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Phonogram: The Singles Club #3

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You can probably construct your own Comics Daily Phonogram review by now. You know we think Gillen chronicles the shared experiences of “us” kind of people like no-one else out there. You know we worship the art-related ground that McKelvie walks on, and the stuff that Matt Wilson colours it in with. You know this is about as important to us as comics get (with the possible exception of Scott Pilgrim), and that every time a new issue is released we will exhort people to buy it. So what else can we possibly have left to say?

Well, “We Share Our Mother’s Health” may not strike exactly the same personal chord with me as issue #2 did, but that doesn’t stop it from being yet another compelling, resonant, deeply human tale. Structurally, we reach an interesting point in the series – the previous two issues have established the style, tone and “feel” of The Singles Club

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, so now it’s time to throw some characters familiar from volume one into the mix. Enter Emily Aster. In a genuinely surprising turn, the somewhat one-dimensional (if entertaining) foil of Rue Britannia is given a backstory, and it’s one with which we can all – to varying extents, sure, but still – relate. This is an instance where I don’t really want to go into too much detail (I’m wary that I did that rather too much in my last review), except to say that it’s a tribute to the depth of Gillen’s nous with character that I still don’t know whether I feel sympathetic for the girl, or actively dislike her.

Despite the dark edge to Aster’s story, though, there’s still – as ever – room for plenty of trademark excellent Phonogram moments.  Kohl’s presence in the series has actually started to become something of a joy – relieved of the burden of being the main character, he’s become a likeable and entertaining touchstone throughout. Seth Bingo and Aster’s bitch-fest, meanwhile, is a particular highlight – with each appearance of the outstandingly vituperative DJ heightening anticipation for his and the Silent Girl’s starring role in issue #4. It’s tremendous fun seeing the seeds planted for future issues, too – we’ve now seen both the bookends for what will presumably be a pivotal conversation between Laura and Aster in issue #5, while the trick that Kohl pulls on K-W-K will surely have relevance to #7. And of course, yes, it looks as fantastic as ever – and if McKelvie perhaps cheats a little by giving Aster and Claire that distinctive chin, his magnificent character work is nevertheless a tool by which the entire conceit of the issue lives or dies.

Backup-wise, Leigh Gallagher provides some suitably Hellblazer-ish art (with elements of his background in 2000AD) for one of the funniest bloody things I’ve read in ages – saying any more would yet again spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that it’s one for people who’ve read volume one, and an unashamed piece of self-satire on Gillen’s part that somehow avoids coming off as self-indulgent. Indie Dave, meanwhile, occupies the two-pager, a witty little gag (and pastiche) with lovely work from Lee O’Connor.

I’d almost suggest it’s got tiresome talking about how good Phonogram is – but it hasn’t. Because every time it arrives, I take unabashed joy in its existence, and I have no compunction in sharing that in whatever way I can. And although it’s undeniable that its surface trappings are incredibly niche (it’s just a niche some of us happen to engage rather emphatically with), I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that if you strip off the surface, the human experiences each issue explores are pretty damned universal – and so it should be entirely accessible to any reader with anything resembling a heart. Put simply, if you don’t want to read comics this good, why are you even reading them at all?

Phonogram : The Singles Club #2

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Note : Phonogram : The Singles Club #2 is released on Wednesday 29th April

Oh, so that’s what it’s doing.

Let’s be clear on this – for all the depth of imagery and subtext in volume one of Phonogram, the story itself was a relatively straightforward Hellblazer-esque magic-related “quest” tale, with a beginning-middle-and-end sort of a structure. It therefore wasn’t unreasonable to expect something similar from volume two – and while issue one of The Singles Club, “Pull Shapes”, was rather less dense, and confined itself to a single location on a single evening, it still appeared that the type of story on show was going to be pretty down-the-line, even if it didn’t fill itself out with reams of dialogue about Luke Haines, the Manic Street Preachers and Joy Division. Issue two, “Wine and Bed and More and Again”, blows that theory apart rather spectacularly.

