Sunday, 31 May 2015

Stiff upper Strips part four: the Best of British

A universe of heroes and villains as complex as the output of Marvel and DC seemed to disappear from British news-stands almost overnight in the mid-seventies.  At last the story of what really happened can be told.

This is the premise behind Albion, a six part comic series plotted by Alan Moore and written by his daughter, Leah, and her husband in 2005. As a co-production between DC comics and IPC Media (formerly IPC publishing), this venture revitalises, or at least gives cameos to, scores of classic British comic characters - some of whom I've mentioned in earlier posts.

We learn that all of these characters really did exist, but, along with their peculiar weapons and costumes, have been rounded up by a frightened Government and interred in a maximum security asylum. Naturally - where else would these bizarre figures, who would probably cause most of Marvel and DCs lot to soil their tights, end up?

This full page art is typical of Albion's attention to detail.
There are several familiar mechanical British comic characters in this scene,
including the Steel Commando (far right) and Monster Fun's Dough Nut and Rusty on the steps.
On a more serious note it once again highlights the difference between American and British sensibilities when it comes to their fictional 'heroes'. Stateside, costumed characters routinely help the Police or form their own Leagues to serve justice. In the UK it wasn't unusual for analogous comic strip stars to be villains, or at least anti-heroes anathematic to the forces of law and order.  As well as embodying the British preference for anti-establishment rebels, characters like Charlie Peace and the Steel Claw are grown-up versions of much-loved anarchistic tykes like Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids.

The authorities were incapable of containing such forces of chaos alone, so employed none other than the Spider himself (see to do their dirty work, before betraying and imprisoning him with the rest.

The Spider messes with his captor's heads...
Zachary 'Zip' Nolan, always the most American of these characters, has been dispatched to assess the security of this top-secret  facility by his own anxious Government. Unfortunately for him, this corresponds with 'Bad' Penny Dolmann's attempt to break her father out, using a reconstructed robot Archie, and the fruition of a particular resident's master escape plan.

Robot Archie to the rescue!
Albion is a delight from start to finish, not the least for the chance to spot many, many familiar characters (and artifacts - hello Phantom Viking's helmet on page 65) in almost every frame, a task made a little more difficult by the three decades of ageing since we've last seen them.

The opportunity is taken to provide some of them with an origin story - Captain Hurricane is revealed to be essentially another scientifically-augmented Captain America, as seen through an extremely distorted lense, while three contradictory but equally fascinating (and dubious) accounts are offered for the Spider's beginnings. Meanwhile, my old Shiver and Shake favourite Grimly Feendish is shown to be a far more disturbing figure than ever before, as are his constant companions - the 'squelchies'.

Grimly Feendish and his Squelchies - depicted in a rather more sinister
fashion than his comic origins (inset upper right)
Albion makes no effort to apologise for or sanitise any of these characters; no matter how outlandish or cartoonish some of them seem, they are all plonked firmly into our reality, whether we like it or not. And when it inevitably ends with literally all hell breaking loose, the reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that there's plenty of life left in this particular UK-verse. As Feendish tells his former captor:
"Don't be afraid of these wonderful freaks. Instead revel in them...revel in their absurdity, in their power.  They are us at our bravest and best!"

Safely behind bars?  Hardly...

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Winter Tales

A glowing hearth, warming single malt and... hot water bottles.
Winter is almost here!

An early illustration to accompany an essay about walking a dog
in stormy Island Bay, and still one of the looser pieces I've ever done.
The advent of June also means winter essays - an annual tradition in Your Weekend magazine which I suggested four years ago (partly as a way to insidiously get more of my own writing published), and is still going strong.
I've already posted four previous essays here: and there will be another one along in a few weeks time.

But to mark the advent of winter, here's a small gallery of art I've produced to illustrate other people's essays.

Unrequited love in Copenhagen. The sleeping object of the author's affection is posed
to evoke that city's most famous statue - Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid.
The last time I illustrated my friend Kimberley's essay
the art only featured the back of her head, so I tried to redress
 the balance in this piece for her running story.
A winter weekend tramp which turned into a raucous
 and revelatory night in a remote hut.
This essay was about schoolboy bravado against the
 teeth of winter, except when no-one's looking.
Not for a winter essay, but this illustration of the Aotearoa
during the doomed first attempt at the trans-Tasman flight feels like it belongs with the others.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Stiff Upper Strips: part 3 - Eterno Affairs

Thunder might have only pealed for 22 weeks, but it made a respectable and lasting contribution to the Brit-zarre gallery of UK comic characters

I have to be honest.  I'm basing this post solely on my Thunder annual from 1974, and some half-remembered recollections of seeing the characters in strip form.  When I began researching and discovered that Thunder only lasted 22 issues, I thought a look at this title would be really easy.
But  taking a look at the labyrinthine world of British comics I see how wrong I am.  First of all, Thunder was actually gobbled by up Lion at least two years before this book was published (I refuse to say 'merged' anymore) and secondly, this brilliant hardback features possibly the greatest 'Boy's picture paper' character ever - but he was never in Thunder.

