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Cup of O – Small Press Reviews

Cup of O - Small Press Reviews

 

Happy 2015 to all Down the Tubes readers!

I’ve got a bumper crop of reviews for you – all of them are comics bought at the tail end of 2013 (this is how big my reading pile is!) at the first Lakes International and the Thought Bubble of that year.

 

Raygun Roads (Changeling Studios) Owen Michael Johnson/Indio

Raygun Roads

 

Raygun Roads is utterly ridiculous. A madcap conceptual mash-up between the alternative comics of the late eighties and a neon rumination on artistic expression wrapped up in a flip-it-over-halfway-through-and-read-it-from-the-other-side false EP type of affair. There are even different ‘track names’ throughout. As a story, it’s muddled and confusing. As a concept, it’s thrillingly bonkers and has a very enticing palpable message at its heart – “art is the weapon”. Any art, all art. Expression beats repression. Creativity is king – and the wild flailing tendrils of our minds can light up the darkest corners of the world if set free. Not sure about that last one, but that’s what I got from it anyway.

I’d read a report only this week about Amazon’s workers and how they damage their sanity to reach to inhumane deadlines – and Johnson’s hapless prawns in “the pit” with “leisure time assigned at one breathe-cycle (20 minutes) per week” chimed with me. The crazy dayglo mash of pop-culture references and various other weirdnesses seem far more appealing when considering those unfortunate corporate types curled up in their car desperately trying to catch sleep as they stress themselves into sickness to earn money.

Whilst the story ducks and dodges through the outer limits of logic the art remains consistently remarkable throughout – Indio is a serious talent and the breathlessly elastic dayglo 1960s- underground meets-1990s indie style is brilliantly readable throughout. You get the feeling the warped scenarios may have fallen flat in any other set of hands and there is plenty here to stun and amaze.

Raygun Roads is, as I said, utterly ridiculous. Not quite a comic. Not quite a band – but urgent and interesting and DEFINITELY something worth experiencing. Don’t be a prawn.

 

The Absence #1 (Titan) Martin Stiff

The Absence by Martin Stiff

 

After a long chat with the author at Thought Bubble 2013 I snapped up the last freebie of #1 of The Absence – which has since been entirely collected as a graphic novel by Titan. Issue One alone is darkly compelling – a story of post-war England and a disfigured soldier who returns home to a cold seaside community in mourning. Stiff’s art is all heavy shadows and is often superbly framed although his faces can verge on being “off” but nothing seems totally out of place. Balancing the shadows there’s a lot of open space and the pacing generally is excellent. The style put me in mind of the small press’s own Conor Boyle and his work on Owen Michael Johnson’s phenomenal Thaddeus Mist.

I think I’ll seek out the full graphic novel – as this was more than enough to get me keen for what may follow…

Briar Freebie (Improper Books) Benjamin Read/Chris Wildgoose

Briar

Since the release of their phenomenal Porcelain, Improper Books have made a habit out of filling Thought Bubble with beautiful American-floppy sized freebies. Last Thought Bubble it was for the Porcelain sequel coming in 2015 but in 2013 it was for Briar – another deliciously gothic fairytale by Benjamin Read and Christian Wildgoose. Although it transpires that the full Briar won’t be with us any time soon, this teaser is as strikingly paced and beautifully drawn as Porcelain – with excellent lettering from veteran word-king Jim Campbell. Although the relatively over-saturated colours of Jordan Boyd had me longing for the gorgeous muted palette of Porcelain‘s amazing Andre May. Hopefully it won’t be another year before we see the full version of this!

 

Drokk #1 (Futurequake Press) Edited by Dave Evans & Richmond Clements

Drokk #1 - Cover

 

From the Galaxy’s Greatest Fanzine Zarjaz comes an off-kilter variation on the familiar – with the general theme being ‘Zarjaz Without Limits’ – affectionate parodies abound, rarely-seen characters surface and a sense of playfulness is defiantly present throughout. All stories (with the exception of “Savage Zenith”) are ably lettered by co-editor Bolt-01.

