22 December 2021

Alan Moore: Love & Rockets by Jaime Hernandez

Love & Rockets #24 (1987)
Original cover art by Jaime Hernandez

(from the introduction to Love & Rockets: Mechanics #1 by Jaime Hernandez, 1985)
The worst thing about being a mature and discerning comic enthusiast who's fiercely committed to the elevation of aesthetic standards within the medium is that you have to hide all your copies of Herbie and Atomic Mouse when your friends call round. Much as you might be dedicated to sweeping radical change in the field of graphic narrative, there still remains a sloppy and nostalgic longing for the way Lee Elais drew the Black Cat or the precise feel and smell of a Giant-Sized Li'l Archie Special, and the difficulty of reconciling a thirst for the magnificent with an appetite for the inane is something that makes hypocrites out of the best of us. We all want progress, but we don't want to watch while the bulldozers of cultural advancement roll forwards over the crushed remains of Betty, Veronica and the Fighting American.

That's why Mechanics, along with the rest of the work that the Brothers Hernandez have been perpetrating within the pages of Love & Rockets, comes as such a bloody relief. There's enough style, content, and persistent narrative ingenuity to satisfy the most wild-eyed and slavering progressive, but somehow it's been accomplished without sacrificing and of the sheer silly-arsed vitality that gives the medium so much of its appeal. In Mechanics, Jaime Hernandez seems to have somehow synthesised a complete and satisfying comic-book world out of all the things that, for whatever reason, he loves about comics.

There's a sense that the world inhabited by Maggie and her friends exists in the backstreets of the regular funny book universe. You know that if you took the crosstown bus from Barrio Hoppers 13 you'd find Riverdale High School, sheltering out in the more sedate residential districts uptown. You know that somewhere far away there's a Metropolis where the super-people are punching each other through buildings, even though the sound of conflict seldom filters down to street level. All the familiar icons dotting the comics landscape are filtered through a unique and lucid personal vision, providing a rich, evocative backdrop for the meticulously observed and vividly human characters to perform against, and the mix is as perfect as it is consistent.

Relentlessly charming despite its hard cutting edge, Mechanics is a comic strip for the future with a keen grasp of what was valuable about the strips of the past. If there's a more exhilarating or compelling book on the market at the moment, I haven't heard about it.

Fantagraphics: How to Read Love & Rockets

18 December 2021

Alan Moore: Tales of Telguuth by Steve Moore

Tales of Telguuth
by Steve Moore
with Greg Staples, Paul Johnson, Siku, Simon Davis, Clint Langley Jon Howard & More!

by Alan Moore
(from the introduction to Tales of Telguuth by Steve Moore, 2015)

Steve Moore (June 11th, 1949 - March 14th, 2014) remains a massively influential figure in a diverse array of fields ranging from Oriental studies and I-Ching scholarship, through his extensive Fortean work, to his standing as an occultist or as an authority on Decadent and Gothic literature. His patiently accrued collections of Chinese and Japanese swords; his unique archive of Asian cinema; his thirty-year dream record; his accomplishments as classical scholar and contemporary moon-goddess worshipper: all of these clearly require an introductory essay of their own in order to unpack the intellectual breadth and the importance of this extraordinary individual. Just as clearly, given that you're reading this as preface to a trade collection of his Telguuth comic strips, none of the things above are what we're here to talk about. They are included only to provide a little necessary context to the work as writer of comics, science fiction and fantasy for which my late mate was best known. 

Starting work at Odhams Press in 1967, aged sixteen, Steve Moore was an enthusiastic science fiction fan and, more unusually, one of the country's earliest devotees of comic books. As a perfect example of the audience that the publishers of Wham, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific were hoping to reach, his ideas were listened to and and a result the above weekly comics became far more fan-friendly endeavours... this long before there was even such a phenomenon as a recognised English comic fan. Using the benefits that his new stays as sud-editor allowed him, he published the UK's first comics-fanzine, Ka-Pow, and co-founded the first Bristish comic conventions. These would lead to the creation of a healthy, progressive indigenous comic scene and, directly or indirectly, to most of the early British comic book talents of whom you've ever heard becoming involved with the medium and the industry. Without Steve Moore the modern comic landscape would look very different, if it was even noticeably there at all. This is, of course, without considering his contributions as a writer.

Much like Woody Allen's Zelig, Steve Moore would appear to have been involved intimately with the greater number of the British comic scene's most influential landmarks such as Doctor Who weekly and monthly, Warrior, and, in 1976, a fledgling weekly title which would become the venerable institution known as 2000AD. Here he created that long-standing format and excellent proving ground for new talent, Tharg's Future Shocks, along with is work on the reanimated versions of boyhood favourites Dan Dare and Rick Random, which in later years there were a slew of inventive serials such as Valkyries or his space-Yakuza narrative Red Fang. And yet, of all the many feathers in his 2000AD cap, the writing of which he remained the proudest was his work on the delirious and exquisite horror-fantasy, Tales of Telguuth.

His writing style, commenced in the restrictive and pragmatic confines of the early boys' adventure comic was brisk, spare and functional in keeping with the editorial directives of the 1960s, but throughout his long career you can see finer, more exotic sensibilities attempting to break through without disrupting the professional requirements of a fast-paced action story. By the time that he was in his twenties, he was reading less and less adventure fiction (prose or comic book) for personal enjoyment and was gravitating more towards the Classical or Oriental; to the Gothic and the Decadent. The jewelled concerns of language and originality of concept became his priorities, more so than the old-school story requirements of perpetual physical activity and constant danger. He wanted to write a fantasy narrative which reflected his genuine personal tastes and interests in that genre. These had shifted from a general affection for the field of sword and sorcery to a more rarefied appreciation for the Dying Earth tales of Jack Valance and, especially, the glittering fantasies and decadent prose-poetry penned by Clark Ashton Smith.

Smith (1893-1961) started out as a young poet of considerable promise before being led, in the 1920s, into fantasy fiction through the influence and example of his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft. Smith's origins as a poet and his fastidious use of language were evident throughout his career as a fantasy and science fiction writer, even when working under the most narrow and draconian of restraints. Among his prolific creation of fantastic environments, there existed a few that Smith returned to again and again, such as the imaginary medieval realm of Averoigne or, more significantly, his breathtakingly weird 'Last Continent', Zothique. With many of his stories appearing the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales they were understandably horror-inflected, their strikingly strange ideas and crystalline language lifting them head and shoulders above all of the magazines other contributors with the arguable exception of Lovecraft himself. Discovering Smith was as much of an inspiration for Steve Moore as had been Smith's own discovery of Lovecraft, or Lovecraft's of his early idol Lord Dunsany. There was that same recognition of a kindred literary spirit, the gratifying sense of someone else attempting to articulate that same creative urges and in doing so establishing a blueprint for the way in which such work might be attempted.

