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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Why you need to read: Seeds by Ross Mackintosh

Caught up in the hype of the Avengers movie and the DC New 52, it's easy to forget that comic books are first and foremost about people. They are about how we react to situations, how we relate to each other and how we deal with tragedy. It is for this reason that I have taken the time to sit here and write a review of Ross Mackintosh's brilliant book Seeds published by Com.X.

I had picked up this book in shops a couple of times and put it back, mainly because it was all black and white and mostly line drawings. It lacked the same pizazz and sparkle of my usual sci-fi and superhero fare. I bought a copy from the Com.X stand at the Melksham Comic-Con 2012, as I had a friendly chat with Eddie Deighton of Com.X and I always like to support UK creators and publishers. I was foolish to have waited so long to buy this book.

To summarise, Seeds is a story about Ross (Mackintosh) coming to terms with his Dad's diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer which has spread to his lungs, and has not long left to live. This is obviously a very personal and sensitive subject for Ross and for many of his readers but Mackintosh handles it with such charm, grace and humour that to describe it as bitter-sweet does not begin to cover it. Indeed, it is difficult for me to put into words how this book made me feel as my father has also recently been diagnosed with very serious cancer. At times it was difficult for me to see the pages through the tears, but I did not and could not put down the book until I had reached the final page.

The key to the level of intimacy that you feel with Ross and with his family throughout the book is the “snapshot” images. As everyone knows when tragedy presents itself, we remember the stupidest and tiniest of details and Mackintosh is well aware of this. Clever touches like a hand pumping some sanitiser from a dispenser – signifying a hospital visit to anyone who's had to visit loved ones; a panel showing Ross' feet next to his dad's, his dad in socks and Ross in shoes signifying the young and the old and the bond between father and son; the disappearance of the line of the mouth when an awkward silence passes over; it is these little panels which really tug at the heartstrings.

It is the mark of a great comic book storyteller that the art does not get in the way of the story. Whilst at first glance the artwork seems to be basic, the nuances of facial expression and body posture communicate more than full-colour photo-realistic artwork ever could. It is very fitting for the book to be drawn this way as anything else would seem gaudy and insensitive. Mackintosh is obviously aware that other people will be experiencing similar situations and his understated approach to the artwork and the writing has such a strong feeling of truth to it that the reader will find themselves feeling like they have lost a friend by the end of the book.

That said, this book will help many men, women, fathers, sons, daughters, wives, mothers and husbands to come to terms with their own situations. The foreword from two doctors states exactly that; “Seeing how Ross felt about his father's death will help others in the same situation.” 'Nuff Said.

Monday, 28 May 2012

A fitting introduction.

I am afraid to admit that this was my first comic book convention. But what better way to pop my comic-con cherry, than by going to my local Melksham Comic-Con 2012. I honestly had little idea of what to expect and I was expecting the worst. That's sounds awful, sorry. What I mean is I expected a room full of clique-y people sneering at my lack of knowledge of Doctor Who, or the fact that I have no idea what the whole DC New 52 is all about (I know, you'll probably stop reading this now.) Luckily and perhaps surprisingly, these topics never came up in conversation; suprising because everybody was chatty.

It was a very relaxed and jovial atmosphere. All the exhibitors and guests were more than happy to spend a few minutes chatting about what they do and it was clear to see that everybody was very comfortable in the close environment, which I believe was a testament to the organisation and the staff at the event (all wearing very professional “staff” t-shirts and inexplicably wearing nametags emblazoned “Hello my name is Brian”).

As well as the main hall in which the various stalls were selling everything from Sony Playstation 3, to marshmallow daleks, there was a neat little side room set-up for the various panels and guest talks of the day. Alas, I missed the first, but was so glad I didn't miss the second. Sonia Leong's “What is Manga?” talk and demo was an absolute whirlwind of one crazy artist, very opinionated and very successful, running through the basics and intricacies of a misunderstood art-form, which I had previously dismissed as “not for me.” Shame on me. I can honestly say that due to Sonia Leong, I now desperately want to buy a manga book about wine tasting, something I had no idea I would ever be saying.

