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Best Comics of 2013: Change

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Change01Last year, the sheer nerve of Wild Children’s block-red, text-only cover demanded that I take the book from the shelf and buy eight dollars’ worth of comic even though it was by creators I’d never heard of. It was an impulse purchase, but one that rewarded me with a story that was intelligent and thought-provoking, but oddly sensual at the same time. Since then, Ales Kot has been my default answer to the question “Which creator is exciting you right now?”. It’s early in his comics career, but Kot has already proved a chameleonic writer with no two projects alike in spirit of execution. He’s even managed to earn his stripes by getting creative-differenced off a DC title (Suicide Squad) only a couple of issues into a much-hyped run.

Ales Kot’s current ongoing series, Zero, is a sci-fi espionage thriller with a rotating cast of artists that is at once brutal and cerebral. But when I think of the best comics I read in 2013, Zero is still only Kot’s second best work. That’s because I can think of few series more suited to me than the miniseries he began 2013 with: Change.

Change was written by Kot, drawn by Morgan Jeske, and almost defies any more specific description than that. You’d call it psychadelic and hallucinatory, and you’d be right, but it’s more carefully-crafted than such labels suggest. It stars a rapper, a screenwriter and a spaceman who are attempting to prevent a literal apocalypse in Los Angeles while dealing with their own existential nightmares. It’s tense, funny and nightmarish, powerfully surreal but utterly compelling in its narrative. It’s fantastic, not just because of Kot’s story – but because the creative team, from the artist to the colourist (Sloane Leong) to the letterer (Ed Brisson) is working in complete synchronicity, each adding their own element of tone, call-back or exposition. When a comic goes right, this is what it looks like.

In many ways, it’s a miracle that a story this dense, produced so collaboratively, is comprehensible at all. It’s the kind of project that can only happen by complete accident or by extreme design, and I wouldn’t like to speculate which one of those elements is at play here. Change is rare and brilliant, but also fragile in its complexity. I almost don’t want to pull at it too hard in case it falls apart. It’s not the sort of project that everyone’s going to love, but if you fall for it, you’ll fall hard. It’s all the things I want out of good art: it’s earnest but not serious, imaginitive but not goofy, self-aware but not self-conscious. You can probably pick a hundred books released this year that are structured more coherently or have a clearer point to make, but few of those will make you feel like Change does. Like the end of the world is coming and maybe this can stop it.

Best Comics of 2013: Pretty Deadly

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prettydeadly-01Over the last year or two, Image Comics has transformed itself. Originally the home for artist-driven trash and later the place where indie up-and-comers cut their teeth, it’s recently become the home of some of the mainstream’s most exciting series from some of the industry’s top talent. You could fill a best of 2013 list with Image books alone and it wouldn’t look like you’d tried *that* hard to ignore the big two. We could point to any number of series released this year that show just how original Image has become, but we keep coming back to this one as demanding special attention: Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire.

Notionally, Pretty Deadly is the story of “Death’s Daughter”, an old west gunslinger named Ginny who rides a horse made of smoke and has a skull tattooed on her face. In execution, it’s a dark myth that marries Eastern storytelling with Western imagery. Narrated by a rabbit and a butterfly, it’s fair to say it’s not afraid to be ambitious and unconventional.

The ambition is probably what makes the book so compelling. In an era where many creator-owned titles are all about the high concept, Pretty Deadly is just as concerned about the poetry of its story. It’s as much mood as mechanics. You can imagine anyone turning the high concept of Pretty Deadly into a middling book ripe for adaptation into a shitty movie, but DeConnick and Rios have created something that’s powerfully, definitively, inseparably for the comics medium. Good luck to any screenwriter trying to wring three acts out of this.

It certainly helps to have an artist like Rios on board, a woman whose presence almost instantly raises the quality of a series (or have you forgotten that Spider-Island: Cloak and Dagger was one of the best looking books of 2011?) It’s hard to imagine how Pretty Deadly could work under anyone else. It needs the airy, expressive and ethereal visuals that Rios can provide, but it also needs her grit and texture. There’s a strong manga influence in the title, and a lot of that stems from Rios’ linework.

