Thursday, June 24, 2004

Because You Demanded It! 

So... Seaguy #2, by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart and others -- I've already written a little bit about quite how much this issue tickled me over on the Barbelith comics forum, but I think it's about time I gave it a slightly more cohesive write-up, don't you?

Reading, as it does, like a "how to" lesson in inspired gibberish, this issue of Seaguy seems to have thrown a couple of people who enjoyed the first one. For me, however, it flows perfectly: Seaguy #1 was a melancholic examination of the nastier elements of the brightly coloured comfort in which Seaguy and co exist in New Venice, while issue #2 is all about the reality of the sort of adventure that our hero so desired in the previous issue. "Whoever heard of an adventure ending like this?" asks our man at one point, but he'd be well advised to remember that this adventure isn't over yet!

As with issue #1, it's Cameron Stewart's art that really sells the madness of this story; he makes the dreamlike silliness of Morrison's script look immediate and vital while never failing to convey the more complex ideas that run through it. This issue flips back and forth between "This is the life" style high adventure and something far darker and more upsetting, and Stewart is more than up to the task; witness how creepy he makes the scene on the Xoo Industries ship, or how well he conveys Seaguy's heartbreak at the end of the issue. Oh, we all saw it coming, but that just makes the fact that it's so affecting even more impressive.

That I've been utterly thrilled with this series wont come as any surprise to regular readers, but it's true; I'm loving this bizarro mix of randomness, wit and heart more than pretty much anything else right now. So... Who else is hoping that Seaguy is succesful enough to warrent another two mini-series? I know I am!


Monday, June 14, 2004

More JCD 

ADD reviews John Cei Douglas' Sleeping Beauty.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Sleeping Beauty -- A Conversation With John Cei Douglas 

A few weeks ago I interviewed cartoonist John Cei Douglas about his wonderful self-published comic book Sleeping Beauty. Those of you with a good instinct for finding free comic books may remember that Sleeping Beauty was briefly available on Fluxblog earlier this year. You may also remember the short, but positive, write-up I gave it at the time. Since then I've came into possession of a printed copy of John's comic book, and what can I say -- it looks even better when in the printed format!

Sleeping Beauty is currently available at Page 45, Smallzone, and Quimbys, and I highly recommend that you check it out.

John's first comic, Feel The Fear... And Go Back To Bed is available online here. Sleeping Beauty, is much better than that though -- Feel The Fear... has amazing moments, but its fragmented origin shows in the finished product, whereas Sleeping Beauty is gorgeous from start to finish. It's a two-way act of memory, a series of snapshots from both sides of a romance that may or may not be over. I love it, and was well chuffed to be able to talk to the man behind it.

Insult to Injury:
So, what we're mostly going to talk about today is your most recent comic, Sleeping Beauty, but before we start up on that, I'd like to talk a bit about the comic you made before this one, Feel The Fear And Go Back To Bed, which is viewable online thanks at the wonderful Queer Granny website. First up, would you like to try and describe what Feel The Fear is about, and how it came into being?

John Cei Douglas:
It's quite odd, really, how it came in to being. I was sort of lounging about in some sort of stasis after college, and I had done nothing except claim to myself that I would be an illustrator. I hadn't really done much to prove that to anyone... anyway, I'd done a lot of the drawings and bits and pieces that made up Feel the Fear when I visited a publisher in London who seemed interested in my pictures.

They suggested I put together a rough draft of a book type project I was trying to describe to them, and I came home and got right to work on it. And that's when most of the comic-type sections and prose came about - most of the rest I'd already done. I think this is when I started realizing how interested I was in actually trying to do comics.

In terms of what it's about - it mostly relates to me trying to get out of that state of mind and do something. It's about being positive, really. And possibly a little self obsessed. But it feels like something I had to do to move on to other things, if that makes sense.

It's very much got that sort of feel to it. One thing I like is that the title is a very tongue-in-cheek sort of piss-take of that whole self-help thing. I take it that was intentional, and I like how it plays into the whole attempt to find positivity in a sort self-deprecating way.

I'm glad it worked that way for you! I was always worried it was a little obvious and straight. I think the humour is there to balance it out, really. I think it's something to do with being very self-aware - as in you can be feeling this way, depressed and whatnot, but you're completely aware of how absurd it is to be feeling that way.

Yeah, definitely -- I mean... everyone feels really depressed sometimes, so it's not a worthless area to explore, but I think most people are also pretty aware of how weird and dramatic all of these feelings are, and I think that you do capture some of that in Feel The Fear. You've said it was probably something you had to do to move on so I guess I'm interested to find out how you feel about the piece, looking back on it now?

