Saturday, June 30, 2007

Stripping Down #23 - Cabot

Here's a sneak preview of my first proper comic strip in, ooh, ages. Yep, the unexpectedly long gap between my last published comic work - 2000's The Art Of Falling Apart EP - and something new will be imminently plugged by One Day In Bristol #2 (of 2). The first issue premiered at May's Bristol Comics Expo (which I missed) and has since sold out. The script is by Sam Morgan, who's written some good short stories for Dead By Dawn, and pencilled by Lauren Seymour, with inks by moi. It's fair to say that I was initially daunted by the task. Lacking both decent graphics software and the nerve to potentially ruin some nice layouts, I decided to work on photostats of the first few pages. I soon realised that (a) it was extremely difficult to redraw stuff where needed; (b) I needed a heck of a lot of Tippex to tidy things up afterwards; and (c) a single page was taking about four times longer than it needed to! Anyway, as my sense returned and my confidence grew about halfway through the seven-page strip, I took to inking directly over the pencilled pages . The above examples (pages 1 & 3 respectively) contrast Lauren's original pencils with my inked pages. That it's far from the best comics work I've ever done is indisputable. However, it's inspired me to carry on with a four page comic strip that I've been working on for a little while that draws heavily on Patrick McGrath's short story The Angel. Spookily enough, early drafts set the story around Cabot Tower, a local landmark which features prominently in Sam Morgan's story. Well, when I say prominently, I mean that one panel features an enormous phallus adorning one side of the tower, courtesy of infamous graffiti artist Banksy (sadly, not reflected in reality).

Anyway, I haven't seen the fully lettered Cabot - Andy Richmond's taking care of that - but I'll post an update when One Day In Bristol #2 finally hits the shelves...

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Stripping Down #22 - Small Press, Big World

Trixie Biker: Enter Jack Narcissus (WaterCooler Comix)
by Matthew Craig

Deva City’s premier superhero is back, along with her trusty bike Dixie and The Go-Go-Pixies. I enjoyed this more than #1, mostly due to a smart script that satirises the current trend for recycling pop (pap?) boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and Take That. Matthew Craig’s storytelling is simple without being simplistic and, as before, his enthusiasm and obvious affection for the characters greatly compensate for the artistic shortcomings. I like the fact that Craig have moved forward, both narratively and stylistically, and I’d like to see him continue to develop both – particularly the visuals – in future issues.

Visit Matthew Craig's website
to purchase a print copy or rummage through a veritable treasure trove of online delights! You can also read my previous review of Trixie Biker here.

Man Man And Friends 1-2
(Banal Pig Comics)

by Gareth Brookes

Each 16-page issue is chock full of Brookes’ rapid fire stick figure comic shorts. Mixing obvious gags with acute observations, the abundance of material ensure that a laugh is only a glance away. I’d be interested to see Brookes’ frequently on-the-ball humour paired with more substantial art but, for now, this is great value (and fun), packed with potential.

Available via the Banal Pig Comics website

Trouble Bruin / Newstreet Bootleg (WaterCooler Comix)
by Matthew Craig

Matthew Craig’s Trouble Bruin benefits from a more reflective approach than his other superhero creation Trixie Biker. There’s a pathos underpinning the occasional but overt humour which, over thirty-four pages, enables the reader to empathise with the characters, particularly father figure Eric ‘Capability’ Brown, aka Blue Ted. Craig’s art is somewhat limited in range and whilst this doesn’t detract from the story, at times it doesn’t quite meet the demands of the script. My only gripe is that there currently isn’t a follow-up story/ issue; having read what is essentially an extended prologue/origin tale, I wanted to see more of the adult Trouble Bruin. Although I think Craig was right to avoid the usual device of using a modern day narrative to frame an origin ‘flashback’, having a subsequent Trouble Bruin tale on sale would have been desirable. Hopefully, the further adventures of Trouble Briun won’t be long in coming. As compensation, limited copies of Trouble Bruin came with a Newstreet twelve page ashcan edition, introducing another of Craig’s superhero creations. There are two four-page shorts contained in this bootleg, the first seeing Newstreet foil a bank robbery. It features Craig’s most accomplished art to date and hopefully points the way forward for his style. The second sees the super-confident Asian Brummie learn a lesson in humility when he encounters Trixie Biker. This crossover strip is not as visually striking as it’s predecessor, but it’s good fun. Judging by the final pages of each story, the character seems to have undergone a last-minute change of name from Street Walker to Newstreet. A wise move. More please!