One caveat is that it’s fair to say that Pretty Deadly isn’t the easiest of reads. It’s complex and dreamlike and doesn’t want to patronise its readers. If you’ve ever accused a book of pretension for attempting to be lyrical or subtle or intentionally ambiguous, you’ll find all that here, and more. But the fact is that it looks and reads unlike anything else in the medium, and just three issues in it’s got the rare distinction of being at the bottom of my pile every time there’s a new issue released. Not because I want to put off reading it, but because I want to make sure I can give it the time and concentration it deserves. I don’t know about you, but that, to me, is what says great work.

 

Phonogram: The Singles Club #7

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pgsc7Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #7 is released on Wednesday 10th February.

And so it ends. Perhaps the comic to which we’ve afforded the most reverence during this site’s life, Phonogram: The Singles Club has left an indelible mark upon those of us who’ve read it; and now it disappears into the night, leaving the question of whether or not it will actually return one day firmly unanswered. And it does so with an issue that has looked all along – at least, since we discovered that Kid-With-Knife was to be its lead character – to be more of a coda than a final issue proper. We’ve already had all sorts of conclusions – narrative, chronological, thematic, emotional – dotted throughout the series’ run – what more could KWK have to offer?

Well, as it happens, that assumption is only partially correct. For while in terms of the story there is indeed little to add (apart from a brief twist that I still can’t decide whether to label “surprising” or “obvious” – though it does simply make me say “Aw, poor Lloyd”), what Gillen’s gone and done with his final issue is to provide an effective thematic skewering of the twelve issues that have gone before. Up to this point, Phonogram has largely shown its phonomancers as active practitioners – people who set out to take the metaphorical power that music has over humanity and turn it into a more literal manifestation of “magic” (this assumes you’re going by the literal, and not metaphorical, reading of the series as a whole, by the way). But right from its first page, “Wolf Like Me” flips that on its head – just because these people think they’re the only ones touched by (or infused with) the power of music, it doesn’t mean they are. And KWK’s TV On The Radio-fuelled romp (and there’s really no other word for this issue, what with it being applicable in more ways than one) is no less valid an expression of “music as magic” than Marc’s “curse song”, or Lloyd writing Dexys-inspired grimoires, or Kohl scratching sigils into a record.

It’s a bold move, to essentially puncture your series’ core premise in one fell swoop – but KWK has always served the purpose of deflating the pretension of those around him (his backup-strip retelling of Rue Britannia remains one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages), and it becomes clear, indeed, that the “lightening up” of Kohl post-Britannia may even have something to do with the influence of his guileless chum. Once again (if not to quite the same extent as in the even-more-blatant-this-time backups), it’s hard to separate the role played by David from the ever-changing way Gillen seems to perceive himself; and it’s almost as if, having spent four or five years writing a deep and meaningful treatise on the power of music (of the sort that you half-suspect only an old-school Manics fan could ever really come up with), he now feels the need to indulge the playful, “enjoying things for their own” sake side of his character in print, too.

But we’re not here just to make presumptions about the author’s character and motivations; it’s worth looking, too, at just how well the issue stands divorced from all that context (even, given the inherently “standalone yet connected” nature of each issue, from the pure context of the ongoing story). It’s a little lightweight, it must be said – very little happens, and there’s little to no dialogue (most of the issue instead relying on a frequently hilarious substitute for actual words), which naturally makes it quicker to read and digest. If anything, it almost feels a shade like one of the backup strips, extended to full length – with the importance of its implicit commentary on the series as a whole being perhaps the thing that elevates it to “main feature” status. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and as someone who’s never really clicked with KWK (too much of an indie snob to get on with his music taste, really), it’s impossible not to find oneself warming to him here.