There are some early examples of Steve trying to apply the sensibilities of Smith to comic strip adventure, such as in the Claustrophobia and Twilight continuities that he essayed for Warrior, but its not until Telguuth emerges as a perfect vehicle for such ideas that we see him employing the full range of unrestrained and decadent imagination that his readings had awoken in him. In Telguuth, where there is no continuing character save for the vicious and phantasmagoric world itself, he was set free from the requirement to ensure his leading men and leading women lived to see another episode and could enjoy the 'anything-might-happen' frisson that arises from a self-contained short story. Given their potential disposability, Telguuth's array of monsters and protagonists are thereby liberated from the need to be conventional heroes or villains. In Telguuth's nightmarish milieu, with death or worse prone to descend at any instant, most of the inhabitants appear to be unburdened by morality and there is no sense of an ethical imperative in play across this frightful and hallucinatory terrain. Amongst the numerous and largely diabolic deities of Telguuth, none are just and loving shepherds eager to assist the fair or happy ending, and in these upsetting tales of desperate and ill-motivated individuals blundering into horrific situations which they do not fully comprehend, we are shown a reality which, despite its extravagant fantasy trappings, is actually far closer to the reality in which most of us are unlucky enough to be living. The questing hero is a self-serving oaf, frequently undone by his own disastrous lack of imagination. The sultry heroine and the villainous magician, equally flawed and desperate, are liable to fall prey to their own magical subterfuges and the truly ghastly entities they have attempted to control. On Telguuth, as on our only slightly less exotic and demented planet, few thing can be said to work out for the best.

In these often sadistically amusing stories of the dreadful, the perverse and the grotesque we can see one of the most important British comic writers of the last fifty years having the time of his life. The musical names of his characters and cities roll off the tongue like poisonous beads of mercury, the curses and the demons are of the most fiendish and implacable variety and every tales extends the map of a new, gem-encrusted alien hall. This is an author ecstatically at play within his feverish, overgrown and not-infrequently alarming deviant imagination, a deranged and capricious sorcery to equal anything that ancient and ghoul-haunted Teekar-Tannlan has to offer.

Of the many dreamlands that Steve Moore engendered, it can be assumed, I think, that Telguuth was the closest to his heart outside the moonlit territory of his fabulous prose novel Somnium, as evidenced by the plain fact that Telguuth was the only world of fiction that he never could relinquish, even after his retirement from the comic industry. His self-published not-for-profit Tales of Telguuth prose short stories were a continual delight to the small circle of friends and acquaintances fortunate enough to be on his mailing list. He was halfway through sending out his latest tale, The Marmoreal Frown of Ahuralura Manz, when he suffered the heart attack that finally removed him from our midst, and his admirers will be relieved to hear that Strange Attractor Press are issuing a limited edition of these rare and gorgeously bedizened little masterpieces to coincide with this splendid collection of his bitter fables from 2000AD, illustrated by a fine assortment of young and contemporary artists who've arisen from a British comic field that Steve Moore ploughed, sowed and stamped out nearly fifty years ago.

To those of you who care about comics, about fantasy, or about the art of writing itself, welcome to a marvellous and heartless wonderland. Welcome to Telguuth.

Alan Moore
October 26th, 2014

Iain Sinclair & The South London Psychic Circuit

10 December 2021

Alan Moore: Memories of Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993)

The Bedside Mad (1959)
by Harvey Kurtzman & Others

(from The Comics Journal #157, March 1993)
The first time I encountered Harvey Kurtzman, I was around 10 years old. The encounter took place between the covers of The Bedside MAD, a paperback collection; strange, American, the cover painting possibly by Kelly Freas, the edges of the pages dyed a bright, almost fluorescent yellow. To this day, it burns inside my head. 

The stories in that volume and the Kurtzman stories I discovered later brandished satire like a monkey-wrench: a wrench to throw amongst pop culture's gears or else employed to wrench all our perceptions just a quarter-twist towards the left, no icon left unturned. King Kong and Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Superman were rendered naked and absurd by the device of draping them with realistic failings and then setting them against a gross yet realistic world where Wonder Woman marries her romantic interest and ends up shackled to a stove, hemmed in by hyperactive kids. Where all the slapstick violence Maggie dishes out to Jiggs results in ugly bruises, blood-stained collars and the bleak depressions of a battered spouse.

The first time I met Harvey Kurtzman, it was in peculiar and somewhat inauspicious circumstances, over a hotel breakfast in San Diego. Julie Schwartz, aware of my admiration for Harvey's work, had decided to drag me over to the table that Kurtzman was sharing with Jack Davis and make introductions, which effectively made me feel like an awkward, party-crashing nerd from the very outset. Added to this, Harvey was still apparently nursing some obscure minor grievance of possibly pre-war origins against Schwartz, which he vented by pretending to mistake Julie for Robert Kanigher. Brief and largely bewildered introductions were made, and I returned to my orange juice and eggs.

The next time I met Harvey, it was halfway through what was, for personal reasons, probably the lousiest week of my life to date. As a confirmed stick-at-home, I was in France. As a certified convention-hater, I found myself attending the Grenoble comic convention. Beyond this, I was in the middle of a complex and painful relationship-breakdown and I felt wretched, a bone-marrow misery that went on for months.

It's strange, then that this singularly lousy week should also contain a few of the most golden and idyllic hours that I can ever remember spending. Halfway up a mountain, in blazing sunlight above the snowlike, I sat at a cafe table with Harvey Kurtzman, drinking beer while Harvey, suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease and bundled up warm on an already warm day, drank cocoa. We both had our families with us, and Harvey's daughter took my daughter's up for a trip in a light aeroplane while we talked with Harvey and his wife Adele.

I don't remember every word we said. I wish I did. I remember that he said Watchmen was "a damn fine piece o' work," and I know that it's one of those memories that I'll still be clutching at pathetically when I'm old and spent. I remember that he seemed surprised when I told him that Watchmen wouldn't exist if he hadn't skewed my perception of the super-hero genre with works like Superduperman. He looked amazed, almost bashful, unbelievably enough, and he said, "Well, how about that?" We talked, unsurprisingly, about comics. I told him about working for DC, how you know they're going to end up owning your creations going in the door, but how at the time you assume, with the total folly of youth, that it isn't important; that you will always have an inexhaustible supply of good ideas. He nodded. "That's true. What you said about assuming that you'll always have ideas, that's very true." Adele asked if he'd like another cocoa. He said, "No, I'd better not. I might start something." I remember all these things, small and useless as they are.

The last time I saw Harvey Kurtzman was the next morning. He and his family were leaving the hotel, taking an early flight back to the States. I hadn't slept, and had come down to the lobby in search of fresh cigarettes only to find Adele, anxious because their taxi had arrived and Harvey was missing.

I found him on the first floor, unable to get his baggage into the elevator due to the ravages of Parkinson's. I helped him get everything downstairs to the taxi, and he was painfully grateful. Bearing in mind that every good idea I ever had was probably ripped off of Harvey Kurtzman, I told him to forget it. That it was a small thing. A brilliant, vital mind trapped in a body that no longer responded properly, he replied that I was wrong. That it was a goddamn big thing. He got in the cab. They drove away towards the airport.

Harvey Kurtzman, the one I last saw that morning is gone. The Harvey Kurtzman who exists in my mind, in my work, in every line I write, he's not gone at all. He's there forever.


Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) was an American cartoonist, writer, editor and pioneer of comics. He is probably best known for creating the trailblazing and revolutionary humor magazine MAD in 1952 before eventually leaving the publication in 1956. However, his influence extends far beyond that legendary 28 issue run, with his work continuing to inspire generations of cartoonists worldwide. Following his work on MAD, Kurtzman would go on to create a variety of seminal works of the medium including Trump, Humbug, Little Annie Fannie, The Jungle Book and Help! During this time, he helped to discover and mentor a number of diverse talents including Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb. Known for his social satire and pop culture parodies, Kurtzman is looked upon as one of the most influential pioneers of comics whose towering and iconic shadow still looms large today.

