All Star


By Jesse Lonergan (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-835-2

Jesse Lonergan (Flower & Fade, Joe & Azat) is a sublime master of nuanced and mesmerising human dramas wedded to astonishingly hyperkinetic cartooning, and All Star proves he’s getting better all the time.

This latest graphic novel puts a unique spin on that most powerful cocktail of emotions – nostalgia and adolescent cockiness – all embedded in a timeless tale revealing how arrogance and injustice can shape a lifetime…

Previously released as 8 mini-comics and digitally on ComiXology, this fabulous monochrome fable draws more on the author’s High School observations than any personal sporting experiences whilst dissecting and celebrating the pressures and joys of small town life.

It all takes place in the summer of 1998 where school baseball star Carl Carter is poised on the cusp of a glittering career. His near record-breaking performance for the Elizabeth Monarchs has set the sleepy, bucolic Vermont town ablaze as his stellar efforts bring the team to the brink of winning the State Championship.

His senior year successes promise a full scholarship to the University of Maine, and a tantalisingly lucrative pro ball career. It’s everything Carl’s dad “Gordon” has worked so long and hard for…

Douglas Carter tries hard – both at home and on the ball team – but is not like his brother. He’s also less than thrilled at Carl’s smug superiority and aggravating, blasé air of contemptuousinsouciance. The golden boy is the town hero and Doug just doesn’t exist…

Carl is coasting. Even though he only needs academic minimums and he’s already getting preferential treatment from the otherwise bullying Coach, Carter keeps unwise hours and company. His best friend Esden Hubbard is an unacceptable influence: a bad seed from a family of trashy ne’er-do-wells – although Carl is increasingly dawn to Esden’s moody dark-horse sister Chelsea

As the days progress – a blend of lessons, loafing, practising and unsupervised partying – Carl is beginning to feel unaccountably ill at ease, and his life changes forever in an instant when he and Esden, on a prankish teenage whim, break into the local store.

With seemingly every adult in town disappointed or screaming at him, Carl gets a shocking glimpse of the real nature of the world when Esden is summarily expelled from Elizabeth High but Principal Wick only gives his sporting wonder boy a painless slap on the wrist…

Confronted with a nauseating sense of his true worth, Carl’s naive sense of injustice goes into overdrive and he makes a rash decision that shakes up everything in the sleepy little town…

And there’s one more surprise the fallen idol has up his uniform sleeve…

Lonergan’s sparse and Spartan visual style displays an astounding ability to depict emotional intensity, his lean composition enhances the blazing dynamism of the sporting sequences and his portrayals of an intoxicating range of small town characters and past-it “glory days” survivors provides each human vignette with a beguiling life and tragically undisclosed back-story. This is comics storytelling of incomparable quality and class.

Poignant, bittersweet, with an ending but no conclusion, All Star is another superbly understated dissertation on the responsibilities of friendship, the fools gold of glittering prizes and the toxicity of unattainable dreams rendered in a magically simplified and mesmerising manner: a delight for any fan searching for more than broad jokes and bold action.

This is true Hall of Fame stuff you must not miss…
© 2014 Jesse Lonergan.

Unlovable volume 3


By Esther Pearl Watson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-737-6

I first encountered Unlovable when the second volume turned up unannounced in my “please review” mail-pile. I’d never heard of the strip nor the magazine Bust where it had run for years, but as I’m always in the market for a new graphic experience, I dutifully sat down and lost myself in the world of a Texas Teen from a long, long time ago…

Based on or perhaps rather inspired by an actual schoolgirl diary Ester Pearl Watson found in a gas-station restroom in 1995, the strip – now collected in three diminutive yet huge hardback volumes – as translated and reconfigured by the cartoonist, reveals the innermost thoughts, dreams, experiences and doodles of a dumpy, utterly ordinary American girl of the tastelessly intoxicating Eighties – forensically displayed for our examination in a catchy, breathless, effusive warts ‘n’ all cartoon-grotesque style.

In the course of these garish and oddly compulsive tomes we follow ferociously aspirational Tammy Pierce as she goes through the unrelenting daily rollercoaster ride dictated by hormones, strict, religious mom, social pressure and the twin drives to both stand out and fit in.

From my lofty male vantage point here in the future it is achingly sad and hysterically funny.

Now it’s the Summer of 1989, the party decade is almost over and this third collection covers the heady, aimless days of the vacation as ever-more mature and sophisticated (I’m pretty sure they’re the words I’m looking for) Miss Pierce of Texas increasingly spars with her obnoxious tool of a brother Willis and his annoying best bud Tim Starry… Other world-ending distractions include an overwhelming fascination with boys of the wrong sort, cars, pimples, clothing brands, bands from Pop to Punk, Reggae to Heavy Rock, adolescent poetry, violent movies, mascara, perpetual humiliation from friends and enemies alike, the idiocy of parents and the looming prospect of finally doing “it”…

Amongst the most memorable sequences in store here are the extended mixed signal interactions with psycho best pal Kim’s loser “not-boyfriend” Erick Burns, her own mother’s constant carping on Tammy getting a part-time job, monumental make-up mistakes, a succession of inane get-rich-quick schemes, learning to breakdance, the ongoing war with mean girl Courtney Brown, petty vandalism, cheerleader tryouts, being condemned to Summer School whilst her friends get to just hang out and why Tammy had to stop practising her wrestling moves with that Tim Starry boy…

These visual epigrams reference universal aspects of puberty and adolescence: parents are unreasonable and embarrassing, siblings are scum and embarrassing and your body is humiliatingly embarrassing; always finding new and horrifying ways to betray you practically every day…

Your friends can’t be trusted, you’re attracted to all the wrong people and you just know that no one will ever want you…

Drawn in a two-colour – black and purple are this year’s tones – faux-grotesque manner (you can call it intentionally primitive and ugly if you want) the page by page snapshots of a social hurricane building to disaster are absolutely captivating.