It’s pleasing to see that, in an issue that relies heavily on the artist’s choreographic skills, McKelvie isn’t found in the slightest bit wanting – the extended sequence of sort-of-parkour that makes up most of the first half of the issue (and which I still can’t figure out whether it’s meant to be “real”, or exaggerated by KWK in the later telling) flows gloriously – and in its immaculate pacing, is perhaps the best example yet of the visuals syncing perfectly with the issue’s “theme song”. It’s perfectly possible to stick the track on and read the entire issue in four minutes and thirty-five seconds, although I’ve yet to experiment with just how the pages would line up with the slow bit. It’s also – as you’d expect by now – another showcase for the artist’s innate design skills, with a cracking bit of layout for the title page, and a brassy use of lettering as panel borders late on.

It’s a little odd having this as the last issue, though, and I do find myself wondering how deliberate that is – the backup strips aside (which include Kohl musing on the first “death” of Britannia, a lovely Becky Cloonan-drawn conclusion to the Indie Dave story, and Gillen deciding “to hell with it” and sticking a load of his mates in the last one), this simply doesn’t feel like The End, and thus it’s hard to feel like we should be writing the series’ eulogy at this point (that’ll probably come when the trade comes out). There’s still so much to say about the series – as if we haven’t said enough on here already – but for now, all that seems appropriate is to remark, once again, on what an achievement these seven issues (towering even over Rue Britannia) have turned out to be. It’s far too late for exhortations to go out and make the series a success – perhaps it was always destined to be a resolutely “cult” thing: absolutely beloved, but only by the few – but this one last time, it really does bear repeating: as a whole, it’s an undeniable masterpiece, of the sort that comics rarely get any better than. Any comics fan in their right mind must surely hope that we haven’t seen the last of it.

Seb Patrick | 9th February, 2010

Comics Daily Awards 2009: Best New Series

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chew01_c1This week, we’re handing out the Second Annual Comics Daily awards – one per day – between Christmas and New Year. Each award has been written up by a member of the Comics Daily team after a consensus was reached, and highlights what we feel have been the best of superhero comics this year.

Best New Series: Chew

It almost goes without saying for any entertainment medium, but feels especially true of comics, that ideas are paramount right now. With so many comics out there – both contemporaneously, and throughout seven or eight decades of published comic book history – if you’re launching something new and you don’t have a good enough hook, then you’re sunk; so, in this day and age – the higher concept, the better. Meanwhile, we’ve already discussed recently the growing influence that titles like Casanova are having on the industry – and one aspect of this is in not just providing a single “big” idea to drive a series, but to litter lots of small ones throughout. It’s a case of throwing every new concept that pops into your head onto the page, knowing that not all of them will stick, but that the ones that do will often have the reader shaking their head in awe at your bravura. It all makes for a rather fun time to be reading comics, at least if you’re looking at that slightly-below-the-top-layer-of-the-mainstream, creator-owned sort of area.

Chew is exemplary of this style of comic, on both counts. First off, the hook is simply terrific – the lead character, Tony Chu, is a “cibopath”; that is, someone who can get a psychic impression from something by eating it. It’s bonkers enough that no-one’s ever done it before, without being too absurd to want to read it. But Layman doesn’t stop with just one mad idea, and that’s what puts the book firmly in the “freewheeling” category – concepts come thick and fast, building a similar-yet-distinctly-alternate reality in which chicken is a contraband substance, hard-as-nails detectives have half-robotic reconstructed faces, and the FDA are the most powerful arm of the US government. Indeed, so packed is the book with ideas and characters that many can be picked up and exhausted within the space of a single issue. It makes for a read that’s often breathless, but never less than compelling.

Strong character work, too, has marked the series out even at this early stage – Chu is, despite his uncanny abilities, a bewildered everyman in the classic Arthur Dent mould, simply trying to come to terms with the rather insane world he’s been thrown into. And it’s to the writer’s credit that after just five issues, the massive twist at the end of the last arc came as such a gut punch. It’s a brave move to set up a status quo and then shatter and replace it so early on – you need to have the confidence that the reader will have been sufficiently hooked by the one you started, and that they’ll want to stick with you after the about-face. Happily, the first issue of the new storyline introduced another new character and dynamic that’s taken the book down a different but still intriguing route; and the current issue, released this very week, has once again reminded us that it’s a series in which nothing can be taken for granted.