04 December 2021

Alan Moore: The Mark of Batman


(from the introduction to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, 1986)
As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you, heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't what they used to be... or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty.

The world about us has changed and is continually changing at an ever-accelerating pace. So have we. With the increase in media coverage and information technology, we see more of the world, comprehend its workings a little more clearly, and as a result our perception of ourselves and the society surrounding us has been modified. Consequently, we begin to make different demands upon the art and culture that is meant to reflect the constantly shifting landscape we find ourselves in. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations.

We demand new heroes.

The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. With the benefit of hindsight and a greater understanding of anthropoid behavior patterns, science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer was able to demonstrate quite credibly that the young Tarzan would almost certainly have indulged in sexual experimentation with chimpanzees and that he would just surely have had none of the aversion to eating human flesh that Edgar Rice Burroughs attributed to him. As our political and social consciousness continues to evolve, Alan Quartermain stands revealed as just another white imperialist out to exploit the natives and we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women. Whether most of us would prefer to enjoy the above-mentioned gentlemen's adventures without spoiling things by considering the social implications is beside the point. The fact remains that we have changed, along with our society, and that were such characters created today they would be subject to the most extreme suspicion and criticism.

So, unless we are to somehow do without heroes altogether, how are the creators of fiction to go about redefining their legends to suit the contemporary climate?

The fields of cinema and literature have to some extent been able to tackle the problem in a mature and intelligent fashion, perhaps by virtue of having a mature and intelligent audience capable of appreciating and supporting such a response. The field of comic books, seen since its inception as a juvenile medium in which any interjection of adult themes and subject matter are likely to be met with howls of outrage and the threat or actuality of censorship, has not been so fortunate. Whereas in novels and movies we have been presented with such concepts as the anti-hero or the classical hero reinterpreted in a contemporary manner, comic books have largely had to plod along with the same old muscle-bound oafs spouting the same old muscle-bound platitudes while attempting to dismember each other. As the naiveté of the characters and the absurdity of their situations become increasingly embarrassing and anachronistic to modern eyes, so does the problem become more compounded and intractable. Left floundering in the wake of other media, how are comic books to reinterpret their traditional icons so as to interest an audience growing progressively further away from them? Obviously, the problem becomes one that can only be solved by people who understand the dilemma and, further to that, have an equal understanding of heroes and what makes them tick.

Which brings me to Frank Miller, and to Dark Knight.

In deciding to apply his style and sensibilities to The Batman, Frank Miller has come up with a solution to the difficulties outlined above that is as impressive and elegant as any that I've seen. More strikingly still, he has managed to do it while handling a character who, in the view of the wider public that exists beyond the relatively tiny confines of the comic audience, sums up more than any other the essential silliness of the comic book hero. Whatever changes may have been wrought in the comics themselves, the image of Batman most permanently fixed in the mind of the general populace is that of Adam West delivering outrageously straight-faced camp dialogue while walking up a wall thanks to the benefit of stupendous special effects and a camera turned on its side. To lend such a subject credibility in the eyes of an audience not necessarily enamored of super-heroes and their trappings is no inconsiderable feat, and it would perhaps be appropriate to look a little more closely here at what exactly it is that Miller has done. (I hope Frank will forgive me for calling him 'Miller'. It seems a little brusque and rude and I would certainly never do it to his face, but somehow it's just the sort of thing you call people you know quite well when writing introductions for their books.)

He has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character's mythology. Yes, Bat-man is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler and Commissioner Gordon is still chief of police, albeit just barely. There is still a young sidekick named Robin, along with a batmobile, a batcave and a utility belt. The Joker, Two-Face, and the Catwoman are still in evidence amongst the roster of villains. Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different.

Gotham City, a place which during the comic stories of the forties and fifties seemed to be an extended urban playground stuffed with giant typewriters and other gargantuan props, becomes something much grimmer in Miller's hands. A dark and unfriendly city in decay, populated by rabid and sociopathic streetgangs, it comes to resemble more closely the urban masses which may very well exist in our own uncomfortably near future. The Bat-man himself, taking account of our current perception of vigilantes as a social force in the wake of Bernie Goetz, is seen as a near-fascist and a dangerous fanatic by the media while concerned psychiatrists plead for the release of a homicidal Joker upon strictly humanitarian grounds. The values of the world we see are no longer defined in the clear, bright, primary colors of the conventional comic book but in the more subtle and ambiguous tones supplied by Lynn Varley's gorgeous palette and sublime sensibilities.

The most immediate and overpowering difference is obviously in the portrayal both of The Batman and of Bruce Wayne, the man beneath the mask. Depicted over the years as, alternately, a concerned do-gooder and a revenge-driven psychopath, the character as presented here manages to bridge both of those interpretations quite easily while integrating them in a much larger and more persuasively realized personality. Every subtlety of expression, every nuance of body language, serves to demonstrate that this Batman has finally become what he should always have been: He is a legend.

The importance of myth and legend as a subtext to Dark Knight can't really be over-stated, shining as it does from every page. The familiar Batman origin sequence with the tiny bat fluttering in through an open window to inspire a musing Bruce Wayne becomes something far more religious and apocalyptic under Miller's handling; the bat itself transformed into a gigantic and ominous chimera straight out of the darkest European fables. The later scenes of The Batman on horseback, evoking everything from the chivalry of the Round Table to the arrival in town of Clint Eastwood, serve to further demonstrate this mythical quality, as does Miller's startling portrayal of Barman's old acquaintance Superman: The Superman we see here is an earthbound god whose presence is announced only by the wind of his passing or the destruction left in his wake. At the same time, his doubtful position as an agent of the United States Government manages to treat an incredible situation realistically and to seamlessly wed the stuff of legend to the stuff of twentieth century reality.

Beyond the imagery, themes, and essential romance of Dark Knight, Miller has also managed to shape The Batman into a true legend by introducing that element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time.

All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarek, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years' time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.

With Dark Knight, time has come to the Batman and the capstone that makes legends what they are has finally been fitted. In his engrossing story of a great man's final and greatest battle, Miller has managed to create something radiant which should hopefully illuminate things for the rest of the comic book field, casting a new light upon the problems which face all of us working within the industry and perhaps even guiding us towards some fresh solutions. For those of you who've already eagerly consumed Dark Knight in its softcover version, rest assured that in your hands you hold one of the few genuine comic book landmarks worthy of a lavish and more durable presentation. For the rest of you, who are about to enter entirely new territory, I can only express my extreme envy. You are about to encounter a new level of comic book storytelling. A new world with new pleasures and new pains.

A new hero.

Alan Moore
Northampton, 1986

27 November 2021

Alan Moore: Luther Arkwright by Bryan Talbot

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright

(from the introduction to Luther Arkwright Book II: Transfiguration, 1987)
We live in interesting times. Comics, suddenly caught in the shockwave of a media explosion, seem to be brimming with new possibilities, new format, new storytelling ideas to suit a new and more sophisticated audience. Finding oneself in the middle of such a pyrotechnic display of serious critical attention and flying superlatives, it's tempting to slide into the belief that this has all somehow happened overnight; that an entire funnybook renaissance has come into being full blown, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus.

