE FANNY but is not a help if you want someone to draw you the new Watchmen.

I don't know what the perceived method of breaking into comics is these days, but I recall Garth Ennis joking that it was seen to be “get something in 2000ad, do some z-list superhero crap for DC or Marvel and then do a rude comic for Vertigo and never look back”, but the trajectory I have observed seems to be “do lots and lots of stuff for the small press FOR YEARS and maybe one day you get paid to do it”, and by accident I did that first part because I was in and out of jobs and had lots of free time. I didn't start out taking the art deadly seriously because I started out doing comedy strips like Binmen of the Apocalypse and Pony School and I had that awful preconception at the time that a lot of people have that "comedy" strips means less effort on the art front, and even when I had to draw something that was meant to be deadly serious it was usually only to spoof the tone of something like kids' horror comics or war stories, but I did eventually start taking it seriously, put away the silly pen-names like Mongoose MacCloud and tried to improve as an artist. That was when it started getting difficult, I think, but even then I was still making comics, so I was enjoying myself. I mean, I got to draw Shako for Zarjaz, and when someone actually wants you to draw a polar bear mauling people to death, that's when you know the world is okay.

3. Babble strikes me as being in some ways a difficult trick to pull off. In terms of the script, you’re playing with the likes of shifting time-periods, apparently distinct genres and even different continents, amongst other demanding choices. (I’m doing my best to keep away from spoilers!) In the art, there’s a great many examples of the kind of everyday - or apparently everyday - scenes which some professionals would run a mile from. So why such a tough task? Why eschew all the shortcuts and audience appeal offered by more immediately obvious tales of the fantastic? What was it this project that you committed yourselves to, and how did your feelings about Babble change -  for good or ill – as the process continued?

Lee:- Well, basically, most of it was to see how far I could push Bryan before he told me where to stick it…

Seriously, though, it was born out of a lot of different things. I’ve always had a passion for stories that see ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and I wrote a fair few prose stories that followed that template – in fact, it was the basis for the very, very first version of Babble (which was a few passages of handwritten prose in a notebook, never actually completed). As I got into writing comics, I started to look at bigger, more fantastic concepts to build stories around, but I always tried – and not always necessarily succeeded, I’ll admit – to keep the central characters grounded and human. It made them more interesting to me.

So that, really, was my main starting point with Babble. I’d fallen out of reading comics for a while before I started writing this, too, so I didn’t really know what the trends of the day were (although, now it all seems to be a Geoff Johns inspired mire of angst and violence). I came back to comics through reading Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil and Brian Wood’s Demo and Local, both of which had a profound influence on me; they were comics that were showing the humanity of these characters in ways that I hadn’t really seen before in the medium before (I’d largely concentrated around DC superhero stuff and 2000AD collections). So, I knew that I wanted to bring that into Babble in some way, because I was foolish enough to think “hey, if they can do it, I can do it, too!” without realising they were professionals on top of their game, while I was just a chancer with little hope of ever seeing the piece finished. I think, too, there was an unconscious desire to inject some of that trademark British cynicism that permeated the UK comics of the 1980’s that I grew up reading (I think, in an early draft, Carrie was on the dole, which seemed like the most British thing that could’ve been put into the story at the time).

When we started to look at it as a long form project, I was determined to keep it as grounded and realistic as possible (which, in turn, ultimately dictated a lot of the narrative decisions), and there were a lot of things that, if I’m being honest, I’m still stunned, and truly grateful, Bryan stuck with me and backed me on (and there’s a fair few that he actually improved on); a lot of other artists probably would’ve walked away from it or at least demanded we have an atypical sexy heroine as our lead, complete with “brokeback poses” and skimpy clothes, or more traditional zombies and/or more gore and violence.

All that said, though, we also made a lot of commercial decisions to give the story a wider appeal to readers and publishers (the idea of setting the bulk of it in America was one, and the use of zombie imagery and tropes in the early pages was another); as the process went on, all those things became integral to the story, which – as wanky and pretentious as this sounds – was the most important thing for me.

