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Kieron Gillen

Best Comics of 2013: Young Avengers

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youngavengersIt’s fair to say that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to jump up and take notice. Unfortunately, this also means that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to have unrealistically stratospheric expectations for it. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you’re going to have the temerity to produce Phonogram, then that’s the curse you have to bear in return.

So, did Young Avengers live up to the burden of being a new GillenMcKelvie book? Not quite. Was it still a great comic? Yes. Was it one of the best of the year? Just about, but to which extent is largely dependent on just how much you were able to engage with the ongoing story. And if you happened not to care about Billy and Teddy’s relationship (sorry, Tumblr, but I couldn’t give a monkey’s), or couldn’t quite click with Mother as a strong enough villain for a thirteen-issue long story, then there might well have been times where this didn’t feel like the slam-dunk-brilliant series it could have been.

But a GillenMcKelvie comic is simply incapable of existing without at the very least flashes of inspired genius – and there were enough of these throughout the run that hinted at a more joyous and freewheeling series living just underneath the surface of having to set out to appeal to fans of Allan Heinberg’s original and (in this correspondent’s opinion) somewhat overrated run with the characters. Double-page spreads such as the “Being a superhero is amazing” sequence or the utterly stunning Noh-Varr “airplane diagram” gag, and other sequences like the Instagram montage, showed a writer-artist (and, come to that, colouring and production and editorial) team dedicated to pushing the envelope of comics storytelling for nothing other than the sheer joy of doing so. It was exactly the kind of exuberance we hoped for from a book called Young Avengers made by these people, and it’s only a shame there wasn’t a little more of it.

Whenever the character work was allowed to extend to the newer members of the team, however, the book felt truly on song – whether that be the Noh-Varr and Kate romance, the teasing hints into the character and background of Miss America (The Sensational Character Find of 2013? Almost definitely), or the continuation of the Journey Into Mystery-initiated Kid Loki story (surely one of the best long-form character stories in recent comics history). Any or all of these storylines could have made for a great series of their own – but in Young Avengers they found themselves jostling for attention just a little too uncomfortably.

In truth, though, it’s far easier to nitpick at something, or for it to come across as a disappointment, when you already have those unrealistically high expectations. Young Avengers was, for the most part, a thrilling, funny and energetic series, with often astonishing art from someone who’s already there or thereabouts at the top of the game but continues to get better anyway. By any normal standards it was at the high end of a very strong crop of books put out by Marvel this year – and after its imminent ending, it’ll be missed as much as the next Gillen and McKelvie project (whether that be Phonogram 3 or something else inbetween) is keenly anticipated.

Seb Patrick | 26th December, 2013

Best Comics of 2012: Journey into Mystery

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Journey_Into_Mystery_Vol_1_645What is there to say about Journey into Mystery that hasn’t already been said?

Although it began in 2011, this year was without a doubt the one when Journey into Mystery became all its opening issue implied it would: ambitious, structured, perpetually riding atop a crossover and clinging for dear life. Throughout it’s two-year lifespan, there were only three issues of this series that didn’t have some kind of promotional banner attached, and it’s perhaps most thought-provoking that those three (comprising the Manchester Gods arc) were some of our favourites.

So there’s something you can say about Journey into Mystery that hasn’t really been said before: as good as it was, just imagine what it could have been with even a little more time.

Comparisons with Sandman have been made many times, but the books are as different as they are similar. Probably the biggest difference is that Sandman got 76 issues to tell its story, and Journey into Mystery got only 31. And had to devote a portion of those to servicing guests characters like Thor and the New Mutants in sales-buoying crossovers. The story of Kid Loki’s journey was probably the best fantasy epic Marvel has ever published – if it had been given double the space, it could have been so much more. The denoument wouldn’t have been so rushed. The mythology would have served more than its barest purpose. The ideas would have been followed up on and expanded. We’d have had something more like Sandman and less like Captain Britain and MI-13.

That’s not to say there was a failure on anyone’s part here. The book’s creative team barely missed a step in two years. Marvel, for their part, kept the book alive as long as it needed to tell the barest form of its story. The fans spread the book’s word, most notably on Tumblr where the Journey into Mystery tags were ablaze with the rarest kind of online chatter: praise, and enthusiasm. But the book wasn’t overtly commercial, nor was it small enough that it could afford not to be. Under those circumstances there’s only so far you can go. If anything about Journey into Mystery was wrong, it was the timing: the current comics market is conservative and unadventurous, unwilling to support smaller books, less tolerant of those that don’t fit in a simple box. A series from a superhero publisher where the lead character didn’t throw a single punch in 30 issues? A hard sell at the best of times, and 2012 was far from those.

But let’s not forget that despite its all-too-premature conclusion, Journey into Mystery was still great. Deep, funny, surprising and sad. It had points to make and ideas to explore. It resolved a story by printing a board game. It did an issue starring (effectively) the devil. It snuck what was essentially a three-issue Phonogram arc into the Marvel Universe. It made friends, then killed them. But most of all, it was a comic you wanted to read, starring characters you wanted to spend time with. Amidst all the praise for the book’s technical quality, remember that telling a story that hangs together is comparatively easy compared to telling a story people enjoy. Journey into Mystery was all that and more, and in the end, what I said at the conclusion of my CBR review of issue #645 still stands today:

It’s tempting to say that we shall not see the likes of it again — but how depressing would it be to actually believe that?

The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 3

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You’ll have to forgive us for being a little slow to get this final set of notes out. We’ve had a terrible affliction whereby something seems to have got stuck in our eyes all week. Sniff. And our hayfever is just terrible. Yes. That’s definitely it.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t yet read issue #641 of Journey Into Mystery but might be planning to do so at some point. Even if you have, you probably shouldn’t be reading it – it might reopen all sorts of painful wounds – but what the hell, we’re still publishing it anyway.

Previously

Hark to the tale of Loki!
And the girl* he loved so dear
They remained the best of friends**
For years and years and… <sobs>

* handmaiden of a vengeful goddess of death
** although not if anyone’s watching

Part Three (Issue #641)

Page 1, Panel 1
Salisbury Plain, Britain – Wiltshire, to be precise. This is the large plain where Stonehenge is, as you’ll learn on – spoilers! – the following page.

Page 1, Panel 2
“There really is an app for everything.” – Loki seems to be falling victim to a popular misquoting of Apple’s advertising slogan, which is in fact “There’s an app for that”. The poor boy’s excited, we’ll let him off.

(An alternative explanation, of course, is that the Marvel Universe’s popular smartphone brand “Starkphone” does have the advertising slogan “There’s an app for everything”.)

Page 1, Panel 4
“It’s symbolic.” – It sure is, Loki. It sure is.

