18 January 2004

A Personal Journey in the World of Comics - I

Most children like comics; most of those stop reading them. I've never really understood why. After all, people don't grow out of novels or films or television, do they? Why should one medium be so scorned? Is there something intrinsically juvenile about telling stories through a sequence of juxtaposed pictures, or about combining words and pictures?

I don't think there is, and if you read Scott McCloud's marvellous Understanding Comics I'm sure you won't either. If McCloud's attempt to establish what comics are, how they work, and what they can be is intriguing to you, take a look at some decent comics.

You need to be careful here; Sturgeon's Law* is particularly applicable to the comics industry, if not the actual medium. For some hints I'd suggest you peruse the list of 60 Comics I drew up back in July to show what I'd use if I wanted to set up a basic comics library.

The Tale of One Bad Rat, Why I Hate Saturn, Maus, Ghostworld, and Mr Punch would all be excellent starting points.

That'd be my advice for an adult coming to comics with no experience in the medium. I have no real idea what I'd suggest for children, I'm afraid, though I'd be tempted to point them in the direction of Tintin, Asterix, Bone, and The Batman Adventures. Would I be allowed to hint at The Day I Swapped my Dad for two Goldfish?

The first comics I remember reading were old annuals and comics belonging to my older brother and sisters - Bunty and Mandy annuals were rather incongruously read alongside Battle, Action, Valiant, and Warlord. That was definitely an eclectic mix; I'm sure than can be few children who would read tales of female Oliver Twists or aspiring figure-skaters, and then turn to such delights as Charley's War and Johnny Red.

Other, very different, comics were to be read in friends' houses. I became acquainted with Buster through Derek Mealiff, a Canadian lad who lived in the area for a year, and I will never forget reading about 'The Numbskulls' in Diarmait's house - was that in Whizzer and Chips? I really don't know. The Beano and the Dandy were, of course, ubiquitous.

Superhero comics were a rarity. Dave had a reprint of an early X-Men comic -- the one that introduced the Blob -- and I managed to pick up one about Professor Xavier being in a coma, and a comic that reprinted the first part of the legendary 'Days of Future Past'.

Other than that? I remember a friend having a comic with some Marvel heroines in -- most notably She-Hulk and Valkyrie who I guess must have been a sidekick of Thor's and who may well have engendered my lifelong approval of plaits. My sister acquired a small black-and-white tome that reprinted several Silver Surfer tales, and when Spiderman and Zoids was available I was able to read much of the now classic 'Death of Jean DeWolfe' saga, written by Peter David at the start of his comics career. Curiously, the 'Zoids' stories in those comics were written by an inexperienced Scot named Grant Morrison, who has since gone on to much greater things.

There was also a Batman or Superman annual or two. I remember little about such, barring one story where Batman and Robin travelled to an alternative universe to save the parents of that dimension's Bruce Wayne.

Anything else? Well, there was Absalom Daak, Dalek Killer, but I can't even remember whether that stood alone, or was part of another book. It was good though. Early Steve Dillon art; wonderful stuff. And I'd occasionally borrow some issues of Transformers from Ed; 'Target 2006' and stuff like that, set in what seemed a very distant future!

The Galaxy's Greatest
I suppose that I would have drifted away from comics like almost every other child were it not for one thing. When I was about eight, a friend's older brother began buying 2000 AD, which back then was absolutely marvellous.

Strangely, the comic's leading man, Judge Dredd, hardly impressed me at all, but I adored the other stories: the weird, frightening, fantastic, terrifyingly intolerant world of 'Nemesis the Warlock'; the hopeless heroism of Johnny Alpha, a mutant bounty hunter policing the galaxy to keep it safe for people who hated him and all his type; the anarchic ultra-violent comedy of 'D.R. and Quinch', so much else, so much of which is literally in my blood now. John Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills, Gerry Finley Day, and Alan Moore burned their stories and ideas into my mind. 

I wasn't particularly enamoured with 'The Ballad of Halo Jones', which is almost certainly the finest thing ever published in 2000 AD, but things change; it was probably a bit advanced for a boy of nine or ten. Racial prejudice and rampant violence I could comprehend; girls going shopping or working as hostesses, well, that wasn't quite so appealling.

I'm afraid that for four years I simply read the comic in Dave's house, only ever buying it myself two or three times. Just before I turned twelve though, as I was about to leave primary school, I bought prog 520 of the comic, which was the beginning of the comic having high quality colour, and, it must be said, low quality writing and editing, though the decline wasn't to become obvious for a while. I began buying 2000 AD just as it had peaked. Be that as it may, there was still plenty of good stuff being published in the comic.

I'd been buying it but three months when 'Revolution' was run. This was a 'Judge Dredd' story, the sequel to the heartbreaking 'Letter from a Democrat'. That story had dealt with what was effectively a suicide attack on a TV studio by a group of democratic 'extremists', determined to make their case to the people of Mega City One that they ought to be allowed some measure of control over their lives; the democrats' own lives were rapidly cut short by Dredd and his fellow judges who brutally stormed the studio.

What had made that story particularly poignant, rather than just thoughtful, was its format; it had a 'voiceover', a letter carried by one of the dead democrats to her husband, explaining why she had felt compelled to take part in this doomed attack to try to make a better world for her children. 'Revolution' was set a couple of years later, with the dead Hester Hyman as a martyr to the democratic movement and an enormous march being organised to demand democracy from the judges; the march was a catastrophe, owing to it having been sabotaged in numerous ways by Dredd and his fellow judges. This dark and sophisticated theme ran through the Dredd strip for years after this, which is just one more reason why you should try to blank from your memories any trace of the muddled simplistic Sylvester Stallone rendering of Dredd.