That tone we set proved to be a bit of a pain at times, though. There were some things I couldn’t do in the script because of the rules I’d set up for myself at the beginning, which proved to be more restricting than I realised (flashbacks to ancient Sumer, for example, were a no-no, because it added an element of fantasy that would’ve broken the whole thing apart), but it forced me think about the structure more and concentrate on keeping everything together. Elements of Carrie and Alan’s relationship proved to be a little difficult to write, too, largely because – and I know Bryan’s already made this public over on his blog – I started writing Babble after a break-up, and I was still clinging onto the hope that we’d get back together and give it another go. A lot of their relationship was influenced by that, but once it was established in the story I couldn’t break away from it and change it. It was a bit rough editing and re-writing some of those scenes, and, frankly, it’s not something I want to do again.

As for the different time periods… That was in there from the start. I knew that the bulk of the appeal would be from the present day sequences, with Carrie being chased by the infected, because, hey, everyone loves a good zombie tale, but at the same time, I knew I wanted to add some kitchen sink drama to the story, to tell you how this all happened, to build the mystery, so I came up with the idea of having the rotating timelines through the story to balance everything. It was a bastard and a half to script, though, mainly because I went into it with nothing but a story outline and a vague idea about how I wanted to write the thing - which is now one of those mistakes that I keep in mind whenever I start something new.

I knew, too, going in that it’d be tricky to visualise, but Bryan came up with the idea of using those differing palettes and, well, it was a stroke of genius, frankly.

Bryan: I don't know that we're unique in doing something so grounded in reality, as most editors and talent scouts tell you to draw everyday scenes rather than just pin-ups and fights all the time and I'd imagine most budding creators take that advice to heart.

Fantastic tales obviously still hold an appeal for me and I like to read stories about big robots battering each other with buses full of dino-ninjas wailing on each other while screaming that the world is doomed if they can't defuse this bomb, but actually drawing just that and nothing else all the time doesn't hold much appeal.  I imagine it's the same as how drawing skulls and snakes all the time probably gets old even if you're a really committed heavy metal fan.  Even Ozzy Ozbourne got up one day and thought "I can snort some ants and strangle my wife or I can check the Discovery Channel and see if there's a documentary about sharks on" - if you're at all creatively inclined you like to spread your wings now and then and do new stuff, and I think Babble being so down to Earth appealed to me at the right time.

I'd drawn schoolgirl assassins, a killer moose stalking the trenches of WW1, posthuman androids versus living cities, vampires from space, time travelling superhero sidekicks, Super Sentai, zombies, ninjas, dinosaurs, mutant bounty hunters, Fred Wertham, voodoo priests, werewolves... like Lee and everyone else in the small press, I did lots and lots of short stories and covered a variety of genres and subjects, but I did not have an extensive portfolio of people being human.  Babble was a good fit for that and other reasons.

Some of the hurdles involved seemed interesting, too - conversations, body language, creating visual subtext in scenes, juggling a cast of visually distinctive characters with their own way of moving and acting on the page, it was something to get my teeth into, and more importantly it was everything that interested me about comics storytelling.  For all my love of the wilfully ludicrous in comic books, Thor can only punch something in an interesting fashion so often before I get bored, but make me believe in a breakup, or a death, or that someone feels love and it'll get me every time - and I want to do that in comics more than I want to draw Batman.  I developed RSI halfway through making the book but I still kept my enthusiasm for the project because there was always some small thing that I liked to realise in panels or even in character's expressions or body language that kept me interested in each page and kept me struggling through.  I am my own worst critic so all I would see when I was done with a page was where I hadn't matched ambition with execution, but there was always something on each page to keep me interested and keep me working, even when my bloody arms felt like they were going to fall off.

4. As luck would have it, this particular question is heading to you just as the release dates for Babble are confirmed. A quick question then; how does it feel, to think that all the work you’ve been doing will have a physical as well as a digital form?