This, of course, is rubbish. As anyone with even a passing interest in the comic medium over the past twenty years could tell you, today's innovations are built squarely upon the foundations layed by a string of underpaid and largely unsung craftsmen and women stretching back to woodcut artist Lynd Ward, ranging through Will Eisner to the underground artists of the sixties and beyond. These were and are people who always insisted upon owning their own work; upon following their own creative control. Some of us get to own our own creations. We have a way to go yet, but we wouldn't have made it this far without the inspiration provided by the pioneers mentioned above.

Which brings me to Bryan Talbot and to Luther Arkwright.

Back in the seventies, there was no British comic scene worth mentioning. The glory days of the Reid / Law / Watkins & Baxendale Beano were long gone, and although 2000AD had appeared, it's revitalization of the boy's adventure comic was still some years in the future. The Alternative comics were in similarly bleak condition: the H. Bunch reprints of American underground material had vanished, and apart from Hunt Emerson and the Arzak crowd, there was little in the way of home grown material to be had.

Luther Arkwright was the exception. Starting out as just one strip in the anthology title, Near Myths, Luther Arkwright went way beyond anything that creator Bryan Talbot had attempted in his previous tribute laden doper fantasies, the Chester P Hackenbush series. Synthesizing influences from as far abroad as the New Wave science fiction of the period and the films of Roeg and Peckinpah, he created a seamless whole, a work ambitious in both scope and complexity that still stands unique upon the comics landscape. As the only avant garde graphic adventure strip of its day, there was nothing like it back in the seventies. There is nothing quite like it now.

For me, the heart of the strips appeal lies in its relentless experimentation. While remaining lucid, it explores as wide a range if graphic storytelling as you're likely to find between soft covers these days. That it accomplishes this with such visual power and charm is an added bonus. A superb illustrator, Bryan Talbot firmly anchors his complex and shifting metaphysical fantasy in a solid bedrock of beautifully rendered Victorian architecture and meticulously researched period backdrops. The combined effect is stunning.

As a crucial stepping stone between where comics were and where they are now, Bryan deserves our gratitude, and Luther Arkwright deserves to be read. More than this, it demands our attention as an intricate and fascinating graphic accomplishment in its own right.

Step this way for the multiverse...

Alan Moore
November 1987

Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright epic is currently published by Dark Horse Comics. As new sequel to the Luther Arkwright series is planned for 2022.

Bryan Talbot's Official Website
TCJ Interview: From Arkwright to Integral & Back Again (2021)

19 November 2021

Alan Moore: Hellboy by Mike Mignola

Hellboy: Wake The Devil (1997)
by Mike Mignola

(from the introduction to Hellboy: Wake The Devil, Dark Horse Comics, 1997)
The history of comic-book culture, much like the history of any culture, is something between a treadmill and a conveyer belt: we dutifully trudge along, and the belt carries us with it into one new territory after another. There are dazzlingly bright periods, pelting black squalls, and long stretches of grey, dreary fog, interspersed seemingly at random. The sole condition of our transport is that we cannot halt the belt, and we cannot get off. We move from Golden Age to Silver Age to Silicone Age, and nowhere do we have the opportunity to say, "We like it here. Let's stop." History isn't like that. History is movement, and if you're not riding with it then in all probability you're beneath its wheels. 

Lately, however, there seems to be some new scent in the air: a sense of new and different possibilities; new ways for us to interact with History. At this remote end of the twentieth century, while we're further from our past than we have ever been before, there is another way of viewing things in which the past has never been so close. We know much more now of the path that lies behind us, and in greater detail, than we've ever previously known. Our new technology of information makes this knowledge instantly accessible to anybody who can figure-skate across a mouse pad. In a way, we understand more of the past and have a greater access to it than the folk who actually lived there. 

In this new perspective, there would seem to be new opportunities for liberating both our culture and ourselves from Time's relentless treadmill. We may not be able to jump off, but we're no longer trapped so thoroughly in our own present movement, with the past a dead, unreachable expanse behind us. From our new and elevated point of view our History becomes a living landscape which our minds are still at liberty to visit, to draw sustenance and inspiration from. In a sense, we can now farm the vast accumulated harvest of the years or centuries behind. Across the cultural spectrum, we see individuals waking up to the potentials and advantages that this affords. 

It's happened in popular music, where we no longer see the linear progression of distinct trends that we saw in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, and so on. Instead, the current music field is a mosiac of styles drawn from points in the past or even points in the imagined future, with no single nineties style predominating. It's happened in the sciences, where mathematicians, for example, find valuable insights into modern theoretical conundrums by examining the long-outmoded Late Victorian passion for the geometric study of rope knots. It's happened in our arts and one could probably make a convincing argument that it has happened in our politics. Without doubt, it has happened in the comics field: the most cursory glance 'round at the most interesting books, whether we're talking about Seth's Palookaville or Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library or Michael Allred's Madman, will reveal that in even the most contemporary of modern comic books, our previous heritage looms large, and is in many ways the most important signifier. Which brings me to Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Hellboy is a gem, one of considerable size and a surprising lustre. While it is obviously a gem that has been mined from that immeasurably rich seam first excavated by the late Jack Kirby, it is in the skillful cutting and the setting of the stone that we can see Mignola's sharp contemporary sensibilities at work. To label Hellboy as a "retro" work would be to drastically misunderstand it: This is a clear and modern voice, not merely some ventriloquial seance-echo from beyond the grave. Mignola, from the evidence contained herein, has accurately understood Jack Kirby as a living force that did not perish with the mortal body. As with any notable creator, the sheer electricity inside the work lives on, is a resource that later artists would be foolish to ignore just because times have changed and trends have fluctuated. Did we stop working in iron and stone the moment that formica was discovered? No. We understood those substances to be still-vital forms of mineral wealth that we could build our future from, if only wed the wit and the imagination.

Mike Mignola has these qualities in great abundance. Hellboy's slab-black shadows crackle with the glee and enthusiasm of an artist almost drunk with the sheer pleasure of just putting down these lines on paper, of bringing to life these wonderfully flame-lit and titanic situations. Images, ideas, and thinly disguised icons from the rich four-color treasure house of comics history are given a fresh lick of paint and are suddenly revealed as every bit as powerful and evocative upon some primal ten-year-old-child level as when we last saw them. This, perhaps, is Hellboy's greatest and least-obvious accomplishment the trick, the skill entailed in this delightful necromantic conjuring of things gone by is not, as might be thought, in crafting work as good as the work that inspired it really was, but in the more demanding task of crafting work as good as everyone remembers the original as being. This means that the work must be as fresh and as innovative as the work that preceded it seemed at the time. It's not enough to merely reproduce the past. Instead we have to blend it artfully with how we see things now and with our visions for the future if we are to mix a brew as rich, transporting, and bewitching as the potions we remember from the vanished years. 

Hellboy is such a potion, strong and effervescent, served up in a foaming beaker from an archetypal Mad Scientist's dungeon or laboratory. The collection in your hands distills all that is best about the comic book into a dark, intoxicating ruby wine. Sit down and knock it back in one, then wait for your reading experience to undergo a mystifying and alarming transformation. Hellboy is a passport to a corner of funnybook heaven you may never want to leave. Enter and enjoy.