Mainly, it's embarrassing! For me to look at, anyway. Which seems only right, whenever something has been finished for a good while I think it's job is to annoy you and make you want to do better... I still think it's something I had to do, but structurally, and art-wise, I find it a little hard to stomach. Sometimes I surprise myself looking back, like "Wow, I really do lay myself on the line."

It's pretty impressive on that front. But while there's certainly a lot to like about Feel The Fear, Sleeping Beauty is definitely a big step-up in terms of quality. That said, Feel the Fear does contain a lot of the elements that I really liked in Sleeping Beauty; the soft, rounded feel of your linework in both comics is, to me at least, really effective in both comics.

Moving on a bit, in Sleeping Beauty you put all these little coded relationship moments together and... I dunno, I still found it all very understandable. Was that something you were trying to get across?

Yeah, it was always supposed to be understandable, in the sense that you're looking into a relationship, or whatever. I love all that stuff - how people talk to each other in these situations, the little ways they have with each other. I thought it was pretty important to try and show that accurately. I like to think of it in the sense of the dialogue they have in [British TV show] Spaced or something like that. They have their own jokes, and specific words they use, but you're still in on it - that's how I'd like it to be!

That's cool, and yeah, that definitely comes across in some of the scenes in Sleeping Beauty. I'd say that the one thing that really separates the two pieces (Sleeping Beauty and Feel The Fear) is the... completeness that Sleeping Beauty has to it, as a story. I think its strength lies in the way you create this sort of... I've been describing it to people as a "two-way act of memory", you know? It's not too linear, there's a bit of ambiguity to it, and this seems to me to be a very deliberate and important part of the piece.

Hey, that's a good description! I like that a lot. It was all pretty deliberate, but it's interesting how that happened. It started off as a totally linear type of story.

How did it evolve into the final, less straightforward, version?

Well, at first, this project only began because I wanted to draw the picture that's on the cover. I totally stole that from a photo (you can probably tell by how it looks in comparison to the rest of the art in the comic, but anyway).

I'd just quit my full time data entry job, strangely just after I'd read Summer Blonde [a collection of cartoonist Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve comics], and was full of "Wow, I really have to do something again!" because it had been so long. And in drawing the cover, I was planning out this totally Tomine-esque story.

Right. A small-scale relationship drama. At what point in the process did you realize that it would work better in its current form?

Well, that's debatable! But the other goal was to produce something short and complete, and also easy to print (ie. not Feel the Fear). Oh, and it was also an experiment in seeing if I could draw a whole "proper" comic. But yeah, as I got more in to the story, and it got stuck with the title "Sleeping Beauty", I really wanted to explore certain themes more, that I relate to love and relationships. This whole sort of dreamy sense of being with someone.

As I said, it's definitely a much more whole read than Feel The Fear, so on that front I think you definitely succeeded in creating a "proper" comic. It's good that you brought the photo up, by the way, because I really like to think of the comic as being a sort of series of mental snapshots from two sides of a relationship. That's one of the things I like about it -- the fact that you get both perspectives at once.

And I was thinking... there are a lot of moments in the comic where you slow it all down, and you've got, like, one or two panels on a big, white empty page. To me, this kinda reinforced the "snapshot" feel. Was that at all deliberate?

Um, yes... and no.


It was more a lucky coincidence, as I needed to fill the comic out and I'd got Chester Brown's "I never liked you", at Christmas - although I hadn't read it yet. I had flicked through. Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more I like the idea of reinforcing these little moments, so I just popped it in. I was worried everybody would call me on my rip-off techniques.

You know, I never thought about the snapshots thing while I was working on it, and I really like it. I think this is the most successful thing about the ambiguity of the story - and the fact I thought about it in lots of ways it could be (like once I decided the two characters could have been asleep for the whole comic) - it's pleasing to hear different theories and thoughts on what happened.

Your panel rhythm varies slightly more than Brown's, I think. I mean, he's a master of that form, but you use a couple of different techniques in Sleeping Beauty, so I wouldn't worry about it too much!

That's ok, I plan to rip him off more fully in the future!

Well, if you're going to rip someone off, at least you've got the good sense to rip off someone good! This seems as good a point as any to bring up the question of influences, both from within the comic book field, and from outside of it. There are little references to Adaptation, Eightball #22, and the Royal Tenenbaums in Sleeping Beauty, and there's the Malkmus lyric at the start, so I guess this is the sort of stuff that gets you fired up, yeah?

Yes, yes it is. And you caught them all! I wasn't sure if anybody had noticed all of them.

You've not read Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy, have you? I ask cos it seems to me to be a good comparison in terms of tone for people who've never read your work, and because... I think there are further similarities, in terms of both works being little acts of memory (boy do I ever love that phrase!) in comic book form.