Because in much the same way as this issue has the expected effect on issue one of illuminating some of its events by turning around and revealing a new facet (fun game : try reading the scene in “Pull Shapes” where Penny asks Marc to dance before you read this issue, and then see how different the voices in your head sound when you get to it a second time), it’s rather more unexpected that it does exactly the same thing to volume two as a whole. An issue that looks deceptively simple in terms of its action, visuals and dialogue suddenly clicks about halfway through into revealing exactly what the nature of The Singles Club is. And it’s this : a whopping great big holy sodding allegory.

You see, you can take the events of this issue either entirely literally (as you would with most of Rue Britannia – unless you prefer to believe that Kohl is just on some particularly energetic drugs), entirely metaphorically, or even somewhere inbetween. If Rue Britannia was about a practical, tangible use of “magic” as we’d understand it in the Harry-Potter-Tim-Hunter-Gandalf sense, then The Singles Club is about how the whole “music-is-magic” thing relates to every single person that’s ever been affected by music itself. You don’t have to be a phonomancer to appreciate the experience of the “curse” that Marc is under – if you’ve ever been reminded of someone who’s not around any more by a particular song playing, then this issue will get inside you and rip your heart out. It’s a devastatingly accurate analogical representation of an all-too-identifiable feeling – and it sheds new light on the pages of issue #1, because you can apply this perspective to almost anything that happens there, as well. Is Penny a genuine magician, or does her dancing win people over just because she’s a pretty girl who dances well? Does “The Power of Love” break up a wedding fight because Seth “charged” the record first, or simply because everyone loves the song? The answer, of course, is that both interpretations can be true both independently of, and in harmony with, one-another.

But it’s in execution as much as conception that this dazzles. Gillen’s still relatively new to comics, and it’s fair to say that while he’s undeniably a brilliant writer, he’s not necessarily shown himself so far to be a comics storyteller of experimental flair. This might just be the issue that changes that perception – for the first time, he’s playing with the unique tools that the medium offers, hopping between past and present, vision and reality, in that way that only comics can. It’s initially disconcerting, but picking carefully at the issue – rather than giving it the skim its glossy surface might suggest – renders it easier to follow.

His other masterstroke is in his use of voice, specifically that of The Girl (bloody pretentious not-naming-their-characters writers). Having known people who’ve lived in the UK long enough to have picked up elements of idiom while still mangling it through translation in an amusing fashion, I can see exactly what Gillen’s doing with her language – and it’s a brilliant, charming, engaging pattern of speech, packed with blunt yet endlessly quotable witticisms (“Are you emperor of whine? Are you MCR fan now?”) and genuinely unique. It also means that when she delivers an almost cliched bit of sage wisdom at the issue’s close (“Do not be holding on to the bads. It is just a things. Things happens. Things is things.”), the stark simplicity makes it all the more touching. And if there’s a slightly overplayed element of wish-fulfilment-perfection about the character (which is sort of forgiveable when you realise it’s a plot point), it’s nevertheless refreshing to see an honestly-portrayed rejection of “man-bullshit protection”.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “Surely Kieron Gillen hasn’t gone all soft

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on us?” Well, no, not entirely. If you want the biting wit, sinister hints and genuine laughs that you know and love Phonogram for, then they’re present and correct – there’s a whole four-and-a-half pages to get through before “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above” starts playing, and in them we see Lloyd (sorry… “Mr Logos”) set up as the Gillen-voiced comic foil of this series (I’m already looking forward to his issue as a result), and a proper laugh-out-loud cameo from one Kohl, D. Having already had our first example of the wider story being unravelled by successive issues, the intrigue is now building for how subsequent characters and vignettes will cross over and affect one-another.

It’s all too easy, of course, to neglect to say much about the art on a comic like this, having already spent 900 words discussing the story. McKelvie’s also becoming one of those artists who are so consistently perfect, it’s hard to find new things to say about them. Nevertheless, while this issue doesn’t rely quite so much on the explosion of colour that characterised #1, the artist’s ability to convincingly portray character simply can’t be understated – here, his highlights include the introduction of The Girl (playing up to all the cliches that have become true about his work), and the level of expression and character given to Marc – who might have suffered from coming off as a generic irritating pretty-boy, but whose heartbreak is genuinely conveyed by McKelvie’s assured lines. And the subtle differences in portrayal of the characters at different times and states of reality is as vital a tool of the storytelling as Gillen’s narrative structuring.

