Graphic Eye Store: Iain Laurie's Horror Mountain

Our debut publication! Buy it now at our store, or read about the method behind our madness here.

Review: Only Skin by Sean Ford

Family, loneliness, ghosts and murder in this impressive debut graphic novel.

Review: The Moon Moth by Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim

A classic science-fiction tale gets a new, comics adaptation.

Feature: Taste-testing the Apocalypse, part 4

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel drunk.

Weekly Reviews: The Secret Service #2 and The Manhattan Projects #3

Reviews of the better offerings from the spinner racks.

22 October 2011

Review: Daybreak by Brian Ralph

Daybreak – Brian Ralph (w/a)
Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95, ISBN: 978-1-77046-055-3

Just when you think zombies have run their course, and the horror genre has flogged that reanimated horse back to death, then some artsy comics guy comes along and offers something new.  It’s true that Brian Ralph is all-too aware of how cliché zombies have become, and that the familiar tropes of the survival narrative have no surprises left.  So, rather than attempt to create an entirely original take on the shambling menace, he subverts the formula to his own ends.

Ralph was one of the founding members of the now-legendary Fort Thunder art collective — who not only spawned fellow cartoonists like Mat Brinkman and Jim Drain, but also bands like Lightning Bolt; started a punk renaissance in knitting and even pro-wrestling.  Through that lens, the new disciplines in art like comics, film, video games and graphic design blended into a cohesive whole.  It’s by that approach that we can really begin to appreciate the form and innovation of Daybreak.

One of the problems with transferring the video game idiom to other media is the lack of interactivity and that often characters are mute, with nothing to further the plot but mission-based objectives.  So, it was a bold move to frame Daybreak as a first-person adventure — all the action is seen through the eyes of the nameless protagonist and all his/her dialogue is implied.  Rather than giving us an empty vessel of a character, though, it provides a more immersive experience in the comic — the character’s survival becomes our own and our own emotions are transferred to the world of the story.

Like many zombie tales, Daybreak begins in medias res with us, the reader/protagonist, meeting a fellow survivor of the undead apocalypse.  This one-armed companion serves as our guide throughout the story which, while it trots out all the expected events and characters — the grizzled old man holding out against the monsters, close-shave encounters with the zombies, a cute puppy who somehow manages to survive, you can probably fill in the rest of the list yourself.  Even still, it feels fresh thanks to Ralph’s chiseled ink lines and the swift, clockwork pacing of his six-panel grids.  It has the feel of a minicomic — immediate, experimental, with a distinct authorial voice. It takes zombies out of the mainstream and back to their cult, underground beginnings.

While Fort Thunder may be long gone, Ralph’s work here proves that the DIY aesthetic and hyper-mélange of art can still break new ground.

— Gavin Lees

Review: The Last Pamphleteer

Whither the humble alternative comic book? R. Crumb gave birth to the form in the sixties, selling his self-published ZAP comix out of a baby carriage in the Haight. It entered arrested adolescence with Peter Bagge’s Hate in the nineties, and achieved maturity at the turn of the century. Now nearing 50, the idiom is in danger of a premature death. Affectionately known as floppies or pamphlets in the industry, changing economics and readership trends threaten the existence of these once-essential relics of American counterculture.

Optic Nerve #12 - Adrian Tomine (w/a)
Drawn & Quarterly, $5.95

Now arrives Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12, one of but a handful of highly crafted alternative comix still published. This issue is a throwback in many ways, with a main story, a couple of back-ups, and a letters page — two pages in this case, and no e-mail address. Actual letters posted by mail. The comic opens with “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture” presented in a faux-serial format. This light but engaging read is followed by “Amber Sweet,” a beautifully rendered account of mistaken identity. This alluring story first appeared as “My Porno Doppelganger” in Kramer’s Ergot #7, the spectacularly oversized anthology that assured the demise of Buenaventura Press (suicide by book, it seemed). While this slightly altered version adds little to the previous format, the $5.95 cover price for Optic Nerve — while steep for a pamphlet — is far more accessible than the $125 anthology. 

