Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Michael Frayn: Signed First Edition of Now You Know (Viking, 1992) and Unsigned Programme for Noises Off (1982)

Returning once more to the signed books I've bought over the past... year? Two years? I must admit I've lost track of when exactly I bought some of these books, including this one:

Now You Know by Michael Frayn, published in hardback by Viking in 1992 (jacket illustration by David Hughes), although I do know where I bought it: in Lewes secondhand bookshop A & Y Cumming. Frayn has signed and dedicated this first edition – to an "Austin" it looks like to me – on the title page:

and put a line through his own name, which is something some authors do when signing books (my first of Michael Dibdin's Ratking is similarly adorned). There's an abundance of signed Frayn first editions on AbeBooks, but at time of writing fewer than half a dozen of those are signed firsts of Now You Know, and only three are the Viking first, the cheapest of which being thirty quid. Whereas I paid half that. Mind you, I have my doubts as to whether Now You Know will really be up my alley. Towards the End of the Morning (1967), Frayn's third novel, topped my 2012 end-of-year ten best books list, but the reviews of Now You Know – his eighth novel – I've seen online are a little mixed; this contemporaneous Independent one by D. J. Taylor is indicative. Plus I recently read another Frayn novel, his 1965 debut, The Tin Men, which, while I liked it, wasn't the equal of Towards the End of the Morning.

I'll be writing about The Tin Men in my next post, but before I get to that, I thought I'd showcase something else Michael Frayn-related that I've somehow managed to acquire somewhere along the way, although where, how and why now escapes me. As well as being a novelist Frayn is of course also a celebrated playwright, perhaps his best known play being his 1982 comedy Noises Off. But I've only ever seen the 1992 Peter Bogdanovich-directed Michael Caine-starring film adaptation of Noises Off (which I rather like), which is why I'm slightly mystified as to why I own this:

A programme for the 1982 production of Noises Off at the Savoy Theatre. I can't imagine I paid any money for the thing; the only time I can ever recall going to the Savoy Theatre was to see the Pet Shop Boys in 1997 (with my mum), and as for the programme possibly being collectible, which is the only other reason I can think of for possessing it, it's not signed by Frayn or the cast or indeed anyone at all, and this production of Noises Off wasn't even the first – it originally ran earlier in 1982 at the Lyric Theatre – so I'd be surprised if it had any value. But own it I do, and I suppose it might be of passing interest to any similarly passing not to mention highly hypothetical theatrical historians, and so I've scanned a selection of spreads for posterity. No need to thank me.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Notes from the Small Press 17: The Battle of Lewes Comic by Peter Cole and Annabel Cole, 2014

If Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live and work, has a thriving small press comics scene – or any small press comics scene at all for that matter – I must admit it's rather passed me by in the six years since I moved down here from London. That's not to say such a thing doesn't exist; I just haven't seen any evidence of it on sale in any of Lewes' shops. Or should I say almost any evidence; because there is this:

The Battle of Lewes: Showdown at the Windmill, a sixteen-page minicomic written, drawn and published by Peter Cole and coloured by his nonagenarian mother Annabel (Peter is colour blind)... although I'm not sure one man and his mum really constitutes a scene as such. But anyway, initially serialized in local newspaper the Sussex Express, The Battle of Lewes was put together by Peter and his mater as part of the celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes, which took place on 14 May, 1264 – the battle that is, not the celebrations, which have been taking place all this year – and led to the establishment of Britain's first representative parliament. Quite an important event in our island's history, then, as I only learned for the first time when I was reading a flyer for the Medieval Mayhem Festival which took place at the site of the Battle of Lewes, Landport Bottom, at the start of May.

Narrated in flashback by John Bevis, the man who during the battle captured King Henry III's brother Richard – the Earl of Cornwall, German King and "King of the Romans" – the comic is packed with incident and detail in regard to how events unfolded, from troop movements prior to the conflict to the taunts thrown at Richard as he took shelter in the eponymous windmill ("Are you a king or a miller?") to the gory aftermath of the battle. It's a remarkable and seemingly remarkably accurate document; a little wordy in places – one or two of the word balloons have to be seen to be believed – but necessarily so given the limited space, and Peter's charmingly outsider-ish artwork is very much in keeping with the small press comics sensibility – unintentionally, I suspect; according to this Sussex Express article he was inspired by the Eagle, not the small press scene.