And I’ve not even got as far as the backup strips yet. These charming vignettes are proving a brilliant addition to the Phonogram world – in the longer one, we encounter Indie Dave yet again in what is a lovely tribute to “Wuthering Heights”, another example of the effect that music can have on people’s psyches, and Gillen yet again playing to the strength of his artist by allowing Emma Vieceli to express the story almost entirely silently. The two-pager, meanwhile, is a Kohl story (although… well, come on, it’s just Kieron, isn’t it?) which showcases an absolutely stunning full-page piece of expressionistic art from Daniel Heard – one which I can’t even begin to conceive the mechanics of scripting – followed by a nice little coda.

It’s actually kind of terrifying to see just how good Phonogram has become. It was previously an excellent comic with something of a niche appeal, but I honestly think it’s hauled itself up to a point where it deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the likes of Scott Pilgrim as one of the best things the industry currently has to offer. While I find it hard to believe that anyone could fail to engage with the series’ exploration of the meaning of music, it can at least be admitted that there are people in the world who simply have no emotional connection to music of any kind. That’s no longer any excuse for not reading Phonogram, though – you can only get away with it now if you have no emotional connection to anything.download drive thru movie

Phonogram : The Singles Club #1

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Note : Phonogram : The Singles Club is released on Wednesday 10th December

Has it really been two years since David Kohl first strolled onto the page with that Superman t-shirt and shit-eating grin? A lot’s happened in that time, most notably Gillen and McKelvie ascending to become the key controllers of the X-franchise, or something. But it’s finally time for a return to the series that made their name, in the shape of Phonogram : The Singles Club.

Right from the word go, it’s a different beast. It’s in colour, for one thing, although of course seeing McKelvie’s work coloured is hardly the massive culture shock it might have been a year or so ago. The pair have sought, meanwhile, to give the reader more than a simple 22-pages-of-story format for their however-many-dollars-comics-cost-this-week, and so instead we’re treated to sixteen pages of “main” story, the obligatory few pages of text that may have very little significant purpose (especially compared to Rue Britannia’s essays) but which are still the most entertaining journalism you’ll read outside of a Charlie Brooker column, and not one but two backup strips, entirely unconnected to the main story and with rotating guest artists.

As far as the main story goes, it’s simultaneously more accessible and yet perhaps less gripping than the first issue of volume one. A relatively self-contained story on the surface, it’s less reliant on knowledge of the background and references than Rue Britannia (and while I’m sure it was perfectly possible to enjoy that series without any knowledge of Britpop, I find it hard to believe that any such reader would have got quite so immersed in it), and is a more straightforward and less allusive tale. Perhaps that’s down to the very nature of Singles Club as a series – the seven parts of the story are sliced in a way completely lateral to the usual sequential progression of narrative, and so instead what we’re getting here is chronologically the entire evening, but told from a single point of view; and I suspect that Penny’s story will be illuminated further once we’ve had a chance to see things from a different perspective. It’s an exercise in world building, rather than – for the moment at least – telling a particularly compelling story.

And indeed, it’s in the rich expansion of Phonogram’s world that this issue satisfies the most. Character and dialogue have always been Gillen’s real strength, and already he’s filling out the series with new faces to match the likes of Kohl, Kid-with-Knife, Aster and Indie Dave. The obvious standouts here are the pairing of Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl, who (one suspects, though Gillen delights in proving us wrong) will probably never actually get their own distinct portion of the tale, but instead look like serving as its Greek chorus. Bingo is a marvellous creation, entirely convinced of his own righteous brilliance, sneering at all who dare to disagree with him. He’s downright objectionable in his treatment of poor Penny – but his rant is no less brilliant (even if it’s one of those times when we must be careful not to assume that the opinion of a character reflects that of a writer) and indeed is pretty much the issue’s high point. We hate him, of course, but we thoroughly enjoy doing so.

