For a Few Troubles More – A Crisis Graphic Novel

By Garth Ennis & John McCrea, with Wendy Simpson (Fleetway)
ISBN: 0-85386-208-8

After the moving odyssey of Tom Boyd in Troubled Souls and chilling sardonic disillusionment of True Faith, the third Crisis epic from Garth Ennis again broke entirely new ground with a mini-masterpiece of eternal fraternal comradeship and raucous, bawdy profanity that touched all the classic keystones of masculine comedy: women, booze, toilet humour and the trouble your best mates get you into …

For a Few Troubles More shows another, more joyous side of Belfast, and features the antics of Dougie and Ivor, two peripheral characters and drinking buddies from the story of Boyd, who stole centre-stage and ran off giggling with it (think “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Schmucks”…)

Dougie Patterson is getting married. His fiancé’s extremely imposing father insists on it. He doesn’t actually like Dougie but no grandchild of his is going to be born out of wedlock. It’s not so bad, really. The wayward lad loves Valerie, and his fearsome father-in-law-to-be is finding him both a job and somewhere to live. All Dougie has to do is learn to think before he opens his mouth and lose the bad influences in his useless life.

Beat mate Ivor Thompson is the fleshily overabundant epitome of a bad influence. Crafty, stupid, and a fabulist far too fond of the “Brilliant Idea”, this failed terrorist (who shot himself in the foot on his first mission) is fresh out of prison and looking to make a little cash when his uncle Shuggie lets him in on a family secret: the elder Thompson runs the most diabolical Poteen still in the city. (Pronounced “Puh-Cheen,” an illicit, illegal and unwise homemade spirit made from things better left unsaid, inexplicably beloved by Sons of Erin everywhere. I tried some in 1975 and to this day my skull pounds and my vision blurs whenever I move my head too quickly).

With the wedding day looming and no-one better available, Dougie unwisely lets Ivor be his Best Man, stupidly forgetting his old pal’s passion for practical jokes, and the fact that’s he’s cursed by all the gods of good taste there have ever been.

Ivor’s a survivor. Nothing gets him down for long: not Shuggie’s sudden death, a gang of criminals who want the vast quantity of Poteen they were promised or an imminent beating by the biggest bully in Belfast. In fact it takes the return of his uncle as an entirely different kind of spirit to give him even a moment’s pause, and he’s determined that Dougie’s honeymoon will be one he’ll never forget…

This blend of viperish one-liners and classic slapstick shows all Ennis’s later themes in full display: friendship, male bonding, studied suspicion and mandatory disrespect of any authority that thinks itself sacrosanct. It is a paean of praise for the little guy, starring two of the most ordinary heroes ever seen.

Clearly the lads struck a chord, as they have periodically returned as the “stars” of the occasional series Dicks, but this first tightly disciplined slice of chaos is still, for me at least, their greatest moment – particularly because of the superbly evocative colour art of John McCrea and Wendy Simpson.

A riotous, uproarious tawdry delight for grown-ups with a sense of vulgar absurdity, these are not troubles you can do without.
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

True Faith – A Crisis Graphic Novel

By Garth Ennis & Warren Pleece (Fleetway)
ISBN: 978-1-85386-201-0

Following on from a startling debut with Troubled Souls the barely weaned Garth Ennis first hit the controversy circuit with this brilliantly dark and nihilistic exploration of the corrupting idiocy of religion that also catapulted him to the forefront of “must read” comics writers.

Nigel Gibson is a student with a problem. He really fancies Angela Hyman, but she’s a devout Christian, and the only way he’s getting anywhere near her knickers is by hanging out with her ghastly Scripture Union pals. It doesn’t help his hormone-fuelled mood that the teachers are all bullying dicks, his mates are actually brain-dead thugs and that television lobotomized his family years ago.

Terence Adair however was a man with everything: loving wife and baby on the way; successful plumbing business, and the comfort and security of the Lord’s love to keep them all. But when his wife and child both die in the delivery room his world comes apart and he determines to kill the one responsible: God.

