Friday 14 January 2011

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1 – A Review

Actually, in fairness, this latest instalment in this series of posts about small press comics should really be titled Notes from the Rather Large Press. Because The Comix Reader, the first issue of which landed in shops at the tail end of 2010, had a print run of 9,000. And not only that, it's a good fifteen inches tall and nearly twelve wide. That's pretty big in my book.

The brainchild of Richard Cowdry, the man behind intermittent anthology The Bedsit Journal, The Comix Reader is a bold attempt to bring the kinds of left field, underground comics found in small press titles to a wider audience. As such, and without even addressing whether it's any good or not, it's to be applauded, standing, perhaps even with some cheering mixed in. Cowdry and co. have taken a big punt here – he and the other comics creators herein financed The Comix Reader out of their own pockets – and I hope it pays off for them, all the more so because not only is it a brave thing to be doing in The Current Climate – indeed Any Climate so far as the notoriously cautious and conservative comics audience goes – but the stuff between the covers – and on the cover – is really rather good.

Cowdry's editorial approach is to give each artist a page on which to do whatever they please, in full colour – or black and white if they so choose – so the comic strips vary wildly. Even so, there are themes and styles that can be identified.

Some of the cartoonists demonstrate a familiarity and an affinity with British boys' comics, specifically humour titles like The Beano and The Dandy. (I'm sure the fact that The Comix Reader is printed on newsprint enhances that perception.) Cowdry himself is very much in that school, except he warps that British tradition through his observational approach and psychological and emotional quirks and preoccupations – his two pages of four-panel strips runs the gamut from self-obsession to social faux pas. Alongside him stand the likes of Lawrence Elwick and Paul O'Connell (with a nice bit of Harold Lloyd-style slapstick), Hurk, Alex Potts, and Paul Brown. Saban Kazim's "Just Go Straight" on the back cover may owe something to that tradition too, but either way his extended slice-of-life gag, starring a maniacal kebab shop owner, made me smile.
More recognizable as art comix are Tobias Tak, Kat Kon, Gareth Brookes – whose beautiful illustrative page features poetry-spouting dickiebirds, done in a style that reminded me of Anders Nilsen – and alt. comix queen Ellen Lindner, whose sublime, spot-on "Festival Fashion Throwdown" pits cosplay nerdfest MCM Expo attendees against uber-cool indie types from seaside holiday camp festival All Tomorrow's Parties. Alongside, or perhaps outside(r), those, are Tim Levin, Jimi Gherkin and Peter Lally, all of whom, either in approach or temperament, wander far enough away from the norm to make themselves notable.
And there's still more besides. I really liked Bird's comic about impending death by comet, a beguiling mixture of Mr Ben/children's storybook-style drawing and unexpected introspection. I also liked Steve Tillotsen's elliptical trip to the zoo, as undertaken by a Neon Genesis Evangelion Angel and a man-cat – shades of Trondheim in that one, I reckon.
Quite honestly, there wasn't much I didn't like in The Comix Reader. It is, at £1, bloody good value for money. And as well as being, as I said near the beginning of this post, an experiment well worth supporting, it's also, like Fast Fiction Presents: The Elephant of Surprise and Small Pets before it, a useful snapshot of the UK small press scene at the moment. There really is no reason not to pick it up next time you're in a comic shop. So do.
Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery 

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist 

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Thursday 13 January 2011

From the Lewes Book Fair: Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown True First Editions)

And so we heave a sigh of relief as we reach the final missive in this heretofore seemingly endless series of posts about the Lewes Book Fair, which by now feels not so much recent as decidedly dim and distant. But no matter, cos after this, we is done. And to provide a suitably happy finish – or should that be an unsuitably happy finish, given the dark nature of the novels in question (or maybe a suitably unhappy finish? An unsuitably, unhappy finish? Oh whatever) – we have not one book, but two:

A UK hardback first edition/first printing of Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead, published by Little, Brown in 2001, and:

