Thursday, 14 March 2013

Authors/Artists: Alison Bechdel


Alison Bechdel
Born: September 10, 1960
Pennsylvania, United States

You ever hear of the Bechdel test ("A work of fiction passes the test if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man")? Well (in case you couldn't guess) Alison Bechdel is the person who it's named after.

I mean - yeah: that's impressive enough but - in comics terms - looking from the outside in as if it were: with only (so far at least) three books to her name Alison Bechdel doesn't seem like someone who deserves (?) a whole author/artist profile (I know - lucky her - right?). But don't be deceived by the slimness of her back catalogue: I mean - just because Fiona Apple has only released four albums in the space of about (what?) 15 years (?) it doesn't mean she's not in the - like: a fully paid up member of the artistic canon (or whatever) with their own exclusive area cordoned off behind a velvet rope: having established themselves to such a degree that if they wanted to live out the rest of their days quaffing champagne and stuffing themselves with caviar - well - no one could really blame them: it's not really as if they need to prove themselves or anything like that. Bechdel's comic career began all the way back in 1987 when she launched the seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Running for over twenty years it's success was two-fold: the first: yes - as one of the "earliest ongoing representations of lesbians in popular culture" it gave a voice to those who needed it and highlighted the simple truth that it doesn't matter what your sexuality is: all humans everywhere are the same and each one of us - it seems - is capable of making all sorts of messes with our lives: but you know - in a good way (mostly). But apart from the cultural studies reasons the second success was just how damn good Dykes to Watch Out For worked as - you know - comics. Because - yeah: while admittedly it did start off kinda shambolic and rudimentary (hell: it was carried in a newspaper called the Funny Times - so what did you expect?): slowly - over the years - it developed (with it's characters) into something capable of some truly remarkable emotional moments: you know how sit-coms generally start off really well: and all the characters seem fully human and then eventually it all just turns into a cartoon of it's former self? Well - Dykes to Watch Out For is like the exact opposite of that.

Now - for most people that would be enough. Charles M. Schulz was content just giving the world Peanuts, Bill Watterson did Calvin and Hobbes and then seemingly melted into the air but Bechdel (whose comic strip  was admittedly a lot more adult than those two) made the decision to move out of her comfort zone and strike out into unexplored terrain resulting in the two comics that are a must-have for any self-respecting "serious" comic book fan (you know what I mean - the type of person who doesn't have a copy of Watchmen because it's got people in funny costumes) that is Fun Home (published in 2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012). Basically - if you're looking for comics to show people who normally wouldn't think to take comics seriously: these are the ones you should go for. With lots of literary references, a sophisticated mannerism and a clear and simple style that even the most inexperienced comics reader can easily get to grips with Bechdel: she's basically the acceptable face of the medium: producing the kind of comics that you can bring home and share with the whole family and not worry about getting any funny looks. I mean: comics has had it's fair share of trailblazer and iconoclasts: Bechdel is one of the first creators to gain mainstream acceptance and point forward to how comics could work as they settle into middle-age.

Links: The Comics Reporter Interview.

Selected works: The Essential Dykes To Watch Out ForFun Home, Are You My Mother?.

All comments welcome.

Book: Crécy


Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Raulo Cáceres

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

You ever see Goodfellas? No? Really? I mean - come on. At this point everyone's seen Goodfellas - right? "We were good fellas. Wiseguys." "No more shines, Billy." "What am I? A schmuck on wheels?" etc. Come on.

Well - ok. If you haven't seen Goodfellas then I suggest you turn away now - because I'm about to talk about the ending. Ok? And I don't wanna spoil it for any of you unfortunates who haven't seen it. And if that means you - well - just skip all the next five paragraphs and we'll see you at the point where it says "But anyway"... (But do me a favour - and go and watch it as soon as you possibly can - ok? Yeah. Ok. Good).

...Ok. So - the thing which has always bugged me about the end of Goodfellas [1] (and this is something that has somehow lead to - well - colossal arguments between me and my esteemed literary-minded flatmate as well as a few others who were unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire) is the way that it breaks in the fourth wall in the last - what? - five minutes. You know the bit I mean right? When they're in the courtroom and all of a sudden Ray Liotta is talking directly to camera (""Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges." etc) as he jumps down from the witness box - walking past everyone else - none of who notice that this guy is (for some reason) talking to an invisible audience [2]. And god - everytime I see it - the aesthetical muscles in my brain (that's a thing right?) just start to spasm. It's like - god - I dunno: the rest of the film has been this beautifully constructed temple of pleasure: the Sistine Chapel with better dialogue - and there's this bit that's like it's been lifted from a school play. I can't stand it.

