Friday 27 July 2012

Notes from the Small Press 13: First, by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia (Cabanon Press, 2001)

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

In the wake of yesterday's signed copy of British cartoonist Tom Gauld's graphic novel Goliath, let's take another short break from the signed editions to spend a moment or three on Gauld's debut self-published comic, presented as part of my intermittent Notes from the Small Press series:

First was Gauld and fellow cartoonist Simone Lia's first foray into the world of small press comics, published under their own Cabanon Press imprint in 2001. At the time, the two friends were still studying at the Royal College of Art in London, and both have gone on to bigger things – Gauld with his regular work for The Guardian newspaper and books for Buenaventura Press and Drawn & Quarterly, Lia with the graphic novels Fluffy and Please God! Find Me a Husband for Jonathan Cape. But First was the, well, first glimpse of their particular, peculiar talents, and as such proved instructive as to what was to come.

Lia's main contribution to First is an eight-page story (untitled, like all the stories in the comic) about a woman who develops "road leg" – basically her left leg turns into a road – featuring a walk-on cameo by a talking table lamp who appears earlier in the comic. It's as odd as it sounds, but infused with a wiggly charm which would serve her well in the later Fluffy. Other than that, her remaining pages are all single illustrations, snapshots from what look to be longer works, although ones which possibly only exist in her imagination. Gauld's strips alternate between the goings-on at a remote castle keep – these would become the comic Guardians of the Kingdom later in 2001 – and the adventures – or lack thereof – of two astronauts travelling to the Moon. His signature style is already firmly established even at this early stage in his career: fantastical situations punctured by mundane banter and punctuated by stretches of stillness.

As beguling as Gauld and Lia's cartoons in First are, however, what really made the thing stand out from the majority of British small press comics of the era – at least for me – were its production values. Professionally printed and bound in a minimalist rough card cover, First was a cut above much of the photocopied mini-comix fare to be found on the shelves of London's Gosh Comics (which is where I'm pretty sure I bought my copy) – a comic that was clearly, and correctly, pleased with and proud of itself. In a way, the blunt anti-humour of Gauld's strips in particular, but also Lia's to a degree, were quite at odds with the look feel of the comic overall. A comic as well-produced as this would typically be published by Americans, its interiors containing the kind of opaque art comix seen in, say, Kramers Ergot (which Gauld would in fact begin contributing to as of the 2005 fifth volume, sticking out – in a good way – like a sore thumb).

If anything, however, Gauld and Lia probably owe more to British daily newspaper strips and cartoons (and maybe American ones; Gary Larson springs to mind in Gauld's case), or perhaps even scabrous humour title Viz, than they do to alt. or art comix. Theirs is a sensibility more in tune with Monty Python's Flying Circus or Spike Milligan: gags that aren't really gags; jokes whose punchlines never come. In other words, very silly, and very, very British.

First was followed, surprisingly enough, by Second in 2002, the two comics then being collected by Bloomsbury in 2003 as – wait for it – Both. Gauld and Lia continued pumping out fun little mini-comix through Cabanon Press over the following eight years, although latterly other commitments have meant that Cabanon has gone on hiatus. But First provides a peek at two talented cartoonists at a formative stage in their career, and over a decade on from publication still stands as an intriguing and rewarding comic in its own right.

It's back to the signed editions next on Existential Ennui, with a political autobiography that was actually given to me by a friend, plus a selection of signed fiction...

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 7: The Comix Reader #1

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

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Thursday 26 July 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Goliath by Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly, 2012); Signed Edition

Back to the signed editions we go (after a Westlake Score), and following in the footsteps of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's The Coldest City, here's another signed graphic novel, again by a British comics creator, again published this year, and also boasting a little something in addition to a signature...

Tom Gauld's Goliath was published by Drawn & Quarterly back in February, and unless I'm very much mistaken, at around 90 pages it represents the longest narrative Gauld has yet attempted. It's a reworking of the Biblical story of David and Goliath, which is one of those Bible stories that made an indelible impression on me as a kid, chiefly because of the indelible impression David's sling-hurled stone made in Goliath's forehead. Gauld tells the tale from the perspective of Goliath, who, in Gauld's version, is instructed by his Philistine commanders to read out a script to the Israelites facing the Philistines on the battlefield, challenging the Israelites to send out a champion to fight Goliath. Which is what, after fainting in shock (Gauld portrays Goliath as a gentle, usually desk-bound sort), Goliath does, attended by his young shield-bearer – and then waits. And waits. And waits...