With outrageous, magical, cynical wit Ennis engineers the meeting of the horny, disaffected youth and the man of broken faith, and the lad is sucked into Adair’s world of insanity, horror and rage as God’s houses are systematically torched, and his priests shot. Thatcher’s government reels, the SAS are called in and then things get really strange and out of hand…

The manic humour and dialogue is amazingly polished for a wee lad of 19, and Ennis’ deft skill at switching from situations of utter ridiculousness to Byzantine tragedy and stomach-churning horror is a delight. Moreover, coupled with the uniquely enticing, understated art of Warren Pleece this tale becomes an unforgettable experience that only cowardice stopped from becoming a byword for comics creativity.

Please allow me to elucidate: this inexorably captivating yarn for grown-ups was originally serialized in the ground-breaking “comic with a conscience” Crisis (#29-38, October 1989-February 1990) to great acclaim, and was swiftly collected into a graphic novel upon completion. Within days it became the victim of a concerted and organized Christian hate-campaign, and withdrawn – apparently by order of the publisher: that notable ne’er-do-well and chocolate fireguard Robert Maxwell.

Most copies of the original publication were destroyed (as an occasional employee at the time I felt duty-bound to keep my comp-copy in lieu of a pension) but thankfully Vertigo released an edition in 1997, which, if you’re not prone to religious intolerance or offence you should be able to track down fairly easily.

Go on: you know you want to…
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Troubled Souls – A Crisis Graphic Novel

By Garth Ennis & John McCrea (Fleetway)
ISBN: 0-85386-174-X

Aged 19, Garth Ennis dropped out of college to become a writer in 1989, and certainly kicked off with an enviable bang by creating a mini-masterpiece in the thoughtful and engaging Troubled Souls: a multi-layered and wonderfully even-handed exploration of coming-of-age in Belfast during the undeclared civil war euphemistically called “the Troubles.”

Crisis (63 issues from 1988 to1991) was an experiment in socially edgy adult comics launched by Fleetway Publications during the Dog Days of Thatcher’s regime, and it paved the way for many a starry career in its day. After science fiction series New Statesmen and Third World War concluded the magazine became more experimental, reflecting a more contemporary worldview, and new strip Troubled Souls quickly became an unmissable fortnightly treat.

Tom Boyd is a young Protestant man in Belfast at the end of the 1980s. The constant sectarian bloodshed and British occupation have largely left him untouched, except for the economic cataclysm that has made Northern Ireland a place of no jobs and no hope for the young. He lives with his parents and yearns for something better; girlfriend, career prospects, hope.

At least he’s got enough dole money for bevies with his mates…

One notable night in the pub his friend set him up with a blind date, and that’s fine, but when a British Army patrol comes in on a search, a total stranger surreptitiously dumps a gun in his lap and surrenders himself. Shocked and startled, Tom can’t understand why he doesn’t shop the gunman, but his bewilderment turns to rage when he sees what the Squaddies do to the suspect…

Later Catholic terrorist Damien McWilliams reclaims his gun, and insinuates himself into Tom’s life, challenging his cosy preconceptions, terrorising and blackmailing the lad into participating in a bombing. Through it all Tom is the helpless pawn of powerful, corrupt and hate-filled forces, but still finds time for first love, real life and a true friend, but the centuries of hate that have plagued the country can’t be denied or thwarted and a wholly unique and personal tragedy is going to occur whatever he does or doesn’t do…

Poignant, engaging, genial, funny and scary, this richly moving human drama, set on a stage everybody only thought they knew, is still one of the best stories Ennis has ever written, and fellow neophyte John McCrea has seldom produced such varied, evocative, sensitive art since. Because of the subject matter I can understand why it hasn’t been republished, but with twenty years distance and original copies fetching $50 or more isn’t it about time somebody thought about a new edition? Perhaps combined with its more broadly comedic sequel For a Few Troubles More (coming soon to a review blog near you…)?
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Pim & Francie: the Golden Bear Days (Artifacts and Bone Fragments)

By Al Columbia (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 9781-60699-304-0

Al Columbia is an incredibly innovative creator who has been pushing the boundaries of what we call narrative art since his earliest days in the industry, and one who has always seemed to generate the wrong kind of “press”. From the days when he assisted and then succeeded Bill Sienkiewicz on Alan Moore’s experimental and unfinished Big Numbers, through Doghead, From Beyonde and the astonishing The Biologic Show Columbia has sought out new ways to tell stories and never shied away from potentially controversial scenes, imagery and even styles of working; equally conversant with highly observed photorealism and the eccentric and economical symbolism of animated film. He has rather unfairly gained a reputation for not finishing what he’s started…

His later works, especially in this oddly disturbing hardback collection, are clearly based on the early cinematic imagery currently in vogue with the West Coast art movement known alternatively as Lowbrow or Pop Surrealism, but although the content may appear similar the intent is radically different. The line and design similarities to the landmark Fleischer Brothers cartoons here create a subtle sense of trusted familiarity that the antics and situations expressly and terrifyingly contradict and overwhelm.