And I mean - it's not that I don't get what it's doing: yeah - it's the slow disintegration of the mobster dream: and by breaking the fourth wall it's breaking the spell that the film has managed to cast over you: but - damnit - it's just so ugly and well (summing up all my feelings in two words) - tonally inconsistent with the mode of storytelling set up by the rest of the film: and (slight understatement) - it bugs me.

It's not that I don't like a little bit of talking to the camera here and there [3]: in fact - yeah: really it's not that at all: I guess the best way to put it is that - in storytelling terms only: I just don't believe in miscegenation [4] so late on in the proceedings (because yeah - like I said: it's literally like the last five of the film): I mean - if it had opened with some fourth-wall breaking or had it lightly smattered around the place then I wouldn't be fussed at all - but (damn it) it's the fact that it happens in the closing moments makes it feel such a (as silly as I know it sounds) betrayal.

I mean: as I write all this stuff down I can a second voice in my head going: but come on man: Scorsese is a smart guy - he knows what he's doing: and if that ending left you feeling somewhat deflated - well: you know - maybe that's the point: to give you this wild rush of a roller-coaster ride for a couple of hours - and then to dump you off at the end unceremoniously: like a sack of rubbish being thrown in the bin - that's why it feels like such a shift in gears and so incongruous [5] with all that came before. Because fourth-wall breaking (or whatever you want to call it) isn't just a little sprinkle of extra storytelling off or whatever (like having a new character coming in wearing a top hat or whatever): it's a whole new mode. It'll be like if the film ended by switching to animation for a scene, or they switched to being shadow-puppets or suddenly a laughter track popped up [6]: it's just not right damn it.

And yeah: it's not as if I don't appreciate stories which can upend themselves in interesting ways: there's a 2002 Japanese film called Ping Pong [7] which kinda blossoms into a whole strange new creature in it's last third in a way that you won't really see coming: but then that's a film where the strange new creature was the point the whole time (yeah? [8]): which isn't really the case with Goodfellas (or at least - it doesn't feel that way to this chump: I dunno).

But anyway.

All this stuff is really besides the point when it comes to talking about Crécy. There's no incongruity to worry about here and there's no rug pulling of any type to be scared of. I mean: I did kind of think that maybe this was the wrong place to dump all my Goodfellas musings: but then I guess if I spoke about in connection to a book that did have a final little twist in the tale - then that would constitute (for me anyway) a spoiler - so (yeah) it's better to do it here where you don't have to worry about knowing things that you shouldn't.

So why even mention Goodfellas at all? Well - I guess the reason all this stuff sprang to mind is that Crécy (unlike the vast majority of it's comic peers) is brave enough (or foolish enough maybe?) to employ a tactic that all of this has been circling around: breaking the fourth wall - and addressing the audience directly (like this: hello reader! How's it going? Yeah - I'm talking to you! Hope you're having a good day out there. Make sure to check out the site once you're done here: lot's of good stuff to read.)

For me: I guess the most natural place to address the audience is in plays. I mean - there the level of artifice is at it's highest: it's people standing around acting and pretending not to notice all the other people sitting around watching them: so - when you do break that spell: well - it can be almost a relief (no? Just me?). Which I guess is why they've been doing asides since Shakespeare times (which is the oldest in times you can get - right?). After that tho: well - things get a little more tricksy. I mean - it works in films mostly: but it feels a little strained - it's no longer about acknowledging reality: it's more like - swapping one format for another (like I guess I've already said). And then (leaving aside books which I guess fall somewhere in between plays and films? And then after all of them: comes comics.