That's pretty much it, but the beauty of Goliath – the beauty of Gauld's work in general – comes not in the plotting, but in the way Gauld depicts the downtime of life, the everyday ennui of existence, those in-between periods that, in truth, far outweigh the more memorable moments. Goliath and his shield-bearer while away the time waiting for a response from the Israelites discussing the size of Goliath's "you-know-what", or the state of disrepair of Goliath's armour, or the king's impending birthday. Furthermore, far from being raring to ruck, Goliath seriously considers running away.

It's all quietly beguiling and charming in that typically Gauldian deadpan sort of way (see also the work of Norwegian cartoonist Jason), but there's something else going on here, too – a gradually increasing sense of dread – because we know, as Gauld knows we must, that his gentle giant's days are numbered. And when he eventually meets his fate, it's all the more shocking for what's come before, emphasized by a visual reference to a contemplative early scene at the water's edge near the Philistine encampment.

I picked up this copy of Goliath in Forbidden Planet in London, spending some time going through the stock of the graphic novel on their shelves to find just the right one. Because at bottom left of the half-title page, each book had been signed and individually and uniquely illustrated – and this is the one I went for:

Goliath, standing on a hillock under a starry sky, holding his spear.

I've been following Tom Gauld's work for over a decade now, ever since his first self-published comic, produced in conjunction with his friend from art college and fellow cartoonist, Simone Lia, and titled, appropriately enough, First. So, in a Notes from the Small Press break from the signed editions, I thought we could take a look at that comic in the next post...

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Westlake Score and Review: Murder Among Children (Mitch Tobin #2) by Tucker Coe, alias Donald E. Westlake (Souvenir Press, 1968)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Let's take a detour from the signed editions for the moment and return to the novels Donald E. Westlake wrote under the nom de plume Tucker Coe in the 1960s and '70s, all of which star disgraced former cop Mitchell Tobin. I reviewed the first of those, 1966's Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, a couple of weeks ago, adding its 1967 British Souvenir Press dust jacket – designed by S. R. Boldero – to my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, and I'll be doing the same with this latest Westlake Score: the scarce 1968 Souvenir Press first edition of the second Coe/Tobin book, Murder Among Children, which again features a striking Boldero cover, this time one that, to my knowledge, has never been seen online before...

Originally published in the States by Random House in 1967, Murder Among Children finds Mitch Tobin still at a loose end, still building his symbolic-but-also-quite-concrete wall around his back yard, still unwilling to rejoin the world a year on from inadvertently causing the death of his partner and consequently getting thrown off the force. Once again it's Mitch's wife, Kate, who urges him into action, this time to assist a female cousin, Robin, whose West Village coffee house is being targeted by a corrupt policeman. But when Mitch arrives at the coffee house, he finds Robin covered in blood and clutching a knife, and a dead man and woman in a room upstairs. And so, even more reluctantly, and at the behest of another of the coffee shop's owners, a young black man named Hulmer Fass (and at the behest of Kate), Mitch agrees to look into the crime, as the bodies begin piling up...

As with Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, one of the chief draws of Murder Among Children is the selection of interesting characters Westlake populates the story with. Hulmer Fass especially I found an agreeable companion – smart, witty and hip – as indeed does Mitch, for whom Hulmer becomes a kind of unofficial sidekick. And of course Mitch himself is as intriguing as before; although he does less soul-searching than in the first book, his powers of observation are as acute as ever, except coloured by his own situation and, let's face it, depression. At one point he watches Hulmer walking away down the street... 

...youthful, optimistic, humorous, bouncing on the balls of his feet, I found myself envying him in half a dozen different ways. I envied his youth, of course, and his optimism, and his humor, and I envied the absence of scars on his psyche that made the youth and optimism and humor possible. But beyond that I envied him for being young now, and black, and alive to the world in a way that I had not been for years, in a way that I perhaps had never been in my life.