Both available via Matthew Craig's website

Melanchomic (Glaikit Comics)
by Andrew Waugh

A collection of predominantly single page ‘slice of life’ strips offering wry observations on the trials and tribulations of being a single male. Waugh’s basic style relies heavily on repetition, but is surprisingly emotive given this (self-imposed) constraint. Despite the occasional – and openly confessed – filler, there are plenty of enjoyable strips. Personal favourites are Juicy Fruit, The Fine Art Of Pulling and Women’s Parts. The penultimate page is a house ad for The Guttest Story Ever Told, a peaen to/piss-take of ‘80s movie stars including Steve Guttenberg (obviously), Lou Diamond Phillips and Rick Moranis. Sounds unmissable.

Drop Andrew an e-mail at or visit his MySpace site if you want to find out more.

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In Lieu Of A Review...

...aka a few of my favourite things in recent months:

Zadie Smith White Teeth (2000) - A funny, engaging, exciting debut novel. Believe the hype.
Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert 1602 (2003) - aka What if the Marvel Universe came to be in the 17th century?

Daniel Way, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira Ghost Rider (2006) (in The Mighty World Of Marvel) - One of my favourite characters, back in a (Johnny) Blaze of Glory.
Karen Ellis Planet Karen (2006-)
- Small press that shows the big hitters a thing or two about comics.


Soulsavers It's How Far You Fall, It's The Way You Land (2007) - Imagine the Paris, Texas houseband if it comprised members of R.E.M. and Portishead, with Ennio Morricone as musical director and Johnny Cash as front man...
Talking Heads Fear Of Music (1979/2006)
- Their best album, no question.
Death From Above 1979 Sexy Results (MSTRKRFT Remix) (2005)
- To steal from Nina Simone, this is funkier than a mosquito's tweeter.
John Cale All My Friends (2007)
- A stunning cover of LCD Soundsystem, that John Cale makes all his own.

Kiss Of The Spider Woman (Bristol Old Vic, 09/06/07) - Not as good as the Raul Julia/William Hurt film adaptation, but impressive nevertheless.
Marcus Brigstocke (The Comedy Box, Hen & Chicken, Bristol, 20/04/07) - "Intelligence and humour not mutually exclusive" shocker!
The Prestige (2006) - Apologises for The Illusionist with it's inventiveness and manic lead performances
Heroes (2006-) - TV superheroes done right, in spite of Jeph Loeb's involvement!
Doctor Who (Series 3) (2007) - David Tennant as The Doctor vs. John Simm as The Master? 'Nuff said!
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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Jukebox Juicebox #32

The White Stripes “Rag And Bone / Icky Thump” (2007)
I have this strange connection with certain bands, in that I like their songs that I hear, read their interviews, articles and reviews with interest and yet don’t get around to actually buying any of their records. Perversely, I’ll often pick up records that I’ve never heard by bands I know little or nothing about, often for the flimsiest of reasons, but that’s a whole other story. So, this happens to be the first White Stripes I’ve bought, even though I’ve been a ‘fan’ since I saw the video for Fell In Love With A Girl donkeys years ago. I haven’t even got around to downloading anything by them; the best my iPod can muster are mash-ups of 7 Nation Army and The Doorbell Song, pairing the duo with Alter Ego and Jay-Z respectively. In fact, the impetus for getting this record without having heard it was that part one – the one-sided, etched red vinyl 7” of Rag And Bone – was a giveaway with the 9 Jun issue of NME. Icky Thump was released the following week, seven days before the album of the same name. Rag And Bone is my favourite of the three songs here, mainly for the subject matter, the ‘in character’ dialogue between Jack and Meg that bridges each verse and a guitar hook that sounds uncannily like Mud’s 1973 smash Tiger Feet. In fact, there’s a 1970s (by way of the 1950s) feel pervading this EP, the antiquated guitar licks and muffled rhythms evoking the ghosts of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the same time, The White Stripes continue to sound fresh and exciting. Icky Thump reminds me of Led Zeppelin of all things, with Jack’s vocals recalling Robert Plant, some mighty Jimmy Page-esque riffs and a naggingly insistent keyboard and drum combo. Exclusive B-side Baby Brother is unabashed blues rock, the reference point here being Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Cramps. It’s short and sweet but lacks the inventiveness of the previous two songs.