13 November 2021

Eddie Campbell: Dave Sim & The Photorealist Style

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond
by Dave Sim & Carson Grubaugh

(from the forward to The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, 2021)
As a ten-year old, from the first time I saw Jack Kirby's signature on a comic, I was more interested in what the artist was doing than in the actions of Thor or any of the characters. Which is not unlike saying that a normally intelligent person would be more interested in what the Beatles were doing than in what Sgt. Pepper was up to. I followed Kirby's lines and shapes and figures around the page, and off the page. In later years my own comics have often been about artists and what they do and so I am drawn immediately to this one by Dave Sim.

Sim's subjects were the artists of what we call the photorealist style. The comics orthodoxy has tried to sideline it, but there has been a small revival of interest in the style. A history of it exists, but not all in one place, or in a book. Sim marks out the parameters for us, drawing himself as a cold case curmudgeon in a gallery, giving us an open-ended shaggy dog story that outlines a mystery, unsolvable at this late date. He circles around it in ever constricting manoeuvres into a subatomic world of artists feuds and jealousies and affairs and brushed inclines, taking apart the panels of old comics, copying them and delving into them for meaning. 

It's like the great English novel Tristram Shandy, in which every manner of digression keeps the narrator from arriving at the moment of his own birth. In this one, life is at its other end, with artists Alex Raymond and Stan Drake suspended in midair in a doomed sports car, a microsecond from catastrophe while Dave Sim ponders matters metaphysical, mechanical, conspiratorial, and art-historical. To say that it is all about the travelling and not the arriving could be considered a bad taste joke.

Sim was not content to evaluate this peculiar corner of art until he himself had mastered its technique, so he has thrown out all of his material prior to the instant of mastery, those situations and ruminations that we are certain we saw in the published part-issues and wonder why they've been ruthlessly culled. He was a pen guy in the 1990s when he and I crossed each other's paths several times, and now he masters the brush, like some ancient philosopher-calligrapher. And if he doesn't like me putting the thoughts in his balloon, I can only say that's what he's been doing with Alex Raymond, Stan Drake and the rest. All of them late, very. The obsession kills the obsessor. The book must not end.

Eddie Campbell is the celebrated creator of Alec and Bacchus, and collaborator (as artist) with Alan Moore on From Hell. His recent book The Goat-Getters explores the early years of the newspaper strip.

Dave Sim is the creator of Cerebus The Aardvark, a groundbreaking, 300-issue, monthly, self-published comic, which he completed with background artist Gerhard, between 1977 and 2004. 

Interview: Campbell & Grubaugh discuss From Hell vs Strange Death Of Alex Raymond
Dave Sim
Carson Grubaugh
Living The Line Publishing
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06 November 2021

Will Eisner (1917-2005): A Tribute by Dave Sim

Cerebus Jam #1 (1985)
by Dave Sim & Will Eisner

I remember first seeing Will Eisner's The Spirit in The Penguin Book of Comics when I was about 13 or 14 years old. The experience was a memorable one because The Spirit was so obviously neither fish nor foul. Structurally it was far more a comic book than a comic strip but it had appeared in newspapers, which only comic strips did. Because I was so firmly a devotee of comic books and only marginally interested in comic strips, the impact that first exposure had on me was notable. The writer, as I recall, was terrifically enthusiastic about the material. I do remember that. This was back in the days when the few books that were written about comics were all about comic strips - books where Superman and Batman were dealt with as peculiar outgrowths of a second-, if not third-rank comic strip mutation. So, I first knew Will Eisner as the comic book artist that comic strip fans enthused about.

Later I would read Jules Feiffer's groundbreaking seminal work on the comic book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, with his even more effusive enthusiasm for Will Eisner and The Spirit. There was a political schism between Feiffer and myself - he favours the early prewar Spirit while I'm more partial to the later studio work of 1946, 1947 and 1948.

What comes home to me in typing that simple observation on dichotomous preferences is that - while we are separated in age by decades - Feiffer and I both met Will when we were barely out of childhood and grew into full adulthood under his watchful (and here's the core of my point) non-patronising overview. It would have been far from inappropriate for both of us to have been patronised by Will Eisner. Whether in 1948 or 1974, who could match Eisner for stature, for influence and for sheer longevity? Yet I never saw him behave in a patronising fashion towards anyone - he never so much as betrayed a glimmering of amusement  at the inescapable fact that even the most senior members in the field were, in one sense or another, newcomers and novices in comparison to himself. He could look at Joe Kubert, for heaven's sake, and say, "Oh, right. I hired him to sweep the floors."

Will and I and so many others shared a profession and an all-consuming interest in the graphic narrative and an abiding faith in its limitless possibilities. That was all that it took to be treated as a peer and a contemporary by Will Eisner. If you cared deeply about the narrative form he cared most most about, he cared about you - and usually in direct proportion to your own level of devotion to the comic-book medium. In retrospect, it's not hard to see why, given that he had carried that profound level of faith in comic books across decades - virtually single-handedly and in the face of virtually universal disdain and derision (no one thought that the comic-book medium was as important as he though it was as early as he had thought it was and for as long as he thought it was). He carried the medium from obscurity and vituperation to acceptance and celebration...

...it's unthinkable what he accomplished.

I mean, it is literally impossible to retain an accurate mental image that encompasses, simultaneously, all of the many varied parameters and depths of his comic-book life and his comic-book career that was lived and conducted on the monomaniacal footing and scale that it was.

Nearly seven decades.

He invented and then refined most of the key components of the intrinsic language of the comic-book page over the course of a decade before anyone even recognised that there were components. He was the first comic-book creator on weekly display before a general interest audience (and 60 years later that's still a claim which is his alone!). He was there as an active participant in the birthing of the form itself and at the cusp on the medium's greatest financial success - when it had become virtually a license to print money and he and his partners jointly owned one of the few metaphorical printing presses which he had carefully assembled, lubricated and tweaked and fine-tuned - he quit what he was doing, walked three steps away and reinvented the medium in such a way that would better serve his creative purposes and interests. As Robert Blake once said when someone remarked on what an odd pair of companions he and Truman Capote made - the tough guy actor and the fey writer - "Don't kid yourself. He's got balls the size of your head."

Long before Scott McCloud popularised the phrase as a book title, Will Eisner was Reinventing Comics on a regular basis. The Eisner and Iger Studio was a way of reinventing comics, The Spirit  - in terms of form, content and distribution was a means of reinventing comics, P*S Magazine was a way of reinventing comics, the Harvey, Warren and Kitchen Sink reprinting of The Spirit were, each, a reinventing of comics - beginning in the mainstream, proceeding to the periphery and ending up in the rugged outlands of the field. The exact inverse of a careerist approach. A Contract With God was a reinvention of comics as the graphic novel. 

I'm not sure the he was too pleased that I considered the title story in A Contract With God to be his highest achievement in the field. With his relentless forward momentum and all-consuming need to produce The Mature Body of Work his newest offering was always the horse he had bet the metaphorical creative farm on. He didn't say it, but I could see it in his eyes:

"A Contract With God? Jeez, Dave, that was 25 years ago. You wait. The next one'll knock your socks off."

