Alas: Bernie Wrightson RIP


Most people will be mourning the loss of Chuck Berry, a rock’n’roll legend, but for me the sadder news is the death of comic book artist, Bernie Wrightson, aged 68, after several years of illness during which he was unable to draw.

I’ve read very little of Wrightson’s work, but enough to recognise him as a major artist. He was one of those ultra-bright sparks of the early-to-middle Seventies, an instantly recognisable artist whose work was on a higher level than the generic art you got. Wrightson’s work took its inspiration from an older generation of artists than his contemporaries: Frank Frazetta, and EC’s Graham Ingels in particular.

His work had depth, passion and detail, and his forte was horror, and he wasn’t going to last, like the other ultra-bright sparks, because he needed time to draw, to make art, and the soul-crushing, intensely-pressured and dirt-cheap comics of the era, where every expense was spared to make the package cheaper and nastier, more inimical to quality, as long as it was cheap, was no environment for Wrightson and his ilk.

He produced an illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the only time I’ve ever read the novel, with full-page, intensely detailed drawings that looked like engravings of a fineness way beyond anything Marvel or DC could have produced.

But Berni (as he then styled himself) Wrightson’s legacy is his co-creation, with Len Wein, of the Swamp Thing: a ten page short which is one of the most perfect short stories ever done, and the first ten issues of a series that is the foundation of an astonishing character, alive to this day and beyond.

He was a great.

Another Good Man… RIP Murray Ball


When I was an active comics fan, I used to pride myself on getting in ahead of the crowds on new American newspaper strips, before they’d achieve public consciousness over here. I had the first three Far Side collections on import through Comics Conventions and Marts before a single Desk Calendar appeared on a single UK desk, I was up to my ears in the hilarity of Calvin & Hobbes before it made it big over here. I wasn’t smug or anything, as nobody cared, but being tuned into that world meant picking up on things sooner.

That was the case with the only New Zealand newspaper strip I’ve ever seen. Murray Ball had lived and worked in the UK in the Seventies but gone home, set up a farm, and started writing and drawing a daily strip about one. Footrot Flats was simple, direct, at times relatively earthy. It grew out of its culture, but its jokes were mostly universal. It was frequently hilarious. And it had the Dog.

I may be a cat-lover, but there’s something about dogs in strip cartoons. Snoopy is, of course, the doyen, and Charles Schulz himself called Earl, in Mutts, perfect. He might only be a mongrel, and rather more interested in mating with Jess, Cooch Windgrass’s bitch, than any other cartoon dog around, but Ball’s Dog is worthy of standing in that company (though knowing the Dog, he’ll have been rolling around in the crutchings first).

The Dog has a name, but no-one uses it. he hates it and will go to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t get out. Ball was canny enough never to reveal what that name actually is.

And now he’s passed away, at the age of 78, after eight years with Alzheimers. It’s a bastard, being crook like that. Ball ended Footrot Flats in 1994, after nearly twenty years. I used to have fifteen collections of it. Ironically, the report of his death comes the day that a buyer on eBay will win the last couple of these from me.

Times change, tastes change. Humour is especially vulnerable to that. You can’t always keep laughing at the same jokes all the time. But there are some gags you’ll keep in your mind forever. I wish I could show you my favourite but I don’t have a copy so I’ll have to explain it.

Wal Footrot has just installed a new electric sheep fence but doesn’t know if it’s switched on or not. To test, he forces the Dog to lay a paw on it. The Dog touches it without reaction. Assuming it’s inert, Wal lays a hand on it. The shock flips him head over heels. Cut to the Dog trotting away, thinking, “It’s worth taking 10,000 volts for a sight like that.”

Another good man gone. Do we have enough of them left?

From Uncompletion to Completion: welcome back Mage


A few years back, I did a series on Uncompleted Stories (of which one post remains unwritten, though I will get to it one of these days), about comic book series/stories which were never ended and which, by implication, would remain forever without an ending.

One such was Matt Wagner’s Mage: intended to comprise three series of fifteen issues, of which only two have appeared, then and now. Fifteen years had passed at that point since Mage II – The Hero Defined. It’s eighteen years now, but you may officially now laugh and point at me, and cry jeers about my lack of faith but, starting in May, we will finally have Mage III – The Hero Denied.