Although this is a retro-comedy experience, behind her fatuous obsession with fashion, boys, money, fame, music, designer labels, peer acceptance and traitorous bodily functions, Tammy is a lonely bewildered child who it’s impossible not to feel sorry for.

Actually it’s equally hard to like her (hell, its difficult to curb the urge to slap her at times) but that is, after all, the point…

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. Here the base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of 1980s America are back to harrow a new generation which is too young to remember them, but you and I can get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff.

This big little hardback (416 pages each and 146 x 146mm) affords a delightful and genuinely moving exploration of something eternal, given extra punch with the trappings of that era of tasteless self-absorption, and like those other meta-real diarists and social commentators Nigel Molesworth, Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole, the ruminations and recordings of Miss Tammy Pierce have something ineffable yet concrete to contribute to the Wisdom of the Ages.

Modern and Post-Ironic, Unlovable is unmissable; offering a perfect opportunity to discover the how and why of girls and possibly learn something to change your life.

Now please excuse me, I need to replace the 96 batteries in my boom box…
© 2014 Esther Pearl Watson. All rights reserved.

Vignette


Drawings by Antoine Cossé, stories by Alex Jackson (Records Records Records books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-3-3

Here’s a tantalising little digest of comics delights featuring clever collaborations between Parisian expat illustrator Antoine Cossé and Alex Jackson who here pens a beguiling selection of short yarns to charm and chill aficionados of visual storytelling.

The eye-catching entertainments begin with an elysian travelogue as our narrator offers a bulletin of placid news and ethereally calming events straight from an idyllic ‘Paradise’, after which ‘The Architect’ lets his job go to his head in a wryly OTT dissertation on the seductive power and limitations of creativity.

‘Bantam’ powerfully captures the helpless, impassioned loyalty of a lifelong supporter for his local football team, exploring with heartfelt empathy that infernal drive which always tantalises and annually crushes the hopes and dreams of followers of impoverished and perennially second class teams.

‘Dr. Hall’ then endearingly examines English manners and mores in a beguiling record of a GP’s talents and failings, as seen through the doting reminiscences of one of his patients…

Comics and film are similar art forms in that both can deliberately lie whilst revealing truths. By the simple act of juxtaposing visuals and sound/text in opposition (like seeing a baby crying but dubbing in giggling) in a narrative, levels of meaning can be easily manipulated and the consumer made aware of two – or more – stories at once.

It’s an odd psychological quirk in such situations that readers or viewers always treat the pictures as “true” or “real” whilst the words/soundtrack are deemed false, duplicitous or wrong…

Comprising the majority of this evocative and compelling collection, ‘J.1137’ first appeared as a self-contained comicbook from Breakdown Press and is certainly the most engaging and challenging piece in the book.

With words and pictures apparently contradicting or belying each other, a strange, fantastic enigma draped in all the apparent trappings of a movie blockbuster unfolds as an immortal screen star rashly steps outside the bounds and parameters of his lavish but fiercely proscribed existence, seeing too much of the wrong things and inevitably paying a high price…

Constructed of warring layers of reality and illusion, this is a cross-genre saga that will appeal to lovers of the art form who love a mystery and are prepared to work out their own answers.

Beguiling, intriguing, contemplative, astonishingly fresh and appealing, Vignette is a beautiful example of comics’ unique power which deserves to find the widest possible audience. Buy it and show all your friends.
© 2013 Antoine Cossé + Alex Jackson. © & ℗ Records Records Records.

Steak Night volume 3: Jobs


By various, edited by Babak Ganjei (Records Records Records books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-5-7

Some old fuddy-duddies like me still read prose as well as comics, and being a veteran consumer I can honestly say that what I miss most is the time when short stories – everything from epigrams to vignettes to novellas – were a thriving, vibrant pillar of storytelling.

Modern book publishing doesn’t like short stories and most magazines (with the possible exception of DC Thomson’s The People’s Friend) no longer regularly carry engaging snippets of fiction or indeed even value the creative discipline necessary to telling a tale succinctly.

The same was true of comics for years but with the recent surge of independent and small press creators that market is changing. There are now a few regular anthology titles, offering a variety of experiences rather than the far more commercially sensible multi-part epics mainstream print-houses always push.

Every book or comic is somebody’s first but how can you possibly build a solid readership with stories that can be twenty or forty or even more parts long? Life’s just too short.

