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
Living The Line Patreon
Cartoonist Kayfaybe Review

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.