Next up was the delight that was Paul Cornell. This highly successful writer of comic books is the most affable, likeable and self-deprecating man. His honesty about how he got into comic book writing (basically Grant Morrison called him and asked him to write a comic book after seeing an episode of Doctor Who he had written) gave an insight into the amount of sheer luck that it takes to make it big in the comic book industry. It was an odd talk because even though Cornell pulled no punches when saying it was near impossible to get your comic book published by the big companies, he also instilled a sense of hope in describing publishing your own comic book as a “noble” endeavour (which is not as sarcastic as it sounds). He definitely inspired me to get on and write that one good idea I had for that comic book that one time...

I had the pleasure, during the course of the day, of chatting to both Nich Angell and John Lock, two independent comic book creators with very exciting and innovative ideas. So, when they stepped up for the next panel of the day, I had an idea of what to expect and was not disappointed – rather than just a shameless plug of their own comic books (which, of course, at times it was), it was more like watching a couple of friends talk about things they love doing. Seeing two creators talk about the thing they love doing, while they are doing it, was inspirational. They should definitely be booked for next year, if only to check out how they have progressed.

The final panel was thoroughly entertaining. Three delightful Star Wars actors relating anecdotes of their days on set on Star Wars and a myriad of other films seemed like a very fitting end to the day. At times it was like listening to your grandparents relate old stories of their life, instilling that fascination of a past which we would have loved to be a part of. The whole room was laughing at times and there was great feeling in the room as everyone was grateful to be there. Hats off to the staff of Brians that were very witty and professional during all the panels and did an excellent job of keeping the conversation alive and flowing!

It's going to be a hard act to top next year. But I have a feeling they'll manage it! Did I mention the free goodie bags – FREE GOODIE BAGS! Next year is a must.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

You project yourself
Without knowing it
You reach out and
I grab at you
But you escape my
Grasp like smoke through
My fingers
I can no more hold
Onto you
Touch you
Than I can touch
The air.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Demise of the Thought Bubble

Many people would argue that we are currently living a renaissance for the comic book as there are more interesting, exciting and innovative comic books on the market today then there ever has been. This is mainly due to fans becoming creators and, as with film, when this becomes the case more mature, ground-breaking and barrier-smashing work is produced. But at what price?

As with all progress, there has been a casualty. There has been something which has disappeared from my most loved of mediums. The thought bubble. What has happened to this delightful convention?

Perversely, it seems that when comic book readers started to sit up and take notice of the writers over the artists, that the thought bubble began to fade from the public comic book consciousness. The chief champions and agents of this change, in my opinion, were Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They did not kill the thought bubble but rather forced its evolution into the narrative box. The thought bubble became less about what the character was thinking at that stage and more like a diary entry – the “handwritten” narrative boxes of Miller's Batman :Year one being such an example. The boxes seem to be afterthoughts rather than the character's real-time thoughts. Now, it is without doubt that Miller and Moore are among the best writers of comic books and this could be due in part to their reluctance to use the thought bubble. But it is also indicative of a watershed within the comic book form. Thought bubbles seem frivolous and comedic and the use of a narrative box with it's sharp edges, is more mature and dignified. But could this mean we are in danger of taking our loved art-form too seriously?

Whilst this evolution from bubble to box undoubtedly proved popular with the older audience, it seems a shame that this evolution lead to an eradication of the thought bubble. One of the most disturbing side effects of this eradication seems to be less text and more artwork in comic books. Which, contrary to the origin of the demise of the thought bubble, is leading to a re-emergence of the importance of the artist. This in itself is not a bad thing, the artwork in comic books today is stunning. However, it has led to comic books that read more like story boards for film productions, rather than a stand alone medium. (Also meaning that the comic book you wait for all month is finished in about ten minutes, rather than a satisfying twenty minutes.)

