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Thought Bubble Capsule Reviews

I went to Thought Bubble in Leeds last month. I bought a bunch of comics there. Here’s what I thought of them. 100 words a comic, no more no less. Let’s go.

The Snow Queen and Other Stories by Isabel Greenberg

Greenberg works hard, doesn’t she? The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, is only just out, and she’s already got a follow-up (of sorts) in this book, put out by Great Beast.

Unlike Early Earth, the Snow Queen is adapted from Hans Christian Andersen tales. Greenberg’s meandering storytelling is actually put to better use here, with the strong core of the original fairytale keeping the plot flowing more directly from A to B than in her biggest work.

But that focus also means that we miss some of the sprawling vistas that were so magnificent, in favour of tighter character work.

Throw Your Keys Away by Dan Berry

Four fun tales – and a one-panel gag. The Devil’s Steps is the most wonderfully rendered of them all, with gloomy blacks and blues placing it firmly in its Halloween setting. While the colours play it serious, the line work has more of a wink to the fact that the whole story – an encounter with a devil out of Berry’s childhood – is less than it seems. (It’s certainly the friendliest devil I’ve ever seen).

Elsewhere, I love the gag panel’s great, as is the tale of how he Almost Quit Drawing Comics. Who can resist the smell of a cobblers?

Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

Fuck, the first Multiple Warheads was explicit wasn’t it? I guess I knew the series started life as porn, so I can’t be surprised. (And hey, if porn comics are your thing, that one has more wit and character in a few pages than the six-and-counting volumes of Manara I’ve got staring at me from my shelf.)

The non-porn stuff – the vast majority of the volume – is great. Surprisingly different in tone from King City, even if the artistic style is largely shared between the two. The porny roots never quite die, and it’s sweetly sexy throughout.

Raygun Roads by Owen Michael Johnson and Indio

Colours everywhere! A plot teleported in from the seventeenth dimension presented in ways mere mortals can never quite comprehend! But if we had that 18th dimensional viewpoint would it coalesce into something less than its ambitions? There’s worse things to be than Flex-Mentallo-for-hair-metal, I guess.

(I love Grant Morrison too, guys).

Flipping the book halfway through was annoying but the middle spread was beautiful so we’ll let it slide?

I think there’s actual music too, so the album thing isn’t just a gimmick, but I read this on a train so I couldn’t listen to it.

I Don’t Like My Hair Neat, Issue Two by Julia Scheele

Bad Omen, Tell You Now and Sinking are the standout stories in this short anthology. The first is an ultra-vivid memory, with a sickly feeling washing through it, even before the actual bad omen rears its head. The second, a tale of survival told through the detritus of an abuse relationship, harnesses the power of some old Le Tigre lyrics. The third is one of the most beautiful (incongruous praise, maybe) depictions of depression I’ve seen.

Julia continues to be one of the best colourists working in the small-press scene. Look at the cover and Kama Sutra Spells!

Seasons by Mike Medaglia

I thought Mike hadn’t put his name on the book and was ready to chuckle, but it’s tucked away in the back.

Anyway, Delightful Girlfriend exclaimed that this was the prettiest book of the con without me even opening it, so the stripped back simplicity definitely works. That is a cover designed by someone who knows how to use white space!

The book itself is four very short vignettes broken up by abstract colourscapes and little quotes. The stories themselves are great slices of lives, always slightly shorter than you would need to know the whole thing, leaving you wondering.

Chloe Noonan Monster Hunter 4 1/2 by Marc Ellerby

CHLOE NOONAN BEATS UP MONSTERS. In this issue she actually gets a sugar high, falls asleep and lets all the monsters go except the chipmunk thing which doesn’t want to leave.

Noonan is one of the most rewarding little series to follow, tickling the same itch – often far better – than big yank comics with a thousand times the circulation. Even in this silly story, a limited run of 200 (Marc wasn’t even able to publish it through his own Great Beast label, which is way harsh, Tai), the plot moves a bit on. Just why are the monsters so bad?

Dungeon Fun by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance

Adventure Time is really bloody influential, isn’t it? Some of its followers are great, others not so much. This falls into the former camp, with a fun tale of a girl adopted by trolls fighting out of a pit she lives in to avenge her mud statue which was destroyed by a falling sword. Naturally, she’s actually the long lost heir to the throne.

Like Adventure Time, you come for the adventures and stay for the parenthetical comments about whatever the authors were interested in that day. The plot progresses at a fair whack, and before you know it it’s done.

The Megatherium Club by Owen D. Pomery

This is a deeply silly book, let’s just get this out of the way now.

