Review by Paul AshleyBrown.
Edited by Rich Cowdry
A3 Newsprint B&W & Colour 24 pages £1
Through the doors of swanky new Gosh comics in Soho, for the launch of the new issue of Rich Cowdry’s Comix Reader, I’m preceded by 80′s Zine Doyen, the eternally youthful Paul Gravett, who remembers who I am, but can’t remember my first name. Ooh, the irony ! There must be something good going on if Mr Gravett has shown up, having been someone who has always had his finger on the pulse of comic book hipness for longer than I, or he, can remember. Well, the Eighties anyway. It’s fitting he’s here, as there are distinct parallels with the zine scene of the Eighties, and the current crop of movers and shakers that make up the crowd squeezed into Gosh tonight. Even if, as Sir Terrence of Hooper never fails to remind us, the old established order is dead and buried, the DIY ethic is alive and well in British comics, and Rich Cowdry’s Comix Reader is a nifty barometer of what you can find within it’s thriving scene.
So, what about that content ? Well, for the uninitiated, the Comix Reader comprises 24 pages, each artist usually has one page to produce something, although some artists do half-page pieces, and in this issue we have our first 2 page strip. There’s a diverse collection of stuff, though primarily the emphasis was initially on humourous pieces. The nice thing about this is there are new people in each issue, so it’s an ever changing collection of work, which will hopefully keep things fresh and interesting, and I believe Editor Rich is trying to showcase the work of as many artists as he can. Anyway, that content. Is it actually any good ?
Well, like nearly all anthologies, there’s a very diverse collection of work. First thing to stress is that CR wraps itself up well. Issue 1 and 2 had great, distinctive covers by Rich Cowdry and Lord Hurk, and issue 3 keeps up the good work with a clever and nicely rendered and coloured piece of work by Elliott Baggott, who also contributes a perfectly realised, beautifully drawn strip inside, starring Johannes Gutenburg. Editor Rich Cowdry is first up, with a neat little page entitled Fat Charlie Chaplin, which, in keeping with it’s titular hero, is a sequential piece of silent comedy, cleverly employing in it’s panels a few of the visual devices of the cinematic medium of the Chaplin era.
Between Cowdry and Baggot’s solid, nicely drawn pieces is Bird’s lovely What Do You Worship, for me one of the highlights of issue 3. It’s a gentle, reflective little strip, which raises a couple of smiles when reading, and touches, albeit fleetingly and indirectly, upon one of lifes big questions, but does so in a small, personal way that gives it a great deal of charm. The last panel seems a seperate afterthought, a tacked on joke, but oddly, I thought it added a little counterpoint to what had gone before.
So far, so good, but then Maartje Schalxx’ Looking for Love at the LGBT Disco is the first piece to slightly disappoint sadly, despite the great title. There’s nothing wrong with the direct, simple economy of the words herein, in fact, that’s this page’s strength, they convey the sadness and loneliness of the character. Unfortunately, the overall murky wash, and blank, faceless heads adrift within don’t convey any of the potential emotional emphasis visually;personally, for me, it’s just too anonymous, too blank, too abstracted visually. The crowds described need to be drawn, in order to see the isolation of the situation, or the character’s faces need to be depicted, to descibe their feelings. A pity, because I liked the writing.
Maybe Maartje’s strip may have benefitted from Kat Kon drawing the page. The aforementioned Miss Kon’s page comprises 3 seperate, unconnected drawings, full of faces, paticularly in the last image of an elderly, lined old woman, whose twisted lip suggests some subversive glee from the mockery, confusion and fear she seems to be causing the surrounding mass of young teenagers. The other two drawings are equally mysterious and puzzling, a tension, whether intentional or not, is evoked. It’d be interesting to see what Kat Kon would do in a sequential narrative. Perhaps Mr Cowdry can team them up for a future issue of CR.
The “Wonderfully Wonky” Peter Lally, as I’ve become accustomed to calling him, provides us with 4 Moral Tales, each 3 panels in length, each drawn in his “wonderfully wonky” way. I admit to a somewhat perverse pleasure in Mr Lally’s drawings, and strips. His work at first glance could easily be dismissed as crude rubbish, but look closer and there’s actually someone who understands something about sequential narrative and trying to convey meaning, even if at times he may technically fall short. I love the underlying eccentricity of his drawings, and the fact his panels are full of little amusing details.There’s lots going on in each panel here, and he uses next to no dialogue, though sound is conveyed, and movement and action.There’s something within here that could develop into real, eccentric surrealism.
For me, Alex Potts has been the Star Turn of Issues 1 to 3 so far, and his page this issue is again, another highlight. In an incredible 34 panels, he creates a perfectly executed story about an episode in the life of his brother, Pulling Out Weeds From The Streets of Leeds,which has a great payoff in the last panel. The drawing and colouring are simply excellent, the narrative tone of the writing is understated and deadpan,and there’s not a duff note in the entire thing. Mr Pott’s strip alone is worth the cover price, and more besides. Certainly one to watch !
The following two pages, A Moment by Mike Medaglia, and Bernadette Bentley’s Bloody Wasps both use the sequential structure of their pages to depict the passing of time. Both are wordless, which emphasise the sense of stillness. Medaglia’s small natural details, and shifts of season parallel the character’s spiritual shift over time, and in doing so creates a neat, simple and effective page. Bernadette Bentley’s strip juxtaposes her character’s humdrum day to day activity with the wasps fate, and is strangely effective, for me an intriguing, enigmatic little mood piece.