Pim and Francie are pixy-ish waifs resident in a 1920s halcyon neverland, and first appeared in the chilling short story ‘Tar Frogs’ (originally published in Britain’s ‘90’s lifestyle driven Deadline magazine and then retooled for The Biologic Show #0 in 1994). They resurfaced in the still uncompleted Peloria Part One (The Biologic Show #1 in 1995) and most recently in Mome #9 (Fall 2007).

In a collection that appears more sketchbook than story, and which calls itself a “broken jigsaw puzzle”, grisly, grotesque images and characters cavort and proceed through a familiar wonderland of fairytale Americana, but look more closely and you can see a story unfolding: a tale of two rascals and perils beyond imagining…

Columbia’s nightmarish, recondite scenario hints at a deeper profundity but his beautiful, clear, dark drawings are open, simple and fiendishly accessible to even the youngest reader so beware who you expose to these amazing astonishing adventures. Appetising, intriguing and addictively profane, this is a delightful excursion to a very wrong place.

See you there…
© 2009 Al Columbia. All Rights Reserved.

Things Undone

By Shane White (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-563-4

The sheer variety of themes and species in modern cartooning can be quite breathtaking to an old coot who grew up with the severely restricted comics fare of a baby-boomer in Britain – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. These days I can peruse a graphic novel on any subject in any style and incorporating any number of converging genres – and this compelling lit gem comes pretty close to defying categorisation.

Things Undone is a little bit romance, a little bit alternative biography, a little bit punk and a whole lot of terrific. Young Rick Watts is an artist and world-weary peon in the art-consuming field of video games graphics. He’s just moved to Seattle for a new job, but nothing’s really changed and relationship-wise things aren’t going so great either. Long-distance never works so he dragged his girl-friend clear across the country, and his seven year hitch with her couldn’t have ended more badly…

When you can’t catch a break and the new life proves no better than the old one, what can a guy do? And it’s only a matter of time before somebody notices that Rick is a zombie, what with him leaving decaying extremities and eyeballs and such all over the place. Maybe he should just get a gun and do the job right…?

This sharp and bittersweet examination of modern life is funny and poignant, using the populist imagery of the walking dead as an effective metaphor for modern life, but it’s the amazingly comforting art and production (the book is printed in black, white and shocking orange, in a kind of skate-punk cartoon style) that underpins this tale, making the tragic comedic and using confusion as the means of exploring the mundane horrors of urban living.

Clever, witty and one of the most sensitive funny/sad, real/imaginary stories you’ll ever read: so you should.

© 2009 Studiowhite LLC.

Like a Dog

By Zak Sally (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-165-7

Some people do it for money or fame and money. It doesn’t matter what form of creative endeavour “it” is. Whatever art-form you’re thinking of there are those who are rewarded for their creative efforts (fairly or otherwise is another can of worms and I’m not going there) as they either work within or expand the boundaries of their medium, and there are the other sort. Sometimes the other sort gets really lucky and finds fame and fortune along the way.

Why am being so obtuse?

Because unless you are one of those other types that will produce paintings or music or poetry or whatever shapes your life even after every other carbon-based life-form on the planet is dead – or worse yet, just ignores or humours you – then you have no idea of how powerful the compulsion to create can be.

Zak Sally has travelled far (usually as member of the band Low) and dabbled in photography and all forms of print media, but what he is at his core is a cartoonist. He sees the world in terms of incidents, epigrams and bon mots produced as sequential images. He has been producing stories, mini-comics, gags, nonfiction and biographical tales and even historical and political drama for over fifteen years in his self-published ‘zine Recidivist, and other peoples productions such as Mome, Dirty Stories, The Drama, Comic Art Magazine and other places discerning enough to print them.