A UK hardback first edition/first printing of Billingham's Scaredy Cat, published again by Little, Brown, this time in 2002. I've been meaning to give Billingham a go since we included Sleepyhead in 500 Essential Cult Books, so when I saw these going fairly cheap at the Fair, I figured I might as well grab 'em. They are, of course, Billingham's first and second novels, both featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, recently played by David Morrissey in the Sky One telly show Thorne. Which, true to form, I missed completely. But no matter, because now I can read the novels instead. (UPDATE: I've since seen the TV show, too; you can read my reviews here and here, and see a brief comment from Mr. Billingham himself here.)

It's well known that, aside from being a crime fiction author, Billingham is also a stand-up comedian and comedy writer. But what I didn't know, and which to me is much, much more interesting, is that he's also an avid collector of first editions, in particular of crime fiction (as revealed in this Shots magazine interview). And true firsts at that, i.e. the first edition and first printing of a book in the country of origin (hence that sly reference in brackets in the title of this post). So he's a fellow book nerd – albeit one who's graduated to being an author himself. He'd hopefully appreciate my Dennis Lehane signed true firsts, then. And I bet this blurb on the back flap of Scaredy Cat from George Pelecanos gave him a buzz (perhaps even a happy finish...): "Mark Billingham has brought a rare and welcome blend of humanity, dimension, and excitement to the genre and earned an instant seat at the top table of crime novelists."

There are no dustjacket design credits on either Sleepyhead or Scaredy Cat, but the cover photo on the former is credited to James Harris, who, if I've got the right man, lists among his clients Faber & Faber, Penguin, Mute Records, The Guardian and the V&A.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

From the Lewes Book Fair: The John Wyndham Omnibus feat. The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids (Michael Joseph, 1964)

Are we bored of these posts about the books I bought at the recent Lewes Book Fair yet? Well, tough. And anyway, we're nearly done now: there's only one more to come after this one. And anyway, er, again, I've been saving the best till last. Or maybe second-to-last, because I think this next one is my favourite Fair find:

It's a UK hardback first edition/first impression of the very first (that's a lot of firsts; ooh, look, there's another one) John Wyndham Omnibus, published in 1964 by Michael Joseph. As you can see from the front cover, it comprises Wyndham's first (oh enough with the firsts already) three novels – or rather, the first (sigh) three under that particular name; he had four novels published variously under the names John Beynon and John Beynon Harris before that (Wyndham's full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris – there's an excellent piece on his early writing here). The copyright line inside the Omnibus has the dates 1951 (which would be The Day of the Triffids), 1953 (The Kraken Wakes), 1955 (The Chrysalids) and 1964 (the Omnibus itself).

I have read The Day of the Triffids, and the later The Midwich Cuckoos, both of which are darn fine novels. I also have a fondness for the 1981 BBC Television adaptation of The Day of the Triffids – although the 2009 version should be avoided at all costs. But I've always wanted to read The Kraken Wakes in particular, and first (now, come on, let's not start that nonsense again) editions of that being a little pricey, this Omnibus, which cost me fifteen quid at the Fair (less than half what you'd pay online), and which is in cracking condition, will do just fine. Not least because I really like the dustjacket on it, which was designed by Eric Ayers, who also designed covers for the Weidenfeld & Nicolson first (gah!) UK edition of Nabokov's Lolita (scroll down in that link to see the correct cover) and for Buster Lloyd-Jones's The Animals Came in One by One. And not only that, but he designed the typography for the 1970 David Hockney-illustrated edition of Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.

So there you go. That leaves just one more post to come in this Lewes Book Fair series. Although that post will actually feature two books...

