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Deception, Disaster and the Daily Grind

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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 seven days we’ll be providing 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.

In this week’s offering I’ll be looking at some recently released British titles that illustrate the ever wondrous diversity of the Brit small press scene. From Howard Hardiman’s gritty The Lengths, to the fun newspaper format anthology Paper Science and Dan Berry‘s storybook presentation After We Shot the Grizzly, there’s a wealth of styles and content out there just waiting for your worthy and well spent investment of time…

The Lengths #1-4
Howard Hardiman (writer/artist)

The Lengths (fourth issue just released) follows the story of Eddie, an art school student dropout who finds himself drawn into the world of male prostitution. Having abandoned his old social circle, Eddie finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his double identity and keep his secret life from his current boyfriend Dan. As his alternate existence as escort “Ford” begins to infringe on his other relationships the question the book seeks to ask is what lengths are we prepared to go to in order to please everyone around us…?

Creator Howard Hardiman’s intense, but thoughtful, storytelling in The Lengths is based on interview research with London sex workers that gives it a compelling, and often raw, honesty. The characters are presented as anthropomorphised dogs throughout, with their physical canine attributes beautifully complementing each cast member’s personalities and roles within the narrative. In that respect, The Lengths is a perfect example of a certain powerful creative irony in comics; dehumanising characters as anthropomorphic animals only serves to emphasise that selfsame humanity all the more forcefully.

Eddie’s dilemma, and the examination of his deceitfulness, is presented to the reader in a non-judgmental yet candid manner, and Hardiman populates the book with a memorable, fleshed out supporting cast. At its heart, there’s a careful exploration of identity in The Lengths that has much to say about how we project ourselves and the nature of the “us” we present to other people. For me the greatest strength of The Lengths is this examination of duality; of the facades we create to hide behind, the compromises that necessarily follow from them and where those masks end and begin.

The effectiveness of Hardiman’s art is in its pensive and often contemplative portrayal of the book’s players. The reader can  readily intuit so much about each character’s persona from the visuals without the need for any further exposition; their stance, their postures and the way they react physically to those around them, speaks to the audience as much as any accompanying text could. His layouts are open and expansive, often abandoning the traditional panel format to use full splash pages as an evocative emotional canvas.

                 

A selection of pages from the first issues of The Lengths

Whether Eddie’s story will, eventually, prove to be a tale of a descent into spiralling deception or a journey of self-discovery remains to be seen. What I am sure of, however, is that The Lengths is a totally engaging account of very human foibles and how we can become inextricably enmeshed in our own duplicity. Highly recommended.
 
You can check out The Lengths blog here and Howard Hardiman’s site here. All four issues of The Lengths so far are available for £2.50 an issue here.

Paper Science #6
Matthew Sheret (editor), various creators

I believe at this point it’s obligatory when reviewing an anthology book to make a tedious observation along the lines of how their contents are generally “hit or miss”, or some such equally banal comment. However, I prefer to think it’s more a case that good anthologies provide something for everyone’s tastes and if this is also the objective of editor Matt Sheret and the Paper Science crew, then I would say they have achieved that admirably with the sixth issue of this newspaper format title.

Paper Science is one of a number of burgeoning British small press anthologies that provide a showcase for some of the very best SP talent we have in the U.K. The particular distinguishing hook to Paper Science is not just in its broadsheet appearance, which allows contributors the freedom of a larger A3 size space to work their magic on, but in its themed approach to each publication. Recent editions have focused on topics such as science-fiction and music, while the latest focuses on the world of work.

Standout strips for me, among the one to four-page offerings this time around, included the observational humour of Francesca Cassavetti’s ‘Waiting for the Man’, following a day in the lives of students working in a motel restaurant, and Sean Azzopardi doing that understated slice-of-life schtick he does so brilliantly in ‘Clocking Off’, a wry look at a largely uneventful day as a desk porter. I was also rather taken by the handsome design sensibilities of Kyle Fox’s ‘Two Ends of the Same Line’ and Kristyna Baczynski’s ‘Looking Up’, which takes workplace daydreams to the ultimate level.

           

From the mundanities of the 24-hour grind to wild flights of fancy, Paper Science #6 is a wonderfully multi-faceted tour through those familiar thoughts, aspirations and irritations that we all experience in the daily world of employment. And if any potential readers out there are looking for a suitable jumping-on point it’s also a great starting introduction to the work of a number of notable small press creators...  

Paper Science #6 can be purchased from their site here which also lists available back issues.

After We Shot the Grizzly
Dan Berry (creator - working from the lyrics of Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family)

I have to admit upfront that I’m not familiar with the band The Handsome Family whose lyrics for the song ‘After We Shot the Grizzly’ (from their 2006 album ‘Last Days of Wonder’) are visualised in this self-published book from creator Dan Berry. While I’m sure that if the reader is, it  may add an extra dimension to what  Berry sums up as “A tale of loss, life and love”, but it’s not at all necessary to enjoy this beautifully illustrated one-shot.

Tracing the plight of a group of airship passengers lost in the wilderness after their transport has crashed, After We Shot the Grizzly is an account of their struggle for survival, thematically counterpointed by a linked story of undying love. Berry approaches the project by giving a children’s storybook feel to the comic’s presentation; each page is a single panel illustrating a line from the song. This works extremely well in conveying the rapid sense of imminent and inevitable doom that permeates the book from start to finish.

For a story that embodies such extreme degrees of both desperation and poignancy - wherein the characters remind us of both the very best we can be and the very, very worst we can descend to - it’s interesting to note how well Dan Berry’s quirky, cartoony style works on what is often very grim subject matter. After We Shot the Grizzly may be a brisk read but it’s one I’ve found myself coming back to and re-reading on a number of occasions since I picked it up at the recent Comica Comiket. And that, in my estimation (humble or otherwise), is most assuredly always the sign of a tale well told.

        

After We Shot the Grizzly is available from Dan Berry’s site here priced £6.00

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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.

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Comments

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Dec 8, 2011 at 5:51am

    another great column, Andy

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Dec 8, 2011 at 7:10pm

    Thanks Bart. It's a true pleasure to be able to give some of this fantastic material a little extra spotlight time.

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