No, I still haven't read that. I got Be a Man [Brown's own comedic reworking of Clumsy], though, and that was hilarious! Jeffrey was also kind enough to answer my e-mails, plus read my comic, so I really should get that comic. I'm awful with comics, I don't really read that many. You could probably count the indie comics I own on your hands...

That's interesting. I think you'd like Clumsy a lot, by the way, and yeah -- Be A Man is awesome! I can see bits of a couple of different indie comic artists in your art style and subject matter, but the way you execute the story in Sleeping Beauty is quite different to anything else I can think of at the moment, within the world of alt-comics at least.

It's quite like a song or a memory or something, which is pretty fitting!

Thanks, it's really good to have gotten so much positive feedback! I decided it was like a song once, too, but then I realized I'd worked on it for so long that it had to be a concept album instead.

Ok, one more question John -- when are you gonna do another comic?

As soon as I can! Probably at the end of the year, at this rate. I'm working right now, and try as I do, I can't get in to doing it now. I need to focus all my attention on it. Then I'm going traveling for a while, and then I'm off to Uni to study illustration. I'm planning all the time, though. Currently I have around 10 comics lined up, and I'm pretty excited about doing all of them.

Some of them continue my "experimenting" as it were, until I feel ready enough to do justice to my bigger, more ambitious ideas.

Good stuff -- I look forward to reading whatever you come up with next!


Friday, June 11, 2004

"We're not going to war with you this time. No guns, no bodies. This is nothing you'd understand." 

I've been re-reading Grant Morrison's messy, messy comic book series the Invisibles this week, and it's interesting, because much as I love its tangled, fascinating cosmology*, it's becomming clear to me that so much of the book's appeal the first time I read it was in the little romantic moments where the characters sit around talking about how they want to change the world, or about whatever weird experiences they've had. There are better Grant Morrison comics, but... I still have a big place in my heart for the Invisibles, probably because I read it at just the right time in my life. It tuned into a lot of what I was feeling at the time -- that sense of almost infinite possibility coupled with a blooming understanding of the complexity of the world that hit me towards the end of high school -- and even reading it today, fully aware of its faults and strengths as a series, I still get a bit of that feeling off of it. The world still seems just as, big, frightening, and full of potential as it always has. "Who's for a knees up?"

*Does anyone else remember when I wrote about the Invisibles as abstract-prop? I should get back to that idea sometime!

Sequestro Express 

Sometimes I just love comics to bits, y'know? Sometimes I read something that reminds me why I bothered getting so heavily into this medium. Seaguy #1 gave me that rush, as did the last issue of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve.

The latest issue of Jessica Abel's La Perdida has reminded me not only why I love comics, but also why I was so damned excited about this series in the first place -- it's great stuff! Here's a slightly tidier version of what I said about the book last time I wrote about it:

When I first thought about La Perdida I wanted to use the word "raw" to describe it, but it quickly occurred to me that this was entirely the wrong word with which to describe any aspect of this particular comic. Rawness denotes a certain lack of thought and craft, a certain spontaneous quality that really isn't present here. When I thought about it a bit more, I realised that the word I was looking for was "evocative". This is a very evocative comic book, putting the reader very much with the character of Carla as she relates to us her experiences of moving to Mexico.

The artwork here reminds me of Dylan Horrocks in some ways (or perhaps David Lapham, though I'll admit that this comparison is somewhat stretched); there's certainly a similarity there in terms of how robust the artwork is and also in the very specific, paired down set of facial expressions and body gestures that both artists use. This may sound limited, but it's not - both Horrocks and Abel are incredibly effective in their communication of human body language, but are good enough to be economic with it. There's a certain quality to the linework and shading here that brilliantly conveys a sense of environment and experience - these pages don't look smudgy, or scratchy, but there's a liveliness to them that really conveys a great sense of being there. My favourite example of this so far comes on page 21 of the third issue; there's a big panel there that takes up more than half of the page, and shows the city as Carla sees it while she's at a party. It's really minimal in a lot of ways, just a wonderfully realised collection of white scratches and blobs on a big, inky landscape, but it's just so..."gorgeous and endless" to steal a turn of phrase from the accompanying caption. It suggests so much life and vibrancy, as does everything else in this comic.

The writing is well observed and engaging throughout - this is slice of life stuff, but that doesn't mean that it is in any way unexciting (just check out the ominous note that the fourth, and most recent, issue ends on). Characters weave in and out of Carla's story -- her ex-boyfriend Harry, her younger brother Rod (a skater who is currently making big money off the internet), her friend Memo, her boyfriend Oscar etc -- all of whom seem fully formed and interesting. You get a good sense of who everyone is here and there's a loose but mesmerising rhythm to this comic book -- it's both relaxed and dramatic at once, and I like that combination.