That sense of the now (or rather the then-now) is evident throughout the book. Westlake paints a vivid picture of a New York sweltering under a summer heatwave: shirts drenched with sweat; the cooling relief of air conditioning. And there's an escalating tension, too, as Mitch has a brush with death on a tenement stairwell, and then towards the close of the novel becomes a suspect for the murders himself. In the end, he's offered an olive branch by a police captain, along with a glimmer of hope of a wiping clean of his slate, and even, perhaps, a return to his former life as a cop. But Mitch knows that's a delusion, and as in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, all he wants to do at the finish is get back to building his wall.

The back cover of the Souvenir Press edition of Murder Among Children carries British reviews of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, the fourth one down of which caught my eye. It's credited to the Oxford Mail, which means it's almost certainly by spy novelist Anthony Price, who, as he explained in the interview I conducted with him last year, was reviewing crime fiction for the Mail around this period. It's nice to find that an author for whom I have a great deal of respect enjoyed Westlake's work – even if he probably didn't know it was by Westlake – and makes me wonder if Price reviewed any others of Westlake's novels. And oddly enough, after Murder Among Children, in the 1970s the remaining three Mitch Tobin novels would be published in the UK by Gollancz – the same publisher that was home to Price's David Audley novels in the '70s and '80s.

S. R. Boldero's dust jacket for Murder Among Children has now joined his other wrappers in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – and I've another, lovelier Westlake wrapper waiting in the wings, this time from an earlier novel, penned under Westlake's own name, and which to my mind is one of the best things he ever wrote. Look out for that – and an attendant review – next week. Next though: it's back to the signed editions, with another graphic novel published this very year...

Tuesday 24 July 2012

The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart (Graphic Novel, Oni Press, 2012): Signed and Dedicated Edition

From a signed and dedicated (to me) copy of the Harvey Award-nominated Alan Moore: Storyteller, next in this series of posts on signed editions we turn to a signed and dedicated (again, to me... kind of...) copy of a graphic novel:

Published by Oni Press in May of this year, The Coldest City is British writer Antony Johnston and British expat artist Sam Hart's comics take on a John le Carré-style espionage novel. Set largely in Berlin just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it follows MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton as she's sent to the city to recover a list of names of every agent at large in the area, which has been lost following the death of a British spy. Once there, she's met by head of station David Percevel, an agent of the old school who objects to a woman being sent to "his" city, and who proves as obstructive as he is helpful. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and Lorraine is soon caught up in a web of intrigue and violence, with hidden agendas and double-crosses aplenty.

Johnston already had form with spy thrillers prior to The Coldest City: in 2005 he wrote a fine three issue miniseries spin-off from Greg Rucka's excellent Queen & Country comic (Queen & Country: Declassified), an experience which inspired him to pen more spy fiction. I believe I heard about The Coldest City via Double O Section, and given my passion for all things espionage, naturally I snapped a copy up from Dave's Comics in Brighton when it was published. But as I was paying for the graphic novel, the man behind the till mentioned that Antony would be signing copies at the shop that weekend, and if I left my copy, he'd sign my one.

So I left the book behind with a note of my name, and later tweeted Antony in an excitable fashion telling him I was looking forward to getting my signed copy – which prompted him to point out to me that in fact he would be signing the weekend after the one I'd been led to believe, and which in turn meant I wouldn't get to read the damn thing for nearly two weeks. Arse. However, I did discover that Antony was already familiar with Existential Ennui, and the delay gave me the opportunity to to pop back into Dave's and amend the note I left inside the graphic novel, with the net result that Mr. Johnston kindly scrawled this on the front endpaper:

There we have it: the first book ever to be dedicated to Existential Ennui. And I couldn't have asked for a more appropriate one either: it covers two areas of my interests – comics and spy fiction – and more importantly it's really rather good – low key, murkily evocative of the era, and with a nice twist in the tail.

And I've another signed graphic novel to showcase before moving on to some signed books of the non-comics variety – although there may well be a Westlake Score ahead of that...