Helping the feel that this is something fresh and exciting is the art of Rob Guillory – it’s energetic and vibrant, leaping off the page while coping well with some of the more surreal aspects that Layman throws in. I’ve mentioned it before, but there are hints of the likes of Jim Mahfood and Gabriel Ba in there, and it works well. It definitely makes for one of those situations where the book has hit the ground running as a package – writer and artist seem to share the same slightly warped aesthetic, and that’s always a good sign. It may not even have reached the end of its first year yet, but Chew is clearly already one to keep a vigilant eye on – it can sometimes be bewildering to see which quirky independent series catch the public’s imagination and the wave of the hype machine and which don’t, but in this instance, the fuss around it (just how many times has #1 been reprinted in various forms now?) seems justified.

Runners-up: SWORD, Irredeemable, Batgirl, Batman & Robin

Seb Patrick | 28th December, 2009

Comics of the Decade: Casanova

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cas1For three Wednesdays, the Comics Daily team will be taking it in turns to pick a comic – a run, full series, graphic novel or even single issue – that we feel defines the last decade in some way. These aren’t necessarily our absolute favourite or objective “best” of the decade (if we could even pick just one of such a thing), just books that we think have been a special part of our comics reading over the past ten years. This week, it’s Julian’s choice…

While it’s become something of a cliché to describe Casanova as being one of the books which will influence comics over the next few years, it’s just as true to name is as a book which influences comics today. As this year has run its course, I’ve found myself using a particular word more and more frequently in ‘Daily’ reviews: freewheeling. The industry is starting to move on from the Brian Bendis-inspired decompressed arc model, with rising prices of single issues forcing creators to find ways of making the readers feel as if they are receiving more story for their money. Book after book is beginning to cram its pages with an apparent superabundance of plot and information, telling a story in the traditional way but adding in an array of detail and extraneous data that makes the world created feel so much denser and more interesting than a more minimalist approach to writing could convey. And it’s easy to see where this trend started.

But Casanova Quinn’s misadventures deserve to be remembered for so much more than their contribution to the storytelling medium they call home. While virtually every writer to tackle the archetype created by Ian Fleming has pile on the hi-tech elements of the superspy model, allowing their agents to achieve more and more remarkable feats, Matt Fraction approached this genre from exactly the opposite direction. He regards the hi-tech world of pocket teleports and instantly-reversible revisable sex-changes not as sources of wonder, but as the prerequisites which would be needed to make a character like Bond plausible.

It’s a remarkable piece of thinking in a type of story strangely resistant to change, but what the writer does next is even more extraordinary. With perfect timing, he brings to the boil the comedy inherent in each of the situations his stories create, without ever diverting from the plot. Indulgences such as the inconsistent acronym of W.A.S.T.E. are mere window dressing compared to the way that humour is used to progress the plot. When Cornelius Quinn needs to put something in writing but doesn’t have any paper, it’s only the director of E.M.P.I.R.E.’s stern manner which prevents the assembled cast from joining the readers’ laughter as the affidavit is carved into a metal desk. Fraction almost never goes for the cheap gag, with every piece of humour driving the plot forward, rather than undermining it.

For all its more conventional imitations, Casanova remains unique. While the completed seven-volume tale would undoubtedly tower over the rest of the medium, the achievement of ‘Luxuria’ and ‘Gula’ alone is remarkable.