It could be argued that the thought bubble disappeared as it no longer resonates with a more mature and sophisticated readership. It lays bare too much; the educated reader likes to draw his own conclusions. This results in more close-up panels of character's faces while we try to fathom out what they are thinking, rather than actually reading their thoughts. However, is this just writer's being lazy, leaving the reader to pick up the slack? Wouldn't it be better to actually read the words of the your favourite character's thoughts, to step inside their mind?

I miss this insight into the thinkings of my favourite characters and I miss the aesthetic pleasure of the thought bubble. It simply looks like a comic book. And this draws me back to this question that keeps playing on my mind: if our comic books are losing what makes them comic books and becoming more like films – then what is the point of the comic book? What place does the comic book have in the future of our media saturated world? Will they all become just trailers for upcoming films? Prequels to TV series? Storyboards?

Bring back the thought bubble!

Saturday, 31 March 2012


Tight people,
packed into their
tight lives,
wearing their
tight clothes,
flaunting their
tight bodies,
flashing their
tight glances,
smiling with their
tight teeth.

So tight, so neat,
Bursting at the seams.


Emotions run high
and fast
as twilight approaches.

The bed becomes
hot and flustered
as twilight approaches.

The ethereal becomes visceral
under the full moon,
as twilight approaches.

The beautiful becomes guttural
in the silence,
as twilight approaches.


There are a dozen wild horses at the gate,
I can not let them out.
The bolt is stuck.
They will destroy all that is inside.
They must be let out!
Outside is much bigger.
They will lose themselves,
Calm themselves.
But they can't be freed,
The bolt is stuck.


Look at you
Sat there,
Apart from me,
But the same as me.

We are stardust,
You are nothing
As am I.
We mean nothing.

All your money
All my mind
Will melt away
In time.

We will stand together
In our oblivion
Unaware we were once

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Why you need to read: The Boys V.1 The Name of the Game

Do you like comic books which are expressly not for kids?
Do you like violence?
Do you like seeing superheroes getting their butts whooped?
Do you like seeing all the gory details of all the bone crunching fights?
If you have answered yes to one or more of the above questions, I prescribe 1 healthy dose of The Boys Vol 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson three times a day before meals.
Seriously, though, The Boys is one rip roaring ride of mayhem; a veritable feast of no holds-barred sex, violence and general moral depravity. The Boys is exactly what we have come to expect from Garth Ennis and those of you familiar with his previous works will not be disappointed by this series. It centres around Wee Hughie’s induction into a CIA-run, covert group known only as The Boys (even though one is female), that keep the status quo and stop the superheroes getting out of line or forgetting their place. Now that probably sounds really boring, but the fact that this is not a Marvel or DC comic means that the creative team of Ennis and Robertson can really let loose on were they take this.
If you like your comics to answer the big what if questions: What if all superheroes were arrogant, selfish celebrity types? What if there was a special force tasked to keep them in line? What if you had super-strength and punched someone in the stomach? You know, those questions we lay awake at night thinking about, then this book is for you (you very, very strange person!).
I prefer to describe The Boys as a spoof of the comic book universes of Marvel and DC. There are plentiful veiled references to the mainstays of these universes which will make the seasoned comic book reader smugly chortle to himself. I suppose this book is mainly aimed at those that have read a lot of comic books and are a bit world-weary of the perfect superhero image. But there is plenty
in the book to entertain the new reader; seeing a bulldog deflower a shitzu being one of the more memorable images – yes, this book is that depraved.
However, the one thing that might niggle at the reader is Darick Robertson’s choice to use Simon Pegg as his model for the main character of Wee Hughie. I love Simon Pegg and have done ever since Spaced and Big Train, but I would have preferred a nobody, an original face to be the main character, as the use of a well known actor/comedian/writer jars with the reader’s ability to create their own perception of Wee Hughie. Saying this, I am sure those of you that read TV spin-off comic books will have no such trouble.
Vol 1: is the first of many and as a result it is mainly an introduction of the colourful psychotic characters and setting, so don’t expect a huge amount of superhero bashing. However, do expect plenty of laughs, grimaces and guilty sniggers.
As far as fun, entertaining and crazy books go, this is near the top. I dare you to buy this book and not laugh out loud at least once. I’m off to buy the second volume!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Execution (written by my Dad)


