Submissive Tendencies: Reads, Massacre for Boys and Christian Hall's Vasion
Posted by Andy Oliver on Sep 13, 2012
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.
This week I’m taking a look at three books sent for review by their respective creators/editors which allows me to make a quick mention that if you are part of the small press community then do remember you can submit your comics and graphic novels for coverage in ‘Small Pressganged’ via the e-mail address at the bottom of this column. As ever, prices quoted are the originals for point of origin. Please check out each individual store for details on international orders and postage and packaging costs. In the meantime let’s take a look at Reads, Massacre for Boys and Christian Hall’s Vasion…
Anthology – Various creators
Reads, the anthology title published by Avery Hill, has something of an old school small press feel to it – in the two issues currently available there's a real sense of that SP community spirit to it; that sensation of creators coming together to produce a collection of tales representing all manner of genres, styles and diverse approaches to comics storytelling with an "anything goes here" kinda vibe. I’m reminded a little of Team Girl Comic in that respect, which is fitting as two of that book’s contributors provide work within the second issue of Reads.
And what an eclectic little mix of characters, set-ups and situations we have here. Beginning in issue #1 there’s Michael Gosden and David White’s ‘Bad Times Ahead’ wherein office worker Shelby Matthews arrives at his job to find his best friend skewered to his desk by a large spear, and quickly finds his 9-to-5 life sliding into a Kafkaesque nightmare. As you do. Also of note, and a complete change of pace, is swashbuckling ‘60s dandy adventurer Hilary Harper taking on Charles Darwin’s nemesis Professor Richard Owen as he brings the Crystal Palace dinosaur statues to supernatural life in ‘Revenge of the Dinosaurs’.
Shifting gears again, Tim Bird provides a couple of slice-of-life stories about London life over the two issues which may be slight in construction but are most appealing in presentation. Wistful little snapshots of urban living that have already led me to bookmark Tim’s webcomics for further investigation. The other strip to continue between issues is Ricky Miller’s Metroland following the adventures of Electric Dreams, a band who discover a portal in a West End nightclub that leads to Metroland, a crossroads point allowing them to travel to different times and dimensions. This one’s intriguing but it became clear to me in the second issue that the story had begun in publications other than Reads so, while I’m attracted to the premise, it’s a little harder to get into when you feel you’re as late to the party as I did when reading it.
Reads #2 doesn’t feel perhaps quite as substantial as the first issue, with the ongoing stories featuring shorter instalments than their debut episodes. However, there's still plenty of note on offer. Marjory Wallace’s ‘The House’ is an engaging short about childlike perceptions of the world, while Claire J. C. Stewart’s manga-influenced Cloudriders may be the briefest of intros to her series but has a dreamily soothing quality to it. There’s also ‘Wednesdays’, a non-series one-shot from Brit small press stalwart Paul B. Rainey that puts a very distinctive skew on the father-son relationship.
If there’s one drawback to the book's format it’s that a quarterly anthology that presents only bite-sized chunks of its ongoing storylines is one that is always going to slightly frustrate both the casual and the committed reader alike. That’s a very long gap between instalments of ongoing narratives that are only a handful of pages in length in the first place. And the unfortunate fact that one of #1’s most enjoyable escapades – Hilary Harper by Miller and Horry – ends on a cliffhanger in that issue, and is pushed out of Reads #2 because of space considerations, only highlights the problem.
But I’m griping a little because ultimately there’s something jolly agreeable about the tone and sensibilities of Reads. And if I’ve expressed disappointment at being spoonfed only small helpings of each of the ongoing stories then do remember that frustration at wanting to read more, and not being able to, is actually a rather healthy sign of a comic’s appeal! In an ever burgeoning UK small press anthology marketplace Reads succeeds in maintaining an identity and character of its own – an unpredictable melting pot of creative techniques and subject matter that makes me eager to see what the Reads team has in store for us in issue #3.