Which takes us to The Tree, the two page centrespread of the issue, which is in itself a good idea, as perhaps the Comix Reader might well benefit from having one or two longer pieces, to allow the artists a little more space and pace for slightly longer stories, or better structured work, not so confined by the single pages limitations. And The Tree is all the more effective for having the space to breathe across the doublepage spread. It’s a funny, quirky little story of a rather vain and awfully behaved tree, nicely written by Tanya Meditzky, and rather beautifully drawn and coloured by Tobias Tak, who creates a wonderfully whimsical little world infused with the spirit of 30′s and 40′s European cartoons, full of charming detail and eccentric characters.
The following page by Tim & Alex Levin raised a chuckle or two, particularly with the fate of Indiana Jones, although the Sherlock Holmes spoof seems somewhat messy and disconnected, though a couple of phrases in the last panel made me laugh-Knapsack Animal adventures may well be more promising a venture ! Ralph Kidson and Sir Tedley Blair’s Big Balls Crow I personally found a bit pointless, though there’s nothing wrong with the drawing or writing, it’s just a bit slight in content, in comparison with some of the other pages, though I know a couple of people who will find it hilarious.
Steve Tillotson manages to outdo Alex Potts on the panel quotient, deconstructing his whole page image into 48 panels of surreal goings-on in a forest, populated by some rather bizarre creatures.This deconstruction means we have to “read” each panel seperately, and in doing so visual detail is emphasised, a sense of time and space is created, the sudden appearance of the odd forest creatures becomes more apparent.Again, it’s interesting to see how many artists here are playing with the form and construction of the page, and ideas of sequential narrative. Ellen Lindner continues the trend with her page, Blowing Up, It’s Expatriate Armageddon, using the visual metaphor of an Atomic Bomb explosion to suggest the seismic emotional state she’s feeling in returning home. While it’s a brave attempt in not going down an obvious visual route, I’m not sure if it entirely succeeds in it’s intention. Sometimes, it’s better to be obvious, and perhaps depicting the small, personal and intimate creates a more visual seismic impact. But I definitely applaud the visual risk-taking. And the writing here, in it’s directness and honesty, is wonderful.
Jimi Gherkin considers the problem of this approach-what does work best visually in relating your narrative ? – by borrowing a stylistic device from a couple of indie masters, namely Pekar and Crumb, in telling us The Jimi Gherkin Name Story. Each panel of the strip is simply Jimi relating the origin of his comic moniker, before being sidetracked with something more interesting, and a neat, funny punchline. It’s visually deadpan, and everyday, a la Pekar, and works because of this, but ironically, I think it may have been visually more intriguing by using the sketchbook doodled self-portraits that appear in one part of the page throughout it as a stylistic visual device, so each “Jimi” is a different version through each panel. Perhaps you didn’t need Mr Crumb and Mr Pekar after all Jimi.
Following on from Mr Gherkin, a shared half-page each sees Sean Duffield have peurile fun at the expense of Alan Sugar, which made me laugh far too much than I’d care to admit- Sugar’s depiction, and expressions here are delivered for maximum juvenile giggles, while Dickon Harris plays Chinese Whispers, with a neat ending, but perhaps could’ve been funnier over a full page of perhaps ever-increasingly surreal interpretations before the payoff.
K.Ward’s The Invisual Arts is an oblique, oddly amusing page, again rather nicely drawn, which I liked the ending of – the merest hint of tension, and a strangely atmospheric quality, enhanced by the lovely understated colouring. A strange, perverse little gem that grew on me. Craig Burston’s StunGunFunPun, is delightful and funny in it’s refreshing simplicity of execution, and pleasure in silly slang, and proves that sometimes, the simplest ideas and drawing works best.
Paul O’Connell and Addy Evenson’s Carousel pips Alex Potts for best page of the issue, and is visually one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time, hampered only by the fact so many small panels are packed into such a small space.. This is a simply stunning piece of work, a jarring collection of photo-images of a Scary-Go-Round in Hell, guarded over by two sinister (aren’t they always ?) dayglo clowns that could well be the greasepaint ghosts of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. It’s wonderfully dark, and brilliant, and adds needed weight and punch and unease to this issue. More from these guys, and quickly !!
J.Parsons takes us down the pub with a few England football supporters for a neat joke via a clever use of spot colour, and the back page is drawn by the already dependable Lord Hurk with a sad and silly tale of a Lonely Bomb, that’s as neat a job of classy cartooning as you’d want, and whose Graphic layout, and final, tragically obvious fate, brings this issue to a comic full-stop.
In conclusion, it’s great to see something like the Comix Reader pitching up, and attempting to establish itself within the Comic marketplace, creating for itself, as Gravett’s Escape did in the eighties, a particular space for a new, raw, and generally unseen group of artists from outside the established comic arena. Still, there are lessons to be learned in the craft of making artwork, and the comics medium itself, and this is one of the intriguing challenges for these artists ; to what extent can you explore and push the boundaries of your craft. It’s pleasing to see them trying. and what’s interesting and exciting to me is watching this being played out in the panels and pages of the Comix Reader. I do hope the momentum and enthusiasm of everyone involved can be maintained, and so far congratulations are in order to Rich and the individual creators involved. Here’s to Issue 4 !!!
Paul Ashley Brown, “The Man by the Exit”.