Julian Hazeldine | 16th December, 2009

Phonogram: The Singles Club #6

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pgsc6Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #6 is released on Wednesday 9th December

Phonogram‘s always done a nice job of surprising us, but I knew a long time ago that issue #6 of The Singles Club was going to be one to look forward to, based on the hints about Lloyd and his character seen dotted throughout earlier chapters. Sure enough, it doesn’t disappoint, offering one of the most satisfying experiences the series has offered so far – taking a character with whom it’s all too easy to identify (although, thankfully, from the distance of no longer being a late-teenager wrapped up in his own thoughts and emotions) and showing us a pivotal moment in their progression towards emotional maturity. And, of course, it’s music that provides the catalyst.

That’s not to say that, just because “Ready to Heartbroken” (and I still love that title) is as good as I was expecting, it can’t still surprise. While Gillen and McKelvie have shown a willingness to play with form throughout this run, it’s experimentation that drives this particular issue like no other. Indeed, while most of us talk about the personal or emotional reactions the comic instils when reviewing it (it’s just that sort of book), it’s all-too-easy to forget that it is a comic, and to bypass appraising it on that level. But it’s a point that bears repeating – this is comics made by people with an innate understanding of the medium, and sufficient ability and confidence to snap its form in half if they so desire, safe in the knowledge that they’re skilled enough to put it back together again. And so here, following a Morrisonian moment of metafiction (and one of those glorious ones that only comics are able to achieve), the lines between fanzine and comic are blurred more than ever before.

And yet at the same time as the issue is flouting tradition – even so far as to be the first issue whose “present” is set after the nightclub closes, returning to it only in flashback – it positions itself firmly as The Singles Club‘s most obvious tie (notwithstanding the fact that we’ve had an entire issue about Aster, of course) to the world and themes established by Rue Britannia. Magic in the more ostensibly literal sense returns to the fore, as Lloyd is the first of this series’ phonomancers to actually mess around with grimoires and symbols and that sort of thing. It’s appropriate, of course, given the intense seriousness of his character – of course he takes the whole magic thing more seriously than some of his peers. Yet it’s magic of a very different kind that informs the latter half of the issue’s events – to say much more would risk spoiling a wonderful moment of surprise, but it’s utterly inspiring stuff, casting David Kohl in the unexpected role of a benign, Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque figure before leading to a sequence of pure joy, choreographed perfectly by McKelvie. And admittedly, while the experience is universal, it’s one of those rare Phonogram moments made richer by knowing the reference involved – as you wonder why you didn’t see it coming, so natural and obvious (both in relation to the character, and to Gillen’s own tastes) it is, and so conspicuous by its absence up to this point.

It’s also an issue that seems to cater more specifically to McKelvie’s strengths – he’s required to employ his singular skill with emotions across a range of Lloyd’s moods, from uncontained fury to unabashed joy; and it has to be said that his design sense is actually as much of a talent as his art itself, and the unique format employed for much of this issue allows him to play with that much more than usual. Gillen, meanwhile, is just enjoying filling in the pieces left out of earlier Singles Club issues – and credit is due for, despite it always having been obvious that Lloyd’s words to Penny in issue #1 had more to them than it seemed on the surface, still making something a bit tragic and heartbreaking out of the moment of revelation.

Backed up as ever by classy short stories (although there’s a hint of disappointment that Indie Dave seems to have disappeared, and the backups now revolve largely around what seem to be real-life Gillen experiences that he’s transposed onto Kohl, the first one is still a strong little tale, while the second features Adam Cadwell, an artist who – if he keeps this sort of thing up – might just start to get called “the next Jamie McKelvie”), Phonogram remains about as essential a purchase as any comic gets at the moment. Regular readers will be tired of hearing us say it, I’m sure, but if you’re not reading it, then one has to wonder just what you expect from the medium.

Seb Patrick | 8th December, 2009

Chew #6

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chew6I was late to the party with Chew – barely noticing it as a hugely talked-about-new-thing until around the third issue or so, and then attempting to catch up with whatever I could get my hands on in UK shops. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to do so – nor for it to register as one of the wittiest, most inventive and downright entertaining new books around. The current issue is the beginning of a new storyarc – and by introducing a new partner for Tony Chu and setting up a new dynamic, it makes for an ideal jumping-on point.