Five hands
Five buttons
One life to take
In debt for one life taken

None of the five
Will ever know
If one life
They have taken

So they rest at night
They sleep well
Their duty done
And one life taken

Why you need to read: V For Vendetta

Once again, it would seem that life is reflecting art. Anyone who has watched the news over the last two weeks will already be familiar with V For Vendetta- and perhaps not even know it. The Guy Fawkes masks that have become synonymous with the civil disobedience and political activism of the hacking group Anonymous, though made popular by the film version, have their origin in the comic book series that began in 1981 and was completed in 1988. It is a very apt image for Anonymous to hijack as the original character from the comic book is an anarchist (or freedom fighter - depending on your viewpoint). But to truly understand the significance of the Guy Fawkes masks that are popping up in news stories and internet articles across the globe, you need to go to the source and read V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
The graphic novel edition of V For Vendetta is by far the best way to enjoy this comic book. Not only because of the satisfying, heavy, substantial feeling of holding the book in your hands but because of the excellent introduction and afterword by both Moore and Lloyd. For any aspiring comic book writer, Moore's afterword will offer rays of hope as he describes the despair he sometimes feels when battling writer's block whilst also providing a fascinating insight into the genesis of the comic book.. The anecdotal style of writing is witty and congenial in both the introductions and afterwords and add for surprisingly light hearted book-ends to the seriousness of the novel.
So now you know to buy the graphic novel – what can you expect from the actual story? Those of you that have seen the film may think that the comic book has little to offer- after all, they are both similar visual art forms. But you would be wrong. The comic book differs from the film in many crucial details. Due to the comic book form there is the opportunity for much more detail and characterisation – some characters that are only bit parts in the film are explored in detail in the comic book, some of the characters of the film are not in the book at all and vice versa. Whatever your feelings on comic-book or literary film adaptations, I urge you to read the comic book because it offers so much more than the film. It has so much depth and complexity that you will become immersed and lost in it only to return to the real world bleary eyed and energised 3 or 4 hours later.
Those of you who are unfamiliar with the film; read the comic book first! If you have read George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We or even seen the film Equilibrium - you will love this book. If you have not read or seen any of these, then you are in for a treat! Moore and Lloyd have created an awful and chilling vision of a fascistic extreme right-wing government-controlled near-future (actually past now, it was written in the 80s and set at the end of the 90s) where the media is state controlled and CCTV cameras are everywhere -sound familiar? The only hope in this fictional near-future is a concentration camp survivor with superhuman agility, strength and stamina that wears the now famous Guy Fawkes mask. He slinks from the shadows to save a young woman and calls himself “V.” This is all you need to know to get you started, I could write more but no spoilers here!
It is a totally engrossing and intelligent piece of comic book fiction which is infinitely enhanced by Lloyd's brilliant and stunning artwork. As you will read in Moore's afterword, it was Lloyd that employed the master-stroke of the Guy Fawkes imagery. But Lloyd's genius does not end there. The pages are so dark that it is almost as if Lloyd was drawing on black paper. The characters and the settings are always emerging from shadows, like darkness is the norm and light is a luxury. The result is oppressive and accurately reflects the despair and totalitarian, fascist nightmare of Moore's dystopian future. On top of this, you can't help but be amazed by Lloyd's ability to make a masked character seem to smile, laugh, cry and use all other facial expressions without even raising an eyebrow.
However, don't be fooled by this review, V for Vendetta is not pessimistic. The underlying message is one of hope and of the human desire and overwhelming need for freedom from oppression. The character of V is thoroughly delightful and witty and Moore's wordplay is simply astounding. There is a sense of playfulness as well of danger about V and the fact that he remains anonymous (pardon the pun) makes him an every-man. He could be you, me or anyone that has had enough of the ways things are and sees all that is wrong in the world in which we live. Of course, Moore and Lloyd's vision of England is more extreme than the real England, and therefore so is V, but the charm and unending appeal of this book is this desire for a better world. A desire which, let's face it, will never be satisfied today, tomorrow or in the near-future.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why you need to read: The Dark Knight Returns