COVER (David Frankum)
Unlike Zarjaz and Dogbreath, which regularly features actual 2000AD droids, Drokk goes with interior artist David Frankum. It’s a real winner and a rewarding feature across the centre pages of the issue charts its development. The bold design of a grappled Zenith and a crow-bothered Savage in a Kentish pub (crammed with Kent-themed easter eggs) is irresistible. Hopefully this won’t be the last cover we see from this brilliant droid-in-waiting.

SAVAGE ZENITH (Chris Denton & David Frankum)
The cover story is the shining highlight of the issue for me – Bill Savage of “Invasion” fame goes for a pint with Zenith and it’s all uphill from there. This is the canon-messery of Drokk in a tidy and brilliantly realised nutshell. Denton’s script is fun and well-paced and Frankum’s art bristles with phenomenal detail and personality. A real treat.

M.A.C.H. 3 – Conflagration (Derek Hamill, John Hutcheson & Bolt-01)
A tidy three-pager that has a laugh with the M.A.C.H. concept whilst dragging it smartly into another continuity. The art by John Hutcheson is solid and quite reminiscent of the seventies art of the original M.A.C.H. stories – so is a very clever fit.

MECHANISMO… (Derek Hamill, Mike Bunt & Bolt-01)
A fairy-tale like story set in Mega-City One with a nice rhyming shtick and a solid shadowy grimness but it seems to drag on forever and doesn’t really have the same out-there canon-bothering weirdness of the other tales. Bunt’s art is quite inconsistent but fits the story well – ultimately one of the weaker points in the issue and could have done with being a great deal more succinct.

LEEZEE & GENE (Richard McAuliffe, Roland Bird & Bolt-01)
Speaking of succinct – Leezee & Gene is an utterly brilliant three-page gag that I can’t really explain without ruining, save from that it features the refreshing appearance of “Kingdom” characters and acts as an accidental showreel for the phenomenally strong artwork of Roland Bird who draws the serious portion of the joke so well that he easily matches (and would surpass with colour) “Kingdom” artist Richard Elson! Utterly fantastic.

ROGUE TROOPER – I Am But Mad North-North-West (Dan Hill, David Broughton & Bolt-01)
A Zarjaz production wouldn’t feel right without speedy art king and small press lord David Broughton and on Dan Hill’s bleak Rogue-With-a-Twist tale he’s on fire. You can see the twist ending coming a mile off but the journey is glorious and Broughton’s Rogue is an intense and convincing figure. I’d love to see more of this.

SLADE B.C.P.D. – Ro-Man Tragedy (Dirk Van Dom, Mike Bunt & Bolt-01)
Bunt contributes yet another relatively long story to Drokk – this one is written by Dirk Van Dom and concerns a relatively straight-forward story of Samantha Slade who here is not a freelance Robo-Hunter but working for the Brit-Cit Justice Department. As a Robo-Hunter. The straightforward story being told here works well enough but the whole conceit isn’t really ‘Drokk – this is weird’ enough to justify it. It’s just… Samantha Slade but she’s a cop. Bunt’s art is much more consistent than in his earlier outing but it would have been nice to have seen a different artist for varieties sake at least – 20 of the 42 pages of comic in Drokk is drawn by him alone!

JUDGE DEATH – Personal Business (Richard McAuliffe, Roland Bird & Bolt-01)
The final tale in the issue is more maudlin than mad but it is chilling and effective – echoing McAuliffe’s disturbing work on Dark Judgement (very much worth seeking out) and another go with the magnificent Roland Bird who draws so naturally in the Dreddverse it wouldn’t be surprising if it makes any curious editorial aliens a bit jittery about the face and head.

Overall a little lacking in variety, but the highlights of the issue are easily worth the price of admission – particularly “Savage Zenith” and the McAuliffe/Bird stories. If there’s to be another Drokk more insanity and different creators would be perfect but it’s a bold start and truly a fantastic idea.

