Sunday, December 20, 2009

I've always gone for the also-rans

I've always liked my music to be a little bit edgy and challenging. It's why I prefer albums by Bjork, St Vincent, Joanna Newsom, Jim Moray, Mumford and Sons and Planet X to those by Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane, U2 or Oasis. Somewhere in the middle, there are bands like The Cure, Radiohead, The Smiths and Blur who are about as mainstream as I like to get. Unsurprisingly, I feel the same about comics.

Admittedly, if pushed to suggest the 'Top 10 Graphic Novels', I'd probably pick an utterly predictable crop of well-known masterpieces like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Sandman, The Tale of One Bad Rat, Akira, Preacher, Batman: The Killing Joke, Maus, Luther Arkwright, Sin City: Hard Goodbye etc. But I can't help rooting for the underdog and I would also have to include a few 'lost gems'; some of the comics that have made me very happy but which haven't necessarily registered with the mainstream reader.

I never really got my head around superheroes and American comics in general as we couldn't get them where I grew up in Cornwall. Instead, I migrated from the Beano to Whizzer and Chipsto 2000AD and Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant). Consequently, I became (and still am) a huge fan of European and British comic artists like Enric Sio, Mike McMahon, Esteban Maroto and Moebius. I also loved the intelligent storylines and anti-heroes of strips like Judge Dredd, Lone Sloane, Asterix the Gaul and The Incal. Sadly, British comics came and went and, with the notable exception of 2000AD, they all failed. But they did leave us with some amazing characters and I would implore you to seek them out and enjoy them as I have. So here are a few suggestions:

1. Hewligan's Haircut by Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett. This bizarre eight-part story ran in 2000AD in 1990. Hewlett - best-known these days as co-creator of pop band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn - had achieved cult status with his Tank Girl character and was soon finding himself in great demand. His anarchic style suited this story exactly. Hewligan, a patient at a psychiatric hospital, is about to be discharged and decides to cut his hair. However, he unknowingly cuts it into the shape of a secret symbol used to keep the universe 'in tune'. With the symbol at large, the walls of reality crumble and fall and Hewligan finds himself on a strange inter-dimensional road trip with the lovely Scarlet O'Gasmeter to find the enigmatic giant heads that can fix things. Mad stuff but a terrific read.

2. Johnny Nemo by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon. New London 2921 is a city sunk in despair, corruption and violence. And that's just how Johnny Nemo, ultra-violent and foul-mouthed private detective, likes it. During the course of his adventures he gets to face transgender barmen, a Princess Diana lookalike with Siren-like powers, Latin-spouting fascists, exploding nuns and even a weird religious cult who worship Bing Crosby's left testicle.

Johnny made his first appearance in the American comic anthology Strange Days, before a short three-issue run in his own book by Eclipse in the mid-eighties. A few years later, the stories (plus some new ones) were reprinted in the first dozen issues of Deadline, a British monthly comic aimed at giving new talent a chance. It was created by former 2000 AD artists Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon. Deadline also introduced us to Hewlett's Tank Girl and helped launch the careers of artists like Phillip Bond and D'Israeli. Smart and violent.

3. Kane by Paul Grist. This comic, an independent publishing venture by Grist (Dancing Elephant Press), follows the exploits of detective Kane in the city of New Eden.

Grist is a superb storyteller and has a unique vision, much more European in style than similar US strips. He also has a wonderful cast of characters like the Bunny Man (a tall chap permanently dressed as a pink rabbit) and The Blind Man: a legendary hitman who tracks down his victims by listening to their heartbeats. Paul used to be quite often on the next stand to us back in the days when myself and some friends published our own indie comics (see here). A nice guy and well-deserving of the recognition he now gets within the industry.

4. Marshall Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill. 'Some of them think 'cause they're superheroes they're above the law. It's my job to change their thinking. Sometimes this can prove fatal.' In a twisted, decadent future not so far away, the city once called San Francisco is now a war zone. The government has commissioned living weapons of mass destruction to wage war on terror. The survivors return home broken, bitter, insane - and almost unstoppable. Only one man has the power to take on America's best and brightest and bring them to justice - ex-superhero Marshall Law.

Marshall Law never really found a home in British comics. He popped up in Marvel UK'sStripand later in the ill-fated Toxic. Since then he's appeared in specials and in various collections and trade paperbacks. A great anti-hero from British comics legends Pat Mills (Judge Dredd) and Kevin O'Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Worth reading for the spoof versions of other well-known traditional superheroes alone.