Lee: Honestly? I can’t quite wrap my head around it. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. I’ve seen comics I’ve written in print before, but, so far, it’s always been as a small part of a larger whole, where my stuff can be hidden behind brilliant artwork, which is, sometimes, hidden behind even better stories in the same comic. But Babble is, for better or worse, just the two of us without the luxury of being able to hide behind anyone else, and, honestly, I’m kind of terrified by that.
So, to answer your question, I’m scared and excited and pretty much everything else in between.

Bryan: Well, I have (or had) physical copies of all the books I've contributed to over the years - or self-published - and I love all my babies equally, Colin.  Even if the older ones currently disappoint me and occasionally make me cry.

The digital version excites me, though.  Used to be that with the UK small press and self-publishing physical copies, my work would travel only so far, but now I can disappoint people all over the world.

5. We’ve talked about where Babble came from, and where you came from. I think it might be interesting to ask you how you’ve found the process of trying to shift a copy or twelve of the book. You’ve run a Twitter campaign, done a fair few interviews, and enjoyed more than just a few good reviews up too. What’s this part of the job been like? How have you taken to the questions being asked and the opinions being expressed?

Bryan: Yes, people have been mostly complimentary, so it has been a matter of figuratively shuffling my feet and saying "thank you" really quietly, like I do with compliments in real life.  I'm a working class Irish Catholic so compliments confuse me and I subconsciously try not to engage with them because I think it's some kind of trick, but there's been the odd duff comment and I'm on much firmer ground there, though even then it's stuff like "an American football field doesn't look like that" which isn't as bad as "I cannot tell what is supposed to be going on", which would have been my main worry about reading in a review.  As an artist, I'm happiest being invisible, because it means the art has done its job and not distracted from the story - if it's not great, that's perfectly okay with me, but if people can't tell what's going on I consider that disastrous.

Lee takes care of the day-to-day whoring but I'm a bit lost with that - I occasionally remember to mention it on Twitter, but Lee is a whoring machine like one of those sex robots that made up seventy percent of the female cast of Battlestar Galactica and I'm mostly redundant at this stage.  The interviews are an interesting experience, but I don't have much to offer as it's really Lee's story, so I mostly just try to sound interesting and not make a hole of myself.

Lee: The reviews have been, for me, anyway, surprising.

It’s one of those things where you’re really working on this thing in a bubble, unsure of what people are going to think of it, but secretly hoping that people will flip and throw money at you for a copy and make you a millionaire. But you’re also painfully aware that it could well flop spectacularly and every dream and hope you have will be crushed. And then, it goes out there, and people actually like this thing. You begin to see positive review after positive review and it’s surprising, flattering and a little bit humbling. Well, until it all goes to my head and I start demanding gold plated Winnebago’s full of puppies for signings, anyway.

I’m grateful for the reviews, both good and bad, though. The main thing with small press comics is the lack of visible reviews, and, if I’m being blunt, the fact that not all small press people take them well, which, in turn puts people off reviewing small press comics. It’s a shame, really, because there’s some genuinely brilliant comics being produced in the scene by some hugely talented, and outright lovely and supportive, people that don’t get the exposure they deserve because the odd person takes exception to someone pointing out they’re not the next Alan Moore.

To get back on the point, it’s kind of cool to see some constructive reviews of Babble coming in. The scale of it, though, the sheer amount of reviews we’ve picked up, has pretty amazing, and the fact that they’ve been largely positive is really overwhelming. Although, I’ll admit, I’m still a little nervous about what you’ll say about it, Colin…

As for the interviews etc… I have to admit, I wasn’t too comfortable when I realised I was going to have to do it (I’ve never really been comfortable talking about myself or writing in pretty much any context), but it’s proved to be a bit of a challenge, seeing as I’ve had to try and rack my brains and remember stuff from three or four years ago to answer questions and try to make them still sound relevant. In some ways, the whole PR thing’s been really cathartic, too; the chance to spout endlessly about the book and just get it out of my head has been great – it’s like everything to do with Babble is going out into the world now, and the decks are being cleared, ready to start something new. Or that’s how it feels to me, anyway.