Like the second series, it will be published by Image Comics, in four blocks of four monthly issues, each block separated by a skip month in which the Graphic Novel compilation of each block will appear, which at least settles one question for me: I will forego my curiosity, my eagerness for the story, and I will wait for the books.

So: one more thing to anticipate. 2017 is rapidly becoming a year of unexpected comebacks: Twin Peaks, Mage, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books final book (when, oh when, will that be translated and published in English?) and even my thirty year old novel.

And Mage is going to take me into 2018 as well.

Now, all we need is another Play (or a dozen) from the Sandman Mystery Theatre and I’m almost going to be a happy bunny…

Future Perfect – if only


Back in 1990, ITV broadcast a documentary about Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, co-creator of the Eagle, a figure then even more forgotten than he is today. The programme, running 45 minutes without adverts, was titled Future Perfect, and I knew nothing of it until it was repeated, late one night, in the middle of the decade.

Properly alerted to some of its contents, I videoed it at the start of a new tape, and kept it, though for many years I was unable to watch it due to the absence of a videoplayer on which to play it (the absence on a television set to watch it upon was also a stumbling block).

But, just as I did with that lovely play, The Cricket Match, adapted from A E Housman’s brilliant England, Their England, last year I had it transferred to DVD, and after many other commitments and issues, this evening I have finally won the time to rewatch it.

The documentary is far from perfect. It represents Frank Hampson’s life and career on Dan Dare fairly accurately, but in far more simplistic terms than any of the books about him have done, and it leans heavily towards crediting Marcus Morris as Eagle‘s creator, to the extent of implying that Morris had Hampson create his most famous character to order (though that may be my distinct Hampson prejudice making me over-sensitive).

It also suffers from the flaws of the time in not being sufficiently serious, a relic of the standard it’s-only-a-comic attitude that can’t somehow pretend to fully respect its material. There’s suitably ‘spacy’ music, and the talking heads that provide a lot of the air-time (meticulously identified every time they speak, as if the viewers are continually joining the episode late) may well be enthusiasts, and intelligent with it, but are still somewhat dismissable as serious opinion-makers: ex-Python Terry Jones, Queen guitarist Brian May, ex-Coronation Street actor Geoffrey Hughes. Phil Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brookside is the exception.

Even the choice of Tom Baker as narrator was a slight nod to the eccentricity of a comic being worth talking about.

More important are those closest to the actuality of the strip: Hampson’s son Peter, the (facial) model for ‘Flamer’ Spry, Marcus Morris’s three daughters, a copy of their biography about their father prominently displayed. But best of all, extensive participation by Greta Tomlinson, one of Frank Hampson’s original assistants.

There were even footage from Arthur C Clarke, the short-lived scientific consultant for the series, laying claim to inventing the name Treen, and a filmed interview with Frank Hampson himself, talking clearly and intelligently long after, though not comfortably, if his body-language – arms wrapped tightly around himself, legs crossed to the point of being entwined – is anything to go by.

And we kept cutting to pages and pages of Dan Dare art, Eagle covers and picked-out panels, though the same images kept returning, suggesting that there was not much variety available to the makers.

One part that clearly felt flat was the use of Chris Donald, founder of the then incredibly popular Viz comic, to provide a contradictory opinion. Eagle was an intrinsic part of everything Viz rebelled against, and Donald could have made some useful points (even if he was wrong-headed on some aspects of what ‘Dan Dare’ was) but he was clearly not allowed to speak his mind, so his contributions were incredibly diffused, to the point where they became pointless: the programme may as well have gone for all-out hagiography if it couldn’t stomach a true counter-opinion.

But there were three moments in the programme that I recalled, and for which this documentary is worth the retaining. Geoffrey Hughes’ presence was predicated on his recent casting as Digby in a proposed live-action TV series, from which some precious pilot footage, with and without blue-screen projections, was excerpted. It probably wouldn’t have worked, and the money wasn’t there to make it anyway, but Hughes’ eyes sparkled at having had even that amount of chance, and everybody involved were red-hot Dan Dare fans, so it’s a real shame because it really wasn’t updated.