Okay, so. If you’re reading a comics website and yet somehow inexplicably don’t get this, let’s have a bit of fun explaining it. Loki and Leah are, of course, wearing “V” masks. V is the eponymous hero – well, the eponymous lead character, anyway – of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, a comic originally published in the UK’s Warrior magazine and later reprinted (and completed) by DC Comics before being collected into a hugely-selling collected edition. It lays a legitimate claim to being one of the best comics of all time – in the opinion of at least one, perhaps both, halves of Alternate Cover it surpasses Moore’s own Watchmen – and tells the story of a morally ambiguous vigilante-cum-terrorist who wages an explosive war on a totalitarian alternate-future regime. Politically, it’s very closely aligned – albeit reaching to a few further extremes – with everything that Loki has chosen to side with in this particular conflict.

The mask, incidentally, is a play on the popular image of Guy Fawkes, a British historical figure from the late sixteenth century who was either – depending on whom you believe – the figurehead of a Catholic plot to destroy the Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament) and assassinate the Protestant King James; or a patsy in an elaborate government-led conspiracy designed to whip up anti-Catholic sentiment (and legislation). Either way, the so-called “Gunpowder Plot” failed, and – for reasons nobody’s really sure about – Fawkes became a near-mythological figure as part of the annual November 5th (aka Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night) celebrations, in which the narrow escape of the government/monarchy is (supposedly) celebrated. Moore’s choice of the mask – which subsequently became used on effigies during Guy Fawkes Night celebrations – for V was therefore entirely apt, particularly given that at the beginning of the book V actually succeeds in destroying Westminster.

However, its appearance here arguably draws on a secondary source. Following the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta (the relative merits of which will be debated some other time), the Guy Fawkes mask was appropriated by the anarchists/hacktivist collective “Anonymous” as a means of hiding their identity during protests. This was in part inspired by the arresting image (albeit one that pretty much entirely missed the main point of Moore’s work) of the film’s climactic scene, in which the assembled masses of London wear the masks in tribute to V and defiance of their rulers. It’s also turned up for similar reasons being worn by members of the Occupy movement. Both of these groups are anti-establishment, broadly anti-wealth, and largely interested in redistributing power from the rich rulers to the poor ruled. Again, the theme of class is represented.

And in one final, beautiful piece of irony, because DC and Warner Bros own V For Vendetta, and produce the replica masks, they make a substantial amount of money from all this anarchy-inspired protesting.

Page 2
“Symbolism is important.” – Kieron Gillen, there.

Stonehenge – Discussed last issue, and the issue before that. Before Stonehenge, incidentally, there was Woodhenge and Strawhenge, but a big bad wolf came and blew them down.

Page 3
The Long Man of Wilmington – A giant (two hundred-plus feet tall) chalk figure on Windover Hill in East Sussex. Supposed by most to date from around the sixteenth or seventeenth century, although others believe it dates to pre-historic times and is the work of Celtic Druids. As if there hadn’t been enough Sandman links in JiM already, the Long Man made an appearance in the famous “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” issue – where, as opposed to the scythe and rake (or pair of staffs) that the man is generally accepted to be holding, the figure was the keeper of a doorway between Faerie and the “real” world.

“I have become death! The destroyer of Otherworld! I am the lightbringer!” – The first two parts of Loki’s exclamation are a paraphrasing of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reputed words upon the testing of the first atomic bomb (although this is generally considered to be apocryphal – in fact, Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan project, only said in later interviews that the words had come to mind during the test). This itself was a misquoted line from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

“Light-bringer”, although more commonly “light-bearer”, is one translation of the Latin name “Lucifer”. You know, him with the tail and pitchfork. If Loki weren’t so against “old people’s media”, we’re pretty sure he’d dig John Milton.

Glastonbury Tor – A hill in Somerset which, despite the name, has no connection to the Glastonbury Festival Of Contemporary Performing Arts, Posh Hippies And John Peel Worship. In fact, the Tor has all manner of indelible links to legends of England past – including, most notably, the belief of some that it is the location of the mythical Avalon of Arthurian Legend.

Page 4, Panel 2
“Ahem” – Yeah, we all remember Agent Coulson, you bastard.

Page 5, Panel 1
“Camelot” is, as we all know, the company who administer’s Britain’s national lottery (aka “the Lotto”). We trust that clears up any confusion.

Page 6, Panels 1-4
The first three buildings are locations from or related to Arthurian Legend – Merlin’s (or, in Marvel’s continuity, Merlyn’s) tower, the castle owned by the sorceress (and sometime Avengers villain) Morgana Le Fay, and the home of the Green Knight. The last, the Starlight Citadel, is where Otherworld’s protectors (most frequently Merlyn and Roma) have operated ever since its first appearance in Daredevils #1 (1983).

Page 7, Panel 1
“Iron tracks burst from the ground [...] they swept in on their engines.” – It’s hard to tell whether Herne is remembering the battle he’s just fought, or if he’s just watched the Olympic opening ceremony and is describing that. Either way, it’s apparently an idea whose time had come.

Page 9, Panel 3
Kingston Upon Hull, popularly referred to as “Hull”, is a port city in Yorkshire (as Wilson suggests, in the North) and as such, played a major part of the industrial revolution. It has since lost much of its prestige, and famously placed first (by vote) in the book “Crap Towns: the 50 worst places to live in the UK” published in 2003. Its juxtaposition against “hell” here would be considered apt by many Brits.

Page 10, Panel 1
Cheap non-franchised fried chicken outlets are a staple of modern British high-street life. We don’t think there’s one called “Choice Chicken” in Camden, but maybe there is in the Marvel universe. As pretty much the worst type of fast food imaginable, it’s an apt choice for a Prince of Hell to be seen eating.

Maybe he had the Junior Spesh. We hope so, anyway.

Page 10, Panel 2
“A guy who’s usurped a few thrones in his time” – The definition of “hell” in the Marvel universe is almost as confusing as the one in the DC universe, but we think Daimon has ousted the leaders of, and temporarily ruled, at least two of them.

Page 11, Panel 2
The Lady of the Lake – Mentioned last issue. There are actually lots of different Ladies in Arthurian legend, but the one in the Marvel universe is named Niamh Chinn Oir, and takes inspiration from the classical Nimue. In addition to being the keeper of Excalibur, it appears here that she guards the Holy Grail.

Pages 12-14
BECAUSE “LEAH” IS AN ANAGRAM OF “HELA” AND SHE’S A “HAND”-MAIDEN AND OH GOD WE CAN’T TAKE IT

*sniff*

Page 15
Ikol explains on the next page how the timelines don’t necessarily match up (as they so rarely do with myths) – but it is indeed said in the thirteenth-century Icelandic work Prose Edda that Loki is the father of Hel (who is, of course, the antecedent of Marvel’s Hela).