There are intriguing foundations laid for future issues, too, and I look forward to finding out more about Laura, Penny’s cohort. Ostensibly the “cooler” of the two, there’s something instantly dislikeable about her – while Penny is undoubtedly more than a bit silly and dumb, there’s at least a sincere honesty and sweetness behind her, while Laura’s oh-so-deliberate cynicism and forced attempt to live vicariously through the Long Blondes is all too familiar and grating – but it doesn’t stop me wanting to know what her story is. With Penny, though, I have to admit to wondering precisely what the point of her story was – on the surface it seems to summarise as “dancing phonomancer gets treated like shit for reasons she can’t understand, but then dances anyway” – and whether it’ll become illuminated by future issues. Those, I suppose, are questions for the end of the series – for the moment, it’s an enjoyable if fairly lightweight vignette.

Visually, of course, it’s an absolute delight – McKelvie continues to grow and grow as a storyteller, and here his range of character expression is put to arguably its sternest test (the whole series being, essentially, people standing and sitting around talking in a club), and passes with flying colours. If I’m honest, it felt at times in volume one like he wasn’t doing quite enough to differentiate certain characters, particularly female ones – but it’s not a problem he has here. Laura practices icy detachment, Penny bursts with unconcealed glee (although the single-page transformation of expression when she’s turned down by Marc is brilliantly handled) and Seth with pure unadulterated rage, while there’s a seemingly deliberate facelessness to Marc and Lloyd. And while he may still be a touch sparing in his use of background, his level of attention to detail in capturing an authentic look and feel of trendy youngsters out clubbing is top notch. It’s a far more confident visual work than Rue Britannia, with an excellent colouring job that particularly excels when emphasising the “glow” of both the music and the magic.

Given that backup strips can often by their very nature feel like afterthoughts, meanwhile, it’s surprising that the ones here contain some of the best material in the issue as a whole. The first, “She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment”, feels more like a continuation of the mood and theme of Rue Britannia than anything in the main story – Lauren McCubbin does an effective job of replicating the feel of McKelvie’s work on issue three while still giving a unique style to her interpretation of the Goddess. It’s less a story than it is a thematic musing, but it’s a strong one, as Gillen vents some pent-up anti-misogynist anger. The other strip, “Murder on the Dancefloor”, couldn’t be more different, and is a terrific example of Gillen’s ability to tailor his writing to a particular artist – here, the ever-excellent “gag strip” nature of Marc Ellerby’s work. It’s a simple, throwaway two-pager about Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl DJing a wedding, with a simple and clean resolution – but I defy you not to have a big grin on your face at the end. Of particular note is Ellerby’s portrayal of the Silent Girl, turning her into a Gromit-esque source of mute deadpan brilliance by virtue of a few glances, a single bit of pointing and the ever-reliable device of copy-and-pasted expressions.

While it’s ostensibly a more open and accessible issue than the first part of Rue Britannia, I do wonder if “Pull Shapes” is going to do a huge amount to immediately win over the unconverted. It’s a superbly crafted comic – not just in terms of the writing and art on the main story, but as an overall package it shows more devotion and thought than just about any other comic you’ll see – but while existing fans can see it as an engrossing expansion of a world we’re already engaged with, for the uninitiated it might feel like little more than an appetiser. To this I can only say, if past form is anything to go by : it’s going to be worth sticking with. There’s as much wit and imagination in a Gillen/McKelvie collaboration as you’ll find in present day comics, and for that alone they demand to be read. You might argue that it’s limited as a comic by only appealing to those interested in music – but come on, when did the opinion of people not interested in music matter, anyway?