Within two months of that the first phase of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's 'Zenith' drew to a close. Aside from having such wonderful characters as Zenith himself, a 1980s Rick Astley-esque pop brat with superpowers, and Peter St John, a superpowered hippy turned Tory Secretary of Defence, that tale featured the first sequence in any comic that left me gawping at the page.

The sequence where Siadwell Rhys, the Red Dragon, was slain by the villain, astounded me. Have a look:

I had never seen a comic move so fast. The panels appeared to shoot by. To this day I have remained in awe of Steve Yeowell for that feat; this was the first time I ever really thought about comics as narratives, rather than as a sequence of nice pictures, the first time I thought of comic artists as storytellers rather than illustrators.

A year or so later 2000 AD did something else that amazed me. I know plenty of people who've cried when watching films or television, or when reading books, or listening to music. Well, when Johnny Alpha died I shed a tear or two. Johnny had been, along with the Arthurian knights, the real hero of my childhood; one picture of him so impressed me that I must have copied it dozens of times and now have a scanned version of it on my computer's desktop. Johnny died, as his sidekick Wulf had died a few years earlier. And like Wulf, and unlike so many American comic heroes, Johnny stayed dead.

Around that time, 2000 AD branched out and started a sister comic, the ill-fated Crisis. I loved Crisis at the time, though I'm not sure what I'd think of it now. A lot of my early thoughts about politics were formed by Pat Mills's painfully worthy 'Third World War', but if Crisis had any real impact on what I thought of comics, it lay with the fact that Crisis #15 featured the first part of Garth Ennis's 'Troubled Souls'.

'Troubled Souls' was a political thriller set in Northern Ireland; it was fully painted, which was groundbreaking from my limited experience of comics, and had gentle sequences set in the countryside, funny scenes in the pub or in people's houses, a genuine political viewpoint, and of course revolved around terrorism.

For all its faults, and apparently Garth hates to look at it now, it was a hell of an entrance into the world of comics, and what's more, was about the real world. Yes, it was still genre fiction and was set in a world I had no knowledge of, but it was a world without spaceships, robots, laser guns, mutants, time travel, demons, Celtic warriors, superheroes, or women with impossibly large breasts.

The significance of 'Troubled Souls' to me was not limited to its subject matter. I was amazed when I met Garth Ennis at his first signing in Dublin to find that he was really only a few years older than me. So was John McCrea, the artist who had illustrated the strip. And they were both from Belfast. Barely twenty years old, Irish, and making comics for a living. How could this be?

I Have A Dream...
I'd long been interested in how comics were actually created. 2000 AD annuals would usually have sections where they'd interview writers or artists, or would show what a comic script looked like, or how a story would actually be drawn. Ian Gibson once had a fine section in, I think, the 1985 2000 AD annual where he demonstrated step-by-step how he drew that annual's 'Judge Dredd' story, and old interviews with Massimo Belardinelli and Brian Bolland have long stayed with me.

Well, I began to get a bit of an obsession with becoming a comic artist. Small stories for my school magazine, each showing a definite improvement in technique and storytelling, were censored, banned, or rejected outright; nevertheless, my English teacher encouraged me in my dream. I backed down from the idea of doing art for my Leaving Cert, but kept on drawing.

I began a degree in Commerce, and stopped after half a year, and kept drawing, and just before I began studying for my Arts degree, went to London to attend the UK Comic Art Convention, carting along my portfolio. It was utterly scorned (rightly) by one editor, but John Higgins, who had drawn 'Letter from a Democrat' and 'Revolution' all those years before, gave me a lot of useful advice, and I went home happy, all set to learn about the Gracchi, Homer, Socrates, and the Parthenon, and to keep on drawing.

A year later I returned to London, this time knowing well that I wasn't ready, but keen on getting advice. Steve Pugh, who had continued drawing the stories of Johnny Alpha's sidekicks, gave me some vital encouragement and complemented my storytelling, and Bryan Talbot, the astoundingly gifted creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and The Tale of One Bad Rat, gave me usefully frank criticism about anatomy and storytelling.

Like the great Will Eisner, who I met once in Dublin, Talbot really pushed the importance of life-drawing as a way of learning about anatomy, and also suggested that I study cinema carefully to see how directors composed their shots. That started another obsession, and I headed back to Dublin, clutching two pages of original artwork from Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic, and determined to draw even more and to watch and study all sorts of films.

The following year I headed back to Bedford Way, once more to tout my work, but more to enjoy the convention. I knew I wasn't good enough to be published, but the advice I got was useful, it was nice to meet people whose work I admired, and there were always interesting events; I still have a soft spot for Bryan Talbot's slideshow on how he created The Tale of One Bad Rat and for the talk Scott McCloud gave in Ladbrook Grove on the future of comics. This time the only professional I approached for advice was Steve Pugh, who was particularly taken with a fantasy strip I'd drawn, and how my rendering had come on. I was definitely going to make it, he said. I'd need more practice, but I was definitely going to make it.

And then I returned to Dublin and entered the final year of my degree. I've hardly drawn since.
* 90 per cent of everything is crud.

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