Tomine’s comic concludes with a two-pager that reads like an obituary of alternative comix pamphlets. His colleagues ridicule him as “The Last Pamphleteer.” They encourage him to cash in on the “gold rush” and boast about commanding huge advances for their new “graphic novels” (ugh). He laments the lack of publisher support for his Optic Nerve effort, and quotes a 2010 NPR interview with Daniel Clowes: “Nobody wants to sell that floppy thing that, you know, gets all bent on the shelf… No bookstore wants to carry it because the profit margin is so low. You know, everybody hates them. So I just felt like, ‘Why continue with this?’”

The Death Ray - Daniel Clowes (w/a)
Drawn & Quartlerly, $19.95, ISBN: 978-1770460515

As if on cue, with the deft timing of a Catskill comedian, Drawn & Quarterly follows Optic Nerve #12 with The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes. This “graphic novel” is nothing more than Eightball #23 between cardboard covers. The only discernable difference is the price. The Fantagraphics “floppy” was $7.00, as opposed to the hefty $19.95 for the “graphic novel.” This is not because “Nobody wants to carry that floppy thing…” Or, “You know, everybody hates them.” Fantagraphics sold out two substantial printings of Eightball #23. It’s greed, pure and simple; a “gold rush” mentality that threatens the integrity of the “graphic novel” form, and with it the viability of alternative comix altogether. And what’s with the once innovative Drawn & Quarterly reducing itself to reprinting other publishers’ product and tripling the price? When Eightball #23 came out, I wrote Clowes a fan letter (an actual letter, posted by mail). But I hope this edition flops.

The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror #17 - Jim Woodring (w/a), Zander Cannon (w), Gene Ha (a), Jane Wiedlin (w), Tom Hodges (a)
Bongo Comics, $4.99

Perhaps the salvation of alternative comix floppies can be found elsewhere. While The Simpsons have so permeated popular culture they hardly merit the “alternative” designation, once a year Matt Groening turns over his valuable comic book franchise to alternative cartoonists. The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror #17 features a substantial contribution from none other than Jim Woodring.  In his cleverly crafted story, Bart discovers a shopworn copy of E.C. horror comic knockoff “Harvest of Fear” at a yard sale and all hell breaks loose. Woodring works within The Simpsons canon while cleverly incorporating his own idiosyncratic sensibilities. Integrated within the narrative are stories from the found comic (drawn by Woodring’s talented son Max).  Our mischievous protagonist sets out to solve the mid-century mystery of one of these fables and discovers the last page is the missing piece. No spoilers here. Go get the comic book, which includes an amusing back up story by alternative comix fan and Go-Gos guitarist Jane Wiedlin. Only $4.99.

— Larry Reid

Interview: Josceline Fenton

English designer and illustrator, Josceline Fenton is a relative newcomer to the comics world, but has gathered a dedicated following with her webcomic, Hemlock. Like the Brothers Grimm filtered through shoujo manga, it’s a charming and increasingly dark fantasy tale.  As she had recently wrapped-up the third chapter and announced some fairly high-profile anthology appearances, I decided to speak to Josceline over email to find out more about her life and work.

Let’s start by talking about your comic, Hemlock, which is probably how most people know you.  For those who may not be familiar with it, can you tell us a little bit about the premise?

Hemlock is a fairy tale set in the forests of 19th century Scandinavia, following the story of a witch who accidentally married a monster 800 years ago. It’s difficult to summarize it beyond that, the premise is revealed slowly over the first two issues, so I don’t like to spoil it too much!

It seems like the story could really take place anywhere, so why did you choose to set it in Scandinavia?

I’m half-Swedish, so Scandinavia had a big influence on me when I was growing up. When I was small, my grandpa would make up stories about trolls and all sorts living in the forest. Even now when I go to visit my family there, I like to take the time to go and wander around the edges of the forest, it still has that sense of magic to it. I want to try and express that feeling in Hemlock. Also, I’m interested in folk costume and languages, and the way they influence each other on a shared land mass, which is probably why there are Russian fairy tales showing up in Hemlock. All of the characters are either from some part of Scandinavia or Russia.  I’ve assigned a nationality to each of them, for example, Ulla is Norwegian, Tristan is Swedish, Lumi is Finnish and the Baba Yaga brothers were born in various parts of Russia.