Monday 23 July 2012

The Harvey Award-Nominated Alan Moore: Storyteller by Gary Spencer Millidge (Ilex Press, 2011): Signed and Dedicated Edition

Following on from that signed first edition of Jack Higgins's The Eagle Has Landed, I thought we could take a look at some of the other signed books I've acquired since this series of posts ended in September 2011 (although there have been one or two – actually make that three or four... or even five – signed editions in the interim). And let's begin with a book in which I myself had a hand, and which has recently been nominated for a Harvey Award:

Namely, Alan Moore: Storyteller, by Gary Spencer Millidge, a terrific tome which I edited it in my capacity as managing editor at Ilex Press in Lewes. I blogged about it in July of last year when it was published, but later that month we held a signing for the book at Gosh Comics in London (which moved premises shortly after; it's now on Soho's Berwick Street), attended by both Gary and Alan – and indeed by a few Ilex staffers, myself included. Under those circumstances, it would have been remiss off me not to get a copy signed for myself, which is precisely what I did:

Splendid stuff. As I mentioned above, Alan Moore: Storyteller was nominated for a Harvey Award a couple of weeks ago, the winners of said awards to be announced at the Baltimore Comic-Con on 8 September. Previously Ilex won a Harvey for Helen McCarthy's The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, and I reckon we're in with a shout of bagging another one for Alan Moore: Storyteller – assuming, of course, comics professionals – the ballot is only open to those who work within the comics industry – get off their bums and vote for the damn thing (needless to say, if you're a comics professional, I'd be eternally grateful if you could head to the Harvey Awards website and vote for the book before the ballot closes on 17 August).

Gary has blogged about how much it means to him to be nominated, to which I'd add that it means quite a lot to me too, for reasons I outlined in a post on the Ilex blog last year. I was fairly pleased with what I wrote back then, so, rather than go over the same ground again, I figured I might as well republish that post here on Existential Ennui, not only for posterity's sake but because it accurately – albeit somewhat prolixly – summarizes the impact Moore and his work has had on my life and, perhaps, gives some small indication of the passion and commitment that went into Alan Moore: Storyteller (not least from Gary). You can read the piece in full below, and I'll be back in a bit with some more signed editions – graphic novels, appropriately enough – and a Westlake Score-and-review...

. . . . . . . . . .

Alan Moore: Storyteller: A Dream of Flying

NB: Originally published on the Ilex Press blog, July 2011.

You might have noticed over the past few months that we’ve been blogging fairly relentlessly – incessantly, even – about a certain book named Alan Moore: Storyteller. We’ve posted an excerpt from fantasy legend Michael Moorcock’s foreword to the book; added a link to the book’s author, Gary Spencer Millidge’s own thoughts on Storyteller, and posted a series of clips of Mr. Millidge in conversation with Ilex’s own Tim Pilcher at May’s Bristol Comic Expo; got very excited about the internet buzz that’s been building on the book; got even more excited about the imminent signing session for the book at London’s Gosh! comic shop; and even, courtesy of Ilex’s Vasiliki Machaira, presented a quite startling art installation created out of proofs of the thing. And those are just some of the Moore missives we’ve posted in the run-up to publication this week; take a saunter through the rest of this blog for further entries.

The reason there’s been so much frantic Alan Moore activity on the Ilex blog is because, quite simply, Alan Moore: Storyteller is an extraordinary work, and an important book not just for Ilex but for the comics field in general. It’s the most comprehensive, most sumptuously illustrated authorized biography yet published on Alan Moore’s life and career. You’ll be able to see that for yourselves as it hits bookshop shelves and online retailers this week – both in the UK and, via Rizzoli, the US – and I could spend an eternity extolling its virtues, such as the surprising and intriguing CD of songs and performances by Moore and friends that accompanies the book; or the never-before-seen, unpublished V for Vendetta script included as a double-gatefold; or the little-seen, legendary Big Numbers chart, which details how that groundbreaking uncompleted series would have played out over its full twelve issues; or the behind-the-scenes family snaps and notebooks and sketches that Mr. Moore kindly made available to Gary; or, indeed, Gary’s words, which, with the aid of copious quotes from Alan, paint a vivid picture of the man behind such towering achievements as Watchmen, Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

But rather than do that, to celebrate the publication of Alan Moore: Storyteller, I thought I’d do something that readers of my personal books blog, Existential Ennui, have become more than familiar with; something that I find eminently easy to do; something, in fact – some would say ad infinitum, perhaps even ad nauseum – I never seem to tire of doing: I thought I’d talk about myself.