Page 21
Muspelheim – One of the Nine Worlds of Asgardian cosmology (both classical and Marvel). Inhabited by the sons of Muspell, who are ruled by Surtur – and yes, he’s the big red fire demon taking up the entirety of this page. In Norse mythology, the Ragnarok prophecies state that the destruction of the Bifrost bridge by the sons of Muspell is the signifier of the end of times. The Marvel version is even more specific: in Thor #128, way back in 1966, Odin states that the freeing of Surtur by Loki will be the cause of Ragnarok.

So.

Um. Yeah.

Whoops.

Alternate Cover Team | 31st July, 2012

The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 2

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So, it seems our notes on issue #639 of Journey Into Mystery went down quite well (thank you, Tumblr). Which is nice, because we only really did them to give us the excuse to go on and do issue #640. Which naturally, of course, will mean that these ones will turn out to be shit and no-one will like them, but hey ho.

Previously!

Loki (teenage reincarnated spirit of dead Asgardian god of mischief now trying to be a bit nicer and stuff) and Leah (teenage handmaiden of Asgardian goddess of death never trying to be nice to anyone, ever) are secretly helping out their British chums in Otherworld, who have been besieged by new-fangled working-class spirits of urbanity. Weary of sitting back and watching people hit other people with heavy things, Loki now contemplates whether there’s a subtler way to win the war…

Part Two (Issue #640)

Page 1, Panel 1:
Camden, London – Located at the bottom end of what’s generally considered North London, Camden Town is an area within the London Borough of Camden. For some people, it’s the centre of the universe. For others, it’s a slightly scummy high street topped off with a noisy traffic junction, an overcrowded tube station and an array of street and covered markets designed to do nothing other than part tourists and silly teenagers with obscene amounts of cash in exchange for horribly-designed slogan t-shirts, “goth” wear and marijuana-based paraphernalia. Both points of view are right and wrong at the same time.

Its use as a location in this story is far from accidental. As an important area in the development of London’s railways (it’s just up the road from King’s Cross) and canal network, as well as being the spawning-ground of a notable cultural scene (in this case, Britpop), the comparisons with Manchester are manifold.

The World’s End is an enormous pub on the main corner junction referred to above (the panel here is drawn from a perspective looking directly out from one of the exits of Camden Town tube station). It’s a very convenient place to meet up with people – because it’s huge and everyone knows where it is – but not necessarily somewhere you’d want to spend any great length of time. Already immortalised in comics in Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s earlier series Phonogram: Rue Britannia, it’s also giving its name to the upcoming third film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” film trilogy.

Page 1, Panel 2:
We were going to do a “hilarious” joke about how we didn’t recognise who two of the people sitting around a table on the left-hand side of the panel are – until we realised that actually, lots of readers genuinely won’t recognise them. So, the girl with dark hair and the shaven-headed bespectacled gentlemen are Emily Aster and David Kohl respectively – major characters in Phonogram. We’ve, er, mentioned Phonogram a few times on this site already. We don’t really need to talk about it very much more for the moment.

The guy sitting in between Aster and Kohl is (we think) John Constantine. This would make sense, because Hellblazer was an obvious point of reference not just for that first Phonogram series, but also for Gillen’s take on Daimon Hellstrom, who makes his second Journey into Mystery appearance in this very panel. Given that Manchester Gods is essentially a Phonogram story being told in the Marvel universe, this would appear to be Gillen acknowledging his influences.

Daimon Hellstrom, incidentally, is the Son of Satan. In the Marvel Universe, that’s not quite as simple a title as it sounds. As JiM previously established, there’s one throne in hell that’s reserved for Satan, and the Satan-wannabes who rule the divided Hell (of which Hellstrom is but one) are generally too scared to sit on it because it would invite the others to test their claim. Hellstrom is one of the more morally ambiguous lords of Hell, in that he’s been known to do some good on occasion.

Page 2, Panel 3:
“toe-rag” – A mild British insult. A toe-rag was originally a cloth that tramps wore around their feet instead of socks. It then became synonymous with tramp, and thus used as an insult. Notably for this arc, it’s based, as many British insults are, on denigrating the recipient’s class and wealth.
“tosser” – A bit more pejorative, this is a primarily British insult meaning “a male who masturbates”. Or, to put it more concisely, a male. Synonymous with “wanker” but slightly less rude-sounding.

Page 3, Panel 3:
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, Hogwarts is the school from Harry Potter, the structure of which heavily based on pre-war British Public Schools attended only by the wealthiest tier of British society. Hence, “posh mages”. As some of the oldest establishments in the country, they’re famed for producing vastly more than their fair share of politicians and businessmen (yes, men). Even though they’re what most countries would call “private” school, they’re called “public” in the UK because they were among the first to admit any student, rather than those aligned with a specific church or trade guild – assuming their family could pay the fees, of course. From his disrespectful tone here, we can see that Hellstrom isn’t exactly a fan of the upper classes.

Page 4, Panel 1:
It’s perhaps worth noting that all of the “classic” British touchstones mentioned here relate to authority in some way: monuments to higher powers, fortifications to keep the unwanted in or out, and the home of royalty. This is in stark contrast to places of power that relate to “the other side”, as we’ll come to see.

Stonehenge -

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell!
Where the banshees live and they do live well!
Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man!
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan!

Discussed last issue, obviously.

The Tower of London - We’d expect our American readers might know more about this place than our British readers. Anyway, it’s a castle in Tower Hamlets (East-Central London), founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. It’s where they keep the Crown Jewels, and it’s where they used to imprison (and, occasionally execute) the treasonous.

Avebury - Great big prehistoric stone circle in Wiltshire. Hugely significant historically, but not as iconic as its neighbour Stone’enge.

Buck Palace - Daimon is trying to be  cool, here, so he’s left off the “ingham” of “Buckingham Palace”. This is where the Queen lives. You’ve probably seen it.

Hadrian’s Wall - A wall built under the supervision of the Roman Emporer Hadrian to protect the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Contrary to popular belief, it’s entirely within England, and nowhere near the modern Scottish border for most of its length. Even at its closest point, the border is still almost a kilometre away. Used to be a great big bloody thing (it remains the most heavily-fortified border in Britain’s history) but it’s now somewhat smaller…

Page 5
… er, except for in Otherworld, apparently, where  Hadrian’s Wall still stands high and mighty and serves as a fortfication for “the Highlands”.

Is Gillen here making a comment on how the march of industrialised progress has spread throughout England, but has yet to reach our cousins in the North? As the country is most notably responsible for the invention of the television, golf and the deep-fried Mars bar… we’re betting yes.

Page 7
Cragside - remember last week when we said Gillen likes to spoil the fun by doing his own annotations? Well, this page basically tells you everything you could ever want to know about this really quite astonishing country house in Northumberland. Er, except for where it is. It’s in Northumberland.

