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From Dark Secrets to Depressed Cats

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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 alternating review round-ups of the best of current small press comics alongside spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

This week we take a look at the latest ongoing project from that small press UK veteran, and one-time ubiquitous Marvel letterhack, Rol Hirst, alongside a similarly warped “done-in-one” offering from Douglas Noble and Sean Azzopardi. To finish up we have a complete turnabout in terms of content and tone, with a look at the delightfully daft characters to be found in the pages of Lizz Lunney’s zines and minicomics...

Too Much Sex & Violence
Rol Hirst (writer) Various (art)

It seems particularly fitting to be starting this first review round-up by discussing Rol Hirst’s new small press offering Too Much Sex & Violence as, nearly twenty years ago, it was Hirst’s fondly-remembered dystopic ‘90s fantasy series The Jock that introduced me to the possibilities of the small press. I’ve always had good things to say about his endearingly curmudgeonly short story anthology PJANG (“People Just Ain’t No Good”) here at Broken Frontier in the past (check here and here) so was intrigued by both the premise and promise of his newly announced ongoing series.

Too Much Sex & Violence is set in the small seaside settlement of Fathomsby; a locale that could surely be twinned with the League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey or a Vertigo version of Eerie, Indiana. Sleepy little towns with dark secrets are, of course, something of a staple of British horror and Hirst is off to a cracking start here in keeping that tradition alive. Fathomsby is replete with memorable grotesques like seemingly vampiric DJ Gary Gore, short-tempered, super-powered pensioner Harry Hall, and sex shop owner Dot who offers a rather bizarre sideline for regular customers. Thrust into the heart of these mysteries is the recently transferred policeman DI Sam Kamara, who will no doubt be our point of identification in the months to come.

Like PJANG, Too Much Sex & Violence offers Hirst the chance to work with a formidable sampling of stalwarts of the British small press scene including, this issue, Andrew Cheverton, Paul B. Rainey, Martin Eden, Adrian Bamforth and Hirst‘s long-time collaborator Nigel Lowrey. The basic conceit here is that a number of artists each issue can contribute 2-4 page sequences covering the particular subplot of one of the book’s characters with the writer pulling together links between the various storylines where necessary. This allows Hirst to put out a book with one overarching narrative while not overstretching the talents of a number of illustrators who are contributing for the love of the work rather than any more tangible gain.

 

Children of Fathomsby beware... Don't mess with Harry Hall! Art by Andrew Cheverton

Admittedly this first issue is slightly mired in the requisite scene-setting that is so necessary when establishing what will, hopefully, be a long-running saga. But that was also true of those television shows like The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville that are such clear influences on the book. I suspect, though, that it will be only a matter of time before we are fully familiarised with this gruesome company of players and their peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies.

There’s something almost delectably macabre about Fathomsby and its often sinister cast of characters. Whether the multi-artist approach on show here will facilitate the desired frequency of output - or whether juggling so many collaborators will prove to be a logistical nightmare in and of itself - remains to be seen. I, however, look forward with a near gleeful voyeurism to plentiful trips in the months to come, skulking around the menacing streets of a locale that surely epitomises Morrissey’s “coastal town that they forgot to close down.”

You can order Too Much Sex & Violence (and back copies of PJANG) from Rol Hirst’s website here priced £2.50 including postage (see site for details for international orders).

Built of Blood and Bricks
Douglas Noble (writer) Sean Azzopardi (art)

While Rol Hirst’s Too Much Sex and Violence may be morbidly humorous, Douglas Noble and Sean Azzopardi’s Built of Blood and Bricks embodies a creepiness of an altogether more threatening manner. A highly stylised, claustrophobic tale of dark family secrets, this chilling piece of quiet urban horror raises as many questions as it answers and, in the fashion of M.R. James, expects its audience to piece together the clues and draw their own conclusions.

Built of Blood and Bricks is a difficult comic to summarise or précis, which admittedly in itself is actually rather splendidly refreshing. As can be inferred from the preview pages presented here, it’s a rather disturbing first person account that combines ramblings on architecture, a housebound narrator, a horrific childhood accident and a number of troubling hints and intimations about a fractured family unit into a non-cohesive, but utterly compelling, whole.

Two things stand out immediately about Built of Blood and Bricks. The first is that this is a comic that will stay with you for a very long time. One of its greatest strengths is that it is not easily digested or forgotten. By embracing elements of ambiguity, and presenting an often bleakly obscure narrative, Noble and Azzopardi ensure that the readers are drawn into the story in such a way that they feel almost complicit in the shadowy proceedings it recounts. The audience become co-conspirators by the very act of reading, and you can almost hear the creators whispering “This is our little secret...” at you as you turn each uncomfortable, guilt-ridden page...

               

Perhaps even more noteworthy, though, is that this is one of those pieces of sequential storytelling where writer and artist seem to be almost telepathically in tune in creating a twisted, psychological landscape that expertly fuses together haunting imagery with subtly intimidating dialogue. Azzopardi’s art veers from the surreal and abstract, when visualising the almost possessed looking narrator, to the homely and straightforward when depicting the commonplace suburban world the tale is set in. It’s this fitting juxtaposition of the otherworldly and the banal, the horrific and the familiar, that makes this such an effective and daunting piece of horror.

You can order Built of Blood and Bricks here priced £2.50.

Lizz Lunney

Finishing up on a complete volte-face this time around, we have the gorgeously preposterous characters of Lizz Lunney’s small press offerings. Lunney, for those unfamiliar with her work, is the creator behind a plethora of brilliantly silly characters - usually animals but with the odd unicorn, dinosaur or foodstuff thrown in - who appear in short strips, not just within her own numerous publications but occasionally other anthologies, like last week’s featured Solipsistic Pop or Paper Science.

Through titles like Big Cat Parade, Sushi Karaoke and At the Planetarium I found myself immediately and irrevocably hooked on Lunney’s characters and their peculiarly human hang-ups: Depressed Cat the sighing, morose moggie with his own popular Twitter account, Dullbog the Bulldog with his interminably dreary stories, Hairy Midget Elf forever tormented by his nemesis the quietly staring creepy Garden Elf, Leaning Rabbit who does just that and not much else, Keith the Wizard and his ill-used Unicorn employees and many other bizarre and surreal new chums just waiting to be encountered.

Many of these strips depend on the running gag; a comedic form that may be deceptively simple in its appearance but has an art to pulling it off that actually rests on far more than simple repetition. Lunney is deft at finding that balance between replicating the joke and taking it to another level; ensuring that the strips are never stale and her characters don’t overstay their welcome.

         

What is also interesting about Lunney’s comics, beyond their content, is the way she invests a degree of importance in the comic as a physical object. Depending on strip structure they adopt playful approaches to presentation. The tale of the cross-species, cat-loving Romantic Bison, for example, is a hand-stapled landscape read while The Man with Tetris on his Chin can be read one way and the book then flipped over to read Bears in Your Face from the “back cover” on.

Come the revolution, and the advent of my glorious benevolent dictatorship, not only will we see Spangles back in every newsagent and special police units formed to crack down on people who stand on the wrong side of escalators, but I will also ensure that Lizz Lunney’s minicomics are available free to all on prescription. Wonderfully, magnificently and delightfully absurd, there’s a childlike glee about Lunney’s work that is incredibly, and unavoidably, infectious.

You can check out Lizz Lunney’s extensive online comic here and buy copies of her small press offerings in her online shop here.

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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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