So let’s all shout “well done” for books such as Steak Night which always offers an eclectic mix of strips, gags, art pages and brief prose pieces in an inviting hardback book format, produced with style, honesty, integrity and a broad range of views.

This third volume contains a selection of works dedicated to the theme of Jobs, and after a stirring pep-talk from the editorial team commences with a penetrating dose of reminiscing and self-flagellation in the text tantaliser ‘Keyser Söze’ by Victoria Manifold. Then multi-talented Tom Hall Colonial illustrates Henry Clark’s truly disturbing recollections of his early days as an undertaker and the charming on-the-job training he received at the hands of ‘The Butcher’

A strange and stridently silent cartoon ‘Jobs’ short about a career in extreme pest-control (also by Hall?) leads into another painful memory as Babak Ganjei illustrates Tom Oldham’s graphic explanation for why he turned down the chance to be a ‘Bigshot’ in the sex trade, after which ‘A Guide to Achieving Your Career Goals’ by Amelia Phillips definitively describes her self-perceived failure in clawing her way to the middle of the publishing biz before becoming a happily desperate freelancer…

Another ferocious fantasy comics page of sci-fi hi-tech ‘Jobs’ creation segues sweetly into an keenly observed if doggedly obscure ‘Office Romance’ by Florian Lunaire & Eleanor Summers, whilst Julia Scheele delightfully describes the dilemma all women face on ‘Sundays at the Comic Shop’ (actually it’s more a 24/7 thing) before Melissa Trender examines the role of women in a resolutely post-feminist society with the heartfelt and disturbing ‘Daughters’.

The industrious giant-bug bashing ‘Jobs’ interludes then end with mankind notionally still on top, whilst ‘Small Hours Dept’ by Peter Cline lovingly and lyrically examines the whimsical moments that quiet times can offer from an elevated position, after which Wallis Eates’ prose-&-picture fable ‘Where Are you Going?/Ground Please’ appealingly compares childhood memories with the solitary insights of a hospital cleaner, before former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong winningly describes his succession of dead-end jobs in Bournemouth (trust me: don’t eat the pizza) in a prose paean to the failings of school careers guidance information entitled ‘The Worst Bad Egg’.

The portmanteau of pictorial pleasures concludes with Harriet Gibsone’s hilariously dark and edgy advice on handling the ‘Big Interview’ and a manic glimpse at what it’s all about in ‘Going to Work’ by Grace Wilson…

Complete with a full contact-&-biography Contributors section, this is another superb sampling of contemporary cartoon culture that no lover of the art of storytelling should miss.
And kids remember, it’s a vocation, not a career, yeah?

© Records Records Records 2013.

Hilarious Consequences


By Babak Ganjei (Records Records Records Books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-0-2

When I was kid comics weren’t cool and were all a bit the same. You couldn’t find them in most shops and once you got a bit older, you read them from the camouflaging concealment of a large book – or possibly a smutty magazine – so your mates wouldn’t laugh at you.

Now there are strips and graphic novels everywhere, nobody under 90 bats an eye at adults scoping out picture stories and – most importantly – the range, variety and sheer quality of material available today is absolutely staggering.

A wonderful Case In Point is this delightfully enthralling slice of whimsical urban documentary by Babak Ganjei, published by Records Records Records Books.

Hilarious Consequences lovingly details in joyously crushing detail the sad sack saga of an agonisingly self-excoriating, self-effacing, self-proclaimed middle-aging loser who just can’t seem to get his life together…

Babak is a not-at-all successful musician in London. He has a kid, no career, no money and his hair is falling out – which seems to be the most worrisome of his many woes and worries. Still, what can you do, huh?

With nothing better in his future he decides to make a comic strip of his life and that’s also part of the story and another eventual hassle…

We pick up the threads of a fraying life in ‘The Chinese Herbalist’ as the shaggy shambler opts to try alternative medicine to solve his depreciating barnet problem. He feels uncomfortable doing it, unsure it’s working and is unable to pay, but is no match for the pushy purveyors who offer him reasonable-sounding advice and hire purchase terms. He trundles off with assorted unsavoury teas and soups that make his next few days a toxic misery…

His angst levels increase when he reluctantly agrees to go to ‘The Fancy Dress Party’, but just can’t get as invested as his girlfriend Ellie. The booze helps but when he sees a pig-masked person chatting her up, his head – still fiercely shedding follicles – goes to a bad place…

‘Another Morning’ and in the shower there are fresh horrors associated with getting old, exacerbated later when Babak is cajoled into performing at a local acoustic night by Dog, an ambitious kid with a gleaming transcendent mop of healthy hair. There’s no pay but Dog promises really excellent pizza…

Always strapped for cash Babak attends ‘The Interview’ and somehow gets a part-time job at a pub. It’s okay, but the other bar staff think he’s so very old.

