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Dark Matters, Diaries and Victorian Adventurers

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every week we provide a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

After a short hiatus we’re back this week with a look at Douglas Noble and Sean Azzopardi’s horror anthology Dark Matters, Sally-Anne Hickman’s diary minicomics and Worth and Collver’s Victorian fantasy series Ladies & Gentlemen…

Dark Matters
Douglas Noble and Sean Azzopardi (creators)

Dark Matters collects the morbid collaborations between those two great stalwarts of the Brit small press, creators Sean Azzopardi and Douglas Noble. Azzopardi (interviewed here at BF a couple of months back) is probably best known for his pensive autobiographical comics like Ed and Twelve Hour Shift while Noble has a reputation for work that is engagingly ambiguous and sometimes almost alluringly ominous in tone. In the past they’ve formed a creative partnership responsible for a couple of unforgettable small press books that have taken the creepiness factor into overdrive.

Those two previously published stories, Sightings of Wallace Sendek and Built of Blood and Bricks, appear in this anthology, alongside a brand new story entitled Pirouette. Not only does this repackaging present the material in a new, handsomely produced format  it also adds an extra ten pages to the critically revered Wallace Sendek entry. Quite frankly I would have bought it just for that pleasure, regardless of the new tale.

Let's take a quick tour through each of the individual thrillers that make up Dark Matters...

Sightings of Wallace Sendek: On a bright December morning, the rock star Wallace Sendek disappeared. This is a record of his sightings.

If you’ve ever met creator Douglas Noble in the flesh then you’ll know how disarming it is to realise this colourful, dapper and welcoming gent is the same chap who wrote such gloriously macabre and twisted fare as Wallace Sendek and Built of Blood and Bricks. It’s almost crushingly disappointing to discover that he’s not the leaky garret-dwelling, absinthe-swilling, wild-eyed reprobate with an unkempt beard of Brian Blessed proportions that you’d always visualised when reading his work. Under that genial demeanour, though, lurks a ghoulishly intelligent imagination which is put to masterful use on Dark Matters’s first offering Sightings of Wallace Sendek.

               

In the mid-1970s, infamous rock legend Wallace Sendek disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Did he choose to opt out from society? Did he meet with foul play? Is he dead? Or had Sendek entered some kind of Faustian pact with sinister, otherworldly forces? Jumping backwards and forwards across three decades we observe the many possible random meetings with someone matching Sendek’s appearance – often in the most disquieting of circumstances – since he vanished off the face of the earth. Compounding the eeriness of Sendek’s disappearance are other preternatural phenomena: a class of schoolchildren spontaneously and synchronously drawing his likeness a decade later, coma patients recovering en masse to the sound of his music, and television sets that refuse to display anything but his image are just a smattering of the paranormal events associated with the missing singer.

The art here is some of Azzopardi’s best work ever with the book’s constant shifts in time and perspective allowing him to experiment and adapt his style for each individual segment with impressive results. As mentioned, there are an extra ten pages of material new to this Dark Matters edition of the story. Sendek lends itself brilliantly to ongoing expansion because the narrative was designed as a series of one-page “sightings” of the missing entertainer by eyewitnesses of varying reliability, or as short accounts of how his disappearance has impacted on friends, colleagues and strangers alike in the following years. Noble and Azzopardi could return to this scenario time and time again adding extra pages that, depending on your perspective, either help to clarify the sequence of events or muddy the waters even further.

Sightings of Wallace Sendek isn’t about clear-cut answers, though. It’s about immersing yourself in this darkest of mysteries and letting your wild imagination fill in the blanks. Of the three stories presented here Sendek remains my favourite because, frankly, it’s not just the best horror story in this collection, it’s one of the best horror comics I’ve read ever, small press or otherwise.

Built of Blood and Bricks: A shut in tells his story – this is what happens when you stack secrets together. A house full of mysteries, a story to unlock, a past to rediscover.

The duo have displayed a rather, shall we say, idiosyncratic approach to their creative partnership in Built of Blood and Bricks with, I believe, Azzopardi’s sketches being taken by Noble as a starting point from which to develop a larger story around. It’s a kind of structured graphic improvisation (if that isn’t a non-sequitur) that worked to terrifying effect on this haunting tale of family secrets and past traumatic events that the reader works together puzzle piece by puzzle piece as the story progresses.

I reviewed Built of Blood and Bricks for Small Pressganged last year here so you can pop back a few months to that earlier dissection for a full review but what I will say here is that time has not diminished the claustrophobic unease of this disturbing urban thriller. And Azzopardi’s dark imagery still has that same malevolent, nightmare-inducing presence. Like a lot of Noble scripts the expectation is on the readers to play their own part in reconstructing the sequence of events from scattered hints but the rewards in re-reading are bountiful.

Pirouette: The prodigal son returns home for his father’s funeral, only to find himself confronting old memories hidden in familiar places.

New material Pirouette is more a melancholic slice-of-lifer than the supernatural or psychological horror of its predecessors. A young man returns for the first time to the provincial hometown he couldn’t wait to escape years prior to attend his father’s funeral. While there he encounters the family he left behind, still caught up in their depressingly bleak and unchanging existences. Less an evocation of Thomas Wolfe’s “You can’t go home again”, perhaps, and more an admonitory “why would you want to go home again?”