See, the publication of Alan Moore: Storyteller is, for me, the culmination of a decades-long love affair with Alan Moore’s comics. It’s a fascination that began nearly thirty years ago, in March 1982, when, without any kind of fanfare, a comics magazine called Warrior appeared in British newsagents. I can still recall the exact newsagent in which I purchased that first issue of Warrior: it was on Elmers End Road in Beckenham, south London; I think it’s still there – the newsagent, I mean, not the single copy of Warrior #1 that was sitting on its magazine racks; I bought that. With so many milestones in the comics medium since then – a good number penned by Mr. Moore himself – it’s easy to forget how revolutionary that first black-and-white issue of Warrior seemed. But revolutionary it was: an anthology comics title in the best tradition of British comics publishing, but quite unlike any seen before.

The garish cover of Warrior #1 was exciting enough. Drawn by Steve Dillon, it featured a cyborg with what looked like a meat cleaver on one arm; an incredibly sexy woman wielding a gigantic futuristic rifle; and a sidebar promising a sword-brandishing priest, a bizarre Guy Fawkes lookalike and a silhouetted superhero. Under that cover I was soon thrilling to the adventures of Axel Pressbutton and Laser Eraser, Father Shandor, Demon Stalker and Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s peerless V for Vendetta. I’d never seen anything like these comics tales, and was shaken to my twelve-year-old core by the mature, complex writing and artwork on display.

But the story that really blew my tiny young mind was the lead one, a short tale entitled “A Dream of Flying”. Written by Moore and illustrated by Garry Leach, in just eight pages it detailed the rebirth of a superhero of whom I’d never even heard. In the story, a tired, middle-aged newspaper journalist, Mike Moran, plagued by headaches and by unlikely dreams of being a super-powered hero, goes to cover the opening of a nuclear power plant in the Lake District. The event is hijacked by terrorists, and in the midst of the ensuing chaos Moran remembers a word he’s been trying to recall, a word that, for some reason, holds a strange significance for him. Uttering the word – “kimota” – he’s transformed in a blinding flash of light and a crack of thunder into a young, muscled man possessed of incredible abilities and dressed in a form-hugging costume. Besting the terrorists with a clap of his hands, he bursts through the roof of the facility and rockets into space, shouting out his now-remembered name: “I’m Marvelman… I’m back!”

What was remarkable about this story was how real it all seemed. To a twelve-year-old kid raised on the larger-than-life, bombastic adventures of Spider-Man, Moore’s naturalistic dialogue and poetic captions and Leach’s meticulous, wonderfully authentic artwork were a revelation. Prior to reading that first instalment of Marvelman – eventually published in colour as Miracleman in the States – the edgiest comics I’d come across were those contained in the weekly sci-fi anthology 2000 AD. Indeed, I’d doubtless already read some of Moore’s other work in that title, without his name having properly registered.

But “A Dream of Flying” was something else. The first page of the story, showing the terrorists driving towards the nuclear plant in a lorry, remains for me the single page that paved the way to discovering a more grown-up, more nuanced style of comics storytelling. Essentially, all that first page of “A Dream of Flying” is is two blokes bantering in the cab of a truck. But more than the visual spectacle that followed, more than the bullets bouncing off Marvelman’s raised hand, moreso even than the image of him circling the Earth at the close of the episode, for me that one page opened up the possibilites of the comics form: just two men, talking rubbish, the one a bit alarmed by the other, in a manner that was all the more astonishing for how low key and… ordinary it was.

Alan Moore would go on to craft infinitely more elegant stretches of dialogue, countless sentences and scenes that, examined with an older, more critical eye, far surpass the nascent, occasionally awkward stylings of his debut episode of Marvelman. But “A Dream of Flying” – and particularly that first page – will always be special to me. Despite the fact that it was a story about a superhero, it was my gateway to comics that weren’t about superheroes – comics like Fast Fiction, or Escape, or Eightball, or such future Moore masterpieces as Swamp Thing and From Hell – and a doorway to the names behind those comics, to creators who had little to do with the superhero genre: Eddie Campbell, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware; hundreds of others. It was the story that would, in time, lead to me working in the comics and graphic novels industry myself – first at Titan Books, now at Ilex – and then eventually, inexorably, to my editing Alan Moore: Storyteller, a book of which I am immensely proud.

Whether Alan Moore: Storyteller would have appeared if I hadn’t come to work at Ilex, I really couldn’t say. (Yeah, OK Tim: it probably would have.) But what I can say for certain is that without Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s “A Dream of Flying”, I wouldn’t have ended up editing Alan Moore: Storyteller. And so in a way – at least for me – a near-thirty year circle is now…