Page 8, Panel 2
“The other side’s places of power” - Yeah, so this panel is basically the reason we thought to do these annotations in the  first place:

The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol - Magnificent feat of engineering, designed by the incomparable Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Opened in 1864, placing it right at the centre of the thematic history of this particular story.

Some guy with an awesome beard’s grave in Highgate - We’re sure lots of men with awesome beards are buried in North London’s notable Highgate Cemetery, but we’re equally sure that in this case Loki is referring to either famous communist philosopher, Karl Marx or infamous TV funnyman, Jeremy Beadle. Who can say for sure?

The Cavern Club in Liverpool - Not actually the venue the Beatles first played at, but easily the most significant of their early haunts. Found on Mathew Street in Liverpool’s city centre, the club still exists, but is actually now based across the street from the original location (which was demolished/filled in for an underground railway extension). Although it does still host live music gigs, it’s perhaps more notable as a place for tourists to come and have their picture taken with a statue of John Lennon.

Oddly, some greenhouse in Northampton – We’re not sure what’s more staggering, here: that Gillen has snuck a direct reference to Alan Moore into a Marvel comic, or that he’s snuck in a reference to Moore’s taste for, ahem, herbology. What would Stan Lee say?

Page 8, Panel 3
“bally” – We explained the meaning of this one in the last instalment, but because we’ve now established that this is a story that uses class as a significant theme, we should point out that “bally” is the sort of word only used by the upper classes. The fact that Captain Britain is using it draws a clear line of distinction between him and – for example – the kind of person who might call you a tosser.

Page 9, Panel 3
Starkphone – Loki’s favourite toy. To be fair, if we had a smartphone invented by Tony Stark, it would almost certainly be our favourite toy, too.

Page 10
The Haçienda – The narration here explains that the Haç is important, without really going into detail as to why. It was a nightclub, founded and funded by the Factory Records label, and particularly their figureheads Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson. For much of the 1980s, it was notable as a hugely influential live music venue – acts ranging from The Smiths to Madonna played there – but it became “the cathedral of a cultural revolution” when it was almost entirely responsible for the “Madchester” scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The fact that it’s now so revered as a cultural touchstone hence makes it entirely appropriate that, having never actually made a penny for its founders, it closed down in 1997 and is now a block of flats.

Page 11, Panels 2-3
“My British guidebook the merchant ensured me is both comprehensive and inexpensive” – We’ve got no idea. Our immediate thought was a Rough Guide, however…

“A Rough Guide” – A line of popular travel guides originally aimed at low-budget backpackers, but now aimed at a more general audience. Although Leah’s clearly not a fan.

Page 12
Stephenson - George, English civil engineer of the 1800s. Didn’t exactly invent steam trains, but for the manner in which he was instrumental in their impact on the world, may as well have done. But you knew that.

Page 13
“I’m Master Wilson” - Right, then. Here’s where things get a little bit odd.

Because you can, if you want to, take “Master Wilson” entirely at face value. It probably helps if you understand the elements of Marxist philosophy that go into him, but aside from that, there’s no harm to the story if you understand him as an entirely new creation, a “contemporary druid” who represents the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and progressive, urban modernity.

But there also just happens to be the fact that he looks like, sounds like, and shares a name with, Anthony H. “Tony” Wilson.

Impresario, TV presenter, journalist, record label boss, club night promoter, band manager… Wilson did all of this, and more. He fell into music by presenting Granada’s showcase series “So It Goes” (yes, it’s a Vonnegut reference), gave the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance, and was hugely responsible for thrusting Joy Division (and, consequently, New Order) into the world. Inconsistency was his very essence: from a working-class background, he took a Cambridge education back to Manchester and stayed there while the rest of the media was looking squarely at London. He was egotistical and self-deprecating in equal measure. At the same time as running the Haçienda by night, he was presenting local news in the North West by day. And his personality and demeanour were far-removed from just about everybody else around him in the music industry – which is why most of them thought of him as, in his own words, “a prat”.

Yet his fervent love for his home town of Manchester was unparalleled (he was nicknamed “Mr Manchester by some, and the flag on Manchester Town Hall was lowered to half mast on the day of his death), and as the two major political beliefs he held were regionalism and socialism, this makes him the perfect figure on which to base a so-called “High Priest of Manchester” and druid of Marxism.

He was played by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s magnificent film 24 Hour Party People. If you want to know more about him, see it. Even if you don’t, see it anyway.

So, yes. The major figure of a story in a mainstream Marvel superhero comic is a fusion of Tony Wilson and Karl Marx. You couldn’t make it up. Except Kieron Gillen has done. Blimey.

Page 14, Panel 3
“Ah, ‘Pretentious’. A lovely word. A verbal tick of the dull and slovenly, a whip to last those who have ideas above their station. I don’t have much time for people being stuck at their stations.” - Yeah, see, this sounds exactly like the sort of thing Tony Wilson would have said. ‘Pretentious’ is also a label frequently applied to the author, which explains his familiarity with its linguistic function.

Page 16, Panel 2
“They say Britain is fundamentally rural…” And here we find one of the story’s major themes spelled out for us. Rural Vs. Urban. Cities Vs. The Country. The impoverished workers Vs. the wealthy land-owners. Rich Vs. Poor. What is Britain, and who does it belong to? We suspect every character in this storyline has their own interpretation, but Loki’s, in particular, will shift noticeably before the issue’s out…

Page 16, Panel 4
“Manchester was the first city of the future, anywhere.” – You could argue until the cows come home whether Wilson is in any way correct with this statement, but the fact that it’s so contentious is entirely in keeping with his character. After all, there’s a moment in 24 Hour Party People where Coogan-as-Wilson interrupts the narrative – having just told a not-actually-true story of catching his wife in a nightclub toilet with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks – to (mis)quote John Ford and say “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”

(credit to Abigail Brady for that one)

Page 16, Panel 5
“There’s no future in England’s dreaming.” – A line from the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit “God Save The Queen”, a record released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations (and the subject of a great many conspiracy theories surrounding its placing at #2, rather than #1, in the singles chart of that week). It’s a damning indictment of the United Kingdom’s insistence on clinging on to the Royalist system of hereditary privilege. Hmm.

The “real” Tony Wilson could probably just about claim the Pistols as “friends” – he was one of the few people to claim to have been at their infamous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 who actually was there, and as a result (as mentioned above) he booked them for their first ever TV performance.

Oh, and given that the phrase has cropped up, we should mention that Gillen cites John Savage’s history of punk, England’s Dreaming, as a major influence on him and his work. Given that punk was (you guessed it!) as much a class movement as a musical one, it’s probably worth having a look at in the context of this story.

Page 18, Panel 2
“Change is good. I’d thought that some gods would understand.” – Readers will no doubt be aware that the reason Journey into Mystery exists at all is because a god realised that he must change or die, and made his choice.

