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Inside Strange Embrace

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The colour edition of Strange Embrace has just hit the shelves, so this week I’m combining the Waiting for Trade column with an Inside Look at a selection of pages.

The first thing you’ll notice with this new edition is that the pages appear to be brown with age, as if this is a comic that has been lying around in an attic for decades. It’s disconcerting to hold it in your hands and feel the fresh shiny paper when your eyes are telling you it should be flaking twenty-year-old newsprint. It’s very appropriate to the book, not only because Strange Embrace is about the passage of time and the persistence of memory, but because the comic itself seems both old and new to me. It’s fourteen years since the first black-and-white edition but this Image book is a completely fresh design with brand new covers, interviews and articles by Richard Starkings and moody new colours by Rob Steen. I just wish we’d been able to infuse the pages with that wonderful musty smell of old comics…

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Page 1 opens with the starkest abstract image I could come up with. A circle on a black background. It could be a number of things – these floating circles become snowflakes later in this issue and the entire series finishes with exactly the same panel, only the circle will become a full moon hanging in a winter sky. Here though as we pull back, we see that a stream of air bubbles is rising through water. In panel 4 a head floats up into view. This is Sukumar and in that first shot he looks disconcertingly like a corpse. The rest of the page shows him swimming athletically. There’s a freedom but also a vulnerability in his bony naked body. Something about his movements suggests this may be a dream.

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The mysterious Alex makes his first appearance, floating in the water as if he is levitating. The close-up leaves us in no doubt that Alex represents a primeval malevolence. I used a very loose, expressionistic style of drawing for Strange Embrace, which was the antithesis of my commercial work. I had worked for years as an inker for Marvel UK where I utilised brush and pen to give a very slick finish to other artists’ pencils. Now I deliberately ditched those techniques, using a flexible dip pen on watercolour paper. Instead of pulling the pen across the surface to achieve a smooth line I pushed the nib into the paper or dragged it sideways so it dug into the surface and ink spread almost randomly from the nib. I was attacking the paper, fighting against the materials and I hope it gives the work an edgy feel.

Those bared teeth are a recurring image throughout the series – the mirthless grin that represents all the unknown forces that haunt our dreams.

I’m still very pleased with the optical trick where the face dissolves into fish. Back when I drew this you couldn’t do that in five seconds with a computer program.

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Sukumar’s father owns a grocery store and Sukumar has to deliver the groceries. There is one address he hates to deliver to. I use doors and windows a lot in this story. They represent layers of reality. I know this all sounds like pretentious bollocks but it was a deliberate use of a recurring motif. Characters move from one level of reality to another each time they pass through a door. Windows allow characters a new perspective, while at the same time creating a barrier that separates and isolates them from what they see.

Here the African mask takes on a living presence as it peers out from the antique shop. The masks are the physical link with the past of the character we are about to meet. Rob has coloured the masks with a rich cloying red, a complete contrast to the washed out greys of the flashback scene. Sukumar’s grey, boring, safe family home has been intruded into by the envelope slipped under the door. In panels 7 and 8 the viewpoint drifts past Sukumar’s father as if there is nothing about him to hold our interest. Sukumar walks through the door…

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…and into the world of Anthony Corbeau, the antique collector who will later be revealed to be the central character of the series. In panels 2 and 3 Sukumar’s eyes grow accustomed to the light. An effect that is cinematic, but also pure comics. One by one the masks become visible, and threatening.

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Here’s another door. I talk about the smell of the deathbed here. When I was about ten years old, my grandmother entered a long terminal illness and I associated that odour with her physical decline. When my grandfather was dying he stayed with my family, sleeping in the front room. A few days before he died the same odour appeared.

As the door silently swings open and Corbeau is revealed, Sukumar runs. He believes he is running from death.

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As he runs, the snow begins to fall. Corbeau stops at the doorway to the street. In my original typescript I included this caption: BUT THE OLD MAN ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE. HE’S LIKE A VAMPIRE…CAN’T CROSS THE THRESHOLD…

Mercifully, I deleted that, but the effect is still there. Corbeau is trapped in the world of his own past that the antique shop represents. Unfortunately for Sukumar, the real danger lies ahead.

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Sukumar is uncomfortably reminded of the underwater figure he saw in his waking dream. The white-haired Alex is revealed as a psychic. He’s more that that – he’s a psychic vampire and Sukumar should be running like Hell. But the snow is falling faster. I love snow. It transforms, silently, hypnotically. I wanted to depict the effect of Sukumar falling under Alex’s spell and the dancing snowflakes achieve that very well.

A reader who saw this page in a preview commented that the caption in panel 7 is superfluous. He’s absolutely right, dammit!

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The snowflakes swirl. If you stare long enough at panel 2 you will go cross-eyed and start feeling woozy. Just like Sukumar. Panel 3 tilts the axis as if the page is slipping sideways. The four rectangles could be panels on the page or the panes of glass in the window that Sukumar’s mother and sister are looking through. For a brief moment we’re back in the warm safe reality of his home life. Then the viewpoint inverts. We are seeing through Sukumar’s eyes – out in the dark cut off from his family. And they fall away, receding into the night.

Alex descends through a cellar door. This doorway is the most significant for Sukumar. It is the entrance to Alex’s domain. For a second he holds back. He could still get away. But the scent of apples and woodsmoke reassures him.

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Unlike the odour of death in the antique shop, this is a scent he associates with warm summers and the safety of his father’s arms.

The last panel of this page has no border. Throughout the entire 200 pages of Strange Embrace I stick to a fairly formal three-tier grid. I don’t like to use gimmicky page layouts. The panel borders disappear twice. This first time is when Sukumar leaves one level of reality and steps through into Alex’s world. And if that black shape reminds you of an open grave, then it has done its job...

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