I stopped buying his work a few years ago when I realised that there was going to be a finite number of remaining projects that I would, likely, be able to count on the fingers of one hand. The depravation of not being current with his work ran a distant second behind my awareness of what it would be like to know that I'd never read a new Eisner book for the rest of my life. I had learned that hard lesson when I ploughed through the works of Dostoevsky in my 20s.

I remember when The Comics Journal printed a review of The Dreamer (was it Gary Groth who wrote it? I seem to remember that it was), sneering at it for its laundered view point of the '30s and the early history of the comic-book medium. It was perfectly brutal - where was the racism, the anti-Semitism the must have been all around and why was Eisner sugar-coating the reality instead of addressing it head-on? It was as much amounted to a bad review of Eisner himself for living too long and retaining too much in the way of discretion and tact and good manners in a world where those qualities were no longer valid. I wasn't alone in bristling on Will's behalf.

But give Will credit: He hadn't come as far as he had over those many years, arriving clear-eyed and lucid in the fourth quarter of the 20th century without having learned how to take a punch. It would never have occurred to him to close himself off to criticism or to be hurt and/or offended by a negative review. He was certainly entitled to do so by virtue of even a fraction of his seniority in the field, but he recognised that to walk that road would mean a living death if he allowed himself to retreat behind (what would undoubtedly have been) an impregnable wall of sycophancy.

As I recall Dropsie Avenue was the result. I ran across it the other day - it had been misplaced among my personal papers - and flipped it open, just intending to refresh my memory. 15 minutes later, I gave in and retreated to my room to read it in its entirety. The Jews were called hebe. The Italians wops. The Irish micks. And for the first time in an Eisner work, the motivating force of pure hatred and malice was moved to the forefront of the narrative, there to contend with, interweave and serve as a counterpoint to the higher aspirations of individual human beings which were Eisner's first and most genuine creative interest.

It was just another inconceivable facet of the multifaceted Mr. Will Eisner. In what other medium has anyone who has attained to the stature of living legend continued to be - not only open to criticism - but responsive to it? At a point where the years remaining in his creative life had dwindled to precious few, Eisner was amenable, with perfect equanimity to allow for the fact that his entire approach and execution on The Dreamer - which had taken up the better part of one of those few remaining years to complete - might have been a mistake and he was capable, again with perfect equanimity, of rethinking his approach from the ground up the next time out. His reputation in the avant garde took an awful beating, but everything was a learning experience for Will, everything was just grist for the mill.

For years, I thought it was unfortunate that there was never a magazine which reflected Will's sensibility the way  that The Comics Journal reflects our medium's Other Awards Namesake, Harvey Kurtzman's (more Kurtzman's sensibility as filtered through Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, but that's a subject for other time...) But reading Dropsie Avenue and remembering the creative, intellectual and visceral response that it represented I think things probably worked out for the best. A magazine that reflected Eisner's sensibility wouldn't have been able to provoke him into moving his work to another level and rethinking his approach that late in life. Will never wanted to be insulted from anything, least of all honest criticism. Ultimately, that was the source of his inclusiveness that left amateurs and professionals agog in his wake at the many conventions that he attended. There was only one playing field as far as he was concerned and it was completely level, with everyone contending for the same disposable income on the same comic-store shelf. He was more than happy to treat you as a peer and a contemporary if you were willing to extend him the same courtesy - to treat him as a peer and a contemporary and not just a living monument to be photographed next to. And if Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman regularly kicked his ass in the sales department, mentally, inwardly he was always grinning from ear-to-ear and saying to them...

"You just wait. The next one'll knock your socks off."

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a comics pioneer and creator of The Spirit, A Contact With God, To The Heart Of The Storm, Dropsie Avenue and many other stunning graphic novels. The Eisner Awards are named in tribute to his influence on the comics medium.

Dave Sim is the creator of Cerebus The Aardvark, a groundbreaking, 300-issue, monthly, self-published comic, which he completed with background artist Gerhard, between 1977 and 2004. This essay first appeared in The Comics Journal #267 in 2005.

30 October 2021

Raymond Briggs: A Life's Retrospective by Eddie Campbell

Blooming Books (2003)
by Raymond Briggs

This is the ideal kind of book I should like to see about a favourite artist, and the best since the book on Herriman by O'Donnell & company. It has the same balance as that excellent volume, about 100 pages of illustrated commentary, in tandem with twice as many pages of complete and readable works by the artist being celebrated - and celebrated is the correct word for the present book, a life's retrospective of the beloved author of Ethel & Ernest, a book that featured on my recent list of the three dozen or so graphic novels that make the form a significant cultural event of our times. (See appendix to my own How To Be An Artist). With Briggs now nearly 70, we might feel that the celebration is overdue, except that we would not normally expect our art heroes to be treated so fairly in their lifetimes.

Three classic Briggs stories are reproduced complete and at full size, with the same values as their original appearances. These are Father Christmas (1973), The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (1984) (a satirical comment on the Falklands war that is nowadays difficult to find, if not out of print) and The Bear (1994). Two others are presented complete but in reduced size: The Elephant and the Bad Boy (1978), a fine early example from the period before Briggs customarily illustrated his own texts, and The Snowman (1978), the most famous of the Briggs books, of which the animated adaptation is a standard Christmas television event in several countries. All his other books are visually represented with several pages or excerpted panels, with special mention due to the handful of pencil roughs for Ethel & Ernest in the endpapers. There is not a great deal of this kind of thing for the technical enthusiast or art specialist, though I should not forget to mention some preparatory sketches for an abandoned sequel to Fungus The Bogeyman (1977). The attention to dates that you see here reflects the similar attention to bibliographical particularity in the book itself.

Seeing it all gathered together like this, I am most impressed with the consistency of theme with Briggs' world. The commentary, written by Nicolette Jones, makes the best use of this by organising the material not strictly chronologically but around a series of connections. This enables us to see clearly, for example, the marries couple, Jim and Hilda, in Gentleman Jim (1980), an almost tragic story of a toilet attendant with ideas above his station, are the same hapless Jim and Hilda of When The Wind Blows (1983), in which they are victims of the nuclear war that has appeared to be more or less imminent over the last 50 years.

My first encounter with Briggs was the Father Christmas book. I can't remember how I would have come across it, since it presented itself to the world as a children's book and I was 18, no longer a child and not yet back into the kid's book market on behalf of my own kids, when it was published. I can only suppose that my instincts for sniffing out the true comic strip, no matter what shape-shifting form it might assume, were by then fully functioning. Just as remarkable was the fact that Brian Bolland, three years ahead of me at the same college and by now a good friend, had also happened upon it independently. I found this to be true in later years also, that my kind of people all had their personal fondness for Briggs without ever having discussed it among ourselves or agreed that he was of our ilk (that we are artistic kin, so to speak). For example, horror maniac Steve Bissette staying with me in Brighton in 1985 while over for the London Comic book convention, had to make time for a detour to try and locate a copy of the Fungus The Bogeyman Plop-Up Book (1982).