In terms of plot Pirouette is a superficially simple scenario but it’s one that’s layered with subtext. A reflection not just on the distortions of memory but also on how we choose to remember the past that most suits us. A more contemplative piece it may be, but Pirouette has an almost welcoming fatalism to it and, in its own way, its relatively more down-to-earth subject matter means the cynicism it projects makes it almost more disturbing than the two tales that it follows.

One of the small press “must-buys” of the year, snap up Dark Matters now and then save it for a dark, wintry night when the wind is howling around the eaves. A magnificently chilling anthology offering.

You can check out Douglas Noble’s work on his site here and Sean Azzopardi’s on his here. Dark Matters is available from either gent’s online shops here and here.

(Next week's Small Pressganged will feature an in-depth interview with Douglas Noble.)

Diary Comic 2011
Sally-Anne Hickman (writer/artist)

When you review a lot of comics you occasionally realise to your dismay that, perhaps inevitably, you are guilty of falling back on a number of set phrases to describe the work that you’re analysing. Essentially, you begin to invent your own personal cliches. One of these for me, when dealing with small press comics, is emphasising how SP books often provide a reading experience that could never, ever be replicated on the digital “page”. To that end I often talk about the “tactile aesthetic” of material where the physicality of the objects themselves are an intrinsic part of the presentation. Now, whether or not I'm culpabale of over-using that term, it seems to me to be an entirely fitting way of referring to Sally-Anne Hickman’s diary comics. Beautifully bound and adorned with the likes of sparkly beads, tassels and delicate paper inlays, every Hickman comic has an intensely personal feel, as if it was created just for you… and for you alone.

The latest Hickman Diary Comic covers events over a couple of months in 2011 and it’s a warts-and-all account of the ups, downs, major events and trivialities of the creator’s day-to-day existence. Each page’s entry can differ remarkably in either tone, style or presentation depending on Hickman’s mood at the time, or the circumstances involved: sometimes they’re amusingly anecdotal, sometimes charmingly observational and at other times slightly rambling, rushed and throwaway. But it’s this uncompromising honesty that makes the work so utterly endearing; whether it be reflections on the Royal Wedding, adventures in the pub, isolated moments with chums or wry accounts of the daily grind working in a comics shop, it’s all recorded with a good-natured candour and openness that you can’t help but find appealing.

Of course diary comics aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey so if you’re the sort of person who can't function without being able to use terms like ‘arcs’, ‘story beats’ and ‘tropes’ when discussing conveyor belt comics then this series of random thoughts, scattered experiences and small insights into someone else’s life may not be your bag at all. For my good self, though, it’s exactly this sort of material that reflects the democracy of the small press and is a splendid representation of that ideal that comics can be whatever the hell we want them to be. As long as Sally-Anne keeps making these little gems I’ll keep buying them…

Diary Comic 2011 is available priced £4.00 plus P&P from Sally’s online store here. For more on her work visit her website here.

Ladies & Gentlemen #1
Richard Worth (writer), Jordan Collver (artist)

London, 1891, and a new “Ripper” is stalking the city’s fog-bound streets. Beneath the Cog and Spring public house lies the headquarters of The Gentry – a group of costumed Victorian adventurers – who are on the trail of this mysterious preternatural predator. This troupe comprises highwayman lookalike and “gentleman spy” The Peppered Moth, whip-wielding suffragette The Lady, the mysterious mute The Gentleman and drunken “rascal illusionist” Hex Vincente. With the aid of Sarah Copperthwaite, the daughter of an old ally, the team set out to solve the case of “The Curse of the Were-Hyena and Other Horrible Hybrids”…

What’s immediately striking about Richard Worth and Jordan Collver’s Ladies & Gentlemen is the level of thought that has gone into constructing the book’s aura of mock Victoriana. From that gorgeous, eyecatching cover to the list of “Dramatis Personae” that begins the story through to the period design of the creator credits at the back of the book, this is a comic that is both distinctive and well-defined in visual identity and style. They also hook the reader from the beginning with a colourful cast replete with intriguing affectations and fascinating hints as to their backstories; an essential foundation when building up reader interest in what is, to all intents and purposes, a historical super-hero comic.

Collver’s art has an element of the fluidity of Gene Colan, one of the greatest mainstream horror comics artists, to it and his flowing layouts have a dreamy quality to them that adds to the supernatural atmosphere of the book. The one thing I really like about Ladies & Gentlemen, though, is that Worth and Collver are completely unafraid to embrace cliché… almost passionately so, and often to great dramatic effect: pea-soupers, gas lamps, quaint pubs, affected dialogue – all abound in an initial premise that is effectively a Jack the Ripper retread. It’s one of those instances where familiarity definitely does not breed contempt, though, as this lovingly self-conscious pastiche is a slyly knowing celebration of 19th century melodramatics.

            

As with any title that is kicking off an ongoing narrative in a traditional serial comics format, reviewing an opening issue is somewhat akin to judging a novel on the first chapter. However, Ladies and Gentlemen #1 is a strong and auspicious opener and one that poses enough intriguing questions in terms of both plot and characterisation to leave its audience eager to discover more about its world.

Ladies and Gentlemen is available here from the Water Closet Press site priced £3.00 plus P&P.

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Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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