Indeed, after the status-quo-shattering events of #5, it’s something of a surprise to see a change in pace, and the Mason story pushed firmly into the background. It works well, though – this is still a young series, and jumping too headlong into darker territory would risk losing the unique style and energy that it’s already managed to establish. Consequently, what marks out this issue more than anything is that it’s simply so much bloody fun. Following a nice volte-face away from the implied setup of the opening pages, the arrival of robot-faced cop John Colby makes for an almost buddy-cop-movie scenario, but it works well as the dialogue flies off the page along with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments (such as Tony’s reaction to Colby’s Minority Report-esque ability to display information). It makes up for the fact that the lead plot, such as it is, is a little less interesting than those of previous issues – falling instead into a “case of the month” sort of pattern.

But Chew bursts forth with so many inspired ideas as it’s telling said story – from the left-field concepts that drive the book, such as Tony’s power and the fact that the FDA apparently have as much cachet as the FBI and CIA put together, to things that just show up for a single panel or gag – that this is easily forgiveable. The frantic, madcap tone of the book is also helped by Rob Guillory’s artwork – it’s one of those occasions where writer and artist’s unique aesthetic just seem perfectly suited to one-another, comparable to (dare I say it) Casanova in this sense – which has more than a vague hint of the Jim Mahfoods about it (a good thing, in case you were asking). It’s early days for the series, certainly, but if you want to claim you were on the ball with what’s surely – if it keeps up this form – going to be one of the defining indie comedy-action comics of the next few years, I’d heartily recommend you check it out.

Seb Patrick | 2nd December, 2009

Phonogram: The Singles Club #5

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phonogram5Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #5 is released on Wednesday 11th November.

We’re past the point with Phonogram where it can really be judged by any sort of normal critical standard. There won’t be an issue of this series – I’m confident of that now, I really am – that is anything less than exquisite, and even before The Singles Club is complete it stands among the comics medium’s finest achievements of the second half of this decade. What the individual issues start to come down to, then, is personal preference – it’s known already that #2 struck a particularly personal chord with me, while I found #4 to be by far the most enjoyable, inspirational and downright accurate issue so far. Yet others will have their own preferences – I know how much James, for example, was struck by Emily Aster’s story in #3.

So #5 isn’t necessarily my favourite issue, because it deals with a character I don’t particularly like (and that, I suspect, someone like myself was never really meant to) – but there are those who will identify more closely with Laura, and I’m sure that this issue will therefore be their heartbreaker. Me, I’m just amazed that a story can go so far towards helping you understand a person and still allow you to maintain that disdainful distance. After reading Laura admit the reasoning behind her living so vicariously through Long Blondes songs, I’m sympathetic towards her – and yet I still can’t help but agree with Aster’s devastatingly accurate (if mildly hypocritical) sudden skewering, which essentially amounts to “PRETENTION. YR DOIN IT WRONG”. And yet that bathroom conversation between them – glimpsed in part throughout the series, only realised in full now – is sort of touching, as Aster looks directly at someone who reminds her so much of herself, and can’t help but feel moved to protect her.

I also can’t help but wonder if Laura’s is the first story that could, in fact, just as easily be about something other than music. Penny dances, Marc hears, Seth and Silent play. Emily’s personality could have been shaped by something else, except that her “original” self can’t be anything other than a Manics fan. But Laura is someone who models herself on pop culture iconography – and while in this instance it happens to be Dorian and Kate, she (or someone just like her) could just as easily be trying to be, say, a film star (indeed, littered throughout the many – and highly amusingly annotated – Long Blondes quotations she deliberately lifts a gag form from Airplane). And there’s a notable moment where she makes the sort of music-misidentification-mistake (sneering at the wrong Police song) that you wouldn’t suspect Phonomancers to be capable of. Is she really in it for the music at all, then, or just for something – anything – to latch onto?