Because yeah - total statement of the obvious here: but comics are pictures on a page. The people there aren't real flesh-and-blood people - they're two dimensional lines and shadings: I mean - yeah - ok (most) films are 2-D - but they're capturing something that's three-dimensional [9] (and alright - yeah: if you wanna get picky - I know that drawing are pictures of three-dimensional objects etc: but it's not really the same thing is it?): comics aren't even close to being real - which I guess is the main deciding factor (for me anyway)  why it's strange to pick up Crécy and find the main character (William of Stonham) staring straight at me and talking like we're best friends (not that he's someone that you'd want to be best friends with - like he says himself: "I am, of course, a complete bloody xenophobe who comes from a time when it was acceptable to treat people in the next village like they were subhuman."). But even tho there's a part of my brain that rebels against a picture doing the breaking the fourth wall thing: well - it's a bit like when you're a kid and you don't want to get into the swimming pool because (well - because) but then once you make the splash - hey wait a second: it turns out that the water is warm and enveloping (although maybe that's because - to stretch the metaphor a little - it turns out that it's not a swimming pool - but a blood bath: albeit a lovely warm and enveloping one).

So - yeah: now we're on to it - what is this Crécy comic actually - you know - about?

Well: as I tried to work out which other comics to link to at that "Further reading" bit at the bottom I realised that there's not really any other comics that are like Crécy [10]. I mean - yeah - there's war comics (and Crécy is built around a pretty big battle - which I guess counts): but most of the war comics out there tend to  concentrate on the big two: you know WW1 and WW2 (you know: in much the same way as absolutely everything else [11]): but Crécy isn't even in the same century. Nah - as Mr Marsellus Wallace would (surely) approve: this comic right here is downright medieval.

I mean - yeah: from that cover with the two fingers and the bloody St George's Cross you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was a pamphlet for the National Front or something: but fret not - I mean - yeah: ok - this is pretty much the only comic I can think of that I could imagine Al Murray The Pub Landlord owning a copy of: but it's written in such a way that it never makes you feel complicit in all the French-bashing (not to mention the Scottish and the Welsh): rather there's a nice all-prevailing sense of detachment which means that you get to gawk at all the unpleasantness: mud and gore and guts without - well - without having to worry about getting your hands dirty. In fact the one example that leaps to mind is the Horrible Histories books [12]: there's the same sense of revelry in - boy: look how they did things in the past! - that basically keeps Crécy surging forward: only the swearing is much more extravagant (one of the tamer examples being: "If you say one word to me again I'm going to turn your bollocks into a pocket and sell your wife to the butcher.": but then - this is war: what did you expect?) and the detail is much (much) more - well - unsanitary (check the bit where William of Stonham tells you what to wipe on sword).

Raulo Cáceres - who's on the art duties - has a lovely detailed style (presented here in black and white) that - for me - felt like it was only a few steps up form a wood carving: but it's the perfect match for a story that feels like it's been beamed directly from 1346. The only downside to it all in fact is that it's only 48 pages long (in fact I would not be at all surprised if someone told me that I'd written more words here than there are in the book): but - what the hell - that just means that once you get to the end: you want to go back and start again.

In sum: it's a good little comic. Nasty, brutish and short - but sometimes that's just how I like them. Or (to end with a Goodfellas quote): One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin' "Whadda ya want from me?'

[1] And don't get me wrong: I totally adore the rest of it. This is just a small fly in an otherwise completely delicious (sweary) soup.

[2] No? Not ringing any bells? Well - it's up on youtube if that helps.

[3] Films which spring to mind: Fight Club, Amélie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Wayne's World: and specil mention to the most excellent House of Cards (the Ian Richardson version and the Kevin Spacey one: both of which I'd highly recommend): which has the best audience asides since frigging Shakespeare. But yeah.

[4] Disclaimer: I realise that's a pretty fraught word to use: but what the hey right: it sounds kinda good when you smash it round your mouth - but if anyone is feeling anxious - well: speaking as a mixed breed mongrel myself who wouldn't exist if it wasn't for a whole bunch of people sleeping with people that they weren't supposed to: if anyone wants to miscegenate then - well: you have my blessing and all the rest of it. I'm just talking about stories not people - yeah?

[5] Definition of incongruous: "Not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something; not in place." Which - yeah - is the perfect word for what it is that I'm trying to get at.

[6] And don't get me wrong at this point either: I usually love films that can stand to be this playful. Natural Born Killers? Hell yes. I will defend that film to the death. Although - the important distinction between Natural Born Killers and Goodfellas - is that the former announces it's playfulness from the start - while Goodfellas (like I've said in several different ways already) pulls it's switcheroo right at the end.

[7] Which if you haven't seen: then - well - it's another one that I would very much recommend. "Enter the hero!" etc.

[8] Or as Film Crit Hulk would put it: THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT.

