Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Sun & Battler Britton

While researching a post about fifties war comics I recently bought some issues of the long-running comic Sun. 

They came from 1959 and were, to be honest, somewhat lacklustre compared to earlier issues I've read.  The paper and printing quality had been downgraded and, with the exception of an adaptation of "A Princess of Mars" the stories seemed mundane and tired.

What's more, the covers of the comic had moved from colour to Black and White, with just the title and the "A Five Star Weekly" symbol being printed in red.   It was no surprise that the title was cancelled soon after.

But there was one redeeming feature, making a virtue of the black and white printing, I'd managed to hit a run of striking covers by illustrator Renato Fratini.

Just a few years later Fratini would grow into one of the best know illustrators of the period.  He painted cinema posters and covers for books.  It was when he was brought to London by the Downton Agency in about 1963 that his career really took off.  Fratini would produce posters for many of the Carry On movies,  for "From Russia with Love" and "Khartoum".  In 1970 he was paid £2,000, an almost unheard of fee for the poster of the epic Waterloo film.

 He lived the life of swinging sixties London, marrying a fashion designer and hanging out at Ronnie Scott's Jazz club. 

His comics work had all come in the late fifties, he had painted covers for Sexton Blake and Thriller Picture Library and finally produced these beautifully rendered covers for a few of the final issues of Sun. 

The Sun comic ran from 1947 to 1959 a total of 551 issues.  Starting out as a mainly text-based story-paper, it had specialised in westerns and swashbuckling tales of old featuring pirates and outlaws.   Dick Turpin, Robin Hood and Billy the Kid had all been popular and long-running features.   Battler Britton was a late addition to the comic and one of the first war stories to appear.  By the time Fratini lent his work to the title, the writing was probably on the wall.  New comics like The Victor were on the way and Sun was looking tired.   I'm not sure how the Fratini covers would have been seen by the school boys at which Sun was aimed, but they look pretty special now.   I'll show a couple here in this post and save the rest for that other, longer post I'm working on.


Sun Issue 532
Sun Issue 533

More information on Fratini can be found in the second issue of Illustrators Magazines from Book Palace.

Big thanks for Steve Holland in identifying Fratini in the first place.   Check out his excellent Bear Alley Blog.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Turtle Power, Kickstarter Style!

The Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls
Crowdfunding in general and Kickstarter in particular is becoming a more and more important source of money for comics’ projects.  When a huge name in the industry turns to this source of finance you know things are moving in a new and exciting direction.

Kevin Eastman, half of the team responsible for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomena and publisher of Heavy Metal magazine, is bringing his latest project to the Kickstarter platform. 

Drawing Blood is a four part graphic novel telling the story of the co-creator of an indie comic sensation, “The Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls”, that becomes a huge success making its heroes, mutant cats carrying Katanas, household names and its creators rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  The comic focuses on the creator once he is burnt out artistically and his money gone and the project will feature at least one real life issue of the fictional indie title that led to his success. 

With David Avallone, who I know from some of his Pulp hero comics, Doc Savage and The Shadow, on board as writer and Ben Bishop, who draws a number of Turtle titles at present, as artist things are looking pretty good.  But I must admit that it is the idea of reading RRRR #1, with Troy Little on art that is the most interesting part of the project for me.

This is a big development for Kickstarter, Kevin is aiming high here, looking for $75,000 to bring this comic to market.   It’s one of the biggest targets I’ve seen and from a major figure in the comics industry.  If this works out, who knows, it might open the way for other similar projects. 

Kickstarter provides a platform for creators to de-risk their activities to a large degree.  It allows for pre-orders from actual customers, pre-payment in effect.   Drawing Blood could have been published in a traditional way, it may even have been a huge success.  But it’s also possible that Kevin could have ended up with a huge warehouse full of unsold books and huge printing bill waiting to be paid.  This way, he’ll either have enough pre-orders to cover his costs and stay solvent, or he won’t print the books and nobody will have paid him anything.  It's looking good so far, nearly $29k in less than 24 hours.