Team Zarjaz never cease to impress and inspire – with the talent they shepherd and the consistency of the anthologies they put out.

 

Pirates of the Lost World (Markosia) Richmond Clements/Conor Boyle

Pirates of the Lost World

 

Pirates meet dinosaurs in a rollicking adventure from small press stalwarts Richard Clements and Conor Boyle. The handsome slim hardback from Markosia was one of my top purchases from the 2013 Thought Bubble convention – Clements story is mercifully light on waffle and dives straight into the action – characters don’t stand around and pontificate in this world and there is little explanation as to how things have come about. It’s stronger for that however – the space that could of held boxes and boxes of exposition is left for action sequences and it builds a brilliant forward momentum.

That sacrifice means that beyond a few key necessary facts there’s very little in terms of character development and some of the deaths within (no spoilers) lose a little impact because of it. One of the pirate characters, a sword-wielder known as Mr Ronin speaks entirely in phonetic Japanese which is a slightly tiresome gimmick as he speaks quite a lot and a translation is never offered. Aside from this, it’s a punchy and engaging story with enough character and action to solidify the simple premise of ‘Pirates vs Dinosaurs’ into a tremendously readable story.

Boyle’s art is fantastically consistent – perpetually moving from strength to strength his art here is unfussy and brilliantly kinetic. At times reminiscent of 2000AD powerhouse Ben Willsher – but more often-than-not he’s purely him. Known for working miracles in black and white, Pirates is in full colour which is presumably also by Boyle. He does a solid job with a nicely muted palette and some of his splash pages are astoundingly beautiful – particularly the first one. Like the art itself – the colours are very much understated and work well for it. The exceptions are a few glaring glow-type effects that variously describe clouds or direct sunlight but never quite work. I’m also making the assumption that the lettering within is by Boyle as well – which is completely functional and doesn’t irritate in the least. Some sound effects work particularly well.

A brilliant Markosia book from 2013 and well worth investigating if you missed it at the time – it’s a comic that lives up to its tagline with breathless energy and phenomenal charm. Let’s hope it’s not the last time these two creative dervishes collaborate.

Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht – If You Want Blood (Bump and Grind Comics) The Emperor/Alex Ronald 

Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht

 

It’s refreshing when something does what it says on the tin with such confidence. This is about vampire nazis and occult shenanigans in the second world war and is roughly equal parts seventies war comic, forgotten hammer horror and rejected-for-being insane Carry On. It is shamelessly explicit, filthily innuendo-ridden and quite a lark. The consequence of all that is that the plot is about as thin as tissue paper but with painted art as astonishingly stunning as Ronald’s this could just be a script based on toothpaste ingredients and I’d have read it. Not to discredit the glorious gonzo insanity of Vampire Vixens of course – but just don’t go into this expecting any sly satire or characterization. The book is in glorious full A4 and it really is a spectacle – helped through into sensibility by the always-apt lettering of the legendary Jim Campbell whose sound effects really can make the eyes water especially during *certain* scenes.

Classic cult comic in the making – the simplicity of the subject rendered into face-melting detail by the irresistible art of the amazing Alex Ronald.

Related Links

• Raygun Roads:  www.raygunroads.com

• The Absence (Titan Books): titan-comics.com/c/56-the-absence

• Briar (Improper Books): www.improperbooks.com/projects/briar

• Drokk (Futurequake Press): www.comicsy.co.uk/bolt01

• Pirates of the Lost World (Markosia): www.markosia.com/graphic-novels/pirates-of-the-lost-world

• Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht: www.vampirevixens.co.uk

About Owen Watts

Owen Watts is a small press editor, artist and colourist. He currently co-edits The Psychedelic Journal of Time Travel - a twice-yearly small press anthology featuring over 15 different emerging creators every issue. He has recently helped colour Ben Dickson & Gavin Mitchell's Santa Claus vs. The Nazis for Aces Weekly which is due out as a single volume with Borderline Press later in 2014. He also runs the 2000 AD forum art competition, reviews small press comics and becomes a hippo every second Thursday.
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