As well announcing a comic – The Ludocrats (which I can’t currently give any details on the appearance of) – I’ve been reading a swathe of the panelled stuff over the past year or so, and I thought I’d offer a couple of thoughts and recommendations. Having taken a year off this criticism business makes it feel a little odd to be writing like this again, but that’s probably healthy. No point letting all those words cause a blockage.
The Spire, by Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely only has two issues out at the moment, and it’s already one of my favourite things of 2015. Not an adaptation of the William Golding novel (although gosh that’s ripe for such treatment now that I think of it), but instead a vibrantly sketched genre-bestriding fantasy set in an only-just-pre-industrial hive city, with “the sculpted” magical make-a-mutants living alongside class-condemned humans in racist disharmony. Cheery and inventive world-building gives the protagonist a fantastical beat against which to practice her Cop With Challenges routine, while Spurrier’s chatter draws on a rainbow of sources to provide wit and tenderness in the face of instant tragedy and savage violence.
The Spire reminds me of comics such as The Incal, where a bunch of ideas all surge up together to create something with a messy, rich flavour and an esoteric end result. The individual ingredients wouldn’t have carried a comic on their own, but few comics get to stir as many of them into the mix. Spurrier’s sense of drama and Stokely’s engagingly characterful artwork combine to make something that is pop and playful, while having the momentum and heft of something which is going places (probably on fire, certainly covered in gore). It exhibits my favourite sort of sense of genre cherry-picking, with the kind of result being a combination weirdness and digestibility which comes from doing unconventional things in a conventional way. Six-Gun Gorilla, a previous collaboration between these two, might have had access to many of the same components, but it feels like both writer and artist are working at greater velocity this time, and the pay off is gripping.
ODY-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward. I have mixed feelings about this, because although I love what the project is about, and have wide-eyed enthusiasm for how Ward’s astonishing phantasmagorian art is delivering it, I find something slightly awkward in the telling. Fraction has recast The Odyssey as a space voyage, and Odysseus is Odyssia the clever hero. The war in which aftermath Odyssia’s travels are troubled is a cataclysmic galactic conflict fought by a culture of warrior women, whilst the puppeteers of events are a malicious matriachy of Gods, headed up by the all-mother, Zeus. The gendering of the story is both brilliant conceived and spectacularly presented: Ward’s art – which I will attempt and fail to describe adequately in a moment – manages to feminise and psychodramatise space opera, and bring with it a wild, fleshy… wait. I want to say virulence or perhaps virility, but both of these words seem like they would be betraying the project, because their root is in male sexuality. Perhaps I should say artemisian? My vocabulary fails me. And immediately, even in thinking about how to talk about ODY-C, I get to see how the gendered roots of my words skew things in a particular direction. Art causing me to examine my assumptions. Who’d have thought it possible?
So Fraction’s concept is fantastic and fulfilling. Ward’s art, which is blossoms and explodes across the page in some of the most extraordinary unfoldings of light and colour I have ever seen (return to pages again and again to look at how cosmic, metaphysical scenes are unwrapped in violent hues, blood for stars, sinew between worlds), is revelatory. I don’t, however, think the story is particularly well told. I am not engaged, and by contrast to the immediate momentum of (for ease of example) Spurrier’s comic, this retelling of one of the greatest of tales lacks some of the dramatic delivery that is usually so clear and bright in Fraction’s other work. Nevertheless ODY-C is an event of a comic. An explosion. I would recommend witnessing it for yourself.
Trees and Injection, by Warren Ellis (art by Jason Howard and Declan Shalvey respectively). These aren’t exactly companion pieces to each other, but I’m reading them and experiencing them as such. Trees I won’t say much about, aside from it being an essentially (and valuably) political science fiction outing. As such it reminds me how much Ellis owes a debt to a certain cadre of science fiction author, and it’s hard not to imagine this story being some sort of 21st century echo of the new wave stuff we were reading in the second half of the 20th century. Even the cliffhanger-free delivery reminds me of reading long-form stuff distributed across old science fiction magazines, where the overall spread of high concept for the story was what kept you interested, rather the individual dramatic beats with their episodic hooks. That expected pace seems to characterise everything from TV to videogames in contemporary work, and is refreshingly absent in Ellis’ tale of vast alien pillars pushing themselves into the Earth. Trees is very much meant to be a graphic novel read in a large sweep, and consequently I think it will be best when we can read it in that format.
Injection, too, makes me think on Ellis’ influences, possibly because they are so close to my own. It immediately reminded me of Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, with its walking ancient trackways of Britain feeding into English identity, although Ellis tells me he hadn’t read Macfarlane until after he had written this, again revealing the sort of undercurrent Macfarlane himself identifies in writing such as this article on the eeriness of the English landscape.
“This eerie counter-culture – this occulture – is drawing in experimental film-makers, folk singers, folklorists, academics, avant-garde antiquaries, landscape historians, utopians, collectives, mainstreamers and Arch-Droods alike, in a magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism. The hedgerows, fields, ruins, hills and saltings of England have been set seething.”
Injection exhibits this stuff in droves, while also (again) reflecting Ellis’ interest in the abstract political machines, run by very real people, which operate to attempt to filter the world for the people enmeshed in its societies. Agents, control, pollution. Familiar and important themes, and dealt with here in that decidedly English mythos of deep history and sinister location. I love Injection because it makes me think that if Ellis ever got to write James Bond, he’d get the charming brute of MI6 just right, and the plot would reveal Q as a savage druid, and have the stolen WMDs be medieval antecedents to LSD. (UPDATE: Apparently he is writing James Bond. So that’s weird.)