Peter's amateur approach to comics storytelling – not a criticism, by the way; for me his non-professional style is why his comic works – also, I think, betrays his inexperience with the medium. Because splendid though The Battle of Lewes is, Peter's true vocation isn't as a comics creator but as a creator of plastic figurines. Under the company name Replicants and working out of a Lewes shop basement Peter makes unpainted limited edition historical and military figures, with lines devoted to the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Wild West and more besides. There's a gallery of some of the figures painted by collectors at the Replicants site, and there's an interview with Peter at Lewes Arts, in which he explains a bit more about what he does.

As for The Battle of Lewes comic, I got my copy from Lewes Tourist Information a month or two back, and apparently copies were also available in the Lewes Castle Museum shop and a few other Lewes emporiums, but I'm afraid I haven't done a recce to see if there are any left. Anyone who knows if it can still be had, leave a comment.

Since I'm on the subject of Lewes, I think I'll showcase a signed book bought in a Lewes bookshop next.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

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

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7 by Martin Eden

Notes from the Small Press 16: Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice by Mike Carey, Peter Gross et al (Vertigo, 2013): Signed Graphic Novel

I noted towards the end of Friday's review of Lucifer – an obscure 1990 three-issue comics miniseries by Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott and Paul Grist – that there was a rather better-known comic titled Lucifer which ran from the late-1990s until the mid-2000s and had its origins in a character created by Neil Gaiman – who, not entirely coincidentally, I'd been blogging about earlier that week (and the week before). Published by DC Comics/Vertigo, this more famous Lucifer was written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross (for the most part; Scott Hampton, Chris Weston, Dean Ormston and inker Ryan Kelly also pitched in), and it remains, I think, my favourite among all the comics series that I've ever read (which is quite a lot), an extended metaphysical meditation on the tensions between free will and predestination, between fathers and sons, and between sons and siblings, with a memorably towering shit – the Devil, essentially – as its leading man. (Evidently I have a thing for towering shits; my second-favourite comics series is Matt Wagner's Grendel, while my favourite novel series is Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad, closely followed by Richard Stark's Parker series.) 

Lucifer came to an end in August 2006, but Carey and Gross teamed up again for another Vertigo series in 2009, The Unwritten – since retitled as it heads into its final furlong as The Unwritten: Apocalypse – which is an exploration of the power of stories and how they can shape the world – or even undo it if the final apocalyptic volume is anything to go by – starring one Tom Taylor, who as a boy was the inspiration for his father Wilson's Harry Potter-like series of novels. For me The Unwritten hasn't quite scaled Lucifer's lofty heights – possibly because its lead isn't a towering shit (although he can be a bit of a sod at times) – but I do enjoy it, and last year it reached a kind of creative crescendo in the form of this:

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, a standalone hardcover graphic novel written by Carey with layouts by Gross and finishes and colours by – deep breath – Kurt Higgins, Al Davison, Russ Braun, Shawn McManus, Dean Ormston, Gary Erskine, Zelda Devon, Chris Chuckry, Eva de la Cruz and Jeanne McGee (cover by regular series cover artist Yuko Shimizu). It tells two stories: the fictional-fictional origin of young Tommy Taylor, the boy wizard, and how he inherited his power; and the merely fictional origin of the flesh-and-blood Tom Taylor, and the bizarre and heartless methods Wilson Taylor employed to turn his son into almost a weapon of words. It's engrossing and visually appealing and rather a lovely thing to behold altogether. (That's foil blocking there on the cover. Mmm... foil...)

I bought my copy in my local comic shop, Dave's Comics in Brighton, who must have had a signing for the book at some point, because Mike Carey has scrawled his signature on the front free endpaper:

Which makes this a nice addition to my bijou collection of signed graphic novels – see also, among others, the signed copies of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City: Confession and Eddie Campbell's How to Be an Artist from earlier in this run of comics-related posts. And I'll be showcasing some more signed novels – this time of the non-graphic variety, of which I have a collection which is far from bijou – very soon, after one last comics-related post.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Eddie Campbell, Phil Elliott and Paul Grist's Lucifer (Trident Comics, Three Issue Miniseries, 1990)

Speaking of Eddie Campbell and the 1980s British small press comics scene – as I was, after a fashion (I was writing, not speaking), earlier in the week – coincidentally I recently retrieved this from a box in the loft:

Lucifer, a three-issue miniseries written by Mr. Campbell, drawn by his small press compatriots Phil Elliott (#1) and Paul Grist (#2–3), and published by short-lived British comics publisher Trident Comics in 1990. As Eddie himself notes on his (sadly dormant) blog, Lucifer was originally conceived for a different short-lived British comics publisher, Harrier Comics (who published lots of other comics by Campbell, Elliott, Grist and other small press stalwarts like Glenn Dakin and John Bagnall), in the late-1980s but the comic didn't get off the ground before Harrier folded. Trident did manage to publish all three issues – and a trade paperback collection – and at some point I evidently bought them – retrospectively, as back issues; I'd largely drifted away from comics by 1990 (I rediscovered them in about 1997/8) – and stowed them in a comic box.