Did you do a lot of research into the folktales of these various countries?  It seems like the oral tradition, that your grandfather passed down to you, is often very different from the documented stories.

I wouldn’t say I did “a lot” of research, though I did more research into Baba Yaga stories than I did into Swedish folktales. The stories my grandpa told me were made up on the spot, and the rest of what I know is just general cultural knowledge I’ve picked up. So I guess that makes them more individual, as opposed to the written stories. I’m sure I misremember things. 

The story begins with an epigram from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” — did you draw inspiration from his work, or any other literary influences?

Actually, I’m not a very literary person! “The Wasteland” is one of my favourite poems, but I’ve always said that if I had to study it in detail, I would probably start to hate it. That’s a terrible attitude, but I like the mystery of it I guess. The reason I included it at the beginning is twofold; the “other places” where half of the story takes place is a wasteland that doesn’t fully exist yet. You can get there by various means, but one of them is by falling through your evening shadow. The other reason I included it is that, as far as I remember, the poem has a sort of dread about the dawn of the modern age after the World Wars, which is a background element of the story in the Witches’ court. We’ll find out more about that later though. I suppose the main literary influences on Hemlock would be fairy and folk tales – there’s a bit of Beauty and the Beast in there as well as the Baba Yaga legends.     

The tale of Baba Yaga that’s in the second chapter isn’t the commonly-known image of the witch in the chicken-leg house.  Is that story of your own invention?

In the original tale of “Vasilissa the Beautiful”, Baba Yaga has three riders that she commands. They’re only briefly mentioned, but I wondered how she would be able to command Night, Dawn and Day, so I took that and turned them into her three sons instead. She’ll still have her chicken-leg house though! I also kept her as a very old witch. The first drawing of her is as a young woman, but by the end of the tale she’s wrinkled and cranky like we know her.  

The Baba Yaga is one of my favourite folktales, just because she's so surreal -- the house on chicken legs, flying in a mortar and pestle —  and you have your own witch, Lumi, who lives in a giant snail's shell.  Is that sense of the absurd important to folktales, do you think?

I think so. When you think about it, even witches flying on broomsticks is a pretty strange thing.

Where did you get the idea for Richmond, the snail house?  Is that something from Scandinavian folklore?

The idea for Hemlock started with a four-page short story I did called “Starvation Soup” in which a tramp proposed to Lumi and offered a snail as a ring and its shell as a house. Richmond was a leftover from that idea. He’s also inspired by the work of one of my favourite artists, Furukawa Tomo.

One of the things that I particularly like about Richmond is that he has his own language.  How far have you delved into creating the snail-speak?

Not very far, actually, it’s mostly nonsense except for a few characters like the “frogsbody” symbol. The “hello” symbol is meant to look like a hamsa amulet. The snail-speak is vaguely inspired by Tibetan and Sanskrit writing. Someone asked me what it would sound like spoken, I told them that Richmond’s speech sounds like soup bubbling.

How much of the story do you have plotted-out?  Do you find yourself improvising a lot?

Well, I know how the story ends, and I know what has to happen in each issue to get there. I tend to write snippets of dialogue and then rearrange them into the right order. It’s a balance between planning it well and giving myself room to improvise, because if I didn’t have that room, I would get bored of doing it very quickly. I rarely write a full script with descriptions of the scene or how many panels I want per page, that’s where I do a lot of my improvisation. Sometimes I add things in when I realize that it works better for the overall story than what I’d originally planned – the twist at the end of chapter 3 is one of those things. I’d had chapter 3 written for a long time without the last two pages. 

How long do you see Hemlock continuing?

The story lasts six issues or chapters, so, however long it takes me to finish them. I’ve considered doing a spin-off, but I’m still working over that idea in my head. I may also do a few short stories with it afterwards. 

Your art has progressively become more confident as Hemlock develops.  How much of a learning experience has making the comic been?