Page 18, Panel 5 (+ others)
Aristocrats have portraits and fine art on their walls. Wilson has blueprints and engineering diagrams. Makes sense, if only because you could convincingly argue that engineering is as much an art as a science.

Page 20, Panel 5
“We’re on the wrong side.”  - Is Loki (a) genuinely sympathetic to the cause, as someone whose life has been dominated by an authoritarian monarch who gets to do that “because that’s how it works”; (b) successfully swayed by the power of a charismatic orator; (c) being his inherent unfathomable trickster self; or (d) all of the above?

We’ll find out in the concluding chapter, but our money’s on (d)…

Alternate Cover Team | 2nd July, 2012

The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 1

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So there’s this comic called Journey Into Mystery. Written by Kieron Gillen, and illustrated by a rotating roster of artists (but most notably Doug Braithwaite and Rich Elson), it’s actually been going since the 1960s (hence why its issue numbering is in the 600s), but back in 1966 it was renamed The Mighty Thor. Relaunched in 2011 under its original name and numbering, the series now focuses on Thor’s reincarnated brother Loki.

Gillen’s run has been a consistently clever, witty and entertaining series since the word go – but with the beginning of the latest arc, “The Manchester Gods”, it’s started to feel that bit more special. It’s started to feel like there’s a hell of a lot more going on beneath the surface (and, indeed, on the surface) than in the majority of Marvel and DC superhero comics around at the moment – in fact, if anything, it feels like a Vertigo comic would if they were published by Marvel rather than DC. Following some casual discussion of a number of the deliberately-planted references in the latest issue, #640, James and I (Seb) came to the conclusion that here was a comic that could stand to be annotated – for the enlightenment of readers who haven’t quite caught everything, and the general entertainment of those who have. Gillen has, of course, written a comic that stands up to detailed annotation and analysis before – but with Phonogram, he rather spoils the fun by doing it himself in the backmatter before anyone else can get the chance.

Journey Into Mystery, however, doesn’t yet seem to have had that sort of attention. And in the absence of Jess Nevins – who presumably is quite busy with something else at the moment – we thought we’d give it a crack. So this week we’re rolling back to last month’s issue #639, the first chapter of “The Manchester Gods”, because there’s really quite a lot to talk about in that one as well. We’ll then catch up with #640 next week, so that we’ll be nice and well-prepared for part three when that comes out. So, without further babbling nonsense, let’s get mythical (mythical)…

General Notes

CAST:

Loki

The Asgardian God of lies and mischief, reborn as a young boy. Freed from the crimes of his previous incarnation, Loki seeks to follow a new path in life. His reputation, however, frequently precedes him.

Leah

Hela’s Handmaiden and Loki’s BFF, although just to be clear, she doesn’t like him all that much and anyone who says otherwise is lying. The coolest person in Asgard.

THE STORY SO FAR:
Loki and Leah, working (secretly) under the orders of the ruling All-Mothers of Asgardia, have done much good in the world. They helped foil the Serpent. Defeated Nightmare (sort of). Freed the Disir from their curse. And re-homed a whole bunch of puppies! Unfortunately, along the way they managed to release Surtur, piss off Mephisto, and get on Daimon Hellstrom’s bad side (if, indeed, the son of Satan can have a side which is any badder than the other). So it’s not all good.

Part One (Issue #639)

Page 1, Panel 1:
“It rose in the North. A God called Manchester.” – If you somehow didn’t know, Manchester is a city in the North West of England. As its history and significance are going to prove quite important to this story, the Liverpool-born half of Alternate Cover will refrain from passing comment on it at this point.

Page 1, Panel 2:
“No-one knew whence it came.” – “Whence” is a somewhat archaic word, meaning “from where”. We mention it here, because it’s quite frequently misused as part of the phrase “from whence” (which therefore translates as “from from where”). We like that Gillen got it right, here. This makes us imagine that he’s not the sort of man to say “PIN number”, either.

The Red Lord, aka Bodb Derg (yeah, we know) is a mythical creature – a demon dedicated to chaos and destruction. He (it?) was introduced in Marvel’s Knights of Pendragon #17 (1991), by Dan Abnett, John Tomlinson and Gary Erskine, and is the opposite number of the Green Knight (himself a reference, we presume, to Sir Gawain and the).

Page 2, Panel 1:
“The Otherworld was the subconscious of the British Isles, the home of all magic.”
Well, that sums it up, really. In Marvel’s long established “mystical British stuff”, the Otherworld (aka Avalon) is basically the parallel Britain where all the magic happens. It’s where Arthur, Merlin and everyone (and, by association, the source of Captain Britain’s powers) come from.

This is, incidentally, why the “Manchester” you see here is a “God”, rather than a grim and extremely rainy conurbation full of people with an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s parallel, innit.

Page 2, Panel 3:
The Trolls – Real ones, not people being rude about celebrities on Twitter.

Page 2, Panel 4:
Engels – This one’s a new one on us – and it seems on everyone, as they appear to be a new creation of Gillen’s. Winged creatures that spawn from Manchester, it seems. Maybe called “Engels” ‘cos they’re like Angels, but from England? Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t think it’s because they’re responsible for a swathe of early 1990s US teen sitcoms, anyway.

EDIT: Or, you know, this guy. Whatever. Technically, making the link with Engels-the-person should only really become obvious upon having read part two, though, which technically we shouldn’t pay attention to just yet.

Page 3, Panel 1:
“It is a God called Birmingham, the first child of Manchester.” – A child that’s outgrown its parent, you might say. Birmingham, the second-most populous British city after London, is located approximately in the middle of England. It’s the sort of place that everybody should get the chance to pass through without stopping on their way to somewhere else.

Page 3, Panel 2:
“Manchester sired a spawn that headed west. Another marched to the northeast…” – Liverpool and Newcastle respectively. Really, if you’re a non-Brit reader struggling with the geography of all this, you’ll want to get yourself on Google Maps.

Page 3, Panel 3:
“The Speaker for the Silent Ones” is new. But we’ll learn plenty more about him next issue, so let’s leave him with his air of mystery for now.

Page 3, Panel 4:
“Gods should rule us no more. We rule our gods. We live in them. Your time of power is over.” – And we’ve got a theme. It might be around this point that, having read the quite superb gently-Sandman-nudging previous arc “The Terrorism Myth”, you might be wondering whether Gillen is also familiar with American Gods.

Page 4, Panel 2:
Caber (as in “tossing the“?) is essentially the Marvel Universe’s personification of Celticness. First appeared in Thor #398, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz.

Page 9, Panel 1:
The caption “Heathrow, London” is a slight misnomer, as there isn’t actually a place called Heathrow any more. The hamlet was demolished in 1944 to make way for the building of London Heathrow Airport – the airport Loki and Leah are arriving at, if you hadn’t figured it out – but the airport itself is technically considered to be in the area now known as Hillingdon.