Tracklisting [2 x 7”]: 1. Rag And Bone / 2. Icky Thump / 3. Baby Brother

LCD Soundsystem “All My Friends” (2007)
The idea of getting artists to cover rather than remix your songs for a single release is nothing new: Pulp, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The The, even Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine have done this in the past. However, it’s still a relatively unusual move and the choice of artists is always interesting. It’s common knowledge that James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem, knows his stuff when it comes to music and this is reflected in the artists covering All My Friends, one of the stand-out tracks from recent album Sound Of Silver. One is a veteran musician who has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years, the other one of the current leading lights on the retro (old but) New Wave scene. John Cale is the revelation here, somehow managing to make his cover, not LCD Soundsystem’s, sound like the original version. Cale is in fine form vocally and the faithful but faltering reproduction of the song’s one note keyboard riff on a guitar is incredibly effective. Despite matching the original’s duration of seven and a half minutes, it doesn’t feel nearly long enough…! Franz Ferdinand’s version is a tad shorter, with a guitar hook that oddly enough recalls Wish I Was Skinny by late, lamented 1990s indie band The Boo Radleys. Producer Erol Alkan clearly has an ear for the mosh pit as well as the dancefloor and ensures that the song’s frequent peaks are suitably rousing. Alex Kapranos’ distinctive vocals carry much of the song, though the climatic group chorus does give the impression that the band have lost their sense of direction and aren’t quite sure how to wrap up the song. On the flip side of each 7” single are the original LCD Soundsystem takes: you’re probably familiar with the album version by now; there’s also an edit, clocking in at just under six minutes. The latter cuts the lengthy repetitive keyboard intro, but is otherwise identical and therefore slightly redundant. Make no mistake though, this is a brilliant single – go for the 7” package, not only for the John Cale version which is only available here, but also for the ultra heavyweight vinyl – you can not only hear the quality, you can feel it!

Tracklisting [2 x 7”]: 1. All My Friends (john cale version) / 2. (album version) / 3. (franz ferdinand version) / 4. (edit)

James Yorkston “Woozy With Cider” (2007)
I stumbled across the Jon Hopkins remix of Woozy With Cider whilst surfing the net. It was enough to encourage me to make the short hop to eBay, where copies of this promo CD are currently doing the rounds (the official releases are limited to 7” and 12” vinyl only). Jon Hopkins’ gentle, piano-led take remains the standout, complementing Yorkston’s dry, self-deprecating, spoken word vocal and surpassing the (still very good) original version. Steve Mason, aka King Biscuit Time, doesn’t mess too much with the blueprint, introducing some keyboard chords and vocal effects, whilst Kode9 adopts a similar approach though reduces the lyrics to little more than the odd refrain. Quiet Village, which includes Matt Edwards aka Radio Slave, offer up an effective ambient dub mix that unfurls to nearly ten minutes. My second favourite mix of Woozy With Cider has to be by the intriguingly named Dusty Cabinets, a brooding menace underpinning Yorkston’s narrative on this dark dancefloor version. Bonus 7” B-side Sunday Jacket is a mellow, acoustic number but relatively unmemorable. However, mixes/tracks 2, 3 and 5 alone make tracking down the 12” or CD worth your while.

Tracklisting: 1. Woozy With Cider (original version) / 2. (king biscuit time remix) / 3. (dusty cabinets remix) / 4. (quiet village remix) / 5. (jon hopkins remix) / 6. Sunday Jacket (with The Big Eyes Family Players) / 7. Woozy With Cider (kode9 remix)

Paul Hartnoll featuring Robert Smith “Please” (2007)
I almost overlooked this in my local Virgin Megastore which given the limited number of CD singles on sale these days is saying something. Behind the nondescript cover are a trio of mixes of the title track featuring veteran miserablist and The Cure frontman Robert Smith. To be honest, neither the lyrics nor the mixes really inspire. Statik’s downtown, downtempo and downbeat remix unfortunately accentuates the whiney qualities of both Smith and backing vocalist Lianne Hall's vocals, which is not good. KGB transform the song so that it sounds like it’s been drawn from The Cure’s back catalogue, which at least is an interesting approach. As for the original mix of Please and exclusive ‘B-side’ Old School Tie, they unashamedly sound like outtakes from Orbital’s final album that Hartnoll just couldn’t bear to throw away. Whilst recycling is a good thing, it’s less justifiable when applied to largely forgettable variations of EP tracks from the last century. The mix to seek out isn’t included on this CD, but should still be easily available for download. Hartnoll’s own Remember 1992 Mix also sounds like old school Orbital but thankfully of the uptempo, crowd pleasing variety. The trademark chunky chords and pulsing beats are present and correct, whilst Smith and Hall's vocals are split, providing a more successful ‘call and response’ dynamic. On the whole, Please is a disappointment that, despite the fusion of two great talents, fails to capitalise on either’s strengths.

Tracklisting: 1. Please (original version) / 2. Old School Tie / 3. Please (statik remix) / 4. Please (kgb remix)

Related websites:
The White Stripes
LCD Soundsystem
Sounds Like Silver - LCD Soundsystem Remixed
James Yorkston
Paul Hartnoll

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Stripping Down #21

The Avengers United #80 (Panini UK)
“Breakout!” by Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch & Danny Miki
(New Avengers #5-6)

“The Redoubtable Return Of Crusher Creel” by David Michelinie, John Byrne & Klaus Janson (The Avengers (v1) #183)
“Gather, Warriors!” by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Vince Coletta
(Journey Into Mystery #119)