Self-confessed criminal mastermind The Spider in action
I'm referring to The Spider, a compelling anti-heroic fusion of Spider-Man and Mr Spock (although it's worth noting that his aural pointed-ness predated the Vulcan by a couple of years).  He has a beautifully-rendered and written two part strip adventure and an illustrated text story in my Thunder annual, but was actually created in 1965 for Lion, and the bulk of his continuing adventures were written by non-other than Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. The Spider would go on to appear in other publications and even be reprinted in other countries (somewhat confusingly referred to as 'Spiderman').  So this appears to be a case of a defunct title not only having it's own annual (not unusual in itself) but borrowing the star of the comic which absorbed it.  There will be more on the Spider in a future post, for now it's time to look at what Thunder, and this annual specifically,  had to offer.

Adam Eterno - his immortality was kind of given away by the surname
The cover star is Adam Eterno, a former medieval alchemist's assistant 'cursed' with invulnerable immortality, drifting through time until he is manifested to battle evil in various different ages. In this annual he is drawn to adventures in Victorian London and 16th Century Panama - and both are cracking yarns.  As we are frequently reminded, the only substance which can end his existence is gold.  Eterno was to survive two title takeovers, finally disappearing into "the star splashed blackness of space and time" with final home Valiant, in 1976.  As far as we know, he's still waiting to be summoned to battle evil again - maybe in the 21st Century this time.

Black Max and his King Bats
The next most iconic character from Thunder was Black Max, a malevolent German WW1 flying Ace with a remarkable advantage in the air - command of a colony of gigantic bats capable of tearing british planes to pieces. Like the Spider, the question of whether Max himself is completely human is left ambiguous.  In this strip he needs to consult his sinister Grandfather, who looks distinctly vampiric.

These two strips were very atmospheric, leaning toward grim and violent in tone. But lighter-hearted WW11 adventures were provided by The Steel Commando, a British Army uniformed robot who seemed to make Lion's famous robot Archie somewhat defensive after Thunder was taken over.

The Steel Commando continues to give Jerry 'what-for', thirty years after the end of WWII
Elsewhere Fury's family, a troop of former circus animals able to communicate with their young guardian, satisfied my young fascination with wildlife, and the Spooks of St Lukes gave distinctly Shiver and Shake-esque chuckles.

Fury and some of his 'family'
But I'll end  with a nightmarish curiosity which would send shivers down the spine of many adult readers today: Dr Mesmer's Revenge. A creepy, once again marginally human-looking, Sorcerer steals a Neolithic artifact of great occult power with the help of his servant, Angor, a re-animated Egyptian mummy - but invokes the wrath of ancient spirits during at an ancient stone circle.
Brrrrrr.  I was at  the tender age of eight when I gleefully devoured this horror show - and some people wonder why scary films almost never bother me.

Dr Mesmer's Revenge - nightmare material

Like most British Boy's papers, the artwork throughout this annual is exquisitely detailed and realistic, a counterpoint to the far more stylised artwork we saw from American comics at this time. Artists were seldom credited in British comics, apparently as an attempt to prevent them being poached by other titles (and possibly to obscure the fact that many of them were actually South American).  But you can't hide genius - even at a young age I could recognise the different techniques and characteristics of these unsung heroes, who again unlike the States-side artists, drew and inked their own artwork.

In the concluding part of this look at British comics, we'll examining the strange rumours regarding the fates of this bewildering galaxy of Brit-zarre characters, who seemed to suddenly disappear without a trace in the mid-1970s.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Better the Devil

Like the character itself, Netflix's Daredevil series triumphs
against all odds.

I wish I knew who to credit with this striking graphic, but it certainly wasn't me.

 I'll be honest, I didn't really mind Fox's 2003 film version of Daredevil.  It seemed to be well cast and well-meaning, but was just a passing blip on everyone's sonar-sense. And when it is remembered at all it seems to be with some degree of derision.