Even if they hadn’t he would still have drawn them, and now they been collected in a magnificent hardback collection from Fantagraphics which gathers the first two issues of Recidivist in their entirety, plus another thirteen unique and compelling tales in a variety of styles and media, all copiously and tellingly annotated.

Personal favourites – and there are many – include the bleakly informative ‘Dresden’ (because haven’t we all wanted to be rock stars?), the graphically bold ‘Dread’ and ‘The War Back Home’ but unfettered by commercial pressures the author has been able to turn his attentions to whatever caught his eye and the book is a broad anthology of material ranging from horror to comedy to surreal dreamy pure imagery, all underpinned by a keen wit, a canny eye for design and a great ear for dialogue.

Without doubt the best pieces are the utterly superb ‘At the Scaffold’ (an account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment by the Tsar and ‘The Man who Killed Wally Wood’ an “it-happened-to-me” recollection that will captivate any fanboy with an ear for scandal and rumour…

This is a gloriously rough-hewn and hands-on collection from a compulsive cartoonist and storyteller packaged with the flair and imagination that has become a trademark of the world’s leading publisher of fascinating comics. This book won’t appeal to everybody, (especially devotees of the superhero mainstream) but Sally’s dedication to innovation, exploration and imagination will astound and entrance anyone who knows capital A Art when they see it.

© 2009 Zak Sally except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

The Big Kahn

By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. But his funeral, where his first born son Avi delivered a eulogy and prepared to assume his father’s role, was a shambles. Rebellious and troubled daughter Lea preferred furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli was clearly in a state of shock.

So tempers naturally flared when the unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intruded upon the event demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue of an entire community for more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but found something better and stayed and grew and blossomed…

With his death everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean that everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How the implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother is a masterpiece of human scrutiny, related with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, masterfully underplayed black and white art is effective and compassionate, never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Here’s an intriguing human drama that deserves the widest possible attention, so I’m stifling my usual impulse and pleading that somewhere a sensitive and creative independent film-maker has the sense to option it. The Big Kahn is a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, and cannily examines not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion…

Until such a time however you can enjoy one of the best dramas of the year just by picking up this lovely, thought-provoking book.

© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.

American Century: Scars and Stripes

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, Marc Laming & John Stokes (Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-56389-791-1

The “straight” adventure strip, with a free-wheeling hero travelling the globe righting wrongs – long a mainstay of comics and strips – has to a large extent vanished from the assembled genres that make up the modern graphic narrative industry – at least in the English speaking world. Possibly the last – and wickedest – hurrah of the form came from a cruelly underrated series by one of America’s best creators: Howard Chaykin.

Wearing his sly and savvy social and historical commentator’s hat, the fabled bad boy of popular culture and frequent writing partner David Tischman created World War II veteran Harry Block, who won the war but loathed the peace, chafing at his boring pilot’s job, his cheating wife and his smug, scuzzball racist friends as they all chase the new American Dream in the Halcyon summer days of 1949.

When the Korean conflict flares up and he’s recalled to Active Duty, Harry decides enough is enough and flees to South America. If he’s going to be shot at again he wants it to be personal and not because some grasping, incompetent @$$h*le orders it…

Taken from issues #1-4 of American Century, this introductory saga finds him in turbulent Guatemala using the name Harry Kraft and sucked into a CIA-sponsored revolutionary war as his comfy smuggling gig brings him to the attention of Soviet Agent Provocateurs and the beloved “Santa” Rosa, bleached-blonde Angel of the Poor and bed-mate of the increasingly isolated and desperate General/Presidenté DeSantiis.

The American Way just won’t give Harry a break and the murderous, bloody results are going to repaint World maps in ways that ordinary people will regret and resent for decades to come…

Smart, complex, sexily cynical, headily political and darkly comic, this sardonic left-wing parable simmers with attitude and the no-nonsense clear-cut art from Marc Laming and John Stokes continues that splendid tradition of a decent man in a bad place that began with Captain Easy and Terry and the Pirates but adds enough uncompromising contemporary punch, smut and gore to captivate anybody over 16 who’s ever read a newspaper.