He’s thirty…

Shorter moments reveal the more gloomy aspects of ‘The Creative Process’, ‘Drinks’, ‘The Call’ and a ‘Grim Notion’ before Ellie and his son accidentally create ‘Glitter Slugs’ whilst making card presents, leading to a surreal ‘Lynchian Insert’ before a return to the pub proves ‘Tough Work’ can be ameliorated by the right drugs…

After a diversion to ponder ‘Animal Work’, ‘Bad News and Thinkings’ finds our zero compelled to somehow scrape together £300 a week and regretting his childhood educational choices after which a ‘Kaufman-Esque’ confrontation leads to quite understandable ‘Panic’

Then, after a relatively calming ‘Family Hour’ it’s off to the pub and an epic ‘Work Party’ which reveals the problems ineffectual blokes blessed with bushy beards can encounter when trying to snort lines of coke, before things get strange ‘Conversing’ with a homeless guy. And then the slugs return in ‘New Beginnings’

A ‘Near Death Experience’ leads to a half-hearted ‘Work Out’ attempt, but jogging and newspaper headlines result in parental ‘Sadness’ and more self-doubt which even a gallery-hopping ‘Art Trip’ can’t fix.

Conceptual walls start to crack as cartooning diarist Babak suffers ‘Writers Block’ which might be why the slugs slurp back in ‘Them Again’ after which Ellie and the boy come home in ‘They’re Back’

That promised acoustic set is looming in ‘Please’ whilst an unsavoury encounter with the still unpaid Herbalist prompts some uncomfortable ‘Advice’ even as the little lad shows off his ‘Interests’ just before the artist expresses his ‘Issues’ with ‘The Big Show’.

Things go badly for the slugs in ‘Blackout’ but when the pizza arrives at least Babak feels a modicum of satisfaction ‘And Then Happiness’

There’s a comic aside to wrap thing up with an ‘Epilogue’

Episodic but utterly appealing, these dire and dolorous everyday antics of a (very) humble contemporary Eeyore offer a gentle, meandering and endearingly self-deprecating ramble through modern life. There’s even a free soundtrack CD that comes with this extremely readable fun feast, featuring: Dignan Porch, Singing Adams, The Bronsteins, Macks Faulkron, Wonderswan, Round Ron Virgin, Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards, Cheatahs, Big Deal, Wet Paint, and Matthew C.H. Tong to sweeten the deal and further facilitate knowing acquiescence…

Hilarious Consequences is the sort of book that becomes a cult hit TV series and certainly doesn’t fail to beguile and bemuse as a cartoon history.

Track it down and feel part of something too big to cope with…
© 2010 Babak Ganjei. © & ℗ Records Records Records Books.

566 Frames


By Dennis Wojda (Borderline Press)
ISBN: 978-0-99269-720-4

Every now and then – but typically, not nearly often enough – the global comics scene throws out a project with the potential to redefine the industry.

Tintin, A Contract with God, Ghost World, Fun Home, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Lone Wolf and Cub, From Hell, Fax from Sarajevo, Persepolis, Maus and some few others reached vast non comics-reading audiences in their time, serving to justify and legitimise a narrative discipline that had claimed since its creation to be an actual Art Form.

By all accounts author Dennis Wojda – already an established star of the Polish comics establishment – one day decided to do something to creatively stretch himself and opted to turn snippets of his family history into a daily cartoon on his web-page, scheduled to run for the classically significant “a year and a day”.

It proved immensely popular, so much so that publishers expressed interest in a book, but 366 panels weren’t really enough.

No problem: families always have plenty more history…

As you’ll see when you read the book, Wojda was actually born in Stockholm on March 13th 1973, before returning to Poland to become a writer, designer and graphic artist.

He’s appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, Aktiviście, Exklusiv, Bravo, Skate, Ha! Arcie, Arena Comics and Jabber, winning plenty of praise and a few awards for such series as Mikropolis (with artist Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz: collected in two volumes as The Tourist Guide and Mohair Dreams), Chair in Hell, The Supernaturals: Miss Hofmokl’s Shoe (with Krzysztof Ostrowski), A European on the Road (written by J. Sanecka) and Ghost Kids: the Ribbon (illustrated by Sebastian Skrobol) amongst others.

At the end of 2013 British publisher Borderline Press sagely added the now expanded 566 Frames to its burgeoning stable of titles, giving English readers the opportunity to see one of the most beguiling and lyrical examples of comics autobiography ever produced…

Mixing time frames and viewpoints – including many wise pronouncements and predictions from his own time as a foetus in the womb – the tale begins and ends with the birth of the author.

In between then Dennis smoothly skips up and down the family tree, describing his pregnant mother’s drive to Sweden so that he could be born with his absent-and-working-abroad father (who was hedonistically trapped being a wandering, semi- failed pop star in Swinging Scandinavia), and the sort-of psychic grandmother who knew how, when and where to meet her…

There are memories – his and his ancestors’ – of little moments and huge crises, parties and pogroms and many, many conquests – both romantic and geopolitical – as an odd assortment of branches and buds thrive and survive under a variety of invaders and overlords from Tsarist Russians to Hitler’s Nazis to Soviet Russians: always finding that whatever may happen, the music of life plays on…

Don’t be fooled, however. This is no idle panegyric about the good old days. There’s a formidable amount of sex, death, struggle, fear, privation, terror, envy and heartbreak to season the surreal whimsy, diverted daydreams, folksy philosophy and chatty monologue…

And music: everything from Polkas to Jazz to Jimi Hendrix…

With only 566 Frames Wojda has worked his own brand of visual Magic Realism (as previously best expressed in English language comics by Gilbert Hernandez) and this wondrous, mesmerising, intoxicating invitation to share a slice of other lives and times is a book no lover of the medium or citizen of the world should miss.
© Dennis Wojda. All rights reserved.