On the other hand, though, we’ve had to compete in the PR stakes against things like Before Watchmen and the uproar surrounding Amazing Spider-Man #700, which just consumed every comic news site and blog around, and pretty much drowned every other piece of PR that was trying to get seen. I know it’s just business and The Big Two have comics to sell, but its still pretty disheartening to watch them dominate the market place, especially when you’ve got a small stake in it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the coverage we’ve managed to get, and I’m grateful you’ve taken the time out to talk to us about this, but seeing how Marvel and DC just seem to dominate everything really does make you realise you’re a minnow swimming alongside leviathans.


6. Finally, where now? What are you up to, what are your ambitions, how much are you looking forward to whatever’s coming?

Lee: Good question… Right now, I’ve got some more small press stuff to wrap up, including more for Zarjaz and FutureQuake and the final Accent UK anthology, Victoriana (due later this year), and there’s some talk of resurrecting an old project to pitch, but that’s still in the very early stages. After that… I don’t know. I mean, I know what I’d like to do next – some more books, hopefully with Image or Oni Press or Self Made Hero – but whether any of that will come to pass, I don’t know. Given the fickle nature of the comic world, and the creative world in general, it’s pretty hard to lay out a grand five year plan when you’re not even sure how the landscape’s going to look six months from now – I mean, this time last month, Titan Comics didn’t exist, and it’s already looking like a serious player in the UK scene (and definitely something I think I’ll be investigating further). But, in another interview, I said I’d love to write John Constantine, and then, a couple of days later, DC announced they were cancelling Hellblazer, so I really don’t want to tempt fate by saying I’d love to write Judge Dredd some day (which I would – although, if Dredd’s killed off next week, please don’t blame me!).

I guess I’m looking ahead with a cautious eye, really. Bryan and I are looking at a new project as a follow up, but we’re not quite ready to pitch it to publishers just yet. Hopefully, with Babble under our belts, we can maybe get our foot in the door and avoid some of the pitfalls of the last time.

Bryan:  It's probably bad form to say "I have nothing planned for the future" but my pc finally gave up the ghost before Christmas and went tits-up, so I am forced into a brief hiatus for a month or two while I replace it, but then it's back to the grindstone because I'm never not working on something, which has been the case for the last couple of years.  Even now when I have all my work up to date and delivered and proofed to the point that mere weeks ago I was drawing free comics for the internet and in theory have absolutely nothing to be getting on with, I have several things I have to be getting on with, like the next episode of Rathbone for Paul Scott's Omnivistascope (the closest thing the UK has to both Eurocomics and 'hard' sci-fi), a cover for the collected edition of the Rathbone stories illustrated by myself and Dunk Nimmo, and some short stories here and there for the small press as well as a couple of other things I shan't jinx by mentioning this early, but will hopefully represent some new ground for me.

I am looking forward to saying "I am a comic artist" if anyone asks, though.  Until pretty recently I've worked only in the construction industry since leaving school, so I'm slightly proud of the fact that I can now stop saying I do something robust and palpable for a living like laying bricks, demolition or glazing and instead say that I sit at a computer and draw bears.

 Thanks again to Lee and Bryan!


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Greatest Superhero Of Them All? On The Ancient One In Ditko & Lee's Doctor Strange

Though it can't be said to be an opinion I've ever heard expressed by anyone else before, I can't think of any "superhero" that's more remarkable and admirable than the Ancient One. This week's post about the Doctor Strange tales of Ditko and Lee sees the end of the discussion of Clea and Strange's romance and the beginning of an attempt to argue for the importance of the latter's typically-ignored, 500 year-old mentor. If you've a moment to kill and you're curious to see a blogger edging his way further and further out on a limb, then here's your way over to Sequart Publishing.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