A huge one! I hate looking back at chapter one now, the art looks terrible to me! But I know that even if I redid all the art, by the time I finished, I’d have improved again, and it would be a constant cycle of redoing it. I have to just keep going forward! I was very nervous when I started about putting my work online, because I didn’t deal with criticism well, I let it get me down too much. I think I’ve learned to deal with it a bit better through doing Hemlock.

The feedback you've been receiving has been very positive, though, and you've built up a bit of a fanbase.  Has that helped you keep momentum with the project?

Absolutely. Part of why I put it online in the first place was to feel like I had an audience to tell it to, and I’m so happy that they’re very receptive and encouraging. I feel like I have a duty to update now! Which is good, it keeps me going with it – otherwise all I’d be doing is my university work. 

You said earlier that you're interested in folk fashions and certainly the costumes in Hemlock are an important ingredient.  Are you aiming for a particular time-period with the look of the characters?

It changes for each character. For example, Ulla is a very fashionable witch, so I try and keep her in period with clothes from around the 1850s and 60s. Lumi is more interested in comfort and practicality, so her clothes are inspired by folk costumes and the kind of “aesthetic” dress of Pre-Raphaelite women and the paintings of Carl Larsson’s wife and daughters. The three princes take their costume cues from European and Russian royalty, though the period is fairly loose.

How much research do you do to get the right looks for the characters?

I collect art and photo books, I have quite a few on historical costume. So whenever there’s going to be a costume change, I pick a bunch of them off my shelves and I sit and look through them until I find a combination of things I like and are appropriate for the character. Sometimes it will just be the silhouette, other times it will be a slightly altered version of a real garment. Their hairstyles are a different story though! Those have no basis in reality.

Browsing through your DeviantArt page, it's clear that your early drawings were heavily inspired by manga.  Now, though, that influence is less prominent — what other art styles have you been inspired by?

I’m glad you say so! I’ve been trying to shake the manga influence for years but it’s so ingrained in my storytelling style. I was inspired for a while by artists like Junko Mizuno, FSc, and a lot of others, but these days my influences are mainly from a mix of animation and illustrators from the beginning of the 20th century like Aubrey Beardsley, John Bauer, Harry Clarke and Kay Nielsen.

I love those illustrators, not just for the quality of their line, but because they can be so evocative with a single image.  Would you say that your own stories are propelled more by images than words?

It’s hard to say. I try to avoid more words than are necessary, I don’t like to use thought bubbles or narration boxes, but dialogue is definitely a big part of my stories. I guess they’re equally important to me. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a wordless comic made up of single images as part of my degree work though.

You mentioned that you’re still at university just now.  What are you studying?

BA (Hons) Graphic and Media Design. I specialize in design for print, I’ve just started my final year. I don’t regret choosing this course, I’ve learnt a lot of useful things, but it has also taught me that I’m not a pure graphic designer. I’m somewhere between an illustrator and a designer. 

That’s probably a very apt description of what a cartoonist is! Are comics where you see your focus remaining in the future?

I’ll always do comics in my spare time, but I’m not sure I would focus on them as a career. I’d like to go into print and publishing. Maybe I’ll combine my love of comics and book making by publishing other people’s comics! 

Given an unlimited budget, then, who are the cartoonists that you'd publish? 

Oh gosh, there are so many cartoonists out there! Actually, with that unlimited budget, I’d concentrate on making the books the best they could be, with all the finishes and quality paper they deserve. So whoever I’d publish, I’d make sure their books were things to treasure.  

I think that's becoming a more and more important aspect of publishing these days, but you weaseled out of the question!  To put it another way, then, who are some current cartoonists that you think deserve more attention?

Damn, you got me! Okay. Mickey Quinn and Nicole Mannino do lovely work. Madeline Rupert’s webcomic Sakana is one of my favourites as well, she’s so good with black and white. J.N. Wiedle is also fantastic, he’s behind the adorable webcomic Helvetica. Over here in the UK, Nicola Stuart (Nikki Stu) and Sarah Burgess both have wonderful styles, they’re so unique. I hate questions like this because I’m sure I’m missing out tons of people…

Even though Hemlock appears online, you seem quite dedicated to regularly putting out printed chapters. Do you think there'll always be a market for print books? 