A blistering conclusion to Breakout!, as the team clashes with Wolverine, Sauron and his band of mutates, plus Black Widow Mk II and a highly suspicious S.H.I.E.L.D. operation in the heart of The Savage Land. This is probably the most enjoyable mainstream superhero series that Brian Michael Bendis and artist David Finch excels at drawing mean dinosaurs and reptiles. There’s plenty of action, some good dialogue and a neat set up for the new team. Speaking of which, the characters are a good fit so far, at times echoing the tension of the Captain America / Hawkeye / Quicksilver / Scarlet Witch dynamic from waaay back. ‘The old order changeth’ and in this case, it’s definitely been for the better. I’ve almost forgotten the Chuck Austen run that came before…! The 1970s strip provides a welcome change of pace from the epic storylines both in the lead strip and in previous archive instalments. Ms. Marvel and The Falcon officially join the team, with mixed feelings, whilst David Michelinie is smart enough to recognise the popularity of the ousted Hawkeye, giving him a large slice of the story in the second half. The plot revolves around Crusher (The Absorbing Man) Creel’s efforts to sneak out of the U.S. and start a new life (of crime) down South. Of course, kicking off his plan with a robbery and kidnapping isn’t the smartest thing to do and it attracts the attention of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, promising the inevitable slugfest next issue. John Byrne and Klaus Janson are well matched on art duties, whilst Michelinie’s script is dripping with humour, mostly courtesy of The Beast (who, you have to admit, is far too serious in The X-Men these days). As usual, Tales Of Asgard wraps things up. It’s ostensibly an introduction to the now infamous Warriors Three, though only Volstagg gets some lines and more than one panel in this chapter. The urgency of Thor and Loki’s mission is emphasised by a grim warning of ‘the war to end all wars’ Ragnarok. Light but fun storytelling that won’t ruin your appetite.

Marvel Legends #7 (Panini UK)
“The Lonesome Death Of Jack Monroe” by Ed Brubaker, John Paul Leon & Frank D’Armata (Captain America (v5) #7)
“The Sons Of Yinsen” by Joe Quesada, Frank Tieri, Alitha Martinez & Rob Hunter (Iron Man (v3) # 31)
“Wrecking Havoc” by Dan Jurgens, Erik Larsen & Klaus Janson
(Thor (v2) #28)

A break from the regular Captain America story, flashing back to Jack (Nomad) Monroe’s last year on Earth. His seemingly callous murder by The Winter Soldier in Marvel Legends #3 is seen in an entirely new light as it is revealed that Monroe’s days were already numbered. Having followed Nomad’s appearances in Captain America during the 1980s Mark Gruenwald/Paul Neary run, I missed the character’s solo series and subsequent appearances in the Marvel Universe so don’t know much about the breakdown that led to him becoming an incarnation of superhuman serial killer Scourge. However, it seems that this, and a degeneration of the super soldier serum that granted Monroe’s powers, is slowly killing him. Ed Brubaker presents a poignant first person perspective of a man experiencing both physical and mental deterioration. It’s not difficult to empathise with Monroe’s desire to go out fighting (crime) as Nomad, though there are signs throughout the story that the drug ring he is pursuing is nothing more than a delusion. That this ultimately proves to be the case underlines the quiet tragedy of a man who railed against his status as a perennial second stringer in order to make a difference. Taking all of the above into account, the Winter Soldier’s actions are more akin to a mercy killing than a brutal murder. Whether the Winter Soldier proves to be Cap’s long dead partner Bucky or not, it’s clear that he may be operating on the side of the angels after all, albeit with more extreme methods than the Sentinel Of Liberty. A brief mention for guest artist John Paul Leon, who never fails to impress. His loose, almost indie style here is a stark contrast to regular artist Steve Epting’s uber-dark photo realism, yet it perfectly suits Brubaker’s intensely personal narrative. Just one criticism and that’s the rather sloppy editing that allows the titular character’s named to be misspelt Munroe throughout the contents page. Come on, show a dead guy some respect…! In the aftermath of The Mask In The Iron Man, Tony Stark finds he has a brand new heart, though not without it’s own limitations, and decides to ‘go retro’ with a return to a former, iconic, suit of armour. Frank Tieri joins Joe Quesada on writing duties but the latter is still clearly in the driving seat judging by the rather clumsy plot and dialogue. This is yet another story centred on a foe long thought dead - this time Iron Man’s very first adversary, Wong Chu – that had this reader thinking “so what?” Likewise Alitha Martinez is a competent artist, heavily influenced by the early Image house style, but I’m already missing predecessor Sean Chen who seemed the ideal artist for the Iron Man series. This is the least impressive of the issue’s three stories, so I’m hoping things pick up next issue. Following the Blood Oath mini-series, we pick up Thor’s regular series more or less in line with Iron Man’s, i.e. a few years behind both Captain America’s current run and the Collectors’ Edition line as a whole. I’ve heard good things about Dan Jurgens’ tenure on the title, though this is very much old-school Thor in the style of Stan Lee, Gerry Conway and subsequently Tom DeFalco, with an emphasis on unsophisticated (melo)drama, humour and of course fighting. In this instalment, Thor and The Warriors Three are assaulted by The Wrecking Crew, who are seeking to reclaim their Asgardian-enhanced abilities. This they do, with apparently dire consequences for Hogun The Grim. Jurgens ticks all the narrative boxes, but I had been hoping for something more, whilst Erik Larsen and Klaus Janson’s perfunctory visuals do little to excite. Whilst not as much of a disappointment as the Iron Man strip, this series will need to up it’s game in the next few issues.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Stripping Down #20