Father Christmas was the one where Briggs first went over wholeheartedly to the comic-strip medium as his format of choice. "It was the pressure of space that forced me into the labour-intensive botheration of strip cartoons. In 1972, while working on Father Christmas, I found I needed far more than the 32 pictures of the standard nook (meaning children's picture book), and more even than the 64 of two pictures per page. There was so much to go in that 10 or more pictures per page were needed, so leading straight into the bottomless abyss of strip cartooning," wrote Briggs in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper. All the words are hand-lettered, with direct speech contained in freehand word balloons. Furthermore, he seemed to be aware of the innovations that had been taking place in comics around that time, and of the seriousness with which the form was being taken in some circles. He established a system of four tiers of panels, which he would combine and expand, enlarging into big double-page vistas when the action invited, and there are several places in the 32-page book where this happens. 

Whatever came before Father Christmas was always vague to me, Briggs' prehistory. In fact, he was by then a highly respected and successful illustrator, having been in continuous publication since 1957. In Blooming Books, the "early years" are given more information on this part of his career than I have so far seen. Then there are 11 pages on "the nursery classics". The Mother Goose Treasury (1966) tends to be the earliest book still mentioned in the artist's resume. It's much more fun than you would expect. There's an image of a man riding a flaming wheelbarrow as one of the five sprightly vignettes around the verse of "The Mad Man." An enchanting page of watercolour and newspaper collage frames "If all the world were paper." There are over 800 separate drawings in this intoxicating rush of a book. Having brought up three children, I feel an odd encroaching sadness that I didn't have this wonderful book to hand through those years, along with all the other favourites of me and my wee ones. such as Bill Pete's Huge Harold and Scroggy (the monster who was afraid of the dark), the name of the author of which is no longer retrievable from the filing system of my head. But his career, in so far as it interested me (and my ilk), started with this grumbling little Santa Claws, whose "blooming Christmas" catchphrase gives the current volume its title. Two years later there was a sequel, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975), rendered just as lovingly in the same style. In 1979 I gave my copies of these to a little girl - I didn't foresee that I would later want to fondly regard then as an essential part of my permanent collection. 

Then there followed that remarkable pair of books, Fungus The Bogeyman (1977) and The Snowman (1978). They have little in common but they will always be a pair in my mythology because they so perfectly illustrate the expressive potential of the comic-strip vocabulary. Fungus is a mad, messy heap of a book. A gorgeously baroque extravaganza of mucky detail, down to the foot notes below panels explaining the impenetrably opaque grittiness of the dialogue: "Boilbye, sourheart" (inscribed in Fungus' balloon as he kisses his wife) "Boilbye: corruption of 'Boils be with you" (footnote under the panel). Huge crumpled sheets of text descend in front of pictures to explain details that they almost obscure while doings in this wonderfully anarchic book, coloured in a sickly palette of greens and grays. Fungus Junior sleeps in an unwashed sardine can. Noses run. Earwax accumulates in every corner of every page. Everything is rendered by hand: every colour applied in a fussy-coloured penciller dribble watercolour.

And then there is The Snowman, all crystalline blueness of snow and rosey pinkness of chee, and not a single word in the entire silent 32 pages. Are the poles of the expressive potential of the comic strip anywhere better demonstrated than in these two books side by side? A swift reference to the excellent bibliography of his works at the back of Blooming Books shows Briggs' output between 1973 and his promised book for 2004, The Puddleman, to be only 16 titles. That's approximately two years work per book, and it shows in the craftsmanship.

With When The Wind Blows (1972) we have a work that still adheres to the physical dimensions of the illustrated children's storybook, which is to say the hardcovers and full-colour pictures. But the work is unequivocally aimed at an adult reader, although Briggs, like all the great children's authors, was never "writing down" to the kids in his earlier books. It wouldn't surprise me to find that he wasn't actually aware that he was pitching this one to a different readership at all. The simple and trusting Jim and Hilda prepare for the coming nuclear bombardment by attending to the information in the government's official instruction manuals, which, as Briggs demonstrates in his narrative with actual quoted passages, were criminally inadequate. The book fits its time perfectly and became a cause celebre. Britain had found itself with a horribly aggressive government (the Falklands war had been fought that year) and there was a swelling ground level  of objection exemplified by the activities of The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The book was adapted as a radio play, a stage drama and then an animated film. Looking at the 15 pages of the original book that are reproduced here (allowing for six reduced very small) we see that Briggs has cranked  the contrasts up a few more notches. The pages now have six tiers instead of the four he used for the Father Christmas books, giving us between 20 and 24 tiny pictures per page, building to the explosion, a huge, white, flinging double-page spread. In a recent interview he said he got the idea for the tiny pictures when he saw a reduced sized foreign edition of Father Christmas. He hadn't realised panels could be so small and still work.

Briggs took his new found role as satirist seriously, and took on Prime Minister Thatcher herself in the next book, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. This one puts the small panels aside to follow the traditional style of children's illustrated books more closely, which makes satirical sense as Briggs describes the the horrors of the Falklands War as though he were writing a primer. It was an unusual style for him altogether, with its wickedly vigorous caricatures of the two principal combatants, Thatcher and Galtieri. This contrasted with the sensitive and humble pencil drawings of the victims of the conflict, the returned amputee servicemen.

In the year following the publication of this book, I was living in the same town as Briggs and I am sure our paths would have crossed eventually if Fate had not dragged me off to another country. He used to teach illustration at the Brighton College of Art. The Escape Magazine guys [Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury] did a great little interview with him, and came round to my apartment afterwards for a cup of tea. There was a moment there - maybe it last a couple of years - when boundaries fell away and I thought of Briggs and myself (and all sorts of other folk) as working in the same field. This was demonstrated by the fact that when one of the major British newspapers, The Sunday Times, ran a competition to acquire a running comic strip for itself, Briggs sent in samples, just as I did, and probably everyone else I was associated with at the time. At this late stage I can't remember whether they got a permanent strip out of the exercise, but I remember seeing Briggs' samples, which were run in another British paper, The Guardian. It was great to see him thinking of himself as a newspaper strip cartoonist for a few brief weeks, and working in sharp, black line too. There seemed to be an arrival at a peak of sorts, after which things were not to be quite as they had been before.

For some reason Briggs appeared to lose interest in working within the comic strip form. His next four books go all the way over to the old style of children's books. In The Man (1992), text and image are kept quite separate from each other. Where balloons are used, they have set type in them. The Bear (1994), which is about a little girl who is visited by a huge polar bear at night in her bedroom, has more direct passages in it, and some gorgeous coloured pencil drawing in a reprise of the Snowman style. But it still has the type, and at any rate is perhaps most obviously and intentionally a child's book out of all Briggs works after Father Christmas. This is not to say he had reverted strictly to being a maker of books for the kids, although these two may have been a response to editorial urging after the curious pair that preceded them. 