Dusting Off: Wildcats/Aliens (August 1998)

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Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

From the title here, a casual reader might think they know what to expect. With Batman’s tangles with Predators having become a regular fixture of the franchise and many publishing companies searching for similar revenue streams, the stage seems set for a knockabout one-off crossover, pitting the then-fading Wildcats team up against Ridley Scott’s finest. Obviously, such a cash cow would be kept at arm’s distance from the core Wildstorm books…

What you don’t expect, however, is for most of the cast of one of Wildstorm’s core books to die off-panel. In structure, the story is a textbook disaster/horror movie, with the Wildcats team reforming to answer a distress call from the Skywatch Satellite, only to discover that the situation is far worse than they feared, and they’ll need to band together with the survivors to escape the nightmare. Writer Warren Ellis obviously had very different ideas to most of his contemporaries as to the point of such a crossover, seeing his guest stars as being a sufficiently big gun for him to blow away much of the baggage which was still cluttering his work on the ongoing Stormwatch series. Although by this point he had been writing Stormwatch for a considerable period of time, Ellis’s dissatisfaction with the book as he inherited it still shines through, and he takes considerable pleasure in bumping off many of the weaker characters he had previously been forced to play with. Staying true to his licence, there’s distinct horror tone to much of the story, with the Wildcats having to flight against Aliens spawned inside members of the Stormwatch team.

Only one member of the team is allowed to retain his dignity, with Winter sacrificing himself at the conclusion of the story to save the Earth from infestation. To add insult to injury, the story concluded in the next issue of Stormwatch with the (Ellis-created) survivors of the team going off to form The Authority, a group with very similar aims to an outfit that was ranged against Stormwatch only a few issues earlier. There isn’t a great deal of plot here, but the writer’s knowledge of the Skywatch setup is put to good use as the Wildcats conduct a surprisingly logical analysis of their situation. Chris Sprouse makes a reasonable fist of the art duties, although his style lacks the detail need to convey the book’s sometimes gruesome content.

It’s not high art, but there’s a certain satisfaction in watching such a comprehensive assassination.

Julian Hazeldine | 29th October, 2008

Kick Drum Comix #1

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Over the last few years, Jim Mahfood’s style has been constantly evolving in the direction of looser, more expressive layouts and composition in stark contrast to his earlier, comparatively tight work. This development has culminated with Mahfood’s first stand-alone comic release in some time – a 2-issue miniseries called Kick Drum Comix.

Even before you’ve opened the pages, you can tell there’s something special to the arist about this project. Mahfood has chosen to package the book in a glossy, oversized issue costing the above-average sum of $5.99. The quality of the art and printing is incredibly high, and since this is a rare full-colour release from Mahfood, it feels like extra care has been taken to ensure the book looks as good as it can.

Inside, Mahfood offers two all-new short stories. The first is an anarchic look at the life of a fictional musician called “Death of the Popmaster” which exames the events leading to his death. Reflecting the world as depicted, the art is grimy and messy, but each page, expertly coloured by Justin Stewart, looks like an amazing piece of artwork in its own right. On the down side, the lettering suffers a little under this freer style, occasionally becoming hard to read. My only criticism of the story is that it feels a little oddly bleak coming from Mahfood. Where usually, his near-dystopian depiction of America’s celebrity-soaked culture comes from a satirical perspective, this one seems to almost revel in the excessive and hollow culture depicted. It makes for some cool visuals, but uplifting it is not.

Luckily, for feel-good fans, the second story in the issue, Coltrane’s Reed, is a bit more optimistic, featuring the kind of slice-of-life Gen-Y culture Mahfood so expertly captures, as a skater evaluates his ambitions following an encounter with “Coltrane’s Reed.” For this short, the art has been substantially reined in, showcasing the more restrained, (and, to be honest, more legible) side of Mahfood’s storytelling. It doesn’t look quite as good as the last story, but what it sacrifices in visuals, it gains in storytelling making for a more satisfying read.

Kick Drum Comix isn’t quite the “return to form” I was hoping for from Mahfood, after finding his last few releases a little rushed and uneven, but it does show that Jim Mahfood, the nuanced and emotive storyteller does still exist beneath Mahfood, the poweful artist. While his changing style leaves me somewhat nostalgic for the early days of “Clerks” and “Grrl Scouts”, it’s undeniable that he’s an individual voice in comics and a supremely talented illustrator. I’m not sure how I’d feel about Kick Drum Comix if I hadn’t followed his career since virtually day one, but as long as he’s releasing work, I’ll be happy to buy it, if only to see where he takes himself next. Kick Drum Comix #2 is out next month.