QU33R


By various and edited by Rob Kirby (Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-1-9387203-6-9

It’s long been an aphorism – if not cliché – that Gay (or the more contemporary term LGBTQ) comics have long been the only place in the graphic narrative business to portray real romance.

It’s still true: an artefact, I suppose, of a society which seems determined to demarcate and separate sex and love as two utterly different – and possibly even opposite – things. I prefer to think that here in the 21st century – in most places – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerful, moving and funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, compendia such as this will aid the fight…

Nevertheless, at least in this superb anthology with contributions from 33 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Queer (or Questioning their sexual identity) craftspeople and creators, love stories are not all that’s on offer. The authors and artists cajoled and shepherded by Rob Kirby (Curbside Boys, The Books of Boy Trouble) have produced revelatory ponderings, satires, comics-reportage, pastiches, comedies, thrillers, horror stories and superhero adventures, plus many superb pictorial narrative diaries and autobiographical pieces to complement the wild, heady romances inescapably on offer.

Oh, and there’s sex and swearing: rather a lot and sometimes a bit graphic, so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by words and pictures of an adult nature (such as joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other) then go away and read something else.

In fact, just go away.

Following a Foreword by Justin Hall (No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, Glamazonia, True Travel Tales, Hard to Swallow) recapitulating just how far the industry and society have come since Mary Wings self-published Come Out Comix in 1973, opening the doors for thousands of other non-hetero creators, Editor Rob Kirby’s Introduction places this contemporary compendium of excellence by a broad contingent of cartoonists and writers self-identifying as proponents of “Alt/Queer comics” in its contextual place leaving nothing for us to do except enjoy the cartoons and comics…

It all begins with ‘Porno’ by Eric Orner, wherein the artist beguilingly relates key moments and situations from his past whilst ruminating upon his relationship with his dad, after which ‘Mother’s Sisters’ by Annie Murphy offers similar family insights by searching through the pages of a faux-photo-album.

MariNaomi then beautifully explains how, if not why, ‘Three’s a Crowd’ for a date-shy lass, whilst Ed Luce’s dance hall days in a Death-Metal mosh pit are hilariously described in ‘Wuvable Oaf presents Kindness of Strangers’.

‘The Transformers – a True Story’ (by Dylan Edwards) is a moving and memorable account of growing up “different”; an oft-repeated experience recapitulated in Diane DiMassa’s girlish tale of young love ‘Born Qu33r’.

Always compelling and challenging, Justin Hall hits home hard here with ‘Seductive Summer’ and the doomed affair of two young men with very different causes for their feelings of attraction, isolation, alienation despair and doom, after which ‘Just Another Night in Carbon City’ (Jennifer Camper) tells a grimly witty noir crime tale with not a Tough Guy in sight.

‘Sissy That Walk’ by Eric Kostiuk Williams incisively relates the fan reaction to RuPaul’s Drag Race show before a meaningful conversation occurs between two old friends in Kris Dresen’s ‘Chop Suey’ and Tyler Cohen presents us with one enigmatic possible tomorrow in ‘Flux’

‘So Young, So Talented, So What?!’ is an engaging and often scary comic jam by Jennifer Camper & Michael Fahy, couched in the cautionary tale of a young artistic boy lost even before he reached the Big City, and is followed by a triptych of Fahy’s narrative gallery images and strips entitled ‘Found’, ‘O’Hara Song’ and ‘Hazily Remembered Drag Queens’.

Edie Fake then plays coy and arch at the ‘Sex Club’, whilst José-Luis Olivares indulges in ‘Online Fantasy’ and Steve MacIsaac lets his mind wander back into thoughts of unpleasant school days in ‘Vacant Lots’ before wishful thinking and wistful hope poignantly meet in ‘For Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico’ by Rick Worley.

‘Life’s But a Walking Shadow’ (Christine Smith) silently scours the college scene with a couple of kids who haven’t found their way yet whilst ‘Political Will’ by Carlo Quispe reveals the inescapable highs and lows of the party scene

Do you remember Private Manning? The young soldier was an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009 and leaked thousands of classified documents to the horrified world. The records were leaked via a hacker named Lamo and the then transgender Bradley was communicating via electronic media. Here Andy Hartzell imaginatively and mesmerising illustrates those game-changing chat logs in ‘Manning/Lamo Project’ to create possibly the most engrossing piece in this wonderful book.