The Mighty World Of Marvel (v3) #55
(Panini UK)

“Beyond!” by Dwayne McDuffie & Scott Kolins (Beyond! #1)
“Vicious Cycle” by Daniel Way, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira (Ghost Rider (v5) #3)
“Rumble In The Sky” by Kurt Busiek, Erik Larsen & Al Gordon (The Defenders (v2) #6)

Lead story Beyond! seems to satisfy three reader requests in one fell swoop: i) more Spider-Man, ii) more Scott Kolins and iii) Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars. Well, okay, maybe the last isn’t strictly accurate but it’s the next best thing if you ignore Secret Wars II (and believe me, I’ve tried). As with the original series, Beyond! sees a group of superhumans kidnapped from Earth and challenged to fight each other for their heart’s desire. Alongside Spider-Man’s arch foe Venom, there’s Kraven, who seems to have both reformed and gained a sense of humour since his last appearance in The Astonishing Spider-Man. In addition, there are three former Avengers: Firebird, The Wasp and Hank Pym (aka Ant Man aka Giant Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket); the interesting dynamic here being Hank’s history of hanky panky with both women. Rounding out the group are Medusa of The Inhumans and two relative unknowns, dyed-in-the-wool goodie Gravity and The Hood, who appears to be rather more conflicted, morally speaking. The writer, Dwayne McDuffie, impressed with his Damage Control mini-series and Deathlok revamp in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but pretty much dropped off of my radar after that. Happily, his script doesn’t disappoint, giving plenty of space to each of the featured characters, building up to the unexpected cliffhanger. Scott Kolins’ art is impeccable, his take on Venom a particular high point, with Paul Mounts’ colour art adding a real depth to Kolins’ visuals. Whilst lacking the sheer scale of the 1980s Secret Wars maxi-series, this is nonetheless a refreshing take on the now commonplace superhuman slugfest. In the second strip, the 2006 return of Ghost Rider continues apace as the biker with the flaming skull confronts Dr. Strange, appropriately enough in a graveyard. It’s the time honoured narrative of two heroes at cross purposes coming to blows but, thanks to Daniel Way’s sharp set-up and deft writing, the conflict avoids coming across as clichéd and predictable. Likewise the Lucifer sub-plot, despite being a mere three pages this issue, continues to intrigue as the dead rise in Oklahoma and go on a killing spree. Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira perfectly judge the visual tone, with the horror of the latter sequence coming from what is implied, rather than explicitly shown. The pair really are an ideal match on this series, with colourist Dan Brown’s excellent work enhancing the mood of the story no end. With a bound Dr. Strange on the receiving end of Ghost Rider’s Penance Stare at the episode’s climax, I’m looking forward to seeing how the good ol’ Doc gets out of this mess next month. This is undoubtedly one of MWOM’s best features to date. I wish I could say the same for The Defenders. As a kid, I loved Marvel UK’s Rampage weekly, which headlined the non-team’s early exploits, and followed them through to Rampage monthly, Hulk Comic and Captain America weekly, before sticking with the original US title to the bitter end in the mid-1980s. This 2001 revamp promised so much, with the classic line-up restored and a pair of capable creators in Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen. However, halfway through the series’ short-lived run and I’m starting to understand why it was cancelled as I’m still feeling underwhelmed. The Defenders was, by virtue of it’s status as a non-team, a home for ‘leftfield’ creators, heroes ‘in between’ solo series (or membership of The Avengers) and the Marvel Universe’s more obscure villains. The latter has certainly been true in this incarnation, but I found it very hard to muster any enthusiasm for this issue’s adversaries, Red Raven and, erm, Bi-Beast. Having the story narrated by the ‘dumb’ Hulk is mildly amusing, and there’s a big explosion to close the episode, yet… there’s still something missing. I’ve struggled to put my finger on it, though I think in part it’s the characterisation, or lack of it. Much as I love these characters, there’s little here to engage the reader. If I were new to The Defenders, I’d be forgiven for not giving two hoots about any of them, which seems to be borne out by comments from MWOM readers, particularly in the Panini Comics forum. Disappointing.