God, we’re pedantic.

Page 9, Panel 2:
The names being held by various greeters at Heathrow – er, not counting Loki’s, obviously – might seem random, but upon closer inspection they appear to be in-jokes planted by Birmingham-born artist Rich Elson. Because they’re all the names of former Birmingham City footballers from the 1970s: Bob Hatton, Bob Latchford, Paul Cooper, Trevor Francis and Roger Hynd.

Page 9, Panel 3:
Herne the Hunter is a character of English mythology who is closely associated with Windsor Forest. The first reference to Herne was committed to paper by William Shakespeare (in The Merry Wives of Windsor) although that hardly makes him unique. There’s a fairly good chance he existed prior to that, since Shakespeare frequently appropriated existing stories to use in his work. The Marvel version of the character hasn’t appeared before, although the Pendragon spirit which possessed Peter Hunter (aka Albion) in Knights of Pendragon #8 was said to have previously belonged to both Herne the Hunter and Merlin, so he has been kicking around for some time.

It’s also worth noting that “The Great War” (as Herne describes events in Otherworld) was what people called World War I when they hadn’t considered that there might be a second of similar scale just around the corner, the crazy optimists. And that’s “great” meaning “large” or “immense” (it’s used here in the perjorative sense).

Page 9, Panel 4:
“I must be properly prepared” – Kieron Gillen has a growing army of young women the world over who show their dedication to his cause by dressing up as Teen Loki. He is giving them tasks to fulfil by issuing hidden instructions in the pages of Journey Into Mystery. We’re on to you, Gillen.

Page 10, Panel 1:
“Do you know the Queen?” – At some point between now and 1066, every country outside the Commonwealth got together and agreed to make sure that all English tourists were asked this question at least once per visit. The answer is usually no.

Page 10, Panel 2:
“He is a genius of little brain.” – Leah references A.A. Milne’s popular ursoid pictograph, Winnie-the-Pooh, famously “a bear of very little brain”. Pooh Bear was said to reside in Hundred Acre Wood, a fictional location based on Ashdown Forest in the southern English county of East Sussex. This continues the theme of forest folklore established for this arc. Also, he’s currently licensed to Disney, who own Marvel. Coincidence? Or the first signs of Disney’s creeping editorial intervention? You be the judge.

Page 11, Panel 3:
The “beef-eating men” Loki refers to are Beefeaters, or to use their full title, The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. No-one knows quite where the name “Beefeaters” originated, but you’ve got to admit it’s much easier to remember than the alternative.

Page 11, Panel 5:
This panel appears to depict the M25 motorway, which is consistent with the route from Heathrow Airport to Stonehenge (M4 West, M25 South, M3 West, A303 West). It’s around 90 miles, or 140 kilometres. Getting a cab to take you that far out outside the M25 would require the full negotiating skills of an Asgardian trickster god. Listening to Heart FM for that long, however, would require stamina beyond any mortal or immortal endurance.

The M25 was famously immortalised in Chris Rea’s popular soft-rock MOR ballad, “Road to Hell“. Apt, no?

Page 12, Panel 1:
For reference, the fare for this journey, according to WorldTaxiMeter.com, would be £222. And that probably assumes he can find someone to pay for the return journey.

Page 12, Panel 2:
“This place” is Stonehenge, a famous British monument permanently erected in Wiltshire in 1984 as a tribute to the mockumentary masterpiece This is Spinal Tap. You can’t actually get this close to the stones without special dispensation because there’s a bloody great rope-fence forming a 30-yard perimeter around the monument. To be fair, you could simply step over it, but luckily it’s located in Britain where everyone’s too polite to actually do that.

Page 13, Panel 4:
Captain Britain, an aristocrat named Brian Braddock given powers by Merlyn, exists variously in Marvel’s superhero and magical worlds depending on who’s writing the story at any given moment and what their agenda is. More recently seen in Paul Cornell’s excellent Captain Britain and MI13 and making appearances in Secret Avengers, Cap was created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe and was rare in that his first appearances were (appropriately-enough) in UK-only comics – back in the glorious days when Marvel considered that such a thing was a worthwhile venture. He eventually appeared in US comics by virtue of a team-up appearance with Spider-Man, but saw his best use in Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ stories of the early 1980s. In his appearance here he’s reverted to the costume seen there, despite having been given a natty redesign in MI13. The fact that he’s from an aristocratic background is, as we’ll come to see, somewhat relevant to this particular story.

“Bally” is an exclamation, a softer synonym for “bloody” (itself a softer synonym for “fucking”). Like the other two words, it is an expletive attributive, meaning that it can either be used as an intensifier (“bally good show, old boy”) or to express (a usually negative) strength of feeling about someone or something (as here, as Cap declares “Bally Loki”).

Page 14, Panel 3:
“Yes. Several.” – Well, his wife, for one thing. In the absence of the (temporarily) deceased King Arthur, Brian served as ruler of Otherworld for a while.

Page 14, Panel 5:
We refuse to believe that the inclusion of the words “common people” in a comic written by Kieron Gillen is in any way accidental.

Page 15:
“Behold, Camelot! None of the obvious jokes, please.” – If you need Monty Python and the Holy Grail explaining, then you don’t deserve to have it explained to you, as Loki discovers. Kids today, eh?

Page 17, Panel 4:
The Holy Grail, according to Arthurian (and later, popular) legend, is a vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper (either to drink from or pour from, depending on your particular flavour of myth.) Sent to Britain for safe-keeping by Joseph of Arimathea, it is said to have healing properties. But then again, so is homeopathic medicine. The Marvel version (or something believed to be it) was previously kept in London’s Museum of National History until it was taken to Glastonbury by the vampire Baroness Blood, used to give her immunity to vampiric weaknesses, then crushed. (in Union Jack Vol. 1 #3) Presumably, someone was able to recover the remains and take them to Otherworld so that it could be protected by something less easily negotiated than a velvet rope.

Page 18, Panel 1:
This assemblage contains various characters from Arthurian/celtic legend, many whom were first introduced into the fledgling Marvel Universe in The Black Knight #1, an Atlas comic from 1955. We can speculate, but you can definitely see Merlin (long beard, purple robes), King Arthur (er, in the crown), a (the?) Green Knight (first appearance: Knights of Pendragon #6) and The Lady of the Lake (first appearance: Hulk Comic [UK] Vol.1 #18)

Page 19, Panel 3:
At the bottom of the panel you can see a rout of Green Knights, presumably somehow associated with the original. We’ve got no larger point to make, but the chance to use the collective noun for Knights is a rare one that demands to be taken.

Page 21, Panel 4:
“I suspect there’s a smarter way to win this war than just having everyone take turns hitting each other in the face with hammers.” – Yeah, Loki doesn’t really like hammers.