‘Toot Toot Heyyyyyyy Beep Beep’ by Carrie McNinch describes a first emotional connection and the fall of Skylab before Rob Kirby recounts his own dating dilemma in ‘Music for No Boyfriends’ and local London lad Sina Sparrow proves there’s no such thing as carefree love in ‘If You Want Me To I Will Be The One Who Is Always Good’

Superheroes and wry humour inform Ivan Velez, Jr.’s  ‘Oso Oro – the night I got my hero card…’ with the protagonist falling foul of the masked community’s precarious pecking order after which ‘Coming Out With the Bunksteads’ (by Arch-Bishop of Gay Comics Howard Cruse) hilariously turns venerable family strip Blondie on its head with a little coming-out confession, whilst author and “Officially Out” professional wrestler Terrance Griep relates ‘The Second Most Asked Question’ about his grappling career with Rob Kirby supplying the excruciating visual details…

A different type of “tension and differences in the band” are disclosed in Craig Bostick’s ‘Guitar  Bass  Drums’ before ‘Burger Meister: a Story of Love and Loss’ by Amanda Verwey focuses on a tragic miscommunication and Comedy of desperate-dating Errors, and Nichole J. Georges describes just another date in the whimsically wonderful ‘Grief’.

David Kelly helpfully shares a few very sensible ‘Tips to a Teen-Age Me’ whilst Marian Runk offers some captivating memories and suggestions of her own in ‘This Winter, I Practiced Being Alone’

‘Miss Sasha Velour’ (by Sasha Steinberg) then shows that you don’t need to be armed to be Fabulous and Jon Macy graphically examines his relationship with his heroes in a powerful and self-searching untitled graphic musing on Oscar Wilde, Frankenstein’s Monster, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Chandler and Charles Mingus before ‘Confession’ by L. Nichols rounds off the comics cavalcade with a light-hearted affirmation about finding yourself…

Situated between pin-up Drag in 1969 (Sasha Steinberg), and untitled pieces from MariNaomi and L. Nichols – plus one last strip starring ‘School Girls’ by Camper – About the Creators then briefs you on the talented story-makers and where else to find their work whilst a copious Special Thanks section gratefully name-checks the contributors and the investors on KickStarter who paid to make the project happen, ending this glorious rainbow-hued book of bright ideas and colourful yarns on an exceedingly positive and life-affirming note.

QU33R is a superb example of comics celebrating determination and difference: sensitive, evocative, romantic and humorously engaging “people stories” which any open-minded fan can’t help but adore. There’s not much fighting but plenty of punch, and in an ideal world this book would be readily available in every school and library for any confused kid in need of inspiration, comfort, understanding, encouragement and hope.
QU33R, the collection is © 2014 Rob Kirby. The individual art and writing contributions are © 2014 the original artists and writers. All rights reserved.

With Only Five Plums books 1-3


By Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle (CreateSpace)
ISBNs: 978-1-48399-114-6, 978-1-48399-123-8 and 978-1-48399-127-6

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics, and this collection – three books of an epic historical exposé of one of modern humanity’s greatest atrocities – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal the tragic story and eventual small triumph of Anna Nesporova whose family was targeted in error by the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia…

Divided into three quietly understated, deeply evocative volumes, this triptych of ambitiously oversized monochrome memoirs is crafted by historian Terry Eisele and illustrator Jonathon Riddle from Nesporova’s own words, dramatising the horrific story of the Nazi atrocity at Lidice in Czechoslovakia. The memories are not merely those of a survivor but come from a woman whose entire family was intimately connected with the cause of the tragedy…

The history opens in With Only Five Plums: The Time Before as an elderly woman is encouraged by an interviewer to talk of times long past but never forgotten. She cautiously relates the idyllic life in the nondescript hamlet of Lidice before specifically concentrating on the expansive Horak family and her life as innocent, ordinary Anna Horakova in increasingly trying times.

Relating instances of village life, childhood experiences and the early days of her marriage, the story takes a dark turn when describing Christmas customs. In 1941 a cherished family meal tradition presaged disaster for the entire Horak clan…

In June 1938, European leaders trying to appease Hitler allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia and as a consequence Anna’s brother Josef fled to Britain, joining the growing émigré/refugee population.

He soon wrote back that he numbered amongst his new friends Edvard Benes and Jan Masaryk: leaders of the government-in-exile…

The next stage in the tragedy came when Nazi aristocrat Reinhard Heydrich – a sadistic monster eagerly expediting Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews – was assassinated and the Horak family were mistakenly implicated in the plot.

The Nazi retaliation was astoundingly disproportionate: the village where they lived – almost universally Christian – was eradicated from the Earth, the male population massacred and the women sent to concentration camps in a display of calculated butchery as bad any thing visited upon the Gypsies, Jews or any other ethnicity the Nazis deemed “subhuman”.

Heavily pregnant at the time, Anna – along with other expectant mothers – was separated from the rest. Once the children were delivered, they were taken away. Those that passed certain tests were removed to be brought up German, and the mothers joined their sister villagers in packed cattle-cars at rail marshalling yards. The destination was Ravensbruck Concentration Camp…

The tale resumes in With Only Five Plums Book 2: This Dark Age where, following a brief recap, Anna details the appalling journey, paying especial detail to an elderly Jewish woman’s attempts to cheer up younger girls with the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem: created to protect the Jews of Prague during a previous wave of persecution…

After many days and hundreds of miles, the train arrives in Fürstenberg from where the survivors are marched to the camp. Anna’s record of daily humiliations and the slow, piecemeal destruction of bodies and spirits covers three years, but she considered herself lucky. At least she had a skill the Germans found useful (professional-standard sewing) and wasn’t part of a group considered genetically inferior such as the Roma Gypsies.

