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The Case of the Curious Cabbie and Other Stories

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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.

This week’s column dives into another round of mini-reviews with a look at Liam Cobb’s slice-of-life The Cab Driver, editor David O’Connell’s new anthology book ink + PAPER and Josceline Fenton’s fantasy series Hemlock.

The Cab Driver
Liam Cobb (writer/artist)

Reputable gentlepeople of the nocturnal taxi-ing trade look away now. I’m about to generalise…

Regrettably, and almost without exception, my experiences with late night cab drivers tend to re-enforce every unfortunate stereotype one associates with this vocation. Awkward silence is followed by “Hey mate what do you think about [insert offensively right-wing subject here]?” and what I can only describe as The Squirming begins for the rest of the trip home.

Fortunately for us, Liam Cobb’s recollections of the profession are of a far more affectionately remembered nature. The Cab Driver is Cobb’s autobiographical account of two years of journeys back from his girlfriend’s home which, because of the late hour, involved the same cabbie time and time again. In a series of one to three-page strips he slowly builds a picture of this gent through their conversations, the driver’s observations of the world around him and his amiable, but rather skewed, anecdotes.

What I most enjoy about Cobb’s approach here is that he’s not trying to tell a series of self-contained vignettes that each build up to an amusing, clever punchline – indeed some of the strips simply tail off into a kind of unresolved inconsequentiality by their end. Rather, he’s painting a portrait of one, somewhat eccentric, working man’s life, beliefs and aspirations through the lens of a series of casual encounters. The Cab Driver contains some of the very best ingredients of that favourite small press genre - the slice-of-life story – and presents them in an engagingly honest and matter of fact manner. Any occasional moments of narrative naivety, to be expected in a writer/artist establishing his creative voice, are easily forgiven in this light.

               

Visually, I was impressed by Cobb’s tight, dark layouts that have an almost underground comics vibe to them. This is a comic that, by its very nature, is obviously often just a series of talking heads in a car. But, rather than taxing the reader’s attention, that same presentational device brings to life the claustrophobic sensations and forced intimacy of its environment. The murky, shaded panels further accentuate the nocturnal setting underlining that strange, almost otherworldliness of those early morning hours that the characters inhabit.

In his introduction Cobb states that he likes the idea that, somewhere out there, this anonymous chap is still driving his cab and expounding his theories about the world, blithely oblivious to the fact that an entire comic is fondly devoted to him. I agree with him wholeheartedly. It is, indeed, a rather splendid notion. Slightly voyeuristic it may be, but The Cab Driver possesses a profound respect for its subject that is admirably sincere. A rewarding investment of your time and consideration.

The Cab Driver costs £7.00 and can be ordered from Liam Cobb's site here

ink + PAPER
David O’Connell (editor), various creators

From Paper Science to Solipsistic Pop, from The Comix Reader to The Strumpet, we’re somewhat blessed at the moment with a plethora of witty, experimental and thoughtfully constructed UK small press anthology books. While many of these titles draw on a similar core of creative talent (past Small Pressganged faves like Lizz Lunney and Dan Berry, for example, feature in the first issue of ink + PAPER), each has its own feel, its own idiosyncratic raison d’etre and its own, to reluctantly use some rather hideous marketing speak, unique selling point.

In ink + PAPER’s case that distinction is that the book invites its readership to think beyond the confines of the comic strip format itself by backing the comics material up with a number of articles, text pieces and photo-spreads that champion the idea of, and approaches to, the creative process. Articles on graffiti knitter Lauren O’Connell aka “Deadly Knitshade”, an eco-themed reinvention of the traditional jumble sale, pages of recipes and Michael Leader’s gorgeous anecdotal piece on how a treasured second hand  bookshop discovery changed his life, all provide the reader with a wonderful quirky complement to an already diverse comics section. I can see this as a publication with a definite crossover appeal to the casual, non-comics reading browser.

Phillipa Rice and Cardboard Colin provide a recipe for ginger cake

And now, if you’ll forgive me, it’s the point where I rather churlishly pick out a handful of strips from the anthology that I particularly enjoyed, so I feel a little obligated to also express my apologies to those creators not to get a name check. Jeremy Day’s ‘The Amazing Calabroni Sisters’ tells the colourful story of two siblings in a circus cannonball act with an unforgettable energy and gusto. I was also rather taken by Hugh “Shug” Raine’s ‘Iris’ which recounts a tale of unrequited life with a slightly dry and totally down-to-earth wit.

Jeremy Day's The Amazing Calabroni Sisters

Selina Lock and David O’Connell give an account of the life of Lady Grace Drummond Hay - the first woman to travel around the world by airship - that makes full use of O’Connell’s beautifully clear linework to effectively reconstruct the requisite period feel. And I adored ‘Thought Balloons’, Timothy Winchester’s haunting, but uplifting, little treatise on personal encumbrance.

Hugh "Shug" Raine's Iris

ink + PAPER is eclectic, eccentric and winningly charming. With lavish production values and an impressive air of individuality this is a book that should go directly to the top of everyone’s ‘one to watch’ lists. Roll on issue #2...

ink + PAPER can be ordered here for £7.50

Hemlock #1-3
Josceline Fenton (writer/artist)

Set in the Scandinavian forests of the 19th century, Hemlock is a fairy tale in the true, original sense of the term rather than the sanitised fantasies for children that we associate with the genre today. Josceline Fenton’s ongoing saga’s primary incarnation is a webcomic which has now reached its fourth chapter. Fortunately for unrepentant dinosaurs like myself, who don’t do the screen-reading thing if they can possibly avoid it, there’s an accompanying print version which has now collected up to the end of chapter three.

Hemlock’s central characters are Lumi, a rather enigmatic witch with a youthful veneer who lives in a home built into the shell of a giant snail called Richmond, and Tristan, who started the series as a studious teenager but has found himself trapped in the body of a three-eyed frog as Lumi’s new familiar. While the first two chapters concentrated on introducing us to the characters and giving us details of Lumi’s supernatural lineage and the history of her world, this latest instalment focuses on Tristan’s family and their search for him, as well as some background on Lumi’s first encounter with the malevolent monster she accidentally married centuries ago...

Hemlock will appeal to those readers who enjoyed books like Bone and Castle Waiting; fantasy titles with a superficially light-hearted feel but with something darker lurking at their hearts. Like Bone, the readers are introduced to the book’s backstory one puzzle piece at a time and, also similarly to Jeff Smith’s masterpiece, Hemlock lures the reader in with ominous omens and portents signifying and hinting at the storyline’s upcoming direction. There’s an assured sense of structure and purpose to Hemlock and, such is the author’s confidence in her storytelling, the reader feels from the outset that they have been dropped into an already fully realised fictional reality. Without a doubt, this reads like a story working on the premise of a well-defined beginning, middle and end.

               

A selection of pages from the third chapter of Hemlock

It came as no surprise to me that Fenton lists Aubrey Beardsley as one of her artistic influences. Visually, I would say the book channels Beardsley with a healthy infusion of manga sensibilities. While panel use on each page is sparing, indicating Hemlock’s webcomic origins, Fenton uses this economy of imagery to ensure that each and every panel’s design lends something tangible to the plot or to characterisation.

With an effortless ability to move from brooding, shadowy mysticism to the slapstick antics of wisecracking talking animals, Hemlock is one of those absolute gems of comics that, once discovered, will have your full and dedicated commitment. A magical strip on every level.

You can read Hemlock as a webcomic here. Print copies are available here priced £6.00 each for the first two issues and £4.50 for #3.

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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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