And there was footage from an old Pathe newsreel feature, both colour and sepia black and white, about Frank Hampson at work, with eight year old Peter, and Max Dunlop in Dan’s spacesuit and, most uncanny of all, Robert Hampson in his Sir Hubert Guest uniform. We know Sir Hubert was based on ‘Pop’ Hampson, we’ve seen pictures of him posing that show us just how closely, and accurately, Hampson based the Controller on his Dad. But to see Sir Hubert walking around, in the flesh, was still not entirely canny, even this far on.

But the moment that moved me, and which perhaps spoke most eloquently, and silently, of those days, of what was being created and what it meant to those involved, came in the documentary’s third part. We were taken to the Bakehouse, in Southport, the first Frank Hampson studio, which still exists. Greta Tomlinson was taken too, went inside, looked around it in its much-changed state, identifying things we could not see, but she only too clearly could, her Home Counties, very matronly voice string and firm,until she started talking of the days in there, the sharing, the laughter, and her voice sped up to say it all, and she abruptly asked them to cut it there.

I’m glad to have the film available again, though perhaps having watched it now, I might never need to see it again. There is another VHS tape, somewhere in this flat, that I must find and have transferred, the watching of which is long overdue.

But the title of this DVD is nothing but ironic, given what we know of Frank Hampson’s life as a consequence of his genius. Dan’s future was, in comparison to our present, perfect, but neither we nor Frank Hampson lived in Dan Dare’s universe. If only we had.

McSnurtle


Every now and then, the makers of The Flash tv series throw in an unobtrusive Easter Egg for us older comics fans to recognise with glee, whilst not drawing attention to it in a manner that makes the majority of the audience feel they’re missing something.

Classic amongst these was the moment in season 2 episode 2 when the two Flashes, Barry Allen and Jay Garrick (as he was then believed to be) recreated the classic cover to The Flash 123, which first brought back the Golden Age Flash for the Silver Age kids.

And there’s another brilliant touch in this week’s episode, the mid-season premiere, returning from the Xmas break. It’s the end of the episode, everybody’s truning up for the housewarming at Barry and Iris’s new loft apartment that’s surely too big and spacious for them to actually be able to afford. HR Wells’s gift is a pet, a turtle. It is named McSnurtle the Turtle.

Pause at this point to allow me a fit of laughter, with gales of chortles to follow every time I think of it. It won’t mean anything to you, but it hit me where the funny bone lives. Of course the turtle is named McSnurtle: way way back, back in the mid-Forties, the Golden Age of Comics, when Jay Garrick and his silver helmet was the one, the only Flash.

The only Flash, but not the only speedster. Jay was rivalled by The Terrific Wotzit, a superspeedster who wore the identical silver helmet/red shirt/blue pants combo as The Flash. And, you’re ahead of me now, I can tell, The Terrific Whatzit was… a turtle.

McSnurtle the Turtle!

I love it.

Theatre Nights: A Repeat Performance


The second Deluxe Reprint Volume of DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre arrived today, and I’m even more delighted to see that Volume 3 is already scheduled for July this year. It gives me hope that the entire series will be collected, including those later stories that missed out when the first Graphic Novel series was abandoned.

Volume 2 is thicker than the first, collecting as it does the four-part stories, ‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and ‘Dr Death’, and the never-before-reprinted Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual, an extra forty pages. This will be balanced out to some degree by Volume 2, which collates only two stories from the series, ‘Night of the Butcher’ and ‘The Hourman’ and completes itself with the one-off Sandman Midnight Theatre.

If a six-monthly schedule can be maintained, given that Volume 3 would take us to issue 34 of the seventy published, then we’re looking at six volumes for the complete run, finishing in early 2019. These Deluxe editions are brilliant: if I were independently wealthy, I’d be looking to translate my collections of Lucifer, Fables and Preacher into that format.

Of course, what would be completely and utterly ideal would be a new performance, a new play, the re-uniting of Matt Wagner, Steven T Seagle, Guy Davis, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and all the other denizens of the Mystery Theatre, advancing out of the dust and neglect to fill our eyes beneath the prosenium arch for four more Acts.

But it won’t be. It’s already eighteen years since the final, abbreviated play. Guy Davis no longer draws comics. The Mystery Theatre years sometimes seem as distant and distancing as the Thirties do when we re-read those tales. But to be able to re-read those tales, and to introduce them to new eyes without committing them to penury-by-eBay, is delightful.