When Marvel recently announced that Daredevil was coming to the small screen I might have rolled my eyes.  I assumed that getting a television series while all his Marvel stablemates had mega-budget cinema outings was the equivalent of being put in the 'naughty corner', and a publicity still of an awkward-looking Charlie Cox in an ill-fitting costume did little to allay my misgivings.  Then the somewhat overcooked Age of Ultron lowered my Marvel-lous expectations even further.

But I had the opportunity to watch the Daredevil series recently, so out of curiosity gave the first episode a look.  I was reasonably entertained but a little ambivalent, so I think it might have been the fascinating title sequence alone which encouraged me to try episode two.

And by the end of this second part I was completely hooked - I'd never seen anything like it before.  It's a very raw and uncompromising hour of TV, but its unflinching narrative serves a purpose.  Four major characters are given more definition than many other shows can give in weeks and our hero, although barely able to stand, shows a determination which transcends this genre.  What he manages to achieve at the end of the episode isn't merely heroics for their own sake, but an unsettling demonstration of inhuman determination and mind-over-lascerated matter.  I'll admit it, the bravura six-minute continuous-shot brawl in the corridor is a very guilty pleasure, but by the end you are 100% behind Matt Murdoch.

Murdoch is forever making the excuse of walking into a door to explain his injuries.

From this point in the series just continues getting better. Charlie Cox  as Murdoch is extremely charismatic despite the fact that his eyes are rarely seen, and Vincent D'Onofrio as his nemesis Wilson Fisk is equally terrifying in both his serene and berserker moments.  I'm not referring to them as Daredevil or Kingpin because the programme doesn't either (not until the very final moments for DD, at least).

Don't call him 'slap-head'...

Comic adaptations work best when they manage to present their subject in a way that seems completely fresh.  It must be too easy to fall into the same short-hand which comics use, where characters are so often well-worn archetypes or placeholder symbols; but this series gives us a familiar Marvel character who isn't named or even seen in costume until the last scenes of the final episode, and the production is stronger for it.

Such expectations are confounded from the beginning. Fisk is seen to suffer a crisis of the soul which is not directly brought about by our hero, and then given a touching romance plot-line which villains would seldom be granted anywhere else.  Murdoch spends an episode and a half recovering from a near-fatal beating, during which time his best friend abandons him.

And yes, on a baser level the action is great.  The fight choreography is like nothing I've ever seen before, rapid, gymnastic and convincing for someone who is using all his senses except sight.
I've been told that this series is attempting to steal some of DCs thunder because of similarities to Arrow, repeating many of the beats and stylings of that show.  I didn't last past the pilot of that one so can't judge, but for that reason I'm guessing Daredevil may not appeal to Arrow fans.  A shame if so: I honestly struggle to name one gripe about this vibrant and gritty new addition to Marvel's successful adaptations (a second series was greenlit very soon after Daredevil's debut).

Well, maybe one.. I'm still not entirely sure about that suit.  But even that says a lot about this programme.  Many superhero adaptations draw audiences who just want to see the main character in costume - Daredevil might be the first which actually delivers more without it.

It might take some getting used to, but this suit really is for his own good.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Stiff Upper Strips: Part two - Pun of Kong

IPC Publishing release a new weekly comedy-horror comic
- is it a case of 'deja woo-o-o-o'?

Editor Frankie Stein brandishes a Badtime Bedtime storybook: Trouser Island.

I had discovered Shiver and Shake all by myself, but it was my mother who got me the first issue of Monster Fun in 1975, turning a sick day home from school into a literary event.
I'd badly missed Shiver and Shake when it became Whoopee-ised, but unexpectedly, here was a second chance - another comic solely devoted to the same spooky fun.  In fact, Frankie Stein was apparently the editor and with many of the Shiver and Shake artists contributing there was a distinct feeling of a happy return to the 'ghoul old days'.

Having not long seen the original King Kong for the first time, I was very excited to see that the cover strip was 'Kid Kong', a banana-loving, gently giant gorilla (once again apparently in a school uniform). I'll resist a sideways glance here - as I've said before, these were more innocent times and this peculiarly British trait could only have been a slightly gauche attempt at readership identification. Like Frankie Stein before him, his adventures generally played on the contrast between his frightening appearance and almost angelic nature, with hilarious results (TM).

Issue one came with a free gift - 'the plate wobbler', a small inflatable bladder which you placed under someone's dinner dish for 'spooky fun'.  I recall my Dad was more perturbed by the fact that we were actually using a table cloth for once, than any seismic crockery activity when I tried it on him.