You know there’s a sub genre of fantasy starting with “X historical group was actually into black magic/superscience/the illuminati?” Well, this is “what if the Megatherium club (a real group of people) were massive pissheads who never did anything useful”, which, based on my understanding those guys, is pretty fucking accurate.

Pomery’s etched-line style comes into its own here, and if I hadn’t already read his previous work Between the Billboards, I’d assume it was put on just for the historical feel.

The Comix Reader 5 by fucking everyone

A newspaper format art comix anthology.

O’Connell and Locke’s scrappy paste-job is a new and interesting way of doing sequential art.

Parsons’ sexual memoir made me feel dirty inside.

Hickman’s strips were sadly recogniseable.

Lord Hurk’s formalist adventure didn’t make the blindest bit of sense, but I liked its style.

Ditto Cowdry’s strips.

Sina’s autobio comics were damn good autobio. And starting with a blowjob is a good call, always.

Couldn’t focus my eyes on Homersham’s (great) astonishingly detailed page.

Schalkx’s strip is the most minimalist work I’ve seen which still manages to convey a story, character and emotion.

On Reflection by Andy Poyiadgi

Talking format is always a cop-out, but: I love this format. The printed tracing paper, in particular, is a wonderful touch. And sure, if you open it out fully it’s just a long strip – but who would do that?

Similarly, beautiful page design reflects the theme of the story in the books very layout. The first and last pages are mirrored right down to the title text.

Tonally eerie, there’s not a huge amount to the plot, but the artwork brings some of the depressive gloom to the fore. (And Andy’s line-work is wonderful in its own right).

The Heroines Zine edited by Julia Scheele

Hugely varied contributions, which is precisely what you want from something like this.

I get the sense the brief was “make art about a heroine”, resulting in the range.

Subjects run the gamut from Ripley and Buffy (of course) through Ada Lovelace and Emmeline Pankhurst all the way to friends and relations of the authors. Media ranges from pure text to pure image and everything in between.

Standout works are Heather Wilson on Pankhurst, Kieron Gillen on Ada Lovelace, and Ellen Rogers on her muse Maxine. Also Julia and Tom Humberstone’s portraits.

Is it a comic? What a boring question.

Windowpane #2 by Joe Kessler

As with the last one, the standout work here is the collaboration with Reuben Mwaura. As with the last one, the physical object is a thing of beauty, with the risograph printing resulting in colour work you won’t see anywhere else. As with the last one, ‘dreamlike’ is a cop-out description, but also vaguely accurate.

It’s a bit much to expect much change between two issues of an a single-author anthology work, but there’s very little here that couldn’t have been in the pages of the first, and vice versa. Still, all the praise for that applies here.

Hitsville UK #2 by John Riordan and Dan Cox

It’s called The Difficult Second Issue. It’s been, I think, two years in the making, long enough for Marc Ellerby and Adam Cadwell’s Great Beast small-press-publisher (if that’s not an oxymoron) to pick it up. “When we picked the title of the issue, we didn’t realise quite how true it would be”, John said. But it’s worth the wait.

Whereas the first was a disjointed series of introductions, gelling together into a plot and uniform whole only in the last few pages, this is… well, still disjointed, but more purposefully so. John’s art remains pop as fuck.

I Got Comics #1 by John Miers

Miers is probably the foremost formalist working in the British scene today. His Babel requires a manual to comprehend, which isn’t the slight it seems.

There’s nothing as balls-out experimental in this volume, nor is there anything as straightforwardly innovative as Round Man in Square City (I don’t think it has a name) from A Collection of Comics by…, aka I Got Comics #0. My favourite piece in the book is probably two-pager The Mechanical Elephant, a musing (both in terms of what it is and what it says) on perspective. Interested in seeing more of Sisyphus, though.

Doctor Who and the Hipsters by Abigail Brady

Another zine, and this one’s proper old school (it’s actually photocopied and stapled and everything). A short piece of Doctor Who fanfic featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. I had to google to check it’s actually the Seventh Doctor so you can tell the level of background I’m going in with.

It’s an utterly delightful premise: what if the Doctor went back to the Shoreditch street where the very first episode began fifty years ago? And what if, when he went back there, he was actually taking his companion forward?

Fast, funny and some cracking hipster-bashing. And free online.

Supergods could really use an editor

By coincidence, I finished Supergods the same day I read Laura Sneddon’s interview with Grant Morrison. (I was on holiday at the time, on the terrace of my mother’s ex-husband’s house in Corsica, if it matters. These things often do. Still not home as I write this, in fact. Though I am as I upload it.) The latter helped crystallise my thoughts about the former. Crystallise, specifically, into this sudden realisation: Grant Morrison’s not a very good writer.