But all this talk of "experiencing" what the character of Carla experiences misses the fact that there is also a sharp, unflinching examination of Carla's experiences at work in these pages. There's a lot of intelligent thought about what it means to be an American who chooses to live in Mexico here, and also a little bit of neat commentary about figures such as Frida Kahlo and William Burroughs who people associate with the country in one way or another. The great thing about this aspect of La Perdida is how organic it feels; nothing seems heavy-handed or tacked-on as there's always a character-based context for it. La Perdida is both well crafted enough to intoxicate the reader and smart enough to not overly romanticise any of the events it depicts or shy away from showing the good and bad of the decisions and motives of Carla and the other characters.

I don't really feel that I'm doing this book justice but trust me when I say that it is a very smart, wonderfully drawn comic book that works as both a vivid encapsulation of a very personal experience and a sharp examination of this experience simultaneously, and that it is generally brilliant.

"But What Did Police Learn From The Ransom Note?" 

Marc Singer's list of what he considers to be the best comics of the last century is well worth a read, as is the excellent comments thread, wherein several interesting suggestions are discussed. While my list would obviously be very different from Marc's, I can't find much to quibble with in there, and his reasons for what he didn't put in are pretty damned solid too.

That said, I do disagree with what Marc says about the work of Daniel Clowes in the aforementioned comments discussion.

Says Marc (in response to questions as to why none of Clowes work was on the list):

"Why Clowes? I mean, I'm well aware that he's routinely cited as a comics genius, but hearing one more citation doesn't really change my opinion of his arid work: unremarkable character-based "nongenre" fiction, distinguished only because its genre, highly respected in literary circles, was at one point fairly uncommon in comics. But it's not great or remarkable writing in and of itself."

I wont pretend that I'm going to convince anyone who isn't already a fan that Clowes is the best thing ever, and to be honest with you I wouldn't really want to, but it's been a while since I wrote about his work, and this seems as good an excuse as any!

Basically, I think that the later issues of Eightball contain some of the most sustained explorations of the affects and limitations of certain kinds of "alienated" or "outsider" mentalities that I've ever seen. Clowes' characters are mostly distanced, paralysed and swamped in kitschy opposition to the modern world, but I think that the best of these stories work really hard to examine exactly how this affects the characters' friendships, sexual relationships, and dealings with the world in general.

There's a certain critical distance at work here (especially in the artwork), but this is balanced out by the very clear emotional investment that has been made in these characters and their perspectives. Furthermore, I think some of Clowes' recent experiments with genre have yielded some fascinating results -- the bizarro noir of David Boring is very... rewarding, if you give it the attention it requires, and Eightball #22 is one quite simply of the best comic books that I've ever read. The characters in this comic all struggle very directly with the disparate series of narratives they find themselves in (something that is visually dramatised by the multitude of different art styles that Clowes adopts here), but the internal and external links between each story become very clear when you view the comic as a whole.

I wrote a brief, enthusiastic post about Eightball #22 ages ago, but as I said at the time, I think I've barely scratched the surface of that book in terms of analysis. You'll notice that I make quite a lot out of the formal excellence of Eightball #22, and this ties into another reason why I think Clowes' work is deserving of the praise it receives -- he's a master of his craft, pure and simple, and it shows in pretty much everything he does.

Of course, I'm glad there are people out there who don't agree with me on this one. I don't much like it when a creator's reputation becomes unassaiblable, and I think disagreement on such matters can often be healthy and productive. But, at the end of the day, Clowes does it for me, and I hope I've at least hinted at how/why his work does this in this post. If not, well -- I guess I'll clarify my opinions some other time if anyone's interested.

More later on Demo, Love & Rockets, and La Perdida -- it's been a good day for comics round my way!

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Smiling With Your Forehead 

Good news everyone! There's a book of Brendan McCarthy's comic/design work on its way. It's called Swimini Purpose, and this Brendan McCarthy website has the details.

I'm mostly familiar with McCarthy's gloriously overstimulated brand of psychadelia through his collaborations with comic book writer Peter Milligan, and would highly recommend that you check out both Paradax and Rogan Gosh if you've not already done so. Both comics are full of good, playfull, witty stuff, and the visuals are spectacular, so yeah -- go find them on ebay or something!

Comics I'll Be Picking Up This Week 

Since I haven't written any short reviews recently, I'm going to list the comics I'll be picking up tomorrow in the hope that it'll remind me to write about them some time over the course of the next week or so.

Demo #7
Love & Rockets Vol 2 #10

Friday, June 04, 2004

A Public Service Announcement 

I would like to apologise for my inadvertant spoilage of the last issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and possibly other books, in my post of last week.


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Behold -- Beardless Wonders Previously Unseen By Human Eyes!! 

For Suedehead and others:

(From this week's Lying In The Gutters.)

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