Heartbreaking memories of Romani inmate Florica (and her folktale of the origins of blonde-haired people) poignantly counterpoints the diary of privation and desperation and serves to underline the horrific accounts of the scientist-torturers Ernst-Robert Grawitz and Ludwig Stumpfegger who used the women as guinea pigs for their horrendous experiments…

The captivity ended one spring. The panicked Germans were in retreat: burning files and dismantling buildings. The women were led out of the gates with a few guards and ordered to march. They staggered through Germany and other countries shattered by bombs and, as the days passed, many died. Soon they were not enough soldiers and Anna and some other women slipped away, always heading towards home.

Avoiding the “liberating” Russian soldiers, the group finally reached Czechoslovakia, battered but once more a free nation. Here Anna met Mrs. Kubrova; wife of her husband’s employer, who took her in and eventually drove her to Lidice… or at least where it had once been…

The graphic documentary concludes in With Only Five Plums Book 3: Life in the East is Worthless, describing the aftermath of the war. Throughout all her trials and torments Anna had been utterly oblivious to the fate of her family and her home. Now she learned that both had been eradicated with devastating efficiency. All that was left was the daughter taken from her at birth and lost seemingly forever somewhere in Germany…

From Kubrova, Anna learned what the Nazis had done to turn a thriving, bustling village into a barren featureless field and of other survivors – mostly stolen children – and these scenes are more harrowing in their understated simplicity than anything else in this grim graphic testament…

However there is a slight moral victory to be seen as she then relates how Lidice was rebuilt and repopulated (despite the Soviet Union’s absorbing the newly liberated nation into their Warsaw Pact-enforced alliance) before the saga concludes with an emotional Epilogue wherein Anna finally shared the fate of her stolen daughter…

Slipping back and forth in time, conversationally adding depth and historical background to a remarkably restrained, tightly controlled and shatteringly effective examination of human nature at its worst and best, With Only Five Plums (a Czech expression akin to “with only the clothes on your back”) focuses on one of the most depraved and appalling acts in human history and manages to derive a message of hope and triumphant perseverance from the tragedy.

This triptych is a superb example of pictorial reportage and graphic memoir, with each big (280 x 216mm) book also offering poetry written about the atrocity (The Far-off Village by Mazo de la Roche, Lidice by C. Day Lewis and To Lidice by George England respectively), text features and extensive, fascinating excerpts from ‘Jonathon’s Sketchbook’.

Anna Nesporova passed away in 2006, before these books were completed, but the sense that the brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly moving story related would have made her proud remains. As with all accounts of Atrocity, the tale of Lidice needs to be told and retold, if there’s to be any hope of stopping such things from happening again.

With Only Five Plums is a powerful story of inhumanity, stupidity and endurance that will certainly impress fans of war stories and devotees of fine storytelling, but hopefully it will most appeal to history teachers; professional and not…

© 2013 Terry Eisele. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copies check out www.terryeisele.com

Couch Tag


By Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-676-8

In recent years there’s been an utterly irresistible upsurge of graphic novels which combine autobiography with a touch of therapy as they recount the lives of their authors. Such “tragicomics” are both immensely appealing and frequently painfully unforgettable

One of the most moving and impressive comes from veteran Indie cartoonist and mini comics self-publisher Jessie Reklaw: an artist who’s been generating thought-provoking and unmissable strips and stories since 1995 when he was working towards his doctorate in Artificial Intelligence.

Born in Berkley, California in 1971, he grew up in Sacramento before attending

UC Santa Cruz and Yale, and his earliest publications – just like most of his modern output – delved into the phenomena and imagery of dreams. The experimental Concave Up led to syndicated weekly strip dream-diary Slow Wave, which uses readers’ contributions as the basis of the episodes. It has run continuously since 1995 in both printed periodicals and as a webcomic.

His long-awaited graphic autobiography is just as beguiling: a life reduced to brief vignettes serially grouped into five innocuous-seeming chapters which, through cleverly layered and carefully tailored reminiscences, describe Jess Recklaw’s strangely unconventional (if not actually dysfunctional) family and struggle for stability.

Primarily crafted in monochrome wash, the history sessions begin with ‘Thirteen Cats of My Childhood – which some readers will recognises from Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, where it was previously published – wherein succinct and ferociously functional recollections of a succession of ill-starred family pets serves as a splendid and powerfully effective narrative conceit to introduce the far from ordinary Walker clan.

Following the brief lives of ‘Black Star’, ‘Frosty’, ‘The Triplets’, ‘Mischief’, ‘Figgy Pudding’, ‘Gene’, ‘Survivor’, ‘Tiger’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Harry’ shows us a family of decidedly alternative outlook and also describes the rules of the furniture-based children’s game which gives this book its title.

There follows ‘A Note About Names Part One’ which reveals more about the sensibilities of the author’s parents, after which ‘Toys I Loved’ continues the amazingly instructive anecdotes about formative influences with games and playthings acting as keys to memory in increasingly unsettling, discordant and disturbing tales beginning in infancy with cuddly toy ‘Ruff-Ruff’ and skipping through a childhood dotted with sibling rivalries and sporadic best friendships.