That’s not quite my fully-though-out, final line on the book, of course. Morrison is my favourite author of comics(/graphic novels/sequential art/funnybooks, whatever), and reading his slightly weird views on, say, the ethics of work-for-hire hasn’t changed that. And even in Supergods, the prose is often wonderful, and his take on what many think of as somewhat “closed” subjects (the greatness of Watchmen; the awfulness of the 90s) is interesting and insightful.

But really, and in the nicest possible way, he shouldn’t have written a non-fiction book. He’s just not particularly good at it. His strengths become his weaknesses, and his weaknesses become the reasons why I simply can’t recommend it to anyone without a deep interest in Morrisonalia.

To give just one example of the sort of amateurish weirdness the book contains, frequently the introductory paragraph on a new personality in the book will happen several pages after they first appear. This may be intentional, of course, and I’m certainly not asking for every new face to enter the text with a journalistic description of them, their work and their lives. But there are a number of pages which would simply make no sense if I didn’t already have background information about the person being discussed. Steve Yeowell, for instance, is introduced twice in one page, and at other points, I found myself wondering if I’d missed the first mention of someone. Was he discussing an artist? An editor? A co-writer? He often spills the beans told halfway down the next page, leaving me tempted is to jump back to the top and reread with that new information.

Of course, in Morrison’s fiction, that’s precisely the effect he goes for. Multi-layered stories, twist endings, revelation piled on revelation, what seems like a confusing mass of ideas coalescing into a coherent whole. And if he were trying to do that in Supergods, it would be impressive, even if it did fall slightly flat.

But honestly? It doesn’t come across at though he is trying to do that. It seems he really does just think in a different order to most people. It’s all stuff which ought to have come out in the edit, but I guess just didn’t.

This feeling – that they just printed the manuscript as delivered – extends to other aspects of the book as well. For some bizarre reason, the only images in it are black-and-white versions of the covers to the DC comics he talks about. I can understand the black and white, just (although I really doubt that Jonathan Cape/Random House couldn’t afford to spring the extra pennies per copy for colour printing), but what seems to be excessive paranoia over copyright to the images in question genuinely hurts the book. Not a single image from Marvel is included, for instance, despite Morrison talking at length about his work on Marvel Boy and New X-Men. And these are no mere overviews, either. Just as with the much-excerpted passage about the cover of Action Comics #1, Morrison goes for extreme close-readings of various aspects of these comics; close-readings which simply don’t make sense without the image to refer back to. I can only imagine that nobody even tried to clear the images for use, relying on Morrison to gain permission for the few that were published by DC directly, and passing over the rest. How else to explain, for example, the bizarre failure to include any panels from The Authority, discussed at length and actually owned by DC? And even if they weren’t cleared, such images are certainly covered by fair use/fair dealing, reprinted at tiny resolution in what is absolutely a valid work of criticism.

(Incidentally, if you do want to hear this sort of deep examination of the craft of laying out a page or a cover of a comic, a far better place to turn would be Kieron Gillen’s podcast DECOMPRESSED. For all that authorial intent is bunk, Morrison goes far too far in the opposite direction; the symbology of the appearance of all four elements on the front page of Action Comics #1 is interesting, but also feels unbelievably forced. Far more insightful is Morrison’s explanation of why the first page of Watchmen works so well, but that sort of thing is now done on a weekly basis – with, shock horror, the pages under discussion excerpted under fair use – by Gillen, in conversation with the author(s).)

But looking beyond how the information and arguments are presented, how do they rate?

The most obvious comment about the book – one picked up on by reviewers who were more timely than me – is that it is two books in one, and sold to readers as being different from either. Except for a chapter at the end, in which Morrison discusses the impact of ever more personal applications of technology and branding, very little of the book is a discussion of “OUR WORLD IN THE AGE OF THE SUPERHERO”. Instead, it is firstly the aforementioned collection of close examinations of seminal comics, and secondly Morrison’s autobiography as told primarily through the comics which were important to him.

That first aim is hit and miss. Where it succeeds, we have a master of the craft elaborating on what makes other greats work so well. Where it doesn’t, we have little more than expertly applied pareidolia.

Grant loves his hidden symbology (his annotated script to Arkham Asylum was my first proof of the fact that sometimes, my schoolteachers weren’t bullshitting when they said that authors deliberately included the subtext which we were all so painfully extracting for our GCSE coursework), but not everyone does. At times, the book becomes little more than someone painstakingly elaborating on all the slices of toast in which they have seen Jesus’ face.

As an autobiography, however, the book is far more interesting. Morrison’s chaos magic, alien abduction, and mysticism, despite being presented in as sympathetic light as possible, still come across as a bit mad, but intelligently so – he knows how he sounds to non-believers, and doesn’t really care.