On Young Avengers #1, Minutemen #6, Jennifer Blood #20 & Masks #3

How can Before Watchman still be staggering on? What could possibly be left to strip-mine from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work? There's certainly nothing but homoeopathic traces of Watchmen's quality to be found in Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen #6. Instead, there's everything you'd expect from a soulless and mercenary ransack of a best-left-alone classic. In short, Minutemen has ended exactly as it began. The persistent reliance on a consistently counterproductive nine-panel grid. The enervating dependence upon entirely inessential aspects of the original's backstory. The lethargic, space-filling pace of the storytelling in the absence of anything substantial to say. Cooke hasn't just failed to add anything at all of value to Watchmen over the course of Minutemen's run. He's even forgotten to convincingly flesh out the bare bones of his own hackneyed endeavour, layering as he has one cliche over another as if that might pass for a well-worked story. No matter how much sentimentality and bluster Cooke's struggled to trowel over its pages, he's never succeeded in making Minutemen seem like anything but a corporate-mandated, trademark-exploiting stunt. In The Last Minute, he offers up the destruction of secret base, the murder of a super-bloke, and the revelation of an undreamed-of string-puller too. You'd think that there'd be something in all of that which didn't feel forced, irrelevant and shallow, but nothing of the sort arrives. Even those moments when Cooke's undoubted ability to evoke a genre-savvy, film-set sharp sense of the past feel almost entirely hollow, since all he's really doing is filling up space on the way to fulfilling his quota of pages. If anything at all is transmitted by Cooke's storytelling, it's the air of a determined and professional slog to obscure the lack of a worthwhile yarn with 140+ pages of empty-hearted distraction. At the very least, a pot-boiler ought to give the impression of simmering every once in a while, but Minutemen never once threatened to do so.

There's nothing of Before Watchmen's cynical, coin-counting ennui to be found in Masks #3, but there is something of the former's lack of distinctiveness and purpose. Unlike Cooke's superficial and apparently disengaged work, writer Chris Roberson's enthusiasm for his own gathering of crimefighting vigilantes seems evident. But though Roberson's set-up of a fascist coup in the New York of 1938 is an undeniably fascinating one, there's little of city, era or indeed anything but pantomime fascism to be found here. Instead, Masks quickly reveals itself to be a stultifyingly formulaic tale of how a small cadre of virtuous and hard-fighting vigilantes join together to counter overwhelming odds, etc, etc, etc. It's an efficiently crafted narrative, as you'd expect from Roberson, and it's heartfelt too, with a obvious and touching respect for the source material that's constantly on show. But in focusing on the traditions of the by-the-numbers comicbook team-up, Masks comes across as little but more-of-the-same. So much of the potential for distinctiveness which the setting of late-Depression New York offers is squandered on a story which, with a little effort, could be set in any city and at any time with just about any stereotypical cast of day-saving protagonists. As such, Masks seem hardly any different from the most typical of modern day superhero fare.

To be fair, some of the reasons for the book's lack of individuality are clearly beyond Roberson's control. With so many of his cast sharing a similar appearance, power-set, ethnicity, gender, and even class identity, he's reliant upon the collaboration of an artist who can ensure that everyone appears both distinct and engaging. Regrettably, that's not something which artist Dennis Calero appears able to achieve, while there's also little of the age to be experienced in his listlessly photo-referenced scenes of the period.Without anything but the comicbook equivalent of a guide-vocal to follow in Calero's art, the third issue of Masks is finally sunk by its lack of any notably compelling sequences. In truth, it's mostly just a comicbook's worth of exposition and foreshadowing, and although that may perhaps work as a dry but essential part of a collected edition, it makes for a thin and unengaging read in an issue that's cost $3.99. Given how promising the idea of a pulp-era super-team is, and considering the beguiling possibilities of a tale set in that particular time and place, Masks is an expensive and disappointing under-achievement

By contrast, the creators of Young Avengers #1 seem totally unable to resist the compulsion to infuse their work with a great exuberant mass of pop culture, social politics and creative ambition. From the ethics as well as the pleasures of sex with partners and strangers alike to the emotional temptations of access to a multiverse, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie appear set on describing the experience of late adolescence rather than just the comicbook traditions of the same. In that Young Avengers is a superhero comic where the requisite costumes and powers and brawls are smartly put to use to playfully discuss everyday life in the 21st century everybit as much as they're enjoyed for their own undeniable virtues. It's a dual purpose which means that Young Avengers is grounded in character rather than type, and driven by an outward-looking curiosity and enthusiasm rather than a fannish longing for yet more comfortably pre-masticated product.