Unlucky Wally (1987) and Unlucky Wally: Twenty Years On (1988) are something of an anomaly in Briggs' oeuvre. I am amused to see them dealt with in a somewhat embarrassed and peremptory manner in Blooming Books. Here they are given the least space of all his works and are described as his "least commercially successful." Briggs' former editor, Julia McRae, by that time publishing under her own imprint, offers that if she still had been his editor she would have steered him clear of these self-indulgences. I have the first of them (I was offered the second for a couple of bucks but declined. I now wish I had it here for completions sake and perhaps because the first one is starting to grow on me.) It is, in short, a 48-page exercise in self-loathing. Poor obnoxious Wally is plagued by boils, dandruff, haemorrhoids, blackheads, whiteheads, varicose vines, bad breath, foul bowels, false teeth, flatulence, a runny nose, ad nauseam (literally). A scene that shows him failing his army medical shows him in a room full of burly tattooed naked men at the exact moment the doctor holds his testicles. The only forward movement in the action is the punch line on the final page, to the effect that his mum and dad think he's wonderful. When accused of being too hard on this poor loser, Briggs response was that he was only ever talking about himself. However, since the catalogue of maladies is one that could hardly by sustained by an individual, I suspect that he intended to take us all down with him. A similar incident occurs in The Man with an outpouring of racist slurs that apparently the editor requested by trimmed down. The editing only succeeded in removing the magnanimity of all-inclusiveness. 

I do not intend to imply  there is an inherent superiority in comic-strip technique over traditional illustration. I have evolved well beyond the stage of defending the comic strip in principle. But we see in the early book about the elephant (The Elephant and the Bad Boy, 1969) a reaching for a kinetic visual language to integrate all the parts. We see the artist casting about for a system that will increase the sense of movement rather than fragment it in the way that looking alternately to a writer's text and then at an artist's image does (and even at that the images are in two modes, colour and monochrome). Father Christmas is not a superior work because it employs comic strip technique, but rather because it succeeds in integrating all of the parts of Santa Claus' universe into a magical night ride. That it uses comic strip technique to achieve this is a secondary consideration. That the later books inspire less of our affection has  less to do with the abandonment of this technique than with the overall feeling that creative directional thrust has been weakened. On the same principle, I do not mean to assert that a work is superior because it addresses an adult rather than a child. Briggs' work will perhaps never impress me more than the first time I saw Father Christmas.

In spite of the above mentioned curiosities, Briggs returned triumphantly to the pure comic-strip idiom with Ethel & Ernest (1998). He has had one self-penned book published since then, being Ug: The Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001). While it is in the grand old Briggs style that was established from Father Christmas on, it is a slim achievement compared to Ethel & Ernest and I would prefer to end with remarks about that one. Published when he was 64, it was a supreme capping of a great career, a masterpiece in any medium. It would be unfair of us to ask him to go higher than that. It is a biography of his parents and at the same time an account of their times, seen through the particularity of their world view. Briggs himself is in it, of course. The scene of him viewing his mother's body in the hospital is almost too moving to look at. The artist fastens upon the distressing detail of the can of industrial scouring preparation located on the table beside the trolley on which the body rests. Blooming Books give us a striking juxtaposition. The very same trolly with the same cleaning preparation occurs in Unlucky Wally: Twenty Years On. ("Cheerio, Mum" mumbles Wally) showing the unanticipated extent to which autobiography has been a constant in the oeuvre of Briggs. (And giving me another annoying reminder that it's the one Briggs book I haven't read.).

I have often wondered to what extent Briggs is aware of the rest of the universe of comic books and the "graphic novel". For instance, in casting our eye over the field of the last twenty years, we would notice that autobiography has become a magnetic pole of sorts, attracting a number of cartoonists who have already made their mark in other Idioms to take their turn at carrying the standard. Art Spiegelman is the obvious example. The question arises as to whether Briggs had become or had been made familiar with the work of the New York artist. Though its true that correspondences in the work of widely situated artist can occur through the most unlikely coincidences, that separate examples of such high aspiration should occur in the unlikely form of the comic strip without some awareness stretches incredulity. Both artists bare themselves rather painfully with regard to the deaths of their mothers. I would like to believe that Briggs was knowledgeable of this and other events transpiring in the field of the "graphic novel" as it was now being called. It's difficult otherwise to imagine him driving at a work as complete and true as Ethel & Ernest without some knowledge of the movement. But he does not tend to mention these things on the odd accession we read his words directly. That may simply be due to the feeling that the magazine interviewing him may not be au fait with the general facts and major players, a feeling usually confirmed when the interview sees print. I was once dismayed to see words of my own in print as "George Ignatz of Pogo and Krazy Kat fame". It can be better to steer clear of such details.

Another matter that I should like to investigate, if I ever find myself in the interviewer's position, is the extent to which Briggs and Posy Simmonds have been mutually aware. Posy, as you know, or should know, is a newspaper-strip cartoonist whose work has always had a sophisticated adult orientation, and who drifted into children's books using a remarkably similar approach to that of Briggs. Her book Fred was published in 1987 and Lulu and the Flying Babies in 1988. I haven't seen he former, but the latter owes a great deal to the Briggs style, with its delicate pencil colouring and hand lettered balloons. It is surely significant that in her book of 1994, Bouncing Buffalo, she has turned more toward a conventional children's book style, with large pictures and separated text. In other words, both Briggs and Posy have compromised their "strip" approach in the same period and in books from the same publisher. One would have to ask if this was the result of an editorial directive, and if so, whether it was a result of the changing fortunes in the life of the graphic novel. The book market has had a love affair with it starting in 1986 but by the end of the decade things had taken something of a downturn. There would be another turnaround before the end of the nineties and both Briggs and Posy played a roll in the revival, with Ethel and Ernest and Gemma Bovery respectively. But I should like to know how much of this pattern was visible to the participants. It would be useful information in helping us to think about the formation of the graphic novel as owing something to the coming together of strands from different outposts of graphic art, from newspaper strips, children's books, and the underground and small-press movement within the comic-book field.

Much is made in some quarters to demonstrate that Briggs' work "is comics", what ever that may mean (the opinions of the nincompoop brigade - McCloud, Harvey etc - tend to obfuscate more than they illuminate). The aficionado of the comic books sees himself as belonging to a confraternity not dissimilar from a brotherhood of mutants. To this type, it is not enough to characterise Briggs as an illustrator who borrows the techniques of the strip cartoonist. It must be further demonstrated the he is or is not of the true gene. In the intro to Blooming Books by Jones: "Briggs, who went to bat for students he believed in... whose work he admired and who happened to be cartoonists." (Indeed, the secret marks by which we recognise our own.) Briggs, in his latter-day comments, has started to adopt the traits of the initiate and to defend the form at the drop of a hat. In this mode he tends to sound rather whiny, as in the article quoted above: "Why I'd like to be a proper author" - subtitled "Strip cartoons are a botheration for Raymond Briggs" - from The Guardian (November 2, 2002), which you may be able to locate online. "I wish I could be a proper writer, having to do only the words. Proper writers can start at the beginning, go on til they get to the end, then stop and hand it in. No drawing and painting, no design, no jacket to do and, above all, no hand lettering. Luxury." The intended effect is probably to invoke the personality of that endearing curmudgeon, his own, Father Christmas, but I do not warm to it. Perhaps I have spent too long trying to create the impression of a vigorous and unapologetic artistic movement to allow room for other voices. If it turns out that Briggs in fact identifies, at a deep level even, with the comic-book aficionado in all of his supposed emotional insecurity and maladroit unhealthiness, then it's time to go back and reexamine the two Unlucky Wally books. We might hear what we missed the first time around when we weren't listening properly. 

Eddie Campbell is the celebrated creator of Alec and Bacchus, and collaborator (as artist) with Alan Moore on From Hell. His recent book The Goat-Getters explores the early years of the newspaper strip.