Page 21, Panel 5:
“Evil me” – Oh, yeah. Ikol (flip the name), the magpie, is what remains of the spirit of the deceased, significantly more malevolent incarnation of Loki. Just go with it.

Next Time!

Camden! Trains! Devious plotting! And, er… Tony Wilson?

Alternate Cover Team | 25th June, 2012

Best Comics of 2011: X-Men (Gillen & Aaron)

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As with our inclusion of the Spider-Island crossover in our “best of the year” list, in including the X-Men books as one of our favourites we want to be more wide-ranging than simply saying “Uncanny X-Men“, yet more specific than just saying “anything with an X on the cover”. But this has been a year in which the “core” X-Men books have arguably been stronger than at any point since Joss Whedon’s Astonishing run – it’s certainly been a time to draw a more casual fan such as myself into buying them month-on-month – and you can draw a line through the titles that have achieved that which runs from the early part of Kieron Gillen’s run on Uncanny X-Men, through X-Men: Schism, and then to the two lead relaunched titles – the new Uncanny volume and Wolverine and the X-Men.

Before the crossover, Gillen’s run flying solo on Uncanny had made an assured start. It didn’t even suffer from association with Fear Itself, as the story that was spun out of it – the Juggernaut heading inexorably for San Francisco – was exactly the sort of storyline that suited the high-powered Utopia-based team down to the ground. And while far from the most likeable set of characters ever to make up the lead X-Men team, Gillen’s crew play to his strengths as a writer – by which I mean, there’s plenty of opportunity for caustic sarcasm. If the book’s had an Achilles heel, it’s been in so frequently employing Greg Land on art rather than significantly superior occasional contributors like Carlos Pacheco and the Dodsons – but even then, Gillen seems to have found a way to write issues that play a little more to the artist’s strengths. Well, “strengths” might be too strong a word, but still.

It was with Schism, however, that the X-franchise ramped up a gear into being one of the most readable corners of the superhero market this year. A lot hinged on the storyline, which could have been yet another failed “event” story – but in the end, Jason Aaron crafted an entertaining miniseries in itself (which, with the exception of a single issue of Generation Hope, stood almost entirely on its own in a refreshing change for big summer events), and one which effectively explored the relationship between Cyclops and Wolverine with some superb dialogue and character work. The fact that he found them in a heightened state of mutual respect at the beginning of the story meant that the tragedy of their fallout could be felt even by those readers who hadn’t been following the X-Men books in the years leading up to it.

Then, finally, we had the two relaunched books, under the Regenesis banner. The wisdom of restarting the numbering of Uncanny X-Men has been questioned at length, and the debate isn’t really for here; and what’s more, it’s fair to say that although Gillen’s first issues have done a good job of reintroducing the team for unfamiliar readers, the style and setup is hardly a drastic sea change from the previous year or so’s worth of issues. But what seems to have reinvigorated the franchise is that we now have two books where the writers seem determined to outdo one-another. Every successive issue of both Uncanny and Wolverine and the X-Men has been better than those that preceded it – on both sides. Wolverine is already setting out its stall to carve out a distinct niche and story style, meaning that the books really do serve different purposes while complementing each other effectively.

What the books share, though, is that they’re energetic, funny, character-driven work – and that’s down to, after a number of false starts in recent years, finally finding not one but two writers who feel perfectly at home. Sustaining one unmissable “A-list” title is hard enough for any comics franchise – that X-Men now has two, each so good that it’s hard to ignore it in favour of the other, speaks volumes about the health of its world right now.

Best Comics of 2010: S.W.O.R.D.

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As with Phonogram, we’ve given SWORD a fair amount of praise round these quarters, so once again, it’s time for a final piece of praise to round off the year and a last chance to finally close the book on one of those comics we never shut up about. Until the next time we think of something to say about it.

Although we spent the 2009 year-ender banging on about how great Gillen’s work on the series was, over half of SWORD actually came out in 2010. 60% of it in fact. Or, if you like, three whole issues. At this point, I could go into the standard pitch about how it’s a sci-fi rom com adventure (in Gillen’s words, His Girl Friday in space) but I feel like I’ve done that enough recently. So here’s an alternate take:

SWORD is a comic about one mutant’s attempt to eat breakfast muffins with his girlfriend. Before this happens, they have to hire a time-travelling cyborg bounty-hunter, deal with the arrival of an unwelcome family member, second-guess the manipulations of their sociopathic android prisoner, repel an alien invasion of earth and avert a diplomatic crisis using only tea and the art of stalling. If you don’t want to read that comic, then frankly, you don’t deserve it anyway.

It is, in many ways, a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sort of story, in that an attempt to do a simple thing finds distraction, then the distraction finds distraction, and soon you’re trapped in a prison cell by hostile alien forces wondering where it all went wrong. Steve Sanders has the correct combination of storytelling ability and comic timing to pull off some impressively subtle jokes, while Gillen’s strong dialogue makes every line tell a story on its own.

Despite being a commercial flop, SWORD proved that Gillen had the chops to make it in the Marvel Universe, and it’s no surprise that a temporary stint on Thor and this truncated ongoing series led, in turn, to him becoming co-writer on Uncanny X-Men and being given a second, higher-profile series of his own. It’s not just his best Marvel work to date, it’s easily one of the best things Marvel put out in 2010, and at this point, if you haven’t got the message, I don’t think you ever will.

James Hunt | 25th December, 2010

30 More Days of Comics #28: A comic that’s inspired you

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Do we need to write about Phonogram any more on this site? Probably not. Should we let that stop us? Probably not. This meme is all about personal experiences, after all, and there are few comics that could define that phrase for me more than Phonogram has over the last few years. Both for its content and for its existence as an object, it’s an especially significant comic to me, and probably always will be; and undoubtedly, there are multiple ways in which it’s influenced and inspired me and my life.

First of all, devoid of any extraneous context, Phonogram is inspirational simply as a piece of art. It’s an expression of sensations and emotions that have never really been voiced in quite so specific a way before – its central metaphor, of music as a powerful magic, is so compelling that it really is staggering that it wasn’t hackneyed and well-trodden ground by the beginning of the twenty-first century. In its first series, it was simply nice to see somebody writing a comic in which the likes of Damon Albarn and Luke Haines could make appearances. I grew up with Britpop, but not in the sense of it being a “scene” that I was part of – I’d sit in my bedroom listening to my battered Parklife and Great Escape tapes over and over, or debate Jarvis’ lyrics with friends in school, or tune in eagerly to hear Lamacq play the first single off a new Blur album for the first time. As it was largely enjoyed alone, it was a special feeling to meet someone who felt the same way – even when that music was topping the charts and it seemed everyone felt the same way – and Rue Britannia reawakened that feeling. “These guys are on my wavelength,” I thought. “They’re writing a comic for me.” Even though they quite clearly weren’t.