At times, there's a vivifying desire to innovate that sparks up off of the pages of "I Have No Powers...". The fractured, multi-panneled and wordless double-page spread which shows the book's first melee, for example, succeeds in being surprising and yet perfectly transparent and compelling too. Similarly effective as well as innovative is the counterpoint provided by a slowly unspooling, Ellison-referencing title, which makes for a considerable belly-laugh when its punchlines are reached. Yet the point of the storytelling is always to precisely describe the experiences and responses of Gillen and McKelvie's cast. This is anything but change and novelty for the sake of it, and often the most impressive aspects of the writing and art are the less  immediately conspicuous aspects of it. Rarely, for example, has a mass of first-issue exposition been channeled to an audience in a less conspicuous and more entertaining fashion. Similarly, there's few if any artists at work in the super-book today who can inspire so much empathy for a cast through the panel-to-panel precision and subtlety of their character's emotions.

Those who know what they like and like only what they know may be wary of such an idiosyncratic project. Where are the tie-ins, where are the Events? Where does all of this fit in the MU's broader context? They may even suspect that crimes even worse than being peripheral to the continuity could be being perpetrated. What if Young Avengers arrives complete with an elitist's hijacking contempt for traditional super-heroics? Nothing could be further from the truth. There's not a panel that's arch and excluding to be found here. Instead, there's a sincere regard for the super-book in addition to the conviction that it needn't be so disconnected from everything but itself. And so, there's no rejection of the decades-worn tropes of other-worldly analogues, for example, but there is a belief that they ought to be used for matters of emotional substance as well as golly-gee-wow spectacle. True, the politically reactionary may well find reason to resume bleating about the supposedly liberal bias of the Big Two's output. Both writer and artist are clearly disinterested in labelling any of their diverse cast as immoral or inferior, and homophobes in particular will be just as appalled by what's shown here as they will have been by Allan Heinberg's incarnation of the title. But then, that's just one more reason to enthusiastically applaud the arrival of this new volume of Young Avengers.
If only Al Ewing had as able an artistic collaborator to dovetail with on Jennifer Blood #20. Eman Casallos' pages are competent enough, and in places they're unarguably effective, but they're sadly not the equal of  Ewing's remarkable script. In what's a celebration of the American thriller tradition everybit as much as a satire of the crimefighting-psychopath trope, Storm's A-Coming depicts Jessica Blute's inevitably futile and incendiary attempts to start over in the isolated rural town of Revere, New Mexico. As always with Ewing's work here, horror and laughter tend to co-exist on the page rather than taking turns to dominate particular scenes. On the one hand, Blood's attempts to hide away her family and resume what appears to be a typical existence is a clearly farcical and frequently hilarious business. Yet it's also a tale of a clearly baffled and perpetually deluded serial killer whose children have been reduced to traumatised trophies by their mother's psychoticism. Though Ewing succeeds in making something pathetically vulnerable out of Blute's inability to make sense of the world around her, he never suggests that's she's anything other than a curse to herself and everyone else she encounters. When he has her declare that Revere's hungover, street-vomiting county sheriff is a bad example to her children, it's impossible not to laugh. There are, after all, few worse examples than Jennifer Blood. Yet the very fact that she's expressed such a judgement is thoroughly chilling too. Does Blute ever disapprove of somebody that she doesn't also end up killing, and what is it that Ewing's suggesting lies at the heart of the will for conformity in small town communities? To have ensured that the reader pities Blute for her abnormal psychology without ever once considering it as a marker of order-establishing heroism is no little achievement.