I like to think so. I’m not much of a fan of e-books and PDFs, and I try to buy printed copies of webcomics I like. My parents have a massive collection of books, so I grew up looking at walls that were covered head to toe in bookshelves. You can’t replace the feeling of a book in your hand or the smell and texture of the paper. However, I also think that print on demand has more of a future in it than mass-produced books. It’s more expensive at the moment, but it makes more sense to me than printing books people may or may not buy. 

I know you publish your work through Lulu.  Have you found that to be quite successful?  I ask because I know quite a few UK cartoonists abandoned them when their prices went up and it was no longer economical to use them.

Yes and no. Their prices go up and down, they’re not too bad at the moment. I like the convenience of using Lulu since I don’t have to deal with posting and packing books, and I’ve always liked the binding and the interior print quality, but I wish there were more options for the covers. I wouldn’t recommend them for colour work either.  

You're involved in the Nelson book by Blank Slate, which I've heard quite a lot about — 50 artists working on a single story, edited by Woodrow Phoenix.  How did you become involved with the project?

Someone dropped out at the last minute, so Woodrow asked me to take their place. I was really happy, but, it was two weeks before I had to go to China with my university! So really, I only had a week to see what everybody else had done, sort out the script with Woodrow, pencil, ink and colour it. It was pretty stressful, but I couldn’t let an opportunity like that pass me by. I wish I’d had more time to do it in though.

Was it intimidating sharing a space with the likes of Roger Langridge, Carol Swain and Rian Hughes?

Definitely! I feel like I have a lot to learn compared to them.

I know you've contributed to other anthologies, like Paper Science.  Do you find that this allows you to experiment more with your comics?

That depends on the anthology. Some of them I find stricter because of having an editor to work with, others let you do whatever you like. The ones with editors always want me to put in more panels! It’s odd for me, my storytelling style is quite minimal in terms of panel counts. Sometimes it works with more, sometimes it doesn’t.

Are there any of those contributions that you're particularly proud of?

The Paper Science strip! It’s hard to tell how colours will look when printed on newsprint, but I thought they turned out really well. That’s probably the largest page I’ve done too, my work is usually much smaller. It’s also an example of “more panels!!!” that worked out for the best.

I know that you’re a regular at the London MCM Expo.  Have you found the British small-press scene to be quite supportive?

Oh, definitely. There are so many lovely people, I’ve met some of my best friends through the small press scene. I’m a shy person and I’m not good at talking to people, but they’ve always been welcoming and patient. I’ve been drawing comics since I was 10, but it was seeing the small-press scene in London when I was 18 that got me into self-publishing, I wanted to join in!

Do you ever feel like small-press communities become a bit of an echo-chamber (or, to be crass, a circlejerk) and, while being encouraging, you're not really getting the criticism you need to develop your art further?

Yes, but the same can be said of graphic design communities, mainstream comics, indie comics, any art in general. I don’t notice it too much though because I have a hard time taking praise as well! I’m too busy looking at the flaws in my work — art school and Hemlock have turned me into a massive perfectionist. I’m never happy with my drawings for long, but I suppose that’s useful in that it helps me to keep trying to improve.

Do you ever have the temptation to go back and redraw pages before you publish them in print?

All the time, but I try not to change them after they’ve been put up online. Before that I do sometimes redo pages. It mostly happens when the entire layout looks wrong to me. If there are panels I liked on the scrapped page then I’ll cut those out and paste them onto a new one. That happened on the last page I did, actually! And it was only the second page of the chapter, dear oh dear.

From some of the information you’ve posted, I see your art is a hybrid of traditional and digital techniques.  Would you ever consider going fully digital?

It depends on the project I think, sometimes digital is more appropriate. I’m a bit out of practice with digital art at the moment though, because I’ve spent so long doing Hemlock traditionally. 

Obviously you’re going to be focusing on your studies but, aside from continuing Hemlock, is there anything you’re aiming to achieve with your art in the near future?

Hemlock and university eat up all my time, so, I’m really just aiming to get through them first before I even think of anything else! I’d like to keep improving my art as I go along. After I finish my degree I want to try and do a few conventions in the US and Canada, but that depends on how much I can get saved up.