James Hunt | 16th September, 2008

Stupid Comics: Phoenix Edition

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Late last year I had the great pleasure of meeting Jim Mahfood when he did a signing at Forbidden Planet, London. Fantastic chap, very friendly, and genuinely grateful of the enthusiasm people had in his artwork even if we were all greasy-looking nerd types. I’ll buy anything with his name on, because he’s just that good.

Which, to be honest, makes this review a little hard to write.

The thing is, when Stupid Comics started, however many years ago, it was occasionally political, occasionally comedic, occasionally autobiographical. Mahfood played with the boundaries of what he was given. Sometimes you’d get one picture and a veritable essay’s worth of text. other times, you’d got 30 wordless thumbnails crammed onto a page. Stupid Comics was so good that even when they released a collection that was about 25% new material available nowhere else, I was willing (if not happy) to pay £10 just to get what was around one comic’s worth of new material.

Mahfood’s latest release in the Stupid Comics line is this: Stupid Comics: Phoenix Edition – 96 pages of newly-reprinted Stupid Comics taken from the local paper, based in Phoenix, Arizona, that currently housing Stupid Comics: the Phoenix New Times. I was looking forward to it.

And here’s the “but”.

Even though, as the blurb says, you don’t have to be from Phoenix to get the universal politics discussed within it… it would damn sure help. The problem, whether it’s just because that’s what Mahfood’s currently interested in, or because that’s what the publication wants, is that the book contains absolutely nothing but (usually Phoenix-based) political commentary. Strip after strip of it – and if I’m being honest, the politics and satire are often a tad shallow and usually involve two stereotypes screaming opinions at one another – it stops well short of mocking Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, but it’s got still got some really easy shots in it. Set against the considered, deep and nuanced politics of DMZ, it verges on embarrasing. I can identify with his left-wing liberal slant, but it feels less like he’s got his own insight and more like he’s just giving the lefties what they want to read.

Mahfood’s diversity is one of his strengths – with this, I feel I’ve paid to see Mozart perform and he spent 2 hours repeatedly hitting a single note on a piano. It’s still a genius at work, but you couldn’t help be a little disappointed at the results. Admittedly, if you were reading one of these a week, they’d probably be a welcome distraction, but as a collection it’s a little wearing. There are a few times when glimpses of the Mahfood style I love come to the forefront, but they’re few and far between.

I’m almost sorry to say that I was disappointed. I won’t let it sour me to Mahfood’s talent, nor will it even make me think twice next time he’s got a comic or artbook out. I will, however, lower my expectations of what a Stupid Comics collection is going to look like, and hope that his next release is more along the lines of his fantastic 40oz Collected minicomics compilation. There’s a Mahfood book that’s genuinely worth its weight in gold.

James Hunt | 22nd April, 2008

Suburban Glamour #4

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After a third issue stuffed with exposition and plot, the pressure was on writer-artist Jamie McKelvie to satisfactorily wrap up the myriad threads in his first solo mini (though in calling it that, let us not forget Matt Wilson’s invaluable contribution of his colours.) It would’ve been a difficult task even for a more experienced writer to bring everything to a believable conclusion, so it’s pleasing to see the promise of the early issues realised as McKelvie does indeed manage to pull it off.

Since it’s a comic, you can be forgiven for expecting the last issue to contain a big fight scene - and, since it’s a comic, it dutifully does, allowing McKelvie to silence forever any critics still claiming his work lacks dynamism. When one of Morgana’s goons finds themself on the receiving end of some old-fashioned guitar-smashing action, you can really feel it. Astrid manages to prevent the fight from going too far, and dispatches the battling factions, before reconciling with Dave and returning to a normal life – more or less. She’s now got access to her Fae powers, which includes a rather trandy-looking set of magical wings.

In the opening pages, it became clear to me that I’d actually been judging Suburban Glamour on slightly incorrect terms. Rather than looking for the origins of a mystical, Buffyesque super-heroine, I should’ve seen it as the modern fairytale that, with this issue, it plainly becomes – a magical coming-of-age. In meeting her “real” family, Astrid quickly realises that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side of the fence, and accepts her small-town lifestyle for what it is as Suburban Glamour’s promised allegory makes a full return.