Jess, Sis, Mom and “Daddy Bill” are all defined courtesy of ‘The Mask’, ‘Me’s’, ‘Blankie’, ‘Sprinkler’, ‘Play-Doh’, ‘Stretch Armstrong’, ‘Six-Million-Dollar Man’, ‘The Hulk’, ‘Firecrackers’, ‘Green Cup’, ‘Diecast Robots’, ‘Drawers’, ‘Comic Books’, ‘Action Figures’, ‘Dirt Pile’, ‘Doll House’ and ‘Barbies’ before the life-changing advent of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

‘The Fred Robinson Story’ details the potentially obsessive nature of teenage pranks when Jess and like-minded buddy Brendan over a number of years bombarded a complete stranger with a barrage of creative celebration; turning a random name in a phone book into the recipient of odd gifts and star of music and handmade comicbooks in ‘The Box’.

The lads developed their musical tendencies in ‘Los Angeles’ and penchant for creative vandalism in ‘Batsigns’ before returning to their lengthy cartooning crusade in ‘Fred Robinson X-ing’: detailing how the prank publishing campaign mushroomed and how Brendan’s girlfriend Kristin changed the status quo, after which Jess got a ‘Letter from Norway’ and ‘Better Fred’ revealed how things eventually ended…

‘The Stacked Deck’ recounts the educational episodes and memorable moments resulting from the entire extended family’s passion for card games and compulsive behaviour, as seen in ‘War’, ‘Go Fish’, ‘Spades’, ‘Pinochle’, ‘Crazy Eights’, ‘Speed’, ‘Poker’, ‘31’, ‘Rummy’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Spite & Malice’ and ‘Ascension’, after which the final chapter ‘Lessoned’ is delivered in a succession of distressed colour-segments: raw and disturbing pages of evocative collage and experimental narrative dealing out a unique tarot set of A to Z insights and revelations beginning with ‘Adults , ‘Birth’ and ‘the Crash’.

Ranging between early days and contemporary times, the alphabetical summary and keen self-diagnosis continues with ‘Disease’, ‘Earache’, ‘Family’, ‘Gifted’, ‘Humor’ and ‘Invulnerability’, turning a corner towards understanding with ‘Joint’, ‘Kiersey Test’, ‘Legal Guardian’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Number’ and ‘Obsession’.

After cleverly addressing the revelations of the author’s bipolar mood disorder and explosive determination to take control of his life by rejecting sickness and weakness, ‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Question’, ‘Role-Playing’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Tests’ and ‘Unconscious’ carry the tale to a new normal with ‘the Vandal’, ‘Walker’, ‘X-Mas’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Zero’.

Bleak and uplifting, nostalgic and distressing, harsh and blackly funny, Couch Tag is a devastatingly moving account of coping with adverse heredity, sexual deviancy, social nonconformity and familial discord which could only be told in comics.

This is not a book everyone will like, but it’s definitely a story that will resonate with anyone who has felt alone or odd or different.

And surely that’s all of us at some time…
© 2013 Jesse Reklaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

When I Was a Kid – Childhood Stories by Boey


By Cheeming Boey (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-785-3

The ability to go back into our childhoods and relive those bizarre, baffling and brilliantly fierce thoughts and every brand-new-day discoveries is a wondrous mixed blessing, but being able to share those recaptured experiences with jaded world-weary adults is a truly miraculous gift and thus utterly evergreen.

A recent admission to the select but august crowd of halcyon salad-days wranglers is Malaysian animator, illustrator, educator, video game developer and cartoonist Cheeming Boey – who also produces gallery art on Styrofoam coffee cups and draws an autobiographical webcomic about his life in America, entitled I Am Boey.

You should really check it out…

As a kind of prequel to his blog – if indeed growing up can be considered an introduction to a main event – Boey has collected a huge number of visual memoirs and epigrams about his im-maturing years in Asia, bundling them up in a beguiling paperback that emphasises both the exoticism of life in Malaysia and the universal similarities and solidarities of being a kid.

Warm, sensitive, intimate, uproarious, disarmingly honest as well as on occasion brutal, shocking and sad, these 103 visual monologues (with heart-warming family photos scattered throughout) are invitations into a world of wonder, rivalry, confusion, punishment, resentment, humiliation, anticipation, frustration, greed, glee and always the security of family.

They all begin with “When I was a kid…” and prove that, apart from the odd surface detail, every happy, loving childhood is identical…

The stand-out incidents include such salutary universal reminiscences as ‘My First Pet’, ‘Baby Powder’, ‘Bedtime Stories’, ‘Bad for your Eyes’, ‘Grandma’s Leg’, ‘Nasal Noodles’, ‘R-Rated’, ‘Stealing Money’, ‘Sunday Cartoons’, ‘Not a Genius’ and of course ‘Failing Math’ but with such a wide catalogue to choose from, every little cartoon episode will resonate with somebody. Especially you…

© 2011, 2013 Cheeming Boey. All rights reserved.

…And remember to visit www.iamboey.com
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a total treat for the big kids paying for all the presents this year and every year… 9/10