And even taken as nothing more than an excuse to hear Morrison discussing his early life in the Scottish alt-comix scene, the creation of Zenith, and his part in the British Invasion, it’s something I would be happy to read again. Which is good, because much of it I have already read – these are some of the most-discussed aspects of his life, well-trodden in prior interviews.

The strength of the biographical aspect of the book is immediately obvious when considering Morrison’s discussion of the Golden Age of comics (those made, roughly, from the late thirties to the fifties). This section, which opens the book, lacks any personal stories for the unsurmountable reason that Morrison wasn’t actually alive then. When added to the flop that is his over-detailed, underwhelming examination of the covers of that period, it drags by.

In fact, the only reason I made it through was my curiosity to read the much-discussed “betrayal” of Siegel and Shuster. Morrison commits nerd-heresy by suggesting that maybe, in selling Superman for $130, the two men knew what they were getting into, and thought that they’d got a good deal.

The answer is somewhere between the received wisdom of DC’s original sin and Morrison’s near total absolution of the company. It’s certainly important to note that work-for-hire is a trade-off, not a rip-off. It’s how I make my living, for one thing, and while I will lose out if any of my “creations” attains Superman stature, I make up for it with the fact that without the New Statesman promoting my work, I be no-one. (Still am, of course, but a different kind of no-one)

At the same time, the deal DC offered to Siegel and Shuster was more exploitative than most. The work was done when the company bought the creation, which normally entails a higher pay-off (because the purchasers are taking less risk); and there seems to have been less clarity in their contracts than Morrison implies.

In discussing the intricacies of the contracts of the Superman creators, as well as the twists and turns of his own life, Morrison seems to be targeting his book at the faithful; those, like myself, who want to go deep into the mind of a man we already respect. Clearly this aim was against the wishes of the publishers, hence the more mass-market subtitle, trade dress and marketing; but it also seems to be contradicted by some of the book itself. Parts of it are – and there’s no other word for it – shockingly under-researched. For instance, on a chapter on superhero movies, Morrison describes the then-upcoming Spider-Man reboot – which became Amazing Spider-Man, and came out this May – saying:

Oddly enough, and only three years after the Raimi series, Marvel started work on yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin.

It is in fact an rather important aspect of the recent history of superhero movies that the Spider-Man franchise is owned by Sony, not Marvel. It was the former’s success which motivated the latter to create their own studio, which went on to produce the Avengers series of films, culminating in what was, briefly, the most successful superhero movie ever.

Even at the time the book came out, the first few movies in this series had come out, and contained a number of aspects which ought to have been of interest to Morrison – the first genuine attempt to create a cinematic equivalent to comic book continuity, a more mature approach to making “realistic” superheroes than the Nolan Batman series, and a renewed focus on character over plot – which barely get a mention. And as for the “bizarre” decision, it was an entirely reasonable decision, albeit based on commercial rather than creative factors. If Sony didn’t make a new Spider-Man movie, and soon, the rights would revert back to Marvel. With the franchise having been largely killed by Spider-Man 3, they had no choice but to start again.

This sort of thing gives large chunks of the book the impression of having been written of the top of Morrison’s head. It’s an accusation which has also been levied at his fiction; he is an “ideas man” who throws a lot at the page and hopes it sticks. Whether or not that is true for the comics, it feels like it must be the case here.

But the proof is in Laura’s interview with Morrison. The same topics, covered in conversation with herself acting as mediator and translator between us and Morrison, become crackling, flowing and coherent. The bits of his attitude to life which stem from his class – those which he tries so hard to bring out in the book – are made clear as day; and the Siegel and Shuster discussion, which is brought up again, is clarified, contextualised, and made stronger the second time around.

Of course, it doesn’t absolve all problems. Even when parlayed through Laura, Morrison comes off as alarmingly blasé about saying one thing and doing another, particularly for someone who has made so much of his career out of being an ideologue; and, as David Brothers picks up on, he performs a couple of nasty rhetorical tricks to minimise what is in fact real disagreement.

Still, Morrison is at his best when someone else – an interviewer, an artist, or a friend – is telling us what he thinks. If Supergods is a direct pipe to his brain, it allows some of his greatness to come through in sputters and bursts, but ultimately fails to justify its own existence.

Yes, I know I could also use an editor, w/e.

Ways in which Tom is like Ed Miliband

The other day, my friend Tom Phipps started posting all ways in which he is like Ed Miliband. It may look like a breakdown – and to be honest, I’m not sure it isn’t – but with his permission, I’m collecting them all here.

Tom Phipps is a BAFTA Rocliffe New Comedy Writing competition winner, and a very funny man. You should follow him on Twitter here


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