Hopefully this works out and it means we’ll see more invention and more risks taken by creators.  I for one wish Kevin all the best for this campaign.  It might just be a game-changer for an industry that is, by some accounts, in danger of going under.

Check out the campaign here and see for yourself.  And while you are at it check out the rest of the Kickstarter platform, you'll find some fantastic comic projects there. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Lost Fleet, A Lost Masterpiece and a Contemporary Classic in the Making.

Its ironic that even once creators move beyond the Small Press and into the world of commercial publishing it can still be difficult for them to get their comics seen.

John Freeman, editor of  the excellent 'Down the Tubes' web-site has been editing a new comic for Titan, "The Lost Fleet: Corsair".  It's written by Jack Campbell and ties in with his own series of science fiction novels.  It's just the sort of space-based scifi that I've always enjoyed, and John has been promoting it pretty hard.

I was surprised therefore when I visited a couple of really quite good comic shops in Belfast to discover that neither of them had stocked any copies of the book.  It just wasn't on their radar.  I think I was the first person to ask about it in both places and it wasn't something they had looked at when the advance solicitations had come out.

In the end I bought copies of issues one and two from Amazon to read online via Comixology, but for a new title, from a writer with a track record of delivering quality novels and an editor who promoted the book carefully and skillfully to be so ignored, shows some of the problems with the comics retail trade.

This is real Science Fiction, a story that is likely to appeal to fans of Star Wars, Star Trek or readers of 2000AD.  But I'm guessing the vast majority of the fans of those comics are totally unaware of the its existence and that is the problem creators have now. 

It's well written, has a plot that moves quickly and the art from Indonesian artist Andre Siregar is typical of the crossover Manga/Western style that is becoming more popular in comics today.  Which is, perhaps, my way of saying its a little too cartoony for me to rave about, but not so much that it irritates or takes away from the story.

But unless you get to see a copy, how will you be able to decide that you want to read it?

Such is the dominance of Superheroes along with TV and movie spin-offs that nothing else gets a look-in.  Corsair is a good book, I prefer the writing to the art, but overall its good science fiction and an entertaining comic.  It should have a wide appeal, but not if you can't pick it up off the shelves and have a look at it. 

And lets be honest, you can't blame the shops.  There are so many titles on sale each month that they simply can't stock everything, not and stay in business.  Its a sad fact that success in the commercial comics field does not depend on quality.  This is among Titan's best books, it strikes me that its a comic 2000 AD fans would really enjoy.  Yet 'The Lost Fleet' stands a real chance of joining other excellent books that are cancelled because people are not getting to see them.

So if it sounds interesting to you I'd suggest that you speak to your local comic shop, or do what I did, and give Lost Fleet, Corsair a go on Amazon or Comixology.  

One of the covers to issue 1 
As an aside, Titan have to be commended for trying experiments like this, there are little gems to be found among their range of TV and game tie-ins.  Their 'Hard Case' imprint publishes some excellent Hard Boiled detective stories, often reprinted from europe where the range of subjects comics will take on are not so limited. 

Additions to Kim Newman's 'Anno Dracula' world and Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London' series, both written by the authors are entertaining and really enjoyable comics.

Lost Fleet, is not the only Scifi comic Titan produce.   Their adaptation of the classic Joe Haldeman novel, 'The Forever War' is one of the most faithful adaptations of a classic science fiction novel I've seen in comics. 

The story of an interstellar war, where relativistic effects cause bizarre time distortions in the lives of the participants, 'The Forever War' draws on the Vietnam experience of Haldeman both 'in-country', where he was wounded, and the difficulties he found readjusting to the world when he returned home.

The influence of Frank Miller?
It was a powerful anti-war novel when it first appeared, probably the work Haldeman never managed to match, and the comic version is almost as impactful.

First published in Dutch in 1988 and reprinted across europe, this Haldeman penned adaptation, has, to my knowledge, been published twice before in English.  It appeared in 1990 in three magazine-sized, volumes from NBM and was then included in the superb, black and white, Dark Horse anthology comic Cheval Noir. 