[9] Animation is obvious the big gaping hole in this theory: especially so in how there's been so much good animation (I'm thinking of Bugs Bunny and the Animaniacs especially) have made that small (fourth-wall breaking) glance to camera one of their best strengths (which - ha! - makes me think of that priceless Eddie Murphy moment in Trading Places in this scene here).

[10] Of course - as you can see: then I got going (and just thought - I'd throw in anything even tangentially related) and then it was easy.

[11] And if you wanna dispute the idea that the World Wars still have a firm grip on the collective unconscious (or whatever) on Western society - then please come and pay a visit to my library and I'll show you the relative paucity of books from other historical periods compared to the shelves and shelves and shelves we have given over to (pretty much) every single aspect of 1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945 (hell - there's an entire rack given over to D-Day: which I think must make it one of the most written about days like ever).

[12] Which I only mention here with the proviso that you understand that the guy who wrote them (it turns out) is a bit of an idiot.


Further reading: Sláine: The Horned GodAlan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, Battlefields, Northlanders, 303GoliathMezolith, War StoriesThe UnwrittenLast Day in VietnamDoktor SleeplessLogicomix: An Epic Search for TruthMinistry of Space.

Profiles: Warren Ellis.

All comments welcome.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Events: Islington Comic Forum 2013/04


Ok. So you know what? It's kinda hard to describe properly what a typical meeting of the Islington Comic Forum consists of (relax: - I'm not going to use that hoary old cliché about there's not really any such thing as a typical meeting of the Islington Comic Forum because - we're better than that - right?) - I mean: in the strict physical sense - it's a big table full of comic books (at a rough guesstimate I'd say there's usually around - what? - 150 books available for people to take home at each session) and a bunch of people (typically we get about a dozen or so people turn up) all from various walks of life and all with different backgrounds (yeah - I know you're thinking that's it probably all nerdy white guys - but seriously - we're as multicultural and diverse as a corporate video - with an age span from 6 to 90) all sitting around and discussing / arguing / sharing their thoughts and ideas about one of the most exciting and diverse mediums on the planet (nowadays if you're talking about something that's just "all about superheroes" my first guess is you're talking about films - but whatever). It's a little bit more chaotic than a book club but with the same sort of relaxed and open friendly atmosphere: all presided over by an excitable librarian (that would be me - hi!) who has pretty much read every comic book out there (even the terrible ones) and is willing to tell you where you're going wrong with whatever you're reading (and is most happy when people disagree with him). If you're curious as to what sort of books we discuss - then take a look around this blog - every book here has been included at one point or another. And if you want to know what sort of things we talk about: - well - it's never really that properly thought out but we touch upon everything from the best way to construct a story, to how far genre limits can go all the way to if Frank Miller was right about who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman.

Books available this month will include (unless - of course - they are reserved by other people): Breakdowns / Seaguy / Fables / Fell / Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and Scams / The Fablous Furry Freak Brothers / Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms / From Hell / Lex Luthor: Man of Steel / Supergod / Tank Girl: Tank Girl One / Worlds Greatest Superheroes / The Living and the Dead / Superman: All Star Superman / Skizz / Sláine: The Horned God / Lobo:Portrait of a Bastich / Wasteland / Make Me A Woman / No Hero / Wolverine: Enemy of The State / Batman: Snow / Clumsy / Hellblazer: Pandemonium / iZombie / It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken / The Dilbert Principle / Supergods / The Hobbit / Chicken with Plums / The Authority / Ghost World / American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor / Gemma Bovery / Alan Moore's The Courtyard / Joe the Barbarian / Hicksville / Desolation Jones / Wilson / plus many, many, many (many!) more.

There's also a book of the month (so that at least we can all talk about something we've all read). This month it's: Gotham Central Vol. 1: In the Line of Duty written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka art by Michael Lark . If you get a chance please read it. You can reserve yourself a copy here. (For those of you that don't get the chance - don't worry - you can still come and join in with the discussions).

The next one is: Tuesday the 2nd of April / 6:00pm to 7:30pm in the Upstairs Hall at North Library Manor Gardens N7 6JX. Here is a map. Come and join us. It's free. All welcome.

For more information (or if you have any questions and/or would like to be added to our email list: we send out a reminder a week before with a list of the books that are going to be available) you can email us here.

All comments welcome.