Certain threads of the plot do feel a little truncated – the Fae disappear as quickly as they appeared, putting up little fight when Astrid gets angry at them, though the intention to follow up those characters in future Suburban Glamour tales is clear. Instead, Astrid’s character arc is the focus of the first mini, and the seeds of any ongoing plot-arcs are only being sown in this issue. SG #4 completes a miniseries in the best way possible – wrapping up one story while preparing for the next.

And, until the next story arrives, remember that you can amuse yourself with the Suburban Glamour Soundtrack, made up of bands mentioned in or which inspired the title. Almost entirely guaranteed to get you down with the kids. Almost.

James Hunt | 10th April, 2008

Suburban Glamour #3

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Okay, usual disclaimer time – you know that James and I are both fans of Jamie McKelvie’s work and friendly with the man himself. But aside from getting in digs at Jeph Loeb at every available opportunity, we consider ourselves to be editorially neutral – and this works both ways. So, just as we wouldn’t hold back from giving Jamie a bad review if the book warranted it, neither should we feel like we have to stop ourselves writing about his work while it continues to be so great.

 And Suburban Glamour is, indeed, a great comic. It hasn’t clicked with everyone, and I’d put that down, at least in part, to its type of characters – much like those in Phonogram – having a quite specific appeal. But look beyond the superficial setting of “gorgeous hipster teenagers in faceless Midlands town”, and there’s a pretty universal theme on show. In fact, for all the talk comparing this series to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, you can actually look back even further to the classic childhood wish of being told that your parents aren’t your real parents, and you’re instead the heir to a fantastical world. There’s just more swearing here. And cooler clothes. And this is the point – McKelvie would be the first to admit that the fantasy elements are hardly original (he wears his influences on his sleeve, Neil Gaiman chief among them), but he’s telling them in a way that is completely here-and-now, and the sheer hipness of the whole thing is practically aspirational. Thus, while the sort of person who’d (stereotypically, at least) normally read a story about faeries probably can’t engage with the characters, the style of storytelling opens up the genre to an entirely new strata of potential readers. To batter a laboured point – consider what Scott Pilgrim does with the romance genre, and you’ll see what I mean.

If there’s been a problem with the series so far, then it’s probably the pacing. Issue three feels like a great halfway point – but less good as a penultimate chapter. I’ve had to keep reminding myself that it’s only a four-parter, as there are seemingly too many layers of mystery still to be unpicked – and, most probably, a lot of plot to get through in the final issue. At times, such as with the brilliant, Edgar Wright-ish montage from issue one, it’s been quickfire – but more often than not, the book has dealt in silent, longer and more ponderous moments; fine in and of themselves, but they don’t really seem suited to a series of this brevity.

That said, it’s one of the latter types of scene that here provides what is probably, as far as I’m concerned, the highlight of McKelvie’s artistic career so far – two panels on a page, the first a beautiful close-up of Astrid that demonstrates his Steve Dillon-esque knack for facial expressions, the second a stunning view of the landscape of… er… Lanbern… which probably took him about three weeks to draw. There’s also something which might count as the first proper “action” moment I’ve seen from him – and an entertaining use of the panels surrounding the action seeming to rattle around it in the manner of an old Incredible Hulk cover.

Suburban Glamour may not have the jaw-droppingly-unmissable nature of Phonogram, and it may feel firmly like a fledgling writer just starting to find their voice. But it’s sharp, funny – and easily the most beautiful-looking comic this side of Frank Quitely.

Seb Patrick | 1st February, 2008

Suburban Glamour #2

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When McKelvie’s not getting namechecked by the Duloks and racking up endorsements from Warren Ellis, he’s still plugging away at the thing everyone’s raving about in the first place: his comics. Suburban Glamour #2 hit shelves this week, marking the half-way point of his first writer/artist turn. If you’re not up to date on the (sold out!) Issue #1, then at least read the NTS review of it here and see what you’re missing, before continuing with the following entry.