But there's no place to hide in the thrilleresque realism which Ewing's script demands for an artist who at times struggles to convincing portray the forms that he's depicting. Though the emotions of Casallos' characters tend to be clear, his still-evident struggles with anatomy mean that they're rarely as compelling as they ought to be. Similarly, his backgrounds often suggest barely-functional stage-sets drawn largely from the imagination, and that again undermines Ewing's purpose. (Unlike Calero's similarly under-par work on Masks, Casallos lacks the opportunity to hide his weaknesses behind noirishly dark scenes dominated by muscular superpeople.) At moments, Casallos does succeeds in catching the nature of the characters he's describing. The final shot of Sheriff Carter suggests a man who may just be as formidable as he's an alcoholic liability, while Pruitt's role as Blood's personal fury is both underlined and undermined by the presence of the intravenous drip that she's forced to wheel around behind her. In both cases, Casallos succeeds in convincing evoking the physicality of the characters while also emphasising the particular mix of tragedy and comedy which distinguishes them. Yet Jennifer Blood is currently one of the best-written comics on the market, and it will sadly never generate the sales and acclaim which Ewing's writing deserves until its art becomes exceptional rather than adequate. If a Steve Dillon or a Jamie McKelvie or a Henry Flint were contributing to Jennifer Blood, I suspect that there'd be talk of Eisners and prestige hardbacked collections. As it is, it's a comic whose potential remains in part unrealised on the page, even as its scripts ensure that it's a must-read monthly.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

On "Diosamante" by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Jean-Claude Gal:- Masters Of Misogyny

The more we learn of the editorial shenanigans going on at DC, the easier it is to believe that artistic control inevitably inspires the best from creators. But if ever there was an example of how that isn't necessarily so, then it's Jodorowsky and Gal's Diosamante. More than that, it's yet more proof - as if any more proof was needed - that all the talent, skill, application and ambition in the world can't guarantee that a story will be worth the reading. For all the love and respect that the two creators display for old-school tales of sword and sorcery, and for all their apparently sincere commitment to a profoundly reactionary set of ideals, Diosamante is an experience that's as wearisome and unconvincing as it's unpleasant.

It may seem unfair to complain that Diosamante contains neither characters or conflict in anything other than the broadest, interest-sapping sense. After all, Jodorowsky obviously set out to produce a spiritual allegory peopled by types who are moved through simplistic ethical dilemmas with a maximum of seriousness and a minimum of subtlety. But the steps to moral enlightenment that he offers are nothing but crass and banal and chauvinistic, and all the supposedly spectacular moments and all the self-satisfied excess of cant can't compensate for the enervating absence of drama. In portraying the supposed path towards self-awareness and grace that's taken by Diosamante, Queen Of Arhas, Jodorowsky could almost be presenting an on-the-nail satire of the kind of po-faced, hyper-violent, and disturbingly sexualised muscles'n' magic yarn associated with the worst of Heavy Metal. Yet his script shows no sign at all of the joyful contempt which the best of satires express. Shockingly, Jodorowsky appears to expect that his tale of a once-mighty woman striving for a pseudo-Buddhist state of worthiness through torture and powerlessness should be taken entirely seriously. That the qualities he associates with her rebirth are synonymous with a misogynistic ideal of womanhood seems to have passed him by entirely.

That even the late Jean-Claude Gal's meticulous world-building fails to bring this dubious, threadbare narrative alive is a mark of how boorish and unpleasant Jodorowsky's didactic script is. With the lack of anything of personality in the script for Diosamante beyond the looming self-regard and bigotry of its author, Gal's tendency towards a measure of stiffness in his figurework becomes all the more obvious. Unable to compensate for the characters' absence of feeling or the asinine obviousness of the plot, Gal's work struggles to shine beyond a few grand architectural set-pieces. The aerial view of the coastal city of Daibath, for example, is unquestionably a beautifully designed and rendered experience, while the South-East Asian influences which inform the book's second and third chapters in particular add a degree of fascination to the by-the-numbers narrative.