The series ran to 27 issues and only this volume and the follow-up American Century: Hollywood Babylon (ISBN: 1-56389-885-3) were ever collected, so there’s plenty more to see should Vertigo ever wise up and continue to re-package them. Of course, best of all would be a couple of definitive editions and an all-new sequel…

© 2001 Howard Chaykin, Inc.and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Escape From “Special”

By Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-804-6

When I recently reviewed A Mess of Everything (ISBN: 978-1-56097-956-1), the second part of Miss Lasko-Gross’ bewitching graphic autobiographical trilogy, I heartily bemoaned missing the first volume. Thanks to the wonderful people at Turnaround Distribution (that’s their graphic novels homepage under the publishers section to your right) and especially the hyper-efficient Jessica, no sooner had that earnest question appeared than a review copy was winging my way.

It was even better than I could have hoped.

Little Melissa is a very difficult child: smart and constantly questioning her unconventional parents (easy-going hippie-types) and the guards and inmates at her elementary school (both intransigent teachers and status-obsessed kids). Even at six years old she is a fiercely independent thinker – the kind of kid modern parents usually dope with Ritalin.

She flounders in all the arenas of childhood, subsequently being moved from school to school. She has a child-therapist and like many smart creative kids has problems with reading. Painfully self-aware but ultimately adamantine, Melissa has to endure the social horrors of Special Education.

But please don’t think this is a book about the crushing of a spirit. Whether on a tour-bus with her so-very-hip ‘n’ cool folks, fumbling with classmates or fighting off nightmares, this is a series of skits and sketches that affirm Melissa’s vibrant character; one which can adapt but will never buckle. Illustrated in a powerful primitivist – almost naïve-ist – art style and symbology, the little girl endures and overcomes in tales that are charming, sad, funny, reassuring and just plain strange.

Miss (that’s her name now – she changed it ) Lasko-Gross has been producing graphic narrative for most of her life, editing the Pratt Institute’s Static Fish comicbook, working in Mauled, House of Twelve 2.0, Legal Action Comics, Aim and others whilst generally living the kind of life that finds its way onto the pages of fabulous books like this one.

I have to plead a special interest at this stage. I’ve been producing my own autobiographical strips for years now; in assorted small press and self-produced publications as well as various annuals produced by the Comics Creators Guild, so I’m a dedicated proponent of the form, but the powerfully direct stories in Escape from “Special” are of such a high calibre that they’re far beyond some new genre and demand to be seen by a greater audience that don’t even care if their reading matter has pictures or not. These tales are in the same category as American Splendor, Maus and Persepolis.

Now unless you’re blessed with the unique blend of whiney charisma that I possess and shamelessly exploit, you’ll have to obtain your copy the old fashioned way – and you really should. These are words and pictures that you’ll revel in for years to come.
© 2006 Miss Lasko-Gross. All Rights Reserved.

Mighty Love

By Howard Chaykin, with Don Cameron, Kurt Hathaway & Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-930-2

Don’t let the outfits fool you: it’s not just another kinky love story…

Oddly released under the DC rather than Vertigo imprint, this is a story about crime in the big city and of the compromises individuals must make to achieve their purposes.

Delaney Pope is a rough, tough cop on a corrupt force who is fed up with seeing the scum she arrests get away with murder – or worse. Lincoln Reinhardt is a slick, liberal defense lawyer constantly thwarting the frames and set-ups of those cops. He often clashes with Pope in the course of his job. They both loathe each other with a passion.

Unbeknownst to either they both assuage their work-day frustrations by putting on masks and costumes to beat the crap out of criminals (with or without badges) in the commission of their crimes – where there are no doubts about guilt, innocence or mitigations.

The thrill of these nocturnal forays inevitably lead to a meeting of “Skylark” and “Iron Angel”, and a tenuous, teasing team-up when separate cases bring them together against the city’s first criminal mastermind. Not knowing each other’s real identity, but afraid to unmask and lose that so-tantalising tension, the pair have to decide what’s most important, the actual or the promised…

This delightfully fizzy adult romp prods all the fetishistic trappings of superhero storytelling as the brassy and whimsical writer/artist (with computer effects by Cameron, lettering from Hathaway and colours by Stewart) blends riffs from The Shop Around the Corner, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike and even Adam’s Rib with a plethora of crime caper movies to produce a costume drama in the unmistakable Chaykin manner.

Clearly the pilot for an unrealized longer series, Mighty Love is a fast and stylish little oddity that reads well and looks great – so if all you want is a good time; Baby, look no further…
© 2003 Howard Chaykin, Inc. All Rights Reserved.