The Mighty World Of Marvel (v3) #56
(Panini UK)

“Beyond!” by Dwayne McDuffie & Scott Kolins (Beyond! #2)
“Vicious Cycle” by Daniel Way, Javier Saltares & Mark Texeira (Ghost Rider (v5) #4)
“Fire Above, Thunder Below” by Kurt Busiek, Erik Larsen & Sal Buscema
(The Defenders (v2) #7)

Judging by Scott Kolins’ (uncharacteristically bland) cover, Venom may have bitten off more than he can chew. Inside, Medusa proves this by giving the symbiote a good whupping for murdering Spider-Man in the opening instalment of Beyond! Of course, you know that the webhead isn’t really dead and, to his credit, writer Dwayne McDuffie doesn’t drag things out, resolving this particular issue by the close of the chapter. The group crash land on an alien world, encounter both a friend (Deathlok) and foe (Dragon Man) and get more questions than answers. In the absence of Spider-Man, it’s Kraven who gets the best lines, a choice exchange being with Hank Pym on the latter’s size changing abilities:
Hank Pym: “I submit myself to the same [shrinking] process but there are certain biological difficulties…”
Kraven: “Say no more. Shrinkage is nothing to joke about.”
Aside from Carry On moments like this, Beyond! continues to provide a winning combination of solid writing and impressive art. There are also informative fact files on Kraven, Gravity, The Hood and Firebird, to help bring readers up to speed. In the Ghost Rider strip, the mysterious Numecet appears and reveals the true nature of Lucifer’s manifestation on Earth and Johnny Blaze’s unwitting part in his plans. As to be expected from writer Daniel Way, Ghost Rider seems to be in a no-win situation; it’ll be fascinating to see how the character defeats Lucifer without also condemning himself to an eternity in hell. The Defenders storyline comes to an end with another shift of narrative perspective, this time to the new Valkyrie. Although this keeps the tone of each issue relatively fresh, I don’t think that it’s achieving it’s intended purpose of enabling the reader to engage with the characters or understand their relationships with one another. The core members of Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner and Hulk are keen to break the curse that binds them together; Nighthawk, Hellcat and Valkyrie see The Defenders as their surrogate family and want the team to remain intact. Beyond that, I don’t feel any closer to empathising with any of them, which is a real shame. The main action sees The Defenders fight to save Red Raven’s aerial city from The Wayfinder, have yet another truncated stab at freeing Atlantis from Attuma’s mob of marine Z-listers and a battle with former foe Hell-Eyes that’s over before most of the team (and indeed, the readers) have even caught up. There’s an epilogue worthy of the Steve Gerber era that promises more (Headmen, probably). The Defenders take another break next issue to make way for their AWOL founder member – and now movie star – The Silver Surfer in a classic tale. Bring it on!

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Jukebox Juicebox #31 - Forever Green

Green Gartside
Venn Festival, Arnolfini, Bristol, 02/06/2007

A relatively late addition to the line-up of the fourth annual Venn Festival, I was expecting this to be a solo set, maybe acoustic guitar, some samples, and little more. In fact, as we poured into the recently revamped Arnolfini’s upper auditorium, the frantic activity onstage indicated that I was way off in my assumption. Green Gartside took to the stage just after 6.00pm, introducing “some of Scritti Politti” – namely Rodhri Marsden on keyboards, Alyssa McDonald on bass, Dave Ferrett on keyboards and occasional bass. As with all of the Venn Festival performances, this was a short set at just under three quarters of an hour. However, of the nine songs performed, five of them were brand new – incredible given the 7 year gap between White Bread Black Beer and Anhomie & Bonhomie (and nearly 2 decades since Provision). It’s been six months since the band performed live and, given Green’s much documented onstage nerves, the limitations of the Arnolfini set up, and a predominantly brand new set, it would have been reasonable to assume that things would be pretty shaky. An unfortunate consequence of Dave Ferrett moving from keyboards to bass for several songs was that bassist Alyssa McDonald was left standing like the proverbial gooseberry on stage, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. However, in spite of this, frequent gestures and requests from the band to adjust the levels and Green’s self deprecating comments about their performance, the set was jaw droppingly wonderful. Of course, the highlight was Green’s voice itself, amazingly managing to achieve the same kind of spine tingling beauty that it delivers on record. Of the new songs, Unfrozen is a layered acoustic number whilst Forgiven incorporates some affecting tweeting and piano sounds. Two Minute and Antarctic recall the hip hop inspired sounds of the greatly underrated Anhomie & Bonhomie. Antarctic was dedicated to The Yin Yang Twins; like most of Green’s references this evening, this was lost on the audience, including me until I Googled them. The fifth and final new track, which Green claimed to have “completed in the dressing room” loosely seemed to be about the US Civil War’s most famous Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, though I could be wrong! The penultimate song of the set, this was quite a folky number. The set opened and closed with tracks from White Bread Black Beer, namely Robin Hood and The Boom Boom Bap, with the infectious E Eleventh Nuts also represented. Great though these were, even better was the inclusion of The ‘Sweetest Girl’, which I never thought I'd hear performed live. The hapless Alyssa McDonald particularly shone with her bass playing on this song. Before ending the set with The Boom Boom Bap, Green asked the guy at the sound desk if he could buy him a pint of Guinness to save queuing at the bar (a good call: despite the revamp, the Arnolfini bar is still a nightmare). As my beloved, my friend and I sat outside on the dockside still reeling from the incredible gig we’d just seen, I was pleased to see Green walk past with his crew, clutching the remains of his black beer. Let's hope he brings Scritti Politti back to Bristol for another round.