Yet Gal's literal-minded reading of the script not only fails to bring its types and events to life. It also thoroughly reinforces Jodorowsky's seemingly fanatical misogyny, with the overwhelming obviousness of the artist's choices ensuring that the project never seems any the less ill-judged and disturbing. Put simply, Gal seems to have wholeheartedly bought into Jodorowsky’s reactionary ideals, and there’s been no apparent effort made in the art to counter-point the unpleasantness of the tale's meaning with anything of irony, or even good humour. Even if both men thought their piously cod-philosophising might excuse, or even legitimise, the aggressive sexism of their work, Diosamante is so unremittingly unpleasant that any possible good intentions become quite irrelevant. When metaphors for mystical development are indistinguishable from violent, women-loathing porn, the creators are, by accident or design, peddling thoroughly pernicious trash.

It's not just that the Queen herself is inspired through cosmic truth to abandon her throne in order to become worthy of a perfect King, or that her fate when she wins him is to churn out children while decoratively playing a harp in the royal palace as he plays at being perfect ruler. It's not even that Diosamante’s proven skill with a sword is discounted when time comes for the realm to be abandoned by the women and the children in the face of a barbarian invasion. The very idea that a woman’s essential interest can only be served by abandoning every trace of independence and power in order to fulfil the most traditional of gender roles is offensive enough. But far, far worse than even that is the use of rape not just as a regular threat and a repeated occurrence, but as a tool of spiritual enlightenment.
Wed by a cadre of noble super-monks to a "Vile, filthy beast" of an ape who first urinates upon her before settling into a nightly routine of rape, Diosamante is shown meekly learning to accept her place in the cosmos through a brutalising cycle of years-long sexual abuse and childbirth. So successful is her education, we're told, that the eventual murder of the "monkey-man" by invaders - who also inflict their own round of rape on her, of course - brings with it a night of sorrowful howling from Diosamante at her loss. Worse yet, it’s a sequence of events that's followed not by her taking vengeance on the monks who’d sentenced her to this fate, but to her rebuilding their temple and respectfully joining their mass meditation. A respectful capitulation is, we're told, the woman's road to truth. (Tellingly, no man is shown undergoing the repeated violations that she has to.) The "Monkey-man", it seems, "taught her to love like an animal" and helped mark her with "holiness". (The beast's rape of her is presented as a peaceful and almost tender business, with Diosamante submitting as an admirably patient pilgrim.) It's just one of a sequence of impossibly cruel and hateful scenes which are ladled out as mystical truths, with neither Jodorowsky or Gal having apparently noticed how their esoteric guide to a truer life for women was occupying the same ground as common-and-garden rape fantasies.
The loathing of women that's expressed in Diosamante is astonishingly unguarded, chauvinism cloaked in allegorical worthiness and fantasy cliches. In fact, the whole purpose of the tale appears to be to show exactly what a woman’s role should, and that’s one that's little more than obedience, sexual availability, motherhood, and glum-faced harping . As such, I can only recommend that everyone hunts down a copy of the newly-published and handsome hardbacked copy of the tale by Humanoids, which is produced to the admirable standards that we’d associate with the publishers. It's the first printing in English of Diosamante, and it contains notes from Jodorowsky and sketches from Gal which describe how the book's sequel would have progressed if not for Gal's untimely death. The sketches are so much more lively and engaging than the finished work for the first volume, although the plot synopsis for what was to come offers no hope of a more humane attitude to sex and gender emerging. Yet both men have undeniably produced important and influential comics work. Even when it represents qualities which inevitably inspire little but anger, despair and contempt in all but reactionaries and the dull-minded, it ought to remain in print. To see such ability applied with remarkable focus and energy to such a baleful, dehumanising cause is a cautionary tale of no little worth and importance in itself. As an example of undoubted talent conspiring to produce both narrative pablum and ethical grime, Diosamante is an essential read. In that context, and in that context only, I heartily recommend it to you.