Titan have restored colour for their mini series and to great effect.  Its fascinating to see some of the storytelling techniques on view.  Without the typically muted european colouring job, the similarities of technique with Frank Miller's, Dark Knight are hidden.  It would be fascinating to discover if artist, Marvano, took his inspiration directly from Miller or whether the two artists shared some other influence.   

 It seems an odd choice for a company who depend on media spin-offs, a nearly thirty year old european adaptation of an old Scifi novel, until you sit down and read it.  This is a great comic, it has not dated and is worthy of reprinting.  I do hope that it does well and we get a chance to finally see the sequel that Haldeman and Marvano produced along with their Donna Barr series neither of which has, to my knowledge, been reprinted in english.

Final thing for this post.   Northern Ireland based comic writer Stuart J McCune has just put up the Kickstarter for the third issue of his 'Human Beings' series.  I've talked about Stuart before here.  His comics are unique and complex and beautiful.  This is a great chance to pick up physical copies of the first three issues of his ongoing anthology series,  'Human Beings'.  If the artwork he has on show for issue three is anything to go by its just getting better and better.

Kickstarter can be found here.  

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Small Press Roundup

The recent Small Press Day event in Belfast's 'Comic Book Guys' store highlighted a number of creators in a local scene that is becoming increasingly diverse and exciting.
I was there representing the 2000 AD fanzine, 'Sector 13' and searching for writers and artists for both it and my own Splank! comic project.  But the work on show that day was only a portion of the excellent comics available from Northern Ireland creators.

Missing were the guys from Back Pocket comics, an ambitious pair of writers from Portadown who have succeeded in producing a number of manga-influenced graphic novels over the past year or so.   Their most recent publication is ‘Tarik’ a post-apocalyptic graphic novel heavily influenced by martial arts movies and with just a touch of the original Iron Fist story.   
Written this time by Steven Young, Tarik is a step up from the guys’ previous foray into the world of manga-style fantasy, both in terms of writing and artwork.  And while I have a personal preference for the black and white version of the art, the colour version works well and will be preferred by almost everyone else.
The world Tarik is born into is well realised and his struggle with the monsters that destroy his family and the attempt to fit into a new society give the opening of the book an interesting dynamic.  The plot moves along quickly and the storytelling of artist, Sherwin Santiago, is deft and effective.  There is a mythological quality to the story, familiar themes and character archetypes abound, but there is a reason why these elements are so recognisable.  In terms of story they work, and they work because they have a truth to them.  Tarik moves quickly and the plot twists and turns and did not go the way I initially expected.  

I’ve said before in Splank! that Manga is generally not my thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed this from start to finish and am keen to see more.

It’s exciting to follow Back-Pocket comics.  The guys work hard to improve their writing skills and to find better and better artists.  Each book is a step up from the one before.  Their ambition is admirable and their effort shows on the page.  They don’t stint on the quality of production, this is a ‘proper graphic novel’, it’s printed well on good quality paper.

Like most self-publishers, raising the money to keep your publication going is always difficult.  Steven and his partner in crime Richard Davidson, are running a Kickstarter Campaign at the moment for Tarik.   It’s one of the most risk-free campaigns you can find as the book is already published and available and the guys have a track record of delivery.  Please take a look and support an ever-improving couple of comics’ writers who have a passion for their medium that shines through in all of their work.

Also missing was the Northern Ireland master of Kickstarter Stuart J McCune.  Stuart, under his Millicent Barnes Comics banner, has produced a series of comics over the past few years that have been among the best I have read.  Thoughtful and beautiful, unique and with real depth, his Monologue series and the one-off comic Cold Colony were stunning pieces of work.  Stuart’s comics look like no-one else’s and are instantly recognisable.  

The writing is uncompromising and unapologetically complex and self-referential.  There is the feeling of an overall wholeness to all of Stuart’s titles.  That they link in a way more profound than the simple shared universes of Marvel or DC.  Most importantly the linkages are subtle in a way that gives a feeling of achievement when you work them out.  There is something of the same pleasure in reading a Millicent Barnes comic that you get from completing a crossword or working out who the killer is in a really, really good whodunit.