But with The Singles Club, the sensation became more universal, Gillen and McKelvie putting into words and shapes and pictures the sort of things that music – in all its forms – and, hell, art in all its forms, makes every one of us feel at particular times. I never really spoke about it in detail at the time – even as I was writing far, far too many words about the issue – but when issue #2 came out, I was not long out of the breakup of a long relationship – and still in that phase where just about any record I’d listened to in the preceding year (although there were one or two particular ones that especially did it – ones that I really liked, too) would be entirely off-limits, as they couldn’t help but take me mentally back to the time and place I’d been in in the time leading up to said breakup. I never had a word or phrase for that feeling, though – until Gillen showed up with the concept of the “curse song”. Bang. It’s like one of those concepts the Germans always have snappy words for, and you wonder why we don’t have one ourselves – because it’s so universal. Everybody has them, and everybody will always continue to have them. And that’s why Phonogram, purely as a comic in and of itself, is inspirational – if that’s the right word – for its ability to beautifully and succinctly express the purest and most universal of human feelings.

But there’s more to it than that. I can’t ignore the significance of Phonogram the comic-as-object, either, for what it’s represented to me over the last few years. I’ve had the honour of knowing both Kieron and Jamie on a personal level for a while now, having first met them when Phonogram was an under-heralded indie comic, loved by everyone who read it but not read by anything like enough people. Of course, it was never read by anything like enough people in the end, but it will now forever represent the point at which two significant creators made their entry proper into the field. It’s been an absolute pleasure to see the pair’s individual rises through comics, to the point where Kieron is writing Uncanny X-Men and Jamie is being personally tapped by Brian Bendis to draw Ultimate Spider-Man – and none of it would have happened without Phonogram. It’s about the most inspirational industry story you can find – an object lesson in the fact that if you create something really fucking good, even if it doesn’t seem like a success at the time, even if you have all manner of struggles just to get by while you’re making the thing happen, talent will out and you can make something truly great of yourself.

And there’s a final meaning of “inspired”, to boot, although perhaps “influenced” would be the better term in this instance. As I’ve already said, I have these barmy notions towards being A Writer Of Some Kind myself, and I’d be lying if I said reading Phonogram hasn’t directly influenced my own work over recent years. This has, of course, most obviously manifested itself in getting the chance to write a direct Phonogram tribute story for the …vs the Fans fanzine – my own little attempt to take one of those universal feelings that music can engender and express it in a piece of sequential art. At the time I wrote it, I thought I was quite neatly taking Kieron’s core philosophy and applying it to an area (the feeling you get when DJing) he hadn’t covered yet; of course, it was only a short while afterwards that issue #4, in which he did it better, was published. Nevertheless, it was a chapter in my own growth and evolution as a writer, and I’m sure that going forward the series will have an influential and inspirational effect in other (less obviously rip-offy) ways as well.

So that’s just some of why I love Phonogram. Why I’ve been inspired to write almost ten thousand words about it on this here blog. Why I’ll always look at two people who in other ways I can consider social peers and friends with just that tiny bit of awe. Why I repeatedly buy copies of it for friends and families’ birthdays, and jabber on about why they have to read it. And why it’s a comic that I’ll never, ever forget.

Seb Patrick | 20th December, 2010

“The Award-Winning Team Phonogram”

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Well, this makes us happy. At Friday night’s Eagle Awards, the UK comic industry’s premiere set of prizes, Alternate Cover Favourite Phonogram scooped not one, but two awards – Best Single Issue for The Singles Club #4, “Konichiwa Bitches”, and Best Newcomer Artist for Jamie McKelvie, who shall of course now forever be known as The Belle & Sebastian Circa 1999 Of Comics.

Some four years after the first issue of Rue Britannia hit the stands, it’s great to see the comic finally get some seriously deserved wider recognition – and while Kieron and Jamie themselves are hardly in need of attention at the moment (as the incoming writer of Uncanny X-Men and the artist of short stories in Invincible Iron Man and Ultimate Spider-Man respectively), perhaps these wins and the creators’ growing fame will lead to a few more people picking up copies of the trade than otherwise might have. It’ll never be The Biggest Thing In Comics that it so clearly deserves to be, but if a more people manage to read it as a result of this, then it’s only a good thing. Congratulations, chaps!

Seb Patrick | 1st November, 2010

30 Days of Comics #2: A comic that made you laugh

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sword4I’ve always thought that the way comics work, it’s hard to execute a proper laugh-out-loud joke. The timing seems too difficult. As a medium, comics is unusual in that it’s very easy to read forwards and backwards from your current position, even peripherally, and that means you can potentially comprehend a punchline before you’ve even read the joke. It takes a special level of skill for a writer and artist to execute a joke as powerfully as any stand-up routine or sitcom, and when you combine that with the need to get all that right AND intersect with the reader’s sense of humour, the odds of getting genuine laughter drop even further.

Either way, there are a lot of comics with jokes that have made me smirk. Plenty that have elicited a small, internal chuckle. Loads that I’ve quoted or repeated because they were funny. But right now, only one springs which actually made me laugh, and that’s S.W.O.R.D. #4

Written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Stephen Sanders, S.W.O.R.D. was, as Gillen himself described it, “His Girl Friday, in space” – a sci-fi relationship comedy. Ostensibly, it span out of Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run and starred Beast and his girlfriend Agent Brand, a superhero comic disguised as as indie comic disguised as a superhero comic. It even co-starred Death’s Head, if you’re into that. Unfortunately, despite being one of the best Marvel comics of this/last year, it was only read by about 6 people. I don’t have full access to the economics, but I suspect it needed at least double that to survive.

The reason I remember that this comic, specifically, made me laugh is because of where I was when it happened. I was on the tube back home, after buying the week’s comics. Hunched up in the corner, working my way through my  pile and trying not to draw too many puzzling stares (which, as a 27-year-old reading comics on the train, is never easy) and then I go to the joke. And I laughed. Out loud. On the train. My cover was well and truly blown, and an entire carriage of people got the confirmation they needed that the reason I was reading comics on public transport was because I was, as they had suspected, mentally subnormal, because only someone mentally subnormal would be comfortable laughing that loud, to no-one but themselves, while on public transport. But I don’t care. In life, I’ll take a laugh over anything else (which, genuinely, has been a problem at funerals in the past).

I don’t want to spoil the joke itself, but suffice to say, in writing terms it was like watching Chekov’s gun being fired, only to discover that instead of a bullet, there was a little flag inside with the word “bang” on. And “bang” was deliberately mispelled. Not only did I not see the punchline coming, I didn’t even realise I was reading the lead-in until it was too late. The line, for those of you that know or have the issue, was “Stop everyone! We’ve made enormous mistake!”. The rest of you, do yourselves a favour and buy the collection. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read in years, and I mean that in the best possible way.

James Hunt | 2nd October, 2010

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