Hemlock updates weekly at:

Comics: All the Dead Superheroes #4

Click for full-size image
All the Dead Superheroes is a continuing strip in fortnightly installments.  Full issues of the comic can be found at:

Story and art © 2011 Iain Laurie

21 October 2011

Feature: Trina Robbins talks Nell Brinkley

For over 40 years, Trina Robbins has been a vital, almost unstoppable force in comics.  It would be hard to overstate her importance in raising the profile and treatment of women in comics -- from forming the first all-women anthology to championing some of the lost voices in the history (or, as she would have it, "herstory") of comics.  The latter drive led her to produce The Brinkley Girls with Fantagraphics Books -- a gorgeous retrospective of the best of Nell Brinkley's comics from the 1920s.  Despite having defined the look of the flapper, and producing immensely popular work for Hearst newspapers, Brinkley had all but disappeared from popular memory.

On a recent visit to Seattle for Geek Girl Con, Trina stopped off at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery to give a lively, engaging presentation about Nell Brinkley.

09 October 2011

Review: Catwoman #1 by Judd Winick and Guillem March

Catwoman #1 – Judd Winick (w) Guillem March (a)
DC Comics, $2.99

If we are to believe the hype and marketing machine of Time Warner, all their future movie comic properties are returning to square one with the “New 52”.  That adjective is supposed to instill us with confidence, like New Coke and “Nu” Metal — remember how much you loved those?  But, snark aside, labels are the least of the problems facing DC’s relaunch. More problematic is how to smoothly reintroduce an entire universe of characters in the space of four weeks, simultaneously appeasing the vocal Internet fanboys and attracting new readers.  More problematic still is how to establish, in 22 pages, morally ambiguous figures like Catwoman that depend on their storied history for depth and nuance.  In short: How do you solve a problem like Selena?


No, really.  While Judd Winick may be a reality TV douchebag with a dubious track record of quality writing (see: Batman and Robin, Power Girl, or his shameless cash-in on his friend's death) but here, he nails it… with tits.

Without DC history to fall back upon, he instead turns to the wider world of Barthesian structuralism and the ancient art of the striptease.  Catwoman is the classic noir femme fatale, a bad girl who tries to be good, but ultimately still holds selfish ideals.  It’s taken over 40 years to establish that depth to her character.  Winick and artist Guillem March do it in three panels, by having Selena show us some cleavage:

According to Roland Barthes, in Parisian striptease the aim is:
[T]o signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh.
The costumes and accessories of the performance serve to characterize the artiste as sinful and immoral, so through the shedding of clothes she once again becomes wholesome and moral.  So, to introduce us to Selena half-naked, mid-dressing is really the opposite of eroticism.  Rather, we see the woman beneath the cat — vulnerable and wholesome, saving kittens from an explosion.  That we don’t see her face is less an objectification of the body than it is drawing focus away from the make-up and codified lust that Catwoman — the costumed persona — represents.

In Barthes’ examination of French striptease, the danger and sinfulness of the outfit was often exotic, playing upon the ethnic or societal characteristics of the performer — opium pipes or dresses with panniers.  So, when fully clothed as Catwoman, Selena takes on the signifiers of modern American dangerous sexuality.  The catsuit and whip with their connotation of bourgeois S&M play places her as a distant, yet magical figure (that she is depicted on the cover showering herself in diamonds only adds to this image of careless wealth and pleasures beyond the reach of most;) while the dark-red lips and heavily kohled eyes — the only visible features behind the costume — are classic symbols of lust and sexuality.

It’s not until page 14 that we see the fully-costumed Catwoman, enough time to establish some backstory in the plot, and allow us to view Selena as a de-sexualised character.  While this may seem like an opportunity for voyeurism or fan-service, the fact that the reveal happens during an action sequence again resists sexualisation.  Again, Barthes:
[T]he dance, consisting of ritual gestures which have been seen a thousand times, acts on movements as cosmetic, it hides nudity, and smothers the spectacle under a glaze of superfluous yet essential gestures...haughtily taking refuge in the sureness of their technique: their science clothes them like a garment.
After all, what are superhero fight sequences but ritual dances of surefooted technique?  By keeping in motion, our gaze is averted.  Of course, in the subsequent, final scene, she has stopped moving and we witness the (new) first encounter between Catwoman and Batman.  In the ensuing scene (and this is possibly a spoiler, unless you've been deaf to the selective outrage of the comics blogosphere over these few pages) she seduces Batman and they undress, locked in a passionate embrace.