Massacre for Boys
Anthology – Various creators
Overseen by sibling editorial team Chris and Steven Denton, Massacre for Boys seems to take its inspiration from IPC weekly comics for boys of the 1960s and ‘70s but with a likeably irreverent slant. The most recent anthology in the series is the Massacre for Boys Action Special! but for the purposes of this review the gents also sent me the Massacre for Boys in Colour issue to give a little background on the characters involved. And I’m glad they did because what they have put together here is enormous fun!
If, like my aged self, you are old enough to remember those much missed days in the 1970s when every U.K. newsagent became an Aladdin’s cave bursting to the rafters with a treasure trove of themed comics every seven days then you will appreciate this lovingly mischievous homage to that fondly remembered era.
The characters in these two issues largely embody those familiar staples of boys papers of the time – there’s Bosham Hotspur’s footballing hero Bosher Le Fizz in Bosher's Goals, the World War II heroes of The Walking Wounded (“None of them fit for active duty. All of them The Best In The Business”), Edwardian paranormal investigators The Holt Bros., and even a sci-fi offering Badland Rules set on a harsh frontier planet (that reminded me a little of The Angry Planet from Tornado circa 1979).
While some of the strips are merely tongue-in-cheek, others – notably Jimmy Baker, Animal Hatmaker (tagline “In the cut-throat world of animal hatmaking, one man stands above the rest.”) – border on full-blown Viz-style parodies. I particularly enjoyed the two Walking Wounded strips that have a noticeable feel of the outsider protagonists so memorably featured in Battle Weekly’s various incarnations three decades or so ago. David Frankum’s photo-realistic art (below) was a real highlight on the first of these entries.
I was also rather taken with Chris and Steven Denton’s Holt Bros. adventure – a jolly romp of a supernatural locked room mystery with distinctly Lovecraftian overtones. Similarly Chris Denton and artist Bolt-01’s inept vigilante The Crusader made for a splendidly ludicrous six-pager in his story ‘A Spoonful of Honey’.
Massacre for Boys also embraces that whole metafictional bit with great gusto. Just check out the website here detailing a fictional history for the comic going back to 1949, and lampooning some of the best conventions of Brit comics of yesteryear. And if you want to "try before you buy" there are also a number of free webcomic entries on the site. Presented with the slyest of nods and the cheekiest of winks towards the now largely extinct traditions of the British adventure anthology weekly, the Massacre for Boys Action Special! is a knowing and pretension-free foray into a dark yet ribald world of anti-heroes, mavericks, loners and tough guys.
Christian Hall’s Vasion #1-3
Christian Hall (writer), Nate Johnson (artist)
Walking amongst humankind for hundreds of years are an ancient offshoot of people known only as The Enforce. Governing this race, and ensuring that rogue factions of their kind are not able to affect world peace, are the Enforce Council who have become the de facto leaders of the line. In recent times The Enforce have been engaged in terrible wars and are now facing their greatest threat – Devour, a monstrous, cursed, dog-like being brought to life by their enemies and responsible for the disappearance of around 300 of their number.
I imagine fans of 1990s Image Comics with their bold and brash characterisation and gung-ho action may well find writer Christian Hall's Vasion to their liking. It certainly rattles along at a fair old pace and the conflict between The Enforce and Devour doesn’t let up for three issues. In addition Nate Johnson’s art is very reminiscent of that era’s approach of emphasising dynamic visuals as being at the forefront of comic strip storytelling. If you’re looking for comfort reading, non-stop conflict and uninterrupted thrills and spills then you will find that in abundance here.
But therein also lies Vasion’s greatest weakness. The concept behind the series is relegated to a long chunk of expository dialogue on the first page and, while not the most original of premises, it’s by far the most interesting aspect of the book’s initial set-up. It’s a shame that more time wasn’t spent visually on establishing the background and origins of The Enforce.
What we have instead is, essentially, a three-issue fight scene between The Enforce and the Devour creature. We’re thrown straight into the clash with no time to get to know the characters, and thus it becomes difficult to empathise with them or feel invested in what’s occurring.
Stronger characterisation and a more carefully structured narrative, bringing in subplots and a greater use of backstory, would be the first step to make Vasion’s potential match up to creator Christian Hall’s obvious enthusiasm for his project.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.
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