5. Fred the Clown by Roger Langridge. How to describe Fred the Clown? This is the signature character of New Zealand's most prolific cartoonist, Roger Langridge. Fred is your bog-standard tragic clown; unlucky in love, prone to despair, always suffering pratfalls. The strip jumps from era to era and art style to art style but never once loses the pithy wit or the quality of the artwork.

Fred exists mostly in the form of a webcomic and can be accessed and read, free of charge, atHotel Fred. If you like the more traditional ink and paper, many of the strips were collected into a book (see above). Meanwhile, if you like what you see, also check out Roger's Knuckles the Malevolent Nun.

6. Accident Man by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and various artists. I don't really know much about the creation of this character. All I know is that there wasn't enough of him. The story centered around the life of Mike Fallon, a high-class hitman. Fallon was known for making his murders look like accidents, often going to extravagant lengths to do so. Fallon is also noted for his love of high living and glamorous girlfriends. Mike Fallon's, "I don't give a damn" attitude to his hits was changed the day his girlfriend (a would-be Greenpeace activist) was murdered. Fallon then went on a murderous rampage to find out who paid the contract on his girlfriend and who actually made the hit.

Accident Man ran in Toxic for just three stories illustrated by Martin Emond, Duke Mighten and John Erasmus. There was a later three part series drawn by Duke Mighten for Dark Horse (see above). More please!

7. The Last American by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Mike McMahon. There is absolutely no way that I'd let a Top 10 slide by without mention of Mike McMahon, one of comics' most consistently innovative illustrators. I've blogged about him before here and here. The difficulty was choosing a comic that really shows him off at his best. In the end it came down to a toss-up between his artwork for 2000AD's Slaine or Epic's The Last American.

In the end I chose The Last American because Pat Mills, as a writer, has already had two mentions. Instead, here are two of 2000AD's stalwarts - Wagner and Grant - who between them penned nearly every Judge Dredd story. Twenty years after a global nuclear conflict, one man is released from suspended animation to see what remains. It is unclear why nuclear war occurred or who started it but the devastation is immense. The protagonist is joined by three robot companions who accompany him on his journey to discover if he is, in fact, the last American alive. Poignant and wonderfully scripted.

8. Arzach by Jean Giraud (Moebius). The most influential entry in this alternative Top 10, Arzach is a comic book collection of four wordless short stories by Moebius, which were originally published in the French magazine M├ętal Hurlant. The stories follow Arzach, a silent warrior who rides a pterodactyl-like creature through a strange, desolate landscape (see top of post).
The imagery and situations inArzach are often compared to dreams or the subconscious. These stories had an enormous impact on the French comics industry, and the Arzach character is still among Moebius' most famous creations. Simply some of the best comic artwork I've ever seen.

9. The Actress and the Bishop by Brian Bolland. Brian is one of the UK's best known comic artists ... despite producing very little in the way of comic art for many years. Instead, he confines himself to covers mostly. However, he does indulge himself with the occasional self-written strip and The Actress and the Bishop have now featured in several.

Having been a staple pair of characters in British humour for decades, it's surprising that no one thought to create a strip around them until Bolland. But I'm glad he did. The scripts are clever, funny and set in rhyming couplets reminiscent of old Rupert the Bear annuals. Wonderful stuff.

10. The Bojeffries Saga by Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse. Everyone knows Watchmenand V for Vendetta. Everyone knows The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Killing Joke andFrom Hell. Not many people know about this splendid Alan Moore gem. The Bojeffries Saga is a series of comics which have been published by a number of different companies since their debut in 1983 in the UK comics anthology Warrior. Described as a 'soap opera of the paranormal' it features an eccentric English family of werewolves, vampires and monsters in various peculiar tales. It has the usual sharp satire and clever plot lines you'd expect from Moore and the crisp, sharp illustration of Parkhouse, an often sadly overlooked star.

Alan Moore has hinted at the fact that there may soon be a whole new Bojeffries story to finish off the saga. In his words: 'Yeah, I have written a final Bojeffries – well, I don’t know if it’s a final – but I’ve written a kind of, it wouldn’t hurt if it was the last one, although maybe me and Steve will want to do some more with them. What we’re going to do is, we’re going to collect up, with Top Shelf, all of the Bojeffries material that’s appeared to date, and we’re going to cap it all off with a twenty-four page story called After They Were Famous, which is the Bojeffries in 2009, existing side-by-side with culture as it is now, as opposed to culture as it was in the eighties and the early nineties'. So there's something to look forward to.

So there you go. My alternative Top 10. seek them out and enjoy. I know you'll love them. and if enough of you do so, they may start topping some 'best of' polls.

After all, if Rage against the Machine can do it ...

1 comment:

Planet Me said...

Marshall Law! Now that's a man I haven't heard of in a long while.