Thereby, through the codification that has been established, we come to understand their relationship and characters.  Selena becomes Catwoman and does dangerous, exotic things that transcend her humble, vulnerable background; Batman sees the villain in the costume and desires her because her appearance speaks to his bourgeois background, and he succumbs to her because the hero in him wants to see the bad girl become good.

Perhaps framing the issue as an elaborate striptease was too risque for a comic rated "teen plus", but as a mature, effective solution to a complex problem, it was a mild stroke of genius.

-- Gavin Lees

Review: Troop 142 by Mike Dawson

Troop 142 - Mike Dawson (w/a)
Secret Acres, $20, ISBN: 978-0979960994

There are two distinct voices at work in Troop 142 — Mike Dawson’s latest graphic novel about, of all things, a Boy Scout camp.  There is the authorial voice of Alan, father of two of the scouts, and awkward chaperone of the camp. For him, the experience is uncomfortable, seemingly casting him back to his own adolescence and much of his narration deals with his social insecurity.  His is a view of the Scouts through cynical, questioning eyes (even though his actual eyes are often  obscured, Sacco-like, by his glasses) and whether the positive experiences offered at the camp are worth the frequent moral lectures and religious bullying.

Then, of course, there are the boys themselves. Through Alan’s eyes, the boys are good-natured teens cast into the outdoors, but when the focus shifts to let us see the boys in their own world, away from adult eyes, a more multi-faceted and altogether less naïve picture of adolescence is revealed.  From experimenting with drugs, to dealing with their own insecurities and burgeoning sexuality, it’s a familiar milieu that we can all relate to.

In fact, the book often makes us wonder just how removed we actually are from adolescence.  There’s a very telling moment when one of the scouts’ tent is vandalized with the word “FAG” in giant letters.  Although the boys are quick to decide who it’s directed at — and take their frustrations out through scuffling and squabbling — Alan’s first thought is that it may be directed at him.  He feels all too distinctly the awkwardness of being at close quarters with a group of young boys, and how he’s viewed by them.

Sometimes, though, this uneasiness is translated into brilliant humour.  One such episode sees Alan using the very open latrine for the first time — finding time while the boys are out at activities to have a quiet dump by himself.  Of course, he’s joined at the next stall by the one scout left behind, and in one panel, Dawson manages to wrangle so much pathos and uncomfortable laughter that you can practically hear the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme playing in the background.

More than just being skilled with his writing, Dawson also has tremendous artistic chops to support it. Even though his characters’ faces are very simplistic — with sparingly used lines and mere dots for eyes — he manages to extract a wealth of nuanced emotions from them.  Moreover, though, is he a master of grey tone.  The whole book uses one shade of grey to offset the black and white, but it is used to spectacular effect.  The scenes around the campfire are particularly moody and bring real depth to the page in a way that’s elegant and unobtrusive.

Indeed, those qualities — elegant, unobtrusive — could be applied to Dawson’s work in general.  He’s never flashy or overly didactic with his purpose, but through fun and entertaining storylines, he lets us quietly reflect on some very big ideas.  Even if you were never a scout (or a boy) there’s still a lot to ponder in Troop 142.
-- Gavin Lees

Comics: All the Dead Superheroes #3

Click for full-size image

All the Dead Superheroes is a continuing strip in fortnightly installments.  Full issues of the comic can be found at:

Story and art © 2011 Iain Laurie

Feature: Craig Thompson presents Habibi

It would be difficult to top Larry Reid's introduction to Craig Thompson's lecture (recorded at the Seattle Public Library, 5th October 2011) so please just sit back and enjoy the video:
Craig Thompson presents HABIBI

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