Sunday, 22 May 2016

Forget the snobbery: comics are no con

If you cant choose one, get the set
There’s little as irritating as snobbery – in oh so many walks of life.

Now to be absolutely fair, there’s also a form of reverse snobbery – or relativism, as it’s known – that asserts, for instance, that EastEnders is just as good as Shakespeare, NWA are genuinely the equal of Wagner, and Minions is as good a film as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.

Now: time for the declaration.

I watch no soaps. I love Bill the Bard. I do listen to and enjoy some ‘popular’ music – but not NWA. I increasingly believe that Wagner wrote the most stunning music ever. I love Minions – AND I love The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.

Both are possible, without my remotely pretending that that means that the former is equal to the latter in critical terms.
I also like comics. And Thomas Mann. (And Günter Grass. And Gabriel García Márquez). 

That doesn’t mean a Superman story is the same as a Thomas Mann novella. But then again, what is? And indeed, few comics (well, certainly not the ones I read) are like a Superman story.

My introduction to comics as an adult came in 1990, when I was handed a copy of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to review, and had my mind well and truly blown.

There have been graphic novels on my shelves ever since.

Anyway, this weekend has been special: because yesterday morning, the first issue of William’s Gibson’s first ever comic slid through my letter box.

And Archangel is every bit as slyly engaging as you would expect from the founding father of cuberpunk.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Gibson is a superb and very grow-up sci-fi writer, whose dystopian novels gave rise to the label of ‘cyberpunk’. They’re literate and philosophically interesting.

So, what do we get from issue one of Archangel? Twenty pages in, I’m fully engaged. We have a tale of scientists from a dying 2016 Earth attempting to change history by sending people back to 1945.

I really want to know what happens next, complaining loudly upon reaching the end of the story after 20 pages. This is actually what you’d expect – and largely why the majority of my comic reading is done from trades (collections of several individual issues).

But then this is a comic Event.

Of course, as with Gibson’s novels, there’s far more subtlety involved than such bare phrases suggest. The characters are already clearly beyond mere symbols.

The art – by Butch Guice – is seriously good. Plus there’s a choice of covers for the first issue, just to increase the pleasure (and possible torture) for collectors.

A page of Jaques Tardi's work
And that’s all I can really tell you at this point. But beyond the opening of the actual story, the first issue has much to offer, with sketchbook pages of character development, as well as pages through the processes (both fascinating) and notes from Gibson himself.

That’s not, however, the end of this review. 

In recent weeks, my comic reading has also included the newly-published second volume of the trade of Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen.

This is good stuff, taking us forward in a story about a sentient robot child, Tim, who is struggling to stay alive in a world where all androids have been outlawed and bounty hunters are constantly hunting for them.

It was pre-ordered for the simple reason that the first volume made me care about Tim, while Nguyen’s unusual (for a comic) art is also hugely appealing.

Also entered into the recently-read list is the first part of Jaques Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-SecPterror Over Paris (which forms the basis of a Luc Besson film, in French with English subtitles, which is also worth watching).

Featuring the eponymous heroine – an archeologist and feisty creation of delightfully dubious morality – there are currently four stories available in English, so these are rare and great fun. 

Its always worth pointing out to any snobs that the French regard comic books as the ninth art. 

Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard is another trade first volume (the second is out this summer), and is a complex interweaving of different stories from across the world, a decade after vast, alien ‘trees’ suddenly arrived and ‘planted’ themselves across the Earth – and then did nothing.

Another fascinating story that gives few clues as to where it is going to go, Ellis’s character and plot development are strong and the art from Howard is equally memorable.

A page from Fables 2
Rather older is Fables, a long series by Bill Willingham, working with various artists.

The overarching story deals with characters from myth, folktale, fairytale and fantasy literature, who are driven from their home lands by the violent Adversary and become refugees in New York, staying hidden from humans and running their own society.

The second issue, Animal Farm, with art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leiloha and Daniel Vozzo, largely takes place in the community’s out-of-town hideaway for those who cannot maintain a human form or otherwise pass unnoticed among humankind.

And yes, those familiar with George Orwell’s novel of the same name will find links between the plots and ideas.

With an approach that owes more to the darker origins of folk and fairytales than Disney, Willingham’s series is a good illustration of just how grown-up comics can be and would be a candidate for any list of best graphic novel reads.

Volume one of The Autumnlands, by Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey, is another rollicking read: a brilliantly envisaged anthropomorphic world where magic is dying and the elite are trying to save their society.

Unfortunately for them, the secret efforts of a group of wizards to save the situation plunges them all – literally – into serious danger.

Another that’s rated ‘M’ for ‘mature’, Busiek’s story unfolds darkly and brutally. Dewey’s artwork is simply brilliant.

I have no personal axe to grind about comicbook superheroes – I’m rather fond of Wonder Woman – but if you believe that the worlds of Marvel and DC are the only ones in the comic universe, then think again. 

• Archangel issue 1 is out now from 

Descender, Trees and The Autumnlands are all from 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is published by Fantagraphics Books. 

Fables is available from

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