Tuesday 11 January 2011

From the Lewes Book Fair: Deadline by Thomas B. Dewey (T.V. Boardman / Denis McLoughlin Dustjacket)

For this third post on the books I bagged at Saturday's Lewes Book Fair, we have a novel that, like the Dennis Wheatley one featured in the previous post (which, incidentally, now has a comment on it from Wallace Stroby directing interested parties to some ace BBC audio and video pieces on Wheatley), I bought for two quid:

It's the UK hardback first edition of Thomas B. Dewey's Deadline, published by T.V. Boardman in 1967 (originally published in the States by Simon & Schuster in 1966). An American author of hard-boiled crime fiction, Dewey isn't widely remembered today, but he wrote around forty novels over the course of his career, comprising two series and a bunch of standalone works. One of those series stars a private eye named Pete Schofield; the Rough Edges blog has a post on that series here. The other series features another P.I., simply called Mac; the Vintage Hardboiled Reads blog has a post about that series, to which Deadline belongs, here. But for a more complete guide to Dewey, allow me to send you to this Killer Covers essay, which contains all sorts of titbits about the man, and which saves me the effort of doing any more of my own research. Thank you, Killer Covers blog. God I love the internet.

In that Killer Covers post, J. Kingston Pierce picks out Deadline as one of the better Mac stories. It's the twelfth book in the series; the blurb in the book tells us:

Peter Davidian sits in the state prison, awaiting execution for the mutilation murder of a young small-town girl. Because of the horrifying nature of the crime all appeals have failed. Mac, the Chicago private eye, is hired by a group of do-gooders in a last desperate effort to save the boy from the chair. He goes to the small town where he finds no clues, no leads, no help. What he does find is a hostile town, a town that wants blood.

Sounds good to me.

T.V. Boardman didn't publish all of the Mac novels in the UK, but they did publish a good number of them (along with other Dewey novels), all with dustjackets designed by the great Denis McLoughlin, who's cropped up a few times on Existential Ennui. His cover for Deadline is one of the more provocative of his I've seen, and unusually is essentially photographic in nature; McLoughlin did sometimes incorporate photographs into his illustrations, as with his jacket for Donald E. Westlake's The Busy Body, but I've never come across one that's basically just a photo with type. By the looks of it the photo of the girl's strung-up legs was clipped from another source then pasted into the design. Wonder where it came from originally...?

Monday 10 January 2011

From the Lewes Book Fair: The Prisoner in the Mask by Dennis Wheatley (Hutchinson First Edition)

Next in this series of posts on the books that I did buy at Saturday's Lewes Book Fair, we have this:

A 1957 UK hardback first edition of The Prisoner in the Mask by Dennis Wheatley, published by Hutchinson. I picked this up for a few reasons. For one, I really liked the dustjacket, which is by an artist called Sax, about whom I know next to nothing, other than he painted a number of covers for Wheatley's novels and that he did a lot of work for Hammond; there's a partial list of his covers here. Sax also created the rather smashing endpapers for The Prisoner in the Mask – the kind of elaborate ends you just don't get on novels anymore:

For another, Wheatley is one of those thriller writers who's fallen out of fashion but whose novels you see everywhere if you're any kind of second hand book hound. He was phenomenally successful in his day, selling in the multiples of millions, his novels ranging from historical thrillers to contemporary suspense and the occult (his most famous books is probably The Devil Rides Out). The press blurbs on the back flap of The Prisoner in the Mask – which is part of his historical series starring the Duc de Richleau; it's actually a prequel featuring the young Duke – are a testament to the high regard he was held in:

"The prince of thriller-writers" – Times Literary Supplement
"Public thriller-writer No. 1" – Observer
"The most successful adventure-writer of our time" – Daily Mail

He was also a fascinating man, as this profile on the Dennis Wheatley Website reveals (that site also has an extensive bibliography). Apart from anything else he was responsible for introducing the population of Britain to many aspects of the occult – or at least his interpretation of them: the Fortean Times has a lengthy article about his influence.