There are a few definite must haves of any comic book collection, and The Dark Knight Returns is one of them. Not only is it a classic worthy of any serious comic book fan’s collection but it is also a great starting point for “getting serious” about comics. This is because it is one of those rare tomes of popular culture that actually have something to say about the conditions in which we humans strive to survive and even though Frank Miller penned it in 1985-1986, the feel of the book, the rebellious and revolutionary tone, is just as relevant and striking today.
The Dark Knight Returns is a great introduction into the Batman universe. This may seem a strange thing for a book that is set in the near future towards the end of Batman’s life and ten years after he has retired; but as the novel reads like a review of Batman’s whole life at times, it is excellent in providing the novice reader with an insight into the Batman psyche. Not only do you learn much about the troubled spirit of Bruce Wayne and his struggles with his demon within, but the relationships between Batman, Jim Gordon, Two-Face, The Joker and, most notably, Superman are exposed in all their complexity. As a result, not one character in this book could be described as two-dimensional, as they are all explored through their interactions with Batman – who it seems is the nexus point of Miller’s dystopian future. What also makes it more accessible is that little prior knowledge of the Batman history is needed to make sense of the graphic novel. References to Jason Todd – Batman’s second ill-fated Robin (the mutant leader’s use of a crowbar just before the new Robin d├ębuts appears to be a prescient coincidence) – may stump the newcomer but will not diminish or hinder understanding of the novel as a whole.
The Dark Knight Returns was and is a book very much of its time. The cold war overtones are overwhelming and the threat of nuclear war between Russia and America– to which Superman is America’s deterrent – is always present. Whereas currently the cold war is supposedly over (with Russia anyway – one thinks of Iran…), the most striking resonances with today’s society lie in the depiction of poverty and the marginalised youth of Miller’s vision of the near future. Deep in the dark pits of the recession as we now are and with the riots of last August still within our consciousness, the idea of a Batman, a common man with the resources of a billionaire who will not stand for injustice in any of its forms, is one hell of an attractive prospect. Miller’s pits his Batman in direct opposition to the conservative, political puppet of Miller’s Superman. The opposition of these two characters is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel and culminates in climax which does not disappoint. But no spoilers here!
In today’s world the media is inescapable and Miller’s use of television screens and sexed-up news seems almost prescient. The portrayal of a very Ronald-Reaganesque President only heightens the whole novel’s distrust of authority figures and taps into the ever-present distrust of politicians in the real world. Miller understands the dis-satisfaction that everyone at some point feels with the powers that be and it is this that makes this graphic novel a classic.
Now a few words about the artwork. Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley have created exactly the right atmosphere for Miller’s writing. Dark, muted colours and scratchy, sketchy lines have the effect of creating a dangerous, dirty and real world. While Janson’s art is at times unattractive, it is exactly this which makes it perfect for Miller’s world. Looking at the pages makes you feel uncomfortable, the artwork with its imperfections denies aesthetic pleasure. The sketchy haphazard lines and meticulously wrinkled faces show this world, this comic book fantasy world, with all its warts on display, with its pants down. But you can’t imagine another artist drawing graphic novel, because the artwork is so exactly right for the message of the writing.
I urge you to buy and read this graphic novel and if you have already done so, read it again. It is a mark of any great work of literature that it stands the test of time and is relevant whenever it is read; Miller and Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns is a shining example of such a piece.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Future Posts

Future posts on this blog will be dedicated to my upcoming reviews of comic books and popular culture. I hope you enjoy them!