Rather more centred around a particular type of music is the issue’s backup strip (only one this time – no Indie Dave, sadly) – and you have to admit that for the “pretentious indie hipster posers” reputation that Phonogram has attracted in some quarters, its world has already proven to be a surprisingly broad church, at least in the backup strips. Last issue we saw Kohl unable to shift Outkast from his head, and here he’s part of a troupe that venture to a specific club on a specific night with the express purpose of doing “the Madness dance” en masse to “One Step Beyond”. If you’ve ever done the same thing, then the strip’s two splashes (one of the group skanking, and an entirely gratuitous yet brilliant use of two pages containing nothing but the song’s titular shout to arms) will prove an absolute joy – and Dan Boultwood’s cartoony, angular, energetic style is a perfect fit.

The fact that this might not be my personal favourite issue of the series (or that it might be the least effective at telling a self-contained story, working instead as more of a mood and character piece, centred around Laura’s internal and external observations rather than what actually happens to her) shouldn’t, of course, detract from its quality – this is Phonogram, a series in which Gillen demonstrates an utterly devastating knack for just getting human beings; in which McKelvie captures personality in the way that most artists with twice his amount of experience still struggle to, and allies it with a wonderful design sense – and finds the perfect partner in colourist Matt Wilson, to boot. And if its momentum has been hurt slightly by the production problems that have caused its delay, then perhaps there’s some consolation in knowing that it’s drawn out the glorious experience of getting new issues of the thing that bit longer.

Seb Patrick | 10th November, 2009

Elephantmen #22

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elephantmen22Elephantmen is often the very definition of a slow-burner, but the book seems to be suffering a little from a lack of focus at the moment. The disagreement between the cover and the title page as to which instalment of the story is contained doesn’t bode well, and the new instinctive appeal of the anthropomorphised section of the cast can’t quite compensate for his creator’s apparently wandering attention.

This issue consists of two parallel conversations, as the Hip Flask begins to suspect that there’s more to his colleague’s apparent return to drink than meets the eye, while Vanity’s attention is gradually drawn to the full extent of Obadah Horn’s empire. It’s the sort of gradual progression that is perfectly suited to a detective-themed series, but a well-plotted issue is partially undone by some mundane execution. Although the main draw of the series is Starking’s scripts, slowly adding new elements coherently into the world that Elephantmen and its parent series have knitted together, this issue seems little under-written in places. The jumps away from Vanity and Simm throughout the issue come at the right points in the story, but still damage the flow of the conversation, and leave the cliff-hanger looking like something of a stretch in story terms. Even granted that the moment in question is supposed to be unexpected, it feels more dictated by the book’s page count than the natural result of the events chronicled.

It’s the little things that grate, such as the way Vanity’s dialogue refers to a pillow case, while she’s drawn displaying a pyjamas holder. Andre Szymanowicz’s art isn’t without its strengths, chiefly his commendable ability to convey expressions, but they don’t quite compensate for some absurdly exaggerated anatomy drawing for the book’s female characters. Elephantmen remains a likeable proposition, but it’s rather difficult to love.

Julian Hazeldine | 26th October, 2009

Phonogram: The Singles Club #4

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phonogramsinglesclub4Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #4 is released on Wednesday 22nd July.

Of course, I made the mistake of assuming that The Singles Club had reached its peak with issue #2 – that it would be impossible to top that tale of love, lust, loss and longing. But I hadn’t reckoned on Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl. Alright, so any issue that thrusts this brilliant pair to the foreground was always going to be great, but the surprise here is that Gillen actually sidesteps away (eventually) from the pure, bitter cynicism that you might expect, and instead provides yet another absolutely compelling deconstruction of the way that music, in its different forms, affects people.