And my final reason for buying the book was, it was so bloody cheap. Two quid for a first edition was, frankly, irresistible – that's less than you'd pay for postage on a book ordered off the internet. The Lewes Book Fair (indeed all book fairs) always has a selection of stalls selling dead cheap books, which is yet another reason why book fairs are worth popping along to. Often the books are jumbled up on shelves, so you have to sift through a lot of crap to find the gold, but it can be worth it; I found a similarly-priced Ross Thomas first edition at the previous Lewes Book Fair. And the next book I'll be blogging about from Saturday's Fair was just as much of a bargain...

Sunday 9 January 2011

From the Lewes Book Fair: A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (Heinemann First Edition)

I mentioned on Friday that the Lewes Book Fair was on this weekend – Saturday to be exact – and that I might end up with a book or two to blog about as a result. But as it turned out I came away with a bulging bag full of the buggers (and as a consequence slightly did me back in, pathetic weakling that I am)... and then bought another one down the road in one of Lewes's antique shops – where, incidentally, an episode of Bargain Hunt was being filmed at the same time, two teams of blue and red sweatshirt-wearing fogies and attendant camera crews/ producers/assistants periodically trapping us in the establishment's labyrinthine crannies. And not only that, but local thesp/comic Mark Williams was in Bill's Produce Store/Cafe buying some oranges. It's all go in Lewes...

Anyway, run by the Paws & Claws Animal Rescue Service (n'awww), the Lewes Book Fair takes place five times a year in Lewes's Town Hall, and it's always busy, both with hardcore bibliophiles hunting for elusive volumes and chewing the fat with dealers (or indeed, as was the case with one conversation I gatecrashed, discussing the relative merits of Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes), and with the more casual browser and curious passerby. There's usually a good selection of everything from local history to military and naval tomes, children's books, art books, ephemera and fiction, but prices range all over the shop, from the ridiculously overpriced to the ridiculously cheap. Keep your wits about you and you can certainly pick up a bargain; get too overexcited and you can end up spending way too much on something you'll find a lot cheaper online.

By way of example, here's one book wot I bought at the Fair (I'll be blogging about the others over the course of the coming week, you lucky people you):

That is the UK hardback first English edition of Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, published by Heinemann in 1961 (it was originally published – in Swedish – by Norstedt and Soner in 1960). According to the blurb on the dustjacket flap:

The background of Mr. Greene's new novel is Africa – not the Africa of The Heart of the Matter but the Belgian Congo. A stranger arrives at a leper village there. He has come from Europe, out of a past that no one knows, with what object no one knows. The river boat goes no further is his only explanation. As the story progresses the reader begins to feel a relationship between the stranger and the lepers. A leper who is cured has sometimes gone first through the stage of mutilation – he is known then as a 'burnt-out case'; the stranger too has gone through the stage of mutilation: of the mind in his case, not of the body. His sickness is approaching a cure when the small white world of the Congo province discovers his identity...

There's a contemporaneous New York Times review here, a more recent blog review here, and you can read Greene himself on the novel here.

The rather lovely dustjacket – which is by Lacey Everett, whose decorative designs also adorned novels by Aldous Huxley (the 1964 Penguin edition of Island) and John Steinbeck (the 1961 Heinemann edition of The Winter of Our Discontent) – isn't, as you can see, in the best condition, but it's virtually complete, still fairly bright, and not price-clipped. The case and book, meanwhile, are both very good, with just the slightest hint of foxing on the edges of the otherwise cream pages. I paid £7.50 for this one, which I reckon was a good price, even given the condition of the wrapper. But just yards away, on another stall, a very similar copy was on sale for the rather more eye-watering sum of £180. So you see how a person can get stung if they're not careful...

A last aside: I remember Book Glutton left a comment on a post ages ago about how Greene used to divide his canon into 'novels' – i.e. what he considered to be his more serious and worthy efforts – and 'entertainments'. What I didn't realise was that his works were categorised as such even in his own books, as the page on the left here demonstrates:

I was thinking of introducing a similar system on Existential Ennui, but then I remembered that virtually nothing I write is ever serious, or worthy, or indeed terribly entertaining, so that was that.