Turning the Bash Street Kids ethos on it's head, a memorable feature inside was Creature Teacher, a cyclopic horror created as a last ditch attempt to control notorious class 3X, but actually the hero of the strip. A later entry who often became the cover star thanks to the zeitgeist of the time, was Gums the shark, and his eternal struggle to retain his 'false choppers'. But the real star of Monster Fun was actually a supplement: Trevor Baxendale's legendary Badtime Bedtime storybooks.

Rumpimpleskin, Supa SpyderBat ("he's half man, half spider, half bat, half wit!"), Doctor Poo ("our story begins at 23 extermination Avenue, Skaro - a small town with just one chip shop"), no character or genre was safe from the gleefully-mental BBSB treatment.
The humour in these was several levels above the rest of the comic, encapsulating the target age but also packing a subversive zaniness which can still appeal to adults today. The cast list for The Adventures of Hannibal, for example, includes: "Joey the Budgie as Hannibal's elephant and Uncle Jimmy as the entire Roman Army".

Even better yet was this cut out and collect booklet which I still (tragically) own today. In its four-colour pages I learned about films like The Alligator People and Godzilla, as well as a lot more about dinosaurs (a subject I was unsurprisingly already well clued-up on).
It all sounds too good to be true again, doesn't it readers? Lasting six issues less than Shiver and Shake before it, Monster Fun was taken over by the far more generic (bland), but popular Buster in October 1976. Deja Boo-hoo.

After 73 wonderful issues, it was 'Goodnight' from Monster Fun
Like Shiver and Shake, Monster Fun hardback Annuals continued until the mid eighties and were always very welcome at Christmas-time. But after this second absorption of a favourite title I was never to buy a British comic again. (yes, that's right, I just never took to 2000 AD - I know it is beloved by legions, but not me. Sorry.) Starburst and Starlog became more my thing after the arrival of 'you know what' in May 1977.

But next time we're travelling back again to pre-Shiver and Shake, to look at a Thunder-ing good (but even shorter-lived) title.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Art of Wars

At last, I've remembered to post about Star Wars on May 4th. The film of course debuted on May 25, 1977 but the pun is too fourthful to resist, making today the official commemoration.

At the height of Star Wars fever, the wall facing my bed looked something like this.

And while suffering the height of glandular fever in 1978 there was little I could do but stare at these three posters between bouts of sleep and vomiting. In fact, I often had a ghostly negative after-image of Darth Vader flitting about in my vision when it didn't hurt too much to move my eyes. The robots poster is of course an enlarged still from the movie's opening moments. Owning this long before I ever saw the film, I experienced an almost audible click of recognition when Threepio struck that pose for a second as he hears the main reactors shut down. Suddenly I wasn't looking at a cinema screen but, weirdly, my bedroom wall along with hundreds of strangers.
But it was the centre poster which has quite rightly assumed iconic status, it's painterly magnificence long outlasting publicity shoots and movie stills, and even transcending the film itself to become an emblem of the 1970s.

Odd really, as Star Wars is so much about clean metallic lines and sharp-edged, high contrast design, that an artistic impression devoid of accurate likenesses or genuine scenario embodies that first film like nothing else.
Odder still when you consider that this art, painted by the brothers Hildebrandt, wasn't even used as the cinema poster. In America, it was this image by Tom Jung (which the Hildebrandts used as their reference).

And Britain used this piece by Hammer poster stalwart Tom Chantrell, (which is possibly why it features Peter Cushing). And it is utterly magnificent for completely different reasons.

The Hildebrandt art was instead used widely on merchandise from T-Shirts to Clarke's shoes to an art print and the public quickly recognised what the studios had not. It might not have been in cinema lobbies but was hanging in bedrooms everywhere and became, then and forever more, the definitive Star Wars poster.

In the panic and anxiety leading up to Star Wars' release in 1977, Lucasfilm apparently decided that the Jung artwork (with its snarling Vader) was 'too dark' and so Fox hired fantasy artists Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, to paint their own interpretation. But they evidently didn't think to provide them with reference of Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill.
The Hildebrandts were twin artists with painting styles so similar that promotional material of the time suggests that they each painted one side of the resulting poster. Greg Hildebrandt recalls:
“The reason they called us is because Tim and I had just done the Lord of the Rings calendar, and we had a fan following. We had come through literally overnight for them on a poster for Young Frankenstein. It wasn’t used, but we did it overnight, so they called us and said we need a poster fast.”
The Hildebrandt's created their original painting in just 36 hours, but revealed a last minute amendment at the director's bequest: "George Lucas asked for the droids to be added and for our signatures to be larger. We made those changes at the ad agency, and off it went!”