What's interesting to me about the miniseries reading it now is how it could quite easily have been published as a photocopied small press title in the mid-1980s, sitting on the Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Comic Mart alongside all the other such minicomix (at least to my mind). It has the same freewheeling seat-of-the-pants feel as, say, Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise, a "jam" minicomic from 1986 which acted as a kind of who's who snapshot of British small press creators in the mid-1980s, among them Eddie Campbell and Phil Elliott. Lucifer taps into that same sort of "make-it-up-as-you-go-along" energy, an approach to storytelling that was almost the hallmark of the British small press scene, or at least felt like it was; whether or not the comics were in fact tightly plotted I couldn't say.

In the case of Lucifer, the story follows the eponymous lead, "the fallen angel of biblical fame", who wears a suit of feathers "symbolic of my former glory". Hospitalised after having been run over in the street, Lucifer gets chatting to the bloke in the next bed along, who, it transpires, has a carbuncle on the end of his nose which is actually the gateway to Hell. Once the carbuncle has been removed in surgery Lucifer steals it and gains access to Hell, where he usurps Satan, assumes control of the Stygian realm and then effects an invasion of Earth, which entails him embarking on a brief career in television.

I'm not sure I've really done the thing justice there; it's about ten times more entertainingly befuddling than that synopsis implies, wending its illogical way to a suitably slapstick fisticuffs finale. Certainly it's a far cry from the rather better known Lucifer comic, the one published by DC/Vertigo from the late-1990s until the mid-2000s, written by Mike Carey and illustrated for the most part by Peter Gross and featuring as its lead the version of Lucifer created by Neil Gaiman – who, oddly enough, popped up not only in the previous Eddie-Campbell-featuring post but the one before that – on the newly published The Art of Neil Gaiman by Eddie's daughter, Hayley Campbell – and the one before that as well – on a signed hardback of Astro City: Confession – back at the start of July. And to further extend the interlinking synchronicity of this month's posts, next I'll be taking a look at a signed graphic novel by the aforementioned Mike Carey and Peter Gross.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hayley Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman and Eddie Campbell's How to Be an Artist: Signed First Editions (and a Launch Party)

NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup, 18/7/14.

Well it would've been remiss of me, I feel, having spent three or four years editing Hayley Campbell's fine illustrated biography The Art of Neil Gaiman – which publishes in the UK this week from The Ilex Press – not to get Hayley to sign and inscribe a copy to me. Which is precisely what I did at the book's launch party at Gosh! Comics in London on Friday:

The cock, by the way, was a request – kind of; Hayley had mentioned to me that she'd drawn one in a friend's copy of the book ("Three pubes per ball," she noted. "Classic") so naturally I demanded she do one for me as well. And a fine specimen it is too.

My copy of The Art of Neil Gaiman was just one among many that Hayley signed at the launch; Gosh! photographer Mauricio Molizane de Souza took some pictures of Hayley in action:

and of the crowd in general:

No idea who that gesticulating idiot in the flowery shirt in the background is, but partially hidden behind Hayley is Amazing15's Martin Stiff, who designed the book (the other half of Amazing15, Marcus Scudamore, can be seen far left looking faintly suicidal at having to listen to the aforementioned flowery-shirted idiot), while talking to Hayley is Pádraig Ó Méalóid, who gave notes on Hayley's manuscript, and to his right erstwhile Ilex commissioning editor Tim Pilcher, whose idea the book was. Also at the launch were these folk:

On the right Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote the foreword to the book, and in the middle Hayley's dad, cartoonist Eddie Campbell, whose collaboration with Neil Gaiman, The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains – a performance of which I caught at the Barbican the Friday before (Hayley did a brief Q&A onstage with her dad and Neil at the end) – features in the book. I've mentioned Eddie in passing on Existential Ennui once or twice before; he's one of the most important cartoonists this country has produced (although he emigrated to Australia thirty years ago), indeed one of the most important to ever have worked in the medium. He's probably best known for From Hell, his collaboration with Alan Moore, but his own comics are as good and in many cases even better, drawing on his own life (literally) to create a beguiling mix of autobiography and philosophy. My favorite of his works is How to Be an Artist (The King Canute crowd runs it a close second), which was originally serialized in the anthology comic Dee Vee in the late-1990s and then collected and expanded into this edition:

which was published under Eddie's own eponymous imprint in 2001. It's a rich, wry, affecting take on how a person might choose to become an artist – in this case a comics one – commit to live as an artist and try to make a living as an artist (or not, as the case may be) and how fate has a habit of intervening in all of those things when you least expect it. But more than that it's an evocation of a particular time and scene, one that I still recall vividly and with great fondness: the British comics scene of the 1980s and early 1990s, especially the bit that grew out of the Fast Fiction/Escape small press scene, which Eddie was a part of. I first encountered Eddie's work in various small press anthologies – not least Fast Fiction and Escape – in the mid-1980s (when I was in my mid-teens) bought from the Fast Fiction table at the Westminster Comic Mart, and that formative aspect of his career weaves through the narrative of How to Be an Artist, for me lending the enterprise an additional sentimental appeal.

Anyway, knowing that Eddie was going to be at the launch party for Hayley's book I took along my copy of How to Be an Artist in the hope that Eddie might sign it. In the event he did more than that:

He drew a portrait of himself as well, opposite the similar portrait of a much younger Eddie Campbell on the facing page. It perhaps doesn't have quite the same impact as Hayley's cock, but I shall treasure it equally.

Gosh! Comics launch photos © Mauricio Molizane de Souza.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Reblogged: The Extraordinarily Long Life of Hayley Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman (Ilex Press, 2014)

NB: This post first appeared at the Ilex Press blog – earlier today, in fact. I'm re-posting it here for posterity and because I figured it might be of interest to one or two Existential Ennui readers. And thank you to Patti Nase Abbott for linking from this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

When you're editing illustrated books, the production lives of the books that you work on can vary dramatically. Some books fly by seemingly in the blink of an eye: the author starts work, they deliver the material, it gets checked/edited/designed/proofread etc. and the book goes off to print, all in the space of a couple of months (I'm looking at you, Jake Spicer's Draw Cats in 15 Minutes). Other books have a slightly more sensible production life – typically about about a year in illustrated book circles, from when the book is green-lit to when it hits the warehouse. Still others require a longer lead time – books like Gary Spencer Millidge's Alan Moore: Storyteller, say, or Helen McCarthy's The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga – books where the amount of research required, not just in terms of the text but in sourcing images as well, necessitates a schedule longer than twelve months.

And then there's Hayley Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman.

The original idea for Hayley's book, which is just about to publish in the UK (it's been out in the States from Harper Design for a month or so), dates back to 2010. Ilex had published the aforementioned The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga in 2009, and Alan Moore: Storyteller was heading for publication in 2011, and we were pondering which other creators of a similar stature and with a similar background in comics – but who had like Tezuka and Moore made an indelible mark on the wider cultural stage – we could biographise in a similarly visual manner. Naturally Neil Gaiman was at the top of our list. How Hayley came on board as author Hayley herself reveals in this interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, and erstwhile Ilex commissioning editor (and British comics legend) Tim Pilcher details the origins of the book over at his blog, so there's little point in my going over the same ground here. Suffice it to say that The Art of Neil Gaiman was eventually green-lit as a project in spring 2011.

Three years later, it finally exists as a printed book.

I must admit I struggle to think of another book that I've edited in my ten-plus years in book publishing that's taken quite the length of time that The Art of Neil Gaiman has. (Matter of fact, it's taken longer than the entire lives of some of the magazines I edited in my prior ten-plus years in magazine publishing.) The reasons for that are many and varied, but a good many of them were to do with the number of people involved. There was Hayley, obviously, and her agent; Neil and his agent; a variety of folk at HarperCollins in the US, including Neil's editor over there; DC Comics and sundry other image rights-holders; Ilex's executive publisher, Roly Allen; and on the creative team copyeditor Jennifer Eiss, editors Ellie Wilson and Rachel Silverlight, art director Julie Weir and designers Amazing15. Add in Ilex's repro and production departments and our press and publicity officer Emily Owen and you have quite the cast list.

Editing books is never plain sailing, but with that number of hands on deck the waters around The Art of Neil Gaiman were bound to be choppier than normal (if I can mix my nautical metaphors). Before Hayley could even start writing the contract with both her and Neil had to be agreed. Then Hayley had to pin Neil down – never a simple task; he's forever flying round the world – in order to interview him extensively and raid his attic for visuals (and oh, the stuff she found up there...). Then once she'd delivered her manuscript the fun really started. There were discussions and deliberations about the first draft of the manuscript; further discussions and deliberations about the second draft of the manuscript; yet more discussions and deliberations over the copyedit of the manuscript; and another round of discussions and deliberations over the second copyedit of the manuscript. Then the book went to design, and there were even more discussions and deliberations.