[Set list]: 1. Robin Hood / 2. Unfrozen * / 3. E Eleventh Nuts / 4. Forgiven * / 5. Two Minute * / 6. The ‘Sweetest Girl’ / 7. Antarctic ** / 8. Robert ** / 9. The Boom Boom Bap
[* introduced as working titles, ** no titles given]

The excellent Scritti Politti fan site bibbly-o-tek includes a 10 minute segment from BBC Radio 2's Charles Hazlewood Show on 16th May 2007, where the presenter interviewed Green Gartside and premiered Unfrozen and Forgiven. Listen here

Green Gartside interviewed by Scotland On Sunday (June 2006) and Digital Spy (July 2006)

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Stripping Down #19

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v1) #150 (Panini UK)
“Sins Past” by J. Michael Straczynski, Mike Deodato & Jose Pimentel
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #513-514)
“Carnage” by David Michelinie, Mark Bagley & Randy Emberlin
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #361-362)

A 100 page special to celebrate a century and a half and to close the first volume of this incredibly successful UK Spider-Man title. The first half of the issue is devoted to the concluding chapters of the controversial Sins Past, as Spider-Man finally confronts Gwen Stacy’s children with the truth about their father. The extent of Norman Osborn’s manipulations goes some way to offsetting the less palatable retroactive continuity. Although this storyline has skirted very closely to the realms of implausibility, particularly in redefining Gwen Stacy and her relationship with Peter Parker, it’s impact cannot be denied. J. Michael Straczynski has stirred up a narrative hornets’ nest, leading to one of the liveliest debates about Spider-Man comics in a long time. Credit also to Mike Deodato, whose work on this series is arguably a career best. The second half of this giant sized edition features the 1992 debut of Carnage; I’d put the emphasis here on ‘archive’ rather than ‘classic’ Spider-Man. I’ve never been a fan of either the character or then-artist Mark Bagley, but it’s interesting to see how much the former has declined and the latter has improved in the last 15 years. David Michelinie’s script is good, but not on a par with his earlier work on the title. However, the unusually bloodthirsty narrative (typical for the early 1990s) is balanced by the sketching of Cletus Kasady/Carnage as a dangerous psychopath with no moral restraint, juxtaposed with his ‘father’ Eddie Brock/Venom’s warped sense of justice and protecting the innocent and Spider-Man’s moral dilemma in finding a way to deal with them both. Rounding off the issue is a fascinating article by Comics International’s Mike Conroy, where David Michelinie explains his reasons for creating Carnage as a counterpoint to both Spider-Man and Venom, and how the character was subsequently used and misused. All in all, this is a fine swansong and I for one am looking forward to The Astonishing Spider-Man volume 2, although it’s fortnightly frequency means that my bank account won't be…

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #1 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #1-2)
“Carnage” by David Michelinie, Mark Bagley & Randy Emberlin
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #363)

Wow, this just screams “Buy Me!” An Andy Kubert illustration, excessive use of alliteration, a shiny foil cover and a big, bold number 1 in the corner box. I’m not a fan of relaunches for the sake of it, so does the interior of The Astonishing Spider-Man volume 2, number 1 stand up to scrutiny? Simple answer is that it sure does. Previews magazine had originally listed this premiere issue as running Sarah’s Story, a follow-on from the recent Sins Past arc. Given that the point of a relaunch is to provide a jumping on point for new (and lapsed) Spider-Man readers, leading with a continuity heavy story would have been a bad move. Although the replacement mini-series Breakout (originally planned for ASM #3) is also a tie-in to the similarly titled storyline currently running in The Avengers United, it’s entirely enjoyable as a standalone series. Writer Tony Bedard’s writing provides sufficient explanation without an over reliance on exposition, meaning that the narrative is suitably fast paced. Artist Manuel Garcia does struggle a bit with long shots, his figures looking a tad static and/or amateurish at times, but expressive facial close ups and panel layouts in general are a real strength. Inker Raul Fernandez adds a polish to Garcia’s pencils that overcomes most of their shortcomings. The archive strip wraps up Carnage’s first appearance (there’s a handy contents page recap if you missed The Astonishing Spider-Man (v1) #150). The story is really nothing to write home about and Mark Bagley’s rendition of Venom is dreadful, shadowed only by an excruciatingly awful depiction of a rock concert. At least next issue promises some proper classic art, courtesy of John Romita Snr and Jim Mooney. On reflection, a reassuring beginning for the (slightly) new Astonishing Spider-Man. Let’s hope it maintains the high standard in the year ahead.