Where are the droids you're looking for?
Although the finished poster wasn't used in US cinemas,  Japan, Norway and Israel merged accurate likenesses of Fisher and Hamill with the Hildebrandt art in their own campaigns. However, Tim and Greg eventually had their day fifteen years later when their painting was finally used in theatres to promote a Star Wars anniversary re-release.

And for many of us, there will always be an alternative Star Wars universe where the rebel attack on the Death Star was launched from Tatooine, Luke spent a lot of time at the gym and Leia's dress sported a most unPrincess-like split right up to her royal navel.

Happy Star Wars day!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Stiff upper strips 1: Elephant Graveyard

After the recent, not disappointment exactly, perhaps mild diversion, non-epic pass, of the latest Marvel juggernaut, I've decided to start a short series looking at my favourite comics on the other side of the Atlantic.

ROSE: That's more like it. Bit of a smile. The old team. 
DOCTOR: Hope and Glory, Mutt and Jeff, Shiver and Shake. 
ROSE: Which one's Shiver? 
DOCTOR: Oh, I'm Shake. 
(Doctor Who, 2006)

When I was growing up I wasn't so much interested in four-colour guys in tights beating each other up as we got from the States*, but black and white chortle-some fun with a spooky edge from my native British Isles.
It was so long ago that I'm sorry to admit I might have been sent to the shops with a parental note to buy cigarettes, and came back with a comic, the first I'd ever purchased for myself.  I was already a weird kid, so it was the picture on the back cover which sold it for me:

Artist Ken Reid's Creepy Creations always struck a perfect balance between humorous and horrific. Just look at this fungoid monstrosity, making it's way across a moonlit moor towards an unsuspecting Tudor farmhouse. If it wasn't looking over its shoulder with a cheeky grin the 'Terrible twig of Truro' could be utterly terrifying...

The comic was the legendary Shiver and Shake from IPC publishing, famous for its top-billing character Frankie Stein (originally from '60s title Wham!). Other spookily-themed strips included the double page 'Scream Inn', Horrornation St - featuring vampire immigrant Herr Raisin (see what they did there?), mutated-Blofeld Grimly Feendish (also ex-Wham!) and of course, those wonderful back page Creepy Creations which first hooked me.  Title characters Shiver and Shake were themselves adapted from an previous strip in Cor! (see, who needs the Marvel Cinematic universe - this was just as byzantine) and this wonderful comic came out every week - artists certainly earned their wages in those days)

One of my favourite strips, Scream Inn, was turned into a board game.
The mission statement was in the title. you would 'shiver' with creepy delight at the eponymous ghost's hammy horror-based strips, and 'shake' with mirth (or chortle at least) at the exploits of the titular pachyderm and his chums in their pull-out section. In hindsight, an elephant in a schoolboy uniform is actually far more disturbing then anything Shiver could conjure in his pages, but these were more innocent times...

Another wonderful UK comics tradition was the holiday/summer special, and a bumper-sized issue promised the same but more. Occasional features in these fed my growing interest in horror films - on one occasion a snarling Christopher Lee in his many horror guises could be found sandwiched between the exploits of Blunder Puss and Soggy the sea monster. It was all too good to be true.  And we know what happens when that's the case, don't we readers?

My first inkling of the harsh economic realities of the real world bit hard with an awful revelation in issue 79 in 1974. "Hey readers, there's big news for you inside!" promised Frankie Stein on the cover.
Well, he wasn't lying...

The logo on the bottom left says it all 'WHOOPEE' and Shiver&Shake' ... this wasn't a merger, it was a takeover by a comic I had little interest in. Rather than linger to watch every last trace of my beloved weekly fade spectrally away, I jumped the Whoopee and Shiver & Shake ship  - less painful that way.

There was some good news however. Although the comic itself had gone, the wonderful hardback Shiver and Shake annuals continued to appear right up until 1985 - and were a beloved mainstay of my Christmas Day bounty for many a year. Thanks Mum and Dad... I mean, Santa!

RT Nixon always raised his already stellar game for the Christmas Annual covers. 
I was more influenced by him then I realise, as any time I attempt a cartoon
the character always has their pinky extended, like Frankie Stein, above.

But the year after Shiver and Shake's demise, a new similarly based chuckles and chills title from IPC appeared, full of Fun, and Monsters - and we'll look at that one next.

*Predictably enough, it was the now defunct and 'dark as a midnight coal cellar' Marvel Horror titles which really captured my imagination.  Tomb of Dracula, The Living Mummy, Werewolf by Night, Morbius the Vampire and The Monster of Frankenstein were eagerly consumed by me and will get a post of their own, oh yes indeed...