This issue resolves the previous cliffhanger with a “mystery” rescuer, though luckily it’s not strung out because there’s nothing worse than a mystery being laboured when the audience knows the answer and the characters don’t. It then follows up with the most Buffy-esque sequence to date, featuring a pre-beard Kieron Gillen guesting as a school guidance counsellor, and christ knows there are forces in the world that would want to prevent THAT from happening. The school-based material, in fact, brings to the front the kind of themes McKelvie has suggested would be present in Suburban Glamour, but were largely under the surface in the first issue – the idea of being lost for direction when you’re only getting the kind of options you’d rather turn down. All it needed was for someone to suggest Astrid considered an HND or Modern Apprenticeship.

From there’s it becomes time for a trip into Sandman territory for the remainder of the issue. Only recently I was ragging on Vertigo’s tendency to put out Sandman-lite nonsense, so I should definitely qualify this by saying that the comparisons here are fairly superficial. McKelvie has put enough of his own spin on it that it’s not just a retread. There’s always a danger in using this kind of concept that people are going to look at it and go “Gaiman did it better” and, well, of course he did, he’s Neil Gaiman. On the other hand – Gaiman never wrote anything this hip.

Anyone complaining that the first issue was too slow should be satisfied by this one, which throws some serious twists at the reader. If the first issue was all about establishing the characters, this issue is all about setting up the plot. Just when I thought I had Suburban Glamour figured out (and I consider myself a fairly jaded and sceptical audience) it turns out I didn’t guess the half of it. McKelvie has proven himself as an artist over and over, and now he’s proving he can spin a decent yarn as well. Like a proverbial Icarus, he’s flying daringly close to greats like Whedon and Gaiman, but so far the wings haven’t come off yet. Roll on Issue #3.

James Hunt | 6th December, 2007

Popgun: Volume 1

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Having successfully proven year on year on year that no-one can sell an anthology comic (coming soon to a bargain bin near you: 6 month’s worth of unsold Marvel Comics Presents issues!) the industry has somehow realised that an anthology TPB will actually sell pretty damn well. Following the success of chunky, packed-to-the-eyeballs anthologies like the Flight series and Adhouse’s Project trilogy, Image has released the optimistically titled Popgun: Volume 1.

Popgun repeatedly refers to itself as a “graphic mixtape” and if you understand how they came to that, you’re doing better than I. A few of the pieces are reprints of old and rare comics, the first appearance of Mike Allred’s Frank Einstein being one very notable example, but the vast majority of it is new work from creators of all levels. The mixtape metaphor, it has to be said, doesn’t stretch very far at all and, for me, smacks of some faintly embarrassing marketing scheme.

Still, that’s not the fault of the creators who have contributed, and there are many. I picked it up because I’m a sucker for Jim Mahfood, and if there’s anything else I like in it, well, it’ll only be a better deal. It seems a bit stupid to point out something this obvious, but because it’s an anthology title the quality and appeal does vary wildly from story to story. Still, at over 400 pages, if you can’t find some gems then perhaps you’re not really as into comics as you thought. Part of Popgun’s remit, if you believe the hype, was to contain stories that’ll appeal to people who don’t read comics. Quite how rigourously they’ve pursued that goal is unclear; there are several stories you wouldn’t even be able to follow without some serious experience in the field of comics, as experimental as they are. In real terms, “wider appeal” appears to mean “no superheroes.”

It’s hard to pin down Popgun. It’s got some great work in it, that’s for sure, and I love the anthology format. I’m just finding it hard to give it a specific identity for it once you get past the ridiculous mixtape metaphor. If it truly were supposed to be a “mixtape”, I’d have liked to have a seen a lot more rarities and classic shorts to anchor it, rather than an unrelenting barrage of all-new material. Popgun is good, yes, but in a world where you’ve got Project Superior, Telstar & Romance, 4 volumes of Flight and even Image’s own (vastly superior) Four Letter Worlds, it’s very hard to recommend it unless you’ve read those and are hungry for more of the same.

James Hunt | 3rd December, 2007