Tempers frayed at various junctures. There were differences of opinion, disagreements, miscommunications, misinterpretations. Each of us at one time or another was frustrated or exasperated. I myself had an epic email meltdown towards the end of 2013 (one which I rather regret now – sorry everyone). But there was also excitement and anticipation: we all knew we had something special on our hands, and we all wanted it to be the best it could be. It was just how to achieve that that we didn't always see eye to eye (to eye to eye) on.

I'd be lying if I said it was an entirely joyous experience. But what all of the above speaks to, I think, is the passion that all concerned had – have – for the book. We all cared. Throughout the many ups and downs over those three or four years, while in the background governments fell and coalitions rose and economies crumbled and began to rebuild (and on a personal note I became a dad and learned to drive), we never lost sight of the fact that The Art of Neil Gaiman had the potential to be a brilliant book. That it has turned out to be just that is testament to the hard work that everyone put into it – not least Hayley, who has crafted and curated a remarkable document, a funny, moving, visually arresting insight into Neil's creative life. But more than that, I believe our collective passion for the project is reflected in the finished article. You can see it on every lovingly designed page, read it in Hayley's finely honed text; hell, I reckon you can even smell it if you hold the book up to your nose, although that might simply be the sweet, sweet smell of printer's ink.

In total The Art of Neil Gaiman ate up something like a tenth of my life (to date). In Hayley's case it was more like a seventh. Others involved in the process have lived with it for almost as long. Measured simply in those terms, our commitment to the book is self-evident.

Hayley will doubtless go on to write other books – The Art of Neil Gaiman was her first as author, but it won't be her last – but I'm fairly confident she'll never experience anything quite like this one again.

I'm not sure I will either.

London's Gosh! Comics will be hosting the launch party for The Art of Neil Gaiman tonight, Friday 11 July, at 7pm. Hayley will be there signing books, and I'll be lurking in a corner somewhere. Perhaps I'll see you there.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Astro City: Confession Hardcover (Homage, 1997): Signed Graphic Novel by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 4/7/14.

So then. Where was I before I drifted off on that protracted Patricia Highsmith tangent? Ah yes: signed books. Still got plenty of those from my collection to blog about, including a graphic novel or two. Like this one:

Astro City: Confession by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, with cover artwork by Alex Ross, published in hardback by Homage/Image in 1997. This is the second collection of Busiek, Anderson and Ross's still-ongoing – it's now published by DC/Vertigo (and I'm still buying it) – superhero comic book series, which is a kind of extended love letter to the form and an extension of Busiek's preoccupation with the superhero fable as related from the perspective of the common man (or woman) (see also Marvels, 1994, which was illustrated by Ross). The main story collected within still stands as perhaps the best of the entire Astro City run, an exploration of the Batman myth as told from the point of view of a boy sidekick – one Brian Kinney, who arrives in Astro City full of hope and soon finds himself fighting crime alongside the mysterious Confessor.

I must have bought this copy – possibly in London's Forbidden Planet – not long after it was published, which would have been roundabout when I got back into comics after a ten-year break; limited to 1200 copies, the book is signed on the tip-in sheet by all three creators:

I have a particular reason for showing it off now, after all this time – other than it's signed and I've never blogged about it before – which I'll come to shortly, but it's worth dwelling a moment on the collectability of the thing. Unlike other collections of Astro City (including the first one, Life in the Big City), this edition marks the only time the Confession storyline has appeared in hardcover (to date). Accordingly it's quite hard to get hold of, at least affordably: the cheapest copy I can see online at present is north of £150. Of course, price often isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of anything other than the algorithms of Amazon Marketplace, but it does seem that over fifteen years on from publication the Confession hardcover remains an object of desire: witness these enthusiastic posts on it at The Next Great Adventure Blog! and The Alex Ross Collector, the latter of whom was kind enough to scan Alex Ross's jaw-dropping dust jacket design in its glorious entirety:

My other reason for showcasing the book right now is to do with the introduction, which was written by Neil Gaiman – not so much because of what Neil wrote, eloquent and insightful though it is as regards how stories can "mean more than they literally mean", but because Neil has been much on my mind of late. Actually I say "of late": he's been much on my mind for more than three years, i.e. the length of time that I've been editing a just-about-to-be-published (in the UK; it's been out in the US since late May) book called The Art of Neil Gaiman, a lavishly illustrated biography by Hayley Campbell, about which I'll be blogging very soon.