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #2 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #3-4)
“Beware…The Black Widow!” by Stan Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney (Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #86)

Another double dose of Breakout, as The U-Foes and Crossfire’s crew attempt to flush out Rosalyn Backus, the object of both teams’ enmity. Luckily for Backus, Spider-Man gets to her first and begins to unravel some of the mystery surrounding Backus’ history with these super-villains. Tony Bedard has produced a fast-paced and unpredictable tale, where nothing is quite what it seems. Crossfire, who always seemed to me like a second rate Bullseye, has become in the course of this series both an intriguing character and formidable foe. Bedard also makes good use of comparisons between the two groups. Crossfire’s crew, comprising mind-manipulators The Controller, Mr. Fear, The Corruptor and The Mandrill, clearly struggle to work as a team, ultimately to their cost. Vector’s leadership of his team on the other hand is much tighter, more akin to family unit of the Fantastic Four, whose powers The U-Foes sought to replicate. Breakout explores power on several levels: physical superhuman abilities as a blessing or a curse; individuals’ use of power to influence others; and, of course, the old adage about the corrupting effect of power. The end result is a story that deftly balances thought provoking narrative and dramatic tension and, given the large cast of characters, doesn’t forget to place it’s lead character at the centre. Garcia and Fernandez again impress with some energetic storytelling. Back to 1970 for the classic strip, one of my favourite Marvel heroines, The Black Widow, swings by. I’d forgotten that the Russian femme fatale debuted her black skintight jumpsuit, inspired by The Avengers (TV’s Emma Peel not the Marvel’s superteam) in these pages. An iconic look that hasn’t dated as the decades have passed. Wowza! The story itself is a bit hokey: The Black Widow, seeking to establish herself a superhero, decides to fight Spider-Man in order to test his abilities and learn from the experience. Unfortunately, Spidey’s feeling more than a little under par and is convinced that he’s losing his spider-powers. The script is inevitably melodramatic (come on, this is Stan Lee after all), the art is vintage John Romita and there’s a finale worthy of the best soap operas. What more could you ask for?

The Astonishing Spider-Man (v2) #3 (Panini UK)
“Breakout” by Tony Bedard, Manuel Garcia & Raul Fernandez
(Spider-Man: Breakout #5)

“Unusual Suspects” by Paul Jenkins, Phil Winslade & Tom Palmer
(Daredevil/Spider-Man: Unusual Suspects #1)
“Unmasked At Last!” by Stan Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney
(Amazing Spider-Man (v1) #87)

In the concluding chapter of Breakout, Spider-Man calls in some help from New Avengers team-mates Captain America and Iron Man to stop The U-Foes and Crossfire’s crew. As with the previous chapters, Tony Bedard manages to provide each of the characters with convincing motivations and rationales for their actions. Of the two teams, the reader is encouraged to empathise with The U-Foes and in particular Vector, as their pursuit of Rosalyn Backus has been driven by much more than just greed or revenge. Manuel Garcia’s art isn't quite up to the same standard here, the artist notably having a hard time with the aforementioned Avengers, who seem oddly squat throughout. However, on the whole, Breakout has been a welcome break from the regular Spider-Man series and a perfect start to this new title. Sticking with mini-series for the second strip is Unusual Suspects, a Daredevil / Spider-Man double header. Just one look at the credits was enough to assure me that this would be a great read and chapter one does not disappoint. Phil Winslade’s incredibly detailed pencils are a joy to look at, not least the opening half dozen pages. Veteran inker Tom Palmer has been a favourite for as long as I can remember reading comics and seems to thrive on working with artists of this calibre. Although Palmer’s heavy style can be overpowering at times, here his judgement is spot on and the best of both artists’ styles are evident. Paul Jenkins’ script is typically rich, with a well constructed premise and some excellent dialogue. I was rather bemused by the trio of villains – Gladiator, Stilt Man and Copperhead – none of whom are the original Daredevil foes. Exposition would have affected the flow of the story, but I hope that this – and The Kingpin’s blindness - will be explained, either in the story itself or by way of an accompanying article. Unmasked At Last! screams the classic strip’s splash page. Of course, Stan Lee’s still writing like it’s the early 1960s so you know that the story will include so many twists and turns that Lee can barely squeeze in a deus ex machina at the end. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much by saying that this issue leads into The Death Of Captain Stacy storyline (and is included in the Pocket Book of the same name that, strangely enough, Panini UK published in March). As of itself It’s not a 'classic' classic if you get my meaning, but it’s a fun story if only in demonstrating that ol’ Peter was often more of a worry wart than his dear Aunt May…!

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