Not that it doesn’t have fun for a while first, of course. We’ve got the entire evening at our fingertips, and this leaves many, many pages in which Gillen cuts loose and auditions for the sitcom that he clearly wants for Bingo, perhaps the finest comedic creation in comics since Wallace Wells. As the two DJs take (or, rather reject) requests, grumble about others’ tastes and haircuts and ruminate on which members of Girls Aloud they’d be friends with, the whole thing is simply an unadulterated joy of one-liner after epithet after scathing put-down. It’s not just that the lines are funny, either, but the care and construction that goes into Bingo’s speech patterns (“It is inconceivable that we will play this ‘The Pixies’ pop combo”) – and it makes for a machine-gun-esque barrage of scenes that you simply don’t want to end.

But with the end of the night comes Gillen’s unquenchable desire for there to be a point to it all, and it’s with this that the issue veers dangerously close to perfection yet again. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but particularly considering the short shrift given to the “retromancer” in Rue Britannia, it’s nice to see a little credit given to the role of the humble record-spinner (I’d use the term “DJ”, but that has a wider meaning far removed from what I’m referring to – I’m talking about DJs that transmit, not create), and an exploration of the simultaneous self-gratification and selfless attuning to the needs of the populace (after all, nothing that occurs in The Singles Club would do so without the DJs’ choice of records). And it’s a deconstruction of the series itself, to the extent that you almost wonder why it’s not the final issue – in Greek chorus fashion, our hosts comment on stories both that we’ve seen play out, and that we’ve yet to encounter. Perhaps it’s deliberate that it should come at the halfway point, a chance to stop and breathe and consider what the series is all about (after all, while every other issue pushes the  “magic” angle, Seth and Silent take the opposing view – it’s not magic, it’s simply music), but in many ways it can’t help but feel like a beautiful capstone.

Using the word “beautiful”, of course, makes for an entirely accidental segue into discussing the art, and it has to be said that given his limited opportunity to explore a variety of gorgeous characters interacting with one-another, this is somehow McKelvie’s finest hour on the series so far. Of the sixteen pages of “main” story, every single one – with the exception of a double-page spread – is given over to exactly the same six-panel grid, with exactly the same angled shot of the DJ booth. And yet, from a storytelling point of view, it’s a masterpiece – from the pacing (and there’s as much wit in some of the moment-to-moment storytelling as there is in the dialogue) to the expressive character work. Bound by what is essentially an issue of talking heads, McKelvie breaks free and explores nuance to a breathtaking degree. It’s not just in facial expression, either, but in little details, such as Seth tapping a beer bottle on the glass while sulking, or the exquisite timing of the “Atomic” sequence (incidentally, that might be the one occasion in the series so far where you’ll need to know the song in order to get the true joy of the moment. But it’s “Atomic”, so every bugger will know it anyway). And then there’s that aforementioned double-pager, a truly breathtaking sequence that somehow sums up an entire series in two pages – and which, thanks to yet more magnificent work from Matt Wilson, positively glows off the page.

Away from the bright lights of Bristol, meanwhile, another of Gillen’s longtime collaborators, Charity Larrison, makes an appearance for what is becoming known as “the Indie Dave section” of backup strip land. With the possible exception of Marc Ellerby’s strip, this story has an art style that is perhaps the least characteristic of the series so far; but while I’m not sure it’s entirely right for the character, the design work on “Theory” and “Practice” is superb – and the story itself is a nice little progression of the loose “arc” Indie has found himself in the middle of. Elsewhere, colouring comes to the fore once again with David Lafuente’s pages effectively rendering the jarring, brain-hammering terror of an earworm (in this case, Outkast’s “Roses”), and the way the song’s lyrics “bleed” into the artwork is inspired.

As Phonogram rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear (even when its cast aren’t saying it explicitly) that when it talks of “magic”, it’s a far more ethereal and symbolic concept than you’d expect from the Constantineisms that first brought us into the book’s world. But more than that, the word “magical” doesn’t just refer to the purported antics of Kohl and Aster and Lloyd and Indie and the rest – but the very series itself. It’s an experience for the reader, triggering the same emotions and memories and experiences that the characters in its pages feel when they hear the Pipettes, or CSS, or Kenickie. “No magic”? Stuff yer rules, Seth.

Seb Patrick | 20th July, 2009