His most recent venture is an ongoing anthology series called Human Beings and it has all of the elements that make these comics special dialled up to nine.  There have been two issues so far with a third waiting in the wings for a fair Kickstarter wind.  I tried to write a review of the first issue but found myself with little I could say. 

Human Beings issue one is a set of short, fascinating vignettes that leave the reader with more questions than answers.  With issue two some of those linkages fade into view, nothing solid just yet, just a hint here and there that not is all quite as it seems.    It’s difficult to say more, partially because in a fundamental way any hints would spoil the enjoyment of the comics, but mainly because I’m still not sure if I can put into words just what I’m seeing yet. 

If you are already a reader of Stuart’s comics you’ll know what to expect, if you are not these are something very different, and very special and I envy you your first exposure to them.

 I should also mention some other small press comics that I discovered or received on or about Small Press Day.   

“Henry Roscoe issue 1”comes from David Louden and his Belfast City Comics.  Darkly funny, it’s an everyday tale of Belfast folk, their drinking, their sex-lives but mostly their favourite pub-quiz and the use of sex-toys as weapons.  Great fun, dark and most certainly not for kids.   

“A Life in Defence” is a fantasy tale set in medieval times and tells the story of a castle under siege from dark forces.  It’s told by writer Seamus Kavanagh and Northern Ireland artist Colin Langan.   The most striking feature on first reading is that Seamus has trusted Colin with a lot of the storytelling duties.  Large swathes of the comic are wordless and Colin manages to keep the tale going with his cinematic layouts and page design.  He’s not the finished article in terms of his artwork but there is a lot to like and a deft touch with storytelling.   Probably influenced by Games of Thrones, it has that mundane fantasy air to it, in that the fantasy is an element in a well-told story rather than being the main point of interest.  

Finally I have to mention new titles from two of my favourite creators.  

Marc Jackson is a cartoonist from Macclesfield with a style all his own.  His “Goons of the Galaxy” is one of highlights of online comic, Aces Weekly and a must for fans of Star Wars and/or any other space-based hero flix.   But his most recent publication is ‘Here Comes Cat Stevens”, a beautifully produced, magazine-sized comic.  Big and bold, this is a big step forward for Marc.  It retains all the zany humour and the odd-ball action of his previous work, but there is something special about some of the pages in this comic.   

There are full-page panels that deliver real impact this time.  Funded by the Arts Council of England, the comic was published for the ‘Lakes International Comics Festival’ but Marc got permission to launch it at the Macc-Pow Comic festival which he organises in his home town of Macclesfield.

Finally, for now at least, is the first issue of Lew Stringer’s Combat Colin strip which reprints the original strips he contributed to Action Force between 1987 and 1988.    Reviewed already on Phil Boyce’s excellent Oink Blog I’ll only add my endorsement to Phil's words.  Lew is one of the best British cartoonists about at the moment and these strips from his early career have a real vitality and energy.  I can’t wait for the next issue as I missed all of these strips first time round.

I’ve so many other comics I have to write about, but real life and other projects have kept me away from the Blog of late.  In a little pile, with some quick notes beside them are Transdimensional from Lisburn man Michael Gordon and T Pub, Jenika Ioffreda’s charming vampire Free Style graphic novel and a bundle of comics from Accent UK including Dave West’s Stephenson’s Rocket and Colin Mathieson’s Moments of Adventure that deserve a posting all to themselves.  

The small press scene on these islands is very exciting, everywhere you look there is quality material and creators working hard to produce the very best comics they can.   In many cases they leave the big publishers behind, support them because this is where the great comic writer and artists of the next few years are going to come from.


Back Pocket Comics' Kickstarter for Tarik can be found here, as I write they are £40 short, show them some support and check out their Facebook page here.

Stuart McCune's Millicent Barnes Comics can be found here.

Henry Roscoe is available from Amazon or by contacting

You can find Marc Jackson on his Patreon site here or on Facebook here.

Lew Stringer has two excellent blogs, Lew Stringer Comics where he writes about his own work and Blimey! where he shares his vast knowledge of British comics of the past.