Welcome back, old friends.

Mutts: A Brief Study in Brilliant Cartooning


I have, from time to time, mentioned Patrick McDonnell’s utterly brilliant newspaper strip, Mutts, a basic, simple, charming, and brilliantly hilarious strip about a cat and a dog who live next door to each other. McDonnell has been writing and drawing Mutts for over twenty years now, taking early advantage of the terrible gap in the market caused by Bill Watterson’s decision to end the magnificent Calvin & Hobbes.

The two strips are in no way comparable, save in that they combine wonderfully apt miniaturist drawing with oodles of charm.

McDonnell has been in particularly good form of late. I receive the strip by e-mail subscription, and raucous laughter has been the way of things for much of the last three months. But I don’t just laugh and pass on, I take note of the simplicity and precision of McDonnell’s humour.

Unlike a lot of very successful strip writer/artists, McDonnell is a true cartoonist. A lot of strip humour is verbal, sharp dialogue that provokes the laugh, but the panels are merely a framework, a box for the gag. It can be very effective: Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury has prospered on this approach for years, making his occasional visual flourish all the more notable for it. But McDonnell, whose influences stretch back to George Harriman’s classic Krazy Kat, knows and understands how to use the pictures to stage the gag and be funny in themselves: the strip is more than twice as funny because he knows how to make the two components a unity.

Like today’s strip:

17-01-07It’s a very simple strip. Three panels with an unchanging ‘camera’ position. Mooch and Earl meet a bear, there’s one line of dialogue, four words, in the first panel, the other two panels visualising the gag that would be incomprehensible without that simple line. What makes it work?

Look at how the first panel is staged. Mooch and EarlĀ  are in the bottom corner, panel left, immediately under the line. Their images are side by side, Mooch first, not because he is the speaker, but because his colouring is mainly black, whereas Earl’s is mainly white. In a black and white panel, and set against a white, snowy background, the eye is drawn to Mooch ahead of Earl. We’d be reading left to right anyway: McDonnell has staged the pair so as not to disrupt that automatic process.

Placing Mooch to the left also creates a visual sense of balance, because otherwise the panel is dominated by the bear: another primarily black figure, taking up the full height of the panel, dominating the eye. Note that there are subconscious lines in the image, creating a triangle around panel centre. The tail of the unballooned dialogue points down to Mooch and Earl, their alert position with heads raised to look up at the bear moves the eye to the bear’s head, looking back into the panel, on a par with the dialogue.

The bear is visually out of place, a near solid block of black against a minimalistic, white background, underlining the fact that he shouldn’t be there at all, he should be hibernating.

The second panel is identical, except that the bear has turned his head to look out of the panel at us. Mooch and Earl haven’t changed their position. The bear’s pupils are tiny, his mouth is pulled to one side, yes, he should be hibernating. It’s an absurd situation, a bear that’s forgotten to hibernate, a black bear in the snow, suddenly coming to the realisation that he should be elsewhere. And there’s no dialogue to slow us down as we immediately flip to the last panel, and he’s suddenly gone!

We’ve even aware of that from the start: the visually dominant elementĀ  at panel right, pulling our eyes across the image to it, has already impressed us by its absence at the furthest end of the complete image (remember that there are no gutters between the panels, the image is continuous). The bear’s disappearance, to go back here he should be, is abrupt, is the visual sting, and note how McDonnell quietly emphasises it by the subtle shift in Mooch and Earl’s heads: their stance is unchanged, but their eyeline has dropped a fraction, still looking at the bear but at a bear who is now off-panel, and whom we subsconsciously recognise has gone a long way off, with great rapidity, because he is far enough away that their focused gaze on him is down to their own eyeline.

It’s simple, but it’s masterful. You may think I’ve over-elaborated what is a simple gag, but when you go back and look at those three panels,what you’re seeing is the work of someone who has laid out his pictures and his words in a way that emphasises the nature of the joke without once throwing any overt technique in your face to diminish from the gag. You laugh, instinctively: I did.

But sometimes it’s worth thinking about why and how so simple a gag is so laugh out loud funny.